As you can see from my previous post on Croatia, the Balkans was a new discovery for me this summer. Perhaps because of a personal connection, I found that the first part of our trip was far more educational and historical.
My only real connection with Bosnia and Herzegovina was the Eurovision Song Contest, or the horrific broadcasts of the war that took place in the mid-90s. As a teenager at the time, I remember being confused about who exactly was fighting against who, and why, although I do remember looking at a map and finding it incomprehensible that something so terrible could happen so close to home. War was something I associated with a stretch of distance, either geographically or historically.
My first experience of Sarajevo was not the city itself, but the surrounding hills. Lush and verdant despite the intense heat, the city is flanked by rolling waves of green either side, peppered with walking trails. We followed a path to the Skakavac waterfall, through a forest trail that led us past signs showing the abundance of wildlife and plants in the area. The waterfall is an impressive 75m fall of bare rock. When we visited the rainfall hadn’t been so heavy, but the slew of water down that steep incline was perhaps made more beautiful, fading into a shimmering mist near the base.
Our first evening was spent in a back garden with locals. We had local wine from the monastery, homemade pitta (or burek) – fantastic pastry filled with cheese – and cevapi, a spicy sausage. This set the tone for the whole stay. A warm and welcoming atmosphere, with great food and lovely people.
In the city itself, you get swamped by the history at each step. Austro-Hungarian buildings dominate the streets along the river, a clear demonstration of the long association with that culture, followed by a sharp delineation from ‘East to West’ which takes you into the older part of town, dominated by Ottoman architecture. In between all of this are the new, towering structures of glass and metal built to house shopping centres and offices. Something that the locals pride themselves on is their diversity. You can see a mosque, a synagogue, church and cathedral all within a few hundred yards of each other. Despite its fractious past, there is a real sense of intermingling in the city, with different religions and cultures rubbing up against each other.
On one side of this culture, I loved Svrzina Kuća or ‘Svrzo’s House,’ which is a recreation of the Ottoman style of living. It’s incredibly well-preserved, with each room telling the story of the way people lived, from the ornate carvings to the storage room. On the other side, the Jewish synagogue is one of the oldest in Europe, and houses a poignant collection of artefacts that pay testament to the true integration of cultures in Sarajevo, before the terrifying German occupation during the Second World War. What was incredibly heartening was all the tales of locals who risked (and in some cases, gave) their lives to help conceal their Jewish neighbours. More recently, a local Muslim man initiated a perilous mission to rescue the 14th Century Jewish Haggadah from the local Town Hall during the siege of Sarajevo. Acts like this confirm the nature of the city as a true community.
Sarajevo is small enough to see all its delights on foot, and you will find yourself restored in body (great food) mind (the generous spirit of humanity) and history when you leave.
We didn’t want to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina without visiting Mostar. On guides to the country, or even the whole area, the Old Bridge (Stari Most) is often used as a symbol to depict the splendour of this part of the world.
Suspended over a blue, fast-running river, the pale stone of the bridge is certainly striking. Perhaps even more impressively, it’s a remake of the original, which was first constructed in the 16th Century. It’s tragic to think that this beautiful piece of architecture, which stood for almost 500 years, was destroyed in the war. If you watch the video in the local museum, it’s even more impressive. In order to build it in exactly the same way, they had to make ‘mistakes’ in the shape of the stones, use cement with a much lower density than concrete. It’s a true lesson in both the genius of construction methods of bygone eras, and for flaws to make something even more beautiful.
Worth a watch is the regular spectacle of the ‘divers club,’ who stand on the bridge, waving legs precariously over the edge, stretching and flexing like gymnasts. Their contemporaries scurry among the tourists, collecting enough money in order to justify a plunge into the icy water. They take it in turns – tagging each other on and off the bridge so they all get to have a go. When they do finally make the leap it’s an impressive drop to the water below. Around the bridge are markets, mosques and a bustle of cafes and restaurants. A beautiful spot for a pause on your way through the country.
Thanks to Mohamad for his invite to post again on this wonderful site. If you’d like to see more of my writing, head to https://sarahtinsley.com