Tag Archives: budget travel

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

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.

Climbing the Stairway to Heaven (It’s In Kotor!)

20 Jul

Success!

My new friends and I climbed 1350 stairs to get to the Fortress of Kotor. The ascent in the 85 degree heat was brutal, but the spectacular views of the bay and mountains made it worthwhile.

We started here…

Interesting choice of stair-climbing clothing

Finally at the fortress!

Unfortunately this is just a poor substitute for how breathtaking the view actually was!

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!)

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!


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.

Bachkovo Monastery

8 Jul

My new travel buddy Erich and I went to check out the Bachkovo monastery, nestled in the Rodopi mountains about 25 km from Plovdiv. It’s Bulgaria’s second largest monastery, and since I wouldn’t have time to go to the largest (Rila, near Sofia) I decided this would be a nice substitute.

The bus dropped us off next to a brown sign advertising Bachkovo. As we walked uphill toward the entrance, we were bombarded by teenage girls who attempted to feed us yogurt samples. Forget about yogurt, I was having a hard time not being distracted by each gorgeous piece of handmade pottery we passed.

One funny thing that we experienced: we paid 10 cents to use the WC, and although it hardly seemed worthy of record, we were each given ticket and required to write down our respective times of entrance. I thought that was rather necessary.

Lots of honey and jam for sale

The Bachkovo monastery was founded in 1083 A.D. by two Georgian brothers. Much of it was destroyed by the Turks in the 15th century, and was restored in the 17th century.

There were indeed many monks about, as was expected. One dark robed gentleman had the tedious job of cutting the grass with scissors. SCISSORS! I couldn’t get over that. Talk about paying attention to detail!

The view from inside- that’s the monk with scissors!

We took the suggested walk up a path and discovered a waterfall. I accidentally trespassed and found some creepy abandoned buildings.

On a hike

Rodopi Mountains

A waterfall!

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria: Go There

7 Jul

The train from Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo. Sunflowers galore!

Some of the view from Veliko Tarnovo

I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo (pop 68,000) on a cold and cloudy early evening. After being crammed on a mini-bus next to a friendly Brazilian guy and his Polish wife, I was happy to be let out in town, even if I had no idea where I was. I called my hostel, Hostel Mostel, to request their free pick-up service:

Just get a taxi to the hostel and we will pay for it. Don’t worry yourself!” a friendly male voice instructed me over the phone.

Chello, English…..haha!”greeted the high-spirited cab-driver as Balkan pop tunes bounced out of the sound system. 

My travel literature had described Veliko Tarnovo as a picturesque village with traditional Bulgarian homes hanging over the hillsides. I guess I was thinking something along the lines of Positano or Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. This was not quite so. While it was still a nice town, this had seemed more like the Eastern Europe that I had imagined. Things were in a more extreme state of disarray than in central Bucharest or Brasov; fading signs hung haphazardly from paint-chipped brown and white houses.

I think the fact that everything was in Cyrillic helped to add to the foreignness of it all. At this point, I was thankful that I had made and used those Cyrillic flashcards.

Keeping the streets clean

 

Hostel Mostel was really the highlight of my experience in VT.  I was greeted by a friendly young Bulgarian man who introduced himself simply as Todd.

Todd, I questioned him. “That’s it?”

“Well it’s Tadavorolajlhbg but don’t worry about that, just keep it at Todd, like in English!”

He had the most professional of manners, as if he were introducing me to a 4-star accommodation. I liked that, and I let him go ahead and carry my bag.

“Ladies first, always!” he said happily as a recently arrived male traveler struggled under the weight of his pack. The hostel was a beautiful traditional Bulgarian home which had been renovated two years ago. It was comfortable, clean and had a very zen-like vibe, plus a great terrace.

The common area in Hostel Mostel

For 7 euro a night this really couldn’t be beat; they even had two hostel mascots—fancy pigeons with fanned tails! I had arrived just in time for dinner and joined the rest of the hostelers for some potato and cabbage soup. I was surprised to find that out of the 20 people staying, several were American. One of whom, travel extraordinaire nomadic Matt http://www.nomadicmatt.com/  ended up being a good buddy of my friend Maneesh. Small world!!

Later, we were informed that the light show would be taking place at the nearby Tsavarets Fortress, the pride and joy of Veliko Tarnovo. I couldn’t believe my luck, as I had been reading about this multicolored spectacle.

The foggy fortress, pre-light show

It was interesting to get to know my fellow Hostel Mostel companions. Many were traveling on similar routes—Sofia-Plovdiv-Veliko-Varna—everyone weaving in and out of the Balkans in their own manners. It seemed that I would see some of these people again. I got along quite well with a Quebecois girl traveling alone, Amelie, she jammed out on her harmonica as a group of 7 young Mexicans chattered loudly while taking photos on the bridge. After waiting for nearly a half hour without seeing any signs of the show,  we gave up and went back to the hostel. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, lights were illuminating the skies in the direction that we had just returned from. Amelie and I ran outside screaming and running up the hill as fast as our legs would carry us

C’est la! The light show, the light show!”

Neon streams and white explosions lit up the night just outside of view. We managed to see the fortress glowing in red and blue before being illuminated in the normal manner. Bummer! At least we saw it for a second.

I Invited Amelie to join me in me in meeting a couchsurfer, Emilie, at the bar she worked at downtown. I felt very cool being able to say I had a “friend” working at a bar after having just arrived in an unfamiliar Bulgarian village! The bar she worked at, Malkia Inter (The Old Inn), was not only quite close to our hostel, but really antiquey and cute, with myriad accordions and fiddles decorating the walls.

Emilie at Malkia Inter

Emilie studied graphic design at the university in town. She was incredibly kind but kept responding to my conversation by shaking her head from left to right, in what I perceived to be disagreement. After a few minutes of confusion, I remembered that I had been told that Bulgarians indicate agreement by shaking their heads from left to right, while nodding indicates disagreement. Now it all made sense! Later, I joined Emilie and some friends at a nearby Irish pub, which confirmed my theory that such pubs don’t vary a whole lot regardless of where they are on the globe. Surprisingly, given the size of this town, this bar was owned by a real-live Irishman. Apparently a lot of foreigners from the UK and western Europe have been taking advantage of cheap real estate prices in Veliko over the last few years.

The next day I met Emilie and her friend Mary promptly at 10 am. They showed me around the city, first taking me to the most famous little historical street, pointing out “the monkey house” designed by the famous Veliko Tarnovo architect Koljo Fichev.

The Monkey House

The main street in VT

Although a bit touristy, the street was full of little artisan shops- everyone was there, from the knife maker to a herb preparer. I fell in love with the traditional Bulgarian textiles and ceramics. A woman putting her loom to use in Emilie’s favorite shop as we walked in “I buy so many things here!” she told me, encouraging me to take my time looking at some beautiful scarves and bags.

Working with metal

The mask maker

 The three of us sat a little traditional cafe that Emilie told me (with a slight laugh) was called ‘The Sugar Cock.’

“In English I think that is not right?” she asked. Inside we ordered coffee which was very similar to Turkish coffee but prepared in a slightly different manner: over hot sand.

Coffee on sand

I loved the traditionally low-to-the-ground Bulgarian tables, although I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland.

At the Sugar Cock with coffee

It was interesting to talk to the girls about politics, in particular, why so many Bulgarians miss communism. Bulgarian history is somewhat hard to follow; even the last 10 years would take a good hour of clarification. After being under the thumb of the Turks and the Russians, Bulgarians are finally taking a stab at democracy. The girls told me that joining the EU in 2007 hasn’t affected most citizens yet, since there is still quite a bit of corruption in the country’s leadership.

As I sat there happily getting my history lesson for the day, a group of elderly American tourists walked by. What were they doing in Veliko? One lady took her time to squint at the English translation on the cafe’s sign.

John, JOHN, come get a look at this. I don’t think the translation is right. They got it wrong, didn’t they?  It says ‘coffee on sand’. Coffee on sand? That’s just not right, is it?!”

John came over with his buddy, laughing and patting his wife on the back. “That’s like Sex on the beach isn’t it. Coffee on sand, sex on the beach! Haha” he chuckled, proud of himself.

Oh America….

The rest of the day was great. They showed me “Mother Bulgaria,” a monument and not a figure of speech, as I originally assumed. We took a walk around the park, through the main streets and across the river to the statue of the four Bulgarian kings who founded the city.

The Old church in the middle of the village

The girls were really funny, and as we walked around the park, they laughed about what they were going to do with me. “Boil you in a carrot soup!” said Mary, probably referring to a travel story I had recently read and told them about, one where an American journalist was unknowingly held hostage in Prague until his ‘guide’ handed him a fat bill for his expenses while discreetly flashing a handgun as he dropped him off at the airport.

This is the street to the dormitory” said Mary as we walked back over the bridge towards the main road. “There was a problem with a man who would stand here and expose himself” she said chuckling. “He would make bird calls and then girls turned to look at him” That’s terrible!” I said. Mary just kept chuckling.

This artist was a friend of the girls’ from school

We then headed over to experience the day’s highlight—lunch at a traditional little place called The Quiet Nook (English translation, of course) we had a big discussion about what a small hidden place in a house was, but I decided it was probably a nook….The food was cheap and the chairs were plastic and colorful. Russian disco music played quietly in the background as we ordered.

At the Quiet Nook

He is usually drunk…but very nice” said Emilie, smiling as the waiter walked towards us. “It’s just his wife and daughter who work here.” A true Bulgarian family restaurant. I liked that.

She asked me if I liked strong drinks, because if so, I should have a traditional Bulgarian liquor with lunch, either Mastika, an anise flavored liquor, or Rakia, which tastes a lot like the Italian grappa. Soon, the owner was filling up my 2 oz shot glass generously with Mastika.

I ordered the Shopska salad: goat cheese, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, all for the low price of 3 leva, or $2. I also ordered something that Emilie said “all the tourists like.”  It was Kvarma, pork with sauteed tomatoes, garlic, and onion and served in some sort of viking ship saucer. I also tried the girls’ food: Mary’s white bean soup and whatever was in Emilie’s ceramic pot: an egg, tomato sauce, and a thick layer of cheese. I was definitely a fan of Bulgarian food.

A lunch time visitor; one of VT’s many stray kittens


The Mastika had my head spinning as we walked back up to the hostel a couple of hours later, petting some stray kittens on the way. Emilie had to go to work but she promised she would come visit me in New York some day. She was pretty into hitchiking and assured me that she would find a way to do so across the ocean. 

“Why not?’ she said.