Mostar Bridge, a magnificent phoenix – World Meanderings n°22
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
If there were only one place to visit in Bosnia-Herzegovina it would undoubtedly be the Mostar Bridge, locally called Stari Most, the Old Bridge. It is 75 miles south of Sarajevo and 90 miles north of Dubrovnik, in Croatia, but is well worth the detour.
The bridge was built on a trade route in the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent circa 1566 when the area was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was planned by a very famous Turkish architect of the time, Mimar Sinaa, and his skilled heir, Mimar Hajruddin, got the perilous task to build it, knowing that if the bridge were to collapse he would be beheaded! At the time, architecture was no joking matter.
With its 90 feet long arch leaning against the Hum hill on one side and against the Velez Mountain on the other, the bridge spans over the Neretva River and its blue-green waters. It originally had one tower at each end where men stood guard. They were called the Mostari, the men of the bridge, and gave their name to all the villagers and hence the little town was named Mostar.
This town was some kind of a miracle, where for 400 years Roman Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, Sephardic Jews and Muslim Bosnians lived together in harmony. There were no separate districts and Mostar’s inhabitants of all faiths were close neighbours, going to churches, synagogues, mosques or shops standing in the same streets.
Today we can still figure out this melting pot of races, religions and cultures by the juxtaposition of different houses in the old town, such as this old Turkish house that has been turned into a museum of Turkish art and culture.
During the war that went on between Bosnians and Croatians from 1992 till 1995, the Mostar area saw heavy fighting for almost a whole year in 1993. Most of the old town was destroyed including the Old Bridge that was bombed by the Croatians on November the 9th in spite of all the civilians who had gathered there in protest and as a human shield. After the war a temporary bridge was built and it was not until 2001 that UNESCO and the international community started a 12,5 million dollars reconstruction programme. The bridge now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It began with the viewing in slow motion of the videos of the bombing of 1993, in order to identify each piece of stone that had fallen in the Neretva River and to replace it in its original place. If a stone was too damaged, a new one was cut, using traditional techniques, into a rock coming from the same nearby quarry that was in use during the 16th century.
Finally the 1088 stones were all put back in place in 2004 and the bridge looks just the way it did before the war, although Mostar’s inhabitants now call it Novi Stari Most, the New Old Bridge! Most of the old 15th and 16th centuries old houses that had been reduced to ruins have been restored but many bullet holes have been left untouched as a reminder of these awful days.
Today you will get to Mostar taking a road going through vineyards where the famous white Zilvaka grapevine grows, mandarin groves and beautiful landscapes. Once in Mostar you will walk along the river banks where many shops sell leather goods, traditional cloth, engraved copper items, oriental slippers… but you will be irresistibly attracted by the bridge and its elegant arch overlooking the river, 80 feet below. Several restaurants have outside terraces offering a wonderful view of the bridge and you will be able to taste a börek, a traditional baked pastry stuffed with spiced ground beef or vegetables, or have some kajmak, a freshly made cheese similar to clotted cream made from the milk of cow or water buffalo. And why not end your meal with a perfumed and full-bodied Turkish coffee?
Ever since its construction the bridge has also been used as a diving board. Young men from the area used to defy death and jumped from the highest point of the bridge into the cold water of the river since 1566. Contests have been organised all through the 20th century and a diving club, the Klub Skakaca u Vodu Mostari, was created in 2004 for the opening of the rebuilt bridge. Its members are trained and skilled divers who give tourists several demonstrations each day (up to 50 dives every day in summertime), after collecting 30 euro from the tourists that are standing on the bridge waiting to watch them jump. Depending on the water level it is a 70 to 95 feet long dive and they reach the water going 50 miles/h. They are not only trained for this 4 seconds dive, they also need to be ready for the thermal shock when they hit the water that is only 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and even colder the rest of the year.
A 3-day international contest takes place every last weekend of July and was part of the Diving World Series in 2015 when talented Jonathan Paredes from Mexico finished first. The local best diver ever was Emir Balic who earned the title 13 times. He was only 16 when he made it for the first time in 1936! The legend says that the first competition took place in 1566, so this year will be the 450th time and a very special event, where thousands of spectators are expected (access to the river banks will be subject to an entry fee on these 3 days).
If you feel brave enough you can also make the jump! Tourists are welcomed to try their luck and in summertime 4 to 10 reckless tourists do it every week. It is of course highly recommended to go to the diving club first to get a proper training. There you will jump from a 30 feet high diving board and you will take cold showers to get used to the low water temperature. Sensations and guaranteed strong feelings!
After achieving this feat you will get a certificate that will allow you to jump again whenever you wish to do it again! Be aware that it is dangerous, one tourist died in 2010 and another one in 2012, but they jumped on their own without going through the training provided by the divers of the Mostar diving club.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny