We interrupted our wonderful two weeks in Croatia with a short, two-day excursion into Bosnia Herzegovina to see another side of former Yugoslavia. I will not claim to be any sort of expert on the history of the area, but in our short time here I feel I at least skimmed the surface of some of the issues that led to war and how people in the different ex-Yugoslavic nations are dealing with the fall out. In Croatia we saw very little evidence that the war had even occurred, despite the thousands of Croats who died fighting for their independence. People we met did not talk about the war and the nation is embracing their new status in the European Union, including plans to adopt the euro in the future.
It was a different story in Bosnia Herzegovnia. Everywhere we looked there was evidence of buildings being shot at and people dying. We visited Mostar, which is in the Herzegovina part of Bosnia Herzegovina, and was a major center of fighting during the early nineties. In Mostar there were graveyards on nearly every block, all of which were 99% full of people, mostly young men, who died during the war. Each graveyard has only one year represented, 1991, 1992 or 1993. It was extremely hard for us to wrap our heads around the amount of damage that occurred, and even harder for us to remember that this all occurred in our lifetime. We do not remember the war (we were too young), but people here do.
We took a tour around the area with the host at our B&B and nearly every story or factoid was accompanied with a “before the war” or “after the war” qualification. For example, we drove past a vineyard, which produced the area’s best wine, before the war. Now, after the war, it mass-produces cheaply made and cheaply bought wine.
He was only ten when the war broke out, and his family fled as soon as they could (to Germany), but they are back. He explained to us how before the war, the different religions were tolerant, even accepting of one another, but after the war, things are far more tense. Bosnia Herzegovina is mostly Muslim, as is evident in the call to prayer heard five times a day and the dozen or so minarets that dot the city’s skyline.
We were amazed and fascinated with what we learned while in Bosnia Herzegovina, but we were just as amazed by what we saw. First we drove to a nearby castle to get a sweeping view of the area. This castle was free and we were the only people there.
Next our host drove us to Blagaj, where the beautiful green river comes out of a cave, right past a traditional Dervish house. Don’t know what a Dervish house is? Neither did we (until we googled it). The Dervish are Muslim, but they have chosen a life of simplicity and poverty. This Dervish house is open to the public now, but it used to be available for the Dervish to come and pray, eat and even sleep. In order to enter we had to take off our shoes and I had to cover my head, arms and legs.
Our third stop was to a small town, seemingly carved into the hills, also with a castle atop a hill. Once again, the castle was free, and devoid of people. The little town was beautiful and filled with stone houses with ivy creeping up them (my favorite type of house!).
Our last stop was at Kravice Waterfalls, which was spectacular. In the warmer months people come to these falls to swim and escape the summer heat. It was nowhere near warm enough for us to swim, but this was the highlight of our tour nonetheless.
Crossing the border from Croatia to Bosnia Herzegovina was a little like going back in time. Not in that Bosnia Herzegovina is “behind the times”, people there were texting on their smart phones, wearing Converse and smoking cigarettes in cafes, just the same as other European cities. However, it is clear that this is a nation still recovering from a devastating war. Buildings are being re-built, but there is still evidence of the fighting nearly everywhere you look. Poverty is also more apparent, despite this being the cheapest country (easily) we have visited so far. As middle-class white Americans from a small town in the Rocky Mountains, facing war, recent war, was a new and different experience. It is what made our visit to Bosnia Herzegovina so surprising and unique. However, Bosnia Herzegovina is not just a destination to learn a little history. It is also beautiful. Extremely beautiful actually. It is green and lush and is full of beautiful valleys with beautiful rivers running through them. Our 8-hour bus ride from Mostar to Zagreb was one of the most stunning travel days so far. So, if you are into history, natural beauty, looking for a cheaper European destination, consider Bosnia Herzegovina. I am really glad we did.