Sarajevo: A crossroads of culture and history

In spite of its troubled past, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina has retained its cosmopolitan flair, says Mary Novakovich

There are more "crossroads of Europe" than you can count, more "east meets west" cities where cultures collide and, if they're lucky, mingle. In Sarajevo, these phrases go beyond the tourist-office jargon. Here you can stand on a compass point embedded in pedestrianised Ferhadija street and face east towards the 16th-century Ottoman quarter. Then turn 180 degrees and look west at Austria's 19th-century architectural legacy as the muezzins' call to prayer echoes to the sound of church bells.

Sarajevo's rich cultural and religious melange – Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Roma – changed for ever after the barbaric 1992-95 siege by Serbian forces. But sports-mad Sarajevo is in a jubilant mood after its national football team qualified for the World Cup for the first time. And from Tuesday until 10 November, its annual jazz festival (jazzfest.ba), one of the biggest in the region, adds an even more eclectic soundtrack to the cosmopolitan streets.

Despite the bombardment of the 1990s, Sarajevo has been reconstructed with incredible speed. Inevitably, though, scars remain. Start at the western end of Ferhadija Street, which is western in every sense. Austria's occupation after the 1878 Berlin Congress left typically Habsburg Neoclassical architecture lining the pedestrianised street. Its shops stock international brands and its cafés sell espresso rather than the thick Bosnian coffee on which most locals thrive. Look down to see unusual blotches splattered here and there: nicknamed Sarajevo roses, these red resin-filled holes are the scars left by 1990s mortar shells. Plaques on the walls commemorate victims of Serbian grenade attacks.

Within about 10 minutes at a slow pace, you subtly cross continents and step back a few centuries. To the right of the compass point are the low stone arches of the 16th-century Gazi Husref-begov Bezistan covered market. To the left is Velika Avilja street, which is worth a quick detour to visit the Jewish Museum (muzejsarajeva.ba), housed in the oldest synagogue in Bosnia. Ahead is Bascarsija, the old Turkish marketplace, where the streets narrow and fill with shops selling crafts including the ubiquitous copper coffee pots used to make the famously strong bosanska kafa. Cafés have low, comfortable cushions where Sarajevans lounge smoking shisha pipes.

This is firmly Ottoman territory, established in the 15th century when Sarajevo was a major outpost of the empire. Gazi Husrev-Bey mosque looms on your right, its large courtyard dominated by an intricate wooden-roofed shadirwan, the fountain used for ablutions before prayer. Sarajevo's only intact caravanserai, Morica Han, sneaks up on your left. The restaurant and market stalls are touristy, and solicitors have taken over the upper-storey lodgings once used by travelling traders, but the atmosphere still contains an exotic sense of history.

Pass more stalls selling pots, jewellery and pens made of spent shells and bullets and enter the relatively open space of Bascarsija's main bazaar. Veer slightly to the left and squeeze into narrow Kazandziluk street. Kazandziluk means coppersmith, in keeping with the tradition of naming streets after the wares being sold and produced. At No 4, under a huge elaborate silver pot, is Stari Bazar (00 387 61 136 348), which has been making traditional copper crafts for 220 years and has an exquisite little museum in its basement. Ask the owner's English- speaking daughter, Azra, to show you around. You'll meet the only female coppersmith in the city.

As you head around the corner, you'll see Behar Bosanska Kafana at No 28. This would be a good moment to refuel with a powerful coffee. If you want something more substantial, turn right into Bravadziluk towards Cevabdzinica Petica at No 21 (00 387 33 537 555; ferhatovic.ba). Try a typical Bosnian lunch of cevapcici (meat rissoles), somun (flatbread) and a yoghurt drink for 5.50 convertible marks (5.50KM/£2.40).

Carry on straight ahead and you're back in Bascarsija's main bazaar. Turn left into Abadziluk towards Brusa Bezistan (muzejsarajeva.ba), an enormous 16th-century former covered market that is now the history museum. While exhibits telling the city's history aren't particularly inspiring, it's worth the 3KM (£1.30) admission just to see the scale model of the city as it was centuries ago.

The narrow streets invite slow meandering along the stalls and into compact courtyards. But try to head towards Kundurdziluk street and turn left towards the Miljacka river. Within a minute you'll be at the location of one of the most significant events of the 20th century. Next year, when the world marks the centenary of the First World War, all eyes will turn to the humped Latin Bridge where, on 28 June 1914, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. A plaque marks the spot, and the Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918 on the corner (muzejsarajeva.ba) tells the story of the day that changed the history of the world.

Fresh cuts

Watching all the Sarajevans puffing contentedly on shisha pipes, you would think the pastime had been part of the city since the Ottoman days. In fact, the pipes didn't really become part of the city's bars until 2004. At that time, travel was expanding rapidly between Turkey, Egypt, and Bosnia, and the souvenir pipes brought home by Sarajevans caught on in many the city's bars. One of the latest is Tuareg at 12 Halac (00 387 62 555111), where a shisha costs from about 10KM (£4) and lasts for about two hours. Tuareg is handily located beside the Visegrad rakija bar for a more fiery taste of Bosnia.

Travel essentials

Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK to Sarajevo. Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; austrian.com) flies from Heathrow via Vienna; Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) flies from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester via Munich and Croatia Airlines (020-8745 4683; croatiaairlines.com) from Heathrow via Zagreb.

Staying there

Hotel Europe (00 387 33 580 570; hoteleurope.ba) is a comfortable four-star hotel with good spa facilities. Its restaurant overlooks the recently uncovered ruins of an old caravanserai. Doubles from 260KM (£112) including breakfast.

Go guided

Sarajevo Insider (00 387 33 534 353; sarajevoinsider.com) offers various themed guided tours of Sarajevo and the region, including a free tour of the city every day at 4.30pm.

More information

Sarajevo Tourism: sarajevo-tourism.com

Bosnia and Herzegovina Tourism: bhtourism.ba

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