travel writer

Christmas in January? It's all about calendars!

We burned our 'Badnjak' (Yule Log) outside the Church of St Sava on Christmas Eve (6th January)

We burned our 'Badnjak' (Yule Log) outside the Church of St Sava on Christmas Eve (6th January)

My husband, Dragan, who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son, Aleks and I have embarked on an adventure, by moving to Belgrade from England for 8 months. These are excerpts from my weekly diary.

Srećan Božić (Happy Christmas)

If you thought Christmas was all wrapped up until next year, then read on! We are lucky enough to have two Christmases in our family, one of the benefits of coming from two different cultures, English and Serbian.

When we returned to Exeter for two weeks in December, Aleks had the whole Western Christmas thing on the 25th December, with a stocking full of presents, more presents under the Christmas tree, roast turkey and then yet more presents. But Serbs rarely exchange presents on 'Božić' (Christmas) [1], although children sometimes receive a small gift. Presents are more likely to be exchanged on New Year's Eve. Božić is celebrated on the 7th January in Serbia, because the Serbian Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar for its religious festivals. In the West, the Gregorian calendar is used. 

Burning of the 'Badnjak' (Yule Tide Log)

So, we are back in Serbia, where Aleks has now experienced a whole new set of Christmas traditions, starting on the 6th January (Orthodox Christmas Eve), with the burning of the ‘badnjaks’ (pronounced badnyaks) [2]! Christmas Eve is known as 'Badnji Dan' and after sunset, 'Badnje Veče'.

We attended the local Church service on Christmas Eve, where a large pile of ready prepared 'badnjaks' were blessed with holy water by the priest. The rush to grab a 'badnjak' by the congregation at the end of the service was a bit of a squish, but Aleks ducked down and rescued a fine sprig! 

Instead of a log, the city 'badnjak' is a bundle of oak sprigs, replete with dried oak leaves, often arranged in a flat fan shape and is a symbol of renewal. Wheat, straw and a small packet of corn and nuts in a hessian bag are attached with ribbon. 

'Badnjak' seller. The green shoots in decorated pots are wheat, symbolising new growth.

'Badnjak' seller. The green shoots in decorated pots are wheat, symbolising new growth.

Sharing 'Česnica' (Christmas Loaf)

There was a jolly and playful atmosphere, especially after the service, when the priest broke the 'česnica' (Christmas bread) with the congregation and the children grabbed a piece. He said 'watch your teeth', because one lucky person would find a coin in their chunk of bread. (Just like a sixpence in Christmas pudding!). In the old times, this used to be a gold coin, but that night the priest exchanged a simple coin for a 20 Euro note!

Later on we walked to St Sava Church, where 'badnjaks' are burned on a bonfire outside the church. Aleks enjoyed throwing his into the flames.

Our very own Special Person

After church on 'Božić' (Christmas Day), we visited our Kum and Kuma. Aleks entered their flat first and thus became the special person for the day. He was prepped to say 'Hristos se Rodi!' (Christ is born!) and our Kum replied with the traditional response, 'Vaistinu se Rodi!' (Born Indeed!). Aleks received a gift, then we had a coffee and chatted with our Kum's parents. Dragan's brother had arranged a delicious Christmas lunch of spit-roasted pork which was provided by a relative. This was served with soup, pickles and salads.

When we sat at the table I noticed something crunchy underfoot? A 'badnjak' was laid neatly under the table, I haven't worked out yet if this is a tradition or it had ended up there by accident!? I must ask my brother-in-law.

'Belgrade in Winter', photo-etching by Ali Savic [4]

'Belgrade in Winter', photo-etching by Ali Savic [4]

A Myriad of Delicious Reasons to go to Serbian Slava (Saint Day Celebration)

My husband, who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son and I have moved from England to Belgrade for 8 months. These are excerpts from my weekly diary.

Patron Saint Day Offerings

Slavski Kolač (Slava Bread), ours is the tall one at the back! The 'Žito' has a candle in it.

Slavski Kolač (Slava Bread), ours is the tall one at the back! The 'Žito' has a candle in it.

In preparation for our ‘Slava’ (saint day celebration), we all went to the ‘Crkva’ (church) to have our ‘Slavski Kolač’ (Slava bread) and ’Žito’ (wheat dessert) blessed by the priest. Several families were present with their bread etc.. and Dragan noted that our bread was the tallest! The priest cut a cross in the bottom of the bread with a knife and poured some red wine into the cross. The bread is then kissed by the family and turned three times.

Aleks & Daniela Making the ‘Slavski Kolač’ (Slava bread)

Click on the images below to see the finished bread.

It turns out I am a ‘Snajka’… read on….

It should be said here that Dragan, Aleks and Daniela made the ’Slavski Kolač’, complete with braided dough, a little bird and an Orthodox Christian stamp. I wasn’t helping much as I was in the middle of a ‘Snajka’ crisis! I am a ‘Snajka’ (pronounced sniker), because I am the daughter-in-law and it is accepted that the ‘Snajka’ will be the perfect hostess. For some, ‘Snajka’ appears to be a sweet and pleasant term, for others it is less comfortable. I still haven’t got to the bottom of this! Anyway my crisis was pre Slava as an ‘Engleskinja’ (English woman). Luckily my husband loves cooking Serbian food from scratch and all the cooking was left up to him.

More Serbian Fayre cooked by Dragan

Dragan made ‘prebranac’ (Serbian baked beans), ‘pita’ (pie) with cabbage and mushrooms and we ordered some (dimljeni šaran) smoked carp. I insisted that we have lemon with the fish, but Dragan wasn’t convinced people would want it. So, having sent Dragan out to get some, I carefully sliced some lemon and arranged it daintily on the fish. Not one person took the lemon and it was neatly pushed to the side of the serving dish. Not to be thwarted, I rearranged the fish and placed the lemon engagingly on top of the fish. Didn’t work. I had to admit defeat, lemon was not required!! I think I was trying to exert my power as ‘snajka’! Ha ha!

Dragan making mushroom pie

Dragan making mushroom pie

Chocolate covered plums filled with walnuts!

Chocolate covered plums filled with walnuts!

'Prebranac' (pronounced prebrarnats), Serbian baked beans being laid in layers

'Prebranac' (pronounced prebrarnats), Serbian baked beans being laid in layers

Slava isn’t Slava without Home-Distilled Rakija! (plum brandy)

The family joined us on the Tuesday, bringing a whole host of goodies, including artisan cheese from a relative’s farm and home-distilled 'rakija' (plum brandy). By the way, distilling brandy at home is still legal in Serbia [2]. Wednesday was lovely too, with friends who all seemed to really enjoy the food.

This is the first time Dragan and I have hosted Slava in Serbia, although we do it regularly in Exeter. Our English friends love prebranac!

We bought the Slava candle from Vrdnik Monastery

We bought the Slava candle from Vrdnik Monastery

Folk Dancing is Mainstream in Serbia & I can see why…

A friend is a coach of a ‘Folklore’ (National Folk Dance) group called ‘Despot Stefan’ [1] and this week we were invited to a concert at a local cultural centre. The dancers were from about the age of 8 to 20 and the groups wore different costumes depending on where the dance was from, e.g. Eastern Serbia, Southern Serbia, etc… It was a real pleasure to watch, with high jinks and complicated footwork. 'Folklore'comes well recommended. (The link is from a previous concert in 2015)

Me & Vesna Goldsworthy — a Professor at the University of Exeter & a Serbian Writer who Publishes in Serbian & English

All was back to normal on Thursday and after my Serbian lesson, I met a friend, who had found a non-smoking restaurant for us to have a meal. (She guessed that the place was full of foreigners like me trying to avoid cigarette smoke!). Next stop, the Cultural Centre of Belgrade [3], for a book launch of ‘Gospodin Ka’ (Monsieur Ka) by the author Vesna Goldsworthy. She is a Serbian writer and poet [4], who has recently been appointed Professor at the University of Exeter. I really enjoyed her book ‘Gorski’, but will have to wait until ‘Monsieur Ka’ is published in English, unless I learn Serbian really quickly over the next few months!

Vesna Goldsworthy is a great representative of Serbian culture in British society (like Novak Djoković in sport). Although I am not a native Serb, I like creating artworks that show the unique architecture and landscape of Serbia.

St Sava Orthodox Church in Belgrade, Linocut by Ali Savic [5]

St Sava Orthodox Church in Belgrade, Linocut by Ali Savic [5]

Marshall Tito, the Yugoslav Museum & Art in Belgrade

Ali & Marshall Tito

Ali & Marshall Tito

My husband, who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son and I have moved from England to Belgrade for 8 months. Here is week eight of our stay.

Paintings by Svetlana Pavlović Džindo

Paintings by Svetlana Pavlović Džindo

On the Tuesday, I discovered a small art gallery called ‘Kuća Đure Jakšića’ (House of Đura Jakšić) [1] in ‘Skadarlija’, the Bohemian district of Belgrade. Đura Jakšić was a 19th century Serbian Romantic poet and painter who lived a Bohemian life in Skadarlija and his house is now an art gallery, which has an extensive programme of events. The interior of the building is charming, with dark wooden features and I just happened upon a wonderful exhibition of figure and landscape paintings by Svetlana Pavlović Džindo.

Kuća Đure Jakšića, with Svetlana Pavlović Džindo's paintings

Kuća Đure Jakšića, with Svetlana Pavlović Džindo's paintings

Later on that evening I decided to pop into a Print Workshop opposite Kalemegdan [2]. The workshop was buzzing with printmaking activity and there was a contemporary exhibition of abstract paintings in the gallery. I have visited before and received a warm welcome. I hope to print at the workshop in January!

On Friday, (bearing in mind I write this in December) I decided to go Christmas shopping. We’re heading back to England soon and I needed presents to celebrate Western Christmas (25th December). Božić, Serbian Christmas, is celebrated on the 7th January. So, I have to say, it was the most relaxed Christmas shopping experience I have ever had. There were very few people shopping and the Christmas decorations etc… were pretty low key. Not many gifts are exchanged at Božić and any way that’s next month!

On Saturday we visited ‘Muzej Jugoslavije’ (Museum of Yugoslavia) [3]. First stop a photo with a commanding, larger than life sculpture of Marshall Josip Broz Tito. After passing through the sculpture garden we entered the old museum, which is full of fascinating documents, posters, art and treasures from Yugoslavia from the last 100 years or so. I particularly liked the gifts to Tito from world leaders and royals from around the world. Haile Selassie and Prince Charles both gave signed photos as did Richard Nixon amongst others.

From left to right, Yugoslav national costume, One billion dinar notes, Nixon's gift of a photo and an artist's portrait made in the Nazi concentration camp in Belgrade.

There is an interesting link between the University of Exeter (in my home town) and Muzej Jugoslavije. Academics from both institutions have curated an exhibition of photos of Tito’s visits to Africa. It is currently on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England until the 8th April 2018. [4]

Aleks was taken with the beautiful ceremonial batons that were given as gifts to Tito during his birthday celebrations. Relays were run by different youth groups who passed the batons on. The batons eventually ended up at a stadium where thousands gathered for Tito’s birthday parade and he was presented with each baton. It was apparently, a huge honour for the participants.

Tito's batons

Tito's batons

I was excited to see some beautiful original prints, drawings and posters displayed. Many of them were created by artists in various prisons and Nazi concentration camps during and leading up to WW2. Here is a small selection.

We then visited the ‘Kuća Cveća’ (House of Flowers), Tito’s Mausoleum [5], which is on the same site. Tito died in 1980 and his wife, Jovanka, who died later, is also buried here.

Tito's grave.jpg

Preparations are beginning for our ‘Slava’, St Nikolas, [6] on the 19th & 20th of December. Dragan and our Kum and Kuma keep appearing with interesting ingredients to make various dishes for the big event. Daniela has popped in with a bread making machine, some homemade chocolate sweets and all manner of things. Dragan is in charge and is happy to cook the bread, pies, beans and desserts. More about that in my next blog.

[1] http://www.kucadjurejaksica.rs/?lang=en (apologies this link is only in Serbian)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalemegdan_Park

[3] https://www.muzej-jugoslavije.org/

[4] https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/exhibitions-and-case-displays 

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Flowers_(mausoleum) 

[6] http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/serbia/

Visiting A Spa Town & Monastery in Serbia.

My husband, who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son and I are spending 8 months in Belgrade, having moved from England. This is day 45, 46 & 47.

DAY 45

Our friends planned a weekend away for us all and we set off from Belgrade in lovely sunshine to a small 'banja' (spa) town, called Vrdnik [1]. Banja Vrdnik has natural hot springs and is in a beautiful region of Serbia called Fruška Gora, [2] about 1 hour from Belgrade. Fruška Gora is actually a small mountain rising out of the flat plains of Vojvodina and has been a National Park since the 1960s. Fruška Gora has gentle slopes, forests, farms, vineyards and many monasteries.

Vrdnik, Serbia

Vrdnik, Serbia

We arrived in Vrdnik and after we had settled in to Hotel Termal, [3] which is in the typical 1970s mountain style, we went for a walk past farms, orchards and chatted with a local shepherd who was tending his sheep.

On the way back we passed by a local shop, which seems to be run by some dodgy geezers from Peckham! 'Only Fools and Horses' is really popular in Serbia.

Would you hand your cash over in this establishment?

Would you hand your cash over in this establishment?

Bathing in the hot mineral water is the main draw of this town. Next stop the huge indoor 'bazen' (pool) for us. The natural hot spring water was 30 degrees with a cocktail of healing minerals. People in Serbia will often spend time at a 'banja' (spa) for therapy. Some of the guests have their stay as therapy prescribed by the doctor on Serbia's national health. It's definitely not a party hotel!

Most people seemed to walk in the water or gather in small groups and chat, they're not here to swim. There were other kids as well as Aleks, but it was all very peaceful and calm. After two hours in the pool we had dinner, which was very typical, tasty and basic. There is always soup to start, and the waiters are friendly, efficient and serve the food from a trolley. Dessert was only an healthy apple, so we decided to get in the car and head to the posh new Ethno Hotel to have cakes. I had the most delicious 'orasnice' (walnut cookies).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vrdnik 

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fru%C5%A1ka_Gora

[3] http://www.termal-vrdnik.com/banja/

DAY 46

A must see in Fruška Gora are the many orthodox monasteries that sprung up here when the Turks invaded Serbia. The monks fled to Fruška Gora to preserve the holy relics and manuscripts and were accepted by the Austro- Hungarians who occupied this part of Serbia at that time.

Vrdnik Monastery

Vrdnik Monastery

We walked to Vrdnik Monastery [1]. The church has a cool exterior, with white render and is classical in style. The interior is exquisite and houses a few small relics of Sveti Tsar Lazar (Saint Lazar), [2] an important medieval Serbian ruler/saint. As an aside, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Birmingham is dedicated to Sveti Tsar Lazar. 

A nun from the monastery opened up the church for us and we bought a few trinkets in the little shop. We lit candles and headed back to the hotel.

It was snowing on the way back, so we warmed up with 'topli nes' (frothy milky instant coffee) before heading to the pool. It's very healthy in the pool, but I noticed there were no lifeguards, only one attendant! We swam in the indoor pool but there is an outdoor pool too, also with hot spring water, but it is only open in summer. In the cold weather the steam was rising from the water!

The outdoor pool with hot spring water is only open in summer.

The outdoor pool with hot spring water is only open in summer.

