Two Weeks in Bosnia & Croatia: Sarajevo, Bosnia
In preparation for our first trip to Croatia in 2015 we did some reading about the fall of Yugoslavia, and our interest in the causes of its breakup and the ensuing wars has only grown since then. Bosnia saw the worst of the conflict, from a years-long siege of its capital and the destruction of Mostar's beautiful Old Bridge to the Serb-Croat collusion to partition Bosnia for themselves and genocide at Srebrenica. The Western Balkans are not perfect today, and divisions in Bosnia linger, but what we find beautiful is that a country that in our lifetime was consumed by a brutal war has emerged full of life. We knew we needed to see it for ourselves, so along with our third visit to Croatia in as many years, we knew our first ever two-week trip had to include Bosnia.
Our Airbnb, in the thick of Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old Ottoman center, on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in the area offered great views of the city. Sarajevo sprawls along the floor of a valley, hugged tight by rolling mountains on all sides. Naturally our visit started with a stroll around the old center. Within five minutes of stepping outside our door we had a run-in with a pickpocket who we noticed was following us, even after abruptly changing direction three times. It’s important to be vigilant in any city, but especially when in one of the region’s poorest countries. Not to be deterred, we wandered around until we came to the Miljacka River and the unsuspecting Latin Bridge, the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked World War I.
For a different perspective we walked up to the Yellow Fortress at the east end of the old town. On our way we walked through a cemetery, one of the many reminders of the wars in the early 90s. If you spend any time in the parts of the former Yugoslavia that saw the most fighting you’ll quickly notice that cemeteries are littered with gravestones displaying dates of death between 1992 and 1995. These are especially frequent sights in Bosnia. It’s easy to get caught up in the past and feel a sense of dread in a place like this, but the views of raw natural beauty from the fortress shed light on the other side of things as well.
Another shining example of reconstruction and resilience is the City Hall, built in 1894 and converted in 1949 to the National Bosnian Library. In August 1992, during the siege of the city, Bosnian Serb forces shelled the building, destroying it and most of the works that it held. It reopened only a few years ago after much painstaking reconstruction. The main hall is simply stunning; words will not do it justice, so we’ll let the pictures speak for us!
Before the wars, Sarajevo was one of the most multi-ethnic and multi-religious cities in Europe. For a long time it was considered one of the only places in the world where Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived not only in peace and harmony, but also in close association; many marriages were mixed and places of worship were more or less next door to each other. Today the city is primarily Muslim, marked by the minarets that pepper the skyline and the calls to prayer that fill the air five times per day. We visited a mosque for the first time in our lives in Sarajevo—two in fact! Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque is located in the center of the old town and its grounds are like a respite from the busy streets outside. Emperor's Mosque, just south of the river, has a pristine and peaceful courtyard. We were lucky enough to meet the muezzin—responsible for singing the call to prayer. He was excited to share his thoughts on Islam, and his passion for his faith and condemnation of those who use Islam to justify hatred and violence really personalized the religion for us. In a world where one in four people pray to Allah, it’s critical that we seek out the side of Islam not often shared in the West on TV or in the news. (Head to Ashkenazi Synagogue to learn more about the city’s small Jewish community.)
Though it is indeed helpful to see Bosnia for what it is today, we were also here to learn lessons from the wars, and there are few places better to do that than Gallery 11/07/95. The gallery shows photos that chronicle the aftermath of the genocide at Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs systematically murdered more than 8,000 Muslims. The museum is one of the most well done we’ve ever visited; it’s a good size, is logically laid out, and has an informative and high-tech audio guide system. We recommend setting aside an hour or two of decompression time after your visit.
Further to the point of learning, we booked slots on the “Complete War Tour” by Ervin at Toorico Tours. Ervin lived through part of the wars as a child and now independently runs a variety of tours; they are the most well-reviewed tours in and around Sarajevo and for good reason! We set off in a van, first stopping up in the hills above Sarajevo where Serb forces lobbed shells and positioned snipers during the city's 4-year siege. The roads in the hills are lined with landmine warning signs—over 2% of the country’s territory is still mined. A stop at the Tunnel of Hope, where Bosnians dug an underground tunnel from the besieged city to the UN-controlled airport to allow humanitarian aid in and people out, was refreshing.
We stopped for lunch (local specialty burek from Panera) on the podium by the ski jump from the 1984 Winter Olympics before setting off further into the hills to the dilapidated bobsled track, now covered in graffiti. A hotel on Mount Igman was constructed in the lead up to the Winter Olympics; after the breakout of the war in 1991 the luxury hotel was used by the Bosnian Muslim forces in their defense of the city against the encroaching Bosnian Serbs. When they ceded their position they set the hotel ablaze so that it wouldn't fall into the hands of the Bosnian Serbs. These days you can freely walk through the ruins, which stand in stark contrast to the surrounding forests and mountains. Throughout the whole tour, Ervin shared not only his personal story from the war, but also his thoughts on today’s political system and climate and modern Bosnian culture and life. The country struggles with crushing bureaucracy and corruption, and many young people are leaving, but tourism is increasingly quickly and there is hope that someday Bosnia can join the EU.
One thing about modern Bosnia is certain: the food is amazing. It’s a perfect mix of Turkish (from the Ottoman days) and central European (from the Austro-Hungarian days) with a unique Balkan flair. One of the “must-dos” is ćevapi at Željo, which is consistently ranked one of the best in the city. Delicious dinners were had at Dveri (mućkalica, grilled chicken, homemade bread), a cozy restaurant right by our Airbnb; Nova Bentbaša (grilled meat platter, sesame chicken), which offers riverside dining; and To Be (chocolate chili steak, spaghetti with tomato sauce, apple cake), a small local gem. And for dessert you can’t go wrong with the wide assortment of baklava from the aptly named Baklava Shop Sarajevo!
Our three days in Sarajevo were eye opening and a rollercoaster of emotions. Coming up we’ll cover our drive through some of the most beautiful and untouched mountain scenery in Europe, three days in Mostar, and day trips aplenty!