Saturday, 23 August 2014

Eastbourne Spirit

Maybe it was because it was Airbourne, which is one of the busiest periods of the summer season for the town – but even there it was, according to all the staff at the hotel, the busiest they’d ever seen it.

Maybe it was because the weather was generally good and a sunny summer’s day will always draw people to the beach.

Or maybe it is that the town has a fighting spirit that its neighbours on the coast have lacked in the past, but it was clear that Eastbourne and its population was determined to make sure the loss of a large part of its pier to a “suspicious” fire a couple of weeks earlier wasn’t going to harm the town.

By the time I visited barely a fortnight after the pier was ablaze on the TV news there were already guys starting restoration work, with the owners aiming to have at least the decking open by Christmas, and a real buzz in town that it wasn’t going to be hurt by this.

It is a stark contrast to Hastings just along the coast which has always felt a little bit down at heel and when it’s pier was almost completely destroyed by fire (again another “Suspicious” fire) appeared to have had the wind completely knocked out of it.  There have been appeals, and the whole site is now in the custody of a trust that is determined to rebuild, but it’s still been nearly 4 years that it’s just been a rusting hulk.

And then there’s Brighton’s West Pier battered, burnt, battered some more and then finally another suspicious fire in 2003 (you’d almost think there’s someone out there deliberately going round setting light to piers – see also Western Super Mare and Southend for other pier fires) destroying any attempts to recover it.

So it is comforting to see a town so quickly start to put things right.

At one time there were over 100 piers around the coast of the UK, today it’s barely 50.  Hopefully the speed with which Eastbourne has acted will help keep that figure above 50 for long to come.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Curtain Call

“From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic an "Iron Curtain" has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia…”
Winston Churchill: 5th March 1946

Having come across the quote on numerous occasions I’d never really paid it much attention, but a few years ago I saw a programme on Deutsche Welle about someone taking a bike trip along the former East German border, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I didn't pay it much attention at the time, but it started to come back into my mind as I looked to plan a “big trip” for 2012 – Why not travel from Stettin (which only after a bit of hunting around did I find out was now Szczecin in Poland) to Trieste?

It was very obvious early on that to try and squeeze that into a fortnight would be an almost impossible task if I actually wanted to spend time in any of the places I was planning to go through.

So I split the trip up into three, uneven, but doable bits without even considering the finishing date.

In 2012 I started in Szczecin (Stettin) on the Baltic and travelled round the edge of what had once been the DDR

In 2013 I travelled through some of the areas most impacted by the Iron Curtain – Dresden left with a hole in its city centre as a reminder of what “The West” had done, Prague and Budapest – scenes of the brutal repression the Warsaw pact handed out to people who didn't toe the line and through the former Czechoslovakia a country that following the fall of communism decided to go one stage further and without any bloodshed or fighting simply dissolve its marriage and let its two nations go their own way.

As I started to plan for 2014, the final leg through the former Yugoslavia and down to the Adriatic at Trieste, it suddenly started to dawn on me quite how important a year this is.

It was, after all, in Sarajevo in 1914 that a single shot sparked the bloodbath of the First World War as Europe ripped itself to shreds.

And, it was just 15 years ago that American and British planes were “strategically bombing” Serbia in an attempt to bring an end to the ethnic wars that had torn Yugoslavia apart.

But, perhaps most relevantly to my journey down the Iron Curtain were the actions that took place on May 2nd 1989.  25 years ago without consulting anyone the Hungarian government decided to open its borders with Austria; it dismantled 150 miles of barbed wire and with it opened the flood gates.

Whilst democracy movements had already started to take hold in both Poland and Hungary by then, this was the first hole being punched in the Iron Curtain, a fatal hole that just 6 months late on November 9th saw Berliners dancing on the top of the Berlin Wall.

25 years on and there are a host of new or newly-independent countries.  Some like the Czech Republic and Slovakia achieving this amicably and smoothly, some like the Baltic States and Slovenia after some fighting and sadly in the rest of the Balkans through years of horrific war.

