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Yesterday and Today in Sarajevo

I was in Sarajevo to find the place the First World War started. It was not easy to find, but evidence of more recent atrocities were. Memories are long in The Balkans, contrasts and contradictions are all around. History is always in your face, reminding you nothing stays the same for long in this most fascinating corner of Europe with Sarajevo at its centre.

After Bosnia and Herzegovina had declared independence from Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serbs—who aimed to create a new Bosnian Serb state of Republika Srpska that would include parts of Bosnian territory -- encircled Sarajevo with a force of 13,000 soldiers stationed in the surrounding hills.

Their siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting from 5th April 1992 to 29th February 1996 (1,425 days) -- three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.

During the siege, there were some Serbs inside the city, who controlled most of the major military positions and the supply of arms. This meant that citizens had to endure sniper attacks from tall buildings within the city, turning the wider streets such as Ulica Zmaja od Bosne into sniper alleys.

Walking along this bustling street today, it’s difficult to believe people died crossing this road where trams now rattle along to the outskirts from the centre.

The American embassy is on the street and under no circumstances should a visitor take any pictures of the compound otherwise they will be arrested on the spot by the man with a rifle who patrols the outside. It’s even rumoured by the locals that the tourist telescopes on the top of the nearby Avaz Twist Tower can’t be moved into a position where they can point towards the embassy from the 176-metre building.

Sarajevo Roses

As I walked along I looked out for the so-called Sarajevo Roses - explosion marks, which have been filled with red resin to mark where mortars landed and killed one or more people during the siege. These roses are gradually disappearing as tarmac is replaced, but it’s an eerie feeling to stand near one of these marks and appreciate what happened at that exact spot during the siege.

Zlatna Ribica and a Must-See Bathroom

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On the way into the centre I strolled past St Joseph’s Church and the Ali Pasha mosque both of which have been equally well restored. I was roughly heading for a cafe called Zlatna Ribica on a small side street called Kaptol just off the main Marsala Tita avenue.

Nothing can really prepare the visitor for the inside of this amazing cafe, which looks at first glance like a bric-a-brac shop that has branched out into catering. There is a large mirror on one wall of the outer area of the cafe, which has five smaller tables, with an inner area that has four larger tables. On the walls there are American medals, posters for French films, fans from Spain, saxophones and adverts for Nelson Mandela exhibitions. Lamps hang from the ceiling and are attached to various other surfaces; no two of the lampshades are the same. The music varies from jazz to disco versions of “Je ne regrette rien”. People are allowed to smoke inside so try and sit close to the door.

Now, I probably won’t write this next recommendation again in my whole life - you must go to the toilet here and take your camera with you - as this two-part bathroom contains one smaller room for the toilet and another for the washbasin, which has a variety of toiletries on a shelf above it, that would shame some chemist’s shops.

There are toothbrushes, toothpastes, tubs of cream, hand cleaners, razors, and soaps. There are many multi-coloured towels. When you are back in the cafe, don’t forget to order a drink or two from the menus hanging down in books from the lampshades. Zlatna Ribica is one of those rare places where it’s OK to discuss the variety of paraphernalia on the walls with the people around you.

Memorial to the Children

The next unusual place was the Memorial to the Children who died in the siege of Sarajevo. There are seven cylinders, rather like Buddhist prayer wheels, set up in a public park with the names of the hundreds of children who died written on the cylinders.

Nearby is a fountain with a green-tinged, heavily layered sculpture in the middle. The sculpture was in two halves, one larger than the other, signifying I believe the parting of the ways between parent and child. After thinking for a few minutes what this memorial actually means in reality to at least a thousand Sarajevan parents (opinions vary between 520 and 1500 regarding the number of children who died) I decided to move on to the centre of the city.

Churches and War

The Catholic Cathedral, with a sculpture of St John Paul II by the main entrance, stands opposite the building containing the Srebrenica Exhibition, which features the details of the 1995 massacre.

