Bosnia – or to give it it’s full name, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) – may not be too high up the average travel wish-list. But an organised day-trip from Dubrovnik is a great introduction and an easy way to see some of the country’s highlights, and will whet the appetite for more.
Dubrovnik is scattered with agencies offering excursions to Mostar in the Herzegovina region of southern Bosnia. We paid paid 290Kn (£36) each for ours, and at 8am the next morning boarded our 16-seater minibus and set off on an eight-hour adventure.
I’d heard the coastal road north of Dubrovnik was a bit of a stunner, so made sure I sat on the left of the mini-bus to get the best views and photo opportunities. Pretty soon, we arrived at the Bosnian border – Bosnia has just 15 miles of coast. The border officials were not too fussed about checking our passports and were happy to wave us through to our first stop of the day, the seaside town of Neum.
Our mini-bus pulled into a lay-by with dozens of other buses on their way up the coast. We had a short break here to use the popular café – strangely for such a captive market, prices were pretty cheap. Bosnia has its own currency, the Mark, confusingly labelled Km, although Croatian Kunas (Kn) and Euros are accepted.
Because Bosnia is so cheap (or is it because Dubrovnik is so expensive?), Croatians come to Neum for their weekly shop. The town has a great location above a bay sheltered by the Peljesac peninsular with views of the calm waters of the Adriatic, but twenty minutes was all we had here.
We boarded the mini-bus again which carried on north up the coastal road taking us back across the border into Croatian territory before changing course and following the River Neretva inland towards Mostar.
Our first border crossing into Bosnia may have been a doddle, but the second was a disorganised ball-ache. We waited in the mini-bus for 45 minutes while our patient guide Anamaria queued up to hand our passports over to a dour-looking Bosnian border official. “No wonder they can’t get in the EU” said our more cynical driver.
Bosnia was once part of the Ottoman empire, which introduced Islam to the country – as we trundled on towards Mostar, mosques replaced churches, and road-signs were in Cyrillic script. Anamaria soon announced we were approaching our second stop of the day, Počitelj.
This tiny town on the UNESCO World Heritage “tentative” list is like a miniature Mostar with its mosque, minarets, hillside fort and views of the turquoise Neretva. Nice enough, but with just twenty minutes there I think everyone wanted to proceed directly to the main course.
Mostar, Bosnia’s 5th largest city, is home to Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croatian Bosnians (Christians). We were dropped off at the huge Christian church on the western edge of the city centre, and told we’d have just two and a half hours before we headed back to Dubrovnik.
At that point, the heavens opened and we got absolutely slashed on for the remainder of our time in Mostar. Not prepared or dressed for it, we had to buy rain ponchos – the sort of thing you usually only consider getting on a theme park log-flume ride.
The rain was so bad we had to escape indoors, and ran into the first bar we could find. Just my luck, the bar we chose was Bosniak-owned so didn’t sell alcohol. Check before you enter a bar if you want a beer, as two of the three bars we took shelter in were “dry” bars. I did get to try the local beer, Mostarsko, at one place and very nice it was too.
Mostar’s main draw is its bridge – the word Most means bridge. The Stari Most or Old Bridge which crosses the Neretva was built in the 16th Century by the Ottomans, destroyed in the Bosnian Civil War of the early 1990s and reconstructed in 2004 when it was unveiled by Prince Charles.
How do we know this? We had to take shelter in the excellent Museum of the Old Bridge. Not really fancying an eight-hour round trip to Mostar without seeing the bridge itself, we braved the rain and joined the throngs of tourists having their photos taken on it.
The weather was too scary even for the divers of the Mostari Diver’s Club – normally, they parade on the bridge in red speedos and swallow dive from it (if paid handsomely). Despite the rain, the old town was crawling with tourists, most of whom I assume were on day-trips. I’d love to have stayed a bit longer, or even overnight to have the bridge to myself.
Before leaving, we tried some Bosnian cuisine. For the price of a coffee in Dubrovnik, we enjoyed a grilled meat kebab with salad, pitta bread and a beer each. Delicious, and a new entry in my top-ten foods of the world.
Despite the long day and crap weather, our time in Bosnia really whetted our appetites for more. As soon as we got home, I went on Skyscanner to see how to get to the capital, Sarajevo. Having dipped our toes into the country the easy way, we hope to return to enjoy a bit of Bosnian culture soon.