You already know my posts from Holland will not be chronologically ordered (there were so many things and I was more than few times too lazy to type every evening). So May 6th I went on one-day trip to South Holland to The Hague, Scheveningen and Delft (and I managed to stop for an hour and a half walk through Leiden on my way back).
Everyone in Serbia knows about The Hague and Scheveningen because in The Hague are two courts which plays very important roles in our lives: one is International Court of Justice (which was dealing with genocide issue in the war in ex-Yugoslavia) and the other one is International Court Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, or ICTY (where many of politicians from ex-YU republics were/are still on trials for their role in the war); Scheveningen is place where is the prison where are those politicians.
So my first association when hear these two places was indeed trials and I didn’t even imagining there’s anything else. As if The Hague are two buildings and Scheveningen one prison; and that’s it. Indeed this trip was in my “schedule”prior coming here and among things I really wanted to see were those mentioned buildings. I guess some of you might find this odd but I really had need to bee there and see it with my own eyes.

Of course that’s wasn’t everything I was hoping to see. When checking what else is there I was so surprised to discover how in my mind politics has completely covered real treasures those places have. Before this trip I didn’t even think about Vermeer and his life here, nor about Rembrandt or Rubens, or Escher.

Anyway I jumped on the morning train and was in The Hague about 10.30am. Luckily the weather was lovely although quite windy (but that’s fantastic for Holland). So first thing I was heading to was The Mauritshuis, one of the finest galleries in The Netherlands. It is placed in beautiful mansion which was bequeathed to the state after Johann Maurits death in 1697, and since 1821 it has been the home of the Royal Picture Gallery. And indeed what an amazing collection it is. I was stunned first by “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp” by Rembrandt; In the same room is the very last Rembrandt’s sefportrait and then in the next room the pearl of the museum, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl With a pearl Earring”. It was an amazing feeling to stand in front of “Dutch Mona Lisa”, the painting I know so much (nope, I didn’t read the book, nor saw the film). I was standing some half an hour looking it and listening audio guide when suddenly I’ve heard one quite weird sentence:“Jan Vermeer made the most famous pearl in western art by only two brushstrokes of white paint” and I thought “What?”. Then I approached even closer and was staring into the pearl and indeed is made by two different white: one that reflects the light and other that reflects the the clothes and that’s it. There is no definitive shape nor the hole in the ear. Amazing!

After the Mauritshuis I remembered advice from BookCrossing friend from The Hague and visited Escher Museum (which is oddly enough not included in the guides) and how good advice that was! I was completely lost in the impossible landscapes, optical illusions, and interactive things museum offers. I love how he used geometry in his art and all puzzle-like metamorphoses he made.

After Escher’s museum I finally went to Vredespaleis (or Peace Palace) in which is The International Court of Justice. The building (or should I say castle) is breathtaking. Sadly I couldn’t get in because I made stupid mistake and didn’t announce my visit which is mandatory. I almost begged but without any success. One simple phone call day before would solve the problem but hey, at least I’ve seen it from the (safe) distance. This means nothing but I’ll have to come back 😉
Enormous palace was completed 1913 and many of the member nations of the Court of Arbitration contributed to the interior’s (according to the guide) rich decoration. In 1946 the Untited Nation’s International Court of Justice was formed as successor to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
In a front of Vredespalais was a tram station where I could catch a train to Scheveningen so I did but after a few minutes I’ve seen a familiar building so I jumped off and indeed it was what I thought it is: The International Court Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (and I think Rwanda as well). It was very strange feeling to stand in a front of the building which was on news almost everyday. I even saw a van with some Serbian crew (I recognized the names). So I text message to Serbia where I am and got reply “I hope you were spitting it”. Strange thing is that every side involved in the war think the ICTY is against precisely their side favouring other two but indeed I would agree. I do think it at least a little bit less favouring our side but I’d rather not be part of that game so I’ll stop here.
Anyway, I’m so glad I fulfilled my, maybe perverse wish and visited both courts.
Then I catched a train to Scheveningen. As I said at the beginning, the only thing I could imagine about Scheveningen was a prison so I was extremely pleasantly surprised when I saw absolutely gorgeous little town on the coast of North Sea (yup sea again). I walked and really enjoyed myself in the view and nope, I didn’t went to see the prison. I really enjoyed my time there and actually didn’t know how much I love the sea because I was always thing about myself as more mountain-type but those waves and the salty air were incredible and indeed something I obviously missed a lot.
There is a joke about Scheveningen, that during WWII Nazis were able to distinguish Dutch from others by forcing them to say Scheveningen. This is indeed historical fact; the joke is that the allies (i.e. Americans) were pronouncing it something like “Shave-a-nigger”.

In the opposite direction of the same tram line was Delft, my third planned destination for that day. And after some half an hour ride I was there. Friends who were there told me it’s gorgeous but I couldn’t imagine how right they are. Indeed it’s so cosy with small and numerous canals and bridges, squares and churches. OK churches are everything but small but anyway I’m so glad I decided to go there as well. Delft is by the way world famous fir its blue-and-white pottery as well as the resting place of William of Orange (1553-84), one of the most celebrated figures in Dutch history. He commanded the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule from his headquarters in Delft, and his victory resulted in religious freedom and independence for the Dutch people.
Delft was also the birthplace of Jan Veermer who was so underrated during his lifetime that he died in extreme poverty. Well, so many painters had the same destiny. I just remember that I’ve heard on audio guide that “Girl With a Pearl Earring” has been bought for only 2 euros! Nope even then that wasn’t much!
So after spending few hours in Delft it was time to go back but then in the train I thought “Why not get off the train in Leiden, spend an hour or so there and then catch another one?” which is precisely what I’ve done. This was indeed second time I was here but first time was after biking some 50 km (I posted about that) and then I wasn’t keen on going deeper in the town.
Leiden was founded 1575 precisely by William of Orange, a year after he relieved the town from a year-long siege by the Spanish. As a reward for their endurance, William offered the citizens of Leiden a choice of the building a university or the abolition of tax. They choose wisely and the city’s reputation as a centre of intellectual and religious tolerance was firmly established.
The dark was fell long time ago when I left Leiden.
I’m very happy to say that after this trip The Hague and Scheveningen will not be places where our “Balkan heroes” are but home of Vermeer and Escher and lovely coastal town.

