Some day trips stick with you
I’ve taken a lot of day trips in my travels and at home, but the one I took to Bosnia and Herzegovina from Split will stick with me more than most. I mean, sure it ticked a lot of boxes I like: a beautiful, historic destination; a new country (unfortunately no passport stamp but the one in my heart); amazing food; interesting sites.
However, I think perhaps because to people of my generation, Bosnia evokes anything but a nice place to take a day trip, and because of what I learned while on it, this trip resonated with me more than most. My visit to the fifteenth-century village of Počitelj, the UNESCO Heritage Site of Mostar, and Kravica Waterfall gave me new associations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I am grateful for them.
Why a tour?
Ordinarily I would have taken a bus for this trip, but honestly, the tour from Gray Line that I found on GetYourGuide just sounded easier and was fairly inexpensive. It also allowed me to see more of the country than I would have on my own. We would have free time at the three sites, and I only had to follow someone around with a fan for a flag once.
Driving might have given me more flexibility to see all of the sites, which would have been nice, but I needed to switch my license from Massachusetts to New Hampshire before I left, and my permanent license did not arrive before I left. This means no International Driving Permit, which means no driving for me on this trip.
We met before the sun came up
We met for the tour at a ridiculous hour, before the sun came up, on the Riva in Split. This time of year, the sun comes up after seven, so it was a dark and lonely walk on the outskirts of the Old Town. Only the fish market had true signs of life; if I’d had time, I might have wandered over to see the market in real action, before we visitors would arrive.
Down near the office, I saw a young man who looked like he was also up early for a tour. He indeed was waiting for the tour and said that the office had not opened just yet but that we were in the right place. We waited until the sleepy staff people arrived at the office and then signed in, paid our entrance fee for the Kravica Waterfall (cash only, le sigh), and waited for the van. I checked that I’d remembered my passport for the fifth time.
As we left Split, the sun rose through the cloudes in the mountains, making for a nice drive. Our guide, Peter, previewed our trip. We would first make a stop in Počitelj, a fifteenth-century village, now preserved as an open-air museum and National Monument of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Next, we would head into Mostar, where we would have a local guide give us a short tour around the Old Town and then have a couple of hours of free time to explore and have lunch. Finally, we would head to the Kravica Waterfall, on the Trebizat River. I hadn’t known about the first stop, so it was an unexpected treat.
He then gave us an overview of the history of Split and Croatia, highlighting how Croatia had become an independent nation in 1996, after being ruled by others since 1102. The economic situation in Croatia, especially with its reliance on tourism in cities like Split, which tend to be lower-paying jobs, has resulted in a significant population loss in the last fifteen years (4.4 million to 3.8 million). Like many beautiful places, there’s a reality beyond the tourist areas that most of us as visitors do not see.
Crossing the border
Our guide built up the border so much that I have to say that I was almost disappointed that our crossing went smoothly. Our guide collected our passports and handled our exit from Croatia and entry into Bosnia and Herzegovina. As he got back into the van and we left the station, he boasted of his connections with the border guards. We applauded.
Road signs in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets let us know that we were in a different country, as did a rather dramatic change in conditions. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the second-poorest nation in Europe.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peter said, in an extreme understatement, remains politically complicated and is the second-poorest nation in Europe. While the Communist Party no longer operates in the country, the local governments and economies are very much controlled by the local political organization.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has three main groups of people and three main religions: Bosnians, who are Muslim; Croats, who are Catholic; and Serbians, who are Orthodox. Bilingual signs—including the Cyrillic alphabet. While the languages spoken in this region are all very similar (think of it like different dialects of English), this difference in alphabet helps to highlight some of the differences. Children in Bosnia and Herzegovina now learn both alphabets, alternating between one and the other.
Oh, I could have stayed in Počitelj all day. And possibly the next. What a fascinating little village on the banks of the picturesque Neretva river. This tiny little village packs in different architectural styles—a medieval fortress, but also Ottoman architecture (it was called “Oriental” by our guide, and I have noticed that the UNESCO description includes this word as well—the town is on UNESCO’s tentative list), the first I’ve encountered (and I now want to encounter so much more). The sixteenth-century Hajji Alija Mosque had a little craft booth with items for sale and an exhibit of some of the original structure, as much of it was heavily damaged in the war.
