Day 8, Sarajevo/Mostar

When I came on this trip I knew I wanted to see more of Bosnia but with just 3 days in Sarajevo I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t want to take away any of that time to travel anywhere else. I didn’t realise though that a trip to Mostar could easily be done leaving early in the morning and coming back in the afternoon.

So the whole group heading off to Mostar on the early train. The view there was just incredible (as seems to be normal in Bosnia!). Normally I close my eyes and listen to music or try to sleep on a train or bus, but on this trip I can’t in case I miss anything. There was also a beautiful girl who looked like Jennifer Beals (from Flashdance) sleeping on the chair on the opposite side of the carriage. Cute.

A rather embarrassing picture was taken of me on this train. I had khaki coloured things on for the hot day (even shorts!!) and one of the group got me to pose wearing his Arafat-style hat.

When we got to Mostar we hit a cafe and I had a Bosnian coffee, which at first I hated when I had it in Sarajevo but it sort of grew on me. The waitress was terrified of us for some reason 🙂

We went to see the Stari Most / Old Bridge which is the most famous landmark in the city, destroyed by the Croats in the war, but since rebuilt. Guys collect money from tourists to jump off this bridge into the river – it’s quite a sight.

The area was very touristy and busy, people do day trips from cruise ships that come into the Croatian coast, so certain times of the day are a nightmare. A lot of photos were taken – Mostar is just beautiful everywhere you look.

We went to the museum which chronicled the history of the bridge and its destruction and reconstruction, walked around, took some more photos and generally soaked up the beauty of the place.

We travelled back to Sarajevo on what became known as the BUS OF DEATH. It was baking hot, no windows could be opened and it was stuck in traffic. We all nearly died from the heat.

We got back to Sarajevo and had a walk around before some of us agreed to meet on the top of the yellow fortress for sunset. We did some shopping. Shopping here is strange. There is a famous part of town where local coppersmiths and silversmiths make crafts and trinkets (stari zanati or old crafts). Thing is, there are dozens of these shops lined up in one street, and every one seems to sell the same thing. Even when we were in Mostar we found the same pepper pots and plates and ‘hand-carved’ goods. It was just weird. I was a little skeptical about buying anything although I did want a little Bosnian coffee pot. Eventually I passed this one shop and saw a man sitting inside hammering one of the pots into shape. The image triggered deja vu for me, until I realised I had a photo of this man, in that exact pose, from that exact angle, in my book about visiting Bosnia 🙂

I felt I trusted this man a little more because he had been featured in the book, and also because I had seem him sitting there actually making these coffee pots. So I went in and chatted to him and bought one. I also got a photo of him too 🙂

This trip has been full of new experiences but I wasn’t expecting this next one. I got pickpocketed!!

I was walking down one of the main shopping streets in Sarajevo and I felt my backpack moving from side to side. As I turned round this woman was right behind me, and my zip was open. She looked back at me as if to say “what are you looking at!” – she was very well turned out, well dressed, pretty, nice make-up, not what I was expecting. I new I had nothing of value in that pocket so I just left it but I later remembered I had put my lighter in there and it was gone.

Oh well it gave me a nice anecdote for the rest of the group. We headed up to the fortress and had a great night just sitting chatting and drinking pivo. We also had another surprise treat. As it’s Ramadan at 7.08 every night a firework is fired into the air so that the Muslims around the city know they can start to eat. The first time we saw this firework in the sky it freaked us as we had spent so much time talking about the shelling and bombardment of Sarajevo and then we heard this almighty bang in the sky!

We didn’t know where this firework came from but as we sat on the grass at the fortress and people came over to prepare, we realised that it was fired from just a few feet from where we were sitting. It was cool to sit and watch it from the other perspective and there were lots of excited little Muslim kids playing around watching the preparations.

It was a great end to the evening and we got lots of photos of the beautiful sunset.

Back at the hostel we again chatted to the other guest Stuart for a while before heading off to bed. Before I went to bed that night I had already decided that I wanted to come back here as soon as possible, maybe early next year.

