The beautiful Stari Most majestically arches over the rushing turquoise waters of the River Neretva. This picture postcard perfect bridge lies at the heart of Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina. The city sprouted up on either side of the bridge and was aptly named after the bridge itself. The fast growing, multi ethnic city came to be known as one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities in the Balkans.
Unfortunately this diverse harmony was shattered during the break up of Yugoslavia. Between 1992 and 1995, rival factions fought bloody battles throughout the city. The city suffered relentlessly, it was held under siege by Serbians, and later again by Croatians. Images of the reckless destruction of the Stari Most bridge by Croatian forces were beamed across the world, symbolising the utter chaos that had struck the region. Happily, thanks to large scale international efforts, the city rebuilt and now welcomes visitors from all around the world.
Couldn’t get enough of…
Watching divers plunge 23 metres from the Stari Most into the river
Sipping rich Bosnian coffee, overlooking the bridge
Exploring the surrounding country side, including the incredible Kravice Falls
Splashing the cash…
Ćevapi meal with fries and drink – €4
Bottle of Beer (Karlovacko Pivo) – €1.20
Double Room in 3* Villa Riva Guesthouse – €25
Jumping into Mostar
I first set foot in Mostar way back in 2007 and was immediately awestruck by the beautiful Stari Most. The WOW! factor increased when we saw a Speedo-clad man dive into the chilly waters below – a drop of over 20 metres! Jostling to impress the girls, local men have been diving off the bridge for hundreds of years. There is a lot of show boating involved, with the scantly clad diver prancing through the crowd, much to the delight of elderly Japanese women who hoot and holla. Eventually, after what seems a decade, the diver clambers over the fence and prepares to dive. The onlookers fall silence and the diver gracefully jumps off the bridge and moments later splashes into the frigid waters below. A deathly silence envelopes the crowd….and then a huge round of applause as the diver resurfaces!
It’s possible for tourists to jump the bridge, but there is a rigorous exercise beforehand to test your mettle. I went for it, but then chickened out when we were practising jumps on smaller dive boards below the bridge. Nooo way was my fear of heights allowing me to jump off a frickin’ bridge! If you do go ahead – be warned. There have been plenty of injuries over the years, so really think about it before even attempting – and double check your travel insurance!
Visiting the city today, it’s hard to image the destruction that ripped through the city 20 years ago. The narrow, cobbled streets leading to the Stari Most have been restored to their Ottoman glory. The Stari Most was built by the to bolster trade with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 16th century. A small, entrepreneurial town sprouted up around the bridge and by the 20th century Mostar was renowned for it finely preserved Ottoman architecture. The clattering and clanking of copper echo through the streets as traditional craftsmen create coffee pots and jewellery. Some of Bosnia’s finest pottery can also be found in Mostar, needless to say bargain hunters will not be disappointed!
The rebuilding of the Stari Most was at the centre piece of revitalising the city. It’s a truly majestic bridge and it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most photographs sights in the Balkans. After taking hundreds of photos of the Stari Most from dozens of angles, swing on down to the Crooked Bridge (Kriva Cuprija). This is a cute micro version of the Stari Most. The original was sadly destroyed in floods in 2000 but thanks to UNESCO funding, it was rebuilt almost immediately. This is the perfect place to stop for a coffee or some food, as the bridge leads on to some lovely little restaurants set amongst lush greenery.
Ćevapi and Coffee
Bosnian and Balkans food in general is massively under rated, and Mostar is home to some of the finest restaurants and cafes in all of Bosnia. The go to snack is Ćevapi, grilled minced meat with fresh bread and usually a side of fries. It’s char-grilled goodness, very filling and can be found for as little as €2.50 in street cafes. FastFood MyWay which is close to the University, is one of the best and cheapest in town. My favourite restaurant in the Old Town is Konoba Taurus, set on a beautiful terrace next to the Crooked Bridge. This friendly restaurants serves some of the best grilled meats and traditional food – including Mozak (fried veal brain). Yes that’s right, come on….. go on, go for it!
No trip to Mostar is complete with sampling the local coffee. Bosnian coffee is similar to Turkish coffee, but don’t mention this to a coffee make…. it’s Bosnian! The coffee is brewed and served a copper tray in an ornate džezva, a handmade copper pot. For a newbie, the coffee making process is quite complicated (Youtube) but the result is a strong, rich coffee that awakens the soul. Best accompanied with Lokum, a sweet similar to Turkish Delight, and a shot of rakija. Rakija is a plum brandy which depending on the source, can be extremely strong in alcohol content. So take it easy folks!
The Great Divide
In 1992 the Yugoslavian Civil war quickly spiralled out of control. Bosnians and Croatians fought together to prevent Serbian forces from taking Mostar and the wider Herezegovina region. However, once the Serbians were repelled, the Croatian army turned on their Bosnian partners and tried to gain control of Mostar. The city bore the full force of urban warfare, with over 2,000 civilians being killed, 70% of buildings in ruins and the cities diversity shattered. The heart of the city was ripped out when the Croatian army cynically destroyed the Stari Most in November 1993.
Today bullet and artillery shell damage are a physical reminder of the war, but the real scar is the invisible divide between Bosnian Muslims, Croatians and Serbians. Despite once having the highest number of mixed marriages, today Mostar is split into the western Croatian side, and the mainly Bosnian eastern side. The main Boulevard through the city was the frontline of the war, and continues to be the dividing line between the two communities. There is no violence today, just a lingering political stalemate that shows no sign of comprise any time soon.
For budget backpackers, one of the craziest men in Bosnia, Bata, owns Hostel Madjas. He’s insane, and offers fantastic Day Tour around the region. More of which I hope to post about in the coming days. The hostel was originally on the left side of the city, but due to the hangovers of the war, the family have more recently moved to a larger premises on the west bank of the river. Available on Booking.com from €8 for dorm bed.
Second time round we stayed at Villa Riva, in a quiet neighbourhood in the Old Town, just minute from the Stari Most. This small guesthouse is wonderful. The diminutive owner Senad is extremely welcoming and helpful; he’s also a qualified masseuse if you’ve got a sore back from that heavy bag! Double Room on Booking.com from €25.