I struggled to hide my tears behind cheap, chunky sunglasses. My eyes darted between Soviet buildings and bullet holes in the walls. Up front, my taxi driver, possibly the chirpiest man I’ve ever met, chatted non-stop, completely oblivious to my emotional state.

Only moments before, I had been walking through the galleries at the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity, filling in the blanks about a genocide that had somehow never been taught in my history classes.

“Everyone’s welcome here,” my driver laughed, as we pulled up in the Old Town. “Everyone has this idea about Bosnia. They should just come and see for themselves. We are unique people. Proud people.”

“It doesn’t look real,” I gushed while snapping yet another photo of Sarajevo’s red rooftops. Houses sat precariously at all angles on the hillsides with the lively old town nestled proudly below.

As we strolled across the first of many bridges that would fill my memory card during the trip, I looked around at all I could see in a single view — mosques, churches, cathedrals, and a synagogue. I thought back to the museum I had wandered through that morning.

The history of this country is painful and recent. It’s hard to accept that some of the atrocities that occurred here happened during my lifetime. It’s a subject you should study before you visit and one I can only assume contributes to the respectful harmony I perceived the nation to live in.

“Everyone is welcome here.”

My mind tried to make sense of it all, linking the past and present with the numerous articles I had read online. I know of one guaranteed way to get familiar with a country: see a lot of it.

So I hired a car, pointed at random places on a map, and rode out of Sarajevo to discover what lay beyond the main tourist spots.

The next week was a whirlwind tour of bridges, blues, and history. This was a country facing forward and one that stole my heart more each day. Hearty meals and hearty smiles greeted me at every guesthouse, and it felt good to be in a country where the mutual language was laughter.

Each night, my friends and I would joke about what food colorings they were adding to the lakes to make them so blue and green while chomping down on Ćevapi washed back with Rakia, the staple Balkan diet of sausage and liquor.

A friend commented on my Facebook update with the line, “Is alcohol allowed by religion there?”

“You should come see it for yourself,” I replied.

In the small town of Konjic, where a measly number of tourists had checked in on Facebook, I found a place so special I knew one day I would return.

It took forever to find the hidden entrance to our apartment but, once we did, the door was flung open by the owner, baby in arm, and I immediately felt like I was part of the family. We chatted in broken English, and I learned that an influx of tourism had allowed them to open their business just recently —we were some of their very first guests.

Bridges and rivers. Blues and greens. Food and beer.

I couldn’t pinpoint a “must-do” activity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so I walked the streets, crossed the bridges, and slowly fell in love with the nature, architecture, and warmth.

The further away I traveled from the cities, the more unbelievable the landscapes became. Lakes so turquoise they would never need an Instagram filter sat beside mountains of lush green landscapes.

Little houses littered the sweeping views across Ripci Lake while a winding road led to Šćit, where a monastery sits in the middle of a blue lake so captivating I stopped at every viewpoint while driving out of the valley.

I was happy to simply wander, drive, and watch the world pass by from a cafe. I embraced a slower pace and lost myself in the landscapes.

Leaving the serene stillness of the countryside and driving back toward the tourist jewel that is Mostar knocked me out of my sleepiness. I was reminded of the history that I had wanted to understand when I arrived.

The Siege of Mostar haunted the early 1990s. It’s hard to imagine that, in my lifetime, this part of Europe was still being divided. On the first of March, 1992, Bosnia & Herzegovina went ahead with a referendum on independence.

Now, thousands of tourists flock to the Stari Most (old bridge) that crosses above the Neretva  River. Countless photographs are taken of this iconic structure each year, and locals compete by jumping into the chilly waters below.

But this isn’t the original bridge which stood for over 400 years. That was destroyed during the Croat-Bosniak War in 1993. It’s another reconstruction, another symbol of this country moving forward, yet retaining its history.

As we sank our last Rakia and laughed with the famous bridge in the backdrop, I grabbed another beer from the bar.

“I had this idea about Bosnia and Herzegovina,” I told the bartender, “But it has amazed me in so many ways. I’m sad to be leaving tomorrow.”

He laughed while popping the lid on another Unski Biser. “A lot of people say that. You should tell all your friends to come and visit Herzegovina.”

Was it merely coincidence that at the start of the trip I had heard Bosnia and at the end Herzegovina. Was the “and” a missed afterthought or a deliberate decision? I didn’t know.

But my taxi driver was right about one important thing. It wasn’t the bullet holes I’d remember. It was the bridges, the blues, and most importantly, the warm, friendly hellos.