THE GREAT SURVIVOR
Sarajevo still bears the scars of its turbulent past but few European cities are as welcoming, writes James Jeffrey
IT’S in a valley on the road to Sarajevo that I first sense Europe melting into the Middle East. As bumblebees fumble their way among the flowers and cuckoos call from dense stands of fir and poplar, straining to make themselves heard over the rush of the sort of trout-filled river that would have had Schubert breaking out in a sweat, the wail of a muezzin bursts from a minaret.
A short distance to the north, in Hungary, the few minarets left standing loom silently over their mosques, relics left stranded by the retreating Ottoman tide, but here the call to prayer is joined by another from a neighbouring mosque, and the sinuous sound — so familiar from travels in Egypt and the Persian Gulf — fills the sort of valley that wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Sound of Music. It’s deeply discombobulating.
Soon afterwards I reach Sarajevo, which fills a long, narrow valley of its own in the bosom of the Dinaric Alps, and as the muezzins in the old town and on the hillsides take it in turn with the Catholic and Orthodox church bells in the Hapsburg quarter, which in turn echo off the marzipanpink walls of the synagogue, the feeling is nothing short of continents colliding.
The capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina tends to conjure up three main images: the assassination of Hapsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which gave European powers an excuse to start the Great War they’d diligently been straining towards; the Winter Olympics in 1984, which threatened to be snow-free until a huge fall the night before the opening ceremony; and the siege that stretched bloodily across nearly half the ’ 90s as Yugoslavia disintegrated, helping to introduce the expression ‘‘ ethnic cleansing’’ into the language.
Reminders of the madness and the carnage are everywhere, from mortar scars and bullet holes to pale forests of tombstones. Yet Sarajevo has survived, and I have found few European cities so welcoming to a foreign visitor. The line that keeps ringing in my ears is simple but heartfelt: ‘‘ We are so glad you are here.’’
Best beginning: I hasten to the old town to one of the cafes that spreads its tables across the cobblestones of the Bascarsija, considered the main street, near the Sebilj Fountain. I bypass the namby-pamby espressos and cappuccinos on offer and order the Turkish coffee. This arrives in a copper urn with a long handle, looks as though it should be handled by waiters in welding suits and essentially acts as a caffeine isotope. (An easy way of telling you’ve had too much is when your eyeballs start vibrating.)
Best ballast: Many of the cafes seem reluctant to distract their patrons with foodstuffs. Luckily there are plenty of bakeries where you can make use of this handy tip from Rebecca West’s 1942 monolithic Balkan classic, BlackLambandGreyFalcon : ‘‘ In the Muslim cookshops they sell the great cartwheel tarts made of fat leaf-thin pastry stuffed with spinach which presuppose that no man will be ashamed of his greed and his liking for grease.’’ This wondrous cartwheel is otherwise known as a burek and, as this is a perfect day, there is no shame.
Best meandering: In every direction from here spreads a souk -like labyrinth of alleyways and streets festooned with carpets, handcarved copper, antiques (real and alleged), coffee grinders fashioned from Serbian artillery shells (a material once in overly plentiful supply) and reproductions of a Nazi poster offering 100,000 reichmarks for the capture of resistance leader Josip Tito.
The squat domes and soaring minarets eventually give way to churches and cathedrals and the fatter, creamier-looking architecture of middle Europe, all to a great upheaval of hills and mountains, the tallest of which thrusts its way more than 2000m into the sky and is a skiers’ paradise come winter.
As I wander, my mind keeps coming back to the thought that, barely more than a decade ago, an average of 300 shells a day were raining down from the hillsides courtesy of the Yugoslav National Army and Bosnian Serb forces. That’s to say nothing of the snipers’ bullets.
Best subterranean moment: For many people, life somehow went on during the siege and a key lifeline was a 700m long, 1.5m high tunnel that allowed food, medical supplies and people to be moved unseen by snipers. It started in the garage of a private house, now home to the Tunnel Museum (Tuneli 1), where the first few metres are preserved.
Best dome: From its shaded courtyard and exquisite fountain to the vast splendour of its interior, the nearly 500-year-old Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque is arguably the finest example of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans, alternating a severe grandeur with exuberant flourishes and small, beguiling details. There’s also a notice in the courtyard asking visitors to not enter with ice cream, mobile phones or automatic weapons. Which doesn’t sound entirely unreasonable.
Best known assassination: The Latin Bridge’s name doesn’t give away a lot, unlike its earlier moniker of Princip’s Bridge. It was here on St Vitus’s Day in 1914 that student and Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot to death Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Given that the archduke’s visit seemed to have been deliberately timed by the conquering Hapsburgs to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo and the fall of the Serb empire to the Ottomans, Bosnia’s Serb population was nonplussed. West describes the visit as ‘‘ an act so suicidal that one fumbles the pages of the history books to find if there is not some explanation’’. Yet the heir to the Hapsburg throne almost made it out alive. Princip and his comrades in the Black Hand nationalist group were spread through the city with guns and bombs but were incompetent or lacked the nerve when the imperial motorcade passed. Even Princip hesitated but, thanks to the nervous bumbling of officials, he got his second chance at this bridge. A few bullets later and our species was on its way to its first world war.
Best restorative: Just near the Latin Bridge is an open-air cafe among the maples and horse chestnut trees. I regather my faculties with an espresso (valour has deserted me), watching the trams clanking past on the other side of the Miljacka River and gazing at the pseudo-Moorish extravagance of the town hall.
Best atmospherics: The call to prayer at dusk while sitting in a park in one of the hilltop neighbourhoods is intensely moving and, hearing it in such a European context, gets me wondering what the continent might be like if Vienna had fallen to the Ottomans.
Best dining: As with other parts of the Balkans, meat is prepared with a light touch that can induce a happy delirium in travellers who have arrived from stodgier lands to the north. As I’ve come from Hungary, where meat is viewed with suspicion unless it’s covered in a thick coat of bread crumbs andor sauce, I head to a restaurant called Vezir (in an intimate courtyard just off the Bascarsija) and dive on the Balkan meat platter. The lamb especially melts in the mouth, with just the right hint of smokiness and nicely balanced by the local red, which makes up for its occasional rough edges by being served in fetching clay goblets. A nearby wall features a constellation of bullet holes, but across the courtyard the waiter at the hip Male Daire cafe is dancing to techno beats from table to table as little clouds of apple-flavoured tobacco smoke drift from hookah-puffing patrons. All around in the floodlit minarets, one muezzin followed by another starts the call to prayer. It goes surprisingly well with the techno.
Best walking tip: The process of removing landmines from Bosnia’s ravishingly lovely countryside goes on. Sarajevo is officially mine-free, but the same cannot yet be said for many parts beyond, where thousands of the ghastly (yet evidently highly profitable) things remain primed to detonate beneath passers-by years after the war. Do as the locals do and don’t stray from the path.
Best flicks: If your perfect day happens to fall in August, seek out the Sarajevo Film Festival. It began in 1995 during the siege and, as with almost anything George Clooney touches, is going from strength to strength. James Jeffrey is the author of Paprika Paradise:TravelsintheLandofMyAlmost Birth (Hachette Livre, $35).
Qantas flies daily to Frankfurt from Australian ports. Lufthansa offers connecting flights to Sarajevo; www.qantas.com.au; www.lufthansa.com. www.sarajevo.ba/en/ www.sarajevo-tourism.com
Historic snapshots: Clockwise from top, the Latin Bridge where in 1914 Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot to death; the Miljacka River; Husrev-Beg Mosque’s grand dome; Bascarsija is the place for strolling; Sarajevo’s impressive National Library