All we knew of Bosnia were news reports of the war-torn 1990s. Yet this out-of-date image in our minds faded quickly as we spoke with new friends in Croatia. They encouraged us to explore Bosnia’s legendary culture and eclectic mix of traditions. Our interest was peaked, but we were still leery.
What about the infrastructure? Would we be lost with nowhere to stay or iffy accommodations? Had Bosnia-Herzegovina been given enough time to rebuild? Not knowing at all what to expect made us anxious, despite the repeated reassurance of our friends. A little anxiety was NOT about to stop us! – here we go!
Without rail connections, a bus is the best way to travel into Bosnia from Croatia. Dubrovnik offers a variety of day trips and tours, but we felt that would not be enough time to get a proper sense of this mysterious-to-us nation. Plus who knows? We might end up staying a month. Accidentally spending a month somewhere is our preferred style of travel, you know.
The logical first stop in Bosnia is Mostar. Western European countries are mostly within the Schengen group, so travelers don’t have to do the traditional border crossing/passport stamp dance. Not so with many of the Eastern European countries, including the Croatian-Bosnian border.
The bus driver collected everyone’s passports and walked to the customs office, returning about 15 minutes later with all the paperwork completed. We are so used to people not knowing how to pronounce our last name (Stejskal) that it came as a shock when our driver nonchalantly did so as he handed passports back out. How nice!
The 2 hour ride gave us plenty of time to ponder what we would find on the other side. The mountainous terrain was pierced by a highway of tunnels. We emerged from each tunnel into the stunning natural beauty of the Bosnian hillsides. Crystal-clear rivers and streams whizzed past. Lush green farmland in a rocky green landscape enveloped us.
We desperately wanted to bribe the driver to stop so we could capture the essence of the geography. Next time we will definitely hire our own car! Did we mention there was absolutely NO air conditioning on the bus? Even with our Mexican heat-handling superpowers, we were pretty uncomfortable by the end of the trip. It was much hotter than we expected away from the coast.
Just when we thought we couldn’t stand the heat another second, the ride was over. We tumbled out into the tiny bus station. Our B&B was a good mile or so from the station. A short taxi ride because of the heat and we had absolutely no idea where we were going. The front desk staff were helpful and charming. Our first brush with Bosnian hospitality was everything we were told to expect. We booked 3 nights in Mostar, but after the stuffy bus we checked into our room, turned on the A/C, and just relaxed.
Mostar is not a big town so the next two days would give us all the exploration time we needed. New country! Celebration was in order, so we walked up two flights of stairs to discover a beautiful roof-top terrace. The heat of the day had disappeared, and the evening was cool but not cold. Perfect!
Stari Most (Old Bridge)
The next day we made a beeline for the iconic “Stari Most,” the old bridge of Mostar. Unfortunately the original bridge was destroyed in a bombing raid in the 90s. The city is split in two by the deep valley of the Neretva River. The bridge was designed by Mimar Hayruddin, a student and apprentice of the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. It was built in the 16th century and stood for almost 500 years until its destruction.
The origin of the city’s name comes from the world “mostarii” meaning “bridge-keeper.” Like in the past, the bridge is the center focal point of town. According to UNESCO, The reconstructed Old Bridge and Old City of Mostar is a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities. It’s also beautiful!
The center of the bridge is 80 feet above the river’s waterline. Diving off the bridge is a rite of passage for Mostar youth that stretches back centuries. It’s certainly a crowd favorite, as tourists and locals alike look on in anticipation of a jump. In fact, it’s actually a festival. The last week of July is the “Mostar bridge jumping festival.” Presumably it has been going on for 440 years or so (since the bridge was built.)
And because a death-defying 80 foot plunge into freezing cold river waters isn’t quite crazy enough, Red Bull hosted the World Series of Cliff diving here in 2015. They built an INSANE 25 foot platform on the TOP of the bridge. Divers from around the world leaped from that! If X-games style diving isn’t your thing, you can join locals in a leisurely swim, but the current can be strong. We saw one man leap in upstream and bask in the chilly waters as he floated out of town. Hopefully he has a car picking him up later?
What To Expect When Exploring Mostar
Entering into Bosnia-Herzegovina gave us our first glimpse of Bosnian culture. Bosnian culture consists of three major Yugoslav groups; Muslim Bosniaks, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. In Mostar the Bosniak influence can be seen in the trinkets sold at the open air markets, by the minaret’s lining the skyline, and heard daily during the call to prayer. During the Ottoman Empires 400-year control of this region many Slavic subjects converted to Islam.
A small group of vendors line the streets some interesting (but mostly similar) shopping experiences on the main street. Scarves are a big item but most were imported. Other items didn’t appear authentic and those that did, wouldn’t fit in our suitcase. Our Croatian Kunas were no good here. We had to switch to Convertible Marks.
While many of the buildings have been rebuilt some remain in disrepair. Vivid scars of the early 1990’s include crumbling buildings ridden with holes left from schrapnel. A haunting reminder of the dark years of war. During that time people were killed in these same streets where their corpses remained for months because it wasn’t safe to retrieve the bodies.
Despite all of this Mostar is quite beautiful offering a dramatic but welcomed change from the busy Dalmation Coast. Dramatic sunsets shine on this valley town each evening making Mostar a beautiful and peaceful village.