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A Balkan Experience

In Community by Sami Hamdi

“So, have you visited Blagaj? What about Pocitelj?”

I’ve been to Bosnia before, with a couple of a friends on a road trip through the Balkans. At the time it felt like a lot of fun; the jokes during the car journeys, the chance to explore someplace completely new. Only in hindsight, it seems we didn’t do anywhere near enough of the exploration part.

“No”, was my response. “I haven’t”.

And that was that; my wife was determined I visit Bosnia again, only this time, she would make arrangements to ensure I explored this Balkan gem in all its beauty.

The view as you drive between Sarajevo and Mostar are simply stunning

The first impressions of Bosnia hit you while you are still in the air. As the plane begins to descend after passing the scenic alps, a sea of hills spreads out below and create a canvas that even the great artists of the Renaissance would be envious of. The plane then navigates the tree-laden hills before emerging on the city of Sarajevo and hitting the runway.

The breakfast buffet at Swissotel is one easily one of the best I’ve had

We were greeted at Arrivals by the friendly Adem, our airport pickup driver who’d been arranged by Balkan Travel Services. I was determined to do the trip right this time, and rather than relying on a series of blog posts courtesy of Sheikh Google, I was going to explore Bosnia like a local, with the locals.

Suitcases packed in the boot of the car, it was only a short drive from the airport into the city to Swissotel, where we’d be staying for the next few days and one of the best Muslim-friendly hotels in the city. Conveniently located next to Sarajevo City Centre Mall, Swissotel is the archetype of comfort and convenience, with its large rooms, swimming pool and spa (including one for ladies-only).

Settled into the hotel, we decided to take a leisurely walk into the heart of Sarajevo, the Bascarsija, for some authentic Bosnian cuisine. We headed to a traditional Cevabzinica for cevapi, grilled Balkan kebabs served in a chargrilled pitta with raw onion, washed down with a glass of zova, a light elderflower cordial. With the sun beginning its descent behind the hills, it was not long before the sound of the adhaan cascaded through the old stone streets. Our guide took us to pray in Gazi Husrev Beg mosque, one of the oldest in Bosnia and the site of the only medrese that was allowed to remain open in Bosnia whilst the region was under Soviet rule.

The following morning we began one of the most scenic drives in the Balkans – the route to Mostar. The main highway follows the jade-green waters of the river Neretva, the jewel of the Herzegovina region that has carved its passage through the heart of breath-taking mountain scenery.

Mostar is drenched in history. The Stari Most commissioned by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent is a feat to behold. From the apex, brave souls looking for adventure uphold a centuries-old tradition of diving into the river below, which is notoriously cold even during summer.

Near Mostar, our guide Nedim took us to visit Blagaj where an old Ottoman tekke hugs the mountain next to the rushing waters of the Buna river. It’s easy to see why this site was chosen for spiritual contemplation, with the sounds of the rushing water in which the trout flit and swish their tails.  

For the next few days, our guide Nedim from Balkan Travel Services seamlessly enabled us to access Bosnian society in a manner that would have been impossible on our own. As part of the tour, we visited traditional institutions such as the Karagoz medresse and met students who, as part of their curriculum, mastered three languages. Balkan Travel Services also arranged for us to meet local intellectuals who gave deep and engaging insights into the history and how they impact today’s society in Bosnia.

Our tour guide Nedim filling our plates with mixed grill meats

Much more can be said about Bosnia and Herzegovina and the above barely scratches the surface. However, suffice to say that from a traveller’s perspective, Bosnia and Herzegovina boasts scenery as magnificent as Switzerland, and glorious history on a par with the likes of Venice. In all aspects, it is a hidden gem that leaves one baffled how it slipped under the radar…

Sami’s trip was sponsored by Balkan Travel Services, who offer comprehensive holiday packages in Bosnia and across the Balkans.