Mostar

I drive inland again, past the border and through Bosnia and Herzegovina’s faded little seaside town, Neum. The limestone hills, grey shrubs, and burnt, black trees of Herzegovina replace the blue sea, olive trees, oleander bushes, and Aleppo pines of the coast. The openness and quiet comes as a relief.

After three hours or so, the road joins up with the Neretva River. I follow it through the outer suburbs of Mostar, to my hotel, the Park Villa, which is much less glamorous than it sounds. After I’ve checked in, I trace the river back by foot, past an mosque, through the shopping district, to the Mostar Bridge, which arches impossibly high over the banks of the Neretva, stretching from the Bosniak side to the Croat one. (I don’t realize or recognize this while I’m there, however. It’s only later, in Banja Luka, when an angry Serb veteran who rents me a cottage describes Mostar as a face ‘split in two’).

Feeling tired, I sit down on the river bank below and watch teenagers leap from a nearby springboard and school children pick their noses and scratch sticks into the mud.

On my way back to the Park Villa I stumble upon the Josip Broz Tito Club.
Inside, four men sit in the four corners of the room.  Between them, through a cloud of cigarette smoke I see a huge red tapestry with Tito’s profile: his rounded forehead, his slightly hooked nose, his small, curved lips. Next to it, on the wall, a calendar with all the special holidays marked with a red star: March 8th, May 1st, November 7th. The men fall silent when I enter.

‘Dobar dan, do you have coffee here?’ I ask with an idiotic smile.

One of the men rises, pushes an ashtray towards me, and disappears into the back room. He comes back a few minutes later with a hot cup of coffee.

Every once and awhile the man closest to me turns in his seat towards me, and I expect him to say something, but he looks past me, into the street. His eyes are wide. They do not look at anything in particular, they just stare.

It’s on us, the fifth man says, as I get out my wallet to pay.

I walk back along the Brace Fejica. The beggars get up from their places and sit together on a bench, talking, laughing and crying. The air is not exactly cold, but the smell of autumn rises from the river to linger with the smell of roasting meat and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A nightclub plays Avril Lavigne. The sound of the Koran rises from the tower of the mosque. Pious men move in its direction and slip off their shoes at its door. My bed in the

Jumping from the Ottoman Bridge is banned, so kids jump from this platform now.
Many buildings in Bosnia and Herzegovina still bear traces of the war.
The hills of Herzegovina.