I visited Sarajevo in April 2001 for about a week, and subsequently wrote the following article with an eye to publication in a newspaper — any newspaper, really. For one reason or another, it was never published; I suppose it didn’t and doesn’t fit neatly into a typical travel section and is perhaps a bit too service-feature-ish for a more arty mag. But I still like it and wanted to put it out there, finally, for those who might be interested.
Sarajevo was an odd place for me; I felt very much at home in Ljubljana, but in Sarajevo I was uneasy and unsure of myself. In a diary entry at the time, I wrote, “There’s something very odd about listening to Kirsty MacColl singing ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ while walking through Freedom Square, Sarajevo, on Palm Sunday.” That about sums it up, I think.
This version dates from around the spring of 2002, shortly after I’d relocated to Austin. I’ve left in the extremely travel-sectiony “If You Go” bits after the article proper, though I’m sure nearly all of it is now seriously obsolete info.
The Other Sarajevo
Discovering a still-troubled but memorable city in the process of redefining itself
After four years of living in Slovenia, the northernmost, most prosperous and most Westernized of the former Yugoslav republics, by the spring of 2001 I’d avoided Sarajevo and Bosnia long enough. I’d certainly heard enough about the tragic recent history in the region, and occasionally met Bosnians in Ljubljana, the Slovene capital where I’d made my home. As if it were an omen, after I moved into a new house the previous December I discovered one of the city’s only Bosnian restaurants was just a couple of minutes’ walk away. It was definitely time, I told myself, to see the place firsthand (Bosnia, that is, not the restaurant).
Sarajevo was an easy hop away, less than an hour’s flight from Ljubljana. Affordable, too; a round-trip ticket on Adria, Slovenia’s well-run national airline, cost me about $177 in US dollars.
Most Americans, I realize,
need a better reason to visit. Who sings “I Left My Heart in Sarajevo”? Without a doubt, it’s not as easy a place to love at first sight as the City by the Bay. Yet Sarajevo is no less unforgettable in the end, and not just because of the history. If one purpose of travel is to forge memorable associations with places hitherto unknown to you, then you know the answer to the cynics who sneer, “Go to Bosnia on my next vacation? Yeah, right.” (Sure, it’s cool to let drop to your colleagues at the water cooler, “Oh, I just got back from Bosnia…”, but if that’s the only reason you want to go, hop a plane to Los Cabos instead and spare us all.)
From the start, upon arrival at a spotless modern airport built next to the old one, Sarajevo confounds expectations. In town, as I’d expected, multinational SFOR (UN Special Forces) troops were everywhere, in jeeps and on foot, representing Turkey, France, Italy, the USA and dozens of other nations. It’s a different variety of multiculturalism than the flavor of pre-siege Sarajevo, but no less fascinating.
SFOR aside, one of the first things you notice is the city’s dramatic location in a long valley surrounded by high hills. These hills, which served earlier inhabitants well as protection from outsiders, turned into a deadly trap during the 1992-95 siege. Today some of these hills again serve as winter ski areas, as they did during the 1984 Winter Olympics, and the nighttime lights are nothing more than romantic.
Last April  marked the tenth anniversary of the start of the catastrophic 43-month siege and bombardment by the Serbian army that killed over 10,000 Sarajevans, including 1600 children, and shook the city to its foundations in more ways than one (nearly 200,000 were killed in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Though devastated, bombed-out husks of buildings still line stretches of the waterfront and elsewhere in town, much construction is ongoing, and shiny new shopping malls and cultural centers rise almost in the midst of the ruins. Basic services have been up and running for a while, and life on the whole is much easier than it was a year or two after Dayton. Still, most buildings remain sooty and pockmarked by shrapnel. The most dramatic ruin is the former Oslobodenja newspaper building near the airport, which was bombed into the shape of a half-smashed peeled banana; the city is preserving it as it remains.
