For almost as long as I’ve known Zeynab, I have witnessed her fascination with different cultures and their histories. Two in particular have always been Russian and the Balkan legacies. When Zeynab first told me she would have the opportunity to visit Bosnia, I was so excited for her. All the books, travelogues and documentaries she had consumed about this great land, would come to life in a highly perceptive set of eyes. I interviewed Zeynab about her trip, and here is what she had to share.
What inspired you to travel to Bosnia?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Balkans – its history, culture and traditions. It has been influenced by its time under the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and more recently, its time as part of socialist Yugoslavia and the bloody aftermath of the war. I wanted to see how those influences would come together and how people were coming to terms with the legacy of the war, which is still very much a visible part of the landscape. When I travel, I like to go to places where I can interact with and see Islamic history and culture, so for me Bosnia was also appealing for that reason.
What did you do to prepare for your trip?
I did a lot of reading, as Bosnia isn’t a massive tourist hub. I read forums on TripAdvisor, searched for Instagram accounts on Bosnia and read blogs and books written by people of Bosnian background. I also knew that I wanted to go to places outside of the capital, so I looked up and booked a day tour to several cities and towns.
Did you use any guided tours and if so, would you recommend this tour operator?
I did a day tour with Superb Adventures, a tour company run by a local named Faruk Osmanovic. I highly recommend the tour, as Faruk was very knowledgeable and had so many interesting insights as someone who grew up during the siege of Sarajevo. We went to see many interesting landmarks and he answered my many questions about Bosnian culture and history.
What were the main features of your itinerary?
We mainly stayed in Sarajevo, which is a very walkable city, marked by graves along its sloping hills, from which Serbian forces besieged the city. We were staying very close to the Old Town, Bascarsija, which we spent a lot of time in. We also visited several of the city’s ancient mosques and fortresses, and also did a day trip where we visited Mostar, the Pocitelj fortress, Kravice waterfalls, and several other points of interest.
What did you enjoy most about your travels?
Bosnia has some amazing natural scenery – driving around the countryside was spectacular. Sarajevo is a very beautiful and resilient city and has some distinct Ottoman features such as fountains on many street corners (The water in Sarajevo tastes amazing, just as an aside.). I loved just strolling through the streets and taking in the amazing views and trying the local delicacies. At the same time, you do notice remnants of the war everywhere, which is a sobering reminder of the sufferings of the people in this region and their resilience and courage. One thing I did really like is that there weren’t many international chains and there weren’t huge hordes of tourists either.
Can you tell us about some of the sights of significance to Islamic history that you visited?
Gazi Husrev-Beg is an important figure in the history of Sarajevo, as a patron and founder of the city’s Islamic sites. The large Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque bears his name and is absolutely stunning, with a unique water fountain inscribed with many different styles of Arabic calligraphy. Attached to the mosque is the Gazi Husrev-Beg madrassah, which details the Islamic teaching traditions passed on from generation to generation. Outside the madrassah is a wall dedicated to scholars who lost their lives in the war, which was very touching.
Another amazing Islamic site we visited was the Sufi dervish house at Blagaj, which dates back to the 16th century. The house is set against a magnificent cliff face with fresh spring water, which you can scoop up and drink.
In light of the tragedy of war and genocide experienced by the Bosnian people, what were your observations of Bosnia today?
Bosnia is still coming to terms with the impact of the war. Its buildings are marked with physical damage and when you speak to locals, they have confronting and sad stories to tell. No family was left untouched by suffering, even down to its youngest members. Corruption is rife and the unemployment rate is extremely high at present, but nevertheless I found that people had a very matter-of-fact and practical outlook on most things, as well as a rather black sense of humour!
Do you have any recommendations on do’s, do not’s, must see’s or must eat’s when in Bosnia?
In Sarajevo, Svrzo House is a must see. It’s a beautifully preserved house of a wealthy family from the Ottoman period and is quiet and off the beaten tourist track, with serene gardens and unique Islamic-inspired architecture. The Gallery 11/07/95 in Sarajevo is a chilling reminder of the genocide of the Bosnian people in Srebrenica and is an important reminder of the atrocities.
Outside of Sarajevo, Blagaj is absolutely stunning, with its fresh spring water and Sufi dervish house, and Mostar, while touristy, is a must-see, if only for the iconic Stari Most bridge.
Food in Bosnia is cheap and plentiful, if not particularly varied. You must try the local speciality, cevapi, which is a type of skinless sausage in bread, but my favourite was burek, flaky pastry stuffed with a variety of fillings such as potato and spinach. The dessert tufahije, stuffed, sweetened apples, is also worth a try.