Intrepid works with the USAID Developing Sustainable Tourism in Bosnia and Herzegovina project (USAID Tourism) and Global Travel and Tourism Resilience Council to drive sustainable tourism in the region. We sent photographer and travel writer Annapurna Mellor to test drive our new 8-day expedition.
Mersiha twists and turns the burek dough while we all look on in wonder. She lightly weaves feta and spinach through the pie; it’s a skill she mastered as a child during the Bosnian war, spending her days inside, away from shelling, cooking with her mother. Outside the window, the balcony opens up to a beautiful view of Sarajevo, twinkling in the dark.
It’s our first night in Bosnia Herzegovinaon first departure of Intrepid’s new expedition to this exciting corner of Europe. We open the trip with an experience that encapsulates why I love traveling with Intrepid: being welcomed into a local’s home, sharing burek and dolma (stuffed vegetables) washed down with slivovitz, a local plum brandy, and swapping stories with my hosts and fellow travelers from all over the world.
Bosnia and Herzegovina beyond the headlines
Despite being only a few hours away from the UK and close to popular destinations such as Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina receives relatively few visitors. I knew little about it before my trip and I am not alone. Many of the conversations I had before departure with family and friends were intercepted with questions like ‘is it safe?’ and ‘wasn’t there a war there?’.
From day one, our local leader Muhamed emphasizes that while yes, there was a war here from 1992 to 1995 (and he actually has the physical scars and heartbreaking stories to prove it), Bosnia and Herzegovina deserves to be known for so much more.
Muhamed is a proud Sarajevo local. So proud, in fact, that a tattoo of the city’s skyline adorns his shin. He’s been leading Intrepid tours across the Balkan region for years, but this is the first time Bosnia has been put in the spotlight – with its own dedicated tour that takes travelers beyond the main sights – and he’s excited to show us his homeland, starting with his hometown.
Sarajevo showcases the incredible cultural diversity of this country. Baščaršija – or Sarajevo’s Old Bazaar – dates back to the 15th century, and the mosques’ minarets sit alongside Ottoman rooftops and the grand facade of the Austro-Hungarian Town Hall. On street corners, locals eat traditional baklava next to hip coffee places, and churches, mosques and bars share the same squares.
A cable car takes us high above the city, to the mountains that frame the capital. From up here we see the expanse of the valley and Muhamed leads us through the forest until we find the abandoned bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympics. It was bombed during the siege and has since become an open-air gallery for local graffiti artists.
Into the wilderness
The surprises keep coming as we drive out of the city, through autumn red forests, into the natural beauty of Bosnia. We spend a breezy afternoon at the foot of the Cincar mountain, where over 400 wild horses roam the landscape, clinking blueberry beer over local cheeses in a mountain hut. In Jajce, a small town surrounded by lakes, rivers and mountains, we get our first taste of the unspoilt beauty of Bosnia’s waterways as we have lunch by a series of turquoise waterfalls.
It is dusk when we arrive in Mostar, a city of winding cobbled streets most famous for its striking Ottoman bridge. The landscape here is drier to match the Mediterranean climate; fresh pomegranates hang from the trees and a sense of calm pervades. It is so inviting that we could easily linger for days.
But coming to Herzegovina and only seeing Mostar would be a great shame. The whole region is beautiful and – like much of Bosnia and Herzegovina – feels criminally underrated. Exploring with local guides and traveling in a small minibus means we are able to get off the beaten track and understand the intricacies of this region in a deeper way than I could have as an independent traveller.
A highlight is our visit to Blagaj Tekija, a Sufi dervish monastery nestled under a cliff beside the emerald green Buna River. Early in the morning we enjoy the peaceful silence of this place before listening to the memories of our guide Ruba, who grew up in this village and spent her childhood visiting the monastery with her father, a practicing Sufi.
Ends on a high
Our last stop before returning to Sarajevo is Konjic. And as soon as we reach the Prenj Mountains, I can tell this is going to be special. Konjic is the adventure capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here you can hike, climb, raft or just relax by its sparkling lakes. Our group goes high into the mountains for an exciting rafting trip down the Neretva River. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s scenery has consistently blown me away, but the landscapes here are my favorite. Tall, rocky mountains rise from layers of green and golden forest, and the Neretva is a pure, crystal blue.
On our last night in Sarajevo, Muhamed recommends going up to the Yellow Fortress. From here it is impossible not to notice the cemetery with white graves, almost all dating from the war. Throughout the trip, the history of the war has been palpable. 40-year-old Muhamed lived his formative years under siege, and every local we met had a different experience to share.
But this trip has shown me how much Bosnia and Herzegovina has to offer beyond the history of conflict. This is a country of incredible, untouched nature, diverse religions and cultures, delicious food and warm people who are proud to welcome you into their homes. I feel lucky to have been able to experience this special country at a time when tourism is just developing.
As the sunset casts a red glow over Sarajevo’s mix of minarets and mountains, the evening call to prayer begins. It reverberates from all corners of the valley. After a week of unforgettable experiences, this moment might just be the one that stays with me the longest.