Beautiful, historic and tragic Mostar is easily the most fascinating town I visited in the Balkans. Mostar is the third largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after Sarajevo and Banja Luka. In the aftermath of the Bosnian War of the 1990s, the populations of both Sarajevo and Banja Luka became virtually homogenized, with Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs dominating each respectively. However, the ethno-religious composition of Mostar is still divided. No official census has been conducted since 1991, so the exact population and demographics of Mostar are not actually known. Nevertheless, Croats certainly form a majority and are believed to account for approximately sixty per cent of Mostar’s population, while most other inhabitants are Bosnian Muslims (before the war, up to twenty per cent were Bosnian Serbs). These two sizeable factions, neighbours in the same town, were at war only two decades. Many of Mostar’s current residents were present during the conflict and thus palpable tension between Croats and Bosnian Muslims endure. The town is geographically divided by the Neretva River and the East side is occupied by Muslims and the West side by Croats. Mostar is a unique city of the European continent where history continues to evolve and the destiny of the town remains undefined.
Nadia and I stayed at a fantastic hostel that contributed immensely to our rewarding time in Mostar. It was among my favourite hostels for the year, although Nadia was not quite so impressed because of the (homely) clutter. Majdas Hostel is owned by the lovely and humorous Majda, who is always present. Despite the friendliness though, she is unafraid to boss guests around and enforces a strict deadline for talking; marshalling guests to bed at midnight. She orders everyone to create their own colourful name-label with the craft supplies she provides, an activity considered too kitsch for the approval of a certain snobbish Dane. Her brother Bata operates a tour of Mostar and the surrounding region, which was among the best experiences of my trip.
It is rare for me to enjoy a genuine “WOW factor” moment, but seeing Stari Most for the first time definitely provoked such an occasion. The iconic arched bridge rises 24m above the Neretva River and visually dominates the Old Town of Mostar. The bridge was constructed in the sixteenth century by the Ottomans as the economic and administrative importance of Mostar grew within the Empire. The bridge is four metres wide, thirty metres long and fortified by towers on each side. It feels as though the bridge is quite steep when transcending over its cobblestoned path. Buildings in the Old Town are composed of the same pale-coloured rock as Stari Most and exhibit a uniform architectural typology; relatively plainer appearances with grey slate roofs. Numerous Ottoman-style mosques, smaller and quainter than mosques in Sarajevo, are scattered throughout the town. We ascended the minaret of one historic mosque and admired outstanding views of the bridge from a very thin balcony. The scenery of Stari Most crossing the turquoise water of the Neretva, with centuries old buildings clinging to the cliffs and minarets singeing the sky in the background, was breathtaking from countless angles.
The only issue is that the Old Town is basically a Hollywood set. Mostar suffered extreme devastation during the Bosnian War and Stari Most was ultimately destroyed. When Croatia and Bosnia declared their independence in the early 1990s, they initially formed an alliance against the belligerent and Serbian-dominated Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. However, this arrangement ended after Serbian and Croatian leaders allegedly planned to partition Bosnia between the two states. Croat nationalists in Bosnia were thus supported by the Republic of Croatia to seize Bosnian territory and prosecute war with the Bosnian Muslims. The Croats in Mostar laid siege to the Bosnian Muslims in the Eastern section of the city, a community which numbered 30,000. Shelling by the Croats reduced most of the Old Town to rubble. On 9th of November 1993, Stari Most was destroyed after standing for 427 years; symbolically crushing the pride of the Bosnian Muslim people. The bridge was rebuilt using the same design principles and technology as the original and was completed in 2004. Every mosque in Mostar was destroyed and needed to be reconstructed. Some buildings are yet to be reconstructed with only their skeletal remains occupying their sites. Countless buildings in the Old Town still bear marks of gunfire and seldom a minute passes when you do not see these holes. Essentially every structure in the Old Town is either brand new or spoilt. A small gallery beside Stari Most plays a video featuring footage of the town during the Bosnian War, including the collapse of the bridge. The horrific film showcases a town that looks like it has suffered a nuclear holocaust. On the Croat side, we climbed an abandoned building where only the concrete framework survives. The former bank is colloquially referred to as the “Snipper Tower”, because of its purpose for Croat forces during the war.
I have met few people as charismatic, entertaining, intimidating, reckless and fascinating as Bata our tour guide. Seven years ago, he encountered two Americans in Mostar that were searching for a hostel. This was how Bata was introduced to the foreign concept of a “hostel” and he soon established one at the family home; despite initially not knowing what a “bunk bed” was. Inquisitive backpackers wanted to know about other sites of interest in the region and this led to the birth of Bata’s famous tour. The tour has become somewhat of a legend on the backpacker circuit in the Balkans (people in three countries recommended it to me) and other locals have attempted to copy Bata’s initiative. Bata has a penchant for speaking very loudly, very rapidly and very frequently. I had the misfortunate of sitting next to him for the duration of the day (apparently that was quite an achievement). Realising I couldn’t always follow his manner of speech, he often said, “Sorry, I must remember to slow down for Americans and Australians!” How offensive. Not that he refrained from deriding every other nationality on-board. Bata would power through provocative spiels about the Balkans War and then suddenly make bombastical jokes before transitioning to another different topic. His frenzied speech was matched by equally maniacal driving. To show-off, he would dance to blaring Serbian techno music (which he would instantly turn on after a serious point) hands free or lurch the wheel from side to side to bounce the van around. He even forced me to grab the wheel and proclaimed to the other passengers, “Liam’s steering and he doesn’t have a licence!” (Just in case someone intends to ask me that oft repeated question when I return, no I have not acquired a licence yet). I suspect there were a few shatted dacks at that moment. He gleefully played “chicken” with pedestrians to the hilarity of the group. While we fitted into his nine-seat van comfortably, he apparently squeezes in twenty people in high-season. His justification was that backpackers (he loved that word and used it repeatedly. I suspected he was mocking us) don’t like comfort, they want roughness. Bata craves questions and since he places no limitations on a return time to Mostar, the tour can extend for hours. Ours lasted for twelve but his personal record exceeded fifteen hours with a return after 1:00am. Consequently, he doesn’t conduct the tour in consecutive days; although with the amount of energy expended, I’m amazed he manages more than one a week. I was absolutely exhausted after this hilarious and captivating journey.
