Thursday, 19 December 2013

Film: Ultra Culture (and impressions of Hamburg)

I was in Germany recently for ein langes wochenende (and that's where the unnecessary random inclusion of snippets in German starts and stops, I promise). I was there partly for the beer and currywurst and partly for a dose of the famously vibrant atmosphere at German football (which in turn, is at least partly due to the abundance of beer and currywurst). Aforementioned commodities aside, I was also there to continue the production of Ultra Culture, my film which explores the inspirations and motivations of some of Europe's most diehard football fans.

If you know football you probably know of the German club FC St. Pauli, based in Hamburg's port-side district of the same name. It's also likely that you owe your awareness of the club to the notoriety of their supporters rather than their success on the pitch. And therein lies the reason that somebody not so into football may not have heard of them: they've never won the German title and currently play in the 2nd tier among even lesser-known clubs such as Erzgebirge Aue and Ingolstadt 04. Their fans, though, are famous, and for a very good reason.

During the mid 1980's - in the pre-reunification days around the time Boris Becker became famous for being good at tennis - fascist-inspired football hooliganism was all the rage in Germany. In response to this, recognising that football was in a dark place, St. Pauli became the first German club to ban right-wing nationalist activities inside its stadium. This sparked the beginnings of a huge cult following and average attendances rose from a couple of thousand to nearly thirty thousand (not quite over night: challenging a well-embedded culture takes time and stadium upgrades were necessary to house all the new-comers).

Today, St. Pauli have a huge following with over 600 supporters' groups based around the world, from New York to Indonesia. Their fan base is made up of mostly politically left-leaning supporters who stand vehemently united against racism, sexism, homophobia, commercialism, and all those ugly things that continue to plague the otherwise beautiful game elsewhere. In short: they're a wonderful bunch of people.

A clear message inside the Millerntor-Stadion, home of FC St. Pauli © Ryan Chapman
I arrived in Hamburg on a bitterly cold November evening on a train from Berlin and immediately went to find the kebab shop that had been enthusiastically recommended to me by the ticket inspector. They, despite my desperately hungover state (Berlin does that to you), had seized the opportunity to practise their English and I, despite wanting to curl up against the window and wallow in self-pity, obliged. I've never heard falafel being described with such bountiful linguistic beauty, but let me tell you, it was entirely justified. The bad news is that if you're reading this with a trip to Hamburg in the pipeline I can't tell you where it was. Not because I'm sworn to secrecy or anything, I just can't remember (it was near a sex shop, but that really doesn't narrow it down in Hamburg). The good news is, I had a delicious falafel. Satisfied, I headed off to explore the district of St. Pauli.

St. Pauli is full of those quirky little shops that have window displays so alluring you're physically unable to walk past without going inside (think bizarrely dressed arm-less mannequins and things you look at and think they're 'retro-kitsch' without really know what 'retro-kitsch' means). They're the kind of shops you step inside but regret it immediately because everything that's remotely interesting is in the window - and thus probably not for sale - and what you're left with can only be described as tat (which, annoyingly, you then rediscover is just a synonym for retro-kitsch anyway). Yeah, those shops. There's lot's of them, and I went in one. After idly browsing the contents for as little amount of time as possible that would not be deemed rude - all the time being watched by the woman at the till who wore a peacock feather in her hair - I looked at the time, made an exaggerated gesture to indicate I was late for a prior engagement, and hurried out the door.

Around the corner I was approached by a guy in his twenties who asked me if I had a minute spare to roll his dice. Hoping it wasn't an euphemism I reluctantly agreed and he handed them over. Bulky, wooden and painted green; each side had a word in German inscribed with golden letters. Suitably concerned, I rolled them on the pavement, secretly urging them to bounce awkwardly and disappear down a drain in order for me to avoid any consequences. They didn't. "You", he translated from one, waiting for the other to settle: "must learn something". He proceeded to announce that I should now go, as the dice had dictated, and do something educational.

He suggested I go to the Hamburg Harbour Museum and learn about the city's rich maritime history. I pointed out that it was Sunday and the museum was probably closed (I had no idea) and negotiated that, instead, I go to the harbour and learn how satisfying it would be to sit down and drink a beer. He accepted my compromise and off he went; presumably to find other people to roll his dice until they landed on 'we' and 'become friends'. Meanwhile, I made my way down to the harbour for that beer thinking it must be my destiny. Nothing happened. The beer was good though, thanks dice guy.

Port of Hamburg

The following day I headed to the Millerntor-Stadion armed with a plethora of questions for St. Pauli employee and fan, Sven Brox. He is head of match day security, and works closely with the ultra groups. My interview with him touched upon subjects such as the ultra groups' influence in the running of the club and the general all-encompassing sense of community. This is something I've noticed is more or less consistent across Germany: the relationships between football clubs and their fans are invariably rock solid. At St. Pauli, fans don't only have a say in what goes on behind the scenes, in many cases, it seems they make the final call.

To draw a comparison, the owner of English Premier League outfit Hull City has recently applied to change the name of the club to Hull Tigers in an attempt to make them more marketable, apparently. The majority of Hull supporters are against the name-change and have started a campaign group called 'City Till We Die'. In response to this, the owner hit back saying these fans "could die as soon as they want". It's an easy conclusion to make then, that this man is an enormous tw*t. Not only that, it's a sad reflection on how little fans are respected in this country and how poor the general club-fan relationship is.

In contrast, over in Germany, St. Pauli once toyed with the idea of selling the naming rights to their stadium (a move which could have generated millions of Euros in revenue). However, the fans said no, fearing it would compromise their proud identity, and so it didn't happen.

Sven Brox in interview mode © Ryan Chapman

Arriving at the Millerntor a few hours before kick-off, fans were already gathering. Inside the fan-run supporters' bar there was a raucous atmosphere and a DJ blasting out sing-along rock anthems. I could already tell this was not going to be a typical match day experience.

 The game itself was worth a watch: St. Pauli emphatically brushing their visitors Energie Cottbus aside with a 3-0 victory. However, it was the ultras who put on the real show, suppling an unrelenting soundtrack comprising of reworked classics from songsmiths ranging from KC & The Sunshine Band to Bonnie Tyler. Beginning when the first players emerged from the home team's dressing room to begin their warm-up, and not ceasing until the very last victorious hero had left the field of play, they provided constant vocal encouragement. A display of support that any ultra would be approving of.

I was unable to obtain the relevant permissions to film inside the stadium, thanks to the media company who were covering the match and their unreasonable financial demands in return for the privilege. That, however, didn't stop me returning home with hours of material to be used in a way I haven't quite figured out yet. But, for as long as Ultra Culture is in its production phase I'll be looking to span the continent, watching football. So, to be honest, I'm in no great rush.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Albania: Hidden Gems & Mercedes-Benz (Part 2)

On a day that had a distinctly Sunday-like feeling, and that actually (now I think about it) was a Sunday, I left Tirana on a bus bound for Berat: The City of a Thousand Windows, The City of Two Thousand Steps, The Museum City, The City of Lots of Names. Tucked away in a mountainous region of central Albania, Berat has none of Tirana's vibrancy, but all of the warmth. Upon arrival it was eerily quiet; only a few lonesome men shuffling down the main street and stray cats basking in the sunshine. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion. Even the river couldn't be bothered.

According to an Albanian legend that I have absolutely no reason to doubt, the Osum River which flows through Berat was formed by the tears of a local girl mourning the death of a giant who died fighting some other giant. Subsequently, the perished giant turned into a mountain. On top of this mountain now stands a two-and-a-half-thousand year-old castle that, though tired-looking, crumbly and everything else you'd expect an age-old castle to be, still has people residing within its walls; in homes that date back to the 13th century.

Unfortunately, here, just like most of Albania, they are lacking an effective waste disposal solution, meaning some of the ancient decaying turrets double up as rubbish tips. Down the hill, towards the more modern part of the city, are the graceful, white window-happy houses of the Ottoman era that earned Berat one of its nicknames. When you think about it, a thousand windows isn't an incredible number for a city to boast, but you get the sentiment.

The preserved Ottoman-era buildings of Berat © Ryan Chapman
After a comforting dose of English football, having watched the North London Derby in a dark and dingy betting shop with more televisions than Berat has windows, I emerged into the early evening and witnessed something quite bizarre. Almost the entire population of Berat spilled out of their homes and headed to the main street to partake in the traditional xhiro, which happens every single night, at roughly a quarter of an hour to sunset.

The xhiro has it's roots in communist times, when entertainment options were somewhat limited, and so walking and talking became the most popular social activity. All they've done is come outside for fresh air, chit-chat and a bit of a wander, and there's a lovely warm atmosphere as news of the day is shared and pleasantries are exchanged with friends, family members and acquaintances. Kids drive pedal cars, weaving in and out of the crowds, whilst old men play chess on upturned cardboard boxes and street vendors sell flutes of pumpkin seeds to anyone who fancies a snack. Mostly, though, people are just walking back and forth, up and down the main street ad infinitum. Well, not really ad infinitum, just until bed time.

After a couple of days in Berat, lazing around the hostel, picking the sweetest of grapes off countless vines, exploring the squeaky cobbled streets, but mostly lazing around with the never ending supply of grapes, it was time to head to the coast. There were whispers through the travellers' not so grape-abundant  grapevine of unspoilt, remote and deserted beaches better than anything else in Europe: a real backpacker's paradise. So, I eagerly packed everything I could find that I thought might be mine and, feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, I boarded a bus - possibly the oldest Mercedes yet - and headed west.

A deserted beach near Dhërmi with Corfu on the horizon © Ryan Chapman

As I watched the world go by from the bus window it was easy to forget I was in Europe, passing through scenes more synonymous with South America or Asia: a bustling village market where women in traditional dress carried dead chickens by their necks; Patos-Marinza, the biggest onshore oil-field in Europe, scaring the landscape for as far as you can see in every direction with oil-wells and other industrial eyesores; winding mountain roads where a lapse in concentration could quickly become a fatal drop. Five or so hours later, after a particularly long ascent, we emerged from the clouds and were welcomed by a view of Dhërmi, a village way down below by the turquoise coloured waters of the Ionian Sea.

Every so often when I travel I come across a place that makes me so immeasurably happy I wonder why on earth I would ever leave. The hostel-style campsite I found, a mile down the coast from Dhërmi, is one such place. It was indeed a backpacker's paradise and offered everything I could possibly want: a comfortable bed, hammocks strung between trees, warm-ish showers and a bar. To top it all, it was incredibly cheap.

I rented a roomy ready-pitched tent in a shady spot, with a foam mattress and fresh bedding and two meals per day included, all for less money per night than a pint of cider and a packet of crisps at my local pub back home. I fell asleep each night to the sound of waves lapping up against the shore and woke every morning to glorious sunshine and a salt water bath: 'Home' couldn't have felt any further away.

