Sunday, March 25, 2018

Visiting Sarajevo; Bosnia's delightful capital

The Central River in Sarajevo
"What can I do in Sarajevo?", is a question posed by many travellers heading to the Balkans and the answer is that it is a very curious and interesting experience.When there, one is permanently mindful of Narnia, and each time a new looking-glass presents it self, and one clambers ungainly through it, the perspective changes, and with it reality.

There is, of course, no such thing as “reality”, and here as much as any other region in conflict, perspective and perception are the guides to understanding. “The West Balkans”, as Yugoslavia is now considered, are an exercise in perspective.

Sarajevo is a marvellous little city; it is a three-day town, at best, and this dependent on the weather. Previously known in the West as the venue for a long-forgotten Olympic Games in 1984, the capital of Bosnia became the capital of the region’s most intractable country.

Sarajevo's old town, with the copper and silversmiths alley

It is a fine city to visit; a city of contrast and beauty, and a city that boasts centuries of cultural heritage, scholarship and governance. It is a city to wander; a place of huge historical significance yet overlooked by so many travellers. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the consequential destruction of Europe by the First World War is a local event marked by a small plaque by a small bridge; and this was certainly not its first brush with large-scale war. Sarajevo has been pushed and pulled by both religious and territorial attention for centuries, and the resulting architecture and
cultural undercurrents form an engaging backdrop for any casual visitor.

I like Sarajevo; although the central Old Town could be, one imagines, an imitation of a manic Christmas Market during the summer, in the slow season one can still marvel at the streets of jewellers, metal craftsmen and souvenir shops plying for trade in the city’s centre. It is really quite lovely, and the melodic call to prayer, punctuating the day’s routine, only adds to Sarajevo’s mystique and charm.

It is, perhaps, a place to visit rather than live. The comprehensive restoration, the new buildings, roads and rebuilt bridges that have followed the brutal combat of the 1990s belie the underlying culture of Sarajevo. It is a city that is ten miles wide, and an inch deep; it seems to present itself as a veneer. Like much of Bosnia, Sarajevo is suffering from its lost youth. In two senses; both the young lost in the war, and the vanished adolescent years that a post-Communist country needed before diving into the cowboy-capitalism of the early 2000s. From these losses, both in the war and from subsequent migration, the city struggles to keep up.

Amna Turkovic is exactly sort of person that Sarajevo needs to keep. She is, in her mid-twenties, wondering about her home, its future and her own. She is educated, passionately international, passionately Bosnian and deeply proud of her Islamic heritage. She is a musician, a journalist and a thoughtful woman interested in the future. She understands and is profoundly concerned with intolerance and is dismissive of the intensification of religion as Faith transforms into Religion in today’s culture. "It can do no good", she says, "and can only increase intolerance."

She speaks of education. She is saddened by how standards are dropping, perhaps a necessary result of losing 150,000 young people to opportunity in the West. She speaks of the importance of the Affricate consonants (the letters c, s, z and d that in Slavic languages can, like a kaleidoscope, change their sounds subtly with only a delicate nudge), the vitality of the “ij” diphthong and other fascinating minutiae of the language. And, while at first it seemed a touch obtuse, her passion for the correct way of communicating spoke volumes, and the importance of accurate interaction in this region was not lost on me.

This is a troubled land. While many of the West Balkan countries have settled into a reverie, Bosnia remains tense. A “nation” of three components that rarely agree on anything is not a stable basis for the future. Yet it needs to become so; Bosnia is a central, and thus critical point of interaction between the peoples, nations, religions and identities of the region. It is a country whose current balance needs to progress and conclude an agreement that will allow some decades of stability and will encourage its young to stay at home and help rebuild the nation.

Not all is restored; here, in a central
street one sees the bullet holes in the
walls of the building  
Because, it is all about the young.

I liked Sarajevo a lot. It is a rather lovely city, I think; my hesitation is only drawn from the weather and my inability to see the spectacular surroundings that drew the Winter Olympics here. It is a city of conversation and of food; it is a place to gaze and think, it is a place of contradiction and hope, and a destination that offers visitors a most remarkable opportunity to see centuries of history and dispute compacted into a passion that I have not met anywhere else on my travels.

It is a city that needs to keep Amna and the thousands of other thoughtful young people who are any community’s future.

Above all, it is a city that must remember to forget, and to forget to remember.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Travelling in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar, a curious place

The road from Sarajevo
Travelling in Bosnia and Hercegovina (B&H) is interesting; very interesting. Suffice it to say, that of the many conundrums that combine to make the former Yugoslavia, B&H is the most tongue twisting. It is a fascinating place, a country of wars, peace, religions, exodus, mountains, genocide and more. It even has a football team (The Dragons), who are reasonable, and often qualify for European (and World) tournaments.

