I’ve been working on this post on and off for a couple of years and could have sworn that I’d posted it already. Oops! I also confess that it’s longer than more recent posts; in any event, here it is.
In 2012 (see? told you), I booked a package tour to Croatia and Slovenia. I arranged my itinerary so I could squeeze in a quick visit beforehand – on my own – to nearby Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina (aka B-H). Rick Steves’ TV program made this destination look both exotic and approachable and it’s a popular day trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia, where the package tour started. I’m not exactly sure what I expected from Mostar but I came away with mixed feelings, something that’s never happened to me before or, at least, not to such a great degree. Maybe, just maybe, I finally found myself at the edge of my comfort zone.
A travel office near the cruise port in Dubrovnik had day tours to Mostar. The tour bus picked up a handful of us tourists the next morning at the Hilton Imperial near Pile Gate in the Old Town, a short downhill walk from my B&B. After a couple of other pickups, we were off.
The bus made stops at a roadside refreshment area in Neum, the only Bosnian town on the Adriatic and also at Počitelj, a small Bosnian village on the road to Mostar; both subjects of a previous post. The border crossing was an interesting experience – there are few “real” such crossings in Europe any more though the migrant/refugee crisis is changing that in some places. Since this was before Croatia joined the EU, there were four border encounters on the round trip – each country with its own station and guards, though my passport was only stamped once (better than none at all). So anyway…
After the pitstop/snack buy in Neum, we left the coastal highway and headed inland, to Počitelj, approaching Mostar from the south. We passed acres upon acres of farmland which looked stressed, perhaps from a drier than normal year and with no additional irrigation apparent. The few houses, gas stations and other buildings were widely scattered, adding to the feeling that this was an economically depressed part of the world, even if the olive trees and grapevines had at least some cash crop potential.
The name Mostar comes from a word meaning “bridge keepers” (mostari) and there was a wooden bridge here across the Neretva River long before the first stone bridge was built.
A local guide met us in Mostar to give us some history, take us around the Turkish / Muslim Old Town and introduce us to the restored Old Bridge. The guide pointed out a large piece of bombed-out concrete wall partly hidden behind scrubby trees and straggly vines across the street from the (completely rebuilt) Franciscan monastery on the western (mostly Catholic) side of the city. The war-bruised rubble used to be the movie theater, destroyed during the last war. Keep in mind that when people in any part of the old Yugoslavia talk about “the last war”, they are not talking about WWII – they’re talking about the period between 1991 and 1995 when different regions of that crumbling nation sought independence not just from the old regime, but from the incursions of other former Yugoslav republics. Mostar does, in fact, have a new movie theater. It opened in 2011. More than fifteen years to rebuild the movie house! By contrast, the rebuilding of the bridge took only seven years, from 1997 until 2004. Priorities. I suspect that the EU funds contributed for rebuilding the iconic bridge seemed a better (more public?) investment than bringing back the movie house. More than 15 million dollars had been spent repairing physical damage sustained during the Bosnian war by 2012, but there is still so much left to do and 15 million, frankly, sounds like chicken feed, even in this region where money buys -or should buy – much more than in other parts of Europe. >>>> I’ve since learned that much of the damage remains because ownership of various properties has not been resolved (the Bank of Yugoslavia is gone and with it, mortgages and other records) and because, as so often happens when large amounts of money move around, not all funds for rebuilding were accurately accounted for and used as intended. An oft-repeated tale with all-too-predictable results. This map of B-H showing population distribution shows, at the very least, how fragmented the country remains – and, given the division in Mostar itself, how even the map is oversimplifying things.
From the monastery, the path to the Old Bridge snakes past a long bazaar of small shops lining narrow cobbled streets. Rugs, copper coffee sets, household goods and brightly colored clothing, blue and white glass charms to ward off the evil eye – all grabbing your attention, tempting you and slowing your progress. Keep moving, folks and shop later!
The restored Old Bridge, the centerpiece of the Old City, looks bigger on television than in real life; things always seem larger on TV somehow. The bridge arcs between two huge piers. When the bridge was first built by Mimar Hayruddin in 1566, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, it was an engineering marvel, given its dimensions and the use of a single, semicircular load-bearing arch but its success was treated with pre-emptive scepticism – the architect’s funeral plans were made ahead of the bridge’s completion, so unsure was the sultan that the bridge would stand after the scaffolding was removed. Luckily for the architect, those funeral plans went unimplemented.
Only 13 percent of the original stones were usable for the rebuilding job; the rest came from the same local limestone quarry. The 16th century bridge was reinforced with an ancient mortar made from egg whites and goat hair; the new mortar was a more modern mix applied only where mortar was used on the original bridge. I find myself wondering why they couldn’t “stick” with the eggs and goat hair – have they lost the recipe? The stuff obviously did the job – the bridge withstood 19 months of bombardment until finally giving way under relentless fire on 9 November, 1993.
The surface of the bridge’s walkway is not a TV highlight, but it’s the one bridge feature that stuck in my memory as I crossed the bridge. The slope is steep and slick; raised blocks of stone set into the surface provide traction. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I crossed the bridge mostly looking at my feet, rather than the views. The handrail helped. And I was there on a dry, sunny day. Hard to imagine what it’s like to cross the bridge on a cold, rainy night, especially while carrying shopping bags or after a spell of serious drinking! (Of course, the locals probably already know just how long a stride so they don’t trip… or fall… or slide home).
At only eight years young, the bridge gleamed in the sun. The cafes and bistros along the Neretva River’s eastern side are perched as high as the bridge. These are some of the best spots to snap a picture while you grab a snack or a Turkish coffee.
A constant attraction on the bridge are the jumpers – young men prepared to leap from the top of the bridge into the river more than 60 feet below for (a lot of) euros. There were only a couple of these brave and crazy guys the day I was there. One was preparing to jump, not having collected enough money for the deed – supposedly around 50 euros; to be sure, the collection routine lasts much longer than the jump itself. Another fellow was down on the river bank, splashing around in the water to get used to the temperature. The water can be cold enough to stop a heart on some days, according to our guide. Nutsy. Just nutsy.
The cobbled streets and tiny shops of the old town soon gave way to more modern streets and buildings. The souvenir stalls continued, but in between were restaurants and other small businesses. A tiny outdoor market was selling clothing, fresh and dried fruits, vegetables and olive oil. This was early afternoon, so it was hard to know how bountiful the market would have looked early in the morning. Except for some tables near the street, the market was kind of empty. This part of Europe is far enough south to have a lengthy growing season but, as I mentioned at the beginning, the surrounding farmland looked to be strugging, so maybe even the agriculture has yet to recover adequately from the war. Or maybe this wasn’t the main market; Mostar has a population in excess of 100,000, so perhaps this little setup may only serve the locals working in the town center. (There were several better-stocked roadside stands along the bus route, likely more for the benefit of the tourist buses than locals).
Our walking tour of Old Mostar complete, the guide announced we could go off on our own or continue with her to see a restored Turkish merchant’s house. I went along to the Turkish house with several others.
A modest wooden gate opened onto a courtyard paved with rounded white stones, laid in circular patterns. A metal fountain tossed water into the air at the center. The stone walls along both sides of the courtyard reached to the roof, providing shade for the benches below at different times of the day. The timbered house was set back from the gate, an open air loggia at the front of the upper story, roof timbers exposed to view. Inside, rugs covered the floors.
Family photographs and pictures of Mostar hung on the white plaster walls, carved furniture filled the small porch and interior rooms. The ceilings were lower than we are used to, adding a feeling of coziness. The entire property filled a footprint not much larger than a typical two-car garage. Inside, rooms were furnished as they might have been long ago.
On the way back from the Turkish House, I came to the new cemetery just a few yards away on the next street. This little space had been a public park before the Bosnian war but during the conflict snipers made access to the regular cemetery farther away impossible, even at night. The park became the final resting place for the war dead. Headstones glare whiter than white in the blazing sun of midday. Most are simple columns, others are a fan or flower shape. I have yet to discover the significance of this shape of headstone though I gather they are uniquely Muslim. For once, the web doesn’t seem to know everything. Doing the math on the dates of birth and death showed that most of these men died in their teens or twenties, barely out of boyhood; only an occasional 30 or 40-year-old. All died between 1993 and 1995. And they are still here, a sobering punctuation to the stunning weather the day I visited.
On the subject of comfort zones – even more disturbing than this little graveyard was the view westward from its gate. Atop the heights of Mt Hum, on the Catholic side of the river, sits a huge cross. I’ve read one report saying that the cross was erected on the spot where the (Catholic) Croat forces shelled the streets below. No knife twisting going on here, right?
