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Mostar

  
  - darkometer rating:  7 -
 
Mostar Old Bridge by nightA city in Bosnia and Herzegovina (in the latter, to be precise), known mostly for its famous World Heritage Site of the "Old Bridge" (a 2004 reconstruction of the original real old bridge, which was destroyed in the war). For the dark tourist, it's rather the not (yet) reconstructed war ruins that form the dark attraction – and a couple of these are truly outstanding.  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
       
More background info: Ancient Mostar is perhaps even more than Sarajevo illustrative of the craziness of the wars in former Yugoslavia and especially Bosnia-Herzegovina, namely in that it was affected by both the Bosniaks' war against the Serbs and then against the Croats. Initially, the Croats had been allies of the Bosniak resistance against Serbian attacks.

In Mostar, Croat forces played a significant part in fighting back the Serbian Yugoslav People's Army that besieged and shelled the city. Then the "war in the war" between Croats and Bosniaks broke out. Basically, with strong military/financial support from Croatia itself, Bosnian Croats tried to claim Bosnian territory for the Croats, and so the "ethnic cleansing" that so characterized the whole former Yugoslavia conflict also reached these parts.

Mostar had been a particularly multi-ethnic place, where the different religions and ethnicities appeared to have integrated to an exemplary degree. With the outbreak of the hostilities that changed dramatically. The city of Mostar became literally divided, with Bosniaks driven out of the western part of the city, now claimed by Croats – and a frontline ran right through the middle of Mostar.

Apart from various crimes against humanity, the one thing that shocked the world most was the shelling and destruction of the Old Bridge in November 1993. For well over 400 years the Bridge had connected the west bank with the east – now it stood for, or rather, the gap where it used to be symbolized, the total division of the Bosniak Muslim east and Catholic Croat west. In fact, all bridges over the Neretva river were destroyed in the war, making the division quite physical, as well as psychological.

After the war, the Old Bridge, being the absolute No.1 premier sight not just of Mostar but really of all of Bosnia and Herzegovina (if not the Balkans at large), was eventually reconstructed – painstakingly true to the original, using the same ancient stonemasonry techniques employed in the construction of the original. Even the stones came from the very same quarry. The whole Old Town complex around the bridge was gradually also rebuilt.

But just beyond you can still see the damaged buildings from the war. There are even mortar shell holes visible on some of the Old Town facades themselves. Most of the more dramatic war ruins, however, lie along or near the former frontline just to the west of the Neretva river and its bridges.
 
 
What there is to see: Every tourist visiting Mostar (or indeed Bosnia and Herzegovina in general) wants to see firstly and foremostly that famous Old Bridge. And in this case, even a dark tourist won't be an exception – given the recent history and significance of the structure.
  
This also feeds into its touristic commodification: at the eastern end of the Bridge there's a small exhibition of photos of the Bridge and its destruction and reconstruction, and on a video screen footage of the shelling of the Bridge is played in a loop. (At least that was so when I visited in August 2009 – whether the exhibition is a permanent fixture, I don't know. It didn't look temporary, though …). Video footage of the Bridge and the war in general is also on sale on DVDs at various tourist stalls. There's also a proper "Old Bridge Museum" (Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., admission 5 KM). Further up the eastern Mostar hillside is the Museum of Herzegovina, which also has displays/footage of the destruction during the war.

But the real dark draws are the remaining war ruins which mostly lie along or near what used to be the frontline, mainly along the "Bulevar". It's still the dividing line between Muslim and Croat Mostar. It remains to be seen what will take longer to overcome (if ever it's possible): the psychological, physical and organizational division between the inhabitants of the city or the architectural scars.

Lots of reconstruction is going on, e.g. the grand old Grammar School building, which for years had stood as one of the most prominent war ruins, has meanwhile been refurbished – so much so, and painted in such garish colours, that it almost looks like a fake funfair affair. Opposite, however, a ruined former Peace Memorial from Yugoslav days speaks a different and far sadder language. Dotted around are various other still totally ruined buildings, but they are becoming fewer. Those still left as the war left them, are completely riddled with bullet holes and at least internally partly collapsed (do not enter!). There are too many to describe in detail here – and it's unknown if or when they may get demolished altogether or be restored.

One war ruin I genuinely hope they will retain and preserve in its gutted state is just to the west of the Bulevar on the corner of Kraja Zvonimira and Knbeza Domagoja – you'll already see it towering over its environs from far away. It is, or rather was, a modern office building (apparently a former bank), in fact of quite daring modernist proportions with a sharply pointed eastern edge which almost looks like the bow of a cruise ship. The fact that this was a steel, glass and concrete modern high-rise (of eight storeys or so), but is now an empty shell, brings it home to the visitor how recent and indeed "modern" the war which the building fell victim to really was. This does indeed look like it’s in the middle of a war zone. (In fact the buildings has acquired the epithet “sniper tower” as it was used for that purpose during the siege of Mostar in the war.) But the edifice has a strange kind of alluring aesthetics. In particular its mirror plate glass windows now just spiky colourful rings of splinters really look quite striking, almost in an accidentally artful fashion. This is a ruin that should definitely be preserved as a war memorial. (OK, I wouldn't mind if they got rid of the graffiti and the urinal stink than emanates from the interior, but the structure as such is totally captivating.) For me, it was the absolute highlight of my visit to Mostar. I was so awed by it that I found it difficult to drag myself away from it and stop myself taking even more photos … 
  
The new memorial to the Spanish UN peacekeepers in Mostar which is located on the square in front of the refurbished Grammar School makes for a bizarre contrast with this modern high-rise ruin as its backdrop … Perhaps the best view of the ruined building, however, is to be had from within the Park Zrinjevac, whose trees form a captivating contrast with the colourful ruin's broken windows …
   
UPDATE October 2018: nine years since my visit and things have changed, of course. Most significantly perhaps is the fact that the bank building ruin, though it still stands, has meanwhile been stripped completely of the shattered glass window panes, all insulation material and inside all metal's gone too, so only the concrete shell is left. The place is boarded up on the ground floor, so you can't enter, but peeking through gaps in the fence newer street art can be spotted, so at least determined graffiti sprayers have managed to go in to leave their mark.
  
Over on the east side of Mostar, you also encounter various war ruins, especially the further you move away from the refurbished Old Town. One building that for me stood out was an ex-department store on a square off Marsala Tita about halfway between the Old Town and the station: it's a modern edifice whose façade consists of concrete slabs with what must have been intended as cheerful reliefs depicting animals and rural life – now it's derelict and the grey concrete has holes in it … It may be somewhat less dramatic than the modern high-rise ruin in western Mostar, but I found it strangely symbolic of the whole weirdness of that war … 
   
UPDATE: the is now also a “Museum of war and genocide victims 1992-1995” (apparently a Mostar branch of the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide in Sarajevo). It's located on Braće Fejića Street (admission 10 KM).
 
 
Location: About 50 miles (80 km) south-west of Sarajevo – as the crow flies (the winding roads take about two hours driving time!) – and about 30 miles (50 km) north from the (mostly Croatian) coast on the Adriatic Sea.
  
Google Maps locators:
  
Old Bridge: [43.3373, 17.8150]
  
Bulevar: [43.3431, 17.8077]
  
Former bank (“sniper tower”): [43.3442, 17.8061]
  
ex-department store: [43.3441, 17.8133]
  
train and bus station: [43.3487, 17.8134]
  
  
Access and costs: fairly easy and not expensive (most sights are free).
  
Details: to get to Mostar from Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital Sarajevo, which is the most likely point of departure, you can take a train – it's a very scenic route, but slow and at somewhat inconvenient times. More flexible are buses, which run all through the day, almost hourly, and follow a similar route – only the road follows the course of the Neretva river on the opposite eastern bank, whereas the train line is on the western bank. Fares are pretty cheap. Travel time is about two hours.
  
Getting around: within Mostar practically everything is walkable. Only the roughly one mile long walk between the train and bus station to the centre may require transport, depending on luggage and stamina.
  
Accommodation in Mostar can (still) be a real bargain – eating out varies (from super-cheap to comparatively "elevated").

The actual sights such as the Old Bridge and the war ruins described here can all be seen for free. The former is a spectacular sight at all times, also (and especially) at night, whereas the latter should obviously be viewed during the daytime. Entering any war ruins can be dangerous – just keep out.

Only the museums charge admission fees, but they're pretty negligible.
For such a tourist draw, Mostar is surprisingly affordable in general.
 
 
Time required: At a push, Mostar can be done as a day trip from Sarajevo – but then you should make it an early start (travel time alone is about two hours each way). Better plan for staying a night in Mostar and a return the next day. That way you can see everything in Mostar – and at leisure (and it will also allow you that must-take picture of the Old Bridge by night …).
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Bosnia and Herzegovina – as Mostar is only some two hours by road or rail from Sarajevo, it can be comfortably built into a longer itinerary or visits using that city as the (main or sole) base.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Bosnia and Herzegovina – Mostar is of course a major mainstream tourist destination, esp. for the Old Bridge (Stari Most) that everyone wants to see, and the small Old Town around the Bridge, which has been more or less fully restored and is so outstandingly picturesque that unfortunately it is also packed with tourists and lined with tourist-kitsch shops and stalls, esp. during high season. On the other hand, this makes for a good tourist infrastructure.

The route to/from Sarajevo, at least the part that follows the course of Neretva river, is esp. scenic – the emerald colour of the water is almost unearthly. The route to the coast (which I didn't see myself) is also said to be nice.
  
  
 
  • Mostar Old Bridge by nightMostar Old Bridge by night
  • Mostar Old BridgeMostar Old Bridge
  • Mostar war ruins 1aMostar war ruins 1a
  • Mostar war ruins 1bMostar war ruins 1b
  • Mostar war ruins 2Mostar war ruins 2
  • Mostar war ruins 3Mostar war ruins 3
  • Mostar war ruins 4Mostar war ruins 4
  • Mostar war ruins 5Mostar war ruins 5
  • Mostar war ruins 6Mostar war ruins 6
  • Mostar war ruins 7Mostar war ruins 7
  • Mostar war ruins 8a - former bankMostar war ruins 8a - former bank
  • Mostar war ruins 8b - the bank ruin in 2018 - photo courtesy of Josh MatthewsMostar war ruins 8b - the bank ruin in 2018 - photo courtesy of Josh Matthews
  • Mostar war ruins 9aMostar war ruins 9a
  • Mostar war ruins 9bMostar war ruins 9b
 
 
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

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