Posts Tagged ‘ Tourism ’

Congratulations, Bosnia!

Congratulations to Bosnia (and Albania).  Finally, the European Union reached agreement today to revoke visa requirements for Bosnia and Albania.  The decision will be published in the Official Journal of the European Union on December 14, and citizens from Bosnia will be able to travel to the Schengen countries without visas beginning December 15 this year.

A passport from Yugoslavia was considered one of the best in the world.  Yugoslav citizens could travel freely unlike their neighbors in the former Soviet Union.  After the wars in the 1990s and political chaos in Albania, a strict visa regime was imposed.

Serbia and Montenegro were given visa liberalization on  December 19th last year (see post “Serbia Moves Forward“).  This created problems in Bosnia because many citizens hold two passports.  Bosnian Croats also hold Croatian passports, and Bosnian Serbs have Serbian passports.  This means that in the past year, the Bosniak (Muslims) had the biggest travel problems in the country.

So… congratulations to Bosnia for achieving visa liberalization.  It might not feel like a huge change for many citizens, due to holding other passports.  The economic situation in Bosnia is dire and most people cannot afford to travel abroad for vacation.  Visa liberalization, however, is a symbolic step for the entire country.

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Wasting Serbia’s Environment

Fruška Gora, a mountain and national park in Serbia, is visible from the city of Novi Sad where I lived last year.  This area is an oasis next to the city, filled with picturesque monasteries, camping sites, and hiking trails. Fruška Gora was designated a national park in 1960, and its forests contain more than 30% lime (linden), the highest concentration of this species of any mountain in Europe. The mountain hosts a very rich natural environment, filled with rare plants, animal and endangered bird species, and a network of permanent springs.  The entire area is bursting with potential for eco-tourism to showcase its natural beauty, next to Serbia’s cultural capital.

After my enjoyable time in Novi Sad, I read an article in Balkan Insight today with great displeasure.  In September, Serbia changed its Law on Environment, putting national parks like Fruška Gora in great danger.  These amendments, according to the article, “relate to the protection status of national parks – instead of one level of protection that covers all parks, a range of protection levels has been introduced.”  Incidentally, Serbia has been accepting nuclear waste from the rest of Europe, which is most likely being temporarily stored in closed off mines.  The idea, as explained by Nikola Aleksic from the Ecological Movement in Novi Sad, is that this hazardous waste will be transferred to Fruška Gora.  The waste can be placed in the hollowed out tunnels and hangars in the mountain that were built during World War II. Parliamentarians are expected to vote on these changes this month, which the Serbian Ministry of the Environment insist have nothing to do with Fruška Gora.

I am extremely disheartened to hear this news.  These amendments will affect all of Serbia’s national parks, so of course these changes will affect Fruška Gora.  As a potential Member State, Serbia must work diligently to ensure that its environmental legislature complies with EU standards. This will be no easy task, as these proposed amendments are not the only evidence that Serbia does not respect its natural resources. The Organisation for the Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Serbia has also identified that Pancevo’s industrial complex is dumping waste into the Danube River, Novi Sad’s oil refinery is contaminating ground water, as well as large quantities of inadequately stored waste. The National Environment Strategy also points out other areas of concern in Serbia, including air pollution, soil degradation, unsustainable forest management, and a lack of recycling.  During my latest trip to Novi Sad, I searched all around the city for a recycling container before I found one forgotten bin.

Serbia’s environment suffered along with its recent history.  During the Yugoslavia era, there was heavy industrialization in combination with inefficient and wasteful use of natural resources. The breakup of the country in the 1990s resulted in an economic collapse and a lack of proper investment in the environment.  The consequences for Serbia’s environment today are grave.

I hope that political leaders in Serbia vote against these amendments, which will lower (already low) standards for national parks in Serbia, as well as the environment as a whole.  I believe that this is a complete step backwards as Serbia strives for full European integration.  Now is the time for policy makers to look to the future of the country in every sector.  Although they have made some progress in adopting EU standards, there is a huge difference between passing and implementing laws.  Serbia has to make its environment a priority.

Balkan Connections

A railway company named Cargo 10 is ready this October 1st to open its newest project – a new train connection in the Balkans, from Ljubljana to Istanbul.  This project will provide the Western Balkans with trains that are faster, more modern, and in compliance with EU standards.  Cargo 10 was founded by Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia, and Bosnia (FBiH and Republika Srpska separately) and Macedonia also decided to join.  The first step of the project, costing 100 million EUR, will be used for the restoration of the railway lines and the purchase of new electronic engines.  The second loan, valued at 200 million EUR, will be spent on the development of additional routes.  According to Radio Srbija, some of these projects will include,  “the modernization of railway line Belgrade-Subotica-Hungarian border, which is in the north line of Corridor 10. By the end of the year, works on the electrification of the Niš-Dimitrovgrad-Bulgarian border railway are to begin. Next year, two railway bridges, namely those in the towns of Paraćin and Novi Sad respectively, will be built. Negotiations with Russia on a loan of 600 million USD for the Belgrade railway junction and for the building of the Valjevo-Loznica railway are expected.”

Last December, Belgrade and Sarajevo reopened its direct railway connection after 17 years, which was a huge step for the region.  Trains in the former-Yugoslavia are old and slow, and in desperate need of modernization as these countries strive for EU membership.  Serbia’s visa restrictions were lifted at the end of last year, and BiH hopes to join the Schengen White List soon.  The countries in the area need more coordination and joint business ventures like Cargo 10 and travel around the region should be encouraged, for tourists from the rest of Europe as well as for citizens from these successor states.    Ticket prices will be much cheaper and travel times will decrease by about one third, which will result in further economic development of the countries involved.  I believe that Southeast Europe needs a physical connection like this railway line in order to overcome differences of the past and to forge ahead to a prosperous and stable future.

Sources:

BBC article about the Belgrade-Serbia line (opened in 2009)

EUobserver and Radio Srbija on the Cargo 10 project

The Dismal Future of Crete

Long before the Greek economic crisis was a permanent fixture on the news, the UK-based Minoan Group planned to develop  the northeastern area on the island of Crete.  The 1.2 billion euro project will create six tourist villages, three golf courses and luxury holiday resorts on land leased by the declining Toplou monastery.  As one of the largest tourist development projects in Greece, the resorts will provide around 3,500 jobs when completed, and perhaps keep young people from leaving the country to work elsewhere in Europe.

The Future Site of the Luxury Developments

During this time of recession, I try to convince myself that this development project is one logical solution to strengthen the Greek economy through tourism, and to simultaneously strengthen the European community.  However, it is difficult to ignore the negative impact this large luxury tourist destination will have on an island with such a rich history.  The largest island of Greece, Crete was the center of the first advanced (Minoan) civilization in Europe.  Is it some kind of joke that the development company is called the Minoan Group, as they plan to destroy the sites leftover from this Bronze Age ancient civilization?   Today, the island of Crete still has many sites that have not been archaeologically excavated that would provide Europeans with insight into their roots.  The island was farmland during antiquity, and the Neolithic and Minoan farms, terraces and fields are still visible on the island of Crete.  The golf courses and development would only cover up this landscape.

Overall plan for the different tourist locations

Furthermore, this project will cause irreversible damage to the Crete environment, which contains some of the world’s most rare plant species, due to the semi-desert climate of the island.  This part of Crete is supposed to be protected by the Natura 2000 decision, which designates areas in the EU for conservation.  Development is directly in opposition to the Natura 2000, and this tourist village far from the present-day tourism on the island would wreak havoc on the natural beauty of the island.

The Minoan Group has careful answers to all of the concerns of those against this project.  They say they are going to keep the golf course with brown grass, and that they will produce their own water.  This development project will only cover a percentage of the island, but once completed, I’m sure the resorts will expand.  Development in this area is not sustainable because of the lack of water, and already hotels have failed in this location.  With this luxury resort on the opposite side of the island from the current tourist destinations, it will only be a matter of a decade or two before the entire island is developed for foreigners.  The beginning of advanced European civilization, an environmental hotspot, and the location of well-preserved archaeological sites will be long forgotten underneath the golf courses and “tourist villages.”  Despite the need for economic recovery, this is just way too tacky.

(Top Image) A Future Golf Course

The plan for the golf course and conference center

Please visit the Minoan Group website for more information, or this petition site where over 10,000 people have signed against this development project.  Other sources for this post include this wordpress blog post by HomeboyMediaNews and this article on the Travel Daily News website.

Balkan Barbeques are Serious Business

When I lived in Serbia, a friend asked me, “Is it true that in America, you barbeque with gas grills?” I responded that some people use charcoal grills but others use gas-fueled grills in their backyards, and my friend laughed in complete disbelief and horror. In the Balkans, barbeque (роштиљ, roštilj) is serious business. The first time I ate barbeque with Serbs was in the United States. I could not believe how much meat they cooked for only 8 people, and I waited in hungry anticipation as they seemed to grill for hours, covering the grill completely several times with meat before we were allowed to dig into the meal. Suddenly, the typical American style cookout of hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad seemed pathetic in comparison. Later, when I lived in Serbia, I had the good fortune to attend several barbeques with friends. I loved to watch as Serbian friends literally built the barbeque in the grass, and tended to it with care and expertise. Lately, two of my friends traveled to Bosnia and Serbia and I helped them plan their trip. I told them to look for pljeskavica and ćevapi and I felt inspired to research a little more about Serbian barbeque and what makes it so delicious.

Helping with the rostilj in Valjevo, Serbia

Surprisingly, I learned a lot from the New York Times with this article. Previously I thought the secret to the wonderful burgers in Serbia (pljeskavica) rested in the way the people tend the barbeque, or perhaps in delicious toppings of cream or pepper-based spreads. This article explains that the secret to a Balkan burger is in the type of ground meat used to make the patties. Each chef has their own secret, but it seems to me that most in the Balkans use more than one kind of meat, unlike in the United States where we only use beef often with a dry result.

One version of the pljeskavica

Of course, these pljeskavica would not be complete without the unique toppings that exist in the Balkans. My favorite was urnebes, which was a type of salad made from pavlaka and chili peppers, which gave it a sort of pink color. Pavlaka is also a typical topping by itself, and it is a sour cream-like product like crème fraiche.  Cabbage, lettuce, onions, etc, are also popular.

I learned that the pljeskavica was invented in Leskovac, Serbia where they have an annual festival honoring the burger. The festival also includes a contest to create the biggest pljeskavica. According to one journalist who visited the town, the contestants prepared a pljeskavica that was 53 pounds with a diameter of 56.7 inches. Currently Seymour, Wisconsin holds the world record for producing the largest hamburger after cooking an 8,266 pound burger at Burger Fest on August 4, 2001. When the journalist told this fact to the chefs of Leskovac, they rejected it, claiming that it is not possible to make such a big hamburger if cooked correctly. One thing is for sure- burgers/pljeskavica in Serbia are very large, and as my friends in Novi Sad joked, they only get bigger as you travel south in the country.

Competition for the largest burger patty

Another treat of meat that I miss dearly is ćevapi, or ćevapčići (which is the diminutive). The word comes from the Arabic word kebab, and the dish arrived during the Ottoman Empire expansion into Southeast Europe. Sarajevo makes the best ćevapi, which is grilled meat formed into sausage-like rolls. Nothing beats sitting in an outdoor café in Sarajevo and eating this dish, served with onions and lepinja, which is spongy Turkish flatbread that is also put on the grill. Sometimes ćevapi is served with kajmak, which is another unique dairy product that is difficult to explain.  It is something in between a cream and a cheese, and it tastes good on just about everything (I’ve eaten it on burgers, bread and even corn on the cob). Once again, the secret lies in the mixture of ground meat.

Cevapi, lepinja, and onions

According to the NY Times article, there are many places to try pljeskavica in New York City, due to the number of immigrants from the former-Yugoslavia. Somehow, all of the different ethnicities can agree that Balkan barbeque is the best. The most noticeable difference is that in New York, you will pay around $10 for a burger that would cost $2 in Serbia or Bosnia, but they are worth trying. As I plan to move to Bosnia in two months, I am starting to get very hungry.

Tourist Tips: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

After traveling to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, I would highly recommend visiting this interesting corner of Europe.  February is certainly not high tourist season for these chilly locations, but there was something very nice about the typical Baltic pastel buildings peeking out from the white snow.  I would never recommend rushing through several countries but I felt satisfied with a day or two in each city, especially in the winter.  My time was limited on this trip, but if I went back I would try to explore some smaller towns, especially in Lithuania.  I would like to provide a list of tips for backpackers or students traveling to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on a budget.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Transportation: Coming from Poland, I took a night bus with Eurolines from Warsaw to Tallinn.  This is not the most efficient way to travel to Estonia, but the ticket was very cheap with my student discount (225 PLN one way, or 56 euros).  Another option is to try to find a cheap flight to Riga.  My friends took a ferry from Helsinki which they said was really enjoyable. Once in the Baltics, the cities are an easy bus ride apart.

BUS TICKETS:

  • Warsaw to Tallinn – 225 PLN (about 21 hours)
  • Tallinn to Tartu – 140 EEK (about 2.5 hours)
  • Tartu to Riga – 168 EEK (about 4 hours)
  • Riga to Vilnius – 9 LAT (about 5 hours)
  • Vilnius to Warsaw – 95 Litas (about 10 hours overnight)

TALLINN, ESTONIA
Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, is situated on the Baltic Sea and has an enjoyable city center.

Baltic Sea - Tallinn, Estonia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Soviet War Monument: Take a stroll along the Baltic Sea to search for this leftover memorial that was erected over the graves of German soldiers during the Soviet occupation of Estonia.  (Pirata tee)
  2. Museum of Occupations of Estonia: Occupied by the Soviet Union, then briefly by Nazi Germany before another four and a half decades of Soviet occupation, this museum presents the 20th century history of Estonia through memorabilia and videos.    I also quite liked the architecture of the building itself.  (Toompea 8)
  3. Free walking tour from tourist information center:  The tourist center offers free 2 hour walking tours of the center and the guide explains the legends and history of Tallinn.  She will also ask for a tip at the end.  Check the office at Mundi tanav 2 for details because the times change seasonally.

Food: I did not have great luck with Estonian food so here are other recommendations.

  • Reval Café (Vene 1)  Sit next to a cozy fireplace as you eat reasonably priced omeletes, salads, and light dishes in the center.
  • KehrWieder (Saiakang 1)  With a few locations throughout the city, this was the best coffee I have had in a long time.
  • EAT Dumpling and Doughnut Café http://www.eat.ee/ (Sauna 2)  Visit this modest café to eat dumplings priced by weight with local students.

Accommodation: I stayed in two hostels in Tallinn, and Tallinn Backpackers Hostel (Olevimägi 11) was far better than Euphoria Hostel.  The place was conveniently located in the Old Town, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the rooms were clean.  Because the hostel is multi-leveled, you can be social if you want or go to bed early.  80ish EEK/8 USD for a dorm bed.

View of Tallinn, Estonia

TARTU, ESTONIA
Tartu is the university city of Estonia and only a short bus ride from Tallinn.

Town Hall - Tartu, Estonia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Toomemagi (Cathedral Hill): Take a walk past quaint bridges, through thick woods, and discover a ruined gothic cathedral.
  2. Tartu Ulikool (Tartu University):  The city centers around these academic buildings and the student-life within…
  3. Estonian National Museum: This museum tracks the history, life and traditions of the Estonian people.  There are displays of holidays, costumes and crafts.  (Veski 32)

Food Recommendations:

  • Crepp: Quiche, soups, and meals with fresh ingredients and a cool ambiance.  (Ruutli 16)

Transportation:
Tartu to Riga – 4ish hours, 168 EEK

RIGA, LATVIA
Riga was my favorite stop during this trip for the interesting architecture and vibe of a bigger city.

House of Blackheads - Riga, Latvia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia: The museum explains the tumultuous history of Latvia from 1940-1991 through powerful displays, memorabilia and one room with a reconstruction of gulag barracks.  Free with the suggestion of a donation. (Strēlnieku laukums 1)
  2. House of Blackheads and other architecture…  The city is known for its art nouveau style architecture, among other influences.  Take a walking tour and start in the center at the House of Blackheads.
  3. Market Hall:  Browse through this enormous market hall near the bus station to get a feel for every day life in Latvia.  There are five connected pavilions selling everything from meat to souvenirs to underwear. Definitely worth taking a walk through or pausing for something to eat.  (Negu iela 7)

Food/Accommodation Recommendations:

  • Dome Pearl Hostel: This hostel was the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in and felt more like a hotel.  Centrally located, the place is clean and is operated by an endearing Russian grandmother who offered us coffee and tried to set me up with another traveler.  (4 Tirgoņu iela) http://www.dome-hostel.com
  • Lido Restaurant: This is a chain Latvian restaurant with several locations and lob cabin interiors.  The food is served buffet style but prepared and grilled in sight. A great way to taste hearty Latvian food and its relatively cheap for the portion sizes.

Transportation:

Bus Riga to Vilnius – 9 Lat

Riga at Night

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA
The largest and capital city of Lithuania and contains the largest Old Town in East Europe.

Art in the Center of Riga

My favorite sights/activities:

  1. Lithuanian State Jewish Museum/Centre for Tolerance:  Vilnius once contained a flourishing Jewish community and this museum explains its very interesting and difficult history.  The museum also contains an eclectic art collection of Jewish artists in all media.  (Naugarduko gatve 10/2)
  2. Uzupis district: The Montmartre of Vilnius, this artist district of the city has a bohemian feel with many galleries and cafes. In 1997, the residents of the area declared a Republic of Užupis, with its own flag, currency, president, and constitution which is posted in several languages near the main square. They celebrate this independence annually on Užupis Day, which falls on April 1st/April Fool’s Day when they stamp people’s passports upon entering.

Uzupis

I recommend seeing these three countries together in one trip.  I had a great time and hope that some of these suggestions are useful for other travelers and backpackers to the Baltics.

Waste of Space

(I apologize for the lull in writing.  Just a quick post in the middle of studying for exams…)

Parliament Palace at night

A few years ago, I met a young woman from Bucharest who emigrated to Canada.  She adamantly described Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament as an eye-sore and a waste.  It turns out that her family used to live in one of the neighborhoods destroyed to build the communist monstrosity.  As a tourist in Bucharest a few months ago, I have to admit that although the Parliament Palace is ugly in the daylight in its typical Soviet-era neoclassical style, I found it rather impressive it its magnificent size.  According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the palace is the world’s largest civilian administrative building, most expensive administrative building, and heaviest building.  The building is 270 m by 240 m, 86 m high, and 92 m under ground and it has 1,100 rooms, 2 underground parking garages and is 12 stories tall.

According to wiki, construction of the palace by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu destroyed the historic district of Bucharest, 19 Orthodox churches, 6 Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and about 30,000 residences.  Construction began in 1983 and was intended to house all major state institutions as well as the residence of Ceauşescu himself.  Ceauşescu was known for the eratic personality cult of his totalitarian regime, and the Parliament Palace represents the way that he lived in luxery as the people of Romania were impoverished and starving.  Eventually, his government was overthrown in 1989 and he and his wife were executed.  Today, the building is not completed.

Only 1/3 of the space in the parliament building is currently used, and it costs more than 50 million euros a year to maintain.  If only 1/3 of the space is used- this means that 20,000 personal residences were destroyed without cause, not to mention the historic district and aforementioned places of worship.   Recently it was proposed that part of the building would make a great shopping center, which could bring 20,000 new jobs and millions in revenue for the city.  The shopping mall would be four times as large as Southeast Europe’s largest mall currently, Afi Palace Cotroceni, which is also in Bucharest.  However, the public is divided over whether or not to turn a historic building into a commercial center.  Although Ceauşescu was a cruel dictator, the building symbolizes a large part of Romania’s recent history that cannot be ignored.

I think the best use for the building would be to house cultural institutions- a museum, theatre, concert hall, etc. However – pragmatically speaking, the enourmous space needs to be put to use and I think a shopping center in part of the world’s second largest building (after the Pentagon) is actually a good idea.  In this economy, a mall would mean more jobs and money for the city.  When tourists visit Bucharest, they like to take pictures of the exterior of the building (notice my photo above!) but most likely few venture inside for the boring tour of the governmental headquarters.  I can imagine that many people would want to go inside to see a shopping mall in the interesting and important space and maybe have a coffee in a posh cafe that kept historic elements in the decor.   If I were in the position of the woman I met a few years back and my home was destroyed to create such an extravagent building, of course I would be resentful of the dictator that destroyed the country and my home.  However, I would be most angry that the building was so extravagent that only a third of the space is even used.  What a waste.  The building will remain an eye-sore in the center of Bucharest, and will forever be a symbolic reminder of the country’s communist past.  Its about time that the building be put to use.

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