Tell your parents you plan on backpacking through Bosnia and Herzegovina and they’ll probably raise their eyebrows, as well as a few concerns. That’s because while us youngins were watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the early ’90s, our parents were watching Yugoslavia self-destruct on the 7pm news – and it was a pretty epic self-destruction, with Serbia’s all out attack on eastern Bosnia resulting in one of the largest war crime atrocities since World War II. But from the wreckage of a war that is still worn on the faces of its people, Bosnia and Herzegovina is beginning to recreate itself. Twenty years on, Bosnia has fast become one of the hottest destinations for backpackers and is leaving a lasting impression on those who make the journey. So why should you stuff your backpack and make the pilgrimage?
#1 It’s easy to get to
Bosnia and Herzegovina sits in the centre of Eastern Europe in the heartland of the Balkans. It’s conveniently close to everyone’s favourite suite of islands, Croatia, and slightly north west of new fan favourite, Montenegro. In fact, Bosnia and Herzegovina sits smack bam in the middle of the new ‘Eastern Eurotrip’, where backpackers travel from Belgrade via Dubrovnik and down to Kotor, or vice versa. Public transport across the Bosnian borders is super easy, not to mention inexpensive, and being in the Schengen Area means there’s no visa necessary.
#2 It’s cheap
Every backpacker’s favourite word. Bosnia’s troubled economy guarantees amazing bang for your buck – 1KM (mark) is about $0.80AUD. The cities are incredibly good value for a budget traveller. You can easily get by on 30 to 40KM per day including your food, drinks and accommodation, which leaves a satisfying amount leftover for tacky souvenirs (and there’s plenty of those available). Despite not being in the Euro, major cities such as Mostar and Sarajevo will accept both Euro and Mark so it’s always helpful to carry both currencies on you.
#3 It’s beautiful
Mostar and Sarajevo have, in every sense of the word, crumbled under the weight of the war. Buildings have been reduced to nothing more than exoskeletons, with entire walls riddled with bullet holes and left to look like Swiss cheese. But new life is springing up between the cracks of what’s left, turning Bosnia into a modern Garden of Babylon.
Charge up your phone and prepare to be smitten by some seriously Instagram-friendly vistas, from the beautiful Kravice waterfalls to Mostar’s Stari-Most – ‘the bridge’ famous for attracting adrenalin junkies who jump 24 metres into the river below. Tourists can participate for a fee, but you plunge at your own risk.
#4 It’s cultural
With its Turkish and Hungarian roots, Bosnia’s weird mishmash of culture and religions makes for some good wandering. Head to Baščaršija (Sarajevo’s Old town) to get a feel for the impact of the Turkish Ottoman period on Sarajevo’s architecture, and pick up some baklava and copper jewellery while you’re at it. West of Mostar, in the country town of Blagaj, you’ll find a picturesque Dervish monastery built in 1520 which is quintessential vacation spam.
In a country which was destroyed as a result of ethnic cleansing, religions now live alongside each other relatively peacefully. The call to prayer echoes out from the Mosque towers scattered across the Sarajevo cityscape, closely followed by the church bells ringing for evening mass. It’s an auditory paradox, but it works.
#5 It’s historical
But as we all know, religions haven’t always played together nicely in Bosnia. If you need to brush up on your understanding of the Bosnian war, put aside two hours to pay a visit to Galerie 11/07/95 in Sarajevo – the first memorial gallery to pay homage to the 8372 people killed in the Srebrenica genocide.
Over in Mostar, Hostel Nina not only offers cheap and cheerful accommodation, but it has the best historical tour in town, with a private driver and tour guide taking you to sites outside of the town including an abandoned aircraft hanger, Pocitelj city and Hum Hill. Just don’t hike off the trails because, you know, landmines.
One spot no tour guide will take you and which won’t cost you a cent is Mostar’s Sniper Tower – an eight-storey bank that was blown apart and used by Serbs and Croats to sniper Bosniaks on the frontline. These days it’s become a sort of urban museum; the floors are still littered with rusted bullet casings and street art covers every square inch of the walls. Follow the other curious travellers nosing around the building and jump over the back wall to get in.
#6 It’s hip and tasty
What with all the death and destruction, you can easily wind up feeling a bit bummed in Bosnia. But when in Bosnia, do as the Bosnians do, and eat your feelings.
Every restaurant you come across can be counted on to serve the local dish ‘cevapi’. This incredibly cheap and tasty delicacy is a plate of mixed beef and lamb sausages served with somun bread and diced onions. It doesn’t look like much, but you’ll never believe how tasty this 6KM meal can be.
Bosnia also over-delivers on the fresh fruit and produce. Sarajevo’s local market is a bustling hotspot where you’ll find fresh plump tomatoes the size of your head and figs that put all other figs to shame. And it’s not a day in Bosnia without trying a cup of Bosnian coffee. Sure, it looks like sludge, but boy does it do the trick.
For entertainment of the after-dark variety, head to Kino BOSNIA, an old movie theatre which now sells cheap alcohol for nightlife enthusiasts. Sample the locally-made rajika (err on the side of less is more, trust us) before heading over to City Pub and get on the dance floor for some live Bosnian tunes.
(Lead image: “Mostar Brückenspringer Trevor” by Foto: Sven Wolter, Lizenz: Creative Commons by-sa-3.0 de. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons. All other images: Kristen Hyde)