Looking for a fantastic Mostar day trip? This tour that weaves between the turquoise springs of Blagaj, timeless streets of Pocitelj and icy cascades of Kravice Waterfalls with a few surprises along the way and makes for a brilliant day out around Mostar.
As goats wander along the nearby roadside, focussed only on the munching of purple flowers and dandelions, our guide Žika tells us stories of the war that raged in the peaceful town below just a few short years ago.
The picture he paints of the frontline, where overnight a town became divided by religion and country, is at odds with the pleasant and eclectic Mostar we have spent the past few days exploring.
We have witnessed divers throwing themselves off the famous arched bridge to hearty applause from the onlooking crowds, streets vendors chattering enthusiastically between rows of colourful leather bags and handcrafted jewellery and ladies beaming brightly and offering up ice cream to ward off the sweltering summer heat.
Oozing with charm, Mostar is an easy place to love. In fact many visitors cross the border from Dubrovnik for the chance to spend just a few hours exploring her bustling streets. But as the stories unfold, it is clear that there is much more to this place than just its beautiful facade.
The scars of the war are obvious to anyone on a stroll around the city.
Crumbling ruins propped up by steel frames scatter the main road through town, a constant reminder of the city’s bloody past. The former Bank of Yugoslavia, which became the sniper tower on the frontline, stands abandoned and littered with graffiti and smashed glass.
Other areas are rebuilt though, with modern buildings and pristine shopping malls rising between the skeletons of pre-war rock and rubble.
We look down over the jigsaw of red rooftops, divided by the turquoise thread that winds through its centre. The city that was largely destroyed in the war – it was the most heavily bombed city in Bosnia – may be largely restored, but scars still remain in the collective minds of the town’s people who now live alongside those that were once considered the enemy.
Unlike Sarajevo where religions live side-by-side in relative harmony, Mostar is still largely segregated. As a tourist it is easy to miss, but as Žika explains, religious tensions run high on either side of the river. Aside from one school, which is still regarded as somewhat of a social experiment of the younger generations in the area, schools are generally fully segregated by religion.
Many adult generations fought on opposing sides of the frontline, but when the war was over they never left. They settled alongside each other and, twenty years on, that animosity still brews beneath the surface.
Žika tells us that during the war he was shot in the leg and he lives with the knowledge that the shooter likely still lives in the streets of the town he calls home. A truly chilling thought.
We zigzag through the countryside deep in contemplation, past the airport and fruiting vineyards, toward our next stop – an old military bunker, dug into the hillside and still painted in camouflage. During wartime this secret hanger concealed fighter jets beneath the hills, ready to be deployed at any time.
The inside is strewn with rubble, garbage and broken glass; the gypsies are known to make this their temporary home on.
Žika leads us through the curve of the underground tunnel. Our torchlight becoming feebler as we progress into the chasm of darkness, our footsteps reverberating off the walls with every step.
Our group gathers together and is instructed to turn off our lights. In the depths of the tunnel we stand in complete blackness.
“And now”, says Žika, “I want you all to yell.”
Our calls continue well after we fall silent, seeking out every hidden corner before bouncing right back to us in waves and eerie giggles.
What it would have been to live down here for months in a perpetual state of darkness is unfathomable. Further along we pass through the toilet cubicles, reduced to a pile of white ceramic shards, to the escape passage where single ropes of rusty metal form footholds that lead a safe passage through the ceiling and above ground.
Blagaj, the next stop of the tour, is a tiny town in the countryside; a tangle of pomegranate and fig trees alongside the icy Buna River.
While it boasts just a handful of restaurants and a few sparse houses, Blagaj sees a healthy number of tourists. Drawn in by hilltop ruins, the bluest waters gushing from the cave and the white walls of the Dervish Monastery on its bank, this tiny village is one of Bosnia’s iconic attractions.
Legend says that if you drink the water from the spring you will one day return to it. Considering we actually visited this town twice during our stay in Mostar and drank the water on both occasions, it may just be true.
Our next stop brings us to the medieval city of Počitelj. Once a strategic stronghold between the Ottoman and Venetian frontiers, the village is now restored to its former glory.
During the numerous battles this place has seen, many of its people were displaced and the village stands largely abandoned.
The streets still lived in have carved wooden doors and manicured gardens with flowers that dance in the wind. Just a few bends further through the labyrinthe though, we find a tangle of weeds and a stray snake darts out in front of us, disturbed in these rarely walked streets.
Žika is correct in saying it feels like walking through a life-sized museum.
From the top of the hill we navigate the narrow stone pathways, between flowers and pomegranate trees, to the hilltop fortress. The sweeping views through the valley, carved by the impossibly blue Neretva River, are beautiful and the breeze a welcome respite from the stifling heat.
A narrow staircase leads us to the top of the watchtower, between arched windows and cubes of lights that dance in the midday sun.
This is one of the hottest regions in all of Europe and on a day like today, we can definitely feel why. Friendly vendors selling dried fruit and best of all, ice cold drinks, meet us at the final bend. Finally, a chance to refresh.
Similar to Plitvice in Croatia, which was once a hidden local secret and now has a conga line of tourists crowding the narrow boardwalks, Kravice is transitioning into a popular swimming hole.
But today, we are lucky to be joined by just a handful of others.
Following weeks of heavy rainfall the water has swelled to nearly two metres above the normal level and many of the cascades are too dangerous to reach.
The turquoise pool is bone-chillingly cold and it takes a great deal of coaxing for us to swim the short distance to the other side. We clamber over mossy rocks, explore the little nooks behind the waterfalls and paddle through the clear water until our muscles begin to tingle with cold and our fingers and toes go numb.
With the afternoon sun still beating down, the remaining hours of the tour are spent in a state of bliss, basking in the sun until the feeling returns to our feet and the brain freeze subsides.
Back in Mostar, we clamber out of the car a little dazed from the heat, with the stories of the day still fresh in our minds. But, there is one last surprise in store.
That abandoned Yugoslavian Bank, the one that had been used as the sniper tower on the frontline – we are going to the top of it.
The lobby, once a shining example of authority and soviet-style order is now littered with bottles and trash; a hollow silence ripples through the emptiness.
The stairwell, now with no walls, is just a freestanding zig-zag that takes us the nine storeys to the roof. With no protection on either side this is an exercise in keeping as close to the centre as possible.
A ladder takes us the final steps to the roof.
The surrounding walls are lacerated with bullet holes, casings scatter the floor and plants sprout through the foundations, attempting to find a source of light.
From this vantage point, hundreds of lives were taken; the road at its entrance a clear divide between us and them. A barrier that still exists today, although it is fading slowly.
The one ray of light in this building is that it houses some of the most impressive street art in the city. Some slogans of anger and hatred, others beautiful portraits and pieces of colour.
After a day filled with beautiful villages and harrowing tales, it is refreshing to look over a city that has taken great strides to pick to the pieces and it is here, between the remnants of a war still fresh in the minds of many and the optimism of a city on the mend, that our tour comes to an end.
For most visitors to Mostar, while exploring the lovely cobbled streets of the old town, gazing at the enchanting Stari Most and meeting the warmest of locals, it’s easy to miss the turmoil beneath. But by looking a little deeper its possible to gain a greater insight into its people and realise that this is a city still on the mend.
For us it was the unexpected detours – trudging through the darkness of a secret wartime bunker and stumbling between shards of glass in the sniper tower – that really struck a chord.
It was standing in places ravaged by war that to this day remain untouched and the stories from our guide of life in a city divided. Not to mention the brightly coloured school laying the path for an optimistic future, testing the waters by removing the segregation that exists at almost every other.
These were the moments that became the memorable highlights of a brilliant trip around Mostar and the Herzegovina region.
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I did this tour with Hostel Nina (and paid for it in full) and would highly recommend it to anyone looking to get a deeper insight into the history of Mostar and its beautiful surrounding areas.
The Herzegovina tour officially stops at Blagaj, Počitelj and Kravice Waterfalls, as well as the other ‘surprise’ locations mentioned in this article. The cost for the full day, including breakfast (even for non-guests) and transport was €30. There is a break for lunch at Kravice Waterfalls, though this can end up being quite late in the day so it is a good idea to bring a few snacks. And don’t forget to bring plenty of water and your passport!
For more information about the tours, contact Hostel Nina here:
Not staying in Mostar or looking to avoid the hostel crowd? A number of other similar tours depart from Dubrovnik, Split and Mostar and focus on the old town with one or more stops in the countryside, depending on the tour.
Hostel Nina | While I didn’t actually stay here, this friendly family-run hostel came highly recommended to by other travellers. It’s a short walk away from the old town and one of the best-rated hostels in Mostar. Check rates and reviews here.
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