Read, Write, Run, Roam

Posts tagged “travel

The beauty, tragedy, and lessons of Venice

Readers, sorry for the delay in posts. I went from being a Housewife of Belgrade to a Jobseeker in Washington, which is twice as busy and isn’t half as fun.  Still, I thought I would share one of my last trips while I was a Beogradjanka: Venice, Italy.

Early on, I asked Muz to take me to Venice. We’d heard it was only a six-hour drive from Belgrade (seven hours if you don’t drive Serbian/Muz/Italian-style) and I wanted to see it with the man I love. Cheesy, but true.

I first went to Venice with a girlfriend from college. It was a lovely trip, but we kept looking around the impossibly romantic city and asking, “What am I doing here with YOU?” Also, she had no interest in food and kept demanding that we eat cold pizza margherita off the street. It killed me.

So when our last group of guests (FK Milos) was visiting, we drove to Venice for one night so they could make their return flight out of Italy, and Muz could avoid hearing me say “I can’t believe you never took me to Venice,” for the rest of his life. Clever.

We took the vaporetto (ferry) into Venice just as the sun was setting. It was just as lovely as I remembered it, if not more so.

It’s often said that Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I have to agree. The buildings are beautiful, the waterways are calming, and there is a distinct sense of stepping back in time. Though Venice is almost entirely tourists, it doesn’t detract from the atmosphere. Venice is a living museum, and tourists are part of the tableau.

Venetian glassmaker tools

I love the buildings, churches and museums, but the true beauty of Venice is its sense of tragedy. The entire city is sinking an average 7 centimeters (2.75 inches) a year.  Every November, floods erode buildings. There is a doomed urgency to see it, feel it, drink it in before it becomes the next Atlantis.  Walking around its famed canals, I wondered if the next generation–or even next year’s visitors–will get to see it the same way I did.

I try to remember this feeling wherever I travel. Most places aren’t sinking, but they change in other small ways, millimeter by millimeter. Customs fade away, global food chains dominate the marketplace, and villages empty. Travel allows me to be a mini-historian; I can witness and enjoy how places differ from each other and in time. The differences can be good, bad, or simply different. It doesn’t always matter. What matters is what I can learn from a new, or revisited, adventure.

In Venice, I remembered that history is important, the future is uncertain, and the present is meant to be enjoyed with pastries. As I start this new chapter in the States, it’s a lesson I’ll try to keep close to my heart.


Church on Sunday: Been Caught Stealin’ Edition at St. James, Prague

It’s been a gory couple of days in RHOB land: I’ve seen a Czech church decorated with bones, explored the open crypts of St. Stephen’s in Vienna, and snapped a pic of a mummified hand hanging in a church–all after writing about the Tower of Skulls in Nis, Serbia. The bad news is that family members probably think I’m a serial killer. The good news is that if I ever meet Tim Burton, we’d have a lot to talk about.

Our “skeletal sojourn” began with a whirlwind trip through Prague and a visit to St. James Church. Prague is chock full of churches, which makes it hard to decide which ones to see. However, St. James had something that others did not: a 400-year old severed hand dangling from its ceiling.

It's 400 years old..what did you *think* it would look like?

The hand is real. It’s reportedly the appendage of a would-be thief who tried to steal a necklace from a Madonna (Virgin Mary) statue by the altar. The statue grabbed his hand and would not let go. The people who found the thief the next day had no choice but to sever the arm. After this happened, the statue let the hand go, and it was hung in the church as a warning to others.

Note Bene: no one messes with Madonna.

Not exactly what I meant, but you get the idea.

 There’s more to this church than grisly morality tales. It’s the second largest church in Prague, and one of the most beautiful. The vivid frescos, marble columns and artwork were among the best we saw in Prague. The acoustics also make St. James a popular concert venue. Best of all, it was practically empty–a true “miracle” in summertime Prague.

The church was constructed in 1373, but after a fire in the late 1600s, a new church was commissioned on the same site. The church holds 20 altars and the tomb of Count Vratislav of Mitrovice. The Count is known for his gorgeous if not grisly tribute: he was accidentally buried alive.

The Count's Tomb

Prague may be the home of a 100 spires, but only St. James can boast of moving statues, horrific burials, and 21 beautifully painted altars. I’ll post our (less grisly) adventures in Prague and Vienna this week.

What’s in a name? Sometimes, a language lesson.

Nicknames are very common in Serbia. Usually it’s a derivation of someone’s name, but occasionally a nickname is born from an event or a characteristic. I like to give our guests Serbian nicknames because (1) it’s fun, and (2) it allows me to talk about them on the blog. So when my latest guest came, I immediately tried to give her a nickname based on our adventures. I thought of naming her led (ice), after the hail storm we drove through on our way to Sarajevo. It didn’t work–she’s not exactly Val Kilmer from Top Gun. Sadly.

