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Organs and Air Shows: A Day in Zadar

23 Jul

ZADAR

7.20.2011

No, Zadar is neither the name of a villain you might find on some Cartoon Network program, or a far off planet mentioned in some sci-fi novel, it’s a northern Croatian harbor town that Lonely Planet describes as “an underrated tourist destination.” Clearly a lot has changed since the guidebook was published in 1999, I crossed the footbridge into the old town and was unprepared for the mass of tourists that seemed to be blocking every street and doorway. I noticed many German parents with little blonde kids who always managed to wander in front of me and stop suddenly. Unfortunately, all of the hostels in the old town were full and I didn’t want to risk finding a room from someone at the bus station, since I had read that a lot of private accommodations are located in coastal towns a few kilometers away. Since I only had one day in town, that would not have been the way to go. Nope. So I headed to the tourist office, knowing that such offices often help unprepared tourists with finding a room. “I know a very nice lady” said the young girl behind the counter “she has a room right in center just two minutes from here for 200 kuna”

It was a bit more than I had wanted to spend, but all things considered, $40 was pretty great for a room smack in the main square, especially since hostels in town were running close to $30 per dorm bed. I still didn’t believe that it was really my only choice- but whatever, a lot of these tourist offices seemed to have affiliations with cafes, restaurants, and tour guides, so why should private accommodation be any different?

 

A man led me to a family home two minutes away from Narodni square, where I was greeted by friendly looking woman in her 30’s. She complimented my striped hat and immediately asked for my 200 Kuna. The room had clean sheets, access to a relatively clean bathroom, and a door that locked, all fine by me. I had to laugh at the key chain—a battered Chicago Bulls player with his limbs snapped off. It made me wonder how people acquire such things: Can you even buy Bulls paraphernalia in Croatia? Was there a Bulls fan in the family who had traveled to the US? Who knows.

In the Forum

I wandered around Zadar for the remainder of the day, pausing with my laptop to use the free internet connection on the steps of a building in the square. Despite the crowds, I really liked Zadar. It had a certain artistic buzz, everywhere I turned people were selling beautiful glass jewelery and ceramics. I chatted with some local artists in a couple of tucked-away galleries that I came across and thought about how great it will be when I can actually buy nice art someday. “I’ll come back to Zadar when I’m not a student!” I promised them with a wave. I’m not a student, but that seemed like the easiest explanation. What I really meant was “I hope to come back to Zadar when I have more disposable income!”

I noticed that many of the souvenir shops promoted certain local artists by selling their works, as many of the same handmade prints, sketches, and trinkets could be found all around town. This was apparently Zadar’s thing as an artsy town. I was thinking about this as I began to be aware of the a great deal of noise. It was not just the teenagers yelling to one another, or kids screaming things at their parents in German and Croatian, some sort of sound was coming from above. Planes or helicopters, perhaps?  In any case, some sort of flying machine was making a lot of racket.


At the tourist office I grabbed a brochure of local events. Listed for Wednesday July 20th were two things: Evergreen music in Narodni square at 9pm, and the “Adria Air Race” starting at 12:00 p.m. I had no idea what that was, but after about a half hour of wandering around Zadar, the noise overhead was really starting to get to me and I wondered if there might be a connection. Zadar has a massive Roman Forum, and when I arrived at it, I noticed everyone holding their cameras and phones into the air. A plane was circling the sky, making wide arcs and loops dare-devilishly. Mystery solved, this was an air race, an air show, whatever you want to call it. Maybe that explained all of the tourists? It was, after all,  a Wednesday afternoon, yet entire families were roaming around. Didn’t anyone have work to do? Was it a national holiday?

The forum area was great. Cafes had set up tables and chairs next to broken columns, their faded orange seats contrasting nicely with the off-white surface of the rounded church of Saint Donat—it’s one of the oldest in Croatia and quite impressive. In the forum, kids hopped from one broken artifact to another. I was tempted to join them in a game of hot lava, it would have been the perfect playground! That being said, from a historical preservation perspective, it was strange to see kids dripping ice cream all over this ancient stone, shouldn’t someone be worried about the impact of tourists on all of this old rock? Maybe that’s the American in me speaking, like, if it’s old, put it behind glass and charge $5.00 per visit. I guess if the rock has been laying around for this long, there’s no reason to be concerned about the pitter patter of little kids’ feet.

I took a walk to the seaside, where there were an awful lot of yellow-jacketed security personnel around. I finally asked one guy exactly what was going on around here. He seemed pretty excited as he explained the airshow, which was making its debut on the Croatian coast. Music was being Dj’d from little tents near the water, and a fence had been set up for VIP access—this was quite an event, indeed. You had to have a ticket to get to the seaside and I was not about to pay for one, especially since there were hardly any people in there, and it seemed lame.

