A Journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Where Sleeping Beauty Awakens – Smart Media Magazine

A Journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Where Sleeping Beauty Awakens


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there stood emerald peaks woven with crystalline rivers, hillsides garlanded with stone villages, and canyons joined by lofty bridges arcing toward the heavens. This enchanting realm even had a suitably enchanting name: Bosnia and Herzegovina, as melodious as Narnia, Utopia or Shangri-La, worlds that exist in the imagination, not on maps.

But Bosnia, of course, isn’t exactly a fairy tale.

As much as I’d prepared myself, it didn’t register when I first glimpsed it: an apartment block a few minutes from Sarajevo’s airport, its otherwise unremarkable facade speckled with unseemly blisters. Soon after, a building with a gaping chasm where a window might have once been, and then another, with chunks of plaster gouged out like missing teeth.

“Are those from the war?” I asked my cabdriver.

He didn’t understand me, or chose not to respond, but some questions don’t need answers. The lingering scars are reminders of an evil transpired not once upon a time but just a quarter of a century ago, from curses that were the doing of neighbors and friends, not the spell of some spiteful witch.

And yet, in Bosnia, I found scenery that fit the platonic ideal of a fairy tale, a dreamy dominion punctuated by spindly minarets instead of crosses. I could relate more to this landscape than to those of the fables of my childhood, in which valiant knights pursuing fair maidens were usually fresh off the horse from bloody quests that had a little something to do with vanquishing Islam. In a time when much of Europe is racked with a suspicion of my faith as a foreign entity breaching its shores, I’d come to Bosnia to see what a homegrown Muslim community, with 500 years of history rooted in the heart of Europe, might feel like.

In the Bascarsija, the labyrinthine old quarter at the heart of Sarajevo, I strolled through various lanes of the 16th-century, Ottoman-era bazaar that had once been demarcated for different artisans: Coppersmiths would tak-tak-tak away at pots on Kazandziluk; blacksmiths forged iron tools on Kovaci; tanners hawked leather goods on Saraci; and shoemakers converged on Cizmedziluk.

These days, the shops blur into an endless expanse of tea sets, leather slippers and artwork that I’m assured is completely original (unlike those identical prints next door, of course). But what caught my eye most were the door knockers embellished with brass and silver. The zvekir is a symbol of the city, featuring prominently on the coat of arms of Sarajevo Canton; it is, I was told by a tour guide, a tribute to the hospitality of the Bosnians.

As we chatted, the Sarajevo Film Festival was filling the streets with revelers until all hours. Now one of Europe’s most glittering film festivals, it began in 1995 as an underground act of defiance powered by generators during the darkest days of the siege, and 10,000 Sarajevans braved the shelling to attend screenings.

Like Vijecnica, much of the city was resurrected from the embers. When I glanced one way down a street I was convinced I was in Istanbul; if I turned my head, I traveled to Vienna; hemmed in by mountains, it could be a Swiss diorama. The historical layering of religions has earned Sarajevo the designation Jerusalem of Europe. On one street, a synagogue, a mosque and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches stand within steps of one another.

But at each step I also found haunting wartime relics, preserved to ensure memories aren’t swept away with the ashes: Petal-shaped craters left by shelling, now embalmed in red resin and dubbed Sarajevo Roses. Toy tanks made out of bullets on sale at souvenir shops. And cemeteries — so, so many cemeteries. Everywhere you turn, hills are flecked with tombstones, rising from the slopes like forests of slender white obelisks. When I asked someone for directions to a particular graveyard I’d read about, she shook her head sadly: “Everywhere is a graveyard here.”

But honoring the past doesn’t have to mean living in it. “People are pessimistic after the war, but I really wanted to show how I see things here,” Ms. Karkin said. At Bazerdzan, I browsed chic designs marrying modern cuts with traditional crafts: thick zinc bracelets inlaid with Bosnian song lyrics by the local label Werkstatt; cotton wrap blouses with graphic prints from Plus Minus; and suede espadrilles from the New York- and Sarajevo-based label Intuitva.

“I wanted to promote Bosnian culture and tradition, to tell the story of Bosnia,” Ms. Karkin said. “I really wanted to show how I see things here.”

A few blocks from the notorious Latin Bridge, I crossed the Miljacka River over the looped Festina Lente, a futuristic pedestrian bridge conceptualized by three design students at Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts. Atop Mount Trebevic, a bobsled track from the halcyon days of Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympics was decimated by Serbs who used the peak as a sniper position; today, enterprising Sarajevan artists have reclaimed it as a graffiti park.

“This is a very creative city,” Mr. Strik said. “During Ottoman times everything was beautiful. When they did things, if they did it, they did it perfect. The details really pay off. It’s like a fairy tale city.”

The fairy tale continued as I crossed over to the southern region of Herzegovina, where the craggy peaks and virgin forests and translucent rivers could have been immortalized in illustrations for “Sleeping Beauty” or “Cinderella” — that is, if the artist erased the pencil-thin minarets darting above the trees. I prayed inside the Sisman Pasa mosque in Pocitelj, a charming stone village that cascades down the contours of a sheer cliff. In Blagaj, at a 15th-century dervish monastery above the river Buna in the shadow of a towering bluff, I read the Arabic “hu,” a common Sufi dhikr, or chant.

But amid the magic, darkness still loomed: In Konjic, as I fantasized about putting a down payment on a lovely riverside cottage, I glimpsed the scorched stub of a bombed-out minaret behind it. It was one of 614 mosques destroyed across the country during the war.

While invaders have long helped themselves to Bosnia’s hospitality, tourists seeking to conquer new lands via Instagram feeds have mostly bypassed it. Twenty-four years after the end of the war, next-door Croatia has emerged as a bucket-list topper, welcoming nearly 14 million tourists in 2016. A glance at a map suggests why: Croatia won big in the cartography lottery, boomeranging around Bosnia and sweeping up most of the Balkan coastline. But its neighbor remains largely overlooked — in 2016, Bosnia had less than a million visitors.

A year’s worth of tourists seemed to have joined me in Mostar on the day I arrived. Thousands of day trippers flood the historic quarter to cross the 16th-century Stari Most bridge, receding come evening to nearby Dubrovnik or Split. The allure is obvious — when I beheld the majestic link that leaps gracefully across two cliffs wrenched apart by the Neretva River, the number of selfie sticks seemed not nearly high enough for a sight so ethereal.

The 17th-century Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi wrote that “the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other . . . I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.” While modern technology has resulted in far higher bridges in the ensuing centuries, I, yet another poor and miserable slave of Allah, who’s passed through some 45 countries, have never seen such a lovely one.

The wounds of the war are more obvious in Mostar, a city that sustained some of the most intense bombing. And the Stari Most itself was among the victims, buckling into the Neretva in 1993 after relentless Croat shelling. The imposing bridge standing today is a replica, rebuilt in 2004 using the Ottoman-era techniques of the original, which had been commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. It’s now Bosnia’s most recognizable landmark, and the tangle of quaint lanes spilling around it are quintessential tourist catnip à la Santorini or Bruges, packed with taverns plying travelers with everything from mediocre gelato and pasta to excellent cevapi (a type of kebab) and a fig cake called smokvara.

That evening, sitting in a restaurant on Mostar’s western cliff, with the bridge aglow under the crepuscular sky and the call to prayer echoing around it, I was, well, enchanted. For a moment, I let myself indulge the fantasy that I was in a fairy tale, and that, for Bosnia, happily ever after might finally be within grasp.



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