I went through days and days of fruitless rendering on the computer, on a pad, and in my head. Pages and pages of written words, prose or otherwise fill my sketchpads and computer files though none had the promise to speak aloud, they all just ended up drifting off into omitted corners of my mind and into generic file names like Firsttry, Secondtry, Fail#1, Fail#2.
I couldn’t get the words out that I wanted when writing about my time in the beloved city of Sarajevo. A city of nearly 370,000 people, tucked into the Balkans, regarded to some as the “Jerusalem of Europe,” so called for the cultural and spiritual diversity that line its cobbled streets. Shaded by the summer heat, ornate Mosques sprawl across the city squares with verses from the Qur’an emitting in the morning stillness. While down the street rise towering spires of Orthodox Christian Churches and further still exist Temples emblazoned with the Star of David.
I wrote and wrote about its beauty and its great avenues filled with metalwork and the smells and sights but my inspiration ended there. I became disillusioned with my own prose, it had become empty and hollow, and I couldn’t rise above it until I realized my folly.
The only time that I am alone in my travels, is in urban settings, a city crawling with folks and yet I am all alone. Sarajevo would have just been another European city, but what made it special was the family that I had, and will still have there.
I was writing about a city like I was reading out of tour book, a city made of bricks and stone, shaded pavilions and wooden benches, the smells and the colors, and the beauty all around but what I was missing was the most important part, family.
So, here I sit in a cafe in Ljubljana, finally understanding after all this time, the secret to my happiness. That warmth and safety, trust and an ability to let your guard down for a little while was just enough to be able to enjoy Sarajevo.
Sarajevo. Just say it out loud. Sarajevo.
Its poetic, ancient, an incredible sound. I love it. I cannot say how many times I have told people that I was in Sarajevo, and it was my favorite European destination. The sound of “Sarajevo” in any conversation is always met with the same interested look, the sharpness of the ear, and then always the response, “Sarajevo, wow.” It is not vanity that has me reiterating the name, but genuine love for the place, and I earnestly do my best to steer everyone in the direction of the Balkan city.
In order to better grasp why I was there, perhaps an explanation into how I met this guy:
Alexandre Sasa Draganic, a real friend.
Several weeks previous, Tiffany and I parted ways for approximately a week, she to Italy and I, to nowhere in particular. Sitting in a cafe in Rijeka, with no direction and my inspiration to explore quickly drying up along with the contents of my beer mug on the bar next to me.
The waitress meanwhile asked me where I was from, and somewhere during this brief interlude it came up that my family was originally from Croatia and she asked where – I said somewhere inland. Boom. I had a week to kill in Croatia before Tiff returned, an inland adventure would be perfect. Settled. I bought a ticket the next day and headed out to Zagreb, capital of Croatia.
My time there was good, and it passed quickly. My last day there started like any other in an empty hostel, though there was one individual across from me reading a book. I hadn’t actually seen anyone read a book in a long while, I mean who has time for that when you have to check your tweets, email, and Facebook updates?
It started with a conversation about books, then evolved into travel, farming entered somewhere between breakfast and washing up, then on to wine, talk of Sarajevo and then a farewell. Sasa, as he introduced himself, struck me first as a good man and good friend, and we only knew each other for that single morning.
Three weeks later Tiffany and I were trudging through crowded streets, dirty peddlers, side-shop crap being sold at prices that make the eyes bulge out their sockets, with sweat in the air, on the skin, and everywhere that no one wants it. It was the end of our stay in beautiful Hrvatska, and we were ready to go anywhere to escape the hordes of camera-snappers and pavement pounders.
This was, if you remember one of my previous entries, after our two night beachside accommodations on blow-up mattresses and thunderstorms off the Adriatic in Makarska. Fed up with skipping from town to town, we were both ready to just sit somewhere and rest our weary heads and so on a whim, we went East into the Balkans and with the onset of another storm, we arrived in Sarajevo.
Sasa was waiting for us, we took a ride in a sleek Volkswagen Golf, the first automatic I saw in Europe, and arrived to a nondescript apartment complex. After several flights of endless stairs, we walked through the door and into another world.
Light poured in from recessed shelves, walls painted in a subtle hues, beautiful woodwork, clean and well-kept. It was warm and inviting and I could not wait to just sit on the couch with slippers on – Tiff and I couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces. After what we were used to, this was a palace. First night was damp and dark on the balcony, but with some pasta and a few glasses of Herzegovinian vintage, we quickly livened up the mood and with it our friendship began.
After a very good nights sleep, we woke up to a wonderful breakfast of fresh baked Kifles, they look more like croissants than the ones I’m used to back home but warm and with some butter they are delicious! Sasa’s mother Jasna makes an awesome eggplant spread, I think that’s what it was – named Avjar (correct me if I’m wrong, Sasa), along with jam and other dairy products this breakfast was the long-awaited/needed feast. Tiff and I dug in with ill-concealed constraint. Yum.
The Draganic family owns the first-opened wine shop in Sarajevo, named Vino i Delicije, right near the center of town and the river, down the street from the famous Sacred Heart Cathedral. It is a pleasant little place, much like their home, well done.
I thought I knew about wine before I arrived in Sarajevo, but Sasa and his family made sure to give me a first-class education. It was well received and we made many nights full of twirling, smelling, sipping and studying the intricacies of each different vintage, mostly Bosnian-Herzegovinian wine that Sasa and his father, Stanimir recommended. My favorite was a new type that had a orange tint and smelled strongly of ripe cantaloupe – it was phenomenal.
Sitting down in the living room, lounging after breakfast and before bed, was some of my favorite moments during my time in the Balkan capital. Sasa and his parents made Tiffany and myself feel just like family and it meant the world to us.
On those dreamy days, we walked everywhere. Into the hills, huffing and puffing with exertion, along the river past burnt out barracks and bullet-ridden apartments from the siege decades ago while new infrastructure sprung up in its place. Artwork, culture and lovely people lined the passageways in between little shops and through subtle corridors. We visited a shaded courtyard, with a tree in the center and vermilion pillows against old benches where a water pipe was placed on a table and we whiled away the day with the flavor of watermelon tobacco and magic tea on our lips, and the words of travel and adventure on our tongues.
Memory of this city is good, though memory of my friend and his warm family is better. I drank the sweet water from the fountain in the city center, a serious legend surrounds the mysterious draught, one which claims that visitors who drink the water will someday return to do it again. I have no doubt I will come back, though next time for a little longer and maybe, for a little more wine.