“Sarajevo is enchanting,” read my friend’s message that I received the moment I entered my hotel room and my phone connected to the hotel’s wireless network. I put my bag next to the bed and quickly opened the window, and took a look. Sarajevo. I had been longing to come to this place for such a long time.
Regardless of the fact that Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a most beautiful Balkan country that twenty years ago was torn apart by the ugliest thing invented by mankind – a terrible war, and regardless of the fact that it endured the longest siege of a city in the twentieth century of almost four years, Sarajevo still looks better than most Balkan capitals. As a matter of fact, whenever I speak with westerners about wonderful cities in Europe, they always list Sarajevo in the top ten. In the first half of this list, if I may add.
I have the impression that one of the things that make this city unique in the eyes of foreigners (I myself being a foreigner there) are precisely the scars of the war. You can immediately tell a foreigner from a local by the way foreigners stare at and take photos of the bullet holes on the buildings, bullet holes that seem as if they were a regular, integral pattern merged with the façade, as if people left them on purpose. Or by the way they stop off at the so-called Sarajevo Roses – small holes scattered over the street or pavement where a shell had exploded, which were later coloured red, as yet another memory of the war. Or by their interest in the tunnel dug by the Sarajevo people to connect to the world outside the siege, to bring in supplies, or to escape the city, if lucky enough. Now, the house where the people were going into the tunnel is a museum referred to as the Tunnel of Salvation, and it’s a good place for one to feel what the citizens of Sarajevo were (literally) going through in the years under siege.
But I think that the other, more important thing that makes Sarajevo more than special, and something that, I would dare to say, cannot be found elsewhere in Europe, is its atmosphere, its spirit. Sarajevo is a gorgeous mixture of different eras, architecture, religions, traditions, smells, music and peoples.
THE TASTE OF CULTURE
To begin with, for non-Balkan Europeans, Sarajevo is the nearest spot where they can drink Turkish coffee or Turkish tea sitting in a truly Turkish, or Middle-Eastern, or Muslim – you choose the adjective – scenery, but still being sure that they are in Europe proper. This ambience of Sarajevo is a remnant of the centuries when it was under Turkish (or Ottoman, precisely) rule, most well-preserved and most picturesquely embodied in the Old Bazaar, or Bash Charshija, as it is called locally.
Bash Charshija is the cultural heart of Sarajevo, with tens of nice little shops selling souvenirs, garments, brass plates and pots for making Turkish coffee, with narrow and short pedestrian streets splitting up in all directions, with people, chilling and chatting outside, sitting on low chairs while drinking their distinguishable Turkish tea. And this is where the must-do-in-Sarajevo list starts. For example, you definitely must try chevapi, pieces of minced meat in a typical finger-like form, that they serve in pocket bread, with cream and chopped onion inside. You can have chevapi in other countries too, but Bosnian chevapi are a brand.
The next food brand that you must try in Sarajevo is burek. Burek is a meat pie in the form of a spiral and then cut and served in triangular pieces. It goes well with a glass of yoghurt. And again, burek is very common in every Balkan country, but the Sarajevo burek is an even greater brand than chevapi.
THE SMELL OF CULTURE
After that, you might want to go to chill out with your travel companions and smell a little bit of culture. To do this, you just pick one of the tens of small cafés occupying every mini-square and each side of the pedestrian streets in Bash Charshija, and order a water pipe (also called shisha or nargile). A big one. No matter if you are a regular smoker or not, sitting in a circle on small old-style chairs in Bash Charshija and smoking and passing on a water pipe is such an enjoyable custom bringing people together and relaxing them. And you get this piece of peace almost for free: 5-8 euros. “This is incredible,” a friend of mine from Iceland would say whenever we were out at night in Bash Charshija. “How can it be so cheap here? With the money that I pay for one beer in Iceland, here I can buy four pints. This is paradise.”
I have been to all parts of Europe, and I can confirm that we are indeed speaking about some kind of paradise here.
SOME WATER IN BETWEEN
After all this meat, you’ll ask for some water sooner or later. Right next to the central 16-century Gazi Husrev-Bey Mosque, there is a drinking fountain. A legend has it that if you drink water from this fountain, you will one day return to Sarajevo. Before I heard this version of the legend, my Bosnian friends had told me a slightly modified one: if you drink from the right spout (as there are two spouts), you will one day come back to Sarajevo; if you drink from the left one, you will marry a girl from Sarajevo.
I drank from both spouts, and also considered filling in a bottle and drinking it on my way back home, to reinforce and intensify the water’s effect.
THE SOUND OF CULTURE
And then, the sound of culture. I am an Orthodox Christian, and I would say that there is some indescribable beauty when, in the middle of your chat with your friends, or when you are just about to take a sip of your tea or coffee in Bash Charshija, suddenly you hear the opening of the call for prayer coming from the nearby mosque. It’s so deep, pure, touching, there is something bigger than the world in it.
THE MEETING OF CULTURES
At the opposite end of Ferhadija Street, the main pedestrian street in Sarajevo, another ambience takes over. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the collapsing Turkish Empire in Bosnia and Herzegovina was replaced by Austro-Hungarian rule, which also heavily influenced the appearance of Sarajevo, today best perceived through the architecture of the buildings in the centre and the Catholic churches, the most prominent one being the Sacred Heart Cathedral, also found on a very pleasant spot on Ferhadija Street. There is even an inscription on the pavement on the spot where the two cultures are said to border that reads, “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures”.
But Sarajevo outlived that empire too, and soon added yet another ingredient to its culture pot – after WWII it became part of socialist Yugoslavia, the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, nowadays best symbolized by the Eternal Flame, blazing in memory of the heroes who liberated Sarajevo in the Second World War. In that Yugoslav, Sarajevo gave birth to some of the best Balkan musicians and bands whose music still hasn’t been outdone by today’s music. In fact, one of the best moments I, as somebody who was born somewhere in that former federation, had in Sarajevo was when I was taking photos of the people playing that big outdoor chess in front of the Old Orthodox Church while listening to a 30-year-old song by Bjelo Dugme, one of those legendary bands formed in Sarajevo, that was coming from the little radio of a painter who was sketching Ferhadija.
THE BEST ATTRACTION?
The last (and best?) attraction of Sarajevo is the people. They are incredibly friendly, warm and positive. Even if you are strolling around alone, join them for a smoke of shisha, and you will have a whale of time. You will have no problems finding people who speak good English. Even if you can’t speak to them a lot, just listen to them, the Bosnian language is so melodic and pleasing to the ear. Especially when spoken by their girls and women. The girls and women in Sarajevo, and Bosnia in general, are stunning, definitely in the top 3 countries of most beautiful women in Europe. I will elaborate on the rest of the top 3 in some other post of mine.
I usually say that I don’t want to travel to the same places twice. The world is so huge and life is so short for one to waste them seeing the same things again and again. But some places are worth visiting twice. See you again, Sarajevo.