08.01.2015 | Saluting Sarajevo

It may well be cliché, but it is not unreasonable to describe Sarajevo, this small picturesque city at the foot of the Dinaric Alps, as a place of contrasts. In the historic centre, it is common to find Ottoman edifices juxtaposed against grand neo-gothic and Romanesque architecture of the Austro-Hungarian era; radiating outwards, ultra-modern high-rise developments flank dwindling ruins from the 1992-1995 war.

The new developments, which are springing up in the more prestigious areas thanks in large part to foreign capital, are conspicuous by their bright colours.  They are among the first objects to strike any visitor who is used to the drab architecture of the former Communist world.  Some of these buildings, it seems, drew their inspiration from Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn: a huge, yellow Lego-like structure designed by the celebrated Bosnian architect Ivan Straus in time for the 1984 Winter Olympics.  The hotel itself would later gain notoriety as the location of the flashpoint, said to have ignited the 1992 war, when Bosnian-Serbs loyal to their leader Radovan Karadzic, who was then using the hotel as a temporary bolt-hole, reportedly opened fire on protestors gathering outside.

Sarajevo is undoubtedly one of those cities where East meets West.  That the city owes its eastern influences to its Ottoman past is abundantly clear in the Old Town.  Known by its Turkish name Bashcharshiya (meaning main bazaar), in the 15th century the Old Town was a major trading hub, and at one point supposedly the second most important city in the Ottoman Empire after Istanbul.  Nowadays it still houses a lively collection of shops and stalls with all sorts of goods for sale.  Besides the delicious, kebab-type dish known as Chevapi, a local speciality found throughout the former Yugoslavia, you can find an abundance of local arts and crafts, from paintings by local artists to souvenirs made from the debris of war.  Stepping into Kazandziluk (Coppersmith) Street, one of the Old Town’s many crammed alleyways, you come across shop after shop selling handcrafted metal goods.  This was once the epicentre of the Ottoman-era copper guild and despite the monumental changes that the city witnessed since then, the craft continues to be handed down from father to son.

It is in the streets of the Old Town that a sense of the people emerges.  Despite the years of hardship and conflict, people are full of resilience and ingenuity, looking to the future with increasing optimism.  In one typical family-run business a photograph hangs on the wall showing former US President Bill Clinton posing with the shop’s owner and holding a copper plate.  Anyone who buys one of the quirky pens made of bullet casings will also need to call on some degree of ingenuity to negotiate the security controls of the airport.