With their imaginations and travel memories fired by spiky minarets, grilled kebabs and the all-pervasive aroma of ground coffee, many travellers see in SARAJEVO a Slavic mini-İstanbul. The Ottoman notes in the air are most prominent in Baščaršija, the city’s delightful Old Town, which is home to umpteen mosques, bazaars, kebab restaurants and cafés. Further afield, burnt-out buildings evoke the catastrophic war of the mid-1990s, though the fun-loving, easy-going Sarajevans do a great job of painting over the scars of those tumultuous years – it’s hard to walk around without being offered coffee, and it’s hard to be invited for coffee without making friends.
Sarajevo gained importance during Roman times, and after a short slumber was reinvigorated as a trading hub during the Ottoman period, but sadly its recent history is far more pertinent. The international spotlight fell on the city as the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, but less than a decade later the world’s eyes were retrained on it during a siege that lasted for almost four years – by some estimates, the longest in military history. Bosnian Serb forces made a near-unbroken ring around the city, shelling major buildings and shooting civilians dead on their way to work, while years of litter lay rotting in the streets. When the ceasefire was announced in 1996, around ten thousand people had been killed; on the ground you may notice some of the many Sarajevo Roses – flower-like scars of mortar shell explosions, poignantly filled in with red resin, though now badly fading.
The central district of Baščaršija is Sarajevo’s prettiest and contains most of its sights. Heading west from here, the city’s history unravels like a tapestry – Ottoman-era mosques slowly give way to the churches and elaborate buildings of the Austro-Hungarian period, before communist behemoths herald your arrival into “Sniper Alley” and its shells of war.
The powerful waft of grilled čevapi is a sure sign that you’re about to enter Baščaršija, whose pedestrianized streets are a delight to wander around, filled to the brim with cafés, snack stands and trinket stalls. It’s most logical to approach this district from the east, where you’ll find the once-glorious National Library. In 1992, a single day’s shelling destroyed over three million books, but reconstruction of this pink-and-yellow cream cake of faded beauty is now almost complete. A little way along is the central square, home to Sebilj, a small kiosk-like fountain, and Baščaršija Mosque. Far more beautiful is the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque just down the way, which is worth a peep inside. Further west, you’ll come across the Bezistan, an Ottoman-era bazaar now sadly filled with all manner of fake goods unsuited to such an elegant structure.
Baščaršija is also home to the six buildings that make up the Museum of Sarajevo – by far the largest is located inside the old Bursa Bezistan bazaar, just off the main square, which features a whole host of historical relics, all beautifully presented.
THE LATIN BRIDGE AND 1878–1918 MUSEUM
Modest in appearance, the Latin Bridge has some weighty history behind it – this was the scene of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, by extension, the start of World War I; a plaque on the wall indicates the exact spot where Ferdinand met his fate. Off its northern end, the small, one-room 1878–1918 Museum commemorates the incident, its most significant exhibits being the pistol used by the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, and the subsequent indictment against the perpetrators (there were seven in all). Across the Miljacka River you’ll see the fascinating Papagajka, a decaying yellow-and-green residential block apparently designed with hovercars in mind – this is how the Jetsons may have lived under Communism.
FERHADIJA AND AROUND
Along and just off Ferhadija, the main pedestrianized thoroughfare, are several points of interest. Dominating the skyline just west of the Bezistan bazaar is the twin-turreted Catholic cathedral dating from the 1880s, while, just behind here, along Mula Mustafa Baseskije, stands the central market place. It was here, on February 5, 1994, that 68 people were killed following a mortar attack in what became the war’s single most infamous incident; a blood red wall is inscribed with the names of all those who died. Adjacent to the cathedral, the superb Galerija 11/7/95 is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
Festivals in Sarajevo
Baščaršija Nights bascarsijskenoci.ba. Ballet, theatre, music and art exhibitions throughout July.
Jazz Fest jazzfest.ba. Excellent jazz festival, with some stellar names, usually held in November.
MESS mess.ba. International, English-centred festival of theatre in October.
Sarajevo Film Festival sff.ba. In August, this is now one of the most prestigious film festivals in Europe, and largely focused on the region’s own output.
Saravejo Winter sarajevskazima.ba. Artistic festival (music, film, visual and performing arts) each February.
