You may not have heard of Slovakia’s small capital, but tourism in the city is taking off to new heights. Oliver Reynolds explains why we should all visit this little known gem of Central Europe.
A spectacular two and a half hours up the road from Mostar, you come to Sarajevo, a city described in the Lonely Planet as ‘vibrant yet very human.’ I am still trying to work out what that means. Characterful? Heavily populated by the species homo sapiens?
I defy anyone to find a more understated historical landmark than Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge, beside which Franz Ferdinand was shot in 1914, sparking the outbreak of the First World War. The bridge itself is little more than a toe-path, the body of water it covers more of a stream than an actual river. There is nothing more than a small plaque to commemorate the event, and certainly not many tourists taking photos next to it. The assassination isn’t even the first thing the plaque mentions – you have to read to the bottom to learn that one of the most important events in world history took place at this very spot. The rest of the city too overflows with understated significance. The Eastern quarter with its tea houses and souks reminds you of the influence of the Turkish empire, while the Austrian quarter feels like a tiny version of Vienna.
Sarajevo has an array of museums, and since the war was so recent any tour you take around the city is likely to include personal tales and fascinating accounts from the horrors faced in the mid-90s. There is even a ‘war hostel’, which simulates the conditions residents lived under during the three-year siege.
Euroventure’s hostel in Sarajevo offers private tours where the owners (born and bred in Bosnia’s capital city) will drive you around the city and show you the sights you might not otherwise see – from the mountains around the city where snipers shot at civilians, to the abandoned 1984 bobsleigh track. The city is unlike any other in Europe, and for that reason alone it warrants a visit.
But as with any final stop, my sense of adventure was inevitably beginning to wane; my mind was already halfway home. The realisation generally crashes that you’re probably not going to make any lifelong friends at this stage, nor are you likely to discover somewhere belonging so perfectly to your dreams that you decide to throw away your return ticket and buy a small plot of land there. So Sarajevo is where I leave this not-very-complete account of travelling in the Balkans. Even at a breakneck pace, I’d barely visited half the countries in the region – but, sadly, that is how travelling in Europe will always be. There is simply too much of it for any normal human to do justice to. It is mostly just Australians who have the luxury to explore the continent for months on end, and even they won’t get to see the half of it.
Despite having only scratched the surface, I found myself wondering whether there is anything (other than the giant plastic beer bottles) which unites the Balkans as one region. The languages are generally similar, but some use Cyrillic whilst others do not; some, like Albanian, are from a totally different book. Perhaps the food, music, and the general sense of fun? In many ways, this remains a fragmented part of the world, shrouded in layers of difficult history and neighbourly mistrust.
It is, however, a hugely exciting part of Europe to visit, and one I recommend very highly. Each country is small but distinct, and the distances that separate them are easily manageable. The landscape is always attractive and more often stunning, and the sun shines all summer. The beer is cheap. Hostels are now well developed in the region, and in them you are likely to find slightly more interesting characters than in the better visited European destinations – that goes for owners as well as residents. It’s in these moments that you’ll get to discover the true warmth and heart of the region.
The Balkans is, at least for now, a place that rewards you for your adventures.