Art Guide East

A Weekend in Sarajevo

Art and architecture, culture, great food, and strong spirits – all surrounded by mountains. By Silvija Dervišefendić

What is the best time to visit Sarajevo? Many people will say August, during the Sarajevo Film Festival, while others will choose the fall season, when MESS, an international theatre festival, and the Jazz Festival take place. The rest might select wintertime and enjoy the opportunities for winter sports. After all, Sarajevo, which is surrounded by lovely mountains, was the host of the 1984 Olympic winter games.

Whether you reach the city overland by bus or train, of if you land at Butmir International Airport, you will notice the remnants of the past war and the nearly four year siege between 1992 and 1996: some of the reconstructed houses still have bullet holes and scorch marks on their faćades. The first interesting experience you might get is on your way to the city centre. The taxi drivers in Sarajevo are known to gossip a lot, and they always have anecdotes that they like to share. On the main road into the city you can see how Sarajevo looks today, with post-war urbanization and the so called »symbols of transition«: shopping centres almost every kilometre, new uniform buildings that oppose previous Modern architecture with an uncreative use of glass and concrete, while downtown the Ottoman period architecture joins together with the Austro-Hungarian. The progress of Austro-Hungarian city planning strengthened the atmosphere of modern Europeanism in Sarajevo. Parallel to the Vienna Secession movement, local architects such as Ludwig Huber, Josip Vancaš, Josip Pospišil and Rudolf Tönnies used Secession elements in their works; geometric forms are especially visible on many buildings.

Today Sarajevo seems to have conquered its war trauma. There is a strong sense that people have decided to move on and avoid perpetuating the image of Sarajevo as the »city of the siege«. Its rich tradition is intermingled with the lively ferment of new ideas, a place of warm and welcoming people. When a visitor asks a local for directions or information, instead of a short answer he/she will get a pleasant chat or even a drink invitation. 

Sarajevo natives always say that you can’t be hungry or thirsty in this city. In the centre, the choice of restaurants, grills, and typical Bosnian restaurants called »aščinica«, »buregdžinica« and »ćevabdžinica«, where Bosnian dishes are served, is ample for every age, taste, and budget. National cuisine includes a variety of dishes with meat and vegetables, including Sarma (cabbage rolls stuffed with meat), Bosanski lonac (goulash with two kinds of meat and vegetables) or Klepe (Bosnian ravioli). You can find these Bosnian delicacies at famous places in the old town, which is called Baščaršija, a former trade and business centre from the Sarajevo Ottoman period. The most popular spirit is rakija, made of various fruits. Be advised: don’t try competing with locals in drinking because you’ll probably lose. A city walk will lead you to Ferhadija, a pedestrian street in the centre of the city that has different shops, cafes and restaurants. One of the street passages leads to Stakleni grad (Glass City), where two alternative galleries are located, Duplex and Galerija 10m2. The Duplex is dedicated to exhibiting and promoting artistic projects in a variety of media. Twice a year, it presents an exhibition of young Bosnian artists in addition to public interventions and discussions related to other artistic activities. Next to it stands the Galerija 10m2, started by French artists Pierre Courtin and Claire Dupont in a vacant store in 2004. These two art spaces gather innovative young local and international artists, creating a productive alternative scene in Sarajevo. A cultural crisis seems to have been present for many years in this city. It not only brings the quality of cultural events and their production into question, but also how conscious Sarajevo natives are of the significance of culture. The unconventional and popular artist’s group Zvono (The bell), formed in 1982 and named after the café where they hang out, organize happenings, actions, performances and unconventional exhibitions opposing the academic influence and limitations of institutionally accepted art. However, the history of urban- and sub-culture in Sarajevo started long ago with punk culture, fanzines and alternative clubs like KUKand AG. Celebrated bands like SCH, who changed their sound from post new wave to noise rock, reflected the time and rebellion against the system through their individual activities and their presence in public affairs. At the end of the ’90s, Barake (Barracks), which no longer exists, was a new alternative place for exhibitions, concerts and various unconventional social events. 

The major project of the Centar za savremenu umjetnost Sarajevo (Centre for Contemporary Arts or SCCA), founded in 1996 as one of the last in the network of twenty Soros Centres for Contemporary Art in Central and Eastern Europe, is to establish an unitary organization that can create a database, form a library, and promote and ensure participation of Bosnian visual artists in international art currents. On another note, the primary intention of the Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art is to set up Sarajevo as a centre for international dialogue and cultural exchange. After a city cultural tour, spending a weekend in the surrounding mountains is a perfect choice and a great escape from city pollution in the wintertime. In only a half hour trip from Sarajevo, you’ll find yourself in open countryside, drinking mulled wine or rakija, enjoying the fresh air and eating some Bosnian specialties. If you decide to stay overnight, you’ll find suitable accommodation at hotels in Bjelašnica (2,067 meters) and Jahorina (1,913 meters). This would be the perfect end to a short trip to this unique European city.