As we prepared for travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina, we realized how little we knew going in, other than vague memories of the war. Now there is far more to share.
So there we were, catching an airless bus out of Dubrovnik. Rumbling toward a place called Neum on a tiny finger of territory 20 kilometers long, the spit which gives modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina its legal access to the sea, we didn’t know what to think. When they heard we were going to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina, some people thought we were nuts. (Nothing new there.) Others asked if our plan really was “safe.” When we got there, at least one Bosnian wondered why we came at all. But now that we’ve been, we want to return.
Ten things we learned about travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina:
1. Getting in and out might seem a little difficult, but it’s really nothing to worry about. As it turned out, we had a lot of time to think about travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Getting in and around, and then out, takes a while. We recommend going by surface, actually. There’s always something better about an approach at ground level, seeing your destination mirage in the distance, drawing nearer to the moment when outskirts give way to the reality of place. It beats dropping in from the sky to have a look around and then jumping back out.
Be ready for thorough border processing. You will be perused and your documents will be scanned a couple of times – coming out of wherever you came from and coming in. If you’re self-driving, be prepared for a much longer line at the checkpoints than if you’re on a bus.
If you want a cushier experience, you might want to sign on for a tour. We just bought regular tickets to Mostar at the Dubrovnik station. Online ticketing? Sorry, not available. Mostar to Sarajevo? Same deal, pay in cash at the station in Mostar. Buses are frequent, amenities are hit and miss. Announcements we couldn’t understand were kindly translated by fellow travelers. Yep, they could probably tell by looking at us that we might need a little extra help. We felt rather solicitously cared for, as Americans of a “certain age.”
You may want to look around for alternative transport options if you’re outbound from Sarajevo, as we did. An independent van company ended up offering a much more comfortable, air-conditioned experience at a fraction of the price on that leg. We just needed to be willing to accept an indeterminate departure: the van would leave when its passenger quota was filled. No worries. We checked out of our hotel, the kind young man at the front desk made several phone calls to confirm and reconfirm departure, and ran outside to help us with luggage when the van finally did arrive.
2. There’s a difference between Bosnians and Bosniaks. Bosniaks are an ethnic group. Bosnians are a nationality. Political affiliations have historically occurred along religious and ethnic lines: Bosniak Muslims, Serb Orthodox Christians, and Croat Catholics.
In the 1970s a political elite emerged via diplomatic service and Yugoslavia’s membership in the Non-Aligned Movement. After Tito’s death in 1980 and the demise of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia’s individual nationalistic groups vied for influence. In the Bosnian National Assembly, ethnically-based parties clashed over independence vs. remaining in the Yugoslav federation. Ethnic Serbs favored the federation, and independence was desired by Bosniaks and Croats. This led to the war in the 1990s.
3. It’s more of a cash economy than you might be prepared for. After World War II, when Tito and his partisans formed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of its six constituents. Up until 1992, Bosnia was prosperous: military defense industry and multi-national corporate presence brought economic strength. An upwardly-mobile Bosnian might have worked at Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Holiday Inn, or been involved with the 1984 Olympic Winter Games. Then war devastated the Bosnian economy and destroyed its physical infrastructure. Its GDP essentially collapsed, free falling by 60%. Much of the country’s production has yet to be restored. Unemployment is close to 40%, with no sign of real stimulus affecting political and economic inertia.
As you might expect with such conditions, there is a great deal of ingenious economic maneuvering. Our guide walked us through Sarajevo and revealed that while he held multiple graduate degrees in political science and diplomatic relations, he couldn’t find a job. Instead, he formed the tour company. With about 20 people in his tour that day, we estimated tips-only income might have equated to about $50 per hour. Paid in cash, of course.
The independent hotels in which we stayed either took only cash or had to be persuaded to accept payment by credit card. Whether this was due to an erratic banking environment or other bookkeeping-related reasons, we couldn’t say. Smaller businesses and restaurants were cash-only operations as well. ATMs are plentiful, and our U.S. non-chip debit cards worked just fine.
4. The scale of famous places and distances may be different than you expect. In the middle of Neum, our bus made a hard right, zig-zagging up and away toward Mostar. As the crow flies (across Google Maps) it’s not that great a distance between the two, less than 90km. Traffic, road conditions, and struggling uphill were bus-related challenges that led to a journey of more than 3 hours.
We could look across the river from our Sarajevo hotel to the place where the Archduke was assassinated. Somehow, I’d expected it to be a big plaza, where the assassins could have hidden in enormous crowds. It wasn’t; it was just a tiny nondescript little street corner.
The hills from which Serbian forces fired on the streets of Sarajevo in the early 90s seemed all too close; the airport where the UN airlift off-loaded life-saving supplies is only a couple of kilometers from the city center.
The fresh market where 68 people were killed and 200 wounded by an artillery shell, a tipping point which led to NATO air strikes, is no larger than our favorite open-air market on the island of Kauai. Sarajevo’s market was open-air then, too. Now it has a protective roof and business goes on with the memories.
5. Yes, it’s safe to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war has been over for 20 years. That said, evidence of war is easy to see. Background: Between 1990 and 1992, sovereignty was declared by various entities in the region and boycotted by others. An independence referendum was held with 63% turnout and 99.7% in favor; Serb nationalists didn’t vote at all. As admittance into the United Nations became pending in 1992, tensions escalated. Neum, the little coastal town in which our bus turned inland, took artillery fire from Serb positions in March that year. A month later, a Serb attack on Sarajevo’s peace rally is the moment that is generally agreed catalyzed open warfare between the three major ethnic communities.
