Historic Cities and Unmatched Wilderness in 'the Colorado of the Balkans'
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
We arrived at the bungalows after dark. The rafting resort at Base Camp TaraSport flanks the crystalline waters of the Tara River, which forms part of the wild border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and neighboring Montenegro. The three-hour drive to get there had been both gorgeous and nerve-racking — in some ways like my experience of Bosnia itself. The twisty mountainside highway had no railing, and on our right, the second-deepest river canyon in the world plunged 4,300 feet below us.
This dramatic landscape has earned the nation a nickname among adventure travelers: the Colorado of the Balkans. Across the valley, everywhere I looked (when I wasn’t looking down) were magnificent Alpine peaks. At dusk, the sky became pink, silver, charcoal, black — more lovely distraction from the potential of a plunge — but as the night got darker, the road felt increasingly lonely.
“The BBC calls this part of the highway the worst road in Europe,” said Branimir Belinić, who was behind the wheel. My trip had been arranged by the bespoke travel company Ker & Downey, and Belinić was one of the guides they had arranged for me. Most would accompany me only on certain legs, but Belinić was my main man, remaining by my side all week. A thrill-seeking, thirtysomething outdoors enthusiast from Croatia, redheaded and spirited, he had introduced me to “Balkan humor” (somewhat akin to dad humor) by joking “watch out for land mines” whenever I got out of our car to hike. So I hadn’t really taken him seriously earlier about the road — something I was now regretting.
It had been a long day, and like most of our journey thus far, filled with stupendous natural beauty. We had begun our drive in Blagaj, a flower-filled village in southeastern Bosnia that is home to the serene Blagaj Tekija, a 600-year-old dervish monastery at the base of a cliff by the emerald Buna River. There, I had taken off my shoes and covered my head and walked through the Sufi lodge’s simple rooms, which were lined with pillows and rugs for worship. I don’t remember ever feeling as peaceful as I did then, sitting by a window overlooking the river. The sound of the water was like music.
The serenity faded once we hit the worst road in Europe. I texted my husband back in New York City: “I’m scared.” (“You’ll be fine,” he texted back; then, expressing his own priorities, “How’s the food?”) So I was relieved, even giddy, to find myself still in one piece when, somewhere around 10 o’clock at night, we finally pulled up to Base Camp TaraSport, just outside Sutjeska National Park. This new summer property, a collection of small unheated A-frames, reminded me of an old-time Catskills colony.
After dropping off our bags, Belinić and I stumbled down a dirt path in the dark to the central pavilion, an open-air restaurant with family-style picnic tables, a bar, a huge hearth with a roaring fire, and, in daylight, a view of the wild river. I was handed a glass of rakija — a searing clear liquor much like grappa. I took a picture of it glowing in the firelight and sent it to my husband to let him know that I had indeed survived, before slowly sipping and heating up. We ate, revivified by booze and grilled meat (for everyone else) and for me, the lone vegetarian, cabbage-and-tomato salad and Bosnian stuffed vegetables. We wrapped blankets around ourselves and sat by the open fire. I was happy again.
I’d landed in Sarajevo seven days earlier. It was my interest in the Bosnian War that had initially inspired the trip. A key character in the novel I’m working on grew up during the Siege of Sarajevo, the nearly four-year-long attack on the nation’s capital by Serbian-backed forces during the 1990s. I was particularly fascinated by Bosnia’s multicultural past: before the war, Sarajevo was often referred to as the Jerusalem of Europe, with Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Communist nonbelievers all living together in relative peace — until they didn’t.
The tragedies that took place there were part of a larger conflict in the Balkans, precipitated by the death of Josip Broz — known popularly as Marshal Tito — the Communist leader of what had been Yugoslavia. As its constituent republics began to secede in a series of Yugoslav Wars, what was then known as the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina splintered along ethnic lines. Croats and Bosniaks and Serbs living there fought out a savage, genocidal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced some 2.7 million.
Was there anything left of Bosnia’s long legacy of tolerance and diversity? And what was life like now, almost 30 years later? I’d read that Bosnia was one of Europe’s next travel frontiers, its people eager to get past the war and restore prosperity, and I wanted to see how they were putting that into action. Plus, I love the outdoors and am not averse to a bit of wilderness adventure, so 10 days of visiting Bosnia’s cities and mountains — a little research, a little play — seemed like a perfect trip.
Sarajevo is a city I’d always longed to see. Its allure is legendary: red-tiled roofs; graceful church spires and minarets; Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Communist architecture, all settled in a valley in the Dinaric Alps, cleaved in half by the Miljacka River. From the moment I arrived in the city, I was smitten with its dozen or so bridges — some stone, some iron, some modern, some built by the Ottomans during their four-century reign.
