We are in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina, the seventh country of our trip and the fifth Balkan state we have visited. Sarajevo is different from the rest. Although like the other capitals it is full of history, it has a distinctly Ottoman flavour we haven’t encountered anywhere else. The old town bazaars serve Turkish coffee and sweets. Many women wear hijab. The diversity of this multi-ethnic culture is palpable. Yesterday, we walked within minutes to two large mosque complexes, three churches, one an eastern orthodox, and a large synagogue. They seem to co-exist harmoniously amid the shops and cafes that line the complex labyrinth of tiny streets and stalls.
However, everywhere there is evidence of the most recent war to ravage the city. The history museum has dedicated a wing to the three-year siege of Sarajevo showing photographs, posters and newspapers as well as objects donated by citizens, all telling the horror story of the hardships and death of that era, and the courage and determination of the people desperately clinging to the remnants of their homes. Beyond the formal displays, many buildings along the streets retain the bullet holes, often still unpatched and unpainted, from the shells that rained on the city.
Yet extensive restorations have rebuilt the old town’s monuments and historic places. And new buildings are going up around the city, often with innovative architecture and colour. Our hotel is an example of this integration of old and new. It is a beautiful old town classical building renovated with high-tech modern fittings and security. Strangely, the hall outside our room is 20 feet tall and just over two feet wide, the deep purple colour creating a perpetually dark fissure with a blood red floor.
So the city is moving into the 21st century in its own highly unique way. Although there is more poverty, more begging, and less Western style progress, its history is a backdrop for a young vibrancy. Everyone speaks English, usually with a handful of other languages. Students abound, smoking, drinking, having animated discussions. The air is full of energy and possibility.