Monday, 5 November 2007

Sarajevo. City of briefcases not bayonets, backpacks not berets



'Welcome to Sarajevo,' was the predictable announcement from the impossibly smiley British Airways flight attendant. His fixed grin was genuine and also genuinely understandable, this being the very first direct flight of BA’s new service – London Gatwick to Sarajevo in just three and a half hours – and he being of Bosnian decent, proudly conducting his bilingual announcements in Bosnian and English.

As the plane descended into a dramatic valley amongst the rugged Dinaric Alps a new excitement replaced the usual blasé. It was already obvious to me that this wouldn't, yet at least, be a Milan, Barcelona or Prague of the city break circuit, where Terravision coaches or their equivalent local transport affiliate wait for the cheaper-than-a-train-ticket flights to land. This was my first time in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the joyous flight attendant was introducing me to a capital city whose name, unlike the popular Croatian destinations, still arouses mental images of snipers and the siege in the collective television news-viewing subconscious of potential tourists. Anyone considering a week in Dubrovnik should perhaps take a look beyond the archived headlines and newsreels at nearby Bosnia instead. Twelve years after the end of the war, Bosnia is opening its arms and opening up its attractions to international visitors of the recreational rather than diplomatic, or military nature.

A break in the capital, Sarajevo, begins in much less generic fashion than cheap- flight city breakers are accustomed to; no transfer buses or stag parties will greet you at Butmir airport. Instead you’ll have to dive into a taxi or arrange in advance the services of a tour guide to greet and transfer you. Our pre-arranged minibus glided smoothly along dual carriageways once besieged with shells. I glanced left as we stopped at red traffic lights and came face to face with the bright yellow façade of the Holiday Inn hotel; safe haven for the world’s media encamped to cover the unfolding events of the bloody siege. Moving off, the bright yellow was replaced by a mixture of damaged and re-built grey buildings and I reconnected with the eager urban pioneer inside, the one I'd lost touch with after ten years of European city breaking.

On Sunday morning, March 25th 2007 to be exact, a small business lounge at Butmir airport hosted a packed press conference to mark this inaugural flight. Here, the British Ambassador to Bosnia reflected upon the impact of the direct flight from London and how visitors passing through passport control would from now on be characterised by their ‘briefcases not bayonets and backpacks not berets’. It was a neat sound bite. And, on arrival at Hotel Hecco, bayonets and berets were the very last thing on my mind. Standing on my bed, I leaned out of the skylight window, searing to memory a panoramic view of this beautiful city. Spread before my hotel, stacked down the hillside, were terracotta rooftops, punctuated by mosques’ ornate minarets of differing heights. All this was backed by snow-speckled mountains so close to the city as to hug its urbanity on all sides. Rather than spend any longer hanging from the window admiring the view I headed out into the crisp lunchtime air, threaded my way downhill on a three or four minute walk straight into Baščaršija, the atmospheric old town.

At the heart of Baščaršija (Old Town) is Sebilj Square, where a decoratively carved wood panelled fountain proudly demands attention from its centrally-located plinth. Once a water stop for journeying caravans, the city’s iconic fountain now quenches the thirst for a typical travellers’ legend. Rub a bronze boar’s nose; spin twice over a mosaic bull’s testicals; throw a penny in a fountain: most cities have their equivalent ‘do this and return’ legend. Hearing that whoever drinks from the tap of Sebilj’s fountain will surely return, my friend strode up the steps, lips pursed around the copper tap, supped and struck a satisfied grin for my camera. The fact that he was the only person to play the game and that we were the only people stood in the square with cameras bore testimony to my feeling that this was a relatively undiscovered city.

Gaze out from the top of the fountain’s steps and you’ll see cobbled streets radiating in all directions, disappearing around tight corners where wooden framed buildings house metal ware workshops, cafes and snack bars; narrow streets where shining Aladdinesque copper kettles and coffee cup sets dangled outside added to Baščaršija’s orientalism. The cobbles, timber buildings and sparkling metal made this as unique and appealing an old town as I’d wandered. Wooden benches built onto the shop fronts flowed seamlessly along the length of the streets and diagonally around their corners, tempting me to sit and stay for a while. These benches provided unbroken seating for passersby or the cafés’ customers; wonderful, deliberately crafted places to chat, snack and, as I was told, to cool down during the searing summer heat. As beautiful and unique as the architecture was, two things continually distracted me; the ubiquitous coffees served up on dazzling silvery trays and the aroma of ćevapi that wafted from open doors.