The sea organ lies beyond these flower beds

I walked to the southern tip of the park, the location of two famous creations by the Croatian architect Nikola Basic, the first of which is the sea organ (the only one in the world!). Apparently Zadar’s coastline had been naught more than an unappetizing slab of concrete since WW2, but in 2005, the city paid for its makeover. Now, the promenade is swimmer-friendly; steel handrails and ladders make the ocean easily accessible, as do white marble steps leading directly into the water. Within these steps are a series of pipes and whistles which have been designed to utilize the wave motion and create sound. It was annoying that the area was roped off for the air show, but you could still hear the organ. Some German tourists and I stood at the fence and listened for a while. The organ’s tones are simultaneously melancholic and whimsical—think foghorn, a far-off train whistle, or the sound of multiple cellos warming up in a distant concert hall.

The Sun Salutation

Next to the Sea Organ is a large circular solar panel designed by same architect, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a closer look. Apparently, it harvests the sun’s energy during the day, and at nightfall emits a multicolored light show which supposedly stimulates the solar system. Scientifically speaking, I have no idea how plausible that may be, but it sounds interesting, in any case.

I spent the rest of the day walking around and getting a feel for the city. For 10 Kuna I entered a Croatian journalistic photography exhibition at the Narodnij museum. The museum was actually an old venetian building that was in the process of being restored after the 1993 bombing. The display’s chicken wire interior was supposed to remind visitors of the palace’s ongoing reconstruction, as I was told. The exhibition was great, there were photos from the last year documenting everything from the first ‘high heels marathon’ (which looked sooo painful) to hand wrestling championships, and a Hungarian village overtaken by a toxic sewage leak.


Later that night, ‘”Evergreen music” was performed in Narodni trig right next to the cafe I was frequenting. A band set up in front of the city sentinel—a pink tower—and an orange-faced middle-aged man wearing white linen took hold of the mic. I enjoyed his renditions of well-known tunes, and his willingness to tackle a wide range of genres, from Motown, to Italian love ballads. He had a bunch of little kids jumping around and dancing, while most the adults stood at a safe distance, some swaying their hips conservatively.

Hang on Sloopy, these kids can dance!

Yet another impressive church

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So You Want To Be A Hvar Superstar?

23 Jul

HVAR ISLAND, CROATIA


On the promenade

With its year-round sunshine and growing fame as a new European party capitol, Hvar island is a popular vacation destination. Although technically Hvar town has a center, the most prominent architectural feature is the palm-lined marble promenade that wraps itself cozily around the harbor. Small streets filled with trendy and expensive restaurants that slink off of a main square, home to the rather bland Dominican church of St.Marko.

I found the tourist population to be younger, better dressed, and a bit less chilled out than the vacationers in Korcula. This is no doubt due to Hvar’s reputation as the new Ibiza….so the kids say. To be honest, I really didn’t feel like partying during my stay, so Hvar wasn’t exactly the place for me, not on this trip. However, a group of five French guys at my hostel from a town near Nante, partied hard the entire time and gave the town rave reviews. Others I had met in Korcula said they couldn’t understand the comparison between sleepy Hvar and Europe’s party capitol. So, I guess you’ll just have to go and decide for yourself. The first night, people from my hostel went to Nautica, a cheap Top 40’s bar, which I felt way too old for. I actually ordered an orange-flavored Bacardi Breezer, the kind of malt-beverage that I haven’t touched since high-school. That’s when I knew it was time to call it quits. The main club on the island is Carpe Diem, an upscale establishment that’s starting to get some big-name djs. Its sister establishment, the creatively named Carpe Diem 2, is located on a nearby island, and reportedly ferry shuttles covered in the 20 euro entrance fee float people over at night. From what I heard, if you’re looking for lots of trance music and the opportunity to make love on an uncomfortable jagged-rock beach, this is the place for you.

Also noteworthy: Hula-Hula, a day club that you’ll find by walking 15 minutes west along the coast. Entrance is free, there’s a dj and the option to sit on chair or on the beach. When I went, they were playing some decent house music.