I then thought of naming her Magnum, after the amazing ice cream bar she introduced me to in Sarajevo. But that’s an English word, and I needed a Serbian one. She almost was called mrtva baterija (dead battery), since that’s what we discovered this morning. Long story, but headlights (from aforementioned hailstorm), tired driver and hotel owner desperately trying to get back to his desk are a bad combo. Luckily, hotel parking by a police station and barely passable Serbian/Bosnian are a good combo. Anyway, mrtva baterija doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It wouldn’t do.

After getting the car started we drove to Visoko to see the famed pyramids. I figured I would just name her Piramida and get it over with. But the nickname gods smiled upon us when we were driving out of town. “Is that a MONKEY?” she shrieked, and I immediately pulled over the car.

It was, indeed, a monkey. And the best nickname possible. Readers, say hello to my friend Majmun.

An open letter to the urban planners of Ohrid, Macedonia

Dear Ohrid urban planners,

Lake Ohrid, as I wrote earlier, was a lovely surprise. You helped retain the charm of the Old City with (I presume) regulations on the type of buildings that can be built along the cliffs surrounding the lake. You kept the cobblestone streets as a testament to history, and a challenge to stilettos. You approved a delightful wooded path between St. Klementi and St. John. There was a photo opportunity at every turn.

Because I enjoyed it so, it is with a heavy heart that I recall our first morning in Ohrid, when we decided to enjoy an espresso by the port. We sat at a cafe and noticed the completely incongruous jumbo television parked at the end of the pedestrian avenue. The soundless commercials distracted us from the view of the lake and passerby, but we decided to ignore it.

And then the sound turned on at 10am. Loud commercials for BMWs and Tikves wine overwhelmed the sound of children’s laughter. Heavy bass pumped out of the speakers as we were given an unsolicited weather report. We drank our coffee quickly and left as soon as we could.

Urban planners, Ohrid is known for its history and natural beauty. Why slap a huge TV right in the middle of it? I expect this at a New Jersey strip mall, not at a prehistoric lake. The mere three commercials being played on an endless loop make me think that this venture is not even profitable. It’s certainly not helping nearby cafe owners. They are probably putting a hex on you for driving out the morning business and forcing them to hear about Skopso beer a thousand times a day. Please, for the sake of visitors, peaceful views, and sane cafe workers, get rid of this awful sight and sound. I’m sure we can sell it to an American city for the jumbo TV’s intended purpose: proposing marriage in a tacky and tragic manner.



Bitola, Macedonia: The City of Consuls and Cafes

Bitola’s East-West fusion makes it an emblematic Balkan city. It was a roundabout (read: out of the way) stop on our drive back to Serbia, but well worth the trip.

A little history lesson helps make sense of Bitola’s diverse buildings, food and people. The city was a military, political and trading center in the 1300s, and possibly before. When it fell under the Ottoman Empire in 1382, trade significantly expanded and the city became an islamic religious center and important administrative outpost. During this time, the city expanded to have approximately 70 mosques, 900 shops, and 12 consulates-gaining the nickname, “the City of Consuls.”

After the Balkan Wars, Bitola would have been a probable choice for Macedonia’s capital, but its proximity to Greece (15km) made it vulnerable to siege. (And as many readers know, you wouldn’t want to sit Greece and Macedonia together at a UN dinner party.) Skopje became the capital, and Bitola began a slow decline in political importance. Despite the shift in fortunes, eleven consuls still exist in Bitola today.

We drove to Bitola through green mountains and valleys, passing horse-drawn carriages on the highway.

Upon arriving in the town, we parked on a dusty side street and received second glances at our Belgrade license plates. We picked our way through an unpaved road. It seemed that not much had changed in Bitola’s last hundred years.

Then we reached the main square.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by lush green grass, crayola-colored buildings, and techno music pumping from a hundred cafes. Minarets peeped over baroque rooftops and between office buildings. Bitola’s centuries of history were crammed together in a half-mile radius. The 900 stores during the Ottoman Empire have been replaced by an almost equal number of coffee shops, all of them full.

We joined the throngs of people in their Sunday best and did as the Bitolans do. We strolled up and down the street-not to show off our finery, but to find an empty seat for lunch.

We had intentions of seeing mosques, churches and other sights in Bitola, but we failed to realize that Sunday lunch in Bitola is an all-day affair. Even though we were at a humble cevap* place, the waiter presumed we wanted to chat for an hour before our meals appeared. We nursed our drinks, watched the same people pass by again and again, and listened to the good-natured arguing at the table next door. We may have missed seeing some of the guidebook attractions, but we definitely saw life in Bitola.

*RHOB tip: when you see lots of mosques, get cevap. Halal cevap (or just pork-free cevap) is delicious. 

The Lovely Surprise of Lake Ohrid

“It is also a fact that not one in a million Englishman has been to Ohrid.” Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Dame West penned those words in the 1930s, but they don’t seem so far off today. Ohrid is the pride of Macedonia, a country I’m ashamed to admit I couldn’t have pointed to on a blank map before our move to Serbia. American travel to the Balkans seems to be largely limited to Croatia, and most Macedonian tourism appears to be from neighboring countries. After the tenth Serbian told us to see Lake Ohrid, we decided to follow their advice. We’re glad we did: Macedonia (not just the lake) is an underrated Balkan gem. We were only in Macedonia for three days, but it’s easy to imagine spending a week or more exploring this American-overlooked country.