Today was a fantastic day! Don [Marlene’s father] drove us [Marlene, Ro, Maureen (Marlene’s sister), Sigourney (Maureen’s daughter) and me] in Volendam, lovely little (quite touristic) fishing village in the North Holland on the mouth of river Ij. The village is famous because its inhabitants still wears traditional Dutch clothes. To be honest I really thought that wearing a wooden clogs is a myth but then Marlene told me that she was wearing them and also she bought every year new pair for Ro! Indeed you can by them in the shops here with all proper sizes and everything but I never thought some would use them. Well I was 100% wrong! One of the first images when we arrived in Volendam was a guy in jeans on the street wearing wooden clogs! (no jeans aren’t part of Dutch traditional clothes).

So anyway, inhabitants of Volendam made their town famous because of the clothes with those high pointed bonnet on women’s heads that became one of the most recognizable of the Dutch traditional costumes. The houses are lovely as well. Everything was quite in (as one of my friend said) “Hansel and Grethel” style 🙂

And the we took a picture in traditional costumes as well. Don is playing an accordion, Marlene is testing her muscles with an enormous piece of Dutch cheese, Sigourney is showing some smaller pieces, Maureen just picked fresh tulips from the garden, Ro is grinding the coffee and myself showing my pray from the fishing. And of course we all wearing lovely wooden clogs!

By the way Volendam is the place where Picasso and Renoir spent some time.

After a nice walk, coffee and taking some photos we headed back home. Luckily today was The Day of Open Mills! I’ve never been in one before so this was a perfect opportunity. And where would be better place to do so than in Holland! We passed beside few and then stopped near one where the miller explained us the history of that precise windmill (which I didn’t understand cause he was speaking Dutch, later I got translation) and the working mechanism. He was so nice when he realized that I don’t speak Dutch he explained me in English and even opened the highest part of the windmill (which was closed for visitors) so that I could see it.

Many would think that windmills have been used to grind the corn and wheat but actually the main role was to drain the land of lakes and marshes , and extend the shoreline to create fertile farmland. Don’t forget that much of the Netherlands lies below the sea level.
The whole mechanism is made of wood and was working using the power of the wind. I was confused cause I thought it’s moving in one stable rhythm but miller said the case was quite opposite. Then outside I saw system of ropes that are modifying the changes in the wind.

Also nearby windmill there was a little shop where people were buying flour made in that same windmill. One man was shaking a sack of flour homogenizing it. he explained me that they have few flour types with different level of pulverization and they are mixing them in some precise measurement and then by turning the sack upside down he homogenizing it in the final flour. It’s totally traditionally made! And beside that little shop there was a tent where one girl was selling pancakes made from the flour from that mill. We took some (they were delicious) listening not quite Dutch melodies which one older man was playing on his accordion.

I must say that the route was quite scenic and in lovely little towns we were passing through we were making stops to take pictures. For instance Monnickendam (which we visited on out way to Volendam) is beautiful. When we continued our journey back Don was explaining me history of that part of the Holland. He showed me also some places which aren’t on tourist’s maps like steal factory, the steam train still working and railroad that it uses especially to transport steal from the factory (you know, steam locomotive is something you really can’t see in Holland). We also went to the IJmunden harbour which is quite huge with big cruisers and numerous fishing boats. In the harbour there are three huge locks which are enabling the ships to go from the sea into the dutch-canal-system and vice versa. There is a fourth one which can only be used for letting the surplus water out of the canals into the sea (North Sea) [this part was edited thanks to Don]. The harbour was curled among wast dunes and among the dunes there was hidden Atlantic Wall.

I must admit I was totally ignorant about the existence of Atlantic Wall but luckily one of Don’s passions is history (and as far as I noticed, especially wars) so he explained me bunch of things about it. The wall has been made by Nazis as a defense from the Allied forces. The wall is a system of coastal fortifications stretching from the very north of Norway till the shores on the french-Spanish border. Indeed the wall is mainly covered with weed or sand, some parts integrated with the dunes but he showed me some places where is still visible as well as a bunkers in which Nazis had huge canons.

It was such a nice history lesson about which I didn’t have a clue which was really icing today’s cake.

Beatrix of the NetherlandsYup I said I’ll write next time about Queens’ Day but today happened something quite strange: I’ve seen the Queen! OK the circumstances at the end weren’t so lovely but still. Namely after visiting few museums (among the rest Hemp Museum where you can smoke a little bit weed) during the day I ended on the Dam Square in Amsterdam where was about to begin the big event: it is Remembrance Day, a national memorial ceremony. All flags show mourning (they aren’t on the top of the stick (don’t know expression in English)) and each May 4th there is a ceremony on the Dam Square in which the Queen also take participation and at 8.00 pm there is a 2 minutes of silence.

Edgar DavidsIt was quite crowdy on the Square. The speeches have been made first in the church on the square and then there is a procession from the church to the Square to leave the flowers on the memorial monument to the Dutch who lost their lives in World War II which is also on the Dam Square.

I was in the crowd and I saw Dutch Queen, Beatrix of the Netherlands (I was some 5 m from her) as well as some famous people (and among them Edgar Davids).

Anyway, during 2 minute of silence suddenly some man started to yell (and I thought what a stupid, stupid joke). Then there was another scream which I believe it was some Dutch word and then we heard a roar, very strange sound as if a massive train is passing beneath us. That is when people were started to scream and stampede began. The metal fences were down, everyone was running away from the sound. My backpack was on the ground and camera in the hands so I was clumsy; managed to grab backpack, guarding camera but couldn’t avoid the lying fence so I fell. It wasn’t pleasant whatsoever because people in panic ARE dangerous.

Luckily I was on my feet soon enough to avoid to be covered with more bodies. I jumped over one fence in the area that was restricted few minutes before where there were no many people so I was able to watch what on earth is going on. People were hysterically crying, both kids and adults; many were carried by policemen and ambulance and no one knew what was the cause of the those screams and what was that really frightening sound.

Of course first association for all was last year’s Queens Day when many people lost their lives in the attack. Today however, luckily there were no such a consequences but I realized how deep trauma event from the last year has left on Dutch people. And that was the scariest part: knowing that people in such a perfect and ordered lovely, wealthy country live in utter fear without even realizing it. All they need is a trigger, a shout of a sick man and voile: psychology of the mass in on the stage.

Marlene was completely in panic. She sent me text message immediately to check if I’m alright. Rowena called to tell her that she just saw me on TV (there was a live broadcast from the Dam) and she turned on TV and start to type me a message when all this happened. She raised her eyes from mobile phone to TV and saw panic and stampede. Later when they said it was a sick man who was screaming Rowena explained what happened: “Oh it was just Milan not behaving himself”

I thought how would we in Serbia reacted: probably just thinking “What an idiot!”, maybe someone would be irritated and solve the problem with his own hands but I doubt it would provoke such a panic. But I totally understand Dutch people. They just didn’t accustomed to such violent excesses and after experience from the last year I doubt they’ll be cured anytime soon.

I didn’t have a time to write my blog regularly because I was out whole day and then in the evening I wasn’t quite in the mood to type. Anyway, Amsterdam happened few times in the meantime. On the first day (which was quite nice) I decided to take a canal cruise through A’dam’s canals (utterly touristic). I was sitting outside of the boat so that I could make a photos without glass (the boat was covered) and therefore couldn’t hear the story guide has been telling about the buildings before we were passing, but anyway I’ve read about that in the guide. The only thing was that after cruising I went to walk and then took almost the same route which I realized only after few hours and checking photos I’ve made.

Everything looks the same. So many times I thought “I have to take a photo of that, and that, and this, and that …” only to realize that those photos are almost the same. Another curious thing is that I’ve managed (in spite of the fact I had a map) to get lost so many times! Everyone told me Amsterdam is not big city but then I didn’t expect it’s so small. So many times I was heading towards one point and after so much walking without finding it turned out that I must have passed that point long ago and almost reach the point which is not on the map whatsoever! Also it happened numerous times that When I finally managed to locate on the map where I am after only few minutes I’ve been lost again! Today (on the lovely meeting with Dutch BookCrossers I had) I’ve heard explanation.Namely, on the BC convention hosts were explaining how the streets of Amsterdam aren’t straight but in the shape of a horseshoe, following the canal rings. What they forgot to say that after every half an hour (or so) the whole horseshoe pattern is moving anticlockwise and all streets aren’t at the same position on the map as they used to be before that click. Gosh that was so frustrating! But then after few days of not having the slightest idea where you’re going everything become quite clear and simple. (today I know perfectly where should I go to reach Van Gogh’s Museum and then where should I go to reach CaffePlaza to meet other BookCrossres)

But to go back on the first day… After finishing canal cruising I went to walk through the streets and bridges of A’dam. And suddenly in one moment I’ve heard knocking on the glass next to my ear so I instinctively turned my head in that direction. OK I know A’dam has Red Light District and of course I was planing to visit it but I didn’t know where exactly it is and even less that I’m in the middle of it. When I turned my head I saw big (really big) almost completely naked woman in her 50ties (or even more) winking me and inviting me inside. I must say the scene wouldn’t be pretty even if I have been prepared. If I wanna be completely honest it was scary, but of course I’m not used to those kind of window shopping so I needed a little more time to realize that’s OK; it’s OK to look at those women, to wink back or even to accept invitation. So The Red Light District turned out to be the first place I visited in Amsterdam and it was quite interesting. Also the real window stars can bee seen when night starts to fall although indeed there is a pick for all sorts of preferences.

[now I’m gonna time-jump again]

I saw great exhibition in Amsterdam Historical Museum: “The Hoerengracht (1983-1988)”. This world-famous iinstallation is a walk through reinterpretation of a section of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. With its display of richly decorated rooms of window prostitutes, the work is more than a superb example of assemblage art. It is a monument to the Wallen (window prostitution) of the 1980s and this is the first time the work is shown in Amsterdam. the exhibition examines the connection between art and Red Light District. Alongside Kienholz’s (authors of the exhibition Edward and Nancy Kienholz) work, international contemporary artists comment on the theme of window prostitution. “Role Exchange” by Marina Abramovic, for example, explores what happens when an artist and a prostitute change places. For four hours they changed places: prostitute went to the exhibition opening while Abramovis took her place in the window. I was so excited when I saw this installation: There are two screens: one was showing Marina in the window smoking and smiling to the viewers (me) and the other, prostitute chatting with people at the exhibition opening.

As I said I didn’t want to be in the museums when the weather was so nice so I walked whole first few days. I went in the Westerkerk and its tower (the tallest in the city at 85m). The church also has the largest nave of any Dutch protestant church. Rembrandt was buried here though his grave has never been found. The panoramic views of Amsterdam from the top of the tower indeed justify the rather gruelling climb. We were lucky cause the weather was so nice so the views were fantastic.

Beside the Westkerk is [in typical Dutch spirit] Homomonument, monument dedicated to the homosexual women and men who lost their lives during World War II. The pink triangular badge which gay men were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps later became an emblem of gay pride and was an inspiration for this monument which consists of three large pink granite triangles.