My hostel, Villa Skansi, was easily the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. In fact, Hostelworld.com members voted it as such in 2010. Just a short walk from a pebble-beach next to a beautiful monastery, this was less of a hostel than a full-out villa. The family added dorm rooms and private accommodations to their gorgeous tri-level residence, and as a weary backpacker, I was impressed by the great deal of work that went into making the facilities more than just a cheap place to crash for young party-goers. It came equipped with indoor and outdoor kitchens, brand new-bathrooms, and air-conditioned dorm rooms, all of which were stylishly decorated. A beautiful wicker-chaired terrace overlooked the blue sea, and the owner, Matteo, a tanned-friendly guy, made an effort to introduce himself to everyone while tending bar at night. In the evening, everyone gathers on the terrace, chats, and consumes reasonably priced mojitos, draft beer, and Matteo’s homemade wine. At 10:30, the terrace closes and the fun-loving girls working at the hostel usually lead the group to a bar or club in the harbor.

Franciscan Monastery

Vive la France!

On my second day, the French guys invited me to rent a boat with them. It was a bit expensive, seeing as they had purchased it for 10 hours and gone all out by renting a ‘banana’ (towable floaty thing). They had wanted to reserve a doughnut (inner tube in American) but they were booked out for the day. Renting a boat seemed like pretty much the only thing to do in Hvar, so I agreed, looking forward to anchoring at one of the many islands nearby. Soon the french friends, a young British girl from our hostel, and myself, boarded a comfortable rubber boat with a 150 horsepower engine, ready for the day’s adventure. We had a relaxing morning, afternoon, and evening, and anchored at several beautiful inlets in the nearby Pakleni islands.

Our chariot

Somewhere off of a Pakleni Island

Why are Speedos still so funny to me?

We saw more than a few ridiculous yachts. Everyone had their flags waving, and it was interesting to see just how far some of these yachts had traveled. The boys were good company and very funny, constantly dancing in their little Speedos and pushing each other into the water. Although a couple of the boys spoke very good English (one had been at Oklahoma university for 6 months) everyone got some good English practice that day, and the British girl and I did a lot of laughing.

Dance break!

“Bonjour!”

Taking Liberties in Dubrovnik

20 Jul

7.15.2011

 

Once I get into the swing of things while traveling alone, I find myself taking social liberties that I wouldn’t normally take. Nothing big, just asking strangers simple things like: “May I join your table so I don’t have to drink my coffee standing?” Little things like that. I find that people usually respond positively. And what’s the worst that could happen? I might get someone politely turning me down, that’s all. Last night in Dubrovnk, I was glad I had taken such a liberty. After a long day of sightseeing I was tempted to continue my 7 p.m. nap until the next morning. However, I decided that I owed it to myself to at least have a glass of wine in the old town. It was a Friday night, for goodness sake! While I was waiting for the bus, I started chatting with two Swedish guys who were on vacation. They seemed nice enough, so when they asked what my plans were, I asked if they’d like to grab a drink. They agreed, and a bit later we were sitting in a spacious square packed full of bars. Considering its small size, Dubrovnik must have one of the highest street performer per capita ratios—I saw everything from a wooden flute player to an undeniably stoned fire-eater from Macedonia. In our square, live jazz played from one corner, while Euro pop blasted from another.

Michael and Wey-Han were incredibly polite, and after some brief introductory chat, we had some very engaging America-Sweden conversations about politics, school-systems, boy-girl relations, etc. You name it, we covered it all. Michael asked me to comment on his observation that Americans often speak in extremes, like “That was the most AWESOME meal I’ve ever had!” or “it was the WORST restaurant EVER.” I had to laugh because I’m definitely guilty of that, as you can probably tell from reading this blog. He said that Swedish responses are a bit more reserved, comments like “yeah it was fine” are more of a mainstay. In any case, it was great to be able to cut bullshit of get-to-know-you chat and talk about things that mattered with two people I had just met. They invited me to check out a club, but I had a catamaran to catch the next morning, so I politely declined.

Dubrovnik is beautiful if you can manage to fight your way through crowds of middle-aged Americans, Brits, Germans, and various other Europeans. Everything was overpriced and you needed to keep an eye on the change you got back. It reminded me of being a tourist in crowded Venice or Florence again. Perhaps the Croatians inherited the tourism gene from their Venetian roots?

Ye ol’ drinking fountain

Aside from that, the streets are shiny and white, and the city is clean and full of posh restaurants. The main road through the old town leads to a delightful clock tower, surrounded by swooping black swallows. The narrow streets seem to all lead to big beautiful Baroque churches. Another attraction: the 3rd oldest pharmacy in Europe. This only made me think of the summer of 2008, when Natacha and I rented an apartment right next to the oldest pharmacy in Florence.

Taking a stroll along the ramparts

I had spent the day sightseeing, starting first with a walk on the city ramparts. Someone told me that it was the 2nd longest walkable continuous wall in the world, but I should do some fact-checking there. Anyway, it took quite a while to get around, but afforded great views.

