Closer to the Ecliptic

October 28, 2013

Unfortunately I, as a lowly American, am limited to only 90 days within any 180 day period in the Schengen Zone [ˈʃɛŋɡɨn zoʊn]. The Schengen Zone is an area comprised of 26 countries in Europe within which travel is unrestricted. This is the reason you can pass through so many countries in Europe without ever showing your passport. As soon as you enter the Schengen Zone as a non-EU citizen, your 180 day timer starts. You are not allowed to spend more than 90 of those 180 days within the Schengen Zone. Finland is part of the Schengen Zone, Serbia is not. While ideally I wouldn’t be forced to leave Finland at all, I fortunately have the familiar haven of Serbia to retire to. I’ve spent about two months in Finland so far, and I would like to spend December there as well, so I’m putting my Schengen visa on hiatus until then.

Getting to Serbia quickly from elsewhere in Europe is surprisingly difficult. Most of the flights involve multiple stops with a total travel time of more than 20 hours. I remembered that Finnair had service directly to Dubrovnik [ˈdubrɔvnik]; my decision was made. Dubrovnik, the beautiful port city on the Adriatic Coast in Croatia, is a mere 2.5 hour flight from the northerly likes of Helsinki. I packed my bags and left my apartment at 05:30 to head to the airport. I ended up being one of eight total people on the flight to Dubrovnik. It’s amazing how nice flying can be when you’ve got the whole plane to yourself. At solar noon on the day before my departure from Finland, the sun was at 16° of declination. After flying more-or-less due south for 2.5 hours, the sun is now at about 34° of declination. Upon landing in Croatia the first thing I took notice to was how rusty my Serbian was. The dialect they speak in Dubrovnik is different enough from what I learned in Belgrade that even when I’m on top of my game I need to focus a bit to understand, but it proved to be even more difficult after having not used any Serbian at all for a matter of years. My plan was to head straight for Petrovac [ˈpɛtrɔʋat͡s] in Montenegro, but I missed the first of two daily buses by about 10 minutes. The next bus wasn’t for four hours, so I had some time to kill in the old town of Dubrovnik. I went straight to my favorite cafe, Buža [ˈbuʒa], perched on the south wall of the old town and had a few beers to kill time. The thing I love most about that cafe is that even when the rest of the city is crawling with tourists, there are always places to sit at Buža; oh yeah, and the view’s not bad either.

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Buža life

The bus from Dubrovnik down the coast of Montenegro is slow-going, but the scenery is stunning. I’ve taken that same bus many times, and I never get bored with the views. I was the only one going south of Budva [ˈbudʋa], so the conductor asked me if I wouldn’t mind being dropped off in Herceg Novi [ˈxɛrt͡sɛg ˈnɔʋi] to catch another bus so they could take the more direct mountain route to Podgorica [ˈpɔdgɔrit͡sa]. I said that was fine and got off in Herceg Novi to wait for the transfer. After 30 or so minutes my bus came and I continued my way down the coast. Unfortunately by this time it was entirely dark so the scenery could not be appreciated much.

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Bay of Kotor from the bus

I arrived in Petrovac at about 20:00 and proceeded with the short walk from the bus station to my tetka’s [ˈtɛtka] house. My mother’s maiden name, Medin [ˈmɛdin], is a pretty prolific name in the town of Petrovac. There are three main historic families in the town, one of which is the Medin family. There are many areas of the town named after the Medins, we have our own historical house on the promenade that overlooks the water, we have a church farther up the hill where most of the Medins are buried, and we have several other plots of land around town. A great uncle of mine from many generations back, Stijepo Medin [ˈstijɛpɔ ˈmɛdin], was a popular sea merchant from the area who commanded two large ships in his halcyon days. A reminder of the power that the Medin name beholds in Petrovac was given to me on my way from the bus station. The police stopped me, it was undoubtedly my unorthodox haircut and backpack that triggered the suspicion. They questioned me for a few minutes about who I was, where I lived, where I was going, what I was doing in Petrovac outside the tourist season, etc. Eventually they asked me the name of the person whom I was going to visit. As soon as the name Medin was mentioned it was all smiles and handshakes and wishing me well on my journey. As usual, there was delicious food and drink prepared upon my arrival, and even Šamsa [ˈʃamsa], my tetka’s live-in friend from Bosnia was back. It was great seeing them again, and my Serbian was coming back quickly once it had been dusted off a bit with more use. I went out on the town after dinner to see what it was like in October. There were a few bars and restaurants still open on the promenade, mostly catering to locals. I stopped by Cafe Cuba, one of my favorite bars in the town which has been there since my first time visiting in 2005. I was one of five or so people in the bar. Overall it was a very laid back night, but the lack of tourists was quite nice.

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Typical street in Petrovac

Early the next morning I headed down the coast to the town of Sutomore [ˈsutɔmɔrɛ] (or in the local pronunciation [ˈçjutɔmɔrɛ]). The Bar-Belgrade railway line reaches its northernmost point on the coast at Sutomore, so I planned on catching the 09:13 departure towards Belgrade. I have driven on the section of road nearest the railroad right-of-way, so I’ve seen the beauty (the likes of which you can read about here) in that area of Montenegro, but this was something entirely different. The Bar-Belgrade line is known for its striking appearance, and I would certainly say that it’s the most beautiful train trip I’ve ever taken. The train starts in Bar along the Adriatic coast and heads inland a little north of Sutomore. From there, it skirts along Lake Skadar and heads towards Podgorica.

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View from the train towards Albania over Lake Skadar

After Podgorica, the line follows a steep incline (one of the steepest standard rail inclines in the world) up into the mountains. From there it crosses the Mala Rijeka [ˈmala ˈrijɛka] viaduct, one of the world’s tallest railway bridges. The line punches its way through hundreds of tunnels in the mountains and continues over hundreds more bridges on the way to Belgrade. The trip gets considerably more boring once it reaches central Serbia where flat plains are dominant. I’m glad I spent the 10 hours on that train as the portion through Montenegro and Southern Serbia is unforgettable.

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Typical sight in Montenegro from the Bar-Belgrade line

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The scenery gets a bit more modest in Serbia

My friend Vanja was waiting for me at the train station in Belgrade. We went to a favorite kafana of ours for some beers and then headed out to Stara Pazova [ˈstara ˈpazɔʋa] which is to be my home for the next few months. Her brother (another friend from my previous time in Serbia) is living here as well. The town itself is pretty small, but it’s nice and relaxed and not too far from Belgrade.

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The neighbors making Rakija in Stara Pazova

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