Sunday, 4 October 2015

Painfully Discovering Sarajevo

As you may know,  I backpacked part of the Balkans last June. One of the places I was most excited to visit was Sarajevo. I was really curious to see how the different cultures of East and West met and perhaps collided, the Turkish influence in the middle of Europe and the multiculturalism of a place that has had a troubled yet undoubtedly-fascinating history.

Pidgeon square in Sarajevo

Sarajevo is not an obvious tourist destination. People were puzzled when I mentioned that I would be spending quite a few hours on a public bus just to see it. Most people have no idea of what Sarajevo looks like, and neither did I. Pictures made it unreal, impossible to visualize, and even more so for the many images of war that I saw as a child on Italian news programmes. The terrible war that ravaged in the 1990s is always on your mind when you visit such a place, and casts a dark aura on a city that may otherwise be splendidly recovering from the shock.
I must confess that my first impressions of Sarajevo were not the best. I arrived at dusk at the central bus station, which is located outside of the city centre, in a poorly illuminated area of the city with only commercial buildings around. The place looked a bit scary, to me at least, so I asked some other backpackers if they knew their way, and with difficulty we found the tram station. We were lucky and a tram driver immediately asked us, with a shout, to board the tram. We barely had the time to put our backpack down on our seats on the cranky old tram that an inspector came on the bus and threatened to make us pay a fine for the ticket that we didn't have. After a long explanation,  half-seriously and half-jokingly he let us go. Not the greatest start, you might recognize, but after a walk in the town centre I changed my mind and started to get the vibe of the city.

The old bazaar area
The following morning, with shops open for business, I went back and started to elaborate on what I was seeing. Baščaršija, the old Ottoman neighbourhood, made me feel as if I were in an older version of Istanbul, one that now has vanished. The bazaar with its wooden shops, the brass utensils, the tulip-shaped tea glasses, the cushioned seats of restaurant and cafés, everything reminded me of Turkey. I found the area even soaked of that nostalgic aura so typical of Istanbul. I would say that this is the main - and almost the only - touristic area of the city, yet I enjoyed it very much. I peered inside craft shops with dusty cushions and observed Bosnians having ćevapčići at eleven in the morning. This cherished Bosnian dish of short sausages served wit pita-like bread, chopped onions and sour cream is what you should have if you have time for only one Bosnian meal.

A café in Baščaršija
One of the most evocative places in Baščaršija is the main square, affectionately called Pigeon Square, with its Sebilj, an Ottoman-style fountain dating from the 18th century. Minarets in the distance and bazaar streets starting in all directions, it is a busy place, buzzing with life.

Pidgeon square

My favourite place in the old Ottoman neighbourhood  is nevertheless Gazi-Husrev-beg mosque, and in particular its peaceful courtyard and the stunning ablution fountain. Built in the 16th-century, it is perhaps the most important Ottoman building in the country. It suffered significant damage during the siege of Sarajevo, because the Serbian forces notoriously targeted religious and cultural buildings for symbolic reasons. It has been splendidly rebuilt and it is now buzzing with worshippers and tourists alike. I sat there for at least one hour, reading a book under the shade of a tree or taking notes on what I was seeing.

The fountain of Gazi Husrev-beg
Outside of Baščaršija, Sarajevo is a regular European city, with shops and cafés, churches and parks. I passed by Catholic and the Orthodox Cathedrals, as well as synagogues and mosques, as proof of the multiculturalism that pervades the city. Even though religious hatred has been one of the sparks of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, nowadays the different religions seem to coexist once again. Among the most striking monuments there is the Eternal Flame, a memorial to the victims of the Second World War in the form of a flame that is always burning.

Sarejevo Cathedral and shopping area
Sarajevo is surrounded by hills, so much that everywhere you can see streets going uphill. During the siege that lasted a record 3 years and 10 months, the snipers were positioned there and on the infamous sniper alley. Hand-painted signs would warn passers-by: "Watch out - Sniper!".

Street going uphill in Sarajevo

At the hostel where I was staying they kept telling us to hike to the Yellow Fortress. I was having a tour of the town with a Bosnian young man whom I befriended together with some people from the hostel, but he wasn't sure of what we meant by yellow fortress. We climbed to a viewpoint that might have been it. From there you can see all of the city and the white stones of a war-time cemetery. Thoughts of how trapped and scared one must have felt during the long siege came to my mind. These white stones are such a presence on the Bosnian territory that when you stoop seeing them you may guess that you're getting close to the border - at least the ethnic one - with Croatia or Serbia.

A cemetery in Sarajevo

I didn't even go to the tunnel museum, preferring to wander the city. I even visited a traditional Ottoman house, as well as a Srebrenica massacre exhibition that I found really interesting and touching. Sarajevo is a city that is trying not to forget the atrocities of the 1990s, but to move on while preserving the memory. It has a young population, with some cool bars and restaurants. Perhaps it is not as rich or as hip as Croatia, but it is catching up with the rest of Europe.

The Irish pub

As I came out of the Srebrenica exhibition, I saw an Ottoman military band - a mehter - playing in traditional costumes in front of the Catholic Cathedral. As a matter of fact, it was part of a music festival celebrating friendship between Bosnia and Turkey. It was interesting to see people waving Turkish flags, since the Ottomans were once the invaders. In the exhibition I saw a war-time video that explained - to me at least  - the otherwise-inexplicable hatred towards Bosnian Muslims. Bosnia is, together with Albania, the only part of the Ottoman empire where a large number of people converted to Islam and stayed in the country after the fall of the empire. In the footage, a Serbian general said that he considered Bosniaks traitors for giving in to the invaders, religiously and culturally.

Sarajevo it is the kind of city that is more interesting or fascinating than truly beautiful. There are places that you can definitely call beautiful of course, but in general it is an austere city, especially outside of Baščaršija. For example I was surprised that the famous Latin Bridge, where archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed, looked so dull.

The Latin Bridge
Sarajevo is not as aesthetically pleasing as Dubrovnik, that's for sure. It is gritty and unattractive in some parts, but it does have the charm of a place that is still a bit uncharted, touristically speaking. I didn't expect it to blow me away from an aesthetical point of view, and it didn't for the most part, but it is definitely an intriguing city.

View of Sarajevo from the Yellow Fortress

1 comment:

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