Picture sparkling blue lakes surrounded by rising fjords, lined with the ancient walls of medieval castle ruins. Imagine not far from these fairytale inland scapes, a glittering and transparent azure coast, lapping onto white sandy beaches forming bays below the cliffs, kissed by the sun. Think about the smell of freshly caught and grilled prawns, octopus, fish steaks; the sound of ices cubes gently patting the sides of your glass of chilled white wine or an afternoon Spritz. That is not Bosnia. We had just spent three nights in the charming old city of Kotor, surrounded by the stunning, surreal landscape of Montenegro. But the time has come to pack our bags, check out, and – against all our inner voices pleading us not to – leave this incredible mediterranean jewel behind. All for…Bosnia.
Bosnia? Hmkaayyyyy…interesting choice?, I hear you say-ask.
(If you’ve already decided you’re going – YAY – stay tuned for some useful tips at the end.)
In that moment, leaving behind one of the most beautiful and peaceful corners of the world that is Kotor, Montenegro (and just in time, as a cruise ship the size of the old city docked the morning we left). We weren’t actually sure why we were going to Bosnia in that moment. We had so much fun in Montenegro, we had forgotten all about the past versions of ourselves who somehow had some interest in Bosnia.
And the reason we actually planned this little Bosnia-detour is not very inspiring either. On a previous trip to Croatia, we saw a shabby advertisement outside of a sleepy tourist office in Cavtat. It read ‘day trip to Mostar’ – with a picture of an idyllic old bridge spanning a beautiful emerald river. ‘Woah, where is Mostar?’
‘Bosnia?!’ one of us exclaimed with Google Maps pulled up.
We briefly considered it, decided we’ll go and try to cross the border (I didn’t have a visa and I needed one, supposedly), but then we got distracted by all the Croatian wine and ended up somewhere in between wine lands and oyster bays. Oh well.
We’ll make a mental note of Bosnia & Herzegovina for next time.
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Instagram has changed us. I mean all of us.
Gone are the days when we paged through books without pictures to plan routes on paper. Heck, we all travel so much that none of us have time or space for libraries filled with Lonely Planet encyclopaedias. And the planet doesn’t feel so lonely anymore.
Instead we get inspired on Instagram: drone footage of turquoise waters and sprawling forests (should we get a drone?). Tents with fresh morning coffee on a Norwegian cliff somewhere (I could rough it in a suspended sleeping bag thing!…?). A pretty tanned girl candidly staring somewhere just outside of the picture frame, which is framing something like a palm tree bending over a Balinese beach, or that infinity pool. Maybe I could be her?
Anyways, we click the geotag, or we swipe up. We want to go where everyone else has been (and also pretend like we’re the only ones there).
And, most of the time, I like being swept away to these foreign places where I haven’t been or even the foreign places where I have. But let’s face it: Instagram favours the strong. In more ways than one. Bali, Paris, Venice, Morocco, the Amalfi coast or Cinque Terre, Iceland – yes.
Malawi, Mozambique, Romania, Cambodia outside of Siem Reap, Andaman and Nicobar islands? Not so much.
I mean, it’s just trends. I get it.
But Bosnia & Herzegovina is just not a country that is likely going to show up in your Instagram feed.
Planning to go to an underrated, or un-rated, places are fun. You get to scour two or three blog posts for every inch of information you can find, you can plan routes that haven’t been planned before, and then you see it all for the first time when you get there.
Skip to seeing ‘it’ the first time:
We made a painless border crossing from Montenegro and made our first stop in Stolac, a small town built around a creek with trees planted along it and ducks paddling by. And then, while some parts of the town was pretty (and bare in mind we spent a whole of 10 minutes here), what really caught our eyes was the debris of the ruins of abandoned buildings and shelled apartment blocks. And it’s right there in town, next to the pizza place or opposite the café.
I never know about the Bosnian war. I was born in 91, and it wasn’t part of the history curriculum in South Africa. All I read while researching our trip, was war-torn Mostar this, and war-torn Sarajevo that, but not really much beyond it. But it was startling to see a place who that has recovered from war still living with the debris of it in such an unceremonious way, so matter of factly. I say ‘still,’ but Bosnia has lived in peace for only about two decades – land mines still litter much of the countryside. As a South African who grew up in the wake of apartheid, I know two decades are but a breath, just a moment. But as a foreigner without any knowledge of the history or links to local identities, two decades can be made to feel like a completely different time and place.
We stayed all of 10 minutes in Stolac. We were looking for lunch, and found nothing – just some dark bars and a pizza place that only serves food at 4pm even though it’s open at lunch time.
We finally arrived in Mostar, and we were hungry, or should I say hangry, having been disappointed food-wise by Stolac. So we checked in to our perfect little room by the bridge and on the river (more on this later), and headed to the nearest restaurant (next door).
And here we made an important discovery: Bosnian food is INCREDIBLE.
We did NOT see this coming.
I remember sinking my teeth into a grilled lamb chop and it tasted like home. It was (almost) as good as a piece of meat home grilled over the hot coals in South Africa (the famous South African braai). And then eating some grilled Cevapi kebabs that tasted like meat from the other place that have made me felt at home – Turkey. Tomatoes, onions, potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, paprika and some of the tastiest meat I’ve ever had (and clearly I’m a meat buff). Bosnian food is off the charts.
And on the charts – it definitely makes our list of top 5 European countries in terms of food.