This cruise ship overtook Dubrovnik right before my very eyes.

I finished around 1:30 and was soaking with sweat! I overheard someone on the phone saying the humidity level was at 80%. I believed it. My plan was to walk around the old town to do some sightseeing, but it became clear that I was going to pass out if didn’t find some shade. My sight-seeing turned into scouring the old town for wireless internet, which eventually I found. I had to take a 2-hour break and drink a cold beer before I could feel properly refreshed. I then went to the beach for a bit—the water was so warm, like taking a nice salt bath. Fortunately, the closest sand-rock beach is a five-minute walk outside of the walled center. 

The lazy sunbathers

I walked back to my rental room, which was terribly far away. They had lied to me because this “15 minute walk to center” was at least 30 minutes, which in this heat, translated to something like 1 hour in hell. Although I had bargained her down from 25 to 20 euro since I had been promised internet, it still annoyed me to feel taken advantage of. I had a room to myself but no fan, and the 20 euro price made it the most expensive and least satisfying accommodation of my entire journey.

Next time I will do it differently. Final impression: best to be there during a cooler month when I’m not on a backpacker budget.

Making Friends in Montenegro

20 Jul

7.14.2011

 

On the Road. The bay of Kotor

 

The sun was setting, affording a gold-tinged view of the the many coastal towns we passed on the bus ride from Dubrovnik to Kotor. The bus was only half-full, most passengers seemed to be backpackers and other youngish commuters. I was excited to have an open seat next to me, since I’d now have ample room to type and edit my photos. However, at the very last moment, a deeply tanned messy-haired boy asked if he could sit down. I didn’t know how to say no and still be polite, so I said “Sure thing.” He and his friend spoke Spanish while they took long swigs from a plastic beer bottle filled with some clear liquid. After spending the day in Mostar more-or-less alone, I was still in intrinsic mode and not ready to engage in random conversation. Eventually, as we reached the border and pulled out our passports, my seatmate and I got to talking. Surprisingly, Victorio from Buenos Aires and I, had a lot of common interests—he was an engineer and an actor who took singing lessons and was an active couchsurfing.org member. He and his motor-mouthed friend Nico, were starting their trip around Croatia and ending wherever the wind would take them. They had a ‘camp where you can’ motto. “Last night we slept in the grass in front of a radio station.” Vittorio told me. We ended up chatting for the remainder of the trip and I made plans to grab a drink with them after they found a ‘campsite’ that evening.

On the way to the Old Town in the Bay of Kotor

That night, as we arrived at the bus station, a challenge awaited me: I was going to try to rent a room from a local. This was quite a common thing to do in places where hostels are scarce. In fact, friends and other travelers had told me it was more or less the way to go, since you have your own room and typically pay less than overpriced hostels. As we got off of the bus, several people were trying to do the same thing, and a friendly young girl volunteered to translate for a French guy and myself. As she haggled with an older woman, the conversation seemed to be turning into more of an argument. The woman didn’t want me to stay in her old town apartment because I would only be there one night. Who cared, it was already 11pm! She was trying to convince me to go with her to another house outside of the center for 15 euro, which I did not want to do. The French guy and I were stuck in the middle of the argument, trying to interject. Soon he signaled to his friend and told me, “My friend is talking to a lady there, she has 3 rooms for 10 euro. You are welcome to come with us.” Done. This process had been more stressful than I had anticipated. Soon we were following this middle-aged woman to her house in an apartment complex nearby.

We had no way to communicate with our host, save a variety of hand gestures and loudly repeated English words, spoken mainly with thick French accents. She showed us to our room: three beds squashed in a spare bedroom. The guys seemed a bit embarrassed.

I thought she said separate bedroom’ one told me. “Should we make a…em…a division here?” he indicated, using his hands to fictionally separate the space between my bed and theirs. Until this point, I had been staying in 8 and 10 bed hostel dorms, so sharing a room with only 2 other people was a luxury. I did feel a bit bad for unexpectedly intruding on their 10-day best buddy holiday, but whatever. C’est la vie. As we got to know each other, I learned that they are both sports journalists, working in their respective French towns. Remi spoke an accent-free English, and Gregory struggled a bit, but was definitely better than he thought. We went out to dinner in the old town at local restaurant called Kantun in the Bokeljske Mornarice square.

The town was a walled-beauty and surprisingly empty for a Wednesday evening. The bar across the square was blasting techno music to an empty house, which I found annoying. Who did they think they were fooling? The food I ordered was amazing: traditional home-made sausages with onions, french fries and vegetables. I tasted Remi’s Montenegran smoked ham dish, which was similar to a thicker and smokier prosciutto, and also delicious. My meal had cost only 6 euro and was so massive that I couldn’t manage to finish.

