A WEEKEND AWAY IN BOSNIA, Bahar Sinem Özkesici Ünal | 28.06.2014

During the war I kept track of everything that has been said and done, and watched every movie that had been shot about the tragic events, about the city of sorrow, Sarajevo...

For two reasons I have been wanting to go there for such a long time. Firstly, I was curious how everything looked like there after the war. Secondly, my family originates from the Balkans. In April, we finally decided our travel route and booked a weekend away.

Saturday, early in the morning, we were at Atatürk Airport, Istanbul. It took one and half hour to fly to Sarajevo. Due to our Turkish citizenship, everything went smoothly at passport control.We took our baggage and hit the streets to our hotel. All through the ride to our hotel we watched the scenery pass us by, the apartment blocks looked like mass housing and were riddled with holes because of the shelling. The airport was near the town, and our hotel was very close to Bascarsija, which is kind of the city center. The hotel we had booked turned out to be quite small but clean. We left our baggage in our rooms and left.

We decided that we should see the Tunnel of Hope before we started our sightseeing tour of Sarajevo, so we went there without wasting any time because we had heard that the tunnel closes early. The tunnel is in a village at the back of the airport. The best way to go there is to take a cab because the route is a little complicated and the cabs are very cheap. You reach the tunnel through a house. Between 1992 and 1995, during the civil war, the Serbians laid siege and blockaded Sarajevo, no help from the outside could reach them. Then, a good Samaritan, an old lady, opened her house to the Bosniak resistance. They dug a tunnel through the house which led to the airport. Ammunition, provisions and help were transported through this channel, without the Serbs realizing, and distributed to the people who were besieged in Sarajevo.You can see lots of objects, photos and videos related to the war at the museum. The museum, which is part of the tunnel that has been converted, can be visited for a very small fee. It was really interesting, and a must see to understand what people have been through. After our tunnel visit, we returned to the city heartbroken.

Before hitting the streets we wanted to visit Kovaçi War Graves, where the graveyard of the great Bosniak leader Aliya İzzetbegoviç is. You'll find the war graves easily if you walk from Bascarjiya up to the mountain side. After all those memories at the tunnel, this graveyard sat like a lump at my throat. All this suffering, tears and blood shed, and all of them being so recent, is really such a painful situation.

Following the graveyard visit, we went to Bascarsija. When you reach the downtown area, the first thing you see will be the old trams and the Sebilj, which is also called the Sarajevo Brotherhood Fountain. Honestly, in a certain way this place reminded me of Turkey. The people are like us (Turks), most of the population is Bosniak Muslims; there are also people from Croat and Serb origin still living there. The houses, the streets, all resemble the small villages in Anatolia. The souvenirs are the same as the ones sold in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, in fact, most of them came from Turkey. There are a lot of copper trays, coffee caps, rugs, nargilehs etc.

Strolling around the market place, we came across to some Ottoman heritage; the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque, the Ali Pasha Mosque, and Bedesten, where the tourist shops are settled. There are also some chain stores and banks from Turkey too.

We were hungry and wanted to try the Bosniak Burek (pastry) as soon possible. There were lots of pastry stalls in the market place, “the most crowded one should be the best one” was our simple logic and we jumped in. The blonde, typical Bosniak girls wearing headscarves were sitting at the tables. We ordered two portions of Bosniak Burek. The bureks were irresistible really. Despite the generosity of the portions we gobbled them up, and the prices were really low too. For two portions of burek we only paid 10 Turkish Liras (around $4.30). After having our fill, and strolling around the market place we decided to try their desert and have some Bosnian coffee.

At the market place we went into a patisserie which seemed nice from the outside. I ordered the famous cheese desert Trileche, which looked like a white tiramisu and my husband ordered one of those apple deserts with cream served in cups, and of course two Bosnian coffees. Both of the deserts were very yummy, and the Bosnian Coffee resembles Turkish coffee very much. Only the preparation and presentation are a little different. The coffee is served in pot with cups that already have sugar inside of them. You pour the coffee into the cup and melt the sugar, that's the way to drink Bosnian coffee. If you ask me melting the sugar later makes the coffee cold but we loved the Turkish delight and the cinnamon sherbet that came with it. Finishing our deserts, we hung out at gift shops for some souvenirs.

Then we went down to the side of Miljacka River. Like most of the cities in central Europe a river passes through the city of Sarajevo too. Along the river there are bridges in a row. One of them is the spot where the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking the beginning of World War I: The Latin Bridge, just a little ahead, in front of the magnificent Music Academy, is the New Bridge designed by three Bosnian young architects. It seems like it has been bent, it's an interesting and beautiful bridge.

In the city, there were still lots of buildings with bullet holes. Looking at those buildings, one can't help but feel blue and think of the days during the war. We’re not sure whether they don’t have the money to restore the buildings, or whether they have kept them as an example.

Strolling around the streets we stumbled upon a very lively place with lots of cafes in a row. Probably it was the hot spot where the Bosnian youths hang out, it was a fun place. It was around evening time and we were starving and eager to try the meat balls called Cevabi. With the same tactic, we chose the most crowded cevabi restaurant. There, and in a lot of places, we heard people say “Cevapcici” when ordering meatballs, we later discovered it means meatballs and Coke. They used the initials of coke. We ordered our cevabi meatballs. They were inside of a flat bread, kajmak with onions as the side dish. They call the heavy, creamy yoghurt kajmak, and it's fabulous. It's served traditionally as a side dish with meatballs. Cevabi also resembles our (Turkish) Inegol meatballs. They were really delicious and the prices here were also low. For the whole meal, with drinks, we paid 15 TL (around $6.50). By the way, the other Bosnian delicacies you should try are, Pleskavitsa (it's like a big hamburger meatball but it's more juicy and very delicious), Sahan Dolma (stuffed Pepper, stuffed grape leaves and stuffed onion, a mixed plate), and Begova (a soup from Ottoman cuisine, with gravy and vegetables, a perfect soup.)

