by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Nothing is quite what it seems

sarajevo cemetery.jpg

Thirteen years after the siege, which between 1992 and 1996 made Sarajevo the symbol of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, the city continues to fight. Today, however, its citizens are not trying to survive the bullets or missiles launched by the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and the Army of Republika Srpska while lacking sufficient power, water or access to humanitarian aid.

This time, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is fighting to establish itself as a tourist destination in the competitive western Balkans market. It is not an easy fight. The coastline of Croatia and, to a lesser extent, that of Montenegro, get the lion's share of tourist attention. Sarajevo – indeed the whole country – still bear the scars of war. Cemeteries crop up in the most unexpected places, such as the one next to the stadium in Sarajevo, where part of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games was held. And signs of shelling can still be seen on the façades of buildings on both sides of Snipers' Alley, the informal name for a main road in Sarajevo, which during the war was lined with snipers' posts.

But the citizens of Sarajevo are trying to restore their city's reputation and former glory as a cultural and culinary capital of the western Balkans. They hope it will attract the world's attention the way it did with the 1984 Olympics.

Sarajevo combines the best and the worst of the Balkans. Life here began in the Neolithic period. The Romans founded a city next to the thermal springs of the present day suburb of Ilidža. The Slavs arrived in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Ottomans conquered them in the middle of the 15th Century and gave Sarajevo its bridges, its high street, its mosques, and even its name. In Arabic, saray means "palace." The Hapsburg' attempts to turn Sarajevo into a modern European capital had mixed results. They erected fine fin-de-siècle buildings next to Ottoman houses. They introduced the first trams to this part of Europe, as well as the first electric street lights in Austria-Hungary. But Austrian domination set in motion the forces of local nationalism and the desire to turn Yugoslavia's dreams into reality. One of the consequences was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which triggered the Great War.

Sarajevo's Yugoslav heritage is even more of a mixed blessing. In spite of the siege and the war, one of the city's main streets is still called Marshall Tito.


Sarajevo covered market

The district is a maze of tiny streets named after the trades of the 80 or so goldsmiths, curriers, coffee–house keepers, coppersmiths, shoemakers and butchers that occupied them. It is the largest Ottoman market in the Balkans. It became the commercial heart of Sarajevo in the 16th Century and today, restored after the war, serves that purpose once more. Being here is like taking a trip to the Orient. The fountain on Sebilj Square, a favourite meeting place for Sarajevans, is a replica of a fountain in Istanbul. The cafés around it offer Turkish tea, salep, a drink also known as "burn-throat," and Bosnian coffee – a weaker version of Turkish coffee. The shops sell 500 euro carpets and clothes, obviously made in China, tin stoves, nuts, scarves and jewellery. Baščaršija is also the place where you can see the most exquisite mosques in Sarajevo – like Gazi Husrevbeg with its covered book market and medrese (a place used for teaching Islamic theology and religious law). Wherever you go and whatever you do, do not miss the ćevabdžinica, or grill restaurant. Sarajevo chevaps are made of finely chopped meat and are renowned for being the best in the western Balkans.
A reputation well deserved.


Sarajevo bridge

There are 22 bridges over the Miljacka River, each one with its own story. Most of these stories are about half-forgotten benefactors from Ottoman times. Gustave Eiffel himself designed one of the bridges.
But none of them, or any other bridge in the world for that matter, can compare to the oldest preserved one, the Latin Bridge. On 28 June 1914, after several failed attempts by a group of plotters to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, one of them succeeded. Gavrilo Princip shot dead the heir to the throne and his wife as they were passing by the bridge. The plot hatched by the nationalistic Bosnian Serbs forced Vienna to declare war on Belgrade and set in motion a chain of events that led to the Great War and all of its consequences.

In Yugoslav times, the bridge was called the Princip Bridge. Its old name, the Latin Bridge, was restored after the collapse of the federation. The name itself originated in Ottoman times for the simple reason that the bridge led to Sarajevo's Catholic neighbourhood. While the idea of erecting a monument at the assassination spot remains merely an idea, a commemorative plaque and a photo exhibition remind visitors of the dramatic events that took place in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914.


Sarajevo roses

During the siege, when a mortar shell hit Sarajevo, it usually killed people. One thing that used to happen all the time though was that a shell would leave marks on the pavements, on the roads and on the walls of houses. People called these marks "Sarajevo Roses" because of their shape. With a little imagination, they do look like flowers with their petals blown apart in all directions. Some of the "roses" were filled with red resin, especially where the mortars claimed the most lives. Sometimes the pavement around them is covered with black X's – one for every person to have died there.


Sarajevo Tunnel of Life

Before you are in danger, you rarely realise the length of the thread your life may hang by. But the citizens of Sarajevo did – precisely 800 metres. That is the length of the tunnel dug by volunteers under the airport, in the neighbourhood of Butmir, in the first half of 1993. During the siege, the airport was under UN control and it was the only part of the city through which humanitarian convoys were allowed to pass. But bad weather and shelling from the hills controlled by the Serbs often made this impossible. It is then that the citizens of Sarajevo began to dig.

Permanently flooded, the 1.5 metre high tunnel was for years the only relatively safe connection with the outside world. Weapons, humanitarian aid, people – all passed through it. They say that in those times there was not a single Sarajevan who had not entered the tunnel at least once.

When you ask for directions to the tunnel you are likely to get blank looks. Ironically, the signs in Sarajevo direct you to the end of the tunnel that 13 years ago used to lead out of the city. But if you want to find the entrance to the tunnel and the museum inside you will have to ask around. And ask again. And again – following the confusing signs in the even more confusing Butmir.

Sarajevo Tunnel of Life

The museum shows a film about the building of the tunnel which attempts to recapture the spirit of those years. Uniforms hang on the walls of the underground premises, weapons lie in the corners and visitors sit on empty humanitarian aid chests. But only by entering the tunnel itself can you get a sense of the horror felt by the people under siege. Only 20 metres of the tunnel's claustrophobic length have been preserved. The rest collapsed soon after the war ended.


Sarajevo Austrian architecture

The most dramatic shift from the Ottoman to the European face of Sarajevo takes place where Baščaršija turns into a pedestrian commercial street, the Ferhadija. However, the largest concentration of buildings, which makes you forget that you are in the Balkans and gets you thinking of cities like Budapest, is along the banks of the Miljacka River.

Austro-Hungary took over as a result of the 1878 Berlin Treaty. One of the first tasks of the new authorities in Sarajevo was to Europeanise the city. The banks of the river, which had in Ottoman times flooded and devastated the city centre several times, were cemented and reinforced. Ottoman houses along its banks gave way to fine buildings. The renovation of the façade of the former town hall, which was turned into a library in middle of the 20th Century and suffered extensively during the siege, continues.

But most of the buildings along the Miljacka River have been restored to their pre-war glory. The former Protestant church now houses the Academy of Arts. This building, along with the National Theatre and the sumptuous Neoclassical University, are fine examples of Belle Époque architecture, recalling the magnificence of more idyllic times when Europe had been familiar with Sarajevo for one single reason – the spas at Ilidža.


Sarajevo Goat's Bridge

Leave Sarajevo and take the road to Pale, pass through the first two tunnels and turn right at the crossroad. According to the signpost, this will lead you to a pit. When you climb down to the Miljacka River, continue left. About a kilometre downhill, you will find one of the loveliest Ottoman bridges in Bosnia compared for the elegance of its single arch to the bridge in Mostar. People say that a certain Miho, who had discovered treasure, built the bridge in the 16th Century. Whatever the truth might be, Kozja Čuprija, or Goats' Bridge, occupied an important place in the life of Sarajevo – it was on the way to Stamboul and it is this road that pilgrims going to Mecca for the hajj took.

The nearby restaurant makes Kozja Čuprija even more attractive. Although you will not get roast kid there, the jagnjetina, or roast lamb, is well worth your attention.


Sarajevo Spite House

"The Emperor in Vienna may be great. But, with all due respect, he does not have enough money to pay for my gusto," a stubborn Sarajevo citizen stated at the end of the 19th Century. Plans by the local authorities to demolish the man's beautiful old house and to build a new town hall in its stead enraged him. He refused time and again to accept the compensation offered and did something that gave Sarajevo one of its most amusing landmarks. He disassembled his house, took it to the other bank of the Miljacka River piece by piece and reassembled it right in front of the pseudo Moorish façade of the new town hall. Since then it has been known as Spite House.

Today, it is one of the best restaurants in Sarajevo with a view to the Miljacka River, superb local cuisine (try the lamb sarmi) and marvellous grape rakiya served in yuzcheta, or tiny bottles.


Sarajevo chess players

Four successive European titles in the 1990s gave Sarajevan chess players a taste of fame. But the games most worth seeing are not those being played in public halls. Every day, old men gather at Trg Oslobođenje, or Liberation Square, to play Sicilian Defences and Queen's Gambits with giant chess pieces right on the pavement. Sometimes empty mortar shells fired at the city are used as chess pieces.


Sarajevo souvenirs

One of the most macabre reminders of the siege of Sarajevo and, at the same time, one of the most optimistic signs of the city's restoration, can be found in the little souvenir shops along Baščaršija. Take a good look, for example, at the pens that seem to outnumber the other trinkets. They are made from empty Kalashnikov shells and covered with embossed landscapes of the city and Sarajevo signs. Souvenir sellers have other shells, too, from mortars. Craftsmen have decorated them with flowers and sell them as vases – an ironic Sarajevo version of swords-turned-into-ploughs.


Sarajevo synagogue

If someone were to write a history of religious conflicts, then Sarajevo would be entitled to at least a tome. In 1941, the Ustasa authorities sent the city's more than 10,000 Jews to death camps, while the last war turned Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics against each other.

But Sarajevo has a long tradition of different religions coexisting. In the centre of the city, literally next to one another, there are mosques, four synagogues, the Jesus Heart Catholic Cathedral and two Serbian Orthodox churches, one of which was nationalised in the 1960s and now houses the Economic Faculty of the University of Sarajevo.

Perhaps the most hospitable building is the only functioning synagogue, the Ashkenazi, built in 1902 and located on the bank of the Miljacka River. Jews came to Sarajevo from Salonika in the 17th Century and in the 1940s they comprised 20 percent of the city's population. Today, there are about 700 Jews left. Although they are not particularly religious, they gather here regularly. There is a cultural centre on the first floor and a prayer house on the second, although it is usually locked. But the lady at the front door is very helpful and she will send someone to open the door for you


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