Visiting the Albanian towns of Gjirokaster and Berat

IMG_20171128_134158162

My first visit to Albania was earlier this year in late September when I visited the northern Albanian town of Shkoder en route towards Montenegro after having spent a week in neighbouring Kosovo. Visiting the rest of the country wasn’t on the agenda on that trip but I vowed to return to Albania later in the year. Since the beginning of November I had been based in Athens for almost three weeks. Yet I made sure that I would return to Albania before the end of this trip.

From the northern Greek town of Ioannina, I took an early afternoon bus directly to the southern Albanian mountain town of Gjirokaster. I was the only tourist on the bus. Ioannina is a mountain town located on a plateau of around 500 meters. The entire sky was heavy with thick low lying clouds and I was wearing my warmest garments. During the two hour bus ride we drive through some awesomely stunning mountain landscape. There is no heating on the bus and my feet are turning to ice. The border crossing feels like its located at the same altitude as La Paz in Bolivia. On the Greek side we all have to get off the bus and I make an inward groaning sound. Uniquely for border crossings, the Greek border official is full energy and excellent humour. His English is impeccable…‘So Mr Nicholas Alexander, what the hell are you doing on the Greek-Albanian border?’ When we approach the Albanian side I feel relieved when we don’t have to disembark the bus. Instead the bus driver takes all our passports to give to the Albanian border official before handing them back to us.

IMG_0793

By Lake Pamvotis in the northern Greek town of Ioannina

On arrival in Gjirokaster, the bus stops on the side of the main town boulevard, Bulevardi 18 Shtatori. Multiple red Albanian flags line the middle of the boulevard. I establish my bearings towards my guesthouse via Google Maps. With hindsight, it would have taken an age to find my place without all this digital cutting edge technology at my disposal. From the boulevard, I walk up multiple ascending narrow stone paths. As I get closer to my destination, the older part of town with its old historic Ottoman style houses (some splendidly dilapidated) slowly reveals itself to me. I wish I were wearing my hi tech Merrel brand boots with their tough Vibram grip. My trendy hipster Vans shoes are not made for walking these jagged stone paths. As I walk further up one of the paths, a young man on a donkey with a small cart attached to it passes me by.

Google Maps is on my side and eventually I reach my final destination, Mele Guesthouse, or at least I think I have? An elderly couple greet me at the gates and take me inside their house. I ask them for the whereabouts of Mele, but neither of them speak a lick of English. We sit down on the sofa in the living room and the lady goes to the kitchen and returns with a tray carrying a bowl of sweats and an oversized shot glass of raki. With weather as cold as this, the raki is like a hot woodfire stove in my belly. I am also presented with a photo album of the couple with two of their children, a son and a daughter, in Venice. I assume that the daughter is Mele. After some time, a man in his late 30s/early 40s appears. I have a giant lemon sweet drop in my mouth disabling me from speaking clearly. Mele, I learn, is the surname of the man who’s name is Edmond. He speaks excellent English and I follow him to his house next door where my room is located. There is a balcony by my room with a tremendous view over the rest of the city and of the dramatic wide snow capped mountain symbolic of this town. My room is not warm but Edmond tells me to use the air conditioning unit on the wall, which doubles up as a radiator during this time of year. Edmond and I sit on the sofa in the heated living room. He makes me a delicious and warm organic tea and mentions that he once lived in Milton Keynes for two years back in 2005. Nowadays he works as a metal welder in town and lives in the house with his partner and their adorable young kid.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon walking around the old town. I need to withdraw some local cash so I head back towards the new part of town where I originally arrived. Instead of the arduous multiple narrow paths route I earlier in the day, I find a descending stone paved road leading directly into that part of town. After withdrawing my cash, I enter a bakery and order a slice of cheese and spinach pie and a wedge of halva cake. It all comes to about one Euro in the local Leks currency. That same purchase down the road in Ioannina would have cost me three times more. I am served by a young woman of about 20 who speaks passable English. She is so lovely and kindhearted, and admits to me that she cherishes all the opportunities to practice her English. Her name is Ada and she’s a student at a local university.

When I return to the old part of town, I try to find Taverna Kuka, a restaurant recommended to me by Edmond. The wooden taverna is aesthetically very tasteful and well heated. On one wall, there are several framed pencil sketches of assorted areas of the old town by a local artist. My first choice, the moussaka, is unavailable so I settle on a plate of qifqi, a local ball-shaped delicacy made from rice, dhjozme, egg, salt, pepper and milk.

IMG_20171127_171316709

Taverna Kuka

 

IMG_20171127_172925074

A plate of qifqi and meatballs

At night the temperature drops below zero. The air-con is humming away converted ice cold air into warm air. It’s a cumbersome and electricity wasting process and nothing beats a radiator, whether portable or nailed to the wall. Entering my private bathroom, which is unheated I must add, is like accidentally wading into a winter in Vorkuta. I pee and brush my teeth with haste before exiting back into a warmer vacuum. Edmond has kindly provided me with enough blankets to prevent the entire population of Gjirokaster from developing hypothermia.

