Sarajevo, the most underrated capital of Europe
I spent three full days in the largest city of Bosnia Herzegovina, enjoying several neighboring towns & cities, at the same time. Sitting in a valley in the south of the country, Sarajevo is surrounded by Dinaric Alps and a turquoise ribbon of nature, Miljacka River, runs through the city.
Sarajevo has somehow been the cradle of tragic history in European history. This is where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. The murder led Austria-Hungary declare war to Serbs and that sparked a domino effect eventually igniting World War I. At least that’s what history books claim, right? It should take more than one life to claim more than 16 million lives, don’t you think?
[A bracket here: I suggest you google Baghdad-Berlin Railway and the countries on its route; what a big coincidence that all are the defeated nations in WWI! When the Ottoman Government gave permission to Germany for the railway line from Konya to Baghdad in 1903, Russia, France and Britain all regarded the connection up to Berlin, a new silk road, a threat to their dominance. In the end, whoever ruled oil (oilfields of Mesopotamia in Iraq perhaps?) would rule the power.]
Some darker memories of war, including WWII, and more recently, a 4-year siege during the war in the 1990s also took place in Sarajevo. No wonder why Sarajevo was referred to as the biggest graveyard in the world. It is probably one of the cities with the most cemeteries. Kovaci Cemetery, to name one, is the final resting place of those killed during the 1990s conflict. Jewish Cemetery, the second largest in Europe, was heavily damaged and used as the main front line during the recent siege.
From April 1992 to early 1996, the capital was held under Bosnian-Serb control with snipers firing on urban residents and mortar blasts destroying residential neighbourhoods. Sarajevo's main street was regarded as Sniper Alley because the snipers in the mountains had a clear shot at pedestrians. Hotel Holiday (Holiday Inn then) is pretty much the only building that was left standing on Sniper Alley during the siege and it was where all the international journalists stayed and risked their lives to tell the story of what was going on.
During that time, the city was hit by 329 grenades a day on average when the Dayton Peace Accord was finalized 44 months later, more than 10,000 had been killed in Sarajevo and an estimated 100,000 lost their lives throughout Bosnia.
While Sarajevans have kept their spirits high through the tragedies, they kept reminders around the city like bullet holes on the buildings, memorials and “Sarejevo Roses”. Those patches of red in the street that look like blood spatter are referred to as Sarajevo Roses. Part art installation, part commemorative marker, red resin was poured into craters where mortar fire resulted in fatalities. Apart from Eternal Flame, Children’s Memorial, dedicated to the 1601 child victims of the siege with a shell shrapnel base containing footprints of child relatives is remarkable.
One of the largest attacks of the siege had occurred at the Markale Market. A total of 68 people were killed and 200 people were injured. At the back of the market, you will see a wall filled with the names of the deceased and also a Sarajevo rose on the floor.
Tunnel of Hope is surely the biggest commemorative of all. During the siege, the airport was technically run by the UN but getting across it was deadly, so people decided to go under it. Secretly, a tunnel was built and controlled by the Bosnian army. The only link to the outside world was this 800 meters-long & 1 meter-wide tunnel allowing food, war supplies, humanitarian aid and injured to get out. After the siege was over, the government did not prioritize preservation of the tunnel, so the family whose cellar was used as the tunnel entrance, took on that role to conserve this part of Sarajevo’s history. Today about 25 metres of tunnel remain and a museum can be visited as a must on your itinerary. My experience wouldn’t have been as glorious, had I done it by myself. The best way is to experience it along with a previous soldier, Adnan, who now works a tour guide in fact, telling the stories firsthand. Precious!
Back to its flourishing days right before the last war, Sarajevo is reinventing itself as a cultural and culinary hotspot in the Balkans. Let's take a look at its attractions.
