13 November 2016

Wrong side of the tracks

Every morning, the slightly dilapidated Ivo Andric train leaves Belgrade and trundles along to Budapest, eventually arriving eight and a half hours later. It's a bargain at €15, even if the four-carriage train has seen better days. Belgrade's main railway also has seen better days: as there are plans to move it to another part of the city, it's looking distinctly unloved at the moment. But there's a little café at the station that makes a halfway decent cup of Turkish coffee, which is what you need when you're going to be deprived of a restaurant car for nearly nine hours.

I had noticed a disjointed group of men hanging around the station, at times getting together, at other times splitting up. They looked as jumpy as the caffeine in my coffee. They didn't look any more relaxed when they boarded the train, again making an effort to seat themselves in separate clusters. Occasionally one would make an anxious, terse phone call. Another would scoot to the toilet every 15 minutes or so.

When I went to use the loo, I saw immediately that the men weren't suffering from weak bladders. A somewhat battered Samsung phone was charging, and obviously the men were just making certain that no one was running off with it. I wasn't sure where the men were from, but I had an inkling they were from Afghanistan – just eight or so of the countless people trying to get from Serbia to a European Union country, specifically Hungary.

Sure enough, at Subotica, the last Serbian city before the border, all of the men got off the train and scattered at once. Then began the lengthy two-part visit from both sets of border police, first the Serbs who were doing a thorough search of all the train. We then crept over the border into no-man's-land, where the Hungarian border police came on board. If I thought the Serbs were being thorough, they had nothing over the Hungarians who were checking every nook and cranny, shining torches into places I hadn't spotted.

As we crossed into Hungary, we passed the fence that the Hungarian government hastily put up to stop the flow of refugees. I took one look at the tall, spiky mass of metal and barbed wire and my heart sank for anyone who tried to get past that. The fence was briefly opened to let the train through before it was abruptly shut. Where were those men, I wondered?

They certainly weren't on the train. When I next went to the loo, I had to duck to avoid having my head smacked by the dangling ceiling that the border police opened to check no one was hiding within. I looked into the forest of insulation and tubes above me and thought that maybe a chihuahua could just about fit in there. I don't think even the most desperate refugee could contort his body to squeeze into that minuscule space.

This happens every day, on every train that goes between both countries. I wish I knew how many make it across that steel barrier between despair and hope.

26 May 2015

Lost in Bosnia

See the photo on the left? That was the setting for a relaxing picnic lunch on the road from Sarajevo to Croatia – at a little village on Ramsko Jezero. I wasn't to know that things were going to get quite a bit darker after this little interlude.

I knew what Bosnia's roads were like, having driven on them enough times before. This time, though, I had only a very basic map and no satnav. But as I had mapped my route through Google Maps and Michelin, I thought I knew the best way of making the five-hour journey from Sarajevo to my uncle's house in the Croatian hinterland near the Bosnian border. The route had even outlined a border crossing that was within only a few miles of my uncle's village.

It was when we reached the town of Livno that things started to go wrong. We were heading towards the mountains when I spotted what looked like the right road across the mountainous ridge into Croatia. There were no signs, but the road was exactly how it looked on the map. It was a brand new road, too new for any markings. Too new for any proper surfacing as well, which we doggedly decided to ignore. It snaked jaggedly in dizzying bends up the mountain for 11km, past no civilisation apart from a single lonely cottage.

Then the road came to an abrupt halt. Maybe the workers had gone on strike, but there was nothing ahead but mountainous scrub. We were in a hire car on a non-existent road with no proper maps and a storm was making its way through the Dinaric Alps. God knows what was on top of the ridge at the Croatian border. We had to turn back.

Unfortunately, we didn't turn back on to the right road. Rather than the proper road, we ended up on a bjeli put, a white farm track rather like the Italian strade bianche that wind through picturesque parts of Italy. This wasn't quite so picturesque. By this time, the forbidding mountains were feeling quite oppressive. The threatening storm had turn into a heavy downpour. It looked bleak – and bleaker still when we realised we had no idea where we were.

It was when we passed through a shelled-out village that I really began to worry. We were in the part of Bosnia that had endured horrendous fighting during the 1992-95 war. We drove through several villages that were ghost towns, decaying wrecked farms with rusting tanks in front gardens. One farm building had graffiti sprayed on it: horribly sinister messages from Croatian and Serbian fighters made me shudder as we drove through the relentless rain.

Finally – after about an hour and a half – we came off the bjeli put on to the road we should have been on in the first place. We eventually came to Bosansko Grahovo, birthplace of Archduke Ferdinand's killer Gavrilo Princip. It was also the birthplace of my father's beloved brother-in-law, but it was too wet and too late to do any exploring. Even so, I stopped at a café to double check I was on the right road. I dashed through the driving rain into a fog of cigarette smoke. Friendly curious faces crowded round me and reassured me that I was on the right road that would take us through Knin and eventually to to my uncle's house. It was considerably far from my original Google Maps route, which seemed more irrelevant as the miles ticked by.

Another couple of hours later and we finally arrived at my uncle's house. The rain had stopped and the temperature became almost balmy as we downed much-needed shots of plum brandy in the garden. My uncle commiserated, and then told me that we had taken the right route after all. The border crossing that was closest to his village was closed thanks to the high number of smugglers passing through. That wouldn't have been the best place to pitch up after a seven-hour drive.


09 October 2014

A taste of Calabria

Ten years ago, the food writer Matthew Fort drove a Vespa from the southern tip of Italy to Turin, having one food adventure after another. One of his earliest stops was at Le Carolee, an agriturismo in the middle of the Calabrian countryside east of Lamezia. In his book Eating Up Italy, he raved about the food produced by the warm and friendly Gaetano family, and wondered why on earth the British are so obsessed with Tuscany and Umbria, when the food of Calabria is infinitely better and much more interesting.

Ten years later, I'm sitting in the garden of Le Carolee in the dusk under palm trees and looking out over a valley of olive trees. I'm waiting for the first of four courses of deceptively simple Calabrian food, and I'm not disappointed. Antipasti of aubergine meatballs, courgette fritters and capocollo, a salami of pork shoulder made at the agriturismo. The pasta course was penne in an aubergine and tomato sauce. The meat course was slow-cooked veal that melted in the mouth. As it was September, dessert consisted of watermelon and honeydew melons that were in season and were being sold in countless roadside stalls by wizened farmers. We'd had local red wine that was just smooth enough followed by homemade limoncello. I sat back, listened to the gentle wind rustling through the olive groves and was pleased that I had three more dinners at Le Carolee to enjoy before I had to go home.

Over the next three nights I had swordfish with capers, olives and preserved peppers. And involtini of mozzarella with rocket, pancetta and tomatoes. And cracked and roasted olives grown on the estate. And thin slices of veal with pine nuts. And homemade tagliatelle – thicker than you would ever see in Britain – with sugo, over which was sprinkled a chopped red chilli and lots of parmesan. My favourite was filej con nduja – made by winding a thin strip of pasta round something like a knitting needle, and covering it with nduja, a soft sausage whose bright red colour gives a clue as to how much chilli is packed within.

It's not complicated and it's hardly Michelin-star stuff. It's cucina povera at its best. When you live in a region that's been poor for centuries, you learn how to make the best of what you have. And Calabria, poor in many ways but so very rich in others, is surprisingly teeming with produce of incredibly high quality – olives, courgettes, nuts, figs, dates, tomatoes, aubergines. The poorer the country, it seems, the more ways they have of cooking aubergines.

Same thing with chilli. Calabria's cuisine is spicy – but with warmth and depth of flavour. Red chillis, peperoncini, flavour everything from sausages to ice cream (which is delicious) and is known as the Viagra of the poor. Apparently they see chilli as an aphrodisiac. It also adds flavour and – importantly, during the old days of crushing poverty – it suppresses the appetite. I didn't have that problem. I couldn't get enough of chilli. Nor could I get enough of Calabria.

All photographs © Adam Batterbee

14 November 2013


Christmas magic in Bruges


Bruges’s Christmas markets are a major draw to one of Belgium’s most enchanting cities during the festive season. Several dozen wooden huts cluster in the main Markt square, where a temporary ice rink glitters with thousands of lights. Horse-drawn carriages clop on the cobbles in front of the historic restaurants lining the square, their crenellated rooftops adorned with yet more Christmas lights. No business has missed the chance to cover itself with tasteful wreaths, lights and baubles.