When I wake up at 7am the next day, I roll up the shutters covering the sliding balcony glass doors. I am rewarded with a pristine blue day. The wide mountain and town skyline are majestic. I am served a decent breakfast of bacon, eggs, bread, sweet pickles and a Nutella crêpe. Wolfing down my breakfast, I tell myself Carpe fucking Diem. I am going to live today like its one of my last. I have the energy of James Brown, sans angel dust.

IMG_20171128_084357571_HDR

View of Gjirokaster from the balcony of my guesthouse room

 

IMG_20171128_085811954

Breakfast on the balcony

The first site in town I visit is the former childhood home of the Albanian president-for-life Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha ruled the country for over 40 years from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule he cut off the country from most of the world. Albanian civilians were not allowed to leave and his regime tortured and killed thousands. Albania was comparable to Fidel Castro’s Cuba or present day North Korea during this period.

IMG_6692

Enver Hoxha 

Hoxha’s childhood home is an old Ottoman style house over 100 years old, which has been converted into the town’s ethnographic museum. Most of the wooden features and designs of the house appear to be original and well preserved. In contrast to this, many of the old historic Ottoman style houses dotted around the old town look neglected and in a decaying state of disrepair. In the vestibule of the first floor of the house, there is a small corner table with two black and white photographs of Hoxha resting on the wall. The living and guest rooms of the house are furnished with long sofas, antique carpets, intricate Ottoman style wooden reliefs on the wall and also some artillery pieces like the two rifles in one of the rooms.

The childhood home of Enver Hoxha now the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

 

IMG_20171128_101402448

IMG_20171128_095936217

IMG_20171128_100545920

IMG_20171128_100456706

Photographs from inside the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

Another figure to come from Gjirokaster is one of Albania’s best known literary figures, Ismail Kadare. His most famous novel, I visit his former home, which has been reconstructed after a fire in the 1990s destroyed the original structure and features. It is used as an exhibition space today and when I visited there were a number of Expressionist style oil paintings by a local artist dotted around the home. In one room there is a small table with black and white photographs of Ismail as a young boy, some books, the hat he wore whilst he was a journalist in Vietnam during the war and a certificate honouring Kadare for winning the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society of 2015.

IMG_20171128_105409414

Inside the former home of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare 

Afterwards I head to the enormous hilltop fortress of Gjirokastra. Just before I walk up the steps towards the fortress, I get lost walking up some of the mazes of surrounding stone pathways. The higher I climb the more awesome a view I have of the fortress and the old bazaar. The wide snow capped mountain in the distance, visible from my balcony, augments the beauty, rawness and authenticity of this historic slice of Albania. When I enter inside the fortress, I arrive at an area with great tall multiple stone arches and a collection of artillery dating back to the Second World War. Most of these weapons belonged to German and Italian forces, which occupied Albania during that time. The fortress is also home to the Museum of Gjirokaster. The museum contains numerous displays and information documenting the history of the city from as far back as pre-historic times. Of most interest to me is the period of history starting from when the Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkans region. In 1417, Gjirokaster became part of this empire. Since that time the town grew immensely and Islam became the dominant religion, although the Ottomans were tolerant towards the existing Christian communities.

IMG_20171128_123048971_HDR

Fortress of Gjirokaster

 

IMG_20171128_125256773

The artillery gallery inside the fortress

By the time of the 18th and 19th centuries, Gjirokaster was an important administrative centre for the empire. It was around this time in 1811 when the city was captured by Ali Pasha of Ioannina, the last town I visited before I arrived in Gjirokaster. To say that Pasha was a formidable ruler would be an understatement. From the modest bits and pieces I’ve read up on him, he strikes me as the quintessential larger than life colonial despot; an intimidating and nightmarish version of Louis XIV of France on an eternal cocaine comedown. Or more generously, a PG certificate Ghenghis Khan. Lord Byron famously visited his court in the walled Turkish Kastro in Ioannina in 1809 and had conflicting feelings about the man. On one hand he was impressed by the ruler’s cultural refinement and the opulence of his court yet he was shocked by his propensity for off the charts barbarism as he wrote in a letter to his mother, ‘His Highness is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, so good a general that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte…but as barbarous as he is successful, roasting rebels, etc, etc..’ An example of his brutality include tales of drowning people who rubbed him up the wrong way by bundling them into sacks loaded with stones and then tying up the sacks before proceeding to drop them in Lake Pamvotis below the walls of his court. I recalled walking by that lake close to the Kastro and former court of Ali one cold and overcast day on my way to the bus terminal hellbent on getting to Albania. All the leaves on the trees by the lake were golden autumn brown. Ignorance is bliss and all I can remember is being struck by the beauty of the nature of my surroundings. Ali Pacha of Ioannina back then was just a name and I knew almost nothing about the man and the history of the town I was passing through.

