A Little Perspective… What do Bosnia and Cuba have in Common?

You know that idyllic image of American life in the 1950s? You know the one I mean:  pretty little suburbs with neat yards, low white picket fences and neighbors pruning their roses while tossing friendly hellos to their neighbors?

I wasn’t alive back then so I don’t know how much of that image was the peachy-keen, wholesome advertising of the era and how much was true, but I do know it’s not a part of our culture any more. Neighbors don’t bring you a fresh apple pie to welcome you to the neighborhood and huge porch swings and late afternoon conversations with your neighbors are the exception, not the rule.

We lost that sense of community somewhere along the way and we replaced it with other forms of community. Global transportation and easy communication like Facebook means I have never given up my close friends when I moved across the country — and then left the country altogether for other continents.

Over the past years of travel I’ve been surprised to see many cultures maintaining their local communities in addition to the global connectedness the internet fosters.

Bosnia’s Sidewalk Cafe Culture

Traveling through Bosnia was my first exposure to a full sidewalk café culture. The outdoor evenings in Bosnia are suffused with a low buzz of voices; locals socialize at their nearby café, people-watching and enjoying the company of friends — it was like a warm hug when I went out for my evening meals.

Old Men Watching a chess game

Six o’clock is the social hour in Bosnia, time spent gossiping over the clink of beer glasses. By evening, I was surprised to see the sidewalks and streets of Sarajevo and Mostar overflow with tables full of chattering locals, not just those tourists forced to hunt down their nighttime food.

Cuba’s Neighborhood Communities

Cuba’s sidewalk culture is different but channels a similar essence. Instead of cafes lining the streets, the actual structure of the houses facilitates a friendly and open community. Like in Bosnia, late afternoons are prime gossiping time and I watched neighbors walk the streets, stopping at the long barred widows of their friends to share news and conversation.

Cuban men Keeping tabs on the neighborhood, Trinidad, Cuba, 2010

Throughout the day the elders sit in rocking chairs in their windows, the grandmothers quietly knitting while keeping close tabs on every single thing happening in their territory.

Social hour in the parks Window watching Park time and walking a bird

The parks are filled to the brim — and not just with children! The elderly are a part of the action too, lining the benches, sitting around games of chess, keeping tabs on the grandchildren.

The family units are still intact, and even beyond that, it’s as though the entire neighborhood is in this life together – they’re on the same team, friends. Children have more freedom to roam because the neighborhood acts almost as one organism, a unit of solidarity.

I loved Cuba for that; the sense of community is palpable even walking through as the obvious gringo (no doubt because some of the chatter was about me as I walked by!).

Friendly horse drawn carriage in Trinidad, Cuba, 2010

So, What Happened in the US?

My culture lost the togetherness somewhere along the way; our family units are smaller in the US, and communities less of, well, a community. On the other hand, we have often embraced a larger network of friends who act as our families. I’m not sure what to think of this shift — it’s certainly not inherently good or bad, but rather an observation.

What I’ve taken away from all of this though, through traveling and observation, is that I linger longer at dinner with friends, look at my watch less, and enjoy the experience of being a part of that social group. Experiencing these cultural differences over the past several years, in Cuba, Bosnia, Italy and Ireland — all of these countries have taught me to be more invested in my friends, family and experiences when I’m there with them than I was in my more self-absorbed pre-travel days.

Thoughts on sidewalk cultures elsewhere in the world? Am I way off in thinking that America just doesn’t quite have that togetherness anymore?

Heading to Cuba or Bosnia?

Check out A Little Adrift’s guide to responsible travel in Cuba

Check out our guide to traveling Bosnia & Herzegovina.

A Little Sweet… Six Fun Treats from Around the World

When you travel the world, you discover all kinds of new things: new dishes, new festivals, new cultures, new friends. The list is endless—it’s a parade of new things. Include sweet treats!

Sure, over the years I’ve found my favorite signature dishes that I will forever love thanks to sampling them in a new country—some are local delicacies, and others are just bizarre street eats.

But one thing that surprised me was the sheer number of fun snacks I would discover, as well as new flavors on old favorite treats. Some of my favorite new treats are sweet, some salty. But all are portable and can make a great treat on a long bus ride . . . interestingly, most of my favorites from my travels are centered in Asia!

1. Burmese Treat: Sour Plum Candies

sour plum treats from around the world
Hand-rolled sour plum candies made in the Bagan region of Burma.

What a delight are these slightly sour treats rolled in sugar and sold throughout the Bagan region of Myanmar! We found a women’s collective making them and selling them on a road-side as we traveled among the various temples of Bagan and we loved them enough that I stocked up on baggies of them to bring home as sweet treats for friends.

Thailand has a version of this treat made with the tart roselle flower (a version of hibiscus) that you can find during festivals and it’s worth sampling, particularly if you can’t make it to Bagan!

Also, jaggery candies are a runner up in Myanmar—it’s this treat of pure cooked sugarcane that you’ll most often find in served as a free dessert in Myanmar (usually there are chunks in a jar on the table). My niece and I stumbled upon a jaggery-making factory in rural Myanmar while riding our bikes and it was neat to see how they make this sweet treat. As much as we loved the experience though, it was the baggies of plum candies from Bagan that kept us in thrall throughout our month traveling across Myanmar.

2. Nepali Treat: Lapsi Candy

Lapsi candy from Nepal is a sweet treat from around the world
Lapsi candy from Nepal is a delight for any one looking for a decidedly sweet treat that’s not only local, but incredibly cheap, so you can sample all you want!

Topping my list of personal favorites from around the world is a sweet jellied candy called lapsi. I don’t even like chewy candies, but this one has a mild flavor and it’s deceptively easy to plough through a package in one sitting. The traditional/plain flavor is my favorite, but it was fun to shake things up with the spicy lapsi every few days too!

Nepali lapsi is made from hog plum and then additional sugar. You can also easily find lapsi candy made with chilli and other spices—it’s never the same twice, so you really should sample it throughout your travels in Nepal.

3. Jordanian Treat: Knafeh

Delicious knafeh sweets in Amman, Jordan
Delicious knafeh sweets in Amman, Jordan.

I love everything about knafeh and even though you can find versions of it across the Middle East, I truly loved the one I sampled in Amman, Jordan. The version I sampled in Istanbul had the fine noodle-like dough that you can find on some versions, but I was partial to the fine semolina dough sampled on this treat from Habiba Sweets’ small shop in Amman. What makes this stand out so deliciously is that it’s made with a savory cheese, but the dough is soaked in a sweet syrup. The combination of sweet and savory and the delicious texture of the cheese make this a perfectly balanced dessert!

4. Indian Treat: Fennel Seeds

Candy coated Fennel Seeds India
Candy coated fennel seeds are a traditional way to end any meal in India.

Restaurants in India serve a small bowl of fennel seeds at the end of many meals. This is a custom throughout many regions of the country and it acts as a palate cleanser. These seeds are a mixed medley of plain fennel, sugar-coated fennel, and small bits of crystallized sugar—once you’re used to ending each meal like this, it’s hard to leave the table without craving the strong licorice flavor! This was such a fun sweet treat from my world travels that I even shipped some home to my dad since he’s a licorice fanatic.

Even though I think the fennel seeds is a fun treat for those who had never before tasted it, it’s worth noting that India has other worthy additions to this list, including: makhania lassi, kheer, and gulab jamun. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these on the regular when I backpacked across India for two months.

5. Thai Treat: Mango Sticky Rice

I could write a poem just about my devotion and love of mango sticky rice.

This is probably the only true dessert on the list that I would be willing to eat on the regular, as an integrated part of my daily life. Many of the other treats make great snacks, or they are a special dessert you would eat on a special occasion. Mango sticky rice is just straight up delicious. It’s made by slicing up a perfectly ripe mango, adding a side of sticky rice, and then coating the entire concoction in sweetened coconut milk before you sprinkle on toasted sesame seeds. You can find mango sticky rice served from street stalls all over Thailand and I made this a weekly treat during that portion of my round the world travels. Your life will be better once you sample this Thai sweet treat.

6. Bosnian Treat: Turkish Delight

 Turkish Delight
There is no shortage of Turkish Delight for sale when you shop for this sweet treat in Bosnia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of my favorite countries on my round the world trip, in no small part because I lived on the sweets. As a vegetarian, I struggled to find a lot of vegetarian meals, but I was completely in the clear with the many tasty Bosnian desserts.

The huge Turkish population in Bosnia means that Turkish Delight is an authentic sweet treat here, and its different from what you can find in the U.S. and the West. I confess my first encounter with Turkish Delight was actually reading about it in the Chronicles of Narnia, and it was a full 15 years later that I managed to find this sweet treat. The soft jelly candy can greatly differ depending on your chosen flavor. Think: rose water with pistachios, sweet lemon, and sticky dates with chewy walnut. Like an ice-cream shop in the states, at the shops in Bosnia you pick your selection of Turkish Delight from a selection upwards of 15 flavors in some cases! Although this is not my favorite candy in the world, it’s fun to eat when you’re in the region.

7. Cambodian Treat: Black Sesame Seed Squares

Black Sesame Seed Squares from around the world

Did you know that such a thing existed as the deep, savory flavor of black sesame? It was not until I landed in Bangkok on my round the world trip that I first discovered my deep love for black sesame—lucky for me it’s used to flavor milk and any number of other delicious treats.

These sesame seed squares are the healthiest treat on this list because they pack in a lot of protein from the sesame seeds. Beyond that, the treat is incredibly simple as a lacing of honey or sugar syrup binds the sesame seeds together. These little powerhouse treats are a great way to tide over dropping blood sugar until you can find some food, and these are my go-to treat for a quick bus ride snack!

You can find these treats all over Southeast Asia, India, and Nepal had some less than inspired sesame seed sticks.

8. Middle Eastern Treat: Dried Figs

Dried figs from Nepal
My favored dried figs from a small shop in Nepal near by rural volunteer placement.

