Driving through Bosnia7th January 2014
Of all the strange-shaped countries in the world, Croatia probably tops the list. Crescent-shaped to some (I prefer to see it described as a croissant), driving from the Croatian capital Zagreb to the pretty tourist honey pot that is Dubrovnik involves choosing one of two options. You can just follow the main A1 road all the way for 600km as it snakes its way around the southern flank of Croatia, or you can take a fascinating detour through Bosnia and Herzegovina. I took the second option and was rewarded with stops in four of Bosnia’s most important cities, as well as a drive through hundreds of miles of scenery that was often stunning, occasionally shocking, but always fascinating.
The route: Zagreb – Plitvice Lakes – Bihać – Jajce – Sarajevo – Mostar – Dubrovnik
It’s barely 30 minutes drive across the border from the beautiful Plitvice Lakes in rural Croatia to the town of Bihać is western Bosnia, yet the change as you cross the border is obvious as Catholic church spires are immediately replaced by minarets and domes. We arrived in Bihac on a chilly morning in early October and were grateful to find a small café where we could warm ourselves with a hot mug of coffee at the very favourable Bosnian prices. The river near Bihać is a popular spot for white-water rafting, while the town itself has several historic buildings, although the 14th century Fethija Mosque is one of the few that appear to have survived the Bosnian war intact.
I only wish we’d allowed more time to explore this delightful fortified town. Built at the place where the waters of the Vrbas and Pliva rivers meet, a spectacular 20-metre high waterfall is the town’s leading natural attraction. It is well worth the effort of walking up to the castle at the top of the town to get the best views. If the climb leaves you thirsty then the line of inviting cafés and restaurants by the riverside provide a welcome treat when you return to the lower town.
The name of the Bosnian capital will forever be linked to the terrible siege of 1992-1995 and there are many visible and sombre signs left from those dark days. Yet the city is rebuilding and there’s a lively nightlife in the modern centre, providing a contrast with the narrow lanes of the souk which look largely as they would have done many decades ago. Take the time to explore the city’s war legacy and include a visit to the museum at the spot where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated 100 years ago in 1914; an event that sparked the First World War.
Perhaps the most enduring image of the war in the former Yugoslavia is that of the destroyed 500-year-old bridge over the Neretva river. The bridge has been rebuilt and is once again a popular spot for the daredevil jumpers who leap from its highest point into the river below. While the tourist crowds flock to the lofty bridge itself, the best views can be enjoyed far below from the edge of the water. But Mostar is not just about the bridge – wander through the streets on both sides of the river to see the enduring contrast between the largely Croatian western bank and the mainly Bosnian eastern bank. While Mostar is thankfully at peace today, it’s still very much a divided city.
Arriving in Dubrovnik, we returned our hire car as soon as we’d unpacked our bags (it’s difficult and extremely expensive to park in and around the walled city). Although brief, our road-trip had fuelled our determination to return and see more of both Bosnia and Croatia. Have you travelled through the Balkans by car? What are your must-see places in the region?
This post was written by Andy Jarosz. As well as enjoying driving through Bosnia, he is an excellent freelance travel writer, who you may be familiar with from the likes of National Geographic Traveller, BBC Travel and CNN Travel. He also authored another post for us back in December 2013.