Wednesday, September 27, 2006

National Geographic special on Mostar Bridge

I just finished watching the National Geographic channel special on the reconstruction of the bridge in Mostar, Bosnia. The show started with the horrible footage of the bridge collapsing after being bombed, its centuries-old huge stone blocks falling into the river below. The initial goal was to use the original blocks to reconstruct the bridge, but the ravages of war and the strong river current rendered the blocks unusable. The blocks did provide useful information in the construction of the bridge, type of limestone used, assembly (including iron rods), and type of mortar used.

The reconstruction process was not without controversy, as stone masons (and the construction company) from Turkey were used. You may recall that the Ottoman Empire had control of the Balkans for hundereds of years. In Mostar, the Turks conquered the Catholics living there. Prior to the war, it was not uncommon for intermarriages between religions to occur (such as Catholic Croats and Muslims, or Orthodox Serbs), but that all changed with the war. Such tensions were brought to the construction process as well.

It was fascinating to see how the combination of high-tech (such as making a computer 3-d model of the bridge) and centuries old traditional techniques were combined to recreate a bridge that looks much like the original one. Once again, the bridge of Mostar connects the town, both physically and emotionally.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Another visit to St. Sava Cathedral

St. Sava Cathedral (Belgrade)
Back in Belgrade, I decided to visit St. Sava Cathedral and check its progress. Although the outside of the massive structure was completed several years ago, the inside decoration was in its beginning stages the last time I had visited. (The structure was begun in 1926, but interrupted many times, particularly during Nazi bombing in 1941, post WWII, and during the breakup of Yugoslavia). I took the entrance on the Vracar Plateau side, walking through the path lined with fountains. Here the Turkish burning of St. Sava’s relics in 1594 (as a way to break the spirit and punish the Serbs) is commemorated. Inside were the sounds of construction. The large cupola domes were still unornamented, as was most of interior. Parts of walls were covered with large sheets of colored marble, cut in geometric designs. The Serbian Coat of Arms, with its double-headed eagle, was carved in white marble, contrasting with the colored background marble. Through the scaffolding I saw a large mosaic mural in progress. Sections of white carved marble were piled on the floor, with some already in place. Piles of marble slabs and other building materials filled a large portion of the front entrance. On each side were places where candles were lit, one for the dead and the other for the living.

After walking past the smaller St. Sava Church (1935), I turned around to take another picture of the magnificent larger structure, brightly gleaming against the blue sky. The bells began to toll, briefly but with strength. Already the pride of Serbia, St. Sava Cathedral will be a thing of beauty once it is completed.

To get back to my neighborhood of Senjak, I took the bus instead of my preferred tram route. I was glad to see that the rails of the tram line finally were being redone, but lament their present inoperability and accompanying inconvenience. In the early evening, I heard traditional brass music coming from the direction of the hippodrome, overlooked by my apartment. Comprised of subtle but beautiful colors, the sunset provided a wonderful end to the gorgeous day.

Mt. Avala

Mt. Avala

After an entire week of rain, Saturday finally brought good weather. Olja (a Serbian teacher at school) and I decided to go to Mt. Avala, located about 18 km south of Belgrade. Our meeting point was the Mc Donald’s in Slavija Circle. The juxtaposition of the Austro-Hungarian-style building with the ubiquitous chain restaurant logo always amuses me. Olja explained that we would have to take the local buses, as the special service bus to Avala only runs during the summer – which ended the day before. As the destination was outside the main Belgrade bus zone, we had to pay slightly more for the ticket – 61 cents. Once outside of the Belgrade city, high-rise apartment buildings were replaced with extended family homes, many of which were in various stages of completion. A few tractors hauling small wagonloads of grasses and weeds slowed the pace a bit.

Just a short distance away from Belgrade, it was easy to see why Mt. Avala (only 6 meters above the minimum requirements for a mountain) was a popular summer day trip for citizens of the capital city. Our bus stop was at the base of the mountain. Although a paved road for vehicles existed, everyone was hiking up the paved walk, shaded by the forest trees. Benches were regularly situated along the zigzag path, enabling people to relax and enjoy the deciduous and coniferous forest landscape.

At the top of the mountain was the Unknown Soldier Monument, sculpted of black marble by Ivan Mestrovic from 1934-38. Stairs, also of black marble, led majestically up to the enclosed monument. Inside on the floor were the dates relating to the First World War. From here, we had a great panoramic view of the lush agricultural region of Sumadija. At one time, Olja explained, the entire region was heavily forested. Guarding both entrances to the monument were eight massive caryatides (female-shaped supporting pillars like those found in classical Greek temples). Each represented a region of then-Yugoslavia, including Kosovo and Vojvodina.

Pesky wasps forced us to eat our picnic lunch rather quickly, at which time we began the easier descent. Partly because of our too-short stay at the summit, we stopped for a drink in the large outdoor café at the 1938 Avala hotel. I found the sphinxes lining the parking lot entrance rather amusing, contrasting with the other architectural styles of the building. On our way down, we took a slight detour to see where the state-owned RTS television station tower and once was, turned into rubble in the 1999 NATO air campaign. Just inside the forest was an old lady selling small bundles of thyme and other herbs. Feeling a bit sorry for the lady, Olja bought a bundle for 10 cents. Perfect timing, the bus arrived just as we got there.

Slightly in from the road, Olja pointed out a Memorial Garden that paid tribute to the 80,000 Yugoslavs executed by the Nazis during World War II. Romas and people supporting the Partizans were frequently targeted by the Germans and sent to concentration camps.