Bosnia & Herzegovina: an unexpected surprise!
I'd never really heard much about Bosnia & Herzegovina. Before I visited the country, I was only vaguely aware of some historical facts about the area. The main unfortunate theme of the stories I was acquainted with was the very mediatised conflicts that had plagued the country in the 1990's, and the region as a whole in the early 2000's.
Even on social media and tourism networks, I had never seen or learnt much about Bosnia & Herzegovina. The destination seems shunned by the modern traveller, and remains off the beaten path...
My curiosity was piqued when I started planning a road-trip itinerary though the Balkans. I was studying the map, and reading up about the region when I wondered why I did not know anything about this relatively big country in the middle of Europe! And let me tell you, visiting Bosnia & Herzegovina was the most unexpected surprise. In a lifetime of travels around Europe, never have I been to such a stimulating and diverse place.
Firstly, a little bit about the country!
Bosnia & Herzegovina is located in Southern Europe, and shares its borders with three countries: Croatia to its north and southwest, Serbia to its east and Montenegro to its southeast. The country's name references its two main regions: northern Bosnia, the largest of the two, and to the south, Herzegovina.
The country's landscape is varied with mountainous regions, forested areas, rivers and even a small 20km stretch of coastline opening up into the Adriatic Sea. With so much nature, this is a great place for activities such as skiing, hiking or kayaking! There is also abundant wildlife such as wolves, foxes and bears which also makes for some great sustainable tourism opportunities.
Agriculture is an important part of the country's economy, with about a third of its lands being used for farming or similar purposes. Many types of fruits and vegetables are grown here, and there is also a lot of livestock. During our time there, we drove through picturesque green hills, farmlands and pastures.
Bosnia & Herzegovina is made up of a few ethnic groups, with the majorities being Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. All three share a similar heritage, descending from South Slav tribes.
The language spoken in the country shows some differences depending on the ethnic group that speaks it, in terms of pronunciation, their use of the vocabulary or even the alphabet. For example, the Serbs preference the Cyrillic alphabet whereas the Bosniaks and Croats use the Latin alphabet. These differences were explained to me as being similar to the differences one can hear between British English and American English or Mexican Spanish and Peninsular Spanish.
Religious beliefs and affiliations are diverse. The majority of people adhere to the Muslim religion, while Christian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are also among the main religions people identify with. The towns we visited usually had multiple religious edifices such as churches and mosques and I thoroughly enjoyed being amongst these vibrant cultural communities.
Historically, and in brief, Bosnia & Herzegovina was ruled by the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century when it came to be under Austrio-Hungarian rule. After WWII, it became a part of former Yugoslavia, until 1991 and the collapse of communism. Following the Declaration of Independence for nearby Slovenia and Croatia, the multi-ethnic area of Bosnia & Herzegovina sought to follow suit, but in 1992, war broke out amidst ethnic conflicts. This was stopped in 1995 by the intervention of the UN with the signature of the Dayton Peace Accords.
Today, Bosnia & Herzegovina remains a fractured state. On a very informative walking tour around the city of Mostar (which we highly recommend!), we learnt (among many other things) that the country does not have one but three presidents; each representing one of the three main ethnic groups e.g., Bosniak, Serb and Croat. They each serve on 8-months rotating rosters. As one can imagine, this makes decisions difficult to implement!
But that's not all; this separation runs deeper. Our guide explained that there is a lot of distrust and hatred between ethnic groups, to the point where many do not mix in daily life. For example, the city of Mostar is roughly separated in two distinct areas: one where Croats live, and the other where Bosniaks live. Even at school the curriculum is taught differently according to the children's ethnicity.
As a traveller and a foreigner, I only wish to learn and I am not here to pass judgement. I could not begin to imagine, let alone understand what the people of this country have been and are still going through. However, what I can say is this: Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very beautiful, exciting and safe (in my experience) country to visit, and I encourage every curious traveller to come here and explore.
Let me show you some of the highlights of our trip here!
There are two reasons why I chose to incorporate the city of Mostar into our itinerary: the first one was for the ease of access on our route, and the second and most important one was because for the city's rich culture and history.
We stayed in a popular neighbourhood, within easy walking distance of the old medieval centre, and felt very safe. The city is layered with its outskirts composed mainly of former Yugoslavian era tall concrete buildings, but as we walked closer to the old centre, there was a distinctive shift. The concrete jungle morphed into older-looking buildings (some which were built during the Austro-Hungarian time) and then finally, the old medieval town with its cobble-stones and Ottoman era architecture.
