We believe that each place you visit leaves you with just a little more knowledge about the world in which we live. Last week we traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina where we expanded our understanding of the Bosnian War. This former Yugoslavian nation does not likely appear on many RTW itineraries, and, to be honest, we didn’t have very high expectations. Sarajevo simply appeared to be a good place to exit Eastern Europe, but we could not have been more wrong. The sights we saw and the stories we heard about the Bosnian War impacted us profoundly. We are going to share our impressions, but first want to clarify that it was a very complicated war. It would take years of research to fully understand what happened, if understanding war is even possible.
Our first stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina was Mostar. Situated in the Herzegovina region, this relatively small city of about 130,000 people is most well-known for its old bridge (Stari Most) which spans the Neretva river.
Sadly, however, the first thing that caught our attention in Mostar was not the bridge nor beautiful nearby mountains; it was the many bombed out ruins of buildings. Despite the nearly 15 million dollars that have been put into the reconstruction of the city since the war ended in 1995, many buildings remain in shambles.
Over the years, we have both visited developing nations and have seen poor living conditions, but witnessing the destructive power of war is something completely different. It left us feeling quite somber as we wondered through the town.
After an evening of pondering our first impressions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we decided to check out the brighter side of Mostar and see why it is a top tourist destination. Stari Most is indeed a magnificent bridge, and its white stone arch makes a beautiful contrast against the brightly colored, turquoise-blue water of the river. Our first walk across the bridge was met with an overwhelming cluster of camera-in-hand tourists peering over the edge. We quickly noticed that the crowd had formed to watch a group of locals jumping off the bridge into the quickly moving current below.
At the Old Bridge Museum, which is housed in one of the bridge’s two towers, we learned that the original bridge was built in 1557 for the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Like many buildings in Mostar, Stari Most was greatly affected by the war. In fact, after standing for more than 400 years, the original bridge was destroyed during a shelling on November 9, 1993. Reconstruction of the current bridge was not completed until 2004.
Our visit to Mostar happened to coincide with Easter. It was thought-provoking to spend this holiday in a primarily Muslim area; most people seemed to be going about their day as normal. You wouldn’t have known it was Easter at all were it not for the sound of church bells intermingled with the Islamic call to prayer. Interestingly enough, we entered our first mosque on Easter and walked to the top of the minaret where it is possible to take in panoramic views of the town.
The Bosnian War was one of several wars that begun as a result of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and occurred when ethnic and religious tensions between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox Serbians) and Croats (Catholic Croatians) had reached a peak. While the wars have ended and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is now at peace (at least on the surface), signs of conflict between these groups are still present. One example in Mostar is the cross on Hum Hill. This hill was a key military position during the war and was the base of many Croat sniper and mortar attacks against the Bosniak population. Today, the hill is crowned by an imposing cross which stands at 33 meters high. For many Bosniaks, it is viewed as an attempt by Catholic Croats to claim ownership over the city. The city’s Croat population, however, argues that Muslim monuments (i.e. numerous mosques and the Stari Most) dominate the city’s old town. For the Croats, the construction of the cross in 2000 simply meant having a monument to call their own. Regardless of which side you’re on, the cross on Hum Hill is just one example of how the war continues to impact society today.
After a few days in Mostar, we caught a morning train to Sarajevo. In a recent post we mentioned how much we love train travel, and this trip was no exception. The train ran along the Neretva river, through rolling hills, and eventually, into snow-capped, rocky mountains. The two and a half hour ride was simply spectacular. For only $6 per person, it may be the best money we have ever spent.
As the train pulled into Sarajevo, it was back to reality. While the city appears to have recovered and rebuilt more than Mostar, many buildings are still riddled with bullet holes and crumbling from mortar blasts. Yet, at the same time, the city has the vibe of a thriving European capital.
Unfortunately we only allowed ourselves one day and night in Sarajevo, but we think we made the most of it. Wanting to learn more about the war, we signed up for a “Tunnel Tour” through our hostel which is run by a family from Sarajevo. We learned so much from Saed, the father, who shared his knowledge about the history of the war and also many personal stories. He and his family lived through four years of war in the same building where they now run their hostel. It was chilling to hear him explain their daily routine of waking up before the gunfire and bombing began at 5am and relocating to the basement where it was safer.
During the tour, we were driven all over the city of Sarajevo as Saed explained the landscape. An important note is that almost all of the buildings from the 1984 Olympic Games were destroyed; some have been rebuilt with donations from the international community, while others have been lost forever. We discussed what the city may have been like today if the war had never happened. It was growing rapidly and prosperous enough to attract the Olympics in ’84, but by ’94 was the centerpiece in a savage war. The name “Tunnel Tour” stems from the most important site visited, the entry of a tunnel which runs below Sarajevo airport, connecting the former Olympic Village of Dobrinja to the base of the mountains. It allowed the people of Sarajevo to transport much needed supplies to and from the outside world during the siege, and it was vital to their ability to hold off the Serbian forces.
During our week stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we learned so much about the history of the country and the perseverance of the Bosnian people. We both recall hearing about the Bosnian War on the news when we were young; it was the first war that we remember happening during our lifetime. Perhaps because of this, it made our visit more impactful. While Bosnia and Herzegovina is not the most glamorous of destinations, it is certainly a thought-provoking and beautiful place to visit, worth adding to your next European trip.