It’s a good time to visit Bosnia & Herzegovina (often referred to as BiH) and Croatia in southeast Europe. These are countries in transition and there is much to learn from their recent pasts. Croatia, BiH and Serbia/Montenegro were part of communist Yugoslavia and the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 resulted in four years of vicious conflict with mass detentions, rapes and murders. While there is peace today, tensions between the ethnic groups are certainly evident.
This conflict devastated the economy and infrastructure of these countries but the situation keeps improving. Croatia is emerging most quickly from its war-torn past and today is a candidate for European Union membership.
- Sarajevo (capital of BiH known as the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’ for its religious diversity with its mosques, churches and synagogues)
- Dubrovnik (famous for the walls that run more than 3 km around the city)
- Bus trip along the Mediterranean coast (white stucco houses with red tile roofs that dot the spectacular coast)
- Split (on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea with links to the numerous islands off shore)
- Mostar (historically the political, cultural and economic backbone of Herzegovina)
- Sarajevo (for flight on to Bosnia)
The Yugoslav Wars had a devastating impact on the region and its peoples. In Sarajevo, the “longest siege” lasted 1,425 days and the city was under constant artillery and sniper fire, often without communication with the outside world. In Dubrovnik, the Old Town was heavily damaged by shelling during a siege that lasted seven months. Mostar was the most heavily bombed city and the Stari Most bridge, considered to be the city’s ‘heart’, was destroyed. Today, many buildings in Mostar still lay in ruins and its Croat and Bosnian ethnic communities live predominately on opposite sides of the river.
Sarajevo has physically recovered from most of the damage. It is a cosmopolitan city with great architecture: the description used is ‘European with an Asian twist’. The best way to see it is by walking along the cobbled streets and passages of the Old Town and across the Latin Bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914, which sparked the beginning of WWI.
Dubrovnik is called the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ because of its stunning location and architecture. The Old City is itself a museum, surrounded by walls with plenty of well-preserved forts and towers.
The historic centre of Split is also a great place to walk about and I very much liked the promenade along the waterfront. I think this area tends to be underrated in the guide books.
I travelled by local bus and it was very doable. If I did it again, I would consider renting a car for the Dubrovnik to Split stretch and meander around coastal villages. The stucco houses are so consistently white you’d swear the government supplied the paint and ordered the homeowners to use it.
There is an extensive system of ferries to reach the more than 1,000 islands off the Croatian shore and for travel between coastal cities. I did not have enough time to do this so instead took a couple of day trips from Split to nearby islands.
Finding a reasonable place to spend the night is not as easy as it should be (contrary to what I read). I found hotel rates in Sarajevo to be inflated and the one I stayed at was shockingly trashy (although booked by an international NGO). At first glance it seemed okay as the entrance was dominated by a big dining room with fancy linens and glasses but it was just for show. Breakfast was served in a windowless room in the basement, my bathroom had no working light, the bedside lamps were without light bulbs, and the radio and television couldn’t be plugged in. Foreigners were being charged a stiff price for rooms such as this. I didn’t put up with it and drove the staff crazy with my complaints.
The hotel where I stayed in Split was in a perfect location but looked like a very cheap home for the aged. However, the one in Mostar was great, very comfortable and welcoming and looking out over the lovely Neretva River.
Staying in people’s homes seems to be popular throughout Croatia. There is a three-tier system of private accommodations that can be booked in advance. There are also sobes—unregulated private rooms for rent and signs advertising them are posted outside homes. When the bus I was travelling on pulled into a station I would usually be approached by an older woman asking if I needed a room. I would certainly have looked into this had I not been travelling solo.
My guide book describes the people in Dubrovnik as “brisk”, which from my experience is an understatement. I ran into too many people—from bus drivers to receptionists in tourist offices–who were quite shockingly rude. Smarten up, I say.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010