To jump or not to jump?
This is the question almost every backpacker asks themselves when they arrive in Mostar. “Those young Bosnian guys are doing it, so why can’t I?” It’s a mindset that makes the age-old statement “Just because someone jumps off of a bridge, doesn’t mean you have to” seem peculiar and out-of-place…because that is exactly what one will encounter upon arriving at Stari Most, the Old Bridge. A few visitors each day will follow in the footsteps, or rather the leaps, of thousands before them…and they pay to do it too.
The members of Diver’s Club, a group of locals continuing a centuries-old family of jumping off of the 16th century Ottoman bridge, collect tips from tourists while scaling the outer edge of the bridge, hovering over the chilling Neretva river that flows 25 meters below. Once they gather about 20 or 30 euros, one from the experienced bunch drops from the impressively large structure, getting unanimous applause following a graceful fall and perfect entry.
If you fancy a dive as well, it is only a highly encouraged 25 euro fee, which includes a few practice jumps from a 12 meter platform downriver. The guys from the Club help you prepare, in some cases advising the uncoordinated against doing the jump, and positioning themselves around the river as a precautionary measure for those who go through with it. They give you as much coaching as you need and water you down to drop your body temperature before the jump, diminishing the shock of entering the ice cold water. If you needed any more reason to pay for the coaching, the money goes to the upkeep of the bridge, and it is rumored that if you jump without going through the club, they will find you and “give you a hard time.”
Having done a 15 meter cliff jump in Cinque Terre a few weeks back, and an 18 meter jump in Tara Canyon just a week before, this seemed to be the next ideal challenge. What’s another 7 meters? However, upon arriving at my hostel, I was introduced to this guy:
Meet Harris. He had just gotten out of the hospital the day I arrived. Having taken the jump two days before my arrival, against the advice of the Club who had noticed his bad form, he fractured his back upon impact and had just regained his ability to move about. Fortunately, there was no damage to his spine, and with the support of a brace and a few weeks of physical therapy, he would be fully recovered. Hence the smiles in the photo. Some are not as fortunate, however. At a free fall speed of roughly 80 kph, hitting the water with even a slightly slanted entry could send the internal organs slamming full speed against one’s back, leading to rupturing, let alone spinal damage and fracture. Such was the fate of several visitors over the years, forfeiting their lives to the dangerous tradition.
Seeing as I was between health insurance companies at the time and only eight weeks into my travels, I wasn’t keen on cutting my trip short and decided 18 meters was a good enough achievement (for now). But what else was there to do in Mostar?
At first look, one finds a tourist-ridden old town with slippery cobblestone steps leading to Stari Most, the main attraction. Shop owners in the marketplace sell traditional trinkets, reminiscent of those found in the Grand Bazaar. Surrounding the hustle and bustle in the center is a beautiful yet poor city, offering very little to the average visitor apart from dilapidated buildings. Or so it seems.
But Mostar is a city of the past, still breathing the fumes of a war 20 years behind but ever so present today. It takes time and effort on the part of the committed traveler to first notice the scars, and then see the underlying bruises that continue to irritate the core of this city. But the more time one dedicates to learning and uncovering, the less coherent everything becomes. I initially booked two nights in Mostar, and ended up staying for one week (due primarily to my hostel to which I will dedicate an entirely separate post). Yet those seven days, although tremendously eye-opening, were at some times exhausting, at others confusing, and overall not nearly long enough, leaving many questions unanswered.
A walk through history
Breaking off from the old town, it doesn’t take the most careful observer to notice the damage. It’s truly a strange and initially unnerving feeling to walk down some of the streets. Children run around, playing football between tiny goals outlined by collections of stones, and their parents watch from nearby porches and gardens. Just meters away, the iron gates of driveways and exterior facades of the old homes have been severely chipped away, bullet holes littering the surfaces of the battered structures. Just two decades earlier, snipers from the surrounding hills were unleashing endless rounds onto the city, aiming for the families whose kids joyfully play amongst the remnants today. The further one walks, the more ubiquitous this bombing damage seems.
Abandoned buildings that seem to still be falling apart line the sidewalks all the way across the river until roughly two blocks later, where one reaches an evident divide. A large, busy boulevard today, this schism served as the front line during the war and still remains as an invisible boundary. Behind us, we leave the Muslim side of the city which contains the old town and river, and in just a few steps, we arrive on the Croat side. But more apparent than the ethnic split is the sudden change of environment – everything is new, modern, clean, structured. Within a few meters, it’s almost as if one journeys to a completely new and foreign city. With a local government comprised mainly of Croats, any allocated funds would be invested into renovating specific buildings, all of which end up being chosen from the Croat side of town. As a result, 20 years after the war, the Croat side is new, modern, relatively wealthy and thriving, whereas almost nothing has changed on the Muslim side. The few upgrades include Tito’s old residence by the river being converted into a shopping center, and a renewed exterior to a local building that gives the impression of modernity, while still completely in ruins on the inside.
The sniper tower
Just past the front line on the Croat side, there is one peculiar structure that seems oddly misplaced.
Towering eight stories high, what used to be a bank was used by the Serbs and Croats during the war as a sniper tower, and has remained untouched since the end of the war. Within the past year, the local government locked up the structure so people could not simply wander in, but a simple climb over a rear wall is all it takes to begin exploring this spooky place.
Upon entering the run-down structure, the first thing one encounters is tons of blown out glass all over the floor, with interspersed rubbish and documents dating decades back. Once past the heaps of trash on the ground floor, a stairwell appears in the middle of the building that leads all the way to the top, with no barriers on either side. And after climbing up a few stories, bullet and shell casings begin to appear among the scattered litter.
When not too busy trying to avoid stepping on shards of broken glass, one begins to notice the overwhelming presence of graffiti throughout the structure (and the city of Mostar, for that matter). The artwork initially seems quite colorful and happy, but most possess an underlying message representative of the unforgiving cruelty associated with war, politics and oppression.
And then we reach the top..
The video below takes us on a walk through this unique part of Mostar, narrated by yours truly.
Apollinaire, Julien and I spent the last hour or so sitting on the roof, watching as the sun set over this confusingly brilliant city, allowing for time to reflect and appreciate the location’s powerful presence.
There is so much that can be said about Mostar, yet words would not be able to do it justice. No phrase can convey the feeling, and no photos can represent the energy of this culture, re-assimilating, living and growing through the fresh ashes of a horrific recent past. It truly is a walk through the world’s history, one that needs to be taken to have a better, but not necessarily clearer, understanding. Taking a brief part in the beautiful locals’ lives gives perspective bereft of politics, labels, headlines and textbook definitions. So take a visit, experience for yourself, and most importantly: