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Coffee In The Electric City (Sarajevo)

Posted by Peter Heywood 8th August 2017
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Peter Heywood travelled with Wild Frontiers on our Into The Balkans trip.

After an early morning visit to the hamam, I walked to the old bazaar district of Sarajevo looking for the street of coppersmiths. It was getting hot. I heard the street before I found it, the tapping of tools on beaten copper echoing through the maze of winding alleys and wooden shop fronts. I was in search of a coffee set.

In one of the shops, I talked to Suvad who was born and brought up in the city. “Coffee is part of life here", he said. “If you visit someone’s home, they will make coffee for you whether you’ve asked for it or not. My grandmother had two rules about coffee. The first rule was ‘only ask a visitor if they want coffee if they are sick’. The second rule was ‘if a visitor asks for tea, ask them if they are sick.”

I made a purchase and made for a nearby coffee house which I knew was located in the city’s only remaining preserved caravanserai. Travellers along the Silk Road had rested here over four hundred years ago. Sitting in its cool, shady courtyard, I ordered a thick Bosnian coffee, served with Turkish Delight and water, and people-watched. 

Coffee shop

In the early evening I walked east, criss-crossing the river over half a dozen of the bridges linking the north and south of the city. It was still hot and the light was beginning to fade, but I was in no hurry. I was passed by a succession of trams in a variety of colours, liveries and designs. Many of them, I discovered later, had been donated by Amsterdam, Istanbul and other cities after the Bosnian War, their predecessors having provided cover to beseiged residents from sniper fire.

But it was the history of the city’s tram system that really interested me. Sarajevo had the oldest dawn-to-dusk electric-powered system in Europe. Introduced during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it had been the ‘pilot’ for that later set up in Vienna. In the fading light, I sat near the flood-lit Latin Bridge and watched the city’s  residents board tram cars that had travelled the streets of other foreign capitals before arriving on theirs.

Sarajevo tram at dusk

When darkness had fallen, I returned to the old bazaar district where it was easy to find more evidence of the city’s role as a ‘test bed’ for electrification. The dome and minaret of the Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque were lit up against the night sky. In 1898, the mosque had become the first in the world to receive electricity and illuminate its many buildings. Now, in a time of peace, the courtyard of the mosque was thronged with people, sitting, talking and reading; gaining enlightenment, perhaps, or just exchanging news. I felt thirsty. I went out into the street and followed the smell of coffee.

Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque at night

Latin bridge at night

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