Saturday, January 20, 2018

In Mostar, a bridge spans war and peace

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.

Overtourism and safety cited in Fodor’s where-not-to-go list

Overtourism and safety cited in Fodor’s where-not-to-go list

As you contemplate all those "where to go in 2018" lists, here’s a twist: a list of places to avoid in the new year. The where not to go list is from Fodor’s, the travel guidebook publisher. Fodor’s "no list" includes places plagued by overtourism an...
Published: 01/18/18
Airbnb Experiences a cool option for solo travelers

Airbnb Experiences a cool option for solo travelers

BARCELONA - I slipped into the back kitchen of a Portuguese bakery, late and alone for my class on making paella. Pairs from Australia, Toronto and Manchester had beaten me to the wine and small talk. Outside of their circle, I fumbled for talking p...
Published: 01/11/18
Disney theme park deal for Florida residents returns, but the price climbs

Disney theme park deal for Florida residents returns, but the price climbs

January once again brings a Florida resident ticket deal from Walt Disney World, though the price continues to climb. Florida residents can get three days at a Walt Disney World theme park for $159 per person, and add a fourth day for $20 more per pe...
Published: 01/05/18
Remote, luxurious Primland offers mountainous retreat year-round

Remote, luxurious Primland offers mountainous retreat year-round

MEADOWS OF DAN, Va. We kept checking the directions. Had we taken a wrong turn?We were driving to sprawling Primland in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and the roads were getting progressively smaller and more rural. In a remote residential area, we...
Published: 01/03/18
Updated: 01/08/18
Disney’s Toy Story Land looms large in 2018 US theme park news

Disney’s Toy Story Land looms large in 2018 US theme park news

If you’re planning ahead to spring and summer trips, and your family loves theme parks, you’ll want to know about some of the new rides and attractions debuting in the new year. DISNEY’S TOY STORY LAND One of the most anticipated openings for 2018 is...
Updated one month ago