So then we were fed and the hunger veil slipped from our eyes, and we were able to take in the quaint little place they called Mostar. Up until this point all we’ve seen of Mostar was that one picture of the bridge (you best believe I’m including all our own versions of it here), and pretty bad exterior shots of hotels on booking.com. So – I knew we were gonna see a pretty bridge. But we had no idea how beautiful the medieval old town surrounding it would be, and how huge that pretty little bridge actually is!
It’s 30 meters long, and almost 25 meters high, and it is very important. Mostar is named after the Old Bridge (Stari Most), which was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, and which stood for almost 430 years before being destroyed by the Croat army during the war.
Mostar had been a battle ground during the war, even though no one knew about it because the news centred around the battle in Sarajevo. Then the croats targeted it, and more than 60 shells brought it down. The reason the outside world even took notice of the Mostar battle is because someone caught it on camera, and the film was released by new agencies.
It turns out that the guy who filmed it is the owner of the place we stayed at. He traveled underground with the tape to get out of Mostar, then rode across the country on horseback to Sarajevo, in order to get the footage out to the world. That is some badass bravery right there.
And we stayed in his house.
The bridge was rebuilt and reopened 11 years later, and most of the town was rebuilt too, though some battle scars mark the memories of not long ago. These pieces of ruin (and, I’ll admit, some plastic trash – the old town isn’t perfect) stick out between the cobblestoned streets, the Turkish taverns, minaret spires (did you know Bosnia is 50% Muslim?) the stone bridges, rushing water the colour of precious gems, all built up the feet of the mountainous valley.
Mostar is a remarkable city.
An easy 16-minute drive from Mostar is the medieval village of Blagaj. It feeds from the brilliantly emerald water of the Buna river and if you follow its stream you’ll find the Dervish monastery hugging the cliff, with it’s wooden balcony hanging over the crystal liquid.
It is beautiful and brief.
A 20-minute visit, a moment’s detour.
A small house for the modest Dervish cult, pressed up against the orange rock, which towers over that bubbling green.
Underrated, in a word.
Drive a beautiful snaking hour’s drive from the village of Blagaj, and you’ll be hearing the drone of Kravica Falls, just a stone’s throw away from the Croatia-Bosnia border. These falls sneak up on you, tucked down in the valley, showing itself right at the very end. It opens up in a small horseshoe and douses you with its spray. It’s not very big, but it’s very confident.
It was very, very wet when we visited the Balkans. The rivers were full up or flooded (almost half of Plitvice Lakes National Park was closed due to flooding), and Kravica was no different. The water was rushing through with definitive intent, but when it isn’t – in the summer months – the falls are open for business. Literally – entrance fee is 2EUR or something similarly little and you can swim and dip under the falls and let the long summer day go by. It’s free in winter. (Or it was for us).
Kravica falls was our last stop before crossing back over into familiar blogged-about, instagrammed Croatia, and it felt like we were leaving behind a secret.
So, what is the most underrated place we’ve ever been to?
Definitely, for sure, 100% Bosnia & Herzegovina.
SLEEP OVER IN MOSTAR
As per the origin of our knowledge of Mostar: it’s in a day trip itinerary from Dubrovnik. But if at all possible, sleep over in Mostar. We did, and, like any day trip destination, it’s amazing when the day trippers clear out. The old town becomes at once cozier and roomier. And getting up early to see a new place before it has waken itself up yet, is like another way of looking.
WHERE TO SLEEP OVER?
We found Pansion Villa Cardak on booking.com and it was perfect. The room is large and beautiful, the bathroom was large and clean, it is just a couple of steps from the river in front of the Old Bridge, right next to some great restaurants, and owned basically by regular Bosnian war heroes (read above).
It’s squeezed right in there on the river bank, with a little balcony to peruse the goings-on. When the thunderstorms lit up and doused the little city clean that night, we happily took it all in from the comfort of our balcony.
It’s got free parking, but it’s tight. Luckily the owners are awesome and will kindly pull in your car from the main road and expertly park it in the tiny little side street.
Book a room here.
WHERE TO EAT IN MOSTAR?
Restaurant Hindin Han is where we were served that most amazing meat described above. It is right next to the river, and if you go downstairs there are tables on a little overhanging balcony.
If you’re going when it’s warm, just remember to take your swim stuff, because I think it would be amazing to take a dip there, or rent some kayaks. You may or may not be charged a minimal entrance fee.
CROSSING THE BORDERS
Crossing the Bosnian-Montenegrin and Bosnian-Croat borders were quick and painless. The longest wait we had was probably 15 minutes. When you get to the front it’s a quick look in the passport and another stamp for your records – woohoo!
WAIT, WHERE IS EVERYTHING?
Google maps really struggled in Bosnia. It will show you the preview for your route, but you won’t actually be able to press ‘go’. I am uncertain wether it was because of poor coverage or of it’s one of those places where it’s disabled, but I would suggest downloading maps.me. It saved us many a time, despite Joel’s skepticism. And it works offline once you have the area downloaded.
NOT TRIED AND TESTED
Una National Park sits against the Bosnian border between Spilt and Zagreb. We had to choose between a coastal Croatian drive and an inland Bosnian drive, so we went with the coast, but man I really wanted to go to this place! I fell in a youtube wormhole watching river rafting videos one dark winter afternoon, and it looked amazing. So please go and let me know how it is!
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