'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 (
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
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
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
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.
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