Travel: Skiing: War and piste, the Sarajevo story

The slopes are de-mined, the ice-rink is no longer a morgue. But will Torvill and Dean be making a comeback?

For what, asked my contact in Sarajevo, is the capital of Bosnia- Herzegovina famous? He answered his own question: "War, the Winter Olympics, and more war."

Television came too late to record Sarajevo's arrival on the world stage, with the assassination there in 1914 of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne; but it relayed images, unforgettable in different ways, of the city's other two international events. First there was the 1984 Olympics, made memorable for British viewers by Torvill and Dean's Bolero routine, with which they won a gold medal at the Zetra ice rink. Less than a decade later, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, came the city's siege, with nightly news reports of Sarajevo under attack from Bosnian Serb artillery on the surrounding hills, and soldiers firing from the suburbs into the infamous "Snipers' Alley".

If history tends to repeat itself, however, Sarajevo's limited international repertoire gives grounds for optimism to a group of people who are involved in winter sports in the area - my contact, Piers Thompson, among them. Next year they plan to make a formal bid to hold the 2010 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

More Winter Olympics? Why not, when much of the infrastructure of the 1984 games has survived the war?

Jahorina, the resort to the east of the city where the women's downhill race was held, is in need of refurbishment; yet Piers Thompson's company, Harlequin Leisure, takes more than 500 skiers a week there, predominantly soldiers from the UN's stabilisation force, SFOR, based in Sarajevo. To the south, the ski-jumps at Igman are back in use and the Bjelasnica resort, where the 1984 men's downhill took place, reopened this season (after de-mining) with a new chair-lift, a cafe and other facilities for skiers.

Later this month, the rebuilt Zetra ice-rink will be inaugurated, an event which the Sarajevo authorities hope Torvill and Dean will attend. Its use as a morgue during the war - what was the car park is now a cemetery - makes the rink something of a memorial to the war's victims; the 1984 bobsleigh run in the hills is more obviously marked by the conflict, being set on a heavily mined area within the International Entity Border Line (IEBL) that separates the two areas into which Bosnia- Herzegovina is now divided. This division, between the Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska and the Bosnian/Croat "Federation" area, effectively isolates Jahorina, as the only one of the 1984 Winter Olympics facilities in Serb territory; it renders the bobsleigh run a no-go area and, thanks to a spur of the IEBL, makes Igmen and Bjelasnica relatively inaccessible for Bosniaks (forget the nomenclature "Bosnian Muslims" - it's outdated) from Sarajevo, in the Federation area.

These political factors make Sarajevo, for the present, impractical as an Olympic city; but as a winter sports area it is already functioning.

The ride from Sarajevo airport, which was itself on the front line during the siege, brings back memories of the distressing wartime television images. True, I had forgotten that Snipers' Alley is about a wide as the M25 (not surprising, since a real alley would give distant snipers little at which to aim); but the heavily shelled Sixties concrete towers on either side are instantly recognisable. They are either bitten away and partly destroyed, like the building in which the Standard newspaper was produced on every day bar one during the war, or burned out, like the huge Unis block that was memorably turned into a flaming torch by a Bosnian Serb artillery attack.

Now, however, the city trams that once provided targets for Bosnian Serbs and sniper-cover for the Sarajevans merely go about their business, rumbling up into the narrow streets of the old town. Its 19th-century buildings on the southern perimeter, facing the Miljacka river, took a lot of punishment - particularly the beautiful, pseudo-Moorish National Library, which is now being restored. Elsewhere relatively little structural damage seems to have been done, although shell-holes filled with red-tinted concrete bear permanent witness to attacks that caused fatalities. The mosques, some of which date from the 16th century, still stand; and the old Bascarsija market area - all cobbled streets and single-storey wooden buildings - looked so untouched that it could almost be a film set.

