My time in Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t entirely spent eating cevapi, drinking the local beer and inhaling a lifetime’s supply of second-hand smoke, even if at times it seemed that way. Sarajevo has many museums and sights of cultural significance to explore when one is riding the buzz from a pot of Bosnian coffee or seeking shade from the rising temperatures on an afternoon. For the extreme thrillseekers, perhaps those who are visiting the area during the winter months for the thriving ski opportunities on the Olympic mountains, a walk up the city’s many steep hills can provide as much adrenaline as any Jason Statham movie. While Sarajevo’s heart beats in Baščaršija, its life is in the hills, where ironically thousands of its people are buried. The slopes are steep, narrow, and winding; built primarily for horses back in the days when popular modes of transport had four legs rather than four wheels. It seems miraculous that there aren’t more accidents the way cars whizz up and down the single-track inclines. Somehow the drivers of both vehicles are able to slam on the breaks right before the moment of impact, as though there is a sixth sense to driving in Sarajevo. Often just watching the vehicles is as nerve-rattling as being in one.
While there are museums catering for all manner of interests, such as the Olympic Museum which recounts the 1984 Winter Olympics and was recently reopened after being destroyed by the Bosnian Serb aggressors; Muzej Sarajeva, dedicated to the events surrounding the outbreak of the First World War and found on the street corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated; the Sevdah Art House for an insight into sevdalinka [traditional urban love songs] and their famous singers, I spent much of my time in the museums which dealt with the impact of the 1992-1995 war. These places are crucial to visit if you wish a better understanding of the country Bosnia is today. If buildings could talk, many of them in Sarajevo would also weep from the horrors they have suffered, but places such as the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide can at least tell their stories for them.
I visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide on my second morning in Sarajevo. There weren’t many people inside when I arrived, and initially, I wondered if the name was holding it back. You could see why tourists might prefer to eat gelato and listen to the performers on the street nearby. The exhibits and stories within the space are stomach-churning. What the museum does effectively is not to overwhelm the visitor with numbers and figures, but rather it presents written stories from victims of the war alongside personal belongings that have either been donated by survivors of the genocide or recovered from mass graves. Many of the accounts are devastating, the sort of thing most minds couldn’t possibly imagine, and from the next room where a film was being screened, I could hear a woman sob. I spent between two and three hours in the museum, but even that doesn’t begin to answer how people can inflict some of these acts on another human. It is simultaneously the best museum I have ever visited and also the most terrible.
If there is one thing that could lift my spirits after reading about the horrors of ethnic cleansing, I felt certain that it would be a visit to the Sarajevo Brewery. It was never my intention to go to the brewery, but after Edin told our group on the free walking tour the previous day about how it was the only source of water for many Sarajevans during the siege, and since I wasn’t really in the mood for anything else following my visit to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, I decided to go across the bridge and walk towards the brewery’s distinctive red brick chimney. I was hoping that there might have been a big tour around the historic facility showing groups of visitors how Sarajevsko lager is produced, but it turns out that they don’t offer such a thing, and the bar and restaurant that used to operate next door has been closed since the pandemic. As it goes, the museum was no bigger than my living room – where people can at least watch beer being consumed – and it cost 10BKM [approximately £5] to get in. It must have taken me ten minutes to look around the exhibits, which were comprised mostly of newspaper cuttings and empty bottles, but I stayed for around twenty-five since I had paid for it and was feeling awkward about leaving when I was the only person there. During the entire duration of my visit, I could hear the young woman at the ticket desk eating potato chips and watching what sounded like a Bosnian sitcom on her phone. At times, I couldn’t focus on the exhibits for wondering what flavour the crisps were. It was surreal, but I suppose at least one of us was getting something from our afternoon there.
My intention was to enjoy a relatively relaxed evening on Thursday since I was due to take a trip to Mostar at eight o’clock the following morning with Meet Bosnia, but a sorrowful morning spent at the war crimes museum and an underwhelming afternoon in the Sarajevsko Brewery left me craving more. In an effort to fill the void, I tried Bosnia’s other national dish, burek, for the first time. It is simply thin filo pastry filled with meat. In other Balkan countries, as well as in Turkey, burek refers generally to the pie and you would ask for it with whichever filling you desire, but a burek in Bosnia is specifically a meat pie, while other varieties such as cheese, potato, spinach, or pumpkin have their own names. The taste reminded me of a Scottish bridie but without the onions. I liked it well enough, though it has nothing on the cevapi. As it is prone to do, beer follows beef, and soon enough I found myself drinking at the appropriately named Dilema Pub. This establishment presumably thought very carefully about whether or not to keep the additional letter ‘m’ from the English translation.
As the name above the door implied, I was tempted by the bar’s cheap offerings, but at the same time mindful of the long journey ahead of me, and I returned to my accommodation at Hostel Franz Ferdinand before 11 pm. There, I found an Irishman and German-Bosnian woman drinking cans of beer in the communal area, and I remembered how life is often an ongoing dilemma. I continued on to my room, where I ditched my backpack and dried the river of sweat from my forehead, before returning to the lounge and asking if anyone had a Sarajevsko they could spare. The three of us sat until the small hours putting the world to rights. The Irishman was older than us, probably in his late forties or early fifties and travelling the region by bicycle, while the German-Bosnian was younger and was hoping to find the best way of confronting her strict Bosnian-Serb parents with the details of genocide she had learned while in Sarajevo; information they have previously denied. More than anything, I marvelled listening to two strangers who had only met in the hostel the day before yet seemed like good friends talk about their experiences travelling. In particular, the Irishman, whose head was as smooth as the taste of a Sarajevsko lager, was a seasoned traveller. It always seemed ridiculous to me the way that people can seemingly afford to spend their life going from country to country, often waking up one morning in Bosnia and deciding that they will take a bus to Montenegro on the spur of the moment, but if you are able to do it, I can’t think of a good reason why anyone wouldn’t travel. I felt quite sheepish when the Irishman segued from one of his anecdotes to ask where I had been before arriving in Sarajevo and the best I could come up with was that I had once been to a gig in Milton Keynes, had most recently taken a bus tour of Belfast, and visited New York City a couple of times. I confessed that I didn’t know if I could ever do the professional traveller thing like he does, but I already knew after three days in Sarajevo that my life had changed, I just wasn’t yet sure how.
Despite the late night, I woke up fresh for my journey to Mostar, where I had arranged to spend the weekend. Our tour group for the day was an eclectic mix comprised of an older Norwegian couple, some fresh-faced Austrians who came along with an elderly Bosnian woman they seemed to know, a Spanish woman who now lives in the United States, along with our fearless and stylish driver and guide Kenan, who was surely the rock star tour guide of Meet Bosnia. As the drive into Herzegovina unfolded, it was becoming obvious that the Spaniard is the first person I have met who has perfectly personified the “Karen” social media meme made popular during the Covid lockdown. You could tell she was going to be trouble from the moment the tour left the agency and Kenan had to drive all the way up into the steep hills to find her rented accommodation, which must have been on the narrowest street in Eastern Europe. It’s not that she didn’t think to come down to meet the eight-seater car at a more convenient spot, but rather that when she got inside the large vehicle she spent ten minutes complaining about how awkward it is staying in an apartment up there since the buses and even some taxis don’t come that far into the hills. I could only think that it was similar to a remarkably successful psychic who has a powerful premonition about ending up with a horribly disfigured arm but goes ahead with the “advanced chainsaw operation for novices” class nonetheless.
Karen had a contrary statement about everything. When we stopped in Jablanica for some brunch, where they are famed for making roasted lamb sandwiches, she insisted that she didn’t feel like eating because she’d enjoyed a large breakfast, but was unhappy that we wouldn’t have another opportunity for food until the early evening. Kenan suggested that she could order a sandwich to have wrapped for later in the day, but she didn’t like that option either. The guide went to great lengths to explain how we were driving around the outskirts of Mostar on our way to visit some other small towns and would return to the city as our final stop. After all of this, Karen piped up and asked, “why do people visit Mostar? It looks boring.” It was the equivalent of joining a book club and turning up to the meeting to discuss Moby Dick and all you have to say is, “why do people read this book? The cover looks boring.”
It was the same everywhere we went. In Kravice, where they have one of the largest waterfalls in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and surely the most impressive, Karen refused to pay the entrance to see the natural wonder up close because she had already been to the Niagara Falls. When we arrived in Mostar, we had the incredible fortune of getting onto the shore just as one of the professional jumpers was preparing to dive from the rebuilt 16th Century Ottoman Stari Most [Old Bridge] into the Nerveta river 20 metres below. The leap requires a great deal of training from a young age, and before each one, a couple of fellow divers walk between the crowds gathering on the bridge and below seeking donations to make the risk worthwhile. They won’t make the jump until they have earned enough money. Most people put their hands in their pockets seeking spare change, but not Karen. She had already seen people make a much more dangerous dive from a bridge in Mexico. Honestly, I don’t know how Kenan put up with it. His patience was admirable when it would surely have been easier to crash down on her like a cascading waterfall. The best of it is that, since we were the only two solo travellers in the group, Karen spent a lot of her time talking to me. I mean, Karen clearly wasn’t a bad person and she was probably just misunderstood, but there were times during the day when I would have rathered be stood next to the woman from the departure gate at Luton Airport.
Aside from Karen, our drive to Mostar was spectacular. While I had been struggling with the temperatures which were in the mid-to-high twenties in Sarajevo, you could immediately feel a change when we moved into Herzegovina. The mercury climbed at least another six degrees. It is said that in some parts of the region there are as few as 40 days of rain in the year. Even in a comfortable, air-conditioned car, I was beginning to worry that factor 50 wasn’t going to be enough to soothe my vulnerable Scottish skin. Some of the water in the rivers we saw along the way were so blue that it appeared green. I’ve never seen a colour like it, not even on the faces of passengers travelling in a car through Sarajevo’s hills.
It often seems that every town in this country has its own beautiful bridge, and one of my favourites was in Konjic. It isn’t as immediately striking or famous as the old bridge in Mostar, but it rests beneath a postcard backdrop – or I suppose, for the internet generation, an Instagrammable setting. Like so many old structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has recently been rebuilt after standing for centuries until being destroyed by the war, though in the case of Konjic’s Old Stone Bridge, it was brought down by retreating Nazi occupiers at the end of the Second World War. In Počitelj, we were taken to an imposing Ottoman-era fortress village, while in Blagaj at the spring of the river Buna, Kenan showed us the historical Tekke [Dervish monastery] built around 1520 at the foot of a mighty cliff. It’s the kind of thing that can really make a person’s jaw detach from the rest of their face, and all I could think was how much I wanted to tell the Irishman from the hostel about how I had finally seen something in the world, but I knew that he would be halfway to Montenegro or Albania by then.
After a pleasant dinner with the rest of the group in Mostar, we parted ways as they drove back to Sarajevo while I went in search of the Downtown Hostel, where I would be staying for a couple of nights. It wasn’t very far at all from the city’s old town, although when I arrived, I wasn’t immediately confident that I’d gone to the right place. Upon opening the outer door, I walked into what appeared to be the garden of a family home. Sitting at the table by the porch was a couple not much older than I am, alongside another man, an elderly woman and a young toddler who was rampaging around the place. They were all smoking cigarettes and drinking Sarajevsko lager and grape rakija. I stopped in my tracks, convinced that I must have made a mistake. My pigeon Bosnian could barely flap out of my mouth to say hello, but the wife recognised from my enormous backpack that I had arrived to check in. As was so often the case during my time in Bosnia, my “dober dan” elicited a string of incomprehensible words in return. I imagine that my face took on the same kind of blank expression that Karen’s had earlier in the day when she was staring at the Kravice waterfall and thinking of the Niagara Falls.
I held up my hands and confessed that I had only really learned four essential words of Bosnian ahead of my trip – those for hello, please, thank you, and beer. It was my favourite joke to use once I was confident that people could grasp my Scottish brogue. The woman laughed and called back outside to her husband. “This guy says he only knows four Bosnian words,” she said as she marched me back to the table. She encouraged me to repeat what I had told her, and the entire table was soon in uproar. Her husband, who was sitting with his cousin, pulled a can of Sarajevsko lager from the plastic ring and asked me if I would like to have a drink. I told him that I wouldn’t say no, “mostly because I don’t know what your word for no is.”
Before I had even been shown to my room in the hostel, which essentially seemed to be a family home that had been partially converted into accommodation for travellers, I was sitting at the table by the porch with the entire family, drinking a can of beer and being poured a measure of grape rakija, which was apparently homemade. The two cousins were fantastically welcoming, and it didn’t take long for me to feel as though I was drinking amongst friends at home. They bantered back and forth about a story that was obviously a favourite of theirs, where the husband of the household had bought a wood-burning stove from his cousin and installed it in the smallest room of his home. The trouble is that the stove was so large that having it on for even just a few minutes made the room unbearably hot. After a while, the husband just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to sell the stove, much to his cousin’s amusement. “He’s the only person in Bosnia who has ever complained about having too much heat,” he laughed.
They bickered over the details of the story, and the husband felt that he was being hard done to by his cousin’s recollection of events. His cousin argued that the way he tells it makes it funnier and more memorable. I could see both sides of the dispute. I had sympathy with the husband since he was clearly me in Aulay’s on a Friday night; but at the same time, every funny anecdote needs a sucker who does something stupid, whether it’s buying a wood-burning stove that is much too big for your home, or spending 10BKM to look at a collection of empty beer bottles.
I just loved watching the family dynamic and being invited to be a part of it. I no longer felt like I was on holiday; this was everything the folks in the hostel in Sarajevo were talking about. The husband equalled the point-scoring when he reminded his cousin that he had been born in Serbia, while the cousin was only Bosnian-Serb. I was curious to know how people in Mostar feel about their compatriots in Sarajevo, explaining the way that there is a rivalry between those living in Scotland’s two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. I was told, simply, that “in a thousand years’ time, people in Sarajevo will still be telling everybody else about the 1984 Winter Olympics.”
With a bellyful of rakija, I finally checked into my modest room and headed back out into the old town of Mostar. Down by the Stari Most where I had earlier watched a man plummet straight into the river, a small stand was selling Mostarsko Pivo [beer] on draft. It seemed the ideal spot for me to unpack the first few hours of my Herzegovina experience. A local radio station pumped hit songs from the eighties into the darkening June sky: Is This Love; Total Eclipse of the Heart; Moonlight Shadow. Couples sat on the rocks next to the unflinching Nerveta River drinking bottles of wine. Groups of teenage girls laughed from striped deck chairs. Usually, my Friday nights are spent standing by the ice box in Aulay’s, getting banter from Amanda, trying to catch Sammy’s eye, and putting up with the Plant Doctor’s terrible jokes. But on this occasion, I was drinking beer while looking at a UNESCO World Heritage site. If Sarajevo was life in the fast lane, then this was very much living in the slow lane.
Coming soon: Mostar and Medjugorje (part three)