So you know that old word association game? Like you say cat, I say meow? You say beer, I say yes please? You say Sarajevo, I say war?
The first time I heard anything about Sarajevo or Bosnia, I was 11 years old, and it was all over the news in the context of war. I didn’t know why there was a war, I didn’t know who was involved, I didn’t even really know what war was, aside from a really long game of cards. I remember a young girl on TV who had kept a journal of her experiences and was being compared to Anne Frank. As important of a part of history Anne Frank is, I’m not sure anyone would be thrilled to have their life compared to hers.
But I wasn’t able to connect the dots, probably because I didn’t really have a firm grasp on what had happened to Anne Frank either. I was 11. It was too much for my young brain to comprehend (makes sense, as it’s almost too much for my adult brain now). Besides, it didn’t really affect me personally (and it’s all about me for pre-teens), so when news about the conflict eventually faded, the words Sarajevo and Bosnia hopped into the memory box with WAR scribbled on the outside in black magic marker, which promptly tucked itself back onto a tiny corner shelf, and began collecting dust.
Maybe that’s why my first thought was, Hmm? Yeah, no. I can’t go there. Bombs, or something, after Scottish David suggested I check out Sarajevo after Budapest. His friend had recently returned and said it was fantastic.
I was curious, if not a little afraid, I just couldn’t shake that connotation, but the seed was planted, and I happen to believe one of the most rewarding parts of being alive is the ability to confront and conquer fears (irrational as they may be), so I bought my train ticket and booked an Airbnb. Can’t turn back now.
Though I had several turning back thoughts. I mean, the country wasn’t even detailed on Google Maps until literally one day before I arrived, no joke, (which I took as a very positive omen) and Google Maps has kind of been my BFF since March. If you zoomed in on Sarajevo, no roads appeared, no establishments, no train station. Just a big, blank space. (How would I get from here to there?? Did the bombs destroy all the roads? Are there roads? What does this mean?!?) This is still the case for the Maps app on the iPhone. Check it out.
I began obsessively researching how safe Sarajevo is today, trying to push the images of a war-torn, troubled country out of my mind, feeling a bit ridiculous that I was allowing severely outdated, dusty information to invade my relatively logical head to this degree. If you Google Sarajevo, you’ll get some mixed reviews, but for the most part, recent travelers are overwhelmingly in awe of this beautiful city, and after spending a week in Bosnia & Herzegovina, I jumped on the bandwagon. Hell, I am driving the bandwagon.
Sarajevo is a beautiful city nestled in the mountains with the Miljacka River waters peacefully running through the middle, filled with kind, generous, incredibly hospitable people, rich with history and not-so-distant conflict. You’ll find churches next to synagogues, next to mosques. The Muslim prayer rings through speakers scattered throughout the city, and church bells ring throughout the day. The Old Town is one of the most charming I’ve explored in Europe to date. If you wander 20 minutes east or west from the center, you’re either walking hand-in-hand with Mother Nature, or surrounded by an urban, tree-lined boulevard, lazily following every tiny curve of the Miljacka. Within 45 minutes, I was smitten, relieved, and a little embarrassed, all at once.
Every single person smokes in every single place possible (on trains, in bathrooms, tight spaces, taxi drivers, servers, I saw a man alternate between puffs on his smoke with bites of börek one morning), but they make up for it with warmth and smiles, and of course delicious baklava, börek and čevapčići. And that Bosnian coffee. Thick, black and strong, the way coffee should be.
On my way to Dubrovnik, I took the most beautiful train ride to Mostar, through the mountainous Bosnia & Herzegovina countryside, soaking up the aquamarine waters of the Neretva River. I was in complete awe. To think, if it weren’t for this open road I am traveling, I might have never repacked my memory box. I might have never seen this:
A powerful reminder of how what one learns at such a young age has the capability of shaping adult thoughts and actions, preventing growth in unimaginable directions.
Let’s play that word game again. You say cow, I say moo. You say winter, I say bring it. You say Sarajevo, and I say, the most beautiful place in my recent world.
Hvala, Sarajevo. For so many things.