October 11 – November 8, 2017 (Fall)
Greeting: Dobar dan
Currency: Convertible Mark (KM)
Visa: 90 days in 6 months RR
Cost of living: Low
Continuing our tour through the Balkans, we hardly knew what to expect when we arrived in Sarajevo. Would we find a city still in the shadow of a war 20 years past? A remote and rustic town that feels a thousand miles from anywhere? Or a modern and vibrant European city like any other? In truth it was all of those things.
The storied capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina rests in a long, narrow valley bounded by low mountains. Those same mountains once rained death and destruction on the city below. Besieged by Republika Srpska troops for 1425 days (nearly 4 whole years), artillery shells and sniper bullets were a daily occurrence for the cornered civilians. And though the war ended and life moved on, little has been forgiven or forgotten.
But Sarajevo has endeavored to reconstruct itself while remembering the lives lost. A new generation seeks greater connection with the outside world, not conflict between brothers and sisters. Glittering new shopping centers replace crumbling ruin. And when we arrived on a beautiful October day, the only thing coming from the mountains was crisp autumn air.
Where we stayed
Even before we arrived, this Airbnb↗ was among our all-time favorites. It occupied the lowest floor of a huge multi-story home. Our section alone spanned more than 100 m², with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a spacious kitchen/dining area, a home office, and an absolutely stunning living room. Our hosts were super helpful, picking us up from the bus station and giving us a short tour of the city. Along the way we were introduced to the sights that would become so familiar from our hilltop vantage point.
Zmaja od Bosne bisects the valley and the city. As the most exposed road, it was among the most dangerous places to be during the siege and earned the nickname “Sniper Alley.” We recognized the Bosnian Parliament and twin UNITIC towers from their burning effigies on Channel One News as children, and the former Holiday Inn that housed journalists like Anderson Cooper, covering the conflict at the genesis of his career. These days, it is among the most developed and prosperous areas in Sarajevo. The multi-story LED screens that envelop Sarajevo City Center mall practically cast shadows on our bedroom walls.
From up on the hillside to the city’s south, all of that hustle and bustle was a distant din. Our neighborhood was quiet and residential. The M5 highway ran just a house-length away, but traffic noise was minimal. Five times a day we heard the call to prayer► from mosques across the city, and bells at the local church tolled the hours, so we were never hurting to know the time. Walking to “ground level” took just 10 minutes or so. It was a pleasant stroll, too – the smell of wood-burning stoves permeating the autumn air, and only the occasional barking dog or passing Zastava. Many buildings still showed evidence of the intense shelling two decades ago. Some were simply ruins. Comparing before-and-after shots from the end of the war, our part of town had clearly seen worse days and was recovering well. Still, the scars lingered.
One thing to be aware of is Sarajevo’s water restrictions. Tap water is safe to drink but the city’s pipes are in a sorry state; governmental conflicts and tight budgets mean infrastructure improvements are a hope and a prayer at this point. To cut down on waste of this precious resource, the utility shuts off all water across the city at midnight (-ish). It was surprisingly easy to get used to. We kept a couple bottles out for late-night hydration and minimized flushing during the lean times. Around 5 or 6 in the morning, the life-giving waters returned. We’d hardly notice the difference, except that the noise of the pipes repressurizing was sometimes clangy enough to wake us both.
What we did
The modern city of Sarajevo is inseparable from its history. It was always a diverse and religiously integrated place. Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and (pre-WWII) Jews coexisted as neighbors, earning it the nickname “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” But the breakup of Yugoslavia fractured the country on ethnic and religious lines. Bosnia’s melting pot violently curdled and the Bosnian War↗ became the longest and deadliest of the Yugoslav conflicts. While we watched the fighting unfold on TV in the early 90s, people our age living in Sarajevo grew up with it. People like our guide on the powerful War Scars Walking Tour. Just over a mile of wandering exposed so many painful memories. We saw the ubiquitous signs of shrapnel damage (not, as we assumed, bullet holes). We visited the Memorial to the Murdered Children, which lists the names of hundreds of the 1500 children killed during the siege (some of whom were intentionally targeted by shells or sniper fire). Sarajevo Roses, red resin-filled wounds on pavement around the city, mark mortar strikes that claimed human lives. Some hollowed-out buildings remain, legally the property of absentee owners who disappeared long ago. Hopefully they managed to find more peaceful homes elsewhere. We ended near the Suada and Olga bridge, not far from our house. This is where the first victims of the Siege of Sarajevo lost their lives to a sniper’s bullets.
