As we cycled away from the border, dust swept across the road; the contrast between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina was stark. Almost immediately the roads had more potholes, the tarmac cracked at the edges, and traffic much quieter than I’d been used to. The cars we cycled past were mostly from the nighties or early noughties; the newer ones strictly limited to EU licence plates.
We stopped at a bakery in the first town we came upon. After inhaling a variety of dry dough, we sat on a bench outside the bakery whilst it digested. During this time, we observed the town’s population, one by one, buy something from the bakery. This trend continued as we travelled through the country. Bakeries seemed to be the heart of each town. No matter where we were, customers would flow in-and-out of them all day. I found this somewhat interesting – why the constant need to buy bread – and at random times?
The first night we camped next to the Kravice Waterfall, 40km south of Mostar. The Kravice is a ‘tufa cascade’ on the Trebižat River, and is known as one of the most beautiful natural sites in the Herzegovinian region.
Late in the night, a car approached the tents, but parked a few metres away. From his tent, Joe whispers: “I’m not sure about this free camping thing, mate”. We went through every scenario about why a car might park up in the middle of the night, and concluded that if they wanted to mug us – or worse, they would have done it already. Nerves eased, we fell asleep.
The next day, we followed the river to Capljina, 10 miles from where we camped. The bars in town were open at 9am, full with old punters getting their early morning fix. Half the buildings were in ruins or weren’t well looked after. It felt dodgy. We reluctantly stopped for coffee and ate more dough from a bakery. The woman who served us in the coffee shop spoke great English and was incredibly friendly, which helped us relax.
We continued to follow the river upstream to Mostar – the ride was relatively flat, and short, but beautiful. We sped through small villages that hugged the railway tracks – we saw no trains. What we did see, though, was investment from China. Chinese construction companies mining, building motorways and installing monstrous road bridges, which, on completion, will link the Dalmatia Coast with Mostar.
The ride into Mostar should have been a breeze, instead we fought our way through the strongest headwind I’d experienced on the trip. We had to stop a couple times because the gusts were too strong to cycle in.
Upon reaching the city, we found ourselves a nice spot for lunch within eyesight of the Old Bridge, Mostar’s well known gem. The Stari Most connects the West and East side of the city, linking the two sections of Old Town.
The small cobbled streets are full of local restaurants serving traditional Bosnian dishes. Coppersmiths line the streets, selling souvenirs and ornaments to cash heavy tourists, in a bid to keep a dying trade alive. And divers from the diving club keep everyone entertained by jumping off the Old Bridge throughout the afternoon. We loved Mostar, so booked on for another night.
In the morning, we joined a free walking tour. Just like Bosnia and Herzegovina, the war is a complex topic, so we were keen to learn more.
Our tour guide fought in the war and offered a sober view on what happened. He told us about the three ethnicities and religions living in Bosnia: Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosnians, and Orthodox Serbians. During Yugoslavia they lived in harmony, with many families coming from mixed marriages, but the break-up of Yugoslavia saw politically motivated propaganda shatter these communities. Overnight, uncles fought nephews, father-in-laws opposed son-in-laws, and best friends turned enemies. These ethnicities continue to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the country is split into three regions, so each ethnicity has a majority in one of those areas. There are also three presidents who represent each ethnic group – they rotate as lead-president every eight months. Creating an extremely counter-productive government, in a country which is still segregated, and where the state of ‘peace’ seems temporary.
When walking around the city, it’s difficult for the war not to be all consuming. Reminders of the atrocities are strikingly obvious: bullet holes decorate road signs and buildings, ruined houses dot the landscape, and the majority of gravestones have a ‘1993’ timestamp. Unlike WW2, the Bosnian War is not a distant memory. Those who fought in the war, and survived, are still alive; children who grew up in a war zone are now in their early thirties. The civilians who witnessed genocide, rape, and ethnic cleansing, still walk the streets.
When asked “which was better, Yugoslavia or Bosnia and Herzegovina?”, our guide replied: “Yugoslavia. Everyone was equal, no one was poor or homeless, everyone had a job - nowadays we have an unemployment rate of 38 percent. Before, we lived in harmony – there was no war. Bosnia and Herzegovina is now the second most corrupt country in Europe.” As we cycled through the Balkans, we came to realise that Tito is, still to this day, an extremely popular leader, particularly within the older generations.
Sarajevo was the following day’s target. One road, a highway, links Mostar to Sarajevo. After speaking to the locals, and on hearing the news that a motorcyclist had been killed on that very road in the previous week, we decided to leave at 6am.
The road was quiet.
We barely spoke to each other for the first 18 miles, concentrating on keeping our eyes fixed to the road. We stopped and downed a couple cups of coffees and some dough, which helped our bodies come back to life. Progress thereafter was quick. The scenery was amazing. The road followed Lake Jablanica’s turquoise waters through canyons and gauges until we reached Konjic.
