RESTAURANT RAPSODIA: AN AMAZING CULINARY EXPERIENCE IN ALBANIA

Restaurant Rapsodia Shengjin Alfred Marku RapsodiaThere is a place in Albania I visit very frequently. And that is Hotel Restaurant Rapsodia in Shengjin, municipality of Lezhë (2 km from the highway Shkodra-Tirana when you pass Lezhë). Why would we travel more than 100 km from Podgorica for just a dinner? Why would we take all our friends and relatives to this place? Why would we recommend it to everybody we know?

There is a good reason: Restaurant Rapsodia is one of the best restaurants I know. And there is more: chef and owner Alfred Marku and his wife Mira (photo 2) run the family business in an exceptional manner. The restaurant is cozy in a classical way, with a hand-carved wooden ceiling and lace curtains. The food is delicious, the service is pleasant and everything is homemade and fresh (in my opinion, this is a typical slow food restaurant!).

Restaurant RapsodiaRecently, we had dinner at Restaurant Rapsodia with our relatives and friends from the Netherlands. Of course, we ordered the unique menu “Kilometri Zero” that consists of multiple small courses (you can eat as many plates as you wish; I was told that the record is 37!!). You can choose seafood, meat, mixed or vegetarian – it is all delicious and you never get the same. Moreover, you will be surprised by a wealth of diverse flavors that you have never experienced before. And each time the waiter will explain every dish.

It was amazing to eat home-made cheese with acacia sauce, shrimps with a sweet sauce of pine needles and veal with blackberry sauce. The mussels were exceptional, the home-made ice-cream delicious. And so was the excellent domestic wine.

Restaurant RapsodiaChef Alfred is one of the most creative and popular “chefs” in Albania. Many important personalities have visited his restaurant, as you can see on the photos covering the walls. Alfred left Albania in 1995, and started to work in Italy as a dish washer. Already in 2003, he cooked in a Michelin signed restaurant and a year later he managed a restaurant in the valley of Bondo, where he could free his passion and imagination, working with new flavors and mixing his Italian experience with the memory of Albania’s cooking traditions. As a matter of fact, he mixes the past and the present and calls it Commixture. His philosophy is: “Always believe in what you’re doing and do it the best as you can”.

Restaurant RapsodiaOur dinner took almost three hours (so don’t go there, when you are in a hurry; you can always hire a room in the hotel when it is getting too late!). We had to quit after 11 courses … It was great and our company could not stop talking about all the different flavors they had tasted. I am sure that this was an unforgettable experience for them (and for us). And the price for this delicious dinner? You would be pleasantly surprised, I am sure!

So Freddy, we will be back soon!

Restaurant Rapsodia

ALBANIA, TAMARË: THE NEW KELMEND ROAD

 

Kelmend valley The area around the Cijevna river (in Albanian: Cem river) has always attracted me, so the information that a Joint action plan for its ecological defense and the sustainable environmental development of the cross-border area was started this year made me quite curious. A draft feasibility study on eco-tourism development in the surrounding villages of this river has already been prepared. As you can often find us in the Kučka krajina or in the Cijevna canyon, we know how the situation looks like in Montenegro. But what has happened in Albania in the meantime?

Panorama point KelmendThis weekend we decided to pass the Montenegrin-Albanian border and follow the 65 km long SH20 road from Hani i Hotit to Vermosh, which is now under reconstruction. The newly built asphalt road has reached the village of Tamarë in the Kelmend region. Until recently, this road was mentioned by the website www.dangerousroads.org as one of the most dangerous roads in Eastern Europe. It was a dirt road without any protection rails, very steep and very winding. Two years ago we succeeded in driving the complete route with our camper (see blog post: Discover Kelmend Valley in Albania), but this time we could only reach Tamarë with our small car.

road to TamareThe first sign of change we saw was the huge white cross on the slopes of the mountain, a clear sign that this area is predominantly inhabited by Catholic Malissores. It was very quiet on the new asphalt road. Driving uphill, we left the Skadar Lake plain behind us and at the top we arrived at a magnificent panorama point, where we had a great view of the Cijevna canyon and the surrounding mountains (photo 1). We were surprised to find a new glass panorama terrace near the parking lot (photo 2) and standing on it we had the feeling as if we were on the top of the world.

