About five years ago I gave up going to movie theaters. I finally conceded that they, along with any other dark venues featuring flashing lights, were a trigger for my migraines and it was time for a change. But now we’re living in Sarajevo, which this August hosted the 23rd annual Sarajevo Film Festival.
Premiering in 1995 to a staggering 15,000 attendees (this was the middle of the Bosnian War and siege on Sarajevo, after all), Sarajevo hosts the largest film festival in Southeast Europe, and one of the largest in Europe as a whole. It is also one of a handful of festivals that can nominate films for other European film festival awards.
Every available space was utilized – all theaters were booked for the week, and parks and parking lots were converted into massive outdoor movie theaters. These I could actually attend, and all the better since they were hosting the top-billed films.
I missed out on the Shorts and documentaries, and many of the lesser known films by default of their venues, but we were able to attend opening night’s Cold War and Asghar Farhadi’s latest, Everybody Knows.
Sadly, my last film, Sink or Swim, was rained out and moved to an indoor theater, so we contented ourselves with an evening at a nearby wine bar instead.
Every year, thousands of people from all over the world descend on Sarajevo for the festival, and the city lights up (literally) with thousands of vintage light bulb strands, fireworks, high heels and red-carpet galas, pop-up bars and dance clubs, and impromptu concerts filling parks and common areas.
It’s as if the whole summer has been building towards this event, and Sarajevo shines.
With the exception of the festival’s last night, the weather was perfect. This summer was an unusual one – starting in April, it thunder-stormed and rained almost every day and temperatures rarely reached the 80s. Typical Sarajevo summers are hot and dry, a climate that didn’t manifest here until early September.
But that week, the week of the festival, it was amazing. Sunshine all day, clear nights and warm temperatures.
The city center is divided, almost in half, between the elaborate, tall, decorative buildings of the Austro-Hungarian Old Town and the low, tiled-roof structures of the old Ottoman Baščaršija. Sarajevo’s skyline and aesthetics reflect the cultural diversity and historical intrigue that has followed the city for centuries.
The streets of both neighborhoods pulsed with locals and tourists, all licking gelato cones, catching up with old friends over kafa, and cheering on street performers.
It proved the perfect time to re-explore our city.
And I can’t wait to do it all again next year!
Sarajevo is freaking gorgeous. Situated in a small valley in central Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), orange tiled roofs and conifers of every variety descend from the tops of evergreen-covered hills down towards the sparkling Miljacka River, weaving its way through the valley floor. Buildings encompass a mix of elaborate Austro-Hungarian facades and simple Ottoman architecture. Cathedral steeples and mosque domes and minarets puncture the skyline, and days are passed by ringing church bells, the call to prayer, and sometimes both at the same time.
And all of this can be enjoyed from two hillside forts, dozens of cafes and restaurants, and even random back alleyways snaking up through Sarajevo’s vertical neighborhoods. My husband and I moved here in the dead of winter at the very end of 2017, and even cold and snow failed to deter us hiking to these vantage points. But now Spring has come, and in every direction Sarajevo is in full bloom. And the timing couldn’t be better for the magnificent vantage point provided by Sarajevo’s newly reopened cable car provides the best views of the city (and surrounding area) yet.
Coinciding with Sarajevo Day on April 6, 2018, and almost 30 years since its destruction during the last war, the famed Sarajevo gondola began again, hauling visitors up two kilometers from Sarajevo’s Old Town station to a plateau on Mount Trebević.
As it climbs, panoramic views of the sprawling city give way to rolling green hills and sheer cliffs before reaching the top, where riders are deposited into crisp, clean mountain air, laced with the scents of pine and dirt and the promise of rain. I took the trip up twice in three days.
There is not much at the top of the hill, though a café is expected to be completed by summer. For those wishing to stretch their legs, however, hiking trails and walking paths descend from the top platform, leading pedestrians to picnic areas, graffitied Olympic bobsled track ruins, multiple valley and mountain view points and newly rebuilt hotels and restaurants.
Originally opened in 1959, Sarajevo’s cable cars ferried people out of city hustle, bustle and smog up the hillside for fresh-aired picnics and hiking, rightly bestowing the looming Mount Trebević with nickname “The Lungs of Sarajevo.” During the 1984 Winter Olympic Games the gondola served as transport for bobsled event spectators. It was the pride of Sarajevo, if not the entirety of BiH; a feature locals felt put the city on par with the great capitals of Europe.