I was not at all expecting to walk through streets that looked like Middle-Eastern style bazaars! This was a complete change of scenery, and absolutely wonderful! The streets were filled with small shops selling handmade goods such as copper plates and jewellery (some of which are still made using a hammer and chisel!), mosaic lamps, tea sets, shawls...etc.!
The medieval town is listed as UNESCO World Heritage, for its cultural and historical significance, having been created under Ottoman rule in the 15th century. As is the bridge, or Stari Most, the main attraction of the city. The latter was an incredible technological achievement at the time of its construction. Today, it is largely associated with the romantic notion that it connects the city's people, and is a symbol of unity.
Around lunch time, the smell of sizzling meats waft through the streets. We were jokingly told that Bosnia & Herzegovina is not the most vegetarian friendly country in the world since their cuisine is quite meat-heavy! We found a restaurant serving local cuisine with a great view of the bridge called Restoran Lagero. This was easily one of the best meals we had, and definitely the best service!
In the afternoon, we went on the walking tour I mentioned earlier, and learnt a lot about the city and the country. One really interesting fact about the city is the local tradition whereby men dive off the bridge. This started off as a means to impress women, and with the rise of tourism, this is also now a way to impress visitors! There is a dive club on the side of the bridge which effectively oversees the activity, but the easiest way for tourists to see a diver do their thing is by going up to the cafe above the bridge in the morning and tipping a diver (we were told the price of a coffee is usually reasonable). This is a local custom and a tradition locals are proud of! For us visitors, this is quite an impressive feat and a unique experience!
From Mostar, the little town of Počitelj is about 30mn away. Its well-preserved monuments and cultural significance are almost comparable to the city of Mostar. Počitelj is a mirror to past Ottoman urban life, and is very pretty to visit, especially since efforts have been undertaken to restore many of the buildings and monuments which suffered through the war.
The village is really small, and we found we'd seen everything we'd wanted to see in a couple of hours. Restaurants and cafes are at the bottom while the main sights are further up town. There are plenty of small stone houses which seemed abandoned, but the walk through the streets felt like walking back in time.
We walked up to a viewing platform, which gave us a beautiful snapshot of the town below. The other worthwhile viewpoint is the old fortress at the other end of the town. We were first up there and enjoyed the views before the crowds arrived.
Visiting the mosque is also a highlight. It was mostly rebuilt after the war, and is now a very welcoming space with a plush deep-red carpet, lovely stained glass, and displays of the Koran.
Our last destination in Bosnia & Herzegovina was the gorgeous Kravica Waterfall: a 28 metre long and 120 metre wide waterfall. This is a very popular picnic and swimming spot, for locals and visitors alike, especially in the summer months.
Getting there is straightforward, and the falls are only a 10-15mn walk down from the parking lot. At the falls, there were a few bars, and kayaks were also available for hire.
In April, it was quite warm but the water temperature was still too fresh to swim (at least for us!). However, the beauty of the waterfalls and the tranquility of the spot as worth the stop, even in shoulder or off season!
A practical word about travelling in BiH
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a part of the European Union, which means it is not included in the Schengen Area. Crossing borders is therefore met with passport controls. If you are on a road-trip and coming from a neighbouring country, make sure to cross at an open border control! (Take the advice from people who used Google Maps on "avoid tolls" and ended up in a country road with a closed gate in front of them and had to retrace their steps to find an alternative route!!)
Similarly, Bosnia & Herzegovina is not in the Eurozone. The local currency is the convertible mark. In saying that, we found that most places happily took euros and we never ended up having to withdraw the local currency. It is also super important to note that most transactions are made in cash - if you don't have some on you make sure to ask if card is accepted to avoid awkward situations, especially in cafes and restaurants (Yep, this also happened to us...!).
As a result of its tumultuous history, complex governance, and difficult economical situation (BiH is one of the poorest countries in Europe), infrastructure is not always in good shape. I mostly refer to the quality of the roads, which was often full of potholes and not very well maintained.
On the flip-side, this was the most budget-friendly destination we have had the privilege to visit so far this year. We've stopped in small towns and had two coffees for 1€50 total, or enjoyed huge breakfasts for 3€ each!
We've also met some of the friendliest people during our time here: from very attentive waiters to super hospitable hosts and kind guides. Bosnia & Herzegovina not only impressed us with its multi-cultural treasure trove, but has left a mark through its people's genuine interactions.
I can't speak of my experience here highly enough, and I think this amazing destination should find its way to more travellers' top places to discover.