25 April 2010

Back to Belgrade

I have a soft spot for Belgrade, home to numerous members of my family and a place I visit every year. But I'm aware that it can be an acquired taste, as much of its history has been obliterated by countless wars over the centuries. Its new town is a concrete city of communist-era tower blocks, like many in Eastern Europe, but the old town still has plenty of charm. I was hoping there was enough to captivate my husband, who was making his first visit and meeting my family, few of whom speak English. Just smile a lot and eat what's given to you, I told him, two things he was able to do effortlessly.

You can't help but feel a sense of responsibility when you show someone a place you love. I felt a bit like Rebecca West did in her monumental travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, when she hoped her husband would take to the Balkans the way she had. She was lucky, as was I. For a start, we were staying within metres of Sveti Sava cathedral, one of the biggest Orthodox churches in the world and whose large domes form a major landmark of the city. Even though the interior is still unfinished, you can't help but be impressed by its scale and beauty.

As in most cities, there's a list of tourist sights you shouldn't miss. We wandered to the centre towards Knez Mihailova, a long, wide, pedestrianised street full of shops and cafés and which is rarely empty. It leads to Kalemegdan, the enormous park that sits at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Hundreds of Belgraders gather here after work to sit on the grass or stroll by the museums, cafés and the zoo. The most touristy patch is Skadarlija, a 19th-century cobbled area that was the bohemian quarter. Nice place to grab some lunch, which in our case was a huge plate of cevapcici, one of my favourite meat dishes.

After a day of being in the east, we took a bus to what was the frontier of western Europe. Zemun, which sits on the other side of the Sava, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918. Now it's a suburb of Belgrade, but the Austrian influence is unmistakable in the architecture. Things get more Slavic along the banks of the Danube, however, which is lined with floating restaurants and bars called splavovi. It's party central in the evenings, but on this lazy morning it was blissfully quiet and peaceful. And it was too early for mosquitoes, thank God.

All the touristy things done, we settled down to enjoy the family experience – plenty of delicious food, laughs, jokes and conversation that flowed in spite of my husband's lack of Serbian. As is his wont, my uncle brought out his guitar and we sang loudly and inexpertly along to English pop songs of the 1960s. (Funny how easy it is to forget the lyrics after several glasses of wine.) It was a fun couple of days, full of warmth and pleasant surprises for my husband who now understands why I have to come back to Belgrade every year.

21 April 2010

CNN is rubbish

It's been a weird week trying to follow reports of the volcanic ash cloud as I've been travelling through the Balkans. I had the fortune to miss the ash cloud by two days, and now I'm trying to keep abreast of the news in Montenegro where the wifi is a bit dodgy and the hotel offers CNN Europe instead of BBC World. What a load of tripe CNN is, and what terrible journalism it sends around the world.

Its big angle was the fact that one of its producers was stuck somewhere in Eastern Europe and was trying to get back to London. "Desperate Odyssey" was the subtitle as the producer told of having to pay $800 for a taxi from Warsaw to Berlin. While the rest of Europe was squeezing on to coaches and trains with standing room only, or stuck in transit lounge limbo and sleeping on benches, this bloke was actually offered a hire car to drive to Holland. But he didn't fancy driving a Golf with "a really small engine". As someone who has driven a 700cc Chevrolet Spark around Serbia and Croatia and back again, I can't help but be scornful of this delicate flower of a CNN producer. So this "Desperate Odyssey" was merely code for "Feeble excuse for a story". I'm sure plenty of other travellers stuck around the world have more cause for desperation.

And don't even get me started on their annoying news presenters (sorry, anchors) and their dreadful questioning methods of poor hapless experts. And the adverts that they run every four minutes for airlines no one was able to use. Come back BBC World – all is forgiven.

04 April 2010

Comedy at Altitude

For the third year in a row, the Altitude Festival in Méribel has given skiers something fun to do at the fag-end of a ski season. This comedy festival founded by Marcus Brigstocke and Andrew Maxwell is a brilliant idea, and I wish I'd been able to spend more than one evening there this year. I was able to catch the fantastically funny Micky Flanagan, the not so funny Nick Doody and the guaranteed laughs from the Improv Allstars.

The festival itself stretches over a week in late March when comedians, musicians and DJs descend (ascend?) on the French resort that will for ever be a corner of England. As the cream of the English middle classes have thoroughly colonised the resort, there's plenty of juicy material for the comedians to sink their teeth into. Here's a conversation we overheard outside a café: "I'd love to go skiing in America, but the trouble is Daddy doesn't own any resorts there."

The comedians didn't exactly make mincemeat of their audience – things were too good-natured for that – but there were plenty of jokes about the sort of kids who spend the season in Méribel not bothering to learn a word of French. Speaking of French, the festival is the only bilingual comedy festival in Europe, which means there is a smattering of French comedians. Then there's the Franglais Chaud show, in which I was told Al Murray was especially entertaining. In fact, so many aspects of the festival sounds so appealing: live music during après-ski, gigs in slopeside bars, jib sessions in the town square. (That last one I did see, and it was hilarious watching most of the participants falling off the rail.) It's definitely a hugely entertaining way to round off the season, and one of the few things that make you wish winter would never end.