Sarajevo: suiting up for the Winter Olympics

By , Ellen Steese is the Monitor's travel editor.

Sarajevo's name is derived from the Turkish word saraj, a residence of Turkish governors. By extension, it can mean a court in a garden, ''because Sarajevo is surrounded by beautiful green mountains,'' my guide, Zorica, explained.

Next February, the 6th through 20th, to be precise, those beautiful green mountains will be white with snow, and, it is hoped, marked by a very orderly parade of tour buses chugging up the hills to the 14th Winter Olympic Games.

Last spring, Zorica and I whizzed along the narrow, one-way mountain roads - all the narrower for being in the process of being widened - with uniquely Yugoslav dash and abandon. We had a look at the bobsledding run at Trebevic, in appearance something like a giant vacuum cleaner hose in pale olive beige. It snakes through the wood in three sections: easy, most difficult, just plain difficult. We peered up what to a nonskier looked like the fairly impossible vertical of Sarajevo's popular skiing mountain Jahorina (Alpine skiing, women's events). We also viewed the amazing structure of the ski jump at Ilidza and the new slopes of what in the past was an undeveloped skiing area, Mt. Bjelasnica (Alpine events for men).

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Much of the work of preparing the slopes for the Olympics has been done by the volunteer Youth Working Brigades. And brigades they really are: We saw a group trotting along behind a flag, in matching green jackets.

Recently George Mrkela, director of Zoitours (the group of Yugoslav travel agents which is organizing accommodations for the Games), remarked: ''You were here last spring? You should see it now. We are much further advanced. The town is getting readier and readier.''

The 15 new hotels with their 3,000 beds are all just about finished, according to Mr. Mrkela. The Sarajevo Holiday Inn opened Oct. 6. On Nov. 29 the hotels right on Mt. Jahorina - Hotel Kosuga and Hotel Bistrica, which will be used for correspondents during the games - will be ready for business. Another, Hotel Babin Do, on Bjelasnica mountain, will open soon after. The Olympic Village is complete, and the press village virtually so.

The point of all this strenuous activity? ''To get a name, to establish a name,'' Mr. Mrkela said.

''From the point of skiing conditions, everything is in favor of Sarajevo,'' he added. ''(But) Sarajevo lacked accommodations, Sarajevo lacked experience. And now after the games Sarajevo will be ready to become established as a European winter sports resort. In your country, everybody was thinking in terms of the Alps. Now Sarajevo is ready to accept skiers in an area that doesn't belong to the Alps.''

Despite all these noble efforts, there still is not enough hotel space to accommodate the projected 30,000 visitors to the Games, and so Zoitours has contracted about 1,800 family apartments with about 10,000 beds, plus 6,000 ''family rooms,'' according to Mrkela. (Those normally occupying the beds will probably take a vacation along the Adriatic coast, he commented.) Not only were people ''financially stimulated'' to rent their apartments, he said: ''People understand the situation; they want to help the city and the organizing committee.''

In the same spirit, 1,000 buses from all over the country are coming to the aid of Sarajevo. (Tourists will get a pass for the bus.) As for the winding mountain roads: ''They will be properly cleaned, we can promise you,'' said Mrkela genially.

Mr. Mrkela says Sarajevo ''doesn't have any particular tradition in tourism. This is the beginning, putting Sarajevo on the map for travelers.''

Asked about Vucko (pronounced ''Voodge'-ka''), the wolf with jaunty scarf and too-knowing expression who is seen skating and skiing all over Sarajevo, Mrkela passed me on to Paul Lukac of the Olympic Organizing Committee. Mr. Lukac explained that there had been a big competition for the mascot, run on television and in major magazines. ''We knew that kids will like it and Americans will like it,'' he said.''We knew that no American mother would refuse to buy a wolf for her child.''

One problem visitors should not have is communicating with the local people. ''Yugoslavians are talented in many things including languages. We play it by ear and usually don't miss,'' Mr. Lukac said. At the moment there are 200 professional guides in the city, but the committee is planning to train a team of 1,200 by recruiting English-speaking students.

Nor should Americans feel intimidated by long Serbo-Croatian names while visiting Yugoslavia. When asked for suggestions to aid in pronunciation, he replied, ''Oh, let us have some fun with you!''

Sarajevans are hoping not to relive the experience of Lake Placid, where traffic jams prevented some spectators from seeing events. ''Everyone is going to hop on the bus and follow the route if he wants to get places,'' Lukac said.

Between bouts of watching World champion figure skater Scott Hamilton do a triple-jump on the ice, or World Cup skier Phil Mahre slaloming down the slopes, American visitors will want to wander around Sarajevo's old Turkish section. Sarajevo was the seat of the governor for part of the Turkish occupation, and the border of Turkish control.

I stayed in the Hotel Europa, a dark, not particularly slick, but respectable hostelry which is also normally inexpensive at about $28 for a single (expect to pay a lot more during the Games). The Europa has the advantage of being right around the corner from Bascarsija, the old market area, which is restructured as it was during the Turkish period. Mostly, every street features one craft. The brass and coppersmiths' street is among the more spectacular, with round golden trays hanging outside and a variety of small bowls and pots winking within.

There is a pleasant restaurant, Daire, in this part of the city. The restaurant has a large courtyard where in spring students drink vocni sok (fruit juice) and flirt under the trees. Inside the building are the cool white walls, terra-cotta tile floors, and wooden ceilings of a style designed to be pleasant in a hot climate. There's a buffet of regional specialties; you point to what you want.

The showpiece of Bascarsija are the mosque and other important buildings built by the Turkish governor, Gazi Husref Bey. In front of the mosque is the fountain, or shadirvan, where worshippers wash all visible parts of the body before entering the mosque. In the rear is a cemetery, remarkable in that its tombstones are surmounted, in the Turkish style, with a hatlike shape. These indicate the status of the deceased. ''Women had nothing,'' Zorica explained.

Sarajevo was often a pawn or a victim of the struggles of the empires on either side, but was, at least in recent times, not a passive one. And on one famous occasion the town played a memorable active role. After fighting the Turks and gaining independence, Bosnia was handed over to the Austro-Hungarians in 1878. ''Most people were embittered, because they were centuries under the Turks and wanted liberation,'' Zorica said. Some of those who were most unhappy banded together in a group they called Young Bosnia. A member of this group, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir of Austria, and his wife (the latter by mistake). Austria declared war on Serbia, letting loose a chain of hostilities that precipitated World War I.

Just outside the old city, in a heavy stone building in the Austro-Hungarian style, is the tiny Museum of Young Bosnia. The museum is really just a room full of glass cases of newspaper clippings of the assassination and bleary black and white photos of the principal actors, including Princip himself, looking sad and pale and rather like a schoolboy. Outside the museum are two footprints in the sidewalk, marking where Princip stood when he fired the fatal shots.

Sarajevo's many cultural influences had a particular positive aspect. If you watch the local folkloric group, Okud Miljenko Cvitkovic, perform national folk songs and dances, you'll be astounded at the varieties of types of music - from a lively Arabic 7/8 to almost a polka - and the variety of costumes: Blond young ladies wear Turkish-looking pantaloons and coins, or embroidered white cotton shirts that seem Austrian or German. When I was there, the group performed every night but Sunday at the Hotel Bristol from 9 to 10:30. There is a possibility that the location might be changed; check with the tourist board, where you must go anyway to pick up your tickets in advance.

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