My friends often tell me they did not go on a trip or a holiday because no one was available to come with. This puzzles me… I mean, why not?! When I found out I had a day off at Easter (and thus a long weekend) I got onto Google Flights and found the cheapest flight out of Istanbul, about a week before departing. The lottery decided my holiday would be to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I really love it when the Google Flights lottery points me toward something exciting (as opposed to some village in Germany I have already visited twice) and enthusiastically scanned the web for the cheapest hostel.
The hostel turned out to be the best part of this trip. Hostel Teatar* was small and dirty (really, there were ants running across the bathroom and over the kitchen counter) but also the most cosy and most friendly place I have ever had the opportunity to stay at. There are less than a dozen beds (single, not bunk beds) sot of squished into two lounges, and the price ranges from 4 – 8 EUR depending on how/when you book it. Yes, 4 EUR. There’s bathrooms with hot water (although one of the doors does not lock) and a kitchen (where huge and happy communal meals can be cooked). I met several people there who just decided to stay a couple weeks extra, because the atmosphere was so good. Mind, it is a little bit tricky to find because there is no sign outside: when you get to the theatre, go up the stairs. I walked around the place three times and asked a handful of people and no one could direct me correctly, so you are warned! Please do go stay there!
Some more logistics: I took a bus from the airport to the city centre; not knowing exactly where to get off, I just picked a nice place along the river, and looked for landmarks from there. Although I did not make use of it, on account of terrible rain, there is also a bus station (in-between the airport and the city centre; walking distance in each case) where you could take a bus to other parts of the country, such as Mostar. The bus times are a bit tight for a day trip, but it could be done. Apparently the hostel in Mostar is also quite nice though : ) Oh, and everyone told me not to take the train (but I cannot quite remember why).
- N. b. I read some very distressing news via Google that the hostel might be closed?!
Bosnia has a lot of famous foods, many related to Turkish cuisine. Sadly, delicious breakfast is not one of them. There was no decent breakfast to be found anywhere, so I resorted to the bakery next door. And croissants are a delicious alternative anyway. Other traditional Bosnian foods are quite strongly meat-based, so I got all the usual ‘you will never find something to eat around here’ from everyone. Indeed, perhaps the most famous is ćevapi, a type of sausage often served with bread (aka one of those things that’s great to eat after a night out). I do imagine a vegetarian and/or vegan version could be created, but I am not sure Bosnia is quite ready for that kind of sacrilege yet.
Things that are very much vegetarian (if you ask) include börek, (savoury) pastry most popularly filled with spinach, potatoes or, interestingly, pumpkin. I tried all, and all were amazing. One of my friends bought a week’s supply of them for the bus onward to Croatia or wherever she was going next. Also fantastic of course is Bosnian coffee. I cannot say I detected a huge difference with Turkish (or Jordanian / Syrian / etc.) coffee, and I understand that could be a cultural faux pas, but it is something I love and appreciate anyway. A friend from Couchsurfing showed me a great place called Čajdžinica Džirlo (yes I did have to look that up to check the spelling).
Sarajevo has a beautiful old town centre, famous for having a mosque, a Catholic church, an Orthodox church and synagogue within the same neighbourhood. I have to say, I did not see any of them from the inside apart from the mosque; I figured I would have time all weekend, and then never got around to it. I also did not manage to see all mosques (there are multiple), because of opening times I never worked out. The one mosque I did visit was the central Gazi Husrev-beg mosque and neighbouring madrasa or Library Museum (you can get a joint ticket for both, if you plan the opening times well, and ask for it). Hint: if you are coming from Turkey, a lot of people actually speak a bit of Turkish, if you want to impress them like a local (and have no Bosnian, like me). Mr Gazi Husrev was a Bosniak governor of the place during Ottoman times. The Wikipedia page on the man is pretty sparse, so I recommend going to the museum to read up on him a bit.
Also related to Mr Husrev is the only and only visible archaeological site of Sarajevo city centre, the ruins of the caravanseray called Tashlihan (or han, for short). These date to the 16th century (not Roman times, unfortunately). This location was used for loading and unloading goods, shops and stalls, and a public fountain. Nearby there were rooms for local traders (which you can still go view, if you like!). The han was destroyed by a fire in the mid-late 19th century.
