In Sarajevo, skiers hit the slopes again at 'Serb mountain'

Jahorina, the 1984 Olympic ski mountain, was scarred by war and reputation. It's starting to make a comeback.

Five years ago, intrepid skiers tired of Telluride could have earned bragging rights by taking on the ultimate thrillride: vacationing at this war-scarred ski resort near Sarajevo.

Just making the drive along the winding mountain road from Sarajevo to Jahorina, the 1984 Olympic ski mountain now part of Bosnia's postwar Serb Republic, was an adventure in itself.

Back then, the mountain was mostly deserted, attracting a small but bizarre mix of Bosnian Serb politicians, vacationing Belgraders and Montenegrins, NATO peacekeepers, and international aid workers living in Sarajevo. They would spend part of the half-hour drive from the capital gossiping about which ski-school owner was a war criminal.

The boxy communist-era hotels and the surly service from waitresses brandishing menus in Cyrillic hardly evoked a cozy, après-ski atmosphere. And a likeness of the old Olympic mascot, a cartoon wolf pup named Vucko, appeared on lift tickets sporting a red, white, and blue scarf that mimicked the Serbian flag.

The ambience was intimidating enough to keep my skier friends in Sarajevo away for years.

Today, however, Jahorina is the best place in Bosnia to ski. All-day lift tickets at the former site of several women's Olympic events cost about $16 (tickets at top US ski resorts, by contrast, cost as much as $75), and there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, and cafes. Lately, I've heard dozens of visitors rave about their first forays up there since the war.

Last week, I finally took my first snowboarding lesson. My instructor, Fedja, waved a gloved hand at the Bosnian cars in the parking lot: "Those cars aren't from Pale," he says, referring to the nearby ski town. "No one has any money there. Lots of folks from Sarajevo come here now, especially on weekends."

The shiny luxury cars parked there last week, with license plates from cities in Croatia, Serbia, Germany, and Austria, made Jahorina look like it was hosting a central European convention of the wealthy. The Olympic Center's ad campaign, begun three years ago, is evidently paying off. The resort, like Sarajevo, has come a long way.

One winter years ago, a Sarajevo editor told me that she would never set a ski on Jahorina again. "The Serbs are to blame for everything, and they got our best mountain," she said.

Her sentiment was understandable. In 1992, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic ensconced himself in Pale, and from there directed the three-and-a-half year siege of Sarajevo. Bosnian Serb Army bombs and sniper fire rained down on the city, killing some 10,500 people, including more than 1,000 children.

Jahorina actually fared better during the war than other nearby ski mountains. Bjelasnica is dotted with the ruins of hotels and other buildings. Nonetheless, because Bjelasnica ended up in Bosnia's postwar Muslim-Croat half, much of Sarajevo flocks there on weekends.

Indeed, some locals are uncomfortable with the remnants of Serbian aggression here and refuse to come. It's not uncommon to hear men proudly proclaim that they were part of the feared Serb Army. And I've seen revelers in clubs keep time to the throbbing music by flashing the three-fingered Serb salute.

Many others, however, no longer avoid Jahorina - the "Serb mountain" - the way they did five years ago. I spent a weekend evening grilling sausages at an apartment here that a friend had recently repossessed from some Serbs. "No way was I going to let them keep this place," he said.

Jahorina is doing its part to draw the crowds back. Now, when you look at your lift ticket, Vucko and his Serbian flag scarf are nowhere to be seen.

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