Monthly Archives: June 2019

Serbia, Belgrade – part 2

I have continued my travels around Belgrade over the past few days which of course included a food walking tour – such an excellent way of discovering a city, learning about the history and of course sampling the best of the local food as you go.

A brief visit to the former residence of Princess Ljubica. Mostly this is a furniture museum now but what makes it interesting is that it was built just as the Ottoman Empire in the region was starting to decline and Christianity was rising. As a result the design, furniture and clothes in different rooms are an eclectic mix of Biedermeier European influence and ongoing Ottoman style eg. the curved area for meeting guests and drinking tea.

Princess Lijubica’s former residence

We started the food tour at the ? Restaurant – one of the oldest in the city. The interior is pretty special and I especially liked the original oak carved tables and the typical Ottoman style “half chairs”. Of course the day starts with Turkish coffee plus a nip of plum brandy. Then the waiter mentioned that the the Burek (a filo type pastry with a local savoury cheese filling) had just come out of the oven – so of course it would have been rude not to try that. After that the ginormous Skadarskarlijska sausage – a bargain at less than two dollars and sold from the best hole in the wall in town.

The very old ? Restaurant and a fresh, hot and tasty burek for brekkie

Is there ever a bad market in any Balkan city or town? No – they always have the freshest and in season food and people still like to shop here rather than in a supermarket.

In season fruit and veg at one of the 22 Belgrade markets

More wandering around took me to past the famous Mockba Hotel and the parliament buildings. One of my guides told me that last year she was taking a group of 40 Iranians around and their translator asked that they have a ten minute stop at this hotel for pictures etc. She thought this was odd and it is not easy to stop there but she complied. Ten minutes later only 10 people had returned to the bus. The translator said they must have decided to walk to their hotel…..they never came back!

Hotel Mockba, a beaux arts building and the Parliament House in Belgrade

I also came across a little street art. There are two football teams in Belgrade – The Partisans and the Red Star. This area was a stronghold of the partisans and you can tell their street art as it is always in black and white. I didn’t get to see any of the Red Star work – they don’t operate in the same locales for obvious reasons!

Close to my hotel is the Saint Sava Church – one of the biggest orthodox churches in the Balkans. Stunning from the outside but I was disappointed to find that the interior dome was being renovated. But then someone said it was worth taking a look a the crypt which had just been completed. Well I’ve been to a few crypts in my time and they are usually dark and dirty and full of bones – and then there is this one…! So glad I went down there.

Saint Sava church exterior

The stunning crypt in Saint Sava Church

Wall paintings in the crypt of Saint Sava Church

Next stop was the recently renovated Museum of Serbian history which was a mixture of archaeological finds (a big Roman settlement here as it was kind of at the edge of one part of their empire) plus Serbian artists and some European art. As usual I have picked some favourites – below are all portraits of strong and interesting women!

Susie’s selection of art from the National Museum of Serbia

I also really liked the work of the Serbian artist Uros Predic. These are Fugitives from Herzegovina and Boy at his mother’s grave

And I was totally wowed by this marble sculpture of woman with a veil – how do they do that?!?!

Veiled woman – in marble

Also close to my hotel was the Nikola Tesla museum. Of course being very ignorant about all things science the only reason I know his name relates to the electric car company named after him by Mr Musk. Actually he doesn’t have anything to do with cars really. He was born in Serbia although lived much of his life in the US where he was able to try and patent his ideas. His big invention was the oscillating transformer (you will need to look that up because even after the explanation I couldn’t understand it although I think one of the benefits is the ability for a washing machine to spin as fast as it does?) and he is also now also credited with the invention of the wireless. When Marconi claimed this invention Tesla sued on the basis that this belonged to him and eventually won the case BUT that was 40 years after he died so no-one remembers him for that. It’s a cruel world!

I did get a kick to see how involved he was with the Niagara hydro electric plant design (he worked for both Westinghouse and Edison) – as I have spent a fair bit of time in Buffalo in my time:)

Nikola Tesla Museum

Another unexpected place of interest was the interior of the National Bank of Serbia. I had not realised the degree of hyperinflation in Serbia between November 1993 and and January 1994. In November 1993 1 million dinar equaled 1 Deutschmark by January 1994 that 1 DM equaled 5 Trillion dinar! My guide remembered her mother carrying money around in a suitcase when she went out to buy bread. Apparently all this was caused by a corrupt banking system ……

The Serbian bank then decided to issue the best note of all – in my opinion…..I just wish they would produce more of them – many many more…..

Serbia, Belgrade (my 109th country) – Part 1. The Fort, the tunnels and Tito

And now for another part of the Balkans and its very complicated history. First time in Serbia and using Belgrade as my base. This is a much larger city than the last two capitals I have been in and it is also a large construction site in many places. It is not the most beautiful place I have seen but it is interesting in its way.

Slavija Square, Knez Mihailova pedestrianised street, construction in Republic Square, Salina area

When I planned this trip I thought I would fly from place to place but turns out there are few direct flights from capital city to capital city so I found the website which effectively drives you door to door in comfort and with stops along the way if you want to do that. So enroute from Skopje to Belgrade I opted to make a 90 minute stop in the town of Nis for a quck walk around its fortress and park – great way to stretch my legs and see some Byzantine architecture – yes those Ottomans were here too.

Nis Fortress and Park

On Day one I walked through the excellent pedestrianized shopping street (Knez Mihailova) to get to the place where everyone goes to here which is Kalemegdan Fortress – occupied by the romans and possibly before then and also the Ottomans and the Christians and so on. The large statue is known locally as Victor (he is meant to represent victory over the Ottomans and he has a commanding view towards new Belgrade at the point at which the Rivers Sava and Danube meet with their two distinct colours). He is also stark naked which shocked the locals at the time and this is why he is here rather than in town as they thought people wouldn’t notice that – but of course they do and they all come to see. I did try to get a shot from the front too but the sun was in my eyes…..

Kalemegdan Fort, the confluence of the Danube and Sava and the statue of “Victor”

I also went to some of the underground sites in this area. The Well – which was never actually a well but the Romans dug it very deep hoping to find water. They tried hard but they didn’t find any natural water (the water you see is only surface water from rain coming through the cracks in the rocks above) and there are lots of gory tales of people being lowered down there and left to starve to death and then to eat each other. Also more recently in this century a young girl was thrown down there by her boyfriend. All a bit creepy. The corridor is Tito’s bunker also built under a hill in the park that has a tiny entrance so would have been easy to disguise – no-one is sure he ever went there but his soldiers lived there for a long time keeping it going just in case. They only discovered it in the last 20 years.

The underground Roman “Well” and Tito’s Bunker

While I am on the topic of Tito I might mention more about him. Both in Macedonia and here people who are older – say over 60 look back very fondly on his time as President of the Yugoslavian federation which included what is now 6 countries (Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo (although not recognised as a country by the Serbians); Macedonia and Slovenia). The name Yugoslavia means “Southern Slavic” so didn’t refer to any one country over another. Why did they like him? They will say everyone had a job; they had a passport that gave them access to more countries in the world without a visa than any other; although notionally communist he was not aligned to Stalin and managed to keep one foot in the East and the West; mixed marriage across the states was encouraged to unite the federation; there was no religion and no wars (possibly due to no religion?). He was made lifelong president and when he died in 1980 everything fell apart – the effects of which are still being felt today, with bombing of Serbia by the UN as recently as 1999.

Tito was also a larger than life character. He had at least “three loves of his life” – two of whom bore him children and many female “acquaintances”- ; he watched John Wayne movies every day; he loved to wear fur coats and walk his German shepherd dogs. Got Richard Burton to make a film about his life so that he would be in the area often – and the reason he did that is that he wanted to spend time with Elizabeth Taylor because she was the most beautiful woman in the world. They remained friends for many years and many husbands. He was also friendly with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He loved Western culture and my guide remembered seeing Ray Charles in concert -brought over by Tito. Equally she remembered as a young child being in one of those thousand of 9 year old kids dancing for 90 minutes dressed all in blue and waving a ribbon (a la North Korea style) for his birthday. I think he liked the best of all worlds.

I liked this apocryphal story about him. At a T junction one day, his driver asked whether he should turn left or right. Tito is said to have replied “indicate left but turn right”. Says it all really.

After all this I visited the very contemporary Zepter Museum in a lovely old 1920s building. Mostly I liked the building better than the art but these caught my attention – especially the cheeky menorah (you have to zoom to see what I mean).

North Macedonia (final post) – a day trip to Ohrid and a personal history from my guide.

Everyone said I should visit Ohrid if I could while in Macedonia and it is certainly very different to Skopje – but then most places are:).

I had an excellent private driver/guide so learned a lot more about Macedonian and in particular his family’s history along the way (it’s a 3 hour drive each way).

Both his parents were 2 of about 28000 children who were forcibly exiled from Greece during the civil war in 1948 – ostensibly to keep them safe. They were sent to communist countries to live in orphanages – his mum was 7 and his dad was 12 at the time. They never came back to Greece nor heard from their parents. 12 years later through the Red Cross they both found out their parents were alive and living in Poland and so they went there to meet them again after all that time. The two “kids” met in Poland while finding their respective parents and married soon after. Eventually the families moved to Romania and then back to Macedonia BUT these children had had their citizenship revoked by the Greek authorities and it wasn’t given back so they had no rights to enter Greece or make claims on the properties that had been left behind. My driver, having been born in Macedonia, was able to visit his mother’s family home in Greece but only one wall was left standing and the ownership had passed to others long ago. It seems there are no reparations for loss of citizenship or property for these exiled children or their descendants. I always find personal stories the best way to remember stuff.

Anyway, back to Ohrid. Of course there is a fortress (via a Roman amphitheater) – in this case it is Samuel’s Fortress and the steep climb up is worth it for great views of the surrounding countryside. Having flown Wizzair from Tel Aviv to Sofia recently it was fun to see their plane at Ohrid airport. As Macedonia doesn’t have its own domestic airline they have kind of adopted this one. I thought they were pretty good.

Roman Amphitheater and airport in Ohrid

En route to and at Samuel’s Fort Ohrid

Then a stroll through a small dappled forest, past the almost complete orthodox seminary (the church are the only people with money in this country) and then the gorgeous and much photographed Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo.

Forest and the soon to be opened seminary with great views

The very picturesque Church of Sveti Jovan

A further stroll down the hill took us into Ohrid’s downtown – far too infested with tourists due to cheap flights from other parts of Europe – the high up part was way emptier and prettier. I tried to edit out the people but the building is worth noting. Three storeys means the original owners were very wealthy and as it cost more to build at ground level they tended to expand outwards as they built upwards – so they end up with upside down houses which has become a symbol of the town.

Traditional house in Ohrid

Also on the way downtown is the Sveta Sofija Cathedral with frescos.

Sveta Sofija Cathedral, Ohrid

We then drove further around the massive lake in Ohrid for lunch (dodging some cows crossing the road) – it is their equivalent to the seaside and the water is crystal clear.

Along the lake in Ohrid

A brave swimmer – the water is chilly.

Finally we took a boat ride in the protected waters within the Galicia National Park. The white sandy bits are where the natural springs are bubbling up to form the lake.

On the lake at Ohrid in Galicia National Park.

Abstract beauty of the pristine water in Galicia National Park, Ohrid

And so it is goodbye to North Macedonia. Someone summed up the current political corruption as follows. “The only difference between “then” and “now” is that now we can complain and grumble about the government without being arrested for speaking out”……

North Macedonia – more in and around Skopje

As Mother Teresa was born here it is no surprise to find a memorial to her plus lots of quotes of hers all around town. Some of her quotes are quite interesting others are not to my taste at all eg. Those that are anti abortion – so I had mixed views. Anyway interesting to learn about her life.

