Birmingham’s famous 1972 concrete megastructure – which criscrosses the M6 and various other slip roads and expressways – makes as much sense from below as it does from above. Probably less so once you add in the Tame River, a fishing lake, three canals, a train track and those swooping forests of pillars.
The underbelly of the Gravelly Hill Interchange is a daunting place to visit alone. There is the grave-like monument to PC Michael Swindells, who was stabbed and killed in 2004 on the Tame Valley Canal while in pursuit of a knife-wielding paranoid schizophrenic. On today’s visit there were three or four semi-threatening dirtbikers using it as their playground. Sadly there was litter everywhere – next time, I’ll bring a bag.
But it is also desolately beautiful in its own way, with birdlife, an ongoing Bill Drummond artwork, stark lines and angles and reflections, the monolithic grandeur of the concrete supports, and the relentless chunking of the stitched highways carrying ‘flying cars’ overhead like a preview of a future that never came to be.
This is my fourth or fifth time visiting. The low winter sun brought me out this time but Spag Junction is impressive on every visit – and differently moody .
These 25 photos are from today’s winter walk with Photo School. Pete leads walks there every winter, spring, summer and autumn so you get the effect of the changing seasons. The spring walk is on 26 April 2020. Details here…
I’m a walker not a climber but high on Gwen Moffat’s autobiography Space Below My Feet, the mountains of Snowdonia beckoned and at Easter we headed for Birmingham-on-Sea: Barmouth.
You know that moment at the start of a walk? When you aren’t really planning on anything more than just going just a bit of the way? Perhaps just up to the viewpoint and then turn back because you haven’t got any sandwiches or a coat, because the peaks belong to the Berghausers and the sheep?
That. That was the plan when we pulled into Dôl Idris Car Park, starting point of the Minffordd Path for the Cader Idris climb/walk, the steepest route up Wales’ second highest peak. There was no way we were fit enough or prepared for a proper hike.
While Pete took photos of lichen and waterfalls, however, I carried on up the stone steps of the wooded gorge.
I had rediscovered walking quite recently on my sabbatical break in 2016, around the houses and streets and canals of Brum. And this reminded me of a pilgrimage trek up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, 20 years ago, when it was one long staircase to the summit and the smell of embrocation cream filled the air at junctions as Buddhist pilgrims stopped to massage cramped calves.
I’ll just get above the tree line, I thought; see if I can get into a good position to see a low-flying jet along the Mach Loop. (That morning we’d climbed up a gusty mountainside at Mach Bwlch but to no avail. Spotting them is pure luck as there is no timetable.)
I was alone. But a family of Russians was walking just ahead – parents, teens and children. They carried on, so I did too.
The ground levelled out above the tree line and contoured round the grassy hill into a large open valley surrounded by a horsehoe of steep slopes. It was hard to tell which was Cader Idris’s peak of 2930ft.
At this point I asked a returning walker how far it was to Llyn Cau, the lake below the summit and he said about an hour. With barely a bar of signal, I texted Pete to say I was going for it.
The hour rolled round but there was no sign of the lake. The legs started to go as the path rose ever upwards. I was so hot with exertion, all I wanted to do was jump in that damn lake. I literally inched my way onwards, getting tireder with each step but knowing I must be close. Around every turn and over every bluff I expected to see it but there was just more path.
And then there it was – suddenly a huge, dark, sparkling lake. A turning point. Most walkers carried on to the ridge so I had it to myself, barring a couple who collapsed immediately at the edge so it was no bother to walk a few minutes further on to my own triumphant flop by the water’s edge.
I should have gone for a wild swim; I was hot enough even in the cold mountain air. But, worried that Pete was getting worried – I’d been gone two hours – I stripped off my walking boots to enjoy a paddle and some recovery time.
Of course, there were some posed ‘adventure style’ selfies with the peak of Wales’ second highest mountain behind me. (Actually I got totally the wrong peak lined up – the photos are of a high ridge with the summit further along. Perspective from below a near vertical wall can be pretty screwy.)
Peaceful moment of reflection. Happiness that I could still walk that far and high. Astonishment at the fearsome landscape. Looking around, and across Snowdonia’s misty gradations, there was no doubt I’d climbed above the Faraway Tree into a magnificent other-world where the mountain is in charge of your destiny.
The danger signs at the seemingly tame start seemed perfectly reasonable now, warning of the risk of getting disoriented in bad weather and walking off the edge into oblivion.
Most accidents tend to happen on the way down, however – tiredness, lack of concentration, adrenaline drop maybe. Several times I nearly twisted my ankle as I skipped down the mountain for an hour’s fast descent. Running downhill is easier on the knees and muscles than walking slowly and carefully but probably not recommended.
Back at the car, I knocked on the window – Pete was just waking up from a long nap, not mad with worry about ‘the wife’. Which, frankly, was a relief. Wish I’d swum now.
Under cover of the woodland a jet plane rumbled in the distance and we glimpsed the outline of a transport plane as it flew directly over the canopy. I felt elated. This was my reward for inadvertently climbing a mountain.
That and, as is the British way, a pot of tea and a scone in nearby Tal-y-llyn, looking back up in wonder at the mountains of Southern Snowdonia and thinking: ‘Yes! I’ve been up there.’
I’ve just discarded my initial 600 words on why it was such a challenge to get on a plane on my own and fly to Fuerteventura this winter. The less angsty, need-to-know summary is that I’ve been pretty conflicted about travelling in recent years. I was a frequent backpacker when I was younger, seeking out the cheapest huts, sleeping on one-inch mattresses, overlanding entire subcontinents for a fiver, etc, etc. I even turned my travel passion into something of a travel writing career.
But now I hate the flying, the research, the anxiety of going somewhere new and the suspicion that no one will talk to me if I do, being 50 and all that. Where did all this crippling angst come from? I don’t think it is age; I think it is the lack of risk-taking once you settle down. (I never thought I’d settle down.)
And so it was quite the emotional challenge to book a week in Fuerteventura at the end of November – one I’d spent nine months procrastinating over.
In the end, I booked two days before flying (in case I changed my mind) and snagged the last dorm bed in the only available cheap accommodation left in Corralejo – a surf lodge on the deserted edge of town for about £14 a night. I tried not to think about who I’d be sharing with but the thought that the mixed dorm might be all-male did freak me out. It’ll never happen I told myself.
At least I’d been to Fuerteventura before (for a birthday surf and bodyboard) so I didn’t have to stress about going somewhere totally new. And my friend Kerry was flying out a few days later on her own trip so I would have someone to talk to for half the week.
Here are some snippets from my diary of what it was like, ending on the question: ‘Would I do it again..?’
I’m in a surf house that sleeps 10 people at the edge of town where the signpost says you are now leaving Corralejo. It’s actually pretty nice. It has a pool and a terrace and a large kitchen, albeit no space in the fridge.
I’m in a mixed dorm but in reality I’m sharing a stifling, slightly smelly room with three men: Jon, a surfer from the Basque Country; Alex, a 50-year-old Italian boat captain and kite surfer who looks a bit like George Clooney, and another guy who didn’t come home last night but is now sleeping and snoring his way through the daytime.
I’m here for the chance to walk, swim, exercise and generally get outdoors in the sunshine. The first frost has landed back home. Here, the light here is beautiful; there’s a soft warmth in the blue sky, even if the sea requires a brave plunge.
Over the past 10-15 years I realise I’ve been gradually upgrading my travel choices. I’ve paid ever higher amounts for comfort, privacy and location.
A dorm bed in a share house has brought me back down the earth. There was no door-to-door airport transfer, either: I had to walk down a dark, deserted street behind a walled-off hotel complex and use a torch to find SurfinTrip Academy and Camp house.
It’s been a thrill already, even if it is the thrill of risk. I want to still love all this; me, a middle-aged woman with a rather large comfort zone. It’s good that I did this by myself and see what it’s like to drop out of my life for a few days.
It’s Mum’s 17th anniversary and I’m taking some time to remember her today. She would say ‘Go for it!’ – she always did.
I spend breakfast with the chainsmokers on the patio and the rest of the morning doing the chores of the self-catering budget backpacker: shopping at Hyperdinos and walking the long sweaty road home loaded down with heavy water and basic foodstuffs in the midday heat. Then I walk another hour to get to sunset, before realising I have my easts and wests mixed up and it’s on the other side of the island. So. Much. Walking.
