The One with Mostar, Bosnia

Friday, May 16, 2014

After touring Split, Croatia, we packed up and headed to... BOSNIA! Mostar to be exact. Growing up as a kid in the 90s when I heard "Bosnia" I immediately thought "Fear. Death. Scary." Bosnia was all over the news, and not for good things. It's crazy that it's only been 20 years since the terrible wars, but I guess that's enough time for it to be safe for visitors. We figured, if it was included in a Rick Steves travel book, it must be okay to go to! 
The mid-1990s weren't kind to Bosnia-Herzegovina: War. Destruction. Genocide. But apart from the tragic way it separated from Yugoslavia, the country has long been - and remains - a remarkable place, with ruggedly beautiful terrain, a unique mix of cultures and faiths, kind and welcoming people who pride themselves on their hospitality, and some of the most captivating sightseeing in southeastern Europe. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country with three faiths, three languages, and two alphabets, while the rest of Yugoslavia remains an uneasy mix of scattered communities, with large contingents of all three major Yugoslav groups: Muslim Bosniaks, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. These same three factions fought each other in that brutal war just two decades ago and today they're struggling to reconcile, work together, and put the country back on track. A visit here offers a fascinating opportunity to sample the cultures of these three major faiths within a relatively small area. In the same day you can inhale incense in a mystical-feeling Serbian Orthodox church, hear the subtle clicking of rosary beads in a Roman Catholic church, and listen to the Muslim call to prayer echo across a skyline of prickly minarets. While repairs are ongoing, you'll still be confronted by vivid and thought-provoking scars of the 1990s war. Poignant roadside memorials to fallen soldiers, burned-out husks of buildings, and bullet holes in walls are a constant reminder that the country is still recovering - physically and psychologically. 

Bosnia-Herzegovina's early history is similar to the rest of the region: Illyrians, Romans, and Slavs. In the late 15th century Turkish rulers from the Ottoman Empire began a 400-year domination of the country. Many of the Ottomans' subjects converted to Islam and their descendants remain Muslims today. Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878 then Yugoslavia after WWI until it declared independence in the spring of 1992. The bloody war that ensued came to an end in 1995. There are about 4.6 million people and is 19,741 square miles - about the size of West Virginia. The country's economy has struggled since the war - the per capita GDP is just $6600 and the official unemployment rate is 43%. Rick Steves says, "Nervous travelers might be tempted to give Bosnia-Herzegovina a miss. The country can be unsettling because of its in-your-face war damage and exotic mélange of cultures that seems un-European. But to me, for exactly these reasons, Bosnia ranks alongside Croatia and Slovenia as a rewarding destination. Overcome your jitters and dive in." Challenge accepted!

The topsy turvy drive up and over mountains was, you guessed it, gorgeous.
Stopped at the border to check passports. We finally got stamps! I'll be honest, as soon as we entered, I had a little pit in my stomach. I know there isn't war anymore, but it's still scary!
Who goes to Bosnia?!? The Mostar Bridge depicted on the brown sign is what I was most anxious to see.

Mostar encapsulates the best and the worst of Yugoslavia. During the Tito years its residents enjoyed an idyllic mingling of cultures - Muslim Bosniaks, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats living together in harmony, their differences spanned by an Old Bridge that epitomized an optimistic vision of a Yugoslavia where ethnicity didn't matter. But then, as the country unraveled in the early 1990s, Mostar was gripped by a gory three-way war among those same peoples... and that famous bridge crumbled into the Neretva River. Mostar is still rebuilding and the bullet holes and destroyed buildings are ugly reminders that the last time you saw this place it was probably on the nightly news. Western visitors might also be struck by the immediacy of the Muslim culture that permeates Mostar - at this crossroads of civilizations minarets share the horizon with church steeples. Five times each day loudspeakers on the minarets crackle to life and the call to prayer warbles through the streets. In many parts of the city, you'd swear you were in Turkey (though I wouldn't know because we haven't been to Turkey... yet!). Despite the scars of war, its setting is stunning: straddling the banks of the gorgeous Neretva River with tributaries and waterfalls carving their way through the rocky landscape. 

