Welcome Back to Sarajevo - Page 2

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White Light: Recent history is evident at Jahorina. One hotel sits empty and burned out from refugees during the war in the '90s while a newly built hotel receives the growing crowds returning to the mountain.  (Carly Calhoun)
Balkan Balance: Pigeon Square in Bascarsija, the Turkish Quarter, is a popular place to meet for thick, Bosnian coffee or a pita filled with cevapi.  (Carly Calhoun)

Skiing events during the 14th Winter Olympics were mainly spread over two areas: Jahorina and Bjelasnica. But during the 1984 Games—as Americans focused on the skiing Mahre brothers, Phil and Steve, and a downhill yahoo named Billy Johnson—there was no question that the real star was Sarajevo itself. Long known as a city of cultural and religious tolerance since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Olympic Sarajevo seemed to showcase all that was positive within communist-era Yugoslavia. For 12 days, the world witnessed as the then largest Winter Games ever (in terms of number of participants and media) went off without a hitch.

"People here were—and still are—proud of those Games," said Melika Brkovic, Bosnian Tourism PR coordinator. We sat in Café Michelle sipping espressos on Sarajevo's main pedestrian promenade, Ferhadija, which stays crowded with style-conscious Bosnians regardless of the season. Across the walkway from us, the city’s Olympic symbol, still inlayed in stone, acted as a reminder of a different time. "In 1984, everyone volunteered and the atmosphere was like a small community with lots of goodwill," she continued. "But it's important not to just live in the past. Sarajevo still has a reputation for being a cultural center and one of the most open towns in Europe."

It takes only one walk through the famous Turkish bazaar known as Bascarsija to realize how special and safe this capital of 400,000, known as the fastest-changing city in Europe, is, and why there was a 40 percent increase in tourism last year alone. While I strolled along the boisterous cobbled streets—past traditional shops and galleries—the smell of cevapi (the anchor of Sarajevan cuisine: grilled lamb sausages served with pita and fresh onions) poured from bistros and mixed with cherry- and apple-flavored tobacco smoke from café-goers puffing nargilas (hookahs). And as I searched through rug shops, talked with coppersmiths, and chatted with locals, there was not a single time when I wasn't beseeched to stay and have thick Bosnian coffee or something stronger like sljivovica (plum brandy). Who was I to refuse?

"People call Sarajevo the European Jerusalem because there's a mosque, cathedral, Orthodox church, and synagogue all within a short walk of each other," said Alan Salihagic, the co-owner of Bascarsija Pansion—a B&B-ish guesthouse in the heart of town. "When you are here, it's important to walk around and share that culture … we are starting to get back what people tried to take from us."

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