Things to Do in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Constructed in 1566 during the Ottoman occupation on the sight of an earlier wooden bridge, the Old Bridge (Stari Most) in multi-cultural Mostar straddles the Neretva River; it was designed in a single stone span by Turkish architect Kodja Mimar Sinan and built by Mimar Hayruddin, who was threatened with execution by the Sultan if the bridge should collapse. Thankfully it stood the test of time until its destruction by shells during the Balkan Wars, but now once again soars over the river, 30 meters (98.5 feet) in length and standing 21 meters (69 feet) at its highest point. Today the Old Bridge is world famous for several reasons: it unites the city’s Muslim and Christian residents between the Ottoman left bank and the largely 19th-century Austro-Hungarian enclave on the right bank; it was blown apart in 1993 when the two communities of Mostar turned on each other; and yet has come to symbolize peace and reconciliation since its restoration – using the original white limestone dredged from the river – and reopening in 2004 with a reinforced metal framework. In summer the youth of Mostar use the UNESCO World Heritage-listed bridge as a diving platform in a spectacular display of foolhardy bravery; an annual diving competition is held in mid-August, watched by up to 15,000 spectators.
Bascarsija is the medieval Oriental bazaar lying at the heart of Sarajevo’s Stari Grad (Old Town), where mosques and hammams (baths) date right back to 1462. The most important and grandest of Bascarsija’s mosques is Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, named after a Turkish governor of Bosnia and built in 1530 in Ottoman style by the Persian architect Adžem Esir Ali. Originally a complex of prayer halls, madrasa (Koranic school), medieval soup kitchen for the Muslim poor, wash room and library, the mosque was badly damaged during the Balkan wars of the 1990s but has been extensively reconstructed; today its distinctive dome once more forms the heart of Bascarsija and its spiky minaret is a landmark visible all over Sarajevo.
The ornate entrance to the mosque is surrounded by marble and decorated with gilding; inside its gleaming white walls are adorned with Arabic inscriptions, the ceilings hung with golden chandeliers and the floors covered in handmade carpets gifted by Muslim visitors from overseas. The mosque’s peaceful courtyard is dominated by an elaborate wrought-iron fountain – once used for ritual washing – and is the resting place of many pre-eminent Bosnians, including the 19th-century poet Safvet Bey Bašagić and the leading politician of the 1930s, Dr Mehmed Spaho.
Running 225 km (140.5 miles) from Lebrsnik in the Dinaric Alps to Ploce on the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, the Neretva River (Rijeka Neretva) is Bosnia’s longest river. The waterway is fed by five tributary rivers, including the Buna (overlooked at its source by the Blagaj Tekija monastery) and Trebižat (home of the awesome mini-Niagara at Kravice Falls), before flowing through Lake Jablanicko and turning southwest toward Mostar. The icy upper reaches of the emerald-green river near Glavaticevo flow through dramatic canyons and limestone gorges, but lower down the current is managed by four large hydroelectric dams.
On its way into Croatia, the Neretva flows underneath the historic Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar, which has come to symbolize reconciliation between the Christian and Muslim communities since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. From there it meanders past the historic town of Pocitelj, which sits high above the river amid the ruins of a medieval fortress and the Ottoman Hajji Alija mosque. Once into Croatia, the Neretva broadens out into a delta fringed with reeds and lilies and covering more than 260 square kilometers (100 square miles).
The landmark Mostar Clock Tower (Sahat Kula) dates from the Ottoman period of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history and is one of many Turkish-influenced buildings in Mostar’s photogenic Old Town (Stari Grad). It was built around 1630 and is a square, creamy-stone tower topped with a clock and a gray slate roof, it reaches 15 meters (49 feet) in height and stands up a steep flight of worn stone steps next to the Herzegovina Museum. Originally the tower had a bell, which apparently could be heard up to three hours’ walk away, but this was melted down during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of the country and has never been replaced. Like many of Mostar’s prominent historic buildings, the Sahat Kula suffered serious damage during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s but was fully restored in 1999.
Spectacular Kravice Waterfall (Vodopad Kravica) in Bosnia and Herzegovina are one of Europe’s best-kept natural secrets. Plummeting over 98-foot (30-meter) soft tufa cliffs on the Trebizat River southwest of Mostar, the waterfalls have sliced out a natural amphitheater spanning nearly 400 feet (120 meters) as the river splits into more than a dozen separate waterfalls cascading into the lake below.
Located southwest of Mostar close to the Croatian border, Apparition Hill is a popular Catholic pilgrimage site and the famous home to sightings of apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Officially called Podbrdo Hill, it now draws more than a million visitors each year, making it the third most popular apparition site in Europe.
