Adventure

Bosnia And Herzegovina Was The Unexpected Highlight Of My Euro Trip

Bosnia and Herzegovina. That’s what I tell people now when they ask me about the best part of my group tour through Eastern Europe. It may be partly that I had zero expectations before heading to the small Balkan country, but I have to say that the attractions there speak for themselves.

A week before my tour started, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the country after my friend asked me what the stops on a Topdeck tour I was starting the next week were. This was a first. I was going somewhere with a name I, embarrassingly, couldn’t remember. I looked at my friend sheepishly.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Olivia Madrid (@madridoli) on

“I know I’m starting in Budapest and finishing in Dubrovnik,” I said confidently, praying that she wouldn’t probe any further. She didn’t, and the conversation soon shifted (phew!).

But the shame I’d felt was enough to get me Googling. And by the time I was in Bosnia and Herzegovina (tricky five-syllable word that one) a week and a half later, I knew not only its name, but also everything else there was to know about it (more on what that is later). The only thing I didn’t know was why so few people had heard of it.

Taking A Group Trip Through Eastern Europe

My journey indeed began in Budapest, Hungary. Listening to an introductory briefing by our Aussie tour leader Tim in our lobby that first day, I noticed a mix of solo travellers, friends and one couple. They were mostly Aussie, but also from New Zealand and Canada, I’d later learn.

Tim had given us a rundown on how things would work. The Balkan Trail – the tour I was booked for – was the first eight days of a larger 15-day Balkan Explorer tour. We’d all be travelling around by coach, stopping in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzevogina, before the Balkan Trail-ers would finish up in Croatia, and the rest of the group would carry on, joined by others.

There would be some included meals and city tours, some optional, extra-cost activities, like a pub crawl in Belgrade and a kayak trip in Dubrovnik, and a whole bunch of border crossings.

Fellow travellers only enhance the experience

Image: Dobrovnik, Croatia

“Hi, I’m Kate,” a bubbly Aussie girl introduced herself to me as the meeting broke and we headed to our rooms to get ready for an evening tour of Budapest. “And I’m Catherine,” her friend said. They were from Sydney, also from the Eastern Suburbs where I live, and also in their 30s. Meeting them instantly waved away my two biggest worries: a) that I wouldn’t make any friends and b) that I’d be the oldest there.

That evening, the coach had taken us to real-life Disney castle Fisherman’s Bastion just in time to see the sun setting over the Danube River between its dreamy archways and then to dinner at a traditional Hungarian restaurant. We’d capped off the night with drinks at Szimpla Kert, one of the city’s biggest ruin bars.

The next day was a “free day”. I’d taken my pick from Tim’s list of suggested sights to see – something he provided in every city – and before I knew it, it was day three, and we were back on the bus on our way to Belgrade. I was just settling in for a mid-morning snooze when Tim came onto the mic.

“I want each of you to come up and tell us where you’re from, why you picked this tour and one embarrassing story to share,” he said. My stomach dropped. Never a fan of public speaking, my palms started sweating. One-by-one people got up to the mic, and then it was my turn. Group-tour nightmare, right? I wholeheartedly disagree, and I only tried my first group tour this year.

If you were wondering, my story was that I’d once walked into a glass door in front of a group gathered outside, but that’s as much detail as I’ll give here. I will say that the session did the trick. Commiserating in our cringe-worthiness broke the leftover ice, and after that, I felt I could easily start a conversation with anyone.

On the road

The first part of the tour passed quickly. Bus trips were spent sleeping, chatting or gazing out the window at the ever-changing scenery. Because of our small group size (the tour maxes out at 30, we had about 20-or-so), most everyone had a double seat to themselves, which they’d use to sprawl across, only sitting upright when the border officials came on to check our passports.

Approaching every new country, Tim would explain its history, culture and attractions. We learnt that the Balkans weren’t part of the European Union and therefore each country had its own currency, that Serbia had the worst inflation rate in the world at one point and that pork and Burek, a greasy filo pastry, were popular to eat.

I took a beer spa in Budapest. I survived on under AU$36 a day in Belgrade, Serbia. But the best bit of the tour was still to come.

Take a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Sarajevo (@sarajevobosnia) on

It was Bosnia and Herzegovina’s story however that had me most intrigued. Once part of former Communist state Yugoslavia, it has one of the most colourful pasts in Europe. Its capital city Sarajevo was once under siege for nearly four years (1992 to 1996), forcing its inhabitants to have to smuggle in supplies through a secret underground tunnel.

And though bullet holes from those harrowing years could still be seen on its buildings, the Sarajevo of today – a unique blend of East and West where a cathedral, mosque, synagogue and church all sit within 500m of each other – seemed to be thriving.

My favourite part of Bosnia and Herzegovina though, came next. The capital of the Herzegovina part of the country, Mostar was a town with a beautiful, emerald green river running through it and a towering, narrow bridge, the Stari Most, going over it.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Mike (@mike.ilchenko) on

It was all so postcard-perfect, and these snippets don’t even cover other incredible parts of the country, like waterfalls you can swim under, a medieval necropolis, smaller towns with narrow alleys stuffed with markets, a medieval castle clinging to the side of a cliff… It again made me wonder – why didn’t more tourists know about this country? Not even what it’s called?!

But, as I battled thousands of them the next day in Dubrovnik, the last stop on the tour, finding myself swept into crowds, inching along streets again and again, I realised, what a great thing that was.

How to get to Bosnia and Herzegovina

  • Fly Qantas to London
  • Take a connecting flight to Sarajevo
  • Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Check out Qantas flights to Europe to begin your next adventure.

The writer was a guest of Topdeck Travel on their Balkan Trail tour.