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.
The Tara Canyon in rural, eastern Bosnia
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!
Preparation, planning and packing
Preparing for Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the simplest task. One Bosnian we met in Sarajevo told us, “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 sat-nav, 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 unsurprisingly 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 sat-nav 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 in 2017. However, with the car only having one USB slot and the sat-nav 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, among other things. 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.
Mostar and the EU border
Day 1: The first day of our trip was an uneventful affair. We flew out from London-Luton airport to Split, in Croatia, with budget airline, WizzAir. The heat when we landed was instant, just short of 30 degrees, and any worries we had about storms and rain that had been forecast were instantly put to rest.
After some confusion as to the location of the car rental desks, a taxi driver kindly helped us find the kiosk a few miles down the road. We had booked an economy car, but were given an Opel (Vauxhall) Mokka mini SUV, and set about our way. Stopping at a supermarket for fluids, we drove the winding back roads up to Imotski, a small town on the Croatia-Bosnia Herzegovina border. That evening we had little time to explore, but ventured into town for a cheap, and enormous, pizza and beer.
The enormous sinkhole in Imotski, Croatia
Day 2: On our first full day in the Balkans, we drove through Imotski to visit the red and blue lakes. The former of these is an enormous sinkhole, the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. The scale really has to be seen to be believed, as the unguarded edges drop hundreds of feet to the water, which goes down hundreds more, the sheer enormity of it makes it an incredible place to walk around.
Late morning we began our journey to the border. The process was simple, a couple of stamps and showing of the green card for the car with no queues and we were outside of the European Union for the first time in a year. Stopping at a café for a quick coffee, we caught glimpse of what could well have been an eagle flying over the huge expanse of land that awaited us.
The drive to Mostar was simple and mimicked our 2017 journey, though the views were still incredible. Even the main roads, which are smooth, with lines and barriers, wind around the mountains before descending into the city. Whilst driving through the city itself wasn’t a problem, work taking place on the sewers meant huge holes in the roads that had to be avoided at all costs, along with the improvised use of one-way roads by the locals. Strangely, despite the organised chaos, the ‘work it out as you go along’ nature of driving seemed to work remarkably well.
The city of Mostar’s name comes from the mostari, the keepers first stationed at the wooden bridge spanning the gorge carved by the Neretva river which runs through Herzegovina. That preceded the Stari Most, the great limestone footbridge, a UNESCO protected heritage site and national icon for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
We parked up and made our way to our accommodation, the Bosnian national monument, Muslibegovic House, ranked one of the top 10 accommodations in the world by Expedia in 2010. The house is a preserved Ottoman House, one of three in Mostar, which somehow survived extensive damage during the war, and also doubles up as a museum. The Ottomans, which ruled over Bosnia-Herzegovina among other parts of Europe until the early 20th Century, built houses which allowed for strict Muslim practices to be adhered to, whilst also respecting the privacy of the females in their society. Whilst a large number of these houses have been destroyed in the various wars that gripped the region in the 20th century, Muslibegovic is one of the three examples that still remain in Mostar (along with Biscevic House and Kajtaz House).
Having settled down in our luxury rooms and having a drink in the courtyard which was filled with flowers, birds and enormous scarab beetles, we decided to journey into the city.
Our first venture was to revisit Mostar’s most famous landmark, the ‘Old Bridge’, Stari Most. As with almost all things in this beautiful country, it carries a troubled past. In 1566, the bridge was built by the Ottoman empire as a way of crossing the Neretva river, that splits the town in two. The bridge, notoriously steep, has ridges in that were originally for allowing the bridge to be covered in dirt or mud and aid horses and carriages to cross. We sat down for a traditional Bosnian lunch and coffee, along with a shot of the strong local brandy, rakija (plum and cherry, male and female respectively). Afterwards, we worked our way back towards the bridge.
The Stari Most bridge in Mostar
Having stood for 427 years, the bridge was destroyed in November 1993 by Croat forces during the conflict. Whilst the argument for its destruction was that the bridge was of tactical significance as it allowed for the crossing of the river which split the city in two, it is often seen as an example of the attempts to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cultural heritage.
The destruction of the Stari Most bridge in 1993
In 2001, thanks to money provided by UNESCO, the World Bank, the European Union and a number of countries, the bridge was painstakingly rebuilt to its original form. Reopened in 2004, it sits once again as Mostar’s, and possibly Bosnia-Herzegovina’s, most famous landmark and bridge divers once again complete the local tradition of completing their rite of passage to manhood by diving the 24 meters into the Neretva river below. A very dangerous feat, due to the free-fall acceleration the divers are hitting the water at approximately 60mph, if their body isn’t properly prepared at the moment of impact they can seriously injure themselves or worse. Today, common sense has somewhat prevailed and Mostarski Ikari, a club of professional local bridge divers are predominately the only ones that jump. The club, named after Icarus, a Greek mythological figure known for falling to his death, highlights not only the bravery that these men hold, but also the famous local dark sense of humour. Despite the history of the region, the divers club is completely impartial, welcoming anyone crazy enough irrespective of their nationality, religion or identity. We learnt of the two schools of diving that had emerged centuries before: the head-first and the legs-first. The best-known head-first style is the Lasta (“Swallow”), modelled on the native bird’s sharp wings and dramatic dives. The most iconic style is the legs-first style called the Let (“Flight”), where divers hook their legs beneath them, push out their chests, and hold back their arms. The pose pushes them forward so they approach the water at an angle.
Crossing the bridge through the colourful market stalls, we followed signs for the War Photo Museum which was held inside one of the gatehouses of the bridge. A small but hard-hitting exhibit which showed how much damage the city took during the war, and how much work there still is to do in rebuilding it. Also in the tower was a small café, Caffe Čardak, where we met a wonderful local man, Mustafa, who showed us what we had been told about Bosnian hospitality by taking us on an impromptu tour around Mostar. He told us fascinating stories about old Bosnia-Herzegovina, the war, and his own stories as he showed us an old, heavily damaged school building, cemetery and the crooked bridge before stopping at a delightful little restaurant ‘Gastronomica’ for more local food. We also spoke about his life both before, during and after the war, and how it had shaped the city and country that he loves.
A young man jumps from the Stari Most bridge into the Neretva river below
“What or where is Herzegovina?”
Herzegovina is the south-western region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It has no visible border with the rest of Bosnia, and recognition of the area it covers is still disputed. Mostar is the largest city in Herzegovina which differs from the rest of Bosnia in that it has a warm, Mediterranean climate and is generally wealthier than the rest of the country.
Day 3: For our third day we had booked a tour to visit Blagaj, Pocitelj and the Kravice Waterfalls. Our guide for the day was an enthusiastic, passionate local man, Esmer, who runs his own local travel agency, Mostar Travel. We opted for his fascinating ‘Discover Herzegovina’ day tour and our first stop was for breakfast at a local café, where we had burek for breakfast. A pie-like mixture of meat and pastry cooked on an open fire to set us up for the day. Just up the road, just outside of Mostar Airport, we stopped to visit an abandoned Yugoslav bunker. An eerie, dark, concrete shelter within a hillside, partially clad to disguise it from above, and formally home to around twenty Yugoslav jet fighters, and provided shelter for some of the displaced Mostar locals during the war.
On the drive towards Blagaj, we took in the sights of the Neretva and Buna rivers as the blue waters that followed the roads merged into one. The roads had us encounter our first snake, a large bright green one laid over one carriage of the road. We didn’t stop.
Blagaj, as with last year, was beautiful and warm. The Dervish Monastery which sits in the shadow of the cliff, was busy again as it sat over the blue river. This time, we didn’t go in, as we experienced it last year, but took in the sights whilst taking on water before our next journey.
After Blagaj, we drove towards Pocitelj, an impressive walled town that although it fell victim to the 90’s war, still stands to this day. Driven to the top of the hill to spare us the sweltering walk, we got a wonderful panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and blue river running by the road and got to roam around the remains of the walls. On our way back down we had another near miss with a snake, before taking on some locally sold, freshly made and chilled orange and pomegranate juice before reconvening with Esmer and making our way onto our next stop, Kravice Waterfalls.