Time was short
We only had about forty minutes in the village, so I mostly just focused on taking in as much as I could. I did not climb up to the fourteenth-century fort, as we didn’t have a lot of time, and the stairs were really something. I got up high enough to get a view of the river and then heading back down the treacherous stone stairs (this country seems to enjoy texture in its walking surfaces—more to come) to get a frozen pomegranate drink from one of the women in the stands lining the stairs up through the village, as well as a slice of baklava and Turkish coffee at Cafe Bar Stari Grad (don’t believe the disingenuous lead Trip Advisor review—it’s actually very good if you know what to expect).
The baklava was different from the Greek versions I’ve had before, and I daresay that I liked this one better. The nuts were different; I think pistachios instead of walnuts (in looking this up, I see that this would make it closer to a Turkish baklava than one from Bosnia-Herzegovina). Anyhow, I like pistachios better, so it makes sense. Regardless, it was delicious.
And the coffee. My goodness. Turkish coffee never sounded all that good to me. The mud at the bottom of a French press was about as much sludge as I wanted in my coffee, and, now that I make pour-over coffee at home, it tempted me even less. Yet, while in Bosnia-Herzegovina . . . Dear Reader, I was wrong. It is wonderful. And beautiful.
Coffee in Bosnia and Herzegovina comes served in a little copper pot, and yes, the grounds are right in there. You have a little spoon and the cutest little cup you’ve ever seen. If you’re lucky, you also have a little Turkish Delight (which, by the way, is good if you don’t have a crummy substitute in the States). You give the coffee a little lazy little stir and then pour your cup (you should get two from the pot). Sugar is optional (I tried it both with and without). By pouring the coffee into your cup, you don’t get a lot of grounds in it, and it’s very pleasant. Tradition dictates that that small amount of coffee can last a very, very long time.
Alas, I didn’t have long to linger with one of my fellow tour goers, as we needed to get moving. Someday, I’m going to spend a long time with that coffee and conversation. Regardless, it did help to perk me up. We saw the wisdom in leaving early, as more tours were stopping there as we prepared to leave.
Clearing a barrier
On the way to Mostar, we had to get past a barrier in the highway that our guide had told us about. There’s a new highway being built to improve the route to Savajevo, and so technically, the road we were on was closed, but it was possible for tours to pass through. We came across a barrier, and our guide had to get out and “talk” to a local official. I do believe that there may have been an unofficial “tax” paid to get the barrier removed. We’d been told to expect a few strange things, and I found this delightful, as I didn’t have to negotiate the situation myself.
Road to Mostar
Along the road to Mostar, our guide pointed out decaying buildings. Many of these had owners who left during the war and then never returned. The situation remains complicated, our guide explained, and so the buildings just sit. Most of the funds for rebuilding went toward restoring the Old Town (and, thus, tourism and income). Our guide encouraged us to take a few moments and get out of the Old Town if we wanted to better understand Mostar. I made a note to do so. We passed a gleaming, new McDonald’s, and I realized that I hadn’t seen one since the States. The parking lot was empty, and a worker swept the walkway.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
We arrived in Mostar, and our guide introduced us to our local guide, Anna-Maria. Before we headed into the Old Town, she had us gather in the square surrounding the rebuilt church of St. Peter and St. Paul and with its giant Mostar Peace Bell tower (probably the best landmark one could ever ask for). We stood across the street from some colorful apartment buildings with bullet holes still visible.
“I have a question for you,” Anna-Maria said. “What do you know about Bosnia and Herzegovina?”
We shifted uncomfortably. It was an English-language tour, but we came from all over. Finally, I looked down and mumbled something along the lines of, “The war . . . .” and a few people echoed it.
Anna-Maria nodded in recognition. Not too many people know much about her country, she said, so she proceeded to fill in on the main points. Before she began, however, she shared that one of the most important things was just how crucial it is, especially in the region we were in, to add “and Herzegovina” when speaking about the country. We were standing in old Herzegovina. Noted.
A brief history of Bosnia and Herzegovina
She then proceeded to tell us the history of the country. The Bosnian kingdom (before Herzegovina) was first mentioned in the twelfth century, but it’s not until the fifteenth century and the Ottomans that the region became of note. There was an attempt to stop the Ottomans here in Herzegovina, but it failed, and, until the nineteenth century, the Ottomans ruled the area. Then it fell under the Hapsburgs (Austro-Hungarian Empire) and remained so until after WWI. Then it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and then, after WWII became part of Yugoslavia.
Running with the clothes on their backs
It was an uneasy union in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with three different ethnic groups and religions (ethnicity and religion here is mostly interchangeable) existing side-by-side, but it wasn’t until the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s that it got bad. She didn’t give us a detailed history of the causes of the war but shared that people who had to leave everything they owned in order to gather with their respective groups. This didn’t mean packing up their belongings and moving in an orderly fashion. This meant fleeing, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and then not going back home for years. This was the area where some of the worst of the fighting happened, destroying most of the Old Town.
Long-term impacts of war still felt in Mostar
Anna-Maria shared some of the long-term lasting impacts of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but specifically Mostar, including that wasn’t until the last two years that local elections were restored to the area. Money for restoration outside of the Old Town mostly lined the pockets of local officials, which is why so much destruction is still visible. She shared this with a matter-of-fact tone of someone for whom these postwar decades are the life she knows.
Watch yourself crossing the road, and keep an eye on your belongings
We then headed into Old Town. Along the way, Anna-Maria warned us to look out for women who would pose as lost tourists but would pickpocket you. After a month of living in an area with very low street crime, it was jarring to remember that it exists (even though I remain a crossbody, closed bag, person, and so didn’t need to adjust my behavior). We didn’t see them on the walk over, but I did see them on my walk back. Anna-Maria also cautioned us about the crosswalk and to be extremely careful crossing the street, because drivers didn’t really care about pedestrians.
New flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina
She took the time to point out the new flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Do you notice anything about it? I didn’t say it, but it looked like it was the most EU flag ever—it had the same colors, with stars. “It’s pretty generic, isn’t it?” she said. That was by design. The new flag, she explained, did not have colors of any of the old flags or symbols that would speak to one particular group. Strange to need to think of such things.
Old Town Mostar
What a pretty little (extremely touristy) town, lined with souvenir shops, selling lace and Turkish coffee sets. As with Počitelj, the walking surfaces had interest. Make sure you wear good shoes when you go to Mostar! The Old Town sidewalks are smooth stones in cement, and it’s not for the slippery of shoe. I only wore my boots because we were off to the waterfalls next, but I might have died in my usual flats.
The oldest bridge in Mostar (rebuilt)
We first went to look at a bridge even older than the original Stari Most (it was also replaced, not a victim of the wars, but of flooding in the early 2000s). Mostar’s Old Town basically consists of one thoroughfare leading to and away from Stari Most, but the little brook and side street that the tiny bridge was on was just darling. If we’d had more time, I definitely would have spent more time there.
A historic square
Next, we went to a small square that housed three important buildings in Mostar’s history: the old public bath, the tannery, and the mosque (built especially for those who worked in the tannery, because, well, the workers were stinky). The workers were allowed to wash in the bath and then go to the mosque before the fountain was installed (tip courtesy of the guide—you can always find drinkable water in front of a mosque).
Stari Most: a marvel of Ottoman architecture
Stari Most is gorgeous. The arch is so steep, and it frames the blue green river against the mountains like a fairy tale. It’s one of the finest achievements of Ottoman architecture. However, Mimar Hayruddin, the architect, needed a few tries to get the construction right, according to our guide (the architect never saw the bridge unveiled, as he feared that the Sultan would take his life if it failed). Once he did, though, the bridge would stand for over 400 years before war sent it crashing down. Some of the original stones recovered from the river are on display on the beach, alas too degraded to use in rebuilding the bridge.
Crossing the bridge—watch your step!
Our tour nearly complete, our guide led us across the bridge. Seems pretty straightforward, right? It might be an architectural marvel, but it’s just a bridge, and a small one at that, right? WRONG! Before we walked through the gate to reach the bridge, Anna-Maria asked us, “So what do you think of the pavement?”
I thought it was beautiful, but I also spent most of my time looking down to make sure I didn’t wind up splatted in the tourist crowd. “Um, it’s interesting?” I offered.
She laughed. “Interesting is usually what people when they’re being polite.”
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” I said, “but I’m worried about falling.”
Just step on the raised part
“Well, get ready for the bridge, then, because this is nothing. It’s very steep and can be very slippery, so here’s what you do. If you want to cross the bridge like a local, just walk on the raised part.”
The what? I thought, as we all laughed nervously. We walked through the gate. Oh my.
