There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 25 May 2012

Mostar: Part 3 of The Balkans

Sarajevo to Mostar is only 120km, but the journey took all morning; mountain roads never make for fast travelling. We were on one of the fourteen daily services between the two cities, but the fifty seat bus rarely had more than a dozen passengers.

From Sarajevo to Mostar

It was largely a pleasant journey through green alpine meadows, small towns and smaller villages, the tall thin minarets of mosques incongruous amid the essentially European scenery. Less attractive were the occasional shattered and abandoned farmsteads and the burned out buildings on the outskirts of every village. There was new building too, new houses to replace those lost in a war which passed through over ten years ago, but whose marks were still too clearly visible.

From Sarajevo to Mostar

Road signs were in both Roman and Cyrillic characters. Unlike in Wales where bilingual signs give towns different names in the same alphabet, these were the same names in different alphabets. Like Wales in the 1970s, though, activists had been busy with paint brushes, Мостар having almost universally been painted over.

As we neared our destination the mountains opened out and we drove through an area of vineyards and fruit farms.

We arrived in sunshine. Mostar can be hot, the temperature had been in the mid-thirties the week before and regularly tops forty in July and August, but for us the sun’s warmth was moderated by the rain which had just passed and would soon return.

We trundled our case into town, crossed the Tito Bridge and found our hotel. Our vast room overlooked the Neretva River – fast flowing, deep and green – and on the far side the burned out hulk of another hotel.  It was a typical Mostar view.

The Tito bridge and the burned out hulk of another hotel.
A typical Mostar view

Mostar is the capital of Herzegovina (pronounced with a stressed ‘go-veen’, not a short ‘govv-vinn’).  Throughout the Sarajevo posts I have referred to the country as Bosnia, but it is, of course, Bosnia and Herzegovina, BiH for short. Although Yugoslavia fractured into more parts than most people knew it had (7 in total, though Serbia has yet to recognise the independence of Kosovo) the one split that never happened and was never suggested was between Bosnia and Herzegovina. Herzegovina has been an integral part of Bosnia as long as there has been a Bosnia, or indeed a Herzegovina. BiH remains split between the two ‘entities’ of the 1995 Dayton accord (the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska) but there is no meaningful division between Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mostar’s main attraction is the old bridge, indeed Mostar means ‘bridge keeper’. We walked down the pedestrian street on the left bank of the Neretva and into Kujundžiluk – Goldsmith’s Street – which is the heart of the old town and leads up to the bridge. Kujundžiluk no longer sells much gold, though if you need a fridge magnet, a Bosnian football shirt or a small model of the bridge, this is the place to be. Mostar is perfect day-trip distance from Dubrovnik which explains why Kujundžiluk becomes very crowded in the afternoons and why all prices are quoted in euros, Bosnian marks and Croatian kuna (in that order).

Kujundžiluk, Mostar
Very busy in the early afternoon

The old bridge, the Stari Most, was commissioned in 1557 by the Ottoman Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent to replace the wobbly suspension bridge that had been frightening Ottoman traders for over a century. Finished in 1566 it was a perfect arc of a circle, a ‘petrified moon’, gliding gracefully across the Neretva gorge between two medieval towers. An architectural and engineering masterpiece, the bridge survived over four hundred years and withstood two world wars before being destroyed in November 1993. The current bridge was built in 2004 to the same design, with stone from the same quarry and using Ottoman building techniques wherever practical. The new bridge is undoubtedly beautiful, but the stone lacks the mellow weathered look of the surrounding towers. In time it will become indistinguishable from the old one, but it can never be more than a replacement.

Mostar bridge

Beyond the bridge a side stream enters the Neretva down its own small gorge. The area around the confluence is much quieter than Kujundžiluk but is perhaps the most scenic part of the town.

Beyond the Stari Most

The Kriva Ćuprija (Crooked Bridge) over the side stream is similar to the Stari Most but much smaller. It was built in 1558, allegedly as a practice for the bigger bridge. Weakened by war-time shelling it was washed away by floods in 1999. The government of small but wealthy Luxembourg financed the rebuilding of the small but beautiful bridge.

The Crooked bridge

At night the day trippers return to Dubrovnik, those on Balkan Coach tours have meals provided in their hotels, which leaves the old town to the locals and the ‘independents’. We had dinner at Sadrvan, a restaurant between the two bridges. Sitting outside - it was just warm enough - I resorted to the Balkan staples of vegetables stuffed with minced beef, while Lynne went for the Mostar speciality, Neretva trout. She had two of them, simply grilled and served with chard (a popular vegetable in Bosnia) and boiled potatoes. They were, she said, excellent.

