After a few days of getting poked, and jolted with blunt reminders of Sarajevo’s past, I hop on my bike and head west toward Mostar, a city with a population just over 100,000. Though like Sarajevo, where the population has declined some 30 percent since 1991, Mostar lost only over 20 percent. With so many people leaving, I wonder and worry what might happen here over the next decade.
I’m surprised to find a spanking new four-lane highway (A1) heading out of Sarajevo. But after just some 20 kilometers of pure traffic-free joy, somewhere around Tarcin, I’m diverted off the highway through a toll booth. After paying I continue my journey on twisting and traffic-congested secondary road (E78). In the next ten years, the A1 should open Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina with coastal Croatia to the southwest and to Serbia and continental Croatia to the north and northeast.
The ride to Mostar takes me about two-and-a-half hours. The trucks and traffic and the occasional daredevil driver passing in both directions around curves or over hills that to these eyes look like suicide or death wish moves. I creep up behind a slow mover, move to the left to peer down the opposite lane, only to be shoved back into my lane by an oncoming car or calculate my risk with a pending hill, corner or fast-moving traffic.
The entire dance is stressful, so I take a breath, relax and just set into my space and not worry about the blocked view, or slow pace. This is okay. After all, I’m riding the Balkans and will be in Mostar before nightfall.
Things get slower in the bustling city of Konjic, a beautiful town nestled in the mountains on the Neretva River. It’s here I notice a sign for “Tito’s Bunker.” I’m curious, but with the late start and desire to be in Mostar, I pass it by and the downtown area where the Konjic Bridge and pedestrian area offer photo ops for this picturesque city.
It’s one of few regrets I had so far on this trip. I’ve made myself open to possibilities, traveling without an itinerary which means I rarely book a room in advance. Not stopping. Konjic and the bunker must wait. Then again, will I be back in Bosnia again? This is the problem and the opportunity.
For the next hour, I follow the river and pass Jablanica Lake where adventure shops hawk rafting and mountain trekking trips. While I still sweat at stoplights or for turning traffic, the air is crisp and when moving the flow through my jacket is refreshing.
Before the Bosnian war and when the city was under siege by Croat and Bosnian Serb forces, Mostar was the most diverse city in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), with a population mixed of Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). Today, it’s mostly Croats and Bosniaks as only about 5 percent of Serbs remain. The old town of Mostar is a cozy and quiet pedestrian-only district teeming with cafes, boutiques, and restaurants. Cobblestone paths wind around and cross the Neretva River with the iconic peaked arch Stari Most, or “old bridge.” It’s stunning. The medieval bridge gave the city its name: from Mostari, which means “bridge keepers.”
Constructed in 1566 by architect Mimar Hajrudin, the Mostar Bridge (Stari Most) is a marvel example of Balkan Ottoman architecture, and at the time it was the largest single-arch bridge in the world. But on the ninth of November in 1993, after being blasted by 60 shells, the medieval bridge collapsed into the river—devastating the city’s spirit and preventing residents from crossing the river. Trapped on the east side of the river after the bridge fell, the Bosniaks could not access clean drinking water.
I watch the video and try to get my head around the notion that someone would order the destruction of medieval history. Keep in mind, this was eight years before the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. But the Croats?
The bridge survived over 400 years, and in one day it crumbles and crashes into the river below. For years Stari Most represented unity, bridging two sides of the population, the Croatians on the west with the Bosnian Muslims on the east. Together they lived undivided and peaceful. For hundreds of years young and well-trained athletes celebrated their unity by diving off the bridge, splashing into the river some 70 feet below.
Today, Mostar is the most divided city in Bosnia Herzegovina. Most of the young Croats living here fear to cross the historic bridge. According to a survey, 80 percent of them have never crossed the bridge. Yet today, it’s one the country’s largest tourist attractions. Young athletes, now only Bosniaks, still perform for the crowds, diving off the bridge for donations.
