- Written by Mike Fraiman
A Walk Through Sarajevo's Past and Future
The Bosnian capital has transformed its wartime scars into a defining, harrowing, forward-looking cultural experience for travellers of any kind.
Story and photos by Dario De Santis
When you mention Sarajevo to anyone over the age of 30, they won’t think of anything but the war. I was only a child when the world witnessed the brutality of the Bosnian War on television, so my memories are blurry. On the verge of visiting the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect.
Certainly the city still shows many scars from its nearly four years of siege, the longest in modern warfare: buildings ravaged by fire, houses torn to shreds by bombs, bullet-strewn facades, ruins covered by garbage heaps. On some buildings, placards have been put up bearing the names of victims who were bombed inside. Look down and you’ll see the Sarajevo Roses, concrete scars caused by bombshells that have been filled with red resin wherever they claimed a life.
The best place to learn what the siege meant to Sarajevans is the Tunnel of Hope, which is better visited with a local guide. I joined a tour organized by the official tourist information office in the old town. Darko, my guide, was one when he left Sarajevo for Italy with his mother and brother soon before the war broke out. Alternating between impeccable English and Italian, he explained how this tunnel, dug by Sarajevans underneath a private house, was the only way in and out the city, locked almost entirely by Serbian forces. Every day, hundreds of people would walk through this claustrophobic tunnel, reminiscent of a mine, to provide their fellow citizens food, water, medicine and ammunition. People’s reaction upon visiting the tunnel is often incredulity and shame; I found it hard to accept that this horror happened in Europe only 20 years ago.
The picture I have drawn so far, however, is incomplete and would convey a misrepresented idea of what Sarajevo is today—that is, a pleasant and bustling city. Despite the legacy of war and a struggling economy, life on the streets of Sarajevo flows amiably. So it is in the main square in front of the towering Sacred Heart Cathedral, where, around a Red Rose, hundreds of people sit drinking on bar patios, while just as many stroll along the elegant Ferhadija Street, lined with refined buildings from the Austro-Hungarian era.
One of Sarajevo’s striking qualities is its longstanding multiculturalism. People of all Western faiths—Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims—have coexisted in this city for centuries, offering the promise of peaceful integration as much as a history of intolerant turbulence.
Restaurants and cafés, many of which are housed in hidden courtyards, are packed with a varied humanity made up of tourists, families, veiled women, young and elderly people drinking tea and coffee and smoking hookah.
An inlaid mark at the spot where the Austro-Hungarian Ferhadija merges with the Ottoman Old Town reads “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures.” The very moment I crossed this point, the city’s architecture changed completely, and I found myself in an Ottoman town, exotic and at the same time familiar to me as buildings I have seen in Turkey. Bascarsija is the most popular area for tourists, yet their presence, far from being stifling, adds to the already charming picture. Restaurants and cafés, many of which are housed in hidden courtyards, are packed with a varied humanity made up of tourists, families, veiled women, young and elderly people drinking tea and coffee and smoking hookah. The narrow cobblestone alleys host countless little shops displaying souvenirs, handicrafts, antiques and bizarre memorabilia from the wartime and Yugoslavian eras.
Concentrated in Bascarsija are splendid monuments dating back to Ottoman times: bazaars, Turkish baths, madrassas, mosques. Roaming the alleys I end up in the so-called Pigeon Square, which surrounds the Sebilj, a wooden drinking fountain and one of Sarajevo’s most iconic landmarks. The old town is the perfect place to try some local delicacies, such as ćevapi (little lamb-and-beef sausages served with pita bread, chopped raw onions and a delicious cream called kajmak), pljeskavica (a lamb-and-beef burger) and burek (a baked pastry filled with spinach, meat, cheese and potatoes). The food is so delicious and so incredibly cheap that I have to keep myself from having seconds, even thirds.
Thanks to its relatively small size, after three days I already began feeling at home here, and could easily get around on foot. In fact, I didn’t once take public transit during my stay. One of the most pleasing strolls is along the tight Miljacka river, spanned by pretty bridges such as the famed Latin Bridge, where, on June 28, 1914, a young Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, ultimately igniting the First World War.
Walking along the river, you can admire remarkable buildings of different architectural styles, such as the Ashkenazi synagogue, the Academy of Fine Arts, the beautifully restored neo-Moorish National Library and the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, in front of which students and pensioners alike play chess.
Right behind the old town, the slopes of Bjelave offer a perfect escape from the crowds. The buildings of this lived-in neighbourhood comprise neglected yet fascinating period properties, old mosques and traditional Ottoman houses, such as Svrzo’s House.
As I move farther away from the centre up the hills, Sarajevo turns into a tranquil village. An atmosphere of absolute peace wraps the Kovaci martyrs’ cemetery, whose countless gravestones sprout from the green grass like foliage. Behind the cemetery rise the old city walls, guarded by towers and gates. The view from the Yellow Bastion is amazing, yet apart from me there’s only one girl reading a book. Craving solitude, I keep climbing up to the decrepit Austro-Hungarian barracks, and farther up to the top of the hill, where the once-sturdy Vratnik citadel lies in a complete state of neglect. My only company is a shepherd with his goats. In the background, enclosed by mountains, Sarajevo extends over the valley with its expanse of terracotta roofs, belfries, minarets and skyscrapers, signs of a city hanging between the past and future.
Dario De Santis is an Istanbul-based travel guide and Outpost columnist. He's written about Istanbul (op#93), Greece (op#95) and Albania (op#100). Dario's monthly articles can be read over at In From Istanbul.