Our one full day in Virpazar consisted mostly of relaxing, swimming, writing and sketching. The free bikes provided by our accommodation were the perfect way to explore the small town nearby. Since it was months before peak season, the town was mostly inhabited by scruffy cats, dogs and locals leisurely peddling their wares and various boat tours. After a casual lunch we stopped into the one market in town and bought some basics to make ourselves dinner back on our little bungalow's terrace. Watching the sunset from the grounds of our eco-stay was remarkable as the sun fell directly in line with the peak of a large karst mountain that dominated our view. It's safe to say we could have let a few more days sneak by at our little wine-infused hideaway, but alas, we disembarked for our next adventure the following morning.
Quite literally whittled into the sheer stone face of an adjacent cliff, we could just make out the light shape of Ostrog Monastery from our comfortable perch at the Hotel Sokoline. The Monastery is one of the most sacred sites in the Serbian Orthodox religion, and is the most popular place for pilgrimage in Montenegro. It is customary for devotees to walk 3 km of grueling steps barefoot from the lower building complex to the visually stunning upper Monastery (but we just drove to the upper parking lot instead). The Monastery was founded by and is now dedicated to St. Basil of Ostrog, with whom we had an interesting interaction after following a group of religious pilgrims into a small cavern-like passage near the main entrance to the building. After cluelessly queuing for a few minutes, we finally found ourselves crouched over an open casket reliquary containing the lightly veiled remains of Saint Basil himself. Imitating the group before us, we lowered our heads into the casket and awkwardly kissed the air above the Saint before glancing up at the scraggly old holy man keeping watch for some kind of instruction or validation. Met with a blank stare, we left the cave and hobbled over to the gift shop bewildered by this macabre morning surprise. After about 5 minutes of browsing, we spilled an entire container of frankincense all over a counter covered in gold-leaf embellished trinkets. This was a sign. It was time to go, enough damage had been done for today.
We hopped in the rental car, bound for a small lake-side town called Virpazar; population 337. The town straddles a river that flows into the massive Skadar lake, a portion of which is pictured above. The lake lies on the border of Montenegro and Albania, and is the largest lake in Southern Europe. Surrounding Virpazar is a pleasing landscape of vineyards and countryside cradled by waves of karst landscape. Our accommodation for the next couple of nights, Eco Resort & Winery Cermeniza (yay again for credit card points!), featured an awesome view of this area from its sunny poolside as well as a choice selection of wines squeezed from grapes grown right on the property. For dinner we enjoyed fresh, delicious Lake Skadar carp amongst the aging barrels in the family vineyard’s wine cellar. Sometimes hanging out inside the comfort zone for a while ain’t so bad at all.
We woke before dawn to pack up and set off from our rustic, Tara River hideaway to try and catch the sun rising over the Tjentiste Spomenik, which was about an hour’s drive back into Bosnia. As our headlights illuminated the first stretch of our rugged drive, a dark blotch on the road ahead suddenly materialized into a stoic, sedentary fox; setting a surreal tone for the rest of the morning. Our destination was a gorgeous, mountainous national park area called Sutjeska, which was virtually deserted as we approached in the pale blue pre-dawn light. We reached the monument in time to watch the sun peak over the tree-covered hill in front of it. This particular monument was built to commemorate the fighters and over 7,000 fallen soldiers of Tito’s communist partisan party during the Battle of Sutjeska, which took place during WWII from May 15th to June 16th, 1943. In its heyday during the era of Yugoslavia, the monument was part of a larger memorial complex which included a visitors center and a large eastern bloc style hotel; both of which now stand empty and somewhat forgotten. We rounded out the morning with a breathtaking hike in the nearby Perućica reserve in Sutjeska National Park (the largest and one of the last two remaining primeval forests in Europe), affording us commanding views of surrounding mountains, waterfalls and valleys. While it may not be as popular of a destination as it was a few decades ago, the Tjentiste Spomenik was well worth the 4am wakeup required to see it trimmed with plumes of fog and golden morning light.