 See the tall tower, bottom right? That's where we parked the car and began our adventure through Mostar, Bosnia.
First thing's first - we got the kids some ice cream bars at the tourist shop next to the church to keep them happy after being in the car for a couple hours.
In a town of competing religious architectural exclamation points, this spire of the Franciscan Church of Sts. Peter and Paul is the tallest. 
The church, which adjoins a working Franciscan monastery, was built in 1997 after the fighting subsided. The tower is modeled after typical Croatian/Venetian campanile bell towers. 
The church fronts the busy street called Bulevar, or "The Boulevard." It was once the modern main drag of Mostar. In the early 1990s this street became the frontline of the wars and virtually all of its buildings were destroyed. While many of the buildings along here have been rebuilt, lots of damage is still evident. Mortar craters in the asphalt leave poignant scars.
I just tried to imagine what it would be like to live here during the wars and it scared the bejeezies out of me. Unfathomable! I love the juxtaposition of the ugly bullet hole craters with the beauty of the potted flowers and pretty seating.
We crossed the busy boulevard and walked down Onešćukova street. A few steps down on the left the vacant lot with the menorah-ornamented metal fence will someday be the Mostar Synagogue. While the town's Jewish population has dwindled to a handful of families since WWII, many Jews courageously served as aid workers and intermediaries when Croats and Bosniaks were killing each other. In recognition of their loving help, the community of Mostar gave them this land for a new synagogue.  
Right below the menorah we saw this:
It really is so sad that this kind of hatred still exists in our world. Peace and love people, come'on!

We crossed the bridge over the Radoblja Creek, which winds over waterfalls and several mills on its way to join the Neretva.
Then we entered the city's cobbled historic core. 
As we stepped upon the smooth, ankle-twisting river stones, we suddenly became immersed in the Turkish heritage of Mostar. 

Evans family in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday May 4th, 2014.
The streets are lined with vendors selling knick knacks of every kind - most of the things I'd never seen before!
Stunning mosaic lamps. | Bright and colorful floral pottery. I wanted one of each!
Vibrant dishes! | Copper serving platters!
Everywhere we looked we could see tall spires, or minarets. 

These slender needles jutting up into the sky are the Islamic equivalent of the Christian bell tower, used to call people to prayer. In the old days, the muezzin (prayer leader) would climb the tower five times a day and chant, "There is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet." In modern times, loudspeakers are used instead. I was hoping to hear a call to prayer. Did I, or did I not? You'll have to read on to find out :)

Copper-domed Turkish bathhouse which was destroyed in WWII and only recently rebuilt.
Many of the trinkets being sold were made from empty bullet shells and other artillery pieces. So crazy! I guess it's a clever way to make money off of the leftover debris from the war!
Back on the main drag we continued along the interesting shopping zone, past several market stalls, to the focal point of town, the Old Bridge (Stari Most). 
One of the most evocative sights in the former Yugoslavia, this iconic bridge confidently spanned the Neretva River for more than four centuries. Mostarians of all faiths love the bridge and speak of "him" as an old friend. Traditionally considered the point where East meets West, the Old Bridge is as symbolic as it is beautiful. Dramatically arched and flanked by two boxy towers, the bridge is stirring. 

 Before the Old Bridge the Neretva was spanned only by a rickety suspension bridge, guarded by mostari ("watchers of the bridge") who gave the city its name. Commissioned in 1557 by the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, and completed just nine years later, the Old Bridge was a technological marvel for its time. Because of its graceful keystone design - and the fact that there are empty spaces inside the structure - it's much lighter than it appears. And yet, nearly 400 years after it was built, the bridge was still sturdy enough to support the weight of the Nazi tanks that rolled in to occupy Mostar. Over the centuries it became the symbol of the town and region - a metaphor in stone for the way the diverse faiths and cultures here were able to bridge the gaps that divided them. All of that drastically changed in the early 1990s. Beginning in May of 1993, as the city became engulfed in war, the Old Bridge frequently got caught in the crossfire. Old tires were slung over its sides to absorb some of the impact from nearby artillery and shrapnel. In November of 1993 Croats began shelling the bridge from the top of the mountain. The bridge took several direct hits on November 8; on November 9 another shell caused the venerable Old Bridge to lurch, then tumble in pieces into the river. The mortar inside, which contained pink bauxite, turned the water red as it fell in. Locals said that their old friend was bleeding. After the war, city leaders decided to rebuild the Old Bridge. Chunks of the original bridge were dredged up from the river. But the limestone had been compromised by soaking in water for so long, it couldn't be used, and pieces of the bridge are still visible on the riverbank below. Having pledged to rebuild the bridge authentically, restorers cut new stone from the original quarry and each block was hand carved. Then they assembled the stones with the same technology used by the Ottomans 450 years ago: workers erected wooden scaffolding and fastened the blocks together with iron hooks cast in lead. The project was overseen by UNESCO and cost over $13 million. It took longer to rebuild the bridge in the 21st century than it did to built it in the 16th century, go figure. 

