Children chase pigeons in Bascarsija. They dip their hands in the Sebilj, the public wooden fountain that dominates the square, gives it meaning and orders it. At the top, the sun at three in the afternoon beats down on the few tourists who walk and the smells of roasted coffee. Bascarsija is the market square of Sarajevo. The heart of a city with warm blood and that lives overturned in the street. The open-air bazaar stretches out onto the banks of the Miljacka River, like tiny veins where merchants sell spices, leather bags, metal teapots and announce the latest English league football game.
Time in Sarajevo passes slowly and lingers on the corners of shops. Centuries ago, cloves from India were sold as a delicacy in these same bazaars that I observe from the terrace of Café Slatko Cose. The city was the place where East and West met. In most cases, the clash of cultures produced fighting and blood. Scratches that have left the testimony of divided cities, from the north to the south of the Balkans. But in Sarajevo, the meeting was a hug. Today a miraculous miscegenation is evident in the streets of Sarajevo. A blond, Nordic-looking Muslim whose mother tongue is Serbo-Croatian; a Russian-looking Orthodox Slav with a Muslim father; a Catholic Croat with a Mediterranean air who writes in Cyrillic. But coexistence is a utopia even in the center of the easternmost city in Europe, the westernmost in the East.
The coffee menu is varied and not on a whim. Collect the tastes of a population that is from everywhere without ever leaving Sarajevo. Viennese coffee is presented alongside Bosanka Kafa, a variant of Turkish coffee made without diluting the ground or shaking it. In addition, it is served in a metal cup with carved filigree. Leave the teeth black but the soul renewed. It’s a small payment to taste the best coffee I’ve had in years. The waitress offers me sweets drizzled with honey. She is a beautiful young woman who wears the veil. She is used to dealing with tourists and men. She smiles at me and tries to have a conversation with me. In the 16th century Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque, right across from the café, the muezzin calls to prayer from the minaret. It is a low and sad song, full of fascination. The waitress sets the tray on my table and prepares to leave. She trusts travelers and does not give them the bill.
I walk through Saraci, the main street of the bazaar and I check that the story has stopped. The Gazi Huserv-Beg Mosque is open. We entered and watched the faithful kneel in front of the Mihrab. It is an enchanted garden that the curious have access to. People pray in whispers and some passersby, under the trees, read novels in German. The color of the stone is white, a rock wet from the multiple sources that receive the believer. The rivers of life and of God. Following the route, the street transmutes into elegant Europe of the 19th century. Saraci turns into Ferhadija, a wide avenue, full of modern telephone shops and beer gardens. The metamorphosis of the city has been total. It has gone from Arabian Nights to Berlin Alexanderplatz in five meters. In 1878, the Treaty of Berlin ended three centuries of Ottoman rule. Bosnia became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Habsburg eagle dominated territory more typical of legend than of the Viennese bureaucracy. The city grew and imposed itself on the mountains that surround it, in the Dinaric Alps, where before only man had dared to build their cemeteries. The end of the Radetzky march on the streets of Sarajevo is well known. At the Latin Bridge over the Miljacka, a five-minute walk away, Gravrilo Princip shot Archduke Francisco Fernando and his wife, Sofia Chotek. World War I began in a city that barely participated in the conflict and that liked wars. There would be no soldier in Verdun or in the Dolomites who did not remember the name of Sarajevo, escaping from the trenches.
But for a peaceful city it suffered an atrocious 20th century. If it was inaugurated with the blood of an imperial heir on the Latin Bridge, the same century ended with the siege of more than a thousand days by Milosevic’s Serbian troops. The result was fatal. Ten thousand dead. A city torn apart in all its neighborhoods, prey to snipers (there is even an avenue in the modern part called that), which saw its library burn, the greatest cultural legacy that Sarajevo offered to the world. The Balkan war was especially violent in Bosnia and in its capital, and the traveler is surprised because he has not seen a better example of coexistence in all the trips he has made. In Sarajevo one finds a mosque, an Orthodox church, a Catholic church and a synagogue in less than two hundred meters.
Before night falls in Sarajevo, we go up to the Yellow Bastion. We leave aside one of the dozens of cemeteries that surround the city. Old dead and new dead. From all sides, that one day they went to Ba ?? ar? Ija to have coffee, Viennese or Turkish. This city, I think, is not convinced by how history has treated it. And it gets dark on both banks of the Miljacka.