I can’t believe no one told me about this last summer: The Ajvar 5k just outside of Washington, DC!
Good news (for me): I am not the only person around here obsessed with ajvar. There is an entire race devoted to the ruby goodness. Okay, so it’s actually a fundraiser for needy children in Macedonia, but runners get a jar of ajvar at the finish. Helping kids, getting a little exercise AND receiving fine European foods? DONE.
Not a runner? You can still help sponsor the event. A donation as little as $5 will get you an honorable mention as a “Friend of Ajvar.” Though really, who ISN’T a friend of ajvar?
For more information, click on the race Facebook page HERE.
Our Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans* suggested we go “off the beaten path” with a trip to Kotor, Montenegro.
(Pause to hear all the Balkan readers laugh.)
Kotor’s been “on the path” since the Middle Ages, when Illyrians, Slavs and Venetians flocked to the spot along the Bay of Kotor. Today Kotor is one of the most popular destinations in Montenegro, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a stopping point for cruises and yachts working their way down the Adriatic. It’s more backless dresses than backpackers, but there’s at least one Kotor destination that moves visitors away from it all: the fort on the mountain of St. John.
Since my attraction to ice cream bars has become a full-blown addiction, I thought it would be a good idea to tackle the 1350-1500 steps up to the fortifications that overlook Kotor’s walled city. It was more of a hike than a stroll; 5 centuries of use, 80 years of neglect and several earthquakes later, there were times when it was easier to walk along an improvised dirt trail than to tackle the loose, worn stairs. It’s not for the timid or the acrophobic.
The fortifications were first built by the Byzantine Empire in the 6th Century. The Venetians expanded them in the 1400s, and they were all but deserted by the 1800s. It still felt a bit deserted when we were there. We explored the fort’s viewpoints to get a good look at the town below.
Kotor was still a sleepy coastal town at 8am, at least from 280 meters above. The cafes were just setting out umbrellas. Dance music hadn’t started pumping from outside speakers. Cruise ship groups were still enjoying their breakfast. It was easy to picture Kotor as a so-called undiscovered city in the 1800s, with nothing but fisherman, innumerable churches, and pretty views.
Yet as we descended, we were grateful it wasn’t. If had been the 1800s, there would have been no man with a cooler selling cold water on the path. Also, if it was the 1800s I would have no property rights and I never would have sailed all the way to Montenegro. The churches are still there, the fishermen now sell to great restaurants, and a Housewife can reward herself with an ice cream bar. Montenegro isn’t a secret destination, but it’s the best disappointment I could ask for.
All kidding aside, I do recommend LP-Western Balkans if you’re touring around the area. LP has the most practical information about border crossings and time tables. Bradt also does a great job with these facts, particularly for Serbia.
When my latest duo of prijateljice (girlfriends) arrived in Belgrade, I thought I’d abandon my “RHOB, private guide” role and join a bike tour. Little did I know that a touristic bike ride would lead to one of my most local adventures to date.
I Bike Belgrade is a relatively new tour company that also seeks to promote bicycle use in Belgrade. The company was founded by Dutchman (shocking) who employs local guides. Beograjani might laugh at the concept of biking through the city, since bike paths are limited and drivers are, well, spirited. We were assured that we’d stick to bicycle paths for most of the trip.
The tour started innocently enough. We met our guide at Kalemegdan and walked about a half mile to the bike rental place, where we selected our bikes and introduced ourselves to each other. Upon starting off, we received one of the best summaries of Belgrade history that I’ve heard. I thought the tour would be informative but a little predictable. I thought wrong.
Soon after seeing the Nebojsa Tower, our guide discovered that I lived in Belgrade. He had been to the States, and we talked about the differences in both places. He said, “Do you know what I miss about America the most? BROWNIES! They are delicious!” This was the last thing I expected to hear, but it’s true: we do not have brownies in Belgrade.
I wasn’t sure if he meant “regular” brownies…
As we approached Zemun, our guide asked, “Do you want to do something really local?” “Of course,” I replied.
NOTE: I don’t generally recommend this response. Local things include drinking tons of rakjia, “no liability” bungee jumping at Ada, or driving all night to see a friend in Montenegro. Lots of fun, but…do as I say, not as I do, readers.
“I will see if we can visit my friend on Rat Island,” he said. JACKPOT, I thought. Rat Island is a nature preserve by Zemun with incredibly diverse wildlife. More importantly, it also has small beaches, rustic cottages, and cafes that are practically hidden to non-Beogradjani. It’s not private but you have to know the right person to figure out how and where to go. It was a rare opportunity to see another aspect of Belgrade life.
After biking/walking up to Zemun’s Gardos Tower (it’s steep there, readers) we hopped on a small motorboat with 9 people, three bikes, and a skipper. As we carefully balanced ourselves and noted the two inches of boat floating above water, our guide asked, “You can all swim, right?” as we started off.
We arrived at Lido beach and celebrated our safe passage with beer, rakija, and good stories. Other guests fed stray cats and argued about soccer as we watched the sun sink over Zemun. Some guests were slightly nervous about the change in plans (or just the return trip on the boat, perhaps), but I tried to assure them that this was truly the best Belgrade tour they could ask for. After all, how many times does a bike tour include a treacherous hill, a secret beer spot, and a perilous boat ride?
I should add that we were charged higher prices than normal for drinks and food, but since we were not charged for the boat ride and our guide was with us for longer than the advertised period, I considered it a worthwhile price.
