Friday, 27 November 2009

'Private' beach, Budva, Montenegro

A small beach in Montenegro

"Russians," he said, with an air of bitter-sweet regret. "Too much, eh? Too much?"
I was clearly expected to agree but, seeing as we were swinging around hairpin bends on the mountainous coast road to Budva at the time, it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than the possibility that my son might be about to projectile vomit all over the taxi's leather upholstery.
This journey hadn't been part of the schedule. Having crossed the border into predictably rugged Montenegro from the relatively gentle mayhem of Shkodra in northern Albania, we'd had time for several cups of coffee outside Podgorica railway station before sitting out on the platform to wait for the train down to Bar and a spectacular journey through the mountains to the Adriatic coast. In a suitably dilapidated train, we'd rumbled into tunnels, and out again into valleys that took your breath away and around the brimming banks of lakes where fat men in swimming trunks were casually tossing fishing lines. At Bar, we tried and failed to find the only hotel that the guide book could bring itself to recommend.
"What do you want to stay here for?" asked the first taxi driver who picked us up. "Big money! Try this instead."
He dropped us outside what looked like a cross between a 1970s dole office and a vandalised primary school. The curtains were like shrouds; they blew out through the holes where the windows should have been. As we walked away, another cabby U-turned across the dual carriageway and then snorted with identical scorn when we mentioned the other hotel that the guide book recommended.
"Big money! Pah!" he said, even more emphatically than his colleague. "Where are you going anyhow? Budva? Kotor?"
Before we knew it, we were on our way to "somewhere much better" out of town. A petrol pump attendant filled our tank and waved us through without bothering to ask for money. It was as if having westerners in the back of his Mercedes were enough to grant our driver carte blanche. He took to the coast road with a derring-do which verged on the insane. After several more U-turns and tunnels, we were hanging over Sveti Stefan, the island resort much favoured by the likes of Sophia Loren. "It is presidential resort," announced the driver.
Hotels clinging to sheer-sided slopes came and went. They were all, he went on, built and owned by Russians. Somewhere around a hair-pin, and just beyond policemen hanging over a hundred-metres drop to look down onto a car crash, we arrived in Budva. This was where, the driver decided, we should stop. After some daredevil rubber-necking, he slid into the traffic heading into the resort. He'd been talking about delivering us further north in the old Venetian city of Kotor but he'd obviously lost interest. It was much too far. Instead, we swooped through lumbering coast road buses and, just past a half-finished apartment block, pulled up in a side street where the Hotel Kangaroo announced that it might or not have vacancies. God knows what the answer would have depended upon because we didn't have much choice. No sooner had the taxi rolled to a halt than a woman with far too many wrinkles for her age and a Japanese T-shirt leapt up from a table where she'd been drinking espresso very slowly, and, via the taxi driver's halting translation, announced that she had a room where we could stay. A short walk from the beach, amongst guesthouses overspilling towel-wrapped Serbians, Russians, Ukrainians and, since the political wind was still blowing in that direction, Slovenians, Bosnians and Croats, we were shown into a bare, four-walled cell kitted out wth a broken 80s ghetto blaster and a plug socket held onto the wall with gaffer tape. Naturally, we took it.
Budva itself was a ruin waiting to happen. In the absence of planning permission, a narrow strip of habitable land between the mountains and the sea was being rendered entirely uninhabitable. Adventure sports addicts who had no idea about where they were staying, other than that it was relatively close to an EasyJet airport, floated down into the bay on paragliders. The concrete skeletons of hotels were going up everywhere and the deeply stacked stalls along the waterfront sold everything from candy floss and shark's teeth to dodgy DVDs and ripped-off designer clothing. In the marina, photogenic yachts were moored beneath a gigantic hi-def TV screen.
In a bar in the old town, we sat drinking beer and were immediately distracted by a bulbous Russian oligarch with a half-shaved skull, a pony tail and a seventeen-year-old girlfriend in a bikini. Gift shops sold 'traditional' handicrafts and, in a cafe just down from the unvisited Archaeological Museum, we tried very hard to choose a salad that wasn't produced according to a recipe sent out across Europe from the restaurant franchise's HQ. People had come halfway across the continent to buy telling Balkan fragments and were going home with mass-produced necklaces, T-shirts and recorders. On the waterfront, the immigrant workers charged with sloshing out the bilges of the oligarchs' floating palazzi sat at tables knocking back glasses of indeterminate raki while impressed tourists took their picture. Under the trees, there were people selling cardigans, traditional knitwear and fish. A small sea bass wilted under the streetlamps outside the Hemingway Bar.
The town's only treasure was its library. Up in the castle, where teenagers forced into traditional dress handed out tickets that nobody bothered to check, there was a room full of locked cabinets. Each one contained ranks of books: English, French and German volumes about the difficult history of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Nobody would agree to open the cases so I lay on the floor, scribbling down titles onto the backs of free postcards, each one half-blotted out by sweat, each one, hopefully, on Google Books. Outside, on both sides of the high Venetian ramparts, swimmers dived off the white stone walls into the bay.
Across the water was an island known as 'Hawaii'. It looks like that: a sudden volcanic apostrophe rising out of the sea. We followed a path round the headland towards a 'private' beach where, having handed over three euros for the privilege or 'privacy', we picked a route across the crowded strand to find a metre or two between American backpackers reading John Irving novels and the canvas shower cubicle where overweight Russians came to gossip before they washed off salt and sand. It was so hot you could hardly walk down to the water. We tiptoed around like ballerinas while the beach cafes thumped out turbofolk. Under the water, the only dangers were dumped beer cans, shiny-white between the lumps of rock. Looking back towards the beach , I couldn't help noticing a woman stood on the shoreline, arms outstretched, looking towards where her children were splashing around in the sea. Her husband called her back towards the bar. As she turned, the slogan across her buttocks was plain to see: 'Cool!' - the message and the medium perfectly out of kilter.

Originally published on-line by Various Artists. Reposted here with thanks. Tom Phillips

Shkodra, Albania

Shkodra: The now abandoned Lead Mosque (top); inside Rozafa Castle (middle) and the view across Lake Shkodra towards Montenegro (bottom).

Friday, 20 November 2009

The legend of Rozafa Castle

What's left of Rozafa Castle stands on a rocky promontory just outside Shkodra in northern Albania. It overlooks the flood plain where, before the river burst its banks one too many times, a bazaar used to be and where the only sign of this stretch of damp, flat land's former life is the hollow carcass of a mosque. A taxi driver will take you up the steep twists of the castle approach as far as a car park just below the gates or you can walk from the musty, communist-era hotel in the centre of town, stopping at the rank of new shops and cafes on the outskirts for a coffee and an ice-cream in a novelty 'Punky' plastic figurine. Across the dual carriageway, a lane lunges up in zigzag slashes across the promontory, past walled orchards and a primary school which still has communist slogans pebble-dashed into concrete blocks in the playground.
Rozafa is one of Albania's effectively impregnable citadels. Its history involves numerous sieges and, in the fifteenth century, it was the last fortress to surrender when the Ottoman Empire was crushing the rebellions inspired by goat-helmeted Albanian warlord Skanderbeg. When Rozafa castle fell, Albania was consigned to Ottoman occupation until independence in 1912.
These days, Rozafa is the domain of school parties who plod around the ramparts clutching garish flags and flocks of in-bred pigeons which hobble across the courtyard by the castle museum, their feet hidden by strange sprays of grey feathers. The views are spectacular, there's a chapel which became a mosque and then became a chapel again, and the castle bar is staffed by boys reluctantly wearing traditional dress. Access to the museum is determined by the electricity supply. When there's no power, you'll get in for free but you won't be able to see anything.
The legend of Rozafa is the story of the third builder's wife. Three brothers, it seems, were building the castle but the section of the wall they were building repeatedly collapsed. At the end of their tether, they were relieved when an Albanian version of a djinn turned up and offered a 'deal'. The wives of these three brothers came up to the castle every day, bringing lunch. Should the first wife to appear the following day be incarcerated in the wall, the castle would be finished. The djinn asked the three brothers to swear that none of them would forewarn their wives. They did so but two of them, of course, immediately broke their promise and told their wives to stay home all day. The third, though, kept his word and, the following day, watched while his wife toiled up the promontory to deliver his lunch. He promptly told her that she was the one who had to be immured to guarantee the completion of the castle. Remarkably, she agreed (or was forced) but only on the grounds that, since she had a young baby to feed, a small hole would be left in the wall, through which she could breastfeed her child. Even to this day, milky water is said to seep from various holes in the walls of Rozafa castle.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Ornithology in the Balkans

Ornithology in the Balkans

It wasn't the Muslim weddings that took our eye
on that alluvial floodplain so much
as bent-wire cages under every tree,
goldfinches' less than common soliciting
beside trapped black squirrels and a dove.
At xhiro hour, along streets of dark stairwells,
the hawkers were out, their not so fair trade
drawing buyers who swooped on bargains
and took promises of health and long life
as just so much hot air. On the fly,
you might have been taken in
by flashes of iridescence or plain song.
Above the mountains of another country,
the rumoured eagles were predominantly crows.

Because, at one time, there was more
than some doubt, above the disputed town,
its castle flaunts a history of sieges
in so many collapsing balustrades,
and the milk-white dribble between stones
which is said to seep from the breast
of the wife sacrificed to complete it.
Across the promontory's ruined terrain,
we were trying to work out which wall
had belonged to which religion
when, against the faithless sky,
a squadron flew in: dandyish pigeons,
bred for it, stumbling around,
hunting down a roost in feathery galoshes.

The first one

At this stage, a broad statement of intent would be unwise. Suffice it to say, the putative title of this blog was going to be Working Progress, something of a hedge between work-in-progress and a broader, vaguer optimism - but that had already been snaffled by someone else and, on reflection, it does rather sound like the title of a particularly bland Labour Party manifesto. Perhaps, in fact, the Labour Party were the ones who snaffled it first.
I imagine, then, that the contours of this 'whatever it is' will emerge over time but, for the moment, it will mainly feature bits and pieces of writing which will probably be by me but which might well also be contributed by other writers later on. These bits and pieces - poems, fiction, theatre, travelogue etc - may be in a more or less finished state. That depends. Sometimes it's interesting to see work-in-progress; other times it isn't. Likewise, it's sometimes interesting to read about the process behind a piece of writing and, at other times, that can be as dull as the dullest ditchwater. Or, indeed, that metaphor itself. Other posts might not have anything to do with writing at all.
What this won't be, however, is a wide-ranging blogzine like the continually thought-provoking Eyewear ( or a blogsplurge of dietary habits, relationship stress and what happened on 'The X-Factor' this week. Recreation Ground sits somewhere in between, like an underused all-weather tennis court beside the mainline between Euston and Glasgow, exactly, in fact, like the underused all-weather tennis court which sat beside the mainline between Euston and Glasgow at the head of 'the rec' in the village where I grew up. Just down the slope is the 'impossible' (or, more accurately, pointless) cricket pitch carved into the side of a hill and the knackered old pavillion with a stopped clock sitting like a cake decoration above a verdigris-scrawled balcony.
Today I ate sausages for lunch and tried to upload my wife's photograph to her Facebook account.