Bosnia and Herzegovina: An Unexpected Jewel in the Balkans
Bosnia and Herzegovina is stone Ottoman villages perched on hillsides over turquoise rivers. Bosnia is spectacular limestone mountains soaring above river valleys. Bosnia is ruined castles looking over vast stretches of countryside, splendid ancient fortresses where queens once resided. Bosnia is so much more than a war that the world largely ignored.
Yet when most people hear the word “Bosnia”, their thoughts immediately drift to conflict. Prior to visiting, my limited knowledge of the nation mostly stemmed from a book I read in elementary school about a girl who survived the four year siege of Sarajevo. All I really knew was that the country suffered immensely during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
However, during our bus ride from Croatia to the city of Mostar, our minds were more focused on the stunning scenery outside our windows than on the war. We drove along the Adriatic coast for a couple of hours, then turned east into the mountains, following the length of the milky teal-colored Neretva river. We got our first hint that we were exiting the European Union and venturing into different territory when we reached the Bosnia border crossing. The border office was a ramshackle building that looked more like a backyard tool shed than an official government center. And the roadside restaurant where our driver stopped to take one of (way) too many smoke breaks was a basic establishment with squat toilets. (No complaints on my end, though–we’re pros at using those by now!)
Entering Mostar was a shock, especially after leaving modern, comfortable Croatia. The bus station was in bad shape, as were the neighboring city blocks, which looked like they’d seen war action last week rather than twenty-five years ago. Many buildings were little more than bombed-out ruins, and others that still looked functional were covered with bullet holes and shell marks.
But as we walked to our homestay, we reached the old city, which clearly had been lovingly restored. Its golden stone buildings, minaret towers, and cobbled lanes gave me the feeling we’d been transported to a village in Turkey. And the city’s most famous landmark, Stari Most (which literally translates to “Old Bridge” in Bosnian) had an undeniable magic to it. We ended up returning to the bridge and old part of town many times during our stay to wander the streets, take photos, and dine on Bosnian dishes like cevapi, grilled minced meat served with pita and chopped onions.
Our accommodation in Mostar was the top floor of a home belonging to a family of four, which consisted of our host, Adnan, his wife, and their two teenage children. The space was modern and bright, and we even had our own balcony overlooking the Neretva. Our experience in Adnan’s house was one of the best we’ve had in all our travels. Adnan’s wife greeted us with a heaping plate of homemade Bosnian food, and for the next few days she or her children would periodically knock on our attic door bearing other treats, from baklava to lentil soup to Bosnian coffee. The whole family radiated warmth, and we could tell they genuinely loved hosting guests in their home. They were the type of people who make traveling a joy.
In Bosnia, we experienced a level of hospitality we haven’t encountered since we left Asia. In addition to being welcomed into Adnan’s home like we were long lost relatives, locals often greeted us warmly on the streets, eager to provide insider suggestions on sights and activities. The openness of the people and their willingness to engage with tourists makes Bosnia a wonderful place to visit.
Adnan, a lifelong resident of Mostar who remained in the city throughout the war, offered to take us on a tour to see key sights outside town. We immediately agreed. On the way to our first stop, we discussed Bosnia’s painful recent history. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the stories the citizens of Bosnia have about the 1990s. They’re so tremendously sad that it’s difficult to imagine how people had the will to go on afterwards. Adnan, along with his father and sister, fled their home when their neighborhood fell to enemy forces. However, his father returned a couple days later, believing that because he was just an ordinary citizen with no military ties, he would be left alone. He was wrong. He and a neighbor who also wanted to stay were shot multiple times. The neighbor died. Adnan’s father lived, and now resides in Sweden.
Unfortunately, the scars of war–both physical and emotional–are still visible everywhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 80% of the buildings in Mostar were destroyed, and although the town has rebuilt considerably, large swaths of city blocks remain uninhabitable. Even Stari Most, Mostar’s iconic 400-year-old bridge, was destroyed during the war. Adnan commented that the day the bridge came down, it felt like someone had killed his grandfather, a sentiment shared by every inhabitant of Mostar. The bridge is that integral to the town’s identity and heritage. The convincing replica that stands in place of the original opened in 2004.
Sadly, Bosnia remains a very divided place. Adnan shared that until the 90s, Bosnia was known for ethnic and religious diversity, with Muslims, Catholics, and Orthdox Christians often intermingling and even intermarrying. Unfortunately, all that has changed, and tension between ethnic groups remains a huge problem. To illustrate just how huge, consider this: Bosnian school books only teach history up until 1992. No one could agree on what to write about the conflict in the textbooks, so nothing is taught about it at all. Children learn about the war from their families, and many inevitably receive a skewed education regarding what happened. And to make matters worse, many schools are now segregated by ethnic group–the next generation is being taught to hate, both directly and indirectly.
The focus of our day with Adnan, however, was the nation’s pre-1990s past. We were surprised to discover that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rich, storied history. The country was part of the Ottoman empire for hundreds of years, as were many nations in the Balkans, yet it is one of only three where the majority of citizens still practice Islam (the other two are Albania and Kosovo.)
