When planning my most recent trip to Sarajevo I came across an article by AFAR that gave words to some of the things I’ve been struggling to express since my first visit. Michael Clinton writes, “what I realized is when you come to Sarajevo, you have to embrace the story of the war years: It is unavoidable.”
Unavoidable seems to be the only word for it as the city’s history is hung out to dry by the mortar blasts visible on buildings or commemorated with a “Sarajevo Rose” on the ground. Some aspects are even spelled out in plain terms, displayed on plaques of national monuments to serve as a reminder.
Despite the evidence of what the city and its people have endured, or maybe because of it, Sarajevo remains stunning. The city is absolutely breathtaking, as are any locals you may be lucky enough to meet. Those who lived through the war genuinely appreciate any foreigner who wants to better understand the conflict and more than one has told me that they find it therapeutic to share their stories and to teach the world about what they went through, a fact I am immensely grateful for as it is these firsthand accounts that gave me the insight I needed to better understand the city.
Something to keep in mind while reading the following: I was and continue to be astonished by the heart of this city. And I mean this in the sense of the phrase “they’ve got heart” but do not wish to ignore its other meaning either because, after all, Bosnians’ shared tragedy, regardless of their identity, thumps like a heartbeat beneath Sarajevo as the city continues to heal and progress.
Sarajevo first captured my heart last year when I visited the city with the intention of understanding its history and regional context. My trip was filled with lectures, museum visits, and readings which provided me the knowledge I needed to observe the city with a critical eye. Within a day I realized that Sarajevo is truly inspirational- the city is a unique, charming, resilient place that has somehow remained hidden from much of the world, overshadowed by its western European counterparts and often ignored in history books and travel guides.
Over the course of my time there I became enamored with the culture- Bosnian society is a blend of eastern and western traditions, creating a mixture of customs that feels entirely natural and never fails to amaze me. The day typically begins with coffee and conversation, a custom emulated by most tourists, myself included. On this trip, however, I went about it a bit differently.
Plans for this visit were made last minute, which meant that the itinerary consisted of a bus ride and nothing else- though my favorite thing about Sarajevo is that simply being there is exhilarating.
I nearly cried when we arrived in the city. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I owe the past half year of my life to what I gained in Sarajevo: drive. Sarajevo was the first place I visited where I had real autonomy and was entirely responsible for how I spent my days; that trip was the first time I felt really, truly in command of my decisions. The program also had a strong influence on my approach to my academics and future career plans and after it concluded, I returned to the US with a newfound sense of purpose and confidence.
I’m smiling as I write this, thinking back to my first time in the city and dreaming of when I’ll be there next, even though I've only just left; this city makes my heart warm for all kinds of reasons, though I continue to struggle to verbalize them.
With this in mind, I returned last weekend hoping to end my visit better able to convey how much this place means to me and how incredible it is that this city is still standing.
While I was able to revisit some of my favorite spots in Sarajevo (such as the Sarajevska Pivara, the Inat Kuća, and about 400 coffeeshops) I am most content with my Monday morning adventure to the Žuta Tabija (Yellow Fortress).
I rose before dawn on Monday and made the hike to the Žuta Tabija to watch the light change over the city at sunrise- a tradition I picked up in high school where the senior class watches the sunrise together on the morning of their graduation. I've kept this ritual close to my heart, dragging myself out of bed to say goodbye to places I've called home for some time or another, and while I haven't lived in Sarajevo the city certainly claims a place in my heart.
As I sat, basking in the beauty of the city at sunrise, I wrote a short list of reasons I feel that everyone should visit Sarajevo. They are as follows:
1) Out of all European cities, at least in the east, Sarajevo's history is arguably the one we most need to learn from given the modern global landscape. Despite its hardships, it is a gem of a city, often overlooked or simply forgotten by the west, ensuring that much of the sights remain untouched by time and untainted by foreigners.
2) The spirit of Bosnians is unmatched by any other group of people I have encountered except perhaps Romanians. Anyone you meet in Sarajevo will open themselves to you willingly, as though it's the easiest thing in the world; few are afraid to discuss their history and faults, and many will gladly share their personal stories. While these kinds of conversations may often be grim, they always end in warmth and gratitude that you've made an effort to learn.
3) The call to prayer is often followed or proceeded by the clanging of church bells and, as the city is in a valley and surrounded by mountains, the sound bounces around for minutes after the noise has ceased. The clamor somehow manages to be one of the most soothing sounds I've ever heard, especially in the early morning as you look out over orange rooftops and minarets.
4) If you can can get up high enough into the hills or a rooftop of a building to watch the sunset the valley looks like it's surrounded by a sea of stars. No photo will ever do it justice. To fall in love in Sarajevo- with the city, with yourself, or another- would be like living in a painting, walking along the river as the houses twinkle like stars all around you.
5) Sarajevo has taught me more about myself and the world around me than 20 years of travel elsewhere has been able to.