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Saturday, January 23, 2010

A La Recherche du Kebab Perdu

I spent last two weeks in Sarajevo, Istanbul and Ankara while reading Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and Thousand Splendid Suns. The common word between three cities and two books is kebab. Kebab is also famous in the Balkans as cevapi, kebabceta and is either grilled minced meat or simply grilled pieces of meat.

I think that my preference goes for the Bosnian version of kebab - the ones the can be found in the cevapdziinicas in the old carshija. They are served in portions of 5, 10 or more but my experience showed that 7.5 is an optimal number for a portion of cevapi. In Bosnia cevapi are served with lepinja - thin grilled bread. They go perfectly well with kajmak (a kind of salty milk product) and onion and cabbage or tomato salad.

I like a bit less the Turkish kebab which is similar to the Bosnian but is served in portions of 6. What's it all about with these numbers and why can't a person order any number of cevapi (like in civilized places like Bulgaria) without calling a referendum? Turks are getting closer to the magic number of 7.5 though. Turkish cevapi go really well with a couple of long peppers and lentils soup which - purist as they are - the Bosnian cevapi places don't offer.

The other highlight of my trip were the aubergines. I ate stuffed aubergines several times and I like them a lot although they could be prepared with lots of oil. There must be some cooking technique which reduces the oiliness. Maybe the tule is simply 'put less oil'. I must praise here Turkish Airlines which on the flight Munich-Istanbul offered an excellent meal of salmon entree, stuffed aubergine and cheese cake. I hadn't had a proper meal in a plane for ages.

I have to also advertise here two Ankara restaurants - Mantar (Mushroom) and Daphne. The first is a very cosy, average priced restaurant where you choose your own meals in the kitchen. The latter is a more elegant and expensive but extremely good restaurant which, unfortunately, unexpectedly charges 15 EUR for a small bottle of raki (pastisse).

My culinary experience in Turkey was topped by the discovery of fresh pommegranate juice (3-4 TRL) which is practically everywhere and is of extraordinary quality. I can also recommend the fresh spicy stuffed mussles at the fish market in Beyoglu.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Geography of a Year

Last year I was on the road for 58 working days which is more than 1/4 of a working year and 1/6 of the whole year. It occurred to me that one could analyse a year through different prisms and for this post I chose the geographic prism. I was thinking that the years of all travelling people comprise of a sequence of places and emotions and impressions that they evoke. All these inevitably interfere with everyday life. We take our lives to the places which become brighter or sadder and we take the places to our everyday lives. To me, the perception of a place is a result of the encounter of our state of mind and the place itself.

I also made links to the blog posts that were dedicated to the trips and I also chose one photo per trip which is a visual summary of my impressions.

Istanbul (Turkey)

My travelling year started in January with a trip to Turkey plunging from Budapest winter to a Marmara spring. The light was bright, the air was mild, I had lunch by the water in Arnautkoy and long walks in the evenings. I remember the light from the office in Kabatas (below) and the spectacular view over the Bosphorus during a 3-hour meeting in a bank in Kabatas. This was the trip of the seaside views and the sudden passage from winter to spring.

Kabatas, Istanbul

Ohrid and Skopje (Macedonia)

February was a travelling month and it started with a visit to Ohrid. I remember the lead colour of the lake and the snow on the tops of the Albanian mountains. I took a regular walk to my favourite place in Ohrid - Sveti Joan Kaneo - when I came upon these stranded boats. This was the trip when one of the motors of our propeller plane stopped and gave us a good scare.

Boat in winter slumber

Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

February Sarajevo was lots of snow. The carsija in the old town is quiet and mystic when it snows, the yard of the mosque is peaceful with an occasional believer crossing it hurriedly, the smoke of the cevapi places is more palpable and the copper objects stand out. This was a trip of copper, quiet and cevapi smoke.

Gigantic Copper Kettle (photo: Christelle Kapoen)

Pristina (Kosovo)

In February I went to Pristina for the first time. This was the freezing trip. I was lucky to be there with my friends Ellen and Peter who are real insiders. We had two culinary evenings with good wine and the company of UN and EC stuff. I also had the honour of seeing the library which was ranked among the ugliest buildings in the world.

Frozen Pedestrian Street, Pristina (Photo: Ellen Baltzar)

Salzburg, Innsbruck, Zillertal (Austria)

As always, first week of March was dedicated to skiing and Austria. This was the trip of lonely skiing but also endless scrabble in the evenings. This was sunny and cold Salzburg, crossing the bridge where Mozart allegedly dropped his notes but also Innsbruck and memories of singing incessantly 'Innsbruck, ihc muss dich lassen...' - an old song I know from my choir years.

Genova (Italy)

If I have to rank my trips last year this will be among the first. It was Liguria, Genova and deserted Portofino. It was the first spring air, the eternal Mediterranean and the sea light seen through the olive trees. It was a hanging full moon on a palm branch and a glass of campari.

Portofino, Liguria, Italy

Regretably, I forgot my camera in France where I went early April. I had not been in Paris for many years and it was so good to be back. This was the trip of sunbathing in the Luxembour Garden, having morning coffee at the Place du Contrescarpe in the Latin Quarter where the April light was reflected in the fountain.

Vienna and Zagreb were other two trips in April which were good but not particularly memorable.


In May I had a couple of trips to Brussels and I could have long walks after work because of the long days. This was a trip when I had the time and luxury to look at the facades of the buildings for hidden signs. I liked the photo below - a fragile tree which sprouted on the wall of an ancient cathedral.

Hope, Brussels

Ancona, San Marino, Urbino, Venice

This was my second Italian destination in 2009. This trip was so great that I dedicated three posts to it. I remember being a bit dissapointed by Rimini and its tourist industry but overwhelmed by Urbino, the Rafaelo museum and again Venice. The bridge below in Rimini is from 1st century and still in use. Ancona was flowery, yellow and elegantly decadent.

Roman bridge, 1st c., Rimini

Lazarevats (Serbia) - May

As the summer approached the work trips were intersparsed by some family trips. Below was a fly-hunting trip to Serbia.

Boris and Andrej, hunting

Brussels and Bruge (Belgium)

I spent another week in Brussels in June and this time Jelica and the kids were with me. We visited a long forgotten Bruge where we had great time with Adriana, Zoya and Vida and the day changed from torrential rain to warm afternoon afternoon by the canal.

Canal, Brugge

Sarajevo - June

In June I was in Sarajevo again, ate another five portions of cevapi and strolled along the carsija a dozen times. I tried to take pictures if Muslim architecture. This trip was also a nice long drive with my colleagues from Budapest to Sarajevo and a fish soup by the Danube in Mohacs.

Miljacka River

Thessaloniki and Halkidiki (Greece)

During the past several years my Bulgarian friends acquired the nice habit of spending a week in Greece. This year Boris and I decided to join them but camping. This was a trip of absolute freedom, no schedule, Boris falling asleep on the table and me carrying him to the tent, Boris' excitement with the warm nights in the tent, fresh grilled fish and quiet sunsets.

Vourvouru, Sithonia, Halkidiki, Greece

Mljet (Croatia) - July

This was a trip with no Internet, 'Discovering the Balkans' by Maria Todorowa, crystal clear water, biking at 40 degrees at 2 pm, eating tons of fish while watching the sunset and regular 200 m. walks in the night combined with lying on the warm cement under a pine to watch the stars and discuss the boats with friends D and I.

Mostar and Sarajevo (BiH)

Coming back from the sea we crossed Bosnia and Herzegovina and I finally visited Mostar for a midday walk along the carsija. It is also quite interesting to climb the peninsula from Croatian Adriatic, through Herzegovina, Muslim Sarajevo and Republika Srpska. I remember the sad story of the destruction of the bridge but also the beautiful meadows of Romania Mountain in Republika Srpska.

View from the bridge in Mostar over the carsija and Neretva river

Rhodope Mountain, Bulgaria

This was our regular summer pilgrimage to Bulgaria and the Rhodope Mountain. This year it rained a bit which can be seen from the picture. The village and the hills are particularly beautiful when the sun shines after the rain. This was also a trip of blueberries, lots of wine and long walks around the village.

Solishta Village, Bulgaria

The autumn was full of trips again but mainly to Brussels. The problem with the autumn trips in Brussels is that it is dark so early that no pictures are possible. These were great trips because I rediscovered the pleasure to stay with friends. I almost got adopted by my friends R and A as well as E and S for which I warmly thank. I immensely enjoyed the stays and the bottles of wine drunk.

Belgrade, Serbia

The last business trip of the year was quite dramatic because of the big snow and the crazy schedule of meetings in a deadlocked city by the taxi drivers' strike. Somehow, on the last day I managed to take a walk and make some pictures at the Kalemegdan fortress.

View of Sava from Kalemegdan

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kosovo (but not UNSCR 1244)

Anyone who has written publications on the Balkans knows this magic formula - Kosovo, UNSCR 1244. UNSCR stands for United Nations Security Council Resolution and is the politically correct way to refer to the breakaway state of Kosovo which is funnily refered to by the Kosovars themselves with the Albanian ending 'a' - Kosova. UNSCR 1244 placed Kosovo under interim UN administration and is the only formula acceptable to Serbians.

This is not a post on Kosovo, UNSCR 1244 though. I would like to share some photos on village Kosovo where we spent the new year. Kosovo is situated in the Rhodopi Mountain in Bulgaria. It was established in the 17th century and it seems that it was quite lively in the 19th century.

This is not the case any more. Many of the beautiful stone houses are deserted and one hardly sees a living soul on the streets except an occasional dog or cat. If there ever has been a life in the village it is long gone.

It is such a pity that modern life is organised in such a way that beautiful places like this one are empty and sad. We all tend to crowd into the cities (very often ugly) looking for each other's comfort but I wonder if one day people will not get tired of the hustle and bustle and start going back, organising communes, living together a different and maybe much more interesting and harmonious lives.

And these places had a life before industrialisation in the 40s and the 50s drove people from villages to towns. I have seen my grandfather's pictures from a village (Kilifarevo, south of Veliko Tarnovo) in the 20s and 30s and there were dozens of young boys and girls who had fun, used to have a musical group and even a theater group...

I wonder if this will not happen again one day. I imagine this village with dozens of young families, some of them working remotely, some of them working the land, some of them living here and working elsewhere. Although this sounds like a dream it may happen one day as big cities become too crowded and too polluted and most importantly one loses one's connection to nature. We all know we miss it and we all know that we are handicapped without it. When will the tipping point be?

The problem is that getting back to such a place requires a change in the mindset, it requires living in a slower way, acquiring new skills even changing one's communication patterns.

This is 'the other' hill of the village seen from our house.

The other hill, Kosovo

This is our side of the village seen from 'the other' hill.

This house looks like a forteress who is under attack and is hardly holding. In reality there is no one to attack and no one to defend. Is there anything worth defending?

Shy Flag

The church was surprisingly fit and the tower is neat and white. The building in front has three purposes: a shop, a local bar and an ethnological museum with three separate entrances.

Church Dome (1851)

Some houses are really falling apart and are probably beyond repair. Imagine how beautiful this one was and how beautiful it could be.

Past Glory

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
take these broken wings and learn to fly
all your life you are only waiting for this moment to arrive...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beans, Pumpkin and Apricots

Christmas is receding into the past (except for old calendar Orthodox countries like Russia and Serbia) but I came upon some pictures from the Christmas Eve table at my mother's place which I would like to share.

One is supposed to fast for 40 days before Christmas but on the 23rd the conversation between my brother and mother went as follows:
My mother: What are we eating tonight? Something light and vegetarian as we have to fast at least 24 hours before Christmas.
My brother: Well, fasting tomorrow evening would be enough I think. Let's grill this nice meat.

So much for sacrifices.

The frugal Christmas Eve table is almost the same each year with only small variations. It includes:
- bread with a cross on top of it and a coin inside;
- red peppers staffed with beans;
- rolled vine leaves with rice;
- potato and onion salad;
- tomato and onion salad;
- dried apricots and prunes;
- all kinds of nuts;
- baked pumpkin;
- pickled peppers staffed with pickled cauliflower.

Christmas Eve Table

Each year I swear to eat less but it is never easy given the temptations. For me the quantity of eaten food during the holidays is in inverse correlation with the capacity for social interaction and enjoyment. It seems to me that millions of people do not enjoy the overeating part of the holidays but persist in doing it. It is understandable that excess is one of the points in each holiday but wouldn't it be nicer to indulge in an excess of sociability and communication for example rather than excess in eating.

Christmas Eve Table, another perspective

There is of course a magic formula for the quantity of wine to be drunk in order to achieve a maximal sharpness of mind. This formula is hidden in a bottle swallowed by a fish which was swallowed by a whale. I am not preaching moderation here as sharpness of mind is hardly the desirable condition for each one picking a glass.

Bulgarian Wine Collection in the Restaurant in Village Kosovo

Wine Produced by My Friend Z

There is an idiom in Bulgarian which is hard to translate but it approximately means 'I wish I had your problems'....