Read, Write, Run, Roam

Archive for July, 2011

Church on Sunday: Belgrade’s Sveti Marko

Upon entering Saint Mark’s Church, I realized I could cross one thing off my bucket list: crash a wedding.

Cestitam, folks!

St. Mark’s Church, or Crkva Sveti Marko, is one of the largest churches in all of Serbia. It was built between 1931-1940, until World War II interrupted construction. The church was consecrated in 1948. A hundred years before construction of the present St. Mark’s Church, another church, also called St. Mark’s, stood in the same location. I suppose once you name a place after a saint, you really don’t want to change the playbook.

The site holds additional importance for Serbians: it’s believed that Kardjordje positioned his cannons here during the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The hill of Tasmajdan park next to the church offered a strategic position. Based on that alone, one might presume that prayers have been whispered on this site since the early 1800s.

Now the church is undergoing an exterior renovation, but the interior is a feast for the eyes.

It even includes a perfect replica of the church, which was built in the 1950s without tools. Sveti Marko itself is a much-larger replica of Gračanica Monastery near Priština, Kosovo.

How little Serbian girls can keep their hands off of this is a complete mystery.

The church holds the remains of Tsar Dušan, one of two Serbian Emperors. Tsar Dušan expanded the Serbian empire to its largest size in history and formed a medieval Serbian constitution based on Saint Sava’s code and incorporating Byzantine judicial law. He is also noted for his large appearance; it’s said he was almost seven feet tall.  If true, I’m not sure how he fit into this sarcophagus on the south wall of the church.

I can’t believe I just used sarcophagus in a sentence.

Maybe his large size accounts for the incredibly oversized church doors.

Either way, Sveti Marko is a knockout. (rimshot!)


Saturday Morning Cartoons

Okay, so it’s not exactly a cartoon, but I liked this collage that “Limbic” posted of Belgrade’s street art/graffiti.

Visitors and friends often ask if graffiti is a “thing’ in Belgrade, and I suppose it is. Aside from New York in the 1980s, I don’t recall living in or visiting a place that had so much scrawl on the walls. A lot of it is juvenile or uninventive tagging, but there’s enough political commentary and random stencils to keep it interesting. Like this one by Kalemegdan. Isn’t this Hercule Poirot? Why on earth did someone take the time and risk for this?

Perhaps that’s the whole point of graffiti in general: to get someone to stop, look at a wall they’d never notice otherwise, and ask questions. If that’s true, it’s better than any Saturday morning cartoon I can think of.

Freaky Friday: the Tower of Skulls in Niš, Serbia


Many months ago, Muz had a conference in Niš. Naturally, I demanded to tag along to Serbia’s third-largest city (or second-largest, depending on who you’re talking to). Niš has all the “typical” makings of a Serbian city: a riverbank, fortress, pedestrian avenue and bohemian quarter. It also has a most atypical monument: the Tower of Skulls.

The tower, also known as Ćele Kula, was built after an 1809 battle between Serbians and Ottomans. At the time, revolutionary Serbs from the North sought to liberate Niš from Ottoman rule. Serbian Commander Stevan Sinđelić was losing a battle against the larger, more powerful Ottoman forces when he carried out his sacrificial plan to blow up the gunpowder depot. The explosion killed 3,000 Serbs and 6,000 Ottomans. Enraged at his losses, the Ottoman commander ordered the heads of Serbian soldiers to be removed. Some were sent to the Sultan, and 952 others were used to adorn a tower. Surviving Serbians were forced to build the tower as a warning for anyone who defied the Ottoman Empire.

Creepy AND historic? I was hooked. I arranged to go there with Muz’s Serbian colleague, who I’ll call Vodič (guide). The tower is now housed in a building for its protection, which makes it look almost quaint. I had no idea what to expect. Vodič said I’d have to see it for myself.


As we bought tickets, I wondered if it would look like something out of an Indiana Jones move or an old Bones episode. But this was no movie prop.

Many skulls were looted or destroyed over the years

Frankly, it was upsetting. I consider myself to be somewhat hardened against gruesome things, but I had not expected this. I know what you’re thinking: RHOB, it’s literally called the Tower of Skulls. What did you expect? Yet hearing the words and seeing the tower are two different things. I kept thinking about the horror these men had endured, and the terror of the Serbians who had to build the tower. Maybe I couldn’t hack it on Bones after all. Well, that and the fact that I have zero science background.

Sorry, guys

The woman who took our tickets accompanied us to the tower and gave us a short history lesson in Serbian. She didn’t speak any English, but Vodič translated what I couldn’t understand. She then showed us the case that (supposedly) holds the skull of Commander Sinđelić. His skull was rumored to be at the top of the tower, but I read that it was given to the Sultan.

