The Balkans is a compelling battle-hardened pocket of Southeast Europe, fractured by epic conflicts and duelling empires over the ages.
After becoming the Ottomans’ westernmost outpost, the mighty Hapsburgs ruled the roost, swallowing the Balkans into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, who had co-existed for generations in a multi-ethnic society, suddenly weaponised their differences. Sarajevo found itself trapped in the longest siege of any city in modern history, during which Serb forces, underpinned by the brute strength of the former Yugoslav army, rained fury down on a defenceless city from the wraparound mountains.
Unremarkable apartment-block facades are still speckled with unseemly blisters or large chunks of plaster gouged out like missing teeth, while others are sprayed with bullet holes.
From 1992 to 1996, the city smouldered under a blitz that killed 11,000 residents.
My grippingly compelling guide, Samra, remarked that dealing to the building scars is still a low priority for the city.
My hotel was located in the heart of "snipers’ alley", where buildings sport battle wounds.
The Holiday Inn Hotel, where war correspondents were routinely based, has been rebuilt.
It was on our way to the Tunnel of Hope, snaking underneath Sarajevo Airport, that Samra soberly remarked how her father was still "missing". Like many other Bosniaks, he was most likely a victim of ethnic cleansing and consigned to a mass grave.
Samra boiled with anger about the United Nations, the "United Nothing" as she called it, particularly for failing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in a UN "safe zone", which saw the genocidal killing of 8000 Muslim men and boys.
Today, the nation is governed by a three-way presidency made up of a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat. Samra noted they do not like one another and do not agree on anything. She said many locals still yearn for the Tito era, when the country was at least productive and cohesive.
How does she feel about her Serbian neighbours?
A standout Sarajevo experience is to encounter the Tunnel of Hope. Furtively built under the airport runway during the city’s siege, it took more than six months to dig this 900m-long tunnel, providing the only connection with the outside world — and a vital supply line.
Just over 1m wide and 1.5m in height, this secret corridor enabled the beleaguered city to secretly regain access to telephone lines, food, weaponry and oil supplies. Eventually, a railway track was installed to haul wagons through it. It was never discovered by Serb forces.
We visited the Kolar family home where the cellar was used as its entry point, and walked through a small section of the tunnel, which has been preserved as a museum. Outside the tunnel, a gallery of grim black and white photos starkly portray Sarajevo’s bleakest days.
Sarajevo’s geography is dramatic, wedged inside a long thin valley flanked by forested mountains on all sides. Soaring minarets serrate the skyline along with the Romanesque towers of Catholic churches and the gleaming onion-shaped domes of the Eastern Orthodox.
Dubbed the Jerusalem of Europe, it’s an enthralling melting pot of faith, where the call to prayer serenades the old town, while church bells ring out from Sacred Heart Cathedral.
The labyrinthine old quarter at the heart of Sarajevo, Bascarsija, is a delight to stroll through. On the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Ferhadija, a pavement marking denotes the "cultural equator", encouraging visitors to take a photo looking first one way up the street and then the other. Austro-Hungarian architecture and a mash-up of Western shop signs dominates one direction, while the other direction transforms the streetscape into a Turkish bazaar. Gazi Husrev-Bey’s awe-inspiring mosque is a city emblem. Built in the 16th century, it is the largest Ottoman mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Significantly damaged in the war, it’s triumphant restoration is a major badge of honour.
We passed by the Latin Bridge, which crosses the Miljacka River, close to the old town. You can stand on the spot where the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by an 18-year-old Serbian, as his motorcade drove by. Not only did it spark World War1, but the end of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
Sarajevo’s old quarter still exudes the timeless ambience of an Ottoman bazaar. Many of the single-storey market shops date back to the 16th and 17th century, as does the wooden Sebilj fountain. Throughout the bazaar, exotic spice aromas float among those of sizzling meats. Copper and brass souvenirs are great buys here, hand-crafted using special techniques passed down through generations. I love watching grizzled chaps using metal tongs to pull searing copper from a fire, then hammer it into intricately designed plates, trays and goblets. Other vendors stick with the kitsch, selling cheap souvenirs and pens made from the shell casings of high-calibre rifles.
Bascarsija is the ideal place to heartily graze on the classic tastes of Sarajevo. Cevapi is a beloved staple, grilled necklaces of meat, typically stuffed in pita bread with onions. They love their roast lamb in Sarajevo. You’ll often see entire lambs on the spit-roast in the old town.
Wash them down with Bosnian coffee, once again steeped in Turkish coffee tradition, but arguably stronger. It is thick, rich and as strong as jet fuel. The coffee grounds are boiled with water in a long-handled copper pot on top of the stove, but the beans are locally roasted, adding to its potency. After pouring the coffee, Sarajevans will take a sugar cube, dip part of it into the hot coffee, then let the wet part dissolve on their tongue. Then they’ll take a sip of coffee, to neutralise the bitterness.
There is no denying the drink of choice in Sarajevo is rakija — yes, similar to Turkey’s national drink, raki. Hello, liquid courage. Unlike raki, which is only distilled from grapes, rakija is a fruit brandy like grappa, distilled from plum, pear or apple but also from more exotic ingredients such as quince or walnuts. Do not be fooled by the fruit flavours. This is potent stuff, packing a high-proof punch, ranging from 40-60% alcohol content.
Head to the only preserved Ottoman-era caravanserai in Sarajevo, Morica Inn. Built in 1551, it was able to accommodate up to 300 guests and 70 horses.
Sarajevo’s story has borne witness to so much terror. But there is a strong sense of dignity, resilience, and an indomitable spirit in this profoundly remarkable Balkan city.
Just over an hour southwest of Sarajevo, my Trafalgar tour of the Balkans also ventured to Mostar.
The pockmarks of the war are equally conspicuous in Mostar, a city that sustained some of the most intense bombing.
The imposing bridge standing today is a replica, triumphantly rebuilt in 2004 using the Ottoman-era techniques of the original, which had been commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. This bridge had the widest arch in the world when it was first built in 1566, soaring across the skyline like a rainbow arc in stone.
Despite the heaving crowds, Mostar is a morale-boosting delight.
You won’t want to leave.