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Beautiful Sarajevo is recovering from war

Sam Benshoof looks down on the city of Sarajevo, which he visited in January.1 / 3
Sarajevo's Sebilj fountain is a beauty spot in the Turkish part of town.2 / 3
Some of Sarajevo's old buildings flank the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the event that started World War I.3 / 3

Two weeks ago, I boarded a train in Belgrade, Serbia, that would take me to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

I had been looking forward to seeing Sarajevo ever since I had arrived in Macedonia in September and was told on numerous occasions that Sarajevo is "one of the most beautiful cities in Europe." Under normal circumstances, the train from Belgrade to Sarajevo would have been just any other trip, except for the fact that 15 years ago, because of the violence and instability of the region, it would not have been possible.

As Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s, violence erupted throughout the Balkans. As countries like BiH and Croatia declared themselves to be independent from Yugoslavia, mixed populations of Croats, Bosniaks and Serbians argued over issues of majority and minority rights in the new republics.

In 1992, BiH declared independence from Yugoslavia. Serbians in the BiH region wanted no part of a separate Bosniak republic, and withdrew to form their own territory - the Republika Srpska (not to be confused with Serbia), which still remains a part of BiH today. Shortly after, Serbians from the Republika Srpska, as well as the Yugoslav People's Army, encircled and began to attack Sarajevo, the capital of BiH, in what would become the longest siege in modern warfare history (44 months). Snipers and mortar attacks took their toll on the city, killing many thousands of civilians and wounding tens of thousands more. During this time the rail line that linked Belgrade and Sarajevo was damaged, making train travel between the cities nearly impossible.

Since the conflict ended in December 1995, Serbia and BiH have both attempted to move on from those tumultuous years. The much publicized re-linking of the two cities by railroad has been touted as a symbol of post-war healing for both countries. So, as I began a week-long tour of Serbia, BiH and Croatia, with a day and night in Belgrade, I took the opportunity to ride the new (old) nine hour train to Sarajevo.

I arrived in Sarajevo in the evening, and after a short ride on Sarajevo's electrical tram, arrived at my hostel (where one night cost me only six and a half euro, a bargain compared to Western Europe). From there, I set about exploring, and it did not take long for me to tell that reports of Sarajevo's beauty were not exaggerated - the city is situated in a small valley, and expands outward up the surrounding hills. At night, lights from houses on the hills twinkle as they rise above the city floor.

It snowed my first night in the city, and the next morning I hiked up to admire the snow-capped views. As I caught my breath and looked down over the city covered in white, smoke rising slowly from chimneys, a cat trotted past me, stepping gingerly in the fresh snow. I made my way back down to the center of town, savoring the view as I went.

Old town

The heart of Sarajevo is its Turkish old town, called Bašèaršija, which begins in a large square dubbed "Pigeon Square." You can probably guess how it got such a name. The square itself centers on the Sebilj, one of Sarajevo's more distinctive images - a tall, domed, intricately designed drinking fountain built in 1891. Along the old cobblestone streets in the Bašèaršija are mosques and local souvenir shops. After some browsing, I found myself in a copper craft shop. The owner told me that the shop had been in his family for years, and proudly showed me the bottom of a copper Bosnian coffee pot, where the family surname had been stamped.

Because of its years under both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, Sarajevo has developed a distinctive East-meets-West feel, evidenced by the coexistence of its mosques, churches and synagogues. Ferhadija, Sarajevo's main pedestrian street, was the center of the city under Austro-Hungarian times, and today, it is where the city's residents enjoy taking a stroll during all hours of the day, and where I stopped my first morning to have a coffee.

Nearby, over the Miljacka Rive passing through Sarajevo, is the Latin Bridge. History buffs might remember the bridge as the location where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, effectively starting World War I. To say that this single event changed the world is probably not much of an exaggeration, and I can say that standing on such a spot is a powerful experience.

War reminders

Though Sarajevo has been rebuilt since the war, it is not difficult to find signs of those devastating years. Outside of various buildings are gold plaques in remembrance of residents who were killed by sniper fire or mortar attacks. Several visible mortar explosions are also visible in the city's concrete. They are called "Sarajevo Roses" because they have been colored red to signify that the explosion killed one or more people.

The National Library, one of the city's more ornate buildings near the river, was under construction during my visit, with large signs warning against trespassing. However, a much smaller sign, placed against the door of the library which I had to make an effort to read, described the bombing of the library during the war. More than 1.5 million books were burned, in addition to over 100 years of Bosnian newspapers. Every time I came across a reminder of the war such as this, I lingered an extra second, imagining the profound sadness and heartbreaking devastation caused by the siege of Sarajevo.

Last month, the travel-guide company Lonely Planet listed Sarajevo as one of the "Top Ten Cities to Visit in 2010." Though this attention will no doubt help Sarajevo's reputation as a tourist destination, the city still remains much of a mystery to Americans. Little is known of the area except for the war of the 1990s, and even that is often not fully understood. However, like much of the Balkan region in general, Sarajevo has emerged from the post-war years scarred, but a survivor, and has proven to have much to offer - culturally, historically and architecturally. Tourists who seek out Sarajevo will find a city less expensive and less crowded than most places in Western Europe, but every bit as rewarding.