Our Balkan Adventure
The Balkans, often referred to as the Balkan Peninsula, although not coterminous, are a region in Southeastern Europe. The Balkans are highly mountainous - the region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains. The word “Balkan” means “chain of wooded mountains”. The Balkans are comprised of: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. We’ll be going to Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
The first stop on our Balkan Adventure is Budapest, technically not a part of the Balkans but our first stop nonetheless. Budapest is a heavy city filled with subtle charms. Hungary, formerly part of the Warsaw Pact, is now part of the European Union. Buda and Pest were once separate cities straddling the Danube River but they’ve grown together to make Budapest. The people are an ethnic mix of original Hungarians, the Magyars, mixed with Germans, Slavs, Jews, and Gypsies - a cultural goulash that is uniquely Budapest, as Rick Steves has said.
We depart October 4th, 2012. Stay tuned…
October 4, and 5, 2012
We departed Phoenix for Dallas and then Dallas to London more or less on time although we arrived at Heathrow Airport, London, an hour late. How does that happen? What was going to be a leisurely two hour layover turned into a mad dash for terminal 3, gate 24, where we were herded into a glass-enclosed waiting area to be shuttled to our plane which was sitting in the middle of a runway. How does that happen? Two hours after takeoff we landed in Budapest and needed transport to the city center. Should we negotiate the subway with jet lag or take a shuttle? Shuttle. We approached the first shuttle service booth we saw. The agent was a young man with impeccable English. After the ticket transaction I told him he spoke perfect English. He said, “Well, I’m from Cleveland.” How does that happen?
Later that evening, October 5, 2012
We checked into our postage-stamp-sized hotel room, showered and made our way onto the streets of Budapest in search of a restaurant that the fat but affable reception dude recommended. (I’d mention the name of the eating establishment but I can’t remember nor can I spell it.) The evening was warm and I wanted to dine outside but this restaurant had no outdoor seating. In fact, we had to descend stairs into a cave-like setting and were greeted, wait, we weren’t greeted at all. A disheveled, obviously annoyed, middle-aged man looked at us disapprovingly, turned away and finally looked back and asked, “Yes?” Really. Yes? Why do you think we were there? It’s a restaurant! It’s dinner time! Good God, man! Despite my jet lagged state where my patience was thinner than usual, I held back from verbally abusing him and replied, “Two for dinner, please?” We had a Hungarian fine dining experience all for under $40 or 7,500 forint. Nice. Now it’s time for some sleep.
October 6, 2012
I awoke at 7 a.m. whilst Tom continued snoring. I decided to take a morning walk with my camera and find a coffeehouse. Little did I know the bars were still going strong and coffeeshops weren’t opened until 9 am! Really? Oh well. After breakfast we walked to a popular Budapest coffeehouse, Muvesz Kavehaz-Bar, drank a cappuccino and got on the ‘Hop on Hop off’ bus tour. That took most of the afternoon, really. We returned to the hotel to freshen up, out to dinner and then to a bar ruin. Are you wondering what a bar ruin is? Well, during the hot and cold war years in Budapest, many people left the country. This left many buildings vacant and unclaimed. Squatters moved in, many of whom were artists, and the spaces evolved into what are now bohemian, performance art, living spaces/bars. Very unique, tres chic.
October 7, 2012
But for the complete and utter lack of sleep last night, it was to be another great day to explore Budapest. Our first stop was the Hungarian Photography Gallery, Mai Mano, where we saw self-proclaimed ‘street photographer’, Vivian Maier’s work. Really exceptional, in my humble opinion. Next, lunch. After lunch, a visit to St. Stephen’s Cathedral then back to the hotel to fetch our pre-paid tickets for a cruise on the Danube. We missed the boat’s departure time by minutes but were told we could take the next, and final, departure at 5 p.m. We had 45 minutes to waste so we wandered across the street to a lovely eighteenth century building, a bright butter yellow and just charming (designated a “century old” building, but it’s closer to three) for a vino and lemonade. As I recall we were on the restaurant’s veranda when it started. The rain. First a drizzle, then a shower, then a downpour. Our Danube float was not to be. Instead, a 2.5 hour Hungarian feast fit for a queen in an historic restaurant listening to traditional Hungarian music. It was glorious. We dined on duck, pork, chicken, and sausage, steamed cabbage, potatoes, wild mushroom soup and a delightful Cabernet Sauvignon from the Villanyi region of Hungary. We needed to get to a little church, St. Michael’s Cathedral, for an evening concert of Vivaldi and Bach and were about to brave the rain sans jackets when suddenly the rain stopped. (Living right?) The concert was fantastic (Tom kept translating the Latin verses irritatingly in my ear), the evening a success, and the Budapest beginning of our Balkans Adventure is nearing its end.
October 8, 2012
We left Budapest on the 10 a.m. train bound for Osijek, Croatia. We traveled through the Hungarian countryside in our first class coach with a story-telling Brit of Indian heritage. Five hours later we were at the Osijek train station greeted by Esad, one of our local guides and taxi driver to Maksimilian Guest House. Our accommodations are palatial compared to our Budapest digs. The house is situated in the old town where quaint, restored buildings intermingle with decrepit, war-torn buildings, quite a contrast. Anyway, we dropped our bags in our room and were off on a 2 hour walkabout with Igor, our other Croatian guide in Osijek. Needless to say, we were parched and famished after the walk so we headed to the only restaurant open, (it was Croatian Independence Day - most businesses were closed), Kodaruze. We were served a very Slavonian dish, Perklot, a sort of wild game stew famous in this region. It was really, really tasty and really, really filling. All we could manage after dinner was to waddle back to our palatial room and fall asleep.
October 9, 2012
We awoke to Tom’s alarm at 6 a.m. as we had a busy day ahead of us. After a light breakfast of meat, filled with meat then wrapped in meat and a cappuccino, we started for the Lipizzaner Stables in Dakovo, 20 kilometers southwest of Osijek. After touring the stables, we stopped for burek and kava, (meat-filled pastry and coffee), yet another carnivore’s snack, and then to the Kopacki Rit wetlands park. It is Europe’s largest natural wetland area. The Kopacki Rit Nature Park is huge and is not far from the confluence of the Danube and Drava rivers, and is particularly enthralling for bird-watchers with more than 140 species of birds living there. Finally, we spent the afternoon at an eco-farm, fully self-sufficient and producing their own wine, honey, fruit, vegetables, lamb, pork, you name it. We ate cobanac, (shepard’s stew) and drank home made wine. Dessert was called palacinka, a Croatian pancake but very much like a crepe. It was a fairytale setting with magnificent food and wonderful hosts. The story continues after some much needed rest.
Later that evening, October 9, 2012
I walked around the old town of Osijek looking for interesting images to snap when I stumbled upon a group of guys standing around a fire pit cooking something in cast iron pots. (See image above) I must have looked as if I were interested because next thing I knew I was sampling both the Fiš Paprikaš and Čabanač, getting the lowdown on the preparation particulars and being invited back for dinner. “Okay, okay, I shall return with Tom for dinner!”, I proclaimed with enthusiasm. I’m sure glad I did. It was simply delicious. You can’t script these types of chance meetings with locals.
October 10, 2012
We depart for Novi Sad, Serbia, but not before we make a few more crucial stops in Croatia. Vukovar, considered the Heroes’ Town to Croatians as they put up shockingly unexpected resistance to the invading Serbian paramilitaries, was our first stop. The town endured ceaseless artillery shelling for three months. The hospital was filled with 267 injured men, women, and children. On November 18, 1991, the town fell. The next day, the Serbian paramilitaries rounded up all 267 and took them to a local farm with the assistance of the mayor of Vukovar. They were placed in a barn where they were beaten and tortured. The next day they were marched two kilometers to the east, murdered, and put in a mass grave. We visited a memorial at the farm in Ovčara. I was in tears most of the morning. The horror and sadness were overwhelming.
