Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Final Stop: Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar's Old Town
Bosnia was never on my list of "must-see's" to check off my travel list. Thus, I even surprised myself when I decided to take a day trip there (and a popular one I might add) out of Dubrovnik, Croatia. The small city of Mostar is said to be the most important city in all of Bosnia Herzegovina. The picturesque city straddles the Neretva River (seen above) with its famous bridge, Stari Most, linking the two sides of the city. On one side lies the ethnically Croat Catholic neighborhood and the other side houses the cobbled Ottoman Quarter, home to the city’s Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). This historic Ottoman Quarter is home to 16th century mosques, Turkish style houses, artist studios, and cafes. 

Bosnia & Herzegovina Map
Mostar Tourist Map
Bosnia's recent history (in particular the early 1990's) has involved much political turmoil and social chaos. In fact, I can still recall the headlines back when I was just 10 years old when history was in the making. I remember clearly being in the 5th grade back in 1992 when our classroom received a special visit from our school principal. He strode in with a great smile, pulled down the map in front of the blackboard and pointed to the large land mass marked "Yugoslavia". He told us that something monumental had happened there in that faraway land and that it was no longer called "Yugoslavia" anymore. Instead, the area had separated into six countries including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia (and Kosovo) and Montenegro. He told us that next year's Social Studies books would have new maps. For a 10 year old, this information is a little overwhelming...how can 6 new countries just "decide" to form? I took in the information and never again thought about Bosnia until my recent visit.


It was difficult to get a history lesson in Bosnia since no one wanted to talk about the war, including our Bosnian tour guide. This was a bit frustrating - yet, understandable - to tourists who had come from far and wide to learn about the history of the city they had come to visit. So, I had to go do a little research to accompany what I picked up there. Apparently, statistics show that the area which has always been inside the boundaries of where present-day Bosnia Herzegovina is now (and has for the most part always been) home to three main waring factions: Muslim Bosniaks (44%), Orthodox Serbs (31%) and Catholic Croats (17%). After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, these three factions were forced to share borders within one state. Which begged the question, who takes control? Who does the power go to? Long story short, civil war erupted and a territorial battle ensued which resulted in the the largest-scale war on the European continent since WWII. Millions were displaced and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Today, the somber country is filled not only with the physical reminders of war as seen by war-torn buildings, but also, the living victims are scarred by the psychological implications of the large-scale ethnic cleansing, mass genocide and rape.


   

War torn buildings all over Mostar




  

More remnants of war in Mostar, Bosnia

   

When somebody dies in the city of Mostar, Bosnia, the announcement is made by plastering these notices all over town. They find it easier to announce the loss this way, rather than tell everyone personally in town. The different colors are for the different ethnicities (black is for the Orthodox Catholics, green for Bosnian Muslims and white for Croatians).

   

Tragically, cemeteries situated throughout the greener parts of town are completely filled with victims who all died during the same years (more or less): 1992-1993.

    

War was brought to an end in 1995 by the Dayton Agreement. Power within this small country was to be shared by the three main political parties: the Party of Democratic Action, the Serbian Democratic Party and the Croatian Democratic Union. These three political parties agreed to divide power along ethnic lines so that each party would have a place in politics: the President of the Presidency was a Bosniak, the President of the Parliament a Serb, and the Prime Minister a Croat. Even today, these three parties share power and they must come to a mutual agreement anytime a political decision is processed. Of course, there is tension among the three groups (which I could definitely relate to, living in Israel and all....) though they have managed to get to the present day, living in a relatively peaceful era. Story has it that they could not even agree to a universal flag....so the decision for the current national flag was made by the UN. The different groups do not get along for the most part (according to our guide), but they live in relative stability due to their mutual decision to "agree to disagree". Each group inhabits different areas and tries to stay out of each other's business. Just don't date a guy from "the other side", or your friends and family might disown you (that's the general feeling we got from the locals).


