09 – 12/10/2016
If there was one place I was most looking forward to visiting on this Europe trip, it was Bosnia and Herzegovina. A few friends who had been had highly recommended it, and I just knew it was going to be so unlike any of the places I’d been to so far. While Slovenia and Croatia are technically part of the Balkans, I considered Bosnia to be my first real taste. Based on what my friends had told me and what I’d read in travel guides and on blogs, I was expecting Bosnia to be engaging, confronting, meat-heavy, and a lot of fun; and it was exactly that.
I stayed at Balkan Han Hostel. The owner, Unkas, and everyone that worked there (Ivan, Renata, Zlatan) were all lovely. When I arrived, first things first – a welcome shot of rakija. Rakija is a way of life in a majority of the Balkan countries. It’s a social drink; and locals will encourage you to drink another (and another), if only for its medicinal properties. It’s a strong distilled spirit made from fruit. Fruit brandy is how it was described to me. It’s served in a chilled long-necked shot glass to avoid spillage. While it’s served in a shot glass, you’re not meant to knock it back like a shot. You’re meant to sip it. Papa, if you’re reading this, you’re drinking it wrong. During my stay at Balkan Han, I ended up trying several flavours of rakija. Bar the cherry rakija, which was quite sweet, I couldn’t really taste the difference between the plum, grape, pear, or honey rakija. They all burned just the same. But they definitely warmed me up. It was pretty cold while I was in Sarajevo, so I often relied on the rakija as an additional layer of warmth before heading out.
I took the free walking tour my first afternoon in Sarajevo. It was a good introduction to the city and Bosnia. Sarajevo is a compact capital city, rich in culture and history. Despite the chill, I spent a few hours each day getting lost in Sarajevo’s vibrant and colourful old bazaar (Baščaršija), which dates back to the 15th century when the city was founded by the Ottoman Empire. The streets are adorned with small shop stalls selling all sorts – gold and other trinkets, rugs, tapestries, leather shoes and slippers, scarves, pottery, Bosnian coffee sets and other metalwork.
Pigeons rule the main square in Baščaršija.
At the heart of the old bazaar is the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. I had never heard a call to prayer before. It is sublime. I loved listening to it as I wandered through the streets and window shopped. One of the beautiful and unique things about Sarajevo is that a few hundred metres down the street from the mosque is a Catholic church. There’s also an Orthodox church and synagogue within walking distance. This religious diversity and harmony is why the city is often referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe”.
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque.
There’s a plaque on the ground in the middle of the city centre, on the edge of Baščaršija, that says “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures”. East meets West. Standing on the plaque, looking down to one end of the street, you see the influence of the Ottoman Empire and the East. Looking down to the other end of the street, you see the influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the West.
Our tour guide didn’t speak about it too much, because it was just a general tour of Sarajevo; but there was no way he could have overlooked one of the most significant events in the country’s recent history – the Bosnian War. It was surreal to think that it was only 25 years ago. Not long ago at all, when you really think about it. Evidence of the war can be seen throughout the city. Pock marks left by bullets can still be seen on the façade of some buildings. Then there’s the Sarajevo Roses. Concrete scars made by mortar shell explosions that have been filled with red resin, as a memorial to the lives lost during the four-year Siege of Sarajevo.
Whenever I asked for food recommendations in Bosnia (and the rest of the Balkans), one of the first responses was, “You’re not vegetarian, are you?” It’s all meat, meat, meat. Think mixed grill platters. Beef, lamb, pork, veal, chicken skewers, sausages. Vegetarian grill platters were usually a mix of eggplant, zucchini, capsicum, mushrooms, and potatoes. Although it tended to be swimming in excess oil, it was a nice change from all the meat.
