Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Exploring--Far From Home--Beautiful, Haunting Mostar

Bosnia-Herzegovina may not be everyone's vacation dream spot, but it was a highlight of our long-anticipated 4-week journey in Central and Eastern Europe this past September and October. We were privileged to see the river valley city of Mostar with its iconic bridge as an unexpected bonus added to the destinations we had originally intended to see. Sometime soon, I will blog about budget travel and creative travel planning and will perhaps say more about how we happened to journey to Mostar for one memorable overnight stay. 
For now, more about Mostar itself, a city where Turkish-style and Serbian Orthodox East meets a fervently Catholic Croatian West. Mostar suffered greatly in the wars of the 1990s. It had long been a sophisticated, peaceable mix of cultures and religions with as many as 75% of the adults married to someone of another background or culture. All that changed in late 1991 when Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from the rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia, and the Serbian minority immediately seceded from the fledgling nation with its Bosnian Muslim majority. Soon, the residents of Mostar were bewildered by bloody fighting among former neighbors, incited by violent partisans from all sides. The Serbs fired down from the hills to one side of the city and Croatians from the other. Even members of mixed families were forced to choose a single ethnicity and to defend it against attacks from the others. 
Our local guide, an articulate, professional Muslim woman (in modern European dress, make-up, and hairstyle) described how the snipers on the hills would pick off anyone who ventured out to aid the wounded or to bury the dead. The cemetery pictured above had been a city park until residents began secretly burying their fallen there in the darkness of any moonless night. No markers were erected until after the war--now hundreds of headstones of residents from the very old to infants, mostly death-dated 1992-94, crowd several former city parks. Our guide also recounted personal stories, employing a sardonic humor, about how the tough, enterprising Mostar residents survived in unimaginable circumstances. "Our humor may seem shocking to those who have not experienced these things," she said, "but it was as essential to our survival as our meager food and water." 
Today, Mostar is peaceful and rebuilding itself as quickly as war-ravaged resources will allow. In one photo above, you can see a heavily shell-damaged building which is partially restored to the right of a brand-new structure replacing the rubble of a destroyed older building. The 16th century Ottoman bridge (the identifying image of Mostar) in the other photo has been painstakingly rebuilt with precisely the same tools and methods as the original using limestone hewn by hand from the same quarry the Ottomans used. As a beloved symbol of a proud and diverse city, it had been deliberately targeted and finally destroyed in the war. It is a moving and lovely sight.
We visited a beautifully decorated mosque where our guide answered our questions frankly, allowing us to glimpse the deep personal significance of her own progressive, sincere faith. On our way to an excellent dinner in the Old Town, a delightful stroll along Coppersmith's Street offered art galleries, craft stalls, spices, and more in a cheerful jumble reminiscent of a Turkish bazaar. Musicians played on exotic (to me) instruments, children ran in noisy joy over the worn cobblestones, and locals enjoying a drink or water pipe laughed and gossiped in several languages at sidewalk tables. Nearby, the silvery river and the restored Old Bridge were stunning in the fading evening light. Earlier, our guide had given us a tour of an amazing Turkish-style house with a beautiful courtyard and garden and lovely wood-paneled and tiled rooms. Our group got silly trying on the authentic ethnic costumes she provided from displays there. All these were particularly poignant experiences given the recent tragic events.
For readers curious about accommodations, the Rick Steves tour we had taken into the country put us up in the large, sleek, well-run Hotel Ero, where international journalists stayed during the war and which was one of the few large buildings in the central city to escape serious damage. According to a Rick Steves travel guidebook, there also are several new, friendly, affordable small hotels in the city center.
I think that my next post will leave the "Exploring" theme for awhile. I'm thinking of shifting gears to writing about the delights of learning something new--although, come to think of it, creative exploring has always done that for me, too. I certainly found exploring Central and Eastern Europe to be a rich learning experience with varied lingering impressions. Oh, and in case you are impressed with my memory of events, don't be. Although it requires discipline, I am thankful to have recorded at least some of the details of travel experiences in journals over the years. 
Question of the day: How have creative journeys shaped your perceptions and the person you are today?

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