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Sarajevo: war-torn and wonderful

August 27, 2012 | Bosnia, Travel | 14 Comments
Sarajevo view

The door was yanked open.  Light flooded in.  A man in a uniform barked instructions, holding out his hand.  Passport?  Tickets?   I didn’t know what he wanted, so I just gave him everything I had and hoped for the best.

It was 2am and I was on the overnight train from Zagreb to Sarajevo.  The window was jammed half-open and freezing air had been rushing in for hours.  Curled into a cold, uncomfortable ball on my seat, I had given up any hope of sleep long ago.  This was not my favourite travel day.

Arriving only an hour late, we stumbled blearily out of the station, changed some money and headed for the tram.  Were we going the right way?  No idea.  The river looked pretty as we rumbled by, and the windows of the houses on the hills glittered cheerfully in the morning sunlight, but I was too tired to care.

We eventually found our hostel, but it was far too early to check in.  A shower and a nap would have been life-changing at that point, but instead we had to settle for breakfast down the street.  Most of the things on the menu weren’t available, so in the end I just shrugged and agreed to an unknown suggestion.  It was nine in the morning and I was having a meal of sarma (rice and vegetables in vine leaves) and a Turkish-style coffee so strong my spoon was about to dissolve in it.

Welcome to Sarajevo.

The city has a troubled history.  Founded by the Ottomans, burned to the ground by the Hapsburgs and annexed by the Austro-Hungarians, it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria near the Latin Bridge in the middle of town that sparked World War One.

Sarajevo plaque

Eighty years later the bullets were flying again, the city under siege from Serbian forces for four devastating years after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992.  Nearly 12,000 people died as basic services were cut off, shells and machine gun fire rained down from the hills and snipers picked off civilians from afar.

The damage is still obvious now, a scant fifteen years later.  Although most of the downtown buildings have been rebuilt, bullet holes are everywhere.  White gravestones scar the surrounding hillsides, far more than there should be for a city this size.  Muhammad, my guide for a (recommended) free walking tour, lifted up his trouser leg to show the scars he received from flying shrapnel as a teenager.

People may forgive, but it must be damn near impossible to forget.

And yet the city is moving on, opening its arms to visitors.  I felt welcome in Sarajevo, and quickly fell for the winding streets and remarkable cultural and religious melting pot of the city.  Mosques, cathedrals and synagogues lay within eyeshot of each other, east meeting west in a swirling mass of colours, sounds and smells.

Sarajevo orthodox church
Water pitchers

Shisha smoke wafted from darkened cafes as teenagers walked past with gelato in hand.  Muslim restaurant owners offered cups of tea while the barman next door poured glasses of ice cold Sarajevsko pivo.  The call to prayer rang out five times a day, once while I was taking a photo of the rebuilt Serb orthodox church in the city centre.

Tiny shops slouched up against each other along a narrow street, their shiny wares overflowing onto the tables outside.  Small coffee makers sat beside enormous water jugs, intricately carved jewellery boxes piled alongside leatherbound books and contraptions I couldn’t even identify.

And they were so beautiful that I wanted to buy them all.  I don’t have a home, my backpack is full, I live on a modest budget, and yet all I wanted was a three foot brass water pitcher to carry around with me.

Because, you know, that makes total sense.

Sarajevo Dave

On our final afternoon we climbed up to the Yellow Fort, a centuries-old fortress perched above the old town.  Dangling our feet over the edge, we admired the hazy view and relaxed in the shade for far longer than was necessary while trying to work out exactly what made this place so special.

The food was plentiful and excellent, the beer was cold and cheap, the people were warm and generous.  There was plenty to see and do, in a compact, easily walkable area.  But those things, important as they are, can be found in a lot of places.  They are often necessary for me to love a new city, but they usually aren’t sufficient.

Sarajevo was more than that.  It was beautiful in its own, war-damaged way.  It was safe, but with a gritty undertone that kept things interesting.  Most importantly for me, it was very different to both anywhere I had been before and my expectations.

I just didn’t expect so much diversity in a city of under half a million people.  I didn’t expect so much history in a place ravaged by war.  I didn’t expect so much friendliness to outsiders when the local population has been through so much.

I really didn’t expect to love Sarajevo at all.

Surprisingly, wonderfully, I did.

 

This trip through Central and Eastern Europe is made possible by the good folks at Eurail.com.

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14 Comments

  1. Reply

    I loved Sarajevo! We were there a week ago, and it was a great gem. I sometimes do wonder how much locals think of its past and siege as much as we did and other visitors surely do. Now is such a good time to visit the city too, before this war becomes too far away from travelers' memories and just a 'history book' chapter. So glad to have been able to be there, witnessing a city evolving. Great post Dave!

    • Reply

      Dave

      August 27, 2012

      Thanks Caro! Yeah I asked myself the same question in Sarajevo, and even more so in Mostar (I actually talk about it a bit in Wednesday's upcoming post).

  2. Reply

    Sophie

    August 27, 2012

    I loved Sarajevo so much when I was there! I was so disappointed to only have 2 days there so will be heading back one day. I also coveted those copper pots, at one point I was seriously considering taking one that was bigger than me and ditching my backpack for it.

    I wish I had known about those free tours before I went, that would be great.

    Great post, brought it all back!

  3. Reply

    Amanda

    August 28, 2012

    I've heard great things about Sarajevo, and this post just makes me want to visit more.

    Great writing, too. You really made me feel like I was there!

    • Reply

      Dave

      October 21, 2012

      Thanks Amanda, I appreciate that! :)

  4. Reply

    Kieu

    August 29, 2012

    Wow, Dave - you really have a way with words. I haven't read a lot about Sarajevo, but this looks like a place that's right up my alley.

  5. Reply

    Raffaella

    August 30, 2012

    Very insightful, thoughtful, and well written. I'd never thought of visiting here, but now it's on my list.

  6. Reply

    Sky

    September 3, 2012

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post, Dave. Sarajevo sounds like an incredible city to visit, full of culture and history. Definitely adding it to my list!

  7. Reply

    Tash

    September 22, 2012

    Sounds amazing....always somewhere I have wanted to go. This post affirmed that want!

  8. Reply

    Marc d'Entremont

    October 21, 2012

    As a teenager - over 4 decades ago - I was once told that my "mind was a mental junkyard of historical trivia" because I knew where Bosnia/Herzegovina and Sarajevo where, and why they were important re: WW1. Couple decades later, during the brutal siege, everyone knew. Thanks for bringing it back to life, post-(another) war.

    • Reply

      Dave

      October 21, 2012

      We need more people in this world with that kind of mind...

  9. Reply

    simon

    October 29, 2012

    hi dave,
    myself and my girlfrienf just got back from sarajevo a week ago.
    It was our second time there after we went last year aswell for my birthday,we were the same as you last year we didnt really know what to expect but we loved every minute of sarajevo and bosnia in general.
    And we found the bigest asset are the people so friendly and helpful.
    I do have one question,what was the night train like from zagreb? we were due to travel with this option a year ago but read reports on trip advisor of robberies so decided against it.
    Foe antone reading this i can not recommend bosnia enough the people and the scenery thougout the country really are somthing else.

    • Reply

      Dave

      October 29, 2012

      Hey Simon, thanks for dropping by.

      Yeah we saw the same reports on TA, but they seemed pretty isolated so we decided to go with it. To be honest it wasn't a terribly fun ride - with no sleeper carriage, jammed window and spending an hour or more getting through the various border controls in the middle of the night, I've had more enjoyable travel experiences. Still, it seemed safe enough and we got there alive, so can't complain too much...


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