I know two people who have been to Sarajevo, but I think that’s quite unusual. Among most of my other friends they thought I was crazy for picking a holiday in Bosnia but it was every bit as perfect as I knew it would be. The biggest favour I could do for any of my friends would be to insist that they come and see this amazing place for themselves. Bosnia, and Sarajevo, is something that everyone should experience.

I feel lucky that I got to come here, so lucky I can’t even describe it. And I feel equally silly that I didn’t come here sooner.

Day 7, Sarajevo

We had a day of activities planned for Day 7 including a trip to the parks and thermal springs at Ilidza just outside Sarajevo, and, very exciting for me, a trip to the tunnel museum by the Airport.

But as we were leaving at 11am and I had some time in the morning I went on a little trip on my own to somewhere that no-one else in the group really knew the historical significance of, the Holiday Inn.

Now it might just sound like any other hotel but the Holiday Inn Sarajevo could really be considered a historical landmark. The war in Bosnia officially started when a sniper on the roof of the hotel opened fire, and throughout the conflict, as one of the few places in the city with decent conference facilities, countless summits and peace conferences were held here. When I read books about the history of the war in this city, the Holiday Inn Sarajevo comes up time and time again.

It was originally built for the famous 1984 Winter Olympics, widely considered to be one of the best winter games ever – mainly due to the fact that the Olympic-class mountains were just miles from the heart of the host city, something very few other places can offer. After the games, the hotel wasn’t making much money so it closed, only to reopen as soon as the war started and suddenly the worlds media needed a place to base themselves. It was damaged frequently during the conflict but has since had a facelift, with war damage only visible on the very top of the bright yellow building.

It was nice to finally visit the place after reading so much about it and as it wasn’t really the kind of ‘pilgrimage’ that others would be interested in it was good to get the free time in the morning to go see it myself.

The mountains around Sarajevo are beautiful and terrifying all at once. When you look at them towering over the city from all sides, knowing about the history of the 4 year seige, you can see all too vividly how easy it was for the Serbs to bombard this city – Sarajevo was a sitting duck. It’s incredible that the city and its people survived, and even more impressive to see how quickly it got back on its feet. There is lots of war damage here, but nowhere near as much as any of us were expecting.

At 11 we headed to the thermal springs and parks at Ilidza, it was a 3km walk along a freakishly straight country path to get to the park from the tram station, but it was a nice hot summer day. We got a horse and cart back which was cute. We had a picnic there and had a wander around. Sarajevo is really so close to so much natural beauty, it has everything. Mountains, skiing, thermal springs, river rafting.

When we got back to the station we headed out in taxis to the Tunnel Museum which was by the airport. This was one of the highlights for me. Back when Sarajevo was being shelled from all sides by the Serbs in the Mountains (I will upload a cool map showing the situation when I get home) the UN secured the airport and so this was the only semi-safe part of the city and the only breach in the Serbs encircling forces. On one side of the airport was Sarajevo and the other was free Bosnian territory. So over 4 months they build a tunnel right under the airport. The tunnel carried an average of 3000 passengers every day, most carrying up to 50kg of food and supplies into the city. It was the city’s only lifeline and it basically was built in someone’s back garden. Many times the Serbs tried to attack the entrances on either side of the tunnel but they were too well defended and they never succeeded.

It was yet another amazing story of Bosnian courage and resilience. The tunnel has since collapsed but we were able to go into a section of the start of it to experience what it must have felt like.

After the museum we headed back to the city, after I got some snaps of Sarajevo Airport itself, which again I have read a lot about in my books.

In the evening a few of us went up to a fortress on the hills behind the city. We passed through a Muslim graveyard – there are so many in this city – and it was quite haunting. One of the graves was of former Bosnian prime minister Alija Izetbegovic, who led the country all the way through the war and afterwards. We saw some soldiers come to pray beside his grave.

The view from the fortress was spectacular, looking down on the entire city. We decided we’d come back up here the following night for sunset.

On the way home there was some kind of Turkish festival going on by the river. We stopped and watched it for a while, acrobatics, skateboarding, bike stunts, and all kinds of things.