IMG_0796

Ali Pasha

But back to Gjirokaster before I digress any further. The origins of the fortress date back as far as the 12th century but it wasn’t until the time when Ali Pasha first seized the town that major changes occurred. He instigated an enormous building project to expand the fortress with the help of his chief architect, Petro Korçari. His expansion project included new fortifications, the clock tower and an aqueduct to transport water from a mountain spring to fill the huge cisterns in the castle. The fortress was large enough to house up to 5000 soldiers along with their weapons and other supplies. An arsenal of 85 assorted British made state of the art arms were added to further protect the fortress from invasions. Not surprisingly, during Ali Pasha’s rule, the fortress never came under attack.

Some other interesting things I discovered in the museum about Gjirokaster include how fond the English landscape painter and poet, Edward Lear, was of the town. He visited two times in 1848 and 1859 on his travels through the Balkans. There are two black and white photographs which ignite my curiosity. One is a photograph of the old town from 1925 and the other is a photograph of locals hacking away with a hammer at the large town statue of Enver Hoxha after the fall of Communist rule in 1990. Although Gjirokaster is his place of birth and the town where he grew up, during his 41 year rule of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, he only visited his hometown a few times. There is also a display of miscellaneous ephemera from the Communist era such as political propaganda papers and identity documents.

IMG_6694

Painting of the fortress and the connecting aqueduct by the 19th century English painter and poet Edward Lear 

 

IMG_20171128_132136277

The old town of Gjirokaster in 1925

 

IMG_20171128_130943313

Locals posing by and hacking away at the statue of Enver Hoxha in Gjirokaster after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s

 

IMG_20171128_131326263

Objects and ephemera from the Communist period

From the top of the fortress, one is rewarded with a monumental view of the famous wide mountain of Gjirokaster. Ali Pasha’s clock tower is located near the end beneath the backdrop of the mountain. Elsewhere there is a large metallic dome shaped structure over a circular stage. This is where the National Folk Festival is held every four or five years.

IMG_20171128_133844191

The Ali Pasha built clock tower of the fortress of Gjirokaster

With less than a couple of hours remaining of light on these preciously short days, I make my way towards Zekate House; a grand Ottoman era house and probably the most spectacular of all the grand houses in Gjirokaster. It was built between 1811-12 and was a gift from Ali Pasha to Beqir Zeko (whom the house is named after) who built the house for him. It is located on a high slope over looking the rest of the old town. The view from the top of the house over Gjirokaster is just as epic as the view from the top of the fortress. The house is incredibly well preserved with almost all of its original features. One of the guest rooms comprises of ornate Ottoman style art on the walls and a beautifully designed wooden ceiling in the same style. Some of the windows feature multicoloured glass pains.

IMG_20171128_153759661

The grand Ottoman era Ali Pasha constructed Zekate House 

 

IMG_20171128_152247367

One of the guest rooms inside Zekate House

In the evening the temperature drops dramatically hovering around the -5/-6 Celsius mark. Even with the aircon unit going into overdrive to pump warm air it isn’t enough and dispite having all the blankets in the world, I consider sleeping in my clothes. All this aside, the guesthouse is very homely and Edmond and his partner did their very best to make my stay as pleasant as possible. Edmond organises his friend to collect me after breakfast the next day to drive me to a part of town from where my bus to the town of Berat, further north of the country before the capital of Tirana, would depart. His friend arrives in a black Mercedes Benz parked at the bottom of the path leading up to Edmond’s home. With hindsight I am glad I opted for a cab. I most likely would have got hopeless lost had I gone it alone. Edmond’s friend doesn’t speak a word of English and the young lady at the office of one of the bus companies is not much better. Fortunately I have my phone so I give Edmond a call and he communicates with both his friend and the lady. I later learn that the bus to Berat will be arriving at a later time. Two minutes later I am bundled into a white mini van destined for the Albanian town of Lushnjë from where I have to catch another bus to Berat. When I enter the van it is close to full capacity and I find a seat in the row of seats right at the back of the van.

Leaving Gjirokaster, we slowly descend to a lower plateau and the temperature becomes noticeably milder, but I am still wrapped up. There is no heating system in the van. Before we reach Lushnjë, the bus driver points to a sign indicating the direction to Berat. The driver speaks zero English yet he directs his hand pointing frantically to a small bay area by the connecting road. I assume a Berat bound bus will be stopping there? Still I am not sure so before disembarking the bus I make an impromptu call out to all the passengers on the bus beginning by asking whether anyone speaks English? Thankfully a young lady with dyed platinum hair comes to the rescue and is able to confirm in modest English that I need to go to the bay area the bus driver keeps relentlessly pointing at. I say the Albanian word for thank you, faliminderit, about a dozen times putting my right hand to my heart.

