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...