Bosnia & Herzegovina – Mostar to Sarajevo
We left the glistening Adriatic a few miles south of Split, Croatia and headed to the mountains and the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Although people tend to encompass the whole country under the name Bosnia, the southwest region near the Dalmation border is actually Herzegovina – and the locals will remind you if you forget it! The country’s political geography gets even more complicated with the north and east of the country allocated as Republika Srpska or RS (predominantly Bosnian Serbs), separated from the remaining Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the south and west (Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks). This was the “solution” that helped to put an end to the recent conflict in the 1990’s, though whether either side is satisfied is open to debate. Having said that, the locals seem happy enough to be getting on with life as usual.
Our first attempt at the border crossing north of Imotski was thwarted by the lack of a Green Card, despite our protests that our insurance provided cover. The (surprisingly) very friendly but strict border guard directed us to the larger crossing further south where we would be able to buy said Green Card and sent us on our way. A short while later at the next crossing, another friendly border guard let us through on the condition that we returned to show him our Green Card once purchased Here we encountered problem number two – currency with which to buy Green Card. The small insurance office there would only accept cash – Euros, Croatian Kuna or Bosnian marks. We had mistakenly assumed we could use a credit card or withdraw cash nearby, but there were no ATMs or currency exchange stalls anywhere near the border. So after a discussion with our border guard friend, we were allowed to drive the 20km or so round trip to the next town and the nearest ATM, again being trusted to return. So a good couple of hours after arriving at the border we were on our way through the region of Herzegovina.
It was immediately apparent on our arrival that BiH is the poor cousin of Croatia and Slovenia. The run down villages and towns still bare the scars of war with pockmarked buildings and derelict shells of former dwellings intermingling with residences still (just about) fit for purpose. Battered old VW’s and Lada’s line the streets, and front gardens double up as tyre fitter garages. Stalls selling cheap cevapi grills, and honey in old drinks bottles populate roadsides everywhere. All in all it makes for depressing reading if you focus only on the views. However, the people of the country more than make up for it.
After finding an open campsite in Blagaj, we spent the following morning wandering the cobbled streets of beautiful Mostar, famous for it’s Old Bridge (Stari Most). The bridge was ceremoniously destroyed in the 90’s conflict but has now been rebuilt exactly as it was, enabling the locals to once again dive into the great Neretva River below. When you see how high the bridge is and how fast the river can flow it commands respect for the divers I’m sure! Later that afternoon we stopped near Konjic at a small campsite by the river, greeted with smiles. Griff tried fishing (again) but thunder rolled in; the rubbish strewn in the rivers put us off eating anything he might have caught anyway! It is a beautiful country but poverty has provided an excuse for fly-tipping into the rivers and down the sides of mountains everywhere.
We left the trailer at the campsite the following day to trundle up into the mountains in search of Lukomir, Bosnia’s last remaining traditional village, relatively untouched by modern ways of life. But as we ascended up the mountain, the snow cover increased until it was impossible to go any further. At this point, a door opened on a little farmhouse and an elderly farmer, Duran, came running down, frantically waving at us inviting us in. We sat with him for a good couple of hours drinking traditional Turkish coffee and eating his home-produced cured lamb, learning about each other using sign language as none of us spoke the other’s language. He told us we were the first visitors to come up to his village since August, and he was really happy to see us! His house was simple and cosy, and he was so hospitable, something that we soon realised was second nature to Bosnians.
After Mostar, we followed the road to the capital, Sarajevo, famous for all the wrong reasons. It is obviously one of the richer cities in the country as it has been able to repair a lot of the damage from the 3 ½ -year siege it suffered in the 90’s. The people on the outskirts are still struggling, however, reflected by the number of women begging with their children in the centre. The Turkish quarter was the main stop for us followed by a look at the Latin Bridge (from where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, prompting WWI – it has a colourful history does Sarajevo!).
We also spent some time in the History Museum, which covered the history of Bosnia in general but focused on the recent conflict with shocking reality. It also emphasised the defiance of Sarajevo’s residents, determined to carry on with life as normal. Tough people, the Bosnians. We missed out on a visit to the Tunnel built by Sarajevo citizens under the airport as a secret link to the outside world, but after the History Museum, I felt emotionally drained. BiH was affecting me more than any country I’ve visited before – it provokes feelings of extreme sorrow and swelling pride in equal measures. For the same reason we passed on a visit to Srebinica; the thousands of headstones and memorials with similar dates on hillsides throughout the country were enough to prevent us ever forgetting.
Up until this point we had been in the Federation of BiH, where the use of the Latin alphabet was dominant. From now on towards Serbia, we were in RS and land of the Cyrillic alphabet. Thank goodness for the Russian lessons we’d taken! But it was not only the alphabet that was different. Although the people were still friendly enough, the smiles were not as forthcoming, and stares lingered longer. Until this point, the people we met seemed genuinely pleased to meet visitors, ready to start showing off their country, even the officials were chirpy. Now there was an indifference towards visitors, almost suspicion. This was emphasised with our first unnecessary police encounter of the trip. After one night in Visegrad we decided we would head to the Serbian border as soon as possible, and see if things improved on the other side.