Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Belgrade--The second week: August 28, 2012

Ahhhh!  How lovely it is to explore without sweating.  Sunday night there was a weather change.  Thunder, lightning, rain, and now the weather is a comfortable 24 C (79F).  This is the most comfortable weather we've experienced in the Balkan Peninsula in months.  Monday clouds painted a dramatic sunset. 

The weekend was a different story.  Despite the over 40 degree centigrade (104F) temperatures, Dan and I tramped all over Belgrade.   We went to museums.  The Museum of Applied Arts had an exhibition of 18th-20th century furniture and nothing else.   We went to the Ethnographic Museum to see the Pirot kilims, but only a handful were on display.  Most of the museums seem to be mired in a very long process of renovations that never end.  The highlight and an extremely interesting stop was at the Nikola Tesla Museum.

We took a bus to Zemun and not finding much to keep us there, we walked the several kilometers back to Belgrade.  Along the way, I made Dan pose for yet another portrait in nice light.

I submitted this portrait for my online photography class and while the instructor liked the portrait, he wondered if Dan ever smiled.  The shiny spots are the beads of sweat that kept oozing out of his face.

We visited some notorious landmarks such as the Hotel Jugoslavija where celebrities such as Tina Turner, Richard Nixon, and Queen Elizabeth II have stayed.  In 1999, it became collateral damage as a result of a NATO bomb strike on the adjacent building.  All the windows in the hotel were broken and it has been vacant since.  

We walked through parks.  Sadly, the Botanical Garden is also involved in a long renovation project so most the garden was not very serene.  Near Tashmajdan Park we visited churches and other memorials from the 1999 NATO mission reminding us that children are the innocent victims of war.

It was so hot that afternoon that even ownerless dogs found their way to the shade of the park and kids swam in the fountains.

We've been using our Bradt guide and a Belgrade Restaurant magazine to determine where we will eat.    The magazine critiques restaurants; some are good and some are bad.  One "bad" critique was for a floating restaurant called Dijalog.  The other night when we were taking photos, we discovered Dijalog.  A bad review really sinks the boat in Belgrade.

Mostly, we'e really enjoyed the restaurant selection in Belgrade.  Our only miss was a "Mexican" restaurant called Zapata--the food was okay, but not anywhere close to real Mexican cuisine.  The magazine reviewer liked the food.  Obviously, the reviewer has never tried real Mexican food.

Our time in Belgrade is coming to an end.  Tomorrow the three of us will go to the village of Ecka located about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Belgrade.  Dan is conducting a "train the trainers" class there for Serbian lawyers.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Belgrade, Week 1: August 24, 2012

Our first week in Belgrade, Serbia, has come to an end.  So far it seems like a very nice place to live.  There are more than 2 million people in the city, and as a result, there is a lot to offer.  There is a Tourist Office that can advise you as to what is going on or what tours are available.

We're staying in a small apartment in the old city area of Belgrade.  The location is great; it is close to many, many restaurants and transportation choices.  Dan's office is about a 20-minute walk from the apartment which normally wouldn't be so bad, but this week the temperatures have been quite hot.  Today, it is 104F (40C).

From this apartment, we look into the building across the street.  Each day the cat and dog that live in that fourth floor apartment creep onto the small window sill to check out the outdoors.  I don't think Kali has noticed them.

Last weekend, we took a walking tour of the old city on Saturday and on Sunday a bike tour of the rivers and New Belgrade.  The old city of Belgrade is definitely more photogenic than New Belgrade with its many buildings of socialist style architecture.

Some scenes from the photogenic fortress in the old city 

 This statue marks the center of old Belgrade.  It is a meeting point.

 Sights on the pedestrian street

Belgrade sisters - they are dressed exactly alike--even their jewelry

An evening exercise class along the Sava River

I'm impressed with the bike trail which travels the distance of the Danube River through Serbia.  I believe it connects Hungary with the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria.  Serbia's riverfront is vibrant with restaurants, clubs, bicyclists, joggers, fishermen.  It is the perfect place to be at sunset.

I'm keeping busy catching up on emails, reading photography articles, and taking an online photography class.  Fortunately, I have a couple of models, willing or not, available.

When we first arrived at the apartment in Belgrade, Kali immediately began looking for a place to hide. The only safe spot she found was behind the couch where a feather duster had been secreted.  And, that is where she mostly stayed for about 2 days.  Now she has transitioned to her new surroundings and seems to be quite relaxed.

The Sava River at Sunset

Tonight we went on a kayak tour of the 6 Bridges of Belgrade on the Sava River.  It was so hot today and the river at sunset was the coolest spot in town. The kayaks were inflatable, canoe-like boats.  There was no rudder and the paddles were flat, but we managed to not be last in the group of five kayaks.  In fact, we were second in the line so the other participants were completely inexperienced kayakers.  

On our walk back, we stopped for some night photos of the old city of Belgrade.

 Kalemegdan (the Fortress)

The steeple of  Belgrade Cathedral

Brankov Bridge

The mosquitos on this side of the river are really bad and hungry at night.  We have the bites to prove it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Vacation - Days in Albania: August 8, 2012

After our three days of sightseeing and eating gourmet meals in Greece, we crossed into Albania.  We discovered that "traditional" Albanian food seems to be Pizza.  There are pizza restaurants everywhere. Our first night was spent in Gijirokastra.  We stayed in the Kotoni Inn which has 5 or 6 quaint rooms similar to the one shown above.

Gijirokastra is a UNESCO protected city.  The old city is comprised of very, very steep streets of cobblestone and Ottoman-era houses.  The more than 40-year Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha who was responsible for isolating Albanian from the world, was born here.  One remnant of his rule are the bunkers sprinkled all over the country and especially along the west coast.

The wonderful writer, Ismael Kadare, was also born in Gijirokastra.  I had hoped to visit the Kadare house but it was closed and under construction.

A stone carver holding the stone-carved plaque we bought from him

View from the Old City of the New City of Gijirokastra

We planned to stay in Gijirokastra two nights but after the first day of quaintness and sweating our butts off climbing up and down the steep streets, we checked out and fled to the Albanian Riviera for some sea air.

On our way to the Albanian Riviera, we took a detour to see the "Blue Eye" which is a stream that begins from a deep, underground spring.  The natural spring is so far below the stream level that it appears like a deep blue eye.  The water is also cold which is why most people just stand there looking at this blue phenomenon.

At the Albanian Riviera, we stayed in Sarande which is one of the last towns along the southern Albanian coastline.  Sarande is built around a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bay.

Our hotel, Seaside Sarande, is located somewhere on the distant middle hill and near the sea.  These photos were taken from the older, more established portion of Sarande.  Sarande has undergone an unregulated building boom in the last several years; however, from the quantity of vacant structures and half-finished structures, it looks like the unchecked capitalist bubble has burst.  In Sarande, structures have been built on both sides of the main roadway without regard for parking, walking, buses trying to pass these bottlenecks, planning, or aesthetics.

The Ionian Sea is warm, very salty, and felt silky on my skin.  The water is beautifully blue and clear.  Beaches are mostly privately owned.  To use a beach complete with lounge chair and umbrella the fee is quite small.   The photo below is of a beach in a new development located closer to the center of Sarande.  The Greek Island of Corfu located about 6 kilometers away is visible in the distance.  Painfully, the beaches along the Albanian Riviera are rock not sand.

The inland town of Berat was our next stop.  Berat is a UNESCO Museum City.  The homes in the old city are Ottoman-era structures.  There is also a fortress located atop a very steep hill that is occupied by people living within it.  There are great views from the fortress and a wonderful icon museum, but most everything else there and even within Berat was closed.

One of the most memorable events in Berat occurs each evening.  At about six in the evening, most of the residents of Berat turn out to stroll (xhiro) along a pedestrian street.  Families, couples, friends walk up and down the street for several hours greeting friends and perhaps stopping for a cool drink at one of the many street side cafes.  It was fascinating and lovely to see so many people out just enjoying the coolness of the evening and each other.

This photo of Berat University with the goats crossing the river in the foreground reminds me of an old photo of the US Capitol in Washington DC with cows standing in the swampy foreground. 

After two nights in Berat at the comfortable Rezidenca Desaret Hotel, we drove back to Skopje.  Most Albanians drive like maniacs passing wherever, whenever, whatever is in front of them.  The only thing that slows them down is potholes which are very common on the roads entering towns.  Dan referred to these potholes as "poor man's speed bumps."  These drivers creep over and around these potholes at a ridiculously slow rate of slowness, and then they are off again at a blinding rate of speed until the next group of potholes.  There are hundreds of roadside shrines bearing witness to dangerous driving and to the drivers that have been proven unfit to survive. 

We saw Albania as outsiders.  We were never able to have a conversation with anyone about life here due to the lack of a common language.  Which is interesting as there were American Flags everywhere.    Mr. Hoxha would be spinning in his grave if he knew this.  My knowledge of life in Albania under Enver Hoxha comes only from reading Ismael Kadare books.  I left Albania with the feeling that we showed up unannounced, found the doors locked, and no one was home.  

Crossing the border into Macedonia, there was an immediate feeling that we were in a country that was more developed.  The roads were wider and better.  Drivers were mostly more sane than those we witnessed in Albania.  And, even though Macedonia has a huge trash littering problem, there was less trash than what we saw in Albania.  It was very eye opening and made us appreciate Macedonia a little more.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Vacation - Days in Greece: Aug 1-3, 2012

Ancient Macedonia in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)

Dan and I took a short vacation through Northern Greece and into Albania.  Crossing the border into Greece from the country of Macedonia (where we live), a sign announces that you are in Greece and states, "Welcome to Macedonia".  The "Macedonia" in Greece is the ancient geographic Macedonia that at one time included the current country of Macedonia and beyond. Greeks refuse to acknowledge that there is a country called Macedonia.  In fact, Greeks will only refer to it with the acronym  "FYROM."  The citizens of the country we live in, Macedonia (or FYROM), refuse to call their country anything but Macedonia.  Renaming it to "North Macedonia" is just too much of a compromise for the vocal majority in Macedonia.  

Every evening for the last several weeks a handful of beautiful models have appeared under the Alexander the Great Statue.  They are dressed as ancient Macedonians and are there to pose with or for anyone who wants to take their photo.  

Once in Greece, our first stop was Pella.  This is where Alexander the Great and his father Philip II of Macedon were both born.  Their Pella is now an archaeological site surrounded by the roof tops of modern Pella.  The fabulous museum contains beautiful artifacts and several pebble mosaics of hunting scens and life in Ancient Pella.  The next image is of one of the mosaics visible at the archaeological site.

Our next stop was nearby Vergina.  Vergina is where Philip II of Macedon resided when he was not in Pella.  It is also where he died.  Some historians believe his wife, Olympia, and son, Alexander (the Great), killed Philip.  Anyway, Philip's tomb is in Vergina.  The tomb complex which is under a mound  was discovered undisturbed in the 20th century.  The tomb contained beautiful golden wreaths of oak leaves with acorns adorning urns containing the cremated remains of Philip II and others.  Philip's tomb contained three sets of magnificent armor given to him posthumously by his son Alexander.  The casket which held some of Philip's remains is decorated with the "Sun of Vergina".  This sun is a 16-rayed orb that the country of Macedonia wanted for their flag.  Needless to say, the Greeks were a little upset by such impertinence.  To cross into Greece from Macedonia, Greeks refuse to honor Macedonian passports.  However, so as not to lose any of the revenue from Macedonian tourists, Greeks will stamp a separate piece of paper in lieu of stamping the passport.

New statues in Skopje include Philip II of Macedon and Olympia holding Alexander as a child.  Both of these statues are still in progress.  These statues of the "loving" family of Alexander the Great are all located with a few meters of each other.  

But, I digress.  Back in Greece we left the Grecian Macedonia and drove to Meteora.  Meteora is a group of knarled, twisted rock formations that rise about 300 meters (984 feet) above the plain and the town of Kalambaka.  Once an inland sea, when the water retreated, wind eroded the softer parts away leaving behind fabulous monoliths. 

Ascetic monks began arriving here in about the 10th-century.  By early 16th-century there were about 24 monasteries built atop these monoliths.  Six of those are still inhabited.  Now, the monasteries of Meteora feel like a religious Disneyland complete with entrance fees for each monastery except that no photographs are permitted of the interior spaces. Visitors are permitted to walk around/through a portion of each monastery.  Dan, a lifetime scofflaw, believed he was surreptitiously photographing the forbidden but his actions did not go unnoticed.  One of the monastery docents confronted Dan, made him delete each stolen photograph, and warned him that the police would be called if he did it again.  Of course, he did it again at a different monastery, but there they were less observant.  

Our first morning in Meteora we toured the five open monasteries which involved several steep climbs up the monoliths to reach each monastery.  

Varlaam Monastery with some of the stairs for the climb

Varlaam Monastery with Aylos Nikolaos Anapaphsas Monastery in the distant left

Roussanou Monastery

Roussanou Monastery, built in the 13th-century, is now a nunnery.  

Roussanou Monastery with a view of the plain beyond and the setting moon

Ayia Triada (Holy Trinity) Monastery

On the second morning, we visited the sixth monastery - Ayia Triada.  It was a very long climb up to this monastery.  All the monasteries have a winch system to bring up supplies.  This is the one used by Ayia Triada.  There is a large, iron hook hanging outside the image.

To get to Ayia Triada you must first descend from the road down a long, paved path to arrive at the steps for the climb.  Then, after ascending 140 steps, you have arrived at Ayia Triada.  The Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, was filmed at this monastery.  

These two guys dressed in Greek costumes (very Disneyland-like) were very enterprising.  They situated themselves on a panoramic overlook and charged tourists 1 Euro for the privilege of taking their photo.  

In Meteora we stayed at the Dellas Boutique Hotel in Kalambaka.  It is about a 10-minute drive up to the monasteries from here.  The hotel staff were extremely helpful and the buffet breakfast was packed with regional specialties like locally made feta and yogurt.  

Leaving Meteora behind, we drove to the city of Ioaninna, pronounced Yonina, near the Albanian border.  We stayed at a great B&B, Hotel Mir (hotel@hotel-mir.com), across the lake from Ioaninna.  This is the view of Ioaninna on the morning we left.  

It is a large city with a small Ottoman-era portion.  The innkeeper, Aris, wanted to make sure we could find the old city so he jumped on his motorcycle and we followed him into Ioaninna.  Once there we walked within the old walls, but the museum wasn't open and there wasn't much to see.  
Fethiye Mosque and the Tomb of Ali Pasha

Ferry on the Lake of Ionnina
Breakfast at the Hotel Mir was to die for.  Aris' wife served us regional Greek specialties like a cheese pie, fruits and vegetables from their garden, and homemade cakes.  Aris suggested we take a detour on our way to Albania to see the traditional Greek towns and bridges of the Zagori region.  He even caught up to us on his motorcycle to make sure we made the correct turn toward Zagori.  We went, but we needed much more time than 2-3 hours to explore it properly.  We photographed some of the 19th-century Ottoman built bridges and drove through a town, but then we had to be on our way.  It looks like a great area for hiking in cooler weather.

Next stop, Albania.