Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Las Vegas of the Balkans: Skopje

Skopje is probably the strangest city I have ever visited. Let's begin by saying that the capital of Macedonia is mostly new, because the city was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 and also because most of its monuments were built in the last 6 years.
As a matter of fact, in 2010 many new statues, monuments and museum buildings were built thanks to a big project called "Skopje 2014". Most of them share a pompous neoclassical style that seems to mock Macedonia's neighbour, Greece. There are so many statues of famous Macedonians that local people laugh and say that every Macedonian by now has a statue somewhere in Skopje.

Statues in Skopje

The project was intended as a way to revitalize the city centre and make it more monumental, but it failed to gain consensus from the local population. Some of the new monuments (like the triumphal arch, a bad-taste imitation of the Roman ones) got hit by paint balls in protest against the corrupted government. The monuments and museum buildings intend to build an identity for a country that has almost never been independent in its history and whose name and symbols are not recognized by Greece.
Skopje's art bridge and the archaeological museum by night
The most famous and controversial monument is a 22-metre statue of a warrior on a horse sitting on top of a marble column and surrounded by fountain jets that are lit up at night. Most visitors recognize him to be Alexander the Great, a historical figure claimed by Greece as its own and that Macedonia uses freely (even the airport is called after him). This politics, sustained by the political party in power, is known as "antiquization" and it claims that ancient Macedonians were not in fact Greeks. According to  this theory, modern-day Macedonians, even though Slavic in language and culture, descend from the ancient Macedonians who once had an empire that reached India.

The huge statue of the Warrior in Skopje
As a result, the modern part of Skopje is kitsch, a sort of Las Vegas reconstruction of ancient Greece gone wrong. There are so many statues that it becomes hard to pay attention to any of them. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, Skopje is a unique and interesting city to visit. Contributing to this amusement-park atmosphere are the Chinese-built red double-deckers that you can see everywhere, an exact copy of the London ones.
In Italy macedonia is another name for fruit salad, a mix of very different elements, as Macedonia is, a meeting point of different cultures and religions. While walking on the southern bank of the Vardar river and passing by these huge new monuments, I was in an unmistakably Balkan city, even though the façades of Socialist buildings have been cleverly covered to give them a new look. 
This is  the area of the city where you can find trendy cafés and shops, but also Mother Teresa's memorial house, built in the place where she was baptised. Born in Skopje in 1910 of Catholic Albanian parents, Mother Teresa of Calcutta embeds the cultural mix of this city. The memorial house is free to visit and a new church in a curious neo Byzantine style is being built here.
Memorial house of Mother Teresa
To add to this mix, everywhere in the city you can see Roma families, with children playing in the streets. As a matter of fact, Skopje hosts one of the largest Roma settlements in the Balkans. I realized how much more of a mix it must have been in the past with Macedonian, Albanian and Roma people living side by side with Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish people, of whom little is left in present-day Skopje aside from plaques and small museums.

Statue of Mother Teresa

On the northern bank of the river lies Çarshia, the old bazaar, which is known by locals as the Albanian neighbourhood (here Albanian is almost synonym with Ottoman). 20% of the population of Skopje (and 25% of all Macedonia) is of Albanian heritage and all official plaques are in both Macedonian and Albanian. I wandered for a couple of hours through reconstructed caravanserai, old mosques and Turkish baths, some of them reconverted as art galleries or museums. The Çifte Hamam, for example, now holds the national gallery, with plenty of contemporary paintings and installations from Macedonian artists.
Çifte Hamam
The Kurşumli Han is one of the few remaining caravanserai (the roadside inns of Ottaman times) in Skopje and it now hosts the modest Museum of Macedonia. A world apart from the opulent new museums, this area is more traditional, even though little is left of old Skopje and all the shops sell modern goods. While you walk though its paved streets, you can always spot the minaret of a mosque.
Old Baazar, Skopje
The two worlds - the Slavic and the Albanian - run virtually parallel one to the other and sadly there is not much interchange between the two. To divide these two parts of the city there is the 15th-century Stone Bridge, one of the few things left from the time of the Ottoman empire.