In 1878, Austria-Hungary gained control of Bosnia and Herzegovina via the Treaty of Berlin, and promptly set to work on Sarajevo’s makeover. The officials began construction in 1892 on a magnificent new city hall. After demolishing several houses that would be in the way, they ran into a an elderly Bosnian fellow named Benderija refusing to agree to the destruction of his house. Lengthy negotiations ensued between the old man and the city three years later. He agreed to sell his property for the extravagant price of a sackful of gold ducats, under the condition that his his Ottoman-era house would be moved brick by brick and rebuilt it on the other side of the river. This proud symbol of Bosnian stubbornness, aptly named Inat Kuća, or the House of Spite, serves as a Bosnian restaurant since 1997.
Back to Sarajevo City Hall, known as Vijećnica, the construction was finished in 1895. The pseudo-Moorish building honored the Muslim background of this Austro-Hungarian territory.The building has been used for various municipal purposes since its construction, including as a city court and parliament house until 1948, when it became the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1992, the City Hall was damaged severely by heavy artillery. In May 2014 the building reopened with a public ceremony. The restoration was completed in time to mark the centenary of World War I, triggered by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand as he left a reception at the building in June 1914. The building now houses the national and university libraries, the city council, and a museum.
Old Town (Stari Grad) is filled with many mosques, museums, shops, and cafés. Baščaršija is a bazaar with Turkish influence (hence the name Başçarşı in Turkish), a maze of narrow streets with small shops where craftsmen make and sell their products.
Sebilj, the Ottoman style wooden fountain, is the symbol of Sarajevo in Baščaršija. The original one was built in 1753 by the Bosnian Vizier Mehmed Pasha Kukavica, several meters away from the current location and was knocked down after being damaged during a fire. Today's version in Pseudo Moorish style, dates back to the Austro-Hungarian period. It underwent renovation before the XIV Winter Olympic Games and again after the last war. Legends has it that that whoever drinks water from it will return to Sarajevo. Free to try 🙂
Many streets in Baščaršija retain the names of the traditional crafts that were practised there for generations, ever since the Ottoman established the town in the 15th century. Among them are the leatherworkers’ street, Saraci, the coppersmiths’ street, Kazandziluk, and the locksmiths’ street, Bravadziluk. You can also find amazing art shops, like the “Bosanska bajka (Bosnian Fairytale)” where Muamer Mujcic sells his handicraft traditional Bosnian houses. Simply adorable!
Among the historical and cultural tourist attractions in Old Town are Morica Han, a popular roadside inn back in 16th century, Gazi Hüsrev Bey Mosque, country’s biggest mosque dating back to 1531 and Clock Tower (Little Ben), believed to be the only clock tower in the world that keeps lunar time and calibrated every three days or so.
The spot where East and West meet doesn't just represent two distinct halves of the world, but also two different civilizations. You can see the end of Ottoman era once Ferhadija Street starts.
Notice the difference from Old Town of Ottoman era to Ferhadija Street of Austro-Hungarian times. If you keep ahead, the change will continue to Yugoslavian socialism and then with modern times.
Just like Istanbul, Sarajevo is one of few cities you can walk to a Catholic church, Orthodox church, synagogue and mosque in a day. The neo-Moorish Ashkenazi Synagogue was built in 1902, a decade after the arrival of the Ashkenazi Jews. The Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral is the largest cathedral in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A statue of former Pope John Paul II stands to the right of the main entrance. With its 5 domes and baroque stylel belfry, the Orthodox Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotoks is a great example of Serbian Orthodox architecture.
Stroll along the Miljacka River to get to know Sarajevo's bridges that represent different times. Latin Bridge, the site of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand from Ottoman era, Drvenija Bridge, a place of romantic meetings due to high schools for girls & boys on each side, Festina Bridge in front of Academy of Fine Arts, looping and uniting the secular and spiritual. Sarajevo has their own real version of Romeo and Juliet; two lovers Bosko Brkic and Admira Ismic shot by snipers and whose bodies remained for four days on Vrbanja Bridge in the last war.
The view from the top of the city dazzles. Head to Jekovac Cliff for the Yellow Bastion (colloquially called ‘cannon’ as it marks the end of the day at Ramadan), or even better, ascend Olympic Mountain Trebevic via the newly installed cable cars for sunset and look down. I’ll tell you a secret spot at Zmajevac Hill located across the Trebevic viewpoint. Vidikovac is the perfect spot for a drink 😉
While you’re at Mount Trebevic, walk the abandoned Bobsleigh Track of ’84 Olympics. A war-torn Olympic relic is being overtaken by graffiti and nature today. Talking of graffiti, look for French artist Thoma Vuille’s signature smiling cats around the city 😀
Have you heard of Visočia, the Bosnian Pyramid? Archaeologist Semir Sam Samir Osmanagić runs the excavations near the town of Visoko since 2006. He claims that there’s an entire valley of pyramids (Pyramid of the Sun, Moon, Dragon & Love) and the structures were most likely constructed by the Illyrians built between 12,000 and 500 BCE. The underground labyrinth Ravne which is said to have served as an entrance to the 220 metre-high pyramid of the Sun, can be visited. Three large man-made ceramic stones are believed to have been placed to magnify the underground energy. A constant temperature of 12.5 degrees, Schumann resonance of 7.83 Hz - the most beneficial and optimal for physical, mental and spiritual health of human beings have been detected, yet, aura improvement has been observed. The pyramids are believed to be a healing center rather than a grave. Other researchers see it as natural phenomena rather than taller, far older than the pyramids of Egypt, though. Why don’t you go and see for yourself!
My favorites to dine have been Inat Kuća, Dzenita for traditional dishes and Klopa restaurants for more European meals.
Squeeze a day trip to Mostar
With its cobblestone streets, old buildings, and perhaps the most picturesque bridge, Mostar attracts thousands of visitors. Started off as a small town on a trading route between the Adriatic Coast and central Bosnia, the towns is inscribed as a World Heritage by UNESCO. Souvenir shops, ice cream vendors, and numerous restaurants highlight the narrow streets of the charming Old Town.
The Mostar Bridge (Stari Most), a masterpiece of Ottoman Turkish architecture, was commissioned by none other then Suleyman the Magnificent, and designed by Mimar Hayreddin, a student of the famous Mimar Sinan. The construction began in 1557 and took nine years to complete. Elegant in its simplicity, the bridge consists of a single 30-meter-wide and 24-meter-high arc, connecting the steep riverbanks of Neretva river. It stood for over 400 years before it was destroyed in the war in 1993. It was reconstructed in the image of the original bridge in 2004. You will see divers jumping off the bridge after certain donations. In fact, this is what used to be done back in the days when the rich living in the castle threw away coing to the river and the boys dived to impress the girls. Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque in the background, the second largest in Mostar, was also destroyed in the Croat-Bosniak conflict but has since been rebuilt.
A day trip to Mostar is not complete without Konjic, Jablanica, Blagaj and Počitelj on the way. Konjic is famus for its 17th century 6-arch Old Bridge, looming over Neretva river. It's also home to the best kept secret in Yugoslavia; Tito's bunker. The most expensive structure was designed to withstand nuclear war and shelter communist leaders and army generals.
Jablanica is where “Neretva Battle” in WW2 between Yugoslav Partisans and Axis Powers took place. The Neretva Bridge has been destroyed three times: once as a ruse, then in an actual attack, and finally for a movie (whose actual shots couldn’t make it to the movie because of black smoke).
Blagaj, at the source of the River Buna is home to a 600 year-old Dervish House (tekke) nestled in to a 200 meter high cliff. Today the Ottoman style structure serves as a museum, giving you a glimspe into the world of Sufi life. The surrounding fish restaurants are famous for cooking different styles of soft lips trout fish. Can’t tell you what a peaceful atmosphere it is!
Počitelj, a medieval wonder of nature and architecture, lies on the banks of Neretva River as well. Dating as far back as 1383, the village developed mostly under Ottoman rule when the other side of the river, Gabela, was conquered by Venetians. Towering over this dreamlike village is the Fort of Počitelj (Kula). The view is dominated by 16th century Hacı Alija Mosque, the Medrese (muslim high school), the Hammam (turkish bath), inn, Sahat Kula (clock-tower) and Gavrakanpetanović House.
Meet Central Bosnia
During the Ottoman era, Travnik was the principal city and military centre of the empire. It was also the headquarters of the Vizier, attracting both consulates and trade. The markets were always filled with visitors and traders from Dubrovnik, Serbia and other Ottoman territories. Travelers visiting Travnik were impressed by the town and called it the European Istanbul. Check out Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić's book "Travnik Chornicle" to give you a feel of this period. His house is now both a museum and a restaurant (Divan).
The Medieval Fortress is one of the best preserved forts dating late 14th century. The signs of different historical periods since the Bosnian kingdom can be observed. Plava Voda (“blue water”), water source is an ideal place for Bosnian coffee break (should I call it Turkish coffee 🙂 ). Medrese, Sarena Dzamija (Coloured Mosque), two Clock Towers are worth a peek as great examples of Ottoman architecture.
Travnik is famous for its sheep cheese, short-beaked pigeon, pastoral dog Tornjak and Rose Brandis, rose without thorns growing on the slopes of Mount Vlasic.
Located in Vitez, 20 minutes away from Travnik, Ethno Village Cardaci offers accommodation in traditional wooden cottages. Consisting of several authentic Bosnian houses designed and decorated traditionally, the village takes visitors on a journey back in time. This architectural jewell has houses built in an old Bosnian style, having rustical interior with colorful rugs and embroidery and it's inspired by positive spirit and originality. The property features an on-site restaurant, Kod Mlina that serves traditional specialties, a fishing pond, a water park. Great stop for a cup of coffee.
City of Jajce, is referred as 'royal' since it has been the residence of the Bosnian Kings. It's also the birthplace of Yugoslavia. Tito, later the leader of Yugoslavia, essentially formed his first communist government here. AVNOJ Museum (The Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) is where it all started; the Communist council organized a resistance movement against the fascist forces that occupied Bosnia & Herzegovina during the Second World War.
The main tourist attraction in Jajce is the gorgeous Pliva Waterfall at the point where Pliva River meets Vrbas River. Just downstream, in the area of the Pliva Lakes, there is a collection of about 20 little huts that once served as watermills for local farmers. Known as Mlinčići, the little windowless huts sit on top of skinny stilts right over the gushing water. Since the flow here is spread out, by using a series of little mills instead of one big water wheel, the diffuse water power could be aggregated. Most of the huts go back to the period of the Austro-Hungarian empire (about 1867 to 1918).
To reflect the new royal status of the capital of the Kingdom of Bosnia, a palace was built within Jajce Fortress in the mid-15th century and a royal portal was added to the complex, emblazoned with the royal Bosnian coat of arms. Check also the Bear Tower getting its name from its round shape, the Clock Tower, once the medieval guard tower and Fethija’s Mosque from Sultan Süleyman era. Jajce was in fact the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule in 1527.
Don’t forget to try some Bosnian food. Cevapi (turkish inegöl meatballs; cevapcici is actually a small portion of cevapi), Burek (Börek), Dolma and Baklava are the same as in tukish cuisine.
I found it quite convenient to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina by local tours as the distances within cities and insufficient transportation options makes it difficult to make use of the time. Make sure it’s a local guide, though. My experiences would never have been the same otherwise. The stories of war times direct from those witnessed it in firsthand was priceless! And if you wish to have a buddy more than a guide, check out Superb Adventures 😉
Ready to find out more?
Check out my photo gallery for more!