It’s a pleasant evening at ‘home’, talking with a French Canadian surfergirl who’s become addicted to surfing and is 18-months into a backpacking trip with no return ticket, and a 27-year-old bubbly lady from Leeds who’s fresh off the plane. Later Captain Clooney points out Cassiopeia and other constellations in broken English like a scene from a John Cusack movie. I get no sense that he is going to make a move, though, thankfully; this is just a friendly ‘let’s look at the stars’ thing because the clouds have cleared away and a starry night sky remains one of the best things ever.
These people are my temporary family, made up of random strangers from around the world who are not so different from me, or at least who I used to be.
Today a classic ‘dirty old man’ at the beach made eye contact with my unfocused, unspectacled eyes while I was drying off from a swim, and took it as an invitation to lurk. No, no. no. I thought I’d be too old for this particular joy of lone female travel.
After dinner (Kerry has arrived!) we walk along the seafront for a nightcap tea and Tia Maria coffee at Waikiki Bar. I was dreading the long walk home and sure enough the busy road was now dark and deserted but for the occasional car.
I don’t mind the dark or the emptiness, it’s when there are potential opportunistic humans around that I get uptight. I pull out my Swiss army knife and thread the corkscrew through my fist. The massive closed Aqua Park is the worst, with its broken chainlink fences and large car parks and Scoobydoo-like giant galleon rearing out of the ground with lion leaping off it. I try not to picture being jumped and dragged in there to die in a deserted fairground.
‘It’s all about risk-reward’ – this line from the young trainer at the UoB gym kept going through my brain. The risk in that walk back didn’t seem worth the reward.
From this point on I moved to Kerry’s accomm. Although this has ended on a bit of a downer, I had a fantastic week’s break and I did get a lot from going back to budget backpacking if only for a few days.
It was fun, a bit uncomfortable but a good way to meet new likeminded people. I wasn’t the oldest person there, to my surprise, and no one was ageist in the slightest. In fact, I found myself remembering how open and considerate and up-for-life the average backpacker is.
As for my travel fears, the public bus to the airport was also way faster and cooler than the rammed and rambling airport shuttle – and it was cheaper. I didn’t take Valium on either plane journey for my fear of flying, and I was surprised at how little I fretted about these flights – an advantage of short-haul daytime flights and of booking last minute.
Would I do it again? I surely would.
Would I spend 11 months arguing with myself about booking it? Probably, but I’m working on it.
It’s raining heavily on arrival in Dubrovnik and it’s freakishly cold. We are wearing all the clothes and hats. This is not the only shock. The taxi from the bus station to Ploče charges a £12 set fare to go a couple of km, it’s £18 just to walk the town’s bloody walls – that’s each – and, worse still, a medium glass of so-so wine costs £7. Come back Zurich, all is forgiven.
“Everything is better is Croatia,” my Croatian ‘sister-wife’ Anita, the UK-famous inventor of the chocolate crumpet, repeatedly tells me – and I want to believe her. An old guidebook tells me the walls cost only £3 for access not so long ago, so this is probably the Games of Thrones effect. There really should be a different Dubrovnik price for non-GOT fans.
Being British, we of course mention the weather to our host Stijepo at Apartment Love and Hope and thank him for waiting for us in the torrential conditions.
“I would be happy if this was my biggest problem!” he exclaims, several times – a reference to being caught up in the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik with no electricity or water and weeks of bombardment by Serbia/Montenegro. After that, we pretty much shut up about the weather and the price of bread.
Once the storm clears, it is indeed truly lovely inside the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik, so clean. I mean, really clean. (Well, all that tourist money has to go somewhere I guess.) We enter it at sunset so that we can immediately leave it, as Stijepo has sent us for a sunset drink at Buza, a well-known drinking hole on the rocks outside the wall. Pete nearly chokes on his £6 GOT-priced Leffe but it’s the view we are paying for and a ringside seat for sunset in the Pearl of the Adriatic.
Day 13: Lokrum Island
Stijepo recommended this nearby island as a lovely spot for a picnic, with botanic gardens and an old fort – but, who are we kidding, we mainly go because he told us there were loads of friendly rabbits roaming freely about there. There are. Here is a bun the size of a banana…
… and also an array of randy peacocks parading and trying to win over peahens to the point of fighting.