Unfortunately, the cable car, and eventually the rest of mountain’s hotels, restaurants and sports facilities, were destroyed in the early 1990’s during the four-year siege on the city. The mountain languished for over twenty years, and the area gave way initially to terrorizing sniper perches, then to abandonment and neglect, and eventually to bandits and thieves. But no longer – today the cable car is a hopeful symbol of peace and reconciliation.
“We are reconstructing the last destroyed symbol of Sarajevo. We are building and talking about emotions here; we are taking down the invisible border here and working jointly on building Bosnia and Herzegovina and on reconciliation of peoples,” Sarajevo major, Abdulah Skaka, reportedly told a packed platform on opening day.
A majority of the rebuilding fund came via donation, the largest of which was made by married nuclear physicists Edmond Offerman and Maja Serdarević, who managed one ride up the gondola before the war and have worked tirelessly on its restoration ever since.
The reopening has been emotional, especially for those who remember spending weekends enjoying the mountain in the decades before the war. Everyone I chat with is excited to take advantage of their restored access to the mountains.
Almost a month since opening, long lines and packed cable car cabins have become the new weekend norm.
As of posting:
- Daily Hours: 8:30 am – 6:30 pm
- First ride at 9:00 am; last ride at 6:00 pm
- Round Trip Cost: 6 KM for residents; 20 KM for non-residents (around $14)
- Children ages 7 and under are free
What better way to celebrate my birthday than with a road trip to a medieval village, killer waterfalls and a castle on a hill? Almost none, I tell you. Jajce, about two hours northwest of Sarajevo, was the perfect escape for a low-key weekend away with the hubs and an ideal second Bosnian road-trip.
This little town has witnessed just about every major event in Bosnia’s history – from the crowning of the last King of Bosnia in the 15th century, to hosting the second convention of the Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia in 1943 (a coalition lead by Tito to unite the various ethnic and religious groups of the Balkans against the Axis powers), to boarder wars between the Muslim-Croat and Serbian armies in the 1990s. It’s famous for its abundance of water – beautiful waterfalls, converging Pliva and Vrbas rivers, and quirky watermills dating back centuries (many of which have been restored and are currently working).
Upon arriving in Old Town – resting just below the fortress, and sloping down to the river – we quickly realized our little Kia rental wasn’t the best idea for a snow-bound adventure (for the record, it wasn’t snowing in Sarajevo when we left). It navigated the tight roads and alleys deftly enough, but somehow got itself stuck – sideways – on a moderately inclined street, tires spinning in two inches of snow. Brendan masterfully maneuvered it into alignment and backed it down to the intersection below, and once parked, declared we were staying put for the rest of the day.
But since we had ventured out in the dead of winter, most everything in town was closed (we’re sensing a Bosnian trend…). The museums and fort attractions were dark, and top restaurants padlocked. This left us one option to fill the afternoon; a hike around the upper portion of the village and walls of the fortress.
We soon acquired a friend. Old Town accommodated a number of docile, furry pups, and a fantastically shaggy, black-furred little guy decided to join us on our hike. He confidently took role of tour guide. Every time we strayed away from his paw-laden path, he would track us down us again, finding us as we circled back to discover that his suggested route – with its narrow cobbled paths, rock wall gardens, sweeping valley views, and trails that descended down the fortress walls – was, in fact, superior to our own.
Back in town we were able to find a open cafe, delivering top-notch macchiatos mid-afternoon and ginormous beers after dinner. And our lodging, Hotel Stari Grad (built over a Turkish bath), served up the best Bosnian Pot (a thick stew consisting of tender beef, potatoes, carrots and cabbage and smelling of everything comfort food) and Chevapi dinners we’ve had to date.
I have a sneaking suspicion Jajce also turns into quite the party town during warmer months – most of the cafes in Old Town seem to be biding their time until they can throw open their patio doors and turn up the dance music ‘til the wee hours of the morning. The town also boasts an impressive Pliva Lake resort, with little boats, picnic areas, and lounge chairs currently piled with snow, waiting for summer to kick in.
Just like me. Waiting for summer to kick in, not piled with snow (unless I turn my back on Brendan). But taking advantage of the winter wonderland that is Bosnia and Herzegovina makes the “wait” well worth it.