Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina: One Day is Not Enough

One Day is Not Enough

By: Rad Wood

Unfortunately, my time in Sarajevo was limited.  Partly due to the fact that the 11:30 Sunday evening bus from Novi Sad in Serbia was canceled, for no apparent reason.  I was at the station, my big pack laying at my feet as I slouched on a bench and waited.  Peter and Domatille, one of the French girls, had accompanied me to the station to make sure everything went smoothly.  Good thing they did because it didn’t.  As the three of us sat and talked, an older man approached and began barking something in our direction before quickly disappearing behind a row of buses.  I knew this could not be good.  The bus station was a ghost town.  Only about seven or eight people still lingering, including the three of us.  Sarajevo was supposed to be a busy bus route.  Peter, who speaks many languages, turned to me and delivered the news.  “The bus is canceled.  He didn’t say why, just that there will be no bus tonight.”  Welcome to the Balkans.  The bus schedule informed us that the next bus to Sarajevo would leave at 8:30 the next morning.  But who can believe a schedule that just told a lie.  So Peter, unable to locate the barking old man, tracked down another employee who confirmed that the 8:30 bus was still on, as far as he knew.  That’s the best we could ask for.  I would return the next morning to find that not all buses in the Balkans are canceled.  I was off to Sarajevo.

After the delay, I arrived in Sarajevo at 4:30 pm, instead of at 6:00 am.  The bus ride itself was as pleasant as an eight-hour ride can be.  There were two drivers who alternated driving duty.  The bus was barely populated–maybe a quarter full with each passenger having his or her own row.  Along the way, the bus would stop and pick up random people on the side of the road, drive twenty miles or so, and, for a fee, drop off this recent passenger.  I had seen this done in Lebanon before.  One could never imagine it happening in the States, but the process makes sense.  The bus makes more money, doesn’t need to change its route and clearly has enough space.  When we weren’t picking up hitch hikers, we stopped at numerous bus stations in the many small towns that litter the otherwise unbreaking sea of deep green mountains that we traversed.  A couple of times, the drivers would make abrupt pit stops at cafes on the side of the road.  They would sit at a table together, order a coffee and smoke a few cigarettes.  These stops lasted as long as the drivers’ coffees.

The route to Sarajevo was also filled with tunnels, which increased in frequency the closer we got to our destination.  It was as if the men who laid the roads had grown tired of going over the mountains and so simple decided to blast through them instead.  After the many tunnels came my first glimpse of Sarajevo.  It was from upon high as the bus navigated a mountain pass and came around the front side of the mountain.  Viewing Sarajevo from above must be one of the most  beautiful ways of looking at the city.  It is an island of reddish-brown roofs that slowly fades into the green sea that surrounds it on all sides.  The heart of the city rests in a river valley far below, but its many appendages extend up into the surrounding hills on all sides until the thousands of buildings narrow to one or two near the very top of each peak.  This view, however, was short-lived.  The bus would not be taking me into Sarajevo proper, but instead to New Sarajevo in Republic Srpska.  New Sarajevo continues uninterrupted into Sarajevo proper, but it sits on the flat land on the opposite side of one of the many hills surrounding the city’s main area.  It is made of new buildings and other than the creaky old bus stop, it could exist in a neighborhood in any random U.S. city.

When I arrived, I needed two things: Bosnian Mark and a ride into the city.  After much hand communicating, in which I pulled out my debit card and mimed how an ATM works, I was able to withdraw some Bosnian Mark and obtain a taxi to my hostel.  The hostel I reserved was in the city center and aptly named so: Hostel City Center Sarajevo.  The city center is full of cafes, restaurants, bars and shops selling high-end goods and souvenirs for tourists.  It is also the oldest part of the city and contains all the classical points of interest in Sarajevo.  It is quite small and easily walkable.  So after checking in to my hostel, I decided to immediately head out to use the day light I had left.  First things first though, I was starving.  I hadn’t eaten since an apple earlier in the day.  On my way out of the hostel, I asked the girl at check-in if she could recommend any places to eat Bosnian food.  She was more than happy to oblige.  She gave me a map and put check marks on places I should go.  I thanked her and went on my way.  Unfortunately for me, the girl’s marks on the map were not as helpful as I would have liked.  After meandering through the old town’s side streets for far too long, I settled for a restaurant I had seen in a guide on Sarajevo on the bus ride.  The restaurant served only one thing: burek, a dish of filo dough filled with cheese or meat.  It is common throughout the Balkans.  I looked at the burek behind the counter glass and then at the stern looking woman who silently stared at me.  “Cheese? Meat?” I sheepishly asked.  The woman nodded and then pointed at the corresponding plates of burek and said “cheese, meat, potato.”  I was intrigued — three kinds.  So I ordered all three and quickly inhaled all of them.  By far the best burek I ever had (sorry Slovenia and Serbia you don’t have potato burek).  The process of inhaling consisted of me taking one bite of potato, then a bite of meat, and finally a bite of cheese.  I couldn’t help but thinking that if burek existed in America there would be six kinds, not three.  We would have already come up with potato, cheese, and meat burek kind of like a potato, bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast taco.  More is better.  But I was done with my feed and ready to explore.

