it’s a sleepy green city surrounded by mountains, with a beautiful river traversed by picturesque bridges running through it. New colourful glass towers, some of them university buildings, are punctuated with cafes full of young people sipping beer, smoking shisha pipes and revelling in the first sunshine of the Sarajevo spring.
Minarets and domes speak to a golden age of Ottoman history, and a vibrant bazaar the size of a small city keeps that legacy alive, while blocks away rich baroque architecture show off the wealth brought by absorption into the Austro-Hungarian empire, also soon to fall into decline. Then came World War II, which decimated the large Jewish community, and 50 years later an attempt by some of the country’s own people to kill off their historic capital altogether with a savage four-year siege.
But Sarajevo survived, and although its scars are visible, the many beautiful surviving buildings and the spirit of the people stand ready to see it rise as one of the most intriguing tourist destinations in Europe. The infrastructure is there, with good hotels, restaurants and world-class sightseeing, and a few innovative tour operators are bringing in the cultured and curious not afraid of visiting a former war zone or confronting the tragic history which comes hand in hand with the beauty of those unfathomable Balkans.
You do not actually have to confront the past in Sarajevo if you don’t want to – the locals are experts in moving on, keen to have a good time and show off all the good things about the city. The Bey mosque is a match for Agia Sofia in this city which was second only to Istanbul in the heyday of the Ottoman empire, its merchants thriving throughout the 16th and 17th centuries thanks to their place at the crossroads of the silk and spice roads.
But for the past 100 years its Sarajevo’s place at the centre of conflict which has kept its name alive. Stand by the Latin Bridge and consider how World War One might never have happened had the visiting Archduke Ferdinand not suddenly changed his route on a state visit . In doing so, he fell victim to snipers with separatist ambitions the very day he had deflected a grenade hurled into his car by one of their co-conspirators.
Eighty years later those separatist ambitions remained undiminished, and Serbs, many of them Bosnians and some even Sarajevans, attempted to starve out the Muslim majority by surrounding the city and laying siege to it. So today’s chief attraction is the Tunnel Museum celebrating the lifeline secretly dug beneath the airport runway and city streets bombed and shot up daily, killing at least 11000 civilians. It was a Tunnel of Hope indeed, bringing not only guns but unimaginable luxuries like eggs and apples to people who had burned all their books and furniture in order to keep warm.
Today the bullet-riddled buildings shock, but fine food, good beer and great coffee seduce visitors, and Sarajevo makes a great base from which to explore the beautiful, green and mountainous Bosnian countryside.
For those who can handle their stories,Insight Vacations offers the chance to meet siege survivors and hear their war stories over a home-cooked dinner in the tower blocks where they are quietly rebuilding their lives.
For those who can’t, low prices, colourful surroundings and the sheer exuberance of the locals still make for a great weekend break surrounded by the riches of two of the world’s greatest cultures.
Sarajevo night time image (c) Natalino7