Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina: An Unexpected Peace (Traveler Diary)
Here we were, careening through a countryside rife with tobacco fields, the Adriatic Luxury Journeys Mercedes, and an overarching feeling that we were venturing into a still-tender region, where the scars of recent war linger in the air and on the very buildings we were to pass, despite the wildly luxurious promise offered by the German automobiles.
[On the way from Split to Mostar, you run the gamut of this spectacularly diverse landscape – from islands jutting out of the Adriatic amidst stunning, jagged rocky outcroppings (a spine of impressive rock seems to separate the seaside communities from the interior of the country), you emerge through the divide in the stone (via various tunnels, the likes of which Croatians are quite proud – rightly so for their engineering prowess and seeming ubiquity) into a lush, fertile agricultural flatland, riding along the river to the interior of the continent. Eventually, the mountains become higher, more impressive, and the road undulates atop the spectacular terrain, and we’re sure that we’re close.]
As the road begins a final descent, one notices in the valley below a bustling metropolis, spreading over the hillsides and the valley, mosque towers and newly rebuilt church steeples jutting abruptly from the ground- a veritable battle to see who can build the taller structure, and henceforth, who holds the moral high ground.
We’re only twenty years removed from one of the more widely broadcast (and vilified) civil wars of recent memory, and the images we saw on TV all those years ago are now staring back at us- rebuilt, remade, reinvigorated, revitalized- a testament to the will of a widely varied populace divided cruelly by the Neretva River, as natural a boundary as could be between people separated by politics of a battle for independence in the vacuum and disarray following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
Still, here stands Mostar. A new day has dawned, yet, as with most of this region, there has been a turnover in allegiance and leadership spanning centuries, from evidence of pre-historical and Roman settlements, to Austro-Hungarian (visible in the light blue and yellow buildings of typical Empire style) and Ottoman Turk, onwards through Yugoslavian and Croatian rule, eventually landing in present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Our local guide, arranged by the wonderful team of Adriatic Luxury Journeys, spoke fluent English, and was just old enough to remember the war as a young child. You’ll find that it’s near the tip of everyone’s tongue, but what one really notices about Mostar is the resilience of the people and a society set on moving forward from the ills of the past. The narrow, charming streets near the Old Bridge are lined with local vendors, and cobblestones smoothed from centuries of use form a vivid reminder of the age of this cradle of life. As we near the river’s crossing, we descend to view from below one of the more vivid images of recent memory- the Old Bridge, or Stari Most, itself, which has straddled the Neretva River since the 16th Century.
Destroyed during the war by hillside missiles and recently rebuilt, this piece of Muslim heritage is an incredibly vital landmark and an extraordinary example of Ottoman architecture from that time. Now, as ever, it strikes a compelling vision as it stretches across the gorge. (Cliff divers preparing for a competition sponsored by Red Bull serve as an austere token of the town’s divisive nature.)
On the other side of the bridge, you’ll find souvenirs of times long past- jewelry made from Yugoslavian artillery, bullets turned into necklaces, metal from guns made into ashtrays, a forgotten KGB star now adorning my jacket. As we strolled the city’s winding streets, we’re reminded at every turn of the conflict that raged so publicly right here- bombed out buildings remain a stark reminder of how precious and fragile life is.
But as we dine by the riverside, at a café perched above the frigid mountain waters of the Neretva, a distinct serenity accompanies the low hum of the passing waters, the warm, nebulous air, and the joyful sounds of local melodies cascading through the stone-laced streets.
On our walk back to our vehicle, we were lead excitedly by our guide, to a park on the other side of the river. Here, perched alone in a lonely nook stands a statue… of Bruce Lee. Anachronistic, extraneous, and curious, he stands on guard as a humorous reminder of the gentle spirit of the people, and a will to survive.
And still, here stands Mostar, on the verge of yet another reinvention, trying to figure out its identity.
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