This one is actually a treat that I chalk up to my time in Nepal, since that is where I first sampled truly delicious dried/pressed figs. These were the best I had ever tasted and they are abundantly available if you walk into any of the stores in Thamel, Kathmandu—most shops sell little baggies of these deliciously fresh dried figs.

Figs however, were actually first cultivated by humans in Mesopotamia and were essentially the first sweetener used in desserts. Now as someone traveling the world, I’ve made a point to sample this sweet treat in locations as varied as Turkey, Nepal, Jordan, Spain, the U.S., and pretty much anywhere else I can find a selection of figs. I still hold a deep love for Nepali figs, but I admit that a fig jam sampled in Wadi Dana, Jordan made for a memorable tasty treat!

9. Asia: Mango Flavored Everything!

Fun mango corn flakes!
Mango corn flakes for the win!

U.S. and European based companies target the flavors of their products to each region receiving the product, and outside of the U.S., mango is a pretty well-loved flavor.

My most fun find was mango flavored Corn Flakes in Nepal—bought as an addition a movie night with new friends, they were a huge hit . . . and so addicting the box was consumed in a few hours by just three of us!

Other mango treats found in the region include: sodas, chips, cookies, yogurt—just about anything that could take a mango flavor is on offer. There was also a wealth of freshly dried mangos as well!

10. Global Treat: Fun Chip Flavors

Mango wasn’t the only interesting change to a traditional flavor that we have stateside. I’ve made a career out of sampling chips from all over the world in flavor combinations that would never make the shelves of a U.S. grocery store. Prawn is a perennial hit in Asia that I’ve never tried being that I’m vegetarian, and I’ve also seen crab.

I am committed to buying every new vegetarian can of Pringles that I find—Pringles makes a dizzying array of bizzare international flavors. My go-to in regular life is salt and vinegar, but I’ve added to my sample list: paprika, balsamic vinegar, ketchup, emmental cheese, salt and seaweed.

This is just a sampling of what I’ve found and loved all over the world. I wrote an entire post about my love for sweet Czech dumplings as well. And across some areas of Asia I found sweet treats made from bean paste of all things (very common!) The world has more sweet and unique treats than you can even imagine.

What are your favorite unusual or unexpected treats from around the world?

Traditional Turkish coffee in Sarajevo, Bosnia

A Little Travel Memory … My Big Bosnian Coffee Blunder

I winced as I took my first sip of the jet-black Bosnian coffee—it was certainly not your average American brew! My couchsurfing hosts in Sarajevo, Furkan and his roommates Anida and Sidak, decided that I couldn’t leave Sarajevo without stopping in the Turkish quarter for a traditional Bosnian coffee complete with Turkish Delight. They were wonderful hosts and took me throughout the city in search of vegetarian food, they pointed out the points of interest and the highlights of the small and cute city, but I think it was the traditional setting of coffee that excited Sidak most in showing us around.

A traditional Turkish/Bosnia Tea
A traditional set-up of Turksih coffee with sweets (Turkish Delight) and sugar cubes to cut the acidic and strongly brewed coffee we were served in the Old Town section of Sarajevo.

After that first wince from the thick unsweetened coffee, Sidak got a kick out of watching me attempt to sip the battery acid…I mean coffee, from a delicate little cup and then through a sugar cube I was biting between my teeth (a traditional way to drink it); after dribbling more than a bit down my chin Sidak gave me a reprieve and suggested I bite a bit off and let it melt in my mouth as I sip the coffee – much easier and less stressful to boot!

Quick Travel Tips for Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sightseeing Sarajevo: The cobble-stoned streets of the Turkish area are a delightful a maze of small shops and fun knick-knacks – full of tiny coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall food vendors.
Hiking: Ask locals for a path and head to the hills surrounding the outside of the city.
Foods: The Burek – cheese, meat, or spinach and served with a tart plain yogurt – perfect for lunch!

A Little Sweetness… Discovering the Desserts & Sweet Flavors of Bosnia

Sweet glazed phyllo peaked from the glass display cases. Waves of joy flooded me. I love baklava. It’s a long-term, lifelong love affair with this sweet treat. When made well, it has a perfect balance of sweet honey, crispy phyllo dough, and savory nuts. I grew up in a part of Florida with a massive Greek community. Just 30 minutes from my hometown, the Greek community in Tarpon Springs serves a wonderful baklava. Growing up, my parents would take us five kids to Tarpon springs on warm spring afternoons to enjoy the sun. The Greek community moved to Florida in the 1900s to dive for sponges, and the community flourished over the next century. So, with a love of baklava ingrained in me since childhood, when I traveled to Bosnia, I figured, it has to taste even better in this region of the world, right?

trays of baklava in Bosnia

Instead of better, I found different. In fact, very different. Much like American Italian and Mexican foods take liberties with the dishes, the baklava ranged in texture and flavors. On my first day wandering the cafes and tiny streets around Stari Grad (Old Town) in Sarajevo, I happened upon a small dessert café, Baklava Shop Sarajevo. Of the large selection, three types of baklava beckoned to me through the desert case and begged me to wrap my taste buds around the honey-sweet concoction. When in Italy the month before, my friends and I ate our weight in gelato — all in the name of research. In Bosnia, I continued with that motto and ordered one of each desert so that I could conduct a taste test.

