Land of promise

Exploring the rich history and wild beauty of Bosnia & Herzegovina

For decades, Bosnia and Herzegovina has lived with the memory of conflict. But while some locals are keen to move on, its story is important to hear and touches even the most bucolic corners

Words Lyn Hughes

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Jajce’s St Mary’s church witnessed the coronation of the last king of Bosnia in the late 1400s, not long before the region’s Ottoman conquest, during which its relics were sold off and the church was turned into a mosque (Alamy)

Jajce’s St Mary’s church witnessed the coronation of the last king of Bosnia in the late 1400s, not long before the region’s Ottoman conquest, during which its relics were sold off and the church was turned into a mosque (Alamy)

The rocky road up to Lukomir is a picturesque one (Alamy)

The rocky road up to Lukomir is a picturesque one (Alamy)

“She’s not going to write about the war, is she?” someone asked my guide, Ivance. In truth, I knew little about Bosnia and Herzegovina (often abbreviated to BiH) before I arrived. But when we launched Wanderlust in 1993, the news was dominated by images of Sarajevo under siege from the Serb army. In November that year, as the first magazine was printed, the iconic Stari Most bridge in Mostar was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces, sending shockwaves around Europe. Thirty years later, I felt I was long overdue a visit to somewhere that had been so much a part of our collective consciousness in the early days of the magazine.

As we drove out of Sarajevo the morning after my arrival, taking the city’s main boulevard, Ivance casually mentioned that this was formerly known as Sniper Alley during the Bosnian War (1992–1995). With a jolt I recognised it from the old news footage, and it was at that moment that I thought, yes, I probably was going to at least acknowledge the war in anything I wrote. But once we were out of the city and heading north-west, into the country’s mountainous heart, I soon realised there were plenty of others stories here waiting to be told.

We had entered a world of pastoral scenes and plunged into valleys with sparkling rivers. Over 40% of the land here is forested, and bears, wolves and wild boars lurk in the more sparsely populated wilderness areas.

The Pliva waterfall, which tumbles beneath the city of Jajce, used to be much higher (around 30m) until an earthquake and an attack on a power plant upriver during the Bosnian War caused the area to flood (Alamy)

The Pliva waterfall, which tumbles beneath the city of Jajce, used to be much higher (around 30m) until an earthquake and an attack on a power plant upriver during the Bosnian War caused the area to flood (Alamy)

Arriving in the small but historically important town of Jajce, the overcast skies and persistent drizzle did little to distract from its picture-perfect beauty. Down the centuries, it has been home to Illyrians, Romans, the Bosnian Kingdom and the Ottomans; now its medieval citadel stands proudly atop a 22m-high waterfall. It was of little surprise that Jajce lies on the UNESCO tentative list, nor that it has 30 national monuments and several museums.

Local guide Dragan took me on a whistlestop walking tour, offering insight into the city’s multilayered and multicultural history. Frankly, it was dizzying. “This was the door to Bosnia,” said Dragan. “Thanks to its geography, the country was only accessible from the west.”

We started at the Mithraeum, a temple dating back to Roman occupation and dedicated to the Persian sun god, Mithra, who was widely worshipped at the time. From there we headed up to the fortress, first stopping in the 14th-century catacombs, then at the ruin of the oldest church in Bosnia, a place where monarchs were once crowned. I also heard the rather gruesome tale of the last king of Bosnia, Stephen Tomašević, who only ruled for two years in the 15th century before being captured and beheaded by the Ottomans. What is believed to be his skeleton is displayed in the town’s Franciscan museum.

The catacombs of Jajce were carved into its rock over 600 years ago and were intended to form a church in which the bodies of town founder Duke Hrvatinić and his family were to be buried, although that never happened (Shutterstock)

The catacombs of Jajce were carved into its rock over 600 years ago and were intended to form a church in which the bodies of town founder Duke Hrvatinić and his family were to be buried, although that never happened (Shutterstock)

But the part of history that lures the majority of the city’s share of tourists is Jajce’s connection to the Second World War, Josip Broz Tito and the declaration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at a momentous meeting of the six republics in November 1943.

