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Trip Report Zagjevogradstanbul. Our Trip Report.

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Our mom-daughter road trip was hatched in February, on a gray, snowy, and cold afternoon. Such grand plans we dreamt! Once school broke for the summer, we would hit the road for three weeks and drive from Vienna to “Somewhere” and back with our travel-loving dog, seeing whatever we could see.

I posted on Fodors for road trip suggestions, and after considering our epic journey with all its constraints (only 3-4 hours of driving each day, at least 2 nights in a dog-friendly hotel, and so forth) we returned to our senses as predicted and scaled back the holiday. Two weeks and 2 or 3 destinations. Travel Dog would stay home. But we still had not decided on where to travel.

A dissertation’s worth of research later, we decided on Zagjevogradstanbul! Driving was dropped in favor of planes, trains, and a bus (more time to catch up on reading and enjoying the scenery); hotels, a guest house and an apartment were booked, the “People Vignettes” (visas, as I call them) were purchased, and on the Monday after school ended, we were off.

We hope you enjoy the report as much as we enjoyed the travel!

Day 1. 21st Century Train Travel. Not your father’s Orient Express.

Vienna to Villach, Austria. The boarding protocol in Vienna was, surprisingly, very un-Vienna like. Little order, lots of swarming. We arrived at our reserved compartment to find a squatter in our seat; an older gentlemen who pretended that it was an accident, and then left his luggage (two pieces!) to take up space he hadn’t paid for, meaning that one of our suitcases was wedged in the aisle between seats, and my camera bag rested on my lap for 3 of the 4 hours. This was also the first day of the heatwave that had run across Central Europe; even with the AC on in the compartment, a 36°C day is hot. A comfortable ride it was not.

The other paying passengers in our car included two college-age students, both comfortably dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and an older Pleasant Couple wearing long pants and shirts. Just looking at them made us perspire.

For the last hour I was able to move the camera bag onto an empty seat and try to stretch my cramped legs. Of course, this is when the AC in the entire train car fails. The student group traveling in our car became restless, roaming up and down the aisles to open windows and find fresh air. At this point the Pleasant Couple in our car decided to close the door to our compartment to block the noise, but doing so trapped us all without circulating air. Having none of that, especially as The Squatter was sitting next to DD wearing long pants, a shirt and jacket, and perspiring like a fool onto her, I opened the door. The Squatter and Pleasant Couple quietly sulked for the remainder of the trip to the Slovenian border.

In Villach we changed to a Croatian train bound for Zagreb.
Neither DD nor I were holding much hope for a better second-half of the journey, and so were pleasantly surprised to find a respectable (circa 1990s) train with considerably better AC than the Austrian train had (before it failed, even!), and we had the entire compartment to ourselves—such luxury! Crossing the border from Slovenia to Croatia required us to provide our passports (and Austrian residency cards, interestingly) on three separate occasions (once at the border and twice en route). Overall, though, not too much of an unpleasant start to the holiday.

We arrived at the Zagreb train station in the late afternoon with fresh, cool, and renewed spirits. The first priority was to (hopefully) secure two first-class seats for our train from Zagreb to Sarajevo later that week. Nope. General seating. First come, first served. The tickets were hand-written, the copy made with a carbon paper, too. Quaint.

Light neighborhood sightseeing and dinner rounded out the evening, at Pizzeria Karajola, self-proclaimed “best pizza in Zagreb.” We had a little trouble finding the pizzeria on our first attempt; had the directions included, “pass through the questionable alley to the left of the Petit Bateau store and up the stairs by the Sex Shop,” we would not have missed it. (In response to her inquiry, I assured DD that one did not purchase sex at the Sex Shop. Ahem.)

We sat down and fanned the hot and humid air around us with the menu. When the waitstaff appeared with water glasses containing REAL ICE CUBES it felt like Christmas morning! Ice cubes—even thoroughly cooled beverages—are rare finds in Europe. And the local diners at the table next to us had an entire small bucket of ice cubes, too. The luxury!

We can’t say whether Karajola’s serves the best pizza in Zagreb, because our paper-thin, wood-fired crusts adorned with roasted garlic, Buffalo mozzarella and rocket salad disappeared too quickly for us to make an assessment.

We returned to a hotel room with no AC. (“It is too hot. The AC can not work.” is what we were told.) What were we thinking to expect functional AC in a newly renovated hotel? And, disappointingly, non-functional Internet. (“The Internet is not working. It has not worked all day.”) I did not bother to ask if someone had contacted the service provider. Our first day ended much like it had begun, stuffy and uncomfortable.

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    Day 2. Zagreb

    I inquired again about the AC in the morning, and this time the desk clerk sent a service person to our room. What do you know? The AC unit actually needed maintenance! By the time we left to start our day, the room was cooling nicely. And, the Internet had returned.

    The plan was to tour Old Zagreb and New Zagreb on a bicycle, and with a guide. Logically, I would have toured Old Zagreb first, but our guide seemed most proud of New Zagreb so we toured in reverse chronological order.

    To get to New Zagreb we passed through an unusual area just outside of the old city walls, one that was developed piecemeal, in and around the small villages and other failed and abandoned efforts. Our guide said the area epitomizes Zagreb—no one has any plans—and it certainly appeared that way to us.

    New Zagreb resembles suburban America: wide boulevards, square, glass modern buildings, shopping malls, and even an artificial lake. The city sprawls across the Sava, although little more than a dirt path invites people to walk along the river. After September 11, 2001, the US moved its embassy out from Old Zagreb to just beyond New Zagreb, and a whole service sector has grown around it. Our guide seemed pleased that people were now driving in both directions, from Old to New and vice versa, for work, even thought this new development meant traffic and pollution. Returning back across the Sava into Old Zagreb, we found Old Zagreb a challenge to cycle in (lack of bicycle lanes and no lack of crazy drivers) and asked to cancel the tour. Our guide was most gracious and agreed, citing the lack of bicycle lanes as another data point for her thesis that Zagreb has no plans.

    By this time the 36°C temperature and equally high humidity had wilted us, so we stopped for a quick bite at Good Food for Good People. The small but very new restaurant had a large crowd on the day we visited, with most patrons ordering the "Good Food Burger." We followed suit and agreed that the food was good. It's always fun to see how other countries interpret American food, too; my “Good Food Burger” was not overcooked, and with the customary ketchup and mustard, lettuce and tomato. DD ordered the barbecue burger, and it came with cheese, bacon and mushrooms, but no barbeque sauce.

    By now, time for our “mittagspause.” In planning the trip we decided that time apart every day would be wise, so each day we returned to our lodging for an hour or so in the middle of the afternoon. The unspoken protocol was that we did not bother one another during this time. By the end of the trip we came to enjoy the mittagspause as much as the sightseeing.

    Following our rest we braved the steamy air to walk through the Old City, and really enjoyed ourselves. We were actually more impressed with Old Zagreb, a smaller scale version of Vienna but with its own character, too. Our bicycle guide had complained about this, as well; that Zagreb, once part of the former Habsburg monarchy, spends too much time trying to be like Vienna. (I did not have the heart to tell our guide that her favorite shopping mall in New Zagreb was actually the brainchild of an Austrian.)

    The main sights of Old Zagreb can be viewed in a few hours. The Republic Square was buzzing with shoppers and commuters; to our amusement, Austria was hosting a “Welcome to the EU” event for Croatia with an afternoon of "all things Austrian," including a strings performance outside of Cafe Austria in the square. Marshal Tito Square and the surrounding green space was a nice respite from the heat, and our meandering around the park took us past the former Main Library building, which I would love to have entered, but that privilege is only reserved for research staff and permission-only guests. The walk up to the Capitol area around the tower and the Strossmartre was pretty, offering many photo opportunities of the architecture (some influenced by Vienna, some with more Venetian tones), St. Mark’s church, and the Zagreb cathedral (with scaffolding, alas). In all, we were not disappointed to have included Zagreb on our itinerary, and felt that our 1 ½ day visit offered a good sightseeing sampler.

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    Day 3: Zagreb to Sarajevo. In a word: wretched.

    The rail infrastructure in the former Yugoslavia is not exactly at the level of DeutscheBahn or OBB or Thalys. Or even the 20th century. I had read that in early 2012 BiH had considered replacing their old train cars with modern ones, but I can assure you that has not happened.

    Nor do I think the trains should be replaced. The great majority of the passengers on the train with us from Zagreb to Sarajevo do not deserve decent rail transportation. The smokers (who disregard the “no smoking” signs) feel perfectly within their right to light up wherever and whenever, even going so far as to stub out their cigarettes on the metal window sills before tossing the butts out of the window. Trash, including whole bags of rubbish, was tossed out the window to litter the countryside. Raucous children come aboard at various intervals begging for money, as well. At one point we had to close our compartment door and draw the curtains across to keep the children from pestering us.

    Some of the rail personnel do not deserve their jobs, either. The cars lack AC, naturally, but with all the windows open a pleasant cross breeze helped keep spirits up. Nearly all of the windows needed to be propped open; and a nice fellow passenger showed us how to use a partially full water bottle (a precious commodity on the train, as there is no restaurant car, trolley cart, or potable water) to prop open the window outside our compartment. With about 3 hours remaining on our long 9 hour ride, though, the same ticket checker (who chided us for having our shoeless feet propped up on the seats but said nothing to the smokers) came through the car, tossing all water bottle window props out and slamming the windows shut. I gave him my best “WTH?,” to which he retorted something in his best (or worst) Bosnian, but what was done was done. A precious water bottle wasted, and windows closed on another 36°C day. Tears formed in DD’s eyes, but my fearless co-traveler hung in there.

