Zipped up in a wetsuit and clinging on to the railings, Sherifi started to question whether he was. The famously emerald-green Neretva River that flows through Bosnia and Hercegovina was in full view below him – and the 75ft plunge looked more terrifying than ever.
This is really far, he remembers thinking, as tourists gathered around him, eagerly snapping photos in anticipation of the jump. Little did they know it was a tourist about to take the leap rather than the trained divers often seen doing it for money in the same spot.
No backing out now, he thought.
He reminded himself of the certification training he had recently completed with the local Mostari Diving Club – the only way tourists get qualified to take the plunge.
Step forward, don’t throw yourself off or dive headfirst. Put your hands by your side and make a pencil.
He took a deep breath – and launched. “It was so exhilarating; I mean it’s properly high,” he says, as he describes the big jolt that went through his body when he hit the water. “It didn’t hurt – but you could see how it could be pretty catastrophic if you did it wrong.” He remembers how tourists clapped from the bridge as his head bobbed up from the surface of the water.
Diving into history
Sherifi is one of several daring tourists who have undertaken the extreme diving experience at the Unesco World Heritage Site. Yet folks have been diving from the Stari Most for more than than 450 years.
Construction of the bridge is thought to have been completed around 1567, when the town was under Ottoman rule. The history goes that young people would jump off it in a bid to entertain wealthy onlookers, sparking a tradition that is still alive today.
“They would do it to earn tips,” explains Esmer Meškić, a tour guide with Mostar Travel Agency and a Mostar native. “We have some guys who follow that tradition today. Every day, there are about five to six who do it for a living to impress tourists.
“Usually, the guy who jumps is from the diving club, which is in a small house next to the old bridge. He’ll be doing some exercises to prepare his body and his system with cold water, because [he] is jumping into one of the coldest rivers in the world.”
A monument destroyed, then rebuilt
In the 1990s, Stari Most became a symbol of resilience and hope following its destruction and subsequent reconstruction after the Croat-Bosniak War, one offshoot of the larger Bosnian War. During that tragic conflict, it’s estimated 100,000 people died, with a further two million displaced.
This November marks 30 years since the relentless shelling by Croat forces struck the Balkan-Islamic arched structure, causing it to completely collapse into the waters below. It would take more than a decade before the bridge was rebuilt. Next year will mark 20 years since the reconstructed bridge was unveiled.
In post-war Mostar, diving became even more central to the lives of locals, explains Meškić. Children found other bridges to jump off from while the Stari Most was out of commission.
“After the war, diving was a big sport because we didn’t have a place to play football or basketball – everything was destroyed. So we spent so much time on the banks of the river Neretva [competing],” he explains – before adding that he himself has never jumped from Stari Most. (He once lost his balance and badly hurt himself during a diving competition on another bridge.)
This “jewel of Ottoman architecture” (to quote Unesco) was rebuilt with stones from the same quarry used in the original 16th-century construction project. The gracefully arched and very photogenic bridge in Mostar’s old town is even more spectacular when seen first-hand – particularly in the summer, when the trees along its surrounding riverbanks burst with green foliage.
“The formation of rocks next to the river Neretva is very [unique],” says Meškić, explaining why Stari Most is so important to locals. “We like to say the old bridge is the perfect combination of human creativity and nature. For older generations in their 50s and 60s, it was thought that to transition from boy to man, you had to jump.”
Many ways to take the plunge
Today, the bridge is the setting for a diving contest between local divers held annually at the end of July. For eight years in a row, it has also been a popular stop for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.
This September, thousands of tourists lined the riverbanks to watch athletes from all over the world compete, packing the town’s cobbled streets and nearby shops, bars and cafes.
Yet diving isn’t the only way to enjoy the beautiful waters near Mostar. The strong current makes the Neretva a popular place for rafting, with tour groups running day excursions from Mostar to Konjic (about an hour away), with breakfast and (in some cases) BBQ lunch included between rafting.
Kayaking and canoeing on the calmer river Buna – which flows off Neretva about 10km (6 miles) south of Mostar – is also growing in popularity.
Elsewhere, the idyllic Kravica Waterfall, in the middle of Kravica nature park, is the place to head during Mostar’s sweltering summer months; the waterfall is open for swimming between June and September. If you have a car, you can head there independently or sign up for a round-trip tour from a local travel agency. You’ll find restaurants and picnic areas in the park.
Back in town, head back through Mostar’s fairy tale–like streets for a sunset you’ll never forget. On a good night, the sky will fill with orange and pink hues, while spotlights let the architectural details of Stari Most emerge as the sky darkens.
You’ll quickly see why this monument defines life for Mostar and its residents.