The farmers market in Nevesinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

The farmers market in Nevesinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves goes off the beaten path in Bosnia-Herzegovina

An inland road takes him to the humble crossroads village of Nevesinje.

As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s one of my favorite European memories in what was a part of Yugoslavia — a reminder of the adventure that awaits us at the other end of this crisis.

Looking for a change of pace from Croatia’s touristic Dalmatian Coast, I’m driving east from Dubrovnik to the city of Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Almost everyone making this trip takes the scenic coastal route. But with a spirit of adventure, I take the back road instead: inland first, then looping north through the Serbian part of Herzegovina.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three main ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks — are descended from the same ancestors and speak closely related languages. The key distinction is that they practice different religions: Orthodox Christianity (Serbs), Roman Catholicism (Croats) and Islam (Bosniaks). For the most part, there’s no way that a casual visitor could determine the religion or loyalties of the people just by looking at them. Studying the complex demographics of the former Yugoslavia, I gain a grudging respect for the communist-era dictator Tito — the one man who was able to hold this “union of the South Slavs” together peacefully.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is one nation, historically divided into two regions: Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords gerrymandered the country along sectarian lines, giving a degree of autonomy to the area where Orthodox Serbs predominate. This “Republika Srpska” rings the core of Bosnia on three sides. When asked for driving tips, Croats — who, because of ongoing tensions with the Serbs, avoid this territory — insist that the road I want to take through their country doesn’t even exist. From the main Croatian coastal road just south of Dubrovnik, directional signs would send me to a tiny Croatian border town — but ignore the large Serbian city of Trebinje just beyond.

And yet, Trebinje more than exists … it is bustling and prosperous. As I enter the city, police with ping-pong-paddle stop signs pull me over. I learn that you must drive with your headlights on at all hours. My “dumb tourist” routine gets me off the hook. Parking the car, I head to an outdoor market to get cash at an ATM to buy some produce.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s money is called the “convertible mark.” Some bills have Cyrillic lettering and Serbian historical figures, while others use the English alphabet and show Muslims or Croats. Like everything else in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the currency is a careful balancing act.

Later, after a two-hour drive on deserted roads through a rugged landscape, I arrive at the humble crossroads village of Nevesinje. Towns in this region all have a “cafe row,” and Nevesinje is no exception. It’s lunchtime, but as I walk through town, I don’t see a soul with any food on their plate — just drinks. Apparently, locals eat economically at home, then enjoy an affordable coffee or drink at a cafe.

A cluttered little grocery is my solution for a quick meal. The old man behind the counter seems happy to make me a sandwich. Salami, which looks like Spam, is the only option. I take my sandwich to an adjacent cafe and pay the equivalent of a U.S. quarter for a cup of strong Turkish (or “Bosnian”) coffee, with highly caffeinated mud at the bottom. Then I munch, drink and watch the street scene. It’s like seeing a play.

Big men drive by in little beater cars. High-school kids crowd around the window of the photography shop, which has just posted their class graduation photos. The flirtatious girls and boys on this cruising drag prove you don’t need money to have style. Through a shop window, I see a young couple picking out a simple engagement ring. One moment I think that Nevesinje is very different from Edmonds, my hometown … but the next, it seems just the same.

Looking at the curiously overgrown ruined building across the street, I notice its bricked-up, pointed Islamic arches and realize it was once a mosque. Its back yard is a no-man’s-land of bombed-out concrete and glass, where a single, turban-topped tombstone still manages to stand. The prayer niche inside, where no one prays anymore, faces east … to another empty restaurant.

After an hour’s drive over a twisty mountain road, I leave the Republika Srpska and arrive at the city of Mostar. Pulling into town, I’m exhausted yet exhilarated with the experience I gained by taking the road much less traveled.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the Love of Europe.” You can email Rick at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

Talk to us

More in Life

Carole G. Barton, teacher and author of 'The Friendship Adventure'  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Marysville woman’s new book fulfills a promise to her mother

“The Friendship Adventure” teaches children about working together and problem-solving.

Take-home activity kits help a local Girl Scout troop stay engaged over Zoom. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Where are the cookies? Girl Scouts different during pandemic

The girls aren’t camping, horseback riding or hiking because of COVID-19. But they’re still Scouting.

Dr. Paul on finding resilience during hard times like these

No matter how strong we are, anyone can be knocked down. Here’s how to cope so you can get back up.

Milan’s main square and cathedral.
Rick Steves on appreciating Italy’s most underrated city, Milan

A highlight? Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” mural at Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

I paid twice for my airline ticket — can I get one refunded?

After a mix-up with her cruise line, Ruby Tyson pays for her airline tickets twice. Is there any way to get one of them refunded?

See 81 original paintings by Jack Dorsey in the "No. 81" exhibit through May at Sunnyshore Studio on Camano Island.
Camano Island studio celebrates a patriarch of the arts

“No. 81” features 81 of Jack Dorsey’s paintings on his 81st birthday. You can see 28 of them at Sunnyshore Studio.

The vocal supergroup Säje will perform at the DeMiero Jazz Festival, which is March 4-6 this year.
DeMiero Jazz Festival packed with headlining performers

Edmonds’ 45th annual event will feature 17 virtual performances, plus jazz workshops for local students.

Owners Kim and Larry Harris at Bayernmoor Cellars on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020 in Stanwood, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
World-class wine, from grapes grown right here

Bayernmoor Cellars makes award-winning pinot noir from grapes grown at its vineyard northeast of Stanwood.

(Getty Images)
You voted: The best cocktails in Snohomish County

Even during a pandemic, people still have their favorites.

Most Read