I examined the map that the hostel had given me.  It was filled with points of interest to visit.  I quickly decided on seeing the old Sarajevo City Hall.  The map said it was a beautiful building with a long history and it was only a couple of blocks away.  When I arrived, however, the entire building–and I mean all four sides–was covered in scaffolding.  There would be no viewing of City Hall today.  My eyes returned to the map.  It indicated there was a fortress on a hill near City Hall.  I looked up.  There it was perched high above the city a guardian in the sky.  It seemed close enough.  So I began to walk up the closest and most direct hill.  It was not close and the path I took was anything but direct.  The fortress turned out to be a couple of miles away, up hill the entire time.  To complicate matters, the streets were small and did not contain any signs regarding the fortress.  It turned into a maze of sorts as I would walk down a street only to have to turn around and try another path.  All in all, the trek was a thirty-plus-minute affair.  In that time, I had sweated through my shirts and was seriously short of breath (Kilimanjaro, are you kidding me, Rad).  But the view was definitely worth it.  I was able to climb through one of the old look out windows in the fortress onto its outer embankment.  The fall directly down was roughly one hundred feet or so before the mountain jutted out far enough to break your fall.  After walking to the edge, I returned to sit in the window area and stare out at the city and the endless countryside.  The view had a meditative quality to it.  I stared into the houses, into the trees and into the many cemetaries that dotted the city.  My thoughts slowly faded.

When I had had enough, I began the return journey picking different residential streets to ensure I got lost again and to enjoy more of the city.  On the way down, I noticed something interesting.  In Sarajevo, the roads are paved while, very often, the sidewalks are cobblestone.  This looks very nice, but its hell on your feet.  Especially while walking down a steep incline.  At the bottom, back in the city, my feet were screaming at me.  But there was more to see.

Old fortress above Sarajevo that I hiked up to.

I took in the mosques, the churches and the lone synagogue in the area.  I walked across the Latin bridge where Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination acted as the spark that ignited the fires of World War I.  I even ventured through a park where a group of older men watched two other old men play chess on a life-size chess board that was drawn onto the park floor and had chess pieces that stood nearly three-feet tall.  After I had seen all I wanted, I decided I had earned another meal.  I found one of the restaurants recommended by the girl at the hostel and decided to give chivopchi another try.  If Bosnia’s burek was better, maybe its chivopchi was better too.  It was better, but still not anything I would order again.  I am through with that dish.  By this time it was dark and I was ready to head back to the hostel.  I had another long day of travel ahead of me as I made my way to Dubrovnik in Croatia.

Latin Bridge where WWI began

During the ride to Croatia, I began to think about all I had seen in Bosnia and Serbia.  One of the things that stuck out was the fact that these were countries where English was worn, not spoken.  The children wear Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and shirts of their favorite American band or pop star, but the people rarely speak English.  This dichotomy illustrates how connected we are while also reminding us how far apart we remain.  We may like the same styles, the same bands, or the same songs, but we cannot communicate directly with one another.  We don’t really understand each other’s worlds.  Less than twenty years ago, these countries were deep in the midst of war.  Hundreds of thousands were killed based solely on their ethnic/religious makeup.  And Sarajevo was the target of the longest siege in modern warfare history, longer even than the siege of Stalingrad.  I can read about this and analyze it, but I really cannot begin to understand it.  The scars of this war still remain in Sarajevo, many of its buildings filled with bullet holes, a European Beirut of sorts.  Even as I write this, I am riding through the southern Bosnian city of Mostar and literally dozens of buildings remain bombed out or covered with bullet holes.  The countryside beyond Mostar is more stark.  A graveyard of small brick houses in different degrees of disrepair.  Bullet holes in some, bombed out roofs in others.  All that remains is a skeleton of a former home, a former life.  Such an eerie reminder of the killing of others because of their faith.  This I cannot understand.  Maybe it is because the U.S. has imposed a policy that promotes separation of church and state and tolerance of religious diversity.  The doctrine may be imperfect, but its intentions are true and its results are better than most.  I grew up in a culture that promoted diversity.  To kill for religious reasons was anathema.  That religious diversity exists and should be promoted has, in many parts of America, nearly become a part of our language.  The image of Mayor Bloomberg standing by the proposed Islamic center near the World Trade Center comes to mind.  Such actions should make us proud.  Maybe we should start putting this concept of acceptance onto our clothes.  And maybe one day the people in the Balkans, or the Middle East, or wherever killing for religion reasons takes place will learn to speak it.