Much more enjoyable was my souvenir shopping at the coppersmith’s. Our guide noted that the family there were respected local artisans. One of the guys in our group also went inside, looking at the copper coffee sets. I’m not a huge caff-fiend and besides, lovely as these were, day one of this multi-week trip was not the time to add large souvenirs to my luggage. (Don’t you just hate it when practical considerations horn in?)
Adnan is a third generation copper artist and looked to be in his thirties; much of his work was the flat, slightly raised scenes of Mostar’s Old Bridge in various sizes and there were also Turkish coffee sets on simple trays. Most of the wall art was round, but I liked a squared one, about 8 inches across. Perfect for the suitcase. Adnan was working on a plaque while I was there; he said it took about 3 hours to produce one, hammering the sheet copper to take the shape of the relief mold underneath. The picture was simple but iconic. A banner at the top says Mostar, Adnan’s name is at the bottom along with the year the plaque was made. A minaret towers above in the background. Look closely and you’ll see other dates – the left pier is marked 1566, 1993 is stamped in the water and the pier on the right says 2004. Birth, death and resurrection or, at least, hope.
Folks in Turkish costume were handing out menus for their restaurants and I figured I would look these over and pick one when I was done sightseeing. The place I chose was Restoran Sadrvan. It was easy to find when I decided I needed to eat, the outdoor seating area was shaded and inviting and I was intrigued by the Turkish clothing the staff wore.
When they told me there was a wait for the outdoor tables but not for the inside tables, I decided inside was fine. I was checking my watch by now, wanting NOT to hold up the bus by being the last one back – an annoying (to the tour guides) habit I’ve been succumbing to of… LATE). My table faced the doorway to the patio, so it was almost as good as sitting under the vines and the wasps were inspecting the food and wine outside more than in. My waiter recommended the Mostarian sahan, a sampler plate that was very satisfying. If you click on the restau link above, go to Local Dishes. It’s #54.
The perfect accompaniment? A bottle of Sarajevsko beer. Very, very good stuff. If Dad had still been alive, I probably would have brought home a can or bottle for him. I ordered the Turkish coffee which, though thick, was no more bitter than an espresso. The little cube of Turkish delight was the perfect last bite. Travel tip – it seems that you need to make eye contact with your waiter to bring him to your table. Closing the menu as we do in the States to signal readiness to order seems not to mean anything.
Made it to the bus on time – the restaurant was only a block from the Franciscan church where the bus was waiting. Whew!
Note – while validating some facts for this blog, I came across an article describing the social and political antagonisms preventing Mostar’s two stage companies from operating within the same building. Granted, the article is two years old but for Bosnia, that’s barely yesterday. A visitor won’t necessarily pick up on continuing antagonism; paid guides and other locals working in tourism-related jobs are anxious to point out a place’s good points and that’s probably for the best. It takes longer to heal emotional scars than to restore buildings and replant trees but even without any obvious animosity, there was an air of unease, possibly aided by the sight of a used syringe on the ground near our waiting bus or maybe just a side effect of my first visit to a non-Christian place.
Here is an account of another traveler’s visit to Mostar. I also recommend Rick Steves’ reflections on Mostar from his book Travel as a Political Act. Steves’ observations better articulate the feelings I struggled with on the bus back to Dubrovnik. Both the articles in the two links above were written by folks who spent more time in Mostar than I did but they expressed similar feelings to my own about B-H in general and Mostar in particular.
Mostar is working hard to attract visitors, not just with the Old Bridge, but by sponsoring music and theatre festivals and by setting up the Mostar Tourist Quality Project. Someone understands that getting the word out in the travel and tourism spheres will improve the local economy and help to heal the wounds of war.
Even if you’re just coming for the day, eat a meal, buy some locally produced souvenirs and tip your tour guide. It all helps. I didn’t bother to barter for the copper plaque. Maybe I could have. Like trying to recover VAT, I figure that leaving all the money I spend where I’ve spent it will do more good than saving a bit of money (in whichever currency) for myself.
All in all, I am very glad I chose to see Mostar instead of Montenegro (the other day trip the US travel agent recommended over Mostar). Comfort zones are meant to be exceeded.