I made a detour to the Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel also known as the Old Orthodox Church, a squat, rectangular building which stands in a compound behind a protective wall. There’s been a church here for around 1400 years. The icons on the walls inside were bright and beautiful and I felt I could hear the candles burning in their holders well away from the icons. The paintings on the iconostasis date from 1674 to the early 19th century. Given that the church was hit by shells during the siege, it’s almost miraculous the icons are still with us. Other places worth seeing in this general area include the Church of St Mary, The Gazi Huzrev Bey baths, The Bosniak Institute, and the Church of St Cyril and St Methodius.

The Start of World War I

Now it was time for me to find the place where the first World War started on the street by the river. On their wedding anniversary, June 28th 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by a member of the Black Guard group called Gavrilo Princip.

That’s a stark fact I hope most people know. What is not well known is the absolute tragedy of errors that preceded this shooting. Princip was not a lone gunman. There were five other assassins in Sarajevo that day, but either they froze and were unable to carry out their attack or they were incompetent. In the latter category, so the story goes, was Nedeljko Cabrinovic. At 10:10 am, Franz Ferdinand's car approached Cabrinovic where he was standing on the riverside road. Cabrinovic threw his bomb at the car. Sadly for Cabrinovic, and many other people, the bomb bounced off the folded-back convertible cover into the street. The bomb's timed detonator caused it to explode under the next car in the procession leaving a 1-foot-diameter, 6-inch-deep crater in the road and wounding 16–20 people.

Cabrinovic swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped into the Miljacka river. This suicide attempt failed for two reasons. The first was that the cyanide only induced vomiting. The second was that the river was only 6-inches deep due to the dry summer.

The police dragged Cabrinovic out of the river and he was promptly beaten by the crowd before being taken into custody. Franz Ferdinand carried on his way to the City Hall where he complained, perhaps not surprisingly, about the welcome he had received. Plans for the return journey were changed although the driver of Franz Ferdinand’s car forgot and followed the original route. When he was reminded of his wrong turning, he reversed the car, and this was when Princip fired two shots. He did not miss.

If the driver had not been reminded and continued on his way, Princip would not have killed Franz Ferdinand and events might have been very different. As it was, Princip was prevented from shooting himself by a sharp-witted bystander and stood trial. Princip died of TB in 1918, roughly seven months before the chain of events he started came to an end.

Given the momentous events caused by the assassination I was expecting to be able to find the place quite easily. I knew the killings had taken place by the Latin Bridge, so I went there and looked around for a giant arrow pointing to the exact spot. There wasn’t anything obvious. After about 10 minutes of hunting around I saw a plaque on the wall of a building indicating this was the place where it had happened. Talk about understated.

The Hurry Slowly Bridge and Former City Hall

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Downstream from the Latin Bridge, I saw the modern bridge called Festine Lente “Hurry, slowly” by the Academy of Fine Arts. This bridge has a loop in the middle, which encourages people to perhaps slow down and enjoy the view.

The Academy was closed for renovations and the person at their front desk didn’t seem to care when it would be open again. Walking back past the Latin Bridge I came to the outstandingly coloured Vijecnica, the neo-Moorish building and former City Hall, where Franz Ferdinand complained of his welcome to Sarajevo in 1914. This building has recently been restored as it was badly damaged during the siege with thousands of irreplaceable Bosnian books and manuscripts being lost to the flames.

Old Turkish Quarter

The area of Sarajevo most popular with tourists is the old Turkish quarter called Bascarsija a couple of hundred yards away from Vijecnica. The focal point of this area, dating from the 15th Century, seems to be the Sebilj, an ornamental drinking fountain in the shape of a kiosk.

If you like the pigeons in London’s Trafalgar Square then you will love this area as pigeons are thick on the ground and eager to eat anything dropped by passers-by.

Lanes head off in all directions, but there’s little chance of getting lost as everything is in the open air and there are some recognisable landmarks, such as the stone clock tower, which are visible most of the time. Talking of time, don’t use the clock on the tower to set your watch by, as the clock shows lunar time and not standard time.