21st-century Sarajevo has Internet cafes, art galleries, boutiques, hip restaurants and bars aplenty. English is widely spoken. During the day, the street mix includes sleek, dark-haired café society Euromuslims alongside kerchiefed villagers and the ubiquitous SFOR troops. Blue EU Reconstruction Program buses ply the streets. In Liberation Square (Trg oslobodenja), with soldiers idly looking on, older men play chess on the plaza – literally on the plaza, using sturdy pieces over a foot high. You shouldn’t be surprised to come upon camera crews filming on the streets two or three times in the course of an average day – Sarajevans are used to being an apple of the international media’s unblinking eye, not to mention of their own local TV stations.
The nightlife scene is active and in your face. On Saturday night, everyone under 30 seems to be out partying like it’s 1999. Out on Marshal Tito Boulevard, the leather-jacketed, vinyl’d and platform-shod hordes stroll up and down in proper Med style, past the corner with the Benetton on one side and the Iranian Cultural Center on the other. As loud dance music blasts away, the locals drink and chat through the night in the outdoor arcades, by the Starboy’s Club (its logo a Starbucks knockoff), the Caffe Queen, the Caffe Bar Mozart, and countless other locales. A poster nearby advertises “Natural Born Killers” at the local Bosna movie house (you can’t make up this kind of stuff).
It helps to think of Sarajevo as a Muslim European city, “the easternmost city of the West.” In places it resembles a poorer version of an Italian town, with mosques standing in for churches. (The leather-jacket-and-high-heels quotient is at least on a par.) The Muslim population, about half of the city’s pre-1991 makeup, has swelled to around three-quarters as most former residents have left, villagers from the provinces taking their places. Though the city still welcomes visitors, you commonly hear that Sarajevo is in the midst of reinventing itself.
The town center is compact; virtually all important sights are within walking distance. The Bascarsija, the old Turkish market quarter, has been completely rebuilt. It’s a tourist trap with a difference, a cobblestoned pedestrian zone filled with hole-in-the-wall shops where engraved shell casings are sold as souvenirs with an eye to the SFOR market, and where the locals themselves head to relax, passing the afternoon sipping Bosnia’s signature atomic coffee in tiny cups in smoky cafés. The Bascarsija’s photogenic main square is filled with enough pigeons and central-casting birdseed vendors to resemble a modest Balkan version of London’s Trafalgar Square. The nearby 16th century landmark Gazi Husrev Bey mosque was closed for renovation during my visit, but worshipers still gathered on the outside porch several times a day to genuflect in prayer.
No, Sarajevo isn’t for escapist tastes. Sarajevo is a real place, and it’s impossible to pass it off as just another charming holiday destination. Even the local tourist association doesn’t want the world to forget what happened, and justifiably so: there’s a lot to be said for honesty and facing up to history. But while there’s more to Sarajevo than just prurient war tourism, it seems set to be the main draw for the foreseeable future. (The city is putting forward a a longshot candidacy to host the Winter Olympics in 2010.)
Even attractive, new-look restaurants in the Bascarsija like To Be Or Not To Be (with the “Or Not” significantly crossed out) display disturbing mass-produced photos and prints, such as one of the National Library in flames (most of the books were destroyed), an “Urbicid 1992” poster, and a trussed-up dove lying on its back as a “Sarajevo Witness.” This certainly raises eyebrows — such is the intent — one should remember that prior to the siege Sarajevo was a cosmopolitan, civilized city, whose residents thought the war could never come there. There is still no proper memorial to the siege victims, but just walking the streets should be enough for any but the most obtuse. One can’t help but be moved by the rows of brass memorial plaques on the outside of every school, giving the years of birth and death for every former student and teacher killed during the siege years. Near my hotel, at the Alija Nametak elementary school on Zaima Sarca street, there are 136 such plaques.