In terms of scale, Kravice Waterfalls aren’t as impressive as its counterparts in Croatia (Krka and Plitvice), but are still an extremely beautiful place and surprisingly busy in an otherwise quiet part of the world. Our dip in the waters was cut short as a water snake came towards us, but the cooling water and vibrant blue dragonflies around were a welcome break.
On the drive back to Mostar, we were shown a panoramic view from the nearby Hum mountain, as Esmer told us the stories about his family’s experiences during the war, including their capture by the Yugoslav forces who kept them in a concentration camp not far from Pocitelj. Much with Mustafa the day before, Esmer showed a strong sense of nationalism and love for his country, but without any malice towards what had happened. As the slogan around Bosnia-Herzegovina goes, and backed up by graffiti around Mostar, “forgive, but never forget”.
We ended the day back in the city, as we walked the streets comparing photographs during the war, with the streets as they look now. Whilst progress is obvious, what is maybe more apparent is what hasn’t changed. A lot of the newly repaired or rebuilt buildings still stand next to bombed out structures, boarded up windows and bullet hole ridden walls. Politics has a major impact on what gets done, and not many places have a more complicated and less productive structure than Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“What is the political situation in Bosnia?”
In one word, complicated. Possibly one of the most complicated in the world. After the Dayton Agreement was signed in December 1995, then President Alija Izetbegović was allowed to resume power until he stepped down in 2000. After that, the country was to be run by three presidents – one Serb, one Croat and one Bosniak. Well meaning, and aiming to represent the mixed diversity and ethnicity of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the fact that each can veto any decision that is proposed means that unless all three parties agree, nothing gets done, and as with politics all over the world, it’s very difficult to get two opposing parties to agree, or to be seen to agree, let alone three.
Day 4: On our final day in Mostar, we were woken by the call to prayer and went back into the city to enjoy the sights and atmosphere once again. We went to Urban Grill for lunch (though opted against the ‘fried brains’ that were on the menu) and sat to take in the stunning view of the Stari Most bridge with the divers putting in their shifts.
Afterwards, we went back over the bridge in the hope of seeing Mustafa again. As we crossed, we were called from the window of the café -and there we has! We went up and sat with him for coffee, where we also had the pleasure of the divers company, where we spoke to them, learned of their histories, and they allowed us to take photos of them and their beautiful matching tattoos of the bridge, all of which cover the left side of their chests, over their hearts.
All of the divers from the city who regularly jump from the bridge proudly wear a tattoo of the Stari Most on their bodies, and some wear more than that. One man, in his early thirties, showed a wound on his torso. He explained how when he was eight years old, playing football in the city, he was shot by a sniper and the bullet entered and exited his body on the left side of his body. It was a timely reminder that the war was not only a real, but those who lived through it were still living with the effects; material, financial, mental and physical.
Mustafa then offered to take us up to Kajtaz House, one of the traditional, UNESCO listed Ottoman house on the other side of the city. Off the main path, poorly signed and less advertised than Mostar’s other offerings, the house is an incredible piece of architecture. A commune for the Muslim wives of the-then owner, the part of the house we saw was made up of two bedrooms, a living quarters and kitchen. Made of wood, you wouldn’t want too many people upstairs, but it largely survived the war though some rooms are still being renovated to UNESCO’s strict demands. The male quarters weren’t so lucky, and all that remains is a doorway that would have connected the two buildings.
“Why was there a war in Bosnia?”
Following the death of long time President and dictator, Josef Tito, in 1984, Yugoslavia (formed prior to World War Two to defend the Balkan countries) struggled to reform and settle on a new leader. Following Slobodan Milosevic taking charge, seen by some as a Serbian nationalist, a number of the states began to vote within themselves for independence.
