It’s probably very obvious how much I loved Bosnia & Herzegovina. Even now, more than three months later, I’m still thinking of new things to write about. The country is quite simply fascinating.
But owing to recent history, the country has an air of tragedy about it. Surprisingly, this is somewhat hard to find in Sarajevo. Here, buildings have been lovingly restored and foreign investment has given the city a very cosmopolitan feel. But travel outside of the capital and the devastation of the wars is more obvious.
One place that I feel sums up contemporary Bosnia & Herzegovina is the Ottoman fortress town of Počitelj (“Po-chee-tel”), around 25 minutes’ drive south of Mostar. Built into a sloping cliff overlooking the Neretva River, the place is absolutely beautiful.
Its strategic location also offers some of the most impressive views in Herzegovina.
Historically, Počitelj was a regional stronghold for the Ottoman Empire, but lost its significance when the country fell under Austro-Hungarian rule in 1878. However, despite its dwindling importance, the town and its historic buildings were largely preserved.
Until the Yugoslav Wars, that is.
Like a lot of places in Herzegovina, Počitelj was badly damaged by Croat forces. During bombing and fighting in 1993, local Islamic art was lost, the town’s huge mosque was badly damaged and most of the population fled.
After the Dayton Peace Accords in late 1995, fighting ceased, but the town had suffered immensely. Before the wars, the walled town was home to 30 families and 112 people. Today, there are just five families and 30 people. The last baby in the town was born in 2011. Most of the houses stand completely empty, akin to a ghost town.
Of course, this tragic situation is by no means unique in war-torn countries, but what really got to me on our visit was the pure potential Počitelj has. Before the Yugoslav wars, the walled town was on the UNESCO World Heritage shortlist (it can still be found on the tentative list) and in 1996, the site was added to the World Monuments Watch’s list of endangered cultural heritage sites.
In the time that followed, the historic mosque was fully restored, with a small degree of work even started to upgrade the facilities for tourists.
In recent years however, our guide Taso told us, all restoration work has stopped. The new facilities are left unfinished, with missing glass and exposed wires in what I assume was to be an information centre.
Sadly, it seems like Počitelj might be doomed to become just another victim of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s turbulent history. Despite its obvious appeal to tourists, without proper investment, the town is destined to grow increasingly dilapidated.
Heartbreakingly, Počitelj really does have a lot of potential. Found on the main Mostar-Split and Mostar-Dubrovnik routes, its location is perfect. Tourism could see a boost to the local economy and careful and authentic preservation could help reignite UNESCO interest.
But unfortunately until that time, the beautiful walled town is just another ageing ruin.
How to get there: Počitelj is around 25 minutes’ drive south of Mostar. The town is included on several Herzegovina guided tours, including this one we went on – provided by excellent Taso Guesthouse in Mostar.