Visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia

There are several ways to go to Sarajevo. One can always fly from several airports including Vienna, Ljubljana, Zagreb and Istanbul but it is rather expensive and one loses the flexibility somewhat. Train service is not fully re-established. The Sarajevo station is still partly damaged and it is not connected to any big foreign city. The only important routes are to a Croatian port and to Zenica. A train schedule from 1991 is still posted in the station. Of the destinations serviced at the time, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Banja Luka, Belgrade do not figure on the destination list anymore. Bus services are well-spread. Taking those inter-city buses seems to be a good option.

I drove from Zagreb through Karlovac on to the Bosnian border. The area south of Karlovac was occupied by the Serbians during the war and provides a feeling of what is to come in BiH. Many houses and other buildings are gutted and full of shrapnel holes if not destroyed completely. It is about 90 km from Karlovac to the border and the drive takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.

The border crossing is uneventful except the purchase of car insurance for BiH. Since no European insurance covers the country, one is obliged to buy one at the border. It is a further 350 km drive to Sarajevo. This takes at least four hours because the roads have only one lane for each direction and are not up to the western European standards: one has to drive carefully. There are blown bridges where the UN has built alternate routes. The traffic is very light, most of the time my car was the only one visible on the road. Most of the existing traffic consists of SFOR vehicles, vehicles belonging to the UN and other agencies such as CARE and UNHCR, and buses and trucks which all really slow you down. Be careful with speeding the rest of the time: the Bosnian police conducts frequent radar controls. The sides of the road are littered with burnt cars and at least one crashed plane (a cargo plane). Bihac is the first big town after the border and it is fairly normal: it barely shows signs of the shells it received during the war. However, after Bihac the buildings are mostly bombed, shot at, gutted, burnt. The road goes through ghost villages and villages with scant signs of life. I stopped for ice cream, drinks, CDs on different occasions, in both political entities. Both in the Muslim-Croat and Serbian territories, the locals I have dealt with have been friendly and helpful.

Although the police is visible and competent, SFOR (consisting of troops from 27 countries) is a good alternative when one needs any assistance. They seem to rule the place and (if you don’t happen to know their native languages) most speak English. They are mostly friendly and are glad to see someone from back home where things are normal.

Most locals speak only their mother tongues and maybe other languages of the former Yugoslavia. I communicated with them in Turkish (there are similar words), English, German (it is the lingua franca there) and Spanish (some people speak Italian, we could understand each other to some extent).

The route took me through Bosanski Petrovac, Kljuc, Mrkojic Grad, Jajce, Donji Vakuf, Travnik and Vitez and it is supposed to be the best route from Zagreb to Sarajevo. It goes through some Serbian-held territory. Shortly after Vitez, one reaches the only real highway in the stretch. The last 50 km before Sarajevo is on this highway which has 2 separate lanes for each direction.

In Sarajevo, only buildings which are privately owned and/or small enough to repair rapidly and inexpensively have been repaired since the war ended. Most buildings are still the way they became during the war: devastated.

There were 49000 hotel beds in Sarajevo before 1992. Since then they have been greatly reduced as many were simply erased off the map like the Bristol and Evropa were (although Evropa has re-opened a modern hotel close to where the old one’s shell still stands). Room rates are exorbitantly high and availability is a problem. Private accomodations constitute a solution. Bosnia Tours on Marsala Tita is one of the several agencies which book private rooms. A typical room costs about 40 DM. I parked my car on the sidewalk during my stay in the city for a rather negligible sum. As somebody said nothing is safe for sure in Sarajevo but car-theft seems not to be a big problem. Unless you are staying in a hotel, there are no underground garages or parking-areas with 24-hour watch.

Other criminal elements are also not very problematic. The city is probably safer than many European cities let alone the U.S. ones. The city center is calm and enjoyable, one can wander around at all times of the day. However, there are no guarantees. Also, one should not forget that there are many elements of the finished war in the city (and the country for that matter) and one of them is the fact that many people still have weapons. Wandering into the countryside is more dangerous. I was told of occasions in which people were shot in broad daylight without any reason.

Prices are quoted in convertible marka (KM) but only Bosnian dinar and DM are in circulation. 1 KM=1 DM=100 dinar. Although the dinar is the legal tender, DM is the de facto one and it is possible to get by using solely DMs. If the other person wants to give dinars back for your change, he/she invariably asks if it is OK for you. If it is not your last day in the country, there is no reason it should not be, you can always spend it. I have not encountered a single establishment which accepted credit cards; however, people told me that there are a couple of them. The best way to carry money is to have traveler’s cheques which can be cashed in several banks. The prices are generally low by European standards.

Eating and drinking is not a problem. The variety is not as high as in other European cities but food is plenty, tasty and reasonably priced. Sarajevans have a very vibrant café culture, which dominates their leisure activities. Beer is the most widely drank alcoholic beverage.

Don’t query people about the war. The memories are still fresh and painful. Also, many have reasons for trying not to remember their dealings during the war.

Don’t’ take pictures of people, homes or shops without asking them/their owners first. Not only is it impolite, there are people around who want to keep their existence low-key if not secret. You might get whacked like the guy who took pictures of a mujahedeen in Zenica.

Don’t treat people patronizingly or with pity. They are proud and civilized people.

Don’t question people about their ethnicity and/or political views.