Around each corner in the old bazaar, there’s at least one ćevapdžinicas and buregdžiničas, which serve up cevapi and burek, respectively. They’re the fast food joints of Bosnia. Quick, cheap and tasty. Cevapi are small grilled skinless sausages. They usually come with warm bread, sour cream and raw chopped onion. It’s super filling, and only 5KM (2.50€). For around the same price, you can get a decent serving of burek; which is essentially baked filo pastry stuffed with various fillings. They’re typically made in a large pie dish and sold by the kilo. You just tell them how much you want, they cut a portion, weigh it, and then slap it on a plate. It’s usually served with runny yoghurt. I love burek. While in Bosnia, I tried meat burek, spinach and cheese burek, and potato burek. I thought potato burek was my favourite. But then I tried homemade pumpkin burek in Albania.
Apparently the burek is better in Sarajevo, and the cevapi are better in Mostar.
While in Sarajevo, I caught up with a few Perthites that I’d met on my Croatia Sail. Chloe and Chris were travelling around the world for five or so months. We caught up for dinner before heading to Keno Bosna – the place to be on a Monday night. It’s an old cinema that was taken over by a lady after the war. It didn’t look like the décor had changed much from when it was a functioning cinema. It was like stepping back in time. Locals, young and old, gather here to drink, smoke, socialise, and sing along with the band. Apparently the place doesn’t have a liquor license. But nobody really cares, and the police drink for free.
My second day in Sarajevo, I went to Galerija 11/07/95, which was highly recommended by Em and Dan. I have to say it is one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It was simple yet powerful, and incredibly emotive. It explored the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995 and the aftermath, as well as the Siege of Sarajevo (1992 – 1996). Entry was 12KM (Bosnian Convertible Mark), plus 3KM for the audio guide. Audio guides can be a bit hit and miss. But this one was so worth it. Although it’s a compact museum, there’s so much to see, read and watch. I spent over three hours there and still didn’t cover it all.
The main reason I decided to stay at Balkan Han Hostel was because of another recommendation from Em and Dan – the Balkan Han Hostel tour. I swear there were days where I felt I was simply reliving Em and Dan’s travels. But like Galerija 11/07/95, the hostel tour was an excellent recommendation. It went into more detail about the Bosnian War. Our tour guide for the day was Zlatan. He was a cool cat. He was six years old when the war began, and it was so interesting to hear his personal experiences and his thoughts on how the war has shaped the country today. Zlatan took us to the Yellow and White Fortresses; the Olympic Stadium, where the opening ceremony of the 1984 Winter Olympics were held; the Olympic bobsled track; an abandoned hotel used during the Olympic Games, which was later destroyed during the war; and the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the best on the day, so some of the views weren’t HD, or at all visible. But the content more than made up for it.
The view from the Yellow Fortress.
Cloudy view from the White Fortress.
The Olympic bobsled track, with some cool graffiti.
Beers in an abandoned hotel.
The main stop on the tour was the Tunnel of Hope. It was built by the Bosnian Armed Forces as a means to bring rations and war supplies into Sarajevo, after the city was surrounded by Serbian forces. The collection of displays surrounding the tunnel entrance highlighted the reality of what life was like for people in Sarajevo at the time. They showed how little people had to live on, how the tunnel was constructed, and how disadvantaged the Bosnian Armed Forces were against the Serbian forces, both in man power and artillery.
The Tunnel of Hope.
The Bosnian Armed Forces uniform – jeans and Converse trainers.
Without it completely overshadowing the rest of Bosnia’s dynamic and intricate culture and history, I feel the Bosnian War is something that cannot be ignored when one is in Bosnia. I feel learning about it has revealed a lot about where Bosnia has been, where it currently is, and why the Bosnian people are the way they are – that is, resilient, genuine, friendly, tolerant, and determined. I know I’ve probably said that some of the cities I’ve been to so far “have so much character”. But after visiting Sarajevo and Bosnia, I think I may have been using that term too liberally. I think the other cities were more charming and pretty. Sarajevo has real character. It has heart. It has grit. It has sucked me in. There’s a fountain outside the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in the old bazaar. It’s said that if you drink from the fountain, then you will return to Sarajevo. I took several big gulps. I will definitely be back.