In the late summer of 2005 I had the good fortune to spend a week in Bileća, a town in the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska).
I went with Chef Nenad to visit his cousin Željko, who was in town to oversee the restoration of his new hotel.
First, for visitors unfamiliar with the Balkans, a brief note about geography and politics. The Serb Republic, sometimes called Republic of Srpska to avoid confusion with the Republic of Serbia (Serbia proper), is a small nation that was formed during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
It lies in Hercegovina, but is quite distinct from the political entity known as Hercegovina, which for its part is the second member of the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Both nations - the Serb Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina - are under European Union (formerly NATO) occupation. As a result, there are no internal borders, and an outsider would scarecly notice having passed from one state to another.
The locals, of course, are very well aware of the frontiers. The war wasn't so long ago, and war has rarely kept its hands off this region for very long. As one older farmer put it, "We have the misfortune to always be on somebody's road."
But this is a time of peace, and hopefully it will last. The people I met seemed quite at ease with the current political solutions, happy to be well beyond the conflict, and working hard to bring a little prosperity to their lovely town. Everyone was open and generous to a fault, and in a week I wasn't allowed to pay for so much as a coffee.
The lake is actually a reservoir, created in 1966 to supply fresh water to (as I understand it) Montenegro. Fed by two underground rivers and lacking any polluting influx whatsoever, the water is crystal clear and home to more fish than you could ever count.
People had lived for hundreds of years where Lake Bileća sits now. They were forced to "sell" their homes when the river was dammed. Thanks to the clarity of the water and the habit of building in stone, divers can explore the old town (and spear giant catfish if they're brave enough). Before there was a Lake Bileća, the valley looked like this.
Scheduled to re-open in Summer 2006, Hotel Vidikovac offers 11 rooms, one suite, a large restaurant featuring all-natural local cuisine, a discotheque, a VIP terrace, and the absolute best views of the lake. The owners plan to cater to locals with the restaurant and parties, and to use the fantastic location to attract more tourists to the Bileća region.
What do you get when you corral 80,000 carp in fresh clean water? Great fishburgers, for starters!
In Bileća, they fish for catfish. Big catfish. I was told the record is something over 70kg (154lbs), and divers have reported seeing fish well over 100kg (220lbs), though such monsters could never be enticed to the surface. With an expert guide we managed one of about 5kg (11lbs) and one about double that size, but we only went out twice.
What else is there to say? The people are great, the food is great, the home-made grappa is great, and the best bar in town is Caffe Gumara at the auto shop.