Along the Balkan trail

When it comes to traveling, I always like to go a little off the beaten track. As exciting as it is ticking off all the big tourist attractions, there’s a different kind of thrill that comes with discovering places lesser known. It certainly helps that I have an adventurous father who, when not planning his next exotic trip, is making interesting suggestions for mine.

And so with his guidance, we decided to slot Sarajevo and Belgrade in between our more typical European summer destinations of Croatia and Greece. We arrived in Sarajevo on a bus from Split in the evening, and even the simple act of going out for dinner proved fascinating. Being an evening of Ramadan (post sunset), the streets were buzzing with activity, and the restaurants were packed with locals enjoying their traditional feasts.

We began the following day with a free walking tour organised by our hostel. It was on this tour that I got my first taste of the fascinating and troubling history behind the country that is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country was involved in a war in the early 1990s with its neighbouring Serbia and Croatia. Our guide recollected her childhood, growing up amidst a war, her mother working each day recovering bones of the dead. To me, the fact that these atrocities took place so recently – well within my lifetime – made it all the more poignant.


But there is much more to the history of this brave country than that. For starters, in 1914 Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo. This event marked the beginning of World War I. On the tour, we visited the exact spot where it happened. In fact, our hostel was called the Franz Ferdinand Hostel, and was a little museum in itself.

Aesthetically, Sarajevo is fascinating. It’s not a beautiful city, although if you look out to the mountains they are quite pretty. In the centre, some buildings are nice, with clear Austro-Hungarian influence. Others are dilapidated – but all add character. Our guide described Sarajevo to us as the “European Jerusalem”. Christians, Muslims, and Jews are all living together in harmony. I wanted to tell her that this perhaps isn’t true of Jerusalem, but I refrained. Nonetheless, it’s very much true of Sarajevo. We passed many mosques, churches, cathedrals, and a synagogue.

Wandering the streets.

That afternoon, we went to an exhibition on the Srebrenica massacre. This is not something I’d heard of, but is an important part of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s harrowing war history. Also known as the Srebrenica genocide, this event over a few days in July 1995 saw the killing of more than 8000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys. The exhibition was a combination of photos and short films, and was incredibly moving.

Always keen to try the local cuisine, for lunch we had something called cevapi. It’s these little mince meat sausages inside a pita pocket served with onions and sometimes other accompaniments, like sour cream. It was quite tasty. We also tried Bosnian coffee, which I think is essentially the same as Turkish coffee.

Trying out the local coffee.

We keenly continued our sightseeing with a visit to the city hall, which was unexpectedly beautiful inside. It housed a contemporary art exhibition of sorts as well as an exhibit on Sarajevo’s history. We tried as best we could to take it in, although admittedly we’d had somewhat of an information overload for a single day. We also revisited a couple of other points of interest we’d passed during the morning’s tour to have a closer look.

Inside Sarajevo’s City Hall.

The following day we went to the Sephardi Synagogue, which is also the Jewish Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The shul itself, though not in use, was impressive and had me imagining what it would have been like in its heyday. And the museum gave a fascinating insight into the history of Jews in BiH (that’s how they abbreviate Bosnia and Herzegovina). Today, there are something like 1300 Jews living in the country, with approximately half in Sarajevo. There is a replica of the famous Sarajevo Haggadah there, though the original is housed in a national museum. We also visited the Askenazi synagogue, which is in use today. It was quite spectacular inside.

The Ashkenazi Synagogue.

That afternoon, we went on a siege tour of Sarajevo. The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting almost four years. The tour took us to the location outside of the city centre where tunnels were dug as the only way to go in and out of the city. We got to go inside the tunnels, and had a guide who taught us all about this particular aspect of the war.

Learning about the Siege of Sarajevo.

Funnily enough, we also visited Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery on this tour. Rather than for its religious significance, it was because it was a strategic point of interest during the war. Overlooking a lot of the city, the cemetery was used as an artillery position by Bosnian Serbs. In a way, I was more interested cemetery itself, which is the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It was fairly dilapidated though, with people not having been buried there for 50 years now.

The Jewish cemetery.

All in all, Sarajevo’s history fascinated me no end. Particularly its recent war history. It’s actually not safe to hike outside of the city unguided, as there are still unexploded mines around. Plus, many of the buildings have bullet holes in them.

Fortunately, Sarajevo was not the only place in BiH we had the opportunity to visit. During Sail Croatia, we went on an optional day trip to Mostar, a beautiful city in the south of the country. Let me take a minute to write about that.

Mostar is known for its iconic Stari Most, or old bridge – a reconstructed medieval arched bridge. Any picture you see of Mostar is likely to feature this bridge, towering over the beautiful blue green river below. Our local guide took us there, and we saw professionals jumping from the bridge for tips. If my memory serves me correctly, the jump is 24 metres. I wouldn’t be game, though apparently you’re not considered a proper local if you haven’t jumped from the Stari Most.

The Stari Most. If you look closely, someone is preparing to jump.

The surrounding streets and alleys were very endearing, filled with shops and market stalls. Although there isn’t a heap to see in the way of landmarks, the tour was exceptionally interesting from a historical perspective. Mostar was besieged and greatly affected by the war. Again, our guide was a child during the early 90s, and recollected what it was like to grow up during such a time.

The streets of Mostar.

I must also mention the glorious waterfalls we stopped at on the way to Mostar. The Kravice falls, they are called. The water was freezing, but served as a much-needed remedy after a night out on Sail Croatia the night before.

Pip and I enjoying the waterfalls.

So that’s Bosnia and Herzegovina covered. The plan was to fly from Sarajevo to Athens, but all the flights went through Belgrade. We thought, why don’t we extend the stopover and add another country to the passports. And so we did.

We didn’t have a lot of time at all, but I think we utilised the time we did have fairly well. We started with dinner – one of the best meals I’ve had this entire trip. And probably the cheapest too. Belgrade had us hooked pretty quickly. And then we walked, soaking up every last bit of daylight to take in the streets of Belgrade. Sure, many of the buildings could use some work, but the city is oozing with cool. Picture buzzing bars, restaurants, and lots of amazing street art.

Belgrade at dusk.

We walked down to the waterfront, where they have a nice, civilised promenade. A little further down the river are a bunch of floating bars and nightclubs which we were keen to check out. Belgrade is known for its nightlife, and we could quickly see why. We ended up relocating to dry land because the mosquitos were finding us particularly tasty. The bars there were just as good.

Belgrade by night.

The following morning we went to see Belgrade’s old fortress, which was cool to explore. Then we made our way to the Bohemian quarter, which was all cobble stones and pretty flowers and quirky cafes. Everything I saw of Belgrade I liked, and I wished we had a little longer. I’ll just have to go to back. The whole Balkan region, in fact, is one I’d very much like to travel to again.

Belgrade’s fortress.


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