The Statue of Our Lady was built on top of the hill to mark the 20th anniversary of the first apparitions, which occurred in 1981. There are also 15 bronze reliefs representing the rosary that line the rocky path leading up the hill. In addition to its religious importance, the hill offers panoramic views around the valley below.
Apparition Hill is often visited on a day tour of Medjugorje from Dubrovnik or Split in Croatia. Choose a tour that includes time for a mass at St. James Church or a visit to the Kravice Waterfalls for a more tailored experience.
The Sarajevo Tunnel (Tunel Spasa) is an underground tunnel turned war museum, and the best way to learn about the Siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia. Dug out by hand with shovels and picks, the 2,625-foot (800-meter)tunnel served as a lifeline for the city in 1993, connecting the Dobrinja and Butmir neighborhoods to the free Bosnian territory just beyond the Sarajevo Airport. After the Bosnian War ended, the house whose cellar served as an entrance to the tunnel was turned into a museum.
Visitors can watch an 18-minute movie about the war, the blockade and the tunnel experience, and view photographs, maps, military equipment and uniforms, as well as a variety of tools and documents. Visitors can also enter about 20 meters of the tunnel. The museum is a stop on nearly all war-themed tours of Sarajevo and guides can offer valuable insight and perspective.
Almost on the border with Croatia, the UNESCO-listed Vjetrenica cave system is the deepest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, disappearing 3.7 miles (six km) below the Dinaric Alps into a magical world of subterranean rivers, limestone galleries and glittering lakes. Spectacular tumbling stalagmites and stalactites loom in the semi-darkness of the meandering tunnels and its ever-running waters flow into the Trebisnjica River on the southern edge of the Popovo Polje valley.
Skeletons of bears and leopards have been found in the Vjetrenica caves along with primitive drawings dating back 10,000 years, which can clearly be seen etched into the walls. Many hundreds of rare animal species have been discovered here, including the olm, a salamander-cum-fish with legs, lungs and gills that is peculiar to the region. Visited by thousands before the tragic civil war of the 1990s tore former Yugoslavia apart, infrastructure for tourism at Vjetrenica has recently been upgraded and the caves are once more open to explore. Temperatures underground are at a constant and cool 11°C, so dress warmly as guided tours last around 60 minutes. As the underground pathways are slippery, take sturdy footwear; jackets and hard hats are provided.
Just a few steps away from Mostar’s landmark Stari Most, the historic bridge that was destroyed in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, lies the Stari Grad, the oldest part of town. The historic and commercial heart of this district is the Kujundziluk (Old Bazaar) overlooking the left bank of the River Neretva, which in Ottoman times was where all the trading and bartering took place. In the 16th century, Turks and Bosnians alike congregated here daily to do business; today the Kujundziluk is just as crowded with international visitors keen to seek out traditional crafts and street snacks from the tiny stalls and artisan shops of this cobbled warren of alleyways backed by pink-painted houses. Colorful geometric-patterned rugs, intricate handmade jewelry and gaudy beads, embroidered scarves, bags and shisha pipes are some of the treasures to be unearthed here; be prepared to bargain for discounts off the initial prices.
Curiously innocuous considering its momentous role in 20th-century history, the Latin Bridge (Latinska Ćuprija) spans the River Miljacka between Obala Culina Bana and Obala Isa-Bega Ishakovića in Sarajevo. Built in Ottoman times, its four stone arches date back to at least 1565 – although a wooden one may have preceded it – making it one of the oldest bridges in the city.
By the advent of the 20th century, Turkish rule in Bosnia had long been superseded by the expansion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and unrest was brewing across Europe. On June 28, 1914, Serbian mercenary Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie while they were on a state visit to Sarajevo, choosing the northern corner of the Latin Bridge to commit his crime and sparking the political events that lead directly to the outbreak of World War I. Today a plaque marks the spot, and there are portraits of Princip and Franz Ferdinand on the exterior of the Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918, which stands by the Latin Bridge and chronicles the saga of the assassination and its tragic aftermath.
More Things to Do in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Lying north of the River Miljacka and forming the original heart of Sarajevo’s Old Town (Stari Grad), Bascarsija Bazaar is a vibrant, bustling Oriental marketplace where several mosques and hammams (baths) date back to 1462, when the country was under the Ottoman rule. Starting life as a caravanserai, with accommodation for travelers and stabling for horses, its foundations were laid by Isa-Beg Ishaković, who was the first Ottoman governor of Bosnia. Over time, Bascarsija grew into a labyrinthine district of cobbled alleyways and shaded lanes, and by the 17th century it was a thriving trading hub with thousands of workshops practicing scores of crafts from coppersmiths to potters and jewelers, all existing amid the mosques and minarets.