Last week, I finally made it to Ada Ciganlija. There’s a lot to say about this island/recreational center, but I thought I’d start with one of the first sights visitors see: Serbian Stonehenge.
I’ve poked around the internet trying to find out more about this sculpture, but I only found other people calling it Serbian Stonehenge. According to some, it is not a replication of Stonehenge but a modern concrete sculpture that looks…awfully familiar. Whatever the history, it’s a (kind of) unique welcome to the island.
Don’t let the concrete sculpture fool you into thinking Ada isn’t green. The island has wooded bike paths, a river “beach,” tennis courts, soccer fields, a golf course and more. Though it’s a recreational paradise, you don’t have to be active to love Ada. The beach is lined with cafes and restaurants for people seeking more sedentary pursuits. I’ve got to credit the Beogradjani: they don’t let a good people-watching or drinking opportunity pass them by. Last week may have been my first time to Ada, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Yesterday, approximately 40,000 people ran the Belgrade marathon. RHOB’s training has been lackluster this year, so I entered the 5K fun run instead.
The 5K was more about fun than run. People walked, rollerbladed, or took their dogs for the 3.2 mile trip. Even so, I was impressed with the number of Beogradjani running. Part of the race went around Slavija Circle. I’ve often found myself jogging through its intersections, but it’s usually to avoid being hit by a car.
Later that day, Milos and I walked to the finish line to cheer on the distance runners. I was kicking myself for letting my running regimen fall to the wayside. Milos was, literally, falling to the wayside.
Let’s just say he’s not a sporting dog.
Congratulations to all runners. If you’re inspired to run Belgrade yourself, there’s a “Women’s Race” on June 4th on Ada, and a “Race Through History” on October 12th in Kalemegdan. And if you’re training in Belgrade, feel free to check out and add to the Belgrade route webpage I found here.
If there was a Serbian version of Dirty Dancing, it would be set in Zlatibor. It’s a popular mountain resort area nestled among pine tree forests and known for its fresh air, hiking and spa treatments. I haven’t spotted a dance hall yet, but I’ll bet there’s one somewhere in the little shops that surround the town center.
The town’s charm is somewhat manufactured, but the natural setting isn’t. The region has been a vacation spot since the early 1800s, when Prince Miloš Obrenović summered here. (I hate to use “summer” as a verb, but he was a Prince.) The air is noticeably nicer here, and it inspires a rare sight in Serbia: physical activity. People come to Zlatibor to ski in the winter and swim and hike in the summer. But true to the Serbian spirit, it’s also known for its smoked meat, kajmak and lepinja, a special sandwich. You’ve got to love Serbia: they don’t take their exercise too seriously–and if they do, it’s followed by a meal of 3,000 calories.
True to the Zlatibor spirit, I started my first evening here with a hike to the monument. I was with several Serbian women, one of whom was wearing heels. Based on their footwear, I figured it was a short walk and brought our own Prince Miloš along for the walk. After 40 minutes of walking uphill, I felt like I was carrying a watermelon. Actually, I was luring a French Bulldog up a hill with a giant stick.
Miloš and I have a long way to go before being considered Serbian. It was a nice walk, but there was no way I could have done it in heels. Even for this lovely view.
At the top of the hill, we stopped to admire the Zlatibor monument to fallen soldiers in World War II.
We returned to town with revived lungs and a hearty appetite. Fortunately, our hotel obliged with a buffet fit for Kellerman’s, I mean, King Aleksandra. The highlight of the meal was Zlatibor kajmak. Kajmak in Belgrade is a cross between cream cheese and butter. In Zlatibor, it’s denser and more feta-like, thanks to the fresh raw milk in the region. I like kajmak in Belgrade, but I love it in Zlatibor. Looks like I’m going to have the time of my life…and hit the hiking paths again.
It all started with an innocent walk on Knez Mihailova with Muz and our guest Prvi. As we strolled, my skillful powers of observation noted that Belgrade women are tall, pretty and very lean. Prvi concurred, declaring that “their bodies are smoking.” Muz was far too smart to chime in.
The boys were content to enjoy the view, but I knew I had the beginning of a new case on my hands: how did women stay thin in Belgrade, the land of fresh bread and kajmak? (And pastries, and chocolates, and cevap…) I formulated several theories: good genes, constant smoking, and sporadic eating were my top contenders. One thing was certain—Belgrade women weren’t running off the pounds.
As the winter months continued, the secret of slim Serbians became more mysterious. From November to April, Serbian families may celebrate two Christmases, two New Years’ celebrations, and at least two Slavas. After April, weddings (hours of courses, drinks and desserts) begin. I knew Belgrade women had a secret weapon to enjoy life here and fit into minidresses. What was it?
The answer was as murky as the Potomac—until I was walking home on a dark, cold night. Snow had melted during the day, and the sidewalks were covered with large patches of ice. As I struggled to keep my balance, Serbian women daintily trotted by in heels. Of course! I thought. Icy streets are the Beogradjani “winter workout.” No wonder the women seem to have abs of steel and figure skater’s physiques. Staying upright on the sidewalk requires more core work than a pilates class.
The winter workout also offers a bonus session: jumping out of the way of ice sheets tumbling off of roofs.
This is strictly optional, though: conscientious property managers often hang homemade signs to warn passerby.
That’s right, women of Belgrade: Detective RHOB is on to your tricks. I can’t smoke or deny myself sarma, but I can use all my strength to make it home without falling down. Summer minidresses, watch out. RHOB is getting her fitness on. One cautious step at a time.