In the shadow of the looming 15th-century Belfry, visitors warming their hands on glasses of mulled wine wander among the stalls looking for Christmas gifts. They have plenty to choose from: among them, Christmas decorations, toys, jewellery, leather handbags and ceramics. There’s also a substantial number of stalls selling warm woolly hats, scarves and gloves, which come in handy when the chilly wind rustles through the square.

When the shoppers run out of fuel, they head to the food stalls where they fill up on delicious braadwurst sausages, waffles, apple fritters and – a gratifying sight on a cold day – tartiflette smothered in gooey reblochon cheese. Those wanting their fix of Belgian friet (chips) queue up at the distinctive green fast-food stalls that stand guard outside the Belfry.

A brief walk down Steenstraat leads to Bruges’s smaller, more intimate Christmas market at Simon Stevinplein. Sparkling white lights drape the trees in the centre of the square, where the wooden huts form a ring. Here you’ll find artisan cheeses, jams, honeys and, this being a tobacco-loving nation, a stall selling everything you need to roll your own. There’s a mini funfair here too, as well as more stalls selling handicrafts. I carry on my annual tradition of adding a new decoration to my tree, this time a cute-looking ceramic Father Christmas who’s hanging upside down. Don’t ask me why.

The Christmas markets in Bruges aren’t the only place for gifts. Affluent, agreeable Bruges has a large number of upmarket and trendy shops selling women’s and men’s clothing, many of which line the parallel shopping streets of Noordzandstraat and Zudzandstraat. Kitchenware shops thrive too, tempting you with more gadgets than you ever thought you needed but realised you just had to have.

Then there’s the chocolate. Chocolatiers are everywhere, selling everything from kitsch souvenir chocolates to exquisite creations crafted by hand. Some of the chocolates look too good to eat, and the Christmas ones shaped like snowmen and Father Christmas look too adorable to take out of the box. The ones shaped into large breasts are another story.

Then there’s the beer. If your idea of beer heaven is a shop that includes a “Beer Wall” selling almost 800 varieties (with different glass to match), head to 2be, a shop housed in a 15th-century former mayor’s house on Wollestraat. The beer lover in your life will thank you for the beautifully presented boxed sets, and those who don’t care for the stuff will be happy with other Belgian treats including chocolates and biscuits. There’s an inviting café attached, where the terrace overlooks the canal.

To continue the self-indulgent festive mood I found myself in, I explored two of the more unusual attractions that recall so much of the city’s history. This being Bruges, that meant chocolate and chips. The chocolate museum, Choco-Story, tells the fascinating story of how first the drink and then the solid form became such desirable foodstuffs. You don’t have to have a sweet tooth to become engrossed in the displays looking back over centuries of chocolate’s history. The visit finishes with a demonstration that will have you heading straight to the nearest chocolatier. (Or the museum shop, if you can’t wait that long.)

A more savoury story is told at the Friet Museum. The scent of fried potatoes wafts over displays explaining how the humble tuber has become such a staple part of the world’s diet. By the time you’ve reached the vintage kitchens showing how chips (or friet, or frites, or French fries) were fried in decades past, you are more than ready to visit the café and scoff a cone of chips (with mayonnaise, of course).

Even the most dedicated chocoholic and chipoholic need more substantial feeding, though, and can choose from hundreds of restaurants in Bruges. Cafedraal in Zilverstraat is a classy restaurant in a 15th-century house, where mouthwatering seafood and meat dishes are served under cosy wooden beams. The Blauw Wit beef tournedos were cooked to a perfect rare state, served with chunky Belgian chips.


Afterwards it was only a few minutes’ walk back to my hotel, the comfortable and friendly three-star Maraboe. It’s central yet has its own car park – an essential thing if, like me, you travel by DFDS ferry and car. After all, it would be a bit difficult to lug all that food and drink home without one.

All photographs © Adam Batterbee

19 July 2013

A French road trip in style

Given the choice between taking a seven-year-old Ford Focus and an admittedly borrowed but shiny new Peugeot RCZ on a 1,500-mile trip through France, it was hardly a tough decision to make.

