The Balkan Series - Part 1

Sarajevo - Red Roses in One Thousand and One Nights

In July 2019, Ania visited Sarejevo, the capital
of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Read more about
her extraordinary experiences in the city
where east meets west

Estimated Reading Time: 10 min

Sarajevo subjectively - what is this
mystical city really like?

I open the website of Polish Wikipedia and read: “Sarajevo – the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina inhabited by 395 thousand people (2013). Founded in 1462 by the Ottoman Turks. In 1914, the site of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The 1984 Winter Olympics were held here. The city was heavily damaged as a result of the 1992-1995 war”
I open the English version of Wikipedia and the perception is a little different (at least in those first few sentences): “Sarajevo is the capital and largest city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a population of 275,524 in its administrative limits. The Sarajevo metropolitan area, including Sarajevo Canton, East Sarajevo and nearby municipalities, is home to 555,210 inhabitants. Nestled within the greater Sarajevo valley of Bosnia, it is surrounded by the Dinaric Alps and situated along the Miljacka River in the heart of the Balkans”

Caught between past and present

As a Polish child of the 90s, I understand exactly what Polish Wikipedia is trying to say about Sarajevo. The outbreak of World War I, repeated 100 times in school, started the attack on Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. But the other sentence from Wikipedia triggers images in me. The 90s in Poland, right after the fall of communism, black and white TV at my home, still with only two channels. I still remember the headlines being repeated over and over on the news: Sarajevo, the siege of the city, bombs, humanitarian aid, crying women, parcels dropped from airplanes.
I thought that this terrible place must be somewhere far away, almost on a different planet. After all, it was a beautiful summer day in my hometown with children playing in the yard. Maybe that is why the idea of having Sarajevo as my first stop during my Balkan road trip caused shivers, anxiety and excitement at the same time.

A Story from One Thousand and One Nights

If we consider Istanbul as Asia, Sarajevo has no competitor anymore. Sarajevo is called the Jerusalem of Europe. Within 500 square meters you can find, almost like in Jerusalem, temples of four monotheistic religions: the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Orthodox Serbian Cathedral of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, the synagogue of the community of Ashkenazi and the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. But for me, this oriental part of Sarajevo stands out above everything else.
I watch people and as time goes by, the square becomes more and more bustling, with tourists and locals hurrying to mosques and restaurants. The city center will not let anyone forget that Sarajevo was built by Ottoman hands. Suddenly, Austro-Hungarian, neoclassical tenement houses turn into a crazy Turkish bazaar Baščaršija (in Turkish it is “the main market”). During the Ottoman Empire, it was a peculiar city within a city, with a separate merchant law and even its own language. Today, this place has become, above all, a tourist attraction, where it is easy to be distracted by its absorbing colors, bustle and smell.

Sarajevo - a city for coffee and meat lovers!

The streets in Sarajevo’s old town are tightly arranged and encompassed by one-story houses, usually with craft workshops, tea rooms, shops, restaurants and cafes on the ground floor, with the smell of freshly brewed Bosnian ground coffee which makes it almost impossible to go further without tasting it. Of course, there is also a lot of trash and kitsch on the stalls today. When artisans do something, it is probably only because tourists are watching. But that’s not important. I close my eyes and absorb the noise and smells, listening to the ghosts of the past. It is amazing! ​
I am sitting at a table on the main square of the Baščaršija market. The characteristic Sebilj Fountain is the central place of Pigeon Square. I drink my coffee slowly and watch the pigeons fly over to nearby rooftops or landing on the square looking for food. Coffee is served here in the traditional Bosnian way. Coffee is almost a matter of honor for Bosniaks and it is not the same as Turkish coffee. The fine distinction lies in the brewing process, although the difference in taste is probably only noticeable for a true gourmand. The coffee is, of course, brewed and served in a traditional crucible (always copper “dzezva”) and you always get a glass of water, sugar and traditional Bosnian sweets called “rahat lokum” with your coffee.
Sarajevo is also one of best places to try the delicious Bosnian cuisine – a true paradise for meat lovers! Here you can find the best “burek” in the Balkans. It is a kind of stuffed cake made of phyllo or yufka dough and tastes best when dipped in cream (pavlak) and washed down with thick, delicious yoghurt.
Another flagship dish is the “bosanske ćevapi” which is served in a lepinia, a small and hot piece of bread. The version served in the Muslim part of Bosnia is pork-free. It consists of ground lamb, leg of veal or beef and spices. Among the beers, Sarajevsko is the most popular here – but of course this element of a meal has little to do with the everyday life of a Muslim. After a lot of meat meals washed down with yoghurt and beer, finding some vegetable to eat is a challenge (and still most vegetables are stuffed with meat anyway).

After taking care of the body, it was finally time to take care of the soul.