Mother Teresa statue and church nearby plus one of her quotes on the wall

On the other hand I really had my expectations exceeded when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia museum. The first half was of particular interest to me as it was all about the Sephardic Jews who migrated to this region at the time of the Spanish Inquisition – while I have Sephardic cousins who have connections to Salonika I hadn’t appreciated that all the Jews who resettled here came from Spain also – so found it very interesting. The holocaust section was also well done. There were about 7000 Jews living in Macedonia during WW2 and during a very short period of time they were nearly all deported to Treblinka and killed. Only those who had other nationalities were able to leave before deportation but of those who were deported – about 90% of the population not a single person came back. It is very well done because it shows people talking about the experiences at the camps – some survived in places like Auschwitz – and I ended up staying there for two hours. Even better was that I had the museum almost completely to myself – a typical situation in this part of the world. Well worth a visit if you find yourself in Skopje.

The Memorial Centre for the Jews of Macedonia. Sculpture represents photos of those who never came back.

When you cross over the Stone Bridge you are instantly transported from the modern satues and everything oversized to the old town of Skopje. At the highest point the Tvrdina Kale Fortress was used to ensure that there was good visibility in all directions and obviously as defence against those pesky Ottomans. The space age building is the sports stadium. Being up high also gives a good feeling visual of the mountains that surround this city.

Tvrdina Kale Fortress

The Carsija (Old Turkish Bazaar) is also on this side of the River Varda and this is clearly an area dominated by the local muslims and has plenty of mosques plus colourful alleys to get lost in as you wander around the stalls and shops – a mix of food, fake handbags and lots of silver and gold.

The Carsija or Old Turkish Bazaar

I decided it would be nice to have a wander around the streets of Skopje at night – easy to do as I was right next to the central square. They make a nice job of the lighting and there is tons going on at every corner to keep you amused -think Covent Garden, London.

Skopje at night

In my wandering I also found the new theatre which aside from being a splendidly large building with lots of statues on the top of it also had even larger statues depicting the different art forms – I kind of like these:)

Skopje Theatre

Depiction of the Arts outside Skopje Theatre

I also really enjoyed the Museum of Macedonian Struggle for Statehood. For about 5 dollars I received a one hour private tour and learned a lot about Macedonian history and the struggle for independence over the past 200 years up to and including the Balkan war. In particular the Balkan wars were very tough on everyone involved and of course depending who you speak to everyone has a different story but for sure a lot of people were killed and often quite gruesomely. I definitely want to find out more as I was particularly shocked to find that British bombers were the first to use napalm at Mount Gromos during the Greek civil war in 1948 – not something they ever taught us in history class! Unfortunately no pictures allowed inside the exhibits – which are all very lifelike waxworks (but don’t let that put you off!)

The sun (which is also part of the North Macedonian flag) in stained glass plus again in the floor with the exhibit that houses their constitution.

A short drive out of town took me to the delightful 12th Century Byzantine church of Saint Pantelejmon – unfortunately no pictures allowed inside which is a shame as it has an interesting history. The original frescos were painted over in the 1800s and then revealed again in 1923 when it was realised they were over much older paintings. The original frescos inside, like the ones I saw in Boyana in Bulgaria from the same period, were the first ones to use humanistic expressions for the saints’ faces rather than the usual bland image approach. It is theorised therefore that Giotto may have got his inspiration for his subsequent work in seeing these frescos which were painted much earlier than originally thought. Who knows???

Saint Pantelejmon Church, Vrodno

We then headed to a favourite local spot for R and R, Matka Canyon where we took a scenic boat ride and visited Cave Vrelo. We were also meant to take the cable car up to the giant (of course!) Millenium Cross but an incoming thunderstorm put a stop to that plan! A nice day out.

