Many people will forever associate Sarajevo and Mostar with conflict. There is no doubt that both cities suffered greatly in the 1990’s Yugoslav war.
Less than 20 years on from those brutal ethnic purges, permanent mental scars remain with the surviving inhabitants, as do a number of physical blemishes on pavements, roads and buildings, left in disrepair as a reminder of what must never be allowed to happen again.
These include the ugly potholes created by gun and mortar fire that have been painted blood red, transformed to the ‘Roses of Sarajevo’.
Today the Bosnian capital and it’s smaller neighbour further south, are fighting back and engaged in a more friendly type of Slavic contest with their Croatian neighbours – how to woo the tourist dollar.
Sarajevo is rising up once more to reclaim its former title of Europe’s Jerusalem, in account of the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths that are all practiced in close proximity to each other in the fabulous Old Town.
Here the Star of David, stately minarets and golden crosses all compete for prominence in modern day peace, or so it seems.
The area is akin to any Arabic medina in the world, with small ramshackle shops selling brightly coloured fabrics and gorgeous intricately designed lamps at bargain prices. Artisans beat copper and shape ceramics in tiny workshops, a white walled retail premises sells nothing but the fez, alongside another selling a myriad of tobacco and devices designed for inhaling it.
Old men sip thick grainy coffee and suck on hookahs whilst playing cards or backgammon, younger men bathe in the courtyard of the main mosque, preparing themselves for the mesmeric call to prayer that fills the air for miles around when it arrives, starting out as a strangled squeal and slowly building into a compelling crescendo.
Not far away from the ancient area, you can stand in the exact spot where Gavrilo Princip fired off the chain of events that started WWI through the act of assassinating Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, or you are able to dart about the centre on rattly old trams, not quite the horse drawn versions that were said to form Europe’s first commercial tram service in the late 1800’s, but pretty ancient all the same.
War tourists are also well served. Sarajevo was best known in recent times for the infamous 1,425-day siege, as the Bosnian Muslims refused to surrender to the Serbian forces. Graveyards full of identical white crosses scattered about the city testify to the atrocities that occurred.
These are a must see today to enable visitors to get a grasp at just how awful the tragedy was and to contemplate the futility of war, as millions do annually in the likes of the battlefields and memorials of the Somme – “lest we forget”.
Follow a trail of ‘roses’ along ‘sniper alley’ towards the main train station and see the cube shaped yellow Holiday Inn, home to the world’s media during the years of turmoil.
Here the likes of Martin Bell and Kate Adie bravely typed, narrated or filmed their harrowing war reports as bullets whistled around them, fired from the hills that surround the deathly road.
Today Sarajevo is also a modern, increasingly fashionable city, with plenty of opportunities to hang out with young & trendy locals in bars and clubs. Boutique hotels are springing up all over the place, whilst you will find every type of cuisine that you can imagine – a late night gelato is also a delicious must.
For a particular treat for beer lovers, visit the impressive wood panelled city brewery for a mouth-watering calorific snack and a litre or two of mighty fine dark ale brewed right next door. The brewery itself was something of a safe haven during the siege and also the city’s most reliable source of fresh water at that time, courtesy of its natural spring.
I rate Sarajevo as a perfect city break – historic, diverse, unhurried and great value for money.
Under three hours scenic train journey away stands iconic Mostar, proudly straddling the banks of the Neretva River. Mostar too became synonymous with the Yugoslavian civil war due in the main to the wanton 1993 destruction by the Croat forces of its beautiful 16th century Ottoman stone bridge (Stari Most).
For 427 years the bridge stood as a symbol of peace dividing the largely Bosniak (Muslim) east side from the Croat (Christian) west. By destroying the bridge, the Croats struck a violent blow to the cultural identity of their enemies.
Nowadays, the rebuilt bridge is almost identical to the original and in fact contains much of the same stone that was blasted into the waters on that hideous November day.
It is also home once more to the Mostar Diving Club, whose members act as a great draw for visitors by diving or jumping the 24 metres into the Neretva. For a reasonable fee (c.€25) the club will even train you to take the plunge yourself!
Apart from the majestic bridge and diving spectacle, Mostar has loads more to offer including marvellously colourful eclectic souvenir shops, chilled riverside cafes & restaurants, wonderful Ottoman architecture and interesting mosques & churches. Graveyards full of white crosses again give a sombre reminder of all too recent events.
Four to five hours is about enough to take in the splendours of the compact city, after which you can either take the train back to Sarajevo or take the three-hour bus journey to beguiling Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Adriatic Coast.
Getting There: Fly from London Heathrow with Lufthansa for around £180 or Air Serbia with a Belgrade stopover for around £160
If travelling to/from Dubrovnik, easyJet have both Gatwick & Stansted flights