Just a few hours south of Sarajevo, Mostar feels like a different world. It is closest destination in Bosnia to Dubrovnik, Croatia and as we entered this mixed Croat/Bosniak city in Herzegovina, we fell back in love with the Adriatic landscape that enticed us to return to the Balkans to begin with – particularly the drama of the mountains plunging into bright blue-green waters.
Mostar is one of the Balkan’s most well-known gems and it is a-bustle with tourists who stop by for an hour or two during the day; it’s even the cover of the current Lonely Planet Southeastern Europe guide book. There isn’t much to do in the town itself aside from take pictures on and of the eponymous bridge and, for the those who dare, jump off the bridge. That said, it’s well-worth the stop, especially as a point to relax and break up the drive to Montenegro or Croatia, and a great base from which to go out on day trips and excursion in and around the area.
The famous Mostar Bridge
Where to Eat, Drink, & Stay Admittedly somewhat touristy, we enjoyed great food at Sadravan and Konoba Taurus, and drinks at the fun Black Dog Pub overlooking the water, included the locally brewed OldBridz brown ale. We stayed right in town at Villa Fortuna, which has the most charming inn keeper, if not the most reliable internet.
Sarajevo is a tale of two cities: the city before 1992 and the city after.
Pre-1992 Sarajevo is that which is first apparent to visitors. It is the literal embodiment of east-meets-west. Everything east of the town center is a mini Istanbul, reflecting its establishment and first 400 years as an Ottoman Turkish city. Everything to west of the center is a mini-Vienna, reflecting its 40 (highly productive) years of Austro-Hungarian rule, which brought Europe’s first electric-tram system. It is the city where Gavrilo Princip, trained by the Black Hand in Serbia, assassinated the Franz Ferdinand, future Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the excuse for the start of World War I. A city formerly known as “little Jerusalem,” where you were never more than a few hundred feet of an Eastern Orthodox church, a Catholic Church, a mosque, and a synagogue. It was the gem of the former united Yugoslavia, when it hosted the 1984 XIV Winter Olympic Games.
From 1992-1995, Sarajevo was under siege, surrounded by the Serb army. The scars of war are visible everywhere. They are the damaged facades of nearly every building. The ubiquitous Sarajevo Roses around town (red resin filled into mortar scars indicating where people were killed). In the tour guides, who are no older than I am, recounting about growing up in a city under siege. They are the abandoned Olympic venues, former symbols of unity and glory, now surrounded by land mines as a haunting reminder of just how transient the coming together of nations can be.
The Present Day City
Current Bosnia & Herzegovina is complicated beyond my understanding. It is mandated as two territories post-war – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS). It has three postal systems, two tax systems, and three governments with three different presidents (one Bosniak, one Serb, one Croat). The official unemployment rate at the time of writing this was 45%.
The New York Times summarized: Sarajevo has a charisma that “is intoxicating, but the hustle and bustle belies a tragic past.”
It is hard not to fall in love with Sarajevo, but it is a city that will break your heart.
What to do
MUST DO: Free walking tour of the city, with Neno, a Sarajevo-born guide, who presents his personal history alongside that of the city
Don’t skip the underground Sarajevo Wartunnels (near the airport) from the siege time. 25 meters of the tunnel remain open and there is an informative 12 minute documentary.
Go see the abandoned Olympic venues, especially the bobsled track. You cannot get there by public transportation, but it is well-worth renting a car, taxi, or going with a tour (most of the hostels and a few of the tour companies will run them). Do not stray off the roads or walk around: landmines surround the area.
Bakeries selling Bureks, the phyllo pastries filled with cheese, spinach, potato, or meat, are on every corner. We highly recommend Buregdzinica Bosna, in the old town. It came touted as the best in the city (we won’t argue with that!).
Bosnian coffee at Divan – also in the city, and a great place for people-watching
Cevapici, the mini-sausage version of Turkish Kebabs, served with pita and onions. The city is divided on its favorite Cevapdzinica according to sports team allegiance; Zeljo and Ferhatovic vie for the #1 spot. Both were delicious.
Where to stay
Once again, we opted for AirBNB. We loved the price at $35/night apartment (6 minutes from old-town ). The only thing we loved more is the adorable host parents who adopted us during our time there. (The Airbnb apartment is next door to the main house; their daughter owns and rents it out.)
After a few great days in Belgrade, Serbia, it was time to get on the road and begin the actual road trip. When I started planning this long-awaited Balkans trip, I looked into several modes of transportation. Trains = out of the question: many of the train lines were never restored after the war; the few that had been restored are outdated and take twice as long as any other mode of transit. Our remaining options: bus or driving. We opted for the latter for flexibility in travel itinerary and timing. Despite what transpired, it was one of the best travel adventures I’ve ever had.
We knew of several potential road-trip obstacles from blogs we read before the trip, namely:
only manual-transmission car
the lack of highways
one-lane roads that cling to the sides of the mountainous topography
land mines that remain on the side of the roads once you enter into Bosnia (wartime remnants from the Serb army)
And still, there were some obstacles that came as a total surprise:
a total lack of roads for some entire stretches
roads in total disrepair that were barely drivable (7 mph, max)
our cell phones not working at all in the Balkans (thank you, Verizon)
flooding caused by the torrential rains during parts of our drive
With the detour to stop in Srebrenica, our road trip journey took 8+ hours from Belgrade to Sarajevo, which is only 120 miles as the crow flies. Stocked with a great Spotify music playlist, a bagful of pastries from Belgrade, and the best co-pilot/company a girl could ask for, we had an incredible adventure – one I won’t forget anytime soon.
Part B: Stopping in Srebrenica on Yom Hashoah
I was 11 years old when the genocide in Srebrenica took place in July 1995. I had just finished 5th grade. And I remember hearing the news coverage. Hearing of the systematic massacre of 8,300 Bosniak (ethnically Muslim) boys and men age 12-77 by the Serb army. Hearing of the Dutch UN peacekeepers who stood by and watched. Here’s a link for a brief recap of the history.
It’s hard to explain why I needed to stop in Srebrenica It’s not “my” history. Perhaps as a Jew, I felt compelled to bear witness to the other 20th century European Genocide. What I hadn’t realized was that the day of our trip was Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I fear that any commentary I might write bears the risk of trivializing the experience, making it seem trite. I will just share that the memorial prayer at the cemetery, with its echoes of the Holocaust’s “never again” haunted me.
“…May mothers’ tears become prayers that Srebrenica Never happens again to no one and nowhere,”
Because it did happen, again. And in our lifetime. As the world watched, again.
In Sarajevo, Gallerija 11/7/05is a exceptional two-room gallery with a photo exhibit and a 27 minute documentary that is not to be missed. It includes the Serbian broadcasts at the time and is a must when visiting the region.
In 2011, my brother and I spent a magical week exploring souther Croatia: both Dubrovnik and Sipan Island off of the Adriatic Coast. The beauty of the coastline mesmerized us and we ate one delicious meal after another. However, we were less enchanted by how over-touristed Dubrovnik is. We promised ourselves we’d come back and explore the lesser-known parts of the Balkans. And the idea of the Balkans Road Trip was born.
We began in Belgrade, Serbia and ended in Podgorica, Montenegro, the following week. The itinerary combined equal parts history, culture, and off-the-beaten path adventure. Throw in some excellent food and happening nightlife. The ultimate Balkans Road Trip.
I wrote posts on each of the destinations, which you can link to below. With the exception of the treacherous drive from Belgrade to Sarajevo, a road trip was an excellent way to get around the Balkans and experience the region.