In the same street where is Westkerk is also Anne Frank House but when I saw how huge queue is I decided just to pass it. I might go there before return although I’m not keen on spending hours in the line. By the way I visited (just on short) Van Gogh’s Museum today and and it was such an emotional experience. However I’m not going to write about that now. I’ll go there few more times for sure so it’ll be separate post. I’m just mentioning this because when I peeked out of the museum on the street I saw 1km line of people waiting to enter the museum. The same situation was with Rijksmuseum. And today it was raining incredibly (first day with rain whole day long). I didn’t wait cause I purchased Museum Card which allows beside free entrance in almost all Dutch museums, skipping the waiting line 🙂

Anyway, day before Queen’s Day is of course Queen’s Night. It is the day when many people arrives in Amsterdam and the party is starting. By the way, on Queen’s Day Amsterdam at least doubles its population (750000), not only with foreign tourists (like me) but with Dutch from other cities as well. All of a sudden there’s complete blockage of all streets in Amsterdam by people. Every single square has a stage with DJs or different groups. I was cruising from one to another; they were mainly house music which was OK but not to much fun. Then there was stages where people were having great fun but it was sort of Dutch folk music and I must say that certainly is not my mug of tea. It reminded me on some German, Alpine yodelling (not the same but leaves that impression), with middle aged men with accordion, guitar, violin but the audience was screaming the words. It was silly. And then I’ve found the stage with the disco music from 70s-80s and that was a blast! They were singing Bony M songs with all choreography and costumes and I had really great time! Oh and then rain shower started but I didn’t even mind that! It was such a great time indeed.

And then next day (Apr 30th) was the Queen’s Day, the biggest, craziest holiday in The Netherlands … but I think I’ll write about that, next time.

So my big journey started yesterday. I was planing for so long to visit Holland that I wasn’t fully realizing that this is actually happening. My dear friend Marlene invited me many times during last few years but of course because we had that visa obstacle it wasn’t that easy going on your own. (not that I’m complaining cause I was travel a lot but that was mostly in group and Holland was never place I’d visit in a group where I would have to follow certain schedule). So now when that obstacle has been removed I thought quite casually “Why not?”. I checked the term with Marlene and purchased the plane tickets but even then it looked like a dream. Then day before yesterday I started to panic because I had to leave the house in three hours and I didn’t even started to pack my things (that should make a picture how realistic this trip looked to me).

I did get seats next to the window (which I asked) but it was above the wing which messed my plans to use my new camera (that I bought for this trip) It’s Canon PowerShot G11 (I’m so happy about it that I had to mention again). I was a little bit worry about the Schiphol airport which is one of the airport with the highest flight frequency. I supposed to get the bus station, buy the right ticket and then catch the right bus with English speaking driver, explain to him where I’m suppose to go so that he can tell me on which station I should wait another bus. During the flight I was reading about Schiphol and was quite calmed down because guide I have, said that’s one of the most users friendly airports and indeed it is. It was extremely easy to find the right direction and right place to pick up the baggage. The custom clerk didn’t make me problems; asked me questions I expected and stamped my passport (thank you Murphy for not applying your law then!!!). I was on the verge to make silly joke when he asked me the purpose of my visit. I thought to say “Birthday party” [30th April is a Queensday which is the birthday of Dutch Queen’s mother (which was also the queen)]. But then I’ll be here on Rowena’s (Marlene’s daughter’s) B-Day as well which would be my way out with the clerk.

And then at the Schiphool it was such a huge surprise when I suddenly saw a “MILAN ZZZ” sign!!! (for those who don’t know my nick name on BookCrossing (place where I met Marlene) site is zzz). It was Rowena who hold it and then I saw Marlene’s father (!!!) and Marlene! That was not the plan whatsoever so I was really surprised! And then we started to talk as if we know each other zillion years (which is not far from truth) without any unpleasant “oh-say-something-quickly-to-break-this-silence” moment. We all really clicked perfectly. By the way Marlene’s mother suggested the “Who the fuck is Milan?” sign (alluding on the song with Alice of course) but they didn’t do that. Of course I would just pass beside them without even changing my facial expression 🙂 (later she said that’s exactly what she would do as well).

We really couldn´t stop to talk and in spite the fact that I didn´t sleep for more than 24 hours I wasn´t feeling tired. In the afternoon I went in walk through Heemstede and it´s such a lovely town indeed. From the air Holland looks exactly like a Farmiville (those who play it on Facebook (which I don’t and don’t send me invitations!) will know what I’m saying). Everything is so ordered in perfect geometry; on the edges are modern windmills and fields of all sorts of things. The town is lovely; the houses are utterly gorgeous the cobbled streets with street lights; amazingly beautiful gardens and the most strange huge windows without curtains or blinds. Of course Dutch aren’t peeking cause they are completely accustomed on that; however I’m not so I had to admit I was looking inside interested about inner decoration. Then I was wondering “Do they ever walk naked through their house?” Not that I was hoping to catch some nudity but I thought in your house you can be relaxed and free to do whatever you want; However in this case it would be as if they are displaying themselves on the streets. The windows are huge almost from the floor to the ceiling and often you can see entire house till the end on the other side.
Everything leaves impression of the rally rich country. I visited lots of places and in most of them I thought “Oh this could be nice to do in Serbia” however I don’t see Serbia anywhere near to this. Sadly. (will post some pics about neighborhood later).

Today (2nd day) was absolutely lovely with no clouds. I went to Marlene’s parents on the coffee and to meet them of course. They are fantastic! I love their humour and it really relaxed me totally (well, not that was too nervous but you never know). Oh and just like in Serbia, in Holland people are kissing three times! We talked about everything, we catched the topic on which Marlene and I had a huge fight last year (which is past Dutch foreign policy), politics of course, history of the Netherlands and Serbia, question of identity in Holland and Serbia and how there is a huge difference in those two approaches. It was such a great conversation. Oh and Don (Marlene’s father) lended me his bike cause I expressed a wish to do everything Dutch when in Holland 🙂

So in spite that only few kilometres from where I am Van Gogh is waiting me (which is something I’m really dreaming about) I was strong and decided to restrain myself from spending such a lovely day in the museum (I’m sure I’ll eventually catch some rain here) so I decided to go and bike through Holland’s countryside and enjoy the nature. So I took a maps Marlene’s father gave me; put my camera, few sandwiches, water and some long sleeves shirt in my backpack and hit the road.

Holland is cyclist paradise! There are cyclist roads beside the main, car ones, signs for cyclists with marked routes, everyone (car drivers) respects them. It’s just amazing. However thank god there were no cops cause I made few big mistakes: I know I was suppose to ride a bike on the right side of the cyclist road but few times I forgot that cyclist road can be on the left side of the road for cars. So I was turning right from the cyclist road following the direction only to realize that the cyclist road is on my left side  next to the road for cars where I was driving. I did earn few sirens from the car.

Oh and I did manage to fall. Idiot, I’m so into taking pictures so I suddenly saw something I had to picture and completely forgot I’m on the bike so I stretched my leg to stop myself but the speed was too high (I wasn’t realizing that either) which made me lost balance and I “kissed” the pavement. In the middle of the town, it was really embarrassing but I took that picture.

What I was hoping to see was a fields of tulips, something  I don’t think I can see elsewhere. In one of the guides I have, they suggested a route but I had to changed it a little bit of course. So I drove through Bennebroek, Hillegom, Lisse, Sassenheim where I turned right on my own and then I wasn’t sure where I am but when I saw the sing for Noordwijk aan Zee I realised that “aan Zee” must mean “at the sea” so I had to go and see Northern Sea. I was kind of excited cause I’ll jump in the sea again! All of a sudden I’ve found muself among sand dunes and I knew I’m almost there and then I smell it and heard the waves and there it was. endless horizon filled with blue. I left bike near the cafe bar, took of my shoes and started walking towards it. Sand was actually warm but I knew water isn’t. On the other hand I thought “If you could enter into the Arctic Ocean this will not be a problem” and it wasn’t. It was cold and lovely, quiet, except of the waves few people were walking or jogging… It’s strange that last few seas I saw were all cold and on the north of the Europe. I’m so glad I decided to turn and make my own route. 

Then I was a little bit lost in the town and couldn’t find road to Leiden so I asked two older ladies who were so polite and were explaining me direction about 5 minutes… in Dutch! I did found the road eventually but that episode was so nice. At first they didn’t know whet “Leiden” is. I repeated few times and when I showed them on the map they both in the same time said “Oh Leiden!” (I thought I pronounced exactly the same way they did!). When I reached the Leiden I was quite tired (I biked some 45 km) and decided to take train on my way back. You know you can bring your bicycle into the train … if you buy the ticket for it! Which costs the same as for you! How silly is that!?!

And now it’s 2 am, I’m finishing this first report without knowing where I’ll go tomorrow. The idea is Amsterdam but I’m a little bit afraid if the weather is lovely just like it was today I’ll not be able to resist to go in Van Gogh’s Museum. By the way, I learn how to pronounce Van Gogh corectly and I know when I come back and say his last name in Serbia no one would know about whom I’m talking about! I was so surprised. Of course it’s all “H” (Dutch language has so many and so strong “H”).

till soon *wave*

Rag and Bone
~ A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead
by Peter Manseau

This book is one of my top 2009 reads; moreover before I sent it away I had to reread it 🙂

It is also probably most surprising reading experience I’ve had for a very long time. It’s a great travelog, it’s incredibly funny, equally educational, shocking (how surprising!), ticklingly blasphemous, and absolutely bizarre!

You really would not even imagine (if you’re unfamiliar with the world of relics like myself) what people are able to do with something (human origin) that consider sacred but even worse is to see what Church (!!!) is doing. I was really shocked so many times while reading this book.

First paragraph (I love it!):
”This is a book about dismembered toes, splinters of shinbone, stolen bits of hair, burned remnants of an anonymous rib cage, and other odds and ends of human remains, but it is not book about death. Around every one of the macabre artifacts that, for a variety of reasons, have come to be venerated as religious relics, circles an endless orbit of believers and skeptics, bureaucrats and clergy, con artists, and just plain curious souls. This is a book about life.”

Manseau has done fantastic research about the issue covering all major religions. There are very informative story about each relic while being part of precise human being and that’s very interesting. But the story of the body after soul continued its journey, is stunning! I found that my own religion as the most bizarre (probably because it’s mine). I was more than once reacted like “Oh gosh no! They didn’t! How could they?” and even “Oh hurry up and lets move to Buddhism!” (I‘m joking!) And then the most pathetic: “OK I’m Christian but at least I’m not Catholic”. There are many (I guess ) blasphemous moments; but then how not be blasphemous when you’re reading about Holy Prepuce (Jesus foreskin)!?!? I didn’t even know such thing even exists and is worshiped (by the way do you know the origin of the Saturn’s rings? Go figure! You wouldn’t believe; there is no way you would even guess!)! Or few churches that each enshrines a head of John the Baptist in the same time?!? I’ve seen in Spain part of The Cross (later I’ve found out there are so many pieces of that same cross that Romans must have deforest entire Middle East to made it) also I’ve seen the hand of some saint and then I thought it’s quite morbid (now I see that was actually light image).

What I liked is that Manseau is never offensive; I don’t think he’s hurting religious being in his readers. At least he didn’t hurt mine. He’s looking from a rational point of view on something which is in enormously large scale not rational whatsoever.
As I said he’s very witty and don’t expect from this book to be profoundly serious. Quite opposite; it looks like a coffee chat … OK I admit, the topic would be quite insane but still a coffee chat. And what I liked the most in this book is how people are 100% ready to believe in something so unlikely accurate and even to actually feel the sacred power of it; whether that is a shinbone or a pebble founded in the ash after cremation. It’s really amazing.

From the blurb:
”Manseau’s “Rag and Bone” reads like a novel, entertains like a TV docudrama, and educates like the best college professor you ever had. It is at once informative, quirky, and funny. Do people really think that the leathery tongue of 12th century saint can bless them with good fortune? They do. Why do people believe in such weird things as the holy relics of religion? Read this book to find out. WARNING: you may well discover that you also hold beliefs in holy relics and not even know it!”

Here I’d like to mention one vignette I found very interesting. It’s part of the relics in Buddhism, religion I know little about. The only Buddhist I know personally is my dear friend Shanna (whose BLOG is one of  virtual places I regularly visit; check why) who told me while visiting me in Belgrade something very interesting: That Buddhism is actually not religion but philosophy.  Reading this book helped me to fully realize her words.

