Friday, July 29, 2011

Photos of the More Original Variety

A street-car named Strawberry

A working telephone from the home of my late grandmother-in-law

Kayakers off Dubrovnik

Plitvice Lakes

After a greuling overnight bus ride on a minibus built for the cast of Time Bandits, we arrived early yesterday morning in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. We had enough time to briefly have coffee with another former Zivinive resident, a friend of the Mrs. who has also kindly offered to host us here in Zagreb. We were then back on a bus for a day trip to Plitvice National Park in Croatia. A lovely spot, if a bit overrun by tourists. I will try to upload a personal photo later but this should give you the idea.

We had a relaxing night with our hosts, and are now preparing to see the sights in Zagreb. It looks to be a lovely day here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hotel Vrbak

The Hotel Vrbak

It is really hard to put into words the architectural wonder of Novi Pazar's Hotel Vrbak. To me, it is as if toward the end of the 18th century, a group of Ottoman architects were taken by a time-traveling spaceship to the latter part of the 1970s, then told to use that experience to design a hotel. Over the top (literally as it spans a small river), grand, detailed, and right in the center of town, it is also a tad run down, rather empty, and like much of this part of the world, a bit vandalized with graffiti; it was a real treat to spend a night there. Laurence Mitchell, the author of the extremely well-written Bradt guide to Serbia, described it like this: ¨however much communist-period architects were under instruction to provide cheap, utilitarian housing for the proletariat, they were given completely free reign when it came to the design of hotels...a wacky architectural conceit that was taken seriously by a planning committee and immortalised in concrete -- a curious combination of retro-Ottoman and modernism.¨

The interior room decoration are consistent with the outside, too. Hexagons abound, with arch-like details and wrought-iron window treatments.

In a landscape with far too many post-war cities full of grey apartment blocks (really, communism is over, why don't the residents throw a coat of paint on these exterior walls?), the Hotel Vrbak is an impressive and unique sight.

(If you have further interest, please click on the official website for more photos.)

Crkva Petrova

The Oldest Church in Serbia (Saint Peter or Crkva Petrova) lies just 3 kilometers from central Novi Pazar. It's old gravestones and green, hill side location is evocative of old Celtic churches in Ireland. It was here around a thousand years ago that Stefan Nemaja organized the council that outlawed the Bogomil heresey in Serbia (I have no idea what that means but it sure sounds important).

The church was locked, so the Mrs. asked a local if she knew where to find someone with the key. The woman, who was herding about a half dozen goats, said that she could tell her where to get it, then handed her her goatherder's staff, walked away, and told her to keep the goats off the church grounds. Needless to say, the Mrs. was not happy and unprepared to tend to goats, but after a few minutes the woman returned and gave us directions to a house to get the key. That house had a garden full of ripe plums that we were free to sample, and the attendant brought out an enormous, heavy, iron key to let us inside. After a look around, we walked back to busy, central Novi Pazar, without the goats.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rounding Out

A quick summary - after spending nearly a week wrestling with the Bosnian authorities over paperwork for the Mrs., we grabbed a bus to Mostar (which lost its transmission en route, but was repaired by the driver and bus attendant on the side of the road and continued on to Mostar). We grabbed a local bus to Blagaj and spent the night in a restored, 18th century Ottoman house and visited the dervish house at the mouth of the river Buna. We then made a raid on the tourist stonghold of Mostar, grabbing a few photos of the new Old Bridge before a ¨bus trip¨ (really a bewildering car ride to a minibus) to Tebinje, in the part of Hercegovina known as Republika Srpska, where upon arrival my bag was missing from the minibus. After relaxing in Trebinje, we embarked on another guerrilla-style raid of another tourist-held town, Dubrovnik, Croatia, and before nightfall found quarters in Herceg Novi, Montenegro. The next afternoon we arrived in Kotor, at the end of a bay attached to the Adriatic, for a few days of kajaking and climbing the old walls of the town. Then it was off to the old Montenegro capital of Cetinje (Tse-tin-yeh) for some museums and sights, and a trip around the largest lake in the Balkans, Lake Skadar. From there we were on to Durmitor park, then some Crna Gora hospitality with family in Nikšić (where en route the tire blew out on our minibus, and our driver jumped in a car with no explanation, leaving us on the side of the road). We left Montenegro for Serbia, with a stop in Novi Pazar, in the largely Muslim Sanđak region, then a lot of buses to get to the mountains of Zlatibor and a ride on the Šargan Eight railway. We then spent four nights in Novi Sad, the capital of Serbia's Vojvodina region, with a visit to the largely-Hungarian town of Subotica and a hike in the rolling, fetile hills of Fruška Gora. We also made a day trip to Belgrade - where we will return again before we leave - and now find ourselves again visiting Živinice in NE Bosnia. Tonight we plan to get an overnight bus to Zagreb, then carry on for a day trip to Plitivice Lake National Park in Croatia, followed by spending the weekend poking around the Croatian capital.

