Friday, August 12, 2011

Dubrovnik

So, who says I can’t keep writing on my place-blog even though I’ve left that place for home? The pics are at hand, the memories are nearby, I still long for the country and region, and I have a few moments to spare.

Dubrovnik is stunning. There is nothing like it anywhere. I had seen so many gorgeous places in the region already—which includes Italy—that it was tough to impress me, but I couldn’t help but be moved on this one. One friend said Dubrovnik was a kind of Balkan Historical Disneyland, because everything seems a fraction unreal. But real it is and as far as I can tell, there is nothing quite like it.

The city is an amazing sight from a distance, especially when you see it from above on the road that follows the coast or if you see it from the sea. I’ve done both. The origin of Dubrovnik was obviously strategic, but the way it juts out into the sea with the mountains behind is visually impressive as well.

The city is surrounded by a high defensive wall that continues all the way around its perimeter, which offers spectacular views to the sea, to a variety of islands, and then down into the city proper. There are a variety of breaks, including canon portals and steps up to look-outs and that lead down to the city itself. I walked all the way around on my first afternoon there, even though that right knee was really giving me trouble. But I took a happy pill and a couple of shots of rakija and it was healed, well at least long enough to take that amazing two hour walk around the walls of Dubrovnik.

The inner part of the city is gorgeous, starting with the view from along the wall. After descending one of the many sets of stairs, you can start wandering the beautiful main thoroughfares and side streets. No vehicular traffic is allowed inside the walls, but once you step out it is crazy—cars, tourist buses of all kinds, mini-vans, etc. The main street inside—called Stradun—is uniquely attractive but the kitsch level is high and much of it is elbow to elbow with tourists if you are there at the wrong time of the year and day. The back streets are lovely to wander through, although it does take a few minutes to get away from the tourist throngs. That said, the inner part of Dubrovnik is gorgeous and unique.

Most of coastal Croatia can be touristy during much of the year, but Dubrovnik can be horrendous. I was there just at the cusp of tourist season, so there was only one major cruise ship parked a mile or two off the coast and there were only a few of those groups lead by someone with the little respective national flag. I gather that in another week or two and I would have been swamped.

I stayed in a great B&B up the side of the hill. http://www.villa-busovina.com/. To get there I had to hike several hundred steps up and then up a steep incline yet more. By the time I got there, I had a great view of the city, the crowds were gone, and I was in a calm little neighborhood that reminded me that I was at an ideal place on the Adriatic coast. It was beautiful, charming and relaxed. And the little church a few doors down looked like it was abandoned until the old creaky doors opened the place for Mass. I went to the service on Sunday morning at 8.00—only one mass a week—and counted 16 other people, which was enough to fill the place to capacity. Less than an hour later it was closed up to again look abandoned.

The restaurants in the city were OK, but I had to spend some time trying to find a nice place that wasn’t too touristy. OK, so I’m picky about food. The result—Restaurant Proto—was a little expensive, but the food was great. http://www.esculap-teo.hr/restaurant_proto.html I usually don’t return to a restaurant (because I’m always looking for something new), but the seafood was excellent and the setting was fantastic, so I went back a couple of times. And it was all about seafood, incredibly fresh and well prepared seafood. By this time I was off the ‘American clock’, so I took a couple of hours for dinner each visit. Of course Vilajmovka was taken while my feast was being prepared.

One afternoon I took the ten minute boat ride across to Lokrum, the island right off the city. There I bumped into the wonderfully effervescent Linda Warley and her soon-husband to be! I spent much of the day wandering aimlessly around the island looking back to the city or out to the sea and other islands; aimlessness is the goal at such moments. It was beautiful.

I also took a day-long trip on a 30 person boat to Koločep, Lopud, and Šipan, which are the only inhabited islands among the Elaphite islands. Each has a picturesque little town where I wandered about for a bit, and of course the ride was as nice as the places themselves; just looking at the coast and other islands as we moved by was as nice as the destinations, and the weather was gorgeous. The tourism intensity on the islands is clearly less than in the city, especially by the time I got to Šipan. But they were very relaxing and pleasant. Lopud is the site of the ‘Vilajmovka shot-shot’ some of you have seen on FB, by the way. Anyhow, I suspect most of the people on those giant ships don’t want to be bothered; maybe they had to get back to the giant ship for ballroom dancing lessons, geography lessons on places they really don’t have time to visit, or more likely it was to hear the Wayne Newton cover band.

Getting to Dubrovnik is not always easy. There is no train. The roads are excellent coming from Zagreb—either the main highway or the winding coastal road. The views from the latter are spectacular; reminiscent say, of Highway 1 South of San Francisco. Coming from Montenegro, the roads aren’t bad, and Kotor Bay—which is nothing short of spectacular—is nearby. If you are short of time, just fly in. The airport is a bit out of town, but that is a much easier way to go and flights come directly from all over Europe. And there are many cool B&Bs; forget the hotels, which most of us can’t afford anyhow.

So, it was a wonderfully memorable trip to a fascinating place. Needless to say, it would have been much nicer if Lucia had been with me, but I had to ‘shoulder on’. Such is life of the nomadic Geography professor. It’s my job.























Saturday, July 9, 2011

Belgrade

Well, time is running out for my stay here in Croatia. Lucia hurried back to the US maybe two months ago to be with her mum and to help her sister, but I have continued with my classes, research, visiting, and travels. It has been tough, but somehow I have been getting by.  The people here—Croatians, Fulbrighters, and everyone else—have been absolutely wonderful, and the Rakija so many have provided me has certainly helped. It has been a memorable stay.

But all that is now coming to an end; the taxi comes Tuesday morning and within maybe 20 hours I will be back in the ‘hot spot’ of Austin, Texas. But, I am not yet ready for good byes, even though most of them have already been given and all but maybe the indefatigable Jess is left among the Fulbrighters, although you never know when or where you will see Amela next! I still have a few stories to tell and tell them I will, even next month, when I am drinking tequila with the armadillos. And yes, my beautiful and loving wife of nearly 43 years awaits. If I want to be married another 43 years, I had better head home.

I recently took two trips out of Croatia, one to Albania the other to Serbia. Let me talk about my trip to Belgrade, which is in Serbia. Well, that may seem simple enough, but in Southeastern Europe nothing is simple. The Republic of Serbia (Republika Srbija) is where you will find Belgrade, while nearby there is a Republika Srpska, which is the preferred name, although sometimes it is Anglicized as ‘Serb Republic’ or ‘Bosnian Serb Republic’. I have visited RS, which is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here you will find the city of Banja Luka, but no Belgrade. You will also find many Serbs, as you do in Serbia, but you also find Bosnians (not always a preferred term, notably by the Serbs) and Bosniaks. Bosniaks are Bosnian but many Bosnians are not Bosniaks, which explains the presence of RS. Remember, RS is in BiH, as is Sarajevo, where there are many Bosniaks. One of my favorite students is Bosnian and she is of Croatian and Catholic background, as was Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize primarily for the wonderful ‘The Bridge over the Drina’, although he called himself Yugoslavian. Got it? It gets complicated from there, so I think I’ll move on to Belgrade, home of the new Wimbledon Men's champion.

You hate to compare a city you know well with one you don’t, but I guess that is a natural tendency. Belgrade is noisier, faster, busier, dirtier, and certainly much crazier than the wonderfully orderly Zagreb. It is also twice the size of Zagreb, and you often ‘feel’ it. Zagreb is the city you marry, while Belgrade…oops, sorry, but those old sexist adages are no longer accepted. I was in Belgrade for four days and had a wonderful time. I stayed near the city center, close to the ‘Bohemian’ Skadarlija neighborhood. Much of it is getting pretty touristy, but much of it is also very cool. This is a ’hip’ town with alternative culture to spare.

