06 May 2017

Do you dream of flowers on the hill?

It's about a seven-hour bus ride inland to get from Split to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I met Dana, who had flown in to Sarajevo from Lille that day.  Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a part of the EU nor is it a Schengen country, so border control took awhile.  (Bonus:  I earned quite a few stamps on my shiny new passport during this trip!)

Sarajevo feels like a patchwork quilt to me.  Each corner tells a different story, and there seems to be an endless supply of stories.  I felt a certain positivity amid darkness; there is a lot to experience culturally and historically.  To get our bearings, we decided to take a day tour sponsored by our hostel in order to get a handle on the layout of Sarajevo as well as see some hard-to-get-to areas.  We set out Saturday morning in a van, six of us led by a Bosnian native.

Before visiting Sarajevo, I didn't know as much as I should have about the Yugoslav Wars; we never got that far in history classes in school, and it's strange to think that I was alive and blissfully unaware that war was happening at the time.  A lot of the problems in that area go back to religious tensions just after WWI when Yugoslavia was created as a state.  In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia's declarations of independence from Yugoslavia ignited violence between themselves and Serbia.  Bosnia and Herzegovina's territorial war for independence broke out in 1992 among a handful of groups, notably the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Serbs, and the Herzeg-Bosnia (a Serb-Croat alliance).

Essentially, after a few small attacks between Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs in April of 1992, the Bosnian Serbs were able to secure control of the hills surrounding Sarajevo with the exception of a small strip of airport land.  Sarajevo residents, at a severe disadvantage as far as weapons and supplies, endured sniper attacks from the hills and from within the city as well.  Tanks fired shots at buildings, which burned, and men, women, and children bled to death from wounds on the streets.

Sarajevo's town center is rather spread out, and as we were driving around, we could still see partially-destroyed buildings, though our guide assured us that 99% of Sarajevo has already been rebuilt.

Tunnel Museum
In March 1993, construction on the Sarajevo Tunnel, also known as the Tunnel of Hope, began in secret.  It was built from private home to private home underneath the airport, one of the few bits of land not controlled by Serbian forces.  It was used primarily for transfer of supplies, as citizens of Sarajevo were quickly running out of food and defensive weapons.  It was really only by chance that the Serbs didn't discover the tunnel, though they had heard rumors of its existence.

Now, the Tunnel Museum is in place; you can walk through a bit of the original tunnel on the Sarajevo end to see how small but well-engineered it was.  We stopped there on our tour to learn more about the Serbian aggression and the story of the tunnel; there is a video to see and several informational panels to read.

Bombs at the Tunnel Museum
The bit that made the biggest impression on me was when our tour guide led us to an outdoor section of the museum where you can see examples of various bombs that were planted by Serbs during the war period.  Our guide, who was not much older than I am, explained that as a child in school, he was taught how to recognize and distinguish between different types of bombs and how each would explode.  Just as I was taught what to do in case of fire or tornado.

Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery
Finally, in 1995, NATO and the UN intervened, too late for the many citizens of Sarajevo who had been killed or wounded in the years prior.  There is still no agreed-upon number of deaths for the siege of Sarajevo, but some studies place it as high as 10,000 killed and over 13,000 wounded for the year of 1994, including thousands of children.

In town, you can visit the Martrys' Memorial Cemetery dedicated to the soldiers who gave their lives for Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Graves are all marked in white on a hillside that leads up to the Yellow Fortress.

While in Sarajevo, memories came back to me of a college orchestra Christmas concert I performed in with folk singer Judy Collins.  I remember sitting back and listening to a song (for which there was no flute part) called Song for Sarajevo which she wrote in 1994, specifically for the children affected by the war.  It's a hauntingly beautiful piece I didn't understand fully at the time.

We hear so much about the Holocaust in school, in the media, and how such atrocities should never be repeated.  But do we realize that they have since been repeated?  That they're still being repeated today?

One somber but powerful stop I would definitely recommend in Sarajevo is the Galerija 11/07/95, a museum of photographs with an accompanying audio guide that takes you through the story of Srebrenica during the Yugoslav Wars.  Srebrenica is a small town in Eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina where many Bosnian Muslims took refuge as it was under UN protection at the time.  Unfortunately, it was also heavily targeted by opposing forces, and the extent of the genocide that occurred there is still being uncovered today through discoveries of mass graves hidden in the hills.  The official death count is well over eight thousand.  The museum artfully tells the stories of victims and their families through black-and-white photographs and videos.  The last room is made up of protest propaganda which used advertisements for popular products to call attention to the situation in Sarajevo in the early nineties, like the Coca-Cola-inspired ad to the right.

The silver lining for Sarajevo is that, while something terrible happened not so long ago, the city generally seems to be well along the path of rebuilding and is gaining back its spirit.  On our tour, we adored the various views we experienced from the remains of the ancient fortresses surrounding the city and also from the heights of the nearby hills.  I really recommend a day tour to start out your Sarajevo adventure in order to get a grasp on the history as well as see the city from various angles.  Our tour guide took us to several excellent lookouts.

Dana and I at some fortress ruins

1984 Olympic Bobsleigh
While the main site of the 1984 Olympics is fairly run-down and forgotten today, we did see where the torch was lit, and later got to experience the Olympic Bobsleigh, nestled way up in the hills.  You can drive to the top of the bobsleigh and actually walk down it, admiring raw graffiti that's been added over the years.  It'll make you want to watch Cool Runnings again.

