By Gerrie Summers
All photographs credit Boucher-Harris Photography
At the Sarajevo airport, I walked up to the customs agent and handed her my passport. She looked at it and then looked at me. “Why are you here?” It’s not an unusual question. I’ve heard numerous variations of this question when entering a foreign country. I’m in Bosnia and it is the exact same question I’ve been fielding from family and friends—why? I wondered about that myself. The reason I took this specific trip was Croatia, Dubrovnik, specifically, as part of a tour with Insight Vacations.
I answered: “I thought it would be interesting.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula and one-time republic of Yugoslavia, wouldn’t have been on my bucket list, but Insight Vacations goes beyond the typical vacation. It offers escorted travel itineraries with “Signature Events” that give a more authentic look into the history and culture of a destination for the inquisitive traveler who wants more, well, insight.
Sarajevo is the capital and largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It has an interesting mixture of Ottoman and Central European architecture, dotting the surrounding mountainside; minarets pierce through brick red tiled roofs. A closer look at the city, it is literally shell-shocked and in the old town there is a medieval-star bazaar that seems a world onto itself.
I checked into the Hotel Europe (formerly Hotel Evropa), which was built in 1882 during the early days of the Austro-Hungarian occupation. The hotel was restored in 2007 and reopened in 2008. Located on the grounds are the ruins of the Taslihan, the former caravanserai and Gazi-Husrev Beg’s Bezistan (covered market).
In the evening, we had dinner at the Four Rooms of Mrs. Safija. The restaurant is inside a house that was built in 1910 by an Austrian count for a local woman named Safija, of note because their cross-cultural relationship was considered taboo. The house has been restored and now a Bosnian-European cuisine restaurant that has a quirky collection of period pieces inside various rooms that can be viewed by customers.
The following day we began a tour of the city, with our guide pointing out significant points of interest, including an area near the Latin Bridge, where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated along with his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, which set in motion a series of events that lead to WWI. We then visit the Old Town, most of which had been built during the reign of the second governor Gazi Husrev. By the middle of the 16th century, it became known for its marketplace and more than 100 mosques and was the biggest and most important Ottoman city in the Balkans, after Istanbul. During the 1697 Great Turkish war Sarajevo was conquered and burned down to the ground leaving only a handful of mosques and an Orthodox Church. During the Austria – Hungary occupation, there was a blend of what remained of the Ottoman city market and contemporary Vienna architecture.
We took a brief break to sample Bosanska kafa (Bosnian coffee) at Hotel Europe’s famous Viennese Café. In Bosnia, coffee sets the scene for conversation. It is served in a dzezva, a copper pot with a long handle that comes on a copper tray with small cups, and a cube of lokum (a sugary gel sweet also known as Turkish delight). It is similar to Turkish coffee but prepared differently. There’s also a technique to drinking it (part of which involves leisurely sucking the coffee out of a sugar cube) but our schedule didn’t allow time to truly experience coffee with ceif (which refers to the pleasure one receives when relaxing). Next up was a visit to the Tunnel of Hope.
En route to the tunnel, one notices the ravages of the war that still remain. It’s not an attractive sight perhaps, but it does give Sarajevo a certain character, with some buildings left devastated and in disrepair, as if the city is an entire monument to itself and its survival. So powerful is this image, that it is easy to forget that Sarajevo was the site of the 1984 Olympics. Less than a decade later, it was under siege.
After WWI Sarajevo had become part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia, a civil war ensued. Bosnian Serbs joined forces with the Yugoslavia People’s Army and began an all-out assault on the city. During the Siege of Sarajevo (1992 – 1995) the city was under constant bombardment and sniper fire by Serb forces. Our guide pointed out the notorious Sniper Alley, a dangerous stretch where pedestrians were particularly open to sniper fire.
The city and its citizens were under constant attack by rockets, mortar and sniper attacks from the roofs of hotels and other tall buildings and cut off from the world by the Serbian forces. The Bosnian army constructed a secret tunnel with an entrance inside the cellar off the house, that served as a lifeline for the city and troops, to bring in food, supplies, weapons and humanitarian aid into the city and to also allow people to get out.
The siege lasted for 1,425 days. 11,541 people had lost their lives, including over 1,500 children. The single shells left marks on the asphalt roads and pavement similar to flowers. In some locations these marks were painted with red resin and became known as Sarajevo roses a symbol and memorial to those who were killed.
The War Tunnel Museum is now located in a bullet-ridden house where visitors can watch an 18-minute movie of actual assaults on the city and also includes exhibits.
We wind down with lunch, tasting a traditional dish called cevapcici (cevapi for short), small chunks of grilled meat sausages made of lamb and beef, served with onions and sour cream inside Bosnian pita bread (somun).
In the evening, we have the first of several Insight signature experiences—dinner with a local family. We are divided into groups and my group has dinner at the apartment of Amelia, whose son and daughter were unable to join us because they had to work. Amelia told us about her experiences during the Siege (she had to flee to Mostar, leaving her husband behind) while eating a home cooked meal of Begova corba or Bey’s Soup (a traditional dish that dates back to Ottoman empire) sarma which is minced meat and rice rolled in pickled cabbage leaves or grape leaves (yaprak sarma), mashed potatoes, pita zelijanica (a filo pastry stuffed with spinach and feta cheese), Zilavka (Bosnian white wine) and ended the meal with baklava (flaky pastry with a filling of nuts and sweetened with honey), and Bosnian coffee.
From Sarajevo we traveled by luxury coach, with a driver who deftly maneuvered through some pretty narrow streets and our tour director (or “traveling concierge”) Karin Kollarova who made sure each traveler was getting what he or she needed out of the experience. We headed to the historic town of Mostar via a scenic route past Jablanica Lake and through the Neretva Gorge (where Tito launched a surprise attack on the Germans during WWII).
Mostar was built and developed as an Ottoman frontier town during the 15th and 16th centuries. While most of the historic town and Old Bridge was destroyed during the 1990s conflict, it still retains the old medieval feel and is considered the cultural capital of the Herzegovina region. You will see a fusion of architectural styles. Colorful silk slippers, scarves, rugs and fabric and trinkets along slippery cobblestone streets enliven old concrete buildings. The most notable attraction in Mostar is Stari Most (Old Bridge) constructed in 1566 by Mimar Hajruddin, apprentice of Mimar Sinan, (the latter considered the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire).
The original bridge was destroyed during the Bosnian war but the Old Bridge and other buildings in the Old Town have been either restored or rebuilt (the bridge was rebuilt in 2004). The current name Stari Most is derived from mostari meaning the bridge keepers. One tourist attraction is to watch the “daredevil” divers who will leap from the bridge into the cold water below (provided they collect enough Euros.) Just note, if you blink, as I did, you might miss the spectacle. In July there is actually a bridge-diving competition.
Next, the tour continues to Croatia.
For more information on Insight Vacations, visit InsightVacations.com.