Bože! The Fruit Is So Good Here Now

Moving into Serbia, gonna eat a lot of peaches...


Back in Živinice again, somewhat unexpectedly, but as a result of good news on the paperwork front. In the meantime, here are some photos of some stops along the way.


Bridge in Trebinje

Bay of Kotor and Kotor Town


River near Lake Skadar

Ostrog Monastery

Durmitor National Park

I plan to catch up over the next few days with more posts.

Monday, July 25, 2011


It is quite wet in Vojvodina today so the planned hike in the Fruska Gora hills was not to be. So we hopped on a bus to poke around Belgrade today for some museums. On the bus to the capital we discovered that on Mondays those museums are closed. The rain held off long enough to look around the mighty fortress at Kalemegdan at least. Hopefully tomorrow we get out to the hills.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Novi Sad & Subotica

It has been easy to see why Novi Sad is one of Serbia's main tourist draws. Great buildings, a lovely setting on the Danube, and an imposing fortress overlooking it all. One noticable thing about NS after traveling the region is the obvious level of civic pride and attendant local government. There is little trash on the streets, public spaces have lovely flower beds, and the city is in the midst of constructing an expansive multipurpose trail along the Danube.

Yesterday we made a day trip to Subotica (Suh boe teet sah) a charming, largely Hungarian town near the Magyar border. It has an abundance of secessionist buildings but was very sleepy on a Sunday morning. We ate an absurdly large, tasty and inexpensive Hungarian meal topped off with a remarkable apricot rakija, which seemed to linger with fruit for a full minute after each sip. And we did manage to pick up some paprika and a few souveniers as well.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Novi Pazar and Shargan 8

We really enjoyed the Ottoman charm and creative modern architecture of Novi Pazar and then stopped off for a trip on the historical Shargan Eight railroad (cue REM). Now in Novi Sad and hope for a proper post later today.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Onward to Serbia

We have had a great few days relaxing in Niksic but now we are headed on this morning to Novi Pazar in Serbia. I'll try to update again when we are there.

Nikšić (Back in Real Time)

After wondering at the beauty of Durmitor National Park here in Montenegro, we decided to pay a visit to the Mrs family in Nikšić (Nik-shich). Nikšić is famous for two things - the hometown of my father-in-law as well as Nikšicko Pivo, a tasty and popular beer throughout Southeastern Europe. Interestingly, we are visiting the family of my wife's father's cousin, who she hasn't met since she was five, yet the Montenegrin hospitality was in full effect as our hosts treated us to a lovely meal and company last night. Unfortunately, the grandmother here in Nikšić passed away earlier this year, but we are staying in her apartment while we rest up, visit with family, and do some laundry. Nikšić does not have any notable tourist sights per se, but it is a pleasant place, nestled in the mountains, with a lively pedestrian promenade.
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Perhaps most interesting of this stop is that one of our hosts here climbed Mount Everest in 1996. I've never met someone who has been on the mountain, but he regrettably had to turn back a mere forty meters from the summit. But even more interesting, he climbed down days before the famed 1996 Everest Disaster, spending his time at base camp with some of the eleven people killed. (The IMAX film of the event is very good as well.) A fascinating bit of history, and an unexpected but welcome experience.