Thank god for the solace of the grape. It was a somber drive to the winery, through a charming Hansel and Gretel hamlet on the Danube. The winery, Stari Podrum, one of the oldest in Eastern Europe, had a 300 year old cellar where they stored and sold, if one could pony up 450 Euro, bottles of wine from 1940! We did a wine tasting, well, I did, Tom watched. Then, the “Spy who came in from the Cold” border crossing into Serbia.
A walkabout, another winery and honey farm tour, and finally dinner at an authentic Serbian restaurant, called the Гонтана, where they served mostly meat and lots of it. (surprise, surprise) Exhausted and feeling much like a sausage myself, we made our way back through the winding alleyways to our hotel.
October 11, 2012
We had the morning to explore the streets of Novi Sad as we were going to take the train to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, at 1:00 in the afternoon. I spent the morning meandering aimlessly down cobbled alleyways lined with shops, restaurants and bars. (a bit like Aix-en-Provence without the French) After a cappuccino or two and some shopping and we were on our way to the train station.
We were fairly early to the station so we sat on a bench at the platform our train was to arrive and we waited, and waited and waited. The Serbian trains don’t run on Swiss time and are very rarely on time. As the waiting continued the crowd of passengers grew to over capacity. If we were to sit for the two and one-half hour journey I had some maneuvering to do. The locals had it down. As the train arrived (an hour late) many jumped the tracks to board from the opposite side. I, on the other hand, was loaded with a full backpack and used it as a weapon to batter and ram my way through the crowd. Success. I secured two seats as Tom hobbled in, minutes behind me.
Later that evening, October 11, 2012
We barely had time to drop our bags in the hotel when we were off for a tour of Old Town Belgrade with local guide Bujana. We ended up at an authentic Serbian tavern, Kafana ‘?’, named such so as not to offend the Orthodox church across the street. Another Serbian restaurant, another meat-filled meal.
October 12, 2012
We depart for Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, tomorrow so we had to do a week’s worth of sightseeing in one day. Here’s how it went: Moskva Caffe for cappuccino and people watching, a stroll down the main promenade, Knez Mihallova Street, a pedestrian shopping zone, lunch on Skadarska Street which runs through the center of the Bohemian Quarter, an after lunch stroll to the Belgrade fortress which overlooks the confluence of both the rivers Sava and Danube, on to Savamala, a quaint riverside neighborhood undergoing historic preservation, through old neighborhoods back to Republic Square for an afternoon vino break, an art galllery, back to the hotel for a shower, a walk in the rain to the Bohemian Quarter for dinner and live Serbian folk music, and finally, on our way back to the hotel for the evening, we were drawn to the sounds coming from a bar at the end of the street. A power trio fronted by a Serbian blues singer was performing and they were uber cool. We couldn’t tear ourselves away. Alas, it was late and we had an early train to catch in the morning. We were in bed by midnight only to be disturbed by Tom’s alarm at 3:30 a.m.! I’m tired.
October 13, 2012
We arrived in Sarajevo around 1:00 p.m., hopped off the tour bus and onto a city bus to our pension, dropped our backpacks in our room and walked to the city center. It is truly amazing what the human spirit can endure. These people and this place were under siege for two and one-half years, without electricity and water for the most part, had to dodge sniper fire on a daily basis, yet persisted and did not give in. Unbelievably resilient.
We had a local tour guide give us some perspective on a two hour walk through the historic streets where, in a span of 300 meters, there are an orthodox church, a mosque, a cathedral, and a synagogue. The city architecture transitions seamlessly from Turkish Ottoman to Austro-Hungarian, where Istanbul meets Vienna. The cobbled streets and the Bosnian coffee shops with their ritualistic džezva pots entice me to sit for hours in contemplative thought and observe this place where east well and truly does meet west. Tomorrow we take a day trip via train to Mostar. I don’t have the slightest idea what to expect. Stay tuned.
