Friday, December 21, 2007

Celebrating Christ's Birth

Let us never forget the real reason why we celebrate Christmas - the birth of our Savior. May you all have a blessed Christmas and may Christ's love continue to bless you throughout the New Year.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

One Sunday Morning

Ask most any kid living where there's snowfall, and when the snow is falling quite heavily, they're hoping to hear the announcement that school is canceled the next day. When I received the phone call this past Sunday night saying school was canceled due to a tree falling on one of the school buildings, I didn't think that much of it - besides that I wouldn't have to get up the next morning in the dark. Later that leisurely Monday afternoon, we got a call saying that school would be canceled the rest of the week for Lower School students and that staff should report to the high school.

Black Footprints
On Tuesday morning I made a quick stop to the Lower School computer lab to pick up my school laptop and some papers. Immediately upon entering the small building, I noticed soot on the floor, with footprints leading up and down the narrow hallway. Spider webs were blackened. A faint smoky odor still lingered. I stopped just shy of the lab entrance. From the floor to ceiling, the area was covered in thick black soot and burn marks. In place of a circuit breaker box was a mangled, charred mess, with a few wires dangling helplessly. Silence filled the cold lab, devoid of any blinking lights, whirrs of electrical equipment, etc. More sooty shoeprints were on the floor. After making a quick survey for telltale signs of scorch marks or the smell burned plastic, I was relieved. Making a quick test to see if the laptop turned on, I closed up the lid and headed out the door.

One Sunday Morning
Once we were all gathered in the gymnasium, the school Director briefly described what happed that Sunday morning. Early that morning, a tree fell right onto a power line, which in turn hit the wet ground/road (it was a very wet snowfall). This live wire sent a huge surge of electricity into the school and about 50 homes in the immediate vicinity. Two people were hospitalized in the area. The school security guard and the custodian quickly shut off the power at the school. Had it not been for their quick thinking and action, the electrical surges would have continued, causing even more damage at the school.
Thankfully, this all happened on a Sunday morning when there were no staff or students at school. Just 24 hours later, students would have been in that computer lab, some less than a meter away from fuse box where much of the energy surge seems to have been concentrated. This also happened on the shortened Thanksgiving week, minimizing impact to instruction.

For the next week or two, Lower School classes will be held at the High School from 7:30 to 11:30. High school students will use the facilities from 12-5pm. Four classrooms will be situated in the gymnasium "bubble," with every nook and cranny used for some class. PE classes will be held outside, even in the snow. Each teacher was given a short time to pack 5 boxes of materials from their elementary classroom. The situation will require the flexibility and patience of all involved. Hopefully it will be just for a short duration, at which time classes can once again be held at the Lower School and the High School can get its campus back.

At the beginning of the year classroom teachers and some specialists received laptops. Now we are appreciating the benefits of portable technology even more, as teachers' access to technology can continue with as little interruption as possible, utilizing the campus-wide wireless system, central backup, etc.. Several AC chargers were destroyed in the power surge, but teachers will work around this inconvenience. Today the technician is going around to test equipment at the Lower School and will provide a list of damaged equipment. Beyond the known printers, AC adapters and a few computers and likely all air conditioning units, I hope the damage will be minimal.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

November Snowfall

Over the weekend we had our first snowfall of the year. Considering that last year we only had snow on the night of the school Halloween festival and once more after that, this definitely was something to talk about. With temperatures right around freezing (and sometimes above), the snow was incredibly moisture-laden and thick. Flakes of snow fell to the ground like mini-bombs, quickly piling up on trees, roofs, roads, etc.

This morning, with the snow still falling, I went to take a morning walk, something I typically do on Sundays. I walked down to the historic Topcider park, where I hoped to take some winter pictures - and also check on the road conditions. After all, one can hope for school being canceled! Although the narrow side roads were unplowed and slippery, the main roads were plowed. The park was very quiet, empty of the typical Sunday morning strollers. Although the trees were snow-covered, it wasn't as pretty as some snowfalls a couple of years ago, when each branch (and even long pine needles) were covered with uniform layers of snow. Because this snow was so heavy and wet, the snow was already falling to from the trees onto the ground. In a tree-covered park, taking photos became a bit hazardous, as I had to protect my camera from falling clumps of snow!

As I ate supper, I received a phone call from a teacher, who said that school was cancelled tomorrow due to no electricity. Apparently a tree fell on the school. With "tears" in the eye so typical of students/teachers on a snow day, I called up the next person on the phone tree and told them the "sad" news. With Thanksgiving on Thursday, it will be an even shorter week!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Yellow Leaves and Soggy Skies

Although fall in Belgrade doesn't reveal such a vibrant array of colors as one might find in northern Wisconsin or Vermont, it still is something that attracts me as an artist. The brightest color here is yellow, and it seems to glow against the blue skies - that is, when there is a blue sky. Since October started, disproportionate number of days have been rainy or at least dreary and overcast.
I had been eying the yellow leaves and multi-hued leaves on vines for the past week and hoped I could take some photos. In the early afternoon, the overcast suddenly made way to tiny patches of blue sky - at least for a few minutes. Grabbing my camera bag, I headed out the door. The multitude of old Yugos and Lada cars parked on the sidewalk (yup, that's the place where people park) were blanketed with yellow and brown leaves. An old lady, hunched over with osteoporosis, was dutifully sweeping all the leaves off the road in front of her apartment building. I can imagine how clean her apartment must be!

Kalemegdan - Ancient Fortress and Park
I exited the tram in front of Kalemegdan, the old fortress and park right in the old city. Despite the overcast skies, the multitude of yellow trees made for some beautiful photos, both as a landscape shot and extreme close-ups. The neutral sky actually softened the scene, providing for some interesting effects.
Throughout the park, people were seen strolling around, reading the newspaper, or enjoying one last ice cream from the vendor. Other vendors were selling souvenirs such as shajkaca hats, opanci shoes, and embroidery. Guitar music filled the air around a historic gate.
Knowing that the vine leaves seemed to produce the most vibrant colors, I headed towards the Ruzica church, located deep into the park and overlooking the Danube River. The metal relief image of Madonna and Child was framed by hues of orange, red, and green leaves. Along the other side of this vine-covered church were the two life-sized sculptures of Serbian soldiers. The background was ablaze in orange. Off to one side, the textured stone wall, mottled warm hued leaves and exposed vines produced some pleasing compositions.

Although the pedestrian street was lively, it seemed a bit less crowded. Indeed, some of the outdoor cafe and restaurant areas were gone for the season. Soon it will only be a choice between smoky indoor places and smokier indoor places. A little boy giggled as he tried to catch the bubbles blown by the man with the motorized bubble blower. Another man was trying to sell furry figures that moved about and made noise. Several adults were huddled around a a box of pirated software and movies. Near one of the city's McDonalds' (one of the only non-smoking restaurants in Belgrade) I met a friend. A craft show was going on now, so we had to visit it. I was especially impressed with the paintings created with pressed flowers and other natural materials. Even when looking at a close distance, it was hard to believe that these beautifully executed compositions were not photos. Unfortunately they were beyond my budget. Instead I purchased a few small items, including two MUCH cheaper, pressed flower/natural material pieces. I gave the man the money I thought I owed him, complimented him, and walked away. Already several booths away, the man caught up to me, explaining that my pieces were a bit smaller and gave me some money back. What honesty!
After sufficiently touring the show, we headed to a newly opened cafe and split a piece of fruit-covered cheesecake - only half the sin! Already turning dark (daylight savings time started already last week), I said goodbye and waited for the bus.

The next day it rained, with intermittent bouts of mist. Leaves fluttered to the ground in large numbers, coaxed on by the winds and rain. A single horse could be spotted out on the hippodrome, whose tracks consisted of mud and standing rainwater. It was a lousy day out - perfect for getting some work done.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

'Tis the Time for Cabbages and Potatoes

As I walked down on this foggy day to do my weekly grocery shopping, I saw the signs of late October in Serbia - large mounds of cabbages and sacks of potatoes. These rather bland-colored produce items are now the king of the Green Market. Gone were the deep, colorful hues of red and green peppers. Bees and wasps no longer swarm around large wooden crates of grapes. In its place are the multi-hued colors of locally grown, imperfect apples. Time for some apple kuchen!
Recently, days have alternated between foggy and rainy. Temperatures still are quite tolerable, but the dampness makes it feel a bit colder than it is.
Halloween/Harvest Festival
Last night was the lower school's Halloween/ Harvest Festival. For many, it was the first time partaking of Halloween festivities - dressing up in a costume and trick-or-treating. Costumes varied between handmade and boughten, but the usual assortment of witches, princesses, ghouls, and warriors dominated. My favorites, of course, were the homemade ones. The most dashing costume was worn by a Japanese first grader, wearing the full kimono outfit.
I helped out in the bread "making" station. Here, kids manipulated bread dough into various shapes and creations. Although some of the dough was very sticky, students didn't seem to mind much, some creating multiple items and staying for a length of time. Hands cleaned, project wrapped and a sheet of baking instructions, students proudly left the room.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Decision to recruit

In the fall, directors solicit from overseas hires their intent to stay or move onward. After four years in Belgrade, I have decided that it is time to move forward. Many of my goals and initiatives have been fulfilled (or well on their way). Plus, I'm interested in seeing new places. So, the next few months will be quite busy as I prepare for the recruitment fair, held in January or February. Perhaps I will be one of the fortunate ones who is contacted by schools beforehand - or even a job offer. That way one doesn't even have to attend the recruitment fair and all its costs. Be thinking of me as I embark on this (often stressful and full of decisions) new journey.

October updates

It is now mid-October. The leaves are turning from green to brown, with some turning various shades of yellow. Only some small maple trees seem to turn more varied shades. That and the ivy and vines, which turn deep shades of red and mahogany. They are particularly beautiful when the lit backlights them. The weather has been fluctuating, between cool and rainy, to a surprise warm day (71°F, 21°C) as was today, then suddenly down to cold temperatures (42°F, 6°C) on Sunday. What's really odd is that the temps in the morning are quite chilly (near freezing), but warm up considerably, even already by around 10 am.

Things continue to move forward at school. Lots of meetings, many things to get done. There is a notable amount of stress, particularly regarding the local tax issue and declining value of the dollar against the euro. On a more positive note, I'm excited to report that more and more teachers are using technology in their classrooms, taking the initiative to move these steps forward. My efforts and perseverance are starting to pay off.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

School Beginnings, Quick Update

It's been a while since I've posted, but I’ve been waiting for something exciting to say. Unfortunately, not much exciting has happened. I’m back in Belgrade, my fourth year of teaching here. We’ve welcomed new teachers, who have filled positions of those who have left, as well as starting new positions such as a Spanish teacher for grades 2-5. This year I will be focusing mainly on the lower school - from age 3 to grade 5. I’m hoping that this will allow me to work more closely with the teachers, modeling integrative technology lessons and providing needed professional development in the area of technology. This in itself is a lot of work, but of course I’ve been asked to do more than that (or I just do it because it needs to get done). Our technician is overwhelmed with all the tasks placed in front of him, so I pitch in when I can. Now I’ve also been asked to create the booklet that will be given to prospective and new parents. It will involve taking photos (and editing them), asking people to write content, the design, and organizing it all. I’m not quire sure when I’ll get it all done.

Our school is now about 360 students - shy of the 380 projected and upon what the budget was based. Now the new director has to deal with how to make up the monetary shortfall, particularly if enrollment does not increase. The staff is adamant about no one losing their jobs, particularly the custodial workers who get paid so low and yet whose families are dependent on that salary. I hope it works out in a way that doesn’t strongly impact anyone.

My computer lab was made larger over the summer, with the accordion curtain removed, as much of the framing wall removed (part is a support beam) and now occupying what was the age 3 room. The extra space is welcomed. There is now freedom of movement, no one has to turn their bodies completely to see the demonstration screen, and the room is less hot. I placed a small round table in one spot for use by those who need to do book research, paperwork, teacher consultation, etc. We also have a presenter’s desk, whose laptop is connected to the LCD projector for demonstrations. I am waiting for a small “office” to be created in the back side, where I can retreat when I need to concentrate and do other stuff. It should be nice when its finished.

Just as in other years, we have students who come knowing not a word of English. It’s nice to see how some of the students immediately befriend these scared or overwhelmed kids. In a few months, some of them will be speaking a fair amount of English and understanding what is being said. Of those, a few will be quite fluent, particularly in conversational English. At the lower school alone (where the largest percentage of non-English speakers are), there are three teachers who work with these students.

In Belgrade, construction continues to happen. Roads are being repaired, a bridge is set to be worked on (which will cause a GREAT impact on the traffic), and more modern business buildings are replacing old ones. In the newer flat area of New Belgrade, large supermarket and electronic stores are being built. In my neighborhood of Senjak, additional cafés are sprouting up and sadly, older homes with the typical terra cotta tiled roofs and large hooded chimneys are being torn down. In their place, larger modern apartment buildings are being constructed, contrasting in style to the older architecture of Senjak, one of the older residential parts of Belgrade.

Politically, I don’t hear much going on. The Kosovo situation has not been settled yet. Hopefully an agreement will be made soon that satisfies all sides. Regional instability could occur if things aren’t handled correctly. Hopefully with a peaceful agreement, Serbia can concentrate again on attracting foreign businesses, which provides jobs, additional needed students at our school, etc.

Personally, school has occupied most of my time and thoughts. I also am beginning an online class - 2 credit graduate course from UW Stout. Although I prefer in-person classes, this will have to do, considering the time frame and distance factor. This past Thursday I began oboe lessons, an instrument that I’ve wanted to learn how to play for many years. Indeed, the double-reed instrument is much more finicky and difficult than something like a clarinet. Hopefully between that and a bit of drawing, I can move my mind away from school for a bit during the day (particularly weekends when I have more time). I also try to go on a walk for a couple of times after supper during the week, but that doesn’t always happen, considering the number of meetings I have at school and the amount of schoolwork.

Early Fall in Belgrade

As I went for a walk this morning, the fall sun performed its magic, pleasantly warming those that entered into its rays. The blue sky made the red flowers seem as if they were on fire. In the historical Topčider park, the shade of the old trees shaded out the warmth of the sun. People were walking their dogs, jogging, or walking at a slow, amiable pace. Others sat on one of the many benches, enjoying the surroundings and watching passersby.

Along the worn gravel or stone slab paths, a few fallen leaves began to gather, the first of the season. Most were a light brown, while others were more ochre in color. Chestnuts dotted the grounds, fallen from the tall chestnut trees that line many of the roads in Senjak. Those trees are the first to drop their leaves, but the color is unimpressive, changing immediately from green to brown, then dropping to the ground.

Framing the doorframe of the park’s larger gazebos were narrow bunches of white flowers, the remnants of a recent wedding. White flowers adorned the arched entrance of the park restaurant, likely the spot where a reception was held afterwards. Elsewhere, three narrow, but 2-storey buildings were being constructed in a hasty manner. The wooden materials - unusual for Serbia - and construction manner made me conclude that this was the set for some movie.
Moving onward, I crossed the road into the smaller section of the park. After passing by a small fountain, some benches, and a spring water tap (were people could fill up bottles), I was now on the edge of one of the forests in the region. The deep toll of the bells were heard, beckoning people to come to the small church. One old man in a full suit passed me, perhaps late for the service.

Once in the “business” district, I noted the number of cafés and banks so close to each other. Buildings were being remodeled and modernized. Nearer to my apartment, more large modern-style apartments were being built, also overlooking the hippodrome. I wonder what those flats will cost. Some were built on empty lots, while others have replaced old quaint homes with the hooded chimneys. Indeed, Senjak has changed even in the 4 years I’ve been here.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Serbian Early History, Communist Times, Kosovo

The priest at Žiča willingly shared more historical information about Serbia and the Church. Serbia was the center of education, literature, and religion, long before the rest of Europe. Many of these people then moved to other parts of Europe (likely fleeing the Turks) where they began to prosper, while Serbia fell backwards under Turkish rule. For 411 years, education was forbidden by the Turks – a way to subdue the population. Serbia was under Turkish rule for 523 years. Crusaders from the First Crusade went through Serbia. When one of these kings came to Serbia, he had to use his fingerprint as a signature, while the literate Serbian king could sign his name. During King Mulitin’s 41 ½ years of reign, 42 churches were built in Serbia (including several in Kosovo region), including the impressive Gracanica in Kosovo.

During Communist times, churches had their own rule and even were allotted a certain number lf hectares depending on the age of the church, with older ones getting more land. The land was tax-free. People during Communist times were allowed to go to church. No new churches could be built, but current ones could be used and were not harmed. The only church falling under state rule was Oplenac, as it was the burial place for the kings. The priest also described how St. Sava Cathedral in Belgrade was used as a garage for tanks and trucks. In 1985, construction finally began once again at this massive cathedral, the second largest Orthodox cathedral in the world – smaller only to one in Russia.

