MOSTAR, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The scars of war remain around every corner in this tranquil river valley town, though they can be easy to miss amid the sea of camera-carrying tourists.
The European waiter who says he hasn't been on a train in 25 years. The "I (heart) Mostar" mural trying, and failing, to cover up bullet holes on a concrete wall. The manicured hillside graveyard with the rows of white marble tombstones that nearly all read 1993.
Mostar's story, like the story of the three-year Bosnian war (1992-95), is complicated. What happened here and who's at fault are still being debated.
But it's no better told than through the town's arching stone bridge — the front line of the war, a symbol of literal division and destruction, that today serves as Mostar's life-center.
I went to Mostar knowing only the slightest of details of the story. The Bosnian war erupted in 1992 when Orthodox Serbs attacked Muslim Bosniaks following the post-Soviet disintegration of Yugoslavia. In Mostar (Moh-stahr), the Bosniaks and neighboring Christian Croats initially joined forces to repel the Serbs, only to eventually turn their guns on each other. By the end of the war, an estimated 100,000 people died across the country and several thousand here.
The river below the Old Bridge (Stari Most) served as an east-west dividing line between the Croats and Bosniaks for nearly two years. Soldiers would scamper across the stone bridge to enter the fight or carry supplies, while snipers nearby would try to pick them off.
Muslims stayed on the east bank, Croats on the west. Eventually, the 16th century Old Bridge was destroyed by Croat shelling.
Rebuilt with help from the West in 2004, the bridge today is a beacon of the new Bosnia and the town's main attraction.
In the summer months, local boys gather to jump from the 80-foot-tall bridge into the icy cold Neretva.
Locals tell the story that the bridge jumping is a rite of passage for boys in the town. It was originally a test to see if you were ready to fight for Mostar. Now, it's to prove you're a man.
On my visit, three young men took turns standing at the center of the impressive structure, while the others would pass a hat to collect donations in the crowd. One diver would rock and sway off the bridge like he was about to jump, then pause. Sway and bend, pause. The tease went on until either the crowd was sufficiently annoyed or — more likely — until the hats were sufficiently full of Bosnian marks and euros.
The plunge is feet first, followed by a frantic swim to the west bank of the shore before the current pushes the diver too far.
I watched from a small beach below the bridge, where stones from the original bridge remain.
Divers who complete the drop join an exclusive club that comes with access to the divers' rooms just on the west edge of the bridge. And anyone is allowed to take the plunge, so long as you sign a waiver.
The old town's small winding streets, yesterday's battlefield, are lined with shops selling equal amounts of traditional copper-plated coffee sets and relics from the war — patches, bullets, weapons. The restaurants offer traditional Bosnian dishes heavily influenced by their Turkish and Greek neighbors.
Wandering around the town, it's easy to get lost in the charm of it all, the balance of Islamic minarets and Christian spires and the elegance of the surrounding landscape. But this place holds more than other out-of-the-way idyllic excursions.
You just have to look for it.
Contact Aaron Sharockman at [email protected] Follow @asharock.