By guest blogger Fabien Reynaud.
During a recent trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia, my partner and I decided to spend a day in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a simple but nice breakfast at the hotel we hit the Croatian coastal road. Destination … Mostar.
Many cities have famous bridges, think about Sydney and its harbor bridge or San Francisco and its Golden Gate, but very few are solely famous for their bridge alone, which makes Mostar truly unique. Why is Mostar’s bridge famous? Apart from being at the crossing of religion such as Christianity and Islam, for being a strikingly elegant structure against a naturally beautiful backdrop, the Mostar bridge [Stari Most] was victim to one of the more insensitive acts of cultural vandalism during the Balkans conflict of the 1990’s when it succumbed to the shells of the two aggressors who were battling over the same piece of land with little thought being given to either the human or cultural consequences of their acts.
I always wanted to go to Mostar as far as I can remember maybe because as a child I watched the videos and pictures of the Bosnian conflict. Something always attracted me to that bridge.
Stari Most [Old Bridge] is a 16th century Ottoman bridge in the city of Mostar that crosses the river Neretva and connects two parts of the city. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years, until it was destroyed on November 9, 1993 by Bosnian Croat forces during the Croat-Bosniak War. After its destruction, a temporary cable bridge was erected in its place to help the population cross the river.
The bridge was rebuilt and opened on July 23, 2004. The whole area around the bridge was badly damaged but has since been restored. However on a closer look, one can find several un-refurbished buildings with all the remnants of the war. In July 2005, UNESCO inscribed the Old Bridge and its closest vicinity on to its World Heritage List.
While in Mostar, do not hesitate to pay a visit at the MLINICA Restaurant. It is situated by the bridge and it offers great Bosnian dishes and breath-taking views. With Turkish influences able to still be seen in the architecture and tasted in the food, coffee and sweet treats, Mostar feels like a big step south-east from everywhere else we have been in Europe. Lunch done, we strolled the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, filled with restaurants and souvenirs shops. Even though Bosnia has its own currency [the Bosnian Marka], you can easily pay your restaurant bill in Euros or even in Croatian Kunas. We visited a photo exhibit of pictures taken during the war in the 90’s.
Another attraction not to be missed is to see local youngsters defying fear for a few euros to jump off the bridge. It is traditional for the young men of the town to leap from the bridge into the Neretva River. As the Neretva is very cold, this is a very risky feat and only the most skilled and best trained divers will attempt it. I read that the practice dates back to the time the bridge was built, but the first recorded instance of someone diving off the bridge is from the 17th century.
Since the war in the early 1990’s the city itself has been divided into a Croatian [Catholic] side on the west and a Bosniak [Muslim] side on the east and although it is officially one city, there are still many signs of division. The most visual difference is that on the east side, you see minarets from the many mosques piercing the skyline and on the west side you see the steeples of the catholic churches.
I will end this fantastic journey by a quote from the famous traveler Evliya Çelebi, an Ottoman Turkish traveler , who wrote the following about the bridge in the 17th century: “the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other. …I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.”
*Fabien is a French expat currently living in the United Kingdom.
[Editor’s Note: If you are in New York City, make your way to Restaurant Old Bridge in Astoria, Queens, where you can get traditional Bosnian food such as their famous Balkan Burger – http://www.oldbridgeny.com/.]