Sarajevo – Europe’s Undiscovered Capital

Off the beaten path. As the world marks the centennial of the First World War, we go back to where it all began. Here, a glimpse of the hospitable, newly rebuilt Sarajevo

It’s safe to say the last time anyone thought seriously about taking a vacation in Sarajevo was the winter of 1984, when they hosted the Olympics. Since then, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been, shall we say, suboptimal tourist territory.

But it’s been 19 years since the end of the siege, and with the help of many donor nations, the place has been entirely rebuilt. The old town, mostly destroyed, is hospitable and full of restaurants where people hang out for hours sipping tiny, sub-espresso-sized cups of Bosnian coffee poured out of handmade (always handmade) copper carafes, and usually served with cubes of Turkish delight on toothpicks.

So they were ready for their close-up on June 28, when much of the world’s media and a fair number of tourists showed up to be in the city where Gavrilo Princip fired two bullets into Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, which started a series of dominoes collapsing into the First World War.

Related: See a Photo Journal of Sarajevo

The hotels were full, including Hotel Europe, in whose lobby cafe the archduke had his final morning coffee, and tour groups were everywhere, led by, among others, Insider tours, whose office is directly across the street, Zelenih beretki, from the plaque marking the spot where Princip stood.

I stayed at Europe’s sister property, the Astra Garni (+387 33 475-100; no website), about 30 metres from there, where there’s also a museum dedicated to the moment, the moments that led up to it, and those that followed.

There’s a whole 1914 tour you can do, that takes you from Illidza, the leafy suburb 40 minutes out of town where Franz Ferdinand stayed the night before at one of the grand old hotels that still operate there, but there’s more to Sarajevo than that one morning a century ago. Much more.

Sarajevo’s been through a lot since then, as anyone who was paying attention to the news in the 90s will know, but it’s come out the other side and deserves a second look.

There’s a reason people started settling here thousands of years ago, and why the Turks chose it as a capital for the area when they ruled the place. It’s gorgeous.

It’s enclosed by sylvan hills on three sides, with the river Miljacka running through the centre, crossed by a half dozen picturesque bridges, including a new one in the shape of a loop-de-loop, designed by three students of the Academy of Fine Arts, which it connects to busy Radic street on the other side of the river. It’s called the Festina Lente Bridge, Latin for the curious old Church slogan, Hurry slowly, and it encourages you to stop and take in the view with two benches halfway across. You should. It’s a great view.

And a 10-minute uphill walk from there, Park Princeva has a two-tiered terrace that overlooks the whole city. The perfect place for a rakia at sunset.

Just behind the Academy is an unprepossessing bar called the Meeting Point. It doesn’t look like much, but it lives up to its name. Over the course of the four days I was in town, no fewer than three otherwise unrelated people suggested meeting there. I finally went, and it’s friendly, cheap (beer’s a little more than a dollar, coffee a little less), it’s attached to the local cinema, and it’s the sort of place you’re likely to end up talking to someone in.

But it’s not just the Meeting Point that’s inexpensive. Five-star Hotel Europe is less than $200 a night, and my little place was just over $100, including breakfast and a great rooftop view of the city; coffee’s usually about $1-$2 for the whole carafe ($3 at Hotel Europe), and the best cevapi (cylindrical, spiced meat, usually lamb, served in a lightly seared fluffy pita) in town – at a place called Zjalko in the old town — is about $5.

You could make your trip to Sarajevo about war if you wanted: In addition to Princip’s corner, Srebrenica is two hours east; Mostar’s two hours southwest.

But the thing is, you don’t have to. There aren’t many undiscovered European capitals left, but Sarajevo’s certainly one of them.

 NEXT: Sarajevo in Pictures

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The day after the centenary, two Bosnian Serbs pay their respects at the tomb of the 1914 conspirators, including Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old who pulled the trigger. They were criminals in 1914, heroes after the 1920s, and since the fall of socialism, villains to some, patriots to others.

IMG_9901A Bosnian coffee, as it is served everywhere in Sarajevo, on a table at the Viennese Café on the ground floor of Hotel Europe, the same room Archduke Franz Ferdinand had a similar coffee the morning of his death.

IMG_9913[1]At 10:45am on June 28, a crowd thrums on the spot where the assassination took place, taking pictures of a vintage car wheeled in for the occasion.

WP_20140628_12_03_15_Pro__highres[1]Just 15 minutes out of the city and you’re in the mountains.

IMG_9893[1]The Latin Bridge, which the archduke’s driver should have turned left onto, but he turned right instead, and the rest is history.

WP_20140627_15_05_28_Pro__highres[1]In front of the Sarajevo Cathedral, a Sarajevo Rose. It’s what locals call the preserved impact points of mortar shells that, according to my guide, killed five people or more during the siege that lasted from from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996. They’re all over the city, many of them accented with red resin. The KIA sales pitch going on almost on top of it may be read as a sign of healing, economic necessity, or both.

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The Academy of Fine Arts, with the Festina Lente Bridge in front of it, and the Meeting Point café and cinema behind it.

 

 

IMG_9855Sarajevo is predominantly Muslim, and the Gazi Huzrev-beg mosque — built in the 1530s and considered one of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture — is a centre piece in the middle of the old town.

IMG_9879[1]In his shop in the old town, Kenan Hidic, who makes those handmade copper coffee carafes, as well as coffee mills and platters, shows off one of the guns his father, also a craftsman, made out of pipe and bits of door to protect his family during the siege.