Lukomir: A Look at the Old Ways of Bosnia

In the mountains above Sarajevo lies Lukomir, Bosnia’s most remote village. Its semi-nomadic herders keep the old ways in the shadow of medieval tombstones.

If you watched the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, you know Bjelasnica, the site of alpine skiing events. What you may not know, and we didn’t either, is that up a single lane dirt track from where these events were held, less than 20 km as the crow flies, lies Bosnia’s most remote village. In Lukomir, life remains as it must have been hundreds of years ago.

Bjelasnica, at over 6,000 feet, is Bosnia’s highest mountain, in the Dinaric Alpine range. At 1500 meters (just shy of 5000 feet) here, the tree line ends. Along the Rakitnica River canyon, which is over 800 meters deep, a ridgeline trail popular with hikers leads to Lukomir. So does a back road from the Olympics venue on Bjelasnica’s slope. This is the route our small tour takes.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

To give a sense of scale

Our vehicle bounces, rattles, and sways, alternately hesitating and tumbling into deep ruts and rocky holes. I take note of the shallow topsoil, the tree roots spreading in wide, contorted tentacles to anchor them upright by interlocking with their neighbors. Emerging from the dense, Grimm-like forest into the light, the undulating karst above the treeline is delineated geometrically with stacked stone lines. “How were these made?” “By humans, long ago,” comes the answer.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

On the Bjelasnica mountain, overlooking the Rakitnica gorge, lies Lukomir, the most remote village in Bosnia

The scale of the landscape is hard to discern, but presently we happen upon solitary herders, young men alone or in pairs, with their flocks of long-tailed sheep. Their size gives us the perspective we need to take in the grandeur. Enormous dogs of unknown pedigree accompany them. One rushes our vehicle in ferocious protection mode; he’s huge. “He has to be,” we’re told. “There are wolves.”

Bosnian Sheepdog

Bosnian Sheepdog – huge!

It seems like the longest of walks for these young shepherds back home for the night. It takes us 20 minutes more to reach the village.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

At the village limits

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

The outskirts of Lukomir

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Approaching Lukomir

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Village fields and only road

Bjelasnica has drawn semi-nomadic tribes since at least the tenth century to its slopes and valleys. Less than 50 km to the northwest of Lukomir, the Battle of the Bosnian Highlands was fought in 927, with Croats defeating Bulgarian invaders. Bosniaks can trace their lineage to the Early Slavs, who arrived here during the Migration Period in the sixth and seventh centuries. They intermingled with the Illyrians, Celts and Germanic Ostrogoths who had arrived four hundred years earlier. The history is murky thereafter, in part because the region is so remote. Some scholars suggest this place was one of refuge rather than colonization. This suggestion bears out. Lukomir (meaning “beautiful view”), deemed of no strategic value, is the only such Bosnian village undestroyed by the Serbs in the 1990s war.

Around the same period Croats were battling the Bulgarians in the tenth century, a Christian religious sect was forming in the Balkans. The Bogomils opposed feudalism under Tsar Peter I of Bulgaria. They were considered heretics by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for promoting a more dualistic doctrine which didn’t leave much room for the official hierarchies in those faiths.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Medieval stecci tombstones above Lukomir

While some scholars believe the Bogomils first began the tradition of carved stone stecci tombstones, others indicate they are a Bosnian cultural, not religious sect, phenomenon. Lukomir’s stecci are adjacent to the graveyard overlooking the village. Whatever the faith of the individuals who carved them, the stecci are silent confirmation: Lukomir’s current villagers are descended from nomadic tribes who originally came to Bjelasnica in summer from the Podvelizje plateau above Mostar in Herzegovina to access sufficient water for their herds.

Stecci - Medieval tombstones attributed to Balkan Bogomils

A stecak carved by someone who loved to dance on a ridgeline outside Ulmojani

In those days, it would be your life’s work to carve your individual stecak. It represented your profession or something important about you for which you wished to be remembered.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Lukomir’s stecci overlook the graveyard and the village

Much of Bosnia converted to Islam following the conquest of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-15th century. Scholars believe Bosnians were open to conversion because they weren’t fond of either the Orthodox or the Catholic churches from these earlier times. Lukomir is almost entirely Muslim; the village has one mosque to which we observe the faithful walk for prayer.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

The village mosque minaret

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

The village communal water source. The two homes we visited also had running water, installed at the same time as electricity, in 2002.

