A Day in Sarajevo

This story begins in the depths of the night on the last day of July at a dimly lit bus lane in Ljubljana.  I had recently made a dash from my apartment just half a mile away, backpack slung over my shoulders and my roommate’s voice ringing in my ears – Isn’t it a little late to be leaving? If you know me, you’ll know that transportation and I never seem to be on the same schedule, though I suppose you could also say I’m not apt to being on time.  Nevertheless, I had left my apartment at 12:15 a.m. knowing that it would take precisely twelve minutes to reach the bus station where my 12:30 bus to Sarajevo would soon depart.  I had bought the ticket only one day before after spontaneously deciding, as always, how to begin my journey.  Of course luck would have it then that in the dead of night as I stood at the designated Flixbus stop, the giant green bus never materialized.  12:28…12:29…I felt my palms start to sweat and the backpack straps compress underneath my tightening grip as I slowly realized I may have really missed my bus.  On a normal day this would be disappointing but I could just buy a ticket for the next bus; on this particular July 31, however, I had to get out of dodge because my EU student visa was expiring that same day.

No one else seemed flustered by the lack of a bus in front of the Flixbus sign, so I took to peeking at the dashboards of the dark buses parked in the city for the night.  Just as I approached the large white bus in the third parking lane, the driver began to pull out of the slot.  I took a look at the window and what do you know – there sat a paper stating “Flixbus partner – Sarajevo”!  Well I certainly was not going to let this bus get away gosh darn it, so I jogged up alongside the boarding doorway and signaled to the driver that that was my ride.  He inched forward for a few seconds before slowing the bus to a stop, but not before waving his hands about to communicate to me in no uncertain terms that I was very late and he was not happy about it.  Brushing off the furrowed eyebrow scorn, I followed the center aisle towards the back and took the very last seat available.

As the bus rolled along the highway (Slovenian roads are incredibly smooth, as much as people love to complain about them), I tried to catch some shuteye.  In just a couple of hours however, we had already reached Croatia.  All bus patrons rose to disembark and form a line outside, from which we shuffled one by one past a border patrol agent for identification verification.

The ride past the border continued without incident.  As minutes turned to hours, I became captivated by the landscape slowly revealing itself from underneath the fleeing cloak of night.  Darkness melted away to reveal pastel orange and red sky.  Houses, crops, telephone lines, they were but small brushstrokes against a moonlit sky slowly converting itself to daylight.  These gentle, peaceful landscapes were all that were necessary to lull myself straight to sleep.

By early morning we had reached and crossed the Bosnian border.  It became apparent quite quickly that we were in another country.  The roads narrowed, the trees looked more wild, and there wasn’t a soul in sight for miles as we meandered our way along the two lane highway.  At half past seven in the morning we pulled over to an establishment on the side of the road where a couple inside enjoyed two cups of steaming Turkish coffee.  The bus driver suggested we all enter and have a drink.  I was not entirely sure that this was because it was time for a break; it looked more like we were stuck because the driver desperately could not, no matter how hard he tried, open the door to the luggage bay.  Two poor passengers stood waiting for half an hour for their luggage to be freed while the rest of us headed for the patio, spreading like gas molecules within a closed chamber to occupy the maximum amount of space.

Having no Bosnian money on me, I was forced to forgo  the coffee and settle for watching the roadside instead.  Few cars passed; the only noises drifting through the morning air were the clinking of glasses within the kitchen and a rustling in the bushes.  Upon taking a closer look I saw at the a pair of young kittens rolling over each other in the hedges lining the café.

Eventually the driver managed to pry open the luggage door and soon afterwards we were back on the road.  Within a couple of hours Bosnia’s capital city finally came into view.  Sarajevo appeared to be a sleepy town judging by the stillness of the remote bus station.  I grabbed my backpack and started walking alongside the train tracks which I had been instructed would lead me into town.

A mean sun beat down that day; only a few minutes passed before I felt sweat beading down my back and shimmering on my face.  I had not quite understood the instructions beyond following the tracks, so I decided to let the tracks guide me as far as what seemed to make sense until I could see another road more central to the city.  It appears I was literally and figuratively on the right track  since that was only tram line traveling into the city.  Still without any Bosnian marks in my wallet, I first had to meander up and down a few blocks in order to find a bank and exchange money.

With some money in my pocket and a much-needed bottle of water in hand, I hopped on the tram and took it to its most eastern point.  From there a long winding street led from the center of town up towards my hostel.  Halfway through the walk lay a cemetery, better described as a field of white obelisks.  War in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia during the breakup of Yugoslavia had had a devastating effect on the Bosnian population, and it was chilling to see the number of people who had barely reached my age with their names etched on the faces of the still bright white stone grave markers.  The cemetery sat high up on a hill; from this vantage point one could see across a great expanse of the city.  More cemeteries peppered throughout the landscape otherwise filled with old buildings and apartment complexes.  The war may have been over but it continued to lay heavy on the heart of Bosnia.

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With my back absolutely drenched underneath my 40L backpack following the hour-long sojourn in near hundred-degree heat, I was very relieved to finally find my hostel.  The first thing I did upon arriving was take a refreshing nap.  A whole night of bus travel and the ensuing walk at the end could make any bed feel comfortable, even the rickety bunk upon which I then slept.  I was not the only one feeling the need for sleep: half the beds in my room were already occupied with other like-minded travelers escaping the daytime heat with an afternoon siesta.

Nighttime brought on cooler air, which in turn rejuvenated the hostel guests from their slumber.  We spent the early evening congregated on the rooftop patio, sharing food and enjoying a shot of rakija from our gracious hostel manager.

The morning sun brought with it a raging heat.  It was my only full day to spend in the city however, so I tossed on a loose romper and walked out into the outdoor furnace.  A quick ten minute walk later I reached the tram stop and bought a ticket to take me almost to the end of the line in the western end of the city.  Once on board I a took a seat near the front of the cabin next to a young Bosnian man.  His name escapes me now, but our interaction was at once so interesting and so embarrassing that it will never erase from my mind.  For some reason during our tram ride this man decided to offer me a tissue, which I kindly declined.  My lack of Bosnian language was immediately apparent, and he went on to ask from which country I had come.  “Slovenia, but I am American,” I responded in Slovene, as I had with so many people before.  “Oh!  America!” he replied in Bosnian, eyes widening.  “I know a song from America!  Here, let me find if for you…”  He pulled out his cell phone and being perusing the internet in search of said song.  Unfortunately it appeared as though he wasn’t quite familiar with the title, as the best he could think to search was “American song.”  The first song to appear on Youtube was of course the National Anthem of the United States.  This man was very adamant that I (or perhaps everyone) be able to hear the song, so he increased the volume on his phone to the maximum volume and played track after track of National Anthem variances in search of a particular “American song”.  The man seemed quite enamoured with the whole idea of meeting someone from the U.S. and sharing what he knew about it with me.  Of course I assumed the National Anthem was not quite the song he was hoping to find, and though it was comical to see his reaction every time the next anthem video he clicked on was not what he was looking for, I was more than relieved when he finally departed the bus and I no longer had to sit for the next few minutes next to someone playing the U.S. National Anthem on maximum volume while my face constantly turning a more vivid cherry color and the rest of the tram occupants sat in silence.

I stepped off of the tram a few stops later and made my way southwest through a maze of parks and statues.  This day’s first destination was the Tunnel of Hope: an underground tunnel constructed between March-June 1993 to provide passage of goods and people between the outskirts of the city and the occupied capital during the Siege of Sarajevo.  Today only a few meters of tunnel remain under the founding house, but even this section standing barely a meter tall gave a humbling idea of what Bosnians endured and did to survive during the siege.  Guides barely older than me recounted their childhood stories of cooking paper and other non-food items in order to have some kind of sustenance when all routes of communication and transportation were cut off and access to most everything, including food stuffs, was nonexistent.

