From our second floor bedroom window we have an excellent view of the top of the mosque in the next street. The minaret is directly in front of me. On the first evening of our arrival I could detect movement in its upper reaches, and I imagine it was the muezzin who makes the call to prayer. I heard it like a soft melodic lullaby, but mostly the double glazed window shuts out the street noises if that is what you want.
Right now there is a street party in the square below us. There is a small plot of land where people have set up a marquee and tables and chairs, a loudspeaker and musical instruments, and hung up a sign saying ‘neighbors’. They are taking turns at singing their favourite songs, some of the women sway and dance, men duck across to a nearby bar to grab a beer. The local shopkeepers selling food and drink seem to have no problem with this, even though it is at the expense of them selling the food they have available.
People live in close quarters in the old town of Sarajevo, the Bascarsija area that is the historical and cultural centre of the city, dating back to the 15th century. The streets are always alive with markets, restaurants, bars and people and music. One could spend their whole visit to Sarajevo in this part alone. However, I did misunderstand something the taxi driver said on arrival, as there are no ethnic dividing lines in Sarajevo. In the space of a half kilometre square from our hotel there is a mosque, synagogue, Orthodox Church and Catholic Cathedral. The Sarajevans pride themselves on their multi-culturism, and are not focused on which religion you are, although it is well known that Muslim Bosnians are the majority population. The young girls who choose to wear the hijab are smartly dressed and in full makeup. The scarf only accentuates their beauty as most have fine features and high cheekbones. The majority of the girls dress identically to the non Muslim girls. We have no way of telling who is who, and it makes no difference anyway. I mention it only to illustrate the point that this appears a homogenous society. At the markets and shops, one can see modest clothing on sale next door to bikinis and underwear.
On Friday we took a two hour walking tour to orient ourselves. We were able to make it a private tour for just the four of us, and a delightful young girl named Elza led us around. We started at the spot where Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and inadvertently triggered WW1. I am a bit of a history nut, particularly war history, so I lapped up everything she had to offer on the events of that day. These are easily located on the internet, so I won’t repeat the story here, but what struck me was that if the driver had not turned down the wrong street, the assassination would never have taken place. No doubt, another excuse would have arisen to go to war.
About 80% of the city has been rebuilt, however some buildings pose special challenges. The city hall was built in 1896 by the Austro-Hungarian empire, and in a sign of unity, it combined Baroque with Moorish architecture. It became the city library after WWII, housing important and ancient books; and it was one of the first targets of the Bosnian war, in an attempt to hurt the culture of the city. To rebuild this building in its original style requires artisan skills that are no longer readily available. Elza told us that when the city acquired the site in the 1890’s, one homeowner refused to sell, on the grounds that it had been the family home for generations. Eventually the city fathers agreed to deconstruct the house block by block, and re-assemble it across the road. That house is still owned by the same family and run as a restaurant called the Inat Kuca – the stubborn house or House of Spite.
Back in the old town market areas, Elza took the time to explain to us the meaning of the designs in the kilims, and the handiwork of the metal beaters and other artisans. She does not want this tour to focus on the war, but it is difficult to avoid, so the slant is on reconciliation and defiance, for example, spent cartridges and mortar shells have been polished and redesigned into pens and vases. I have seen this before in Australia, using ordnance from WWI. It is not a new concept, but its frequency in the market is testament to how much is available in this area. On average 380 mortar shells per day fell on the city, and on one single day, more than 3000.
Everything in the old town is very close together, but there are so many alleyways and twists and turns that you can walk right past a hidden gem without knowing it. Elza takes us into a caravanserai (Morica Han), a motel of centuries ago, established for the traders who brought goods from Turkey. Downstairs was for the goods and animals, and upstairs were small rooms that the guests shared. It is courtyard style, green with vines, and cool. We go back later to enjoy a drink in the cool green sheltered ambience, and discover it is alcohol free. It is unusual to us that in one part of the street you can be served alcohol, and in the next moment it is not available. Nevertheless, we have pleasant service and enjoyable coffee, and a man next to us strikes up a conversation and tells us how much he loves Australia (courtesy of the Discovery Channel).
