You’re in The Balkans, you’ve got a few days off and a travel itch that needs scratching. What do you do? Easy. You get yourself to Sarajevo. Immediately!
I didn’t think it was possible to knock Lubljana off my ‘Favourite Balkan Cities’ top spot… but then I visited Sarajevo.
The bus trip from Belgrade took almost seven hours so I came up with a strategy to make the most of my visit. I would sleep on the bus, spend a limited amount of time in my hostel and pack in visits to all the places I’d been reading about. My bus back to Belgrade would get me in just in time for classes. Time was tight, but I’ve wanted to visit the city ever since I read ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ by Steven Galloway in 2008.
I hadn’t expected the snow. Weather forecasts have often gotten it wrong before, but not while my winter clothes were sitting in a backpack two hundred miles away. I had just brought a small backpack for the trip. The weather in Belgrade had been steadily improving over the past few weeks and I had been gradually shedding layers, delighted that winter was finally coming to an end. Sarajevo (and my weather app) had promised something similar. Grr.
When the bus took one of its very many pitstops for the driver and conductor to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and have a good old chit-chat, I ventured out into the Bosnian night to stretch my legs. The cold smacked me in the face the moment I stepped off the bus. The snow was a few inches deep. I shivered. The leg stretching could wait. I got back on the bus.
I forgot about the cold once I arrived in Sarajevo. Or, if I didn’t exactly forget, I just made a decision to put up with it. Because it was worth it. My priority the morning after I arrived was to find the old abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympics. I’d seen photos of it on Instagram and on a few ‘most amazing abandoned places in the world’ type listicles. I wanted to go there. I had an overwhelming urge to climb onto the track and pretend to be a bobsled…
According to some bloggers, it’s a relatively easy hike into the mountains and was going to take me less than 90 minutes to climb to the bobsled track from the old town. I walked for about 10 minutes before I admitted defeat. The snow was too deep and my runners weren’t going to hold up. I thought of my boots back in Belgrade and cursed. I hailed a taxi.
The bobsled track looked even better in the snow than the pictures I had seen. Determined to get some kind of an adventure in, I climbed up a bank to a higher section of the track and followed it through the trees for a bit. In some parts, the snow was almost a foot deep and my poor runners were faring quite badly. I wanted to climb into the track, but I couldn’t make out the edge of the bank I was walking along. I knew there was a gap somewhere. For fear I would fall, I stayed back from the track and played it safe. I didn’t get to be a bobsled. I disappointed myself. When did I become so sensible?
Back in the old town, I was blown away by the meeting of east and west. There’s no denying their history as part of the Ottoman Empire, or the Austro-Hungarian empire, or as part of Yugoslavia. It’s a city steeped in history and what I loved most is that the different cultures and religions coexist in relative harmony and a spirit of cooperation. At least that’s what I was told by the Sarajevans I met on my trip.
Maybe it’s because of Sarajevo’s more recent history when citizens, regardless of cultural or religious background, were united by their shared experience of endurance. Almost four years of being indiscriminately shot at, targeted, blown up, raped and brutalised by their Serb neighbours, Sarajevans are a community of survivors above all else.
The Seige of Sarajevo went on from April 1992 to February 1996. 11,541 people were killed including an estimated 1500 children. Over half a million missiles were launched at the city. The targets were not only military targets. They were people queuing for bread and water. They were people walking on their own streets. They were children.
We, as a global community, have been horrified by recent events in Syria. We gasped in horror at the deaths of civilians in Aleppo and we shouted loudly about the UN’s obvious failings. The UN has failed before. It watched as civilians were murdered in Sarajevo. In nearby Srebrenica, a UN safe zone, 7000 muslims and up to 30,000 refugees were killed. This was one of the biggest genocides since WWII.
I got talking to Ivan, a Sarajevan who was a child during the seige, and still gets flashbacks from the trauma. He is the assistant manager at Balkan Han Hostel, where I stayed (Incidentally, it was a pretty great hostel). He showed me an unexploded grenade that was fired at the city by the men in the mountains. It was huge. He told me that it had once held 1000 pieces of shrapnel that would fire, like bullets, once the device exploded. That’s 1000 potential victims. An estimated 500,000 such devices were launched at the city during the seige. It hardly bears thinking about.
For all of their hardships, though, the people of Sarajevo also know how to enjoy themselves. Ivan took myself and another traveller, Gaby from Australia, out to meet his friends. With Bosnian beer in hand and Bosnian music to entertain, everyone was in good spirits. The bar wasn’t really a bar. It was a cinema before the war and is now a disused building. Except for Monday nights when the young people of Sarajevo descend en-masse to sing loudly and drink plenty. I was glad I chose beer. Gaby drank a few shots of Rakia, the liqueur of the Balkans, before someone thought to mention that it was 40% alcohol volume.
No wonder people were on the tables, singing and dancing.
After very little sleep, I was up at 5am to catch my bus back to Belgrade and it was with reluctance that I left Sarajevo.
I’ll definitely be back. But next time, I’m going to be a bobsled.