Finally leaving Sarajevo

Sarajevo to Mt Igman.

 

Sarajevo had a real grip on us and it was difficult to leave, the city is made up of an eclectic mixture of cultures and styles that makes it an enjoyable place to spend time. In fact we are so impressed not only by Sarajevo, but by Bosnia as a whole that we would love to stay here and try to find something productive to do…. I imagine the country is on the cusp of its tourism influx, especially as soon as a budget airline opens a route directly here. If it wasn’t the end of the summer and close to the harsh winter we would be highly be tempted to stay longer in the area, perhaps with the idea of exploring and writing a hiking guide for which there is nothing available and virtually no information online. The mountains here are truly spectacular, and lumps of exploding metal in the ground aside, are unspoiled. Villages are highly traditional, the people we meet are genuinely interested, kind and friendly – no jadedness from tourism. The cycling has been hard work, but any difficulty is cast aside at the feeling of true adventure and beauty on the doorstep of Europe. To be honest, the country is like an Escher drawing, an illusion that leaves you wondering why where everywhere you look is uphill!

 

If you are old enough Sarajevo is one of those places where the name conjures up memories of violent news footage; explosions, civilians cowering from sniper fire and death in markets. If you are not then its an almost unheard of city within a modern Europe. It is small for a capital, only 400,000 people live in the area, but this is great as it makes it compact and easy to get around. Surrounded by mountains, getting out into the countryside takes less than half an hour of walking. To describe the atmosphere and vibe requires a cheesy list of clichés that are almost embarrassing to write, but have ‘melting pot’, vibrant and crossroads of cultures for a start. Standing in one spot, you can look up to minarets, eastern Orthodox onion domes and catholic spires without having to move your head. The architecture reflects the diverse history of the region as each ruling power has left its mark; the old Ottoman warren of the old town, complete with the rich smell of shisha pipes, meat being grilled and old men passing the day drinking coffee, the grand Austro-Hungarian era streets with their shops, bars and river engineering, and of course the imposing brutalist socialism planned urban spaces. Just over 50% of the city is Muslim, but its not the head choppy off kind, its all very moderate with barely a beard in sight and alcohol firmly in the realms of acceptable even amongst the worshipers. The sounds of the prayer call across the city is fascinating, almost comforting as it inspires thoughts and feelings of an adventure truly underway. As each tranche of history has imposed itself on this slice of land, it has left an imprint that has not only remained, but thrived. Because of this, Sarajevo is a fascinating place and we highly recommend that you head there soon!

Anyway…. Before this all gets a bit to poncey… we had no idea what to expect. Unfortunately, when playing the word association game, Sarajevo and Bosnia are firmly in the Germany category… ie the first thing that would come to mind is war sorry Germany but its true..). Barely 15 years ago Sarajevo and its inhabitants were subjected to the longest military siege in modern times, with ‘Bosnian’ Serb forces almost completely surrounding the city for four years. The commander of the Serb forces issued the order for a slow continuous bombardment in order ‘to drive them all mad’. The reality and brutality are clear when you visit, the geography of the area offer any surrounding force an obvious advantage. The city is surrounded by mountains over 1500m high with which targets and locations can be chosen at will and with ease. Serbian snipers on the hills and in tower blocks of the small part of the city they commanded made life for the citizens hell. Carrying out any kind of daily activity was beyond hazardous, food and water availability was minimal, all utilities were destroyed and cut off, medical facilities were attacked and had no supplies. The limited UN presence seemed largely impotent, looking at the situation now it is difficult to see how such an event could have continued for as long as it did, with a clear aggressor and the fragrant and blatant continued impact on a largely civilian population. Fuel shortages, harsh winters and continued bombardment left conditions grim at best. Eventually, yet another mortar strike on a busy market which killed 68, led to NATO stepping in and bombing the sieging forces. In total, between 10 and 13,000 were killed during this time, not including any increased mortality from the lack of food and warmth.

With what we had seen on the Croatian border, we were expecting to see a city with visible scars. Yes if you look carefully you can see the liberal application of polly filler, but by and large the city has been completely rebuilt and evidence of the extreme bombardment is not as obvious as you would expect.

 

So leaving… the main road between Sarajevo and Mostar is renowned for being a nightmare. It is narrow, extremely busy with fast trucks and has many tunnels. Our prior research showed that people either grin and bare it (we had already been on this road and bottled it after 20km as it was terrifying) or take the train. While the train is very scenic, we decided to blaze our own trail and head into the back country in order to find an alternative route. We knew it was going to be hilly, we knew it was going to be tough but we had no idea if the roads actually existed and what state they would be it. Not showing up on maps, and barely a mark on google earth, we had a list of villages and time on our hands.

 

After coffee at our favorite small street side coffee shop we set off, it was Sunday morning so traffic was lighter than usual. Our route took us towards the suburb of Ilidza, the area where the airport is located. During the siege the airport and hills behind was the only part the Serbs were unable to close, providing a tiny, but vital link to the outside world. In xx , the UN took control of the airport in order to provide humanitarian assistance to those in the city (although they were never able to sufficiently cope) essentially blocking the two last Bosniak areas of control. The UN refused to let anyone cross, even though they tried despite the clear danger of being in an open area, prompting the Bosnian forces to build a tunnel under the airport. Taking four months and four days, the 800 meter tunnel built under the runway and between two houses allowed a small but vital lifeline into the city. Food, weapons, medicine and people could pass underneath, eventually a limited amount of electricity, fuel and telecommunications were piped through. Most of the tunnel has since collapsed, but a small part of this revered and important aspect of Sarajevo’s history has been preserved and turned into a museum. The residential house still holds the scars from the time, and the 15 minute silent video showing the destruction of the city acted as a sobering reminder of the cities past. The small section of the tunnel was how you would imagine it, small, cramped and crudely made, but it highlighted the ingenuity of people under adverse circumstances. I thought of the bike shop owner who recommended we visit it and how he passed through the tunnel, making the journey waste deep in water over ten times in order to obtain food to feed his family.

 

Finally departing the city limits the climbing started. Our aim was Mt Igman, site of the winter Olympics ski jumps and our route to the hills beyond. Although we were going from 400 meters to 1200 m, the gradient was not too steep and the road quality was good as it was built for Olympic traffic. After visiting the tunnel we didn’t start until about 1300, but our pace was quite good and we made it quite quickly to the top and the large plateau that we were greeted with. It was easy to find somewhere to camp, Sheena even managed to obtain some beers from a group of people who seemed to have rented a small house to have a party. Far from being quiet, the whole area was filled with people from the city having a picnic and playing about in the fresh mountain air. Although most left by the time it was dark, we were close enough to a group who were there to party the night away around a big fire… ahhh, what luck we had. After the big hill we were exhausted though, the lack of any shop meant we cobbled something together under the creepy watchful eye of wild dogs… After the sun set there was little to do except retreat into our sleeping bags for the first time in quite a while!

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