From a visit on July 30, 2006
When a place lends itself to the leisure of other people it generally becomes a haven for the lewd and the superficial. I am now in the fifteenth month of a backpacking journey that has taken me to some of the less contemporary parts of the world. In speaking with people and seeing their ways I have found that culture, above all things, is what makes a country endearing, and that a culture exploited is something lamentable. A place that panders to tourism is simply a place without a soul.
With an old friend from the States I have recently been traveling through the less visited regions of Eastern Europe. Having started in Slovenia and made our way down along the Adriatic Coast, we were disheartened by the droves of vacationers there. Croatia we found to be beautiful, overcrowded, and overpriced. To escape the masses we decided on heading east into the somewhat stigmatized countryside of Bosnia-Herzegovina. From Dubrovnik we took two separate busses that would bring us to Mostar, where we could spend the afternoon walking and exploring the town before hopping a later train to Sarejevo.
I find that small, suburban towns are where I come to understand the true nature of a country's people. These are where western influences and popular culture are always last to appear. Mostar, for the most part, is a quiet such little town (now of approximately 94 thousand people), spanning the banks of the Neretva River. Though the city is scarred by its recent history (having been the scene of the front lines of the Bosnian war), it is still regarded as the most picturesque setting in the region. Today Mostar is beautiful, quaint,war-torn. While facades of buildings remain peppered by bullet holes,streets are lined with the empty shells of bombed-out structures that have not been restored since the war. Photographs of the once demolished town hang solemnly on mosques and church doors, describing the atrocities that occured, the casualties suffered, and the resolve it took to restore the town to its present distinction. Passing the dozens of graveyards throughout the town, one cannot help to wonder what brutality the people had suffered here.
The town is centered around the Old Bridge (1556), which was destroyed in 1993 and later rebuilt during the country's reconstruction. Some say it is representative of the unity to come between Muslims and Croats. Surrounding it are the narrow cobblestone lanes, outdoor cafes and shops that compose the heart of the old town. Today locals stroll easily through the streets, relax by the river, sit with a beer outside of a cafe. By the casual atmosphere one would not imagine that anything tragic had ever occured here, and by the vibrant murmur that pervades the streets, and by the museums and artisian shops that seem to have sprung up in anticipation of something, it is apparent that a tourism industry is budding. It wont be long, I imagine, before the city has its place among Budapest and Prague as one of the more renowned destinations of Eastern Europe.
The course of the Neretva as it winds through Mostar makes for an impressive landscape. Known to be of the purest and coldest in the world, it is certainly some of the most beautiful blue water I have ever seen. During the day we laid by the river and napped in the shade. It was a pleasant afternoon, and we had a quick swim, and afterward we went to the old town to sit and watch the people coming in from Sarajevo. Over the weekend there would be an influx of Bosnians from the city, coming to fill the pensions and cafes, and there would be music and dancing in the streets until the late hours of the morning. At sundown we showered and dressed and walked into the old town for dinner. It was a pretty night, and the streets were dimly lit by lamposts, and the restaraunt terraces along the river had filled up for the evening.
For only eleven Marks (about 6 dollars) apeice we ate a big meal of fish and pasta at a little place called Cista Voda, and it was the best meal we had had in awhile. As we talked a young Bosnian man at the next table overheard our conversation. His name was Jusuf, and in perfect English he told us that he had just recently returned from Wisconsin, where he gone at the age if sixteen to escape the war. Talking with us he was candid about the things that had happened there. Showing us his forearm with a Muslim tatoo, Jusuf explained to us about the war, and how the Serbian army, under Milosovic, had invaded, setting up "camps" and taking Sarejevo, and how the Croats,after coming to help fight off the invasion, had then turned to take the capitol for themselves, and how the region erupted into bloodshed while the United Nations stood by to let the whole thing pass. When the war ended 1995 over one-hundred thousand people had died, and Mostar had been left in ruins. Changing the subject I mentioned to Jusuf how incredibly beautiful the Bosnian women are, and he smiled and said they are the most beautiful in Europe, stating it as if it were fact, and how because of what happened there are now seven women for every Bosnian man. It must have been a very ugly war.
Leaving Jusuf we walked through the town. On the old main street there was a cave that had been renovated into a nightclub, what had once been a meeting place for ancient Muslim's, and we had a drink there and talked to some people before crossing over the bridge to the other side of town. In the narrow streets there were drums playing, people dancing, others sitting and clapping, and it seemed to be a celebration. For a short while we joined the crowd, watching the musicians play, dancing and singing, until at nine o'clock we had our train that would take us on into Sarajevo. Regretfully we said farewell to a few acquaintances and made our way to the station. As we left I was saddened by the thought that I might not ever return there. There is a stirring sentimentality about Mostar, and there is a heartening, upbeat enthusiasm amongst the Bosnians, perhaps for the life that they are now free to live, and there appears to be a certain amount of optimism for their future.
Recently the old bridge has been inscribed to UNESCO's World Heritage List for its protection and preservation as a significant cultural monument. The Bosnian poeple have taken a great deal of pride in this as an affirmaton of their cultural stature. They are a passionate people, and proud of their country. As the defamation from the war fades I am certain that more travelers will be venturing there as freely as they do into Hungary and the Czech Republic. In visiting Mostar one will experience a true Bosnia-Herzegovina, and gain an understanding of its vivid history.
An Evening in Mostar, Bosnia
From a visit on July 30, 2006
Copyright © 2010 Bradley Fink