IMG_0766I chose to meander my way by foot from the Tunnel museum back to the city tram.  Along the way I noticed  what are referred to as Sarajevo roses painted into various sidewalk squares.  These roses were actually physical craters left by mortar strikes.  When a mortar struck concrete, it left in its wake an imprint resembling that of a flower.  Strikes resulting in fatalities were filled with a red resin following the war to commemorate the innocent lives which were lost during the siege.  Just as prevalent or perhaps even more so in these outer city neighborhoods were the marks of bullets riddled against building walls.  Enormous dark circular pits dotted the sides of multistory apartment buildings, these pockets a vivid reminder of the military attacks upon civilians throughout four years of conflict.  While many buildings near the center of the city had since been repaired or rebuilt, these facades in the outskirts of the city bore no attempts to repair or erase the damage inflicted nearly twenty-five years ago.

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My last stop of significant history was the Latin Bridge in the center of Sarajevo.  This was the site at which Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, eventually setting off a chain of events which turned into the First World War.  This bit of history was visible only by a plaque arranged on the outside of the Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918 which sits at the corner of the Latin Bridge and Franz  Josef Street.

The morning had been a serious walk through Bosnian history, but the afternoon brought a lighter tone in the form of good food and coffee.  I first made my way through the city center in search of a healthy (i.e. heaping) plate of cevapcici.  These greasy links of grille minced d meat are a staple of the Balkans, and as such I refused to leave Bosnia without helping myself to a plate.  Cevapci are by nature incredibly heavy on the stomach, so instead of continuing to wander I instead found a quaint café to sit on the sidewalk and enjoy a Turkish coffee.  Until this point I had always enjoyed Turkish coffee made by my roommate in the comfort of our apartment in Ljubljana.  The Turkish coffee in Sarajevo completely eclipsed that experience.  Served in a small džezva (coffee pot with a long handle) and accompanied by a cube of sugar and a delectable piece of walnut-flavored Turkish delight, I felt completely highly satisfied with my Bosnian culinary fare by the end of the day.

As the afternoon grew into evening I returned to the hostel to fix a snack of bread and tomatoes before joining other travelers on the rooftop to share a couple rounds of beers.  The hostel was situated at the top of a hill and provided the perfect vantage point to watch the sunset slowly paint the sky in ribbons of purple and red.  We talked, we ate, we turned up the music, and once the night truly came, we decided it was time to go out.  I had not originally planned on being out late this night since my bus to Montenegro left the next morning at 7am, but the energetic atmosphere on the rooftop finally persuaded me that I should enjoy what I time I had left in Sarajevo with a true night in town.

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We were guided through the city by a young guy who had spent already one month in Sarajevo.  He had been to a place just once which he felt was a quintessential city experience.  We wove through quiet city streets, slowly making our way from the history city center towards another neighborhood a couple kilometers away.  The guy looked this way and that, shaking his head and mentally retracing his steps from two weeks prior before finally leading us to a set of concrete steps and into an unassuming two-story building.  The exterior of the building betrayed no evidence of the atmosphere within.  Once inside dozens of voices chattered above the playful tunes of an accordion.  The main musical room appeared nearly packed with patrons enjoying a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, so we strode into the next room over and took the only available large table left to six our group of six.  From that point on it was beers all around, talking and drinking and enjoying the atmosphere of something like a kafana until our eyelids grew heavy and it was time to return to the blissful quiet and clean air of the hostel.

I rose the next morning at 6 a.m.  The hostel and city seemed so peaceful at this hour, leaving me wondering why I had not considered leaving myself more time to explore such a richly cultural and historical city.  My reservation at a hostel in the heart of Montenegro was already made however, so with a last wave goodbye I boarded a small bus and let myself be whisked away along an old and winding road towards my next destination.

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