Bosnia: The Bold and The Balkans

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I had never even thought to go to Bosnia, in fact I didn’t know anything about the place apart from the fact it had been involved in a war sometime in the not too distant past. I have to thank Bec for suggesting that we go there because it was one of the most incredible places I have been – such an eye opener!

The first town we went to was Mostar, where we stayed at Hostel Nina. Nina’s mother (I’m sorry I’ve forgotten your name) picked us up from the bus station and drove us back to the hostel which was really lovely. Even during the drive back to the hostel I was absolutely gob-smacked, so many of the buildings were damaged beyond repair from the conflict in the 1990s and there were bullet holes everywhere. Nina’s mother would point to a mostly destroyed building and offhandedly say something like ‘that used to be a shopping centre’. At one point we were sitting at traffic lights when she told us the intersection was the frontline during the war. I just couldn’t believe how apparent the war still was and was saddened to think that the locals would have to walk past these reminders everyday.

One of the derelict buildings damaged during the war

Bulletholes cover the front of many of the buildings in the centre of town

This beautiful building was completely razed inside

To give you a bit of background, pretty much the whole town of Mostar was destroyed during the war in 1992-1995 after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence from Yugoslavia and was subjected to an 18 month siege. Many of the the towns ancient monuments were destroyed when the Yugoslav People’s Army bombed the area, and most devastatingly the symbol of the town, the Old Bridge, was demolished.

After checking in to the hostel we went out to explore the gorgeous town of Mostar, named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge). The Old Bridge, which was first built in the 16th century, is the most recognisable landmark in the town and much of the history of the area surrounds this amazing structure. You can tell why it is so important to the town because it is absolutely remarkable in it’s design and beauty. It is a perfect archway over the gorgeous Neretva river which runs through the town. Apparently it was commissioned to be built by a guy called Suleiman the Magnificent who was said to be pretty terrifying. When the scaffolding was ready to be taken away from bridge on completion many of the workers abandoned the town because they believed it would fall into the river and the architect also prepared himself for death. So when it didn’t fall down the remaining workers were so happy they dove off the bridge into the water 25 meters below. This is where the tradition of bridge diving started in Mostar and it is still a proud tradition today, with father’s passing the skill onto their sons throughout the generations.

Mostar

Stari Most (Old Bridge)

On the bridge

The view from the bridge

Our guide Zica used to be a bridge diver  and said that while there used to be a bridge diver in every family, now there are only 20-25 in the whole town and only five of them dare to dive head first off the bridge.  The divers have tattoos to show that they are one of those who are brave enough to take the plunge, but these days diving is more of a way to earn some cash from tourists than as a tradition. It is obvious from the way Zica talks about the bridge that it is a very important part of the towns history and culture. As I said, it was deliberately attacked during the war and was destroyed after 60 shells were fired at it. This must have been a huge blow to the people of Mostar and such a terrible shame as it was classified as one of the greatest architectural works of its time. After the war a reconstruction project commenced and the bridge was completed in 2004 and is now World Heritage Listed.

Several mosques also remain within the Old City which were built during the Ottoman reign and there are also some striking buildings from the Austro-Hungarian period. We visited the Karadoz-bey Mosque which is the most important monumental work of Islamic sacred architecture from the 16th century. We also wandered the cobbled street of the Old Town and browsed through the shops which had some stunning jewellery and textiles. Bec and I both bought some gorgeous earrings and pashminas which were ridiculously cheap. Zica told us that the economy in Mostar and Bosnia in general is really struggling with a huge percentage of people unemployed so tourism is really important for bringing money into the town (something I was only too happy to support!). I was particularly happy to spend my money on the delicious food that Bosnia has on offer. Almost all of their dishes are made with meat and are extremely hearty (and absolutely divine!) We tried dolma (stuffed grape leaves with rice), japrak (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice), cevapi (Bosnian kebabs: small grilled meat sausages made of lamb and beef mix; served with onions, sour cream, ajvar and Bosnian pita bread) and many other exquisite morsels. Oh, and of course baklava! Oh my god, it was to die for! Baklava and a rakija (Balkan liqueur) was a daily neccessity.

Karadoz-bey Mosque

A mix of Bosnian delicacies

Baklava!