FYR of Macedonia was the only one of these countries to leave the bloc without conflict. Slovenia had a ten day war which cost 14 lives, Croatia suffered significant damage and losses over the course of a two year war in which the Serb led Yugoslav army attacked the city of Dubrovnik. Bosnia-Herzegovina fought for independence starting in 1992, and not being free until 1996. Whilst often called a ‘civil war’, it was only this in respect of infighting within Yugoslavia and not Bosnia-Herzegovina itself. At one point, Sarajevo was under siege by the Serbian led, Yugoslav army and Mostar was under attack by the Croat army, with the rest of the country also under attack. Over 100,000 Bosniaks were killed, mostly Muslims, and many war crimes were committed. These included mass killings, use of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate shooting of innocent women and children on the streets of Sarajevo and use of rape as a weapon. Following the conflict, much of Bosnia-Herzegovina was left covered in landmines, a problem still to this day.
After saying our goodbyes to Mustafa, we went back into the centre to find a place to drink. Sitting in a café just off the bridge, we got our first look of Bosnia’s famous ‘street dogs’. Mostar, much like Sarajevo, doesn’t seem to suffer with them as badly as we’re left to believe but they are still considered a problem in the country. Whilst the ones we saw throughout our journey were strays, they weren’t feral or in packs, but weren’t necessarily clean.
We walked back for the final night in our room, past the damaged buildings, cemeteries, graffiti and locals going through bins. Mostar is a beautiful, beautiful place but it still has its problems, and the effects of the war, particularly when it comes to fabric and buildings, are perhaps more evident here than anywhere else we saw. That said, the war only ended 22 years ago so perhaps the fact the city, and country, is functioning as well as it is, is a miracle.
The bumpy road to the East…
Day 5: On our final morning in Mostar we awoke early to begin our drive towards Konjic, just south of Sarajevo. We had initially intended to visit Tito’s Bunker as part of a tour, but misjudging the duration of the drive along the Neretva River (perhaps most famous for the destroyed railway bridge, a movie prop representing the bridge blown up by Partisan forced during World War 2 to stop the Nazi’s advancing) and the standards of the main roads meant we were too late. After having a coffee on the river banks overlooking Konjic’s beautiful bridge, we decided to take the drive up to Lukomir’s ethnovillage ourselves rather than wait for the next bunker tour.
The drive up to Lukomir was difficult to say the least, and the fact we got an SUV that was a good height from the ground was also vital. Had we got a normal car, it simply wouldn’t have been possible and we’d probably still be stuck there now! The road began as a steep, single carriage mountain climb – well surfaced, but narrow with extremely sudden and large drops off the sides. At the time, it was a beautiful view but alarming, and then it descended into chaos. The road was a good 30 kilometres of large stones, holes and generally being thrown around. I cannot stress enough that if you want to go – go with a tour! There are plenty organised from Lukomir and Sarajevo, possible even from Mostar and Dubrovnik. The drive is beautiful but painful, and there were times it would honestly have been quicker to walk. On the whole, Bosnia’s roads go from ‘better than the A1’ to ‘freshly plowed field’ in terms of quality and the further east you go, generally, the worse the roads are.
Lukomir itself is beautiful and incredibly peaceful. We had a local lunch of salted doughnuts (a sort of puff-pastry-bread) and fresh goats cheese, the peace only broken by cowbells and the herding of sheep and goats down the road behind us.
We drove back down the road to head down towards Foca and Bastasi, near the Montenegrin border, to get to our next stop, Rafting Tara. Still on the stones, Bosnia decided to throw us another curve ball with an epic thunderstorm, hailstones and rain. So far, we had only had 30+ degree heat and sunshine, but as we went further east the weather became more erratic and unpredictable. We arrived that night for tea, with football, Chile vs Serbia, on the TV in the large wooden cabin before retiring to our camping pods ready for two days 4×4 safari with someone else driving, a big relief!
Day 6: We began our day with a hearty Bosnian breakfast, complete with strong coffee before meeting our guide, Dragan, driver, Drago, and vehicle for the day. We set off around the winding roads and up some narrow, paths that very much weren’t roads. On the way we were warned of snakes, including the most poisonous in Europe, and the possibility of bears and wolves which are rare, but still found in the wild mountainous areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Our guide, Dragan, was a Serb and another who was too young to have fought in the war, but joined the military around the turn of the century. He told us stories about his childhood including playing with artillery shells and anti-aircraft guns. He also had a fondness for bad Christmas cracker jokes! It was strange to learn that a lot of jokes translate rather well, and they even have their own Bosnian-Serbian-Montenegrin equivalent jokes to our Englishman-Irishman-Scotsman format.
