Touring the Balkans: 10 tips for vegan travelers
Vegan adventurers, have no fear: Here's how to have your carrots (and eat them, too) while traveling in a country that's got a surplus of starch.
Last year I had the chance to embark on an intense, two-week tour of the capital cities of the Balkans, the southeastern peninsula of the European continent. Having already explored Croatia, Slovenia, Greece and Turkey, I felt it was a good precursor for what was in store—but new eating challenges were on the horizon in destinations like Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia and Bulgaria. If you’re considering visiting some of the more undeveloped parts of the Balkans, kudos to you (and we should probably hang out sometime). A region of diverse culture, architecture and geography, touring the Balkans is an unforgettable, life-changing experience—and you don't have to bow out just because you're sticking to a plant-based diet. Below, feast your eyes on my tips for enjoying travels in this region of the globe, without going hungry.
1. Pack some protein
Life’s eternal constant in the Balkans is carbs. There’s no shortage of starch, whether it’s delicious fresh breads, Rakia (a popular fruit brandy and the region’s national drink), beer or fresh fruit and vegetables. I recommend stocking up on some healthy nuts and protein powder to mix with soy milk (referred to as “soya” in the Balkans) to help balance all the sugar and keep you from getting hangry during your fourth hour of the Free Walking Tour.
2. Ask the Happy Cow
If you haven’t discovered it yet, HappyCow.net is a game changer. Use this free, online vegetarian & vegan restaurant guide to find great eateries and health food markets, sorted by country and region. Be sure to help out the user community by writing a review, especially if the business is new. Even more importantly: If you find that a place is closed, do your fellow herbivores a solid and update the listing on Happy Cow. One time I led our entire group about a mile to a restaurant... only to discover it was closed for renovations.
3. Things are not always what they seem
A refreshing absence of zoning laws means basically anyone can turn his or her apartment into a “restaurant, so it’s important to use some discretion—pay careful attention to the directions and advice left by reviewers on HappyCow.net. There were a few times our instincts told us to turn back because we were wandering through residential neighborhoods. In Ankara, the capital of the Republic of Turkey, we walked right by our destination several times after failing to notice the back staircase and buzzer by the door. In Serbia, finding Radost Fina Kuhinjica—a fabulous vegetarian/vegan restaurant tucked away in the back of an apartment block—was like walking through the wardrobe. Inside this seemingly dilapidated building near the old Belgrade Fortress is a beautiful, intimate restaurant serving some of the best vegan dishes I’ve ever had. Tip: This hidden gem is on the first floor. We ventured all the way to the top of the flat in the dark, and luckily whoever’s door we knocked on didn’t answer.
4. Go Asian
When all is lost or you’ve had enough local fare for a while, look for Asian restaurants.
Lucky for us, delicious cuisine is appreciated everywhere (how many Slovak restaurants do you see outside Slovakia? Exactly). Thai and Indian food are generally vegan friendly or easy to modify. I’m still waiting for Mexican food to be as globally ubiquitous—the world could definitely use more places like Cholo’s in Helsinki, Finland.
5. Learn to recognize some key native food words
“Bio” is a good indicator you’ve stumbled into a health food store. “Ćevapi” is a common dish served throughout the Balkans, and always denotes a minced meat dish. Shopska (Šopska) salad is named for the soft, white cheese generously sprinkled atop refreshingly cold, fresh vegetables. Simply ask for some Shopska without the cheese, and you have yourself a vegan-friendly dish. Tip: In the Balkans, English is not as widely spoken as other parts of Europe, so be prepared for some misunderstandings.
Sometimes, saying you have an allergy to dairy is better than getting grilled on your political, ethical, and/or environmental reasons for not consuming it. In the developing world, being a vegan is a luxury lifestyle.
7. Be flexible
When eating out, you’re not going to know every ingredient in your dish. Learn to accept this. You and I both know that using beef broth as a base for vegetable soup isn’t vegan, but your server is most likely not lying to you. He sincerely thinks this fits your criteria.
8. Be gracious
If someone invites you into their home and offers you their family’s homemade yogurt drink, just take it. The probiotics will do you good, and you won’t cause an embarrassing international faux pas. If you can’t handle that, politely decline the invitation—then ask yourself why you choose this particular adventure in the first place. For me, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity sometimes means sacrificing my vegan convictions. I realize not everyone can do this, and if that’s you, maybe traveling is not a good hobby to take up (at least, re-consider the destination next time you’re planning a trip). You can always employ some sleight of hand tricks, too, like pretending to sip the yogurt drink and then handing it off to your non-vegan travel companion.
9. Speaking of travel companions...
Having one that’s understanding can make all the difference. My husband (pictured above, left) is not a vegan, but he was uncritical and non-eye rolling about my dietary choices (like bringing my own soy milk to breakfast at every hotel). In fact, after his 20th döner kebab in Turkey, he was happy to accompany me down a dark alley in search of something fresh and vegan. A word of advice: Reciprocate this attitude. In other words, don’t complain about not having enough food choices. Sorry, but you are not in the land of Whole Foods.
10. Stay in Penzions
Penzions, or pensions, are generally rooms, small apartments or guesthouses rented out by owners trying to make a little extra money (yes, think AirBnB). Penzions provide the freedom and flexibility to cook your own food, control the ingredients and make meals for day-tripping excursions. I found lentils, stir fries, or PB&Js easy to whip up in places like these, and ideal for taking with us on the road. Staying in a penzion is also friendly on the budget and gives you a chance to mingle with the locals.
Mealtimes are the high points, and for some people the only points, of a travel itinerary. For vegans, this takes extra planning—but don’t let it add extra stress! Just follow these tips, and you’re guaranteed to enjoy the Balkans as much as any omnivore.