Waterfalls & War History | My Journey into Bosnia-Herzegovina
One year ago, the only thing I could tell you about Bosnia was that there was a war there when I was a kid. I remember hearing the name mentioned on the news, which was background noise during my childhood. One year ago, I would have never imagined that I’d be visiting this country — Bosnia, as we informally call it, but it’s actually Bosnia-Herzegovina. Another thing I didn’t know one year ago.
Our trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of the things I was most excited for — along with feeling anxious, nervous and eager to learn. The country borders Croatia to the east and was also part of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina saw the worst of the war in the 90s. Mostar, the main town we’d be visiting, was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of all.
Since there was so much we wanted to see, it made sense to hire a driver who knew the country well. Hiring a driver kind of sounds like a snobby travel move, but it was actually incredibly affordable and ended up being the best decision. While the transportation was convenient, the wealth of firsthand knowledge he provided was priceless.
Igor was at our apartment to pick us up a little before 8 in the morning. A 39-year-old from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, he was just a teenager during the war. From the second we got in the car, he made us feel like we were long lost friends.
In routine conversation, we shared that we were visiting from San Francisco and he commented on how he has heard it’s over 1,000 euros to live in a flat. I explained that it’s actually more than that, and he nearly hit the floor.
“I met another guest from San Francisco,” he explained. “They say it so expensive, they left to live in a village 40 kilometers away.” The phrasing of this might have been the cutest thing I’d hear all day.
About 30 minutes outside of Dubrovnik, we made our first unexpected stop of the morning at his favorite beach. Being 8:30 a.m. on a weekday, we had the beach to ourselves. Igor said that locals head out to this beach everyday around 4 p.m. when they get off work, and then remain until the sun goes down. Just when I think I’ve seen the clearest water, I discover a new beach that tops the list.
The route from Croatia into Bosnia is an interesting one. Croatia’s coastline is actually split north of Dubrovnik by a short piece of land that belongs to Bosnia. So if you’re driving north up the coast, you exit Croatia into Bosnia for a few miles, then exit Bosnia back into Croatia.
Our day would consist of six border crossings due to this layout of the land. Igor stopped for coffee when we crossed into the single-town section of Bosnia — Neum. He explained to us how Croatia is trying to build a large bridge to allow them to connect via islands without having to drive through this small section of Bosnia.
I drank my first espresso since January and felt like I was drunk. We made one more quick stop at a hole-in-the-wall bakery somewhere in the countryside. Igor ordered us burek and insisted we take it to eat at our next stop. Hyperactive and ready to explore, we crossed back into Croatia, back into Bosnia again, and head towards of first stop on the itinerary — Kravice Waterfalls.
When I started planning this trip, I somehow stumbled across a photo of the waterfalls. Having no idea where it was actually located within the country, I was determined to go. Luckily, Igor was willing to go a little bit out of the way to make sure we had this special experience.
As we neared the waterfall site by car, Igor explained how the region is actually a very dry one, making the waterfalls some sort of phenomenon — and it’s apparent, it was very hot and there wasn’t much greenery in sight.
We pulled up in the parking lot and Igor instructs us to pay two euros for a ticket, then hike down the trail that leads to the falls. He’d wait for us at the outdoor cafe up top. Steps and a dirt path led us to a slippery rock path, eventually leading us to the magnificent Kravice Waterfalls.
As soon as you see the falls, you can start to feel a cooling relief from the mist seeping into the humid air. People were lounging along one side of the falls as if they were at the beach, while cafe tables sprawled out all across the other side, serving chilled local beer. With no coastal access for at least an hour drive, this is where locals come to cool off and relax.
We sat down to eat our burek that we had bought at the bakery. There were three, all with different fillings — meat, potatoes and spinach. We both agreed that the meat burek was our favorite.
For the next hour, we sat along the water and admired the beauty in front of us. We watched people of all ages playing in the lake and countless selfie being taken. The water was surprisingly chilly, considering how hot it was outside. I was content on the sidelines, while Taka went all in on behalf of the both of us.
The hike back to the top was a little on the torturous side. It was so hot. We made it up and took a break in the cafe with Igor before heading back to the car. He insisted that I drink a Cockta, the preferred soft drink in this part of the world — a caffeine-free, herbal beverage. We had another 30 minute drive to get to our main stop of the day — Mostar.