We stopped first in Medjugorje, a mysterious town known for being the location of multiple alleged sightings of the Virgin Mary, then headed to the stunning teal-hued Kravice waterfalls, which strongly reminded us of Kuang Si falls in Laos. Our favorite stop of the day came next, when Adnan drove us to the historic Ottoman village of Pocitelj. Pocitelj is an ancient town, now a living history museum, situated on the banks of the Neretva. We climbed to the top of the village’s ruined fortress, which offered beautiful views of the snaking river below, and stopped to buy fresh pomegranate juice from street vendors. The day concluded in the small village of Blagaj, where we toured a 500-year-old Dervish house situated in an idyllic location at the mouth of a cave spring. (Dervishes are people who belong to a mystical Islamic religious order. They’re known for their passionate dancing, hence the expression, “whirling dervish.”) Our day with Adnan greatly deepened our understanding of Bosnia’s history, and we visited sites we never would have thought to go to on our own.
After bidding heavy farewells to our hosts, we continued on to Sarajevo. The two and a half hour train ride is considered one of the most gorgeous journeys in Europe. Nearly the whole route follows the Neretva river and passes through mountain scenery that’s been compared to the Swiss Alps in scale and beauty.
Arriving at the Sarajevo train station was eerie and a little depressing, though. The empty building is frozen in time, a relic of the Communist era. The sheer scale of the station, along with its many abandoned graffiti-covered rail cars and deserted tracks, is testimony to a bygone time when Sarajevo was a well-connected, thriving city. Now just a few trains run each day, and only to limited destinations within Bosnia (the country remains cut off from the rest of Europe when it comes to rail travel.)
Still, we immediately liked Sarajevo. It’s small for a capital city and easy to see on foot. The architecture represents different time periods in the city’s history, from the Ottoman-style old town to the grand blocks of Austro-Hungarian buildings that look like they belong in Budapest or Vienna. The western portion of the city, heading towards the airport (known infamously as “Sniper Alley” during the war), is mostly new construction, replacing the skyscrapers that were destroyed during the siege.
We spent much of our time in Sarajevo exploring on foot and discovering hidden gems. Our favorite restaurant was a tiny burek shop run by a Bosnian grandmother. Burek is a savory meat pie made of beef baked in pastry dough. The snail-shaped pie is often topped with thick, homemade sour cream. Bosnians (and, well, most Eastern Europeans) eat a meat-heavy diet. We joked continuously about how difficult it would be for a vegetarian to survive in Sarajevo. We also toured the opulent City Hall (like many buildings, it’s a replica built after the original was destroyed during the war), and visited the site where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, triggering the start of World War I.
Reminders of the Bosnian war are everywhere, though. Sarajevo is filled with scars on sidewalks that mark locations where mortar rounds killed people during the siege of the city, which lasted from 1992-1996. These concrete marks were filled with red resin after the war, and have been deemed “Sarajevo Roses” due to their disconcertingly floral shape. When you walk past one–there are more than 200 scattered around the city–it is a jolt.
Sarajevo also has tons of cemeteries; it’s impossible not to notice them. During the siege, the number of dead grew so high that there was no room left to bury them in established graveyards. Many open spaces began serving as cemeteries–soccer fields, parks, even playgrounds. When you look at the city from above, the number of white headstones scattered everywhere is the first thing that draws your eye. And when you examine the tombstones up close, you instantly realize that most of those at rest died in the early nineties. Many of the victims of the siege of Sarajevo were children, teenagers, and young adults in their twenties. It’s heartbreaking.
The day we’ll remember most vividly in Sarajevo was the morning we went on a tour with a group called Sarajevo Funky Tours. Our guide, also named Adnan, was a former Bosnian military captain who lived and fought in the city throughout the siege. He, along with his aunt, sister, eleven neighbors, and a goat, spent the majority of the war in the basement of an apartment building. Adnan regularly snuck out of the city to fight with the Bosnian Army and bring back provisions like food and water, which were extremely scarce. For nearly four years, Sarajevo was completely surrounded by Serb forces, who let no one leave or enter. Regular citizens who went out in the streets, even small children, were at risk of being picked off by snipers hiding in skyscrapers or nearby hills.
At one point, Adnan was seriously wounded when he was struck by a Serb sniper. He credits the goat in the basement for saving his life because it provided life-giving milk after his injury when no other sustenance was available. Mike and I glanced at each other as he told this story. I knew we were thinking the same thing: This is how people here survived? How can we possibly even begin to understand what people here went through?
The tour took us to the Tunnel of Hope Museum, which marks the site where Bosnian forces secretly dug a tunnel under the airport for smuggling supplies in and out of the city, and to the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games that Sarajevo hosted. The track is now covered in graffiti, an unexpected work of art in the forest. For some reason, everything we had learned about Sarajevo hit me hardest there. I think it’s because the Olympics are such a symbol of unity and hope, and knowing that Sarajevo became a war zone just eight years after its proud moment in the world spotlight made me deeply sad.
Adnan was remarkably warm and positive given everything he had seen and done. He’s now a happily married father of two (and funny enough, his wife is a Dutch doctor he met in the hospital where he was eventually transported to recover from the sniper bullet.) He laughed a little as he showed us a photo of his family, saying, “I should have been dead so many times. But here I am. I’m like a cat–nine lives.”
Towards the end of the tour, Adnan’s tone turned serious when someone asked whether he thought things in Bosnia were improving. Did he believe the future of the country was a bright one?
“Well, of course things are better than they were,” he said somberly. “But we still have a lot of problems.”
He turned pensive for a moment, pausing before his next words, which I will always remember.
“Just enjoy your time here,” he said quietly.
Until next time, dovidenja from Bosnia.