I’ve been up since the crack of dawn, and now I’m riding in the front middle seat with my left knee jammed into the dashboard. Both feet are asleep within ten minutes. Once again I’m questioning my choice to start my trip in Montenegro and head north rather than the other way around, just so I can go to what I am already calling “that #$%! Donkey Racing Festival” in Sali, Croatia. Doing it in this direction has made getting to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina from Kotor, Montenegro a chore. The common way to do it is to take a bus that goes through Dubrovnik, Croatia, costs 10 €, crosses two borders and takes a minimum of eight hours. I’ve opted to triple my fee and halve my time (and border crossings) by taking a private transfer from my hostel. I’m stuffed into a 15-year-old minivan with seven others, and somehow I ended up with the worst seat. The scratchy radio flirts randomly between stations. The air conditioner blowing in my eyes and the sway of the van around curves lulls me into closing my eyes. Every few minutes I jerk my head up and try to open my eyes so I don’t miss the view, but by now it all looks the same so I return to my nap.
I expected Mostar to be a sleepy little town with not much more than a cool-looking bridge, but I am immediately surprised by how large and sprawling it is. Miran meets me at the bus station and takes me to the hostel that bears his name. Opened in 2005 with only five beds, Hostel Miran is now the oldest in town and boasts 27 beds. I soon learn that even that is not big enough in high season when he exiles me across the street to live with his uncle in overflow housing. It’s a charming, if unexpected, way to immerse myself in the local culture. I like Miran immediately, and I find myself enjoying my time with his extended family.
Mostar, like most of Bosnia-Herzegovina, is Islamic, but Miran tells me it’s on paper only. “We live by many of Islam’s teachings, but we’re not very religious,” he explains. “Maybe it’s because our parents were communist and really didn’t teach us religion. We don’t go to mosque, but we believe in hospitality and integrity, and we take our shoes off before we enter the house.” This is one of several contrasts I find with Sarajevo, the country’s capital, which I visited in January 2015 and where most women wear the hijab.
Until the first time I went to Istanbul I believed that was the place where east meets west and Christianity melts into Islam, but I learned that in Turkey virtually no sign of Christianity exists anymore. In Mostar, however, 1,300 km west of Istanbul, I finally found the blend I’d been looking for. I stroll through Stari Grad (Old Town) on stones that have been polished smooth by centuries of feet, rain, ice and snow and my ears catch the jingle of belly dancer sashes hanging for sale in a nearby shop. I pause to compose a photo of minarets in the soft glow of sunset and suddenly I am greeted by the pealing of church bells from the Franciscan Bell Tower. As the sun sets behind the mountains I sip at my çaj (tea) and hear the call to prayer from three nearby minarets, but even though it’s a Friday I don’t see many men lining up for prayers.
I’m taken by the confluence of Islam and Christianity and pause to compose a shot of a mosque in the foreground with a huge cross atop a hill in the background, but as I will learn later, nothing in Bosnia-Herzegovina is as simple as it seems, and separating the war from current events is nearly impossible.
There are a handful of things for visitors to do in the old town of Mostar, a Unesco World Heritage site, but the center of Stari Grad is Stari Most (Old Bridge). Built in the 16th century when Bosnia-Herzegovina was ruled by the Ottomans, it was destroyed in the war in 1993 and rebuilt in 2005 using the original stones. And the biggest draw to the bridge is the thrill of jumping off it.
“Cliff diving is a 500-year-old sport here in Bosnia,” Miran’s 25-year-old nephew Esmer tells me. “Boys start learning when they’re only five or six years old. By the time you’re 18 or 20 you’re ready for a bridge like Stari Most. That’s when you start to be a man.” Motherhood must be hard here, I think.
There are two traditional ways to jump off a cliff or bridge here in Bosnia. Chest-first is only for experts and locals, as it is extremely dangerous from Stari Most’s 24 m (75 feet) height. The other way is feet-first, which is designed to keep a slim profile to the water. It sounds easy, but at 85 km an hour with strong crosswinds, there’s a reason you have to undergo an hour-long training before being allowed to jump off Stari Most. Even so, you’ll be sporting some pretty serious aches and bruises in the days following, as some of the brave boys at the hostel can attest.
In 2015, Mostar’s Stari Most was stop #6 on the Red Bull cliff diving world championship. I missed it by a week, but the locals welcome the attention with open arms. Since the war devastated their factories, tourism is the only industry and the season is brief and furious. Esmer is glad for a different reason. “Now young generations on are on Facebook and video games all the time and not on the river so much, so we may be losing our tradition,” he tells me. “Maybe this can get some excitement going in young boys for the sport again.”
Miran, age 38 and father of two, welcomes the event for a more practical reason. “Capitalism is a shit system for me,” he says. “Under socialism we had free school and healthcare. Now if I don’t have money for books my kids don’t get an education. Yugoslavia was a top five economy until 1985. Everyone was middle class, but now we have rich and poor. Don’t tell me how great democracy is. If I have a place to live and safe place for my kids to grow up, that’s democracy.”
If I have a place to live and safe place for my kids to grow up, that’s democracy.
I have only one full day in Mostar, and I spend it on Miran’s all-day tour. It’s a good decision. There are three carloads on the tour, and I’m in Esmer’s car. It’s a fabulous way to hear a millennial’s take on life in Bosnia, and along the way he plays Bosnian pop music for us. The tour takes us to the gorgeous town of Blagaj, with its clear, drinkable waters and Dervish monastery, and the quaint, picturesque town of Počitelj before spending several fun hours swimming in and under Waterfall Kravice. We end our tour on a panorama after touring a bombed out building, and that’s when we hear the story of Miran’s life during the war. It’s a full day that brilliantly balances fun times with cultural learning.
For centuries the west pushed east, bringing their ways through trade, conquest and colonialism. It strikes me that today, through immigration and religious conversions, the east is moving west faster than the west is moving east – especially with the recent refugee crisis. For now, at least, the two blend seamlessly in Mostar.
What to know:
- Tourism season runs through summer months, up until about October.
- Even if you don’t stay at Hostel Miran, do take his all-day tour. You won’t regret it.
- Two full days in Mostar should be enough unless you plan to spend extra time hiking or swimming in the area.
- Mostar is very safe. I walked around alone at night with no problems.
Have you been to any of the former Yugoslavian states? What did you think?