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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ISLAND HOPPING IN CROATIA: THE ELAPHITI ISLANDS

e1 e2When you are spending your holidays on the Dubrovnik Riviera, a boat tour to the Elaphiti Islands – a small archipelago stretching northwest of Dubrovnik – is a “must”. We booked a day trip from Slano with a visit to Šipan and Lopud, two of the three permanently inhabited islands. Of course, it is easier to take one of the regular ferries leaving from Dubrovnik on a daily basis.The archipelago consists of thirteen islands with a total land area of around 30 square kilometers and a population of 850 inhabitants. The hilly islands have characteristic Mediterranean evergreen vegetation with dense forests. The name comes from the Ancient Greek word for deer (elaphos), which used to inhabit the islands in large numbers. The Roman author Pliny the Elder was the first to mention the Elaphiti Islands – or Deer Islands – in his work Naturalis Historia in the 1st century.

e3The boat took us through the Bay of Slano and soon we approached the beautiful green islands of Jakljan and Šipan. Šipan is also called “Golden Island”, as many aristocratic manor houses were built here in the time of the Dubrovnik Republic.

We had a break in Šipanska Luka, one of the two fishing ports on the island. The sleepy village consists of old crumbled stone houses, a church with a nice view (photo 2) and a picturesque harbor with several restaurants and pubs. A quiet place, probably because there are no sandy beaches. However, although we did not have time to go around, it was clear that the beautiful rocky coastline represents a special attraction for kayakers. Some of them were exploring a picturesque cave in the surroundings (photo 1). It was a pity that we could not take a walk on one of the well-marked trails on the island. Maybe another time!

e4The boat tour continued along the rocky cliffs on the back side of Šipan (photo 3) and the next stop was in Lopud (photo 4), the second island in size and best known for its sandy beaches. Although this is a car-free island, tourism appeared to be well-developed here, with a big hotel and many charming restaurants and pubs dotting the seafront and overlooking the small beaches. The harbor was full of yachts, motor boats and kayaks. After spending an hour or so on the beach and enjoying the clear sea water, we visited the Arboretum passing through an old gate flanked by stone lions (photo 5). It was nice and cool, quiet and perfectly maintained. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to visit the Šunj beach on the other side of the island and the fortress on the top of the hill.

e5Finally, we visited Suđurađ, on the other side of the Šipan island. This place is connected with Dubrovnik by a daily ferry and that it is why it is rather crowded. But anyhow, it is a charming fishing village with an old fortress and beautiful old houses around the harbor (photo 6).

Altogether, it was an interesting tour. First of all, I was surprised to see that sea kayaking has become a new active tourism trend in Croatia. Moreover, I discovered that much money is invested in the reconstruction of old manors, fortresses and churches in all villages we visited and this is certainly positive for tourism development, in particular as it is obviously prohibited to build “modern” houses or high-rise buildings. In my opinion, this is the right way to develop tourism!

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STON, CROATIA: MEDIEVAL WALLS, SALT PANS AND OYSTERS

 st1 st3Ston, a small fortified town on the Pelješac Peninsula, about 54 km north-west of Dubrovnik, is becoming more and more popular as a tourist attraction. The defensive walls that surround the town are absolutely unique, but Ston is also famous for its oyster production and the 2000-years old salt works in the vicinity that have produced sea salt for centuries.

Visitors of Ston have the possibility to take a walking tour of the 5.5 kilometers long Ston Walls that have been under reconstruction for many years (photo 1). The renovation was initiated by the Association for Preservation of Dubrovnik Historical Heritage, and it was mainly financed by Dubrovnik City Walls ticket sale.

st6The walls, fortified by around 40 towers and five citadels, spreading along the entire length of the peninsula, were built by the Dubrovnik Republic between 1333 and 1506. Two small towns – Ston and Mali Ston were established at the southern and north tip of the walls. The walls were meant to protect the precious salt pans that contributed to Dubrovnik’s wealth. At that time, a kilo of salt was worth the same as a kilo of gold, so whoever controlled the salt pans was rich (photo 2).

