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Bosnia & Herzegovina - Background information
A traditional Bosnian mountain dwelling © Tourist Association of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
The history of the region of the former Yugoslavia has, for many, been a bewildering subject. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s place in this history has often been overlooked due to its geographical and, on many occasions, cultural isolation from mainstream Europe. BiH had a very distinct history from that of its eastern neighbours and therefore can be viewed in many senses as virgin ground for historians, particularly from the Illyrian period up to medieval Bosnia and Hum (Herzegovina), about which little is known from primary sources.
The history of the region of the former Yugoslavia has, for many, been a bewildering subject. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s place in this history has often been overlooked due to its geographical and, on many occasions, cultural isolation from mainstream Europe.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while trying to fit the pieces of the Bosnian puzzle into a coherent context is that the nationalist sentiments that were born at the end of the 19th century and which persist today do not reflect the life and sentiments of the tiny, isolated communities of this country from the 7th to the 13th centuries. The ‘mental baggage’ that is carried today by Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks (the term used for Bosnian Muslims, identifying nationality and not religion) simply cannot be applied to a population that previously held little or no affiliation to a national or ethnic identity. The Orthodox from eastern Herzegovina did not wave a Serbian flag, the Catholics from Srebrena Bosna did not have dreams of coming under Zagreb’s rule, and the converted Muslim community had no aspirations to create a European Mecca in the heart of Bosnia. It is largely unknown whether the original Slav settlers, well into the Middle Ages, even referred to themselves at all as Serbs or Croats. All too often history is the story of kings and queens, conquerors and defenders, and provides little if any understanding of the life of the ordinary people. The early Slav tribes never engaged in bitter debates or wars over their Serbian or Croatian belonging; they lived in peace with each other, spoke the same language and worshipped the same God. Outside influences often divided communities, but the impetus for such divisions never came from within.
In the historical context of Bosnia and Herzegovina much is still argued over, both domestically and internationally. What no-one can debate, however, is today’s rightful claim of all the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina to call this their home. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks can confidently say that their homeland is Bosnia and Herzegovina and that they have been here for many, many generations. Claiming rightful ownership of one group over another from a historical perspective, with all its complexities, is simply an impossibility.
Bjelašnica mountain is one of the many places in Bosnia that is blessed with diverse plantlife © Elda Rascic, Tourism Association of Canton Sarajevo
Two large floral regions intersect, as many things do, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Euro-Siberian and Mediterranean floral regions have created such a diverse biosystem that well over half the total number of flowering plants on the Balkan peninsula can be found here. Its richness is only comparable to that found in tropical and subtropical regions. Ancient species have been preserved due to especially favourable conditions, from the times of deluvial glaciations right up to the present. There are over 3,700 identified species of flowering plants in BiH and hundreds of endemic species. In spring the countryside is carpeted with wild flowers, many of them endemic to the Dinaric range. Gentiana dinarica (purplishblue, trumpet-shaped flowers) can be found on Bjelašnica Mountain; you may see Micromeria thymifolia, a shrub-like plant with small flowers whose aroma will grab your attention in the Herzegovina highlands; the gentle violet and white flowers of Euphrasia dinarica dot the landscape around Konjic; and you can find the unique Edraianthus niveus, or Vranica’s bell, on the hillsides near Prokoško Lake. Medicinal herbs have long been used here to cure illness, heal wounds and improve circulation, or to spice up a home-cooked meal.
The Euro-Siberian and Mediterranean floral regions have created such a diverse biosystem that well over half the total number of flowering plants on the Balkan peninsula can be found here.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is blessed with many wonders of nature. Perhaps one of its greatest gifts is the marvellous forests that cover slightly less than half the country. Although there has been significant deforestation due to unregulated clear-cutting, the countryside and mountainsides are still home to thick forests of beech, oak, chestnut, spruce and literally dozens of other types of trees.
The great variety of plant and tree types found in BiH is due to the unique climate of coastal and continental influences. Inland Bosnia and Herzegovina’s forests are very similar to those found in northern and central Europe. Herzegovina and western Bosnia, which is covered by large areas of karst, is characterised by vegetation typical of the coastal and mountainous regions of the Mediterranean. Hidden below Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest peak, Maglić Mountain, lies the magical valley home of Perućica in Sutjeska National Park. Perhaps the most precious of all the forests, Perućica is one of the two remaining primeval forests in the whole of Europe. Massive beech trees are complemented by the high black pines on the rock faces that surround the valley. A hike through the heart of these woodlands is an unforgettable and awe-inspiring experience.
