Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Construction at St. Sava's Cathedral

Every few months I like to go to St. Sava's Cathedral in Belgrade to check on its construction updates. While the exterior has been finished for a number of years now, much remains to be done to its massive interior.

As I approached the cathedral, its bells began tolling. Inside, the soothing recorded sounds of a choir greeted me. Just imagine when the real choir members sing their praises - with a choir seating capacity of 800 members!
I noticed an absence of large equipment inside the church. Actually, even these large construction vehicles are dwarfed in the church, 70 meters at its highest point. Piles of carved marble normally scattered around the floor were less conspicuous. Tour guides were pointing out aspects of the construction, with its already impressive green columns and carved white arches. To the left of the entrance, a large mosaic panel was well underway. The left gallery actually looked like a functioning worship area, complete with an altar, multiple podiums with icon paintings, and rich red-colored carpets. Thee area right gallery served as the place to light the candles for the living and the dead. Despite a rope cordoning off the front area, two older women approached the altar there, the light obscured partly by scaffolding.
Looking up, one only sees gray concrete cupolas. Already a beautiful play in light, it will be an impressive sight once the surface is covered with mosaics, including Christ in the central dome with eyes the width of 3 meters.

Outside piles of white carved marble slabs and sections of columns awaited their proper place in this magnificent structure. The sight reminded me of some of the Roman sites in Tunisia, portions of former temples and homes in the landscape. Children leaned over into the dancing fountains, located next to the library. The ubiquitous ice cream stand was present, with plenty of customers enjoying the tasty treats. People sat in the many benches along the flower landscaped grounds.
The bells tolled again. It was time for me to leave. Perhaps for the last time.

Cleaning out the Old Stuff

This weekend I went for a walk and on a street leading to Belgrade's huge St. Sava church, I saw some unusual items parked next to the sidewalk. Two old Heidelbergs - printing presses dating back to the 1950's had recently been lifted out of an office window several stories up.

I didn't see the actual event, but I did see the crane, still present. Loaded onto a flatbed were some newer presses. This must be the same place where my friend described seeing an ordinary (but older) desk being lifted down (as seen in her blog) just days earlier. Indeed, a rather odd, and likely expensive way of moving!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Eurovision 2008 - Gracious Serbian Hosts

Most music lovers that descended upon Belgrade for the annual Eurovision contest have now gone. Belgrade organizers received many compliments for how organized this year's contest was. Tickets for the events were sold out months ago and hotels were at capacity. The downtown walking street was more festive than normal and the usual fireworks filled the night sky. In areas around the competition arena, graffiti was painted over and police presence was slightly higher, but all was peaceful. While Serbia made it into the finals, the winner was Dima Bilan from Russia for his performance of Believe.
Congratulations Belgrade on a successful hosting of an international event.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Gardoš - Hungary's Imprint in Belgrade

This past Sunday I visited Zemun. Although a municipality of Belgrade along the other side of the Danube River, Zemun has more of an Austro-Hungarian feel. Perched on a hill above Zemun is the area known as Gardoš. It is easiest to get up here following narrow cobblestone pathways and stairways - definitely much more of a pedestrian-friendly area. At the top of Gardoš is the Millennium Tower, built in 1896 over the ruins of a medieval fortress as commemoration of 1,000 years of Hungarian settlement in the region. (This was the southernmost city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). It was one of several millennium towers built at the time within Hungary. Although in need of restoration (broken windows and covered with graffiti), the Millennium Tower (otherwise known as Janos Hunyadi) is still a popular spot in Zemun for its great overlook of the Danube and Zemun, and its adjacent restaurants. While you're up there, check out Zemun's largest graveyard.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Screamin' for Sladoled

If the number of ice cream (called sladoled in Serbian) stands on the walking street Knez Mihailova is any indication, Serbs love their ice cream. Sitting at a café on an intersection of this street, I could count 9 ice cream stands within easy view. Walk a few feet, and you'll be sure to find more. From the commercial types on popsicle sticks to the rich creamy types scooped into a waffle cone, this tasty treat is enjoyed by all ages and budgets. On warm days, nothing beats a sladoled!In this picture alone, there are 4 ice cream stands and another just behind the foliage

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pipin' Hot

Along with yogurt and turkish coffee, bread, or hleb as it is called in Serbian, is a staple food for the average resident. On my walk to school each morning, I invariably see people carrying a plastic bag with fresh bread, its golden crust sticking out of top. Breads such as this type I photographed from a window in Zemun, are often eaten plain - without any butter, jelly, etc. With the absence of the multitude of preservatives found in many breads in the US, this bread, with its intoxicating fresh smell, must be eaten within a couple of days - if it lasts that long. Unused bread can often be found in a bag hanging from the side of a garbage dumpster, ready for the taking by either the Roma (or other hungry "dumpster divers") or birds who help themselves.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Plenty O'Flowers

Flowers now take center stage in many of Belgrade's green markets. Everyone seems to be in the mood to buy the colorful array of of annuals. It's one of the few things that can brighten the otherwise drab Communist-era concrete buildings. When walking through my residential neighborhood of Senjak, I enjoy peeking above the walls or through the gates of homes, seeing the arrangements of flowers. Right now the rose bushes, sometimes towering quite high, are in their glory. The city of Belgrade has also undertaken more efforts at embellishing roundabouts, parks, and other areas.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Remembering Mostar

Featured in today's Rick Steve's travel article on the CNN website is Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. It brought back memories from when I visited this former Yugoslavian city. My "tour guide" was a friend - a former resident of Mostar who fled along with most of the other Serbian residents in the city. The centerpiece of the city definitely is the unique 400 year old Turkish bridge, once a symbol of harmony connecting the different religions in the city and then a tragic symbol of the war when it was bombed by the Croats. You can read my travelblog entry or website regarding my visit to Mostar.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Upcoming Elections

This Sunday (May 10) is election day for the Serbian parliament. Billboards all over the country display political ads. With the iconic St. Sava Cathedral in the distance, this sign, put up by the party of the Prime Minister who resigned, encourages people to support Serbia. If they had their way, Serbia would become more nationalistic, leaning away from the West and EU, and towards Russia. Let's hope this doesn't happen.

Kittens in the Air

It's a lovely spring day. In the air, fluffs from trees float lazily in the air. Known as mače (Serbian word for kittens), these fuzzy specimens are very adept at finding their way into your mouth or nose, not to mention aggravating spring allergies. On the ground, they sometimes congregate and form "tumbling tumbleweeds."

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Spring Break trip to Vranje, South Serbia - part 4

Cathedral Church of St. Trinity
Now back in the downtown area, the pedestrian street was lively. People ambled down the wide street, eating ice cream, chatting, and pushing kids in strollers. The whining motors of the toy vehicles were heard above the bustle, the kids happily driving around the area and their doting parents/grandparents looking on. Just beyond the post office and its fountain was the Cathedral Church of Saint Trinity. Burned by the Turks and Albanians shortly after completion in 1841, a current structure was erected in 1858. Typical of Christian architecture in the Ottoman Balkans, the church lacked a bell tower, had low blind domes and was hidden amongst houses. Likely constructed later, a tall white bell tower is separate, made visible due to its height and bells that ring hourly. The interior of the church has portions of its walls painted in a naïve fashion, with iconostasis carved by local artists. The domes each depicted a member of the Triune God and the one closest to the entrance was dedicated to Mary. Like other Serbian churches, this one had a large golden chandelier. After lighting a few candles, we moved onward.

Markovo Kale
After relaxing in the hotel for a couple of hours, we took a taxi up the steep tree-covered hills to the fortress of Markova Kale. Named after the most significant figure of Serbian folk poetry, the fort was actually built much earlier than Marko’s time – probably in the 11th century. Along the narrow winding road we met young people hiking back to Vranje. Our taxi driver explained that an area beyond the fortress was a favorite picnic spot. With the beautiful views of the valley, Vranje, and the plain of the Južna Morava River far below, I can easily see why. Our guidebook cautioned us to be on the lookout for lumber trucks, but since it was a holiday, that traffic was absent.

