Bicycle Diaries: Sarajevo

One of the main reasons that I wanted to visit the Balkans was so I could learn more about the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars in the 90s. I was only a child when they were happening, but I vaguely remember seeing some pretty horrific images on the TV. Of course, the shocked reaction of anyone over the age of 35 when I said I was going to former Yugoslavia just made me want to go more. And what better way to get an up-close experience than in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina?

While there was still evidence of the wars in Serbia and Montenegro, they pale in comparison to Bosnia. The minute we cross the border in yet another bus that really should have been sold for scrap metal years ago, signs appear warning of landmines still dotted in the hills. I take a mental note not to cycle off the beaten track. The drive into Sarajevo is possibly the hairiest of my life, twisting and turning through the dramatic Bosnian mountains on a road ‘donated’ by the Netherlands (I guess they figured they’d spent enough money sending thousands of troops with the UN during the war). But once we reach Sarajevo (I’ve never felt so tempted to kiss the ground) I immediately fall in love with the winding cobblestone streets filled with old Ottoman buildings and mosques. In a trip that was supposed to be through ‘eastern’ Europe it’s closer to the orient than anywhere else I’ve been so far.

The next morning I rent a bike from what claims to be the ‘first and only’ bike rental in Sarajevo, although really it was just a guy with a bunch of questionably legit bikes in front of a kebab shop. I cycle through the old town accompanied by the sound of the call to prayer coming from the many mosques. It’s a lovely soundtrack, but i just pray another crazy Eastern European driver doesn’t run me over.

The most fascinating thing about Sarajevo is the mix of cultures. It’s a term brandied about quite often in Europe, but nowhere is it more evident than here. I cycle past mosques, Orthodox monasteries and Catholic churches, all within hundreds of metres of each other. The mix of cultures was what ultimately led to one of the deadliest sieges in recent history, but today it’s nothing but charming.

Sarajevo has had a pretty turbulent history, having been occupied by almost every major empire in Europe. One minute I’m cycling past shisha bars and markets selling carpets, and then all of a sudden I’m dodging pedestrians in a street that could be anywhere in Central Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire kicked out the Turks in the 19th century, but instead of destroying their influence, they just made a second old town tacked onto the original one. It’s here that I cycle past the Latin Bridge, the famed marker for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (the archduke, not the band) which effectively started World War I.

A few kilometres down the road the city changes remarkably again. I’m now in the Yugoslavian-era part of the town, made obvious by the rows and rows of brown concrete slabs attempting to pass as apartment blocks. Many people say that the Yugoslavian era was the best period in Bosnia’s history, but the communists sure aren’t known for their architecture. Up until now I’d been impressed by how well the city had rebuilt after the war; in the old town asides from a ‘Sarajevo Rose’ here and there (markers to commemorate victims of mortar shelling), most of the buildings were pretty intact. But out in the suburbs it’s a different story. I bike past ruined apartment blocks that resemble multi-storey carparks more than any real building, vacant lots and apartment blocks with so many bullet holes they look like a kid with a particularly bad case of chicken pox.

After a few detours and an incident with a security guard chasing me down a street yelling in Bosnian, I arrive at my destination: the Sarajevo tunnel. During the height of the siege the locals had absolutely no way of getting supplies in and out of the city; the Serbs occupied the three hills surrounding the valley and the UN-controlled airport blocked the only way out (back then the UN still refused to help either side in either way even if it meant people dying, a policy they have since apologised for and reversed).

It’s incredible how resourceful you can be under great pressure. With food, water and ammunition running drastically low, the besieged Bosniaks spent four months digging a tunnel under the airport and into the free territory on the other side. A brave family housed the tunnel and all its workers, no small feat considering it was directly in line of the snipers the entire time. These days only a few metres of the tunnel still exist, but it’s a pertinent reminder of the hardships that these people had to go through a mere 20 years ago. As much as the history of the World Wars is fascinating, it’s so long ago that many memories have faded out of the collective consciousness. Not so in Bosnia; anyone over the age of 25 can vividly tell you how they survived the war. It’s a pretty sobering thought.

That evening we climb a hill (clearly I still haven’t learnt from Kotor) to watch the end of Ramadan. By the time we arrive a huge crowd has gathered to watch the cannon fire at sunset that signifies the time when the Muslims can eat again. The moment it goes off everyone around us pulls out picnic blankets and starts gorging on pizza and cevapcici, the local dish consisting of small sausages and onion in pita bread. It’s a pretty special moment, but it makes us incredibly hungry.

I have high hopes for Sarajevo. Never have I met more friendly, warm and optimistic people than here. They still need to work out a lot of shit politically (there’s even a ticker in the main street depicting how much money the politicians have wasted), but if they can manage to get into the EU in 2018, I can see it becoming one of Europe’s next great cities. And that is something to be optimistic about.

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