Canyoning Serbia

Canyoning Serbia!
Canyoning Serbia!

Saturday I went on an adventure sponsored by the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club.  A wonderful organization run by one of my favorite people in Belgrade, Philomena, a lovely and very genuine lady who brings much happiness to the expatriate community in Belgrade through her tireless work organizing cool stuff for us to do and making life a little better for all of us.

This time Philomena out did herself with an excursion to go “Canyoning” in the mountains southwest of Belgrade about an hour and a half west of Valjevo.  I wasn’t sure exactly what “Canyoning” was but it sounded interesting so I signed up for the trip.   My curiosity peaked when I received an email last week asking for my height and weight so I could be fitted for a wetsuit.

I got up at 5:30 Saturday morning and took a taxi to the Sava Centar parking lot where I met a five other Americans and Philomena and we caught the chartered bus at 7:00 for the three-hour drive to the Canyoning site.  Along the way we picked up several more people and had a group of 11 plus our two guides from the “Wild Serbia” tour company.

Serbian countryside
Serbian countryside

After a stop in Valjevo for breakfast (by the way there is a bakery right off the pedestrian street there that makes a great Burek), we left the highway for the long, winding and very picturesque drive through the mountains of west-central Serbia.  Our driver took us as far as he could before the road got really bad, then we loaded our gear into a Lada 4×4 and walked the next mile or so to a small farm near the canyon.  Once we got there we received our gear: A wetsuit, a rappelling harness, a helmet and rope.  The guides decided we’d go in two groups an hour apart.  I was in group two with – coincidentally – all the other Americans.

The hike to our starting point was about mile downhill, during which we picked delicious wild blackberries, plums and pears to eat along the way.  This part of Serbia is quite picturesque with tall mountains and rugged cliffs,varied vegetation and small farms and villages.  We came to a little creek running through a small valley, after walking along the creek a short while we came to the top of a water fall I estimated about 40 feet high.  As it turned out from this point on we would be rappelling down cliffs, through waterfalls, and swimming through deep mountain pools to work our way down about 1,500 feet in altitude to the bottom of a beautiful little canyon.

IMG_9565aThis was cool.  I had rappelled in the past but the mother and her 14 and 15-year-old kids that were with us had not; however the guide was wonderful, his English was very good and his instructions clear, everyone did great and had a great time.  We spent about three hours going through the canyon, hiking, swimming in the cool mountain spring, checking out numerous caves and rappelling down cliffs up to 70 feet high.  It was good times.

The only downside was that after canyoning we had to hike a couple of miles back up the mountain to the farm-house where our hosts had prepared a most excellent traditional Serbian meal with farm fresh food including two types of pork, stuffed peppers, homemade cheese, Kajmak, tomatoes, fresh breads, homemade juices and of course locally made Rakija.  The people here are just so darn genuinely nice.

Home cooked meal
Home cooked meal

As is usual on these trips we stayed longer than planned and it was after midnight when we got back to Belgrade.  Philomena lives close to me so the guides basically dropped us off at our respective doors. What great day!  If someone had tried to tell me when I came to the Balkans (now nearly three years ago) I’d be Canyoning and Scuba diving I wouldn’t have believed it.  Serbia is truly an (mostly) undiscovered gem, a diamond in the rough.  I see things beginning to change here, I hope the change isn’t too fast or dramatic; I like my rough around the edges, gritty city with its graffiti, bad streets, coffee shops, inexpensive restaurants and women that still dress up to go shopping.

A quick word about Wild Serbia

I have been on several trips with these guys now and I recommend them highly.  They always work hard to make sure everyone has a good time, they are friendly and knowledgeable and they plan great trips.  If you are in Belgrade and want to get out-of-town and do something completely different for a day or two these guys can hook you up.  For hiking, canyoning, kayaking, caving and pretty much anything else outdoors they are the go to guys and their prices are reasonable.

**Sadly due to the “wetsuit” warning I left my camera at the farm and don’t have photos of this adventure.  One or two of the others were braver than I and did get some pictures they promised to share.  When I get those I will post a few to this article.


Dubrovnik – Another Week-end, Another Great Place

The Old Walled City of Dubrovnik

Oct. 10, 2011:  My friends Ron and Leslie recently came to Pristina.  Ron came at my request and taught a four-day class on Public Corruption.  Ron did a great job and the class was well received.  The class ended Friday and Saturday we flew to Dubrovnik Croatia.  I had not been to Dubrovnik nor had my friends.   They had decided to stay on Europe a couple of weeks after leaving Kosovoand Leslie’s parents were meeting them in Dubrovnik for the week-end and then the four of them planned to drive through a good part of Europe  before heading home. 

St. George's Dragon - A statue in Zagreb, Croatia

My plan was to go to Dubrovnik over the Columbus Day week-end and come back to Pristina on Monday evening.  I was able to find a round trip flight for about $200.00 and we all headed out of Pristina on the 5:55 a.m. Croatian Airlines flight to Zagreb.  There is no direct flight between Pristina and Dubrovnik and we had a seven hour layover before our connecting flight.  This turned out not to be a bad thing though as we caught a taxi to the downtown and since I had been to Zagreb previously I got to play tour guide to Ron and Leslie and take them on a whirlwind tour of “old town” Zagreb.  As I have written about Zagreb before I will not repeat myself.  I think Ron and Leslie had a good time and it was definitely time better spent than sitting at the terminal all day.

Dubrovnik from our apartment. 560 stair steps up the hill.

After returning to the airport we boarded the one hour flight to Dubrovnik and upon landing Leslie’s parents were there to pick us up. Leslie has found a three bedroom apartment to rent for the week-end and her parents had already been in it a couple of days before we arrived.  The apartment was nice and the price included Wi-Fi.  After dividing the cost five ways I ended up spending 32 Euros on lodging for the week-end.  Not bad at all.  The only drawback to the apartment was that it was about 560 stair steps up the mountain from the Walled City portion of Dubrovnik.  That was a bad thing for repeated trips back and forth to the apartment but did afford a great view of the city.

Dubrovnik CIty wall, from the top of the wall.

Dubrovnik is a beautiful city.  It is probably the prettiest city on the eastern Adriatic.  It is a wonderfully preserved walled fortress and the Croatian people are rightfully proud of it.  It is the type of place that is just a little too perfect for you to believe that it is real.   The walls are kept in top condition, no ruins here.  The city within the walls is exceedingly clean (especially by Balkanstandards) it is rare to see graffiti or trash anywhere in the city.  It is a living city with people running businesses and staying  in the apartments and generally going about the business of going about their lives the best that they can.  There are a number of beautiful churches in the town, museums, restaurants and apartments/hotels to rent. 

One of the many Sculptures in Dubrovnik. What exactly is he pointing at?

There is an outdoor market in the mornings and many shops.  Dubrovnik is pretty thoroughly western, and the prices of everything reflect that.  Food was expensive by Balkan standards and I didn’t see any particularly good deals in the shops.  Our apartment which was about ¼ mile outside of the walls was reasonably priced, but even though it was the “off” season nothing else really seemed to be.

(To be continued)

9-11 September 2011: Lake Ohrid Macedonia

The "Old Town" of Ohrid from the promenade on the shores of the lake, Lake Ohrid Macedonia.

Recently UNMIK sponsored a trip to Lake Ohrid Macedonia.  I had heard many good things about Lake Ohrid and so I took the opportunity to spend the week-end there.  I have a lot to say about Lake Ohrid…

… with this post I have gotten up-to-date on all my significant travels to date.  They have at least placeholder posts.  Now I just have to find the time to go back and fill them in…   ….it may be a while I have a guest coming to town this week and two guest next week, as well as a training and a conferance.

27 August 2011, Day trip to Ulpiana and Gracanica Monastery

Ruins of the Temple and cemetery at Ulpiana near Gracanica Kosovo

Every now and again the Embassy sponsors a trip to some local place of cultural significance.  Recently I went with a small group to tour the Roman ruins at Ulpiana and later the Serbian Orthodox Monastery at Gracanica.  The town of Gracanica is about 15 minutes south of Pristina and the ruins of Ulpiana are just a short drive outside of Gracanica on (or more correctly under) some farmland….

UNMIK trip to Belgrade Serbia

St. Sava Serbian Othodox Chruch, Belgrade

7 Aug 2011, Belgrade, Serbia: I decided to go on the UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) trip to Belgrade this past week-end. The UN has a tour bus and sponsors a trip to somewhere in the Balkans almost every week-end. The cost to ride the Bus is 30 Euros and the UN usually reserves rooms at two different hotels in the destination city.  They get a deal on the hotels and the rooms are usually 40-65 Euros a night. It makes for a potentially inexpensive week-end trip and allows a person to see places they might not go to if they had to drive themselves. I should take advantage of these trips more often. I think I’ve only done three of these in the seven plus months I’ve now been here.

Excelsior Hotel, behind the fountain in the capital park

We got to Belgrade late on Friday and were in our hotel, the Excelsior, about 2300. The hotel was older but pretty nice and the location was excellent, close to downtown and most of the sites to see. I got up early the next morning had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I then headed out to explore Belgrade.  I obtained a decent “tourist” map of the downtown area from the hotel front desk and headed out. I saw there was a guided tour of the downtown area at 1300. So I decided to spend the morning exploring in the opposite direction. I explored the park across the street front the hotel. This park ended up being across from the Serbian Capital Building and next to the Presidential Palace and a couple of other land marks. I walked around each of these, all of which were  nice and well-kept.

The next place I headed to was the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church which dominated the skyline to the east of the Hotel. I walked about a mile to the Cathedral through the city streets of Belgrade. The sidewalks and streets were clean and well maintained as were the majority of the buildings I saw. One thing I noticed about the Belgrade was the large amount of green spaces and the number of parks. When I got to the St. Sava Cathedral I found it in the middle of a large park with numerous fountains and statues. The Church itself was huge and probably the

I tend to favor the Dragon...
St. George & the Dragon, Eastern Europeans seem to love this man.

largest Serbian Orthodox church I have seen. While it looked complete from the outside I found that the inside was still under construction. This is going to be a beautiful church when it is completed. It apparently is being used and I was able to go in and look around. I saw it is made of concrete and appears to be relatively recent construction. They are in the process of covering the concrete with some type of white ornamental covering, I could not tell if it was stone, ceramic, plaster or something else. While I was there I found an icon of St. George slaying a dragon which I purchased at the gift shop in the church.

The walk back from the church was uneventful and by this time it was time to find the “tourist information center” so I could get in on the tour of downtown. With only a little trouble I found it (a block south of Rebublic square, to your left if you are facing the statute and the National Museum. I found John and Amber waiting for the tour to start. John is a friend and fellow ICITAP advisor and his wife Amber is living in Kosovo with him. I went and paid the 200 dinars (2 Euros) for the tour and we were off.  The tour was a good idea, the guide was informative and told us things about various buildings I never would have known otherwise. We got off the main pedestrian walk and saw a couple of churches and other buildings of historic significance.

The Fortress at Belgrade, Zava River in the Background

We then toured part of the huge Belgrade Fortress (Kalemagdan) which overlooks the convergence of the Sava and Danube rivers. The tour ended there and lasted about an hour and a half. On the way back to downtown John and I got sidetracked by a large assortment of WWII tanks and howitzers. I saw some interesting weapons I had heard about all my life but never seen. This included the Panzer IV, the T-38, a Katyusha Rocket launcher and the infamous German 88 artillery piece, among other less impressive Italian, French and Russian pieces. It was all very cool. The military equipment basically lined the path to a military museum that was located in the fortress so we toured it. Another 200 dinars. The museum was very good, taking you from the dawn of history through the Serbian interpretation of the 1999 war.

