Catherine Murphy celebrates the revival of a once-troubled city
ASARAJEVO Rose lies before me – a splotch of red paint marking the spot where a grenade or mortar round hit during the war of the early 1990s.
These ‘roses’ are visible on Sarajevo’s city centre buildings and pavements – poignant and necessary reminders of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s troubled recent past.
For 1,425 days between April 1992 and February 1996, Sarajevo was under siege, bombarded on a daily basis as the war which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia raged. It would become the longest siege of a capital city in modern history.
As I wander its streets, taking in the old Turkish quarter and AustroHungarian architecture, it’s difficult to grasp the complexities of the war and the fact that it happened within a decade of Sarajevo hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics.
I think of the obvious parallels with Northern Ireland – a brain drain and the slow difficult rebuilding of tourism – but the background to the Bosnia war makes the Northern Irish Troubles look simple.
If you can understand Bosnia, you can understand the world, my guide tells me over cups of Brusnica – delicious cranberry tea with orange and honey – in the wonderfully eccentric Goldfish or Zlatna Ribica café.
A 15th-century Ottoman stronghold, Sarajevo was at different times Muslim, Christian and Jewish.
IT WAS a part of the AustroHungarian Empire until World War One ended Austro-Hungarian rule and led to the creation of Yugoslavia. Today the city has regained its multicultural tolerance.
While the population is predominantly Muslim, Sarajevo is perceived as secular and open with synagogues, mosques, and Catholic and Ortho- dox churches occuping the same neighbourhoods.
Taking part in a Sarajevo Under Siege walking tour, my thoughts are clearly dominated by the 1990s war but there is much to explore in a city steeped in culture and history.
With the Dinaric Alps as a backdrop, I stop at the northern end of the Latin Bridge which crosses the Miljacka River. In March 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated here, sparking the First World War.
I admire the carefully restored façade of City Hall before seeking out bazaar bargains in the old quarter of Bascarsija, eating cheese-filled burek pastries from a tiny shop on its narrow stone- flagged alleyways.
I’m told that many first-time visitors to Sarajevo wonder if it’s safe – even 22 years after the war ended – then quickly fall in love with it.
Top of my to-visit list is a museum dedicated to the secret relief tunnel dug during the war to move people, weapons and provisions, and the Gazi Husrevbeg mosque.
But the mountains beckon and my guide Mustafa Panjeta is ready to drive me to the ski resort of Jahorina, just 28km from Sarajevo.
When the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, the vision was to unite it with the mountains. The war destroyed that vision but now, almost 35 years later, Sarajevo is being reunited with the mountains of Jahorina and Bjelasnica or the Sarajevo Olympic Mountains as they’re known.
The real beauty of a Winter or Spring visit to Bosnia is that adventurous families, couples and groups can enjoy a cultural and historical trip combined with almost a week’s skiing and most importantly, prices to delight.
Ski Sarajevo, the company spear- heading a tourism bounce-back, can tailor-make trips with multicentre itineraries including stopovers in Istanbul and visits to Dubrovnik, Split and Mostar if desired.
In the past year, Jahorina (1916m) has benefited from over seven million euro of investment with a new six-seater chair lift offering easier access to its com- pact 35km of pistes.
The scars of war are also visible on the slopes of Jahorina– the ruin of a communication building bombed by NATO in the mid1990s remains on the side of a ski run but for the most part you will enjoy views of tree-lined runs and pretty slopeside chalets.
While Bosnia’s history may be complicated, the slopes at Jaho- rina are not – they’re lined out across the mountain, making it easy for friends and family to meet up during the day.
Jahorina is popular with Belgradians, Australian and Scandinavian skiers, and European ex-pats working in Bosnia but with just 500 tourist beds, the slopes are never going to be busy – a major bonus for novices.
Apart from its prettiness, two things stand out about the resort. Firstly, the quality and diversity of its accommodation – budgetconscious skiers can find beds for as little as €10 per person a night here while there are also a number of four-star wellness hotels which wouldn’t look out of place in Europe’s top resorts. The best part is that they cost a fraction of fourstar hotels in the Alps.
Next, the prices. The local currency is Bosnian Marks and you will want to kiss Bosnian soil in thanks when you realise that a daily lift pass costs the equivalent of €12.
THERE are 11 ski schools with 80 instructors between them and lessons cost €10 an hour per person in a group or €25 per person for private instruction. Ski equipment, including skis, boots and poles, costs around €11 a day.
Paying for lunch on the slopes will also bring a smile to your face – pizza costs 3.50 – and prices in general are so cheap that young families or school groups can easily manage their budget.
To sample local dishes, try Pita pie filled with spinach and cream (or meat if preferred) and Tufahija, poached apple filled with cream and crushed walnuts. If you’re cold on the slopes get indoors for a cup of that lovely Brusnica tea and at dinner time, enjoy a glass of local Vranac wine.
Finally, what really stands out about Bosnia is its people. The country’s recent past may be dark but don’t make the mistake of thinking its inhabitants are dour. They have a great sense of humour and a ‘manana’ approach to life that will resonate with Irish visitors.