Hello from Nis, Srbija! 12 March 2008

Hello from Nis (pronounced Nish), the 2500+ year-old city of Constantine’s birth! This is my 3rd day in Serbia with Jim and Irena. The first leg of my Austrian Airlines flight to Belgrade via Vienna had a lovely ending – flying just north of the French and Swiss Alps along the northern border of Switzerland, over Salzburg. Glacier in Swiss AlpsThe view was spectacular…I even imagined I could make out the crooked summit of the Matterhorn in the distance, and maybe also Mont Blanc – the highest peak in Europe. This photo to the left is a glacier that seemed close enough to touch.

From Belgrade we drove directly on to Nis, about 3 hours, where Jim and Irena have spent most of their time for the last two years, for Jim’s contract. It is where Irena finished her civil engineering degree after high school, and near Pirot, her home growing up, and Kopaonik National Park (where she became such a beautiful skier and we skied in 2004).

Irena's buildingThis ancient city is small (about 300,000) and beautiful – I love the architecture. Here is one of the over 40 buildings Irena restored across the nation while on the ‘Beautiful Serbia’ project with UNDP several years ago. Fort Niska TvrdjavaWhile Jim was at the office yesterday (and after I woke up from a 13 hour sleep!), Irena and I walked around the old Fort Niska Tvrdjava (left), which used to house a Turkish bath, and then along the walking street in the center of town (below). Downtown Nis

In the late afternoon the 3 of us drove one of Jim’s more recent cycling routes – the one he calls *his* ‘bad’ hills! (I call the area around my house *my* bad hills.) This route is called Kamenicki Vis, ‘rocky hill’. This ride is 8.2 miles long each way, has a total elevation gain of 2000 feet (1430 of that over the last 3.4 miles!), and the worst part, just after midway at the base of the climb, has a grade of over 11% for .7 mile!! (For those of you who are not cyclists, that is HUGE! Or as Jim said, laughing, ‘this is just SHIT’!!!) Irena says she has no desire to ride it, though Jim says she will – LOL. He says he often cannot make it up the whole way. I wish I could have at least tried. The route has so much character, going along an old, narrow paved road out of the city up into the rolling hill country, past beautiful, dilapidated old houses and buildings and fields, past a battleground and monument where over 10,000 Serbs and Turks were killed in one day, trying to throw off Ottoman rule in 1879. We passed a lovely middle-aged woman in a long, bright-colored skirt, pulling a two-wheeled cart bigger than a wheelbarrow loaded with firewood she had gathered from somewhere – it could have been a scene from over 100 years ago except for the paved road…wish I had taken a photo of her.

FYI, we were able to calculate those distance and elevation gain statistics for the ride because we took my Garmin GPS to track the route. Afterwards at home, we downloaded the track, asked Irena’s (the engineer) help in calculating the grade, and then viewed the profile (peaks and valleys of the ride) – we were “WOW”ing and so thrilled at what we saw, showing it to her with such pride – like it was Mt. Everest! But she saw it and then looked at us, shaking her head and calling us ‘jebiga idiots’, and proceeded to quickly draw a diagram on her computer showing grade. We weren’t considering how these profiles have to be drawn in order to view them on a screen… if a one mile high hill is the height of the screen, then the width of an 8 mile ride must be 8 screen widths. 🙂 LOL – we sure felt foolish! But the profile STILL LOOKS COOL!

Another Irena buildingThen in the evening we walked just one block down the street to a local restaurant for dinner. I hope to try to make the amazing salads we had: ‘moravska’ – fresh tomatoes, grilled peeled paprika, garlic, very little white onion, sunflower oil, & parsley, and ‘sopska’ – fresh tomatoes, cucumber, white onion, grilled peeled paprika, white cow or sheep cheese, sunflower oil. But I am told that the ingredients here are matchless, and I believe it. Unimaginably delicious…I could have stopped with those salads and the fat, soft, fresh pogaca (like pita) served with them. Who needs butter?!

Irena, Lea and DamienI slept a more reasonable 7 hours last night, then took a 40 minute fast walk along the river near here. Tonight we drove to Pirot, about an hour away, to have dinner with Irena’s dad Bosko, and to visit with her brother and his kids, who are Irena’s favorite ski students. (On the way, we took another route than Jim and Irena cycle, and again used the GPS to calculate the grade of the hill climb – the same as the other one…another tough 7.5% climb of 3 kilometres.) Boki (Bosko) had prepared a wonderful dinner of noodle soup, paprikas – a spicy chicken, egg, and tomato soup, and a meat dish of chicken, lamb, and sour cabbage – the last two were even more delicious than last night’s main courses…who need restaurants?! I was given a tour of their charming home, which displays many of the paintings done by Irena’s late mother, Tina, and I was fortunate to be able to select one to bring home!

Just a couple more isn’t-life-interesting notes here for my own historical memory…Irena has been miserable these past few days, recovering from that terribly bad flue that both Patricia and I had, and Monday Jim missed a step at work and fell on his knees!! Geez! But we are all FINE, and so looking forward to the Alpine skiing!!!

Tomorrow we go for me to meet Jim’s staff, and then are driven back to Belgrade by one of Jim’s staff to pick up the rental car for our drive to France, leaving Thursday.

Do vidjenja!! “Have a nice day!” (when leaving…)

(Funny story here – I was with Irena at the travel agent when she bought travel insurance, and when we left, I was so proud to remember to say “Dobra Dan!”…only to have them all burst out laughing! That is what you say when you *arrive* somewhere, so I got an impromptu Serbian lesson at that point, and learned my first new word.)