We arrived in Konjic at 1pm. We had 30 miles to go, but still allowed ourselves to fully relax. Mistake! It wasn’t until 3pm when we shook ourselves out of a food coma and got back on the road. The climb out of Konjic was a monster – 10 miles long, on a dual carriageway and up the Dinaric Alps. We stopped a few times. Joe later told me that at one of these stops, he was silently panicking to himself: “We can’t camp here! It’s a motorway. We have to continue! No option, but to continue!”.
The hill ended at the top of a peak, where we were greeted by a tunnel and four miles of downhill. It was 7pm when we rolled into a McDonald’s on the edge of Sarajevo. Drained of energy, we quickly inhaled as many calories as the budget would allow, and continued to the hostel. Some five miles away.
The next morning, we learnt that our arrival had coincided with a bank holiday, which meant everything was closed, including museums. So, we had no option but to join the only walking tour operating that day. Another rest day, another 20,000 steps.
The tour itself was thorough – it rehashed some of what we learnt two days before, but with some tweaks. It proved that stories can change depending on who’s telling them. For example, the tour in Mostar explained that the Bosnian War had nothing to do with religion, but it was about ethnic cleansing. This tour, however, said the War was based on religion, not ethnicity. It’s easy to see how the two can get confused as, in this part of the world, they seem so closely linked.
We walked past Franz Ferdinand’s assassination spot, which kick started WW1. The tour took us through Sarajevo’s Old Town, a mix of plazas, tiny cobbled streets and stone buildings with low rooftops, built with influences from the Ottoman Empire. The clock tower in Old Town goes by lunar time, which is when 12 o’clock is sunset and the time for Muslim prayer. The hands on the clock are manually changed twice a week. We then moved onto Sarajevo’s Roses. Sarajevo’s Roses are a collection of spots dotted around the city marked with red paint. The paint acts as a memorial spot where three or more people were killed by shells during the Siege of Sarajevo – the longest siege of a city in modern history, lasting 1,425 days.
We needed respite from War talk, so got a cable car to the Winter Olympic Park, which sits at the top of a peak overlooking the city. For a city with a population of only 650,000, it’s vast. Buildings fill the horizon, creating a pretty spectacular view.
After a brief encounter with the rain, we made it back to the city centre and noticed the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide was open. The museum hosts a collection of videos and written stories, documenting individuals’ experiences of the Bosnian War. It was opened to act as a reminder of the War. We spent two hours in the museum – when we left we didn’t speak for a while, both processing the information.
We left Sarajevo very late in the day, which happens most days when we expect a big climb. Each day we will analyse the route and only focus on the elevation gain, so much so, that we will put off leaving until it gets late.
Having said this, we were initially met with a quick climb out of Sarajevo which saw us fly towards Gorazde. Two sets of steep switchbacks then stopped us in our tracks. I enjoyed the climbs, but Joe found it tiresome. It was getting late when we arrived at the summit and the temperature had dropped dramatically. The views across Bosnia and into Serbia were incredible, the sky was clear so the horizon stretched to the mountains of Montenegro and Albania. Gorazde sat at the bottom of the peak, but the route took us around the hills. The elevation would drop for a mile or so and then another incline would appear.
Joe had had enough: “This is bollocks!” he yelled when another hill appeared.
Eventually, as I knew it would, the road started to decline. After a few miles of steep downhill and dodgy roads, I could barely feel my fingers. I was wearing gloves, but the temperature had dropped so much that the cold went straight through them. I was now with Joe and eager to get off the bike.
We stayed with a lovely old lady called Belma, she spoke no English, but showed us to her top floor apartment. It was simple and exactly what we needed. Warmed up and changed, we headed into town to taste the local delicacy: pizza for starters, spaghetti bolognese for mains, and chocolate mousse for dessert.
Back on the bike, and fuelled with coffee and dough, we headed for the Serbian border. The route on Strava and Komoot predicted a lot of elevation. Neither of us were happy about this. As the day went on, we came to realise that the apps were wrong. The day was flat and continued like that until we finished. What a win!
Bosnia’s lakes and rivers scream bright turquoise and are completely unspoiled by tourists. This ride followed the river Drina all day, where the scenery made it feel more like South East Asia not Europe. As soon as we hit Visegrad, a beautiful border town, we left the river and headed for the hills into Serbia.
Arriving at the Serbian border, the guard said “Oh! A British passport”, he then asked where we were going. I replied “Mokra Gora”. He laughed and replied “Mokrrrah Goraah”, imitating a cockney accent.
No sooner had the passport been stamped, when we got chased by our first pack of wild dogs. These guys were small, yappy things so weren’t a threat, but it wasn’t the welcome to Serbia we had expected.