Read, Write, Run, Roam

Archive for August, 2011

Around the Balkans in 10 hours…

Today we’re driving from Corfu to Belgrade. (Wait…I’m in Greece? I know! I never tell you anything!) It’s going to be a loooong day, so you’ll have to make do with this short post/cool graphic I found on CreativeRoots.org, HERE. It’s practically a map of my last two weeks, except yes, I know that Greece isn’t in the Balkans.

Check out other illustrated maps here, and swoon.


Hercegovina’s got a hold on RHOB

Commenters on my Mostar post have rightly pointed out that Mostar is in Hercegovina, not Bosnia. Westerners often refer to the country as simply “Bosnia” not Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH), and I fell right into the Yankee trap myself. Speaking of traps, Hercegovina snared us for longer than we intended. After a couple “hey, let’s see that” moments and wrong turns, we were able to see a good bit of this often-overlooked region of BiH.

We didn’t plan to spend much time in Hercegovina beyond a short stop in Mostar, but then I read about a Dervish Monastery in nearby Blagaj. All I know about the Dervish order is that it explores the mystical side of Islam, but that sounded groovy and Muz agreed that it would make a perfect side trip/Church on Sunday post. Though the drive was gorgeous, the monastery wasn’t: the entrance was under major construction and access past the stone wall was forbidden.

The only way to reach the building was by an inflatable boat for an undetermined price. Since we were already running late thanks to an unruly GPS and confusion about where to park, we skipped the boat ride (and greater exploration of Blagaj’s old town) to head back to the highway.

Once again, Hercegovina thought we were making a mistake. She somehow tricked our GPS to take us through Podvelez, a series of villages along a mountainous road. This area is isolated, wild and beautiful. The road, however, turned less beautiful as we continued. After miles of dirt road failed to turn into a paved highway, we stopped at a turbe to make a u-turn.  The turbe (I believe) commemorates the deaths of local men who died in the war during the 1990s.

This part of BiH is often called a moonscape, but I think it’s more of a Mars-scape. The rocky landscape and isolation reminded me more of Total Recall than Apollo 13.  Of course, my impression might have something to do with the 100 degree temperatures.

To complete our Hercegovina tour, we stopped for pizza in Trebinje. Trebinje is part of the Republika Srpska that lies in Hercegovina. Though the highway seems a bit dusty and neglected, Trebinje is like a green oasis with its central park and leafy main square. A recently renovated mosque lies in the center of the main square, and a church dedicated to Hercegovinian Jovan Dučić sits on the large hill over town.  We ate at a local Italian restaurant in the square and watched locals lounge in cafés.

Though we didn’t spend much time in Hercegovina, it was an opportunity to see a side of BiH that I didn’t know existed; one that had pomegranates, “alien” terrain, and an identity worth recognizing.


In Belgrade, sexy sells…pooper scoopers

In an interesting mix of business and “doing business,” the Belgrade office of international advertising firm McCann Erickson devised a new ad campaign geared to convince Beogradjani to scoop their pet’s poop:

Okay, so it’s not all that sexy, especially by Belgrade standards. In a city with girls in bikinis selling luggage, a little junk in the trunk isn’t going to make people blink, but I hope it will make them pick up their pet’s, um, presents.

As a Belgrade dog owner, I offer a huge thanks to McCann Erickson for tackling this smelly subject. It’s hard to walk down the street or in a park without dodging dookie. Belgrade’s stray dogs can’t pick up after themselves, but I’ve seen far too many dog owners who refuse to pick up or acknowledge their own dog’s waste. I realize this isn’t high on the list of Belgrade’s problems, but it’s an easy way to make Belgrade a more enjoyable city for everyone. Plus, it avoids some pretty gross health problems.

So, Beogradjani, scoop that poop! Though you might want to bend at the knees…

 

Image and background info courtesy of http://adsoftheworld.com/taxonomy/brand/city_of_belgrade and this W!ld Rooster blog post


Church on Sunday: Saint Nicholas in Perast, Montenegro

When we first entered the Bay of Kotor, I felt a pang of disappointment. I hadn’t had time to research on the city, and the high-rise buildings and oil drilling equipment didn’t exactly match the descriptions of “amazing” and “unique” that I had heard from Balkan friends. Twenty minutes later, I understood the hype. Concrete monstrosities gave way to tiny seaside villages and Venetian architecture. As we drove past a church on a tiny island off of Perast, I knew. I knew the way you know about a good melon. It would be my next Church on Sunday.

Perast is a small town on the coast of the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The Bay is a semi-circular strip of small towns that were once under the sway of the Venetian Republic and the bane of the Ottomans, who tried to take the Bay (and Perast) numerous times. Perast reached its zenith in the 18th Century, when it boasted four shipyards and a sailing academy. Sailors are superstitious; in Perast they were superstitious and religious. The result is a town you can drive through in five minutes but has 16 churches, including Saint Nicholas church.

Even in church-filled Perast, Saint Nicholas stands out. It’s also known as Lady of the Rock, since the church was built after two Perast sailors found an icon of the Virgin Mary on a rock just off the coast on July 22, 1452. As legend (or at least our tour guide) has it, the men carried the icon to a sick sailor onshore, who was instantly healed. The sailors decided to build a church around the rock to commemorate the miracle. With pebbles, sunken ships and a whole lot of patience, the island and church was built around the rock. The island is still being “built” to this day: every July 22, local male residents throw rocks near the island to buffer it from the incoming sea.

Facinada image source http://tinyurl.com/3pxocpa

We walked along the coast of Perast and negotiated a boat ride to the church. It was just as pretty up close as it was from the coastline. St. Nicholas’ Madonna icon is at the front of the altar, but the church’s biggest impact is the vivid paintings by Perast artist Tripo Kokolja.

The walls hold thousands of silver tablets donated by sailors. It’s thought that a donation will bring sailors luck. Like I said, superstitious. Doors by the church altar feature bouquets donated by brides who were married in the church.  At first glance I thought these were garters, and had a totally different impression of what kind of church this was. Alas, I was wrong.

Before we left the church, we walked behind the altar and touched the original rock the church was built around. You have to stick your hand in the hole, touch the rock, and make a wish. It reminded me of Flash Gordon. Remember that movie? It was terrible. I loved it.

Fortunately, my hand returned unscathed, and we returned safely to shore. I figured some extra luck couldn’t hurt, but the truth was, we were already lucky to be in such a beautiful country.


“Hot” sights in Belgrade

This may not be the most picturesque vision in Belgrade, but it’s one of the most common in the summertime. No, it’s not women in short dresses; that’s actually quite picturesque. It’s the home-grown approach to catch water dripping from air conditioners.

Now that Belgrade is in the throes of a heat wave, bottles are set up all over town. I like to think that the type of bottle usually corresponds with the type of store in a building. The hair salon by my apartment uses an old shampoo bottle and most of the bars or convenience stores will use a spare drink bottle. I’ve even seen a bar using an old Jelen bottle, but didn’t have my camera with me at the time.

I’m  a huge fan of the bottle system, because it prevents the sickening feeling I get when an air conditioner drips on me. As it turns out, the water is not poison-filled-icy-nastiness, but it feels that way all the same.

Thanks, Belgrade shopkeepers, for keeping our streets drip-free and turning the A/C on, despite fears of promaja! Now if we could all work on opening up more than one window on busses…


Musings on Mostar, Bosnia

Stari Most

“If you want to see the real Bosnia, see Mostar.” I heard variations of this sentence from several people, but wasn’t sure why. Wasn’t driving around northern and eastern Bosnia enlightening enough? I did know that Sarajevo, I city I visited twice and enjoyed, was a bit misleading as a Bosnian emblem. Reparation money and a decent tourist industry has made it a bright, bustling spot that defies tourists’ memories of the war. Still, I had seen other parts of Bosnia: simple villages, head-scarved women, graveyards with still-shiny headstones. I had felt a mix of confusion and interest directed at me when I walked through Banja Luka, Travnik, or other cities that rarely saw American visitors. Yet people were insistent; I should see Mostar to see Bosnia.

Muz and I planned a road trip that would begin with one night in the city. We stayed at a hotel in Old Town and weaved through groups of Italian visitors and the occasional backpacker to see the famed Stari Most (Old Bridge). Mostar is named for bridges–or more accurately, bridgekeepers. The town sits on the Neretva River, which was an important thoroughfare for Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian conquerors, and again when the Independent State of Croatia “incorporated” Mostar during World War II. The bridge was built under the orders of Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th Century and was considered an engineering marvel for the size of the arch, length and height of the bridge.

