A pedal through the changing cultural landscape of Bosnia Herzegovina

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Bosnia Herzegovina. I am not really sure how to start this blog. There is so much I want to say and express. It is probably one of my favourite places in Europe, rich in history, culture and natural beauty. And it would be impossible not to mention the recent tragedy of the war and genocide that followed the break up of Yugoslavia in the early 90’s. But I guess I am going to pair it right back to how we experienced this varied and often complex country. It is far beyond the scope of this blog to delve into the complexities of the history and politics of this region. Although I will not completely omit them either.

 

We arrived in Bosnia Herzegovina over the Drina River, cars with Bosnian and Serbian number plates crossed the border seemingly without issue, and it was hard to believe that this area was once the site of major fighting. We pedalled a short distance into Bratunac to find food and an ATM (typical just arrived in a country activities). While I was in the supermarket Astrid got chatting to a man who invited us for coffee. When first in a new place it’s always so lovely to be able to speak to someone about the country, to try and get a sense of it. Our new friend had spent 25 years living in Britain and had only recently returned. He was frustrated by the corruption and slowness of getting things done, and he expressed a sadness about the huge divide that now exists between Serbs and Bosnian’s, which he said in his youth had not been the case. To clarify; there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia Herzegovina; Serbs who are mainly orthodox Christians, Bosniaks who are mainly Muslim and Croatian’s who are Catholic. One can see how these ethnic divisions can easily be exploited.

 

With history and politics swirling around in my head we headed off, the sky felt heavy, the air was cold and damp. It felt like autumn had really arrived. Our road towards Sarajevo took us through an area that had been involved in intense fighting between Serbs and Bosnian’s (we went quite near Srebrenica). There had been massacres of entire Bosnian villages in this area.

 

Later, while eating lunch by a Church, we spoke about our first impressions of this new and complicated country. Firstly, there are many taps, which we loved. Water being freely available is a cycle tourist’s dream. Next, the Serbian nationalism in this area was potent. Almost every village had a Serbian flag. Many houses were literally painted in Serbian colours. I mean, nationalism and flags always make me a little uncomfortable at the best of times, let alone in the context of the recent history. Then there were the deserted villages and obvious shrapnel damage to the houses…what happened there? One shudders to think. We passed a Muslim graveyard too, a whole field of white pillars, eerie and silent in the damp afternoon. There were a few mosques as well, nestled amongst some of the villages we cycled by. How must it feel to be a Muslim in this part of Bosnia Herzegovina now?

 

The autumn afternoons were becoming shorter and not long after we began a gentle but steady climb, the light began to fade. In the last few days the weather had certainly changed; the Indian summer felt over. It was already mid October and the fact that it was only now getting cold was such a blessing. Finding a place to camp had an added difficulty here in Bosnia as there are still landmines from the war. From what I hear no one has been maimed or killed in quite a while (and the areas where they are appear to be signposted) but we were still wary of going off piste too much. We found an old mountain road, which definitely looked like it had been in use after the 90’s and pitched up on it, next to a creek. Over dinner I looked at the map on my phone; we had 96km to go to reach Sarajevo, including two big climbs. Our plan had been to reach it in two days, but with the drizzly, cold weather, another night in the mountains didn’t massively appeal.

 

The next day was Sunday and therefore pancake day, a tradition we had started in Iceland. Astrid has perfected the art of the vegan pancake over the last few months and it’s always lovely to have a break from our usual muesli with water and banana. Over pancakes and coffee we discussed the possibility of making it to Sarajevo. It’s always a bit exciting setting a challenge like this. Especially if there is a warm bed and a cold beer at the end of it.

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chopping banana for the pancakes..

We climbed all morning, a steady but constant gradient winding ever upwards into the Bosnian mountains. There was little traffic. We passed a few villages but mostly it was forest. Occasionally there was drizzle but the worst of the rain held off. It was cold and we both wore full waterproofs. Hard to imagine a week ago we were in t shirts in the sun. At the top of the first and hardest climb was a restaurant and we gratefully scrambled inside to get out of the cold and have something to eat. I looked at the kilometres. We still had 80km to go and it was 1.30pm. To hell with it: I emailed our host in Sarajevo (who owns a hostel) and told her we would probably be showing up later that day.

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checking the kilometres..

