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Dark tourism in Sarajevo

1 April 2019

Cast off any preconceptions, says Dom Joly – Sarajevo should be on your Europe bucketlist

Sarajevo. It’s a name that is synonymous, in most people’s minds, with a bitter civil war and a brutal siege. What it should be however, is your next go-to destination as I honestly think it’s currently the most interesting city in Europe.

I got there by flying to Dubrovnik in Croatia and then doing a leisurely road trip up the Dalmatian coast and into Bosnia-Herzegovina. I stopped off in Mostar, a beautiful little town, most famous for her gorgeous old Ottoman bridge built in 1566. The bridge was intentionally destroyed by Croatians in the war. Fortunately, it has been meticulously rebuilt and I was thrilled to see that the impressive tradition of local youth diving off the twenty metres high apex had resumed. I was sorely tempted to give it a go, but my goal was the Bosnian capital – Sarajevo. After another three hours driving through almost Alpine hill country, I rolled into town.

Sarajevo is very much where the shifting tectonic plates of the Muslim East and Christian West meet. Church spires vie with minarets to dominate the skyline. Sadly, it was this heady, religious ratatouille that, mixed with a rise in supra-nationalism, was the cause of the conflict that over-ran the city and the country in the mid-Nineties. Sarajevo sits in a valley surrounded by mountains and it was from these that Serb gunners besieged the city for 1,425 days.

This experience has given Sarajevo some unusual tourist attractions that are like a magnet for a Dark Tourist like myself. Mortar craters are still visible in much of the city, but local artists have painted petals round them and filled the holes with red resin, turning them into the so-called Sarajevo Roses.

I wandered down the Appel Quay that runs through the middle of the city alongside the Miljacka River. I was looking for a particular corner; Franz Josef Street, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, an event that eventually precipitated World War One.

After a five-minute walk I got there. I stood on the very spot where the Serb assassin, Gavrilo Princip, had been sitting forlornly in a café, thinking that his chance to kill the Archduke had gone after one of his associates had clumsily thrown a bomb that bounced off the car and exploded underneath it. The Archduke and his wife had been unhurt and driven fast to the town hall. Now they were on their way to the train station to get the hell out of Dodge. Unfortunately for them, their driver took a wrong turn, stopped, and was reversing back onto the Quay right in front of Princip. He stood up and shot them both dead.

The most extraordinary fact of the whole affair? The number plate of the car in which they were riding. It was so extraordinary that I didn’t believe it at first and had to travel to Vienna to see the car and check. It was A 11 11 18. The 11th of November, 1918 was the last day of Wold War One. Sometimes travel really does throw up the most wonderful nuggets of trivia.