Mostar is a diverse city, made up of a near-even split of Croats, who are Catholic, and Bosniaks, who are Muslim — and then a smaller population of Serbs. Having never visited a Muslim country, I was excited to immerse myself in a completely unfamiliar culture. I was also looking forward to seeing how these two religious and ethnic groups were living in such close proximity to one another post-war.
We arrived in Mostar and parked the car at a Catholic church just a few blocks from the Old Town. The church was large, but much plainer — a lot less ornate — than I'm used to. Igor explained to us that this church was built incredibly fast, as the Catholics wanted to get it up — sort of marking their territory — as quickly as possible. It sounded like architectural decisions based on this competitive reasoning were a common occurrence amongst both the Catholic and Muslim population here. One always wanting to outdo the other.
Scars of the war were immediately apparent within the first block of walking towards the Old Town. Bullet holes were scattered across exterior walls of occupied buildings — other buildings’ interiors were completely blown out by bombs, but the framing still stands, graphic and vivid like a page out of a history book.
Igor told us that the country is too poor to clean up all of the war damage.
"People have to wake up everyday and see this — they have to be reminded everyday of what they lost. It's very sad," he commented, shaking his head in disappointment.
Looking around, you can see how residents in apartment buildings, equipped with balconies, have an unavoidable view of horrific memories from the past.
Entering the streets of the Old Town, I immediately felt the eastern influence. I've never been to Turkey, but the streets closely resemble images you see of a Turkish bazaar. Passing through, Igor insisted we stop in at one of his favorite shops — their specialty was soccer jerseys and knock-off brandname sunglasses.
The friendly owner showed us his impressively-accurate collection of fake RayBans. Selling such good knock-offs is illegal in Croatia, so Igor seemed really excited to bring us here. The shop owner started chatting my ear off about which jerseys sell best. We quickly bonded while standing next to a jersey lineup of Messi, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic.
"Who's the best player in the world?" Taka asked him. The pensive man paused, stared at the jerseys, slowing lifting his hand with one pointed index finger.
"For me, it is definitely him," he said in a tone, as if expecting us to disagree, pointing at Ronaldo. I told him we were new best friends.
Continuing on through the narrow, vendor-filled streets, we soon arrived at Stari Most, Mostar's iconic bridge. Originally built by the Ottoman's in the 16th century, Stari Most stood for 427 years. The bridge was destroyed in November 1993, during one of the most devastating parts of the war. With the aid of UNESCO, the bridge was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004.
Walking over the bridge, the arch is much steeper than I'd imagined it to be. The surface is rather slippery, assuming it’s made of marble. Men collect money from tourists, claiming they will jump off the bridge once a certain amount is raised — which they most definitely will. The jump is incredibly high and dangerous; the men must, or should be, trained to use specific techniques before they are able to jump.
Coming down the other side of the bridge and injecting ourselves back into the busy streets, Igor led us into a nearby bar. With a wide front opening, we walked into a cave adorned with Turkish-style linens and furniture — there was even a canopy bed for visitors to lounge in. I’ll pass on the bed, but the fact that we were sitting inside of a giant rock was pretty impressive. The space was roomy and a nice break out of the heat. We enjoyed a local beer, brewed in Mostar, before moving on to our next stop.
There is a mosque in Mostar that offers incredible views of the city and the old bridge. With the influx of tourists visiting the city, they allow visitors to enter without covering up and removing shoes, as is typically required. We paid a few euros to enter and made our way inside to climb up the minaret.
A Muslim woman — not officially working for the mosque — had set herself up inside and was scolding women who were not appropriately covered. She yelled “shoes!” at me and shoved a scarf my way, so I gladly removed them and covered my head. Even though everyone associated with the mosque insisted this was not enforced, I’d rather make a small effort to ensure I wasn’t offending anyone in their place of worship.
After nearly 90 narrow, one-person-wide, winding steps to the top, we were greeted with an incredible view. Looking out on the bridge and the town, I thought a lot about how this city is divided religiously and ethnically. What a beautiful thing it is to think about these diverse groups of people, potentially living peacefully as neighbors — but what a sad, scary thing it is to know the bloody horror that occurred right here just over 20 years ago.
