The Latin Bridge • Sarajevo

War Marks and Winter Walks

18th October 2013

Starting to plan your New Year’s Eve celebrations?

Chris Ambrose recommends a destination with a difference.

It’s minus three degrees, I have a bright white light shining in my eyes and the sound of fireworks exploding in my ears…

“What are your expectations for 2013?” the man just to right of the camera asks me.

It’s a fascinating situation in which to be asked the question…

It hadn’t been the smoothest of arrivals, but in some ways that’s exactly what I’d expected; wanted, even. We stepped off the bus, confident of our location, into bitter cold. It was already beginning to get dark, but with a map in hand we were certain that we would soon be at the hotel. Just an hour earlier we had been winding around narrow mountain roads in northern Montenegro where deep blue lakes were glistening in the winter sun. The dramatic change in weather caught us by surprise after crossing the border into Bosnia, where snow became the dominant feature across the landscape.

Welcome to Sarajevo.

We set off into the dusk, assured that we were just a ten-to-fifteen minute walk from the centre. After an hour and a half and several sharp changes of direction, we were feeling less confident. It was now fully dark, and we were trudging precariously along the edge of a highway. To add to the already tense situation, multiple firecrackers – sharp and deafening – were exploding around us as the locals started to get into the mood for the impending New Year celebrations. It was certainly a dramatic and, arguably, a fitting introduction to a country that has a chilling not-so-distant past.

Through the eerie mist I caught a sudden glimpse of the distinctive silhouette of an airport control tower. This threw me. Sarajevo Airport – a key feature of the Bosnian war, as the only UN controlled area during the three-year siege – is west of the city, and substantially further away from the centre than I believed we should be. A car emerged from a set of wire gates and pulled up beside us. I guessed, from his high-vis jacket, that the driver was an airport employee, and after he’d wound down the window on his clapped-out saloon we engaged in a series of finger pointing exercises involving the map. He eventually shrugged, indicating that we should get in the car. Given our predicament and the rapidly falling temperature we were only too grateful. I gave a swift ‘hvala’ (‘thank you’ being the only bit of Bosnian I had so far managed to grasp) and we bundled in with our bags.

Twenty minutes later we were entering what was, to our relief, undoubtedly the centre of Sarajevo. We crossed over a softly illuminated river and were soon weaving around a series of busy narrow streets, surrounded by spires from the countless nearby churches and mosques. Our new friend dropped us just a couple of streets from our hotel, having now firmly established that we’d arrived at a completely different bus station to the one indicated on our map. Despite this being a pretty significant administrative error, it had enabled us to immediately experience the genuine kindness and warmth of the local people that was to become so familiar in the coming days.

Bosnia has intrigued me for some time. Growing up in the 90s I was aware of the conflict, but had no real understanding of what it all meant. As I grew up and developed more awareness of the world and an interest in travel, the country’s past became an area of fascination. This was enhanced by news reports, surfacing online, linked with anniversaries of the siege of Sarajevo, which captivated me through graphic accounts and harrowing videos depicting the ordeal the city and its people had gone through less than twenty years ago. Hence my choice of an admittedly unlikely destination.

Sarajevo is a compact city packed in along the bottom of a valley on the banks of the narrow Miljacka River. The water is shallow and refreshingly clear, although no doubt icy as a result of its origins in the snow-covered mountains beyond. Marking a central point of the river’s journey through the Bosnian capital is the infamous Latin Bridge, beside which took place the dramatic event that triggered the beginning of World War One. On the street corner opposite is a tiny one-room museum dedicated to the events of that fateful day in April 1914: after payment of the £1 entry fee we were treated to a strangely comic film interpretation of the moment when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by the Serb, Gavrilo Princip. The rest of the room contains a number of glass cabinets each housing artefacts relating to both victim and assassin, with descriptions setting the scene for the incident that happened just the other side of the wall and had such a profound effect on European history.

Despite the significant role Sarajevo played in the early twentieth century, it is the more recent conflict that has left the visible scars. Walking west along the chillingly named ‘sniper alley’ you cannot ignore the bullet-ridden buildings that loom ominously above the main road out of the city. They provide a stark and enduring memorial to the daily threat that the people faced as snipers from up in the surrounding hills took aim at them during the civil war.

In an attempt to escape the mist and fog that was enveloping the city, we headed out of the centre and up through the hillside suburbs via narrow roads and passageways. It was quiet, except for the occasional barking of a dog, as we battled with the slippery uneven surfaces, and as we reached the height where the mist cleared we were greeted by a mass of white headstones, their crisp outlines gleaming with a light covering of snow in the new sunshine. Over ten thousand Sarajevans were killed in the war, but despite the magnitude of that figure, nothing brings it home quite as much as the endless rows of gravestones that weave around the hills, each neatly engraved with dates ending in 93, 94 or 95.

After a full day exposed to the harsh December elements we disappeared into the charming Turkish quarter, Baščaršija. Beneath the orange glow from one of the many ornate mosque towers we sampled burek, a hot savoury pastry snack that contains either meat or cheese. To wash it down we ordered a Bosnian coffee: a thick, almost sludge-like concoction served in a small, beautifully crafted copper pot, the likes of which are on sale en masse throughout the quaint narrow streets. A passer-by stopped to describe to us in broken English how these intricate coffee sets are made by hand, but at no point did he try to inflict a sale upon us. These are people proud of their heritage and keen to share it with those willing to listen.

After this brief respite we wrapped up again as we headed to the main square to join the rest of the city in seeing in the New Year. As midnight struck, the firecrackers built to a crescendo that was deafening in density and daunting in proximity – but the genuine excitement and enthusiasm on the faces of those helping to carry Sarajevo through into a hopefully brighter future was utterly captivating.

“I hope to visit more places like this” came my distorted reply to the question from the man beside me, as yet another bright barrage of cracks and pops echoed between the buildings. Because to find a place that has had to deal with so much and still has such an infectiously positive atmosphere is what, for me, makes travel so memorable and rewarding. I can’t think of a better, brighter place to mark a New Year.

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