24th AUGUST 2018
My day off in Sarajevo begins with breakfast at the hotel. It’s a pretty standard fare, served by the owner and two staff who are smoking like fiends. For me, it still seems wrong to see staff smoking cigarettes in a restaurant, but I have to accept that it’s just the way things are here. I’m given the choice of tea or coffee to drink, and also asked if I’d like my eggs to come scrambled or as an omelette. I opt for scrambled eggs and tea, but five minutes later I’m left bemused as an omelette and a strong Bosnian coffee arrive.
It’s a steep, ten minute walk down narrow streets and into the city for the free walking tour. Our meeting point is on the steps of the National Theatre, and by the time we’re ready to begin there must be around twenty people waiting. We’re led by a guy called Neno, who must be in his mid-thirties and has lived in the city all his life.
He starts by giving us a potted history of Sarajevo, telling us the different rulers and cultural influences that have made it the place we know today. It was founded as a city around five hundred years ago by invading Turks from the Ottoman Empire, which brought ‘Islam and cool Turkish food,’ as well as mosques and marketplaces. Then the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over for forty years between 1878-1918. This was a productive time, with the city being modernised and developed by it’s new rulers. Despite the short timeframe, many of the city’s most important buildings were constructed during those forty years. The First World War ended in 1918, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Sarajevo now became part of Yugoslavia. The Second World War then saw Yugoslavia go from being a monarchy to a communist state, until the country broke up in the early 1990’s. This led to the Bosnian War, during which Sarajevo was surrounded by Serb forces and bombarded for almost four years. This siege is the longest endured by any capital city in the history of modern warfare.
Neno tells us he was seven years old at the beginning of the Bosnian War, and lived under the siege till he was eleven. The Serb army positioned themselves in the surrounding hills, then cut off all water, heating and electricity and began bombing the city. His home was on the eighth floor of an apartment block, but that was too exposed to shelling and sniper fire, so all the residents had to live in the basement to stay safe. They still had school classes in the basement however, taught by a teacher who would come to give them lessons despite the risk of being shot by snipers. He said people tried to carry on with their daily routines as best they could, as this illusion of normality helped to stop them living in fear. It’s almost unimaginable to think someone spent four years of their childhood living under those conditions. He talks about those days in a remarkably rational manner now, and doesn’t show any signs of bitterness over what happened. He says it’s the only way that things can move on.
One of our first stops is at a structure that Neno describes as ‘the ugliest building in Sarajevo.’ It was used to house athletes when the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in the city, but the drab communist-style block wasn’t considered welcoming enough. To remedy this, the organisers decided to paint the accommodation in gaudy yellows, purples, and greens. I actually think it looks quite cool, despite the awful colours.
We carry on walking beside the shallow, slow moving Miljacka River towards the Latin Bridge and the spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The Austro-Hungarian Archduke had been visiting the city with his wife, but both were shot dead by a young Yugoslav nationalist. The aftermath of the killing caused a series of events, eventually leading to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Then the allies of both countries took sides and started declaring war on each other too. Before long World War One was underway, and all as a result of a shooting in Sarajevo. The assassin’s cause was to see the end of Austro-Hungarian rule and for the Slavic states to unite together and form Yugoslavia. All this did come to pass at the end of World War One, but the killer contracted tuberculosis in prison and never lived to see the outcomes that his shooting had led to.
Then, gloriously, it’s on to the Sarajevo Brewery which has been producing beer since 1864. Beer was still being brewed here while the city was under siege during the Bosnian War, although only in small amounts. What made the brewery so important during the siege was it’s location above a source of fresh water, which it then made available to all the city’s residents. However, being a water source also made it a target. The building was almost destroyed, suffering hundreds of grenade hits and many Sarajevans were killed while waiting in line for fresh water.
We pass a few more historical buildings before the tour finishes in the Old Town. It’s bustling like an Arab market and full of tourists, but Neno says it’s still the best place to go for authentic Bosnian food. It has mosques, small family-run blacksmiths, restaurants, and souvenir shops all connected by a series of cobbled streets and narrow alleyways. There’s a tall clock tower, whose hands tell the amount of time until sunset rather than the correct time. This is handy for fasting Muslims in the month of Ramadan as they aren’t supposed to eat anything during daylight hours. Because sunset time changes daily, there’s an old man who manually resets the clock every day to coincide with this. Most tourists (and some locals) don’t know this story and simply think that the clock is telling the wrong time.
Although the walking tour is free it operates on a ‘Tips Only’ basis, and Neno does very well in this regard. By the look of things he has made more money in tips than he would have by charging for the tour. Fair play to him though, as Sarajevo’s unemployment figure is huge and yet he has found a clever and innovative way to carry on. His story of resilience is almost like a metaphor for the city itself.
After the tour ends we all walk off in our separate directions. I try to get off the main touristy streets and head up a side alley in search of some ćevapi to eat. This is a traditional Bosnian favourite that consists of about ten sausage-like kebabs, served in pitta bread along with diced onion and soft cheese. It is deliciously tasty, although probably not very good for you. Neno from the tour said he would only eat ćevapi once every couple of weeks as a treat because it is so unhealthy. Then I walk the tour again in reverse to get some more pictures, before dragging my ćevapi-filled belly back up the horribly steep hill to my hotel. What took ten minutes on the way down takes about twenty-five on the way back. By the time I reach my room I can feel sweat that is literally running down my sides, so jump straight in the shower. That evening I decide to spend an extra day in Sarajevo, as I think it’s a most excellent spot and have grown to rather like it.
For my Day Two breakfast I repeat my request for tea and scrambled again. This time I get tea and an omelette-like scrambled egg which still isn’t right but at least they’re getting closer. On the upside I do get to try the delights of putting EuroSpread on my bread this morning. It’s served in a small sachet similar to jam, but contains a two tone mixture of chocolate spread and hazelnut spread. My God it’s sweet.
I’d patched up my spare inner tubes yesterday, but they had both deflated again by this morning, so I decide just to head into town and buy a couple of new ones. I’m down the steep slope and back into the city in no time, only to find that the bike shop is closed on Saturday afternoon and will be closed again on Sunday. Bollocks. To cheer myself up I wander back to the Old Town and treat myself to another ćevapi. After Neno saying he will only eat it once every two weeks, I’m having two in two days. The remainder of the afternoon is spent pottering round the Old Town and trying to walk off the ćevapi, before I have to face that awful climb back up to the hotel once again. On the way I pass a residential building that looks like it’s still pock-marked by the holes and scars made by mortar shells. This gets me thinking about how well the city has recovered after almost four years of being blasted during the Bosnian War. The city looks so clean and modern that it’s difficult to imagine the horrors it witnessed in the early 1990’s. Perhaps this building has remained unrepaired to serve as a reminder of the siege.
In the evening I decide I better do something about my inner tubes, as I’ll not be able to buy spares any time soon. I pump both tubes up and slowly rotate them beside my ear in an attempt to hear the slight hiss, or feel the gentle breeze, of escaping air. However, there’s no obvious signs of a leak anywhere, which probably explains why they took all night to deflate. A slow puncture. With all the weight on the back of my bike though, they would clearly deflate a lot more quickly on the road. In the end I take to filling a small plastic bin in my room with water, submerging the inner tubes bit by bit and watching for escaping bubbles. Sure enough, when I reach the patch I put on yesterday, I see a tiny column of bubbles escaping from one side of the patch. I put four more patches around the offending area just to make sure. So one tube is fixed, but the second one with the dodgy valve remains a mystery. Even underwater there was no trace of escaping air bubbles, and it did take 7km of slow uphill for it to deflate the other day, so who knows ?
I’m in bed quite early tonight to rest and prepare for the final 650km push to Sarandë in Albania. Unfortunately, I’ve just found an app that shows me elevation graphs and can tell me how much climbing I’ll have between here and the Mediterranean. I think in hindsight I’d rather that I didn’t know.