Drinking and nightlife
Sarajevo has a fair few quirky underground bars, which come and go with alarming regularity, so ask around. Locals go out late – most bars only start filling up after midnight and kick on until 1 or 2am at least.
Occupying roughly four-fifths of the country, mountainous Bosnia contains some of the country’s most appealing towns, and helpfully all can be visited on a fairly straight route linking Sarajevo and Zagreb. First up, get a sense of medieval history in Travnik, Bosnia’s former capital, then head to Jajce, a tiny town with a waterfall crashing through its centre. Lastly there’s laidback Bihać, one of Europe’s best rafting hotspots.
Just a couple of hours out of Sarajevo, TRAVNIK is a good day-trip target, though its position on a main transport route detracts slightly from a delightful setting. This was the Bosnian capital during the latter part of Ottoman rule, and the residence of high-ranking officials known as viziers – you’ll see their tombs (turbe) dotted around town. Travnik also gained fame as the birthplace of Ivo Andrić, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose Bosnian Chroniclewas set in his hometown.
The best place to soak up Travnik’s history is its majestic fifteenth-century castle, built to hold off Ottoman forces but completed a few years too late. It’s now great for a clamber around, and provides spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Just under the castle is Plavna Voda, a quiet huddle of streamside restaurants where you can eat trout caught further upstream.
Whereas Travnik has grown a little too busy for its size, little JAJCE is simply adorable – even its name is cute, a diminutive form of the word “egg”, and therefore translating as something like “egglet”. The name is said to derive from the shape of a hill jutting up in the Old Town, ringed with walls and topped with an impressive citadel. In the Middle Ages, Bosnian kings were crowned just down the hill in the Church of St Mary; the last coronation, of Stjepan Tomašević, took place here in 1461, but two years later the king had his head lopped off during the Ottoman invasion. Opposite the church are the catacombs, essentially an underground church, complete with a narthex, nave, presbytery and baptistry; if you’re lucky, you’ll find the keyholder in the restaurant opposite. Further downhill, the 21m-high waterfalls are a splendid sight, despite the pounding they took during the Bosnian conflict.
Herzegovina has no shortage of great rafting locales, but Bosnia’s BIHAĆ beats them all. The crystal-clear River Una rushes through town, though it’s a little further upstream that you’ll find the best rafting; the river is highest in the spring and autumn. Adventure sports aside, Bihać is a pleasant, compact town with a cheerful pedestrianized zone in the centre. Here you’ll find the Church of Zvonik and Fathija Mosque, both visitable, but most interesting is the Captain’s Tower, once a prison, now a museum.
Rafting in Northwest Bosnia
Rafting in the Bihać area is possible year-round – the continuous flow of tourist traffic means that you’ll usually be able to join a group (6–10 per boat) in any month, though the main season runs from March to October.
Kostela-Bosanska Krupa An easy 24km, 5hr stretch that’s best for novices.
Kostela-Grmuša Short, but packs in some meaty rapids on a 13km, 4hr course.
Štrbački Buk-Lohovo An absolutely terrifying 15km, 4hr route featuring a 25m rapid.
Wedged into the far south of the country, little Herzegovina is less known than its big brother, Bosnia, but this land of muscular peaks and rushing rivers arguably has more to see. Pride of place goes to Mostar and its famed Old Bridge, but it’s worth venturing outside the city to see little Blagaj, or to absorb the religious curiosities of Medugorije. Those on their way to Dubrovnik or Montenegro should also call in at Trebinje, by far the most pleasant town in the Republika Srpska.
On arrival at the train or bus station, you may be forgiven for thinking that the beauty of MOSTAR has been somewhat exaggerated. There then begins a slow descent to the Old Town, during which it becomes more and more apparent that it really is a very special place indeed. Attentive ears will pick out rushing streams, salesmen crying their wares, as well as church bells and muezzins competing for attention, while steep, cobblestoned streets slowly wind their way down to the fast-flowing, turquoise-blue Neretva River and its Old Bridge, incredibly photogenic even when the Speedo-clad mostari – the brave gents who dive from the apex – aren’t tumbling into the waters below. The city is becoming ever more popular with tourists, though the dearth of high-end accommodation means that most visit on a day-trip – bad news for anyone on the Old Bridge around lunchtime, though great news for anyone staying the night; the best time to come is first thing in the morning or early evening.