Following our morning of frolicking in rural Bosnia and Herzegovina (technically in the Republica Srpska region of the country), we doubled back toward the rafting camp to enter Montenegro at an adjacent border crossing. The latter half of our day was spent driving to our next accommodation through some absolutely stunning scenery. The first stretch of road into Montenegro meandered above the Tara River canyon; carved casually into the rocky slopes on either side. The serpentine ride switched frantically between the dark of driving through raw tunnels blasted straight out of the rock and bright, shimmering eyefuls of the pristine valley below. On our way through Niksic we stopped for a snack at the Spomenik at Trebjesa Hill. Contrasting our morning Spomenik visit, this statue was surrounded by liveliness. A herd of goats grazed the large green area surrounding it while dodging smacks from their herders’ canes, and groups of teenagers gathered at its base, conversing in distinct slavic tones. We arrived safely at our evening’s respite, Hotel Sokoline, after negotiating a series of tight switchbacks that led us up the side of a steep canyon wall overlooking a vibrant, bucolic valley called the Bjelopavlići plain. After settling in, we headed straight for the hotel’s restaurant terrace to enjoy the first of many incredible Montenegrin sunsets. It was the perfect accompaniment for a satisfying bottle of wine touting a favorable Montenegrin price-tag.
Our rafting camp slowly came to life following an evening of tall beers and some impromptu live entertainment provided by a 3 piece band including not one, but TWO accordion players. After a casual wake-up and some local Bosnian breakfast dishes the next morning, our rafting guides arrived, introduced themselves and loaded us into a van headed across the Montenegro border to our put-in spot on the Tara River. What ensued was an exhilarating day of getting to know some class 4 rapids on a very intimate level. Due to the perilous nature of this activity for any kind of electronics, images of the rafting itself are missing from the record, so please enjoy a couple of general images of the Tara above. The Tara and the Piva are two of the cleanest rivers on the face of the planet, and both are safe to drink out of directly; in fact, Piva is derived from the Slavic word meaning “to drink”. The Balkan Conflict decimated industry and economy throughout the entire region. An interesting silver lining to this awful link in history’s chain is the near complete lack of pollutants present in the beautiful Tara and its tributaries. Swollen with recent snowmelt, we scooped handfuls and filled water bottles directly out of the lively river in between sets of belligerent rapids. At long last, we paddled up to our camp’s beach and slogged back up to the lodge for some celebratory draft beer from the aptly named local 'Raft Brewery'.
Leaving Sarajevo, our next destination would be the rural area around a small border town called Foca for a rafting adventure. There was no need to rush the drive to Foca, so we decided to linger around Sarajevo a bit longer before setting out on the road. We headed up the hill to explore one of the most famous abandoned attractions in the city, the Sarajevo Olympic Bobsled Track. We had gotten little taste of this cool environment a few days before on our Meet Bosnia tour, but felt the area was worth a bit more exploration. The entire hilltop was gorgeous to hike around, and the serpentine, concrete form of the track weaving its way in and out of the forested hillside was pleasingly surreal. Construction of the track for the Sarajevo Winter Olympics was completed in 1982 at a cost of $8,500,000 USD. Aside from its use in the Olympics, the track hosted a handful of bobsledding and luging world cup competitions until the Yugoslav wars broke out in 1991. During the Bosnian War the track served as an artillery position for the Serb forces at the time of the Seige, as they rained down an average of 300 bombs per day on downtown Sarajevo. Evidence of its wartime utility remains on the final turn of the course, where drilled-out fighting holes still pockmark its concrete flanks. After the war ended the area became an underground attraction and a practice ground for local and touring graffiti and street-artists. The future of the track seems a bit murky. The Sarajevo Cable Car resumed operation for the first time since the early 90’s this past April, 2018, and ferries tourists up the hill to a currently undeveloped area near the track. Although more development is likely planned for this hilltop, currently the bobsled track is experiencing a breath of new life as many of the cable-car riders find their way over for a bit of exploration and hiking.