After a short sightseeing of Ston with its beautiful old stone houses and churches, we started the tour at 8.30 AM (the cost of an entrance ticket is 40 kunas or € 5.50 per person and opening hours are from 8.30 AM to 7.30 PM during the summer).

st3aAttention: if you want to make the tour, you need a good physical condition (photo 3). The breathtaking views from the walls – 5-10 meters high – come with a price tag (photo 4). Although the ancient walls are safe and sturdy, with a guard rail on both sides, you are not advised to walk up when you have any fear of heights. The stairs are quite steep and the sun is burning very intensely. Anyhow, you should wear comfortable walking shoes, as the old stones can be slippery when coming down (photo 5). And don’t forget your camera: the panoramas are magnificent!

The walking tour from Ston to Mali Ston took us around one hour and a half (plus the walk back to Ston along the road – 10 minutes). Mali Ston is a nice village, dominated by the fortress of Koruna that is part of the city walls and the small port (photo 6).

st4Eating oysters or mussels in Mali Ston should be an essential part of your visit to this area. You can buy them in the street stalls along the port, but the best seafood restaurant is Kapetanova Kuća, situated on the waterfront.

For us, the walking tour around the Ston Walls was a very special experience and we will not easily forget it!

 

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DISCOVER VJETRENICA: THE “WIND CAVE” IN BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

 v1 v2Most tourists traveling along the Adriatic Highway from the Montenegrin border in northern direction do not know anything about „Vjetrenica“, a cave in Herzegovina that is visible on a well-marked road sign along the Highway, around 30 km north from Dubrovnik near Slano. Strange enough, this is one of the most impressive caves in the Dinaric Alps mountain range!

We decided to satisfy our curiosity and take a look by ourselves. A narrow asphalt road led us to the newly-opened border crossing with Bosnia and Herzegovina and further through a rough and mountainous karst area to the village of Ravno, on the edge of Popovo Polje. The field of Popovo Polje (“Priest’s field”) stretched in front of us, covered by extensive vineyards and grassland (photo 2). The plain is famous for its karstic phenomena, and particularly for the Trebišnjica river, a typical “sinking river”.

v3At a distance of 27 km from the Highway we reached the village and Orthodox monastery of Zavala (photo 3), where we found the entrance of the “špilja” (cave). It was crowded: around thirty foreign tourists were waiting for the beginning of the guided tour (40-60 minutes), as such tours are organized each hour from 10 AM to 6 PM. We bought entrance tickets (€ 5.00 per person) and were provided with helmets and jackets (photo 4), as the constant temperature in the cave is around 11 degrees Centigrade. The guide gave us a lot of security instructions, which was really necessary, as the first part of the cave was very low and narrow, and we were surprised by a strong blast of cold wind!

The total length of the explored part of the cave is 6 km, but the trail for tourists (photo 5) – with protection rails and lighting – has a length of 550 meters (the depth of the cave is 25 m). In reality, geologists have predicted that Vjetrenica could stretch right to the Adriatic Sea and even up to the island of Šipan. The cave system is listed on the Tentative List of UNESCO protected areas.

v4It was not difficult to understand why we got a helmet: at the first 150 meters of the cave the ceiling was very low and we had to bend down our head all the time until reaching a spacious “hall”. It became clear why this cave is called “Wind Cave”: as soon as we entered, the wind was blowing very strongly through the corridor, but stopped when we entered the first hall. A magical experience!

We saw many breath-taking passages and small underground lakes with rare endemic types of shellfish. The amphibious cave salamander Proteus anguinus (called “Human Fish” because of its skin color) is very rare and is adapted to a life in complete darkness.

v5Archeological discoveries showed ancient cave bears and leopards, cave drawings that are estimated to be over 10,000 years old. Especially the “Golden Room” appeared to be very impressive (photo 1) and so was the “Turkish graveyard”, a group of stalagmites that reminded us of Turkish grave monuments. At the end of the trail is “Hajdučki stol”, a stone table and chairs made by the first inhabitants – “hajduk” means outlaw or freedom fighter – of this cave (photo 6).

After our cave tours we had a real “Herzegovinian” snack in the nearby restaurant called “Zavala”: excellent smoked ham, cheese and “kajmak” from the region. To be recommended!v6

 

 

BOKA KOTORSKA: THE CHARM OF MORINJ

m1m2 If you want to spend a quiet weekend on the Montenegrin Coast, I would like to recommend Morinj, a small and picturesque seaside hamlet right in the middle of the Bay of Kotor, halfway between the towns of Kotor and Herceg Novi (5 km from Risan). It is well-known for its lush green mountains, pebble beach, clean (and cold!) sea water and old watermills (photo 1). A network of interconnected springs and creeks in the “hinterland” of the coast makes this resort very special. Moreover, Morinj has one of the best seafood restaurants in Montenegro, “Ćatovića mlini”, and also one of the nicest camping sites, called „Naluka“. There are no big hotels (except for  the “Stone Bridge” Hotel in Gornji Morinj), but you can certainly find attractive private rooms or apartments in the village.

m3Arriving at the camping ground, it became clear that the tourist season has not been very successful so far. Only one third of the camping lots were occupied, although we remember that “Naluka” has always been overcrowded in July-August. It’s true, there were some camper vans from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The usual camping fans! Good tourism promotion of Montenegro, especially for individual tourists, has been neglected in Western Europe for several years and now we see the consequences!

We parked our camper van on the bank of the creek that connects the hinterland with the sea. It was a perfect place to have a rest and read a book in the shadow of fruit trees and willows (photo 2). Dinghies and motor boats passed by on their way to the bay and swallows were flying just above the water surface. What a beautiful spot!

m4Next morning we went for a walk to the upper part of the village, Gornji Morinj. During the winter, when there is hardly any sun in this part of Boka, the place is abandoned – but in the summer the village center comes to life again. Here you can still see original architectural entities: churches, old stone houses, round threshing floors (“guvno”) and even a kind of defense wall – all this is connected by a steep cobbled stone road that leads further into the high mountains. A nice walk!

We enjoyed a pancake in „Tramontana“, a nice restaurant with a terrace on the sea shore. It was rather quiet on the beach. Due to underwater springs, the water was much colder – but also cleaner – than in other parts of Boka. Great to cool off after a walking tour!

m5For the next day we had planned another highlight: lunch at Ćatovića mlini. This is not only an excellent restaurant, but also a wonderful place. When you enter (it is situated a few hundred meters away from the main road) you find yourself in a green oasis with exotic trees (even bamboo and bananas) and a wonderful garden. The building itself is an old mill (photo 3). It was tranquil and we found a place on the covered terrace over the river/stream. Watching the ducks and goose in the river and listening to the water running from the mill was a very relaxing experience. After a great seafood lunch (photo 4) we explored the surroundings, crossing over footbridges and climbing some stairs into the forest (photo 5 and 6).

Of course, nothing is perfect. That (Saturday) night we were disturbed by very loud music from the Tramontana terrace which kept us awake from 11 PM to 1 AM – and we were certainly not the only ones! The owner of the camping site told us that he has complained to the ministry and the municipality many times – without any result. Never mind, Morinj definitely remains a place to visit!

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HIKING IN THE MOUNTAINS OF KUČKA KRAJINA (ŽIJOVO)

 kp1 kp2Kučke Planine or Žijovo, the mountains of Kučka Krajina that are situated north-east from Podgorica, are becoming more and more attractive for hikers, mountaineers, botanists and other nature lovers, in particular those who want to visit pure and undiscovered areas. Most of the area is a magnificent mixture of wild karst and glacier soil, decorated by green pastures and farm land. It is not just because of the natural beauties that I like this area so much; I adore the silence of the vast high plateaus, the sound of the barking sheep dogs, the beauty of the wild horses roaming over the grassland and the abundance of flowers.

kp3On a very hot day last week we revisited Bukumirsko Lake (see my blog: Bukumirsko Jezero, the Heart of the Kučka Krajina Mountains): the starting point for many hiking tours to the surrounding summits that is situated at an altitude of 1448 m above sea level. Did you know that the Lake is surrounded by more than 15 peaks higher than 2000 meters? The magnificent panorama is dominated by Pasjak (2050 m), Štitan (2172 m), Velji Vrh and Surdup (2.184 m) – a wonderfully jumbled mass of rocky peaks (photo 1). Bukumirsko Lake can be reached from Podgorica within one hour and a half (45 km). It is true, the road is narrow and rather dangerous, but it is worth the effort!

kp4This time we could reach the Lake by car, although the last kilometers had to be mastered on a farm road that is in rather bad shape. The sun was hot, but the fresh mountain breeze made it an ideal day for a hiking tour in the mountains. Horses, cows and sheep were roaming over the plateaus (photo 2), while the old stone houses and cottages were mostly abandoned and dilapidated (photo 3). The pastures were covered with multi-colored mountain flowers and several local people were collecting herbs. We discovered dozens of different species, many of them protected in Western Europe (photo 4).

kp 5Although some trails to the surrounding summits are marked, it is a pity that there are no yellow signposts as you can find them in the National Parks of Montenegro. We used the Rother Mountain Guide written by Marcus Stoeckl (German) and “The Mountains of Montenegro” by Rudolf Abraham (English), and so we followed the farm track that took us to Katun Jezero and further off to the left passing a spring. We headed through open pastures, with the help of some trail markings. Towards the head of the valley, the trail ascended into a beech forest. Following the path up through the trees, we emerged via a kind of stone steps through a gap between the rocks into grassland. This plateau was of a breath-taking beauty (photo 5) and so were the deep dolines that appeared subsequently among rocky giant peaks. The silence was complete. Only wild and pure nature around us. The high grass and flora made it hard to follow the markings and finally, after two hours walking and reaching an altitude of 1780 meters we decided to walk back to Bukumirsko Jezero (photo 6), as we did not know how long it would take us to get around the mountain peaks.

kp6But nevertheless, the tour was exciting. Of course, we are aware that real mountaineers can easily climb the peaks of Surdup, Štitan or Torač. But for amateurs without a guide, like we are, this appears to be more complicated, which – of course – does not mean that “amateurs” cannot enjoy hiking and exploring this wonderful area.

It goes without saying that I would really like to see a mountain guide for Kučka Krajina – as they are already available for Durmitor, Biogradska Gora, Lovćen and Skadarsko Jezero. I am sure that such a guide would be a significant added value to the tourist offer of Montenegro! Many travelers want to escape from the crowds, noise, loud music, dense traffic and litter you can find on many places – but fortunately, not in Kučka Krajina (photo 7)!

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SKOPJE, PLAN 2014: A HISTORICAL REMAKE OR A KITSCHY THEME PARK?

sk 1 sk 1sk 2 Three years ago I visited Skopje. At that time, many people were talking about „Plan 2014“, initiated by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. It was the government’s intention to redevelop the existing city center to include around 20 neo-classical and baroque buildings on the banks of the Vardar River, as well as over 40 monuments and many statues depicting the historical and cultural past of Macedonia. The plan also called for the construction of two new bridges in the same „antique“ style. Budget? Around 80 million Euros – to begin with.

sk 3During our last camper trip through Macedonia last week we revisited Skopje and I must say: I was shocked by what I saw. We were accompanied by our friend Nikola, who guided us around the city center and told us a lot about the latest developments. We entered the central square through the new Triumphal Arch “Porta Macedonia”, 21 meters high, with 32 reliefs carved on the outside  (photo 2). I just wonder: can you imagine any other city in the world building a triumphal arch in the 21st century?

sk 4Macedonia Square is dominated by a giant statue of Alexander the Great, 24 meters tall, surrounded by a group of warriors and a magnificent fountain. The cost? Eleven million Euros! Alexander sits on his horse, raising a sword up in the sky. But what a pity: the official name of the monument had to be transformed into “Warrier on a Horse”, as the Greek government protested against the name of the statue on the very day after its inauguration. A large part of the square is still a construction site (photo 3) and numerous facades are obstructed by cranes.

Approaching the dark-brown Vardar River we were flabbergasted … A series of bombastic buildings on the bank of the river, together with two kitschy bridges appeared in front of our eyes. The beautiful old Stone Bridge from the 15th century, the symbol for Skopje, could hardly be seen. It was flanked by two fountains in the river that spurted jets of dirty water in the air. Three willows were planted in boxes somewhere in the middle of the river and we could also see a big wooden ship (two other ones were under construction) that is meant to be an exclusive restaurant (photo 4). Honestly, it looked like a movie set for Captain Cook!

sk 5But most surprising were the Art Bridge and the Eye Bridge, new pedestrian bridges jammed with sculptures – personalities from Macedonia’s historical and cultural past (photo 1). One bridge leads to the new Archeological Museum, a neo-classical building fronted with Ionic columns (photo 5), the other one to the Financial Police Building (photo 8) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (photo 6). It was absolutely surrealistic so see such a townscape in Skopje, a city of around 700,000 inhabitants, capital of a 2 million population. I did not know what to think… Is this a joke?

We passed the river hoping to feel the real atmosphere of Skopje in the Old Bazaar. But … at the entrance of the old town some other “works of art” were waiting for us. The monument “Mothers of Macedonia” (photo 7) showed us sculptures of the mother of Alexander the Great with the child on her lap or in her arms, and behind it was another huge monument (photo 7 on the right): Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, shaking his fist at the sky, while bronze horses jump out of a nearby fountain.

sk 6Little change had taken place in the narrow cobbled stone streets of the Bazaar. The stores still sell everything: from hand-made carpets to gold, souvenirs and baklava. But nice restaurants have been opened along the winding streets and markets, and the Kale fortress offers a beautiful view of the city.

Finally, we visited the Museum of Mother Theresa and the old railway station that was destroyed by a disastrous earthquake in July 1963. The station clock still shows the time of the earthquake that took away 1100 lives and destroyed 80% of the city center: 5.19 AM. It was Tito’s wish to transform the railway station into a museum – but this never happened and the building is totally dilapidated.

sk 7In one of the trendy pubs of Skopje, Nikola told us that Macedonian people are divided about the project. It is well-known that the cost of the Plan has already exceeded the amount of 500 million Euros so far. And the construction works are still going on with an incredible speed! Many people see this project as a waste of resources in a country with high unemployment (30%) and poverty (30%). Some critics also see it as a distraction from these problems. But there are also Macedonians who are happy to give Skopje a more monumental and visually pleasing image.

It is my personal opinion that Plan 2014 will have serious detrimental consequences for society and democracy in Macedonia and that the next generations will have many problems to pay off the loans taken by the government for the completion of this “remake”.

However, I was informed that this absolutely grotesque plan seems to be helping Macedonia to attract foreign tourists – according to the Ministry of Tourism. Thanks to this spectacular movie set, there has allegedly been a 25% increase in foreign tourists in the first seven months of this year. It is the first season that mass groups of foreign tourists are seen downtown and in the Old Bazaar. But even if this would be true, it does not justify the fact that there are many other priorities in Macedonia: good hospitals, infrastructure, road repair, new jobs and new investments …

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BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA: BLAGAJ, THE DERVISH HOUSE ON THE BUNA RIVER

b1 b2On our last trip through Bosnia and Herzegovina we visited Blagaj, a small kasaba (village-town) 12 km south of Mostar that has now become popular as one of the main tourist attractions of Herzegovina, first of all due to its position at the spring of the Buna River and its historical tekke (Dervish monastery).

Approaching the town, we had a beautiful view of the old Blagaj Fortress (Stjepan grad) located on a steep cliff (photo 1). It was once the seat of the Herzegovinian nobleman Stjepan Vukčić and the birthplace of the Bosnian queen Katarina Kosača. Accessible only by a path used mostly by sure-footed sheep, the spot is rarely visited. Moreover, the day was very hot and so we decided to continue to the center.

b3After having parked our car, we went for a walk along the Buna river towards the tekke. Although it was rather early, many tourist buses from Dubrovnik and Mostar had already arrived and the terraces along the Buna river were full of foreign tourists. Typical Bosnian souvenirs were offered by numerous stalls: prayer rugs, Islamic flags, niqabs …. (photo 5).

But numerous tourists, busy restaurants and souvenir vendors could not spoil our impression of the fascinating Dervish monastery at the end of the “main street” (photo 6). This 16th century house/monastery was built for the Dervish cults and is still one of the most mystical places in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Together with its surrounding landscape and the steep rocks above, it creates a unique and unrepeatable scenery (photo 2).

b4Very near to the tekke, under a 200 meter high rock, is the “Green Cave”: the largest karst spring in Europe, which gives rise to the Buna river (photo 4).

