Stolac is one of Herzegovina’s most historically important yet overlooked destinations. An easy drive from Mostar, the charming town is home to a hilltop fortress and well-preserved Ottoman bridges. But visiting Stolac is about more than just exploring the town center.
Several kilometers outside of town is the Radimlja Necropolis, which hosts the country’s best collection of mysterious stećci tombstones. Not far away, meanwhile, is the fascinating site of Daorson, an ancient Illyrian city known for its Cyclopean walls.
As we’ll go over below, Stolac is also the location of the Bladinj Cave, with paintings dating back to the Paleolithic Era. Sadly, however, the site doesn’t currently seem accessible to visitors.
With few tours available, arranging private transport through your accommodation is the best idea. Check the very end of the guide for more details.
Stolac, believed to be the longest continuously inhabited city in Bosnia & Herzegovina, is also one of the country’s prettiest. While, like much of the region, it was badly damaged during the war of the ’90s, the town has largely rebuilt itself.
Despite being close to Mostar and its charming mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture, however, Stolac hardly gets any tourists. But that’s all the more reason to make visiting Stolac one of your top priorities in Herzegovina.
While, as we’ll go over shortly, there are plenty of sites along the river, you may want to start your exploration at the Old Town. Situated atop a hill overlooking the city, the district is known as Vidoški, and its fortress is among the largest in the country.
The Old Town is protected by 2 m-thick limestone walls. And within them are the remains of numerous houses, water tanks, flour storage and a church.
What we see today was largely established during the Middle Ages. Vidoški then remained in use throughout the Ottoman period and was later used as a defensive fortress by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The oldest structures, however, date back from the late Illyrian-Roman period. And archaeological findings in the area are as old as the 4th century BC! As we’ll cover shortly, the nearby city of Daorson was also established around this time.
Reaching the very top, you’ll encounter a unique standing cross comprised of stones. While information is lacking, it was presumably erected by the Austro-Hungarians – or perhaps it’s even more recent.
With few visitors coming here, it’s worth lingering at the top for a while and taking in the great views. When finished, begin your descent to the town center.
Back down, be sure to take a stroll along the Bregava River. Starting from central Stolac, a good final destination would be the historical housing complex of Begovina to the north. Expect the walk there to take around 25 minutes each way.
In addition to enjoying the tranquil scenery of the river, you’ll pass by multiple Ottoman-era bridges, a Turkish hammam, a dervish lodge (tekke), and numerous riverside cafes.
Additionally, you’ll pass by the remnants of old water mills. Stolac’s local economy, in fact, was based on mill grinding for centuries.
One bridge, named Cuprija, is also known as the ‘Spite Bridge.’ According to legend, builders in the 17th century intentionally built its arches irregularly to spite the usurper who’d taken over the town.
Further north is a bridge built during the Austro-Hungarian period. According to legend, it was built by a woman named Sara who had a lover of a different faith. Forced to marry another man, she erected the bridge to maintain contact with her true love.
Conveniently, despite the lack of tourists visiting Stolac, comprehensive signs in English have been placed next to each historical monument.
Arriving at Begovina, you may be surprised to see that the historical housing complex is still inhabited by a local family. While you can’t go inside any of the buildings, visitors are still free to walk around the complex.
Built in the 19th century, Begovina served as the residence of the Rizanbegovic feudal family, who’d previously been living within Vidoški Fortress. Sadly, much of the complex was burnt down during the civil conflict in 1993, and many of the buildings have yet to be repaired.
Therefore, you shouldn’t set your hopes too high for Begovina. It’s really the walk there and back that should be thought of as the main attraction.
Coming back, I walked along the east side of the river in hopes of getting a clear view of the Provalije Waterfall.
The waterfalls are artificial, created as a result of some dams built here in the 18th century. Unfortunately, for those visiting Stolac in summer, the waterfall will be completely dried up. But if you’re visiting during a rainier month it’s said to be an impressive sight.
By the end of your time in Stolac, one of the country’s most charming towns, you’ll surely be wondering why more tourists don’t come here. And things get even more exciting when touring the city’s outskirts.
The Radimlja Necropolis
Located about 3.5 km west of central Stolac, the Radimlja Necropolis is one of Herzegovina’s most iconic and enigmatic attractions. The site is home to 135 tombstones dating to the 14th and 15th centuries.
They’re not your ordinary tombstones, however, but a local variety known as stećak, or stećci in plural form.
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, the necropolis is now divided by the road connecting Bosnia & Herzegovina with Croatia and Montenegro. Sadly, the construction of this road during the Austro-Hungarian period destroyed over a dozen tombstones.
In total, around 70,000 limestone stećci tombstones have been discovered across four Balkan countries. But the Radimlja Necropolis is easily the most famous of them all.
Some tombstones stand vertically while others are laid horizontally. Many of the larger ones look like sarcophagi at first glance, though they’re really solid stone. But what exactly is it that makes stećci unique?
It largely has to do with the tombstones’ distinctive art style and motifs. While stećci were used by both Orthodox and Catholic families, many of the motifs are believed to be of pre-Christian origin.
Common motifs include a man with a raised right arm and open hand (perhaps making an oath), hunting scenes, tournaments with knights and deer.
Deer were long believed to be sacred in the region and they symbolized the soul of the deceased being led to the underworld. Appropriately, they’re depicted facing west.
Other scenes depict a kolo, or South Slavic circle dance. These dances may have had mortuary significance, representing the soul of the deceased being guided to the afterlife.
But what are the stećci’s true origins? One theory is that, during the Middle Ages, a new church emerged in the region that historians simply call the ‘Bosnian Church.’
Deemed a heretical sect by both Orthodox and Catholics, some historians have associated them with the Gnostic Bogomil sect that emerged in Bulgaria.
It’s possible, then, that the art style of the tombstones was originally devised by the Bosnian Church. And even after the Church’s demise, it continued to be used by local Orthodox and Catholics alike.
One of the stećak here at Radimlja, in fact, belonged to Stipanović Miloradović, who we know was part of a prominent Orthodox family.
Another theory is that the stećci were not connected to a particular religious sect, but with the Vlach ethnicity.
Vlachs, descendants of the Romans who settled here over two thousand years ago, were distinct from the South Slavs who settled in the Balkans around the 6th and 7th centuries, and who have long made up the majority.
Anthropological research has found that many of those buried under stećci were indeed ethnic Vlachs. Even the Miloradović-Stjepanović family, who controlled this region when the Radimlja Necropolis was built, were ethnic Vlachs as well.
In addition to Radimlja, stećci can also be found in a couple of other necropolises near Stolac, such as Boljuni and Potkuk. To make the stećci mystery even more intriguing, this area is also home to ancient Illyrian burial mounds.
And speaking of Illyria, those visiting Stolac shouldn’t miss a visit to the ancient city of Daorson, about a 20-minute uphill drive away.
The Megalithic Walls of Daorson
To reach Daorson, we had to ride up a long, windy, dirt road with no other cars or people in sight. But before long, upon seeing Daorson’s megalithic walls in the distance, we knew we were in the right place.
Daorson was the main hub of the ancient Illyrian tribe of Daorsi, who long inhabited the region on either side of the Neretva River. And this scenic hilltop functioned as their acropolis.
Clearly, the Daorsi took security quite seriously, as they protected their acropolis with huge Cyclopean walls like those of Mycenae, Greece.
Photographs don’t quite do the wall justice. The sheer size of the stones needs to be seen in person to be believed.
Apparently, the quarry was located just nearby. But even without the need to transport these massive blocks long distances, the fact that they could be lifted up at all suggests the Daorsi possessed some type of advanced construction technology.
The walls, originally built in the 4th century BC, reach up to 7.5 m high at some points. And they were originally flanked by towers which are now missing.
What remains evident is part of the original entrance gate, which appears to have been built as an arch. It was here that outsiders would have to be vetted before entering the city.
The Daorsi had good reasons to be suspicious of outsiders, as they were once attacked by the fellow Illyrian tribe of Delmatae.
This prompted the Daorsi to side with the Romans during the Illyrian Wars. And following the Third Illyrian War in the 2nd century BC, which resulted in Rome’s takeover of most of the Balkans, Daorson remained largely autonomous.
Daorson is completely unstaffed and visitors can wander around as they like. Aside from walking atop the walls, one of the top highlights of visiting the archaeological site is the breathtaking views of rural Stolac.
Little of inner Daorson remains, but according to historians, the city’s golden age was between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. And while no longer evident to visitors, Daorson’s central sanctuary was dedicated to Cadmus and Harmonia.
According to Illyrian myth, the founder of the Illyrians was the Phoenician king Cadmus and the goddess Harmonia.
Previously, Cadmus had been sent on a mission to find his sister who was abducted by Zeus. He set off on a long journey and, after founding the city of Thebes, married Harmonia. Later after arriving in the Balkans, he’d become king of the local tribes there.
They would later take on the name Illyrians after Cadmus and Harmonia’s son, Illyrius. Interestingly, numerous other cities in the Balkans also credit Cadmus as their mythological founder.
Interestingly, scholars have linked the legend of Cadmus and Illyrius with that of the ancient Anatolian Hittite goddess Illuyanka. Illuyanka herself was a serpent, while Cadmus and Harmonia were later turned into snakes in retaliation for Cadmus having killed one.
All in all, the area of ancient Daorson is quite extensive. But while I walked all the way to the other side of the hill in hopes of finding some hidden gems, I only encountered more large stones.
Nevertheless, the Cyclopean walls alone are enough to warrant a visit for anyone with the slightest interest in ancient civilizations and lost high technology. The beautiful views, of course, are an added bonus.
There’s no way to get to this remote location without a private vehicle, but you can learn more about arranging a trip to Daorson below.
After Daorson, I wanted to take a step even further into the past – much further. The Stolac region is also home to the Badanj Cave, which contains Palaeolithic engravings created sometime between 12,000 and 16,000 BC!
But as exciting as that sounds, I don’t recommend attempting a visit. First of all, the cave is incredibly tricky to find. My driver had to stop and ask locals multiple times for directions, with most of the route consisting of unmarked rural backroads.
After a couple of wrong turns and much frustration, we eventually did find the proper ‘road,’ which was actually a dried-up river bed. Too difficult to drive over, my driver parked the car while I set off to find the cave on foot.
While I did locate the cave and was able to see the entrance from a distance, there was no way to get up there, as far as I could tell. The entire area was covered in dense overgrowth with no walking path in sight.
I spent quite a while walking all around the area, looking for some sort of opening. But I only hit dead ends, concluding that the site is currently inaccessible without a machete!
While it was a somewhat anticlimactic end to the day, I couldn’t complain, as the other three locations mentioned above more than made up for it. Let’s hope, though, that local authorities can make it easier for people to visit the Badanj Cave in the future.
With a bit more effort and proper promotion, Stolac has the potential to be one of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s must-visit destinations. But until then, enjoy your visit without the crowds.
To reach the locations mentioned above, I arranged a trip at my guest house (Two Babies). The father of the family running the guest house drove me around for the day for a total of €50, with no time limit on how long I could spend at each site.
At the time of writing, there don’t seem to be any group tours to Stolac from Mostar. Therefore, you’ll either need to rent your own vehicle or arrange something through your accommodation.
With that being said, if you’re on a budget, you can take a public bus from Mostar to Stolac, a ride that should last a little under an hour. Be sure to confirm the timetable at the Mostar bus station.
The Radimlja Necropolis is just three or four kilometers away from the town center, and it’s situated along the main road from Mostar. Therefore, you could have the bus driver drop you off at Radimlja before walking to central Stolac.
Alternatively, you could also negotiate a deal with a local taxi driver in Stolac. But if you want to visit Daorson as well, it may be difficult to get a fair deal considering the condition of the road up there. You’d also have to negotiate waiting time.
As great as Daorson is, if you want to save money, you will still have a great time just visiting Stolac and Radimlja.
As mentioned above, I’d recommend skipping Badanj Cave altogether until they can fix up the site.
The most common way to reach Mostar is by bus. Frequent buses depart from Sarajevo daily. There are also a few buses every day from Trebinje
There are also direct connections between Mostar and Dubrovnik, Croatia and various cities in Montenegro. As there’s no centralized source of information and schedules are often changing, it’s best to confirm at the bus station of wherever it is you’ll be coming from.
Mostar also has a small international airport with flights from various cities in Italy.
Note that Mostar actually has two bus stations. Most tourists will arrive and depart from the main one to the east, which is an easy walk from the Old Town area and most of the sites in the Mostar guide above.
The west bus station is located rather far away in the northwest part of the city, but most tourists won’t need to use it. For some day trips outside of Mostar, however, such as the pilgrimage site of Međugorje, that’s the station you’ll need.
Tourism in Mostar is currently booming and the city has accommodation options for all budgets. To visit all the locations in the Mostar Guide above, the closer you are to the Old Town area, the better.
As a budget traveler who dislikes dorm rooms, I was able to find a private room for just €10 a night (including VAT) that was right by the Old Town. For whatever reason, it’s called Two Babies, and it’s situated in the top floor of a family’s home.
While the bathroom was shared, there are only a few rooms so the bathroom/shower was usually available when I needed it. Communication goes through one of the family’s daughters, who speaks impeccable English.
During my stay, the parents of the family even arranged a one-day tour of Stolac and surrounding sites such as Daorson for €50. This was great because no tour companies in town can take you there at the time of writing.
While the house could be rather loud at times, I enjoyed my stay overall and would recommend Two Babies to other budget travelers.