Laziness and a tiny hard drive foiled my plans to get these many posts out in a timely fashion. We’ve been back from the Balkans for a month and a half now, and while I quickly typed up the written contents of the first two posts, I failed miserably at successfully downloading the photos in order to inject some additional flair into the article. Time to get cracking! Anyway…
Where is that, you may ask? Well, when I first devised a replacement trip for our SECOND ATTEMPT at a Slovenian hiking excursion, I utilized the internets to ascertain that much of the Balkans, except for the countries we wanted to visit of course, were open to American citizens! But what are the restrictions?? Thank you Uncle Google, for deciphering the many facts and opinions on the web, and informing us that Bosnia & Herzegovina require a negative PCR test 48 hours prior to departure, and Montenegro is one of the first to allow fully vaccinated travelers to cross their borders! Obvious win, because we’ve been fully inoculated since the beginning of February (thank you Moderna! And our profession putting us in the first group). Albania and North Macedonia require… well… nothing. Yes, we have to wear face masks, but that has, sadly, become a normal part of human life. And curfews. No deal breakers. Not going to argue.
On March 31st, just a few hours shy of my 37th birthday, Hubs and I climbed aboard our first international flight in over a YEAR! This is absolutely unheard of since we met six years ago. Austrian Airlines employees provided us with some amazing free entertainment in the form of Stewardess Stand-Up during the safety overview. While explaining the use of oxygen masks, we were informed, “This can be used as a catheter, but we won’t be demonstrating that today.” Okay, you got my attention. “The flow of alcohol… OXYGEN!… will begin immediately.” We were also advised to, “Pay attention to the uniformed crew members, not the naked ones. This was a recording.” Those were only the quotes I could remember between laughter. Our safety presentation was concluded with the gate check agent singing to us on the PA. A bit later, the pilot cheerfully gloated, “Guys, it looks like I single-handedly found a nice altitude to fly at!”
In preparation for our journey, we went a little overboard, given the uncertainty of test result time frames, and got not one, but TWO separate COVID tests from two different labs. Which actually turned out to be on point since BiH had the silly 48 hour rule. Now to figure out how to get one before heading back home in three weeks. It’s a smart decision to just wing it, right?
Anyway, we landed in Sarajevo on a bright afternoon aboard an Austrian Airlines flight. My research informed me that taxi driver’s near the airport can be rather duplicitous, often trying to overcharge unsuspecting foreigners. The aforementioned research also informed me that a cab ride from the airport to city center should cost no more than 15 euros, and to make the driver give you a quote in advance. After fending off the stalker of a cabbie outside the airport, we found a delightful gent to ferry us to our first AirBnB. This was our first experience with driving in the Balkans, and let’s just say… it was unique, but I will get into that in it’s very own blog post. That rant could go on for awhile.
We relied entirely on AirBnB’s for the three weeks – generally ones with kitchens since we planned on cooking for most of the trip. Unlike in the States, hosts meet you on site to let you into the accommodation. Many of whom only send you a pinned locations at the last second, instead of an actual address. Given that we rely on WiFi when we travel, this was quite problematic. We learned the hard way to make sure to contact the host in advance before we lost precious WiFi. This first apartment had a great view of downtown Sarajevo from the private balcony. It was fantastic for dinner and drinks since Sarajevo had shuddered eating establishments due to the virus. Take Away was the sole option – even outdoor dining was a no-no. Second take away… the labeling and markings on the ovens (and most appliances in general) were perplexing. What happened to low, medium and high? And what do these many dials mean? Wing it again!
So we started in Sarajevo and ended there as well. Renting a car and returning it to a different airport was insanely expensive, as was flying out of two different airports. While we aren’t typically budget conscious, I’ll gladly save a thousand dollars by roadtripping in a circular-ish fashion. We began by driving BiH, then jumped over to Montenegro, vaulted on to Albania, sprinted into North Macedonia, and circled back to Sarajevo to conclude three weeks of needed vacation after a year of not traveling internationally.
A few observations about Sarajevo…
A war torn city, Sarajevo has a violent history. Dissimilar to the United States, Sarajevo embraces it’s history instead of trying to erase and change it because they don’t like it. The siege in the 90s was obvious everywhere you looked. Cemeteries are littered throughout the hilly city, there is a museum dedicated to it, and mortar strikes have been painted red and encircled in pentagons. Those pentagons are present everywhere you walk. Many of the buildings have yet to be repaired, and every structure you lay eyes on likely is covered in graffiti. Residents are not generally friendly – you aren’t going to hear a random passerby say “hello.” They honestly seem somewhat untrusting of outsiders, but honestly, I don’t blame them after enduring a siege. Our first description of Sarajevo was “depressed,” however, we we returned three weeks later, the restaurants and bars had opened back up again, and the town was bustling. Sarajevo is definitely making a comeback.