On the sites of the massacres, shopkeepers sell chocolates and eau de toilette, because (as even Americans now know well) one can’t turn the whole city into a memorial park, or spend 24 hours a day in mourning. At the outdoor market where 68 died from the blast of a single shell, an attack that received worldwide attention, gypsies vend their wares, the scent of roasting coffee wafts through the air (Sarajevo’s engineruns on caffeine
) and life goes on, because it has to.
Eventually, you get the impression that Sarajevo is still too busy recovering – and partying when it can – to deal overly much with overly recent history. The less recent history is also a problem. Prior to the siege, Sarajevo was best known for two things: hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics, and being the site of the shot that ignited World War I 70 years before that, when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, in 1914. Today the former Princip Bridge – a small, unremarkable crossing of the narrow, muddy-brown Miljacka River, which bisects the city – is known by its pre-1914 name, the Latin Bridge, and no plaque commemorates Princip’s act; he was, after all, a Bosnian Serb.
One morning I take a casual walking tour through town with Igor Bararon, a young Jewish-Bosnian documentary filmmaker whom I met through a friend of a friend. Bararon, who has a football player’s build and sports a neatly trimmed beard, knows Sarajevo inside and out and takes pleasure in showing it to his visitor.
Igor, who also holds an Italian passport, says he has no strong national feelings of any sort, adding that cultural identity is not a simple matter in Bosnia. “The question of identity here is something really huge – (it’s) all mixed,” he remarks, as we stroll past a small riverside outdoor market where prescription eyeglasses are going for five marks a pair and blouses and stockings for 10. “Nobody here is actually a winner; everyone tries to write the history. There is a big confusion over what’s historically good or bad. Was Princip good or bad? I think we should just keep everything. It is all our history.”
To Sarajevans, the Winter Olympics was the high point of the city’s 20th-century history; in the Bascarsija, for one mark apiece you can still buy an Olympic postcard from that time (exhumed from what cartons, in what back rooms?). “They accepted the Olympic games to heart,” Igor tells me. “Once in your life, you understand that you can do more…and then you’re sad when it’s over.”
Igor directs us to the Old Serbian Orthodox Church on Mula Mustafe Baseskije, a sooty main artery a short walk from the Bascarsija. Formally known as the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, it was officially built in 1539 (so says the tourist association), but its foundations go back to the fifth or sixth century, along with its unusual design featuring second-story inner arcades. The church also boasts a gorgeous 12th-century gold-plated altar, Venetian or Dalmatian icons of equal vintage, and walls lined with a carved wooden iconostasis holding equally impressive murals decorated in gold leaf. If the church was in Italy, tourists would be packing it out all day; here, Igor, the caretaker and I have it to ourselves. The church is still in use; perhaps 25,000 Serbs remain in Sarajevo, one-tenth of the pre-siege total. (The Republika Srpska, on Sarajevo’s doorstep, is almost completely ethnic Serb.)
A few days later, accompanied by an engaging American playwright named Barbara Soros (no relation to George), whom I’d met at a Passover seder held at Sarajevo’s one remaining Jewish synagogue, I take a taxi into the hills southwest of the center to the Vraca memorial park. The park is literally on the edge of the Republika Srpska, which looks bucolic enough from a near distance, with its square houses built of white cement with red roofs amid green hills and trees blossoming in early spring. The only way to tell you’ve crossed to the Serb side is that the road signs switch to Cyrillic.
Barbara, who looks to be in her fifties (I don’t ask), has been living in Sarajevo for a few months, working with Bosnian children as a grief therapist. She usually divides her time between England and Vermont; she doesn’t mind living in Sarajevo, remarking that it’s “easy” compared with other Bosnian towns like Tuzla and Banja Luka.
Vraca is the site of a former war museum/memorial, which was itself bombed by the Serbs into an outwardly intact but hollow wreck of massive white stone blocks, now decorated with graffiti. There are huge holes in the walls and wide gaps in the pavement, which we carefully sidestep. The museum’s interior is a gutted, rubble-filled shell. Barbara and I tentatively explore the interior; I flash on the Blair Witch Project and suggest a hasty exit. We walk outside and look out at the panorama of the Grbavica neighborhood, which looks a proper post-industrial nightmare. “Before the communists,” Barbara tells me, “this was the most beautiful agricultural land outside a major city.”