Like some travelling 1930s Mississippi Delta Bluesman, I trudge with all my stuff over to the other road and the small bay area. Within five minutes a Berat bound battered furgon appears and I nudge myself inside with my suitcase. I am dropped off somewhere outside of Berat from where I board a local bus to the centre. The ticket seller on the bus asks me in broken English what football team I support? I am not a football man but I tell him Tottenham. He looks at me and smiles, exposing a set of truly disgusting broken and jagged nicotine stained teeth; a sight so disturbing I conclude this is someone not suitable to be around young kids. ‘Chelsea!!!’ he howls at me in a voice so piercingly loud all the other passengers stop what they are doing.

IMG_20171202_110447916

Berat

From the centre of town I disembark with my suitcase and walk, via trusty Google Maps, to my guesthouse located in a quiet and desolate location on the margins of the centre of town. It is a small newly built bungalow home with a few rooms. The outside of the house is no great shakes, but the few rooms inside are all in immaculate condition. In spite of this the rooms are very cold and even the air con unit doubling up as a heater doesn’t sufficiently heat up the room. The floor is cold as ice and the bathroom is one big freezer with a wooden door. The owners, an old Albanian couple, have a heart of gold though and the price per night is ridiculously cheap and good value. Too good in fact, especially if you consider that the price included a very generous breakfast of assorted slices of ham, jams, bread, feta cheese slabs and cut pieces of cucumber and tomato. Yet the cold temperature of my room means I sadly have to move on to another place the following day. The second guesthouse I stay at is more expensive, but is closer to town, run by a lovely family and has warmer rooms.

IMG_20171202_120736821_HDR

The old Ottoman Gorica Quarter of Berat

Most of my stay in Berat is handicapped by ferocious torrents of rain. In fact the rain was so severe across most of the country that whenever I watched the national news it was all total mayhem; monumental floods, overflowing rivers, main highway roads blocked by mud and sludge etc. I was even wondering whether I’d make it on to Tirana on time? The entire second day of my stay in Berat was spent inside my room. When on the third day the rain still hadn’t softened, I was so determined not to spend another day bunkered in my room, I decided to brave the deluge. All I had was my small black umbrella I purchased from a vendor in the Omonia district of Athens for a couple of euros.

IMG_20171201_100611492

Castle walls of the old hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood in Berat

I wanted to visit the old Kalaja neighbourhood located on top of a hill within the walls of the old city castle. It is a quite a shlep to get there and with the lashing rain and low hanging clouds even more challenging. About two thirds of the uphill stone path have turned into rapid streams of water. I invariably step into the steams and my busted Vans are already soaked to the bone. Yet I persevere and make the entrance of the castle walls at the top of the hill. From where I am, all of the town below is smothered in substantial puffs of nimbus clouds.

IMG_20171201_112914632_HDR

A cloud smothered view of Berat from the historic hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood

Yet I am glad I made it. The old neighbourhood within the castle walls is a gem of stunning old Ottoman architecture and narrow stone alleys and passages. Walking through this maze evokes mental images of passing though a slice of medieval England with a Turkish twist. It feels very authentic here and this is no museum. It is a living and breathing neighbourhood where locals go about their daily lives.

IMG_20171201_112538945

IMG_20171201_102411157

Photographs from the old Kalaja neighbourhood

What is interesting is that for a long time Kalaja was a Christian neighbourhood and at one point had around 20 churches. Today there are fewer churches, yet the largest church in the district, the Church of the Dormition of St Mary (Kisha Fjetja e Shën Mërisë), is an old church still in existence dating back to 1797 and was constructed on the base of a church from the 10th century. This church is the site of the Onufri Museum. Onufri was a 16th century Orthodox icon painter and Archpriest priest of the Albanian town of Elbasan. He is considered the most significant icon painter of a group of Albanian icon painters from the 16th century who were instrumental in reviving the style of old sacred religious icon painting which flourished during the pre Ottoman Byzantine period. Some of his panel paintings are featured in the museum along with works by other Albanian Iconographical painters made between the 16th and 20th centuries. The enormous and ornate iconostasis situated inside the church is magnificent and one of the finest creations of the 19th century by the very best Albanian wood-carving masters. The iconostasis features two rows of icon paintings created by the ‘Grabovar’ icon painters from the Çetiri (or Katro) family under the leadership of the master icon painter Johan Çetiri. The carving of the iconostasis is documented to have been constructed by two master craftsmen, Masters Andoni and Stefani. It’s prohibited to take photographs but I am so blown away by the works that I sneak a cheeky pic on my Motorola smartphone.

IMG_20171201_103510533

The elaborate gilded 19th century iconostasis inside the Church of The Dormition of St Mary

 

IMG_20171201_111507667

16th century icon painting on wood by Onufri

Outside the church there is a display of black and white photographs of Berat from the early 20th century. They show scenes of life in the town including a photograph from 1918 of the old Gorica quarter of Berat with its many old Ottoman era houses all grouped together on the side of a hill.

