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)

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….

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.

Trofta at Istog

Bungalows on the Trout pond at “Trofta” Istog, Kosovo

May 13-16; 20-22:  Kosovo never ceases to surprise me.  Within 24 hours of getting back to Pristina from the US I was leaving again to spend Friday through Sunday with a working group revising the Criminal Code of Kosovo.   The Dept. of Justice set up the retreat at the village of Istog in Western Kosovo, north-east of the city of Peje and near the Montenegrin/Serbian border at a small resort called “Trofta” which is Albanian for Trout.  I also stayed there the entire next week-end doing the same thing.

The hotel, restaurant and conference room at Trofta

Trofta was a lovely little resort.  It consisted of a “modern” looking hotel and restaurant, a series of Bungalows, around a small lake, a large outdoor restaurant a large creek flowing into the property which contained a number of large ponds, spillways and cement enclosures holding hundreds of Rainbow Trout.  In addition to being a surprisingly nice little resort the place is a full-blown trout farm and hatchery.

A small slice of communist whimsy

I stayed in a one of the Bungalow’s, actually the same one both week-ends.  The Bungalows are duplexes consisting basically one room with a bathroom on each side.  They are nicely done and modern; Wi-Fi is available throughout the resort in and outside of the rooms.  The rooms have a small flat screen TV.  It was quite a nice setting with well-kept grounds, lots of flowers, peacocks and a waterwheel.

The outdoor restaurant at Trofta, Istog Kosovo

An hour and a half drive from Pristina, this place would be great for a week-end get away and it is a short drive to the Rugova Gorge or the Ducani Monastery.   With the exception of one night we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the outdoor restaurant, the food was very good.  I had trout served a couple of different ways, steak and chicken.  Aside from the meat entrée the rest of the meal never varied a bit.  After two full week-ends cooped up in a conference room 10 hours a day and six full days of eating there I was ready to get back to Pristina.  Like I said the place would be great for an overnight some Saturday but it was wearing a bit thin by the time we left.

The source of the spring at Trofta

The large spring that feeds Trofta was interesting. One evening I went on a walk and followed it to it source; about ½ mile from the resort the spring comes gushing out of the side of the mountain.  Very dramatic, if it weren’t for the fence and cement dam built around it.

The one night I didn’t eat at the restaurant on site Beth, one of the other advisors, and I were invited to dinner at the home of the family of a young lady who gives Beth Albanian lessons.  Lena is from Istog and goes home on the week-ends but lives and works in Pristina during the week.  Her family showed us a great deal of hospitality and fed us a huge meal of traditional Albanian cooking which I thought was very good.  Lena’s siblings spoke English pretty well but her mother and father did not, though her father spoke German and a couple of other languages.

They had a nice well-furnished home near the outskirts of the village.  They told about how before the war many Serbs lived in their neighborhood and that they all got along just fine.  During the war Laina’s family had to flee Kosovo and while they were gone the Serbs burned down their home and stole many of their possessions.  After the war the Albanians apparently got some payback and burned down the Serbs houses and recovered some of their stolen items.  I say burned down the house, which is incorrect, the houses here are made from brick and cement or stone and you can burn them out but the ruins are still standing.  The day I followed the spring to its source I walked through the Serb neighborhood which was full of half destroyed and burned out houses.  It seems like not much good happens in war.

Easter in Zagreb, Croatia:

Statue of St. George and the Dragon (lower left) and the Stone Gate in Zagreb’s Old City.

Three day week-ends in Pristina are prime travel opportunities. Upon seeing that the three-day Easter week-end as coming up I went to one of the many local travel agencies in Pristina and asked if they have any travel deals. They told me indeed there was a special which included airfare on Croatian Airlines, and two-night stay (Sat and Sun) in a five Star hotel in Zagreb, Croatia for 289 Euros. I decided to book the trip and during the booking it turned out the price had dropped to 238 Euros. YES!

One of the many, many statues in Zagreb.

I had to catch the flight to Zagreb at 0555 Saturday morning which was, both good and bad. Bad because I had to get up at about 0400 to get to the airport and catch the flight, good because I would be in Zagreb by 0730 and have three full days to explore. The ride to the airport and the flight were uneventful. I learned that one of the cab companies will take you to the airport for 17 euros instead of the normal 20-25 if you have them pick you up outside the embassy, which is only a couple of blocks from my apartment.Since this was a last-minute trip I had not studied up on Croatia or Zagreb before leaving, and hadn’t learned a word of Croatian. Upon arriving I was pleasantly surprised. Croatia looked and felt like a Western European country. The roads were good, well-marked and people seemed to actually pay attention to the operational traffic control devices. I took a bus to the main bus station downtown; the driver spoke English and didn’t seem to mind making change when I paid him for the ticket. The hotel was only a few blocks from the bus station so I walked there. As it was 7:30 in the morning I was going to ask them to hold my luggage until check in time but they told me my room was available and I could check in early.
…..More to come….

Sun Dial, on the side of an old house in Zagreb’s Historic District.

….  It has been a month since I went to Zagreb, and unfortunately memories fade.  Since then I have been to the US and back, spent a couple of working week-ends at a small resort in Kosovo, and as I write this I am sitting on a veranda overlooking the Aegean Sea in North-eastern Greece.  I have forgotten some of the details but I will try and summarize Zagreb as best I can.Zagreb was a lovely city.  I would like to go back, heck I would like to live there…   I spent almost all of my time there in the old part of the city, which is particularly attractive.  Zagreb, as the capitol of Croatia, has many parks, museums and green spaces.  I’m not sure about this but I think the primary architectural style is “Hapsburg.”  Whatever it is it seems that most of the older buildings were built around the turn of the last century, they tend to be about three or four stories and have (what appear to be) ornate stone carvings decorating them.  I took a bunch of pictures some of which I will try to post here.

Building Ornamentation, Zagreb

The hotel I stayed was very nice, the advertisements claimed “5-star” and I wouldn’t argue that. It was well situated about a 5-10 minute walk from the center of downtown.  Downtown Zagreb has a modern tram, bus and light rail system which make getting around town very easy, but most things you’d want to see as a tourist are situated closely enough together that you can walk pretty much everywhere.  Many of the streets were cobblestone and parts of the old city wall are still standing.  My only significant complaint about Zagreb was that many of the buildings were heavily painted with graffiti on the first story and there seemed to be no effort to remove it.  Other than that it had the look and feel of a Western European city.  I would guess their admission to the EU will happen soon.

Old City Wall, next to the Cathedral in Zagreb, Croatia.

The food there was without exception very good, though it seemed to be more expensive than Pristina.  It is hard to tell because Croatia has its own currency which is worth quite a bit less than a Euro buts still has some value.  Food seemed to be significantly influenced by Italy though sausage (which I tend to think of a more northern European) seemed to be popular there.  I ate everywhere from a couple of very nice restaurants for dinner to a Pizza place and a stand on the corner selling sausage.  Breakfast was included with the hotel room.

I spent most of Saturday exploring the City and going to Museums.  I also found a

The Changing of the Guard in the Cathedral Courtyard, Zagreb.

large market place and spent some time walking around the market, I bought a bottle of the local liquor and some local honey. Easter Sunday was spent basically lying around in the parks reading and generally relaxing.  On Monday I took the tram to the end of the line and then caught a bus to the top of the mountain overlooking Zagreb and went hiking at a local ski resort.  It was a nice ride and a very pretty hike.  Much Gelato was consumed all three days.My flight back to Pristina left about 2300 and the plane landed in Kosovo about 2330 without incident.  Thus ended the trip to Zagreb.

Holiday in Albania Part II: Kruje and Tirana

Kruja from the top of the hill

     The drive to Kruja Albania was pretty straight forward, the Albanians have built a pretty good highway from the Kosovo border that goes most of the way to the capital, Tirana.  We got within about 50 km of Tirana and turned off to go to Kruja.  It is about a 10 km drive into the mountains to Kruja.  If it weren’t for the geography it would be easy to see the town from the road to Tirana, but there is a foot hill that obscures most of the town from direct observation from the highway.  It is a small town with a more-or-less modern communist era area and there has been some recent construction. 

