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….


August 11, 12 – The Guca Trumpet Festival, Guca Serbia

This is an event that defies an easy explanation.  I have no significant or particularly good photos from this week-end.  Which is probably for the best.  Perhaps I can get a few from the friend I went with.  It was quite the week-end…

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.

Life in Kosovo – Update

"Newborn" sign in downtown Pristina.

It is a mid-July Sunday morning as I write this, and while I have a number destinations to report on I was in the mood to write about life in Kosovo after seven months of living here.  

Dragodan Stairs leading into downtown Pristina

A lot has changed in Pristina, since last I wrote about the city.  The first and most obvious change is the weather.  Winter was cold and long but there was not as much snow as I am told is the norm.  Spring here was long and pleasant.  Both wild and domesticated flowers were (and still are) everywhere, fruit and other trees bloomed out and the whole place smelled wonderful.   That was something I was not expecting. 

Almost every yard here has fruit trees and grape vines.

Spring flowers

  Cherries, apricots, mulberries, pears, plums are abundant and can be picked for free (with permission) or bought cheaply almost anywhere, apples and grapes will be ripe in the next month or two.  When the vegetation began to grow it wasn’t long before it covered most of the trash that in the winter seemed to be everywhere.  Kosovo can be a beautiful place.  It is mountainous, somewhat like Colorado, but the vegetation is more like southwest Missouri.  There was more rain and the weather was cooler than usual this spring. 

More Spring flowers

It has been a great year for crops and the countryside is abuzz with activity.   The wheat harvest is in full swing.  Often you see people in one field reaping wheat by hand with scythes while a kilometer down the road they are using modern combines.    Farmers plant small fields with grains such as wheat, barley, corn, etc, or potatoes and a wide variety of vegetables.  Green beans, one of my favorites, don’t seem very popular here.  There are very few large and many small farms here, people seem to graze their sheep, goats and cattle on the commons, often the road and highway right-of-ways.  On the way home from Peje last week we were delayed by a herd of cows avoiding the mid-day heat by laying in the main highway in the shade of an overpass.  Oddly no one seemed over concerned by this, least of all the farmer.

The Rugova Valley, in the Mountains near Peje, Kosovo by the Montenegro border

It has only been that past couple of weeks that the weather has gotten particularly hot.  It has been in the mid 90’s most days lately.  That is, by all means, unpleasantly hot.  However the humidity is low and due to the mountains and our altitude the nights and mornings are always pleasantly cool.  My apartment, like most others, doesn’t have air-conditioning.   That can be somewhat unpleasant, but if you open the windows, turn on fans and don’t move too much, it really isn’t too bad.  Adapt and overcome.

Pristina is getting a facelift.  I don’t know who is paying for it or how (I know it isn’t the individual building owners) but almost all of the buildings on the main streets are having their facades re-done.  The workers just start at one end of the street and put up scaffolding and repair, re-stucco and repaint until they get to the other end.  It is a huge improvement. 

Newly laid sidewalk in Pristina, Kosova

This spring many of the sidewalks in town were completely torn up and for months it has been a pain to get around town.  But in the past week they have started relaying the sidewalks using cement paving stones of various colors.  From what has been completed so far it appears that it is going to be a huge improvement.  I am sure those who drive downtown can’t wait for their old parking places (sidewalks) to become available again.  Even the Dragodan stairs are having broken and missing tiles replaced.  Pristina, with its disregard of zoning regulations, lack of historic buildings and abundance of old communist block apartments will never be a particularly attractive city, but they are making an effort.  They are even replacing missing manhole covers as they redo the sidewalks. 

 I have found that I can find almost anything I really want or need in the stores here, with the notable exceptions of decent bacon, smoked sausage and Captain Crunch cereal.  The selection of items in the stores seems to be getting better, you can find butter and something close to bacon in the stores now.  There are some very nice new supermarkets opening on the outskirts of town.  There are very few items available from the US but there is almost always an adequate substitute.  I may have mentioned that I bought a car recently so I can get to the places that were too far to walk pretty easily now if I am willing to brave the Pristina traffic.

Stray Dog

They have been culling the stray dogs, which is beneficial though it drives the PETA people nuts.   The way “culling” works is after midnight hunters come out on the town and shoot the stray dogs.  They are paid by the government by the dog.  The embassy sent out a warning telling people to keep their dogs inside at night and not to walk them late.  Only in Kosovo do you have to worry about an overzealous hunter shooting your dog if you walk it after dark.  I wish they’d cull the cats. 

I recently read that in an effort to meet “international standards” they are going to stop the culling and start spaying and neutering the strays.  Yea right, someone is going to catch them, fix them free of charge and release them back on to the city streets.  That is hard to believe on a number of levels furthermore, if the surviving dogs were smart enough to avoid snipers they will avoid dog catchers.  Do you really think there are international standards for culling dogs?  If so I would say that there are some attorneys at the UN with way too much time on their hands…   … “Yordan, what are you doing this afternoon?”  “Why nothing Johannes, I thought I might go have some coffee.” “I know, let’s draft some international standards on dog culling, I hear they still do that in the Balkans…”    …But I digress.

Though I am still aware of the differences, I have gotten used to Kosovo.  My Albanian is not progressing very well, I still cannot speak more than a sentence or two, but I find I can often understand what people say enough to get the gist of it. I can read most of the signs I see now.  It is unfortunate I do not watch very much TV because I find when I do I learn a lot of words just by paying attention to the Albanian sub-titles.   After my last trip home in May I have decided I actually like not being able to understand what people in the coffee shops are talking about.  I can assume they are all having intelligent conversations about interesting topics, I am sure the reality is much the same as in the US.  

The Albanians still like Americans and I still like them.

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…)