We left the mosque and stopped in one more shop before lunch. The shop owner and his wife are responsible for making all of the merchandise by hand. The husband's specialty is hammered copper goods, while the wife enjoys making jewelry. We made a few purchases and the man was incredibly grateful. It’s quite a reality check to see how big of an impact my 10 dollars can have on someones life. The look on his face spoke volumes.
One of the best times of day rolled around — lunch. What is travel without experiencing local cuisine? Travel is food, food is travel. As we were making our way towards the restaurant, the blackest cloud rolled over the streets of Mostar and started dumping rain. We made it inside just in time to enjoy the sound of the rain, thunder and a lightning show.
As with most other menus we had encountered on this trip, we were faced with another platter option — this conveniently happened to be Igor’s top recommendation. The platter it is! Another American couple sitting across from us ordered it before us, so we had a sneak peek of what we were in for. It was delicious, but it was a massive amount of food. We could have easily invited two more people to this party. Because of the Ottoman invasion centuries prior, Mostar resembles Turkey in many ways — most definitely with food.
Our meal was spectacular and the rain calmed down accordingly with our schedule. We walked off some of our lunch and journeyed back to Igor’s car to head back in the direction of Croatia. We’d make another stop once we got back in a Croatian town that is famous for salt and oyster harvesting.
The hours we spent in the car with Igor were as much of a highlight as the beautiful things we had seen throughout the day. I asked him questions, so many questions, from the beginning of the day until the very end. He may have wondered if I was a reporter, or maybe a spy of some sort.
The conversations were never one-sided, which was incredible. I’d ask a question and he’d answer it thoroughly, elaborating and often creating new topics that spun naturally off of the previous. I asked a lot of questions regarding the Muslims and Catholics living together in close proximity after fighting one another during the war.
“Before war when it was Yugoslavia, Muslims married Catholics — it didn’t matter,” Igor explained. “War came and it mattered all of a sudden. Families with Muslim father and Catholic mother had to move away. Kids who were friends became enemies the next day and didn’t know why. No one knew why they were fighting. In the end, nothing was gained, but families suffered.”
We talked about Yugoslavia — I asked him what it was like, how people felt about communism, how they reflect on the period now. He explained how it was a good period for them, people were happy, they had jobs and there was not a large gap between rich and poor like there is now. For them, he says, it worked really well.
In the most respectful way, he shared his honest views of our country. He commented how America is a country made of immigrants, yet it seems that we forget that. We talked about safety and guns, comparing and contrasting what these issues are like from his perspective, for both his country and ours.
I commented how many Americans are frightened at the idea of traveling to Europe due to the recent terrorist attacks. Yet before I left to Europe for this trip, I read how a number of European countries issued travel safety warnings on traveling to America for their citizens. I asked him if America seemed dangerous from the perspective of foreigners
“Oh yes," he confidently responded. "The idea of gangs who want to get together and make a place worse is just crazy to us. We have nothing like that.”
He explained how rare it is for people to own guns, and if you do own a gun, you are required to take an annual psychological exam for each and every gun you own. He told me what their side of the world thinks of the presidential race in America, although I think his thoughts accurately represent a majority world.
He talked a lot, and I listened a lot. I didn’t want to interject my personal views and opinions, because I wanted to hear his. I wanted to allow him to challenge my personal beliefs and force me to consider different thoughts and perspectives.
We spent 15 straight hours together. Conversation went back and forth between the light-hearted and the heavier stuff, food and war, but every second of it was enriching. He proudly boasted that the Croatian’s invented the necktie, the pencil and the parachute — little did I know.
I tried to compete in good fun and boast over the technological innovations from San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. He diverted the conversation by giving me a hard time again on the absurd amount of money I have to pay to live where I do.
“It’s too crazy, you have to live with friends in flat when you’re adult. We don’t have to do that.” he bragged with a grin. “It’s OK. You end up like the series Friends — one flat here, another flat with more friends over there. But I think you can be Rachel.”
That was the second cutest thing I'd hear all day. Alright, Igor – I’ll be Rachel.