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!
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.
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.
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.
We crossed the bridge over the Radoblja Creek, which winds over waterfalls and several mills on its way to join the Neretva.
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!
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 :)
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:
Closeup of the buildings on the right.
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!
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!