Back in Bosnia: A road trip return to the beauty of the Balkans

In the summer of 2019, we replotted our journey from the previous year, trying to fill in some gaps of our new favourite country which we may have missed. Flights, car and hotels booked, we set off to Dubrovnik, in the south of Croatia, to return to Bosnia-Herzegovina for two weeks.

Pliva Waterfall in Jajce

Dubrovnik provided the airport for logistical reasons, there are still no direct flights from the UK into Bosnia, but we would be collecting a car and immediately crossing the border. Picking up the car was as exciting as it always is in this part of the world, knowing that the journey will be relatively non-stressful, despite the mountain roads, due to the vast emptiness of the region and the lack of a rush or traffic.

The drive from Dubrovnik into Bosnia felt familiar, as it should have. Whilst we took a different route in and out of Bosnia, towards Split, in 2018, we had driven down from Mostar into Dubrovnik during our trip down the Croatian coast in 2017. This time, our journey treated us to sharing the road with both inexplicably colourful hyper cars and even snakes fighting in the middle of the road. Something for everyone, and a reminder that even at its most peaceful, there is something otherworldly about this fascinating country.

Mostar –

We were told on our last visit that ‘things don’t tend to change too quickly in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ and this was mostly apparent on our first day. Staying at Muslibegovic House, as we had the previous year, we were greeted by Gabriella, as we were then as well. A quick catch up and a rest later, we set off into the town to the infamous Stari Most, ‘Old Bridge’. Heading straight for the fabled café in one of the towers, we would again be greeted by Mustafa, taking him for tea before he gave us one of his expertly delivered impromptu tours around the southern half of the city.

The Stari Most bridge in Mostar

Unlike last year, we generally decided to venture out further in Mostar and see what else the city had to offer beyond the market, bridge and museums that we had seen the previous year in the centre. However, we did make a point of going to the Museum of War and Genocide. We took in a similar exhibit in Sarajevo the year prior, but this felt like something we need to do at least once a visit to appreciate Bosnia-Herzegovina’s recent past, and how it has had to fight to exist as it is today. Whilst I won’t repeat the history around the destruction of the bridge, I will once again heavily recommend the ‘Unfinished Business’ documentary produced by Jeremy Bowen (of BBC News fame) during the war, as an incredible insight into the suffering this beautiful place experienced.

See the full gallery of photographs from Mostar by clicking here.

Our walk around the edges of the city had us see the Catholic cathedral and famous yellow high school, amongst the many still damaged, or in some cases completely collapsed buildings. Most bizarrely in this less touristy part of the city, a statue of Bruce Lee stands in a park. When asking a waiter at a nearby café why this was here, the reply we got was, “We don’t know, nobody knows. This is Mostar” whilst laughing.

Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravica –

As with the previous year we wanted to take the trip out to Blagaj and the waterfalls, if nothing else in hope that open water would quench the 35+ degree heat. We took the same tour we had in 2018 though the fantastic Mostar Travel agency, this year with our guide, Vedad. We highly recommend this tour as an incredible, stress-free day trip from Mostar into the stunning countryside of Herzegovina. It took most the day, but eventually Vedad’s resemblance to Zlatan Ibrahimovic struck me, an observation which led me to learn that he is in fact of Bosnian descendants.

A stop at Mostar’s spooky hidden and abandoned aircraft hangar, an underground bunker formerly disguised from overhead observers during the Bosnia War, and a waterside café for breakfast, led us to be in Blagaj for mid-morning.

Blagaj is a place that will never cease to amaze. Previously we had been into the Dervish monastery and taken the boat ride into the small cave carved into the mountain, but we opted against it this time. It’s fair to say that Blagaj as an attraction is so small, there isn’t much more to do other than simply sit at one of the cafes and take in the beautiful, peaceful view – but that is something that you could do for as long as you have time. Reconvening in the shade, having been fooled for the second year running by the idea that being waterside would be any cooler, we set off for Pocitelj.

The Dervish Monastery in Blagaj

See the full gallery of images from Blagaj by clicking here.

Pocitelj remained as familiar as the year prior. Ravaged by the war, those who remain in this tiny hamlet, overshadowed by the ruins of the old fortress, get by selling goods, fruit and fresh juice to the few tourists who come by. From our perspective, these drinks were more than welcome at such temperatures.

