Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sightseeing in Bratislava, Slovakia

Old Town
Yesterday, Krasimir and I headed off to Bratislava for the day.  I hadn't seen Liz since London and since she and her boyfriend, James, were in town for the weekend it seemed like a perfect excuse to head off to Slovakia for the day.

St. Michal's Gate

Krasimir had never been to Slovakia before so we just spent the day walking around the city and taking photos.  And of course, it was great to see Liz and James again.  Hopefully they will be able to make it to Brno for Thanksgiving this year.

We headed up to the castle to enjoy the view of the city and the Danube.

The House of the Good Shepard was built from 1760 to 1765.  Since 1975 it has been home to the Museum of Clocks.  This building is considered to be one of Central Europe's most beautiful Rococo-style buildings.

Blue Church

While the locals call it "Blava" it is still "Bratsville" to me.

One thing that cracked me up about this visit was that not once, but twice, I was told by locals how well I spoke Slovak for a foreigner.  One shopkeeper even asked me how long I had been studying Slovak.  Yeah, I was speaking Czech.  The only Slovak that I know is Ďakujem (thanks) Dovidenia (good bye).  I must admit that it was a bit of an ego boost.  Perhaps my Czech isn't too bad if Slovaks can understand me.

Well the ego boost didn't last long.  Once we got back to Brno, I said something in Czech and the shopkeeper didn't understand me.  I guess that bad Czech equals good Slovak.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hostage Care Package

I had another run-in with Czech customs.  About three weeks ago, I received an e-mail from customs in Prague.  They had a package addressed to me but in care of my work address.  According to the customs form, the box contained a t-shirt (which equals clothing) and customs wanted to make sure that this package was for personal use and not a commercial transaction.

I replied back that it was for personal use and confirmed that the package should be sent to my work address.  About a week later I was informed that I had mail at work.  But what I received was a letter from the customs office.

The offending product
Apparently, when my package was red flagged the office opened it.  Inside the box they found a 20 oz (567 g) bag of crumbled bacon.  Who knew that this was such a big no no?  I was issued a letter that stated that it is illegal to import meat products in to the European Union.  The offending product would be destroyed and that I had to pay for the "destruction".  I had to inform the post office if I still wanted the remaining contents or if I wanted everything returned to sender. 

Just like before, I had two choices.  I could go to the main office in Prague to claim my package in person.  Or I could complete a power of attorney form, everything would be handled for me (for a higher fee) and I would receive my package in Brno.

I had to pay 180 Kč ($9.50) for the customs clearance and administrative fee.  I also had to pay another 900 Kč ($47) to have my bacon bits "destroyed".  Next time, I'm gonna' have someone put it in a suitcase and hand deliver it.

The lesson learned here was to never put clothing items on the customs form because then the government was its VAT.  On the bright side, I love my new In-N-Out t-shirt.  Thanks Mom and Dad!!  

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Maltese Falcon at Tugendhat

Last week, before I went to Dubrovnik, a few of us headed off to movie night at Villa Tugendhat.  They do this sort of thing every so often but you have to act fast because it is kept to a small number of participants.

This time we went to see The Maltese Falcon.  The film was shown in English with Czech subtitles.  I tried to keep up with reading the Czech.  It was interesting to see how all of the 1940's slang was translated in to Czech.

Roughly 30 people on folding chairs, in the living room of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, watching Humphrey Bogart with Czech subtitles.  Not a bad way to spend a Monday night in Brno.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovník is one of the most popular Mediterranean destinations.  It is known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic".  While not the largest city in Croatia (#13), it is home to around 43,000 people.

After WWI, and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Dubrovnik became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.  After WWII, it became part of Yugoslavia.

In 1979, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  During the early 1970s the Old Town demilitarized so that it would never become a casualty of war.  That didn't go as planned.  When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, in 1991, Serbia and Montenegro demanded that the city be handed over.

Once the war broke out many Croats went to Durbrovnik's Old Town thinking it would be safe.  Who in the world would bomb a UNESCO World Heritage Site?  Serb and Montenegrin forces laid siege on Dubrovnik for seven months.  More than half of the city was damaged and hundreds of people were killed.

The city is surrounded by a series of defensive stone walls.  The limestone walls were mainly built during the 12th to 17th centuries.  The walls run about 1,940 meters (6,360 feet) long and reach up to 25 meters (82 feet) high. 

Onofrio's Fountain was built upon completion of the city's water supply in 1438.  It is a popular meeting point in the city.

The St. Savior Church is a Catholic church in old town.  It was built in 1528.

Construction of St. Blaise's church was completed in 1715.  The Baroque church is dedicated to St. Blaise, the city's patron saint.

The Old Synagogue was established in 1352 and gained legal status in the city in 1408.  It is the second oldest synagogue in Europe and the oldest Sefardic synagogue still used in the world today.  It is primarily a museum but the main floor is still used for worship on hold days and special occasions.  It is located on a tiny side street so it's difficult to get a decent photo of it.

The Assumption Cathedral was built in the 12th century and today is the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Dubrovnik.  The story goes that it was financed by Richard the Lion-Heart.  On his return from the Third Crusade he was shipwrecked off a local island and saved by the people of Dubrovnik.  To show his gratitude he gave a substantial amount of money to build the church.  Unfortunately it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1667 but completely rebuilt in 1713.

Outside of the city walls is Fort Lovrijenac which sits on a 37 meter (121 foot) high sea cliff.  It was built in order to protect the city's western sea access.  While construction began in 1018 it wasn't completed until the 16th century.

View from Mt. Srđ
The best view of the city is from the top of nearby Mount Srđ.  A cable car ride to the top only takes a few minutes.

On top of Mount Srđ is Fort Imperial which was built, from 1806 to 1816, during the Napoleonic Wars.  There is the Homeland War Museum which shows how the city was affected during the 90s siege.   I've been to Croatia many times but prior to visiting Dubrovnik I had never heard of the fighting in Croatia referred to as the "Homeland War".

Here's a Rick Steves video on Dubrovnik that I found out on YouTube.

©Rick Steves

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Budva, Montenegro

Budva is the most popular tourist spot in Montenegro.  It sits on the coast, has plenty of beaches, and is known for its nightlife.  The town itself is small, with around 22,000 people, but at over 3,500 years old, it is one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic.

It is often called the "Montenegrin Kuwait" because for a town of 22,000 people there are around 500 millionaires.  The most millionaires per capita in all of Europe.  Most of these are Russians, Austrians and Italians who bought property during the real estate boom in the early 2000s.  The influx of money has transformed this once poor fishing village.

The main attraction is its Old Town.  It's said that Budva was discovered by a Greek sailor.  Having been under the Roman Empire and the Venetians, there is a distinct style to the town.  In 1979 there was a major earthquake and it took eight years to rebuild the Old Town.

Stari Grad (Old Town) sits on the peninsula and is surrounded by 15th century city gates and defensive walls.

The Catholic St. Ivan's Church was built in the 7th century.  The belfry was added in 1867.

The St. Mary of Punta Church dates back to 840 AD and is the oldest church in Budva.  The legend goes that Spanish sailors placed an icon of the Virgin Mary along with two burning candles sometime before the 9th century.  It was meant to test the Christian faith of the local villagers.  Apparently, the locals passed because there's been a church on the very spot the icon was left over 1,200 years ago.

The Holy Trinity Church was built in 1804.  This Orthodox church is in the middle of the citadel.

Sveti Stefan is a small island and hotel resort about 6 km (3.7 miles) southeast of Budva.  Once home to a small village, everything was acquired by the Yugoslav government during Tito's reign and it became an upscale resort for high-ranking communist party members.  The resort fell in to decline when Yugoslavia broke up.  Over the past few years a lot of money has been invested to posh it up.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Njeguši, Montenegro

Njeguši is a small mountain village in southern Montenegro.  By small I mean tiny.  It is home to less than 30 residents.  Njeguši is about an hour's drive from Kotor, on the way to Budva.

Soviet WWII memorial
Historically the village is best known for being the birthplace of the Petrović dynasty which ruled the country from 1696 to 1918.  Today the village is known to produce the best pršut (prosciutto, i.e., cured ham).

Production normally begins in November when the temperature drops below 10 ºC (50 ºF).  The ham is rubbed with sea salt and pressed.  The mean is then hung to dry.  Every other day, for the the next 30 to 40 days the meat is smoked using logs and beech sawdust.  Over the next few months it ripens and air dries.  Between the 10th and 12th month is when the quality is best.  It's said that the mixture of sea and mountain air here is what gives the meat it particular good flavor.

A popular story is that in the 1950s a famous sculptor was commissioned to produce some work at a nearby national park.  He negotiated his government payment, not in money, but in the local pršut and cheese.

Kotor, Montenegro

I'm back in the Balkans baby!  From Dubrovnik, it is only 92 km (57 miles), about 1 hour 40 minutes to Kotor, Montenegro.  Kotor is a coastal town on the Gulf of Kotor.  The town has just over 13,500 residents. 

Kotor was founded in the 5th century BC and was settled by the Romans as Acruvium.  During the Middle Ages it was an important commercial center.

The city has been ruled by the Byzantines, Serbia and the Venetians.  It was under Hungarian control before becoming an independent republic.  Then it was back under the Venetians, followed by the French and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  After WWI it was part of Yugoslavia before it became part of Italy in WWII.  After the war, it once again was part of Yugoslavia.

Kotor has one of the best preserved medieval old towns along the Adriatic.  In 1979, the Natural and Cultural-Historical Region of Kotor was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Stari Grad, the Old Town, is home to the majority of sights.  The main gate was built in the 16th century.

The walls around the city stretch for 4.5 km (3 miles) above the city.

St. Tryphon's Cathedral was consecrated in 1166 and the chapel is home to the remains of Kotor's patron saint.  The interior features some 14th century frescoes.

St. Nicholas' Church is the town's biggest Orthodox church and dates back to 1902.

St. Luke's Church is tiny.  This Romanesque-Byzantine church was built in 1195.  It was a Catholic church until the mid-17th century.  Since then it has been a part of the Orthodox community.

Panaramic shot from Mt. Lovćen

The Bay of Kotor is about 28 km (~17.5 miles) long from the city harbor to the open sea.  You can get a great view of the bay from Mt. Lovćen.

From here you can also get a view of the road shaped like an 'M', in honor of Milena, the Princess of Montenegro.

Out in the bay is the Our Lady of the Rocks.  The story goes that sailors found an icon of the Virgin Mary on a rock in the sea in 1452.  So after every successful voyage, a rock was laid where the picture was found so that one day a church could be built on top of the rocks.  The tradition continued and over the course of a few centuries the islet was formed.

Kotor is a beautiful little town.  The Old Town with its small passages has a lot of charm.  It has become a port of call for several cruise ships.