Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Balkans Sep-Oct 2013: David, the Unknown

  7 Attached Images

I  take  few photos when I travel.  Not that everything is a photo-op, but I do like some momentos  of trips. The problem  is  that I can’t always remember which picture was of what.  Was it Belgrade or Prishtina?

For there is some similarity between one part of the Balkans and another.  Ancient buildings, conflict-damaged structures, from WW1 and 2, plus more recent intramural  difficulties, and then the  more modern structures which have little relationship  to past architecture.  I try to catch the contrasts.  The frustrations occur when I can’t figure out exactly  what was where.  I’m lucky if I can get the country, much less the city.

For I don’t note the specifics.  I have before me some fifty shots - I use throwaway cameras -  that I’m trying to identify.  I’m successful with some but others, it’s simply Lake here and Mosque there.  Sometimes, the order helps.  I do use both memory and the  itinerary to help.

This trip completed my visits to all of the former Republics of the old Yugoslavia.  In 1998, it was Bosnia and Croatia; in 1999  Slovenia;  in 2005 Macedonia, and in 2013,  Kosovo, Serbia (including Vojvodina), and Montenegro.

The travelers are four  women  who had previously  traveled together in one combination or another.: Mali, Oman, Rajasthan, Copper Canyon and Italy.  Two retired and two still  employed.  Often  we take off at Christmas but,  unanimously, we decided not the Balkans, not then!   Weather!

We enlisted the help of a British agency, Man, the Unknown to help with the nuts and bolts. . And they patiently worked through various modifications and changes.  Only two serious glitches - they forgot to pick me at the airport and book me for the first night’s lodging - I was arriving a day early.  Miscommunication between  London and the Belgrade  agent, Balkan  Express.

The second problem was the inability to use my Debit card, at least in Serbia.  After six tries, I  gave up:  suspected scams. in the Serbian system. (One of the  fellow travelers had no problems with her debit card once her PIN had been confirmed.)  I made no effort to use mine until Sarajevo, where it worked.  Fortunately, I had  some Euros which I could exchange.

We were five nights in Belgrade:  on our own for two days and with car and driver for two days.  A long, lovely   day was spent in  Vojvodina, a “protectorate” of  Serbia and its major city, Novi Sad; this province has the same relationship to Belgrade that Kosovo did before its bloody independence.  Active capital city, beautiful countryside, medieval  towns, and an Austrian  fortress built on earlier settlements.  Huge Hungarian influence.  

We did a day tour of Belgrade, which took us to the New City, out to Tito’s grave site (the Hall of Flowers) and various churches/mosques.  T he final day we split pp::  Two to Museums and the Citadel while  others  walked along the river Sava’s bank to Zeum, a  picturesque outskirt of Belgrade.  Interestingly, the Military Museum had artifacts from early times to  Yugoslavia's Days of Glory when troops were provided  for UN Forces; little about recent conflicts within Yugoslavia.

Belgrade is, like most of the Balkan cities, is  active and vibrant, a mixture of old and new.  I found a internet shop, crowded with all of sort of equipment and customers busy with the latest online games,  a good public transportation system with cafes and restaurants all about the old city.  And as throughout the Balkans, a combination of old and new, ruins and modern buildings,  And graffiti? Oh yes!  Unavoidable!

Moving  along:  an early morning start to  a round trip narrow gauge  railroad ride on the Serbian-Bosnian border, with several stops up and down the mountains.  Then into Bosnia  and Visegrad (part of the sub-Bosnian state of Republika Srpska).  On  Mt. Ziatibor  we spent the night in the Ethno Village, a living museum of the traditional life.  Unique.  Food was outstanding - most wonderful breads!

Next was Novi Pazar and Prishtina.  Novi Pazar is one of the few  majority Muslim places in Serbia as the recent conflicts cleansed many of the multi ethnic places.  And thus,  a change of vehicles and drivers:  Our Serb driver and auto transposed  into a Macedonian driver (ex-Journalist) and auto during the time  in Kosovo. .  Security concerns as some  Kosovars  might  vent their hostility against  us,  making  no exceptions for two Americans and Two Brits driven by a Serb.

I had been in Kosovo earlier this year so had visited the Field of Blackbirds, the Serb-Ottoman battlefield so dear to Serbian hearts. They lost!!  But hadn’t gotten to the Patriarchate of Pec, important to Orthodox history.  We had a quick drive and walk about in Prishtina,. Downtown has  pedestarian only streets; but with a surprising amount of activity  for a  Sunday evening..  But then, most residents are Muslims.

