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Traveling in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Buffalo Nickels, Forgotten Mosques, and Sarajevo Roses

Mostar's Old Bridge
Mostar’s iconic Old Bridge, destroyed during the war, has been rebuilt.
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves.

This summer, looking for a change of pace from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, I drove from Dubrovnik into the city of Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Almost everyone doing this trip takes the main, scenic coastal route. But, with a spirit of adventure, I took the back road instead: inland first, then looping north through the Serb part of Herzegovina.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three main groups—Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks—come from virtually identical ethnic stock. They just have different religions: Orthodox Christian, Catholic Christian, and Muslim, respectively. But for the most part, there’s no way that you as a tourist can determine the religion or loyalties of the people just by looking at them. Studying the complex demographics of the former Yugoslavia, you gain a respect for the communist-era dictator Tito—the one man who could hold this place together peacefully. (To learn more about the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, see www.ricksteves.com/yugo.)

Bosnia-Herzegovina is one nation, historically divided into two regions: Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords gerrymandered the country along other lines, giving a degree of autonomy to the area where Orthodox Serbs predominate. This “Republika Srpska” rings the core of Bosnia on three sides. When asked for driving tips, Croats—who, because of ongoing tensions with the Serbs, avoid this territory—insist that the road I want to take doesn’t even exist. From the main Croatian coastal road just south of Dubrovnik, directional signs send you to the tiny Croatian border town...but ignore the large Serb city of Trebinje just beyond.

And yet, Trebinje exists...and it’s bustling and prosperous. As I enter the town, police with ping-pong paddle stop signs pull me over—you must drive with your headlights on at all hours. The “dumb tourist” routine gets me off the hook. I enjoy a vibrant market scene, and get cash at an ATM to buy some produce. (Even here—in perhaps the most remote place I’ve been in Europe—ATMs are plentiful.)

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s money is called the “convertible mark.” I don’t know if they are just thrilled that their money is now convertible…but I remember a time when it wasn’t. I stow a few Bosnian coins as souvenirs. They have the charm of Indian pennies and buffalo nickels. Some bills have Cyrillic lettering and Serb historical figures, while others use “our” alphabet and show Muslims or Croats. Like everything else in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the currency is a careful balancing act.

Later, after a 2-hour drive on deserted roads through a rugged landscape, I arrive at the very humble crossroads village of Nevesinje. Towns in this region all have a “café row,” and Nevesinje is no exception. It’s lunchtime, but as I walk through the town, I don’t see a soul with any food on their plate—just drinks. Apparently locals eat (economically) at home...and then enjoy an affordable coffee or drink at a café.

A cluttered little grocery—the woman behind the counter happy to make a sandwich—is my solution for a quick meal. The salami looks like Spam. Going through the sanitary motions, she lays down a piece of paper to catch the meat—but the slices of Spam land on the grotty base of the slicer as they are cut. I take my sandwich to an adjacent café and pay the equivalent of a U.S. quarter for a cup of strong Turkish (or “Bosnian”) coffee, with highly caffeinated mud in the bottom...then munch, drink, and watch the street scene.

Big men drive by in little beaters. High-school kids crowd around the window of the local photography shop, which has just posted their class graduation photos. The girls on this cruising drag prove you don’t need money to have style. Through a shop window, I see a newly engaged couple picking out a simple ring. One moment I see Nevesinje as very different from my hometown…but the next, it seems just the same.

Looking at the curiously overgrown ruined building across the street, I see bricked-up, pointed Islamic arches, and realize it was once a mosque. In its backyard—a no man’s land of bombed-out concrete and glass—a single half-knocked-over turban-topped tombstone still manages to stand. The prayer niche inside, where no one prays anymore, faces an empty restaurant.

After an hour’s drive over a twisty mountain road, I cross into the Muslim-Croat part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and arrive at the city of Mostar—which would provide me with one of the richest travel experiences I’d have all year. At the same time, the vibrant humanity and the persistent reminders of the terrible war just over a decade ago combine to make Mostar strangely exhausting.