View of Skopje and the Stone Bridge

Monday, 15 August 2016

The coast of Montenegro (Kotor aside)

Even though I was planning to stay in Montenegro only  a few days, I was determined to see something aside from Kotor. When I was on the bus that took me from Dubrovnik to Kotor, we passed by several small towns in the fijord-like Bay of Kotor. These villages all look somewhat lower-key compared to Kotor, but also enchanting.
From Kotor I hopped on a local bus that in about 15 minutes (and for only 1€) drove me to a small town called Perast. The main thing to do here is to take a boat tour to the islet just in front of the town: Gospa od Škrpjela (which means literally "Our Lady of  the Rocks"). It is an artificial island (the only one of its kind in the Adriatic), and the legend says that it was created by seamen after finding an icon of the Virgin on a rock in the sea. Every time the seamen came back from a successful voyage they threw a rock in this place, thus the island gradually emerged from the sea.     
The island of Our Lady of the Rocks
The boat (5€ for a return ticket), leaves you on the island for enough time to visit the church built in 1452 and the small museum on the island. More than its historical or artistic value, what makes this place special is the atmosphere and the view of the surrounding mountains. The Bay of Kotor looks more like a peaceful lake than a stretch of sea: there are woods everywhere, and practically no beach.

The church of Our Lady of the Rocks

There is another small island in front of Perast, Sveti Dorde, which hosts a 12th century Benedectine monastery,  but the boat  tour does not stop there. Back in Perast, I walked its cobbled streets and felt the history unfolding all around me. The town is wonderfully preserved, and it has many old churches and palaces, all cramped in a narrow stretch of land before the mountains rise up. As a matter of fact, in the past Perast was a prosperous town under the Venetian flag of the Serenissima. 

A church in Perast

Another place that is popular along the coast of Montenegro and that is very easy to reach from Kotor is Budva. In spite of being one of the most famous tourist destinations in Montenegro, it was a bit disappointing. The beach is just a regular  sandy beach, crowded, with plenty of ice-cream shops and the usual children toys for sale. The old town is pleasant, but it could have been any small town with some Venetian influence along the Adriatic sea.

A church in Budva

I walked through its streets, trying to find something interesting among the trendy cafés and souvenir shops. I am fascinated by Orthodox icons, these simple, yet artistically fascinating works of art. There are several in Budva, if you look in the corners of the smaller streets.

An Orthodox icon in Budva

Religious image in Budva

From Budva, it was fairly easy and quick to find the bus stop to go to Sveti Stefan. This islet, connected to the mainland by an artificial narrow isthmus, appears in most of the tourist brochures of Montenegro together with Kotor. In the 1960s and up until the 1980s it was a playground for the rich and famous, with stars such as Elizabeth Taylors or Sophia Loren enjoying its glitz and village atmosphere.

The island of Sveti Stefan
Unfortunately, Sveti Stefan is now a luxury hotel, so it is not permitted to go to the island, unless you have a reservation for its expensive restaurant, so I took a walk. There is another resort nearby, the Hotel Kraljičina Plaža, but it is permitted to walk along the well-maintained beach. There are caves to explore, created by the karst rock formations, but the best thing to do is just walk along the sandy beach and along the pine-covered paths.

A beach near Sveti Stefan

Unfortunately, I didn't see the interior of Montenegro, with its famous mountains where bears can still be found, but what I have seen of this small but welcoming country left me with a desire to visit again and explore more.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

One more tile in the complex Balkan mosaic: Belgrade

Nobody will tell you that Belgrade is a must-see in the Balkans: Serbia is hardly in the Balkans route for backpackers, and Belgrade is too far away from the popular coast of Croatia, the charming Ottoman-influenced town of Mostar in Bosnia, or even the national parks of inland Croatia.

Yet for me Belgrade was one more tile - an important one - in the Balkan mosaic, a further step to get to know this region, with its complexities and idiosyncrasies. Belgrade seems to be somehow nostalgic of its socialist past, when it was the capital of a big country. I've seen a hotel called Yugoslavia, for instance, and I was surprised that they never changed its name. The buildings and statues are often austere, as if wanting to convey a sense of strength and power.

Republic Square, Belgrade

I also perceived that Serbia displays a special connection with Russia and with other Eastern European countries, a lot more than other countries in the area. The Cyrillic alphabet, for a start, and then the common Orthodox religion helped convey that feeling. And then of course the Moskva Hotel, with its art nouveau façade, currently one of the most recognizable buildings in Belgrade. It was built in 1908 with a huge investment from Imperialist Russia, and it was nationalized during the Yugoslav era. There aren't that many showy buildings in Belgrade, and this is why the Moskva hotel sticks out.

The Moskva hotel

As for enjoying life and going out, Belgrade has a reputation for excellent nightlife throughout the Balkans. Traditional kafanas and trendy clubs sit side by side. Skadarlija - and in particular the long cobbled-street called Skardarska - is considered the bohemian neighbourhood of Belgrade, a sort of Balkan-style Montmartre. Once a poor gypsy neighbourhood, at the  end of  the 19th century it became a meeting place for writers and artists. Nowadays, Skardarska is a very popular place to have dinner. Restaurants with checkered tablecloths abound and musicians play traditional Balkan tunes, while groups of Serbians and tourists alike have noisy dinners with grilled meat (pljeskavica, a beef patty, or ćevapčićiground meat sticks) and lots of beer.

Dining in Skadarska

In spite of its vitality, Belgrade bears the scars of a tragic recent history. In 1999, following reports of persecutions and mass killings of Albanians in Kosovo, NATO bombed Serbia without the approval of the UN Security Council. I remember this because Italy was one of the European countries that offered the military bases for the aircrafts. At the time it was portrayed by media as a " just war" and Serbia as an evil country, an image that seemed to be indissolubly linked with the country since the war with Bosnia a few years before. Nowadays few reminders of this dark period are left in the city, which comes out as peaceful, vibrant and in constant change, even though I must confess that it is gritty in some parts.

A street in central Belgrade
Belgrade is not the kind of city that is overwhelming in terms of sightseeing, and unfortunately I found some of the museums closed.  The National Museum has been closed for renovation for years, and the Museum of the History of Serbia does not have a permanent exhibition on Serbia! I did not have a chance to visit Tito's Mausoleum either, so I tried to understand Serbia and Belgrade on my own. The one place that you should visit in Belgrade, and which is always open, is Kalemegdan, a huge public park which includes a fortress, as well as statues, historical buildings, an open-air café and beautiful views from the fortified walls.
The café in Kalemegdan park
Inside the Kalemegdan fortress, I really liked the Ružica Church, a small and enchanting Orthodox church covered by vines on the outside, and with a creepy crypt and a curious chandelier made of bullets on the inside. The atmosphere of a countryside Balkan church is hard to find anywhere else in Belgrade, so it was well worth a visit.

Celebrating a baptism at Ruzica church in Belgrade

The Church of Saint Sava is maybe one of the few truly touristic places in Belgrade. It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world (some sources say it is the largest), and like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it is still under construction. At the end of the 19th century, the city of Belgrade came with the idea of building a church in the place where in 1595 the Ottoman Grand Vizier burned the remains of Saint Sava in retaliation of a Serbian uprising against Ottoman rule.
The Church of Saint Sava
Unfortunately, the works were interrupted every time there was a war in the area, and even though the church looks finished from outside, inside it is still empty and without a proper floor. There are beautiful fountains in front of the church, and the whole area is really peaceful and beautiful.

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