Baklava is a multilayered flaky pastry filled with rich nuts and drenched in sugary syrup.🤤
Its origins, like Bosnia, trace back to the Ottoman Empire. Now-a-days, many of the countries that were formerly under Ottoman rule continue to create this delicacy with their own flare. For example, the nuts used can vary from almonds to walnuts, and some regions add cinnamon, pistachios or even a chocolate drizzle.
Now, when given this sweet, decadent and elaborate dessert, it would be foolish to simply eat the top crusty layer and not enjoy the warm and sweet filling beneath. It must be devoured it in its entirety.
Having said that, I feel like Bosnia is actually quite similar to baklava. Now, if you follow along with my analogy, I’ll explain why. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a Balkan country that has experienced a not-so-distant tragedy.
Between 1992 and 1995, an estimated 100,000 people were killed, with about 80% being Bosnian Muslims. Most of the graves I saw here had a death date during this three-year time period. 🕌
It is a tragedy that I must tread lightly on in this blog as I will never fully comprehend what horrors these people must have experienced. Here are just two memorials, which commemorate the massacre and loss of innocent lives. 😢
As an example, my local tour guide in Sarajevo spent 44 months, from age seven to eleven, living in his basement and hiding from the mortar shell explosions above ground. At one time, there were almost 50 other people down there with him, sleeping like sardines, in order to survive. These bombed buildings I found in Mostar are still visible evidence of the effects of recent war. 😔
Anyway, to continue with my analogy, to just focus on that small part of Bosnian history would be similar to eating only the crusty top layer of baklava. You probably wouldn’t ask for seconds and you most definitely would be missing the best part. 💜
Croatia’s Mediterranean riviera lined with sandy beaches, Roman ruins and churches had been replaced by Bosnia’s green valleys and majestic mountaintops dotted with Muslim mosque minarets set along a rushing river. 🌳
This is the Stari Most or ‘Old Bridge’ where now-a-days crazy locals and tourists plunge into its frigid waters. Here’s a fearless man sporting a speedo, getting ready to make the leap. 😮
A Bit of History
Bosnia was first occupied by the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century. They ruled here for over 400 years and left a major impact on religion, cuisine, and architecture.
Fun fact: Bosnia-Herzegovina is often shortened to BiH or just Bosnia. Herzegovina is the southern region of the country, while Bosnia is the northern half.
Heck, the Austro-Hungarian Empire even brought the first casino to Bosnia, since gambling was illegal during Ottoman rule. Later on the casino was bought by the army, so please don’t go in there now expecting to play some slots! 😂
In fact, many of the long-standing and beloved buildings in Bosnia came from that period.
Despite all the improvements the Austro-Hungarians brought, some Serbs were still hoping to separate from this empire and form a Slavic union. In fact, the spark that led to the beginning of WWI and the downfall of the empire began in Sarajevo with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It happened here on this very bridge.
It appears this Slavic union was successful, considering that the culmination of WWI ended in this region becoming Yugoslavia. Additionally, after the Spaniards expelled the Jews, they took refuge here as well. This was short lived; however, considering the country would soon become under control of Nazi Germany. Apparently, there were originally 12,000 Jews living here, but after Hitler, only 600 remained.
After the fall of the Nazis, this country would become governed by Tito and communist values. My guide said that some people here still miss those times, since they were guaranteed many standards of living, like food and housing. This makes sense considering unemployment is currently at over 60% and basic necessities are still a struggle.😢 What they will definitely NOT miss about this period is the less-beloved Soviet-style buildings around the cities. 😂
The most iconic being this colorful apartment complex in Sarajevo. It may standout against the drab, gray tones of the other buildings, but locals still consider it quite ugly. 😂
Now, after the death of Tito in the 80s and the fall of Yugoslavia, many Balkan countries began to seek independence. Unfortunately, unlike the other more religiously homogenized countries in the region, BiH had a very diverse mix of Orthodox Serbians, Bosnian Muslims, and Catholic Croatians.
This divide also impacted their viewpoints on separation. According to my tour guide, the Serbs were hoping to unify with Serbia, so they opposed independence. They began a rebellion against the country by invading, expelling, and exterminating the Bosnian Muslims. They also surrounded the capital of Sarajevo, hoping to bomb them into submission. Here’s a panorama of the city I took from atop the Yellow Bastion.
Anyway, this Siege of Sarajevo, as my tour guide explained, had the intention of making everyone starve, suffer, and inevitably surrender. The Serb forces cut off the water supply, bombed the city on a daily basis, and the only way the civilians received food and support was through impartial NGOs. People ingeniously even began to use the local brewery for support, since they had their own water source. 🍺
My guide said he still can’t bear the sound of fireworks, since he was so traumatized during his youth. The visible impact of the mortar shell bombs hasn’t been covered either. Instead, the scattered indents in the concrete are painted as a rose and eternal scar on the city. 🌹
Many Serbs died during the war as well. As our guide explained, a mortar shell explosion won’t aim accordingly. It will kill whatever is in its path.
In Mostar on the other hand, what initially began as an invasion by the Serbs evolved into a conflict between the Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Muslims. The city became divided by a grand avenue and the nearby bank was seized as a sniper tower to stop anyone who dare to cross the line.
Anyway, after three years of conflict and the loss of thousands of lives, including a mass genocide of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, the government signed the Dayton Pact, which declared the country independent under a three-party system.
In order to give equal power to the Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbians, and Bosnian Muslims, they now have three leaders, which rotate in their rule every 8 months. Furthermore, since the city of Mostar couldn’t even agree upon which leader was best to erect a statue for in their public park, they decided on one unanimously beloved figure, Bruce Lee. 😂
As my guide explained, most people would like to remember the country’s past, but also move on to a more progressive, unified future. 🤲
What to Do in Sarajevo
As a long-term traveler I tire of just focusing on the touristic type things. When I explore a city, I stray away from the standard sightseeing and prefer to walk around residential neighborhoods, visit local cafes, shop in the grocery stores, and people-watch to see how everyone interacts with each other.
I notice weird and quirky things, like these off-brand cars and creative folding benches.
The interactions I found with locals in Bosnia were just like baklava- sweet, slightly nutty, but nonetheless filled with love.❤️
Through my wanderings, I found a family playing UNO in a cafe, kids playing soccer in the park, old men sipping coffee and reading the newspaper, and ladies in burka eating ice cream in the square. I never felt uneasy at any time of day. ☕
Personally, my hostel host in Mostar, this 50-something-year-old Balkan man with a beard and rather rough exterior, got up at 6 AM to press me a panini sandwich for my bus ride. Bless his heart! Later that day, another Bosnian local helped me pay for my bus baggage when I didn’t have the right amount of change.
What I also learned was, that although this place receives some tourists, mainly from Saudi Arabia since they can come here without a visa, have plenty of places to pray, and can experience a more varied landscape than the barren desert of the Middle East, this country is still relatively unexplored by other visitors. 🙏
In addition to wandering, I loved Neno & friends free walking tour in Sarajevo.
Neno was such a great storyteller and gave a very objective overview of his country’s history. He’s not religious and he joked that even his mother only celebrates religious holidays in order to eat baklava. 😂
Overall, the locals seem incredibly genuine and want visitors to have the best experience possible. Basically, my suggestion would be to travel to Bosnia and eat baklava. These are two things you WALNUT regret. 😉
Likewise, as I was on the bus from Mostar to Sarajevo, I passed through this gorgeous valley filled with picturesque lakes reminiscent of my time in Slovenia, yet still seemed untouched by tourism. I was kind of kicking myself that I didn’t budget more time to explore Bosnia’s beautiful countryside. 😍
I don’t always recommend everywhere I stay, but I also find the negatives to be something to laugh about later on. Like the fact that I literally had to stand on my hostel’s toilet just to flush! 😂
In general, hostels are around 9-10 USD, so I guess you get what you pay for and you can spend all the money you save on other activities and attractions.
Food and Drink:
In my opinion, just like baklava, Bosnia simply cannot be enjoyed without coffee.
My favorite cafe was Espresso Lab in Sarajevo, since they had delicious coffee, upbeat music, ample seating, and trendy decor.
As far as food goes, the Balkans is a meat lovers paradise and ćevapčići is a popular grilled meat dish.
It’s so ingrained in the culture, it’s probably more popular than Coca-Cola.
Personally, I found the following to be an advertising fail for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. I can’t decide if this is before or after consumption…🤮😂
I have been able to book all transport at the station, since buying bus tickets ahead online is actually more difficult in Bosnia. You have to print off the ticket and it’s hard to find a printer, so it’s better to just buy it at the station.