There is a story in the book about the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Of course it’s worshiped and moreover in Myanmar they made a replica equally worshiped as “the original”. As I said I knew little about Buddhism but I knew that much to see a mountain-sized contradiction. And here is an explanation:

There are two branches in Buddhism: one that is following Siddhartha’s words how we should disconnect ourselves from impermanent things in our life (which is basically everything) and the one that is doing completely opposite thing: that is worshiping something so undoubtedly impermanent such is human body (i.e. Siddhartha’s tooth) and even ready to die for. But what was incredibly surprising is that Siddhartha was fully aware that people would hear his sermons and understand what he had meant or they would hear them and understand the exact opposite. He never denied that he told people what they needed to hear to affect necessary change in their lives. He knew that his followers would take from his message parts they needed the most. For some that meant philosophy, for others that meant teeth.

So what about relics? And should they necessary be connected with religion? Are they mandatory sacred? What one relic could be?

“Relics seem to me to admit that, yes, while we do have spiritual dimension to our lives, we are also flesh under the looking glass of all those around us. Our lives and or deaths are witnessed by others, and what our lives might mean to them is mostly beyond our control. We are simultaneously people who need symbols to survive, and we are symbols ourselves. Our bodies – our toes and shins, our foreskins and ribs, our hands and whiskers, our teeth and hair – have the capacity to tell stories we can not imagine. And the facts of our lives can be as mysterious and in need of explanation as anything that lies beyond.”

This is without doubt one of the best nonfiction book I’ve read in years. I so didn’t expect this. I didn’t know what to expect at all. I was attracted with the bizarre topic it deals with and was hooked from the page 1.

Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.netOK after being absent for quite some time and have had some health issues, after having uncompleted text on my hard disc for months and with a little pushing from my friends it’s a high time to sit and finally finish part 3 (the last one) of my Northern Adventures.
(in this post there are 29 small photos and they are clickable for enlargement. If you don’t see (and want to) all 29, refresh the page)

I should say that St Petersburg is a place I was dreaming to visit for ages and to be honest I didn’t expect I’ll have a chance for this any time soon. Naturally when that chance appeared I just couldn’t miss it. Therefore St Petersburg supposed to be the pearl of this voyage.

Everyone who has read Dostoyevsky (and I presume that readers of this blog have read at least few of his books) have one image of St Petersburg and I was truly hope I’d have a chance to see the other ones. After having mostly fantastic weather in Finland (something that quite surprised Finns as well) my hopes were quite high that it will be the same case in Russia. However weathercast wasn’t promising whatsoever: first day – rain; second day – heavy rain; third day – heavy rain. I was on hot line with my friend in Belgrade who were informing me everyday of the trip if there’ll be some changes. The answer has been always the same. I do love rain indeed but you REALLY don’t wish rain in place you are dreaming about for so many years.
When we crossed Russian border and enter in Leningradska Oblast (!) it was early in the morning, morning where sun was struggling with clouds so I thought “OK, hope dies last” and while we were approaching to St Petersburg through kind of spooky Karelia the weather was moving from bad toward worse until finally it didn’t appear in all his beauty that Dostoyevsky wrote about. I couldn’t believe; I’m finally here and it’s raining and everything is gray. In the distance we could see church towers trying to break grayness with their bright domes (not very successful I’m afraid). In the end I decided I’m not allowing rain to spoil my dream!

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After arriving in hostel we had to make a plan very fast. Spend only 3 days in St Petersburg is a sin but it was take it or leave it. We selected as a main destinations of each day Pushkin, Peterhof and The Hermitage. So we decided to go first in Pushkin. It was mostly cloudy so we thought to leave day with heavy rain for museum. Majority of my fellow travelers have noticed how my friend and I are organized so they decided to do whatever we do. In one moment we noticed one huge group of familiar faces are expecting from us to show them direction. I must say I wasn’t too happy with that. I mean I do have one “rule” on the trips which is going alone or with someone who has the same interest as I do. After not too long we heard “Wait for us! Can you slow down?” grrr! But we finally filled some kind of small bus. I didn’t pay the ticket at all, actually I didn’t have a ticket. Chauffeur was selling the tickets on the entrance of the mini bus and since we were big group with members who just had to put their butts on the seat (as if 8000km of sitting is not enough) he took some amount of rubles (without giving any ticket I believe but I’m not sure), closed the door and start the engine. Those mini buses are actually kind of cool stuff cause it’s much easier for maneuvering through the big city. However, finding right stop is small adventure. It seems there is one area where the stops are and you just have to find right line. I did have a guide where I checked for the number of the lines but the situation on the ground was quite different. Namely there were much more busses we could use than what guide listed. Curious thing was that the ticket price varied while all buses looked almost the same *shrug*

Anyhow we didn’t have time to experiment so we entered in the first mini bus with the note Pushkin-Tsarskoe Selo.

First day: Pushkin-Tsarskoe Selo
The original estate at Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar’s Village) was a gift from Peter I to his wife Catherine in 1710, and from around 1725 she started to spend more time here. It was under Empress Elizabeth and Catharine the Great that the place began to take shape being expanded and aggrandized.
The centerpiece is the vast 1752 to 1756 baroque Yekaterininsky Dvorets (Catherine Palace), designed by her favourite architect Rastrelli. It gradually became the favourite country estate of the royal family. In 1837 Russia’s first railway line was built between St Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo to shuttle the imperial family back and forth.
When you enter the complex you’re finding yourself in a magic park full of sculptures and lovely small buildings in which you can see exhibitions, concerts and that kind of events. The magnificent parks and gardens of Tsarskoe Selo were created out of dense forest by thousands of soldiers and labourers. The park’s outer section focuses on the Great Pond. During summer it is possible o take a ferry to the little island where is Chesma Column that commemorates the Russian victory over the Turks in the Aegean.
And then suddenly you’re finding yourself absolutely speechless before lavish imperial palace. I knew it’s beautiful and saw many photos but standing there was just as if I’m dreaming…

