Musings on Mostar, Bosnia
“If you want to see the real Bosnia, see Mostar.” I heard variations of this sentence from several people, but wasn’t sure why. Wasn’t driving around northern and eastern Bosnia enlightening enough? I did know that Sarajevo, I city I visited twice and enjoyed, was a bit misleading as a Bosnian emblem. Reparation money and a decent tourist industry has made it a bright, bustling spot that defies tourists’ memories of the war. Still, I had seen other parts of Bosnia: simple villages, head-scarved women, graveyards with still-shiny headstones. I had felt a mix of confusion and interest directed at me when I walked through Banja Luka, Travnik, or other cities that rarely saw American visitors. Yet people were insistent; I should see Mostar to see Bosnia.
Muz and I planned a road trip that would begin with one night in the city. We stayed at a hotel in Old Town and weaved through groups of Italian visitors and the occasional backpacker to see the famed Stari Most (Old Bridge). Mostar is named for bridges–or more accurately, bridgekeepers. The town sits on the Neretva River, which was an important thoroughfare for Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian conquerors, and again when the Independent State of Croatia “incorporated” Mostar during World War II. The bridge was built under the orders of Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th Century and was considered an engineering marvel for the size of the arch, length and height of the bridge.
The bridge later became a symbol of war when its 427 year reign ended in a barrage of shells from Bosnian Croat military in 1993. After the end of the war, international aid helped rebuild the bridge using stone and techniques similar to the original structure. The new “Old Bridge” was inaugurated in 2004. It’s a graceful symbol of hope and unity for the city’s Bosnian, Croat, and Serb communities.
We joined the other tourists standing on the bridge and looked out on the cafes and shops lining the west side. This area, Kujundziluk, was once known for its leather and metal craftsman. Today it is filled with Turkish-type souvenir shops and the ubiquitous Turkish-Bosnian-Serbian domestic coffee pot. I can’t believe I haven’t given in to buying one of these…yet.
The other side of the bridge is a little quieter, but features the smaller Crooked Bridge and other restaurants. We spotted a wedding photo shoot taking place, and I played paparazzi with a few shots of my own.
The area around the bridge is touristy, but the town feels more realistic as one heads south. There’s a mosque on every corner, supermarkets and simple cevap places that would charge twice as much in Belgrade. Because it’s not on the tourist path, it’s also a more stark reminder of the town’s recent history. Buildings like the 1902 gymnasium (school) have been renovated since the war, but stand near piles of shelled rubble.
If I had to characterize my time in Mostar in one word, it would be quiet. Everyone seemed subdued; trinket sellers in the Old City didn’t call out to passerby and even the tourists spoke in muted tones. We tried to buy water with a Bosnian Mark bill, but couldn’t. “I only have Euros or Croatian Kuna,” the owner said. “Do you have another currency?” It was the first time I’ve been unable to use local currency during our travels. It seemed that Mostar wasn’t able to embrace its national identity, after suffering so much for it.
The next morning, we stopped by the local market to pick up fruit for our drive. Our vendor helped us pick peaches and asked us what we thought of Mostar. “Svidja mi se,” (I like it), I replied. She said something like, “To je mirno sada” (It’s peaceful now). I nodded and felt both happy and sad. I’m still not sure what the “real Bosnia” is, but I know that it’s complex and unforgettable.