The current status of the wildlife is largely unknown in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was once home to one of the largest bear populations in the world and had thriving wolf, deer, wild boar and chamois (Divokoza) communities. These populations have suffered severely from the war and unregulated hunting. Throughout the conflict many front lines were in the high mountain regions exposing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s bear, wild goat, wild boar and wolf populations to heavy gun and artillery fire, and to being hunted for food by soldiers. Wild boar has, however, made a tremendous comeback. They are usually found in lush, conifer areas in the medium-sized mountain ranges but can be seen in Herzegovina as well. It is fair to say that the bear and the wild goat are both now endangered species in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The government has made no attempt to place hunting moratoriums on these animals or even investigate their plight. In BiH hunting is regulated by law but in practice there is little or no enforcement. Even if the opportunity presents itself you are advised not to hunt. Bring a camera and enjoy a photo hunt instead. Despite their diminished numbers it is not uncommon to see a bear, or occasionally a wolf in Sutjeska National Park in eastern Bosnia. Wild goats are mainly concentrated in Herzegovina’s Neretva Valley but have a large safe haven found in Sutjeska National Park and on the southern slopes of Bjelašnica and Visočica mountains.
Despite their diminished numbers it is not uncommon to see a bear, or occasionally a wolf in Sutjeska National Park in eastern Bosnia.
Fish and game are abundant in BiH. Most of the freshwater rivers are teeming with trout; carp, eel and bass are found throughout the country. The high mountains have always been home to eagles, hawks and falcons and it is not uncommon to see them on a walk or hike almost anywhere in the country. Driving on the main highway from Bihać towards Bosanski Petrovac you are almost guaranteed to spot a large hawk perched on one of the old electricity cables lining the road.
Hutovo Blato is the largest bird migration centre in southeast Europe. This marshy wetland in southern Herzegovina is home to 240 types of birds. Heron, Greek partridge, coot, owl, pheasant and wild duck make their permanent home in this tiny oasis. Bardača Reserve in the north of the country is also a haven for many
types of birds. As a Ramsar Convention member it does enjoy protected status, although this is largely lip service.
With so much of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territory being untouched and wild, you can expect to see a wide range of little creatures: foxes, otters, pine martens, bobcats, deer, porcupines and many types of snakes (including two poisonous species).
For more on wildlife in Bosnia and Herzegovina why not check out Bradt’s Central and Eastern European Wildlife.
Stećci, medieval tombstones, have been afforded UNESCO recognition © Tourist Association of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Art forms have been traced back into the Palaeolithic period, with the oldest discovered engravings in the Balkans at Badanj Caves near the southern town of Stolac in Herzegovina. These works are dated to 12000bc and are amongst only a handful of such art forms found in all of continental Europe. Remnants of the Classical Greek era are best represented by the rich tradition of the Daorsi tribes and the Hellenistic influence in southern Herzegovina at Osanići. Moulds from jewellers’ workshops indicate the casting of miniature metal figures for jewellery and coins. The Roman-Illyrian period is characterised by the ruins of old settlements and castles, like the Mogorjelo settlement in the Neretva Valley near Čapljina. Perhaps the most inspiring form of art was left in the countryside. The ancient tombstones, stećci in Bosnian, have left a permanent reminder of the creative spirit of the early Slavs. This natural gallery of human creativity is stylised with both pagan and Christian symbols of earth, moon, family, animals, dance and crosses.
The ancient tombstones, stećci in Bosnian, have left a permanent reminder of the creative spirit of the early Slavs.
Medieval times marked a new era for art forms in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From ancient cities such as Ključ, Jajce, Dabar, Sokol and Bobovac emerged the new scripts of Hvalov, Zbornik, Hrvoj’s Missal and Miroslav’s Gospel. But oriental culture, during four centuries of Ottoman rule, had a huge impact on this region. During this period many monuments were constructed, including the bridges at Višegrad, Mostar, and the Arslanagića bridge in Trebinje; Alipašina and Gazi-Husrevbegova mosques in Sarajevo; Karađoz-begova mosque in Mostar; the coloured mosque in Travnik; Ferhad-pašina in Banja Luka; and bezistan markets, hans, religious dervish convents and libraries, all representing the highest of oriental art forms.
The house in which Ivo Andrić was born in Travnik © Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina
The first half of the 20th century saw a great emergence of nationalist literature. The struggle for national identity after more than four centuries of Turkish and Austrian rule was portrayed in the literature of the early 1900s. It was this struggle that had polarising effects on the future of Bosnia: on the one hand it paved the way for the union of the southern Slavs and on the other it created ethnic rifts amongst the Slavs through the intensity of the nationalist voices that emerged. Many newspapers were established at this time and for the first time Bosnian writers were fully exposed to the main currents of European influence. Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić from Travnik began his writing career in this era, and from the 1920s became a figurehead of Bosnian literature. Alongside the nationalist fervour was the liberal movement of writers mentioned in The Comrades Book. This left-wing-oriented movement, with a passion for the social issues of the time, produced famous writers such as Novak Šimić, Hasan Kikić and later Mak Dizdar, who is one of the greatest poets to emerge from Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was a catalyst to the cultural revolution that would greatly define itself in the second half of the 20th century.
Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić from Travnik began his writing career in this era, and from the 1920s became a figurehead of Bosnian literature.
