Welcome to Sarajevo 2018

My fourth Balkan capital in the former Yugoslavia (after Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Belgrade) might be the most impressive one yet.

Piegeon Square, aka the epicenter of scenic Sarajevo

Here it comes again. Another tale of two cities. But coming right after three months in Belgrade, my first week in Sarajevo would be impossible for me to process without using Belgrade as a point of reference.

Serbia’s capital may have more “cool” cred, with its nightlife, cafe culture, and hustle-bustle befitting a major European metropolis, but Bosnia and Herzegovina’s top town serves up so much more eye candy. It’s by far the most visually arresting Balkan city I’ve visited, and unlike Croatia’s Split and Dubrovnik, there’s no Adriatic Sea to propel the sugar rush.

In short, Sarajevo is stunning. It feels less Eastern Bloc circa 1985 and more like a perfect combination of Istanbul, Jerusalem, Cape Town, and Rajasthan, India, on the Balkan Peninsula.

There’s so much to look at, and I can’t possibly take it all in with just one pair of eyes. I’m tempted to cover every square meter, from the bottom of the valley containing the city center to the top of the highest one of the mountains that encircle it, because I don’t miss a thing. Not since my year in Cape Town have I been in a city that has me constantly pulling out my phone to take another picture.

And what about the people? There’s certainly more variety here than in any other Balkan city I’ve visited so far. It’s boosted by a significant Muslim presence, which, in turn, has made it a city of hijabs and mosques.

The women are lovely and often enviably toned. Exhibit A: the one who makes my first taxi driver’s eyes pop, causing him to nearly swerve off the road. The men, though not quite as drop-dead sexy as in Belgrade, have their own certain physical charm. They’re like little boys in grown-up bodies.

I met a Sarajevo local in Belgrade about a week before I left who raved about the “nice” people in his hometown. He said they are the best the countries of the former Yugoslavia have to offer. Of course, he’d say that. For me, the people here aren’t as warm and engaging as those in Belgrade or Novi Sad on the other side of the Serbia/Bosnia border, but they generally make me feel welcome.

Strangers are more likely to approach me on the sidewalk here than in Belgrade but not always to offer assistance or a friendly greeting. It isn’t until men, women, and children start stopping me to ask for money that I realize that in three months in Belgrade I never encountered a single beggar.

Given Sarajevo’s dark, painful past, I’m not surprised. There’s an aura of sadness here that, unlike the cloud of melancholia hanging over Serbians, isn’t related to economics. It’s the blue mood of a city that’s still in recovery from brutal relatively recent history.

Joan Armatrading’s Classics and The Velvet Underground & Nico are a perfect first-week soundtrack. They’re dichotomous as hell, but both represent different kinds of beautiful merged with different flavors of edgy. The former may be more Cape Town, and the latter practically drips Berlin and New York City. In the future, though, when I’m making new memories in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania, Armatrading and The Velvet Underground will remain indivisible from my first impressions of beautiful, edgy Sarajevo.

Getting back to the tale of two cities, in chapter one, track pants aren’t the de rigeuer male fashion statement they were in Belgrade (according to my Serbian fling Luka, they’re an emblem of masculine “cool” there). Meanwhile, the pollen count is apparently off the charts (Atchoo!), even more so than it was in Belgrade.

But I don’t mind being a sneezing fashion victim if I get to enjoy so many spectacular views with mountains and rolling hills in the background. So I’ll pull up my soft gray H&M track pants, pop a useless decongestant-free Allegra pill, and cover as many square meters as I can.

Few people seem to really notice me anyway. I may be the only black person most of them will see on any given day for the next few weeks or so, but they’ve got much better things to look at than me.

A selfie on the Avaz Twist Tower’s observation deck
An Avaz Twist Tower view of Sarajevo from 36 storeys up
A photo op in Sarajevo’s Stari Grad (Old Town)
Miljacka river
Another view from the top, with the Avaz Twist Tower in the background hovering above it all
Ferhadija Pedestrian Street
Sarajevo’s Eternal Flame
Wait, are we in India? Stray sleeping dogs lying in front of BBI Centar
The Academy of Fine Arts
Pope John Paul II, immortalized in aluminum… and me

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Jeremy Helligar

Jeremy Helligar

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Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj