While we were hitchhiking in Bosnia, we found diversity everywhere we went. We were amazed and intrigued by the contrast between the colorful touristic center of Sarajevo, dynamic Balkan music, busy night life and the dark history of war behind it.
Take a coin, throw it in the air, and tell me what side it's facing you. Let's say you won, and from now on, that side should be considered the lucky one, the one you would always bet on. You would not win all the time, regardless of the head or tail you've chosen initially, and that's simply because the coin has two sides equally important. Just like that, while traveling in Sarajevo some get the pictures, others get the numbers. Those curious like me, will try to get the whole experience, by enjoying the attractions and understanding the history that shaped the reality of the present day. That being said, I hope you will choose to read both sides of the story: our personal experience in Sarajevo and it's living history.
We started our day with a big aim: to leave the lovely city of Novi Sad, (north of Serbia) and arrive in Sarajevo, the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the same day. Around 300 km, and 6 hours drive through what Google used to consider (in March 2012) “no man's land”- that means unexplored territory for Google satellites. Entering in Bosnia from Serbia, it's a must having a map, or a local with you, or psychic power and prepare for a long journey. This way to go to Sarajevo is not touristic at all. In fact, you can barely spot shops, gas stations and people on your way, so you need to have enough fuel for your car, food for your needs, and all the necessary things in case you don't find civilization on your way. From all of the above, we had directions until the border with Bosnia, some food, water, and a “foreigner face” - which we were told it helps a lot - Serbs cannot confuse us with Bosniaks and vice-versa. We didn't know what to expect, but we were enough naive to believe that we can do it, and that paid off: 50 km before the border with Bosnia, in a blink of an eye, a nice lady in her '50s stopped out of nowhere. “Where are you going?” [Sarajevo, but if you cross the border is still good for us] . “Come on in, I'm going there”. And just like that, we crossed the territory of Republic of Srpska, a rural land, frozen-in-time, almost deserted occupied by Bosnian Serbs, with our driver, university professor and open minded ex-politician of Serbia telling us the history of the place, and insights on Bosnia's War of Independence. Yep, I know: we were lucky!:)
My first impression of Sarajevo
We reached Sarajevo! The city is placed in an idyllic valley surrounded by mountains (the Dinaric Alps) along Miljacka River in the heart of Southeastern Europe and the Balkans. The travel was a bless. Soon it was getting dark so we went in a park to search for a friendly local willing to lend us his mobile phone to call our couchsurfing host and announce him that we arrived (check out our guide for free sleeping). When you find yourself in a country outside EU, and roaming rates are just too high for your budget, you can try to use this trick: go in a public square and ask a resident if you could use his phone to give a short local call, in exchange for the money back. You'll see that 99% of the times they will not charge you anything, but if they do, you are still going to have an advantage by paying local fares not international ones. In the park, a weird man was climbing benches and bins to throw paper planes in the deep dark of the evening. As soon as he was jumping on the ground, he was running in search of the paper planes, desperately collecting them from under people's feet and benches and repeating the restless process over and over again. Interesting, no one seemed to bother except of us. All this plus the bunch of old hectic people playing chess in poor light gave me goosebumps. We hurried to meet our host in search for safety, and we bumped in the nice Baščaršija square, with it's beautiful Sebilj fountain build in Ottoman style and the same energetic people eating, chatting loud, through dozens of greedy pigeons. A warm light was filling the square, and all the stories about the dangers of being a tourist in Bosnia faded in the night.
The traveller's lost paradise
Our host and his friends welcomed us with a shot of gin to loosen up our spirit, and took us to his place, a house on the mountain with a very promising panorama of the city straight from the living room. They were all neighbors: an Australian guy of polish origin, an Australian girl, a crazy energetic Italian, having other two crazy energetic Italian girls as guests at his place, and during our stay other foreign “locals” came along just to make us realize that Sarajevo was an “exotic” touristic Bosnian destination after all. I had to find out what made those full time travellers stop in Sarajevo for months and even years...They were clearly in love with the city, with their freedom there, and the cheap lifestyle. They were considering it the best place on Earth to live in, and to experience the Balkan travel. Some where visiting their native countries or traveling across the world for some time, but always returning in the same point from where they started. They bound with the locals and their intense stories about the devastating Sarajevo Siege, and some even tried to be faithful to their secret paradise and endure hard winter as the locals were forced to do: 2 weeks without heating and water, buried in snow with a grateful smile on their faces. Sarajevo gave them ultimate lessons during winter, and ultimate freedom in the rest of the year. No wonder every aspect was balanced with multiple shots of alcohol in a perfect “yin & yang” harmony.
The Jerusalem of the Balkans
Next morning we descended through the Jewish cemetery exactly in the old city center with its historical bazaar. There, everything we've seen or imagined the previous night, turned miraculously in a beautiful, overwhelming mirage. We were surrounded by Muslim traditional restaurants, mouthwatering windows with burek (traditional pie) with it's delicious smell, lovely antique stores with their outstanding silverware art, carpets and colorful Turkish glass lamps with their unique style. Souvenir shops were at every corner, pedestrian streets full of buzzing tourists slowing down the flow, cats making their appearance on the brick roof of small boutiques, through the feet of the clients or mosque visitors. Walking along the main streets we end up without realizing, in a totally new picture: modern architecture, fancy malls and pubs due to the earlier Christian influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire taking over the Ottoman Empire domination in the area. Everything was a mixture of cultures, traditions, religions and ethnicities. No wonder it is called “the Jerusalem of the Balkans”. Little by little I started realizing Sarajevo's hypnotic spell upon it's travellers, the best of Bosnia's touristic attractions.
Night life in Sarajevo: Enjoying the Balkan Music!
In the evening we reunited with our host and his friends and the picture changed again. This time we took a glimpse of Sarajevo's busy night life, another insight of the Balkan travel experience. We went from a genuine vintage bar to an Irish pub ending to Goran Bregovich's long-expected concert in Sarajevo. The first stop we did was at The Zlatna Ribica, also known as the “Gold Fish”. For any visitor loving antiques, this is a must see! The relaxed atmosphere, the goldish-reddish light and the glory of old times, vintage furniture and incredibly detailed interior design of grandma's kitsch addiction makes you feel trapped in a sepia picture. It's definitely worth it!
A few lines on the concert: Goran Bregovich performing in his hometown (yep, he's a Bosnian Serb) after too long time. A big Bosnian touristic event but also controversial: some people were angry. This category formed because Bregovich was living in Serbia during the Siege of Sarajevo, and most of his life, decision that made him look like a traitor. For sure there were insights we didn't know or wanted to know but we were struck by the grief of some “local” travellers that decided not to come to the concert in respect for the residents. On the other side, Bregovich sang only traditional Bosnian songs, careful not to step outside the picture.
Our conclusion about Sarajevo
The city is developing fast, Bosnia's tourism is doing well, long time travellers are calling it “home”, returning here on a regular basis. The food is good, everything is cheep, and you don't have to worry about your safety! Although Bosnia is renowned for it's war and Sarajevo Siege, diversity and contrast are the country's dominant keywords, making it an authentic Balkan experience for travellers around the world! You can find an Orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, a mosque and a synagogue whitin walking distance. Plus, in 2014 Sarajevo will be the European Capital of Culture. You have all the reasons to make it your next destination while traveling in the Balkans!
Check out the second part of our story about the insights on Sarajevo's longest Siege in European history and the incredible reality of those times.