Despite an 1879 fire destroying almost half of the bazaar, today its intriguing spider’s web of pedestrianized backstreets spans out from the landmark 19th-century Sebilj Fountain. Many of the alleyways and are still crammed with cluttered artisan stores spilling over with copper pots, gold, ceramics and hand-embroidered shawls, as well as cozy little cafés offering eastern delicacies such as stuffed dolmas and meat-filled burek.
Tucked away in Mostar’s historic Muslim Quarter and overlooking the east bank of the River Neretva, Kajtaz House (Kajtazova Kuća) is a perfectly preserved late 16th-century Ottoman nobleman’s mansion built behind high walls to protect the women of the family from unwanted attention. Once the home of Mostar’s Turkish governor, it is surrounded by a shady, fountain-filled courtyard garden, pebbled in circular patterns representing the five daily prayers of an observant Muslim.
Crafted from stone, the two-story building is whitewashed and supported by wooden stilts; the overhanging roof was designed to shade the lower floors. Inside it is furnished in its original form, with separate living quarters for men and women, brightly patterned kelims covering the floors and traditional low sofas lining rooms that are dotted with centuries-old, ornately carved wooden furniture. The ancient kitchen is crammed with copper cooking pots and utensils, while upstairs, traditional harem pants and fezzes hang on the walls.
With worn steps straggling up a steep and rocky cliff side on the left banks of the Neretva River, Počitelj is a warren-like, stone-built and fortified village with its origins in the late 14th century. Over the following centuries it expanded under Turkish occupation and is now UNESCO World-Heritage listed for its enchanting combination of medieval and Ottoman architecture. Počitelj is wrapped in fortified walls and entry is through a gate topped by a 16-meter (10-foot) clock tower; the soft stone townhouses and winding alleyways are overshadowed by the tumbledown medieval fortress and octagonal watchtower standing guard on the hill behind the village. The ornate minarets of the domed Hajji Alija mosque were built in 1562, destroyed during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and subsequently restored along with the madrasa (school) and hamam (baths); from the mosque’s terrace there are unparalleled views across the rocky landscape and down the Neretva river valley.
Počitelj was at its most powerful during Ottoman occupation of the Balkans but slowly lost importance following the advent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878. By the late 20th century, the picturesque village was a haven for poets, writers and painters but it was virtually abandoned during the heavy bombing of 1993. Thanks to investment from the EU, an artistic community is slowly resettling there and bringing the cobbled alleyways back to life.
A ‘tekija’ is a Muslim Dervish monastery, and the one found near the rural settlement of Blagaj near Mostar has probably the most spectacular location of any religious building in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Built between 1446 and 1520 while the country was under Ottoman rule, The Blagaj Monastery (Blagaj Tekija) is tucked in under a sheer, 200-m (656-ft) limestone cliff face overlooking the emerald-green source of the River Buna. It was constructed for a sect of soldier-monks somewhat akin to the Christian Knights Templar called the ‘bektašije’, and is a striking mixture of Bosnian and Oriental architecture, a whitewashed, half-timbered four-story structure leaning over the water’s edge. Today monks from the Naqshbandi order inhabit the monastery and Dervish ceremonies still take place there; the remains of two 15th-century Dervishes are interred under ornately carved wooden roofs and are the subject of Muslim pilgrimages. This lovely spot is backed by spectacular rock formations and a complex of caverns that lead well underground; boat trips make the journey to explore the subterranean passageways. During snowmelt in spring, 43,000 gallons of water per second shoot over the weir in front of the monastery, sending spray high into the air; several open-air restaurants linked by wooden bridges peer over the river from under colorful awnings.
The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Zemaljski Muzej) was founded in 1888 when Bosnia was under control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and moved to its present, regal Art Nouveau accommodation in 1913 as its collections grew. It was closed during both world wars and its complex of galleries was heavily damaged during the 1,425-day Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. Due to political in-fighting and lack of funding, the beleaguered museum shut again in 2012 but happily reopened in September 2015 to display some of its four million artifacts in a series of light-filled galleries; during this
last closure staff worked unpaid to conserve the museum’s exhibits.
Along with a 300,000-volume reference and research library, the museum has three departments (archaeology, ethnology and natural history) crammed with medieval art, ancient armor, stuffed bears and countless other treasures covering thousands of years of Bosnian history. The ethnology selections are particularly strong, highlighting the multi-cultural nature of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s culture with an appealing mix of Bosnian, Serbian, Muslim and Jewish ethnic costumes. Neolithic ceramics from the excavations at suburban Butmir are the centerpiece of the archaeology collections; and to view the museum’s prize piece, the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah (Jewish Passover manuscript), call two days in advance of your visit.
This quiet, unassuming town nestled in the hills of Herzegovina became a pilgrimage site for thousands of Catholics in 1981, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to six local children. Since then, thousands of visitors have flocked to Apparition Hill to pay respects or simply enjoy Medjugorje’s meditative surroundings.
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