Mostar: The Rose That Grows Through Concrete

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After seeing the remnants of war all over Sarajevo, I thought I had seen my fill of Bosnian devastation.  Little did I know that Mostar — beautiful, tiny, freshly rebuilt Mostar — would be even worse.

Shortly after arriving at Hostel Nina, our next HostelWorld property, Žika welcomes us and tells us we’re just in time for his official tour.  Žika’s tour, which is only open to Hostel Nina guests, is a tour of his life in Mostar.  No other tour will take you to sites like these.

As we walk down the street, I notice the heavily pockmarked buildings.  While Sarajevo was ravaged during the war, it’s nothing compared to what Mostar went through in the early 90s.  Mostar was all but completely leveled.

Strangest of all is that the buildings with the most bullet holes are often in between clean, newly constructed buildings.  I ask Žika about this.

“Every year, they decide which buildings to repair,” Žika says.  “Sometimes they say, ‘Hey, we will fix this building this year,’ but sometimes, they choose to fix another building instead.”

“So it’s building by building instead of by neighborhood or region?”

“They choose each building.”

Our next stop is to a Mostar cemetery, fresh with headstones from the last 25 years.  Some are headstones for bodies that were never found and are still presumed missing.

“Half of my high school is here,” Žika says.

We’re silent.

Žika puts a personal face on the conflict that we mostly ignored as kids and held at a distance since.  How can you go through something so terrible and still have a desire to go on with your life?  I can’t even begin to imagine.

Next, we visit a deadly site: the sniper tower of Mostar.

This building used to be a bank — until the war, when the Serbs and Croats took it over and turned it into a sniper tower that they used to pick off the Bosniaks.

We walk into the building, stepping through piles of ashes, broken glass, and what is likely asbestos.  Believe it or not, the building isn’t closed off to the public.

After climbing eight precarious floors to the top, we’re greeted with a wide view of the city.

“Before, we were brothers,” says Žika.  It’s true — before the war, Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians lived together in harmony.  Now the different groups don’t so much as cross the river to each other’s neighborhoods.

“Do you go to McDonald’s?” one of the guys asks.  Mostar’s McDonald’s is deep in the Orthodox neighborhood, west of the river, and Žika is a Muslim.

“Of course!”

“But what if there’s a sale on the other side of town and you want to buy t-shirts?”

Žika pauses.  “I can go there.  I’ll buy the t-shirts…but I won’t eat there.”

“You won’t linger,” I clarify.

“I won’t linger.”

We walk down a floor to see where the Serbs and Croats aimed their rifles before leaving the building and its dark history.

The Old Bridge is the most famous sight in Mostar, but its current incarnation is less than a decade old.  The bridge was destroyed by missiles in late 1993.  Žika watched it go down.

The bridge was painstakingly reconstructed for three years, using the same stone and the same construction methods as the original, and it was unveiled to great fanfare in 2004.

Today, the bridge is most famous for its divers — people who plunge off the edge into the icy Neretva River below.  These men are the celebrities about town.

Oh, and of course, Žika was once one of them!

The jumps are typically done feet-first, but some of the men do a traditional head-first dive.  With the river only three meters deep, this feat is extremely difficult and dangerous.

But once you do it, you get a tattoo of your bridge on your bicep!

Today, if you want to see a jump off the bridge, you’ll have to wait until the jumper collects enough donations from nearby tourists.

Žika wraps up the tour in a fascinating place — a house on one edge of the bridge home to a makeshift bridge diving museum.  It’s chock full of pictures and artifacts from bridge drivers, as well as a book signed by every foreigner who managed to jump and survive.  There are thrill-seekers from Australia, Norway, the United States, and more!

And hilariously, this museum is home to a dungeon of sorts.  People in Mostar tend to take the law into their own hands, and when they find someone breaking the law, they’ll haul him into the dungeon and call the police.  Depending on the egregiousness of the crime, the police will often take their sweet time picking him up.

Žika leaves us in a nearby cafe to enjoy some Turkish coffee.

Mostar has been reconstructed beautifully since the war, and the area around the bridge is filled with souvenir shops and kiosks and perfect little cobblestone streets.  It seems frivolous to enjoy any of this, having seen what we’ve seen now, and I thought this shot was most appropriate.

