Our families usually had the national news on tv while we ate supper, so we had vague memories of the Bosnian war and of Sarajevo. Explosions, buildings on fire, wounded people being carried through the streets. But we were in middle school and high school when it all started, and the evidence of war that still remained on the drive between the airport and the city center reminded us of how much we didn’t know.
Image courtesy of Ulicar
So if you’re like us and need some background information, here is a crash course in what happened in Sarajevo two decades ago.
Yugoslavia was a country that unified six ethnic republics in the Balkan region. Following the death of leader Marshal Tito in 1980, many of the republics tried to become more autonomous, but Serbia, which had held most of the political power, wanted stronger federal control. The situation deteriorated and Yugoslavia began to break apart.
In 1992, Bosnia declared independence. The Yugoslav federal army exited Bosnia, but left its arms with the Serbs, who used them to attack Bosnian cities. The Serbs entrenched themselves in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, which gave them the perfect vantage point to bombard the city with heavy artillery and sniper rifles for nearly four years. Over 10,000 adults and 1,500 children were killed, an additional 56,000 Sarajevans were wounded.
In Bosnia, and over the entire breakup of Yugoslavia during the 90′s, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in acts of war and genocide, and millions of ethnic minorities across the six republics were displaced.
(**That’s a hugely oversimplified version of a complex period of history on which we have no expertise other than Googling skills, so please don’t quote us.**)
Image courtesy of Ulicar
Even though the war ended nearly 17 years ago, you can see it everywhere.
In the city parks that were turned into cemeteries, with most of the inscriptions bearing years 1992… 1993… 1994… 1995…
In buildings never rebuilt.
In the Sarajevo Roses – shell craters filled in with red resin where people were killed – now fading and chipped all over the city.
In the damaged World War II memorial.
In the evidence of reduced population and industry and an economy that never fully recovered.
In the official memorial for the children who were killed.
In the National Library, whose 1.5 million volumes were incinerated.
In the bullet holes that speckle so many buildings, even underneath bright graffiti.
One thing that particularly made an impression on us was when we visited the Tunnel Musuem. During the seige, the only way to get food and supplies in and out of the city was the UN-controlled airport. But to get between the airport and the city was practically a suicide mission due to sniper and rocket fire. A tunnel over half a mile long was dug from a civilian home, underneath a field and the runway, and 20 million tons of food passed through to keep the city fed.
Jasmina, the woman owns the hostel we stayed in, was a student at the University of Sarajevo before the war broke out and was trapped in the city. Her family lived in Dubrovnik, which was also heavily attacked, and neither she nor her family had any way of contacting each other. Food was scarce and no one knew what the next day would bring, or if they would live to see it. By the time the war ended and she was able to return to Dubrovnik, her parents were no longer living.
After all that, you might think that our visit to Sarajevo was extremely depressing. But it wasn’t. We’ll post more later.
After two months in Turkey, it was past time to head north. We were losing the summer and still had more to see. We thought we should head straight to Croatia so we could enjoy the beaches while it was still warm. After a lot of research, we found that the overland options would be expensive and time-consuming… but the flights were pricey too. We started looking at major cities in neighboring countries that had easy ground transportation to the coast. Winner: Sarajevo.
Since it was a morning flight, we decided to save some money on accommodation and sleep at Ataturk International. The tone was set for the journey when a man, who had been standing too close for most of the tram ride, reached back for a little pinch before rushing out the door at his stop. I had heard from several unaccompanied female travelers of having multiple similar incidents in Istanbul, but I hadn’t had any problems. It’s nice to have a husband who looks intimidating. Unfortunately, Tony’s presence didn’t deter the creep and it happened so fast that he was out of sight before I could shout and shame him. Besides the icky feeling that comes from something like that, I was more upset that after two months of coming to love a place, the actions of some anonymous perv would be my very last memory of Istanbul and Turkey.
At the airport, we used some carabiners to attach our packs to each other, and pushed some plush chairs together at a deserted cafe. I’m pretty sure these chairs are specifically engineered to be usable only for sitting bolt upright. I found an uncomfortable position that allowed me to lay flat, but required my neck to be twisted at a funny angle and my legs to dangle over the side. A few hours of fitful unconsciousness followed. I don’t think we can exactly recommend this cost-saving strategy.
Finally, dawn came and we are able to check into our flight. We have always been able to take our bags with us in the cabin as carryon luggage, but according to the Bosnia & Hercegovina Airlines website, they would be too big. But the woman at the desk didn’t bat an eye and said checking the bags would not be necessary. A bright moment at the end of an otherwise all-around bad night. We trekked to our gate which ended up being somewhere in a nearly deserted section of the terminal. Nearly deserted, except for our fellow passengers whose size and number of carryon items far exceeded our own. Then I grumpily paid $4 for a Lipton teabag and some hot water. We didn’t actually board the plane from our gate; we boarded a shuttle bus which took us to our plane. Our aging, twin propeller engine, rear loading plane. Interesting.
The inside smelled of stale cigarettes and was about as comfortable as an old school bus with half the leg room. The tiny overhead compartments might have served well as glove boxes, but there was no way our packs were going in. We put them on the floor under our feet, which did nothing to enhance the comfort level. But somehow our attitudes changed, despite the tram groping, the airport slumber party, and sketchy plane. We found a cheap flight! To a new country that we didn’t expect to visit! Even through the plane’s dirty windows, Istanbul looked beautiful and mysterious from above in the morning fog. It would be another scorching day there, and we were headed for the Bosnian mountains.
After a few hours, the plane passed the border from Serbia to Bosnia, and a group of ladies behind us began singing. They continued until the city came into view. We landed smoothly. It was a smaller airport than we expected, and there were no other planes in sight. Before the exit hatch was even opened, the B&H maintenance crew drug out a ladder, popped open the engine cover and began pouring in fluids. We googled the airline out of curiosity later, and found that not only was B&H on the verge of financial collapse, but that we had ridden on its one and only plane. Good things to know once you’re safely at your destination!
We got a cab and headed for the city center. The bullet holes sprayed across almost every building we passed reminded me that I was only a little girl during the years that the video clips of fire and explosions and misery in Sarajevo filled the evening news. I’m sure I never dreamed I’d actually walk down those same streets one day.
Here are some pictures we wanted to share that didn’t relate to any particular story.
So we thought we’d leave all the food for one post. Brace yourselves.
Our first impressions of Turkish cuisine were good. But after several days in country, we felt like we were waiting for something to happen. Waiting to find the perfect dish or the right type of restaurant, or maybe just trying to identify some flavor profiles that made Turkish food Turkish. Maybe we were expecting the food to be spicy or saucy or… something.
Turns out Turkish food is really simple. Meat. Fresh vegetables. Maybe an egg. Done to perfection and, with a few exceptions, without a lot of sauces or fuss. The meat is always grilled to perfection and if you don’t like eggplant, you probably haven’t had patlıcan that came out of a Turkish kitchen. It’s a fertile country that doesn’t import much food, so eating fresh, seasonal, and local is the default.
Let’s start with breakfast. The standard Turkish breakfast includes bread, hard-cooked eggs, fruit, cheese, olives, garlicky sliced sausage, tomato and cucumber. If you’re lucky, there will also be plain yogurt, honey, nuts, dried fruit, and various sweet and savory pastries. It took a while to get used to vegetables for breakfast, but it definitely helps keep your daily consumption at a healthy level.
Gözleme – a flaky pastry that’s stuffed with savory things like cheese and spinach, or sweet things like honey and banana or Nutella. Somewhere between a flour tortilla and an egg-heavy French crepe.
Menemen varies from place to place. It’s basically scrambled eggs with onion, peppers and tomatoes, but soupy because the tomatoes usually make up at least half of the contents. It’s served in the little pan it’s cooked in and is filling and delicious.
Ok, breakfast is over. How about a mid-morning snack of the most delicious peaches, oranges, lemons, berries, melons you’ve ever had? Practically a religious experience. A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice costs less than a can of cola. Treat yo’ self.
If you are hiking in Cappadocia, you might come around a bend and find people selling every kind of dried fruit imaginable.
And now for lunch. Actually, you probably started breakfast late and are still so stuffed that you skip lunch and hold out for dinner. So let’s ease in with some starters.
Lavaş. Comes fresh from the oven all puffed up like a balloon. Crispy on bottom, chewy on top, best with liberal amounts of butter.
Lentil soup. Consistently simple and delicious from coast to coast.
Lahmacun, a crispy flatbread baked with minced meat. Köfte güveç, meatballs baked in a clay dish.
Dolma refers to any sort of food-stuffed-in-food. In this case, the dolmas are grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb, rice and tomato sauce.
The inescapable döner kebap. Our favorite places incorporated bell peppers and carrots into the stack.
As the man expertly slices off the perfectly roasted bits from the rotating meat log, you try to not remember what the raw drippy mess looked like at 8 o’clock in the morning.
Pide. It’s translated as “Turkish pizza” on most menus, which is a fair enough comparison, although tomato sauce rarely enters into the equation and cheese is only present half the time. This one has eggs and veggies.
Balık ekmek – freshly caught fish, grilled and served with a bit of salad on a baguette.
Pilav and grilled köfte… usually called “Turkish meatballs” on the menu, but they’re a lot closer to mini burger patties.
Testi kebap – stew baked in a clay pot.
What’s available to add some kick to all those dishes? A few options.
First, açili esme. I think it’s fair to call this a sort of pureed salsa, because it’s full of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, onion and herbs. It ranges from totally mild to genuinely hot.
Sumac is always on the table alongside the salt and pepper. It’s the dried fruit of the sumac plant ground into a tangy, salty, slightly bitter spice.
What are you washing all this down with?
How about slightly fermented watery yogurt drink? Our introduction to Ayran came from our friend Brooks who needed his fix just before we hiked around the deserted cave city of Zelve. Tony’s first reaction was “I could think of nothing better on a hot Turkish afternoon than this sweaty cup of cottage cheese juice.” But soon enough, addiction set in and we shared one with almost every meal. Because most Turkish food tends to lack sauces, Ayran is a perfect pairing. Most bufes will bring you a a single-serving container with a straw to jam through the foil top. Some classier places have a fountain that constantly keeps it frothy.
Şalgam – You might have seen this on the menu and tried it out of curiosity. You wouldn’t really like it, but you’d continue to sip away, trying to identify all the strange flavors. Then you’d go to Wikipedia later that day and learn that, “although the Turkish word şalgam literally means “turnip”, şalgam is actually made with the juice of red carrot pickles, salted, spiced, and flavoured with aromatic turnip (çelem) fermented in barrels with the addition of ground bulgur.” You might even buy it again, but would learn your lesson the second time.
Made it through all that? Now on to dessert. The options are many.
We’ve already gone into extensive detail about dondurma ice cream.
Antep fıstıklı– pistachios everywhere. Back home, these are expensive. Here, they go in almost every dessert.
Locum, Turkish Delight. Like our friend Kelley, our knowledge of the stuff began and ended with a certain C. S. Lewis tale. It’s soft and gummy, sometimes a plain sugary gel and other times stuffed with chopped nuts or flavored with rosewater. A dusting of powdered sugar or coconut flakes keep them from sticking together.
Not done yet. You’ll need a caffeine infusion to stay awake while you digest.
Turkish coffee. Sweet, sludgy, delicious Turkish coffee.
And, of course, çay. Strong black tea.
With as much sugar as you care to add.
For the the perfect late night snack head for the ıslak vendors at Taksim Square. “Wet burgers” are small and slathered in tomato sauce that soaks both the burger and the white bun. It hangs out in a steamy little sauna box until you order it. They are wonderful, delicious little inventions that are not filling enough to make you regret eating a drippy burger, and cheap enough that you’ll probably grab a second one a couple vendors over once the first one is gone. But judge not, for they’re Anthony Bourdain approved.
Hey, remember Sean and McKinze? We may have mentioned them once in passing. Here are the four of us back in Georgia:
Well, they were headed back to the States, but first they were traveling around Turkey for a few weeks. We met up with them in Istanbul and they invited us to go with them to Olympos, a.k.a. backpacker’s paradise. We had considered going there ourselves, but decided to skip it and head straight to Istanbul from Eğirdir (but not before a brief stop in Pamukkale).
But we had such a good time with Sean and McKinze in Istanbul, that the day after they left, we booked tickets for Olympos on the wonderfully cheap Pegasus Air and reserved a bungalow at the same pension. But we didn’t tell them, and they just assumed that it wasn’t possible for us to join them. We got there the day before they were scheduled to arrive and used the extra time to listen to the cicadas and teach ourselves how to play backgammon. Then we positioned ourself at a table near reception to casually say hello to them when they arrived on the afternoon dolmuş.
Olympos is not a real town. It’s a series of dozens of backpacker pensions — sprawling compounds of wooden bungalows, “tree houses” (sounds better than shacks-on-stilts), hammocks and gazebos — built along a gravel road about an hour south of Antalya. If you walk a little further down the road, it passes through some Roman ruins, and then deposits you on the beach. Since there’s no actual town, all of the pensions include breakfast and all-you-can-eat dinner in the price of accommodation. We had some of the best meals ever there, and dinner itself was a highlight of each day.
As usual, our friends had great ideas (and initiative!) to get us off our hammocks and we had some incredible days together.
We went sea kayaking one afternoon and saw a sea turtle on the way to the cove, and then snorkeled off the beach before returning. The water in this part of the Mediterranean is really warm and clean. The area we were in isn’t really known for underwater beauty, in fact, it probably looks pretty barren compared to tropical reefs, but it was still so much fun diving after the little fish and looking for shrimp and barnacles on the rocks. Is there a more fun and relaxing way to enjoy the outdoors than snorkeling? I submit that there is not.
As a life-long Midwesterner who hadn’t done much traveling before, Olympos was the very first time that I swam in salt water (not counting wading in the Black Sea). I thought the vastness of the sea would be terrifying, but I was completely at ease floating in the crystal clear waters, letting the little fish nibble my feet, and gazing at the bottom far below.
The night after we kayaked, I didn’t sleep well because it felt like I had micro-shattered every millimeter of bone in my arms. But the pain was gone by morning and we embarked on what the four of us called “The Pleasure Cruise.” For a stunningly cheap price, we spent a whole day on a boat that took us out to an uninhabited island. A big local family had reserved the rest of the spots and took control of the sound system, which cranked out Turkish party music all day. (Go load that link on another tab if you want a soundtrack to the rest of this blog post.) The ladies would spontaneously break out into dance circles.
The captain would take the boat from beach to beach, drop anchor, and we would all jump off the boat and swim until it was time to move along to the next place. We had freshly caught fish for lunch, and tea and watermelon in the afternoon, all included in the price. We saw dolphins and another sea turtle. The Pleasure Cruise was a difficult ordeal, but we drew from an inner strength and managed to soldier on.
On our final day, we rented some cushy beach chairs and paid way too much money for a waiter to bring us Diet Coke. It was a little bit of a sad day, because we were about to part ways and we didn’t know when we’d be together again.