A long back-and-forth began between Vodič and our tour guide. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but watched in complete fascination as he leaned his head to the bottom of the glass case and took a long sniff. After that he hurried us out of there. I think he knew I was going to ask a lot of questions. And I did. “What was that? Why were you smelling it? What was she talking about?”

Apparently, there is a belief that Commander Sinđelić is due for sainthood. There’s also a belief that the remains of a saint give off a particularly sweet odor. The tour guide insisted my friend smell the skull, and he hustled me out of there before she made me do the same.

“Did it smell like anything?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I just wanted to get you out of there,” he said. Sigh. Serbian men can be very chivalrous, but obviously he didn’t know that American women are straight-up nosy. “I would have smelled it!” I said. He gave me a look I’ve come to learn very well: the seriously, American women are weirdos look.

I guess I had adjusted to being around all those skulls fairly quickly. I wonder if Bones producers want create a new show starring a Serbian housewife…

Bagging it, Belgrade-style

When I look back on my year in Belgrade, I’ll remember the little things: the mini cheese pite at my favorite bakery, the way people beam at puppies and children, and men wearing purses with pride.

Call it whatever you like–a a murse, a manbag, or a European carryall–but don’t call it girly. Tough guys all over town sport these smaller messenger bags, often called torbica. Personally, I’m all for them. If Muz paid me a nickel ever time I held his Blackberry/sunglasses/keys, I could buy him the fanciest one available.

The guy on the left has a backpack AND a torbica. Pro.

In my totally unscientific poll, I’d say 50% of Belgrade men have a torbica or two. What’s in them? I had grand plans for man-on-the-street interviews, but between my camera’s “video” function and my halting Serbian, I’ll just guess instead: cigarettes (naturally), sunglasses, phone, bottle opener (why not?), keys, and identification. Serbians often carry ID booklets that don’t quite fit in wallets, so a torbica prevents the dreaded “Costanza wallet.”

Indeed, the European carryall has its benefits. A guy can carry many valuable possessions yet remain hands-free for important taxi-hailing or phone calls. For once, a lady can ask her guy to hold something besides ID and lipstick. No girlfriend? The torbica also becomes a useful pick-up tool: “Miss, would you like a mint from my torbica?” Acually, that sounds kind of dirty. Better to offer a cigarette.

It’s even a health aid. This guy may be suffering from liver damage, but he’s not going to get “fat wallet syndrome,” aka piriformis.

Photo credit: Majmun

Though Balkan men have popularized the man purse, there’s a long tradition of tough guys sporting bags: Santa Claus, Indiana Jones, and Chewbacca, to name a few. These pioneers have helped Balkan men be stylish, manly, and courteous to the women who don’t want to carry their stuff. RHOB says, long live the manbag! Or, excuse me, satchel.



Detective RHOB and mystery of John…D’oh! *

It had been a while since my last case, and I wasn’t too broken up about it. I figured the lack of Belgrade Mysteries meant that I was finally understanding this joint. I was no longer searching for clues about ice trays or dumpsters. In fact, I was now able to give directions or help people weigh their vegetables at the Mini Maxi. But just as I thought it was all over, another mystery pulled me back into the fray.

I was having lunch with American visitors when one of them returned from the bathroom. He had a puzzled look on his face, and I knew something was up. In a low voice, he asked, “um…so how to I flush the toilet here?”

Detective RHOB was on the case. I asked, “Can you describe the toilet? I’ll need the approximate height of the tank.” After some discussion, I realized he was talking about something like this:

I solved the case faster than a DC meter maid gives tickets. “There’s a tab on the top right side of the tank,” I said. “Push the right side of the tab and the toilet will flush.” Case closed. But I realized that it wasn’t the first time I’ve been presented with a bathroom brain-twister. Here’s a breakdown for the Balkan travelers presented with a “Dear John” case of their own.

Most toilets here have a dual-flush system. Press the bigger button for, um, bigger events and the smaller button…you get the idea. Here’s an example from an OMV rest stop. Most people could figure this one out, but I’m giving this john extra points for his buddy, “Big Willie.”


With other commodes, the mystery lingers like cevapcici with onions. I encountered the head on the right in Budapest. I thought I had to turn the knob, but nothing happened. (That I know of. I probably caused a small flood somewhere.) After using my detective skills I realized that the lever below was not fixed as I had previously thought. Another mystery solved. I was becoming an expert on Balkan toilets. And my guidance counselor said I’d never amount to anything…(Actually, he said I’d regret not taking typing class. FALSE.)

My detective skills were no match for the loo on the left, but it gets an honorary mention for being overly complicated.  There’s a large panel, a lever, and a sort of aerodynamic design to it. Someone is spending a lot of time thinking about designing toilets. Then again, I devoted a lot of time photographing and writing about them. Who am I to judge?

Finally, there’s the deepest, darkest mystery of them all: pit toilets and the people who install them. If confronted with a pit toilet in the Balkans, stay away. Or bring tissue, soap, and quads of steel. I hesitated to post this, but I didn’t get my detective rank by turning away from the ugly cases. Sorry if you’re eating lunch right now.

The Balkans are full of mysteries large and small, so I’ll keep my detective hat on a little longer. I never know when I’ll open the door to a new case.



*  Confused or non-native English speakers, the post title is a play on “John Doe,” the legal name given to an unidentified person, and the word “John” which is slang for toilet. I can’t get away from puns, sorry.

The Disneyfication of…the liquor aisle?!

Whitney Houston reminded us that “…children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” But I don’t think she was talking about baby champagne. This was seen at the Maxi on Sarajevska Street in Belgrade.

I’m not a parent, or even an aunt, but seriously?! Champagne for kids? It’s non-alcoholic, but still…isn’t beer for dogs weird enough? I know children like to copy their parents, yet it’s not like Serbian parents drink lots of champagne at home. If anything, Disney should be making two-liter bottles of Princess Jasmine Jelen or Rapunzel Rakija. Even I would consider buying that.

Photo source:

At first I was surprised that Disney would promote alcohol consumption for children. Then I thought that there might be some benefit to it. Little ladies will face serious disappointment if they think life is like a fairy tale. Fake booze can really take the edge off when you expect a pony for your sixth birthday but you get your sister’s hand-me-down bike instead. Not that I speak from experience.

Disney booze can also help parents re-enact hip hop videos starring children. Come on, what parent hasn’t wanted their kids to experience the decadent life of champagne, back-beats, and scantily clad women?

Image source

Image source:


FACT: I have always wanted to see a champagne fountain. Why deny a child this experience?

While Beogradjani enjoy their liquor, it’s hard to believe that they buy fake champagne with cartoon characters on it. If anything, they’re more likely to employ the Mama RHOB method: let a child sip your wine, make a terrible face, and end the discussion. The drinking age is 18 here (and loosely enforced), so it’s not like little Nada has to wait that long to sip the real, far better stuff. But considering America’s love/hate relationship with alcohol, I suspect it will be a hit in the U.S. Maybe I won’t have to wait too long to see that bubbly fountain in action…

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls…in Bosnia

Last Friday, Majmun and I decided to cap off our Bosnian Bonanza with stop in Travnik before jumping in the famed waters of Jajce. This meant we had to take a roundabout route west of Sarajevo before heading back east to Belgrade. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how roundabout this trip would become.

The road from Sarajevo to Travnik was uneventful but slow due to the two-lane highway overrun with trucks and Yugos going below the speed limit. A warning to Balkan travel planners: distances are further than they appear. Small highways, mountains, and trucks make those two close points on the map a longer drive than you’d believe. Still, driving in Bosnia offers beautiful sights, and the main roads aren’t bad. At times I felt like I was in a BMW commercial, gliding through curvy roads along a green mountainside. Minus the BMW, that is.

We reached Travnik, our midpoint, in about two hours. The Ottomans made Travnik the capital of their Bosnian stronghold in 1699, resulting in numerous mosques and Ottoman architecture that still stands today. We climbed around Travnik’s medieval fortress and dipped our hands in the plava voda…before realizing a catfish farm was depositing water nearby. Hmmm.

Travnik is also famous for being the home of Pulitzer prize-winning author Ivo Andric and for making world-class Bosnian coffee. Okay, I made up that last one, but it was truly delicious.

After the coffee kicked in (whee!) we pressed on to Jajce. Jajce is a medieval town flanked by stone gates and ruins. It’s also home to a famous 20-meter waterfall and nearby lakes. I hadn’t discovered a lot of information about Jajce, but the photos I saw looked amazing. Majmun and I were excited to see it in person.

Majmun kept calling it "Yahtzee." Photo source: Wikipedia.

Jajce is about a two-hour drive from Travnik on the M-5, a major North-West highway. Or so we thought. After about 30 minutes on the M-5 we were met with an ominous sign: Jajce was crossed out with red tape. I spoke to a gas station attendant who confirmed the news. The major highway to Jajce was closed.

Not to fear! we thought. Majmun and asked “Jack” (the name of our GPS voice) to find a detour. No dice. We consulted a map and saw a small road and even smaller town that could connect us to Jajce. Using this as a GPS waypoint, we drove on smaller roads through mountains, passing few cars. At the rakija stand I wrote about on Friday, Jack told us to turn left at a gravel road next to a logging truck. It was definitely the road less traveled…but I’m supposed to take those, right?

After 30 more minutes of driving, we pulled over. Jack had brought us to the right road…we just didn’t realize it was an unpaved logging road. At this rate, it would take hours and a possible flat tire to reach Jajce. We had to abandon our plans. Five hours of driving from Sarajevo led to a filthy car and a failed mission; but it also led to great coffee, even better rakija, and an important lesson brought to us by TLC.

Thanks, ladies. I’ll stick to the Sava and the Danube I’m used to.