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Where do I start?

A town I had only recently visited in my dreams. I grew up here, my entire childhood was spent in this little village. I haven’t stepped foot in this place for 12 years.

Driving along the hillsides and coming out of a tunnel to be greeted with a familiar view of a staggered skyline of apartments, a wall of surrounding mountains, streets covered in graffiti, the warmth of the sun reflecting of the stone. I swear the sun is a different sun here. We pulled up to a very familiar house and the first thing I recognised was the fig tree at the top of the stairs, the entrance to my grandfather’s beautiful garden.

As we entered the house, the layout of my grandparents place was immediately recognisable. The overwhelming moment was happily interrupted by hugs and yelling (that’s how us Yugo’s communicate, if you didn’t know).

I’m a big family person and seeing my entire family again was such a joyous moment. I hadn’t seen my grandparents for a few years, since they visited us in Australia, but it was almost different seeing them in Mostar. They were in their home, they were comfortable and happy to have a full house of loved ones. We all know how accommodating baba’s (grandma’s*) love to be whenever they get the chance. Alongside my wonderful grandparents we were also finally reunited with my parents and sister who I hadn’t seen in three weeks – trust me, this is a big deal for an adult who still speaks to her mum every single day. 

With a houseful of people (seriously, there was about 13 of us), a tummy full of food and ears full of yelling, we set off for my other baba’s place – my mum’s mum.

Oh my. Another kick in the nostalgia-gut. You see, my other grandparent’s house that we stopped by first wasn’t as prominent to me as this one, only because I hadn’t lived there since birth. The house I remember them living in was damaged during the war over 20 years ago, alongside many of the homes in Mostar. My baba’s house though, on the other side of the river, was one I distinctly remember since my earliest memory. Hugging my baba upon entry and unloading our bags of our backs, the first thing I did was run up to her sticker-covered TV. Stickers collected by me when I was a kid, from those old-school chewing gum packets. It was all still there, looking like it belonged in a 90’s sitcom.

A day full of emotions was finally settling down and my parents decided that we should visit the Stari Most (Old Bridge). I’ve been looking forward to showing Jamie this place for such a long time. I can’t explain my yearning to be back here, walking amongst the old town, amongst the cobbled streets with stalls, leading up to the Stari Most in the center of it all. Once again, why do I remember these streets more than the houses surrounding it? I could almost remember their patterns. We stopped along the way a few times to take some photos with the Stari Most in the background and wandered the old town slowly until we reached the bridge.

Now here’s something no one aside from a local (maybe) will tell you; there’s a very specific way to cross the bridge. You see, it’s made of slippery stones. The bridge we see today has actually been rebuilt. The original bridge was devastatingly knocked down during the war, in 1993. After the war was over, plans to rebuild the bridge were set in motion. What I find absolutely remarkable is that they found all the remaining rubble of the old bridge in the river, and used the recovered stones from the original bridge to create the foundation of the new Stari Most. It was reopened again in 2004. The type of stone used for the bridge, however, makes it rather slippery to walk over. Tourists are not aware of this at all and it is unbelievably hilarious to stand on the end and watch them struggle to simply walk over – before helping them, of course.

Now, the bridge is actually made with these horizontal grooves which are conveniently spaced a whole step apart. Coincidence? Of course not! As you walk over, you’re meant to step with half of your foot on the grooves and use it as a sturdy base. I would not recommend wearing sandals or shoes with no grip. You’ll be kneeled over crying from laughter at the simple task of trying to cross a bridge.

After we crossed the bridge and took some photos by the Neretva river, we stopped by one of the many street stalls to get a $1 ice cream (two scoops, and all). I should mention that it was a hot summers night and ice cream was always the best choice for all your meals.

The next day we did a little bit of shopping before heading back to my grandparents house for lunch. On the way we stopped by the nearest bakery to satisfy my 12 year craving of salted pretzels. Sounds like nothing special, right? Wrong! My god, this savoury pastry is food from the carbohydrate heavens. If you’re ever in Mostar, find a bakery and demand salted pretzels! We spent the night on the balcony eating ćevapi, homemade cherry pita (baba’s is the best, no arguments) and salted pretzels. It’s a wonder I didn’t leave the town 50kg heavier.

My grandparent’s apartment had been renovated since the war, but the top half of the building displays a very different story. When you sit on the balcony, tilting your head up to view the top ⅓ of the building, it’s riddled with holes from gun fire. Having lived here, the view of the bullet-ridden walls didn’t seem too unusual to me, but it immediately became apparent in it’s disturbingness when Jamie pointed it out and was genuinely stumped for words.

We decided to spend the following day travelling down to Blagaj. It’s a peaceful little village-town, with restaurants and cafes lined up by the river, with breathtaking views of the enclosing cliffs and river springs. Blagaj isn’t a big place at all but I will always tell people to go visit it if they’re nearby. We visited the Dervish Monastery, a beautiful white building, on the edge of the town, near the cliff-face. It’s a very unique experience going through the ouse. We went down to the balcony which hangs over the river, right near the cave. After pretending to be tourists, and as it was a hot day, we decided to sit down at one of the cafes which had the river flowing on either side of the seats.

After exploring Blagaj we headed home to get changed and walk around the city again. Most of our days were spent eating pizza, ice cream and drinking cheap wonderful beer. Tonight was no exception.

The next day, Jamie’s sunburn caught up to him. Remember the second degree burns I mentioned, from Kamengrad? This was the day that they really hit him hard. He was feeling exhausted and the weather wasn’t easing up on us. So naturally my family decided to visit the one and only pool in the town. Poor Jamie was left at home to heal as the 40 degree sun wasn’t going to be doing him any favours. My family and I however spent the majority of the day by the pool, swimming, showing off their diving skills and pushing each other in the pool (there’s a good little video snippet of this in our Europe video).

I think my skin was conditioned for the European sun, it tans within minutes in Europe. In Australia it just bounces the sun off, really. By the afternoon we were feeling refreshed and went for a bit of a walk around again. I think this is my favourite way to travel – to just slowly walk around and see all there is to see. We went into a few stalls and I bought myself this beautiful handbag which I initially fell in love with, but when mum said she used to have a very similar one I just had to buy it.

Feeling hungry, we found this beautiful restaurant nearby the bridge, almost hidden with staircases and little alleys. As you enter you’re greeted with a fantastic view of the Stari Most, right next to you. I think I spent more time glaring at the town and bridge than drinking and socialising.

Recently, a surprising number of friends have visited this town for a day trip. I can’t explain how weird it is to me that others visit this place. When we moved over here people had barely heard of Bosnia or (Ex)Yugoslavia and now people are travelling to see a tiny town from this country. However if you are thinking of going, can I ask you to please stay for a full day or two? I know it’s a small place with little to do, but the night turns this place into a new town and you need to experience both day and night. It’s almost magical to be around at night. The streets are packed with people, the cafes are bursting with friends, sitting down for a coffee or drink, talking about their days. It’s a wonderful place and it is truly underrated. But I digress.

At this point we have spent a large amount of time exploring the town and surrounding areas so the next day we decided to visit a place out of town to buy my grandma an air conditioner, of all things. Nothing fun, just a productive day because we have been spending about 2 hours a night sleeping and about 6 hours of it agitated from the heat and humidity. On the way home, however, it was way too hot and dad decided it was a great time to stop for a drink at a cafe… at Kravice Falls.

I wish I knew we were going to do this so I could’ve brought my camera with me to take some better photos because it was genuinely the most serene, beautifully unexpected place. The water was a bright teal colour and in the distance sprays of water from the falls created a dreamy, foggy scenery. Groups of people were swimming in the water, diving from the cliffs and I swear somewhere in the distance there could have been birds singing.

We sat down for a drink but still unable to cool down Jamie and I decided that clothes weren’t going to stop us from taking a dive in the wonderful blue water. Now, you should know I am a terrible swimmer. I can probably swim at a beginners level, but if I have to float: good luck to me! I can’t stop swimming and just float because I will most probably panic and go under. This is probably what hinders my ability to actually swim properly. I wasn’t going to let that stop me of course. We swam up to the falls and watched people bravely dive off cliffs. It was, without a doubt, the most serene experience of my life, being amongst the falls.

That afternoon, after returning home, we went and visited family and walked them around the town, and ended up another restaurant with magnificent views. I really can’t get enough of this place, it’s breathtaking. We did end up finding a statue of the donkey I took photos of 12 years beforehand with my grandfather, who’s passed away, so in his memory I re-created the photos we took.

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The following day we had plans to cool down properly. My family had been wanting to visit this public pool just outside Mostar, and after five days of 40+ degrees it was a good time to go. When I say the pool was in the middle of nowhere, I mean there was nothing else surrounding it. Do you know one of those first scenes in Breaking Bad, where they are in the van in the middle of a desert with miles of sand and rock around them and nothing else? It was like that, except instead of a meth lab/van, it was a fantastic public pool. I lost track of time by the end of it, we spent hours and hours swimming. It was absolutely marvellous, though the weather did catch up to us. It must’ve known we were enjoying ourselves too much and a storm started looming in, kicking us out of the pool.

The next day it was heavily raining and Jamie was so excited to get a bit of relief from the weather (I daresay his English skin was not built for anything above 20 degrees). I tried to pre-warn him that the rain was going to actually make it worse but he didn’t believe me. Mostar sits in a valley so all the heat from the last 5 days was lifted up by the rain and rested in all the apartments, so the humidity just got worse and worse and it felt hotter and hotter. Sorry Jamie, I did warn you!

We spent the last few days in Mostar with family. We had a beautiful dinner with my family and grandparents near the river, we visited my wonderful grandfathers grave and left him some flowers, we spent another night walking the bridge again. Our curiosity did take us into the one of the towers of the Stari Most (together dubbed the “Bridge Keepers”). We walked into the Halebija tower which once held a prison and was also a look out for the bridge keepers. It now houses an honest, historical gallery of Mostar.

The day before we were set to leave Mostar, the 449th annual diving competition was scheduled. We’d planned the start our trip to fall in place with this event so we were all excited to see the divers in action.

The diving competition has been an annual tradition for nearly 500 years in the town of Mostar, where young men would dive off the Stari Most into the freezing Neretva River below. It is considered a rite of passage for young men and isn’t for the faint of heart. Firstly, the Neretva River down below is considered to be the coldest river in the world. Due to this, divers need to fill bottles with the water from the river and pour it over themselves before they dive, to control their body temperature and heart rate, as opposed to causing a temperature shock to their bodies upon entering the water. On top of the freezing cold river waiting for them below, the dive is a lengthy one. The bridge is 24 metres high. It is a sight to see in itself but I would highly recommend watching a diver if you’re around. Even if you’re not there for the diving competition, regular divers usually hang around the bridge and if you’re happy to pay them a pretty penny they’ll happily dive in for you. I genuinely wouldn’t recommend doing it yourself as you have to be an exceptionally great and controlled diver to attempt it. If the wind is too strong, due to the height of the bridge and the narrowness of the river, the wind can blow you into the rocks below. As you can see, diving off the bridge is a rather serious and intense activity here. So naturally, there’s a competition for it.

On the day of the competition we lined up on the rocks near the river alongside hundreds of other tourists. It was strange to see so many people in this tiny, unknown town. Watching diver after diver come up to the bridge and step over the rails as they psychologically prepare for the dive. It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life so far and I was solid on the ground. I could feel their nerves and sometimes their fear from hundreds of metres away. Watching them through my camera I could see their facial expressions too as they took three, five, ten deep breaths. The most endearing part of it all were the divers that decided they couldn’t jump. They would put their arm up and climb back over the rails. Many looked disappointed in themselves but the crowd always cheered for them, just as hard as they did for the divers that took the leap. To have the nerve to even climb over that rail, let alone dive 24 metres into a freezing cold river, takes an enormous amount of courage.

After a few hours of stressing out whilst watching each diver, alongside some well deserved “ooh”s and “aah”s, it was time for a break and we headed to a nearby café for some more beer (seriously, $1 beer was a highlight). By night time we headed back to our original spot, the closing ceremony was starting. Divers lined up along the bridge with torches of fire to create a beautiful light show, loud music blared as a few divers took two torches in their hands and dived off the bridge. In the darkness all you could see was the fire falling with the divers and then the light of the fire travelling down the river.

It was truly a great ending to a week-long stay in one of my most beloved towns. We went home to rest before another set of goodbye’s and a long journey ahead to Dubrovnik the next day.

 

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