A new look at Bosnia Herzegovina
Sarajevo's Ottoman buildings, bazaars and chic cafes aren't the city's only draw – it's also a great base for exploring rural areas nearby.
The cry of the muezzin floated over the drumbeat of hammers mending the copper roof of the bazaar. In a city where pale minarets pierce the sky, the sound of cathedral bells joined the call to prayer. Sarajevo has always been the place where east meets west: people once called it the European Jerusalem.
The central mosque, the synagogue, and the cathedrals of the Serbian Orthodox and Catholic faiths grew up within a few hundred metres of one another. Long before it became synonymous with televised sniper warfare, this city was the great trading point between Italian merchants and Silk Road caravanserai. Fourteen years on from that divisive war, the much older spirit of tolerance survives.
The old town district, Bascarsija, forms a warren of pretty, Turkish-style streets and medieval covered bazaars. Around it, ornate Austro-Hungarian streetscapes take up where the Ottoman empire left off, lining the river with their fine facades. The corner where Gavrilo Princip shot the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 is marked by plaques and a small museum. In the suburbs of Alipasina, Communist-era apartment blocks remain riddled with bullet holes from the war of the 90s, their surfaces pitted like sand after rain. But even on the balconies of these blocks, brightly coloured washing hangs again. My boyfriend, Stuart, was here in 2001, and he commented on how many of the old front-line buildings have now been restored
During the 90s war, the Sarajevans dug a secret tunnel beneath the airport which enabled them to bring in supplies and withstand the siege. The far end of this was concealed in the house of the Kolar family, who recently opened a length of it as part of a private museum – and moving testament to the city's resilience. When we visited, the Kolars were building benches in the yard and tending vegetables in the soil above the old hidden lifeline, as passenger jets took off behind them.
In chic Italian restaurants such as Noovi and Tavola, bright young things smoked Croatian cigarettes and punctuated their intellectual conversations with gales of laughter. The people here are not the type to take anything too seriously: they have lived through enough to know what is important and what is not.
"After war," one said to me, "what is there to get upset about? Anything else is nothing by comparison."
The entire city, despite its battle scars, has a uniquely laid-back attitude to life, a love of food and friendship, a preference for music over materialism.
Numerous new malls were offering Versace and Chanel, but the Sarajevans seemed less than keen on frequenting them. Bašcaršija is still the city's bustling heart, filled with family workshops handed down through 10 or 12 generations, locally owned, affordable boutiques, lively bars, and plentiful cheap cafes offering cevapcici (lamb sausages) in flatbread with Bosnian-style coffee.
The light glowed on the narrow, pale pink marble lanes, and on the animated faces of young women in fur-trimmed anoraks. Shopfronts were hung with handmade copper coffee pots, rich cashmere scarves, silver and garnets, and little leather slippers. In one of the workshops, veteran metalworker Kemal Hidic was turning old tank shells into engraved vases. Delis sold candied fruits, local cheeses, and homemade Turkish delight.
On almost every corner, water gurgled from one of the city's famous fountains, drawn up from pure mineral springs. We drank from these, and bought roast chestnuts at a stand, peeling the skins with blackening fingers as we walked through the dusk.
We were staying in the heart of old downtown Sarajevo, in a lone Communist high-rise which once housed the offices of the national Yugoslav airline. The upper four floors of the building are now a designer hotel, the Hecco Deluxe, with panoramic views across the city to the nearby hills on which rows of old villas climb.
From our top-floor suite, we watched the hills distill into sparkling drifts of copper and silver lights rising up into the night around our windows.
When we had tired of eating in fine Italian restaurants, we tried traditional Bosnian cuisine at places such as Aeroplan, a local institution in the old town, romantic Kibe, up on the hillside with sweeping views across the rooftops, and cheap and cheerful little Kod Keme, with its cowhide and kilim seats, great platters of grilled aubergine, and resident fez-wearing rock and blues guitarist Imre Kovacs. We tossed back rakija in cosy bars such as Zlatna Ribica, stuffed with antiques, and recovered over perfect coffee and thick hot chocolate among the Bosnian hipsters in slick joints like Ventra.
