Clink clink clink. Clank clank clank. Dozens of coppersmiths handcraft plates, coffee sets and jewellery on a narrow lane in Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s 15th-century old town. Around the corner, rows of bazaar-like shops are full of traditional kilim rugs, while a sprawl of slow-paced cafes spill with languid locals sipping strong Bosnian coffee. Towering above it all is a heady cocktail of architecture: Turkish-era minarets, grand Austro-Hungarian mansions and Soviet-style blocks. Yet Sarajevo is cradled within a valley, in the shadow of the Dinaric Alps, so expect green spaces too, with Trebević mountain stealing the show: hop on a recently reopened cable-car, or if you’re actively inclined, hike to its summit via hillside villages and cool pine forests. And while the charms of the old town below might hark back to a bygone era, Sarajevo also has a youthful spirit, evident in a thriving craft beer scene, coffee culture and art galleries — the best of both worlds.
For oenophiles, a visit to Brkić Winery in the town of Čitluk is a must. Owner Josep Brkić’s family opened the biodynamic vineyard in 1979, but communist laws meant independent wineries couldn’t sell to the public until after the fall of Yugoslavia in 1994. Using local grapes Blatina and Žilavka, the Brkićs rely on the lunar cycle and force of the moon for production.
Ubiquitous in Sarajevo, intricate rugs range from traditional Bosnian designs to carpets from the days of Ottoman rule. Visit Sop Amina in Baščaršija, run by Nira, where all the products are 100% wool and handmade. For Persian rugs, head to Morića Han, a former caravanserai, or Isfahan Gallery, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave that also sells ceramics and lamps.
The Sarajevo Tunnel was the hand-dug lifeline of Sarajevans when the city was under the siege of Bosnian Serbs from 1992 to 1995. The 800-metre-long underground corridor became the city’s only link to the outside world — a secret gateway to transport food, war supplies and humanitarian aid. It opened as a museum after the war and visitors can now walk a 20-metre section of the tunnel.
Three to try… Where to eat
Join the Sarajevans at this gritty sports bar for çevapi, a grilled meat dish with pita bread, raw onion and cream cheese. It’s the only dish on the menu, and you can order five, 10 or 15 pieces of the deliciously smoky meat. T: 00 387 33 441-200
Hedona Wine Club
A fine-dining restaurant and winery in the hills of Sarajevo, Hedona offers a rare, modern take on local cuisine. Go for the nine-course tasting menu paired with Bosnian wine. The sea bass with soya mayo, wasabi and polenta is a winner.
Meaning ‘grandmother’s kitchen’ in Bosnian, this traditional joint’s round wooden tables spill out onto the streets of Baščaršija. Don’t leave without trying tufahija — a dessert of walnut-stuffed apple served with syrup and cream.
Eyewitness: To the hills
“Only two types of people go outside when it rains in Sarajevo,” jokes my guide, Thierry. “The tourists and the crazy.” I feel like both as I peer at the city below from a dizzying height. Hundreds of raindrops trickle down the window of our gondola, while ahead a cluster of dense clouds waits to burst upon the city again. Soft murmurs of the call to prayer grow increasingly faint as we ascend the lush green Trebević mountain.
The Trebević gondola reopened in April 2018 after a 26-year absence from the capital’s skyline. The original, built in 1959, was completely destroyed during the 1992-1996 Siege of Sarajevo, when the mountain became a deadly vantage point for snipers. The gondola once shuttled Bosnians from Baščaršija, the city’s old town, to these lofty heights, where they’d spend weekends hiking, swimming and enjoying fresh air — hence the mountain’s nickname, the ‘Lungs of Sarajevo’.
At the top, trees encompass us, and we make our way towards the 1,300-metre bobsleigh track used in the 1984 Winter Olympics, which meanders through dense forest. This derelict track is a ruined reminder of its former glory — so it’s no surprise it’s become a dark tourist attraction. The entire length of concrete is blanketed in moss and graffiti, and lots of it — mostly loud, colourful illustrations and hopeful political outcries. ‘For all kids, give peace a chance’ pleads one sign held by a cartoon figure. ‘Viva La Balkan!’ reads another.
“That’s Vučko,” says Thierry, drawing my attention to a black-and-white drawing of an impish fox with a cigarette in its mouth. “The mascot of the Olympics.” I notice what appears to be a hole drilled into the concrete; Thierry confirms it was made by a sniper’s bullet.
Despite the monotonous rain, Thierry and I follow the curves of the track, a bit like the luges that snaked through here three decades ago. At the finish line, we skip the gondola and hike down to the old town instead, passing by Hotel Pino, a four-star ‘nature hotel’ that opened here two years ago. As we descend, we pass sleepy hillside villages dotted with cherry bushes, scurrying kittens and the odd local hanging up washing.
“This place is great, and the view, well, you’ll see,” says Thierry as we approach Biban Restaurant, situated high above the city. The coffee here is served just how the Sarajevans like it — in a džezva, a small pot made of copper that dates back to the Ottoman era. Turbo-folk bops in the background, and I notice a family of four gliding up the mountain in a cable-car, laughing and enjoying the view. It feels like a glimpse into a pre-war past. Trebević is slowly becoming somewhere to while away the weekends once again. The crazy and the tourists included.
How to do it
Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)