Anyone who’s been to a Middle Eastern souk will find this area rather sane and sanitized as the owners of the shops tend to let people browse around looking at their wares, rather than beginning their sales pitch after 2.5 seconds.

As such, it is a pleasant shopping experience, which can be punctuated by imbibing a strong Bosnian coffee from one, or more, of the many cafes. A small cup of coffee, which will keep you awake for many hours, costs 1 KM (convertible mark), approximately half a Euro. The water accompanying the coffee - for dilution purposes - is safe to drink. It’s also fun to try and balance on one of the tiny, traditional stools outside on the street rather than sitting inside one of the normal size chairs at the normal size tables.

Shops selling similar items are grouped together and the most famous part of the old town is called Kazandziluk, the coppersmiths alley, where some artisans make their pieces in full view of the shoppers. Prices are reasonable, but if you found a similar piece in Mostar, it might well be cheaper, but then again there’s more choice in Sarajevo.

As I wandered around, the aroma of cooking food just about overpowered the cigarette smoke and made me feel hungry. I decided to have a quick snack at the nearby Caffe Divan situated in a caravanserai. I found a wicker chair and sat back to admire the wooden beams above me. The cafe is situated in the courtyard of the inn and was full of mothers and grandmothers with prams and young couples staring at each other and wondering whether they should hold hands underneath or on top of the table. The stables were occupied by a carpet shop. I ordered a fruit juice, a Bosnian sherbet, and Tufahija - an apple stuffed with walnuts. I thought at the time the refreshing sherbet tasted slightly of cloves, but I think it might have been cardamon. I took the opportunity to plan a route to the Gazi-Husrevbey Mosque, the big centrepiece of Bascarsija.

Gazi-Husrevbey Mosque and the Jewish Museum

This mosque has its own graveyard with traditional turban-shaped headstones. Prayer carpets were stacked in one of the windows and looked like a representation of the visible spectrum. Men were praying outside in an alcove and thankfully no one was trying to sneak a picture of them prostrating themselves facing Mecca. There was much greenery and many wasps as people didn’t appear to smoke in the grounds of the mosque.

My final visit was to the Jewish Museum. The Ottoman Empire offered the Sephardic Jews evicted from Spain in 1492 a home. These Bosnian Jews mostly prospered until WWII started. It seems like every story in Sarajevo is eventually splintered by a war or a siege.

A Place to Eat and Drink

I had dinner at a place just off Saraci street. In the guidebook, Barhana was listed under good places for a drink, but let me tell you it’s a great place to eat. Sitting outside I ordered a large beer, a soup, and a pizza. The beer and the soup would have been enough. The soup was billed as White Bean Soup, but contained chicken, potatoes, and carrots as well as beans. It was delicious and a full meal in itself. I did eat the pizza, just out of politeness, and it was great too.

Luckily my hotel was at the top of a hill and I was able to walk off some of the calories as I headed home for the night. Bosnia may have a reputation for a meat-based diet, but this is changing quickly. Organic markets are appearing on the streets as well as meat-free and vegetarian restaurants. Stalls are selling fresh herbs and spices.

The Human Stories of Sarajevo

Initially Sarajevo hadn’t impressed me - the buildings along the river appeared ugly and uninspiring - but as soon as I became involved in the human stories and the living history I was enthralled by the resilience of the people and the city. Sarajevo is changing and I hope for the better, but it’s past will always be there and will always be remembered by enough people for it to matter. Let’s hope that means history doesn’t repeat itself here in the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina where there have been enough wars already.

Travels through History - The Balkans: Journeys in the former Yugoslavia
This is one of the chapters from Julian Worker's new book available at Travels through History - The Balkans: Journeys in the former Yugoslavia

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Julian Worker has written articles on Middle Eastern and European architecture for the US magazine Skipping Stones. He has written travel articles that were published in The Toronto Globe and Mail, Fate Magazine, The Vancouver Sun, and Northwest Travel. He has also taken many photographs that have appeared in travel guides by National Geographic, Thomas Cook and The Rough Guides.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: July 25, 2016

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