19 May 2010

Rip-off London

It's not often I get to spend a day out in London purely for fun, but I managed to have one yesterday that showed the best and the most annoying sides of the city. I had a gig to go to in the evening, but thought I'd spend the day going to the museums I rarely have the chance to explore at a leisurely pace.

First up was the Science Museum, which I hadn't been to for about 15 years. It was swarming with schoolchildren, of course, but their enthusiasm was infectious as they threw themselves into the hands-on exhibits with great glee. The sea of children carried on to the Natural History Museum, which I just popped into briefly to marvel at the impressive great hall with that fantastically massive dinosaur skeleton. I was saving myself for the V&A, whose beautiful marbled interior and elegant gardens almost eclipse the exhibits. Then managed to squeeze in 45 minutes at the National Portrait Gallery, where the room exhibiting the great and the good of the 20th century is one of the most enthralling of all gallery rooms.

Ended up in Soho, as I was going to the album launch at Ronnie Scott's for my friend Sarah Class. (Have a listen at www.sarahclass.com.) This is where the annoyance comes in. London drinks prices being what they were, it made more sense to order a bottle of wine than individual drinks for the two of us. A bog-standard merlot for £17 was just about palatable.

Then the bartender gave my change, which came to 87p rather than the expected £3. I asked him what was going on. "That's the service charge," he said, obviously in a huff. "What service charge?" I asked. "Since when does it apply only to drinks?" He pointed to the tiny print at the bottom of one page of the drinks menu, which was barely visible in the gloom of the club. "But it's discretionary," I said. "Why do you add it automatically?" "You have to tell me not to add it before I run it through the till," he said, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world. "But I didn't know it was there!!!" "Yes, well, this happens all the time," he shrugged.

It happens all the time, but the club insists on maintaining this sneaky policy and robbing the punters of any goodwill that might exist. On the one hand, London gives generously with its world-class free museums, and on the other it takes it back with cynical practices. This happens all over the world, I know, but it's more irritating when you can't even escape it at home.

16 May 2010

Well fed in Montenegro

For the first time in living memory, I wrote an article about travel and didn't mention the food. Extraordinary, I know, but I just ran out of space while writing about my recent walking holiday in Montenegro for The Independent. What's even more unforgivable is that I'm Serbian and was brought up on the same food, which I absolutely adore and am always banging on about how great it is.

I think one of the reasons why the cuisine didn't get a mention was that the holiday was organised on a half-board basis, which meant dinner at the same hotel every night. Much as I enjoyed the Hotel Rivijera in Petrovac, the menu did veer towards the "international" side, as if the tender digestive systems of its guests were too refined for hearty peasant food. So that meant pork chops, veal chops, steak – food that could appear anywhere. One evening they asked if we had any requests. "Cevapcici!" I chimed in, as I was pining for spicy meat rissoles. Luckily they were equally enjoyed by the English guests in the party.

Wandering through the food market at Cetinje, the former royal capital, I noticed how seasonal vegetables dominated, just as they had in the markets of Belgrade and Dubrovnik I had just visited. We make a fuss about seasonal food in Britain, because we've become so far removed from eating what's appropriate for the time of year. The reality of seasonality is that the markets in the Balkans were dominated by various types of cabbage and not a lot else. Personally, I'd rather have good-quality home-grown food than expect to eat strawberries in January, even if the diet is limited. Besides, the type of long green cabbage leaves in season at the moment are perfect for the springtime version of sarma, a mixture of pork, beef, onions and garlic wrapped up in cabbage leaves (rather like dolmades).

There was still plenty to drool over in the market, though, including stall after stall of fresh cheeses and others heaped with the Balkan version of prosciutto. They would have made a great lunch for our walk in Mount Lovcen national park. What we did have, though, was burek, a filo pastry pie filled with cheese or meat which we'd bought in Petrovac. It was our morning ritual to go to the wood-fired bakery and get two portions of burek, which were still delicious several hours later when we stopped for a picnic lunch on top of a mountain or in the midst of an olive grove.

We had one day off from walking, and that's when we finally got our only chance to eat in a restaurant. Thank God it was an excellent meal. It was warm enough to sit outside on the terrace at Cafe Mediterraneo in Petrovac and savour my octopus salad and a glass of local Vranac red wine. There were so many more dishes I knew we were missing out on, but they'll have to wait for the next time.

04 May 2010

Trapped in Dubrovnik

I've spent a lot of time in the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia, but I'd never had the chance to visit Dubrovnik until last month. Yes, I know it's a major oversight for a travel writer not to have visited the "Jewel of the Adriatic", especially a writer whose parents were born in Croatia. But I finally managed to squeeze in three days there while doing some travel writing in next-door Montenegro. And I have to say I was left disappointed.

I couldn't shake off the feeling that Dubrovnik existed for one reason only: to process as many tourists as possible before chucking them out and waiting for the next batch to come in from the cruise liners and tour coaches. Plenty of cities function in a similar way, but I felt that this desire to wring tourists dry pervaded the air of Dubrovnik. Its undeniable beauty is breathtaking but it's soulless.

It's not a particularly expensive place if you're used to London prices. Gorgeous plates of fresh seafood can be had for less than £10 each. (Try Lokanda Peskarija by the harbour or Kamenice in the market square, both in the walled old town.) And the biggest bargain was the flat we rented from Holiday Rentals (www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/p96216), which charged only €165 for three nights for a small but well-equipped one-bedroom flat right in the old town. You can do Dubrovnik on the cheap if you rent a place of your own. But saving money isn't particularly my point.

What annoyed me was the disorganised way the various tourist bodies went about their business. The tiny tourist office just off Stradun, the old town's main street, had no knowledge of timetables or fares for the boats that head off to the many surrounding islands. You have to go to all the separate quaysides for that. I had done a lot of research and I speak the language, and I still couldn't get the information I needed. It was only April, but staff were already grumpy. (I'd hate to see them in the height of summer.) And the so-called Tourist Centre near an entrance to the old town is merely a collection of shops, neatly confusing people who naturally assumed they could pick up some tourist brochures for free.

It's a city with many museums and attractions, almost all of which charge admission. No problem with that. After all, they have to pay for the maintenance of these historically vital sites. But most cities have some sort of city pass that combines admission for selected museums and even transport. If Dubrovnik has such a pass, it was doing its best not to advertise it.

I had booked three nights, thinking that wouldn't be enough time to see everything, as well as an island or two. Two nights would have been more than enough. The highlights were the time spent away from Dubrovnik, namely in the pretty village of Cavtat further along the coast and the island of Lokrum, a short boat ride away. A spell of bad weather put paid to boat trips to more distant islands.

The city has many fans, I know, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. Does anyone have a more heartening experience of the place? I'd like to know.