One of the disadvantages about long-term travel is that you can become desensitized to your surroundings, however fascinating and enthralling they may be. Another centuries-old church? Eh. More strolls through ancient castles? Meh. Sometimes, these “amazing” sites become part of everyday life as we backpackers traipse from country to country, crossing off to-do lists and Lonely Planet agendas. So – and I hate to admit this – I start to feel restless, maybe even a bit bored with sightseeing at times. (Am I in trouble for saying that while I am living the dream and backpacking across Europe?)
Well, C’est la vie. I did get a little bored, and after a few weeks in Croatia, I was anxious for a raw, honest traveling experience. While the rest of my friends headed to southern Croatia, I pulled out a map and decided to cross into territory that was a little more off-the-beaten-path than partying in Dubrovnik.
I booked a bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo and watched as the landscape, architecture, and general ambiance metamorphosed from unblemished countryside to war-torn bleakness. No where had I experienced such an antithetical border crossing.
The bus dropped me off at Sarajevo’s ramshackle bus station where I followed some jovial teens to tram #1: destination – Old Town. I climbed on board and was immediately besieged by four senior citizens wanting to help validate my pass and find me a seat. I was struck by their kindness, their welcoming demeanor, and the overpowering sadness in their eyes.
There I was – a bit keyed up and excited to explore this new country.
After just a few hours here, I already felt that I had time machined backward about twenty years. Whatever development and chicness I witnessed thus far in Europe was nonexistent. Bosnia was a clean slate. Remember my post about “What I Love About Eastern Europe?” Well, instead of ascots, berets, and couture, the youth wore what I call “1999-MTV-fashion” – matching windpant ensembles, baggy Adidas sweatpants, and an occasional pit-bull sans leash. In contrast, the older generations boasted monochromatic suits and timeworn overcoats.
As I was circling the Old Town bazaar and noticing these charming peculiarities, Sarajevo was suddenly ignited with amplified calls to prayer, and I was enveloped by a medley of timbres bouncing from spire to spire. This was my first time hearing the Islamic calls to prayer, and listening to these dozens of inharmonious, but somehow spine-tingling melodious, songs stopped me in my tracks. I think my jaw-dropped at the exquisite beauty of that moment.
And that’s when I felt it.
I was 100% breathless and emotionally charged with Bosnia.
It. Was. Amazing. By golly, I LOVED this country!
Three weeks later, I was hooked and already planning when I could return for a longer visit.
I will delve further into my Bosnian travels in later blogs. For now and to get the ball rolling a bit, here are some of my favorite sight-seeing recommendations and things to do in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Climb to the Yellow Fort for spectacular sunsets –
Sarajevo is a fabulous city, and there is no better way to appreciate all its glory than from way up on a hilltop at the Yellow Fort. Just before sunset is the best time to visit the Fort. Not only is it a cooler time of day to make the trek, but you will see fantastic colors and reflections in the hills, churches, mosques, and red-rooftops.
Bring a bottle of wine and scoot over to make room as the landmark is popular with locals and tourists alike. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, locals head to the Fort armed with picnics to wait for the cannon sound that marks the end of their daily fasting period. If you time it right, you will also hear the calls to late-afternoon prayer which I have decided is one of my favorite all-time sounds (along with clanging halyards and lapping waves).
Entry is free.
Visit Sarejevo’s Bascarsija –
Sarajevo’s Old Town, or Bascarsija, sprawls from the epicenter of the Sebilj Fountain. Constructed in 1891, the still-functioning fountain is an Old Town highlight, and the square serves as a meeting point for photo takers, squabbling pigeons, and lounging coffee-drinkers. The iconic landmark was once an old charity institution where a man scooped the water and offered it to the homeless and otherwise thirsty folk of the city. Today, the water is still free-flowing and is visited by dogs, birds, water-bottle carrying tourists (me!), and locals.
Diverging off the Sebilj Fountain square is a bustling Ottoman bazaar loaded with stalls selling colorful Turkish carpets, burek, Turkish-style coffee, chocolates, baklava, postcards, and wartime antiques. This is an ideal spot to do some serious people-watching.
