Roadtrip through Bosnia & Herzegovina

Yesterday, I set out from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina to start the first leg of my solo month in Europe. I decided to forego renting a car myself and doing a direct route, and instead joined a “transfer tour” – essentially a tour that takes you in one direction, luggage and all. I chose FunkyTours after reading their reviews online, and was incredibly satisfied and would recommend their trips to anyone in the region (I’m also using them to transfer from Sarajevo to Belgrade!).

They picked me up bright and early, and we set off along the gorgeous Croatian countryside for the Bosnian border. After a very quick border crossing, we were soon making our way into Bosnia’s gorgeous mountains. As we made our way, we all got to know each other: the crew included our guide, Alem, a 23-year-old who runs these tours by day and studies computer science by night; our driver (I sadly didn’t catch his name – edit 3/9/22, FunkyTours kindly let me know his name was Senad), who was a sweet man and a proud dad to an 8-year-old – he was also a bit of an Instagram aficionado and had photos to back up every anecdote about random spots of interest in Bosnia; and brother and sister Paul and Maeve from Ireland, who despite being middle-aged, ragged on each other like any siblings do. As we drove up to our first stop (coffee!), Alem shared some tidbits about life growing up in Bosnia, including that as a teenager, he and some friends had stumbled upon a pharmaceutical researcher out in the wilderness catching snakes for their venom. Always one to hustle (each snake was worth 50 Euros, which is a substantial amount here), he realized that he and his friends could get in on the snake-catching business and regaled us with tales of snake-catching (tools needed: your bare hands, and a backpack – apparently after a minute or two of being held off the ground, the snake “surrenders” and becomes docile; who knows if any of this was true, but it was good chatter).

Both he and the driver agreed that coffee was the first priority (and we passengers heartily agreed), so after driving directly through an operational quarry (Alem joked, “At this point, let me assure you this is not a kidnapping”), we pulled into our first stop: Hotel Station, a property that used to service the train route, before the railroad was destroyed in the Yugoslavian war. A small square and the hotel remain.

While we were enjoying the coffee, we continued to learn more about Bosnian culture. Alem had a great Tik Tok queued up, with a mock “Bosnian visa interview” that was a great tongue-in-cheek introduction:

  • Q: “What is Bosnia’s main export?” A: It’s young people! (Alem would share that apparently a lot of young Bosnians leave for Germany to work in software engineering or construction management, where they make 4x the salary they would living in Bosnia)
  • Q: “Where in Sarajevo are you most likely to get robbed?” A: “In the taxi from the airport” (Alem clarified later that this was in reference to the fares being too high, not the cabbie literally robbing passengers)
  • Q: “Who knows where you were last Saturday at 4:37am?” A: The town granny (both Alem and the driver started cracking up, as apparently every town has that lady who just knows everything about everyone’s comings and goings, no matter what hour)
  • Q: “Will you take this shot of Rakija?” A: The “interviewees” balk and mention that it’s 9am in this skit and immediately their visa is denied; the joke here is that there is no time too early for Bosnia’s beloved herbal liquor

Anyway, after the coffee, we continued northwards, passing by a number of farm communities with amazing roadside fruit and vegetable stands. I’ve never seen such large, beautiful watermelons or butternut squash before.

On the way, both Alem and our driver regaled us with information about the Balkans and former Yugoslavian countries, with some good-natured ragging on the countries bordering Bosnia. Amusing tales included:

  • Slight differences in culture: in Bosnian, the word “burek” refers specifically to “pie with meat” (burek are the rolled pastries we tried in Croatia and had had in Chicago too), versus in other parts of the Balkans, “burek” refers simply to “pie” of all nature; apparently during a soccer match between Bosnia and Montenegro, there was a heated moment when the Montenegrin contingent started shouting “burek with cheese” (no meat!) to antagonize the Bosnians
  • Slight differences in the language: apparently Croatia has attempted to “make itself special” and rename several common terms (there are slight differences in the former Yugoslavian countries’ languages, but they appear to be mutually intelligible otherwise); especially hilarious to Alem was Croatia renaming “tree” to “tall green thing” and “cevapi” to “shredded meat” (his logic: we understand the words tree and the words tall green thing or cevapi, why are you just describing things and making life needlessly complicated?)
  • Fun with exchange rates: “I love going to Serbia and converting my salary, I’m suddenly a millionaire! If you ever feel useless, just remember, dinars [Serbian currency] has coins… I’ve never seen one, but they apparently do exist”
  • At one point, Alem mentioned, “You just need to know, we Bosnians are very lazy!” and the driver retorted indignantly, “We’re not lazy, we’re relaxed! Montenegrins are lazy” (Alem later would illustrate this by saying, “If you don’t have a particular thing you’re walking for, why are you walking?”)

They also shared some amusing lore about Bosnia’s long history of invasion and occupation – over the years, Bosnia has had its own kingdom, and then has been at various points part of the Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslavian empires / governments. They shared an amusing story of how the Austro-Hungarians ended up acquiring Bosnia – apparently, the empire had sent a scout to determine if and how to invade the country. The scout had two poignant observations: first, that every home in Bosnia had both a sword and a gun on the walls, which everyone from children to elders appeared to know how to use; second, the scout had watched two Bosnian men sit and have coffee without speaking to one another, sitting at their table doing nothing but having the coffee for about four hours. At the end of the four hours, they stood up and said “nice doing this with you, let’s do it again sometime”, at which point the scout realized it might be overkill to invade such a laid back place. Thus, Austro-Hungary purchased Bosnia from the Ottomans.

Slightly thereafter, we arrived at our first destination: the Kravice waterfall. Out front were some converted tanks which now operate the Herzegovina safari tours. The waterfall itself was beautiful, although water levels are low and the number of tourists high – we ended up skipping the swimming.

Up next was the medieval village of Pocitelj, which is set up on top of a large hill. To get there, we passed through a couple towns with lovely 1960s and 70s architecture that clearly had suffered during the civil war.

As we approached the medieval village, our guide warned us that “now would be a good time to start praying”. We pulled into the parking lot at the base of the hill and all seemed fine – and then I realized we were backing up to turn around. Our eight passenger van then started making its way up the very steep, barely one-lane road that (apparently!) leads to the top of the mountain and allows easier entry to the sights. Of course, halfway up we ran into traffic – which led to that car now reversing itself up the mountain roads.

That being said, we safely and successfully made it to the top of the mountain, where we then had free reign to explore. Apparently the medieval village had been part of the Bosnian kingdom and then had been invaded by the Ottomans, who added a mosque and some of the architectural features. It is still currently occupied by ~100 residents, but unfortunately has been passed over by UNESCO for designation as a world heritage site.

Some of the architectural features of the medieval village were especially interesting, including the clay tablet roofs, the chimneys which use a vacuum to remove smoke, and “dividing lines” which show from the exterior how properties would have been separated between private spaces and those for guests.

The views from the top of the village were incredible.

The mosque was also lovely – it became the focal point of the town and all paths led to its base.

After exploring the village, we headed to the River Una for an “extra stop” since it’s especially beautiful – and it was! The riverbed was exposed due to the low water levels.

After that, we wound our way through the Bosnian countryside for quite a bit, making our next stop at the incredible Dervish House in Blagaj. Nestled right against a sheer cliffside (and apparently in the village that is now part of the Counterstrike videogame’s setting), the Dervish House was breathtaking. As the legend goes, the House members would take in pilgrims and visitors, only asking for “knowledge” in the form of books as payment. They believed that God would prevent rocks from falling from the cliff onto the house if they remained faithful and focused on learning. On the five occasions that they did try to accept money over the years, rocks would fall. Seemed like a pretty clear correlation!

Inside, the Dervish house has quite interesting architecture as well. Historically, many of these spaces would have been available for exclusive use by men, but now women are allowed as well (with heads and any exposed appendages covered).

Most of the rooms would have been utilized for prayer, reading, studying, and reflective individual meditation, especially during Muslim holidays such as Ramadan.

Much of the architecture included symbolic and religious imagery – outside, there were many signs with the word for “who” which would have been part of a prayer – the question is “who?” and the answer is always “Allah”. In the above far right photo, the cutout on the wall is in the shape of a Muslim coffin – a reminder that the deceased may not physically be present, but they remain in spirit and learnings.

After our time in the Dervish house, we stopped to refresh ourselves in the many flowing fountains (according to Alem, water bottles are a scam in Bosnia as nearly all freshwater is drinkable – save for a couple sources polluted during Yugoslavian times – and readily available via public fountains) and to eat lunch.

After lunch, we headed for the city of Mostar, which is a “must visit” in Bosnia according to all travel blogs. On the way, we began to transition from a happy historic tone to a heavier vibe focused on life during Yugoslavia. On the way to Mostar, we passed a disused airport accompanied by a very straight portion of highway (‘in case the airport was bombed, planes could land here!’) and a huge bunker in the side of the mountain (a protected plane hangar).

We also passed one of the few railways running after the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Mostar itself is still divided into “east” vs. “west” (based on which side of the bridge you’re on) and tensions exist – for example, some pro-Serbian-military (the group responsible for the genocide in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian civil war) graffiti was discovered right next to the genocide museum. Understandably, this had people very upset. Politics aside, the city was lovely.

Mostar is probably most known for its bridge, which towers above the river and connects the two sides.

As with all things in Bosnia, it was destroyed and rebuilt. Apparently the first build, back in the 16th century, was risky. The chief architect was unsure of how to build such a bridge without multiple curves, and decided to send his apprentice instead. The apprentice took ten years to plan and one year to build, telling his assistant that, if the bridge held up after the unveiling, to come and find him (he was going to hide in a village to avoid execution should failure occur). Apparently his fear wasn’t warranted – the bridge held for nearly 450 years! When it came time to rebuild the bridge, the modern architects examined the original plans and found a crucial mistake – rectifying it, they proceeded with their build and the bridge crumbled upon completion. When they added in the mistake included in the original plans, it held. The “mistake”: using blocks of different sizes which slightly overlapped one another, therefore creating the tension needed to keep the bridge’s shape.

There was also a smaller version of the bridge made. The lore here is that this was either a practice, or they just liked the way it looked and made a second one.

The views from the bridge are absolutely incredible as well.

The town is also nice to wander around, with a bazaar, many cafes, and of course, a variety of mosques, museums and other sights. I decided to duck in from the heat and try my first “Bosnian coffee” which is served in the Turkish style, with lots of grounds, sugar, and Turkish delight (this one, hiding behind the cup below, was a chewy sweet that basically tasted like sugar mixed with brown sugar that somehow had amalgamated into candy).

Sitting down, I quickly became friends with the cafe manager, who was tutting at an elderly man who had ordered two very large beers – apparently under the pretense he was with someone else. Ultimately he left and she commiserate about “customers these days” (from what I could tell) while serving me. I suspect she may be the woman in Mostar who happens to know everyone’s business!

Unfortunately we didn’t have a ton of time to explore as we were already eight hours into our “eight hour tour” (it ended up being closer to thirteen all in), but it was great to see a little bit more of this famous city.

Then, we proceeded to Sarajevo… with only three more stops! First, a quick leg stretch in the mountains, which were beautiful as sunset started to fall.

The second stop was for the Bridge at Neretva, which had the distinction on our tour of being destroyed and rebuilt not once, but twice. was originally destroyed when Tito ordered for its destruction in order to protect Yugoslavian partisans from Nazi invasion. Years later, Hollywood came calling and asked the town if it would be permissible to blow up the bridge again for a movie. Obviously, they said no. However, Hollywood then courted Tito directly, who apparently saw an opportunity to immortalize his great strategic decision making. He gave the ok, and the bridge was destroyed (and sadly stayed destroyed, as the village didn’t have funding to repair it again).

Then, we headed for our final, final stop (every hour or so we’d check in on the timing and another hour had been added to the itinerary – which honestly was fine because it was such a great tour!). We pulled into the lovely city of Konjic, which has another bridge of the same style of Mostar. As we arrived, the Muslim call to prayer began to echo out, which was the first (and only) time I’ve heard it thus far in Bosnia despite my guide assuring me that its commonplace in most of the country.

After this, we crossed through a major tunnel through a mountain and, finally, were in the Bosnia part of Bosnia and Herzegovina! Instantaneously, we could tell the weather was slightly different, as our guides had warned us. It was foggier, colder, and generally much more moist – which has remained true as Sarajevo has been relatively cool and wet all day.

There were a couple other interesting pieces of Bosnian history I checked up on during the tour, to tie up loose ends from our individual exploration:

  • Apparently, Trebinje (the Bosnian city where we stopped en route to Montenegro), is part of the Republika Srpska, or the Bosnian Serb Republic, which comprises one of two autonomous states within Bosnia (the other being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). There is also a large Croat population in Bosnia as well who attempt to act autonomously. Regardless, learning this formality explained our confusion when our waiter in Dubrovnik asked us where we’d been in Bosnia and seemed disappointed / confused when we mentioned Trebinje, as “that’s Serbian”.
  • I also asked about the Trebinje old town being so sterile – Alem didn’t seem to know much about it, but he suggested that it was partially new built from being razed during the war, and partially new build simply because they just prefer for things in the old town to look pristine.
  • When asked how different generations felt about Yugoslavia vs. modern times, it sounds like the population’s view is understandably mixed. Alem suggested that some folks preferred Yugoslavia because the passport was incredibly strong and you could “sleep on benches” (he later clarified that this meant it was safe to do so, as the police were on top of things and petty crime / theft was very uncommon, since we assumed this was actually a negative and pointed towards homelessness). On the flip side, it sounds like there were many people who were understanbly unhappy with Yugoslavia, especially in terms of being unable to speak freely about the government or to discuss religion.

Overall, a fantastic and very engaging (if tiring) day seeing a lot of Bosnia’s (really Herzegovina’s!) most beautiful destinations. Today, I’ve spent the day in Sarajevo (sadly, one day is not enough) and will be heading for Belgrade, Serbia tomorrow.

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