Then we slowly continued downhill along breath-taking serpentines to the valley of the Cijevna/Cem river and finally we arrived in the village of Tamarë, where the asphalt road stopped. The reconstruction will continue next year and in 2016 the asphalt road should reach the village of Vermosh and the Albanian-Montenegrin border near Gusinje. In this way, it will be possible to make a round trip from Podgorica through Kelmend valley and the Prokletije mountains and back through Montenegro (Plav-Kolašin-Podgorica). A great nature tour!

TamareTamarë (photo 4) is the administrative center of the Kelmend region. The name of the village comes from Tamara, the name of the wife of the Shkodra Vizier who ordered the construction of the Vukli bridge on the Cem river in the second half of the 18th century. The bridge was given her name and the village was called the same. Tamarë has around 500 inhabitants. There is a secondary school, a hotel, policlinic, shops, bar-restaurants, etc. Everything is connected with the green river (photo 5). Wild pomegranates can be seen everywhere.

springs CijevnaWe passed the bridge and made a walking tour along the river, where we discovered many springs coming from the mountains. Concrete canals and hoses lead the current water to the houses and agricultural properties. The irrigation systems are used for agriculture, but also for fish farming. The Kelmend region is famous for its so-called “trout with red points” (trofta me pika te kuqe), which has its entire body covered by small red points and can have a size of up to 50 cm. This trout has become a tourist attraction for visitors of the Kelmend valley, particularly if it is prepared as tave peshku (fish casserole), where the trout is baked in the oven together with onions, peppers and potatoes. The wild fish is sweeter than the farm-raised versions, but I am sure that the products of the big fish farm we visited are excellent as well. What do you think of the giant trout the owner of the place showed us (photo 6)?

trout TamareUnfortunately, Tamarë is already losing its authenticity. Big modern houses are under construction. Are the inhabitants expecting tourism development? Do they want to create accommodation facilities or are they building for their own families? I really hope that Albania has the power and the will to prevent uncontrolled development of this magnificent environment, particularly after finishing the asphalt road to Vermosh.

Tamare irrigation system

REQUIEM FOR YUGOSLAVIA

I feel offended when someone says something bad about Yugoslavia. I feel like we, the people who were born and lived in Yugoslavia are a special endangered species going to be extinguished in the next couple of years. So, don’t offend us. Don’t throw a stone on our already ruined home.

r2I try so hard to transfer my knowledge, which is much more of an emotion, about Yugoslavia to my kids, to younger people around me, so that the word and the memory do not get lost. And I know that the feeling, the panic, and that sorrow about the past times and a country which doesn’t exist anymore, is like being sick, and the disease is called Yugo-nostalgia.

When I was in the third grade of elementary school we were to swear in by the Tito’s vow, which would make us Tito’s pioneers. When I think about that today it is all about on how to live with respect to the people around you, everything everybody should be teaching their kids. How do we call that today? How do we teach our kids respect to the elder people? And I remember how strongly everybody promoted fraternity, unity and equality. It was not just about the words we like to use today like the famous and worn out word “democracy”. It was a real feeling. I didn’t know if some of my friends were Muslims or Catholics and I did not care either. I still don’t care. And I am sure that this feeling was implanted in me by the Yugoslav values. And how funny and sad it is that the country’s breakdown commenced by national inequalities.

pionier3I am sure all the wars happened because of personal interest of a couple of people and some people who were not part of Yugoslavia. We, who were raised in real Yugoslavia didn’t think about different nationalities. The breakup of Yugoslavia happened, I would say, to the surprise of all of us, we knew something was happening but we never ever dreamed it would happen. Not even when we were standing in front of the town hall to change the leading party in 1988.

