Sarajevo. Even the name is mesmerising and enigmatic. It rolls from the tongue with hints of exotic connotations. To be completely honest the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s name was unknown to me until it came time to venture there. Bosnia I’ve long held as one of ‘those’ places. Enticingly discreet and not particularly on the tourist radar, it sits ‘somewhere’ in the Balkan reign. Perhaps it’s simply the unknown, or perhaps it’s the learned knowledge that those who have suffered great tragedy seem to be the most humble, genuine, and hopeful of people, devastatingly so, that enticed me so strongly to this part of the world.
The Bosnian war is long over. Finishing in 1995 after 3 years of horrific battle it seems that Bosnia is still to many perceived as a dangerous place to visit. Perhaps, selfishly this is a good thing. Bosnia attracts a certain crowd; both engaged and interested and thankfully the Bosnian remain engaged and interested in us travellers; yet to be deterred by that ‘typical’ Eurotripper. Sarajevo is sobering. The bloodshed suffered so recently is ever present, be it the shattered buildings or the scars of shelling on the pavement.
I didn’t know what to expect from Bosnia. My knowledge of the history was present yet scarce.
I arrived in Sarajevo on the glamor-less night bus, pulling into the station at 5am, blanketed by darkness in the city outskirts. Hailing a taxi I immediately was assured I was going to fall in love; a great taxi driver (read; bloody legend with minimal English) generally means a great place. As I wound my way along the river, past the scattered bright lights alluding to ‘city’ and held my breath as the car raced through the narrowest of streets up the hills of the old city I grew even more captivated by this capital city (and possibly regretting not purchasing travel insurance…).
Sarajevo is a small city home to a very approximate 400, 000 Bosnians, many who lived here during the war. It’s nestled within the sloping Alps along the Miljacka River. It really is a special place surrounded by such grand nature and is drenched in the milky haze that seems a constant in these parts.
The old town is a scattered assortment of homes set within the hills, and as you work your way down toward the center it’s clear that this is still a city in progress and recovery. The constant hum of construction often prevails as the soundtrack of the streets.
The centre itself is a wonderful example of the different cultures Sarajevo hosts; product of a changing history. A distinct dividing line showing the period of the Ottoman Empire on the eastern side of the city, filled with typically middle-eastern tea houses and a maze stores selling all manner of colourful trinkets typical of the Turkish souks. The western side is a tribute to the Austria-Hungarian empire, as the buildings grow slightly higher and blend into out notion of ‘European city’. This mix, this contrast side by side transporting from one continent to another in a matter of meters is uniquely Bosnian and helps to make this small city so engaging.
Sarajevo also hides unexpected finds. Hidden amongst the mountains winds an abandoned bobsled tack, a leftover remnant from the 1984 winter Olympics. These days it’s home to both graffiti kids and those that seek the adventure of mountain biking down (not me, I was not pushing my lack of travel insurance).Sarajevo is all about the people though. From the charismatic pizza shop owner that will tell you his life story and give a decent debate on American politics, Neno; the most real tour guide who grew up as a child during the war with the most positive outlook for his home, or the locals that guide you about during the night as you try and find where the jazz-festival after party is somewhere in the city maze (I found it).
No amount of wasteful adjectives I use could describe what this place really is, no half hearted photos could really show the beauty.
The only real thing I can advise is to sleep at the Doctors House, visit Dragan’s, drink at the Hippy Tea House, embrace the stories and open your eyes to the beauty. The history is rich, the people positive, the landscape beautiful. If that doesn’t make a place great then I’m not sure what does.