A city of immense history, very seldom visited by backpackers in Europe, Sarajevo has been one of the greatest surprises I’ve come across since starting southwards from Helsinki. Before I arrived here, all I knew about Bosnia was war. Snipers, bombs, tanks, massacre, ethnic cleansing—these were the only images I had ever seen of this country. The images were etched in my mind. Since the Bosnian War ended in 1995, the country and its capital, Sarajevo, have disappeared from TV screens. Seeing Sarajevo first-hand and speaking with the survivors and fighters of the war, new images have been etched in my mind, replacing those of its war-torn past.
Arriving at the Sarajevo train station at 6:30 in the morning, I was pensive, tired, and in no mood for discovery. I had been in transit from Ljubljana, Slovenia for the past 25 hours. A distance of about 250 miles (350 kilometres) took an entire day. The voyage included a late train in Ljubljana; my Zagreb-Sarajevo train leaving as I chased it along the platform in the Croatian capital; several no-show trains in the tiny Croatian layover town of Strizivojna-Vrpolje, which consists of a train station and a restaurant that sells nothing but cheese and onion buns; a stop on the Croatia-Bosnia border; a bus across the border to the wrong train station in Bosnia; a bus back across the border; a third bus to a second Bosnian train station. After all of this, a rickety train finally chauffeured my exhausted carcass into Sarajevo.
All of my cash was spent at one point or another trying to find a way to get here, so I walked for about an hour into the Old Town, rather than taking a quick 10 minute ride on the city’s Tram. This turned out to be a truly eye-opening experience, as I found myself walking down the infamous “Sniper Alley,” the main boulevard connecting Old Town with the industrial sector. This wide-open street surrounded by many tall buildings, the burnt, bombed, bullet-riddled shells of which still stand, was a favourite target of Serbian snipers during the war. Today, Sniper Alley is barren, devoid of trees, which were cut down in the early days of the war to supply firewood and, later, coffins. The only source of clean water during the Serbian siege was located along Sniper Alley, and more than 1,000 people were shot trying to cross the street. More than 200 of these people were killed, including 60 children.
Walking down the almost empty Sniper Alley in the early morning twilight shrouded in gray skies, it seemed as though Sarajevo was still under siege. The broken buildings lined the vacant street like giant ghosts in the morning mist. The streets are full of pockmarks, where shells had fallen a decade earlier. These holes, called Sarajevo roses, because they have been filled with red cement, remain as yet another reminder of the terrible recent past of the city. I would not have been surprised if a United Nations armored vehicle had come rumbling around the corner. Instead, I was surprised by what I found around the corner—a city full of life, optimism, and youth who have forged ahead, while always paying tribute to the years of struggle they have had to endure.
The Old Town of Sarajevo is stunning. It is not unlike the many other Old Towns in Eastern Europe—Vilnius, Krakow, Prague, Bratislava, and the list goes on—but, it stands out because of what lies around it. All of these cities have seen their fair share of bloodshed, but Sarajevo’s Old Town remains a bustling example of the fortitude of the people, surrounded by visible signs and fresh memories of the vulnerability. The first standout in Old Town is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This Eternal Flame burns for so many who were killed between 1992 and 1995 defending their city and their way of life. Walking up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from Sniper Alley is quite moving, since most of those killed around the corner were civilians, just trying to survive the winter.
A few minutes’ walk through Old Town, I arrived in Bascarsija, the Turkish Quarter. This area is unlike anything I have seen in any other European country. On every street corner, it seems, you will find a Mosque with its prayer tower rising above the dome, watching over this historic district. In the middle of the quarter is a marketplace filled with bartering locals cramming the stalls, buying shoes, rugs, clothes, jewelry, and every other household item imaginable. At the Western edge of this market, lies the biggest Mosque in Bosnia, the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque. This impressive building , built in 1531, is one of the greatest examples of Ottoman architecture in the world.
Leaving Bascarsija and finding the Miljacka River, which winds through the city like a Balkan Thames, is the most famous landmark in Bosnia, and one of the most important places of the 20th Century, Latin Bridge. On June 28, 1914, Yugoslav Nationalist, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, marking the outbreak of the First World War. The bridge was renamed after Princip during the years Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia, and then renamed again after the Bosnian War.
From the riverside, a visitor can see the true splendor of Sarajevo. The mountains and hillsides that surround the city are a dazzling sight. Covered by quaint neighbourhoods, most of which are marked by cemeteries displaying their white headstones, the misty hills were another favourite vantage point of Serbian snipers during the Siege. These hills, despite the bloody past they are a part of, rise around the city in what seems to be a protective ring.
Sarajevo is a diamond emerging from the coal of the Powder Keg of Europe. The progressive energy that exists in this city, which has endured so much negativity, is an example of the indomitable human spirit. For centuries, different cultures have coexisted peacefully within these hills, and today, the culture that was threatened only more than a decade ago, lives on through perseverance, peace, and humanity. It is a culture worth visiting, no matter how long it takes.