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Sarajevo in the Balkans Is an Olympic Winner

November 16, 1986|MILTON NIEUWSMA | Nieuwsma is a Riverside, Ill., free-lance writer.

SARAJEVO, Yugoslavia — Until a few years ago this city of 500,000, hidden in the winter fog of a Balkan mountain valley, was considered the forgotten city of Yugoslavia.

If anyone remembered it at all, it was as the place where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot by a Bosnian revolutionary named Gavrilo Princip. That event, on June 28, 1914, put Sarajevo on the map as the flash point of World War I.

Princip, regarded by most of the world as a fanatic, is still something of a hero in the town. Two footprints and a bridge bearing his name mark the spot where he fired the shots that led to the end of 40 years of Hapsburg rule.

During World War II Marshal Tito's resistance fighters battled the Nazi occupation from the mountains surround the city. In 1948, three years after the Allied victory, Tito pulled his country out from under the Soviet yoke.

Its Greatest Hero

Tito is Yugoslavia's greatest hero. But in Sarajevo his ubiquitous portrait hangs side by side with Vucko, a Disney-like wolf cub mascot that is an enduring reminder of the townspeople's proudest achievement, their successful hosting of the 1984 Winter Olympics.

By all accounts the Winter Games were probably the best thing that ever happened to this city. Ski lifts rise and racing trails plunge where only pine trees stood before. Spectacular hotels grace the mountains along paved roads that replaced mud-clogged logging trails.

Add two awesome-looking ski jumps, a new bobsled and luge run, dozens of new apartment buildings and an elegant new skating complex and exhibition center, and one can see how Sarajevo emerged as an Olympic winner.

In addition, the city's increase in winter tourism created thousands of permanent jobs for previously unemployed Sarajevans. ZOI '84, a company formed after the Olympics, employs 1,500 people as hotel waiters, maids, cooks, ski-lift operators, van drivers and other caterers to the city's new-found tourism.

"When you consider an average family of four," explains Sarajevo Mayor Kemal Hanjalic, "there are about 6,000 people who live on the activities of this new company."

Few people thought that the laid-back Yugoslavs could pull it off. Before the Olympics the word sutra , tomorrow, seemed to reflect the prevailing attitude of Yugoslav workers, and if something needed to be done they usually improvised.

Yet they succeeded in transforming this amiable Balkan backwater into a winter resort that invites comparison to St. Moritz and Innsbruck.

Good Prices

Its biggest draw was explained in one word by a 25-year-old female skier from Toronto while riding the bus to Mt. Bjelasnica, Sarajevo's highest slope: "Cheap!"

She, like many other Canadian and American tourists, came to Sarajevo, a third of the way around the world, on one- and two-week package plans at a cost far less than they would have paid to ski at resorts much closer to home.

Richard Crane, a North Hollywood, Calif., insurance agent, flew to Sarajevo with his wife, Sandra, for a two-week holiday sponsored by UNIS/Turist that included a side trip to Dubrovnik, the picturesque city on the balmy Dalmatian coast. The cost: $1,116 per person from Los Angeles.

"We found it was cheaper to come here for two weeks than to go to Lake Tahoe," he said.

John and Kathy Walthorn of Grandville, Mich., married 18 months earlier, booked a similar package through Yugo Tours for a belated honeymoon. Their cost was $860 per person from Chicago.

"Before the Olympics we had just occasional American tourists," explains Nikola Pilipovic, president of the Sarajevo-based UNIS/Turist. "A few Americans made trips here from Dubrovnik, but Sarajevo was an unknown resort. Today Americans are coming to Yugoslavia because of Sarajevo."

Blend of East, West

Mayor Hanjalic hopes his city's winter tourism will encourage Americans and other foreign visitors to come back year around. "We have an exotic city. It's a blend of East and West that's unique in Europe and probably the world," he said. "In the spring you can swim in the Adriatic and ski on the slopes. This is an attraction that not many places in the world can offer."

From the 15th to the 19th centuries Sarajevo was the richest and largest city of the Turkish-ruled Balkans. The Turks left their mark on both the city and its people, and when they were ejected in 1878, the Austrians moved in and grafted a Viennese-style city onto the Muslim core.

Its main street runs parallel to the Miljacka River and is lined with turn-of-the-century structures that appear somewhat run-down, but up close reveal a wealth of intricate stonework such as ornate balconies, delicately molded window frames, statuary set in niches.

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