The sun setting into the Ionian Sea © Ryan Chapman

Days were wiled away on isolated, picture-perfect beaches, playing card games, dice games and games of run-like-a-lunatic-into-the-sea. In those moments I wanted for nothing that couldn't be fetched from a fridge. Nights began with spellbinding sunsets which gave way to spectacularly star-filled skies unlike anything I'd ever seen. It didn't take many shooting stars before I ran clean out of wishes.

Sometimes there would be no more than a handful of people to a mile of coast-line. In stark contrast, just on the horizon and within a fitter person's swimming distance of Dhërmi, is Corfu: the package holiday capital of Europe. Another world. I couldn't help but feel self-righteous about the fact that, here I was, just several miles away, in such a relative paradise. No postcard stands, no fake designer brands, no beauty-spot turned tourist-trap, no shops selling tacky over-priced crap. Not least, no rowdy Brits disrupting the peace. Not even me.

Albania is one of Europe's last remaining frontiers of adventurous travel. Only since the early 1990's, since the fall of the communism, have foreigners been able to enter freely. It offers the backpacker a unique and challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, travel experience. Albania has emerged from its dark age and even brighter days are on the horizon. If you want to experience it before the inevitable tourism boom I suggest you go now.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Albania: Hidden Gems & Mercedes-Benz (Part 1)

Here's everything I knew about Albania before I went: I knew the capital was Tirana and that the roads were a nightmare. I knew they had a communist dictator in power for much of the 20th century and I knew they had a famously eccentric king in the 1920's called King Zog (as if I could forget a name like that!) who, I later learnt, survived 55 assassination attempts before fleeing to London with stolen gold which he exchanged for accommodation at the Ritz. I also knew draught beer was cheaper than bottled water. I couldn't wait to go.

I arrived overland from Macedonia on a bus from another era and was held up for two hours at the border. It took the border guards about 5 minutes to collect everyone's passport and perhaps 10 minutes to carry out the relevant checks. As far as I could tell, the rest of the time was spent having a jolly good catch up over coffee, reading the paper, finishing the crossword puzzle, and walking the dog.

Finally, our ancient bus was permitted to continue its way along the winding mountain roads, grunting up steep inclines as it went and negotiating twists and turns like an old master. 20 minutes down the road, the driver stopped for dinner at a road-side cafe. A dinner consisting of three courses, with a coffee to wash it all down. This was my first experience of the phenomena known as 'Albania time'; 4 hours in to the journey and we had traveled about 35 miles. Needless to say, after a long, bumpy afternoon, just as the sun was setting, I was pleased to see the urban sprawl of Tirana.

Dull communist-era buildings given technicolour makeovers in Tirana © Ryan Chapman

Tirana has the friendliness and warmth of a village contrasted by the chaotic vibrancy you'd expect from a capital city. The streets are dangerous, but not in a don't-carry-too-much-cash-in-case-you-get-mugged way, more in a watch-your-step way. You're far more likely to trip on the disastrous pavements or fall down a cover-less manhole than be a victim of violent crime. There are hazards and holes everywhere. The city is being modernised at an exponential rate, but there are still families living in heart-wrenching poverty right on the edge of the centre; in rows of simple tarpaulin shelters squeezed together alongside busy roads. Just a stone's throw away, in complete juxtaposition, those with money frequent the hip cafes and somewhat pretentious bars of the Blloku area of town. An area that, up until 1991, was strictly reserved for the dictator at the time, Enver Hoxha. No ordinary folk allowed. 

Hoxha was a devout Stalinist and ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1941 until his death in 1985. He was so communist in fact that he fell out with the Russians in the 1960's because they were too liberal for his liking. He then buddied up with Chairman Mao's China until they, much to his horror, invited President Nixon to visit Beijing. So he cut all ties and settled on being ally-less. Paranoid of over-land invasion he had hundreds of thousands of (some say as many as 700,000) igloo shaped concrete bunkers built around the country, preparing the land for a war that never came.

They are virtually impossible to destruct and litter the countryside to this day, most having found new purposes as rubbish dumps, but some as small coffee shops or blank canvases for artists to decorate. They are Hoxha's concrete legacy and a reminder of a time when being caught listening to a foreign radio station would land you a 10 year sentence working in the chrome mines. Reminders are everywhere.

The biggest reminder of all, and the most expensive construction in communist times, is located smack-bang in the centre of Tirana: the now dilapidated concrete pyramid that was designed by Hoxha's daughter in memory of her father. Looking at it now, it's easy to imagine she was five years-old at the time, armed with a box of crayons and boundless scribbly enthusiasm. Perhaps surprisingly, the government's recent plans to demolish the eyesore have been met by fierce opposition from people who consider it a part of their history, rather than merely a symbol of the former regime. What it is, actually, is Tirana's only interesting building. If there's another one, I missed it.

Tirana's controversial Pyramid © Ryan Chapman

The 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule in Albania and sparked a new era for the country: the era of the Mercedes-Benz. Permitted to own cars for the first time, it seems all Albanians got together and collectively opted to buy second-hand Mercs. Hoxha had liked them, and this had clearly rubbed off on the population. Not only are they a status symbol, they are also reliable and able to handle the atrocious pothole-riddled roads.

Perhaps also, maybe, there's a huge Mafia-run stolen car ring that targets Mercs in Western Europe which are then brought back to Albania and re-registered in Tirana on a 'no questions asked' basis. Like I said; maybe, just maybe. However it happened, the sheer number of Mercedes-Benz vehicles on the road struck me immediately. Every bus, every van and almost every car. Everything from robust 1970's war-horses to the more slick models of this century. According to one source, as many as 80% of all cars registered in Albania are Mercs. It's an incredible statistic. 

