Friday, December 13, 2013


The Neretva River, one of the largest rivers in the eastern Adriatic Basin, runs through the center of Mostar like a ribbon of liquid jade,

and it is crossed by the longest single span stone bridge in the world, the Stari Most, or Old Bridge. According to Rick Steves, this is the "granddaddy" of Venice's Rialto Bridge. The Mostar Bridge was completed in 1566, only 25 years before the Rialto Bridge, so it's technically not old enough to be a granddaddy, but you get the idea.
Mostar's Old Bridge
Venice's Rialto Bridge, photo taken from here

The bridge was a major architectural achievement of the Ottoman period in the Balkans and is one of the region's most iconic structures. It spans just over 94 feet and rises almost 70 feet above the river in the summertime. Stone ridges help the traveler navigate the sloped footpath that leads to its peak and then down on the other side:

These days, the bridge is a major tourist attraction.  All day long, divers plunge from its highest point into the waters below--for a hefty bit of change, of course, collected over the period of about an hour from tourists. The water is only about fifteen feet deep, and there have been deaths and serious injuries, so it is a rather dangerous thrill, and most of the "divers" actually jump feet first. We missed an actual dive, but it was still fun to see the shivering young man in a Speedo standing on the river side of the railing and peering down into the water far below, pretending to be afraid.

See him there on the peak? I don't think I could get up enough courage to even stand where he is standing, much less jump.  Tourists can pay 25 euro for the privilege, and apparently three or four per week do.  No way.
Historically, the Neretva River divided Mostar not only physically, but culturally as well, with Catholic Croats on one side and Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) on the other.

Tragically, the Mostar Bridge was bombed and destroyed by the Croatian Defence Council on November 9, 1993, during the Balkan Wars. Much of the Turkish-style old town surrounding it went down with it. Some sources say that Mostar was the most heavily bombed city of any city in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 conflict.
With the bridge completely gone, a simple path connects the two sides of the city. Photo from here. 
For an excellent side-by-side comparison of the bombed out city and the "new and improved" rebuilt city, go here.

In 2004, a process to rebuild it, stone for stone and using the same technology used to build it in the 16th century (i.e., none), began. The limestone blocks that fell into the river during the bombing were lifted out in hopes that they could be re-used, but they had absorbed too much water, so replacement blocks were carved out of the same quarry the original blocks came from.

We visited a little museum that had a wonderful video of the history of the bridge, including footage of men diving off the bridge into the water over the years. It was very moving to watch the bombs hit the bridge and then, after several hits, to see the stones crumble into the river. Supposedly the stones released minerals that turned the water red, and grieving Mostarians said that the river was bleeding. Then there was footage of the rebuilding that took place from 2001 to 2004. The movie ended with the fireworks that signaled the reopening of the bridge on July 23, 2004. The accompanying music was Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," complete with vocals sung in German (something I found a bit ironic as Mostar was occupied by Germany during World War II). If you visit Mostar, the museum and the movie are a must-see.

I tried and failed to find a copy of the same film online when we got home, but the one below is a good substitute. Rather than "Ode to Joy," however, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" is used.  If you don't want to watch the whole thing, here are the major benchmarks: It begins with pre-war footage, and around the 1:00 mark the bombing begins. The final collapse is just before the 3:00 mark. Shots of the devastated city (the mournful "Moonlight Sonata" section) begin around 3:25.  At 4:43, the stones are shown being lifted out of the river, and then reconstruction begins. Prince Charles of Great Britain and other dignitaries are shown walking on the new bridge at about 5:20, and the reopening celebration begins at 5:48.

Across the street from the museum is a cemetery filled with men killed in the war--death dates of 1991, 1992, and 1993. Another similar cemetery is a few blocks further down the street. Many of the stones are cut in the shape of an emblem on Bosnia's coat of arms from 1992-1998, the fleur de lis,

and include a black and white photo of the victim. So many were in their late teens and early 20s. Wrenching.
 Some appear to be Turks, indicated by the moon and star on the stone, the symbols from Turkey's flag:
 Many of the graves were beautifully decorated, such as this grave of a seventeen year old boy:

As in so many other places we visited in the Balkans, it was hard to reconcile these horrors of war--especially a war so recent--with the current energetic, bustling city:
The re-creation of this bridge and surrounding buildings (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is yet another testament to the resiliency of the Balkan people. UNESCO notes: "The reconstructed Old Bridge and Old City of Mostar is a symbol of reconciliation, international cooperation and the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities."
A second bridge, not far from the Old Bridge (or should it be New Old Bridge?), spans the silky Neretva River
It sounds like the Mostarians still have some distance to go in overcoming their cultural and religious gaps, but coming together to rebuild a bridge seems like a great way to begin.


  1. The cemetery was particularly moving as the young people jumping off the bridge appeared to be about the same age as the young people buried there. War is such a horrible waste.

  2. What a poignant history. I love that they bridge was so lovingly rebuilt--it gives you hope for mankind.

  3. Fascinating video--sorry to see that bridge go! The "steps" up and down the bridge do remind me so much of the Rialto. Thanks for the history lesson!