BULGARIA: THE ROSE FESTIVAL OF KAZANLAK

Kazanlak1Kazanlak2Bulgaria is also called “Country of Roses”, as it is one of the biggest producers of rose oil in the world. That is why one of the most important international events is the Rose Festival of Kazanlak that takes place each year in the first weekend of June. Traveling through Bulgaria, we had thus planned our stay in this region – the picturesque Rose Valley – exactly in these days, especially as we were informed that the Rose Festival was going to be proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage.

But let me give you some information about the Bulgarian roses (photo 1). They are inheritors of the so-called Rosa Damascena that was brought to Bulgarian lands by the Turks in the 17th century. Nowadays, the rose fields between Karlovo and Kazanlak cover an area of around 3,300 square kilometers. The flowers are picked between the end of May and the middle of June, before sunset. Can you imagine that 3500 kg of rose petals is needed for 1kg of rose oil, which has a value of around € 6,000.-?

Kazanlak3The Rose Festival was held for the first time in 1903. Today, the program includes the traditional rose-picking ritual and distillation of roses, an international folklore festival, a carnival procession and, of course, the coronation of Queen Rose.

Knowing that around 40,000 tourists from all over the world were expected to visit this Festival, we had to find a way how to avoid the crowds. That is why we decided to participate in the Rose Picking Ritual in the village of Rozovo, 10 km south of Kazanlak – on Saturday, one day before the climax of the festivities in the center of Kazanlak. We supposed that this ritual would be more authentic and yes, it turned out to be a perfect choice!

Kazanlak4We arrived in Rozovo early in the morning, when the villagers were already in the fields, picking roses. They were all dressed in their beautiful and colorful national costumes. Some men were busy with a small rose distillery on wood (photos 2 and 3); the barrel was full of rose petals (photo 3) and their fragrance saturated the air.

Women and girls of all ages accompanied us through the plantation and showed us how to pick the flowers (photo 4). Other villagers sang, danced and played their national instruments. Home-made bread was served with „šarena sol“ (a Bulgarian spice) and rose honey. The atmosphere was cheerful and authentic, also due to the fact that there were not many tourists who had discovered this possibility to take part in rose picking. It was a wonderful experience!

Kazank6In the afternoon we walked through the vibrant city of Kazanlak. This town in Central Bulgaria is not only famous for its roses, but also for its archeological sites of great interest: there are several Thracian tombs situated in the nearby “Valley of the Thracian Kings”. Another Thracian tomb can be visited in the town itself – unfortunately, the original tomb is closed for visits and tourists are only allowed to see a copy.

The pedestrian zone looked like one big market: people were selling souvenirs and all kinds of rose oil products. Many tourists (among which a lot of Japanese groups) were sitting on the open terraces, enjoying the sunny day.

kazanlak7The International Folklore Festival started on the central square. Folklore … a long time ago I used to enjoy folklore performances in Tito’s Yugoslavia and it was a surprise to see that many people are still interested in this kind of recreation. The municipality of Kazanlak has four of five folklore associations with several hundreds of members. And the festival itself, with participation of groups from Greece, Russia, Macedonia and Romania – was a pleasure for our eyes and ears (photo 5). Honestly speaking, it made me quite nostalgic…

Kazanlak8The closing ceremony of the Rose Festival was planned on Sunday, in Kazanlak. It was, most of all, the final street procession we wanted to see. We were early enough to take a good position along the boulevard. And believe me, the procession was a real spectacle. It started with the Rose Queen in an antique carriage (photo 6), followed by the representatives of numerous schools, associations, cheerleaders and folklore groups. Girls with baskets full of rose petals (photo 7) passed by and after a while the street was covered with pink petals. The procession ended with a group of people dressed in traditional costumes with “horrible” masks and big bells around their waist (photo 8).

I know, Bulgaria is member-state of the European Union, but it is also a country where you can still feel the real Balkans. And you know, I adore the Balkans!

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BULGARIA: AMAZING PLOVDIV

plovdiv1plovdiv2Have you ever heard about Plovdiv? In 2014, this city was awarded the prestigious title: European Capital of Culture 2019. And Lonely Planet determined Plovdiv as the sixth of the ten cities in the world that necessarily have to be visited in 2015. That is what we knew about this town, the second largest in Bulgaria, when we arrived a few days ago. After visiting vibrant Sofia and exploring the northwestern part of the country – where we were impressed by the beauties of nature, but also by poverty, bad roads and abandoned villages – Plovdiv was an unexpected surprise.

plovdiv3It was not only the relaxed and cozy atmorphere that struck us, but also the large number of cultural and historical sites and religious temples. As a matter of fact, the whole Old Town is one big monument. From the Ancient Theatre (photo 1) to the Hippocrates Pharmacy Museum and from the Lamartin House to the Dzhumaya Mosque, it offers a fantastic collection of traditional architecture and archeological sites.