Barbara rattles off facts and figures with the precision of a tour guide: Of the 600,000 Sarajevans before the siege, only 50,000 remain, among a current population of 380,000. The remainder are relative newcomers from other parts of Bosnia; there are also 15,000 resident foreigners, who for the time being are an essential prop in the local economy. Barbara talks about how Sarajevo is overly dependent on foreign aid, much of which, she says, is mismanaged.
Visiting western war-tourism buffs will find their El Dorado just outside the airport at the Tunnel Museum, at Number One Tuneli Street, on the site of, well, a tunnel, or rather, the tunnel. 800 meters long, it ran underneath the airport runway and for a long while was the only lifeline between the besieged city and the rest of the world. After its completion in 1993, an average of 4000 people used it daily. Most carried in food
Edis Kolar, one son of the family which gave its house over to the Bosnian army for the project (his grandparents still farm the land), now runs the Tunnel Museum
. A 20-meter-long section of the tunnel is preserved just outside, a unique and authentic monument to the siege years.
The first stop is inside the house in a converted living room containing various memorabilia, where you’re shown a film of the Siege’s Greatest Hits, including the city in flames. As I watch, Kolar and the two tour guides accompanying me chat amiably among themselves, looking at a photo album. Film over, we walk down into a basement room containing uniforms, weapons, and the metal cart in which sat Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic while Edis pushed him through the tunnel. I then venture into the tunnel remnant itself; with inclined head, I walk cautiously through – it’s about five feet high, with rough wooden timbers on the side, and chilly. I soon emerge into the Kolar family’s backyard, near a haystack, and wave at grandma and grandpa farming a few yards away. Grandpa waves back. I look in the other direction, and see a troop of US Army soldiers waiting for their tour (a group comes every Saturday). You can arrange a tour through the tourist office. Admission is five marks; it’s another five for a souvenir booklet.
Beauty among the ruins
The National Museum (Zemaljski Muzej) was heavily shelled during the siege and still bears outward scars; inside, about half the museum is closed off, many exhibits are unlabeled and many displays are in a pitiful, neglected state. Still, the fact that it’s open at all is a point of local pride. (The museum is on the Zmaj od Bosne thoroughfare near the Holiday Inn, open Tuesday-Friday plus Sunday from 10-2.)
The exhibits (labeled in Bosnian only) are the usual dreary stuffed and pickled animals and prehistoric and Greco-Roman artifacts. There are some nicely preserved first-century gravestones, if that’s your thing, and a decent medieval section with cannons, coats of mail and the like.
But the Botanical Garden, in the museum courtyard, is an incredibly romantic place, even though – or, rather, because – it’s literally in the midst of destruction. The garden alone makes the museum a must-see attraction in Sarajevo. There are California sequoias, Japanese cherry trees (in full blossom on the Friday the 13th of April I visited), narrow, tall pines, and medieval white stone grave markers bearing inscriptions in an obsolete Balkan alphabet. From the courtyard, you can sit on a park bench between arched trellises and contemplate the ruined, once-and-future Parliament building tower, looking like a post-apocalyptic United Nations, or the shrapnel-scarred exterior of the museum’s facade. But your gaze strays more towards the courtyard oasis. There aren’t many other people around on this fine day, and you think about what this whole traumatized nation could have been, and if it still has a chance to become, in coming generations, what it might be: not an object of the world’s pity and charity, but just a normal European country, with all its tragic, confusing history safely back somewhere in the past.
Sadness, evil and destruction lie alongside beauty and kindness in life; come to Sarajevo and you’ll know both, and perhaps understand certain things better after you leave.
Thus do the past 2000 years of Bosnian history currently take, of necessity, a back seat to the last ten.
