Finally I did it, I bought tickets to Sarajevo. I wanted to visit the place since a very long time ago, I think the city was asleep like a ghost inside me. Perhaps since the time when I had to write an assignment about the war in my last year at high school. It was for the Philosophy class. My teacher, Isabel, was a very intelligent woman who wanted her pupils to learn about politics, about Human rights and about the craziness of some powerful men who decide who lives and who dies.
There were several groups in the class, each of them had a different conflict assigned. Mine was the Balkans war, ongoing at that time, I was seventeen years old in the year 1994. Isabel asked me to form the study group with a solitary boy, who didn’t have any friends and was often the target of other teenagers’ jokes. I accepted it because I liked Isabel, but I was not very happy. I wanted to form group with my class’ friends, and I could foresee the boredom of having to work with this guy. He was not even the typical super intelligent nerd that could do all the job but a very soft and out of the world tall and clumsy teenager. We used to meet at the school’s library. I tried to show all the kindness I was able to express at that rebellious period of my life, but I must admit I didn’t do great efforts to become friends. I was starting to realize that this was a very important assignment and the subject just took my entire attention. I was fascinated about the complexity of the region and the different historical events the city of Sarajevo had gone through. I did most of the research and the writing, I only asked him to research on some facts that interested me less, also because we counted with a limited amount of time until the delivery date. He was happy to follow my instructions, he didn’t want to put much of himself in it and I never minded to give directions, so we finally did exactly what I wanted. I don’t remember if it was a good job, I know that I got very good marks on Philosophy that year and I do remember Isabel congratulating us both after the presentation. I would love to be able to read that assignment now. Who knows where it ended up.
It was a four day trip in November. I filled my case with winter clothes expecting to be very cold at that time of the year and I took my Serbian Airlines flight, stopping in Belgrade. The second part of the journey was very short, just thirty minutes, an intense experience in a very old and small plane which bumped very much like a plastic bag being fooled by the wind. In order to stop thinking about a plane crash, I looked through the window the whole time and indulged myself with the view of the beautiful Bosnian hilly landscape.
The Airport was small and very basic, few other airplanes were parked near the Terminal. I think I could remember the image of this place from the TV when the conflict was on the news almost all day, or maybe could it be part of my imagination trying to picture this airport when reading Venuto al Mondo (Twice Born) by Margaret Mazzantini.
I read on a site that there was a bus going to the city, somewhere outside the airport, in the nearby neighbourhood. I asked the man at the information desk, there was no bus, only taxi, he said. I insisted that I knew there was a bus and finally he told me how to get there. It took me some time to find the bus stop, I had to ask a couple of times to some locals. I chose to take the bus not because I wanted to save money, I knew the taxis were not expensive, but because I wanted to mingle with the people from Sarajevo, since minute one.
Finally the bus arrived, a very old and crowded vehicle. I tried to ask the driver where I had to stop to get to the hostel, he could not explain me exactly. A woman in the bus heard my conversation with the driver and even if she didn’t speak any English she tried her best in order to help me asking for directions in her beautiful language to other people in the bus. They were all curious about me and wanted to help. They are not used yet to tourists, I could already feel their kindness towards foreign people that only the time I passed in Sarajevo would later confirm. Only the second day in the city I realized that the bus was indeed a trolley bus actioned with electricity. It was connected to a net of very messy cables which extended themselves over several kilometres through some parts of the city.
We arrived just in the centre, in the other side of the Old Town. The bus driver signalled a beautiful bridge a few meters ahead and indicated to me that I had to cross the river in order to arrive to the hostel. I would later realize that that was the Latin bridge, one of the most important bridges in the World. It was there where in 1914 Gravilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, beginning World War I.
Crossing the bridge I entered in the Old Town, the most beautiful area in Sarajevo. Consisting of a crossroad of narrow alleys full of tea houses where locals and few tourists sip coffee. There are many things in the Bosnian culture inherit from the Ottoman times, coffee is one of them. Bosnian coffee is just as the Turkish, strong and delicious.
In this lovely area of the city you feel transported to a tiny Istanbul, a couple of beautiful mosques remind you of the main religion of the country, Islam. Even though the majority of the population is Muslim, there are many differences with other Muslim countries. I saw very few women wearing the hijab, I would say ten per cent of them. Men and women smoke and drink alcohol in public spaces and there are many bars, even in the Old Town. The majority of women dress in the western fashion, they wear makeup and smoke just as the men. If you didn’t hear the beautiful prayers from the minarets at down, you would not realize you are in a country where the majoritarian religion is Islam.
