Monday, February 6, 2017

Montenegro and Serbia

Saturday. September 3.  
The whole three week trip would be an adventure, but I expected that the next stop on my itinerary could be the strangest. I was just getting used to being in Paris, and now I was headed to somewhere that would be very different from anywhere else I’d ever been. When I started planning the trip I got a timely e-mail from an old friend, Jerome. He said he would put me up, “If I was ever in that part of the world.” That part of the world was Montenegro and Serbia.  
My travel agent told me that finding the flight to Montenegro was the hardest part of the itinerary. I knew it was off the beaten path. People realize where it is when you say, “It’s part of the former Yugoslavia.” It would be very unfamiliar territory for me, but I would also get a break from travel planning. I knew Jerome would take care of the details and I could just relax and take in the sights.  
  I was still a little nervous about making flight connections. There were about fifty older people ahead of me in the check in line. The group would take up most of the plane. People kept cutting ahead of me in line. They spoke enough English to explain they were catching up with friends in the group. I’ve been in a line before. I told them I was in the group and waiting for friends too. They gave me a funny look, but I was able to keep my place in line. Were they all going to cut in front of me?  
There were a few pianos set out in the waiting area. It was a thoughtful touch. A young woman entertained fellow waiting passengers with a couple of well played classical pieces. Later I found one of the pianos near my gate. I pounded out a few Blues riffs.
I waited by the gate near the large tour group. They started grumbling and climbing out of their chairs. The group started moving towards another gate. I checked at the desk. Yes, there had been a last minute gate change. I hadn’t heard any announcement.
The plane was smaller than the 747s I was used to, but it wasn’t a puddle jumper either. The stewardesses were my first look at the beautiful women of the Balkans. The flight took an hour and a half to cover the Adriatic.   
The Podgorica Airport is a huge metal and glass building. It’s a very large airplane hangar. There doesn’t appear to be many amenities, but it’s efficient. I collected my luggage and checked in with “Passport Control.” This was still kind of new for me. Very serious uniformed guards sat behind glass booths. This had been a border during the Cold War. It was certainly a shorter wait than Paris. I exited the secure area and was very glad to see Jerome waiting.
We collected my bag and headed to the parking lot. It was a typical airport area, but I had the strange feeling that I was in another world. Jerome drove a Russian made SUV style vehicle. It’s the Lada 4x4, “The same model Putin drives!” It looks like a military vehicle. It was a short drive into Podgorica. He got me settled in the New Star Hotel and we caught up a bit. Then we set out for Saturday night in Podgorica!   
It was a warm night and people were out enjoying the weather. There wasn’t much auto traffic and a few of the streets were blocked off. Groups of teens were hanging out. It looked like they were waiting for something to do.  
We went into the bar at the Hotel Herema. It is a restaurant, but it has a nightclub atmosphere. We sat at the bar. Techno music was blasting. I learned my first word in Montenegrin: Bebo. Beer. I had a Niksicko! Another popular brand of beer was Jelen. It had a picture of a large stag on the label.
Jerome explained that after every round we’d get a check. After paying we’d get a receipt. There was no running a tab. It seemed a little silly, but it was a way for the authorities to make sure taxes were paid.      
Our next stop was the Cafe W.W.W. We got a table near the sidewalk. It was prime time Saturday night and young people were out on their restless search. A parade of beautiful young women passed our table. They were dressed up for a big Saturday night. It was like a fashion show. 
I had been able to understand most of the signs in France. The signs here were in Serbian and Cyrillic. The Cyrillic symbols were strange and foreign to me. There is a Montenegrin language, but I was told that it’s almost the same as Serbian. Most people did speak fluent English here, but sometimes I felt like I was on another planet. 
Sunday. September 4. 
We had breakfast at the New Star Hotel. It was a great spread. I was surprised to see ham, salami and mortadella on the buffet. 
We would pass on going to Dubrovnik. It would be a six hour drive one way. That would be twelve hours in the car, and then we would have an eight hour ride to Belgrade. We would take a shorter looping tour around the Bay of Kotor. I certainly didn’t mind taking it easy. 
Jerome pointed out guys who were hanging out on street corners. They converted currency. These entrepreneurs gave a better rate than the banks did! They just hang out and convert currency. Maybe they could beat the bank rate because there was less risk with small transactions.