It’s quite something to watch baby bunnies hopping around giant prickly aloe vera succulents while peacocks shimmer and shake erect feathers next to the deep blue Adriatic. Only unicorns could have topped off the fairytale if anyone has Photoshop skills to add one here…
Day 14: Dubrovnik
We check the cruise ship timetable and head into the Old Town as the passengers leave. After a picnic on ‘the outside’ wall by the harbour, we randomly bump into Hannah and Myk who, being super-speedy Americans, have caught up with us despite leaving Belgrade four days later. Their Podgorica train journey, taken on May Day weekend and packed with students heading back to Montenegro, makes ours sound a Four Yorkshiremen sketch – luxury. The next day Mark from the Belgrade apartment will fly in as we fly out. More travel connections in time.
We buy a Ferrero Rocher-flavoured ice cream from Stijepo’s recommended childhood ice cream parlour Dolce Vita and sit once more outside the walls, on a tiny beach that has the most beach glass I have ever scavenged in my life. You know when you start a collection and become enslaved? Well, mine is a worldwide beach glass collection and this tiny beach just tripled it – as well as producing two rare pieces in blue.
Pete and I discuss biting the tourist bullet and paying nearly £40 to walk the 2km city walls but it comes down to this on our last day – we can either walk or eat. So we eat: a tuna pasta and beer and wine and chocolate feast on our Love and Hope balcony overlooking beautiful Dubrovnik.
A male voice choir carries up the steep hillside from Banye Beach as the sunset does its glorious hazy coloured spectacle thing, and we have a little last-night-of-the-holiday dance on the terrace because we’re married now and it’s legal.
I may not be as enamoured of travelling as I used to be, and I can’t wait to see our own little floppy-eared dudes and the rest of the human-eared family, but I sure could do with a little bit more blue sky, sea and sunshine in my UK life to be happy.
Perhaps everything is better in Croatia after all.
</The end of the Balkan blogging beast. Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed it. Other blog posts are available. >
A bit of perspective arrives overnight and my appetite comes back for a full English breakfast out on the Hotel Hemera’s street terrace. No generic continental breakfast buffet here.
We have one hour to look around Podgorica’s sights – a bridge, a river, a statue of a Russian rock star – before we have to get to the bus station. Our local street of bars and cafes, which closed around 3.30am last night, are all open and packed with people by 11am.
Our bus to the Bay of Kotor takes a 2.5-hours and the journey is a pretty one with snow-capped mountains, Lake Skadar in the distance and dizzying views down to Budva and Sveti Stefan beach resorts. We arrive into Kotor into an apartment overlooking the jade green bay and the Old Town, and sit on the terrace. We have a whole three days here.
One week into the trip, the holiday feels as if it about to begin.
Day 10: Muo, Perast
It’s 24 degrees and we are wearing shorts and sun cream and sun hats. This has been the hardest trip to pack for: just a week ago I was up in the snow-covered Alps. We spend almost all day at ‘home’ in our Muo apartment, lounging and reading and writing and admiring the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and the Unesco Heritage Site of Kotor with its walled, almost triangular Stari Grad (old town).
We are about to leave the apartment when Pete gets the news that his Arts Council England grant application has been successful, which means he will have his first solo exhibition this autumn at Birmingham Open Media. We celebrate by hopping a one-euro 13km bus ride to Perast, a small Venetian-style village further up the bay, for an afternoon beer and sandwiches by the waterside.
A cruise ship enters the bay on its way down to Kotor, ready to disgorge several thousand people into its tiny port. We have learnt to timetable around them and I’m relieved to be in quiet Perast, wandering its tiny alleyways and stone staircases, while Pete 3D-scans a church square bust. Such is our life. We often enjoy our own little worlds, like our rabbits, each somewhere in the vicinity of the other.
Day 11: Kotor
No cruise ships today so Kotor Stari Grad is clear and we can explore at our leisure.
In truth I am ready to go home; yet when I am home I dream of being away. Both realities are perhaps tainted by a rose-tinted perception of reality.
