The Little Global Cities guidebooks represent a new kind of city guide, conceptualised around each featured city’s historical, cultural, and atmospheric charges. The series’ tagline is Streifzüge durch Europas Mitte (wanderings through the middle of Europe) and indeed wandering – either between or within the cities covered – is an appropriate way to couch these books. They’re not really about structured tourism. They’re about discoveries and explorations.
The Little Global Cities project is a series of guides to secondary cities across Central Europe. Seven of these cities (Osijek, Novi Sad, Sarajevo, Shkodra, Skopje, Timişoara and Ioannina) are located in the Balkans by most definitions of the region. The other cities covered are Graz, Szeged, Košice, Ushhorod, and Chişinău. The series is funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Auswärtiges Amt, Germany’s Foreign Office. The books are designed for local and visitor use. Each is trilingual, written in the dominant local language, German, and English.
I bought the Osijek guide* in preparation for my trip last month and mentioned it enthusiastically on Twitter. Kerber then contacted me and asked me if I’d like to review the latest guide in the series, on Sarajevo. And of course I did and here we are.
The Sarajevo guidebook, like others in the series, is organised quite differently than most travel guides. There are short historical essays, poems, photographs, descriptions of important sites, and a brief set of listings, to which I’ll return in a minute. These sections cohere organically but not elegantly; they feel like an unpredictable scrapbook more than anything else. The Sarajevo guidebook doesn’t pursue consistency, either, which I find refreshing.
For example, Hana Stojić cites Sarajevo’s diversity in “When I Went to Bentbaša” here:
All theoretical discourses on the possibility of multiculturalism and multi-confessionalism become pointless once you hear the ezan, a call for the Muslim prayer, merging with the sound of cathedral bells. (58)
Several pages later, Oliver Battini laments the decline of Sarajevo’s diversity in his short essay “The Enigma of Sarajevo”:
…nineteen years after the war, Bosnia’s heart is beating to a different rhythm: most of the Bosnian Croats and Serbs, as well as nearly all the Jews, have left; 80% of the population is now Muslim (compared to 50% in 1991). … Since the war, Sarajevo is no longer a melting pot of different races; it is no longer a multicultural city: the sound of church bells ringing is a reminder of a bygone age. (116)
For Stojić the ringing of the cathedral bells is proof of multiculturalism; for Battini those bells serve as a reminder of a bygone multicultural age. For what it’s worth, the impression I gathered on my last visit to Sarajevo – admittedly a good six years ago now – was of a city that continues to feel, despite some obvious segregations, both gently harmonious and pluralistic. In addition, a one-fifth minority is quite significant; to reverse the terms for a second, a European city with a Muslim minority of 20% would likely be characterised as quite multicultural on that basis alone.
Sarajevo is lots of things. It’s heartbreaking, gorgeous, magical. It's been in the news quite a bit just recently; the city was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which most historians recognise as the First World War’s trigger, and yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the assassination. And the city of course was engulfed in war much more recently than that. The Siege of Sarajevo stretched from 1992 through 1996, and its scars are everywhere. The guidebook embraces these while also highlighting other important social linkages that follow lines of affinity and sensibility, not ethnicity and religion.
I find the anti-consumerist bent of the series refreshing, though I can’t help but wish that there were a touch more guidance within their pages. Why not a recommended hotel or two – or a guesthouse network? Most of the existing “listings” within these books are culturally-driven, that is, they’re museums, locally distinctive restaurants and cafés, and businesses where goods of local provenance can be purchased. Why not extend that impulse to hotel recommendations?
But that quibble aside, I am a huge fan of these books. In a travel publishing field of trying sponsorships and confused loyalties, the Little Global Cities series stands out as remarkable in its mission to highlight historical value and cultural interest in a range of largely overlooked cities across Central Europe.
*Incidentally, the Osijek guide was quite useful. It prepared me for the city’s Viennese atmosphere – the Secessionist buildings in various states, the borderlands feel, the centrality of the river. Many other layers were also well signalled: the vast (and to me at least, appealingly modernist) neighbourhoods of Yugoslav apartment blocks behind those Secessionist buildings; the presence of the Hungarian language; buildings pockmarked by shells fired during the Battle of Osijek (1991-1992) and afterwards; and the flat landscape, which casts its own dramatic emotional resonances so different than the magic of Croatia's Adriatic coast.
Lastly, I would recommend to the Kerber crew that they put a bit more muscle into publicising these guidebooks within each city’s local media. The very plugged-in receptionist at my hotel in Osijek hadn’t heard of the Osijek guidebook. When I showed it to her she was very excited, paging through it and jotting down publication information. Ideally, the manager of a popular and well-networked guesthouse in Osijek would already have a copy of the guidebook in her library.