On December 15th 2017, I stepped off a plane in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Not only was this trip so special because I’d dreamed of visiting here since becoming fascinated by Bosnian history and culture over a decade ago, but also because Bosnia and Herzegovina marked the 50th country I’d visited. Determined to make the most of our time there, we arranged a day trip out of Sarajevo to visit the famed natural beauty of Herzegovina, including stops at Konjic, Jablanica, Počitelj, Blagaj and Mostar. My trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina definitely wasn’t a day trip in its usual sense – but as my milestone 50th country, I couldn’t resist writing about it!
At a glance:
Bosnia and Herzegovina / Bosna i Hercegovina
Currency: Bosnian Convertible Mark (BAM)
Area: 51,129 km2
National Day: March 1st (Federation of BiH) January 9th (Republika Srpska)
National Anthem: Državna Himna Bosne i Hercegovine – National Anthem of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Highest Point: – Maglić – 2,386 metres (7,828 ft)
Famous for: bridges, minarets, 1984 winter Olympics
- Ivo Andrić (Nobel Prize winning writer, famed for The Bridge on the Drina)
- Dino Merlin (musician and composer)
- Edin Džeko (footballer)
- Fahreta Živojinović (singer, better known as Lepa Brena)
- The name Herzegovina, the region comprising roughly the southern third of the country, comes from the German word ‘herzog’ meaning ‘duke’. This is because the territory of modern day Herzegovina formed a medieval duchy under Stjepan Vukčić Kosača.
- Sarajevo holds the unfortunate record of undergoing the longest siege in modern military history. The city was besieged for 1,425 days from April 5th 1992 to February 29th 1996 as part of the conflicts during the break up of Yugoslavia. 5,434 civilians were killed during this time.
- Following the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, the Republic of Ragusa (modern day Dubrovnik) feared that the Venetians would use the territories granted to them by the treaty to attack the city. In response, Ragusa gave a small piece of land to the Ottoman Empire to create a buffer zone between them and the Venetians – this is why today Bosnia and Herzegovina has the 2nd shortest coastline in the world at just 26km!
In 2005, businessman Semir Osmanagić claimed that the hills around the Central Bosnian town of Visoko were actually the largest human-made pyramids on Earth, dating from around 34,000 years ago. Despite massive international media attention, the majority of scientists and archaeologists dismiss the claims a hoax.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina first entered the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993. Their debut entry, ‘Sva Bol Svijeta’ by Fazla gained notoriety not only as a song about the Bosnian War, but also because the band had to flee Sarajevo under gun fire to perform it at the contest. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s best ever placing at the contest to date was in 2006, when they came 3rd with ‘Lejla’ by Hari Mata Hari.
There are three official languages in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian – South Slavic languages that were once collectively known as Serbo-Croatian. From a linguistic point of view, all 3 languages are mutually intelligible, except for minor vocabulary differences. Bosnian in particular borrows more words from Turkish and Arabic than other variants because of the region’s Islamic heritage. While younger people in the cities speak some English, this is less likely with older generations. Trying to speak Bosnian will endear you to people very quickly, so here are some phrases to get you started!
|Goodbye||Do viđenja||do vi-jen-ya|
|How much does this cost?||Koliko to košta?||koh-lee-ko to kosh-tah|
|Do you speak English||Da li govorite engleski?||da lee go-vo-ree-teh en-gles-key|
|I don’t understand||Ne razumijem||ne ra-zu-mi-yem|
Though Mostar has its own airport at Ortiješ, roughly 7km from the city, currently there are very few flights serving it. Although over 150km away, Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia is more easily reachable and several bus companies connect Dubrovnik to Mostar. Public transport around Herzegovina can make it difficult to visit more than one of these places in a single day by yourself, so you may want to consider booking a guided tour to make the most of your time.
