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From Mostar With Love

The city of Mostar is named after Stari Most meaning Old Bridge. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, resurrected from the ruins of the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-1995. It is impossible to tell the story of Mostar without recounting the history of the region.

In the 7th century, Catholicism united the people of this area. In the 15th century, the Ottomans established a 400+ year rule in what is now Bosnia. Subsequently, this area gave birth to World War I with the assassination of Franz Josef Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. In the reconstruction after World War II, various Balkan states were brought under the umbrella of Yugoslavia with its leader for life Josip Broz Tito. Tito left an inadequate succession plan and a country in debt. In the decade following his death, Yugoslavia started to disintegrate. Until then, the Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and the Muslims had managed to co-exist with tolerance.

In 1990, nationalism took a despicable hold with Slobodan Milošević as its chief perpetrator. What followed in the first half of the decade is shocking given the close geographical proximity of the holocaust, not even 50 years before. The Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks were embroiled in a bloody civil war that saw a genocide and the annihilation of the local economy. To this day, landmines from this conflict continue to dot the countryside and bombed out and pockmarked buildings with bullet holes are frequently visible in Bosnia.

Our guides who were 6 and 14 at the time of the civil war told us their own stories: of hearing the sound of bombs coming from the mountains around Mostar, of fleeing the region when the Old Town in Dubrovnik was attacked, of the destruction of the economic and political structures, and of the smells of war. As we drove into Mostar, our guide showed us many homes that are standing in ruin as a result of the war. They have not been reconstructed partly because ownership cannot be determined.

Mostar is home to the Old Bridge. Built in the 1566 by the Ottomans, the bridge stands 30 meters above the river Neretva, green from the abundance of copper in the rocks. It was guarded by eight men who lived, worked, and prayed near the bridge.

Through the ages, brave men have jumped off the bridge into the river below. On a day when the high reached 6 degrees Celsius, we were surprised to see a diver. First, his colleague, standing outside the railing of the bridge, collected at least 25 euros and then the diver jumped off the bridge, slowing himself down by bending his knees at the perfect height and then straightening his body into a pencil to keep his back from breaking. We were beyond stunned!

In 1993, the bridge was bombed by the Croats and completely destroyed along with many of the homes, mosques, and churches in Mostar. UNESCO authorized the rebuilding on one condition: the reconstruction had to be done according to ancient designs, processes, and materials. The rocks that make up the bridge were quarried from the river and lifted in the same manner as in 1500s and the bridge was rebuilt precisely according to the original Ottoman design.

One side of the Old Bridge is home to the Muslims and the other side to the Christians. Church steeples and minarets from mosques appear in the same visual field. One guide told us that individuals do not care about the ethnic and religious differences and that the politicians caused the civil war. Another guide told us that the civil war happened with the complicity of the locals. What is scary is that the truth lies in the middle and it can happen again, despite the “Don’t Forget” signs amid trinkets made in Mostar, Turkey, and I suspect, China.

We ended our day in Šadrvan, the Bosnian restaurant named after the fountain for washing before entering a mosque. We wanted to order one dish per person but the lady serving us refused to bring us so much food. She insisted we at most three for the six of us. What came next was a feast to remember! Cevapcici (Shay-vap-chi-chi) which is kababs with pita, fish grilled in three different ways, and grilled vegetables, soothed the belly, while Bosnian coffee delighted the soul.

The ride back across three border crossings, in the pitch darkness of the night helped us end the year on a somber note – this is the first time that our family was so close in time and geography to a war and our minds were numb from reading the history, our hearts were broken, and our intellect was horrified that humans can be so evil. Today, the resiliency of the Croatians and Bosnians showed us the best way to counter evil is through patience, love, tolerance, and amazing hospitality.

Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Kosovo are all recovering in their own ways from the wounds of the war, learning to co-exist, and hosting tourists from across the globe. On this New Year, our family wishes them nothing but the best and we remind ourselves that we are better off together than on our own.

As the family splits up and returns to our perches, we send good wishes and love to Neil who missed arriving on new year's day by 45 minutes. Happy Birthday, kiddo!

Travel Notes:

  • We flew from London Gatwick to Dubrovnik on BA. The best way in and out of Gatwick is the Thameslink train from London Bridge station to Gatwick Airport. Checkout the Gatwick Express train as well. Uber from the center of town to Gatwick is 100+ pounds.

  • We stayed at the Hilton Imperial which is 2 blocks from Old Town. It is a lovely property with a terrific breakfast. There's an ATM right across the street for Kunas.

  • Old Town Dubrovnik is a relatively compact place. The entrance to the walls is on the left after you enter Old Town. Ticket was 125 Kunas pp (approx. 17 Euros). Our kids did a Game of Thrones tour and loved it.

  • The Hilton arranged a van and driver for us for our day trip to Mostar. The cost was about 2500 Kunas for the five of us. We left the hotel at 9:30am and returned around 7pm.

  • The weather in late Dec was perfect - 30s to 50s with sunny days. Daylight is from 8:30am to about 4pm. In general, we found Dubrovnik to be more expensive than other European cities.

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