Our driver, Drago, was also Serb, older and didn’t speak English. We did find out that he was a journalist in old Yugoslavia, a country at that time where “you could do what you want, but not say what you want”, as Dragan put it. Needless to say he was a brave man, and the roads didn’t worry him!
We stopped at various points on the way up the Prijevor mountain before reaching the Purecica primevil forest, the last ‘jungle’ in Europe. The views were incredible and really put into perspective just how big and untouched a lot of this country is. We took in the views of Sutjeska National park and the plateau at the top, before setting down near an observation tower as a thunderstorm rolled in over the mountains on the horizon. Here, Dragan shared his knowledge about the local forna, from elderflower, like we have in the UK to Mountain Germander, a herb that grows at high altitude and contains a natural chloroform.
On the way back down we stopped at the World War Two memorial shrine, Tjentiste. This sculpture, slightly damaged by recent land movement was the site of the Battle of the Sutjeska and marks the lives for the thousands who died in the area during the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.
On the way back we had a near miss with one of the free-roaming cows on the road. This was incredibly common around the south-east of Bosnia, with farmers happily allowing their cows, goats, sheep, chickens and the occasional horse to roam free.
We retired that evening to another hearty lunch before making friends with a couple of huge communal dogs that had taken the camp as its home, before a comfortable sleep in our cabin, ready for a similar journey tomorrow.
Day 7: A similar start to the day, but this time our journey was up the Zelengora mountains. A beautiful plateau at about 4,000 feet. We were a few days late to see the bears, our driver had seen a mother bear and two babies a few days before, but we were treated to the peaceful plateau of giant crickets, butterflies and horses.
On the way back down we stopped at a local house serving coffee, rakija (a type of brandy), fresh juice and straight-from-the-goat milk. A homely experience, sat within a family farm as the locals spoke, we were told, about politics and free speech.
Back at the pods, we had another hearty tea of lamb, goulash and cheese before heading in for our final night. Tomorrow, Sarajevo!
The scars of Sarajevo
Day 8: Our eighth day was largely a travelling day, driving north to Sarajevo and finding our apartment. After an arrival complicated by not having a phone to contact our host, we managed to get settle down by mid afternoon. A bit shaken up by three days of off-roading, we decided to have a rest of the afternoon.
That evening, we left the apartment to work out where we were, and stopped off at a shop for food and drink for tea, and washing powder so we finally had some clean clothes! Our first impressions were of a busy little city, but not suddenly more developed than the likes of Mostar. Old trolley cars are still used, and very busy, among the more modern trams and whilst structural damage to the city isn’t as obvious as in Mostar, there are still a number of bullet ridden buildings and footpaths marked with ‘Sarajevo Roses’, grenade and artillery damage on the pavements painted red to mark where someone had lost their lives.
A Sarajevo rose, depicting where someone had lost their life during the Siege of Sarajevo
Sarajevo is arguably the most significant European city in modern times, and even those who don’t know where it is, or why they’ve heard of it, are still like to have done. Sarajevo’s recent history is tainted by a distinct lack of luck to say the least. The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo was the location of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which directly caused the First World War. More recently, in 1992 the ‘Siege of Sarajevo’ began which cut off the city and its residents from the outside world and subjected them to sniper and artillery attacks on a daily basis for almost four years. Nowadays it is considerably more peaceful, and hopefully the dark days are long behind this incredibly city and its people, and it can begin to rebuild towards the future it deserves.
“What was the ‘Siege of Sarajevo’?”
The siege of Sarajevo was the encirclement of the city by the Yugoslav Army from the 5th April 1992 to 29th February 1996, a duration of almost 4 years, the longest city siege in modern times. During this time the city and its residents were almost completely cut off from the outside world, and were subject to indiscriminate daily shelling and sniping fire from the enemy forces on the surrounding mountains. Thousands of innocent lives were lost, and infrastructure, culture and heritage was damaged and destroyed. It wasn’t until intervention from the United Nations, and the United States who drew up and enforced the Dayton Agreement that the siege ended.
Day 9: Our first full day in Sarajevo involved being picked up at our apartment for a ‘war tour’. Our host was a young man, Edin, who was born in the city during the siege. Edin drove us through the centre of Sarajevo, through ‘snipers alley’, a dual carriage way which was impassable doing the war due to the presence of snipers on the surrounding mountains. We passed the famous Holiday Inn, a large yellow building which “gives discounts on the south facing rooms”, a local joke referring to its position facing the hills. This was actually one of the safer places to be during the siege as it housed journalists, at that time something of a safe role in a war zone.
We drove out of the city centre and to the Tunnel of Hope. The tunnel, hidden under a regular house in a normal, if somewhat damaged neighbourhood, was built by locals during the siege under the runway of Sarajevo airport to allow for supplies to be brought in and out of the city. The house itself is now a museum, a small part of the tunnel can be seen (around 50 meters of the near kilometre long tunnel) as well as details on the siege, old landmines and shells and other treasures found and left after the war.
It was here we learnt more of Bosnia’s love of smoking. A taboo and ‘filthy habit’ in the west, there are no restrictions on smoking in public places and prices are at least five times cheaper than in the UK. In fact, Edin told us that around 80% of Bosnian’s smoke and it has deeper roots in Bosnian culture than that. During the siege, Sarajevo was still able to produce cigarettes and used them, on mass, as a form of currency to deal with those outside of the city to bring in supplies, food, drink and luxuries such as alcohol and weapons. Who says smoking’s bad for you?
We then went around the city to see the snipers points on the hills around Sarajevo, including those at the old Jewish cemetery as well as the sports stadiums and remains of the setup for the 1984 Winter Olympics, still a proud memory for the Sarajevo people. We finished off at the yellow fortress overlooking the city, a point that locals visit to see sunset and celebrate the breaking of fast during Ramadan.
After our tour we sought out the recently reopened cable car up the Trebevic mountain. Destroyed during the siege, it has been put back into commission by a businessman with links to the country. The cable car is a surprisingly long journey, around ten minutes each way, and when we went there wasn’t particularly busy. The mountain itself offers beautiful panoramic views of the city and although the mountain itself is still mined and sticking to the paths is a must, there are some beautiful lookout points.
Also on the mountain is the 1984 Winter Olympic bobsleigh track. A surreal concrete circuit running for a couple of kilometres down the side of the mountain which is completely open to be walked down (or cycled!) or followed by the adjacent path. Damaged and covered in graffiti, old and new as well as being reclaimed by the surrounding trees, plants, black squirrels and small geckos, it’s not the easiest walk but a truly surreal and unique experience.
Taking the cable car back down to the old town, we visited the famous marketplace and fountain as we sought out a few souvenirs and a place to eat. Busy and narrow, but also extremely welcoming and colourful, we ate before heading back to our apartment to prepare for the following day.
That night we were treated to yet another epic thunder and lightning storm before we turned in for the night.
Day 10: Our second full day in Sarajevo had us head down towards the old town to visit the city hall, Vijecnica. A public building originally built in 1896, also open as a museum both to its own reconstruction after being destroyed during the Siege of Sarajevo, and of the history of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Sarajevo from 1914 to the present day. The building itself is an incredible piece of architecture, painstakingly restored to its original design that was destroyed, along with millions of books and records in 1992, and reopened in 2014. A stones throw away, the appropriately named House of Spite sits across the river. The story goes that the House of Spite sat on the location of where the city hall is now and its original owner was paid recompense as well as having his house rebuilt to its original design on the other side of the river, at the governments’ expense, in order to allow for the original hall to be built in 1896.
After walking back through the old town market, seeing a young man who was doing copper-work and engraving and picking up a few trinkets, we grabbed some lunch before heading into another museum.