Slipping into a convenient ćevabdzinica, our order was taken in seconds and we hungered for nothing other than cevapi; shish kebabs of minced beef and veal, and the best in the Balkans are served in Sarajevo. No need to pour over the menu here as there’s nothing more taxing to decide upon than, ’large or small?’ – five kebabs or ten? Five grumbling stomach minutes later and soft, warm flat bread wrapped around fried onions and sour cream, smothering ‘large’ quotas of meat slid towards us. This meaty satisfaction served on a round platter was perfect sightseeing fuel and a definite must try. Food came first, Bosnian coffee came a close second.

No standing on ceremony, ćevapi applauded, we found ourselves in a secluded courtyard complete with a coffee house where we shared the cushioned sofas and low tables with twentysomethings catching up around a shisha pipe. Sunday here was just it should be spent the world over, with good friends. I watched Bosnian coffee being made; a heaped spoon of grounds added to a small metal pot and heated over a flame to intensify the flavour. Only then is hot water added and the drink brews. The small silver cups of coffee were delivered to us on an ornate silvery tray – like those which hung from metal ware shops in the surrounding streets, glistening in the sunlight. Baščaršija’s Coppersmith Street is the place to buy these trays or a set of cups to take home as souvenirs of Bosnian coffee and then relegate chipped mugs to the back of the kitchen cupboard. Heads buzzing with strong sweet coffee, we threaded a path away from Baščaršija and along Mula Mustafa Baseskije, a wide pedestrianised boulevard flanked with tall ivory buildings synonymous with Austro-Hungarian era architecture.

Mohammad, a local guide, was quick to correct my path, reminding me to stay right because, ‘only tourists and non-Sarajevoans walk on the wrong side’. I took note. Minutes later he stopped me in what I now hoped were well-disguised tourist tracks to look back along the street towards Baščaršija and forwards again towards the Catholic cathedral; architecture flowing freely from timber souk style cafes and craft ware shops into a pseudo-Viennese weekend scene of stylishly dressed window shoppers and restaurants complete with elegant straight lines of pavement tables. In atmosphere, Mula Mustafa Baseskije could pass for any European city break favourite, but where Sarajevo yet again stamps its unique character is in this street’s lack of brazen, branded western chain stores frontages. Mohammad points out that, ‘so far, only Benetton is here.’ His positive tone implied that globalisation – writ large in Starbucks and McDonalds branding – is on the horizon and implicit in the future growth of Bosnia’s economy. I respected and appreciated the city’s economic ambitions but relished the unique individual urban landscape somewhat more.

Sarajevo won’t stay secret for long, as the recent publication of Time Out’s listing guide to the city points to. Hedonistic attractions sit alongside the physical and mental scars of recent history – not forgetting that Lateiner Bridge, where WW1 began with the fatal shooting of Arc Duke Ferdinand, is also here – and it’s a heady mixture. Mugs of local Sarajevska Pivara beer, trendy bars and traditional restaurants are readily available and my evening spent on a high stool at a long table in the packed City Pub, listening to a young jazz band rivalled any other city I’ve visited. And did I mention that the beer here is cheap? The refreshing, golden local ale from Sarajevska Pivara (Sarajevo Brewery) is a reason in itself to visit as soon as possible.

City breakers will definitely have fun in the Bosnian capital. But there’s no denying the past. The relatively recent war is mentally and physically evident. You will see shell scars on the sides of the buildings just as I did at the Jewish synagogue. Listening to my guide and casually glancing to my right and up I was brought back down to earth by the heavily shell damaged plaster and brickwork of an adjacent building. I was transported to scenes of the siege on the television screen and was shocked that a city as beautiful as this became a warzone. The cheap refreshing beer brewed at the city brewery, that I again clinked in glass mugs with friends, also had a story of war to tell. Mohamad gave me the history of the brewery located at the on the banks of the River Miljacka – now serving food and drink in its spacious bar area; of how it was the only source of drinking water for the entire besieged city and how as a child he had walked the 10km from home to fill water bottles for his family. The beer, more commonly bringing drunken self-reflection, became a source of contemplation in its own right.

That’s what happens in Sarajevo. The facts of hardship, war and death aren’t hidden. They are intrinsic to the city if you look and seek to understand through listening but not quizzing. Take the snow speckled hillsides that I admired from my skylight on the first morning, the ones that hug the city. They hug the city so closely that Serb forces were able to shell the terracotta rooftops and cobbled streets city so effectively, with such bloody consequences. The city brewery, the hillsides and the ever-present shell scars stay in my mind as poignant realities of the flipside of city break escapism. And every visitor will ponder on something different, be it recollections of the siege apparent in bricks and mortar or those memories retold over a beer. To visit Sarajevo now is to see a city extending its hands to tourism whilst telling its own story in its own way, respectfully but honestly and with a smile for new visitors and for a new phase in its history. © Kelly Anne Pipes

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