Travel Destinations

Mostar and the complex allure of a city rebuilding itself

The threat of war is long over, but mass tourism and overdevelopment is starting to overwhelm the city and alter its historic skyline.
David Celdran | Sep 06 2018

The narrow lanes of Mostar’s historic district are inaccessible to most vehicles and the only way to reach the Old Town is to park your car on the other side of the main highway and make your way to the city center on foot. It’s an inconvenience, but one that’s symbolic of Mostar’s divided past.

During the Bosnian War of the early 90s, the strategic road was the de facto border that split the city in two parts—between Catholic Croats in the western side and Muslim Bosniaks in the east. There are few signs that remind you that the road was once the frontline in the ethnic war that pit Mostar’s Catholics, Serbs, and Muslims against each other. And few locals will remind you about that either.

More than two decades after fighting in the city claimed 2,000 casualties and 90,000 refugees in what is known to be among the most brutal battlegrounds of the War, wounds are still smarting and families are still in the process of recovering. My chatty local guide, a Catholic and former sniper in the Croat army, suddenly turns evasive when I ask him about his days at the frontline. The memories are too painful, it seems, and a collective guilt still hangs heavily over the city.

But silence about the past is also good for business and the veneer of unity is bringing back investors and tourists to the city. Up until the 20th century and the series of patriotic wars that engulfed the region, Mostar was a prosperous city situated along the main trade route that crisscrossed the vast Ottoman Empire.

The Turkish Bazaar. Photo by David Celdran

The city’s most recognizable landmark, the Stari Most, a stone bridge built in 1566, was among the most magnificent architectural structures of its time. Seventeenth century documents show that Mostar was once also a popular tourist spot. Travelers then would come to see the Stari Most and shop at the lively Turkish bazaar nearby—just as they are starting to do again today. 

The Ottoman city was also a shining example of ethnic coexistence. Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians lived and worked together for centuries. The pre-war skyline of Mostar captured in antique copper plates and vintage postcards show the bell towers of Christian churches and Islamic minarets in close proximity to each other. Sadly, most were reduced to rubble during the siege.

The fighting was so intense, not even the city’s iconic stone bridge, the Stari Most, was spared. On November 9, 1993, the UNESCO World Heritage structure suffered a direct hit by tank fire and collapsed into the Neretva river beneath. This act of cultural vandalism, on top of reports of widespread atrocities, enraged the international community and galvanized peace negotiations between the warring Croat and Bosniak sides. It’s a peace that still holds today.

The long process of rebuilding the Stari Most to its original splendor was finally completed in 2004. Today, the view of the bridge from the banks of the Neretva is one of the most striking you’ll find in Southeastern Europe. For locals, the reconstructed bridge is also symbolic of the renewed ties within ethnic groups in the city. With peace in place, and much of the city rebuilt, Mostar is enjoying an unprecedented wave of tourist arrivals.

The old town's Ottoman skyline. Photo by David Celdran

In the crowded streets of the historic quarter you can hear the mix of German, English, Arabic, and Chinese. It helps that Mostar is only a few hours’ drive from the popular beach resorts of the Dalmatian Coast across the border in Croatia. Tourists staying in Dubrovnik often add Mostar as a day trip in their itinerary. So too with Catholic pilgrims visiting the holy shrine in Medjugore, though they’re usually horrified about the  atrocities inflicted by Catholic Croats on the Muslim population of Mostar during the war.

No doubt tourism dollars may be doing more to keep the peace today than the presence of UN peacekeepers have in the past. The colorful Turkish market is bustling and artisans are back in business selling traditional copper plates, jewelry, and pottery as generations have for centuries. Rising incomes are slowly bringing back the habits of Ottoman-era Mostar when trade and commerce helped seal the social fabric of interdependence among ethnic groups.

If the economic freefall in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia spurred ethnic hatred and violence, then the rising standard of living today promises to keep the city’s peaceful coexistence intact. The city today is undergoing both social and physical changes to accommodate the surge in tourist arrivals. Plans are in place to build premium hotels to augment the hostels and inns patronized by backpackers and NGO workers and the many burnt-out and bullet riddled buildings in the old town are in the process of being restored.

But for all its benefits, mass tourism has a downside. The crush of visitors threatens to overwhelm the city’s rudimentary infrastructure and disrupt traditional culture. Inevitably, parts of the historic quarter will have to be flattened to make way for new development. Religious services in mosques are routinely interrupted by tourists and local customs are often prostituted.

The scars of war. Photo by David Celdran

Jumping off the Stari Most into the Neretva is a dangerous and ancient coming of age ritual, but many locals today will oblige for some cash. It’s also hard to tell if the crafts sold at the market are still made by local artisans or imported from China or India. Even more perverse is the practice of Dark Tourism with commercial tours of massacre sites, mass graves and battlefields. The practice not only trivializes the atrocities committed, it threatens the uneasy healing process among neighbors who are only now learning to forgive.

The window to experience an authentic side of Mostar may be closing soon, as it is for most parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but if that’s the price of keeping the peace, then so be it. If you ask locals here, anything is better than reviving old hatreds and the horror of ethnic war. 

 

Given the rarity of international flights to Mostar, David notes that the best way to the city is through either Dubrovnik or Sarajevo, though the currencies and required visas for each entry point differ. The author also recommends landways.eu as an experienced guided tour provider for Mostar. This article first appeared under the 'Postcards from the Edge' section of Vault Issue #24, 2018.