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A village in the mountains

A cold descent followed, through forest and then across windswept alpine meadows. I pedalled hard, trying to keep up with Astrid. After an hour we stopped and checked our map – we had done just under 30km. We could do this. I was starting to really enjoy the challenge, as was Astrid.

 

We stopped once more to stuff Burek into our faces and then climbed hard out of the valley. As we neared Sarajevo the traffic got heavier. I got surprised by a huge descent and found myself braking because the cars were going too slow. We flew off the mountain, through beautiful gorges and into another valley. It was cold and beginning to head towards dark. We put on more layers and braced ourselves for the traffic and the icy wind.

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Downwards..

At a petrol station we pulled up with 12km to go and the weather coming in. We needed a break though. It is sometimes these last few kilometres that can be your undoing. So we had a hot drink and ate a pack of crisps. Then we attached our lights and once again joined the traffic. It got a bit scary then, it was dark and busy and we needed to ride through quite a few tunnels. Riding close together we kept our nerves and our lives, and were soon in the city, amongst trams and traffic lights and people. One final insane climb and we reached our goal; The Doctors House Hostel, owned by the wonderful Cat who is also a Warmshowers Host. Cat wasn’t in but we were greeted by Riccardo who was not only doing a workaway there but also happened to have just cycled east Africa on a bamboo bike. Life.

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Cat’s wonderful hostel

We quickly settled down for an evening of beer and bike chat. It felt wonderful to have succeeded in our cycling challenge. My body ached in all the right places and I felt tired but elated. We now had several days off the bikes and one of our friend’s was arriving the next day.

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View over Sarajevo

Sarajevo. What a city. I visited 2 years ago with Misch (one of my oldest and closest friends), and ever since then I’d been keen to show it to Astrid. To me it feels like one of the most interesting places in Europe; the strong Ottoman influence meeting the distinctly European one, the beautiful architecture, the surrounding mountains, and of course it’s place very much in the centre of 20th century European history. The city of today dates back to the 15th century and the Ottoman occupation. When that empire began to crumble and lose its grip, it was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this occupation the city was industrialised and rapidly developed (it had the first tram in Europe). While the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo was the catalyst for WW1, it was certainly not the cause. Europe at that time was increasingly unsettled, with the major players all vying for power and new territories (not to mention colonies). After being part of the two Yugoslavia’s, (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) when Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence, Sarajevo was subjected to the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. So definitely a place that has a varied and complicated history!

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Fuelled by falafel and a long sleep we packed up our bikes the following afternoon and headed the short way to meet Doug, who had kindly rented an apartment for us to stay in while we were all in Sarajevo together. After a lot of excited hugging and a cup of tea, the three of us headed off to explore the city. It was fun just to wander around the old bazaar, exploring narrow lanes, popping into tiny bars and marvelling at the architecture. The sounds, sights, smells, made me feel like I wasn’t in Europe at all. Then, walk a few hundred metres and we were surrounded by huge impressive buildings from the Austro-Hungarian period, complete with wide streets and trams.

 

 

Over the next few days we explored the old bazaar, watched the sunset from high above the city, visited the very disturbing museum of war crimes and genocide, went dancing at Kino Bosniak (highly recommend Monday nights!), had a fight with a stick (stick 1, Jude 0 – Astrid and Doug had to patch up my face), drank probably too much raki, went to an amazing vegan restaurant and had many chats late into the night. It is always so wonderful when friends visit and we both thoroughly enjoyed Doug’s company. All too soon it was time to bid Doug farewell, however with the hope we may see him again in a few weeks for Astrid’s birthday.

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Raki time!

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Patched up face..

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At Kino Bosniak

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cake!

After a day recovering from late nights and Raki at Cat’s hostel, it was once again time for Astrid and I to hit the road south. We had a two day pedal to Mostar in front of us and had read on the internet that the road wasn’t particularly nice for cyclists. I must say I was pleasantly surprised; the road wasn’t too busy and the end of the day brought one of the most stunning descents of the trip (unfortunately not many photos exist of this descent!). Our warmshowers host Orhan in Konjic would not hear of us camping, but instead gave us a room in his lovely hostel for the night. Konjic seemed like a great town to explore, but by now Greece was calling. In just a few short weeks 15 friends are meeting us for Astrid’s 40th. It would be rude for us not to be there.

 

 

We followed the Neretva River through narrow canyons, which included 8 tunnels (luckily not scary death tunnels). The last part of the day we were blasted by a ferocious headwind, which was exacerbated by being in a narrow valley. The riding was hard and we took it in turns to act as a wind break, the kilometres slowly ticking by. Our next host had a permaculture plot just outside of Mostar. Our kind of place. We had intended to stop there for a day and maybe help with some of the construction, or the garden. Sometimes things don’t go to plan though. The wind brought a huge storm which more or less raged for two nights and a whole day. Instead of gardening we pitched our tent inside Bambi’s greenhouse and spent a day drinking tea, eating, cuddling kittens and playing board games with another cycle tourist, Goren, and Dafni and Shilo, a couple walking through Europe, looking for some land to buy in order to start their own permaculture farm. I love how random the road can be and we definitely thoroughly enjoyed our time living in a greenhouse.

 

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Pomegranates!

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Happiness is a kitten and making pancakes

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Pancakes!

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The “little cat”.

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Had a great time with these folks!

Mostar also has a history of siege and division. During the war, the city was initially besieged by the Serb dominated Yugoslav People’s Army, and later by the Bosnian Croats from the surrounding mountains and buildings. I’ve seen footage of soldiers and civilians running across the medieval bridge (before it collapsed) under fire. It was strange to walk across it now in the cool evening air with only tourists around taking selfies. The old part of Mostar is magical but to me not quite as magical as Sarajevo. It is beautiful though; all Ottoman architecture, cobble stones and hidden bridges.

 

In Mostar we really began feeling that mental fatigue that creeps up on you unexpectedly. We had planned one night in a hostel after our time in the greenhouse and then a steady pedal over the mountains to Kosovo. For a few days we’d talked about maybe changing our route as time was running away from us, but had decided, no, we would head to the mountains. The morning we were to leave I felt so incredibly morose. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then Astrid turned around and said; “why don’t we just stay here today and ride through Montenegro and Albania instead? And spend your birthday at Lake Ohrid?” As soon as she said it I felt such relief. It’s funny, sometimes until someone verbalises something, you don’t know that it’s exactly the thing you need.

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Sniper Tower

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heading up to the roof

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Art in sniper tower

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Sniper tower was supposed to be a bank..

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On the roof

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Sunset beer

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View over Mostar

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More view

So we rested up in Mostar (attending to life admin which we’d very much neglected) before hitting the road south refreshed. Only we didn’t get far. It began to rain, then it began to pour. By 2pm after having explored Blagaj and the Dervish house, we were both soaked and freezing. There was no sign of the rain stopping. If we’d been somewhere like Iceland, where basic accommodation was often close to 100 euros, we would have had to suck it up. Here in the Balkans, we could pay much less than that for a warm apartment with a kitchen, fast wifi and a hot shower. So we did that and ate delicious curry and watched a BBC program. I just realised how British that sentence sounded..

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Dervish house in Blagaj

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The swollen river

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Last time i was here I ate where the water is now!

The rain stopped. We now had a couple of day’s cycle on a rail trail. Probably one of the last things I expected to find in Bosnia Herzegovina was a rail trail. But thanks to an EU project, an old rail line had been converted into a bike path. It’s amazing and we would highly recommend it (especially the unpaved part). The trail winds it’s way through rural Bosnia Herzegovina, passed tiny villages (with no bakeries!), along the Neretva river and then high up alongside the mountains, through hand cut tunnels. The engineering of this rail line was amazing. The cultural landscape had shifted again as we headed south of Mostar. Now instead of the Bosnian flag and mosques we were seeing catholic churches and Croatian flags. Croatia and the former front line was just over the hill. We rode passed signs warning against landmines.

 

You can actually ride all the way to Dubrovnik on the rail trail, although we turned off early, having already explored Dubrovnik on our way to London. We pedalled through what felt like ghost towns, with ruined buildings and hardly an occupied house. The rail line from the Austro Hungarian era closed in 1975 after the abolition of narrow gauge railway, but it was the war in the 1990’s that really laid waste to the area. This project to bring tourists back into the area is brilliant as cyclists, just by the nature of the way that they travel tend to spend local. I hope it will bring many cyclists to explore and revitalise this beautiful part of Bosnia Herzegovina.

 

On our last day we shopped at the local market in order to try and spend the last of our Bosnian marks, ate a huge amount of Burek, decided to cycle via the Croatian Coast (we were enjoying the warmer weather), rode 500m and then changed our minds and headed for the mountains and Montenegro instead. Just another typical day on the road south.