1998 Stari Most photo. Click image for source.

The bridge later became a symbol of war when its 427 year reign ended in a barrage of shells from Bosnian Croat military in 1993. After the end of the war, international aid helped rebuild the bridge using stone and techniques similar to the original structure. The new “Old Bridge” was inaugurated in 2004. It’s a graceful symbol of hope and unity for the city’s Bosnian, Croat, and Serb communities.

We joined the other tourists standing on the bridge and looked out on the cafes and shops lining the west side. This area, Kujundzilukwas once known for its leather and metal craftsman. Today it is filled with Turkish-type souvenir shops and the ubiquitous Turkish-Bosnian-Serbian domestic coffee pot. I can’t believe I haven’t given in to buying one of these…yet.

The other side of the bridge is a little quieter, but features the smaller Crooked Bridge and other restaurants. We spotted a wedding photo shoot taking place, and I played paparazzi with a few shots of my own.

The area around the bridge is touristy, but the town feels more realistic as one heads south. There’s a mosque on every corner, supermarkets and simple cevap places that would charge twice as much in Belgrade. Because it’s not on the tourist path, it’s also a more stark reminder of the town’s recent history. Buildings like the 1902 gymnasium (school) have been renovated since the war, but stand near piles of shelled rubble.

Restored Gymnasium

shell-damaged minaret (mosque)

Destroyed Building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If I had to characterize my time in Mostar in one word, it would be quiet. Everyone seemed subdued; trinket sellers in the Old City didn’t call out to passerby and even the tourists spoke in muted tones. We tried to buy water with a Bosnian Mark bill, but couldn’t. “I only have Euros or Croatian Kuna,” the owner said. “Do you have another currency?” It was the first time I’ve been unable to use local currency during our travels. It seemed that Mostar wasn’t able to embrace its national identity, after suffering so much for it.

The next morning, we stopped by the local market to pick up fruit for our drive. Our vendor helped us pick peaches and asked us what we thought of Mostar. “Svidja mi se,” (I like it), I replied. She said something like, “To je mirno sada” (It’s peaceful now). I nodded and felt both happy and sad. I’m still not sure what the “real Bosnia” is, but I know that it’s complex and unforgettable.


The Silver Screen in the White City: Movies in Belgrade

Sometimes even a traveling Housewife needs a break from “reality.” When that happens, I go to the movies in Belgrade.

I don’t see many movies in the States because I hate to learn that a movie is terrible AND lose $14 in the process. Belgrade offers a better cinema experience. The movie might still be bad, but tickets cost $5 and movies are subtitled, so I can hear everything in English and get a bonus Serbian lesson in the process. Twofer!

We saw our first movie in Belgrade, Harry Potter part one billion or whatever, in November at the Delta City mall. Delta City’s movie theater offers beer, stadium seating, and fresh popcorn. What more could a movie-goer want?

Apparently, silence. There were about 15 unsupervised eight-year-olds who decided that the movie was nowhere near as entertaining as running up and down the stairs, answering cell phones, and shouting at each other.  I felt like I was in a remake of Lord of the Flies, except there was no conch shell to make everyone stop talking. Parents were either absent or unconcerned.

Like this, but dark. And noisier.

Daunted, we decided to change our movie genre and theater by seeing Bridesmaids at the Usce Mall movie theater. Readers, you should come to Belgrade if for no other reason than to see a movie at Usce. There’s stadium seating, fresh popcorn, and a VIP Lounge in case you need a martini to watch Transformers 3 with your suddenly adolescent husband.

Usce’s best feature is reserved seating. When you buy your movie ticket, you can see which seats are available and pick the ones you like best. No asking, “can you move over one seat?” or draping-of-the-coat technique. If a movie is almost sold out, you can decide whether you want to sit in the very front row or simply pick another movie to watch. For type-A housewives some, this is manna from heaven.

When I tell Serbians that American cinemas don’t have reserved movie seating, they look at me with a mixture of amazement and pity. I have some pity of my own, though: there are no boxes of Jujubees or Junior Mints to mix with my popcorn. Still, there’s nothing like enjoying the silver screen with a beer and a comfy, reserved seat.

 

For a list of Belgrade movie theaters, click HERE