While foreign cars are welcomed with open arms, fast-food outlets certainly are not. It's refreshing to walk around a city and not be confronted by the same old American chains around every corner. Actually though, they're all there in spirit, just in Albanian imitation form. A restaurant called Kolonet has a McDonalds inspired yellow and red logo and offers an almost identical array of burgers and greasy fries, with just one key difference: there is table service. People in this part of the world do not like to be rushed at dinner time and the American interpretation of acceptable restaurant etiquette (eat, then get the hell out) does not go down well here.

When the first McDonalds restaurant opened in nearby Serbia they had to employ people to hurry customers along once they'd finished, to stop them socialising or letting their bodies digest the food. So Albanian's have done it their way and these clones are everywhere. My favourite of all is the KFC rip-off. The logo is almost identical to that of their Kentucky fried counterparts, except they've changed the 'K' to an 'A' and called themselves Albanian Fried Chicken. It's genius! And that's not even the laziest or most blatant; instead of Burger King and Pizza Hut Tirana is home to both Burger Hut and Pizza King. What a crazy topsy-turvy world Albanians are living in.

Albanian Fried Chicken © Ryan Chapman

Albania is full of delightful little culture shocks like this. Just little things that make you smile, or incidents that make you do a double take. Whilst enjoying some drinks with a group from the hostel in one of Blloku's bars, a young boy approached selling something that looked like it could be chewing gum from a small cardboard tray. After politely declining a purchase a guy I was with offered him some nuts from the bowl on our table. The boy looked at them longingly, smiled a wry smile, but then shook his head. Maybe he doesn't like nuts, we thought. Maybe he's been told not to take food from strangers, we doubted. The boy shook his head again, this time a little more enthusiastically, with his gaze still fixed upon the bowl and that's when we remembered: Albanians shake their heads to mean 'yes', and nod their heads to mean 'no'. Of course the boy wanted some, he just considered it too impolite to help himself. "Thank you" said the boy, as we placed some nuts in his open hand, "It's ok" we replied, whilst nodding our heads, thus probably confusing him just as much as he'd initially confused us.

I liked Tirana, but I was keen to move on. I had heard on the traveler's grapevine of unspoilt, remote and deserted beaches better than anything else in Europe. True hidden gems just a handful of hours away by bus. But first I headed to the mountain town of Berat. A place where everyone's favourite hobby is strolling and not even AFC have infiltrated...

to be continued.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Young Countries, Ancient History

Crossing the much disputed Serbia-Kosovo border, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with elderly nuns and observing the antiquated rural lifestyle from the dusty window, it began to feel like I was diverting from the beaten path; the only tourist aboard the bus, venturing down the road less traveled. Kosovo looked peaceful and the pace seemed about as slow as my progress. It was hard to imagine the atrocities that plagued the area so recently.

The Kosovo War happened at around the time I began taking an interest in the world. In 1999, following Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo region's Albanian majority, NATO intervened, bombing Belgrade for 79 days until what was Yugoslavia reluctantly surrendered. I remember paying a lot of attention to the news at the time; not quite understanding the sensitive political situation, but being alarmed all the same.

The UN took care of the region, nursing it back to relative health, until the fully independent Republic of Kosovo was formed in 2008. Today, Kosovo is a young nation trying to find its way. For a capital city, Pristina is somewhat charmless, but despite the crippling underemployment its population are as optimistic as they are youthful. In fact, Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe with a median age of just 26, almost 15 years less than the UK. As a 27 year-old it's the only European country I can go to and be older than most people. This is not something I was fond of dwelling on. On the plus side, thanks to the abundance of 20-somethings, there is a thriving bar scene.

Day time exploration was severely limited due to rain. Pristina is stark and grey, and the overcast skies leaking relentless drizzle complimented its charmlessness. It was perfect weather for visiting what was once voted the ugliest building in the world: Built in 1982 and used briefly as the Serbian Army's headquarters in the late 90's, the national library (minus a whole bunch of Albanian literature destroyed by Milosevic) is a sort of vision of the future you hope is too distant to witness.

Ugly? Interesting? Kosovo's National Library

Traveling onto Ohrid, a small lakeside city in the west of Macedonia (who themselves broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991) required a bus change in Skopje, the capital city. It's a good thing I don't mind long-distance travel. Armed with enough crisps to open a tuck shop, I look out of the window for anything from two minutes to two hours, until the scenery isn't interesting anymore or the sun goes down. I listen to music on shuffle, until I'm frustrated by the lack of Chili Peppers and then I usually wind up listening to old Russell Brand pod-casts, until I'm unable to stifle laughter any longer. Sometimes, just occasionally, I fall asleep.

Whilst traveling through Montenegro a couple of years ago (not a million miles from where I am now) I was enchanted by the wonders of Kotor; a town located on the bay of the same name. I had in my mind that Ohrid would be like Kotor just without the crowds, naively assuming that because Ohrid isn't on cruise ship itineraries (logistically tricky given its lakeside location) it wouldn't be on the holiday-makers' radar. I was forgetting of course that Macedonians and Albanians might like a holiday from time to time. In other words, Ohrid wasn't quite the peaceful retreat I had visualised, instead bustling with families seeking sun-kissed memories and ice cream.

Lake Ohrid © Ryan Chapman

Don't get me wrong, Ohrid is beautiful, and I spent some happy afternoons getting lost in the old town; stopping frequently for coffee at quaint little cafes overlooking the mountain-flanked lake. I also took an interest in churches, which is not something I usually deem worthy of my time. I mean, I appreciate that they're generally quite lovely to look at from the outside, but I seldom venture inside unless it's to get up a tower to take in a view. Given the huge historic significance of Ohrid's religious sites I was motivated to explore them. There is archaeological evidence that suggests Ohrid is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and the city was home to the continent's very first university, opened here in the 10th century. There's a strong sense of times gone by. Ohrid is also where the Cyrillic alphabet was created; in use today across 13 countries, baffling users of the Latin script for over a thousand years.

On my last full day in Ohrid I planned to hike a fair distance around the lake, but slept deep into the afternoon and woke up with a hangover that stank of tequila and consequently, managed only a stroll. I stopped for lunch, accidentally ordered an olive-heavy salad with a sparkling water, and decided that the day could only get better from here. Later, down at what can only be described as a grass verge, but what is sign-posted as a 'beach', I sat myself next to a speaker vibrating with the bass of commercial house music and somehow managed to fall asleep; dreaming of travel in a less developed land, without the hoards. Somewhere like, I don't know, Albania for example. I'll let you know how that goes...!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Ruin Pubs & Floating Clubs

I decided that I wanted to go to Albania for no other reason than it came up in conversation one day and I realised it was a part of the world I didn't know much about. So I booked a flight immediately. Naturally, I flew to Budapest, a thousand miles to the north, with the intention of traveling overland through Hungary, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. That's what I'm doing now; currently in Belgrade struggling immensely with a half-Cyrillic keyboard and still half-cut after a night of disgustingly cheap beer and just plain disgusting shots of Rakia.

Rewind exactly three weeks: I arrived in Budapest with a couple of days to settle in prior to the massive week-long island party that is Sziget Festival. Even after a dozen visits to Hungary's capital, just as yet another Ryan Air flight arrives on time, and the celebratory fanfare proudly bellows from the plane's P.A. system, I am captivated. Not even a long passport control queue can dampen my mood.

Sziget Festival was born in the early 90's as a small student event, inspired by Woodstock. Today it is one of Europe's largest music festivals and often likened to Burning Man due to its super-chilled and open-minded vibes. Also like Burning Man, temperatures were desert-like with highs of 40 degrees. The heat provided an ideal excuse for daytime laziness; leisurely exploring the island, witnessing street acts such as the Always Drinking Marching Band and sipping pints at the beach with DJs spinning electro beats. It would be too easy for me to say my festival highlight was Blur or Franz Ferdinand on the main stage or one of the many big-name DJs at the party arena, but the fact is, Sziget is a festival which charms the most with its endless surprises.

The Budapest Party Hostels crew painting Sziget florescent yellow

After a week like Sziget it would have been easy to slip into festival come-down mode. However, by surrounding myself with awesome people, I ensured the come-down never reared its head. I rediscovered the city as a tourist once again, and fell in love with it all for the umpteenth time. Budapest is now well and truly on the backpackers' trail but it feels less touristy than other hotspots. Still, tales of loose booze-fuelled madness that rival Prague and Krakow are on the lips of party-orientated travelers everywhere, *shameless plug alert* for which the Budapest Party Hostels chain are usually responsible. It's impossible not to get caught up in the whirlwind of indulgence.

The city's best night spots are hidden away behind inconspicuous wooden doors and down unassuming alley ways. Derelict courtyards turned into boozy jungles and forgotten warehouse buildings brought to life with quirky mayhem. These are the most enticing drinking dens, known as ruin pubs. Oozing with character, they're what makes Budapest's nightlife so special, and part of the reason I just can't keep myself away.

My penultimate day in Hungary coincided with St. Istváns Day, the big national holiday commemorating the country's first king. I'd never been around for it before so I was keen to follow the crowds and see how Hungarians embraced the day. As I expected, most events were somewhat religious, with large numbers congregating outside St. Istváns Cathedral for the ceremony which included hymns, and bizarrely, the parading of St. István's mummified hand, enclosed inside a glass box. After that, everyone headed down to the river for a firework display of epic proportions. St. István would have been proud. At least his withered hand remains to witness the commotion.

Chain Bridge fireworks, Budapest © Ryan Chapman
After eighteen days it was time to leave Budapest and head south to Belgrade, Serbia's gritty capital, several hundred miles downriver. I made it to the station just in time to exchange my last remaining Forints for a manky looking roll and catch the lunchtime train. Nine hours later I arrived, hungry and tired, but ready for Belgrade's extraordinary nightlife. While Budapest has its ruin pubs, unlike anything you'll find anywhere else in the world, Belgrade has it's own unique feature: floating river clubs, on boats and barges, sprawled along the bank, each catering to different tastes, from live traditional Serbian music to pounding techno, and everything in between. They remain busy, bouncing, and somehow floating, until the sun rises. It seems, what with both cities straddling the banks of the Danube, there must be something in the water.

Though it must be said Belgrade isn't the most attractive city, with it's stark communist-era architecture and scattered war-torn buildings, there is something beautiful in its soul. Serbs show a lot of warmth, both to visitors and each other. Especially to each other. Wandering the streets you can't help but notice an abundance of coupley public affection. Whether it be a long, passionate kiss while waiting for a bus or holding hands across a candle-lit street-side table-for-two, Belgradians are full of love; and if the sickly-sweet romance doesn't make you want to choke, the cigarette smoke will.

Serbs smoke like no others. At times it can feel like a scene from an old film. For example, during a brief wander through the offices at Red Star Belgrade's stadium (I should say here, part of the reason for visiting Belgrade was to conduct an interview for a film I'm making about European football fans, and I was in the offices negotiating stadium access. See: Ultra Culture) I was struck by the absurdness of employees smoking at their desks. Sure, Serbia does have smoking bans in place, but they are widely ignored. Hardly a surprise when 50% of the population are regular smokers, making Serbians officially the heaviest smokers in the world.

Leaving the big smoke behind, I'll be heading out of Belgrade tomorrow, and I feel like my adventure is just beginning. Though I'm unsure where I'll end up precisely, it'll be the first time on the trip I'll be visiting somewhere completely new, and the child-like excitement is building...

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Film: Ultra Culture

Ultra Culture is a film about Europe's loudest and proudest football fans; known across the continent as 'ultras'.

The ultra movement was born in Italy during the 1950's. Groups of young fans began to congregate inside stadiums and they revolutionised what it meant to support a football team. They set about flying flags, banging drums and lighting hand-held signal flares, all in an attempt to create an atmosphere that would hopefully inspire their team to victory. The ideas spread across Europe and today most football clubs, in most countries, have a band of loyal ultras to call their own.

Aside from terrace choreography, ultras are often associated with football related violence. The defining line between an ultra and a hooligan is often blurred. For some, being an ultra is all about wearing your team's colours with pride and making yourself heard. For others, the passion spills over into bloodshed. This film will attempt to understand how the ultra movement has evolved differently around Europe and why violence is so ingrained within it. 

My first stop is Belgrade, capital of Serbia, and home of Red Star. Once a powerhouse of European football, Red Star Belgrade have struggled since financial instability followed the split of Yugoslavia in the 1990's. Despite a diminished standard of football and limited success, their fans have stuck by them.

Red Star's Delije in action
Red Star boast a huge fan-base that spreads across the Balkans and consists of numerous ultra groups collectively known as Delije, whose motto roughly translates as 'Red Star is life, the rest are little things'. They're a notorious bunch. I'll be talking to Bojan, a life-long fan and Belgrade resident, who will offer an insight into the motivations of Red Star's ultras.

I first met Bojan back in 2010 and accompanied him to a Europa League Qualifying match against Bratislava at the Red Star Stadium. The atmosphere was intense and unlike anything you'd witness during an all-too-sanitised match day in England, for a whole variety of reasons. It was raw and intimidating and it left a lasting impression on me.

Red Star's fans are certainly not lacking in passion, but for me, Borussia Dortmund fans (from the west of Germany) take the crown for their sheer dedication to large-scale displays of choreography. In the winter of 2011 I was at the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund's home ground, the day before they were due to host Wolfsburg in an ordinary mid-season Bundesliga clash. The stadium was already a-buzz, some 24 hours before kick-off; a group of ultras were preparing something that would be anything other than ordinary. Flares and pyrotechnics might be banned in German stadiums, but there are still plenty of factors that encourage a vibrant atmosphere. In Dortmund's case, the most important ingredient of all is the Südtribüne.

a shot from the film I made in Dortmund in support of the Football Supporters Federation's campaign for the introduction of safe-standing areas in British stadiums: Make A Stand 
The Südtribüne (South Stand) is the biggest standing terrace in Europe, accommodating 24,000 particularly noisy fans behind one goal. Collectively, they are known as the Yellow Wall. The Dortmund fans inside the stadium the night before the Wolfsburg match were putting finishing touches to an enormous banner and arranging thousands of pieces of material that would form an impressive mural when revealed in unison. What had taken an extraordinary amount of time and effort to prepare was displayed for less than a few minutes before kick-off, and then discarded of. These are the lengths ultras frequently go to in a bid to be the best, and ultimately, gain respect from other club's fans.

Dortmund will be another stop on a production that'll have me spanning Europe, meeting fans of clubs from across the continent, hearing the stories first-hand and piecing together what it means to be an ultra.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

South Westerly Quests

On two recent occasions I've ventured to England's South West. Firstly, to the wonderfully picturesque city of Bath, and then most recently, much further South West - like really South West, as far South West as you can go before falling off the edge of Britain - to Cornwall: land of the pasty and where men still doff their hats at you in passing.

Bath © Ryan Chapman
Towards the end of April I traveled to Bath with my dear, sweet Mother to celebrate her birthday. We did so by way of sampling a host of locally brewed beverages in some of the city's finest watering holes. She even indulged in a birthday shot at a trendy hostel bar, though I'm not sure sickly sweet, fruity vodka is what the county of Somerset is best known for. The cider though, is exquisite.

We managed to squeeze in some touristic activities and none were as rewarding as a visit to the ancient Roman Baths that gave the city its name. There is a genuine feeling of stepping back in time; walking on the same stone slabs upon which Roman sandals padded at around the year naught. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the audio guide had narration by superstar-travelwriter Bill Bryson. So I wandered round with the handset pressed firmly to my ear pretending I was on the phone to him. It was most agreeable.

I happened to be reading a Bryson classic at the time: A Walk In The Woods, a book that I first read eons ago, and the one that had inspired me to think about walking as more than just a method of getting from A to B. The thing I love most about this book is that Bryson made me laugh out loud (there should be an acronym for that) without anything funny actually happening. It's a book about two blokes going for a hike, but I love it. It made me want to find a path through the wilderness and walk until there was no more path to follow.

