Bosnia and Herzegovina

Continuation from my previous posts about Romania and Serbia. Originally for this trip we'd wanted to do Montenegro and had considered taking the famous Belgrade-Bar train line, but in my research I kept reading great things about Bosnia, and a friend had visited and also recommended it, so we decided to skip Montenegro and visit Sarajevo and Mostar instead. We arrived late from Belgrade into Sarajevo, getting semi-fleeced once again by a train station cab driver (we learned too late we should negotiate fares in advance, since most cab drivers at train stations in the Balkans are shady and will charge more than they should), but we got to an actual apartment this time around 11pm. A very young woman had asked us our arrival time to meet us there - I don't think she's the manager, but her father, but she speaks English. I did all my bookings through Booking.com which is a great resource based on the combination of cheap prices and the ability to read reviews (I'm picky about where I stay). What wasn't quite clear from Booking.com was that this was a shared apartment - a large, two bedroom place with another couple staying in one of the bedrooms. That felt awkward at first, but we never saw them so it wasn't an issue.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

The apartment was in an older building, but obviously recently redone, and beautiful on the inside. It included a huge bathroom with a washer/dryer, which saved us a laundromat trip, which is invaluable at this point in our trip. The location was amazing - right on the main drag along the river in the old town, we could see the infamous Latin Bridge (where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated) from our room, and were right in the heart of the Turkish old town. It was 60 euro/night, which is somewhat pricey by Bosnian standards, but included a huge living room, kitchen, and the room itself could have slept 4 people (same price regardless of people). It was late and we were exhausted, but hungry, and our young hostess told us how to get to a late-night restaurant nearby. It was a steakhouse that wasn't particularly good, but it was open. We ate, and slept. In the morning light, Sarajevo was stunning. I went to the market and bakery and got us burek and yogurt and grapes for breakfast, and beer for later, which we ate in the peace of the apartment, then went out to check out the modest museum of Austria-Hungary's occupation of Bosnia. We then checked out the Askhenazi synagogue, which was awkward at first (we had to ask to see it, and were told to wait, and then given a brief private tour) but after I threw a few coins in the donation box, we were treated like family. We had Bosnian coffee and watched the rather elderly Jewish community converse and play games, and were given some postcards and photographs of what the synagogue looked like before the war. It was again heartening to see actual Jewish life in Europe, especially in communities that had suffered so much during both the Holocaust and more recent war.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

After that we visited the Sarajevo cathedral, saw the last remaining "Sarajevo rose" - mortar blasts filled in with hard red paint - and then had lunch at a Lebanase place offering falafel and kebab, which was fine but not great. Afterwards we poked our heads into a couple of the courtyards of the many, many mosques in the city, admired the truly cool fashion sense of the young women in hijab, had more "Bosnian coffee" (aka Turkish coffee), and got given the best sales pitch in the world by a guy in the coppersmith's alley. After going back to our apartment to change out laundry, we tried some of the famous Balkan brandy at a rakija bar, and appropriately drunk got cevapcici (or is it just cevapi?) for dinner also in the old Turkish town. I'm being a bit lazy to look up names of restaurants at this point - everywhere we ate in Sarajevo was essentially a fast food joint, and I'm not sure if one is much better than another, but the greasy pita-like bread the cevapi came in at this place, combined with the fresh, creamy kajmak cheese, was a real cut above what we had before or after with those little unappetizing things. (Cevapcici or cevapi are little fingers of ground meat that are grilled - they look a bit like dog turds, and while they are tasty enough, you get tired of them pretty fast, but they're the ubiquitous Balkan fast food) After dinner we went to Ribica, the most famous bar in Sarajevo. It's hard to describe - I thought of it as a central European version of this bar I know in Oakland - anyway, it's a real trip, a "theme" bar without a real theme, reasonably priced, with a ton of great little bites given to you by the bartender in a flapper's getup as good jazz plays over the speakers, and Bollywood movies and the History channel plays on the TVs.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

It was raining as we left Ribica, so on our long walk back to the apartment we ducked into another bar called Nostalgia, which was more of your typical slightly-douchey basement club so common in Europe. The next morning we grabbed cheese burek for breakfast (recurring theme) at a bakery, and just walked around some more. We'd hoped to make it to the historical museum, but it was a bit further out from the old city, and we'd elected to sleep in (still so exhausted at this point) so we just took our time walking around more of the old city, visiting the Sephardic synagogue/Jewish museum (got to hear a very animated discussion in Hebrew between two Israeli visitors and the Bosnian docent about Yugoslav history) before boarding our bus to Mostar. The bus to Mostar was not a luxurious one, but the drive was beautiful, and I'd regretted taking a later bus from Belgrade to Sarajevo, as it was dark before we reached the mountains and we'd missed the scenery. Bosnia is without a doubt the most beautiful country I'd seen in Europe so far. Amazing mountain scenery, rivers, lakes, surprisingly diverse in flora and geographic features. You could tell we were entering Herzegovina as the landscape got drier, more akin to Southern California, or Provence, with rocky mountains and scrub. In Mostar, we found our way to our hotel fairly easily (even though I missed the sign, got flustered, and went to have a beer at the cafe right across the street before I realized I was already there), and were greeted by Theo, a very charming host, who insisted on pouring us a beer "on the house" and having us sit while he checked us in with another couple (Croatian) and explaining the layout of the town, best sights, and restaurants. Cont.

