Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

If you take a look at Sarajevo at any time of day, from any surrounding hill, you will always inadvertently come to the same conclusion. It is a city that is wearing out and dying, while at the same time being reborn and transformed. Today it is the city of our most beautiful longings and endeavours and bravest desires and hopes.

– Bosnian Nobel Laureate, Ivo Andric

October 2022

After a splendid month in Slovenia and Croatia, it is time to go deeper into the Balkans, meaning ‘mountains’ in Turkish. To traverse this gorgeous but tumultuous region is to simultaneously walk through some of the most spectacular nature – towering mountains and verdant valleys, pristine lakes and gorgeous waterfalls – and layers of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and socialist history.

I first visited the Balkans years back as a college student, hitchhiking from Belgrade to Split. This time, my route takes me in the other direction from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. From there, I take a scenic train ride to Mostar, making a pit stop in Blagaj and Pocitelj before crossing into Montenegro. There is a strange homecoming feeling. The then and now, with everything in between, especially the terrible war. Only a national writer like Ivo Andric can capture the feeling well: Between the fear that something would happen and the hope that still it wouldn’t, there is much more space than one thinks. On that narrow, hard, bare and dark space a lot of us spend their lives…

Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
One week itinerary in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

Along the Neretva River

The scenic drive from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo is a perfect introduction to the geopolitics of the Balkans. One leaves Croatia and enters Bosnia via its precious 26 km of packed coastline, then re-enters Croatia for a few kilometres before finally getting into Bosnia again. Whoever drew these borders must have some self/national interests in mind! The long road trip through mandarin farms and quaint little towns along the gentle flowing Neretva river is really pretty. Everyone stops in Jablanica to enjoy slow-cooked roasted lamb on skewer. What a warm welcome to Bosnia!

Jablanica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Slow roasting potatoes! Jablanica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Roasting lamb the traditional way. Jablanica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

No Place like Sarajevo

What is the oriental charm that starts here in Sarajevo and that Westerners can’t resist? Here there are no plans that stem from rational thinking; it’s all a matter of improvisation and the result of ad hoc ideas and temporary whims.

– Juraj Neidhard, Sarajevan architect

After one of the longest summers on record – through Andalucia, Islas Baleares, Barcelona, Berlin, Corsica, Slovenia, and Croatia – finally, autumn is here. I cross the At Mejdan Park covered in fallen leaves and the Miljacka River through the Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist student on June 28, 1914. It feels surreal to stand on the very spot where twentieth century history began. From the Sarajevo Museum, I inch towards Old Town, going further back in history and arrive at the 15th century old bazaar, the soul of the city.

Sarajevo awakes…

There is no better place to be than the magical Bascarsija Square where light descends slowly, first on the minaret, and then on the picturesque green domes of old mosques before gradually seeping through the narrow alleyways where, for centuries, silversmiths, jewellers, and leather workers laboured on their craft. An early-rising shopkeeper begins his day. Elderly residents take their morning stroll and head for a first cup of Turkish coffee. Kids are up and running in the “pigeons’ square” near the Sebilj fountain. Nearby is the “sweet corner” where one can taste delicious baklava, crunchy kadif, and Sarajevo’s signature boza. What a treat to be in this exquisite place – sans tourists – in its full morning glory!

Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Square. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

There is no place like Sarajevo, this gorgeous compact city set in a valley, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, and crossed by the Miljacka River. It is called the European Jerusalem for a good reason. Endowed with a hundred mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, cathedrals and synagogues, Sarajevo has been a symbol of peaceful coexistence of three main ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Its multicultural heritage leaves an architectural imprint that is simply eye candy. For best light and view, one follows a narrow path off the Bascarsija Square towards the Yellow Fortress where the entire magnificent city spreads before your eyes like a sumptuous visual buffet. With the same glorious sunset, little seems to have changed in this timeless jewel of the Balkans since my last visit…

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
The Sarajevo Museum near where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering WWI. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Bascarsija Mosque, Old Town. Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Begova dzamija. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Morica Han, an Ottoman inn. Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Town. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
The Yellow Fortress. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
View of the Old Town from the Yellow Fortress. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
View from the Yellow Fortress. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

Yet, everything has changed with one of most terrible ethnic conflicts of the 20th century. After the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from former Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence on March 1, 1992. Serbian military encircled Sarajevo from its surrounding hills, beginning the longest siege in the history of modern warfare for 1,425 days from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, killing over 10,000 people including 1,500 children. UN Peacekeepers organized the biggest humanitarian airlift since Berlin and residents dug the “Sarajevo Tunnel” beneath the UN-controlled runway to reach neighbourhoods, the only link Sarajevo had with the rest of the world.

