The tragedy and potential of Počitelj

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.

View over the fortress

View over the fortress

Its strategic location also offers some of the most impressive views in Herzegovina.

View of the River Neretva

View of the River Neretva

View of the Neretva River from the ramparts

View of the Neretva River from the ramparts

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.

Fortress walls

Fortress walls

Pocitelj turret - view from below

Pocitelj turret – view from below

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.

Overgrown houses

Overgrown houses

Overgrown shrubs

Overgrown shrubs

Overgrown shrubs

Overgrown shrubs

Abandoned Coca Cola fridge...

Abandoned Coca Cola fridge…

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.

Abandoned half-finished construction work

Abandoned half-finished construction work

Unfinished tourist facilities

Unfinished tourist facilities

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.

One garden shows how the walled town could look...

One garden shows how the walled town could look…

But unfortunately until that time, the beautiful walled town is just another ageing ruin.

A remaining resident gardens in the sun

A remaining resident gardens in the sun

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.

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12 responses to “The tragedy and potential of Počitelj

  1. My former colleague is from Sarajewo, and he gave me many insights and Yugoslavia war (how it began) and how Bosnia do feel, forgive, forget and live. Now i am interested in a first visit there.

  2. Great stat about the last baby. Our organised trip from Dubrovnik to Mostar stopped there for a quick break so there’s definite potential for tourist money to be taken although i don’t remember any cafe, shop or bar.

    • It is a good stat, isn’t it? We actually got to see him by pure chance too, haha. There was a small cafe when we went but it was empty – there’s tonnes of potential but it doesn’t look like anyone is doing anything with it 😦

  3. that little place looks great. I haven’t been to Bosnia & Herzegovina, but i was in Croatia and also in many parts outside the big cities you could see the devastation.

  4. I do regret not visiting B&H more (I juuuuust crossed into it from Croatia , twice, for a BBQ) when i was in the Balkans this fall, but it was either go north to Budapest and the castles, or south to Sarajevo, and I went with Budapest. But I love reading your notes on the place!

    • Definitely one to go back to if you get the chance – Sarajevo is like nowhere I’ve been before – it’s so beautiful and diverse. And a lot more cosmopolitan than you’d think. Glad you are enjoying my ramblings though!

    • It is definitely one of my favourite places in Europe. The landscape in around Sarajevo is a complete world away from Herzegovina in the south. One was mountainous with thick fog, the other was pure Mediterranean.

    • It really is awful. Particularly when you can see some real success stories nearby – Mostar and Medugorje are both very close and attract thousands of tourists every year.

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