Nearby is a stone built, below street level, covered market that now houses stalls selling modern goods. We would not have appreciated the significance without a guide. She brings to life the traders who came with their precious silks, and who sold them in this undercover market, where the fabric was protected from the strong sun. The high narrow windows prevented light fading the silk.
(Elza is a pretty and petite young girl who wears a floppy hat of the style of the sixties flower power era. It keeps flopping into her eyes and she keeps folding it back in an unconscious repetitive gesture and any moment now Waddy is going to rip it off her head and throw it in the bin).
I think what the taxi driver was trying to say is that as one walks down the main pedestrian boulevard of Sarajevo, one moves from the Turkish Ottoman influence, into the Austro-Hungarian baroque style, then Soviet era blandness, and so on, as if it is a timeline of styles. You can imagine that the buildings have stood in this way since they were originally built, but one facade has been left destroyed to demonstrate what is involved in reconstruction, and many buildings are still pockmarked. Elza gently comments that if that is what the shellfire can do to a building, can we imagine what it did to humans.
One artist constructed something called Sarajevo Roses, a splatter of red paint on the ground at every point that someone died. They are being covered over now, as the locals were themselves disturbed by the constant reminder, so now only a few remain as testament.
Later that afternoon, as Bill and I are wandering the old town, we hear the sound of a drum and brass band coming from the Bey Mosque (Gazi Husrev Bey’s Mosque) the main mosque in town, the one that is near our hotel. It is not your standard British brass band, these men are playing ancient instruments, and dressed in a style from another era. We have no idea what the celebration is for, but we manage to jump on to the procession and mingle with the crowd for a moment.
Later that evening, we accidentally came across another dress up celebration. It was a gathering of young people from various nearby countries, dressed in folk dancing costumes. It is fantastic to see so much colour and history.
We were returning from Vrelo Bosne – the springs of river Bosna. Sarajevo is served by fresh water supplied from springs that have their source in the mountains. We have been refilling our water bottles from fountains dotted around town, fresh, cool and clear.
So in the late afternoon we launched ourselves into our first tram ride, to the edge of town, a place called Ilidza. Of course, we chose peak hour for this adventure, so the outgoing tram ride was standing room only, and the tram itself was ancient, wheezing and clanking along the track. It turns out that after the war, European countries donated old rolling stock, and as a consequence, Sarajevo has a tram museum on rails. I was going to say a United Nations of trams, but that would not be fitting, Sarajevans say UN stands for United Nothing. A comment on the failures of external forces in wartime.
From the end of the tram line, it is a decent walk up to parkland at the Springs of Bosne, possibly around five kilometres. We walked it on the return, as we were trying to wear off a cheese platter we had shared at a cafe at the park, but on the trip up to the park we shared a ride in a horse drawn carriage. Most of the time the horse clip-clopped patiently along the roadway, even though I calculated he was dragging about half a tonne of weight altogether. At one stage however, it became skittish and threatened to charge off. I wondered how that was going to look on an insurance claim – “thrown from wheeled carriage when horse bolted -“. Would the average bored administration clerk cope with interpreting that? Particularly when they are under orders to reject claims wherever possible? (Did I say that? Moi? Cynical? Moi? No way!)
When we reached the park I grumbled a little. The flowers must have been beautiful a few weeks ago, but the heat has got to them. Then there was the whereabouts of the wildlife…… “The brochure said ducks and swans.” I muttered to Waddy. My bottom lip was trembling, “I’ve been cheated!”
Then we saw them, not only ducks with ducklings barely a few days old, but a pair of swans with three fluffy grey cygnets – how cute is that! And of course the park WAS lovely. Gentle walking areas around the waterfall and lakes. Families out walking or playing together. It is a great ,joy since we have come to the Balkans to see the families out in the evening, enjoying the long days and warm weather, and the fathers so attentive. So much better than being indoors plastered to the television. This is one of the aspects of life in Europe that has it all over how we go about our average day in Australia. I could move north just to hang out in the open in summer. Not sure how I would manage winter though 🙂
Events of Friday 21st June 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, The Reluctant Retiree.