Balkanization

We escaped from Skopje, turning in our police registration hours before the 90 day limit expired, and headed into Serbia. Southern Serbia is marked by small, clean villages clustered around mosques. The population is obviously the same as that of Kosovo, which helps explain why Serbia is fighting so strongly any recognition of Kosovar independence. If the rest of the Serbian Muslims attached themselves to Kosovo, Serbia would be even more land-locked. In addition, Serbia sees itself as the successor to Yugoslavia, and a multi-ethnic state. Now that the Croats and Bosnians and Montenegrins and Slovenians (not to mention Macedonians) have left, almost the only multi it has left are the Muslims – who are now declaring themselves independent Kosovars. Other than that, we found Serbia rather dull – endless plains, all snow-covered – as we followed Heinz on and on and on. A four-hour drive, which turned into almost 9 hours as we traversed the length of the country.  And at this season the sun sets at 3:30.  We bypassed Belgrade, and finally ended at an absolute marvel – the Farm. It’s in a section of Serbia inhabited mostly by Hungarians – from way back. Traveling through villages we encountered solid walls of houses connected by walls (looks like a village defense mechanism) lining the road. And the road is paralleled by two deep irrigation canals and tiny front yards for parking. “Typical Hungarian village”, says Heinz. I can almost picture the villagers, behind barred doors & shutters, watching troops march through confined by the irrigation ditches.
Then finally off the main road, twisting through a little wood into a farm compound on the bank of the Danube that could have been unchanged for centuries, with our hosts waving greetings and dogs frisking about us. Installed in a four room suite with tiled ‘Dutch Oven’  stoves keeping them toasty, then a dash through the snow into a kitchen filled with the most marvelous smells – and delicious food in apparently infinite variety started appearing and appearing accompanied by worried sounds of “You aren’t finishing it – it isn’t good?”   We had (after a selection of first courses) a choice (or both) of  roast chicken and baked goat

The beds were 7 inches of foam!

with a fantastic multi-mushroom cream sauce.  And vegetables of all sorts and wine and to top it off 4 or 5  types of cakes and coffee.  We were bursting.  This is Heinz and Silvana’s favorite retreat, and it was a treat worth repeating. The beds were marvelously comfortable 7-inch thick foam covered with cozy quilts above and below, and we tumbled into sleep. We woke refreshed, and found breakfast was as much as dinner—-omelet, polenta with mushrooms,

Our hostess and cook

breads, homemade jams, etc., etc., with everything unfinished being packed into travel hampers for us, Then up and out and following the Danube into Hungary itself.

Satisfied travelers

Farm cat had learned to beg.

Hungary (and most of the Balkans) has an interesting variation on toll-roads. At the border, you buy a (X-day) pass (called a ‘vignette’) for highways, on which traffic is checked by unobtrusive cameras along the roads. No delays, and a big fine if you use a highway without a vignette. After a few hours, we stopped for lunch at a famous fish-soup restaurant, decorated with the (working) 500-litre, 1000-litre, and 2500-litre kettles in which they cook for crowds. I had the Transylvanian style garlic soup. I don’t know if they really fear vampires there (we were only 20 km from the Romanian border after all) but this soup would keep away Dracula himself – wonderful. And the bread was to live for. Then on into Budapest, and off around the beltway, until we crossed the Danube again and exited to another Heinz surprise – the Hotel Botel.

Hotel Boatel

Two moored boats on the Danube converted into a hotel. The rooms were small and tightly fitted (very boat-style) with comfortable beds, welcoming staff, and the best view of the Danube (about 1/3 ice floes, but populated with coots, mallards, fishermen & small boats) that you could ask for. It was a relatively short day, but we collapsed exhausted. Partly, that’s because it turns black night about 3:30pm; partly because it was cold-cold-cold.
The next morning we set out at 9:00 for sightseeing – minus 11 degrees

Budapest Skyline

centigrade (it later warmed to minus 6.5), we were layered to a fare-thee-well, but suddenly remembered from early days in Michigan the sensation of faces freezing and fingers getting numb. After waiting too long for a bus, and discovering they no longer sell tickets on board, we took a taxi into Old Town Center, and somehow forgot how cold we were. Heinz abandoned us for a business meeting (Warmer and duller, I’m sure) so the three of us walked and

Somebody's Mansion

walked and walked. Every time I could no longer feel my fingers, we stopped for marvelous coffee, and we kept pointing out exquisite architecture to each other. Then we discovered the walking street (They say ‘pedestrianized’) cut off from the wind and full of fascinating shops. We were just getting tired when it ended in a huge square filled with a Christmas Fair – hundreds of tiny booths filled with traditional clothes, foods, crafts (picture a honey shop with hundreds of molded figures in beeswax)

The Train Station

and entertainers. Marvelous puppets, singers… Finally, none of us could feel our fingers (though David had bought a warm ear-protector) and we staggered off to another coffee-shop, warmed up, and took a taxi home to the Botel.

A Bull We Met

That was far from the end of the day. In Hungary, the evening (i.e. dinner-time) doesn’t start till after 7:00, and an Hungarian associate of Heinz had offered to take us to a restaurant for a traditional Hungarian meal then drive us on a thorough sight-seeing tour of Budapest.
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