Belgian Mountain Biker in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
On this episode of the vlog and podcast, I talk to Jelle, who is a Belgian Mountain Biker and now lives in Konjic in Northern Herzegovina. Jella is a mountain biker, and over the past eight years or so has been exploring the extreme but beautiful rural mountains and valleys around his new home town.
On a recent vlogging trip to Blagaj, I caught up with him to find out more about him and his mountain biking. So how did he end up living in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
It’s a long story. It started as a volunteer for a youth organisation. It evolved afterwards in humanitarian work and somehow some kind of microbe bit me and I needed to come back and back all over again and more and more. At the end I just decided to give up my job and to go to live to Bosnia.
Western Balkan lifestyle is certainly different from that in Northern Europe, so how difficult has it been to adjust?
I was lucky to spend, maybe seven years in Bosnia as a frequent expat so I got the opportunity to get back to Belgium to consider the situation, to learn more about the country. So it was more like to move to France or Italy for me because I had already a lot of experience and I had good friends in Maglaj who warned me about a lot of situations and explained me more about difficulties maybe I would encounter. At the end it was even worse than they said, but okay. I somehow managed.
Now being an expat always has its challenges.
One of the most beautiful parts of the country is the people, but that’s actually the hardest part also, for me, because I have to work with the people also on a professional base and it takes a while to get people to trust you and for you to trust them; to have some kind of relationship with them.
What made him take up mountain biking and how does he plan his tours?
I wasn’t a mountain biker before. I had some sports experience, maybe with running, a little bit before. Then the thing is, Bosnia has an amazing nature and I have been hiking, with friends from Konjic, into surrounding mountains, but you always need some way of transportation to get there and to have a hike. To get really somewhere, you need a lot of time.
I had an operation in 2014. Need to start with sports again. The doctor said he wouldn’t advise me to start running and biking was a perfect sport to explore the mountains on a very easy way. They are close by, but with the bike you can get everywhere and to reach high peaks to get to the most beautiful parts of Bosnia somehow, which would be impossible to do by foot all the time. I can combine it with work because I’m a little bit time limited.
Riding for hours at a time in the remote areas around Konitz must be lonely, so how does he cope with that?
I have never actually I’m driving a lot of time alone, but you meet people. There’s people hiking. I have one guy whom I met in Mostar while climbing to one peak on the Velež Mountain. We decide to go together and since we are riding some tours together also. It’s a nice way to meet new people also.
What have been the reactions to images he posts of his mountain bike tours on his social media?
Depends. If it’s one stranger, maybe from the West and from the European Union or whatever, they are amazed about the views, the tours, the nature of Bosnia and the achievements. People from Bosnia sometimes are sceptically they think. Not about the biking actually, they like it a lot too. They are amazed as well, but it’s difficult for them to believe a Belgian is really willing to live in Bosnia. They want to go out. I want to go in.
There’s recently been an addition to his content creation with the addition of a GoPro camera.
Well I’ve been thinking about it and I think it will bring my goals even on a bigger level. Now I have to get some good footage so I won’t be able to please myself with a rather easy tour. So I will definitely try to find some better locations, better tracks, higher peaks.
Recently, the disused Narrow Gauge Railway line from Čapljina has been opened to mountain bikers.
Yes. We are in Blagaj right now, so it’s located maybe half an hour from this place. Bosnia’s promoting it right now as a tourist attraction for people who are interesting in exploring the country by bike, so I can really recommend it. It’s a nice ride. It’s not too hard. Everybody can do it. People who are travelling from Croatia to Bosnia can use this tour to be able to avoid some traffic.
It starts in Čapljina, in some village near Čapljina. I drove to some point where there’s an old station. You have a view on the Hutovo Blato Lakes, but I think you can even continue to the Dubrovnik if you want.
So what’s Jella’s next goal?
I’m not setting goals for whole year, but I try at least once a week to have one good tour and in between some training tours. The next plans are Prenj again, that mountain, then Bjelašnica and Lukomir Village. I’m thinking very soon to go on the Prokoško Lake from Fojnica Town.
Then I need to explore Northern Bosnia. I already have been in contact with people from the town of Zagdovic, to explore a nature park over there. So yeah, there’s a lot to explore this year.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a hidden gem for extreme sports and for mountain bikers in particular.
They should get here pretty quick and I think they will never go anywhere else anymore because it’s really … There’s too much to explore and it’s one place is more beautiful than the other. Every time you go somewhere new it’s even better. It always gets better.
I’ll leave Jella to finish with his one thought about beautiful Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Usually when I have to do this, when I get the question, I don’t know what to say because I don’t have the answer really. It’s too much. Nature is too beautiful, it’s really too beautiful. You can’t imagine this exists in Europe. Then the people of course, although there’s difference between meeting people as a tourist.
They will be very friendly. It’s an open culture. People who have been here, they can approve it. Hospitality is tremendous. Then in my case, something has bitten me and there’s a whole history related to it so it’s sometimes strange to answer, but something … There’s something good in this place and it made me return all the time, so I am sure tourists will have the same feeling about it.
They have, because last year there were people from Belgium and they had the same feeling, the same problem they had about answering really this question; what has been so amazing about, but it’s way too much to put on a four paper sheet. It’s impossible. Just look around this place.
We’re in a normal house. The mountains is everywhere around. The weather is fine.