It also has people, 3.5 million of them, although the loss of over 150,000 young and educated Bosnians over the past decade or so has left an indelible mark on the demography country. It is a country accustomed to change; it has swung between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, the Yugoslavs (both the Kingdom and the Socialist Republic) and ceded to the Nazis during the second World War, it saw intensive resistance action as the birthplace of Joseph Tito’s partisans.

And then, of course, came the civil war in the 1990s; an inevitable conclusion, perhaps, of centuries of unfinished ethnic discord and the separation from the Yugoslav Federation of Slovenia and Croatia and the subsequent power realignment. It was a war of extreme brutality, and the cessation of hostilities and the ensuing twenty years of peace has allowed tensions to simmer down and the country re-establish a sense of normalcy.

Or as normal as Bosnia can be. It is a fine place for visitors. Its people are welcoming and warm, the countryside spectacular, its history deep and evident and the undying culture of hospitality that marks the Balkan countries is unmistakable.

Mostar's Old Town 

Mostar, a jewel of the country, is a larger city that I had thought. Knowing only of its Old City, and iconic bridge, and having been too lazy to look anything up in a book before I arrived, I became hopelessly lost in the city’s eccentric one-way system that today is punctuated by dozens of major road construction sites and an almost complete lack of road signs. I had a map, but being of Central Europe it was too small to be of any further use than simply reaching the city; I had some directions to the hotel I was using that failed to take the road construction into account and finding myself passing the same statue three times, I decided to do the unmanly and ask for directions.

It is a good thing that I did, because I was miles away from the hotel, and suitably redirected, I made it on the third pass.

It was at dinner that night (Podrum’s Restaurant in the OldTown) that I first talked about B&H with a local. Seno Hadžiosmaxioxić is a delightful and interesting man. He has lived in the UK, Germany and Portugal and now returned to the family business and Mostar mainly because of the exodus of young people, including his son. “How can we rebuild a country without our young people?”, he asked, only partly rhetorically. “They are all going.” The lack of an agreement with the EU, Canada or the USA for migrants did not seem to be a problem to emigration, and indeed, not for the first time, I wondered about the immigration policies of the wealthy countries that seemed to both encourage bright, young migrants, and simultaneously stymie their own efforts at economic development in those same countries.

Mostar. From The Old Bridge
I spoke later to a young man who worked in a small bar. I asked why he was still there when so many of his friends had gone, and he said that he was only waiting until he had finished his school year before heading off. I asked where the most popular country was for his generation to go to, and was only mildly surprised when he said “Ireland; now England has left the EU, there is no point is going there.”

And so, as I wandered through this old and serially abused town, I admired the reconstruction, wondered what the original Ottoman builders would have thought of so many restaurants and shops competing to sell fridge magnets and copper teapots, and decided that I liked the pictures much more than the reality, and decided to leave early.

The Tekija Blagaj - The Dervish House

Seno had advised that I visit two sites before heading to Sarajevo. The first, Blagaj was the home of sect of whirling dervishes, a group that has always puzzled me. Both their obscure form of sermon, splendidly called The Tasawwuf, and their almost maniacal, repetitive whirls. Many years ago I witnessed Dervishes whirling in Istanbul, and lost for a moment in tangential thought, found myself assigning day jobs to these rotating believers. Dervishes come from all walks of life, of course, as do adherents of all faiths, but “why the whirl?”, I wondered. “Are you still dizzy when you go to the office or drive your bus in the morning?”. Here, they practice three times each week.

This is, of course, only an aside to the very beautiful and spiritually important Dervish House at Blagaj. It is stunning, and reflects the overriding belief that the natural environment within which the house is built is an integral part of the relationship with God, and this house, the Tekija, is a wonderful example. Nestled at the foot of an imposing cliff of quite magical geologic patterns, it lies by a river flow that rushes from under the cliff itself. It is quite beautiful, and quite serene. The Dervishes have a very fine place of worship.

Pocatelij as seen from thh road
Twenty kilometers further along, lies the Ottoman town of Počitelj. It actually comes as a bit of a surprise after the usual roadside scruff; a partly built house here, a small tire dump there, a concrete bus-stop here and a cluster of peculiar shops there. The road has broadened out as the mountainous terrain heads toward the Adriatic, and the hills, while still commanding, lie a little farther from the road. Yet coming around a corner, one is immediately struck by this quaint, ancient and entirely improbable community lying by the side of the road. Seemingly untouched by the centuries.