Posted by Sarah
Chicago (formerly St. Louis), IL, USA
1311 posts

I really liked this trip report too, and I especially love reading about your visits to synagogues. Have you been to the Jewish Museum in Paris? If you're interested, here's a review I wrote for the St. Louis Jewish Light: http://www.stljewishlight.com/blogs/art/article_add154d6-1480-11e2-a16f-001a4bcf887a.html You'll probably get to Poland and Ukraine (if you want to go) before me - just want to say I await your trip reports about those countries! Are your pictures online anywhere? I'd love to see them.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Sarah - No, I actually still haven't been to the Jewish Museum in Paris! 4 times in Paris, but so many museums and so much to do - and my poor husband, I am always dragging him to often rather depressing Jewish/Holocaust sites in Germany. A real nice thing about this trip is that we weren't just visiting "what was" but still saw actual living Jewish communities. Anyway I stopped this last night because I was too tired, but we had dinner in Mostar at an RS-recommended place in the old town that was OK. It wasn't great, but it was a lot of food (we got the grilled meat platter for two) and it was huge and cheap, in a lovely setting above a creek, very atmospheric with the ubiquitous stray kittens begging for food (we're suckers for them). I'm too lazy to look up the name now, but it's one of only three places he mentions in Mostar's old town in his book. The old town was deserted at night, but in the morning it was crazy - tourists everywhere. We had a miscommunication with our host, he'd asked when we wanted breakfast, and I asked if we could have it our room, assuming it would be brought to us. The time for that passed, and so my husband went to the lobby to see what was up, and nobody was there. We chalked that up and packed, and when we went to check out an hour after we'd requested the breakfast, they were very annoyed that we didn't have time to eat it. Not a huge deal but awkward and annoying on what was otherwise a very great lodging. Taking a taxi to the bus station, the taxi driver asked where we were going, we told him Dubrovnik. "Why not take taxi?" he asked. "Too expensive!" we said. He said he'd take us for 75 euro. It was high, but the bus would cost nearly 40, and take twice as long, he claimed. We thought about it and said screw it, it would be more comfortable and we could afford it. Cont.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

In reality the trip was not shorter at all - but we did get essentially a guided tour, I guess you could call it a real "back door" experience if you're into that sort of thing. Our driver was Bosniak, seemed to think we'd find it shocking he was Muslim, and when I made the mistake of responding to his question about our employment in Germany by telling him we worked with the U.S. Government, he decided we were probably CIA. "Ahh, you big girl!" he says. I think he meant a "bigwig" or something, hopefully he wasn't just calling me fat. He proudly informed us all his English was learned from movies, which explained why he was excellent at swearing but otherwise not so great. We stopped in a village that according to my guidebook had an excellent, mostly-unvisited castle, but mostly so our cab driver could get a burek. "This is stupid. That side of school is Croatia. That side Bosnia. Different history books, speak this side kill you, other one speak that side kill you. Stupid! Welcome to Bosnia." While he was upset that Croats and Bosniaks still self-segregate, did not have the same feelings towards the Serbs. I could elucidate further, but this board has rules on swearing. He also helpfully shared his opinions on gay people. Anyway, it ended up being nearly 2 1/2 hour drive, same as the bus was supposed to take, but we could smoke, and we got a unique perspective, although I was reminded why I don't LIKE guided tours and stuff. If I'm going to meet locals, I prefer it to be naturally - at bars, where strangers are supposed to meet, dammit. I hate the paid relationship and the awkwardness that comes with it. Very often I feel like it's MY job to converse with the tour guide or cab driver or whatever when I just want to be left in peace.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Anyway, he got us sort-of-near our hotel in Cavtat, Croatia (about 20 km south of Dubrovnik). To be fair cars aren't allowed in most of the town. It was upon trying to go to the ATM in Croatia that I realized I'd dropped my debit card when getting cash out back in Mostar. Thanks to Wifi and skype I was able to cancel the card immediately, but it's a good reminder to always, always carry more than one card while traveling, as it was Friday night and I was freaking out about being able to get a credit card advance from a bank that late. On the whole we really felt that Bosnia was the most rewarding place we visited. I'm curious that in the Croatia/Slovenia trip Rick pushes Mostar but doesn't encourage people to go the extra 2 hours to Sarajevo, which is an absolutely charming, beautiful, and safe city to visit (and not as touristy as Mostar). We definitely want to go back to BiH and get off the tourist track. I would probably rent a car going back, while the roads are twisty, people tend to drive pretty sanely. The food was nothing to write home about, although cevapcici is better than doener kepbap in my book for good drunk food. But in Bosnia I developed a real taste for rakija and the uniqueness and beauty of the country. Customer service tended to not be exactly friendly, but perfectly adequate. If anyone is going to Dubrovnik they're really missing out by not venturing into Bosnia overnight or longer.