Mostar, was originally a last minute detour when the ferry schedule to go from Dubrovnik to Split via the islands didn’t work out. It ended up however, being one of the most memorable stops on the trip. Alex and I were kids during the war there, old enough to have a vague recolection of it occurring. We both remember reading a book in middle school about it. Along with desert storm, the war in Bosnia is the first war we remember. So it felt a bit strange to travel to a country we’ve long associated with war and instability. Turns out, the city of Mostar and its inhabitants are far from moving past the war, with many buildings in shambles and neighbors that previously shot sniper rifles at their children. Even twenty years later. It was a facinating, if not somber two days. Though you might never notice, if you just popped in and didn’t look beyond the new, rebuilt, and thriving tourist infrastructure.
We picked our hostel in the usual way, cross checking reviews against price. But as it turns out, it was an incredibly fortuitous pick. We didn’t know until we got there, but the family that owns the guesthouse (hostel Nina) runs tours, only available to the guests. We weren’t originally planning on taking the tour, in general we prefer to go it alone. But the reviews raved about it, both it terms of how well run the tour is, but also how interesting and impactful it is. We dedicided it was important we went, to learn from someone who was there what had happened here.
We started the day with a morning run, from the east side to the west along the former frontline. Past delapitated buildings riddled with bullet holes next to brand new malls. Past Spanish Square and the sniper tower now covered in graffiti and taken over by plants and debris, we weaved our way down to the river. We crossed freely across sections of town that today, continue to divide this beautiful little city.
We met an American family of four, traveling with their two adult daughters that would be our companions for part of the tour. There are a lot of North Americans in this area, something we’ve yet to get used to. After breakfast we hopped in a few cars and headed up the mountain overlooking the city, marked by an absurdly large cross. Here, our guide Ziča explained what happened in Mostar, namely, the great division of east and west Mostar. He is from the east side, a prodominantly Muslim area (though much more liberally practiced here) as a result of the Turks inhabiting the land, who also built the famous bridge. The west is orthodox and more closely aligned with Croatia. He told us stories from his youth, of how good things were under Titos command, insisting he wasn’t the dictator others claimed he was, but the best leader for former Yugoslavia. He was clearly nostalgic for that time, and still very angry. Understandably. How strange it must be to walk along the city streets in your home town and wonder if perhaps the man ahead of you was the sniper from the other side that killed your best friend. The tension is still high here, evidently. Though from the outside its impossible to tell, it just seems like a regular, bustling large town.
From there we visited an abandoned underground airplane hanger, built by Tito to house fighter jets from e nearby airport. It’s completely empty now, and anyone can just wander around its depths. Provided you have a flashlight, as the light doesn’t reach much of this giant tunnel.
Next for lunch at Kravice Falls where we intended to swim but found it far too cold. But, it was a beautiful lunch spot. We ate more Bosnian food, which is primarily various grilled meats. Cheap and delicious, but very quickly receptive.
And finally, Medugorje, one of the strangest places we’ve visited thus far. Back in 1981 some teenagers claim they saw a vision of Virgin Mary. Now, this previously tiny town of 5,000 sees 1 million visitors annually. Though not recognized by the Pope, it’s evidentially a very important place of pilgrimage. Complete with giant outdoor modern amphitheater offering mass in multiple languages. There’s also a Jesus statue where water droplets appear on his leg and people stand in line to gather these droplets, presumably because the think they’re holy. We easily lowered the mean age demographic by a few decades, and in general, it was just a buzzare place. Totally worth the detour.
Back in town we ate an early dinner and headed over to the bar owned by th hostel overlooking the old bridge, since rebuilt from the war. Ziča brought us a photography book from the war and we spent the evening chatting with him and comparing the images in the book to the rebuilt versions of today.
We were so thankful to have made this detour. Travel is of course many things, adventure, education, relaxation, discovery. All of these forms are valuable, and of course to spend an entire trip learning about the atrocities of the world would be too much, but it also feels like a duty of sorts, to learn about the places we visit, especially when the tragedies that occurred there still impact the residents, and are either unknown or misunderstood at home. Admittedly we didn’t really consider traveling very much in the Balkans, though we very much want to now. It makes me wonder about the other places in the world we glance over and don’t visit, what experiences are we missing? Places like this reignite my desire to travel and explore. Clearly, no matter how much you travel there’s so much more to discover. I can’t wait to see what surprises us next.