From Belgrade, Serbia, I remained in the Balkans and headed to Sarajevo, Bosnia, marking my three week interrailing milestone. This beautiful city is the largest and capital of Bosnia, infamous for the shooting of Franz Ferdinand which contributed to the start of the first world war, and for a bloody siege taking place very recently, 1992-1995.
This city is set amongst mountains and forest and in the sunshine, still harbours sadness from the past. As you walk through the streets you see bullet holes in buildings, memorials to young lives cut short and rose plaques on the site of mortar attacks. What’s striking is it’s all so central, locals were targeted buying food at markets, shopping and of course, going to worship. In a coffee shop buying baklava, I met a woman who lost her husband in the conflict and was returning to visit after fifteen years living in Melbourne, Australia. She was upset at how slowly the city was recovering and speaking to her made it all very real; the individual story amongst the huge statistics affected.
It’s easy to concentrate on this aspect of Sarajevo, as with Berlin, it’s very open and educational about the past. During the free walking tour on my first morning, the guide was very clear to highlight how three religions now live closely together and worship in peace; Islam, Orthodox Catholicism and Judaism. Alive during the conflict, a lot of young people don’t want to see it repeated so preach acceptance and understanding rather than hatred. This seems all the more positive when you realise that the unemployment rate here is 50%, but hope for the future is palpable.
Indeed, as I walked through the capital, you hear the calls to prayer from the many mosques, mixed in with sounds from the churches and synagogues. In the city centre by the old market, there’s a unique lunar clock for Ramadan and interestingly, the world’s oldest public toilets! Definitely worth a visit. On a side note, free toilets and free water are everywhere in the Balkans, which increases the sense of insanity for paying £1.00 or more for a bottle of water in London. Shouldn’t water be free with public taps in central locations?
After my reflective morning, I stopped at a local Bosnian restaurant to try a traditional hotpot and of course, their Turkish-style, unfiltered coffee, served in copper containers. The hotpot was the best meal I’ve had by far during inter railing (Get Jaunty rating of 10) and the coffee was fine once the sediment settled at the bottom as I left the drink to cool. I also made time during my stay to try a minced meat pastry or burek, which was incredibly greasy, but I have no regrets.
My favourite part of my trip to Sarajevo was walking up to the Yellow Bastion for a coffee and stunning panoramic views of the city. As you head up the hill, you’re greeted with a well looked after graveyard and sweeping fields across the landscape. To me, this walk is a must.
There are also many museums in Sarajevo, however after visiting the smallest museum in the world (I wager), which was also the least interesting in the world, and then a second, almost worse museum, I skipped any further attempts. As I walked half an hour to the modern western side where the huge shopping centre is, I visited the famous Holiday Inn that featured in the background to journalist reporting during the siege, but didn’t go in the war museum.
In my opinion, exploring the old town is the best way to get a feel of Bosnian life, taking in the city hall, the Iron Bridge where Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot, and Roman ruins make up the working market. My hostel, Hostel Story, was right in the centre and above several restaurants and shisha bars, which made it a great base to explore but also very noisy at night.
For visiting Sarajevo, my top tips would be to make sure you carry local currency as it’s a cash only city rather than card and research places to eat out beforehand; there are so many restaurants but a lot of it is cheap, tourist food.
As with Serbia, I leave Bosnia feeling more in touch with Europe’s history. Whilst many older generations are probably against visiting Bosnia after witnessing the 1992-1995 siege, it is completely safe and a charming place with friendly locals who welcome visitors with open arms. If you’ve previously considered Bosnia but felt put off, feel put off no more!
My ride from Sarajevo to Split in Croatia is an eight hour coach ride… le sigh.