Daily Wanderlust: Exploring ghosts of war in Bosnia and Hercegovina

The stunning country of Bosnia and Hercegovina is one of my favorite places in the world. Here, a tragic past collides with a beautiful present. In Sarajevo, the scars of war are fresh. Any walking tour will clearly point to the roses which stand to remind people of the tragic deaths that took place during our lifetime.

It is the same in Mostar, if not worse. The city, which is the focal point of the Hercegovina region of the country, is intersected by the Neretva River. Beyond the beauty of the bluegreen water lies constant reminders of the battles fought in this charming town during an 18-month siege. Buildings stand like skeletons, pockmarked and shattered.

Then, just outside of the old city is a bank. Or what used to be a bank. Today, all that is left of the massive structure are the ghosts of war. A walk inside the shell of the walls gives visitors a heartbreaking look at a Serbian sniper’s point-of-view. Shattered glass, bullet casings and remnants of office life lay intermingled on the dirty, cement floor. Walls are gone. Windows are gone. Elevator doors are gone. Now home to squatters at night and tourists by day, visiting the old bank serves as a reminder of the country’s recent history and its path to independence and life.

The remnants of war haunt an old bank in Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Destinations

Daily Wanderlust: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

I spent about two weeks in Bosnia and Hercegovina and loved every moment.

When I wasn’t hanging out in Sarajevo, or exploring the remnants of war and a sniper’s point of view from an old bank, I was touring the gorgeous outlying region of Mostar, including a gorgeous visit to waterfalls.

After my para-falling incident, I opted not to do any jumps from cliffs or rocks or anything, but loved watching everyone else take running leaps into the refreshing water below.

Destinations

Touring the Mostar region

“Hi D!” Katie typed into Facebook chat as I sat at Madja’s Friday night. “I’m coming to Mostar tomorrow!”

Sweet!

“Cool, I will be on the tour all day — its 14 hours — so I won’t be back until late, but I will see you Sunday,” I responded.

We chatted a little longer and reviewed our upcoming travel plans.

“Do you want to go to Brela with me?” She asked, sending me a link to information on the Croatian beach town.

Long stretches of beaches. Gorgeous views of the islands across the clear water. Forests lining the coast. Ahhhh.

It looked lush.

“YES!!”

She immediately booked us in for two nights.

Later in the evening, David and I were talking and I told him about my plans with Katie.

“That sounds awesome,” he said.

“Do you want to come with us?”

“If that’s alright!”

Of course it was. I adored David from the start. He was a bright, charming 22-year-old who I got on very well with. His company would be a great addition to Katie and me.

Saturday morning, Madja woke up David and I so we would be ontime for the tour.

“Get up,” she said, then offered us some delicious breakfast before we headed down to meet her brother and the group coming from her other hostel.

David and I, along with four others from our hostel, stood outside, waiting for our ride.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Bass thumped.

A white van pimped its way down the street, every few feet lurching on the breaks so the vehicle would dart forward and then rest.

What is this?

It pulled into the driveway where we were standing.

Our ride?

Madja looked at us, smiling. “This is my brother,” she said, gesturing to the driver of the van. “He’s your tour guide.”

Her brother was a whirlwind of energy and emotion.

“OK, OK, OK, everybody out,” he said as the van unloaded.

Ten people somehow emerged from the vehicle.

“Welcome, this is my tour,” he began and then launched into a talk about the tour, what we were doing, where we were going, how the hostels he and his sister owned came to be and more and more and more.

“See, this van fits eight. But, today, it fits 16,” he said, opening the back doors of the van for us to glimpse little cushioned seats, a huge sub-woofer and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. “Get in, get in.”

My group, along with an Irish guy, piled into the back seat of the van. The NON air-conditioned van. On possibly the hottest day in Mostar that summer.

For an hour, we would stop and start and stop and start as he pointed out items of significance in the city and again outside of the city.

Each time we stopped I thought I would pass out. Sweat poured out of all of us as heat stroke loomed precariously above.

