Where to begin on this very sad yet beautiful country steeped with so much history. I found my visit very emotional, the below quote seems apt for Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’d definitely recommend a visit to Sarajevo if you get chance. It has a history with much sorrow, yet is a really beautiful and interesting place, and the people are lovely. I really can’t recommend the city highly enough.
Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow
– Anita Desai
I got the train down from Zagreb, a bus across the Croatia / Bosnia and Herzegovina border then a train to Sarajevo. About a 9 hour journey in total. Be prepared for a slow journey, and a novel take on air conditioning! The scenery is magnificent with beautiful mountains and views of the river. The first train had a 1 hour delay leaving us very tight to get over the border and get the next train in time. The driver really put his foot down!! Whilst having a chat to the person behind him, with some interesting overtaking manoeuvres! But he got us there with a couple of minutes to spare!
As with almost all trains in The Balkans I recommend taking tissues or toilet roll, hand sanitizer, water, snacks and some wine or beer! Wine bottles are often a cork not a screw top so worth carrying a bottle opener too!
The local people
I found the people to be open, friendly and chatty, with a good sense of humour. They are pushing to move forward and forget the past, though the scars are clearly still there just beneath the surface.
Until the late 1800’s Sarajevo was under Ottoman rule. Then became part of Austro-Hungary until WW1. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Latin Bridge in Sarajevo triggered the start of World War 1. The museum of Sarajevo near the bridge tells the story. There is a memorial on the street where it happened. Sarajevo has such a sad past, yet is such a beautiful place.
Yugoslavia was one country regardless of religion or nationality. A firm believer in unity. Tito is celebrated in countries of the former Yugoslavia as being a good president and leader.
From speaking to local people in Bosnia they believe that when Tito died the problems started. I’ll detail the information I have from chatting to locals and guides, so apologies if anything is mis-represented in any way.
The new president wanted a centralised country with everything run from Belgrade in Serbia, leading to civil unrest as some people disagreed. In 1992 Bosnia chose to be an independent country – the 4th Yugoslavian country to claim independence. More than 60% voted for independence. There was political unrest over whether to be loyal to Serbia or Croatia.
A few months after independence, the attacks on the city started. Serbia tried to take territory near the Serbian border, as well as Sarajevo being the capital. The belief being take the capital and the rest will follow.
The initial spark that started the war is said to be an incident at a wedding of a Bosnian boy and a Serbian girl. They were shot by a sniper whilst crossing Vrbanja bridge. Since said to be the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of Sarajevo. Though the family dislike the term as they allowed and blessed the love of the young couple. Others however were not happy that a Bosnian and a Serb were marrying, the couple tried to flee the city, and on the way out were shot in ‘no mans land’ between the two territories.
The civil war lasted 3 years from 1992 – 1995. Sarajevo was under seige while the conflict continued. Despite being a big Yugoslavian city, there was not enough supplies, food or clean water.
The first buildings to be attacked were those that provided electricity and telecommunications, important buildings for survival, including a maternity hospital. Facilities such as the Olympic stadiums were destroyed to try and break the people’s spirit. Places of worship such as Mosques and Churches were attacked to destroy the multicultural city.
Children were given colouring books in school with shapes of mines so they can recognise them and potentially help save their lives.
Where shells hit the ground have been marked red to remember the people that lost there lives. You’ll see them all over the city. They’re called the Sarajevo Rose. Approximately 300 shells fell per day in 1992.
The peace agreement was signed in 1995 and put an end to a war that lasted over 3 years. The Government is now made up of 3 presidents one Bosnian representative one Croat Bosnian and one Serb Bosnian. They serve for 4 years, and rotate leading for 8 months each. So little gets done as what can 1 person do in 8 months for one country. Though no one complains or intervenes as it was part of the peace agreement. And no one wants to go back to a time without peace.
Sarajevo is once again a multicultural city where people of different backgrounds and religions live together peacefully. There is a Cathedral, a Synagogue, Orthodox Churches and Mosques. It’s a beautiful city with much to offer.
Muslims are around 55% of the population in Bosnia, increasing to 70% in Sarajevo. Catholic is around 15-20% and Orthodox 10-15%. The rest are minority groups.
Jews came to Sarajevo in the 13th century and there is a pretty Jewish quarter. They built the first Synagogue which is now a museum. Before WW2 there was around 14,000 Jews. Many died in the war and the rest fled the city. Muslims and people of other religions helped where they could hiding them in there houses. Jews are a minority now with only around 700 Jewish people living in Sarajevo and 1000 in Bosnia.
The city hall, a beautiful Austro- Hungarian building and more recently a library. Shells went through the roof during the war, damaging the interior and some 2 million books. It’s repair started in 1996 and was completed in 2014. It’s now a museum and used for small concerts and events.
On the Ottoman side of the city the streets are named after the crafts the local people used to produce in those streets. For example Blacksmith’s Street (though this is now full of restaurants), Copper Street – still home to small local shops selling copper items.
There were a number of Han’s – equivalent to a small motel in modern terms. They were near the road for traders and people travelling the silk route. There used to be more than 50 in the city. There is one surviving one since the war from the 15th or 16th century. It’s now a Persian carpet shop with lanterns and you can wander in to get a feel of what they used to be like. Upstairs has been converted to offices.
This pretty building below is an indoor food market with meat and cheese counters. You can try with no obligation to buy. Behind is an open market for vegetables.
Below is The Sculpture of the multi-cultural man. Donated by Italy after siege. It’s the only naked sculpture in Sarajevo, and demonstrates trying to connect to the world. Surrounded by doves as a symbol of peace. Behind is the largest Orthodox Church in Sarajevo.
There are so many cemeteries in Sarajevo. Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim. In places the graves are endless. As far as the eye can see. It takes your breath away and is so emotional to see. It’s hard to believe this happened neighbour on neighbour in such recent living history.
A must see whilst visiting Sarajevo. Known as the Tunnel of Hope, the Tunnel of Life or The Tunnel of Rescue. The tunnels were 800m, 25m are left now for the museum. The rest has gone for safety reasons as most of it was under the airport. Initially it was a private museum, it’s now State run but the son of the family who’s house it was still works there.
The digging started from their house as they had a basement; and also from the other side of the airport runway. It had to be kept secret, though it took many people to dig – there photos can be seen in the entrance of the museum. It took 4 months and 4 days of digging.
The Tunnel is 1.6m high, though lower in parts, and 1m wide. On one side they had lots of metal so that side of the tunnel was lined with metal.
People hid in the basement if they had one. If not they might share with a neighbour. Assuming they were still on the same side. Otherwise they would choose one room in the apartment that was the safest. The room became everything to the family including the kitchen area.
There was no electricity, people would make lights out of battery’s and use car engines to make electricity. Small transistor radios were valuable. Bicycles were used to carry water canisters. Cigarettes became currency, money wasn’t worth anything. Windows were covered with tape to try and prevent glass falling in. When they ran out of wood to burn they would use books, trainers or anything they could get there hands on.
Use of the tunnel was for the army initially. It’s use was controlled, but allowed movement of people, ammunition, weapons, food and goats amongst other things. The army checked people for alcohol and petrol which were not allowed, to try and prevent damage and spies.
The lady who lived in the house where the tunnel started used to give people water as they exited the tunnel. Shops opened on the side further from the city so families could cross tunnel to get supplies, or stock up whilst trying to escape the city.
Despite the situation people managed to keep some sense of humour, with signposts in the tunnel ‘Paris this way’.
Hard to believe that less then ten years before the civil war Sarajevo was host to the 1984 Winter Olympics; where Torvill and Dean famously won Olympic gold for ice skating to Boléro.
One week before the Olympics started no snow had fallen. The night before they were due to start, one metre of snow fell. Locals hailed the miracle, and welcomed the chance to change opinion, and the image of the city after it was previously known for where WW1 started.
It was the first Olympics held in a socialist state and communist country. The bobsleigh and luge were destroyed during the seige. It is now the most beautiful abandoned area in the city. You can get a cable car up to the top to overlook the city and enjoy the mountains. It’s 10 Euro’s return and you get amazing views from the top.
Food and Drink
Bosnian coffee is very strong and not necessarily enjoyable for Western tastes, more palatable for us if you filter out the sediment when pouring from jug to cup. Bosnian people tend to be big meat eaters so not the easiest country for vegetarians but getting easier and you should still manage to eat ok. I had some delicious fish from a restaurant in the bazaar in Sarajevo. I also had a lovely lunch surrounded by locals in a garden cafe called Kolobara Han, amongst the back streets and shops in Sarajevo. Cuisine was influenced by the Ottoman Empire and paprika is used in most dishes.
Famed for the bridge and the locals diving from it! Quite a feat given the height is 25m and the depth only 6m! It’s impressive to watch if you’re lucky enough to see someone dive. They collect tips and once they reach 30 Euro’s from onlookers at the bridge they’ll dive. The best spot is looking up at the bridge for a great view of both the bridge itself and the view of a diver go.
The bridge and the old town is cobbled and they are polished cobbles so can be really slippy. Wear sensible footwear! It has UNESCO heritage. Apparently it was designed this way so that when women walk with high heels on the cobbles they have to concentrate on walking so can’t get distracted by shopping or flirting with other men.
Be wary of pickpockets especially on the bridge and in the old town. Locals will be dressed as Western tourists and are often young women.
Across the bridge once you’ve passed all the little tourist shops, is a market with honeys and oils. And some very cheap trainers… There are also a few lovely cafes and restaurants, one has a great view looking back at the bridge and the food was good too.
I’ve seen Graffiti almost everywhere in The Balkans – some of it really impressive. I’ll show a few images here of some seen in Bosnia. What touched me the most was where there are still bullet holes in some of the walls and it looks like they’ve tried to make something positive out of something so sad.
The practical stuff
The currency is Bosnian convertible marks. It’s a closed currency so you can only exchange or withdraw it once you’re in Bosnia and you ideally want it all spent by the time you leave. Currency is almost fixed 1.95 marks and cents to 1 Euro or 2.02 marks to the pound. Some places take cards, though you’ll need cash for markets and smaller shops or purchases.
As usual I recommend a Starling Bank card to withdraw cash once you’re here. Only issue with that is that it’s harder to get smaller denominations out of the ATM; exchanging at a local office might help you with smaller notes and since the currency is relatively fixed this shouldn’t impact the value too much. https://www.starlingbank.com/
Locals drink the tap water but I’d recommend bottled water here. Be careful crossing roads too, evening on crossings.
Thank you is the same as the other Balkan countries I’ve come across so far – Hvala. They use Hvala Vam – thank you to you. Molim, pronounced moll-leem, is please and you’re welcome. Cheers sounds like Jivoli, I thought Tivoli gardens like in Copenhagen to remind me.
Anita’s quote at the beginning of my post is so relevant – my trip to Bosnia will stay with me forever, and I cannot recommend the country highly enough.
Next stop Montenegro, via Dubrovnik in Croatia, next post to follow – ‘4 countries in 26 hours’!