Exploring Sarajevo, A Charming City With A Past

Sarajevo has a lot more to offer than conflicts - the mountain air, traditional craft bazaars and Bosnian cuisine
View of Sarajevo from Yellow Fortress
View of Sarajevo from Yellow FortressAleksandr Petukhov/Wikimedia Commons

I have a picture of Sarajevo. It's a tiny sepia coloured etching, about the size of an old-fashioned photograph, and it shows the view from Kovaci where we stayed towards the Sebilj, the fountain in "Pigeon Square" - the heart of the old town. There are outlines of mountains in the distance, a tall tree and an even taller sky-piercing minaret alongside the dome of a neighbourhood mosque. In the foreground a trio of figures stands on the cobbles - I wonder fancifully if they are a Bosniak (as Bosnian Muslims are known), a Serb and a Croat.

The Last Sebilj (Left) and Baščaršijska Mosque (Right) in Baščaršija, Sarajevo
The Last Sebilj (Left) and Baščaršijska Mosque (Right) in Baščaršija, Sarajevoctj71081/Flickr

The etching came from Mirza Huntic's gallery a few streets away from the Sebilj. He was reading a newspaper and drinking a small cup of thick Bosnian coffee on the threshold of his gallery when I dashed in on my final evening. As he stood up, his blue eyes crinkled into a smile of recognition and welcome. We chatted and I chose this work - by his American wife Suzanne - that is somehow deeply evocative of the place.

I didn't know quite what to expect of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the heart-shaped country in the heart of the Balkans. The whole area has had a reputation as a cradle of conflict - it was here in Sarajevo that WWI was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. And it was in the Balkans after the collapse of Communist Yugoslavia that war and genocide returned to Europe. Our visit was to see friends we had made during their stay in Delhi. (Nigel was the deputy British high commissioner in India and is now the British ambassador to Bosnia.) But we found ourselves, like them, quite captivated.

Peace statue in Sarajevo
Peace statue in SarajevoShutterstock

From Nigel and Clare's home in Kovaci, the tiled roofs of the city spread out beneath us against a backdrop of snow-dusted mountains. On our first day I heard the Muslim call to prayer and the peel of cathedral bells almost simultaneously and came to realize that nothing describes the confluence that is Sarajevo quite like that sound ringing out through the clear mountain air.

Any Sarajevan will tell you proudly that you can find a mosque, a synagogue, an Eastern Orthodox and a Catholic cathedral within a block of each other. The city was once known as a "European Jerusalem" because of this co-existence of faiths. When Christian rulers expelled the Sephardic Jews from Spain in the fifteenth century, many of them fled here where they settled under the more tolerant Muslim Ottomans. The Jews brought with them a now priceless copy of the Haggadah that was hidden in a mosque - so the story goes - by a Bosnian Muslim curator at the National Museum in order to save it from Nazi looting during WWII. Our guide Dino told us this, among many other fascinating things, including the correct way to brew, serve and drink Bosnian coffee.

In Times of War and Peace

Sunset over Sarajevo
Sunset over SarajevoMichał Huniewicz/Flickr

Dino's tour began in Bascarsija, the bazaar built by the Ottomans that fans out from pigeon square in an orderly warren of cobbled pedestrian lanes named for the crafts which traditionally flourished there. Many craftsmen can still be seen working underneath the wide eaves of their shops. Before we round the corner into the Coppersmith's Alley, we hear the tink-tink of tool working intricate design upon metal. An array of trays and vases and the traditional long-handled coffee pots and miniature coffee cups are stacked up in sculptural formation outside every shop as work goes on inside, much as it has always done. My son watches fascinated as a bespectacled artisan chips away at a flat circle of copper and flowers appear. We look for the famous ballpoint pens made from sniper's bullets and tank shell vases and find them less in evidence than they were a few years ago, surely a good sign.

On from the coppersmiths, other shops are selling hats, jewels, carpets, coffee beans, sweets, leather slippers. A pair of shoemakers sits across a chessboard, oblivious to the world outside and perfectly framed by their shop window. There's a sedate pace of life in Bascarsija people stop and embrace their friends on the street, then embark on long conversations and the cafés are full of people socializing over coffee at all times of the day. Outside the Synagogue we see two impossibly chic young Bosniak women in their hijabs drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and looking as if they would be quite at home in Paris.

