Today is my first proper bus journey: I'm heading over the border to Mostar in Bosnia. And I am beyond excited. If we exclude the part where I have to get up before 5am to catch my 6am bus. On the plus side though, there's only 8 of us on said bus so I can spread out. (And eat my chocolate filled croissant in peace.)
It takes a little over 3 and a half hours to reach Mostar from Split, and we spend the first hour driving along the coast. It's still raining, but that doesn't make the views from my window any less breath-taking or dampen my excitement - and anyway, I'm holding out hope it will be dry in Mostar by the time I get there. It will be fine.
We reach the border about 8.30am and the Croatian border police step onto the bus to check our documents. We then drive 100m to the Bosnian checkpoint, where the driver collects our documents and takes them to the Bosnian border police. No effort required, no queuing in the rain outside the checkpoint, no dragging our luggage off the bus to be x-rayed. This is heaps easier than my last land border crossings in South America!
I had been expecting it to be a bit more - I don't know - rigorous? We were leaving the EU after all. I didn't even get a stamp in my passport! (And quite frankly, what's the point of travelling outside the EU if they're not going to stamp my passport?! Don't they know that's why I'm here?! I have a new, empty passport that needs filling up.)
An hour later the driver announces we're at Mostar bus station, our final stop. Stepping off the bus and grabbing my backpack I can't help but feel that it doesn't look very much like a bus station. And definitely not the joint bus and train station I'd been expecting to arrive at. More like a car park next door to a petrol station. A very nice looking petrol station, but still only a petrol station.
I'm clearly not the only person who is a trifle confused at this point, because a Croatian passenger is talking to the driver - who proceeds to point vaguely into the distance beyond the forecourt. I do manage to catch the word for station being uttered as he does this. My fellow passenger uncertainly starts walking in the general direction he'd pointed in, and I follow her, in as casual a fashion as I can manage. If I could whistle I would have done.
We do find a bus ticket office. Scanning the timetables pinned on the wall I can't see any Sarajevo bound buses. This cannot be right. And where is the blasted train station?
I ask the lady behind the desk and discover I'm at Mostar "west" bus station rather than the main one ("east" station) I'd been expecting to arrive at. That's where the Sarajevo bound buses leave from. On the plus side, the directions she gives me seem fairly straightforward, and fifteen minutes later I reach the shabby looking main station. But it has a left luggage office, so I buy a bus ticket to Sarajevo for later in the afternoon, ditch my backpack and head towards the old town.
It's about a twenty minute walk, and it's an eye opener. The main reason tourists flock to Mostar is for its iconic, single arch Stari Most ("old bridge") and picturesque old town. The bridge was completely destroyed during the war here in the 90s and has since been restored. This is part of the reason it is so iconic - its destruction came to symbolism the utter pointlessness of the war as neighbour turned against neighbour. Likewise its restoration is taken as a symbol of hope and reconciliation for the future.
I had read a little about how the conflict played out in Mostar and I was aware there were still abandoned bombed out buildings on the former front line. What I hadn't been prepared for was the fact that there are bombed out ruins literally everywhere in Mostar outside of the restored old town. And the ones that have been repaired are often still pockmarked from bullets. Or have scores of patches covering them where the holes have been filled in.
I had decided to start by heading one bridge south of Stari Most (to Lucki Most) so that I could get a view of the bridge from afar with the river and mountains. This was definitely worth doing, because the view that greeted me was amazing.
However it also made for a sobering start to the day. I had not expected to be confronted with so many wrecked buildings. The first ghost of a building I came to was a shock. I was nowhere near the old front line. I took a quick photo and moved on; it seemed wrong to stop and stare. Even at that point I naively was still working under the assumption that would be the only building I'd see in that state.
By the time I left Mostar I'd stopped counting them. If you've gone 50 paces without seeing one, it's probably because you've just stopped noticing. A few times I passed a building, which seemed shabby, but otherwise fine, only to round the corner and see a gaping hole in the other side of the building. I can't imagine what it must be like to live in a town where you're constantly surrounded by such glaring reminders of a truly horrible time.
I did feel like I'd stepped back in time a bit when I got to Bosnia. Almost as soon as you're across the border you notice the difference; there seems quite a distinct shift in wealth. The cars are suddenly much, much older, and a lot of the infrastructure seems more worn. Add to that the lingering war damage ... I did feel like I'd stepped through a timewarp at the border.
But positives... The scenery here is spectacular. Truly spectacular. Mostar's old town is beautiful, charming. The bus ride north to Sarajevo - alongside the jade coloured waters of the Neretva river with the mountains rising up either side - blew my mind. If only the bus windows hadn't been so grimy I might have been able to share the view with you!
This is definitely a place I can see myself returning to - and I don't often say that (there are too many places I haven't seen at all to make repeat visits anywhere that isn't truly special).