    Despite the novelty of the scenery (some stations were so rural that passengers not only were deposited on the tracks, but also had to climb over other trains to reach their destination), we were dirty, tired, and hungry, and could not get off the train fast enough in Sarajevo. The owner of the guest house where we were staying advised us to tell the taxi driver to turn on the meter so he would know that he could not overcharge us. (I had that sentence printed (in Bosnian) with the guest house address and showed it to the driver.) We had to stop at a Bankomat along the way (no cash stations at the train station); when we reached our lodging the taxi driver claimed he did not have change for the 50Km note I handed him, so the proprietor sent him off to get change, telling us, “He will come back. I know his sister.” (He did come back.)

    The grit and grime feel of our cattle-class journey disappeared instantly at Guest House Halvat. A small house with only five rooms, but bursting with hospitality, cheerfulness, and everything else that makes a holiday memorable. With the afternoon light fading and our rumbling tummies growing louder, DD and I splashed water on our faces and made haste to the old city market and the first restaurant with an outdoor table. There was, thankfully, an English menu, and the kind diners at the adjacent table helped us out (though Sarajevo is known for its hospitality, it was probably my pointing at the woman’s dish that prompted her to help). Soon our table was filled with cevapi, pita, kebab, fresh salad, and icy cold mineral water and Fanta. No wine to be found, as I suspected, but desperately wanted.

    Our table was in a prime people-watching location, and between bites of savory kebab and soft pita, we watched women wearing headscarves in all colors of the pantone set breeze by, most looking cool and comfortable in spite of the head-to-toe coverings (how do they stay so cool? we wondered.); while other young women tottered across the cobblestones in mini skirts and maxi heels. Young children chased pigeons by the fountains, tourists who looked like we (albeit a little less wilted) strolled past and snapped photos this way and that, and before long we heard the first of many calls to prayer. Our few glimpses of this vibrant city were as restorative as the food, and we were excited to call Sarajevo home for a couple of days.

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    Days 4 and 5. Sarajevo.

    The following morning we met a couple of our fellow housemates over an abundant and delicious breakfast and enjoyed lively conversation. DD reports that the homemade palacinki were the best crepes she’s ever had. Thin pancakes filled with Nutella, drizzled with chocolate and sprinkled with powdered sugar, what is not to like?

    Most of our day was spent exploring the Old City. We encountered many craftsmen and store owners who were excited to share with us their stories and histories, sometimes in English, sometimes not. One shopkeeper even tugged at DD’s arm to point out a gaggle of kittens playing on a nearby roof, frolicking and rolling about and making us all laugh.

    Before long our tummies indicated it was time to eat. In the "it's a small world" category, we saw an Arabic/English sign for a little restaurant down a quiet lane. (I am studying the Arabic language while in Austria, and the sign caught my attention.) The Lebanese owner of the restaurant chatted with us while we were enjoying our lunch of Lebanese-spiced chicken curry that was tender and perfectly flavorful. With mint lemonade to accompany our lunch, we could have remained seated all afternoon. We learned in conversation that she, too, was from the metro DC area (where we had lived for nearly 20 years before moving overseas last year), having only moved to Sarajevo a couple of years ago herself; and she, too, frequented a local Lebanese market, one of our favorite stops for middle eastern groceries. Small world!

    More shopping and wandering ensued, both sports of which are very, very easy to succumb to in Sarajevo. We walked past St. Mark’s and stood quietly before the cordoned shrapnel marks of the war, through the Old City mosque and then onto the Central Market, where we observed the small memorial to the missile strike that targeted the area during the war, as well. As one walked between the old city and the new, the contrast of pre- and post-war was sometimes stark, and we would on occasion just sit down on the sidewalk and watch the good people of Sarajevo move about in their world. Before we knew it twilight, and the first evening calls to prayer, encouraged us to make haste for the guest house and plan our supper.

    Much of our second day in Sarajevo was spent in an organized tour, "Times of Misfortune,” describing the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. We met our guide, and the 4 others in our group, at The Latin Bridge. Doesn't ring a bell? How about, "Site where Archduke Franz Ferdinand I, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated?" As history has it, the driver of the Archduke's vehicle had gotten lost, and stopped serendipitously to ask the assassin for directions (seriously!) The Empire then declared war on Serbia, inspiring the Central Powers and the Allies to start WWI (and, some say, WWII, the Cold War, and maybe even the Bosnian War.) Perhaps this explains why men never stop to ask for directions?

    Our tour began at the fortress ruins atop Sarajevo. From this vantage point the Serbian forces had spectacular aim at the city below, and our guide Nermin pointed out the strategy Sarajevo residents used to get from the Serbian-held side of the river to the Bosnian-held side for water without being shot on the very visible bridges—burned out vehicles were piled high to block the sniper’s views, and people ducked between them for cover.

    The Sarajevo Central Cemetery was our next destination. From a distance one can view a darker area in the middle of predominantly flat, gray gravestones of Orthodox Serbians against the bright white Bosnian Muslim obelisks all around. Nearby, the Olympic Stadium from the 1984 games was used as a temporary cemetery until the central cemetery could be expanded during and after the war. A moving sight.

    The vantage point from atop Sarajevo gave the tour an excellent perspective from which Nermin provided a decent narrative. Having been a toddler during the war, he could not share any personal anecdotes, which DD and I thought would have made the tour a little more comprehensive.

    Our tour also took us to the Tunnel Museum, which documents the passage between the Serbian/Bosnian controlled areas and the UN-controlled airport that served as the food and medical lifeline for Sarajevo. Regular Sarajevo citizens had to request permits to receive aid at the tunnel, which generally took 4-6 months to process; once the permit was received, it was a game of survival to reach the tunnel for the aid package and return home again.

    A small section of the tunnel was available to walk through, without the occasional knee-deep water and threats of sniper fire, naturally. The Serbian forces largely ignored the Bosnians who were leaving Sarajevo via this route--they wanted Sarajevo residents to leave.

    Again, much of the tour was at a basic level, not really delving into personal stories and the like. There was an obnoxious person in our small group, though, who posed the kinds of questions that made us all scratch our heads and wonder, "Were you under a rock in the 90's?" so it is possible the guide tailored his narrative for him. We also only drove past the "Sniper's Alley," which Nermin generally dismissed with a wave of his hand, saying, "It is just a street." Still, the tour was a good overview of the war's impact on Sarajevo, something that could not easily have been done ourselves.

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    Day 6. The Bus to Belgrade. (The transportation on this trip was noteworthy in and of itself.)

    I asked our guest house host about transportation to Belgrade on our first day and was offered two bus options, as the rail infrastructure was so badly damaged during the war that there are no international trains. The first, an hourly morning Bosnian bus taking “approximately 8 hours” to reach Belgrade. Having experienced Balkan Time on the previous Bosnian transit, this option was unceremoniously nixed. The second option was more appealing: a Eurolines bus, air-conditioned and with a transit time of “about 6 hours.” The catch was that there was only one daily departure, at 06:00. This was a no-brainer.

    Although very sad to be leaving Sarajevo, we were anticipating comfortable and relatively short (all things considered) travel to the capital of the former Yugoslavia. Our spirits were not dampened when 06:00 came and went and we were still waiting in the bus terminal. Balkan Time is a powerful force.

    At 06:25 our bus finally arrived, and we boarded to discover that a woman had taken our reserved seating (again!). No big deal, we thought-the seats across the aisle from ours were empty, so we sat down. Then we discovered why the seats were empty: the control box for the radio (?) was beneath the seats in front, leaving us with no leg room. Our guess was that the woman did not want “her” seat, either, and simply took ours.

    At the first stop I asked if we could exchange our seats, to which she replied, “Typical American.” The passenger sitting behind us said something in Bosnian, and several other passengers laughed. But at least she moved.

    An hour into the travel the bus pulled into a station in a little speck of a town, Ovolo. The bus driver announced something in Bosnian that elicited groans from the other passengers, and everyone alit from the bus. The passengers dispersed for coffee and smokes, and we just sat on a bench, eating the wonderful breakfast that our host had packed for us and wondering what was going on. We must have looked pitiful enough, for the owner of the small market at the station came over and asked if we spoke Russian or German, then explained in German that the bus had a defect and the driver was waiting for another bus.

    So much for “about 6 hours.”

    A second bus arrived about a half hour later and we boarded. The woman who name-called, and the rude passenger who joked about us, laughed at us when we boarded and sat in our reserved seats. Whatever. The bus rolled up and down hills, through towns tiny and tinier, and across the border into Serbia. Scenic, mostly, but not a trip I would recommend for those who suffer from motion sickness.

    Our seats were in the second row on the passenger side, so I (and the guy in the front row) had a spectacular view of the bus driver. He was new to the route, and the auxiliary bus driver with us was helping him out. The bus had a manual transmission, which he stalled on several occasions. The new driver also forgot a passenger at a stop (who had gotten off to use the WC as our bus did not have one), and had to back the bus up on a busy road to return for her.

    With about 50km remaining to Belgrade, Front Seat Guy and I noticed the driver tapping on the dash, and in particular, on the fuel gauge. Auxiliary Bus Driver had fallen asleep. I texted DH (who was home in Vienna) with what I thought was a funny:

    “50km to go and the driver is tapping madly on the fuel gauge. Think we’re going to make it to Belgrade?”

    He replied, “Good luck is all I’ve got.”

    Front Seat Guy and I sighed in relief when we crossed the Belgrade city limit sign, and before long we were in the heart of the city on a busy Saturday afternoon heading toward the bus station. The bus stopped at a traffic light, and did not start again. The bus had run out of fuel!

    From the reaction of the bus driver (and Auxiliary Bus Driver, and Bosnian passengers) this was not a new phenomenon. The drivers exited the bus, in the middle lane of a busy boulevard, and opened the luggage hatch. Horns sounded and traffic swerved around us passengers as we wheeled our bags to the sidewalk, and, thankfully up the street to the bus station and taxi stand.

    We may have purchased bus tickets to Belgrade, but the tickets had not specified where in Belgrade we would be deposited!

    So we wheeled our suitcases through traffic and across tram tracks into the station, a dreary structure somewhat neglected after the end of “Happy Times” (Socialism, as we would learn later) in need of a little love. I had read to be mindful of “taxi sharks” outside the station who relentlessly pester you for their business, and as if on cue, a scruffy-looking man in faded khakis, tank top, and flip-flops appeared as we were carrying our suitcases up the stairs and into the station. (Thank goodness we’ve been able to drink the tap water throughout this trip; a sip from a local fountain is refreshing after navigating luggage through stations and hotels without lifts.) He was not a shark at all, more like a friendly dolphin; he helped us find a working Bankomat before driving us to our hotel for a mere 1.000 Dinars (~10USD).

    Both our bicycle tour guide in Zagreb and our host in Sarajevo informed us that Belgrade was more like Russia than the US, and in particular, eschewed all things Western (especially all things American). With that preface, our curiosities were piqued about the city and we were eager to begin myth-busting.

    Check-in at the hotel was easy peasy, and before long we were seated at a small restaurant in the pedestrian area, settling in for a good lunch of Italian pasta carbonara and Bulgarian Shopska salad. Shopska salad is one of a half dozen recipes remaining from Bulgarian Happy Times; it was a recipe developed in the 1950s as a way to impress and encourage foreign visitors to the country. Over time it developed slight regional differences, but the basic character cast of cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and sirene cheese must be included. I enjoyed it on my first visit to Sofia last fall and was excited to see it on the menus in both Sarajevo and Belgrade.

    Belgrade was the capital of the former Yugoslavia, and Serbia seems to be working hard to bring life to the faded glamour. The grand, older architecture of the city compels one to walk and look up at the same time; but even some of the Happy Times architecture looked regal against the afternoon sky, too.

    The pedestrian area was alive with people enjoying some sort of children's festival well into Saturday evening, and again on Sunday. DD and I commented on how nice it would be if the former Imperial city we call home would loosen its stuffy collar once in a while and allow stores and restaurants to stay open late on Saturdays, and perhaps even open on Sundays.

    About that dislike for all things Western? We spied KFC, McDonalds (we had been told there were no McDonalds in Serbia), Sephora, Zara, Benetton, and Gap in our first few minutes. Good grief, Vienna does not even have a Sephora.

    We took in a new exhibit on the "Happy Times: Yugoslavia from 1950-1990" housed in a former office-type building, and showcasing various items from the “typical Yugoslavian household.” The shoes worn by the "typical working woman"of Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s were a blue canvas espadrille type shoe (somewhat unattractive, in my view). Adjacent to that were Chanel suits, described as "evening attire." Something tells me that the blue canvas espadrille wearing, typical working woman of Yugoslavia was not donning Chanel suits in the evening.

    On display, too, was "The Father of All Passports." Yugoslavia was proud that its citizens could travel everywhere except Greece and Albania without a Visa, unlike Americans and Russians. (This passport was also very popular on the black market.)

    Supposedly Yugoslavia eschewed Western products, but the exhibit showed its children “loved Mickey Mouse ViewMaster slides” that were on display. At the end of the exhibit we were offered a bottle of Cockta, Yugoslavia’s answer to Coca-Cola that is still popular. Wow! Condensed liquid sugar with carbonation; I think my teeth were stinging from the sweet taste for days.

    In Republic Square some smelly hippie-types were exercising their freedom of speed and calling for an end to cultural racism. Although there was a good deal of English spoken in the rally, we (and most of us standing around watching them, actually) never did quite understand their concerns. (Or perhaps I am culturally racist for referring to them as "smelly hippie-types"?)

    The Euro is strong against the Serbian Dinar; that, combined with inexpensive costs overall inspired us order room service dinner on our first night in Belgrade (although I did have to calculate the exchange rate a couple of times because it just didn't seem like I was spending enough for room service!) DD ordered a Margherita pizza, and, like the ones we had seen at the Belgrade (and Sarajevo) street vendors, the pizza is supposed to be topped with cheese, ketchup, and olives. Quite a taste combination, but we requested "only cheese." When the kitchen staff brought our order to our room they asked if we were Russian because, apparently, only the Russians order Margherita pizza without ketchup and olives. Who would have thought? We ate our Russian pizza while lightning danced across the Sava outside our window; and with that, our exciting arrival day in the "White City" came to an end.

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    Day 7. Wherein DD learns about the sport of "Apple Picking." Yes, her iPhone was pickpocketed.

    Our day began with a grand breakfast in the hotel; Serbian savory pastries, meats, cheeses, yogurts, fruits, and so many other choices to keep us happy. Breakfast was walked off through the pedestrian area, enjoying the cool morning air and the quiet of a grand capital city waking up on our way to the Belgrade Fortress. The fortress sits atop Belgrade, at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers; a pretty park and the Belgrade Zoo, our intended destination, surround the fortress.

    There was a Serbian Medieval Festival on the fortress grounds. Could you even imagine this scene in the US? Children throwing hatchets at a target in an unsecured arena, without full body gear and a parental waiver, with even younger children just standing on the sidelines? We busted out in laughter.

    In good order we reached the Zoo. The Belgrade Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in Europe (Vienna's Schönbrunn Tiergarten is the oldest in Europe, and in the world.) Yet again, I had read mixed reviews on the zoo; those who are fans of the glitzy, hands-on experience with gadgets and gizmos, or prefer to view the animals from behind fourteen layers of security fencing and plexiglass were critical, reporting that the zoo wasn't worth one's time.

    Our impression? The zoo is a pleasant, old-school place to spend time with your family, and definitely not a place to turn the children loose to play with the latest and greatest gadgets and whatsits intended to “teach” students about eco-conservation and global warming (There are no gadgets. The zoo hand paints "Caution" signs, its resources are that sparse. The Happy Times weren't friendly to the zoo.) Most of the animal habitats have been thoughtfully renovated, though, although there a few remaining in need of a bit of work.

    Peacocks and Peahens, Guinea Fowl, and chickens and roosters roam about the grounds, startling us when they would pop out from behind bushes and plants. We paused at a cafe for refreshments, and then left the zoo to investigate the small vintage amusement park just outside the grounds, well maintained and inviting. DD and I took a spin on bumper cars for a mere $0.70USD equivalent ticket each, enjoying the beautifully maintained park and old-fashioned fun.

    A few minutes later we were at the fortress walls overlooking the Sava and Danube. It was then that DD realized her iPhone was missing. Lickety-split we ran back first to the zoo cafe and then to the bumper cars. The cafe owner and bumper car operator were terribly kind and helpful, but it was soon apparent that she had not accidentally dropped her phone. I called her number with no response, and as a last ditch effort, I sent a Google-translated Serbian text to her phone, telling the suspected thief that the phone was being tracked, and to please return the phone to the hotel. Then I remotely locked her phone account; but, ever hopeful, did not erase her phone data.

    DD was of course devastated. We had read that Sarajevo had pickpocket issues, especially with iPhones, and had been traveling mindfully throughout our trip in general, but to pickpocket an iPhone from a young girl at the zoo is just plain mean. Spirits down, we returned to the hotel a little early for our mittagspause, trying to regroup in order to make the most of our short time remaining in Belgrade.

    In the mid-afternoon we set out for St. Sava, a beautiful Serbian Orthodox church and Belgrade landmark. The gray skies matched our mood but helpfully created a dramatic backdrop for our photos. While pausing to review our map my mobile phone rang. DD’s phone was calling me! I answered to hear a woman saying, "Hello? I am calling from Belgrade. I think I have your telephone." A family out enjoying the park at the Fortress had found her phone a short distance away from where we had been! (I'd like to think the thief dropped it after reading the text.) The woman agreed to bring it to the hotel later in the afternoon, and we were ecstatic!

    Spirits buoyant, we continued around Belgrade taking in the sights and the culture. We stopped at St. Mark's, another Serbian Orthodox Church that was striking against the now sunny afternoon sky and very different in character than St. Sava.

    Outside the church we met a gentleman who took great pleasure in talking to anyone about the church, why the floor of the church was covered with straw (with which many people were weaving small wreaths--it was an Orthodox holy day), how we are all one big family, and practically everything else that came to his mind. We felt bad bidding him farewell, but the afternoon was waning and we needed to return to the hotel.

    The kind woman and her son who found the phone met us at the hotel, and I practically had to force them to accept even the smallest token of gratitude. I finally won the boy over when I suggested he use some of the reward money for ice cream. The mom was happy that we were happy, apologized (!) for not returning the phone earlier because she had been busy, and shared a few gentle words of admonishment with DD about keeping her phone safe before she left.

    So...we may not have checked off everything on our Belgrade to-do list, but our fond memories of our short time in the city and its honest people top the list of favorite holiday memories. I decided that Belgrade is certainly worth a long weekend return hop from Vienna, too, to enjoy the parts of the city we missed.

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    Days 8-12. The last stop on our tour. Istanbul.

    No transportation woes on our brief, comfortable, air-conditioned Turkish Airlines flight (with a meal!) from Belgrade's Nicola Tesla Airport to Istanbul. There exists an overnight train (couchette only, no cabins) for the same route, requiring an 01:30 wakeup for passport control at the Bulgarian/Turkish border, but that abominable notion was not given a second thought in the early stages of planning.

    The uneventful flight did not mean that all went smoothly on our arrival, though. As our Istanbul stay was four days, I had rented an apartment rather than a hotel room, in order to do laundry and spread out a bit, as well as to give us the option of eating meals at home when we chose. Our taxi weaved through Istanbul and up into the Fatih neighborhood that the apartment owner described as "vibrant with local color." Now of course that can mean anything, but the several dozen reviews on Homeaway reassured me that all would be well. The owner also said the "people were very poor, but nice." An odd comment.

    The apartment itself was pleasant and as described; the owner had arranged for the neighbor to meet us, and she very generously invited us to her lovely home for tea and gave us a brief tour of the neighborhood. But something felt unusually amiss. DD and I set off after tea to find lunch, and by the time we returned to the apartment we knew we could not stay there and enjoy Istanbul. The feeling we had was hard to describe: much of the neighborhood was shabby--not a concern, as the area was very safe; and indeed, many neighbors of this UNESCO-protected area were poor--again, not a concern. The local markets and restaurants may have been a bit oversold--no concern. Still, something didn't feel right.

    The apartment was on the street level of a UNESCO-restored building; and the owner mentioned that the neighborhood children liked to peer into the windows, so we would want to keep the curtains drawn in the evenings. However, we found it necessary to draw the curtains in the middle of the day, making us feel a little trapped. After an hour of fretting and searching Expedia in our shadowed apartment, we decided to move to a hotel the following morning. We just could not put our finger on what unsettled us, only that we had to move. Our evening was rather lackluster; we cobbled together a sausage, cucumbers, and cheese supper from a market, and watched “The Help” from the DVD collection. Great book, good movie (for perhaps the third time), but not quite what we thought we would be doing in Istanbul.

    The following morning we left the apartment and settled into a pretty little hotel room smack in the heart of Sultanahmet. The decision was a wise one; our balcony doors opened to a view of the Sea of Marmara, and we were truly surrounded by "vibrant local color" (our neighbor had no qualms hanging his laundry on his patio while wearing nothing but his skivvies.) Now, we thought, our Istanbul holiday had begun!

    We found that Istanbul can be visited, but it can not be described, really. Istanbul is to be experienced. The Grand Bazaar was at the top of our sightseeing list. Some disregard the market as a tourist trap, but only by crossing the threshold in the morning can you savor the sights and sounds of a 550+ year old market preparing to tempt up to 400.000 daily visitors, including the two of us. Only by entering the market will the powerful soapy aroma of freshly washed sidewalks and storefronts reach your senses. And only by wandering the 61streets and 3.000 shops will your eyes be able feast on the sparkle--on the walls, the ceilings, and the store shelves. One is required to wander; the temptations and curiosities at every intersection can shred even the most organized person's shopping plan of attack. I speak from experience.

    Thoroughly enamored and exhausted several hours later, we kept on walking, through textile districts and houseware and kitchenware districts, pausing for what we decided were the best doner kebabs we have ever eaten from a small vendor on a side street.

    The aroma of the Egyptian Bazaar signaled that we had arrived at my most-anticipated destination of the day. And it did not disappoint. Once you’ve waded past the touristy stalls there are treasures to be had. DD and I were given a lesson (with tastings) in the difference between Kashmir, Iranian, and Turkish saffron by a professional herbalist in a little store that resembled an apothecary. The herbalist even wore a white laboratory jacket and carried a small scale to measure precisely the saffron we desired. I had found my dream bazaar.

    DD’s arms were laden with bundles of tchotchke for friends from one bazaar and mine were laden with enough spices to create my own bazaar at home by the time all was said and done. Somehow, between the stops for apple tea and Turkish coffee, spontaneous wandering and stopping to appreciate the “vibrant local color” we had missed our mittagspause by a longshot. Our grand Bazaar Day had come to an end.

    The Blue Mosque in the evening light welcomed us back to our hotel neighborhood. In the evening families gather on the benches, watching the sky turn to night and the lights illuminate both the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. Being in the park at dusk will always be one of our favorite memories. I may be drawn and quartered for writing this, but we found the interior of the Blue Mosque to be one of the most underwhelming experiences of the holiday. There is no doubt that it is a beautiful mosque, when one drowns out the chatty tourists and tour guides and can look beyond the light cables that obscure the tiles. We sat quietly on the floor of the mosque for a while during our visit, attempting to absorb everything around us, but the mosque seemed too much like an “attraction” rather than a religious site to be respected. We found peace, and much more enjoyment at the lesser-visited mosques like New Mosque near Eminonü and Suleymaniye Mosque.

    In contrast, Haghia Sophia charmed us, even with scaffolding over half of the interior. The lighting, the tiles, the space, the everything was so much more moving than being at the Blue Mosque. While waiting in the (short) line for tickets, one of the private tours guides tried to work his magic with us, with such lines as, “Where is your husband? It is not safe for two ladies to travel alone.” And, my favorite, “It is not safe for two ladies to travel alone in Istanbul. There is the Taliban and that other group.”

    Our remaining time in Istanbul was spread between Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Archaeology Museum and wandering at whim. Basilica Cistern, one of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul was a highlight for us. If you've seen From Russia with Love, you've seen this cistern. We arrived early one day to tour and it was not crowded, but I imagine that later on hot summer days the experience would be different.

