Belgrade – Where Two Rivers Meet

It’s amazing how much rubbish is spouted by people you meet while travelling. On the bus from Skopje to Sofia, an English fellow solemnly informed us that we would not be allowed into Serbia as we had Kosovo stamps in our passports. ‘You won’t get past immigration’ he announced confidently. We just nodded. We had another two or three hours on the bus and there are better ways to pass the time than arguing with idiots.

Predictably, nobody at the airport in Belgrade was bothered in the least and the only disturbance to the peace and quiet was from the large rookery outside the terminal building. Rooks, like all corvids, are garrulous birds.

The heart of the city is Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park. It looks out over the confluence of two great rivers, the Sava and the Danube. There are some thoroughly enjoyable walks to be had both in the hills of the park and down by the water.

A climb to the top of the hill takes you past two unusual churches. The Church of the Holy Mother of God, known as Ružica Church, is a delightful, ivy-covered little building. Nearby is another, even smaller, church, St Petka’s Chapel, which has some superb mosaics in its intimate interior. As ever with Orthodox churches, there’s gold and glitz aplenty.

Ružica Church and the fortress

Ružica Church and the fortress

At the opposite end of the scale is the gigantic Cathedral of St Sava, the world’s biggest Orthodox church. The construction began in 1935, around 40 years after the plan to build the church. Remarkably, work continues to this day, as although the building is largely complete, there is still much to do by way of external decoration.

If Belgrade is loaded with churches, it does not go short of parks, either. Topčider Park is a large park extending into forest on the south side of the city and is just one of around 20 or so significant green spaces in and around Belgrade. There is also a substantial Botanical Garden, where you can have a drink at the bizarrely-named Idiot Bar. Assuming you want to drink in an Idiot Bar, of course.

For walkers, though, there is always somewhere to sit down and have a rest. A walk by the riverside allows plenty of opportunities to stop and look around. The rivers provide a haven for waterfowl and migrating birds and you shouldn’t be surprised to see visitors like little egrets or European bee-eaters. Both white and black storks breed in the area. With the abundance of fresh water, plains and forests in the Belgrade area, there are ample opportunities to see plenty of different birds without trying too hard.

Ducks can get hungry, even on holiday

Ducks can get hungry, even on holiday

Belgrade has a complete mix of architectural styles, often in the same building. The National Theatre is a good example, originally built in Renaissance style, but rebuilt and reconstructed several times since. It still has a Renaissance look, but with hints of Baroque and neo-Gothic.

The National Museum is also a bit of a mixture, with neo-Classical and Baroque elements to it. There is a substantial collection of European and Japanese art, though at the time of this visit, most of the museum was closed for renovation. A small part was open, though this was very interesting, an exhibition featuring the work of the 19th-century painter Katarina Ivanovic. She was a Hungarian-born Serb who studied art in Pest and Vienna and also travelled extensively in Europe. Unfortunately, the prevalent attitudes towards women artists at the time meant that her work did not get the recognition it deserved. Although this was the only gallery open during this visit, the experience was most informative and thanks are due to the helpful young woman who provided much explanation and detail of both paintings and artist.

A building of a slightly fading grandeur is the main railway station, though this may not be true for long, as a new station is under construction. The present station serves many European cities and was once on the route of the Orient Express. Although I would not necessarily recommend it for an evening out, it can be a useful place to take shelter from a sudden downpour and you can keep out of the rain with a very cheap beer and watch the assorted travellers making their way hither and thither.

The Baroque railway station

The Baroque railway station

There are, of course, better places to have a drink or two. One is Biblioteka, which is a comfortable bar with – as you’d expect – books everywhere and a good collection of old photos. It’s a pleasant place for something to eat or just for a few glasses of beer. Even more civilized is the fact that there are both light and dark beers. Some of us need the infusion of a good dark beer to satisfy the demands of our Irish blood.

Unfortunately, independent brewers are difficult to find in Serbia. The larger breweries are owned by multi-nationals and the best hope of finding something a little different is a brew pub. These tend to come and go, but the Black Turtle chain now runs to five pubs in Belgrade and produces quite a wide range of beers.

Mmm, dark beer

Mmm, dark beer

Belgrade has more than enough to keep a visitor occupied and there are regular festivals and fairs of different kinds throughout the year. Food and drink is inexpensive and accommodation should not cost a fortune, either. The centre is very negotiable for walkers, with the exception of a few climbs around the fortress. Public transport is pretty good and isn’t costly – a bus to and from the airport costs less than a pound and you should be able to have a decent amount to eat and drink for the price of a tenner. That just has to be a good thing.

