As I mentioned in the previous post, we arrived in Sarajevo at 9:30 pm on Monday, December 28th. After dinner, we CRASHED. At 9 am the next morning, after we dragged ourselves out of the most comfortable bed in the world, and got ourselves caffeinated, we realized we had no real plan for our three days in Sarajevo.
We knew we wanted to do a walking tour but we had woken so late, we weren’t sure if we could get one that same day. I had originally wanted to go skiing but their winter had been just as mild as ours and the skiing wasn’t great. Not to mention, we were beat. We’d been travelling for nine days and our days had been packed from morning until evening. We had a breakfast of leftovers from the night before and decided to just spend the day wandering. Gorcin (our Airbnb host) had left us a map of the city with some suggestions for where to go and what to see.
We headed out into the fog and followed the river in the direction of the Old Town. We came to a main intersection and waited at the lights. I noticed three stray dogs on the other side of the road. A strange site for North Americans. Bob quickly noticed FIVE stray dogs, gathering in a pack, waiting on the other side of the road, a few feet away from the pedestrians. Within another ten seconds, we saw an additional three join the pack. Eight dogs. Eight medium to large dogs. Waiting at the corner. We were so enthralled that we weren’t paying any attention to the lights. The first lane had a red light so the cars had stopped and the dogs crossed to the median. Then they waited for the other lane to stop and they continued on their way. Just like that. We were amazed. And a little terrified when the senior dog pulled up the rear a little slowly and the lights changed. But the cars stopped and let him cross. It was the largest pack of strays we saw in Sarajevo but certainly not the last. I only mention this because it was a really unusual site.
The fog wasn’t as thick as it had been the night before so we could see the buildings and the streets but not the mountains behind. The fog is its own character in Sarajevo, much like winter is here in Canada. We could tell it was starting to drive the locals a little batty. I could certainly relate. One of our tour guides said, “It’s crazy, the fog. People were just thinking about the fog, nothing else. Just trying to get out of it. Just waiting for it to go.” Sound familiar, my northern friends? The fog blankets the city because Sarajevo is in a valley and the moist air and the pollution have nowhere to go. You can actually walk up the mountains, out of the fog and then look down at the clouded city from above. The next day, when the fog was finally blown out by the winds, it left frost in its wake. I’m used to seeing snow or frost on the tops of mountains but the frost coated the trees and mountains only as high as the fog touched.
The Old Town
But on the first day, we continued along the river until we looked down a side street and noticed some festive stalls in what looked like a public square. It was decorated with lights and kiosks selling hand-made crafts and foods. There was an outdoor pub set up just for the holidays. It served beer (I think it was sponsored by a brewery) and had live music in the evenings. It was still morning so everything was closed up.
On the Eastern side of the square was the Serbian Cathedral of the Nativity. We went in and marvelled at its beauty and then continued on our way to the Old Town. Bob has great memories of the Old Town and really wanted me to see its charm and beauty. We wondered if Bob would recognize it (it had been 13 years) or how we would know we were there. But we clearly saw how the Austro-Hungarian architecture gave way to the older, Ottoman urban design – small streets, low buildings, mosques, fountains, arches and minarets. We first stopped for Bosnian coffee at Rahatlook (see my post on Eating and Drinking in Sarajevo for more details on where and what we ate and drank) and then continued on our way through the myriad of streets in the Old Town, gazing at the colours that were vibrant in such close quarters and feeling the textures of soft scarves, embossed copper, and thick, hand-knit wool slippers.
One thing I found very interesting about the Old Town was that even though the shops are aimed at tourists with traditional Sarajevan crafts and wares – scarves, copper, jewellry – it’s still a favourite of the locals.
While the entire Old Town is absolutely gorgeous, there are two structures of note (not including the oldest free public toilet in the world!). The clock tower and the Sebilj.
The clock tower (left) is thought to be the only public clock in the world that is set to lunar time. Muslims traditionally follow lunar time so the clock is set to countdown until sunset, which according to this lunar clock would be midnight. At the time we were there, the sun set at around 4:30 pm and at the time the photo was taken was 11:30 am so the clock in the photo reads 7:00 pm. It is still set every few days (since the days are now getting longer) by an older fellow who has been doing it for the past 40 years. He sees it as a divine vocation as all the mosques set their clocks by his time.
The Sebilj is the perhaps one of the Sarajevo’s most loved structures. The original one was built in the middle of the 18th century and burned down 100 years later. This fountain was made in 1891 as a replica. There are several replicas of this fountain around the world – one in Belgrade, Missouri, and Birmingham, England. If you drink water from this fountain, you will always return to Sarajevo. This was the fountain that Bob drank from so it’s easy to believe this particular legend. On our third day, I decided to have a sip. But just a sip because I’m a little wary of public fountains, even if Sarajevans are deeply proud of the high quality of their water and public fountains. (Rome is too but it was hard for me to drink from the public fountains there too.) The fountain is also a symbol of life. There can be no life without water and every neighbourhood has a fountain, every mosque has a fountain. For the people of Sarajevo, to get their fountains running again after the war was very important for the recovery of their soul.
This was our first real chance to shop for souvenirs. We hadn’t bought anything in Split because it was our first city. In Dubrovnik, it was Christmas holidays. In Montenegro, we spent all our time sightseeing in a car. In Mostar, we were only there a few hours. Today was our first day to wander shops and look at everything that was for sale. One of the first shops we found was a shop near the Bascarija that sold custom-made T-shirts – the ones where you buy the shirt and have a print ironed on. Bob found a shirt that had the Coca-Cola logo on it but instead of Enjoy Coca-cola it said Enjoy Cevap-cici. This was the absolute perfect souvenir for Bob since he had eaten this delicious and inexpensive Balkan “fast food” in almost every city. While he was having his shirt made, I saw one that I liked. It was army green with Vucko on it, the mascot of the Olympics. I asked the young lady if she had a v-neck T available and she said, “No, but I can make you one.” It took several minutes and quite a few repetitions to get me to understand that she was actually going to cut out the fabric and sew one together for me. I asked if there was any extra cost and she said, “No! But can you give me a day?” Seriously? Of course! You’re going to make me the perfect T-shirt! OMG! This happened after the lovely lady at Rahatlook told us to come back for candied pumpkin. I LOVE this place!! Sure enough, we came back the next day and it was finished and perfect.
We also ended up buying a coffee set from a vendor in a indoor market, some jewellry for friends at several different shops and some extra spoons for the coffee set in a shop on the coppersmiths lane. In my experience in other places in the world, when buying from these market-style shops and kiosks, one has to be careful not to get ripped off. Prices suddenly get more expensive if you are foreign, or one is not given the correct change back. I’m not complaining; this is just the way of the world in some places. But we never experienced any of that in Sarajevo. In one store, we were looking for a few more spoons to go with our coffee set. We were looking at the big selection of bejewelled, copper, coffee spoons and I asked if there were smaller ones for a the coffee set we just bought. We were quickly told, “Oh, those are for souvenirs, the real ones are back here.” And then she showed us the ones that are actually used in real life and were, of course, much cheaper. We picked up another souvenir in a different small shop, in which we had also looked at those bejewelled spoons. As we were on our way out, the shopkeeper grabbed one of the spoons and gave it to me with a smile. In another shop, Bob wanted to get another shemagh (Mid-Eastern checkered scarf of which he already has four from around the world), I flat-out said no. (Not trying to crush his spirit but we’re trying to minimize the clutter in our house.) The shopkeeper laughed and said, “You know in Bosnia, men have the last word.” I looked at her with a smile and she said conspiratorily, “And it is Yes, dear.”
A Sarajevo Driving Tour
After we wandered the enchanting streets of the Old Town again and again (it’s really not that big), we stumbled upon a tourist info shop, Tours Sarajevo. There are a number of tour companies throughout the Old Town that you can just stop in and book a tour. We happened by this one and the lady was very friendly. I know I keep saying that everyone was friendly but it’s really true. What’s more, Sarajevans are very genuine. This privately-owned company that was made up entirely of a husband and wife did several different tours. There was the Sarajevo tour, the Tunnel of Hope tour, Mostar, Lukomir Village, Srebrenica, Jajce – Travnik, Visoko (site of the pyramids. Yep. Pyramids.) and Visegrad. We would have loved to have had a lot more time to see some of these incredible places. We passed by Jajce on our way back to Zagreb and caught a glimpse of the spectacular waterfall that is right in the city. Srebrenica was the site of a genocide during the last war and Lukomir is the most remote village in the whole country, being situated high in the mountains. But this time, we came to see Sarajevo so we booked the Sarajevo tour for the next day. It’s main focus is the sites of the siege for 24€ per person. It might seem steep for some budget travellers but when we go on vacation, we try to save money on things like food and accommodation. We have no problem spending more when we know the money is going to locals. Especially in a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which there is such a high unemployment rate and tourism seems to be the only viable business.
After a day of just wandering and shopping, we headed back to the apartment for the evening. (I should probably mention, I’m not a night owl so if you are reading this blog for good suggestions for nightclubs, you need read no further. I’m old. I haven’t stepped into a nightclub for well over a decade. Pubs I can handle because they don’t require a lot of energy, but only until 10 pm.)
The next day, our tour guide, Jasmin, took us on a tour around the outskirts of the city, highlighting spots of significance during the siege, from February 1992 – December 1995. He had lived through the siege as a young teenager and told us stories of what life was like during that time. (You can read more about it in my post about the siege. I learned way too much to add it to this post.) We drove down Sniper Alley, went to the Tunnel of Hope, went to Mt. Trebevic (where the Olympic bobsled and luge run is) and then came back to the Old Town. It was very powerful and after it was finished, it was dark and the lights of the city sparkled. We walked home along Marshal Tito Avenue, stopped off at a small market for some nibblies, chocolate and a bottle of wine and then headed home for a quiet evening to reflect on everything we had learned.