The priest expressed deep concern about the fate of the churches in Kosovo – the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church and home to many significant churches. Since the UN peacekeepers have come to Kosovo, 158 churches have been destroyed. What will happen, he feared, to those that are remaining if Kosovo becomes an independent Moslem state?

Žiča Monastery

Our last stop was Žiča, a monastery on the outskirts of Kraljevo. Also belonging to the School of Raška, Žiča was the joint endowment of King Stefan and St. Sava. A priest who served at the monastery for 48 years provided a wealth of knowledge and stories. According to a legend, St. Sava founded the first Patriarchate on his return from his long sojourn at Mt. Athos. A golden thread is said to have lead him to this site, hence giving the monastery its name, meaning cord or thread. In 1208, St. Stefan was crowned here as the first king of the Nemanjić dynasty (followed by the next 8 kings). Last year Žiča celebrated its 800th jubilee. In 1251 the archbishop seat was moved to Peć in Kosovo, but state councils continued to be held in Žiča and kings crowned here. For the first seven kings, each time a king was crowned, a new door was created and the king would walk through that door.

Žiča’s identifying feature is its red color, symbolizing (as ordered by St. Sava) that the Church is based on the blood of its martyrs. The architectural style of the church is copied by nearly all of the 13th century churches. The entryway passage into the monastery grounds contains frescoes from the 14th century, with a transcription of the founding charter of the monastery – a very important historical document. They were in much better preservation than those in the church.

Žiča was looted many times, first by a Bulgarian prince, renewed by King Milutin in 1309, then raided several times by the Turks. The lead of the roof was melted by the Turks, leaving the church without a roof for many years, causing extensive damage, particularly to the frescoes. It was again damaged in WWII, bombed 5-6 times. After the church still stood, the Germans poured petrol in the church and lit it on fire. According to our priest guide, 61 monks were killed (1 survived), along with others in the village. After this, the remaining frescoes were conserved, but not repaired or repainted. In 1928, all archives were taken to Belgrade for restoration and learning. Unfortunately in October 1941, the National Library where they were held was bombed and completely destroyed, along with it the precious documents.

Although the frescoes inside the church were badly damaged and many completely lost, the priest pointed out that much of Serbian history can be found in the frescoes. One fresco has three doctors (2 holding surgical tools and another with medicine) – a testament to the modern medicine of the time, still pictured in modern medicine books. The “Dormition of Our Lady” is another significant fresco. As in Studenica, photography was not permitted inside of the churches.

The monastery grounds also contains a baptistery reconstructed from found fragments and a smaller church built at the same time as the main church, with remnants of a few 14th century frescoes. Residential buildings were extensively restored between 1925 and 1935.


On our final day, we visited two monasteries – Studenica and Žiča. One of the most important monasteries in Serbia, Studenica is located 11 km from Ušće and 241 km from Belgrade, Studenica was founded by Stefan Namanja. His son Sava established the independence of the Serbian church, became the first prior, and wrote what became the cornerstone of the monastic rules for Serb monks. According to the monastery’s tour guide, there currently are 10 monks in Studenica, six of which are in practice to become priests.

The largest church, the Church of the Virgin Mary, was constructed in 1183-1191 in honor of St. Sava’s father. It was built in a new style termed the Raška style, consisting of a Byzantine church space and exterior in a Romanesque style. This new Raška style became the prototype for subsequent churches. A large ethnonarthex was added by Stefan Namanja’s son King Radoslav in 1233 – a very different look than the rest of the church. Inside was an older baptistery with marble columns and a newer ones with steps up into a large wooden tank. I was told that baptism by immersion was not practiced though. One can also see Stefan Nemanja’s marble tomb (his burned body was returned from Mt. Athos in Greece) and a 19th century walnut casket inlaid with designs of mother-of-pearl and ivory containing Stefan’s son, Stefan Prvovenčani.

The portal above the door entering the main part of the church depicted a carving of Jesus in Mary’s lap, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel on each side. In front was an altar built in 1837, a silver casket containing St. Sava’s mother, and chairs around the periphery of the room that were added just 4 years ago. Prior to then, people had to stand – very typical of Serbian Orthodox churches.

The most important parts though were the frescoes. The oldest ones date back to 1208 and represent a new chapter in medieval Serbia and all of Byzantium. They reflect a development in which there is an increased emphasis on the human form, its physical strength, and its definition of character. For the first time, inscriptions were written in Serbian and not Greek. Sadly, many of the frescoes now have white potmarks, remnants of an unsuccessful repainting job (1569) which were later removed. Attempts at filling in the holes and adding pigment has been unsuccessful, as restorers haven’t been able to get the correct formula of plaster (including a mixture of straw, boar hair, and other materials). Other frescoes, particularly those at lower levels, had the eyes gouged out by the Turks, who were afraid that the saints were watching them. Thankfully, the church’s masterpiece – The Crucifixion – was spared and is in an excellent state of preservation. It contains rich colors of gold, maroon, and Byzantine blue – which has not been duplicated.

White marble for the exterior was taken from the nearby Radočelo Montain. Many of the workers were Italian – hence the Romanesque influence as seen in the elaborately carved leaves, figures, mythological beasts decorating doorways and doors.

Studenica also contains two other churches, the King’s Church built in 1313 and a small St. Nicholas Church built in the 13th century. Although small, King’s Church contains frescoes that rank among the best achievements of the Byzantine world during that period. Frescoes such as “Birth of the Virgin” and “Entering to the Temple” go beyond more symbolism and demonstrate an increasing interest in portraying realism and technique. Portraits of King Milutin, his wife, St. Sava, and St. Simeon, are among the finest portraits of the middle ages. Unfortunately photography was strictly forbidden inside the churches.

Other buildings include a tower from the early 13th century, a nicely restored monastery residential quarters, and a refectory with plain white marble tables. In the hot weather, the refectory’s cool temperatures were welcome. Leaving the monastery grounds, we filled up our water bottles at the fountain known for its excellent water.

Maglić - medieval fortress

Our next destination was Maglić, a 13th century medieval castle high above the Ibar River about 25 km from Kraljevo. This castle post enabled easy control over the Ibar valley. Its name means “Foggy One” in Serbian. Indeed, there was a certain fog around the castle. We picked up a young man in front of the Bogutavać restaurant (the oldest restaurant in Serbia – nearly 200 years old) who had traversed up to Maglić countless numbers of times. We were told that there might be snakes along the path, so we wore pants and sneakers. It was about 100° (38°C) out, making the climb even more challenging.

Parking the van at the edge of the river, we saw several people embarking on white water rafting. A small suspension bridge crossing the Ibar River just had its wooden boards replaced after a woman fell through the week before. Shortly after beginning the ascent, we met an older woman heading back down. She said that she had turned back before reaching the top, due to the difficulty of the terrain and the heat. We decided to move onward, but decided to take water breaks and short rests.

Finally we reached the single entrance, passing through 2 meter thick walls and into the ruins of the fortress. Inside were the ruins of a 2-storey palace with high gables, a large reservoir for water, and a well. Protected by the Ibar River on three sides, the fortress has a rectangular shape, 7 towers, and a large dungeon. Climbing up wooden ladders, we reached the upper level and the fortress walls. We had to be careful, as some of the wooden plans were rotten and there were no guardrails. From here, the curved shape of the Gothic-style single nave St. George Church was more visible. From the towers, we had an excellent view of the Ibar River and valley – definitely a strategic vantage point. The surrounding mountains were heavily forested. The towers had the typical narrow arrow slits and other fortification measures. Some openings were larger and were likely used to pour hot oil on invaders.

Inquiring about a newer-looking structure, we were told that it was built to temporarily house the bones found here. Monks and nuns from Žiča fled to Maglić for protection – which worked for a while. Despite its fortification and height, Maglić fell into Turkish hands in 1438 and then finally in 1459, becoming a center of a large Turkish district. The bones have since been returned back to Žiča. The fortress of Maglić also was of some military importance for the last time during the Second Serbian Uprising (1815).

Koštunići and Ravna Gora


Our next destination was the village of Koštunići, located on the southern slopes of the Suvobor Mountain. We had come to see the ethno village opened in 1996, but were disappointed to hear that the entire thing was closed down now due to bankruptcy (other businesses) by the owners. It would have been great to have seen local villagers demonstrate regional crafts. Hopefully in a few years the place will be bought by someone else and reopened. We were met at the intersection of a road by Mr. Damljanović, a preppy-dressed man who identified himself as our host. Once at their farm, we were warmly greeted by the entire family – his wife, mother and father, and 4-year old daughter. After carrying up our luggage to the upper level of the house, we went outside for some drinks under a grapevine-covered veranda. For lunch we were served kaymak, (a creamy dairy product) pršuta (smoked dried meat slices), chicken, tomatoes, cheese, and more.

After our hike in the heat around Ravna Gora and a visit to Mr. Damljanović's aunt and uncle (see below in Ravna Gora section), we all were tired. Despite this, Mr. Damljanović immediately put on his farm clothes, helped the grandmother milk the two cows (using a small pulsator machine recently purchased), and then left to move some beehives several hours away. What a hard worker! We took a small tour of the farm, the grandmother and 4-year old Ljubica leading us around. We tasted some of their plump raspberries also tied up like vines. Ljubica helped the grandmother move the sheep from the pasture into the barn.

After another large meal, we settled down for the evening, chatting with the family. The following morning we were treated to another hearty meal. We bought some of their honey and they packed up some raspberries for us. It was a pleasure getting to know this close-knit extended family.

Ljubica and her mother drove down with us to the small museum in Koštunići, showing us the small St. George Church and a museum honoring Vojvoda Zivojin Misić (1855-1921), general of the Serbian First Army during critical times in battle. This man was an uncle to grandpa Damljanović. The museum included some of his weapons, clothing, personal items, writings, portraits of him, topographical map of the Serbian and German army locations. Thanking them once again for their hospitality, we exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch.

Ravna Gora
In the afternoon of our stay in Koštunići, Mr. Damljanović took us to Ravna Gora, the site where Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović, commander of the royal resistance movement gathered and pronounced the beginning of the uprising against the Germans on May 13, 1941. The site is now a mecca for Serb nationalists celebrating “Uncle Draža”, with tens of thousands coming on the 13th of May to sing songs, wave the Serbian flag, and drink rakija (brandy, typically made from plums). Recently, a monument to the general, St. George Church (1998) and a conference hall has been built on the historical mountain plateau, mainly with funds from Canadian Serbs. One man had a small stand and was selling t-shirts of “Uncle Draža”, hats, and other memorabilia. Traditional nationalist music played loudly.

Prior to visiting the monument, we took a several mile walk through forested areas and some open prairie lands to see a cave. Between steep inclines and the heat, the walk was a bit challenging. A small stream ran with cool, clear water. A bit farther on, was a cave. We were only able to go into the entrance, as it was dark and filled with water. Mr. Damljanović explained that this was the site where the chetniks successfully hid and sought refuge from the Germans. He also noted that the forest in the area had been burned by the Germans as a way to more easily find the Serbs. Refreshed from the coolness of the cave and a drink from the stream, we headed back to the t-shirt stand and then up to the monument area.

After our visit to the church and monument to “Uncle Draža”, our gracious host took us to his aunt and uncle who lived nearby on a farm only accessible on foot. Carefully ducking under an electric cow fence (must have been battery-operated), we were greeted by the 73 year old aunt who was working in the garden. Pleased to see her nephew, she welcomed us and asked us to sit down. Once again we were offered some honey and water. A bit later the 87 year old uncle joined us. Now living on a farm without electricity or phone, the uncle was at one time a judge. Chickens and small chicks wandered around the yard. After showing us the house interior, we thanked the couple and walked back up the hill to the van.

Rural Serbia

Traveling through rural Serbia is a rather slow process. Roads are narrow and windy, and you often encounter slow-moving tractors on the road, which are either driving to get to their fields or are hauling recently harvested crops. In late June, hay wagons (either loose or baled) and combines were a common sight. Perhaps it is a good thing that one can’t cruise through the area quickly, as the landscape is beautiful and its inhabitants are rich with hospitality.

Moving onward from Garasi, we saw some horses and cows grazing in a picturesque area. Pulling over to take some photos, we saw an older woman with a child. Noticing the raspberries planted on the other side of the road in rows like vineyards, we asked her if we could buy some. Instead, she told us just to help ourselves – her neighbor who owned the field wouldn’t mind. Shortly thereafter, we saw a John Deere combine in action. A younger man took a long wooden pole with a forked end, lifting up the telephone lines so the combine could navigate more easily. Another farmer in at the entrance of the field offered my dad a drink of his 2 liter bottle of cold beer – which tasted good in the early heat. Within minutes, another farmer came, one who had lived in Chicago for a number of years.

Signage was limited or confusing at times, necessitating the occasional pause at a café for directions. Even the locals couldn’t always agree on which fork of the road to take. On one rural road, we stopped at a small farm. A man emerged from his elderly mother’s house. He was using his vacation time and returned to the farm to take care of his ailing mother. In true Serbian fashion, he wanted to offer us something sweet to eat (such as honey or slatko – a type of jam made from wild berries), but all he had was some sugar cubes. Although we weren’t too keen on sucking on a cube of sugar, we knew that it was important to honor his offer of hospitality. The man also offered us some fresh water, which he drew up from an old-fashioned crank well. Thanking him for the directions and hospitality, we moved onward.

On the right side of a wooded road was a small dirt road curving downward. Our guide thought that this might be a good place to meet a typical farmer and his farm. Little did we know that the old man would touch all of our hearts. Hearing our greeting, an 88 year old man emerged from his summer kitchen, greeting us with either a handshake or traditional 3-cheek kiss. With tears of gratitude in his eyes, he asked what fortune had brought him that he should be blessed with so many visitors. He explained that his wife had passed away on Christmas from pneumonia since they weren’t able to afford the medication. His daughter came about once a week to bring groceries and check on him. With the removal of a type of pension, he was left to subsist on less than 100 euros a month. He wore the traditional shajkaca hat, a knitted vest (even though it was hot out), simple trousers, long woolen socks and rubber slip-on boots. A layer of white stubble framed his thin face and grey eyes. Apologizing for being a bad host as he didn’t have anything to offer us, we repeatedly said that meeting him was a gift enough for us. Touring the farm, he invited us into the barn, which held two cows. He showed how he shoveled out the manure by hand with a shovel. Also on the farm were a few pigs and some chickens that roamed freely. Inside his house, the shakjaca-clad man showed us the black and white photographs of him and his wife, as well as some wedding photos of his parents. In the living room he proudly showed us a certificate recognizing his contributions as a soldier during WWII. Like most others of the region, he fought as a chetnik, a loyalist to the Serbian monarchy and opposed to the Communist movement. After giving him a baseball cap sporting a cow and outline of Wisconsin, we thanked him, gave us our goodbyes, and moved onward. Later that evening we received a phone call from his daughter clarifying the purpose of the visit and emphasizing how happy we had made him.

Mosaic Marvel - Oplenac's St. George Church

Continuing onward in the heat, our next destination was Oplenac. The area known as Topola served as Karađorđe’s campaign headquarters during the first National Uprising. After a brief visit of the small museum housed in what was King Peter’s house (built 1910), we walked up the hill to the entryway of the St. George’s Church, treating ourselves to an ice cream. The white marble edifice (with local marble) glistened against the deep blue sky, commanding a presence on top of the hill. Despite its relatively young age (consecrated in 1912 and founded by King Peter I), this 5-domed church didn’t escape damage from wars either. Damaged and desecrated in WWI by the Austro-Hungarians, it was partly rebuilt in the 1920’s. It was during this time that the mosaics were created. Over 40 million mosaic tiles cover the walls of the church and mausoleum (lower level) – the 2nd largest number of tiles in the world. Brilliantly colored, over 15 million shades of color can be found. Motifs are copied from frescoes in over 60 Serbian monasteries. Some of the columns depict the life of St. Sava, one of the founders of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Following the stairs below the main part of the church is a crypt mausoleum built for the dynasty Karađorđe family. Although rather dark, the bright tiles glistened. The tomb of King Alexander (murdered in Marseilles in 1934), his mother, and other family rulers are here. Most of the tombs are vacant. The arched walls depicting the life of St. Peter. The angels reminded me of those described in the Book of Revelations.

Although some might find the mosaics of St. George’s Church a bit much, I found it to be visually stunning, full of details everywhere I looked. Only 80 km from Belgrade, perhaps I’ll have the chance.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Manasija Monastery

The first of two main stops on our second day was the heavily fortified monastery of Menasija. Located just outside of Despotovac, Menasija was built between 1407 and 1418. Built in the Moravian School style, its “Resava School” became a cultural center for writers and artists from provinces that had already fallen to Turkish rule. Translations and writings that occurred here (even during the 15th and 16th centuries) changed the history of South Slavic literature and language, spreading its influence over all of the orthodox Balkans. Had the Turks not interrupted these artistic endeavors, the Resava School may have become the focal point for the Serbian equivalent of the Italian Renaissance.

The interior is protected by massive walls, 11 towers, and trenches, the structure’s construction definitely depicts the dangers of the times when Turkish raids were increasingly common. Despite the attempts at protection, Menasija also fell to the Turks, first in 1439, then 1456 (at which time it was looted and burned), robbed multiple times and then renewed several times between 1735 and 1854. During the Austrian occupation, the gunpowder kept in the church blew up most of the narthex, necessitating a large amount of rebuilding. Nearly half of the frescoes were ruined from roof leaks after the lead roof of the church was taken away by the Turks for munitions creation. What remains are some of the most beautiful frescoes of the Serbian middle ages and pinnacle of the Morava school of painting. Among the notable frescoes are what is considered the best portrait of Depot Stefan and the Holy Warriors, complete with realistic depictions of weapons of the time. Due to work on the 15th century marble tiled floor, the workers weren’t too keen have tourists inside, so I only had a few minutes to enjoy the view before I had to exit the church via a plank. Instead, we were left to admire the simply styled marble outside built during the Nemanajić dynasty. Standing 25.6 meters tall, the cathedral of Menasija is second only in height to the church of the “High” Dečani in Kosovo. The elongated domes were especially elegant.

To the south of the church are the remains of a stone refectory stood, hopefully being restored. Currently, bright red flowers lined the curved tops of the ruins.

Lepinski Vir and Djerdap Gorge

Stefanović Family Pension
As this was an ethno tour, we stayed at the homes of people. This was a great way to meet local people, eat authentic food, and find lodging in areas not often served by hotels. This family had been doing this for several years already. Their property was on a high hill overlooking the Danube. Across the river one could see Romania. A cool breeze provided welcome relief from the heat that would increase over the days. Fat chickens roamed free and goats were in pens. Fruit trees including cherries, plums, pears, and apples dotted the landscape, including the steep slope. After a mandatory shot glass of home-made rakija with honey and tall glass of elderberry juice (also domestic) we toured through the lawn full of imaginative sculptures created by the always barefoot husband from driftwood, stumps, and branches. Lunch, attractively presented including rose petals scattered on the outdoor table, included corn bread, local cheeses including goat cheese with herbs, breaded vegetables, wild mushrooms delicately seasoned, soup, and meat.

Later that afternoon, we went for a walk within Đerdap National Park nicknamed the “Roof of the World”. Emerging from the wooded area was a high meadow from which one had an excellent view of the four gorges in the area. Dotting the hill of low-growing plants were plants from which St. John’s Wort and another plant locally known for its kidney medicinal value. On the walk, we also visited an old lady tending her goats and sheep. After learning (she only spoke Romanian) that we wanted to take some photos, she desperately tried to get her goats to cooperate for some poses with her. We learned that she lived in a cottage without water or electricity and that her daughter, who left 30 years earlier, has yet to return. We also encountered an old man nearing 90 years of age (although he didn’t look nearly that old) tending a couple of cows.

Back at the pension after the walk and Lepinski Vir, we met a trio of bikers – a father, teenage son, and younger niece. They were traveling along the Danube, documenting its beauty and diversity. This was the first time I saw people in Serbia camping out in a tent. Just as we sat down for supper, the lights went out. It might have been a good thing we couldn’t see too well, as the main dish was sarmica – prepared from boiled lamb liver and lungs. In addition to the Kačamak made from corn paste, the meal was once again tasty. Stars were plentiful and only a few lights from distant tiny villages dotted the landscape.

Lepinski Vir

A short distance away from the Stefanović farm was the archaeological site of Lepinski Vir. This site was discovered during archaeological explorations (1965-70) that proceeded the building of two dams on the Danube. At this time they found traces of a Neolithic culture dating between 8000 and 4500 BC, a complex culture perhaps one of the most advanced in all of prehistoric Europe. About a dozen settlements of the same culture have since been found, with evidence of trapezoidal huts, small sanctuaries and fireplaces in homes, and elaborate cemeteries. Stone figures of humans with large eyes and fish-like mouths (likely idols of hunters and fishermen who depended on the Danube) were found, along with jewelry, tools made of bone and stone, and tablets carved with letter-like symbols. The small museum contained some replicas of the most valuable artifacts, which are now in Belgrade’s National Museum. The site was located under a tiled weathered roof with fiberglass sides. Besides being hot, the structure made it too dark to see much, particularly since the roped areas were very limited. The poorly funded structure did this important site a great disservice.

Golubac Fortress

At the entrance to Đerdap Gorge/National Park is the fortress Golubac. We had just seen the widest part of the Danube, which looked more like a lake than a river. Now the river narrowed into what is known as the Iron Gates, which is Serbian for Đerdap. This is the largest river gorge in Europe. It was here that a fortress was built in the 14th century, becoming the most valuable fort on the Danube. Although one could see the fortress consisting of nine towers arranged above each other with an irregular base hugging the steep terrain, the view would have been even more spectacular from a boat on the Danube. Also seen were the remains of a palace near the river and a low, polygonal tower built by the Turks to strengthen the town against firearms. This part jutted into the river, perhaps because of the dams.

Like nearly all of Serbia’s important monuments, Golubac also fell to the Turks. The first time was after the battle of Kosovo in 1389, followed by 25 years back in Serbian hands, and then reverted back to the Turks in 1458. The fort was used for military purposes, but lost much of its defensive strength in the 19th century due to the rise of fire power. After taking some photos, we drove through the rather narrow gate and out to the other side of the fort.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Romantika Train Trip to Sremski Karlovci

Romantika Train Ride
On Saturday I took the historical Romantika train to the town of Sremski Karlovci with my colleague Olja. I had never been on this early 19th century train and was looking forward to it. Operating on weekends starting in late May through September, the historical train takes passengers to specific destinations in Serbia. We were pleased to hear that the first class tickets were still available, contradicting what Olja had been told the day before. Even though I would have been okay with the wooden seats of 3rd class, I do have to admit that the idea of padded seats for less than $10 for the 2-way ticket was much more appealing. The train engine ended up being a newer vehicle, but the cars were filled with the character and warmth of an old (but well-maintained) one. The striped slightly padded seats facing each other had high backs. Below the slightly aged window was an embossed wooden sign, written in both Cyrillic and Latin script. The wooden side continued up around the slightly curved ceiling. The flooring also was wooden, worn through the ages and faded.

Taking off from the train station, we crossed the Sava River. Once across the river we saw one of several Roma settlements. From the train, I had a closer view of their horrible living conditions. Moving past New Belgrade, I saw many new construction sites amongst the Communist-era buildings. Once out of Belgrade, the land became quite flat and the region very agricultural. In the corn fields, one could see people with hoes. What a lot of work to weed those narrow corn fields! In the rotation of fields were also oats and wheat. Poppies poked their bright heads in some places. In the rural villages, bicycle riding was a common mode of transportation. Despite the already warm morning, children and teens were out playing soccer. As we got closer to our destination, the flat land suddenly gave way to some rolling hills. Just before Sremski Karlovci, Danube river once again came within view.

Located in the region of Vojvodina about 8 km from the city of Novi Sad, Sremski Karlovci has a population of around 10,000. It originally was the site of a Roman fortress. The Romans are credited with introducing grape vines to the region, thus starting the wine-making practice for which Sremski Karlovci is known. In the fall a wine festival is held, which I attended one year. Until 1521, Sremski was a possession of the Hungarian noble families, followed by Turkish occupation for 170 years. Sremski Karlovci was a spiritual, political, and cultural center of the Serbs during the Hapsburg rule and still is home to the region’s Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate. Architecture in the town has a much stronger Austro-Hungarian feel than in Belgrade. It was here that the Karlovci Peace Treaty was signed in 1699, ending the war between Christian countries and the Turkish Empire.
City Center
Following the crowd from the train station, we arrived in the city center. Lining both sides of the pedestrian street were stalls selling local wine, crafts, baked goods, honey, and other items. Children and adults alike were attracted to the brilliant hues of annual plants for sale. On this already warm day, ice cream was becoming a fast favorite. Others enjoyed a cool drink under the shade of umbrellas at cafés. More and more students of various ages continued to arrive, touring the historic town with their school.

At the center of the tree-shaded Trg Branka Radičevića (named after a poet native to the town) was a 1770 marble fountain with four lions. I was glad that I had seen it on previous visits, as it was currently undergoing restoration. To one side of the fountain was the baroque St. Nicholas Serbian Othodox church, built between 1758 and 1762. We took a quick peek inside in between the large groups of children. Here we admired the carved iconostasis, wall paintings, and newly-renovated floor. Next to the cathedral was a neoclassical town hall, built between 1806 and 1811. At the far end of the trg one could see the seminary, established in 1794 – the second oldest Orthodox seminary in the world. Its sphinx-like figures at the base of the steps with bulbous breasts was a curious sight, especially considering the function of the building. Continuing around the rectangular city center were an array of buildings and homes dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. At the opposite end of the seminary was the high school, a proud symbol for Sremski Karlovci and Serbia in general. Established in 1791, this high school was the first high school in Serbia. The current building (1891) is a delightful blend of traditional Serbian and secessionist styles. Due to the overwhelming number of student-led tours, we were unable to secure a tour guide and thus were unable to see the beautiful interior of this prestigious high school.

For lunch, we walked to the Danube Hotel located on the banks of the Danube River. Greatly expanded in recent years, this hotel’s restaurant is known for its fish soup. It was pleasurable just sitting in the shade and chatting, watching the occasional boats and birds go by.

Mini-tour of Sremski Karlovci
Back at the main square, we re-entered the tourist information place, where the woman apologized for not being able to offer us a tour guide but did suggest a few places to visit. In the heat of the day, our walking pace slowed. Passing some older homes that reminded me a bit of the Renaissance-era homes in Slovakia, we arrived at the oldest church in town. The grounds were well-kept and lush, a labor of love for the older gentleman who greeted us. He opened the carved wooden door where we were greeted with cooler temperatures. The interior was much simpler in contrast to the large cathedral on the main square. The gentleman explained that this church had received some restoration funding during the time of Milosević, but more was needed and now the church seemed to be forgotten and overshadowed by larger ones. The walls and ceiling, once likely covered by frescoes or paintings, was now a stark white. The altar contained paintings of Jesus’ life (as well as some of Mary). I was drawn to one in which Jesus was holding a dark sphere in his hand with a small piece sticking up from the top. I presume it was meant to resemble the Earth, but I couldn’t help thinking of it as the round bomb that you saw in cartoons. Lining the sides of the church were tall wooden seats, each labeled with a person’s name. Talk about reserved seating!

As we walked behind the High School, we saw a large group of schoolchildren entering as part of their tour. It would have been nice to sneak along with them to see the school’s interior. Moving onward, we entered a forested area known as the King’s Garden. Although we didn’t see any flowers, the shaded area provided relief from the heat and sun. Passing by a few dilapidated benches, we found one that was safe enough to sit on. Here we chatted some more, enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

After our walk through the forest, we got something to drink at a cute little store and visited another little church. Tractors with license plates passed us. Rounding the corner, the main square was once again in front of us. Busses of schoolchildren still arrived, replacing those who had already left.

With some time left before we needed to head back to the train station, we enjoyed a drink at the café. By the Orthodox Cathedral we heard a man playing the string bass and another playing the accordion. Men dressed in suits and women in nice dresses began to gather. Shortly thereafter, the bells of the church began to toll, rich tones varying in pitches. Such a beautiful, joyous sound. Olja explained that this likely was a wedding. After a period of time, people exited the church. One had a basket. When the bride passed, the basket’s contents of rose petals were thrown into the air. Church bells once again filled the air.

It was now time to head towards the train station. The late-afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the bricks of the seminary building. After taking a few photos, we left the city center. Back at the train station, the diverse group of train passengers began to arrive. Back in our seats, we settled in as the train began its journey back to Belgrade. It had been a pleasurable Saturday trip.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Serbia winner of Eurovision song contest

On May 12, the winner of the Eurovision song contest was announced. Marija Šerifović of Serbia had the winning song out of 42 participating countries. Her song Molitva, meaning "Prayer" in English, became the first winning song containing no English lyrics since 1998. Although countries tended to vote for their neighbors, the passionate singing and moving lyrics pushed Šerifović to first place. Unlike many of the singers, her performance was not flashy or dominated by fancy costumes or movements. Rather, this plain-looking person won through the quality of her song.

When she arrived back at the Belgrade airport, over 30,000 people prepared a mass rally for her in front of the Civic Assembly of Belgrade.

Lyrics (English version titled Destiny)
I'm wide awake
An empty bed drives my dreams away
Life melts like ice
Disappears in the twinkling of an eye

I'm losing my mind,
Pushing reality out of sight
Our lips are touching softly
You're the one I believe blindly

[ Molitva lyrics found on ]
I walk around like crazy
Falling in love frightens me
Days are like wounds
Countless and hard to get through

It burns my sore lips like a fire
Thy name is something I admire
Heaven knows just as well as I do
So many times I have cried over you
Heaven knows just as well as I do
I pray and live only for you

I can't lie to God
as I kneel down and pray
You're the love of my life
That's the only thing I can say

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Springtime in Belgrade

Today is May Day (or Labor Day) in Serbia, a national holiday in which everyone (except our school) was off from work. And what a beautiful spring day it was. After supper I went out for a lovely stroll through part of Senjak, the residential section of Belgrade in which I live.

The temperature was perfect – 66°F (19°C) with the gentlest of breezes and low humidity. The sun provided warmth in a cozy but not overbearing way. As I walked along, the strong scent of some white blossoms commanded my attention. Their perfume reminded me of the wonderful scent of jasmines that proliferated along the Croatian seacoast and in Tunisia. Roses of all types have suddenly burst forth, with the reds and pinks contrasting beautifully against the white ones. Lilacs have nearly finished their blooming season, but you can still find a few. Tall chestnut trees have fully sprouted leaves, accentuated by their conical blossom formation. Potted flowers line the balconies, exhibiting a myriad of colors. Fuzz from trees lazily floated in the air, outnumbering the insects. Birds sang their mating songs, rising above the sound of traffic.

The neighborhood park was active, but in a relaxed sort of way. Men sat and read magazines at the many benches or worked on word puzzles. Parents and grandparents alike pushed young children in strollers, walking at a leisurely pace. Elderly couples strolled along the many paths of the park. Children happily played on the see-saws, slides, and other playground equipment.

Back in my apartment, I looked out from my balcony. From here, I could easily see the horses galloping on the track of the hippodrome, located down the hill from me. In the distance I could see Ada park and lake, with its trademark fountain spewing water high into the sky. No doubt many boats were deployed on the Sava and Danube Rivers.

In the riverboat restaurants and cafés, people would be sipping Turkish coffee and smoking cigarettes. Others would be enjoying fish soup or other fish dishes. This time of year, Belgrade’s Kalemegdan fortress and park would also be full of people, strolling along, admiring the view of the two rivers, or enjoying an ice cream treat purchased at one of the many ice cream vendors. Along the main walking street Knez Mihajlova, the sound of accordions and other instruments would be heard, along with the occasional street performer. Like any other day, this long pedestrian street would be full of people walking at a leisurely pace, reminding you that this is not a sleepy city – day or night. Cafés and restaurants sprawl out onto the walkway and streets, making it a great place to enjoy a drink or people watch. Young children happily clutch a shaped mylar balloon, just purchased from a vendor across from Kalemegdan. Others toss popcorn or bread crumbs to the pigeons who eagerly gobble up the treat. Young women would pop in and out of whatever stores would be open for the day, admiring the brand-name clothing and shoes. Perhaps the green markets would also be open today. Here one could purchase locally grown produce, some imported fruit, household goods, and tables full of annual flowers.

Indeed, Belgrade is great place to be in during the spring. Come and check it out some time!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Super Serbia- Kryptonite Discovered

Finally, Serbia made the news for something positive - nothing about the wars, Kosovo, The Hague tribunal, or anything of the sort. A Serbian mining company discovered a mineral that was unlike anything they had seen. When the Natural History Museum and Canadian Natural Research Council analyzed the material and found out the composition, supposedly the team "Googled" sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide and found that it was mentioned - in a very unlikely place. In the 2006 movie Superman Returns, the villain Lex Luthor steals kryptonite from a museum in a box marked "sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide with fluoride". Unlike the kryptonite in the movie which is crystal-like, green, and harmful, the version found in Serbia is a perfectly harmless white powder. The mineral which is formally named Jadarite (it can't be called Kryptonite since it has nothing to do with Krypton), will be on display at London's Natural History Museum.

On a slightly similar note...

While on a crowded Belgrade bus yesterday, I noticed a young woman wearing a t-shirt with the "S" logo of Superman, followed by the letters forming the word Serbian. How fitting, I thought. Here is a country that is deeply proud of its heritage and is willing to stand its ground, even if it means defying the "big guys".

Now it's time for the country to shake off its "villain" status and start being noticed by the world for its history, natural beauty, and warm people.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Kotor, Montenegro

A few hours later, we arrived in the sleepy Montenegrian town of Kotor. We immediately headed to the Old City, a wall preserved walled medieval city built between the 12th and 14th century. The medieval architecture and numerous monuments of cultural heritage put Kotor on the list of World Natural and Historical Heritage Sites. As in the other Old towns, this one was also filled with narrow winding streets, churches, and city squares. Hungry, we found a small restaurant and ordered pizza, including one topped with kaymak and other regional specialties.

We then began our rather ambitious climb up the steep winding path to the fortifications on the mountain overlooking the Old City. Not much of the fortifications were left, but some preservation had recently been done through funding by the US embassy in Belgrade. We stopped a few times along the way, admiring the views of the Old Town and surrounding harbor, and catching our breath. Slogging onward in the heat, we finally made it to the top. Here we were afforded gorgeous views of town and southern Europe’s deepest fjord. Yellow wildflowers contrasted with the azure blue water below. A tattered flag of Montenegro flapped in the breeze. After relishing in the views and our accomplishment, we headed back down. Going down was significantly easier. Parched, we found a small store and gulped down water.

Wanting to make sure we didn’t miss our bus to the Tivat airport, we arrived early. Unfortunately, things operated at a less-than-efficient rate, forcing us to take a taxi to the airport instead. As our only travel hitch, we could hardly complain. After a 50 minute plane ride from the tiny Tivat airport, we were back in the capital city of Belgrade.


Our last destination in Croatia was the touristy town of Dubrovnik. Its Old Town has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and was our area of concentration. At one time this historic town rivaled Venice for sea trade, gaining wealth by trading with Egypt, Syria, Sicily, Spain, France, and later Turkey. Its first pharmacy, opened in 1317, is still operating. In 1667 a devastating earthquake killed over 5,000 citizens. This, coupled with the opening of new trade routes to the east sent the area into slow decline, ending with the conquest of the town by Napoleon in 1806. Dubrovnik later became part of the Habsburg Empire.

With the help of a kind man (who was one of many offering rooms for rent) at the bus station, we were directed to the proper local bus that would take us almost right up to our hotel. Freshened up, we walked down the rather steep hill to Old Dubrovnik. The fragrant scent of blooming jasmine permeated the night air. In front of us, an area was blocked off with police tape. I then spotted a handgun just within the area. Pressed to move on, we continued our walk in the dark past the fancy Hilton hotel and through the Pile Gate.

Old Town at Night

Once inside the Old Town, we were on the beginning of the main pedestrian street called Placa, or Stradun. To our left was the Franciscan monastery and the third-oldest functioning pharmacy in Europe. A sign outside the stone monastery revealed that concerts were frequently held inside. To our right was the huge Onofrio Fountain (1438), its red brick dome contrasting with the dirty grey structure. An orange tree hugged the corner of the city wall and a joining building.

Hungry, we headed towards the fish restaurant recommended to us by the hotel clerk. It was located just off of the Placa in one of the many narrow side streets that contained restaurants, cafés, and shops. After a tasty meal of fish and seafood, we walked through a bit more of the town. Almost right in front of the restaurant was St. Blaise’s Church, an Italian baroque structure built in 1715 as a replacement to an earlier one destroyed in the earthquake. Although the majority of the façade was covered in scaffolding, the large semi-circular stained glass window proudly displayed its brilliant hues. At the end of the pedestrian street was the bell tower, with several mechanical figures “ringing” the bell with regular frequency. Halfway down the tower were two clocks, one in a sun ray-like analog design and a unique one below that, with one square showing the hour in roman numerals and the minutes in traditional numbers.

Nighttime in Dubrovnik was a mixture of quiet, but omnipresent pedestrians enjoying the mild temperatures and relaxing atmosphere. After a pleasant walk around the tastefully lit old town, we took a bus up to our hotel.

Tour of the Old Town
The next morning we headed down the hill after breakfast at the hotel. It was the first overcast day we had experienced while in Croatia. Noticing tiny patches of grey-blue and a struggling sun, I hoped that the clouds would clear. Thankfully, this already began to happen as we entered through the open doors of Pile Gate. To the left on the wall was a map of the Old Town showing the damage done by bombs and grenades from October 1991 to May 1992. A man dressed in Venetian-looking traditional clothing stood on the fountain sides, holding out a box of ribbon souvenirs for sale to the many tourists that would pass by during the day.

One of our first destinations was St. Blaise’s Church. Inside, the colors of the semicircular stained glass window cast a psychedelic pattern on the white columns. The morning light also illuminated the front altar, where a nun was carefully placing gardenias and Easter lily flowers. The atmosphere inside was tranquil and slightly magical with the mixture of color and light. Shortly after we left, the direction of the light changed, no longer revealing the play of color we had witnessed.
Back outside, the number of tourists had already increased. A large number were from two cruise ships that had arrived, its retired largely American passengers descending upon the town in large groups. Also represented were a large number of French, Japanese, and British tourists.

Walking the City Wall
One of the best ways to get a view of the city was to take a walk on top of the city walls. Even though it was 50 Kunas ($9), we decided it was well worth the cost. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, these massive walls enclose the entire old city for a distance of over 2 km and 25m in height. Scattered around the walls are two round towers, 14 square towers, two corner fortifications, and a large fortress.

It was fun walking around the perimeter, peering below into walled backyards full of flowers and lemon trees. In other areas, the main wall went right up to homes. The scent of jasmine filled the air. From the wall, one also had great views of the Old Port, Lokrum Island, and Fort Bokar. To the north was a high green hill with a cross faintly visible. It was from here that much of the shelling originated. From above, the damage inflicted upon the city by the Yugoslav army in 1991 through militarily senseless shelling was more apparent. Some buildings were shells without roofs, with weeds overtaking the ruins. Bright terracotta tiles revealed their newness, contrasting sharply with the older worn roofs. In a few spots, restoration was currently underway, but the majority of the work has been completed. Although the restorations were done to reflect the original look of the city, I actually felt that the complete makeover lent a slightly artificial feel.

City Tour
After a sandwich (and expensive soda) at a side street café (where we met some colleagues and family), we went for a walk though the streets of Old Dubrovnik. The sun was now quite warm on what turned out to be another clear day. While on the main street, I met two of the young women with whom I had shared a room at the hostel in Split.

We proceeded to the 17th century baroque Assumption of the Virgin Cathedral. I had already taken photos of the large structure from above and its large stone sculptures on the roof and was eager to see the interior. On the right of the entrance was a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary, full of bright artificial plastic flowers, neon green vines, and some wood – a most gaudy sight in my opinion. According to the sign, the grotto was built in 1885 and was one of the oldest in Europe. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it. About the same time, our colleagues also entered the church. We would meet up with them one more time within the contained walls of Old Dubrovnik. Definitely a small place. The three-nave church contained some old paintings in the altars. It also has a large collection of treasures, including gold and silver reliquaries and the skull, arm, and leg of St. Blaise, all plated with gold. The apse was quite magnificent, complete with large rose-colored marble columns, a high chandelier, and a polyptych "The Assumption of the Virgin" (1552) painted by Titian.

One of our next destinations was the 16th century Sponza Palace. Originally it was a customs house, then a bank, and now houses the state archives. Through the large doors was an open courtyard, surrounded by multi-level arched walkways. One room was open to visitors. This was a memorial to the residents who lost their lives in the shelling – up to 200 by some estimates. Black & white photos of mostly men and older boys lined one wall. A large TV played a slide show of the destruction, also largely in black & white. Some of the scenes were quite moving and revealed the level of destruction that actually occurred. Without seeing such footage, it would be easy for visitors to forget that this seemingly intact city was once full of rubble and ruin.

Up the narrow stairs, we made a few pass-throughs of streets parallel to the main street. One street was full of fish restaurants, eagerly waiting for customers. We located the inconspicuous synagogue, the second oldest in Europe, but it was closed.

As we wandered through the tiny streets and city squares, it was apparent how tourist-centered the Old town was. Most businesses consisted of souvenir shops, galleries, ice cream stores, cafés, trendy shops, and restaurants. The open market consisted of souvenirs and a few produce items. Without the tourists flocking to the Old town and the beaches of greater Dubrovnik, I doubt there would be much else contributing to the economy.

Greater Dubrovnik
Having seen most of the Old Town, we hopped a city bus and headed for the beach areas in the Babin Kuk peninsula. The area was rather deserted. Even the shopping area had few visitors, except for an obnoxious dog and its owner. We took a path down to the coast, where two or three people enjoyed the sun. Broken bottles and rubbish littered the area – a great contrast to the rest of Dubrovnik. I guess this area would become more lively and cleaned up during the height of the tourist season. Right now it wasn’t very impressive. With not much to see, we took the bus back to the Old Town.

Golden Hour of Photography
Back in the Old Town, things were much quieter than just a few hours earlier. The tourists from the cruise ships had left. As time wore on, the colors of the light became warmer and more dramatic. I retook some photos of the small Onofrio Fountain, with the pigeons bathing themselves on the upper part of the carved structure. The golden light was especially glorious on the columns of the gothic Rector’s Palace (1441), revealing the intricate carvings on the tops of the columns. A cat lazily snoozed in the sun next to the column, seemingly impervious to the pedestrian traffic and noise around it. The shadows of the archways cast strong shadows against the inner walls. The decorative upper windows of Sponza’s Palace gained an extra level of beauty in the golden light, as did other buildings. It was a good thing I had several memory cards along!

For supper, we ate at one of the fish restaurants on the second row of stairs which we had passed by earlier. They all offered about the same menu and prices, so the decision was made by a flip of a coin. Complimentary drinks including a local sweet desert wine and carafe of white wine was served. Mussels risotto followed a large crisp fresh salad.

After taking some night shots, we took the bus back to the hotel. The next morning after breakfast we took the bus down to the bus station and then off to Kotor, Montenegro, passing through a tiny part of Bosnia on the way.

Split, Croatia

Later that afternoon we took a modern train to the capital city of Zagreb. Arriving after dark, we had a few hours before the night train would take us to Split. Near the train station was a pretty park with fountains in the middle. Surrounding the park were stately old buildings. Not wanting to venture too far with our luggage, we found an ATM machine and then had pizza at a nearby restaurant. Boarding our couchette train, we prepared for the night ride.


At about 7am, we arrived in Split, the largest Croatian city on the Adriatic Coast. We headed into the nearby Old Town, where we would be staying for the night. Dropping off our luggage, we had breakfast in Trg Republike. Here we admired the beautiful deep red arched buildings across the courtyard, with pigeons fluttering about, chased into the air by children.

Hvar Island
After breakfast we boarded the ferry to Hvar Island. On the top of the ferry we met a young Japanese female solo traveler who we had met earlier that morning at the hostel. The 1 hour 45 minute ride to the island was pleasurable, passing by numerous small islands with sparse, short vegetation. A bus took us to the town of Hvar. This sunny town lies between the protective pine-covered slopes and the clear turquoise waters of the Adriatic. After an enjoyable walk along the seaside promenade and harbor, we found a restaurant and I had a seafood salad – typical of the region. We then began our ascent up stairs and hiked up the hill to the Venetian fortress (1551). On top we were treated to panoramic views of the island and harbor and small chains of islands. A truly beautiful sight.

We then wandered through the narrow streets and strolled along the harbor. The sun was quite intense. Our climb and walks were a perfect excuse for a tasty ice cream cone. Ensuring that we had a seat on the only bus that would take us back to the ferry in time, we waited by the bus area. The ferry ride back to Split was breezy and quite chilly. Most people including me chose to go in the enclosed sections below. The crowded, smoky, and noisy area was less than ideal, but at least it was warm.

Old Split
By the time we arrived in Split, the “golden hour” of photography light had disappeared. At nightfall, monuments including the cathedral were lit up, enabling us to take some night shots. The pavement of the narrow streets reflected the light, with its large stones worn smooth through the ages. Although people walked at a leisurely pace, there was some excitement in the air. For supper, we met at the cathedral and then walked outside the old walls to a restaurant that had been recommended to us as a local place to eat fish at a reasonable price. For some reason, the restaurant was all out of fish and only had two servings of shark left. Disappointed by the waiter’s hasty rude approach and the rather tasteless meal, Sean and Roger went and had pizza at another place. I was tired and went to my hostel.

Split – an Old Roman Palace
The next morning I got up early, hoping to catch the beautiful morning light. Wandering the narrow maze-like streets, I found areas where the sun illuminated old shutters, arches and window tops sprouting pink flowers, and other architectural details. Walking onward, I reached the massive Roman city walls, which reach up to 20 meters (70 feet) high and enclose an area of 38,000 m2 (9 ½ acres). The wall, quite complete in many places, had arched openings near the top, so typical of other Roman architecture such as coliseums and aqueducts. The arches perfectly framed the brilliant clear blue skies already present in this wonderful climate. It is easy to see why Roman emperor Diocletian wanted to build his palace here for retirement in AD 305. Now that palace has been converted into a town, complete with local shops and markets, trendy stores, ATM machines, cafés, meeting squares, and residences for locals and tourists.

Fish Market and Old Town
The Old Town continued outside the original palace walls, with the same narrow streets jutting off at angles (or zigzags) and intersecting at trgs (town squares). Old ladies with black scarves carried fresh bread in cloth bags, likely repeating the same practice every day. Others stopped in the local butcher shop, with the carcasses hanging behind the white-uniformed butcher. Nearby was the fish market, which was just coming to life. On small portable tables a selection of freshly caught fish were neatly placed in plastic crates, separated by kinds. An old-fashioned scale and weights was also squeezed onto the table. Over the next few hours the one-storey fish market and area right outside it would be full of buyers and sellers, only to disappear before noon.

Meeting Sean and Roger back at the Cathedral, we went to the burek bar labeled as “spiffy” in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We wanted Roger (from Singapore) to have a taste of the Turkish pastry made from layers of thin flaky phyllo dough and filled with feta cheese. Having tasted burek before, I wouldn’t label this burek as “spiffy”, but we ate it along with yogurt and juice. Next to our table was a contrasting-colored wall, with the bottom portion of a large archway leading up to the artificial ceiling. At one time this and adjoining shops must have been part of a larger structure with large brick archways. In the middle of the wall hung a photo of the harbor and Old Split in the background. Fresh snow covered the boats, buildings, and walkway. In the corner the year was written, indicating how rare snow is in this region.

After breakfast we walked back to the Cathedral, once Diocletian’s mausoleum. It was inserted in the corridors and floors of the former palace. On the stairs leading up to the cathedral was a curious stone animal in a sphinx-like pose, seemingly guarding the doors of the church. On top of the animal were several small figures. With both the cathedral and tower charging a fee, we decided we’d get more out of the views afforded by the climb up the tower. Many stairs later (and one low-clearance overhang), we were at the top of the tower. Below us were a series of large bells and gears. One bell’s relief decorations had the date 1700 on it. Through the Corinthian-style column arched openings one had a great view of the town – both Old Split and the sprawling newer town and industrial areas. In the distance one could see the high-rise apartment buildings (likely built during Communist times) that fit the guidebook’s description as one of “stupefying ugliness”. Our attention was focused on the beauty of the collection of terra-cotta roofs, many with laundry already hung out to dry. I actually liked the old, slightly crumbling nature of the old town and am happy to see that it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We also had great view of the sea and harbor, with its collection of boats ranging from the tiny wooden rowboat to ferries and cruise ships. Satisfied with our absorption of the view, we headed back down the narrow stairs, careful to duck at the appropriate times and paused to let others making their way up to the top.
Old City Tour
Without a firm plan, we wandered through the town, taking more photos as the sun began to cast its rays in the narrow streets. In the many small public squares people gathered to chat and enjoy the sun. We also walked along the edge of the old walls. It was more difficult along the harbor side, as that area was under construction and renovation. Along the east side of the city, stalls were set up selling clothing, bags/purses, souvenirs and other items – none of which interested me. Now at the north side, we saw the massive sculpture of 10th century Slavic religious leader Gregorius of Nin, who fought for the right to perform Mass in Croatian. Its big toe had been polished to a gold shine with people who believe the act brings good luck. Hunched in front of the statue was an old lady with Parkinson’s, shakily cupping her hand requesting donations. Dressed all in black, her snowy white hair contrasted with her tanned wrinkled skin, likely weathered in the sun and difficult times.

For a mid-morning snack we went back to the Trg Republike and tried out some other pastries. Even during our time there, the light played and changed dramatically, illuminating some areas and casting others in deep shadows. We passed by one café several times, each time the same man asking us if we needed a room. Others would do the same near the bus station, uttering the words in an almost hypnotic, repetitive manner. After a sandwich along the wide pedestrian street, we gathered our luggage and headed over to the bus station for our windy (but beautiful) hot bus ride to Dubrovnik.