Sunday, 30 August 2015

Blood and Honey in Mostar

One of the reasons why I wanted to visit Bosnia so badly was to see Mostar, the town famous for the 16th-century Ottoman bridge bombed in 1993 during the war with Croatia and then faithfully reconstructed with techniques dating from that period. In my mind the town was like travelling back in time to the period when the Ottoman empire had spread its wings over this region of Europe. I wasn't disappointed, because indeed Mostar has one foot in that past and one in the present. Nevertheless it was a difficult place to visit, emotionally speaking. I cannot even bear to think that war can become so furious as to destroy centuries-old architecture, let alone in the heart of Europe.

A view of the Old Bridge
During my bus trip from Dubrovnik, I paid attention to the landscape. At first, we followed the coastline of Croatia. The landscape is dotted with spectacular uninhabited islands covered with woods. Blue and green are the dominant colours here. Not for a moment you are reminded that twenty years ago a bloody war infuriated all over the region. 
Bosnia, on the other hand, is probably where the war has left the most visible marks and where reconstruction has been slower. As the bus entered into Bosnian territory, I started to notice that more and more houses were abandoned or in ruins, with smashed windows and bullet-riddled walls. Some of them were reduced to a skeleton. While I was walking in the new part of Mostar, newly arrived in Bosnia, I saw them standing side by side with brand new buildings. I think this is intentional, a reminder for new generations of what should never happen again.

Contrasts in the new part of Mostar
Bosnia, and Mostar in particular, is like a little Istanbul, that is to say a place where East and West meet. The Ottoman influence is so palpable in the historical part of the town that at moments you forget that you're in the Balkans, right in the middle of Europe, and think for a moment to have been teleported to a remote Anatolian village. Tulip-shaped glasses of tea sit on the low tables next to Ottoman-style sugar pots, and by looking around you can certainly find the top of one of the many minarets of the town. It was already getting dark when I took my first walk in the historical town centre, which is very atmospheric when most of the tourists have left and souvenirs stalls are closed for the day.

In Turkish bal means honey and kan blood. It is just an interesting coincidence - the etymology of the word "Balkans" is another - but it summarizes the turbulent history of the region in just two words. Even today, the scars of the wars of the 1990s are visible all over the town, if you venture beyond the painfully reconstructed old town: bullet riddled buildings, but also cemeteries with the same date - 1993 - over and over on the white tombstones, and the city divided into a Croatian and a Muslim Bosniak part. I was also surprised to see souvenirs made of bullets. War is a touristic  attraction all over Bosnia. It is weird and sad, but it plays with our minds and our morbid curiosity about horrendous facts. More than once I noticed how tourists rushed to ask Bosnians what they were doing during the war, and I found myself secretly asking myself the same question without daring to ask.
Souvenirs made with bullets
I also visited one of the mosques close to the old town. For a small entry fee I was shown around by the friendly care-taker. Unfortunately, little of the old mosque had remained, because the building was heavily bombed. However, I climbed the minaret (barefooted because you are not allowed to wear shoes inside a mosque) and I admired the view over the town and the neighbouring countryside. So many minarets! The structure of the mosque definitely reminded me of Istanbul. Even the old cemetery on the other side of the road was Ottoman in style, with the characteristic tombstones with Arabic inscriptions. To stop by one of the mosques, at the ablution fountain or by the shady outer arcades is very pleasant. The atmosphere is relaxed and nobody will bother you.

Ablution fountain in front of a mosque
The bridge itself is slippery with a slope that is not so gentle as you might expect. Young men in their swimming costumes prepare for the dive into the Neretva river, but they only jump when and if they get enough money from the tourists. I saw someone jump, but not from the highest point of the bridge. The historical town is certainly charming, but it feels a bit cramped with too many souvenirs stalls. 

Souvenirs stalls in Mostar
Yet, it is pleasant to walk through the narrow cobbled streets and admire the stone houses, the smaller waterways and the mills.  There isn't much to do apart from browsing the stalls, have a coffee and observe the mix of influences or the panorama. There are a couple of museums, but I think Mostar is more about the atmosphere and the peaceful environments. Bosnia is really a green country, with lots of hills and mountains.

View of the old bridge
View of the Neretva river

Food in Mostar was the best I had in the Balkans. Croatian food was fine, but I found that it lacked a little bit of inventiveness. While I was walking in the streets of the old town, I noticed a restaurant called Šadrvan. It was touristic, with the waitresses in traditional dresses and the pictures of the dishes in display, but it was full and there was an enchanting Ottoman-style fountain in the middle of a small courtyard. Of all the restaurants with nice terraces on the river and a view of the Stari Most, the old bridge, I ended up choosing this one and coming back the following day.

The entrance of the Šadrvan restaurant
I ordered something called Hadzijski cevap, which turned out to be a delicious plate of marinated beef with peppers and rice. It was perhaps the best meal of the whole trip. The following day I had sogan-dolma, onions and other vegetables stuffed with minced meat and boiled in a broth. Apparently it is a speciality of Mostar, and I couldn't miss it. The prices were moderate and the service great.
At the end of  the meal I was offered a Bosnian coffee (bosanska kahva), which is very similar to Turkish coffee. To be shown how to prepare it and stir it really did the trick for me, because I liked more than a regular Turkish coffee.

Hadzijski cevap

Overall, I liked Mostar. I think it's an interesting town and it definitely has its own vibe. Even though it's touristic, with lots and lots of day-trippers coming from Croatia just for a few hours, I wouldn't consider it just another touristy town. It's worth exploring and enjoying its timeless charm.

Reminder of the war

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