A four and a half bus journey from Dubrovnik had us in Mostar, Bosnia. The Croatian coastline was achingly beautiful, with winding coastal roads, rugged volcanic mountains, and various islands dotted around. Within minutes this changed to vast flat river deltas with an abundance of crops and farms stretched out. Heading inland toward hilly Bosnia, some of the effects of the recent war can also be seen as the bus pulled into Mostar bus station.
A quick introduction to Mostar with welcome drinks from our hostel owner Taso, we headed to bed for an early night to get the best out of Mostar the following day.
Refreshed, we began exploring Mostar and instantly saw one of its famous bridges, Stari Most, translated to Old Bridge, recently rebuilt after the recent war, the stunning arched bridge over the clear emerald green Neretva River.
Walking through Old Town Mostar, we were greeted by narrow, old Turkish houses and cobbled alleys with small local shops lining the streets selling various souvenirs, scarves, ottoman lamps and much more; full of life and colour we were drawn in further to the cobbled stone road leading towards Stari Most Bridge itself.
Every year a traditional diving competition is held from Stari Most. Young men jump from the bridge into the river Neretva from the highest point of the arch. Although the competition is held in the middle of the summer, the water is very cold so only the most trained and the most skilled will try to jump. In the tourist season, men from the local diving club still jump for no less than a collection of 30 euros from the gathering crowds who flock to he bridge in anticipation to see someone jump off! We were lucky to witness this and he was amazing!
Walking through Mostar we were surrounded with evidence of the most heavily bombed city in Bosnia during the war and break up of Yugoslavia. Important buildings and monuments can still be seen standing with the shrapnel holes still visible as a stark reminder of the war. Shells of buildings are left untouched since being bombed due to the lack of cash influx into the city. Only some buildings have been reconstructed and it seems it will be a very long process for Mostar to bounce back from the destruction caused.
After walking around and deciding that he was going to jump, we went back to the hostel and a little rest, before heading back to the bridge with two Australians we had met: Richard (who also wanted to jump) and Jiordy who would watch them both jump with me. A brief chat with Jani who was in charge of those who wanted to jump off the bridge and also head of the diving club, both Dave and Richard were kitted out in their wetsuits raring to go. The plummet of 24 meters is no easy feat, hitting the water at 80km/h, the three second jump is a daring attraction and the severity of how much you can hurt yourself if the technique is wrong is very high. Both Dave and Richard were required to complete some test jumps of a ten meter platform further down the river. Myself and Jiordy had secured our place at the bottom of the bridge ready to capture their jumps close by with front row seats. During their practice jumps Jani taught them the technique of how to jump with their arms out and then on his command arms straight down and head back to enter the water. Jani was a no nonsense instructor and straight to the point. If he was impressed he would clap, if he wasn’t happy he wouldn’t say anything – simple as that! As the the sun started to set, Jani gave them three test jumps before they all moved towards the higher bridge. Dave was up first, and my heart was in my mouth I didn’t dare utter a word from my seat below. Composing himself, the crowd quietened with anticipation, and after a few seconds Dave took the jump. Landing in the water both myself and the crowd cheered and clapped. As much as I thought Dave was crazy to do it, I was so proud of him. He was obviously on a an adrenaline rush and with a big smile, he asked Jani if he could jump again and with a nod from his coach, Dave jumped again! Unfortunately Richard wasn’t convinced with his technique after his test jumps so made the right decision for himself to not jump – with a risk of injury and possible death, who can blame him?! As Dave successfully took the plunge, his jump was recorded in the diving club record book and he was hailed as a member of the diving club, receiving a certificate and now can jump for free in seven locations around the world.
The following day we left our hostel early with Richard and Jiordy for a tour around Mostar and it’s hidden gems. Our first stop on the tour was breakfast. Traditional Bosnian breakfast includes strong Bosnian coffee and a burek. From our time in Bosnia already it was clear that the three main ingredients included in dishes was meat, cheese, and bread. With the diet out of the window, we embraced the burek; made with a filling of meat, cheese, potato or spinach, the filling is spread on a large layer of savoury pastry which is then rolled into a very long sausage, and then shaped into a large spiral and cooked over a coal fire in the traditional way. The bureks are delicious and so moreish and cheap that it was hard to say no to.
Tummies full we moved on to the Vrelo Bune, a unique natural and architectural ensemble located at the impressive Buna spring located in Blagai. The 15 meter wide spring runs through the dark cavern beneath a huge vertical drop cliff side within he mountains. A beautiful spring, it is vibrant in greens and blues, the sound of it rushing over the rocks is mesmerising. The monastery built next to it looks as if has been carved from the cliff side itself and is stark in contrast to the natural beauty it sits next to.
Next we headed to an old hillside town of Počitelj, a historic site on the banks of the Nvreta River. With the ruins of a beautiful citadel tower and wall, the fortified town contains a few scattered homes and cafes, and a beautiful mosque. The town was the first place invaded by the Croats during the war, and all of the original inhabitants had to move away from the area in order to save their own lives. Today we learnt that only 30 houses are still used in the town today, the rest were killed, or stayed away; only a few relatives of those who fled had returned and left such a beautiful place empty apart from the tourists who visit the area of citadel tower. As we climbed up the narrow tower spiral cobbled staircase inside the citadel, we were greeted by stunning views over the land and lakes; it was clear to see how the Croats could have taken siege with such easy access to a helpless Bosnia. We spent time walking around the ruins before walking down he cobbled stone path to meet Taso who drove us to our next stopping point.
The Kravice Waterfalls were stunning! Found in the middle of nowhere, the natural beauty of the waterfalls hits you immediately! Dave and some others took a swim in the cold lake that the waterfalls ran into, whilst I enjoyed the sunshine and the lake from the sidelines. Free to enter and roam around as you please, it was an ideallic spot with the sun glinting on the waters surface. Stopping for a while to relax and chat, we enjoyed the afternoon sunshine in this peaceful and gorgeous place.
Taso then took us to Zeljava Airbase. Based in the west of Bosnia on the Croatian border, this now abandoned airbase was the largest underground airport in the Balkans. The secretly constructed airport was a marvel for the military but eventually destroyed because of the civil war. The size of it was amazing and you couldn’t have predicted that the space would be so vast hidden under the mountains. Plunged in darkness the echoes created by even talking quietly were magnified by the depth of the tunnelled airbase. Truly one of the coolest places I have ever seen!
Once we returned to our hostel, Taso showed us a brief video outlining the chaos and tragedy that Mostar faced through the war. He and his family were especially effected, with photos showing how they restored the family home from ruins to a running hostel. It was particularly moving and despite Bosnians restoring their cities it is clear that they will never forget.
An evening walk took us to sniper tower, once a bank building, it now stands as a concrete skeleton, with shattered glass everywhere and covered in a series of graffiti, random with poignant messages. The bank was taken over by the Croats and Serbs as a main vantage point to aim at anyone passing by; it is devastating to think how many people were killed from close range and it’s a particular eerie place to visit. Climbing to the top we watched the sunset.
For our last night in the hostel, we shared out our wine from the vineyards, played games and hung out – one of the best hostels we have stayed in with a really homely atmosphere and lovely people we met along the way.
Early the next morning, we grabbed a burek and caught the bus from Mostar to Sarajevo. Although the bus journey seemed long, the beautiful autumn colours of the trees on the surrounding mountains were breathtaking. We have never loved autumn so much! The colours seemed particularly vibrant in tiered formation in the summer sunshine.
Leaving our bags at the hostel, we walked to a meeting point in Sarajevo centre for a free walking tour of the city. Not having been on a tour of the city before we were shown around by an eccentric Bosnian who had lived in Sarajevo all his life. He was very knowledgeable about the history and facts leading up to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination which triggered World War 1, as we stood outside City Hall where the shootings took place. Walking around the city it was interesting to see how so many orthodox religions lived peacefully in such a compact city. Walking around we also so the Eternal Flame, a memorial dedicated to victims of the WWII in Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Scars from the war can be seen across the city, bullet holes still largely plaster many buildings from the wars and many shrapnel and mortars that were dropped on the city created what is known as Sarajevo Roses, these potholes have been filled in with a soft red material which serves as a reminder of spots where mortars killed people instantly.
The next day was our 10th anniversary of being together. Dave surprised me by checking out of our cheap hostel early and moving us in to an extravagant hotel for the rest of the day where they had a swimming pool, and steam and sauna rooms that we could relax in. Later that evening we went to the best restaurant in Sarajevo to celebrate. An evening walk in the pouring rain took us to an usual bar, vintage decor and so many different types of lighting fixtures I was amazed. A hidden gem in Sarajevo which brought many people in due to it being one of the coolest places in Sarajevo to relax and hang out.
The following day we took the tram and walked to Sarajevo Airport to see the Tunnel of Hope that was located underground nearby. Construction in 1993 amidst the siege of Sarajevo and Bosnian War, this 800m tunnel built below the airport was equipped with transport rails to transport food and arms to help keep Sarajevo supplied. Although most of the tunnel has since collapsed, the museum experience let us walk through a small section that still survives – it wasn’t unusual that Dave had to bend his head and shoulders to walk through, but even me being so short also had to bend my head slightly to get through the tunnel, we could see how travelling 800m in this position wasn’t uncomfortable by any means especially as many people went back and forth collecting supplies and everything that was brought through was logged down.