Have a coffee…and relax for awhile –
Bosnian coffee (Bosanska Kafa) is deliciously strong and a bit addictive. It is served throughout the entire day and night: morning coffee (razgalica), afternoon coffee (razgovoruša), and the important after-a-meal-coffee (sikteruša). A true Turkish-style coffee is served in a quaint metal pot with a long handle and is accompanied by sugar cubes and little tumblers. Before I knew better, I dropped my sugar cubes right into my little cup and let them dissolve just like I would with sugar and coffee at home. Wouldn’t you? But – as I was strictly taught by a wide-eyed, caffeine-loving neighbor one afternoon – the more traditional method is to dip the corner of the sugar cube into the coffee, nibble the cube’s softer texture a bit, and then wash down the sweetness with hot coffee. Whatever your technique, sample a pot or two, and use the opportunity to strike up a conversation with your neighbor or barista.
Visit the Street Corner that Started WW I –
You can stand on the exact corner where events occurred that changed the course of history and served as the prelude to WWI; the intersection near Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge.
In 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungrian empire, and his wife were shot and killed during a visit to Sarajevo by an 18 year old Serb assassin. Following the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which led to the Central Powers declaring war on the Allies. World War I began one month later.
And to think that it all began on a dingy street corner in Sarajevo.
There is no fee to stand on a street corner – lucky you! However, the nearby museum which explains a bit more about the history costs 5 Euros.
Join pilgrims in Medjugorje –
Before 1981, Medjugorje was a small farming town with just a few hundred inhabitants. Since then, due to reports of alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary to six local children, it has become a site for Catholic pilgrims (and non-Catholic tourists). These days, hundreds of thousands of visitors descend upon the town to visit Cross Hill, Apparition Hill, and St. James Church. My visit to Medjugorje was a thought-provoking day spent learning about and appreciating the rich historical and religious significance of the site.
Explore Blagaj Tekija –
Also known as the Dervish Monastery, the Blagaj Tekija was built into a 200 meter cliff wall around the 1500’s. This well-preserved monastery sits under an enormous cliff near the Buna River and is open year round for visitors and pilgrims. Women are asked to wear headscarves, and all visitors must cover bare shoulders and legs. Complementary scarves are provided at the entrance.
Heckle jumpers at the Stari Most –
The Stari Most is one of the Balkan”s most recognizable landmarks.The original bridge was commissioned in 1557 by Suleiman the Magnificent to replace a wooden suspension bridge, and the masterpiece stood for nearly 430 years. It was destroyed in 1993 when Croatian forces bombarded the bridge until it collapsed into the river below. Following the war, the United Nations, UNESCO, and several European countries donated funds to help rebuild the popular landmark to its former glory.
Young men have been jumping from the Stari Most for centuries. As a way to prove their manhood, to flirt with the objects of their affections, or just to be daredevils, many of the world’s fittest and bravest have jumped the 26 meters into the river below. While hanging out at the bridge, you will no doubt encounter a jumper or two working up the nerves or surveying the scenes below. The cheeky ones may ask for a donation or begin with a “do you dare me” conversation. No, I didn’t dare anyone as the height (and extremely shallow waters) freaked me out a bit.
Sightseeing here is free. (Watch your footing though! The slippery steps may land you in the hospital with a hefty bill.)
Eat traditional Bosnian burek (if you can find a vegetarian version):
You can’t visit Bosnia without eating burek. Actually, you may eat burek for one or two meals a day: delicious, cheap, and so very filling. Thanks to the Ottomans, the concept for these stuffed pasties has been adopted by the surrounding nations. Each has its own version: meat, cheese, vegetable, round, square, or spiral-shaped. In Bosnia, the phyllo-filled, tasty delights are most often made with beef or another type of meat. However, if you are a vegetarian and look hard enough, you will eventually stumble upon cheese, potato, or spinach burek (my favorite).
An afternoon spent at the eye-opening Srebrenica gallery is emotional, captivating, and heart-breaking. This small museum features two full-length documentaries, an intense photography exhibit, several interactive computers, and an informative guide.
During the Balkans conflict of 1992-1995, Srebrenica was declared a safe haven by the U.N. Security Council and was to be protected by U.N. troops. However, in 1995, the Serbs increased their pressure and besieged the town, shelling it and preventing United Nations convoys from entering. In the days that followed, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically massacred while thousands of women and children were forcibly deported and raped.
Enjoy the diverse oh so welcoming culture –
One of the fantastic traits about Sarajevo is the rich mix of religions that are coexisting in peace and harmony. In the same city block, you can encounter a Catholic church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a Orthodox church. And everyone is incredibly warm, inviting, and kind. Taking the time to talk with all of the locals, regardless of their heritage or what side they fought on in the recent Balkans war, is a significant experience for any visitor to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
This list is just but a sampling of why I have come to love Bosnia-Herzegovina. It will certainly be a country that I return to one day, if only to walk interact with its gorgeous, peaceful, generous people.