IMG_20171201_110738923

Photograph of the Gorica Quarter from 1918

 

IMG_20171201_110910050

Photograph of the old bazaar from 1908

The rain is still fierce and by the time I return to my guesthouse my shoes, socks and rucksack are soaked. In the evening I have dinner at a local taverna restaurant called Weldor. I’ve already eaten there a few times and I am always served by a cordial young waiter who speaks faultless English. He’s never been to England but for many years he worked in a hostel run by a guy from Newcastle. The restaurant serves delicious and authentic Italian pizza, pasta and risotto dishes made by an Albanian cook who spent many years in Italy working as a chef. The local staples are also excellent and tonight I order a homemade casserole dish made with aubergines and served with some of the finest bread I have ever tasted.

IMG_20171201_191123663

Traditional Albanian cuisine at Wildor restaurant

By the next morning the rain has stopped and there are even some patches of blue in the sky. I seize this morning before I depart to Tirana to walk and explore the town in a way that was long denied to me. The main pedestrian promenade in the centre of town is covered in sludge. Already there are men at work with shovels and hose pipes trying to remove and wash away all the mud. Watching the people at work is like witnessing the aftermath of some natural disaster. I return to my previous guesthouse where I’d left my pyjamas. The owners greet me with a smile and hand me a plastic bag containing them. I tell them I am staying with a friend.

IMG_20171202_114752327

The aftermath of days of heavy rains, which flooded many parts of Albania

I walk over the river to the old Gorica quarter. Most of the cobbled paths are smothered in sludge with huge puddles making walking a challenge. From Gorica, I have a super view of the old town on the other side. Both this district and the old town are full of old classic Ottoman style houses each side mirroring the other and both responsible for this being known as the Town of 1000 windows.

IMG_20171202_114031789_HDR

The old town of Berat from the other side of the river

The family at my guesthouse arrange for me to go to Tirana via an acquaintance who will be driving there. I spend the remaining couple of hours of my time in the foyer with the family and their two adorable dogs, Spiky and Lucky, before a silver hatchback Golf pulls up to take me to my next destination.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

Advertisements

Sarajevo History and Wonderings

IMG_20170916_185628_858

Visiting Sarajevo was an enriching and memorable experience. Even though I am a seasoned traveller who has already traversed across a sizeable chunk of this crust, Sarajevo impressed and inspired me. This city gave my accumulated travel experiences another exotic dose of red hot spice. Sarajevo is sometimes referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe” owing to its rich multi religious and cultural history.

I stayed at a modest but homely and warm family guesthouse located up on a hill in the Bistrik district south of the Miljacka river and only a few minutes walk from the Ottoman era Baščarsija old bazaar district. This historic district was constructed in 1462 by the Ottoman Empire general Isa-beg Ishaković just after the Ottomans arrived. Before they arrived, the biggest settlement then in Sarajevo was a village square called Tornik located today at the junction between Marsala Tita and Relisa Dzemaludina Čauševica streets where the Ali Pasha mosque is situated several blocks west of the Baščarsija district. Ishaković built a mosque named “Careva Džamija” (the Emperor’s Mosque) in 1457, which is the oldest mosque in Sarajevo. The original structure was destroyed by the end of the 15th century before being rebuilt in 1565.

IMG_20170912_225945_504

Sarajevo City Hall

Crossing over the Miljacka river and walking past the large Moorish style City Hall building, I commenced my adventure through the old Baščarsija streets. Most of the places along the first street I walked across are small eateries selling bureks; spiral pastry pies filled with potato, meat, cheese, or spinach and even pumpkin. On my first evening in Sarajevo, I took a chance on an authentic looking burek place with a magnificent open coal oven where the bureks and other specialities are cooked in large closed circular pans covered in crushed coals. The bureks here at Buregdžinica Asdž are very good and cheap.

IMG_20170914_204211_765

Buregdžinica Asdž: Great burek eatery in the Baščarsija district 

I venture down another smaller street and the oldest street in Baščarsija named Kazandžiluk street, better known as “Coppersmith Street” where small shops sell copper cups, plates, bowls and tankard-like jugs. Walking through this street feels like walking through one of London’s medieval streets around Fleet Street or St Bartholomew’s church with an Arabian tinge. At the end of this street there is an antique wooden coffeehouse where you can drink authentic Bosnian coffee.

IMG_20170912_223935_639

Coppersmith Street: the oldest street in Baščarsija 

 

IMG_20170912_224223_522

On Coppersmith street

 

IMG_20170912_225519_706

Wooden coffeehouse on Coppersmith street 

Anyone who visits Baščarsija will unavoidably cross paths with the main square or Pigeon Square as it’s sometimes better known as, because of the large concentration of pigeons at any given moment just like in London’s Trafalgar Square. In the middle of this square is an old Ottoman style wooden fountain called the Sebilj. It was originally built by Mehmed Pasha Kukavica in 1753 and then in 1891, during the Austrian-Hungarian era, it was repositioned by the Austrian architect Alexander Wittek.

IMG_20170914_185348_719

“Pigeon Square”: The main square in Baščarsija 

 

IMG_20170914_105342_399

By the Sebilj

Close to the Sebilj on Mula Mustafe Baseskije street is the old Orthodox Church of the Holy Archangelo Michael and Gabriel. It is a Serbian Orthodox Church and the oldest church in the city dating back to 1539 (although it’s original structure may date back even earlier).

IMG_20170912_223321_308

Old Serbian Orthodox church: The oldest in the city dating back to 1539

An integral part of my experience in Baščarsija was delving into the area’s history associated with Gazi Husrev-beg. Gazi was born in 1480 in Serres, Greece where his father, Ferhad-beg, was a governor. From 1521 until his death twenty years later in 1541, he was the Ottoman governor of Bosnia and had contributed immensely in the establishment of the city of Sarajevo. By the time of his death, Sarajevo had already developed into a thriving and successful trading center at the crossroads between east and west. He had invested most of his fortune (his endowment or ‘waqf’) towards the development of the city and was a great philanthropist and humanist who cared deeply about the welfare of his people.

IMG_20170914_191230_060

Gazi Husrev Beg mosque: built in 1531 and the largest in the country 

The most notable landmark associated with Husrev beg is the Gazi Husrev beg mosque built in 1531 and located in the heart of Baščarsija. It is the largest mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and an outstanding example of Ottoman architecture from that time. Within the mosque compound in the courtyard is an old fountain (‘shadirwan’) similar to the fountain in the main square yet this fountain is over 200 years older dating back to 1530. Situated on the west side of the mosque is the tall stone Sahat Kula clock tower built in the 17th century. It was restored after being damaged in a fire in 1697. The clock shows the lunar time meaning that the day ends at sunset after which a new day begins. Close to the clock tower, there is a water system created by Husrev beg for the city (he also built a public toilet in 1529 which back then was very rare) where the water was transported via ceramic pipes from a wooden aqueduct under the ground. Even today the water system is still in operation and locals (and tourists) continue to come to the fountain to drink the water. I drank from the fountain and I have to say that the water is some of the purest and freshest I’ve ever tasted. Also within the mosque complex is Husrev beg’s mausoleum.

IMG_20170912_230829_607

The Sahat Kula clock tower

 

IMG_20170914_191451_218

The old ‘Shadirwan’ fountain by the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque dating back to 1530

 

IMG_20170916_182453_540

The mausoleum of Gazi Husrev Beg

 

IMG_20170916_184526_891

Drinking from the Gazi Husrev Beg fountain. The water is excellent and comes from the oldest water system in the city dating back to 1529 and engineered by Gazi Husrev Beg

Opposite the mosque is the Ghazi Husrev beg Madrassa (or learning institute) built and established in 1537 for the education of the local population. Husrev beg stated that any money remaining after the madrassa had been built should go towards buying good quality books for the madrassa. Today the collection of those original books is housed in the new modern Gazi Husrev beg library which opened in 2014 and was financed via a $8m grant from Qatar. Within the old madrassa complex is the small Ghazi Husrev beg Museum, which is an excellent place to learn and understand more about him and his unique and generous contribution to the city of Sarajevo.

IMG_20170914_193300_826

By the entrance of the old Gazi Husrev Beg Madrassa which today houses the Gazi Husrev Beg museum 

 

IMG_20170918_205421_429

Gazi Husrev Beg museum 

 

IMG_20170918_210358_407

Gazi Husrev Beg library 

Yet the Gazi Husrev Beg journey isn’t over yet. Halfway between the mosque and the Sebilj is the Morića Han which was a ‘caravanserai’ or roadside inn. In its day it was able to accommodate as many as 300 travellers and 70 horses. It was built in 1551, 11 years after Gazi’s death, and funded using his endowment or ‘vakuf’. Since during this time Sarajevo was an important international trading centre, it was important to establish lodging facilities to accommodate travelling traders who travelled long distances via their horses often from other parts of the Ottoman Empire (which around the time the inn had been built had covered all of modern day Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, North Africa and almost all of south Eastern Europe). Today the Morića Han is transformed into a lovely historic courtyard with cafes and a small market bazaar selling textiles and various crafts.

IMG_20170916_185027_927

By the outside of the old Morića Han

 

IMG_20170914_193658_322

Inside the courtyard of the Morića Han 

Heading towards the western edge of Baščarsija is Gazi Husrev Beg’s Bezistan which is an indoor bazaar. The original structure of the bazaar was likely built around 1540 financed via Gazi’s endowment. During the period of the Ottoman Empire, the shops inside the bazaar traded textiles. Running parallel to the Bezistan is the old goldsmith street (Zlatarska) today known as Gazi Husrev Begova street where goldsmiths and jewellery shops owned by metal workers sold gold and silver jewellery.