After a leisurely afternoon of driving we arrived at a small rafting camp near the border of Montenegro called Divlja Rijeka. It sits on the heavily forested confluence of the aggressively aquamarine Piva and Tara rivers deep in the Tara Canyon. The gorgeous ravine is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is 4,300 ft deep at its lowest point, making it one of the deepest river canyons in the world. The camp consisted of modest A-frame cabins and a lodge-like common area which dispensed an endless supply of beer and homemade Bosnian fare. After enjoying a few welcome drinks we retired to our cabin rest up for our rafting adventure the next day, and ended up meeting the auxiliary welcome party: A scorpion curled up comfortably under Addie’s pillow. Max bid him goodnight and ushered him swiftly out the window with a carefully brandished piece of paper. Needless to say, this experience properly prepped us for the adrenaline-gushing excitement of whitewater rafting the following day, and we remained on our toes for the duration of our enjoyable stay at camp.
We decided to venture a little bit outside of the routine tourist areas of Sarajevo on our final full day in the city. Hoofing it up and down the glute-engaging hills of Sarajevo’s urban ramble, we headed in the direction of the Yugoslav-era neighborhood of Ciglane. If architecture can be described as “socialist”, this area of the city visually embodies that ideology unmistakably. Blocky apartment complexes stacked on top of each other sink snugly into a steep hillside overlooking the 1984 Olympic Games Complex. Visiting the neighborhood offers an intimate look into quotidian life of working-class Sarajevo. The area’s flea market is worth ambling around for a few minutes; everything from fresh fruit to the hottest deals on knock-off clothing can be found within its rusty partitions. We passed some time trooping through the tiered district taking photos and people watching. The neighborhood is also famous for its vernacular lift which saves locals some serious sweat getting up and down from their apartments. Unfortunately the lift was out of order during our visit. We got the feeling that its functionality is probably sporadic at best, and somehow that made it even more endearing.
One noteworthy vestige of the Ottoman era in Sarajevo is the Yellow Fortress. It is one of the only parts of the original defensive wall and fortification system that originally enclosed the entire Old Town area. Its length was measured in time rather than distance; it was known to take 1 hour to walk the entire perimeter. Today, the Yellow Fortress is a popular hangout due to its incredible view down the Sarajevo Valley and the entire length of the city’s sprawl. We took a short walk to the fort from the center of Old Town and picked up a couple cans of Sarajevsko beer on the way for a satisfying sunset session.
We set about getting to know Sarajevo with a morning walk through the Old Town area. Bosnia existed under the control of the Ottoman empire from as early as the 15th century up until the late 19th century when it was ceded to the Austro-Hungarian empire; and the Old Town area reflects this history explicitly. Ottoman architecture is ubiquitous throughout its multiple Mosques, cobblestone streets and narrow lanes lined with shops selling crafts of all kinds. The picture above portrays one of the craft traditions that has remained generally unchanged by the hands of time, the Coppersmiths. Drifting down Kazandziluk, or Coppersmith’s Street, an air of times past is cultivated by the glare of the sun dancing on hand-made turkish coffee sets and the pleasant tapping of tool on metal emanating from the shops into the enclosed thoroughfare. We enjoyed meandering around Old Town and the surrounding areas, and were struck by how the architecture reflected the shift of power in the city’s history. As we walked away from Old Town in the direction that Sarajevo expanded all those years ago, we could see the buildings gradually shift into the Austro-Hungarian style. In the distance, Eastern Bloc behemoth structures loomed over the newer parts of the city. Sarajevo is a great place to examine the evolution of architecture and power in a near perfect linear direction.