If you have 8 minutes to spare to watch how this bridge came crumbling down and then rebuilt, here's a YouTube video:
We crossed the bridge and got spectacular views of the river and all the buildings along it. Looking south.
Looking north.
Closeup of the buildings on the right. 
To get a good glimpse of the bridge we backtracked and walked down the steps to the river.
Greenery across the river; so pretty.
Jay and Haylie were always asking me to take their picture, and then we'd switch. I'm glad, now we have lots of family pictures of our trip!
Collage of views from the bridge.
Who knew Bosnia was so amazing?
Since the bridge's restoration, another piece of history has fully returned, as young men once again jump from the bridge 75 feet down into the Neretva (which remains icy cold even in the summer). Done both for the sake of tradition and to impress girls, this custom was carried on even during the time when the destroyed bridge was replaced by a wooden one. Now the tower on the west side of the bridge houses the office of the local "Divers Club," a loosely run organization that carries on this long-standing ritual. 
At this point we were famished and turned around back down Onešćukova to eat lunch at the recommended Šadrvan restaurant. I got veal kebabs and fries. And it was soooo good. The best food I'd had on our trip thus far! Everyone was so happy and content after getting some good food in their bellies.
And the atmosphere at the restaurant was top notch.
Stray cats everywhere! This one joined us for lunch and Jay gave it some meat. Jane finished her lunch early so Chris took her to Crooked Bridge. 
This miniature Old Bridge was built nearly a decade before its more famous sibling, supposedly to practice for the real deal. Damaged - but not destroyed - during the war, the bridge was swept away several years later by floods. The bridge here is a recent reconstruction.
After lunch we crossed back over the Old Bridge and headed down Kujundžiluk (Coppersmiths') Street. This lively strip, with the flavor of a Turkish bazaar, offers some of the most colorful shopping this side of Istanbul.
Mostar's community includes many practicing Muslims. We stepped into the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque for a look at one of Mostar's many mosques. The fountain in the courtyard allows worshippers to wash before entering as directed by Islamic law. This practice, called ablution, is both a literal and spiritual cleansing in preparation for being in the presence of Allah. 
This mosque, dating from the early 17th century, is notable for its cliff-hanging riverside location and because it's easily accessible for tourists.
Because the mosque is accustomed to tourists we didn't have to take off our shoes to enter, I didn't need to wear a scarf, and we were allowed to take photos inside.
I enjoyed seeing the traditional elements of the mosque. The niche across from the entry is oriented toward Mecca (the holy city in today's Saudi Arabia) - the direction all Muslim's face to pray. The small stairway that seems to go nowhere is symbolic of the growth of Islam - Muhammad had to stand higher and higher to talk to his growing following. This serves as a kind of pulpit where the cleric gives a speech. No priest ever stands on the top stair which is symbolically reserved for Muhammad. 
The balcony is traditionally where women worship. Muslim men decided prayer would go better without the enjoyable but problematic distraction of bent-over women between them and Mecca, lol. Muslims believe that capturing a living creature (plants, animals, humans, what have you) in a painting or sculpture  is inappropriate. In fact, depictions of Allah and the prophet Muhammed are strictly forbidden. Instead, mosques are filled with ornate patterns and Arabic calligraphy.
Then we paid to climb the minaret. 
Climbing the 89 claustrophobic, spiral stairs was a memorable experience, rewarding us with the best views over Mostar and the Old Bridge that one can get without wings! Isn't the color of the water divine?!
And whatdoyouknow - while we were up on top of the minaret there was a call to prayer! Wish granted! I'll be honest, it sounds so super eerie to me. And sorry for the loud wind, it was breezy.
My favorite picture of the day:
Mostar. What a day, what a place. I will never forget our time here. Such an incredibly sad city, but booming with new life and trying to move on from the war. 10 out of 10!

Then we drove two hours to our next destination: DUBROVNIK, CROATIA!


  1. Another outstanding summary our trip to this incredible place!

  2. I remember the wars too ... and I don't blame you for being scared to go in the first place! I loveeeeeee the photos from your trip and to visit a Mosque must have been an awesome experience!! One of those bowls would have been perfect to compliment your pieces you bought in Poland!!!

  3. A. Maze. Ing! Wow, Paige! I can't believe how adventurous you are. Remember when you wouldn't even walk through our own neighborhood with us? I liked the pock marked bullet holes. Hard to imagine how frightening it must have been only 20 years ago.

  4. What a beautiful, quiet city! I can't believe all the things that once happened there. Just beautiful!!


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