As soon as we started seeing the signs for Mostar on the outstretched Bosnian highway, my heart skipped a beat. We were pretty high up in a mountainous region now, and I could see the little lights of the tiny city glistening like a jewel in the distance. We pulled up into a pay and display carpark, much like ones in the UK; it reminded me that I was still in Europe and closer to home than it felt.
Our hotel, Kriva Cuprija, is a beautiful listed building that looks like the remnants of a castle. The friendly attendant took our bags up a flight of stone stairs. The hallways were lit by lanterns and candles, adding to the olde-worlde feel of the place. Outside the window, the cobbled streets glistened in the rain, and I caught my first glimpse of Stari Most. Literally “Old Bridge”, it was originally built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, connecting the two parts of the city. It stood for 427 years, until it was destroyed in 1993 by Croat military forces during the Croat–Bosniak War. It was rebuilt 10 years later. I had seen the bluey-green waters of the river in photos before, but seeing them now in person, through the stone archway of the hotel window made me feel as though I was in some sort of medieval fairytale.
After a quick swig of strong, fresh Bosnian coffee, we stepped out into the rain, by which time it was almost dark. There was hardly anyone about- my favourite way to explore a new city. I discovered that wet, cobbled streets require sensible shoes with grip, something I was lacking, which made for an interesting (and perilous) walk!
The city is made up of little alleyways with cafes selling thick goulash and ice cream; dotted between them, local artists sit smoking on benches, some painting, others sculpting. Shiny Aladdin’s cave-style trinkets are displayed by street sellers, hoping to catch the attention of passers by.
Stari Most was only a short walk from the hotel. The wind beat against my face and it rained even harder, but I looked up and took a deep breathe; the air was fresh and I felt alive. The view is truly stunning, transporting you back in time. Though recent Bosnian history is unbelievably tragic, standing there looking at the rebuilt bridge, there was a sense of rejuvenation; you could feel the city reasserting itself as if to say that it is still very much alive. The juxtaposition of brutality and tragedy alongside beauty and resilience was something I found all over Bosnia and Herzgovina.
As we moved over the bridge, there were even more cafes, shops and market sellers. By now it was getting dark, so we stepped at an old mosque in the town square. There a number of old Ottoman mosques in Mostar; I decided to visit the Koski Mehmet Pasa mosque, close to the river, as I was told that the view from the minaret was one of the best ways to see the city. Walking into the courtyard of the mosque, you are instantly transported back centuries, with its slender, typically Ottoman minaret pointing upwards to the sky. You can climb up its narrow staircase for views of the city. If you visit during the day, you may be lucky enough to be offered tea, weather permitting.
Walking back to our hotel, the streets were quiet, though now busy, with shop owners hanging lanterns outside their shops and ice-cream vendors trying to tempt you with a scoop of pistachio or a lemon sorbet. We decided to eat at the hotel, which also operates as a restaurant, as it was so cold, and were treated to fresh sea bass with vegetables and steak and potatoes. Most food in this region is sourced locally- a rare treat for someone used to their food being shipped from all over the globe.
We used Mostar as our base from which we travelled to the surrounding areas. We visited the waterfalls of Kravice (about a 50 minute drive from Mostar) which is an area of great natural beauty. I thought it was going to be difficult to find, but thankfully it was clearly signposted, perhaps as it is visited more and more. Having said that, there were not many tourists and we were able to park on the grounds. It looks like a nature reserve at first and you walk down to the waterfalls, which are stunning. Here, a boat lay sleepily on the water, and some locals were building another from old wood. I sat there for some time, reflecting on the beauty of this fascinating country, which has everything; from bluey-green waters and a rich cultural legacy, to amazing coffee and spiritual history (which I will get to).
On our drive back from the waterfall, we stopped at the village of Blagaj, which is home to a sufi tekke (tekija), a lodge were gatherings have been taking place for centuries. It is a well-known spot, and attracts visitors from around the world. The tekke was a thriving part of Islamic and mystical life, which was built some time in between the 15th and 16th centuries (its original appearance is not known). It was home to many different sufi circles including the Bektashi, Qadiri and Naqshbandi tariqas (orders). Today it is home to mainly the Naqshbandi tariqa. It is a beautiful building sitting on the Buna river, and the halls are Hogwarts-like with their old monastic décor. The lodge is associated with numerous stories and miracles, and it is said that sufis from all over the world have visited it as a place of refuge, warmth, study and respite. The family that run the house are very friendly and happy to answer questions; however English is not widely spoken, so I tried to converse in German and Turkish and had more success. The lady also told me that once a year, there is a big conference that takes place in the area where people from across Europe gather to talk about spirituality and take part in different meditations.
After walking through the house, in awe of its decor and many rooms, and getting lost in the ebb and flow of the river outside, we had lunch in one of the many restaurants sitting along the riverbank. Service was slow, but I wasn’t going to complain as it didn’t feel right in such a place. Eventually, we were served a dish of a variety of fish, vegetables and salad – typical Balkan cuisine. It wasn’t amazing but it did the job and I felt grateful.
We had planned to visit the small artist town of Počitelj on our way back to Mostar, but sadly for us by the time we left Blagaj the sun was setting, and we could see the little houses on the top of the hills turning their lamps on one by one, so it wasn’t meant to be.
The following day, we had an early start as we were planning on driving to Croatia, a four hour drive through the mountains (that’s a post for another day!). I had completely fallen in love with Mostar; though in many way it is an idyllic, fairytale town, there are many secrets, tragedies and mysteries hidden deep within its city walls- and much for the visitor to discover. Something else I would highlight is that Mostar is where I witnessed a ‘liberated’ European Islam. What I mean by this is that the culture, though in some ways a hotchpotch of Turkish influence and Balkan living, is both authentic and self-assured. It just is what is is, and as a Muslim from Britain, it was incredibly refreshing to see.
- Wear good shoes. Cobbled streets can be unforgiving with bad footwear.
- If you are pressed for time, Mostar and the surrounding towns can be visited over two days. If you have more time, spend a day just sitting by the river in Mostar or one of its restaurants and enjoy people-watching.
- Hire a car! It is easy to get around and the roads are good and easy to navigate without Sat Nav.
- If you plan ahead and start early, the towns around Mostar can be visited on a day-trip, using Mostar as a base.