While living in Portland, Oregon, my husband, Brendan, and I spent a lot of time exploring the Pacific Northwest – from the Olympic National Forest to the Oregon Coast to the Wallowas – and had been wanting to do the same for New England. Timing was always a challenge, though. So last October, when a friend announced he was getting married in Pittsburgh, we decided to tack a couple days onto the trip to drive through upstate Pennsylvania and New York and do a bit of exploring. The wedding was a raging success – happy couple, excellent food and drinks, and a full night of shaking our booties on the dance floor at LeMont. A few of us even snuck in a quick ride on the incline mid-festivities.
While driving out of town we passed a sign for Buttermilk Falls. Curious, we pulled into the parking lot and opened gawked at this monster, rushing waterfall.
We climbed the well-marked paths and stairs up and around the falls. It was an unexpected treat – not only to discover this place, but also to stretch our legs and work our lungs before jumping back in the car.
We finished our scenic route with the gorgeous Taughannock Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.
Time was up, though. We snapped a few photos, jumped back in the car and headed back to Pittsburgh for our early Tuesday morning flight home. These whirlwind road trips continue to be our favorite weekend activity, and this one in particular was one of the best!
About five years ago I gave up going to movie theaters. I finally conceded that they, along with any other dark venues featuring flashing lights, were a trigger for my migraines and it was time for a change. But now we’re living in Sarajevo, which this August hosted the 23rd annual Sarajevo Film Festival.
Premiering in 1995 to a staggering 15,000 attendees (this was the middle of the Bosnian War and siege on Sarajevo, after all), Sarajevo hosts the largest film festival in Southeast Europe, and one of the largest in Europe as a whole. It is also one of a handful of festivals that can nominate films for other European film festival awards.
Every available space was utilized – all theaters were booked for the week, and parks and parking lots were converted into massive outdoor movie theaters. These I could actually attend, and all the better since they were hosting the top-billed films.
I missed out on the Shorts and documentaries, and many of the lesser known films by default of their venues, but we were able to attend opening night’s Cold War and Asghar Farhadi’s latest, Everybody Knows.
Sadly, my last film, Sink or Swim, was rained out and moved to an indoor theater, so we contented ourselves with an evening at a nearby wine bar instead.
Every year, thousands of people from all over the world descend on Sarajevo for the festival, and the city lights up (literally) with thousands of vintage light bulb strands, fireworks, high heels and red-carpet galas, pop-up bars and dance clubs, and impromptu concerts filling parks and common areas.
It’s as if the whole summer has been building towards this event, and Sarajevo shines.
With the exception of the festival’s last night, the weather was perfect. This summer was an unusual one – starting in April, it thunder-stormed and rained almost every day and temperatures rarely reached the 80s. Typical Sarajevo summers are hot and dry, a climate that didn’t manifest here until early September.
But that week, the week of the festival, it was amazing. Sunshine all day, clear nights and warm temperatures.
The city center is divided, almost in half, between the elaborate, tall, decorative buildings of the Austro-Hungarian Old Town and the low, tiled-roof structures of the old Ottoman Baščaršija. Sarajevo’s skyline and aesthetics reflect the cultural diversity and historical intrigue that has followed the city for centuries.
The streets of both neighborhoods pulsed with locals and tourists, all licking gelato cones, catching up with old friends over kafa, and cheering on street performers.
It proved the perfect time to re-explore our city.
And I can’t wait to do it all again next year!
Not much beats a lunch of espresso and gelato on vacation (the caffeine/sugar combination is the perfect afternoon pick-me-up and tide-me-over until a dinner location is decided). And no destination fulfills the gelato-espresso gorging bill better than sunny Hvar, a long, narrow island off the coast of southern Croatia.
There are two main ways to reach Hvar City. The first begins with two hours via ferry from Split into Stari Grad (at the northern tip of the island), then a 30 minute drive to Hvar City, where we were staying. The second is a 30 minute ferry ride from Drvenik, south of Split, into Sućuraj at the southern tip of the island, followed by a 90 minute drive the length of the island to Hvar City. We opted for the latter, keen to explore (and spend as little time as possible on a rocking ferry).
From the moment we docked in Sućuraj the water swirled with varying shades of aquamarine, cerulean, azure, turquoise, lapis, and teal. And we actually needed every one of those “blue” variations for our brains to mentally process what we were seeing.
The air was hot and crisp with a tinge of salt on the wind – our Mediterranean vacation had officially begun. Hvar Island is covered in forests, vineyards, olive groves, orchards and lavender fields, and benefits from fresh water springs. And its one of the sunniest locations in Croatia. There doesn’t seem to be much of a downside. Two hours after docking in Sućuraj, we were checked into our airbnb and wandering the streets of Hvar.
Hvar has been inhabited since the ancient Greeks settled the area, at least as far back as 384 BC. Its been a major player in Adriatic trading for most of its history, and its tourism industry has been actively cultivated since the mid-1800s.
It’s no surprise Hvar City has become one of Croatia’s premier good-time destinations. Here the ultra-affluent dock their yachts and party with shoe-string backpackers until the wee hours of the morning.
But in early June we had just beat the crowds, and had no problems spreading out on our chosen beaches or getting tables in fancy restaurants.
Our first excursion from Hvar City was just a few kilometers east to Milna Beach, a tiny bay with three beaches, each just a few minutes walk from each other, of smooth, white pebbles descending into crystal clear blue water.
Eleven o’clock in the morning was considered an incredibly early time to start the day, making us the first ones on the beach with our choice of lounge chairs.
We also spent the afternoon driving around the western side of the island, from the north shore to the south, cutting through mountain villages and making our way around dirt roads clinging to ocean-side cliffs.
While days were spent exploring and lounging on beaches, evenings were spent in Old Town Hvar, window shopping and partaking in the excellent, local cuisine (seafood for me, everything else for Brendan). We ate at Macondo Restaurant and Black Pepper, both excellent.
Our second excursion involved a water taxi to one of the many tiny islands off the Hvar harbor, then a five minute hike to “secret” bay, Mlini Beach.
I couldn’t get over the water clarity! No matter how far out we swam, we could easily see the sea floor.
Tall, short, long, round, old, young (too young, it seemed, to be running around party town Hvar without chaperones – gah, I’m old), punk rockers, amazon queens, and biker dudes – Hvar City draws people of all sorts. The only thing everyone had in common was a complete lack of concern for, well, much of anything (grown men strut around in pink seahorse print swim trunks – love it!). Give these people hot sand, blue waters, and a cold drink and a casual, swaggering confidence emerged. It was infectious.
I usually fill up vacations with activities, making sure not one minute is wasted. But this one was all about down time. Books, books and a few more books. And spritzers.
“Pristina? Where is that?”
“It’s the capital of Kosovo,” answered my husband.
I immediately informed him I would be crashing his work trip. We were in Sarajevo, and in no way was I going to pass up an opportunity to visit the place that dominated my university studies and newsfeeds everywhere during the turn of the century. With airfare booked, I parked myself in a café to scour the internet for sites and attractions in Pristina. I was soon disappointed. While there are a few sites highlighting the virtues of the world’s second newest capital city – mainly the urban area’s infectious energy and numerous cafés – the overarching theme seemed to be boredom.
Which is unfortunate. Pristina’s roots run deep – 4th century deep. It’s witnessed empires rise and fall over millennia, from ancient kingdoms predating the Roman Empire through the collapse of Yugoslavia, and has often served as a center of craft and trade. But very little of that history remains; it seemed to have given way to the sterilization of Communism, the bombardment of modern warfare and the glass and steel of international reconstruction. Other than touring religious buildings and a handful of small museums, Pristina offers little for a visitor to pass the time, especially in the winter. Unless, that is, you are working with governments, contractors or NGOs; then, at least, you’d have a conference to attend (lucky husband). I was, therefore, eager to make the most of my short trip, fill my days and try to discover what makes Pristina unique.
Upon arriving, I excitedly set out in search of the acclaimed monument spelling “Newborn,” symbolic of the young city’s emergence onto the world stage. Stepping out into a hazy, cold sunshine, I tasted, more than smelled, the modern sign of industrialization and progress: pollution rolling over non-descript buildings, around construction cranes and down heavily trafficked streets. Avoiding deep breaths, walking in circles (Google maps don’t always work in Kosovo), and repeatedly risking my life to cross the street, I eventually arrived at the brick-lined plaza hosting the monument, expecting to see giant 10-feet-high, three-feet-thick metal letters, brightly painted and dominating the roadside. But the plaza was empty. Not even the pedestals remained.
When I asked different people why the monument had been removed, many were as surprised as I was. “I just walked by it the other day,” someone told me, giving me the universal look of skepticism. It was early February, though, and the 17th would be Kosovo’s 10th Independence Day. Every year the monument is repainted to reflect the mood of the country, so it had “probably” been dismantled for cleaning along with the repainting. Probably. It has also been 10 years since independence, so perhaps “Newborn” no longer applied? (My worries were for not, however – my visit ended up being a few weeks before the official unveiling of the updated monument on Independence Day, which did indeed reveal a regal (and freshly cleaned) silver-lettered, numbered “New10orn”.)
