Bosnia | World Serpent

Jack snores like a maniac. I shared a room with him all the way through Bosnia, and each morning he’d wake up, stretch, and say something like “Dude, I had the best night’s sleep ever, I slept like a baby”, and I’d look at him and say “Nice”. I figured out a way to stop his snoring, eventually: whenever he began to honk and wheeze, I would take my plastic water bottle and thwack it against the wall. The sound was enough to wake him, but wasn’t enough for him to remember why he’d woken up. Then he’d shrug and fart and roll over, and I’d have a peaceful thirty minutes before the snoring began anew.

With dark-circled eyes, then, on our second day in Sarajevo I woke up and took a shower in the palatial bathroom of our accommodation. It was a very odd shower; there was no stand-up cubicle, only a bath the size of a jacuzzi with a little ledge for sitting on. I sat there and stared at myself in the giant mirror that was for some reason positioned directly opposite, and fanned myself with the shower head. I ended up getting into a bit of a trance and sat there for about twenty minutes.

We headed out in the heat of the morning to explore the city, and found that by daylight, the area we were staying in looked far less like a favela slum and much more like a normal (albeit slightly shot-up and wonky) town. We found a much quicker, less terrifying route down the hill into the city, taking in the sights of little shops opening up and people sitting outside cafes on pillowed benches drinking coffee. The view was extraordinary. Though by night we couldn’t see it, the city is surrounded by green hills. This jungle valley scene reminded me of Kathmandu, but at ground level the buildings put me in mind of Kyoto – the eaves of the tiled rooftops overhang in a Japanese fashion, and each quiet street is criss-crossed by bundles of telephone wire. This, compounded with the women in hijabs and golden teapot shops and the minarets that shoot up at intervals across the city, made a real impression on my heart: the joy of gazing upon something completely and utterly new. I never knew any of this existed.

Jack and I booked a walking tour for the morning. A few years ago I’d have probably turned my nose up at a walking tour (and in the May leg of my trip I was too perma-drunk to ever make it out of bed on time) but they’re actually brilliant. For the price of a tenner each, for two hours Jack and I were treated to a wealth of information and local stories about the city. And what a city.

We were already clued up on the Bosnian war from Adi’s tour in Mostar, which gave us a nice background on which to base our tour guide’s stories. Not every stop on the tour was interesting – there were a couple of moments when he was talking about churches and monks that I zoned out – but when he got onto the topic of the Bosnian war and the First World War, I was all ears.

We wandered through the city’s old town, and our guide showed us a specific spot on the ground: a long, thin metal plaque, which on one side said ‘east’ and the other said ‘west’. The guide told us that this marked the spot where Sarajevo was neatly split down the middle between Catholicism and westernism, and Islam and eastern culture. And you could bloody tell: if you stand on the plaque and face west, it’s all tall, grand buildings reminiscent of Berlin or Vienna. If you turn 180 degrees, it’s all squat buildings with tiled rooftops, towered over by mosque domes and spires. There’s no gradual change, no gentle dissolving from one to the other, it just stops dead and changes in an instant. Never seen anything like it.

We wandered the markets of the Islamic old town, and huddled down narrow alleyways clustered with glittering trinkets. We then crossed the river beneath the sizzling sun, and listened to stories about the 1984 Winter Olympics and the opera house. Then we followed the river down, and came to a stop at a non-descript street corner, a cross junction, by a bridge. Our guide turned to face the group.

“This is the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip.”

Holy hell. I’d completely forgotten that it happened in Sarajevo. The shot heard around the world. A gunshot that led to the First World War, which led to the Second World War, which led to the Cold War, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, just… everything. Everything. The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the establishment and eventual breakup of Yugoslavia, the Bosnia war, everything. Every family around the world, at some point, has been altered forever by that one gunshot.

I stood there, on the corner, in the spot where 19-year-old Princip saw the Archduke and his wife momentarily slow down to turn their car around, and I looked at the trees on the bank opposite, and I looked at the mountains in the distance, and I thought: this is what he saw. This was that man’s view – almost exactly, give or take a couple of advertisements and telephone wires – before he altered the course of human history forever. Even the buildings on either side would have been the same. Time is funny that way: there is the time of the human body, with cells dying and being replaced, aging and changing, and then there’s the time of buildings and rocks: those bricks are the same bricks that reverberated with the sound of gunshots one hundred and eight years ago.

