The Neretva River, connecting the Adriatic Sea with the mineral-rich mountains in Bosnia and Herzegovina, once flanked a rugged trade route in the Balkans for centuries. Now paved roads from Sarajevo to the Croatian coastal town of Makarska act in much the same way for visitors looking for a true Balkan experience without the crowds associated with Western Europe.
Below is a insider’s stage-by-stage plan for a trip from the Bosnian capital to the clear waters of the Adriatic. Plan or no plan though, be warned: Driving cross-country in a region where old-school navigational skills are helpful encourages spontaneity, humbling interactions with locals and an adventure in a West-meets-East landscape.
Starting in Sarajevo, wake up to enjoy fresh pastries at Maison Coco, the French bakery about a 10-minute walk west of the Orthodox Church near Old Town Baš?aršija. The walk-up window provides rich chocolate croissants, tarte aux pommes, and warm baguettes starting around 2 BAM—known as Konvertible Marks—or KM (about $1.13 at 1.77 KM to the dollar). Pairing this pastry with good coffee is a must, and bringing food to a café is commonplace in Bosnia. Walk back through Old Town as folks are opening up shops and sweeping away last night’s festivities. Just up the hill from the Sebilj Fountain, Cajdzinica Dzirlo offers thick Bosnian coffee paired with a Turkish delight for proper measure.
After securing your rental car in Sarajevo (rentals are cheap and easy to find in the Balkans, especially if you can drive manual), head out on the A1 motorway towards Mostar. The surrounding countryside of Bosnia and Herzegovina is reminiscent of paintings from the French Impressionists with towering hay bails and farmers in light cotton pants and sun hats tending to fields. The first stop along the way is the town of Konjic, known for the traditional wood crafts and furniture that date to intricate Ottoman-carved designs. Braca Niksic Drvorezbarska radnja, the fourth generation wood-carving business in town, gives visitors a tutorial with interactive carving sessions and a glimpse at the patience needed for their craft. Maple and walnut woods from the surrounding Bosnian forests provide the medium for the detailed trays, boxes and tables in the shop.
While in town, make sure to stop by Tito’s Bunker: a nuclear bomb shelter built last century to protect the Yugoslav leader in case of attack. The shelter has been turned into a contemporary art museum. Rooms are filled with works from artists from around the world.
Considered a cultural capital in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mostar (see image at top) sits along the banks of the Neretva River, two hours southwest of Sarajevo. Bring solid walking shoes for the cobblestone footpaths and climb the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque minaret for a 360-degree view of the city, with the limestone Stari Most (Old Bridge) in view. For a traditional Bosnian meal with a cultural flair, walk across the bridge to Restaurant Šadrvan tucked beneath lush tree branches along the main road. Outdoor seating is available, and they boast an entire page of vegetarian options alongside flakey, savory burek pastries, kebabs, and local fish plates. Servers even hand out complimentary postcards after the meal for visitors to send to envious friends and family members back home.
If you need a way to cool off from the summer heat, take a drive 25 miles southwest of Mostar towards Krusevo to Kravice Falls. The water may be teeth-chattering at about 46 degrees year-round, but resisting the siren call of the clear blue water in scenery straight out of James Cameron’s Avatar is almost impossible. The two beach bars along the banks provide snacks, ice cream and draft Sarajevsko beer to drink as you lounge and watch kids and adults alike brave the cold showers of the falls. Although gaining in popularity, it’s still possible to see only a handful of other visitors at the falls during the early summer season and weekdays.
Though you may have downloaded a Google map for your trip, the winding roads and strange directions leading down to the coast may make following them a test of patience. Miles of tunnels and sunset views of the white limestone-capped mountains (with an accompanying passport check at the Croatian border) ends in the port town of Makarska. Even arriving later than expected, there are plenty of Dalmatian restaurants catering to the late night tendencies of the tourists in the area. If you’re in the mood for local seafood, Konoba Decima is a family-owned grill serving up fish soup, octopus salad, mussels and komar?a na žaru (gilt-head bream) all for under 50 kunas a piece ($7.28 at 6.9 kunas to the dollar). Local, healthy food is the norm, and there’s no need to break the bank at an upscale restaurant in Makarska to get great quality food and drinks.
Far from being “off the beaten path”, but necessary if you’ve gotten a second wind with a post-dinner espresso, check out Deep Makarska, the cave bar behind Hotel Osejava located directly on the beach. Packed with young hostel-goers from all over the world, the DJ orchestrates hypnotic techno dance music into the wee hours of the morning. Expect sauna-like temperatures on the neon-lit dance floor and table seating with cool salty breezes on the beach.
If you plan on staying longer in Sarajevo or the mountains of BiH, try the drive back though Nature Park Blidinje. The time is about the same as the highway, but this path runs off-road on relatively smooth gravel roads through an expanse with as much grandeur as Rocky Mountain or Bighorn National Forest in the States.
Katie Aldrich is a freelance writer and graduate student at The Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.