12 Step Planet: Mostar, Bosnia

Located in southern Bosnia, Mostar has emerged from the traumatic shadow of the Balkan war, and is now being fully appreciated for its stunning natural beauty and unique cultural attractions. By Eamonn Seoige

Where exactly is it?

Mostar is a city of approximately 100,000 inhabitants located in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Surrounded by scenic, hilly countryside, it is situated along the banks of the Neretva River, with the Croatian border lying just an hour’s drive to the south.

How do I get there?

Despite the relatively short distance between Dublin and Mostar, getting there is not as easy as you’d think. Probably the most cost efficient route is to fly with Aer Lingus to Dubrovnik in Croatia and then pick up a hire car. You can then take in some of the breathtaking Adriatic coastline en route, before heading inland to one of Bosnia’s cultural highlights. Be warned, however: the border crossing can add up to an hour to your journey time.

What language do they speak?

The state language is Bosnian and it is the majority language in both the city and surrounding regions. Bosnian is a standard variation of Serbo-Croatian, though in reality the differences between the Serbian, Croat and Bosnian dialects are minimal.

What is the local beer like?

The most popular beer in Mostar is a brew from the nation’s capital, Sarajevsko. It’s a smooth, slightly tart snifter, ideal for thirst-quenching in the baking heat of the oppressive Bosnian summer. Another option is Sarajevsko Premium, a more full-bodied, frothy alternative, which goes down easy with your lunch or dinner.

Other drinks?

No visit to Herzegovina would be complete without sampling a tumbler or two of Rakia. A spirit made primarily from fermented fruit, Rakia varies in strength from the standardised 40% versions to the home-produced varieties, which can reach a whopping 60 to 70%. Rakia comes in a broad range of flavours, amongst them slivovica, made from plums and the grape variety lozovaca. It’s served neat in small tumblers and is often presented as a pre-meal aperitif.

What is the transport like?

Mostar is a very compact city. Unless the heat is particularly oppressive, walking and cycling are the best ways to get around this picture-perfect conurbation, adorned with Islamic period buildings from the golden age of the Ottoman Empire. It’s a city of narrow windy streets, with many barely wide enough for passing cars. As a result, Mostar is a very cycle-friendly city and beyond the urban centre, there is a network of cycle paths leading to scenic mountain views and many locations renowned for rafting and hill-walking. In addition, the city operates a bus service to the nation’s capital Sarajevo and also Dubrovnik in Croatia.

What’s the food like?

The Ottoman Empire held sway over this part of the Balkans for almost 500 years and as a result, local specialities are often comparable to staples of both Turkish and Greek food. evapi is a very common dish of grilled meat, served with bread, onions and sour cream. Meat and vegetable goulash is a popular dinner option and Sarma is a staple consisting of meat wrapped in cabbage leaves and served with rice. Another slightly unusual dish is japrak, consisting of meat and savory rice wrapped in grape leaves.

What’s the nightlife like?

The place to be is around the West Bank of the world renowned Stari Most or ‘Old Bridge’. The price of drink is very reasonable, especially the locally produced wines and brandies. They love their music loud and there are a number of top-notch late-opening music bars in the nearby, medieval Tabhana courtyard. The Old Ottoman quarter is always a hive of activity and boasts some of the city’s best hostelries, many decorated in the classic Ottoman style.

Why should I go?

Considering the untold damage, both psychological and physical, wrought on this region during the Balkan War, it’s amazing how far the city and its citizens have come in such a short time. The three-year campaign of ethnic cleansing that took place during the Balkan conflict resulted in thousands dead and widespread damage to the city, including the destruction of the fabled bridge. However, Mostarians are famously determined people and today the city has renovated the bridge and many mosques and period buildings reduced to rubble during the bitter struggle.

What are the touristy things to do?

The minaret of Koski Mehmed Pasa mosque gives epic views of the bridge, city skyline and surrounding mountainous landscape and river valley. It’s a vista straight from a classic fairytale. The Unesco World Heritage Site of Stari’ is jaw-dropping. Destroyed by the Croatian air force in 1993, the bridge area and its stunning network of narrow lanes – filled with attractive cafes – is today a hive of activity both day and night. Elsewhere, the Old Bridge Museum gives a detailed explanation of the city’s multi-ethnic past.

Anything else?

A half-hour drive south from Mostar, nestled amongst two mountains, sits the Catholic pilgrimage site of Medjugorje where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to six local children from 1981 onwards.

Anything to avoid?

There’s no need to stay in the impersonal, multi-national monoliths that lie on the city’s outskirts. While they are all perfectly adequate hotels, why not experience some of the old city’s legendary hospitality first-hand? Local boutique hoteliers are only too happy to impart their local knowledge and arrange everything from city tours to tables at the best restaurants.

What should I bring home?

Between the years of 1991-95 thousands of Bosnian children were orphaned due to ethnic cleansing. The SOS Children’s Villages work to support these children, many now entering adulthood, with caring homes and counselling. A small donation to this amazing charity will have a lasting impact.

When should I go?

The spring is probably the best time of year, but not too early as Mostar is almost shut down in January and February. Due to its inland location, it can become unbearably hot during the summer months, when temperatures regularly hit 40. The surrounding mountains also make Mostar an excellent winter destination, with plenty of ski spots within easy striking distance of the city.

What’s the currency?

The Convertible Mark (BAM).

Something to remember...

The ethnic make-up of Mostar is very different now to the period pre-1991, before the Balkan War. Whilst still famed for its cultural equality, the ravages of war saw a collapse in the Serb population from over twenty five to less than five thousand inhabitants. It will take some time for these wounds to properly heal, so be wary of this when entering into conversation. The person you speak to could be of Bosniak Muslim, Serb or Croat extraction and each will have a differing view of this period in their history.


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