Dating back to the 15th century, it was a fortified town that housed a Hungarian garrison between 1463 and 1471. Following a brief siege, the Ottomans captured Počitelj, and from then on it lost its strategic significance and its moment in the sun had set. It has remained dozy for five hundred years, pausing periodically to mend a step, change a light bulb and slowly toddle its way through the centuries. The slow passage of time, or more precisely the lack of any apparent need for it to hustle, has left the town as a marvellous and most picturesque example of the Ottoman Empire. I am assuming that it is picturesque, because the sleet that was drifting down on the day that I visited thwarted my photographic ambitions somewhat.

It is quite lovely. For the fit and able, the fortress lies a hundred metres or so above the town; for others, simply wandering through the ancient streets gives a distinct sensation of time travel. Perhaps the grey weather helped; the stairways were empty and uneven, the roofs bare and uneven, the mosques spiny and confident, and the entire blend of life and spirituality was completely absorbing.

And so, after a coffee, I turned my car around from the illegal position in which I had left it, and drove back to Sarajevo, the capital of this enigmatic country, and the next piece of the puzzle.

The road back to Sarajevo

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Exploring Belgrade: Serbia's little known capital

Visiting and exploring Belgrade is not a simple undertaking. It is not conventionally beautiful nor immediately obviously laid out; it is scruffy and moves quickly, and has fewer old parts to it than one might have initially thought. It is, however, a city that wears its soul on its sleeve, and with a good tour guide, who can point out those bits that an individual might simply stroll past, the city’s rich and challenging history can come alive.

Belgrade reminded me of one of my favourite editorials. In The Financial Times in March 2006, Nico Colchester wrote “Crunchiness brings wealth. Wealth leads to sogginess. Sogginess brings poverty, Poverty creates crunchiness. From this immutable cycle we know that to hang on to wealth, you must keep things crunchy.”

Belgrade is very crunchy indeed.

It has reason to be so, of course, and to hear its history, potted into a four-hour tour by my guide Vladimir, makes one pause for thought. It is a history of conquer and reconquer; a history of occupation, siege and battle; a past of violence, mayhem and of continuous change. Belgrade’s historical oscillation between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires sounded so frequent in the telling that there seemed scarcely time to clear up before the next army arrived. It quite left me giddy.

It was not quite like that, of course, but the destruction that heralded the arrival of the new landlords left little antiquity in its wake. Destruction, and obliteration of the marks of the Other Religion were the order of the day. A fine mosque remains, sitting coquettishly at an angle to the street’s grid system telling of its existence before the roads were designed; bits of the magnificent fortress have been found dating back to the Romans, a conquering force that lay outside the scope of my four-hour walk. The walls of the castle expanded, contracted, blew up and were modified a dozen different ways before its current peaceful outlook over the two rivers that mark Belgrade’s soul.

The Belgrade Fortress 
I like the fortress; it is grand and open; the parks within and without the walls offer wonderful spaces for families to frolic and lovers to wander. The views are terrific, and lying, as it does, at a reasonable altitude, the views are most pleasing. It is from here that one can see the sprawling “New Belgrade”, built during the communist period, and consequently devoid of much architectural interest or colour. And, tucked in between the endless apartment blocks, the old town of Zemun, absorbed into Belgrade in 1934 but dating from Neolithic times. It seemed like a logical place to visit the next day.

And so, having ascertained that I could reach Zemun by a combination of two buses (the numbers 65 and 15, if you must), I set off from the hotel. Catching buses is relatively simple; buying tickets is not. Public transportation the world over seems to engage purchasing systems designed to mystify. There are individual tickets, day and week passes, group tickets, old peoples’ tickets and many, many more varieties, usually only described in the native language. Then the question of where to buy arises, and usually this is not on the bus itself; in the case of Belgrade it is form one of the many small tobacco and drink kiosks around, as I discovered too late.

A Belgrade bus stop
Boarding the first bus I tried to give money to the disinterested driver. He shook his head, other passengers tutted and I got on hoping that I would not come face to face with an inspector and we took off hastily. Belgrade bus drivers drive very fast indeed, swinging their bendy buses wildly as they race to the next stop. One can only image the first day at their driving school.

Reaching the second stop, and my point to change, in warp speed, I got off and looked around. I then missed the next bus because I hadn’t noticed that the number (15) was in shaded digits on my stop, indicating a night service, while the daytime stop lay twenty feet away. I noticed only when a large, yellow number 15 bus screeched to a halt and then seconds later took off in a cloud of dust. There was another a few minutes later.