Yesterday I came across another younger backpacking Brummie called Fiona on YouTube who is travelling for three years (as I did at the end of the 90s). I think of her at the future version of my past self – except she is vlogging her travels, advice, inspiration and reassurance. I simultaneously I admire her and think that I can’t go back in time to my own days cross-crossing Asia. I don’t envy the pressure she is under having to serve up daily content to an audience of followers. I remember how great it all was but now find myself annoyed by the narcissistic, self-focused, singular, young backpacker’s viewpoint. And yet… so fascinating and familiar that I think I must hate myself.
Solo travelling felt (still feels) like such an achievement for me, a shy Brummie who fell surprisingly in love with solo travelling as a teenager on a US road trip, enough to later hit the backpack trail to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand…
Travelling opened up my eyes to new lands, people, religion, cultures, perspectives, politics, ways to live, ways to die, ways to think. I even learned the value of my own country when I had the chance to leave it permanently. And later I began to change how I moved through the world, more aware of the impact of travel and tourism, and my own privilege involved in traversing someone else’s land. Travelling humbled me in many ways.
So the other Fiona, the one I found myself watching dispense travel wisdom on YouTube, arrived as an echo from another time and place. She reminded me that I am no longer her and can’t go back to that youthful time and place. That is her present, my past. I am now a traveller who has to some extent settled down. And that makes me question who am I without it? Is there such as thing as being a ‘post-traveller’? How do I travel now, if at all?
Other Fiona is asking for volunteer vloggers to expand her coverage and I’m tempted to offer as Future Fiona – a potential talking futurehead from two decades on. Or just leave her to get on with it. She’ll figure it out.
Meanwhile, back in the present, I am caught in another time travel loop of see my own future 24 hours ahead. I have connected with a friend’s Instagram friend who was in Belgrade, took the train to Podgorica, and arrived in Kotor a day before us. Each day I check her Instagram feed to see where she has gone, before posting variations of her photos a day later. She is currently staying across the bay in Dobrota and that we have probably taken a shot of each other’s apartment. I wave and wonder if she is waving back. From this yester-stream I know we will be climbing to the Kotor Fort and I find it comforting to folllow in a future traveller’s footsteps, at least until the near connections across multiple dimensions via the internet start to melt my brain, for behind us, Hannah and Myk from our Belgrade dinner, will be following us a few days behind.
Climbing the 13oo or so feet up cliffside steps to the Fort is painfully slow but we press on despite the jellylegs and panting for breath. I’m nearly 50, losing my balance and not the fittest but I did it. I got all the way to the top, where the mountain goats frolic and the kids graffiti and the soda sellers sits. I can still do it. I feel good.
At dinner, we toast scaling the beautiful mountains of Montenegro, the success of Pete’s funding and the longevity of us – eight years together, coming up to three married. Achievements.
Tomorrow we cross our final border and my eighth country of the tour, into Croatia. As with all journeys, it feels as if it is ending before it has ended.
Goodbye Belgrade – we head for the train station and get in the long queue to catch our replacement bus service.
The trains have got progressively shitter as I’ve gone further east and, when we finally reach it, this one is the worst yet. There is no dining car or even a coffee bar, the windows are graffitied some to the point of obliterating any view, and second class is both dirty and stewing warm. To be fair, the 10-hour journey costs just over €20, or around 40p an hour, which is a bargain even by Brummie standards.
The reason we are doing this is that the journey is a seat61.com top pick – “one of Europe’s most spectacular train rides” – as it will take us up into the mountains of Montenegro, in and out of around 400+ tunnels, across 200+ bridges and over Europe’s highest viaduct before descending into the capital Podgorica.
Thanks to Mr Popovic we know the train has been declassified so we quickly shift to first class, which is slightly nicer with reclining seats and a clear window. We settle down to pass the time, me looking, Pete reading.
We are sharing our old-school six-seat carriage with a guy who looks like a sexy hitman, and things are pleasantly quiet until three burly old Serb fishermen enter. Their conversation doesn’t pause for several hours. I have no idea what they are saying and very soon want Sexy Hitman to finish them off. Serbian should be a lovely language to listen to with its soft shmuzhy consonants and zhuszhes and itzas but any language spoken relentlessly is a form of travel torture. We three quiet imprisoned passengers all resort to headphones. Too late, local touts board the train selling beer and soda and an alternative option for escape.
