At first we weren’t going to visit Banja Luka, which is the largest city in the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But we had four contacts in the city, a place to stay, and a cyclist who we were told we “had to meet.”
We had one of our best days yet in the city. Tihomir, one of the country’s leading cycling advocates, showed us a better route to Sarajevo (outlined below), our host Sasa served us watermelon and Nektar (local beer), and Namanja gave us a tour of the city. Everyone was open to talking about Bosnia’s history. That will require a longer entry.
The route that Tihomir showed us would add a day or two of travel, meaning that we might have to hitchhike or take a bus to make our final destination (Dubrovnik) on time. We have opted for better biking over transportation purity.
After a lazy morning, where Sasa cooked us eggs and onions fresh from his garden and his own chickens, we followed route 16 south out of Banja Luka. The road led us through a deep canyon–the first of many that we’d see. Traffic wasn’t bad, but the road was narrow. We swam in the river at lunchtime.
A few thousand feet of climbing later, largely on secondary roads, we arrived at Boro’s place. Boro is an artist who lives in the woods, has cabins that he rents out, a bar, clean water from a stream that you can drink untreated, and soft grass for free camping. We wish we could have stayed another few nights.
(Note that there should be a map here. If you see blank space, it is because we are having technical difficulties with Strava, our mapping tool.)
The next day, we started late and took our time. We were forced to stop by a family who was roasting a goat and drinking rakia, a homemade plum liquor very popular here. They made us each take three shots of the rakia, and cut some of the goat and wrapped it for us to eat later. I wish I knew what they were saying. Our Serbo-Croatian (the language here) is not so hot, and neither was their English.
We then took a big detour. Tihomir had told us to leave the main road to see the source of the Pliva River. We mistakenly turned off the route too early, and instead of following a paved road five km on mostly flat terrain, we biked eight km and climbed 400 meters on a dirt road. Lindsey wasn’t happy. At least the view at the top was good, and we found some shade by a lookout to eat our goat.
We camped that night hidden off the road after making sure, through charades and a handful of Serbo-Croatian words, that there were no land mines in area.
Our third day was one of the most haunting but also one of the most beautiful and fascinating. It had rained the night before, and it was overcast and cool all day. We biked across a high plateau most of the day, staying over 1,000 meters until the afternoon. We passed through numerous towns where the majority of the homes had been destroyed durning the war — evidence of the ethnic cleansing (technically religious cleansing, as everyone was the same “ethnicity”) that occurred here less than two decades ago. Some houses had “HVO,” the initials of the Croatian militia, written on their walls. In those towns, Croatian militias most likely forced Muslims (who spoke the same language and were the same ethnicity as them) from their homes.
We descended and camped by a reservoir that night, where the people’s house we camped behind served us pita (not the pocket bread, but a delicious pastry filled with cheese, potato, or meat – we’ve become a bit addicted) and tried to get us drunk and married. We didn’t get an early start the next morning.
The final day of our route to Sarajevo would require riding on a busy, narrow road, climbing over 500 meters, and biking through many long tunnels. Given that we are sadly getting short on time, we pulled over and stuck our thumbs out. After about 40 minutes, a man with a small mayonnaise company truck who spoke almost no English picked us up and drove us 40 km up the hill and through the tunnels. He pointed at the many mosques we passed and said “terrorists.” We guessed that he wasn’t Muslim.
The following two maps are the riding before and after the hitchhiking.
We are now in Sarajevo, staying in the apartment of a cyclist who will be biking across California in another month (it’s great to be hosted by someone who we can host so soon.) We have met a few people from the local youth Rotary Club (thanks to Namanja in Banja Luka), who have showed us some of the city, and shared their experiences from the war. Sarajevo endured the longest siege in modern history–almost four years–and bullet and shrapnel holes pocket sidewalks and many buildings. Although unlike the abandoned villages we rode through, though, Sarajevo appears to be thriving. The old town is bustling with tourists, and has mosques, churches, and even a synagogue. New buildings stand next to bombed out ones. We really like this city.