Balkan Road Trip
Driving through Bosnia and Herzegovina
By Lewis Green
For many gap year travellers, Europe is the obvious choice. Nowhere else in the world can you travel so easily between unique cultures, each with their own must-see attractions. Whilst many opt for the popular InterRail Pass, which allows you to exhaust Europe’s rail network for a set price and over a set period of time, me and two friends opted for an alternative, more exciting method of transportation.
We headed off on a six-week European adventure with our bags crammed into the back of a two door 1996 Renault Clio. We decided to head for the Balkan Peninsula, passing through Hungary and Croatia en-route.
Whilst the entire trip will be remembered as a once in a lifetime experience, one destination in particular captured our imagination. Despite our initial hesitation, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a surprising favourite.
Only fourteen years on from genocide and a devastating war, we had read the stories of ethnic and religious tensions that continued to plague the country, not to mention the corrupt officials that would apparently be waiting for us at the border.
In the end we decided to just go for it. We had luckily met somebody in Hungary who managed to set us up with a contact in the country’s capital, Sarajevo. After a delay of about five hours at the border (European car insurance is unlikely to cover Bosnia and must be purchased for a reasonable price at the border), we were on our way.
My first impressions were not great as we drove south from interior Croatia. Roadside fires, abandoned villages and rabid dogs got me thinking that perhaps this would be a drive-through destination.
It was not until I returned to the UK and began to learn about the country as part of my university studies that I discovered that the northern region we were travelling through was called Republika Srpska, a political entity controlled by the ethnic Serb population where most do not acknowledge the existence of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
We continued to head south towards Sarajevo where we had agreed to meet the friend of our new Hungarian acquaintance. Again, our first impressions of Sarajevo were not great.
Begging children coming up to your car as you sit in traffic, more roadside fires and an abundance of erratic and downright dangerous driving characterised our approach to the city.
But Sarajevo had a lot more to offer than we had envisaged. We met our contact, Sabina, at a bar right in the heart of the city. She was a freelance journalist who had her diary free until the glitz and the glamour of the Sarajevo film festival rolled into town.
She kindly offered us a spare room in her house located on one of the spectacular hills that surround the city, the same hills that Serbian snipers had occupied fifteen years earlier during the unrelenting ‘siege of Sarajevo’. Sabina’s hospitality was typical of the generosity of Bosnian people we met on our trip.
For three days she took us to explore the tourist and non-tourist areas, which really gave us a positive impression of the city and its people. For most tourists, the primary destination is the Turkish Quarter of the city where the architecture of the old Ottoman
Empire gives you the impression that you have left Europe for Asia. Mazy cobbled streets, small kebab shops and the call for prayer at the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque left me with a lasting experience.
Scars of the recent war are still evident, but not as obvious as we had experienced in the Eastern Croatian city of Vukovar. Most of Sarajevo has been restored but we still saw buildings littered with bullet holes and Sabina took us to a large cemetery high up on one of the hills that contained the graves of people who lost their lives during the conflict.
Although we were fortunate to have Sabina as a guide, I would recommend Sarajevo to anyone embarking on a trip to the Balkan Peninsula. For those on an InterRailing adventure, Sarajevo is easily accessible from Budapest to the north and Belgrade to the east. Sarajevo is a truly unique European city, mainly because it doesn’t feel European at all. Nowhere else in Europe can you experience and gain a better understanding of the recurring complexities that devastated a nation as recently as the 1990s.
"Despite our initial hesitation, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a surprising favourite"
Our next destination would be Mostar, a major player in the Bosnian War. The journey down from Sarajevo to Mostar alone made the trip worthwhile. The road meandered through steep valleys, crisscrossing pristine turquoise lakes and passing through small villages.
Mostar’s key attraction is the Stari Most, a 16th century Ottoman bridge that connects the two parts of the city divided by the Neretva River. The bridge had stood for over 400 years until it was destroyed in 1993 during the conflict. Rebuilt in 2003, tourists now pay to watch divers jump off the bridge into the icy waters below.
After a morning wandering around the small city of Mostar, we decided to get away from the hoards of tourists. Our planned destination was Kravice Falls, a spectacular waterfall lying on the Trebizat River. As we were now in the south of the country, and heading ever closer to the sea, the terrain had become arid, reminding me of the landscapes I had seen in Greece and the Mediterranean coasts of France and Spain. After taking a detour to a castle in Positelj, we arrived at Kravice Falls in a state of awe.
Although only a short drive from Mostar, the spectacular waterfalls attracted far fewer tourists. We headed down to the waters edge and spent the rest of the day climbing the rocks at the base of the waterfall and swimming in the surrounding waters.
Dubrovnik and Split
Kravice Falls allowed us to escape the historical aspects of our Bosnian trip that had dominated up to that point. Although we were all interested to learn about the history and culture of this relatively new country, it was refreshing to get away from it all and enjoy this spectacular location.
We left Kravice Falls that evening and headed towards the Croatian coast where we would be met by the huge groups of tourists in the cities of Dubrovnik and Split. It was not until later in the trip that I truly appreciated the time we’d spent in Bosnia.
Tourists have flocked to Croatia and Montenegro and with Albania’s tourism set to boom in the coming years, Bosnia should be on the itinerary of any intrepid traveller who wants to immerse themselves in Europe’s most complex cultural region.
For any traveller that wants to remain in Europe but hopes to get off the beaten track, I can’t think of a better destination than Bosnia and Herzegovina.