High in the mountains, this European village stands frozen in time

Lukomir is home to 17 families and medieval traditions.

By Alex Crevar
photographs by Ziyah Gafic
Published 24 Nov 2018, 08:07 GMT
At dusk, sheep return from pasture to Lukomir village on Bjelašnica mountain in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
At dusk, sheep return from pasture to Lukomir village on Bjelašnica mountain in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Photograph by Ziyah Gafic, Vii, National Geographic

A hike to Lukomir leaves from the serpentine Rakitnica River and climbs out of a valley along cliffside paths. About three hours into the trek, the trail reaches the village spread across a remote hummock-strewn clearing. There, a cluster of squat, ancient stone houses with wooden-slat roofs rests on the lip of the canyon cradling the river—now a silver ribbon in the afternoon sun and more than 850 metres (2,600 feet) below.

A handful of shepherds wearing berets, wool trousers, and tweed coats sit outside with their wives, sporting colourful dresses and traditional headscarves. They drink thick coffee cooked on iron stoves and poured from copper pots. In one yard, firewood is being chopped and stacked. In another, a family tends to their vegetable garden. Tombstones, called stećci, from the 14th century and the size of giant trunks, are scattered about the periphery of the settlement. Across the gorge, on the edge of the abyss, flocks of distant sheep graze on suspended green islands, plateaus poking through the clouds.

Sheep crowd a pen next to Lukomir on Bjelašnica mountain.
Photograph by Ziyah Gafic, Vii, National Geographic
A man wanders the graveyard of Lukomir, where tombstones called stećci date from the 14th century.
Photograph by Ziyah Gafic, Vii, National Geographic

It would be easy to frame this community, which is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest village at an elevation of just over 1,600 metres (4,900 feet), as lost in time and out of step with modernity. Approximately 35 mountainous miles from the country’s capital, Sarajevo, on the southwestern slopes of Bjelašnica Mountain, which once hosted skiing events during the 1984 Winter Olympics, there is a sense of contented isolation. For more than 500 years, before the Ottoman Empire’s occupation, people here have shuttled livestock between the settlement (technically called Gornji, or upper, Lukomir) and the now empty Donji (lower) Lukomir below. Electricity didn’t come until the 1960s. There is no market, school, doctor, or shop, and from late-autumn until mid-spring the village is inaccessible by car and uninhabited. As often as not, when visitors enter the cluster of homes, they are greeted by a shepherd sitting on a rock, whittling a stick, and cracking jokes with typical Bosnian dry wit.

To hikers, fresh onlookers, the first impression is often theatrical in its perfection: isolation awash with expansive panoramas, welcoming locals, and centuries-old structures. The scene here, in Europe’s Western Balkans region, seems scripted for today’s tourism trends dovetailing soft adventure and authenticity. It becomes clear, however, that Lukomir’s residents persist with their own unrelenting version of reality—without affectation. Every summer, around 17 families, from surrounding towns and cities, move back up to the village. They come to bask in medieval traditions, tend flocks, and assemble for sacred Muslim religious celebrations such as Eid al-Adha.

“Because of the lack of services, a generation of residents moved away,” says Thierry Joubert, the director of Green Visions, an adventure tourism operator. In 2000, the Sarajevo-based company became the first to bring travelers to the village. “But people here have always held this place as sacred. The elders are still very involved in keeping traditions alive. And, they have passed this passion on to their children and grandchildren. With that passion, people from the village started to get involved with tourism—not to exploit, but to educate. To sincerely show this friendly, hardworking way of life. That has been beautiful to watch and enjoy. Lukomir has become a role model for what community-based—and community-enriching—tourism could and should look like.”

Villagers and guests gather in front of the village mosque as a part of an annual celebration to finish preparing hay.
Photograph by Ziyah Gafic, Vii, National Geographic

One of those grandchildren, Samra Čomor, whose community roots come from both her mother and father, believes her elders are ideal role models and provide a unique lens into this disappearing, old European way of life—both for travellers and herself. As a child, Samra, who grew up in Sarajevo, protested having to spend summers in Lukomir. Today, she realizses her grandparents Vejsil and Rahima Čomor, who are 84 and 77, respectively, and two of the village’s most recognisable characters, gave her an invaluable appreciation for nature and hard work, both of which she utilises as a tour guide. [Discover Europe's secret villages.]

A woman pours strong coffee for visitors.
Photograph by Ziyah Gafic, Vii, National Geographic

“Tourism is a positive for the village,” says Samra, who leads trekkers to Lukomir during the summer. She is, though, quick to add that this is a working settlement and people here are not exhibitionists. “I would love to keep it for myself, but I happily share it with the world because it simply needs to be shared. People here are friendly and open to change, and in this way my grandparents have found a way to fit into this new mechanism. Grandpa makes and sells wooden spoons. Grandma knits socks. They see this as a way to stay productive and earn money, since they don't have pensions and big savings. It’s also a good thing for them to communicate with people from all over the world, since they didn't have the opportunity to travel and meet other cultures.”

Excursions here often lead to the community’s guesthouse, Ljetna Bašta, which means summer garden. As hikers drop their daypacks around a rough-sawn table outside, lunch begins to appear: plates of roasted potatoes and peppers, slices of fresh onions, and savory phyllo-dough pastries called burek, filled with meat, and pita stuffed with cheese and spinach. When the visitors settle in, the sounds of daily life become apparent and echo off the mountain behind. Grandfathers and children lead sheep through the settlement, past the mosque with its green roof and minaret and between homes on pathways worn by centuries of use. Women laugh and speak to each other across a fence before taking armfuls of wood into their houses for warmth and cooking. The natural rhythms provide proof positive that an experience in the country’s highest village is not life as it once was, but as it is.

“This is one of the rare small places in Bosnia that has gained so much attention,” says Samra. “The main reason is because of its uniqueness and the fact that it still looks like it did hundreds of years ago. Most of the places in Bosnia have changed—some due to unfortunate events, some due to development—but this one was left in peace. Now, it is a place of peace.”

How to go

Sarajevo-based Green Visions leads tours to Lukomir. Excursions can include hikes from the Rakitnica River or transport from Sarajevo to the village on the slopes of Bjelašnica Mountain with treks along the rim of the Rakitnica Canyon.


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