Sarajevo & Mostar: Ottoman architecture, complex histories and turquoise rivers.

City: Sarajevo, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Other places visted: Mostar

Stayed at: Franz Ferdinand Hostel

Best thing  I ate: Veggie platter and fresh lemonade from ‘Falafel’, in Sarajevo’s Old Town. I’m also obsessed with a fizzy drink called ‘Cockta’, which is a kind of herbal cola – a bit like Sarsaparilla.

Transport: Buses x 3, trolleybuses x 2, minibus x 1, taxis x 2.

The lowdown on veggie/vegan/special diets: There’s a bakery on pretty much every street, selling burek (filo pastries), which often come with veggie fillings. Generally menu options are very meat heavy but definitely check out ‘Falafel’ in the old town for cheap and tasty veggie and vegan food.

I didn’t spot any GF/dairy-free options in the little convenience stores. The big ‘Konzum’ in the BBI Shopping Centre on Marshall Tito Street had an okay range in their health food aisle. There are also branches of DM, which stocks a good range of health food/free-from options.

What I read: The Balkans, by Misha Glenny. I’ve also been listening to the brilliant ‘My Dad Wrote a Porno’ podcast for some laughs and light relief.

Next stop: Budva, Montenegro

20 April 2018

I arrived in Sarajevo after dark, and I couldn’t quite understand the appeal. I’d heard so much about this city, but it didn’t look very remarkable under cover of night.

The next morning, after some Bosnian breakfast specialties at the hostel, I emerged into the morning and understood what the hype was about. The city is a completely eclectic mix of architectural styles: Ottoman era mosques and caravanserei, Austro-Hungarian edifices of the like seen in Vienna or Budapest, decorated with caryatids, modern offices and shopping centres and Tito-era housing blocks. The best place to look in Sarjevo is up; the detailing above the shop fronts, the slender minarets that puncture the skyline and the mountains that circle the city, once the location for the ’84 olympics.

Two Aussie girls in the hostel I was staying at suggested the free walking tour as a good way to acquaint myself with the city and its incredibly complex history, and it was definitely the right call. Starting in Susan Sontag Square, the tour took in some of the city’s most famous sights and stories, such as the Latin Bridge and the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the stunning, Ottoman National Library, badly damaged during the siege.

Our guide also took us to some more unusual locations, such as a huge 80s concrete housing complex painted in bright green and yellow, known locally as Sarajevo’s ugliest building. I actually rather liked it; it reminded me of The Barbican, but painted in a post-modern palette of bright, zingy colours. Apparently it was built for the olympics, to show international visitors that Yugoslavia wasn’t all grey concrete. In recent years some very cool murals and street art have appeared on it too, making it even more colourful.

Another highlight of the tour was our guide’s personal insights into life in Sarajevo, including his recollections about life during the siege and how the city has rebuilt itself since. He also took us to see the local brewery, Sarajevska, built on a natural spring, which provided an essential water source during the siege. Who’d have thought a brewery could have helped save lives?

Below: The so-called ugliest building in Sarajevo; the Latin Bridge; The National Library and the Sarajevska brewery.

After the tour I headed to what is possibly the only fully vegetarian place to eat in Sarajevo, and which had good reviews on happy cow (a veggie and vegan restaurant listing website). I ordered the falafel plate (after all, the restaurant is called ‘Falafel’), and a fresh lemonade. The portion was huge, and it was some of the best falafel I’ve had for a long time. It’s right in the milieu of the old town too, so a table outside makes for great people watching. Definitely a place to check out if you’re in Sarajevo, veggie or not!

Below: Delicious lunch from ‘Falafel’, a bargain at £5.50!

After lunch I explored the old town a little more, with its winding streets and alleyways lined with lovely little shops and cafes. At one time each street housed a particular trade (furriers, leather goods etc), but now the shops mostly sell souvenirs, albeit really nice ones such as Bosnian coffee pots and coffee grinders, brightly coloured ikat-style textiles and copper jewellery. I did also spot a traditional brush maker’s shop, where you can watch the brush maker making his products inside. It’s always nice to see traditional crafts still being practiced.

There are quite a few museums in Sarajevo dedicated to the history of the most recent Balkan conflict, but I opted to make the War Childhood Museum my first stop, as I’d read good things about it and it sounded like an interesting concept for a museum. Originally based on a book, which collected together the experiences of people who grew up in Bosnia and Hercegovina during the most recent year, the museum houses objects from childhood which tell stories of children and young people’s experiences during the conflict. It’s extremely well presented; there is no context given about the war, no reference to politics – just the recollections of the children who experienced it first hand. The objects are accompanied by a short explanatory text, and in the centre of the museum there’s also a video with some sweet, sad and sometimes heartbreaking stories. It’s the first museum I’ve been to which provides a box of tissues (which believe me, I needed – I looked like a panda by the end of the visit). It’s such a moving place to visit but it really must be on anyone’s itinerary for a visit to this city – it’s easy to forget the impact of conflict on children’s everyday lives and the museum offers a stark reminder of this. The guide in the museum told me that they plan to expand the collection to include objects and recollections from people who grew up during other conflicts; I’d love to visit again someday to see this.

Continuing my museum explorations I visited the Gallery 11/07/95, a photography gallery which displays photographs and videos related to the conflict. It was hard going, some of the photographs are quite unsettling, but it was worth the visit to come away with a better understanding of the atrocities that were committed in Bosnia & Hercegovina during the war. The last stop in my museum tour was The National Gallery, and it was one of the most lacklustre national museum spaces I’ve ever been into – clearly suffering from a chronic lack of funding. There were only two galleries open when I visited, one a display on a Bosnian painter whose works reminded me of the ‘Crying Boy’ paintings so popular in the ’50s, the other a renowned photographer, Suki Medencevic, which was interesting and had a good catalogue to accompany it, included in the ticket price. Still, the whole visit only took me about 20 minutes and there were no staff at all in the galleries, just one very bored looking man at the front desk selling tickets. There was also the saddest looking children’s corner I’ve ever seen; suddenly all the problems we used to have at work faded in comparison. Perhaps I should have taken some of the V&A’s Museum CPD brochures with me on my trip?!

21 April 2018

Today was an early start to catch the bus to Mostar, probably the second most-visited place in Bosnia and Hercegovina after Sarajevo. I took a trolleybus to the bus station, which was like travelling back in time 30 years. The driver was chain smoking, and whilst the vehicle clearly hadn’t been refurbished since… well probably before I was born, I quite enjoyed the retro yellow plastic seats.

Below: The retro yellow trolleybuses!

I’d bought my ticket for Mostar the day before, so hopped on the bus for what I was expecting to be quite a dull journey. I was completely struck by the scenery as we journeyed south – I’d arrived in Sarajevo at night so I hadn’t realised how breathtaking the Bosnian-Herzegovinian landscape was. For most of the journey we followed the turquoise-blue River Nereteva, passing incredible mountain scenery and lots of riverside restaurants which cook meat on spits, driven by water wheels.

It takes around 2.5hrs to get to Mostar from the capital, and then a 15 minute walk into the historic centre. It’s set in a valley with the river running through it, and the old town is made up of winding, cobbled streets and ancient mosques, much like Sarajevo’s old town. It’s a popular spot for tour groups, so there were huge numbers of tourists, many of whom were quite elderly, and struggling with the steep streets and even steeper old bridge. The old bridge, damaged during the most recent conflict, is the absolute highlight of this charming city. It’s unfathomably high and steep, an engineering marvel. Local men dive off the bridge for money, but although there was a chap in his speedos hanging around he clearly hadn’t made enough cash to make the leap yet (the speedos still looked dry, not that I inspected closely).

There’s a small beach area from which you can see the bridge, so I picnicked there in the shade, away from the tour party crowds. It was a scorchingly hot day and if there’s one thing Mostar lacks, it’s shade from the sun.

Stumbling on the Turkish House, an Ottoman era building that overlooks the river, gave me some much needed respite from the heat. There isn’t that much to see inside (no interpretation), and there seemed to be far more tables than any normal home might need (perhaps people keep donating them, and the staff are too polite to say no?), but it it is very pretty and has a lovely view from the windows.

Below: The Turkish House, with its pretty courtyard and river view from the windows.

A few hours felt like enough time to soak up the atmosphere of this fascinating city, and I headed back to Sarajevo on the bus. Intercity buses in the Balkans not only transport people, but also offer an unofficial postal service. People will arrive at the bus station with a package, letter or even just a carrier bag with something in it, and the driver will then stop (in what sometimes looks like the middle nowhere) and somehow the recipient will appear at the bus door and collect it. It’s all very much based on trust, and possibly some sort of psychic ability.

After a huge portion of burek in Sarajevo’s Old Town, I had another early night as the next day I had a long bus journey ahead, to country number 3, Montenegro. More on that in my next blog post!

Above: A huge slice of burek – flaky filo pasty filled with cheese (a bit like feta).

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