Hostel Nina

Though we were only there for one night, Hostel Nina welcomed us with open arms.  We found their owners right at the bus station, saving us a mile’s walk with our backpacks!  (Be sure you arrange for a pick-up beforehand.  The hostel is tucked in an alley off the street and a bit tough to find.)

Regrettably, I don’t have pictures of our room at the hostel.  It was enormous with a double bed as well as a single bed, an armoire, and chairs.  There was a single shared bathroom for the hostel.

The location was perfect, just a five-minute walk from the Old Bridge and even closer to a 24-hour bakery filled with delicious burek (meat and cheese pastries) that Žika helpfully pointed out to us.

It was such a brief visit, and I found myself wishing we had planned for a bit longer in Mostar.

Hostel Nina Breakdown:

Location: Excellent location on the east side of the river, just a five-minute walk from the Old Bridge.

Staff: Žika could not have been a better host and tour guide!  His mother was also lovely, and woke up early to take us back to the bus station the next day.  THAT is going above and beyond.

Social Atmosphere: Instead of a common room, Žika invites all the guests out to his family’s bar, right on the river, a short walk away.  It was definitely a nontraditional hostel experience, but it was a great way to meet the other travelers staying at the hostel.

Internet: There was WiFi, but only for non-Apple devices — a trend that I’ve been seeing more in Europe lately.  There is also a computer with internet access.

Cost: $13.97 per person for two people in a double room with shared bathroom.  There are also dorms.

Drawbacks: Having only Apple devices, the internet situation was a huge drawback.  Also, the bathroom was a shared single bathroom, rather than stalls, so we had to wait to use it most of the time.

Overall, Žika’s tour made our visit to Mostar incredibly special and a day we’ll never forget.

Many thanks to HostelWorld and Hostel Nina for the complimentary stay and tour.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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40 thoughts on “Mostar: The Rose That Grows Through Concrete”

  1. I was just in Mostar in June and I was really taken by the tension that exists there, I could cut it with a knife! I anticipated that would happen at some point while I was in the Balkans but it was only really evident to me in B&H compared with Croatia and Montenegro. I’m definitely itching to get back though and experience more of the region!

    Best wishes!

  2. That last photo is beautiful – Don’t forget. And the way the cemetery has fresh flowers placed on the graves, I doubt they will forget. The city is beautiful, and slowly gaining its old splendour back. I toured the city by myself, but touring with somebody who lived through it would of been so much harder to hear, I found myself tearing up at the bullet holes in the buildings. A personal story though, I never would of made it to the end of the tour with dry eyes. Beautiful story and beautiful photos My post about the city will be coming up this week too!

  3. We have some local celebrities here in Australia, that currently have a TV show where they are doing a “gap year” (both these guys are 30 and only go for about 10 weeks). But on the show they went to Mostar and dove off the bridge, its great seeing it popping up in other places too, like this blog. Maybe I should go there 😉
    Thanks for the post Kate

  4. I think this is one of my favorite posts of yours, Kate! I really admire the way that you told such a deep story by featuring your guide’s personal history alongside your stunning photos. You created such a great narrative by showing the stark reminders of war, and then having one of your concluding photos be Zika’s conquering grin. This is just such fantastic writing! Hats off to you 🙂

  5. Great post, Kate. I’ve been reading a lot about eastern Europe lately, and posts about Mostar always make me sad. Hopefully the people of the city will eventually integrate with each other again but after such a traumatic period in their history, it’s totally understandable why there’s still a division at present.

  6. Chris @ Hotelopia

    Wow, pretty shocking – I’d expect to see some bullet holes, but THAT MANY? I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live here during the war!

