“Are you 1,000 percent certain I’m not about to die?” I asked, eyeing my taxi driver with suspicion.
“One million percent,” Zoran confirmed, nodding.
We had just driven 30 minutes from the Bosnian town of Mostar to Kravica Waterfalls, one of Europe’s most stunning natural sights. Zoran was insisting that I take a dip in the falls, even though the water is frigid almost all year-round. I was worried about the temperature. But I was even more worried about the snakes.
“No problem with the snakes,” Zoran said. “They swim, you swim. No problem.”
Details: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
I imagined my fiance’s voice in my head: “Don’t swim with snakes, Jilly,” he cautioned. (He’s always saying things like that.) But David wasn’t there. Zoran was. And Zoran was “1 million percent” certain that the terrifying snakes he said were in the waterfalls were in fact totally harmless.
The moment perfectly encapsulated Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that defies every expectation. I’d come to Bosnia to write about its burgeoning travel industry from a millennial perspective — that is, as someone who was too young in the mid-1990s to remember the war. Untainted by any memories of conflict, I thought that I could see Bosnia as a blank slate.
But Bosnia is no one’s blank slate. The war may have ended 17 years ago, but it’s still everywhere: in the bombed-out shells of buildings, in bullet-riddled walls and in the seemingly endless cemeteries. At the same time, those war remnants are mixed with equally endless moments of perfect beauty: sky-scraping mountains, charming villages and gorgeous multiethnic architecture.
Within minutes of leaving the Sarajevo airport, I realized that I needed a new plan. Bosnia demanded it.
During the bus ride to Mostar, a small medieval town in northern Herzegovina, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the scenery outside my window. In the United States, the dramatic green peaks would be a national park. In Bosnia, they felt like a fairy tale thrust into brutal reality. Small, colorful homes clustered at the base of green mountains, and as dusk approached, an ethereal layer of fog gathered to mask the bullet holes that pockmark most of the houses. It was haunting and magnificent.
Nighttime bus rides in foreign countries are good times for introspection, and I started to hate myself just a bit for how little I knew about what had happened to the Balkans. I briefly studied the conflict in high school, of course, but who can really understand it? Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats, Bosnia’s three ethnic groups, were all Yugoslavs — until suddenly they weren’t. They coexisted peacefully, even happily — until suddenly they didn’t.
“Can you explain it to me?” I asked Suzana, the woman sitting next to me on the bus. “I don’t understand.”
She shook her head sadly. “We don’t understand it, either,” she said. I’d hear the same sentiment a dozen times during my trip.
The country’s contemporary geographic and political landscape is no less confusing. Bosnia and Herzegovina? What exactly is Herzegovina? (It’s a historical triangle in the southern half of the country.) The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska? What? (They’re the country’s two political sub-regions; the 51 percent section of Bosniaks and Croats elects two presidents, while the 49 percent section of Serbs elects one president.)
“Wait,” I said. “Three presidents? At the same time?”
“And a fourth one from Europe,” added Suzana.
It’s enough to drive a girl to Wikipedia.
The bus pulled into Mostar at night, when the city is at its most peaceful. Lit only by streetlights, Mostar’s Old Town is charming and pristine — eerily pristine, in fact, given how utterly demolished it had been during the war. Mostar endured more bombings than any other Bosnian city, and its scars show. The city’s Red Cross building is still speckled with bullet holes, and just a few blocks past the borders of Old Town, there are cemeteries. The death dates on the gravestones are devastatingly consistent: 1993. 1993. 1993. 1993.
It was, to say the least, a very bad year. For nine months in 1993, Mostar was under siege, and its people were entirely cut off from electricity and access to food. It was the year that those cemeteries filled, and then overfilled, with young men. It was also the year that Stari Most, the elegant bridge that had connected the city over the Neretva River for 427 years, was destroyed.
Today, the reconstructed Stari Most is Mostar’s (and arguably Bosnia and Herzegovina’s) most famous sight. Multiethnic restaurants serving delicious food jostle for space along the riverbank to offer their customers views of the bridge, which lures day-trippers and cruise-shippers from as far away as Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia. But at night, the bridge is often alone. When I first walked up to it, there were only two people standing at its apex: lovers kissing under an umbrella. I felt transported to a postcard of Paris in the 1920s.
A small hand-carved stone at the base of the bridge admonished me: “Don’t Forget ’93.”
It’s hard to say what makes Stari Most so compelling. After all, it’s just a bridge (and not a particularly elaborate one, at that). Its elegant lines are said to be perhaps the best example of Islamic architecture in the region, but I don’t know anything about architecture. The bridge touched me in a visceral, not an intellectual, way.
From the right angle, it frames the colorful buildings and mosques that tumble down the cliffs of Old Town as the Neretva River rushes underneath it. Each summer, locals (and the occasional brave tourist) leap from Stari Most and fall 72 feet into the water below. The dive is very risky; they say that at least five people have died attempting it.
Stari Most, like the city itself, has a history as deadly as it is beautiful.
Mostar is made for walking, so when the early morning call to prayer (and a dash of jet lag) woke me before the sun, I wandered the city’s cobblestone streets and alleyways until I found an open bakery. To my delight, a fresh coil of hot burek had come out of the oven only minutes earlier.
Burek (BOO-rek), a crisp pastry filled with ground meat, cheese, potato, or even pumpkin, is Bosnia’s iconic and most beloved dish. I have a special affection for stuffed foods, and burek might be the genre’s ideal incarnation. It’s rich and flavorful and manages to be crisp, chewy and soft all at once. Although burek first appeared in Turkey, Bosnia has so wholeheartedly embraced the savory snack that in 2012, Lonely Planet included Bosnian burek in its book “The World’s Best Street Food.”
I ordered a few slices of the tangy cheese version (called sirnica) and settled into a seat by the river with a pot of sludge-thick Bosnian coffee. Coffee culture is the social backbone of life in the Balkans. It’s really impossible to overstate its importance. In the years after the war, coffee was even a central force for peace in a national billboard campaign that showed steaming cups of java with the words, “Tolerance. Let’s have a coffee.”
Coffee culture is as fundamental in my life as it is in Bosnia. David starts his mornings with at least four shots of pitch-black espresso, and over the years, his ritual has rubbed off on me. So I thought that I was ready for Bosnian coffee.
I was wrong. Bosnia’s brew makes David’s espresso seem downright watery by comparison. It’s thick and rich but manages to taste almost sweet even without sugar. Paired with the hot, tangy farmer’s cheese inside my burek, that breakfast was decadent and almost transcendent in its simplicity.
As sunrise washed the city in golden light, I walked to the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, a blue-domed beauty in Old Town. Inside, the mosque offers a fascinating look at Mostar’s Ottoman heritage, but the real attraction is the 360-degree view of the Neretva Valley from atop the mosque’s riverside minaret. From that lofty angle, I could have been gazing down at Mostar in the 1500s.
There are plenty of other sights around town — religious buildings, historic houses and the Herzegovina Museum, which shows video footage of the moment Stari Most was destroyed — but they all pale in comparison to the city of Mostar itself.
“Why Bosnia?” David had asked me weeks earlier. I’d stumbled over the question at the time, but from that early-morning perch in the minaret, the answer was perfectly clear. Mostar isn’t just a beautiful city. It’s a seemingly timeless slice of Europe’s multicultural past — an imprint of some of the most influential empires the world has ever seen. Like Prague or Bruges, Mostar itself is the star.
But unlike in Prague or Bruges, I usually felt as if I had Mostar all to myself.
I met Zoran at the taxi stand near the bus station and agreed to pay him 40 euros (about $52) to drive me to Kravica Waterfalls for a few hours. As we drove, I gingerly asked whether he was Bosniak, Croat or Serb.
“I’m Yugoslav,” he replied. “I liked whoever was not shooting at me.”
With that, we turned onto the road that leads down to the falls. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s natural landscapes are some of the best on the continent, and Kravica would be a highlight in any country. The falls are more than 328 feet across and tumble 82 feet down into a gorgeous and inviting (if chilly and, according to Zoran, apparently snake-infested) pool.
During the summer months, the area fills with tourists snapping photos, eating grilled fish and taking their chances with those swimming snakes. But on the unseasonably frigid fall day when Zoran and I stopped by, we were alone. The solitude made the falls feel almost mythical in their beauty.
Zoran and I had been chatting about contemporary Bosnian politics during the ride, and as we pulled up to the falls, he concluded with his final thoughts about unemployment.
“There is no factory,” he said. “No jobs for the young men.”
Trying to be optimistic, I pointed out that Bosnia’s tourism industry is growing, and that tourists create jobs.
“Yes,” he said, looking unmoved. “When they come.”
I was afraid of the cold, and I was afraid of the snakes. But the beautiful cluster of falls inspired my courage, and I finally stripped down to the swimming suit under my clothes and jumped into the water. Just before the excruciating cold numbed my ability to feel anything at all, I felt a momentary thrill.
And I didn’t see any snakes anywhere.
Keenan is a freelance writer in New York.