When I wandered around Timişoara last week, I found beautiful squares, great architecture, and the birthplace of the Romanian Revolution in 1989. But one discovery topped them all: I think I found Narnia.
Our merry band of housewives (and househusband) were walking back from the Fabric New Synagogue via a park. I’d tell you which park it was, but I had no idea, since another housewife was in charge of the map. RHOB was just along for the ride.
Just before entering the park, we passed a factory with a marble sculpture that looked like an open door. I joked that it would lead to Narnia. (Geek alert: code red!) I didn’t realize I was right, so I didn’t take a photo of the sculpture. Live and learn.
We walked on a snowy path for about a mile, enjoying the scenery. We were all alone…0r so we thought.
We didn’t find fauns, but we did pass animal sculptures. It also seemed like it had been winter here for 100 years. (Seriously, is anyone getting these references?) As we walked past the animals, we saw friendly-and not so friendly-faces:
They were next to a mysterious tunnel in the middle of the park. It seemed to have no purpose. But the househusband (it’s always the men, isn’t it?) suggested we walk inside. It was, in two words, really weird.
My first thought was that the tunnel hosted a Halloween party, but Halloween isn’t celebrated around here. Was it a human sacrifice party? A way to scare local children into avoiding tunnels? We had no idea. The park was silent. Our new friends’ expressions said it all.
We were happy to leave the park and its wintry, mysterious secrets. But once we got out, we were pretty sure we’d never find our way back in. At least no one was tempted by Turkish Delight…that I know of…
I haven’t written about synagogues, mostly because they are pretty scarce in Serbia. But right next door, Romania’s Jewish population was once the largest in the Balkans. So when I went day-tripping with a couple of housewives (and one househusband) to Timişoara, Romania, I knew we had to pay a visit to the Fabric New Synagogue.
Synagogue construction started in the late 1830s and was likely completed in 1889. The building is on a small street, and once you turn the corner, it’s an impressive sight. Even with all those lousy power lines blocking the view.
We walked to the iron gate, but were disappointed to see that it was locked.
Looking inside the gate yielded a bigger disappointment. The inside of the building is dilapidated. But through the dust and rotting wood, stained glass and an intricately carved ark shine through the darkness.
The Fabric New Synagogue was an important addition to Timişoara architecture; the mayor even attended its opening ceremony. But a hundred years later, World War I, the ensuing Soviet occupation, and departure for Israel reduced the Romanian Jewish population from 428,000 in 1947 to less than 8,000 today. The synagogue is currently closed for structural repair, and it’s unclear when it will reopen again. This photo gives an idea of the interior.
The state of the Fabric New Synagogue may have been disheartening, but we were glad we saw it. Not only is it a part of Timişoara’s history, but it led us to the strangest park I’ve ever seen. More on that this week.
Sounds like a Harry Potter book, doesn’t it? But this story is about a white Porsche, not wizardry. A stolen Porsche that was driven through Slavija Square at breakneck speeds in the middle of the night, taunting police and captivating Belgrade for seven days. You can’t make this up.
Actually, I did think it was made up. I first read about “the Phantom” in Momo Kapor’s A guide to the Serbian Mentality. Kapor has a breezy style, and I wasn’t sure how much of the story was true. Information is hazy in English, but in 1979 there was a man who drove a stolen Porsche through the square in the wee hours of the morning. He taunted police by alerting them that he was coming and evading capture with superior driving skills. People started coming to Slavija Square at midnight just to catch a glimpse of this madman speeding through the square, thumbing his nose at the law. The guy was a combination of NASCAR, Evel Kineval, and Houdini. Beogradjani were enthralled. The police were apoplectic.
Tito was out of the country at the time, prompting speculation that the drive was politically motivated. Some thought he was a romantic. Others believed he was a bored car thief. In any case, he had a great advantage: one Porsche vs. a couple of police-issued Yugos.
Not much of a contest.
After a week, the police constructed a barricade using a bus. The Phantom crashed into the bus but escaped in the crowd. He was caught several days later and went to jail.
The Phantom was Vlada Vasiljevic, a common car thief. Some doubted he was truly the Phantom; but there is a rumor that he escaped jail to complete another night drive, and returned the next day. Vasiljevic died in a car accident several years after his release. The car, a Lada, was stolen.
The Phantom lives on in a Serbian movie that was released last year, and I’m eager to find a subtitled copy. I’ve posted the trailer below. As I hunt for a copy, I’ll think of the Phantom every time I drive through Slavija Square. I imagine many Beogradjani do the same-which explains some of the driving I see there.
Thanks to Belgraded.com for providing details about the Phantom.
Our first few days here were a blur of jet lag and confusion—even without drinking rakija. Despite this, I managed to pick up some cases rather quickly. My first case involved deciphering the coded symbols on our washing machine. It was tough, but easier than translating the Serbian instructions that came with all our appliances. That stuff you’ve heard about English being a universal language? Tell it to Gorenje.
I solved the laundry code, but couldn’t celebrate right away. I had to buy dishwasher and laundry detergent first. However, I bought dishwasher salt and stain remover instead. It seemed that my “Serbian for Housewives” skills had gone missing-though I suspected I had never had them in the first place.
On my second day here, I solved another case: the Mystery of the Key. I tried to get into our apartment on the second floor, but the key wasn’t working. What happened? Had the locksmiths double-crossed me?
Apparently not. It turned out that floors numbers start at zero here, meaning that the first floor in Serbia is considered the second floor in America. And since the doors looked exactly the same and had no numbers on them, I was using my key in someone else’s door. Fortunately, that someone else was not at home when I solved this mystery, so there was no need to go downtown.
It was my first week in Belgrade, and I was starting to feel as if I could solve any mystery. Sherlock Holmes? Nancy Drew? Columbo? They had nothing on RHOB.
Just as I was starting to feel comfortable in my new digs, I faced the greatest mystery of all: the Case of the Missing Dumpster.
It was time to throw out the garbage, and I looked in our courtyard for a dumpster or garbage cans. Nothing. I looked on the first, excuse me, zero floor for a garbage room. Nishta. Garbage chute? Non-existent. The plot thickened like an old bowl of Ben’s Chili.
Where did garbage go in Belgrade? People couldn’t recycle everything around here. What were they doing with it? Was it all being used for Mugatu’s Derelicte Campaign?
I decided to take bold action. I had noticed small garbage cans in a nearby park and decided to throw our garbage in one of them. We only had a small plastic bag, so I figured it wouldn’t attract too much attention. Was this illegal? Possibly. But a little danger never got in the way of a case for RHOB.
I walked out of our building, garbage in hand, and strolled down the street. Suddenly, I noticed a garbage truck emptying something. Something that looked suspiciously like a silver dumpster. As I watched the waste fall into the truck, it looked like household, not commercial garbage. Once I realized what the big, silver thing was, I noticed something else: they were everywhere. I had been walking by them for days without noticing them. RHOB: super-genius.
I threw my bag in the dumpster and walked to a café, passing the scene below. It appeared that solving The Case of the Missing Dumpster was my official welcome to Belgrade.
On the heels of “The Australian” travel article about Belgrade, the New Zealand Herald published a similar one, titled Serbia: Tagging along to history. It’s a bit of a false lead; the article briefly describes political slogans around town, but not images. To rectify this, I’m posting one of the more predominant political stencils in town.
I’ve seen this stenciled throughout Belgrade. What I like best is that people have started “improving” the images with mustaches, shoes, or pink zombie-looking eyes. Oddly, no one has given him a wig. Or added his beloved tigers to the scene. Yet.
As for the article, it’s a bit lackluster. It’s as though the author was “tagging” along with bored friends while carrying an old Lonely Planet. But I’m glad to see/read about more people visiting Belgrade.
I am a proud product of aggressive urban driving environments. Thanks to years of driving in NY, NJ, and DC, I think nothing of tailgating, navigating traffic circles, and pulling U-turns on major roads during rush hour. Who cares if I’m among the least knowledgeable drivers in the United States? Urban drivers know all the rules they need.
This knowledge (or lack thereof, according to Business Week) has served me pretty well in Belgrade. I’d heard that Belgrade drivers were crazy, but I don’t think that’s true. They’re just determined to get to their destination by any means necessary. The U-turns, driving in the wrong direction, and tight turns don’t faze me. After a few weeks of driving here, I thought that I could handle it all. Until I drove into Slavija Square. At rush hour.
Slavija Square is a huge traffic circle connecting downtown areas to suburbs. I know, I said I could handle traffic circles, but this one is special. It connects to eight major roads. Busses, trams and trolleys share the road with cars. And to make things even more special, there are no traffic lights and few road markers to guide drivers through the circle.
The result of all this depends on your perspective. If you’re a pedestrian, Slavija Square is a transportation ballet. Vehicles dance in slow circles, curving around each other and miraculously arriving at the proper street. If you’re driving, Slavija Square is a military exercise. You cannot show fear, and you pray that no one will hit you.
I can’t avoid Slavija Square, but I’m not sure I’d want to anyway. After learning about New Jersey jughandles, New York tailgating, and D.C. U-turns, Belgrade traffic circles seem like a natural progression. Next challenge? Maybe a Vespa in Rome…
It’s a cold and snowy day in Belgrade, so let’s warm up by looking at sunny photos of The Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulalia (called “La Seu”) in Barcelona, Spain. The Cathedral is named after the patron Saint of Barcelona, Saint Eualia, who was martyred during the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians from 303-311. “La Seu” refers to the Cathedral’s place as the seat of the diocese. And is obviously a lot easier to say.
Walking to La Seu is an adventure in itself. It’s located in the Gothic Quarter, an area designed with twisting, narrow streets lined with shops and high, stone walls.
Eventually, these streets open up to La Seu with great effect.
Construction started in 1298, with the builders incorporating a Roman Chapel that was built between 1257-1268. Most of the work was done in the 14th Century but (according to some reports) wasn’t completed until 1913. Makes the Sagrada Familia seem like a rush job, doesn’t it? In any case, it was worth the wait. The entrance is impressive- a massive, high hallway with 28 side chapels and a choir in the middle of the hallway.
But the best part of La Seu is when the dark, gothic building gives way to a light-filled cloister with gardens, a drinking fountain, and geese.
These geese have been kept here for 500 years. There’s no clear reason why; explanations range from tradition to symbolism. Whatever the reasons, there is an evident love for animals here. The cloister also featured pheasant-looking birds in a coop, and animal gargoyles line the high cloister walls.
Finally, the church allows visitors to ride an elevator to the roof for a view of the Gothic Quarter and beyond. From there, you can see the architectural history of Barcelona from the gothic quarter to the Agbar Tower.
I thought La Seu was going to be a “typical” Cathedral, but I could not have been more wrong. Its combination of history, architecture, vistas and animal husbandry are as unique as the Catalan region itself.