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Hello to Berlin

Berliners, I imagine, must often feel rather like I did when I used to live in Oxford. Admittedly, Berlin is considerably bigger than Oxford, but there are times when you feel like buying one of those t-shirts that say ‘I’m not a tourist – I live here’. Except, of course, you get the feeling that most of those shirts were worn by tourists.

Yes, Berlin is full of tourists, even in February when the temperatures are sub-zero. Everybody wants to see the Brandenburg Gate and everybody wants to take a photograph of it. The queues for museums and galleries make you wonder how long they get at busier times of year. Tourists – honestly, don’t you get fed up with them?

Everybody has a photo of this

Everybody has a photo of this

The city, as already noted, is big and there’s enough room for everybody. There may be a time when you want to see a particular museum, but think ‘I’m not going to stand in the freezing cold for three hours’ so you simply go somewhere else. It’s not like there are only a few attractions. There is almost certainly something else interesting within walking distance and if there isn’t, then Berlin has plenty of public transport to take you elsewhere pretty quickly. The metro system (U-Bahn) is particularly good.

A Berlin Card is a worthwhile investment if you’re going to use public transport and visit a few museums. A three-day card costs around €25 and if you’re arriving at Tegel Airport, you can buy one there and use it to get the bus into the city centre. Note that Tegel is due to close in the next couple of years, but is still in use at the time of writing.

Museums – where to start? There are masses of them in Berlin, but the German Historical Museum isn’t a bad place to begin. The museum is vast and so is the collection. Culture, art, photographs, prints, coins and pretty much anything you can think of are crammed in. Germany obviously has some deeply disturbing elements in its history, but there is an uncompromising honesty in the displays and presentations.

There is also a frankness and openness about the DDR Museum. It’s a fascinating social history and as likely to be visited by those from ‘West’ Germany who are as curious about the life and times of their countrymen as visitors from other nations.

Museum Island is famous and it’s a shame that the Bode Museum is often overlooked. It’s a lovely Baroque building for a start, with a façade reminiscent of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The museum harbours a particularly fine collection of sculpture and Byzantine art. A small advantage of its seemingly low status is that it doesn’t get crowded.

The Bode Museum

The Bode Museum

Berlin does quirky as well as cultural. A good example is the Sugar Museum in Wedding. You may think that there’s not much to say about sugar, but once you think about colonialism and the slave trade, you soon realise that sugar is just as political as anything else.

Quirky is always good

Quirky is always good

It’s impossible to visit Berlin without thinking about literature; Christopher Isherwood and Alfred Döblin keep coming to mind. Today’s Alexanderplatz may look rather different to the Alexanderplatz of Döblin, but its significance has lived on. This was where an astonishing one million people demonstrated against the GDR government in 1989. Ignore the glass and concrete of the shopping area and think of the history.

As with any sizeable capital city, it can be cheap or expensive to eat and drink. Usually, it’s somewhere in the middle, but it’s perfectly possible to have a decent scoff without spending a fortune. Avoiding the obvious tourist areas is guaranteed to reduce the costs. Anywhere in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate is likely to be in the higher price range.

All of which leads us to beer, which is never a bad place to be led to. German beer is rightly revered for its quality and purity, with no filthy gas, chemicals, pasteurisers or other dross allowed into it. Sane people do not want to drink freezing cold chemical compounds.

Unfortunately, brewing has declined somewhat in Berlin. There is, though, an upside, in that micro-breweries are springing up. This is a recent development, but hopefully a positive one. The result is that beer from all over the country pops up in the city and there is beer to suit all tastes and palates. A personal favourite is the delicious black Köstritzer, not a Berlin beer, but from Bad Köstritz, south of Leipzig. Bursting with all kinds of flavours, refreshing and dangerously quaffable, beer doesn’t get much better than this.

There are some reasonably inexpensive restaurants and bars around Nollendorfplatz and Wittenbergplatz, and it’s worth a trip on the U-Bahn to the latter just for a look at the delightful Art Nouveau station. Also, look out for the London Underground-style sign that was donated by London Transport to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U-Bahn in 1952.

In addition to the U-Bahn, there is a substantial S-Bahn railway around Berlin. For a bit of history, take a trip to Friedrichstraße station, which was in East Berlin but served by trains from not only West Berlin, but international trains as well. There was, apparently, quite a considerable amount of trade done in the station’s shops in the days of Cold War. You can almost conjure up images of some of the shady characters that have passed through here.

The shiny new Hauptbahnhof

The shiny new Hauptbahnhof

Nobody, whatever their interests, should struggle to find anything to do in Berlin. Whether you want high culture or low – or indeed a mixture of both – you won’t be left short of options. If you want noise, clubs and bars abound. If you want a bit of peace, the Tiergarten is perfect for a stroll. Capital cities are not to everyone’s taste, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something of interest in a few days in Berlin.

Vilnius – Amber Alert

The bar in the Old Town was surprisingly quiet. We sat outside with bottles of Utenos Porteris, a very dark Lithuanian beer. The barmaid asked what we thought of the stuff and we agreed that it was a very pleasant drop of porter, but rather strong. She picked up the bottle and looked for the strength, then shook her head. “No, this is not so strong for Lithuania” she announced. The beer was 6.8% ABV.

Like their neighbours in Poland, Lithuanians like their beer strong. A bit of hunting around and you’ll be able to find something a little less vigorous, though a 4.4% beer will probably be advertised as ‘low alcohol’. In UK terms, this is the strength of a fairly robust best bitter. Another factor is the cheapness of beer in the country. Bars are cheap and bottles from shops cost mere pennies. Care needs to be taken.

If you do get a bit wobbly of an evening, it shouldn’t mean getting lost, at least in the Old Town. The centre is not vast and orientation does not take long. It is also a glorious mishmash of architectural styles that shouldn’t fit together, but do.

The place for a great view of the city is the top of the Castle complex. There are two castles and it is the upper one, on Gediminas Hill, that is the city’s highest point. An observation platform at the top of the Gediminas Tower provides a splendid panorama. The whole complex is crammed with museums and is well worth a full morning or afternoon to explore. Below Gediminas Tower is the cathedral, a gloriously neo-classical affair.

View from Gediminas Tower

View from Gediminas Tower

 It’s difficult to go very far in Vilnius without bumping into Gediminas in some form. He was a 14th Grand Duke of Lithuania who is regarded as both the founder of the Lithuanian state and the city of Vilnius. Gediminas Square is at the heart of the Old Town.

Churches in particular provide an example of the architectural contrasts of the city, with the resolutely Gothic St Anne’s church, the neo-classical cathedral and the beautiful Baroque St Peter and St Paul’s vying for attention. St. Michael and St. Constantine is a wonderful example of the Orthodox Church, with its bright green onion domes quite unmistakable. The modestly-named Church of the Apparition of the Holy Mother of God is another Orthodox building, an even more lavish neo-Byzantine affair that stands majestically across the River Neris from the Old Town.

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Like many former Soviet areas, Vilnius has its share of ghastly buildings and one particularly choice example is Seimas Palace, home to the Lithuanian Parliament. Built in the 1970s, it has all of the stunningly good taste associated with that decade. The style, if such a term can be applied, is an abysmal attempt at modern classical and surely takes the award for the most hideous public building in Vilnius. It’s worth seeing just for that reason.

There is plenty to do in Vilnius, but if you’re staying for a few days, a trip outside of the capital is easy enough. Trains are not expensive and the second city of Kaunas is only a couple of hours away. We took the shorter trip to Trakai, which takes around 40 minutes and costs almost nothing. It’s also fun to experience the journey on a train that may lack comforts, but is incredibly cheap. Climbing up into a carriage from the almost non-existent platforms is also a pleasure that feels like it should be photographed in black and white. Another thing that pleases those of us beset with health and safety obsessives is the way one can nonchalantly saunter across the railway lines.

We walked into the station in the rain...

We walked into the station in the rain…

Trakai National Park comprises the area of several lakes and the town of Trakai, Lithuania’s medieval capital. Trakai houses two castles and various museums and is all a bit touristy, but the area is beautiful and there are plenty of places for a peaceful walk and quiet contemplation, not to mention some birdwatching.

Castles that are fairytales...

Castles that are fairytales…

Vilnius makes for an excellent city break of three or fours days. Mid-summer can get a bit hot and winters can be a bit cold, but can make for a very picturesque scene with snow on the ground. It’s not an expensive place to eat and drink, and it should be simple enough to find inexpensive accommodation. The City Gate is a splendid little hotel across from the Gate of Dawn, the only remaining gate to the city of Vilnius. The hotel has only about 10 rooms, but it’s a friendly and welcoming place with a pleasant restaurant. There is a decent pub next door and a brief stroll takes you right into the Old Town.

On the other side of the Gate of Dawn, you’ll find amber. You’ll find lots of amber. In fact, you’ll hardly be able to move for amber. Amber, many may be surprised to know, is not always the colour of, erm, amber. Lithuania seems to specialise in white amber. There is, inevitable, something of an overload towards souvenirs, but it’s not all tat and the Amber Museum-Gallery is a good place to see what amber is all about. Just make sure to go to the pub afterwards and not beforehand.