Wedged into the far south of the country, little Herzegovina is less known than its big brother, Bosnia, but this land of muscular peaks and rushing rivers arguably has more to see. Pride of place goes to Mostar and its famed Old Bridge, but it’s worth venturing outside the city to see little Blagaj, or to absorb the religious curiosities of Međugorije. Those on their way to Dubrovnik or Montenegro should also call in at Trebinje, by far the most pleasant town in the Republika Srpska.
Top image: Old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Stari Most bridge, Neretva river and old mosques © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock
Using Mostar as a base, you have a whole slew of destinations to choose from. Unfortunately, the paucity of public transport means that it’s tough to see more than one in a day, and some places aren’t accessible at all: often your best option is to visit on a tour from Mostar.
Closest to Mostar is the village of BLAGAJ, just 12km to the east and accessible by local buses. Once you disembark, carry straight ahead through the town to the Tekija. Huddled into a niche in the cliff face, this wonky wooden building was once the residence of dervishes, and the interior – prayer rooms, washroom and kitchen – are all suitably spartan. The hammam, meanwhile, remains as it was. Right next to it, a never-ending torrent of water gushes out of the cliff, apparently reaching levels of 43,000 litres per second; some of this is skimmed off to make tea and coffee, which you can order at the adjacent terrace, including a chunk of lokum (Turkish delight).
Twenty six kilometres south of Mostar is the curious village of MEĐUGORIJE, a mere non-entity until June 1981, when a group of teenagers claimed to have been spoken to by the Virgin Mary here. Unlike Lourdes and Fatima, this has not been officially recognized by the Vatican, but that doesn’t stop pilgrims arriving in such numbers that there are now thousands of rooms available to accommodate them. The main sights here are the Church of St James and the nearby “Weeping Knee” statue, so named as it apparently flouts the laws of thermodynamics by dribbling out a constant flow of fluid.
A few kilometres south of Međugorije is the hillside village of POČITELJ, one of the most traditional in Herzegovina. The place is quite stunning, and dotted with remnants from the fifteenth century, most notably a citadel and a terrific mosque. Unfortunately there are no direct buses here, so it’s best to join a tour. Groups will likely swing through to see the nearby Kravice Waterfalls, which are not accessible on public transport. High, wide and handsome, the pool below is a great place for a dip.
On arrival at the train or bus station, you may be forgiven for thinking that the beauty of MOSTAR has been somewhat exaggerated. There then begins a slow descent to the Old Town, during which it becomes more and more apparent that it really is a very special place indeed. Attentive ears will pick out rushing streams, salesmen crying their wares, as well as church bells and muezzins competing for attention, while steep, cobblestoned streets slowly wind their way down to the fast-flowing, turquoise-blue Neretva River and its Old Bridge, incredibly photogenic even when the Speedo-clad mostari – the brave gents who dive from the apex – aren’t tumbling into the waters below. The city is becoming ever more popular with tourists, though the dearth of high-end accommodation means that most visit on a day-trip – bad news for anyone on the Old Bridge around lunchtime, though great news for anyone staying the night; the best time to come is first thing in the morning or early evening.
Mostar’s history is irrevocably entwined with that of its bridge. Like hundreds of locals, this was to fall victim in 1993 when the Croats and Muslims of the town, previously united against the Serbs, turned on each other: the conflict rumbled on for two long years, each side sniping at the other from opposing hills. Locals claim that, prior to the war, more than half of the city’s marriages were mixed, but the figure has since dwindled to nothing; while relations are now much improved, the truce remains uneasy.
The Old Town, spanning both sides of the Neretva, contains most things of interest in Mostar, and in its centre is the Old Bridge, focal point of the city and the obvious place to kick off your sightseeing. On the eastern bank is the more interesting Muslim part of town, while the west is mainly home to Catholic Croats.
Lined with trinket stores, cobblestoned Kujundžiluk climbs uphill, soon leading to the Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque. For all its beauty, the panoply of souvenir sellers shows that tourism, rather than religious endeavour, is the current priority; eschew the 8KM it costs to climb the minaret and instead head down to the terrace where you can get superb head-on views of the bridge. Passing another mosque, the road segues quickly into modern Mostar, though pay attention to signs pointing out the Turkish House on your left, a fascinating peek into the Ottoman traditions of yesteryear. Above Kujundžiluk you’ll see the Cejvan Cehaj Mosque, Mostar’s oldest, on the way to the Museum of Herzegovina. Between the two lies a Muslim graveyard, and it’s hard not to be moved when you notice that almost everybody laid to rest here died the same year, 1993.
Transit point, dungeon, tourist attraction, war victim and macho launchpad, Mostar’s small, hump-backed Stari Most has led an interesting life. With tradesmen terrified by the rickety nature of its wooden predecessor and the fast-flowing Neretva below, it was built in the 1560s at the instigation of Suleyman the Magnificent. Those employed to guard the bridge were called the mostari, a term later borrowed when naming the city, and then used to describe the men who dive from the apex, 21m down into the Neretva. After 427 years in service, the bridge was strategically destroyed by Croat forces in November 1993, symbolizing the ethnic division of the city. There then began the arduous process of rebuilding it piece by piece, using new materials but following the same techniques used in its initial construction, before it reopened in 2004. The mostari are still there, day after day; they’ll try to work the crowd into shelling out an acceptable fee – typically around €25 – before taking the plunge. Join them if you dare, especially in July, when the annual diving festival marks the highlight of Mostar’s year.
Off the eastern end of the bridge is Helebija, a tower that now accommodates the enlightening Old Bridge Museum, spread over four levels, and topped with a viewing point. Of most interest is the archeological section, where you can see some of the few remaining chunks of the bridge that weren’t swept away, alongside footage of its painstaking rebirth. There’s sobering archive footage of the bridge’s downfall in the neighbouring Old Bridge Gallery, which also stocks a superb range of books on the war and the history of Bosnia in English.
Tara, the bridge’s western tower, was once a dungeon into which prisoners were thrown to die, either from injury, starvation or – in rainy season – drowning. It’s now the base of the diving club, and the War Photo Exhibition, an array of startling shots taken during the troubles by Kiwi photographer Wade Goddard. Just 22 at the time, Goddard spent this period with a family inside the Old Town, wandering the streets to document the hardships. A little zigzagging will bring you to the Crooked Bridge – apparently built as a warm-up for the big boy, and almost as pleasing; although it (just about) remained standing during the war, it did finally collapse in 1999 due to flooding. Further along is the Tabhana, a former bathhouse now filled with bars and restaurants. Continue to the end of the street and you’ll eventually reach Bulevar, the main road that, during the war, served as the front line – still today, the road is lined with a succession of battered buildings.
The Republika Srpska’s most appealing town by a country mile, TREBINJE is tucked into Herzegovina’s southern extremity, and its proximity to Dubrovnik and the Montenegrin border makes it the ideal start or finish line to a race through the country. It’s most famed for the sixteenth-century Arslanagić Bridge – a longer version of the one in Mostar – which sits a ten-minute walk from the town centre; in what must have been quite a feat, it was moved here, stone by stone, from the village of Arslanagić some 5km away, in 1972.
Back in the centre is the Old Town, a pretty warren of streets now largely filled with cafés; better yet for coffee-slurping is elegant Jovan Dučić Trg, home to a daily market and almost totally cloaked with maple leaves (platani).
There are also a couple of still-functioning hilltop monasteries, notably fourteenth-century Tvrdoš 6km west of Trebinje, which are a delight to roam around and well worth the climb.