Two buses under starter's orders
The directions I had been given were not entirely accurate. “Keep on until the end of the line”, I was told, which I did.  The end of the line, however, was deeply uninspiring. “Zemun Novi Grad” it was, and even my sparse Serbian told me that this was “Zemun New City”, not the quaint old village that I was seeking.

Novi Grad wasn’t even new; it might have been in about 1970, but now wore the dejected air of a place that knows it will never be shiny again. I looked around and saw another bus (a number 46), jumped on and away it roared; I didn’t really know where we were going, but it couldn’t be less inspiring. As it happened, it careened its way through the suburb before tossing me out by the river and in the Zemun that I had wanted to find.

Zemun - waiting for the summer
It was quite lovely. Restaurants, bars, cafes and houseboats; a fine variety of buildings that dated back up to a couple of hundred years, and again the Belgrade sense of soul and vitality. I loved it, even the biting wind. The market was just closing, but as they tore it down for the week, the constant conversation and banter of Belgraders kept me amused. I didn’t understand a word, but laughing and joking around needs little interpretation.

It is the buildings of Belgrade that will stay in my mind. They are a wonderfully confused and eclectic reflection of the city’s history. In the older part of the city there are fine examples of Art Deco, some delightful public buildings from the 1950s and apartments from the 1970s that show the peculiar little flashes of fun that must have lit the otherwise bland life of a communist architect. A fine collection; some crumbling, some restored and some seeming to wonder about their future. Belgrade is a city of motion and of people, and one that will hurtle its way through the next few hundred years of history taking whatever comes its way.

Belgrade is crunchy; and well worth visiting.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Belgrade to Bar Railway: Truly a fine day's rail-riding

A grey morning in Podgorica
Trains are fun. And if the reports on travel sites as disparate as the Guardian and The Daily Telegraph and the “how to” sites like the incomparable Man in Seat 61 who all say that the rail journey from Bar to Belgrade is one of the most scenic in the world, who am I to argue?

Well, I did argue slightly, and in a fit of “proving it to myself” decided to go and see. 
The tricky part seemed to be access to the train. Having found out from my friend and railway guru Andy Brabin that the journey was best approached from the south, and further learned that the Adriatic terminus at Bar was difficult to get to and that the first hour of the journey over the littoral was less than exciting, I decided to start the ride in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica.
The wrong train to Belgrade
Podgorica can hardly be described as beautiful. Having survived countless onslaughts, bombings and razings a staple fate of much of this region, it is now an administrative centre of concrete. More concrete than you could imagine; shabby concrete, flaking concrete, heroic concrete, contemporary concrete, Soviet concrete, concrete in fifty shades of grey. I stayed the night, in the superb Hotel Terminus, and left as the sun tried to rise.

The day dawned sullenly, and the prospect of glimpsing the stunning scenery seemed terribly optimistic. Low clouds set drizzle down everywhere, and the small crowd, huddling under an awning on the platform, seemed somehow resigned.

The wrong train
The train arrived; a touch shabbier that I was expecting, but hey-ho, ten hours on an elderly suburban train couldn’t be that bad. I had hoisted my luggage aboard with, I thought, a rather imaginative hoist, and settled into my seat. I considered the train, and then the other passengers who seemed in no hurry to board. Realising that I had actually boarded an elderly suburban train readying itself to chug off in the opposite direction, I got off, just in time to see the little train that probably could, chug off to the coast. 

Our train arrived, and by comparison, it was luxurious. Few passengers boarded, and it was to my great fortune that I settled in a compartment with Krsto Perovic, a fascinating man, and a specialist in Balkan Security issues, whose company proved to be completely absorbing, and who made the day exceptional.

 The right train to Belgrade

The track rises fast as it leaves Podgorica. The scenery, seen through a prism of drizzle and murky windows hinted at the spectacular. The first section, the 175 kms that run through Montenegro reaches its highest point of 1,032 metres at Kolasin, some 80 kms from Podgorica, requiring some pretty aggressive engineering to haul the train up to this height so quickly. The line was started in the 1950s, but not completed and officially open until May 1976, taking over twenty years to figure out the endless problems that were encountered.

It is a magnificent railway. 254 tunnels and 435 bridges make the route possible, including the incredible Mala Rijeka Viaduct that soars 198 metres above ground level. Krsto and I decided that we, and the rest of the travelling public, were fortunate that we had had nothing to do with the construction.

Our conversation ranged widely, as one would expect. The West Balkans are a serious and complex region, and their intrigues and machinations form an intricate web. Who knew that there were so many kinds of Croats and so many strains of Serbs? Who knew that the embers of idiosyncratic conflicts of the seventeenth century were kept burning so long? Who could have foreseen the evolution of the Yugoslav Republic (less a country that I had always imagined, and more of a confederation of both logical and artificial components) would inevitably lead to the ghastly conflict of the 1990s? Who could image that the Montenegrins would add two new letters to their alphabet while the Croats were losing a couple in a federal attempt to synchronise the transcription of the Latin and Cyrillic scripts?

Alpine meadows, crashing canyons, picturesque villages and vividly blue white-water rivers passed by.

The region is a miracle of diplomacy, military might, ancient tribal instincts, mad geography and an uncaring and bored outside world; it is still a world of Ottomans and Hapsburgs, Russians and Westerners, of fact and fable and of both official and dubious wealth; it is a cauldron of intrigue, and the more nuggets that Krsto let drop, the more fascinated I became. Periodically, like a temporarily lifting mist, I thought that I glimpsed a wide and comprehensive picture of the Balkans, but just as I felt the illumination, the mist dropped back in place, time again became irrelevant, the centuries piled up against one another and I had more questions.

The land flattened as we entered Serbia, and the scenery more pastoral as we hurtled toward Belgrade. The site of substantial towns, now lost without their centrally-planned factories are losing population fast as the young head to Belgrade. One can see this loss in the partially finished buildings, empty playgrounds and shuttered shops.

Heading to the Dining Car
The journey was comfortable; the dining car a delightful throwback to the 1970s, including the complete absence of food (not counting a pair of dried Wonderloaf slices imprisoning a sliver of rather dubious “Cheese Food Product”. The coffee was good, the change of scenery was pleasant, and in any case, forewarned of the train’s culinary deficiency we had brought our own food along.

We reached the Belgrade suburbs on time; ten hours had passed by in the blink of an eye. Ranging conversation with an interesting companion is truly one of life’s treasures, and today I had won that particular lottery. However, as we started to collect our bags, it came as a small surprise to be advised that “the railway has run out of electricity for the moment”. Or at least, that is what I gathered from Krsto’s simultaneous translation.

And thus it was; nighttime, and more importantly dinner time, saw us with two bonus hours on the rails, waiting for sufficient voltage to be generated to push us along the last 10 miles into town. We waited, chatted, ate the last of our curious, man-made picnics, until with a small lurch we started forward. Riding the surge of the fresh energy gushing through the overhead lines, we sped all the way into the Belgrade Central station.

It was a very fine ride indeed, and without doubt the best 23 (20 for the ticket and 3 for the seat reservation) that I have ever spent on a train ticket.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mediterranean and Adriatic Ferries: Sailing with Adria from Trieste to Albania

I like journeys, and I enjoy the feeling of travelling; of actually going somewhere. Airlines are expedient and do their job well, but given the option of a train, ship, car or bus, I will take the surface mode every time.

Edging toward Montenegro and the railway journey between Podgorica and Belgrade, the ferry seemed to be a welcome option, and so it was that I booked passage on the AF Michela on its twenty-seven hour run from Trieste to Durres in Albania.

The Grimaldi Lines ship in Tunis
It comes as some surprise to many just how many working ships ply the waters in and around Europe. These ferry systems offer a lifeline to the huge quantities of freight that moves around, and to passengers seeking a slightly slower and more economical means of travel. The Mediterranean and Adriatic seas are awash with shipping, from the luxurious cruise vessels to tramp steamers plying their trade between secondary and tertiary ports. The ferry lines lie somewhere in the middle.

Curiously for one who lives in The Prairies, this is the third time in the past year that I have used an overnight ferry. Last year I travelled from Palermo to Tunis on the Grimaldi Lines ship, and more recently I used the P & O service from Hull to Rotterdam. Each time I found comfortable surroundings, decent cabins and all in all, a good way to travel. The common denominator was the difficulty of finding the ship in the first place.

Now don’t get me wrong; local taxis know well where they depart from, but ships’ sheer bulk and their requirement for water mean that the docks are where you need to go, and as freight is the primary focus of contemporary harbours, passenger services are often tucked away as an afterthought.

Helpful signage

Seeking out and boarding the Adria Ferries' AF Michela bears little resemblance to either catching a train or a plane, and is a far cry from the glory days of ocean liners. Passengers are, basically cargo; cargo that can walk and load and unload itself, but nevertheless cargo, and the siting of the “passenger terminal” among acres of lumber, railway ties, roofing tiles and other bulk construction materials makes the point well.

