Saturday, October 8, 2011

a slice of sarajevo

would it kill them to put a train station in the middle of a city? or, perhaps, surround it with something nice?

remember in 'get shorty,' when the cab driver turned to the
mafia dude and said about los angeles, "they say it's the
smog that gives us such wonderful sunsets."
welcome to sarajevo, bosnia 
pulling into sarajevo from mostar, having just shared a compartment with a chain-smoking bosnian blowhard who got into a shouting match with a woman who joined us late in the ride, what we saw did not instill comfort or joy. this place is polluted. train stations are often located on the outskirts of town and this one is surrounded by tall apartment blocks sticking up into the smog. we would learn later from a friend we made that packs of wild dogs roam these streets and have lately begun attacking the residents of "new sarajevo," this sprawl of communist era apartment buildings in the west end of the valley.

we were shaking from the shared nicotine of the train compartment but thankfully met with a free ride from our inn in town. i don't think i could have held the map steady enough to figure out how to get there, anyway.

sarajevo rests in a long narrow valley and sure, it's crowded and yes there is a ton of pollution, but having spent a couple of weeks in croatia we were starting to realize that bosnians are a lot nicer to outsiders. in fact, they actually smile and, for the most part, even ask "how are you? what do you think about our country? where are you from?" and, what some from our homeland would consider considerate behavior in a restaurant, "would you like to see a menu?"

off the top of your head, what do you think about when you hear "sarajevo?" if you're like us, it's olympics (1984), the bosnian war (1992 - 1995) and the assassination of franz ferdinand (1914), popularly referred to as the start of WWI.

turkish quarter, sarajevo, bosnia
like mostar, where we had visited before sarajevo, this was a major ottoman city for a few hundred years that luxuriated under the favor of the sultans who valued sarajevo for its logistical advantage along the trade routes and its beautiful setting at the end of a green valley cut by a river. you can't swing a hookah in this town without hitting a several-hundred year old mosque or the ruins of an old caravansary. the old coppersmith alleys are still intact at the east end of town, the turkish quarter, and we were happy to still find coppersmiths actually making the wares they were selling, unlike a lot of old-town areas where everything is made in bulk somewhere else and sold as "authentic."

you can track the history by the architecture. starting from the east end of the valley that butts up against the mountains is the turkish quarter. small, squat buildings creating a warren of lanes and alleys that you can wander for hours drinking coffee, eating baklava, smoking a hookah, watching coppersmiths. then, moving west the austro-hungarians set up shop and started building a tiny little vienna, then the communists moved in further west and over the 40 years of tito rule spread further down the valley to "new sarajevo," those enormous, grimy apartment blocks that go on forever.

is that a vegetable? need that stuffed? no problem.
sarajevo, bosnia
the food, my god the food!

thankfully, we were heading back toward the land of hummus and falafel and, apologies to my brother, may have had the best falafel we have ever eaten. this place is littered with "restoran nationals" that focus on, you guessed it, national dishes of bosnia. the photo to the right is a perfect representation. you can walk into one of these places, point at things (good if your serbo-croatian isn't up to par) and for somewhere around $5 get a beautiful plate of stuffed anything. usually stuffed with minced up meat and onion but also lots of rice with spices, too. and cevapi stands for days. easily hundreds of them within any given square mile.

srebrenica, site of one of the worst massacres in modern war time.
graffiti (just a small sample) in sarajevo, bosnia

wanting to really understand where we were we did something we rarely do when we travel. we hired a guide for a few hours to walk us around and answer our questions. like a few places we'd visited before, the effects of the war are still very much on display around town. we met up with neno, a local, post-grad political science student who lived through the siege of sarajevo and was home-schooled in the basement while the serbian army was set up in the hills above town randomly shelling its citizens. we were trying really, really hard to understand the balkans, particularly the wars of the 90s. clearly, it takes more than a few weeks here to even come close to understanding territorial, religious, political and tribal considerations that date back hundreds and hundreds of years.

šargijas (i think), and carpets. sarajevo, bosnia
every day still there are news articles about serbs, croats and bosniaks disagreeing about something. yet, with this as a daily background, and set against a national unemployment rate of around 40% (you read that correctly), this place feels vibrant. unlike the croatian vibe of resentment or aloofness or "people don't understand our plight," it seems bosnians are just getting on with being alive and, seemingly, happy that others are interested in knowing the hell is going on. a huge generalization, i know, but on the surface that's what we found.

it's because of that feeling of hopefulness that we just sank further and further into feeling comfortable here. each day we ate something new, drank bosnian coffee (according to several people differs from turkish coffee by the number of times it's brought to a boil before removing from heat), found a local brewery and drank good beer, hiked up to the top of the ridge and looked from east to west down the valley (do something about the car emissions!), chatted with as many waiters, shopkeepers and our bed & breakfast hosts as we could. we've left each place on this trip, without exception, feeling sad that we were leaving so soon. that's a good trend!

sarajevo rocks!

side note: we've had several wonderful conversations with other guests at hotels, one of which left us considering adding baku, azerbaijan of all places, to our itinerary down the road. love having our directions steered by chance meetings. we'll report back.


  1. what?! send me one of those falafels. i need to run it through the gas chromatograph so i can isolate the ingredients.

  2. Sarajevo sounds amazing. I keep being sad about your experience with Croatians, though. Were they always that way and I didn't notice it? Or did the war make them aloof and whatever? :( or did the transition from a kind of comfortable socialism to a free-market economy, combined with the war, have that effect? Anyway, have a falafel and enjoy.

  3. Aloha from Kauai. We can't come here without thinking of you guys. Sarajevo sounds really interesting. Just curious: do you need visas to travel to these countries? If you decide to go to, say, Azerbaijan, do you just go, or do you have to jump through hoops? Keep the posts readin' 'em.