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The gravity defying stone bridge binds the two sides of a city whose story begins with its construction by a student of ‘the Michelangelo of Ottoman architecture.’
Drenched in sweat, holding onto a rock as the icy aquamarine waters of the Neretva River swirl dangerously past, I stare up at the bridge for the moment I’ve been waiting for all day: Somebody is going to jump.
The crowd yells, and in the span of three seconds one of the divers plummets 80 feet into the river below, before emerging safely.
The bridge is none other than the Stari Most, the iconic gravity-defying stone bridge whose existence spoke to the ingenuity and talent of Ottoman design and engineering, and whose destruction in 1993 came to symbolize the wanton horror of the Balkan Wars. It’s completed reconstruction in 2004 represented a new era for the region.
Looking up from the river, the bridge is a magnificent sight. It stretches nearly 100 feet from end to end. On either side are two stone gatehouses—the more memorable of the two, the western one, looms over the riverbed scene below. There, people (mostly men) of all ages cannonball off an embankment, allowing the freezing and fast-moving waters to carry them to the beach a dozen yards downstream. On a 99-degree day, the swim is worth the risk.
But the Neretva poses a danger, and not just for those jumping from the bridge. The river has a number of underwater caves, and according to one of the women running the fabulous museum and hotel, the Muslibegović Hotel, just blocks away, nearly every year somebody is drowned. Just the year before, she says, a young boy fell in while playing cards near the bank and his body was never found. […]