I remember hearing about wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina when I was younger. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the conflict, other than it being particularly fierce, and the images always looked cold, grey and miserable. It never struck me as a place that I would want to visit. There was that odd curiosity to see the destruction from this brutal fighting, but the cities and the country itself always seemed featureless on the TV.
We had crossed over the mountain range that runs along the edge of the Croatian coast, and passed through some beautiful valleys and small old town. We kept waiting for the border, and yet somehow it managed to sneak up on us. This was our first exit from the EU/EEA, though we hadn’t really thought too much about what that would mean, other than our phones not roaming freely.
I had read that we would need separate insurance for these non-EU/EEA countries, and it was available for purchase at the border – though, prices could fluctuate depending on unfathomable things. We went through passport controls, and then they asked us for our Green Card Insurance papers. I ruffled around in our document folder, but realised that I didn’t have them. In the mean time, we’d been told to park out of the way, and I managed to find a copy in an email. There is a big list of the included countries, but BiH wasn’t one of them. I tried to show the attachment to the immigration officer, but he wasn’t interested in looking at my phone (not that there was much to see, since BiH wasn’t included). He walked me into the nearby office, which is where I expected to be able to purchase insurance. Instead, I found three more officers watching things on their phones, smoking – and none of them spoke any English. My phone was now offline, so I couldn’t use Google Translate, so we were at an impasse.
Eventually they told me to go, but asked ‘pivo’, which I remembered was also Russian for beer. I disappointed him one more time, gesturing that we had no beer, to which he finally waved me onwards into our country #27.
It immediately felt different, and far, far poorer. The roads were in much worse condition, and there was garbage and stray dogs on the sides of the roads. The cars were older, and the houses were simpler. Our progress towards Mostar was terribly slow and fragmented, with a constant cycle of 40kph-60kph-40kph as we passed through endless small towns.
Shortly before we arrived, we suddenly ended up on a smooth multilane road, and it was heavenly. The concrete apartment blocks came into view, and we were then back onto regular inner-city congestion. The outer suburbs, much like any city, were dismal. We continued towards the old town, which is where all the tourist attractions are. We got within a few blocks of where I planned to park, and then found that the road was closed. Not only that, we were now trapped in a stationary queue of cars, with drivers pointlessly beeping and shouting at the others in their way.
Thoughts about giving up and making our way out of town had entered our minds. So far, we hadn’t seen anything worth stopping to see. But, we persevered, and came across a free park. We were now parked in the epicentre of one of the battlefields in this town. Even now, several decades later, buildings are still shells yet to be demolished or repaired, riddled with bullet and grenade holes. Nature is taking back over with slow but steady determination.
It wasn’t just this one area, as we walk into town, there was no shortage of the signs of the conflicts. Even buildings in prime locations, like this hotel right on the edge of the river continues to sit here empty. It was at the point that we caught our first sight of the Neretva River, and we were amazed how wild it was! It was surging away below, channelled between two deep cliffs, with turgid rapids turning the river white in places.
The further we walk towards the old town, the prettier (and more tourist oriented) it becomes. Buildings are mostly renovated, and bullet holes have been patched over. It had the feel of Turkey, with the types of stalls and wares on display – though, none of the aggressive sell we endured daily while there. I did see this one piece of graffiti that resonated with unexpected strength – “All gave some, some gave all”. I’m sure it’s been used many times before, but it was new to me, and reminded me of the huge loss of life that has been witnessed in this region.
Each corner we crested opened a new view, and each successive view surpassed the previous. I’m so glad that we persevered with our visit.
The Turkish feel isn’t co-incidental, either. This region had centuries of Ottoman occupation, and they left behind more than just their religion. It was stunning, with old mosques, baths, and other beautiful buildings.
And then, we caught our first views of the stunning bridge. Stunning is really the best word for it. It’s a tall, graceful arch across the deep canyon. The bridge nearly survived the wars of the 90s, but was eventually critically damaged and collapsed late in the conflict.
We walked around and took it in from all the angles, and in the different light. It felt like no other town that we’d visited on this trip. The water was calmer here. The white water rapids had gone, but there was still a serious current beneath the calm surface. There are usually people diving from the bridge (for money). I read that hustlers collect money from the tourists, and once they get enough, someone will dive off the bridge. I also read that it is possible to dive yourself, with some spotters down below to drag you out of the river should it go a little Pete Tong.