The busy carriages and few remaining functioning toilets hum with the smell of sweat and sewage. Smoke fills the corridors and pervades the carriages. The air is oppressive and I find myself counting down the hours, not to Podgorica but to smelling fresh air again. But, of course, there are the dual border checks and the train randomly stops for nearly an hour en route and so we are once again running late. This is how a 300-mile journey takes 11 hours.
Fortunately, the general discomfort is more than outdone by the fact that we are travelling through a green version of the Alps, and even here the train climbs high enough to venture above the snow line.
I spend the last hour out in the corridor, staring far down into the valley at tiny moving cars a thousand metres below and muttering ‘inconceivable’ and ‘unbelievable’ at how the hell this crappy commuter train got up here and wondering if we’ll essentially be riding a rollercoaster down into the valley.
We arrive into Podgorica in darkness. Taxi touts swarm around, crossing the tracks to chase down business. We follow the hotel’s instructions to look for Halo or Red cab companies and soon we are enjoying our splash-out boutique hotel (£68 for two inc full breakfast), with the best monsoon shower and an unexpected mirrored ceiling. I didn’t see that in the reviews.
The joys of comfort and cleanliness and fresh air last only 30 minutes before I realise my small purse with my currency and Visa card in is missing, possibly lost in the back of the cab or back on the train as I packed up. After a long day I feel overwhelmed with emotions and having to deal with stopping all the credit cards. I want to kick myself for being so lax.
After all the cancelling is done, we go out for French fries and then a beer in Bar Berlin over the road to unwind, listen to music and not talk.
I am besieged by thoughts that I am a much less robust traveller than I think. I contemplate all that work planning the trip, organising the different currencies, checking Google Streetview, making a spreadsheet – and how I’ve just gone and fucked it up.
It’s the bit I really want to see – the dormitory of Belgrade – built to house the expanding population. Many of former Yugoslavia’s buildings are also here and seem forgotten or neglected or barely maintained. That’s not much of a sell but it’s bloody great for tourists from Birmingham.
There’s the classicist, modernist Palace of Serbia, still a government building but with no water flowing in its fountain….
The 1970s brutalist Genex Tower, aka the Western City Gate, which is half empty, one residential tower attached to an unrented commercial tower by a two-storey bridge and revolving restaurant (both closed)…
In Blok 28, the Televizorke (TV sets) building, with concrete windows moulded in the shape of TVs, is very much like a Serbian Barbican…
It overlooks a futuristic UFO-shaped concrete kindergarten…
Novi Beograd is so spacious and easy on the eye – if you like blocks and rectangles and grids – after all the fancy buildings of Budapest. Despite unlit subways, empty fountains and crumbling mosaic tiles, the place is feels full of real life and there are people and small cafes and hairdressers on every block.
We sit on the crumbling graffitied unloved fountain plaza of the Genex Tower. It’s a strange holiday place to soak up a rare bit of sun but needs must. A nearby young woman reads her book. Anna, a student dentist, turns out to be a resident of the Tower, and we feel like the luckiest tourists in Belgrade when she invites us in to ride up to the 30th floor for a quick look-see. The building inside is surprisingly nice and cared for and the views through the round window at the top are fine but it’s the building itself that is truly spectacular. It really is a crying shame that Belgrade appears not to care for for it. Anna agrees but “they don’t listen to the young people who have some idea about this kind of stuff”.
From Novi Beograd, we catch a bus slightly further out to Zemun, a very different, almost Mediterranean municipality of Belgrade with a distinctly holiday feel. People are feeding the swans by the Danube, eating ice creams on the promenade and dining on riverside terraces. We order gibanica – cheese pie – at one of these for just a few dinars.
Afterward we do the must-do of Zemun and climb the Gardos tower for a panoramic view of just how big Belgrade is (Zemun is just one of its 17 municipalities). From here we spot the distinct stepped constructions of Yuri Gagarin Street in the far distance. Maybe next year.
We’re leaving tomorrow, having barely touched the surface of Serbia’s capital city. Tomorrow we’re on the train again and it’s going to be a long one.
First thing – well, noon – we change apartments. We now live here for the next 48 hours, in the roof bit, where Pete is pointing. The lift is thankfully much nicer and less weighty on the cables.
