Tara National Park: My Favorite Place in Serbia

 

.

We spent four glorious days in the Tara National Park. The park is in the Dinaric Alps, a limestone mountainous area with deep ravines, rocky outcrops, turquoise rivers, and thousands of tall pines. It is only a three-hour drive from Belgrade and we rented an apartment in Kaluđerske Bare (Monk Pond), a small town inside the park. The peaks get up to around 5,000 feet and the park is located on the border with Bosnia i Herzegovina.

The kids had a wonderful time and each day we went hiking. The views are spectacular and the kids just love running in the meadows and picking up sticks and rocks under the towering pine and beech trees. I love the mix of farmland and wilderness of the park. The distinctive haystacks and Serbian traditional wooden farmhouses with green meadows of rolling hills, make for a idyllic, bucolic setting. I am also impressed with the amount of old growth trees all over the park. Big trees are one of the few things I feel spiritual about, and the mountain air, the quietness, and green, really refreshes my psyche.

I am trying to instill in my children a love for wilderness and an interest in natural history and ecological field studies. We identified many flowers, insects, birds, and trees and descriptions of these can be found on my Serbian Nature web site.

This was the first time we spent significant time inside the park. In previous visits, we stayed outside the park in the town of Mokra Gora. We will definitely go back.

When There Were No Serbians in Serbia

 

Owen and Ollie at the Baths, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

Earlier this month we visited the ancient ruins of the city of Viminacium. (Viminacijum in Serbian) The city was founded by the Romans around the birth of Jesus. Viminacium on the Danube River, close to the modern Serbian town of Kostolac, about an hour’s drive from Belgrade.

Viminacium in its peak had an estimated 40,000+ citizens. Many of the famous Roman Emperors visited or stayed in the city. Several battles in the many civil wars of the Roman Empire occurred there as well. The Romans established the city first as a military garrison while conquering the local Illyrians (Dacians) and later a market town grew up around the barracks.

We arrived late in the day and the site was closing. We still drove around to the excavated sites and got a sense of the place. Most of the city is not excavated, only 3 major sites, which are covered (see above). Researchers have found 35,000 graves, coins, vases, etc. The city was eventually overrun and destroyed by the man himself, Attila the Hun in 441 C.E. The Avars (ancient Turkish tribe) finished the job in 582, paving the way for the Slavs (Serbs) to come in an eventually settle the area.

It was amazing to think about all that went on there, such a long time ago! I hope they develop the project further, there is probably a lot that needs to be excavated and researched. The structures uncovered are not that impressive, no coliseums, statues of Caesar, etc, but I think they could make an excellent museum and educational center with the pieces they found. They had several books for sale in the visitor center with photos and information about the site, but no actual pieces displayed. We also so some chariots which would have been cool for the kids to ride in. I just don’t see the funds available to further carry on the work.

Perhaps the coal company operating next to the site can support excavation. There is a massive open pit coal mine there as well as a coal-burning electricity generation plant. It would be nice to tax those polluters and put the proceeds towards Viminacium. We will probably head back to the site and read some more about it.

Nadia in front of the Drmno Coal Mine

On a side note, the town of Stari Kostolac (Old Kostolac), close to the site, is a Roma or Gypsy village. We were driving back from the site through their and Nadia was freaking out when she saw the run-down settlement and only gypsies. I would also like to go back and explore the town a bit more. A friend told us the village used to be Serbian, but was abandoned and the Roma moved in.

It makes a good day trip from Belgrade.

Almost There

Bill and Goran, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

It has been a tremendous week of early mornings for Goran and me dealing with the snow and cold temperatures. Goran is the head of the maintenance and security at the school. He and his crew started the week plowing the school grounds, parking lots, and nearby roads to make them passable for the community. He also was dealing with getting the buses to the homes through the snow-filled streets of the Belgrade suburbs. Finally today, he was trying to heat up diesel engines on four of our buses as the cold, bitter temps were freezing our fleet at school. That doesn’t include clearing the icicles from the roofs, salting sidewalks and steps for pedestrians, and maintaining the heating system.

We are pictured in the parking lot of the high school, still managing to smile after a crazy, but very interesting week. We are all looking forward to February Break which starts this weekend.

Friendship Park – Prijateljtsva Park


While waiting for my wife to come out of the movie at the Ušče Mall earlier this week, I explored the Friendship Park. This park in New Belgrade was established in 1961 to commemorate a big meeting of the Non-Aligned Nations Movement. Through the years, when foreign statesman visit Serbia, a tree is planted in the park in their honor. I walked around and noted some of the famous names. These included Fidel Castro, Moammar Gaddafay, Leonid Brezhnev, Hafez El Assad, and of course the first one, Tito in 1961. My favorite is from 1976, Jimmy Carter planted a California Sequoia which must have died because there was a large bush near his marker that certainly didn’t look like a 35-year old Giant Redwood. One of the latest trees planted was by current Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mohamed Kemel Amr in September next to the Serbian Foriegn Minister, Vuk Jeremić in September of 2011.

The other interesting part of the park is the Soviet-style monument erected by Slobodan Milosević after the NATO bombings in 2000. It used to contain an eternal flame. In the background of the photo to start this post, you can also see the former Central Committee building. It was destroyed in the NATO bombing campaign, but is now office buildings.

Christmas Eve Service: A Serbian Orthodox Tradition

 

St. Sava’s Cathedral, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

Last night we went to Saint Sava’s Cathedral here in Belgrade for the burning of the badjnak and the Christmas Eve Service. As you can see from the photos, it was a beautiful and culturally enriching night for my family.

Each of the kids had a “badnjak” which is like a yule log. The word badnjak may be derived from the verb, bdeti, which means to stay awake or keep the vigil. The tradition stems from pagan times and the man of the house (domaćin) or sons on Christmas morning went into the woods and cut down a young Oak tree. The yule log is kind of like a ceremonial sacrifice to bring health and happiness to the family for the coming year. The log was burnt over the family hearth. Today, an assembly of twigs with Oak leaves, corn, pine sprigs, and straw is tied together with a red ribbon and sold in markets and street corners around Belgrade. Every church has a bonfire on its grounds where people can come and throw their badnjaks in the flames.

There were hundreds of people there and outside the church a mini-market was set up selling religious and holiday crafts and mulled wine. We went inside the massive cathedral to watch a bit of the service and light candles in memory of lost family members. The service, shown below, had a lot of priests singing and waving incense. There were also lines of people waiting to kiss various icons.

Afterwards we went to have some Lebanese appitizers at the Byblos Restaurant and the kids played in the park.

The Islamic Community of Belgrade

Last night I attended the Belgrade Philharmonic’s performance in the New Year Cycle. The cycle is a concert series based on the various religious New Year celebrations. Last night’s concert was the Islamic New Year. It is always interesting to watch the “VIPs” enter hall and last night was no exception. With a lot of cameras, etc, Belgrade Mufti Muhamed Jusufspahić came in to be seated. I snapped this photo of him speaking with the Philharmonic Director, who looks “artistic” with the spiked hair and fashionable glasses.

The Islamic community in Belgrade and in Serbia is quite small with only one mosque in Belgrade and about 300,000 Islamic people in the country. Most are found in the Sandzak, a region in Southern Serbia that borders Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia.

Jusufspahic is a somewhat controversial figure in that he is the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic community in Serbia. Several muftis in the Sandzak dispute this and there is political tension because of it.

I think it is nice for Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia to have an Islamic community. It gives a bit of “exoticness” to the overwhelming majority Slavic Orthodox Serbian architecture and culture. The Islamic followers however, are Slavs, having been converted during the 500-year Ottoman occupation of Serbia. They don’t have different foods and look very Slavic. I enjoyed visiting Sarajevo and Mostar and hearing the call to prayer and seeing the towers of the mosques. I also visited the Bajrakli Mosque here in Belgrade in January of 2009.

We didn’t stay for the whole concert and Nadia and I went for a drink next door to the Hotel Square 9. A really nice atmosphere with not much smoking. We laughed quite a bit.

Kolo – A Serbian Folklore Traditional Dance

Yesterday for the opening of our gymnasium a Serbian Kolo Dance Troupe performed. The “kolo” or circle in English, is a traditional cultural dance performed in the ex-Yugoslavia, in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. This being Belgrade, it was the Serbian version of the dance. A professional troupe performed in the ceremony as you can see in the video above. I loved the music and costumes. Note the elf-like shoes, which traditionally are made of pig skin and are molded to fit one’s foot. They have a little “pig’s tail” on the tip of the toe.

