The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina was not originally part of our planned trek around the Adriatic. During our week in Dubrovnik, though, we decided that a day trip to the cultural capital of Mostar was in order. It was only a short bus ride, and from everything we had heard, it was a very different place from the Croatian coast, beautiful in a distinct way.
Hopping on our tour bus, we had little idea what to expect. Our minibus spent an hour or so hugging the coastline of the Adriatic, briefly crossing from Croatia to Bosnia and back to Croatia again (Bosnia has only a small sliver of coastline, where a single town, Neum, resides.)
From there we turned inland and crossed the border one more time, this time headed into the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). It was, as promised, stunning in a completely different way than the coast.
The vast majority of the country is rural, with a few major cities like Mostar, Doboj and Sarajevo. Our trip into Bosnia began with one of the small, rural towns, called Počitelj. Situated on a hill, we hopped out of the bus and trekked up to the mosque near the top. It was here we witnessed our first breathtaking panorama of the country.
The town itself was small, with a restaurant, a mosque, a number of residences, and even some ruins. Once upon a time the city was the administrative center for Dubrava county, and the architecture is a blend of classic medieval and that of the Ottoman Empire.
Our stop in Počitelj was brief, but we did manage to explore, and climb to the top of one of the ruins. Then it was back onto the bus and off to Mostar.
The city is most famous for its iconic bridge, Stari Most (Old Bridge) and the city itself is named for the bridge-keepers, or mostari. The Old Bridge is not just one of the best examples of Islamic architecture in the region, it is also symbolic of a bridge between cultures.
The original bridge was built in the 16th century, and it stood until 1993, when it was destroyed during the wars that plagued the region during that era. After our day trip, Tara and I went online and found video footage of the destruction of Stari Most. It was possibly one of the most heart-wrenching things we’ve ever seen.
Since the war, the bridge has been reconstructed, piece by piece. Chunks of stone were dredged from the river and painstakingly dried and reconstructed. The bridge officially reopened in 2004, reuniting the two sides of Mostar. This has paved the way to a surge in tourism, and an age-old profession — bridge diving. Practiced divers will collect tips and, when they have enough money, they will dive from the bridge and to the Neretva river beneath.
The two sides of Mostar are still very segregated in many ways. We ate lunch on the side that primarily home to Christians and Croats, then crossed the bridge to the Muslim side. Here it was like stepping into another part of the world entirely. The streets were set up bazaar-style, selling everything from hookahs to magnets to Turkish slippers. There were mosques sprinkled throughout, and at the prescribed four times a day loudspeakers came to life, projecting the sounds of prayer across the city.
We had a chance to visit one of these mosques. The inside of the mosque was beautiful; it was simple, but ornate.
After peeking around, we decided to climb to the top of the minaret. It was potentially one of the most harrowing climbs of my life. Since it was a Muslim place of worship, we were asked to remove our shoes and wear provided slippers. This would normally be fine, but my feet are abnormally small and the slippers were not meant for them. Climbing up the steep, spiral staircase (while wearing a skirt, no less) was a recipe for disaster.
Luckily we prevailed.
Less than twenty years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was deep in the grip of war. As we left Počitelj and moved into Mostar we saw that many of the old scars are still visible. It is not like neighboring Croatia, where the tourism industry has relegated relics of war to museums and the incredibly observant eye. Bosnia wears its wounds on its surface, and Mostar was one of the fiercest battlegrounds.
Yet amid the ruined shells of bombed out houses, life goes on — thrives, even. And the beauty of this country still prevails.
Our experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of those that resonated deeply. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, a region where many Bosnian and Croatian refugees sought refuge in the early 1990s. I was surrounded by their stories as a child, but as I grew up I realized that the war was vastly misunderstood outside of my area. Many people I talked to in America (especially those around my age) admitted to knowing nothing about the region, only that “something bad” had happened there when we were young.
Actually being there, walking in the footsteps of our refugee friends, was powerful and overwhelming. As we climbed into the bus late that afternoon, we were silent, absorbing the impact of being in a place that was so beautiful, but had endured so much.
We returned to Dubrovnik in respectful silence, reflecting.