Starting our walk from the parking lot in front of the Ramada Hotel, we passed through the main pedestrian street (photo 2) and admired the beautiful buildings in all colors and styles. The northern part of the Roman Stadium of Philippopolis – located under the main street – was reconstructed and could be visited. In Roman times, this stadium was about 240 meters long and used to gather 30,000 spectators.

plovdiv4At that place we entered the Old Town with its timber-framed 19th-century painted houses with overhanging windows. Although the cobbled streets are not car-free, it was quiet and we really had the feeling as if we got back in time.

Plovdiv has so many museums, monuments and churches that we had to make a choice. First of all, we visited the Sveta Bogoroditsa Church, built in 1844. This cathedral preserves exceptional paintings – icons, frescoes (photo 3) and a carved iconostasis.

plovdiv5Climbing uphill, we saw many picturesque and colorful houses (photo 4). One of them was home to the Icon Museum. Here we could see some of the best examples of icons from the region of Plovdiv from the period between the 15th and 19th century (photo 5). A great collection, exhibited in a very professional and attractive way!

The Church of Sveti Konstantin and Elena is famous for its baroque iconostasis (photo 6). The two rows of icons were painted by the famous Zahari Zograf, one of the greatest artists in the Revival Period.

One of the most beautiful museums in Plovdiv is the baroque Kuyumdzhiev House, now home to the Ethnographic Museum (photo 7). It offered us an excellent impression of life in 19th-century Bulgaria by a variety of exhibits: Bulgarian costumes, ancient weapons, musical instruments, furniture, etc.

plovdiv6Finally, we explored the well-preserved Ancient Theatre, built in the 1st century under Emperor Trayan. We had coffee on the terrace above the theatre and there we enjoyed the breathtaking view of the city and the Rhodope mountain range.

What a pity that we could not stay longer! The only campsite near Plovdiv (Kilometer 4 Complex) was so neglected and incredibly dirty that we decided to continue our trip. I am sure that many camping fans from Western Europe would like to come and visit this beautiful city, but they will certainly “escape” after such an experience. So, maybe the future European City of Culture should take measures to arrange for a decent campsite?!

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SKADAR LAKE: A BOAT CRUISE TO KOSMAČ MONASTERY

 

Kosmac monastery1 KaratunaKosmac monastery2 water lilyIt was a pleasant surprise to be invited by our friends from Skadar Lake – Boat Milica (phone: 068 702376; email: skadarlakeboatmilica@gmail.com) to join the Dabanović family and their guests – accompanied by Emma Heywood from Undiscovered Montenegro (phone: 069 402364; email: enquiries@undiscoveredmontenegro.com) – on a pioneer boat ride to the Kosmač Monastery. This would be a boat cruise to the northern part of Skadar Lake that had not been organized for tourists yet and we were very curious to spend a day in an area that was still unknown to us. And I can assure you: it was a great experience!

Kosmac monastery3 goat islandWe left from Virpazar in the morning with two traditional wooden boats; apart from „Milica“, recently another boat of the same size and model – called „čun“ – had been manufactured (photo 1). The sharp prow of such boats – called „špirun“ – is suitable for penetrating water lilies and reed fields.

The weather was perfect, everybody was in a good mood and it promised to become a varied and adventurous day trip.

Kosmac monastery4 Karatuna yellow irisesPassing under the Vranjina bridge, we could see the ruins of the old Lesendro Fortress from the water side (see my blog post: Skadar Lake: a boat cruise to the Kom Monastery). The island of Vranjina, now connected with the mainland by a road and railroad, used to be a place where Montenegrin families could hide from blood feuds in the old times.

Slowly finding our way through the fields of white and yellow water lilies that were already flowering (photo 2) on the Lake, we could hear the sounds of numerous water birds: cormorants, herons, sea gulls, grebes, coots and terns. Some huge trees seemed to be black; hundreds of cormorants were resting on the branches, drying their wings.