Before the outbreak of the Bosnian War, Bata considered himself a true “Yugoslav” and respected the communist regime (although he acknowledges that was because of systematic brainwashing). Although his parents were devoted communists, Bata was immediately classified as a Bosnian Muslim when the conflict arose because of his grandparents’ religion; regardless of his personal political or religious beliefs. Suddenly, his Bosnian Serb friends from Mostar had joined militias and were firing and shelling his town. The Croats (he stresses they are Croats and not Croatians; Croatians live in Croatia) subsequently turned against the Bosnian Muslim community. He remembers the slander the Croats directed at Muslims, some of them his former classmates. Croat soldiers raided the area he lived in one night and were seizing the men in the early twenties (Bata’s age at the time) from each house. One soldier came to his family home and screamed for Bata. He thought that was the end. Bata came out of hiding and expected to be shot. Instead, to his shock, the soldier whispered, “Its me Bata! Look at my face! I have come to save you!” The Croat soldier ordered him to hide within the house temporarily and escape with two benevolent Croats in an ambulance to the Adriatic coast. He gained asylum in Sweden and lived there for seven years. Bata eventually realised who the Croat was. They had attended school together, yet they were neither friends nor adversaries. Bata was clearly psychologically damaged by the conflict and sought counselling for years. He was particularly tormented by why the Croat saved him; and he’ll never know for sure because the soldier was killed in the war. Bata now describes himself as a “Bosnian”, though expresses how complex that is. He insists that every resident of the country is actually a Bosnian regardless of their religion, not Serb or Croat, because Bosnia’s history extends for over a thousand years.
Bata began the tour with a whirlwind introduction to Mostar. We drove around the Croat side of the town, which is much larger and noticeably more affluent than the Bosnian Muslim. The streets are decorated with Croatian flags, the writing on signs is in Croatian and even the beer labels available are exclusively Croatian (its not possible to acquire Bosnia’s most popular label, Sarajevski, in this area). Businesses use names like “Zagreb Hotel” or “Split Restaurant”. Bata repeatedly described it as “more Croatian than Croatia.” We stopped beside the sprawling university campus (classes taught in the Croatian language) and noticed the walls were covered in graffiti of fascist symbols used by Croat nationalists. We subsequently noticed this graffiti throughout Croat Mostar. Bata attended a football match at the neighbouring stadium once, between the local Croatian team and a Bosnian team (without expressing his identity). He was horrified to hear a Croat cheer squad chanting, “We are fascists! So what?! We are fascists! So what?!”, but knew that no authorities would stop such singing. This was somewhat of an incomprehensible notion for the German members of the tour. We left Mostar and passed by a military compound of the Bosnian army. Bata instructed us to notice the colours painted onto the gates. Three horizontal bands of red, white and blue: the Croatian flag, though without the checkerboard (that would be too audacious). The Bosnian flag consists of yellow, blue and white in a different formation. Bata claimed that the Mostar International Airport is unnaturally quiet and suggested this was an intended ploy by Croats to ensure travellers fly in and out from Croatian airports in Dubrovnik and Split and thereby keep tourist money in Croatian hands (that might be a stretch). I could probably write another thousand words about the fascinating insights Bata provided (from a Bosnian perspective) of the continual antagonisms in the region.
The tour wasn’t entirely related to the Balkans War. We drove through the bizarre settlement of Medugorje, the site of a supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary. My question of “where are all the tourists?” in Bosnia was finally answered. The town was crawling with wealthy tourists on Catholic religious pilgrimages. Medugorje has doubled in size in the last five years and is filled with luxury hotels, tacky souvenir shops, tourist-trap restaurants and group-tour coaches. It’s a vulgar place. The only catch is, the Pope has not recognised the legitimacy of the apparitions. Imagine if he does.
We spent two hours at pristine Krative Waterfall. The water cascades over thick grasses clinging to the cliff into an aqua-coloured river that teems with fish. The water was numbingly cold, but everyone braved the conditions and swam over to the waterfall. Everyone, that is, except our Danish friend and a Finn, the two people from the most inhospitable climates on the tour. After our exercise (and the Dane and Finn’s coffees) we gorged on platters of delectable platters of grilled meats, the constituent component of Balkans cuisine.
We watched the sunset from the walls of the beautiful and awe-inspiring medieval and Ottoman settlement of Pocitelj. The historic small town occupies a slope beside the Neretva River and its location was considered strategically important by the Turkish occupiers. Although the town was established by a medieval Bosnian king, the fortification walls and tower were constructed by the Ottomans and are immaculately preserved. The stone houses within the walls exhibit the same architectural style as the buildings in Mostar. We had supper at a kindly Bosnian woman’s home. She didn’t speak a word of English, but laughed at Bata’s theatrics all the same. We were treated to freshly-picked figs, grapes (unusual flavour), dried figs, dried dates, cake and cordials homemade from aloe vera and pomegranate. We also visited the dervish settlement of Blagaj, beside the spring of the Buna river, but I was too tired by then to consume any details.
Mostar was an extraordinary destination and Bata’s tour will endure as one of my fondest memories from the trip. I really recommend people consider visiting the perhaps obscure country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, if they are after something more than pretty facades.
Oops sorry again Sean,
There goes another federal election.