Market at Kruja Albania

     The part of town that everyone seems to want to see is the old part of town with its cobblestone streets that lead to a large fortress on a high point overlooking the town.  When you get close to the fortress you enter a marketplace lining both sides of the narrow street.  Many of the items for sale here are cheap tourist knickknacks, but a number of the shops did have some interesting antiques and handmade items.  I looked at some large intricately painted and carved dowry chests, there was some interesting antique furniture and I even found a couple of old Albanian muskets that were heavily decorated with sliver metalwork.   I ended up buying a handmade, traditional Albanian rug. 

Inside the walls of the Castle at Kruja

     Once you get through the market area you enter the fortress which is  ruins, completed restorations and a large fairly new building that houses the Skanderbeg museumSkanderbeg is the Albanian people’s national hero.  He was a 15th century warrior who held off the Ottoman invaders for a surprisingly long time.   The fortress was interesting and we toured a restored, historically accurate living quarters for the owners of the castle.  The tour guide did a great job of explaining what all the objects in the house were and how they were used. 

Sculpture of Skanderbeg at the Museum in the fortress at Kruja

After we toured that museum we went for a cup of coffee then toured the Skanderbeg museum, which was an excellent museum and very well done.  Being able to read Albanian would have been a huge advantage here as only the primary label for each exhibit was in English and Albanian, all of the written information on the exhibits was in Albanian only.

     After several hours of shopping exploring and going through museums we headed back to the car and on to Tirana.  The drive to Tirana was hectic but somehow we deciphered the Albanian street signs and made to the center of the city and the area of our hotel without much trouble at all.  Once we got to the center of the city things changed.  Using a map downloaded from the internet we tried to find out Hotel but no matter how many ways we tried to get to where the hotel was it didn’t seem to be there.  After stopping and asking directions a couple of times and eventually calling the hotel we figured out the hotel wasn’t where the map said it was but several blocks away on the other side of the city center.  Eventually we got there.  

The "Hotel California" Tirana, Albania.

     The “Hotel California,” a place picked solely as a result of its name.  We checked in and during the process a number of lame jokes where made about whether we would be able to leave in the morning.  The hotel was nothing special but it was clean enough and reasonably priced.  After getting cleaned we walked to dinner where we were going to meet some people who were also in Albania for the week-end from Kosovo and a guy who had recently moved to Tirana from Pristina.  We met them the International Hotel bar a walked a few blocks to the restaurant.

     The restaurant was traditional Albanian and the food was good but no better than you can get in Pristina.  After dinner we headed back to the hotel and after visiting for a while went to bed to get rested for the next day.

     Tirana, is a big city.  I belive the population currently hovers around 1 million.  I was only in Tirana overnight and we only drove one road into the center of the city and another road out.  We spent a little time in the middle of town but I did not see much of it.  What I saw I was not particularly impressed with but my Albanian friends tell me there are many historic and architecturally interesting places in town.  I will have to come to Tirana again, maybe with an experienced guide, before I make a deicision about whether I am a fan of the city or not.

Day Trip to Prizren

Downtown Prizren from the Fortress

     An employee group with the U.S. Embassy occasionally sponsors trips to various locations.  This week I received notice that the Embassy group was going to take a bus trip to Prizren on Saturday.   So I signed up and paid my 10 Euros.

     Prizren is a fairly large city by Kosovo standards.  No one really seems to know what the population of the various cities in Kosovo is but I have heard that Prizren is estimated to be around 125,000.  It seems bigger.  I had been to Prizren briefly once before to visit the prosecutor and I thought it was the prettiest of the cities I have been to in Kosovo.  Unfortunately most of Kosovo’s cities suffer from their recent eastern bloc past.   You will see haphazardly planned expanses of large grey, poorly maintained concrete apartment buildings and utilitarian business and factory buildings in Kosovo.  Prizren is no exception, but fortunately the center of Prizren is made up of older more historic looking buildings including a large Mosque (actually Prizren has a lot of Mosques)  a couple of Serbian Orthodox Churches and a Catholic Church.  A river flows through the downtown and there are several picturesque bridges and something resembling a square.  A number of the non-church buildings look like they pre-date the communist era.