Located high above a bend in the road was the fortress. We hiked up a steep narrow path to the remains of the fortress, which sit precipitously on a steep ridge. Although not much was remaining, there were some high thick stone walls that showed that it once was an imposing structure. Between the towers was the foundation of a structure that was in the shape of a small church.

From the fortress we stopped to admire the view. The light of the setting sun illuminated the tops of the wooded hills. Over the hills to our left was Kosovo. Even though the sunset was non-spectacular and colorless, it still was pleasant. Right below the fortress were some wild yellow irises. I carefully climbed down to take some close-up photos. From here I could also see a few young couples, enjoying a picnic lunch and enjoying the view.
Back in the taxi, we headed back into town where we had an ice cream cone and then played several rounds of UNO. With peanut butter M&M’s as the “loot,” the stakes were high.

Back to Belgrade
The next morning after a breakfast of more greasy fried eggs and ham, we headed down the stairs of the Communist-era hotel. Pat brought along some water for a tired-looking plant, a floor above a sorry one-leafed plant. When getting closer, she realized that it was artificial – didn’t know that a fake plant could look so sad! At least it matched the rest of the hotel – tired, outdated, and in desperate need for an upgrade.
With the museums closed again for the day, we decided to go for a photo walk through some more streets. A beautiful morning, people were sitting outside in their lush front yards, enjoying an early cup of strong Turkish coffee. The hamburger place already had customers, as did the pizza and rostilj (serving meat) places. After relaxing in a nearby park, we headed back to the hotel and packed up.

After waiting at the bus station for over an hour (the bus was late coming from Skopje, Macedonia), we finally boarded the crowded bus. Our reserved seats were taken, but at least there were two seats way in the back. A number of people had to stand in the aisle for nearly two hours until the bus stopped at the first major city. Although a common sight on city buses in Belgrade, this is the first time I saw a private long-distance bus over capacity. Interestingly enough, I didn’t hear any of them complain. Five and a half hours later, we were back in Belgrade, our journey now to an end.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Happy Đurđevan Day!

Today is the slava of Sveti Đorđe, or St. George as he would be called in the West. It is one of the more important slavas (celebration of a family's patron saint - often more important than your own birthday) of the Serbian Orthodox church. St George is also the patron saint of of the Roma (gypsies). Đurđevan, celebrated each May 6, is associated with the beginning of spring. Homes would be decorated with flowers and blooming branches. All the walls would be washed with water from church wells and special baths with flower water would be taken. The feast dinner typically includes roasted lamb. Music, particularly brass bands, is an important element.

Last week, when walking through the Roma quarter of Vranje, a Roma man came up to us. After reassuring him that we were not reporters, a conversation followed. He explained that his family, like all the other Romas in Vranje, was cleaning their home in preparation for Đurđevan. He even invited us to come to his slava, but we said that we would be back in Belgrade on the 6th. Of interest, he mentioned that he was a Muslim. I found that rather odd that a Muslim would be celebrating a Christian event, but it turns out that Đurđevan is celebrated by Roma, regardless of religion. Had we been in Vranje, it would have been a treat to see the Roma celebrating Đurđevan out in the Trg Slobode, complete with their famous brass bands in a loud, vivacious style.

Happy Đurđevan!

You can find a basic introduction to a slava here:

A Stroll through the Roma Quarter of Vranje

Roma Quarter
Our next destination was the Roma quarter, inhabited by the city’s Roma, or gypsy population. Although the homes were much more substantial than the shack dwellings in Belgrade that I typically associated with the Roma, you could definitely tell when you entered into this quarter. Here the homes were painted in bright colors, with laundry strung everywhere. Void of any walls or fences, everything happened out in the open. Sheep were slaughtered right on the sidewalk, laundry washed, and mothers nursing. Older women wearing bold combinations of patterns sat on the steps, smoking. Men sat just inside the doorway, playing cards taking advantage of the natural light. A wagonload of pigs was driven down the main street, pulled by a small hand-maneuvered tractor. Radio music including Roma violin music filled the air.

In the middle of the Trg Slobode (freedom square) was a tall bronze statue of the most famous Roma trumpeter of Vranje. For some reason, folded carpets were placed around the base. A stocky Roma man with alcohol on his breath approached us, concerned that we were reporters. Reassuring him that we were not, the man relaxed after Pat continued conversing with him. He then invited us to come back to Vranje on May 6th to celebrate the slava (religious “birthday” of the Roma patron saint) with his family. The man explained that people were spring cleaning their homes in preparation for the event, hence the extra amount of shoes and other items found outside. Politely declining an offer for coffee, we moved onwards.

Old Hammam
Heading down the hill towards the city center, we went past the Old Hamam. Built at the end of the 17th century, this small brick and stone building with multiple small sloped square terracotta roofs housed only one bathtub, used by both men and women. We heard that it had been turned into a discothèque that was now closed.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Old Turkish Residential Quarter of Vranje

Turkish Haremluk and Selamluk
After a breakfast of greasy fried eggs, ham and weak coffee in the hotel restaurant (we were the only ones in the large dining hall both days), we headed out for a day of photo shooting. We stopped at the National Museum, originally a haremluk built in 1765 by the Paša as a dwelling for his wives. A wonderful example of typical Ottoman residential architecture, the white symmetrical two-storey building was trimmed with dark wood, tall wood frame windows divided into squares, terra cotta tiled roof, and an old lamp with a dangerous-looking spike. Unfortunately it was closed, as it was May Day. Next to the haremluk was the pink selamluk, used by the Paša and other males. At one time a “bridge” would have connected the two buildings, enabling any movement to be unseen by the public.
Still early in the morning, even the pedestrian downtown street was quite sleepy. The motorized toy cars were just being uncovered, ready for the first young child driver. Old men had yet to congregate on the benches, chatting and gossiping. Boxes of fresh healthy annual flowers were being laid out, their bright colors tempting passersby. The smell past the bakery was intoxicating, the best form of advertising for the fresh bread inside. Storefronts displayed shoes and purses in bright colors, bold polka dotted pajamas, and Easter decorations.

House of Bora Stanković
We then turned onto a very narrow cobblestone street of Baba Zlatina, named after the grandmother (baba) of writer Bora Stanković. Unfortunately the large wooden gate entrance was also locked, closed for the holiday. Holding my camera above my head, I took some photos over the wall of the Turkish Balkan house with its cozy green yard, wishing well, small terrace, and open porch.

Invited to Turkish Coffee
Moving onward through the old Christian quarter, we stopped at the gate of a two-storey house, admiring the many flower pots interspersed on the wooden siding and the unique still life on a nearby table with rakija (brandy) glasses drying on the branches. A man came to the gate and greeted us, explaining that he made the sculpture and also painted. Upon hearing that I was an artist, he invited us in for some coffee. Here we also met two other members of his multigenerational family. Asked to critique his paintings, gave this self-taught artist some advice and encouragement regarding his still life, landscape, and village scenes paintings. When I noticed the Bob Ross paints, he opened up a drawer and showed us a videotape and Bob Ross book written in Serbian. So Bob Ross’ “happy trees” technique even made it to Serbia! Thanking the family for the Turkish coffee and rakija, we moved onward.

Beli Most (White Bridge)
After a tasty lunch of šopska salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh white grated cheese) and baked beans with bacon at a cute ethnic restaurant, we headed towards the Beli Most (White Bridge). This small stone bridge was constructed in 1844 and has a shape similar to the much larger one in Mostar. An inscription written in Arabic states that the bridge was constructed by lady Ajša “to repent her sins and the sins of her parents,” but local legend states that the Turkish girl Ajša fell in love with a Serbian boy Stojan and was mistakenly killed by her father – who then decided to build a bridge in her memory.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Spring Break trip to Vranje, South Serbia - part 1

This is the first of four parts on my trip to Vranje.

During the week of spring break (which included two Serbian holidays – Serbian Orthodox Easter and May Day), my friend Pat and I traveled down to Vranje, the southernmost city in Serbia. The main purpose of the trip was to attend the opening of my art show, but we would take advantage of the opportunity to explore this city located close to the Macedonian border (24 km) and Kosovo region.
Departing from the bus station at just after 7 am, we took the NIS Express bus down to Vranje. It turned out the route wasn’t very “express” after all, making stops in several towns, including a 40-minute layover in Nis. At around 1 pm, Biljana, a worker at the American Corner where the art show was being held, met us at the Vranje bus station.
Art Show Preparations
After dropping off our stuff at the hotel (the only significant hotel in the city), we all walked to the American Corner. Located within the city’s library, the American Corner serves the community with English language books, videos, informational sessions, and English lessons. Since most of the paintings were already hung, only finishing touches and final preparations for that evening’s opening had to be made.

A Bite to Eat
Hungry, we selected a place near our hotel to eat, recommended to us by Biljana for its yummy grilled meats. Both Pat and I chose a Serbian hamburger composed of ground beef, ground pork, spices, with ham and kajmak (a cross between cheese and butter) in the middle. Lest we forget the bun as well, a rather flat bread called lepinja. It puts the Big Mac to shame, in size, taste, and perhaps even calories. The small place was very busy, its customers picking up burgers to go or enjoy it in the outdoor seating area. Located on a triangle overlooking a cobblestone pedestrian street with many cafés as well as a beautiful building of the Turkish Ottoman style, it was a great place to chat and watch passersby. Christmas decorations were still strung across the street, presumably ready for the next season. Full but unable to finish our hamburger, we left to freshen up for the opening.

Art Show Opening
Back at the American Corner, we laid out the chocolate chip cookies I brought (an introduction to something American) and waited for guests to arrive. Considering that this was a vacation week for most Serbs and a rally for Parliament elections was about to take place only a block away, I was pleased with the turnout. A local TV station was represented, recording the artwork, introductory welcome and my PowerPoint presentation. People munched on cookies as they looked at the artwork, some pleased to see my depiction of Serbian people and others more interested in images from Mali or Tunisia. After about an hour, the crowd thinned, the Parliamentary rally underway.

Presidential Election Rally
Invited to visit a mosaic art exhibit in a nearby gallery, we had to make our way through the large crowd gathered to hear President Boris Tadić speak, campaigning for the upcoming May elections. People of all ages were present, some waving flags, wearing campaign T-shirts, and kids clutching balloons with Tadić’s name and number 1 on it. (Each candidate/party is assigned a number to aid in remembering and for the few people who may not be able to read the ballot.) On a nearby street, representatives of some other candidates/parties waved their flags, handed out pamphlets, and drove by as a quiet distraction. Extra police were present, but the crowd was well behaved.

Architectural Tour
In the remaining daylight, we drove through the rather narrow streets of residential Vranje for an architectural tour. In between the newer buildings, small older homes out of mud brick were interspersed. Typically the multi-storey homes would accommodate multiple generations. Virtually all buildings had roofs made from terracotta tiles. A fence made from decorative iron, neatly trimmed hedges, or mud bricks bordered most homes. Right outside the walls piles of wood could be found, neatly stacked. Wood is the dominant fuel in the region, due to the abundance of forests and expense of electric heat. I noticed that there were quite a number of homes that were unfinished. It was explained that since a textile company closed and over 6,000 lost their jobs, economic times have been difficult for the residents of Vranje. Privatization of other companies, closures, or cutbacks have also hit the city. Driving up the steep hill through the gypsy quarter, we headed up the winding road towards Hotel Przar. From the heights, we could see the city of Vranje, nestled in the valley. Now cool and a bit chilly, we paused to enjoy the view of the twinkling city and then navigated back to the hotel for the evening.

For more pictures, visit my web page on Vranje.