Burek and yogurt
The most delicious part of the tour was our quick lunch stop: burek, a Bosnian specialty with Turkish origins.  Burek is a savory breaded "pie" that can be stuffed with a number of fillings: minced meat, cheese, spinach, or potato, for example.  It can be topped with or dipped in plain yogurt (or you can simply drink the yogurt on the side).  It's a quick, filling, inexpensive meal...not to mention tasty.

Another Bosnian treat I enjoyed - that is closely related to its Turkish counterpart - is coffee.  It's always served in an adorable set; it's the only coffee I can stand to drink with sugar.  Pictured to the right is my Bosnian coffee and rose juice at a café called Rahatlook in the old town, where we also had a different but delicious Imperial cake.

Dinner at Pod Lipom
The old town in Sarajevo is called Baščaršija.  We loved wandering through the streets to admire shops and restaurants.  The Turkish influence on the area is apparent; you'll be overwhelmed with a variety of Turkish specialties and goods.  A couple of restaurant recommendations for local specialties:  Pod Lipom and Dženita.  Pictured to the left is an assortment of typical meat-stuffed Bosnian delicacies with cream from Pod Lipom.  My favorite spot to go out in the evening is called Zlatna Ribica, a tiny, cozy place full of fascinating vintage decor.

Centrally located in Baščaršija is the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque.  One of the first things I noticed entering Bosnia and Herzegovina by bus was that every town had a mosque, and that the mosques were all structurally similar.  On our tour, we learned that about 50% of Bosnia and about 80% of Sarajevo is Muslim; it became normal to hear singing echo throughout the city five times a day, which signaled believers' call to prayer.  To the right is a different mosque in Sarajevo, simply to show the Ottoman-style architecture typical of mosques in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  For a few Euros, you can go inside the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque between prayer times; Dana and I went in on Sunday afternoon accompanied by an Imam, the Muslim equivalent of a priest.  He was very sincere and spent quite a bit of time with us, thoroughly answering our questions on Islam and singing a prayer for us as well so we could hear how it would sound during prayer inside the mosque.

Dome ceiling of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
Sacred Heart Cathedral
I don't think I'll ever forget this visit to the mosque or the fact that it was on a rainy Easter Sunday; I'll cherish that experience as well as a few others we had that day.  We stopped outside a Jewish synagogue which is now a museum.  While there is a small Jewish population in Sarajevo today and while Jews once had a prominent role in Sarajevo's history, the vast majority were sadly removed during the Holocaust.  The Jewish cemetery, the second-largest in Europe, stands in Sarajevo as a reminder of its Jewish history.

Sarajevo also has a Catholic cathedral: Sacred Heart.  By chance, we were able to sit in on part of their one English language Mass given on Easter.
On that same Sunday, we had two other completely unrelated sightseeing visits.  One was the Avaz Twist Tower, a modern skyscraper with an elevator to a nice café on one of the top floors.  There is also a viewing deck at the very top, but we were content to enjoy drinks indoors in the café complete with a rainy view of Sarajevo.

The second visit was to the Latin Bridge near the old town (pictured to the right).  It maybe doesn't look like anything special, but those of you who love WWI history will recognize it as the birthplace of the war, the site of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914.

Stari Most
After our weekend in Sarajevo, we headed a few hours in the direction of the coast to the small but charming town of Mostar.  Mostar is the most important town in the Herzegovina region and gets its name from its iconic bridge Stari Most, or "Old Bridge".  While the original bridge was completed in 1566 and stood for over four hundred years, it was destroyed in the early 1990s.  The reconstructed bridge is a nearly exact replica of the original medieval structure, and it was finished in 2004.  A handful of legends are floating out there about the bridge's construction and early history, though the true story remains a mystery.

View from Stari Most
Mostar itself is quite touristy, but like many small towns in the region, it's a day-trip location for travel tours leaving the early mornings and evenings quiet and calm and selfie stick-free.  Mostar is much more romantic than Sarajevo, but you can still feel and see the Ottoman influence in the architecture, mosques, food, and shops lining the old town streets.  Though we only spent one night there, it was the perfect short, lighthearted stop after the busy pace and heavy history of Sarajevo.  I appreciated the surrounding hills, April greenery, and clear blue water.

In Mostar, I tried ćevapi for the first time.  It's a Bosnian specialty, essentially their version of a kebab - meat and other ingredients in a pita sandwich with fries on the side.  The bread is especially delicious.  It can be found all over the country as street food or in restaurants specializing in Bosnian cuisine.

Buna river in Blagaj
Even from Mostar, you have several day trip options available.  We had limited time there but chose to take a bus to Blagaj for an afternoon.  Blagaj is a tiny town sitting on the Buna river and is known for its tekke, or Dervish monastery; it seemed to be a popular visit for Muslims.  For a small entrance fee, you can tour the monastery, which is really a small and humble house along the river nestled into the side of a cliff.  Outside, the Buna is lined with restaurants.  You can cross the river to sit and admire the waterfalls and impressively clear water.  Ultimately, it's a beautiful and calm spot to spend a few relaxing hours.

Dervish house


  1. Anonymous7/5/17 13:43

    You really are such a gifted writer. You wrote of our trip so elegantly and I also learned new things I missed the first time around ! :)