Sarajevo

“We’re very good in creating history…

…much less good in consuming it” was a statement of a local we met in Sarajevo, referring to the fact that the city has an amazing touristic potential that is not yet realised.

We arrive in the central bus station in the western half of Sarajevo late afternoon after a three-hour bus ride from Mostar (about 20€) and take the number three train to our Hostel in Baščarśija the old Ottoman centre of Sarajevo, spreading out from a place with the same name. Our home for the next couple of days features a small balcony with a direct view on the plaza and the surrounding labyrinth of alleys fronted by one-story houses, eclipsed by dozens of minarets and the occasional church-spire. Looking down from here you could really think to be in a Turkish town of some kind. Moving westward you can spot big representational buildings from the Austro-Hungarian era creating the feeling you’re somehow visiting Vienna and Istanbul at the same time. West of that highrises in the brutalist style so typical for socialist architecture dominate the skykine, bullets holes still visible everywhere you look, even 20 years after the war ended.

Evening sun view on Bascarsija from the balcony of our hostel.

Evening sun view on Bascarsija from the balcony of our hostel.

The Siege of Sarajevo

After a day of just roaming around town to get a feel for the place we book a tour with a company called Sarajevo Funky Tours. Our guide Armina, like the majority of Sarajevo’s people today is Muslim and works for an international NGO when she is not showing tourists around. Fast forwarding a bit: the tour was one of the best I ever did, so if you’re in town make sure to ask for Armina personally. She is everything a guide should be, knowledgeable, courteous,funny and very balanced considering the fact she spent three years in a city under siege, constantly shelled and has seen friends and neighbours injured or killed. In fact, she was having pizza with a mixed crowd when the first grenade hit Sarajevo. I can’t really imagine how people who were neighbours just a few weeks earlier could suddenly start going out to kill each other. But since this is happening all the time, all over the world, there must be some sick mechanism buried in our genes or whatever that under certain conditions lets us loose our human decency.

During the siege about 3.000 people traversed this 800m long tunnel every day. It was one of the only connections left to bring in supplies during the siege of Sarajevo

During the siege about 3.000 people traversed this 800m long tunnel every day. It was one of the only connections left to bring in supplies during the siege of Sarajevo

She regularly interrupts her own narrative to make sure we understand, that this is her perspective and there has been suffering and loss on all sides. Like I said in an earlier Facebook post and cannot imagine how to even start making peace with that. All the more people like Armina deserve our respect for their efforts to heal this country and its diverse communities.
The first stop is a small museum at the entrance of a 800m long tunnel that was the only connection to the outside world during the siege. Serbian troops encircled Sarajevo nearly completely with the exception of the airport that was held by the UN all the way in the west of the city connecting it to Bosnian territory beyond. Everything had to be brought in through this tiny loophole; ammunition, medicine, personell and food. Some were able to flee the city on that route,but usually you had to pay huge amounts of money for that privilege. During summer, clean water was a seriuos problem. When Armina tells us they used their washing water multiple times and that a bottle of drinking water was considered the biggest gift you could give someone she isn’t the only one fighting tears, and to see footage of of these days has us all fighting tears. In winter water was a lesser problem because it snows a lot, but fuel was and something to cover the windows, because almost all of them were blown out by shockwaves from one of the estimated one million grenades that hit the city. One of the first efforts of relief organisations after the war was to get at least some PVC-tarps to every household.

I just loved these old trams, most of them are in their second or even third incarnation and sometimes still have stickers from far-away places like Sweden or France. They didn't even bother with a consistent color scheme, so they all have different appearance depending on where Sarajevo got them from originally.

I just loved these old trams, most of them are in their second or even third incarnation and sometimes still have stickers from far-away places like Sweden or France. They didn’t even bother with a consistent color scheme, so they all have different appearance depending on where Sarajevo got them from originally.

Easing the tensions a bit she then takes us into the mountains surrounding Sarajevo. A 20 minute ride has us right next to the bobsleigh track of the 1984 winter Olympics. Strolling down the crumbling track covered in grafitti is an amazing experience that has us soon smiling again. Nonetheless it is another reminder of what this country has been through in its recent history. This particular mountain has been thouroughly cleansed of landmines, thanks in part to efforts by the late Lady Diana, but thousands of those remain buried in the Bosnian woods, making it especially dangerous after heavy rainfalls to just walk cross-country since you never know what a mudslide might have washed downhill

The olympic bobsleight is one of the few places in Sarajevo where you can find some good streetart.

The olympic bobsleight is one of the few places in Sarajevo where you can find some good streetart.

I have talked to quite some expatriate Yugoslavian-German friends back in the day and they didn’t even know they were anything else than Yugoslavian and from one day to the next they had to learn a whole new set of references depicting them as Croat, Serb or Bosniak. I guess it will take a few generations to get over that rift once again even though most younger people we talked to on this trip are just tired and want to make a life for themselves in a safe future.

The sources of the Bosna

After a short walk to site were Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and set off a series of events that led to World War I, we board the tramline #3. At the end, all the way to the west of city we walk down a beautiful avenue for about 3 km to come upon a park (2 € entrance) where the Bosna springs from the earth, that being the river that gave the whole country its name. Shaded by trees, interspersed with small waterways, the place is a major destination for tourists and local families alike. All over the place cristal clear water bubbles to the surface creating a peaceful atmosphere that is all the more stunning for contrast of yesterday’s tour. One thing that is evident not only here but all over Sarajevo is a huge number of Arabian visitors, identifiable not only by lanugage but more often than not by the garb their women are wearing. While most Bosnian Muslims are rather lax in their observation of religious rules these visitors have a more strict interpretation of their holy book, which always makes me a bit uneasy. This heightened interest in Sarajevo may owed to the fact that even though the area was settled for nearly 4.000 years the city itself was founded by a local Ottoman governor around 1470, when he built a military structure housing officials and guards called a Saraj, hence the name.

Built as a townhall, by the Austro-Hungarian empire this building was home to the national library until it was destroyed in the war, taking with it some 2 milion books and documents. Repoened after serious reconstruction in 2014

Built as a townhall, by the Austro-Hungarian empire this building was home to the national library until it was destroyed in the war, taking with it some 2 milion books and documents. Repoened after serious reconstruction in 2014

One the biggest obstacles for the development of Bosnia in general and Sarajevo specifically is the ever-present corruption making it nearly impossible for international investors to get anything done. If you just look at the potential as a tourist destination the opportunities seem endless. You got a rich and diverse culture, beautiful mountains just outside the city that can be used for holding, climbing and mountain biking in summer and skiing in winter, but still so many associate Sarajevo with its recent violent history exclusively. A shame. Go there, its a great place. If you still need more reasons, you could check out the Sarajevo Film Festival late in August every year, held for the first time during the siege proving once again that humans need intellectual nourishment just as they need water and food.

Typical residential building from socialist times on major street in Sarajevo

Typical residential building from socialist times on major street in Sarajevo

Tipps & Tricks

Trams are the public transport means of choice, especially the number three goes is interesting for tourists,since it is on a circle line through the whole town. Tickets are 1,80 KM (0,90 €).

Excellent pancakes, Serbian wine and Pasta can be had at Cakum Pakum Make sure to reserve a table, the place is very small.

If you’re interested in the Secession Wars of the 90s you should definetely see the Gallery 11/07/95  about the massacre at Srebenica.

For a nice evening out I would suggest the Club Monument a small basement club with live concerts most every day – and don’t let yourself be discouraged by the Ibiza-style mayhem in street right in front of it – that’s how they pay for the nice place below.

Once again I urge you to book a tour with Armina from Sarajevo Funky Tours – even if the name does not really fit the topic.

This is part of a six-issue series from a roadtrip through Bosnia and Montenegro in August 2016:

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