Since we didn’t have a lot of time to explore Macedonia, we drove past the capital city of Skopje and went straight to Ohrid. Yet when we reached Ohrid, we were wary. It hardly seemed like the quiet, peaceful place we had heard about. The dusty outskirts of the old town were crowded and bustling with aggressive apartment brokers and fruit vendors. We drove through the graffiti-covered stone gate of the old town and wondered if the city had changed, or if people’s memories had been enhanced with the passage of time.

Fortunately, we were wrong.

The old town of Ohrid features cobblestone streets, stone houses, and white buildings with red-pitched roofs. The atmosphere is relaxed and the people are friendly. There are several pedestrian zones by the lakefront with cafes, shops and roasted chickpea kiosks. We were there in the off-season (which I’d highly recommend) and had the morning streets practically to ourselves.

But the highlight of Ohrid is its incredibly gorgeous lake.

Lake Ohrid is ringed by mountains in Macedonia and Albania. The lake is wide, deep-one of Europe’s deepest-and surprisingly clear. Churches and monasteries dot the shoreline. If you’re a history or geology buff, it gets even better. It’s a tectonic lake (millions of years old), and hosts numerous endemic species, including the famed Ohrid trout. Unfortunately, the trout has been severely overfished in recent years, and restaurants should not serve it. Other types of trout are widely available and delicious.

The lake doesn’t just provide food. It’s also the source of famed “Macedonian pearls” made from the plasica fish. It’s a surprising source for such pretty jewelry.

Fancy fish jewelry comes at a price, though. Even the fake Macedonian pearls sold on the street were about 30 Euros. I liked the idea of having such a unique souvenir, but not when it was three times cost of a pizza dinner for two at Leonardo’s. I’d rather be worn out from several trips than wearing proof of one. Macedonia is not very expensive, but stretching our denars allowed us to see (and share) more of this lovely country. More to come on Macedonia…

Have Dog, Will Travel: Moving Miloš (and other pets) Through Europe

For no particular reason, I’m declaring this week Belgrade Animal Week!
Today’s topic: traveling with pets to and from the White City.

Milos at the Trevi Fountain


I was twenty years old when I took my first international trip, but my dog was only three months old at his first border crossing. I had to work two jobs in college to pay for airfare and hostels; Miloš merely hops in the car. Is it weird that I’m a little jealous? I’m also happy he can travel with us so easily. If anyone wants to bring a furry friend to Belgrade (or beyond), here are five tips based on our experiences.


1. Start with the paperwork. At a minimum, you’ll need proof of a rabies vaccine to enter another country. Other requirements by country can be found here. If you’re traveling from Serbia into the EU, things are a little harder. Owners need proof of vaccinations three months before travel, and some countries still might require quarantine. EU regulations are slightly complicated, but they have a good website.

Since Miloš was born in Hungary, he qualified for an EU Pet Passport. The passport doesn’t get stamped-it’s simply a record of his vaccinations, location of his microchip, etc. If you live in the EU but your dog wasn’t born there, you can still get an EU Pet Passport. Whatever your pet paperwork is, don’t forget to take it along road trips! Border guards have asked us for Miloš’ papers.

2. Find a pet-friendly hotel. Many hotels in Europe accept pets, but always ask. Some websites list pet-friendly hotels by country or city; see which Belgrade hotels are pet-friendly here.  If a hotel website doesn’t specify whether they accept pets, email the owner and ask.

3. If a hotel is gracious enough to accept pets, be gracious in return. We pack biting deterrent and cleaning spray in case Miloš starts chewing on furniture or has an accident. Most importantly, we pack a collapsible training crate. Miloš stays in the crate when he is alone in the room. Hotel owners and cleaning staff always mention how much they appreciate it.

Please use this!

4. Walk your dog responsibly, especially around the hotel. Pick your pet’s waste, even if you don’t do it at home. And if you don’t do it at home, please start. Dog waste attracts rats and disease.

5.  Ask yourself a hard question. Is traveling right for your pet? We’ve been able to travel with Miloš starting at an early age, and he deals with it well. He doesn’t get carsick, doesn’t bark in hotel rooms, and is (fairly well) house-trained. If your pet seems stressed in the car, hates being left alone in strange places, or if you plan to be away from your pet for most of the day, you and your pet may be happier apart.

These tips are for car or rail travel only. We haven’t flown Miloš anywhere, and don’t intend to until we move back to the states. His flat little face makes it hard to him to breathe in a cargo hold. If you want to fly your pet to Belgrade or elsewhere, check out the International Air Travel Association cargo rules for pets. I haven’t researched airlines, but I’ve heard that Lufthansa is particularly pet-friendly. If you have any tips for flying with pets, feel free to leave them in the comments. Happy tails trails to you!