Sarajevo: Moving forward even as scars of war remain
Sarajevo is a city to wander, not tour. A walk from the south side of the Miljacka River across to the meandering lanes of artisans in the old town and up through the headstone- and tree-dotted mountains that ring the city can take you through the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, to communism, war, devastation and rebirth.
While there’s no escaping reminders of the devastating war that racked Bosnia-Herzegovina and its Yugoslav neighbors in the 1990s (and missing a chance to learn about that complex, little-understood war from those who experienced it would be a mistake), the dangers of that dark period are long past. Sarajevo has emerged as a destination for East-meets-West culture and architecture, as well as a budget-friendly outdoor Mecca. Despite its violent recent history, Bosnia today is a safe destination with low crime and a developing tourist infrastructure.
The beauty of Sarajevo, nestled in a dramatic, narrow mountain valley, was in peril in the early 1990s, when Serb forces pummeled the city from the heights of the Dinaric Alps that explode out of the valley, towering over the city within easy mortar and sniper range. You don’t need a guide to find somber reminders of the siege, which lasted nearly four years, killing an estimated 10,000 people. Bullet-pocked buildings are everywhere, and some ravaged homes have not been rebuilt. Entire hillsides gleam white in the afternoon sun, thousands of graves reflecting the light. A walk through one of the cemeteries is a good way to reflect upon the scale of the killing. Each grave bears a date in the early 1990s, many of the dead cut down in the prime of life. There are guided tours for those interested in learning more about the war, and a section of the hand-dug underground tunnel that was a lifeline during the war is open to visit.
While the war is painfully recent, if you tread lightly, many Bosnians will talk openly about what they experienced (and English is fairly widely spoken, at least in Sarajevo). It’s a warm, open culture and chatting with your neighbor on the train or at a cafe is likely to deepen your experience.
Talking about both the charms and the problems of the Balkans, one journalist I met put it this way: “We are a nice people, but every 50 years we grow fangs.”
While learning about the darkness of the recent past is an important facet of any trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina, there’s much to experience beyond war history.
Sarajevo has a blossoming cafe culture. Down many a stone walkway in the old city there are tiny coffee shops serving everything from Bosnian coffee (much like its Turkish equivalent — dark, strong and chewy at the end) to every kind of Italian espresso drink. Bars abound with the omnipresent local Sarajevsko beer on tap (the dark version is tasty, if you can find it).
In warm weather, having a drink outdoors and watching the world stroll by in the old city is a fine way to pass the time. Make sure to try the ubiquitous cevapi, small sausages (the best cevapi joints use veal) served in fresh flatbread with onions.
Bosnia has a large Muslim population, but also many Orthodox Christians, Catholics and a small Jewish community. Within a few blocks in Sarajevo you’ll find houses of worship for all four religions. Local residents will point proudly to the Orthodox churches left intact, even as the country was at war with Serb fighters, themselves overwhelmingly Orthodox. (Despite
the preponderance of mosques and churches, Bosnia is a largely secular country.)
Alternately dominated by the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, Sarajevo is a mosaic of contrasting architectural styles, from the grand, Austrian interior of the 19th century building that now houses the Sarajevsko brewery south of the Miljacka to the domed Turkish-style mosques around nearly every corner of the old town.
Even a short stroll can take you through several centuries’ worth of architecture.
The lush, vertiginous mountains around Sarajevo provide ample hiking and mountain biking opportunities and snowmelt from the alps means summer whitewater rafting.
In winter the same mountain that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics now boasts some of the best-value skiing in Europe less than 20 miles from Sarajevo. Even an urban hike up one of the many winding mountain roads can be rewarding, as the city limits stretch far into the mountains, where many Sarajevans are still rebuilding more than 15 years after the war. Your sweat will be rewarded with stunning views. A few cafes dot the mountaintops offering cold beer and hot coffee.
One way to enjoy Bosnia’s natural beauty and avoid the crowds is to book a ticket for the winding, scenic train ride to Mostar. In less than three hours, the aged train, a bit battered but perfectly comfortable and blissfully free of tourists (most take tour buses or drive), chugs through the green, forested mountains of the interior, through a dramatic river canyon, where blue-green water courses below vertical granite cliffs, and into Mostar’s Mediterranean landscape of white-washed mountains. It might be the best deal in Bosnia: A round trip will set you back about 8 euros.
Mostar is a city many people will recognize from brutal war footage 20 years ago. Croat and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) fighters lobbed shells at each other across the river, and Croat forces pointlessly blew up the Stari Most (old bridge), a white stone Ottoman-era bridge of no military significance. It has since been rebuilt and is now the centerpiece of the city.
There is a museum on the edge of the bridge chronicling its history, though if you want a quick run-down with footage of the bridge’s destruction, an adjacent bookstore plays a free video on a continuous loop. (It’s polite to at least buy a postcard after watching the video.)
Today, tourists have replaced warring soldiers, the old town is cleaned up and gleaming with white-cliffed mountains as a backdrop and a pristine river below, into which members of the Mostar Diving Club daily hurl themselves from the bridge’s 70-foot parapet.
The word is out on Mostar, and you’ll share your bridge walk with many a fellow traveler, but it’s easy to escape down one of the old city’s many crooked lanes, find a riverside cafe and grab a meal or a drink while watching the river go by.
Outside the center, there are many reminders of the war in smashed buildings. Relations between the Bosniaks and Croats are still tense. Although they live in the same city, they have separate postal systems, separate phone systems and separate school times.
As one Mostar native lamented, “The division is in people’s heads.”
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Know & Go
• Getting there: Sarajevo has an international airport, though few direct flights, so expect to connect through another major city.
• Currency: Bosnia, still mostly a cash economy, even in Sarajevo, uses the convertible mark (KM). The exchange rate is fixed at 1.95 KM to one euro, according to Sarajevo’s official tourism website. Euros are sporadically accepted, and credit cards are accepted in touristy areas and at larger hotels, but it’s best to have cash in hand. ATMs are easy to find in Sarajevo.
• Getting around: Taxis are abundant and public transportation is comfortable. Trolley bus and tram tickets are available at kiosks (single fare 1.60 KM) or in the tram or trolley bus (single fare 1.80 KM). Tickets bought at a kiosk need to be punched as you get on. Bus or mini-bus tickets are available on the bus at 1.60 KM and do not require punching. Before boarding, make sure you have a valid ticket or buy one from the driver. Otherwise, a conductor can charge you with a sanction fee.
• Hotels: Expect a lot of comfort for 50 euros and very acceptable accommodations in the 35 euro range. Sarajevo’s tourism site lists lodging by category from hotels to campsites. Visit sarajevo-tourism.com/eng.
• Food: Besides local cuisine, which includes tasty sausages called cevapi, Sarajevo offers international restaurants as well as pizza and hamburger eateries.
• Tours: Hotels can provide information on walking tours and Sarajevo Siege tours, including tours of the Sarajevo War Tunnel.
• Tourism information: For Sarajevo, visit www.sarajevo-tourism.com; for Bosnia-Herzegovina, see www.uta.ba and select English.