Sarajevo, the city that drifted in and out of the headlines on our TV screens for years on end during the early 90’s, always reminding us that somewhere, not so far away, something terrible was happening. Reminding us that children just like us (at the time), were suffering immeasurable pain and growing up amidst devastation. The images of empty streets with makeshift barricades, families desperately scurrying across the main street in Sarajevo under sniper fire, and the burning remains of the Council building remain imprinted on my mind so vividly, even now, some twenty something years later.
We landed on the tarmac at Sarajevo airport early in the morning and were instantly struck by an air of calm. The stunning backdrop of mountains in the distance, coupled with a lucky bright blue cloudless-sky greeted us. As we journeyed our way towards the hotel in the old city, we were struck by the many contrasts of this city.
Small traditional houses with terracotta rooftops nestled amidst lush green mountains in the distance, modern sky scrapers standing next to abandoned buildings bearing the scars of sniper fire, grand Hungarian-inspired buildings, set against a backdrop of traditional Ottoman architecture, with minarets towering in the sky . Through a single road, Sarajevo will tell you it’s history, all you need to do, is to look out for it.
We ventured into the old town of Baščaršija as coffee shops and stalls opened their doors for their first customers. For the next hour, we sipped on Bosnian coffee and watched the old town go about it’s day. There was an Istanbul-esque vibe about it, the Ottoman mosques dotted about, always reminding you of the city’s Ottoman ancestors. But Baščaršija was far calmer, even by mid-day, when tour groups arrived, walking tours commenced, and locals went about their day picking up bread from local bakeries and catching sips of coffee on their way; there was a calmness. A calmness we loved.
It’s hard to forget what this city has endured, not so long ago. After the fall of Yugoslavia and a Bosnian independence referendum, Sarajevo was besieged by the Yugoslavian People’s Army. The siege lasted a total of 1425 days, up until February 1996. The city was encircled, snipers nestled themselves on vantage points on the outskirts of the city, shelling and fighting bought chaos to the city. Streets became war zones. Starvation was rife, with no proper way in or out of the city, the population were trapped with no supplies. Many who attempted to cross the makeshift borders into neighbouring towns were killed instantly.
The not-so-distant bloody history of Sarajevo is still very visible today, from burnt-out buildings to bullet-ridden walls. I could not help but wonder how the siege had affected all those we conversed with. Those my age were just growing children at the time, today, many are heads of households.
[The Kovaci cemetery is home to some of the victims of the war, alongside the grave of Bosnia’s first president Alija Izetbegovic, who died in 2003]
There are so many signs of recovery here. The modern part of the city connects itself so seamlessly with the old town. As the cobblestones give way to pavements, you’ll find streets lined with shops, glossy malls, and young Sarajevans hanging out in hip cafes – a sight almost unimaginable some 20 years ago. The Olympic bob-sleigh/luge tracks built for the ’84 Olympics are finding new life and becoming a canvas for the local art scene. International brands have set up shop and international investors have set sights on the city, the tourism industry is steadily growing, mainly through support of investors from Gulf countries. Outside the national Library sits a replica of a Cable Car compartment – part of a new cable car service due to arrive in Sarajevo in the near future. It will bring the cable car back to Sarajevo (another piece of history destroyed by the war), transporting passengers to the top of Mount Trebvić.
There is no rush to forget what happened here, Sarajevans are preserving their history, still determined for the world to know their story. The “Tunnel Of Hope” – the only lifeline for this city under siege still stands today, you can walk through part of the original underground tunnel to understand it’s role in the cities survival. Through an assortment of Museums and Galleries, Sarajevo’s recent war history is being told.
There’s something so special about Sarajevo, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know so many other people feel the same way. Perhaps it’s an air of simplicity? The kindness of it’s people? The untouched natural beauty spanning miles and miles in the distance? Or perhaps it the knowledge of what this city has been through in it’s lifetime? Power struggles, a mixed identity, independence, war and ultimately recovery? An endless journey to pick up the pieces.
We fell in love with the city, so much more than we thought we would. I was so much more excited about Mostar when we set out for our trip, but after just a few hours in Sarajevo, I never wanted to leave. We said goodbye with a heavy heart and a vow to return to the beautiful city once again. Hopefully soon.
Here’s our traditional travelling chalkboard shot:
Some tips if you’re visiting Sarajevo :
- Bring comfortable shoes! I can’t stress this enough. There are plenty of hills/steep climbs/cobbled streets that make for a challenging walk. We lived in trainers and our feet thanked us for it!
- If you are travelling with someone with mobility issues/children, stay in a hotel that is not on a hill (check on TripAdvisor). We stayed in the wonderful Hotel Aziza but it was set on a steep hill.
- Sarajevo is safe! There’s a strange misconception that the city is still at war – it’s not. The city is safe, just exercise the usual caution you would anywhere in the world and you’ll be fine!
- There is no Uber in Sarajevo but there is a number you can call for a taxi. Red taxis (with font on the bonnet) have meters. You can also get around by tram.
- We found it very difficult to find a Sim card in Sarajevo – we found one shop near the Gazi Husarev Mosque in the old town that sold them.
- Halal food : Bosnia is a majority Muslim country and Halal food is easy to find. You can confirm Halal status with restaurant owners.
- If like us you make a pilgrimage to the land of Golden Arches every time you step foot in a Muslim country, rejoice, McDees is Halal in Bosnia (according to staff at our hotel)
Don’t forget to check out my post on 10 things to do in Sarajevo!