We started our second day with a breakfast at the hotel, but it was a mistake that we realized too late. When we returned home, we realized that we should have gone to a patisserie to eat burek. Enjoy the Bosniak Burek, when you have the chance. Better than regretting later.

On the first day we had completed our list of places to see in Sarajevo. We spent the second day outside the city with a rental car. First on our list was to go to Mostar, which was very important for us, naturally. Since our driving licenses were also valid there and the gas was cheap, it was a lot more fun to go by the car, and do some sightseeing on the journey. The directions were really easy and we hit the road with a map we got from the hotel. Our route was quite simple and plain. There was a plain ring road going to Mostar but it was kind of old and there was no highway, and a speed limit everywhere. Your average speed should be 50 -80 km to Mostar, and sometimes police can pull you over. That's why I recommend you to be careful. On the road we were fascinated by the beautiful and untouched nature of Bosnia Herzegovina, it was so green. All along our route there was river flowing exuberantly on one side, on the other there were mountains and forests. On the way we also saw villagers selling different kinds of honey by the roadside.We assumed it would be natural honey and stopped to buy some. Chestnut, monofloral, acacia, pine, there was a great choice, 1 kg was around 10 TL (approximately $4.30).

On the road, when you pass through the Jablanica village, you'll see the village specialty; the lamb chawarma restaurants, absolutely stop by and try the lamb. We went to Zdrava Voda without knowing that it was the most popular of them all. We ordered a mixed plate of lamb chawarma. The portions were really big, they also serve salad and fire roasted pepper as a side dish. With the drinks it cost around 45 Liras (approximately $19.50).

Try to stop by the historical Ottoman village, Konjic, on the way. You will love the old Ottoman settlement and the Konjic Bridge, which was constructed by order of the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed the IV. Despite the war, they have preserved this place very well. It's a very clean and a decent place. On the way, seeing the war graves once in a while and remembering the past broke our hearts. It's impossible to forget those days in Bosnia, everywhere is full of fresh memories of the war.

With a maximum speed of 80 km per hour, it took us about three hours to reach Mostar. It was very easy to find a parking place in the town. Mostar is very beautiful; just like a post card. It's full of tourists from all around the world, and there are a lot of people, especially from Turkey. The Mostar Bridge, which was designed by Mimar Hayreddin, the apprentice of the famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan, in 1566, and was destroyed during the war but later with contributions from TİKA, the World Bank and UNESCO, it was rebuilt in the style of the original. In the past, the young men of Mostar used to jump from the bridge to prove themselves to the fathers of the girls with whom they want to get married. Right now there are young boys who leap from the bridge for a fee as a touristic attraction.

Among the souvenirs there were lots of pieces from Turkey. They also sell some stuff dating from the war as souvenirs, like soldier helmets, with bullet holes in them, gas masks, bullets etc. I found it kind of ironic.

We spent a lot of time in Mostar, strolled around every street, and took lots of pictures. We sat in a very cute cafe, close to the bridge, called Caffe Stari Grad, our table was on the street. We ordered our Bosnians coffee. When the waitress learned that we were from Turkey, she tried to speak a little bit Turkish with us. To our surprise Turkish TV series are very popular there and she was a big fan. She had learnt some Turkish from watching the TV series.

At Mostar, the prices were a little higher due to it being a touristic place. The things you can buy for 1 BAM (Convertible Mark) cost 1 Euro in Mostar.

You can't get enough of Mostar! It was a really hard decision to drop by Blagaj for a short time and hit the road to go back home, as our time was very limited.

Blagaj is very close to Mostar, just a few kilometers away you'll see the sign wher you have turn off. It's a wonder of natural place. It's again all green, surrounded with mountains and rivers. The water springs out from the mountain like a waterfall and flows exuberantly to form the Buna River. On the side of the mountain, where the river comes from, there is the 600 hundred year old Sarı Saltuk Blagaj Tekke (sufi monastry), which was a very important place for Muslims and a hub for Turkish tourists.

It's a marvelous feeling to eat river fish at the restaurants on the river side enjoying the beautiful scenery. After visiting the Tekke, we had our dinner at the fish restaurant with the best view. It was getting dark so before it got too late, we hit the road.

When we got back to Sarajevo it was almost 21:00. Early in the morning the next day, we would be going back home, to Istanbul. We decided to buy fresh burek for our loved ones, so we ran to the patisserie. In Sarajevo, burek is something to be eaten at every hour of the day or night, so, the patisseries are open from the early hours of the morning till really late at night. There was also a butcher that was still open on the street just next to our hotel. We bought Bosnian sujuk (spicy sausage) which everybody had been praising. The Bosnian sucuk is always made from veil and is smoked. It doesn’t have too much seasoning. I advise you to try the smoked sujuk, which gives you the full taste of the meat. The coils were really big and the price is around 7 Liras (about $3). We regretted that we didn't buy more when we got home and tasted them. After a very beautiful day, we were worn out, but it was a nice feeling. Strolling the streets we returned to our hotel and started packing up for our return journey.

Bosnia Herzegovina, with all its history, all its sorrow remaining from the war, all the similarities with our (Turkish) culture, and all the wonders of nature and delicious food, is a country we strongly recommend you to visit.

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