Love at Second Sight in Sarajevo

When I got off of the bus after my six-hour trip from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, I have to admit that my first thought was something like “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” The bus station was even worse than most, dirty and abandoned, other than the groups of young men lurking outside the station who didn’t exactly fill me with confidence as I wandered out with my oversized duffel bag. During a roughly fifteen minute walk to my hotel, past abandoned supermarkets and across seemingly inhabited railroad tracks, I wondered if perhaps Sarajevo wasn’t going to be just a bit too jarring a transition from the beaches and warmth of Croatia.

My attitude began to change the moment I arrived at the desk of my hotel, the Sarajevo Grand, a hotel that, while not now deserving the name it wore, seemed to cling to some elements of its past grandeur. Once inside, it reminded me a bit of the kind of hotel you might find in a Wes Anderson film, seemingly filled with a cast of staff who had been there for decades and showing traces of being a hotel that was once sought out by people traveling to Sarajevo. Once I checked into my simple $27/night room, I settled in to hear the wailing of cats and a call to prayer before finally falling asleep.

Under the somewhat gray skies of a rainy Sarajevo day, my impression of the city completely changed, and I found myself wandering the city center and visiting a couple of exceptional museums that detailed the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 90s. Sarajevo felt unlike most of the cities I have visited in Europe in that the city center felt far more like a working city than a tourist center, lending it a much feeling that was somehow both more energetic and relaxed. Much like in my brief stay in Montenegro, there seemed to be a genuine warmth from most of the people I interacted with in shops, cafes, and on the street and it felt pretty great to not be dodging hordes from cruise ships for a change.

It’s hard to describe just what makes Sarajevo so unique. It’s easy, I suppose, to intellectually understand a city that is such an interesting mixture of cultures, but it’s one thing to know a city will have a mosque and its worshippers half a block from a Catholic church and its worshippers, but it’s entirely something else to experience such a blend of people, faiths, and cultures all together.

That diversity of people extends to the architecture of Sarajevo, which in its blend of original, damaged, and restored buildings shows off a mixture of architectural styles. On one block, you’re likely to encounter an art deco building from 1902 right next to a horrific concrete exemplar of communist brutalist construction, with something from the Austro-Hungarian area just down the street.

It’s hard not to feel a sense of optimism in all that blending of culture, despite the horrific memories of the collapse of Yugoslavia and its brutal impact on the people here. As I learned in the museums I visited, there is a clear sense of anger left over from that time, for people who lost loved ones and never received closure and those who lost everything in the conflict, but that anger is tempered by a desire to rebuild and maintain a society where the crimes of the past are not forgotten but do not prevent the development of a better future.

Many people in Bosnia-Herzegovina (and a growing number of historians) reject the idea that the conflict here was about “ancient hatreds” between groups of people. They point to the shared sacrifices of the partisans in World War 2 and the stability in the country after the 1990s war as evidence that the idea of ethnic hatred was a more a convenient excuse for a West that didn’t want to intervene and Serbian nationalists who constructed myths to justify an expansionist campaign.

While historians and the people who live here will struggle to understand what happened here and why for decades to come, it’s hard not to feel that the people of Sarajevo, who have sobering reminders like plaques honoring those who died outside schools and government buildings, are hopeful about their future in a growing, energized city.

And it really is a city that has so much to offer a visitor. Beyond the excellent food, eclectic mixture of architecture, and friendly people, the city has a history that goes well beyond just the events of the 1990s. A few years ago, I saw the cell in Terezin where Gavrilo Princip died and it was just as moving to see the spot where he committed the assassination that sparked World War I. The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina details the history of the area from its founding and is well worth a visit.

A final note and suggestion for when you visit. You absolutely can’t miss Zlatna Ribica, the Goldfish Bar, when you make it here. In all of the travel I have done in the past six years, it’s definitely the bar and coffee shop that has the most character and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself there for a beer and excellent coffee during a rainstorm, you’ll have so much to see, from the nostalgic photos and statues on the walls to the sugar dish connected to a pulley system that lowers it from the ceiling to your table.

It’s much like Sarajevo itself, perhaps: unassuming at first, from the outside, but beautiful and rich in history once you take a bit closer look.