Bosnia-Herzegovina: Three Rivers Whitewater Rafting (O.A.R.S.) More than "just" a rafting trip, O.A.R.S.' new nine-day Bosnia adventure focuses almost as much on the culture and landscape of this under-explored European nation as it does on its Class II and III rapids. You'll hike to waterfalls and through canyons, explore Sarajevo and Mostar and other vibrant cities, and enjoy fine Mediterranean cuisine. And, of course, you'll raft three scenic rivers—the Tara, the Vrbas, and the Neretva—highlighted by a trip through the "Grand Canyon of the Balkans."
"There aren't many people operating trips like this yet," says trip leader James Rodger. "We partner with locals who know the country and its history and can add a really personal touch. And of course I've been out here for a while as well. We're able to deliver a higher level of service than you usually find in an emerging tourism market."
Visiting Sarajevo’s locale on the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, is by itself worth the trip.
When we were there in early November, right before Kurban Bajram (the Bosnian Eid al-Adha), the leaves were beginning to turn colors, there was a light mist veiling the mountains most of the day, and the city’s lights made the nights look more like a fairy landscape than that of a modern capital city in Europe. The part of the city we were interested in with the museums and the Old Town lies around and within the large lasso of the tram lines. These big, friendly looking trolleys mainly run around and around the main loop; once we got on the wrong tram and had to walk a huge 50 meters or so to leave the railway station we had gotten ourselves to by accident and get back to the main drag and our regular tram with its loopy route.
The trolleys are painted in various pretty colors, depending on the commercial sponsor of each two-car tram. For once I enjoyed this habit of municipalities naming everything after a commercial sponsor -- the colors were bright pink, green, yellow and blue and added a nice touch of color to a downtown environment. At least two were sponsored by familiar companies -- Bellona and Çilek, both Turkish furniture retailers. The tramline goes all the way east to the Old Town, then turns back in a hairpin turn that can be a little scary if one is standing up and the trolley is crowded, but not so scary that it spoils the trip. The loop runs east-west along the river on the south side and takes one to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the botanical garden; at least one very fancy new shopping mall; modern office buildings; the Old Town; the historic bridges (upon one of which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, giving Europe the excuse it needed to go to war in 1914); the bright yellow Holiday Inn, with its rather grim history as the only place journalists stayed during the war, as well as many other attractions and historic sections of the city.
Sarajevo, even after all the destruction of the siege, still reflects its rich cultural heritage. Two of the many “visiting” groups who stayed a long time were the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians; the latter two built structures that are still part of today’s city. The Old Town is both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, with its market, mosque, synagogue, cathedral and church. The holy places and market are all in use, surrounded by shops, restaurants and cafes. We went to the Jewish Museum, which is a little jewel located in the synagogue, and wished we’d had more time. We ate at the same restaurant twice, very unusual for us on a short trip, but the big steaks and Bosnian-style roast beef was too reasonably priced and too well served to pass up. At a café one sampled pomegranate-flavored grappa, not a treat to be repeated but interesting to have had. After dark, the Old Town is dreamy and muted, with quiet crowds of people and low lighting; it all seems very mysterious and inviting.
The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina
West of the Old Town, the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina is lovely once more. Again, we didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate it, but the archaeological section, which we did get to visit, was well-laid out and imagination-provoking. I learned something new about Constantine the Great; it was good to see information about an old friend so far from his city.
By far the high spot of the visit was the viewing of the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, the original; several exact reproductions are elsewhere in the city, including the Jewish Museum, but the original is here. For anyone familiar with the events outlined in “The People of the Book,” by Geraldine Brooks, it is truly humbling to see the little 14th-century prayer book, used traditionally by Jews at Passover, knowing all that it has survived and what it represents to so many people.
We met an Italian couple in the museum who had motored from Genoa; the woman had the Italian version of Brooks’ novel in her bag! Unfortunately but understandably, the book is sealed in its own little glass dome on a plinth, in a sealed room containing other holy items of Muslim and Christian significance. The touch-screen mounted outside the glass door, which should have told us about the Haggadah, was out of order, but just to see it was very satisfying. The fact that two Muslims, one in World War II and one during the last war, were responsible for saving the Haggadah first from Nazis then from bombs was not noted on the museum plaque, which is a shame.
The organizations and a couple of private parties who financed the restoration of the book and its current environmental safeguards are listed, but it occurs to one that without the two heroic curators, who hid the book from harm during their respective wars, there would have been nothing to restore or protect. But at least it was done, and that is a very good thing, for Sarajevo and for the world.
Besides roaming all over the pretty, checkerboard city, full of pretty old buildings chock-a-block with communist-era apartment buildings and modern-day glass and aluminum skyscrapers (like the Avaz Twist Tower, the tallest building in the Balkans at almost 500 feet), we finally made it out to the Goat’s Bridge, an Ottoman-era structure beyond the sharp northern turn of the river at Sarajevo’s eastern edge.
There is a very good path along the river, once past the restaurants at the bend, and was much in use that day by walkers enjoying the late afternoon. High above this part of the river is the somewhat intimidating White Fortress, a medieval structure commanding the historical entrance to Sarajevo. Along the path are benches, spaced along a low wall labeled with the names of every ambassador from every country since Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Some distance from the river’s bend, there was a little sheep bazaar, in a small field off the river path. The villagers we saw there looked just like our own Turkish villagers, complete with their finest sheep for sale for the upcoming Kurban Bajram. We kept walking, through some of the prettiest countryside this side of the Vienna Woods, until we came to the famous bridge, which is located at the part of the river valley used by travelers, soldiers and traders on their way to Sarajevo, for centuries.
The Goat Bridge
Legend has it that a goat either pulled up a bush or uncovered a cave and discovered a gold treasure that made its goatherd fabulously rich. The goatherd was so grateful, he built a lovely bridge near the site of the hoard, and named it after his felicitous friend; or, the bones of two fighting rams locked together by the horns unto death are immured in the bridge. Whatever legend is to one’s liking, the Goat’s Bridge is surprisingly beautiful, and well worth the walk through the gorgeous and peaceful countryside.
There was so much more to our Sarajevo trip; we were only there two full days and some of that was work, but we still have many good memories of the city. There are several more historical and modern sights to see there, and the surrounding countryside and villages are said to be as lovely as anything in old Europe; we certainly intend to find out some day in the future. But we will have to make it soon -- if the growth in Sarajevo is any indication, the country is changing fast.