Copyright on text and photos: 2007-2020 Mattia Alunni Cardinali ©, all rights reserved.No contents from this website may be used for any purpose without the author's consent.


(Scroll down to read the article)

Sarajevo, a walk in the every day life.

My arrival in Sarajevo is just the last stop of an amazing one-day trip. It started in Slovenia's windy and summery lands to then continue under the Croatian pale grey sky and the red sunset of Bosnia.The journey began in the morning, from Italy, but as soon as I got to Slovenia, a strange feeling of melancholy mixed with excitement suddenly overwhelmed me.

I had already been in the inner part of the Balkans once in the past, a quick but bewitching trip. An astonishing experience which I promised myself I would have done again one day or another: splendid people, an amazing culture, a fascinating history and this endless countryside where consumerism has still not arrived with its greed and voraciousness.

It is like coming back home after a long time.

The view of the mountains on one side, the highway running on the hills, the fields and the woods stretching to the horizon: this time all the way down to Sarajevo felt like a “welcome back”; The road, the buildings, the landscapes... the sensations: everything still the same as the day I left the last time I was here. Everything already so familiar.

As I have been stopping every now and then at some gas stations I have also started to get used again to the Slavic language: so strange to me, citizen of the “Latin Europe”, deep and strong; a “masculine” way of speaking, but at the same time intense and charming too.
In the meantime the human presence has slowly started to turn into a more rural existence, leaving room to a wilder nature; woods and plains, accompanied every so often by some abandoned service areas and old fashioned looking motels of the Yugoslavian era.

Driving through the Balkans is a time travelling experience: the more you get into this region and discover it, the more you are dragged back in time.

In the late afternoon I am already deep in the Croatian countryside, a few kilometres away from the Bosnian border.
At that point, the European look we are used to becomes just a far echo, occasionally reflected in the stretches of an early but incoming globalization.

Due to the mountainous shape of the country and to the current economic crisis, that makes the post-war recovery even tougher to face, highways in Bosnia-Herzegovina are still under construction; only a short stretch of about 80 Kilometres has already been built.
So from the Zagreb-Belgrade highway, inheritance of the Socialism golden era, my only way to get to Sarajevo is the county road.
It twists and turns through the river valleys and among the mountains, crossing many small typical villages, each one of which hides countless life stories behind the people's faces, the rust of the old agricultural machineries and the rough walls of the plain low houses.

Sarajevo is placed in a wide Bosnian influenced region, and long before I have started to approach the town, a multitude of minarets and mosques have caught my eye: they arise from the darkness of the night, and, entirely lit for the holy period of the Ramadan, look like they trace the way to follow.

As I have been driving through the suburbs down from the mountains that surround Sarajevo, a feeling of harmony has started to grow stronger between me and what is flowing before my eyes, giving me a feeling of connection with those places.
The town, painted in yellow by the light of the street lamps, has gradually started to introduce itself through the frame of the car window.
This kind of conscious approach, which has begun so far away this same morning, has taken me step by step closer to Sarajevo, so that now that I am actually standing on its ground we already know each other.

I am home.

Here is where Europe turns Southern and somehow alien to the ideology I have grown up with. All I am used to see, to hear, and that makes me feel comfortable in our chaotic towns, here is just not usual.
Here everything is different and, in fact, the first thing I find myself to deal with, is the surprise of finding a totally different environment from that which I used to hear about on the TV or to what people think or say.
Apart for the war news broadcasts when I was a child and for the history lectures about the First World War, I have actually never heard about Sarajevo or this part of Europe, just ingenuously knowing of the Balkan area as “the-place-where-gypsies-come-from”.
This is also caused by the misleading idea of the non-occidental cultures pictured as the bogeyman, the bad; in fact these are just different cultures, beautiful as any other, just underrated and ignored most of the times because not aligned with the western, our, mentality.

The arrival in a new place is always a peculiar moment of a trip.

At this very stage you feel like a guest in someone else's home, a stranger in a place which doesn't belong to you; a place that you realise you are not confident with, where you feel lost, where any glance longer than usual is enough for a feeling of uneasiness to suddenly overcome you.
But Sarajevo is different, it embraces you with its people’s warmth and friendliness and it soon becomes your second home.