Our guide, like all young adults in the city, remembered those years clearly. She spoke of memories hiding in basements during the shelling and of awful food in aid packages. The War Childhood Museum expanded on that picture and brought the horrors closer to home. The museum is a collection of short personal stories attached to an artifact on display. Children played and learned and grew just as we did, listened to the same music, fell in love, hoped, dreamed. Many memories were surprisingly happy. Kids are resilient, after all. But others – the last cassette a friend had played, a letter only left half-written when its author’s home was bombed – reminded us how lucky we were to grow up in peace. Galerija 11/07/95 was equally moving. This museum is dedicated solely to remembering the Srebrenica massacre. A unspeakable act of genocide, the Army of Republika Srpska murdered at least 8000 Muslim Bosniaks – their own countrymen and neighbors – to ethnically “cleanse” the town of Srebrenica (which had been a UN “safe area”). Graves are still being uncovered, the bodies methodically identified in the hopes of bringing closure to the families and loved ones. Even the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina told moving and personal stories from the war. We saw how people lived through the shelling (generally gathering everyone and everything into the safest, most interior room they had), engineered impromptu stoves and other genius ways to add normalcy to what must have felt like the end of the world. Children even cherished their brief opportunities to attend makeshift schools despite the ever-present danger. As many pointed out in the guestbook, this is far from ancient history. The western world (Bosnia included) is busily ignoring history repeating itself↗ today.
But there is more to Sarajevo than the war, of course. Baščaršija, the old town center and bazaar, is the upbeat and touristic heart of the city. A tangle of pedestrian streets overflow with handcrafts and artisan wares as ćevabdžinica (steak houses) fill the air with savory smells of grilled ćevapi. Some alleys are exclusive to a single industry. Copper smiths selling Turkish coffee cezves and other gorgeous metalwork, tailors with clothes made for culture or kitsch, souvenirs of leather or plastic or glass. The centerpiece is Sebilj Fountain on the central square. Packed to the brim with pigeons, we preferred to wander less ominous parts of town.
More landmarks can be found just a bit further out. The Latin Bridge is infamous as the assassination site of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, kickstarting the First World War. Interesting and beautiful buildings, statues, and murals abound. But the most incredible site has to be the Yellow Bastion. Just a short climb from the Old Town, past Šehidsko Cemetery Kovači (resting place of Alija Izetbegović, the first president of Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and many BiH soldiers killed in the war), this hillside platform offers an unbeatable panorama of Sarajevo and the mountains that shaped it.
High atop one of those mountains, the crumbling remains of the 1984 Winter Olympic Bobsled and Luge Track make a hauntingly beautiful day trip. We decided to go there the only way we knew how: walking straight up the hill behind our house and following Google Maps. Unfortunately, the map was wrong. We ran straight into a security fence outside Sunnyland Amusement Park and had to backtrack. Cutting across a field and up the hill to rejoin the road saved us from having to trespass or detour all the way back down through the city. Traffic on R446 was not very considerate, but at least the changing leaves made for a pretty walk.
When we finally rounded the last bend in the trail and the track came into view, we were in love. It was unlike anywhere else we’ve been. The concrete ruins twist and turn through trees diligently reclaiming the land. Now it mostly serves as one long graffiti wall. As we ambled the length of it, we came across political pieces, fun doodles, and straight-up talent. At the finish line, one last tangle of rubble is all that remains of an event that once captured the attention of the world. Perhaps it’s better this way.
