Peter traveled solo to the Balkans in August 2010, and came home with wonderful memories of Mostar, a place he’d visited with a small group of fellow adventurers from Dubrovnik. He’d read The Old Bridge by Christopher Merrill before he left and couldn’t wait to see this historic place of destruction and rebuilding in person…… and since then, I couldn’t wait to see it with him, either.
In May, that plan came to fruition, as we gazed on, walked across, and were inspired by the Old Bridge in Mostar.
Built in the 15th century, the bridge linked Mostar, joinng the Christian side of town with the Muslim side of town over the Neretva River. A symbol of both substance and tolerance, it provided access to merchants and nearby agricultural fields for everyone regardless of faith.
During the Third Balkan War and after something like 60 mortar attacks by Croatian artillery forces, the bridge was completely destroyed, its entire span tumbling into the river below. Watch just the very first few seconds of this video montage to see it yourself; what’s surprising is how much of the bridge was still intact before that last blast knocked it down.
That day, September 11, 1993 (our lovely hotelier told us a few months ago), the entire city cried.
I can only imagine.
But the Old Bridge has been rebuilt, reconstructed to its original glory (amazingly!) according to the medieval specifications and using as much of the stone recovered from the Neretva as possible. Archaeologists involved in the project discovered that a stone bridge was first built by the Romans on this site (oh, those Romans!)
A very small museum now graces one of the long-standing watchtowers; although damaged, they too have been rebuilt. It was guarded over by a young man and his grandmother; between them they spoke a handful of words of English — just enough to make this treasure available to us (the specific words I remember being “Yes, we are open.”)
The Old Bridge and its surrounding area is, appropriately, a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of many we saw in May, including some we’d never heard of before researching the trip. You can read more about its long history here.
Could the war really have happened only twenty years ago? This stone sits just off the bridge, in case those who live there or visit there need a reminder.
During the day, the cobblestone surface of the Old Bridge is crowded with people, the narrow span filled with looky-lous like us taking pictures. Crowds occasionally gather to watch young men dive in the river from its magnificent arc — if the tourists have been generous enough to entice the performance.
But late in the day, when the Dubrovnik day-trippers are gone and mostly locals remain, the bridge is often empty. That was our favorite time to be there.
Venture just a bit outside the center of town and evidence of Mostar’s wartorn time is everywhere in the modern city. Both this small house and this sign, which marked a block-sized former public-works building of some sort, were just a quarter mile or so from our lovely hotel.
We arrived by train from Sarajevo and the first substantial wreck of a structure we saw, as we made our way along the river from the station, was the once-substantial library, a loss which hasn’t yet been made whole…
In the oldest parts of the city, near the Old Bridge but beyond it as well, though, are indications that Mostar is working diligently to recover, as citizens of all faiths united to recreate their landmarks and refind their common peaceful heritage.
We purchased a lovely small painting from one of the local shops, assisted by a beautiful young artist. We appreciated her great care in wrapping our purchase so it would safely make the journey home.
The painting now hangs over Peter’s desk in our library, serving as our own reminder of this vivid place — one unlike anywhere, and yet like so many others because it meant so much to me to be there. The black-and-white watercolor captures well the grace and beauty of the Old Bridge; the photograph does not, however, as I adjusted the angle of the shot to accommodate today’s early morning light.
Want to see more images of Mostar? Peter put together a number of videos of our trip in May and posted them on YouTube. Click here to watch the one of Bosnia. It starts in Sarajevo (more on it at some other point). Our train trip over and through the rugged Dinaric Alps (many many tunnels — about twenty miles of them!) starts about two minutes into the video and about half of the eight-minute clip is about Mostar itself.
Rewatching it just now gives me the strong urge to, as Rick Steves alway says at the end of his TV show, “keep on traveling.”
I’m encouraged to find other places where people have come together to renew their sense of historical glory even though they have undergone great tragedy. Uncountable ones exist, I know.
Perhaps the video or this short recollection of Mostar’s Old Bridge will inspire the same in you.