The still elegant, busy city feels safer than London's West End on a Saturday night, which is hardly surprising with so many peace-keepers present - not just the SFOR troops but also the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), OHR (Office of High Representative) and IPTF (International Police Task Force), among others. But as you head towards Jahorina across the IEBL into the RS - that's Republika Srpska, if you're not getting the hang of these military abbreviations - the tensions of being in a former war zone become rather more apparent, if only because the ski resort is right next to Pale, the former stronghold of the hard- line Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Bosniaks do not ski at Jahorina. Luckily, a lot of helpful, English-speaking Serbs from Belgrade do, for which I was grateful. Few people in Jahorina speak English (they do not have the Sarajevans' daily exposure to the largely Anglophone international organisations), and they still use the old Yugoslav dinar; I speak no Serbo-Croat, and I had Deutschmarks - which, along with locally issued "equivalent marks", are the currency of the Federation.

The skiing at the resort is limited: three chair-lifts and two drag-lifts were running, giving access to about a dozen ungroomed pistes, mainly reds, and to large off-piste areas in between - but not to the 1984 women's downhill run, whose chair-lift has clearly not worked for a long time. The top of the resort is at 1,889m, offering vertical drops of some 300m; but the lumpy surfaces made the descents quite fun, especially for the largely unskilled Serbian skiers. (The SFOR troops did rather better, although some had the handicap of a pistol strapped to their thighs.) Jahorina obviously needs investment, and not only on the pistes. It is short of accommodation, since two of the hotels and many chalets are permanently occupied by Bosnian Serbs who were displaced from Sarajevo in the wake of the Dayton agreement.

Sarajevo's other ski area, to the south of the city, at Bjelasnica in Federation territory, has seen investment this season. And it does offer the thrill of going down an Olympic run, the 1984 men's downhill course. Long, fast and ungroomed, this made me look more like an average Serbian skiier than an Olympic contender. But Bjelasnica is currently even more limited than Jahorina, with just the one piste and one off-piste descent open. And it has no accommodation at all; while retreating from the area during the war, the Bosnian Serb army destroyed all of its nine hotels.

Evidently, Sarajevo cannot compete with Val d'Isere as a skiing destination. But for its interest as a political arena, it has no rival in Europe.

After skiing at Jahorina I met up again with Piers Thompson, a 30-year- old from Cheshire who is now in his second year running Harlequin Leisure. The company provides accommodation, equipment rentals and other local ski services in Jahorina (and, next season, in Bjelasnica) to the international organisations. But Mr Thompson is looking forward to more normal times, so he and an aid-programme manager for the Refugee Trust Ireland, Killian Forde, are acting as facilitators for the committee that has been set up to revive Sarajevo as a winter-sports destination - and to bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Shortly after the committee's second meeting, Mr Thompson invited me to join the members for a meal.

If the atmosphere seemed tense, that was hardly surprising; for the two Bosniak ski-area managers, this was the first time they had been in Bosnian- Serb territory since the war started, and the committee's members - former colleagues - had been reunited, after seven years, only in the previous week. But the meeting had "gone incredibly well", according to Mr Forde (thanks largely, he said, to "the unique relationship Piers has with the people here") and, after a few drinks, the mood relaxed; the senior Bosniak representative even allowed himself a political joke.

To someone like me, who had dropped into Sarajevo only for a couple of days' skiing, to sit in with those attempting to repair the damage of almost a decade of armed conflict seemed absurd - but extremely affecting, too. More Winter Olympics? Obviously. If I were on the International Olympic Committee, I know which city would get my vote for 2010.

Stephen Wood paid pounds 341 return on Austrian Airlines (0171-434 7300) to Sarajevo, via Vienna. He stayed at the Saraj hotel in Sarajevo (00 387 71 472 691), for DM157 (pounds 55) a night. Harlequin Leisure (00 387 71 445 076) can organise ski packages in Jahorina from DM520 (pounds 184) per person, based on two sharing, including half-board chalet accommodation and transfers from Sarajevo airport. Credit cards are not accepted in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

    £35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

    Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

    £20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most