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Wine and Beach: Korcula Island, Croatia

21 Jul

KORCULA ISLAND, CROATIA

Korcula town, so photogenic

7.16- 7.17

Korcula is everything a I’d imagined an island off of the Dalmatian coast to be: relaxing and beautiful. I was happy that I’d skipped a second night in Dubrovnik for this.

Fun facts: Korcula is actually the 6th biggest island on the Adriatic, with a population of 17,000 inhabitants.

Yes, it’s very big!” said the guide of the Wine and Island Tour that I had taken. Considering the entire population of Croatia is under 5 million, I guess 17,000 seems like a lot of people.


I had taken a 2.5 hour catamaran ride from Dubrovnik and I stayed for 2 peaceful nights in this charming haven. It looks something like this photo (above), only ten times better in real life. Imagine my relief at feeling the cool sea breeze after a week of relentless, sweltering heat.

I stayed at the Onelove hostel in a 6-bed dorm room with a view of the East harbor. The owner, a South African guy who was constantly wearing surf shorts and some sort of tank top, fit the hostel-owner bill perfectly. The place was decorated like some sort of modern harem; colorful tapestries were tacked all over those chunky stone walls. At night he ran a cheap and rowdy bar for the guests.

I noticed that the island was significantly less touristy than Dubrovnik, and I liked that. It definitely had a laid-back feel and was affordable, which was a nice surprise. Feeling motivated upon my arrival, I signed up for the aforementioned wine tour offered by the tourist office. I felt a bit guilty about the amount of time I was likely to spend on the beach, so I figured this was a good way to do something a bit more culturally oriented. So, later that day I embarked on a tour with 3 couples and one tour guide. The driver took us in an air-conditioned van (a luxury), to a hilltop catholic church on top of more steps (feeling the burn!), and through two of Korcula’s reputable vineyards.

With a view like that, what do they have to wine about? ha.

Wine production is pretty small-scale on the island. We first went to a family-run winery near the town of Lumbarda on the South side, and our guide explained that the wine from this particular area is grown in sand the color of red clay. A grizzled old man ushered us into his terrace to sample, which afforded a nice view of the vineyard and the ocean beyond. A couple of kittens were prancing around, which adding nicely to the authentic aesthetic. We tasted a variety of wines, and were told to pay particular attention to dry white called Grk, which translates to Greek in Croation—a toast to the island’s ancient Greek settlers. After some meager samples, he instructed only the MEN of the group to try a traditional mint-flavored Croatian grappa. Talk about old-fashioned! The middle-aged Australian guy in our group piped up and asked “don’t the ladies drink grappa too?” our tour guide laughed, avoiding the question “oh sure, some do.”  I was very annoyed, although I don’t even like grappa and probably would have declined the sample.It’s like the moonshine that people from the southern part of your country make.” the Australian man commented. I imagine I would have spoken up if I felt that I was really missing out on something, but after the moonshine comment…

In Smokvica

We then visited another family owned vineyard 30 minutes away in Smokvica village, where the grapes are grown in a valley that remains sun-drenched throughout the day. The tasting area itself was interesting, traditional wine producing tools were displayed as if we had entered into a mini-wine production museum. This particular vineyard is well-known for producing a more widely distributed wine called Rukatac. “It’s very expensive at a restaurant!” assured our guide while calling out attention to the bottle for sale on the tasting table. I’m certainly no wine connoisseur, but I enjoyed it. A Swedish girl and I were extremely hungry and we helped ourselves shamelessly to unattended sheep cheese samples. I definitely can’t get enough of the impressive cheese I’ve encountered on this trip—it has been varied and delicious.

 

The second day on the isle was your typical relaxing beach day, especially since there wasn’t much else to do in this kind of heat, and it was a difficult adjustment after such an active three weeks of sight-seeing in the other Balkan countries. I spent the afternoon with two Mid-westerners, Nelly and Paulina. They were the kind of sisters who finish eachother’s sentences in a non-obnoxious way—like some sibling comedy duo. Originally, we wanted to take a 20 minute bus to Lumbarda to find Korcula’s only sandy beach, but the Sunday bus schedule made it impossible. We settled for a pebble beach right near our hostel and were pleased to find that the crystal blue water was bath temperature.

I wandered around the small city later that night and enjoyed the promenade surrounding the town.

During sunset I ate at a no-frills national restaurant recommended by my hostel owner. It’s called Plainjack and you’ll find it when walking from the old town to the West harbor. I enjoyed a delightful summer salad for 25 kuna ($5.00) and a glass of wine for 10 K ($2.00). Next time, I would probably try one of the meat or fish dishes, they looked amazing and were pretty cheap 50 Kuna, or so.

As I mentioned, the old town is very cute, like a mini Dubrovnik without all of the tourists, i.e. lots of winding streets, and a couple of impressive stone churches. Korcula still had its fair share of overpriced clothing stores selling striped dresses and hats, insinuating that you must cover yourself in stripes while enjoying the seaside. What’s up with that, anyway? The tourist angle seemed to be name-dropping Marco Polo, as I noticed lots of clothing stands and gelato shops named after the man. Apparently he may have been born in Korcula, although no one seems to be too sure.

one of many children selling seashells

Entering the old town

Sunset!

Just a tip: if you have a computer and want free wifi with the purchase of a beverage, go to Dno Dna. It’s on your right on the way to the bus station. The people at the tourist information office won’t tell you about it, which I find incredibly annoying. They want you to pay for the wireless that they provide 10 kuna ($2) for 15 minutes! No thank you.

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Mostar, Herzegovina

18 Jul

7.12.2011

The Old Bridge by night

Mostar was stunning, like a smaller and more serene version of Sarajevo. I arrived in the evening and was picked up by the owner of the guest house I stayed at, Hostel Nina. Similar to my hostel in Sarajevo, the house belonged to a family who had built dorm rooms and allowed guests to use their facilities. It might sound uncomfortable, but it certainly was not. My host was probably around 55 years-old and very smiley. To my surprise, she started telling me very openly about her family’s experience in the war as we drove towards the hostel.

“It’s important for Mostar to have tourists. There are no jobs now-only tourism,” a sad, and familiar refrain.

Well considering its beauty and proximity to tourist hot-spot, Dubrovnik, it didn’t seem that Mostar was going to have a problem expanding the post-war tourism industry. The town had been completely destroyed in the mid-90’s; similar to the amount of damage done to Dresden during WW2, 1993 left nearly 75% of Mostar in ruins. Nina pointed out some buildings on the front line as we drove by; one had been rebuilt, but the rest showed their 15 years of neglect with crumbling rock and vines that twisted around bullet-riddled facades. Nina had fled with her children to Norway during the war, her husband was Muslim and therefore, the whole family was in danger.

“It was not safe for me, even though I’m catholic” she told me.

Bombed-out building

The family returned to Mostar in 1997, only to find that “the city was destroyed and very dangerous after the war. People were doing whatever they want to survive,” Nina continued. 

In 2007, Mostar’s famous landmark, the Old Bridge, was rebuilt, and from that time on, tourists started to return. As it began to get dark I took a walk around the town, which was breathtakingly set to the backdrop of arid mountains. The rocky river was such a vibrant shade of turquoise blue that I had to do everything in my power to resist from taking a dip fully clothed.

 

Koskin-Mehmed Pashka’s mosque

From deadly weapon to decorative household item

OMG it’s Weltbekannt! I have to check out the Turkish House!

Visiting the ‘Turkish House’. I got a postcard!

Take off your shoes in the Turkish house.

80’s restroom!


Sarajevo for Beginners

17 Jul

SARAJEVO, Bosnia & Herzegovina

7.11.2011

Sarajevo is stunning. It was the first place on my three week trip through the Balkan countries that I felt that I was truly in a land far, far, away. In Bosnian, Sarajevo translates to “castle valley,” as there was once a lone castle in the once undeveloped hollow. Now, an impressive mosque stands in its place.

