Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina

The Deep Soul

Lauren Lancaster, a documentary-photography student at the ICP, has a thing for sad, troubled places. After working as a nautical archaeologist, plunging 100 feet into the Black Sea and Kenya’s Lake Turkana, Lancaster turned to photography and recently went to Moscow and St. Petersburg to photograph former drug addicts infected with HIV/AIDS. Why the gloom of Russia over, say, lounging on the beach in St. Barts? “Having grown up in the eighties, Eastern Europe had this mystique. It was an intellectual curiosity,” she says. Ever the game traveler, Lancaster’s been to Berlin, Cuba, South Africa, and Romania. “Bucharest was pretty desolate, but I like desolate places, I guess.”

The Trip

Visitors pass the Eternal Flame, Sarajevo’s World War II memorial.Photograph by Sara Terry/Polaris

Watch out for land mines, dude,” the backpacker across the aisle said to his friend. “Yeah,” the other one responded. “Good-bye, safety.” As he said the words, we began to roll south out of Budapest’s Deli station. The boys unwrapped some hamburgers, seemingly unfazed. I frowned at them disapprovingly but thought for hours about what they had said. Sarajevo is well known for the ethnic warfare it hosted not even fifteen years ago, andI have a habit of going to places where I am miserable but am later glad that I saw: Auschwitz, Alcatraz, the catacombs beneath Paris. I worried as the train sped along that this would be another one of those places, except on a larger scale. In some ways, I was sillier than these American kids; I didn’t even have a guidebook, just a map and a reservation at a hostel recommended to me by a friend who was already there but I hadn’t heard from in several days. I worried about her and these land mines until we arrived early the next morning.

I walked east along the paved Obala Kulina Bana as the sun came up. Sarajevo is very much a city navigated and appreciated on foot—as long as you heed the Mine Action Center’s advice and stick to asphalt surfaces. I checked in at the Guest Hostel Bistrik. Owned by a lovely middle-aged couple, the pension-style hostel offers several rooms and apartments in the couple’s comfortable home, across the Milijacka River from the Old Town. I paid only about $15 for a single room with a shared bath; what the hostel lacked in luxury was made up for in the charm of its proprietors. Once I was settled in my room that first morning, I spent the day wandering around the city. What struck me most were the graveyards. Some of the cemeteries were quite large, but many were very small, with just a handful of graves placed next to mosques or people’s homes. A mixture of Arabic and Bosnian epitaphs decorated the white headstones. I could make out only the dates 1992 and 1993, which made painfully clear that most of these people were killed in the war. Many of them were not over 30 when they died. Drifting through Sarajevo in this way was addictive, and sobering.

On either side of the rather unimpressive Milijacka are green, rolling hills packed with red-roofed houses and literally hundreds of mosques, with domes and spires of varying size. My walks back and forth across the river and up the hills made me tired and hungry, and I stopped for a late lunch in a nondescript café much like many others around Sarajevo. It was Ramadan; I was the only customer that afternoon. The waiter handed me a thick menu, which I accepted gratefully. I eventually decided on a hamburger, since it was the only word I recognized from the choices in front of me. It was served with cabbage, stuffed into a pita, and I ate it fast and rather impolitely. I knew I wasn’t the first person in history to eat beef in Sarajevo during Ramadan, but I was eager to escape the waiter’s stare and get back out into the sunshine. If you find yourself in one of these eateries, try cevap instead, which is a delicious Bosnian kebab.

For a place that has known so much tragedy, Sarajevo’s memorials are actually quite few, but haunting nonetheless. On the corner of Obala Kulina Bana and Zelenih Beretki is a plaque to inform passersby that they are standing in the very spot where Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand was killed, sparking off World War I and, consequently, many of the horrors of the twentieth century. The splashy United Colors of Benetton sign in downtown Sarajevo competes for attention with a plaque honoring the journalists who lost their lives in the most recent war, and across the street an Eternal Flame burns as a World War II memorial. For a quick history lesson on the region, head to the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Other provocative museums are the Jewish Museum and the Tunnel Museum—housed in the tunnel used by the Bosnian Army to evade Serbian snipers while crossing from Sarajevo into “free Bosnia.”

Although the city is still protected by U.N. forces, the German soldiers I talked to told me that their tour of duty was sort of a vacation, much like my own—a little sightseeing and a lot of time in cafés. When they felt like it, they scattered the young Roma children begging for change near their post outside the Orthodox church. Mostly, though, they just seemed happy to chat and smoke. They told me to try a “Bosnian coffee,” much like a Turkish coffee, at one of the lovely cafés near the river. When I bade them farewell, they seemed disappointed. Female American tourists are undoubtedly more interesting than “keeping the peace” in this serene city.

One night, I met friends in Bascarsija (the Turkish Quarter) for dinner. We eschewed the more formal restaurants in favor of rotisserie chicken wrapped in newspaper and washed down with Sarajevska beer we drank from plastic soda-style bottles. Travelers with more discerning tastes should try the Inatkuca restaurant on the northern edge of the square, which offers a wide variety of palatable Bosnian and Western European dishes. As we picnicked around the large wooden fountain known as the Sebilj, I tried to imagine the city as I remembered it from CNN broadcasts in the early nineties. It seemed impossible. The evidence of bloodshed was everywhere, but the cityI had conceived of prior to coming didn’t exist. The Sarajevo I came to know was beautiful, relaxed, unassuming. Late into the balmy evening, locals and tourists strolled the city, licking ice-cream cones and eating sugary fried bread. I laughed with an Australian I met at the very hip City Bar; we had both felt so brave coming to the Bosnian capital, and foolish now that we knew how benign it was. The threat of land mines seemed far away—in fact, in Sarajevo, I felt safer than almost anywhere else I had been in Europe.

Wandering through the hostels and cafés, you’ll meet other visitors who are mostly young, male, from Anglophone countries, and traveling alone or with just one other friend. Many locals whom I met in the bars at night were quite cosmopolitan and eager to practice their English over a drink.

The agreeable climate, burgeoning bar-and-café scene, and cutting-edge galleries suggest that Sarajevans expect to welcome cosmopolitan Westerners interested in the many facets of Balkan and Bosnian culture. Every August, the city hosts the Sarajevo Film Festival, one of the most important cultural events in southeastern Europe. While visiting Sarajevo, take an easy day trip to nearby Mostar, famous for its sixteenth-century Karadzozbeg Mosque and Turkish House, but also worth visiting for its personable cafés and charming cobblestone streets.

On the last morning before I left for Split, I visited the National Library, facing the river west of Bascarsija. This is a must-see: The sign written in English at its entrance indicts “Serbian criminals” for the desecration of “2 millions of books” in an arson attack in August 1992. The day I visited, it was empty but for pigeons, some folding chairs, and several crucifixes placed around the large main room. Compared with the busy traffic on the street outside, the former library was quiet and calm. The cemeteries and this empty library were the only places I found that hinted at the scope of the war;everyone else had moved on, happy to be in just another European capital at the end of an Indian summer.

Guest Hostel Bistrik (from $35; 387-33-53-63-95); more upscale accommodation is hard to find in Sarajevo just yet, but the bright yellow Holiday Inn on Zmaja od Bosne (from $200; 387-33-28-80-00) is notable as the place where many journalists stayed during the war. Inatkuca (387-33-44-78-67).

Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina