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.

Spring Break Trip through Former Yugoslavia

For spring break 2007 I traveled with Sean (a colleague of mine) and Roger (his friend from Singapore) to three countries of former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. To reach our destinations, we traveled by land, sea, and air.

On Thursday night we took the night train to Ljubljana in a typical old Serbian couchette. Traveling through Zagreb meant that we had several border crossings to deal with. Around 9:30 we arrived in the capital city. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we headed over to the Old Town. Arriving at the Dragon Gate (named after the four dragon sculptures guarding both ends of the gate), we peered into the Ljubljanica River. Old, multi-level buildings, all with terracotta ceramic tile roofs, lined the river. Reflections of the buildings and blossoming trees were vivid in the still water. Weeping willows dangled their still-budding tentacles over the water.

A city of around 265,000, Ljubljana felt very different from Belgrade. Slovenia was once under the control of the Habsburg dynasty, giving the country a much appearance and traditions than Turkish-controlled Serbia. This was especially true in the Old Town region. Bicycles were the preferred mode of transportation for locals, easily navigating through narrow (and pedestrian) streets and across the flat topography. Many of the bikes were of the old-fashioned type, complete with bells and a rear basket. A number of streets in the old section were reserved for pedestrians, with special protruding columns that went down for the occasional car with special permissions. Locals and visitors alike enjoyed the pleasant spring weather, sitting at outdoor cafés and listening to the occasional street musicians.

Outdoor Market
Ljubljana’s green market, located behind a cathedral, had a much less hectic pace than those I’ve frequented in Belgrade. In the pleasant morning sun, shoppers leisurely stopped at the new wooden stalls, inspecting the colorful produce, fresh flowers, decorative bread, and colored Easter eggs. Nearby were stands where one could purchase crafty items and even spotted skins of animals.

Baroque Churches – Good Friday
After a simple lunch, we headed towards the path that would take us up to the city’s castle. Partially intrigued by the unique relief door of St. Nicholas Cathedral (1701), we went inside. Adorning the arched ceiling and dome were beautiful frescoes. Wooden organ pipes framed in black and detailed with gold were found on each side. Light streamed in the numerous, but high windows. We also stopped at the St. Francis Church. The interior, without a dome, was darker than St. Nicholas church, but the ornamentation and arched ceiling was just as beautiful – and perhaps a bit more austere. We listened to the Good Friday service for a few minutes and then quietly left.

Ljubljana Castle
Back in the sunlight, we walked up the path to the castle overlooking the city. Birds sang and spring wildflowers dotted the grassy, forested terrain. Nearing the castle, it was immediately apparent that the 19th century castle had received extensive renovations. Inside, the changes were so drastic that it looked more like a souvenir and restaurant structure than a castle. Nothing was crumbling and everything old seemed to be removed. A glass elevator took visitors up a few levels. One could reach the castle via funicular or even drive up the hill. Quickly walking past the people sunning themselves on the benches in the central court, we paid an entrance fee to walk up the stairs (also new) to the Pentagonal Tower. From here, we had great views of the city – both old and its less attractive Communist-style structures in newer sections. The pink Franciscan church (1660) and its lively circular “square” was especially notable. Overhead a helicopter hovered and swooped. Watching the unusual moves, we realized that there was a person on the outside of the helicopter, presumably doing filming.

Back down in the Old Town, we went to the info center to inquire about possible trips to Bled. A local agency offered organized trips for 50€ which sounded very steep to me. Walking to the local bus station, we instead purchased bus tickets for 6€ and treated ourselves to ice cream. On our first day, the bright sun already gave me a nice burn on my nose and hands. It was a good thing I was wearing long sleeves!

Evening in Ljubljana
At the hotel, we checked in, freshened up, and got ready for the evening. I stayed in the hostel section for 20€ a night and shared the room with 2 other women. Refreshed, we walked back to the Old Town, enjoying more of the architecture, admiring the many contributions of local architect Jože Plečnik. Several times in our strolls through Ljubljana did we cross the Triple Bridge, with the third section added by Plečnik in 1931. The outer two bridges were for pedestrians and the middle one was for vehicles. On the southern side of the bridge was Mestni Trg, with a beautiful baroque Robba Fountain (patterned in 1751 after a fountain in Rome) in front of the Town Hall. The monument in the center of Prešernov Trg was a lively hangout place for young people sporting iPods, musicians, and a rather diverse crowd. Past the Franciscan church were some beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. Further on were some terribly ugly Communist-style buildings.

At suppertime, I was rather surprised to see how quiet the area was. Many stores had already closed. One small mini-market was open, so we picked up some water and snacks for our excursion the following day. As it got dark, we expected to see more monuments and streets lit up; it was not meant to be. Even the EU-style castle remained rather dark. So instead of taking night shots, we wandered through the town, peeking into cafés with curved brick ceilings and “admiring” the graffiti, some of which was humorous or clever.

The next night we ate at a Persian restaurant that we had previously spotted on our walks. The delicately spiced stir-fry was delicious, with tender meat soaked in sauces for over a day. The Iranian hostess was very gracious. The meal was complemented by some spiced tea in tiny glasses. Sean and his friend Roger then took turns with a water pipe, also known as a hookah or chechia.

After breakfast at the hotel, we took the 10am bus to Bled. After one hour through the rural landscape, we arrived at the popular destination.

Bled Castle
Our first destination was the castle, the oldest one in Slovenia. The pleasant hike up was complemented by bird sounds, wildflowers, and views of the dominating lake. Located on top of a steep stone cliff 100m above the lake, the castle (once the seat of the Bishops of Brixen for 800 years) offered great views on the crystal clear day. This castle had a much more authentic feel to it. Vines snaked their way across the stone walls of the inner courtyard, framing the narrow arched windows. In the courtyard some men practiced sword-fighting “duels”. The ones dressed in costumed seemed to be teaching the young men some moves, likely in preparation for the main tourist season performances. The upper courtyard is comprised of a residence and Gothic castle chapel and the lower courtyard with the castle outbuildings are protected by a high Romanesque wall with a battlemented parapet and Gothic defense tower. Inside the castle was a museum, housing period furniture, armor, clothing, and a collection of ancient coins and other artifacts found in the region. After taking some photos of the panorama including the Julian Alps and the tiny island church, we headed down the path to the lake.

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant overlooking the lake. Everyone around us was ordering a light-colored cake. We had to taste this light and flaky cream cake – worth every calorie for the specialty of the region.

Lake Bled
The area around Lake Bled was park-like. Flowers were carefully arranged in between large swaths of lush grass. Young and old alike strolled along the paved walkways. Playing the tourist role, we took a gondola out to the tiny island chapel. The half hour we were given was enough time to explore the church and its few small buildings. The church exterior was under restoration, so I didn’t take photos of that view. Inside the small church was a long rope connected to a church bell. Those who rang the bell supposedly get their wish; needless to say, it rang almost continually.

Postojna Cave
On Sunday we took another local bus to the small town of Postojna, home of the famous Postojna Cave. The bus station was silent. Following the directions of a resident, we walked a couple kilometers to the tourist site. Looking across the street I saw a large parking lot full of tour buses and cars. Obviously most people came by this mode. Leading up to the ticket office was a succession of souvenir stores and fast-food restaurants. In line for the first tour of the day, it was immediately apparent that the dominant hair color was grey. Prepared for the constant cool temperatures of the cave (9.5°C or 49°F), we had several layers of clothing. The tour started with a 5.7 km electric train ride, after which time we got off and went into the English tour line. We then walked the remaining 1700m of the tour, pausing to admire the spectacular formations and listen to explanations of what we were seeing. Near the end of the walking tour we saw a tank with a few Proteus anguinus, an indigenous salamander-like creature that is pigment-free and blind. The electric train then took us back to the entrance.

After lunch of a traditional venison meal (in the restaurant full of a grey-haired tour group), we walked back to the bus station. After a few busses heading to Ljubljana didn’t show up (according to the timetable) and not a soul in sight, Roger (Sean’s friend) and I went to a café and inquired about the situation. One young man explained that the busses don’t run as often on holidays, and we might be better off taking a train. Leaving the café, we saw Sean (a colleague of mine) waving in the distance saying that the bus was there and was leaving in minutes. Thankfully, we would arrive in Ljubljana with ample time to gather our luggage and head off to the train station for our night train ride to Split.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Anniversary of NATO Bombing in Belgrade

Eight years ago the NATO bombing of Belgrade and other parts of Serbia began. The bombing started on March 24, 1999 and lasted for 78 days. According to various sources, there were between 1,200 and 2,500 fatalities in the country. During this time, damage was done to infrastructures, trade facilities, schools, hospitals, media facilities, and cultural monuments. Most bombs were successfully dropped on carefully selected structures, but there were grave mistakes as well. The destruction of the Chinese Embassy was one example.

Bombing in Belgrade
This weekend I went for a nice long walk along Knez Miloša in Belgrade. This street is also known as Embassy Street for all the embassies located there. As I entered the street from Senjak, the first building I saw was one of the bombed buildings. From the side, it looked like any Communist-era federal building, except that all the windows had been blasted out. Along the front, more significant damage could be seen, including parts that had collapsed. Trees have begun to grow on the collapsed roof. Ragged curtains fluttered in the breeze. Open cupboards revealed stacks of files still unclaimed - did no one need these files?

Further along, past the Canadian, American, and several other embassies was another bombed building. This terra-cotta brick building was significantly more damaged than others along the street. A skyway once connecting buildings across from each other was sliced off. Huge missing sections made it look a bit like a battle scene from Star Wars.

Why are such eyesores (and hazards) still standing? Is it lack of funds to demolish the buildings? Are they still there to act as reminders of the bombing campaign that most Serbians saw as unjust? Or is there another reason.

While walking one fall day with a friend and longtime resident of Belgrade, I saw a building that had one end shaved off. Pat explained that this used to be a TV station. She said that many young workers lost their lives one evening, after being commanded that they come to work or be fired - even though the boss was warned that the building was going to be bombed. Of course the boss wasn't there at the time.

Ecological Damage
About 60 km north of Belgrade lies Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia. During the bombing, three giant bridges were destroyed, covering the riverbed with 7,000 tons of debris. Cleared only in 2003, this debris has contributed to the increasing amount of pollution to the Danube River. NATO aircraft also destroyed 18 reservoirs at the Novi Sad refinery and five in Pančevo. This small town, located 10 km from Belgrade, lies right on the Danube River as well. The reservoirs were full of crude, and thousand of tons of its contents were spilled into the river. Chemical plants were also destroyed in Pančevo during the war, polluting the river and killing the fish. Needless to say, people were reluctant to eat fish for some time after.

Pyschological Damage
As with any conflict or war, the local people are invariably affected. At first, people stayed up during the night bombings, hunkered in shelters. Watching the bombing was almost like a fireworks show. Deciding life must go on, many tried to sleep through the noise of the bombs and aircraft. Enrollment at the International School was skeletal, kept alive by a dedicated core of teachers who didn't evacuate. Teachers weren't always sure if the bridge they normally took to get to school would be around the next day, but they adapted. One teacher even delivered a baby - without electricity. The economy, education, medical care, and other areas suffered during the bombing and sanctions, still not fully recovered. Psychologists have reported a rise in treatment of anxiety and post-traumatic stress distorders. That said, Serbians pride themselves in being strong and resilient and are confident that they will rise above this as well.