Our excursion from Sarajevo to Visegrad and Western Serbia via two of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three UNESCO sites, the ‘Bridge on the Drina’ and the lesser-known medieval Stećci in Borak, was by far the most action-packed day trip we’ve done in the Balkans.
Transparency: We were guests of Sarajevo Funky Tours during our tour to Visegrad and Western Serbia in March 2019. As always, all opinions and recommendations are my own.
Not only did we get to walk across (and boat under!) the legendary Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge and go combing through an autumnal forest in search of stećci tombstones, we also crossed the border into Serbia for a spot of hiking in Mokra Gora, and made a few extra stops to learn more about BiH’s literary and cinematic history. All that, and we were still back in Sarajevo in time for dinner.
With public transport the way it is in Bosnia and Herzegovina, your only real option for getting from Sarajevo to Visegrad and Mokra Gora without your own car is to join an organised tour. We travelled with Sarajevo Funky Tours (you can read more about the company at the end of the post) on their East Bosnia & West Serbia Off the Beaten Path itinerary. This post breaks down the tour highlights and details everything you need to know before signing up for a tour.
Sarajevo to Visegrad day trip: The basics
- This tour departs daily at 8am from the Sarajevo Funky Tours office adjacent to Sarajevo Old Town, returning to the city around 6pm. Sarajevo Funky Tours is currently working to implement a guaranteed departure system for high season and is working to eliminate single supplements, a huge plus for solo travellers.
- All tours run in small groups and include transport in a comfortable van with a professional driver at the wheel. Our driver for the day, Adnan, was fantastic!
- This itinerary involves two international border crossings, so remember to bring your passport on the day.
Medieval Stećci in Borak
We started our day by visiting Borak, roughly an hour’s drive from Sarajevo. The van pulled up at a little wooded area on a hill and we set off on foot. Completely unfamiliar with Stećci, I had no idea what to expect from this first part of the trip. Despite being one of BiH’s three UNESCO Heritage Sites, there are no pathways or signs in Borak—we only had our guide, Adnan, to lead the way.
It didn’t take us long to find what we were looking for: Hulking grey tombstones emerging from the forest floor. Medieval ‘graveyards’ like the one in Borak are known as Stećak, and are strewn across Bosnia and Herzegovina and along bordering parts of Montenegro, Serbia and Croatia. Borak is one of 28 documented Stećak in BiH.
The granite tombstones date back as far as the 12th century and were traditionally used as grave markings throughout the Kingdom of Bosnia. Interestingly, their use cut across the three dominant religious groups at the time—Catholic, Orthodox and the now defunct Church of Bosnia. As we stood over a cluster of stones and admired their intricate engravings, barely visible through a thick layer of moss, I pondered what was more impressive: The skill involved in the hand-made markings, or the brute force it would have taken to carry the stones up the hill. The Stećci reminded me a lot of the Khachkar cross-stones we saw at Noravank Monastery in Armenia. Khachkar are treasured for their symbolism and craftsmanship, and Bosnian Stećak were similarly recognised by UNESCO in 2016 for their value to world heritage.
Trudging through the forest, we had an endless supply of Stećci to examine. Some protrude from the undergrowth at strange angles, others are perfectly flush with the bed of autumn leaves, as level as they were the day they were first laid. Some are modest in size, other more monumental Stećci reach as high as my shoulders.
With everything going on at ground level, I almost forgot to look up at the landscape of copper, silver, rust and patina around us. While it was still a little chilly on the day of our visit in March, in many ways, it was the perfect time of year to be in Borak. Instead of spring’s new growth, we witnessed last year’s autumn colours given one last breath of life as the winter snow finally retreated. The bare trees helped us find our way, and the twisted trunks and branches framed the angular Stećci beautifully. The frosty mist only added to the ethereal atmosphere.
Visegrad & the Bridge on the Drina
“Lost in his thoughts he looked out from his shop at the shining loveliness of that first day of March. Opposite him, a little to the side, stood the eternal bridge, everlastingly the same; through its white arches could be seen the green, sparkling, tumultuous waters of the Drina, so that they seemed like some strange diadem in two colours which sparkled in the sun.”Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina
We pulled into the small city of Višegrad, 100km from of Sarajevo, and I had to pinch myself as the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge came into sight. After the Old Bridge in Mostar, this is the most iconic bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the same architect was actually responsible for both designs). The bridge owes its high standing to Travnik-born and Visegrad-raised author, Ivo Andrić, whose 1945 novel, The Bridge on the Drina, immortalised the stone structure and shed light on the tragic role it played in WWII and again in the 1990s. Once a backdrop to some of the region’s most harrowing events, today the bridge is once again used by locals on their daily commute.
We were lucky the river was low enough for us to take a spin in one of the rental boats. The captain pulled downstream a little before doubling back, giving us a perfect front-on view of the bridge and its 11 masonry arches.
Ivo Andrić is beloved in this part of the world—what better way to pay tribute to your favourite national author than by designing a city in his name and image?
Andrićgrad, literally ‘Andrić City’, is the vision of film director Emir Kusturica, who built the miniature urban centre as a set for one of his movies. Located adjacent to the bridge on a little peninsula that reaches out into the Drina, Andrićgrad features shops, banks, offices, cafes and, soon, a university campus set along a marble ‘main street’. The city even has its own cinema, decorated outside with evocative mosaics. The polished promenade culminates in an Orthodox Church, Crkva Svetog Cara Lazara.
Walking through Andrićgrad is a bizarre experience. In many ways, the designer’s intentions are admirable—but it’s hard to look past the dystopian feel of a ‘city’ where nobody lives.
Before crossing the border, we made one last stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Dobrun Monastery. The dramatic location in a lush valley on the river’s edge makes this monastery one of the most impressive I’ve seen in the region. Built by a Serbian duke in the 13th century, Dobrun was destroyed and restored a number of times before taking its present-day form.
Since it’s a working monastery, one of the residents kindly unlocked the front door of the chapel for us so that we could look at the frescoes inside. Legend says the paintings survived a devastating fire at the monastery by divine intervention. On the outside of the white-washed chapel are more vivid frescoes.
In summer, the next item on this day trip itinerary would normally be a ride on the Sargan Eight train, a heritage narrow-gauge line that used to run past Dobrun on its way from Sarajevo to Belgrade. It was too early in the year for us to ride (the season starts on April 1), but we did get to see one of the old locomotives parked on a portion of track outside the monastery.
As we continued to wind our way towards the Serbian border in the van, we followed the train tracks that skirt the edge of a rocky gorge below the road. It would be thrilling to ride the train: I made a note to myself to bookmark it for next time.
Tara National Park
By the time we arrived in Serbia’s Tara National Park and made our way to Mokra Gora, we knew the chances of getting a good view were pretty slim. Still, we pushed through the long drive up Mount Zlatibor to the Banjska Stena viewpoint and readied ourselves to step out of the van into the cold.
We missed out on the million-dollar views of Perucac Lake, but I don’t think anyone in our group really minded. Just like Borak, Tara National Park in winter—all frost-bitten trees, icicles, and fog so thick you can feel it on your skin—has its own special magic.
The short hike we took up to Banjska Stena was one of the highlights of the day. As we trudged through the fallen leaves, played with the icicles and danced our way back down the hill, everyone had a huge smile on their face. Even Adnan, who confessed he’s not much of an outdoors type, enjoyed it!
Mećavnik, an artist’s reverie
“I lost my city [Sarajevo] during the war. That is why I wished to build my own village… It is the place where I will live and where some people will be able to come from time to time. I dream of an open place with cultural diversity which sets up against globalisation.”Emir Kusturica, film director & architect of Drvengrad
Mećavnik, also known as Drvengrad, just outside Mokra Gora was our final stop for the day. Another pet project of Emir Kusturica (the same film director responsible for Andrićgrad), Mećavnik was also designed as a movie set—this time for his 2004 movie, Life Is a Miracle, a love story set in the region and based on events that took place in Visegrad during the war. Now it draws tourists who come to see its authentic architecture and Hollywood elite who visit for the Küstendorf Film and Music Festival, held in the town every winter.
The houses and chapel in Mećavnik earned the architect a prestigious Philippe Rotthier European Architecture award for their likeness to a traditional regional village. Like Andrićgrad, Mećavnik was a fantasy vision created for the silver screen that’s since taken on a life of its own.
Streets are named after historical figures important to Kusturica, including Nikola Tesla and Che Guevara. Novak Dokovic street leads to the tennis courts, of course! We sat down at a local restaurant inside the village for a late lunch before taking a quick tour of the town by foot. The juxtaposition between the traditional architecture and the heirloom cars strewn about the place (Kusturica is a collector) is quite humorous.
What’s it like to travel with Sarajevo Funky Tours?
Sarajevo Funky Tours is a local outfit with a great company culture. Office staff, guides and drivers alike are all extremely accommodating, professional, and knowledgeable about the destinations they visit. Road safety is a priority, and in our experience, guides strike a perfect balance between ‘supervised’ and independent time. Tours are very informative without being an information overload. The part of the day we most enjoyed was chatting casually with Adnan.
Although the day was definitely fast-paced, we didn’t feel too rushed. We had plenty of time to explore each spot, take all the photos we wanted, and enjoy a long break for lunch. Because there’s a bit of flexibility built into the itinerary, we were able to shuffle things around and make the most of the daylight hours. In summer, it’s possible to slow things down and arrive back in Sarajevo a little later.
From our very first email communication, it was obvious that this is a company passionate about showing off their country and creating the best first impression possible. As tourism continues to grow in BiH, it’s heartening to know that folks this genuine and committed are at the helm.
Sarajevo Funky Tours runs trips around BiH, including a number of A-to-B itineraries. The company actually specialises in multi-day itineraries around the Balkans region. View the full schedule of day trips and multi-day itineraries on the Sarajevo Funky Tours website.
Have you done a day trip from Sarajevo to Visegrad? What other day trips from Sarajevo would you recommend?
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Featured image: Torsten Muller/Unsplash (used here under Creative Commons). All other photos: © Emily Lush 2019.