With their imaginations and travel memories fired by spiky minarets, grilled kebabs and the all-pervasive aroma of ground coffee, many travellers see in SARAJEVO a Slavic mini-İstanbul. The Ottoman notes in the air are most prominent in Baščaršija, the city’s delightful Old Town, which is home to umpteen mosques, bazaars, kebab restaurants and cafés. Further afield, burnt-out buildings evoke the catastrophic war of the mid-1990s, though the fun-loving, easy-going Sarajevans do a great job of painting over the scars of those tumultuous years – it’s hard to walk around without being offered coffee, and it’s hard to be invited for coffee without making friends.
Sarajevo gained importance during Roman times, and after a short slumber was reinvigorated as a trading hub during the Ottoman period, but sadly its recent history is far more pertinent. The international spotlight fell on the city as the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, but less than a decade later the world’s eyes were retrained on it during a siege that lasted for almost four years – by some estimates, the longest in military history. Bosnian Serb forces made a near-unbroken ring around the city, shelling major buildings and shooting civilians dead on their way to work, while years of litter lay rotting in the streets. When the ceasefire was announced in 1996, around ten thousand people had been killed; on the ground you may notice some of the many Sarajevo Roses – flower-like scars of mortar shell explosions, poignantly filled in with red resin, though now badly fading.
The central district of Baščaršija is Sarajevo’s prettiest and contains most of its sights. Heading west from here, the city’s history unravels like a tapestry – Ottoman-era mosques slowly give way to the churches and elaborate buildings of the Austro-Hungarian period, before communist behemoths herald your arrival into “Sniper Alley” and its shells of war.
Top image: Bascarsija square, Sebilj fountain © Boris Stroujk/Shutterstock