One night in Mostar: past, present, minarets & magic
Beyond Hvar our Balkan biking journey takes us inland from Croatia into Bosnia, to visit the pilgrim shrine of Medjugorje and then onto to the Southern Bosnian city of Mostar. As the sun goes down on another day of tough Balkan riding it’s a relief to cruise down a mountain into the city suburbs. We know of Mostar and the famous Stari Most from news and modern history, but are unsure what to expect in person. Having heard rumours of renewal and regeneration, we are interested to see for ourselves how the city’s spirit and appearance are faring beyond its brutal recent past…
An ugly past is close at hand
We blast down steep hairpin bends in a haze of hope, heat and hunger. And the picture changes from green to grey as mountain slopes become abandoned, twisted concrete. Abandoned buildings pock-marked with bullet holes mark it out as a Balkan city that was once ravaged by war. Scarred and scared by its own history perhaps. A city still reinventing itself, one perhaps that doesn’t always like to talk about its past or even the undercurrents of the present?
Yet in the heart we find a golden glow
But beyond the past, in the new old heart of this city there is a golden glow. This is the Mostar of tourists. A Disney scape in pastel shades. A fairytale bridge set in starry night. A needle sharp minaret, an arresting silhouette. Technicolour vendors selling tourists delights.
Just the same but different
Just like it was, but obviously not. Cobbles copied meticulously from the past, now polished by the feet of a stream of holiday makers, dreamers, lovers and history buffs. Buildings restored; the front line gone, but present in the mind. There is jumping from the bridge, but for money not for life. The war is a souvenir shell, a photograph, a museum exhibit. And, I imagine, a vivid and unspoken memory in many tortured hearts and minds
Stari Most: a bridge from the past
The Old Bridge, Stari Most, spans the valley of the Neretva River. It is an icon and a meeting point. The bombing of Stari Most in 1993 during a brutal fight between Muslim and Croats was one of the most shocking symbols of the Bosnian war. TV coverage by worldwide media meant the international community took notice as east of the city became separated from west in just a few seconds. These days the two parts of the city have been joined with a thirteen million dollar restoration project that saw the bridge being painstakingly reconstructed and took significantly longer. Yet despite the time and effort involved, and the undeniable symbolic power and beauty of this bridge, it is hard to imagine it healing deep underlying divides.
But we cannot cross this bridge
But even today the bridge is still difficult to cross. By bicycle anyway. With trailers, and kids. But at least it’s not because of snipers or ethnic divisions. No, it’s much more prosaic; there are simply too many tourists in search of souvenirs and supper. We turn back, pushing our bicycles through the crowds and evening heat. A local asks if we are lost. He begins his query by waving his hands into the air. “Welcome to Bosnia,” he cries. Behind him a tall thin tower, glimmers in the evening dusk, one of the many rebuilt minarets of Mostar.
Welcome to Mostar
As we make our way through town the air fills with the haunting chant of a muezzin’s call to prayer. Through a round of text messages and pigeon English we make contact with our host who meets us in town to guide us back to his apartment, our accommodation. He raises an eyebrow at our bikes and baggage, hops on a scooter and takes us off the wrong way down a one way street. Already I feel at home.
For more Balkan Adventures…
For more pictures, stories and video from our summer adventures cycling and touring in the Balkans, check out our Balkan blog archives, browse our Instagram #balkanadventure gallery or check out our Balkan Adventure YouTube playlist.