Silver Filigran Bracelet

      The bus left the Embassy for Prizren at 8:00 am, it was about a two-hour bus ride, much of which I slept through.  When we arrived at Prizren our first stop was to a factory where they made silver filigree jewelry.  It appears that Prizren is, or more accurately once was, known for its high quality filigree jewelry.  We were led to a large communist era factory that looked to me like it spanned two stories and about 20,000 square feet.  As we entered the factory the owner explained that they did not usually work on Saturdays but were opening to give us a tour.  He took us into a small room at the front of the factory which had several display cases containing examples of some very pretty and intricately woven silver jewelry. 

Filigran craftsman at work

As we looked at it he explained that Prizren is the last place in Kosovo where this type jewelry is made, he said it can now be made by machine and although the quality is not as good now most people buy the less expensive machine-made jewelry.  He said all the jewelry in his factory was made by hand.   This factory was once a training center where young people spent four years learning to make this jewelry however after the war the school portion of the factory was closed and now no new people learn this craft anymore. 

     After showing us the completed jewelry we were taken to another small room.  The room had a long work bench and about 10 chairs in it.  He explained that this was the “factory” and that he now only employed 10 craftsmen to make the jewelry.  He had one of the men come in and show us how they wove and soldered the jewelry.  It was interesting but mostly sad to see how this factory and this art form was dying with little to no hope of being revitalized.  The obvious quality and beauty of this jewelry makes me think there must be someway this could be saved and become a profitable venture again.  Maybe I should call Woody Justice…

Serbian Orthodox Church Ruins

     After leaving the filigree factory we headed downtown and were left to our own devices for a couple of hours.   At the top of a mountain overlooking the town was a large fortress and myself and several others decided to go up and explore it, the trail to the fortress took us by the large mosque in the center of town and by the Serbian Orthodox church about halfway up the hill.  We wanted to go into the mosque which was being restored but it was locked, so we proceeded up the hill toward the Serbian church, as we walked up the hill it became obvious most of the houses were abandoned and in a bad state of disrepair.  One of the guys from the embassy said this was the Serbian part of town before the war and it was largely destroyed and abandoned during the fighting.  The Church on the hill was surrounded by concertina wire and once I got close to it I could see it was destroyed except for the exterior walls. 

Ruined Serb house with downtown Prizren in the background

     The fortress appeared from the outside to be pretty much intact but once I entered the walls it was obvious it was also a ruin, it was apparent that the fortress ruins pre-existed the recent war and one could see attempts to excavate and refurbish parts of it were in progress.  It was quite large and very interesting, no one seemed to know how long it had been there, I have heard some people say they thought its origins were Roman or Illyrian, it looks newer than that to me.  I should do some research on

Mosque in downtown Prizren, note the fortress on the hilltop in the background.

the things I am seeing here.

     After exploring the fort, we walked back into town and walked around for a while before having lunch at a traditional Albanian restaurant.  As usual the food was good.  After lunch we walked by some old Turkish baths, that are currently closed, and to a museum. 

Having been to the Louvre a few weeks ago, the contrast was somewhat depressing.  But it was interesting, and I was glad to see an attempt by some of the citizens of Prizren to preserve of some of their history.  The buildings the museum was in were interesting, white stucco with dark timbers.  The curator there told us some of the buildings had been burned down by the Serbs during the war and had been rebuilt by volunteers after the war.  As he told us about the struggles of the Albanians for independence over hundreds of years it was obvious he was proud of his heritage. 

    By the time we finished our tour of the museum it was about 1500 and time to head back home to Pristina, again I slept most of the way, no sooner did I get home that one of the other advisors called and invited me out to dinner.  I wasn’t going to go until he told me they were going to a Serbian Restaurant outside of town called “Caio” I hadn’t been to Serbian restaurant yet so I decided to go.  The restaurant was about 15 minutes southeast of town in a small Serbian enclave, the restaurant was similar to what one would find in Pristina, except pork was prominently featured on the menu.  You generally can’t get pork in Albanian restaurants here (though there are some quiet exceptions) since Albanians are Muslims.  Dinner was good; we all had some sort of pork dish.  I had a pork steak rolled and stuffed with ham and then breaded and fried, it was very good if not good for me.  The Serbian who waited on us was as polite and friendly as any Albanian waiter in Pristina.

    I got to thinking about what a shame it is we can’t go back 3-4,000 years and fix whatever gene it was in some successful and apparently prolific warrior that makes so many of us do such horrible things to our neighbors for sure illogical things as having minarets on their buildings instead of steeples or visa versa.

Hash House Harriers?

     It is a cold and snowy day here in Pristina. I had hoped winter was over as it was so nice outside last week-end and most of this week. Last Sunday was a sunny and fairly warm day, I met with a group of people known as the Hash House Harriers or HHH or H3. Apparently this is an international group started by some British expatriates back in the 1920’s.  Chapters of this group now exist all over the world.  I won’t go into their history you can find it on Wikipedia if you care. 

     Here in Pristina they get together every Sunday at 1300 in front of the Grand Hotel and then go somewhere and either hike or run. They then come back and at least have a drink and may have drinks and dinner. My Albanian friend that I met in Iraq, Valentina, told me about the group and I met her at the appointed time and place and we went to a place near the Pristina airport and hiked up a mountain.

     It was a nice hike and a pretty day. The mountain was full of wild flowers, mostly what I

Wild flower, Pristina Kosovo

 would call buttercups and crocuses, but we did see a couple of flowers I wasn’t familiar with. I am not sure why but I am always surprised at the similarity between the flora and fauna so many thousands of miles apart. If it wasn’t for the things man has created here you could easily wake-up in the morning and think you were in the US.

But I digress, the local HHH is a small group of about 10 people, apparently it was larger but the group reflects the international presence here which is diminishing somewhat. I did get to meet everyone and they seemed like an interesting group, there were a couple of citizens of the UK, the rest were Americans.

Wild Flower, Pristina Kosovo

 Two of the people I met were here working with the American Bar Association and one of them is involved in Strategic Planning with the Prosecutors here, so we made plans to meet during the week and see if we could find a way to work together. Another American is a media specialist and writer and we had a nice visit. During the hike we went up the mountain to some windmills of the modern type that generate electricity, it was the first time I had been that close to those types of windmills. They are huge.

We hiked along the ridge of the mountain until we came to the ruins of an old fortress, someone appeared to be excavating the ruins and restoring them. I have no idea how old they were though I heard fourth century. After checking out the ruins we went down the mountain back to the car and headed to town where we had a drink at “91” which is a coffee house/bar/restaurant frequented by expatriates. In Iraq those are the places that blow-up most frequently, here they seem as safe as any other place. I meant to write this a week ago but things seemed to keep coming up.

I have a more to write on my trip yesterday but in the interest of brevity will save it for another post.  For those who might wonder, I took the photos of the flowers with my Android phone since I forgot my good camera.  I am surprised who well they turned out.

Of Bee Hives and Saturdays:

A bee skep at Dalgarven Mill. The base is part...
A Skep (Image via Wikipedia)

     I have decided that, just to keep life interesting, I want to be an Urban Beekeeper here in Pristina.  I have a large back porch on my apartment with an Eastern exposure and I believe that there will be more than enough flowering plants on Dragodan to support a bee hive.  The question was how can I make this happen? The answer follows:

     Saturday was a lovely, sunny, warm day, the nicest since I have been here. I got up, made breakfast and called my friend Esco. Esco is one of the drivers for ICITAP; he is also a carpenter and used to be in charge of security at the Police Academy. He is reputed to be great soccer player. He started and eventually coached the Kosovo Police team and ended up playing internationally, everyone seems to know him, which he attributes to his soccer fame. He also plays a mean game of chess and totally embarrassed my assistant by beating him in five moves or less on a couple of occasions (every time they played). He has shown me how to beat an opponent in three moves if the stars align just right. He turned fifty a week ago but he looks a lot younger which is unusual in Kosovo where everyone smokes and day-to-day life takes a toll.

     But I digress, my point is, Esco is a cool guy. After I found out he did carpentry work I asked him if I could pay him to build me a bee hive. I found some plans with metric dimensions on the internet but he seemed hesitant. He came in my office this week and said his father-in-law used to keep bees and had some hives and that he would sell me one. He suggested that he could pick me up on Saturday, we could go pick out a hive and then go to his house and clean it up and repaint it. So that is what we did. Esco came and got me about 11:00 and drove me to Vustrre which is the town Esco lives in, it is also the Police Training Center and is about a 30 minute drive north of Priština.

Modern 8-frame Langstroth hive

     We went to his father-in law’s house first and found three old Langstroth hives and a skep. I had never actually seen a skep before. For you non-beekeeper types a skep is the old-fashioned cone-shaped hive that looks like an upturned basket. It the kind you see on honey jars that no one really uses anymore. Anyway, it was cool to see but not practical, so we took the nicest of the Langstroth hives, they are square wooden hives with the removable frames used by modern beekeepers. These hives were different from the ones I have back home in that a hive body holds 15 frames (instead of the normal 10 or less common 8 frame) and they are much deeper than the standard US hive body. These things will be very heavy when they are full of bees and honey.

     After picking up the hive we went to Esco’s house he brought me in and I met his wife, five children and son-in-law. They all seemed very nice, and were very welcoming and made me chai and fed me cookies. Esco has four daughters and a son. He had a nice two-story house.

     After meeting the family we went outside and worked cleaning up and painting the bee hive. Esco, his son-in-law and I with occasional help from neighbors and a daughter or two all worked on the hive parts. After we cleaned and sanded them we went to town and bought paint and painted them. During the course of the day his son-in-law mentioned that he has an Uncle that lived nearby who was a beekeeper and had more than 100 hives. We decided that on the way back home we would stop by his place and see if I could buy a colony of bees for the my new hive.

     We headed back to Priština about 3:30 and stopped at the Uncle’s farm, he greeted us warmly but seemed to think it was very odd that I wanted to keep some bees in Pristina; he suggested that I keep my hive with his and that I could come work it whenever I wanted. That isn’t really what I wanted to do, but might actually make sense. However he was friendly and told me about his son who lives in Chicago. He wanted to know if I knew anything about beekeeping, I told him that I have been doing it for a couple of years and knew the basics but was still learning. He suggested that I leave the hive with him and come back next week and we could put foundation in the frames and move bees into my hive and go from there. That is what we agreed to do. So it looks like, weather permitting, one way or the other I will be in the beekeeping business in Kosovo.

     This is another example of how very decent the people here are. I know Esco, usually does carpentry work on the week-ends and I didn’t know his father-in-law or the Uncle from Adam. Esco spent the better part of the day helping me with the hive, translating for me, introducing me to everyone and making me feel welcome in his home, he wouldn’t even let me pay for the gas in his car much less compensate him for his time. I need to find some way to thank him for all his help and the day of work he gave up for me. The Uncle is willing to let me come to his farm whenever I want to work with my bees, he wants to help me learn how to keep bees the Kosovar way and is making me a more than fair deal on the sale of a colony. I have been very touched by the kindness of the people here.

Bulgarian Ski Week-end, Part I:

     I’ve only been back in Pristina three days and I’m leaving again, this time it is a week-end bus trip to a ski resort in Bulgaria.  The United Nations sponsors week-end bus trips to various locations that are within driving distance of Pristina and they had one going to Bulgaria this week-end.  I have no plans in Pristina so I figured “why not?”  The price was right, less than 150E  for the bus, a four star hotel for two nights including dinner and breakfast.  I just wanted to go to explore but I bought a “North face” coat and ski pants (“North face” is in quotes because the authenticity is dubious) so I will probably ski at least half a day.  Right now I’m on the bus going thorough Macedonia.  Macedonia, thus far, looks a whole lot like Kosovo but for some reason there is no snow here.  I suspect that will change when we get to Bulgaria.  I talked to one of the Eulex attorneys who is from Bulgaria yesterday and he said the ski resort we are going to is nice and very modern.  I will keep, you posted…

After two lengthy border crossings and a long stretch following a snow plow, we made it to the “resort” two hours later than expected.  The hotel seems nice enough though hardly the 4-stars it was advertised as.  The shower in my bathroom has no shower stall, there is just a drain in the middle of the bathroom floor.  I have not seen that before.  We are in Zulu +2 time zone so it is an hour later here than Pristina.  After getting here we went and found a place to eat dinner and actually had a very good pork chop and met four or five of our fellow travelers from Pristina, two Americans, a Brit, a Finn and a Hungarian.  It is almost 2:00 here so I need to get to bed.  More tomorrow…