Mostar: From the Ruins

On Sunday I told you about Sarajevo, a beautiful, cultured city still rebuilding itself after almost total obliteration. The vivid dichotomy between beauty and destruction was visible throughout the country, but nowhere was it more apparent than in Mostar, the biggest city in the southern region of Herzegovina.

Teeny tiny history lesson: Mostar, a gorgeous medieval city, was caught in the crossfire of two separate conflicts during the Bosnian war. The city managed to successfully fight back Serbian shells, only to morph into the front line of the Bozniak-Croat conflict. Basically, it got pummeled from both sides, and hard.

The city was almost completely demolished. Even now, over fifteen years later, walking through downtown Mostar is an eerie experience.  Gutted office buildings loom over shell pocked sidewalks. The houses still standing are incomprehensibly riddled with bullets. Everywhere signs warn of dangerous ruins and possible unexploded landmines.

It’s not all depressing though. Mere blocks away the Old Town gleams like new. The entire neighborhood has been rebuilt; the stone buildings buffed and polished to beautiful perfection. The area is a major tourist draw (it’s a popular inland destination for Adriatic cruises), so there was extra incentive to rebuild it. You can eat gelato, peruse the trinket shops, or have a beer in one of the many scenic cafes. If it’s tourist-y it’s the most charming tourist area I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to begrudge Mostar the much-needed economic boost.

In what many Bosnians consider a low point of the war, Stari Most, the great 16th century Ottoman bridge and symbol of the city, was blown to pieces in 1993. In 2004 the bridge, symbol of Mostar, was finally rebuilt. It shines magnificently over the icy Neretva river has a symbol of piece.

The Old Bridge is the centerpiece of the town.  During the day buskers collect money on the high arch and then dive off once they’ve filled their pockets. Occasionally tourists will try to duplicate this tricky feat. The week before my visit and American backpacker was shipped home with a broken neck- yikes. In the evening the bridge is lit up with golden spotlights, and the entire old town seems to glow against the inky sky.

It’s very jarring to see such beauty and charm only a thirty second walk from crumbling destruction. Together, the two really illustrate the emotional experience of visiting Bosnia. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and welcoming and uncomfortable. It’s history and religion and the very best and worst of human nature all built into the curve of a bridge. It’s a lot to take in and tremendously thought provoking, all of which give Bosnia a special place in my heart.

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