The Mountains of Persia

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There is a bar in Belgrade called the World Traveller’s Club. It is in the basement of an apartment block in the city centre and to gain entrance you are required to ring the door bell at street level and state your business over the intercom. These days the club, which is alternatively known as the Federal Association of Globetrotters, is just one of many quirky bars in the city – homespun decor, art school daubings on the walls, miscellaneous furniture that includes Singer trestle sewing machines for tables, posters of iconic foreign destinations like Paris and Rome. The bar, as it proudly declares on its menu, was established in 1999. The date is significant.

In 1999 Belgrade was the capital of a land still known as Yugoslavia, a much depleted country that by that stage of the breakup consisted of just Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Internationally, the country was considered as a pariah state thanks to the continuing ultra-nationalist regime of Slobodan Milošević. 1999 was also the year that NATO bombs fell on Belgrade and other Serbian cities. It was neither a good place to be nor somewhere that was easy to escape from – a Yugoslav passport, once a document that allowed easy access to both West and Eastern bloc, no longer held any currency. Such a document would get you nowhere.

It goes without saying that not everybody in Serbia was happy with Milošević’s stubborn and didactic rule. Most young people in Belgrade just wanted to do what young people did everywhere – live, love, make mistakes, have fun, travel. Many of these were still possible to some extent but travel was clearly out of the question. As a reaction to this difficult state of affairs a few people came together to create the World Traveller’s Club, a safe welcoming environment where people could meet to travel in their imagination if not in real space. Initially membership was by invitation only. These days anyone can visit although the bar’s original purpose no longer holds much significance other than a reminder of difficult times.

Turn the clock back thirty years, back to a time when foreign journeys required a wider leap of the imagination. In the pre-Internet age any inspiration for travel for its own sake was dependent on books, photographs and the anecdotes of others. In the 1970 film Performance, the Turner character, a reclusive rock star played by Mick Jagger as a caricatured version of himself, reads aloud from a Persian text, The Old Man of the Mountains. A postcard is displayed entitled The Mountains of Persia. Both text and image represent a sort of paradise – that which is unattainable, a dream destination for the two men thrown together in self-isolation in Turner’s Notting Hill Gate basement. Turner is living as a recluse, hiding from fame and perhaps the fear that his powers are diminishing; Chas, the James Fox character, is keeping a low profile to avoid the attention of fellow gangsters. The idealised mountains of Persia represent a sanctuary where both men might manage to escape their past lives.

The curtailment of free movement as in late 1990s Yugoslavia is hard to imagine these days. Many of us in the developed world take travel for granted almost as a birthright. This is especially true in an age in which jet travel is both cheap and easily available, and a journey, a holiday or even an off-the-peg adventure, can be booked with the click of a return key. Now, suddenly, in the light of a rapidly worsening pandemic, we need to think anew. We must accept that for a while at least, probably some considerable time, we are not going anywhere. Perhaps now is the time to form our own fraternities and sororities of imagined exploration? Any globetrotting must be virtual and digital. For the foreseeable future wanderlust is going to be just that, a lust for something unattainable. In this respect I am lucky I suppose. For a number of reasons, in recent years I have come round to thinking that it is just as fruitful to explore my own backyard as it is any exotic far-flung destination. I have grown weary of airports and the mechanical human processing that takes place, the tiresome, albeit necessary, security measures. As B. B. King sang of another sort of love affair, The Thrill Is Gone. The notion of ‘slow travel’ and all that it represents has for me become something that has gone beyond simply an attractive-sounding travel franchise. These days I really do prefer to slow down, to cover a smaller area, to discover the beauty of the local, to chart the quotidian. Less is undoubtedly more but that is easy to say for someone like me who already has the T-shirts, the passport stamps, the photographs, the anecdotes, the well-thumbed guidebooks on the shelves.

In the plague-year situation that the world now finds itself in to complain about restricted movement seems, at the very least, churlish. As we enter what seems like late capitalism’s final closing down sale (‘Everything Must Go!’) we have become, as the columnist Marina Warner has recently written, ‘a nation of shopfighters’. While shoppers squabble over toilet paper in supermarket aisles and some wealthier hoarders, like newly arrived Beaker folk mocking the simple ways of those who still rely on cupped hands, purchase additional freezers for the storage of their panic-shopped supplies, we should maybe reflect on what we (or, rather, some of us) have become. It is an opportunity perhaps to show a little more respect to the land that we walk upon, for the earth that feeds us; a little more kindness to those we share it with. For the time being we can just look out of the window and dream. At the other end of all this the mountains of Persia will still be there.

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Photographs: Karakhanad, Yazd region, Iran 2008  ©Laurence Mitchell

Black Sea, Blue Sky – Balkan Rain

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This rain that has been falling almost incessantly here for the past 48 72 hours seems to have followed me back home from the Balkans. Travelling coast to coast, from Adriatic to Black Sea, over a three week period I experienced completely rain-free days only at the very beginning and end of my trip.

After a sunny start in Zadar on the Croatian coast a low blanket of rain cloud followed me all the way from Dalmatia to Srem, then eastwards to the Serbian capital. Rainfall dampened most of my days in Belgrade, pooling the pot-holed pavements of the Old Town, swelling the Danube and Sava rivers, soaking my inadequately-clad feet. The view from my apartment window was drear, smeared by a greasy film of droplets forever abseiling earthwards. Rain’s moist music filled my ears: gurgling drainpipes, the subliminal hiss of drizzle; the soft tintinnabulation of raindrops on roof tiles whenever it started to fall a little more heavily; in the distance, the rhythmic swish of car tyres riding wet cobbles. Any ventures outdoors necessitated frequent dodging into doorways and regular respite of strong coffee in smoky kafanas. Smudged ink in notebooks, vital scribblings rendered Rorschach by an ever-leaky sky – uninterpretable, beyond analysis. Water dissolvingand water removing, the song goes. There is water at the bottom of the ocean! Yes, but there was water in the streets too; thoroughfares transmogrified to shallow streams, solid surface rendered fluid.

I followed the Danube east then south along the Romanian border, enjoying a brief interregnum of fine weather before thick cloud and more rain greeted me at the east Serbian city of Zaječar. Reaching Niš, a balmy afternoon gave way to a brutal evening storm, with rainfall as dramatic and sudden as an opened sluice, lightning flashes illuminating the street like magnesium flares. Southern Serbia was a little better – just drizzle in Vranje and hazy sunshine in Pirot, although after dark it rained some more. Railroading into Bulgaria I thought I might have finally left the bad weather behind me but it was sheeting down in Sofia when I arrived, too wet to venture far from the shelter of the railway station while I waited for the overnight train to Burgas.

Mercifully, I finally managed to escape the rain on the Black Sea coast. I took a minibus to Ahtopol, the most southerly town on the Bulgarian littoral. By my reckoning this would be about as far away as possible from the concrete over-development that plagues much of the coastline. Ahtopol turned out to be refreshingly low-key: a quiet resort that still possessed a modest fishing fleet and a measure of unspoiled charm. Although summer had arrived the town was still locked in preseason inertia. The town’s beaches were virtually deserted, serried ranks of sunshades still unfurled. The sky – at long last – was blue, as was the water (not black at all). Tiny boats bobbed out to sea on gentle waves. Wild flowers bloomed on the cliff tops. Hyperactive flocks of house martins swooped low along the shore collecting flies to feed their young. In the overgrown scrubby area that led down to the beach, hidden nightingales sang, their joyous bubbling out-competing the construction noise of  workmen trying to coax a new-build hotel into service for the season.

I had a couple of days before my flight home and so made the most of this long-awaited clement weather. Even so, I scanned every passing cloud, even the most flimsy and innocent-looking, for any sign of rain to come.

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Yugostalgic Belgrade

IMG_1948Although Tito was half Croat and half Slovene he spent most of his time as Yugoslav helmsman in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. It is here, in the leafy Topčider suburb that lies south of the city centre, where you can find the former leader’s memorial complex – an art gallery, museum and mausoleum scattered among birches, landscaped lawns and whimsical statuary. When I first visited back in 2005 this was a fairly neglected place. I don’t remember there being any other visitors and once the guards had let me through I had the place to myself. What I remember as being poignant were the one-way arrows on the walkway that led up to the mausoleum – indicators of once-necessary pedestrian traffic control that had long become meaningless.

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Fast-forward seven years to a return visit. This time it is certainly busier and now there are English-language signs and even a gift shop at the gatehouse. Although the House of Flowers does not see the crowds that would have assembled here in the 1980s there appears to be a slow renaissance and I am informed that even a group of Slovene Hells Angels now make an annual pilgrimage here on 25 May, Tito’s birthday.

Ever the unrepentant tourist, I purchase a Tito mug and mouse-mat but pass on buying a T-shirt. At the mausoleum itself – the poetically named ‘House of Flowers’ – I swap cameras with a Romanian visitor as we take turns to pose by the marble slab that bear the simple inscription: Josip Broz Tito 1992 –1980. The ‘Old Museum’ next door bears a collection of the gifts presented to Tito during his long presidency. The gifts – no doubt just small sample – range from homemade socks and hand-stitched blouses to weaponry and musical instruments. Tito apparently loved dressing up and, correspondingly, there are plenty of costumes on display too, the most remarkable of which is a Bolivian witchdoctor’s outfit. Tito always was something of a shaman.

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There are still those that miss him. Tito ruled for 35 years until his death in 1980 but his memory has been laced with ambiguity since the traumatic breakup of the Yugoslav federation. In recent years, though, there has been a considerable amount of revisionism taking place in the Balkan region. So-called ‘Yugostalgia’ is one reflection of this. Playful and ironic, as well as sentimental and nostalgic, the commonest expression of this phenomenon seems to be the Yugostalgia theme-café. There’s an excellent one in Sarajevo right next to the war museum but others can be found throughout the former Yugoslavia(although probably not in Kosovo where Bill Clinton is still undisputed king).

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On my last trip to Serbia, the Republika café in Belgrade’s Skadarlija quarter, a former bastion of Yugostalgia, seemed to have closed for business but I was more than compensated in discovering a new kafana (traditional café-restaurant) behind the Vuk Theatre in the city centre. Like all the best places in Belgrade, Kafana Pavle is a little hard to find. Tucked away down a graffiti-scrawled alleyway that seems to go nowhere, its presence is given away by a menu card in a steamed-up window that proudly displays the red star and hammer and sickle. Inside, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of Yugostalgic bric-a-brac – framed photos of Tito, Lenin and even Stalin (if Stalin on display then you can be sure the intention is tongue-in-cheek). Shelves are piled with dog-eared photo books of old Yugoslavia and stacks of 1970s Yugo-rock LPs that have hairy young men sporting flared trousers and mullets on the cover. On the wall hangs a map of the former Yugoslavia in the shape of a red star.

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Of course, all this serves as homage to a country that no longer exists but at least you can get a taste of what it might have once been at rare enclaves such as this. Just be sure to bring along a sense of irony and check in your cynicism at the door.

Serbia 4

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The new edition of my Serbia guide is published today. It’s fully updated, of course, with revised text and lots of new listings, especially for Belgrade, a city that despite considerable setbacks seems to drive itself forever onwards and upwards. Here’s a snippet from the new edition that describes a possible future development for the Serbian capital. It looks quite remarkable (although probably hugely expensive too).

A ZAHA HADID DEVELOPMENT FOR KALEMEGDAN?

A large plot of land between Kalemegdan Fortress and the Dorćol riverfront is currently awaiting development. Originally owned by Beko, a company that went bankrupt, the land has been bought by Lamda development, a Greek company that is part of a holding company with EFG Bank and EKI Petrol. The Greek company approached the studio of Zaha Hadid to come up with a project for the land and the Iraqi-British architect has come up with a stunning plan for the development: a sweeping modernist design that connects with the surrounding landscape and incorporates essential public spaces and public transition between the fortress and the riverfront. At the time of writing, the proposed project was still awaiting public review (www.beobuild.rs). The design can be seen on line at: http://www.zaha-hadid.com/architecture/beko-masterplan.

Belgrade’s not a stranger to developments that never quite get off the ground. Here’s another snippet from the Belgrade chapter of Serbia 4:

GOING UNDERGROUND – THE METRO THAT NEVER WAS

At the edge of Ćirila i Metodija Park in the city centre, under the whiskery gaze of Vuk Karadžić whose statue graces the western corner, are several entrances that lead down to what appears to be an underpass. But there is more to this than you might imagine: this is the location for the only station on Belgrade’s metro. The station, known simply as Vukov Spomenik (‘Vuk’s Statue’) was to be part of an underground system that never came to fruition, and which, as things turned out, ended up being one of the city’s biggest white elephants. It was built during the Milošević period in 1995 as the first component of what would be a comprehensive underground network but the turn of events in Serbia in the late 1990s resulted in the country having far more pressing needs than that of a highly expensive underground railway. The part that was completed is well worth seeing, even if it is a bit surreal. A number of entrances lead down to a stylish atrium in brushed steel from where escalators plummet down further to the platform. The station has since found use as a stop on the Beovoz line that plies between Zemun and Pančevo and a few shops have opened for business in the atrium.

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Savamala, Belgrade

I have just returned from Belgrade, the Serbian capital, where I have been doing research for the fourth edition of my Bradt Serbia guide that will be published next summer sometime. Belgrade never was the white city that its name (Beo = white, grad = city) suggests but some parts are certainly more grey than others. One such ‘grey area’ is the Savamala district that lies along the traffic-choked thoroughfare of Karadjordjeva close to the railway station and River Sava port. Heavy traffic, air pollution and decades of neglect have seen to it that, at first glance at least, this would appear to be one of the more down at heel neighbourhoods in the city. A closer look, though, reveals a wealth of wonderful, if slightly crumbling, architecture in Secessionist style.

The best of all the buildings here, albeit in poor shape these days, is the Geozavod building that started life as an Austro-Hungarian stock exchange before later becoming Yugoslavia’s State Geological Institute. Normally it is impossible to get inside as the building is considered to be unsafe but as it has been used to house this year’s 53rd October Art Salon I managed to gain access thanks to my artist friend Ivana.

Evidence of the building’s original use can still be seen on the ground floor, where as well as solid German-made safes, the exchange counters are still in place, their  marble and finely engraved glass pristinely preserved. Elsewhere a broken clock and cupboards filled with dusty tomes tell of its time as a geological institute. A portrait of Tito adds to the feel of a vanished world -the once powerful and influential nation that was Yugoslavia.

White City Blues

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event called A Taste of Serbia in London. The evening was arranged by the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia and we were all generously plied with tasty nibbles and a wide range of excellent wines from that country.

Of course, this being a press event the main emphasis was to promote all that Serbia has to offer British would-be travellers. To serve this purpose a promotional video was shown that featured a Belgrade DJ walking through the city’s streets whilst waxing lyrical about his hometown to chill-out music. The video showed a cool yet ecstatic crowd dancing in a Belgrade nightclub before cutting to our DJ hero walking through oddly unpeopled streets; then it swooped to Kalemegdan Park before cutting to the DJ encountering a dark-eyed beauty in an apparently deserted shopping mall. It told a story, certainly, but it seemed a strangely incomplete one.

I recognised Belgrade alright but the video did little to flatter the Serbian capital. OK, it may not be Prague but the city does have a certain maverick charm that had been sorely overlooked. Maybe it was trying attract a young, ‘cutting edge’ crowd but the promotional film made the ‘White City’ look grey and drab — just like the stereotype.  As someone remarked as we watched it: ‘There’s nothing in this video that makes me want to go there.’ I had to agree. Where was Skadarlija – the so-called Bohemian quarter? Where were the floating splav cafes and restaurants on the river? Where were all the quirky cafes and wacky restaurants? Why was Kalemegdan Park, that wonderful spot above the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, so devoid of people? Where was the Zemun waterfront? Where was the Danube? Ada Ciganlija island? The list goes on. Why didn’t the film crew wait for a spot of sunshine to brighten things up?

Anyway, Serbia has a lot more to it than just its capital city, wonderful as that may be. To me, it’s forested hills, hidden Orthodox monasteries, Roma men driving carts, cartoon-book haystacks in fields, old rusting Zastavas serving as corn stores, solitary men fishing in rivers, storks clattering  their bills on village roofs. It’s the smell of Turkish coffee, grilling meat, roasting peppers and lime blossom. It’s the taste of sljivovica (plum brandy) and kajmak (a sort of cream). It’s tall men and elegant women; sometimes even tall women and elegant men. It’s the sound of violins, accordians and shuffling feet.

Perhaps all these things that I hold dear are considered a bit too backward and Old Europe for the marketing people? Still, at least they noticed the dark-eyed beauties. They got that bit right.