Balkans Diary #1.5: The Time I Spent 9 Hours In A Minibus From Belgrade To Sarajevo

Pretty much the only way to get from Belgrade to Sarajevo, unless you fancy doing 16+ hours on trains to and from Zagreb, is by hiring a GEA Tours minibus for £20. It is an experience. This is what the experience is like…


11th September, 13:46

Barhana, Sarajevo

The whole of Bosnia thus far is surely a future tourist goldmine, judging by the landscape seen from the minibus window on Tuesday, a landscape that was a much needed antidote to a confused and fraught beginning to the journey.

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The confirmation email to the minibus booking said the company would ring me at 08:09 to say what time they were picking me up. So, washed, dressed and prepped to leave by 8am, I waited for 08:09, pondering two things: who had left me a voicemail the day before (I can’t access them overseas), and why they’d call me at the strangely specific time of 08:09… at which point the two things merged and a terrible realisation dawned: 08:09 was not a time but a date, and they had probably left the voicemail with all the ride details. A voicemail I couldn’t access.

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Mid-panic they rang again, but any comfort I took from this instantly vanished as the person on the end of the phone spoke only Serbian and sounded angry. I thrust my phone at the hostel receptionist with a garbled “THEY’RE SPEAKING SERBIAN I DON’T KNOW SERBIAN PLEASE TALK TO THEM FOR ME”, which he took in good humour and began to speak animatedly into the phone. It transpired they would be picking me up in 10 minutes.

40 minutes later I was still languishing outside the hostel, feeling conspicuous standing in the middle of the street with my massive backpack, when the phone rang again. By some miracle, the friendly receptionist from the previous day who’d called Conor “Jessica” passed me at exactly this moment, so once more I farcically forced the phone into his hand and babbled out my predicament. Apparently the location was too obscure for them to find as they had me meet them outside the nearby Parliament building, which they were actually able to find.

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I’d read online that GEA Tours were reliable and disorganised, and I’m inclined to agree that they are given that it took them a further 2 hours of haphazardly driving around Belgrade to pick up 5 other passengers, and half of this relied on directions shouted through the window by locals on the streets. A woman in the back row with me saw my frustration and bitched about the poor service with me, as she’d been in the bus a full hour longer than I had. As the conversation broadened, it turned out I was sharing the bus with a genius: an Argentinian war correspondent for a Spanish newspaper who was in Belgrade and Sarajevo to interview people for a film script she was writing. She knew at least 6 languages (Spanish, English, Serbian, Croatian, French and Turkish), had lived in Iraq for a year, and spent some time working for the UN. A truly remarkable lady, she was a useful ally on the bus, translating what the driver said for me and giving insight into things I saw from the window – the pepper harvest, the switch from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet, etc.

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The landscape we drove through in Serbia was flat with fields as far as the eye could see, the sole quirk being a Jamie Oliver cooking utensil stall at a service station near Mitrovic. But as soon as we crossed the border, it changed – we wound around mountains and rivers, spying tiny churches on isolated slopes, and at one point driving up one of the mountains round hairpin bends, up and up for what seemed like an age.

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The drop-off in Sarajevo was again confused and random, though thankfully, it took considerably less time than our saga around Belgrade.

Journey over, and it was time to explore Sarajevo.

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