31 May 2012

A day at Obrenovac

We spent Wednesday at Obrenovac.   I hadn't previously caught a bus from the Belgrade bus station, but it was hassle-free (although speaking Serbian meant that we didn't have to see whether we could have got by in English).    You do have to know where to get off the bus.  We knew it was going past Obrenovac, but it passed by the bus station there, so we had to think quickly and get off at the next stop.   Obrenovac is a pleasant town  about 25 kms south west of Belgrade.  I was interested that cyrillic was much more used around town than latin script,  with many signs  being only in cyrillic (except the all-pervasive advertisements, of course).   On the other hand,  in Belgrade, although there is a lot of cyrillic, latin is also commonly used.

On arrival, we caught up with Tetka Radmila and Tanja, then Tanja took an afternoon off from her professional life (as a divorce lawyer) and took us to a lovely lunch at restoran Zabran in the woodlands out of town.   I had a local lamb dish, and Sue had a fish dish (we were told that the fish had been caught locally in the River Sava). 
Following a leisurely lunch on the deck, we returned to town to have coffee and cake with Sue's cousin Ljubo, wife Gordana, and daughter Marija and son Damjan.   

It was a lovely spring day, and we sat on the balcony.  Interestingly, during the discussion the severity of last year's winter was mentioned - the temperature reached minus 25 degrees, and there was a metre of snow in the town's streets.    Seems that I will have to update my post a little while back about Murder on the Orient Express, to mention the possibility of severe snow storms in this area (Obrenovac, like Vinkovci, is on the Danube/Sava flood plain).

Tanja and her friend Marijana then very kindly gave us a lift back to Belgrade.

Dinner at Milutin's

Milutin invited us (and Rada)  to dinner at his penthouse-style pad in the heart of Belgrade's club district! He's an architect and did the renovations himself, and the result is fantastic - it includes not one but two balconies, on different levels, and the interior is superb.   He also did all the cooking himself with great results, then gave us a lift "home" past the floodlit parliamentary building.
On the upper balcony

View down into the courtyard


Exterior of building (heritage classified)

Parliamentary building by night

30 May 2012


We went looking for the street in Dorćol with numerous cafes and restaurants. Dorćol was one of the original settlements, just outside the Kalemegdan fortress, sitting beneath the fortress walls.     It has a number of old buildings, but because it's on the banks of the Danube, it's also an industrial area. As it was outside the main city, it has a multicultural tradition.   I understand that during the Turkish occupation of Belgrade, it was a trading centre, with many markets and traders of different nationalities, and it was also the centre of Belgrade's Jewish community.

However, although we knew it existed, we didn't find the trendy street, which we now know (via Wikipedia) to be Strahinjića Bana street.   Instead, we went off in the opposite direction and found the railway lines and quite a number of fairly dilapidated buildings.    But we pushed on and reached the bank of the Danube, which is another feature of the area.  At this point there is a pleasant pathway and various restaurants, both on land and floating.   We had a very satisfactory lunch at one of the casual eating places,  right at the point where the Sava meets the Danube. 

We followed up with a coffee at "Woolloomooloo" floating restaurant.

We weren't going to have coffee, but when we saw the name, we couldn't resist!    The proprietor was sitting off to one side, so we didn't approach him to ask how he came to adopt the name.  That's a challenge for another day (maybe).

 It was very pleasant sitting in the mild sunshine on extremely comfortable seats, watching the various river activities:   ducks, fishermen and the occasional barge.

We then walked past the Novak tennis centre (!)
 and around the base of Kalemegdon.

Looking up at the walls made us realise just how impressive its defences must have been.



 Then it was just a short walk to the tram stop for the direct tram ride "home".

Fare evasion?

We were on the number 5 tram, but it broke down.    Everyone had to get off, and we got on the number 2 tram to finish our journey.   We mulled over the dilemma - do we pay another fare?   Since our trip ought only to have involved a single journey, why should we pay another fare when, through no fault of ours, we were obliged to transfer to another tram?
I ventured the opinion that, in Melbourne, it wouldn't have been expected of you to pay again (in the days when each trip involved a separate ticket), so why should it be any different in Belgrade?
Although Rada who was with  us was inclined to agree with me, we took the conservative approach and in fact validated our cards again thus paying another fare at a cost of 60 dinars (just under 70 cents Australian).
I was still brooding about this possibly unnecessary extravagance when, lo and behold, a lady boarded the tram with a device in her hand.  A man near the back door made a hasty exit.   Yes, she was a ticket inspector - the only one we've seen so far in Belgrade.   And, when questioned, she asserted that had we not paid another fare, we would have been liable for a penalty fare.  Not fair, but on reflection, it was worth the 60 dinars each not to have had to have the argument!