Having collected our original car and driver, we had  a long wet drive to Lake Skader,  shared between Montenegro and  Albania. We had  half a day on the lake; then a walk out to a nearby ruined fortress in process of restoration and  onto a nearby village. where several were in hopes of wine tasting - as a non drinker, I headed back and then wandered down  a side road,  out of curiosity. Again, memorized by   scenery.

Onto Mt. Dormitor and the national Park. I managed half the walk about Black Lake lake - over paths strewn with rocks and tree roots.  Did well - for me.  The number one walker missed the final path  so led me out of the morass.  Everyone else,, including our mountain goat driver/cum guide, could make it all around. I ended back in town while the others returned to the wilds for more walking as they call  it;.  From my point of view, it’s trekking at most and hiking at least.  I am not a rock/root scrambler!

We drove to  the famed Monastery Ostraog via Tara River Canyon road, well worth a wait for road crews to clear the way. Fantastic drive.  The Monastery itself reminded me of a Bhutanese monastery I stopped at the final coffee shop.   The Monastery was on several levels.  You could hike it  - climb, puff, puff - or drive.  We drove.  Reminded  me of the Bhutanese monastery where  I stopped at the final coffee shop. Ostrog has reported  spiritual powers for the believers.  The Tara River  Road was fantastic and well worth a wait for the road crews to clear the way.

Then to   Cetinje, the  former capital of Montenegro. which is being restored.  Then Kotor, the Riviera of the Adriatic and a World Heritage Site.  The Old City reminded me St Paul de Vence on the French Rivera. Practically, was able to find a watch store and renew my wristwatch battery.  Harbor had huge cruise ship anchored behind a personal yacht of some size and equipment, but not in the running with the cruiser. 

The next day, we drove around the coast - again, breath taking scenery - and on into Sarajevo.  Enroute, we stopped at Mostar - we found it a disappointment.  The famed bridge has been rebuilt but shlock shops abound, well patronized by touristy types.  There wasn’t a lot of time, so really didn’t explore other parts of the town.

Sarajevo was a delight, though changed.  I had been there in the winter just after the conflict ended  and  with evidences of  all about.  The city has grown.  Restaurants required reservations.  The Holiday Inn was rebuilt.   There were the cemeteries - with  lots of graves, both Christian  and Muslim  - along the street as we walked up to the the fortress viewpoint -. which was underwhelming, what with a stack of trash.

Two of us went to the Gallery 11/07/95:, with its  films  and photos from the genocide at Srebrebica. over 8000 identified dead,  A avoidable tragedy. 

NB: :Lonely Planet and Brandt Travel guides were invaluable along with the Serbian driver, Dejan.  He was a jewel.  The way it works with this four: one of our group tends to come up with ideas, another fine tunes the itinerary, another does on site guiding and the fourth keeps us honest..

Driving was tough at times.  Not only the weather, but the trucks.  Lots of logging trucks for firewood is the source of warmth come winter.   There are lot of trees but there are also lots of people.  Hope there is some plan for regrowth.

Accommodations:  Uniformly excellent. and varied.  Ranging from 3* to 4* hotels, to the unique Sorgojno Ethno Village to the elegant Asta next to the Latin  Bridge in Sarajevo  I was especially glad we were in The Royal Hotel in Belgrade:  a place with character and well located.  The Pelican at Lake Skadar was small  and  cozy - more of a guesthouse.

Food:  Other than at the Ethno Village, only breakfast was included.  Local restaurants were good; used Lonely Planet some,  recommendations from our driver some, and what looked  good as we wandered by some.  Prices were reasonable for we often shared portions. 

Costs::  Basic tour:  $2599.64.  Airfare:$1654.  (My portion of the trip ended with the two nights at Sarajevo.  One participant left at Kotor and two others went on to Dubrovnick)

Conclusion:  Got to places and  saw things, not expected.  Between the London and Serbian agencies plus our own fine tuner, it was a superb tour.  There were some editing problems in the written material that needed to be cleaned up, but that certainly didn’t affect
the tour itself.  Would travel - and may - with Man, the Unknown again. 

NB:  Just received an Email from Peregrine re: tour to Mostar and  Bosnia.

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