The city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina is known as the city of bridges, but none have made such an indelible mark on the city as the Old Bridge. The city’s name itself comes from the word mostari – the keepers of the bridge spanning the cold waters of the emerald river Neretva.
In 1557, Bosnia and Herzegovina was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and the city of Mostar was in great need of a bridge to connect the two sides of the city, the east and the west. The bridge that was in use at that time was an old wooden suspension bridge, unstable and dangerous to cross. The one meant to replace it was commissioned by the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and the builder was to be Mimar Hayruddin, a student of the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The construction took nine years and it is said that Mimar Hayruddin observed the removal of the scaffolding from below the bridge, prepared to become the first victim in case the elegant arch of the bridge didn’t hold. Lucky for him, it did, and became the widest man-made arch in the world at the time.
Lucky for us too, as the construction of the bridge gave rise to a tradition that was established early in the life of the bridge. I say life, because to the people of Mostar, the bridge has a life and soul of its own, and is considered an old and venerable member of the community. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the reconstructed bridge inaugurated – because it had been destroyed during the war in the 1990s – on 23 July 2004.
Diving from the 20 meter high bridge has been considered a right of passage for many young men of Mostar, and this year saw its 450th competition in July. It is a competition that brings together young men from the entire region, in celebration of sportsmanship and tradition. The shores of the river are crowded at this time, full of spectators who wish to see their favorites compete and hopefully win. The popularity of the event is such that it has also drawn attention of world class high diving competitors, and has become a part of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. The event will be broadcast live on 24 September 2016 2:20 PM from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The people of Mostar are very open and welcoming, always willing to lend a hand to a person in need. There are plenty of places where a weary traveler can rest, from hostels to high class hotels.
The old part of town boasts many restaurants and cafes, many of them tucked away in the shade of great trees or close enough to the river to feel a pleasant breeze. If you aren’t certain which one to visit, allow one of the girls wearing traditional costume try and entice you with the specialty of the day – you might find something to your taste. Meat dishes are popular – if you are a guest in somebody’s home, don’t be surprised by the old lady of the house trying to stuff your plate – and your stomach – with kofte, kebabs, stuffed peppers or other traditional dishes: it’s a sin to let your guest leave your table hungry. You will finish the meal with something sweet, and Bosnian coffee served in tiny cups – a dark, aromatic brew that engages all of your senses.
In addition to being a city of bridges, Mostar is also a city of artistry as well. Many poets, artists and craftsmen lived here and created their work, inspired by their surroundings and its inhabitants. The elegant arch of the Old Bridge is commonly portrayed in whimsical watercolor paintings, or detailed oils, or wrought in copper plates and ewers. An interesting feature of post-war art is the use of what were once tools of destruction and transforming them into objects of art. Bullets and bullet casings become pencils and airplanes, machine gun ammunition feed becomes the wheels of motorcycles, with bodies made of mortar casings and polished to a high shine.
The entire Old Bridge area of town is also part of the UNESCO world heritage site, and has been carefully reconstructed to resemble its historical look as closely as possible. Whenever possible, stone from the same local quarry was used in the reconstruction, and for the bridge itself, a lot of the original stone came from the river into which it fell during the conflict.
In addition to high diving, there are many other events you can enjoy during your stay in Mostar.
- The Mostar Blues Festival, founded in 2003 and changing its name to the Mostar Blues and Rock festival a decade after its inception, is one of the biggest music festivals in the country. It attracts musicians and guests from all over the world, and is usually held in mid to late July.
- Mostar Summer Fest is another festival that celebrates music, with a focus on urban music of the region. It takes place in late June, and was established in 2013.
- A festival that focuses not just on music, but also on visual art forms, performance art and dance, is the Street Arts Festival Mostar, taking place in late May.
As for night life, the Tabhana courtyard, dating from the 16th century and situated on the West bank of the River Neretva is a place popular with both locals and tourists. Various other cafes and pubs can be found in the Old Bridge area, some open late into the night and offering beer from local microbreweries. If you’re interested in attending plays, concerts, performance art, then the best location is OKC Abrašević.
How to get there?
There are many ways to reach Mostar depending on your starting location. Buses from Sarajevo to Mostar run often, nearly every hour, and the trip lasts about 2.5 hours. If you’re coming from Croatia, there are buses from Ploče, Dubrovnik and Split on the Adriatic coast, and from Zagreb. From Serbia, buses to Mostar go from Belgrade, and from Podgorica in Montenegro. A direct train to Ploče and Zagreb used to be available, offering a scenic ride through the country and the Neretva River valley; there are plans to upgrade the railroad and make it available once again. If you are traveling by car from West Europe via Croatia, there are also plans to upgrade the country’s two-lane road to a highway, significantly cutting down on the time.
There are many more features to be seen in Mostar – history museums, well-preserved houses displaying life as it used to be lived centuries ago, mosques as well as Catholic and Orthodox churches, but that is a topic for another time.