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.
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.
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.
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.