Serbian Ćevapi
Serbian ĆevapiWikimedia Commons

For lunch we try the Bosnian national dish cevapi, a mini sausage made of lamb and beef which you eat with a kind of pitta bread - the same principle as a kebab. But actually we prefer the burek, which is a flaky pastry stuffed with veal and onions. And even better are the vegetarian versions oozing with cheese and spinach. It's all washed down with kiselo mlijeko, a kind of Bosnian lassi.

Strolling from east to west along the city's main pedestrian promenade (and there are always plenty of promenaders) is like navigating a timeline. The Ottoman buildings of Bascarsija give way to Baroque façades of the Austro-Hungarian period so abruptly you feel that you could have crossed from one film set to another or teleported from the bazaars of Istanbul to the streets of Vienna. After the Ottomans, the Austrian Habsburgs ruled Bosnia for forty years until the collapse of their Empire during WWI - their Europeanizing influence extending beyond architecture to cuisine, dress and behaviour. Continue westwards along the timeline and Viennese architecture gives way to the brutalist communist buildings of Tito's post WWII Yugoslavia.

The Serbian Siege

There are many physical reminders of Sarajevo's recent ordeal, the three-year siege from 1992 to 1995 - the longest in modern history - when the city was surrounded by an army of Bosnian Serbs seeking to carve out an ethnically pure Serbian state from the fragments of Yugoslavia. Bullet marked buildings are still in evidence - "you wonder how on earth the bullets reached some of these places," says Clare - and it is as if they flew around corners as are Sarajevo roses (marks in the ground where shells fell, filled with red resin) the blasted and graffitied shell of the old peoples' home stands as a grisly reminder of how many of the buildings looked after the siege and there are the rows and rows of white gravestones. The besiegers were indiscriminate old peoples' home, maternity wards, funerals, children, all were targets. Their daily shelling and sniper file killed some 11,000 people until Nato bombing and the Dayton Peace Accord brought it to an end.

During the siege, there was only one way into and out of the city - an 800 metre long tunnel under the UN-controlled airport into free Bosnian territory. The tunnel was a lifeline that allowed supplies into the city and people out of it, as well as being an important symbol of resistance. It was dug by hand in four months in 1993, the diggers working in shifts round the clock for pay in cigarettes. Today a section of it remains open for visitors and a small museum on site gives perhaps the greatest insight into what life was like during those years. "Now you can see where we learnt our habit of fast driving," says a cheery guide as we watch grainy footage of a car speeding down "sniper's alley". This kind of dark humour was part of the spiritual armour of the Sarajevan people.

Sarajevo Museum
Sarajevo MuseumWikimedia Commons

A multimedia museum documenting the Srebrenica genocide and its aftermath opened in Sarajevo recently. The director of Gallery 11/07/95, Tarik Samarah, is an acclaimed photographer and his haunting black and white photographs, reminiscent of Raghu Rai's images of Bhopal, hang in the main gallery. A smaller room is lined with passport-style pictures of the 8,000 plus Bosniak men who, under the "protection" of UN forces, were massacred by the army of Serbs. Here, two interactive computer screens map the genocide in devastating detail. But it is the long testimonies of the survivors in the final room that cause the viewer to bear "living witness to the horror". One woman I watched had lost her husband, her brother, her mother and her three sons - she was driven past the executed body of one of them lying on the roadside. "What could be done to make sure this never happens again" the interviewer asks. "I don't know," she says, "That's for smarter people than me."

I left the dark gallery quite hollowed out, with sunglasses pasted across my face so no promenader could see the welling tears in my eyes and imagining that holocaust museums must have a similar effect. Still the peach and yellow and pistachio colours of the grand Habsburg buildings and their fine ornament, the overflowing cafés, the joie de vivre of the people on this sunny afternoon lifted my spirits. In the face of this vibrancy it was almost impossible to believe Srebrenica had happened.

