S3E1. A travel diary
BarBalkans is back on the road with the third season of this newsletter and the chronicles of a summer trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. With a lot of holiday, culinary and alcoholic tips
welcome back to BarBalkans, the newsletter (and website) with blurred boundaries.
Summer is almost over and it is time for us to get back on the road.
Before we leave - on the rail of a trip in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro a few weeks ago - there are a couple of things I would like to tell you.
The third season of BarBalkans starts with the promise to put at the center of this project the protagonists’ voices and the stories from the places where they are taking place.
This is why BarBalkans newsletter will definitely become biweekly. It will always be published on Saturday morning, but every other week.
The extra time will be used to organize and publish more interviews and in-depth analysis, but also to give this project the chance to explore new paths and seize bigger opportunities.
I will keep you updated on the - slow but inexorable - growth of BarBalkans.
But your support is still indispensable, this is why I ask you to consider the possibility of donating. Click on the image below for more information:
As you know, BarBalkans newsletter will remain for free. And this will never change, because the right to be informed should be granted to anyone who wants and feels this need.
The only difference, for those who will decide to support the project, will be a free content. The monthly article-podcast on the Yugoslav Wars, to find out what was happening in the Balkans - right in that month - 30 years ago.
The preview with highlights is open to everyone - you can find it on all streaming platforms - while the detailed article published every second Wednesday of the month is only for subscribers.
Regardless of what you will decide, thank you. From the bottom of my heart.
And now we can start with our journey. With the third season of BarBalkans!
A backpack and a notebook
We start in Banja Luka, the political center of Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a city full of young people, with many concerts in the courtyards. Fort Kastel dominates the small restaurants on the boats on the Vrbas River. Here we can dine with ćevapčići and ajvar and drink Nektar Pivo.
After this pleasant discovery - and surrounded by huge Republika Srpska flags along the road - we head south. A stop in Jajce, the last capital of the Kingdom of Bosnia and the birthplace of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is a must.
The monumental Pliva waterfalls and the water mills a few kilometers away are remarkable. The town is full of history, from the Christian catacombs to the medieval fortress and the mosques rebuilt after the 1992-1995 war.
The road to Sarajevo still shows the signs of the ethnic conflict on the buildings, amidst scars from the bullets and howitzer holes.
In the Bosnian capital, we cannot miss the Sarajevo Free Walking Tour in the places of the siege of the city, following a local guide who tells us the point of view of human experiences (here you can find the interview with the founder Nenad Novaković).
After a break at Café Tito, we have lunch with burek and baklava in the old town (Baščaršija), in the streets full of craft shops and small restaurants. It is particularly relevant the National Library (Vijećnica) destroyed in 1992 by Bosnian-Serb besiegers (this is the focus of the last episode of our podcast August ‘92. “Cabaret and genocide”). Now rebuilt, it is the seat of the Sarajevo Municipality.
If we want to learn more about the history of the siege of Sarajevo, we must visit the Tunnel of Hope, dug and used by the besieged citizens as the only access to the outside world during the daily bombardment in the Nineties.
Taking the cable car up Trebević Mountain, we can not only admire the city from over a thousand meters high, but also walk along the 1984 Winter Olympics bobsleigh track, in ruins but decorated with colourful graffiti.
On the way back, we have to stop for a pre-dinner beer at Sarajevska Pivara, the historic brewery dating back to the Austro-Hungarian times. And then, for some dancing at Kino Bosna, a former cinema converted into a live music venue (open on Mondays).
Later, we hit the road to Mostar. The road runs through the lush valley carved by the emerald Neretva River, and we must stop at Zdrava Voda restaurant, to taste some of the typical lamb and a sip of Mostarsko Pivo.
In the political center of Herzegovina, the Old Bridge (Stari Most), destroyed by Bosnian-Croat forces in 1993, is now rebuilt and stands out. The city - which is straight out of The Lord of the Rings - is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the notes of the Open City Mostar music festival can be heard everywhere.
In the surroundings of Mostar, there are several places to visit. The first is the Blagaj Dervish House, perched on a rock at the source of the Buna River.
Then there are the Kravice waterfalls, which form a natural pool. To escape the crowd of tourists coming from neighbouring Croatia, all we have to do is walk along the Trebižat River and reach the small Mala Kravica waterfall.
While Međugorje is completely unremarkable, Tito’s Bunker near Konjic is the opposite. Built in the Seventies to host the President of the Federation, his family and the political and military establishment in the event of a nuclear attack, it is now used as a museum and home to contemporary art installations.
To reach Montenegro, we choose to cross into Southern Bosnia to the border crossing near Foča. On the road, we find one of the most majestic spomenik (monuments in memory of the Yugoslav partisans during the liberation war from Nazi-fascism) in the Balkans: the Sutjeska spomenik.
We have to admit that the crossing border between Bosnia and Montenegro is for strong hearts, because of the semi-gravel road and the one-way wooden suspension bridge over the Drina River. The experience and the panoramic views are worth the price of this choice.
The Durmitor National Park is a paradise for hikers, starting from the village of Žabljak on its slopes. Our eyes are full of wonder of the Black Lake: the high peaks are reflected on the crystal-clear water and are covered by green fir forests.
It is also worth exploring the barren highland, dotted with 18 glacial lakes (also known as ‘the eyes of Durmitor’). Here we find two ancient medieval necropolises, the stećci: these are formerly decorated tombs, representing a cultural and historical heritage common to Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.
The culinary specialities made of corn, cheese, milk and potatoes - kačamak and cicvara - are remarkable. They can be accompanied by Nikšićko Pivo or by the strong local rakija.
From the Dinaric Alps to the Adriatic Sea takes only a couple of hours. This is how we can reach the Bay of Kotor, surrounded by mountains overhanging the sea.
We cannot miss the villages of Perast and Kotor, which used to be Republic of Venice possessions until 1797. They still show the ancient Venetian architectural layout, as well the historical palaces and walls (as Giovanni Vale explained to us in his travel guide Extinguished Countries).
An exploration of the bay by boat is recommended. And by night, also the tasting of the thousands of varieties of fish, to be accompanied by Krstač white wine: octopus carpaccio, cuttlefish ink risotto, squid stuffed with scampi and pašteta (a traditional Venetian fish pâté).
A worthy note end is a concert of KotorArt, the international music festival founded in 2002 and one of the most important in Montenegro.
Pit stop. Sittin’ at the BarBalkans
We have reached the end of this piece of road.
After all the tips along the way, our bar, the BarBalkans, meets one of the most impressive wine cellars in Europe: Šipčanik Bunker of Plantaže Winery, one of the largest all over the continent.
The wine cellar is a 356-meter-long old bunker, secretly built under a mountain at an average depth of more than 30 meters. It extends over 7 thousand square meters, 8 kilometers from the Montenegrin capital Podgorica.
In Yugoslav times, it could host up to 25 military jets. Partially destroyed by NATO bombing in 1999, it was abandoned for years. It was renovated in 2007 and, since then, it has become the place where two million liters of wine are aged in oak barrels.
Tours of the bunker/cellar and wine tastings can be booked daily. The speciality is Vranac, made from the indigenous grape variety of this region of the Western Balkans.
Young Vranac wines have a bright colour, almost purple, and a red berry aroma, with a tannic structure. After one year of ageing, the colour develops into an intense dark ruby and the bouquet into a more complex aroma, with hints of cinnamon, flowers and black fruits.
The experience of a wine tasting in an old Yugoslavian bunker really has no equal!
Let’s continue the BarBalkans journey. We will meet again in two weeks, for the 2nd stop.
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