IF YOU GO…
A valid passport is all that’s needed for Americans (or just about anyone else) to visit Bosnia, but check current State Department warnings for possible unsafe areas.
The local currency, the convertible marka (BAM or KM), is pegged at an equal value to the now-obsolete German mark (DM); although the mark has given way to the euro in Germany, in Sarajevo the marka sails on. Do make sure you change all your leftover BAM to euros or dollars before you leave, as it’s hard to get rid of BAM outside Bosnia.
Sarajevo can be surprisingly cold for such a southern city, and the weather is frequently cloudy and always changeable. I arrived on April 7 on a warm, sunny afternoon; I left a week later as wet snow was falling. In the city itself, there is noticeable air pollution from the overabundance of cars jamming the streets.
Summers are the high tourist season (such as it is) in Sarajevo, with day-trippers coming in from the Dalmatian coast in Croatia (Dubrovnik is a five-hour drive away; if you’ve never seen the Pearl of the Adriatic, I can’t recommend it highly enough). Summers are also about the only time the local tourist office runs tours of the city, or day trips to other places in Bosnia, though the tourist council hopes to improve matters over the next couple of years.
Many airlines fly to Sarajevo these days, usually via another European hub such as Paris (Air France), Zurich (Swissair), Vienna (Austrian Airlines), Amsterdam (KLM) and London (British Airways); several also route through Zagreb, Croatia. Round-trip fares from the US vary widely, from roughly $400 to $900, depending on the season and current promotions.
As of yet there are no shuttle buses from the airport to downtown; a cab should cost no more than 20 or 25 marks into town, though a bit of haggling is acceptable (locals do pay less).
PLACES TO STAY
Hotels in Sarajevo are comparatively expensive by regional standards due to a current room shortage, but prices may drop a bit in future as new hotels are built and older ones renovated and reopened. Foreigners are charged more than Bosnians in a few hotels (usually the more expensive ones), but this is not a general rule.
The 338-room, 16-suite Holiday Inn (Zmaja od Bosne 4), built for the 1984 Olympics and extensively renovated after the siege, is the premier hotel for visiting businesspeople and diplomats and boasts all the amenities such a crowd expects. Rates start at 150 BAM ($69) for a single, and run through 175 or 250 ($80.50 or $115) for a double, up to 1380 BAM ($635) for a suite. I stayed at a small hotel, the Pansion Hondo (Zaima Sarca 23, tel. 66-65-64) in the hilly Bjelave neighborhood north of the center. Frequented by international journalists (who have plastered their organizations’ stickers on the front door window), it’s reasonably priced – I paid 80 BAM, about $37, for a comfortable single – and serves good breakfasts; it also keeps you in shape, as it’s quite a hike uphill from downtown Sarajevo (you’re rewarded with a great view).
Most hotels take cash only, but a number of ATMs have taken root in the downtown area.
Contact the Tourism Association of the Sarajevo Canton, phone (387) 33 20 06 51 or 20 05 82, or 22 07 21 or 22 07 24, or e-mail email@example.com, fax (387) 33 53 22 81. (Request their brochure ‘Sarajevski hoteli,’ which is in Bosnian but easily decipherable.) Another useful contact is the city’s Tourist Information Center at Zelenih beretki 22a (tel. 387-33-220-724); the staff is friendly and eager to assist.
EATING AND DRINKING
A short field guide to the various places to get fed and watered in Sarajevo:
A buregdzinica serves burek, a cheap and filling tube of layered dough with several choices of meat, cheese and vegetable fillings (I always went for the zeljanica, or spinach, variety).
A cevabdzinica serves cevap (or cevapcici), which are mildly spiced ground beef patties. One of the best places for them is Cevabdzinica Hodzic, at Bravadziluk 34 in the Bascarsija; it suffers from the occasional rude waiter, but the food is authentic and good – grilled beef and veal, yogurt, beer and soda.
An ascinica is an inexpensive eatery serving various local specialties, including soups and grilled meats.
