Kosovo

It is but a short drive from Skopje into the ‘new’ country of Kosovo, now recognised by most countries. Their recent history is off putting. Indeed it was only 10 years ago that ‘people from outside’ attacked Prizren, long a multi-faith and multi-lingual town with Turkish, Serbian and Albanian in common discourse. The locals were critical of the German KFOR troops for not managing to stop the burning of Serbian houses and churches. Previous to that, the Serbs had been the aggressors. Now the new flag of Kosovo is everywhere along with the striking red and black Albanian flag. The country uses the Euro.

The tower at the Kosovo battlefields

Kosovo battlefields tower

However the Serbians feel under siege. It is their heartland in myth and legend. The battle of Kosovo ‘of the Black birds’ is presented as a triumph when it was, in fact, a defeat by the Ottomans. The leaders of both sides were killed. Lazar, the leader of the Christian forces, was made into a Serbian Orthodox saint. Slobodan Milosevic was only too happy to take on the mantle when he spoke on the battlefield in 1989. There was another battle in the 1440s, which ensured (as Mohacs in western Hungary, where the young King of Hungary and Bohemia died) Ottoman possession of the whole landmass until the early 20th century.

Go to Pristina. Little to see of the Ottoman past but good book stalls line the wide, rather Soviet, streets. The food is delicious. I recommend the local beer and the strangely named, Stone Castle, wines. Avoid the museum with the history of the troubles which will only serve to perpetuate them. Instead, see the Emin Gjiku Complex. home of the Gjiolli family, rich Albanian traders. The Communists took the house in the 50s.

Gracanica monastery

Grancanica monastery

Grancanica Monastery, now with nuns, is considered one of the most important architectural monuments in the Balkans. The exterior does not prepare for the soaring architecture and complexity of the interior. On the first visit, four years ago, I noted “wonderful with an aged nun speaking hesitating educated English”. This time a combination of ‘no photos’ and a lady with hoover plus mop pursuing us, the only visitors, almost spoilt the morning. The churches are tiny, even if by royal command as was the case in many through Macedonia and Serbia, but need concentration and no hoovers. Stand in the middle and wait until the frescoed surfaces and the architecture become clear. Usually the story and the positioning is the same, which is helpful. How different to great Cathedrals in the West. Salisbury can be taken in at a glance so too really Westminster Abbey, even Durham Cathedral. A different mystery.

So under siege the community felt, I was not allowed to know how many nuns were there.

The Stone Bridge, Prizren

The Stone Bridge, Prizren

Prizren has changed in four years since I last visited. The potholes are filled and hotels are plentiful and there are new roads planned to the city. It is charming in spite of the destruction of houses and churches a mere 10 years ago. At the time the German KFOR troops were much criticised for not doing more to stop the destruction.

 

 

Patriarchate of Pecs

Patriarchate of Pecs

Just under an hour’s drive from Prizren lies Pec in the beautiful Rugova Gorge. This, built by priests, was the seat of the Patriarchate, the centre of the Serbian Orthodox faith. It consists of 4 small churches adjoined. Each church a donation from an archbishop. Small and difficult to read at first, but a must visit. We were made welcome by a novice from Montenegro. There are remnants of the early foundations, now surrounded by rosebeds.

It is about 20 minutes to the Decani monastery. Unlike Pec, this was a kingly foundation. It has the relics of King Stefan Uros 111 d. 1331 His relics lie in the naos. The shrine is opened every Thursday evening at 19.00 for the service. His body, remarkably preserved, is now covered with glass. However, last Thursday, the glass came off for a visiting monk form Mount Athos. A sweet perfume came from thence Father Peter remarked.

Decani Monastery

Decani Monastery

We visited the monastery in the afternoon through the Italian army checkpoints and razor wire. There were Albanians mending the entry arch. The monastery lies in a rich valley farmed by the monks. The exterior, newly cleaned, is of striated marbles. Wonderful. The sculptural decoration could be from Brindisi and is stylistically archaic for the early 14th century. It seems solid and quietly rich. The interior is ethereal. The frescoes were painted by masters, the floor once, in part, inlaid with gold. The stark, white marble columns were painted too. But the richness of colour and the iconography take over. We were guided around by Father Peter again from Montenegro. With his encouragement we returned that evening for the service, which started sharp at 7 p.m. Women to the left. The monks in the naos were singing from a 19th century printed book given by the Czar of Russia. This ritual to venerate the saint had gone on for 700 years in spite of the Turks and an attack from the KLA in 2004. Edith Durham, in 1904, described the monastry as lying ‘precariously on the bloody edge of things’. The monks’ polyphony sounded at times like a sea shanty and then changed to a slower tempo before re charging again. Much crossing. But as the light faded all I could see were the figures painted in the top of the dome. Incense followed. At the end of this remarkable evening we lined up to kiss the relic of the King. I decided to follow suit – I am a Scottie Prottie but the belief was so genuine and with the beauty of the architecture, frescoes and singing it would have been churlish not to venerate this saint. Father Peter marking a cross on my forehead with holy oil spoke of body and soul. The priest joined us later and spoke of his work there in Decani and that he was not frightened of dying. I believe him. I felt that the situation was not so threatening than even four years ago. But you can never tell. Our service, so regular, so remarkable, so beautiful, in the aetheistic 21st century is extraordinary. We thumbed through the visitors’ book for the late 20s to 30s hoping to see Paddy Leigh Fermor’s signature. Russian Czar supported the monastery and is considered a martyr. The also had a relic of the True Cross on the altar. The only icon we saw outside the church had been made recently and the gilding done by our guide ‘as his hobby’.

I wish there was a book, in English, with good photographs on the patronage of King Milutan who built and decorated over 40 monasteries throughout old Serbia, encouraging some of the greatest fresco painters in these fine buildings. Innovative iconography set alive with elegant elongated figures echoing western painting in the early 14th century. It was all paid for out of the silver mines in his Serbian Kingdom. A few years later Charles IV of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor was commissioning the most remarkable art of the 14th century in the West and again with wealth from silver mines. For both kings it was the ‘Saxon’ miners who came and did the dirty work.

Hotels

  • Hotel Prishtina, Str. “Pashko Vasa” no.20-Qyteza Pejton 10000 Prishtina  +381 38 22 32 84
  • Hotel Centrum, C-4, Rr. Bujtinat, tel. +377 44 15 33 45

Restaurants

  • Vila Gërmia Gërmia Park, tel. +381 38 51 77 41 http://www.vilagermia.com.
    Just outside Pristina with views over fields and forests and a wonderful atmosphere. The house specials include steak and mixed grill, but there’s also fish, pizza and local fare.
  • Besimi Beska, Rr Shadervanit 56Prizren + 381 29 233 668
    Delicious food in a centrally located restaurant where you can watch the ducks swimming in the inner garden while you eat.

Agents

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Skopje – June 2014

Skopje 2014 new bridge

Skopje 2014

There are many reasons to go to Skopje, capital of Macedonia. I would put on the list the Byzantine churches, the Ottoman architecture, a rich collection of costumes in the National Museum, the unique donations of both buildings and art from the international community after the earthquake of 1963, the food, the buzz, the Stone Bridge and people watching.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

However, the fruits of a new development project ‘Skopje 2014’ make you feel a voyeur, looking at the seamy side of a life you have much admired but you now see as flawed. The actual plans for this pop-up display had been around for some time when Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia.

It is the Vegas effect of these new buildings which makes you want to shield your eyes. Along the River Vardar vast white palaces, triumphal arches and fountains have risen over the last four years. It is the embellishments, the sculpture and the iron work, that are so grippingly bad. Not one but two bridges, covered in bronze muscular men going nowhere, run parallel to the splendid old Stone Bridge. Alexander and Philip of Macedon rise above you – every one on steroids including Bucephalus. There is not one but three cement schooners in the river to set sail and, one presumes, attack Greece. Did the idea come from the Ukraine? The people must love it all as they have just re-elected Nikola Gruevski, the instigator of all this nonsense. Bet Alex Salmond is jealous.

Lamentation - St Pantelejmon

Lamentation – St Pantelejmon

Two of the most beautiful churches in Macedonia are a taxi ride away from the city centre. Indeed St. Pantelejmon at Nerezi has frescoes of such beauty and piercing emotion they are unmatched in the 12th century. This was an Imperial commission. Regal too is the tiny, 14th century, S. Andrea, on the edge of the Matka Gorge. The settings here are lovely. There is a good restaurant with delicious local wine next door to the church.

Matka Gorge and reservoir

Matka Gorge and reservoir

 

The ‘old’ town of Skopje was hardly touched by the 1963 earthquake. Those Turks knew a thing or two, although General Piccolomini in 1689 did his best to be destructive. There is the bazaar where you can buy the famous filigree silver and finely wrought leather slippers or a wedding dress covered in glitter. As a country on vital trading routes, hans, hammams, mosques and baths, which the Turkish government has done much to support, are plentiful.

 

Contemporary Art Museum

Contemporary Art Museum

 

Go also for the post-earthquake city designed by the Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, whose fine schemes are now hidden by this recent work. Look at the prefab timber houses sent by Finland. Britain donated a theatre and three Polish architects designed the Museum of Contemporary Art. For this, 1800 painters and sculptors, including Picasso, Calder and Moore, donated work. They came from 65 countries. I am not aware of another such donation. There are only NGOs now. How the young Macedonian architects and sculptors of today must wish they had been given a chance to show their skills for project ‘Skopje 2014’.

Hotels

  • The Best Western, Gjuro Strugar Street11, Skopje 1000  +389 2 3289111
    Has the advantage of being central but don’t eat there.

Restaurants

  • Pivnica An set inside the old Turkish inn of Kapan
    Very good mix of Macedonian food.
  • Old City House, St. Pajko Maalo 14, Skopje +389 23131376
    Wonderful food in old Ottoman house.
  • Restaurant Kanjon in Matka Gorge.
    Fresh trout and light crisp dry white wine.

Agents

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cuba

Those who know the island urge “go before it is spoilt”. What is it about our fascination with failed states that have kept their people in poverty and fear? It is a sort of voyage voyeurism. What indeed will happen after the bullying Castro brothers depart? Possibly more of the same. Such power is self-perpetuating. For the same reasons Zimbabwe won’t see much of a change after Mugabe. But then Zimbabwe does not have Key West 70 kilometres away.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The Prado, Habana

That said, the sheer joyous generosity of the Cubans, under their beautiful skies, will be difficult to change. They have had to be resilient and resourceful in spite of a dependency on remittance money. Beyond salsa and mojitos, the grandeur of their now shabby buildings and fine townscapes is evident. The surprise comes in the countryside. Here, mountain and plain might have been painted by Edward Lear. The elegance of the colonial towns is not just reflected in the town houses of the sugar barons but the buildings that demonstrate a respect for culture and human scale. Fine memorial sculpture is not reserved for the interesting cemeteries but it is the street furniture too. It is easy to get a sense of the sheer quality of their contemporary art and music making.

We booked late and therefore were not privy to a cheap option on Virgin but flew Air France via Paris; this was also the reason that our first four nights were in different towns. Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, before two days bone fishing with a fly rod in the sea at Cayo Coco before returning to the capital.

The drive to Santa Clara took over four hours, the taxi was late and the driver brought along his girlfriend. I don’t blame her. Transport between the towns is scarce. Occasional trains, the odd bus and sinister-looking covered lorries which act as privatised buses crammed to their canvas roofs with customers. The roads are otherwise empty. Yes, the famed, wonderful fifties cars and motorbikes with side cars abound, but for locals on an average of €23 a month, petrol even when subsidised from Venezuela, is impossible. The oil comes in to be refined in Cuba in exchange for their doctors, engineers and teachers.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Brahmin cattle

Raul Castro has permitted some individuals to lease land. They call it privatized but the government still own it. Sugar cane, Brahmin cattle, goats, horses and mangos seem the main crops in central Cuba. Our Habana guide could not believe reports of the gleaming cattle. Meat is on ration as are sanitary towels.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The main square, Santa Clara

Santa Clara had seen fierce fighting in 1958 between Batista’s forces and those of Che Guevara. The lady who let us into the Cultural Institute was 11 when it happened. – These civilized buildings seem a common feature in the towns based on sugar bonanza in the 1880s grand staircase and gilded neo baroque.

Dance class

Dance class

Dance classes for the new Carlos Acostas were happening in every corner of the building. The church was arising from ruin with a new vault and a service going on in a side chapel. Horse buses (max weight 500 kilos) a common feature.

 

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Monument to Che Guevara

The memorial to Che was just outside the town. Rather good. The exhibit was dreary, his Parker pen and doctor’s white coat, guns, etc. Our hotel was near. It comprised lodges, groupie with poor food. It had some lovely hens scratching around the gardens. Eggs are rationed too. However, the fashion show by the pool in the evening was sheer delight. Beautiful models showing the fine mix of races that makes up Cubans. The clothes too, made and designed in Santa Clara were irresistible. I met the designer, Nedel Aguilaro Alba The harmony seems complete among Spanish, Creole and Negro.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The cemetery

Cienfuegos was less poor and on the sea. Its squares and public spaces filled with beautifully carved busts of local benefactors, as was Santa Clara. The same refined white marble sculpture is in the Cementerio de Reina. Its church has a bramantesque dome, a stunning theatre, good art galleries and another Cultural centre for dance and music, good little museums in old town houses belonging to past plantation owners.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The theatre ceiling

There must have been European agents to these families supplying Czech glass, their own Cuban mahogany furniture, French glass and heaps of English Spode. What an elegant and civilized life for sugar barons. What a grim life for the slaves who until the 1880s still worked the plantations. Everything is small scale including the naval base in pink gothick. All museum entrances seem to be 2 CUC (tourist peso).

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

View from the pool

The hotel had a lovely pool overlooking the sea and we ate in a paladar, Ache nearby. There were other places in town, including Bouyon 1825, which looked charming. The vast concrete hotel has been built in the grounds of the extraordinary Arabian Villa Valle with alabaster staircase.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Villa Valle interior

It now has a roof bar and you can eat there. The great villas faced the sea and echoed those of 20th Habana.

 

 

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Valle de los Ingenios

Leaving Cienfuegos a reminder of the source of the wealth is seen in the Valle de los Ingenios. And the tower belonging to the Iznaga family for watching their slaves.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The Tower

Near, are the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1919 by a local landowner. In the spirit of enquiry and agricultural improvement now run down but worth a visit.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The Botanical Gardens

There were no guidebooks. Call ahead to book a guide Cienfuegos 545115.

 

Trinidad was as stunning as expected and exotic. The church faces down into the little town, with enticing alleys leading off the main square.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The church, Trinidad

The square is a formal garden surrounded by plantation town houses. Ceramic urns made in the still functioning pottery decorate the allees. It did not look so different from the 1830s painting in the Museo de Belles Artes in Habana. Rich and grand living, yet modest too. In the former town houses are museums of Romantism, Architecture and Contemporary Art. Interesting cross beams carved like an Arabian interior in geometric forms.

Art gallery, Trinidad

Art gallery, Trinidad

Our hotel like a pioneers camp in the 50s but its grimness was relieved by Mike the porter who took us in a taxi to one of the best restaurants in the town, where Darling sang to us (her father was a teacher of geography and fascinated by the Australian River). The owner, a sommelier, the symbol of his trade tattooed onto his arm, brought us home via Mike’s house so we could confirm the meal’s quality. His family were playing dominoes in the street. The embroidery here is wonderful, both drawn work in linen and cotton is being handmade everywhere by the women.

House museum

House museum

Three hours on via delightful Sancti Spiritus. This is worth a stop for a visit to the church and the colonial museum and lunch. They are restoring the gardens in the main square and we ate behind the now familiar grilled windows without glass. We drove north and over the remarkable causeway started in 1988 to the fan of islands off the coast. The Caribbean is barely tidal, here we were to bone fish. New fly rod and flies, sun proof clothes and the wrong foot wear. I had longed to do this for years imagining myself the Bond Girl in bikini. Nothing could have been further in reality. It was difficult for the untrained eye to see the fish coming. One poor cast and they were off. Barracudas and Cowfish were also around as we waded up to the thigh in the warm water for five hours eating our picnic on the hoof. Sitting was not an option. Bond Girl’s casting was not up to scratch so I went bird watching the next day across the Hemingway Bridge onto the next island. It is worth it and there is a professional guide to book ahead, Paulino Lopez.

Flamingos by the Hemingway Bridge

Flamingos by the Hemingway Bridge

As for our fishing guides, they were vital, one Julio Cesar is the head waiter in the hotel’s Oriental restaurant, quite the best of 4 there in the Spanish-run hotel. One of our drivers said that the Cayos are not really Cuba. But it is really, everyone is out to help you. Castro has been clever with the islands. There is another huge complex going up. It is really Cuba’s Sharm El Sheikh. Buildings are height restricted and not allowed on the shoreline. Even utility wires are underground. There are the remains of one old aerodrome. I fondly imagined Hemingway arriving.

Hemingway Bridge

Hemingway Bridge

In our hotel we were given hospital type wristbands for ‘free’ drinks and meals. The hotel was huge and full of Canadian youth – for once they were not Brits behaving badly. The throbbing music started at 10 a.m. We moved rooms to the quiet area with lovely sea views. Everywhere in Cuba is clean and here the beaches were spotless – fine white sand and safe sea.

The Aeropuerto

The Aeropuento

We flew back to the buzz of Habana via a domestic flight to a tiny aerodrome to the west of the city and we drove into the old town via Miramar, past the socialist Realism of the Soviet Embassy through the elegance of Vedado and the great Malecon promenade skirting the sea to the Nacional Hotel, the haunt of Hemingway. It is worth taking a taxi to his house although you can only look through the windows. But drink fresh cane and pineapple juice while you are there and think about the visits of Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth. We stayed at the Sevilla next to the Museo Belles Artes and the relic of Castro’s landing craft, Granma (this was guarded). There are bookshops and stalls galore. A bibliophile’s paradise.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The Green Park

Habana is glamour and slum, shoulder to shoulder, along with noise, music and hustlers. If you want to have peace, go to the cemetery ‘to look not to stay’ as the man at the desk said. Or to the green park on the edge of China Town – all the Chinese left in 1960 when Castro nationalised their businesses. The old town is late Baroque with fortress architecture to repel the pirates; Vedado has the same fine villa architecture as Cienfuegos. The middle years of the 20th century added the brutalism of the Russian Embassy, lots of quickie concrete flats and the Revolution Square column started under Batista and finished by Castro. Down the middle of this huge space is a double yellow line over which only tourists may go. One émigré drove his car there and set it on fire so that Castro would not get his hands on it.

A Fairland 500

A Fairland 500

I recommend all forms of transport here although just gently ambling or drinking and watching the world go by. As the guidebooks tell you of two-tier cash the CUC and the CUP (local peso). The local currency is 24 CUP to 1 CUC and you can spend it in the markets. Cuba is a must and the Cubans won’t change. Their living standards can only improve and their fine buildings will be restored – visitors can only salute that.

Hotels
Habana – Hotel Sevilla Calle Trocadero in the Old Town
Very good Mojitos the huge roof garden restaurant is worth a visit but it is empty. Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is set there. No one seems to have read Greene here, they obsess about Hemingway.
We ate in Casa de la Moneda Cubana near the Cathedral so lovely walk back to the hotel. Also at 21.00 the curfew gun goes off near the restaurant which is colourful.
Our best meal was El Balcon de Obispo in Obispo 415 and Aguacate.
Best cocktail was in the El Floridita Calle Obispo blessed by the former regular Ernest Hemingway. The Hotel Nacional is well worth a visit too.
Sta Clara – Los Caneyes out of town but taxis are easy, Taino style thatched cabins.Better to eat out of the hotel. Lots of large groups.
Cienfuegos – Hotel Jagua in the gardens of the Villa Valle. Lovely pool. East out.
Trinidad – Hotel Las Cuevas – with a bit of imagination this could be much more attractive. Eat out in Vista Gourmet. Good music and food and wine. Much better to find a small private pension in town to stay. There were many.
Cayo Coco – Hotel Tryp Cayo Coco Ask for a quiet room and a sea view.

Havana Town Guide – Julio César Acosta Valle
Fishing Guides – Julio Cesar and Jordan Rodrigues through the hotel.
Cuban Fly Fishers – Michael Mirecki E. mikemirecki@gmail.com
Bird Guide – Paulino Lopez email: paulino.nature@nauta.cu
Bird Book – Aves de Cuba por Orlando H Carrido and Arturo Kirkconnell. This must be found in English but more fun to find in one of the many good book shops in Habana.

Bookings made through Havanatour – the government-run tourist agency

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Odessa

As I roamed Odessa I was trying to work out why this city gives such a sense of well being. Is it the neat grid of streets laid out between the Black Sea and the Ukrainian Steppes, the catchment of so much wealth. Is it the human scale of the two storied classical terracing in the lesser streets that explode towards the centre into an extraordinary rich mix of Baroque and Renaissance which only wealth and 19th century historicism could so well? I don’t know but it works.

Every aspect of capitalism was encouraged. Plumbers to bankers were encouraged to come and make money. Land was given free and taken back if not used quickly. Able governors were a boon. Catherine the Great installed Richelieu and from then on it could not fail. Sustainable trees were shipped in from all over Europe sheltering the fine avenues and parks creating a garden city. Odessa thrived with know- how and wealth creation marching hand in hand with an understanding of what makes life civilized. Universities, hospitals, synagogues, churches, schools, superb opera house, botanical gardens and geographical fortune.

Don’t visit for cutting edge architecture. There is little art nouveau or obvious metal and glass. Don’t visit for the museums, although the archaeological museum (interesting gold trappings of Hunnish horse harness`) and the museum of Lore and History are worth a detour. Equally, take in the churches only at a glance to marvel at the human spirit. The Orthodox Church was blown up by the Soviets and has only recently been rebuilt. It is dull. It sits opposite a huge shopping mall full of Chinese copies. Take a tram to the beach but spend a little extra on a little private space. Go to the huge food market too. We hired a guide for the day and she was well worth her €100 which included a car and driver. By the way do bring guidebooks with you. We could only find one that was half –way decent. A Travel Guide. Odessa 2008 by Alexandr L. Grabovsky.

In spite of every horror that the 20th century threw at this remarkable city, the facades are being restored, the restaurants are as good and varied as any, as are the hotels. the passagiata in the Deribasovskaya..in the evenings complete with coaches, horses, stall holders and the most elegant women I have seen any where. From the UK it is quite difficult to get to. We happened to come via Riga and leave the city to go to Romania. At 5 a.m. our taxi asked if we wanted the private runway. I would have liked it!

Reality and Beyond are visit Yalta in late September, next year. We are offering to add on Odessa to those who wish. Let us know.

Hotels

Hotel Bristol
Wonderful architecture and charming staff. The dining room over rococo-ed and a put off. The architect (whether Soviet or capitalist, it can be difficult to tell) should be dismissed with what has been done in the courtyard. The interior decorator went mad horribly mad in the dining room and lacked finesse in the bedrooms. Good hairdresser and designer clothes across the road. Smart Studio

Londonskya

Wonderfully sited and famous but still suffers from its 80s make over.

Mozart
Well placed next the Opera. Plain simple rooms
Capital good restaurant and good rooms. All above not cheap.

Restaurants
Lots of good food. International or local. Service is very slow.

Airport. Taxis and getting to and from vary in cost hugely.
Guides books only one available.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment