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Monday, October 31, 2011

The Rocky Horror Show

I really like the concept of community theater. People producing good quality theatrical productions to entertain their neighbors at affordable prices. I support that--not as much as my eldest son, who has been the fly man as well as running the rails for the City Circle Acting Company for over a year. It is great to watch, but behind the scenes, these guys, who love the stage. They also are teaching high school students about a life in the theater--the company actively encourages young people to be involved with them.
The latest production, which ran last weekend, was The Rocky Horror Show--no more perfect Hallowe'en musical was ever invented--at least not for an all-adult audience. And you really wouldn't want to take somebody who hasn't gone through puberty to this show. It is raunchy (which was pointed out to me by my 21 year old son--shocked, he was. And he is no babe in the woods). First, it involves major costuming--wigs, high heels (both both genders), and boas. Outrageous costuming, in fact, and Hallowe'en is definitely the season for dressing up as someone you are not. It also features a transsexual, and there is no better season than Hallowe'en to see a lot of cross dressing. The audience dresses up almost as much as the cast, so it is very festive. The concession stand sold prop bags--things to use at particular times during the play, and throughout, people were talking back to the cast in the fashion that has come to be expected of this very camp play (and the movie version as well). It has been a long time since I have participated in the Rocky Horror fun, but it all comes back to you. Happy Hallowe'en!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ptuj, Slovenia

Ptuj is the oldest city in Slovenia, and it is an easy drive from either Ljubljana or Zagreb (which would involve a border crossing which is of indeterminent difficulty--but there is a nice duty free store to sweeten the pot). It is in the heart of a white wine growing region in Slovenia, and as is true of much of the country, the rolling hills with vineyards terraced into the sides of them are ubiquitous. If all you do in Slovenia is drive around, you are in for a treat. It is just gorgeous, in a rural and productive agricultural sense. Being from Iowa, we appreciate the fertility of the land, and the hills are a nice change of pace.

Numerous archeological remains prove that the city experienced its first period of prosperity as the Roman town of Poetovio. The present much admired appearance of the city originated during the Middle Ages when Ptuj experienced its second rise to wealth and prominence. The castle, the Dominican and Minorite monasteries, the Provost Church, the old City Hall, the patrician houses, numerous marvelously carved doors, wrought iron window grills, and stonecutting details are the most important elements testifying to the spiritually and materially rich life of the people in this region. Diverse and lush buildings abound.

We had a fantastic meal in Ptuj. We were there on a Sunday, so much of the town was out on the street after church, but we managed to get a riverside table at the Ribic Restaurant--what a wonderful luncheon menu! The light fish plate for two was spectacular to behold--and if that is the light plate, you don't want to tackle the heavy one--there was a wide variety of options, with two whole fish anchoring it down. The food was equalled by the setting, and we would defintiely go back to eat and walk around the town.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Border Crossings in the Balkan

One thing that the Euro zone has made us out of practice for is border crossings--I remember back in the early 1990's when we realized that we did not like Sewitzerland as much as we had hoped to and decided to drive from Geneva to Chamonix one day. There were several 'aha' moments along the way--the first was that the Swiss were perfectly willing to rent us any car we wanted, but they would not let us take a BMW to Italy--ok. We aren't going to Italy, but good to know. It must reflect something deep seeded about their cultural priorities, but just what it is escapes me. The second was that we kept seeing these signs that said 'Peage' after we had been in France a while. What can that mean, we wondered. While I was thumbing through the French phrasebooks, it suddenly became clear--it meant we had to pay a toll. Uh oh. All we had were Swiss francs. Thankfully, the credit card was an option, and we sailed through, but it was one of the last times that we had to deal with multiple currencies, until this trip.
So, within what used to be Yugolslavia, you have to cross borders between the newly established countires--they do not have a 'Slav Zone'. And in the case of the Serbs and the Croats, they hate each other. Slovenia is in the Euro zone, but the other two aren't and it hardly mattered to us, other than that we could spend Euros, since we were never in another Euro zone country. During our trip we made a total of seven border crossings betwen the three countries we visited--it is so easy to slip from one to the other in terms of how close they are, and that Croatia encircles Slovenia, and it was quite an experience--not to mention that it filled a couple of pages with passport stamps.
The good news is that if you are not a truck, the crossing is pretty painless. The wait is the only problem, and that usually took less than a half hour at each of the two checkpoints involved in a border crossing (trucks, on the other hand, had lines that looked to be kilometers long, and so crossing the border could take all day--my spouse thought they should have a guy who does the border crossing, but different people to bring it to and from the border. There would have to be several border crossers for every straight ahead truck driver, but such a wait could drive you crazy...unless waiting was your job).

Friday, October 28, 2011

Karlovac, Croatia

Karlovac,a fortified military outpost, was founded in the 16th century and named after Karl II, a Habsburg commander. The fortification was strong enough to make the Ottomans abandon their designs on it, after seven different unsucessful sieges.
Only about 35 miles southwest of Zagreb, this town of 60,000 people is located on the Zagreb-Rijeka highway and railway line, and four different rivers, the Kupa, the Korana, the Mreznica and the Dobra. It is an industrialized town in the center, but we stayed at a riverside hotel outside the city, in a park setting that was relaxing and beautiful. It was our last night in Croatia and we wanted to be off the Istrian peninsula but not have too far to travel--this fit the bill.

During the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95), being close to the frontlines between the Croatian and the Serb forces, parts of Karlovac suffered heavy damage.
It was the one city where we consciously parked th car as much out of view as possible--much like the NATO-bombed buildings in Belgrade, the bullet holes in walls here were not repaired, making us think that Serbs might not be entirely welsome here, even now. We had a peaceful time, enjoying the local beer and the nicest hotel we stayed in the whole trip.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Istrian Hill Towns, Croatia

For the full Istrian peninsula experience, we left the coast and went in search of the quintessential hill town. On the one hand, there are lots of choices. The region is one hill after another, and in the style of medieval architecture and sense of security.

So dotted throughout the peninsula, you see cultivated land, and hills with villages snaking up to the top of each of them. We chose Motovun, the birthplace of race car driver Mario Andretti, for our typical hill town. The streets are steep enough that you must park at the foot of the town and walk up--which we were adept at after a week of exploring Croatia--and were treated to medieval streets, an enclosed town, and spectacular views.

Istria is known for truffles and we were there during truffle season--we had some wonderful truffles in other places but had a disappointing experience while there. Which means that we have to learn to order better and try more places on our next visit. Such a gorgeous spot, and while the Dalmation coast is reputed to be very beautiful, the Istrian peninsula is well worth a visit.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rovinj and the Croatia Adriatic Coast

Our trip to Croatia was too short overall--as is so often the case. One thing we did not get to fully enjoy was the extensive Adriatic coastline that is such a tourist draw for Croatia. As a compromise, we went to the Istrian peninsula, which is the most accessible coastline if you are traveling from central Croatia. Rovinj is a medieval town, which has plenty of charm in and of itself--it is a UNESCO World Heritage sitre, and well deserving of the designation. The views of the Adriatic are an added on bonus.

I rented an apartment through the Residence Porta Antica, which has five apartments in their building on the waterfront and 9 additional apartments throughout Rovinj. I completed the booking through, which was a breeze to use and unlike my recent experience with Orbitz, I didn't have any issues with the place having my reservation, and they don't require being paid up front, so if there are problems, you can deal with the hotel directly. We loved our apartment. When we checked out, we learned that there is a couple that spends a week in Rovinj in our apartment every year--we could understand the attraction.

It was so pleasant to be able to open the windows, sit in the living room and look out over the bay. Highly recommended. In addition, the town itself is very pleasant to walk around. The coastline is rocky--not much sand, and so more picturesque but less condusive to lying on the beach. Walking the narrow medieval streets is also very nice--there are no cars allowed routinely in the city, and so it is nice to have a leisurely stroll on cobblestone streets, stopping at a seaside cafe for a beverage and soaking in the atmosphere. We defintiely did not get enough of the Adriatic and will need to return.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Plešivica Wine Road, Croatia

When we headed out of Samobor, we were on a road that one of our many guidebooks said was the beginning of the Plešivica Wine Road, so off we went. The Rough Guide did state that most winemakers are not set up to taste, but will offer you a taste. That we found to be true. The book also stated that the road was well marked. That was patently false. I should have become suspicious when the web site that the guide book recommended as part of the trip was entirely in Croatian and undecipherable (by me). We decided to head towards the town of Plešivica and hope for the best--which we knew might be a complete failure based on an attempt in Slovenia to follow a wine road (in that case we found ourselves on what was little more than a horsepath headed straight up a hill. Our rental car was definitely not up to the task and we did as our GPS so often encourages us to do--we 'turned around when possible'. The drive, up to the very end, was gorgeous, but no wine was encountered or drunk).

Up until the time we got to Plešivica we were convinced that no such wine road existed--we saw not one sign, and while there were plenty of grapes to be seen, wineries were scarce. In downtown Plešivica we hit the jackpot. A sign! Many wineries! We stopped at one place, with people out front, a large sign, and an open feeling. We judged their friendliness appropriately but not their preparedness. The sign was apparently the one thing that they had finished--the tasting room was piled high with furniture, but they quickly cleared a small area, put a table and chairs down for us, and started to pour. We didn't realize that it was a white wine region, and the red wine they poured, Portugiser (a Croatian version of Nouveau Beaujolais) was not to our liking, but the various brandies and a nut liquor that we very much enjoyed. Amongst the three men serving us, only one spoke any English, which he learned from listening to rock and roll--in particular, he was a big Led Zepelin fan and he and my husband bonded briefly over 'Stairway to Heaven'. They were the only people all trip that inquired about our Serbian car--politely, but they were quite curious how we had come by it. We bought several bottles and moved on, but brandy in the morning took it's toll. We stopped at one additional place and tasted the region's best known white wine grape, Graševina, which was delicious--a flavorful and interesting light white wine that we bought a bottle of and then drove on. Another trip we would perhaps have stayed nearby and tried several more wines in the small but charming town of Plešivica.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Samobor, Croatia

As we headed out of Zagreb, we felt compelled to stop in this small medieval town. Why? In preparation for this trip I had read every guidebook that the library had to offer (Rough Guide, Rick Steves, Moon Guide, Insight Guide, Fodor's, and Lonely Planet) and they all said that this is the picturesque town to visit. If I had already been to the coast, and known then what I know now (that there are plenty of picturesque towns in Croatia), we might have skipped it, but we were following the guidance of others.

The only hint that you are in a tourist area is the price of parking--it is 10 kuna an hour--the same as parking in the center of Zagreb. But we had no trouble obtaining such a parking space (no doubt the locals can ill afford the price), and we were there early enough that there were no bus loads of people to deal with. Samobor is a charming town, with the streets full of people having morning coffee at a cafe on the center square and a friednly air about it. There is a stream that runs through town with wooden bridges that span it, and stone streets throughout.

One thing that we did not manage to do, which I regret now, is to go up the hill behind Samobor to the ruin of a long gone castle. The castle was built in the 13th century and was inhabited until the late 18th century, but as of now it is a ruin, a castle without a roof, and a fine looking ruin at that. We did buy the apertif and the mustard that the town is known for, so something to remember the stop by.

One thing I did not know when I was there but have since learned is that Samobor is one of two Croatian towns involved with an energy efficiency project. The aim of the project is to implement new energy efficient ways of building construction, raise public awareness about rational energy usage, save and efficiently use energy sources and conserve the environment.
Samobor has invested in the following projects:
introduction of more efficient public lightning system
gasification - fuel change and boiler-house reconstruction
heat insulation of public buildings (improvements in windows, facades, etc.)
All of which you wouldn't guess from looking at the town--which is a wonderful message--that you can update effiency without taking away the character of the architecture.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pod Grickim Topom, Zagreb

Location, location, location is one of the draws at this traditional-style restaurant on the Strossmayerovo Setaliste steps midway between Trg Bana Jelacica and Gornji Grad. We went on our first night in Zagreb, so we had no real sense of how the old town was lid out. Well, Zagreb translates to 'behind a hill' and the old town if set on that hillside. We wandered around the neighborhood, climbing ever higher, until we saw from the map we had that we were clearly past the restaurant, and headed down hill--and then stumbled upon the restaurant, perched on the hillside above the downtown, with an incredible view (and the lack of a real access road made me wonder how they got food in and garbage out).

We were there early, not a soul in the restaurant, which has only five tables--they let us know that they had only two tables unaccounted for without a reservation, so we took one in the corner, with a bit of quiet and a bit of a view. The wait staff is incredibly attentive, and the meal atarted off with pate and bread that were delcious.
We took the guidebook's advice and for an appetizer ordered a truffle pasta, which was the best part of the meal--the pasta was homemade and cooked to perfection--the sauce was lightly flavored with truffles and rich enough that when it was gone I didn't crave more--I couldn't have managed to finish it.

The main meal was delicious as well. Joel had a rolled veal that was cooked in a method called 'pod pekom', which means that the dish has been put into a stone oven under a metal cover. The cook puts hot coals on the cover so that the meal is cooked slowly. The meat was incredibly tender, and had a very good flavor. I ordered the grilled stuffed calamari--which was a good sized squid that came out of the Adriatic Sea and was then stuffed with shrimp and spinach, grilled, and then sliced. The squid was tender, the grill flavor was delicious and the meal was a lovely experience. Highly recommended (but not inexpensive).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Zagreb, Croatia

The first recorded appearance of the name Zagreb is dated to 1094, at which time the city existed as two different city centers: the smaller, eastern Kaptol, inhabited mainly by clergy and housing Zagreb Cathedral, and the larger, western Gradec, inhabited mainly by farmers and merchants. Gradec and Zagreb were united in 1851 by ban Josip Jelačić, who was credited for this, with the naming the main city square, Ban Jelačić Square in his honour. The origins of the name Zagreb are less clear. The Croatian word "zagrabiti" translates approximately to "to scoop", which forms the basis of some legends. One Croat legend says that a Croat ban (a viceroy) was leading his thirsty soldiers across a deserted region. He drove his sabre into the ground in frustration and water poured out, so he ordered his soldiers to dig for water. The idea of digging or unearthing is supported by scientists who suggest that the settlement was established beyond a water-filled hole or graba and that the name derives from this. Some sources suggest that the name derives from the term 'za breg' or 'beyond the hill'. The hill may well have been the river bank of the River Sava, which is believed to have previously flowed closer to the city centre. From here, the words may have been fused into one word and, thus, the name Zagreb was born.

While the city is old old old, much of the city appears to have been built in the late 19th and early 20th century--very attrractively, I might add, and very walkable. The city has well under a million inhabitants, so it is a very managable size--not that there isn't traffic, there is, but it is easy to navigate, and everything is in latin letters, so we could actually read street signs. A real plus!

We stayed in the old part of the city, called Gornji Grad just off Ban Jelačić Square in an apartment we rented from InZagreb. I found the web-site myself, but booked the Gold Apartment after reading about it in Rick Steve's guidebook. The location was fantastic, and the apartment would have been ideal for a much longer stay as well as what we used it for. The only thing is parking. We found street parking, which worked fine for the weekend but wouldn't work for week days--and we were unaware that streets were blocked off to traffic on Sunday afternoons, and couldn't read Croatian (which I am sure would have told us said information), so almost got a 500 Kuna ticket (~$100). Otherwise, Zagreb was grand.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Driving in the Balkans with a Serbian Car

There are a number of difficulties with driving in Serbia. I have alluded to the first problem--the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading street signs is difficult when on foot. In a car the challenge is compounded to the point of impossibility. So you are reduced to counting streets and hoping that what is on the map as a major thoroughfare actually corresponds with your assessment of the street's importance. It was not infrequent for us to pull out our phone and use the compass to help us assess exactly which direction we were traveling in and how that corresponded to the direction that we thought we were traveling in. Sadly the correlation was less than perfect.
The second problem was a lack of help from external sources of navigation--a GPS could have helped a lot. Our European GPS had major roads in Serbia, but lacked city maps, so just getting the car in Belgrade and then getting out of the city was challenging. Back to the counting blocks technique--it is primitive but it does work. So long as you have an accurate map. Which is another hurdle.
The biggest hurdle of all is one that there is nothing to be done with. If you want to leave Serbia with a Serbian car, you are bound to be headed to a country that is not the least bit fond of Serbians. And they think that you are Serbian. Uh oh. It is one of the few instances when we have tried to appear non-native. The car rental person noted that Croatia and Slovenia, two places we were driving, hated Serbia and previous customers had had problems with cat calls and vandalism. She recommended looking as American as possible--not that Americans are all that popular in that part of the world either, but it is all a matter of balance.
The only time someone noted our car's provenance to us was in a rural town in Croatia, where we were making no secret of the fact that we did not speak Serbo-Croatian. Still they were suspicious. We quickly assured them that it was merely the place we started our journey, now who we were, but it did make us cautious about where we put the car in the future. We managed to return the car to Belgrade, without significant detours, more or less in tact.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Serbian Arts and Crafts

I didn't anticipate the craftsman aspect of Serbian life. Maybe that is to be expected--Yugoslavia was one country for much of my life, and certainly all of my youth, and there was a real dearth of information in popular media about Slavs. And we certainly were not celebrating their talents. I did not see much in the way of handicrafts while we were in Belgrade--it was all sleek clothing stores, small mini-marts, and shoes shoes shoes. All that changed when we got to Zlatibor, a Serbian resort in the mountains about three hours southwest of Belgrade.

Zlatibor is a Serbian vacation spot for Serbians of all walks of life. We saw hundreds of school children there, on some sort of overnight school trip each and every day. This place is popular. And there are the usual stores that we saw in Belgrade--but once you get out of the ski resort village, there is a series of stalls that sell handmade crafts, and they are both nicely done and inexpensive. I bought hand knit thick wool socks for about $4 that were spectacular and the knitted wool coats with embroidery on top of the thick knitted and slightly felted wool are really nicely done from Sirogojno, Serbia. With a small amount of adjustment they could sell well on the European market--but much like the problem with agriculture, there just isn't that kind of help being offered to Serbia.

I wish I could have brought home some of the ceramics that I saw, all under $10 and all handmade--I did manage a sweater vest, but that took up all of the discretionary room I had in my suitcase. But most of all, I wish I had had more time to visit art galleries, because every hotel lobby we were in had interesting and original art. I have really enjoyed bringing home paintings from other places and decorating my walls with them--they remind of the place that they came from, and the art that we saw there, so they are memory placeholders as well as something to enjoy for the sake of the art. Something to do on the next trip.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gleaning and the Harvest

I am reflecting on the trip I recently took to the Balkans and the end of the Jewish holiday, Sukkot, which is in celebration of the harvest season. There was impressive agriculture going on in both Serbia and Croatia, with astonishing fruits and vegetables, and a large amount of land devoted to raising feed corn as well. There is also impressive unemployment in Serbia. I was repeatedly told that in Serbia proper unemployment is at 30% of the population--and no one knows what is going on in Kosovo (which Serbia still regards as it's territory, while the U.N. is occupying it and Europe considers it independent). An estimated 20% of Serbians do not work, either due to age or unemployability--so that leaves the other half to support them. A very difficult situation.
When we were driving from Zagreb to Belgrade on our last day in the Balkans, I saw a man with a wooden cart hauled by a horse in a harvested field of corn. He was gleaning. The classic painting on the subject of gleaning is this one by Jean François Millet in 1857, and I have always loved this concept. People who do not have enough to eat, or have more time than they have money can go into a field and pick up what is left over. No one is going to use that food, and someone should have it. In our country we do not encourage, or even allow gleaning, but in days gone by, in Millet's time, farmers would invite gleaners into their field after the harvest. It was a nod to those less fortunate than oneself. I didn't see a lot of horse drawn carts on the trip, but I saw more than one. Serbia in particular is a country balanced on the edge. There is some impressive infrastructure, roads and bridges being two examples, but there are significant problems to be overcome as well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Serbian Agriculture

More thoughts on the Soviet legacy. The most impressive thing we saw in Serbia was the quality of the produce they harvested. Farmers selling their fruits and vegetables--as well as honey and homemade infusions--were everywhere, and they were uniformly gorgeous displays. Better than how they look is how they taste, which is fantastically flavorful. The best peppers I have had anywhere, and not just once, but consistently great.

So what is the problem? Well, according to one Serbian friend, it is infrastructure. The Soviet Union higly valued industrialization--the factory was the key to success in the communist paradigm. Yugoslavia had a socialist back bone, so the tenets were not such a stretch, but factories were built far from the resources needed to run them. Not such a great idea, and completely unmanageable in the era of a high efficiency and fairly flat world. People are not buying local when it comes to manufactured goods. China is king, and if you can't beat their price, you cannot hope to compete.

So what about agriculture? The good news is that Serbian soil is rich and productive--they even have a good market in that Russia will buy their produce. The problem is everything else--after harvest, where to store it? There is no farming collective to help with resources and storage--much less transport. The problems to be solved in the 21st century in Serbia are numerous, but some very simple infrastructure in farming could go a long way to helping that quadrant of the economy for them.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sleeping in Serbia

One interesting thing about visiting the Balkans is yet another opportunity to see what the legacy of Soviet influence is in the former Yugoslavia. When we were driving through Bratislava several summers ago I was terrified. The humorless concrete buildings were so oppressive that I literally couldn't wait to get out of town. It is one thing to be utilitarian and it is another to frighten people off. Not so in the Balkans. Things are more inviting--or at least you don't grip the side of your car door and beg to leave.

I spent five nights in 4 different hotels in Serbia and there is a pattern, a method to the Serbian sleep experience. First off, the exteriors of the buildings are nothing to speak of. The Balkan Hotel, where we first stayed, is in a very nice older part of town, with plenty of beautiful late nineteenth century buildings on the same block and within plain view of the hotel. But it is less than charming to look at. That is a pattern.

The next thing is that the lobbies are pretty nice--sometimes a bit oddly decorated (our hotel in Zlatibor had two gigantic plastic horses--bigger than life sized--with a small table lamp sized light positioned between their ears. It was unusual--not exactly tacky, but certainly not classic in style), but always inviting, with nice comfortable seating as well as wireless internet service. Another typical thing is original paintings and occasionally sculpture in the lobby--very nice touch, and it makes repeated visits to the lobby interesting--you can see something new in each piece of art each time you are there.

But then there are the rooms. They are stripped down basic. In some cases they are threadbare and shabby. But even when they are not, they are not the height of fashion, not even to the level that you would expect given the lobby decor. There is almost nothing charming about them, although all hotels were very clean, very neat, and very comfortable. Functional is not attractive. They were also very expensive, especially given the economy as a whole and the cost of other things associated with travel within Serbia. Not a good value. But comfortable.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ajvar: Serbia's Smoky, Garlicky Roasted Red Pepper Spread

The absolute best thing about food in Serbia was the quality of the produce. Red peppers were absolutely the best that I have ever had--including Hungary (admittedly I was in Serbia during red pepper harvest, so maybe that accounts for the difference with Hungary). The red pepper spread that comes with grilled meat and vegetables is called ajvar, and is wonderful.
10 to 12 red bell peppers
1 large eggplant (roughly 1 1/2 pounds)
3 to 6 cloves of garlic, depending on taste
1/4 cup olive oil, divided; additional oil to finish dish
A few splashes of white vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Dried red chili flakes and basil leaves, optional
Preheat oven to broil. Halve each pepper, discarding stems and seeds. Place peppers, cut side down, on an old baking sheet or one lined with foil.

Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and score with a knife, drizzle it with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt and place it on a second baking sheet.

Place one of the oven racks roughly 3 to 4 inches below the heat; place peppers on this rack. The eggplant should sit on a lower rack.

Broil the peppers and eggplant, turning the peppers occasionally until they are well roasted on all sides, roughly 15 to 20 minutes. The eggplant may be done first; if so, remove it and set it aside to cool. (You can also use an outdoor grill to cook the peppers and eggplant.)

When you remove the peppers from the oven, place them in a bowl, sprinkle them with a little water, and cover with a clean dishcloth. This step steams and lifts the skins, making it easy to peel the peppers once they've cooled. (Another method to loosen skins is to place the peppers in a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap until the peppers have cooled.)

Use an ice-cream scoop to remove the pulp of the eggplant, leaving the skin behind. Discard the thickest seeds, but don't get nit-picky. Put eggplant in a food processor with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and 3 or 4 smashed garlic cloves. Pulse the eggplant a few times so that it's chopped with the other ingredients but not totally pureed. Remove the eggplant to a serving bowl.

Once peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them with your fingers or a knife. Add peppers to the food processor and pulse 5 to 8 times to chop coarsely. Mix the peppers with the eggplant puree, season to taste with salt, pepper, a splash of vinegar and a shake of dried chili flakes, if you like. Smooth the surface of the ajvar with a spatula.

If you wish, garnish it with more finely diced garlic and a few scattered basil leaves. Serve ajvar with toasted bread slices drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wrestling with Cyrillic

If you are planning a trip to the Balkans, the good news is that lots of them share a language, known outside the area as Serbo-Croatian (since the middle of the 19th century), and inside by a number of very complicated things: Serbian, Croatian, Serbian/Croatin/Bosnian/Montenegrin...and then those from Herzegovina feel left out. the Croatians do not want to be associated in any way with the Serbs, the Bosnians want to be recognized, and the Montenegrins, while not wanting to be part of the region, want their linguistic roots recognized. Much like everything else in the Balkans, the language is complicated. Add to it Slovene, which is a Slavic language, with many overlapping aspects with Serbo-Croatian, but many more aspects that are separate.
The good news is that from a pronunciation standpoint it is an easy group of languages--once you learn the rules (of which there are a limited number), you can pronounce anything with ease--which makes using your phrasebook, or asking for directions to a specific location very doable, even in the first couple of days of a trip. My husband's name begins with a 'J', which is 'Dz' in Slavic languages, so while startling to see the first time we made a reservation, we soon learned the ropes.
The difficulty lies in the alphabet. Which we did not master. Much of the region, for historical reasons, uses the Latin alphabet--but not so with Serbia. The Orthodox church reigns in the religious realm, and the Cyrillic alphabet is alive and well in Serbia. There is a blessed effort to mark road signs on the highway in both Cyrillic and Latin, which was much appreciated, but on the streets of Belgrade, Cyrillic is king.
Serbia is not the only country using a non-Latin alphabet that we have been to by any means, but many of them give a nod to the non-native speaker and have signs in both Latin and non-Latin forms. Makes a huge difference. Greece certainly posed an equal challenge to us in that it was not common to have Latin signs, but in contrast to Cyrillic, we had some exposure to the Greek alphabet before we went. Admittedly, four of the six of us were on constant vigil as we traveled down the highways of Greece to try to identify the exit we sought before passing it--not always successfully--but it was far easier than learning the alphabet on the fly mid-trip. If I had it to do over again, I would have spent some of the pre-vacation prep time familiarizing myself with the letters that differ from ours.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Little Bay Restaurant, Belgrade

We went to this restaurant our very first night in Belgrade. One thing I like about having to connect in Europe is that by the time you get to your destination there is not all that much time you have to stay up to go to bed at a respectable local time. None-the-less, we were not up for a late dinner reservation, and consequently we were almost alone in this restaurant at 6:30 in the evening--Belgrade as a whole does not dine early.
This restaurant is part of a somewhat unusual chain--they have restaurants in England, and then this one in Belgrade. Odd. I am sure there is a reason behind it, I just don't know what it is and there is nothing particularly English about the dining experience. The restaurant is located near the National Theater, and it appears to be just an extension of that--there are theater boxes, lush velvet curtains, and you have the sense that you are stepping into a theater from a bygone era.

Opera is playing throughout your meal, and the whole experience is somewhere between engaging and melodramatic. Call us jet lagged, but we enjoyed it. This was also, hands down, the best meal we had in Serbia. We ordered two different salads to start, both of which were very good, and then we got the traditional Serbian dinner plate, which was generously proportioned, had a balance of meat dishes and vegetables (the best root vegetable puree I have ever had amongst them), and was absolutely delicious. The cost of hotels in Serbia is out of proportion to their product, but this large and well-made meal came in at under $20 per person, including beer. You have to choose your restaurants wisely in Serbia but it is very possible to have excellent food.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beograd, Srbija

Luckily, we were picked up at the airport, and we didn't have to struggle with the new language and the new alphabet (Serbia is entrenched in Cyrillic, and alphabet I somehow over looked learning--foolishly, it turns out) while we struggled to stay awake our first day of our trip to the Balkans. Bu once the driver dropped us at the doorstep of our hotel, we were on our own. Which initially seemed like it would be just fine. We have lots of experience on foot in foreign cities--it is our very favorite things to do--explore a new city on foot while we try to get in synch with our new time zone.

Belgrade posed some problems--not only were the street signs in Cyrillic, they were few and far between. We happily stumbled onto a protest in the New Republic Square and were able to orient ourselves on our map. The city is an interesting combination of new and old. It has been constantly inhabited for centuries but with one war and another over time, it has been leveled to the ground and then rebuilt again time and time again. The latest iteration is late 19th century and there are some very nice buildings in the old part of the city from that era.

The streets are full of people well into the night--it is a city that vibrates day and night--people have not abandoned it--and there are some pedestrian areas that are positively packed with people. I had been worried that I would feel threatened, that Serbia wouldn't feel safe, and that was definitely not the case. It was like walking in any European city. It felt as safe if not safer than cities in America. I didn;t see anyone I would cross the street to avoid.

The really odd thing that we saw was that Serbs have chosen not to repair buildings that were bombed by NATO--nor have they torn them down. They have left them, obvious shells of their former selves--with balconies that go well out into the street while the upper and lower levels are clearly damaged. That was scary. Much scarier than anything else--every time we were on the street under them I would unconsciously hold my breath until we were clear of them. Please don't come down on me. It must be important to Serbs to have this reminder of their recent past, I just never figured out what that importance was.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Columbus and the New World

Today is the 519th anniversary of Columbus (or a crew member on one of his three sailing vessels) sighting the New World--initially the Bahamas, but that led to the discovery of two previously unknown continents, and it heralded the rise of European dominance in the world economy, which was uncontested until WWII. Almost 500 years, which is quite a good run. So I don't get why America celebrates Columbus Day--it really should be those that benefited.
Sure, Leif Erikson and the Vikings stumbles upon North America while out looking for places to ransack (which in Icelandic is translated as 'investigate'. Not a gentle people, those Vikings). His wife, Thorgunna, was probably the first European to give birth in the New World. But the real change came with the newly made ships of the late 15th century. While uncompetitive with the earlier Chinese ocean going vessels, the ability of Europeans to more or less accurately navigate the oceans changed their countires quickly and dramatically. It wasn't the settlements of Virginia and New England that turned the tide--they came much later, and had little impact on anyone but those of us who are related to those settlers, and American Revolution history buffs. What changed the world was the discovery of unprecedented amounts of silver, some in Mexico, but the mother lode came from Potosi, in the mountains of what is now Bolivia. I have not been there for 25 years, but when I was there the inhabitants say that enough silver left Potosi to build a bridge from the Andes to Spain--which is believable, because silver changed the rules of trade world-wide. It became the world currency, and propelled Spain onto a world stage.
Silver was not humanely mined--in fact, nothing about the Spanish invasion was all that kind. They came as invaders, not as settlers. They enslaved the native population, impregnated the women, and killed off 90% of them with diseases they had no immunity to--the later was bound to happen, no matter what--the isolation of North and South America was not going to last, and the herd immunity that the Europeans had was hard earned--at least half of Europeans died when the Monguls brought new diseases their way. But the former two were choices. choices made easier when most of your opponents are ill, dead, or grieving those who have died.
So maybe it isn't exactly the stuff that celebrations are made of--but it was a discovery that changed the economy of Europe. If we go about judging the behavior of Columbus and those who followed him in the light of the 21st century, harsh conclusions are appropriate, but he was a 15th century man and the truth is, he was no different than his peers. Except that he changed the world forever.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Preparing to Go to Serbia

