Approaching Sarajevo through Bosnia’s startlingly green and beautiful countryside, peppered with construction sites, it is quickly apparent that this is a nation in a state of physical regeneration. Whilst reconstruction is well underway, Bosnia is, on the other hand, clearly still trying to formulate its own national and cultural identity. Indeed Bosnia is a confusing dichotomy of hope in the face of a bitter recent conflict, and indifferent neglect.
Sarajevo has a vivacious, active feel to it and a vibrant nightlife – we had no problem discovering semi-concealed clubs in spite of our visit coinciding with the festival of Ramadan. Innumerable coffee houses, bars and cafés emerge from its still bullet-ridden buildings offering tasty local delicacies such as burek (effectively a Bosnian pasty) and apple strudel. Yet meanwhile there is little sense of nationalistic pride. A football world cup qualifier taking place whilst we were travelling through aroused barely any enthusiasm, whilst the national museum, a repository of important and rare artifacts, was spectacularly under-funded and practically empty.
It is undoubtedly possible to attribute such negatives to a preoccupation with rebuilding a war-torn society. More likely perhaps is that Bosnia’s religious and racial diversity (divided between Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats) does not lend itself to a sense of cultural unity. The nation’s ethnicity is rooted in its turbulent past and is manifested in Sarajevo’s fascinating architecture. For almost half a millennium the region served as a frontier for the Ottoman and then the Austro-Hungarian empires, resulting in a striking mix of Islamic and Baroque architecture.
Intermingled with these buildings are the functional, sterile edifices of Tito’s Yugoslavia and the glass structures of a regenerating post-conflict state. Transcending these visible phases of Sarajevo’s history are the bullet holes and shell damage that serve as a constant reminder of the war. Although there are the occasional causes for disconcertment in Bosnia, these ultimately only further the overwhelmingly charming and fascinating impression of the place. Sarajevo and the country as a whole are surely likely to become an increasingly major tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Make sure you get there before the crowds do.