The Place you Didn’t Want to Be – but were glad to arrive: Holiday Inn, Sarajevo
It’s still a hotel, lost in soviet-era architecture and the murk and legend of conflict, war -correspondent dispatches flying like invisible pennants from the concrete battlements; then it was the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo. Can you remember the war pictures from its windows, seeing people shot and lying by the tram tracks? The rattle of gunfire should still echo.
Not a savoury place at the best of times, but a beacon of good practice and luxury among Yugoslav hotels of its day. It is saying a lot that it was always a relief to arrive; an improvement on even the Belgrade hotels, let alone the back country versions where there were never any plugs in the bathrooms and the lift only stopped at every other floor. (took some time to work that one out). Check-in was normally efficient, relatively speaking, in the cavernous hessian-clad reception area and by that time on the trip we were used to surrendering our passports and signing the statement saying we were not enemies of the people. The bar, with Russian-effect hanging lamps was at least spacious, if not cosy – but expensive as were all places intended to be infested by Westerners. The restaurant was huge, uninspiring and neutral coloured and if you stuck to boiled eggs at breakfast you usually didn’t suffer any lasting ill effects. The true horror lurked in your room, with the lights off. Good sense, and by the third visit, experience, meant you kept your shoes in bed with you; the better to slip them on unmolested if you had to visit the toilet in the night. Cockroaches abounded and would crunch underfoot as you scuttled, insect-like yourself, to the loo. We joked we could have trained the critters to fetch our G&Ts from the bar, if we took the time and were friendly enough – there were certainly enough of them to carry a whole bottle of gin upstairs if it was worth their while. Since you ask, I can’t stand leaving the light on all night, which would have been the other way of avoiding the cockroaches, although I expect hunger would have driven them out of their hiding places sooner or later. And then you would see them, as well as squash them.
There to do business, as even a failing dictatorship with its final writing on the wall obvious to the politically well tuned (not me, but my boss predicted the fall) has money and legal commercial relationships with overseas businesses, we did business in the day and took our fun where we could find it afterwards. Sarajevo is European history distilled, a clash of cultures, explosive even in peacetime, even within a family, a slumbering monster at its heart. We loved time with our agent who was a Bosnian Serb married to a Herzogovinan Muslim. We had nothing but hospitality and welcome from the whole family including distant relatives to whom I was proudly displayed - and then I had to eat all the cakes and fried chicken provided at inappropriate times of the day or cause mortal offence. Food is the universal currency of welcome and it was impossible to refuse any offer. We rode the trams, bought delicate bubble-thin wine glasses, visited the soukh, sunbathed in gardens on the hills above the city where the grandmothers live on the allotments in tiny cabins made of derelict railway carriages guarding chickens and the slivovic-trees. We argued with Bosnian Serbs about politics (not realising our danger or that of their neighbours) ; women’s rights; whether ‘Ello ‘Ello was funnier than Fawlty Towers – both of which series even the teenagers knew off by heart in accented English. We spent an evening in the Winter Olympic village, deserted even in winter, and in summer, took trout from a hatchery to be cooked super-fresh on a grill among the green woods and running rivers.
We didn’t want to be there, nor did we like being there, but I miss the city: the spirit, the mix, the savage Serb humour and the generosity that goes with it, the walled river, the blossoming hills in the spring, and the smell of brown coal smoke in the winter. I haven’t been back in 20 years but I suspect those things are still the same, like the Holiday Inn, always there, unchanged even by war.