A short stop off, but the winding streets uphill towards the fortress, lined with people living their lives as they always have, is a nomad’s dream, all-be-it in reality an incredible challenging way of life.

A view out from the top of Pocitelj

See the full gallery of images from Pocitelj by clicking here.

Finally, we stopped at Kravice, or Kravica Waterfalls. Once again, fooled by the idea that water would cause the temperatures to drop, we sat down with Vedad by the waters edge looking over at the surprisingly populated beaches and boats and luminous blue dragonflies going past the scenic view. Chatting about the world over a few drinks and predictably good food, we stayed until the waters began to reclaim the part of a beach hut-style restaurant we were sat at.

A large waterfall at Kravica

See the full gallery of images from Kravica by clicking here.

The following morning we set off from Mostar. Leaving Mostar was difficult on two accounts. Firstly, we had run out of time once again on doing and seeing all that we had wanted. Also, either traveling or acclimatising to food, or just the sheer heat had made us both less than 100% for the journey north to Sarajevo. None-the-less, we committed to doing two things that we failed on in 2018, then due to misjudging the journey, so took the stunning drive along the Neretva River to Konjic.

On the way, we stopped at our first point of interest, Jablanica. The destroyed railway bridge at Jablanica, a full size replica of the original stretching over the Neretva river, is a movie prop destroyed when producing the film, The Battle of Neretva. This was a recreation of the moment where Partizan leader Josef Tito used the destruction of his own bridge in then Yugoslavia to prevent the Nazis from advancing further into his own country, seen as a tactical masterstroke. The museum next to the bridge showed parts of the film, all-be-it not in English, as well as details of Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Jablanica’s history. For the free parking, and typically modest entrance fee (as with all things in Bosnia, this was around £2), this is highly recommended to anyone who is able to find there way there, or who is passing through on their way to either one of the cities.

The broken bridge at Jablanica

See the full gallery of photographs from Jablanica and Konjic, including Tito’s Bunker by clicking here.

Our second stop that day was Tito’s Bunker. This incredible underground museum was designed for then leader of Yugoslavia, Marshall Josep Tito and his nearest officers, to take refuge in the event of a nuclear attack or fallout from the Cold War, of which the country was aligned to neither side. At great expense, this remarkable construction took place into the side of one of the mountains near Konjic, filled with then-cutting-edge technology. The bunker shows both the level of sophistication and also incredible paranoia within the central European bloc during the Cold War. For admittedly more than the staple £2 fee of most attraction in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a knowledgeable tour guide took us around this absolutely captivating complex.

Sarajevo –

This year we reached Sarajevo a lot quicker, partly due to not braving the dusty ‘roads’ of Lukomir. We settled in to our apartment in the very, very centre of the city. Downtown Sarajevo is largely peaceful, but in an apartment where the windows don’t fully open and there’s no air conditioning, despite temperatures pushing 30 degrees, comfort becomes something of an issue.

Our time in Sarajevo itself was again largely familiar, but about filling in some of the gaps we missed the year before. Taking a taxi, we went up to the White Fortress to find it as an inaccessible ruin, but offering some incredible panoramic views of the city. From there, we walked down the hill to the Yellow Fortress, for a coffee at its inbuilt cafe and to ponder our next move. In 2018, we had a tour of the City Hall where we learnt about the House of Spite, and so this year decided that would be one of our lunchtime destinations. Directly opposite the colourful City Hall, we went into this traditional Bosnian house, which is now a restaurant. The House of Spite is famous for originally being where the reconstructed City Hall now stands. In the 19th Century, owners of the house demanded that as part of their recompense for the authorities taking the land to build the hall, the house would be moved to the other side of the river. Sat along the strangely brown, but seemingly clean smelling river, we had drinks and homemade soup before making our way up to a personal favourite attraction.

Sarajevo’s cable car system only reopened in 2018 having been closed for 26 years due to the impact of the war, but what it has opened up in a visit for Sarajevo is fantastic. Not only are the views from the top of the mountain absolutely incredible and show all of the city, but being able to walk to the top of the famous 1984 Winter Olympic Bobsleigh and Luge Track and walk through what is increasingly becoming a regrown forest, is as surreal as anything I have experienced, especially knowing that you’re still within the boundaries of a capital city.