Panzer IV, Belgrade Fortress, Serbia

After finishing with the museum we made our way out of the fortress and through the adjoining park past the souvenir vendors and back down the main pedestrian walk. We stopped for a snack and decided to have dinner together in the Bohemian section of town just a couple of blocks north of the main square. We went our separate ways for a while and I headed back to the hotel to clean up and get ready for dinner.We met at 8:00 and walked to the Bohemian neighborhood and found a good restaurant serving traditional Serbian food. We had a leisurely dinner and then walked the neighborhood checking out the souvenir booths along the way. Serbia is not as far along in its development as Croatia, it is not overly commercialized and thus far isn’t a huge tourist destination. Our meals were affordable. The people were friendly (I had wondered what their attitude would be towards Americans due to our part in the war). Though I don’t think I would have mattered, many of them didn’t realize we were Americans. We looked a lot more like Serbs than Albanians and English tends to be the default language between people who don’t speak the same language and the people who did ask here we were from seemed surprised when we said America, saying they didn’t see many Americans here.

St. Markos, Serbian Orthodox Church, Belgrade Serbia

Sunday morning I got up and after another good hotel breakfast walked to St. Mark’s Cathedral which was just about two blocks north of the Hotel and checked it out. St. Mark’s is an old Byzantine style Serb Orthodox church, it is undergoing renovations and a church service was going on when I got there so I didn’t get to go inside. I also spent some time walking around the park east of the church. I noticed there were two monuments commemorating the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. Belgrade, for the most part seems to have recovered from the war. There are still a few bombed out buildings visible in the city. I was surprised to see they hadn’t been demolished. I suspected they had been left as reminders of the war but was told by our tour guide that these buildings had been built to withstand a 8-9 Richter scale earthquake and when they were damaged by the bombing campaign due to their proximity to other historic buildings the Serbs did not have the technical expertise to tear them down without potentially damaging the nearby buildings.The rest of the day I spent wandering around downtown and exploring parts of the Fortress I hadn’t seen the previous day. I checked out of the hotel and we caught the bus and headed back to Priština.

Budapest: Paris on the Danube?!?

Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church, Budapest Hungary

Where does one start writing about a City like Budapest?  Although I have heard it referred to as the Paris on the Danube, there is, of course, only one Paris.  That is not to short change Budapest; it is a world class city.

     Due to my lack of organization I had not researched Budapest much (any) before I went, and I was half expecting a dreary, gray, post-communist looking city.  I could not have been more wrong.  Budapest is something to behold.  There are the old communist apartment blocks but they are pretty much relegated to the areas out of sight of the downtown.  Most of the architecture dates from the late 19th century or earlier, with many of the churches and government buildings being significantly older.  Although many of the historic buildings were seriously damaged in the Second World War they have been well restored.  That is not to say the communist era did not take its toll.  A number of the older private office and apartment buildings have not been well maintained and have 60 years of wear and tear to overcome.  But it appears that the citizens of Budapest have made great strides in either restoring or keeping them looking good.

     I was able to go to Budapest as the result of a work related trip and got my flight, meals and lodging at the, 5-star, Intercontinental Hotel, on the Governments tab for four of the days I was there.  Of course I had to attend and present at a conference those days. The conference was informative and interesting but kept my exploration of the city to a minimum until the Thursday afternoon.  Though the Conference ended on Thursday evening I opted to stay and explore until late Sunday.  There is a flight from Budapest to Pristina daily (I think) which leaves Budapest at 2350 and arrives in Pristina about 0110.  This gave me three full days to get to know the city.

(to be continued…)