Why Now’s the Time to Explore Colorful Sarajevo
I am strolling along the spiffed-up Ferhadija promenade in the Baščaršija district, Sarajevo’s Old Town, amid the enduring hum of life. The marketplace here, dominated by the carved wooden fountain known as the Sebilj, has survived countless occupiers. Today, there are no 21st-century glass-and-steel intrusions to mar the village atmosphere, no contemporary pop songs blaring from the stalls and crafts shops, just traditional Sevdah music that creates a languid mood. Cafés sit next to mosques, the sacred and the secular going about their business side by side, like an old married couple.
To the stylish, modern Sarajevans passing by, this time capsule of a city must seem perfectly natural. To me, it is a miracle. I was here in 1995 on a mission for the Committee to Protect Journalists, after the 1,425-day siege of Sarajevo had ended. In those days, I was newly married to Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who was negotiating the end of Europe’s most violent conflict since World War II. Sarajevans emerged like sleepwalkers from their cellars, astonished to have survived. Their buildings were roofless, their houses battered by mortar shells. Heat and electricity were nonexistent. There was an eerie quiet, and at night it was pitch black. Plastic sheets bearing the blue United Nations logo covered my window at the Holiday Inn.
The siege was only the latest turbulent chapter for the small Balkan town in the Miljacka River valley, which compresses a lot of European history onto a very small canvas. Sarajevo was conquered by the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, saw the shots fired that started World War I, and suffered under Tito’s Communist Party before Slobodan Milošević’s Serbian militia held it hostage from 1992 to 1995. But Sarajevans don’t look back. They have rebuilt their ancient city, replacing every russet tile on every roof and resurrecting their fabled skyline of steeples and minarets.
You cannot walk a block without passing a café. Some are Ottoman, others AustroHungarian. One is named after Bill Gates. I choose the Ramis Slastičarna, on the Sarači walkway near the Baščaršija, which began brewing espressos two years before Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on the Latin Bridge, a few blocks away. The terrace is a good place to observe Sarajevo’s revival. Like Parisians, Sarajevans dress to be seen. Young women in perilously high heels click-clack down the cobblestones, past cool guys in plaid shirts and elderly gents in baggy, Tito-era suits. Across the street, in the courtyard of the copper-domed Gazi Husrev Begova Mosque, men in loose garments sit on the cool marble steps of the fountain, chatting as they wash their hands and feet before prayer. Sarajevans wear both their history and their religions lightly.
One hour and one espresso later, I cross the street to a fruit stand and hold up two tangerines for the vendor to weigh, but he insists on filling a whole bag for the same price. “Please,” he says. “Welcome to Sarajevo!” In many Eastern European cities, an American would not be welcomed so warmly. But Bosnians credit the United States with helping them during the war while Europe stood idle.
At an intersection called Slatko Ćoše, or Candy Corner, the Sarači walkway becomes the Ferhadija and the architecture goes from Ottoman to Hapsburg: soft peach and mint green façades with Neoclassical lines embellished with Belle Époque flourishes. The city’s many occupiers left behind their cuisine as their most enduring legacy, and restaurants here are a multicultural adventure. Tavola, just off the Ferhadija walkway, could be in Milan. Its décor is elegant and simple, with polished parquet and weathered paneling, and its house-made pasta and perfectly cooked meats rival any I have had in other outposts of the old empire. For another meal, my friend Orhan Pasalic, a Bosnian soldier turned banker, takes me to To Be, a microscopic restaurant tucked in a tiny alley with room for only a handful of diners. We squeeze into the one free table under a signed photo of Hillary Clinton. Orhan selects our meal in consultation with the Bosnian grand- mother who is both owner and chef. Soon, she begins producing an aromatic mixed grill of lamb and beef alongside peppers, onions, eggplants, and tomatoes charred in olive oil.
Romantic garden restaurants are hidden in every corner of this city. At Dveri, in the heart of the Old Town, I sit with a journalist friend, Velma Saric, on kilim-covered cushions, dining like a pasha on delicious Bosnian dishes such as sjenica cheese and beefsteak goulash, lighter-than-air pastries, and excellent local wine. During another meal, in the garden of the nearby Pod Lipom, I experience what feels to me like a signature Balkan moment: overhead, a stork spreads its great white wings like sails and emits a loud honk that stops conversation. “It’s heading for winter in the Rift Valley,” Velma says, referring to the rugged stretch of land between northern Syria and Mozambique.
My gaze often drifts upward while I am in Sarajevo, passing over the gentle hills that cradle this river valley, where during the siege Serbian snipers targeted their fellow Muslim citizens. Mount Igman, a key site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, holds special significance for me. Weeks after I married Richard in 1995, I was woken by a call from the U.S. State Department. “Your husband has been in an accident on Mount Igman,” the operator said. After an anxious hour, Richard called to say that he was unhurt, but three members of his negotiating team had been killed when their armored personnel carrier tumbled down a gravel road. Snipers were targeting the airport, making a landing impossible, so the group had attempted this treacherous land route in order to reach the city. After attending the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, Richard returned to the region and continued his quest to end the conflict until he brought the warring factions to a peace conference in Dayton, Ohio, two months later.
Now I head for that same road, driven by a former Bosnian soldier and his wife (both asked me not to use their names). First, though, we stop just outside the airport in Butmir at the Tunnel, Sarajevo’s half-mile-long lifeline during the siege and now a major tourist attraction. Dug with pickaxes and shovels by Bosnian soldiers and volunteers through the back of someone’s garage, it connected the city with the Bosnian-held suburb of Dobrinja. I peer into the dark, claustrophobic hole, imagining the 4,000 Sarajevans who crawled through it each day, weighed down with weapons and sacks of potatoes. The brochure contains a message from my husband: “A tunnel in wartime, preserved in peace—a link between the tragic past and a more hopeful future! With my profound admiration for the brave people of Bosnia.”
On the steep, unpaved road, the gravel gives way beneath our tires, making them spin and screech. The switchback trail has no guardrail. My driver, who saw combat here, is silent. His wife explains that he never talks about what he experienced in these woods, where former schoolmates and neighbors hunted one another. After several failed attempts to scale the road, we decide to turn back. For me, it was worth it. Now I know for sure that when Milošević forced Richard to take this route, he never intended for him to reach Sarajevo. I am filled with pride that Richard did not give up so easily.
I visit another mountain, Trebević, as dusk rolls over the city and lights flicker on below. I climb to the Jewish cemetery, the second largest in Europe. Jews have lived here since the 15th century, when thousands fled from Spain. Many of the gravestones were destroyed during the siege by gunners who occupied this strategic spot, but one of the oldest survived. SAMUEL BARUCH, 1630–1650, it reads. A JUST MAN. A muezzin’s call to prayer below does not disturb the stillness of the cemetery.
Back in town, I sip tiny cups of bitter Turkish coffee with Haris Pašović, a theater director who returned to his hometown at the height of the siege in hopes of keeping its culture alive. In 1993, he and Susan Sontag staged Waiting for Godot, most nights to a full house, while sniper fire reverberated outside. In 2012, he commemorated the 20th anniversary of the siege by placing 11,541 red chairs along Tito Boulevard, each signifying a Sarajevan who was killed, like a river of blood flowing through the heart of the city. He loves Sarajevo and, as the director of the decade-old East West Theater Company, is doing all he can to restore its prewar urban fizz. But he knows how easily another conflict could consume the city, given the complexities of the region. “We are still in a dangerous neighborhood,” he says. “The world should not forget about us.”