A few weeks ago, writing about Belfast, I was reminded of another delightful, little-touristed European city whose recent past is marked by religious/ethnic strife.
That city is Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is sad and telling that the top “Frequently Asked Question” on Bosnia’s tourism Web site is: “Isn’t there still a war in Bosnia?”
Thankfully, no. The violent ethnic conflict that pitted Orthodox Christian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats against each other ended more than a decade ago. Today, the country —part of the Communist-era Yugoslavia — is a peaceful federation of coexisting territories divided along ethno-religious lines. And exotic Sarajevo, at once Oriental and European, is the gateway to a fascinating Balkan-Jewish heritage.
The second question on the tourism Web site was about land mines (for the record, populated areas are entirely safe nowadays), but my own curiosity was more tourism-oriented: After such a brutal and recent war, is there anything left to see?
The answer is an emphatic yes. Ringed by verdant mountains and crisscrossed by the Miljacka River, Sarajevo is once again one of Eastern Europe’s most attractive cities. Proud civic efforts have restored its scenic old bridges and pretty pastel buildings; the architecture is an attractive mix of Central European elegance and graceful Moorish styles of the Ottoman era.
Now is the time to visit Sarajevo, which has developed a welcoming tourism infrastructure but has yet to be blanketed with Western chains. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still inexpensive by European standards: You can eat well in a restaurant for under $10, enjoy a wide range of hotels for less than $100 per night and take buses all over the country for the cost of a New York taxi ride.
Kosher eating requires some careful planning, but it is easier to avoid pork in Bosnia than elsewhere in the Balkans, due to the large Muslim presence. Grilled patties of spiced ground meat are the ubiquitous snack; fresh, tomato-based salads and refreshing local beers are also popular.
But if there is one thing that seems to unite all Bosnians, Christian and Muslim, old and young, male and female, it is coffee. Strong, thick Turkish-style coffee in tiny cups is a Balkan obsession — preferably enjoyed over backgammon, in a haze of cigarette smoke. Bosnians are highly social, and cafes are full day and night.
A visit to Sarajevo starts amid the red-tiled buildings of the Old City, or Bascarsija — a fascinating, well-preserved district of ancient minarets, narrow alleys and bustling Turkish-style markets. During the centuries of Ottoman rule, Sarajevo was a major trading city. It was also a prominent outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose influence lives on in the broad boulevards and cosmopolitan, Viennese-style squares just outside the Bascarsija. Ferhadija Street is the grandest of these thoroughfares, an ideal route for strolling and shopping.
Sephardic Jews established a flourishing society in Sarajevo during the 16th century, welcomed by the Ottomans after being expelled from Spain. The historic Jewish quarter, known as “El Cortijo,” is adjacent to the Old City (its boundaries are generally considered to be Ferhadija, Mustafa Mula Beseckija, Gazi Husrev Begova and Jelice Streets).
The city’s oldest synagogue, which dates from the 16th century, today houses the Sarajevo Jewish Museum. Its artifacts, photographs and Ladino texts tell the story of a well-integrated community that distinguished itself professionally, commercially and intellectually — boasting seminaries and one of the region’s few rabbinic dynasties — before all but disappearing in the Holocaust, when Croatian fascists arranged mass deportations.
About 700 Jews still live at least part-time in Sarajevo, though few today speak either Ladino or Yiddish. Occasional religious services are still held in the so-called Old Synagogue, but most activity now takes place in the Ashkenazic Synagogue — a grand, turn-of-the-20th-century Moorish-style building — and the neighboring Jewish Community Center. The much-visited Jewish cemetery, located on a green hillside just out of town, is one of the most ethnically fascinating in Europe, with inscriptions in multiple languages.
Sarajevo Jewish expression is not limited to worship. During the Bosnian War, the religiously sidelined Jewish organizations were prominent in humanitarian activities. And today, a thriving gallery shows Jewish art in the Novi Hram (New Synagogue), a former temple adjacent to the Old Synagogue.
Art galleries of all stripes are sprouting up around the central city, signs of a cultural revival in full flower after the lean war years. For such a laid-back town, Sarajevo also has quite an invigorating nightlife: bars and cafés in the Old City explode with live music after dark, the wild rhythms of Balkan gypsy fiddles and clarinets mingling with Oriental-tinged pop.
It would be a shame to visit Bosnia without a side trip to the ancient city of Mostar, a few hours south. Spanning the Neretva River, Mostar is widely considered the most stunning place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its ancient stone buildings, graceful arches, and dramatic mountain scenery give Mostar a mystical beauty.
All of Bosnia mourned in 1993, when Mostar’s iconic, 400-year-old Stari Most (Old Bridge) collapsed from shelling. The bridge’s reconstruction made Mostar once again a key destination for lovers of history, romance and Balkan flavor.
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