We never really ate any proper group meals in Sarajevo, I just existed on those fabulous sausagemeat pies and bamboos and pivo (beer). I have taken a lot of photos of different ways that bars presented my bamboos 🙂

After we went home we got talking to the owner of the beautiful hostel we were staying at, a very friendly and houseproud woman who had lived through the war. She spoke very emotionally about the problems Bosnians and Sarajevans face in the present and in the near future, but she spoke with the same kind of passion I have come to expect from people in this part of the world.

We also met Stuart, another Australian staying at the hostel. He decided to come here to look for English teaching jobs, and knew a lot about the history of the area. He also lent me a book about Bosnian history (bit of a miracle that I didn’t already have it!)

During our conversation with the landlady, she drew a map of Bosnia to illustrate the partition of the country between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. I helped her by drawing in a few other places which seemed to impress her.

Afterwards I drew in Velika Kladusa where my friend Dragana is from which made me smile, I think because it felt like a connection between my time here and my life back home in London.

I went to bed with my head buzzing with information – I have felt like a sponge in this place, just soaking up everything that I see and hear. I needed to get a good night’s sleep though for the early train ride to Mostar in Hercegovina the following morning.

Day 6, Sarajevo

OK let me just get this out of the way…



I need to keep repeating that to myself because I still can’t quite believe it.I wondered in my last post if I would cry when I got here. I didn’t though, for two reasons.Firstly, arriving here was so surreal, and nothing was like I thought it would be, so I have spent the entire day slightly confused and in awe. I’m not as hyper and excited as I thought I would be. I’m not as emotional and embarassingly blubby as I thought I would be.

The other places that we’ve been really surprised me with their beauty and culture but then I didn’t really have any expectations of Novi Sad and Belgrade. Sarajevo I have read about and studied so much so you would think I’d find everything very familiar. But I totally didn’t.

This city was the biggest surprise of all.

Sarajevo is surrounded by the most beautiful, stunning mountains, and in the middle of this is a tiny but massively multicultural little city, quite long in shape but all pretty walkable. The view from the mountains as the bus wound its way down was astounding, but so is the view from the city looking up. Everything was, in principle, as I expected but in reality nothing was. I have spent the whole day in a bit of a daze, trying to reconcile the place I had imagined and dreamt about for 10 years with the place I was standing in today.

After the bus we went on a guided tour by a young local man and ate some amazing cavapi (sausagemeat wrapped in pastry). After the tour our leader Helen took us to see a few extra places, including the Sarajevo Roses. Our local guide didn’t want to show us these as he didn’t feel that they should be a tourist attraction, which of course you have to respect, but for me, the Sarajevo Rose represents all that I love about this wondrous city and its people.

Sarajevo Rose is the name of this website, and for those of you who don’t know, a Sarajevo Rose starts as an impact crater formed by a mortar shell, which the city of Sarajevo received thousands of between April 1992 and September 1995 – the longest seige in modern history. When fatalities occurred because of a mortar shell landing in the street, the locals filled it with red resin/wax, turning the impact crater and surrounding cascading scars on the street into something which looked like a rose. This transformation of something tragic into something beautiful, and the defiance and spirit behind it, is one of the reasons I love Bosnia and Sarajevo – and first and foremost its people – so much. Sarajevans continued, beyond reason, to lead a normal life even when the mountains around their city rained shells on them, killing innocent men, women and children, daily. I can’t even imagine the strength and courage this took.

A Sarajevo RoseA Sarajevo RoseA Sarajevo Rose

We also saw the Latin Bridge, known for a while as Princip’s Bridge. This is where Gavrilo Pricip, a Serb, shot the Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife in 1914, the incident which single-handedly sparked World War I.

Latin Bridge

The second reason for my subdued awe today was because I used up all my awe on the bus here – I’m not talking about the simply spectacular views of Bosnia from the bus as it wound around the mountainous roads, but of my encounter with a little girl who also – in her own cute way – sums up everything I love about this part of the world.

We were about a third of the way through our trip from Belgrade to Sarajevo when this beautiful woman boarded the bus with her young daughter. I’ll admit I was a little fixated on this woman for a while – extraordinary big brown eyes, perfect tanned skin and projecting a sort of shyness and humility that I just find incredibly attractive. She was young, probably early twenties.

After a little while I was taking photos and her young daughter came over and leaned over the seat behind me – she seemed fascinated by me and my camera. I took a photo of her and showed her it on the camera screen and she seemed amazed. She was so innocent and beautiful and wide-eyed.