I couldn’t resist documenting this.

Our host offered us coffee the next morning, Turkish style again. It was very kind of her. She sat with us and showed us a book that seemed to be about religious relics. As we passed it around, Remy speculated that she was trying to tell us about the place where she was born. Not being able to communicate with verbal language was a bit challenging, and when the boys indicated they wanted to stay another night, it was pretty hilarious. As Gregory repeated in English ‘We stay here tonight….leave tomorrow’, she just kept saying “moje, moje” with a blank look and that “I have no idea what you’re saying” smile. I think moji (not sure of the spelling) means something like ‘ok’ or ‘alright’ in Serbo-Croatian it still wasn’t clear that she totally understood. Gregory was cracking up, and finally he told me it sounded like she was repeating the word moche (ugly) in French.

 

The next day, we headed into the town, which was picturesquely situated between high mountains on the bay of Kotor.

Inside the city walls

The guys invited me to join them on a guided tour ala their French guidebook. Gregory decided to practice his English by translating the tour for me, which was a real treat. He stopped to point out buildings, telling me slightly lost-in-translation things like “this is the old town hall. She was before filled with sugar and cookies.” Our tour took us to St. Tryphon, a cathedral with two bell-towers, one of which remains unfinished and is significantly shorter than its counterpart.

St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

Sarah, over here” called my guide, squinting at his guidebook and pointing at the church. “I would like to show you this important building. It is best if you stand back and take a recul so you can see it is not even”

A recul?

A view from far away!” chimed in Remy, chuckling.

Watch out Pisa! There’s a leaning clock tower in Kotor

Gregory was really getting into his role as tour guide, saying things like “Right theese way I would like to point out the special window,” or “Sarah, pay attention! She is very important.”

Whilst we were mid-guidebook, I spotted my Argentinian friends slumped next to the side of the church. They were as scraggly as ever with tired, red eyes and breakfast of grocery store snacks splayed about. It looked like they had had a rough night. Victorio offered me an orange-chocolate cookie as I greeted them.

We slept on a road not too far from the station.” he explained.

Can we join you?” asked Nico. I looked at Gregory, not wanting to invite these ragamuffins without his consent. He shrugged with a French je ne sais quoi.

I’m kind of on a tour right now…but sure, come along.” 

This building was deemed ‘tres jolie’ by the french

The five of us hung out for the rest of the day. It was a funny group: the self-proclaimed hyperactive Nico, his best buddy Victorio and the significantly more reserved and put-together duo of Remy and Gregory. Lots of Spanish and French speaking going on.

Thank God for public drinking fountains on HOT days

Nico liked to call attention to the scantily-clad (and very beautiful) Montenegrin girls. He wasn’t shy:

I have to see this clothing store, wait one second!” he announced. I looked at his cut-off t-shirt, which was probably going on day five without a wash and didn’t believe for a second that he was about to go on a shopping spree. Not surprisingly, as I peeked in the store, I noticed a beautiful high-heeled girl in a low-cut top folding shirts.

Si, bueno, perfect. Yes, those are very nice clothes in there….very nice” said Nico.

It looks better than it smells.

The gang was dripping sweat, so we made our way to the bay for a swim. This was not my idea, as I had read in several places that the water is polluted pretty badly. However, locals insisted it was fine, and we saw many families and children enjoying the water. “It’s disgusting!” said Nico smiling as he paddled around. Everyone who jumped in after wards agreed. “I will not go. It stinks” said Remy, agreeing with me.

Si, the water is like a lotion!” said Victorio once he got out. I cringed as he rubbed his skin, massaging the toxins into his thighs. I’m pretty sure I noticed a third eye growing from his back later that day.

One of the entrances to the fortress

Eventually we ended the day with a grueling hike up to the fortress, see: Climbing the Stairway to Heaven (It’s in Kotor!)

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

A Drive Through the Bosnian Mountains

15 Jul

7.10.2011

Sure I might have been squished between 7 Finnish guys in the hottest car ride of my life, but the scenery between Belgrade and Sarajevo made up for it.

Blue waters and rolling hills

What! A cow on my left…

A cow on my right? What’s going on?

Ah, now I understand

Border Patrol- Traveling Between Sofia and Belgrade

14 Jul

7.8.2011

The journey from Sofia was pretty painful, it was about 8 hours and hot as hell. We transferred from a mini-bus to a full-size monster in Nis, a town across the Serbian border. Crossing the border was an interesting process. On the the Bulgarian side they simply collected our passports and stamped them. However, at the Serbian border we actually had to exit the vehicle and answer some questions about our destination and purpose of journey. They were keen to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything, but it wasn’t as bad as watching the Korean guy before me. He spoke zero English, and everyone in the line was getting annoyed as the border guard tried repeating “destination?” several times. When we transferred in Nis we had about 15 minutes to kill. A big Serbian guy with a curly ponytail, Adidas shirt, and sport-style sunglasses appointed himself ‘caretaker of the foreigners,’ ushering me and the Korean dude to the front of the line to make sure we got the correct bus tickets. “We have 10 minutes here” he told me, unprompted. “The bus leaves from right here, platform 8.”

At the Nis bus station: Watch your step when withdrawing currency!

It was very nice of him, and having this guy around made me feel safe. I think my Korean friend needed it more than I did, he seemed to be constantly heading the wrong direction. I nipped off to the ATM to take out some Serbian dinars, and to say the area was under construction would be an understatement: two big-bellied construction workers seemed unconcerned as they sat on a large pile of rubble, while checking out a blonde girl with a stuffed animal backpack. It was refreshing to know that someone, somewhere in the world (over the age of 5) was attempting to keep those furry backpacks in fashion. When I returned from buying a bottle of water, Mr. Ponytail said he had been concerned that I had been misplaced. The bus was sketch, very jerky. Although I know admittedly little about mechanics, I know it’s a bad sign when the bus driver calls for a pause and then opens the engine with a puzzled look. When I returned to the bus, ponytail who was sitting nearby, turned his head comically, gesturing to me and looking very concerned that our Korean friend hadn’t returned. I imagined him sitting in the cafe eating apple pie (yes they sold it at the cafe), totally unaware that the bus had been waiting for him.

A window with a view

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.

Hitchin’ a Ride (For the First Time)

10 Jul

Adventurous Europeans often choose to travel in the Balkan countries due of the normalcy of hitchhiking and camping, two logistical practices that keep costs at a minimum. Bring your tent, your thumb, eat cheap food, and voila! Gute Reise. After hearing several impressive hitchhiking stories, I was curious to give it a whirl myself, but felt wary as a solo female traveler. However, after meeting a fellow Michigander at my Plovdiv hostel who had just hitchhiked from Shanghai, I became inspired to undertake the previously unthinkable. Gathering a small group of Sofia-bound hostelers, a unanimous decision was made: it was time to chance a lift.

Our rag-tag group of three mid-western girls and one Californian boy set out in the heat of the early afternoon, heavy packs burdening our shoulders, and the warm sun overhead .

“I have some knives and pepper spray” assured Molly, the motliest of our crew.

Sure, the bus from Plovdiv to Sofia was only seven euro, but this seemed like a good time for a test hitch, since we could easily make our way back to the bus station, heads hung low in shame, if the plan failed. As I led us down a busy road, I realized that somehow I had become the leader. Perhaps it was my status as the wizened 25-year-old to 23-year-old youngsters? I couldn’t be sure.

Anyway, there we were, standing by a gas station and holding out our thumbs like some teenage runaways in a cheesy Hollywood movie. After thirty minutes of frying under the Bulgarian sun, our digits were cramped and the only acknowledgement of our tacky ‘Sofia!’ sign was a flirtatious wave. What were we doing wrong?

Eventually, a taxi driver pulled up, and informed us in broken English this this was not the way to Sofia, this was, in fact, merely a small road in central Plovdiv leading to a small village. We needed to get to the Motostrada, the expressway, and he would take us there for ten leva, the equivalent of five euro.

“We’d better get picked up after this” said Elan, as we reluctantly piled our packs into the taxi, already sensing an epic failure. As if it wasn’t laughable enough to take a taxi in order to hitch, the comic value was at its peak when we were actually let out on the side of the road in what appeared to be a corn field, just as we had asked. With a friendly chuckle and a mocking hitchhiker’s thumbs-up, our driver zoomed back to Plovdiv, his muffler dragging loudly behind his yellow vehicle.

We were alone on the side of some godforsaken intercity road, a waving green field in front and the Rodopi mountains magnanimously behind, and there was no going back. On that wimpy slice of cement, we assumed our positions, thumbs in the air, sign raised high. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes before a faded red sports car rolled up.

“This is going to be a tight squeeze” said Erich looking grim-faced at the zebra-printed backseat. Two bleach-blonde 20-something females, hopped out of the car, its speakers crackling with the heavy bass of Bulgarian Chalga music.

Merci! Merci!” We chorused, knowing that these girls would understand this universal word of gratitude. One of the girls told us with a friendly smile “You’re welcome!” and proceeded to help us fit our bags in the trunk.

