Dubrovnik was the last stop on the writer’s Insight Vacations tour. // © 2015 IStock
Feature image (above): Sebilj Square in Sarajevo, Bosnia // © 2015 IStock
As exciting as it is to travel to new parts of the world, there is something somewhat scary about visiting countries that you only know from the news. Such was my feeling about visiting Bosnia and Croatia, two countries I read about on a daily basis about 20 years ago during their brutal war. What would these countries be like, how had war affected them and how best to explore them?
After checking around, I found that luxury tour operator Insight Vacations offered five itineraries that visited both countries. I selected the shortest one, the 16-day Imperial Capitals & the Dalmatian Riviera tour, which also visits Austria, Hungary and Slovenia. This tour is one of Insight’s Country Roads itineraries that explore lesser-visited regions and feature accommodations near all the must-see areas.
My favorite city was Sarajevo, Bosnia, a city that is located in Europe but does not feel particularly European. The 16th century was Sarajevo’s Golden Age, when it exported silks and spices throughout the world. Remnants of that time still exist in Old Town, with its narrow passages full of bazaar-like shops and small restaurants featuring local favorite foods such as stuffed cabbage, baklava and small spicy sausages. The many mosques indicate a strong influence of Islam, but there is also the influence of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire with its elaborately decorated buildings and churches.
A highlight of Insight’s tours is sharing a meal prepared by a local family. The larger tour group is divided into smaller ones so that everyone can easily sit around a table and discuss the country with locals. In Sarajevo, we were interested in the family’s experiences during the war, as well as their favorite foods and entertainment.
This memorable dinner illustrated what Insight’s CEO, John Boulding, believes is the tour operator’s do-gooder mission.
“We want to make the world a better place,” Boulding said. “Travel breaks down barriers, especially when you interact with local experts.”
One thing I particularly liked about Insight is that local experts pointed out highlights, but the explanations were never lengthier than what I wanted to know.
Another highlight was our motor coach, which had been reconfigured to allow for more legroom than most other coaches. To break up long journeys, the motor coach stops along the way for “flourishes,” which might be a break for local wine, spit-roasted lamb or candied fruit. The flourishes are usually unannounced until the last minute, making for a pleasant surprise. Our journey to Split, Croatia, took most of the day, but the scenery along the way of snowcapped mountains, lakes, rivers and red-roofed houses was a special treat.
Our last stop was Dubrovnik, also called the pearl of the Adriatic, which was restored after the war and reminded me of Italy. The semblance was not surprising because the city has had ties with Venice for centuries.
Many memories still remain now that the tour is over: boating to a local oyster farm and then sitting down to a fresh seafood lunch; roaming the island of Korcula and then sipping a glass of local white wine overlooking the Adriatic; walking on top of the entire wall surrounding Dubrovnik; and meeting people from all over the world with the same interests in travel and exploration.
Italy may still be the favorite destination for travelers booking with Insight Vacations, but it’s hard to beat the thrill of discovering a new part of the world.