The Millenial Cross in the distance at the top of the mountain. Next door they are building a tower with a revolving restaurant!

Canyon Matka and Cave Vrelo

North Macedonia, Skopje (my 108th country) – they like to build big stuff here (and I mean big)

Well my guide book described Skopje as “bonkers” which I thought was a bit tough until I got here. It is indeed bonkers but in a kind of Disney meets Soviet meets Europe meets “Honey I shrunk the kids”.

As you walk around Skopje – which is quite small – you come across statues and massive buildings at every turn – really at every turn. Most were built in the past 10 years and don’t serve much purpose except, as I understand it, as a form of building national pride in what is still a very new country, although a very old civilisation (this is where Alexander the Great hails from, allegedly). At first you don’t know what to make of it and then it becomes quite entertaining to see if you can walk for more than a minute without spotting a new fountain or statue or massive building or funky bridge- you can’t. I’m beginning to quite like it!

Here’s what I mean and check out the people in some of the photos (actually there are not that many people around in this city) to get an idea of scale

The central square fountain – almost competes with Bellagio in Vegas

That’s my Marriott Hotel at the top – they are not usually quite so fancy. Also, is that the Arc de Triomphe?

Not sure who these folk are but I wouldn’t mess with them.

The stone bridge, the mother and child fountain and another bridge with lots of famous North Macedonian writers leading to the Archaealogical Museum – whose inside is much tinier than its outside!

Behind the stone bridge is the old citadel of Skopje. And another bridge with famous Macedonians

Sometimes you come across some smaller pieces along the street that are quite sweet. The singers outside the Bank – maybe singing “buddy can you spare me a dime”? And the so-called “glitzy girl”

Some of my favourite smaller sculptures in Skopje

And they are still building like crazy – see below

Romania, Bucharest – last few days in the city

After my lovely tour of the Romanian interior I finished up with a few days in Bucharest and also met up with one of my old school friends Lorna.

Bucharest cannot be deacribed as one of Europe’s prettiest capitals even though it is sometimes called the Paris of the East – somewhat of an exaggeration. And although the communist regime ended in 1989 a series of governments considered both “alternative communist” and corrupt has maybe not helped the city progress as quickly as it could have.

I highlighted some key buildings in my first blog on Romania so for the remainder of my stay I visited the ones I hadn’t seen.

A highlight was a visit to the symphony at the stunning Atheneum Theatre. Concert and environment were perfect and all for GBP15! I also did the day tour – which was just and another chap being given the run of the place.

Bucharest has a lot of very large buildings and monuments. These include the memorial to those died in the world wars- (or the football with a stick through it as it is often referred to!)

We paid a visit to the National Museum of Art housing a broad range of Romanian art including the works of Brancusi (who I didn’t know was Romanian) as well as a European collection. Even though it was a Saturday morning we had the whole place virtually to ourselves and I especially liked the four seasons painted by Brueghel.

On Sunday we were due to visit the Great synagogue plus the holocaust memorial ( it is believed 400,000 Romanian Jews were killed) but it was closed for no good reason!

We did however manage to get into the Choral Synagogue modelled on the one in Vienna and also the massive Jewish cemetery which had some very old and much more recent tombstones. There were lots of Israeli visitors there – this is because a lot of Jewish Romanians left the country during the communist regime under a program where Israel paid for them to emigrate. The regime in Romania charged a hefty amount of extra money for the privilege of being allowed to leave so it could take years to actually happen. Many come back to visit relatives who stayed or to get back to their roots.

We also decided to visit the former home of the communist dictator Ceaucescu, his wife and three adult children. I feel that in talking to people, the shadow of this horrible couple still hovers over Bucharest to this day. While much of the country was starving and living in extreme poverty this house, which is deceptively large, is a wholly inappropriate show of wealth, luxury and excess. Nevertheless it is also a fascinating display of what was available to those with money in the late 80s. Because he and his wife made a speech, escaped from the angry crowd, were recaptured, tried and then both shot (the latter three in the space of one day) the place has been left as it was found in pristine condition.

Not only was there a suite for the parents there was also one for Mrs Ceascescu to use during the day and one each for the three kids – plus and indoor and outdoor garden , gold bathroom, indoor swimming pool etc etc. No-one In Romania has any idea about this opulence because locals were not even allowed in the street where they lived and they rarely entertained in this house beyond the immediate family and close friends.

Some of the other people on the tour were locals and visiting for the first time and were clearly horrified at what they saw. Once again an example of people in power preaching one thing and doing another.

A final dinner in the old town with Lorna and large glasses of local wine topped off the visit.

Romania – touring the interior, part 6 (final) – Bran, Zanesti (and bears), and Peles Palace in Sinaiao. REPOSTING DUE TO GLITCH!

Given a comment made by my friend David and other things I’d read (eg. The interiors are basic with no originals) I was not bothered about seeing Bran Castle (a fairytale looking castle where Vlad the Impaler hid from the Ottomans at one point). I decided to visit just for a photo and detour to some other interesting places instead. (It’s great for flexibility to have a personal guide). One look at the town and I knew it was a good decision- touristy, tacky and basically horrible – especially after all the lovely places I’d been. So here’s the obligatory photo of the castle but I thought the grilled sausages was the best bit!

Bran Castle and the best bit – the grilled sausages!

There are about 6000 brown bears who roam the Carpathian Mountains. I visited Libearty (get it:) which is a sanctuary of 100 bears who have been rescued from pretty awful conditions – zoos, circus, being the local pet, tied to a post, tiny cages etc. This is a not for profit company. They only allow three visits a day and max 50 at each time with a guide so that the bears don’t get stressed. Below is some views of the 29 hectares they have – so lots of room for them to roam.

Some of the 29 hectares that the bears now have to roam around in

The fences are only on the outer sections of three very large areas – they are electrified to keep the bears in and the visitors out. We all kept our voices low as we walked around. Many of the bears have had to learn how to live in the wild as they didn’t know how when they first came.

Love seeing those brown bears enjoy their freedom after all they’ve been through

Bears do climb trees ver fast – I saw this one go up there.

bear sees tree; bear climbs tree.

And watch this video to see how fast they come down again. So never climb a tree to escape a bear!

Unfortunately bear hunting still goes on so sometimes they are asked to take in younger abandoned cubs but mostly these were adults originally kept in cruel conditions. As a result they do not allow them to mate as the offspring would likely be genetically weaker due to the way their parents would have been held captive. Anyway they seem happy now – and seemed to love splashing in the pools (it was a hot day). Apparently it’s great to visit in Winter as these bears never learned to hibernate so at most they do so for a month and they they play in the snow.

Impressive initiative in a country that has only recently developed laws to protect animals.

They also rescue some wolves – some have been cross bred with dogs – not good for genetic survival. The lady below is actually the alpha of the pack and tells the others what to do!

In this pack – the she-wolf is the leader. As it should be.

Peles Palace has the Austria Hungarian influence in spades and was built to show case the best of everything that Europe had to offer just as WW1 was starting. It is set in the hills with lovely views everywhere. Well worth a visit.

Inside and out Peles is clearly Austr Hungarian in design

Real grandeur at every turn to impress the visitors

Love the detailed carvings and marquetry

I so want that Murano chandelier!

Now which throne should I choose today?

I’ve loved my private trip around Romania and it was good to dispel they myths about safety etc. I always felt safe and the people at friendly and helpful when they can speak some English! I am sorry I didn’t have time to see the Danube Delta – next time. It is a sad fact that all the areas outside of a Bucharest are the highlights of a visit to this country. Bucharest can be done in a couple of days in my view and does. It really reflect the real traditional Romania.