Preparing for Bosnia-Herzegovina

During our trip down the Dalmatian Coast to see the sights of Croatia in 2017, we took a brief detour into Bosnia-Herzegovina to see the city of Mostar. In the few hours we were there it left quite an impression, so we made plans return and visit more of this curious country in 2018. At the end of May that’s exactly what we set about doing.

Often defined by its war, the responses we received when we said we were going were a split of “where is Bosnia?” and “is Bosnia safe?”. The UK Government’s travel advice doesn’t do much to contradict this with warnings about landmines and poor infrastructure and news stories referring to stray dog attacks and political unrest.

None-the-less, with no reason to think that we would face any problems so long as we followed advice, we packed our bags on 31st May 2018 and set off!

Preparing for Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the simplest task. One Bosniak we met in Sarajevo said, “only the strong willed visit Bosnia”. True to form, three main issues arose before we had even started.

Firstly, entering the country. Whilst the days of military blockades are long gone, it’s still surprisingly difficult to enter Bosnia-Herzegovina directly by plane, at least from the UK. The airports in Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla are small and the UK lacks direct flights to any for the majority of the year. Therefore, we decided to follow a similar route to our 2017 journey, renting a car in Croatia, this time in Split, and pay to drive across the border.

We booked our car with RideCar, through AutoEurope, for around £110 for the two weeks, with a further €75 cross-border charge. Expecting an economy class car similar to the Suzuki Swift and Volkswagen Up! we had last year, we were treated to an Opel Mokka, a mini SUV complete with satnav, reversing cameras and air conditioning. Luxury! We were a bit suspicious of just how cheap it was, but they were absolutely excellent and didn’t even ask that we had the car cleaned before we returned. We did get warning about leaving the car in the major Bosnian cities due to the risk of crime, and also some thinly veiled warnings that in some parts of the former-Yugoslavia, a number plate from one country may not go down so well in another, but we saw and felt no animosity during our stay.

“Is Bosnia safe?”

On the whole, yes! Sarajevo is considered one of the safest capital cities in the world. Crime is low and tourists aren’t specifically targeted, threat of terrorism is no higher than any other European country, the locals are hospitable and healthcare and communication are not a problem. However, like all places it has its issues, but these are perhaps more unusual than other countries. Wild animals such as bears, boars, wolves and poisonous snakes (including Poskok, the ‘nose-horned viper’, the most poisonous snake found in Europe) live in the countryside and stray street dogs can be found in almost every town. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also the last European country to have a serious issue with landmines. This means that venturing off marked routes or into abandoned buildings is highly discouraged, and hiking into the mountains should only be done on known tracks and with experienced guides.

Secondly, mobile phones. UK phone companies do not work well in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We knew this from the year before where O2 were charging £7.20 per MB of data and EE failed to call out at all. O2 managed to go one better this year by being unable to find it on a map, with one rep asking “is [Bosnia] in Austria?”. Vodafone had looked promising as the country was included in their European tariff, but they changed this for two countries (Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania) just weeks prior to us setting off. We therefore planned to take unlocked phones and buy a travel SIM when we arrived, however, due to the surprising amount of WiFi availability, we never got around to doing this and other than needing to make contact with our host in Sarajevo, never really needed our phones.

Finally, money. Throwing a stop in Croatia only complicated this further as we ended up working in four different currencies. British Pounds, Croatian Kuna, Bosnian Convertible Marks and Euros. Kuna and Marks were country specific, so we could not spend one currency in the other, and getting Marks was only possible once in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Also, for the most part, cash is preferred in restaurants, credit and debit cards aren’t a given and tipping is only possible in cash. Toll roads are also dotted around Croatia and north of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, so having the correct cash is useful here too!

“Why does Bosnia-Herzegovina use the old German Deutsche Mark?”

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s and wars that followed, hyperinflation was a serious issue for their then currency, the Yugoslav Dinar. You could get paid your salary on Monday, and by Friday it would be worth next to nothing. To fight against this, three of the countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo have all adopted currencies backed by the European Union, despite not being members. The latter two both use the Euro, but Bosnia-Herzegovina adopted their currency before the Euro was in existence, taking on the German currency at the time. More famous examples of hyperinflation can be seen in countries such as Germany after World War 1 and modern day Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Zimbabwe, for example, has seen hyperinflation of around 98% per day (meaning prices of goods doubled each day), and a high in November 2008 of 79,600,000,000%. By adopting a currency backed by a strong economy, and currently ‘pegged’ to the value of the Euro, the currency in Bosnia-Herzegovina remains relatively stable as do the value of its goods.

We decided to pack relatively light for our trip (you can click any of the links in this section to find the product on Amazon UK). We sourced a few guidebooks, which are surprisingly hard to find for the country, but these included the Bradt Travel Guides and ‘In Your Hands’ Travel Guide for around £15 each. The former of which I would highly recommend. We also relied on our Lonely Planet Croatian Phrasebook & Dictionary (around £4) as most of the former-Yugoslav languages tend to cross over. For the pre-planning we picked up the detailed Freytag & Berndt Map (1:600,000 of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and FYR of Macedonia) (around £10).

In terms of tech items, we tried to keep this to a minimum. We each took our phones, an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 7 Plus. The camera, a Nikon D3300 with a Tamron 70-300mm lens and a laptop to allow us to empty the memory cards if required. For the car, we took a TomTom Start satnav to compensate for not having phone data to use any maps features, which was surprisingly effective and knew the majority of the main roads. Also, we took a cheap Toguard dashcam, something we had used on our Croatian trip. However, with the car only having one USB slot and the satnav not holding charge well, we didn’t use this in the end.

As well as that we packed the essentials. Clothes, travel toiletries including sun cream and bug spray, a bumbag to carry our essentials through the airport without using up hand luggage space, a strong Markfield backpack as well as a fold up waterproof rucksack and our suitcases, money and paperwork.

“Is Bosnia-Herzegovina in Europe?”

Europe? Yes. The European Union? No. All of Former Yugoslavia is within the European bloc, though the countries are split on their European Union memberships. Slovenia and Croatia are members. FYR Macedonia has applied for membership, but this is subject to resolving its naming issue with Greece. Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina have both applied, whilst Serbia sits more aligned with Russia.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has a number of issues stalling its membership. Firstly, its political structure and the Serbian stance on EU membership, means that any one of its three leaders can veto the decision, and one of its leaders represents Serbian interests. Other issues that are thrown around include political corruption, human rights and freedom of speech, economic issues including unemployment rates of up to 40% and the previously mentioned issue with residual landmines.

None-the-less, Bosnia-Herzegovina has received substantial backing from the EU and its member countries, such as Austria and Hungary, who have given significant amounts of money to repair and restore landmarks destroyed by the war and develop infrastructure.

Part 1: Mostar and the EU border     >> Part 2: The bumpy road to the east     >>> Part 3: The scars of Sarajevo     >>>> Part 4: Hidden gems and humidity

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

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