Tuesday 24 June 2008

Meltdown in Serbia...

Belgrade, again. I’ve nothing against the place, but twice in three months comes close to drawing the short straw….And what bemuses me is the fact that I keep coming across British people who are here on holiday…..out of choice. Bizarre!

The heat is extreme. Much hotter than Italy when I flew out on Sunday, and that was fairly sweltering…This time, though, I’m staying in a splendid ‘Design’ hotel in the Old City, where my room is more like a labyrinthine air-conditioned cave than a hotel room, with myriad arrow-slit windows dotted around the walls, and soothing coloured lights strobing gently on the ceiling of the sleeping ‘cave’ at the centre of the space …..the whole thing is uber Cool in every sense of the word and is a welcome retreat from the heat of the streets outside. The decorative theme for the hotel is Presidents Past and Present, and in addition to the huge 3-D copy of Mount Rushmore which dominates the bar, each room is themed for some political leader from recent history….I’m told the selection is eclectic in the extreme, so includes both Churchill and Hitler, as well as Mao, and Mahatma Ghandi. I didn’t recognise the oil painting which hangs over my bed, and had to ask. I was rather hoping it would be somebody meaty like Ceaucescu…..but in the end it turns out to be Eisenhower (or, as Radomir on reception managed to pronounce it ‘Icing-Whore’).

After my last visit, I rather feel I’ve ‘done’ Serbian cuisine ….not awful, but too much like second-grade Greek food to be an argument. Generally rather slablike in look and feel – slabs of meat, slabs of cheese, slabs of bread – and unlikely to inspire a repeat experience. All the Serbians, when asked, tend to glaze over whenever Serbian food is mentioned, and start talking enthusiastically about Italian or Chinese restaurants instead. I can understand why.

Last night – on recommendation - I found myself in a fish restaurant called ‘Octopus’, which nestles almost under the arches of the Bratsvo Bridge, half way down a deserted street, and fronted by a row of neglected buildings that were clearly long-derelict. To get there I had to pick my way across tramlines, and under the drips from rattling and inefficient air-conditioning outlets, all of which reminded me of night-time Piraeus from thirty years ago. Like a scene from ‘On the Waterfront’, the illuminated lanterns outside the restaurant struck an incongruous note in this dockside wasteland. Once through the heavy wooden door, though, it was oil paintings and uniformed waiters, with a white haired old man playing background music on a grand piano, and the place was all soft conversation and quiet opulence.

Octopus Terrine – which described itself as a carpaccio, but wasn’t – was followed by a Tuna Steak in Sesame Seeds, and what advertised itself as a ‘Serbian Salad’, and turned out to be a Greek Salad, minus the feta, and with a lot of very hot onion in its place. The Octopus was good, the Tuna was pretty much as you would expect – although served rather surprisingly on what looked like a deep-fried slab of Hovis – and the local wine had a kick that definitely left me with a thick head when I woke up this morning. Dense and smooth, it was not at all bad…I pondered the dessert menu for just long enough to decipher the Cyrillic figures for ‘Tiramisu’ and ‘Woodland Fruits’ – and then decided that I’d had enough of a good thing: the pedal on the piano was thumping insistently in my right ear, and amidst the excessive trills and ornamentation introduced by the octogenarian pianist, it was possible – just – to decipher ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ followed, inevitably, by ‘My Way’. Time to hit the road….

This evening, the Conference programme promises a river cruise and dinner, accompanied by the delights of Jovan Maljokovic and his Orchestra..

Somehow I think I’ll be playing hookey..

Tonight’s Dinner:

Who knows….