We’re sitting in a chain café called CoffeeDream and Pete has been served a salad in a glass storage jar and told to shake it. The look on his face…
People are smoking in here because there are no EU health and safety regs to tell them not to. Also, everyone smokes. For me, this signals the start of a week of heavy passive smoking, sore throats and stinky clothes. Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t resurrect that one.
We wander the cold blustery city, go to the fort, snap Serbian cyrillic characters and cat graffiti, walk along the Sava River and then go to a machine learning art exhibition as part of Resonate Festival. Aw.
Mid-afternoon, we meet two more single-syllabled friends of Pete, Mark and Dom – Ash and John (it took me a while but I think this is correct) – in a smoky pub for cheap local beers called Lav. Once more we are all somehow enraptured of Belgrade’s failings and quirks as much as its marvels.
In the evening, we dine with Hannah, a machine-learning artist, and her fiancé Myk at ‘the organic café’ (there are dishes without meat!) where the conversation is suitably intellectually geeky – about bias in datasets and ways to make that more transparent.
The wrangling of information is very relevant to my interests after several decades spent in fact-checking journalism for mainstream media and chasing objectivity in the representation of a story’s facts, according to the NUJ’s Code of Ethics. But as the evening goes on I become more aware that mere humans are no longer up to this task. Machine learning is obfuscating the nature of the source data and its biases are often not obvious – until you fall outside the algorithm, at least. Who is checking the input data for bias, accuracy, context, relevance? So many parallels with journalism and the rise of fake news. One interesting thing… Wikipedia is launching https://www.wikitribune.com with paid fact-checkers because news is so broken right now.
Anyway… it was an interesting evening.
More than this, I love that this stuff is taking place in Belgrade and that people are coming from all over the world to discuss this here.
Panic at Kelenfold Station – it is 10.55, the Beograd train says 11.04 but I was told it leaves at 11.37. I run with my backpack up the stairs to the ticket office where a man tells me “Table! Watch! Number!” increasingly slowly and loudly before finally writing it down and slamming it up against the window. “TABLE! WATCH! NUMBER!”
In case the Avala is leaving early, I run to platform 14 down this corridor…
Thank God for Milos Rabbit (amazingly his Serbian surname translates as rabbit) – an English-speaking Serb with a Thai wife who works in Vienna but is on his way to the border to see his mom and also visit the dentist. He explains that 11.04 is the arrival time (which makes no sense) and that we shall leave at the appointed hour, (which we do).
It is only 15 euros to travel for nine hours on the Beograd Special from Budapest. We talk for five hours straight – about Brexit, NATO, Putin, Trump, North Korea, China, and where to go in case of nuclear war (New Zealand). Also infosecurity, as he is an IT manager. And how I mustn’t panic when the train tilts after Novi Sad and the rickety bridge after that – “Don’t worry, it’s normal.” He gives me his number to call in case I need anything translated once I get to Belgrade.
At the border, we sit on the train for an hour, traverse no man’s land, then enter Serbia. “Welcome to THE LAND OF MAN!” he announces.
“We’re not in the EU anymore!” I add, and nearly burst into tears at the double meaning.
I see flat farmland, a horse-drawn plough, old women working iron machinery, bombed out buildings, chickens, goats and snoozing farm dogs, backyard subsistence crops, and maize flowers growing up through the tracks. I’ve been told that Serbia is a bit ‘Wild West’ but I thought because it was struggling post-war not because it is actual frontierland.
“Serbs are direct, honest and very hospitable,” says Milos. “But also they don’t care. If people in Serbia cared, it could be a great country. But we would rather be poor and free.”
After Milos leaves, I head for the white tableclothed dining car to spend my leftover florints. I have enough for goulash and a Chardonnay. I am the only person in the dining car. The chef puts his book down and shows me various plastic wallets of food before firing up the microwave.
Arnold, the subversive industrial-music-loving, spiky-grey-haired Hungarian chef, gives me a free beer once I’m done and we chat as darkness falls, all the way into Belgrade. The train is late once more and we toast Mr Popovic of Wasteels Travel Agency, who is waiting for me at the other end to pay for the next set of tickets to Podgorica. Poor Pete is not toasted as, being the husband, he has to be there to meet me. The conversation gets drunker and the toasts more frequent, and I arrive quite merry into Belgrade thinking how very wonderful solo travel is.
