Read, Write, Run, Roam

Serbia sights

Finding a reservation for the Mayan Apocalypse: Armageddon Tourism

We’ve neglected to believe other Mayan tenets, like rain dances or believing that the first men were made of maize dough, but somehow we’re all supposed to desperately believe that their calendar accurately predicts the end of the world will happen next Friday, December 21, 2012.


Apparently, this is enough of a concern that NASA has issued a statement saying that it’s not the end of the world. But that’s not enough to stop thousands of media outlets from reporting on it, or from enterprising tourism agencies to take advantage. Even in Serbia.

Hotels near Eastern Serbia’s Mt. Rtanj are booked for the main (non) event next Friday, thanks to the mountain’s supposed mystical powers. British sci-fi author Arthur Clark declared the mountain to be “the navel of the world.” Sounds kind of gross to me, but it’s not gross to the hundreds of people who are trying to reserve rooms in nearby B&Bs. Until they try to use a pit toilet.

Some believe Mt. Rtanj contains a pyramid inside that will somehow save people nearby. If the pyramid-in-a-mountain sounds familiar, it might remind you of the story of the Visok, Bosnia pyramids I wrote about last year. I’m sure Visok is enjoying a brisk tourism trade as well. (Tip: Visok pizza isn’t bad!)

But the Balkans aren’t the only destination for apocalypse tourism. Pic de Bugarach in the French Pyrenees is also enjoying popularity from people who believe that aliens will rescue anyone there on the 21st. The Bugaraches (I’m sure they’re called that) have been fleecing these tourists for all they’re worth. It’s reported that one local is charging $1,870 a night for a four bedroom house. Don’t worry, you can also rent a camping site for $400 Euros. December camping in the Pyrenees IS the end of the world, as far as I’m concerned.

I hope these people negotiated refundable deposits, because the French authorities have announced the mountain will be shut down on the 21st.

Personally, I’d avoid the cold spots and book a room in Chichen Itza, Mexico. Not only is it warm, but the pyramid’s front and center rather than hiding in a mountain. Nearby hotels are already used to celebrations around the end of the Mayan calendar, and have planned fireworks and concerts at archeological pyramids. No word on whether REM will perform “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” there.

Finally, I’m fortunate to recommend Tical, Guatemala based on personal experience. Muz and I first heard of the end of the Mayan calendar on a visit there in 2007. It’s an awe-inspiring site. On December 21st, it’s also reported to be the site of the “New Dawn for Humanity” world summit, featuring Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Placido Domingo, Elton John, U2 and the Jackson brothers. And, based on memory, delicious bananas!

However, we aren’t traveling on December 21st. Instead, Muz and I have planned to go dancing. Like there’s no tomorrow.


Ponce: the Puerto Rican Subotica

RHOB: “Ponce is a lot like Subotica. If I write a blog post about this place, I’m going to title it “Ponce: the sister city of Subotica.”

Muz: “No one will get that.”

RHOB: “My Serbian readers will know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Muz: “Okay, so twenty people will get it.”

RHOB: “That’s all I need.”


Muz had some time off between meetings on a Sunday in San Juan, so we decided to explore Puerto Rico’s second largest city, Ponce. Our guidebook noted that Ponce was home to a beautifully restored town center featuring fountains, a 300-year old church, and artistic carnival masks. “Let’s check it out!” I said, and dragged Muz away from the beach and into the rental car. (Before you feel badly for him, trust me. That pale man does not do well in tropical sun.)

We drove for about 45 minutes until we saw the “Ponce” sign across the highway. People were taking their photos by the big letters, but we pressed on. 

Ponce’s city center is largely pedestrian, so we parked on the outskirts and wandered in. I was excited to see masks and pretty buildings and…well, I didn’t know what. I had read that the city had spent half a billion dollars restoring its architecture, but we entered the town center via a street lined with gently rotting wooden houses painted in bright colors. I wondered where the money had gone.

“Let’s see the church,” I said, and we walked to the Ponce cathedral, an impressively large white building that started out as a tiny chapel in 1670, and expanded as the town’s power grew. Our guidebook noted its beautiful stained glass windows and declared it a “must-see” of Ponce. We walked to the front door, with thoughts of Church on Sunday posts swirling in my head, only to find it locked. On Sunday. Hmmm.

We then wandered through the sleepy, largely empty town square toward the famous lion fountains. Even they seemed subdued.

The wildest building was the old firehouse/current museum, with a red and black facade that seemed at odds with the pastel colors all around us.

While it was all quite picturesque, I felt none of the energy that I expected in Puerto Rico’s second largest city. The colorful buildings, empty storefronts and quiet atmosphere made me think of Subotica. They both share ornate pastel buildings and a sense that their best days were sometime in the last century.












And just like in Subotica, we found a locked church, a sleepy town center, and a pedestrian area with expensive but elusive renovations. COINCIDENCE? Maybe I was watching too many telenovelas, but it seemed like I had stumbled on the world’s best plot twist: a secret twin!

Subotica and Ponce may be thousands of miles apart, but they had the same relaxed attitude and shabby charm. One sold mangoes, and another sold local honey. Though it wasn’t what I expected, it was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon and remind ourselves of our Serbian life.

The time I talk about the thing I’m not sure how to talk about

“Odakle Ste?” Where are you from?

“Ja sam iz America.” I’m from America.

It’s a conversation I have on a daily basis. This time I was on Skadarljia, negotiating a bulk price for copper votives on behalf of our latest guests. My accent is decent, but I don’t sound Serbian. The question wasn’t surprising. His response was.

I have…a problem with Americans.”

He said it apologetically, almost conspiratorially. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t want to upset me or if he was thinking about the sale. After missing a beat, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Razumem.” I understand, ok.

During almost a full year here, I haven’t personally encountered anti-Americanism. However, a cab driver once cheerfully noted, “these are the buildings you bombed,” as we drove down Kneza Milosa. These buildings—crumbling, weedy, and imposing—are the remnants of the Building of Internal Affairs bombed by NATO on April 2, 1999.  It stands there in tatters: a faded, handwritten letter that’s difficult to decipher. Who is it for? What does it mean?

Image source HERE.


People don’t always like American policy, but they tend to like Americans. I once joined a group of Serbians as a woman started ranting about American presidents and politics in Serbian. I fidgeted in silence until someone said, “You know, RHOB is from America.” She said “I know—I like RHOB. I just don’t like Bill Clinton!” She smiled and moved on. I knew her well enough—but I didn’t know the votive seller, and he didn’t know me.

He turned his attention back toward the votives. “This is Studenica Monastery,” he began to explain. “I’ve been there!” I replied. We spoke about various churches, their history, and my travels. As friends selected their votives, he showed me another one and said, “This is Gračanica Monastery.”

I nodded, feeling a bit solemn. Gračanica is one of the most historically important Serbian Orthodox monasteries. It’s located outside of Pristina, Kosovo. I would love to see it, but it’s not a safe passage at this time. Gračanica is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Danger, partly due to its politically precarious location. He wasn’t just showing me a votive; he was telling me his own history. As we looked at it, he said quietly, “My grandfather is buried near there. We had a house there. Now…I cannot even visit.”

I didn’t know what to say. I hear stories, from all sides, about heartbreak, loss, anger, violence. My response is simply to listen. War is difficult for me to comprehend, let alone discuss. What I do know for certain is that makes me very, very fortunate.

My friends chose their votives and he placed them in the flimsy red plastic bags I will always associate with Belgrade. “Something for you?” he asked, and when I shook my head, he plucked the Gračanica one from the display. “I give this to you,” he said, and pressed it into my hand before I could say no.

A conversation doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t mean that a stranger will suddenly like Americans, American policy, or decide that the shell of a building is an icon of a former era. But learning, and above all, listening—can change so much.


This may be a contentious post to some people. I seem to have a some new readers—hello!—and I welcome comments. I only ask that you read some of my other posts before you comment, to get an idea of who I am and where this sentiment comes from.  Hvala.  

(Two-fer) Church On Sunday: Subotica’s Synagogue and St. Theresa of Avila Basilica

That’s right folks, this weeks’ CoS is another twofer! Muz and I made a special trip to Subotica, Serbia this weekend. Subotica was already on our Belgrade (er, Serbian) Bucket List, but it was also a chance to meet Lana and Chris, the Americans-in-Serbia bloggers of “Live Life Like a Bestseller.” I think it should be subtitled “Live Life Like a Leapfrog” because they are always posing in a hilarious jumping style. You’ll have to visit the blog to see what I mean. If they have children, I predict an Olympic triple-jumper is born.

We agreed to meet at McDonald’s, aka European Meeting Point Number One. Insert-McDonald’s-hate here, but I can’t deny they’re easy to find and usually in the center of things. In Subotica, McDonald’s is inside the fabulous, art-noveau style Town Hall. Not a bad place to get a Big Mac.

