Discover the beating heart of Bosnia
It’s fair to say that Bosnia & Herzegovina is not usually on the top of people’s wish lists when planning a trip to Europe. News snippets about the country’s almost 200,000 unexploded land mines seems to be what catches people’s attention nowadays, yet it’s not just travelers with an inherent death-wish who venture deep into the heart of this stunning Balkan nation. As opposed to what most mass media will have you believe, Bosnia is well on its way to recovering from the damages of its devastating war and the country is slowly being overtaken by adventurous travellers who think the abundance of raging rivers, verdant hills, historic towns and luscious forests are just a pickle to discover.
If you’re still worried about those landmines…don’t be! Not only have they all been located, but ‘dodgy’ fields are clearly marked and pose absolutely no danger to tourists.
Bosnia & Herzegovina offers the exploratory traveler much in terms of cultural, natural and historical splendours and, if you’d like to experience the best of Bosnia in one swift trip, look no further than the town of Mostar and its surrounding areas.
Boasting a delightful UNESCO listed Old Town, and a population evenly divided between the country’s three significant ethnic groups, Mostar may at first appear to be a tourist trap (if ever such a thing in Bosnia exists), yet reveals itself to be an immensely interesting city to explore and a great gateway to the country’s most prized natural attraction.
Mostar Old Town
Completely restored to its former glory, the Old Town centre of Mostar is an extremely pretty and compact maze of cobblestone streets, Islamic architecture and an unfortunate, and rather obscene, amount of touristy shops. Really. But step aside the overly-commercialised side of Mostar Old Town, and you can’t help but become enamoured with this treasure-trove of prettiness. The riverside cafés, gorgeous Islamic mosques, Turkish-style bazaars and stunning surrounds that are so photogenic you may find it difficult to put your camera down for more than just a few minutes.
Set along the banks of the Neretva River, Mostar reached illustrious importance during Ottoman rule and, although it has been almost entirely rebuilt anew after intense bombing in 1993, it still exudes a rather exotic charm, something one normally doesn’t find anywhere in central Europe. Mostar is known mostly for its star attraction, Stari Most, one of Bosnia’s most iconic symbols and a truly beautifully designed bridge.
Whilst the original dated back to the 15th century, and the bridge you walk across nowadays is a brand new reconstruction, nothing detracts from its striking appearance. In fact the whole historic centre is a total charm. There are a dozen little cafés lining the riverside, where you can enjoy an authentic cup of Turkish coffee, watch the crowds of Japanese tourists shop relentlessly, and try in vain to telepathically push one of the Mostar Dive Centre members off the bridge. Apparently, the Stari Most bridge diving is a long-held tradition here and one most visitors would actually love to see (21 metres is a long way down you know), yet unfortunately it seems that the lure of the buck has affected the diving club rather hard too. Divers seem to spend more time collecting donations than actually diving, so don’t be disappointed if the only being you end up seeing splashing in the river is a stray dog chasing ducks. Oh well…just as pretty we figured.
History buffs may be interested in a visit to the Museum of the Old Bridge, located on the first floor of the western-end tower. The museum is divided into three sections; there’s an archaeological floor showcasing ancient finds discovered during the bridge reconstruction, an entire section dedicated to the remnants of the old wooden bridge prior to the stone-bridge construction and finally, a truly heartbreaking section with slides, photos and videos of the total annihilation of the bridge and the town during the Yugoslav War. Entry costs just a Euro and a visit here is infinitely recommended, however opening times seem to vary at (someone’s) will so you may have to ‘pop in’ a few times before you find the doors open.
Step out of the walls…
Mostar’s Old Town is small and very well defined, which means stepping out of its walls, and away from the visiting crowds is effortless and a very worthwhile activity.
Of all the towns in Bosnia, Mostar is said to have the most ethnically divided population. Once inhabited by the three major ethnic groups (Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs) the war managed to disperse the Serbs, leaving Croats and Bosniaks to fight it out for themselves. Peace may have come eventually, yet this city is still very much a culturally divided town. The western side of the Neretva River is Croat, whilst the eastern side is most definitely Muslim, as can be plainly visible to anyone who ventures away from the touristy areas. What is also incredibly affronting is the fact that the council may have done a zippy job of restoring the old town centre, yet most of suburban Mostar is still a mix of brand new buildings alongside bullet-ridden and mortar-shelled old mansions.
If you want to experience a relaxing afternoon in Mostar, then head to City Central Park (known locally as Zrinjski Park), a gorgeous city oasis brimming with flowering gardens, smooching youngsters, a great garden café, and a rather baffling Bruce Lee statue, one of the most bizarre attractions in town.
Created by a group of local artists, a bronze statue of Bruce Lee in combat mode was unveiled in this park in 2006. Theoretically, it was meant to stand for bravery in the face of injustice, as well as cultural diversity and solidarity. Factually, however, it angered both young Bosniaks and Croats who claimed the fighting stance was a provocation to violence. There’s just no pleasing some people! The vandalized statue itself has gone to Zagreb for repairs, yet the pedestal it stood on remains in the park, making it an ideal platform for your very own kung-fu demonstration perhaps.
The park has plenty of benches and a great kid’s playground which would be perfect if your tots are getting bored of wandering around historic hoods.
Mostar’s omnipresent past struggles are evident on every corner; every second city block is home to a few impromptu cemeteries, which were set up on vacant city plots during the tumultuous war years. You should be able to spot quite a few as you stroll the tree-lined streets adjoining the historic centre.
Go to the mall!
Short-term holiday makers, feel free to skip to the next section; long-term smelly adventurers…read on! Mostar is home to a mindboggling shopping mall, the likes of which you have not seen since you left home all those months ago. BONUS! Complete with English-language movie theaters, gym, indoor pool, well-known brand stores and YES, even a McDonalds, the Mepas Mall is really off the Bosnian planet and, although it rather sticks out like a pair of dog’s-you-know-what in Mostar, it matters not when you can indulge in the latest flick and an indigestion-inducing Maccas gorge. You’ll find Mepas on Kardinala Stepinca, just 3-4 blocks northwest of the Old Bridge.