Text by Matthew Lee
In a teahouse in Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s beautiful old town, fervent Bosnia-philes sip sahlep, a milky cinnamon drink, and exchange tales of how they discovered this underrated gem at the heart of Europe. “It’s my fifth time in Sarajevo,” says a bearded Turkish backpacker. “It’s like a quieter, cheaper, less touristy version of my hometown, Istanbul.” A German couple travelling through eastern Europe declare Sarajevo the undisputed highlight of their trip. Everyone nods in agreement.
The bohemian owners of Čajdžinica Džirlo (on Kovači), Husein and Diana, gambled heavily opening in the aftermath of the conflict that left their city devastated. It was a teahouse in a coffee town, a foreign concept in a city lacking foreigners. Business was slow at first, but now it’s so popular it’s hard to find a seat. Every year is busier than the previous one, they say, and 2013 is set to be the best yet.
For a town that was subjected to the longest siege of a capital city in modern history less than two decades ago, a surge in tourism is a sure sign of progress. Between 1992 and 1996, Sarajevo’s residents had to survive with limited access to water, electricity and food, and more than 11,500 of them were killed, usually by sniper fire or shelling. In some parts of the city, especially in the commercial district, the walls of buildings are still punctured with bullet holes. A few minutes’ walk from the teahouse is the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, setting off a chain of events that resulted in the First World War.
Sarajevo deserves better than to be forever associated with conflict. It’s a youthful, vibrant town where Muslims, Christians and Jews peacefully lived side-by-side for hundreds of years. An avowedly secular city where Islam is the principal religion, it’s almost always possible to get a beer with your meal. Downtown bar Zlatna Ribica (the Goldfish bar; 5 Kaptol, +387 33 215 369), offers a side order of delicious eccentricity with your beer. It’s dripping with retro items – there are black and white TVs everywhere, including one tuned to Fashion TV in the bathroom.
Thankfully, Baščaršija was spared the worst of the shelling in the Balkans conflict and 15th-century mosques, hans (roadside inns), hammams (baths) and a bazaar dating back to Ottoman times have survived. At Baščaršija cafés, teenagers smoke shisha and watch pop videos; in venues like Divan (77 Sarači), customers sip strong, thick and sugary coffee, another Ottoman import.
This month the city plays host to the Sarajevo Film Festival, launched during the siege and now regarded as one of the best in Europe. Bono and Angelina Jolie have attended in the past and raved about how much they love Sarajevo. They’re right – it’s beautiful, although that hardly comes as news to the old town’s tea drinkers.