Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country where cultures and history meet, where there is room for many religions, be that Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox. The country has seen the times as a separate kingdom as well as part of Ottoman empire, and even the recent history in the nineties were a turbulent time for it.
Sarajevo, the capital of the Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the place where Franz Ferdinand was killed, and the events lead to World War I. When I think of Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish band comes into my mind, however, for me the soundtrack for this trip is music by Goran Bregovic, who was born and raised in Sarajevo. Despite doing a concert in Crimea, the musician says he usually stays away from political discussions, and has once said that since he is from Yugoslavia, the crossroads of so many worlds, he doesn’t need to represent anyone else than himself, and he speaks the first language – music. After first fifteen minutes in the streets of Sarajevo, it becomes clear what he meant by that, as this place is such a mix of cultures, and locals say the country has been influenced by the six ancient civilizations. You see the bits of history of the country in everything. Ottoman Empire is represented by small stores selling traditional Muslim clothing, Turkish sweets on every corner and grand mosques with minarets. The churches are here as well – both Catholic and Orthodox. At times it feels like you are in an alternate reality, it’s gives off the feeling of modern Soviet Union with spices from Turkey. One notices that already at the airport, when most women have their hair covered, and not because of the cold. It also feels strange to realize that knowledge of Russian here will come in handy, as the first sign I see, the “exit”, says “izlaz”. The true meeting place of East and West.
Who lives in Bosnia? Serbs, Croatians and Bosniaks, but all inhabitants are universally called Bosnians, as the border of Herzegovina isn’t that clearly defined and, before Austro Hungarian occupation, the country was called Bosnia. Speaking to locals you will feel that the situation isn’t that clear even still. Certain parts of the country are supported by Americans, others, by Saudi Arabia, yet others are claimed to have close ties to Putin. I have the benefit of visiting Bosnia with people from other former Yugoslavia inhabitants, Slovaks and Croatians. One of more outgoing guys when drinking beers wants to sing a song of those times, but our local guide quickly shushes him – it’s a painful topic still, so singing such songs can lead to unpredictable consequences. Interestingly, Slovenians speak to Bosnians in Serbo-Croatian, and hearing this I once again realize how little I know of this region and it’s history. Because I hear for the first time there is a language like that, and that it has been mandatory in school for many of my friends from around here. I can only agree to a lady who honestly admits, that before coming to Bosnia all she knew was that this was the country she remembers seeing on TV as a child, at war. If in other former parts of Yugoslavia the war was just for a few days, here it took much longer, and the consequences are still here. Not that many, but some houses have bullet holes. Many of the unfinished buildings are from that time.
Luckily, the war has been left in the past and nowadays Bosnia and Herzegovina is becoming an even more popular tourist destination. Most of the damages have been repaired (no sight of bombed bridges, mentioned by people who visited fifteen years ago). As a Latvian, I did not need a visa, but you do need to bring your passport with you, and actually get a stamp when visiting! Comparing prices to that in the Baltics I can say that Bosnia isn’t expensive, as even in the airport cafe tea costs 3.50 km or convertible marks, soup is 5 km (to understand how much is it in euro, just divide by two, and you can pay in euros in many places). Seeing currency abbreviation “km” makes me laugh every time I see a price tag, especially in the restaurants! It is like a calorie reminder, how many kilometers you will need to walk, if you eat that!
There is a lot to see in Bosnia! Wonderful mountains and a tiny seaside strip with the town of Neuma, cities with rich history and grand new buildings, and historical places like Mostar. But there are a few things that might discourage someone from visiting. Although Sarajevo has a rich history, it probably won’t be the only place you will choose to visit, as it has the highest rate of air pollution among European capitals. It is in a valley with limited air circulation and the amount of PM10 particles at times is double the highest limit. Luckily, the issue is mostly felt in the winter, during heating season. Hopefully, also the age of cars will continue to decrease (average is about 15 years), and the air will become better.
Continuing on the topic of fresh air, when visiting Bosnia, I can really appreciate how far my own country, Latvia, has gone in banning smoking. People in Bosnia smoke everywhere. During breakfast at the hotel, in hallways, restaurants, in front of the kids and even pregnant women do! The non-smoker area is just an area in the restaurant, so it reminds of the expression “the pissing corner in the pool”, and often it’s the second floor in the open plan building that is supposed to be non-smoking area! English skills also lag behind those in Slovenia or Croatia. But, locals are extremely friendly, so that will definitely not be an obstacle! The streets also feel perfectly safe.