My revelation and ability to go back in time, right directly to that year 1988 happened when I drove from Belgrade to Podgorica, a couple of weeks ago, and I was somewhere close to the border when I heard this song. The song written and played by one of the most renown Yugoslav songwriters, which speaks about the decomposition of Yugoslavia, and I haven’t heard it for more than 20 years. The song was written in 1988. We didn’t know and we didn’t understand that it was the prophecy of what would happen in the next three years. The name of the song is “Requiem”, a dedication to the time when we in Yugoslavia were all equal. The lyrics said:
“Ostaće u knjigama i priča o nama:
Balkan krajem jednog veka.
Svako pleme crta granicu.
Svi bi hteli svoju stranicu…”
(The story about us will remain written in the books, about the Balkans at the end of a century, every tribe draws its own border, everybody would like to have his own page...)

r3The song is dedicated to a better time in Yugoslav history back in the seventies, when the same singer sang “Racunajte na nas!” – Count on us! The singer speaks directly to the commander (Tito) expressing his regret about the good old times when we were proud people of Yugoslavia. And he said it all in 1988. There were more prophecies. In 1990, the famous Sarajevo TV Show “Lista nadrealista” had a New Year’s Eve sketch when they played a typical Sarajevo family in which everybody there had different nationalities, and they all had different passports and had to cross the border in the middle of the city, the UN forces establishing peace. We laughed. We said how true it could be. But we never believed it. And then everything broke apart. Just a couple of years later.

There were no differences if you were a woman either. Women worked, and succeeded to be in higher positions, and raised kids, man were involved in their families and raising kids. Education and health care were free.

So, the feeling, the disease of Yugo-nostalgia will never go away. It hurts when younger people make fun of us when we say it was the best place to live in, and raise kids, we didn’t lock the doors, there was no crime, we traveled all around the world and needed no visa, where we all had everything we needed to have. You will say that I idealize that time and that country. You will say that there were so many wrong and bad things too. What happened with opponents, with corruption, with the national debt… But aren’t there so many of these wrong things even today in
every country, here too, and there are no good things from that era to make the balance.

r4I still feel tears swelling when I hear the Yugoslav national anthem. I think I will never feel the Montenegrin anthem the same way. It seems that I am still a Yugoslav.

I’ll end this mourning with the refrain of the song:
“And where are we, the naive ones,
who were standing by the “hej Sloveni” (national anthem)
like we were invented throught that story
and cheated..”

(A gde smo mi, naivni, što smo se dizali na “Hej Sloveni”? Kao da smo uz tu priču izmišljeni…  i prevareni…”)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_5iO8cakYg&noredirect=1

Tito

 

AN UNKNOWN WILD FRUIT: CORNELIAN CHERRIES (CORNUS MAS)

d1 d3Have you ever seen or tasted cornelian cherries? In Montenegro they are called “drenjine”. Many foreigners probably do not know these wild berries that usually ripen in September, as they are consumed in Eastern Europe and Iran only. In Western Europe the tree is also grown as an ornamental plant for its late winter flowers, which appear well before the leaves (photo 1). For me it is a real pleasure to see the tiny yellow flowers of the wild Cornus trees in Montenegro, as they are the first sign that the winter is over, even when the mountains are still covered with snow (photo 2).

Cornelian cherries (also called cornels) are not really cherries. They look like deep red olives (photo 3). In ancient Greek literature, they were primarily considered food for pigs, but the Armenians, Greeks, Romans and Persians must have liked them in spite of this, because the cherries are often mentioned as edible fruits in their manuscripts.

d2The Cornus tree was also used for other purposes. Its berries have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, and its wood was used from the 7th century BC onward by Greek craftsmen to construct spears and bows. Red dye for clothes was produced from its bark and tannin from its leaves.

But also today, cornelian cherries are used in several ways. In Armenia, the fruit is used for distilling vodka and in Albania it serves for making raki. In Turkey and Iran it is eaten with salt as a snack in summer, and traditionally drunk in a cold drink called kizicik serbeti. As the berries are very high in vitamin C, they are also used to fight colds and flues.

Cornels are highly appreciated in the villages of central Montenegro. That is why I was very glad to get a bucket full of “drenjine” from our friend Mladen. Of course, I did not know how to prepare them, but his instructions for making delicious syrup were simple enough. And the result was excellent!

d4That is why I want to share this experience with you and give you his recipe:

Ingredients: 5 kg Cornelian cherries, 4 kg sugar, 4 Limuntus

Wash and drain the berries (photo 4); Add enough water to cover the berries; Boil for about 40 minutes; Strain through a small-mesh strainer or a cheesecloth, mashing the cooked berries; Discard the solids and wait until the juice has cooled to room temperature; Add the sugar and stir to dissolve it; Boil the syrup 30-40 minutes at medium heat; Pour into sterile jars or plastic bottles (you can store the syrup in the refrigerator for up to one week). For use: just add water or sparkling mineral water to the syrup to suit your taste.

