My friend Ali and I, both embarking on a year off-books in Austria, decided to leave Ireland a few weeks early and travel around the Balkans before taking a bus to Austria. One of the most interesting cities we visited during our travels was Sarajevo. Granted, it is not particularly easy to get to from Ireland, but certainly doable. There are flights from Budapest to Sarajevo for €19, but you will probably have to spend at least a night in Budapest on the way as the Sarajevo flight is early in the morning. We landed in Sarajevo at around 10am, bleary-eyed from a bad night’s sleep in a hostel in Budapest, but ready to take on the day. We were given a striking introduction to Bosnia and Herzegovina as we saw a man being swept away into a room by multiple border guards for giving cheek to a border officer. Through passport control, we got some local currency and hopped on a questionably overcrowded bus to the city. Our hostel was overbooked, but it turned out to be a stroke of good luck as we ended up staying in an amazing apartment with fabulous views over the city for €10 a night each. If you’re going to Sarajevo, definitely consider Airbnb over a hostel, it’s around the same price and you can rent a whole apartment for around €20 a night.
After getting settled, we headed back into the centre, one of the first things we came across was a mass grave from the Siege of Sarajevo. We stepped in and had a look, still relatively ignorant to the finer details of the Bosnian conflict, we had no idea of the scale of destruction in Sarajevo – something we were about to learn a lot more about. We stopped for chai next to a mosque as the call to prayer rang out across the city. One of the things that you notice very quickly about Sarajevo is the mix of cultures. You’ll see people drinking beer next to a mosque and notice some women wearing hijabs, whilst others wear t-shirts and shorts. The warm weather, coupled with and minarets dotting the skyline gives the area around the Bascarsija (the main outdoor market area) a Levantine feel. Here, you will see markets spilling out onto the street, the Sebilj Brunnen Fountain and plenty of places to try local food. However, just one or two streets away from this area, you will quickly remember that you are in Europe. We wandered around the markets and impulsively bought Fezzes, a source of great amusement to the locals and we were followed around by an elderly couple until they worked up the courage to ask if they could take a photo with us. They were also intrigued as to what we were doing in Sarajevo and very eager to know if we were enjoying ourselves.
A raw experience
Having had a look around the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, we decided to go to the Srebrenica Gallery, an incredibly moving experience, which provides first-hand accounts of the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in 1995. This is definitely not to be missed, but it is by no means easy and you will need time afterwards to digest the horrors of what you have seen. We took some time to wander the city and saw plenty of remnants from the Siege of Sarajevo. There were buildings covered in bullet holes which, according to the guide on the walking tour we did later, were not kept that way for the sake preservation but a lack of government funding. We also saw plenty of anti-UN signs, in reference to the UN Peacekeeping Troops surrendering in Srebrenica. It struck me how raw the conflict of this war is, raging slightly over 20 years ago in Bosnia. It is something that we didn’t learn about in school, probably because it is such modern history. From our tour guide, we learned that modern-day Bosnian politics remains quite messy, with the country divided into different administrative regions based around ethnicity and religion. There is also a rotating presidency, shared between Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic candidates. Combined with a high level of corruption and unemployment, the guide maintained that Bosnia has had an extremely tough time since the war. We found many locals reminiscing about life under the Tito dictatorship in Yugoslavia.
During our tour we also visited the indoor market in Sarajevo. As the city does not receive that many tourists, all the vendors greeted us with interest and offered us samples of their products. Our tour ended at the assassination site of Franz Ferdinand and we went to a traditional Bosnian restaurant called Barhana for dinner with the others we had met on the walking tour. Our tour guide arrived later and treated us all to Raki! We headed back to our apartment and settled up with the owner, who insisted on driving us to the bus station in the morning. Sarajevo may be hard to get to from Ireland, but everything is very cheap once you arrive. A good meal in a restaurant costs around €5 and a pint costs no more than €2.50. Museums and tours are also cheap.
A long bus ride
The following morning, we crossed the internal administrative border into Repubika Serbska as we were taking a bus to Belgrade, which only leaves from the Serbian part of Bosnia. Leaving the warm Sarajevo climate behind, we arrived at the bus station and encountered some serious communication problems. Eventually, we managed to get across that we wanted a ticket for Belgrade and met our bus driver, whom we nicknamed Ivan, the terrible (driver). He shouted at us in Serbo-Croatian and then once he realised we couldn’t understand, began shouting at us more slowly in Serbo-Croatian. It turned out we had to pay him to put our bags under the bus. I then dared to upset Ivan further by asking him for the wifi password and was shouted at. It appeared I had made an enemy, who I was stuck with for the next eight hours across winding roads in the Balkan Mountains. Ivan smoked for most of the journey and the bus quickly filled with haze, I was assured that this was giving me an authentic Balkan experience. After six hours and plenty of fights between Ivan and various passengers, we arrived at the Serbian border, Ivan celebrated this by blasting his favourite Serbian radio station for the remaining two hours of the journey. Finally, we reached Belgrade. Disembarking the bus, I gave Ivan a tentative wave and he waved back at me. Perhaps I’d managed to befriend him after all.
Travelling around the Balkans was certainly extremely eye-opening, I learned a huge amount about a widely unknown part of Europe that I had never spent any time in and met plenty of new, interesting people.