Look for a crowd-free city break in one of Europe’s best-sellers – Dubrovnik, Barcelona or Rome – and you’ll struggle to find any resemblance of an ‘off-season escape’ anymore. Sure, they’re quieter outside of the school holidays, but for as long as the sun shines and cruise ships drop their anchors, these classic destinations attract throngs year-round. Their high prices unwavering.
Look east however and the sites of Bosnia and Herzegovina are often overlooked. While cheap buses from Croatia have increased visitor numbers in recent years (£18 each way), most arrive during the summer months and only stay for a day or two. It’s an injustice not only to this sublime country but your bank balance – staying here costs less than half the price of the closest Croatian alternative.
Inspired by its underrated reputation and kind promises to my purse strings, I looked no further than this Balkan underdog for a shoulder-season escape with a difference.
The bridge keepers’ city
Since its construction in the 16th century, the Stari Most bridge, to which the historical capital of Herzegovina, Mostar – meaning ‘bridgekeeper’ – owes its name, has always been special to locals. When it was bombed in 1993 during the Bosnia-Herzegovina war, it was like “losing a relative,” according to my guide Amna – who joined thousands of others, who’d fled the conflict, in returning for its reopening in 2004.
But it’s only in the past decade that Stari Most and the city it guards have piqued interests beyond the local borders. Within its immediate vicinity are synagogues, churches, cathedrals and mosques – the 17th-century Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque is the most magnificent. After clambering up the minaret’s narrow stairway (entry €12/£10) I was rewarded with unrivalled views of Mostar and the surrounding Dinaric Alps. Five times a day, the adhan (call to prayer) starts there and floods the valley, waking its brothers to join in on the salat as it flows downstream.
Visitors can gain a front-row seat to this mesmerising chorus with a coffee at Terasa, a rooftop bar in the old bazaar. Bookended by Stari Most and Koski Mehmed, Terasa’s vantage point is plastered across Instagram. Visit in autumn and you’ll not only dodge the sticky July heat exuding from the limestone city walls (40℃ isn’t unheard of), you won’t have to jostle for a table at the window.
A 20-minute drive away is the village of Blagaj, where a pretty Dervish house clings to the bank of the Bune spring. Further along the Neretva River is the 16th-century fortress of Počitelj, and two hours further southeast is Kravica nature park (entry €10/£8.70), home to the country’s answer to Niagara Falls. A huge attraction during the summer, these majestic waterfalls are far less crowded in autumn – yet arguably more beautiful, fringed by reddening flora.
Bosnian food is as hearty as it is cheap – the perfect autumnal fare. The Ottomans made their mark here as they did on Greek and Turkish cuisine and the foundation of any self-respecting Bosnian dish is simplicity. The meal of choice for any first-time visitor is the beloved cevapi, a bountiful pita stuffed with gently seasoned kebabs, diced raw white onion and ajvar (Bosnia’s signature pepper sauce) for flavour. It’s a popular lunch on the go, as is burek, a pastry pie with either a vegetable, potato, cheese or fruit filling. I found these everywhere at buregdžinicas (local bakeries) in Sarajevo’s old town. Washed down with either a Sarajevska beer or a Bosnian coffee, the steepest bill I clocked up for an entire lunch was £5 – I wept on my return to Dubrovnik, when a BLT sandwich and a Coke cost four times as much.
Where east meets west
The Ottoman capital of Sarajevo is less quaint than Mostar and its top sites are more dispersed, but still, it’s easy to connect the dots using the city’s cheap public transport (£2.30 per day).
I began exploring in the old town and found a blend of grand Ottoman vestiges, synagogues, churches and Austro-Hungarian houses, a bustling bazaar and traditional coffee shops lining the cobbled streets. Many visitors choose to take a trip down memory lane by following the sound of metal clanking to Kazandžiluk, better known as ‘Coppersmith Street’. Here, artisans skillfully manipulate copper sheets into coffee sets, lanterns and various trinkets as they have done for centuries. From there, a brisk 20-minute walk uphill to the 18th-century Yellow Fortress rewarded me with another budget-friendly coffee stop gazing out over the entire city – the crisp autumn temperatures a welcome climate for the hike (averaging below 15℃, instead of +24℃ in July).
It’s possible to visit various museums in Sarajevo and Mostar to understand what happened here in the mid-1990s, but to truly grasp an insight, talk to a local expert.
A former officer in the Bosnian Army, Adnan Ljumic now runs war tours (€60/£50), sharing accounts of the conflict and taking tourists to meet those who experienced the horrors of the Srebrenica massacre. I ate lunch with a couple who had lost more than 70 family members to the genocide. Our conversation flicked between the father being forced to dig his own grave and how Manchester City performed last week. In that, a powerful message to tourists: acknowledge the war, but don’t dwell on it. In the words of Adnan: “We need to share what happened here, but Bosnia is so much more.”
Wild horses and primaeval forests
Around 40 per cent of Bosnia is covered in pine, beech and oak forests – an underrated playground for hiking, biking and camping in the cooling autumn climes. The most famous is Sutjeska National Park (camping from €9.50/£8 a night), near the Montenegrin border, three hours from both cities. It’s home to one of Europe’s two remaining primaeval forests and the country’s highest peak, Vran (2,074m).
From October, the woodlands are dressed in their finest colours. When reflected in the mountain lakes, the resemblance to the Canadian wilderness is curious. More peculiar, maybe, is the nation’s thriving wild horse population – see them on a photo safari tour on the Kruzi plateau above the town of Livno (€40/£35 per adult with Livno Wild Horses) for a lasting memory of this unexpected European bolthole.