Maybe it’s difficult to get the berries, but sometimes you can find them on the market, in September. Give it a try: it is a really refreshing and, above all, healthy drink! (photo 5)

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REVISITING KUČKA KORITA: A LESSON IN HOSPITALITY

kk1kk2 I don’t know why I am so fond of Kučka Krajina. Is it the extraordinary karst landscape, the picturesque road, the immense space of the rocky pastures or the magnificent view of the Cijevna canyon? Or is it just the feeling that you are far away from the crowds in Podgorica, alone with nature and life in its purest form?

We wanted to show this beautiful region to our friends from the Netherlands and so we climbed along the winding road (see my blog post: Grlo Sokolovo) to the vast plateau of Kučka Korita. Once a „katun“ with summer pastures, today this is more of a weekend resort. It is almost impossible to see the difference between the low stone walls, made by men, and the karst rocks scattered all over the plateau (photo 1).

kk3Most cottages were abandoned, only some of them were surrounded by flocks of sheep with a lonely shepherd. We followed the former patrol path of the border guard, which appeared to be well-marked now. That was a pleasant surprise! After half an hour of hiking, following the trail across meadows and through the woods (photo 2), we arrived at Grlo Sokolovo (Falcon’s Throat), one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Montenegro. Through a bluish haze, we saw the mighty Cijevna canyon and the endless mountain peaks of the Albanian Alps (photo 3).

kk4The path led us through dense forests and over a steep hill – all the marks were freshly painted in red and white – and finally we got back to the plateau where we sat down for a rest. After a while, an old shepherd came to see us. He explained us that he and his wife had just come back from the high mountains near Rikavačko jezero, where they had spent the summer with their sheep, manufacturing “Kučki sir”, the famous cheese from the Kuči region. He invited us for a cup of coffee with his family, in his cottage nearby.

kk5We followed him, admired his flock of sheep (photo 4) – the first lamb was already born – and entered the home of the Malissore family Nikprelević (photo 5). It was nice and cosy, a fire was lighted in the fire place and the family members – two sons and a daughter with their families – were really glad to see us. The table was immediately covered with all sorts of beverages. “Priganice” were served, followed by different kinds of delicious home-made cheese, bread and tomatoes. Gradually, more and more people entered the house: neighbors, relatives and other guests, who came to see the “foreign tourists”, as a visit of foreigners to their village is an absolute rarity! It appeared to be impossible to leave … as grandmother wanted to make a specialty for us: “vareni sir” or a kind of cooked cheese – rather heavy for our Western stomachs, but incredibly tasty (photo 6).

kk6It was obvious that these people are very proud of their land, their tribe and family, but also of their achievements. It reminded me of the books of Edith Durham, who described this region in her book “High Albania” in 1909, writing about the warm welcome she was accorded by Malissores and Montenegrins. The same hospitality and openness, the same old customs and traditions … The oldest son, Deda, a successful businessman, told me a lot about their way of living, the beauties of the Kučke Planine mountains and his wish to show all this to nature lovers and to develop tourism. I promised him to promote Kučka Korita and to give his address to all people who want to explore this region – by jeep or hiking.

Impressed by this lesson in hospitality, we finally succeeded in leaving this cordial family and continuing our hiking tour over the rocky pastures – back to our starting point near the old military barracks.

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PODGORICA WALKING TOUR II: TRANSFORMERS DEFENDING PODGORICA

 p1a p1Some people say that Podgorica is boring and unattractive. I don’t agree! But it‘s true: Podgorica got a new face last summer, which makes it much more interesting, not only for tourists but also for local inhabitants! In July, an environmental exhibition of sculptures made by Danilo Baletić (22)​ was set up, within the “Podgorica Summer 2014” event. The sculptor calls it “Transformers Defending Podgorica”.

Over the past two years, Danilo has created seven realistic sculptures of Transformers, using scrap metal out of the scrap yard owned by his father. The idea to create these characters was born in his childhood. Like many other children, he grew up with the popular cartoon series from the 1980s. With the exhibition, he wants to catch people’s attention and send a message that waste can be “transformed” and used for better purposes!

p1cDanilo’s fearsome robots can now be found on seven different locations around the center of Podgorica. They have been placed on street corners, in parks, pedestrian zones and on the city’s main square where you can find his biggest Transformer: a 25-ton Megatron, around 14 meters high. No need to say that the exhibition has also been covered by the international press. Many foreign tourists are now interested in seeing these monsters. But how can they find them? That is the reason why I have designed another Podgorica Walking Tour, which enables you to see all seven Transformers and also make a walk in the beautiful forest park “Gorica”. Follow the red line on the map: the Transformers are marked with a purple circle (photo 1). The tour can be made in one hour and a half or less, but you can also use the opportunity to walk to the top of the Gorica hill (130 m), from where you have a magnificent view of Montenegro’s capital (yellow line).

p1bThe walking tour starts in front of the old Crna Gora Hotel (red cross), once a symbol of the city, which was unfortunately dismantled to make space for the new Hilton Hotel (now under construction). The first Transformer is proudly standing opposite to the hotel, at the entrance of the shady King’s Park, renewed by the government of Azerbaijan.

Enter the main street, Slobode, which is closed for traffic from 5 PM to 5 AM, as it is used as a promenade by the inhabitants of Podgorica. You will soon reach the vast central square, Trg Republike, which is dominated by a 14 m high Transformer (photo 2). Continue in the direction of the city stadium: on the first big intersection you will see the third Transformer on the right side, in front of a new office building.

p2Cross the street, keep the stadium on your left side and you will soon arrive in the green zone of Forest Park “Gorica” (Podgorica means “under Gorica”). Don’t miss the little Orthodox church of St. George on your right side! This old church dates back to the 10th century and is hidden behind castle-like walls. Inside are the remains of centuries-old frescoes with very interesting scenes (photo 3). There is also a creepy overgrown cemetery behind the enclosure of the church. Spooky!

Pass the stone gate and you will enter the forest park. Uphill is Podgorica’s most impressive war memorial that is certainly worth a visit. It is an impressive white mausoleum flanked by fierce-looking Partizan fighters and it was made in 1957 (photo 4).

p5Walk then back to the intersection and turn right in the direction of the Millennium Bridge, the new symbol of Podgorica. Take the first street left, called Njegoševa, where a red Transformer is watching the passers-by. Turn then right into the pedestrian shopping zone, called Hercegovačka, which is also defended by a yellow transformer (photo 5). Cross the street – on your right is the new UN eco-building – and cross the pedestrian Moscow Bridge over the Morača river that was built in 2009 as a present of the city of Moscow. Turn left on the other side of the river and walk back over the Gazela Hanging Bridge, another pedestrian bridge that leads through the shady Podgorica parks (you can also avoid the bridges by turning left when you leave Hercegovačka, walking directly to the National Theatre – follow the yellow line on the map). Opposite to the National Theatre, on the corner of the park, is Transformer no. 6.

When you come from the park, continue your walk through Vučedolska, turn a few meters left and in front of the town hall you will see the last robot (photo 6). Walk back through Njegoševa and don’t forget to drink a cup of coffee in one of the nice pubs. Being Dutch, I like the Rembrandt café, decorated with paintings of the famous painter. You will now arrive in the main Boulevard Sveti Petar Cetinjski – turn left and walk through the shady avenue (photo 7) along the Central Bank to the starting point. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

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ALBANIA, SHKODRA: A BIKING TOUR TO URA E MESIT (MES BRIDGE)

um1 um2Enjoying the Indian summer, we spent a relaxed weekend in Lake Shkodra Resort (a perfect place to spend a few days and only 55 km or one hour driving from Podgorica!) with our friends from the Netherlands. The weather was sunny and it was a good opportunity to hire bicycles and make a biking tour to the famous Ottoman bridge Ura e Mesit, which is situated eight kilometers northeast from Shkodra – or 15 km from the Resort (photo 1).

At the reception we got a map and so we took off along the main road to Shkodra, passed the bridge and at the first roundabout, around 7 km north from Shkodra, we turned left (leaving the new Catholic church on our right side) in the direction of Gruemirë. The narrow asphalt road led us through small villages scattered in a fertile plain. After a while, we turned left and crossed the dry river bed of the Kir river (photo 2).There were no signposts at all, but passers-by were happy to show us the right direction. Many of them spoke a few words English and a young woman really touched us by her kind words: „Thank you for visiting our country!“

um3Although it was the first day of Kurban Bajram, some women were working on the land, collecting corn cobs. Sheep and goats were roaming around, which contributed to the picturesque atmosphere of the landscape. Accompanied by the voice of the imam from the village mosque uphill, we enjoyed the ride, encountering many people, women and children in festive clothing, who greeted us cordially. They were obviously in a good mood and happy to see foreign tourists in their village. Motorbikes were packed with complete families on it – in many cases two adults and two children – everybody was going somewhere to celebrate the Feast of Sacrifice.

um4After a biking tour of 15 km we reached the village of Mes. The famous Ottoman bridge – Ura e Mesit means „bridge in the middle“ – spans the Kir river and was built in around 1770 by Kara Mahmud Bushati, the local Ottoman pasha. Ura e Mesit is 108 m long, 3 m wide and it has 13 arches, of which the main span measures 22 m. It represents one of the longest and best preserved Ottoman bridges in the region. Ura e Mesit was built along the ancient trade road from Shkodra to Kosovo, which dates back to pre-Roman times. Much of the original route disappeared below the waters of the Drini valley dams, but here in Mes you can still see how important this bridge has been, although the route was only a few meters wide (photo 3).

um5If you want to make photos, cross the modern bridge that bypasses Ura e Mesit, so that you can admire the old bridge from all sides. The Kir river has always been clean, blue and transparent, but unfortunately, the solid waste problem is causing a lot of harm to the tourism value of this area. There is rubbish everywhere along the road, even near the bridge (photo 4).

If you are not a biking fan, you can also easily reach the Mes bridge from Shkodra. Although there are no regular furgons, you can rent a taxi for an hour or so, which will be sufficient to visit the bridge. But I believe that a biking tour is much more interesting, as it enables you to learn more about this part of  Albania, where you can still admire beautiful traditional costumes (photo 5), especially on holidays. And the fact that you are welcomed and greeted in such a cordial way by the population of this area will certainly compensate the piles of litter you can not avoid seeing along the route… Biking is so good for you! (photo 6)

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POMEGRANATE: SYMBOL OF ABUNDANCE AND FERTILITY

 p1 p2When I visited Montenegro for the first time, I had never seen a pomegranate. Montenegrin friends wanted to make fun of me and explained that I had to eat it as an apple. I took a bite … wow, what an unpleasant experience: the rind was very bitter!  But soon I learned to appreciate this healthy fruit and especially the juice that is often made in the rural area of the country.

It is interesting to know that pomegranate (photo 1) is one of the oldest fruits mentioned in history, literature and folklore. It is native to Iran, from where it was actually brought to  India and China more than 2000 years ago. It made its way to Italy via Carthago or „Punic“ as this city was called by the ancient Romans. Therein lies the root of its Latin name, Punica granatum. Ancient Romans did not only enjoy the succulent flesh of this fruit, they also tanned and used the rinds as a form of leather. Nowadays, the pomegranate continues to be a popular ingredient in the Mediterranean cuisine.

p3It was the Moors who brought the fruit to Spain around 800 A.D. The city of Granada was named for it and the fruit appears in its shield. The fruit is also praised in the Qu’ran, the Bible and the Talmud. Moreover, the pomegranate is one of the old semitic symbols meaning a life of abundance and wealth, and in the Babylonian empire the fruit was served at weddings and represented the symbol of love and fertility.

In Montenegro, wild pomegranate thrives in the calcareous karst areas along the Adriatic Coast, around Skadar Lake and in other sunny places in the central and southern part of the country. It grows as an attractive shrub or tree from 2 to 6 meters high. It has many branches, more or less spiny, with glossy and oblong leaves. The showy flowers at the branch tips are bright red (photo 2) and the fruit is yellow overlaid with red, with a leathery rind (photo 3).

p4The fruit of cultivated pomegranates is larger and sweeter than the wild species, in particular „Pomegranates from Bar“, which are grown on plantings round this town on the foothill of Mount Rumija. It seeds are very sweet and juicy and they are mostly eaten out of hand or at the table: the pomegranate is deeply scored several times vertically and than broken apart. Then the seeds can be shaken out of the rind and eaten. Montenegrins consider this not a laborious handicap but a social or family activity, prolonging the pleasure of dining or being together (photo 4).

p5Wild pomegranates contain a lot of citamine C. The fruits start to ripen from October and remain on the branch tips during the winter, if not picked (photo 5). The seeds are tangy and are used for making juice, which is usually sweetened for beverage purposes. This juice is very popular in Montenegro, not only as a refreshing beverage, but also for its medical characteristics: it prevents colds, is used for treating diarrhea and dysentery and is also a tonic recommended to heart patients.

In the villages of South and Central Montenegro you can still find primitive, but very functional hand-made wooden presses, which are used for straining out pomegranates (photo 6). The extracted fresh juice is consumed after pressing or may be frozen for future use. Well-known is the Grenadine syrup that is prepared by boiling the juice with sugar.

p6Finally I would like to give you some recipes:

For Grenadine syrup you need 1 liter of pomegranate juice and 1 kg of sugar. Boil equal parts of juice with sugar until slightly thickened. Store in the fridge and drink cool, mixed with water. Can also be used for sauces.

For Pomegranate juice you need 1 liter of pomegranate juice, sugar or honey as needed. After pressing, freeze the filtered juice in plastic bottles in the freezer. Before use, unfreeze and mix with water, add honey or sugar as needed. Can also be used for various cocktails, etc.

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BACK TO MY ROOTS: BUNSCHOTEN-SPAKENBURG

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b2 Each time when I am in the Netherlands, I visit Bunschoten, the village where my father was born. The history of this village, situated in the central part of Holland, dates back to the 12th century. Bunschoten was a village of well-off farmers, while the nearby village of Spakenburg flourished by fishing and trading. Its rather isolated position on an inland saltwater sea connected to the North Sea was ideal for a wind-powered fishing fleet. But things radically changed by the construction of the dike between the North Sea and the former Zuiderzee.

b3As a child, I loved to spend my school holidays at my grandfather’s cow farm. My father’s family was ultra-religious and very conservative. Women were dressed in their traditional costumes and my grandmother and aunt spent a lot of time each morning in putting on these complicated historical clothes, using a lot of safety pins, hooks and bars. The most iconic part of this costume was the ”kraplap”. A kraplap is a starched rectangle of fabric with a hole in the middle, which is put over the head. It is worn together with two pieces of checkered fabric, white stripes on red. (photo 1). In Bunschoten, women used to roll up their hair over a hair-rat and then wear it in a bun underneath a starched white lace cap (photo 7) – a very complicated procedure!

b4My grandfather was very proud of his 17th-century family Bible – each day he read (aloud) a complete bible chapter after dinner. I remember how hard it was for me to stay quiet for those twenty minutes or even more… Sundays were strictly observed as days of obligation to the Lord. All people went to church two or three times, all establishments were closed and even the local football games were held on Saturdays.

I still cherish a lot of beautiful memories from those times. Unfortunately, the old farm was demolished, as the land was needed for the construction of a new factory. From the whole family, only my aunt Jannetje is still alive (photo 2) and I regularly visit her in the old age home in Spakenburg, where she has been living for the last five years. She is 95 years old, completely blind and physically very weak, but she is still in a good mood. She never complains and she is grateful to God for the good life she had.

b5Bunschoten and Spakenburg have now developed into one community, with a present population of 20,000, which still clings to age-old traditions. Many elder women (around 500) still wear their traditional costumes on a daily basis; however, it is estimated that the costume will disappear from daily life within the next 10 years.

That is the reason why I was glad to have the opportunity to attend the Spakenburg Fishery Day this year, which is organized each first Saturday of September. This is a day when the community „goes back in time“. Many inhabitants – also young people and children – are dressed in traditional costumes and the wooden fishing boats („botters“) moor in the harbour, with their sails hoisted (photo 3). The inhabitants are glad to show every aspect of their traditional life: handicrafts like manufacturing of fishing nets, smoking herring, mackrel and eel (photo 4), preparing special brandy with raisins or apple puree (photo 5) – everything is on display for the numerous visitors and tourists. The products are often paid by a „donation“ to the church or a charity organization.

b6Walking around, I had the feeling as if I could travel through time and be a child again, helping my aunt to hang the traditional clothes on the clothesline in the courtyard. She used a twisted rope, simply tucked the edges of the clothes between the strands and let tension, created by a wooden rod, hold it in place (photo 6). I tasted the local butter cake, called “Spakenburgs’ hart” (Spakenburg’s Heart), which was (and still is) always served at birthday parties. And of course, I enjoyed the salted herring and smoked eel!

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HERZEGOVINA HIGHLIGHTS: POČITELJ, KRAVICE WATERFALLS AND MEDJUGORJE

 p1 Tourists who spend their holidays on the Dalmatian Coast or Dubrovnik Riviera, and even those who plan a longer stay in Mostar, have the opportunity to make an interesting day trip to three special highlights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These tourist attractions can be found close to each other, 30-40 km southwest of Mostar and at a short distance from Metković, i.e. the Bosnian-Croatian border.

p2We started the trip with a visit of Počitelj, a unique medieval settlement in Ottoman style, built on a hill that dominates the riverbed of the Neretva River. It was recently reconstructed and is now listed as a UNESCO heritage site. The most important sites of Počitelj are the Hadži-Alija Mosque, a medresa, hamam and a silo-shaped fortress on the top of the hill (photo 1). The well-preserved old stone houses (photo 2) certainly contribute to the unique Oriental atmosphere of the town.

While we were walking down the narrow cobbled streets, the inhabitants offered us souvenirs, but also fruit and other home-made products. Climbing the steep stone stairs, we visited the beautiful mosque and finally also explored the mysterious fortress, from which we had a magnificent view of the surroundings.

p3The spectacular Kravice Waterfalls are situated 7 km south of Ljubuški (follow the road from Čapljina to Ljubuški and you can’t miss the signpost). I was really surprised to see these stunning falls (photo 3), as I had never heard or read about them before. They are absolutely amazing! This is the place where the Trebižat River, with its limestone deposits, is divided into separate currents, which cascade over a drop of more than 30 meters in a semi-circle of rocks that is 140 m wide. The cold and clear water is emerald green; grass, moss and lichen grow on the tuff deposits and create a unique ambiance (photo 4).

After walking down from the parking lot, we found a place on the terrace of a small restaurant, where we could enjoy the view and relax by listening to the rumbling from the waterfalls. It was nice and fresh in the shade, as vaporized water particles created a cool mist in the valley. Many people enjoyed a swim in the cold water and local teenagers climbed the rocks and jumped down. We did not see or hear a single foreign tourist, which means that these waterfalls have not been discovered yet. I think they are gorgeous! Don’t miss them when you travel around this region!

p4The third highlight we visited was, of course, the famous Catholic pilgrimage site Medjugorje. Its story is well-known: in 1981 six teenagers were playing together in the hills near Medjugorje, where Mother Mary appeared and spoke to them. The apparitions did not cease: Mother Mary appeared again and again to them with special messages for the believers. It is estimated that over 15 million people have visited this sleepy village in Herzegovina, so that it has become the second largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. However, there has been much controversy over the legitimacy of the visions and apparitions, so that the Pope has not recognized Medjugorje as an official pilgrimage site. But nevertheless, millions of faithful Catholics from all over the world visit the place and its sacred spots and many amazing testimonies suggest that miracles are a regular occurrence here.

p5I must admit: I was not impressed… Of course, it is true, I am not a Catholic. But as far as I can see, Medjugorje has become a commercial center with countless shops and restaurants. Ugly souvenirs, huge and tiny sculptures of Mary, pillows with Mary’s picture, T-shirts with Mary’s portrait, calendars, necklaces, wooden crosses, Catholic books and DVD’s, candles – everything is for sale. The place is crowded and the prices are high. We also entered the central church, which is simple and not particularly attractive (photo 6). The mass was held in Croatian; there are dozens of  “cabins” for people, who want to make a confession in all possible languages…

But I admit, I also saw people who were deeply touched and obviously found consolation in their prayers (photo 5). I just don’t understand …

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