Sarajevo: misadventures in bus logistics, Bosnian rock, and a bobsled track

October 29, 2018
by Dan

When Christina took off for a brief trip back to the US I was left with the opportunity to do some exploring on my own. From Sofia to Belgrade, where I planned to meet back up with Christina, is a pretty straight shot, and so I wanted to find some other destination to visit on the way. My top picks were Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Prishtina in Kosovo. Sarajevo is quite a bit out of the way, but Kosovo seemed like there might be some issues passing back into Serbia.

Kosovo only recently declared independence. It’s still a disputed territory and Serbia doesn’t recognize the border. The regional politics in former Yugoslavia still seem very murky and a bit tense to me. I had only very vague understanding how Yugoslavia dissolved, but even after doing a lot of reading and traveling through the area, I still don’t feel like I really understand the last half century here. So I decided to visit Sarajevo.

The journey from Sofia to Sarajevo is not a common route, and there are rarely timetables or any information for buses in the Balkans. To make the journey easier I planned to travel to Nis, Serbia from Sofia since it is a rather large bus hub and in the general correct area.

The bus for Nis left at 7:30 am. I arrived in plenty of time to the central bus/train station in Sofia but gracious, the ticket buying procedure was difficult. There is a huge array of bus companies with ticket stands, but it’s not so obvious where each of them go. So I wandered around for a bit and had trouble getting help from anyone working in the kiosks. Eventually a ‘helpful’ beggar came up and helped me buy a ticket. But then it turns out I got a ticket to Plovdiv, deeper into Bulgaria. I was not amused and time was running out.

Luckily I was able to refund the ticket and a friendly fellow customer pointed me to an entirely different bus terminal across the street. But even there I had trouble finding the actual bus company that went to Nis. It didn’t help that my pronunciation of “Neesh” was terrible. Anyway, I finally found the correct ticket stand Матпу (pronounced “Matpu”) located roughly here.

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Soon I was on my way to Nis and the bus arrived around noon. I inquired about getting to Sarajevo at the ticket office and found out that the only bus to Sarajevo from Nis departs in the morning at 6:00 am. I didn’t mind the stop over and I was glad to get to see another city. I made a last minute reservation at Sweet Apartments for a pretty darn good deal. It was an unnecessarily nice private room and right in the city center.

I spent the afternoon just wandering the nearby fortress and enjoying the fall weather. A unique feature to the town is that there are what appear to be metro station entrances all over, but the town is tiny. So I went down on of these entrances and found that they are actually huge underground shopping areas. That was unexpected.

The next morning I took off on the ten hour journey to Sarajevo. I felt bad killing so much daylight days with bus travel, but the ride was very scenic. Along the way, the most beautiful town was Visegrad. It was in the middle of this mountainous valley with a river running through the center of town and huge cliffs on either side. There were some beautiful bridges and a church on this peninsula jutting out into the river. I know nothing of the place, but I would definitely travel back there to explore.

I arrived Sarajevo in the early afternoon at the bus station which was a bit far out of town so I went to buy my bus ticket to Belgrade since I was already there. This was important because the buses to Serbia leave from that side of town, which is the Serbian Republic part of Bosnia Herzegovina. I didn’t realize how complicated the governance of the region is, but it’s basically split up into semi-autonomous regions that are mostly separated into various ethnic regions. I’ve read a lot about the modern history of Bosnia and it’s still very confusing.  I don’t understand at all how this is a reasonable solution to the genocide that occurred here in the ’90s or how it’s really any different than the legislative system that was set up after Tito‘s death and crippled Yugoslavia and led to its break up.

Anyway I decided to buy my ticket in advance and encountered something that I didn’t expect in Europe. I was purposefully given the wrong change twice. And I was about to go back a third time because I was charged a higher price than the printed ticket value, but just gave up. Also the information desk told me that the only way into town was taxi. But there is a bus stop that goes directly to city center just a two minute walk up the road. I had let my guard down for this type of stuff and it was a frustrating introduction to the country.

I arrived at Hostel Eternal Flame, which is pretty new I think. It’s located in a theater and maybe they are kind of officially squatting because they aren’t allowed to post a sign for the hostel. Anyway, everyone has trouble finding the place even with the instructions that they send out, but it was a lovely place with friendly guests and staff, and a great location in the city. During that first night I took a wander around and it definitely gave the impression of being a pretty tough city.

But more than anything, the most difficult aspect of visiting Sarajevo was the scars of war. I guess I suspected this going in and the reason that I even know of Sarajevo is from hearing about it as a kid in the news. But I didn’t go to see Sarajevo to learn about the horrors of genocide; I typically avoid that. I think I went because I wanted to see the new recuperated Sarajevo and put a new picture of the city in my head. That’s been the case in a lot of places that we’ve visited, but Sarajevo felt a bit different. To me the city still feels very defined by the awful war in the 1990s.

So I felt a lot of sadness staying there. There are still bombed out buildings and bullet holes here and there. Not preserved as a monument, but just because they haven’t been rebuilt. The city is absolutely covered in cemeteries with very telling dates on the gravestones. You have to stay on designated trails when hiking the surrounding areas because there could still be landmines. The main tourist area has places where mortar blasts have been filled in with a red acrylic as a memorial and they’re not hard to find. The main tourist area is exactly where people were being killed during the siege of the city.

The thing that really stuck in my head during the visit was that if I was someone trapped in city during the siege, I would have been the same age as the kids that had to run out to get water because they were harder targets for the snipers. I don’t really know how true or common that was, but it’s the story that people think of when talking about the siege and just the concept in general got to me.

So I couldn’t bring myself to visit the war museums.

The main site that I wanted to see there was the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics in the nearby hills. I saw video several years back of people taking longboards down the track. It looked insane. And it is insane. I chose to hike up the mountain to the track. It’s a nice hike through some quiet residential parts of town and along the way are some abandoned buildings covered in graffiti. I love abandoned buildings, but these gave me the same sad feeling that the buildings in Kep, Cambodia gave me because they are abandoned as a result of very specific tragedy.

The bobsled track itself was mostly in pretty good condition and there were plenty of tourists in the area that took the cable car up the hill. The graffiti was phenomenal down the whole track. It was difficult to take good pictures, but it was impressive. The walk was really fun and I would come back to run up the track or better yet, if I could get a bike with some decent brakes I would love to ride it down. I would love to visit again.

Inspired by the awesome views of the city from the bobsled track and the fact that there are mountains all around the city, I searched out some other hiking opportunities. The easiest hike from the city is to Skakavac Waterfall. You can actually walk all the way up there from the city center, but it would be a pretty long trek. I took the 69 bus from Kosevo Park in the city center to the town of Nahorevo. From there I hiked to the trail head. It was still a decent distance and pretty steep, and the view out over the city is great.

At the trail head is a mountain hut owned by a guy named Dragan. It’s very rustic and the wind kind of whistles through the building and shakes it. I liked the vibe. He had bean soup that day so I had some of that and a coffee. It was the only thing I ate all day and I’m glad I did. I had already walked almost an hour and the hike to the waterfall from the trail head along the “mountain” trail took another hour. I had read that the “tourist” trail wasn’t very interesting and presumably easier. The mountain trail wasn’t bad but a bit slippery with all the leaves and my awesome shoes from China are already worn flat. But it was fine.

The waterfall is really cool. There isn’t a large volume of water, but the water kind of bounces off all the rocks and mists up. It’s unique. I think it would be cool to swim there on a warm day. As it was, it was a little chilly but really windy, so I kept moving. I came to a larger crossroads without any trail signage. It was a huge picnic area with lots of paths crisscrossing. I took my best guess and I think I ended up going quite far out of the way and hiking through wet grassy areas with pine trees. I felt like I was probably on the wrong trail.

I eventually arrived at a nice mountain lodge and was again at a loss for where to go. I asked a family that was finishing up their meal and they offered to let me hike with them to their car and then drive me down to the city. It was about another hour of hiking and I had a blast talking with them. The guy is a Scot and has been living there since ’94, so it was pretty clear why and I avoided talking about the war. But I’ve since seen his name pop up in some of the credits for documentaries about the area.

Mostly we talked about current political environment and also about how much he loves these mountains. He comes and hikes here every weekend with his family. I was really fortunate to meet up with them.

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One night I went out drinking with some folks from the hostel. It was a bit of a challenge finding a fun bar without the help of a local, but the great thing about drinking in the Balkans is how cheap the beer is. There is still a huge mark up on beer in bars, but the base price of beer is so low (I’m talking like <$2 for half a gallon of beer) that it’s still reasonable on a tight budget to go out to bars.

The place I ended up enjoying the most was actually right next to the hostel called Underground Club and their symbol is like the London Underground. So it obviously wasn’t playing underground music with a set up like that, but it was fun. I went two nights and both times there were bands doing original music or covers in Serbo-Croatian. Bosnian rock is pretty cool. The shows started after midnight so those were some pretty late nights.

On my final day in Sarajevo, after staying up way too late for too many nights I went for a run to the Goat’s bridge. It’s a really nice pedestrian path with some excellent views.

That I headed out to catch the night bus to Belgrade. I was exhausted so I was able to sleep pretty much without problem through the night and had the whole row to myself.

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