Sarajevo - out of the cold
by Eric Jansson
Whenever big, hulking, modern societies fall apart, confusion and catastrophe reign, it's true, but they also make enchanting holiday spots. Poking around in the rubble, one chances upon fresh thoughts, wild art, fallen idols, insane museums and room to breathe, not to mention hotels and restaurants. This is the spirit that once drew curiosity-seekers to Prague and Moscow, immediately after the cold war. Anyone who passed up the chance to ponder communism's debris then missed the opportunity of a lifetime. This spirit seemed to rage through the 1990s, but it is all too rare nowadays. Tourists are not just scared off by wars and rumours of war. They balk even at memories of war. Weeks ago, my wife Laura and I discovered this sad fact on an otherwise delightful trip to Sarajevo.
The Bosnian capital was stunning, tucked away in its valley, set afire with the reds and oranges of late-autumn leaves. Minarets and steeples poked up from the jumble of 19th-century buildings lining the Miljačka, a river of clear mountain run-off tumbling through town. We found streets brimming with activity under clear blue skies - the clouds neatly whisked away by crisp breezes. Truly lovely. But tourism in Sarajevo is still mostly dead, killed off by the Bosnian war, when Serb artillery starved and pummelled this city in a hellish three-year siege. It is a pity, for this ravaged place is well worth a visit.
Turn your memory back to the Winter Olympics of 1984. The propaganda of the day painted Bosnia as a paradise of inter-ethnic harmony. Peasants of all colours sang and danced together. European civilisation seemed to have reached a post-religious, post-imperial zenith in Bosnia's cosmopolitan heart. The communism of Yugoslavia showed only its cuddly side to visitors, and the skiing was great. It was a grotesque lie, of course, and such a potent one that hardly anyone bothered to notice the ugly truths beneath it. (However, the skiing really was that good, and still is.)
Nowadays, it is Bosnia's reality, clearer in our eyes, that makes Sarajevo a worthy destination. Fear not: the guns fell silent eight years ago. Pedestrian zones hum with the sound of footsteps, church bells and the muezzin's call. Districts pummelled in the war have been rebuilt. War delivered a dose of humility to the Bosnians, which has helped soften ethnic tensions. Meanwhile, years under the thumb of demanding foreigners from the international community's expensive military-political-charitable complex have hastened the evolution of a Sarajevan service culture. Restaurateurs lead the way, so in three nights we found three fabulous places to dine.
Wandering into the tight alleyways of the Ottoman old town, plunges the visitor into a lost world from the Turkish empire, where savoury smoke from countless grills wafts through the air. We made a good choice with Bosanska Kuća (Bosnian House). Its exterior screams tourist trap, but looks deceive. Up the inside stairs we devoured a feast of tasty meats and salads while relaxing in a cosy salon of carved woods and intricate textiles. A young waiter, dressed comically in a fez, told stories of relatives who fled as refugees to America, and stayed. His plan to join them: ‘Marry a fat, ugly American woman and move there.’ We wished him luck but later found more inspiring company at restaurants run by some of Sarajevo's creative entrepreneur-chefs - part of a growing crowd that plans to stay.
At a place called Safari, they whipped up a dinner of game that could have cost hundreds of pounds in London. We paid a pittance. Around the corner from the Roman Catholic cathedral, we found Karuzo, a hole in the wall where fresh Adriatic fish is sliced into sushi, and the chef serves an explosively flavourful Insalata Caprese covered in capers. Tables fill up with English-speakers, and the cacophony of accents is a reminder that Bosnia lives under the rule of spoiled foreign diplomats. In the evenings, they become an army of eaters.
With competition between hotels heating up, the new Astra earns top marks for comfort and style. Rooms look out over café-filled streets. Most boast Jacuzzi tubs and the others have surround-spray showers.
A minute's stroll away, Bosnia's diminutive national art gallery is free. Do not presume that imagination was a casualty of war. It seems to have narrowly avoided death in the 1960s, judging by the era's lust for stale geometry and ugliness. But later works include installations that would not look out of place at the Tate Modern. Hanging on a bare wall, a long line of army-green ponchos leaves a haunting impression. Mixed-media works - harder to describe and more gut-wrenching to behold - hint at the sorrows of war and joy in its aftermath.
Yet while in the galleries art imitates life, the greatest installation open to tourists is a genuine artefact of the siege. No visitor should miss the Tunnel Museum for a bracing reminder of the degradation Sarajevans experienced. This city of 100,000 starved and struggled, even while the United Nations controlled the local airport. The only way in and out for ordinary people was an 800-metre tunnel under the runway, linking the city centre to a sliver of safe territory beyond Serb and UN lines. To this day, beyond the runway, the tunnel leads toward town from the shrapnel-battered house of the Kolar family, who built and guarded it. Call ahead to make sure they are home, and order a taxi. The Kolars themselves, some of whom speak fair English, will happily take you down into it. They tell moving tales of those nasty years.
The greatest glory of Sarajevo is that it survives at all.
1. Restaurant Bosanska Kuća: Bravadžiluk 3, Baščaršija. Tel: +387 33 237 320
2. Restaurant Safari: Hamdije Kreševljakovića 6, Skenderija. Tel: +387 33 208 700
3. Restaurant Karuzo: Dženetića Čikma bb. Tel: +387 33 444 647
4. Hotel Astra: Ulica Zelenih beretki 9, 71000 Sarajevo. Tel: +387 33 252100
5. Tunnel Museum. Bajro and Edis Kolar: Tuneli 1, Ilidža. Tel: +387 33 213 760
Eric Jansson is the FT correspondent in Belgrade This article was published in the Financial Times Magazine, 28 November 2003