A Subdued Drive from Belgrade to Mostar

Today we leave Belgrade, Serbia and drive to Bosnia, Mostar. Mostar had been on my list of places to visit for many years.

We had a long day of driving ahead so Ty left us to complete the hotel check out whilst he took a taxi to the car rental company to pick up the car.   My husband is very organised and given the hotel did not have parking for us to leisurely park and pack the luggage  we were given our instructions over breakfast to ensure we were ready to leave –  all 3 of us were to check out of the hotel and be ready with our luggage in the lobby.  This was important because there was only 5 minute parking, till 9am, beside the hotel, after which it was no standing and he didn’t want us to incur a fine.  No problem, we’d be ready….or so I thought! However, when we returned from breakfast we noticed Gorging Gonz hadn’t completed his packing.  We’re early risers and had been leaving the breakfast room when he arrived.  Lord Lunchalot was earlier than us!  It was my task to organise Gorging Gonz to ensure we were all ready…..famous last words..lol.

Lord Lunchalot helped me take our luggage to the foyer but there was still no sign of our other travelling companion. He had disappeared! Ty arrived back with the car and proceeded to pack the car, still no sign of GG.  Ty was becoming a little stressed about the parking situation and I went to locate our friend.  Eventually found him wandering along one of the corridors of the hotel taking photos of pictures on their walls. I let him know  all our luggage was packed in the car and we were waiting for him and his luggage.   Our time limit in the no standing zone had expired and we needed to move on.  He said had a few more photos to take quickly before joining us.  I left him and headed back to the car.  GG wandered out of the hotel to find us waiting in the car and Ty standing at the back ready to pack his luggage.  Things were a little tense (we’d been booked before in a foreign city and we didn’t want to risk it again especially in Serbia) a couple of words were exchanged between the group.  With the car packed and all passengers inside we eventually said goodbye to Belgrade.

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  Hillside village

As you’d expect tensions were a little tight for part of the drive.  Group travel is not always easy or congenial whether the group be 2,4 or 14 people, couples, friends or a busload of strangers. Someone will occasionally be upset about one thing or another whether perceived or actual. As hard as it is sometimes we just need to do our best to rise above the little issue…..and we did. It probably didn’t help that our accommodation had been a little messed up.  Note: This was explained in the previous blog on Serbia.

The drive to Bosnia was relatively easy, GPS had no idea most of the time but we managed to stay on track quite well by doing the old fashioned thing of reading road signs!

On the road to Mostar

At one point we stopped to purchase a drink at a petrol station. Just as we were getting back in the car to leave 2 men drove up in a small black car, the driver stepped out of the car, as he passed us he spoke to us in a foreign language whilst flashing a bottle from his pocket.  We shook our heads “NO” and he moved on.  Have no idea what black market item he was trying to sell us but we laughed at the incident. Reminded me of the movies where a man, wearing a beige trench coat, clandestinely opens his coat to reveal a myriad of fake watches for sale.

The views of the mountain ranges were amazing – part of the Dinaric Mountains which run through Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Italy.  The range is often called Dinaric Alps however they are not alps in the true sense of the word but a mountain range that has sheer cliffs, rock formations that look like church steeples and are composed of dolomite and limestone.  Incredible rock formations! Our surroundings reminded me of driving in Austria or Switzerland and I could imagine the mountains covered in snow in the winter.

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Dinaric Ranges

The temperature was changing as well,  down to 15 degrees Celsius going over the top of the alps  near Sarajevo but steadily increased until it was 25 degrees on arrival in Mostar.

The drive from Belgrade to Mostar was about 8 hours.

Belgrade was originally just a transit city for us from Greece to Bosnia.  I quite enjoyed our stay in Belgrade as it has so much to offer and the old architecture is beautiful. In the beginning I had mapped the drive through Albania but Ty didn’t feel comfortable driving from Athens to Bosnia via Albania – it was a long drive, too, which doesn’t bother him but, at the time of organising the trip there weren’t many positive reviews about driving through Albania.  I was having enough trouble convincing him that he would enjoy visiting Bosnia so I wasn’t going to badger him about driving through Albania.

So excited to be arriving in Mostar!

Our GPS was not happy in Bosnia, it had terrible trouble finding places and addresses.  We had to drive around looking for our hotel.  Luckily I’m attracted to shopping centres as I spied a large new shopping centre I noticed our hotel sitting right beside it!!  It doesn’t get better than that – a couple of my favourite things – a shopping centre and a 5 star motel!!  Who needs a GPS when you have a shopper on board…lol!!

We were staying at the Mepas Hotel, a relatively brand new 5 star hotel.  Exceptionally well priced, very friendly staff and the bathroom was larger than my walk in wardrobe! Loved this place.

