BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA - INTO THE BALKANS
I am a long way behind in updating my blog and it’s time to bring it up to date. It’s been a busy couple of months with very little time off since leaving Hungary at the end of September. Since then I've pedalled through 7 more countries and ridden some of the toughest and roughest dirt roads in Europe. It has been one hell of a ride.
I kick off the Balkans by scything through eastern Croatia, in the process crossing my own tracks for the first time in many years– I rode through Croatia on my way to Zagreb back in December 2016 and it feels fantastic to be back. The eastern part of Croatia is very flat and agricultural, making for easy riding – the last I will have for a very long time!
I ride into Bosnia & Herzegovina (which for brevity I’ll simply call ‘Bosnia’) at Slavonski Brod, crossing the border just before sunset. I camp next to a river and wake to a cold and misty dawn, to begin riding south.
The first thing I notice about Bosnia is the sheer number of abandoned buildings. For the first few hours I make a point of counting houses by the roadside. Out of several hundred, well over half are obviously abandoned and in various stages of dilapidation. It makes for a slightly eerie ride - there are only one or two cars every hour and so there is a vaguely post-apocalyptic feel to the place.
The brutal civil war which raged in Bosnia from 1992-1995 caused thousands to flee their homes, many of them rigging their houses with explosives before leaving. Because so many people died during the war, and also because of the continued danger of so many unexploded landmines, many of these houses remain unclaimed; left to slowly return to nature. They make for a stark reminder of the violence that spread through the Balkans only a few decades ago. For me, the threat of landmines also means I have to be careful throughout Bosnia not to stray from the trail, and to be particularly cautious when choosing camp sites every night.
I follow a mix of pavement and dirt roads through the mountains towards Sarajevo. The main roads are unpleasant, with far too many fast cars, but the back roads are almost deserted - the peace and quiet more than making up for the extra effort of the sometimes-slippery dirt tracks. One evening I get stuck in mountain traffic (a flock of several hundred sheep) and make it to the top of a pass just as the light is starting to fade. Not being particularly eager to navigate the steep and rocky descent in the dark, I am pleased to find a small log cabin only a few minutes down from the pass.
The door is unlocked and the cabin empty so I decide to stay the night. Then, when I wake the next morning to very heavy rain and a cold snap, I decide to wait it out and end up staying a second night in the cabin. There is a small stream nearby for water and I have plenty of food, so I dodge a miserable day’s ride and instead spend the day snuggled up in my quilt reading my Kindle. I am very grateful to have 'Tristan Manor' (as I decide to name it) as my five star safe haven from the weather for the day. I don’t see a single person or car go past in more than 36 hours; dirt roads in the Balkans are generally extremely quiet.
After crossing another range of mountains and coming out on the other side through an enormous muddy mining complex, I make it to Sarajevo and spend a few days exploring. The city is captivating; bullet holes and damage from mortars are still visible on many of the buildings and it’s remarkable history make it something of a living museum. Sarajevo was subjected to the longest siege in modern history from 1992-1996 during the Bosnian War. The people of the city lived for four years in a warzone, with daily bombardments and gunfire. Citizens were forced to run between buildings to lessen the risk of snipers. Even collecting water could prove fatal.
It is very sobering speaking to locals who lived through it. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to be under siege for so many years, but the people I speak to about it tell me that it quickly became ‘normal’. It is amazing that even something so traumatic as a siege can become mundane, just another thing to be coped with. Human adaptability really is incredible. Sarajevo is slowly healing from its war-torn past but the scars are still visible on both its buildings and its people. There is still quite some way to go.
From Sarajevo I take a dirt road up into the mountains to visit Lukomir, Bosnia’s highest village. At 1500 metres the village is extremely remote and only has a handful of permanent inhabitants, with the majority of the villagers returning to the cities over the winter. It is only early October, but already nights in Lukomir are starting to dip below freezing.
With an enormous gorge for a backdrop, Lukomir is a spectacularly beautiful place. It feels very peaceful, worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Sarajevo. The village is practically deserted, with only a couple of old ladies and one lone shepherd minding his flock. The only sounds are those of the wind, and the occasional bark of a sheepdog - I like Lukomir very much indeed.
I am tempted to stay and camp, but there is snow forecast so I instead decide to make my way down from the mountains before the weather comes in, having learned the hard way just how painful freewheeling down a mountain can be when your hands are wet and frozen, and when the wind is cruel. The descent is broken up by a number of short, steep climbs and so it takes me several hours; the surrounding landscapes are breathtaking. After a glorious sunset, the last thirty minutes is ridden by the light of my headtorch as I fall back down to almost sea level.
Although usually I tend to avoid riding at night, I have to admit that there is a certain quiet appeal to freewheeling down a mountain surrounded by almost complete darkness. For a while I feel like I am the only person in the world, until finally I see lights beneath me and I roll down into the town of Konjic. It is a Friday night; people are out drinking and music fills the streets. I look wistfully back up at the silent mountains towards Lukomir. Such different lives; so close, yet so far. So strange the modern world.
From Konjic I make it back onto a paved road and follow the Neretva Canyon through to Mostar. The old city is strikingly beautiful, centred around Mostar’s famous bridge of Stari Most, which separates the Croat and Bosniak sides of the river.
The political situation in Bosnia today is incredibly complex and I would really struggle to adequately explain it. The country is primarily made up of Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks (the Muslim Bosnians, generally speaking). Already split into two distinct entities (the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Croat/Bosniak Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina), the government has not one but THREE different Presidents. If all of this sounds complicated, you are getting the idea.
Calls for independence from the various groups have been mounting. While I am in Bosnia there is a general election – two out of three of the newly appointed Presidents are hard-line nationalists. I worry for the future of Bosnia, and fear that there will be more violence in the years to come. Tensions are rising, and true peace yet remains elusive in the Balkans.
I spend a couple of days in and around Mostar, with a daytrip out to see the lovely monastery at Blagaj (pronounced Blag-eye) and the castle ruins above it. It is nice to spend time around other travellers; so much of my route is a long way off the beaten track and I therefore almost never see any other backpackers or cyclists outside of the major tourist spots. This is something which I generally appreciate, but from to time it's good to meet like-minded people and share stories, especially in a country where I don't speak much of the language. The lack of conversation (as well as the lack of good food, clean clothes, showers and other minutiae) is, in my opinion, one of the greatest downsides to long term bikepacking.
From Mostar I jump onto the Ciro Trail, a hundred mile cycle route following an old Austro-Hungarian railway line running south to the Croatian border and Dubrovnik. The route was only recently opened in 2017, and makes for an easy and scenic ride down to the coast. Most of the route is paved; there is very little traffic and it makes its way through some stunning landscapes, passing abandoned villages and crumbling train stations. Much of the land on either side of the trail is heavily mined; the warning signs a stark reminder of the lingering legacy of the war.
I cross the border and ride into Croatia for a THIRD time (Kazakhstan being the only other country I have ridden into as many times) and enjoy a glorious descent freewheeling into Dubrovnik. It is the first time I have seen the sea since a freezing skinny-dip in the Baltic Sea back in northern Estonia, and it feels amazing to be by the Mediterranean once again.
Bosnia is one of the most interesting countries I have ever been to; a melting pot at the heart of the Balkans. The landscapes are spectacular, the people are friendly and the history utterly fascinating. I have absolutely loved crossing Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is, most definitely, one to come back to!