Dubrovnik is a walled city on the Croatian coast, built by the Venetians and famed for its polished white-stone streets, churches, red-tiled roofed homes. It is lovely, absurdly expensive, with swarms of tourists and mediocre yet overpriced food. I have been to old walled cities from the Caribbean to North Africa, but never did one charge a person about 15 bucks to walk around the walls. Worst of it all, besides the people selling junk and uninspiring food, there are hardly any Croatians there. A worthwhile stop (and I mean stop, as we came in on a morning bus and left later than day for Herceg Novi in Montenegro), but if I could do it again I would have brought a lunch in to the Old Town and skipped the stops in the cafes for beer and coffee.

Travel Woes

The taxi we took to Ostrog was put out of commission after we got out. The bus from Zivinice to Mostar lost its transmission half way there. And the left rear tire on the minibus back from Durmitor blew out en route. We are still here, but sometimes half the fun in the Balkans is getting there.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Yugoslav Things




Blagaj and Trebinje

(Note: I will be trying to catch up on prior destinations before they get old. We were in Trebinje over a week ago.)

Leaving the friendly confines of the home of my MIL, we grabbed a bus from Bosnia to the junior sister of the country, Hercegovina.

(Allow me to briefly summarize the political and geographic subdivisions of BiH. Bosnia is the larger, more green and northern part of the internationally recognized country. However, the political settlement from the war remains the governing structure of the country, so about half the country is part of the Bosnia-Croatian "Federation," including the part that the Mrs. is from; the other half of the country is called the Repulika Srpska and it is run by the Serbs. There is no correlation between Bosnia vs. Hercegovina and Federation vs. RS, in other words, both parts are shared.)

Rather than spend the night in the touristic nightmare of Mostar, we headed to a small village called Blagaj (Blah-guy) which holds the source of the Buna river. Next to the cave where the river begins to flow is the Blagaj Tekia, long a stopover for travelers across Hercegovina. Literally attached to the rockface, it is quite a sight. We spent the night in an old Turkish home, built the same year the US was declaring its independence, along a peaceful stretch of the Buna.

Early in the morning, we bused back to Mostar, to see the quasi-historic bridge. Long a symbol of where East meets West, and the tolerance of the city shared by Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians, the original 400 year old bridge was destroyed when Croatia and Croatian Bosnians briefly waged war upon the Muslims of Bosnia. While the bridge today is a reconstruction, it is a lovely one, as the photo at top right of the blog suggests.

From Mostar, we moved on Trebinje, another lovely Hercegovinan city, although this one in the Serb controlled parts of Bosnia. (The only difference I noticed was they do not use the official national BiH flag and they drink Serb and Montenegrin beer, and none from the Federation.) A really lovely town, however, and we hung out with the separatist Serbs for a couple of nights, did some laundry, then moved on to Dubrovnik in Croatia. I will try to get to that next time.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

montenegro crna gora black mountain

Another nook post but montenegro has been too brilliant to keep in. A kayak trip on kotor bay is a lovely experience, a tranquil bay surrounded by towns with towering churches and red ceramic tiled roofed houses. From there we daytripped to the old montenegro capital of cetinje (tse tin jeh) with some quiet museums and sleepy charm. We ended the day on the shores of the largest lake in the balkans, where we started the day following for a boat trip on lake skadar and river crnojevica. Another bus dropped us off at the side of the highway where we grabbed a taxi to the mysterious ostrog monestary, built into a rock face high on an eponymous montenrgrin mountain. We now find ourselves in durmitor national park, perhaps best described as this country's yosemite. One of these days I will find a way go update with more details and pics.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Brief update

Strangely internet cafes have ben hard to come by here. So now just another boring post, sorry. After mostar we spent a few nights in Trebinje, then dropped in for a day in the lovely but horribly expensive and touristic Dubrovnik. We spent the night in Herceg Novi and have been in Montenegro since. Kotor was amazing and we are now in Cetinje. Hopefully we will have some details on all these places soon.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Mostar and beyond

Since leaving Zivinice, we have had our bus break down, the Mrs locked herself in a restroom, our "bus" came and it was a car where I was crammed next to a stinky old Bosnian guy to transfer to a no A/C minibus and it has been hot hot hot. I will fully post on Mostar later but we are now in Trebinje in the Serbian part of Hercegovina. Oh and when we got here my bag was missing from the boot of the van.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bosnian Hospitality

A friend of my mother-in-law had us over for a visit yesterday. As if being spoiled, fed and pampered by my MIL the last few days wasn't enough, we spent yesterday afternoon in the friend's yard and garden. We started with some cherries and raspberries picked fresh, then continued to the point of being stuffed with smoked, pepperoni-like sausages, delicious cheese, homemade bacon and fried fish cakes. We finished the meal with watermelon, and of course it was all washed down with large amounts of home made plum brandy.

When the Mrs. translated my comment, ¨This is the way to live,¨ one of our hosts replied, ¨You should have seen how nice it was before the war.¨ A sad note in an otherwise lovely afternoon.

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Update: different friends' house last night, repeat. Having troubles with the bureaucracy here, hoping to do some traveling starting today or tomorrow.


The other evening, the Mrs. and I had a chance to spend a few hours out in Tuzla with a pair of her old friends from here in Živinice.

Tuzla has a reputation as something of an industrial wasteland, but like Cleveland or Pittsburgh, its industrial underside does not erase a fair bit of charm. One of the best things about Europe is that the majority of the cities, especially the downtown portions, are full of pedestrian-only streets lined with shops and cafes. Tuzla is no exception. Based on my guidebook (which I am discovering was fairly half-ass updated the last time), the old town is supposedly being swallowed by sink holes from old salt mines. Evidently the locals, did not care much for that, and at one end of the pedestrian mall sits a newly constructed plaza centered by a lovely fountain, pictured here.

Like other parts of Bosnia, the architecture is largely Austro-Hungarian, but unlike other parts of Bosnia, the civicmindedness of the locals is evident by the brightly painted buildings.

A sign that not all decency was lost in the war, Tuzla's orthodox church was untouched during the conflict, and sits just a few hundred meters from the downtown mosque and Ottoman fountain.

We had a great night out with my new/her old friends (with some looks of disbelief from several locals by the people speaking English). We probably have another trip to Tuzla in the next few days, where I might have more to add, but I was pleasantly surprised by the parks, architecture and layout of this supposedly-grim northeastern Bosnian city.

(These photos are a bit poor with the harsh sun/shade combination, I will try again later for some nicer pics.)

Which one of these is an amusement park ride, and which is a minaret?

For now I will let you decide. Happy Independence Day from Živinice.

(Photo at right courtesy of Andrew Borgen.)

Saturday, July 2, 2011


It is hard to summarize a city full of as many contradictions as Sarajevo. In one sense, its history is rich as a mixing bowl of cultures, and relative tolerance, yet ten years ago it became eponymous with intolerant slaughter. But even before that, the Nazis and local allies effectively destroyed a Jewish community that came to Sarajevo the same time that Columbus was landing in the New World.

Architecturally, the city begins with the Baščaršija, the oldest, mostly Ottoman part of the city. The quarter remains pedestrianized, with plenty of touristy shops selling everything from intricately carved bullet shells to futbol jerseys. We stayed in a nearby pansion, just a few steps from the historic and still functional fountain. Cobblestone streets, locals sipping turkish coffee in numerous cafes, and we even spotted the traditional Muslim call to prayer from an imam at one of the older mosques, a rare sight these days as the adhan is typically delivered from electronic loudspeakers in much of the Muslim world.

When the Ottomans gave up Sarajevo in the Treaty of Berlin, the Austro-Hungarians moved in, and began to add to Sarajevo in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Turkish quarter. While seamless in terms of a street layout, the cobblestone gives way to pavement and the building take on a Viennese stamp in this part of the city. While the older, Turkish portion contains an important historical synagogue (now a museum) as well as a 15th century Orthodox church, the newer Austro-Hungarian portion contains the main Catholic cathedral as well as the new Orthodox church (although open as a tourist draw and lovely from the outside, much of the interior icons have been taken to other more Serb occupied parts of town.)

But the Austro-Hungarians did not stay for long, as on 28 June 1914 (97 years and one day before our arrival in Sarajevo), Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot the heir to the throne and his pregnant wife in Sarajevo, igniting the first world war, and in effect ending the imperial system that had so long ruled much of Europe and the Middle East. Standing on the bridge today - a little noticed pedestrian overpass over the river - one can imagine the fear and loathing of this simple nationalist who arguably set in motion every major world event of the 20th century.