I had gotten a break on figuring out currencies. There was no more Franc or Lira to deal with. The American dollar was almost worth a Euro. (It was 1.12 American dollars to 1 Euro while I was there.) The Dinar was a little different. It was eight dinars to the American dollar. A dinar was worth two bits.
It was sunny and clear. A great day for an auto tour along the coast of the Adriatic. We left Podgorica and went up into the mountains. It reminded me of the entrance to Yosemite. It’s not as grand as the Valley of Yosemite, but the mountains and cliffs are impressive and they reminded me of the Sierras. We came out of the mountains and drove on winding roads above the coast. Below us was the Adriatic. The water was a bright blue. The view rivaled any coastal scene in California.
We did a loop around the Kotor Bay. We passed through the resort towns of Budva and Tivat on the way to Kotor. Russians have been coming here to vacation for years, but this area is not well known.   
We stopped in Porto Montenegro. Most of it is an upscale development that was recently built. We had lunch at “One.” It’s owned by a wealthy silver commodities trader, Peter Munk. After lunch we walked along a large pier that had a yacht show going on. Huge yachts were docked there. It was quite a display of wealth. It reminded us of the old quote: “Where are the customers yachts?”  
In Kotor we stopped at the Yugoslav Navy Museum, the “Naval Heritage Collection Museum.” It had some interesting old maritime machines and exhibits. There was an exhibit honoring four heroic sailors from World War II. They were on an abandoned destroyer that would be captured by the Nazis. To make sure the ship didn’t fall into enemy hands they had to detonate explosives and sink the ship while they were still on board. Their brave sacrifice made them national heroes.
Near the museum was a submarine. We wanted to tour the submarine, but the next tour was in an hour. There was a pool area nearby and we checked it out. It was part of a country club, but nonmembers could pay and use the pool. It was off season, but there were still some people frolicking in the water. We stopped at the poolside bar. There is no “Diet Coke” in Montenegro or Serbia. It’s “Coke Zero.”
A young lady led the tour of the P821 submarine. It had been manufactured in Kotor after World War II. It had to be tough duty. It was hard to imagine spending months in such a small space. It had to take psychological toughness. 
Back on the road, Jerome pointed out where the Rolling Stones played in Montenegro. We were on a road high in the mountains and I looked down on a big open field. It was Jaz Beach, near the resort town of Budva. Getting The Stones to play here had been a publicity coup for the area. The show was held on a large field ringed with high hills. There is a football field there now. I tried to imagine The Stones huge stage set up in this valley. 
Near the end of the bay loop we saw a church on a small island. There was just enough room for the church, so it seemed to be almost floating on the water. It was Gospa od Skrpjela, Our Lady of the Rocks. The congregation can only get here by boat.  It’s a spiritual haven for sailors and fisherman.  
We took a ferry ride back to finish the loop. Then it was an eight hour drive to Belgrade. There was more great mountain scenery. Montenegro and Serbia are becoming known for ecotourism.
There are two border crossings from Montenegro to Serbia. The facilities on the Montenegro side looked modern. The Serbian side seemed dingy and temporary looking. Large metal containers were set up as offices. There were small huts that offered legal help with customs. There’s always a little tension at a border. 
  The terrain flattened out. Everything looked new, different and interesting to me, even the stops at gas stations. On one rest stop Jerome bought some beers. He doesn’t drink. They were for me. It’s legal to have open containers in the vehicle, as long as the driver doesn’t drink! 
It was dark by the time we got to Belgrade. On the way into the city there were several bombed out buildings. The damaged floors could still be seen in a cut away view. They were hit by NATO bombs in 1999. The Serbs still hate the Clintons. Bill was president and he had signed off on the bombings. The history of the Balkans is convoluted. Jerome suggested I watch a documentary on Youtube called “Chains of History.” 
  I would be staying at the Excelsior Hotel. It’s near the Parliament building and the Royal Palace, so many world political figures and foreign dignitaries stayed there. The hotel directory told its history. Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia and is now the capital of Serbia. Many celebrities and entertainers stayed at the Excelsior including Josephine Baker. The hotel was known for hosting many writers. During World War II the German High Command used the hotel as their headquarters.  
We got squared away and I met Jerome’s girl friend Marija. She’s an attractive,  vivacious young woman. It’s easy to see why he decided to stay in Montenegro. She has a sharp sense of humor. We went out to dinner.
On the ride I got a glimpse of a refugee camp. There were tents set up. I didn’t get much of a look, but it reminded me of homeless encampments back home in San Francisco. It looked like a desperate situation.  
We went to a big mall in Novi Beograd, “New Belgrade.” Vapiano’s is a chain of pasta restaurants. You order at a counter. The pasta is cooked to order. This would be my only foray into the new part of Belgrade. There are plans to build an eighty story skyscraper with a surrounding complex. Some locals are not pleased and have doubts the development will ever get off the ground.  
We walked around a bit. In a large park we stopped by St. Sava’s Temple. It’s one of the largest Orthodox churches in Europe, built in 1594. Jerome said it was the biggest church in the Balkans. It holds the relics of Saint Sava.  
Monday. September 5. 
Jerome would take me for a walking tour of Belgrade. I would meet him in the lobby of the hotel. At the last minute I ran back upstairs to get something. When Jerome didn’t see me in the lobby he asked the hotel staff, “Did you see a guy who’s staying here. He looks like Keith Richards?” “Oh yeah! He just went upstairs.” Jerome still has his sense of humor. 
We went across the street into Pionirski Park. It’s an urban park with many statues and monuments. We would pass through Stari Grad (Old City) on our way to the river. It’s a gray day and a bit overcast.    
Belgrade has always been on the border of big empires and world powers. It’s at a crucial nexus of world geography. The “White Fortress” looms over crucial and strategic real estate where East meets West. It’s been fought for and destroyed many times. Somehow it has kept many of its historic buildings and look. The streets are paved with large cobble stones that look like they go back to medieval times.   
  Jerome points out that there are great old buildings and architecture, but most of the buildings are gray. They are sooty and dark. What would the city look like with a good cleaning?
  We enter Kalemegdan Park. Green lawns and trees lead into high stone walls and fortifications. It’s a park, but it’s also a huge castle. Kalemegdan comes from two Turkish words: Kale is fortress, and Meydan is battlefield.  
The park is on a bluff above the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. It’s a  dramatic view. I can see the Danube River! It looks black in the distance. It’s easy to see why this was such a strategic position. It was an unexpected thrill to see the Danube.
The Belgrade Fortress oozes history. Belgrade means “white tower” or “white fortress.” “The history of the fortress is the history of the city.” Here’s the short version from Wikipedia: There are signs that civilization has been here for seven thousand years. Belgrade was the frontier of the Roman Empire. There are still remnants of the original fortress at The Roman Gate. Belgrade was part of the Roman military frontier. The meeting of the two rivers made it a very strategic and tempting target. A Celtic tribe, the Scoridicians, defeated the native Thracians and Dacians. 
When the Catholic Church split Belgrade was on the border between the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. Emperor Justinian I rebuilt the fortress. It was taken and sacked by the Huns. A legend says that Attila’s grave is at the meeting of the rivers.  
In 878 the Bulgarians took it over. Then the Byzantines. Then the Bulgarians again. It became a Byzantine stronghold. It was taken by the Serbian State. It was a border city of the Serbian Kingdom and then became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Turks were held off here until after the Battle of Kosovo. Over centuries Belgrade had been taken, destroyed and retaken. It was always on the military border between huge empires. The city was damaged during both World Wars.
We went through the Despot’s Gate and walked around the fort. The Dizdar Tower is now an astronomical observatory. There was what looked like a stone gazebo. It was the octagon shaped tomb of Damad Ali Pasha. The middle of this urban park seemed an odd place for a tomb, especially the final resting place of a Turkish Vizier. It fascinated me.
Tucked away in a part of the fort is a surprise. Large realistic looking dinosaur models are surrounded by the stone walls. A bit further on there is a large group of military vehicles lined up for display. It’s a small outdoor military museum.
We passed the zoo. It looked like an old fashioned zoo with iron cages. We didn’t go in. Jerome had just been there. Our goal is the Pobednik Monument, the “Messenger of Victory.” It was erected to honor the Serbian victories in World War I. The original plan was to erect it in the center of the city. Citizens complained about the statue’s full frontal male nudity. The monument was moved to this more remote location with the classic view of the two rivers. It was being renovated, so we couldn’t walk out on the bluff.
The ravens here have gray wings. It made them look a bit more sinister to me. We came up to a group of rocks that looked like ancient tombs. There was no sign explaining what they were.
We walked back through the city. This area does look older. A ragged homeless looking guy drove by us on a bike. Jerome said the bike rider is a gypsy. They keep a lower profile here and avoid bothering anyone. “They go through the garbage” to survive. 
Serbia is land locked. Hotels are building huge swimming pools with large wading areas to attract tourists. Jerome told me about Strahinjica. The locals called it “Silicon Valley.” Attractive young women come to the nightclubs there looking for “sponsors.” 
A tee shirt in a kiosk selling souvenirs caught my eye. There was a head shot above the words: “Princip Matters.” It’s the assassin of Franz Ferdinand! In Western Europe he was reviled and blamed for starting World War I. Here he is a hero of Serbian independence. 
We stopped at Jerome’s apartment for a reset. It had a great view of the city. We went to the Dorcol area for lunch. The Waterfront Restaurant is near the river. The menu was almost American. They do a great burger, but I went for the Rabbit Ragu. Clubs and restaurants along the river have made Dorcol a hot nightspot. 
Jerome and Maria talked again about the plans for the “New City” in Novi Beograd. We are near where the eighty foot skyscraper will be. The area around the building will be developed too. There were waterfront bars here that had been popular for a long time. It was a story I knew all too well from San Francisco. Treasured institutions would be shut down for the sake of “progress.” Bar owners fought being displaced. In a couple of bars that were holding out, thugs barged in and trashed the place. There was enough damage that the bars had to close. No one was ever arrested and it’s suspected that the government was involved. 
Maybe it was the beboes I had at lunch, but things didn’t seem as strange here as when I first arrived. Prices were low. I had a great host. After lunch it was back to tourism!  
Jerome wanted to visit the Tesla Museum. I’ve been fascinated by the Tesla story. He was a genius and a scientific pioneer. He should have been as rich and famous as Edison. Tesla lost a court showdown with the forces of the Wizard of Menlo Park. Tesla was not good with money and he didn’t promote himself well. 
J.P. Morgan realized that the Tesla project he was funding could provide people with free electric power. He pulled his funding. The project would have seriously harmed his profits. Some say Tesla never recovered from it. Sadly, more people recognize Tesla from the Rock band named to honor him. He bears a striking resemblance to another Rock icon. It looks like Tesla and Frank Zappa were separated at birth.
The museum is in a residential villa built in the Twenties. The Tesla Museum opened in the Fifties. It’s an impressive home, but it seemed small for a museum. We had just missed a “demonstration.” The next one would be in an hour. 
Marija wanted ice cream. We walked up the street to La Dolce. It was a white, creamy looking ice cream parlor. At a table near us an athletic looking young guy was holding court. His long hair was tied up in a ponytail. He was the center of attention at the table. “He thinks he’s someone,” Marija cracked. “He’s probably a football star.”
We went back to the Tesla Museum for the demonstration. The building was really too small for it and we were crammed into what I thought of as the “front room” or parlor. There was a short film about Tesla’s life. We were surrounded by what looked like equipment from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. A young man explained how electric current worked. He made visible waves of electricity climb large coils. We could get zapped if we wanted to. I was tempted to ask, “Hey, didn’t Benjamin Franklin invent electricity?” 
Tesla was born in the mountains of the Serbian-Montenegro border. Serbians claimed him as their own. It’s odd that the museum wound up in Belgrade. He said that he loved the city, but Tesla only spent three days in Belgrade. His scientific discoveries were astounding. He was working on remote control devices. Most of his inventions had peaceful applications, but there were stories that he was working on a “death ray.”  
Tesla was an intense genius. He showed symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and was obsessed by the number three. He always lived in hotel rooms and hated lemons. 
The Tesla story didn’t end well. He had missed out on an incredible amount of royalties and was in bad financial shape. He lost a court case that gave credit for inventing the radio to Marconi. Tesla was found dead in a hotel room in New York City. A conspiracy theory says he was killed by the Nazis to prevent his work on “the death ray.” 
Among the polyphase systems and the Core less Tesla transformers in the museum were personal objects and correspondence Tesla had with other titans of the day. In one room his ashes are displayed in a gold plated sphere that is mounted on a pedestal. 

Me and Jerome went out to “Venom Pizza.” It was a school night and there wasn’t as much excitement on the streets as on the weekend. We walked over a large bridge that spanned the Sava River. It was modern and bright. It had a similar design to the newer parts of the Bay Bridge. 
There have been some mansions built over the river. They have a great view, but most Serbians look down on anyone who lives near the river. For most of Belgrade's history, the banks had been a haven for those down on their luck. The gypsies still had encampments there. Although the new homes on the bluffs were expensive, there was still a stigma to living around the river.
It was a great summer night out and we sat outside and had a “Venom Pizza.”  A few patrons watched a World Cup Qualifying match on TV. It was Montenegro versus Romania. It was a bit early in qualifying for real World Cup fever.

Tuesday. September 6.
I was getting to feel more at home here. The hotel was great. My room had a view of the park across the street. There was another great breakfast buffet. The Excelsior had a historic feel to it.  
We tried to book a history tour of Belgrade, but it was a bit off season. The tours were either sold out or unavailable. We created our own Belgrade history tour. The first stop was the Museum of Yugoslav History and Tito’s grave. The Museum was a modern building placed at the start of a hill. The place was nearly empty. We were directed to a movie theater. 
A documentary on Tito’s life was playing. It was twenty minutes long and just kept repeating. Tito’s struggles against the Nazis and his role in the creation of Yugoslavia were barely touched on. Most of the footage was of him being greeted by adoring crowds and greeting global celebrities. A saccharine Fifties soundtrack played “It Was Just One of Those Things.” It was odd propaganda. It reminded me that I was in a different world here. What kind of criticism was allowed in the days of Tito? 
We came out of the theater, and there was a bank of TV screens with headphones. That was it. I had assumed that the film was just an introduction to the museum and that there would be more exhibits and artifacts. Maybe this building was just designed for hosting events. 
We went up the hill. Tito’s grave was near the top. It was in another modern building. Marija mentioned that she had not been here since she was a child in a school tour group. There were a few people inside. I had to wonder how Tito was viewed in modern Serbia. The grave area is well lit and modern, but it still seemed a bit eerie. There was hardly anyone there. 
A glass case full of batons lined one wall. A youth group had presented Tito with a ceremonial baton. Many organizations followed their example.  
There was a large fountain and a garden area outside Tito’s grave. The grounds and buildings were very nice, but I felt we were missing one thing: Yugoslav History. We had to search around a bit to find the “Old Museum.” This was the place.
The “Old Museum” was a long building that held relics and objects from Yugoslavia’s past. There were art pieces from a thousand years ago. The history of the Balkans was told with a collection of weapons from Serbia’s long military past.  
One case held a pair of scary looking, heavy shackles. Tito and other captured partisans were chained by the Nazis. This was serious stuff. Imprisonment was a grim fate. The partisans had to be courageous. How did Tito avoid being executed?
On the way back to the apartment, Maria asked me if I had a Cevapi yet. A Cevapi is a meat sandwich in a pita shell. She insisted we stop and get some to bring back to the apartment. I went into the shop with her. “Everyone knows me here!” She did get the royal treatment. The shop reminded me of an Italian Beef stand in Chicago. It was a great meat lovers sandwich! 
Near Jerome’s apartment we couldn’t help but notice some ominous but official looking guys hanging out. Maybe they were police. Maybe they were guards. They were security of some kind. They all wore suits and had discrete radio wires hanging from their ears. Why were they here? Jerome suspected that they were guarding some big wig during a mistress hookup. Serbian tax dinars at work.  
Jerome went into a local store. I waited outside. My loitering attracted the attention of one of the security force. He walked over and gave me the eye. He never said anything. I gave him a nervous hello. It made me think a bit. What is the legal deal here? Do you even get to call a lawyer?   

Wednesday. September 7. 
My last day in Serbia. I would fly to Rome that afternoon. Jerome met me at the hotel and took me for a quick visit to the nearby St. Michael’s Cathedral. I’m glad I got to see its ornate interior. The church was a flashpoint of Serbian history. It became a symbol of independence from the Turks.   
Jerome and Marija were great hosts. I would not have seen this part of the world without them. Jerome got me a different flight back to Rome so I didn’t have to go back to Podgorica for the scheduled flight. He arranged “Business Class” for me. It was a great start for my trip to Rome.