Making the Most of Mostar
Trip Start Apr 04, 2007
115Trip End Oct 22, 2007
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Arriving in Bosnia felt strange for us as most of what we knew about the country was the war that we had watched on the television as children. Today Bosnia is thriving, and very much beginning to make its mark on the tourist map, but it still bears the scars of its recent past. As we drove the streets to the hostel we passed sparkling new buildings, bullet riddled stone houses, and bombed out husks of the once beautiful town. There was a lot of new construction going on in the town of Mostar, but no efforts to remove or preserve the almost destroyed buildings. Many of the husks simply lay abandoned surrounded by new construction. When we asked locals about this the response was that they had to concentrate on what they had left. No one could afford to worry about the past, they were too busy trying to build their futures. To compound this, many Bosnians have not yet returned from the countries which took them in as refugees during the war. Even now, ten years later, there are still many Bosnians living over seas. The owners of the hostel we stayed at, a mother, brother, and sister, only returned 10 months before from the Scandinavian countries where they had been scattered as refugees.
We settled ourselves in to our hostel, the former summer home of the family, and had big plans to go out exploring the town but ended up meeting some very interesting people in the hostel. The hostel was arranged in an interesting set up, with the bunk beds we were sleeping in being in what best resembled a common room, and a balcony attached but no door. So basically the only place for people to hang out was in our sleeping area. We sat up talking on the balcony to two other backpackers who had just come through the trans-mongolian railway and asked them all about their experiences, while a few other backpackers played poker in our room till late in the evening.
We spent the next day looking around Mostar, which is famous for a beautifully constructed bridge that connects the two sides of the town over the river that runs through it. First built during the Ottoman rule, the bridge was fairly important due to its location on a major road at the time, and also for its beautiful Ottoman architecture. Mostar is an interesting ethnic mix, consisting of Croatians, Bosnians, and Serbs, with a large portion of the population being Muslim. During the early part of the war, the Muslims and Croats banded together to drive out the Serb forces when they attacked the city, but this alliance did not last and they soon turned on each other. The bridge became a target for the Croat artillery as the town had become divided with Muslims on one side of the river and Croats on the other, the bridge being the only link between them. For months they fired at each other over the river but never seemed to be able to destroy the bridge. On November 1993, the bridge took a direct hit from Croat artillery and crumbled into the river below. The day after its destruction there was already talk of rebuilding it. After hostilities ceased, a new bridge was built, identical to the old one in every respect, using the same building methods. In 2004 the new bridge was finally completed, opening with a grand ceremony, speeches and hopes for a better future.
Both the old bridge and the new one have always been a major tourist attraction, along with Mostar's bridge divers, a group of local men who have perfected the art of jumping from this bridges great height into the fast flowing river below, when they have collected enough tourist dollars. The funny part of this is that they have become somewhat of a bridge mafia, charging people 25 Euros (50 NZ) to jump off of the bridge themselves. Who knew jumping off of a bridge could be so lucrative!?!
The streets running two and from the bridge are lined with tourist shops and cafes. The most famous bar in town, called 'The Cave' (because it's in a cave...), sits just off the river and the local fruit and veggie market is just past the tourist district. The quick change from the tourist path to the local one was refreshing and we enjoyed walking around where the rest of Mostar lived. The war took a heavy toll on the small town, with more than 2000 people dying during the siege. With the cemetery outside the town, and inaccessible during the fighting, the central park was turned into a cemetery and is filled with graves, mostly of young men, almost all dating to 1993.
Later that evening we went out to look at the bridge lit up at night time. We ran into another one of the backpackers and sat down for a beer and what we were told was ethnic Bosnian food. The owner of the restaurant was an older man, strongly built but haggard looking. He spoke no English but did speak limited German, and so did we, so with that we managed to place an order. Every time he came over to our table he still spoke to us in Bosnian and gestured like we could understand him. He was an absolute riot, full of big smiles and descriptive body language, and we were left falling over laughing ever time he went away from our table.
The next day we took part in a tour run by the brother who runs the hostel, Bata. He was like the Bosnian energizer bunny and slightly off the wall. He piled nine of us into a rickety van and took us to some spectacular locations. During the van ride he subjugated us to Bosnian folk-rock at ear bleeding volume, contributing his singing along as well. He also attempted to give us all whiplash along to the beat of the music. It was an eventful drive wherever we went. Our fist destination was a small town, called Pocitelj, near Mostar that was currently only inhabited by an artists community. Many of the houses remained deserted and the town was extremely quiet.
Historically the town was an important military station as it sat on a hill directly beside the major road that led to Mostar. The town still had evidence of the walls surrounding the it as well as remains of the two fortress areas that dated to the 15th century. One of the old towers remained entirely intact and we climbed in and among the ruins. We also visited the beautiful mosque in the middle of the town and enjoyed the obvious Turkish influence on the architecture of the past. Afterwards our guide treated us to Bosnian coffee and showed us the ceremony with which it was to be drunk, involving a large cube of sugar dunked into the coffee and then eaten in small bites. All of this was washed down with the rest of the strong espresso, with additional bites of sugar cube as needed. To finish it all off, a piece of Turkish Delight. The combination of caffeine and sugar almost had us singing along with Bata in the van... almost.
Our next destination was Kravice, a small gorge in the middle of the terrain filled with waterfalls and a beautiful pool. We swam through the pool and climbed in and among the many waterfalls. Our guide took us on his 'waterfall challenge' through the whole series of waterfalls, climbing, jumping, and swimming through them all. Lastly, we went off a giant rope swing into the water. We decided we couldn't miss the beautiful photos and wrapped the camera up in plastic bags and swam across the pool with it, holding it above our heads. The waterfalls were beautiful but left us freezing cold throughout the whole adventure. Fortunately the sun was bright and warm and we were able to thaw in its heat.
Our last stop was Blagaj, another town and the site of an old Dervish House. These Dervishes (not the whirling kind) meet at the house once a year for a few days of praying and meditation. It was also formerly used as a meeting house between municipal officials to make important decisions of the state or community. We spent some time at one of the riverside cafes for a very late lunch before touring the Dervish house and some of our tour mates took a tiny boat trip into the mouth of the cave that sits beside the house along the river for the photographic opportunity of looking back out along the river.
We headed back to the hostel, more than 10 hours since we had left, and relaxed at the hostel for the evening. With an early train tomorrow to Sarajevo we will need our sleep.
All our best from Bosnia
Dan and Gabrielle