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Oh and awaking was quite abruptly: the line to enter was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen! Even thought to stand there and wait, quite possibly for hours was terrifying so *blush* I didn’t. I took my friend and just stand some 50m from the entrance (behind us there was a line of hundreds of meters). However after 15-20min we noticed that nothing was happening; no one was entering in the palace and no one is exiting. I still don’t understand what was happening but apparently organized groups were entering without problems while others were waiting for Godot. OK I tried to enter saying that I saw my friend from the groups enters the palace (which was not complete lie; she was going in exchange office) but a KGB-looking man asked me about my guide’s name. I’m an idiot! Why I didn’t say Elena? (there MUST be some Elena who works as a guide) I said “I don’t know her name” and got the answer “In the line!”. I tried to explain but all he was saying was “In the line!” (generally speaking I’m stunned how many people don’t speak any foreign language. Here even grannies know some (very rudimental but still) English) so I was in the line. At least scenery was breathtaking, that grayness has started to disappear so we all hoped that weathercast will be wrong!

Eventually line started to move and then inside it was absolute chaos with buying tickets, again standing in line, groups with guides have had priority (just like outside) etc. I don’t know, but there must be some better solution than “In the line!”. Anyway we managed to pass all barriers and entered into another world. The palace was indescribable. After third or fourth room you’re starting to feel dizziness with all that light, gold, luxury. Interesting thing is that rooms actually have been beautifully restored (!). Palace has been devastated by the Germans and there are photos showing rooms (and the exterior of the palace) prior and after the Germans. It was almost completely destroyed!. There are numerous (but really numerous) rooms with all sorts of themes and colours but The Amber Room was something really special. Room is completely covered with gilded woodcarvings, mirrors, agate and jasper mosaics. The exquisitely engraved amber panels were gifts from Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716. But these treasures were plundered by the Nazis and went missing in Kaliningrad in 1945, becoming one of the art world’s great mysteries. In 2004 the strange hoax was revealed: the Amber Room was destroyed in a fire in Kaliningrad while under Red Army actions. Those responsible for the loss were so terrified of Stalin’s reaction that an elaborate myth was created of its disappearance. In 2004 president Putin and German Chancellor Schröder presided over the opening of a new Amber Room, restored largely with German funds.

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Oh the curious thing was that there were lack of organized groups which spoken English. Majority were in Russian and then there were several in Spanish (evil grin). Naturally I joined one and silently translating to my friend what guide were saying. Guide was so sweet, Of course she noticed I’m not from her group but she didn’t mind. I had some question as well and she was quite happy to answer them. Moreover when they were moving into other building she mimicked me “Are you going?”. And then one (big) lady from the group who, I can bet wasn’t that interested in the story guide was telling, approached me and told me how she can’t listen properly because I’m in between her and guide. I started to laugh “What, my presence is so deafening?” She wasn’t pleased with my answer. Of course I remained with her group and she started to pointing my presence to others in the group but they didn’t find that annoying whatsoever. I wonder how would she react if she knew I’m not even Spanish (because my Spanish professor (who is Spanish herself) said that I looked completely as her compatriots)?

Second day: Peterhof
This most stunning of the tsarist palaces around St. Petersburg was first built by peter the Great (and it is also known as Peter’s Palace). Over the years his successors continued to build and expand to create the astounding ensemble seen today. It all started after the victory over Swedes at Poltava in 1709 when Peter decided to build a palace “befitting to the very highest of monarchs”. After his visit to Versailles Peter expanded his ambitions and employed more than 5000 labourers, serfs and soldiers, supported by architects, water-engineers, landscape gardeners and sculptors. Work proceeded at a frenetic pace until Peterhof was officially opened in 1723.
Indeed Peterhof is the most popular day trip from St. Petersburg for visitors. And that has its price, sometimes quite huge and I’m not talking about money but about nerves! Namely again we faced with “In the line” (it seems that’s the most used phrase in English) so we were obedient (sheep) and after a while we noticed that there are two lines: one to buy a ticket (some 300m long) and equally long line for entering the palace after (!) you buy the ticket. It was unbelievable. So my friend and I decided to split roles: I’ll wait in line to buy ticket and she’ll be in line to enter the palace and after I buy the tickets I’ll join her. And so we were standing in unmovable lines for ages. Eventually when I reached the girl who sells the tickets she spoke with her lovely voice: “No ticket!”; “No ticket!!! What on earth that suppose to mean?” and she explained: “Now only Russian people”. “I’m Serbian! It’s the same! Serbs-Russians-Brothers!” It was pointless. Oh, she can’t be serious!!! But she was! She was painfully serious! Apparently we were late some 30 min to catch time that allows us, non-Russians to get inside and therefore we had to wait some 90 minutes. The catch is maybe there are some note about that but ALL bloody notes were in Russian!!! So what’s the point inform in Russian people who are not Russians and therefore probably don’t speak Russian that they have special term to enter the palace! Gosh I was furious! We lost almost an hour waiting in the line to find out that we have to come in about 2 hours!

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Oh well we used those 2 hours in best possible way. We were marveling Peterhof’s park and fountains. I’ve never been in Versailles so I can’t compare but Peterhof left me speechless. Of course the most impressive is magnificent Grand Cascade, a symphony of over 140 fountains engineered by Peter himself. The central statue of Samson tearing open a lion’s jaws celebrates (as so many things in St. Petersburg do) Peter’s victory over the Swedes at Poltava. Shooting up over 60m it was unveiled for the 25th anniversary of the battle. From the Grand Cascade goes a canal, Water Avenue crisscrossed by bridges and bedecked by smaller sprays, leading from the palace (Grand Cascade is in the front of the palace) to the ferry dock in the Baltic.
The grounds at Peterhof include Upper, Lower and Alexandria parks, covering vast area of more than 600 hectares. As well as the numerous palaces and fountains there are three-lined avenues, wooded paths and the Baltic shore. The grounds next to the Great palace have been designed to be laid out in the French style with geometrically arranged flower beds, sculptures, summerhouses and pergolas. As I said fountains are just amazing and countless, there are so many that you really have to think hard not to repeat a wish if you wanna make one with each fountain! Beside magical Grand Cascade there is an imaginative variety mostly concentrated in the Lower Park, includes triton and lion fountains, dragon fountains with checkerboard steps, and smaller fountains with fish-tailed boys blowing sprays through conches. Most playful are trick fountains such as the Umbrella which “rains” on those who come too close.
So those 2 hours of waiting weren’t that bad after all.

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Grand Palace is an imposing edifice, although with 30-something rooms it’s not nearly as large as a typical tsarist palace. It has been transformed during the reign of Tsarina Elisabeth when a third storey and wings with pavilions at either end have been added. I don’t know what more I should write about royal palaces. Basically the story is pretty much the same as the one about Catherine’s Palace in Tsarskoe Selo: luxurious and breathtaking…

Third day: The Hermitage
Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.netThe Winter Palace which is located in the historic center of the city used to be the Imperial residence. Several rooms in the palace were used to house unique works of art, and these rooms came to be known as the Hermitage. Later more buildings were constructed for the growing collections – the Small Hermitage, the Great Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre and the New Hermitage. All these buildings now make up the State Hermitage – an enormous museum of art, history and culture.
Someone told me years ago if someone wants to see all what is in the Hermitage (and spend reasonable amount of time for each object) one would have to spend two years in the museum. The museum is a monster! My friend asked me “How can you use such a word for something so magnificent?”; well I don’t mean in negative way. I mean it’s horribly demanding, you literally need to be physically prepared as if you’re going to compete in the Olympics but also you have to know what you wanna see; you must have prepared priorities because there’s no way you can see everything. I was in shock when I completely accidentally peeked into some secondary, even tertiary corridor far away from the main halls and in the moment I was turning away my head I froze: “Have I just saw Van Gogh there in the corner?” It was Van Gogh, and then Gauguin , etc they are placed somewhere where I never thought they would. Of course there is a special room for them as well but that part on the lower floor is so easy to be missed. Then the next thought raised “Gosh! What have I missed so far in those countless other hidden corridors?!” So you can imagine what’s in the main halls!

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I’m not going to write about how I felt; I don’t think I could. I mean just to write the names like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rafael, Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, El Greco, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rodin ….. should be breathtaking (and those are only painters and few sculptors and there are so much more!).
If you scroll down you’ll se an image of my computer and “The Dance” by Matisse. It’s one of my favourite paintings and I was so eager to finally see it. It’s was on third (last) floor… I knew it’s big but I couldn’t imagine how big until I finally enter in the hall where it hangs! It was on opposite wall of the huge hall and it occupies the entire wall. It looked like a mural. I really couldn’t believe I was standing there, even now while I’m writing this  (tomorrow will be) exactly 9 months later I’m shivering.

* * *

In between those main daily destinations I was cruising through the city hungry to see as much as possible. When I said cruising I meant literally: the best way to see St Petersburg in all its beauty is from the river (which mostly doesn’t look like a river but the sea). Neva is enormous and I can only imagine how the city looks when the river is frozen. St. Petersburg is built on 42 islands at the Neva delta where the river flows into the Gulf of Finland and it has it has over 300 of bridges! That’s why its most famous nick is “Venice of the North”.

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I’ve never been in Moscow but I saw St Petersburg as an example of Orthodox Christianity splendour! It is very different from what we have here in Serbia and I was little stroked, it reminded me on those cathedrals in Western (Catholic) Europe. Indeed we have the biggest Orthodox Temple in the world here in Belgrade but it’s not nearly like those churches in Russia. I’m not saying this in any negative way, I was just surprised. And when I saw how impressive churches are I was thinking “Oh God, please make they have candles inside instead of those machines where you put the coin and the small light turns on” (First time I saw those machines in Spain and I was shocked, even disgusted. At first my mind refused to believe they’re replacing candles. I mean even duration of time when the light bulb is on depends on the amount of money you put in. I found them utterly non-religious). Honestly I was deeply happy when I saw candlelight in those magnificent temples of St Petersburg. I was surprised that someone who is accustomed on different kind of religious beauty was so emotionally overwhelmed in those temples.

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There are countless number of churches in the city but the most important are the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (The church is known as “The Saviour on the Blood” because on that place Alexander II of Russia was mortally wounded and the church is erected as a memorial to him), the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan (that was modeled after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church was dedicated to the victory over Napoleon in Patriotic War and General Kutuzov is buried in the cathedral), the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, St Isaac’s Cathedral (The largest cathedral in the city and the larges church in Russia when it has been built. During Soviet Union it served as a museum of atheism!!!).

Kazan Cathedral

Of course only three days for city like St Petersburg is not nearly enough to see all what is offered. But it was surely enough to say that this is the most beautiful place I ever visited. Hopefully I’ll be back one day…

* * *

From Russia we continued our journey and the next stop was Riga, capital of Latvia.
It’s really cute town, especially its old part with lots of cobbled streets and lovely architecture. Sadly we spent only few hours there before we continued journey to Krakow once again.
The roads were horrible and we arrived in Krakow few hours later than it was planned and therefore I was late to visit Auschwitz. I really wanted although my friends who were there advised me not to go because I would be so horribly moved that the feeling will gloom all positive emotion I’m having from past three weeks. Some of them still have that feeling in the stomach only when they heard I was aiming to go there and they visited the camp years ago. Anyway since we arrived late I had to modify my plan and go in “Wieliczka – Salt Mine”, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s absolutely incredible, it reaches 327 m depth and is over 300km long. Everything there is made of salt: passages, staircases, tunnels, statues of historic and mythic figures and the new ones (like Pope John Paul II) or scenes from the Bible like Journey to Egypt or replica of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. We had great guide, she was fantastic and beside she gave us incredible amount of information she was enormously funny. I had to mention her here because she was really very nice memory from that visit. Oh and indeed everything is sculptured in the salt rock – I licked it *blush*.

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And that was almost everything I have to write about my fantastic Summer 2008 journey.
I hope you who were brave (or crazy) enough to read the entire story will find it interesting. I know I will keep coming back to these three posts to refresh my memories.

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