Monday 3 March 2008

And two days in Serbia....

"Try not to attend any political rallies whilst in the country, and avoid getting into discussions about Kosovo with people you don't know" was the travel advisory for Serbia on the Foreign Office website, when I checked it last week in light of the mayhem and chaos in Belgrade downhill of Kosovo having declared independence.

Not a problem, I thought. Political rallies feature rarely in my diary, and I can't remember the last time I had a discussion with anybody - either known to me or otherwise - on the subject of Kosovo's geopolitical status.

How naive could I be! Ok, I've managed to avoid political rallies - but the first, and only, topic of conversation anybody appears to have in Belgrade currently is 'The Political Situation'.

"What will it do for foreign investment?" is the main question, framed in various different ways. "Well, I shouldn't think it will throw anything much off course", is generally my breezy reply (largely on the unspoken basis that Serbia's international profile was pretty flaky anyway, even before they began to throw stones and petrol bombs through the windows of various Western embassy buildings). "This has been going on for so long", one chap intoned dolefully - and I tried to look vaguely sympathetic as I wondered whether he meant since the mid-nineties, or was he harking back to Princep and his revolver in Sarajevo in 1914? Vague memories of history lessons about The Balkan Question and Palmerston's gunboat diplomacy also came to mind, as did the idea that actually it's really been going on since 1389 and the battle of Kosovo. It didn't seem helpful to mention any of this detail, though, and I changed the subject instead, with some bracing and encouragingly bland remark.....

And so. Belgrade. The trip in from the airport was a rather low-key affair (although tell me any major international airport where that isn't the case), and the housing stock in New Belgrade looked depressingly like The Brunswick Centre, at the bottom of Marchmont Street, before it had its recent and rather effective facelift. The fact that my taxi was stopped routinely by hotel security staff and thoroughly searched for bombs was a little surprising and somewhat double-edged: encouraging, that they think to check; but worrying, that they think they have to. From the fastness of my international, wifi-connected, all-singing-all-dancing, marble-bathroomed hotel room, I can look down upon a rather depressing view of blocks of flats and sub-prime cityscape. And in going in search of a typically ethnic Serbian dining experience, yesterday evening, my hopes were not high.....

And how wrong could I be.

On the splendid - as it turned out - advice of the reception desk in the hotel, I ended up in Skadarlija, a charmingly knockabout backwater that dates back architecturally to Turkish times. In the heart of Old Belgrade, tree-lined and paved with huge and uneven cobblestones, the street meanders downhill in between restaurants and courtyard cafes, with enough of a well-worn feel to it that it has a sense of being 'real' and in no way a tourist construct. Faithful to the advice I'd been given, I went to 'The 3 Hats' restaurant, halfway down on the left, and was immediately back in Greece of thirty years ago. Scruffy victorian furniture and dicky-bowed waiters who were formal in both dress and manner; it was like something from 'The Third Man'.
A group of musicians was loudly - and seemingly endlessly - serenading a group seated on the other side of the room, and it was against the backdrop of this cacaphony that an order for Rakia was somehow communicated. Apparently, it's what you have to have. Not to be confused with Cretan Raki, this is a splendidly mellow kind of plum brandy - to be consumed from the start of a meal rather than at the end - where the method of consumption is to take a small sip, and then sit and feel its soft warmth spread generally down and through your system. And it does, too.

Serbian food - not surprisingly - turned out to be a mixture of Greek and Italian influences - but arguably not quite as as good as either. Dinner started with a series of what in Italy would be antipasti: air-dried Beef, and Prosciutto, and a sheep's cheese (effectively identical to very good Feta), and Brawn, and Beans in a Tomato Sauce (which in Greece would be 'Gigantes', but here were a smaller variety), and a sort of Curd event, and a chunk of soft and dark-brown bread, of some kind. And then another glass of Rakia. Followed by a rolled fillet of Pork, which had been bread-crumbed and deep-fried, and was served with industrial quantities of what turned out, unexpectedly, to be tartare sauce. Which led, inevitably, to another glass of Rakia.....

All told, it was with a great sense of wellbeing that I eventually rolled back out into the cobbled street, long after the band of musicians had packed up and all of the other diners had wended their way. Not so the late-night revellers at the tables outside the street caf├ęs, and as I strolled back up the hill, I passed a small group, where a middle-aged couple were waltzing in the middle of the street to the music of a solo violinist, apparently oblivious to anybody else, and to the fact that it was past midnight and still only the beginning of March!

It might not be a scene to inspire confidence among the foreign investor community, but as an image of all being essentially well, it certainly did it for me!

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