Almost immediately after crossing the border from Serbia to Bosnia at Mokra Gora, the landscape transformed into a narrow gorge, with a winding river at the bottom and immense rock formations at the top. The curves of the road were so tight, you could see mountains near and far slide back and forth like paper cuttings sliding across a page. It was pretty epic scenery.
We quickly learned that Bosnian drivers are shit. They swerved around aimlessly like bored kids, often stopping suddenly in the middle of the road without warning. Then they’d change from lackadaisical to brutish. Forget speed limits, forget no passing on two-lane roads around corners; they were obviously in some kind of hurry and would let no tractor trailer stand in their way. And they either can’t judge distances very well, or they don’t give a fark about oncoming traffic when they’re trying to pass. It was normal for a driver to try and pass two or sometimes three cars and trucks, only to force the oncoming traffic onto the shoulder because they couldn’t make it back in their own lane in time. Nice.
But we made it to Sarajevo. Sarajevo, particularly the Stari Grad area, has a great exotic look that western Europeans love–hilly with narrow, winding streets, little bridges, a bazaar, and the pointy, rocketship-like minarets of hundreds of mosques giving the skyline a mystical character. In the past nine years, it has managed to transform itself from a city ravaged by war to a cosmopolitan hotspot, with chic bars playing top 40 tunes to beefy guys in polo shirts, and women who teeter-totter in their stilettos across cobblestone streets before falling into the passenger seat of their boyfriend’s Lexus. In the less glamorous pit that it the Old Town, the overbearing smell of perfume gives way to fruity shisha smoke, billowing out from the tiny bars where tourists compete with 16-year-old Muslim kids for precious seating space beneath cheap Turkish lamps.
It’s also here in Sarajevo where we had a horrible experience that is an omen of things to come: There were loads of “bars” that SERVED NO ALCOHOL. Shock.
Unfortunately none of this is our thing, and the sheer number of tourists (mostly French for some reason?) flooding the streets for their own authentic “East meets West” experience really turned us off to the city. The only solstice we found was in Tito Cafe, a slightly tacky bar tucked away behind the indefinitely shuttered National Museum. It was cheap, shady, had good wifi, and there were tanks in the garden. It was about as offbeat as we were going to get.
One thing we learned quickly in Sarajevo is that most Bosnians don’t give a shit about Serbia. We were in the bad habit of constantly mentioning it. “Well, our friend in Serbia said…” “In Serbia we saw…”, etc. We had just spent two eventful weeks in the country, after all. But Bosnians didn’t want to hear a word of it, and would often cut you off mid-sentence.
Regardless of the actual tensions between the Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox Christian populations that are bubbling deep where visitors can’t sense them, the Bosnians we met made it a point to stress that “PEOPLE HERE GET ALONG NO MATTER WHAT RELIGION THEY ARE.” It was like a broken record, something that they keep saying to themselves in hopes that it will come true. But that was the one thing about Bosnians: They happily and readily shared their opinions on their country and government. Their dissatisfaction with the institutional corruption, with the war, with the Serbs, with whatever, was nothing to hide from us.
Mostar was a bit different than Sarajevo. It was less demure, and far more extreme. Extremely packed with tourists. Really packed, to the point where it was difficult to walk down the slippery granite streets in the old town. All the shops sold the same things, and it was like walking around in a poorly designed sandbox game where the shop clerks repeated the same tired dialogue about their cloned merchandise.
Leaving the old town, we got a glimpse of another way Mostar was more extreme than Sarajevo. While in Sarajevo damage from the Bosnian War has mostly been demolished or covered up, in Mostar you couldn’t walk one block without seeing husks of buildings with walls beat into Swiss cheese by mortar shells, metal garage doors with rusted bullet holes, or asphalt that had puckered with the impact from automatic gunfire. Here you could really feel a country that had seen war.
There was also far more street art here than in Sarajevo. Near Spanish Square, one of the main venues for the Mostar Street Art Festival, you can find lots of nice looking pieces decorating the derelict buildings. We unfortunately couldn’t find much more “street” culture than that, however, and the least wanky, least touristy bar we could find banged out jazz and then some 90s grunge band tunes for us to nurse our rakijas to.
As we headed out of Herzegovina towards Croatia, the pointy mosque minarets slowly gave way to round-domed churches. After our own vaguely exotic East-West experience, we were a bit glad to be headed back into EU territory, for beaches and plentiful booze.