Dinner this evening was at the  Prestige Restaurant (located in the Mall connected to Mepas Hotel). The restaurant, like the Mall and the Mepas Hotel, was relatively new and very modern.  The staff were friendly and the food was delicious.  Wines weren’t too bad either!  The service was a little slower than we’re used to however we weren’t in a hurry so it didn’t concern us.  Recommend if you’re visiting Mostar.

Next morning we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. There was a large array of food items so it really did need to be a leisurely breakfast to allow Gorging Gonz, Lord Lunchalot and Ty to try as many dishes as possible…lol. I am a smaller eater than these 3 and tend to eat the same amount for breakfast no matter how many options there are.  With full stomachs and finishing off with our coffees it was time to decide on the days’ activities.

We decided we’d wander over to the old town and that fabulous Stari Most (old bridge) over the Neretva River that is quintessential Mostar.  I’m well aware this bridge was reconstructed after it was destroyed in 1993 during the conflict in Bosnia Herzegovina.  The original bridge was completed around 1566.  Such a shame wars destroy so much historical information  and beautiful architecture.  Much of the old town was also destroyed and some have been restored or rebuilt.  Christians, Jews and Muslims managed to live side by side for more than 4 centuries in this historic city.  All that changed in 1990.

Our meander through the city took us to the old town where many bombed out buildings of the senseless conflict that pitted neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend, still stand derelict today.  We came across other, what we thought, strange images on our stroll.  A large area of concrete squares and a wall with black stencil drawings on them.  Cats, dogs, man, woman, child, a bicycle among them.  What were they and why were they in this place?  We had no real idea.  We finally came upon the Bazaar.  Ahh, shopping!!!!

The Bazaar was a cultural mix of clothing, artefact, some interesting artifacts too….lots of empty bullet shells, army knives, tin hats, uniforms; a treasure trove of all things ‘war’!  I did quite like the miniature canons, cars and various other items made out of the empty shell casings….at least I think the casings were empty!  I was ready to purchase one of the miniatures when Ty quickly reminded me that I wouldn’t be able to get the item through customs on the way home, he also mentioned ‘what if it is live ammunition’.  Hmm, ok, point taken but I’m not happy as it seemed the perfect souvenir from Mostar…….

Lunch today was on one of the terraces overlooking Stari Most I shared my lunch with 3 little cats.  The ‘boys’ didn’t share theirs with anyone!  After lunch we decided to move to the other side of the bridge and enjoy coffee at another café whilst watching the young men jump for the bridge. The bridge becomes very crowded with tourists and the local lads tout around the visitors tasking for money to jump off the bridge.  It’s a bit of a scam….some jump but a lot of them take the money and don’t jump they pretend they’re going to jump then ask for more money.  We had a great view to watch those that did jump (probably tourists) and to hear the locals asking for money. We think some of those touting were also tourists (backpackers maybe).

A few statistics for those readers interested in bridges!! The bridge is 4 metres wide, 30 metres in length and 24 metres high (almost 79 feet in imperial measure). It has a south east tower (Tara) and a north west tower (Halebija). These towers are the ‘bridge keepers’.

The tradition of jumping off the bridge goes back nearly 5 centuries. The earliest record of children jumping from the bridge was in 1664.  Today 2 techniques are mostly used by the jumpers, the feet first jump and the head first jump with 2 variations, the pike or the swallow. Today a large number of the jumpers are visitors who, if they need to, can practice downstream a few metres on 2 smaller platforms.

The weather was fabulous but we had decided we should head back to the hotel for a break before dinner.  Not me our hotel was connected to a shopping mall and I just happened to need a pair of runners (joggers, walking shoes).  I hadn’t brought any with me but I had a little trip in Santorini and my ankle was swelling so I needed a ‘sensible’ pair of walking shoes to help foot.   This evening was a quiet one.

I had booked us on 2 tours for the next day.  The first one was a 2 hour Mostar City Tour. This was partly a  walking tour partly driving. We met our guide near the Bazaar.  We walked from the Hotel to the Bazaar and on the way a dog befriended us, well, Ty actually.  The dog continued to walk with us even though we would stop and tell him to go back home…he didn’t…he stopped when we stopped, looked at us and then continued on beside Ty….he obviously didn’t understand english..lol. I was a little concerned he’d be lost so when we met the guide, and the dog was still with us, we explained our concern to the guide.  He laughed,  touching the green tag on the dogs’ ear and said ‘He’s ok, after the war ended there were many homeless dogs so the city decided to look after them all.  They were desexed and tagged and are well feed”. I thought that was such a wonderful, compassionate idea for these animals.  Well done to the people of Mostar!!

In the evening we took another 2.5 hour tour named “Death of Yugoslavia” with Miran, a young man who was a child during the 1990’s war.    Miran is very knowledgeable, funny and made the tour extremely interesting and entertaining. Until 1991 Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of the Yugoslavia.  On this tour we visited several historic sites which included one of Tito’s top secret aircraft bunkers where he hid fighter planes protected from any possible attack but they were ready to attack   The hangar, which is deep under a road and now completely derelict.  Miran took us for a drive up into the pitch black hangar, headlights on high to point out the work rooms off to each side and the electrical equipment on the walls. Very eerie and whilst trying to focus on what Miran was telling us, and showing us, my thoughts were on what ifs;  what if someone outside managed to slam the huge doors shut, what if the van breaks down in this blackness, and, how much further was he going to drive up into this horrid blackness. It may have been well lit in it’s day but now it was just abandoned, debris strewn around and downright scary!!!   Apparently tourists do seek out this hangar on their own and I assume they also bring lots of torches with them if they choose to walk into this place.  If you are thinking to visit without a guide make sure you’re well equipped – don’t want you to be lost in that hole in the mountain forever. Also, it should be told, this is not officially a tourist attraction but nonetheless interesting.  Pleased Miran took us there however scary I thought it was.

We also visited the Partisan Memorial Cemetery, Miran showed photos of the PMC prior to the civil war, a beautiful picture of gardens, fountains and memorial walls on the hillside above Mostar.  However what we were walking through was overgrown, memorial walls badly in need of repair, parts of the garden walls had fallen over, broken concrete paths…so hard to describe this sobering sight in a few words. 

Earlier in this blog I mentioned the stencils and Miran took us to this area and explained what the stencils symbolised.  This area was a town square with beautiful flowering gardens, a centrepiece between the shopping districts, hotels and homes.  The stencils show the activities that used to happen here, the children playing, people riding their bicycles, women carrying their shopping home through the square, a meeting place for friends. Everywhere we looked there was the reminder of the civil war of the 1990’s, what was once a 5 star hotel was completely decimated but the shell still stands as do large numbers of other buildings and homes. There is an abandoned multi storey car park that was a snipers post. So much destruction.

We were told that the Government has been instrumental in ensuring the majority of the historic, eastern part of the city has been restored to it’s former glory unfortunately that can’t be said of the Croatian (western) side which still bears many scars of the war.   It is thought, by some, the Government is only interested in restoring the tourist areas.  I have to say, from my point of view, I found the western side, although battle scarred, held a fascination for me. Of course, I loved the various styles of architecture on the eastern side, I was in awe of the history and age of many of the buildings and found beauty in all parts of this incredible city.  Would visit again in a heartbeat!

In Zrinjski City Park is a statue of Bruce Lee which struck us as a little strange so we had to find out why it was here.  The statue was the idea of the Mostar Urban Movement, sculpted by Ivan Fijolic and funded by the German Govt.  It is supposed to be a symbol of solidarity to the ethnically divided Mostar.  The Movement felt that everyone around the world loved Bruce Lee regardless of their nationality or religion.

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Gorging Gonz with his idol

For my readers who prefer to see my list of likes and dislikes here they are:

Things I like and found interesting about Mostar:

  • Hotel Mepas
  • City is easy to navigate on foot.
  • Old Town
  • Since the 1990 civil war many damaged buildings stand as a constant reminder to the “troubles”. 
  • the fact the street dogs are desexed, tagged and looked after by the people.
  • walking over the famous Stari Most even though it’s a rebuild….so much history
  •  Death Of Yugoslavia Tour – guide, Miran, was great and the tour was very interesting
  • Prestige Restaurant – great meals/good prices
  • the old Town Square which was now a mess of concrete and fencing with stencils in black of bike riders, cats, dogs and people trying to tell the story of the Town Square in it’s heyday.
  • Yellow buses in Mostar have a Japanese flag on the side as the buses were donated by Japan.

Things I didn’t particularly like or felt sad about:

  • the once beautiful Partisan Memorial Cemetery and gardens that were now derelict.  Old photographs showed an amazing stepped garden/memorial…such a shame
  • that the old town square wasn’t rebuilt the lovely park between the homes that became a cemetery through necessity when the sectarian war pitted neighbour against neighbour
  • due to Australia’s custom’s and quarantine rules I wasn’t able to bring back some of the very eclectic items made from ammunition (shells and bullets)

If you have the opportunity to visit this region I would definitely encourage you to do so. As well as having impressive, dramatic scenery and friendly people they also have a fascinating history.  I love history intermingled with great scenery, food and friendly people!

Did my husband enjoy his stay in Bosnia……I hear you asking.  Yes, he did and he would willing go back again!  I’m also certain our companions, Gorging Gonz and Lord Lunchalot thoroughly enjoyed this cultural and historical visit.  

Where to from here?  Croatia with Dubrovnik being first stop!

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