IMG_20170916_182955_202

The entrance of Gazi Husrev Beg’s Bezistan 

 

IMG_20170917_155209_613

Inside Gazi Husrev Beg’s Bezistan

 

IMG_20170917_160327_441

The old goldsmith street of Baščarsija

The ruins of the original Tašlihan stone inn, constructed around the same time as the Bezistan to accommodate travelling merchant traders like the Morića Han, can be found in the summer garden of the historic Hotel Europe.

IMG_20170917_155827_812

The ruins of the original Tašlihan stone inn

Leaving the Baščarsija and the eastern Ottoman part of the city we literally cross over to the western part of the city over the “East-West: Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures” line.

IMG_20170916_212204_775

The “East-West: Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures” line marking the border between the Ottoman eastern part of the city and the western part of the city  

Our first port of call is the old stone Jewish synagogue built sometime towards the end of the 16th century. Since it’s establishment it was damaged several times before being reconstructed again. The current physical structure of the synagogue dates back to 1813. In 1941 it was raided and occupied by the Nazis and subsequently demolished. The Nazis detained Sarajevo’s remaining Jewish community here before they were taken to concentration camps. After enormous reconstruction, in 1966 the synagogue was turned into the Jewish Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

IMG_20170918_202453_405

The old stone Jewish synagogue. In 1966 it was turned into the Jewish Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Inside the museum, there are various artefacts and fragments of traditional Jewish life in Sarajevo. There are moving and poignant displays and photographs from the time of the Nazi occupation in Sarajevo. Some of the written displays include stories of gifted Jewish teachers and intellectuals in Sarajevo whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. There is one black and white photograph from 1941, when it was a very dangerous time to be a Jew in Sarajevo (as in many other parts of Europe), showing a Jewish mother and her two children walking alongside two Muslim women. The Muslim woman in the right of the photograph is covering the Jewish woman’s Star of David symbol which she is wearing on her left arm.

IMG_20170918_204615_709

Paraphenalia in Sarajevo’s Jewish museum dating back to WW2 when the Nazis occupied Sarajevo and the city’s Jewish population was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The postcards in the photograph are postcards from the concentration camps 

 

IMG_20170918_204955_000

Black and white photographs of captured Sarajevo Jews 

 

IMG_20170918_203831_130

Photograph dating back to 1941 showing a Jewish mother and her two children walking alongside two Muslim women. The Muslim woman on the right of the photograph is covering the Jewish woman’s Star of David symbol which she is wearing on her left arm

The history of the Jewish community in Sarajevo (and the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina) dates back to 1492, the year when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and also the year when the first wave of Jews arrived in Bosnia escaping the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. They were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire ruler of the time, Sultan Bayezid II. In the time when Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of the Ottoman Empire, the Jewish community prospered and were well-treated living peacefully with the Bosnian muslims. They had a large amount of freedom and rights including the right to buy property and land and establish trade in any part of the Ottoman Empire. By 1856, a law was passed within the Empire granting Jews (and other non muslims) full equality. The Jewish community continued to flourish during the subsequent Austrian-Hungarian Empire rule until the beginning of World War One. The rise of Nazism and the Second World War caused many Jews to flee Sarajevo and Europe. By 1940 there were around 14,000 Jews in Bosnia of which 10,000 were in Sarajevo. When former Yugoslavia was invaded by the Nazis in April 1941 most of the remaining Jewish population were deported to Auschwitz or concentration camps in Croatia. After the war, most of the Jewish survivors emigrated to Israel. Today only about 1000 Jews are living in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you have some time, I recommend a visit to the city’s Jewish cemetery located outside of the city. The local tour agency Funky Tours combine a visit to the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum with a visit to the cemetery.

IMG_20170920_181401_177IMG_20170920_175404_100

Photographs from Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery. You can see the effects of the 1992-5 Bosnian War from the shelling marks on the gravestones 

The western part of the city is full of elegant and ornate buildings dating back to the era of the Austrian-Hungarian empire hand in hand with austere, brutalist architecture from the post WW2 communist Tito years. If you look closely, you may notice many buildings still scarred by intense shelling when Sarajevo was under siege during the Bosnian War from 1992-5. You may also see shelling scars on the streets you walk on. Some of these scars are painted red and known as ‘Sarajevo Roses’ marking the location where civilians died from mortar explosions during the war.

IMG_20170916_111920_605

Architecture dating back to the time of the Austrian-Hungarian empire 

 

IMG_20170916_112711_678

Brutalist architecture in the city 

 

IMG_20170914_195632_138

Scars from the 1992-5 Bosnian War

 

IMG_20170916_102041_722

‘Sarajevo Roses’: red painted street scars from the war marking the locations where civilians died from mortar explosions during the war

On the corner of Obala Kulina Bana street by the main river and Zelenik Beretki street is the Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918 and the location from where the young Bosnian revolutionary Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand who led the Austrian-Hungarian empire. His assassination was the catalyst for the First World War and the collapse of the empire. The museum documents the period of Austrian-Hungarian rule in Sarajevo as well as the assassination featuring photographs of the Archduke with his wife in their car after they were both shot, and original artefacts like the trousers Gavrilo Princip was wearing and the gun he used to assassinate the archduke.