I mused out loud to Jack how cool it would be to have a pair of glasses which you can put on and view history happening through. The corner of the assassination, or the savage shrapnel tears on the homes around Sarajevo – you’d just put on the glasses and watch as the event occurred, replaying over and over like a GIF, set against the backdrop of the modern day. Imagine it in the Colosseum: glasses off, empty ruin, glasses on, packed arena and gladiators flinging tridents at one another in the sand.

There’s a small plaque on the wall where the shooting occurred, and our tour guide told us it has been changed a dozen times over the years: Princip the hero, Princip the bastard, tragedy or triumph, depending on which government was in power. Finally they just settled on something neutral: this is the spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

They have a remade model of the car he and his wife were in when they were killed, right beside the plaque. An old man lifted up his grandson and put him in the backseat and took a photograph, which Jack and I found amusing. We found it even more amusing when, later in the tour, another replica car drove past us, filled with a tourist family on a sightseeing day trip.

“I wonder if they get an honorary shooting at the end of their tour,” I laughed.

After the tour, Jack and I went to a shaded garden square in the Muslim part of town, for a coffee. It was an astonishing sight, and made me feel like I was sitting in a film set: a large townhouse with a garden in the centre built around a single enormous old tree, under the boughs of which families sat in eastern garb drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Around the outside were carpet shops, and hung idly in the breeze against the old brickwork were two green flags of Islam. The doors inside were tiny – clearly built hundreds of years ago – and the wooden beams were ancient.

Energised by coffee, we walked the length of the city to find Sniper Alley, a notorious spot from the Bosnian war. Serbian snipers occupied several tall tower blocks at the end of a long street, and took potshots at local people going about their day while the city was under siege for four years. There’s nothing much there now, so we weren’t entirely sure whether we were in the right spot, and had to go into a local museum to be certain. We crossed the river and saw the tower blocks. It’s the strangest thing: they’re still inhabited today. The space around every single window is shot to shit, masonry half-shredded, and people live there – in the rooms where snipers once squatted and took aim at innocents.

We carried on down the river, feeling more than a little tired. We discussed going back to our accommodation to chill out, but it was only 4pm and we had a lot more sunlight left. Instead, then, we made our way to the cablecars which would ferry us up the mountain to the site of the ’84 Olympics. The cablecar gave us beautiful views over the city and mountains, and was only slightly wobbly in the wind.

At the top of the heavily forested hill – a kilometre or so up – we hiked along a track to find the abandoned bobsled track I’d first heard about from the two Kiwi guys I met in Zadar. There weren’t many other people around, which made it more exciting. The abandoned track was a thing to behold: a gigantic, endless concrete half-tube, spray painted with a thousand different murals, stretching away down the hill into the tall pine forest, like the skeleton of Jörmungandr, the world serpent.

We climbed onto the track and followed it right to the end, which must have been at least a kilometre, and I took a lot of photos because – I mean – who wouldn’t, it was sick. At the long-faded and overgrown finish line (imagine the roars and cheers that finish line once echoed with), we hopped over the rim and wandered up a little path into the woods. There are bears and wolves and wild boars in Bosnia, and as we trekked through the woods I told Jack I could smell pig. I’ve seen wild pigs before, in a forest outside Berlin – and you smell them a long time before you see them. Fortunately, our tramping must have scared them away.

At the end of the path (we took care not to step off the path – local Bosnians will tell you to avoid hiking off-piste for fear of forgotten landmines), we found an abandoned, exploded observatory. It had been bombed and machine-gunned all to hell, and all that was left was a shell. A little nervous – but determined – we ducked inside and climbed the stairs right to the top; it was safe enough, the concrete core of the structure had survived the bombing. Only the walls and roof had been blown off. I thought about the scientists who were working in the observatory, and I wondered whether they escaped when the bombs hit. There was no way of knowing.

It’s true that you’ve got to earn the best views: at the top, with our adrenaline spiked, we gained magnificent views over the sprawling mountain city of Sarajevo, and the rolling green hills of Bosnia, and what we guessed were the mountains of Croatia in the haze of the distance. We sat and watched the clouds over the earth together in silence. I felt afraid – of bears, of landmines, of crumbling masonry – but Jesus Christ I felt alive.

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