European crossroads: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
January 1, 1970
You will hear nothing about Bosnia if you come from other continents. And you will hear a lot of things about Bosnia if you happen to spend a bit of time in the neighboring countries.
I will never forget people in Hungary telling me to be extremely careful in Balkans, and telling me how much crime there is and how I should trust no one there. And then I arrived in Serbia and spent some time with locals. I had a great time, and I simply felt like Belgrade, the capital, was as vivid as most European capitals, and the people were as nice and helpful and trustworthy, if not more, than in the European countries I knew so far. So Hungarians, you got nothing to be scared about going to Serbia.
Then what surprised me from Serbians, was what they told me about Bosnia and Herzegovina. They told me ‘Hey, it’s Bosnia, it’s not like Serbia’. Meaning I had to take care, because again it was ‘Balkans’, and apparently Bosnia would be even more ‘Balkans’ than Serbia. I didn’t know what to think exactly, apart from the fact that it was funny how people judged their neighbors and were distancing and separating themselves of a country that they used to share, Bosnia and Serbia both being ex-Yugoslavian countries.
After taking the advices I made my way to Bosnia, in this seven hour ride bus from Belgrade to Sarajevo. An important difference indeed is that there were no highways in Bosnia, which makes the ride so long. No highways but a lot of mountains, and magnificent landscapes!
I passed through many villages and stopped in places where I tried my best not to use the toilets. I would have used them if I really needed to, but it just didn’t seem very… pleasant. But the great part about the trip, apart from the landscapes, was that I met a Bosnian girl, which got me right into knowing the locals, before even crossing the border. She was this 19 years old girl who wanted to travel the world working on cruises or in airlines. For now, she had only travelled in Balkans and Eastern Europe, but something about her and the sparkles in her eyes told me she would fulfill those dreams in a near future. She had also travelled a lot in Bosnia itself, and made me dream about these parks where you can jump from cliffs next to waterfalls, and go down the rivers in any kind of makeshift boats, and spend the summer nights watching at the stars!
It was not summertime this time, but hopefully it will be for my next visit!
We arrived in Sarajevo at night. Another interesting thing about the bus ride is that nobody seemed to know when we would arrive. I asked the drivers and our four passenger companions, but it didn’t seem like the time at which we would arrive was anything we should know anyways. After all, they just knew what really mattered, which was that we would arrive at our destination. I think it’s actually a wise way to take things.
In Sarajevo everything was quiet, and my hosts (the best hosts of the world!) took me to their apartment after picking me up at the bus station. So far, I was being really well welcomed by Sarajevians!
Dreaming in the city
The next morning I finally discovered the city I had been anxiously waiting to see. I took the ram shackled tramway to the center of the city. This tramway goes through the entire valley and on the whole ride, when you’re not concentrating on not falling because there is nothing to hold on to, you can admire the mountains on both sides. After that view, the first things to see are the shopping malls. There are so many around the city, it seems Bosnians love shopping! Zara, Pull & Bear, Abercrombie, loads of restaurants… Anything you want to find, you have it there.
Then the rest of the ride took me along the river, and I could see the first mosques, and churches, and the third biggest synagogue in Europe. All of this in a snapshot of the city!
It was already fascinating to me, and I got off the tramway on the central square, and saw the famous Sebilj, this ottoman-style fountain, with a minaret from a mosque in the background. And people walking around, so many colors, shops, women wearing scarves and veils, and birds flying around all this magic! At this instant I didn’t know in which country I was, but it seemed like Turkey had been transposed into an Alpine landscape!
The shops all had these shining tea services, exotic Aladdin carpets, and magical lamps. Turkey is indeed in the place. About half of the city is made of Turkish residents or students. They have been there for so long, even before the Slaves arrived and settled in the area. This mix never really disappeared, and the cafes with delicious baklava, lukums and narghile are all around to make you feel like you are in the Ottoman Empire! Well, around 90% of the sweets are directly brought in frozen trucks from Turkey, but still, the spirit is there!
What to see & A snapshot of history
Apart from the shopping and the food, Sarajevo has a lot to offer in terms of viewpoints; I walked to one in the morning, above a Muslim cemetery, and another in the evening with a whole panoramic view on the city. I also went to the Town Hall, which is also decorated in the most beautiful Ottoman style, with these typical colorful stripes on the entire building. Along the river and in the city center, there are innumerous mosques, the synagogue, a giant Cathedral with a statue of Pope John Paul II on the front, some Orthodox churches… All these religions finally live in peace and harmony after centuries of invasions and wars.
On the main squares you can find descriptions of the events that made to build the monuments and how they try to preserve the memory of the monuments and events that occurred in the city. You can walk to the place where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, which led to the war against Austro-Hungarian Empire and the First World War.
I also went to the War Museum and to the National Gallery, where I had the chance to see a photography exhibition on children during the Sarajevo siege between 1992 and 1996. The photographs of those children reminded me they were my age today and, wow, that was powerful. They had fought, they had smiled, they had smuggled during the Siege installed by Serbia to conquer the territory. Most of all, they had lived and they had kept playing and laughing. It brought them to victory.
Bosnians and Sarajevians had so much courage, after all the history of occupation of their country; they finally gained some kind of independence with the end of Yugoslavia, and against the last people who wanted to rule them, the Serbians.
They are so strong, and I admire them for the tolerance they have towards Turks in Bosnia, and towards Serbians, because many Serbians still live in the ‘Serbian’ part of Sarajevo and of Bosnia. The mix of cultures and languages is what makes them, and they know it is a strength more than anything.
Dear Balkans, It’s only the start of our love adventure
Go to Bosnia, get to know the people, they will tell you about their life, about how they see their country developing. You will see the trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs they have. You will see the desire to live, and to live well. They will also tell you about the remaining conflicts there are, because not all is black or white; some bubbles of Serbian nationalism and Bosnian nationalism are also present and alive. The country is so young and still has so much to build. But they are on their way, and it is their own way.
One last thing: on their own way, they also copy their neighbors: they told me that if I ever go to Bulgaria, I should be particularly careful! I’m definitely not going to forget that when I go!