Sarajevo, the capital of a country devastated by war emerges as a memorable destination.
It was while reading Bill Carter’s Fools Rush In that Sarajevo first called my name. In this startling portrayal of the capital under siege and the tragedy of war, it was the city’s resilient people with their dark sense of humour and determination to embrace normal that touched me – the tales of barbers cutting hair on the streets, sheltered courtyards turned into food gardens, the local brewery supplying residents with water, and the Sarajevan women maintaining their style and fashion in proud defiance.
** My story on Sarajevo in this month’s FLY SAA Sawubona in-flight magazine.
The underlying spirit of the city could not be broken, despite the devastating attack it was
under during the 1 425-day siege (the longest in modern history) that lasted from April 1992 to February 1996, resulting in almost 14 000 deaths. The city was cut off from food, water, electricity and medicine, under attack by snipers and shelled at least 300 times a day, leaving thousands of civilians dead and wounded.
As much as 60% of the city was destroyed at the time. The process of recovery has been slow, with many buildings still wearing the marks of war. Yet I am soon to learn that this incredibly scenic city is much more than its sad history. Joining Sarajevo Walking Tours for their East Meets West and War Scars & New Times tours, I’m injected with hope by the young guides who speak of the rebirth of the city through education, the arts and an emerging food scene.
As the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo has a compact centre with museums commemorating local history, including the Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918, which covers the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I. On either side of Sarajevo’s Miljacka river, the grand Austro-Hungarian-influenced buildings stand proud; just beyond are the charming narrow passageways of the old city, or Bašcaršija, with its market traders, clay- tile roofs, and tall domes and minarets reminiscent of the extended Ottoman era that was to shape the city’s future.
Adding a touch of modernity are the inviting high-end stores and restaurants that serve delicious cuisine and traditional dishes. Lovingly tended flowers on the sidewalks bring colour to grey buildings, and while there’s a familiar air of European living, the Turkish influence it strongly felt. A visit to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, and Gallery 11/07/95 that documents the Srebrenica massacre offer an essential background to the Yugoslav Wars.
Lovingly tended flowers on the sidewalks bring colour to grey buildings.
Sarajevan days are best spent walking the riverside, becoming familiar with the layout of the Bašcaršija and adopting a “local” for evening drinks. I recommend a visit to the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and time in the Ars Aevi contemporary-art museum next to the stadium – it was founded during the siege. Look out for the Sarajevo Roses that mark the spots where mortar shells exploded on the concrete; filled with red resin, they symbolise the bloodshed.
A tour of the rebuilt City Hall is a must, with the museum offering an intimate look at pre-war life in Sarajevo. Climb to the top of the Yellow Bastion ruins to take in a fiery sunset, and turn the assassination place of Franz Ferdinand at the Latin Bridge into a convenient meeting point before heading out for the evening. You can’t escape the war here: extensive graveyards dot the hillsides, and you’d do well to visit a few to pay your respects.
One of the most popular attractions since its reopening this year, the Trebevic Cable Car offers wonderful views towards the city from the 32 gondolas on the scenic nine-minute stretch from the heart of Sarajevo to the top of the Trebevic mountain. This is best enjoyed in the late afternoon to capture the evening sun.
We chose to walk down the abandoned bobsleigh and luge track – and it felt a little like stepping into a scary movie. Constructed for the 1984 Winter when the country opened its doors to the international community for a successfully hosted Olympic games it was later used by the Serb forces as a base for artillery because it offered a deadly sniper position above the city. Today the only attack it’s under is from the graffiti artists expressing their political voices – and from nature, which seems to be claiming back the land. Olympics,
Outside the city centre is the Tunnel Museum. Originally constructed during the Siege of Sarajevo to carry supplies into the city for civilians, the Sarajevo Tunnel ran underground for about 960m. Visitors can experience a section of it while learning about the historic events surrounding this site.
Lucky finds include Ministry of Cejf café and Teahouse Džirlo in Kovaci, just beyond the Bašcaršija. If you’re shopping, there are beautiful coffee sets, fabric and jewellery, all reasonably priced. Have a meal in the Morica Han – or at Miris Dunja, a tiny, two-storey place in the heart of old town. Slasticarna Egipat holds the reputation for the best gelato in town.
Despite the city’s sad history, it isn’t a sad place to visit. You get a sense that it’s looking to the future with dignity, resilience and hope. If you want to discover somewhere remarkable, I’d say make your way to Sarajevo.
On my last morning, I walk to the Bašcaršija on two important missions. The first: to stock up on all the baklava I can reasonably carry home. The second: to drink a cool, long sip of water from the old Sebilj Fountain, which is said to guarantee your return.
Essential Travel Information
WHEN TO VISIT May to mid-September is best, but beware the dramatic thunderstorms. In December and January, there’s a strong likelihood of snow.
SAFETY Contrary to its ’90s war-torn image, Sarajevo is a safe city and ideal for solo travellers. Crime and violence are low, although there’s a chance of pickpockets in crowded areas.
COSTS This is a very affordable destination for South Africans. A centrally located, well-equipped two-bedroom Airbnb apartment was less than R800 per night. Dinner for two with local wine and dessert is about R400. A Bosnian burek and traditional coffee costs about R30. The currency is the Bosnian Mark, and there are ATMs everywhere.
GETTING AROUND Sarajevo is eminently walkable, and trams and buses help in getting around. The city claims the cheapest taxi fares in Europe. Trains easily connect you to other Bosnian cities.
FOOD The cuisine is Balkan, with a strong Turkish influence. With treats such as cevapi kebabs made from lamb and beef, traditional begova corba soup with somun flatbread, Bosnian burek pies with cheese, spinach and potato, Bosnian coffee, sweet baklava, delicious local wines, locally crafted beer and thick honey Rakia, you will be forgiven for overindulging. TRAVEL TIPS One of the most informative sites for tourists is Destination Sarajevo. The site’s app links all main attractions, opening times and contact details, making it easy to get around. sarajevo.travel
GETTING THERE ••• FLY SAA flies to Munich daily. You can connect to Sarajevo with SAA code-share partner and Star Alliance member Lufthansa. Visit flysaa.com. I travelled there on Lufthansa.
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