A Balkans Road Trip: Bosnia, Montenegro & Croatia via Istanbul

Sarajevo is a rich mix of faiths and cultures with its citizens at the heart of so much of 20th century history including  the events which to World War 1, the fall of communism, the 1984 Olympics and the wars of the 1990s.  Because of this, I’ve been planning a trip to Sarajevo for about 6 years.  So, as a reward for finishing my PhD, my partner and I embarked on a road trip through Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia.  As with many holidays nowadays, the starting point for planning was the internet and researching other people’s experiences.  Google didn’t produce many guides for a road trip so here’s our itinerary.

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Oysters & Chardonnay in Istanbul

Day 1: To Sarajevo: Manchester to Sarajevo: 2 Flights, airport to city centre 10km/30min drive.  Highlight: Oysters at Istanbul Airport

One of the first decisions UK travellers have to take is how to get to Sarajevo from the UK.  With no direct flights to Sarajevo, the options are routing via Vienna or, as we did, via Istanbul.  We broke the 12 hour journey with Oysters and Turkish Chardonnay at Istanbul airport which brought a tad of class to an otherwise uneventful journey.

The road in to central Sarajevo from the airport takes you down sniper alley where bullets came down on locals from the mountains during the city’s siege in the 1990s.  You also pass high rise blocks built for the 1984 Olympics, the Bosnia & Herzegovina parliament and then the Miljacka river with its famous bridges.

That evening, we walked around the centre encountering for the first time its mosques, coffee shops and the odd hipster bar – the rich mix of culture and history was evident from the outset.

Day 2: Sarajevo: City of Contrasts:  Sarajevo: No travel.  Highlight: Gallery 11/07/95

I opened the curtains to find a view that summarised much of what I had read about Sarajevo: a Mosque & church, mountains & water, ruins & men repairing a river bank. This is a city being (re)built around its multiple faiths, rich & beautiful natural resources and its industrious people.

The day was spent exploring the city:

  • The East side with its lower wooden buildings, bazaars and mosques.  The West side with its stone, larger, almost Austrian buildings and churches.  Throughout, bullet marks and Sarajevo roses where mortar craters have been filled with red resin.
  • Gallery 11/07/95 which tells the story of Srebrenica massacre through photographs and a powerful audio tour (extra but well worth it).  At the end there was also a moving film about the Sarajevo siege which depicted children of all backgrounds playing together in a burnt out car even as bombs fell.  We both teared up.
  • Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque with its calm courtyard, simply decorated building and welcoming people.
  • The Yellow Bastion with its dramatic view over the city.  It’s reached by walking through Muslim Graveyards from the siege years when any parkland had to be taken over in order to bury the dead.

That evening, we discovered some of the local haunts: on the eastern side we enjoyed skater shop cum craft ale bar Board Room (1 Đulagina čikma) whilst in the west, the bar with the balloons (Ort at Sime Milutinovića Sarajlije 15) was a buzzing place to spend a couple of hours.

Day 3: Into the Mountains:  Sarajevo to Šćepan Polje (Montenegro border) via Olympic Bobsleigh & Tjentište, 157km/3hr30min drive.  Highlight: Mountain Roads / Beers overlooking Tara Canyon

We left the city today and headed for the mountains on roads which seemed almost vertical for the first few miles.  We visited two concrete ruins: firstly the remains of the Olympic Bobsleigh track outside Sarajevo.  Then, after a windy drive in to the mountains the memorial at Tjentiste which remembers a military success by Tito in World War II.

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Tara Canyon

The drive then became rougher with the road in pretty poor condition and (occasionally) filled with animals.  Eventually, we reached the border and crossed in to Montenegro.  A few metres later was our accommodation; sat on the banks of the upper Tara Canyon we fed on the views – as well as the local beers and food.

 

Day 4: Canyons & Mountains: Šćepan Poljeto to Žabljak via Piva Canyon, Durmitor national park, Tara Gorge & Black Lake, 150km/3hr30min drive.  Highlight: Drive through Piva Canyon & Durmitor national park

Within minutes of leaving our accommodation we found ourselves in a spectacular canyon with cliffs, tunnels and running water.  We then headed in to the mountains and the Durmitor national park: beautiful valleys and awe-inspiring rock formations.  This two hour drive remains one of the highlights of the trip.

The afternoon was filled with a zip line across the Tara Canyon (impressive if not that much of an adrenaline rush), a pleasant walk around the beautiful Black Lake and a visit to some stecci (ancient tomb stones).  The day ended in a remote cottage with a log fire, local wine and a view out across the valley.

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Kotor Bay from Mausoleum of Petar II

Day 5: To the Coast:  Žabljak to Kotor via Locven Park, 203km/3hr30min drive.  Highlight: Mausoleum.  

We spent the day driving from North to South Montenegro, enjoying the autumnal colours, particularly in Lovcen National Park.  We stopped at the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos which offered our first views of Kotor bay below.  We then took the Kotor Serpentine in to the town (ignore Googlemaps which tries to route you via Budvar!) which provided more views of the mountains and sea below.

Kotor was a little disappointing during the daylight hours but in the evening when the cruise ship crowds had left and the light made the unkempt parts seem a little romantic, we warmed to the place.  And the fine local wines helped a little, too.

Day 6: Mountains & Lakes:  Kotor to Dubrovnik via Herceg Novi & Perast, 92km/2hr drive.  Highlight: Perast / wine & cheese in Dubrovnik.  

Another day, another set of astonishing views.  Today we circled the lakes near Kotor and stopped to admire the views.  Perast is a lovely little town and worth some time; Herceg Novi is less so and could have been skipped.  We then crossed the border and headed to Dubrovnik; the coastal border between Montenegro and Croatia is one of the busier crossings so took a little time.  Very pretty but now very discovered with cruise ships & coaches filling the town as well as increasing the prices.  But we had two very pleasant moments: drinking Croatian fizz high above the city near the cable car station.  And sampling local wines and meets/cheeses in a little bar in town (Wine bar razonoda, Ul. od Puča 1).  Classy ways to pass time in a classy city.

Day 7: Beauty & Hurt:  Dubrovnik to Mostar via Kravica waterfalls &  Blagaj, 212km/3hr45min drive.  Highlights: Waterfalls / Bosniak side of Mostar.  

We headed north along the coast from Dubrovnik, picking up the A1 motorway to head in to Bosnia.  First stop, Kravica waterfalls which are spectacular and tranquil.  We crossed over to the other bank which was nearly deserted and offered us some time to read and relax.  From here we headed to tranquil Blagaj with its Tekija (monestry) and glowing water.

We ended the day in Mostar: a fine example of Ottoman architecture.  The very centre has been rebuilt sensitively and is particularly good in evening when crowds left. The suburbs are growing and seemingly wealthier than when I visited 5 years ago.  But 25 years after war, destruction from bombing and snipers is still clear on Bosniak side just a road away from the famous bridge; possibly for legal reasons, certainly financial ones, the rebuilding has not started here.  And yet the church can afford to build a huge tower to show their presence and wealth. Reconciliation is clearly still ongoing.

Day 8: 1984 Revisited: Sarajevo via Konjic, Olympic Sky Jumps, Hotel Igman & Tunnel Museum, 165km/3hr drive.  Highlights: Ski Jumps & Hotel Igman.  

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Konjic

We travelled deeper in to Bosnia, heading back to Sarajevo.  We stopped in the town of Konjic to admire another fine Ottoman bridge (rebuilt with funds from Turkey) but also spotted the remains of bombed mosques.  We then headed to the mountains behind Sarajevo to visit two 1984 Olympic sites which were then damaged 8 years later in the war. First, sky jumps and the medallists’ podium along with a chair lift, painted in Olympic colours, which happened to be working that day.  It felt a little unsteady but offered brilliant views of the country side.  There were still UN labels on some of the buildings from when they had been used in the war.   A mile or so down the road is the former Hotel Igman: a luxury Olympic hotel turned military HQ in under 10 years. Now a heartbreaking ruin.

We drove in to Sarajevo conscious of the pains which had been inflicted on the city.  We stopped at the Tunnel Museum which shows how the city tried to survive (and has a good audio guide using your own mobile – take your headphone).  We ended the day with drinks in the centre of this pretty city where the new businesses are an indication it is moving forward whilst remembering its past.

Day 9: Istanbul – Eventually: Sarajevo to Istanbul, city centre to airport 10km/30min drive, 1 flight.  Highlight: Discovering bars in streets around Mumhane Cd.  

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Gelata

Today was meant to be a simple two hour flight and in central Sarajevo it was beautifully sunny.  But by the time we reached the airport, fog had set in and the flight was delayed by 3 hours.  On arrival in to Istanbul, we took a taxi in to the centre and explored on foot: firstly crossing the Golden Horn, the streets around Gelata and ending by discovering some trendy, hipster bars on Mumhane Cd.  It may have been a Tuesday night but it was buzzing like a Friday night in London.

Day 10: Mosques & Islam:  Istanbul: no travel.  Highlight: Watching worship at Blue & Suleymaniye Mosques.  

Day 10 was spent vising three impressive Mosques: firstly the huge Aya Sofia with its history as church, Mosque and national museum; watching people pray beneath the Blue Mosque’s colourful tiles; being welcomed in the peaceful Suleymaniye Mosque.  We briefly visited the Basilica Cistern which is an intriguing site.  We ended the day shopping in the Grand Bazaar before exploring the back streets of Istanbul: full of atmosphere with people talking, shopping, working & praying.

Day 11: Happy Ending?  Istanbul: no travel.  Highlight: Hamami.  

An easy day with a trip on the Bosphorus using the local ferry for a 90 minute cruise followed by Mackerel sandwiches on the quay front.  And then a relaxing scrub in a Hamami with tea and soap leaving me clean for a final night in Istanbul.  We ate at Neolokal, in the SALT Galata building, with modern takes on traditional Turkish dishes and a good wine list topped off with a great view over the Golden Horn.

Day 12: Home Time:  Istanbul to Manchester: 1 flight. Highlight: making the plane! 

We took the tram out to the airport to see a little of the city.  It’s worth noting that the Istanbul tram and metro system has a similar system to London’s Oyster Card but that you can scan it multiple times so you only need one for a couple, passing the card back for the next person to use.  The metro was not a fast journey and security is tight to get in to the airport with baggage searched before being allowed to check-in and passports being checked 7 times before boarding the plane.  We made it with a few minutes to spare and home in a matter of ours.

Final Thoughts:  It was an excellent trip with natural beauty, cultural diversity and undiscovered gems.    The highlights remain as Sarajevo with its history and the stunning Piva Canyon & Durmitor national park.

12 days, 4 countries, 13 border posts, over 1000km driven, 4 flights, 1000 photos, 1 excellent travel companion: 1 brilliant road trip.

Map: https://goo.gl/maps/x9upKBnAAd12

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