One of the main sites is the Kalemegada, which is a huge fortress that is on a hill (all this can be Goggled, of course) in a huge park that overlooks the city. It’s all spectacular and takes a full day to explore. Young lovers, old lovers, families, and singles were scattered throughout the park; every time I went it was busy and energetic. From many vantage points you can see the Danube and the Sava, and their point of confluence, as well as all the activities that are going on along the river fronts.

Other interesting places include Knez Mihailova Street, which is really a long outdoor mall. It was always busy and was always fun, from buskers to high end shopping, but it was always great fun. It always seemed to be on my way from my B&B (a great one, by the way). So I walked it often. The Trg Republike anchors one end while at the other you’ll find the entrance to the park and Kalemegada. This is where I saw a little girl dancing to the old fiddler. She seemed to think she was dealing with an interactive cartoon character. His face never changed, until the end, when he threw her a kiss, then he fell over and died. OK, I lied about the last part just to see if you were still reading.

One day I walked along the river fronts, first the Danube and then up the Sava—this thing goes on a LONG way—and ended up at the Fish Festival. As you can see from the pics I went native and ate the very spicy fish soup, which was the focus of a competition. When folks would ask me where I was from, the reply USA was of far less interest than Texas. ‘Where’s your gun’, etc.? Often followed by a friendly ‘try MY rakija’.

Another day, I decided to walk to the small town of Zemun. Leaving early on a Sunday morning I took a long and very boring way to get there, although I did get to see a ‘classic’ Shopping Mall. I was exhausted by the time I got to the town, but soon discovered I was going parallel to a very nice river walk that I could have taken all along. I took it back to the city, and was rewarded with an ever changing landscape, families having Sunday fun, awesome views of the city, including the fortress and the ever-seen Orthodox Cathedral, and a wide path for pedestrians, bikes, etc. It was an amazing and totally entertaining walk, but after talking with my B&B host and later with the taxi driver, we figured I had walked at least 12 miles, maybe more. My arms were sun burned. I did make one mistake: along the way I stopped at the Hotel Jugoslavija, which had taken a couple of direct missile hits courtesy of NATO in 1999 (it was about Kosovo; we’re not going there). My mistake was ordering a Martini. Big mistake, but still it was a fun cultural experience.

Let me digress for a moment. Some people say you should not judge a country—for better and worse—by its premiere city. True, but the essences of the country and its people may be distilled there, while at the same time it has its own unique flavor. And does any one site reflect a country? Nah. I spent three weeks in Istanbul but never got to the countryside, and the same goes for five days in Jakarta, and with one minor tourist exception a week in Rio (which actually is not the premiere city of that country), etc. The art of traveling is to go where you enjoy the experience and then keep on enjoying… ‘Why did you not leave Istanbul for ‘fill in the blank’’? Because.

Belgrade is a fantastic city to visit. And, of course, having lived in Croatia for almost a year and becoming familiar with the basics of the region’s history—and I DO mean basics—there was context. My 42 words of Croatian worked in Serbia. I hope this isn’t controversial, but c’mon folks, it is the same language. As Dubravka Ugrešić (Baba Yaga Lays an Egg, among other favs) says, language in the region is a dialect backed by an army. And don’t let the Cyrillic fool you—the alphabet can be learned in a weekend, but the language takes a lifetime. That said, I was in a restaurant and the man was explaining to me how the veal was cooked (in a pit BBQ of sorts) and I said ‘oh, ‘Peka’. He paused for a moment and said somewhat disdainfully, ‘that is what they call it…in Croatia’. And by the way, I was told that Serbia makes better Rakija than anywhere in the world. Now THAT is controversial; I’m not going there.

The food was excellent, the sights were awesome, and Belgrade is—in the words of the late, great Kevin Lynch—very imageable. Even though it is large, it is tough to get lost, because there are so many parts of the landscape that can be seen from throughout the area and the maps were excellent. The people were very friendly, even when they knew of my origins (Google the recent history). So much so they sometimes made me LOL. It is a delightful city, although I wouldn’t marry her; that ‘honor’ belongs to Zagreb.