October 14, 2012
We made our way to the train station in the dark, rainy morning with hopes of getting a prime seat on the train. We did. Two and one-half hours later we were in Mostar.
The main bridge, called Stari Most, was our first stop. When the Stari Most collapsed from tank shelling in 1993 it was like the heart was ripped out of most Mostar natives. Even mentioning the bridge for years after it fell to the bottom of the Neretva River could invoke tears as it symbolized both the city and the country as a whole. Now, almost twenty years later, the beautiful stone structure that had spanned the river for over four centuries once again arches across the raging waters of the Neretva. The bridge is Mostar’s core and its reconstruction means that life is slowly but surely returning to normal in what is most certainly the most beautiful city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Look…
October 15, 2012
We toured the War Tunnel Museum this morning with our local guide, Muhamed. It was another devastatingly sad history lesson for us. It is incomprehensible to us, who have lived so well so long, to imagine the horror of having one’s home invaded by lethal and terrifying forces. For us, it was overwhelmingly poignant not only to be witness to the suffering and slaughter, but to see the remarkable will to survive and to overcome that horror that these people displayed. The city was under siege for two and one half years by the Serbian forces, arrayed on the hills that surround the town, and the people endured constant shelling and sniper fire. It was indiscriminate and in ruthless violation of international laws. Not only did they destroy the Olympic venues from the 1984 winter games, they shelled the maternity hospital. To survive the siege, which cut off all water, electricity, and food, the Sarajevans tunneled, by hand, an 800 meter lifeline under the UN held airport to supplies that were being driven in by cover of darkness on the other side. The tunnel took four months and four days to complete. It is only 1.3 meters high and one meter wide. It was under constant threat of flooding, which they managed by pumps at each side. The men and women carried loads up to 50 kilos on their backs, hunched over for the low ceilings. There was a list at the Tunnel Museum of the 11,000 Sarajevans who were killed in the siege, five of whom were Markovic, my family. During the years it operated, the Serbian forces knew - to a certainty - that there was a tunnel, but not one Sarajevan breathed s whisper to them of its whereabouts. It was never found.
We spent the rest of the day in the joy of the present, as the Sarajevans do, sitting in outdoor cafes, eating, drinking, and people watching. Tomorrow, Ostrog Monastery, Montenegro.
October 16, 2012
We awoke to a grey, rainy morning. We had a twenty minute city bus ride to the main bus terminal ahead of us. Really? Should we stand in the pouring rain until the bus comes, then, soaking wet, get on another for a six hour ride to Ostrog Monastery? No thanks. We took a taxi with a non-English speaking cabbie. We tried to comment about the weather but ended up laughing at each other. “Kishva, kishva, dobro!” was all he muttered. “Yeah, kishva, kishva, dobro!”, I replied.
The bus to Ostrog went through a most beautiful, rocky, mountainous, landscape with aqua blue streams and lakes. I thought, surely, the signs of “caution falling rocks” were a formality, but when I saw the pile of boulders strewn across the road, blocking our forward progress, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. I wasn’t about to get out and move boulders while the wind and rain pelted me. Merci for detour tunnels, is all I had to say!
Finally at our jumping off point in the middle of nowhere, we were met by a driver who took us to the monastery up a winding, mostly paved, very narrow road, so narrow only one car could fit. Surely, I wondered, the road would hold and not slough off the side of the mountain taking us with it, would it?
Through the fog and rain we made our way up the mountainside to Ostrog. We toured the main monastery, which is built into a cave on the side of a mountain. We ate at one of the restaurants 100 meters below our sleeping quarters, (called a konak which is a stopping place for pilgrims) and were asleep by 10:00 p.m. as it was mandatory lights out.
On the road to Kotor on the Adriatic Sea…
Pictures from Kotor
October 19 & 20, 2012
I was unable to access my website after the 18th and, alas, we are home now. But, we did make it to Dubrovnik, Croatia, the last stop on our Balkan Adventure.