A chance conversation at a press lunch resulted in Peugeot lending me its latest sports coupé for my 10-day jaunt through western France. It wouldn’t be a test drive as such – just the opportunity to see how the low-slung RCZ sports coupé would cope on narrow winding country roads leading to hilltop villages as well as long stretches of motorway.

It would be a little while before I could show off this really quite beautiful car, however. The “dolphin-blue” RCZ sat patiently below deck during the civilised overnight crossing on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to St Malo. And then it went straight to the underground car park of the Grand Hotel des Thermes while we explored the underrated port of St Malo. But finally the car had a full six hours of being on view – and duly admired by passing motorists – as we headed south through the Pays de la Loire’s lush green countryside and Poitou-Charente’s endless sunflower fields towards the Dordogne.

I could see why the car turned heads. It resembles the Audi TT in shape and design, but has none of the WAG stigma attached. It’s also considerably cheaper than an equally tooled-up TT: mine was the six-gear GT HDi with all the bells and whistles and its on-the-road price is just over £25,000.

It was also immediately obvious that taking a fuel-efficient diesel on a long road trip was a good idea. The display showing the remaining miles before the next fill-up actually went up as we cruised along the motorway; the car was dutifully calculating that a steady speed along a smooth road was doing wonders for fuel efficiency. In fact, I didn’t refill until after 550 miles, and there was still fuel left in the tank.

I could also set the speed limit to prevent me from unwittingly breaking the law. Going at breakneck speed along French autoroutes is becoming a thing of the past, I’ve noticed over the years – at least among French drivers. Satnavs aren’t allowed to show locations of speed cameras any more, but then I had no desire to go above the 80mph motorway limit. And the car’s low position gave me the impression I was going much faster than I was.

It was only on the rather bumpy D roads towards my destination near Bergerac that I noticed that the extra-wide tyres and 19-inch wheels made the ride a bit harder. But then on the stretches where single-lane carriages briefly opened into two lanes – uphill, as they invariably do – the engine’s power made overtaking easy work.

We could nip past lumbering Dutch caravans that clogged the roads leading to the Dordogne’s most popular medieval villages: Beynac, Les Eyzies, La Roque-Gageac, Domme. Sunflowers lit up the fields along the D roads between the half-timbered village houses of Issigeac and Monpazier’s handsome arcaded square. These roads were quieter, made for pootling along – which suited the RCZ just fine.

The car would have plenty of time to glide through its six gears as we sped along the motorway through Limousin on the way north to the Loire Valley. The landscape flattened out somewhat as we reached villages along the confluence of the Loire and Vienne rivers, broken up occasionally by limestone ridges housing troglodyte caves. The car was getting heavier by this point, as the temptation to stock up on Saumur reds and rosés was proving too much. Luckily the boot was much bigger than you would expect from a coupé, with two narrow seats in the rear adding extra room. Indeed, the whole interior was remarkably spacious, with plenty of legroom and comfortable sculpted front seats.


There was just enough time to fill the boot to capacity with a last-minute shop near Calais before the return ferry crossing and the drive home. I was hoping against hope that the Peugeot driver might get lost on his way to pick up the car. Sadly he didn’t.


Images © Adam Batterbee

14 July 2013

Bastille Day – France en Fête

The French don't call their biggest holiday Bastille Day, of course. For them it's la fête nationale, or simply le quatorze juillet – even if half the country celebrates on the 13th rather than the 14th of July. If geography is on your side, you might be able to catch back-to-back festivities. Over the years, I've had the luck to be in France on both nights, and each experience has been as diverse as the country itself.

The village experience
If you're a Francophile, Bastille Day in a small village reinforces every reason why you love France. Last summer, while I was in the Lot Valley, I was taken by my hosts at Lot Cycling Holidays to the small village of Rampoux on 14 July. Several hundred people were squeezed into two long marquees, where €16 bought you five courses of rustic food and unlimited wine and water – capped off with creamy rounds of cabécou cheese. A band played old-fashioned French songs that required no dancing skill apart from a basic ability to waltz. There was raucous singing that went on till the early hours, and at some point I imagined they had set off the fireworks. We didn't stick around long enough to find out, as we had left by 2am. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I'd ever had in France.

The small town experience
Purely by chance I was in St-Girons in the Ariège one year on 13 July, intending just a quick stopover before going on to Carcassonne where I had planned to spend the festivities. I had no idea that St-Girons was one of the towns that celebrated on the 13th, so a stroll into the centre of this pleasant riverside town in the Midi-Pyrénées quickly revealed a massive party going on. More dancing, market stalls, dodgem cars for the kids and an impressive display of fireworks for such a small town.

The slightly bigger town experience
That brings me to Carcassonne, which has the second-largest fireworks display in France. (Paris comes on top, naturally.) The fireworks are set off behind the ramparts of the medieval citadel, La Cité, where the display has all the drama of a five-act play. By the end it looks as though the Cité is on fire. Utterly compelling.

The seaside town experience
A bowl of mussels on the quayside of Sète, followed by cheesy French bands playing in the main square. Then a manic bash on the dodgems before a cocktail at the water's edge and a brilliant fireworks display. I could think of worse ways of spending a July evening in Languedoc.

The twin town experience
Antibes and Juan-les-Pins sit side by side on the Mediterranean, barely a kilometre apart. By sheer luck, I was in Antibes on the 13th when they hold their festival, and in Juan-les-Pins on the 14th for theirs. As restaurants in Antibes were advertising hugely overpriced menus for the night of the fête, we decided to stock up on food from the market in Cours Masséna and have a picnic on the balcony of the seafront flat we were renting. The fireworks were being held just next door on the beach, where an orchestra was playing the theme tunes from James Bond films. It was entertaining, but there was none of the carnival atmosphere I'd seen at other celebrations. Meanwhile, in Juan-les-Pins, we were guests at the jazz festival on the 14th, when the organisers time the fireworks to go off between sets. Jazz on a summer's night and fireworks lighting up the Mediterranean. Pure magic.



05 July 2013

Rimini: La Notte Rosa

La Notte Rosa is like New Year’s Eve all over again – but with better weather and thousands more people enjoying the balmy summer air. Every July since 2005, this 100km stretch of the Adriatic has been putting on one of Italy’s liveliest festivals, la Notte Rosa, which translates inelegantly as “pink night”. Sounds better in Italian.

Everything is draped in pink – from the ancient bridge in Rimini’s old town to the hotels and bars lining the seaside strip. And everyone wears something in that colour, even macho Italian men who nonchalantly don garish pink wigs, T-shirts and shorts. Somehow, they pull off the look with complete panache.

Thousands of people stream through the streets of Rimini, all in a relaxed mood, stopping now and then to dance to a band performing on a street corner. Fireworks along the coast are set off at midnight, but that’s not the end. The party goes on all night: if you’re lucky enough to be awake after 5am, you just might catch one of the world’s biggest beach barbecues on the wide stretch of Rimini’s sands. Or sway along to the music of the pianist who managed to stay awake all night to serenade the partygoers draped on the sun loungers.

You might wonder why everyone joins in with such gusto in a festival that has no obvious link to the region. Usually festivals celebrate a seasonal event (such as a wine harvest) or some of the wonderful food produced in various parts of Italy. But la Notte Rosa has no such straightforward history.

La Notte Rosa was inspired by the summertime Nuit Blanche (White Night) in Paris, when the French capital’s art galleries are open all night in a festive atmosphere. So why pink? The local Rimini politician who came up with the idea rather liked a festival that celebrated womanhood – hence the pink. That gender segregation didn’t last long, though, as people of both sexes wanted to join the fun. It quickly turned into a festival that celebrated the beginning of the summer season.

For such a busy event, the atmosphere is remarkably chilled. The streets might be packed with people of all ages, but no one is in a hurry to get anywhere, and nor is alcohol an important part of the evening. The result is an incredibly genial and happy atmosphere that is positively infectious.


There are special events planned throughout the evening. Most are open to the general public, including concerts featuring Italian X Factor winners on specially erected stages by the venerable Grand Hotel. This former home of the film director Federico Fellini is also the setting for a sumptuous private party put on by la Notte Rosa’s main sponsor, Martini. It’s a wonderfully elegant affair, filled with the beautiful people of Italy. But you don’t need to be on the A-list to enjoy la Notte Rosa. It really is a magical feeling strolling along the seafront watching the Italian population enjoying itself. And no matter how late you stay up, there’s always the enormous Rimini beach waiting for you the following day.

Images © Adam Batterbee