Hi everyone! Time for quite possibly our favourite surprise city of the entire trip. Sarajevo is amazing. Like, actually amazing. We could have spent an entire week there and not got bored. The history – and not just the tragic recent history – is incredible. The people are fascinating. The scenery is fantastic. It’s an absolute gem of a place. So much so, that we’re going to do our Sarajevo blogs in two different parts to really do it justice.
Sarajevo is about a 3 hour bus journey from Mostar, where we’d enjoyed some beautiful weather during a one night stay. A lot can change in 3 hours, and by the time we’d arrived in Bosnia’s capital there was a definite storm brewing. We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again – the Balkans loves a good storm, and we’d definitely lost count of them by this stage.
We’d taken a bit of an accommodation risk with Sarajevo – for the princely sum of 8 euros between the two of us we had the pleasure of staying in what was effectively another room in somebody’s house, with one of the only (actually, probably the only!) shared toilet of the entire trip. But for 4 euros each a night, we decided we could endure this. The internet reviews of the place warned us that it was up a big hill and pretty hard to find – the bus station happened to be on the wrong side of the city, so we took up our host’s offer and paid a small pickup fee. The very pleasant Emil greeted us at the station, before whisking us off for our first experience of Sarajevo city driving.
Safe to say, and as we were repeatedly told during our stay, if you can learn to drive in Sarajevo then you can drive anywhere. It’s hard to believe that you’re technically in Europe as you watch everyone around you undercut, overcut, undertake, overtake, and definitely maybe try to ram each other off the road whilst honking their horns. It’s an experience – that’s for sure.
Anyway, we made it safely to Emil’s flat and were pleased to find that the room was nice and big – and that we had the bathroom to ourselves! Sure, there were some minor problems like a complete lack of curtains in the bedroom, and an equally baffling lack of sink in the bathroom – but who needs a sink when you can brush your teeth in the shower? And who needs curtains when there’s too much to explore to even think about sleeping in? To quote an oft-used phrase from my year abroad: “you can sleep when you’re dead.”
Now, the trouble with Emil’s place (as nice as it was) was that it genuinely was in the middle of nowhere (relatively) and we’d arrived quite late. Too late, and too tired, to trek down the hill and back up to find food.
And so, with Emil having bade us farewell and headed into down, we unpacked our things and headed off in the direction of a shop he’d told us about. To cut a relatively short story even shorter, the shop was barren. How it could even function as somewhere for people to stock up their kitchens, I have no idea. It wasn’t so much that there was a lack of food – it was that all the food was useless. They had giant slabs of meat hanging in fridges. Too large for any normal person to buy. They had industrial sized packets of noodles – but nothing to go with them. It was bizarre.
In the end, we bought literally the only things in the shop that we could consume without needing a cow sized oven or a stove. A packet of biscuits, some peach juice, and some long-live pain au chocolats. You’ve never lived until you’ve eaten pastry that is safe to eat until 2018. Utterly depressed by the meal we were about to ‘enjoy’ we headed back to the flat – where we discovered that we couldn’t get in the front door. Great.
We tried everything to get the keys to work. At least 15 minutes of fiddling, barging, shaking, and whatever other strange things people do when their keys aren’t working. Eventually, we had to give in and text Emil to tell him we were locked out. And, bless him, he left his socialising and drove back up to let us in. Much to our embarrassment, we just weren’t pressing down on the handle hard enough. Seriously. Ah well, at least there were incredibly cute kittens to keep us amused if we ever had trouble getting in again.
After thanking Emil profusely, we sat on the floor and tucked in to our feast. The less said about it the better. By the time it was over, we decided we’d head to bed – Emil was picking us up early the next morning to take us on a tour of the city. Bring it on.
We woke up to thunderstorms. That will come as no surprise to anybody who’s been following our Balkan adventure from the very beginning. Incredibly loud thunder, torrential rain and very bright lightening. It was really cool to watch from our curtainless window – but we hoped it would be over by the time Emil arrived to show us around.
Lo and behold, the thunderstorm had become nothing more than a slight downpour when we heard the car pulling up outside. Armed with umbrellas and our very lightweight rain jackets, we first headed into the city center. Emil’s English wasn’t perfect, but he made for a very informative and nice guide nonetheless. We don’t often go for structured tours, but this was good fun – it’s really great to hear about the history of somewhere like Sarajevo from a local who has experienced it first hand. Emil took us through the streets, telling us tales of him and his family during the war – but also the more ancient history of the place; from the infamous origins of WWI to the Ottoman rulers in centuries gone by.
Wandering into the Bazaar was especially cool, and we stopped for a bite to eat at somewhere we’d never have been brave enough to go in to ourselves! A proper local place, where everyone inside knew each other – really cool, but slightly intimidating for two English students who don’t speak a word of the language. We had some traditional Bosnian Cevapi (mince sausages, flatbread, onions) – a medium for Lucy and a large for Matt, who also braved a sour milk drink which we’ll pretend was nice…
After the whirlwind tour of the city center, it was back into Emil’s car to head into the hills above the city. Wow! What a view! Sarajevo is surrounded by mountains, and too few people will ever venture up into them to look down on the city. We certainly would never have done without being encouraged to! On the way up, we stopped off at a cafe (the views were already good – although we did get chased by a pack of wild dogs as we were pulling in!!) and Emil showed us how to drink Bosnian coffee. Absolutely delicious, and really nice to have another sit down and chat in a very non-tourist venue.
The final stop on the grand tour was Bijela Tabija, an old fortress in the hills overlooking the Eastern side of the city. More fantastic views of Sarajevo, and – thanks to the atrocious weather – we had the place to ourselves! It’s not a large place by any means, but there’s something fascinating about these old monuments which are effectively crumbling in to ruin. I think we’d rather spend time wandering around somewhere like that undisturbed, than have to endure a tidal wave of overenthusiastic tourists crammed into a pristine castle/building. But that’s just Lucy and I being grumpy and antisocial. Maybe we’re getting old. Eek.
Anyway, the tour was officially over, and Emil dropped us back in the middle of town. It was time to explore Sarajevo at our own pace – and we had grand plans. We really wanted to visit the old bobsleigh track, used during the 1984 Winter Olympics but now an abandoned victim of the war. We were also fascinated by the ‘Tunnel of Hope’ – a smuggling tunnel built by the resistance during the siege of Sarajevo to ensure supplies were still brought into the city. Our aim was to find a tour company that could roll both those things into one. Spoiler alert: we did – but you’ll have to stay tuned for Part 2 to hear more about it!