The Historical Architecture Society of the United Kingdom has proclaimed Lukomir to be one of the longest continually inhabited villages in Europe. Most of the buildings are more than two hundred years old, built of stone with original cherrywood shingles, now patched with corrugated metal in places. Built to withstand heavy snows, their entrances are low and the roofs pitched steep.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Traditional cherrywood shingles on an outbuilding

In such communities everything was interconnected, closely dovetailed, and all elements mutually supported and controlled one another. Each individual kept an eye on the community, and the community kept an eye on him. One household observed another, one street watched over the other, because everyone was responsible for everyone else, and all of them for everything; each man’s destiny was bound up not only with the members of his own household and his relatives but also with his neighbors, coreligionists, and fellow citizens. In this lay the strength and also the slavery of these people. The life of a single cell was possible only in such a tissue, and the existence of the whole system only under such covenants. – Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle

“It’s a hard life,” says our guide, “and the younger people don’t want to live it.” The villagers are already thinning toward the end of the season. There is one more hay cut, and a festival before summer is over. Then comes the Eid al-Adha holiday, the children to attend school and the elders to live with relatives in Sarajevo. It’s easy to see how oppressive winter might be in such isolation.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Carrying water between houses

Income from selling traditional hand knits, wool product from sheep, and a small amount of tourist hospitality sustains life here in the summer months.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Nura and Nura show us woolen knitwear

We met Nura and Nura who offered knitted socks and mittens for sale. The elder Nura (in traditional headdress) is 90 years old, and has buried seven children. I was assured she had a place to go for the winter with other relatives.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

At Nura’s front door

We regroup for a traditional meal of burek – spinach or meat rolled in pastry and then arranged like a pie for skillet cooking – and yoghurt. This turns out to be our favorite meal in Bosnia. All the while, life goes on around us in the village.

Burek served at Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Burek with yoghurt to drink

Lukomir is a study in contrasts: the grandeur of its setting,

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Buildings are steeply perched

and the humbleness of its buildings.

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Houses with the traditional conical haystack

The strength and longevity of its people,

Lukomir - the most remote village in Bosnia

Newer graves in Lukamir’s cemetery

and the fragility of their lifestyle.

Boys at play in the village center

Boys at play in the village center

We know there are no guarantees for things in Lukomir to stay just as we see them this day. Why should villagers resign themselves to a life of difficulty just because we outsiders might wish to visit and observe? If this were America, it would have been Disney-fied long, long ago.

I find myself annoyed at the brash ATV-riding young people, who flippantly toss a coin to one of the ladies for a photo and zoom away loudly, piercing the quiet. But yet, didn’t we just do virtually the same thing, even though we asked more nicely? Like so many examples we come to find in the Balkans, this visit can’t be categorized. It’s fair to say our experience here, though, would be markedly different even next year.

And so the melancholy energy of this place, the loneliness of the stecci, the moody dapples of the sun racing across the vales, the brightness in Begara’s eyes this day will always be Lukomir to us. Perhaps most of it will remain.

Pinnable Image:

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Tips and Practicalities:

We visited Lukomir on a tour with Green Visions, whose mission is for visitors to “see the wilderness of Bosnia and Herzegovina preserved through both the establishment of legal frameworks and enforcement mechanisms, and through the raising of public awareness and respect for the environment and the vital need for ecological balance.” Green Visions dedicates itself to “providing local communities with environmentally sound alternatives for economic development while preserving their precious lifestyles and natural heritage.” While our trip was billed as “easy” walking, we opted out of an additional hour’s hike over slippery surfaces to a nearby waterfall. Instead, we soaked in the atmosphere of the village and were invited in for coffee at Begara’s house. The 40€ trip includes transport from Sarajevo to location and back, coffee or tea, picnic lunch and snacks, one English speaking, fully- equipped and experienced guide. Our guide, Evelin Balta, was an amazing source of cultural and historical context.

Comments

  1. says

    The word that comes to my mind when I see your gorgeous photos of Lukomir is TIMELESS. How fortunate that the village remained untouched during the civil war and is much like it’s been for hundreds of years. And yet, I too can understand why the young would yearn for an easier life with modern conveniences rather than the hardship of a hardscrabble life. A fascinating post, Betsy!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Anita – Yes, timeless for now. Lukomir was one of our most meaningful stops in the Balkans, and we’re so happy we could share it here.

  2. Carol Colborn says

    I am so excited now to visit Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Bulgaria…in just three weeks! Countries and peoples slow to change are a continual source of fascination and , yes, inspiration!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Irene – Yes, this was probably the experience we’ll remember most out of our entire Balkans trip. The Green Visions people are doing an incredible job.

  3. says

    Lukomir looks like a fascinating place. Life there will probably change soon, as most of the young people leave for work and easier lives, so quite an experience to visit and tell about it before it is lost. I also like the stecak carved with the dancers.
    Shelley has an awesome blog post here: Korean Home Cooking ClassMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Shelley – Yes, we are lucky to have visited when we did. Green Visions is doing their best to keep things sustainable, but you can’t have people experiencing hardship either. I saw a video of a festival at Lukomir a couple of weeks after we visited, and the traditional dances were much the same as in the carving. Amazing.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Vicki – Ha! There are plenty more adventurous than we are, but thank you! This is a marvelous opportunity that anyone who visits Sarajevo should consider. We would have loved an overnight for more time in Lukomir. I really didn’t want to leave.

  4. says

    What an exceptional find in a fascinating country. I’ve only known the Bosnia that has been well-reported over the years. You’ve given me inspiration to consider a visit, particularly Lukomir, with your compelling photos, historical background, and insights. Thanks!
    Cathy Sweeney has an awesome blog post here: Rome in a Day: The GrandeurMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Cathy – We would highly recommend a visit to Bosnia. There is definitely much more than the media pays attention to, this being a perfect example.

  5. says

    Betsy, I understand your ambivalence. We want to see the most authentic, the most untouched places, yet by visiting them, we change them. Why would anyone stay in Lukomir when their life would be so much easier elsewhere? The ones who stay will cater more and more to tourists, which will change them and their way of life, so the village will become less authentic… Having said that, you are so fortunate to have been able to visit before much of that process has taken place!
    I’m impressed with your guide, by the way, who could translate into both Dutch and English so fluently!
    Rachel Heller has an awesome blog post here: Six (!) Seoul PalacesMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Rachel – Exactly, you understood completely the mixed feelings. The young woman doing the translating was a member of our group! She and her Dutch girlfriends were visiting for the week, and we’d actually encountered them the day before on a walking tour of Sarajevo. It’s a small world in this part of the world. 🙂

  6. says

    How precious to visit a place like that before it completely disappears! Great photos as well! I can understand that it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a shame that the younger generations don’t want to keep the traditions alive.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi A Swede Abroad – Yes, it is a very precious experience, and saddening to think that it may not be here much longer.

  7. says

    This is such a dilemma. The people of Lukomir bring to mind the Karen people in Thailand, the Tsaarten in Mongolia who have, through necessity, had to become tourist attractions to survive. The young people will undoubtedly want to stay if it becomes a Disney .. this is so tricky either way you look at it. think that you have had a unique experience, but undoubtedly a troubling one too.
    Paula McInerney has an awesome blog post here: Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong, AustraliaMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Paula – Yes, very good analogies. We will be visiting Kui and other villages in Thailand in a couple of weeks, and I expect we will have similar feelings. I think we have to reconcile ourselves as travelers that we are seeing things in the present moment as they are now, even if they seem unspoiled in terms of history and tradition.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Guys – Yes, and I’m not fond of heights! The scale is immense here (and the trail is slippery, haha).