Pictured above is a nondescript house on the outer fringes of Sarajevo that became one of the most important locations in the recent history of the entire Balkan region. Underneath this house was the end of a 340 meter tunnel that is one of the sole reasons Sarajevo survived a violent, 4 year long siege. Without turning this post into some kind of academic essay, the general context of the siege was as follows: Following the death of the widely beloved dictator Marshal Tito, ethnically diverse Yugoslavia began to collapse and waves of nationalism erupted (side note: we were struck to find that many conversations we had alluded to Bosniak's views of the communist Yugoslav times as their golden age, a period they pine for and a political system they'd prefer still existed) . Some Serbs in the area saw this political vacuum as an opportunity to realize the vision of a “Greater Serbia”. Bosnia, a very demographically varied country, declared its independence from Yugoslavia and was recognized by the EU as a sovereign state in April of 1992. Already militarized Serbs and Bosnian Serbs were not a fan of this victory for an ethnically diverse Bosnia, and in addition to sporadic fighting all over the country, surrounded its capital in an effort to gain control of this important area. The siege that followed could have easily been the end of the vision of a diverse and free Bosnia, but Sarajevo's industrious citizens weren’t going to let that happen. Over the course of 4 months and 4 days during the siege a tunnel was excavated in order to link the inhabitants of Sarajevo with the outside world, and, more importantly, food and supplies. The Tunnel of Hope is widely recognized as one of the key reasons Sarajevo was able to stand until NATO stepped in with some air-strikes and eventually the Bosnians were able to break the Serbs’ vice-grip on the city. We visited the Tunnel and many other important sites on the Meet Bosnia Fall of Yugoslavia, Sarajevo Siege Tour. The tour was a great way to get to know a wide swath of the city quickly, and then decide which sites and areas to come back to and explore in more depth later.
Having gotten to know Mostar and some of its lovely inhabitants, it was time to move on to Sarajevo; the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and keeper of its own wealth of tragic history and both humbling and inspiring stories of humanity. For this day of driving we had picked up another passenger headed from Mostar to Sarajevo: our new friend Jake from Minnesota. It was refreshing to spend time with another American after coming across surprisingly few in our travels thus far. Additionally, it was just fun to have another person to share the experience of travel and discovery with. This stretch of road between the two cities is gorgeous. The route leads travelers through a valley carved over eons by the Neretva River. Rich turquoise waters flow between massive walls of karst formation. We took our time following the winding roadway and stopped at multiple points to take pictures from scenic viewpoints. One of these stops, an important historical site, is pictured above: The Bridge on Neretva. This bridge is famous for being destroyed on 3 separate occasions. First, Communist Partisans partially blew it up to trick Axis forces into misestimating their next moves during WWII. Once Axis forces responded to this smokescreen, Partisan engineers quickly repaired the bridge and their forces stormed the east bank of the Neretva to break through the wall of enemy divisions that were surrounding them. Axis powers could not respond in time, but managed to order an airstrike which destroyed the bridge a second time. After the dust of WWII settled, a new railway bridge was constructed on this site. Bridge on the Neretva fell to its final resting place in 1969 when a Yugoslavian movie director blew it up for the climactic final battle scene of his film. Ironically, none of the shots of the bridge falling made it into the final cut of the film, which featured well known hollywood actors Yul Brynner and Orson Welles.
After a leisurely day of driving and sight seeing we arrived in Sarajevo and settled into our accommodation. The image pictured above would become a very common sight throughout our visit; Sarajevo has one of heaviest smoking habits in the world. We later learned that this may partially be due to an interesting fact stemming from daily life during the Siege of Sarajevo (the longest siege of a major city in recent history, lasting from 1992-1996). While industry had all but collapsed during the siege, one factory was still churning out cigarettes, making them one of the most available commodities with actual value. Cigarettes ended up becoming the primary means of exchange in the isolated city; Bosnian cash had lost all value. The unassuming cigarette became a simple comfort, symbol of status and the primary currency during this harrowing time. Walking the streets it was clear to see that some of this residual and sentimental value has carried over into the present day lives of Sarajevo residents of all ages.