Kosmac monastery5 squacco heronThe skipper led us through vast reed beds and along rocky islands, so-called “gorice”. What a surprise to see a flock of goats high above us, on the top of the rocks (photo 3)! They are usually transported to the island by wooden fishing boats and they can live here in the wild.

The trip continued through the Karatuna River created by a big spring in the area of Dodoši. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful parts of Skadar Lake National Park. Once the natural border between Montenegro and Turkey, it is now a real “jungle”. Fields of yellow irises could be spotted among the willows on the banks of the river (photo 4). No houses, no people, just the clean and transparent water of the river and the wilderness. Countless sounds from nature. Different green colors of trees and plants. Fish swimming under the transparent water surface. Birds flying among the trees. A natural wonder!

kosmac monastery6 Zabljak CrnojevicaThis area is the home of the yellow squacco heron (Ardeola ralloides), a bird that lives in marshy wetlands in warm countries only (photo 5).

Finally, the traditional fishing village of Dodoši appeared before our eyes. We passed under the low wooden bridge and continued to a totally unknown part of Skadar Lake National Park, Malo Blato (in translation: Little Mud). This is a small lake, quiet and clean, and it is fed by the source Bolje Sestre. The view of the Žabljak Crnojevića Fortress, dominating the entrance of Malo Blato, was spectacular (photo 6). It was built at the end of the 14th century by the Crnojević dynasty, but the Turks conquered it in 1478 and the fortress-town remained under their rule for the next 400 years.

kosmac monastery7Passing Malo Blato, we arrived at the Kosmač Monastery, one of the hidden treasures of Skadar Lake. It is situated on the Kosmač Island and dedicated to St. George the Martyr. The only inhabitant of this monastery is Father Serafim. He welcomed us cordially (photo 7) and showed us the complex and the church that was recently reconstructed (photo 8). Originally, the monastery dates back to the 14th century. It was destroyed several times by the Turks. The beautiful frescoes were painted by a Serbian painter in 2010, but due to flooding they lost their bright colors, so that they seem to be much older.

Kosmac monastery8Wild laurel trees grow abundantly around the monastery. It is interesting to know that wedding garlands for royal weddings in medieval times were made of laurel. After the reconstruction of the monastery, the old folk customs were restored and couples get married again in the Kosmač Monastery, with wreaths of laurel picked on St. George Day. Also baptisms are carried out in the water of the Lake in front of the church.

After a break among the laurel trees, it was time to go back. Although the lake water was still rather cold, some of the guests were eager to swim in the Karatuna River (photo 9) and enjoyed jumping from the bridge in Dodoši.

Kosmac monastery9 swimming in KaratunaThe ride back to Virpazar was relaxing. Once more we could enjoy the fantastic landscape and listen to the sounds of nature.

And I can confirm: a boat cruise to the Kosmač Monastery is one of the most COMPLETE and VARIED boat excursions you can make on Skadar Lake. It is an opportunity to enjoy nature in all its aspects, to see an important cultural monument, to watch birds and – last but not least – to swim in the transparent Karatuna River!

Kosmac monastery10 cun Dodosi

 

BLUE HOUR IN DUBROVNIK

Dubrovnik1Dubrovnik2Dubrovnik has been a famous tourist attraction for many decades. But nowadays, the old town becomes crushed by its own popularity. More than one million cruise ship passengers arrived in the port of Dubrovnik last year. Each day, 300 buses were circling around the city center. For all the crush of the crowds, it is impossible to see the historic buildings any longer.

Usually, the cruise ship passengers make a city tour through the old town. They also walk the city walls and ride the cable car up to Mount Srdj. Sometimes, the main street, Stradun, is so overcrowded that it is impossible to find your way through people and pigeons and enjoy the beautiful architecture or have a cup of coffee on one of the romantic squares.When you see the hordes of tourists following their guides, you have the feeling as if you were in Japan or Scandinavia!

Dubrovnik3That was the very reason why we decided to visit Dubrovnik in the evening last week. And we were really lucky – we entered the old town in a very special moment: the Blue Hour. This is a magic „hour“ (typically this period lasts about 40 minutes), especially treasured by lovers of photography. It happens when the sun is a significant distance below the horizon and the residual, indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue hue. Of course, the blue hour does not only depend on the time of the day (morning or evening), but also on the weather conditions, pollution, particles in the air, etc.

