“Why the Balkans?” and, “Where are the Balkans?” were the two questions I was most affronted with in the weeks leading up to my nine-day jaunt around the region this past April. There are many reasons why.
When I first moved to Valenciennes three (!) years ago, a had a friend who loved traveling through the Balkans; until meeting him I hadn’t really ever given much thought to the region, as there were so many other places in Europe I still hadn’t had the chance to visit. However, since that first encounter back in 2014, the Balkans region has been popping up more and more within my travel network. I got a small taste of the Balkans when I visited Slovenia in 2015. Two years later, I was eager to find out more and experience it more in depth.
Hiking and admiring views in Sarajevo, BiH
I’ll be the first to admit that I knew next to nothing about the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s before visiting three of the former Yugoslavia states (Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Montenegro). We never got that far in history class, and I suppose the definition of white upper-middle class privilege is being blissfully ignorant about such world events. It’s still hard for me to fathom that I was a happy, living and breathing human while these atrocities were happening. The ironic thing about the Holocaust is that today it is emphasized that mass genocide should never happen again– but yet it did happen again– and it is still happening today, right now, in Syria.
During our 2.5 days in Sarajevo, Leah and I did, saw, and experienced a lot. A lot of Yugoslavia’s former problems root back to religious tensions between Muslims, Christians, and Jews just after WWI. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia and declared their independence, which of course resulted in violence and civil war with Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s civil war for independence came about a year later in April 1992 amongst three different groups: Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Serbs, and the Herzeg-Bosnia (a Serb-Croat alliance). Basically, the Bosnian Serbs won, and took control of the hills surrounding the country’s capital. The only unchartered territory was a small area of land near the airport, which unfortunately for the inhabitants of Sarajevo meant a lack of weapons and supplies, and an increase of sniper attacks.
Views of Sarajevo’s city center, hidden within the hills
Our hostel offered an all-day tour with a private guide to take us around to all the important sites of Sarajevo. Because we had limited time, this was a really good decision for us. Our guide was in his early thirties, not much older than us, and had a lot of personal stories about what it was like to grow up during the war. One of the most interesting things that stuck out to me was the fact that as a child at school he had to learn how to recognize hidden grenades / bombs as well as how to react if you found one at school. It reminded me of how we started doing school shooting / intruder drills both in the USA and in France. There’s not much to say except that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Tunnel Of Hope / The Secret Tunnel
Tunnel of Hope and Grenades, Sarajevo
As mentioned above, the group of people who were near the airport during the war were in short supplies of everything, from food and water to guns and ammunition. So in March of 1993, the Sarajevo Tunnel, or the Tunnel of Hope (#TunnelOfHope on Instagram) was constructed underground, in secret. Dug from home to home with shovels underneath the airport, this was the only way for people to transfer supplies. Even better, it was never discovered by the Serbs, and today it serves as a museum for tourists to see firsthand. You can also see above on the left, examples of grenades or bombs that were (and can still be) found in the region. It wasn’t until 1995 that NATO finally intervened, although it was much too late.
Martrys’ Memorial Cemetery
In the town centre, you can also visit the Martrys’ Memorial Cemetery, which is dedicated to the soldiers who gave their lives. You can also get a great view from the Yellow Fortress.
Martrys’ Memorial Cemetery
Believe it or not, one of the most interesting places our guide took us was to abandoned buildings such as this one, shown in the photos above. As he quoted, “I spent many of my high school days hanging out in places like this.” Most of these buildings were bombed / destroyed during the 1990’s and still hadn’t been rebuilt.
1984 Olympic Games
Our guide also drove us to the bobsled race track that was used in the 1984 Olympic Games. We were able to get dropped off at the top and walk about half way down. Today, the sides of the track are covered in graffiti and politically-directed street art. I find it to be very poignant in its own way. On a more humorous note, it also made Leah and me want to watch Cool Runnings.
The Bobsled Racetrack of the 1984 Olympics
The last stop on our tour was the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, which is also the second-largest in Europe, after Prague.
Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, BiH
On Easter Sunday, Leah and I explored on our own and endured the pouring rain. We checked out the Jewish Synagogue, the Catholic Cathedral of Jesus’ Sacred Heart (where there was an English Mass happening), and the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. Even better, an Imam (a Muslim equivalent of a Priest) accompanied us into the Mosque, and answered all of our questions. He also sang a prayer. As we learned on our tour, around 80% of Sarajevo’s inhabitants are Muslim. It was normal (and quite cool!) to hear the calls to prayer five times daily.
Cathedral of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
Cathedral of Jesus’ Sacred Heart
Photos of the outside as well as the ceiling of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque
When the downpour was at its peak, Leah and I visited the Gallery 11/07/95, which is a museum dedicated to the Srebrenica Massacre. It is a collection of art work and documentaries– I highly recommend paying for the audio guide. It was well done and very informative, as well as heartbreaking.
The image that has stuck with me the most is of course the one on the right. It is a Bosnian-Muslim women in front of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam; the photo depicts two major genocides against religious minorities in Europe.
Baščaršija- Pigeon’s Square- Old Town
As the rain let up, Leah and I spent time wandering through the markets and the winding streets of Baščaršija, or the Old Town. Bosnia has a striking resemblance to Turkey, as they were both so heavily influenced by the Ottoman Empire. I couldn’t help but think of my time in Istanbul as I bartered for jewelry and heard the calls to prayer. This is a great area to spend an afternoon or an evening. The great thing about Sarajevo is that even though it’s 80% Muslim, there are still many places to have an alcoholic beverage and go out at night.
Avaz Twist Tower
Leah and I killed an hour by sipping a local beer and drying off at the Avaz Twist Tower, where we enjoyed a beautiful but rainy view from the 35th floor of a modern skyscraper.
View from the Avaz Twist Tower
One of the most important monuments of recent history is found in Sarajevo. The Latin Bridge is of course the birthplace of WWI. Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated here in 1914.
Just like in Istanbul, Leah and I indulged in the art and culture of Bosnian coffee. It is thick and strong and delicious.
If you are looking for a cheap and interesting holiday destination in Europe, I really, really recommend the Balkans. Sarajevo in Bosnia is a great place to start; there are quite a few flights from major European hubs on budget airlines. I have a feeling that in a few years, the secret will be out; get here before everyone else does. There is so much to see and experience.