Sarajevo is not a big town, it is not one of those busy European capitals.
I have always thought about Sarajevo as a big modern city, an Occident like town.
What I was expecting to see was a European outpost in the Balkans, just like Ljubljana or the Croatian seaside are already: tourism strongholds in a forgotten region.

Sarajevo is none of that
It is a small, compact town, lying along the valley of the Miljacka river, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps.
It is home to about 430.000 inhabitants on an overall population of almost 3,8 million people in the whole Bosnia and Herzegovina. A lovely and warm place to live in during the summer and a snowy and magic town in the winter.

The majority of the population is divided in Bosniak (the Bosnian Muslim community) and Serbian, respectively 48% and 32% of the overall, followed by the Croatian community, which represents 15% of the population. A minority of about 5% identifies itself as belonging to other ethnicities such as Yugoslavian, as the most patriotic or just nostalgic people say, or simply Bosnian.

The ethnicity subdivision of Sarajevo, which mostly reflects that of the population, is strongly influencing the religious side as well: 40% of the people living here follow the Islamic faith, about 31% say to belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church, some 10%, mostly Croatian, declare themselves Catholics and the remaining belong to other religious communities, mostly Judaism.

With all these religions and ethnicities one may think this is the most messed up place on Earth.

In fact Sarajevo is considered as a model when it comes to integration and coexistence of peoples. In spite of a progressive Islamisation of the country, still going on since the end of World War II and increased subsequently the Yugoslavian Wars, the capital has always kept high its character of multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan town, crossroad of cultures and meeting point between Orient and Occident, earning since the Ottoman domination the nickname of “European Jerusalem”.

Today walking down these streets feels like a journey through the centuries experiencing the upheavals that have taken place here.

From the city centre to the outskirts, Sarajevo has evolved in onion-like layers, with every government leaving its own stamp on the town's architecture.
The Middle-Eastern influence is predominant in the oldest districts, while the central part is distinguished by an Austro-Hungarian style, which progressively blends with the Brutalist architecture from the socialist period as one moves westward.

Turkish control has been fundamental to the town as it appears today.
After arriving in 1461, the Ottomans were able to transform a cluster of villages into a key town at the heart of the Balkans. Their long lasting legacy can today be admired in the Baščaršija neighbourhood.
Under the shadow of the 45 metres high Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque's minaret and the old lunar tower clock, the matured Turkish character is still alive and visible. The old professions are still practised by master craftsmen in their workshops, while, in the café right on the other side of the street, people dressed in traditional clothes smoke shisha and drink Turkish coffee, talking about business or just spending their time looking at the passers-by.

Chasing the scent of Sarajevo through its narrow alleyways and busy bazaars leads you to discover the town in all its intimacy.

Intrigued by the hidden treasures of this town I soon start slipping through gates and doors, eventually finding myself in small squares or surrounded by the shadow of old courtyards.
Here amazing carpets and tapestries, hand-decorated copper ware, spices and jute sacks full of all kinds of seeds, are bought and sold in a show of hands and trading.
At the same time the herbs’ aroma mixed up with the tempting smell of the local food attract my keen attention. Cheap but fulfilling dishes of the finest handmade Bosnian food are served to the people sitting at the small restaurant just a few steps away from me.

As I walk uphill from the old covered market (today named Dugi Bezistan), passing by the Sebilj fountain, and through the monumental cemetery, the Sun is setting behind me. I reach the Žuta Tabija (Yellow Fortress), the remains of the north-east bastion built in 1729, just in time to attend the firing of the cannon that marks the end of the daily fast during Ramadan.
From here I can see the Sarajevo skyline in all its entirety, shrouded in a fairy-tale atmosphere of blue and orange shades.

While the city lights begin to turn on, the Muezzins' "Allāhu Akbar" call from the top of the minarets announce the evening prayer to the faithful.