Dubrovnik4When we entered the Pile City Gate, the medieval ramparts and the Minčeta fort were illuminated. The sky was clearly visible and some stars could already be seen. This was a good moment to take photographs. And what a surprise! The sky on the pictures had such an intense blue color that I could not believe my eyes. We admired the Onofrio Fountain – the favorite meeting place of the city youth – and the Fransiscan Monastery. The first street lights on Stradun appeared in the scene and transformed the city into a fairy tale.

Roaming through the narrow streets, we soaked up the authentic atmosphere. On a romantic small square, we had dinner in the open air. The „blue hour“ disappeared … but it was a memorable evening in this beautiful city, rightly called „The Pearl of the Adriatic“.

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SKADAR LAKE: VRANJINA MONASTERY AND PELICAN SPOTTING

Skadar Lake1 Moraca deltaSkadar Lake2 Boat MilicaSkadar Lake has become one of my favorite places in Montenegro. Although I have been living in Podgorica for so many years, I have never known that this area is so beautiful, both from the natural and cultural point of view. A few years ago I started to discover the Lake – and now I am getting more and more curious to see everything it has to offer!

So this week we invited our friends from the Netherlands for another wonderful boat cruise with Skadar Lake Boat Milica: apart from visiting the Vranjina Monastery, we spent several hours in the Morača Delta (photo 1), watching pelicans and other birds in the ornithological reserve “Manastirska Tapija”.

Skadar Lake3 Vrainjina MonasteryLeaving from Virpazar, we approached the Vranjina Monastery that is located on the south-eastern side of the Vranjina Island, high above the Morača Delta. The position of the St. Nicolas’ church on the top of the hill is magnificent. The monastery was founded in 1233 and is thus the oldest monastery on Skadar Lake. Due to its strategic location, it suffered from Turkish attacks and in 1843 it was turned into a Turkish fortress with barracks. King Nikola rebuilt it in 1886, but after World War II it was burned and abandoned – until 1998, when the restoration of the church began.

Skadar Lake4 Vrainjina monastery2Skipper Andrija left us at the pier (photo 2) and Jelena accompanied us to the monastery that is inhabited by one monk only. The walk uphill offered us spectacular views of the Lake and the Morača Delta lined by huge green willows. After ten minutes we arrived at the church (photo 3) where Father Petar welcomed us. He is a famous beekeeper whose honey is well-known for its medicinal properties. We could enter the church – a simple building, without any frescoes – and admire the Russian iconostas (photo 4). The other old monastery buildings were in ruins, but are obviously being reconstructed.

Skadar Lake4 reedAfter this visit, it was time for pelican spotting. With the traditional wooden boat, we quietly found our way through the reed and water lilies of Manastirska Tapija (photo 5), a place where Dalmatian pelicans can often be found. And indeed – we soon spotted the first one (photo 6), sitting on a dead branch in company of a pygmy cormorant. What a magnificent and elegant bird! For more than an hour, we slowly moved through the reed in search of other pelicans; we saw at least four of them.

Skadar Lake5 pelicanA whitebeard top bird (Chlidonias hybrida) was hiding in the reed, preparing a nest (photo 7). Further away, Great Crested Rebes (Podiceps Cristatus) performed their wedding dance. A big pelican, cruising the Lake with its two meters wide wings, landed on the water surface like an aeroplane (photo 8). We also spotted white and yellow herons and we saw large swarms of terns coming out of the willow woods. It was a great experience to see all these beautiful birds in their natural habitat. Skadar Lake is a bird paradise indeed!

Skadar Lake6 birdOn our way back, we met several poachers in their fishing boats. They turned their back on us and hurried in the opposite direction… What a shame! Does the National Park take any serious action to tackle fish poaching? How can it be prevented, how can fish resources and wildlife in and around Skadar Lake be protected?

The last interesting target of our boat ride was the island of Grmožur, also called “Montenegrin Alcatraz” (photo 9). It was built by the Turks as a fortress, but during the reign of King Nikola it became a prison for political opponents, people who did not know how to swim, so that they could not escape from the island. What a pity that it was left to the ravages of time!

Skadar Lake7 pelicanI had not been here for 5-6 years and I was shocked when I saw that the stone buildings were completely dilapidated, not only by weather influences and flooding, but also because stones are taken away by some unscrupulous local inhabitants. As this old prison is getting more and more interesting as a tourist attraction, I would suggest to the National Park to take appropriate protection measures!