This museum was called the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, and is not censored or for the feint of heart. The horrors of the siege, concentration camps across Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the torture and horror forced upon innocent men, women and children are detailed in accounts along with photographs of the injured, killed and other atrocities. It is a warts and all viewing of what happened during the war, and it deserves as many people as possible to see what happened at this awful time. That said, it is not something for the children. BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen’s documentary ‘Unfinished Business’ was running on a loop, a must watch for anyone with an interest in the war or war reporting in general (the video is embedded below but please note, some may find it upsetting).
‘Unfinished Business’ – reporting from Jeremy Bowen and the BBC during the height of the Mostar siege
Following this, we decided to seek out the Avaz Twist Tower skyscraper on the other side of the city to get a view of the city as a whole. A modern development that looks like it’s been plucked from London, we sat and watched Formula One with a coffee before making our way back down.
On the way back to our apartment we crossed the Bridge of Love, the Romeo and Juliet bridge, a romantic name but yet another tragic story from the 90’s conflict. A bridge whereby a young couple, one Bosnian, one Serb, were shot dead by sniper fire during the siege and their bodies left together, irretrievable for a number of days. A testament to the indiscriminate nature of the attacks on the city and how nobody, regardless of colour, creed, age or threat, was safe from the conflict.
Day 11: Our final morning in Sarajevo took us to the zoo. Still under construction, or reconstruction, very cheap to enter and clearly limited in its resources, it is actually a wonderful place to walk around for a couple of hours, and certainly seems to have attractions to keep kids happy. Among the animals, we saw our first bear, lions along with the staple attractions of zebras, kangaroos and meerkats. There were a few reminders of the differences to home, the wolf looked somewhat stir-crazy and it wasn’t the first time we saw a peacock in a cage rather than roaming free, but for the most part the animals looked healthy and well cared for. Like seemingly everywhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even the zoo suffered during the war, as can be seen by reading this article in the New York Times in 1992.
Hidden gems and humidity
We sat down for a bite to eat before getting back in our car and making our way north towards Jajce. We chose to avoid the toll road and take the winding routes instead. Along the way we stopped at a town, Visoko, that is home to the ‘Bosnian Pyramids‘. There is speculation online about whether these are naturally pyramid-shaped mountains, or if they were created by a civilisation at some point in history. Back in Mostar, Esmer had explained how large portions of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s history, and the Balkan region in general, is unknown and could lend some credibility to these claims. However, it also appears widely accepted that they are no more than ‘pointy hills’, with no evidence to support the counter claim. For what it’s worth, from driving past, we found ourselves struggling to pick out one that was any more ‘pyramid like’ than the other mountains, and if it weren’t for the signs and the fort on one side, we may have missed it altogether.
After driving through dozens towns and villages, over a mountain bearing more scars of war, sticks and bottles denoting minefields and stray dogs seemingly exploring the wilderness, we arrived in Jajce. The views all along the way were simply breathtaking, and Jajce didn’t disappoint either.
The sun was beginning to set when we finally ventured out of our apartment into the town, but the long, random, winding paths through a mixture of old architecture, some that did and some that didn’t survive the 90’s conflict, the barking of stray dogs, which is definitely still a significant problem here, and the orange blink of fireflies in the gardens, Jajce really does come across as a magical town. We walked up to the fortress and back down to the town in order to get some tea and beer, before slowly making our way back for the night.
Pliva Waterfall under the city of Jajce, with the fortress at the highest point
Day 12: Venturing out into Jajce for our final, full day in Bosnia, it was incredibly hot and humid. Walking through the park at around 32 degrees was difficult but enjoyable, as we ducked into any shade we found. We made our way down to the famous waterfalls. A beautiful view of the staggering Pliva waterfalls that sit perfectly under the town – and within splashing distance which did us, although maybe not the camera, the world of good. There was a small entry fee (a couple of pounds), but despite this it’s remarkable how quiet it is, and how few people are around in general. The whole town in fact seems to be somewhat off the grid, but such a staggering picture makes it almost inevitable that the peace won’t last in the coming years. On our way, we picked up some souvenirs, before deciding to come back later on for another photograph.