“Our history is so connected together,” remarked Dragan, referring to the neighbouring nations that made up former Yugoslavia. “We’re just normal people that have lived together for hundreds of years,” he continued, while I studied the black-and-white photographs covering the walls of what had been the secret location for the meeting.

“The country has three presidents, representing each of the largest ethnic groups: (Bosniak, Serb, Croat)”

As I travelled the country, the name of the old Yugoslavia president, Tito, came up many times, even among the young people I met. Mostly, it was said with a kind of nostalgia for the united times before the 1990s. Indeed, while Bosnia and Herzegovina might be independent, it is still burdened by the legacy of the last war.

“It’s complicated,” said Ivance, explaining how BiH has three presidents, representing each of the largest ethnic groups (Bosniak, Serb, Croat). These also account for its trio of official languages, though in reality they are all very similar, Ivance explained: “I like to describe them as being the equivalent of English, American English and Australian English – fundamentally the same but with some different words and phrases.”

The wild horses of Kruzi plateau are such an attraction that they can now be seen on ‘safari’ tours (Marin Mamuza)

The wild horses of Kruzi plateau are such an attraction that they can now be seen on ‘safari’ tours (Marin Mamuza)

Running free

One place where it was easy to escape the politics of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina was sat in the sunshine on the Kruzi plateau, gazing at a herd of wild horses spread across the open grassland. I had joined a ‘safari’ run by Marin Mamuza of Continental Adventure, a photographer who had received so much interest in his photos of the feral horses that roam the high plateau near the town of Livno that he now runs tours to see them.

Ivance explained that Marin was keen to move the narrative on from the war, and he wanted visitors to see BiH for the beautiful and diverse travel destination that it is. He and his family run a range of tours of the area and also offer e-biking and glamping stays at his resort.

Marin explained how the horses had originally belonged to local people, but when the industrialisation of agriculture came along in the 1970s and tractors started arriving here, horses suddenly became redundant, so many of their owners set them free. There are now over 700 roaming here, and there is enough grass for them to thrive year-round. Both they and the area are not officially protected, but there are increasing calls for this to happen.

We were initially unsuccessful in our search for the horses, although there had been compensation in the far-reaching views of mountains, lakes and open meadows scattered with limestone boulders. We followed a former Roman road, now part of the Via Dinarica long-distance trail, and stopped for a picnic lunch. As wooden boards appeared, laden in local cheeses, charcuterie, roasted vegetables and fruit, Marin looked around and started laughing.

“The industrialisation of agriculture came along in the 1970s and many owners turned their horses free”

“There they are!” He pointed to a nearby hillside where a herd of horses grazed. “They won’t wander far. Let’s have lunch first.” We washed down exquisite spinach-stuffed pastries and creamy cheeses with Marin’s own (and very good) craft beer and his father’s honey rakia brandy.

Replete, we set out to find the horses once more, as grasshoppers bounced all around us and the fragrance of wildflowers scented the air. The herd was even bigger than I had realised at first – at least 130 horses – and was gathered in small family units. Foals nuzzled into their mothers, while the various stallions indulged in a bit of argy-bargy, baring their teeth and kicking out at each other. The rest of the herd just swished their tails against the flies and semi-dozed in the warmth of the afternoon.

The wild horses of Kruzi plateau were released from a life of farming in the 1970s and now roam here in vast herds

The wild horses of Kruzi plateau were released from a life of farming in the 1970s and now roam here in vast herds

Marin puts on a fine picnic spread (Lyn Hughes)

Marin puts on a fine picnic spread (Lyn Hughes)

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Mostar at night (Shutterstock)

Mostar at night (Shutterstock)

There are waterfalls everywhere in BiH (Lyn Hughes)

There are waterfalls everywhere in BiH (Lyn Hughes)

Pens and keychains made from old bullet casings from the Bosnian War (Lyn Hughes)

Pens and keychains made from old bullet casings from the Bosnian War (Lyn Hughes)

A leap of faith

The day was still hot when Ivance and I arrived in Mostar, a city that often captures the hearts and minds of visitors. My first stop had to be a viewpoint of Stari Most, one of the most beloved and photographed bridges in the world. Built during Ottoman rule, under the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent, it spans the Neretva river, and its creation even led to the town that grew around it becoming an important trading hub. Over the centuries, Mostar has had its ups and downs, but by the 1990s it was a prosperous and peaceful city with a multi-ethnic population. However, in 1993, relations between the Bosnian Croat and Bosniak population reached breaking point and the former destroyed the bridge, shocking the world and adding another point of conflict within the wider Bosnian War.

