Most people visit Mostar for two things. The 500-year-old stone bridge and the divers who plunge off it. The ‘Old Bridge’ represents the heart and soul of the city and a rite of passage for local divers. The bridge, like a wise old man, draws you closer to hear a complex tale. A tale best told through Mostar’s many landmarks. Each of these make up their own chapters in this weaving, sometimes shocking, narrative.
Only a few hours drive from the popular sun-soaked coast of Croatia, Mostar has an altogether different feel. From bullet-riddled facades and derelict buildings to Turkish-style bazaars and the minarets of mosques. All attempts are being made to move on from past conflicts yet it is obvious that some buildings are being left as a reminder to visitors and locals alike.
Bonsnian History – Brief Version
To catch up on your Bosnian history, almost a requisite for any visit, the following is about as brief as you can get.
Bosnia (& Herzegovina) has always been an eclectic mix of cultures that have co-existed, on the whole, peacefully. Its position in the world between east and west has however made it a pawn in warring empires past and present. First the Ottomans, then Austro-Hungarians followed by the Soviet Republic of Yugoslavia. Each empire has used Bosnia’s unique ethnic diversity and religious beliefs to divide these generally peaceful people in a quest to conquer the land.
Bosnia is made up of three main religious groups. Simplistically, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks. This distinction has traditionally been the trait that invaders have successfully used to manipulate, divide and conquer the people of Bosnia for centuries.
The most recent 1992-1995 conflict began after the breakup of Soviet Yugoslavia. Serbia first attempted to seize more control of available Bosnian territory. This was then followed by a freshly independent Croatia. The ruthless intensity of the fighting on all sides and systematic genocide of particularly Bosnian muslims over this period was atrocious and mass graves are still being uncovered in the remote wilderness across the country.
With the history super summarised, let’s move onto the sights.
Stari Most (Old Bridge)
Beginning with the star attraction. ‘The old bridge’ which translates directly to its local name of Stari Most. A 500 year-old Ottoman construction which spans the Neretva river and was the largest stone arch of its time. After its destruction in 1993 by Croatian forces, it was rebuilt in 2004 using some of the rubble left behind from the old bridge.
Today it is again the centrepiece for the city with all tourist roads leading towards it. Divers wait in their speedos 24m above the water waiting for their touts to collect enough tourist cash before diving in. A spectacular back drop which has inspired Red Bull to sponsor a high diving competition here each August. Of course, Red Bull up the ante by adding a slightly higher platform for their elite divers to plunge off.
Jumping off Old Mostar Bridge
Culturally, for local boys, jumping off Mostar Bridge is a rite of passage. For tourists that are game enough, the opportunity to attempt the thrill seeking jump is also surprisingly simple. Just corner a local diver, take a visit their clubhouse and after successfully making a few practise jumps from a 10m height you will be upgraded to the 24m high bridge!
The smaller jumps cost 10 Euros and if you manage the higher jump it is another 20 Euros. You get officially recorded in the clubhouse as having jumped and receive a certificate of your achievement. Hopefully though you won’t get any other lasting memories from your jump!
Heading back to downtown Mostar, Boulevard St was the former frontline of the 1990’s conflict. The tallest building by far is also Mostar’s most infamous. It was from here that snipers, both local and imported, reined terror upon day-to-day life of the citizens of Mostar. Simple acts of retrieving water could put an innocent man, woman or child in the line of fire.
The sniper tower is just one of many still abandoned buildings either by accident or design as a reminder of what went down. Access is blocked to get in the tower but for those game enough to take their chances, the views (and graffiti) gets more intense as you get higher.
A compact, informative and must-see museum in Mostar. It does a good job of outlining the events leading up to, during and after the Bosnian war. It focuses on human stories caught up in the conflict and the horrors of the prisoner of war camps established where men women and children were raped, beaten, tortured and ultimately, for many, killed.
