Getting a kick in the Balkans

Author: Ciaran Ward

into Sarajevo train station as dusk approaches after a tiring 10-hour journey
from the Croatian capital Zagreb, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s not
worth a stopover Miles of sprawling ugly Soviet-style tower blocks so typical
of the suburbs of many Eastern European cities do little to encourage the
potential visitor to the Bosnian capital. But once you’re in the heart of the
city, you find it has a rough charm which really catches the imagination.

is a curious mixture of east and west. For centuries this city has been at the
confluences of two great cultures, at the western extremity of the Ottoman and
the eastern extremity of the Austro-Hungarian empires.

been over a decade since peace returned to this region, but the scars of war
are everywhere, albeit in a subtle way. Market stalls sell intricately carved
trinkets – pens, ashtrays, plates – fashioned from spent bullets and mortar
shells. It’s not hard to find a building still pock-marked with bullet holes.
Also on sale are Turkish rugs and ornately crafted metal coffee pots and pepper
grinders. Mosques and churches rub shoulders in this proverbial melting pot of
cultures, but the city has an unmistakeable European flavour

women choose to wear the traditional Islamic head scarf and some young men
sport Islamic-style beards, but their ethnic origins are most definitely white
European and the majority of Sarajevans prefer the western dress style. The
city’s focal point is the Bašcaršija bazaar, a Middle-Eastern style market
place where there’s a casbah style café in which you can smoke hookah pipes and
drink the notoriously thick black Turkish coffee which is standard fare in this
part of the Balkans. Ask for a coffee in Sarajevo and you get a tiny cup
containing a thick tar-like brew – what’s generally known as a Turkish coffee,
ie black coffee with much of the water boiled off to strengthen it. Elsewhere
in the former Yugoslavia you will be given a standard espresso as is the norm in
most of continental Europe.  Ubiquitous in Bosnia and Herzogovina is the
Greco-Turkish style kebab of minced lamb in pitta bread.

Quite by
chance we stumble upon a plaque which commemorates a historic event. The bridge
where the Archduke Ferdinand, Emperor of Austro-Hungary was assassinated in
1914, the catalyst for the Great War that would rage for another 4 years and
result in countless more deaths.

night the beer flows. We’re sitting outside the trendy Bar Havana in the old
market place. Despite the rain, it’s a lively, atmospheric spot. A talented
chanteuse belts out cover versions of Tina Turner, The Police and Van Morrison


The next
day we find ourselves in the green area of parkland adjoining the grounds of
the National Museum, but unfortunately it’s closed as we’ve arrived too late in
the afternoon.  Just outside the building
is the abandoned wreck of a military helicopter, presumably a relic of the old
Yugoslav army, now a sort of unofficial museum exhibit come work of modern art sprayed
with graffiti. We’re along one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a long wide
road leading to the railway station where our adventure began. Just across this
road is the distinctive yellow tower block of the Holiday Inn, where
journalists from around the world lodged during the infamous war.


The city
is surrounded by steep craggy wooded hills, the perfect terrain for an army
wanting to put a city under siege.

the railway station there’s a battered metal sign, reminding all and sundry
that this city was the venue for the 1984 Winter Olympics – the mascot of a
cartoon wolf and the Olympic rings against a blue background liberally dotted
with rust and what appears to be the odd bullet hole.

lodgings are in a private house owned by an entrepreneurial local who rents us
a room for the sum of €10 a night. We’re on a top of a steep hill which has
panoramic views of the city. Further down the hill is the “Hotel Sarayevo”
(sic) , probably more luxurious than our lodgings, but considerably more expensive
and no doubt with a less spectacular view. The Sarajevo skyline is dominated by
apartment blocks and the tall slender white minarets of mosques. 
 As the
evening sun casts long shadows over the streets, some old men are playing chess
with giant pieces. It seems so peaceful here now. Swallows swoop low over the
shallow narrow Miljacka river. It has the air of a sleepy provincial town
rather than a capital city. I could easily spend the rest of the summer here.