Border Crossings and Sarajevo

by Elizabeth

Getting from Ljubljana to Sarajevo turned out to be an all day journey.  We had considered whether there was any way to break it up, but ultimately there was nothing along the way that we were particularly interested in stopping to do.  We’ve visited Zagreb on a prior trip (2011) and  stopping to raft in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was still a non-starter for my shoulder/elbow.  We opted to take the train instead of the bus, since I get car sick and can’t read or use the laptop on a bus.  In theory, the train and bus take more or less the same amount of time.

Our early morning train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, Croatia was uneventful.  The highlight was the fact that, upon crossing into Croatia, we had finally exited the Schengen zone.  We still have a couple weeks of eligibility left in the Schengen zone in case we need to return for any reason.  On our second train from Zagreb to Sarajevo we shared our 6-person compartment with one other person for the first hour and then had it to ourselves for the rest of the trip. 

We joked that in crossing over from Croatia to BiH, we would be making our own Brexit from the EU (or in our case more appropriately known as Dorsit).  As with Britain’s vote, our Dorsit did not go exactly as planned.  When our train got to the Croatian/BiH border, the Croatian engine detached from the train and left us waiting for the BiH engine to show up.  To further complicate matters, BiH has two separate political/geographic territories following the Dayton Peace Accords, so we needed a Republika Srpska engine (to be later replaced by a Bosnian engine).  We waited three hours for the new engine.  Our train had no food/beverage car.  The station that we waited at had a coffee machine and nothing else.  Not helpful on a hot day. 

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Waiting for a new engine on the Croatian side of the Croatia/BiH border.

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Stuck in Volinja.  Our passports had already been stamped by Croatian immigration officials, so for the three hours that we hung out in Volinja we were in a bit of an immigration limbo.

Finally, just before our engine showed up, an ice cream truck pulled up and there was a mad rush for everyone to get their ice cream (thanks to the helpful guy in front of us in line who exchanged a few euros for Croatian kuna!).  With this delay, our 12 hour journey became a 15+ hour journey.  Luckily, despite the heat we were fairly comfortable in our de-facto private compartment and were able to lounge the day away.

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Enjoying an amazing sunset from our (very late) train into Sarajevo.

Our train arrived in Sarajevo at about 9:30pm, so we headed straight to our hostel in old town Sarajevo and grabbed a quick dinner before calling it a night.  As with Ljubljana, old town Sarajevo is closed to traffic — however, this is more of necessity because the streets are narrow.  As a result, old town Sarajevo simultaneously felt older and more touristy than Ljubljana (as measured by the large number of jewelry and tourist trinket shops). 

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Our days in Sarajevo were fairly relaxed.  In part because we are less interested in traditional sights, such as museums, as we used to be. However, our pace in Sarajevo was largely dictated by the time it took to figure out where we would go next in BiH, how we would get there, and what our mid-range plans would be.  This was especially difficult in BiH because many of the activities rely on having a car or joining a tour and the country is given limited space in guidebooks (for instance, Lonely Planet does not publish a book dedicated to BiH, but sticks it as a section in other books).

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We ate our way through Sarajevo.  Michael enjoyed lots of Bosnian coffee, which (as shown above right) was presented self-serve style with one container holding hot water and the other very thick coffee with lots of grinds at the bottom.  The fried dough, known as “ustipci,” (above left) is a traditional Bosnian dish and typically served with soft cheeses, butter, and a tomato spread.

We took advantage of the fact that the old city Mosque is open to visitors and visited our first active Mosque of the trip (none of the Mosques we visited in Morocco were open to non-Muslims).   Consistent with the city’s religious diversity, we also visited the local Catholic cathedral and the Old Orthodox Church.

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View of the Mosque from the entrance courtyard.  I especially liked the large fountain used for cleaning prior to prayer.

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The ceiling of the mosque was gorgeous.

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View inside the mosque from the side-viewing area for non-Muslims.

Most of our tourist time in Sarajevo was spent learning about the war that engulfed the city in the mid-1990s.  On our first afternoon, we took a half-day guided tour to the tunnel that was built to supply Sarajevo during the siege from 1992-1996.  We’d normally visit a sight such as this independently, but in this instance the cost savings would have been minimal because the tunnel museum is out past the city airport.  The tunnel was built underneath the airport in 1993-1994 to link the besieged city with a small chunk of Bosnian-controlled land on the opposite side of the airport.  At that time, the Serbs had surrounded Sarajevo on three sides and the forth side was the Airport, which the UN controlled as a “neutral” party.  The short, narrow tunnel allowed supplies to be transported into the city and for some people to escape.  Only a short section of the tunnel is open to visitors and I was surprised to find that it was so small that even I had to duck at points. 

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Inside the “Tunnel of Life,” referred to as such because it became Sarajevo’s lifeline throughout the siege.

I actually found the tour itself (run through Insight Tours) to be really informative.  The bus ride there and back was spent giving the historical background of the war, siege, tunnel building, and ultimate resolution.  Unsurprisingly, the guides had a clear political bent, but everything they said was consistent with what we’ve read in other sources.  One thing quickly became apparent — there was no love lost for the United Nations.  Although he didn’t mention it during the group discussions, we later found out that one of our guides had lived in Sarajevo during the siege and had actually escaped after two years through the tunnel.

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View of the refurbished “Holiday Inn,” (now renamed Hotel Holiday) which remained in operation throughout the siege and housed foreign journalists.

We also visited the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The museum houses a number of items illustrating what life was like in Sarajevo during the siege, as well as photography exhibits showing the damage done to Sarajevo and the horrifying mass graves uncovered during the truth and reconciliation process from Srebrenica. 

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Mural outside the Historical Museum reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica.

Nearby, we wandered around the local university campus looking for a recent David Bowie tribute mural before walking back to the old town along the river (not quite as nice as it sounds, we ended up cutting back onto a parallel street for a bit of shade/something more interesting to look at since much of the route is along parking lots).  We also visited the Sarajevo Brewery Museum, home to the local Sarajevska beer.  As with everything in Sarajevo, the brewery can also trace its role during the war — its water well became a source of reliable safe drinking water for Sarajevo’s residents during the siege.

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The David Bowie tribute mural is painted on the side of one of the buildings along what because known as “sniper ally” during the siege.  While most buildings had been rebuilt/repaired, some remain as reminders of the war.

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Along the riverfront.

We had hoped to hike in the hills surrounding Sarajevo, but had difficultly finding reliable information about good routes that were accessible without a car.  Sadly, we found the local tourist office generally unhelpful with this effort, as they merely reported that walking in the hills was dangerous because of “wild animals,” theft, and potential remaining land mines.  We decided that we’d be better off looking for hiking opportunities elsewhere in BiH where more information might be available.

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Sunset in the old town.

Overall, I enjoyed Sarajevo (especially the food and the overall lower prices), but I never really felt quite at home there as I have in other cities.  I suspect that this may be due to the old town feeling especially touristy and the fact that we never found anyone who could give us reliable advice on how to further explore the city and surrounding area.

[We’re making an attempt to finally get caught up on getting our blog posts up.  This post describes our visit to Sarajevo on July 18-21, 2016.]

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One thought on “Border Crossings and Sarajevo

  1. Pingback: How to Find the Giant David Bowie Mural in Sarajevo | two backpacks, no plan

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