Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com.JPG

“And here, this is where World War I began.

You knew that right?”
I nodded, my mind racing. Did I know that? Surely some time ago someone must have told me. Surely there was a test question in history class about this. High School Me was probably too busy daydreaming about the history teacher one day becoming my father in law to pay much attention to important details. The only thing I knew in tenth grade is that I’d been crushing on his son for years and this was my time to impress. Forget good grades, I just wanted to smile and look cute.

Now, twelve years later, I was being quizzed again.
Sarajevo? Where World War I began?
I nodded.
“Yeah, I knew that.”
“Good, good!” she replied. “That’s a start!”

It was a start for sure. There was a lot more history coming my way on the streets, in the cafes and in the homes of local Bosnians. No time for daydreaming anymore!

 

Click on an image to see Sarajevo at its best:

 

On my way to Bosnia, I took time to quiz a local about the history of a country where memories of brutal wars burn strong in the minds of citizens younger than me. The stories came and went as his memories shifted from pleasant to unpleasant and back. Again and again I would hear similar stories in the coming days, each person offering his or her personal history. I was afraid it would be a gloomy place with stagnant air, thick with sorrowful memories written on the walls and faces throughout town.

Arriving at Hostel Lucky, a name which made me laugh but whose prices and reviews were too good to pass up, I was greeted by a young woman with a completely upbeat personality and vibrant love for her city. She took the time to offer me a tour of Sarajevo from the hostel’s comfortable lounge area, scribbling all over a map and pinpointing her favorite spots. “If you want a good breakfast … If you want a good lunch … If you want a good beer … a good view … good coffee … good culture … Go here, go here, go here.”

Miss Maps had her next few days completely mapped out.

It was time to hit the ground running.

As it was well into the night and I’d just traveled 300km from a pit-stop in Serbia, I decided to hit the ground running… the next day. (Side note: From Cyprus to Serbia to Bosnia? What’s going on?! There was a one way ticket Cyprus to Serbia for just 20euro, so I couldn’t pass it up – and used it as my starting point for more Balkan adventures!) First: an unfiltered beer accompanied by an acoustic set at the city’s own 150 year old brewery. Sarajevska Pivara offers live music nearly every night starting at 9pm and as it was just around the corner from where I was staying, I decided a half liter of fresh dark beer at just 3.5km (1.75 euro) was the perfect way to spend my first night in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Never really taking time away from the blogosphere, I brought along my computer to do some more research in this relaxed atmosphere. As a young woman with a sultry voice and shining smile sang to the tune of her best man’s piano, I read of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination (the event which is said to have sparked WWI – lesson learned!) and of the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo: a young couple who died in each other’s arms after being shot by snipers in 1993. I read the story made famous by Kurt Schork, a Reuters correspondent whose ashes were buried next to the couple’s graves after he was killed seven years later.

 

Click on an image to see Sarajevo at its best:

 

There are many stories of death, of heartbreak. I soon learned, too, that there are too many buildings splattered with bullet holes and torn through by fires throughout the city to count. The University and Library building now stands in a reconstructed state, seen just meters from the Pivara where I sat that first night. Its canary yellow and rust red facade looks elegant today, but locals remember the days when the entire building including all its books were set ablaze, completely demolishing history’s extensive documentation.

Still, past each marking of twenty years past, there is a strength and happiness. There is a satisfaction and a cohesion of cultures stronger than any I’ve ever seen.

Beyond its history of war, Sarajevo is a place of peace and solidarity. In the old town, a mosque sits near a Catholic church which sits near a Serbian church and on and on: Serbs mix with Muslims mix with Catholics. Everyone lives in peace. It’s an incredible sight and experience. It’s known as the Jerusalem of Europe, and having just visited the real Jerusalem, I venture to say its even more harmonious than the walled city of the Middle East. In Sarajevo, the lifestyle is more natural and believable and real.

 

Click on an image to see Sarajevo at its best:

 

The most unifying characteristic of Sarajevo is the coffee culture. People will sit for hours on end at any given coffee shop. Talking, not talking. Listening, not listening. After I stayed in Lucky Hostel for two nights, I joined a couchsurfing host and former city guide for the remaining two nights. I swear, every third sentence was, “would you like to get some coffee?” I had to start saying no, for I realized that although I’d learned the differences in preparation and presentation of Turkish and Bosnian Coffees, I had much to explore around the city.

At times, I left him sitting drinking his miniature cup without a handle. “Why no handle?” you ask. Because, as the story goes, the shape formed by pinching your pointer finger and thumb together and splaying your remaining three fingers out while clasping the tiny handle is a very rude symbol in Bosnia. Therefore, no handle brings forth a different grip technique which eliminates this rude display.

Despite saying no to coffee dates several times during my stay, I did say yes on occasion. Those times were well worth it, as each cafe is completely different from the others. By far, my favorite is a tiny spot apparently only known by a select few. The outside sports a charming mermaid and the inside is overflowing with trinkets of gold. Aptly named Zlatna Ribica, “Goldfish Cafe,” it even has its own goldfish swimming in a bowl, and the bathroom is like none I’ve ever seen before. With a waiter dressed in suspenders and a too-small black vest, it’s a one in a million spot and I didn’t mind splurging on a real hot chocolate drink sprinkled with coconut flakes. (Slurge: 4km: 2 euro).

 

Click on an image to see Sarajevo at its best:

By far though, my favorite place is an eatery in old town called Cevabdzinica Zeljo. Mixed in between mosques and coppersmith shops, my couchsurfing host brought me to a place where minced meat takes the cake. Five tiny minced meat sausages, known as Cevapi, raw onions and fry bread topped with yogurt. How does that sound? Not so appetizing, does it? It is. It is VERY appetizing. So delicious. It’s been just a few days since I’ve eaten there, and honestly, I would go back to Sarajevo just to eat there again. Plus, prices of Sarajevo are phenomenal so all this was had for just 4km each (again, just 2 euro for all that!).

In between stuffing my face with Cevapi and sipping on the thickest hot chocolate, I got a bit of exercise by hiking to a cemetery overlooking the city’s red roofs. As I stood between tomb stones watching the city below and listening to a howling wind, I watched two men walk arm in arm down the main path and was quickly reminded of the city’s history. They separated and each went his own way. One disappeared from view, and the other stopped at a tall gravestone. I ducked into the shadows of an arbor bare from winter’s cold and watched as he put both hands on the tomb. I held my breath when he bowed his head and stepped closer to the stone obelisk. He wrapped his arms tightly around the cold structure and I nearly lost it. What a reminder of place and of history. “Edna” was marked on the stone. Undoubtedly his wife.

A place of peace and harmony, of war and grief. It’s like nowhere I’ve ever been. Many people showed me lights and greys throughout the city during my stay in Sarajevo. It’s a place to go and see for yourself. The surrounding mountains are rich in natural wonders. Their rivers flowing into waterfalls, flowing under bridges where stories of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet have taken place.

The locals talk of war and of wonder. They share their stories to teach of the past and share their stories to form a more perfect future. They sip on coffee and nosh on cevapi to pass the time and enjoy company of religions different than their own, one no more perfect than another.

A city spectacular in its diversity, in its cafe culture, in its hospitality and in its religion. Sarajevo is much more than Europe’s Jerusalem – it’s a gem that is left to be uncovered and discovered.

Click on an image to see Sarajevo at its best:

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