On my final day rain was pouring from the sky in buckets, so I opted to walk (or run, if you like) to the archaeological museum (rather than undertake a last-minute day-trip to Mostar). Whilst it was clearly not the most popular attraction of the city (there was one local family and one local school-group there during my visit) I can thoroughly recommend it. Bosnia and Herzegovina has a facinating ancient history, particularly when it comes to Roman settlement. Because the region is quite far from the epicentre (Rome) there was a lot of interesting peripheral and provincial influence on art and architecture. I saw some fascinating shapes and objects I have never seen before, and in fact never heard or learned about before (which, genuinely, is quite rare for me at this point). I enjoyed getting a taste of the history of the country in this way, and I might buy a book or two to learn more when I find the time!
After this I dashed to the historical museum across the road. I have to say, this was significantly less impressive, but only in the sense that the museum was quite small and not very varied, with sparse information signs; not because the material on display was not impressive. The main (and really, only) gallery upstairs covered the history of the war, from a particularly personal perspective. There were items people used, including an original can of beef (see below), and also a lot of newspapers clippings and personal stories. I think it is a very intimate way to learn about the complicated history of Sarajevo (as opposed to displays of tanks or guns, or spotting shrapnel damage on buildings). While perhaps unfinished or under construction (one must assume?) the exhibition certainly has impact.
If you are not sure where to start, Sarajevo has a lot of really good free walking tours on offer. Of course free means that technically you are expected to tip, which I am sure I did not do nearly enough on account of never having enough money, so if you go on one, please try and make it up for me! ; ) I cannot remember whether we did two in one day, or one on the first day and another on the next day – anyway, we (meaning my new friends from the hostel and me) started with the East meets West tour through the city centre, covering most religious buildings, the spot where Franz Ferdinand was shot, and ending up at the beer factory (which is probably an amazing place to visit if you are a beer aficionado) (I am not).
The next tour we went on focused on the scars of Sarajevo, walking along the river in the other direction, toward the parliament buildings. We walked past the so-called ‘sniper alley’ and the one and only Canned Beef Memorial. The tour guide will give you a much more impressive account of this story, but in summary: the UN tried to help a bit by sending food, but the citizens of Sarajevo swear it was all disgusting old canned beef that had not been used during WW II; so thanks for the help, but, really, no thanks. Imagine growing up with this being the dominant part of your diet.
Like the murals of Belfast, you may have heard of Sarajevo roses, but maybe aren’t exactly sure about them. These are places where concrete, damaged by mortar shell explosions, has been painted red. Whenever you see one, you can be certain it is a spot where lives were lost. It is chilling, and beautiful. It was so impressive to me, how the new generation in Sarajevo is living with the war of its recent past. They do not avoid talking about it; they remember it vividly, and the scars are still clearly visible everywhere… but there is a kind of resilience too, and hopefulness, and this sort of more happy and optimistic look toward the future. It has gone further than that even: slowly, people are starting to become critical again. Sarajevo regenerated amazingly quickly; when I was a teenager I would have never thought about going for a holiday there. However, progress has halted. Corrupt politicians still dominate national decision making, and young people cannot find the jobs they want. I am very curious what the next decade will bring.
On my last day, I had some time in the morning and wanted to visit the Tunnel of Hope. It looked walk-able, so I just had to check which bus or tram to take to the airport afterwards. Through doing this, I discovered that the museum is actually attached to the airport, and it would only take about half an hour to walk around it to Departures. So, I shouldered my backpack, and started walking. In hindsight it makes sense, because the Tunnel of Hope famously leads from the airport, into a field next to the airport…
It was a really wonderful walk through the Sarajevo countryside, both to the museum, through some charming villages, and to the airport, through some open fields with stunning hill in the background. I definitely recommend this unconventional adventure! I have to say, it was a long walk though. It probably took me 1.5 hours or more to get from Sarajevo city centre to the museum and then another three quarters of an hour or more to the airport. I am not sure how many km it was, I did not (really) get lost, and I am pretty sure I did not make an accidental detour, so just be prepared! It is a really lovely way to see something totally different from the urban centre.
The Tunnel of Hope was dug by the Bosnian army during the Siege of Sarajevo in the 90s. The city was blocked off by Serbian forces, the airport held by the UN, and a bit of the other side of the airport was still under control of the Bosnians. It became a way to bypass the international arms embargo and provide humanitarian aid to Bosnians. Although it was a kind of open secret, no journalists were ever allowed to enter, and many a correspondents became obsessed with finding it (I think; I remember reading this somewhere but now cannot find the source).
Paradoxically, it was difficult to feel the sense of hope here, that is so strong in the rest of Sarajevo. Run-down buildings, bullet holes, landmine warnings, they make for a very somber atmosphere. However, this is an important monument to the strength of Sarajevo. All in all, I do feel hopeful for the city, and Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole. I am telling everyone I meet to go visit in any case! It was most certainly one of my highlights of 2017.