When I got an offer of a free ride along with an invitation to stay at a friend’s house in Southern Bosnia, near Mostar, I knew the next 24 hours would be amazing.
The road from Sarajevo to Mostar is definitely one of my favourite in the Balkans. You get to see the hills above the capital city of Bosnia, a bit of the ‘honey road’ with elderly people selling their delicious homemade honey in front of their homes, and finally the turquoise waters of the Neretva leading you to the old and magnificent city of Mostar. There is even a brand new train taking you on this beautiful journey.
I remember the first time I went south. It was the last day of February and while Sarajevo was deep in snow, Mostar welcomed me with warmth and sunlight, making me get rid of my winter coat. During summer, the burden of heat is compensated for by a refreshing breeze coming from the river, inviting people to sit in the shade of the terraces and enjoy their view of the river. I would recommend going in the late afternoon though when most of the crowd has gone. Wandering in the narrow streets full of souvenir shops and cafes will get more agreeable then, although July and August are always busy months.
If you want the magical atmosphere of Southern Bosnia with the Neretva and an old stone bridge, but without the crowd, consider Konjic, mid-way between Sarajevo and Mostar.
Many terraces give a great view of Stari Most, the Old Bridge, a token of the Ottoman past of the region and a symbol of the scars the city still harbours from the 1990s’ war. The bridge was built in the 16th century and joined the two sides of the city until November 1993, when the Croats forces fighting against Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) blew it up. The edifice was reconstructed in 2004.
Now, it is the busiest part of the city and I get tired just by watching all of the people trying to make their way from one side to the other. However, you can easily hide from this crowd by finding a seat on one of the little terraces sheltered by a roof of green vine. Another great spot is just under the bridge, on the beach, where you can cheer and shiver for the young guys jumping from the 20-meter-high bridge into the coldest river of Europe. This is one of the most spectacular views of the Balkans.
Jumping is an old tradition among the young inhabitants of the city. As the story goes, every 16-year-old boy has to jump if he wants to become a man and earn respect. Nowadays, it also attracts a lot of tourists and the Mostar diving club, providing a fee, can train you to jump. If you are successful, you earn the right to jump for free for the rest of your life.
The old city is small but has a lot to offer. City maps in the street will indicate all of the monuments and there is more to see if you have the time to wander off the stone-paved streets, like if you decide to climb the hills to take in the view of the whole city. The city’s wines and food are delicious thanks to Herzegovina’s vineyards and fish you can only catch in the local rivers (do not miss the bunska pastrmka, which can only be found in the rivers Neretva and Buna).
Another attraction of the region is the Tekija, the dervish monastery located in the city of Blagaj. This little-hidden gem is a 15-minute drive away from Mostar with the city bus. The monastery was founded in the 16th century by the Bektashi order, a branch of Sufism known for the sama, a ceremony in which dervishes whirl as they go into a trance. I took this picture the first time I came, in winter.
My friend Ruba, whose family’s ancestral roots are in Blagaj, loves the place for its spirituality, but not because of the monastery (that you can visit), instead, she sees that spirituality in the place’s closeness with nature. The buildings are tucked into the mountain and you can use a boat to enter the cave from where the river Buna originate.
I was mesmerized by the pristine waters and their turquoise colour turning mirror-like in the shade and running fast under the mountain. The river is an affluent of the Neretva and is even colder. Nobody knows exactly how it starts in this karstic cave, called Vrelo Bune (Buna spring). This secret adds another layer of mystery to this place and I wish I had more time to stay by the water, drinking traditional coffee and reading some old Bosnian tales.
The Buna weaves through the hills of Blagaj. Local youth spend their summer days on the riverbank in each other’s gardens or at the “lazy bar”, a place hidden away from the road, down the hill, where they can drink coffee, elderberry juice and beer, listen to music and cool off by dipping your feet in the icy river. People who enjoy canoeing (an activity now on my “to-do-absolutely” list) cannot miss the place!
Ruba, who was born in Sarajevo but whose family owns a house in Blagaj, feels more like home next to the peaceful waters than in the capital city. Here, she enjoys the profusion of high-quality fruits and vegetables grown in her neighbours’ garden, the purity of the air and a slower life. Watching the river running, passing mills, gardens and vineyards before joining with the powerful Neretva, I can say I understand her. Lucky you, her house with a gigantic garden on the river bank is now available for renting on AirBnb!
When the sun starts to go down and the horizon adopts an orange tint, we all go back to Ruba’s garden to grill some bunska pastrmka accompanied by tomato and potato salad with a lot of garlic and onion – the perfect local meal for these summer days. Sitting on the grass and eating watermelon which tastes like “ice cream from a tree,” as Ruba says, I feel like this day couldn’t have been any better.