IMG_20170914_194902_827

At the location from where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand

 

IMG_20170918_201517_069

Inside the Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918 which houses the trousers Gavrilo Princip was wearing and the gun he used to assassinate the Archduke

 

IMG_20170918_201831_563

Original photograph of the Archduke with his wife in their car just after they were both shot

Walking back towards Ferhadija street and west, you will eventually come face to face with the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Sarajevo, which is the largest cathedral in Bosnia and Herzegovina dating back to 1884, only a few years after the city came under Austrian-Hungarian rule. Viennese contractor Baron Karl Schwarz along with supervising architect Josip Vancaš designed the cathedral in a neo-Gothic style.

IMG_20170917_162545_706

The Sacred Heart Cathedral of Sarajevo: the largest cathedral in Bosnia and Herzegovina dating back to 1884

Close to the cathedral is the Orthodox Church of the Most Holy Mother of God, which faces Liberation Square. Here you will see locals playing chess like they have all the time in the world; un-restless and un-hurried.

IMG_20170916_181047_958

Orthodox Church of the Most Holy Mother of God

 

IMG_20170916_181427_860

Chess on Liberation Square

Not far from the square is the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide which the documents the 1990s war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Amongst the many photos documenting this horrific period there is a display of a dug up mass grave where one can see a human skull, bones and miscellaneous scattered personal items. During the war 34,946 civilians went missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina and more than 5,000 locations containing body parts and mass graves have been discovered across the country. Through conventional methods of clothes/items recognition and more advanced DNA analysis, about 23,000 victims have been identified. Yet around 7,000 people as of today are still missing. Elsewhere there is a display of torture methods and devices used on victims during the war. On one wall there are graphic photographs of victims exposing shocking injuries inflicted on various parts of their bodies and photographs of war refugees cramped and lying on the floor of a building in sleeping bags to keep warm. On another wall there is a framed letter from Arnold Schwarzenegger to a Bosnian heavy weights star who lost members of his family in the war. In the letter Arnold tells him, in spite of all the trauma and destruction from the war, to move forward and take care of his mother. He also mentioned enclosing gifts in the letter. As I near the end of the Museum there is a sculpture of a man made from slices of bread by Mensud Kečo dedicated to the victims of the May 27th 1992 bread queue massacre. 26 civilians were killed and over 100 were wounded as they queued for bread on Ferhadija street.

IMG_20170917_163559_353

Mass grave display at the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide

 

IMG_20170917_164007_828

A sculpture of a man made from slices of bread by Mensud Kečo dedicated to the victims of the May 27th 1992 bread queue massacre on Ferhadija street

To gain a good understanding of the Siege of Sarajevo, I embarked on a half day tour with Funky Tours. My guide was a middle aged man named Adnan who experienced and lived through the siege and was injured in his hip by flying shrapnel. With his unique experience he is also a charismatic and engaging guide, and it was riveting to listen to his stories. On this tour we visited the Sarajevo Tunnel located on the outskirts of the city. It was built discreetly by the Bosnian Army to link the neighbourhoods of Butmir and Dobrinja. At the time the entire city was surrounded by the Bosnian Serb army and it was very difficult to escape. Civilians were trapped and the tunnel enabled them to flee and get access to essential humanitarian aid. Today the house whose cellar acted as the entrance to the tunnel has now been transformed into the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum. When we entered the house we walked down the narrow 20 metre length portion of the original tunnel from its entrance. Inside the house there are photographic displays and War artefacts like military uniforms and equipment and also some examples of the humanitarian aid and food staples smuggled via the tunnel.

IMG_20170918_015519_109

By the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum

 

IMG_20170918_015810_237

Inside the Sarajevo Tunnel

Afterwards, Adnan drove us to the bobsleigh track built for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Eight years later from the start of the Bosnian War, the track was destroyed by the Bosnian Serb Army and also utilised as an artillery position. Today the track is a heavily graffitied relic. One area of the track has been graffitied with the image of a young girl crying wearing a yellow shirt with a flower. She’s holding two signs in each hand. The right sign features the John Lennon and Yoko Ono slogan ‘Give Peace A Chance’ whilst the left sign continues the sentence with ‘For All Kids’.

IMG_20170918_021526_297IMG_20170918_020843_545

Bobsleigh track photographs

 

IMG_20170918_020305_243

View over Sarajevo 

Close by the track we stopped at the side of a mountain road from where we had an incredible vista of the city of Sarajevo and its surroundings. All of the city is located in a valley surrounded by mountains. As magnificent as the scenery is, the heartbreaking truth is that such as setting made it relatively easy for Bosnian Serb Army troops to almost completely surround and lock the city.

 

 

Text and photographs by Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved