Afan, between asphalt and grass

Being a factory town best known for its steel mill and polluted air, Zenica is probably not the first place you would want to visit in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the socialist face of Zenica and the nature that surrounds it is becoming more and more interesting for tourists, thanks to one young enthusiastic tour guide 


Zenica - photo by L. Pisker

City centre. People are walking in a hurry, passing by each other. Everyone goes their way, thinking about their errands. Cars are passing by, children are playing. Stray dogs bark from time to time – a usual city day. 

What is unusual is a group of foreigners who are curiously looking around themselves while standing in the square next to a young dark-haired man who tells them with a smile on his face:

“I welcome you to my city of Zenica”.



The man is Afan Abazović, a thirty-six-year-old tour guide from Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, who hosts tourists in a city that many people would not have thought had anything interesting to offer until recently. Not even the citizens of Zenica.

Having grown into an industrial centre during the former Yugoslavia, Zenica is known as a factory hub in central Bosnia best known for its steel mill and polluted air. A so-called “workers' dormitory”, a juncture of asphalt and concrete buildings, where even the “Old Bazaar” is not particularly old. A city that is more often on a passing route than a destination. 

“What does Zenica have to do with tourism?” and “Are you going to take people under the Iron Factory chimneys?” are questions that Afan often heard from his fellow citizens. 

But instead of responding to the ironic comments, Afan – just like a photographic negative – presents Zenica in an inverted ratio of light and dark colours giving an unexpected charm to the pale modernist buildings built during socialist Yugoslavia.

“This is one very interesting city”, he says to his guests.



And more and more people agree with him. 


One of them is British researcher and writer Richard Fawcus. Richard and Afan met four years ago through social networks within groups for architecture lovers, where Afan posted photos of Zenica's socialist buildings.

“His photos of the modernist architecture in Zenica were impressive – so I got in touch to find out more, and he immediately offered to be my guide in Zenica,” Richard says.

At that time a PhD student who explored the phenomenon of tourism to sites of socialist architectural heritage in southeast Europe and a leader of tourist tours in the Balkans, Richard was happy to accept Afan's offer.

An online acquaintance of these two lovers of socialist architectural heritage grew into a friendship and partnership, thanks to which Richard brought his groups of tourists from Great Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States to Zenica four times so far.


During the “Socialist Zenica”, which is the name of one of Afan’s most popular tours, visitors get to know the architectural history of Zenica from the socialist era and visit some of the most striking buildings such as the so-called “Chinese Wall”, Hotel Metalurg and the Lamela building.

“As a lover of history and urban exploration, I like to guide guests through the city of Zenica and explore its rich industrial and cultural heritage,” says Afan. “This tour provides a different perspective on the city”.



Most of the participants in Richard's tour groups are interested in modernist architecture and the history of the former Yugoslavia. They visit cities like Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo during the tour, but Zenica remains one of their most memorable memories, according to Richard.

“I believe that you cannot understand architecture without understanding people. Any tourist could take a bus to Zenica and go looking at buildings. But Afan has an unusual skill for bringing architecture to life through stories,” Richard continues. “His love for his home is infectious, and by the end of an afternoon with him, it starts to feel like our home too.”


Afan started travelling through Bosnia and Herzegovina with his parents and discovered its beauty as a young boy. This, he says, awakened in him an interest in cultural heritage but also a desire to share it with others.

“My love for tourism did not arise from current trends or expectations that I would be engaged in tourism business in popular destinations,” he explains. “It is deeply rooted in my childhood and family environment that encouraged me to explore the beauties of Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of how popular or traditional they were.”

During his studies at the Faculty of Law in Zenica, Afan worked part-time as a tour guide for a local travel agency and travelled through Europe with tourists from Zenica. Fourteen years ago, he turned the tables and began showing his city to foreign guests.

In the meantime, he has read numerous books and attended numerous training programs for tourism workers. He has so far led numerous groups of foreigners and Bosnians from other cities through his city. He also organised walks through socialist architecture for citizens of Zenica, and live online tours from the city streets during the COVID-19 pandemic through his Facebook page.

Apart from asphalt, Afan is a confident guide on grass paths too.

He likes to climb the peaks of mountains such as Mahnjača, Hum, Lisac and Vlašić. Two years ago, he founded Afantour - the first and for now the only mountain guide business in Zenica - within which he organises various types of mountain tours: easy walks, medium-difficult tours to mountain peaks, as well as more demanding adventure trails for more experienced mountaineers.

Mountain hiker Almir Mukača met Afan on one of his mountain tours. He says Afan is a great professional. “I rarely meet people who approach a job with so much love and care. There has never been a single incident on any tour because Afan plans everything well,” says Almir.

Like Richard, Almir also became Afan's loyal client and hikes only with Afan ever since: “The atmosphere is more than fun, and that way we forget that we are already walking 24 kilometres. Our stomachs hurt us the most during the tours - not because we feel sick but because we laugh so much”.


The video was provided by Almir Mukača

The mountains and other natural resources in the surroundings of Zenica, cultural and historical heritage and industrial heritage are what Afan considers the main assets of Zenica for the further development of tourism. “There is also an element of surprise, because it is a city that is completely unknown to tourists, and it can be taken advantage of,” he says.

Afan wants to promote these assets even more, to attract as many guests as possible to his city: “I hope that in the next ten years, the city will become a recognisable tourist destination that will attract a large number of visitors from different parts of the world.”

In addition to his skills and knowledge in the field of tourism, he also plans to improve the promotion of the cultural heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina through social networks and designing new activities.

Almir and Richard, on the other hand, plan new adventures with Afan: Almir plans to climb Maglić and Vranica with Afan, and Richard plans to bring a new group of foreigners to Zenica.

And what about your plans? One of Afan's tours, either in the city or in nature, might be an idea.



The production of this story was supported by the Thomson Foundation as part of the Culture and Creativity for the Western Balkans project (CC4WBs). This story was created and maintained with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. 

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