Monthly Archives: June 2014

Scenic Serbia

Few countries exist entirely in their capital cities and Serbia doesn’t exist solely in Belgrade.  Touring the Serbian countryside with its natural beauty and unique historical sites expanded our overall understanding of the country.  The towns, villages, and surrounding countryside helped round out our impressions and fill in the details for a more complete cultural picture. Traveling to the north, east, and southeast along the Danube, we barely scratched the surface of rural Serbia but it gave us a taste for more in the future.

Topola

Topola, the birthplace and home of Serbian hero, Karađorđe Petrović (Black George), lies just 80 km south of Belgrade.  We took a bus to Topola with our son, Michael, who is knowledgeable about all things Karađorđe, and all things Serbia, for that matter.  Karađorđe was elected to lead Serbia in the First Serbian Uprising (1804-13), fighting for Serbian freedom from the Ottoman Empire. A tower, the only remaining section of the fortress that once dominated the town, houses displays of Karađorđe’s personal effects, including a painting that depicts his beheading by order of Prince Miloš Obrenavić in 1817. Attached to the tower is the Church of the Holy Mother, Karađorđe’s home church.  The mausoleum of the Karađorđe family in St. George’s Church is found at the end of a lovely shady walk up Oplenec Hill.  Karađorđe Petrović and others of the family are entombed in this beautifully ornate church filled with mosaic frescoes.  After our explorations, we enjoyed a memorable moment in this picturesque, historic town when we stopped for refreshment and a wandering cat climbed uninvited onto Jim’s lap and made herself at home.

Golubac Fortress

Golubac Fortress is a 14th century castle built into the precipitous cliffs along the Danube River where it narrows at the entrance to the Iron Gates.  The fortress is deteriorating today because the hydroelectric dam that was constructed in 1967 has raised the water level sufficiently to creep up the castle walls.  The electricity generated at the hydroelectric plant, however, has been shared equally between Serbia and Romania across the river, to the benefit of both nations.  Previously, damage to the castle occurred when a single lane tunnel was cut to allow traffic through it.  Fortunately, today there is a reconstruction project underway to restore the fortress.  When we were there in 2011, we were fascinated to watch as a truck got stuck in the tunnel then tried to back out causing a traffic jam for at least an hour.

Lepenski Vir

150 km east of Belgrade along the Danube River is the important mesolithic (middle stone age) archeological site of Lepenski Vir.  This remarkable discovery uncovered a settlement that existed for hundreds, if not a thousand or more years, somewhere between 6500-5500 B.C. It shows evidence of city planning, use of cement for foundations, and carved stone sculptures (Wernick, 1975) millennia before these developments occurred in other areas.  This site may be Serbia’s best kept secret because we encountered very few visitors the day we were there.

 

Silver Lake

A popular recreation area, Silver Lake, is only 120 km from Belgrade.  You’ll find sand beaches, a campground, picnic areas, resorts, vendors selling food and souvenirs, a paved boardwalk along the lake, and swimming, boating and fishing in crystal clear water with views of the Carpathian Mountains in the background.  We visited on a pleasant day in October which is off-season but we enjoyed a walk along the lake, nevertheless.

Lagniappe (a French word meaning a little extra)

Here are a few additional pictures of lovely and interesting views in the countryside of Serbia.

Next time we travel to Serbia, I’d like to head west from Belgrade.  Do you know Serbia is the number one exporter of raspberries in the world?  Actually, this distinction varies from year to year based on production but suffice it to say, it’s in the top five.  Raspberries are my favorite fruit and I’d like to visit the town of Arilje in western Serbia, called the raspberry capital of the world.

References: Wernick, Robert, (1975). Lepenski Vir: A Mesolithic Paradise.  Retrieved from http://www.robertwernick.com/articles/LepenskiVir.htm

 

 

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Zašto Srbija? (translation: Why Serbia?)

The first time we visited Serbia in September, 2010, my husband remarked that Serbia is not a third world country but it’s about a 2 1/2.  Since then, it’s changed and so have we.  After visiting three times, we’ve noticed increased construction and better cars on the road, indicating an improved economy.  According to World Bank data, the average income in 2012 was $5380 per capita per year and the unemployment rate is still around 20% (world bank.org) but both indicators have shown improvement.  The nation is currently seeking entry into the European Union.

To place the country in geographic context, Serbia is located in southeastern Europe in the Balkans, the crossroads of Europe and Asia and the scene of many conflicts throughout history.  It’s one of six republics that made up the old Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 until 1991 which was ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito until his death in 1980.  The other 5 republics of the old Yugoslavia are Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro.  Notice on the map that Serbia is landlocked, thus lacking access to the beautiful Adriatic Sea that attracts so many tourists to the region.

350px-Balkans_regions_map

We traveled to Serbia to visit our son, Michael, who lives in Belgrade. As an undergraduate, Michael studied abroad at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and returned to Krakow to complete a Master’s Degree in Eastern European Studies and International Relations.  The focus of his master’s thesis was Serbia which led him to conduct research in the country and he moved to Belgrade after completing his degree.  So far, we’ve visited three times–in 2010, 2011 and most recently in October, 2013.  Most of our time has been spent in the capital city of Belgrade (pop. approx. 1.7 million) but we’ve also traveled outside the city which I’ll cover in another post.

To be honest, my first impression of Belgrade was somewhat negative.  It seemed dreary and dirty to me, a typical Communist-era large city with lots of gray concrete buildings erected in the 1950’s and 60’s which led my husband, Jim, to dub it Bel-gray.  Then to further “cement” my unfavorable impression, we were required to register with the police within 24 hours of our arrival, a bureaucratic vestige of the old Communist state which troubled me.

Today, my impression is significantly different.  We were soon persuaded by warm and friendly Serbs to change our perceptions.  Then Michael gave us a book of humorous essays, A Guide to the Serbian Mentality, by Momo Kapor, which, upon reading, completed our conversion.  Yes, the concrete is still there and some of those buildings still strike me as depressing, but now I see the old architecture interspersed among the modern buildings and I observe preservation and restoration efforts occurring as well.  There is a lot of beauty just waiting to be discovered in both people and place.

One of the most attractive features of Belgrade is that it is likely the single most affordable city I’ve visited in Europe.  We rented an apartment in a different area each time but centrally located in Belgrade at a rate of $50-$70 per day.  All three were clean, recently renovated, nicely furnished, and had internet connection.  I’ve used FlipKey (click on it to see apartments and prices) to find accommodations with consistently satisfactory results.

Here are some of the sights and activities we’ve enjoyed in Belgrade.  (Hover to see captions or click to enlarge the photo.)

Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park

The fortress, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, was built during the 2nd century AD by the Romans, razed by invaders, and subsequently rebuilt numerous times until the 14th century (www.serbia.travel).   Today, there is a military museum with weaponry from medieval times through WW2 on the grounds that is worth seeing but the description of the exhibits was in Serbian without English translation.  The zoo is also part of Kalemegdan Park and although I have not visited, your nose will tell you when you’re getting close.

Cathedral of St. Sava

The Cathedral of St. Sava, named for the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world.  It’s been under construction for over 100 years and each time we’ve visited, scaffolding has been present inside the structure.

The Danube and Sava Rivers

The Danube and Sava Rivers offer several opportunities to tourists visiting Belgrade.  Stroll along the Danube and spend some time just sitting on a bench to read, relax, and enjoy the view.  You can also cruise the rivers by boat.  A 90 minute boat cruise costs less than $5 or you can rent a boat for the entire day.  We paid just over $100 through a private party for a half day rental including the captain who piloted the yacht.  We were fascinated by the miniature vacation homes floating on the Sava and disturbed to discover that their human waste goes directly into the river.  We also rented bikes at the Sportcenter on the Sava River for about $2 per hour or $6 for the day.  We rode along the bike trail next to the Sava River and crossed the bridge to the island of Ada Ciganlija, where an artificial lake has been created by connecting the island to the riverbank. Ada offers beaches, treated water in the lake for swimming, water skiing, and restaurants.

Republic Square and Knez Mihailova Street with a stop for a coffee.

Republic Square is a popular meeting place in the center of Belgrade and the location of the statue of Prince Mihailo (Michael), erected in 1882.  Prince Mihailo, an enlightened reformer, convinced the Ottomans to remove their garrison from Serbia and enacted various governmental reforms until his reign was cut short by his assassination in 1868.  Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael) Street, a pedestrian zone filled with shops and restaurants in beautiful 19th century buildings, is nearby.  When stopping for a coffee, however, whether on Knez Mihailova or elsewhere, be sure you don’t inadvertently order Turkish which has the grounds in the bottom of the cup.  I learned that lesson the hard way as I picked coffee grounds out of my teeth.

The National Museum, Nikola Tesla Museum, and Tito Memorial

I admit it.  I like museums and Belgrade has some gems. The first is the National Museum which has been closed due to reconstruction each time we were in Belgrade.  This last time, however, there were a couple of special exhibits that were open so we jumped on the opportunity to get inside.  We look forward to seeing the Prehistoric, Ancient, Middle Ages, and Modern Collections when the museum finally reopens.  Second, the Nikola Tesla Museum showcases his many inventions and his Serbian origins.  Tesla, not as well-known as his rival, Thomas Edison, was the inventor of alternating current, which is used today to produce and distribute electricity rather than Edison’s invention of direct current.  Finally, the Museum of Yugoslav History is a memorial to Josip Broz Tito, long-time President of Yugoslavia.  His mausoleum, the House of Flowers, is located there along with thousands of artifacts and documents from his rule of Yugoslavia.          

6.  Skadarlija

The bohemian area of Skadarlija is found on cobblestone Skadarska Street.  It is restricted to pedestrian traffic only and is lined with cafes, bakeries, and restaurants featuring authentic Serbian food and music.

7. Prijatno! (Bon Appetit!)

The food in Belgrade is inexpensive, plentiful and tasty. Some of our favorites are kajmak, a cross between clotted cream and butter; ajvar, a roasted red bell pepper spread; soups, known as “spoon food”; shopska salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and cheese; ćevapčići, rolls of minced meat; and pljeskavica, similar to a hamburger.  A cautionary tale regarding food is in order, however.  My husband ate a pljeskavica from a street stand and even though we claim to have cast iron stomachs, he got sick from it.  It’s good to be a little discriminating in your choice of eateries in any country.

There are many more sights and activities that we discover each time we visit Belgrade.  When I asked Michael to review my post for accuracy (because he lives there and is fluent in Serbian), he reminded me of so many details that could or should be included and pointed out that I should at least mention that the cyrillic alphabet is the official script in Serbia.  Fortunately, in almost all instances the Latin equivalent is included.  To have a look at the cyrillic alphabet and Latin equivalents, click here.

Finally, unlike Prague in the Czech Republic which my son calls the Walt Disney World of Europe due to continuous hordes of tourists, Belgrade is still relatively undiscovered.  Visit Belgrade before it becomes the next Prague.

So, to answer the title question “Why Serbia?”—Zašto da ne?  Why not?

 

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The Cinque Terre—Hiking Shoes Required

 

CHEEN-kweh TEH-ray

Learn to say Cinque Terre the Italian way by clicking on the YouTube link below.

Five captivating, remote fishing villages along the rugged Italian Riviera make up the Cinque Terre, Italian for the 5 Lands.  If you want to see soaring Mediterranean views with quaint and colorful villages built on steep mountain slopes, and you’re willing to travel light to climb LOTS of stairs, Cinque Terre is for you.   The villages are best accessible by train although I understand the truly dauntless may attempt to drive the steep and narrow winding roads only to find they have to park their cars outside of town at exorbitant rates once they arrive.

We stayed at Elisabetta Carro’s Rooms (a click will take you to her website) in Vernazza, seeking the best views at the best price and we were not disappointed.  The strenuous climb up endless stairs along narrow, uneven walkways carrying our “rolling” backpacks from the train station was absolutely worth the effort.  The views were exactly what we had hoped to find. Our room was tiny but very clean and Elisabetta was delightful.  When we returned muddy from hiking, she even helped Jim clean his shoes over my protests.  One evening when we returned, a man stood looking wistfully at the stairs to our place behind the gate and asked if we were staying there.  He told us he tried to book a room but the last one was rented just before his call.  When he asked if the views were as good as he envisioned, we invited him and his companion up to the terrace to share the wine we brought back with us.  It turned out he was a priest, Father Frank, from the U.S., traveling with his sister.  We had a great visit, enjoying the view while he bemoaned his missed opportunity.

Views from Elisabetta Carro Rooms

(Hover over the photo to see captions or click on the photo for a slide show.)

Getting Around

The train from the southeast at La Spezia takes you first to Riomaggiore in about 10 minutes, then 2 minutes more to Manarola, 3 additional minutes to Corniglia, 4 more minutes to Vernazza, and finally 3 minutes more to Monterosso.   There are few views from the train, however, because most of the trip is through tunnels.  Tickets are inexpensive; from town to town costs less than 2 euro and the ticket is good for several hours from the time you validate it, or you can purchase a Cinque Terre Pass that covers unlimited train travel and use of the trails for varied periods of time.  You can also travel by ferry with stops in Monterosso, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore.  Make a plan for each day then calculate whether a pass or individual ticket is more cost-effective.  We actually found that individual tickets were right for us.

Each village has its own charms.

Food and Restaurants

Food is such an important part of travel and the Cinque Terre is known for its seafood, olive oil, and mushrooms, among other culinary delights. In high tourist areas like this, it’s often difficult to find good food at reasonable prices. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to find good food at any price. The number 1 rated restaurant in Vernazza on TripAdvisor is Il Pirata–The Pirate.  I was VERY skeptical about a place with such a kitschy name but the food was excellent and the owner took special care to recommend gluten-free dishes for me. The reviews were varied on some of the places where we ate, but fortunately, we enjoyed good food and good service everywhere.

Hiking the Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre was designated a national park in 1999, with a fee to hike the trails between villages.  The ravaging floods and mudslides of 2011, however, destroyed many of the paths.  In October, 2013, when we visited, the easy trails connecting Riomaggiore and Manarola, and Manarola to Corniglia were still closed.  We hiked the more difficult trails from Vernazza to Monterosso and from Corniglia to Vernazza.  Had the easier trails been open, we may have missed the more arduous but rewarding hikes that we experienced.  Things usually work out for the best, don’t you think?

We hiked Trail #2 from Vernazza to Monterosso, then from Corniglia to Vernazza.  The first segment at 1.8 miles, is reputed to be the most difficult section, and takes around 2 hours to complete.  There are many uneven stairs, up and down; steep grades; narrow passageways; and the path surface varies from stone to gravel to dirt to mud.  On this section we encountered a young couple geocaching, which is “the real world treasure hunt, that’s happening right now, all around you.  There are 2,412,846 geocaches and over 6 million geocachers worldwide”(geocaching.com).   I’d actually never heard of it before.  Jim told them he thought the cache would be at the rest stop with the bench and all the cats.  When we saw them again later, they confirmed his guess had been correct.

The 2 mile section from Corniglia to Vernazza is somewhat less difficult.  It begins with views of grape vines growing in verdant fields followed by lush olive trees and stunning views of the Ligurian Sea.  There are still plenty of uneven stairs and narrow passages, however.  Wear comfortable hiking shoes, layer your clothing, and bring water.  Stop and rest when needed along the way and enjoy. the. view.

Views from the Trail

Based on events from October, 2013

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Renaissance Ramparts in Lucca

In my opinion, Lucca is one of the most charming cities in Italy.  Off the beaten path, Lucca, with a population of around 87,000, is often missed while most tourists visit Florence, Pisa, and the Cinque Terre instead.  When I read that the intact Renaissance-era ramparts in this city are among the best preserved in Italy, I knew I had to see it.  Ramparts are more than city walls; they are defensive walls that have a broad top forming a walkway.  The walls in Lucca are 40′ high with a 60′ wide tree lined walkway on the top that encircles the entire historic center for 2 1/2 miles.  Most cities dismantled walls like these in the name of progress long ago.  Any serious history nerd would want to see this.

I booked a night at B&B Il Duomo for 80 Euro ($110) in the historic area within the city walls.  We arrived at the train station directly outside the wall and we immediately headed to the center.  I have no sense of direction so I rely on my husband to get me where I’m going but I always bring a map with our destination marked for him to use.  With no trouble, we soon located our delightful bed and breakfast.  Although the owner’s mother who greeted us didn’t speak much English, we got by and I wholeheartedly recommend this B&B.  The accommodations were lovely, the breakfast was good, and the price was right.  We were in the heart of the historic area within walking distance of everything we wanted to see.  Click on the link above to go to their website.

Porta San Pietro--gate into the historic center

Porta San Pietro–gate into the historic center

B&B Il Duomo

B&B Il Duomo

Our delightful room at B&B Il Duomo

Our delightful room at B&B Il Duomo

Less than a block from our accommodations, we discovered Lucca’s cathedral, Duomo di Martino, dating back to the 13th century.  Although we did not visit, I understand it houses Lucca’s most precious relic, the Volto Santo, a crucifix with what is reputed to be the closest likeness to Jesus’ actual countenance.

Lucca's Cathedral, Duomo di Martino

Lucca’s Cathedral, Duomo di Martino

Undoubtedly, the most popular tourist attraction in Lucca is to tour the ramparts by bicycle.  You can rent a bike for 3 euro for a couple of hours at any of several bike rentals found near the wall and take a leisurely ride around the wide promenade.  Today, the wall is reserved for pedestrian, bicycle, and roller blade traffic only, but at one time it was actually used as a racetrack.

O'er the ramparts we rode.

O’er the ramparts we rode.

Touring Lucca

Touring Lucca

Lucca by bicycle

Lucca by bicycle

Once we’d worked up an appetite we decided it was time to get dinner.  We found an enoteca which is a wine bar, near our bed and breakfast.  I’ve read that they have good, reasonably priced food and great wine so we thought we’d give it a try.  Honestly, the food tasted like it was microwaved and we weren’t terribly impressed.  The wine, however, was very good!  Next time I’ll research the food quality a bit more before we try another enoteca.

Lucca’s other claim to fame is as the birthplace in 1858, of composer Giacomo Puccini.  His compositions include some of my favorite operas– La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot.   Listen to Luciano Pavarotti sing my all-time favorite selection, Nessun Dorma, from the opera Turandot.

Here are a few more photos of lovely Lucca before we board the train to Cinque Terre.

Lucca

Lucca

I love Lucca

I love Lucca

Charming scene in Lucca

Charming scene in Lucca

Based on events in October, 2013

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