Sarajevo is influenced by multiple cultures, from Turkish to Eastern European to German to Muslim to Serbian. A lot of architecture is keenly Eastern European. Mosques are all over the city with calls to prayer heard daily. Most of the signage is not in English since BiH has three official languages: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Thankfully, quite a few people speak at least broken English.
There are far fewer meanderers in Sarajevo, unlike the overweight leisurely strollers we often encounter walking US cities. People have an urgency in their step. Drivers are VERY respectful of these brisk pedestrians. While we were standing at a crosswalk, vehicles unexpectedly came to a halt while we were awaiting a gap in traffic. All lanes of travel stopped, providing us easy and safe passage. Oblivious drivers in the States make crossing the street like playing frogger.
A few must-dos when in Sarajevo…
Visit the bazaar. The Hubs and I wandered the open air market, in and out of little shops, and enjoyed some people watching – one of our favorite pastimes. We acquired a traditional Bosnian coffee set, and some Bosnian coffee because… when in Rome. Watch out for pigeon excrement. The largest square is teeming with the sky rats, and of course people feed the little fuckers, so they’re absolutely everywhere.
Take a stroll across the Latin Bridge, where a war was once started. This city is jam packed with history, and this very normal looking bridge is no exception. If you know anything about history, WWI was kicked off with the assassination of Archduke Frans Ferdinand, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, at that very spot.
Take a stroll through the history museum downtown. While we were unable to wander through the interior of the History Museum of BiH, the outside offers some insights into Bosnia’s gruesome past. The museum is housed in a bombed out building that the creators purposely did not repair, but instead left in disrepair, further displaying the city’s brutal past. The grounds are strewn with old vehicles used during the various wars and such that Bosnia acquired from other countries. On an overcast, dreary day, it was even more depressing. When COVID isn’t a thing, there appears to be a cafe in the museum, but alas, we were unable to visit it or the museum itself.
Take a hike up to the abandoned bobsled track on Trebević Mountain, which peers down upon Sarajevo. Home of the 1984 Winter Olympics, the track is in ruin, tattooed with graffiti. It was also used by the Bosnian Serb forces during the Siege of Sarajevo. Holes are drilled into a turn in the track for the use of artillery, there are random bunkers built in, and the concrete structure is riddled with bullet holes and war wounds. You an also access it by taking the cable car up, but I’m not a lazy bum and hiking is fun. Definitely worth the trek up. There’s a decent view of Sarajevo from the cafe at the peak, but my favorite view was part way down the mountain, and up a hill where the Bosnian flag is flying. The view is completely unobstructed, where the one from the cafe is blocked by trees and the cable car.
We meandered up to the Yellow Bastion, another remnant of war, is a cannon fortress perched up a hill overlooking city center. Not the most interesting of fortresses, but the view was satisfactory. Plus, enjoy a few Sarajevo handstand photos!
I had booked a food tour prior to flying over. However, the COVID variants reared their ugly heads, and the guide canceled on us. Twice. Definitely partake in traditional Bosnian fare while visiting Sarajevo. Your waistline will not be pleased, but your mouth will be very happy with you. As will your wallet… food is cheap as shit over there! Side note: When we landed in Sarajevo, the city’s restaurants were closed with the exception of take away. When we returned three weeks later, things had opened up again, and we were able to take advantage of the open cafes. Plus, when we first go there, the city was dead, and we left with a negative impression of the bleak capital, but upon return, it was bustling and far less depressing!
I shall conclude this trip to Sarajevo with a rental car debacle. The final rental car disaster. Yes, there were multiple. Sixt… used them to hire a vehicular device in Slovenia and Ireland without trouble. However, Sixt in Sarajevo made me want to go homicidal on their employees. Those bastards charge a 35 Euro fee if you have to drop your vehicle off after hours. Given our flight home would require us to drop the car at O dark thirty, that pesky fee would definitely apply. Instead, we hustled over to the airport to get the car returned before they closed for the evening. Plot twist… not a single Sixt employee was working. Apparently, the assholes just decided they didn’t need to work a full day. And they have the audacity to fine you for coming during off hours, but don’t bother to be present during office hours? So we summoned them via the after hours phone number, and waited 45 minutes for them to return. The initial plan was to walk back to our apartment, a scant 9.6 km from the airport, but we should have 2 hours to achieve that in order to make curfew. Alas, Eldin the Asshat took 45 minutes to get to the airport, cutting our time in half. Shit. I haven’t run 6 miles since high school, and I hiked a damned mountain earlier in the day. Whelp, we almost made curfew, didn’t get mugged, and my legs hated me for days afterward. Off my soap box now.
And with that… zbogom! That’s apparently ‘goodbye’ in Bosnian, but I ccertainly don’t know how to pronounce it.