Sarajevo: city of scars

It is said of many cities that history lies around every corner. In Sarajevo, what lies around every corner is not yet history. 25 years since the siege that left the city with its wounded skyline and limbless beggars, Sarajevo has not shrugged off the pounding it received during the 1990s. Yet, even with the damage and deprivation, and perhaps in part because of it, this city enthrals the small number of travellers who visit. Although Istanbul is where Europe meets Asia, Sarajevo, with its spindly minarets and ‘Bosnian coffee’, is where west first meets east.

Food and drink are two things that don’t often come to mind when one envisages the Balkans, and the image of meat and dumplings, with potatoes considered “salad” is not inaccurate in parts, but Bosnia defies this trend. In particular, the Bosnian coffee, which is served with Turkish delight and ample sugar holds your taste-buds captive long after you leave. Equally, ‘cevapi’, (pronounced chevapi); a meat sausage comprising beef and lamb is particularly good in Sarajevo, revealing the world of pork-free sausages to many for the first time. The final third of the Bosnian trifecta of gastronomy is ‘rakia’, and it comes with a warning. Rakia is a brandy that floats around the 40 – 50 percent ABV mark, and tastes a bit like it’s been distilled in a carburettor.

Whilst Bosnians insist that it has “medicinal properties”, the taste may leave you wondering whether they meant as an antiseptic. At a hotel, hostel or restaurant, there is always the risk that this drink will arrive unsought in front of you, conceivably at half eight in the morning. Regardless of its venom, the gesture – that of those who don’t have much offering hospitality to strangers – encapsulates the experience of staying in Sarajevo.

On the subject of hospitality, and indeed food, I feel obliged to mention the Balkan Han Hostel. The building itself is large and airy, and provides air-conditioning. For ten euros a night (the preferred currency in many places despite the Bosnian Mark), the hosts are friendly and will endeavour to look after you to the best of their abilities… to give them the benefit of the doubt. I say this because it was at this hostel that both my travelling companions nearly “shat themselves lifeless”, to quote a German backpacker, having contracted salmonella thanks to a chicken dish Ivan, the hostel owner cooked for us. I was lucky enough to escape poisoning, but was resigned to the role of nurse for several wasted days. Whilst we like to think this was an accident, it did result in us paying for three more days’ accommodation, and therefore, like the Rakia this recommendation comes with a warning.

From this hostel, and many others, excellent tours are provided, mostly concerning the siege. Features like the airport tunnel, which was used to bring in everything a city under siege needed below ground, the sniper’s nests in the surrounding hills, the old fort, (whose cannon is fired during Ramadan to signal an end to the fasting), and even the vast sprawling estates of the outer city, where the war lingers as though it only ended yesterday, are all likely to be included. Perhaps most interestingly, they may well drive you to the top of the 1983 Yugoslav Winter-Olympic-bobsled-run, which is now abandoned and you can walk down; tracing the flowing graffiti as you go.

Although Sarajevo’s most ubiquitous feature is undeniably bullet holes, and if one wishes to, they can compare black and white pictures of blazing tower blocks with their modern day subject, still scarred by fire, the war’s legacy is certainly not all Sarajevo has to offer.

The people, the food and the Ottoman Quarter are all thoroughly engaging and will remind you that you’re in an eastern enclave, despite remaining in the west. Well connected by train to Zagreb in Croatia, and by an international airport, the city is no longer an inaccessible fragment of Eastern Europe but a growing, dynamic and inspiring example of how hope and resilience can overcome war and destruction. Oh, and it’s cheap as cevapi.


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September 2021
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