I always recommend Mostar to everyone because it is such a beautiful town with such an amazing history. I also recommend Hostel Nina. Nina and her mother were so friendly and kind. They also organised a tour of the surrounding area for us with Nina’s husband Zica who was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, his stories were just incredible. Zica was injured two times during the war. The first time he was hit by grenade shrapnel and spent a month in a temporary hospital and the second time he was shot by a sniper. During the siege Zica hid in his parents basement and during the night he would go out to find food and drinkable water.

Zica also took us on a tour of the surrounding area. We first stopped at a traditional burek restaurant where they make the delicious Bosnian pastry. It can be made with cheese and spinach but the one we had was lamb. It was a bit heavy for breakfast, but extremely scrumptious!

Lamb burek

The tour went to some of the areas nearby Mostar and was extremely interesting. Zica tells some amazing stories about the different places you visit and the countryside is very beautiful. First we stopped at the town of Blagaj where the Blagaj Tekke, a spectacular Ottoman guesthouse, has been built against a cliff from which the source of the Buna river flows, apparently it is the finest example of an underground karst river. The water from the river at this spot was said to have magical properties, so of course Bec and I took a sip.

Blagaj Tekke

We then travelled to Pocitelj, a unique UNESCO heritage site on the bank of the Neretva which was once an important administrative centre during the Middle Ages. The fortified town is one of the best preserved settlements from ancient times (1400s) and features an incredibly well maintained clock-tower, mosque, and citadel. Despite the town being severely damaged during the Bosnian war, some inhabitants remain within the town, living in the gorgeous stone houses that exist inside the fortified walls.

Overlooking Pocitelj

The view from the citadel

Looking out from the citadel

The Pocitelj mosque

Next up was a visit to Kravice waterfalls which had a beautiful swimming hole – would have been brilliant during summer.

Bec and I at Kravice waterfalls. If only it was 20 degrees warmer!

And lastly we stopped at Medjugorje, what was once a small village that has now become a site visited by millions of faithful Catholics from all over the world thanks to a group of teenagers who claim  the Virgin Mary appeared before them in the hills near the town in 1981. They’ve had to build rows upon row of seats and confessionals outside the church to host the huge crowds that descend on the town and you can pick up tacky religious souvenirs in the multitude of shops that now exist on the main street. Not my favourite place in the world to say the least.

Confessional after confessional. Confess your sins in any language.

 The seats outside the church where massive masses can be held.

Sarajevo

To me, Sarajevo appeared to be a pretty cold, harsh city. After learning more about the history of the city and the horrors that the residents faced during the 1990s conflict I came to understand why. What I wasn’t expecting was the warmth of the people who live there now and their generosity towards strangers.

Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina and has been struggling to rebuild its economy since the 1990s. Despite my first impression of the city I soon realised that there was some spectacular architecture, both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, that gives the city an ageless beauty. Unfortunately you can still see the scars left behind by the war; buildings pockmarked by bulletholes, piles of rubble and holes in the footpath. These holes are often painted red and are called ‘Sarajevo Roses’, signifying where somebody was shot down during the conflict, usually by a Serbian sniper from the surrounding hills.

A ‘Sarajevo Rose’. One of the places someone was killed during the 1990s conflict.

Bec and I did a walking tour which I highly recommend. The guide was extremely informative and took us to some of the more important places that had special significance during the war and also showed us the historical buildings within the city. Another interesting place we visited was the place where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, triggering the start of World War 1.

Roman Catholic Cathedral of Jesus’ Heart

Mosque near the Old Town

The Latin Bridge. The corner where Frans Ferdinand was assassinated. 

The Old Town is like a huge bizarre with selllers bargaining with tourists for jewellery, clothes and copper products and I found it was possible to wander the cobbelestoned streets for hours.

Street in the Old Town

As I said, the locals were some of the warmest people I’ve come across. At one point, Bec and I were at a cute little restaurant for dinner (as usual the food was amazing) and after finishing our meals a bottle of wine and two desserts arrived without us ordering them. We were told that a group of older people sitting at the back of the restaurant had sent them to us as a kind of welcome and thank you for coming, I was shocked by the generosity, but as I said previously, Bosnians are extremely thankful to tourists because their economy relies heavily upon us. Just in case you were wondering, the dessert was amazing! Of course!

I’d love to hear if anyone else out there had never considered Bosnia as a place to visit. I hope I’ve changed your mind 🙂

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The Croatian Coast – Pula, Split, Hvar, Dubrovnik

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Our first stop in Croatia was a small town called Pula in the Istria County in northern Croatia. Despite the fact that it is a short distance from Piran in Slovenia, it was an epic journey trying to get from one place to the next due to a lack of transport options in the low season. So after a bus ride, two train trips and another bus ride we finally arrived in Pula. A 100km journey that should take 1.5 hours by car ended up taking us an entire day!

We stayed in a great hostel called Riva Hostel, the guy who ran it (sorry I can’t remember your name) was absolutely lovely and gave us lots of advice on the things to do and see around the town. The town has some amazing Roman buildings that are in excellent condition. The most impressive is the Amphitheatre which is incredibly well preserved and looks like a smaller, but more complete, version of the Colusseum in Rome (not that I’ve been there, but I’ve seen pictures). Other remarkable structures include the the Arch of the Sergii and Temple of Rome and Augustus built on the main forum in the town.

Pula Amphitheatre

Bec and I fighting like gladiators (it looks like I’m winning!)

Arch of the Sergii

Temple of Rome and Augustus

We also did a walk from the north of the town all the way along the coastline to the south which was extremely pretty. Just make sure you take a map if you decide to do something similar while there. At one stage we found ourselves wandering through random farmlands as it was impossible to follow the coastline at that particular point.

Next up was the gorgeous town of Split on the Dalmatian Coast. Bec and I had been considering trying out Couch Surfing and we contacted a guy called Mladen who kindly let us stay at his house for two evenings and gave us some local advice to help us enjoy Split.

The Old City of Split is within the walls of what was once Diocletian’s Palace which was built in 305 AD. We spent a lot of our time there wandering around the shops inside the palace walls and enjoying the sunshine at the lovely cafes on the promenade overlooking the port. There is also an abundance of great bars and restaurants that give the city a great atmosphere during the evenings. We moved into a hostel in town so we could take advantage of the nightlife and went out with a group of people for one of the guys birthdays. The evening festivities included drinking the traditional Croatian liqueur Rakija in multiple flavours and not so traditional swing dancing at a local club. It was an interesting evening!

Inside the palace walls

The view from the promenade

Out on the town in Split. Good times!

After a couple of days in Split we decided to take a day trip on a ferry out to the island of Hvar. If I was there during peak season I would’ve loved to spend a few days on Hvar, however during winter most of the attractions are closed and the hostels are shut down. However, it was still absolutely gorgeous. We did a walk along the coastline and the climbed up to the fortress on the hill that has spectacular views overlooking the town of Hvar and the port. Luckily a few of the restaurants were still open in the town so we enjoyed a delicious meal to feed our appetite after all the walking.

Testing the water (it was bloody cold!) 

The narrow streets leading to the top of the town

The view from the top

Enjoying some delicious Hvar cuisine

The next town we visited as part of our Croatian odyssey was Dubrovnik. This very popular tourist destination is an incredible walled city with a beautiful coastline. We stayed in a part of town away from the main city and just caught a bus in to visit the Old Town. On the first evening we explored the area where we were staying, once again strolling along the coast and enjoying a vino as the sunset.

We spent a day wandering around the Old Town, including walking the wall which encloses the city. The cobblestone streets of the city appear as though they still belong to ancient times and we spent ages getting lost amongst the winding streets and stumbling across open squares with shops and bars. I think usually these streets would be crowded with people but at this time of year we almost had the place to ourselves. The weather was stunning and we even managed to work up a bit of a sweat while wandering around the walls of the city and had to have an ice-cream to cool down.

The main entrance to the city

Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik

The Roland Statue

Winding back streets

Views from the city wall

Strangest basketball court I’ve ever seen!

Adriatic sunset

Whilst the city was absolutely stunning, the history of Dubrovnik is what amazed me most. After declaring independence in 1991 from Yugoslavia the city was attacked by the Serbian-Montenegrin army and the siege lasted seven months. In that time, over 50% of the town was damaged (luckily it has now been restored in its original style). We visited a photography exhibition that showed the before and after photos of the siege and it was just devastating to see. What amazes me is how recently it happened, some of the buildings are still being repaired and a huge percentage of the population remember clearly what it was like to be living in the city during those times.

Croatia is an absolutely spectacular country with one of the most gorgeous coastlines I’ve seen. I’d love to go back during summer and take advantage of the lovely beaches but I can’t complain about the fantastic weather we had in November. My recommendation would be to get there quick before more travellers realise what a gem this country is and it becomes overrun like the Greek islands.

So, who else has been to Croatia? Is there anything I missed out on? Is the capital Zagreb worth visiting?

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