Sarajevo has a way of drawing you in. Surrounded on all sides by towering mountains you are consumed by a thick cloud of smog as you lose yourself in the narrow, twisted streets and the bustle of chattering locals, slightly dazed looking tourists and a cacophony of car horns. It then holds you there, captivating you with its tragic recent history, eclectic shops & restaurants and brazen Turkish influences which are apparent in everything from its food to its architecture. I had only planned to stay one day but ended up staying for three.
In fact until a few weeks ago I had planned to bypass Sarajevo altogether and make a beeline for the coast. But before reaching Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) I read Goodbye Sarajevo by Atka Reid and Hana Schofield. I was absolutely enthralled by this book where you see the events of the 1992-95 war unfold through the eyes of two sisters who were separated at the outbreak of the conflict. It was a fascinating and heartbreaking story and left me yearning to know more about the country and its history.
My tour guide Neno said that BiH is known for three things, two bad and one good; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which was the catalyst for WWI, the 1984 winter Olympics and the 1992-95 war. He was adamant that Sarajevo should host another Olympics in order to even things out.
I explored many of the museums in the city including a tunnel which was built under the runway in order to bring essential supplies into the besieged city. This tunnel was a lifeline to those who remained in Sarajevo and I was impressed by the ingenuity shown to construct such a project in such difficult circumstances.
The fact that this tragedy happened within my lifetime makes it all the more upsetting. All over the country you can still see the scars in the form of buildings littered with bullet holes or left as empty shells. Despite this Sarajevo has to be my favourite city of the trip so far and I can highly recommend visiting BiH which boasts excellent hiking and rafting and the cheapest skiing in Europe.
I stayed in the super friendly Doctors House hostel in Sarajevo and it was a welcome change to have people to talk to and eat with in the evenings. I also mat another solo female cycle tourist, Jana from Slovakia, which was very exciting! We spent an evening chatting over endless cups of herbal tea and found that we had faced many similar challenges on our trips. It was great to talk to someone who had been through the same things as me and share the highs and lows of life on the road.
My next destination was the city of Mostar. The main road from Sarajevo to Mostar is notoriously hellish in the cycle touring world, but is regarded by many as the only option with many opting to get a train or bus for this leg. Undeterred I scoured the map and found a small road over the mountains which looked worth a gamble.
The day began with a gruelling 20km climb from Sarajevo into the mountains which were caked in clouds. Longer than any of the passes in Switzerland but without any signs marking the way or for summit selfies at the top. The visibility cannot have been more than 50m so I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. About half way up the clouds spat me out into glorious sunshine and bright clear skies. What followed was the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. The hillsides glowed a vibrant gold from trees showing the first signs of Autumn and the mountains stretched endlessly into the distance. I was absolutely elated. This was the best road I have ever cycled.
I had opted to stay at a B&B in Umoljani as temperatures had plummeted, and even wearing all my clothes to bed in the tent was not enough to keep the cold at bay. At 1500m with my summer sleeping bag camping was just not an option. Luckily for me a couple from Bahrain were eating dinner when I arrived and invited me to join them for a delicious veal and potato dish. The food here was unbelievable and I enjoyed a national speciality Ustpici (deep fried dough balls) for breakfast. Despite my best efforts even I couldn’t finish the portion I was served.
The next morning it was clear I had made a good decision as the tips of the surrounding peaks were covered in a a dusting of snow like they had been sprinkled with icing sugar overnight. Following a scorching September this was the first snow of the season. The weather forecast was predicting ‘highs’ of three degrees that day. After two months of cycling in nothing but shorts and t-shirt it was a bit of a shock to the system!
Another beautiful day of cycling ensued past moody mountains posing against a backdrop of sultry grey skies. There were some stiff climbs but the road was well surfaced. Had this road been in the UK it would have been teaming with cyclists but I had it all to myself.
That night I stayed at a hostel on a river that is used for rafting in the summer. I knew it was out of season but I wasn’t expecting to be the only guest! The owner didn’t speak any English but invited me into his sitting room come office where he had an aga pumping out heat. Suprisingly he was watching English TV with Bosnian subtitles. I was exhausted so perfectly happy to sit and watch back to back episodes of a corny detective show called ‘Numbers’.
When it came to dinner time he had to dash across to his house to prepare the food. All I knew was that I was getting fillet. What it was a fillet of will remain a mystery for the rest of my days. The dinner came with a ‘salad’ of pickled peppers stuffed with cabbage. They were awful and one mouthful made me wince. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, whilst he was out of the room I stuffed three out of the four peppers into my bag to later deposit in the bin. When he returned he saw how quickly I had polished off those first few peppers that much to my dismay he went off and came back with a huge jar full!
I had planned for the next day to be a short hop into Mostar so that I could have a look around in the afternoon. Something must have malfunctioned in my planning process because it ended up being quite the opposite. I had one final string of mountains to cross and had not anticipated that the road would be unsurfaced. I had also not anticipated that there would not be a single shop or water source on route. And worst of all I had not anticipated that it would rain! Fuelled by a single bag of crisps I slowly trudged from 300m to 1300m. My wheels sunk into the soft damp ground and felt like I was cycling with flat tyres.
At 2:30pm with a grumbling stomach I rounded a corner to the beautiful site of a ski lodge lit up with warm orange light and smoke dancing gently from the chimney. Having not seen any civilisation all day I had to pinch myself to check I wasn’t hallucinating. Sat at a table surrounded by a puddle from my dripping clothes I devoured a meal followed by pancakes and tried to psych myself up for the final 25km to Mostar.
Much to my delight as I left the lodge the rain stopped and the road turned back to tarmac.
I had barely gone 200m when a man ran out of a nearby cafe and flagged me down. His name was Dex and he invited me inside and proceeded to feed me another lunch! A warm cup of coffee, bread with homemade pesto and a bowl of bean stew. It was delicious and in the space of an hour I went from starving to absolutely stuffed!
The cafe was full of men of all ages which is a reflection of the 65% unemployment rate in BiH but made for some interesting conversation. As with many of the people I have met on the trip they were worried about me travelling alone. I assured them that I had been OK for over two months but they still insisted on giving me their contact information incase I should run into trouble. I’ve now got emergency contacts in nearly every country I’ve passed through.
They assured me it was all downhill into Mostar, and they weren’t lying! A glorious hour of cycling ensued singing my heart out as I flew round hairpin bends hugging the side of the mountain. And there was one more suprise in store. Since the first ascent into the clouds I had been hoping to see a cloud inversion and now as I descended into the city I finally did. Although the clouds below were only small it felt like a reward for the three days it had taken to cross the mountains. The main road may have been flatter, warmer and taken half the time but this route with its crazy weather, incredible views and lovely people had delivered some of the most adventurous cycling so far and I wouldn’t change it for the world.