Bosniak civilians were targeted, captured and displaced by Serb forces and sympathizers. Both Serbian and Croatian interests sought to expand their respective borders. When government-sanctioned warfare began in 1993, non-Serbs suffered civil rights violations and ethnic cleansing, such as occurred in the genocide of Srebrenica. This elicited a NATO bombing campaign while Croat and Bosnian allies pushed back against the Serbs. In 1995, by agreement between representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, the fighting stopped, with NATO peacekeeping forces deployed.
As we awaited dinner on our first night in Mostar, we picked up a coffee table-sized photography book at an adjacent restaurant table. Its images were taken during and right after the war. The city was leveled, beautiful Stari Most and the main mosque destroyed. The book itself was tattered, with a vintage aspect. We had to keep reminding ourselves that these events were younger than our children, whose childhoods seem like yesterday. The video below brings those days back to life (click here to watch on YouTube):
We sought the perspective of our two young guides from Sarajevo. The first had spent the war years, which began when he was seven years old, attending a makeshift school in the basement of his apartment building. His teachers risked their lives to get to their students. His mother walked several kilometers to work, always in high heels: she “wanted to look good if today were to be her last.” The second had spent childhood in Vienna with relatives who took his family in when the war broke out. No one ever expected things to endure over four years.
Both young men felt it was necessary to move on from the past; both acknowledged that personal losses might prove this impossible for others. They accepted that political opinions vary in opposite directions depending upon whom you ask. These assessments were equal parts logic and forgiveness; we were humbled and impressed.
“Official” resources warn that travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina can be dangerous due to unexploded land mines and other residual ordnance. No doubt this is true. Certain areas are marked off-limits with forbidding signage. We encountered none.
The country has had twenty years to make more highly trafficked areas safe for passage. If you stick to paved highways and urban locations when you travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina, you’ll be fine. Even our foray on dirt roads into the mountains above Sarajevo where Olympic ski runs and infrastructure still serve winter sports enthusiasts was without incident or any evidence.
6. Politicking has always been complicated here, and it still is. This land has long been a crossroads for religions and empires. Clashes and power struggles, boundary fluctuations, and regime changes since the 9th century have permeated the Bosnian identity and landscape.
Today, there are multiple levels of political structure arising out of the war’s impact on the country’s ethnic groups. The national government is relatively weak, with decentralized decision-making in layers: geographic districts, cantons, municipalities and “official” cities. One of the main political objectives Bosnia and Herzegovina has at this time is integration within the European Union. Reforms are still in progress ahead of that affiliation.
Are practicalities in daily life affected by this complexity? Definitely. Rarely, we were told, does anything get done at satisfactory speed. Sometimes, it was shared, progress is made outside of requirements. Other times, projects are indefinitely halted. We can all relate how “decision by committee” affects outcomes. This is the mire within which attempts to better and modernize the country operate.
7. The coffee is wonderful, but you need to know the 1-2-3 rule. Bosnian coffee is world famous for good reason. It’s strong, but not muddy as other regional coffees can be. As is common in this part of the world, coffee culture includes ritual preparation and ceremonial enjoyment.
Should you be invited in for coffee with a new friend in Bosnia you must understand the rule of 3: the first coffee is always one of welcome. The second coffee is brewed and poured as the signal for intimate conversation concerning whatever subject is at hand. It is during the second coffee that you and your host strengthen your bond by understanding (but not necessarily agreeing with) each other. The third brew and serving? It’s last call. You will enjoy it together, but you also know you’ve been given the nod that once finished, you’ll be on your way.
8. The local beer is really good. Sarajevsko pivo has been brewed since 1864 in Sarajevo. Alert students of history will realize that the company was founded long before the decline of the Ottoman Empire’s hold over Bosnia. This disputes the notion that Islamic tradition and alcoholic beverages cannot co-exist. Brewed with spring water from a source in the courtyard of the current building (which dates from 1893), Sarajevsko is a plucky little thirst quencher. We both liked it.
9. Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina will convince you this is one of the most visually beautiful places you might ever visit. The scenery holds its own here, the country’s topography a pleasing combination of mountains, hills and flatlands. Climate is Mediterranean in the south, while inland you’ll get hot summers with cold and snowy winters. About 50% of Bosnia is forested, with wildlife such as bears, wolves, boar, deer, falcons, and the rare chamois. One of the only two remaining primeval forests in Europe, the Perucica Forest Reserve is located within Bosnia and Herzegovina’s oldest national park.
Not only is the geography scenic, but so is the evidence of man. Impossibly beautiful vistas with storybook qualities awaited us everywhere. We appreciated a meld of modern vibrancy and timelessness.
We also recognized that hardship meant the old ways might not live much longer.
10. Your dollar goes a very long way and is very welcome. Tourism and ecotourism is on the rise. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s southern Alpine terrain has wilderness and natural assets which attract skiers, bikers, hikers, whitewater enthusiasts and mountaineers.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history as a cultural crossroads provides a variety of architectural, religious, commercial, and interpersonal perspectives. Your dollar goes farther here than in neighboring Croatia and other Western Mediterranean and EU countries.
We were welcomed with a generosity of spirit and high levels of comfort at very affordable rates. We’ll be bringing you more in later posts on our wonderful experiences in this beautiful country. But for now, we leave you with this: the value of travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina is highly demonstrable by any measure. Why not consider it?