To a slightly lesser extreme, that's what I did, and it has now become an annual ritual. Once a year a friend and I hike a section of England's longest National Trial: the 630-mile South West Coast Path. We go equipped with a tent, playing cards, enough jumpers to start a jumble sale and a pocket knife, along with various other basic essentials all stuffed into our backpacks. The knife is packed with accompanying visions of it facilitating survival skills such as skinning a rabbits and building a rafts, but is invariably just used to spread Philadelphia cheese over Ritz crackers. The playing cards are hardly ever used because we rarely hit the levels of boredom required to play. We walk, and walk, and walk, pitch the tent wherever takes our fancy and then remember why we hate camping as we don all eighteen jumpers and shiver ourselves to sleep, all the time trying not to think about how much our legs hurt from all the damn walking. For some reason, we enjoy it.

Cliff-top camping on the South West Coast Path, somewhere near Portreath

Over the Spring Bank Holiday, on our fifth stint, we covered the 42.8 miles of rugged Cornish coastline between the surfer's paradise of Newquay and the quaint seaside town of St. Ives. The weather was mostly good despite a particularly ferocious wind that threatened to blow us into the Atlantic, and on one occasion, a morning frost that covered the tent and gave the very realistic impression we were sleeping inside an igloo. My cheap Tesco-bought sleeping bag is not designed for these conditions!

However much I love jetting off to distance lands and leaving footprints in far-away sands, it's nice to be reminded once in while just how wonderful England is. The Cornish coast is as spectacular as any, anywhere, with the added advantage of having good old fashioned English pubs within a healthy hiking distance apart from one another. And Bath, the quintessential English city, with it's unhurried pace and surrounding rolling hills, is just perfect. So although within five minutes of typing this I'll be on sky scanner, dreaming of future foreign escapades, it's reassuring to know I have places like this on my door step.

Click below for more photos. © Ryan Chapman

Monday, 20 May 2013

Film: Cape Town's White Elephant

On a cold, grey morning in early 2012 I received a letter that brightened up the day (I don't actually remember the weather, but it was February, and I live in England, so yeah). The letter was from my university informing me that my application for a study-visit-scholarship-thing had been successful and they were part-funding a trip to South Africa for me to make a film. So over the next few months I worked on pre-production whilst constantly reminding myself that this wasn't just a free holiday. I waited until England got cold again and then headed to Cape Town in October for a month of sunshine. Oh right, yeah, and filmmaking.

You can view the film I made here: Cape Town's White Elephant

Cape Town Stadium

It wasn't my first time in South Africa. I was there for the FIFA World Cup back in 2010 and had taken my camera with me along with a vague intention of shooting something. I returned with a whole load of footage of football fans (some of which I used in White Elephant) and a pretty powerful interview with a girl named Nandipha. I had met her in the poverty-stricken township of Imizamo Yethu, near Cape Town, and she had explained how, what with all the hysteria and extravagance that surrounded the hosting of the tournament, she felt ignored and let down by her government.

I hoped one day to return to Cape Town with bigger film making ambitions; to perhaps make a film about the legacy of the World Cup. So, I was delighted when the aforementioned scholarship enabled me to do just that, and to finish what I'd started.

You'll notice that the film has nothing to do with elephants. The term white elephant refers to the stadium that was built in Cape Town especially for the tournament and what is now a severely under-utilised, and a drain of government resources. The more I researched, the more I was sure that the controversy surrounding the stadium should be the focus of the film. Therefore, the documentary questions the morality and logic of building such an expensive football arena on the doorstep of abject poverty when there were far cheaper, more popular options, all more viable in the long-term.

As I was making a film about a stadium I knew I needed plenty of shots of it. Exteriors were not a problem thanks to Signal Hill, which, although an effort to climb in the sweltering heat, provided breath-taking views of the stadium with a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Interiors, however, were not so straightforward to attain, and my requests for access to the stadium were declined, meaning I had two options: purchase stock footage, or find a way in. Stock footage was too expensive, so I devised a cunning plan.

I had lined up an interview with a Cape Town Mayoral Committee Member (basically, someone quite important) with the intention of having some fun, playing investigative film-making journalist and grilling him with difficult questions. It was arranged that I'd meet him at his office in some government building in the business district, but I sent him an e-mail asking if there was any chance the interview could instead take place inside the stadium. He replied with a yes, and so I had the access I required.

As I had cynically expected, he avoided most of my questions, instead giving well-rehearsed and vague, robotic answers, so I decided not use any of the resulting footage. However, I did manage to shoot what I needed of inside the stadium whilst 'setting up' for the interview, so the day was a success. If there's one thing I've learnt through solo filmmaking on a budget is that there's usually a way to get what you want for free if you think on your feet. Luckily, the other contributors (Nandipha, Terry and Sean, to who I owe huge thanks) were all fantastic.

Imizamo Yethu © Ryan Chapman

I spent some time in the township with Nandipha, and she was kind enough to invite me into her home and show me around. It had improved a lot since the last time I was there and she was keen to show it off. As a thank you, and in an attempt to give something back to the community, I tried to help some kids with their homework. Unfortunately, all this revealed is that 13 year olds are better at algebra than me. That same afternoon, as if glutton for punishment, I also learnt they're better at football. During a 5-aside match, throughout which I was referred to as Rooney, my pass completion rate was terrible and my accidental hand-ball to give away the penalty that lost us the game didn't go any further to impress my teammates. In my defence, the surface was uneven and I wasn't wearing the right footwear.

The experience summed up the reason I was there quite fittingly. Cape Town Stadium lay just several miles away, but it might as well have been on the moon. I was playing football on broken concrete with kids for who football represents one of very few hopes for a better life, yet it will shatter more dreams than it can ever bestow.

I just want to say a big thank you to Kevin Wilyman, and his wife Karen, without whom I would never have met Nandipha in the first place, and wouldn't have a film. Kevin runs a volunteer company in Cape Town called Volunteers Direct and they do lots of wonderful things.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Boeing, Boeing, Gone.

To start, I figured I'd write about some things that have happened this year; a sort of summary of 2013 so far. From drunken debauchery to missed flights (to which the title refers) and the joys of employment (said without a hint of sarcasm). The flame of 2012 was fading and the Christmas time festivities had barely subsided before I was off to welcome the new year in Budapest, with some of my favourite party people.

Oh, Budapest! The city of two halves. Sleepy, leafy Buda and vigorously vibrant Pest, bisected by the mighty Danube, but connected by an unrelenting zest for life. Where senses are dazzled and livers are frazzled, where people come for a weekend and never leave. My first visit was four years ago, when I came to explore a city I had heard little about. The next thing I knew, I had cancelled my other travel plans that summer, sucked in by the ride of my life at the ultimate drunkard's playground. Since that fateful trip I've returned too many times to count, seldom managing to endure more than a few months without a dose of its infectious vibes. It's fair to say, Budapest changed my life.

Budapest  © Ryan Chapman
So I was in Budapest for about a week at the turn of the year; catching up with friends, making new ones and exploiting various happy hours across the city. On my last night, with an early flight the next morning, I made the only decision that made any sense to me at the time: stay up drinking all night, dancing to the ultimate 90's play-list. Chumbawamba anybody? When the dreaded time came to leave for the airport I fell into a taxi and arrived at the terminal with just enough time for one more drink before crashing out and waking up at Stansted. This, at least, was the plan.

In reality, upon presenting my boarding pass for inspection, I was told I was 24 hours late. The week-long drinking binge had obviously had an adverse effect on my ability to keep track of days. My flight was yesterday. My immediate reaction to laugh, however, any remaining smirk was wiped cleanly from my face when I learnt how much my carelessness would cost me. Of course, I would have taken advantage of the mistake and stayed on in Budapest for a while longer had I not had a new job to start the next day. So, I did the responsible thing: I paid through the roof for a ticket on the next flight home (and then nearly missed that one, too).

I started the job as planned, as a film editor and occasional camera assistant, and it's fantastic. My office, or edit suite, or whatever you want to call it, is in a spare room of my employer's house, right in the centre of Cambridge. Location: tick. I have meals prepared for me at lunch time, a leafy garden in which to enjoy them (weather pending, obviously), and to complete the homely atmosphere, the company of a 6 year-old dog who still thinks she's a puppy. Perhaps the best thing about working for such a small production company (there's me, there's my boss, and that's it) is that there's no insufferable colleague sat near me who insists on tapping a pen against their desk for 8 solid hours a day. I'm sure every other office in the world has one of these. If yours doesn't, it's you. The best thing is that I'm freelancing, so my hours and working days are flexible, meaning I can take days off here and weeks off there in order to satisfy my wanderlust.

Berlin © Ryan Chapman

Three weeks of full-time employment were enough to deserve a trip to Berlin for a long weekend of techno music and German beer (because no where does techno like Berlin, and no where does beer like Germany). I first set eyes on Berlin in 2009 and it was love at first sight. She is impulsively edgy, tantalisingly decadent, and oozes cool; a bohemian rhapsody of eclectic energy and alluring sin. The essence of the city is encapsulated by a night at the Berghain; because if Berlin is the centre of the universe (a notion for which I would argue ferociously) then the Berghain is the centre of all existence.

Widely regarded as the best club in the world, and the capital of techno, the Berghain is a raver's paradise and worth enduring the notoriously long queues and shamelessly judgemental entry policy for. Encompassed by the enormous, bleak concrete shell of a former power station it's a black hole of limitless indulgence where you could go for a Friday night out and not return until Monday afternoon, passing your entire weekend in a haze of hedonism. The bone-rattling sound system can elevate you to altered states of consciousness by vibration alone. This is not just a nightclub.

Florence © Ryan Chapman
Against all the odds, I returned from Berlin without any flight-related drama. However, my second missed flight of the year came when I tried to leave Italy in March. I had gone over to watch England beat San Marino in a World Cup qualifier, and had decided to check out Florence while I was in the area. Florence is delightful, yet teeming with tourists. Its gallery collections might be world renowned, but no painting or sculpture is worth a queue that, without too much imagination, snakes its way out of the city limits and into the Tuscan hills. So I passed the days with red wine and aimless wandering, and the nights discovering cosy little backstreet pubs and crazy little backstreet clubs. My return flight was again at some horrific hour in the morning, so again I made the decision to stay up drinking. All was going to plan, until I feel asleep (read: passed out) on the train to the airport.

I woke up at my destination. Perfect timing! (I thought). I bolted up, grabbed my bag and headed for the exit, only to be impeded by passengers boarding the train. Now, because I'm so bloody polite, I allowed them to pass, and then watched as the train I was still very much on pulled away from the station. I checked the next stop, hoping I could backtrack, but discovered I was on the express service, non-stop to Milan (a considerable distance away). I waited until I was in the sealed compartment between the carriages before releasing a string of expletives describing, roughly, what a silly person I had been. 

I had come to terms with the fact that I'd missed the flight, and if anything, I was excited by the unexpected opportunity to explore a new city. But then along came the ticket inspectors. No big deal, I thought, I'll just explain my situation, joke with them about what an idiot I am, and they'll let me off. No such luck. I tried to stall them for as long as I possibly could, whilst claiming my innocence, but when police got involved I was left with little option but to concede my passport details and accept the extortionately high fine. 

Thanks to Tren Italia, I will now think twice about being so damn courteous on public transport. Move aside, I'm coming through!