Editor’s note: sometimes it is the most unexpected places that end up meaning the most. In this wonderful story, Sam shares a spontaneous visit to a destination that he truly loved. For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index.
When I planned my grand backpacking trip around the Balkans, my game plan was to largely stick to the coastal cities and countries. The beaches and nightlife of Montenegro and Croatia attracted me, just as they do people from all over the world. In mapping out my itinerary departing from Athens and ending in Ljubljana, Slovenia over three weeks, I spent weeks meticulously researching bus routes and times to be able to get from city to city. While we planned to work our way from Greece to Albania to North Macedonia, through Kosovo to Montegro, up through Croatia and ending in Slovenia, one country that did not make our itinerary was Bosnia & Herzegovina. This country was not known for its beaches, its impressive palaces, or churches. All I had known about Bosnia was that there had been a horrible war and genocide that had taken place there in the early 1990s, not exactly anything appealing. Along my journey, I kept seeing signs that said “Mostar”, a city that I had never heard of, and showed a bridge over a river. While the bridge was beautiful, again, it did not seem like a reason to go to this place, especially when I found out that the original bridge had been destroyed in the war, while the current bridge was a rebuilt replica. However, everyone I encountered kept raving about this country and saying that we must go. When I was told by a fellow backpacker that not going to Bosnia & Herzegovina would be the biggest mistake of my trip, I made what ended up being the best stop of my trip by cutting a few days out of Croatia and going to Mostar.
Getting to Mostar from popular Croatian cities is not difficult. It is about 2.5 hours northeast of Dubrovnik and 2.5 hours southeast of Split. While Split and Dubrovnik are overrun by tourists and cruise ships, and bars, hotels, and restaurants sport Western European price tags, Mostar is a haven from these frustrations. In Mostar and Bosnia, you will see some of the cheapest prices of the Balkans and, being a landlocked city, you will not have to compete with the cruise ship tourists. The fifth largest city in the nation, Mostar has a population of about 100,000 people and features many attractions, while being small enough to navigate easily. Upon reaching the city, you will immediately find yourself at the infamous pedestrian Old Bridge going steeply up and then abruptly down to cross the Neretva River, 66 feet below. The stone bridge is 95 feet across and connects the newer part of town to the older part of town and has its own museum next to the bridge. The bridge and its area are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and originally, the bridge was constructed by the Turks in 1566. This feat of architecture stood for 427 years until it was blown up by the Croat Paramilitary during the 1993 Croat-Bosniak War. The bridge took three years to be rebuilt and was reopened in 2004. Today, the bridge is an infamous place for divers to plunge into the river below as spectators “ooo” and “ahh” from the sidelines, especially when there are diving competitions. Occasionally, a drunk tourist will attempt this stunt, which can end with death; leave this one to the professionals.
Mostar’s old town, with its greenery, nearby mountains, and riverside location, is one of the most beautiful and authentic towns in Europe. The cobblestone streets, old style homes, and the Turkish hammams and mosques that date back hundreds of years make any visitor feel as though they are in a time warp. In the evening, bars open up onto the sidewalks as local spectators cheer on their favorite soccer team. Unlike devoutly Catholic Croatia, in Mostar, you get exposure to Islam and a traditional Muslim culture, where you will witness men in traditional garb and see ceremonies taking place. In the old town, an attraction of particular interest is the 300-year-old Muslibegovica House: a mansion that gives an insight into Herzegovina culture and history and is considered by many to be the most beautiful old home in the Balkans.
Sadly, Mostar is one of the cities where you can see still the scars of the 1993 war. With no access to other cemeteries due to the destruction of the bridges, the local population had to convert a local park into a cemetery during the war. It is moving to see hundreds of graves in the middle of the city, all with similar death dates, of mostly young men who were killed in the war. Throughout the city, there is still damage from shrapnel, and walking down the street two decades later, I found many casings of sniper shells. A place where I got very sad was in finding the synagogue, which I had been excited to see, destroyed from the war. At the time I visited, there was also a building in the middle of town that was in ruins, filled with bullet holes and broken glass. When my friends and I explored it, we found hundreds of sniper casings, as this building was used by snipers during the war. Perhaps most tragic is that the emotional wounds of the residents of Mostar are still evident, and some are willing to share dark, painful memories. Though the war took place nearly 30 years ago, in Mostar, the town has both recovered, and has so much damage that I would have believed anyone who would have told me the war had been just a week ago.
Mostar is located in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia & Herzegovina, and a popular, must-do daytrip that many run from Mostar is the Herzegovina tour. One of the towns that is on the tour is the hillside town of Pocitelj. This village looks like it is out of a medieval painting, and features mosques and a fortress that overlooks the winding river. Exploring the town is one of the more beautiful Balkan experiences one can have. A popular spot for Catholic pilgrims on the daytrip is the town of Medjugorge, where, supposedly, in 1981, the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of children. An average of a million Catholics a year journey to this town for prayers. The most famous spot on the daytrip is the town of Blagaj, where the bright blue spring of the Buna River emerges from a steep mountain. At the entrance of the spring, hanging over the river is one of the symbols of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Blagaj Tekke, a monastery built in 1520 in Mediterranean and Ottoman architectural styles. This spot, along with the Old Bridge of Mostar, are two of the most photographed attractions in the nation. Finally, the day ends with cooling off at the Kravice Falls. A sprawling waterfall, whose beauty is unmatched throughout the European continent, Kravice Falls stands at 80 feet tall and 390 feet wide dropping into a warm, refreshing lake full of locals and visiting tourists alike. Kravice Falls, like the rest of the day, can be summed up by the word perfection. In my visit to Bosnia & Herzegovina, I stayed in Mostar’s Taso Guesthouse. Taso, the owner, led us on the day trip, and also took his guests out for nights on the town, and he shared his personal and painful memories of the 1993 war with us. Staying with Taso made the experience more authentic and fun.
Sadly, I did not make it up to the capital of Sarajevo, though I have heard that it is not a city to be missed, thus giving me a reason to return to Bosnia & Herzegovina. Though not on my initial itinerary, it turned out to likely be the highlight of my Balkan adventure and was easily my favorite city and cultural experience in the Balkans, and one of my top destinations in the world. While not for the faint of heart, Mostar will leave Americans with an appreciation of our privilege, a better understanding of history, a phenomenal cultural experience, and with memories to last a lifetime. For those who travel to this off the beaten path destination, Mostar and Herzegovina will be added as one of your all time favorite places.
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