'So, why did you come to Sarajevo?'

That was the one question everyone I met in Sarajevo seemed to ask me, once we had established I was not here on a 'weekend trip to get the last of the European sun', like 90% of everyone else who came here in early September. Some seemed quite enticed by the offers of 'men, women, drugs, anything you want, cheap' from the pub opposite.

Because apparently, that's a perfectly valid reason, but visiting a place because you are interested in its history is not. It's taken me a while to came to the awareness that Sarajevo actually was a place I could visit. As a child of the 80s, all I remember about Sarajevo was that is was a place that was constantly connected to 'war'. I need to admit, however, that I had no idea about what happened in the formed Yugoslavian countries after the Iron Curtain fell, until I read things up a few months ago. We Western Europeans love to tell Americans how stupid they are, but really, we are in denial of most of European history, too.

When I got off the train after a 12 hour ride from Budapest, I was surprised... I hadn't travelled in Europe for quite some time and was still in developing country mode, suspecting petty theft, robbery and touts at every corner. But the city I got off in could as well have been a major city in Germany or France, if you blended out the mosques.

Wide boulevards and parks. Pristine streets and sidewalks, large shopping malls. I was delighted to discover my favourite Italian restaurant chain 'Vapiano', and the super eco-friendly and cheap German drugstore chain dm. Sarajevo showed more signs that is was once part of the Austrian than of the Ottoman empire. Everyone either spoke English or German, and I mean fluently, without an accent. Yes, there were patched up holes in many of the buildings, but really, it seemed that more houses had survived WWI and WWII than elsewhere in Europe - and the siege of the city, of course.

The hostel turned out to be one of the most relaxed and spacious I've ever been to, and the owners were just wonderful (in case you were wondering - I stayed at Residence Rooms).

The next day, we went on a tour of the city organised by the hostel owner, who was our driver and guide. As we drove through the city, he told us of his life during the siege, as well as before and after. How he was born in a German concentration camp but rescued because his father knew people in high places. How the Serbian army ransacked all of his belongings in a suburb of the city, how he helped others flee. How his children now live in America, and how he thought that was just the right place for them to be.

Halfway through, we stopped at the old Jewish cemetery, without all that much explanation – although the cemetery allowed for a great view down to the city and of the hills surrounding it. With a looking glass, we could almost see into windows. It was easy to imagine how the Serbian snipers managed to control the city from here.

The next stop was the site of the 1984 winter Olympics, a great source of pride for the city, also destroyed by Serbian forced. We walked around the area for a while. Two of the German guys I met at the hostel – they had shared some uninformed assumptions about the siege and warfare in general during the trip- looked at each other, then warned us 'Don't walk off the beaten track, it's too dangerous. There are land mines EVERYWHERE.' I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Yes, sure, that's why ALL the tours go here and there's not a single warning sign. In this extremely dangerous country where every tram left right on time (yes, there were even tram timetables).

Afore mentioned boys were, of course, very happy at Sarajevo's most popular tourist destination that followed, the Tunnel Museum. The tunnels used to connect the city with the airport, making humanitarian aid deliveries possible during the siege. There isn't all that much to see, and hadn't it been part of the tour, I probably would have skipped it – there's about 20 metres of tunnel you can walk through, a film and some pictures without much explanation.

At the end of the tour, we were burning to ask questions, but it was obvious he was telling his own story, re-living his own film, and we didn't play a role in it. Most of our questions received a 'I'll tell you later' as response, but we never received our reply.

Sarajevo's other attraction is the Turkish quarter, which is filled with souvenir and cevapi shops, plus a lot over overpriced, touristy restaurants. Still, it's worth to have a walk around the area, although I wasn't sure what was Turkish about it, as it felt quite different from any place I visited in Turkey.

Still, I'm happy that I came to Sarajevo – not so much because I learned about the war, but because it turned out to be a beautiful, vibrant European city that is still largely undiscovered by large scale tourism. From now on, when I think of Sarajevo, I won't think of bombings and tragedy, but of eating ice cream at the river, looking up to the lush mountains.

Have you ever been to a place that turned out completely different from what you expected it to be?


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