The final leg of our April 2017 Beautiful Balkans tour will take place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country as rich in history and cultural heritage as any of its neighbor states, and perhaps the most scarred by the 1990s Yugoslav Wars.
Ethnic tensions were a factor in all the fighting in the region during that period, but they played a particularly destructive role in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which erupted into civil war among the country’s three major ethnic groups. A war that drew the attention of the world when Bosnian Serbs (taking over after an initial assault by the army of Serbia and Montenegro) lay siege to Sarajevo for nearly four years—the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. The world also observed as the conflict devolved into reciprocal war crimes and atrocities.
Fortunately, all of that was long ago, and Sarajevo, which was severely damaged during the siege, has largely recovered. Well enough to attract ever-increasing numbers of tourists (including ourselves, since that’s where we’ll spending most of our time in Bosnia).
As a matter of fact, the entire country is an up-and-comer in terms of tourism, projected to have the world’s third-highest growth between 1995 and 2020. Why? Because of the cultural treasures left behind by six occupying civilizations over roughly 13 centuries.
Such as the old town of Mostar, which was influenced for hundreds of years by the Ottoman Empire. After an idyllic last day in Dubrovnik, we’ll cross the border into Bosnia-Herzogovina and then enter the town of Mostar by crossing the Stari Most bridge—one of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture. Designed by a pupil of the great Ottoman architect Sinan, the Stari Most was built in 1566 and was still sturdy enough during World War II to allow Nazi tanks to cross the river Neretva.
Though it wasn’t strong enough to withstand a direct attack by Croat forces in 1993 during the civil war. Fortunately, Stari Most and the two 17th-century fortified towers on each bank of the river were rebuilt by an international coalition, thanks to the bridge’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the old town architecture that was destroyed during the attack has also been rebuilt and we’ll visit highlights including the public baths, the town clock tower and various Ottoman residences and houses of worship.
After lunch in Mostar, we’ll drive on to Sarajevo for the first of two final overnights. After an evening of free time, we’ll devote the next day to seeing the numerous sights of Sarajevo.
The area had the usual succession of regional occupiers, first Illyrians, then Romans, then Goths, then Slavs, before conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1429. The Ottomans founded and developed the city before losing the entire region to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, who themselves lost the territory after World War I. Which began, by the way, in 1914 after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. All of those occupiers left an unusual mark on the city, however, in terms of its religious diversity, with mosques, Catholic churches, Orthodox churches and synagogues sometimes located in the same neighborhood—enough variety for the city to be known as the Jerusalem of Europe.
We’ll spend the morning of our first day visiting the main sites of the central city including the Old Town Hall, a beautiful pseudo-Moorish building erected by the Austro-Hungarians in 1894, then transformed into the National Library in 1945—which was deliberately destroyed in 1992, along with 2 million books and hundreds of thousands of rare books and manuscripts, during the siege of the city. After years of restoration, the building was re-opened two years ago as a national monument.
We’ll also visit the Old Town Bazaar, created by the Ottomans in the 15th century and still the historical and cultural center of the city. And no visit to Sarajevo would be complete without a visit to the Latin Bridge, the site of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and the first shot fired in “the war to end all wars.”
After lunch we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon viewing the haunting remnants of the 1984 Winter Olympics village—ironically seen as a sign of Sarajevo’s solidarity and rise in the world less than 10 years before the war that almost destroyed it. Previously a symbol of international peace, the village became a battleground and a place to store weapons. Now the ski jump, the luge and bobsled tracks and the medalists podiums have all fallen into decades of disrepair and neglect.
The following day will be free time, allowing for in-depth individual exploration of Sarajevo’s many highlights, followed by a farewell dinner and then a final opportunity to check out the city’s night life, including a thriving club scene. We began our tour in Belgrade and we’ll finish up in Sarajevo—both cities that have been destroyed by war and come back to life possibly better than ever. Demonstrating that the Balkans are not only beautiful, but impressively resilient.