Throughout the city, as far as the eye can see, white minarets reach high above the rooftops. They appear on green hills, reflect in the river, rise majestically above the crazy Baščaršija. The view itself is beautiful. For me, a girl brought up in a Catholic country, it is like the beginning of a story from One Thousand and One Nights. It is hard to believe that I’m still in Europe.
Already during the first night in Sarajevo, I was woken up by the voice of the muezzin, calling Muslims to pray. Combined with the silence of night, it sounded magical! There are many mosques in the center, but during the day it is difficult to hear the call for prayer due to the noise of the city. However, it is enough to move away from the center to make muezzin’s calls become the music of this city. This voice in combination with the sunset is like a Sarajevo postcard preserved in me.

The city of a thousand sunsets

My first evening in Sarajevo. There is a bridge next to the guesthouse where I stayed, maybe a viaduct – but more importantly the place where I admire the wonders of my first Sarajevo sunset! Pure Gold above the surrounding hills, a magical spectacle of the sun. And then something happened that I did not see coming. In a nearby mosque, the call of the muezzin began, followed by more voices in another mosque. And suddenly, a wave passed through the city and voices started echoing from all directions. This combination of the golden sky and the unusual sound make me shiver even today.
Later I found out that it really doesn’t matter where you watch the sunset in Sarajevo, whether from one of the many viewpoints in the city, from one of the hills on which the city is located, or from the nearby mountain of Trebević which you can reach by cable car from the city center. The golden hour in Sarajevo is like gold spilled all over the city. Even now, I have never seen another city where sunsets create such an inescapable spectacle. Sarajevo owes it to the amazing location of the city on the hills, a city where going out to shop in the morning is like mountain trekking. Here, you always go up or down; and every sunset is like a view from a mountain trail!

Scars of the past

Whenever I read texts about Sarajevo, I find a lot of extremes in them. In many of them, everything revolves around the slogan “war, war, war”, while others shout “stop talking about war, it’s boring, it was, it’s gone, give this city life anew”. This is a subjective text, so … am I able to think about Sarajevo without thinking about war in the 90s? No. Sarajevo is like a beautiful woman with a scar on her face that can’t be covered up by any makeup. You see the beauty, this sight full of secrets, but you also see the scar. There will be no description of the war here. If you are interested, you won’t have difficulty finding many texts and studies on this topic on the internet.
I am entering Sarajevo, in front of me a stunning view of the green hills on which this magical city has been settled. I’m entering… and I’m passing a ruined building with bullet holes like Swiss cheese, another, and then another a moment after. If Sarajevo planned on forgetting about its past, it would have to reduce its surface area by a quarter. It seems like wherever I look, on every green hill, I see vast patches of white cemeteries. Even if you try to force yourself not to think about war when visiting Sarajevo, you can’t help but notice these white spots. It is impossible to pass these Muslim cemeteries indifferently.

"You were a rose, one in my heart. You were my rose."

On hundreds of white graves which all look alike, the sun sharpens the colors – and on each grave I see the dates of death: 94, 95, 93. Quickly count how old they were: 25, 18, 28, 30. These numbers keep you from going indifferently. The sun enhances the colors of green hills. It was from these hills that the snipers shot people like ducks during the siege of the city. The longest city siege in modern history. In my head a song by Goran Bregovic (formerly the leader of the Yugoslavian rock band Bijelo Dugme) pops up – “Ruzica si bila”: Ružica si bila jedna u mom srcu. Ružica si bila moja (english translation: You were a rose, one in my heart. You were my rose.)
I wander through an alley in the city center, a narrow sidewalk. And suddenly, my eyes are drawn to red stains of resin embedded in the paving slab – the Sarajevo roses blooming bloodily on the streets and sidewalks of the city. In this alley, the city remembered places where at least three people died from missiles. The places where the missile fell were filled with red-dyed resin. Is it possible to not think about the war while exploring Sarajevo, passing these red spots on the pavement a few times and then keep going without reflecting on it?

Don't let them kill us.

I visit an art gallery, “Gallery 7/11/95”, an exhibition about the massacre in Srebrenica. I see pictures on the walls, some simple faces and landscapes, while listening to the audio guide that adds the missing puzzle pieces, making the picture and the story of the person complete. There are so many frightful, shocking pictures – and the audio guide keeps telling stories.
Photos of several men are compiled in a chaotic manner as if they were taken from other photographs. I am listening to the audio guide. A mother who lost all her sons. She never had a photo where they were all together, so she made a collage of several photos. She carried this collage with her for the rest of her life, like an amulet. There are also movies in the gallery. One of them is called “Miss Sarajevo” and it shows the city during the war and the Miss Sarajevo election. The candidates come out with a sash with the inscription: Don’t let them kill us. U2’s music is playing in the background.

Sarajevo is addictive...

…it is like the smoke of a shisha that floats in the streets of Baščaršija and advances wherever it wants. For me, it is one of those cities that is not enough to just visit, see, be amazed – and then leave and act as if nothing had happened. It is a city of which you want to be a part of – and stay. If one day I could simply choose one city in which I would like to live, Sarajevo would definitely be at the top of the list!

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