At the end of this wonderful boat ride, we took a souvenir from the lake – a water nut or kasaronja, as the locals call it (Trapa Longicarpa). This fruit was once used for making bread and it tastes like a chestnut, but we will not eat it: on the contrary, it will remind us of an unforgettable boat cruise with Skadar Lake Boat Milica.

Skadar Lake8 Grmožur

 

SKADAR LAKE: A BOAT CRUISE TO THE KOM MONASTERY

Skadar Lake1 Kom monasterySkadar Lake2 LesendroSkadar Lake does not only offer magnificent natural beauties and opportunities for outdoor tourism; it also hides around fifteen medieval monasteries, most of them located at inaccessible places. One of them is the Kom Monastery, built in the beginning of the 14th century on the crest of Odrin Hill (photo 1). Most of the time it can be visited by boat only and there is only one inhabitant: a Serbian-Orthodox monk.

Skadar Lake3 birdsLast weekend we made a wonderful boat cruise with our friends from Skadar Lake – Boat Milica (email: skadarlakeboatmilica@gmail.com; phone: 068 702 376) to this monastery. It was a perfect day and we looked forward to the excursion that would last around four hours.

Leaving from Virpazar, we passed under the Vranjina bridge and it was interesting to see the ruins of the old Lesendro fortress from the water side (photo 2). Lesendro was built by Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović Njegoš to protect Montenegro from invading Turkish armies. But in vain, in 1843 Lesendro was conquered by the Turkish Oman Pasha.

Skadar Lake reed3aOur hosts Andrija and Jelena showed us the surroundings: the island of Vranjina; far away the Prokletija mountains, still covered with snow; then the old fortress of Žabljak Crnojevića and several islands, populated by sheep and goats only. Can you imagine that the goats are transported to the island by traditional fishing boats?

We saw many birds (photo 3) on our way to the monastery: grey and white herons, cormorants and sea gulls, and even a big eagle circling high above us. The landscape was typical for this part of Skadar Lake, clear water surfaces with scattered reed beds (photo 4), but we were told that the water level is much lower during the summer months.

Skadar Lake4 Kom monasteryAfter a wonderful ride in the comfortable wooden boat, we reached the Kom Monastery. A family just returned – by boat – from a baptizing ceremony, accompanied by the pope, and we were cordially welcomed by the only monk who lives here. There were chickens around and I saw a lot of bee hives, one of them even in the form of a church. A stone bell tower took the central place of the monastery complex.

But the most beautiful part was the medieval church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God. We entered the small church, where the monk said a prayer for us. He showed us the graves of four members of the Crnojević family, among others, of Stefan Crnojević and his wife Mara Kastrioti, the sister of Skenderbeg. The fresco paintings from the 16th century were impressive, too (photo 5).

Skadar Lake5We got a refreshment on the panorama terrace – the view on the surroundings was spectacular (photo 6). I can imagine that this is a fantastic place to live in (when you don’t mind to be alone).

After the break, we continued our trip through the Karatuna River that leads to Dodoši and further on to Žabljak Crnojevića. In the old times, this was the natural border between Montenegro and Turkey. What a beautiful and clean river! We met fishermen in their traditional „čun“ (photo 7), the river banks were covered with yellow spurge and many birds were hiding among the willows.

Skadar Lake6 KarutanaFinally we were rewarded with a picturesque view of Dodoši, a traditional fishing village(photo 8). During the summer, this is a place where you can hire kayaks, swim in the transparent river or just relax in one of the pubs and restaurants.

But it was time to return to Virpazar, where the boat trip ended. I was really impressed by this beautiful route through the less known northern part of Skadar Lake and I will certainly recommend this particular boat cruise to all guests we are expecting this summer!

Skadar Lake7 Dodoši

A GARBAGE ISLAND ON THE ZETA RIVER

Zeta garbage island1Zeta garbage island2After the heavy rainfall and the high water levels in January, it was no surprise to find a lot of garbage on the banks of the Zeta River these days. We know that we have to clean up our property in Rogami each year and make it ready for the warmer season, when we can sit under the trees and admire the emerald green river flowing slowly to the place where it confluences into the Morača River. The river bank… that is the place where we relax and enjoy listening to the birds and observing the frogs, and sometimes we even see water snakes and fish swimming under the water surface.

