One of the goals I set for myself as I returned to Bosnia after a long absence, was to taste again as many of the traditional dishes that were a staple part of my diet when I worked here from 1998-2012 but have not had for quite a while. I made myself a list before I traveled so let’s see how I have done.
I loved getting a taste of all these foods that I had enjoyed years a go. I also sampled local beers from all the cities (Nektar in Banja Luka, Tuzlanski pivo and Sarajevsko pivo and Mostarsko pivo in those cities.
The downside was that with all this beer and bread and Bosnian cuisine, I put on 4 pounds over my visit to BiH!
It was good to be back in Mostar for a few days, to visit with friends and wander in the town, I was reminded of the first time I came to Mostar in 1998 and seeing all the devastation along the Neretva River that was basically the front line of the hostilities there. The iconic 400-year old bridge had been destroyed in 1993 and the whole east side was battered.
I had a photo that I took of the bridge in 1998 and went back to the same spot, now the terrace of a restaurant by the river. I asked a young waiter if I could go down by the railing to take a comparable photo and showed him what I was trying to copy. He showed my phone pic to a waitress friend. Her response was “where is the bridge?”. She was 2 years old in 1998 and the young man was not yet born. They never saw first hand the devastation that the war caused although there are still buildings that remain waiting repair.
The historic old part of the city has been mainly restored and now attracts a lot of tourists. In 1998 there were none. It is good to see this recovery.
Here are some photos of the old bridge area now.
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When I worked in Tuzla 15-20 years ago I always find the town to feel industrial and the people to be “salt of the earth”. The city had experienced a lot of trauma during the war and there were many refugees, particularly women who had escaped from Srebrenica when their husbands and sons ( 6000 of them) were slaughtered in July 1995.
Now “salt of the earth” is appropriate in more ways than one. The people here are sturdy and diligent and resilient. But Tuzla also got is name from the Turkish word for salt – Tuz. The area was once covered by a shallow sea, and as the sea dried up, it left behind large deposits of salt. Over time, the salt deposits were buried under sediment and rock, and geological processes caused the salt to dissolve and form underground brine lakes. These were mined for many years by a process where the salt was dissolved underground and brought to the surface as salivated water which was evaporated.
As a result of this process some of the land in the centre of the town is unstable and has sunk a bit in places. But when you are given salt…make some salt lakes. In the centre of the city are three small salt lakes that have been developed as a recreational area for swimming and exercise and enjoying summer weather. These have been more fully developed since I was working here and are now even an attraction for tourism.
Today the city also seems more vibrant than I remember it. The core area walking street is livelier and more colourful but still has a sense of history. The main square has been upgraded with a big fountain and there are lots of restaurants with patios around it and a big Ferris wheel.
I had lunch in a restaurant that I used to go to twenty years ago, called Citte del Sale. I have been on a quest to eat some of the traditional Bosnian foods that I enjoyed over my years here and for lunch I got some Begova Ćorba creamy soup made with veal or chicken, vegetables, and sour cream that was served with some fresh hot Somun bread. Somun bread is a type of flatbread that is a staple in Bosnian cuisine. It’s similar to pita bread, but is thicker and softer, with a chewy texture and a slightly sour taste.
There is a large new modern hotel that is so much more appealing than the Hotel Tuzla where I used to stay. It looks modern and spacious and well appointed and has a gym and pool.
There are larger shopping centers and grocery stores. One supermarket below the new hotel is gigantic and a far cry from the little shops that were the norm in the past. Shops along the main walking street also seem more colourful.
When revisiting Tuzla I made a point of going into a café that I used to haunt several years ago for a “produženu kafu sa mlijekom” (sort of an Americano coffee with milk). The café used to be called “Mozart”. The name has been changed to Coffee New York but the café has not changed much.
I was reminded of a post that I made twenty years ago about this cafè and the story is good enough to share again. The waitress who served me was probably not even born when this story unfolded. And the cat is long gone.
Bosnia and Herzegovina September 10, 2002.
If Sarajevo is the Montreal of Bosnia, then Tuzla is its Hamilton. Not much to do here in the evenings except wander the streets with many of the rest of the people who live here. During the day I work teaching principles of Family Medicine to local doctors. At night I am on my own.
Last night was a bit rainy and I thought I would wander downtown for some dinner. While I was looking for some keys in my knapsack, I came across the Stuart McLean Vinyl Café book that friends had given to me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I had brought it along with me, knowing that it would be good for short reads on the plane or while waiting for my meal in a restaurant. I tucked it under my arm and headed out.
I ate in a restaurant called Cite del Sale, a Bosnian version of an Italian restaurant and I was actually able to order Vegetarian Lasagne – not bad in a country that sometimes seems to worship meat. The beer, a local Tuzla variety, smelled a bit sulphury but it tasted OK. I started into a story about Dave and Morley and Harrison Ford’s toes and smiled to myself, all the while hearing Stuart McLean’s distinctive voice tell me the tale.
After the meal I decided to head down to a café called Mozart that is a short stroll along the main walking street in the city. I often go there for a cappuccino in the morning – a replacement for my Canadian Starbucks habit. The café has a small outdoor section that was not busy since it was misting rain, another large main room and then a wicker- furnished salon at the back that is kind of separate from the rest. I usually sit back there in the morning and read a bit while having my coffee and at 8 am, I am often the only one there. In the evening, I discovered, the music is louder – sort of Euro Disco. I wondered as I ordered my tea if I would be able to concentrate on my book.
There were three couples spread around the room. I pulled out the Vinyl Café and started to read. Soon I was distracted, not by the beat of the music but by the sound of kissing which seemed to be going on all around me. I quickly realized that I had stumbled into a make-out area of the café. So, here I was, a middle aged foreigner, sitting at a little table in the middle of the room, reading Stuart McLean and trying not to look up at the couples surrounding me who were fiercely groping at one another. This felt worse than the week before when I had accidentally found myself in the middle of a Nudist Colony on the Adriatic coast! But that is another story.
The stereo sound of smacking and sucking seemed to rise above the music. I was having trouble concentrating. I casually looked up. One couple, kind of fat were making most of the noise. The guy had a sort of Henry VIII look to him. I imagined that he makes similar noises as he tears into his chicken legs for dinner. Another couple had ordered both coffee and coke to drink. They must have wanted to stay awake. They smooched away between drags on their cigarettes. The third couple were in the corner and at first I thought they were having a bit of a tiff. I decided that if I had to look up, I would gaze in their direction. Soon, unfortunately for me, true love rose to the surface and they started kissing away, the woman also chewing gum between slurps.
I thought maybe I would leave but I had ordered a veliko caj (large tea), which came in a cup the size of a sink. So I was stuck, feeling a lot like a High School Hall Monitor.
Just as I was starting to feel sorry for myself, a small kitten appeared at my feet. It was a nice little grey striped thing that was sharpening its claws on the carpet. It started to pounce around and jump like it was being poked by an imaginary stick. I put my hand down to play with it but as it got closer, I noticed that its right eye was oozing and crusted and swollen shut. I withdrew my hand, thinking that I didn’t want to catch anything. But this didn’t deter the cat. Soon it was pouncing on my feet and grabbing at the laces of my sneakers and climbing my pant legs. I tried to look inconspicuous, periodically shaking my leg to detach the tiny sharp little claws from my pants. The kissers broke apart and looked over at me as I tried unsuccessfully to discourage the cat. I ended up downing the rest of my tea as quickly as possible and headed back to the hotel.
February 20, 2003
I am back in Tuzla.
I find the breakfast at the hotel simply annoying. It usually consists of dry buns, scrambled eggs that have turned greenish black from sitting in the warming pan too long and “orange juice” that is a cross between Tang and Fanta , a watery orange coloured sugar water that is sometimes even effervescent. My preference is to start the day on a more positive note, by walking to a local Pekara or bakeshop to pick up a fresh bread roll filled with cherry jam. I then head a bit further down the street to the Mozart café for some coffee. They don’t serve food there so they don’t mind if you bring your bun in a bag and eat it while you have your drink. And I usually go to the Wicker room at the back of the café that I have come to view as the nocturnal lair of lust. In the morning, however, it remains bright and cheery and almost empty. This morning was no exception.
I ordered my coffee, pulled out a journal to read, and got the cherry bun out of the paper bag. I put the bag on the chair beside me rather than have it obviously displayed on the table. I was trying to be discrete about bringing food into the café although I know that this is a common practice and the waiter really doesn’t mind.
I hadn’t counted on the rustling sound of me getting my food out of the bag to attract…the cat. Suddenly this little grey striped beast ran from the other side of the room and jumped up on my chair to quickly begin exploring the empty bag. Within seconds he was halfway buried into the bag. He pulled his head out of the bag and stared up at me. We hadn’t seen each other for five months. He had grown but was still scrawny and where his right eye should be was now a hollow socket.
We sat together, the cat and I, reacquainting. Periodically he would chase the shadow of a bird on the roof, bounding over the furniture as he ran around the room. I crumpled up the bag and he batted it around on the floor. We played and visited while I drank my coffee. When I got up to leave, he lay back on the chair pad and cocked his head to look up at me with his good eye. I imagined him thinking, “Nice to see you again”
This little cat has it’s niche in a café here in Tuzla. I travel all over but I can still come back to find this friendly kitten here several months later.
It was great to go back to the centre if Banja Luka and stroll around the streets where I had lived and worked on and off over several years.
Basically the place looks pretty much the same as it did when I was last here in 2012. Here are some photos of the centre of the city which has a population of 200,000 spread around it.
We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant that makes burek under the sać. Burek is a pastry made of phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese, meat or spinach and in this case cooked on a pan that is covered with a lid and then with hot coals piled on top. This way of cooking can also be used to cook meat and vegetables under a dome piled with coals. It was filling and delicious lunch of a traditional food made in a very traditional way.
Exactly 22 years ago to the day, May 7, 2001, Saša and I had stood on this same corner when a large crowd gathered and hooligans held 200 Muslims (and the Canadian ambassador) hostage in a building by an empty lot here. The group had come to lay a cornerstone to rebuild the Ferhadija mosque that had been destroyed during the war.
The original mosque at this site was built in 1579 during the Ottoman period and was named after its founder, Ferhad Pasha Sokolović. The mosque was an important religious and cultural landmark in the region, serving as a gathering place for Muslims in Banja Luka for over 400 years.
However, during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, the Ferhadija Mosque, along with many other historic buildings and cultural sites, was heavily damaged as ethic conflict plagued the country. The mosque was set on fire and its minaret was destroyed, leaving only the stone walls and foundation intact.
As tensions tose on that 2001 May Day, two busses that had brought some of the people now barricaded in the building burned and black smoke rose over the site. SFOR helicopters roared overhead. Thankfully the tensions were eventually brought under control and no one was injured but it was a day filled with uncertainty and threat. My co-worker and friend, Daren Trudeau and I were forced to make a hurried escape through the mountains to Sarajevo while the crisis was evolving. Today, 22 years later, I was delighted to see this beautifully reconstructed Ferhadija mosque.