Over the years, when thinking of Sarajevo, I somehow always recall the tragic events of the 90’s. My understanding of the events people went through during those years was quite modest, but I always wished I could one day walk in its streets, meet & chat with locals and along the way grasp a bit more knowledge about Sarajevo complex history while discovering the new Sarajevo.
Without going back to those years in too many details (many have done it & will do it in much better ways that I would ever be able to), I wish in this blog to share stories & impressions gather during our stay.
First impressions…our arrival
Reaching Sarajevo after having crossed the tortuous mountain chain that separate Bosnia from Serbia, brought to reality the little understanding I had of the city layout: a long 15 km stretch of houses & buildings sprawling on both sides of the tiny Miljaka river & around this narrow valley, mountains wherever you look. This ideal set for the Winter Olympic games of 1984 took a whole new meaning and consequences on its 350’000 inhabitants in 1992 when the city was cut from the world and fired
at for over three consecutive years.
In the same time, seen from our balcony, Sarajevo has the allure of any modern city where east meets west, mosque and churches side by side. Only when getting up close, even today more than 15 years after the end of the conflict, the tragic past pop up right in front of your eyes. Bullet & mortar impacts are visible on most of the private houses & residential buildings; most of the owner having simply “filled” the holes caused by the impacts with some cement or simply abandon the house as such. Standing proudly between the polka dot houses, fully renovated monuments & religious edifice as well as modern edifice give a completely different feel of the place.
Sarajevo is a city of contrast, where the minute you think you understood a specific point; the exact opposite takes place in front of your eyes.
An ottoman feel … sweet and strong as the Bosnian coffee
The Bosnian coffee, which can be easily compared to the Turkish one, is served in a traditional copper regalia and served on a tiny copper tray with an empty cup to pour the coffee in
& a sweet delight made of rose.
Seated at one of the numerous old town’s café, it is hard not to associate the place and its people with this perfect balance between the sweetness of the Turkish delight and the robustness of the coffee.
Sarajevo, founded by the Turks in the XV century (Saraj means palace) has kept its strong ottoman feel with its tiny little cobbled streets filled with shops & cafes, beautifully ornamented mosques, fountain with fresh spring waters and overall lay back feel where it is easy to simply seat and watch the life taking place around you.
The people are warm & welcoming, and seated in terrace, it rarely takes more than five minutes before you start chatting with the people seated at the table next to yours. Just like they are sweet, people from Sarajevo are strong, as under a weapon embargo and without much formal army, they still managed to survive through the siege, although they were mostly cut from the world without much support from the international community.
Within a few hundred meters, the four religions are equally represented; the mosque is a few meters from the synagogue itself across
the Orthodox Church and the Catholic cathedral a few more meters down the street. When chatting with people, one of the first thing that keeps coming back, is that religion is somehow not & has never really been the question even though the conflict in the 90’s was misperceived by some as a Muslim vs. Christian conflict.
Before 1992, mixed weddings represented over 50% of the weddings & today you can see that even in cemetery, it was space that determined who would be buried where and not religion as the graves of Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics who died during the siege have been set side by side (black graves being the one mostly used by orthodox & Catholics and white grave by Muslims)
Projected back into history
Not much a fan of tour but there is only so much you can do on your own and when it comes to recent events, touring the city with a local guide seems to be the best way to go.
Opted for a three hours tour in a small group (we were three couples) together with a very talkative guide who at the time of the events was still a
The tour takes you throughout the city, from the Olympic stadium, through the old city and along the sniper alley, all the way to the tunnel which was used during the war to bring supplies from the “free zone” into Sarajevo.
It is not so much the sites in themselves which moved me, but the feelings expressed by our guide, mix of anger and incomprehension toward their own people & the UN troops that were deployed then. To quote a few of his words “you couldn’t expect that your neighbor would come and kill you, we were not prepared for that”, “there was 70’000 UN troops just watching – it is not the same thing when you watch two armies fighting and a massacre”
The 800 meter long tunnel hand-built under the UN controlled Sarajevo airport make you think, even in the midst of atrocities, people find ways to keep hope alive & supplies in, although it meant walking up to 15km all the way to the suburb of Sarajevo along the sniper alley, and then down in a tunnel often flooded to the other side referred to as “free Bosnia” where the black market was king.
The family of our guide had to do this journey twice per week in order to survive although authorizations to cross were not always granted. During the conflict, an average of 4000 people per day used the tunnel which has now become a museum visited by both locals and foreigners alike.
As for most people, peace is there, but they can still feel the aftermath of the conflict, most industries were destroyed in a country with little agricultural activities which is one of the factor that led to even today a high unemployment rate (over 40% of the population is unemployed). In the political system inherited from the Dayton peace agreement in 1995 (2 ethnic mini states overseen by an international administrator with representatives from all three ethnic groups), agreement of all parties is needed to reach a decision and according to our guide, with over 200 ministers the task is everything but easy.
Walking through its streets – a new Sarajevo is unfolding
Amidst the economic turbulence, Sarajevo seems somehow superficially protected and offers a lay back feel with a vibrant epicurean touch. Its film festival put it back on the international cultural scene but
it is through its streets, going out to café and restaurants that you truly feel this vibe of creativity and strong will to enjoy life whatever what. The super kitsch Zlatna Ribica café whose deco is as if you had walk into a second hand trade boutique turned into a bar (picture large mirrors, tons of various copper and silver items, baroque style lights here and there, sewing machines, concert tickets, old papers …etc) is one of its illustration. The Karuzo restaurant is another one of these tiny hidden gems: boat interior styled, one man show (the owner who run the place on his own, cooking, chatting, serving the food & making sure you have a great time!) with a fantastic creative menu (mixing Balkans and Asian food).
“To be or not to be” is another unpretentious tiny place, where we ended by chance, Bosnian style deco & good value for money menu.
And the list could go on and on … might it be day or night you always end up finding the perfect tiny place where to relax & enjoy the unique Sarajevo eagerness for life. Fact sheet – few places which I can only warmly
Accommodation: Pension Harmony
Restaurants: Karuzo & “to be or not be”
Cafes: the old ones by pigeon square and then the tiny one in the back alleys of the old town, café Tito & Zlatna Ribica
Museum: history museum, tunnel museum
How we got there: bus from Belgrade Serbia – around 7hours+ (a great journey!)
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