The scars on the city are still visible. On the left bank of the Miljacka, heavily damaged apartment buildings near Vrbanja bridge are an eerie reminder of the city’s recent traumatic past and war’s terrible costs. One cannot feel indifferent walking through the Kovaci cemetery en route to the Yellow Fortress with tombstone after tombstone of young Sarajevans and Bosnians fallen in their prime.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

Mostar: What is in a Bridge?

Of everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing.

– Bosnian Nobel Laureate, Ivo Andric

The Mostar bridge (Stari Most) over the Neretva River. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

I only leave Sarajevo reluctantly, this soulful jewel of the Balkans, because something else is beckoning me. Two hours away lies an old stone bridge called Stari Most, a World Heritage site and a classic piece of Islamic architecture. I take “one of the most scenic train rides in Europe” from Sarajevo to Mostar, through rolling green hills along the Neretva River, and arrive in the quiet, small town named after the bridge keepers (mostari). Built in the 16th century, the world famous bridge was destroyed by the Croat forces during the Croat-Bosniak War on November 9, 1993, but has since been painstakingly restored. Aside from the bridge, there are splendid historic mosques and Ottoman houses, and a bustling old bazaar where the Mostar Diving Club is located. Plunging 24 meters below from Stari Most is a rite of passage dating back 500 years, but I’d rather contemplate in front of this magnificent architectural masterpiece without the dangerous tourist trap. Thankfully, at eight in the morning, off season, I have Stari Most almost all to myself. What a blessing!

Sarajevo Train Station from another era! Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Mostar Train Station. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
The Karađoz Bey Mosque. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Old Bazaar. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Stari Most/Old Bridge. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Stari Most/Old Bridge. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Stari Most/Old Bridge. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
View from Stari Most/Old Bridge. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

Blagaj and Pocitelj

Twelve kilometres southeast of Mostar lies the little village of Blagaj where a historic mosque is built into the cliff in a serene setting by the river. There is an impressive ancient fort with amazing views on the mountain, but I make a pass in order to continue on to Pocitelj, an endangered cultural heritage site, about half an hour’s drive away. A beautiful fortified Ottoman town with a mosque and a citadel, it is surrounded by the remains of a city wall from where one can enjoy a breathtaking view of the 600-year-old town and the Neretva River. I have the impression that the entire country is filled with little gems like this – medieval towns, Ottoman cities, architectural wonders – awaiting my next visit.

Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Pocitelj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Pocitelj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Pocitelj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

After a month of dolce vita in Croatia, it is a shock to the system so spoiled by the generous sun and the sea to head inland to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The temperature drops, the colours darken, sweeping one back suddenly into the socialist era. My short week-long (re)visit does not do justice to this beautiful country still processing its war trauma. Unfortunately, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina bore the highest number of casualties of nearly 100,000 and some of the worst massacres and war crimes of the 20th century. Nearly three decades later, peace is still hanging in the balance with the Republika Srpska – one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina Serb – aiming for full autonomy within Bosnia.

In this part of the Balkans, war continues to cast its long shadow. In 2021, Aida Cerkez, the then Associated Press war correspondent during the siege, released a short film, What’s This Country Called Now?, based on her interview with a 92-year-old retired railway worker. “He lived in one house, but five different countries,” Cerkez said. What a metaphor for the Balkans’ history!

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

You, my Aida, have to write about it. And publish it, immediately! So that nobody, after this, can ever say ‘I didn’t know.’

– Ismet Tabakovic, a retired Sarajevan railway worker told Aida Cerkez, the Associated Press war correspondent in 1992. In Aida Cerkez’s film, What’s This Country Called Now? (2021)

Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2022.

Next: Traversing the Balkans: Kosovo!

All Content © 2022 by Jennifer Chan