When a place lends itself to the leisure of other people it generally becomes a haven for the lewd and the superficial. I am now in the fifteenth month of a backpacking journey that has taken me to some of the less contemporary parts of the world. In speaking with people and seeing their ways I have found that culture, above all things, is what makes a country endearing, and that a culture exploited is something lamentable. A place that panders solely to tourism is simply a place without a soul.
I have recently been traveling through the less visited regions of Eastern Europe. Having started in Slovenia and made my way down along the Adriatic Coast, I was disheartened by the droves of vacationers there. I found Croatia to be beautiful, overcrowded, and overpriced. To escape the masses, I headed east into the somewhat stigmatized countryside of Bosnia-Herzegovina. From Dubrovnik I took two busses that would bring me to Mostar, where I could spend the afternoon walking and exploring the town before hopping a later train to Sarajevo.
I find that small, suburban towns are where I come to understand the true nature of a country’s people. These are where western influences and popular culture are always last to appear. Mostar, for the most part, is a quiet such little town (now of approximately 94 thousand people), spanning the banks of the Neretva River. Though the city is scarred by its recent history (having been the scene of the front lines of the Bosnian war), it is still regarded as the most picturesque setting in the region. Today Mostar is beautiful, quaint, and war-torn. The facades of buildings remain peppered by bullet holes, and streets are lined with the empty shells of bombed-out structures that have not been restored since the war. Photographs of the once demolished town hang solemnly on mosques and church doors, describing the atrocities that occurred, the casualties suffered, and the resolve it took to restore the town to its present distinction. Passing the dozens of graveyards throughout the town, one cannot help to wonder what brutality the people had suffered here.
The town is centered on the Old Bridge (1556), which was destroyed in 1993 and later rebuilt during the country’s reconstruction. Some say it represents the unity to come between Muslims and Croats. Surrounding it are the narrow cobblestone lanes, outdoor cafes and shops that compose the heart of the old town. Today locals stroll easily through the streets, relax by the river, sit with a beer
outside of a cafe. By the casual atmosphere, one would not imagine that anything tragic had ever occurred here, and by the vibrant murmur that pervades the streets, and by the museums and artisan shops that seem to have sprung up in anticipation of something, it is apparent that a tourism industry is budding. It won’t be long, I imagine, before the city has its place among Budapest and Prague as one of the more renowned destinations of Eastern Europe.
The course of the Neretva, as it winds through Mostar, makes for an impressive landscape. Known to be of the purest and coldest in the world, it is certainly some of the most beautiful blue water I have ever seen. During the day I lied by the river and napped in the shade. It was a pleasant afternoon, and I had a quick swim. Afterward, I went to the old town to sit and watch the people coming in from Sarajevo. Over the weekend there would be an influx of Bosnians from the city, coming to fill the pensions and cafes, and there would be music and dancing in the streets until the late hours of the morning. At sundown, I showered, dressed, and walked into the old town for dinner. It was a pretty night, and the streets were dimly lit by lampposts, and the restaurant terraces along the river had filled up for the evening.
For only eleven Marks (about six dollars), I ate a big meal of fish and pasta at a little place called Cista Voda, and it was the best meal I had in awhile. I began a conversation with a young Bosnian man at the next table. His name was Jusuf. In perfect English told me that he had recently returned from Wisconsin, where he gone at the age of sixteen to escape the war. Talking with me, he was candid about the things that had happened Bosnia. Showing me his forearm with a Muslim tattoo, Jusuf explained his experience of the war, how the Serbian army (under Milosevic) had invaded, set up “camps,” took Sarajevo, and how the Croats, after coming to help fight off the invasion, had then turned to take the capitol for themselves. The region erupted into bloodshed while the United Nations stood by and did nothing. When the war ended in 1995, over one-hundred thousand people had died, and Mostar left in ruins. Changing the subject, I mentioned to Jusuf how incredibly beautiful the Bosnian women are. He smiled and said they are the most beautiful in Europe, stating it as if it were fact. He said that because of the war there are now seven women for every Bosnian man. It must have been a very ugly war.
Leaving Jusuf, I walked through the town. On the old main street there was a cave that had been renovated into a nightclub. The cave had once been a meeting place for ancient Muslim’s, but today I was having a drink there and meeting new people before crossing over the bridge to the other side of town. In the narrow streets there were drums playing, people dancing, others sitting and clapping, and it seemed to be a celebration. I joined the festivities until nine o’clock when a train would take me on into Sarajevo. Regretfully, I said farewell to a few acquaintances and made my way to the station. As I left, I was saddened by the thought that I might never return. There is a stirring sentimentality about Mostar, and a heartening, upbeat enthusiasm amongst the Bosnians. Perhaps for the life that they are now free to live, there appears to be a certain amount of optimism for their future.
Recently the old bridge has been inscribed to UNESCO’s World Heritage List for its protection and preservation as a significant cultural monument. The Bosnian people have taken great pride in this as an affirmation of their cultural stature. They are a passionate people, and proud of their country. As the defamation from the war fades, I am certain that more travelers will be venturing there as freely as they do into Hungary and the Czech Republic. In visiting Mostar one will experience a true Bosnia-Herzegovina, and gain an understanding of its vivid history.
Written by Bradley Fink