 The passenger entrance and waiting room in Trieste

I checked-in three hours early. Other than the small difficulty of spotting the Adria Ferry office and a functioning building, I needn’t have done for a couple of reasons. The first was that there were only ten passengers travelling that day from Trieste, and the second was that having received my boarding pass within a minute, I sat in a small room for the next two hours before the remaining nine sauntered in. A car was sent to carry the two foot-passengers, and having completed the passport formalities we boarded the ship. Ten passengers on a one thousand passenger ship leaves considerably room to move around, and having found our allotted spaces and tied down the few vehicles, we left shortly after noon.

The AF Michela
The AF Michela is functional, more reminiscent of the East German ship, the Greifswald on which I had crossed the Black Sea some years ago than the QE2, but it does the job. Nine of us did rattle around a bit, and one can sympathise with the catering staff who served an adequate if dumbed-down selection.
The kitchen is enthusiastic, but more of a canteen then a dining room, but they do offer a very reasonable Pinot Grigio to wash down the pasta and salad.

The cabins are plentiful (offering beds for up to 428 travellers), although I would suspect that it all gets a bit steamy and cantankerous when it is full and the summer sun is beating down. 

An additional 572 passengers can be accommodated as “deck passengers” apparently, but I gave up counting the available chairs. It would be tight.

There is a bar, a small shop and that’s about all. The ship, built in Limassol, Cyprus in 2001 and displacing 24,481 tons of water as it ploughs forward at about 18 knots, has some quirks to it. Its history is a touch murky; the operating certificates in its (Otis) elevators were signed in Shanghai, and here and there are signs written in Chinese and Korean characters. It has served a variety of masters and has been known as the Cartour, the Vinashin Prince, the Hoa Sen and the Stena Egeria before being chartered to Adria Ferries for one year last October. It has done service in The East, offering cheap booze-cruises to a Vietnamese clientele, and it appears, by the architectural plans evident hanging on the walls, that it was refurbished in 2014, but from what and to what, I am unsure.

The Restaurant
The waters are calm. This would be a blessing to many, but I do like a bit of strong water. It seems to be my curse that good weather follows me much of the time, and while I usually appreciate being a small high-pressure zone, from time to time, a little storm would be nice. Today, unfortunately, all is calm.

Shortly the Albanian coastline, just visible on the horizon, will draw closer, and we will disembark and explore Durres. It is only an overnight stop, and the journey continues tomorrow by bus, as I head from here to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and the start of the railway journey to Belgrade.

I know there are a lot of rules on a ship, but this exhibition of fine print was
 really a bit overwhelming. The Eastern scripts tell a tale of the vessel's history. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Trieste: An unexpected delight

Trieste Centre
I only went to Trieste to leave it, and it was not even my first choice of departure points. Bari was, but the ferry to Montenegro has been suspended, and thus access to the train from Bar to Belgrade, one of Europe’s finest, I am led to believe, meant some imaginative preparation was necessary.

Let me explain.

I had read a great deal about the railway that runs from the Serbian capital of Belgrade through spectacular scenery, ancient villages, dramatic rivers with bridges whose impudence leaves one speechless, down to the Adriatic coast at Bar. Or at least that is what I had read, and determined to waste $30 for a ticket on this ten-hour run, I started to plan.

One can, of course, travel in either direction, and the first decision was which way to choose. For this, I consulted my friend and railway guru, Andy Brabin; Andy is deeply eccentric, and most interesting. Currently engaged on a project called “#AllTheLinesEurope”, a quest to travel along each and every one of Europe’s passenger railways, there is little that Andy can’t add to any journey by rail.

“Go north”, he said, “the best scenery lies between Podgorica and the Serbian border, and you want to do this in the daylight.” Sound advice, which I followed. Stymied by the suspension of the Bar/Bari ferry, Durres in Albania seemed to be the next best choice, from where a six-hour bus ride would take me to Podgorica. To reach Durres one could sail from Bari, Ancona or Trieste, and for the simple reason that I wanted the longest ride available, I chose Trieste.

And what an inspired choice.

My introductory break was pure serendipity. Heading to the information booth at the airport, I overheard a traveller ask about the bus to town and be advised that it cost 4 and was leaving in five minutes. Normally I don’t much like airport buses, as they tend to drop me off miles from where I want to be, but I decided there and then to buy a ticket and so found myself not on an “airport bus”, but a “bus that went to the airport”. This subtle difference involves getting a one-hour tour of the small fishing towns that lie on the coast along the 60 km drive that skirts the Adriatic coast on the right and the Slovenian border on the left as one heads to town.

I hadn’t realised the distance, and the ride had the added benefit of saving me a 80 taxi ride.
Arriving at a taxi-less bus station, I chose to push my suitcase over the cobbles for fifteen minutes to my hotel, and along the way, I realised that I had landed somewhere rather special.

The languages, the buildings, the shop signs and the smiles; all of these drew me toward the centre of this remarkable town, still proud of its Hapsburg days, and a clear link between the catholicism of the Austrian empire and that of Rome. And Trieste, proudly and self-confidently sits as it always has, at the epicenter of trade and movement. It lies at the convergence of Slovenia, Italy and Croatia in contemporary terms, and the three cultures are here in abundance.

My hotel, The Hotel Centrale, was delightful, hip (so I fit right in), actually central and very friendly. I still can’t quite grasp the automatic lighting in the bathroom, but I think the concept and operation was aimed at a different generation. So I basically ignored it, even the curious clicking noise that it reproachfully made as I failed to do something or other. It was odd.

The hotel, though, was quite lovely, and to walk, no to stroll along the side streets from one magnificent square to another, past shops offering the most beautiful clothes, jewelry and accessories, past endless cake shops offering pastries so delicately constructed, was a pleasure. The sea front, proud, long and interesting leads for miles, and from it lie endless streets both broad and narrow leading into the heart of this marvellous city.

 The old, Imperial buildings at the heart of the city

As with much of Italy, food is omnipresent. From morning pastries to the seafood specialties of dozens of restaurants, one could happily munch one’s way through Trieste over a nourishing week. I had, unfortunately, one night, and needed to choose carefully. I did so quickly, and headed to the Trattoria daGiovanni, only a few steps from my hotel.

A 100kg mortadella (delicious)
What a find. 

Local, bustling, unrefined, delicious and inspiring da Giovanni was all that I had hoped to find in a local trattoria. The food was basic. The antipasti were fine hams and mortadella carved from enormous joints and served with delicious local peppers; wines, red, white and prosecco poured from barrels above the bar, and a the few main dishes from which to choose were all wonderful and reflected history (schnitzels), culture (goulash) and location (many different fresh fish). Salads and cheeses abounded and I found myself, sitting at the Single Table In The Corner, my usual perch as I travel alone, smiling and feeling content and a not a little smug.

Trieste had overwhelmed me. An accidental stop en route to Albania turned into a delight and yet another city that needs a great deal more exploration.

Trattoria da Giovanni

Monday, March 12, 2018

Berlin's Tegel Airport (TXL) is a complete disgrace.

Berlin’s Tegel Airport (TXL) is a complete disgrace.

It is not that it is old, I am too as are many of my friends and favourite ports, it is that it simply couldn’t care less. Yes, it creaks under the load; yes, it is being replaced by a shiny new airport “BerlinBrandenburg”; and yes, it is past its sell-by date, but these are no reasons for its complete and utter lack of interest in the flying public.

The new airport is a sham too. Built some six or seven years ago it still lies unused. Openings scheduled for October 2011, June 2012, March and October 2013 and June 2017 have come and gone as whimsically as the money that has been spent on it, and meanwhile, Tegel bears the brunt.
And bears it extremely badly. Let me explain.

Tegel has been the site of aerial shenanigans since 1914, and while it would be cruel to say so, it feels like it. Its commercial operations began in the late 1950s, and its architecture, interesting if one’s blood pressure would allow contemplation, dates from that era. There is the aura of escaping spies, and the thought of those many secret journeys that passed through the airport does add a unique atmosphere.

Each gate in the Lufthansa Terminal A has its own check-in space and luggage carousel, which would be wonderful if they actually functioned. The baggage carousel does, but the check-in facility, presumably a victim of Enhanced Security, has moved to a central zone. And herein lies the problem; six check-in desks staffed by three Lufthansa personnel attempting to check-in or take baggage from a couple of thousand passengers is not efficient. Even by non-German standards.

The customer-service protocols were, I would guess, inherited from East Germany’s Interflug when the airlines merged some twenty-five years ago, and have remained the gold standard. Nobody is to blame, staff on-the-move stare at their shoes for fear of being harassed, and the queue edges forward. Questioning the set up, even politely, risks injury from a very prickly stare.

Ninety minutes in line, for a thirty second baggage-transaction. When I finally made the front, and this only because “The Munich Flight” was being called, and we were allowed to jump the line, I smiled, anxious to avoid any retaliation, and the possibility of my bags being directed to China.

No; excuses aside, and there are many, this is a shambles, and Lufthansa, a company for whom I have the greatest respect, should not allow itself to be a part of this parody of customer-service.

If there are six check-in desks and two thousand customers, six check-in staff should be the minimum complement; Tegel or Lufthansa need to invest in a bag-tag printing machine and let people print their tags, drop off the bags and be on their way. There are options, and waiting for Brandenburg Airport to open, is not one of them.

If you have a choice, may I recommend the fine service offered by DB from the Central Station, and if you must fly, check-in on-line and take no baggage.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Day trip from Berlin: Lunching in Poland

Unsurprisingly, there is no tourism office in Rzepin. There are no tourists, and from a brief wander through the town, this is hardly surprising either.

Coming here was a good idea. Dining at a lovely little local Bulgarian restaurant in Berlin last night, in response to a general question about what to do today, I said “Let’s go to Poland for lunch”. The idea took root, the train schedule to the first town across the border was determined, alarm clocks set and away we went.

William and Daisy at ITB
The idea was not entirely random; the major global tourism show, ITB is held annually in Berlin, and as a part of our tourism development work with the Arctic community of Qikiqtarjuaq, we have two delegates from the community in Berlin, learning about the travel industry, the channels of distribution, product development and clients’ expectations. Among other things.

A part of this immersion program is the practical aspect of being a tourist, and thus a random visit to an unknown community in a different place with different money and language formed an integral part of the process.

Rzepin was determined solely by geography. It was only 90 minutes by rail from Berlin, but it could have been a continent away.

Having been brought up in the era of the Cold War, simply taking a train from Berlin Ostbanhof to Poland was an exercise in nostalgia. It was a simple journey today, but only twenty-five years ago, the paperwork alone would have taken a month. The train pulled out of the station and rolled through the forbidden Berlin suburbs toward the border.

Berlin is a most interesting city, and in particular the architectureof The East astonishes. The drab Soviet Blocks have had a lick of paint; new cladding he replaced old concrete in places, and suddenly shiny blocks push their way up from the ground like a bright new tooth implant. Jocular shaped shops interspersed with forbidding facades from the DDR line the streets, and the overall impact is of sudden and manic growth after a period of forty years’ dormancy. Beirut is a little like this; none of the gradual change in architecture on a year on year, or even decade on decade basis, no, it is the leap from 1960s SovConcrete into the jazzy freedom of Berlin in the 2010s.

And so to Poland, and across the border, there was none of the money of Berlin, nor the money of central Poland. Rzepin is not Warsaw, and has none of the charm of rural Southern Poland. No, this is a town of emigrants, the flip side of the complaint of “too many immigrants”; here the problem is of “too many emigrants”.

Information about Rzepin
The first hint of the community's charms was at the railway station. Shiny, new, clearly constructed with reconstruction funds, the station’s information boards were silent and empty. We should have taken the hint and climbed back on the train. We didn’t, and instead, in the manner of clowns filling a circus car, we piled into a taxi whose driver agreed to take us to the “Old Centre”. This sounded promising but wasn’t. We were dropped off in a square that had seen better days, surrounded by buildings that flaked apart around us. Sadness and stoicism filled the air as we set off to have a look.

Old buildings, old people, closed shops, abandoned houses, a large church and a cobbled street. A friendly dog who alone seemed to find joy from the town followed us for a few hundred yards before tiring, and alone again we wandered on. The post office was alive with a couple of counters of cards, boxes and surplus Beanie Babies; the military graveyard was well kept, with the obligatory cannons recently repainted. The local council buildings were smart, reconstructed with reconstruction money and sporting the EU flag, but little sign of any economic development seeping further than the cars parked outside.

Rzepin - the other side of migration 

Lunch was a highlight. The Restauracja Mak was friendly and full of food. Good pizza, great soups and a welcome relief from the attempts at trying to find Rzepin. We might have been wandering through the town for a while (8,306 steps before lunch, to be precise), but we couldn’t find it.
And that was the instructive part of the day.

We were tourists; Rzepin was perfectly located for a “day away” from Berlin, and I have no doubt that many, many individuals do as we did over the course of the year. And I have no doubt that the people of Rzepin are delightful, interesting and have plenty of interesting items for visitors looking to pass a few hours in their town. However, the community seemed silent, almost abandoned.

 Unhelpful, and if a town could do such a thing, it felt as if it was turning its back on us. It is an instructive lesson for anyone starting to build a tourism business in their community.

Visitors know nothing, want to learn everything and need information. And that good food, served in a friendly manner can be the saving grace of a day of mild disappointment.

Back to Berlin!