We walked through the area around the bridge a little further, but it didn’t take too long to pop out the other side, and be in a modern area – if you call Communist-era buildings modern. There were more markets, cafes and restaurants.
Just as the sun began to set, the familiar melodic calls to prayer started echoing around the narrow streets of town, blasting from the minarets of the few mosques that we could see. It sounded just as it did last time we heard it in Turkey.
We were starving. It was lucky that we were again in a country where we could eat like kings and still stay on budget. There was no shortage of places to try, but we settled for Hindin Han. We sat on the terrace, which looks out over the old bridge and the river below. It would normally give amazing views, but it was just a dull glow under the sodium vapour lamps in the evening. We didn’t come here for the views anyway.
I didn’t know what to expect for Bosnian food, but what we found was incredible. Risa had a paprika rich veal stew, and I had a heart-attack platter (with yet more veal, cheese, prosciutto, eggplants, mushroom and chicken salt on the chips). At first, I was disappointed with the meaty plate that they brought out, but it was incredibly rich, juicy and tender. I was hungry, but I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it, since it was one of the biggest meals I’d had in a long, long time.
But, of course we quickly finished our meals, and then moved onto some local deserts, including this apple soaked in honey, and filled with nuts/raisin/spice filling, and a mix of figs, jam and honey. The eating really is one of our highlights of this trip, with so many different styles of food to try on a nearly weekly basis.
There was a few options to spend the night in Mostar, but the reviews/description didn’t sound particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, after dinner we headed south towards Počitelj, which we planned to visit tomorrow. The roads seemed a little dodgy here during the day, but it was so much less fun driving at night. People with their high beams, hidden potholes, stray dogs and other garbage on the road. I’d gone from extreme relaxation post-feast, to a wound up nervous wreck in the space of thirty minutes. To make it worse, the nice car park that we’d read about was absolutely tiny, and only meters from that same ‘highway’ we’d just been driving along – and the cars/trucks didn’t go any slower as it got later in the night!
As you could guess, it wasn’t the best nights sleep – though, far from the worst. Even now that the sun was up, the trucks and the other cars continued to hurtle along the road, even though it was a 50kph zone.
A benefit of camping here for the night, we were the first tourists to arrive. The vendors were still getting set up as we walked up the narrow rocky steps that paved the old streets. We could see a large mosque, and a series of towers along a defensive wall that surrounded the town. When we’d arrived last night, we’d arrived in near complete darkness, so had no idea what was here.
The old streets wound their way in random paths, and at each junction we’d try and choose what we thought would take us towards the large tower on the northern end of town. To our amazement, we made it there without having to backtrack once. And then, to our further amazement, the tower itself was completely open. There was no barriers, no ticket collectors, or no signs telling you what not to do. The area surrounding it was clearly decaying, and hopping over some of the large chasms made me a little nervous, especially with the loose sandy ground.
We entered the tower, and made our way towards the top via the slippery, sand covered internal staircase. The raw nature of this was amazing, and walking around here felt like we were exploring, rather than being tourists. The further we climbed, the better the views of the town below became.
The town was built into a naturally defensive position, with the town walls providing further fortification. From above, it was much clearer to see the walls snaking along the contours of the rocky valley.
We continued on our aimless wanderings, following a path until an intersection, and then picking the next path based on what looked interesting to us. It felt like we saw the entirety of the village, which was surprisingly still lived in – and filled with guesthouses. We even found a really nice quiet place that we could have parked for the night at the top of the town, but it was of little use to us now.
Some of the paths were starting to become overgrown with pomegranate trees. Selling semi-frozen bottles of the juice seemed to be the mainstay of the middle-aged women in this town – which I could imagine in the heat of the summer months would come as sweet, sweet relief. Even today, we were parched and ready for a nice icy treat.
We attempted to visit the main section of the fortifications, however, it had been taped off, with what looked to be construction works underway. Risa had a quick look inside, but there didn’t seem to be anything to see – yet.