We took an alternate, much more scenic route on the way back home. It was also much steeper; scrambling down the unkempt rocky trail while racing the setting sun was not the most fun part of the day. This path would have been much better for the ascent. Still, we were deposited a quiet, tucked-away corner of Sarajevo and made it back to civilization as the last rays of the day evaporated before our eyes.
Maybe there’s something about being in a valley that makes us want to rise above it all. The mountains in all directions offer plenty of options for doing so. But if you want a true 360° view of Sarajevo, there is no better place than Avaz Twist Tower. Not only is it an objectively beautiful building, but as the tallest tower in the Balkans, it’s a powerful symbol of Bosnia’s rebirth. We made sure to visit on a clear day for maximum vista. It cost only 1 KM (about $0.60 US) to enter the viewing platform – paid by dropping a coin into a turnstile rather than buying a ticket. Once outside, the views were great as expected. But we had almost as fun checking out the local graffiti and feeling nervous on behalf of the window washers.
Back at ground level, our favorite way to cap off the day was a stroll along Wilson’s Promenade. Every weekday at 5pm and all weekend long, Vilsonovo Šetalište closed to cars and transformed into the neighborhood’s favorite gathering place. Chestnut roasters and popcorn vendors set up at the intersections. Kids practiced skating or scootering and couples took over the benches to watch the sun set the sky aflame. We visited almost every day (weather permitting) and got to know it well. How the leaves fell as the days shortened, how the river swelled after a big rain, what time the local mosque sang the call to prayer. We saw the smoldering wreckage of a car fire (apparently a film shoot), and even some real-life riverscaping. For all the wonderful sights Sarajevo had to offer, the simple pleasures of this pedestrian walking street ended up our most cherished memories of the month.
Food & Drink
It was no surprise that the regional specialties of Bosnia were similar to those of their Balkan neighbors. Ćevapi, ajvar, kajmak, and burek were everywhere. Konzums were ubiquitous around the city – the Croatian conglomerate had an effective monopoly on groceries. At least this meant that Lido Mediterranean Mix was back on the menu! A smaller market, Mega, also had a good selection and seemed to carry more locally-produced options; they had the best selection of peanut crisps, and were the only shop that carried craft beer from Brew Pub, the best Sarajevo had to offer. In honor of the changing seasons, a lot of our home-cooking focused on roasted poultry, including one concoction we were particularly proud of: Thanksgiving turkey fried rice.
While we loved the ćevapi in Novi Sad↗, friends there insisted the stuff in Bosnia was miles better. They were not kidding. The local preparation, served only with diced onions, was basic but brilliant. Small grills across the city kept the coals burning all day; the enticing aroma was their own best advertising. Burek was common as well, though here it came in coiled servings rather than deep-dish wedges like last month. On this category Vojvodina came out ahead. Cafés, pekaras (bakeries), and baklava shops filled out the roster with stimulants and sweets. We even found one place that tried made a decent stab at that perennial fall favorite, the pumpkin latte.
Also important: eggs in Bosnian are jaja, but pronounced ya-ya! Easy to remember and super fun to order at a farmer’s market.
For being a Muslim-majority country, Bosnia sure knows how to drink. The national beer, Sarajevsko, is featured in all the stores along with the usual suspects from Northern Europe or right next door. They’re an institution here, famously remaining in production even during the war. Today their lineup spans several styles (none of them terribly good). But an ascendant craft beer scene is seeking to remedy that. The Brew Pub had an entire flight of quality options. We were most impressed by their Amber Ale, easily our personal favorite. Livanjsko, Pivara Semizburg, and OldbridZ came from further afield to strengthen the roster.
But this being the Balkans, wine and rakija reign supreme. Most of the production seemed to come from big companies like Herzegovina Product (recognizable by their Harry Potter-esque logo). Vranac and Blatina were the most common grapes. Both tabley reds, they were generally decent but unremarkable. Bottles notably came in two sizes – 0.75 liter and 1 liter – that frequently sold at the same price. The difference was made up in the packaging, with thinner glass on the larger volume option. Another interesting twist: some supermarkets carried no alcohol at all, a policy set by especially-religious owners. But excellent specialty shops like Šamon HoReCa made up for that with one of the best selections in the city, and their staff were happy to make recommendations.
We arrived and left Sarajevo by bus. Coming from Serbia, we were dropped off at Istočno Sarajevo, the smaller and more remote of the two bus stations (it is actually just over the Republika Srpska border within Bosnia). Leaving to move on to Croatia, we caught our bus at the much more central and busy Autobuska Stanica. We purchased our tickets to Zagreb online and had to pay a separate station fee once there in order to reach the platform; it totaled a bit over $2 US per person. The luggage fee (paid to the driver) was about $2 per piece as well.
Both times, the bus was totally worth it. The countryside of Bosnia and Herzegovina was beyond beautiful, and there was no better way to see it than weaving through valleys at ground level.
Uber↗ has yet to arrive in Sarajevo, but there are plenty of buses and trams to help get around the city. We walked everywhere since nothing is too spread out and the weather was lovely.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs↗ this month came from m:tel via their Frend Net prepaid plan. $10 US bought a SIM card and 5 gigs of data. BiH Telecom heavily advertises a “tourist” card, but at 40 KM ($25) per 15 gig SIM, it was a lot pricier for an amount of data we’d never put a dent in. A few chains, m:tel included, marked us as dumb or desperate and pushed hard to upsell us. But the m:tel in the basement of BBI Centar mall was a lifesaver. Not only did they understand our needs, they found us a deal that even the internet didn’t know about. Definitely worth seeking out!
Smoking in Sarajevo is a way of life. It is still allowed indoors at most bars and cafés, and the indoor air can be thick with human smog at all hours.
As with other former Yugoslav nations, tourists need to register their living arrangements with the local police on arrival. Hotels do this automatically; our Airbnb host took care of the paperwork on our behalf. We received a white card in return that we presented to border control when we left. Another passenger got the brunt of their attention instead. We couldn’t tell if she missed registration or the entry visa as a whole, but either way we were glad to be on the right side of the law.
The government of Bosnia and Herzegovina may be the most complex in the world. Though the Dayton Agreement stopped the fighting, it introduced a divided federal government with multiple presidents and parliaments. This keeps the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats forever at odds and the politicians incentivized to exploit those entrenched divisions to try and maintain their power. One curious detail, Sarajevo featured a debt clock like the US, only this one appeared to track government spending at all levels, not just federal deficits.
Meanwhile, the Convertible Mark might have the plainest and most boring bills we’ve encountered to date.
When a city has seen as much history (and conflict) as Sarajevo, there are going to be a lot of graves. But the cemeteries we visited were all very beautiful and welcoming. The Jewish cemetery near our home had a particularly incredible setting overlooking the city. And we were interested to learn more whenever we stumbled on a stećak (pl. stećci). Some of them were scattered seemingly randomly through parks and neighborhoods. But rather than markers of individual war deaths as we suspected, many of these gravestones are actually ancient and predate the city itself. The buildings just grew up around them, respecting their sanctity throughout.
We took the opportunity to catch up on some personal chores, like getting an annual dental checkup. The affordable cost of healthcare (even at a private clinic) really made us glad to be abroad.
What we learned
Despite all the recovery that has occurred, young people we met were not upbeat about their nation’s future. We’ve noticed self-deprecation can be a trend in the Balkans. But here it carries a different tinge. The enemies aren’t just politics or corruption, but their own demons and history. Still, our impression of Sarajevo was sad but hopeful. Even after all the pain, even with all the division, people here want the same things as anywhere else: a job, a home, family, peace, stability. In that, we’re all united.