We made our way back into town, stopping at a restaurant for some lunch, before retracing our steps from the day before. Through the old gates, and up the hill, we went past the old finance house and school before making it to the catacombs. The catacombs are an underground crypt built around 1400, and said to have been a hiding place for Tito at times during the second World War. Although they’re small, the historical significance is apparent, though admittedly the first thing that struck us was how instantly cooling it was, making it worth the 2 Mark entrance fee alone!
We then made our way to the top of the city to look around the fortress that overlooks the town. It offers a beautiful panoramic view of the city and surrounding mountains, though in the humidity and without a drink, we didn’t stick around before seeking out a supermarket.
Later that day we went back to the waterfall and decided to follow the road around to try and get a ‘postcard’ picture. We did have to venture off the roads into the undergrowth, something that is generally discouraged, but aside from the blur (not a mark on the lens, but the water evaporating as it fell such was the heat), we got a truly beautiful image of the falls, town and the fortress capping it off.
That night, we had a pizza in the town, before making our way back home via the winding network of paths and settled in for the night.
Day 13: Leaving Jajce, vowing to come back again as we did at every place we stayed during our trip, we set off for the Croatian border and our final night. Our destination was Trogir, just up the coast from Split and a stones throw from the airport. The drive was simple, and the roads connecting Croatia and Bosnia are clearly getting a better investment than the others we had seen during our stay. We went across the border pretty much instantly, and within a couple of hours were parked up in Trogir. Somehow Trogir was even warmer than Jajce, despite being on the coast. After finding our accommodation, we ventured out to explore the streets before having a special lunch to celebrate Natasha’s birthday, and to have some fresh fish for the first time in two weeks! Afterwards, we went to Fortress Kamerlengo on the shore and got some pictures of the town before sunset, and settled down on the waterfront to have some drinks.
Looking down on Trogir at dusk from the top of the fortress
That night we were treated to another thunderstorm, rolling thunder at 5am, and into the next morning as we drove to return the rental car and go to Split Airport (which is far too small for the number of people and flights!) to return to Luton.
“Is Bosnia cheap?”
Yes. Very. In comparison to the UK, prices are significantly lower, though so are the wages with the legal minimum wage being little more than 1 Euro per hour. Fuel is the only thing we bought that was relatively comparable, around £1.10 per litre compared to £1.25 at home, but the cost of almost everything else is cheaper. Food in restaurants is a lot, and the quality better, than at home, alcohol (around £1.20 for 2 litres of beer) and cigarettes (around £1.50 for a pack of 20) give an indication of the value for money. Also, outside of tourist trap areas, water is as good as free and springs and tap water is safe to drink. Red Bull was the only thing we saw that didn’t translate, with restaurants selling a can for around £2.50, around double the price of the UK. We didn’t work that one out. Entry fees to museums, Sarajevo zoo and other monuments generally cost no more than 5 Euro’s per person, and in most cases were 2 KM (around 90p) with further discounts for students and children. Tipping is not included in bills, and at least 10-15% should be given, especially given the low wages.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is a beautiful country, and we said ‘we need longer here’ or ‘we need to come back’ at literally every stop we made. With its beauty is an incredible history which makes every stop something of a museum. Although some of its ‘history’ is still raw and evidence of the damage done is still visible, the people are friendly and more than happy to discuss it. With that, everyone seems to have a political opinion, understandably if they lived through it, but are also adamant that they don’t want there to be any division between nationalities and ethnicity, and that people can’t tell the difference between each other unless they know a name, or some background.
As far as Bosnia-Herzegovina goes, it has a long way to work towards being a Croatian level of tourism but it has the essentials, it just needs the infrastructure. What the country went through during the 90’s war, only ending 22 years ago, was on a par with the holocaust and Nazi atrocities across Europe in the 40’s, so whilst the Bosnian mentality may be to work, build and share what they love, it will understandably take more time.
Who knows what the future holds for Bosnia-Herzegovina, or for any other country for that matter. Will it join the European Union? Will it suffer more division? Will it become the next major European tourist destination? Will it overcome the political restrictions of its constitution? Only time will tell. But the Bosnian people, their hospitality and their love for their country which is endearing, without feelings nationalistic, all have the right ingredients to make for a wonderful holiday in 2018, let alone the future.
by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan