Sunday, September 23, 2018

Buying a second home: issues and benefits!

Buying a second property is always a difficult decision; home, after all, is home, and duplicating the issues, responsibilities and care required to maintain a house can be both distracting and daunting.
However, as many have asked me both why and how I did it, here are some answers.

I come from Europe, and although I have lived in Canada for forty years and more, I have never “left”, and wanted a foothold here as I grew older and had more time on my hands. France seemed to be a logical place, as I still had a smattering of French grammar pounded into me at my Dickensian boarding school five decades earlier, and in the south, the climate is clement. I had no idea where, but my father, ever a wise man, indicated that I should look at the Languedoc. “It is a fine place”, he said, “very beautiful, good weather, interesting history and they make a nice drop of wine.” 

8, rue Victor Hugo Before ..

... and after 
And he was right. Within thirty-six hours of my first visit to Esperaza in 2007, I had bought an old butcher’s shop, on an old street in an old town. No glistening whitewash overlooking a glittering seascape; this was working France, and I fell in love immediately. With the town, but not the bureaucracy.

French bureaucracy is unimaginably tedious and wearying. It is designed for activity rather than purpose or outcome, and cannot be beaten. Documents, in a precise order with a precise number of initials in precisely the correct place, are required by the kilo, and are many and repetitive. Documents sent by registered mail that failed to secure a signature upon receipt (even though the questions within were addressed) cause havoc, and notarised documents noting the lack of signature, although a poor replacement, are needed to complete the package. Taxes are levied, fees are charged, more photographs of elderly relatives and each pet’s birth certificate (unless born in Guadeloupe or Guyane (after January 2003)) are demanded.

The wait is worth is ... "The Neighbourhood"
But this is France, and secure in the knowledge that the country’s legal system is not actually stacked against an innocuous purchase in an innocuous village, one eventually smiles and lets the system grind along. And, after a couple of months or so, one is summoned to the Notaire, money is paid and the keys are exchanged.

And then the fun starts.

Having a new home reverts one to a quivering teenager purchasing the first bean bags for the first bedsit. How does one get electricity? Water? Heating? Insurance …. The list of endless requirements, completed at home in a blink of an eye, loom like demons of frustration. There is always help, however, and somehow, all of these issues fall into place. Do you buy a bed before a table, a beer fridge before a lamp? Where do you find cutlery and bath grout?

After sourcing the furniture (IKEA is good), life emerges

And then the real fun starts.

Culturally interesting, especially the hats
The true beauty of having a second home is the opportunity to immerse oneself in another culture in a way that travellers and tourists simply cannot. One returns frequently, each time to discover a new road, a new village, new people, new music and a new thread to the fabric that holds the community together. It is an exciting process and one that draws newcomers into the fold of the village. It is, as is so often said, about “the people”, and this is true. Different communities have different characters, and it is these subtle differences, perhaps, that subconsciously attract different people to different places.

It was Espéraza, the town of 2,500 in the Aude Valley that chose us, and it is fascinating. In its industrial heyday it was the global centre for hat production; it is said that not an actress from Moscow to Los Angeles was without a hat from Espéraza. The industry also served military contracts and the population had swelled to over 20,000 in the 1930s. But alas, a change in fashion, and the invention of other material that armies favoured for their headwear changed the industry, and it has been in decline since the 1950s. It is a town that has been coloured by refugees: over 250,000 fled Spain during Franco’s regime, and many settled in this town on the far side of the Pyrenees.

Today incomers from many other places, from Africa and from Yorkshire, from Amsterdam and even Winnipeg are moving here and adding their own threads to the fabric of the Aude Valley.

I do believe that if Peter Mayle had written a book called “A Year in the Languedoc” instead of Provence, the social geography of France would be quite different. This is a quiet, contemplative region, and the Aude Valley, a succession of small towns and villages that rise with the land from Carcassonne until one is in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is a gem. It is an indescribably beautiful region, and one that will, I am sure, quietly and steadily grow over the next ten years as more people steer away from the “brands” and seek the soul of the destination that they are visiting.

And, over the ten years that I have had the house here, I have come to love the region so much that two weeks ago I bought a new, and bigger property, and moved. I spend my life travelling, as so many readers have pointed out to me, but of all of the places that I have travelled, for reasons that are impossible to explain, Espéraza and the Aude Valley draw me back.

And it is only three hours from Tossa de Mar!

The new house, and the view over the Pyrenees

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tossa de Mar: a Mediterranean gem

Toss de Mar, Costa Brava

Tossa de Mar rekindled my faith in the Mediterranean. For many years I had been despairing as the towns and villages around this tremendous sea were gradually being consumed by blandness. That gradual but powerful neutering that overwhelms individuality and turns each beach resort into an identikit duplication of each other.

Towns that had character now morphed indistinguishably into one another; travel brochures highlight the same attractions of sandy beaches, vibrant nightlife and endless sunshine. One resort becomes another.

There are, of course, exceptions, after all, the Mediterranean is a large sea. However, they become harder to find, and more difficult to reach. And then there is Tossa. I don’t usually try to write “puff pieces”, but having spent a little time in the town, I can’t really resist.

Tossa de Mar is a small Catalan community lying in the middle of the Costa Brava some 100 kms to the north of Barcelona. It is, in short, accessible and lying within one of the most popular tourist regions in Europe. It has, however, retained its soul. Its growth has been obstructed by geography, tradition and the strength of the local community to direct the town’s future.

Tossa's 12th century castle
Tossa is old. There are Roman ruins, and ample evidence of an active community here some 2,000 years ago, but the dominant and irresistible historical authority comes from the picturesque and poised castle that overlooks the town. Built in the 12th century, this magnificent castle grew to encompass a medieval town, now sympathetically restored to its 14th century appearance. As the local population grew in the 15th and 16th century, houses popped up outside the castle, and the community of Tossa emerged into the pattern it shows today. Small winding streets creep around the bay and offer tourists a glimpse into the soul of the past.

The front street has, of course, restaurants, but the buildings, including the hotels date back to the 1950s and beyond; the temptation to knock them down and replace them with a shiny new hotel or “tourist complex” has been resisted, and Tossa is all the better off for it.

Tossa de Mar - Street scenes

There are many places to stay; mostly small, family hotels, and the Hotel Tarull is a fabulous example. The property, built in the 1950s is run by Lluis Soler Capdevila and his delightful wife Meri. Lluis is a third-generation hotelier, and it shows. His attention to detail and to the whims, needs and interests of his guests is remarkable. New guests are presented with a map of the town with his restaurant suggestions already hand written, along with notes of supermarkets and other interesting spots. His choices of places to eat were formidable, and the variety and quality of food available in this small community is surprising.

Too often beach-resort restaurants offset a fine view with mediocre food; menus that offer identical choice, often frozen and served with little enthusiasm but great expense. To be sure, these types of mountebanks exist in Tossa as well, but there are gems. Casa Igor, run by a Michelin star chef, Simó Tomàs Vallvé who retired from the pressure of Barcelona to run a small, twenty cover restaurant here, is simply fabulous. The combination of local ingredients, a small menu and an enormous imagination is an extraordinary find.

Another Tossa institution is the Restaurant Bahia; located on the front, and at first indistinguishable from it less memorable neighbours, this third-generation family restaurant is quite simply a wonderful place to eat. Their food is well cooked, well presented, most agreeably served and quite imaginative. The stream of regulars is a testament to their place in Tossa, and any visitor eating there finds a sense of what Tossa means to its people.

And there are about 6,000 of them; fewer in the winter months and more in the summer, but about 6,000 overall. Proud Catalans with the sense of confidence and dignity that a millennia of history will cultivate. It is a community of ancient traditions like the annual forty-kilometer pilgrimage el Vot del Poble undertaken each year since the 1400s to give thanks for delivering Tossa from the scourges of the Bubonic Plague.

Tossa de Mar is a town that knows its history and can see its future. It is a town that seems to have managed to find the elusive balance of tourism today, that point between the needs and interests of the local community and the desires and expectations of their visitors. It is a community that has earned the respect of its tourists, and one that will certainly delight new visitors for many years to come.

I love Tossa!

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Viking Islands; Faroe, Shetland and Orkney

The Viking Islands lie in the north Atlantic between Iceland and Scotland; recently, I spent ten days exploring these fascinating places with four friends.

One of whom, Erik Brown, is a fine writer, and before I put my piece about the trip on the blog, here is his.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Travelling through The West Balkans - Yugoslavia revisited!

The West Balkans, former Yugoslavia, is a fascinating place to travel and I have spent a fabulous couple of weeks travelling there. I was delighted to see so many people visit my blog to read my observations.

Here is an overview of the region, published in the fine adventure travel journal GoNomad.

Travel the West Balkans by Train, Bus and Ship.

It was a fascinating trip, and one that I need to repeat. Next time, I plan on renting a vehicle and getting off the beaten track a little more; not that much of the region is a well-beaten path, but I would love to get into the mountains, and visit some of the secondary cities that offer their visitors so much.

I loved the region, and would encourage anyone to visit.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Visiting Kosovo; A different kind of tourism

Travelling in Kosovo is an odd experience, and perhaps for this reason, it was the ideal location to finish my two-week tour of the West Balkans.

“Countries”, are interesting phenomena. While we feel comfortable referring to France, Bolivia or Canada as “Countries”, and feel pretty sure about what we mean, there are other territorial definitions that are far less inflexible or rational. Lines drawn on maps by bewhiskered Victorian gentlemen cause problems to this day throughout Africa, and other parts of the world are deviled by similar historical arrogances. The West Balkans are a contemporary exercise in political cartography, and have willingly overlooked ancient historical grievances in the name of accord. Accord, however, does not inevitably lead to harmony.

Kosovo is an ancient land. In 1389 the Serbian rulers were defeated by the Turks and finally overran in 1459 battles that were triggers for the mass migrations that have blighted the region. Thousands of Serbs flowing north, Turks and Albanians flowing south and east, centuries of conflict; famines and plagues that sent large populations scurrying for security and leaving tens of thousands dead. Kosovo, so central to the Serbian and thus the Balkan story, is an important place to understand.

Roadside instructions for tanks are a
stark reminder of the local situation.
Myth-makers and other historians have written and discussed these ancient events from every point of the compass; it is a region that seems to have yet to find its secure spiritual or civic home. Neither dream of Greater Serbia or Greater Albania has ever emerged fully as a dominant cultural ambit to which its people could belong. So, even in the 21st century, Kosovans can do little more than try to build the vital political institutions that underpin any country, and to develop an economy that will keep the people together.

For travellers to the region, it is economic development that is impossible to ignore. Driving through Kosovo’s countryside is quite gorgeous. Light shines on the endless ridges of the southern hills and glints off the minaret spires and proud roofs of orthodox churches; it is a captivating landscape and redolent of ages past and the passions of history. It is, however, the roadside economy that is so absorbing.

Wedding Venues and unfinished buildings punctuate the Kosovan landscape

Gambling, weddings, construction and eating seem to be the four pillars of the Kosovan economy. Casinos are everywhere; some offering the hope of a better life, formerly the exclusive domain of religion but now a touch more secular, and some offering the wherewithal to wash the endless supply of Funny Money that sluices through this part of the world, attached to the drugs and weaponry that are another major economic driver in these parts.

Not all buildings are unfinished, there
are some fine developments that look
comfortable and nearing completion.
Buildings, some half-finished and abandoned, some shiny, bright and purposeless, and some with an apparent use spring up wildly. Emigrés seeking to show their wealth and build a monument in their home villages construct glistening wedding centres, great structures of glass and glitz at the edge of the town waiting for a periodic coupling of villagers to bring it to life. Everywhere, breeze blocks, reinforcing rods and bewilderment; there must be a logic, but in the manner of a wild and natural forest, buildings sprout up with little apparent reference to any other. It offers a mildly eccentric picture, one that might have a pattern, but one that is not immediately obvious.

The towns bustle; there is activity and commerce, the buying and selling of buttons, flags, mattresses, bricks, insulation and roof tiles evident by the huge pile of inventory spilling out onto the streets. Nothing looks finished and somehow everything looks slightly unfamiliar and out of place. The destruction of war, ethnic cleansing and centuries of conflict has left little physical signs of historical value, and the countryside, as pretty as it is, is covered with this new-growth of ragged housing.

It is an important stop for any visitor to the region, and I decided to base in Prizren, some sixty miles south of the capital, Pristina, and close to both the Albanian and Macedonian borders. It was, in some ways, an inspired choice. The town is certainly pivotal, and a centre for the Albanian culture of Kosovo, and as a border region, a town that developed a unique cultural perspective, sandwiched as it was between the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia and the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania.

Prizren's bridge of promises, and in the evening, the lights in the bars and cafes 
bring the town together in their soft, warm glow.

Prizren is an attractive town in a two-night sort of way. It is a Muslim city of Albanians, Roma, Bosniaks (ethnically Muslim Bosnians) and Turks; the flag of the Turkish government is evident on reconstructed buildings and new projects. The bustle of completion is everywhere, but in the evening, as the lights come on in the bars, cafes and restaurants in the Old City, one has a fleeting glimpse of a cosmopolitan community. It is attractive in a Restored-And-Shiny way, and a pleasant enough place to wander, but there is little enough to keep a visitor’s attention for long.

The attraction of Kosovo is to drive, explore and think. In villages and through the countryside Albanian and Serbian flags fly defiantly or hopefully, and from time to time one sees a Kosovan Flag fluttering optimistically; it is a muddled place. For hikers, there are spectacular trails in the mountains, mountains whose very ruggedness that now attracts visitors have caused such a fractured past to endure through the centuries.

A collection of graves lying in a quiet
copse is a vivid reminder of Kosovo's
very recent history.
Yet, as everywhere else I have visitors in the region, there are people, friendly, warm and welcoming people.

People who can only wonder how the lottery of life has left their small region so bereft of opportunity. It is a region of extreme beauty, deep cultural roots and strong family and regional bonds. It is a region of some strategic importance, and, curiously, a region that still reveals “community” is its strongest sense. A sense of common purpose that has been lost in so many rapid and binary western societies. Kosovo is a good place to visit; if one of the purposes of tourism is to understand and be understood, visiting fractured yet hopeful countries is important. When one can add the people, scenery, history and fascination of Kosovo, then it rises fast in any list of countries to visit.

Kosovo is hopeful; it needs help and one can only wish that its proud and generous emigrés may one day decide to give their village a new school hall instead of another shiny House of Weddings.

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.