With my first sight-seeing attempt thwarted, I grabbed my laptop and settled into a corner table at Dit e Nat, a trendy café tucked down a side street, stuffed with lively groups of young people and serving criminally cheap, deliciously aromatic macchiatos. Better macchiatos than I’ve had in Italy, actually. Diving back into my online research, and thumbing through a handy 2011 “Pristina in your Pocket” pamphlet (the most recent version I could find), I decided the next afternoon would be devoted to the few touristy sites around the city center.
Thankfully, the wind picked up, clearing smog from the crowded streets and leaving a brilliant, bright winter sun and pale blue sky. I made my way down Bill Klinton Boulevard to take in the 10-foot-high statue of the United States’ 42nd president, waving one hand and clutching paperwork in the other. And yes, it’s placed next to the women’s clothing store, aptly named Hillary, and which also happens to sell pantsuits. A few blocks east, at the intersection of Bill Klinton Blvd and Xhorxh (George) Bush Blvd, is the almost-finished, skyline-dominating Mother Teresa Cathedral. Though she was Catholic and born in Macedonia, her parents were supposedly from Kosovo and Kosovars, who are primarily Muslim, claim her as their own.
Later, while roaming the uneven cobblestone streets of what’s left of Old Town, a storefront window lured me inside with its artsy mugs and magnets. I quickly realized it wasn’t a shop; I had wandered into the office of a local outdoor adventure company, Butterfly Outdoor Adventure. The owner, whom I was told had just left for the day, loves to climb and started the company as a way to draw attention to Kosovo’s splendid outdoors (per their brochure, one can partake daily of hiking and yoga, rock climbing, or cycling throughout different regions of the country). I filed the information away as I left – Balkan countries are teeming with breathtaking scenery waiting to be explored, and a mountain trek would be the perfect future excursion.
Arriving at Old Town’s excellent Ethnographic Museum, a centuries-old Ottoman home affiliated with the Kosovo Museum, I was immediately met by the museum curator. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he animatedly described the buildings, rooms and artifacts, and their relevance to modern Pristina. He also kept stressing the importance of my return during warmer months, when the rest of the museum renovations would be complete and the city would be more enjoyable. There’s not much to do in the colder months, he admitted, unless you ski. Starting in the Spring, mountains can be traversed and cities come alive. I mentioned the outdoor adventure company around the corner and he broke into a large, excited grin. “Oh yes!” he exclaimed. “Uta – she’s a national hero, we love her.”
Turns out that little adventure company was founded by Uta Ibrahimi, the first female Albanian Kosovar to summit Mt. Everest. I missed her by 15 minutes!
He soon guessed I was American. “We are the most pro-American country in the world,” he explained. “We love them because they saved us.” My mind drifted back to the presidential street names. And to the statue of Bill Clinton. The paperwork in his right hand was the 1999 agreement launching NATO’s military campaign in defense of Kosovo, subsequently halting Serbian forces’ ethnic cleansing of the region.
The curator, who was 14 during the war, brimmed with all sorts of information, and not just about history, politics or the museum. His passion clearly lay with the youth and promise of Kosovo. “All the young people sit around and drink coffee. I mean, that is good because what else are they going to do? But they need to work. We [Kosovars] need work.”
Though Kosovo’s economy has been steadily growing at 3.4% since the country’s inception in 2008, unemployment hovers around 32% (50%, for those under 25).
It wasn’t just tourists with nothing to do. Nevertheless, since most of the population was born during or after the war, they don’t have the conflict burdening them the way older generations do. Educated, skilled and motivated, most are optimistic about the future – both for themselves and their country.
Strolling back down Mother Teresa Boulevard, I noticed how young many of my companions were. Taking advantage of the clear skies and relatively clean air, hundreds had descended to parade up and down the boulevard with family and friends, dressed to impress and bundled up in slim puffer coats. The wide, street-vendor and café lined promenade offers the perfect setting to see and be seen. I thought back to the museum curator’s coffee comments. I realized then how the cafés, offering 1€ macchiatos, were teeming with these young people – laughing, chatting, studying.
How silly my fear of boredom then seemed. And the city does pulse with an electric-sort of energy. What Pristina lacks in tourist attractions, it’s people make up in spirit and persistence. I had found what makes Pristina remarkable. I was surrounded by an entire generation making the best of their situation, biding their time until Pristina once again takes its place as a center of craft and trade, and doing the same thing people do everywhere – going for walks, meeting friends for coffee, dreaming about the future.
So, what did I do in a city with nothing to do? I headed to the closest café, ordered a macchiato, and struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me.