Fifty-four percent of the Muslims in Bosnia are non-denominational Muslims, so to say, they do not belong to or do not self-identify with a specific Islamic denomination.
The best part of the Old Town is that it hasn’t been yet polluted by well-known western food and beverage chains like Starbucks or McDonalds. The place keeps its original and ancient charm. It is of course a tourist place, and you will find many little souvenirs shops, but what makes the place authentic is that locals still hang out there, you see a lot of them eating and drinking in the exquisite little restaurants and coffee houses.
The delicious aromas coming out from the modest restaurants awake any mortal’s stomach. I read on the internet that I had to try the Bosanski Burek cooked in the traditional fashion, which is in large metal containers cooked slowly under hot coal. I found a place that looked authentic, very modest and with only Bosnian people as customers. The good thing about Burek is that it has a wide variety of fillings to choose from, so if you are a vegetarian, you can order the spinach and cheese, or the potato filling or even the one with pumpkin. I was not disappointed, they were all just delicious. Bosnian food is very diverse, it is a mix of western and eastern cultures. There is a lot of meat of course but you can find many vegetarian dishes as well like the Satara (grilled peppers, aubergines, onions and tomatoes) Duvek and Grasac (Vegetable stews) and a wide range of cheeses. We tried many varieties of cheeses and they were all superb, let alone the bread. Bread is one of the best things in Sarajevo together with its people.
Following our journey we climbed the side of a hill just outside the Old Town, we were attracted by multitude of 1-meter-marble white monoliths. We understood then that it was a Muslin cemetery and those monoliths were tombs. From closely we read the dates on the stones, a lot of them died at a young age and most of them during the Sarajevo Siege, 1991 to 1996. It was really overwhelming to see all those tombs climbing on the side of the hill. So many killed, so many families broken.
From there we climbed to the top of one of the hills; cosy two story-houses filled the side of the hill. As you may know Sarajevo is in a valley surrounded by mountains, this geographical fact was also one of the reasons the snipers were so protected during the siege and could shoot with no discretion from the top of the mountains. People down in town were entirely at their mercy, like animals in a horrendous hunting game.
Now the view from the mountains was just breathe-taking, on the other side of the hills you can see the extension of the Bosnian fields, green and hilly, with its rivers wriggling freely. Looking into the city with the sun light coming down and the hypnotic sound of the prayers from the numerous mosques, it was hard to believe that once that place was Hell. From that height the city looks peaceful and gorgeous, you feel you have always belonged to that place.
Before having dinner I went to a bar and ordered a Ozujsko Pivot, nice and light. The place looked like an Irish pub, they were even preparing the stage for some live music. Everybody smokes, and when I say everybody it is literally everybody. The ventilation is not good so my eyes quickly started itching. I reminded myself of one of the things I like the most of living in the Netherlands, and that is that it is forbidden to smoke in public spaces. You can only smoke joints in Coffee shops and that’s about it.
I drunk my beer and went off to eat in one of the cosy little restaurants. The table next to mine was full of young people eating, drinking and singing what sounded like traditional old songs. They were having a lot of fun. Bosnian language sounds a lot like Russian for a complete ignorant of the Slavic languages like myself. I ordered grilled peppers and onions, bread and cheese. Again, a great choice. Vegetables had a lot of taste, I guess in Bosnia they do not know yet what it is to eat plastic veggies grown with artificial light in huge glass houses. Lucky people!
After dinner I decided to drink a glass of local wine at a wine bar close to the hostel, it was a tiny place, there were four high tables, only two of them were occupied. One by a young couple and the other one by three loud and cheerful guys. This last table was next to the bar, and the guys were chatting with the bar attendant. They were clearly friends. I sat at one of the free tables and asked the bar attendant to choose a good local wine for me. He brought me the glass, it was a good wine, but could not compete with the quality of those from the well-known wine countries in the Mediterranean.
The guys started talking to me, they were curious about the foreigner. We ended up having a very nice conversation, one of them spoke very good English, he then told me he had grown up in Denmark but decided to return to Bosnia a couple of years back. He had always felt a foreigner in the Northern country and only felt at home in Bosnia. He truly loved the country and the culture. He said here he could feel the warmth opposite to the coldness of the Northern people. They were all Muslims and they were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. They said they felt the growing hate wave of Islamophobia in Europe and they didn’t like it. They felt they were discriminated when people found out they were Muslim, even if their belief didn’t differentiate much their way of living from that of a Christian.
After a while the young couple left and a mid-age couple occupied the table. They were in their late fifties. They looked like foreigners, the woman wore the hijab and they spoke in perfect English to the bar attendant. The man was drinking beer and the woman a transparent liquid. From my place I could not see what she was exactly drinking, I thought it was tonic water or something similar. But then when they asked for a second round I realized she was drinking Vodka with lemonade. It really surprised me, it was the first time I saw a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and drinking alcohol. We started a nice conversation all together, the guys, the couple and me. They came from Bahrain. I felt very ashamed because I had never heard of that country before, some of the guys neither did so we looked it up on the bar’s PC. For those of you that don’t know this country either, it happens to be an small island situated between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The couple were on holidays and were happy to be able to relax, drink and smoke in public far from the strict rules of their country. The woman showed me some pictures of their daughters. They had three daughters, two of them were studding medicine in China. Why China? I asked. Because universities were cheaper and because they wanted them to have more freedom too. In the pictures I saw two very beautiful young girls, driving cars and smiling. The parents were really proud of them.
At midnight I decided to go back to the hostel, it was time to go to bed. I had had a really nice evening chatting with these people. I had learnt many new things so I went to bed with a smile on my face. I can say that, from my experience, Sarajevo is a very safe city for a woman traveling solo. It was my only day alone in the city, the next day my partner was joining me.
The next day we decided to join one of the tours organised by the hostel where they were going to explain us more about the city and the time of the siege. We were a group of nine tourists, all of them very young people in their early twenties. I was happy to see that this new generation was interested in the war and in a place like Sarajevo. We all fit in a mini-van where the guide, a 21 year-old guy, was also the driver. The first stop was the famous tunnel. The Bosnian army had built the tunnel in order to connect the city of Sarajevo, which was completely cut off by Serbian forces, to the Bosnian held territory just at the other side of the airport. Through this tunnel they could smuggle weapons and food. Now it is a museum, you can walk 3 or 4 meters through the tunnel, the rest has been closed for security reasons as it crossed the land just underneath the airport.
In the museum they played a film about the war where we could see videos of the snipers shooting. There was a Russian journalist who was later prosecuted for having shot people along with the snipers during one of the interviews.
We then visited the old bobsleigh track, one of the few remains of the Winter Olympic Games of 1984. We walked through the track for some kilometres, it was a surrealistic walk. The track is now decorated with graffiti which contrasts with the wild nature of the surroundings. There, we found a woman with an axe cutting wood.
We went to visit the Jewish cemetery. From the top of the small synagogue the first shooting of the siege took place. It was during a demonstration in front of the parliament, gunmen shot and killed two young women in the crowd, Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić. They are regarded as the first casualties of the siege. Vrbanja Bridge, where they were killed, has since been renamed in their honour.
To finish the tour we went to the top of one of the hills where we could contemplate the numerous Muslim tombs, scattered by many sites of the city, like seas of marble.
The sadness of the past events contrasts with the cheerful character of the people of Sarajevo. Everywhere you go people treat you with a smile trying to speak their best English in order to be able to communicate with foreigners. They are relatively curious about tourists but they never push trying to sell something or to get anything from you. People chat and drink in crowded bars, they seem to have forgotten the war, even when we know it cannot be true. They have decided to forgive, when forgetting is not possible.
Next day we visited the new City hall. It used to be the central library before the war, the bookshelves were full of very old documents. The building was burnt down by the Serbian army during the war and all documents were lost. With money from the EU and especially from Spain and Austria the building has been renovated. It has recovered its ancient beauty but the paint is too fresh. It is still a striking building but some of the ancient charm has disappeared with the flames forever. In the basement of the building there is an exhibition telling the history of the city of Sarajevo, I strongly recommend visitors to see it, you will learn a lot about Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The interior of the building is very beautiful as well and some couples even choose it as backdrop for their wedding pictures
The trip has finished, we didn’t have the chance to visit Mostar this time, but we know we will be back soon. I left with the strong feeling that it was not enough that I needed more time to get to know this country better. Sarajevo has taken our hearts completely, for the reasons I have outlined above and many more which I will not be able to write in here. A mix of cultures, a place where very sad events have taken place in the past but where life pumps around every corner.
Photos: Miki Peraleda CC BY-SA 4.0