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I had the hardest time writing about Sarajevo. The city, which has become one of my favourites of all time, surely is deserving of my very best efforts. But my five days in Sarajevo where a whirlwind of activities, impressions and emotions, which seemed to give me a hard time when trying to put my experiences into words. There is so much to talk about – from the multicultural style of the city, the incredible friendliness of its people, the astonishingly cheap prices, the incredible views and horrifying remnants of a terrible war. Sarajevo is truly amazing and here are some bits and pieces to make you love the place as well:
An incredible city – so where are all the tourists?
Honestly, Sarajevo doesn’t seem to be on the average travellers radar. I hadn’t even heard or known much about Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, before I decided to drop by on my InterRail tour through Europe. Nobody ever told me to „go to Sarajevo, because it’s an amazing place!“, I didn’t hear the usual recommendations or ravings about how my life wouldn’t be complete without it and the only memories I could come up with, were a result of many evenings spent in front of the TV as a child, while my parents watched the news on the war in Bosnia.
Although Sarajevo is in the top 10 lists of quite a few of the more well-travelled individuals out there and was voted foXnoMads best city to visit 2012, it still lacks the overcrowded rush that presses down on Europe’s more well known capitals. That makes Sarajevo a perfect destination, if you’re anything like me and value some peace, quiet and relaxation while still being in the middle of things. Somehow, to me, that isn’t even a contradiction.
While my love for it was instant, my visit to Sarajevo was entirely based on a gamble. I had looked at a map and decided, that it was a city worth checking out on my way to Istanbul. I could have planned my route any other way, but I had an inkling, that I would like it there, and even if it was only due to the lack of crowds and over-rated sights pulling the money out of my pockets. I wanted to see, what had become of the city that I barely remembered as a bombed out ruin from early childhood.
Landmines, an abandoned bobsled track and graffiti – a trip up Trebevic mountain
Sarajevo turned out to be everything I hoped for and I was lucky enough to have a guide showing me around: Tim Clancy, an incredibly knowledgeable American turned Bosnian-resident. He not only took me almost all the way to the Montenegro border to show me the amazing Via Dinarica trail, but spent the following days driving me up Trebevic Mountain, catching friendly drinks and giving great tips in the city and taking me to areas, I probably wouldn’t have ventured to, if I had been on my own.
Trebevic is a mountain directly south-east of Sarajevo. It was used during the 1984 winter Olympics for a number of disciplines, the most famous being bob sledding. While Trebevic used to be a popular retreat and weekend destination for the population of Sarajevo, nowadays, hardly anyone makes the effort to go up there. Only a few years after the Olympics, in the early 1990ies, Trebevic was held as a key position by the Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo, and as a result, was heavily mined. Most land mines are cleared by now, although it’s still not advisable to leave the roads and the mountain has never regained its former popularity. The infrastructure is completely gone, the cableway closed down long ago and all that remains are the bobsled track and the ruins of the Olympic buildings and the cable car station.
As a traveller, getting up the mountain is fairly difficult. Although it offers a beautiful view of Sarajevo, it is quite a ways away from town and – with the cable car a complete ruin – there is no public transportation available. The only options are either hiking up, taking a taxi or getting a ride from one of the locals. I was glad for Tim and his jeep, as he was more than willing to go exploring on the almost abandoned roads, just to see where they would take us.
Tim took me to where the bobsled track is hidden in the woods. Full of colourful graffiti, it winds its way down the mountain and can be walked on completely, heck some of the local youth even use it for biking or skating. I enjoyed walking the length of the track and admiring the art – it was one of the highlights of my stay. But the remnants of the war are present everywhere. Every few meters, a little sniper hole is hacked into the concrete and bullet holes mar its surface.
Minarets and churches, ottoman and austro-hungarian – does it get any more diverse?
Not only is the nature around Sarajevo pretty rad, the city itself has much to offer as well. After only a day in Vienna, I felt bored. After five days in Sarajevo, I wanted more. The city is incredibly vibrant and alive and seems to pull off multiculturalism like no other. Just wandering the streets is entertaining: old men enjoying a game of oversized chess as hookah smokers laze around in their chairs with glasses of rakija and pedestrians check out the huge variety of shops – from high-end fashion lines to chaotic arabian-style trinket stores. Muslims, Christians and Jews worship next to each other as muezzins call from minarets and church bells echo in the streets. The buildings in the city are a mix of ottoman, communist, modern and austro-hungarian – walking down one street, you feel like you’re in chaotic Istanbul, while only a minute away, you could be standing in the middle of Vienna, gazing at pretty architecture. It’s hard to find such a diverse city with such a peaceful and relaxed feel to it, but Sarajevo seems to be able to pull it off perfectly. Although it is a capital city, it has retained that homey and cozy feel that is hard to find in rushed and grey Europe.
Remembering the Bosnian war
When I wasn’t wandering the streets and taking pictures, I checked out a few of the must-do’s in Sarajevo, a lot of them related to the Bosnian war. It is hard to avoid the signs of a conflict, which ravaged the city only 20 years ago and is still present physically, as well as emotionally in everyones minds. Therefore, I made a trip out to the tunnel museum, where the citizens of Sarajevo dug a 340m long tunnel under the airport runway, which then served as the only supply line in and out of the completely surrounded city. It’s impressive to see how a little hole in the ground managed to feed and supply an entire city and to be able to scramble through the narrow walkway, like thousands did in much more dire situations. Without the tunnel, the city would have probably fallen and Bosnia and Herzegovina might just be an entirely different place today. The museum also shows pictures and newspaper articles from the war, as well as various equipment such as uniforms, weapons or even carts and candles. It has a homemade feel to it, and only about 25 meters of the tunnel are accessible, but it is definitely worth a visit.
Another must-do is the memorial gallery, dedicated to remembering the Srebrenica massacre. It is an extremely heartbreaking, but well done exhibit and certainly one of the more haunting places in Sarajevo. The gallery requires more time than the tunnel museum, as there is a lot of video material, such as interviews with survivors and a BBC film detailing the massacre where over 8000 people lost their lives. Its photos and videos will leave you speechless.