Welcome to Sarajevo

Bullet-riddled buildings and locals who aren’t afraid to mention the war . . . that’s tourism Bosnia-Herzigovina style


Had Archduke Franz Ferdinand kept his date with the Chief Rabbi of Sarajevo, the First World War might never have been. Such is the city's legacy, given its position at the crossroads of Europe, with tensions that have brought this east-meets-west metropolis much more than its fair share of suffering.

Not that suffering comes immediately to mind when you land in the Bosnian capital, the verdant centre of an unexpectedly lush, green and mountainous country.

First you notice the lovely river running for miles into the heart of a city surrounded by hills, next the beautiful baroque buildings bequeathed to it when Bosnia was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the 19th century.

Only on closer inspection do you notice the bullet holes - literally millions of them, riddling both the old buildings and even more so the Communist-era tower blocks whose occupants were besieged for four years during the Bosnian civil war of the 1990s.

Inevitably, 20 years after the war, it has spawned its own branch of tourism, which actually makes the city an especially fascinating place to visit.

Insight Vacations, one of the few tour operators to offer Sarajevo, specialises in insider experiences and has made contact with apartment-dwellers who remember the siege and are happy to share their war stories with strangers who come for dinner.

Thus we heard the heartbreaking tale of how our 35-year-old hostess lost her best friend after begging her mother to let them out to play after months of being kept safe in their basement bomb shelter. The girls got to revel in the fresh air for 15 minutes before a grenade went off; when the smoke cleared the friend lay dead on the ground. They were 11.

Another person with war stories of a less gruelling kind is Mario, the curator of Sarajevo's Jewish Museum. He is living proof that the Nazis could not manage to kill off the city's Jews, of whom a third survived the Second World War. Despite emigration since, there is a thriving community of 1,500, who hold regular services in the handsome neo-Moorish Ashkenazi synagogue on the river bank: "We Sephardis have joined with the Ashkenazis to worship in one place," says Mario, whose parents survived the war fighting as partisans before he was a twinkle in their eyes.

"And on Rosh Hashanah we also hold services here," he says of the 1581 synagogue in the old Turkish Quarter which has survived every war and conflict of the past 500 years and now houses moving photographs and artefacts on its upper floors.

It's the Turkish splendours - a huge bazaar, magnificent mosques and lively cafés as well as the synagogue-cum-Jewish museum - which draw the crowds to Sarajevo from surrounding countries.

The 16th century, when Sarajevo was second only to Constantinople as lynchpin of the Ottoman Empire, was the city's first golden age, with Muslims and Jews living peacefully side by side.

In fact the Chief Imam was with the Chief Rabbi waiting for Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, when he fatefully changed the route of his state procession, having already survived a grenade being tossed into his carriage earlier that day.

Keen to see how the locals who were injured were getting on in hospital, he made a last-minute diversion - and fell victim to the young separatists who had failed to get him with the grenade.

It all happened close to the Latin Bridge, the city's most famous landmark, and one of 38 lovely structures offering a wealth of pedestrian river crossings.

And you can still stay at the Hotel Europe nearby, where the religious leaders were waiting for Ferdinand. While the location is great, be warned of the stark difference between stylish, comfortable outside rooms overlooking the bazaar and dingy inner rooms in need of updating. It seems to be a lottery as to which rooms are allocated, but there can be no quibbles about the nearby Four Rooms of Madam Sofija, the charming fin-de-siècle restaurant where we had our welcome dinner.

Fish is widely available in Bosnia, where food and coffee tend to be of an excellent quality.

We continued to Mostar in Croatia - just a coach drive away - whose famous medieval bridge became a tragic symbol of the civil war when it was pointlessly blown up in the '90s.

Now put back together using 16th-century techniques, it makes this World Heritage Site once again a picturesque, must-see stop on the way to the dazzling Dalmatian coast, where you instantly forget that Croatia was also at war 20 years ago; today it is the new playground of Europe, especially for yachties.

But for me, it was Sarajevo which tugged on the heartstrings and inspired an instant desire to return.

Sarajevo's Jews and Muslims alike have shown a resilience equalled by none in the face of adversity - and today they are once again living peaceably side by side, together with Catholics, as an example to the world gone mad beyond Bosnia's borders.

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