What stays with me when I think of BiH (Bosnia and Hercegovina) is the attitude of its’ people… resilient, kind, welcoming, tolerant an awesome sense of humour! I knew so very little about this tiny nation when I arrived in Sarajevo, freshly in awe of its magnificent landscapes, which would only serve to impress me more as the journey continued.
From Belgrade, it took just over 2 hours to reach the Bosnian border by bus. We followed the Drina River for another hour, with its picturesque backdrop of mountains and pooling into lakes in parts. We then ascended mountains adorned with lush green farmland and forests of pine trees. As we neared Sarajevo the smooth hills turned to deep gorges and shear peaks coated by misty cloud as rain started to fall.
The bus station is far out of town, and seven of us huddled together in the rain before venturing to an ATM to withdraw some KM (Convertible Marks). Three took off in another direction and another guy hailed a taxi leaving us and a friendly Russian travelling with little more than what look liked a shopping bag. He was very helpful – able to read cyrillic script and ask for directions much better than we could! We found our way to the tram terminal. A 40 minute tram ride later we found the city centre and spent the next 2.5 hours trying to locate our hostel! Google maps has it located about two blocks away from where it actually is!
Totally exhausted but starving, we wandered the old ottoman town centre. It felt more like being in the middle-east, with turkish tea houses and curved archways leading into shops more reminiscent of Iran than Europe. Cheap turkish-style food was our go-to (even more tasty and authentic here) and the next morning we returned for Bosnian coffee (like Turkish coffee but milder in flavour).
There is so much to see in Sarajevo! The Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, the old orthodox church, the Old Jewish Synagogue & museum, Sarajevo City Hall, The Latin Bridge, the well-preserved ottoman bazaar and Bascarsija (a 15th Century fountain). The Historical museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina was an interesting place to learn about lifestyle of culture of the people of BiH and also the devastating Seige of Sarajevo, which occurred between 1992 and 1995 during the Bosnian War. The courage of the residents who refused to surrender their city is incredible! In the museum was an exhibition with photos of hundreds of buildings that were damaged or destroyed, alongside a photo in the same location today – amazingly most buildings have been completely restored. However, nearly every building is still scarred with bullet holes. During the siege, a secret tunnel was built under the Sarajevo airport (a very clever thing to do, as the airport was occupied by the UN and could not be bombed). We took a tour of the tunnel. It was definitely worth it, for the backstory and the incredible guides who often have their own personal heroic story. Our guide was a very young child during the seige, but he remembered a grenade landing in his house and it was thankfully a dud! He also told us how his father brought a goat from the outside through the tunnel. He became richest man in the neighbourhood! That goat was worth more than a Mercedes Benz!
The journey from Sarajevo to Mostar was even more spectacular than from Belgrade! We took the bus as it’s more frequent, but the train has similar views. Mostar literally means ‘old bridge’. The iconic bridge is the main tourist attraction, but there are many more reasons to fall in love with Mostar. A compact town with stores selling colourful turkish trinkets, 500-plus-year-old mosques, tucked next to original stone and wooden houses, restaurants with waiters in traditional dress serving up variations of fish from the Neretva River. For the adrenaline junkies, you can jump off the highest point of the bridge, at 24 Metres, I was happier to watch from a nearby restaurant balcony!
Mostar is surrounded by a ton of attractions that are within day-tripping distance. To see just a few of them, we booked Hostel Miran Mostar Experience Tour. Miran is famous for his hostel and tours (we stayed at Mirans’ cousin’s hostel – Hostel Hercegovina – also fantastic). The first town on tour was Blagaj. Its 16th Century Tejika (like an ottoman monastery) was built next to a natural spring on the Buna River.
Medival and Ottoman style buildings wind haphazardly up the steep hill to the Kula Fort. The dizzying climb up the staircase was worth it for the views!
There was no better way to cool off than by taking a dive into the aqua blue pool, replenished by a multitude of falls which are most impressive in the spring, however the (freezing!) water is at it’s deepest in the summer.
At Hum Hill, Miran told his own personal story of the Bosnian War, leaving his home, fearing for his life and becoming a minesweeper for the military after the war. From here you can see all of Mostar and its surrounds. A large cross stands atop, and there is a bunker where the enemy snipers shot citizens below. The grassy hill is still harbours landmines, which Miran pointed out to us. Miran also took us to a secret airforce base that operated during the Bosnian War, leading us through a massive underground tunnel that housed the aircraft and military personnel!
Beyond it’s recent dark past, BiH has a bright future, tourism is growing and the secret’s out! I don’t have enough words. I love this country, it’s definitely my favourite country in the Balkans and possibly all of Europe!