But, what’s clear, 25 years on from the curtains collapse, and 15 years on from the end of the wars in the Balkans, Europe has stitched itself back together.

From Szczecin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic it’s been an interesting, and at times eye-opening journey through a part of the world that once looked like it had disappeared for ever.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Fears fade away

I've travelled a lot around Europe.  But up until now everywhere has been into the known.

If it’s not been an EU state it’s been Norway, Iceland or Switzerland, which are highly likely to be top answers in a quiz “name three countries you’d describe as safe”.

The only other exit from EU/EFTA has been to Dubrovnik in Croatia, and that’s always been such a holiday resort that I didn't bat an eyelid with that.

But Serbia, the mystic point where Central Europe becomes Eastern Europe.  Through so much of my late teens held up as the modern day bad guy of Europe – so bad we went to war with them, well a massively one-sided war where we dropped bombs on their key cities.  This is the point in Europe where even the alphabet changes - where Z becomes 3 and N becomes H.

So it was with some trepidation last September that I booked three nights in a hotel in Belgrade.  How would I cope with a completely different alphabet and more importantly, how do Brits go down in a country that we helped to damage so badly just 15 years ago.

Then there was also the delicate situation that I’d managed, through my own fault, to put myself in – I was aiming to come to Serbia direct from Croatia, two countries that it’s fair to say have a slightly fractious relationship.

In the end, the weather helped to solve the issue of entry into the country.  With such bad flooding during the spring in Serbia, which at one point looked like it might overwhelm Belgrade itself, I decided that the direct train route was a bit of a risk as services kept getting cancelled as lines were damaged.  Yes, everything would probably have been fine by late July, but I didn't want to risk that.

So instead I opted to fly, at which point it becomes clear how good the relationship between Zagreb and Belgrade is – there are no direct flights, not even from low cost or other countries carriers – so instead I was forced to go on a massive diversion and go via Dubrovnik.  However, this did mean that whilst I would still be arriving into Belgrade from Croatia, I would be doing it from almost on the Montenegrin border and, more importantly, I’d be doing it on Air Serbia.

Arriving into Belgrade it was pretty obvious that this was a major international airport as everything was in English, but more importantly everything was in two versions of Serbian – the Cyrillic and the Latin.  Suddenly things started to make sense, that jumble of characters Београд did actually spell Beograd, maybe it wasn't going to be so difficult to get around.

However, the clearest sign that I’d need never have worried was in every interaction I had with a Serbian – from the border guard to waiters to random strangers – a few faltering attempts at Serbian always led to near perfect “Can I just practice my English, as I don’t think it’s particularly good at the moment” and the rest of the conversation in perfect English.

On the first evening I was having a wander around the Belgrade Fortress, close to sunset and on a couple of occasions got talking to local people.  Hesitantly I would say I was from London, expecting a negative response back about what we did to them – but every time people's reaction was happiness that another Brit had made it to Serbia, that the country was slowly winning back tourists from the west and that the bad days were behind us all – after all, hadn't we both fought together as comrades during the worst years of the 20th Century.

It probably helps that it is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War (and if asked the question by a Serbian I've found “The Kaiser and the Hapsburg's were spoiling for a fight and any excuse would have been used” is the best answer to who’s responsible for starting the war) had brought back into focus the alliances that were forged across Europe in those dark days, alliances that on the whole remained the same 21 years later when it all erupted again and are probably easier to look to than the darker days of the recent past.

Yes, the scars that NATO members inflicted on Belgrade and other Serbian cities are still there to see – entire blocks in the centre of Belgrade still left in the state they were after the bombs fell – But, and it’s a big but, Serbia has moved on.

The centre of Belgrade is, in places, still a bit shabby – but then the same can be said for any city that had to be rebuilt in the 1950’s.  But there is still clearly grandeur there – from the Fortress on its hill overlooking the Danube and Sava rivers merging, to the Parliament and the newly restored turn of the 20th century buildings across the city.

I left Zagreb apprehensive about where I was heading.  I left Belgrade wanting to stay longer and visit more of this amazing country.