Mostar: from the Rubble

Mostar, Bosnia’s 6th largest city and the center of Herzegovina has a rich history that’s carried over from the Roman, Medieval, and Ottoman eras. The brutal siege and bombings of the city in the early 90’s did their best to try and destroy the remnants of the past but construction over the past ten years has tried to undo these actions. Currently, views of the city exemplify a country in the process of mending its wounds, while also juxtaposing the two dominant cultures that still divide the city to this day.

Croatian side of the city on the left and the Bosniak on the right
Croatian side of the city on the left and the Bosniak on the right

Architecture

Every year the government decides which buildings to renovate. The pro-Croatian party dominates the government, who has almost uniformly chosen to fix their side of town. These decisions effectively give the Bosniak side the appearance that it is still a war zone.

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Stari Most (Old Bridge) is the defining feature of the city and one of the largest tourist destinations in the country. Built in the 16th century, airstrikes tragically destroyed the bridge in 1994 during the Croatian-Bosnian War. In 2004, they rebuilt the bridge by digging the rubble out of the bottom of the Nevreta River.It boasts a stunning view and displays arguably one of the most beautiful examples of Ottoman architecture in the world. Today it stands about 25-28 meters high (depending on who you ask) and this year even hosted the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships. You can jump too, for a fee, after you pay insurance and do some practice jumps.

Stari Most from the banks of the Nevreta River
Stari Most from the banks of the Nevreta River

Old Town

Nowadays, if you visit the city, you can walk through the old town and get a feel for what it was like during Ottoman rule. Vendors sell traditional foods, coffee, and trinkets. Hookah bars line the spaces where you can find shade and even though it’s a Muslim country beer and other alcohol is still readily available everywhere, which is nice to fight off the 100-degree Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) heat that I faced every day there.

Old Town
Old Town

Get Out

On that note the week before I got to Mostar it apparently got up to 50 Celsius or about 122 Fahrenheit, which is insane to me and also unlivable. So, if you are careless enough to go here during August, like me, I suggest you go off the path and at least visit Kravice Falls.

Kravice Falls
Kravice Falls

A great way to beat the heat, but can be a pain to get there. You can hitchhike (pretty common in the former Yugoslavia), or if you feel above that or unsafe doing that, you can just rent a car. There’s also a lot of hiking in the area surrounding, but you need to make sure that you stay on trails as there is a lot of landmines still unfound.

History

The most fascinating part of the city and what sets it apart from other touristy towns has to be the recent war history. It’s in a unique location because it was on the front-lines of the Bosnian-Serbian War and the Croatian-Bosnian War. Sarajevo, the capital, has mostly been rebuilt and renovated, but Mostar seems to be in the middle stages of this process. You have expensive resorts that line the Nevreta River next to high rise condos, and in between, you’ll have the shell of a building with an abandoned snipers nest. All of them have beautiful views of the historical architecture and immaculate nature behind it.

Urban Exploration

There are a ton of war tours led by men that didn’t leave Mostar during the conflict and now walk you around significant sights (be prepared to hear stories that will make the hair on your arms stand on edge and almost violently ill). The best evidence of this is an abandoned bank that sits as the tallest building in the city.

Bank that I broke into and climbed up
Bank that I broke into and climbed up with sniper nest in upper right-hand corner

It was a former sniper’s nest that was abandoned after the war. Now, teenagers and the homeless morphed it into a not-so-hidden hangout. Then it turned into a drug den, and so the town blocked off access. People still go to hang out and get views of the city. Be careful because the place is riddled with needles and broken bottles laying on the ground. Also, there is no wall alongside the stairs to the top, so it becomes a deadly fall to the ground. The Croats used the bank to fire upon Bosniaks.

Inside the bank, there’s an eery feeling that someone could be around any corner. But, you’ll rarely see anyone, except other curious travelers. Occasionally, locals use the location as a place to escape the pain from their pasts. Graffiti lines the walls and pops with bright colors. The content is usually sardonic comments or images about the politics and brutality of the conflict.

On the surface, Mostar is a city that is still under construction, but ostensibly everyone is happy and friendly. When you go to Stari Most, you’ll find locals jumping off for tips. The locals are quick to strike up a conversation and tell you jokes. Seriously, Bosnians have great senses of humor albeit a little dark (go figure). Beneath this are ethnic and personal tensions that are bursting from the seams of the city.

In Pictures

Mostar is a beautiful and captivating city and worth the trip. Travel around the area to get an idea about Herzegovina and see the natural beauty abound. But to ignore the war ruins, I think, gives you an incomplete notion of everything that’s gone on. As cliché as it is, actions speak louder than words. Below are some pictures from inside the bank to illustrate the emotions I experienced within this fascinating place.

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You can see the contrast in the city’s architecture all over
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The 33m cross on Hum Hill was erected by the Croats as a token to spread peace over the region, but to some, it symbolizes the divide still within the city. Most of the shelling came from this hill, so whoever controlled the hill controlled the city. Therefore, the cross represents the deep Muslim-Catholic conflict.
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The more developed Croatian side of the city
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Ground level with blown out glass all over

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View from the top floor of the bank
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Zeus graffiti
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Now it starts to get a little creepier
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An example of the more political graffiti
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Not the most reassuring sight when entering an abandoned building
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One of the more powerful pieces in the building showing the fear and trauma that lingers

5 thoughts

  1. This is such a fascinating post. I love how you didn’t shy away from the city’s dark history, even as you looked at all of the beautiful, more tourist-friendly parts of it. I really hope to visit here someday, I love seeing photos of Mostar!

  2. Such great pictures. I love your chronicle of a city in the midst of revbirth. And I love your picture of the two strikingly different parts of the city. Very cool!! Stari Most was my favorite. So beautiful.

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