In the first year of the Bosnian War (1991-1995), most of the ethnic tension in this region flared between the Croats and the Bosnian Serbs. In fact, during that time the Croats joined forces with the Bosniaks to battle the Bosnian Serbs. But a controversial meeting changed all that.
The presidents of the six Yugoslavia republics (Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Slovenia) often met as the tension and crisis escalated. During these meetings, they debated the sovereignty of the individual republics and its ethnic divisions. Yet, on the 24th of January in 1991, Slovenia was the first to secede from Yugoslavia and became the first independent state of the former Yugoslavia federation.
Meanwhile, fearful that the entire country would fall, the leadership of the weakening Yugoslavia suspected Croatia was planning a military coup or war with the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army.
They were right, almost.
The day after the secession of Slovenia, the Croatian president Franjo Tudman met with the Yugoslavia leadership in Belgrade and proclaimed, “In that Yugoslavia, without Slovenia – there is no Croatia too. I think I was clear enough.”
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the complicated conflict, its suffice to say after Croatia declared its independence (8th October 1991), Serbia, the largest of the former republics controlled the Yugoslav People’s Army. , Under the leadership of president Slobodan Milošević, Serbia wasn’t about to let the dream of a greater republic crumble. So hey waged a horrific war with the Croats and at one point his forces occupied one-third of Croatia.
The Yugoslav People’s Army not only battled Croatia in Croatia but back in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs attacked the Croatian village of Ravno. Soon after, Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and for about a year the Croatians united with the Bosniaks fighting the Serbs.
So why then did the Croats, once united with the Bosniaks, shell and destroy this legendary medieval bridge on its own turf? Franjo Tudman, the Croatian president, and Serbian president Milosevic held a meeting in Karađorđevo, a town in northern Serbia. At this meeting, many historians believe, the two presidents secretly agreed to the partitioning of BiH. They promised that each would annex parts of the Bosnia and Herzegovina, making larger territories for soon to be independent republics of Serbia and Croatia. The deal called for a buffer zone in between. This would be the new state of Bosnia.
Though there are much debate and shouts of unfounded conspiracy theories about this meeting. To be sure, there are no witnesses, records, or recordings of the publicly announced meeting. So, the exact details can neither be confirmed nor denied.
Though one thing I can confirm is the Croats destroyed the Stari Most here in Mostar. Destroying the iconic peaked bridge was a central tactic in the Croat military strategy to isolate the ethnic Bosnians. Years later during hearings by the Hague Tribunal after the war, the Croatian General, Slobodan Praljak, considered responsible for destroying Stari Most, the historic stone bridge, said, “those stones have no value. They sentenced him to twenty years for a “joint criminal enterprise.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted and sentenced General Praljak to twenty years in prison for crimes against “humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions”, “extensive appropriation of property not justified by military necessity” and “plunder of public or private property through the third category of joint criminal enterprise liability, on which given his command responsibility he failed to act and prevent.”
After an appeal by Praljak, who insisted on defending himself, some charges related to the Stari Most bridge were overturned. He argued the bridge was a legitimate military target. Even so, many of the charges stood. Unable to accept the ruling that the charges for his crimes and the sentence would stand Praljak, in one of the most dramatic courtroom scenes in modern history, addressed the court and stated, “Judges, Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. With disdain, I reject your verdict!” He then, on November 29, 2017, in front of those judges, committed suicide by drinking poison—on live television.
After the war, beginning in 1998 the international community orchestrated a plan to rebuild the bridge. A coalition led by UNESCO and included the World Bank, World Monuments Fund, and Aga Khan Trust for Culture would monitor the reconstruction. The Bosnian government, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Croatia, and the European Development Bank all provided funding. Construction began in June 2001.
The coalition worked with experts and the Turkish construction firm Er-Bu to ensure that the bridge adhered to the original design and engineering and employed original Ottoman construction techniques. They also used the same local materials from the original bridge. In fact after months of struggle, divers from the Hungarian Army recovered many of the original stones that had fallen into the river, while local quarries provided additional stones. The final construction bill was about $15 million. The coalition celebrated the reconstruction and inaugurated the bridge three years later on July 23, 2004.
Eager to see this bridge and revel and wonder about its recent turbulent history, I make my way to Mostar. I punch into my GPS the address of a guest house in the old town, but when I get closer, I find the street blocked by huge pylons. Uh oh, I realize it’s in the pedestrian zone. I idle on the main boulevard and glance down the promenade. It’s wider than most of the promenades I’d walked so far on this journey. There are few pedestrians. So I gently release my clutch, then slowly motor down the right side of the walkway. After 50 meters, I duck into a narrow alley barely wide enough for a car. The owner of the guest house, the Hotel Pellegrino tells me I must park in the alley, but I worry a car might hit my bike. So we move my bike to closer to the promenade where the lane is wider. I cover my bike and set out to explore Mostar.
I’m only about 700 meters from the old bridge, Stari Most. The pedestrian walkway is lined with cafes, shops, and souvenir stands. It narrows as it gets closer to the river and bridge. I stop to check out the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, a small domed mosque with a tall minaret. Around the mosque is a small graveyard and garden. I pay a few marks to enter the garden, mosque and to climb the minaret.
From here in the garden, I get my first view of Stari Most. More than just the bridge, what strikes me is the river below and the surrounding Ottoman town that is tucked into a gorge. The river is a luminescent blue-green. Across are a few restaurants clinging to the cliffs. I note I should enjoy a good meal on this river tonight.
It’s a tight, narrow, steep, and dizzying climb up the minaret’s nearly 100 steps. I’m lucky nobody is heading down, for it would be impossible to pass without serious body contact. At the top, I gaze in awe at a spectacular view of the entire old town and the beautiful bridge. I am here at the perfect time, nearly magic hour for light. Plus, only two others are on the cramped and claustrophobic viewing platform. I’m in awe of the beauty, and the feeling overwhelms me, as I think about a bridge that once connected and joined this community but now so terribly divides it.
There are no speakers affixed to the minaret, usually used for the call to prayer. The mosque is most interesting from the exterior. The Ottoman’s built the mosque between 1611 and 1618. It is the second largest in Mostar. The interior is stark and other than the dome which is unique in the Balkans, it’s underwhelming compared to those I’ve seen in Syria and Turkey. The attraction here is the view of the town and bridge.
Crowds are jamming the bridge when I arrive. A diver is perched on the edge of the bridge, outside the railing, he seems ready to dive. But his assistant who trying to collect tips from the bridge-crossers, yells to the crowd they’re short of the €50 they want to jump. The apathetic and tight-fisted crowd fails to come through, so the assistant hands back the donations. There will be no dive.
I am drawn to a sign that says “wine bar” and follow a steep staircase down to Restoran Divan, but am surprised to discover they don’t offer wines by the glass, nor do they have a bar. The staff is congenial, fun, and agree with me as I outline the hypocrisy of the sign that lured me here. They seat me at a table on a terrace perched on the cliff, order a bridge and take in views of what the water called the “secret Mostar bridge” — a pedestrian walkway over a small gorge. A bride and groom are posing on this bridge, with the veil of the bride’s dress draping over the side of the bridge.
It’s here I meet an Austrian couple who are also riding a BMW GS around Bosnia and Croatia. They’ve been visiting Bosnia and Croatia for the last ten years, Pieter shares insight and tips for good roads, great food, and tasty wine at my next destination—Croatia.
After sitting at a small cafe near the entrance of the old bridge and watching the world walk by, I decide on dinner at Restoran Teatar, I bring my laptop and plan on catching up on my writing and ‘digital media management’ while taking in a night view of the legendary bridge. It took cruising to a few restaurants to find a local bottle of wine, most offering a glass of its own conception. Those that I tried left me underwhelmed, so I resolved to find a bottle and share with the staff and customers.