Zeta garbage island3But this winter it became clear that the Zeta River is getting more and more polluted. A big trunk was stuck under an overhanging tree and a large garbage island had been formed in the river (photo 1). What could we do? Wait until August, the month when the water level is low and a possible cleaning action would be organized? Just stay away from the dirty river in the most beautiful season? No, we had to find a solution…

Our friend Mladen, who has spent his whole life on the Zeta River, offered to help us. He made a kind of improvised “bridge” and his first step was to cut the overhanging tree (photo 2). But when he tried to start the “cleaning action”, a terrible smell stunned him. And you know where it came from? A dead sheep was stuck in the garbage and made it impossible to continue …

Zeta garbage island4Fortunately, after a few rainy days the smell – and the sheep – disappeared. So we waited for a bright windy day and began to work. Mladen put the “bridge” between the shore and the cut tree trunk and, armed with a long metal hook, he started to clean up the mess (photo 3). It is really unbelievable that people throw so much litter into the river: plastic bags full of garbage, plastic and glass bottles, old shoes, textile, empty spray bottles, cans (photo 4)… and let’s not forget – a dead cat!

Zeta garbage island5Mladen was jumping between the floating trunks and only he knows how he succeeded in keeping his balance (photo 5 and 6). Paul succeeded in dragging a lot of litter out of the water, while branches and trunks were pushed by Mladen towards the middle of the river, from where they floated downstream (photo 7). It was a hell of a job! But most garbage was removed, the “island” disappeared and I am sure that we will be able to enjoy our favorite place on the river bank this spring (photo 8)!

Zeta garbage island5aBut … in this way, we have only resolved our own problem. I know that the Zeta River is one of the most polluted rivers in Montenegro. The people who live along the river often use it as waste disposal. Other sources of pollution are sewage, industry, chicken and pig farms. NGO Green Home and NGO Green River Zeta organize annual cleaning actions in August, supported by the Municipality of Danilovgrad. But is this enough? Of course, education of the population is extremely important. I believe that also fines, collected by a kind of ecological police, would be effective.

Zeta garbage island6About twentyfive or thirty years ago, my children enjoyed swimming and playing in the clean Zeta River. Since then, many things have changed…

By the way, Article 19 of the Montenegrin Constitution says: “Everyone shall have the right to a healthy environment”. But who is responsible for the implementation of this article?

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ISTANBUL: THE GALATA BRIDGE

Istanbul1 Galata BridgeIstanbul2A city trip to Istanbul is a special experience. And now I am not only talking about the famous cultural and historical monuments that each tourist should visit: Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the magnificent Topkapi Museum. Of course, it was great to see the splendor and wealth of the Ottoman Empire. But the most important goal of our trip was to experience every-day life, to meet ordinary people, to see where the locals hang out.

From our cozy hotel in the Sultanahmet district, we started to explore the surroundings. And our first impression was: What a fascinating city! Everything seemed to be contradictory: the chaotic urban traffic vs. the perfectly organized Atatürk Airport; young girls with covered faces dressed in black chadors vs. modern European-like women; magnificent palaces and mosques vs. old and shabby residential buildings; small shops in Grand Bazaar vs. fashionable boutiques in Istiklal street …

Istanbul3 Galata BridgeWe walked through the crowded streets, found little food shops selling Turkish pastries and spices, observed locals going about their normal routine. We listened to the calls to prayer coming from every mosque, five times a day. We admired the marvelous historical buildings, bought some souvenirs in the Grand Bazaar and took the commuter ferry to Kadikoy in Turkish Asia. But there was one place we liked most: the Galata Bridge (photo 1).

Galata Bridge appeared to be the place where the locals spend their time. This I where they eat their fish sandwich, smoke nargile pipes and play tavla. This is where they catch the ferry boats and spend a day out with their families. It is a bustling place full of traffic and people going about their business. No one will notice you; you can simply blend in and observe daily Turkish life.

Istanbul4 Under the Galata BridgeFor us, hanging out around the bridge – we did it each afternoon – was a great opportunity to experience life in Istanbul. Shop owners were drinking their traditional tea from tulip-shaped glasses, laughing and joking. Women in black, covered from head to toe, were hurrying to the other side of the Golden Horn (photo 2), in the direction of the Galata Tower, Istiklal Street and Taksim Square. Young people sat on the stairs in front of the New Mosque, listening to a guitar band playing Turkish music…

Istanbul5 Galata bridge fish sandwichOf course, we have passed the bridge several times. It was always full of fishing men, lined up against the railings and angling for a lucky catch. They were quite friendly and, obviously, they are used to tourists. From time to time, they threw some fish in the air and birds swooped to catch it before it hit the ground. As a matter of fact, they didn’t catch a lot of fish – most of it seemed to be mackerel. But they sold it immediately to passers-by and for many of them this was obviously a way to earn some additional money.

Along the lower part of the bridge we found many restaurants and pubs. In one of them, we enjoyed Turkish coffee and apple tea, smoked a nargile pipe and spent an hour or so, totally relaxed, on a terrace in the sun (photo 3).

Istanbul6 Galata Bridge picklesBut there was another attraction, located near the bridge. Eminönü fish sandwich boats are famous throughout the country (photo 4) – nowadays, only three boats are licensed to sell fish sandwiches. They have got a life-long concession, for which they have paid the total amount of around € 240,000! Fish sandwich is the only piece on the menu: it is stuffed with a fish, green salad and onion and dressed with lemon juice. In front of all three boats here are low stools and tiny tables. We saw many people here, coming from their work or from one of the ferries (photo 5). They were drinking water or lemonade (alcoholic drinks are not served at all) and accompanied their fish sandwich with pickles. Plastic glasses filled with pickle juice and pickles were sold separately just in front of the boats (photo 6). And those who didn’t like fish bought some corn or chestnuts from the street vendors!

Altogether, Istanbul was an unforgettable experience. And we would certainly like to go back to this fascinating city, where East meets West, and Asia greets Europe!

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THE HIDDEN SECRET OF GRADINA MARTINIĆI

Gradina Martinici1Gradina Martinici2When you travel from Podgorica to Danilovgrad, either by the new highway or the old road, you can’t miss the internationally recognized “tourist signposts” showing you where to go when you want to visit the archeological site of Gradina Martinići. And when you read relevant information on the website of the Municipality of Danilovgrad or the National Tourism Organization, you will learn that this is one of the most significant ancient sites in Montenegro and one of the most precious segments of local history.

Unfortunately, when you follow the signposts, you will finally arrive – nowhere. After another local signpost (Градинa), the road comes to an end and you will see three gravel roads leading to a large hill with a flat top and obviously ending in private property. I am sure that many tourists, who wanted to visit this site, have desisted from further adventures and returned to the main road, continuing their trip to other more famous tourist attractions.

Gradina Martinici3But of course, we did not give up! The car was left at the crossroads and we decided to take the road in the middle that led to a beautiful stone house. And we were lucky! The owner of the property, Ilija Janjević, was willing to show us the remnants of Gradina Martinići, the early medieval settlement of Lontodokla. Passing under a few high and threatening vertical rocks, we climbed a narrow path through the forest and then farther through dense shrubbery and fields of wild anemones. Soon we reached the top of the plateau. Everything was overgrown with grass and bushes, but the remnants of the early-Christian basilica could clearly be recognized (photo 1).

Gradina Martinici4A fragment of an old pillar decorated with spirals and other ornaments was just lying there in the grass (photo 2). We started roaming through the bushes, getting aware of the enormous size of this ancient city that was built by the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th century. The walls – now only ruins – were, once, more than one meter thick and 6-7 meters high. The remnants of one of the three gates still showed the decorated threshold and upper part of the gate frame (photo 3). Exploring the plateau, we also discovered remnants of an old guard post (photo 4). The view of the surrounding mountains was spectacular.

Ilija spared no efforts to show us everything and finally invited us to his home (photo 5). We sat down on the big terrace with a beautiful view of the Piperi mountains, enjoying a glass of home-made quince juice. As always, typical Montenegrin hospitality!

Gradina Martinici6There was a lot to tell about Gradina. Ilija showed us a book written by archeologist Vojislav Korač (2001) that contained many pictures of archeological objects found at the site. I found it very interesting to hear that archeological research was done here by a Belgrade institute in the eighties of the last century, when Montenegro still belonged to Yugoslavia. Ilija had also participated in this research and showed us interesting pictures.

There seem to be different opinions about the history, role and function of Gradina Martinići. Probably, it has been one of the three big cities in Doclea, called Lontodokla, which was destroyed in the 10th century. But the rest remains a mystery. Who were the inhabitants? When was it established? And why was it destroyed?

Gradina Martinici5In the eighties of the last century, many archeological objects were taken to the Museum of Danilovgrad, such as a beautiful closure slab of the basilica (photo 6). Other fragments just disappeared and in some cases the stones of the centuries-old walls were used for building houses and walls in the surrounding villages.

But Gradina Martinići still exists, lonely and forgotten, almost invisible (photo 7). Nobody seems to be interested to clear up some of its mysteries and to create a more complete picture about this ancient site. Will it have the same destiny as some other “witnesses of the past” that can be found in the Bjelopavlići plain? Hopefully not!

Gradina Martinici7

ALONG THE ZETA RIVER: TURKISH BRIDGES AND A BRONZE AGE TOMBSTONE

1 Bronze Age tomb Frutak Kujava1 Zeta DanilovgradThere is not much traffic on the old road from Danilovgrad to Nikšić, along the Zeta River. It is mostly used by local inhabitants of the villages in the fertile Bjelopavlići valley. And of course, by a few curious tourists, who want to explore this beautiful region with Turkish bridges and small water power plants on the emerald green river.

Recently, a very important discovery was made in this area: a tombstone from the early Bronze Age was found on the border between the villages of Kujava and Frutak (photo 1). And this was a good reason for us to hit the road in search of this archeological excavation.

2 Bulin mostIt was a beautiful sunny day and many people were working on the land. The river was meandering through the plain (photo 2) and soon we passed the power plant of Slap Zete and stopped to take a look at a small stone bridge on the left side of the road (photo 3). Local inhabitants told us that it is called Bulin most (Bula’s bridge – a bula is a Muslim woman) and that it is part of an old Turkish cobblestone footpath that still exists. With two different arches, a big one and a smaller one, the bridge is quite atypical! According to a legend, it was built by the wife of Adžija, architect of the Adžijin bridge that is located 2 kilometers farther.

3 Adzin mostIn a region without proper signposts, as there are many in the continental part of Montenegro, the only way to know where you can find interesting places is talking to the local people. They are eager to tell you as much as possible about their homeland and its history. And so we got detailed instructions how to find the archeological excavation we were looking for.

But at first we had the opportunity to admire another Turkish bridge, Adžijin most (Adžija’s bridge), an architectural masterpiece (photo 4) of elegance. According to the legend, nothing can separate a couple that has kissed under this bridge!

4 Most Dobro PoljeWe had been told to pass the reconstructed suspension bridge in Dobro Polje, behind the old water mill on the left side. At first we hesitated – was this really a bridge for motorized traffic? There were no traffic signs and our small Peugeot could hardly get through the narrow concrete entrance. Indeed, the bridge looked very strong, with new wooden planks. Its length was almost 70 meters, high above the river… But when we saw other small cars passing the bridge, we decided to go (photo 5).

The road led us through a rural area with nice orchards, gardens and fields – and everybody was busy with preparations for the spring. Horses and mules were waiting for the next burden to carry (photo 6) and when we approached the foot of the mountains (with high above us the highway to Nikšić), the landscape changed and turned into forests. We asked a passer-by for the tombstone and got the answer: “Just continue, you can’t miss it!”And finally, a few kilometers after passing the church of Zagorak, we saw a tombstone in the middle of a white circle – a grave from the early Bronze Age that was discovered only three months ago (photo 7) .

5 BjelopavliciThe tomb that contained several skeletons was excavated by the Montenegrin archeologist Predrag Lutovac and his group. It is probably almost 4000 years old (1850-1800 BC). Closed with several big stone blocks from all sides, it was also protected by a circle of flat white stones. This circle around the tomb had a dual function: practical, to prevent erosion, and magical, to prevent the souls of the deceased from disturbing the living people. The skeletons were found in foetus position (photo 8), which is one of the characteristics of the Bronze Age. Other subjects like a bronze needle, a bracelet, ceramics and a bronze buckle were discovered, too. And what is even more interesting – several other tombstones are situated in the surroundings and are now waiting to be investigated! This is an extraordinary archeological treasure indeed (photo 8)!

Photo: Predrag Lutovac

Photo: Predrag Lutovac

Although it was possible to join the highway back to Podgorica (you can also visit the tomb from the highway when you follow the signpost to Zagorak), we took the same road back and passed the suspension bridge once more. Soon we arrived at the hydro-electric power plant Glava Zete, situated among green cypresses. In the old days, this was a popular place for family excursions, with a good restaurant. But we preferred to continue our trip to Bogetići, where we had – as always – an excellent rural hotpot in the traditional “Konoba” restaurant.

Back in Podgorica I looked back on a great day. Why? Well, I must admit that I am still excited when I discover something new in Montenegro, although I have been living here for such a long time! And discovering a 4000 years old archeological excavation is not exactly something you experience each day!

8 tomb Bronze Age Frutak Kujava