What to do:
Just 50km south-west of Sarajevo, Konjic is believed to be one of the oldest permanent settlements in Bosnia with people having lived here for some 4000 years. The town’s most famous landmark, Konjička Stara Ćuprija or the Old Bridge was built by Ali-aga Hasečić between 1682 and 1683. Blown apart by retreating Nazis in 1945, the bridge was left mostly in ruins until it was finally reconstructed in 2009. Crossing the narrow stone bridge gives you impressive views of both the mountains around town, as well as the Ottoman Old Town along the riverbank. Hidden under the mountains near Konjic, the ARK is a massive bunker complex built for Marshal Tito during the Cold War. The most secret military installation in Yugoslavia, it cost some $4.6 billion at the time of its construction and took 26 years to complete – during which time nuclear technology advanced so much that the bunker would never provide effective shelter and was left empty for decades. The order to destroy the facility during the break-up of Yugoslavia was refused by the bunker’s guards, so it still stands today as a tourist attraction and art gallery – perhaps the safest such gallery in the world!
Driving west from Konjic will take you along the shores of Jablaničko Jezero, an artificial lake and popular holiday destination created by the building of a hydroelectric dam in 1955. At the far end of the lake, the small town façade of Jablanica belies the fact that it once witnessed one of the most dramatic events of the Second World War. In March 1943, Tito, his partisans and some 4,000 wounded, civilians and refugees were surrounded by the Nazis and other fascist factions. Facing such odds, Tito ordered several bridges along the River Neretva to be destroyed, convincing the Nazis the partisans would escape north. The plan was a bluff, and Tito led a daring river crossing at Jablanica (up the destroyed bridge) and saved many lives. The twisted and rusting remains of the bridge seen today are not from the battle, but a prop from the 1969 film “Battle of the Neretva“, the most expensive film ever produced by Yugoslav cinema. Next to the bridge, the Museum of the Battle of the Wounded on the Neretva tells the story of battle and will help give you an insight into the event’s lasting legacy.
Nestled in a valley not far from the Croatian border, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Počitelj is one of the few places in Bosnia whose original medieval character still remains intact. Crowned by a 15th century citadel that once helped the city repel a single siege for 20 years, the quiet stone alleyways winding around the restored Ottoman Šišman Ibrahim-pašina Mosque give Počitelj a captivating and timeless atmosphere. Be sure to hike up to the fortress for breathtaking views over the city and valley. Following the course of the Neretva to the north-east takes you to another UNESCO site just outside Blagaj. At the bottom of a towering cliff, Vrelo Bune is the underground source of the River Buna. Although the river only runs for 9km, its spring is one of the largest and most powerful in Europe, producing over 30,000 litres of water a second. With such a dramatic setting that still exudes such serenity, it’s little wonder that Islamic mystics built the Blagaj Tekke here as a spiritual retreat. Sometimes referred to as a Dervish monastery, the white Ottoman style buildings have been renovated and added to many times over the centuries, but were first built around 1520.
The 5th largest city in Bosnia, Mostar is also the unofficial capital of Herzegovina. Arching gracefully over the River Neretva, the Old Bridge, known locally as Stari Most, was commissioned in the mid-16th century and is the undisputed symbol of the city. The dimensions of this stone bridge were unprecedented at the time of its construction – some even say the architect fled after work finished, fearing the bridge would collapse! Sadly, it was destroyed by shell fire in November 1993. Some of the original stones from the bridge can still be seen on the riverbank with a memorial plaque. Rebuilt in 2004, crossing it takes you into the cobbled streets of Mostar’s beautifully restored Old Town. Although there are many restaurants and souvenir stalls here to keep you busy, it’s also the perfect place to just stroll around and soak up the soothing spirit of the city. For the self-proclaimed best view in Mostar, find the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque nestled in a courtyard just off the main street and climb to the top of its minaret. Not only is the view of the Stari Most spectacular, but you also get an unparalleled panorama of the city as a whole.
With its wild river springs, sweeping mountains and enchantingly historic towns, Bosnia and Herzegovina certainly have a lot to offer. A day exploring Herzegovina not only rewards you with stunning scenery throughout, but also offers you an insight into Bosnia’s often turbulent, but always fascinating history. I was humbled and amazed by all I saw and cannot recommend visiting this beautiful mosaic of country enough – simply put, I can’t wait to return!
A big thank you to Ana Beltran for all her help and patiently answering my (hundreds of) questions about Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also to Adnan and Meet Bosnia Tours for driving us around Herzegovina and giving us a tour we’ll never forget! Hvala lijepa! Also a big thank you to Bogdan Fedeleş for coming along on the day.
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