The bridge was paved with white stone, worn smooth, and raised stairs to “help” prevent slipping too far. Walking over that thing is an adventure. Personally, the raised parts only didn’t really work for me, so I copied this guy in front of me who stepped on the raised part and then on the smooth part with the next step. I also moved over so that I could have access to the railing, because, well, going down was going to be worse than going up.
What a view!
But what a view! Oh my goodness. From the top of the bridge, there’s a view of the river, the mosques with their minarets, and the countryside beyond.
I’m standing on Stari Most, looking out onto Bosnia-Herzegovina, I thought. What a life!
Then I turned to getting myself off that bridge in one piece. Success! We wrapped up the tour with a little bit about where to get pictures (the terrace or minaret of the closest mosque) and suggestions about where to eat. She also told us that if we wanted a better idea of what life is like here for the citizens of Mostar to walk a ways beyond the tourist area (where the stony pavement ended).
Heading toward the mosque
I thanked and tipped Anna-Maria, set an alarm that would help me to get back to the meeting point on time, and set off toward the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. More tourist shops lined this side of the street. I’m not a souvenir shopper, which in places like this, makes me feel a bit guilty, but I did intend to go to the recommended restaurant, Restoran Šadrvan. I started looking around more, including at the more colorful buildings on this side of the street.
There were a couple of spots to snap photos, so I snapped a few and then ducked through the gate of the mosque. The grounds were very peaceful. In the center, there was an elaborate fountain under something like a gazebo roof. There was what appeared to be a small graveyard, and then an entrance to a terrace. I paid the entrance fee for the terrace (I would have visited the mosque, but I didn’t want to run out of time).
Peaceful terrace of the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque
The terrace offers storybook views of Mostar. It looks like something out of a dream. I noticed people, including one from our tour, reacting in much the same way. Snap a couple of photos, and then lean on the railing and just look at this beautiful city set in a valley, the bridge mirroring the mountain in the distance. A minaret in the town. A cross on the mountain.
Looking at such calm beauty, both architecture and landscape, it seems almost unthinkable that such violence took place here, not that long ago. An older woman near me appeared to be trying to catch herself, as she stared at the bridge. We could hear people at the top of the minaret, but those on the terrace stayed quiet. This small space invited it.
A quick turn around the outskirts of Old Town
Alas, I couldn’t linger too long, as I needed to get lunch, and I wanted to get a look at the rest of the town. Both guides had encouraged us to get beyond the pretty. They were right. You do not have to venture far before you start to see the damage. I only walked a few blocks to the next mosque and saw a building with a clear bomb scar. And more bullet holes. While it was still overall very nice near the old town, I did start to get a view of less-than-historically beautiful buildings. I started feeling a bit like a voyeur—disaster tourism feels a bit off to me, and that’s what it felt like I was doing with the little time I had—so I headed back to cross the bridge.
Back across the bridge
OK, I thought. Here goes. I had the railing in one hand and took my time. Personally, if I was a resident of Mostar, I’d park myself on one of the seats on the bridge and have a good chuckle at tourists like me trying to get across the bridge. As it was, you could definitely tell the people who lived there, or who had at least been around long enough to have the hang of it. They were the ones walking confidently up and down the middle lanes.
Once off safely off the bridge, after pausing to take in the view from the top one last time, I went off to the side, just as the call to prayer sounded through the town. I’m quite sure that it was broadcast the way it was partly for the benefit of tourists like me, but it was beautiful. I’d never heard the call to prayer like that before. And then it was time for lunch.
I went to Restoran Šadrvan, as recommended by the guide as having some of the best food in Old Town. I didn’t have any expectations, but I loved the terrace, right near the little bridge, with a fountain and a tree growing up in the middle of it. The server offered to make a single portion of the Plat Nacional (a sampler of dishes that the guide had recommended), and so I got that, along with a glass of “homemade” wine (this wasn’t a Muslim restaurant).
While the wine was nothing to write home about, Dear Reader, the food. Oh, that was delicious. It was also SO much food. I ate as much as I could (you bet I polished off the dolmas and the ćevapi), regretting only that I couldn’t take the rest with me. I will remember that meal for a long time. It cost all of $12.61.
Heading back out of town
And, with that, it was time to start heading back to the clock tower and the van. I took my time, taking a quick gander down the quieter street pointed out by our guide before getting back to the main road. It didn’t feel real here, and it wasn’t, but it was beautiful. I would miss it.