29 May 2012

Madera restaurant

We took ourselves by tram down Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra to St Marks (next to the Tasmajdan Park) and then had lunch at nearby Restoran Madera.

Sue had been there previously, and remembered that it was good.  In fact, this time we agreed that it was really great, in terms of the food, the ambiance and the service.   In fact, it's possibly re-calibrated my standards for restaurants!

 It's in a historic location (at one stage, the area was designated as the place for the vending of dynamite!), and you can dine either inside or outside under the umbrellas and trees (as we did).  Also dining were what seemed to be a cross-section of Belgrade business people (a number of black BMWs etc were in the carpark).  My gnocchi was terrific and Sue loved her duck with madeira sauce served with grilled vegetables.  We shouldn't have had deserts but we did.   What's more we each had one instead of sharing.  Sue had a rich chocolate cake and I had cherry pita.  The service was impeccable, and the prices, although probably at the "top end" for Belgrade (but modest by international standards), were in line with those in the tourist precincts.

Chess players in Kalemegdan

Sava River from Kalemegdan.  New bridge in distance and rain approaching.

After lingering over lunch we continued on downtown, including Trg Republike, the Knez Mihailova pedestrian mall and a brief walk around Kalemegdan before the onset of showers forced us to find the number 5 tram and return to base!

28 May 2012

Warm welcome to Belgrade

We were really warmly welcomed in Belgrade (although the weather is a little cooler than in Paris, which is nice)!   Ljubisa met us at the airport, and after dropping our baggage at Rada's, we headed over to Branislav and Gordana's lovely apartment where we had a wonderful lunch.  Milutin was also present, as was Gordana's mother.  A number of kumovi dropped in too!    But we were especially pleased to meet little Mihailo and new-born Pavle for the first time.  Branislav and Gordana are obviously proud parents!
There was lots of wide-ranging discussion, including about the political scene in both Serbia and Australia (probably best not to go there in a blog!)

Branislav has fitted me out with a wireless dongle, and Milutin helped us with tram/bus cards.   We're also working through a local sim card for Sue's phone.
Then after returning with Rada, she whisked up some proja for supper.  Wonderful!


Reflections on Paris

Sitting in the lounge at CDG Airport, about to leave Paris, prompts me to reflect on the past few days (but not posted until arrival in Belgrade - see subsequent post!).
We were very satisfied with the Paris apartment, and it was very well fitted out. All our dealings with the agency were excellent. Everything was properly documented and the arrangements were clear and all worked perfectly.
You certainly get more bang for your euro with apartment rental than with a hotel, but I suspect there's not as much flexibility if your arrangements change (for example, if you have flight delays etc).
We wouldn't like to have had this particular apartment in the heat of summer. We had a few days in the mid 20s. Our windows faced the east, so by lunch-time, the place was pretty warm. It's only May, so things weren't too bad, and we caught some of the breeze, and things cooled down in the evening. The agent also told us that they supply a fan in summer. However, unless we left the front door open, there was no cross-ventilation. Air conditioning doesn't seem to be widespread, but if we were ever to be here in the summer period, we would regard it as essential.
As I've mentioned previously, downstairs from us was a popular bar, where the boys were enjoying themselves until 1 am or later on Friday and Saturday nights. This didn't really trouble us, as the double-gazed windows were pretty effective, but had we wanted to leave them open on a warm night, we would have been faced with a choice between catching the breeze or having a relatively quiet night!
Luxembourg Gardens
More generally, there's no doubt that there is much that is very attractive about Paris, including the oases of green such as Place des Vosges and the  Jardin du Luxembourg.
 And the streetscapes are appealing (although occasionally bordering on the monotonous!), presumably as a result of what I imagine must be fairly stringent controls. The people are polite: how they tolerate so many tourists is a mystery to me (although I suspect that tourism is an important contributor to the economy). We have found that, by making a little effort, you'll be met with a gracious and helpful response – even though I have no ear for French at all (although I can occasionally discern the meaning of the written word). Perhaps it's just the way it worked out this time, but my impression is that the Parisian attitude to us was even better this time than on previous visits (not that we have ever had cause to complain in the past). I wonder if the fact that many residents of Paris (or their parents) started life somewhere else is a factor? Even the lady from the agency for our apartment mentioned that she was born on Reunion Island.
Place des Vosges

