THE GREAT SUR­VIVOR

Sara­jevo still bears the scars of its tur­bu­lent past but few Euro­pean cities are as wel­com­ing, writes James Jef­frey

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Perfect Day Travel -

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).

Check­list

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

Pic­tures: James Jef­frey

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

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