An amazing city with a tragic but beautiful history.
This was another amazing city. We made it later than expected after a little confusion at the airport in Istanbul, but we ended up still having enough time to see everything we wanted to. It’s such a beautiful city with a really interesting although tragic history, but the people are resilient. Istanbul was really interesting and has a long and dynamic history, but Sarajevo really felt like an “East meets West” city, more so than Istanbul. There was one district in Istanbul that felt very European, but other than that the culture was totally different, I guess more “Asian”, or Middle-Eastern. Sarajevo really is in Europe and is very European, but having been under Ottoman rule for about 400 years there are lot of really strong, obvious Turkish influences. It’s most noticeable in the food, but the cafés and covered markets are also not very European at all. We got a tour of the city as always, saw some museums, and spent some time just wandering around.
Our first day in the city we got a tour from a student named Neno. He does the walking tours on his own, through no tourism company, and for free, but he’s still the #1 thing to do in Sarajevo. The tour was great, and we learned a lot about the city. My favourite part about travelling is meeting people who had lived through all the things we can only learn about. He was 7 when the war in Bosnia started, and it lasted for 4 years. He’s proud of his country and he loves his city, and even though he’s multilingual and has a Master’s degree, and unemployment among people his age is at almost 50% he won’t leave the country because he wants to stay and see and help it improve. We met a couple of other people in Bosnia who had the same attitude, it’s really inspiring. They never gave up on the city or the country and they’re still not ready to.
It was also really interesting talking to some people about the former Socialist era. In most, well all, former communist countries we’ve been to the people still aren’t satisfied with their governments, but they generally agree that it’s better now than it was. Nobody in East Germany, Hungary, or the Czech Republic we spoke to wished their communist regimes never fell, as broken and corrupt as some of their governments are today. Almost everyone in Bosnia we talked to, though, misses Yugoslavia. Not all of them want it back, but no one talks about it as a horrible time to have been alive, or a brutal regime. It kind of makes sense from their point of view. Tito’s rule was definitely a totalitarian socialist regime, but it was still a lot less violent and oppressive than the regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or the GDR. Also, Tito’s army of the southern Slavs liberated themselves from Nazi rule in 1945, as opposed to most other Eastern European countries, which were liberated by the Soviets, so there was no pressure on Yugoslavia to be friendly with the USSR. As far as Eastern bloc countries went, Yugoslavia was neutral, cooperating on both sides of the cold war. Most of the most brutal violence, and the incidents that made people hate their communist regimes in Eastern Europe, was actually coming from the Soviets, not the local governments. There were Soviet tanks in Budapest until the collapse of the USSR. In Yugoslavia, though, there was housing, there were jobs, and most of all there was peace. Since the collapse of Yugoslavia there hasn’t really been any period of lasting peace in the region, and unemployment is brutally high. Even the agreement that ended the Bosnian war of the 1990s, creating a federation with a Bosnian/Herzegovinian province and a Serb republic is precarious and disliked by most people in the country. It ended the violence, but for the people it’s not a reasonable long-term solution.
The history and politics is really interesting in this country, but the city itself is beautiful. Sarajevo’s in a Valley, so it’s long and narrow. Walking from one end the other is kind of like taking a walk through history, and you can never get lost, because like our tour guide said, if you start walking uphill you’re going the wrong way. At the far end you can start in the Ottoman district, which has tons of little wooden shops, narrow streets, mosques, and even a Bazaar and Hamam (which is no longer in use). It felt just like being in Turkey all over again with all the carpet shops and cafés. The next few blocks are full of very European-looking buildings built by the Austrians during the Austro-Hungarian rule of the city, which lasted only 40 years. They were also the ones who brought trams and electricity to the city. If you keep walking you get to the new part of town, which has tons of the typical mass-housing units and concrete towers from the socialist time. Beyond that is a totally modern city, with glass skyscrapers and shopping centres. It’s really neat to walk from one end to the other and see the development of the city through the years.
It was really heavy being in Sarajevo, seeing all the damage that has yet to be repaired, but it was great to be able to have seen it now since it might have completely changed in another 20 or 30 years. I would definitely recommend this city to see what it was like for Europeans under Ottoman rule, and then to see how a mostly Turkish population made out in a massive European dynasty. It’s got great food, friendly people, a fascinating history, museums, cafés, and parks, it really is the perfect place for a European city getaway.