Inadvertently exploring abandoned Bosnian railway tunnels which are ranked as some of the world’s most dangerous roads…
This is Part 3 of our swift adventure with the Dacia Logan, you can see Part 1: Romania and Part 2: Serbia here. We were almost kicked out of Serbia for not having any coins to pay the impromptu departure tax equivalent to 2€, but our Bosnian welcome wouldn’t be that much warmer as we will soon find out. The third country in this adventure is indeed Bosnia & Herzegovina, commonly and often referred to as simply Bosnia, and it happens on Day 4 so we are still one day behind which we will have to catch up on at some point otherwise the “10 countries in 10 days” challenge won’t be met. We enter Bosnia on its eastern border headed first west to Sarajevo, then south to Mostar.
Flag of Bosnia & HerzegovinaOur valiant Logan about to cross the border from Serbia into Bosnia & Herzegovina.We switch to standard maps from this leg of the trip onwards to show country limits more clearly. To the left in light blue the municipalities composing the Republika Srpska within Bosnia are indicated, and in red the Herzegovina region.
But first, let our Logan take a selfie (above) and let us go through a quick history lesson. Bosnia was first mentioned as a land in the mid-10th century and the Kingdom of Bosnia was formed in 1377, but the current country, counting 3.5 million inhabitants, declared its independence in 1992 after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Then came the Bosnian War that lasted until late 1995 and resulted in the nations’ current administrative structure. Bosnia & Herzegovina is a potential candidate for membership to the European Union and has been a candidate for NATO membership since 2010. Now to finish this history lesson on the question you didn’t know you had: why Herzegovina? Glad you asked. The Herzegovina part of the country corresponds to its southern tip (in red on the side map above) and means ‘land of the Herzeg’; it comes from the medieval duchy of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača, who took the title Herzeg (duke) of Saint Sava. Now we’re set.
Serbian flags in Bosnia? There’s a method to this madness… ...the Republika Srpska.Prrrroblem entering the Republika Sprska part of Bosnia & Herzegovina.
How’s our Logan doing? I haven’t updated you much on it in the last part of this series in Serbia simply because Roma our Logan is very good at making itself tiny in our mind as everything works the way it should be, once you are used to its frugality and once you add your own GPS to compensate for the fact that it won’t direct you outside of Romania and Bulgaria. As it turns out the Logan is going a little too well/fast… We now cross the border into Bosnia & Herzegovina, or so we thought. But not exactly. Instead of the yellow and blue Bosnian flags we were expecting, most villages we cross feature red, blue and white Serbian flags. Why would there be a sea of Serbian flags in Bosnia? Isn’t the very creation of Bosnia at odds with this? In fact and unbeknownst to me hitherto, roughly half of Bosnia is an area called Republika Srpska (in light blue in the side map above) which translates into Serb Republic. This is the result of Bosnian Serbs severing governmental ties with Bosnia and Herzegovina when the country declared independence in 1992, a political controversy that escalated into the Bosnian War. Article 1 of the Constitution of Republika Srpska states that it is a territorially unified, indivisible and inalienable legal entity that shall independently perform its constitutional, legislative, executive, and judicial functions. A sort of independent country within Bosnia, but that is not part of Serbia.
The moment we cross the border after roughly half an hour of queuing, I eagerly let the Logan stretch her legs on a straight and may have reached 70 km/h. Big mistake. Speed limit seems to be 60 km/h here. Even though Serbian drivers on the way to Mokra Gora the day before (and Romanian ones the day before that) were toying with their lives and passing trucks in blind spots at over 100 km/h, here is the Srpska police stopping us for speeding! I actually have to mask my incredulity as we were probably stopped because our licence plate is Romanian. But when the police officer checks out my driver’s licence and utters “Matthias. Prrroblem.” in his best Eastern European accent (remember the locals in the fictional Balkan nation of Syldavia in Tintin’s King Ottokar’s Sceptre? That accent), I first think he’s being super friendly by calling me by my first name but then I suddenly sense that this could go horribly wrong. In fact, he’s the one having a prrroblem: when understanding we don’t have cash, this episode quickly finds its ending: he waves me off. “Go! Drive. Slow.” But it seems foreigners can’t avoid the Bosnian speeding trap – let it be known that I already got stung during my sole previous visit to Bosnia in 2002 – another police crew stops us a dozen km later on a 50m section where the speed limit is lowered by 20 km/h. It’s virtually impossible to slow down in time to avoid being stung, so here was our contribution to Srpska finances for this trip. We hope they use it wisely!
Our faithful Logan survived the dark tunnels of the Bosnian former Eastern Railway.
Bosnia hits us twice in a day, and this second episode would remain one of the most memorable in the entire trip. In what we would later refer to as the #WrongTurnToSarajevo, around the town of Rogatica our mischievous GPS takes us through what it deems to be a shortcut that quickly becomes a one way gravel track into the mountain. Convinced we are onto some kind of time-saving genius find, we plow along but start entering very dark tunnels, that quickly add up. 2, 3, 5, 10…15? We lose count. The landscape becomes craggy, we are following a mountain stream and cliffs surround us and there’s no way we can continue if another car comes in the other direction. We come to a point where it’s been going on for what seems like ages – probably 30 mins – that we choose to just go on as surely this funny/scary little detour is about to come to an end. A couple of hunters (??!?) walking down the track, the only humans encountered so far, assure us that we must turn around as we won’t reach Sarajevo this way. Back we go into the darkest tunnels we ever got to drive through. It turns out, our cheeky GPS wanted us to discover one of the touristic highlights of this region: the former Bosnian Eastern railway that reaches Sarajevo through the mountains and has been turned into a dirt track near the zone of Pale towards the border with Serbia. The total count is a mind-blowing 99 tunnels! This track even features on the website dangerous roads, which catalogues the world’s most…. spectacular *cough!-dangerous* roads. You can’t make these things up. It’s a great opportunity to check out the Logan’s handling on pothole-filled dirt tracks and it turns out there’s nothing she likes more. Manufactured for developing markets with rough roads in mind, the Logan’s suspension is indeed extremely forgiving and makes a mockery of the dirt track’s gross irregularities where most other 2WD cars would have reared in horror. Very impressive indeed.
