20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

October 11, 2017
20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

A city a day keeps the wanderlust at bay...
20 DAYS. 20 CITIES. 6 COUNTRIES.
AUSTRIA • SLOVENIA • CROATIA • BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA • MONTENEGRO • ITALY

PART 8, DAY 11: UNEXPECTED OTTOMAN EMPIRE AT MOSTAR, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

"Hey now, you're a Mostar, get your game on, go play..."

Before heading from Split to my next Croatian city, Dubrovnik, I made a detour and drove across the border into one of Europe's least-visited countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina. My 20 Day, 20 Cities, and 6 Countries Balkans road trip was inspired by my recent reading list of Yugoslavian history* - more specifically, the events surrounding its collapse in 1992 (I was especially haunted by the scenes depicted in Joe Sacco's journalistic graphic novels Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo) - so it was inevitable that I would eventually find myself in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was a long drive from Split, Croatia to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, so I decided to break up the journey by stopping midway at Mostar - a city of great architectural and natural beauty with Turkish influences that was a world apart from anything I had seen on this trip thus far.

*Yes, it's not the most romantic reason for a "holiday" - Other people: "I want to go to Paris because l'amour!" Me: "I'm going to Bosnia, because war..." - but I've always been a nerd for conflict history and socio-politics. 


20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina


MOSTAR OLD TOWN

Despite living in one of the most diverse metropolitans in the world, London, I have a grand total of one, just one, Bosnian acquaintance and not once did I ever think to ask him about his home country, its histories, and its cities. Prior to this trip, all I knew about Mostar was that the city's icon, Stari Most (Old Bridge), was famous not only as a fine example of Ottoman architecture but also as being on the book cover of Lonely Planet's  Southeastern Europe guideI knew, of course, that Turkish influences were a given as  Mostar was an important crossroads settlement and provincial capital in the Ottoman Empire...

...But I didn't quite expect that the Old Town of Mostar would transport me to Constantinople (nor did I expect the accepted currencies to be Bosnian Marks, Croatian Kuna, and Euros). So it was quite the contrast, to step from an conflict-scarred urban landscape seemingly caught in a '90s time warp and into a beautifully-restored Ottoman quarter; all cobblestones, copper, and carpets. Throw in some Austro-Hungarian architecture jostling for position amongst mosques and minarets - especially on the West banks of the Neretva River - and my astonishment was complete.




A slice of Turkey (Ottoman Empire, geddit?)

Weaving in and out of the hordes of day trippers (including yours truly) and trying desperately not to lose my footing on the slippery, polished cobblestoned Old Town (this was not the occasion to be wearing espadrille wedges...), my senses were bombarded. The scent of smokey meats, the fragrance of strong sweet teas and even stronger dark coffees lingered in the gloriously hot summer sun. The sound of metal on metal punctuated the air as coppersmiths worked on their intricate wares - pots, pans, and tea sets. 


Everywhere I looked, Turkish threads from full-sized carpets to fun-sized versions made into wallets and purses embroidered with portraits of Joseph Broz Tito (the late dictator of former Yugoslavia)  added a riot of colour to the blue of the twinkling river and the grey of Mostar's medieval towers. As the Old Town steadily inclined, I peeked over the walls to see rows of locals (it seemed that skimpy Speedos were the attire of choice for most men) sunning themselves on the rocky river bank, waiting for local daredevils to dive from the Old Bridge.


20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina


STARI MOST (OLD BRIDGE)


The heart and soul of Mostar is indubitably Stari Most, the Old Bridge. So much so that when it succumbed to tank shelling and collapsed into the Neretva River, the city's collective heart (some would say even the entire country shed a tear) too shattered into many pieces. The 400 year old bridge, an outstanding example of Ottoman Empire architecture, is the most celebrated bridge in the Balkans, forming a majestic stone arc between medieval towers and running over the raging, icy-cold waters of Neretva River.


During the '80s, Mostar enjoyed a tourism boom and visitors from all over Yugoslavia would flock to Stari Most in summer, especially for the July diving competition. Naturally, the bridge's iconic status and place in the Bosnian's hearts made it a favoured target for Croatian artillery during the ethnic wars from 1992 to 1995. In 1993, a direct hit sent the bridge crumbling into the Neretva River. It was only 11 years after its destruction , in 2004, that the city of Mostar unveiled the new Stari Most - painstakingly rebuilt to recreate the 1567 original. 



20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 8: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina


Don't burn bridges, just jump off them. Wait, what?

I was lucky to witness a world-famous, longstanding local tradition: leaping off Stari Most. Professional jumpers (and a few insane travellers who pay €25 to try it for themselves - some have died in the attempt) drop, feet first, straight off the parapet of the bridge and plunge 20 metres into the freezing waters of Neretva River. I only realised I had stumbled upon this infamous local sport when I approached Stari Most but found the bridge cordoned off and a large crowd all holding their breath. Then I spotted a professional jumper waiting, standing still as a statue at the very top of the bridge, as his touts collected photo money from the onlooking crowd. 

His friend gave him the signal, and the diver stuck out his right arm in a salute, held his breath, then put us all out of our misery - he leapt, and for a suspenseful couple of seconds there was nothing but silence...then a sound like a gunshot as he hit the river, 20 metres below.

Call it Bosnian bungee-jumping or Mostar madness, either way it's an established sport - Stari Most is one of the pit stops of the Red Bull Diving Championships. Locally, there's a bridge-diving competition in July that's always drawn huge crowds from before the Yugoslavian era to present day. 





Despite my short time in Mostar, I left the Old Town with a powerful realisation. The thing about burning bridges is, that no matter how hard you try to rebuild, it'll never be the same again. Not even if you try to recreate it stone for stone - there will always be cracks, whether physical or emotional. The destruction of Stari Most (below) is the perfect, tragic metaphor for burning bridges; representing the conflict and wars that led to the collapse of Yugoslavia; and of an irreparable once-multiethnic coexistence of Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians.

As for sombre food for thought, Mostar was only an appetiser...what would come next in Sarajevo was truly hard to swallow...

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