Traveling off season has many rewards. Cheaper accommodation, less crowds, more opportunities to really get to know the locals. I was having a lot of luck in Croatia and after meeting some people who swore Bosnia-Herzegovina was the best place ever, I decided to go see it for myself. Originally I was going to go to Sarajevo, but decided to skip it because it was snowing. Mostar seemed like a better bet.
I will admit that while I thought Bosnia-Herzegovina would be less touristy and restored than the Croatian cities I visited, I wasn’t expecting it to be as unchanged as it was. Unchanged since the war, I mean. Unlike Sarajevo and Croatian cities like Dubrovnik, Mostar still carries many of the scars from the war in the 90s. While evidence of the war exists in Mostar all year round, it was particularly easy to see for me as one of the few tourists in the town. Unlike Western Europe, the Balkans don’t attract tourists year round. Even Split becomes tourist free during the winters. When I went to Mostar half of its bars had been shut down. The hostel I was staying at would also shut down a day after I left (I was one of its only customers). Tours outside the city were few and far between. In a way, I regretted my decision to come. If it weren’t for meeting one lone traveler who joined me as I ate one of the most delicious meals of my European trip, I don’t know if I would have reflected fondly on the time I spent in Mostar.
Yet at the same time, I really appreciated being able to see Mostar beyond its touristic appeal. It was cold and windy, many of its streets empty, and looking out at the many houses splattered with bullet holes made it impossible to ignore that something very tragic happened here. I’m not one for intense historical research when I travel, but I was able to sense the history of this place regardless. I felt it everywhere. While talking with locals, I also learned that there is still a lot of tension between the Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs and I could sense this as I walked across the Stari Most bridge. The Bosniaks live on its east side, while the Croats and Serbs typically live on the west. As my host told me, no one really feels comfortable on the other person’s side of the bridge.
I don’t think ignoring things like this really helps anyone. As a foreigner, we can go to a place and easily walk past these things. In my case, I couldn’t do that. The city wasn’t there to please me, it wasn’t catering to me.
Despite everything I’ve said, though, Mostar isn’t only composed of its darker historical moments. I had great conversations with the locals, including my host, who gave me a one on one tour of the entire city. He told me about growing up during the war, hiding in his house for days. He’s three years younger than me, my brother’s age, but is both humble and wise way beyond his years. I went to open and friendly bars and restaurants where it was easy to talk to people and to relax – prices weren’t bad either.
I saw the beautiful Stari Most that was destroyed during the war, but stands tall today. The very same bridge that people jump off of all summer long (though if you’re a visitor, be prepared to take lessons before you dive.)
But most of all, I guess I enjoyed facing the darkness. It’s so easy to only see the best of a place when you travel. I know if I came back to Mostar in August, I’d have a completely different experience and I may not have paid attention to the bullet holes in the buildings, but I’m glad I went when I did. I felt I owed Mostar that much.