After lunch, Aleks and I had a snowball fight outside the hotel, as it had been snowing all day and had settled well. Dragan crept up on Aleks and made a stealthy attack. We all got a bit chilly, so It was about time for another swim. I decided 'when in Rome...', so I walked around in the pool and hardly swam at all!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vrdnik-Ravanica_Monastery 

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazar_of_Serbia 

DAY 47

We woke up to clear bright sunshine and a snowy landscape, so after checking out of the hotel we walked up to a hamlet with little mining cottages. Coal was mined here in the 20th century. Aleks was sad to leave Vrdnik, especially the pool. I think it did us all the power of good. 

Near the disused coal mine in Vrdnik

Near the disused coal mine in Vrdnik

Vrdnik

Vrdnik

Diary of a British woman in Belgrade - Day 27 & 28

My husband who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son and I have moved from England to Belgrade for 8 months. This is day 27 & 28 of our stay.

DAY 27

Don Quixote by Jovan Soldatović in Tašmajdan Park

Don Quixote by Jovan Soldatović in Tašmajdan Park

When Aleks was at school, Dragan and I went for a run around Tašmajdan Park [1]. The trams have a turning circle here and St Mark’s Church overlooks the whole park. There are some wonderful sculptures, including an eerie headless horseman, Soldatović's [2] 'Don Quixote'. This park is steeped in history.

Crkva Svetog Marka (St Mark's Church), Tašmajdan Park

Crkva Svetog Marka (St Mark's Church), Tašmajdan Park

Aleks had yet another school trip. His class walked to the Children’s Cultural Centre and watched some children singing and playing instruments. He’s only been at school for 3 weeks and has been on three school outings already!

Poor Dragan went on a bit of a wild goose chase today. We have to provide materials for school, so Dragan went to buy paint, but couldn’t remember which colours Aleks needed. Mine and Aleks’ phones were switched off and the landline was off the hook by mistake, so he couldn’t ask us. Very frustrating. Aleks didn’t even need any paint today, he was too busy going on a school trip.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta%C5%A1majdan_Park 

[2] https://translate.google.rs/translate?hl=en&sl=sr&u=http://www.skulpture-srbija.com/soldatovic-jovan-272/&prev=search 

DAY 28

It’s a special day, our Kum & Kuma are celebrating their ‘slava’ (family saint day celebration) of Archangel Michael and Dragan joined them at the ‘crkva’ (church) to be present when the priest blesses the ‘slavski kolač’ (slava bread) [1] and the ‘žito’ [2] (sweet paste that you eat in remembrance of the dead). Families take their own bread and ’žito’ to be blessed.

Aleks and I went to the ‘pijac’ (green market) in the morning, but we made sure we only bought food from the stalls that had the prices displayed. My English accent will send the prices up! We made a good team. I was in charge of asking for the veggies etc… and Aleks (because he understands Serbian numbers quicker than me) was in charge of the dinars! I was glad that I knew enough Serbian to order what I wanted and also that Dragan had filled me in on a few unusual Serbian expressions! Ok, so ‘sine’* means son in Serbian. I know this and luckily I also know that when somebody calls you ‘sine’ (son) when you are a woman it is not rude, but it’s a term of endearment! One of the older women who served me called me ‘sine’. The only other time in my life I have been called ‘sonny’ was when I was about 9 and had very short hair!

It’s hilarious but true, that some Serbian people may call all their children ‘sine’ (son), including their daughters! Equally, some of them can call a son by using another term of endearment, 'ćero' (meaning daughter). Go figure!

It was lovely to visit our Kum and Kuma for their ‘slava’, not least because Dragan made the ‘kisela kupus pita’ (pickled cabbage pie). The evening was a very gentle and civilised affair, with a few relatives, ‘komširi’ (neighbours) and friends.

* Apologies to my dear Serbian readers, I think it is easier for my dear English readers if I just use one word for ‘son’, in the vocative case, ‘sine’.

[1] https://www.thespruce.com/slava-bread-recipe-slavski-kolac-1136570

[2] http://wonderfulserbia.com/destination/food/desserts/zito/