No, the title is not hyperbole. I know what you’re thinking: Conan, you’ve only been in the Bosnian capital for a day. How can Sarjevo blow your mind already? The simple answer is that it has a lot in what I look for in a city, especially after having previously gone to Tallinn and Riga a month ago. To interpret my Conanter (defined as the banter spoken by Conan), it’s a clean city that has the historic charm combined with a sense of modernity, and most importantly, easy walking distance. My hostel, aptly named for the infamous guest Franz Ferdinand, is right off of the main pedestrian area, which in turn is about a five minute walk from Old Town. Can’t beat that!
The first order of business was to get acquainted with the surrounding area. In trying to get to Old Town, I passed by the Gazi-Husrev complex. This featured the mosque, Gazi Husrev’s library, and the museum dedicated to historic Arabic/Bosnian scripts. To start out, I went inside the mosque, thanks to the friendly tourist officer. By no means am I religious, but I really couldn’t help but feel awed at the inside of it; it is the first time I have ever been inside a mosque, so this was awinspiring. Later on, as I was returning by, I heard the muezzin to call them to prayer, and I even got to see the people praying. Seeing things like that really humanizes what you see, hear, and read, so I am ever thankful for having the opportunity to personally witness that. As I type this, I realize that I neglected to step inside the library (which I do plan on rectifying), but the museum made up for that error! I paid 3 Bosnian Marks (just about $1.50) and gosh, did I ever get my money’s worth! The area accessible to tourists was maybe the better part of one floor, but it was packed with things to see. Case in point: I saw manuscripts dating to the 12th century (thanks to traditional ties between Bosnia and the Arabic world, in case you’re wondering), pristinely preserved. I knew that Bosnia converted to Islam wholesale under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, but wow, this showed how intense the feeling of Islam was. (Side note here, but as our guide for my afternoon excursion said, the Ottomans converted/conquered their massive territory through money, and not warfare. The Bosnians converted for the general reason that they would have been taxed more as non-Muslims.) No matter what race or religion you belong to, anybody would have been able to agree that seeing the gorgeous caligraphy was of the utmost quality. I sadly was not able to take pictures of the museum, but rest assurred that if you ever make it out to Sarajevo, you have to stop by. After this, I decided to seek out food. As with any other capital or major city in the world, the Old Town inevitably has a bunch of touristy places to shop and eat at. However, I was glad to see that Bosnians and tourists alike were happily munching on their meals, so maybe, just maybe, I stumbled upon a less tourist-oriented place. From there, I decided to head on over to the Yellow Castle, which is reknowned for offering both locals and tourists alike a beautiful panoramic view of the city. I’d estimate that from Old Town to there, it took about ten to fifteen minutes. But, as I’d like to point out, since Sarajevo is built on hills, there are many hills one has to climb. Said hills also have cobblestone streets, which also doesn’t help one out. One note about trying to get to the Yellow Castle itself is that you had to walk through a cemetary to reach the hill it’s perched on. I’m not sure if this was by design, but it was a reminder of the history of this country, especially when looking at recent history. The castle, not to be confused with the White Castle (no, not the burger chain), was built after Austria’s Prince Eugene of Savoy exploited a noticeable flaw to get past the Ottoman defenses and sack Sarajevo. Whoops. Nowadays, the Yellow one is serviced by a small refreshments booth completed with an excellent view for both locals and tourists alike to admire the brilliant view of the city. As I spent roughlz half an hour hiking through the city to get here, I treated myself to some excellent Bosnian coffee as well as the view! After that, it was time to head back to my hostel to briefly recuperate before kicking off the second part of the day.
I had just about half an hour before I started my tour, which I used to relax. Just after 2, five fellow hostel guests and I departed for our Sarajevo Under Seige tour, which included visiting some of the surrounding area. This helped to maximize our time, which was aided by our knowledgeable guide Vedad. A good portion was spent at the Tunnel Museum, which dealt with the four year seige of Sarajevo. Like, can you imagine living for four years under constant bombardment? Anyways, the good people of Sarajevo dealt with this by building a secret tunnel over four months and four days. To get an idea of how secret this was, the Serbs and the United Nations had no clue until after the seige and the war was over. As the besieged Bosnians were rightly paranoid about their tunnel, which they carved out using pretty much nothing but shovels and picks, they made not one but four separate tunnels leading to their main one. Now that is impressive. At the museum, we watched a documentary made using footage from the Bosnian army and even the Serbian one (to show off the bombardment). We got to see what the workers used, the conditions, etc., which added even more to the overall impression. After the film, we were taken out back, where there were mines. Yes, landmines are still popping up 20 years after the culmination. Fortunately the government has been taking steps to demine the entire country, but due to the shifting landscape (mudslides are the main culprit), it hasn’t been a walk in the park. The last thing we did at the museum was to meet one of the guys who helped dig the tunnel, which was an absolute treat! From there, we then moved on to see some of the countryside. In this case, we drove up to the mountainsides surrounding Sarajevo (except for the one with landmines), and we all were blown away by the scenery! We actually had to deal with a Bosnian Serb policeman (as we crossed an unofficial boundary into one of the many Serbian enclaves within the country) policeman telling us that we had to take a detour to get to the top of the mountain. I will say that putting up with small countryside roads on winding roads wasn’t the most exhilarating, but the end defines the means. After spending quality time admiring the natural beauty, we then moved on to one of the most popular tourist attractions in the entire country: the long abandoned bobsled built for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Yes, a former bobsled course is what people flock to. I am here to say that yes, it was a fun time, however! There was a lot of graffiti, as with these abandoned places, but I have to hand it to those kids/teens/maybe adults who marked it up, as they were very creative. Walking up and down the bobsled was fun, as all of us agreed that we could believe how intimidating it was to compete on it. After messing around for a bit, Vedad hustled us back in the van, where we were set to make our last stop. So, believe it or not, but Sarajevo has Europe’s second largest Jewish cemetary, trailing only Prague in that category. Alas, the Jewish population of Bosnia is about 800 in a country of 3.5 million; this is attributed to World War 2 and the Bosnian War, among other things. Even the dead couldn’t rest in peace, as the Serbs and Bosnians routinely fought over the high ground the cemetary occupied, and consequently there were a lot of bullet holes and shrapnel remnants from that. This concluded our magical tour, and if this was any indication, the rest of my time in the country is going to be even better!