Mostar: From the Ruins

On Sunday I told you about Sarajevo, a beautiful, cultured city still rebuilding itself after almost total obliteration. The vivid dichotomy between beauty and destruction was visible throughout the country, but nowhere was it more apparent than in Mostar, the biggest city in the southern region of Herzegovina.

Teeny tiny history lesson: Mostar, a gorgeous medieval city, was caught in the crossfire of two separate conflicts during the Bosnian war. The city managed to successfully fight back Serbian shells, only to morph into the front line of the Bozniak-Croat conflict. Basically, it got pummeled from both sides, and hard.

The city was almost completely demolished. Even now, over fifteen years later, walking through downtown Mostar is an eerie experience.  Gutted office buildings loom over shell pocked sidewalks. The houses still standing are incomprehensibly riddled with bullets. Everywhere signs warn of dangerous ruins and possible unexploded landmines.

It’s not all depressing though. Mere blocks away the Old Town gleams like new. The entire neighborhood has been rebuilt; the stone buildings buffed and polished to beautiful perfection. The area is a major tourist draw (it’s a popular inland destination for Adriatic cruises), so there was extra incentive to rebuild it. You can eat gelato, peruse the trinket shops, or have a beer in one of the many scenic cafes. If it’s tourist-y it’s the most charming tourist area I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to begrudge Mostar the much-needed economic boost.

In what many Bosnians consider a low point of the war, Stari Most, the great 16th century Ottoman bridge and symbol of the city, was blown to pieces in 1993. In 2004 the bridge, symbol of Mostar, was finally rebuilt. It shines magnificently over the icy Neretva river has a symbol of piece.

The Old Bridge is the centerpiece of the town.  During the day buskers collect money on the high arch and then dive off once they’ve filled their pockets. Occasionally tourists will try to duplicate this tricky feat. The week before my visit and American backpacker was shipped home with a broken neck- yikes. In the evening the bridge is lit up with golden spotlights, and the entire old town seems to glow against the inky sky.

It’s very jarring to see such beauty and charm only a thirty second walk from crumbling destruction. Together, the two really illustrate the emotional experience of visiting Bosnia. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and welcoming and uncomfortable. It’s history and religion and the very best and worst of human nature all built into the curve of a bridge. It’s a lot to take in and tremendously thought provoking, all of which give Bosnia a special place in my heart.

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14 Responses to Mostar: From the Ruins

  1. Candice November 17, 2009 at 10:23 AM #

    That bridge is insanely gorgeous…although I’d refrain from diving off it, I think
    .-= Candice´s last blog ..Dumpster love =-.

    • Steph November 17, 2009 at 10:33 AM #

      This crazy Canadian kid I met a week later actually managed to do it successfully! He spent a day watching the professionals and then went up and gave it a try. Gutsy or incredibly stupid?

  2. Gray November 17, 2009 at 12:05 PM #

    I vote for incredibly stupid and incredibly lucky. 🙂
    This is a lovely article, Steph. The photos are a nice addition–they really tell the story of a beautiful city that has suffered a lot. What are the people there like?
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..Solo Dining Review: Il Fornaio =-.

    • Steph November 17, 2009 at 12:12 PM #

      Thank you Gray!
      The people were ridiculously welcoming. I stayed at a family run hostel that was literally just a family’s apartment. One woman ran the hostel (she was nice enough to drive us to the bus station at 6am when we left), her brother gave day-tours of Herzigovina for something like 10 euros. One of my traveling companions had the flu and the grandmother of the family devoted an entire day to nursing him back to health with chicken soup and hot tea!

  3. Nancy November 17, 2009 at 12:45 PM #

    Gorgeous pics Steph. I’m even more pissed off that I never made it there when I was visiting Dubrovnik! Oh well-I’ll just have to go back. There’s something so powerful about seeing the former Yugoslavia. Amazing landscapes and architectural beauty juxtaposed with recent war-torn destruction. Thanks for this post.
    .-= Nancy´s last blog ..Happiness is a Warm Pen =-.

  4. Damiano November 17, 2009 at 5:57 PM #

    Great piece! I was there this past summer, and it had been high on my list of places to visit (being Italian and having heard war stories from up-close)…it didn’t let me down at all! It was even my girlfriend’s favorite place of a 1 month trip through the Balkans, and she was backpacking for the first time ever! Mostar is just that good! 🙂

  5. Greg Knudsen November 17, 2009 at 6:05 PM #

    I first visited Mostar and the Stari Most in 1971 and again in 1976. In all the death and destruction that occurred in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s, it felt wrong to mourn the loss of a bridge. Yet, it seemed to symbolize all the intellect and beauty that was being wasted and destroyed by war. Perhaps restoration of the bridge will also help restore the people and their lives.

  6. Greg Knudsen November 17, 2009 at 6:16 PM #

    Just noticed that this site was “Twenty-Something Travel.” Well, I guess I’m older than 20, but my first international trip (besides Mexico) was to Yugoslavia, and I celebrated my 20th birthday with Yugoslav friends on the banks of the Sava River in Sremska Mitrovica. Still in my 20s, I joined the Peace Corps and traveled around the world. Yes, don’t wait. I’m still traveling at 58 and have been to 50+ countries. Mostar remains one of my favorite memories.
    .-= Greg Knudsen´s last blog ..gerGnesdunK: Since this is S. Palin’s big "Going Rogue" release day, can’t help re-posting my parody cover: "Really Going Rogue" =-.

    • Steph November 17, 2009 at 6:58 PM #

      Really appreciate your insight Greg! I would have loved to see Mostar before the war.

  7. Abbie November 17, 2009 at 6:42 PM #

    I have to say I’ve never even heard of the place until now, but I’m glad you wrote about it – it’s beautiful.

  8. Peter Dudley November 21, 2009 at 8:26 AM #

    Hi, I just surfed in from Twitter. I am no longer 20-something, but I hope you don’t mind! I really enjoyed reading your story. I was in Mostar in Oct 2007 and absolutely loved it. I was in BiH to interview landmine survivors and watch demining activities. It is a beautiful country and I hope it fully recovers from the war. Here is a link to a story I wrote about Mostar:
    .-= Peter Dudley´s last blog ..2009 Landmine Monitor released =-.

    • Steph November 21, 2009 at 10:57 AM #

      Thank you Peter, your article really captures the heartbreak of the conflict, even all these years later.

  9. themontcalm March 22, 2012 at 9:53 AM #

    Great story. Thanks for relating it to us with a nice photos. Just when I thought your Mostar experience couldn’t get any better, you share more.

  10. Gail February 19, 2013 at 9:59 PM #

    I love the beauty in the photos. I also like that you give us a little history lesson in your article. Thanks for that.
    We are newbie’s when it comes to living on the road. We started our adventure off by riding our bikes across the southern tier of the US from Florida to California, with our two kids. After we are done creating some more adventures in San Diego, we will head back to the midwest and pick up our RV and hit the road for good. Until then, travel, live life and have fun!

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