The girl on the bus looks out the window and asks the helpful Bosnian who happens to speak English, “Is Mostar prettier than this?”
“It depends on where you are,” is his wry reply.
We have just passed through a small town where the bus stops for a handful of passengers to alight. One of those one-horse towns in the back of beyond.
So if we are already beyond, what’s ahead? In spite of my smirking ‘typical tourist!’ response, I start sharing my fellow passenger’s anxiety. And when the first signs of Mostar start appearing, I start becoming twitchy. The taxi driver takes us to our Airbnb accommodation where the buildings are crumbling, the windows are paneless and the bullet holes are visible in the walls. Just through the tunnel, we come upon a surprisingly delightful courtyard where our studio apartment is located, as modern as it can be. The contrast comes as quite a shock.
Was that a gunshot I heard? Followed by a melancholy heart-felt cry? Our host pacifies us. It’s just marking the time for the feasting to begin after a day of fasting during this Ramadan season. Mostar is mostly Muslim and mosques and their muezzins can ben seen and heard from early morning until late at night. There are some Catholic Cathedrals and an Orthodox one too, but most of the population practice Islam. Probably best not to go during this time of the Muslim calendar since some of the museums and houses tend to be closed or the hours are awkward.
But even if you don’t get to see one, it’s that marvellous fast-flowing Neretva River carving it’s determined way through the city that makes your heart skip a marvellous beat. The Stare Most or Old Bridge is a landmark joining up the two sides with many-a story to be told. Getting to this historic site however, is a feat of its own. The cobbles hack high heels to bits and the many years of tread has left the surface as slick as an ice rink. Beware the shoes you wear!
Mimar Sinan had a promising student. His name was Mimar Hayruddin whose dream was to become an architect. It was realised when he was ordered by Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, to construct the most prized piece of Islamic architecture in the 16thC. Be careful what you wish for! Hayruddin’s his life was at stake and it is said that he prepared for his own funeral on the day that the scaffolding was removed from the widest man-made structure in the world at that time. Genius springs to mind. Light and local limestone called tenelija was his choice, iron clamps embedded in lead held it together and hollow support columns kept it light and sustainable allowing for the height and strong flow of the river.
Sadly, as is the unfathomable wont of mankind, destruction came at the hands of the Croats, bent on wiping out the entire Bosniak community (Bosnian Muslims) in the war of 1993. Talk about ripping out the heart of the people of Mostar, hitting them where it hurts most, it was like the death of a loved one for the brave inhabitants. But human tenacity prevailed and it was reconstructed and reopened in 2004.
And so life goes on for these people who refused to leave. Navigate those cobbles and on both sides of the walking street on both sides of the river, are a myriad small vendors who ply their goods without pushing them in your face. They’re gentle salespeople who tell you what you need to know and leave you to make a decision on your own. The prices are really low by Western standards with an artisan hand-hewn copper bracelet costing between €4 and €10.The craftsman refuses to have his photo taken, strict Muslim rule, he says, while banging away at the metal. Pashminas, silk scarves, glittering purses and leather bags colour the view to jolt you into a different world, away from drab blacks and browns.
Wining and dining
Well, yes, this is a mostly Muslim city but the odd tipple is to be had at some restaurants, mostly home made wine which is not at all unpleasing to the palate. Beer, too, seems in plentiful supply and while we’re on the topic, food portions are enormous. The fish platter at Sadrvan is heavily laden with 3 river trout cooked in 3 different ways, a fish kebab, some delicious spinach and boiled potatoes. Wash it down with a litre of Žilavka with its pear, tarragon, apple flavours and good acidity and it spills back nicely, especially at the price. Another indigenous must-try is Bey’s Soup, a creamy concoction of chicken, potatoes, beans, okra, carrots and herbs, passed down from generation to generation all the way back to the Ottomans.
War Photo Exhibition
Something troubles me. It’s this juxtaposition of Muslim, Christian, Orthodox, derelict, modern, poor and rich that comes together in an uneasy calm. At the base of Helebija Tower at the Stare Most, the sign catches my eye, ‘Don’t Forget ‘93’. Some graffiti too, is a constant reminder. It’s in this exhibition by New Zealand photojournalist Wade Goddard who, at the age of 22, arrived in Mostar in 1992 with no experience in journalism, who started capturing the scenes of hardship. No water, no electricity and very little food but with a stalwart determination to stay, in his words, “in this city that was killing them”.
Clichés suck but sometimes they just capture the essence of what a place and people can achieve through passion and endurance, so here it is: “Hope springs eternal.”
Airbnb accommodation at Miran’s: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6944846?guests=2&s=ApruMq3Z