I could have happily spent a whole week doing nothing much in lovely Sarajevo, but the skies were growing clearer and the mountains beckoning.
In the heavy snows of January, many people go skiing and snowboarding at Jahorina, 45 minutes' drive from the city. We were headed for hiking country a little further off, at Sutjeska in the Dinaric Alps, where Europe's last great primeval forest covers Bosnia's high border with Montenegro. Mosques and dome-shaped haystacks flickered past before the road wound into steep mountains. White pom-pom seedheads of traveller's joy festooned the bare grey beeches, shining silver in chasms of sunlight. An old orthodox spire rose alone in a distant pine clearing.
In Sutjeska, vast ancient trees in the valley bottoms gave way to firs as we climbed into the peaks, passing partisan battlefields. We walked along a high ridge in what must be one of the world's most beautiful wild places. Pristine snow-dusted mountains cradled glacier lakes, and storm-blasted pines branched black against the sky like burned coral.
Wild boar grunted in the woods below; wolves and lynx also inhabit these slopes. The paths were unmarked, but our guides, Milan and Sasha, had grown up here and knew the mountains well. They stopped to brew coffee for us on a picturesque ledge, and we lunched amid the clean scent of high-altitude juniper bushes. If we came back in summer, Milan told us, they would take us up to the lakes for swimming and a barbecue.
We descended the next day into the river valley of balmy Mostar. This southern region is the Herzegovina part of the country and, with its long hot summers and mild winters, basks in a Mediterranean climate quite different from Bosnia's continental extremes. The road from Sarajevo snaked its way down through the limestone gorges, along the banks of the pale green Neretva river, where pomegranates hung red and ripe in the orchards.
We stopped along the way in the town of Konjic, at Rukotvorine, a famous old furniture workshop where craftsmen were carving delicate patterns in panels of local cherry and walnut wood. Jablanica, to the west, has a ramshackle roadside market, and the road south is lined with the lamb roasters' restaurants. At Gojko's, the simply cooked meat was so good that people heading to Mostar from assorted corners of the former Yugoslavia made detours to eat here. We shared a plateful of tender mountain lamb cut from the spit in the courtyard, served with the owners' tasty homegrown potatoes, and washed it down with red Blatina wine from Mostar.
Mostar itself was luminous in the lilac afternoon. The old town centre and the elegant bridge have been completely rebuilt since the 90s war, stone for stone as they stood before. We walked down lanes cobbled with round white pebbles like pearls, between houses with creamy walls and limestone roofs that caught the light from the sky and reflected it between tumbling vines and minarets so that the whole city seemed to shine.
Our guide, Majvedin, told us about Mostar politics, bridge-jumping and history as we walked up through the prettily terraced cafes and shops. Leading us on through the unrepaired streets beyond, he took us to an Ottoman-era mansion, Muslibegovica Kuca. Somehow this historic house escaped the war unscathed. Kiwis grew over the pergola, and palm trees swayed in the dusk outside the place which owner, Tadzudin Muslibegovic, now runs as a museum and hotel. The peaceful rooms with their curtained beds and brocaded sofas made me wish we could have stayed.
The next day, eagles glided in the passes below us at Lukomir, an isolated mountaintop village that had no road until 10 years ago. Life has hardly changed here for centuries: the villagers still survive by herding sheep and trading knitted products made from their wool.
High in the tight folds of the mountains, among the stone houses with their patchwork wooden and sheet-iron roofs, we sat on logs drinking strong, sweet coffee courtesy of our guide's friends here.
For the rest of the week we stayed in Sarajevo, that city of enduring soul. We loitered in madrasas, and listened to the chanting of a priest in a sixth-century church as he swung his censer before glittering gold icons while the trams rumbled loudly past outside. Like one of the pomegranates on its market stalls, Sarajevo is a hard-skinned city with a whole soft and glistening world inside.
• Seven nights' B&B and return flights costs £440 (hostel), £545 (three-star hotel), £765 (five-star hotel) with Exploring Bosnia. A one-day hike in Sutjeska with guides and lunch costs £32pp. The Hecco Deluxe Hotel, doubles from £62 per night.