Before the war, Mostar was famous for its 400-year-old, Turkish-style stone bridge. Its elegant, single-pointed arch was a symbol of Muslim society here, and of the town’s status as the place where East met West in Europe. Then, during the 1990s, Mostar became a poster child of the Bosnian war. First, the Croats and Bosniaks forced out the Serbs. Next they turned their guns on each other—staring each other down across a front line that ran through the middle of the city. Across the world, people wept when the pummeled Old Bridge—bombarded by Croat paramilitary artillery shells from the hilltop above—finally collapsed into the river.

Now the bridge has been rebuilt and Mostar is thriving. And yet it’s chilling to think that, just a few years ago, these people—who make me a sandwich, direct me to a computer terminal in the cybercafé, stop for me when I cross the street, show off their paintings, and direct the church choir—were killing each other.

Masala Square (literally “Place for Prayer”) is designed for big gatherings. Muslim groups meet here before departing to Mecca on the Hajj. But tonight, there’s not a hint of prayer. It’s prom night. The kids are out, and Bosnian hormones are bursting. Being young and sexy is a great equalizer. With a beer, loud music, desirability, twinkling stars—and no war—your country’s GDP doesn’t really matter.

I meet Alen, a thirtysomething Muslim who emigrated to Florida during the war, and is now back home in Mostar. Alen strolls with me through his hometown, offering an eyewitness account of its darkest hour. He says, “It’s a strange thing in nature: figs can grow with almost no soil”—seeming to speak as much about the difficult lot of Mostar’s people as its vegetation. There are blackened ruins everywhere. When I ask why—after 15 years—the ruins still stand, Alen explains, “Confusion about who owns what. Surviving companies have no money. The bank of Yugoslavia, which held the mortgages, is now gone. No one will invest until it’s clear who owns the buildings.”

We visit a small cemetery crowded with more than a hundred white-marble Muslim tombstones. Alen points out the dates. Everyone died in 1993, 1994, or 1995. This was a park before 1993. When the war heated up, snipers were a constant concern—they’d pick off anyone they saw walking down the street. Bodies were left for weeks along the main boulevard, which had become the front line. Mostar’s cemeteries were too exposed, but this tree-filled park was relatively safe from snipers. People buried their loved ones here…under cover of darkness.

Alen says, “In those years, night was the time when we lived. We didn’t walk...we ran. And we dressed in black. There was no electricity. If the Croat fighters didn’t kill us with their bullets, they killed us with their rabble-rousing pop music. It was blasting from the Catholic side of town.”

The symbolism of the religious conflict is powerful. Ten minarets pierce Mostar’s skyline like proud exclamation points. There, twice as tall as the tallest minaret, stands the Croats’ new Catholic church spire. Standing on the reconstructed Old Bridge, I look at the hilltop high above the town, with its single, bold, and strongly floodlit cross. Alen says, “We Muslims believe that cross marks the spot from where they shelled this bridge…like a celebration.”

The next day, I’m in a small theater with 30 Slovenes (from a part of the former Yugoslavia that avoided the terrible destruction of the war) watching a short film about the Old Bridge, its destruction, and its rebuilding. The persistent shelling of the venerable bridge, so rich in symbolism, seemed to go on and on. When it finally fell, I heard a sad collective gasp…as if the Slovenes were learning of the tragedy just now.

The feeling I get from people here today is, “I don’t know how we could have been so stupid to wage an unnecessary war.” I didn’t meet anyone here who called the war anything but a tragic mistake.

Leaving Mostar to return to Croatia, I stop at a tiny grocery store, where a woman I befriended the day before—a gorgeous person, sad to be living in a frustrating economy, and stiff from a piece of shrapnel in her back that doctors decided was safer left in—makes me a hearty ham sandwich. As she slices, I gather the rest of what will be a fine picnic meal on wheels.

On the way out of town, I drive over patched bomb craters in the pavement. In Sarajevo, they’ve filled these scars with red concrete as memorials: “Sarajevo roses.” Here they are black like the rest of the street—but knowing what they are, they show up red in my mind.