Europe Part 4: Sarajevo and Mostar
A short 45 minute flight on Croatia Airlines took us to Sarajevo, the capital and largest city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We arrived around midnight and hailed a taxi from the airport to our lodging in the city center. I was immediately glad to not be piloting a rental car here! Even as the clock approached midnight, the taxi ride was…shall we say…exciting; hilly terrain, pedestrians at every turn, lots of traffic sharing the road with rumbling communist-era trams, and sidewalks seemingly used as an extension of roads and parking lots.
Chaotic start aside, Sarajevo ended up being one of our favorite stops on the entire trip. There is so much complex and fascinating history packed into this relatively small city. Sarajevo has been a meeting point of cultures and a model of religious tolerance for hundreds of years. Ironically and sadly, the city is perhaps best known for two darker moments: the assassination that sparked World War I, and a tragic four-year siege in the early 1990s during Bosnia’s war for independence from Yugoslavia.
More on the history later, but the first thing that struck us when we looked out the window the following morning was that Sarajevo is situated in an absolutely gorgeous landscape. It’s one of the few cities I can recall that seems to complement the natural landscape rather than detract from it. The bulk of the city is confined to a long, narrow valley that slices through the Dinaric Alps, with the Miljacka River winding along its bottom. Mt. Trebević rises more than a thousand feet above the city to the south, while other hills bound the valley immediately to the north and east. While this makes for gorgeous scenery, the unique geography was what allowed the Bosnian Serb Army to besiege and terrorize residents of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996. One prominent casualty of the siege is the bobsled track used in the 1984 Winter Olympics, located on the slopes of Trebević above town. The track was used as fortification during the war and is now abandoned, as are the shelled out remains of the Čolina Kapa Astronomical Observatory (the only professional observatory in Bosnia) nearby. We took the recently (2018) rebuilt cable car to the top of Trebević to get a bird’s eye view of Sarajevo and then enjoyed a pleasant, though at times eerie, hike back down into town, past the crumbling, graffiti covered bobsled track and through several residential neighborhoods perched above the main city.
Today, Sarajevo (and Bosnia itself) is majority Muslim. Half a dozen mosques, with their pointy minarets, are visible from just about any point in town, and the city is punctuated with the sounds of the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) issuing from the minaret loudspeakers five times a day. Interspersed among the mosques are several Catholic cathedral spires, eastern Orthodox churches, and a Jewish synagogue, indicative of how people of many faiths have converged and lived together peacefully in Sarajevo throughout most of its history.
At the east end of Sarajevo is the Baščaršija, the “old town” with architecture dating from the era when Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire. The tiled roofs, narrow lanes, and bazaars seem transported here from Turkey or the Middle East.
West of the Baščaršija is a newer section of town with buildings resembling those in Ljubljana, built during the late 1800s when Bosnia was part of Austria-Hungary. Speaking of Austria-Hungary, the heir to that throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was on an official visit to Sarajevo in 1914 when he was assassinated by a Serbian separatist on a non-descript street corner along the Miljacka River. Austria-Hungary demanded that Serbia investigate the assassination, and when they refused, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering alliances that plunged the globe into World War I. The site today is home to a small museum and marked by a a plaque and metal plates showing where Ferdinand’s convertible was stopped during the shooting.
Even further west is the modern business and government district, with its large hotels, skyscrapers, shopping malls, and lots of traffic. It is also home to the U.S. Embassy, which appeared to be better fortified than the Bosnian parliament building across the street. We explored this area a bit on our final morning in Sarajevo, on our way to the nearby train station. After a short ride on one one of the extremely rickety but charismatic communist-era trams, we took the elevator up to the 35th floor of the Avaz Twist Tower skyscraper for an aerial view of the city.
We ended up spending almost an entire day with a local guide, journalist, and siege veteran, Amir Telibećirović, who wove a powerful narrative of Bosnian history, from ancient times up through the present day, while walking with us around town to visit a variety of sights. Especially striking were the many small cemeteries containing hundreds of white headstones from the siege. These cemeteries were located right in the middle of town, in strategic locations where the risk of sniper fire was minimized. Even then, residents typically waited to conduct burials during periods of heavy fog. While Sarajevo is a bustling city filled with tourists today, the scars of war are still quite obvious here, more so than anywhere else on our journey through the former Yugoslavia. Many buildings remain riddled with holes from shrapnel and bullets, especially if you stray away from the main tourist destinations. And beyond building facades, Bosnia’s economy has been slow to recover and unemployment remains quite high compared to other Balkan countries.
In addition to soaking up the local history, we also spent a fair amount of time soaking up calories by trying the many delicious local foods, including strong Bosnian coffee, burek (filo dough rolls stuffed with meat, cheeses, potatoes, etc) and Ćevapi (little sausages in pita-like bread with a creamy cheese called kajmak). All very tasty, and all very meaty. We frequently remarked on how it would be hard to be a vegetarian in Bosnia! Another highlight was sunset from atop an old fortification called the Yellow Fortress. From here we had a spectacular view looking west down the Miljacka River valley toward the setting sun. With residual clouds from a series of brief thunderstorms earlier in the day, the lighting was truly spectacular, and combined with the illuminated mosques and call to prayer, it made for a very unique and memorable experience.
After several days in Sarajevo, we boarded a train and headed south to Mostar. We were once again reminded of the ease and comfort of European train travel. (It’s a damn shame this mode of transportation isn’t more viable in the U.S.) As we rolled through the scenic mountains of Bosnia, the vegetation changed gradually, from the relatively verdant landscape near Sarajevo to a more desert-like, Mediterranean landscape as we neared Mostar.
From the train station in Mostar, it was a twenty minute walk to our hotel for the evening. It was getting close to sunset so we made a quick detour to see the primary attraction of Mostar: Stari Most (the “Old Bridge”). The Old Bridge is, not surprisingly, a bridge spanning the Neretva River, connecting the east and west halves of Mostar. It is not, however, very old. The bridge was originally built in the 1500s but was sadly destroyed during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, along with much of Mostar. Today’s bridge was rebuilt in the early 2000s, using the same techniques, tools, and materials used in the original version. Shops and restaurants line the cliffs along the river on either side of the bridge, and it was PACKED! We had a somewhat forgettable dinner in an unforgettable setting on the banks of the river with a beautiful view of the bridge and city.
Mostar was a brief stop en route to the Adriatic coast, so we unfortunately didn’t have much time to explore beyond the main sights. After less than 24 hours, we were walking back to the train station to catch a bus to Dubrovnik, an experience that turned out to be the polar opposite of our train journeys in just about every way possible. That’s next time!