26 May 2009

My Balkan odyssey

In a few days I'll be off on a journey through Serbia and Croatia. I've been wanting to write about my family's history for some time, and now I finally have the chance to do so in the form of a book. From this weekend, I'll be embarking on what I can only describe as an epic road trip from Belgrade to the mountainous interior of Croatia – with my mother. 

We're going to be exploring the areas in which she endured extremely traumatic experiences during the Second World War trying to survive Nazi occupation, civil war between royalists (my parents' side) and communists, starvation, disease and other things all too prevalent during the 1940s. 

But it won't be all doom and gloom. One thing that wars and strife can never change, and that's the innate hospitality shown by people in the Balkans. I remember having long conversations with a much-missed colleague and former travel editor of the Independent on Sunday, the late Jeremy Atiyah. He loved the Balkans tremendously, and we used to play a game in which we tried to outdo each other with tales of acts of extreme kindness, hospitality and great food. My childhood memories were of the Tito years, whereas his were more recent and grown up, concerning a man who was able to explore a country on his own terms. A common thread bound the two, however: good food, high spirits and a typical Balkan warm welcome.

I'm slightly apprehensive about the journey, mainly because I'll be driving along some dodgy roads with no satnav and only my mother – who has already declared herself a totally useless navigator. She's told me that she doesn't like the idea of me doing the driving. Thanks, Mum.

I'm also very keen to explore a place I haven't really seen since my childhood. Both my parents come from Lika, a region in Croatia that has been populated by ethnic Serbs for generations. We have the Ottoman empire to thank for that. In fact, the history of the region is particularly rich, as anyone who has read Rebecca West will know.  It's going to be quite a task to keep the historical context in mind as I talk about the present day. For you can't write about one without the other, and nor would you want to.

Wish me luck.

23 May 2009

Thick as thieves

I wrote an article about Barcelona recently, and it brought back memories of my first visit there back in 2001. We had been driving from France and entered the city in the early afternoon, when temperatures were firmly in the high 30s. The city seemed strangely deserted – we had no idea that most of the population was in the town centre wreaking havoc on the city's statues during one of the anti-capitalist protests that were going on at the time.

We pulled into the underground garage of our hotel and fell into conversation with a Swedish couple. "You have to be careful in Barcelona," said the husband. "There's a lot of street crime here." We knew that, but weren't quite prepared for his next statement. "We've just been robbed. We had stopped at the traffic lights and thieves reached into the car and stole my wife's handbag and the rucksack that had our cameras. We're just off to the police now."

We commiserated with them, thinking what bad luck to have such a terrible introduction to a beautiful city. But I was thinking to myself that I don't even drive in my own village without locking the doors and keeping the windows closed, let alone in a city known for its crime.

In the hotel room, all the info about the hotel services was full of dire warnings to guests: lock up your valuables! Watch your wallets! Hold on to your handbag! Well, of course. I always carry my handbag bandolier style, and I rarely let go of it. But still, I couldn't quite relax as we started to explore the city. 

The intense heat didn't help – the coolest it got was 28C and that was at midnight. We'd walk down the main boulevard, the Ramblas, watching people get drawn into the tricks the resident con artists pull, with their accomplices not so surreptitiously looking out for any passing policeman. It was great entertainment, as we duly held on to our wallets and handbags.

On a later visit I watched groups of drunken British women on a hen weekend fall about on the Ramblas, one just lying there waiting to be robbed. I recalled another travel writer's account of a visit to Barcelona in which she was quite nastily mugged, and the the taxi driver who drove her to the police station was attacked as he was getting out of his car.

Funnily enough, my love-hate relationship with Barcelona has nothing to do with its street crime. For some reason, I often find myself wandering through its streets wishing I were in France or Italy instead. But I still love to visit, marvel at the barmy Modernista architecture, eat some seriously gorgeous tapas and get into the Mediterranean vibe. And then look forward to going home again.

08 May 2009

Take a break

It's been a few years since I've had the time to take a long, leisurely driving holiday through France, and I really miss the pleasure of finding the perfect stopover. I've never been a fan of doing as many miles as possible before collapsing in a cheap Formula One hotel on the fringe of town late at night. It might be a cheap option, but you miss out on so much fun.

One year, after driving for six hours from  Calais we ended up in Bourges, which is almost exactly in the centre of France. Not only did the hotel have a swimming pool, but we also arrived on the day of France's FĂȘte de la Musique. Every 21 June, the entire country erupts in song and everyone fills the streets to listen to the music. There's a wonderful carnival atmosphere that doesn't spill over into complete mayhem. What a fantastic start to a holiday.

Sometimes a stopover promises more than it delivers. I thought Dijon would be a charming place to rest on the long journey south. Great mustard, shame about the restaurants. We spent hours wandering around looking for the usual street of restaurants you get in a decent-sized French city until we finally stumbled upon a collection of bistros clustered along a short pedestrianised alleyway. And that was about it. I was expecting more from a city that size.

Other times you come across a place and wish you could spend more than one night. While travelling from south-west France to Annecy near the Swiss border, we broke our journey in Clermont-Ferrand, capital of the Auvergne. I knew a little about the home of Michelin tyres, mainly from a friend of a friend who was desperate to escape the place. That mystified me, as I found it a joy to explore. It's not very often you come across an enormous cathedral made from black volcanic rock. And then we fell into cheese heaven at a funky little restaurant that did brilliant fondues, raclettes and tartiflettes. I've been trying to go back ever since.

And then there's Lyon, which is criminally overlooked in the mad dash to the Med. France's gastronomic capital is like Paris on a more human scale. There are plenty of affordable hotels on the Presque'Ile, the peninsula in the centre of town. The old town has not one but two Roman arenas and wonderful views from the hilltop basilica. The first time we went to Lyon, a one-night stopover easily turned into two.

I'm always on the lookout for good stopovers, so if anyone has any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

04 May 2009

Keep your shirt on

First sign of decent weather in Britain and the clothes come off. We had a few warmish days in April, and immediately a large chunk of the population had stripped down to shorts and flip-flops. Some men were even walking around shirtless (not a pretty sight at the best of times). The temperature was perhaps 18C but you'd think it was 28C the way they were dressed, their pale skin goose-pimply in the weak spring sunshine.

Contrast this to Sicily, where the summer temperatures hover around 40C. We had been there for a walking holiday in late April a few years back, and revelled in the relative warmth. Temperatures were about 22C, great for walking around in a T-shirt and thin trousers. The locals, however, would have none of it. May was soon on its way, but they were still wrapped up in fleeces and body-warmers. They might catch the colpo d'aria otherwise. This dangerous "hit of air" was to be avoided at all costs, at least until summer had officially begun and one could begin to peel off the layers. And only then could one think of swimming in the open air.

Fausto, the owner of the hotel residence we were staying in, had put in a little plunge pool, which would have been lovely to enjoy after we returned from our walks. We hadn't been able to swim in the sea because of an extraordinary invasion of jellyfish that turned the shores a dull shade of red. But open the pool in April? And catch the colpo d'aria? La Signora should know better. No, the pool stays closed until 23 June. I can't imagine being in Sicily on 22 June without being able to swim to escape the heat. Let's hope the jellyfish have disappeared by then.

I find both attitudes to hot weather hilarious. The British are so desperate for warmth that they want to expose their skin as soon as possible. But if they're wearing their thinnest clothes in April, there's nowhere to go if temperatures really hot up in July or August. The Sicilians, on the other hand, know the value of taking each layer of clothing seriously. If it's 25C in April and you've got temperatures of 42C to look forward to, you have to acclimatise your body more gradually. This makes sense, but I'd still much rather have a springtime dip in Fausto's swimming pool.