If you are a Dervish Muslim you would likely already know about Blagaj and may even have taken a pilgrimage to this site. For the rest of us, this is a bit obscure. If you simply appreciate the natural beauty of a river being born out of a cave at the bottom of a soaring cliff then this is worth a visit.
Divers and geologists have unsuccessfully tried to find the scientific source of the river Buna. The dervish have simply put it down to a religious phenomenon, meaning 50,000 pilgrims come here annually to sip the crystal clear water.
About 30km south of Mostar, along the Neretva river, is Počitelj Village. A natural amphitheatre is formed in the landscape which surrounds weathered stone houses and a crumbling Ottoman fortress. It has great views of the Mostar valley and the few locals who have determined to remain living here sell a range of juices, fruits and syrups to get by.
On the Croatian border, 42km from Mostar lies Kravice Waterfalls. A popular day trip to swim in a natural pools below a horseshoe of cascading waterfalls. Kayaks can be hired to get close to the falls (swimming prohibited directly under the falls) and can also be used to discover the river leading away from the falls. There is a small sunbathing area and two laid back restaurants to choose from serving large mezze platters. It can be crowded, so it’s far from a ‘hidden gem’ but worth the effort if you can get out there.
Eat: Tima – Irma
Great tasting local cuisine, family run and reasonable prices are what you want to hear when people give you a restaurant recommendation. Tim-Irma was recommended and it delivered. Located just over the west side of the bridge, this bustling institution may seem hard to get a table at but space opens up quickly. Orders were simultaneously shouted to the kitchen as we ordered them, efficiency personified! There was also only one waitress serving almost 20 tables yet we were served quickly with our own personal touches. Eat here!
Stay: Hostel Majdas, Mostar
Every family run hostel has a backstory which you rarely get in detail from the owner who is often sick to death of telling his or her story. With Hostel Majdas, it is the exception to the rule. Owners Batar and Majdas are brother and sister and run one of the best, most welcoming and authentic traveller hostels you can imagine.
A delicious freshly cooked breakfast is served each morning with traditional Bosnian coffee, the rooms and amenities are modern and there is a buzz of organised chaos constantly underway in the common courtyard area. Nothing is too much hassle or bother and the staff will go out of their way to make you feel at home and help you experience Mostar and wider Bosnia.
One of the add-ons to staying at Madjas is the opportunity to take Batar’s ‘crazy’ tour of Mostar. This is not to be taken on lightly… read on if you dare!
Must do: Batar’s ‘Crazy’ Tour
Owners of Hostel Madjas, Batar and Madjas are brother and sister and were born and raised in Mostar. They were just becoming adults when the war erupted. After narrowly escaping with their lives and living in exile for many years in separate countries, they eventually returned to rebuild their lives in Mostar.
Batar’s tour of Mostar is high-energy, humorous and thought provoking. It uses up every minute of the 10 intense hours allocated and you need to dedicate yourself mentally and physically to fully appreciate what you are being given. The free-flowing tour includes an intimate walking tour like no other, a full banquet lunch beside the waterfalls, an unforgettable visit to ‘Grandma’s house’ along with a brief swig of Dervish holy water. It all ends with a late home-made dinner back at the hostel.
The itinerary may sound cryptic because the sights of the tour come a distant second to the inside scoop you get on a lot of Bosnian history that you are unlikely to hear anywhere else. You understand what the past was like, what the present is like and what the potential future holds for this intriguing country.
As Batar explains, the tour is his almost daily therapy to deal with what happened to him in Mostar. It is an exhausting and dedicated task to repeat this intense groundhog day over and over. Which is why the tour may or may not be running during your visit, just cross your fingers that it is and strap yourself in! You will see the entire region in a different and unbiased light allowing you to draw your own conclusions.
Mostar is a must visit town in Bosnia & Herzegovina and the wider Balkan region. It’s important to understand the harsh history but you’ll soon get wrapped up in the nature, food and lovely people to appreciate this wonderful part of the world.