It’s hard to write about visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) without mentioning the 1990s war; its impact can be felt in almost every corner of the country. That said, Skylar and I had a wonderful time visiting and encountered very warm and inviting people. We will especially remember our time in Sarajevo, which has now been added to our list of favorite cities in the world.
Our first stop after Montenegro was the small town of Trebinje. Despite being only 20km from Dubrovnik, Trebinje sees just a trickle of tourists and feels well off the beaten path. As with many of the places we visit, Skylar and I enjoyed walking around the center of town and stopping in at cafes to do some people watching. We also ran into a very popular ice cream parlor and indulged in some very elaborate sundaes. The word for whipped cream in Bosnian is šlag (Pronounced shlawg) and much word play ensued after learning it. All in all, Trebinje was a nice stop over and worthy of the overnight trip. Of the places we stopped in BiH, it had the least visual impact of the 1990s war possibly because it’s part of the Serbian autonomous region known as Republika Srpska.
The bus ride from Trebinje to Mostar, while beautiful, exposed us to our first encounter with the war. As far as I could tell, BiH doesn’t have anything close to a major highway. The roads between even large towns and cities are composed primarily of narrow two lane mountain roads that wind through narrow valleys and switchbacks. The scenery is stunning, but as we entered the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosniak (Muslim) autonomous region, I began to notice that we would pass cemeteries, but rarely any actual towns. It began to dawn on me that we were looking at the direct impact of the war on numerous communities throughout the countryside. This was further confirmed by our first sighting of an uncleared mine field marked by ominous skull and cross bones signs.
Mostar is defined almost solely by the medieval bridge that spans the river running through the center of town; even the name “Mostar” refers to this bridge. The city saw some of the heaviest fighting during the war and outside of the restored old town around the also-restored bridge, the scars are still abundant twenty years later. Many buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes and starburst patterns from shelling. There are also a number of buildings in complete ruin that remain abandoned right next to brand new developments. Skylar and I both initially had a hard time adjusting to the presence of such sites, but gradually grew more comfortable. Mostar was also our first exposure to BiH’s “East meets West” milieu since it was our first stop with a large Muslim population. Most of the older buildings have a clearly European architecture, but instead of church steeples, the skyline is dotted with minarets. From Mostar we took a half day trip to the small town of Blagaj located at the source of a small river flowing out of a cave and the site of a building constructed for housing dervishes during their travels. Mostar was very pleasant, if a little touristy around the bridge, but we enjoyed strolling the many pedestrianized streets.
After two night in Mostar, Skylar and I hopped on a bus to BiH’s capital city, Sarajevo. I think that for just about everyone conscious during the 1990s, the name Sarajevo conjures up images of burned out buildings, violence and destruction. While this was without a doubt the case during The Siege, Skylar and I found one of the most dynamic, cosmopolitan and enjoyable cities we’ve visited during our travels. It felt in many ways like a miniature Istanbul with a strong vibe of being at a crossroads between cultures; we even managed to have some halfway decent baklava made with the only acceptable nut in my opinion: pistachios. Once you have pistachio baklava you’ll never understand why anyone would ever make it with walnuts.
We were both amazed at the amount of history packed into such an easily walkable city. Within a 10 minute walk, one can find the site where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand, multiple 500 year old mosques, and an active 19th century brewery with the best beer we’ve had in the Balkans. We also visited the highly ideological History Museum that covers the 1990s war and life during the siege. Sarajevo is surrounded by steep hills and mountains, so late one afternoon Skylar and I took a local bus as high up as we could and were treated with sweeping views in all directions. As a creature of habit and a vegetarian with limited options in a meat-eater’s world, Skylar will return to a restaurant with something she enjoys eating as often as possible. At a busy cafe/bar called Barhana in Sarajevo’s old town, Skylar found veggie lasagna that she found irresistible. We returned to it almost every single night we were in Sarajevo. Admittedly, it was quite good, but I was definitely ready for something new after the third visit. Our go-to cheap meal remains the various kinds of burek available at bakeries, but I’ve also been able to incorporate ćevapi, a local kind of kebab.
On our final day, we signed up for a city tour focused on the siege. Our guide, who was a young teenager at the time of the war, took us all over the city and explained how it was possible to completely cut off Sarajevo from the outside world and discussed his personal experiences. Our two most interesting stops were the entrance to an 800m tunnel dug by hand in order to smuggle arms and supplies into the city as well as the site of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games on a nearby mountain overlooking the city. The tunnel was very impressive and interesting, but we felt that anti-Serbian ideology had begun to creep into everything we were hearing. The Olympic Games site is most famous today for the abandoned bobsled track that now runs through an unpopulated forest area. Ostensibly, our reason for visiting the area was to see the location of Serbian artillery and sniper positions, but walking down the intact bobsled track was really cool. Everyone on our tour spent many minutes trying to get just the right picture of the now graffiti-covered track.
We’ve now moved on to Serbia and will be headed to Kosovo in the next few days.
That’s all for now!