As the night falls on Sarajevo, the city turns into a completely different personality: the non-stop chaotic pulse of the markets is by now reminiscent of another town. All the amazing Eastern influenced architectures now become the background to the hidden Viennese soul emerging.
The pubs and clubs in the city centre become the focal point of the night life.
The hijabs give way to miniskirts and tight dresses that highlight the sensuality and elegance of Bosnian women.
At the hostel where I stay overnight it is not difficult to make new friends, and so the night passes in the delightful chill air of Sarajevo's summer, as I lie down on the porch swing with some beers before me, a barbecue and cheerful people from all over the world.
And when it becomes too late to stay out and party, the city goes to sleep: the day-time busy streets full of racing cars are now deserted; the mellow, sweet sound of the Miljiacka flowing is the only background to the town's artificial sounds: the noise of a broken air conditioner fan, the clicking of the neon lights, the dumb and steady alternating of the lights at the deserted crossroads.
Every now and then a TV screen reveals the intimacy of a dark living room, as if to testify the only sign of a sleeping civilization.

Soon the morning day-light break with its freshness from behind the mountains, and Sarajevo slowly wakes up from the night numbness, resuming its everyday routines.

Even though it is August, the morning air is pleasantly crisp.
As I am walking along the river bank I enjoy the showcase of Austro-Hungarian architecture: the University of Sarajevo, the Central Post Office, the National Theatre, the Academy of Fine Arts, paced by the many bridges built in the most different styles, from Ottoman to Victorian and Contemporary, which link the two sides of the town.

From the Markale open air market I end up in the upper part of the Mejtaš neighbourhood.
Here, in the streets of the 1960's working-class district everything is quiet, the streets almost deserted.
It looks like all the noisy traffic and the busy people have glided downhill to the congested Maršala Tita avenue. Just every now and then an old loud car or the tired steps of an elder gentleman coming back from the grocery store, break the gentle background noises coming from the flats' open windows: a commercial at the TV, a hoover, the sounds of a lunch being consumed, someone singing along a radio tune.

Sarajevo is showing itself in all its intimacy and I can finally feel its everyday life. I find again the same noises and habits of my house, but in people living thousands of kilometres away, and suddenly I feel completely at ease.
As I keep walking I notice there are small courtyards in between the blocks and in one of these I find the traces of the kids living there: they painted the doors of a handmade car box with the shape of their hands. Just few steps away there is an old playground in the tall grass: a swing, a slide and a couple of bright coloured seesaws.
The soft tweeting of invisible birds, the wind among the trees and the peaceful atmosphere clash with the strict concrete walls scarred by the bullets and the time. Among the bushes I see a bitch with her puppies playing around. Here in Sarajevo stray dogs are everywhere, there are a lot of them, they are by now part of the city and its inhabitants themselves. Somehow, together with the poor conditions of the buildings, they reflect the poverty and the hard times the country is passing through.

The consequences of the War have been terrible and the economic crisis is not making things any better.

After twenty years from the end of the conflict, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still struggling and a lot of people are still homeless and unemployed, or living on a minimum wage in temporary accommodations or “collective centres”.

Unfortunately, the façade of cosmopolitanism and inter-ethnic harmony cannot hide the political consequences of the Dayton agreements: a government split between Orthodox Serbs, Bosniak Muslims and Catholic Croats, each one of them with a veto power in the national parliament.
A fragmented internal administration with two entities, the Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, themselves divided in self-governed cantons, with about 150 municipalities overall.
All of this has eventually led to a polarised society and has taken the country to a political and economic stasis, causing the spreading of political corruption and turning into disillusionment the ideas and projects for a new Bosnia to be re-built.

As consequence of the disadvantaged conditions and the growing dissatisfaction, in February 2014 people took the streets demanding for jobs, better living conditions and perspectives for the future. Being part of the Bosnian Spring unrest, these have been the most violent scenes in the Bosnian post-war period, which brought to the resignation of the Sarajevo Canton Prime Minister and the beginning of a slow reformation of the administrative system and bureaucratic set-up.

But the country refuses to be defined by a War that happened twenty years ago and instead embraces its cosmopolitan mix of cultures, races and religions, trying to restore the conditions of growth and wealth of the Olympics time.

As I walk along the busy Alipašina avenue and I reach the Hamze Hume bridge, the Skenderija Centre rises flat in front of me like a tired concrete giant. Built in 1969 in order to host cultural and sport events, it became one of the Olympic venues when Sarajevo was chosen as the location for the 1984's Winter Olympic games. The building, impassive witness of Sarajevo’s history, is still stuck in the '80s.
The pavement by now worn out and torn down by the weather, is a resting place for stray dogs from the confusion of the town. What once was a prosperous covered marketplace is now just a decadent series of rusty shutters where only few little old-looking shops survive.