The baklava in this taste test: Bosinan, Sarajevsko, and Greek.

Paired with a strong Bosnian coffee for the true traditional experience, I settled into my task. Each type takes a different approach to the recipe and the combination of ingredients. Compared to my expectations from a history of eating the Greek versions near my hometown, these three baklava featured more sweet honeyed syrup — it dripped from the baklava, and in some cases over-saturated the phyllo. Of the three, I mowed down on the Sarajevsko — it had flakier phyllo and a strong dose of nuts packed into the middle.

fresh baklava Sarajevo

tasty recipe for baklava

homemade baklava recipe bosnia

But one shop does not constitute a true taste test, so I continued to eat my way around Sarajevo and then Mostar, always ordering whichever versions they offered on the menu. It was a delightful mission for my time in Bosnia. After nearly eight months on the road, I enjoy small missions to help discover a new side to each city. The baklava mission brought me to unexpected cafes and shops, and into interesting conversations with locals — I had something simple and specific to ask each new person I encountered along the way.

Sarajevo a treasure I found along my mission: Badem (address: Abadžiluk 12), a specialty shop selling bulk bins of nuts, candies, and spices. This store proved so delightful, and the conversation with the shopkeeper so fun, that I arranged my final hours passing through Bosnia (en route to Slovenia) so that I could visit one last time.

I upgraded my tired bag of trail mix with a few mixes from Badem, and the indulged in a bag of my new favorite snack — chocolate covered almonds heavily coated in a delicious layer of cinnamon. I highly recommending hunting down this nut shop and stocking up on treats and flavors unique to this part of the world.

Eating vegetarian in Bosnia has been a challenge. And when you couple the low understanding of vegetarian as a concept with the lack of widespread English, I often ate from the grocery store and instead stuck to the desert menu when out. While burek is an easy meal, that only did me once a day, and I became adept at pantomiming with servers and then hoping for the best. And when my food invariably comes out smothered in meat, I’ve learned to take it in stride, have a good laugh, and head to the grocery store to buy my standby – a chunk of cheese and baguette, with a banana for good measure.

These past weeks traveling the Balkan States was a pleasant surprise. Bosnia is a sleeper favorite of my entire trip thus far. Few other travelers along my route had visited this part of the world, so I hadn’t known what to expect. The culture is open here and the pace of life is lovely. History suffuses the country and the people have found a delicate balance to their lives. Throughout the city, influences from this history play out across every building, shop, and even the conversations. There’s the tasty influences in the coffee and sweets, the beautiful mosques and calls to prayer, and a meshing of religions living in a harmonious-if-delicate balance.

I loved the pace of life and the beauty of the countryside. So much natural beauty and so much history in the cities. Although I am saying good-bye to Bosnia, it’s more of a “see you later” — I will be back.

Quick Tips: Where to Sample Baklava in Bosnia

  • Baklava Shop Sarajevo. Curciluk Veliki 56. An absolute favorite with travelers and locals alike. It’s also conveniently located in Old Town, and it has a massive selection of deserts — ideal to create a sampler platter to share with friends.
  • Baklava Sarajbosna. Gajev Trg Bb. If there were a throw down for the best baklava in town, many would side with this shop over other. Since both are delicious, you should head to each. :)
  • Sweet Middle East: Classic Recipes, from Baklava to Fig Ice Cream. A wonderful cookbook with enough recipes to last for years of sampling and trying them out.
  • Pistachio Baklava Recipe. A delicious and wonderful recipe for my favorite style of baklava — chock full of pistachios!
  • Sac Buregdžinice. Mali Bravadziluk 2, Sarajevo. This is among the local favorite spots to sample a traditional, delicious burek — order it with yogurt for the full experience!

Traveling to Bosnia and Herzegovina soon? Using my own travels and recommendations from A Little Adrift readers, I have a complete and free Bosnia & Herzegovina Travel Guide.

Aerial shot of Stari Most bridge in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

A Little History… Surveying the Damage in Bosnia Ten Years After the War

Emerging from the train station in Mostar humbled me. We took a gorgeous ride from Sarajevo to Mostar and the sun shone bright on the glossy, newly painted buildings. Much of the city stood in stark modern relief against buildings riddled with holes, crumbling walls, and visible bombing damage. Even more than a decade after the Bosnian War ended, entire sections of town are vacant and abandoned.

In Sarajevo, the government repaired much of the war damage. Old Town Sarajevo stands proud and charming. Only the Sarajevo Roses serve as a reminder of the damage the war wrought on the city and people. The damage in Mostar, however, is different. The rebuilding process has taken longer. The buildings provide a visible juxtaposition of the war-torn past and the peaceful present. To those like me, who have known little of the destruction of war in my own country and lifetime, the damage was startling. Buildings crumbled and yet life had continued around it. The past was palpably a part of the present, and even time hadn’t erased that complex war that affected so many lives.

