On my recent journey island hopping in Croatia the opportunity arose to take a side trip to Bosnia (which covers the north and centre) and Herzegovina (the south) of the country around 2 hours’ drive from Split. Not a place that instantly springs to mind as a tourist destination. In point of fact hearing the word Bosnia probably conjures up pictures of civilians living in a war zone risking their lives to obtain basic necessities. However I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful country of medieval villages, varied landscapes, with a wealth of rich culture and traditions.
In spite of history leaving its mark, the country has claimed back its way of life and everyone we met on our brief visit were so friendly and welcoming. This can only be attributed to the stoicism of the people as it’s impossible to imagine the hardships they have survived.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s geographical position between Croatia and Serbia has made it vulnerable to national territorial ambitions. Firstly ruled by the Ottoman Empire, then afterwards it fell under the control of Austria and Hungary, subsequently playing a role in the outbreak of World War I.
In 1918 it was incorporated into the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Following World War II it became a constituent republic of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1991 the state collapsed, consequently the following year a referendum was held and the majority of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted for independence. The country’s Serb population opposed this and boycotted the referendum.
This resulted in a war as ethnic nationalists within Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the support of Serbia and Croatia, tried to take control of territories they claimed as their own. From the beginning of the Bosnian Conflict in 1993 to the end of the troubles in1995 thousands of people were killed and more than two million people were displaced in the violent and horrific legacy of ethnic cleansing. Eventually with international intervention a peace agreement was reached on 21st November 1995, the Daytona Accords, bringing an end to the war.
Sadly on 9th November 1993 it was destroyed from tank shelling, ripping the soul out of the city and its inhabitants. Many of the Turkish houses within the Old Town also lay in ruin. Even today the scars of battle are still visible, bullet holes pock mark pastel painted walls like Swiss cheese and wide gaping cavities the result of mortar shells let sunlight into the dark hollow abyss of the city’s abandoned buildings.
Mostar is a city in the south of the country which dates back to 1500’s then an Ottoman frontier town. Today it is probably most well-known for the iconic Stari Most (Old Bridge) from which it gets its name, derived from a “mostari” – the bridge keepers. The medieval arched bridge and fortress designed by the renowned architect Sinan had stood for 427 years at the heart of the city. Symbolising the public life of its streets and water ways that for centuries was a symbol of tolerance shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews.
After the war reconstruction took place with an international committee established by UNESCO and on 23rd July 2004 the rebuilt picturesque stone bridge opened, (replacing the 11 year temporary cable bridge) it now stands as a symbol of reconciliation.
These days’ crowds gather alongside to watch the Bridge Divers, a rite of passage for many young men of the town. For more than 400 years people have succumbed to this death defying act, it lasts for three seconds, just like a bird they take to the sky, fly through the air before gravity wins out and they enter the water 27 meters below. There is an established Divers Club beside the bridge from which the athletic bodies of young men emerge consorting with danger for the thrill of traveling over 50 miles an hour. And also for tips collected from the onlookers before they jump.
They span uneven cobbled streets, stone balustrades, draped with multi coloured hand woven rugs and textiles. Leading to paths where visitors stroll, lined by ornate black wrought iron lampposts, dusted by pink Oleander bushes.
Old world alleyways with souvenir shops lead away from the bridge, mixing east with west, as artisans, coppersmiths and traders of antiques tempt tourist to buy their goods in the bazaar. A museum lays out the story of the Bridge’s history and further on another contains a War Photo Exhibition where you can learn more about the conflict.
Mostar can easily be visited in a day as it is very compact, like a fairy-tale town, nestled into a valley surrounded by towering mountains and green countryside. Small cafes and delightful restaurants offer a cool place to sit in the shade, sip a Turkish coffee, soak up the atmosphere and listen to running water flow beneath ancient bridges, one of which is the Kriva Cuprija (Crooked bridge) the prototype of Stari Most.
In Tepa Market wooden tables visually bow beneath rows of the most vivid shades of reds and orange liquids. Precariously stacked glass bottles and jars filled with local organic honey and liqueurs, produce of nearby villages. Which I can attest to being quite potent, as the smiling stall holders are only too generous with their samples.
Before leaving I climbed a narrow winding staircase extending skywards towards a minaret, the view alone was worth the effort. Stretched out before me was a town of stone and painted buildings, tiled rooftops, and cobbled streets. Licked by the emerald waters of a flowing river, shelteing beneath the dramatic peaks of Velez Mountain in what is now a now peaceful land.
Just around the corner from the characterful market, stands the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, built in 1618 which was also destroyed in the Croat-Bosnaik conflict. Entering through a pair of large wooden doors, leading in from a courtyard I felt as if I had stepped back in time. Radiating through coloured – glass windows shafts of light danced across the walls adorned with original paintings and botanical decorations, it was exquisitely beautiful. A young woman dressed in blue, her head bent swathed in a scarf of a lighter shade, knelt in prayer.
A place just to be with your thoughts. And it gave me time to stand, take in my surroundings and contemplate what had taking place outside these walls only decades before.
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