This light and my photo skills stunk, sorry.

As pretty as it was, we didn’t stay for long. Chris and Lana led us to another lovely cafe-lined avenue where we lingered over drinks in true Serbian style. Afterwards, they graciously led us on a tour of the town.

Subotica is a leafier, smaller version of Novi Sad. It has Hungarian/Secessionist architecture, lots of wide avenues, and little parks around every corner. A few miles away is Lake Palic, ringed by a Poconos-ish collection of Hungarian villas. We “oohed” at every street like idiots. Then Lana asked us the money question: “Want to see the synagogue?”

Does the Pope wear a big hat? RHOB could not resist. It may surprise readers that I started writing about churches not out of pious devotion, but sheer laziness. I joined NaBloPoMo last November. That first Sunday, out of desperation for things to write about, I described Belgrade’s Sveti Sava. The next Sunday, when I was struggling for material, I decided to talk about St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Budapest. A habit was born. Now, I need to see a new church every week. This is how addiction starts, kids!

The Synagogue is still beautiful, but in a state of serious disrepair. Windows are broken and the doors are locked to prevent people from wandering in and possibly injuring themselves. The local Jewish population was decimated in World War One, and there are no funds to renovate the building back to its original glory. Still, it was a lovely sight.

After that, we walked to St. Theresa of Avila, Subotica’s Catholic Basilica. St. Theresa is known for being a writer and also appears on Subotica’s coat of arms. Sister was doing doing it for herself, indeed.

The church was built in 1779. It’s been renovated several times but now there are large cracks in the facade. I realize this isn’t good for the building, but it’s awfully cool to look at. The “100” sign above the door celebrates the 100th Duzijanca, or harvest celebration.














The church was designed by a Hungarian architect, which explains the colorful detailed painting pattern along the ceiling. There is a beautiful stained glass window facing the altar, but my camera couldn’t quite capture its beauty.

We left the church and parted ways with our new friends, with promises of a Belgrade tour in the near future. I hope Lana enjoys the White City; certainly Subotica was all it was “cracked up” to be.

Zen and the Art of Making Rakija

One more item was crossed off the “Belgrade bucket list” this week when I was invited to watch grape rakija (lozovaca) being made in a village outside of Fruska Gora. Fruska Gora is national parkland about an hour outside of Belgrade. It’s known for its fresh air, gorgeous scenery and wineries. Yet we weren’t there for that. We were there for the rakija.

My friend Lisa, a professional photographer working in Serbia, invited me to join her to document the experience. I don’t have her photography skills, so I can only guess I was chosen for my drinking skills. Whatever it takes, people. We arrived just as the grapes were being poured into the distiller.

The grapes had been sitting in barrels for about a week. Normally they might ferment a bit longer, but Serbia’s late summer moved the natural process along quickly. This weather has also been great for wineries—the drought forced grapes to produce more sugar than usual. Look for 2011 vintage wines over the next couple of years. We couldn’t wait that long, so we tasted some of the young wine that our gracious host provided.

I normally don’t like young wine, but this tasted more like fresh grape juice with slight carbonation. The best part is that there’s nothing but fermented, pressed grapes in this pitcher. It doesn’t get any more natural than that. After a toast to the harvest, we turned our attention to the giant, slightly scary distiller. The machine looks crazy, but it’s actually pretty simple. Fermented grapes are poured into a container heated by a wood stove underneath. (Grapes go into the container closest to the camera.)

The stove must be kept very hot, and the grapes must be stirred via crank to prevent burning or sticking. A flour paste is pressed along the seams of the distiller to prevent steam escaping.

After two hours or so, the mixture becomes hot enough that it begins to boil. Steam then rises from the first container, travels along the long pipe and moves the second container, which is filled with cold water to help condense the steam and cool the liquid, which is—almost—rakija.

I say “almost rakija” because the first liter of liquid isn’t rakija at all. It’s methyl alcohol, a substance that is highly flammable and poisonous if consumed. One must wait until the methyl alcohol has been passed (the prvenac, or first batch) to start collecting the drinkable ethanol/grain alcohol. You should know when the methyl alcohol has passed because the smell (like rubbing alcohol) will make you recoil.

After the prvenac, you can start collecting the rakija in glass jars. Our host first stores rakija in glass for about three months, then decides if he wants to age the rakija in barrels or glass. If rakija is golden, it’s likely because it was stored in wood, and not necessarily because of how long it aged. Or it’s because coloring has been added–a big no-no in the homemade rakija world.

We tasted the first drinkable batch of rakija, but it was pretty harsh. It takes several months for rakija to be smooth enough to drink comfortably, and years for it to taste like the rakija I’ve come to enjoy. Good things come to those who wait, I suppose.

It was a special day of Serbian sights, tastes and sounds, but my favorite part of the day was waiting for the grapes to boil. I was happy to sit around the distiller eating fresh goat cheese and bread, sample grapes and apples from our hosts’ orchard, and smell the wood burn. It was a surprisingly meditative process that resulted in a feeling of accomplishment: making one of the oldest beverages known to man. Serbians may not practice zen, but the art of making rakija comes pretty close.

If you’d like to see Lisa’s photos that day, you’ll have to wait–but you can see other amazing shots of Serbia on her website

(Kinda) Church on Sunday: A question about Orthodoxy

I haven’t had much luck photographing churches lately. Most of the churches on our Balkan Bonanza tour didn’t allow photos, and even in London cameras were forbidden in places of worship. Yet there’s one kind of church that I can always photograph, despite the fact that I can’t explain it: the roadside “altars” (shrines?) in the form of a church.

Can anyone explain what these are? Do they mark a site where someone has died? Are they simply a way of expressing religion? Or is there some other explanation? I might write about churches every week, but I must confess my complete ignorance when it comes to these roadside wonders.

They remind me of spirit houses in Thailand, but I’m certain that they don’t play that role in Orthodox Christian nations. I don’t have many photos to show as examples (we’re usually past them before I can whip out my camera) but I do love to look at them. I’ve seen in them in Greece, Macedonia, and occasionally in Serbia. Some have tiny bouquets of flowers or crosses inside. They have a dollhouse quality that I find appealing, though I’m sure they play a more serious role than religious dioramas.

 What do you say, readers? Anyone care to enlighten me on what role these tiny churches play in the Orthodox religion?

Balkan Bacchanalia: The Guca Trumpet Festival

When we told Serbians we were going to the Guca (Goo-cha) trumpet festival last Saturday, they replied, “That’s great. Guca is so Serbian,” or “You’re going to Guca?!!? It’s a mess!” Either way, we figured it was a worthwhile trip.

The Guča trumpet festival is a weeklong celebration and competition of Balkan brass music. The festival started in 1960, when musicians gathered in the sleepy and picturesque town of Guča, Serbia for a friendly competition. Over the next 51 years the competition, visitors and the consumption of alcohol increased. This year it was estimated that Guča’s
population of 3,000 increased to 400,000 over the weeklong event.

Which explains why the water supply ran out on Saturday. Sigh.

Guča’s two hotels can’t contain the masses, so most visitors rent rooms in nearby houses or camp along the outskirts of town. Regular readers will know that this city girl/Housewife opted for a solid roof over her head and running trickling water. We rented bedrooms from wonderful people who promptly plied us with Turkish coffee and rakjia. It was a sign of things to come.

People come to Guča to hear music, dance wildly, and drink. A lot. Beer cans and rakija bottles littered the streets. Even when we couldn’t get a bottle of water, the liquor cases were fully stocked. Though it’s a little crazy, the only danger is turning deaf from hearing hordes of trumpets or falling off a table while dancing.

Guca isn’t just a trumpet festival; it’s a Serbian festival. The music is quintessentially Balkan: no “Misty” or jazz riffs here. (However,  “Hava Negila” has mysteriously become a local tune.) People walk around in traditional costume and Serbia shirts are worn with pride. There is a small nationalist contingent at Guča but overall it’s a place to celebrate Serbian music and culture.

The core of the festival is a music competition. However, we missed the finals on Saturday night. I thought the schedule was on “Serbian time,” but the musicians, unlike RHOB, were punctual. We consoled ourselves with carnival rides, eating svadbarski kupus (wedding cabbage), and watching the Miss Guča pageant.

As the night wore on, the music and people became a bit disheveled. We turned back around midnight and were woken at 6 am by children playing toy trumpets in the street. Muz and I walked downtown at 9 am. We thought Guča would look post-apocolyptic but the streets were full, the beer was flowing, and people were dancing. God may have rested on the seventh day, but the Serbians did not.

As hard as we try to adopt the Balkan way of life, we knew couldn’t hack another 24 hours of nonstop horns and bacchanalian dancing. Our friends were right about Guča: it was Serbian, it was a mess, and it was great.