If you can't speak French, then English is definitely the next best alternative. In all the museums that we visited, most of the information was available in English as well as French, and only occasionally was it available in other languages. Frequently signs and other instructions are in English, and nearly everyone we encountered in shops and the like could communicate at least at a basic level in English. It made me a little sorry for the group of Spanish-speakers (I think) who sat next to us in a restaurant where there was a bilingual menu. It seemed that there was one member who could manage in English, who was interpreting the English-language version of the menu for the benefit of the others.
And so now on to Belgrade, where I expect a range of quite different experiences awaits!

27 May 2012

Pompidou Centre

It's our last day in Paris.  We're off to Belgrade first thing in the morning.   I'm not sure if I'll have regular access to the internet there, so blog postings may become intermittent.

We had a few hours spare, so we headed off to the nearby Pompidou Centre.   After some indecision, we acquired tickets to the art museums as well as the view (€13) rather than tickets that merely allowed us to ascend to the roof and take in the view (€3). 
Hence, we fitted in a visit to the temporary Matisse exhibition as well as to the permanent displays.   I was impressed by the Matisse exhibition.   I'm no expert on art, and I knew even less about Matisse, but the exhibition had some great works and was logically arranged.
The permanent display falls into two categories:   modern art and contemporary art.   This gallery thus picks up about where d'Orsay finishes.    "Modern art" is defined as about 1905 to 1960, and "contemporary art" is 1960 to the present day.  Both displays are arranged in a logical sequence, with quite good descriptions of where things fit in.

Not sure why this is "art"!

I liked a number of the "modern" pieces, but I struggled with many of the "contemporary" pieces.  This is not to say that some of them aren't quite "nice" to look at, but what makes them "art"?   And what is the criteria for "good" contemporary art, that is, why are some artists chosen whereas presumably there are hundreds out there that don't make the cut?   Perhaps I reveal my ignorance in asking these rhetorical questions, and maybe I should confine myself to just gazing on the various works and getting enjoyment out of those that appeal to me.

I liked this Picasso

One thought that crossed my mind was to compare this gallery with MOMA in Hobart.   Of course I'm aware that while MOMA has, I understand,  had the generous support of David Walsh, it presumably hasn't had the same resources over an extended period of years (since 1947) as the Pompidou Centre.   Nevertheless, if I recall correctly, MOMA doesn't attempt to set out its holdings in any sort of logical sequence or to categorise them to any extent - or, if it does, it wasn't obvious to me at the time of our visit.   And,  if I may say so, a very significant difference is that I didn't find any of the works at the Pompidou Centre to be confronting, as are many of the works at MOMA.    That's not intended as a criticism, as MOMA is of course at liberty to do as it wishes, but it would be a pity if MOMA gave rise to the impression that for modern/contemporary art to be "good", it must be confronting.

View towards Sacre Coeur

L'Opéra Garnier

Opening hours in Paris resemble Melbourne Metro's train timetables - they're sometimes aspirational.   Yes, I know that we missed out on Berthillion because they're always closed on Tuesdays, but when I tried to visit the office of the agent for our apartment in the middle of the afternoon, when they were supposed to be open, I realised that I shouldn't take advertised opening hours for granted.   Likewise, I sought out a particular shop to buy an item for W -  not yet open, well after the posted opening time.  And it is true that the advertised times during which one may tour the Opéra Garnier are subject to the caveat that it may be closed if there is a "special event", so I suppose it was just unfortunate that some "event" (based on our discussion with the friendly security guy, we suspect a wedding rehearsal!)  precluded our tour when we arrived for the second time (after being too late the first time).
However, we're persistent.  Part of the reason was that Sue's initial idea was that we attend an opera.   A tour seemed an economical compromise, particularly as by retaining our Musée d'Orsay tickets, we got a discount.   Pity that the Metro trip from Hotel d'Ville involves a change in the rabbit-warren at Chatelet (we've come to hate that place).    But the return on the 29 bus was much more comfortable.
I digress.  Our third attempt to undertake a tour of the Opéra resulted in success, and more than made up for the trials that we had suffered. 

It's a bit of a pity that the entry is around the back.   It would be nice to climb the main stairs at the front and make a grand entrance.    However, knowing that we wanted the "unaccompanied tour" option, we made our way past the tour groups lining up (noting that the building was virtually surrounded by tour buses!), and were very politely welcomed at the ticket office (no queue!) and by the staff at the entry point.Through a fairly dark passage, and voila, the Grand Staircase!  Marble of various colours and impressive lighting.  And visitors are welcome to climb it, sit on it and pose for photos on it.    Then on to the numerous foyers, especially the almost-overwhelming Grand Foyer, with access on to the balcony looking straight down Avenue de l'Opéra.

  A royal wave to the assembled crowd in front might not have been out of place (no, we didn't).   We viewed the main auditorium from a couple of the boxes, but not to complain - the view was the best in the house.   There were masses of red (velvet seats) and gold (gilt paint), all lit by the immense crystal chandelier.   The stage curtain was open, as workers were assembling a set, so we couldn't really admire the braid and pompons.  Other parts of the building open included the library-museum and Salon du Glacier.

In short, definitely a Paris must-see.

26 May 2012

Dinner at restoran Zavicaj

St Sava
We had dinner last night at one of the Serbian restaurants in Rue du Simplon (in the 18th).    We were warmly welcomed at the Zavicaj - the proprietor has a close relative who lives in Camberwell!   We had a choice from quite a comprehensive range of traditional dishes.  Sue's vegeta-free chicken was good, and the cherry pita was delicious.  But we were reminded that Serbian cooking is often characterised by added MSG, which calls for careful discussion regarding any menu!

Also in the street are 3 other Serbian eating venues, although these were all a little more casual.  There's also a church (St Sava), and a Serbian delicatessen.   The latter has down-sized since we were last there.   The prominent corner site that it previously occupied is now an "artisan boullangerie".  Such is gentrification!

Our attempts earlier in the day to tour the Opéra Garnier were frustrated again.  This time it was closed, apparently because it was rented out (for a rehearsal for a forthcomng wedding, we think!).    So we trudged up the steps to Sacré Coeur.  I think they've increased the number of steps since we last did this!    The warm weather (in contrast to Melbourne's, we note) was also a factor.    I can't see there being any "next time", but if this did come about, the funicular would beckon, in spite of the queue and even though it doesn't cover the whole distance.

25 May 2012

Père Lachaise Cemetery

I spent an interesting couple of hours at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.    It's a peaceful, tree-filled place, with almost all of the graves being in good condition.  Some of them are quite elaborate, too.  It was very helpful to have a guidebook, although some of the graves of the well-known could be identified by the walking tour groups assembled nearby!
I wouldn't have found the Piaf grave if not for the group!

 In addition to the graves, there are a number of memorials. These range from the Commune of 1871, to quite a number to the victims of the Resistance and World War 2 through to the victims of various air disasters, including AF 447 which crashed en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on 1 June 2009.

Oscar Wilde's tomb is surrounded by a glass screen on which various messages (graffiti?) are scrawled.  Presumably the screen encourages such messages, but it's a pity to think that were it not for the screen, at least some of them may have been on the memorial itself.
 (EDIT:   A good tip from the guidebook was to take the bus to the top (back) entrance.   Not only is this closer to some of the graves and memorials of interest, but the walk from this area to the front gate (and Metro station) is down hill!)

Oscar Wilde's tomb

Memorial to the victims AF 447 - hard to photograph!

Doing the sites!

Thursday (edited):   It may not have been entirely consistent with our objective to blend into the Parisian scene, but we admit that today we did some of the Paris tourist sites - starting with the Eiffel Tower.   We were undecided before we arrived whether we would go up, but our minds were made up for us when we got there. Not only was visibility pretty poor, but only one lift was operating (the other was out of service), and the extremely lengthy queue was hardly moving.   So we gazed at the tower from the ground and headed on to the Arc de Triumph.  Once again, there was a queue (not quite as long) to buy tickets, and Champs Elysées was beckoning, so again we admired it from the ground.

Champs Elysées was different!  We took our time to walk most of its length, pausing for lunch at one of the pavement cafés and briefly to note the queue to enter the Louis Vuitton store (couldn't help think  that scarcity, even if induced, creates desirability!)

We noted that the cost of items on the menu where we ate was not markedly higher than elsewhere  - except for coffees and especially cappuccinos.   Cappuccinos were on the menu for €7.50.    Obviously even if table rental isn't built in most of the meal prices,  there's a trap for the unwary who just sit down and order a coffee.  We didn't check the quality of the cappuccino (the one we had a day or so ago was only so-so), but the food was reasonably acceptable.
Opera Garnier

We progressed to Blvd Haussmann with the idea that we might look around the Opéra Garnier.  However, by the time we worked out where to go and so on, it was so close to the final admission time of 4.30 that a visit was impracticable.   The consolation prize was a visit to some of the department stores.

Our transport has wherever possible been by bus.  Only one of today's sectors was by Metro.   In fact the bus routes often provide a more direct route (for example, the 69 bus runs directly from Rue de Rivoli to Champ de Mars, directly in front of the Eiffel Tower).  This compensates to some extent to the fact that they can be slower than the Metro (although dedicated bus lanes help, too).   But we almost always get a seat  and we like looking out on the various parts of the city as we pass through them.  The near-absence of tourists on the buses means that the passengers are often quite polite to each other (in keeping with French tradition) and it's not unusual to exchange helpful comments - which immediately exposes our lack of French!
 EDIT:   Did I say "dedicated" bus lanes?    Bus lanes, yes, but maybe "dedicated" doesn't quite convey the correct impression.   They're not used only by buses!    They're used by motor-bikes, ordinary bikes, taxis and as parking space for delivery vehicles, too!    I'm not sure to what extent these other users re meant to be there, but certainly some of the bike readers (amongst others) don't leave much room for error, riding alongside buses and cutting in and out of the traffic.
I should also add that you need to be alert when you're travelling by bus.  Apart from the obvious requirement to get on the correct one (yes, I got the number wrong once and we headed off in the wrong direction), sometimes if they're late they don't go to the final destination (like Melbourne trams).  

24 May 2012

An apartment in the Marais

As I've already said, we're happy with the apartment.  No, 28 sq metres isn't enormous, but the layout is fine.  That's not to say we haven't had a small number of "challenges".   The first issue was to re-set the TV, which was not programmed to connect with the cable TV box.   However, when that was done, the issue became which channel to watch.  There are over 180, including Armenia 1, Channel One Russia, Shanghai Dragon TV and Tele Congo.  But nothing from Australia.
View from our window
On our first night, we decided to eat in.  We had pasta, which was really good due to a combination of Sue's skills and the high quality ingredients that you get here.  However, the hotplates were a challenge.   Now, I've heard of induction hotplates, but it took a while to work out that that's what we had and that they don't function unless a saucepan is actually placed on them.
The shower controls are a little complex, but we've experienced this type of thing before.  Hence, it wasn't too much of an effort to get it to an appropriate setting.

Dinner venue (next morning!)
The Marais district has much to offer.  We had dinner down the street last night.  Sue's duck was better than the dish she had recently at Chez Olivier in Greville St!  There are literally hundreds of bars and restaurants, and on a warm spring evening they were doing very good business.  Most people like to sit outside, and tables in the open are rapidly snapped up.  We ended up sitting just inside.

There's a very mixed crowd on the streets.   There are some tourists, some of whom make themselves very obvious!   But there aren't too many people struggling with French with help of a guide book or speaking in loud North American accents, which I construe as meaning that the crowd is mainly locally based.  There are a few bars that are quite obviously patronised by the gay community (including one immediately under our apartment).    The Jewish influence seems to be lessening, however.
Boutiques (and shrubbery) in rue Rosiers
   We walked down Rue Rosiers after dinner and my impression was that there seemed to be slightly fewer Jewish restaurants and shops than I remember from just a few years back.  Certainly there seem to be more upmarket boutiques than I thought there were!

Musée d'Orsay

We visited Musée d'Orsay today (Wednesday).  It is very impressive!   It's focus is French art from 1848 to 1914, which of course centres on Impressionism.   All the masterpieces of the French Impressionist movement appear to be here, and the collection of Manets, Monets, Renoirs, Van Goghs (who lived and worked in France) and Gauguins (to name just a few) is overwhelming.   But it also puts things into context, with a number of French Romantic period works as well as art from other European artists.  

Looking down on the main hall
I won't attempt to review all this art, as any comments that I would make would not do it justice.    Suffice to say, we were drawn in by it all.   In particular, it's logically presented and the explanations of the significance of the various phases of the period are clear (otherwise it could be so quite confusing for the non-expert).  Apparently two years of renovations have recently been completed, so perhaps these have contributed.

The building itself is also quite spectacular.   As is well known, it started life as the Paris terminal of the Orleans railway.   Internally, there's a spaciousness that derives from this, and the height of the building enables great views over Paris, including looking out through not one but two large clocks!
You can look out on Paris through the clock face!

The internal clock