Balkan Odyssey Part 20: Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

I’ve learned over the course of my travels that those “trouble spots” which make the news often stay lodged in the public consciousness far longer than such spots actually remain troubled.

With this in mind, I was a little concerned about talking my girlfriend into detouring our travel plans to include a visit to Bosnia. So, I broached the topic by showing her some photos of Mostar similar to the one above and touting its beauty and history. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, after she decided it might be a cool place to visit, that I let her know it was actually in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Getting there proved quite easy. We grabbed the 3 p.m. Dubrovnik bus from Kotor, Montenegro and headed north along the fjord towards the Croatian border. The main bus line which connects the major coastal cities of Montenegro with Dubrovnik is a surprisingly comfortable, cheap, and convenient way to travel the region. We were a little concerned, however, because our connecting bus in Dubrovnik was schedule to leave at 5:15, just ten minutes after we were supposed to arrive. Unfortunately, we were 15 minutes late. As my girlfriend went running through the terminal to see if the bus was still there and I grabbed our stuff out of the baggage hold, I noticed our driver remove the Dubrovnik placard from the front of the bus and replace it with one that said Kotor. What luck; we were already on the bus!

So we jumped back on board and continued heading north along the beautiful Croatian coastline. Eventually we forked off and the bus headed inland through miles of fields and farmlands and across the Bosnia & Herzegovina border.

It was getting towards evening when the bus finally pulled into the dismal looking Mostar bus station. Since my girlfriend was still a little concerned about the whole Bosnia thing, and I felt a bit bad about dragging her here, I decided to check us into the nicest hotel in town, the four-star Hotel Bevanda.

It was all shiny and clean, but more than half a mile from the historic center. We ordered some food from the restaurant since we hadn’t eaten all day and this is when I realized why I so often hate fancy hotels. Although the food was good, the hotel was soulless and without character; we could have been sitting in any hotel on this planet. We were insulated from the surrounding city and there was almost no way to tell where, in fact, we were.

After dinner we walked to the center and came across another hotel, one which had been highly recommended in Lonely Planet. Motel Kriva Cuprija was what a hotel should be like. It was built of stone, like the surrounding old town, and sat astride a narrow rushing river. The owner was a young, energetic local who had spent time in Germany working in the hotel industry (but apparently hadn’t learned that “motel” doesn’t have a very good connotation in English). His place was immaculate, centrally located, and charming–although the rooms were a little small. Fortunately there was a cancellation and we were able to move in the next morning.

Mostar is a fantastic little town rich with Ottoman influences. It is most famously known for the ancient bridge which spans the Neretva River and connects the Bosnian half of the city to the Croat half. The famous bridge was commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century and stretched triumphantly across the gorge for 427 years. Sadly, by the 20th century it had become the poignant symbol of a horrific war which ripped apart this region. It was almost impossible to watch the news or open a newspaper during this time without coming across images of the old bridge festooned with tires in an attempt to prevent it from being destroyed. The daily news vigil kept the world updated to the bridge’s status and when it finally exploded and fell into the river, the international community collectively mourned along with those who live here.

The bridge was blown up in 1993 (check out the depressing footage here) but eventually rebuilt in 2004 to the exact same specifications. Every July a diving competition that has been going on for hundreds of years is held here–although it wasn’t until 2004 that the event finally received its first corporate sponsor: Red Bull.

Standing at its highest point and looking down 70 feet to the water is a bit unnerving and yet I found myself wondering if I could do it. The hot weather was certainly beckoning me to do so, but I had a feeling that the “professionals” who collect money from tourists and then dive off would probably have chucked rocks at me.

On either side of the bridge, a narrow cobblestone lane winds past numerous little shops tightly pushed together like a Turkish bazaar. It was a little disappointing to see that nearly every single one was crammed full of tourist knickknacks such as jewelry, handicrafts, and t-shirts.

There are also many items made from copper. The traditional copper workers who have been plying their trade on this street for centuries have recently incorporated a new item into their repertoire. In a slightly morbid twist, they are etching intricate designs onto shell casings left over from the war.

There are also some very nice galleries and paintings to be found here, although it does get a bit tiring seeing the same old bridge rendered in a thousand different styles.

Other than the shiny new stone of the rebuilt bridge it is hard to imagine that this little slice of Ottoman history was shelled so heavily just over ten years ago. Everything has been nicely put back together again, but if you wander just a block to the west, and walk along Maršala Tita, you will come across a number of gutted buildings copiously plastered with bullet holes. Even more sobering is the small cemetery lined with headstones, nearly all of which bear the same year of death.

One doesn’t linger too long in the war-torn parts of town. Instead, we found ourselves frequently enjoying cool drinks in the numerous bars and cafes which line the hills on either side of the old bridge. Soaking up the wonderful atmosphere of this ancient place dominated our time here.

Yesterday’s Post: Kotor, Europe’s Southernmost Fjord
Tomorrow’s Post: Split, Croatia