There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Sarajevo (1), The Old Town, The New Town and the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand: Part 1 of The Balkans

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The sun was shining as we left the terminal at Sarajevo’s small airport and found our way to the taxi rank for the ritual ripping off of the new arrival. ‘Fixed fare to the Old Town,’ the driver said when I naively suggested he might switch on his meter. 30 Marks (£12) may or may not have been the correct fare but it was, we would discover, expensive compared with other local taxi rides.

Sarajevo lies along a narrow valley with mountains surrounding it on three sides and the airport on the fourth. The drive to our hotel, a hundred metres uphill from the Old Town, took us the length of the long thin city as we journeyed back in time from the modern airport, through the 1960s' apartment blocks – some of outstanding ugliness - through the turn of the last century Austro-Hungarian administrative area and round the pedestrianised Ottoman heart of the Old Town. In each district many, perhaps most, buildings were pock marked with bullet holes, while some bore the scars of more serious damage.

War damaged buildings,
Austro-Hungarian quarter, Sarajevo

The earliest Balkan civilization was Hellenic, the area being known as Illyria from the 8th century BC. The Romans duly took over and when their empire fractured the region was absorbed into the Byzantine Empire. In the 6th century AD Slavic tribes started to arrive. Bosnia emerged as an independent kingdom when the Byzantine Empire disintegrated and from about 1180 to the mid-15th century it was a power of some importance.

The expanding Ottoman Empire swallowed Bosnia in the 1460s, and that was the end of independence until 1991. Sarajevo was founded in 1461 as the administrative capital for the new Ottoman province. When the Ottoman Empire declined, Bosnia became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when that fell in 1918, it joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes - later Yugoslavia.

The Ada Hotel

We checked into the tiny but excellent Hotel Ada and, after complimentary tea and cakes, took the short walk into the Old Town. Baščaršija Square, known as pigeon square for obvious reasons, is surrounded by cafés. The centrepiece, the Sebilj, looks Ottoman but is actually a drinking fountain erected by the Austrians in 1891.

By the Sebilj, Baščaršija Square

Narrow alleys lead off the square, each devoted to a single craft.

Metalworkers Street off Baščaršija Square

Not far away are the Gazi-Husrevby Kakuf buildings, constructed in 1530 by the Ottoman governor of that name. There is a madrassa, an imposing mosque….

The doorway of the Gazi-Husrevbuy Mosque

…a covered bazaar, which still houses stalls selling linen and second hand books…..

Gaz-Husrevby Covered Bazaar

…. and, unusually for a mosque, a clock tower which could be Italian but for the Arabic numerals on the clock face.

The Gazi- Husrevby clock tower

Gazi-Husrevby may be the oldest but it is certainly not the only mosque in the Old Town. In fact it is a surprise to find a church in such essentially Turkish surroundings. The Old Orthodox church is a 1740 rebuild of a medieval original. Although austere on the outside, the inside is anything but. The church is wider than it is long so has room for a huge iconostasis which is jewel encrusted and festooned with icons. There was also a relic of Saint Thecla and an icon in a glass case that all the other visitors when we were there thought it necessary to kiss.  

Orthodox Church
Old Town, Sarajevo
One evening we walked further up the hill behind our hotel. In 1697 the Austrians rampaged across the Ottoman Empire, trashing Sarajevo as they went. In response the Ottomans built the Vratnik citadel, enclosing 50 000 m² at the head of the valley. Part of the wall has recently been rebuilt, but we left that for later and continued to the Yellow Bastion, a crumbling grass-covered stone structure giving magnificent views over the city.

I intended this narrative to follow the history of the city rather than the random wanderings of our visit, but the past is not so orderly. In the foreground of every photograph taken from the Yellow Bastion is a massive Muslim cemetery containing the graves of eleven hundred victims of the siege of Sarajevo, 1991-95.

Sarajevo from the Yellow Bastion

All across the city pencil-slim minarets pointed to the heavens. As dusk fell we heard multiple calls to prayer; the familiar clipped Arabic syllables sung to notes more than usually attuned to the European ear.

When the Ottomans arrived the people of Bosnia were overwhelmingly Christian; Catholic Croats who used the Roman alphabet, and Orthodox Serbs who spoke the same language, but wrote it in Cyrillic, though the orthographic distinction was of small interest to the largely illiterate peasantry. Under Ottoman rule there were distinct advantages in being Muslim and gradually, beginning with the administrative classes, Bosnians started to convert. Eventually there were three distinct communities in Bosnia; Muslim Bosniaks (now 48% of the Bosnian population), Orthodox Serbs (37%) and Catholic Croats (14%).

The first night, we dined at Pod Lipom (Under the Lindens) a restaurant in the Old Town. Observing the other diners, we started with a glass of šljivovica, the fiery plum brandy popular all over the Balkans, accompanied by plate of full flavoured local cheeses. For the main course we chose a mix of local specialities; Bosnian cooks like stuffing vegetables – onions, peppers, vine leaves - with minced beef and covering them with a sauce based on sour cream. A bottle of Montenegrin Vranac, a dark wine with a powerful smoky nose, but lighter palate, was a fine accompaniment. After starting with brandy and cheese we could have eaten our entire meal backwards by finishing with soup, but only in Hanoi have we ever encountered a ‘dessert soup’, and anyway we were too stuffed even for a slice of baklava.

The next two days were drizzly and cool. At home we would have been basking in a late spring heat wave; meteorologically we were definitely in the wrong country.

After an hour in the Old Town on Wednesday morning we returned to our hotel for more and drier clothing. In typical Hotel Ada style, no sooner had we reached our room than the proprietor appeared at the door with a tray of tea. Refreshed and more appropriately clad we walked through the rain to the Bjelava district which sits on the lower slopes of the mountain immediately north of the Old Town. It is a mixed residential area with apartment blocks and new brick houses among some old Turkish style dwellings.

The Bjelava district in the rain

The Svrzo House (vowels sometimes seem an optional extra in the Balkans) is the oldest house in Bjelava and, according to the Lonely Planet, ‘the best preserved Ottoman-era courtyard townhouse anywhere in the Balkans.’ With an inner and outer house, wooden balconies, a fully furnished dining room with traditional bench seats.....

Ottoman style dining room, Svrzo House
Bjelava, Darajevo


Bedroom, Svrzo House
Bjelava, Sarajevo

......bathrooms and kitchens it gave an insight into the very Eastern lifestyle of the well-off in the Ottoman era

We made our way back down to the old town down streets which sometimes turned into stairs.

Down to the old town on streets that sometimes turn into stairs

We were heading for a café we had earmarked earlier. Lunch, we had learned on Tuesday, can be a problem in Sarajevo. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of cafés, but coffee is all they sell, with maybe a cake or an ice cream. There are doner kebab stalls – which are every bit as appetising on their home turf as they are in England – and Čevabdžinica, cheap eateries whose specialities, which include ćevapi (grilled cylinders of minced beef) and burek (much the same but encased in filo pastry) are a touch heavy for a light lunch - and they only serve soft drinks. There are bars for those who just want alcohol, but finding the equivalent of a beer and a sandwich required perseverance.

We had spotted a suitable place for lunch an hour or two earlier, before the rainstorm that drove us to change our clothing. Nearby, we had sipped coffee sitting on the carpet covered bench seats outside a typical Ottoman coffee shop on the boundary of the old and the Austro-Hungarian towns. We looked east…..

Looking right into Ottoman Sarajevo

….and then looked west, both actually and figuratively.

Looking left into Austro-Hungarian Sarajevo

Immediately after I had taken this photograph the light drizzle turned into steady rain, which was good news for the umbrella salesman (bottom left) if for no one else.

The Ottoman Empire frayed at the edges long before it crumbled at the heart. Rioting by starving Bosnians peasants after a disastrous harvest in 1875, sparked off a series of revolts across the Balkans. Three years later the Congress of Berlin invited the Austro-Hungarians to occupy Bosnia to calm the situation; occupation was followed by annexation in 1908.

Many Muslims emigrated to Turkey; those left behind started, for the first time, to develop a Bosniak identity.  Sarajevo had quietly prospered under the Ottomans and did as well under the Austro-Hungarians. The city acquired a selection of solid and imposing buildings as the new rulers set out to make the city a modern European capital. Sarajevo had electric street lighting before Vienna (better to test such dangerous new technology in a remote part of the empire) and the first electric tramway in Europe (and the second in the world, after San Francisco).

Central European neo-Classical Sarajevo remains a city at the juncture of three cultures; it still has mosques, but also churches, including an Orthodox Cathedral…..

The Orthodox Cathedral

……and a Catholic Cathedral….

The Catholic Cathedral

…..and even a pair of synagogues.

The Ashkenazy Synagogue

And let us not forget the brewery, whose products we enjoyed several times.

Trg Oslobodenja (Liberation Square) has a peace monument, which is in poor repair (fortunately the same cannot be said of the peace) and a giant chess board. Whenever we passed there was always a small crowd watching – and advising - the players.

Playing Chess, Trg Oslobodenja

The River Miljacka, which flows through the whole length of Sarajevo, may be small but frequent, often devastating, floods led to it being canalised in 1891. Consequently the buildings along its banks are entirely Austrian.