You know you are in for a different vacation when you cannot find a decent guide book for the place you are going. It is a little disconcerting, especially if you are like me. I try to merge all the available information available ahead of time from sources that I am familiar with, so I can self guide my trip successfully. Usually I use Fodor's for restaurant suggestions, Rick Steve for picking out the essential sites to see (I really wish he was more of a foodie because it would be a guidebook I would actually bring with me if the restaurant selections were any good), the Rough Guide for a thorough description of most towns in most regions, the Lonely Planet because I share their sensibilities and I like their 'essential things to see' preambles to the actual guidebook, and then anything else that I can find to help guide my trip.

So, what did I find?
The Lonely Planet has a book of the Western Balkans which includes Serbia, but I chose to just get it out of the library and photocopy the handful of pages that related to Serbia. It was a meager coverage, and completely out of date. I did finally stumble on one guidebook, published by Brandt, which I was unfamiliar with, and the author starts the guidebook out by explaining that he decided to write the book because there were no decent guidebooks to the area. True that. This one does do a good job of describing the places that he covers, but I had a hard time thinking about planning a trip from it, and the one place that I was definitely going, Zlatibor (where my husband's meeting took place) he dismissed out of hand as a tourist site inhabited by Serbs--well, true, but there are very few non-Serbs touring Serbia, so a little more detail on what was better and worse about the lace would have helped.

Then, to make matters worse, I did another thing I try to do pre-travel. I read about the place. Well, Serbia got a lot of bad press during the 1990's and I wanted to read something that had more of a positive spin on it about the people and the region. Both Dervla Murphy ('Through the Embers of Chais') and Asne Seierstad ('With Their Backs to the World') wrote with a sympathy to the one-sided Western press that Serbia received, and told first person accounts of their experiences in the Balkans over the past 20 years. If this is what my allies say, I don't want to hear the enemy's account is the general feeling I had at the end of each book. The best that can be said is that there is plenty of blame to go around, that all sides were violent and intolerant, and that religion is a shared problem in the region. I decided early on that I would neither discuss religion nor would I disclose my own at any point in the trip, but otherwise try to get along and learn from the experience.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Balkan Vacation

I am a child of the Cold War. And I never took a world history course--in high school or after. It wasn't until my youngest son took an AP World History course that I knew much of anything about how the world has shaped up over the last 10,000 years. And I know impressively little about the world to the east of Western Europe, besides that Russia was on our side during WWII and after the war we had a falling out. So all those countries that made up the Soviet Union were more or less a mystery to me in terms of both history and culture.
So when my husband said he had a meeting in Serbia and would I like to come, it was on the one hand an automatic yes--I really try hard to make travel possible. But on the other, what I knew about Serbia was limited, and tinged with the press they got during the break up of the former Yugoslavia.

The Balkans, which are still not completely broken up--Kosovo is under the control of NATO and Serbia is not contented with that situation, and Montenegro is also a bit of a black box as well--and the history of the region makes it clear that peace was never attained in it's long and turbulent history. Located between Italy and Turkey, the Balkans had the dubious honor of being an essential path on the way from the East to the West and visa-versa. Which made them important but not independent. They have been more or less continuously occupied since the time of the Romans--true, the Romans got around--and left voluminous buildings in their wake (the Balkans are no exception to that rule--with 3,600 kilometers of Adriatic coastline, they were very accessible to the Romans), but the importance of the region led to it being taken over by a host of other invaders. Which makes the region complicated, both culturally and politically. It is not a straight forward post-Cold War story of violence, and an intriguing place to visit.