Clare has always said that one of the great appeals of living in Sarajevo is the ability to escape easily into the mountains and countryside around - you can be in the cool balm of an alpine forest literally within minutes. One afternoon, we walked among pines with glorious views over the city and were drenched to the skin by a sudden downpour, another we galloped Arab horses up through elderflower and hawthorn to the same towering forest - this time under a bright sun. Pointing to an abandoned and dilapidated building off the track, Clare warned, "You would never go there without checking with someone who knows it could be mined." We lunched at the source of the river Bosna, trotting in a horse carriage down the long avenue of plane and chestnut trees planted by the Austrians.

Bjelasnica Highlands
Bjelasnica HighlandsTamas Varga/Flickr

On our last day we drove out to the Bjelasnica Highlands where many of the ski events of the Sarajevo winter Olympics took place. From Umoljani we hiked for several hours through some breathtaking scenery - past a remote shepherds' settlement, through carpets of yellow and violet wildflowers, crisscrossing a stream as it meandered along a wide valley until we came to the edge of the dramatic Rakitnica canyon falling away almost a kilometre below us. Imagine if the most beautiful and least peopled parts of the Kullu Valley were within an hour's drive of Delhi.

That same evening I went to buy my etching. It sits on my desk as I write. In it I can find the beauty of Sarajevo's landscape, its extraordinary mixed heritage, the warmth and spirit of its peoples, as well as the ugliness and pain of the conflict that engulfed it and tore apart its fabled multi-ethnic fabric.

I can even hear in it the almost simultaneous call of the muezzin and peel of cathedral bells.

What To See & Do

  • Take time to explore and absorb Baščaršija. Stroll along Ferhadajia, the pedestrian promenade, into the Austrian part of town. On your wander, seek out the Gazi Husrev-begova Mosque, the Old Orthodox Church (note the stunning iconostasis), the Synagogue, now a fascinating museum, and the Sacred Heart Cathedral.

  • There are some great small museums in this part of town The Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918 is on the site of the fatal shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the single event that had such profound consequences for European history. The Museum of Sarajevo in an old Bezistan (covered market) presents the history of the city from 5500 BC. Despic House offers an insight into the life and culture of the Serb merchant class in the 18th and 19th centuries. And Svrzo House does the same for wealthy Bosniak citizens.

  • Take a tour with Sarajevo Insider (sarajevoinsider.com) to the Tunnel Museum. And the world should see Gallery 11/07/1995.

  • Horse Club Djeca Vjetra (arapskikonji.com) has some fine Arabian horses imported from Croatia. Experienced riders can trek with a guide into the mountains above the city. Lukomir in the Bjelasnica Highlands is the only traditional Bosniak village in existence where life goes on as it has for centuries.

The Information

Getting There

Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines fly daily from Delhi to Sarajevo via Vienna and Istanbul.


Visas are required for Indian passport holders. Contact the Bosnian Embassy, E-9/11 Vasant Vihar, New Delhi 110057 011-26147415.

Getting Around

Sarajevo is small (population of around 400,000) and easily walkable. You can orient yourself by the Miljacka river which runs east to west, as well as by the architecture. An interesting assortment of trams runs along the main east-west road. And taxis are easy to come by.

Where To Stay

Novotel Sarajevo Bristol (Tariff: from €109 Website) is a branded, good hotel. If upmarket is your thing head here. Otherwise Hotel Ada (Tariff: from €52), once the residence of the Swedish Ambassador, is a lovely family-run boutique option. It is in Kovaci, a few minutes' walk from Baščaršija.

Where To Eat & Drink

There are many places to sample traditional Bosnian food. But particularly good are Cevabdzinica Petica-Ferhatovic for cevapi and Ipsod Saca for burek and its vegetarian versions zeljanica (spinach and cheese), sirnica (cheese), krompirusa (potatoes). Both restaurants are on Bravadziluk in Bascarsija, both are absolutely delicious and amazing value at about KM3 per serving. For glorious seafood and good local wine, try the atmospheric Luka on Obala Maka Dizdara.

What To Shop

Baščaršija is full of lovely things to buy but don't miss Mirza Huntic's gallery on Veliki Curciluk, a trove of beautiful affordable prints and paintings of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Isfahan Persian Rugs located inside Morica Han, a caravanserai originally built in the 16th century - the carpets are exquisite if not so affordable.

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