Graffiti on the abandoned bobsleigh track in Sarajevo

See the full gallery of photos from Sarajevo by clicking here.

Walking back, we went through the old bazaar, the Bascarsija, possibly Sarajevo’s most recognisable attraction, and picked up some food and drink to take back to the apartment.

Our time in Sarajevo itself felt too brief, much like Mostar before it, but primarily because of two tours we had booked in the following two days, both of which left from the city and organised through Meet Bosnia (highly recommended!). Our first was with our guide Kiki, who was knowledgeable and enthusiastic, with a clear love for her country and wanting to share as much of it as possible with us. We first went out to the Bijambare Caves, a beautiful national park complex, with a walk up to a surprisingly accessible complex of caves. As with Kravice, this serves as a nice reminder that Bosnia-Herzegovina really does provide everything nature has to offer if you’re willing to seek it out.

After this stop, we went down to the source of the river that feeds Sarajevo, surrounded by a park. We enjoyed a traditional lunch before we set off for the Tunnel of Hope. Whilst we had been here the previous year, it again felt important to see something in Sarajevo that acknowledged those who fought through such an impossibly difficult time to survive in a country that had seemingly been forgotten by the outside world.

On our drive back, Kiki pointed out some of the landmarks in Sarajevo, as we worked our way around the city streets before finishing back in the old market square.

Looking out from one of the caves at Bijambare

See the full gallery of photos from Bijambare caves by clicking here.

Our next tour with Meet Bosnia was with Samir. Samir drove us through the eastern-Bosnia countryside and briefly over the border into Serbia where we were greeted with a surreal movie-set style resort of wooden houses and churches, with the most incredible views into the dense Serbian countryside.

On the way back over the border we stopped at the Dobrun Monastery, a large Orthodox Christian complex just off the main road.A magnificent piece of architecture in what seems now to be a completely peaceful part of the world.

Finally, we stopped at Visegrad. Another Balkan city famous for its bridge, as most places in Bosnia are, it has a grim recent history, again, as most places in Bosnia do, unfortunately. The bridge was said to be a site of mass executions during the Bosnia War of the 1990s. Nowadays, there are boat tours on the beautiful blue river and under the bridge itself, one of which we took, after bypassing what we told was the dreaded, and very poisonous horned viper. Dropping us back off outside a modern plaza, a source of some local controversy, and large new Orthodox Cathedral in the town, with the suggestion that there are still some tensions between the Bosnian and Serbian interests in the town.

The bridge in Visegrad

Click here to see the photo galleries for: Visegrad and Drvengrad.

Tuzla –

After a long drive out over partially built, river-side roads, we arrived at our next stop, Tuzla. Formerly, we had only heard of Tuzla for two reasons. Firstly, it’s one of the view places in Bosnia-Herzegovina that has an international airport. Secondly, it was near here that Princess Diana famously visited landmine victims in the 1990s and pledged her support to clearing fields of them following the war.

Neither paint Tuzla in a particularly cheery light, but our first-hand experience tells us that the city itself is a wonderful place to passively spend some time. The centre, a large open plaza with a fountain in the middle, has cafes and restaurants all around, as well as a permanently lively and positive atmosphere. Perhaps its only significant landmark for tourists is the leisure park, complete with salt lakes fed from the natural waters nearby. This followed with what I can safely say was the most extreme thunder and lightning storm that I suspect I have ever experienced in my life. The Balkans tends to have erratic weather patterns, as we had seen in Sarajevo both times we have visited, with almost scheduled thunder storms, but this was on another level.

The next day, we travelled out to what must be one of the most beautiful, bizarre and humid places that Europe has to offer. Stanisici, around an hour’s drive from Tuzla towards the Serbian border, is a modern-recreation and collection representing an ethnovillage (Etno Selo). With farm animals, stone and wooden buildings and bridges, mills and the most luminous green waters you will ever see, this resort also acts as a hotel. Certainly, a consideration for somewhere to stay when we next visit.