Neretva trout
Sadrvan Restaurant, Mostar

Before the war the city’s population was, roughly, 20% Serb, 40% Bosniak and 40% Croat. Serb forces were repulsed after a siege during which the Yugoslavian National army destroyed the Catholic Cathedral, the Franciscan monastery, the bishop’s palace with its valuable library, and 14 mosques. After they had gone the Croats responded with true Christian spirit, demolishing an Orthodox monastery and three churches, including the cathedral.

Although Bosniaks and Croats mostly co-operated, there were Croatian elements who favoured a Bosnian Croat republic along on the lines of the Republika Srpska. This idea never gained wide acceptance, but caused serious problems in Mostar.  Bosniaks were expelled from Croat areas on the west bank of the Neretva, many fleeing to the Muslim east bank. The Bosniaks held onto a thin strip of land on the west bank and a front line developed to the west of that. From 1992 to the end of the war the two sides periodically lobbed shells at each other. All Mostar’s bridges were destroyed, the old bridge being targeted by Croatian artillery in November 1993 in an act of wanton vandalism*. All but one of the 13 Ottoman era mosques that survived the Serb onslaught were also destroyed.

The old town at night

The old town was reduced to rubble and films of the time show bewildered looking people moving through a landscape that resembled Dresden in 1945.

In the morning we walked along the front line; the nearest point being only 50m from our hotel. The buildings were in many different states of repair. In one the ground floor had been fully restored and was serving as a fast food restaurant while above it was burnt out ruins.

A fast food restaurant on the ground floor....
The former front line, Mostar

In a line of apartment blocks three had been restored (courtesy of the Danish government) while the fourth was still waiting.

Apartment blocks, some restored, some waiting
The former front line, Mostar

People were living in parts of the seriously damaged block.

Occupied war damaged apartment blocks
The former fron line, Mostar

Meanwhile, other buildings were being reclaimed by nature.

Buildings being reclaimed by nature
The former front line, Mostar

There were signs of a new Mostar rising from the ashes. The trouble with the Mepas Mall is that it could be anywhere. I suppose its existence is good for the local economy and it should therefore be welcomed, but neither of us felt the least desire to go in and have a look.

The Mepas Mall, Mostar

There are also signs of the best of the old Mostar recovering. The central high school had been badly damaged but the handsome building has now been fully restored. The school was holding an international dance festival while we there.

Central High School
We finished our front line walk at the rebuilt Franciscan church, its tall thin campanile an obvious challenge to the minarets across the river. The church is not open to the public but as we arrived the door opened and a party of Italian pilgrims emerged. We thought there was just a few, but like a tsunami they kept on coming until dozens of them were eddying around outside the church, each one sporting a red baseball cap and a badge of the Virgin Mary surrounded by clouds.

The church of the Franciscan Monastery

We smiled at the Franciscan monk by the door. He smiled back. ‘Cinque minuti,’ he said, standing aside for us. Whether he thought we were Italian too, or just addressed everybody in Italian as a matter of course we had no idea.

Five minutes was enough. Although the exterior is finished the church is a concrete shell. Inside, there is an altar at the front, the Stations of the Cross round the side, and a great deal of gloomy space.

We thanked the genial monk and walked on towards the bridge. We soon caught up with the Italians -it takes a while to get a group that size across a busy road. The object of their pilgrimage was Medjugorje, some 25 km away where, in 1981, the Virgin Mary appeared to six children. She allegedly appeared daily for several years and still communicates on a monthly basis with two of the visionaries. The Catholic Church is officially non-committal and unofficially sceptical, but that has not stopped Medjugorje becoming the third  most visited apparition site in Europe (after Lourdes and Fatima) receiving over a million pilgrims a year.  In the second Sarajevo post I admitted to not understanding the military mind, now I have to admit to similar problems with the religious mind. I find it difficult to comprehend how rational grown-ups can believe this.

When we reached the bridge a man was standing on the parapet threatening to jump. He was not, apparently, suicidal but a member of the Mostar bridge divers club. Since 1664 (the date of the first recorded plunge) the young men of Mostar have been demonstrating (and temporarily shrivelling) their manhood by diving or jumping from the bridge into the cold, fast flowing river 21m below. There is a diving competition in July, but generally the divers dive and jumpers jump when a sufficient quantity of marks have been placed in the plastic bucket carried by the diver’s mate. A large group of Italian pilgrims was just what was required to drum up the necessary cash. I dropped in our contribution and we watched as the man jumped from the bridge and plummeted downwards. The Neretva at Mostar is on the cusp between mountain stream and regular river. It is deep, which makes the jump safer, but looks extremely cold. Once he resurfaced, the jumper wasted no time in getting himself out of the water.
The jumper jumps
The new Old Bridge, Mostar

We popped into a small shop beside the bridge to buy some scented soap as gifts to take home. The shopkeeper asked where we came from, and then said, ‘I want to thank you so very, very much.’ We probably looked surprised, such heartfelt thanks seemed an over-reaction to a 6 euro purchase. ‘Great Britain was the first to open its doors to the Bosnian refugees, you helped us very, very much,’ he explained. I am glad we did though I was not aware of it at the time and can hardly claim any credit. It makes a change, though, from ‘you people put my grandfather in jail.’ I decline to take the blame for that, too.