Bosnia has become well known as the location of one of the largest film festivals in Europe, frequented even by A-list stars, such as Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie or Orlando Bloom. Who knows, maybe when you visit Sarajevo in August, you will also share an elevator ride in the hotel with Brad Pitt, as one of my acquaintances did!
Many of the most popular places to visit in Sarajevo are connected to war, such as the tunnel used to bring food during the blockade, and the museum dedicated to the Srebrenica massacre, when more than 8000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were killed. It is an extremely sad moment in historic, such a failure of basic humanity, so visiting these places won’t be for everyone.
Ottoman empire is mostly felt in the Bascarsija market, with the Sebil fountain and many small stores. You can buy some unique souvenirs here, such as Bosnian copper coffee set, from 10 to 15 euros per set. Coffee drinking traditions are deeply rooted and very important in Bosnia. If you say it looks like Turkish coffee (and assure you, it does!) that is the quickest way to offend your host!
The main difference is in the preparation of the coffee, if you place the traditional dzezva on the stove with coffee (as Turkish) or first just with water (Bosnian). In the Bosnian way, coffee is added later, boiled, then more water is added, which supposedly helps to form thicker foam. Turkish only give you one cup per serving, but Bosnians give you the whole dzezva, and the way it’s poured is important too, to get more foam. You don’t add sugar, instead, take a bite of rahat lokum, Bosnian sweets that in principle are the same as Turkish delight (I wonder, if I am allowed to say that, or are there some subtle differences as well?).
You can also get jewelery, plates and knives in the market. Coffee beans are for sale too, and definitely sample some sweets and definitely eat the traditional Bosnian dish chevapchichi! It looks like a sausage with no skin, and is of beef, pork and lamb. There is also Muslim version of the dish without pork. It’s served in a flatbread with onion and paprika. Actually, there is plenty of paprika, wherever you go to grab a bite! Sauteed, marinated and fresh! Another popular dish is spinach and goat cheese pie.
One of the grandest recently renovated buildings is the Vijecnica or City Hall, the brightest example of Austro Hungarian architecture, once a library with over 1.5 million books, including rare historic ones. Unfortunately, the books and library were destroyed in the 1992 during the war, passers by and employees tried to save the books, but without success. Today it’s restored to its previous grandeur, thanks to donations from Austria and Barcelona and money from the the European Commission. The renovation cost over 13 million euro. You can even rent the City Hall premises for a sit down dinner, if you wish, and the Bosnian Eurovision song 2016 music video was shot here, so be sure to check the music video on Youtube! I especially liked the part by Ana Rucner, a Croatian cello player, whose performance I saw while in Sarajevo.
Not far from Sarajevo, in the Dinaric alps, is a place called Jahorina. It’s peak Ogorjelica (1916m) is the second highest in Bosnia, and in the Winter Olympics of 1984, this was the place for women’s alpine skiing events. The ski slopes are operating still, and even on workdays there are many people skiing, mostly locals. The prices for lifts are several times cheaper than those in France, Italy or Swiss resorts. My skiing friends comment that the quality of the snow is good and the prices affordable – thermal underwear costs about 15 euros, and my Dutch friend is very happy to purchase it 2.5 cheaper than at home!
The mountains are beautiful – trees covered in snow, the view from the peak to the clouds below and bright sun changing to snowstorm every once in awhile. Driving here on the narrow roads I can only think how this place managed to host the Olympics? These days there wouldn’t be enough place for all the cars! But, at least for regular visitors surely there is a place to stay, as there is plenty of hotels. Unfortunately, even the fanciest places allow smoking everywhere, which is something I am not ready to accept, and I hope this changes soon.
In winter with little snow, perhaps, Sarajevo isn’t as pretty as it might be in green spring, but the nearby mountain range is what warmed my heart in this visit. How beautiful it must be during autumn, when the leaves turn red, and how much wildlife there must be in the summer! Add warm welcome from the locals, tasty food and bright music, and you definitely have a place you must visit!