Backpacking in Sarajevo
When one thinks of beauty, tranquility and an excellent vacation spot – Bosnia, never mind Sarajevo, likely doesn’t top most backpackers’ list. But after a friend had done some volunteer work in Sarajevo one summer, she insisted that it was a European must-see. For some reason I fashioned my entire 2 week stint in Eastern Europe on this tiny city that my friend had mentioned in passing. I really didn’t know what to except from backpacking in Sarajevo, as most of my understanding of the city came from images of war flashed across the TV screen when I was a child. I didn’t know whether it would be the vibrant city my friend insisted that it was. After doing a bit of research I found that many people had this opinion of Sarajevo for centuries as it had been nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Europe” because of its rich religious diversity comprising members of orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism all coexisting peacefully.
Getting There – Backpacking in Sarajevo
Backpacking in Sarajevo is pretty straightforward. We arrived by bus from Budva, Montenegro (the world’s youngest country) and were let out at the bus station outside the city. Sadly, the drive into the centre was pretty murky, with remnants of the war still very present, such as the infamous yellow Holiday Inn known as one of the many sniper alleys. But as soon as we arrived in the old town I felt completely at ease. We stayed at a reasonably priced hotel called Hotel Hayat which had private, clean rooms with a mediocre breakfast and free internet for 35 euros for a single and 60 euros for a double a night.
Things to do: Eating, Nightlife and Activities
After our 6 hour ride from Budva, we were starving so we stopped to sample some cevapcic at Zjelo, a local delicacy, which are small keftas / kebobs in pita. After seeing everyone else slurp a big cup of yogurt down with their cevapcic I decided to give it a go. The meat in Sarajevo, while salty, is hands down one of the most flavourful meats I have ever tasted.
Backpacking in Sarajevo – Shopping
We spent the rest of the day getting lost in Bascarsija (the old Turkish quarter) where we window shopped through the peaceful streets inspecting all the old cooper plates, Turkish coffee sets and water jugs. We bought some handcrafted silver pieces from an old man who has been a silversmith practically since birth and stopped at a street side cafe for a succulent cup of freshly brewed coffee. While walking around we kept our eyes open for the Sarajevo roses, red dots of paint splattered on the pavements in central Sarajevo marking the spot where shells exploded on the street, which have been symbolically filled in with red cement. While looking for the roses we stumbled upon the sebilj, a square in central Bascarsija, otherwise known as pigeon square because of its abundance of birds. We spent some time hanging by the fountain and watching the old men play chess. We then made our way to the old town hall, which was pretty much destroyed by the war and the city of Sarajevo in the process of reconstruction through the help of generous contributions by various countries and charities. City hall is definitely worth a look in order to understand the level of destruction that engulphed the city and it also boasts a dramatic photo exhibition detailing the atrocities.
Eating in Sarajevo
After a quick nap we headed out for a night on the town in Sarajevo. We went to a more upscale restaurant called Tavola which came very highly recommended by both my friend and lonely planet. While it was a bit pricier than our slabs of beef earlier in the day it was still affordable even for my meagre backpacker budget. I had a fantastic salad with beefsteak and button mushrooms followed by perfectly al dente penne arrabbiata.
Nightlife in Sarajevo
Then we checked out one of the happening bars in the city called the Sarajevo Brewery to try their local brew called Sarajevska. Interestingly, the Sarajevo Brewery was the only water source available during the war because all the other water lines were located in Serbian territory and they had turned off all running water. Everyday Bosniaks risked their lives to go to the brewery to bring a few litres of water back to their family. While this bar had no traces of its previous purpose, it was super smoky, as more than 60% of Bosniaks smoke. Since so many Bosniaks smoke, cigarettes during the war became a major currency. They were considered high in value and could be traded for milk and food. During the war, there were times that the cigarette factory didn’t have enough paper to roll the tobacco in so they would rip out pages from the dictionary to use as rolling paper- Bosniaks joke that “if you don’t smoke, you should take it up because you might learn something.”
Tours in Sarajevo
The next morning, we decided to take in the city’s historical highlights, visiting the Latin bridge which was the location where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated, the event that sparked WWI. We still wanted to learn more about Bosnia’s most recent war so we decided to take a half day city tour to check out the underground tunnels, which transported goods, connecting the U.N. neutral zone airport to Bosnian territories. The Bosnian army made the tunnel by hand and took over four months to build using wood beams to support the tunnel. While the tunnel was effective for transporting goods, water was being pumped into the tunnel and since it was 800 feet long, soldiers had to trudge supplies through neck deep water. These men had to carry up to 50 K on their backs and since the tunnel was so low many Bosniak men now suffer from Hunchback Syndrome. The tour was definitely a highlight of our trip to Sarajevo. We purchased our tickets from the local tourist office in Bascarsija (12 Euros- 2 departures daily) or for a longer/ more expansive tour go with Sarajevo Funky Tours (staring from 14 Euros).
Not only was our tour interesting the tunnel staff was very information even sharing with us personal stories. Our tunnel guide was only 10 years old when the war started and he explained that he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to go outside and play. His mother was a nurse, during the war, so his grandmother was left to take care of him. One day when his mother was out working, he fed his mother’s sleeping medication to his grandmother. Once she passed out, he went outside to play but no sooner had he gone outside that a grenade exploded right beside him. Luckily, it didn’t puncture his skin and merely brushed against the outside of his leg. He was taken to the hospital and his mother happened to be working at the reception desk – she took one look at his bloody leg and fainted on the spot. After a few stitches, all he had left was a scar from the shrapnel and a lesson not to go outside without his mother’s permission.
If you have the time, take a tour of Sarajevo’s surrounding hills. They offer fantastic panoramic views of the city but tread carefully as there are some remaining land mines. The walk to the top can be pretty steep so prepared for a bit of a thigh workout. A nice treat at the end of the walk is to hike up the hillside to a beautiful little restaurant called Bijela which is the perfect spot to watch the sunset fade over the city while enjoying a cold Sarajevska and cevapcic.
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While this tiny city is still shrouded it its past it is a magnificent city for both its historical importance and its sheer beauty. Backpacking in Sarajevo is a must – no trip to Eastern Europe is complete without at short stopover.