Detour to Bosnia: A Country of 3 Religions, 2 Alphabets & 1 Complex History

The last time most people in the United States heard anything about Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia for short), it was the 1990s and one of the worst wars in recent history was raging on their soil.  Hearing the country’s name conjures up images for many of landmines, refugee camps, and international media coverage of the atrocities going on inside of the country’s borders.  Evoking these memories doesn’t exactly scream vacation destination, and yet, in recent years, travelers have once again begun trickling across the border of this little nation so filled with contrasts.

Bosnia, bordered to the west by Croatia and to the east by Serbia, sits in a precarious location in the land of the former Yugoslavia.  All 3 nations, originally a part of that one large country, had a tumultuous separation period when the unified nation violently collapsed in the 1990s.  Sandwiched between predominantly Croat (Catholic) Croatia and predominantly Serb (Orthodox Christian) Serbia, Bosnia, with a split population of Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats, and Serbs, was both a natural meeting point of Cultures, religions, and even alphabets—Serbs use Cyrillic as opposed to Roman—and a powder keg waiting to explode during this time of tremendous upheaval.  Caught in the crossfire of clashes that were much more complicated than even most books can sufficiently explain, many of Bosnia’s most historic sites were destroyed, including much of the little city of Mostar (where my travels took me).  For over 400 years, Mostar’s Old Bridge spanned the Neretva River, even withstanding the weight of Nazi tanks during WWII, but not even Mostar’s most famous landmark could survive the ‘90s war.  Shelled repeatedly, it eventually collapsed and much of the city was destroyed along with it.

   

Photos:  Left: Neretva River in Old Town; Right: Mostar’s Old Bridge from Our Rooftop Patio

Nearly 17 years later, however, the majority of the city has recovered from the war, a “new” Old Bridge has been constructed (using the exact same materials, tools, and methods that the original was built from), and tourists are once again intrigued by this European city that more closely resembles Turkey than Western Europe—and for good reason; the Ottomans (present day Turks) ruled this area for over 400 years.  After careful consideration, I decided it was worth taking a look at this country most people have such conflicting views of.  So, when I planned my trip to Croatia for this summer, I added a night in Mostar to my itinerary between Split and Dubrovnik.

Driving through the countryside, you could still see remnants of the war sometimes—a hollow, burned-out, roofless building that was once a home, a little abandoned neighborhood, a starburst pockmark in the road…  Even on the outskirts of Mostar, some of the buildings were sitting vacant, still in need of repair.  It was enough to initially make me a little bit uneasy about this trek across the border.  On the whole, though, as we got into the tourist-centric, historic part of Mostar, it was beautifully restored.  The city has recovered remarkably well from such a destructive war—nearly 95% of the city was razed during the violence.  As we drove over the bridge downriver from Mostar’s Old Bridge, the highlight of the city, I was taken aback by its beauty.  From our room at the inn we were staying in, we had a postcard perfect view of Old Town and the Old Bridge, as well.  It was hard to tear myself away from it.

Photo: Mostar’s Old Bridge from Our Rooftop Patio

We arrived in Mostar in the evening.  I am always a bit leery having my first encounter with an unknown city in the dark, but I pushed my nerves aside and headed out for the evening.  The cobbled streets of the city center are well lit and atmospheric at night, alive with open-air shops, restaurants, and pedestrians.  For dinner, we searched out an eatery in the center of things where we could eat outdoors in a relaxing environment.  A local suggested a good place that had exactly what we were looking for.  We each ordered ćevapčići—a grilled minced meat dish that resembles sausage—a Bosnian specialty.  Another thing not to be missed is ajvar, a condiment made of red peppers, eggplant, garlic, and chili pepper (like a thick catsup).  It was delicious with the meat.  A local cat joined us for dinner, perched on the patio wall next to my seat.  Looking at me with her big, begging eyes, I realized she probably does this for a living, but I couldn’t resist tossing her a few pieces of sausage when the owner wasn’t looking.  My dish was huge, and she did look hungry after all.  (We became fast friends.)

   

Photos:  Left: Cobbled Street & Shops; Center: Our Dinner Guest; Right: Torches Leading to Cave Bar

After dinner, we bought a gelato and strolled down Coppersmith Street.  Originally named for the copper wares it sold, in more recent years, it’s turned into a long line of tourist souvenir shops, but it was still fun to haggle with the local vendors and pick up some pretty earrings to bring home to my sisters.  While strolling, we also came across a cave bar.  Literally built into a natural cave in the hillside, a few steps off of the main drag, it’s one of the most different bars I’ve ever encountered in my travels.  Even just a few steps inside, it immediately felt cooler, had a hip vibe, and was a great place to stop for a drink, especially on warm night.  I had to laugh at my initial fear of the old town at night.  It felt completely safe wandering the compact little streets.

The next morning, we wandered the rest of Mostar.  It isn’t packed with sights, the city itself is the main attraction—the cobbled streets, Turkish feel, people, and of course the bridge—but we found a few interesting places to see along the way.  We visited a traditional Turkish house, the courtyard to a mosque (it was closed for a holiday, so we couldn’t enter), and the New Muslim Cemetery.  The Turkish house was small but an interesting glance at Mostar’s Ottoman past, and while the mosque wasn’t open, the courtyard and surrounding area still provided a little peek into Islam.  The last sight we came upon, just beyond the main tourist drag—the New Muslim Cemetery—was an eye-opening experience.  A park before the war, the leafy trees surrounding it provided some cover from Croat snipers while locals buried their dead.  Over 100 tombstones line the former park, all of them dated between 1993 and 1995.  The pictures on the stones are heartbreaking—so many young men in their teens and early 20’s, so much life left to live.

  

Photos:  Left: Part of the New Muslim Cemetery; Right: Stone on the “new” Old Bridge

The trip to Mostar was bittersweet.  The war and destruction Mostar and Bosnia experienced during the 1990s—along with many of the surrounding Baltic countries—was a tragedy not soon to be forgotten.  A short walk over the “new” Old Bridge, down the streets of the rebuilt Old Town, and through the New Muslim Cemetery makes you reflect upon the fact that some things can be reconstructed or mended and some can never be brought back.  At the same time, though, you had to feel hopeful wandering the streets of this beautiful city.  The Old Bridge lit up at night, the cobbled pedestrian streets lined with little shops, the friendly locals, the beautiful architecture, and the clear, blue river winding through the center of it all makes you realize that even the worst of times can be replaced by better ones, and that hopefully the tragedies of the past can serve as a lesson to those of the future and peace will continue to prevail in beautiful little Bosnia and Herzegovina.  While it is a country hosting different religions, cultures, and even alphabets, there is a sense of hope in the air that maybe this time around they will learn to embrace these differences instead of fighting against them.

by Meghan Perkins

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