The golden years previous the war are just old memories buried under the dust and the broken glasses of the shop windows.

Inside the building the situation is even more desolate: the empty spaces once designed to host VIPs, events, gyms and the main arena itself, are a ghostly scene of decaying structures due to lack of upkeep.
The arena, reconstructed and expanded in a state-of-the-art ice-sports centre in the Olympic period, is still used by the home-town basketball team, but I cannot resist to climb the steep steps among the original wooden seats, and imagine how it could have looked like to watch a figure-skating event or ice-hokey match.
On the other side of the court a thick faded green curtain hides the opposite terraces and the commentary stations.

While roaming through the mazy basements of the building I lose the concept of time, and I stop every now and then in the dark to listen to the sounds and noises of this place: the roaring fans of the ventilation system, the noise of some basketball balls in one of the adjacent halls, the thin static sound of a dead neon light, someone working with a welding machine in the distance.
It is the sound of the post-Tito banishment era.

The last day of my trip I decide to go to the Soviet area of Sarajevo.

The central government of the SFRY (Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) heavily invested on the town during the years of the dictatorship, by turning it in an important industrial centre and a modern city.
Consequently it also built many new blocks, creating huge residential areas westward of Sarajevo in the municipalities of Novo Sarajevo and Novi Grad (indeed translatable in New Sarajevo and New Town).
This era, together with the Olympic period, marked the best years for the city in a long time, which reached the height of its splendour by the end of the '80s.
This also led many people from abroad to visit the town, creating a tourist boom that could have promised anything but what happened just few years later.

Here the imprint of socialism is still very strong, even after more than twenty years from the fall of Yugoslavia. Walking among these gigantic blocks and wide eight carriageway streets makes me feel like a Lilliputian in an over-sized town.
In the shadows of these squares and symmetrical blocks, like green patches in the Brutalist grey canvas, playgrounds and parks emerge, where children play and have fun under the omnipresent eye of the grenade craters on the buildings walls.

Today these colossuses stand by the shiny polyhedral buildings and skyscrapers of the new city centre; perhaps in a clumsy attempt to hide them and the socialist imprint they carry, in order to open Sarajevo to just another mould-made look, the Western one.
Eventually the contrast becomes even more evident, making it look more like a forced effort to forget the inescapable past than a way to move on to a better future.

The Slovenian and Croatian landscapes quickly run from the
window of the car. After hours spent driving the Sun
goes down as I cross the Bosnian border.

The flat Croatian landscape leaves room in Bosnia and
Herzegovina to wide valleys crossed by rivers along which
small rural villages and poor service stations arise every
now and then.

The view over the East side of Sarajevo from the so called
Yellow Fortress at sunset.

Bosnian flags in front of the Parliament building which was
rebuilt in 2006 after the attacks suffered during the siege
of the city in 1992.

Some people waiting to board the tram in the Skenderija
district. Sarajevo's electric tramway is in operation since
1885 and it was the first in Europe to run from dawn to
dusk and the second in the world.

A playground along Marshall Tito Avenue.

Sebilj, the Ottoman-style wooden fountain placed in the centre
of Baščaršija square in the heart of the old part
of the town.

When the night comes Sarajevo changes its mask, leaving
behind the daytime hectic town and uncovering a totally
different charming side.

Graffiti and bullet holes cover the walls of the buildings in
town, both as a testimony of the living conditions in
Sarajevo in two different moments of its history.

The current economic crisis makes the post-war recovery even
more tough to face, leaving many people unemployed and
homeless, in a cityscape that sometimes reflect the difficult
economic conditions the country is in.

Some dogs sleeping on the pavement. Stray dogs are very
common in Sarajevo, an issue that authorities are trying to
solve also through free adoptions.

The Skenderija Centre, built in order to house some of the 1984
Winter Olympics games, today shows evident signs of neglect.

The Skenderija Centre used to be a multi-purpose centre with
gyms and arenas for sport activities, a market, shopsand bars.
Today many of these spaces are closed and often vandalized.

The main arena of the Centre where today the local basketball
team still plays.

The VIP area of the arena, not in use anymore.

The tall and huge apartment buildings of the Grbavica district,
another heritage of the communist era when Bosnia and
Herzegovina was still part of Yugoslavia. The sign of the war
are still clearly visible.