WHERE & WHEN: Sarajevo. August, 2011
WHERE DID WE STAY? We rented (incredibly affordable!) hotel rooms through hotels.com at the Hotel Hayat, but upon arriving, we were directed a few kilometres out of the city to the apartments on the hills. While the accommodations looked clean and comfortable, for a 2 day stay they were way out of the way. So we decided to upgrade to the hostel rooms just a 10 min. walk from Baščaršija and for only a few euros more. The hostel is actually just behind the main hotel, and has a great deal of old-world charm. I’d recommend doing the same, and asking at reception, since the three-types of accommodations offered by Hayat can be a bit confusing.
BEST MEAL: You cannot visit this city without stuffing yourself with ćevapi (grilled kebabs) with onion and kajmak on a warm pita. Try the legendary Željo’s Restaurant. (This is a roughly translated saying describing the coveted food: “Those who haven’t eaten ćevapi at Željo, live without purpose, entombed in darkness.” Dramatic, I know!) Don’t forget to wash them down with a pint of local Sarajevsko brew, but you’ll have to get it across the street, since the more traditional establishments don’t serve alcohol. Don’t worry, they actually let you take your food there with you. And for breakfast, you’ve got to have burek (meat pie) with yogurt (the delicious kind you drink, not eat with a spoon).
NATURAL HIGH: The steep and narrow drive into the city surrounded by the Dinaric Alps can be stressful for the faint of heart. The views however are well worth it. It’s also the kind of drive that makes you consider the recent, tragic history of Sarajevo—its positioning between the green hills from which it was shelled.
FIRST TIME: Our visit coincided with the celebration of Ramadan. We were lucky enough to experience the evening buzz that would infect the city as worshipers broke fast. Bread was handed out, restaurants were packed and laughter was everywhere. We are told, Sarajevo has changed significantly in the recent years in this regard, since its population is now predominantly Muslim and visibly devout. With the right attire (long sleeves, head cover, shoes-off) non-Muslim women are welcome in the mosques even during prayer.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: For a city that has become synonymous with war for anyone outside of this region, it was incredibly uplifting to see its historic centre, Baščaršija bustling and restored. When you look closely you can spot the battle scars, bullet riddled facades, etc. but it is certainly a city full of life and very welcoming to tourists. I had only visited Sarajevo as a child in the 80s, and listened to my parents’ stories of Sarajevo as a town with a huge heart and a great party scene, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that spirit alive and well.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: A visit to the Tunnel Museum, just outside of the city. [During the Siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, the Sarajevo Tunnel was constructed by the besieged citizens in order to link the city cut-off by batting forces with the territory at the Sarajevo Airport controlled by the United Nations.] Unfortunately, we missed the chance to see it arriving 30mins after the museum closed, since the roads are not well-marked and invisible to Google maps. We did however have the chance to talk to a man who lives in the house next door. His chilling war stories more than made up for it.
MOMENT OF PAUSE: I struck up a bit of a friendship with a local Roma street kid, Temo. He approached us while we ate, asking for money for school supplies. I know many of us have been in this situation and it becomes quite a moral dilemma each time. Turn him away and the guilt will stick with you; give him money and know that it will likely go to a street gang that uses this little man. So against the advice of my more pragmatic trip mates I chose to buy him some school supplies and stress the importance of school (which he claimed to attend; math and art were his favourite subjects). I even made him promise to show his grades to the store owner who sold Temo his colourful new backpack. After we parted, Ken (my boyfriend) could not let it go. He decided to follow the little guy, and only a block away, he snapped a photo of Temo handing his backpack to his thuggish street “boss”, to be sold no doubt. When Ken came back with the evidence, I was crushed. Not because I was naive enough to believe that it wouldn’t happen, but because my effort was useless and it made no impact on Temo’s life. I was left with a photo of Temo proudly wearing his backpack, grinning from ear to ear, and a sick feeling in my stomach. What was he left with?
NIGHTLIFE: As I mentioned, the nightlife is a highlight and you can just wander around to find a hip bar with turkish-style seating in the old town or tuck into a french-inspired cafe like Zlatna Ribica (Goldfish) a little further afield. We had a strange experience at this highly-recommended place (very rude server) but its worth a visit for the decor and otherwise great vibe.
MOST RELAXED: Taking in views of the city from its highest man-made peak, the Avaz Twist Tower (the tallest skyscraper in the Balkans). Enjoy a strong Turkish coffee & sweet at the Cafe 35 afterwards (yep, on the 35th floor).
WHAT TO BRING HOME: The historic quarter is a maze of stores and covered bazaars. Plan to pick up a copper džezva for preparing traditional Turkish coffee from a local craftsman, some very affordable silver jewellery or colourful hand-woven rugs (kilims) and linens. You may remember I gave away a džezva from our trip in my Souvenir Giveaway.
HIGHLIGHT: Travelling with my two closest cousins and their significant others. It was the first time we’ve done this as adults and I feel very lucky to see them as much as I do, even though we are a continent apart.
DON’T MISS: Sarejevo’s architectural claims to fame—whether old world, like the Latin Bridge the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) or the modern ones, like the Parliamentary building on the BiH square.
LOL MOMENT: At Bosanska Kuca restaurant, Ken and Sloba ordered the house specialty, steak (grilled before your eyes on a hot-plate brought to the table). But what they didn’t expect were the large bibs the handsome waiter tied on them with a smirk.