Sarajevo – Been There

East meets west in Sarajevo's old town

The Baščaršijska (Main Market) area, where this boy is playing with the pigeons, is the historic center of Sarajevo and was also once a major trade center for the Balkans. The area around it is now filled with restaurants and cafés catering to the rapidly growing tourist trade.

Photo by Doug McKinlay / Getty Images

Sarajevo – Been There

East meets west in Sarajevo's old town

As my local friend Samra and I delve into the old town of Sarajevo, I notice that some buildings here still have bullet holes in their walls, while pavements bear chilling scars from mortar blasts.

Gavin Haines
Gavin Haines Travel Writer

In a poignant memorial to victims of these strikes, the authorities have filled in the blast marks with red resin. “It represents the blood of those killed by the mortars,” says Samra. “We call them Sarajevo Roses.”

We amble through the old town to Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, where the call to prayer echoes from the minaret. It is an evocative reminder that we are at a cultural crossroads. “People call Sarajevo the European Jerusalem because of the closeness of different religious buildings,” says Samra. “We have Orthodox churches, mosques, synagogues and a roman catholic cathedral all very close together.

“We were part of two empires, the Ottoman from the east and the Austro-Hungarian from the west, and both of those empires brought their own influences,” she adds. “The legacy of those empires lives on in everything from religion to architecture.”

Ferhadija Street is the literal junction between in this east-meets-west city. It is Samra’s favorite street in Sarajevo because this is where neoclassical architecture from the Austro-Hungarian period meets the Islamic Ottoman architecture. Look one way and you could be in the Middle East; the other and it could be Vienna. Nearly.

Personally, I prefer the Ottoman part of town, which is home to wonderful independent restaurants and shops selling anything from copper coffee sets, an essential in any Bosnian household, to Iranian carpets and Arabian lamps. Samra points to a display of empty mortar casings which have been turned into vulgar souvenirs. “We don’t like these,” he says. “It’s tasteless."

We end our tour in one of Sarajevo’s ubiquitous coffee shops. Coffee is a cornerstone of life here; “It is to Bosnia what tea is to the English,” says Samra. The smoking ban has not reached these parts yet and the air is thick with smoke, as it is in the rest of Sarajevo’s countless bars and cafés.

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