The Mostar bridge is perhaps the most recognisable landmark in Bosnia Herzegovina. This makes it a busy place, but there is a way to see it without the crowds...
Before I reveal how you can have this bridge to yourself I should explain why you would want to in the first place. A history lesson for you, but don't worry it is actually quite interesting.
It all began with Suleiman the Magnificent
Stari Most (the old bridge) was commissioned in 1557 by Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It took nine years to build; using mortar made from horse-hair and egg-whites, and was considered an engineering and architectural wonder. There are many mysteries about its construction such as how on earth the stones were transported from one bank to the other and how the bridge stayed up during construction. The Sultan promised to execute the architect if the bridge fell down when the scaffolding was removed.
"The destruction of this great bridge a decade ago brought home to millions around the world the full force of the evil that was happening here," Lord Ashdown, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina
Stari Most stood for 427 years, used by generations of people to peacefully cross the Neretva River, until it was destroyed by artillery fire in 1993. It was one of the most shocking images from the Yugoslav War. Despite the thousands of people who died, the Mostar bridge collapsing into the river is what many of us found most upsetting about this conflict.
In the words of Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic: "Why do we feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of the massacred people? Perhaps because we see our own mortality in the collapse of the bridge. We expect people to die; we count on our lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace was built to outlive us. It was an attempt to grasp eternity. It transcended our individual destiny."
"A symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities."
This is the justification given by the United Nations for including the re-built Mostar bridge on the World Heritage List. It was opened by Prince Charles on July 23rd 2004. It was built as close as possible to the original bridge to the extent that divers even recovered many of the original stones from the river bed.
A moving experience?
Considering the legacy of this bridge I was expecting to feel emotional when I crossed it. But I didn't. Why not? Quite possibly because the bridge was crowded with noisy tourists jostling to snap pictures. The bridge is only 4 metres wide, so with all these other people around there wasn't the space to take my time and enjoy my surroundings. It felt like just another place to tick off on a "must-see" list.
A woman struggled to push a buggy, occupied by screaming child, over this humpback structure. The awkward stairs on the bridge made this quite a comical scene to watch; I guess they didn't have buggies in Suleiman the Magnificent's days. Men in speedos posed at one end of the bridge. They were the famous divers of Mostar, jumping off the bridge throughout the day to the applause of impressed visitors.
This is how most people experience Stari Most; with hundreds of others on a day trip from Dubrovnik or Sarajevo. The bridge is beautiful and its history meaningful, but it can be somewhat challenging to appreciate this in such an atmosphere.
Get up at dawn
My advice is to stay the night in Mostar and get up early to see the bridge. The day trippers will be nowhere to be seen; in fact even locals will not be there.
It amazes me how visiting a travel icon in contrasting circumstances can change your entire thoughts and feelings about it. Yesterday I was indifferent, but today I could truly sense the preciousness of Stari Most.
I walked back and forth over the bridge at least a dozen times, something that would have attracted many disapproving glances yesterday. This allowed me to get a true sense of the length of the bridge and appreciate the humpback design. I bent down to have a closer look at the stonework and its details and imperfections. I stood in the middle of the bridge and enjoyed the freedom of not having to move from that spot for as long as I liked.
There were no annoying sounds to distract me; only the flowing river and some birdsong. I touched the limestone and felt the smoothness. I walked up the stairs of one of the medieval towers, off limits during the day because a souvenir stall bared the way, and reached a little balcony. I loved the way the sunlight changed and cast the bridge in different shades as time passed. I bent over the rail and marvelled at the very long drop to the river; boy, those divers are brave.
Making the most of Mostar
Most people "do" Mostar in a day because the bridge is the main thing to see, but I can recommend some other things:
Walking through the old town with its medieval character and cobblestones is charming. Some of the 15 million dollars of reconstruction cash was spent restoring the damaged and destroyed buildings in the old town.
Old Bridge Museum (next to the bridge) tells you everything you could possibly want or need to know about Stari Most. The highlight for me was watching the documentary about the bridge reconstruction and the incredible dedication and care that the engineers and workmen gave.
Koski Mehmed Pasa Mosque (Mela Tepa 16) has a little garden behind it with views up the Neretva towards Stari Most. Even better you can climb the minaret up to the tiny balcony and look down on the winding cobbled streets.
Restaurant Bella Vista is probably the best place to have river and bridge views as a backdrop to a nice drink. It is on the right bank. I suggest an ice cold bottle of Hercegovačko Pivo (www.hercegovacko.com), the local lager, and at least one hour of sitting doing nothing.
Stari Most floodlit. The Mostar divers continue their madness into the night so you can go down by the shore and watch the shenanigans with the moodily floodlit bridge as a backdrop.
Šadrvan (Jusovina 11) is a restaurant with a country atmosphere. There is chunky wooden furniture and staff dressed in traditional garb. The meal begins with a complimentary aperitif that I didn’t like the taste of, but it made me happy. Begova Corba, a chicken soup, for starter then grilled trout with vegetables provided a simple and tasty meal for under 10 euros.
Pansion Rose: If your idea of a fun night is good value, comfort and a very friendly host then come here. The rooms are large and immaculate; some with a balcony that has views of minarets. A ten-minute walk to the old bridge. From 25 euros for a double.
A very scenic railway links Sarajevo (2¾ hours), the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina. The windows in my carriage were fogged up from years of smoking and no cleaning so I had to open the window at the top and stick my head out to actually see the scenery. Tickets were still being handwritten; very quaint but it causes a long queue at the station. www.zfbh.ba
Buses also serve Sarajevo (2½-3 hours), Dubrovnik (3½ hours) and Zagreb (9½ hours).