The Latin Bridge is the most famous. It was here that Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering the start of World War I. The Gräf & Stift convertible the archduke was allegedly riding in is permanently parked at the site of the crime. For a few Bosnian marks, each equivalent to about 50 cents, you can have your picture taken in front of it. Džana Branković, a young woman who showed me around the city, shared her wedding portrait with me: she in her gown and her groom in his suit, kissing in a full Hollywood swoon in front of that car. It’s the wallpaper on her cell phone.
Branković and I stopped at churches, synagogues, and the Sarajevska Pivara, a 19th-century brewery constructed over a natural spring. The building was nearly destroyed during the war, but its spring waters became a lifeline as the main supply was interrupted, and today it once again produces beer. We visited a series of different mosques, so that Branković could keep to her commitment of praying five times daily, and I grew to love hearing the call to prayer interlaced with chiming church bells. Her mother is a Bosniak Muslim, and her father was Serbian Orthodox; he was one of the first to volunteer to protect Sarajevo when the war broke out. He never returned.
It doesn’t take long to notice the effects of the Bosnian War in Sarajevo. The city hasn’t fully recovered. Some shattered houses have been altogether abandoned, with trees and shrubbery growing through empty windows and roofless rooms into the sky. Some streets are still patterned with “Sarajevo roses” — ruts in the concrete created by explosions, now filled with blood-red resin in remembrance. Tourist trinkets for sale in Baščaršija, the Old Town, include umbrella stands made out of empty shell casings and toy cars made of spent bullets.
But amid these reminders of the past is a city of fabled beauty — and a city that feels hopeful. In my downtime, I wandered between boutiques like Kutcha, a furniture store tucked inside an old apartment building, and Bazerdžan, which showcases locally made clothing and jewelry. I saw young couples relaxing at hookah cafés and teenagers giggling in groups, roaming in and out of shops that deal in various iterations of Turkish delight, dried fruit, halvah, and roasted nuts.
The traditional food is cheap, plentiful, satisfying: uštipci, savory Bosnian doughnuts with cheese, and ćevapi, a type of grilled sausage, related to the kebab, imported by the Ottomans. But Baščaršija is also dotted with stylish cafés that serve pour-over single-origin coffee alongside the Bosnian specialty tufahije — poached apples stuffed with lemon, raisins, and whipped cream.
As day turned to night, residents and tourists thronged art galleries and theaters. (Bosnia has long had a strong, often subversive arts scene, and I learned that the well-regarded Sarajevo Film Festival, hosted annually in August, was inaugurated while the country was still at war.) Soon, restaurants and bars filled up with boisterous revelers eating, drinking, smoking, having fun.
I headed to dinner at Inat Kuća, which translates to “Spite House,” inside a historic Ottoman home. Its backstory is a testament to the Bosnian spirit: at the end of the 19th century, the occupying Austro-Hungarians wanted to build a new city hall on the owner’s land, but he wouldn’t let them — unless they moved his entire house, brick by brick, across the river, to where the restaurant now stands. It serves refined Bosnian specialties, some with familiar names that betray their Ottoman roots — ćufte, pilav, meza — and even Bosnian wines, in a lively, celebratory atmosphere. I ate my zeljanica, a börek-like spinach-and-cheese pie, while listening to traditional sevdalinka music on the packed terrace, which juts over the river.
My guides told me that many still subsidize their incomes by growing their own food in kitchen gardens. It was clear that the Bosnian economy has not yet righted itself. But wandering among the crowds, I felt the pulse of a new generation trying to move forward.
The next day, I met up with another city guide, a passionate old Communist named Zijad Jusufović. As soon as he learned that I was Jewish, he announced, “That is brave of you to say.” I asked if, with only about 500 Jews left in Sarajevo, there were any lingering prejudices. “Nobody cares,” he told me, “but nobody talks about it.” He took me to Sarajevo’s desecrated Jewish cemetery. Unrestored since the siege, many of the bullet-ridden headstones are still uprooted and lying on their sides.
Jusufović and I then headed up a mountain road to the 1984 Olympic grounds. A neglected bobsled run was covered in graffiti and paint so thick and bright it felt like an art exhibition. These days runners use it as a track, and walking down it, I ended up hugging the sides as kids whooshed past on their skateboards. Nearby, Jusufović showed me a “sniper hotel”: the bombed-out husk of a hotel built for Olympics attendees that Serbian forces had made into a headquarters, which they also used as a perch from which to fire on their former neighbors. In the years since, the concrete has become a canvas for renegade artists and activists — whatever inner walls remained were now covered with murals and slogans, imploring visitors to Never Forget.
