Read, Write, Run, Roam


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.


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.

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.

Mystery Monday: Seeking the “Pyramids” of Visoko, Bosnia

After my car battery was revived in Sarajevo, I was told to drive around for a minimum of 30 minutes. So we changed our plans from going to the Tunnel Museum to see the pyramids of Visoko.

The pyramids were “discovered” in 2005, when Bosnian archeologist Semir Osmanagic announced that three hills surrounding Visoko were actually man-made pyramids. (To be precise, hills that men formed into pyramids.) He then claimed that the pyramids could have been as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza and were probably older. A media storm ensued, followed by pyramid-themed hostels, restaurants and souvenirs.

The rush of a new discovery was tempered a year later, when twenty-one historians, geologists and archaeologists signed a letter denouncing the pyramid research as “amateurish.” Following the letter’s publication, some signees received threatening phone calls and letters for doubting the veracity of the Visoko pyramids. The debate rages on, but Osmanagich is undeterred. He has begun to excavate several “ancient” tunnels that he claims lead to the pyramids.

Majmun and I decided to investigate. As we drove into Visoko, there was no mistaking the pyramids. Or pyramid-shaped mountains, depending on who you talk to. But the pyramid-mania seems to have died down; we drew polite but quizzical looks around town. However we weren’t the only tourists. One slightly wacky German guy encouraged us to hike to a pyramid summit and imbibe the pyramid’s mystical, magnetic qualities. Maybe later, we agreed. We decided to see the tunnels first.

Signs for the pyramid tunnels led us to a gated factory. This seemed strange. Suddenly, a man came by and asked us, in Serbian/Bosnian, if we wanted to see the tunnels. As we nodded yes he took a flashlight out of the guard post and began to walk us through an empty textile factory. This seemed stranger.

Oddly, following him didn’t feel dangerous. I mean, two foreign visitors following a stranger into an empty factory complex? To go into an even emptier tunnel? I’ve seen horror movies based on less. But our self-styled guide seemed happy to have visitors to talk to. He told us (as far as I could make out) that children swimming in the nearby river found the tunnel many years ago. Though the pyramids are estimated to be up to 12,000 years old, the tunnel was no more than 5,000 years old.

Armed with a single flashlight, there wasn’t much to see, but the atmosphere was appropriately creepy. We looked at an old well that hardly seemed ancient, but it was still fun to traipse around and pretend to be archeologists ourselves. My large camera was acting wonky while we were there, prompting us to consider whether the alleged magnetic forces of the pyramids were interfering with my camera, or whether I didn’t know how to adjust it in the dark. Probably the latter. But you never know…

After tipping our new friend, we decided to drive to the Pyramid of the Sun. However, the road is impassable without four wheel-drive, and we were ill-equipped for the hike up the mountain, excuse me, pyramid. After talking to another family who was backtracking down the path, we decided to celebrate Visoko by eating pyramid-shaped food instead.

We may not have solved the Bosnian Pyramid Mystery, we did find decent Balkan pizza. Not a bad find for half a day’s work…

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.


My wish for this fish…

I was going to spend time writing about our road trip today, but I have important sleuthing and wishing to do instead. I left my phone in a cab last night. No one seems to be answering it, and I’m hoping they’re not passing it around their family to make calls to Timbuktu. I’m wishing that it will turn up, courtesy of the goldfish at Zlatna Riba bar in Sarajevo.

 It’s a great bar with a relaxed atmosphere, lots of “art” on the walls, and no shortage of Americans with Lonely Planet guides. Goldie the fish offers a wishing bell to guests with high hopes–like me today. Any ideas about how to make someone return a cell phone in a foreign land? Here’s wishing for a Good Samaritan in Belgrade…

Road trip rakija

Sorry for the late and short posts these past few days, but it’s not going to get better until tomorrow. I just returned from a whirlwind drive around Bosnia. Ten and a half hours in the car, three highway detours, two King ice cream bars, and one very forgiving police officer later, Majmun and I are back in Belgrade. The highway detours were frustrating but we found our silver lining in the form of a rakija and cheese stand in the middle of nowhere.

Business is good, judging from the Mercedes parked on the right. We stopped in for a peek and wound up buying a bottle of walnut rakija (orahovaca) before trudging out on a doomed mission to Jajce. More on that tomorrow. After all our adventures today a sip of rakija is long overdue…