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Anita – Yes, this old corpus just wouldn’t have made it along the (seemingly treacherous, but probably safe enough) rocky trail. We wouldn’t have been invited in for coffee at Begara’s house if we’d opted for it.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Kim-Ling – Thank you. It wasn’t difficult to take good photos in this incredible setting. And yes, the burek is amazing!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Suzanne – Yes, that was an incredible moment with 90 year old Nura, who kissed me on the cheek. Thanks.

  8. says

    Bosnia has interested me for some reason and I’ve wanted to go there. ‘m enjoying reading your posts. Lukomir is my kind of place. I enjoy visiting historic villages much more than big cities, It probably won’t stay this way, Very few places are as they were in our connected era. The history here is facinating,
    Billie Frank has an awesome blog post here: Tidbits: October in Santa Fe is fab!My Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Billie – If Bosnia is calling you, get there as fast as you can. Not only because your tourism dollars are so valuable, but because of places like Lukomir which are frozen in time no longer.

  9. says

    I’ve never visited anyplace like Lukomir. I truly enjoyed reading your story of the locals lives. We take so much for granted here in the states. We could all learn from the community that was built in Lukomir. I’m especially struck tonight by the shooting in Oregon today. I don’t understand why this county is not out in the streets refusing to except the violence that is so rampant here. Thanks for sharing your experience in Lukomir.
    Sue Reddel has an awesome blog post here: FoodTravelChat Best Kept Dining SecretsMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Sue – Yes, we surely do take things for granted and travel to places like Bosnia opens our eyes to create greater connection and understanding.

  10. says

    I love the quaint and traditional buildings against the dramatic landscape, such a great experience to step back in time to experience it. I do agree that things will move on, the tourist dollars that are so valuable to them now will undoubtedly make their lives easier but bring many more changes to that they may not be expecting . You clearly respected them and the culture they were willing to share but for others it’s just checking another place off the list. I hope they will not look back and regret it.
    Toni | 2 Aussie Travellers has an awesome blog post here: Top 10 Free things to do in Brisbane CityMy Profile

  11. Betsy Wuebker says

    Hi Toni – Great observations. It’s a tough call to make and I think Green Visions takes their mission very seriously.

  12. says

    What beautiful photos and amazing glimpses into daily life and culture in Bosnia! Not enough people travel off the normal path of Europe to include places like this. We’ve been in Europe for 4 years and am still wanting to make my way to this side of Europe and this post makes me want to do it that much more! Thank you for the inspiration!
    Economical Excursionists has an awesome blog post here: Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival: The largest in the world!My Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Economical Excursionists – Yes, it’s not far from where you are. (We love Ludwigsburg, by the way, and have visited friends in Hochdorf several times). I would highly recommend a visit. The train from Munich to Zagreb is a nice gateway into the Balkans.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Mar – You’d love the burek! Drinking the yogurt did give me pause, but the combination was delicious.

  13. says

    Wow it looks like time has stood still here. And it’s perfect. So beautiful. The food looked delicious too! Green Visions sounds like a great company to take up a tour with.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Sophie – We highly recommend Green Visions. It was a perfect day with them in this wonderful location.

  14. says

    Hi dear!! I can’t even imagine that such a tiny place could even exist on the opposite side of Adriatic Sea… and it’s so close to Italy!!
    Pictures look like this village has no time, as it simply rolls day after day!!
    Great post Betsy
    Ale has an awesome blog post here: Visiting Rome for the first timeMy Profile

  15. says

    Dear Betsy,
    Hope this message finds you well and in good spirit.

    Just wanted to thank you for visiting Lukomir Highland Village with Green Visions and writing such an inspirational article about your experience.
    This kind of articles are tremendous “wind in our back”, helping our (now already 15 years) efforts to show and share with visitors positive sides of this place and changing general image of our homeland, known as Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    Thank you once again and hope we will see you sometimes back soon in Bosnia.
    Greetings from Sarajevo.

    Samer, Evelin and whole Green Visions Team.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Samer, Evelin and colleagues at Green Visions – It is we who thank you for providing us with one of the most memorable experiences we have had to date in all our travels. We hope to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Until we do, know that you are always not far from our thoughts. Hvala!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Toccara – So glad you enjoyed it. This is an awesome memory we will keep and we hope to inspire others to visit.

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