Skiing’s best kept secret
Apt in a way, as East German and Soviet Union teams almost cleaned up all the bobsleigh medals between them, hammering down here back in 1984.
The concrete luge weaving through a forest high on Mount Trebevic serves as a stark reminder of Sarajevo’s glory days – before a war left the city, formerly in Yugoslavia, under siege for four horrific years in the Nineties.
Now the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a few of its venues from the Games where Torvill and Dean clinched gold are still intact. The ski jump is in nearby Igman, and the Olympic rings still stand proudly in Jahorina, site of the women’s downhill race.
Now, Jahorina is a flourishing ski resort 34km south of Sarajevo. The Dinaric Alps aren’t comparable to the sheer scale and piste variety of their Swiss or French counterparts, but the 45km of skiing territory here provides a fascinating and cheap alternative to Western Europe’s famously pricey resorts.
In truth, the early December snow is patchy, so your best bet is January and February. “There hasn’t been a bad winter (for snow) in the last five years”, says Graeme Higgs of Ski Sarajevo, the only British firm offering package ski holidays here.
The amount of Brits you’ll find is minimal though – only 8,000-10,000 visited last year, and mainly in summer.
In September, FlyBosnia launched the first UK direct flights in years to Sarajevo airport, 15 minutes from the city, making it more accessible than ever – yet if my empty flight was anything to go by, ski fans are yet to cotton on.
I can’t say I’ve ever felt off the beaten path on a ski trip before. Residents (although warm and welcoming) are curious about why we’re here, and I hear only local languages on the slopes and in the on-piste bar, where we clink £1.20 beers and the malty Bosnian cola, Cockta, under blue skies in the sunshine.
Sarajevo old town
Dismounting the chairlift on a red-blue run, I see a rebuilt radar station said to have been bombed by Nato, triggering the signing of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the civil war.
It’s impossible to forget it was from the mountains that Bosnian-Serb nationalist forces tried to take Sarajevo, surrounding it almost entirely from 1992 to 1995, following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Twenty-five years on, Bosnians, Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Croats are living in harmony but the atrocities, which killed an estimated 110,000 people, including 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Srebrenica genocide (for which war criminals are still being tried in The Hague) are in living memory of everyone I meet. “I was seven when war broke out,” says Sarajevo Funky Tours guide Skender Hatibovic. “My family and I mostly lived in my grandmother’s basement. Our house was hit several times.”
Many civilians were killed by bombs and snipers while trying to find food or water for their families, or go to work, he says.
Skender recalls his dad making runs for supplies and medicine for his sick brother, and being unable to go to school for eight months.“You cannot really say you survived intact.”
The Dinaric alps and their pristine slopes
We drive along the long, wide street known as Sniper Alley during the siege. Today it’s home to a shopping centre but bullet holes are visible in some buildings, just as shells remain in some of the mountains.
“Everyone in Sarajevo has had close encounters with death,” says Skender, matter-of-factly. Many museums commemorate the victims. The War Childhood Museum shares stories and possessions of people who were children during that time.
I step down into part of the 800-metre tunnel built in 1993 under the UN-protected airport, its metal structure and low ceiling intact. “It saved us,” Skender says. Until the war ended, it was a lifeline for food, supplies and weapons for the Bosnian army.
Today, Sarajevo is a city of two halves – the old Turkish town of Ottoman-style bazaars, where silver trinkets, traditional coffee sets and hand-stitched textiles spill onto the pedestrianised streets, and a district of Austro-Hungarian architecture, with business blocks and shopping malls.
Hotel Europe, where I’m staying, is just down the road from where Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated, leading to the First World War.
I stroll through the old town eating 60p burek (meat in tubes of filo), £1 cevapi (beef sausage in flatbread) and rahat lokum (Turkish delight) before stopping for a traditional coffee (extra strong, no milk) at Nafaka.
Coffee served the traditional way
Every now and again, red paint splatters mark the ground where a massacre happened.
It’s all part of what makes Sarajevo so distinct, and is likely to leave its mark on you.
It certainly makes for a far more meaningful ski break, that’s for sure.
Ski Sarajevo offers a three-night package (one night in Sarajevo at Hotel Europe and two nights on Mount Jahorina at Hotel Termag), Saturday to Tuesday, from £299 per person, based on two sharing. Price includes accommodation, lift passes and transfers; seven-night package from £489 per person in a two-bedroom apartment, based on four sharing (six nights on Mount Jahorina, one night in Sarajevo city), breakfast, lift passes and airport/city transfers included (ski-sarajevo.com; 020 3290 3209).
FlyBosnia flies from Luton to Sarajevo from £195 return (flybosnia.ba).
More info: bhtourism.ba/eng