The Miljaka river

I had the opportunity to take a tour with a local tour guide, Verena, who was born and raised in Sarajevo. She told so many interesting anecdotes that I could barely jot them all down. Hopefully I got the most important bits!

The center of the Bascarsija

Sarajevo was under siege from 1992-1995. Serbian forces (Republik Srpska and the Yugoslav People’s Army)  lined the mountains and attacked the city in an effort to claim Sarajevo as part of a new Serbian state. Over 11,000 citizens lost their lives and an estimated 50,000 were injured. Most of the city has since been rebuilt, but bullet and shell marks are visible on many of the town’s facades.

Although she was still young at the time, Verena remembered unpleasant years of traveling from basement to basement, attending make-shift schools that had been set-up “temporarily.” “That was a long time to be underground,” she told me. Plaques are visible on walls where shells killed pedestrians, and pedestrians will notice many “roses,”—shell indents filled in with red paint which serve as grim reminders that someone had met their end in that very spot. Although there are numerous similar reminders around the city, as a tourist it’s hard to imagine this somewhat sleepy, and undeniably peaceful town being so recently traumatized.

One of many mosques

The arrival of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century transformed the mountain-dwelling existence of the Bosnians to more a trade-based civilization, spurring the development of Sarajevo. Silk importation was the city’s first claim to fame, and thanks to Ottoman governor Gazi Husrev-beg, many beautiful buildings, bazaars, and mosques, were built during this period in the 15th century. The Turks still believed in the importance of separating home life from trade, so the houses were built in the nearby hills. There was also a Right of View law, no house was allowed to block the view of another. Even now, many graveyards are visible in the hillside neighborhoods, and Verena explained that the Ottomans had mixed the cemeteries with residential areas to remind the living to be on their best behavior each time they passed by. 

The preserved Turkish part of the city center is called the Bascarsija which means ‘trade district’. I enjoyed this area the most- especially the street filled with coppersmiths. They can be observed chiseling away at coffee sets and vases throughout the day.

My guide and a Bosnian coffee set

Labyrinthine passages led to tiny squares where people sat on plush cushions while smoking hookah, and drinking tea. I felt as if I was walking into some sort of mini-Istanbul. Continuing West along the main road past mosques (there are 204 in the Ottoman quarter!) and low buildings, there’s a sudden change in the architectural landscape as Austro-Hungarian design takes over.

The Eternal Flame- Remembering WW2 victims

Taking a stroll through central Sarajevo is like walking between two worlds. Trendy cafes blast European pop music as you continue down the Austro-Hungarian stretch.

Selling wares in the Bascarsija

Fun Facts:

  • Sarajevo has historically been home to four main religious groups: Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. Sarajevo’s Jewish community was devastated after WW2

The Serbian Orthodox Church- Church of the Holy Child

Fountain in front of the Gazi Husrev-beg mosque

  • Austrian-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo- a single shot simultaneously killed both Franz and his wife and started WW1.
  • You can still buy postcards advertising the 1984 winter olympics
  • The Sebilj is a famous water fountain in the Bascarsija’s main square. The legend: if you take a drink from the fountain, you will return to Sarajevo. Verena made sure we stopped and had a sip.

The Sebilj!

  •  She showed me something called a Mangala (sp?) It’s a coal-heated device and its purpose is to keep coffee warm. Hosts would set coffee cups on the metal lip in order to keep them warm for guests.

Keeping your Kahva warm

  • We visited the Gazi-Husrev-beg Vakauf, a beautiful building built in the 1530’s named after the Ottoman governor. Now a carpet store and an attractive tea house, this used to be an inn which offered three nights of free stay to weary travelers. In Islamic culture, helping travelers is important, and wealthy families would donate money to the vakauf (foundation) in order to fund this tradition.

