Escapes

Bosnia’s Better Side

Ravaged by historic flooding, the European nation is struggling through crisis. But behind the destruction is a gem of a country well worth a second look.

The city of Mostar. Thousands of people evacuated Bosnia after recent flooding, but what a beautiful place they temporarily left behind.     Photo: Anna Callaghan

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, lies in a narrow valley flanked by the Miljacka river, a faint stream often saturated by sediment. Sadly, due to historic flooding last week, that usually quaint and bucolic waterway has been thrashing against its banks, threatening to destroy some of the bridges that cross it.

The recent flooding in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia is so bad that some are comparing the damage to the brutal 1992-1995 war. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, more than 100,000 homes have been destroyed and at least 43 people have been killed. At least one-fourth of Bosnia’s four million residents have been affected. 

Guide Fikret Kahrovic en route to the summit of Mount Maglic.   Photo: Anna Callaghan

And then there are the landmines. The rain triggered 2,100 landslides that wiped out an unknown number of warning signs marking 9,416 existing minefields containing 120,000 unexploded mines. No one knows how many have been dislodged and swept away. 

And so it goes. Bosnia’s modern history seems to be defined by catastrophe. 

This is an even greater shame because Bosnia is worth knowing about—in a very different way. When I was there in the summer of 2013, on a fellowship to research and write about the anniversary of the 1984 Olympics—the Miljacka was bustling with people, mostly locals, many of them crowding into the tree-shaded cafes that line its banks. Some nursed a cold beer from the nearby Sarajevska brewery. Upstream, anglers sat beside their poles in hopes that something in the shallow water would snag their line.

During the three months I spent working, exploring, hiking, and peak-bagging, I was struck by the country’s abundant beauty. In Sarajevo, a city of roughly 400,000, history spills out everywhere—between the cobblestone bricks in the Turkish quarter and the gouged ground filled with red acrylic “roses.” Red roofs against light stone streets laced with patches of green extend across the valley. There’s a mosque in every sight line, but no shortage of beer or liquor or cigarettes.

You can buy a slice of pizza for a dollar on most streets. At Vrelo Bosna in Ilidza (currently flooded), swans drift on ponds. There is the well-known annual Sarajevo Film Festival and a dance club where you can take your dog. 

Overlooking Sarajevo, home of the 1984 Winter Olympics.   Photo: Anna Callaghan

Bosnia is small—about the size of West Virginia. The southern region has a Mediterranean climate—similar to neighboring Croatia—with a modest 12 miles of coastline on the Adriatic. In Sarajevo and northerly parts of the country, there’s a moderate continental climate, and real winters, which allowed the city to host the 1984 Winter Olympics when Bosnia was still part of Yugoslavia.

No matter what direction of the compass you choose to follow, adventure abounds. You can raft class IV rapids on the Tara, hike to waterfalls and highland villages, and explore one of the last primeval forests in Europe. There are miles of singletrack on Mount Trebevic, just outside of town, along the former front lines and the Olympic bobsled course. In June, good luck finding a table for a post-ride beer: Bosnia is playing in its first-ever World Cup.  

On the weekends I would head to the nearby mountains. The Bosnian countryside is carved by winding turquoise rivers with frothing rapids. The severe peaks of the Dinaric Alps stab at the skyline, surrounded by lowlands of lush forests and sprawling fields. Most hiking routes are marked with red circles surrounding white dots on trails that lead through open meadows, ascend vertigo-inducing hillsides, scramble up rock faces and down wide, worn paths courtesy of the local bears. Guides like Fikret Kahrovic will steer you toward the highest peaks, or the prettiest, or the most challenging, depending on your taste. There are so many, however, he can’t be made to choose his favorite.

But I know mine.

Mount Maglic in Sutjeska National Park on the border with Montenegro is Bosnia’s highest peak at 7,828 feet. One Sunday morning I met Fikret, dressed in a blue polo and a giant grin, and a few others at the iconic yellow Holiday Inn at the edge of town. Built for the Olympics, the hotel housed journalists during the war and was frequently shelled. Now a disco ball spins and neon lights bounce against the walls during late-night parties.

The approach to Mount Maglic (right), with views of the Dinaric Alps in the distance.   Photo: Anna Callaghan

Maglic is often obscured by clouds (its name means "fog"), but when we were there clear skies provided panoramic views, and the craggy limestone behemoth was entirely visible. The trail began at a clearing in the woods and meandered through the forest before opening up to a meadow streaked with lingering snowpack. Fikret jokingly cursed as his phone alerted him he’d entered Montenegro, though the border was still a few miles away. “This is Bosnia!” he declared proudly, laughing.

The flat expanse led straight to the rocky base and a faint shaded triangle on the face illustrated our route. Relatively new steel cables line multiple sections of the ascent, helping mute the vertigo caused by sheer faces in either direction. After a few scrambles, a false summit, and a short climb over a mound of boulders, we reached the top. Hikers from the Montenegrin side were sprawled across the grass plateau—the first people we’d seen all day. They posed for pictures next to a metal flag staked in the ground and a plaque honoring Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia. Directly below, a sparking glacial lake in Montenegro was wedged between the mountains. The 360-degree views seemed boundless. It felt like a summer hike back in Western Washington, where I’d grown up.

The pendulum of catastrophe seems to swing at a faster kick in Bosnia and its people are no stranger to heartbreak. But perhaps one day the place will be known, not for war and disaster, but for thigh thrashing ascents and a haven for adventure, like it deserves.

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