Finally, we arrived to the waterfalls. A gorgeous pouring of water from the hills above Mostar. Within minutes, our entire group was in the cool clear water.

It felt incredible.

For 45 minutes we swam and sat in the refreshing runoff from the falls, relishing every moment and dreading getting back into the van.

After swimming, we walked for a bit around the falls, and then took a hike to a rope swing and a cliff to jump from.

Naturally, given my history with cliffs and jumping, I declined the invitation to plunge to the water below.

The tour continued with a trip to an ancient walled town that now had 12 people living in it. We walked along and then stopped for traditional Bosnian snacks at a woman’s home there, where she served up figs, grapes and watermelon from her garden, along with delicious syrup drinks (sage, pomegranate, mint and more).

After  nightfall, we headed to another small city that houses an old “monestary,” where Whirling Dervishes are held.

By 10 p.m. our group had begun to tire and by midnight when we finally arrived back to the hostel, I could hardly keep my eyes open.

I walked in to Madja’s, absolutely beat, to find Katie sitting on the couch, bottle of wine by her side.

“Hiya!” she said, smiling.

Instantly, I perked up.

We quickly made plans for the following day — we HAD to see someone jump from the Mostar Bridge — and then I retreated to my bed to pass out.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina Reviews

A sniper’s point of view

Aldina, a girl who worked at Madja’s Guest House, picked me up from Mostar’s bus station as the sun was setting.

“Over there,” she said, pointing out the car window to a towering building with all of it’s windows blown out, “that’s the bank. During the war, Serbian snipers would sit in there and shoot people below.”

Oh my god.

That the building was even still erect was fascinating. It stood like a skeleton with nothing but fragile bones holding the history of the war together.

“It isn’t locked,” she continued. “You can go in there and look around. Just don’t go at night.”

Immediately, my plan was to visit the former bank.

The next morning, I grudgingly put on a pair of socks (hate them) and laced up my knock-off Chucks in preparation for the bank exploration.

Aldina had warned that the floor was essentially carpeted with shards of glass, and I wasn’t taking the risk of having a piece of it planted in my foot, so shoes and socks it was.

As I got ready to go, a tall English guy walked into my room. David. We began chatting and he decided to come along with me to the bank.

There are plenty of entrances to the bank from the ground level. People can walk in the main door, surrounded by pillars that must have been grand 20 years ago but now stand looking like Roman ruins ready to crumble. Or, you can walk in through gaping holes in the side of the building, what used to be floor-to-ceiling majestic glass windows.

We walked through a gaping hole.

The tiling, gone. The carpet, gone. Any hint of character, wallpaper, paint, anything … it’s all gone.

The bank is a shell. Haunted by ghosts of snipers and former workers.

Glass from windows lie scattered everywhere. Pipes and wire dangle from the ceiling. Elevator shafts are missing the doors and elevators. Windows … well, there are none.

The second floor is the most remarkable of the nearly 10-floored skeleton.

On one end, remnants of what used to be offices are visible. Printer cartridges are piled on the floor. Some wooden frames from the walls remain. Desks and chairs are strewn about. And, an entire wing is covered, littered, with documents of all types — books, binders, envelopes containing mail.

Around windows lie spent bullets. Looking out is chilling.

This is the view the snipers had of the city. Of the people who were trying to live their lives without getting fired upon on a regular basis.

To one side if the front lines where buildings still look today as they looked during the war — bombed out, shells of what they had once been. That side contains the old city, the Muslim side. The other sides have clear shots of the Croatian side of the city, the homes, the schools, the parks.

It is eery. It is creepy.

It makes me sick.

After an hour walking through the past, we decided it was time to go and hit the cool waters of the river that cuts through the city of Mostar. Time to see the infamous bridge that was destroyed in 1993, but re-built and is now a major tourist attraction (people jump into the water from its arch).

The next day, David, me and 16 other people, headed on Madja’s famous tour of the region.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina Travel