“Yes, but what about the skiing?” It’s a question anyone returning from a ski holiday in Sarajevo will get used to.
You may have gone to test the nearby slopes of Jahorina and Bjelasnica, stars of the 1984 Olympics, where lift passes cost around £20 per day. There’s even a new airline – FlyBosnia – with return fares from London Luton starting at £195. But there is so much to distract you in the city that snowy activities might take a back seat.
Firstly, the obvious surprise is that there is any skiing left at all. It was a NATO airstrike on Jahorina that signalled the beginning of the end of the Bosnian War in 1995. You can ski past the ruined Serbian barracks and radar station today.
These are not the only reminders of Sarajevo’s turbulent past. From the street corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, to ‘Sniper Alley’, on which Serb gunmen inflicted so much misery during the siege of the city in the Nineties, everything demands a moment of reflection.
But what is now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina also has much to marvel at: medieval mosques, catholic churches, markets, monuments; all are reminders of another era. Even the incongruous slabs of Soviet influence have a certain presence.
But mainly, Sarajevo is where Ottoman intrigue meets the grandeur of the Habsburgs. Coffee is served from ornate copper kettles alongside sweet rahat lokum (Bosnian rather than Turkish delight). Fast food comes in the shape of burek – generous fingers of filo pastry stuffed with beef, spinach or cheese – and cevapi, more beef, with raw onion on a flatbread. All are delicious and cost around 3.5 Bosnian marks (£1.50) each.
East meets west is a recurring cliché worldwide, but it’s so true here that it is physically marked in metal script on the pavement, dividing the narrow streets of the Turkish quarter from the wide boulevards of Austro-Hungarian times. And now there are 21st-century steel and glass buildings springing up, lit by plasma screens like a burgeoning outpost of Tokyo.
A new sightseeing gondola opened in December 2019, replacing the rickety 1950s version, itself an early casualty of the Bosnian War. The 10-minute ride above the forested flanks of Mount Trebević, home of the 1984 Olympic bobsleigh run, affords a wonderful view of the city below. There’s a choice of taking the six-seater cabins back down, or savouring a poignant walk down the concrete channel of the old bob track – its vertiginous banks are now a canvas for local graffiti artists.
But what about the skiing? Well, it’s not quite the Trois Vallées, but with 45km of slopes there is enough at Jahorina to keep a competent intermediate happy for a few days – and another 11km at Bjelasnica to fill out a week. Both resorts feature mostly red and blue pistes, which are quite steep by Alpine standards – you may wonder if the blues are actually a bit tougher than advertised – but there are nursery slopes too, and even floodlit night skiing.
They each top out at around 2,000m and have benefited from almost £7m worth of improvements to lifts and terrain in the past five years, although there’s no lift-pass sharing agreement as yet. Nor are there many British visitors to Bosnia – fewer than 10,000 annually, compared with 1m to neighbouring Croatia.
Luckily, a UK tour operator spotted an opportunity a few seasons back and has come up with a ski package including lift passes and an overnight stay in Sarajevo, around an hour’s drive from Jahorina.
Ski Sarajevo is the snow-sports arm of Balkan specialist Go Adventures. It offers accommodation at three brand-new and very smartly fitted-out apartment buildings at Jahorina’s quiet base, a good choice for families or groups on a budget. Each has a kitchenette, but the package includes half-board at the neighbouring Hotel Termag and use of the four-star property’s pool and spa.
A day trip to Bjelasnica by shuttle bus, a journey of 63km, can be arranged by Ski Sarajevo, for a chance to sample both of the 1984 Olympic resorts. And if anything, it is the spirit of the Olympics that unites Sarajevo today. When taking a tour of the city, there’s an ever-present sense of loss and what might have been – but also, what could still be. This is, after all, somewhere that has previously pulled off the unexpected.
The day before the 1984 Games, the mountains around the city were worryingly green. Scrabbling around for snow cannons and hoping temperatures would drop, the organising committee was faced with delaying the Alpine skiing events and switching focus to the ice rink.
But then, on the eve of the opening ceremony, it snowed all night. This became known as the Sarajevo Miracle. At that point, the future must have seemed bright; full of hope. We all know what happened next.
There are more than a dozen museums in the city devoted to the 1992-1995 Bosnian War; even the former Holiday Inn will soon be home to a permanent exhibition. The erstwhile refuge of foreign correspondents is now part of a locally owned hotel group, and has been rechristened the Hotel Holiday. It retains the yellow colour scheme of the old days, but has otherwise been completely refitted.
Staying here brought the past back into focus. Weirdly, it made me feel young again – everything has the intrigue of the old Eastern Bloc that I Interrailed around at the beginning of the Nineties, when Europe felt born anew. In 2019, pints of Sarajevska beer for less than £2 are a nostalgic treat, and nowhere more so than at the Kino Bosna on Alipašina. This old cinema-turned-bar goes ballistic on certain nights of the week and is a must for at least a couple of drinks, before risking asphyxiation by cigarette smoke – smoking is permitted anywhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The best way to take in all of the capital’s sites is on a tour with Skender Hatibović, who will be familiar to anyone who saw the Sarajevo episode of BBC travelogue The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan. The charismatic 35-year-old Hatibović spent his earliest years holed up in his grandmother’s basement, but that hardship apparently imbued him with a quality only the best guides have: his stories are compelling, and he tells them with conviction.
During a half-day visit to the Sarajevo War Tunnel – the secret supply line that kept the city alive during the siege – you can learn as much about the Balkan conflict and its eventual resolution as you would by mining Wikipedia for a week.
The nigh-on four-year siege of Sarajevo was the longest bombardment a city has endured since Leningrad during the Second World War, and that anything was left standing is something of a miracle in itself. Now the ski industry has a part to play in the city’s recovery.
As well as the established resorts of Jahorina and Bjelasnica, there are plans to expand tiny Ravna Planina, 15 miles from the city centre. There is already a restaurant and the first stage of a gondola in place, offering 12km of mostly blue pistes. The second stage promises a link with Jahorina and another 15km of terrain, as well as a new hotel.
Ravna Planina’s owner – a local construction magnate – plans to have the resort finished by next winter. This seems as unlikely as it is ambitious. Then again, Sarajevo has pulled off miracles before.
How to do it
Ski Sarajevo (ski-sarajevo.com; 020 3290 3209) offers seven nights’ half-board from £489 per person, staying six nights in an apartment in Jahorina, and one night at Hotel Europe in Sarajevo, including a six-day lift pass for Jahorina, a day trip to Bjelasnica including lift pass, and airport transfers. Return flights from London Luton to Sarajevo start from £195 with FlyBosnia (flybosnia.ba), including hold baggage. Half-day tours with Skender Hatibović from €17 (£14.50); sarajevofunkytours.com.