Bosnia: instantly one of my favorite places I’ve ever been

While I “only” made it to Mostar and the surrounding area (a detour to Montenegro got in the way of coming back to Bosnia for Sarajevo and more), I cannot say enough about Bosnia and Herzegovina. I ended up extending my stay by a night, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my trip. If you didn’t have Bosnia and the Balkans on your radar, add it. Now. 

I get in to Mostar late afternoon, the first place I’ve showed up without a reservation for somewhere to sleep. I ring the bell at the Hostel Majdas, which had great reviews online and which I’d luckily starred on my map. I’m ushered into the courtyard by a young woman who sits me down at one of the picnic tables, hands me some colored markers and some fresh cake, and asks me to create a colorful nametag for myself while she goes off to make me hot tea. Living the life much?

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Once checked in, I browse some of the travel books on Montenegro and Bosnia she had on a bookshelf and get ready to go explore the famous Stari Most bridge. Built in the 16th-century, it was destroyed by Croat bombing in 1993 and then rebuilt from the original stones in 2004. On the way out, I come across an Australian girl curled up on the couch drinking tea, chatting with a Dutch guy with long hair. It turns out the Dutch guy is traveling for 2+ years, and is only planning to stop when he runs out of money. In the end, the Australian girl ends up joining me in wandering around the town.

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The main street of the city (from what I can tell) is much more lively than I expected. Kebab shops and little cafes line a cobblestone street, and you eventually get into a really cobblestoned street just before the bridge (which, by the way, is really hard to walk across since it’s so steep and the stones are so slippery). There are actually elevated stones across the whole thing to keep you from slipping too far. It’s nice to see the bridge at night and see all the mosques lit up across the city, dotting the darkness. Mostar has 26 mosques today – all destroyed during the fighting but now rebuilt.

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On the way back, we stop in to pick up some cevapi – basically beef and lamb grilled meat sausages served with onions and pita and ajvar (red pepper paste). For 5 euro total, we get a massive plate of it and bring it back to the hostel to eat outside. On the way out, a table of 2 middle-aged women and men stop us to ask where we were from. Sadly, I’ve realized my instant reaction is to want to say “American” and expect jokes or semi-insults. Instead, one of the women lights up and talks our ears off (in a great way) about how her family now lives in New Jersey and how excited she is that we’re visiting, and offers help with any part of the rest of our trip. It’s the first time I can really remember in traveling that someone was so excited to hear from an American and so welcoming and surprised about my own time in their country.

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Back at the hostel, a huge group had just gotten back from a tour organized by the hostel, raving about everything they saw. Again, the beauty of traveling without plans: I decide on a whim to stay an extra night and go on the tour the next day. “It’s just too worth it,” they keep repeating.

So the next day, just like that, after an amazing courtyard breakfast of fried zucchini on toast made by Majda herself, the group of us (including the Dutch guy and the Australian girl) pile into Bata’s van and head outside the city.

Before that, though, I stop by the Sniper’s Tower in Mostar, an old bank that was used by snipers and professional killers in the Bosnian War to terrorize the Bosnian part of the city. While I don’t climb up to the top because I’m short on time, it’s an eery place to be even on the ground floor. There’s politically-related street art all over, hanging TV boxes left over, and main stairwells still intact, but missing all railings. On the top floor, you can still find leftover bullet casings, an eery reminder of times past. The building was chosen because it’s one of the tallest in the city and easily separates the city. Hearing our guide later that day tell us all about how his best friends from school became enemies overnight, shooting down from the roof of this building to try to kill him just for being from a Muslim family, gives you chills. The city itself is very much divided, but not by the media-propagated line of the river. Instead, it’s where this sniper tower lies and then beyond. To this day, every year the government from Sarajevo (mostly made up of Croats) decides which buildings in Mostar to renovate. Yet, every year, it’s the buildings where the Serbs and Croats live that are redone, and the Muslim area is left in complete disrepair. Buildings are bombed out, rubble left, and gunshots left on walls. 

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Our tour guide later takes us by some buildings and leaves us with one piece of advice: “in Mostar, appearances can be deceiving.” One building which looks very intact, he explains, is actually nothing but concrete inside. It’s all an illusion. Next door, a building which used to house indoor baths has been rebuilt through funding from Italy. The only indoor swimming pool for all of Mostar, a city of 113,000 people? A 12 x 8 meters pool. People now wait 2 months on a waiting list to get 30 minutes of wading in a kiddie pool.

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We pull around a corner, and he shows us the patio of a grand hotel where he remembers eating ice cream and watching live music every week as a treat. The whole building is now completely bombed out and left that way, next door to Tito’s old villa, also in ruins. On the other side of the plaza, a bank sits almost inside a mosque. The bank, our guide explains, continues to take advantage of citizens. Entering? You pay. Exiting? You pay. Across the way, the Bristol Hotel looks perfectly intact and shining, just across the river. We also drive by a completely destroyed building with beautiful carvings somehow still intact. This building used to be the biggest shopping mall, where our guide remembers coming as a kid.

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Tito’s old villa – today, in ruins

 

It’s haunting to see so many buildings, those of a fully functioning city, and so familiar to anyone, completely destroyed- and during my lifetime. To imagine that this city would have looked much like any other just over 20 years ago, and that now, Bosnia is mostly associated with war and destruction and fighting, at least in the U.S. Our guide is overwhelmingly upbeat during this part of the tour in the city, and it just goes to show the mentality of so many people here who were left with so little: positivity overcomes anything. How else can you live with seeing your own city gone, your friends turn on you, and your home a new place in the world?

