Tito's Bunker and the Joy of Travel Off the Beaten Path
A trip to an abandoned nuclear survival facility reminded me what makes travel great.
Here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Michael and I recently visited Tito’s Bunker, which is an abandoned Cold War nuclear survival facility and would-be military command center that the Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito secretly commissioned in 1953.
The facility is massive, with over a hundred rooms that could have housed 350 people in the event of a nuclear war. But you wouldn’t know this from the outside because the “above ground” area is only a couple of small, deliberately non-descript buildings at the foot of a mountain.
The whole thing is a little like that place Dr. Owen takes El in the latest season of Stranger Things.
Tito’s Bunker was finally finished in 1979 — the year before Tito died — and it ultimately cost $26 billion USD (in today’s dollars). But the ultra-classified project was kept entirely secret from the rest of the world — and even from the nearby town of Konjic, about five kilometers away — until the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992.
Tito’s Bunker was then slated for destruction, along with an airport hidden inside a mountain elsewhere in the country, and a secret naval base. The airport and the naval base were mostly destroyed, but two soldiers disobeyed orders, and Tito’s Bunker was preserved intact for future generations to see.
I loved everything about this place, including the reminder of what a fascinating, complicated country Yugoslavia was: Tito was mostly worried about nukes from the Soviet Union, which he didn’t trust, not America and the West, with whom he shrewdly built stronger ties.
But what struck me most about Tito’s Bunker was what our wonderful guide said after the tour was over: “Please come back! And tell your friends! Soon we hope to have a souvenir shop, and maybe even a café.”
Oh, right! Michael and I were out in the middle of nowhere, in a country where the tourism industry is modest at best. There were only ten other people on our afternoon tour.
It must be said: Bosnia and Herzegovina isn’t as remote as, say, Kazakhstan or Armenia. Bosnia has all the comforts of the modern world. And, of course, merchants and other travelers have been passing through this area for literally thousands of years.
But Michael and I spent last winter in Croatia, which is directly to the north and west of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and when it comes to tourism, the two countries could not be further apart.
After the fall of Yugoslavia, Croatia openly embraced tourism — which was already a pre-existing industry thanks to popular destinations like Dubrovnik. Ten years after the fall of Yugoslavia, Western Europe had discovered the stunningly beautiful Croatian Islands, and a decade or so ago, Americans finally began arriving en masse as well.
These days, tourism in Croatia is almost as established and sophisticated as in any Western European country.
In the 90s, Bosnia and Herzegovina, meanwhile, collapsed into a long and bloody war — partly a civil war (in Mostar), but mostly a war of aggression started by neighboring Serbia. Sarajevo, the capital city, was under brutal siege for an incredible 1,425 days.
The war delayed the establishment of a modern tourist industry, and the horrors of that war absolutely haunt the psyche of almost every Bosnian even now.
These days, tourism in Bosnia and Herzegovina is rough around the edges. Accommodations can be modest. Most restaurants don’t take credit cards. Tours and attractions often have a very informal air.
After five years of continuous travel, Michael and I have been to more than a few cities and countries like this.
But Tito’s Bunker — and our entire visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina — is reminding me how this may be my very favorite kind of travel.
One reason I like it is that I never quite know what to expect. There are no romcoms set in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the contrary: when it comes to this country, my mind was filled only with vague images of destruction from that terrible war.
One of the best parts of travel is discovering something unexpected and delightful, and when you have no expectations, the odds of those discoveries are much higher.
I knew nothing about Tito’s Bunker until Michael and I took a weekend trip to Mostar last winter, and I happened to spy a cheap-looking pamphlet for the place. It definitely captured my imagination. But even after all these years of travel, I also probably thought, if only subconsciously, “Well, come on, I’ve never even heard of this place. How interesting can it be?”
And, yes, it must be admitted that some small part of my travel joy is probably that smug little thrill of discovering something that most outsiders may not be familiar with.
I’m sure I’m also grading on something of a curve. It’s much cheaper to travel off the usual tourist path. If I’m paying one-quarter the usual price for something, I judge it differently.
But more than anything, my joy comes from the people I meet.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the people and their incipient tourist industry are underdogs, and who doesn’t root for the underdog?
The joy goes both ways too. When I express delight or fascination in a place, the locals stand tall with pride. They’re usually extremely aware of their lot in life, their place on the global stage, and seeing genuine wonder in the eyes of a visitor helps them see their home with different eyes too.
Since coming to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “Please tell your friends about us! Tell everyone to come!”
There are two kinds of travel hospitality: the kind where the waiter brings you a cold drink in a coconut shell. And this.
Do I need to tell you which kind I prefer?
Look, I know that tourism isn’t the perfect industry. And I’ve definitely seen the effects of over-tourism on various communities.
And so my joy in traveling to places like Bosnia and Herzegovina is always tempered by a bit of wariness. What will this community look like in ten or twenty years? What will be the unforeseen consequences of this community’s embrace of tourism? When the developed world has so much wealth, how much choice do countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina truly have except to try to beg for a little piece of the tourism pie?
That said, I’m definitely not one of the angry “Tourism is colonialism!” crowd. I’m all for radical changes to the existing world order, but in the meantime, people need to eat. My heart is still broken into a hundred pieces by the devastating real-world effects I still see everywhere from the travel shutdown that resulted from covid.
And so I shall go on experiencing my joy in travel to places off the beaten path. The best part is that I have absolutely no idea what I might find.
We highly recommend Funky Tours for all your Balkan-related travels.