It is a beautiful dance and great outfits. I felt like drinking a rakija while watching them!

 

Political Campaign Posters In Belgrade

 

I’ve noticed around the city the past couple of weeks many political posters. This spring they will be holding parlimentary elections and next year there will be a presidential election. The campaign has begun!

The posters definitely have a negative tone to them, highlighting the faults of the other parties.

The poster above reads, “Their interest in our debt!” and the subtext is “they brought the Belgrade economy to the edge of destruction.” The poster shows city mayor Dragan Đilas speaking with the economic minister. In a “city-state” such as Belgrade, the mayor has almost the same amount of power as the president and it is a position that the major political parties go after.

The current president, Boris Tadić will be serving out his five-year term in 2013. I think this is the first time a president has done that in Serbia’s short time as an independent nation. I don’t know how he can win reelection with the economy the way it is in Serbia. Experts are predicting Barak Obama facing difficulties getting a second term with 9% unemployment and a slow recovery. Tadić should be in big trouble with 23% unemployment, foreign direct investment falling in half in the past two years and inflation close to 10%. They also have 1/3 of their budget going to pensions.

But with a situation as dire as it is, it will be awfully difficult for anyone to turn the economy around. I don’t see much difference between the political parties (much like the USA) with all of them in favor of a 1 billion Euro subway system, promising more jobs, and cutting down on corruption. Most also agree to support the agriculture sector of the economy, which is already a healthy 13% of the GDP.

The argument used to be should they try to join the EU or go it alone or have a special relationship to Russia. I don’t see the EU accepting Serbia in the near future with the economic problems of Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Serbia needs leadership that will make it easier for businesses, both foreign and domestic to start up. Serbia is one of the most difficult places in the world to do business because of the bureacracy from Communist times. The rule of law needs also to be established here with everyone paying taxes and punishment of crime and corruption. I feel they should be putting their energy to trying to unite the Balkans instead of going for the EU membership. The negative campaigns are not focusing on the real details of what needs to get done and who can do it. Politics are the same in most countries and the USA is not an exception.

The poster below is making fun of Serbian Progressive Party leader, Tomislav Nikolić. He used to be with the Radicals and the left side shows him wearing a t-shirt of Voja Šešelj, the former leader of the Radicals, now on trial at the Hague. “Who is the person who never lied to you, Nikolić or the real Toma?”

Serbia deserves good leadership and I hope whoever gains power in the next election, and focus on good government and the betterment of lives of its citizens.

Freedom! The Gazela Bridge Completes Construction

 

I took this photo Saturday evening while coming back from New Belgrade. All six lanes of traffic were open for the first time in many months as a large repair construction project was completed 7:00 PM on Saturday. The Gazela Bridge is one of the main bridges in the city connecting the old part of Belgrade with the New Belgrade. Besides being used for intra-city traffic, it is also part of two major highways crossing Europe (E70 and E75) and so besides Belgrade traffic, there is lots of foreign cars cruising through. The bridge has more cars crossing it than it was designed for.

The bridge built in 1970 was in desparate need of reinforcement and it looks and feels much better. The project did however, make everyone’s lives a hassle because of the limited options in crossing the city. Hopefully with all six lanes open, this will cut down on the traffic delays that were a daily part of many Belgraders lives.

The city is working on another bridge across the Sava River (see photo below) which should be done in the next few months. It will be interesting to see how this affects traffic flow. There are only two other bridges going across the Sava in the center part of the city. The bypass project, which would divert E70 and E75 traffic is still in the planning stages.

By the way, the name “Gazela” comes from the fact that on a side view, the bridge does look like a gazelle running.

View from the river, of the almost completed Sava Bridge (August 2011)

Autumn Colors of Belgrade

 

Autumn Colors, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

We are in the peak color season in Belgrade. In Europe, as opposed to my birthplace of Michigan, the colors are mostly yellow. The theory goes that there are more tree species in North America that gives more colors and the ice age killed more of red-producing pigment trees in Europe than in North America. Despite not having the reds and oranges, it is still a beautiful time of year. Above is a photo of a wall at our school.

It was great this morning. I was walking with Ocean to our car and she said, “it is leaf day today.” There were leaves literally falling all over the drive way. It has been great to experience the change of seasons, especially for the kids.

It has also been foggy this week in the mornings. Below is a photo of our yard yesterday morning.