Bombing damage in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

war damage in mostar, bosnia and herzegovina

When we arrived in town, the hostel had sent Dino to meet us outside of the train station. With Dino’s help, we sped-walked through the backstreets to our hostel. Dino had ceased to see the destroyed structures lining many streets. To him, this was home and the history was long over, even if pieces of it remained.

I followed behind Dino as he pointed out the market, the center of town, and the other basics.

To me, this was the living proof that the history books hadn’t exagerated the toll the war took on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nor had my mother’s best friend — a Bosnian refugee living in the States now — exagerated the extent of damage and war she had lived through before escaping.

The war took place when I was too young to have followed the events on the evening news, so before traveling to Mostar, I had spend a good deal of time researching the history and the impact of the war n this proud and gorgeous country. This is a sobering quote from the prosecution’s opening statement in a case against two men charged with crimes against humanity for their role in the Siege of Sarajevo:

“The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.”

As a traveler spending time in a country with such a recent war, I always take care to tread lightly on any topics related to that part of the nation’s history. This was the case when I visited Cambodia and learned about the Khmer Rouge, and years later in Rwanda when the genocide museums across the country provided a stark reminder of all that had happened.

As soon as I entered Bosnia, the warmth and open welcome from the locals struck me as different from other places in the region. The country is rebounding from a hard recent history and as such they welcome tourism and those with a genuine, respectful curiosity about the Bosnian history, culture, and people.

stari most bridge in mostar

Colorful coffee sets for the tourists in Mostar's Old Town

spinach and cheese burek in Bosnia

And perhaps because of that history, one that is now fully behind Bosnia, I was surprised by just how safe it is to travel and visit Bosnia. I would find this same parallel exists in the Republic of Georgia, where the very recent end to an internal war was followed by a strong sense of security and safety. Bosnia is far from the traditional backpacker trail. And although there are a few backpackers who here briefly on a route through Eastern Europe, most tourists visit Mostar on a day tour from Dubrovnik.

Because of the country’s tumultuous past, tourism is still a small part of the country’s total economy. Mostar sees a huge number of the day-trippers, but far fewer overnight tourists or those like me, in the country for weeks rather than hours. And that is a shame, because the entire country has undeniable charm, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Mostar.

Most tourists visit and stick to the Old Turkish quarter. This entire section of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it includes the city’s most iconic spot: Stari Most.

Stari Most is a beautiful bridge that suffered immense damage as a result of the war. While the war damaged most of this gorgeous bridge, it was one of the first things rebuilt once Bosnia & Herzegovina found peace. Stari Most arches majestically across Bosnia’s Neretva River. Cobbled paths wind through Old Town, each street is lined with kitschy souvenirs and beautiful tea sets that glitter in the afternoon sun.

My cousin and I based ourselves in Mostar for a week, and we made it our a goal to get shots of this spectacular bridge bathed in a range of different lights, from the cool light of early morning to the warm ochre light of deep afternoon.

And with all of that time in the region, there were many possible day-trips nearby — most notably to Blagaj Tekke and Kravice Waterfalls. We also hiked to the huge cross that stands guard over the city from the hill nearby, the Kriz na Humu.

The hike is lousy, as far as hikes are concerned. We had to walk along a shoulder-less, busy road and dodge cars as they zipped around the curves. The views from the top, however, were spectacular, with pretty views of the river, Stari Most, and all of Mostar laid out below.

mostar cross

Stari Most bridge and Mostar

mostar cross

After having traveled rapidly throughout Italy and Croatia, we decided to relax and enjoy a leisurely pace in Mostar since we had found a hostel we loved. It operated more like a hotel, and with summer in full swing, the air conditioning was a nice luxury when the heat of they day soared to 100 degrees. We would take a siesta in the late afternoons and enjoy the fast, free WiFi.

Here is a short panorama of Mostar from the hilltop cross:

Heading to Bosnia & Herzegovina? My free online Travel Guide Bosnia & Herzegovina collects the first-hand advice from my travels, as well as tips from the A Little Adrift community.

A Little Fun… New Friends, Coffee Overload, and So Many Cafes

Gentle summer breezes, water-misting fans, and one creamy ice cream cone is all it takes to fit in throughout Bosnia and Croatia. The sidewalk café culture is alive and rampant here; locals and tourist alike spend hours people-watching or being people-watched.

This shared social activity in the late afternoon and early evenings is an intrinsic part of the Balkan culture. I first witnessed this while traveling in Croatia last month, and it has continued into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The café culture is a tangible part of the social interactions and the fabric of how people interact each day. Towns hum with activity after 6pm as couples, friends, and even singletons stroll through the streets or sip cold drinks at any of the multitude of fairly identical umbrella’d cafes.

traditional bosnian coffee

It’s been a big change to see locals venture out for the evening dressed to the nines for their stroll. There are overlaps with the life I left last year when I started this round the world trip — the women are dressed in fashion reminiscent of Los Angeles, with funky accessories, chunky shoes, layered clothes, and leggings. I actively fought feeling of frumpy compared to the stylish women strutting along the main walking streets in downtown Sarajevo. After nine months on the road, my clothes were rough. So without many options, I explored alongside these chic women in my grubby backpacker outfits that had survived hand-scrubbings and rock beatings in India.

And I am so glad I didn’t let the fashion fears keep me at home, because the cafe culture has delicious food and drinks to keep you busy all evening. Sampling snacks, ice cream, desserts, and beer are common options in every cafe, but coffee that is the real heart and beating soul of the Bosnia’s socializing cafe culture. Bosnians enjoy coffee every which way imaginable — cappuccino, latte, macchiato, frothy sweet drinks and strong shots of espresso to cap off the evening. During our second day in Sarajevo, my cousin and I met up with her friend Amir, who was once an exchange student at her small high school in rural Washington State fifteen years earlier. Amir introduced us to his girlfriend Inella, who was lovely and sweet and a delight to hang out with throughout the day.

bosnian friends huge vat of bosnian coffee

Old Town Sarajevo, Bosnia mosque in downtown Sarajevo, Bosnia

Since Furkan and his roommates had taken us for coffee and sightseeing the day before, we had a leisurely day with Amir and Inella. We strolled through downtown Sarajevo and we found a huge coffee festival taking place, complete with the world’s largest coffee cup! A quick and cheesy picture proves that I saw it in person. Now, once I locate the world’s largest ball of string somewhere in the US my life will be fulfilled! =)

One thing that has amazed me in Bosnia is the sheer height of the people. After traveling so many months throughout South and Southeast Asia, it was bizarre and welcoming to return to a part of the world where my 5’9” frame is normal. But it’s worth noting that, in general, the men and women noticeably tall — taller than average, which I had never before heard about this part of the world. If twenty women walked by me, ten of them were pushing the 6 foot tall, and many of the men soared down the street well over 6 feet tall.

In general, I am loving the vibe in this region of the world. For the next week, my only plan is to soak up the beautiful countryside and culture. Oh, and I just might take one for the team and have a few cups of coffee in the process!

Heading to Bosnia & Herzegovina? My free online Travel Guide Bosnia & Herzegovina collects the first-hand advice from my travels, as well as tips from the A Little Adrift community.
eating vegetarian in Bosnia

A Little Food… Vegetarian Survival Guide: Bosnia & Herzegovina

mosque in sarajevo bosnia
Pretty patterns while wandering Old Town Sarajevo.

I love Bosnia & Herzegovina. Completely and with the whole of my heart, this country has won my affection. My couchsurfing hosts played a big part in those first days, as they walked me all over Sarajevo, imploring me to dig beneath the surface to see the city’s deep charms. I was skeptical — I rarely enjoy capital cities, instead choosing smaller towns and rural regions.

But after reaching the flat and meeting Furkan and his roommates, there was no chance they would let me leave before I had seen the sights and sampled the foods of Bosnia & Herzegovina. After recharging with Turkish tea (Furkan brings it back from his visits home because he loves it so much!), we all headed to the city-center to explore.

A sticky situation popped up with Anida when I told her I’m vegetarian — she was flat-out appalled. And while she couldn’t understand my decision to eat vegetarian, she was also sad that she could not share with me most of Bosnia’s food culture. In fact, she even asked “Well, why don’t I order you a meat one and you can just stop being vegetarian for today?”

She was so sweet about it as she calmly explained that I would have exponentially better experiences if I stopped eating vegetarian for the week. I explained that having been vegetarian for more than 11 years, that I would still love to experience the vegetarian parts of Bosnian cuisine. Once she understood, she vowed to find every dish possible that I could enjoy as a vegetarian.

We took the handy tram into Old Town, and wandered across the cobbled streets and between the cobbled buildings in Sarajevo’s Turkish section, called Baščaršija. It’s impossible to miss two of Sarajevo’s most iconic sights: the pigeon tower and the huge Turkish mosque. But we weren’t there to sightsee just yet. We were there to eat. Anida led us to a busy street-side café serving “the absolute tastiest bureks around,” according to our hosts. Buregdžinica Bosna in Old Town Sarajevo has only grown in popularity over the years, but it’s a solid option for your first lunch in Sarajevo.

a cheese and spinach burek pita in Bosnia
A spinach and cheese pita with yogurt at Buregdžinica Bosna in Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Burek/Pita

Apparently, traditional bureks are made out of cow/hamburger-type meat — Furkan, Sidak, and Anida enthusiastically ordered that version. But I opted for a cheese and spinach version. Once you remove the meat, the burek is instead called a pita (though myself and most tourists continued to call any dish with phyllo a burek). The cheese and spinach is a common flavor and usually easy to find on the streets. At the time, however, I had no idea what flavors awaited me. Our server served us all a perfect triangle of dough, with the cheesy green spinach tucked into the flakey phyllo. Served with a smother of plain yogurt,  I couldn’t have been more pleased with our lunch. I love Greek spanakopita, and bureks are simply a Bosnian version of this dish. Anida gently noted that it was a good thing I liked the dish, as it was pretty much my only budget lunch option for my entire week in Bosnia!

Over the coming week, I would discover a few other versions to help vary things up. The pumpkin pita adds a bit of sweetness, while I usually grabbed a plain cheese version when I needed a snack, not a full lunch.

Here are the common vegetarian versions of burek/pita that you find around the country:

  • Sirnica: stuffed with cottage cheese
  • Zeljanica: stuffed with spinach and cheese,
  • Krompiruša: stuffed with potatoes
  • Tikvenica: stuffed with zucchini

The tart sour cream is called pavlaka and you should surely order it too, if you eat dairy.

traditional bosnian vegetarian food
Glimpsed through the window: a range of bureks and pitas hot and ready to eat!

Finding Vegetarian Dishes

Over the years, eating vegetarian in Bosnia will only get better as the city welcomes more tourists. But right now, it’s just not on the beaten path. Even in Kathmandu and other small developing world tourist towns, there was a selection of vegetarian food to cater to the vegetarians backpacking through. This is not the case in Bosnia; so although we managed to eat really well, it wasn’t precisely budget-friendly; we had to search through a lot of cafes and often pick the more upscale restaurants if we wanted a veggie option.

A few other dishes to consider, as well as pitfalls you might face:

Čorba
Bosnians eat a wide range of soups, but unless it’s specifically marked as a vegetarian option, it likely has a beef or meat broth. If you’re in a small town outside of Bosnia or Mostar, you can almost certainly assume that soups have meat bases. Inside the cities, some restaurants with English translated menus have cottoned on to the vegetarian trend and may list these as options.

Peksimeti and kajmak
This is good to fill your belly if you need a snack. Kajmak is a sweet yogurt and it’s often served alongside fried dough for a simple and budget dish.

Veggie Dishes
While most meals in Bosnia contain just meat, cheese, and some type of dough, a few dishes heavily involve vegetables. Only problem: they are never inherently vegetarian. Cevapi is never served vegetarian at general restaurants, nor are the stuffed peppers or the stuffed grape leaves (japrak, also known as dolma in other countries). Always ask questions before picking these items out on a menu.

Salads
Look for shopskata salate if you’re in the mood for fresh vegetables. Many restaurants offer this mixed salad, which is usually served with cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese.

Turkish Coffee

After our delicious lunch, we headed to another nearby café for traditional Bosnian/Turkish coffee to follow the meal. Sevdah Kavana is another popular spot in Sarajevo, but it’s tucked into a courtyard and filled with tourists and locals alike. It’s a must-stop to fuel up for a day of sightseeing.

We ordered a tray of coffee and it was beautifully served. Each tray has strong coffee, sugar cubes, and a small sweet (in our case, it was Turkish delight). Sidak laughed at me just a little bit when we began to drink our coffee because I had never before mastered the art of precisely biting into a sugar cube while sucking hot coffee through the sugar. Furkan explained that it’s a traditional (if tricky for foreigners) way to enjoy the coffee.

After everyone watched me fumble through it, Furkan gave me a reprieve though and suggested that rather than drinking all of my petite cups of coffee through the sugar chunks, I should instead slowly soak the cubes into the piping hot coffee and let it disintegrate. It wasn’t as traditional but it did save me from continuing to spill coffee down my fingers, forearm, and a bit on the floor!

Turkish Coffee in Old Town Sarajevo
A beautiful tray of Turkish Coffee in Old Town Sarajevo

Traditional Sweets

traditional Bosnian sweetsTurkish Delight
Topping off the meal was a bit of Turkish Delight – squishy, sugary, jelly candies with nuts. While I don’t love squishy sweets, I definitely tried some! Of note is that real Turkish delight is not made with gelatin, but cornflour instead, so it’s pretty reliably vegetarian in this part of the world. A travel friend named Amir met us at the coffee shop — his English was amazingly good, and between my four ambassadors, I felt more at home in that moment than I had for months. It was nice to feel surrounded by friends. By couchsurfing and meeting up with friends, I had deeper connections than I would have with the guidebook suggestion of a random hostel in town.

Baklava
No day in this part of the world is complete without baklava, and I had a Baklava challenge to complete throughout my single week in the country. I love sweets so much that I dedicated an entire post to the best sweets places in Old Town Sarajevo, and in Mostar, where I traveled after Sarajevo.

bosnia and herzegovina travel tipsQuick Tips: Eating Vegetarian in Sarajevo/Bosnia

  • A local’s list of vegetarian restaurants: Although this post is older (from 2010), many recommended spots in Sarajevo still exist and this is a great beginning point. I recommend checking her recommendations in Google/TripAdvisor to be sure they still exist, and to check traveler reviews.
  • Happy Cow restaurant index: All travelers should bookmark Happy Cow and use this site in a pinch if you can’t locate vegetarian restaurants nearby.
  • A handful of vegetarian (and veg-friendly) spots in Sarajevo:  Apetit, Avlija, Barhana, and Karuzo.

Heading to Bosnia? My Bosnia & Herzegovina Travel Guide gathers my best tips, advice, and stories for travelers interested in exploring the best parts of the country’s cuisine, sights, and culture.

Visiting Sarajevo, Bosnia

A Little Welcome… Travel Days and a Cultural Faux Pas in Sarajevo

backpacker with backpack
Saying goodbye to my friend Jenn at the train station in Zagreb, Croatia.

A constant whirring sounded from deep within the train as the wheels sped across the tracks. Coupled with the constant rocking and the constant intrusions into my train compartment, the overnight between Zagreb and Sarajevo wasn’t restful. Added to that, the customs offers at the border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia have absolutely no mercy. The Croatian border officer marched through the train unsmiling and humorless as he checked passports and issued an exit stamp.

After being stamped out of Croatia, just 25 minutes a sudden blinding light woke me. The Bosnian customs officer entered the compartment and flipped on the overhead lights without warning. But it turned out that as abrupt as we were awoke, the officer oozed charm and friendliness. US citizens do not require a visa to enter Bosnia, so it was a quick and painless process. He was remarkably nice and wholly humored my cousin, who asked that he ensure the Bosnia stamps in our passports were dark, legible and neatly one of the squares designated in our passports. Some officers have listened to my cousin’s polite question with scorn, then stamping haphazardly and tossing the passport back to us. This officer wasn’t phased and was happy to chat and comply with our silly little request.

My friend had left earlier in the day from the train station as well. While we left Zagreb, Croatia going south and a bit east into Bosnia, Jenn boarded a train bound for Venice. It was so fun to have a friend join me on my round the world trip. I had last seen Jenn the year before in Los Angeles, when I hugged her goodbye and vowed to find a spot on my travels where she would want to visit. Turned out, Jenn was game to travel through Croatia and Italy and it was a fun three weeks. And so, as Jenn headed to Venice and then home to the States, my cousin and I ventured into Bosnia, a country associated more war and conflict than tourism.

SarajevoSarajevo’s train station appeared across the lush green landscape around 6:30am and I was excited to start this leg of the journey. I added Bosnia to the itinerary at the last minute because my cousin decided to continue traveling with me, and she had a friend in Bosnia, Amir, who had lived in her small town as a high school exchange student years ago.

We knew that we would visit with Amir while in Sarajevo, but we also wanted a chance to see an alternative side to Sarajevo. We lined up couchsurfing in a flat with young college students. Although I had previously hosted couchsurfers while I lived in Los Angeles — and I met up with one of the people that I had hosted when I traveled through Australia — this was my first times as a surfing with unfamiliar hosts. Our host for the weekend, Furkan, is a Turkish student living in Sarajevo for the past two years and attending the international university.

These past few weeks I have traveled rapidly and never quite had the time to research Bosnia travel to get a handle on what to expect. And that was unfortunate. When I tried to grab breakfast at the train station, I discovered that there was nothing vegetarian on the menu. Although the server didn’t have much command of English, with wild gestures and using cognates in other languages, my cousin and I communicated enough to manage a plain cheese and bread sandwich. This didn’t bode very well for easily finding vegetarian food in the county.

On the cab ride to Furkan’s apartment, I peeked from the window for my first glimpse of Sarajevo. It’s a small and charming city despite the tourism and Westernization that has arrived over the past decade. As the cab wound through the city streets, it struck me how close nature and hills lie from the city center. Between the taller city buildings, it’s easy to see the lush, grassy hills on the outskirts of town, each hilltop dotted with red-roofed suburbs.

My first major gaff of the trip actually happened in the cab — having just met Furkan, I was feeling chatty and was eager to share my observations from the past week. Although not a rule, in general I had found the Croatians more reserved and insular, less open to tourists and tourism. In contrast, in the few short hours I had been in Bosnia, the locals seemed infinitely friendlier. Furkan didn’t say much as my cousin and I shared our observations with him.

Playing video games with my host Furkan.

Once we were safely ensconced in his apartment, he gave us a lesson in local history and culture. There is a large mix of cultural identities in the region, with large populations of Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians. And with the Bosnian War so recently in history, it’s a touchy subject. Bosnia is a large melting pot of these diverse cultures, and Furkan warned us that the situation was too complex for even locals to open discuss. As tourists, we had no nuance or well-formed opinions on it, so he recommended that we never openly discuss anything political in front of others. We had chatted in front of the taxi driver, but we had no way of knowing if he was Croatian, Bosnian, or anything else.

It was a good point and I am embarrassed to have run off at the mouth without considering the impact of those cultural observations within a county so recently out of a devastating warn.

Furkan lived in a shared flat with two other students from the university. Both Furkan and his two roommates had planned out a day of exploration for us. They wanted us to experience Sarajevo from the POV of locals. Furkan, Sidak and Anida did a smashing job showing us around town, and funny enough, they are all foreigners! The three all traveled from their home countries to Sarajevo for a chance to study at the international university. Like Furkan, Sidak is also from Turkey, and Anida is a friendly 21-year old from Montenegro. They shaped our weekend plans so that we could have a varied look at the best that Sarajevo had to offer in just two days. It’s their friendship and help that allowed me to begin to love Sarajevo, the vibe, and all that this pretty city has to offer.

Traveling to Bosnia and Herzegovina soon? Using my own travels and recommendations from A Little Adrift readers, I have a complete and free Bosnia & Herzegovina Travel Guide.