While visitors flock to nearby Dubrovnik, Sarajevo remains largely undiscovered by tourists. Anna Corbett finds out what it has to offer: In Europe history is always close to the surface, be it in ancient ruins, shadowy galleries filled with masterpieces or winding cobbled lanes. But nowhere is the recent past more tangible than in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
Not two decades ago the city was besieged by Serbian forces for four long years. The conflict reduced many of the buildings to rubble, killed more than 10,000 people and burned images of a Sarajevo filled with smoke and destruction into the consciousness’ of Western Europe.
Even now signs of the battle are everywhere. On the short drive from the airport to the Ottoman old town, concrete communist monstrosities riddled with built holes rise up from either side of the long road. Just beyond the greyness lie lush, alpine hills dotted with minarets and graveyards.
In the city’s historic centre, the streets alter dramatically. Stari Grad (or Old Town) dates from the 15th century and was once a major centre of trade in the Balkans. At its heart are tiny market streets where the clanging sounds of metal workers mingle with salesman’s shouts and the aroma of dark Bosnian coffee. A few steps away from the main tourist traps are tiny restaurants with sardonic waitresses and plates loaded with buttery beef. Guide books and locals alike are keen to point out that here a Catholic church, a Russian Orthodox church, a Mosque and a Synagogue can all be found in one block – a sign that Sarajevo was for centuries synonymous with tolerance rather than violence.
The concerted effort to promote the city’s ancient attractions cannot mask the fact that most visitors who come here do so because of Bosnia’s recent history. Key sights include the yellow Holiday Inn where the press were stationed during the conflict, the remains of the tunnel that was used to smuggle people and supplies in and out of the besieged city and the infamous snipers’ ally.
Another remnant of the war lies in the picturesque hills surrounding the city which are off limits for casual strolling due to the very real danger of unexploded landmines – though the main roads are safe to walk on. Some city tours will drive up into the mountains to vantage points used by the Serbian snipers who kept an entire city hostage for four years. Hidden in the trees on one mountain side is the ruined bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympics – now used as a canvas by local graffiti artists.
Despite the determination of most visitors to focus on this destruction, Sarajevo is striving to become a modern tourist destination. With accommodation half the price of nearby Croatia and the redevelopment of ski and adventure sports facilities, it’s no wonder the number of tourists heading to this beautiful city is increasing dramatically year on year. Beat the rush and discover this jewel of Eastern Europe before the queues begin to form. Anna Corbett
- Getting there and away: From London Airports Croatia Air and Austrian Airlines fly into Sarajevo via Zagreb and Vienna respectively. Coaches from Croatia and other nearby countries are cheap but often over-crowded and unreliable.
- Food: The national dish is cevapcici – grilled meat often served with flat bread and onions.
- Money: The currency is the convertible mark. €1 = 1.95KM. A beer costs around 2-4KM.