Later in my journey, Belinić would persuade me to “break in” to another sniper “hotel,” this one a former bank in the city of Mostar. Mostar’s modern center is filled with mostly unremarkable buildings, but its Old Town is a storied destination. One of Bosnia’s most popular tourist stops, it is filled with elegant Ottoman architecture: the handsome Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, and the 16th-century Stari Most, a bridge arching over the Neretva River. The original was destroyed in the war; it was rebuilt in 2004, using stones from nearby quarries and original pieces unearthed from the riverbed.
Mostar’s many reconstructed landmarks are a testament to the city’s commitment to its heritage — and, at least when I was there, a draw for teeming throngs of international tourists. At night from the hotel, as I watched the lights of the bridge dance on the water, I caught the sounds of the Notorious B.I.G. playing from a nearby café.
Everyone I talked to in Mostar, in Sarajevo, in all of Bosnia, had their own war stories. It sometimes felt as if the fighting had happened yesterday — the traumatic memories so ingrained that losses can still feel fresh and injuries still feel raw. The region is hungry for new industry and direction. Tourism may be one answer — a way to show off Bosnia’s vast mountain ranges, crystalline rivers, uncrowded hiking, biking, and rafting. Aside from the growing stream of nature-loving visitors, the land’s immense natural beauty seems to provide a kind of spiritual solace to Bosnians of all ages.
And so, we headed into the wilderness, caravanning to the village of Lukomir, a shepherd’s town and a hiker’s mecca. It’s the most remote place in Bosnia, on top of a mountain midway between Sarajevo and Mostar. Lukomir is made up of about two dozen very small stone-and-wood houses, most centuries old, all with peaked metal roofs. It was windy when we arrived, but enthrallingly picturesque, a timeless storybook village — except for the satellite dishes attached to every house. The buildings are scattered around the top of the mountain, which towers over a massive, wooded river canyon where the bold can go rappelling, hiking, and rock climbing, and, in good weather, swimming in the river at the bottom. Roosters, kittens, dogs, and sheep roamed the stony paths.
An old woman sat by the side of the empty main road, selling handmade mittens and socks. She told us that she was 80 years old; she wore thick tights, a winter jacket, tall rubber boots under her long skirt, and a silk scarf wrapped around her head, babushka-style. Lukomir is a seasonal town. In November, before the winter snowfall, the inhabitants round up their animals into rented trucks and head down into the valley to wait for spring. There are no stores, no schools, no municipal buildings — just a tiny mosque at the foot of a hill. Yet the village’s beauty is a siren song: in the summer, a hundred hikers can pass through every day.
Belinić, who had been by my side for the 90-minute drive from Sarajevo, parked our bags at a spartan bed-and-breakfast, one of Lukomir’s only businesses. We then hiked up a neighboring peak and down into a bewitching canyon, where sky-high limestone walls were covered with lush plants used for medicinal purposes. The rocky, shrubby trail was more daunting as we climbed back up to the village, proud of ourselves and hungry for dinner.
Guesthouse Letnja Basta is a family affair; a young man manages it, while his mother and sister do the cooking on the same woodstove that also heats the house. We sat at a long guest table, where the women served us a dinner of cabbage slaw, tomatoes from outside Sarajevo, a firm Bosnian cheese reminiscent of feta, and the best roasted potatoes, unearthed that morning from their garden. Bread and chicken followed, then local lamb with rice and peas. Halvah and syrup-soaked pastries. Wine and beer. The feeling was convivial and warm, and after a while we went upstairs to fall into our beds, a little drunk and pleasantly stuffed.
The next morning, we ate a hearty breakfast to prepare for a day of cycling. A neighbor came over with fresh goat milk, which our proprietor’s mother (wearing a T-shirt that read Czech Me Out) heated on the stove for us to drink — it was surprisingly sweet. The plan was to ride 30 miles from Lukomir to Boračko Lake, a glacial reservoir where we would spend the night. The previous evening, we had waved to a shepherd as he drove his sheep back to the village; as we headed out in the morning, we passed him leading his flock, an umbrella overhead. The first part of our ride followed an arid mountain path, above the tree line. Once we descended, pines and juniper bushes covered the hills.
