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A bumper blog of cities beginning with B

April 26, 2013

Belgrade

The first thing I notice about Belgrade is how absurdly friendly people are. From the old man who helps me get my huge backpack off the tram, to the

Nikola Tesla Museum

Nikola Tesla Museum

hostel owner, to the woman in the tourist office who greets me with a cheery ‘Welcome to Belgrade’. The second thing I notice is the absurd number of fast food joints, predominantly serving pizza by the slice, but also particularly Serbian delicacies such pancakes with fillings like Eurocrem e plazma (Balkan’s Nutella and biscuit crumbs).

It’s my duty to sample some of this local fodder so for lunch I try Pizzeria Trg, an eatery esteemed by local teenagers, who frequent it in force, eating pizza slices smothered in ketchup and chilli sauce. To the ambient soundtrack of loud nineties dance music I dine on a pancake filled with copious amounts of cheap cheese and mushrooms in some kind of sour cream sauce. Simply divine.

Having visited the only thing worth visiting, the Nikola Tesla museum, where you get to play with lightening and hear about the AC/DC wars, I returne to the hostel and find two Turkish guys are now sharing my dorm room. Do I want to join them for a drink they asked, before bringing out some cheap Serbian brandy. Well, so far this trip hasn’t really been that rock’n’roll so I think ‘why not, this is what travelling all about isn’t it?’. We end up getting so drunk we can’t find a bar when we finally go out to look for one so we just go back to the hostel and get even drunker. The next morning that proliferation of junk food really comes into it’s own. Perfect hngover food is a greasy slice of pizza, augmented by one of those Eurocrem and plazma pancakes later on.

But it’s my last day in Belgrade and I have to go and see Tito’s mausoleum. Another great thing about this city is that all the trams and trolley buses are effectively free. The city government is so corrupt that the drivers don’t bother to charge anyone in protest. I get the sense Tito is still quite respected across the Balkans, they have a street named after him in Sarajevo and here there is a regular flow of visitors to the ‘House of Flowers’ mausoleum. He did, after all, keep Yugoslavia united. They are selling Tito’s Cookbook in the gift shop, which I would so have bought if I could fit it in the backpack.

The next day I have an early morning train to Budapest so there was is more partying for me, but this doesn’t stop my dorm mates. They are out drinking with some girls from another room. In the morning I find four shot glasses in the sink and feel a prick of jealously, but I guess this is the nature of travelling… single serving friends as Chuck Palahnuik would say.

Budapest

St. Stephen's Cathedral at night

St. Stephen’s Cathedral at night

Budapest is, at first, less welcoming. As we cross the border from Serbia to Hungary, police and customs officials swarm onto the train, demanding every Serbian guy with a big suitcase opens it so they can check for bootlegged fags. They take bits of the toilet apart to see if anyone is hiding in there and ask everyone questions about where they were going and why. I guess this is the frontier of the European Union. So, then, after a long journey with no buffet car, the train rolls into Budapest and I find that no currency exchange offices in the station will accept my Serbian Dinar and the only ATM in there wants to charge me about seventy quid to make a withdrawal!

Laden with backpack, I stagger around outside Keleti station and almost cave in and go to Burger King but they don’t do a veggie burger. Not that I have any Forints to buy a veggie burger with anyway. I felt feeling rather depressed and was missing Italy. But I do finally obtain some Forints, find my the hostel which is in a gorgeous old apartment block near the the river and then, to my absolute delight, find that just along the road there is a Middle Eastern café/ takeaway which does hummus and falafel. The falafel sandwich and chips I have that night was one of the best meals of the trip so far. I’ve not had chips for over six weeks!

Budapest is a beautiful city and, after the rough-around-the-edges Balkans, it’s nice to be firmly back on the tourist map. They really don’t like the communists though here. As a Cold War fan, I’m interested in how these old Eastern Bloc cities present there history. Well, here in Budapest I visit Memento Park, where you can look at old statues and buy tins supposedly containing the ‘last breath

One hell of a statue at Memento Park

One hell of a statue at Memento Park

of communism’. Then there is the Museum of Terror, a really good exhibition about the double occupation Hungary suffered under first the Nazis, then, effectively, the USSR. I don’t blame them for being bitter. I had no idea Hungarians were sent to the Gulags under Stalin, and, though released after Stalin’s death, were forced to remain in the USSR. The last one came back in the year 2000! In the gift shop there were candle busts of Lenin and Stalin for sale, presumably so you could enjoy watching them melt like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.

After reading Michael Meyer’s ‘1989: The Year That Changed the World’, I can’t help feel sorry for the communist party reformers including Miklos Nemeth and Imre Pozsgay, who bravely pushed through the reforms that led to the iconic image of Hungarian soldiers cutting the barbed wire border fence between Austria and Hungary, setting off a chain reaction that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. They seem to have been forgotten. It is these great politicians, and of course, Imre Nagy, who I think of when I stand in Hero’s Square on the eve of Thatcher’s funeral back in England.

But whilst Budapest may have given me chips, I also have the worst curry ever here. The Govinda café gets glowing reviews on Trip Advisor, which I am never going to trust ever again. A vegetarian curry house? It sounds amazing. So off I trek, though the back streets and arrive at the top of the flight of stairs leading to the café, from which the scent of Indian spices floats. I almost faint with delight. But it’s hort lived. The daily deal, admittedly very cheap, consists of a dahl, some kind of curry and a naan bread. Well, each dish is so devoid of spice it is completely tasteless. The so-called curry is like cheap tomato soup with pasta in it (pasta?) and the naan bread, well let’s just say, I’ve made better ones myself. There is no time to make amends, I’m on the night train to Berlin out of here.

Berlin

Getting the night train to Berlin sounds very cool doesn’t it? Well, I arrive first thing in Hauptbarnhof and am met by a towering stack of giant Ritter Sport chocolate bars. What better way could one be welcomed to a new city? Sadly, they weren’t edible.

For the next four days I am no longer a lone intrepid vegetarian, but am joined

Me and Liz at Checkpoint Charlie

Me and Liz at Checkpoint Charlie

by my omnivorous best friend and fellow history geek Liz. As soon as Liz arrives we book onto both an GDR walking tour, to satisfy my Cold War obsession, and a Third Reich one, as we were both schooled by the great Hitler specialist Sir Ian Kershaw (well, he gave us one lecture anyway).
Berlin seems to have a much more comfortable relationship with it’s communist past. Maybe as the whole tourist industry seems to be based on it. You can buy USSR-themed tat galore, along with chunks of the wall and magnets of the Checkpoint Charlie sign. The tour really gives us a sense of what it was like to live in the GDR though. I think there is a dirty glamour attached to the idea now, not least as a few bars near the East Side Gallery seem to be rocking the tatty and tacky East German look. But the Palace of Tears museum tells some personal stories of what it was like living in a divided city, and the tour guide, who is kind of cute and whose cuteness only increases by his impassioned talk of Marxism’s potential, tells us about other strange features such as ghost stations – Ubahn stops in the East which West German trains looped through but never stopped at.

The Third Reich tour takes us round all the Nazi sights… it’s not aimed at EDL members though but those who want to discover more about this period of fascinating if awful history. Sitting on the blocks of the Holocaust memorial talking with the guide about how people could participate in such an evil system will be, in a strange way, one of the most memorable things from my trip around the old Eastern Bloc and Germany. All these countries seem to still be very much dealing with their pasts.

Anyway, the Third Reich guide is kind of cute too, so we toy with going on yet another tour on the third day but are too hungover and in the cold light of day, this seems a little excessive.

Only in Berlin!

Only in Berlin!

The next day, still not GDR’d out, we headed to the Stasi museum about which we had heard great things but which turns out to be one of the most crap museums ever. It’s based in the Stasi HQ which looks, as Liz points out, like a regular civil service building. There are lots of old spy cameras and all the captions are in German. Disappointed and miffed at why so many people recommended this we head back into town to search for lunch and inadvertently stumble upon a better much Stasi exhibition, just called ‘Stasi’. Later, we hang out in one of those GDR-chic bars, so communist you could even smoke in there.

Liz departs back to England the next morning so I wander down Karl Marx Allee and then back to Checkpoint Charlie to try to haggle a good price on a Russian doll set of all the Soviet leaders. Fifteen euros was a bit pricey, considering only Gorbachev is totally recognisable to the untrained eye I thought.

I am taking the night train to Krakow that night. On the tour we’d seen some ‘stumbling stones’ in the Jewish Quarter… the names of a whole family who had perished at Auschwitz, so I can’t help think of them as I board the the train. Berlin is a city moving forwards, you can’t deny, but I can’t help think of the past.

Transport so far:

63 bus from East Dulwich to Kings Cross, Eurostar to Paris, Paris metro to Odeon, bus to Gare du Lyon, overnight train to Florence, train to Assisi, car up the winding roads to the artist residency.

4×4 back down the mountain, Assisi to Rome train, the notorious number 64 bus, number 23 bus.

Train from Rome to Ancona, overnight ferry to Split, coach from Split to Mostar, coach from Mostar to Sarajevo, coach from Sarajevo to Belgrade.

Train from Belgrade to Budapest, overnight train from Budapest to Berlin, lots of travels on the Sbahn and Ubahn and numerous trams.

 

 

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