The greatest writers in Bosnia’s history emerged in post-World War II socialist Yugoslavia. Ivo Andrić continued his literary domination with The Bridge over the Drina, Travnik Chronicles and The Damned Yard. In 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Mak Dizdar and Meša Selimović soon after published two of Bosnia’s most famous pieces, Stone Sleeper and Death and the Derviš. In the late 1960s yet more masterpieces were published: Nedžad Ibrišimović’s Urgusuz, Vitomir Lukić’s Album, Skender Kulenović’s first book of sonnets Stojanka majka Knezopoljka, and Branko Ćopić’s book of stories The Blue Mallow Garden.
Nostalgia is a powerful literary tool and is perhaps best exemplified in the war stories of Miljenko Jergović’s Sarajevo Marlboro and Zlata Maglajlić’s Zlata’s Diary, which is reminiscent of Anne Frank’s famous war account. Alexander Hemon, Nenad Veličković, Faruk Šehić, Dario Džamonja, Dževad Karahasan and Marko
Vešović are the leading literary thinkers in post-war Bosnia. Most of these writers have been published in English as well.
In former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo was always best known for its great ćevapi (grilled sausages), humour and its incredible ability to produce music hits from all genres. Most of the folk music that is still very much alive today traces its origins to Turkish times in the lyrical songs of sevdalinka. Although this genre possesses oriental elements in style and form, it has embodied the whole folk heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of these songs are of love and/or tragedy and grip the most turbulent of times with passion and perseverance. Song here has so permeated the collective consciousness that the sound of a sevdalinka will almost always spark a spontaneous sing along. The power of nostalgia cannot be underestimated when it comes to the old songs of the ‘glory days’ before the war.
The ganga is a deep, non-instrumental chant-like music most often sung by men. This tradition is strongest in Herzegovina amongst the Croats. The Serbian gusle (traditional type of guitar) is accompanied by stories that are centuries old. Similar traditions exist in the northwest of the country and are played with sargija instruments, whilst in the cities the Persian saz is most often heard accompanying traditional music.
The famous bands from the old Yugoslavia are still held in high regard and the songs still crowd the airwaves.
The best side of contemporary music here is definitely rock and roll. The famous bands from the old Yugoslavia are still held in high regard and the songs still crowd the airwaves. Bands like Bijelo Dugme, Zabranjeno Pušenje, Index and Crvena Jabuka represent the climax of Yugoslav rock in the 1980s. There are often favourite cover songs for today’s bands and they carry a magical Yugo-nostalgia that is still loved in every republic of the former Yugoslavia. The most famous pop stars of yesterday and today are Halid Bešlić, Dino Merlin and Kemal Monteno. Although their musical styles are very different, they all enjoy huge popularity with both young and old. The tradition of rock and alternative music never dies though – groups like Letu Stuke, Dubioza Kolektiv and Skroz carry on that tradition along with a new wave of alternative and rap music from Laka, Edo Maajka and Frenki that have rocked the music scene with great new sounds and lyrics.
Sarajevo hosts its own very successful film festival each summer © Tourism Association of Canton Sarajevo
Despite being a small provincial capital Sarajevo has produced some of the finest films to come out of the former Yugoslavia. Even many of the great film-makers in Serbia, like Emir Kusturica, were born and raised in Sarajevo. The modern film scene has taken off in recent years producing BiH’s first Oscar winner for best foreign film with Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (Ničija zemlja). The tragicomedy depicts several opposing soldiers stuck in an abandoned trench between the front lines and the very human elements of men forced into a war and the international community’s attempts to ‘keep peace’ where no peace was to be found.
Despite being a small provincial capital Sarajevo has produced some of the finest films to come out of the former Yugoslavia.
Other striking films, mostly based on war themes, include Perfect Circle (Savršeni krug) by Ademir Kenović, Fuse (Gori vatra) by Pjer Žalica, Re-Make by Dino Mustafić, and the 2004 winner of the Rotterdam Film Festival Tiger Award Summer in the Golden Valley (Ljeto u Zlatnoj Dolini). Author Namik Kabil’s At Uncle Idriz’s (directed by Pjer Žalica) is a wonderful depiction of a Muslim family from Sarajevo.The quaint details and slow pace offer great insight into many of the traditions and mindsets of Sarajevans and Bosnians alike.
The creative forces that have emerged after many years of being silenced, underfunded, or just plain ignored have been a driving force in reshaping the cultural and artistic flavour that now defines both Sarajevo and the country as a whole. Namik’s film Night Watchers (Čuvari noći) is a slow but ingenious story of man’s battle with himself and his demons. Perhaps BiH’s most popular director and activist, Jasmila Žbanić’s Grbavica won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. This is a gripping story of women who were raped and impregnated during the war and how they are dealing with the scars and the plight of raising a child whose father is a rapist. The film was so successful that it helped push through new protective laws for civilian war victims shortly after its premiere. Her 2010 film Na putu touches on the cultural and emotional sensitivities between a secular and religious Muslim couple from Sarajevo struggling to make their love work despite their different world views. The 2008 film Snow marks the emergence of yet another key female film-maker in Bosnia. Aida Begic’s film won the Cannes Critic Week Grand Prize and was the Bosnian Oscar nominee in 2012 for her film Djeca.