Mostar is a city that is extremely close to my heart. My first visit to the unofficial capital of Herzegovina was way back in 2009, and the experience was full from the get-go. I waited at the bus station for our pick-up, chuckling about making mum promise us I’d never have to go to Bosnia, only to have the chuckling interrupted by a bear-like man demanding to know if I was who he thought I was That man would become my room-mate for an entire summer and my first true non-family hero.
Mostar’s recent history isn’t quite so idyllic unfortunately, with the scars left over by the Bosnian War of the early 90s visible physically but invisible politically. It is a divided city, with one half seeing frequent development and the other left to live off scraps, albeit the plentiful scraps of modern tourism. It suffered more destruction than any other city in Bosnia, second only to Vukovar in the entire former Yugoslavia. The division runs deep too, with the running joke being that you can’t find any Bosnian beer on the western side of the city. This isn’t true, but let’s not let facts get in the way of good copy.
If you’ll allow the cliches to run free, Mostar is the true jewel in the tourist crown of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It comes with the country’s most iconic image, and whilst the Stari Most (Old Bridge) is without doubt the centrepiece of the city there is a whole lot more to it than a glorious bridge. Because (here comes the cliches) Mostar is one of the few cities that will genuinely get under your skin and refuse to vacate long after you’ve left. The Balkans is blessed with a number of towns along these lines, but even in this mass of wonder Mostar manages to stay special.
I’ll start with the thrilling history stuff. Folk have lived below Velež mountain since forever, but a town by the name of ‘Mostar’ wasn’t mentioned in writing until 1474, the town not named after the bridge but after the dudes protecting the bridge. This wasn’t the bridge either, this was a wooden one that crossed the Neretva and served practical purposes as opposed to purely touristic ones. Six years prior to this the town came under Ottoman rule, who began to urbanise the area and referred to it as Köprühisar. The town was built up, and in 1566 the magnificently named Sulieman the Magnificent ordered the building of a magnificent bridge crossing the Neretva. You’ll hear about that again shortly.
That was pretty much that in Mostar until the second Yugoslavia ended, in truth. Yes, history happened, but in terms of major events and the things we read about constantly it was pretty quiet. Important people lived here, stuff happened, stuff didn’t happen. Mostar was an important industrial centre in the post-WW2 YUG, as well as an absolute magnet for tourists looking to gawp at the bridge. It was one of those gorgeous cities that featured in every Yugoslav tourist brochure, on the front of guides, books and more. It was a city that was kept safe, multicultural and thriving.
Which pretty much guaranteed everything falling apart during the war. The Serbian population of the town was expelled fairly swiftly, and tensions between the Bosnian Croat and Bosniak populations increased. The Croats wanted to seize as much of Herzegovina as they could, and thus war broke out in the town between the two. Well, by war I mean the Croats bombed the Bosniaks a lot, destroying most of the town’s bridges including the bridge. Mostar was the most destroyed city in Bosnia, with around 2,000 people dying in the town during the conflict. The fighting stopped, but the scars remain.
But Bosnian people aren’t ordinary, not in the slightest. Bosnia itself is special, a place that warms the cockles for reasons us mere mortals can never quite locate, and people slowly but surely began returning to the city. Businesses sprang up where one would assume business was impossible, and whilst the city wasn’t thriving it most definitely was living. Even when surrounded by death one finds it impossible to feel anything other than alive in Mostar.
One such business is Hostel Majdas, objectively the finest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Family-owned and family-run, regardless of how many folk are staying here you have no choice but to be a part of that family, and even if you are already in love with the town a stay here will only exacerbate that. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. Everything that is good about Bosnian people can be found in this beautiful (aesthetically and spiritually) place. And yes, you should do the tour.
Recommending somewhere for coffee isn’t an easy task anywhere in Bosnia, as the best coffee is almost always made by 75 year old women pottering about in kitchens seemingly accomplishing a million tasks at the same time. If you’re looking for lemonade (or pivo, ice cold Mostarsko pivo) then look no further than Caffe Stari Grad, right next to the bridge (I’m getting there!). You want food? Jesus, this is Bosnia! Just sit down and order the ćevapi already! If you’re looking for an actual recommendation, foodies should head to Hinden Han. I’m not a foodie though, so I would usually head to Saray, located in the garden of the Karadjoz Bey Mosque.
FINE, THE BRIDGE. If you know one thing about Mostar that thing is that the town has an absolutely stunning bridge. You are right. The Stari Most was the widest man-made arch in the world when it went up in 1566, but the man who designed it didn’t get to see it. His name was Mimar Hayruddin, and he was told that if his bridge fell (and physics said it should have) he would have both of his eyes poked out. Understandably worried, Hayruddin completed the bridge and did a runner, in an attempt to avoid what he deemed a certain fate. Somehow, the bridge stood.
It stood for 427 years until that miserable day in November 1993 when Croat forces decided that bombing it was a good idea. It wasn’t. Bosnian Spirit was strong however, and 11 years later the bridge rose like a phoenix (was rebuilt), with locals saying that this one will stand even longer! I hope they are right, because despite seeing the bridge approximately a gazillion times I still long to see it every day and night. The people of Mostar would refer to it as ‘the old man’ and it wasn’t mere lip-service, as the bridge provided the comfort and warmth that many needed. Welsh people will understand this as a ‘cwtch’, but for the Mostari it is the Stari Most.
There’s more to the town than a nice bridge of course, but the bridge understandably takes centre stage. In a different life the Partisan Memorial Cemetery could have shared equal billing, but this remarkable piece of patriotic architecture has been left to the wild power of neglect and vandalism. Erected in 1965 to honour the Partisan soldiers of the town that lost their lives in the struggle against fascism the necropolis was a remarkable piece of art, a multi-layered example of architectural ingenuity that paid respect in the most respectful of ways. The war changed that however, as anything vaguely ‘Yugoslav’ was deemed at best obsolete and at worst worthy of destruction. Looking at pictures of the necropolis in its pomp knowing how it is today is almost distressing.
The Karadjoz Bey Mosque is a place of life, the largest mosque in the region. There are a number of mosques dotted around the old town, and the views from the various minarets are stunning. The Old Gymnasium represents the other side of the historical, religious architectural coin, a grand Austro-Hungarian building that the House of Habsburg dreamt up as ‘Islamic architecture of European fantasy’. The building is orange and yellow, two colours that shouldn’t work but do. The city park is next door, home to the world’s first public Bruce Lee monument. I did not make that up.
The truth is Mostar isn’t a city to make a list of things to see and quietly tick them off. It is a city to waste time in, to stroll around trying to avoid the summer heat as you desperately try to reconcile with a past you have absolutely nothing to do with, a past that you can’t avoid if you want to understand the town but a past that you have no hope of understanding. Mostar is alive in spite of the death, and the city is as vital for what you can’t see as it is for what you can. You will either be disappointed or you’ll have found yourself a home. And seriously, do the tour.