 

During the tour, our guide explains just some of the situation still going on in Bosnia today. He questions our views on Bosnia and on the terms we’d heard. “Bosniak,” for example, is a term that can be seen as segregating. In every election, a Bosnian citizen has to fill out “Serb, Croat, or Bosniak,” making the assumption that a Bosniak is a Muslim. Bosnian citizens have almost been forced to identify in ways they never had to before the war.

Education is now the biggest war going on in the country. Muslim and Croat students still attend school separately – one group in the morning, one in the afternoon. Having come from working at an education group that specifically focused on integrated education, this is mind-blowing to me, and does represent scary signs for the future. We keep coming across a symbol of a cross inside a U shape – representing old Croat fighters, all drawn by school kids. Eery. Soccer clubs are still separated between Muslims and Croats, and only Croat kids play in the glamorous soccer stadium. All kids at university must learn in Croat, so that some kids feel like strangers in their own home. At one point, we pass a huge hill with a cross on top. Seemingly innocent, it’s actually where Serb soldiers rolled tires filled with ammunition down the hill onto Muslim homes. To imagine living through this, or that people who lived together could get to this point and destroy their own city just brings horror to my mind. At one point, he said that the UN and the world gave Bosnians one of the worst things you can give someone during war: “hope.”

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After our emotional crash course in Bosnian history, Bata lightens the mood by taking us far out of the city. Windows open, the car is silent as we stare out the windows and think about everything he’s just told us.

He takes us out to Kravice Falls, where we sit down to a huge plate of cevapi, fries, tomato salad, and then go swimming in the cold, green, iridescent water. It makes for a great early afternoon, an almost perfect oasis moment in the hustle and bustle of traveling. 

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Next, we head to Pocitelj, an old medieval city and fortified complex built by Bosnia’s King in 1383. It’s so interesting to see both the Ottoman and Medieval architecture, and to see people still walking around who have moved back since the war (mostly older generations). In 1996, it was actually named one of the world’s 100 most endangered cultural sites, and in 2000, a program was put in place to try to restore it as it was and protect any further deterioration. You can learn some more about it here.

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This place seems more magical with each step through the small alleyways, but really blows my mind when we round the corner to overlook the view over the river. Definitely worth checking out, and some gorgeous views from there. We get to sit on an old wall overlooking the complex, and it’s one of those moments I feel so happy to be here on this trip doing this. On our walk we come across a woman and her son putting together bags of walnuts, and she hands us all some fresh ones to crack with a rock and eat right there.

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image (53)We walk in to an older woman’s house as part of the tour, and she serves us her homemade syrups (the mint one was by far the best), and plates and plates of dried figs and apricots, biscuits, fresh fruit, and baklava. When we’re finally done, she carefully brings out a tray of glassware and demonstrates how to pour proper Bosnian coffee.

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Our last stop is the Dervish Monastery, Blagaj Tekke, which is gorgeously carved into the rock right above a babbling river. A cave sits right next to it, its mouth and only opening just above the water. Apparently this cave goes so deep that an auditorium-like opening way far back mysteriously gets light from a tiny hole near where we were standing, inspiring 2 explorers to come investigate this strange happening a few years ago. I really hoped to stay an extra day to come back in daylight and go back into the cave by boat, but I guess that will have to be for another trip.

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The Dervish Monastery at night

 

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Photo Credit: Adrift Anywhere

 

In fact, after checking out Susan from Adrift Anywhere’s post on the monastery, I now want to come back more than ever to go inside and explore the area more. The place itself is seriously beautiful, so I can only imagine the inside as well.

We all leave massively full and happy, and Bata drives us back, bouncing and squeezing through narrow alleyways in his jumpy white van. Back at the hostel, Majda had made us all homemade vegetable soup, and the Australians make sure everyone is well taken care of with hot tea.

Soon everyone heads off to sleep, leaving only me and the Australian girl in the living room, making plans for the next few days. I sketch out all my bus times and schedules for getting to Sarajevo in the morning and then to a national park in Montenegro and back up to Belgrade. Just before closing up, though, I check the weather and realize the one day I had planned for my hike shows a 70% chance of rain. At 1am, one whole new written down set of schedules later, I end up booking a bus from Montenegro the next morning – a stupid move, I realize the next morning.

Printing the ticket, like many things here, is required. Luckily Bosnians are some of the nicest people I’ve met, and the bus driver reassures me over and over “it’s ok, it’s ok” and walks me all the way over to a printing place to get my ticket arranged. I cannot get over how nice and accommodating people are, and how much they go out of their way to help.

Being in Bosnia is both inspiring and haunting at the same time, at least in Mostar. It’s a place where history almost stays at a standstill – where many buildings remain in the exact same state as they were just after the war. And the people I’ve met reflect that in some ways as well. Most people escaped, smuggled out of their homes to safety in foreign countries, where they stayed for 15-20 years before coming back recently. And it made me think of places like Syria, where refugees are currently leaving, and may come back to a place void of any infrastructure, as happened in Bosnia. But it remains one of the most fascinating places I’ve visited – even being around people who have been through so much but yet stay more positive than most, and more welcoming. At the bus station as I was leaving, after the bus driver went out of his way to get my ticket printed, another man pointed at my bag and my back. Confused, he reached downwards and handed me a 10 euro bill that was about to fall out of my pocket. And that’s just the kind of place this is. I can’t wait to come back.

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Leaving Bosnia...

Leaving Bosnia…

 

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