Escaping London…for Bosnia’s most isolated village
By Mo Saqib
Even Big Ben is just 100 metres tall. Here I was, 1500 metres high, at the peak of Bosnia’s highest and remotest village, Lukomir. Look around, and for miles you see only the forested, rocky terrain of the Dinaric Alps, almost touching the sky. Look down and you realise there would be no surviving a slip.
City life can be hard to escape. A holiday should help you forget your usual chores, commutes, and anything that reminds you of them. Personally, anywhere resembling London prevents me achieving that state of zen. So I set off in search of total isolation – in the silence of Bosnia’s mountains.
It’s fair to describe Bosnia as ‘off the beaten track’. While neighbouring Croatia drew 20 million visitors in 2019, Bosnia drew just one million. From the (reasonable) comfort of my downtown, low-budget Sarajevo hostel (the pink corner building above), all I knew was that Lukomir was nestled somewhere up in the Bjelašnica mountains that lay south-west of the city. It being early September, the villagers would be enjoying their last few weeks in Lukomir – everybody leaves the village during the winter months, when the snow makes it impossible to get in or out.
Hostel worker Mirza is a beefy, unshaven and perfectly relaxed man in his mid-30s. With a degree in sociology, Bosnia’s bleak jobs market left him working at the hostel instead. He agreed to drive me some of the way. It was years since Mirza had driven up the mountains, and around 9.30am, we left in his silver hatchback. The only instruction I gave was “Let’s go to Umoljani”, the village nearest to Lukomir. I didn’t have accommodation booked, only a vague hope that ‘things would work out’.
Ninety minutes of driving through winding, yet well-paved roads surrounded by the thick, lush greenery of the forested Bjelašnica mountains. The serene landscapes, however, conceal a painful history. During the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, these peaks provided cover for nationalist Serbs to fire thousands of shells into Sarajevo during a four-year siege. It’s hard to imagine this endless tranquillity hosting death and destruction. But for many Sarajevans today, that isn’t something they need to imagine – they lived through it. They remember the mortar shells fired at people queuing for bread, the children playing outside and shot dead by snipers, the water and electricity being cut off for weeks. It almost felt perverse to be ‘holidaying’ amidst this recent history, but the return of travellers is part of Sarajevo’s ongoing recovery.
Seeking out Umoljani, Mirza’s car eventually rolled into what appeared to be the quietest street of the smallest village. I asked if he could go a bit further to the centre. Leaning out the window to ask a well-wrapped, elderly Bosnian lady sitting outside her house, he turned back to me and said “This is the centre”. He offloaded my suitcase, drove off, and left me to it.
After a couple of wrong turns, eventually I found a small, neat hotel (below). The staircase led to a cosy, well-equipped cabin, just €18 for the night. There was no phone signal, the meagre WiFi only worked in the hotel kitchen, and so here I was: cut off from the world. My isolation was finally beginning.
I headed out just after midday, hoping to be back at my cabin by sundown at 7pm. Despite signage that it takes 3.5hrs to walk to Lukomir, I managed to do it in 2.5hrs, arriving around 3pm. During that time, not a single soul walked the same way I did. There were no paved roads, only dusty, rocky paths.
Alongside a light green pasture (below), where sheep grazed near their watchful guardian dogs, the path to Lukomir began. High above on the other side was a rocky ridge overshadowing the pasture- presumably I needed to get somewhere the other side of that. I was grateful for the quiet breeze and clear blue sky. Progressing carefully through the stony upward and downward inclines, I realised how this area becomes impossible to access in the winter.
Eventually I came to what looked like a ‘T junction’. In the distance to my right I could see signs of civilisation: a few huts, and even a vehicle. But that’s not where I was meant to go. Lukomir lay somewhere to my left, and looking ahead (Below). I saw only an empty, grassy expanse, inviting me in.
It was here I realised I truly did not have to care about any work emails arriving in my inbox – no one could reach me. Onward I walked, grateful for the soft sun, the breeze sweeping past my skin, the total silence, and the serenity all of that gave. I stopped only once during those hours of walking, sitting on a grassy, pebbled mound to take in the landscape around me- I seemed to be at the bottom of a low valley, overlooked by rocky ridges that for thousands of years had quietly watched travellers walking through.
Refuelled by Bosnian biscuits and the occasional water fountain along the way, I eventually made it to Lukomir (Below). Before me was a small collection of tiny huts made out of rocks, all linked by pathways littered with dung. I began to realise the isolated existence here. But I also wondered the more mundane things: What did the villagers see when they looked around at night? What sounds did they hear?
I still had to think about the walk back from Lukomir to Umoljani- it would mean continuing onwards and completing a circular route. More importantly, it meant needing to refuel properly. There seemed to be two local restaurants open – I arbitrarily picked the one on the right, called ‘Pansion Lukomir’. It seemed more a family home, with a large oven outside and then a row of wooden tables and benches.
I ordered a small Bosnian pie- or rather, what I thought was small. It turned out to be enough for four people and I ate only a quarter of it. Turning to the restaurant owner, I felt I had to apologise for barely eating it- ‘It’s ok’, he replied, ‘I knew you wouldn’t be able to finish it’. Still, a hot, crispy, fresh pie stuffed with cheese and spinach – I felt ready to carry on.
I knew that I was unlikely to return here again. All of my senses were absorbing the atmosphere of this village, before I walked onwards and completed the loop back to Umoljani. But there was one thing I desperately wanted to do. I could see from ‘downtown’ Lukomir that a very short distance ahead, just past the few houses, lay a summit above some cliffs. I couldn’t come all this way without reaching this distant crown. So, doing my best to keep away from the cliff edge, I made it to the top.
Beneath me and further in the distance, everywhere I turned, I saw only forested, rocky terrain. Here I was, 1500 metres high, and no one else near me apart from the Lukomir villagers I had left behind. In that moment, standing all by myself, I could only accept feeling tiny amidst nature’s vastness. A vastness that had stood still for centuries, and will continue to for centuries to come. Standing atop Bosnia’s most isolated village, I knew I had finally escaped London.
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