Category Archives: Cultural Travel

Nis Fortress – 2000 Year Old Fortifications

Before I leave Serbia (actaully, I already have) I want to give a quick impression of Nis which is the first stop from Sofia, Bulgaria when you enter Serbia by bus and in my case, was also the last stop before I left for Skopje, Macedonia (also by bus).

Fortress in NisAs the bus pulled into Nis the first time, I was surprised and pleased to see that there were Vietnamese Pho restaurants, when I came back to Nis and went to get some Pho, what I found was that it’s a type of Serbian restaurant. So, don’t go looking for Vietnamese food in Serbia!

It is one of the oldest cities in the Balkans, and has from ancient times been considered a gateway between the East and the West. The Paleo-Balkan Thracians were formed in the Iron Age, of which the Triballians dwelled in this region with a Celtic invasion in 279 BC that resulted in the forming of the Scordisci tribe.

Fortress in Nis, SerbiaI stayed at a pretty decent little hostel in Nis. One thing I learned while I was in Serbia was that hostel and hotel owners are required to write reports on their guests each day and then encrypt them and send them to the police. The obsession with spying in Serbia comes from being guilty of spying on each other. I had one Serbian friend tell me that in his opinion more than half of all Serbs were police informants! In general, Serbs go through life either under surveillance or thinking they are under surveillance and when it comes down to it, there isn’t much difference. This bit of information helps to explain why many Serbs automatically assume any American or Brit is probably a spy…because apparently half of all Serbs are!

Anyway, back to the hostel. I will be writing about some of the hostels I’ve stayed at and recommend in the coming months (including this one).

The owner suggested that in addition to visiting the Tower of Skulls and the Red Cross Concentration Camp that I also pay a visit ot the Nis Fortress. I took a stroll around the fortress and got a few nice pictures but the most beautiful thing there was the Turkish Mosque which was obviously out of commission since Serbia in my experience is not exactly Muslim friendly.

Nis River in SerbiaNiš is the birthplace of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor and the founder of Constantinople, now Istanbul.

I didn’t visit the log cabin Constantine was born in or see the cherry tree he cut down as a boy. Niš is also the possible location of Nysa, a mythical place in Greek mythology where the young god Dionysus was raised but I didn’t go out to the clubs with the French guy who stayed at the hostel, probably because he said “You should come with me, Serbian girls give you sex just because they like your passport.” I imagined how my wife would view me going out after that and decided to pass on the opportunity. Instead, I went out and ate a traditional Nis meal of ribs and cold potatoes. Not really the same thing, but I think the wife will be happy to know it.

During the day there were plenty of young people in the park who seemed to be ditching school and a few old timers walking around with canes, presumable to protect themselves from the idle youngsters.

As usual, wikipedia does a nice job of presenting the historical background of the Nis Fortress.

Niš Fortress is a fortress in the city of Niš, Serbia. It is a complex and very important cultural and historical monument. It rises on the right bank of the Nišava River, and is over two millennia old.

The extant fortification is of Turkish origin, dating from the first decades of the 18th century (1719–1723). It is well-known as one of the most significant and best preserved monuments of this kind in the mid-Balkans. The Fortress was erected on the site of earlier fortifications – the ancient Roman, Byzantine, and later yet Mediaeval forts.

Turkish Mosque in Nis Serbia
The mosque is inside the Nis Fortress

The Fortress has a polygonal ground plan, eight bastion terraces and four massive gates. It stretches over 22 ha of land. The rampart walls are 2,100 m long, 8 m high and 3 m thick on the average. The building stone, brought from the nearby quarries, was hewn into rather evenly-shaped blocks. The inside ofhe rampart wall was additionally fortified by a wooden construction, santra?, and an additional bulwark, trpanac. On the outside, the Fortress was surrounded by a wide moat, whose northern part has been preserved to our days. Beside the massive stone rampart walls, the southern Stambol gate and the western Belgrade gate are pretty well preserved. Partly preserved are the water gates, while there are only remains of the northern Vidin gate and the south-east Jagodina gate. With a complete reconstruction of all the gates, Niš Fortress would once again become, architecturally and functionally, a closed fortification system. Far into the fortress, there is a weather station, that provides forecasts for the city of Niš.

Half Bed and Torture Devices at Rembrandt House

Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai

Rembrandt's HouseAs a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.

A Kitchen and the Half Bed

I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.

flags in amsterdam at rembrandt's houseActually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.

In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.

A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?

Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.

I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.

In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.

Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.

After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”

Tripping with Salvadore Dali: Five Favorite Works of His Art in Figueres, Spain

Story and Photos by

The reason I went to see the Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain, an easy day trip by train from Barcelona, was because my husband and I are fans of this flamboyant self-promoter who had such a unique eye for a surreal world. I’ve seen his works in several museums around the world – mostly his paintings – including the gallery in Barcelona, but this is like a Dali Disneyland … so much to see in every corner, such bizarre variety, you kind of just want to run around like a little kid. I think if you did actually do this, it would feel not dissimilar to a weird amusement park ride, like maybe the kind that would be featured in an episode of Twilight Zone.

The museum is unquestionably worthy of a full day’s visit. If you are pressed for time, though, these are five of my favorites that I would personally suggest as highlights not to miss.

ONE: A person could make an entire post just about the jewelry gallery, which was both the most unexpected and my favorite exhibition in the museum. Dali felt that jewelry should be designed and made regardless of the practicality of wearing it. Though to be honest, I’d love to walk around wearing the heart-shaped brooch made of rubies that actually bulges out at intervals inside its gold casing to look like a beating heart.

I would also take delight in wearing this brooch of skulls, especially if my husband had given it to me as a Valentine’s Day gift. Nothing says “I love you” like a heap of golden skulls.

Dali Museum in Figueres
Emeralds and amethyst … naturally the perfect combination with golden skulls.

My personal favorite, though, was the “space elephant.” How exactly I would interface with it, I’m not sure … a necklace perhaps, or maybe I could affix it to a tiara … but I thought it was pretty cool.

Dali Museum in Spain
The space elephant – elegant in its own surreal way.

TWO: Be sure to bring some coins with you and don’t be shy! Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to slip the coins into slots on some of the artwork. As you enter the glass dome of the museum, for example, a shiny Cadillac, in the exhibit titled “Car-naval,” plays a little soundtrack through the front grill upon receipt of your coin. My husband and one British kid were the only people I ever saw utilizing the slots to experience a further dimension of the artwork. Maybe people think the slots are only part of the visual art design, but they do actually function! It’s a fun and quirky little detail; you can feel like you’re inside a seek-and-find picture hunting for the slots.

Dali Art Museum Travel
The Cadillac in “Car-Naval” plays a tune for your coin.

THREE: The Palace of the Wind contains a lively ceiling fresco. In the style of much of Renaissance architecture and art, you tilt your head back to take in the scene on the ceiling … but rather than illustrations of ancient Biblical stories or heavenly figures loitering calmly on clouds in contemplation, the feet of Dali himself and his wife, Gala, who often served as his muse, come crashing down from the sky as if they might stomp you to bits and pieces. (And then Dali would surely glue you back together in the most unlikely of configurations.)

Dali Musuem Art
The soles of Dali’s feet reach down toward your head (if you doubt it’s Dali, notice his signature moustache).
Dali Museum Figueres
The feet of Gala are also ready to dance upon your head.

FOUR: The Mae West room might be the most famous part of the museum, and you will likely have to stand in line to ascend the stairs and look out at the scene from the vantage point Dali intended, but it’s fun and I don’t think overrated. I mean, how many artists can create a famous visage out of apartment furniture? The viewing platform provides the hair to frame the apartment into a face. It looks cool in a photo, but you can’t grasp the scale of it without experiencing it first hand.

Dali Museum Travel
The Mae West room with a couch for lips, paintings for eyes, and the warmth of fire in her nostrils.

FIVE: While his paintings are the most renowned facet of the body of Dali’s 2-dimensional artwork, there is quite a sizeable collection of drawings and sketches on display in Figueres. Because of the relative rarity of these works in other museums, I think it’s very worthwhile to check them out here.

Dali Museum in Figueres
From the collection of black and white drawings.
Dali House in Figueres, Spain
Early work, more of a sketch.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Museum hours vary with season, the most restricted hours in November through February at 10:30 to 18:00, and open longer in the summer. In August the museum even opens late at night. The admission price is surprisingly affordable at 7 Euro for an adult ticket. I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more surreal and enjoyable experience for such a price, brought to you by one of the most legendary figures in the sphere of modern art.

Dali Chicken
Every museum needs a chicken.

profile_slovakia500 (2)About the Author: Shara Johnson plots her travels from her home in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. You can follow her adventures abroad at, her next trip is Iran in April 2014.  You can friend her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.