Mostar’s history is irrevocably entwined with that of its bridge. Like hundreds of locals, this was to fall victim in 1993 when the Croats and Muslims of the town, previously united against the Serbs, turned on each other: the conflict rumbled on for two long years, each side sniping at the other from opposing hills. Locals claim that, prior to the war, more than half of the city’s marriages were mixed, but the figure has since dwindled to nothing; while relations are now much improved, the truce remains uneasy.
The Old Town, spanning both sides of the Neretva, contains most things of interest in Mostar, and in its centre is the Old Bridge, focal point of the city and the obvious place to kick off your sightseeing. On the eastern bank is the more interesting Muslim part of town, while the west is mainly home to Catholic Croats.
The Old Bridge
Transit point, dungeon, tourist attraction, war victim and macho launchpad, Mostar’s small, hump-backed Stari Most has led an interesting life. With tradesmen terrified by the rickety nature of its wooden predecessor and the fast-flowing Neretva below, it was built in the 1560s at the instigation of Suleyman the Magnificent. Those employed to guard the bridge were called the mostari, a term later borrowed when naming the city, and then used to describe the men who dive from the apex, 21m down into the Neretva. After 427 years in service, the bridge was strategically destroyed by Croat forces in November 1993, symbolizing the ethnic division of the city. There then began the arduous process of rebuilding it piece by piece, using new materials but following the same techniques used in its initial construction, before it reopened in 2004. The mostari are still there, day after day; they’ll try to work the crowd into shelling out an acceptable fee – typically around €25 – before taking the plunge. Join them if you dare, especially in July, when the annual diving festival marks the highlight of Mostar’s year.
Closest to Mostar is the village of BLAGAJ, just 12km to the east and accessible by local buses. Once you disembark, carry straight ahead through the town to the Tekija. Huddled into a niche in the cliff face, this wonky wooden building was once the residence of dervishes, and the interior – prayer rooms, washroom and kitchen – are all suitably spartan. The hammam, meanwhile, remains as it was. Right next to it, a never-ending torrent of water gushes out of the cliff, apparently reaching levels of 43,000 litres per second; some of this is skimmed off to make tea and coffee, which you can order at the adjacent terrace, including a chunk of lokum (Turkish delight).
Twenty six kilometres south of Mostar is the curious village of MEĐUGORIJE, a mere non-entity until June 1981, when a group of teenagers claimed to have been spoken to by the Virgin Mary here. Unlike Lourdes and Fatima, this has not been officially recognized by the Vatican, but that doesn’t stop pilgrims arriving in such numbers that there are now thousands of rooms available to accommodate them. The main sights here are the Church of St James and the nearby “Weeping Knee” statue, so named as it apparently flouts the laws of thermodynamics by dribbling out a constant flow of fluid.
Pocitelj and the Kravice Waterfalls
A few kilometres south of Međugorije is the hillside village of POČITELJ, one of the most traditional in Herzegovina. The place is quite stunning, and dotted with remnants from the fifteenth century, most notably a citadel and a terrific mosque. Unfortunately there are no direct buses here, so it’s best to join a tour. Groups will likely swing through to see the nearby Kravice Waterfalls, which are not accessible on public transport. High, wide and handsome, the pool below is a great place for a dip.
The Republika Srpska’s most appealing town by a country mile, TREBINJE is tucked into Herzegovina’s southern extremity, and its proximity to Dubrovnik and the Montenegrin border makes it the ideal start or finish line to a race through the country. It’s most famed for the sixteenth-century Arslanagić Bridge – a longer version of the one in Mostar – which sits a ten-minute walk from the town centre; in what must have been quite a feat, it was moved here, stone by stone, from the village of Arslanagić some 5km away, in 1972.
Back in the centre is the Old Town, a pretty warren of streets now largely filled with cafés; better yet for coffee-slurping is elegant Jovan Dučić Trg, home to a daily market and almost totally cloaked with maple leaves (platani).
There are also a couple of still-functioning hilltop monasteries, notably fourteenth-century Tvrdoš 6km west of Trebinje, which are a delight to roam around and well worth the climb.