  • The Legend of the Church of the Holy Child: A mother once murdered her baby in the church yard. Centuries later, the coffin was found and opened, and the shocked clergy discovered the immaculately preserved body of a recently deceased child. The kid’s corpse was then displayed in the church and it was said that women who have trouble getting pregnant should visit the church and pray to this murdered child for fertility. Morbid, I know.

  • According to Verena, nearly 50% of Bosnians are unemployed. My tour guide is a lawyer and has been searching for a job for over a year and a half. She said she is ready to practice whatever kind of law she can find a job in, since specialization isn’t even an option when living in present-day Bosnia. High hopes are placed in tourism, and judging by the amount of souvenir tit-tat that’s already present, more and more tourists are finding out about this hidden gem every year.

Hills and cemetery

Belgrade Part Two: Understanding Yugoslavia Through Performance Art

15 Jul

 Yugo Yoga:

 The next day I had “work” to do. I had been in contact with the London-dwelling, Croatian-born performance artist and sculptress, Lara Ritosa-Roberts, who I had emailed after realizing I would be in Belgrade during her 10-day residency at the Yugoslav Museum of History. Her project, entitled ‘Yugo Yoga: a path towards socialist self-realization,‘ sounded interesting, and I had asked her if I could observe in order to write a piece about it. She agreed enthusiastically.

The Museum of Yugoslav History, aka the Tito Museum

So there I was in Belgrade, observing a rehearsal of choreographed dance routines with red flags-and assisting in the collaborative production of this performance by helping them download Windows Media Player. I mean really, yoga and communism seemed like strange bedfellows, so I was quite interested to get a better understanding of what this was all about. As I worked on the download, Lara taught two unenthusiastic teenage boys a routine with cardboard signs. Her collaborator, Mary, told me that the boys had been giving Lara a hard time ever since they found out that the performance might be televised. “They are asking if they have to hold the signs in front of their faces. They want to be seen on t.v. now,” said Mary, rolling her eyes.

Rehearsing!

Earlier that day I had walked around the museum- there was a special exhibition “Fashions of Yugoslavia’s first couple” which detailed through film, print, and actual clothing just how snazzily dictator Tito and his wife dressed- think dapper derby hats and alligator shoes. His mausoleum was also located in another museum building. Next to it was an exhibition honoring the famous baton relay tradition. Each year on Tito’s birthday, thousands of children would participate in a baton relay, which would begin locally and eventually feed into the main relay, ending at Tito’s footsteps in the Belgrade stadium. Ivica remembered this event from his youth- there were batons of all shapes and sizes hanging on the wall- representing various youth organizations. Apparently by 1950, the baton relay involved 1 million baton-holders from around Yugoslavia, and Tito’s birthday was declared ‘National Youth Day’.

Lots o’ batons

Lara’s project is audience-interactive, partly ironic, and partly serious. Her performance group is called ‘Fiskultura’ which means ‘physical culture’. She has incorporated the daily exercises that were promoted during the socialist regime and brought them to life in a series of choreographed exercises.  Lara explained that it’s supposed to remind people to have fun while not being ashamed of their heritage. A deeper meaning can be found through the thought-provoking parallel between the spirituality that many people find in yoga and far-eastern religions, and the faith that people put into a beloved dictator, such as Tito.  She’s performed at the Tate modern in London and toured with the project in Croatia last summer. Anyways, as a foreigner, this was entirely a learning experience for me. Until this trip, I shallowly thought of communism as a completely stifling and subordinating institution- However, after speaking to people about communism in Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, I’ve realized how complex this issue actually is.


So yes- I spent most of the evening observing the rehearsal, and even participating in the yoga portion! We did poses that Lara took from neo-classical and communist sculptures with names like ‘Comrade general is thinking’.  Lara was great, she really made me feel welcome and suggested that I interview the performers- a volunteer group which ranged in age from 16 to 70. Some of the older women actually remembered performing the exercises in their youth. I’m in the process of writing the piece (when I find the time between these travels!) and it will go up soon on http://www.balkantraveller.com. In the meantime- check out Lara’s info:

http://lararitosaroberts.wordpress.com/

http://www.grafeo.com/fiskultura/PKFiskulturnik/project_fiskultura.html

The rest of the night was great. I met up with Maja, another Couchsurfer that I’d been in touch with. She took me to a bar called the Black Turtle which served dangerously delicious flavored beer. We then went to her favorite bar, which was on a street commonly referred to as Silicon Valley thanks to the plastic-bosomed girls who accompany their beefy mates in this area. She had a lot of interesting stories about her job as an English translator, as well as her solo travels. She’d just returned from a trip through Jordan and Syria. How amazing is that?! Such inspiration.

I enjoyed my visit to Belgrade and will definitely have to return- preferably when the temperature is below 90 degrees. Maybe then I’ll have time to check out Belgrade’s beach!

Belgrade, Serbia: Part One

14 Jul

BELGRADE, SERBIA

7-8 2011

When we arrived in Belgrade I was beyond sweaty. I felt like I had just gotten out of a pool in full clothing; black had not been a good choice, and I envied the many women were making use of Spanish-style fans. Belgrade was big and shiny—I was incredibly impressed with the city. People had very good things to say about it, and it certainly lived up to my expectations. I would never have thought that it had been host to political craziness and the NATO bombings just over 10 years ago. It also was not incredibly cheap, at least not as cheap as Romania and Bulgaria. There was a cow installation around town, as well as big statues of animals like bears and tigers and painted and randomly placed throughout the city center to prompt tourists to say things like “Art! My, that’s interesting.”

ART! COWS!

With the National Museum of Art closed for renovations, the city has placed replicas in the center.

My hostel was off of the main square (10 euro a night) and pretty great, except for some random older guy who would sit in the living room and sing along to Serbia’s VH1 channel. I thought he was affiliated with the hostel staff, but the receptionists told me that he was not, and she was annoyed that he had kept ignoring her requests to not smoke in the building. When I arrived, the young woman at  reception offered me Serbian coffee, which is basically Turkish coffee (even Serbs will admit it), something that I absolutely adore. I was dead tired and happy that my dorm room was thus far unoccupied, but I decided that there was no time for a nap. I had to see the city! That’s the thing about having a short amount of time, I’ve really been pushing myself to sight see regardless of weather conditions, although the heat has definitely become a challenge.

Dude cooling off in a park

There is a very active Couchsurfing group in Belgrade, which made it incredibly easy to hang out with locals. Ivica had posted that he would be showing around a traveler, and invited others to join. So, after a brief text exchange, I walked down to the main square, bringing with me a Dutch guy who had just arrived at my hostel. He had come from the Exit music festival in Novi Sad, which was the talk of the town that weekend. Ivica was a jolly guy, born and raised in Belgrade. He currently works at the post office “for my living,” and as an arts and culture journalist for fun. He was meeting up with a Polish/American girl who was biking from Budapest to Greece—so nuts! She averages 100 km a day, and judging from her floppy hat, oversize ‘polska’ t-shirt and long skirt, I would not have pinned her for a biker. Ivica took us to a traditional Serbian ‘fast-food’ place. I had something like a Serbian version of Kebab, although the meat was more like a thin hamburger. The polish girl, Klara, immediately began to ask Ivica a series of heavy questions about the past 20 years in Serbia. I didn’t mind; this was exactly the kind of thing I had wanted to learn about during my brief stay in the country.

The history of Serbia is incredibly complicated. Although things are ‘peaceful’ now there is still a lot of controversy when it comes to topics like Kosovo etc. I’m not going to attempt to go into detail about something I don’t fully understand, but you can look it up online somewhere, like here for a very basic idea.

The book I’m trying to read: Through the Embers of Chaos by journalist Dervla Murphy starts by describing the fearful state of Belgrade’s citizens in 1999 during the NATO air strike. It’s hard to imagine professionals once hawking their goods on the street after a brief visit to the present-day hip and lively city.

The Kosovo war details are complex. However, I was able to better understand Yugoslavia post 1945. It seems like a lot of people my age in the US and Western Europe don’t know very much about this entity. This was maybe one of the most successful socialist nations, and was ruled by the popular dictator Josip ‘Tito’ Broz. It was known as pretty much as liberal as communism can get, and many, but certainly not all, Yugoslavians enjoyed life under their emperor’s rule. After his death in 1980 and the rise of the new leader, Milosivec, the empire began to crumble. Certain western forces wanted Yugoslavia to break apart, while inside there was a push by some countries for independence. This led to a complicated war in the early-mid 90’s where both ethnic and religious groups turned against one another, in what was largely a dispute over territory.  So yes, the 90’s were a mess and still the reason that friends and family are worried about my safety on this trip. “Didn’t you know there was a war there?” They ask. As you can imagine, there’s still quite a bit of tension remaining between neighboring countries, and I was told that these topics are more or less-taboo when speaking to someone from an older generation. After 20 years, many people are sick of talking politics.

Anyway, back to being a simple America tourist. Ivica gave us a great tour – he’s a history – telling us many interesting factoids about various important buildings like the big fortress and the St. Sava, the largest orthodox church in the Balkans.

Under construction until further notice…

The church was huuuuge but the inside is still being renovated. Tarps covered most of the walls since the church had simply run out of funds to pay for the rest. We spent the sunset strolling around the Kalemegdon, Belgrade’s large Ottoman fortress. Here, you can see where the Danube and the Sava rivers meet.

Inside the Kalemegdan

A church in the fortress

We walked through some nice parks and ended up meeting a bunch of other couchsurfing people at the main Republic square.

Republic square

Belgrade is the place for nightlife. Period. From budget bars to incredibly chic clubs, the city is electric on the weekend. It was still bloody hot at 11 p.m., and I noticed plenty of people wearing clubbing outfits scant on the skin coverage, not that I could blame them in this heat. I have to say, I’ve been really impressed by the foot-binding high heels that I’ve seen girls wear on this trip. I don’t know how they manage, but it does make them look even more stunning, since many Serbians seem to be quite tall and beautiful.

Our big group of couchsurfers headed to a park to drink a beer before going out. It was kind of a bohemian place along the lines of Santo Spirito in Florence, lots of shady looking young people and stray dogs. Nothing special. The group was a lot of fun and included a friendly American guy, Eric, who was temporarily based in Belgrade for his work with a Disabilities non-profit, a guy from Quebec, a couple of local people from Belgrade, a couchsurfer Bao and his friend Jenny who were also tourists, and Jo, a girl who lived in South Africa but was born to Serbian parents.

Hey gang!

We had a rollicking night of going out to several bars and clubs. I tried apricot flavored Rakija, a typical Balkan brandy that varies slightly depending on the Balkan region. A homeless-looking guy approached Eric and I at our end of the table. Thinking he was just some crazy dude looking for money, Eric waved him away as he handed us a paper, and upon opening it, we discovered it was a portrait of us! He had been sitting at the table across discreetly sketching our faces, and we hadn’t even noticed. He left it as a gift and we both felt bad for dismissing him so rudely. One of the Americans in our group took us to a bar he had found the night before, it was a hidden little place right next to the water, kind of alternative and Berlin-esque with colorful picnic tables scattered about.

After a couple of beers I could not keep my eyes open. It’s almost embarrassing to be such a lightweight on this trip, but it’s become apparent that I can’t party AND do the amount of sight-seeing that I seem to pack into each day. The Dutchman and I took a taxi back to our hostel—I keep forgetting that taxis are dirt-cheap in the Balkans. If you can get over the shadiness of their fake-looking signs, it’s definitely worth paying 2 euro to get back at night.