Little Borjana

Everyone who knows me knows I hate kids, but she was just too much – so adorable. We had a break at a bus stop and outside I asked if I could take a photo of the girl and her mother together, they were both so cute.

Mother and Daughter

When we got back on the bus, the little girl was again fascinated by everything I was doing. I tried to communicate with her but neither her or her mother spoke any English, so I got out my Bosnian phrasebook and pointed to “what is your name” but she didn’t seem to understand. She was maybe too young to read. I am going to call her Little Borjana, after the amazing old Serb woman who was our guide in Belgrade.

I fished out everything in my bag to amuse Borjana, and eventually we started playing hide and seek. She would hide behind chairs on the bus, and peek out and I would peek over my sunglasses which she found hilarious. Then I got out my sun hat and she started placing it around my head in silly positions and then pointing to the camera, we took photos and she laughed and laughed and thought of new things to do. Her mother was asleep like an angel on a seat a few behind us.

Little Borjana Waving (video)

Every so often she would say something in Bosnian and was amazed that I couldn’t understand. It was like she had never encountered this before. We played for hours with all the things I had in my bag, hats, glasses, maps, book, paper and pens.

Sarajevo Hat

Eventually she was holding the camera herself and taking pictures of me doing wacky things, all at her direction. Every time we took a photo, she immediately thought of something else to do and after a while I was like her dress-up doll – she was placing accessories around my face and taking photos and videos to giggle at afterwards.

Me Hiding Behind Time Out

As her stop approached near Sarajevo, she took all my things and carefully placed each back in my bag, trying out different places and pockets until she found one just right. She was taking so much care over everything, so much attention paid to tidying up after her fun. She went to the back of the bus and spoke to her mother and came back asking me, in Italian, if I spoke Italian. The way she said it it was clear her mother spoke Italian and had told her to say this one phrase to me. Little Borjana said it in a very unfamiliar way to me so I don’t think she knew any Italian herself.

As they were about to leave I was going to give her some pocket money as a thank you for the fun (a 7 hour bus trip which seemed like nothing) but before I could she came up to me and tried to give me a coin. I couldn’t take it but the sweetness with which it was offered nearly brought a tear to my eye. This poor little girl was giving me a present to say thank you, even though I have so much more than her. It was one of the most humbling moments of my entire life. Borjana left the bus with a polite handshake, an enormous smile and a wave, and her mother a ‘ciao’. And as the bus pulled away she was waving constantly trying to catch my attention. I waved back, and as we reached our own stop in Sarajevo, my travelling friends all asked me if I’d seen her waving at me.

She had been so excited and full of life, such a big smile, such enthusiasm and friendliness, and such kindness, it brought a tear to my eye and still does as I write this.It’s appropriate to call this mysterious and amazing little girl Borjana, because just as the older Borjana was of a generation that saw Yugoslavia through war and pain and resilience and reconstruction, Little Borjana is the future.

She is the future of Bosnia, and the future of the Balkans, and the future of all of us. A perfect little thing unspoilt by the turmoil and hatred of the past. With a beautiful smile and a little kind heart that could end all wars in a stroke.I’ve been thinking about Little Borjana all day. As we walked around Sarajevo, we saw another side of Bosnian kids, agressively begging and mischief-making unsupervised on the streets. How they contrast with her. And her mother left a mark on me too. Throughout the trip she looked down-spirited and worried, holding her chest constantly and seeming quite emotionally and physically unwell. Yet how she smiled every time she saw me and Borjana having fun. It was a genuine but pained smile which I can’t get out of my head.For Borjana and her young mother, I got the impression things are hard, but their spirit is tough and brave and determined to find fun everywhere in the world and everywhere in life. This strength and spirit is what makes Sarajevo the greatest city you could ever see, and Bosnia the greatest country. And it’s what made Little Borjana the most amazing little girl I have ever met.

If the future of this part of the world lies in the hands of people like this, then Bosnia will surely and effortlessly return to the peace and beauty and prosperity it deserves, and everyone who comes here and tastes some of that richness of character will leave a better person.

I know that I will.