Sadly I don’t get to meet Mr Popovic as Pete has already paid him and collected the tickets by the time I arrive. I’m told he looked suitably like a kindly gnomish owner of an antiquarian occult bookshop, but taller. Later, I arrange to buy him a Lottery ticket as a thank you for waiting. He says, if he wins, he will buy a new car. I love Mr Popovic.
Pete, meanwhile, is in a panic after asking when the train from Bucharest came in and being told to go to the other side of the city.
I had thought Belgrade would be flat being by the Sava and Danube rivers but he walks me up, up and up into the old town area, through higgledy-piggedly barely lit streets and broken staircases. The hill finally plateaus into a pedestrianised high steet with al fresco seating. But the tone has been set. Belgrade reminds me of the Birmingham Bull Ring in the gritty 70s, and I feel safe and strangely at home.
The lift to ‘WOW’ Apartment is decrepit and clanking; its walls lined with molten effect something or other. It drops down half a foot when we enter. Despite the shady common parts of the block, the apartment itself is indeed very wow with a giant chaise longue sleigh and dark bachelor pad colours.
I meet Mark and Dom, who are also here for their fifth Resonate festival, but all anyone can talk about is how bonkers Serbia is, from the supercheap prices to the meat dinner lurking at the bottom of a pasta dish to gigs in old abbatoirs to the 1970s Brutalist Western City Gate crazy architecture.
I’m happy to be back in the land of conversation. The solo first half of my trip is over. Now for ‘the holiday’.
I’m staying in the catchily-titled 4YOU Citycenter Apartments, actually in the company’s old converted offices on the fourth floor of an inner courtyard. There is a pull-up bar on the door, tea in the cupboard and a gift chocolate bar on the table from Gabor, called Balaton Bum.
I sleep until noon and am overcome with the strongest feeling NOT to venture out into a new and strange city. I just want home comforts and familiarity of which there is none here – the light switches flick up for on, the doors open outwards and the language is impenetrable.
“It’s Finnish,” explains Gabor.
“Ah,” I say, feeling like a bemused jetlagged Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.
It is also unseasonably cold and raining. “This is a tragedy,” says Gabor, with stereotypical Hungarian pessimism and woe.
I spend the day running for cover to places recommended by the always good Spotted by Locals app: Soos Foto (10 old Hungarian photos for a florint!)…
…Café Noe for melt-creamy square-stacked Jewish pastries, the BP Shop for BUDA FCKN PEST t-shirt designs, Retrock for some (actually really nice) vintage designer clothes…
…the Hotel Gellert’s thermal spa (“like bathing in a cathedral”), the No2 tram for a cheap 15-minute riverside tour…
…and finally Semmi Extra for burger and beer supper in a converted cinema whose name translates as ‘No problem’.
The Fitbit hits a record 23,000 steps.
The next day is fretful. It is half taken up sorting out my onward ticket to Belgrade – engineering works mean the daily Avala train is leaving from Kelenfold suburban station not Keleti – meanwhile Booking.com has also decided to glitch and not accept payment for a future booking and is going to cancel it. I end up hanging on a customer service line to the Netherlands and burning all my phone credit.
The afternoon doesn’t improve much. I’m looking forward to relaxing in the Szechenyi Spa but I’m in the water less than 30 seconds when a Hungarian silver fox called Steve says “You have nice body”, “You want a massage?”, and then follows me into another pool where British stags are pointing out a spray of suspicious brown bits floating in the murky green water.
The place feels icky after that and I bath-hop an endless series of pools watching the watchers ogle, running away from Steve and feeling dispirited.
Four days without a decent conversation is wearing thin. Do I still enjoy this solo travel thing? I guess. But Budapest does not fill me with that feeling of “THIS IS IT! There is NO PLACE I’d rather be right now and nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
I settle my bill with the every-helpful Gabor and we arrange that he will buy a Hungarian Lottery ticket with my tip – if we win small, we’ll give it all to the homeless; if we win big, it will be spent on “cancer solutions” and buying a Budapest apartment to rent out that he will manage. I love how the idea of a Lottery win connects people across the divide and decide to buy random Lotto tickets for others I meet on the trip.
(Gabor emails me the ticket as proof. We don’t win.)