    Topkapi Palace was also a highlight. There is so much to see and experience in all corners of the palace and grounds that we were glad we had scheduled “as much time as we needed” to see everything we desired. We could have plunked down adirondacks and enjoyed the breeze of the sea from Pasha’s Terrace (along with a couple of apple teas) had that been permitted.

    The Archaeology Museum was surprisingly enjoyable, but I would not list it as a “must-do” unless you are a patron of old stones. Some of the major exhibits offer English descriptions, and there is an audio guide, but as with many museums, room after room of similar items can only hold one’s fascination for so long. The campus housing the archaeology museum, and museum of the ancient Orient, is worth spending time walking through, however.

    Passages in Beyoglu had the character of some I've visited in Paris, lined with small stores and friendly shopkeepers. Istiklal Cadesi was busy for a weekday afternoon with tourists and people selling lottery tickets. One of the ice cream peddlers on the street performed his schtick with DD, and then tried to charge us €10 for a single scoop of ice cream. We said, “No, thanks” and carried on a little further up and enjoyed the same performance and a €3 cone as we had done the day before near Haghia Sophia. Taksim Square was quiet on our visit, save for the tourists snapping photos and the armed military standing around watching the tourists snap photos.

    An unannounced closure of Dolmabache Palace rerouted us to the Istanbul Modern on one morning, not an unpleasant diversion. Modern art is unintelligible to me; as a left-brainer, I am not moved by a video of people hanging laundry from a balcony clothesline titled, “Freedom,” in the same way I am with a Monet or Renoir or the other artists I can't recall from my Art History class in college (I had to complete my “Humanities” requirement), but DD and I amused ourselves for the morning nonetheless. Should rain foil your plans for a half-day cruise on the Bosphorus, consider the Istanbul Modern as an alternative.

    About the Bosphorus cruise. We lived in DC almost 20 years and never took an Odyssey cruise on the Potomac; we have visited Paris several times and have never been aboard a bateaux mouche boat; and now we live in Vienna and I will hopefully not have to set foot aboard a Danube cruise. Plain and short, cruises seem like slow torture to me. So, no, I can not offer my impressions of bobbing along the Bosphorus.

    So…12 days, 4 countries, 2 continents (we flew home from the Asian side of Istanbul), and 4.578km later, we arrived home with stories and souvenirs to share, and memories to keep forever.

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    >> Istanbul can be visited, but it can not be described, really. Istanbul is to be experienced.

    Wonderful....we'll be there in a few months. Thanks for the report. Did you feel that 4 days in Istanbul was enough? Did you wish you had more?

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    > Our tour also took us to the Tunnel Museum ... much of the tour was at a basic level, not really delving into personal stories and the like.

    Some years ago I took a tour of the Tunel Museum and other war-related sites through the city's tourist information desk. The two men who led the tour each had very personal associations with the war -- one had served in it, and made the trip the the Tunel on a nearly daily basis. The other was too young to serve in defense of the city, but he and his mother relied on it and eventually escaped through it. Their personal stories brought the Tunel and the siege to life in a very powerful and poignant way. I feel very fortunate to have seen it with them.

    > We found that Istanbul can be visited, but it can not be described, really. Istanbul is to be experienced.

    Well said!

    Thanks for posting!

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    Thank you, everyone, for your comments.

    xyz99, we felt that 4 days was sufficient to see those sights a first-time visitor usually sees, and we had ample time for wandering at whim, as well. If we hadn't "lost" part of the first day because of the housing concern, we may have arranged the itinerary a little differently and perhaps taken a day trip to Iznik, Princes' Islands, or even Polonezkoy if we could have figured out how to do it.

    kja, yes, sometimes tour guides are hit-or-miss. The tour was a good overview for our 12 year-old daughter, but I would have preferred more personal narrative.

    rhkkmk, your comment made me chuckle. "Home" is the US for us; living in Austria now means everywhere we travel is far from home!

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    Enjoyed your trip report on Istanbul. I home exchanged there in 2011, but 1 hour out on the Asian side. There were pluses and minuses. You can read some of my stuff on my website:

    http://altecockertravels.weebly.com/turkey-the-best-home-exchange-ever.html

    If planning a trip to Turkey, the place to start is really turkeytravelplanner.com. The guy who developed the site has lived in Turkey, speaks Turkish, etc. He has everything you would want to know on that site to plan your trip. The forums, however, are not very active.

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    Just another comment. Turkey is a very noisy crowded country. One thing I learned is that expectations for privacy are simply not the same as they are in the US or Europe. There is a lot of noise everywhere. People were always asking me how old I was, where my husband was (I'm divorced), how many children, grandchildren I had, etc. It is just their way.

    Perhaps peeking into windows in your original apartment was part of the curiosity they have about all foreigners and nothing more. Nevertheless, if you felt more comfortable moving, you did the right thing. After 3 weeks all the way out on the Asian side, I did move to a cheap hotel off Istikal Caddesi for the last 4 days of the trip because the long commute had gotten wearying.

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