Out of the old Town, traffic resumed, and I saw the women the Anna-Maria had warned us about, along with a man and some children. I crossed the street, thankful that some other tourists were there, too, as I think one lone tourist might invite a close call. Drivers in the Balkans aren’t exactly polite, and here was the most adventurous situation.
Next stop, waterfalls
Slowly, the group gathered, and it was time for us to leave for our next stop, the waterfalls. We headed out of town, the contrast of old, decaying buildings with newer hipper cafes and businesses made me think about the passage of time and globalism and just how strange life can be that this is someone’s reality and mine is completely different.
Peter did not tell us that the ride to the falls would involve another serpentine road up a mountain. I was not prepared, but our driver was a good one, so I wasn’t too worried. Well, until I saw the semi barreling down and the narrowness of the road, but I assumed that this wasn’t how I would leave this world. We made it.
We passed through Međugorje, a town that’s become a famous Catholic pilgrimage site since a reported miracle in the early 1980s. I was on the wrong side of the van to snap a photo, but I saw a statue of Jesus in a balcony with what looked to be a giant bullet wound in his chest in place of a sacred heart. Though our guide didn’t point out where we were until later, the nicer restaurants and cafés, as well as more signs I could understand cued us in that we were passing through a more well-known site.
We arrived at the entrance to Kravika Waterfall. Peter bought our tickets and then we headed down the stairs to the falls. It wasn’t me who uttered, “Oh god, we are going to have to climb back up all of these,” but I was thinking it. The Balkans deeply loves a stair.
Not quite as awe-inspiring as Krka Waterfalls, I have to say I loved Kravika Waterfall for its homier approach to enjoying a natural site. Swimming is allowed, and people waded through the water (it was cold for swimming). A couple of cafés lined the small lake at the bottom of the falls, and a plastic pontoon bridge led visitors to the other side of the park and offered a nice view of the falls.
Hijinx at the waterfall
This is when things got funny. I was on the little viewpoint on the bridge, as was a member of our group who was clearly an influencer of some kind. I was snapping photos, and she was setting up her tripod, when a boisterous group of locals—they were either family or very old friends—began crowding the bridge. One of them crashed into me, nearly knocking me into the water. After I recovered, and she apologized, we laughed. I saw what was coming—more of them, and I got out of the way.
Not the influencer. I have to hand it to her. She was polite, but very firm. She would not move, and gestured that the space around her tripod was hers. She was getting her selfies, even if it meant sinking with all of the people getting onto that little bit of plastic bridge. I got the giggles. Here I was on a plastic bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina, witnessing the hilarious contrast of the rowdy friends, taking terms laying out in front of the rest, with the clam repose of the influencer posing. I snapped a photo of that (note: I’m not sharing them there, as it doesn’t seem kind. However, trust me, they’re pretty funny).
Hijinx continued, but some peaceful moments, too
The frivolity continued—one of the women got really into splashing in the lake—but there were quiet spots, too. I remember thinking that we had quite a bit of time for a waterfall, but I found myself wishing that we had a bit more. I headed back over the bridge and prepared myself to trudge up the stairs. I chatted with a couple of fellow people from the tour ahead of it. They were going to take the road up instead of the stairs and asked me to go with them. I told them that I would hold them up and started up the stairs.
No stairs for me!
That, Dear Reader, is when I saw the little tourist trolley. Oh, please. Let them take me. I gestured if it was OK to get in, and one of the smoking young men said it was fine. His friend then came to collect the €1 fare (Bosnia and Herzegovina uses the convertible mark [KM] for currency, but euros and kunas are widely accepted in tourist areas). I was able to pay in kunas, thank goodness, and I consider this to be the best $.98 (love that exchange rate) I’ve spent in a long time. The trolley ride not only meant that I didn’t need to take the stairs, but it was also fun. We passed my fellow tour people walking up the road. I grinned like a fool and waved like the queen. They laughed.
Time to go
At the top, we had a few minutes before it was time to go, and I wandered around the souvenir displays, seeing more black honey and a shockingly white Jesus on wood. I also admired the mountains in the distance. And then it was time to go. We made our way back down the mountain, with Peter telling us about the corrupt football coach from Croatia who is no longer allowed in the country but who had a nearby villa.
Our border crossing was once again uneventful, and, I, for one was glad. That was quite a day, and I was tired. We drove through the mountains as the sun set, arriving back in Split just as it grew dark.
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