Our driver, a plump young lady decked-out in designer glasses and faux-diamond earrings that matched the gems on her painted fingernails, kept her eyes on the road while her Barbie-esque companion asked us where we were from. The girls were both Turkish, and the English-speaking one was currently studying industrial engineering in Plovdiv. Her friend had driven to Istanbul to pick her up for a wild weekend of clubbing in Sofia. The seating arrangement was not ideal, Eric’s arm was wedged uncomfortably into my rib, while the petite Elan was forced to balance on two of our thighs. But hey, it was a mere two-hour journey and more importantly, we had found what we set out to find: an adventure.

We were definitely weighing down the car, and it seemed to struggle and groan as it drove down the country highway leading to the main expressway. The girls didn’t seem to mind, chatting and laughing in Turkish, pausing to ask a polite question and offer cigarettes.

At the end of the journey, as we pulled up in front of the impressive Alexander Nevsky cathedral the English-speaking engineering student said one thing:

“Facebook?”

She handed us a faded card with her name typed neatly on the bottom. “In English it means pretty sun” she said. “Next time you in Plovdiv, you call me. My house is open.”

Having gained two new friends and one great story, we all agreed that our first experience hitchhiking had been a success.

For more info on hitchhiking: http://hitchwiki.org/

Oh, HEY Sofia!

Colorful Chaos in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

10 Jul

PLOVDIV 7/5 to 7/7

Plovdiv’s Roman Amphitheatre

The Bulgarian rural landscapes are incredibel. In Turkish, the word ‘Balkan’ translates to ‘a chain of wooded mountains,’ and Bulgaria fits this definition very well. The trip from Veliko Tarnovo to Bulgaria’s former capitol, Plovdiv, was no exception. Although we were trapped in a mini bus that seemed to stop frequently for lunches and snacks, I was in good company, so the trip was enjoyable. I had met Erich at the hostel in Veliko Tarnovo; he came all the way from Northern California where he specializes in making pizzas and poetry. This was his first time in Europe and he was only traveling to the eastern regions. Pretty bold!

That night I stayed with a couchsurfing host, Elina, a 24-year-old Hematologist. Isn’t that incredible? Apparently med school in Bulgaria starts immediately after high school, but I was still impressed that she was already practicing at her age. She had heard of Ann Arbor because of the “Ann Arbor classification,” which I suppose is something doctory. She was extremely nice, very intelligent, and had an amazing apartment not too far from the center. Although she had just gotten off of work, she made us a traditional Bulgarian meal of scrambled eggplant mash from her mother’s garden (“my mother makes everything herself because she doesn’t believe the market vegetables have chemicals”), and a soft white cheese that was incredibly delicious.

It’s because of this cheese that I could never move away from Bulgaria” she told me, smiling.

Elina and I

Elina spoke almost perfect English, as well as German, and was currently tackling French. She was well-traveled and frank about her study/work abroad experiences. “I had a very bad time in Japan.. and in Jamaica” she told me, which I found refreshing. Usually people say things like “Yeah, I was in Japan it was AWESOME!” even if they were homesick as all get-out. Her next goal is to learn to surf, either in Spain or Australia. I’m always interested to meet people on a fast professional track who haven’t lost their wanderlust.

Elina was very critical of the many young Bulgarians who move to other countries in Europe. She’s happy living in Plovdiv and Bulgaria in general. “There are opportunities here, and things are getting better all the time” she told me. We had a conversation about sex trafficking, which is something that’s still a hot-button issue; Bulgaria’s geographic position between Europe and Asia makes it an excellent entry point. Elina believes that the Bulgarian politicians are still turning a blind eye to the issue while being paid-off, just as in the communist years. We talked more about Bulgaria’s transition from communism to democracy. Just as Emilia and Mary in Veliko Tarnovo had told me, Elina confirmed that most older people remember communism as a simpler and happier time. Bulgaria was a ‘model student’ of communism, one that had an excellent relationship with Russia and adapted to communist practices effectively. Examples of ‘bad students’ are Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, she told me, so their transition to democracy and the EU was perhaps easier. However, Bulgaria’s joining the EU has affected her very positively. She has been able to take advantage of the EU’s ERASMUS student exchange programs.

 

The Turkish government pumps 2 mill a year into this beautiful mosque

After bidding farewell to Elina the next morning, I was able to spend the next 24 hours exploring the crazy artistic city of Plovdiv, once the former capitol and now a cosmopolitan university town that I enjoyed more than Veliko Tarnovo or Sofia. The city filled with art galleries and sculptures and it’s also surrounded by four foothills, which are great for getting a good view. Apparently there were seven foothills until the communists leveled the other three to make some room to build.

On the nebet tepes foothill

 I think Plovdiv is definitely underrated in terms of its touristic potential, as most tourists seem to merely pass through for a night on their way to Istanbul. There was a budget hotel in the center of town offering double rooms for only 9.00 euro a person, which I found impressive. The city was incredibly colorful—once you get past an awkwardly vast and empty square, the rest of the center is a pedestrian zone, leading to a large underground amphitheater (one of 2 in the town), which his currently covered by a glass surface.

Lot’s of public art in Plovdiv

Cafes lined the main drag and the buildings were colorfully painted. Shopping seemed like a popular activity—a lot of store windows were pushing a wide variety of styles, colors, and patterns, and it was fun to see what sorts of combinations people came up with. My impressions of Plovdiv fashion: the men, many of whom were unfortunately round and bald, seemed to prefer some sort of tight-fitting Adidas or Kappa shirt, paired with exercise shorts or capris. They might then choose to accessorize with an around-the-shoulder bag. Rule of thumb: the bigger the belly, the tighter the shirt.

For the women: the less fabric the better, lots of strappy, tight-fitting, colorful clothing; rhinestones and slogans seemed to be favored. I liked how this off-beat fashion added the the atmosphere of the architecturally quirky Plovdiv.

Walking towards the old town was perhaps my favorite part of the visit. Signs of every shape and neon color hung from buildings, which ranged from crumbling to brand new. I loved how hectic it was: a flower stand run by Grandma next to a sex shop, for example. The old town itself was one of the best parts. Although it seemed like no one actually lived there anymore, the colorfully painted traditional Bulgarian houses, were the cutest thing. Erich and I spent the day walking around together. iIt was nice having companionship and conversation for a short time.

A traditional Bulgarian building in the old town

Lots of art in the old town

Then we found the Roman Amphitheater! It was amazing. Set high in the old town, it overlooked the entire city of Plovdiv with the Rodopi mountains looming in the distance. After paying the 3 leva entrance (just 1.5 euro) we could walk around anywhere, and I mean anywhere. You would definitely not be able to walk around something as ancient in most parts of Western Europe—it would be akin to having free reign of the Colosseum in Rome. Big pieces of carved Roman rock were strewn about, and the stage was set for a classical music performance, which was apparently scheduled to happen later.

The musical equipment had definitely not been taken very good care of. It was about to rain but the old upright piano was sitting there half-covered with a tarp, while music stands were plugged in and rusting.

Getting ready for the performance?

Gold confetti was strewn over the ground, but it was clear that it has been there quite awhile. The stairs to the amphitheatre were steep, made of slippery marble and worn in after centuries of stepping, and I simply couldn’t imagine a bunch of elderly people trying to find their seats for an opera performance. We stopped and had a cider at the cafe whose seats lined the outer edge of the amphitheater. Erich and I discussed how a few months ago, neither of us knew that sitting around a Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv would be in the cards. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been able to explain exactly where Bulgaria was on a map.

That night I met two American girls, Elan and Molly, at the hostel. At first I was kind of annoyed that both of my Bulgarian hostels had been crawling with Americans, but these girls were interesting and were doing farming work around Europe. I invited them to come with me to meet Stefan, another couchsurfer who was a Plovdiv native and had offered to take me out for a drink. Stefan met us at the hostel; he was tall, funny and spoke good English. He ended up giving us an impromptu evening walking tour. You could tell he loved his city when he told us about the history of the buildings, what periods they were built in and by whom. It was very nice and informational, and eventually we ended up at a bar that Stefan described as “alternative.”

He’s against Chalga music, which is all the rage in Bulgaria. Chalga combines traditional melodies with dance music, and apparently idiotic lyrics. “Smart people do not listen to Chalga!” said Stefan, almost livid, as he expounded on his hatred. He explained that the secret of Chalga culture is that the singers are actually high-paid prostitutes. So of course they promote a plastic-surgery, silicon ideal that’s not a good influence for the young people.

Typical Chalga music “singer”

He took us to a bar in a traditional Bulgarian building. Metallica was blasting, and the crowd was definitely metal. Stefan requested the song “Down with the Sickness.” “For me, there is no other choice!” he said. He was a pretty clean-cut guy, so I thought this was funny. A group of friends nearby were having a grand old time taking turns picking each other up and slapping each others butts playfully. I tried mentha, a light mint liquor that is typical Bulgarian. It was excellent and stronger than I had expected, but not as thick as schnapps. The night went on for a while until the three American’s had to surrender due to extreme tiredness. It was a great stay in Plovdiv!

The popcorn lady