Mostar in Bosnia is a perfect alternative to overcrowded Eastern European cities
In the magazine

Dubrovnik, Croatia's historic walled city, attracts such vast numbers of tourists that the crowding on the marble streets can get oppressive. But just a couple of hours away by bus or coach is the relaxing and lovely alternative of Mostar, in Bosnia.

It's a country that suffered terribly during the Yugoslav wars and remains ethnically divided. But the locals are hospitable, the scenery spectacular and prices low. Bosnia is a rough diamond and its painful history has so far spared it the curse of mass tourism, though it may well end up as packed and expensive as the Croatian coast.

In Bosnia, Mostar is the place to begin. At the city's heart is the Old Town, a rambling network of cobblestone streets and historic buildings. On Stari Most (Old Bridge), a spectacularly beautiful stone arch built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, you find ancient and recent history colliding.

Stari Most was acclaimed as an architectural wonder for centuries and was deliberately shelled by Croatian troops in 1993 in an extreme act of nationalist vandalism. Post-war the bridge was rebuilt and today it stands as both a historic monument and an emblem of Bosnia's rebirth. On summer days, the local daredevils leap from the bridge into the flowing green waters 21 metres below.

After a day in Mostar, head east to Sarajevo on the morning train beside the Neretva River up into the mountains. This is one of Europe's most spectacular rail journeys, across viaducts, high above villages, chugging through cloud.

Sarajevo itself lies in a valley and so can be damp and smoggy. Damage remains from the four-year siege by Serb forces and you cannot walk in the woods above the city due to the mines still buried there, but only a hard-hearted traveller would not love this bruised, beguiling city.

Before its fame became linked with news reports of its suffering, Sarajevo was the cultural capital of Yugoslavia. And today, it is again full of creativity in film, theatre, literature and especially music, in particular the traditional Bosniac sevdah music – a haunting Ottoman folk music of voice and strings, comparable to flamenco or Portuguese fado.

Sarajevo's Stari Grad (Old Town) has a gorgeous Eastern ambience, its historic central Mosque and many tea shops providing a genuinely unique European experience. It mixes Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture to evoke how Sarajevo – where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, precipitating the First World War – has unwittingly acted as a hinge for European history across the 20th century.

And the Bosniacs – European Slavs whose ancestors converted to Islam centuries ago – quietly celebrate that here, in Europe, a historic Muslim city exists where alcohol is widely available and all the residents now live together peacefully.

Venturing outside the city, you might visit the ruined 1984 Winter Olympics complex or the tunnels the city relied upon during the siege. Sarajevo also hosts many museums, including Galerija 11/07/95 – a stark, permanent memorial to the genocide at Srebrenica. Sarajevo is a city alive with music and history, at once beautiful and painful.

Field Guide

How to get there: Direct flights to Sarajevo go from Rome and German cities. Or fly into Belgrade, Dubrovnik, Split or Zagreb and take a bus.

Languages spoken: Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian (all the same language). English is widely understood.

What to listen to: Eastern Europe's most popular rock band, Dubioza Kolektiv, are from Sarajevo. Bosnia's foremost sevdah singer is Amira Medunjanin, right. Her voice is exquisite.

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