Bundled up in a battered VW Golf, a car model that has nostalgia attached for many Bosnians, I joined a group of two others and left the busy old town of Mostar with our driver and guide Miran. Our destination was what he nonchalantly described as a ‘rediscovered Yugoslav era secret’.
Fifteen minutes later, I was standing at the entrance of a huge tunnel, dug into a weed-infested hill, located just across the Mostar airport, staring into darkness! Behind me, the setting sun breathed its last and turned the evening sky into shades of pink.
The derelict structure lay abandoned with rubbish and empty bottles strewn at the entrance. For the next five minutes, there was complete stillness as we were soaking in the view that unfolded in front of our eyes. A steady cool breeze coming from inside the tunnel was the only thing that broke the eerie silence.
As I was getting my head around what I saw, Miran suggested we drive inside. There was more to see. Though sceptical, I agreed.
Just two days ago, I was sitting along the shores of the Adriatic in Split, Croatia, watching the blue waters and sipping my fresh orange juice. At that point, I did not anticipate that a chance encounter with a traveller couple would change my romantic idea of a solo Mediterranean holiday.
I got talking with Smith and his girlfriend about their travel across the Balkans. They opined that to understand the present, I ought to delve deeper into the past of this land. And according to them, Mostar was the closest I could get to it.
So, I hopped on to a bus the next day for a four-hour ride, to spend a night across the border in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
That is how, on a late Sunday afternoon in June, lugging my backpack and an almost empty bottle of water, I found myself walking across a surprisingly empty town of Mostar. Hardly any public buses or taxis plied. With no batteries in my phone, I made way towards my accommodation in the traditional manner, on foot, and asking for directions at every corner.
Oddly enough, this walk turned out to be a perfect introduction to the city. I walked along vast tree-lined boulevards passing abandoned buildings, war-damaged structures, and identical looking residential blocks.
I crossed run-down neighbourhoods with broken windowpanes and bullet holes across the façade that echoed the screams of the bereaved. The war concluded over 20 years ago and with it ended the identity of Yugoslavia. But its marks are still visible in its urban landscape and the divide, still lived by its population.
I approached the Old town of Mostar, a UNESCO listed heritage site. It is primarily dominated by Bosnian Muslims and tourists and was a stark contrast to what I had just walked through.
With tiny cobbled lanes meandering between restored Ottoman-era buildings, the Old town takes you back centuries. Located here is the iconic Stari Most, which has become a symbol of Mostar with many paintings and poems, dedicated to its beauty. Initially designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, it was rebuilt in 2004 after being completely destroyed during the war in the 1990s.
Getting to my accommodation meant that I had to cross the bridge, which was a place of frantic activity at that hour. I had reached in time to witness the famous Bridge Jump, a tradition that is said to have existed for over 400 years.
After watching a few people plunging from the Stari Most into the Neretva River from a height of about 23m, all I can say is that do not try this ever. The enthusiasts who do this are either professionals with years of practice or plain crazy!
For my only night here, I booked myself at Hotel Kriva Cuprija, primarily for its location, a mere five minutes walk from the Bridge. After discussing Hindi movies and Shah Rukh Khan with the receptionist at check-in, I rushed to meet Miran for a guided tour through the birth and death of the former Yugoslavia. The first stop of which was the abandoned underground tunnel.
The military installation we were now inside was an abandoned Yugoslav era aircraft hangar located near the town of Gnojnice. With no museum or souvenir shops to attract visitors, it is a hidden gem that reveals itself only to the curious and adventurous souls.
It is said that Josip Tito had this secret underground facility built to hide fighter jets ready for deployment if and when required. The facility was built such that it protected the planes from the prying eyes of the enemy and most of the country’s citizens. Following Miran’s footsteps and guided by our mobile flashlight, we further uncovered what seemed like barracks and control rooms.
It is believed that this facility could house up to 10 MiG-29s! We had time to just touch the tip of the iceberg, and I was already gobsmacked!
But Miran had another trick up his sleeve to help us comprehend the enormity of the tunnel. We sat in the car, tightened our seatbelts, pulled down our windows and he pressed on the accelerator. The engine reverberated at such high volume that it could easily be mistaken for a MiG.
We arrived back in the Old town just after sunset and were welcomed by a frenzy of activity. With tourists spilling out from the souvenir shops and tiny restaurants filling up along the riverside, the old town was a world away from what I had experienced just a couple of hours before.
After such an exhilarating day, I wound down at the hotel’s trendy restaurant swaying to the live music. I ended the day with a filling meal of lamb Cevapi and the very sweet Tufahija accompanied by a stiff black Bosnian Coffee. Although calling Bosnian coffee strong is an understatement!
But it served as a perfect wake-me-up drink early the next morning as I strolled the empty lanes of the Old town and made my way to the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque. With a small fee, you can visit the mosque and climb up the minaret for stunning views of the Stari Most, the Old Town and the surrounding area.
Incidentally, this vantage point has also produced the most cherished frame of my travels around the Balkans that today rests proudly on my bookshelf.
Photos – Author, Pixabay, and Unsplash