Bosnian money, liver lunch and Sarajevo tram
After this entertaining/terrifying interlude, we are now in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo. Such is the trauma associated with this city that even today our subconscious is expecting rubbles. The town has long been rebuilt of course and is now a lively city that instantly plunges you in a somewhat Turkish, middle-eastern vibe with prayer calls from a multitude of minarets surrounding the overly touristic Old Town and delicious-looking baklava stands. But scratch the surface and tensions are latent. Finding ourselves in front of the disturbingly mundane Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination Spot that triggered World War I makes your mind swirl, interacting with waiters and vendors results in awkward “sorry no credit cards” followed by nonchalant directions to the sole ATM (!) in the Old Town hidden in a back alley, and Muslim women wearing restrictive black burkas akin to Saudi Arabia are common on the famed Pigeon Square, one the only places in this entire trip we would see any. This elan towards frivolous tourism mixed with recent religious conservatism is deeply scarred with the searing memory of the atrocities that almost annihilated the city just two decades ago. It’s a mix of feelings I haven’t felt anywhere in the world. Leaving the city is when it all hits home: after driving through Zmaja od Bosne road – nicknamed “sniper alley” as Serb gunmen in surrounding hills would pick off civilians that tried to cross it during the 1992-95 siege – and past Hotel Holiday in which embattled journalists who covered the conflict sought refuge, you just simply can’t help wondering: what does it really feel to have gone through all-out war? Can you ever heal? Can this region of the world ever heal? My answer is a sad and deafening no. Again, I recommend clicking on the Bosnian War Wikipedia link to learn more about how the Sarajevo siege unfolded and ended to truly get the enormity of History that happened here and its impact on the psychology of the inhabitants of the region.
Some views of picturesque Mostar.
To try and compensate for the heaviness of Sarajevo, our next stop is Mostar, which also sounds like a death sentence but is supposed to have had its iconic bridge beautifully rebuilt. And the stop is well worth it. Although extremely touristic in a Croatian way – by this I mean red Coca Cola banners and ice-cream shops everywhere like on the Croatian coast – Mostar is the little picturesque mountain village hugging a quiet river that we needed to lift our spirits and plaster the above photos as our single memory of Bosnia. Try and visit early in the morning before the crowded buses of German, French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese tourists hit the narrow cobble-stoned pedestrian streets. There are no cars in the old town and it’s a welcome haven of beautifully painted traditional houses – I don’t often say this as cars are my lifeline but Mostar deserves all the love it gets.
Bosnia is the kingdom of the VW Golf, all generations of it.
But what do Bosnians drive? Despite all the info we have been publishing on new car sales showing a Skoda has been the best-seller for 10 of the past 11 years, Bosnia is the kingdom of the VW Golf. Almost all generations of it. Observations during our stay in the county lead me to estimate that over a third of the entire Bosnian passenger car park is made of what I’m assuming is second-hand VW Golf, a staggering figure. The second most frequent nameplate is the Passat, mostly from the 90s, meaning the Volkswagen likely holds more than half of the current Bosnian car park. One simple explanation to this fact is that the Golf (as well as the Beetle and Jetta) were manufactured locally between 1972 and 1992 and 1998 and 2008. A lot are also coming directly from Germany with some models still featuring the German “D” sticker for Deutschland. Although unlike in Serbia I did not see many first generation 1974 model, here too the second generation 1983 model is by far the most popular and still operates as taxi in the countryside (4th picture above). Third (1991), fourth (1997) and fifth (2003) generations are also very frequent but the sixth (2008) and seventh (2012) remain extremely rare, consistent with the ending of local production in 2008.
A very healthy VW Beetle, new gen Dacia Duster, Opel Astra and Crossland X.
The amount of new cars streaming Bosnian roads is extremely limited – I picked only a couple of new generation Dacia Duster, so the sales data that is published needs to be taken with caution as it doesn’t reflect the reality of the car landscape in the country. Part of the reason why the Golf is so popular here is that like Romania (Dacia) and Serbia (Zastava), it used to be the “local produce”. As you can imagine given the history of the country, the cars considered Serbian such as the Zastavas and Yugos we described in the past iteration of this adventure have all but disappeared here. I only saw two in the entire section of the country we visited, but the surprising fact its that this observation also includes the large parts of Republika Srpska we traverse, which makes much less sense but is revealing all the same.
That was country #3 out of 10, our next stop was scheduled to be Croatia with Dubrovnik but given the wait time entering Bosnia and traffic congestion in Dubrovnik at this time of year (we did this trip in August), we fear it will hamper our progression too much decide to get straight into Montenegro. We’ll have to find anther country to make up for Croatia…