Only here, in the silence of the Dervish house’s garden, cooled by the freshness of the river, we felt the real atmosphere of Blagaj (photo 3). The atmosphere was solemn. Cold drinks, tea and Turkish coffee were served on the beautiful terrace overlooking the source of the river. No beer, no alcoholics. This was probably the reason why most guests were “domestic”, which certainly contributed to the authenticity of the environment.

b5On our way back we wanted to visit the historical Velagić complex, dating back to the year 1766. This unique residential complex consisted of several buildings, gardens and mills on the bank of the river. All the courtyards were interconnected and paved with river pebbles. This complex is the most complete example of a family house complex with outbuildings in Herzegovina. Unfortunately, it was closed for visitors due to reconstruction works.

We continued our trip though Bosnia and Herzegovina and we certainly understood why Blagaj was nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

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AMAZING FOČA (B&H): FROM SAND PYRAMIDS TO SUTJESKA NATIONAL PARK

f1 f3On our last camper trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina we spent a night in Camp Drina near Foča. Branko, the friendly owner of this beautiful camping site on the bank of the Drina river, prepared an excellent meal (grilled trout) and gave us a lot of information about the surroundings. His friend Sića, a certified mountain guide, joined us later and told us many stories and legends about the region. It was interesting to hear that medieval tombstones („stećci“) can be found all over the mountains, often on inaccessible high plateaus that can be reached by experienced hikers and mountaineers only.

Although the town of Foča itself is not so interesting – it was heavily damaged during the Bosnian War when all mosques were destroyed –, the surroundings offer many possibilities. Rafting on the Tara and Drina river is getting more and more popular, but hiking and biking in Sutjeska National Park is also attracting many foreign visitors.

f2Nature is magnificent in this part of Herzegovina. We had never heard of the Sand Pyramids, or Pješćane piramide as locals call them, but Branko advised us to make a short detour and to visit this natural phenomenon. And so we did! It took us less than an hour by car.

The narrow asphalt road from Foča to Miljevina took us uphill, showing us a typical mountain scenery, interrupted by small Muslim cemeteries. We did not see any local inhabitants or tourists. After around 9 kilometers, the Sand Pyramids suddenly appeared in front of us.  What a surprise to see such a stunning masterpiece of nature! The combination of summer heat, winter frost, rain and wind has created a rarely seen geo-morphological phenomenon after a long period of selective erosion.The Pyramids seemed more like a picture from the Wild West than a part of the green mountains around Foča and the Upper Drina Region! And of course … they were very photogenic!

f4Next day we continued our trip through the Sutjeska National Park. Sutjeska is a paradise for nature lovers. It is dominated by 2,000-meter peaks – Zelengora, Maglić and Volujak – in every direction. The National Park is 34 kilometers from the center of Foča and is well-connected by the main road to Trebinje. It contains a protected natural reserve, the Peručića primeval forest, an attractive waterfall called Skakavac (75 m high), high mountains and eight mountain lakes of glacier origin.

We did not have the possibility to make a hiking tour, but I was eager to visit the Memorial Complex of the Sutjeska Battle. I visited this place, located in Tjentište, with my parents when I was a child. I also remember that this was a popular destination of school excursions when my children went to school. Why?

f5Well, one of the bloodiest battles in World War II, known as the Sutjeska Battle (1943) or „Case Black“, was fought in the wider region of Tjentište. To commemorate this battle, a Memorial Complex was built with a huge monument, made by the sculptor Miodrag Živković. Opened in the early 1970s, the park and the monument along with the ossuary (3301 Partisan fighters died here) and the museum constituted one of the most attractive and elaborately designed destinations for groups and individuals travelling within Yugoslavia.

Nowadays, everything has been abandoned. The Sutjeska Hotel near the monument is empty and dilapidated. The museum is closed and the stairs leading uphill to the monument (more than 250 steps) are overgrown with grass. I still remember the bright white color of the monument – now it is gray and attacked by moisture. History has changed… The principles of unity and brotherhood do not exist anymore. Other monuments have appeared in former Yugoslavia, reminding us of the last Balkan Wars. What a pity!

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