Our last site to see was the mosque. Up close, it seemed smaller than it did from afar. Stepping inside (after removing our shoes and making a small donation), it felt even smaller again. It was quite simple, with some carved details, but a mostly barren interior. The coloured panes of glass were about the most lavish thing inside. It’s not to say it wasn’t pretty, it was just much more austere than something like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – but that’s like comparing a small countryside church to St Peter’s in Vatican City! We later learnt that, unsurprisingly, this mosque was bombed during the fighting in the early 90s, which collapsed the dome. There were murals inside, however, they have yet to be restored.
We continued on our way towards Dubrovnik, with just a minor detour to stop by Stolac. We parked just outside of town, next to a partially bombed hotel/coach station. In the distance, there were the overgrown ruins of a solid fortification perched mid-way up a hill.
Like moths to a flame, we made our way up the steep loose path to hilltop fort. Surprisingly, it was completely open to public, with no tickets to purchase, or no signage about entering. Once inside, we were a little lost in the sprawling ruins. There wasn’t much to see, other than a few partially standing stone walls, that gave some indication about the buildings that were previously here. In a catch22, having a site like this just freely open also meant that there was no signage about any of the things that we were looking at. It was up to us to reconstruct and tell the story.
As we continued to walk along the main path that led through the site, we actually came across a snake, which I think was the first we’d seen on this trip! Considering how many we saw in Japan, and in Australia, I’d have thought we’d have seen a few more. Still, walking around this wild overgrown site, in a country whose language I don’t understand, wearing open sandals, I felt more than a little nervous with our exploration.
The trail eventually took us to the top of the site, which had great views of the town and the valley below.
We didn’t spend too much more time here before making our way into town. Much like Mostar, the buildings here were riddled with bullet holes. There was also a far larger percentage of buildings that had yet to be repaired, making it feel like it was hit much harder by the fighting – though I assume the economic climate here is a little different to the centre of Mostar, one of the main tourist attractions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As we walked through town, people were definitely watching us, tracking our movements with prolonged stares. The stares were somewhere between curiosity and confusion, and suspicion. They tracked us with blank faces, however, they would return a smile and look away if we smiled/waved at them first. We did run into a friendly old man while walking through town. At first, I treated him with caution, as though he was trying to sell something to us that we didn’t need, or some other trick/scam, as he was trying to give Risa a small bracelet. However, it became clear that he just likes to speak with foreigners, and this gift was just a gift for us to remember him by. It made me feel like an arsehole for assuming the worst. We’ve not had any problems on this trip, but after a few weeks in Turkey, with near constant scams and cons, we’ve had to learn to keep our guards up.
We continued walking through the town, following the small river upstream. We came across a pair of friendly dogs on our travels. We gave them a pat, and for that show of affection, they became our new travelling partners. We were a little worried for a while, because they wouldn’t leave our side now, and we regretted giving them attention. They would become distracted by dog things, and would go out of view, only to find us again moments later and walk along with us, staying a few paces ahead at all times, like they knew where tourists like us wanted to go.
Yesterday in Mostar, we’d seen interesting little brass/copper pots sold in the souvenir shops. Today we saw people drinking coffee out of them in the small outdoor cafes. We were curious, so stopped for a mid-afternoon treat. Neither of us were quite sure how to drink it, as it essentially seemed to be a pile of coffee grind floating on the top of hot water in this small urn, which could then be poured into espresso cups. We tried this, but ended with a mouth full of ground coffee. We were unsure if we were doing things wrong, or if this is just how they drink it here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Fuel was some of the cheapest we’d come across on this travel, and intriguingly, it appeared to be fixed, as all the shops had the exact same prices – €0.93/l for diesel. We were headed back into Croatia, so before we left, we made sure to make the most of this substantial saving!
We now made our way towards Dubrovnik in Croatia along what I thought was a major highway. On the map, the M6 looked substantial. In reality, it was slightly narrow for comfort when sharing this busy road with trucks, especially with the soft shoulder. I guess the lack of taxes on fuel means a lack of investment on infrastructure. Making things worse, the scenery was beautiful, so I spent significant time being distracted by what was around us. The views were gorgeous, with dramatic peaks and giant valley plains.
We also continued to pass through villages that don’t seem to have recovered from the wars, with ghost villages filled with empty, pock-marked and shelled buildings.
We had to cross those mountains to return into Croatia. The border crossing into Croatia was simple, passing straight through without issue. It was getting close to sun set, so we opted to wait for the morning to push on to Dubrovnik.