Beside the river Miljacka

The riverside Despića House was owned by a wealthy merchant family who also formed Sarajevo’s first theatre company. The ground floor dining room could have been in the Svrzo House - bar the paintings on the walls - but the upstairs salon is pure 19th century Viennese. The room across the landing, decorated with icons, was more eastern orthodox.

Viennese salon, the Despića House

Understanding the politics and tensions that led to the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century is beyond the scope (and ability) of this blog. However the events of the 29th of June 1914 that thrust Sarajevo into the world headlines for the first, though sadly not last, time in the 20th century are easier to explain- though not to understand - and happened only 50 m from the Despića’s front door.

Nationalist factions in independent Serbia hoped to shake Bosnia free from the Austro-Hungarian empire and incorporate it into a greater Serbia – much the same ambitions caused the 1991-5 war. To this end they planned to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, while he was on a well-publicised visit to Sarajevo.

The plot involved the deployment of six potential assassins along the route of the Archduke’s motorcade from the station to the town hall. The first two failed to act, the third threw a bomb which bounced off Franz Ferdinand’s car and exploded under the following vehicle injuring 20. The failed assassin attempted to kill himself by taking a cyanide pill and jumping into the River Miljacka, but the cyanide pill only induced vomiting and jumping into the Miljacka is more likely to break an ankle than cause drowning.

The Miljacka - in places as much as 10 cm deep!

After the attack the motorcade proceeded at high speed and the remaining assassins, including Gavrilo Princip, were unable to act.

The Royal party lunched at the Town Hall, which later became the National Library and was destroyed during the siege. It is currently being rebuilt and from what we could see through the scaffolding, was once a great building and will be again.

Me and the largely rebuilt National Library and former Town Hall

Abandoning the planned programme, the Royal Party set off towards the hospital to comfort those injured in the morning’s bomb attack. General Potiorek, in charge of security, decided the royal car would be safer to follow the river all the way rather than go through the city centre. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell the driver.

By the Latin Bridge the driver turned into Franz Josef Street. General Potiorek, who was travelling on the car’s running board, stopped him, ordering him to reverse. The driver stalled the engine and locked the gears.

The Latin Bridge with turning into Franz Josef Street next to the museum

Believing his chance had gone, Princip went into a bakery on the corner of Franz Josef Street - the building that is now a museum. He came out to find Franz Ferdinand right in front of him in a stationary car. He fired two shots, killing Franz Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess Sophie, though he later said he intended to kill Genreral Potiorek , not the duchess. He was not a good shot as he next attempted to shoot himself and missed.

There used to be footprints on the pavement marking the point where Princip had stood. That seemed a little frivolous after the siege so they were removed and the point is now marked only by a plaque.

The plaque on the wall of the museum

The museum tells the full story of the assassination and also has Princip’s gun.

The lower gun is the one used in the assassination

The conspirators were arrested and tried. Some were hanged but several, including Princip, were minors so were sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment.

Baldrick was bemused as to how the murder of an ostrich called Archy Duke in a place he had never heard of could have started a World War. It remains a good question. A month to the day after the assassination Austria declared war on Serbia, the next day Russia mobilised, followed by Germany on the 30th of July and France on the 1st of August. On the 4th Great Britain declared war on Germany. Princip could scarcely have imagined the far reaching consequences of his actions. The whole of Europe, it seems, was spoiling for a fight and perhaps if Princip had not provided the spark, another excuse would have been found. Whether or not he was truly responsible, Gavrilo Princip did not live to see the end of it. He died in prison from tuberculosis in 1916.

Despite Princip’s efforts many Bosnians fought for Austria-Hungary in the war. When it ended Bosnia joined the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon renamed Yugoslavia.

Bosnian involvement in World War II started when the axis powers invaded the Balkan Peninsula in 1941. Temporarily absorbed into the puppet Croatian fascist state, the city of Sarajevo avoided most of the horrors of the war though Bosnia saw its share of fighting in a three cornered war between fascists, communist partisans and Yugoslav monarchists. The defeat of fascism, and those who died defeating it, are commemorated by an eternal flame outside the Finance Ministry (is it just me, or is that an odd juxtaposition?) We missed it when we walked past on Tuesday (could the ‘Eternal’ Flame have gone out?), but passed it again on Wednesday when we took this photo.

The eternal Flame outside the Finance Ministry
After World War II, Sarajevo carried on quietly as the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Marshall Tito’s Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. A friend who visited in the 1970s was impressed by a multicultural city where everybody seemed to get on so well with everyone else. We know now there were tensions below the surface, but no one would have predicted the horror that was to come.

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