Our City Walking Tour
We had also discovered a “free” walking tour online, Neno and Friends, that was tip-based that would walk us around the city centre at 10:30 am on Thursday, the next day. Thursday was another bright, clear and cold day. We headed out to meet our walking tour guide for a 10:30 am tour of the city. We met at the theatre, which was on our way to the Old Town so we were already familiar with its location. Merima, our guide, said that the tour would actually start at 10:40 because Bosnians are always late (we’d noticed this but it’s not a disrespectful thing like here, it’s actually because everything is pretty relaxed here.) While we were waiting, Jacques – the French guy we drove to Mostar and spent the day with – arrived. It was great to see him again and bumping into someone we knew also gave this fabulous city the feel of home. In fact, later on that day, Bob would run into our Air BnB host, Gorcin, on the street who invited us to his New Year’s Eve party. We were starting to feel how connected everyone is in this city.
A quick word on tip-based walking tours. Some tourists feel that if there’s a big group, this allows you to tip less because there are more people. While I agree that if there are 24 people in a group (like ours had), I do not need to pay as much as I would have in a smaller group. But it is not cool to tip only a few Euros. The people that do these tours know their stuff. They can answer any question you throw at them. Not only that, this is their livelihood and some days nobody shows up, which means they make nothing. You are paying their wages. Think about what you would like to earn if your livelihood was tip-based. Imagine getting into a cab and then telling the driver you’re only going to pay him half of what you owe. Think of any job and how ridiculous it would be to offer a very low amount of money for a service given. We noticed that the majority of the 3-hour tours were about 24€ each when purchased through the tourist agencies. So, for a 2-hour walking tour with 24 people, we felt that 25€ for two people was enough. I did see people giving her 3€, which I find completely disrespectful of her talent and time. I know that it is tip-based but the tips are based on “what you feel the tour was worth” not “how little can I get away with paying”.
Merima has a degree in fine arts and history so her tour talked a lot about the architecture of the city and its long and storied history. We walked around much of the same places we had already walked around in the past two days but her history lessons were far more entertaining and memorable than having read about them. She also told us small tidbits about life in Sarajevo. For example, you’re never alone when you eat a sandwich in the park because the pigeons will find you. You must be a retired man to play with the massive chess board in Liberation Square. Only two men play and the rest advise. All Bosnians smoke. She told us about Tito and why people view him as a “charming dictator” and how he stood up to Stalin after Stalin’s 22nd attempt on his life. Tito wrote a letter to Comrade Stalin and said, If you send a 23rd assassin, I will send one of mine to you. Only one. And only once. Thereby ending all attempts on his life by the not-so-charming dictator.
Merima also lived through the siege as a 7-12 year old girl. She then took us to the Green Market. This is a significant part of the city. From the beginning of the siege, this place was thought to be safe because it had never been targeted. But on February 5th, 1994, a mortar shell landed here and killed 68 people and wounded 144. This was an incredible shock to the entire city because they had started to feel that it was the one place in the city that they could somewhat relax and socialize. But the people of the city and the vendors washed away the blood, carried away the bodies, tended to the wounded and opened the market again the next day. It stayed open the entire siege though there was nothing available to buy.
We continued walking. While we were standing at the only working synagogue in Sarajevo, she spoke of the Jewish population in Sarajevo, how it had been historically and how it was now. She also dipped into contemporary politics, explaining the census. Each person must identify themselves with an ethnicity – Bosniak, Serb, Croatian or Other. “Other” includes Jewish and any other minority. Sarajevo (and Bosnia in general) is predominantly Bosniak. But the younger generations are not buying into these divisions anymore. The group of “Other” is growing. Young people are optimistic that the nation can grow beyond these divides, the divides that wreaked so much havoc during the war.
She also told us the story of Gavrilo Princip and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife on the Latin Bridge. The building that Princip shot from is now part of the Sarajevo Museum, which has several buildings all over the city, highlighting different things. She also joked that while she stops to tell her stories, often the locals will correct her history (Merima has a degree in history) or add their own twists to her stories.
After our walking tour, Jacques joined us for some lunch and then invited us to join him at a teahouse that was recommended to him. It was a lovely, relaxing last day in Sarajevo, eating, drinking and socializing. Around 3 pm, we started heading back to the apartment. We had to pick up groceries for dinner as we were spending a few hours in, packing our bags for our journey back to Zagreb the next day and then heading out to the BBI Centar for the free public New Year’s Eve celebration.
New Year’s Eve
At 11:00 pm, we headed out again. The streets were energized! Everyone was out – couples, families, older folks. There was a flow of people heading to the shopping centre. The shopping centre has a large square outside of it and on our way home, we had seen the stage and the sound check. Kiosks selling gifts, souvenirs, hot wine and snacks lined the perimeter of the square. We bought a hot wine and tipped the server a huge tip because we had to get rid of our Bosnian Marks (you can’t exchange them anywhere but Bosnia). We listened to the music, sipped our wine and took in the atmosphere. At midnight, we hoisted our plastic cups high, shouted in celebration and brought in 2016.
The next day, we packed our last few things and headed to the bus station to catch the 12:30 bus to Zagreb and our flight home. I’m sad even recalling that day. Thus ended a beautiful and life-changing three days in Sarajevo. I know we will return. I have to. I drank water from the Old Town.