    

But now, despite the dire history, it's time for the good stuff. Because the people of Bosnia Herzegovina seem to be surprisingly welcoming, smiling, accommodating, appreciative and hospitable. I was delighted by the beauty and warmth of this young country with such a tragic history. Our first stop in Bosnia Herzegovina was in the breathtaking town of Neum (it should really, technically be part of Croatia, but the lines for Bosnia Herzegovina where moved to inhabit this coastal region.) If you scroll back up to the map of Bosnia above, you will see this area near the Adriatic Sea clearly and how it cuts a chunk right out of Croatia.

Neum, Bosnia Herzegovina

Our rest stop in Neum (what a view!)
After our short break in Neum, onward we went driving back into Croatian territory and then back again into Bosnian land, gaining entry only after passing through multiple border crossings. Finally, we made it to our first real stop in Bosnia Herzegovina: Polcitelj. This quaint Oriental style town is perched up on the hillside, composed completely of stone. It has an Turkish-Ottoman feel to it and is well known for being one of the largest artist colonies in all of southeastern Europe. The fortified city is great to explore by foot and will leave you with handfuls of photo-ops.

   

Polcitelj, Bosnia Herzegovina

   

   

     

    

    


Mostar itself is the largest and most important city in the Herzegovina region and is  Bosnia's fifth largest city. The historic town center was developed in the 15th and 16th centuries as an Ottoman frontier town and during the 19th and 20th centuries it fell under Austro-Hungarian rule. You will find remnants of old Turkish houses and namely the famous Old Bridge (called Stari Most), after which the town was named. This bridge, which divides the city into two both literally and figuratively (Muslims on one side of the bridge and Catholics on the other), was destroyed during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s. However, most of the historic town, as well as the Old Bridge, has been painstakingly restored to its original condition (thanks to the financial assistance of UNESCO).

Mostar, Bosnia
Walk though the cobblestone streets in Mostar's Old Town....legend has it that the ancient men who built these streets did so in order to force the women to look at the ground when they walked....and not at the other men (and temptations) at eye level.


             

          

           

Here's our first glimpse at the famous Stari Most Bridge (and then walking over it). Be careful, it's steep and slippery!

   

   

In Mostar, you also get a feel for the greenery that surrounds the area which is so typical of the vast spaces that you drive through in Bosnia Herzegovina. 
 
Walking through Mostar's Old Town (this is just a bridge, not the famous bridge)
     
    
    

The restaurants around town are so inviting with their cobblestone floors, shaded patios and killer views of the stunning scenery in town.

Mostar, Bosnia

    



      

    

And now....the belle of the ball: the Old Bridge of Mostar. For years, Mostar's Old Bridge served as a symbol of the ability for the various religious and ethnic groups of the area to live together peacefully. The bridge had survived for over 400 years, even through WWII when Nazi tanks passed over it with frequency. However, as we know now, this situation infamously changed in 1993 when the Old Bridge was blown up amid dire conflict. You can watch the video of the destruction of the bridge around town as well as view photos of the war-torn area and country during the early 1990's. Walking through Mostar's charming streets and taking in the lovely views of the rebuilt bridge, it is difficult to conceptualize the chaos that once took place in this scenic region.

Mostar's Old Bridge

   

Enjoying a respite from the heat and taking in the view of Stari Most

    

    

The Old City is not all there is to see in town. Mostar has made quite a comeback with revamping the remainder of its city, extending it far beyond the Old City walls. It's worth it to stay the night to check out the parks and museums as well as the neighborhood bars, restaurants and shops.

Roundabout in a newer, central part of Mostar
   

    

   

A shaded park in the center of town

   

   

The roundabout in the center of town spikes off into 6 different lanes, each of which are lined with restaurants, shops and bars. 
   

   

I was so pleasantly surprised with Mostar that it's now my dream to visit Sarajevo as well as the rest of the former Yugoslavia - somewhere I never imagined I even wanted to go in the first place! It's a beautiful corner of the world that I highly recommend seeing.

3 comments:

  1. I'm almost speechless. You are the ultimate travel reporter!

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  2. I know this post was long but there was SO much to say! Visiting there DID make me want to be a little travel reporter / documentary series maker :) A fascinating visit!

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  3. Awesome Rayzee...a definite must see for me :)

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