    It’s so nice to see a place that gets almost completely destroyed come back and be restored so perfectly though, it’s so beautiful in your other pictures you’d probably never realise something bad happened here once.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. I have been to Mostar in July as well and also stayed at Hostel Nina and – of course – went out for Zikas walking tour. If you’ll return there one day make sure to take part in his day trip of the area around the city which is wonderful as well.
    Greets from Germany

  8. I’m from Bosnia & Herzegovina and I absolutely admire any traveler that has been to this beautiful country. If more people realized the beauty, culture, and history it has to offer, it’d be on top of their bucket lists! Contrary to common misconceptions, B&H is safe to visit – I visit almost every summer without any problems. The war is long over and the country is truly picking up in tourism. I think it’s important for travelers to take advantage while prices are still affordable there!

    I write quite a bit on Bosnia & Herzegovina on my “Road Trip Through Bosnia” series, where I take my readers to a new city every week. It’s a new series, but I’ve written about Mostar and Sarajevo so far. I’d love for you and anyone reading this to check it out on my blog: !

    -Raza 🙂

  9. Hi Kate. Just came back a couple of days ago from Mostar and like you I was moved by what I saw and saddened by the hatred that still lingers. We did a similar tour to yours, seeing bombed out building after bombed out building – our guide told us most tourists don’t want to see that stuff, they prefer just walking around the Old Town. Shame, because there is a lot of history and lessons to be learned.
    I’d also suggest that Mostar is worth more than the usual day trip from Dubrovnik. We stayed 2 days and wish we had built in one additional day.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  10. Great article.
    I would like to share with everyone that people in Bosnia are very friendly and their hospitality is awesome. Like everywhere you will find some, to say not that good examples, but most of the people will help and assist wit anything you need. Even do you as for a place to stay, trust me, most of the people will help.
    Media still shows Bosnia to the world like some war zone, but there is nothing like that. War finished 20 years ago, and life is more than interesting in entire area, BiH, Croatia, Serbia…
    If you are looking forward to travel cheap and to have very, very ,very good time-Bosnia should be first on your list!
    Additionally to Kate’s awesome post, I would like to share some more photos of Mostar with you in following link:

  11. I love this post! A good friend of mine from college is from Mostar and she first told me about her hometown and the bridge, about the destruction and devastation. It is a solemn goal of mine to one day visit this stunningly beautiful little city that is chock full of history. Your photos, your description of the tour, and even the humorous little bit about the makeshift dungeon is perfect.

  12. Hey there. I was in Mostar yesterday and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. What an incredible place with a such a sad past. We did the tour with Žika as well and it was so excellent, I’d recommend it to anyone going to Mostar. We didn’t stay at Hostel Nina, but were still able to do the tour, so you may want to update that info on the blog. 🙂

  13. Randomly stumbled across your post about saving money travelling and checked out your blog. I stayed at Hostel Nina and did that same tour a few years back! Amazing place. Went to Sarajevo and Mostar during a Europe trip and by far the best experience was in Mostar. Unbelievable place, people and history. Thank you for writing about it!

  14. Hey Kate,

    Lovely post and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Only few days back I read an article on Mostar in our local newspaper, it was a travelogue. And now I read this one. The moment I read this article I felt a strong urge to visit this place. seems to be excellent from tourist perspective. The beauty about Europe is its history, different languages, cultures. Bosnia, croatia, serbia and the other balkan countries are on my wish list. hopefully I will visit them soon.


  15. Mostar is divided between the Muslims and Croats/Catholics, not Orthodox.
    The Orthodox Serbs were cleansed from Mostar at the beginning of the war by both the Muslims and Croats – who were allies the first few months.
    It was also the Croat forces who destroyed the original bridge, and it was Croat gunners and snipers who did virtually all the damage to the Muslim side.
    After the war, the ethnic Serbs have mostly remained ethnically cleansed from there.

  16. I came across your blog and so glad I did! I’ve traveled solo, and am now beginning my first big trips with my 3 and 5 year old. My husband grew up in Bosnia and Croatia so the kids are going to Daddy’s motherland. I’ve love reading through some of posts about the Balkans and I love how much you love the area! I hope that you make it back to the hidden nooks and crannies of Bosnia and get to explore it more. It’s truly a hidden gem and I reeeeaaaly feel like the country might be on the verge of an explosion of good things — they just got their first MARRIOTT in Mostar.

    This sentence made by heart break…..“Half of my high school is here,” Žika says.” My husband told me something similar on our first trip there together.

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