Now fully reconstructed, having used as much of the original material as could be salvaged, the bridge is now known for the daredevils who use it to dive 20 metres to the water below. Competitions are held in the summer, notably as part of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, but on any given day you’ll find locals leaping off it as a way to make money from the hordes of tourists who gather here.

The crowd on Stari Most bridge are whipped into a frenzy before enough money is raised for one of the local divers to leap into the water below (Lyn Hughes)

The crowd on Stari Most bridge are whipped into a frenzy before enough money is raised for one of the local divers to leap into the water below (Lyn Hughes)

Sure enough, as I was admiring the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian buildings overlooking the water, a young man climbed over the bridge railing and posed as if to dive. The crowd on the bridge stopped and excitement levels rose. A hat was passed around, with promises of the dive happening when enough cash was raised. Another 20 minutes or so of gamesmanship followed until the takings were considered satisfactory, then a completely different man, small and muscular, appeared in tight red Speedos and duly plunged into the river to gasps and cheers.

I followed him back up a street to the bridge, its cobbles worn smooth by centuries of use. The press of the crowd meant that I nearly missed a sign saying, ‘Don’t forget 93’. As dusk fell, the hordes of daytrippers left and the old town took on a magical quality, its cafés and restaurants still lively but its quieter corners a throwback to Ottoman rule. As the call to prayer rang out, it was easy to imagine the traders and the spice merchants of yesteryear bellowing about their wares.

The next couple of days took me to many more historic sites where there was little mention of the war. At Radimlja necropolis, I squinted at medieval tombstones known as stećci, covered in engravings of little-understood symbols. In Stolac, a town known as the ‘Museum under the Sky’ due to its many monuments, I dropped in on a restored 19th-century house now used as a cultural centre and had a demo on how to make traditional fig cakes. And in Blagaj, I visited a serene Dervish monastery, or tekke. I realised I’d need weeks rather than days to appreciate everything here.

The stećci tombstones of Radimlja make up a vast necropolis that dates back to the latter days of the 15th century (Lyn Hughes)

The stećci tombstones of Radimlja make up a vast necropolis that dates back to the latter days of the 15th century (Lyn Hughes)

But it took a drive up to the country’s highest village, Lukomir, to truly transport me back to a time before war touched this land. Its residents now live here on a seasonal basis, arriving in the summer to graze their livestock and grow their crops, and there were no sounds of modern life when I arrived. I wandered through the village to a vantage point that looked over to the Visočica Mountain chain and across Rakitnica canyon, one of the deepest in Europe.

Settling into this quiet life, I had a late lunch at the home of a family who rented out two of their rooms to walkers and cyclists. They served freshly made zeljanica (pastry stuffed with spinach and cheese) the traditional way, with a glass of drinking yoghurt on the side. They said that they wished they’d had more notice of me coming because they would have prepared something more, but in truth, as I sat in their garden, I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better.

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The backstreets of Mostar’s historic centre are a joy to stroll at night (Lyn Hughes)

The backstreets of Mostar’s historic centre are a joy to stroll at night (Lyn Hughes)

Lunching with a family in the remote village of Lukomir, which is known for its wool products (Lyn Hughes)

Lunching with a family in the remote village of Lukomir, which is known for its wool products (Lyn Hughes)

A stone reminds visitors to Mostar not to forget the events that saw its bridge destroyed in 1993 (Lyn Hughes)

A stone reminds visitors to Mostar not to forget the events that saw its bridge destroyed in 1993 (Lyn Hughes)

Lukomir is the highest village in Bosnia, at around 1,500m above sea level (Alamy)

Lukomir is the highest village in Bosnia, at around 1,500m above sea level (Alamy)

Views across Sarajevo (Alamy)

Views across Sarajevo (Alamy)

The handmade desserts in Baklava Ducan are made from old family recipes and are possibly the best in Sarajevo (Lyn Hughes)

The handmade desserts in Baklava Ducan are made from old family recipes and are possibly the best in Sarajevo (Lyn Hughes)

Sarajevo’s Old Town is packed with shops and cafés (Lyn Hughes)

Sarajevo’s Old Town is packed with shops and cafés (Lyn Hughes)

The Tunnel of Hope was the only connection between Sarajevo’s populace and the outside world during much of the siege, although its existence had to be kept a firm secret (Lyn Hughes)

The Tunnel of Hope was the only connection between Sarajevo’s populace and the outside world during much of the siege, although its existence had to be kept a firm secret (Lyn Hughes)

Returning to the past

Many cities claim to be where East meets West, but in Sarajevo it is true. If I looked left from my hotel window, across the Miljacka River, the architecture was Ottoman; if I looked to the right, it was Austro-Hungarian. It was a trend that continued as I strolled the narrow streets of the Old Town, pausing for coffee in a former caravanserai that is now home to a popular café. At a shop called Ducan, I sampled exquisite baklavas, created from family recipes noted down in a handwritten book and made with walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds. I also supped from the 18th-century fountain in Sebilj square, of which it is said that anyone who drinks from it will return to the city again.

Eager to learn more of the capital’s 20th-century history, I took a guided tour with a passionate young woman called Emina. We started at the spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, which changed the course of history by triggering the First World War. A replica of the car he was travelling in brought the scene to life.

She pointed out that this was one of three events the city is known for, including the 1984 Winter Olympic Games and the infamous Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Astonishingly, the siege didn’t officially cease until two and a half months after the Bosnian War ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement.

In this vibrant, modern, multicultural city, the shadow of the siege still catches you out when you least expect it. The streets are pocked with ‘Sarajevo Roses’, spots where the shells fell and there had been several mortalities. These had been filled in with a red resin as a reminder. A third-generation coppersmith even showed me vases made from shell cartridges collected from the hills: “We turn something of war and destruction into something of peace,” he said.

There was one place connected to the siege that I still very much wanted to see before I left. When Serb forces encircled the city in 1992, the only gap free from shelling was where the airport sat. It was under the control of the United Nations, but could only be used for UN purposes and not as an escape route. So, in March 1993, work started on a top-secret tunnel that ran beneath the airport runway.

“It took four months to construct a tunnel to the airport, using whatever metal could be found”

The tunnel took four months to construct, using whatever metal could be found. It was 800m long and began at the home of a family called the Kolars. It became a lifeline, allowing food, troops and supplies into the besieged city and meant the wounded could be evacuated. Grandmother Kolar was always there with a glass of water for the weary.

Today you can easily visit the tunnel (also known as the Tunnel of Hope) and even walk a restored section. It’s an uplifting reminder of the resilience of the people of Sarajevo, and quite by chance that evening, I stumbled on a reception and exhibition at Sarajevo’s Town Hall to honour the 30th anniversary of the tunnel.

A French journalist there told me how the foreign correspondents covering the siege, including herself, knew of the tunnel’s existence but helped keep it a secret. One of the speakers at the event commented on how it was important to keep it alive as a memorial so the city didn’t have to live through a similar experience again.

So, yes, I have written about the war. It would still be wrong not to acknowledge it. But as my plane taxied along the runway, over the Tunnel of Hope, I knew my memories would be just as much of the warm welcome and hospitality of the people I met; of the fortresses, ancient bridges, mountains and rivers; and of the horses running free on the vast plateau.

About the trip

The author travelled with Intrepid Travel. The eight-day Bosnia and Herzegovina Expedition covers much of the same itinerary, including ground accommodation, activities, transport and selected meals. Departures from May 2024.

The trip is also available as a private tour; contact Intrepid for details.