We wandered back down Kujundžiluk to the pedestrian street beyond and past Karađozbeg Mosque.

Karađozbeg Mosque, Mostar

Built in 1557, the war left it with a gaping hole in the dome and the stump of a minaret. It is now fully restored and open to worshippers and anyone else who wishes to pop in.

Inside the Karađozbeg Mosque

From there we walked up to the main street through the Muslim quarter, which had almost as many damaged buildings as the front line......

The main street on the east bank of the Neretva

... and then to the Musilbegović House, now a boutique hotel, but in the 18th century the house of an important Ottoman family.

Inside the Musilbegović House

We returned to the main street for lunch. A tiny café with a mainly local clientele served us burek, pellets of minced beef encased in a long tube of filo pastry wound round like a Cumberland sausage. It was pleasant enough, if a bit stodgy, but cost little and we washed it down with the cheapest half litre of beer we found in Bosnia. Pivo Točeno, draft beer, was one of the first (and few) phrases of Bosnian I mastered (who’d a thunk it?). The local language used to be called Serbo-Croat but these days they like to think of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian as being separate languages, though the differ as much as the English of London, Birmingham and Liverpool.

Working steadily through a burek

There is room for only a thin slice of town on the east bank between the river and the mountains. We walked uphill and under the by-pass before finding a footpath up to the site of the Orthodox Cathedral. There was, we had read, a fine view of Mostar from the ruins; what we did not know was that the reconstruction of the cathedral was in full swing.

Reconstructing the Orthodox Cathedral

Walking a little further up the hill we found a small Orthodox chapel, one of the few religious buildings in Mostar to be largely undamaged by the war – though some of the work on the tiny bell tower looks suspiciously new.

The small chapel above the cathedral

Several restaurants occupy the the sites of the old mills along the right bank of the river, and in the evening we allowed ourselves to be captured by a young lady touting for the Bella Vista Restaurant. Unoriginal as the name might be, it had the virtue of truth. After a day of sunshine and showers it was warm enough to sit on their terrace with fine views of the bridge....

A restaurant table with a view
Bella Vista, Mostar

...and the floodlit walls of the old town.

The old town, Mostar

It was my turn to eat trout – only one, but it was big - while Lynne chose grilled baby squids. Local open wine comes by the litre or half litre. We toyed with the idea of half a litre, but after several nanoseconds consideration decided on a whole one. Clean, fresh and well balanced, if not particularly fruity, it was a perfect accompaniment to the food. We finished with baklava. Given the quality of the food and the surroundings it should have been expensive, but Bosnia is generally cheap and the shortage of tourists in the evening helps keep the price down to a level our friend Hilary would call ‘bargainous’.

I was feeling mellow but the trout felt gutted

Good food and ample drink in beautiful surroundings give me a deep feeling of contentment and a rosy view of the world. I know I was sitting in a town that only fifteen years before had been largely rubble, but I desperately want to see that as an aberration. I really do want to believe that humans are essentially good; Mostar may have seen unimaginable horror, but now it is a city of hope..

Another view of that bridge
The following morning we made our way back to the bus station and set off for Dubrovnik. We were leaving a town that is beautiful, but where it is never possible to ignore the recent past. All three communities know that just a few years ago their neighbours were trying to kill them. It will take another decade to clear the war’s physical damage, it might take longer to heal the mental scars.

and one more, just to finish

The Bella Vista allowed this narrative to finish on a positive note, but two positive notes are better than one, so I will also mention the ice cream stall just across the bridge from Kujundžiluk. For the princely sum of 1 mark (40p), they sell some of the best ice-cream anywhere. We tried four flavours, I did not keep a note of them but I know I had pistachio because I always do, and each one was special. No one would go all the way to Mostar just to eat ice-cream, but having got there no one should leave without trying it.

*There was little strategic justification for the destruction. Harvard academic Andras Riedlmayer described it as an act of "killing memory", in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence was deliberately destroyed.

The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)

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