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Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a city on the Balkan peninsula, still visibly recovering from the longest siege in modern European history, which began 20 years ago this month. It might seem like a peculiar place to extol as a great destination for lone female travellers. Be assured it is a great destination, though prepare to be very alone.
The vast Natural History Museum complex echoed emptily to my footsteps, the Sarajevo Museum had two other tourists, and I had the hotel pool and spa to myself on three visits.
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I stayed at the wonderful Hotel Bristol, which could not have been more comfortable, welcoming and safe. It is situated right on Sniper Alley, the main motorway connecting the airport to the city centre, and all the buildings pre-dating 1992 are staggeringly pockmarked with bullet holes and shell damage.
These were just the edifices that managed to stay standing. People around the world became accustomed to seeing terrible television images of what was taking place in Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, when an estimated 10,000 civilians were murdered, as they had no choice but to go about their daily lives under sniper fire and mortar shelling.
My first, evocative walk was from Hotel Bristol to the Holiday Inn, where virtually all foreign journalists in Bosnia were holed up during the Balkan conflict.
As visible mementoes of the war damage, I was most struck by the ‘Sarajevo Roses.’ These are the flower-like markings that pattern the pavements here and there, indelible floral prints of where a mortar shell fell.
There are just so many graves, too – in parks, in former Olympic venues – anywhere all the bodies could be buried. Three years ago the Monument to Murdered Children, 1,600 of them, was erected in the city: an unfinished sand castle in glass, representing what those children did not live to complete. It’s deceptively pretty to look at until you realise the story behind it.
The main marketplace and city’s heart is around the Sebilj fountain. Surrounded by dozens of narrow lanes, it is crammed with craft workshops and grill joints. The best souvenir buys seem to be copper products and the stunning jewellery that the Turkish quarter has been celebrated for since the days of Ottoman Empire.
After hours wandering around the old town, I felt that something was missing. I realised that it was hassle. There are no guides, no touts, and no people jumping at you from shops and restaurants. After recent trips to Istanbul and Nassau, lovely as they are, this was a very welcome omission.
I was disappointed to find that the Moorish-influenced and beautiful City Hall is concealed under scaffolding. The building spent decades as the National Library until, along with the vast majority of its manuscripts and books, it was destroyed by shelling in 1992.
It is also where Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie began their extremely ill-fated journey through Sarajevo, tragically culminating down the road in their assassination at the Latin Bridge. As we all know from our history classes, their fatal shooting by Gavrilo Princip precipitated the First World War.
This bald fact is poignantly brought to life by the display of objects in the excellent, tiny Sarajevo Museum. You can see the clothes the assassin was wearing, the murder weapon, and photographs of the motorcade before and after the shootings.
The Sarajevo Museum’s big brother is the huge National Museum, which incorporates different buildings housing museums of ethnography and natural history. The latter is resolutely moth-eaten, and some Bosnian wags appear to have taken great pleasure in creating increasingly ridiculous tableaux of rearing bears, wolves and eagles grappling with each other.
Sadly, taking photographs of these freaky scenes is forbidden, so you will have to go and see for yourself, but I was still chuckling to myself days later.
The museum also houses the Sarajevo Haggadah, an extraordinary treasure under almost equally extraordinary security. Isolated in a room by itself and only visible from a distance, this precious 14th-century manuscript survived the Nazis and the Siege of Sarajevo, and it felt like a very moving privilege to see it in situ…safe for now.
I visited many places of worship: mosques, synagogues and churches. The two that captured my imagination the most were probably built almost contemporaneously in the 16th century.
Gazi Husrev Bey’s Mosque, the most significant Islamic holy site in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has an eerie tranquillity in its courtyards, set just off one of the old town’s busiest streets.
Then, a few streets away, the Old Orthodox Church has an impressive collection of icons and relics, centred around its altarpiece.
The door to the chapel was standing open but, reluctant to simply walk in, I went and spoke to a woman in the gift shop. She looked startled by my request for a ticket, shrugged and said I could pay two marks for a ticket if I wanted to. I’m still wondering if she simply made up a price of admission on the spot to please me.
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In Sarajevo, there are also some exceptional restaurants offering meals at very reasonable prices.
Widely touted as the top one, Kibe has a stunning hilltop setting from which to view the lights and rooftops of the city. They offer tasting menus of both entrees and desserts, accompanied by a heroically extensive bar menu. They also have two resident guitar players.
I was clearly apprehensive when they approached my solitary chair and began to play. Immediately and cheerfully they were ushered on to the next table by waiters who had spotted me recoiling involuntarily.
The food was delicious, the service friendly and the free honey brandy at the end of the meal was most welcome before I ventured back out into the blizzard.
Everyone I had spoken to from Bosnian barmen and a reflexologist to one of my closest friends in London, had told me that I must try ćevapi, a national dish consisting of lamb meatballs with pitta bread and onion.
I did try it, and enjoyed it, but must confess to feeling rather bilious after four days of Bosnian cuisine. It’s delicious but unremittingly heavy, and can leave you longing for foodstuffs without a coating of bread, sour cream or a dense layer of cheese.
For drinking, Caffe Miris Dunja on Cizmedziluk is a two-storey, family run cafe with great lattes and a fairy cottage ambience.
Although after 9 p.m., even midwinter, Sarajevo feels like a buzzing party town, bear in mind that many bars, restaurants and hotels are dry. Cafe Bar Opera has an unusual interior with walls made of tree trunks, and alcohol flowing.
If the dense, pulsing crowd was anything to go by, it’s quite the destination bar right now. The Wine Bar Brasil has a great wine list and incredibly tender steaks. The bar staff there offered to take me on a tour of the “real REAL Sarajevo” when their shifts ended, but since they knocked off at 1 a.m. that dose of reality will have to wait for next time.
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Understandably, Sarajevo has been eager to rebuild since the siege ended and, whilst not all of the new arrivals are architecturally felicitous, they all betoken optimism and growth, even under budgetary constraints. There are several new city shopping malls, which are a pleasant refuge from what can be bitter weather.
The city is justly gaining recognition for its thriving contemporary art scene, too. Galerija Boris Smoje provides one pleasant introduction. The art is packed on the walls and accompanied by beer and banter about how dangerous the proprietor is when it comes to surprising you with your drinks order.
Angelina Jolie’s recent directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a film depicting the atrocities committed towards Bosnian women during the Balkan war, has reopened some wounds in Sarajevo. There is much that is intensely moving here, but this cool, attractive city won’t allow itself to be patronised or pigeonholed.
As a woman travelling solo, expect to be fussed over solicitously or left untroubled as you wish, but don’t expect to get away from having a lump in your throat sometimes.