Arriving at the lake, we picnicked under a gazebo and looked out at the waters, which were the color of metal and surrounded by forest. The area was overgrown and wild, with small sandy beaches and a few lone fishermen. A town sat on one side of the lake, and an abandoned Communist-era resort on the other. Loren Keserović, a young bike specialist who had been our guide on the cycling route, led us around the ruins. I felt a longing from some of my companions for the relatively stable days of Tito’s reign, when most citizens were fed, housed, and given paid vacation. The memories certainly linger. As we left, I saw an envelope stuck under the welcome gate. I picked it up. It was an electric bill, addressed to one of the old workers’ unions.
At Vila Sunce, our hotel facing the lake, the owner grilled freshly caught trout over an open fire. He was using his good arm; the other had been left useless by a war injury. As we ate the smoky fish, a neighbor’s birthday party was taking place in the dining room, filling the inn with merriment. It was just past high season at Boračko, but Keserović reminisced about how, in the summer, he and his friends would escape the harshness of the city to kayak and swim on this placid mountain lake.
Boračko empties into the Neretva River, where I would soon glimpse the tranquility the young cycling guide had described. The water was clear and cold; on our river-rafting trip, we drank it by the handful. I delighted in slipping fast over the rocks, being hit in the face by the water’s spray. There are all kinds of animals in the woods on the water’s edge, looking for trout — wolves, otters, foxes. I was hoping to spot a bear, but after a while I relaxed my watch. The first burst of fall was beginning to color the trees. We paddled through tall rock canyons, where herds of goats tightrope-walked the narrow ledges high above. On the warmest days, 50 rafts can follow this same route, but that day we had it to ourselves.
Belinić, who had brought his own kayak, showed us a trick. He took a bite out of his pear and then flipped his boat, reaching out from under the water to place it on the capsized bottom. Then, he grabbed the fruit with his other hand and emerged again — right side up, pear in mouth. “In the summer,” he bragged happily, “I do it with a beer.” The Neretva was sometimes calm, sometimes roaring, the canyons almost brazenly, recklessly gorgeous, mossy limestone rising high above us.
“Close your eyes,” said our jovial rafting guide, Samir Krivić, a gym teacher at a nearby school. “When I do, I listen to the water and the birds. I breathe deep, and I feel like someone is patting me on the back of my head.” He looked comforted. I closed my eyes and listened. He was right.
Your Bosnian Adventure Itinerary
There are no nonstop flights from the U.S., but it’s possible to reach Sarajevo via a European hub such as Istanbul, Munich, or Vienna.
A unique lodging option is the Isa Begov Hotel, an inn and hammam set inside an 1890 building that once housed Sarajevo’s first public baths. Pino Nature Hotel and the new Tarčin Forest Resort & Spa are high-design spa resorts just outside town. I loved Kutcha, Bazerdžan, and other boutiques spotlighting local artists and designers. For a lively dinner, try Inat Kuća, which serves Bosnian specialties with a soundtrack of live folk music. Any visitor to Sarajevo should take time to learn about its turbulent past; the War Tunnel Museum is not to be missed, and I was very moved by the War Childhood Museum, which opened in 2017.
Many hotels here occupy historic buildings, such as the 18th-century Muslibegović House, a museum and national monument with 12 guest rooms. The beautiful Old Town is touristy, but alive with restaurants and bars. Twenty minutes outside town is the serene Blagaj Tekija, a dervish monastery built in the 15th century at the base of a cliff on the Buna River. It still houses a working Sufi order, but is open to visitors.
Outside the Cities
I had a driver to transport me through the mountains to Lukomir, but it’s possible to trek into this popular hiking destination, the highest-altitude community in Bosnia. Only the adventurous should spend the night; the hostel-like inns are very basic. I stayed at the cash-only Guesthouse Letnja Basta and ate a delicious dinner, prepared on a woodstove, with the owners, who live upstairs. The bike ride from Lukomir to Boračko Lake takes six picturesque hours, though you can also go by car. Surrounded by green mountains, this glacial lake is a popular summer destination. I stayed at Vila Sunce, a simple family-owned hotel. The next day, I took a guided tour with Europe Rafting down a stretch of the Neretva River, which flows from the Dinaric Alps into the Adriatic. The Tara River is also a destination for rafting, but I opted for a jeep safari through the surrounding Sutjeska National Park. There, I camped in a one-room A-frame at Base Camp TaraSport. The property has no heating and operates only in the summer, when it’s popular with families and outdoors enthusiasts.
This trip was planned by Ker & Downey, which recently expanded its Eastern European offerings to include Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 15-day Experience the Balkans’ Heritage itinerary also includes Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "A Land Apart." Ker & Downey provided support for the reporting of this story.