The Aeroplan restaurant in the Bascarsija scores well on food, service and ambiance. If you want to have a bit of a more atmospheric meal with the locals, head for the Restoran Visegrad at Halaci 14 (at Tabaci, near the tram line) at one far corner of the Bascarsija. The second floor is less crowded.
A slasticarna is a sweetshop, serving coffee, cake and ice cream.
For a taste of hip young Sarajevo, stop in at the Metropolis restaurant/milk bar at Marshal Tito 21 (tel. 203-315); besides reasonably priced sandwiches and local specialties, they serve breakfasts along with “noble sort of English tea.” For incurable ironists, the Caffe Elvis is at 43 Mula Mustafe Baseskije a short walk from the cathedral; more local specialties available (sorry, no fried peanut-butter-and-banana burek).
The local beer, named for the city, is produced by a large brewery dating to 1864; it’s nothing special, but drinkable enough. Regarding wine, the Croatian variety (commonly available) can be decent but for better quality at an equally good price, sample a bottle from Slovenia.
Watch out for ‘pizzerias’ which use ketchup in place of a tomato-sauce base; some do, some don’t.
Sarajevo’s water is perfectly drinkable – locals can be seen refilling bottles and drinking straight from the many public fountains around town, and I had no ill effects from it myself – but bottled water and sodas are readily available in shops for those who prefer this option.
For yummy takeout halvah and other sweet treats, visit Butik-Badem at Abadziluk 12 in the Bascarsija (try the pistachio halvah),
or the Egipat sweetshop at Ferhadija 29 (great baklava).
Finally, don’t leave Sarajevo without sampling the local Turkish coffee – sorry, Bosnian coffee, or kafa/kahva – available at several kafanas in the Bascarsija and elsewhere. Order at the counter, take a seat, and in a few minutes you’ll be brought a tray holding a small brass open-mouthed pot called a dzezva (pronounced “jezzvah”) filled with grounds and boiled water. This you pour into a tiny cup in which two sugar cubes have been placed; stir, wait for the grounds to settle, then sip the rocket fuel slowly and thoughtfully. If you need a larger sugar rush you can nibble on a sickly-sweet gelatinous pink lump placed on the side, and chase with the glass of tap water also thrown in. For all this, you usually pay one mark (tipping isn’t usual). If smoking bothers you (and if it really does, you should reconsider visiting Bosnia at all), look for a seat outside if weather allows. If Bosnian coffee isn’t your thing, chocolate-laced cappuccino (often served in a proletarian mud-brown cup) is widely available.
By default, the place to shop is the Bascarsija, which is basically one big souvenir bazaar selling all manner of brass coffee sets, leather goods, carved wooden boxes, and, in a nod to the SFOR market, engraved shell casings (some of them quite impressive, though you might have some explaining to do going through airport security; check out the masterful work done in-house at the tiny shop at Bravadziluk 12). Among other small items, I bought a snappy-looking crimson T-shirt bearing the logo of the Sarajevo Fudbalski Klub stitched in white.
Sarajevo is well-supplied with photo stores for developing used rolls or buying new ones (8 to 10 marks apiece).
For Jewish-Bosnian specialties, including facsimile copies of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, check out the Melanie shop at M.M. Baseskije 38, within the Galerija Novi Hram, a Jewish-affiliated art gallery/cultural center.
Cardea, a large shop at Curciluk Veliki 34 on the edge of the Bascarsija, is a hip place that sells hand-sewn original designs for sheets and pillowcases, and an assortment of cutting-edge posters, at very reasonable prices; they also do special orders. (I picked up a cover for a throw pillow, black with the sewn-on word “da” in thick red script, for a mere 18 marks; stuffed with a pillow form in Austin, it graces my den today.)
For English-language books and more, the best place to go is a bookstore/CD outlet/café called (directly enough!) Buybook, downtown near the river at Radiceva 4.
After living five years in Slovenia, Wes Eichenwald now writes from Austin.