I’m offered two choices at Teatar and choose the Vionica Blatina (grape) from Vina Rubis, a deep, complex red with smooth tannins and good fruit. This paired nicely with cheese, cured and grilled meats with the iconic Balkans ajvar red pepper and eggplant sauce. The more I travel here, the more I want to make this when I get home. Perhaps it’s better described as a spread, relish, dip or even a savory chutney. Whatever you wish to call it, I promise to post a recipe here soon—you will want to make your own concoction of this lauded staple of Balkan cuisine.
It’s after midnight when I depart Restoran Teatar and make my way back to my guest house. It’s eerie, the shiny cobblestones of the streets glow under the light of the full moon. Shops bustling with merchants and customers, now are boarded up. I spot a few lovers making out near the bridge. Other midnight strollers walk about. It’s mostly quiet. I cross the Mostar bridge, and like the stones of the streets, the river shimmers in the moonlight. The minaret I climbed earlier glows orange against the sky.
A few hundred meters from the bridge I hear the unmistakable sound of DJ mixed pop music. Slightly muted I follow the sound until I come to a cave tucked under the rocks. Lights flash, bodies move, and security guards dressed in dark shirts donning ear pieces direct me to a small window carved out of the rock—a coat check—though nobody would dare wear a coat this balmy evening, but I hand the attendant my laptop bag and wander into the club.
Truthfully, I’m past the clubbing age and prefer a cafe, bar, bistro, speakeasy, or a cozy live music venue over the pumping, thumbing and grinding beat of house or pop music at a nightclub. But my unyielding curiosity and the hypnotic sounds call me. So here I am, the oldest dude in this place.
The setting of the Alibaba Pecina/Cave Night Club is stunning. It’s a real cave, not a Disney-esque creation or an architects attempt at a themed-environment. At its tallest point, the cave is about 12 to 15 meters. Alcoves tucked along the perimeter are lit with colored lights, and a stage set into a natural opening where the DJ spins the tunes. It’s early for a nightclub, about 12:30. So I grab a beer and find a high-top toward the back of the cave and sink into people watching mode as the venue fills up.
A group of three young guys walk up and throw onto the table a large ice bucket packed with a fifth of whiskey and a half-dozen small coke bottles. They pour drinks, bop their head to the music and every few minutes glance at their digital devices.
After a few continuations of the pumping mix of Serbian pop music, I nod, smile and lift my beer when one guy glances my way. It doesn’t take more than another song until he invites me to join them at their high-top. They pour me a stiff whiskey and coke, and we chat during lulls in the music. I show them pics of my bike and a few places I’ve been. Another guy is a local kart racing champion, his friend tells me. We share pictures. The club is more crowded, a group of girls takes over my former high-top, while more guys join us at ours.
For more than the next hour, they continue to top off my glass with whiskey and a few drops of coke. Two hours pass and the whiskey bottle is nearly empty. So I wander up to the bar and order another. A waiter brings it to the table, and my new friends smile, and I crack open the bottle and do the pouring. I shoot photos, but the dim lit cave makes getting anything decent tough. I manage to grab a few portraits of the guys and a couple young blond beauties.
It’s after 4 am when I grab my laptop and sneak out of the club. I’m not used to getting jacked up on sugared beverages and whiskey, but I don’t get up the next morning until after 10 am. At 10:30 I receive a message from one of my new friends who asks about the pictures I took. We exchange a few messages, and I send him the pics.
It’s almost noon when I emerge from my room to the lobby, I know I missed the “included breakfast,” but it surprises the woman when I ask her to check out.
“We thought you were staying another night,” she says, “checkout is at 10 am.” Ten o’clock in the morning, I think. Wow, I had no idea. That’s way too early. So she reverses the discount I negotiated the night before with the owner. Oh well. So I pack up my bike and take off, leaving new friends, the Mostar Old Bridge, and unanswered questions behind.
Today, I will cross the border and tonight I’ll sleep in Croatia. It’s onward.
Sarajevo to Mostar
Didn’t fill up the tank leaving Mostar. Used the last of my Bosnian “Marks” currency.
Purchased 8.7 liters at 231 marks per liter
$1 USD = 1.7 BAM
Sarajevo: Opal Home Hotel
Mostar: Hotel Pellegrino