‘Why on earth are you going there? The country has just come out of war!’. That was the reaction when I informed my friends that I had set my eyes on the Balkans and I would attempt to see if there was more to the region than simply the war. This is not to undermine Srebrenica and the other atrocities that took place. But like my trip to Ghana in 2009, I anticipated meeting a population keen to create a new story, to move on and build a new and prosperous nation from the ashes of war. Cliché? Perhaps…in any event, let me take you through this first leg of arguably the most epic road trip I have experienced yet…
Now despite travelling quite often in a year (up to 10-15 times), I have never quite been able to build any form of confidence in the ability of a huge piece of metal flying through the air. Nevertheless, in Europe and the Middle East, the winds tend to be favourable and turbulence is quite gentle as opposed to our Far East tour last year in Malaysia, South Korea and Japan where the magnificent A380 operated by Emirates did shake a bit between India and Singapore, and the A330 operated by Finnair began to shake on approach to Incheon airport.
In any event, this time the flight to Munich operated by Lufthansa was smooth and I easily lost myself in conversation with the team. A short one-hour transit and I was sitting in a small plane, two seats on either side. No big deal. Only an hour to Sarajevo. And we were off. Now to deal with the fear, I thought that if my mind could plausibly comprehend the plane getting higher and higher, then I would feel calmer. So I stared outside the window…and found that my mind had wandered to the magnificence of the Alps.
I had not realised that the route took us over Austria and the entire flight was just a picturesque slideshow of glorious snow-capped mountains. I am quite lost for words as to how to describe it but the pictures go some way to describing the view. Hands down, it was the most picturesque flight I had ever been on…at that point at least. Wait until you hear about the flight back via Zurich! Suffice to say that I was jolted to the reality of a chunk of metal flying through the air when a sudden gust of turbulence blew the plane to the side mid-air after which it descended rapidly for a few seconds. I am unable to describe my fear, or the face of the stewardess on board who seemed only to suggest that I was not alone in thinking it was unusual. I still find it amazing how a captain can speak so calmly during severe turbulence. But it is reassuring nevertheless…
The first thing you notice as you descend into Sarajevo is that the city is surrounded by hills; large hills. I would hazard a claim that it is very similar to the seven hills surrounding Istanbul (no play there on the historical link between the two cities).
As Sarajevo international airport is quite small, passing through security was quick (and efficient) and soon we were in our flat near the town hall and the old city where street stalls lined the alleys with smells strong enough to get anyone’s taste buds going. The river Miljacka flows through the city and we were not far from where Franz Ferdinand was killed in 1914, triggering the start of the first world war. Many strike comparisons between Sarajevo and Istanbul, and that is no coincidence given the history between the two cities whereby Sarajevo was governed under the Ottoman Empire. But this does not mean that Bosnian culture is by any means hidden.
The Bosnians are a proud people, and no event describes this better than my experience of being completely alpha-maled by a proud Bosnian waiter in Kibe that lies on one of the hills and boasts a glorious view of the city. After devouring succulent lamb cut and cooked in true Bosnian fashion, I picked up the dessert menu and thought of ‘playing it safe’ by ordering ice cream. I cannot describe the dark face that grew on the waiter as I asked him. I can however relate to you that he remarked quite sternly that ‘…you can get ice cream anywhere in the world. How can you come to Bosnia and just eat ice cream?’ Now as you can imagine, I was not expecting this and was stunned into silence for a few seconds. I laughed it off but his face clearly showed he saw no humour in this exchange. He looked at me deeply, and this was a tall Bosnian man which seems to be a common feature amongst the men in particular, and said ‘I refuse to serve you ice cream. I will bring you authentic Bosnian cuisine. But I will not allow you to go back to your country and say you had ice cream for dessert.’
And with that, he was off. As the rest of the team began a ‘Sami was alpha-maled’ theme joke-fest, the waiter returned with a most unusual dessert that we all stared at. Our Bosnian friend accompanying us sought to describe it as an apple pie with fruit inside, though in hindsight, this does an injustice to just how juicy and ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ tasty the dessert actually was. We devoured it and as I turned to the alpha-male waiter beside me, the pride was clear as he smiled for the first time in the entire hour we had been there!
Sarajevo, despite being a capital city, is actually quite small but well organised. With a population of around 450,000 (it was 600,000 before the war), it is clear that it is a growing city and quickly emerging as a scene for lucrative multi-billion euro projects including Buroj Ozone. Far from looking like a war-ridden city, I was actually surprised to find the city centre to be quite hi-tech. The city is full of colour and the lack of crowded buildings as is the case in larger cities in Europe such as London, Paris and Rome, only emphasises the majesty of some of these buildings. The view is clear from whichever vantage point you take, allowing you to absorb the clever way in which Sarajevo sits comfortable in the midst of its version of the ‘seven hills’. There is a main road from one side of the city to the other, similar to London’s version of the A40, which takes you through the modern city centre to the old town. The seamless change transition between the two areas tells a story of its own of a city not willing to forget the past but ready to build on it.
Examples of this are the graveyards, well-crafted in that they do not take away or dampen the mood of the view you are currently experiencing, which are placed in front of modern complexes including the BBI centre. The fascinating and rather quirky trait of the local population is the way they enable you to glimpse life during the war. Near the BBI centre, there are a number of alleyways that are commonly referred to as sniper’s alley. Essentially, these were alleys that were within range of Serbian snipers in the hills who besieged the city during the war and who prevented anyone from crossing their crosshairs.
The uniqueness of Sarajevo is its uncompromising beauty from various vantage points around the city. These include the Old Fortress where about a scenic 20-minute walk away, you can arrive at a small café that commands a full view of the city that you can enjoy whilst sipping that well-earned tea. Careful though, the Old Fortress can be a bit precarious to walk around, particularly at night.
One of the best views we got of the city was from the Avaz tower. I will not even try to describe this. See it here for yourself!
Sarajevo may not be on top of the list of many people’s travel buckets. I confess that my fascination with the country stemmed from the war and my general love of politics and history. But oh how ignorant I was…People talk of the beauty of Paris or Rome for a city break. As someone who has been to both, you can be sure that Sarajevo is where I will be taking my family very soon…
Halal Travel Guide covered Sarajevo at its own expense and the opinions expressed are the author’s own. Halal Travel Guide did not receive any material or commercial incentives during this tour. In other words, we actually loved it…