Sarajevo is, perhaps, not on most travelers' European itineraries, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Here's one reason why: as much as I've enjoyed all the European cities we've been visiting, after a while they do begin to blend together. The cultures are all the same, the grocery stores are all the same, even the people look and dress mostly the same. The only difference is learning to say "no meat, please," in a different language. But Sarajevo... this place is something else entirely. And while the culture shock is not as severe as with Morocco, I still find myself surprised every time I remember I'm still in Europe.
Many places lay claim to the title "meeting point of east and west," but this is the real deal. Mosques and churches jostle for space along the dense streets; half the women are wearing headscarves and the other half are wearing tank tops. It feels a bit like Eastern Europe (the language is Slavic, and the hills are steep and forested), a bit like Turkey (although I've never been there - the mosques here have slender, rocket-shaped minarets, and there's doner kebab on every corner), a bit Mediterranean (fresh fruit stands, relaxed friendly communities, and balmy weather) and a little something else entirely.
For many people, all they know about Sarajevo is what happened to it in 1992. Since I was only 11 at the time, I didn't understand a thing about it, and only recognized it as a name from the newspaper. Well, we went to the history museum, and the lunacy of the recent war was presented with a shocking clarity. Only a dozen years ago, the entire city was laid waste, under siege from the Serbs. For four years, it was totally surrounded; artillery shells fell by the thousands, and snipers fired without mercy, killing an average of 10 civilians a day (that's 12,000 by war's end, or 9/11 times four if you feel like keeping score). First they blew up the parliament building, then the hospitals, then moved on to churches, mosques, schools, stadiums, libraries, museums, and even the tram system. For four years, this beautiful city was a starving, burning, deadly hell.
Is it any wonder I was in awe at how bursting with life this place is? The Turkish quarter, the pedestrianised heart of the city, is full of restaurants, food stalls, craft shops, jewellers working, metalworkers creating elegant tea sets, bars and pubs, and clubs with thumping music of any variety you can imagine. Every night, crowds spill onto the streets, smoking, eating, drinking and laughing. Everywhere you look there are little children in sundresses, old men with scars, taxis honking at pedestrians, teenagers with spiky hair, middle aged women in hair salons, fuzzy little dogs drinking from the fountains... it's hard to explain how infectious the vibe is.
Our last night there, I watched dusk fall over the cobbled square. Crowds of people murmured, a constant flow of people passing in and out of the little circles of light thrown by the shops and cafes, the moon rose to the sound of kids staying up too late, and I understood why I like this place so much: it's just so damn peaceful.