Mostar Stories and Tips

Mostar - an Overview Part Two

Most tourists come for the day from the coastal resorts of Croatia and even Montenegro; others come from the capital. I believe you can also do a half day trip from the coast in combination with a half day in Medjugorje (a famous pilgrimage sight thanks to an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1981). One day is sufficient to see the main sights and get a feel for the Old Town. This can easily include going inside some of the wonderful buildings of the old town. Organised trips from the coast tend to be quite structured but do take in the main sights; if you are an independent visitor you can book a walking tour through the tourist information centre or with one of the countless companies with offices in the Old Town. A word of warning: Mostar does not lend itself to bus or car tours as the main sights are within the virtually traffic free centre, and the streets are not only cobbled but cobbled with very slippery stone. Flat comfortable shoes are a must and even then you should expect to slip a couple of times.

Most of the attractions are situated on the left (and historically Muslim) side of the river Neretva which cuts through the city. The river is an essential part of Mostar’s history and the very reason for its importance as a trading centre. The Herzegovina region enjoys long (often very) hot summers and is surrounded by rocky mountains which make conventional agriculture quite difficult. Fortunately the people of Mostar were talented craftsmen and the well-made items created in Mostar were at the heart of the town’s development. The main trades were those of the coppersmith, the tanner and the tailor. Even now, leather and copper items are highly regarded products in Mostar and Bosnia generally and you may see people with simple stalls laden with handmade copper items by the edge of the road in even the most remote villages. Today the coppersmiths still work (and sell their goods) from tiny workshops in a little street in the Old Town called "Kujundziluk" (literally ‘coppersmiths’). Tanning no longer takes place here (as the tanning process makes a horrible smell I can’t say I mind) and the little shops that were once occupied by tanners are now little Turkish-style cafes with low seating and ornate carpets where you can be served Bosnian coffee (This street is known as "Tabhana" – ‘Tanners’).

There are several interesting mosques in and close to the Old Town but we visited only one on this visit and this is the one most tourists are likely to visit because it has been given the status of National Monument and opened up to the public in order to demonstrate the rich heritage of Islamic architecture and design. I always carry a scarf in places where I may enter a mosque or Orthodox church but I suspect most female visitors don’t, so I think it’s a great opportunity to see inside a mosque when usually it may not be possible. This mosque is the "Koski Mehmed pasha’s mosque"; is quite small but it has the usual features found in all mosques so it is a good example of what to expect. Furthermore, and most thrillingly for me as I have often wished it possible, you may climb the minaret from where you will get the best possible view of the Old Bridge.

Not far away we visited the "Biscevica" or Turkish House, a well-preserved house from the Ottoman period with magnificent views over the Neretva. There are three rooms containing original furnishings and lots of images of Ottoman Mostar. There was no guide and no literature to take you through the exhibits but it was certainly worth seeing at least for the richness of the exhibits. After your short tour you can take a glass of tea in the courtyard, sitting on low wooden benches around the fountain.

The highlight of a trip to Mostar is the Old Bridge (I intend to write about it more fully in a separate piece). The bridge has a very simple design and you’d be over it in a matter of seconds if it wasn’t for the arresting views up and down river. If you have time, I’d advise going down to the waters edge to get a view from the canyon too. As I said at the beginning I hoped for many years that one day I’d see someone dive from the bridge and while we were eating lunch near the bridge – but sadly not within sight of it – we could hear that some young men had been jumping. After lunch we went to the river’s edge and after a while we were rewarded with just one jump which – I am disappointed to reveal – was missed by my travelling companion; he’d offered to take the shot to enable me to watch properly and, alas, failed to catch the diver mid-air. We made two more trips to the bridge that afternoon in the hope of seeing more diving and possibly taking a better picture but we weren’t able to see anymore and there are no set times.

Most tourists will only see one side to Mostar as the tour coaches deposit them close to the Old Town. As tourism is so important to the city, it’s not surprising that work should have concentrated on getting the Old Town looking good for visitors. However, you don’t have to step far away from the Old Town to see evidence of the war. On the street where we were staying there were abandoned houses riddled with bullet holes, some daubed with graffiti so you could tell exactly who had occupied this house before the war. "Bulevar Street" was the front line during the war and this is one of the most damaged areas; here renovation isn’t happening so quickly as in the Old Town.

The Left Bank with its Ottoman bazaar, mosques and Turkish style houses (there are several worth seeing) is very charming but I liked the other side of the river just as much. This is modern Mostar and it’s very much a "Soviet" city here. My favourite sight was the Partisan Memorial, dedicated to those who died defending Mostar during the Second World War. The cemetery in which the monument stands was badly damaged during the later war and you can still see some evidence of this. I read that of all Bosnian cities, the people of Mostar did not notice their differences prior to the war; indeed, they felt united by coming from this beautiful city rather than by their nationality or religion. It seemed very poignant to visit a monument that commemorated those who died defending Mostar, only to have the people it was done for divided fifty years later.

As food is so cheap you will have money left for souvenirs. If you are so inclined you can buy lots of cheap rubbish, and some of it is quite pretty. However, you can buy some quality items such as the copperwares, rugs and some of the art work. Pomegranates – the national fruit of Bosnia and Herzegovina – are a popular subject matter but there are several talented artists painting lovely views of the city.

In the evening, when the day trippers had gone back to Croatia, Mostar took on a new feeling. Families were out walking as they do every evening, window shopping, buying ice cream, chatting with friends in the streets. People seemed happy but the truth is that Mostar is a very poor city, in spite of the income from tourists. The man we stayed with has a good job but he still shares his house with strangers and he still had a car full of plastic bottles, no doubt to exchange for meagre amounts of cash at the Mercator supermarket. However, people are very friendly and helpful, more than you could ever expect of people who have suffered so badly. While it’s possible to see the highlights of Mostar in one day, you really ought to stay at least a night too to get a true picture.

In Mostar, I found far more than a town based on one symbol. Mostar by far exceeded my expectations. Not only is the city rich in culture and history but it is located in what must rank as one of the most dramatically scenic parts of Europe. Sadly the Old Bridge only links the two banks of the Neretva physically these days; the truth is that the people of Mostar are quite bitterly divided. Before I visited I really only knew of the bridge and little else about the city; seeing the bridge destroyed during the war only increased my interest in visiting. However, on reflection, I’d say that Mostar is what it is in spite of the war, rather than because of it.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip