Saturday, March 17, 2007

New Identity Cards a Big Problem for Serbia's Unaccounted Roma

This year Serbia introduced new high-tech ID cards with chips and biometric data. According to the new regulation, all citizens over 16 residing in Serbia must have a new ID card by July 2011. The new cards include a chip with personal data on citizenship, residency, and address under an individual citizen number. Biometric data will include a face analysis, fingerprints, signature, digital photo, and digital fingerprint. Sounds pretty high-tech!

For around 400,000 Roma in Serbia, large obstacles are in the way of getting one of the new ID's. Because they live in temporary settlements without addresses, these Roma do not have the permanent place of residence required to register for an ID card. At least two generations of Roma don't even have birth certificates. Without an ID card, the state administration cannot account for them. The lack of an ID also creates large barriers for the Roma in entitlement to social services such as education and health care, as well as getting a job.

Currently, the Serbian authorities are not addressing the issue with any urgency, nor is there any real plan.

Source: The Belgrade Times, March 8, 2007

Friday, March 02, 2007


On our final day of traveling, we chose to go to the picturesque town of Levoča. Situated in the north-western part of Eastern Slovakia about 42 km from our starting point of Tatranská Lomnica. With the frequent bus stops, the trip took about 1 ¼ hours. It was notably warmer here, prompting us to stuff our hats and gloves away. Levoča is a very historical town, originating in the 13th century and built up by German colonialists and dislocated Slavic peasants. However, it was during the 14th and 15th centuries that the town really became prosperous due to its strategic position as Central European trading center on an important trade route of the Hungarian Kingdom. Buildings constructed by the burghers of the royal free town are well-preserved and contribute to the beauty of this old town. A tragic fire in 1550 destroyed most of the original Gothic structures, but the wealthy city rebuilt itself in the Renaissance style now seen. During the 16-18th centuries, the town declined due to aristocratic uprisings (and fighting for trade center rights with Kežmarok) and Turkish expansion.

Renaissance town
Upon entering the old city, the first building we saw was the Town Hall, dating back to the 15th century. The bright white façade glistened against the then-blue skies. Between the windows in the upper floor were rather faint paintings of women, representing symbols of civil virtues: moderation, carefulness, bravery, patience and justice. On the lower level were a series of archways, added in 1615. Next to the Town Hall was a bell-tower (built between 1656-1661) and the Cage of Shame, a 16th century metal cage used to punish minor delinquencies.

Church of St. Jacob
After walking around the town and enjoying the well-preserved Renaissance buildings, we headed over to the Church of St. Jacob, built in the Gothic style at the end of the 14th century. The sign on the iron gate indicated the times of the tours, so we went to a small but pleasant place for a sandwich (too many fatty meals of the Slovakian specialty had been eaten this week). Back at the church at 1pm, it still was locked, so we walked over to the town information center to find out how to get a tour. I wanted to see the famous carved altar by Master Paul of Levoča and wasn’t going to leave until I did! After purchasing the ticket at a building across from the church, we waited for the 2pm slot. The lady opened up the locked gate and let us in, locking the gate after us. Thankfully, she turned on the lights in the church, making it possible to see the beautiful treasures contained inside. After listening to the coin-operated audio commentary, we walked around.

Master Paul’s beautiful main altar made out of limewood was a sight to see. Although it rose 18.62 meters in height, it seemed light and airy, reaching towards the heavens but in an unobtrusive manner. Light from the tall, narrow gothic windows filled the negative spaces in the upper part of the altar. Gold was the dominant color, but colors were used sparingly, particularly in the backgrounds of the outer triptych relief carvings. I wanted to get closer, but the section was roped off at quite a distance. Below the main section was a carving of the Last Supper. To me, it looked like there was a head on the table. Later at a souvenir shop, I asked the shopkeeper about the carving. Puzzled as was her co-worker, she phoned and replied that it was John sleeping. An interesting rendition!
There were many other smaller altars, each dedicated to a saint or part of Jesus’ life. Each altar had a cloth embroidered with purple designs. On the walls were more carvings and some paintings. Olja especially liked the angels and would have loved to have added a few to her collection. The lady was getting impatient, but we were determined to stay until we had seen what we had wanted. We were glad we had waited and finally saw the insides of this marvelous church. Here is a website that gives you a little taste of the church:

Back to Belgrade
On Saturday morning we packed up our belongings, and waited for the bus to leave at 11:30 am. It was another long bus ride back to Belgrade, with a few stops including the customary wait at the Slovak/Hungarian border. Finally at 2:30 am the taxi dropped me off at my apartment. It had been a fulfilling, but relaxing week.


On Wednesday Olja and I split paths. I took the train to visit my cousin in Košice, the second-largest city in Slovakia and the most important eastern city. Arriving in Košice a couple of hours later than originally planned (bad train connections), Drew was there to greet me at the train station. We walked around the old city. I remarked at how clean the city was – no trash around and an absence of vehicles. Some of the buildings looked recently restored. In fact, the scaffolding had just come off of the main St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s chapel. Looking in a brochure, I hardly recognized the small chapel in the photo, all dingy dark gray. Drew explained that the area had undergone significant transformation in recent years, including the streets closed off to vehicles. In front of the church was the “singing fountain”, empty for the winter. We did notice some pansies peeking through the grass. We had a late lunch at a small restaurant he knew, and we both had a meal of fried cheese – not very healthy, but tasty. We went in a few craft shops in search of a handmade-looking doll (I try to collect one from every country I visit), but didn’t see any. I did pick up a few unique corn-husk figures for gifts.

After we had enough walking, we headed to the apartment of Drew and his new wife Andrea. Although it was next to the city center, the building (and surrounding ones) was in the drab Socialist style – such a contrast to the architecture of the city center. Over some delivered pizza, they showed me pictures of their September wedding and some videos. I especially enjoyed learning about the unique local wedding customs, including one in which a plate was shattered and the groom had to sweep up the shards as quickly as possible, hampered somewhat by guests kicking around some of the pieces. For good luck, one piece was kept. The video also contained the tradition of Andrea being “kidnapped” and Drew had to visit local pubs until he found her. Although it wasn’t as good as having been there in person (the airfare was way too costly for just a weekend), I was glad I was able to see the footage and to have spent time with Drew and Andrea.

The next morning we got up at a leisurely hour and had breakfast before heading out. We entered the city’s main attraction – St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral. It is the largest eastern-most Gothic church. It was built around 1308, with additions 200 years later. The exterior was very gothic in appearance, complete with gargoyles. The decorative roof reminded me of a church in Budapest. It was quite dark inside (no lights were on and the narrow windows didn’t let much light in on this overcast day), so it was difficult to see many of the interior architectural details. The double-winged main altar from the 15th century was quite impressive though. In various parts of the church people were praying. At the information center (once the town hall), I purchased a porcelain doll in traditional costume – not exactly what I had wanted, but it would do. After meandering through some pretty side streets (including past an old Synogague and a 16th century municipal prison), we stopped and had some crepes. On the way to the train station, I took photos of the building that had caught my eye as I entered the city, the pseudo-gothic Jakob’s Palace, built in the 19th century. Departing after a nice talk in the park, I headed back to the Tatras, carefully counting the number of stops to ensure I got off at the right destination. Thank goodness the numbers are similar in Slovak and Serbian!


On Tuesday we took a local (old) bus to Kežmarok. Our first destination was the wooden articulated church. Built (1687 and 1717) during the time of Protestants’ religious oppression, this was the first time they were allowed to build their own churches. Because the parish carried the entire costs of the construction, wood was used as the sole construction material – even the nails were wooden. The curved ceiling was painted sky blue with fluffy clouds. Especially impressive were the wooden organ pipes. Next to the wooden church was the New Evangelical Church, built in 1894. Outside, it was a coral shade of pink; inside, it was more open and had an airy feeling. Architectural styles were rather eclectic, including some Islamic Turkish influence in designs. In a side room was a tomb of Imrich Thököly, the leader of an uprising and revered by Hungarians who now place national wreaths over the tomb.

After visiting the two churches, we wandered through the quiet town. Mothers pushed their bundled-up babies in fancy strollers. Old ladies strolled at a leisurely pace. The two-storey Renaissance buildings here were again well-preserved, painted in bright, unique colors. Many had wooden roofs. Old Market street, the oldest street in Kežmarok, had houses dating back to the 13th century and were typical regional craftsmen’s homes. One of the homes was now a museum, containing beautiful period furniture and other items of the time. My favorite were the pieces with inlaid wood. Also of interest was the town hall, rebuilt between 1541-1555 in the Renaissance style and later in 1779 after a fire. Its clock tower and spire reminded me of those on Serbian churches.

At the end of the main street was the Kežmarok castle, built in 1462 as a gothic urban fortress. It was built directly inside the town to protect it against its potential enemies. Today it is a museum – which unfortunately was closed (or at least apparently so) when we checked it twice.

Strážky Castle
Back at the bus station, we waited for the local bus to the Strážky castle, one of the most important cultural monuments of the Spiš region. A walk through an Aldi-like grocery store broke up some of that time, but the wait still was long. Finally we were on the bus and reached our destination. The tour began on the hour, so we had a bit of time to kill before entering the castle converted into a Renaissance mansion in the 16th century. Meanwhile, I walked across the street and took some pictures of the late-Gothic church of St. Anna and the attractive Gothic-Renaissance belfry. I then took a quick stroll through the English park-like grounds. Our “guide” gave Olja an English copy of some information on the collection, and turned on the lights in the room ahead of us, waited, and then turned off the lights. The mansion was filled with portraits of aristocracy, most in oil but some in pastel. Although some were disproportional (or had other “mistakes) and others the subject was downright homely, I was fascinated by the detail to the clothing and jewelry. Since 1962 the family of count Eduard Mednyanszky lived here. A large portion of the paintings in the building were done by their talented son Ladislav – the definite highlight of the tour. Olja asked the “guide” a few questions about Ladislav and other basic questions, but received no answers – not a word. Perhaps she was just a fill-in. After a long wait for the bus back to Kežmarok, we made a visit to a second grocery store to kill time before the next bus, and arrived back in Lomnica and walked back to the hotel in the dark.

High Tatras Village: Starý Smokevec

Saving museum towns for other days, Starý Smokevec was a logical visit for a Monday. When I awoke, the sky was bright and blue, providing a clear view of the mountains. Within a short time, it became overcast, shrouding the mountains with thick clouds for most of the day. The tram to Smokevec was filled with skiers and their gear, who got off at one of the skiing stops prior to Smokevec or at its final destination and its cableway leading up to Hrebienok mountain. Starý Smokevec is the oldest of the Tatra ski villages (about 100 years old) and contained a mixture of old and new hotels, including the luxurious Grand Hotel built in 1903.

Walking around, we noticed quite a bit of activity going on, with people walking about and preparing to go up the mountain. At the information center, we inquired about visiting the waterfall up in the mountain. We decided against it after hearing that reaching it would take a 2 hour hike with good boots and ski insurance. Instead we meandered around the town, admiring some of the pretty architecture, particularly the wooden ornamentation on buildings. I especially liked some of the old, deserted buildings, imagining how beautiful they were at one time. We peeked in two small churches and visited numerous souvenir shops, which contained a mixture of fairly nice handicraft items amidst tacky souvenirs. Once again, we had the national Slovak dish at a pleasant restaurant. After stopping for tea at a smart-looking café in Tatranská Lomnica, we tried out the sauna at our hotel. It was so hot that it was difficult to stay inside for very long. I have decided that I’m not a sauna-type person.

Poprad and Spišská Sobota

The following morning, we took the modern tram to Poprad, a town about 18 km from Tatranská Lomnica. With a population of about 55,000, it is known as the gateway to the Tatras. We found the streets of Poprad rather deserted and most everything was closed – shops, museums, tourist places, and churches (for viewing). I did hear a Sunday service being conducted at the St. Egidius Church (13th century early Gothic), so we did not go in to admire its medieval wall paintings.

Spišská Sobota
With not much to do in Poprad, we walked to the adjoining town of Spišská Sobota. On our way, we passed by a river with ducks (one of the few wildlife we saw) and the huge Aqua Park. Snow had nearly disappeared, with only piles remaining. As we entered Spišská Sobota, the architecture and atmosphere changed, to a peaceful reminiscence of a medieval town. In the 13th century, Spišská Sobota was an important trade center and was populated by German immigrants. In the 1500’s it was a center of trade, crafts, and culture. Since 1950 it has been a municipal cultural reserve. Many gothic, renaissance, and baroque homes have been preserved, painted in bright, varied colors. Many of the doors were arched, some with decorative wood designs.

Walking the cobblestone street was very pleasant, passing by old men riding bicycles. Its main church, St. Jacob (built 1273 and remodeled in1464) was unfortunately closed. Only after visiting the church in Levoča did we realize that we missed seeing one of Master Paul’s gorgeous carved altars. Other architectural items of interest in the town included a 16th century chapel and a renaissance belfry with sgrafitto on top. For lunch, we ate at a restaurant in one of the restored renaissance buildings with dark carved ceiling beams and enjoyed a satisfying meal of beef goulash with “dumplings”, which looked more like small slices of crustless bread. Completing our leisurely walk of the old town, we headed back to Poprad and took a tram back to the mountains.

Slovakia Travels - Tatranská Lomnica

For our winter break, Olja and I decided to travel to Slovakia. Since it was organized by a tour group, she was able to get a visa without the normal hassle. Serbians need a visa for nearly every country in the world! The tour bus left Belgrade on Friday at about 8pm and slowly made its way (also delayed for a while at the border crossings) to the High Tatras mountains, dropping us off at our hotel at about 10:30 the next morning. Our hotel room had a great view of the eastern part of the mountain range, including the third highest peak, Lomnický Štít (2,654 m). After a shower we were prepared to begin our exploration of the region. Wearing boots for only the second time this winter (it snowed for one day in Belgrade) we walked the 2+ kilometers to the village of Tatranská Lomnica. Although the village had its share of hotels catering to the many skiers and snowboarders, Lomnica also had a nice park, cozy restaurants and cafés, little shops, and homes, giving it a more authentic feel than some of the other villages in the High Tatras. Here we exchanged money and had a hearty Slovakian meal of Bryndzové halušky, potato dumplings with sheep cheese and sprinkled with bits of bacon.

With our tummies full, we went visited some shops, looked around the town, got information about train travel times for the next day, and then took a little walk on a path leading out of the village. The sky was a deep blue, contrasting with the stark white of the peaked Tatra mountains before us. I took some photos of the landscape, knowing that such clear days might be rare. Who knows how many skiers were up there enjoying the slopes. Although some areas were nicely populated with trees (lots of spruce), there were large areas that were barren of trees. Only the stubs and uprooted stumps remained, a vivid reminder of the strong winds that decimated an estimated 12-14,000 hectars of forest - between 1.5 and 3 million cubic meters of timber in November of 2004. And to think that the winds only lasted about 3 hours!