“Look at the autumn colours, it’s a photographer’s paradise!” That’s pretty much how planning our trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) began. BiH was high on my husband’s travel list; I wasn’t convinced but entertained the idea. As I researched the country, I could understand why this was a noteworthy destination, especially in autumn! I realised most travellers do short trips to Sarajevo and Mostar. I knew I wanted to spend time exploring more than just these two cities. We had a basic route mapped out but other than that we resolved to winging it. As it was an off-peak period (mid- October), we departed South Africa with only a plane ticket, VISA and a night’s accommodation. This was the first time we travelled in this manner! I was nervous but I guess there’s a first for everything! Our trip played out this way- we travelled between cities by bus, left our bags at the convenient luggage storage facilities at the bus stations (for a small fee) and went out exploring. If we liked the town and felt we wanted to stay longer, we booked accommodation. If not, we caught a bus to the next destination.
How do I even begin to describe the sheer beauty, warmth of the locals and delicious cuisine devoured? I guess form the start. The initial two days were a whirlwind of lakes, waterfalls, city walls, mosques and watermills all housed in the small towns of Bihac, Jajce and Travnik. We meandered the streets of Bihac stumbling across sites such as the Fethiye mosque, the oldest Gothic Building in the country. Jajce was a delight, a historic city all about falling water. The town is centred around the Pliva waterfall, one of the twelve most beautiful waterfalls in the world! Jajce is also home to the watermills which was unique, a cluster of huts that sit on top of skinny stilts right above the gushing water. The most peaceful moment for me was sitting beside the Pliva lake. The stillness of the morning was sublime and the clarity of the water reflected the most beautiful Autumn colours from its surroundings. Travnik offered a hike up to the Stari Grad (fort and city walls), passing by many picturesque mosques on the way, for the best views of the town. After the bustling two days, Plava Voda (blue water), referring to the fast-flowing stream that tumbles through Travnik town surrounded by streets lined with eateries and little kiosks, provided a great ambience before we hopped onto a bus bound for Sarajevo.
Oh Sarajevo! It didn’t take long for us to fall in love with the capital and cultural centre of BiH. Although its name is inextricably linked to war and tragedy, the passing 20 years has remarkably healed this spirit-filled and resilient city. I was fascinated walking the streets of Sarajevo- in just a short stroll you will see mosques, churches and synagogues- a European Jerusalem of sorts. Sarajevo has stood the tide of time and the various cultural influences throughout its history are visible by the stark contrast of its architecture. Austro- Hungarian architecture can be seen in one direction and a simple turn of the head bears witness to a Turkish bazaar serving up strong coffee and the best baklava amongst other delights and trinkets.
The city lies in a valley surrounded by the Olympic mountains which was a main feature of the 1984 Winter Olympics hosted in Sarajevo. Mount Trebevic boasts some of the most beautiful, panoramic views of the city. We were fortunate that the cable car to the top of Mount Trebevic has re-opened. For a small fare, we took a trip to the mountain top, soaked up the crisp, fresh air and glorious views. We hiked to the abandoned bob sleigh and luge track, where we spent time exploring and photographing the track accessorised by graffiti.
There were two experiences that stood out for me from our visit to Sarajevo- one tore at my heart and the other made my heart sing blissfully! The latter was a dining experience with a local Bosnian family. This is a tour offered through Meet Bosnia Tours (exceptional tour company). We dined with the Fisekovic family, facilitated by their daughter Hidajeta. I was nervous as I was afraid of the potential awkward silences. The night panned out quite to the contrary. The food that flowed was scrumptious, traditional Bosnian cuisine. The conversation was one filled with rich history, tradition and debate. An evening of hearty laughter and new found friendships, solidified by slowly sipping on strong Bosnian coffee.
The experience that tore at my heart was a visit to the Srebrenica Gallery. I desperately wanted to visit Srebrenica however time did not permit. The gallery in Sarajevo was a close compromise. It is an extraordinary exhibition of the genocide, filled with photographs, maps, audio and video material portraying the essence of this time in Srebrenica. I left the gallery heart broken. I was again schooled in the history of Sarajevo by the Fall of Yugoslavia tour (Meet Bosnia tours again) which included a mandatory visit to the tunnel of hope, the only link to the outside world during the siege of the city. Sarajevo is a city with an awesome vibe. While it is easy to forget it’s atrocious history, you don’t need to look far for evidence of its troubled past. This is easily visible in the buildings poked with bullet holes, the many cemeteries around the city and the concrete scars in the walkways called Sarajevo roses.
The next chapter was a fairy-tale; Mostar and its surrounds (Pocitelj, Blagaj and Kravica). Mostar has a romantic charm like no other. Be it due the to the Stari Most bridge or the cobble stoned alleys lined with shops and restaurants, it is sure to steal any travellers heart. The old town is cradled around the attractive Stari Most, a 16th century Ottoman-style bridge stretching across the Neretva river, connecting two sides of the city. Soak up the view of the bridge from alongside the Neretva river and take a dip too if you are brave enough to endure its cold waters. Diving off the bridge is an old tradition and you can bear testament to this dare devil insanity by watching qualified divers jump daily. The best panoramic views of the town are from the Minaret of the Koski Mehmed Pasa mosque as well as the Port Bridge. Our stay in Mostar was authentic, staying at the Muslibegovic House & Museum, a traditional Ottoman style house well preserved and taken care of by a most hospitable family descendant.
Once you recover from your crush on Mostar, be sure to fall in love with the surrounding areas of Pocitelj, Blagaj and Kravica. In Pocitelj, walk up to the Tower Fortress to witness the breath-taking view of this medieval Ottoman-Mediterranean wonder of architecture and nature. The village of Blagaj is home to the Dervish Monastery, a most worthy site situated along the Buna river. You cannot leave without a trip to the Kravica waterfall, one of the largest and most impressive waterfalls in the Herzegovina region. These areas are in close proximity to each other and can be explored within a day. We didn’t have a car so opted for a private tour which was insightful.
No travel experience is complete without completely indulging in food. I was thrilled that majority of the food in BiH is Halaal and I could get stuffed on some of my favourites- Cevapi, Burek, smoked meats and the most delicious cheeses. I am not usually a coffee drinker, but grew very accustomed to enjoying long late night conversations biting on sugar cubes and sipping strong coffee the Bosnian way!
So, should you visit BiH- Hell Yes. Is it safe, c’mon the war ended more than 2 decades ago. The warmth of the people and the insane natural beauty make it a compulsory stamp in your passport!
Photographs from the trip- BiH
Author’s note: We travelled through Croatia (7 nights) and Bosnia (7 nights). These posts will be written separately. We travelled mostly by bus, refer to the cheat sheet for the bus route we opted for. Our entry point into BiH was Bihac. The Croatian multiple entry Visa obtained (applicable to South African passport holders) allowed us ease of entry and exit into Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH).