The first day of our trip was an uneventful affair.
We flew out from London-Luton airport to Split, in Croatia, with budget airline, WizzAir. The heat when we landed was instant, just short of 30 degrees, and any worries we had about storms and rain that had been forecast were instantly put to rest.
After some confusion as to the location of the car rental desks, a taxi driver kindly helped us find the kiosk a few miles down the road. We had booked an economy car, but were given an Opel (Vauxhall) Mokka mini SUV, and set about our way. Stopping at a supermarket for fluids, we drove the winding back roads up to Imotski, a small town on the Croatia-Bosnia Herzegovina border. That evening we had little time to explore, but ventured into town for a cheap, and enormous, pizza and beer.
The enormous sinkhole in Imotski, Croatia
On our first full day in the Balkans, we drove through Imotski to visit the red and blue lakes. The former of these is an enormous sinkhole, the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. The scale really has to be seen to be believed, as the unguarded edges drop hundreds of feet to the water, which goes down hundreds more, the sheer enormity of it makes it an incredible place to walk around.
Late morning we began our journey to the border. The process was simple, a couple of stamps and showing of the green card for the car with no queues and we were outside of the European Union for the first time in a year. Stopping at a café for a quick coffee, we caught glimpse of what could well have been an eagle flying over the huge expanse of land that awaited us.
The drive to Mostar was simple and mimicked our 2017 journey, though the views were still incredible. Even the main roads, which are smooth, with lines and barriers, wind around the mountains before descending into the city. Whilst driving through the city itself wasn’t a problem, work taking place on the sewers meant huge holes in the roads that had to be avoided at all costs, along with the improvised use of one-way roads by the locals. Strangely, despite the organised chaos, the ‘work it out as you go along’ nature of driving seemed to work remarkably well.
The city of Mostar’s name comes from the mostari, the keepers first stationed at the wooden bridge spanning the gorge carved by the Neretva river which runs through Herzegovina. That preceded the Stari Most, the great limestone footbridge, a UNESCO protected heritage site and national icon for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
We parked up and made our way to our accommodation, the Bosnian national monument, Muslibegovic House, ranked one of the top 10 accommodations in the world by Expedia in 2010. The house is a preserved Ottoman House, one of three in Mostar, which somehow survived extensive damage during the war, and also doubles up as a museum. The Ottomans, which ruled over Bosnia-Herzegovina among other parts of Europe until the early 20th Century, built houses which allowed for strict Muslim practices to be adhered to, whilst also respecting the privacy of the females in their society. Whilst a large number of these houses have been destroyed in the various wars that gripped the region in the 20th century, Muslibegovic is one of the three examples that still remain in Mostar (along with Biscevic House and Kajtaz House).
Having settled down in our luxury rooms and having a drink in the courtyard which was filled with flowers, birds and enormous scarab beetles, we decided to journey into the city.
Our first venture was to revisit Mostar’s most famous landmark, the ‘Old Bridge’, Stari Most. As with almost all things in this beautiful country, it carries a troubled past. In 1566, the bridge was built by the Ottoman empire as a way of crossing the Neretva river, that splits the town in two. The bridge, notoriously steep, has ridges in that were originally for allowing the bridge to be covered in dirt or mud and aid horses and carriages to cross. We sat down for a traditional Bosnian lunch and coffee, along with a shot of the strong local brandy, rakija (plum and cherry, male and female respectively). Afterwards, we worked our way back towards the bridge.
The Stari Most bridge in Mostar
Having stood for 427 years, the bridge was destroyed in November 1993 by Croat forces during the conflict. Whilst the argument for its destruction was that the bridge was of tactical significance as it allowed for the crossing of the river which split the city in two, it is often seen as an example of the attempts to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cultural heritage.
The destruction of the Stari Most bridge in 1993
In 2001, thanks to money provided by UNESCO, the World Bank, the European Union and a number of countries, the bridge was painstakingly rebuilt to its original form. Reopened in 2004, it sits once again as Mostar’s, and possibly Bosnia-Herzegovina’s, most famous landmark and bridge divers once again complete the local tradition of completing their rite of passage to manhood by diving the 24 meters into the Neretva river below. A very dangerous feat, due to the free-fall acceleration the divers are hitting the water at approximately 60mph, if their body isn’t properly prepared at the moment of impact they can seriously injure themselves or worse. Today, common sense has somewhat prevailed and Mostarski Ikari, a club of professional local bridge divers are predominately the only ones that jump. The club, named after Icarus, a Greek mythological figure known for falling to his death, highlights not only the bravery that these men hold, but also the famous local dark sense of humour. Despite the history of the region, the divers club is completely impartial, welcoming anyone crazy enough irrespective of their nationality, religion or identity. We learnt of the two schools of diving that had emerged centuries before: the head-first and the legs-first. The best-known head-first style is the Lasta (“Swallow”), modelled on the native bird’s sharp wings and dramatic dives. The most iconic style is the legs-first style called the Let (“Flight”), where divers hook their legs beneath them, push out their chests, and hold back their arms. The pose pushes them forward so they approach the water at an angle.
Crossing the bridge through the colourful market stalls, we followed signs for the War Photo Museum which was held inside one of the gatehouses of the bridge. A small but hard-hitting exhibit which showed how much damage the city took during the war, and how much work there still is to do in rebuilding it. Also in the tower was a small café, Caffe Čardak, where we met a wonderful local man, Mustafa, who showed us what we had been told about Bosnian hospitality by taking us on an impromptu tour around Mostar. He told us fascinating stories about old Bosnia-Herzegovina, the war, and his own stories as he showed us an old, heavily damaged school building, cemetery and the crooked bridge before stopping at a delightful little restaurant ‘Gastronomica’ for more local food. We also spoke about his life both before, during and after the war, and how it had shaped the city and country that he loves.
A young man jumps from the Stari Most bridge into the Neretva river below
“What or where is Herzegovina?”
Herzegovina is the south-western region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It has no visible border with the rest of Bosnia, and recognition of the area it covers is still disputed. Mostar is the largest city in Herzegovina which differs from the rest of Bosnia in that it has a warm, Mediterranean climate and is generally wealthier than the rest of the country.
Day 3: For our third day we had booked a tour to visit Blagaj, Pocitelj and the Kravice Waterfalls. Our guide for the day was an enthusiastic, passionate local man, Esmer, who runs his own local travel agency, Mostar Travel. We opted for his fascinating ‘Discover Herzegovina’ day tour and our first stop was for breakfast at a local café, where we had burek for breakfast. A pie-like mixture of meat and pastry cooked on an open fire to set us up for the day. Just up the road, just outside of Mostar Airport, we stopped to visit an abandoned Yugoslav bunker. An eerie, dark, concrete shelter within a hillside, partially clad to disguise it from above, and formally home to around twenty Yugoslav jet fighters, and provided shelter for some of the displaced Mostar locals during the war.
On the drive towards Blagaj, we took in the sights of the Neretva and Buna rivers as the blue waters that followed the roads merged into one. The roads had us encounter our first snake, a large bright green one laid over one carriage of the road. We didn’t stop.
Blagaj, as with last year, was beautiful and warm. The Dervish Monastery which sits in the shadow of the cliff, was busy again as it sat over the blue river. This time, we didn’t go in, as we experienced it last year, but took in the sights whilst taking on water before our next journey.
After Blagaj, we drove towards Pocitelj, an impressive walled town that although it fell victim to the 90’s war, still stands to this day. Driven to the top of the hill to spare us the sweltering walk, we got a wonderful panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and blue river running by the road and got to roam around the remains of the walls. On our way back down we had another near miss with a snake, before taking on some locally sold, freshly made and chilled orange and pomegranate juice before reconvening with Esmer and making our way onto our next stop, Kravice Waterfalls.
In terms of scale, Kravice Waterfalls aren’t as impressive as its counterparts in Croatia (Krka and Plitvice), but are still an extremely beautiful place and surprisingly busy in an otherwise quiet part of the world. Our dip in the waters was cut short as a water snake came towards us, but the cooling water and vibrant blue dragonflies around were a welcome break.
On the drive back to Mostar, we were shown a panoramic view from the nearby Hum mountain, as Esmer told us the stories about his family’s experiences during the war, including their capture by the Yugoslav forces who kept them in a concentration camp not far from Pocitelj. Much with Mustafa the day before, Esmer showed a strong sense of nationalism and love for his country, but without any malice towards what had happened. As the slogan around Bosnia-Herzegovina goes, and backed up by graffiti around Mostar, “forgive, but never forget”.
We ended the day back in the city, as we walked the streets comparing photographs during the war, with the streets as they look now. Whilst progress is obvious, what is maybe more apparent is what hasn’t changed. A lot of the newly repaired or rebuilt buildings still stand next to bombed out structures, boarded up windows and bullet hole ridden walls. Politics has a major impact on what gets done, and not many places have a more complicated and less productive structure than Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“What is the political situation in Bosnia?”
In one word, complicated. Possibly one of the most complicated in the world. After the Dayton Agreement was signed in December 1995, then President Alija Izetbegović was allowed to resume power until he stepped down in 2000. After that, the country was to be run by three presidents – one Serb, one Croat and one Bosniak. Well meaning, and aiming to represent the mixed diversity and ethnicity of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the fact that each can veto any decision that is proposed means that unless all three parties agree, nothing gets done, and as with politics all over the world, it’s very difficult to get two opposing parties to agree, or to be seen to agree, let alone three.
On our final day in Mostar, we were woken by the call to prayer and went back into the city to enjoy the sights and atmosphere once again. We went to Urban Grill for lunch (though opted against the ‘fried brains’ that were on the menu) and sat to take in the stunning view of the Stari Most bridge with the divers putting in their shifts.
Afterwards, we went back over the bridge in the hope of seeing Mustafa again. As we crossed, we were called from the window of the café -and there we has! We went up and sat with him for coffee, where we also had the pleasure of the divers company, where we spoke to them, learned of their histories, and they allowed us to take photos of them and their beautiful matching tattoos of the bridge, all of which cover the left side of their chests, over their hearts.
All of the divers from the city who regularly jump from the bridge proudly wear a tattoo of the Stari Most on their bodies, and some wear more than that. One man, in his early thirties, showed a wound on his torso. He explained how when he was eight years old, playing football in the city, he was shot by a sniper and the bullet entered and exited his body on the left side of his body. It was a timely reminder that the war was not only a real, but those who lived through it were still living with the effects; material, financial, mental and physical.
Mustafa then offered to take us up to Kajtaz House, one of the traditional, UNESCO listed Ottoman house on the other side of the city. Off the main path, poorly signed and less advertised than Mostar’s other offerings, the house is an incredible piece of architecture. A commune for the Muslim wives of the-then owner, the part of the house we saw was made up of two bedrooms, a living quarters and kitchen. Made of wood, you wouldn’t want too many people upstairs, but it largely survived the war though some rooms are still being renovated to UNESCO’s strict demands. The male quarters weren’t so lucky, and all that remains is a doorway that would have connected the two buildings.
“Why was there a war in Bosnia?”
Following the death of long time President and dictator, Josef Tito, in 1984, Yugoslavia (formed prior to World War Two to defend the Balkan countries) struggled to reform and settle on a new leader. Following Slobodan Milosevic taking charge, seen by some as a Serbian nationalist, a number of the states began to vote within themselves for independence.
FYR of Macedonia was the only one of these countries to leave the bloc without conflict. Slovenia had a ten day war which cost 14 lives, Croatia suffered significant damage and losses over the course of a two year war in which the Serb led Yugoslav army attacked the city of Dubrovnik. Bosnia-Herzegovina fought for independence starting in 1992, and not being free until 1996. Whilst often called a ‘civil war’, it was only this in respect of infighting within Yugoslavia and not Bosnia-Herzegovina itself. At one point, Sarajevo was under siege by the Serbian led, Yugoslav army and Mostar was under attack by the Croat army, with the rest of the country also under attack. Over 100,000 Bosniaks were killed, mostly Muslims, and many war crimes were committed. These included mass killings, use of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate shooting of innocent women and children on the streets of Sarajevo and use of rape as a weapon. Following the conflict, much of Bosnia-Herzegovina was left covered in landmines, a problem still to this day.
After saying our goodbyes to Mustafa, we went back into the centre to find a place to drink. Sitting in a café just off the bridge, we got our first look of Bosnia’s famous ‘street dogs’. Mostar, much like Sarajevo, doesn’t seem to suffer with them as badly as we’re left to believe but they are still considered a problem in the country. Whilst the ones we saw throughout our journey were strays, they weren’t feral or in packs, but weren’t necessarily clean.
We walked back for the final night in our room, past the damaged buildings, cemeteries, graffiti and locals going through bins. Mostar is a beautiful, beautiful place but it still has its problems, and the effects of the war, particularly when it comes to fabric and buildings, are perhaps more evident here than anywhere else we saw. That said, the war only ended 22 years ago so perhaps the fact the city, and country, is functioning as well as it is, is a miracle.
by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan