Emma Higgins gives us her top tips for enjoying one of the historic jewels of Europe… When planning my trip to the Balkans, a friend advised that under no circumstances could I miss Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina – and it is a recommendation I will always thank her for. Steeped in important history, the town is vibrant and rich with charm.
Completely flattened in the inter-ethnic wars of the mid-1990s, Mostar has managed to rebuild its heritage from the ruins in which it was left. When you walk through the streets now, it is hard to imagine that nearly twenty years ago it was reduced to rubble. All of the seven bridges which made Mostar famous were bombed, the buildings of the Old Town reduced to dust, and its people left devastated.
Bearing this in mind, it is incredible to see how the proud people of Mostar have rebuilt their city. One of the main attractions is the arching Old Town Bridge (Stari Most), one of the world’s iconic bridges. You cannot visit Mostar without enjoying its views of the swirling River Neretva, or seeing this masterpiece lit up at night. The rebuilt bridge was reopened on 22 July 2004, a symbol of reconciliation and hope, and it is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. You’ll see brave (or crazy!) young men jumping off the 22-metre high structure into the icy, green water below – a dazzling feat that makes you hold your breath whilst watching. You can even dare to do it yourself if you pay one of these young men for the privilege. In the summer months, a bridge-jumping festival is held, and this almost suicidal tradition is embraced by locals and attracts hundreds of tourists each year.
The river runs through the centre of the Old Town, and each side tells a different story. Mostar is segregated, Catholics and Muslims taking residence on different sides of the water. The old, cobbled Muslim side is marked by the tall minarets of the 16th century mosques, and the cross on the Catholic side stands tall. Even if you don’t notice these structures, you will quickly realise which side you are on depending on whether the bars sell beer or not. On the steep rocky banks of the Catholic side and tucked away under the Old Town bridge are several bars and restaurants at which you can sit and enjoy a drink (alcoholic or otherwise), taking in the lovely scenery of the Muslim area and the bridge itself. There are also some equivalents on the Muslim side, but without intoxicants involved.
One place that does break the rules is a bar called Ali Baba, which is just off the main street in the Muslim area. Littered with cushions and comfy seating areas, this middle eastern-themed hotspot is a café by day and a popular drinking hole at night. If you can’t find it, just follow the music and you will be taken straight there.
For sightseeing, the Mostar sniper tower is not to be missed. If there was any piece of history so important left standing in Mostar, this is it. Back when it was in use it stood tall as a busy bank, until it was invaded by armies and used as their station during the war. The sniper tower name lends itself to the hundreds of sniper bullet shells which still lie scattered all over the floors of this now derelict building. Rubble, dust, old banks books and even odd shoes are all that remain, along with carpets of broken glass. Visiting is a humbling yet chilling experience, which must be done in daylight as the tower can be dangerous to be in at night. All you need to do is walk up and enter – there is no charge and the building hasn’t been transformed into a tourist site with walking tours or guidebooks. It stands as s striking memory of Mostar’s turbulent recent history. Glimpsing the bullet holes here and in the crumbling walls of other buildings beyond brings one of those hard-hitting moments where you realise just what happened to this city not so long ago.
Accommodation is easy to find in Mostar, and there are plenty of cheap hostels around the city, only charging around 12 Euros per night. My recommendation would definitely be Hostel Majdas – a little apartment which has been converted into a hostel, sleeping around 16 people. The woman who owns it cooks breakfast every morning and is constantly on hand offer help or advice. They also run one of the best tours I’ve ever been on, taking you to the waterfalls outside the city.
Mostar has recovered exceptionally well from the destruction it encountered back in the 1990s. Whilst the scars are still present for both the people and the buildings, the city is making every attempt to rebuild itself in both architecture and spirit. The citizens are proud of their achievements, and I can’t say I blame them for being so; Mostar is definitely something to brag about. Emma Higgins