The Etno Selo ethnovillage near Stanisici

Click here to see the image galleries for: Stanisici and Tuzla

Bihac –

A lengthy drive, around 4 hours from Tuzla via Banja Luka and Doboj, took us to our next stop at the north-western city of Bihac. Bihac had, unfortunately, made the news around the same time for all the wrong reasons. A migrant crisis at a camp nearby, allegedly on an old landfill site, had attracted media attention suggesting those fleeing the Middle East, but unable to cross the border into Croatia, and therefore the European Union, were left to survive in inhuman conditions. With Bihac so close to the border with the European Union, it had, and still is, overwhelmed with those trying to reach Croatia, and as such this has had a detrimental impact on the town.

The centre of Bihac has its natural wonders, a mosque which was converted from a catholic church, and crypts and clocktowers in various states of disrepair. The river which runs through it leads on to the Una National Park, a natural wonder in itself.

A large waterfall in Una National Park

Click here to see the image galleries for: Bihac and Una National Park

As Bihac was such a small town, we decided to use our second day to set off early for Jajce, but stop off in Una National Park itself. Una is a large complex of national parks, complete with waterfalls and it comes across as an almost untouched piece of nature. A long, narrow dusty trail leads down to a café by some of the waterfalls (the park has multiple entrances), with countless trees and blue waters everywhere. Hiking paths and signs suggested it that days could be spent exploring these forests, so long as you were prepared to face the dangers that may lay waiting…

A warning sign reads ‘Bear on the Road’ in Una National Park

Jajce –

In 2018, Bosnia-Herzegovina became our very favourite place to visit and Jajce was probably our favourite part of it. As such, we came back in 2019, with the intention of just being there, enjoying as much or as little of the attractions as we felt like at the time. The road from Bihac led for a few hours south to this incredible city. Whilst in Bosnia, we had generally tried to do what we’d missed the previous year, with Jajce we ended up revisiting a number of points of interest, including the Catacombs, Bear Tower and Fortress. Of course, we also went back to the main viewing points of the always incredible Pliva Waterfall and cityscape.

A stray dog stands at the top of Pliva Waterfall in Jajce

Furthermore, unlike last year, we made time to visit both the Ethnographic and AVNOJ (Yugoslavia) museums. Both offering relics and insights into the city’s past, though admittedly, with some broken and lack of English translations making some elements more of a shiny-thing spotting tour.

We also drove out to Jajce’s famous Watermills. A park a few miles out of the city which contains a number of small wooden mills along a stream of water. A beautiful place to spend some time in and walk around. Though the parking situation involved seeking out a man with a handheld ticket machine before leaving!

The Jajce Watermills

As with 2018, we fell victim to the incredible humidity the city seems capable of producing at will, and our hotel which was on the 14th floor of a building with no lift, and cruelly without air conditioning as are many of the shops and cafes in this relatively poor part of Europe.

The number of stray dogs in the city also seems to be a continual problem (as it is for all of Bosnia and beyond in the Balkans), with at least ten around the gate of the old town, and others in various places seeking shade.

Click here to see the full image gallery from Jajce.

Trebinje –

Five hours driving back down the Neretva route took us back into dusty, warm Herzegovina, back past Mostar, and to the town of Trebinje.

The city back on the border with Croatia is famous for its wine and cheese, so we took a tour with a lady named Gordana, who works with the Slow Food organisation, that evening to the best of what Trebinje has to offer on the terrace of a vineyard in the mountains above the city. We, of course, followed this up with beer and pizza in the city centre that evening to see of another beautiful trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina (not even an 8 hour delay at Dubrovnik airport on the way out could put a downer on the last two weeks.

Wine and meet in a cellar in Trebinje

Click here to see the full image gallery from Trebinje.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, for the third year running, continued to astonish us and left us wishing we had more time in each and every place. Whilst driving across Bosnia is remarkably easy, any slight blip is a reminder that pre-planning is a must – the roads are not fast, English is not necessarily spoken, shops don’t necessarily take credit cards and hotels may not have air condition (despite desperately needing it).

It’s fair to say that whilst we haven’t decided where we might end up next, we can never rule out the lure of Bosnia being too strong to avoid, and finding our way back there again. And again. And again.

Article and images by Tom McBeth & Natasha Bryan

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To see the full, high-quality, watermark-free images from Bosnia-Herzegovina, click here to visit our Shutterstock gallery.

    

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