On the evening preceding our only full day in Mostar we checked in to our accommodation, Hostel Miran, and met its proprietor and namesake. Miran immediately struck us as a special guy. He grew up in Mostar and lived through the breakup of Yugoslavia, more specifically the Bosnian War, before being drafted to fight in the Kosovo War. He’s got a colorful and sometimes tragic history that he has turned around into a prosperous life for himself and his family. Miran was one of the first people to open a hostel in Mostar in the war’s aftermath and has gained international attention for his unique story. He was proud to show us that a google search for “crazy bosnian guy” would reveal images of none-other but our new friend standing right in front of us. He exuberantly convinced us to take his all-day tour which would cover some of the area’s most popular attractions before returning to downtown Mostar and recounting his experience during the war and the city’s siege. The tour was pretty cool; we visited some of the must see sites around the Mostar area including Kravica waterfalls, Blagaj Tekija monestary and the quaint Pocitelj village. However, it quickly became clear that the true value of the tour was all-day access to Miran himself. The educational value of a conversation with someone who lived through such important historical events cannot be overstated. Additionally, Miran is a true history buff and ended up being a wealth of knowledge regarding the geopolitical landscape of this part of the world and the events that shaped it in the past. We finished the tour with a much deeper understanding of Yugoslavia, its dissolution, and the subsequent conflicts that resulted.
We ended the day with a visit to an abandoned building that played an important role in the siege of Mostar. Once an 8-story bank building, the structure took on new meaning during the Bosnian War when it became a nest for Croat snipers taking aim for the Bosniak-controlled streets of Eastern Mostar. Now widely known as 'Sniper Tower', the imposing, bullet-ridden facade serves as a grim reminder of how recently this city and country was enveloped in violent conflict. Joined by a new American friend Jake who took Miran’s tour with us, we made much more pleasant use of the building by soaking in some amazing views of the city from its roof while enjoying the best, cheap local beer Bosnian marks can buy. Local artists have reclaimed the once terror-inspiring structure by decorating its interior and exterior with colorful, politically-charged graffiti. We always love experiencing situations in which art has served as a meaningful tool in the collective healing process of a city.
Setting out from Zadar, we planned to drive along Croatia’s scenic coastline highway before shifting away from the Adriatic and heading overland to cross the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. We bypassed most of what the beautiful Dalmatian Coast has to offer as we would be returning to this area in a few weeks time to meet up with Max’s parents and enjoy exploring the area with them. However, we couldn’t resist the thought of a nice beach session to break up the drive a bit, so we stopped at the famous Brela Beach (rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world by Forbes) to lay out and do some swimming. Being late April, the start of the high season was still a few weeks away, so we had the beach virtually to ourselves. Enjoying the luxury of solitude in such an idyllic corner of the world felt like we had beat “the system” somehow, and further substantiated our resolution that we had come to the Balkans at the best possible time of year.
After some enjoyable roadside sightseeing respites we were ready to get back to business and drive the rest of the way to our next major destination, the city of Mostar. We passed into Bosnia and Herzegovina at an unremarkable crossing on the southwestern border of the country, and were within quick reach of the cultural and economic capital of the Herzegovina region. Pictured above is the primary icon of the city, the “Stari Most” or “Old Bridge”. The bridge was built during the long rule of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and stood for over 400 years before it was destroyed by Croat forces during the Balkan Conflicts in the early 1990’s. Eventually it was rebuilt and finally reopened in 2004. The bridge is the site of a local cultural phenomenon wherein young local men jump from the 80 foot structure into the frigid Neretva river below as a rite of passage. It has become such a popular spectacle that the bridge has become a tour stop in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series each year since 2015. Our host in the city later proclaimed that “there are 2 sports in Mostar, Futbol and jumping off the bridge”.