Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kratovo, Macedonia - man with donkey!

After lunch, there was tiume to visit I's grandmother in the nearby village, another beautiful place with nice large houses with surrounding gardens, many of them with the Macedonian grapevine over the front door, or providing shade over the porch/terrace.

Perfect for agro-tourism... there is a lot which could be done here to create the new Umbria ro Croatia, with the rolling hills, rustic life, traditional arts and crafts, historic and natural sites. Great potential.

It was dark back in Kratovo, and we were dropped off at L's place where we met his father and sister and talked about religion (again!) before going up to I's house. The mystery of ourt night's accommodation had been solved and we would be staying at I's house at the top of the hill as his sister had left unexpectedly early for Skopje.

Tiem enough to watch a program about Kemal Ataturk, one of the more famous recently born Macedonians - he had been born in Salonika, on the coast in a part of Macedonia which is now owned by Greece. Therefter a walk back down inbto tonw to meet up with L and some of his friends down at the cafes where we had first met in the morning. Lots of loud Balkan music, many young people, and plenty of Skopska beer. I chatted to G, who had studied in Sofia and again we talked about the Greece questiona ndn the EU question - more aboput this in another blog.

Finally it was time to go back up the hill and so came to an end a truly wonderful day Thanks very much to everyone involved... it was a great experience and we hope to wlecome you one day to Amsterdam or wherever else.

Kratovo (continued)

Kratovo (continued), originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

So there we were in Kratovo, having met up with L and I, time for a coffee before going to L's place to leave our rucksacks, where we met L's mother who treated us to preserved sour cherries and some rakia, made by L's father (from plums, flavoured with wild aniseed). Delicious. Both.

Then we got our tour of the town, first back to the bus station then up to the park with the war memorial and thye 600 year old pine trees (droppin g a bit) then up top one of teh more famous bridges, past numerolus old-style Macedonian houses, with timber construction and sticking out upper floors (less pronounced than in Turkey). The more picturesque were those, of course, were those in need of renovation.

Then we made it to one of the fine churches in the town with some magnificent fresoces and icons, including St George, the one who was burnt at the stake in Sofia.

After the tour, we went back to L's house whilst preparations were made with mobiles for the rest of the day and eventually we set off in a car of one of L's cousins for a nearby monastery (the name will come later) set high above another valley. We were in time for a service and were able to hear the singing/chanting monks with their fine voices.

Nearby were some caves, so an opportunuity for walking around. By now we were feelinga bit peckish as we had not really eatne sinmce an early breakfast and it was already after 5. However, the countyryside was full of wild plum trees with golden and black plums to which we could help ourselves, Delicious!

Then it was down to the fish restaurant by the side of the river, in a garden in the woods. The road took us past a number of men leading their donkeys who were laden with the wood which the men had chopped down during the day. A delightful sight!

Lunch/dinner was excellent - another great meal we have eaten thanks to L's advice. We started with a perfect Chopska salad with tomatoes and cucumber, onions and sheep's cheese, to be accompanied by more rakia. Then I had a local trout from the

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ohrid, Macedonia - boats in the harbour

Computer keeps crashing

Monday, July 28, 2008

Enjoying Ohrid

Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Ohrid is an ancient city built on the eastern shore of a largish lake full of very clear mountain water. It used to be the home of the major archbishopric of the area and, as a result, houses many important monasteries and churches. These mingle with pretty houses built in the slopes of the rocky shores, most of them having grapevines growing at the front of the house and many others with pretty flowers.

We are staying in private accommodation for 10 euros each a night, just up from the lake shore. Hopefully, it wil be far enough away from all the bars and loud discos for us to get a good night's sleep after two very short ones.

Yes, not only is Ohrid home to cultural and historical treasures but also to cheap and cheerful beach holidaymakers, with boulevards full of cafes, bars, restaurants and ice cream parlours.

Top point of the day was hearing a Serbian brass band version of Whitney Houston's 'I will always love you' with the singer singing falsely and causing the whole beach to errupt with laughter!

Worst point of the day was a young woman selling badges inlcuding SS signs and swastikas. Fred could not leave it without making a comment to the effect 'didn't you learn anything in history?" !!!

Get better soon, James

James and sunset, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Dear James, sorry to hear from your Mum about your illness. We hope that you are already feeling better and that you make a good and quick recovery. Lots of love, Uncle Fred and Uncle Charles

Getting to Kratovo

Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Well, here we are a couple of days further on and things are seeming much better. The sun is shining again and we are on our way to Ohrid, by the lake, the premier tourist destination of Macedonia.

But most of all, we have had two great times with people here. First N and D, my friends from flickr who we met on saturday evening for dinner and drinks. Then yesterday with L and I down in Kratovo in the north-eastern part of the country.

We met N and D near the Stone Bridge in the centre of Skopje shortly after my anti-Skopje rant on here. The clouds threatened rain and N had a yellow umbrella with him but we decided to walk to where we were going to eat, this walk taking us past the Macedonian Orthodox Church we had walked up to earlier in the day to an older Skopje neighbourhood of low-rise 1930's buildings along tree-lined streets, some with bars and restaurants and tables and chairs on the pavements. This was much more like it - and it is typical that having no guidebook with us, we had missed out on this treasure hidden away in downtown Skopje.

***** *****

Now in the bus, which is almost full, everyone in a holiday mood for our three hour journey down south.

Back to last saturday and we found ourselves a smart looking restaurant to sit outside and so started a very pleasant evening with our Macedonian hosts. They both work at an academic institue in Skopje, N a professor and specialised in fashion design, D a lecturer in interior desaign and architecture, both finishing off a challenging academic year. Very nice to meet them in person, having exchanged comments and e-mail across flickr for the last year and a half and N was evry bit as charming as he appears to be on flickr. Moreover, the food was delicious as was the well-chosen wine - a Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon from the Macedonian vineyards. After dinner, we made our way to a lounge-type bar where a girlfriend, D, joined us, a very lively and fun young woman and the evening ended very late after too much alcohol, certainly bearing in mind that we had the 7.30 bus to catch to Kratovo later in the morning. Anyway, we certainly felt a lot better about Skopje and Macedonia after this lovely evening and I felt more than a little bit guilty about what I had written earlier...

***** *****

On our first walk into town from our Leonardo Hotel, set in a leafy suburb to the south of the city, up on the hill towards the intrusive Millennium Cross which overlooks the city, we came across a small park surrounded by commie-style blocks. Sat at the corner of this park were a few people at simple tables having a beer. It looked very inviting and as we approached we saw that the people at one table were sitiing down to what looked like a very tasty meal. We told them that it looked very nice and they agreeed and encouraged us to also sit down if we wqanted a good meal. And so began our contact with L and T, who were both from Kratovo, a picteresque old town in the hills with bridges and towers. A great place to visit and we could get in touch with them if we fancied coming down for the day. It all sounded very good and sure enough, down we went yesterday on the 7.30 bus, getting in just before 10. We were catching up on some much needed sleep, but every now and then one opened one's eyes to see a landscape of rolling hills, a bright golden colour in the sun which was now shining. Much less built up than in Kosova and looking altogether more prosperous and settled. I wole up properly as the bus turned left off the main road and we entered what was obviously the Kratovo valley, which got progressively narrower and greener the further and higher we went. Lush and bountiful. The trees on the side of the road were drooping with the weight of the black and yellow wild plums whilst the blackberries were left black and unpicked. The river was a lievly stream of clear watwr rushing down over the rocks and every now and then a wagtail could be seen scurrying around. The small farms were suitably ramshackle and the odd shepherd could be seen with his flock of goats or sheep. A country idyll.

Again, not having any guidebook, we did not really know what to expect from Kratovo and would there even be a shop there (as we had taken no provisions), so we were happy to see a large advertisement for Kratovo - an ideal place for alternative tourism just before we entered the town. And, sure enough, it turned out to be quite a busy little place, set on the steep hillsides by the side of the river, crossed by numerous old stone bridges, as our friends had told us. We decided to walk to the centre and have a coffee before calling our friends and found a small town square with a number of cafes with seats under parasols. We called our frind L and he told us he'd be along in about ten minutes. It felt good, very good.

***** *****

Continuing the blog on the blackberry on the bus to Ohrid, on which we had an hour stop at the top of the mountain while the bus got fixed...

We were sitting outside the cafe in Kratovo and our friend L turned up, bright and cheerful. Time to make plans and after much umming and erring we decided we would make a day of it, taking the chance that we would find soimewhere to sleep, while we would take a taxi back to skopje early the next day, accompanying L's friend I who was going there anyway. We would then take a walk around the town of kratovo, visit one of the famous 13th century monasteries and would go to a fish restaurant, sitting in a garden on a curve in a local mountain stream. It sounded excellent and this is what we eventually did, accompanied for the most part by L and I. L is a psychologist, specialising in pedagogie, working back in Kratovo after six years in Skopje and he was 27. I was a year younger and is studying architecture - again industrial design - in Skopje, back in Kratovo for the weekend. Both made for excellent companions and tourist guides witha great enthusiasm for and knowledge of their town, and their country, Macedonia.

They told us many interesting stories and legands about the town, including how there came to be a woman's breast protruding from on of the bridges in town, how a local hero (against the Ottomans a century ago) threw himself from the bridge and killed himself in order to save his friends whose names the ottomans were going to try to extract through torture and how the local saint, George, was burned as a christian martyr in the main square of Sofia....

Pictures of Kratovo to be posted later as running out of time... Will also finish off the story of our day in Kratovo when time allows.

By the way, we are loving it in Ohrid!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Better days - last weekend in Pristina...

Better days - last weekend in Pristina...
originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here are some of the girls of Pristina, not wearing the short shorts or short skirts which you see quite often, but still looking very sexy. And the sun was shining....

Skopje in the rain

Skopje in the rain, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

This must be about the most depressisng place we haev been to on holiday for many a year. It is cloudy and rains some of the time. The people tend to be miserable and very unhelpful. Now it is Saturday, the free internet cafe is closed and the expensive commercial one is very slow and does not allow photos to be uploaded to flickr. It is 6 pm and everything is shut. I tried to print some photos but the computer did not accept my memory stick. I tried to buy CDs from the Eurovisiion artists but they are not stocked. The only decent place we have found in town to eat is closed already for the summer holidays.

We thought we would go to Albania so we bought the Albania guide, not the Macedonia guide. There is NO tourist information here and no books for sale in English. Info on bus times is hard to come by.
Tomorrow we may go to Kratovo in the east of the country or to Ohrid in the south, or to Tirana or to Istanbul...

Skopje is just how I imagined Yugoslavia to be like... grey....

At least we can look forward to meeting one of my favourite flickr friends this evening.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The best food so far

We got a bit fed up with the food we found in Kosovo, outside the capital Pristina, so we were very lucky to find this very small restaurant on our walk into town. Delicious fresh vegetables, stewed or grilled but not too much oil. Delicious bread and rice. Wonderful. Unfortunately, the owners go on holiday tomorrow (to Dragash near Prizren from where we have just come), sow e will miss their food,

Otherwise, we had a good journey over which took between 3-4 hours, and left the rain behind in Kosovo.

An introduction to Skopje - a lovely old couple

They have been here a long time, we have only just arrived.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Roma kids

Prizren - Roma kids, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

We met a street load of Romas (gypsies) here in Prizren today. We were met by a young chap called Ozzie who told us he was a Roma (bit not from Italy ) - from India instead he said..... He shopwed us around his street which was a hive of cartivity and there vwas even a Roma band playing music att someone's home. The Roma are much maligned and are the only people you see here who beg. However, these Roma had settled down near the outskirts of the city and had made their houses look very attractive.

Our friend told us that he had bene studying English at school and it was really very good. One of the chaps we had spoken to in the bar last night told us that he had been on a 'free' weeks English course recently. This had been organised by a group of American Protestants (again!!!). The course had consisted of reading and discussing the Bible. Obviously they are up to their old tricks of trying to convert ' light' Muslims to their religion, just as we had seen them doing in Diyarbakir two years ago,. Sad.

We did not find out who was providing Ozzie with his English course, but he was still a Muslim he told us...

Being gay in Kosovo

Gjakova - happy grafitti, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Well not too much to say about being gay in Kosovo except to say that it is done very much in secret as the locals seem to be quite conservative in these matters, for whatever reason...

But we heard that not only was Gjakova the city of bad women but also that all men in Gjakova are gay. Of course, they are not all gay, but apparently in the old days, it was often said that a Gjakovan man would have a boyfriend alongside his wife. The same was true for Prizren, but to a lesser extent and the name has stuck with Gjakova. Apparently.

Not much evidence of homosexuality here, but quite a lot of male-to-male contact, the form of holding hands, putting arms around each other and so on... The main thing is that the people here are very friendly, open and welcoming, a typical Muslim culture, however much or little they obey all the rules of their religion.

Weddings in Prizren

Horses in Prizren, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

It is w4edding season in Kosovo. The parade starts with a mercedes with a red and white Albainain flag being waved followed by a carriage and horses, like this one, with much of the red from the Albanian flag.

This carriage is going up a longish street where almnost every other shop sells wedding dresses. The carriage is followed by numerous cars hooting away, making as much noise as possible.


Horses in Prizren, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

So, we reach our last day in Prizren and still we haven't written about it, the jewel in the crown of Kosovan tourism. This is partly because the city has enough to keep one very busy wandering around and meeting people. Prizren is the hottest place in the Balkans apparently but we have not noticed this as it started raining a few hours after we arrived and it has been mostly cloudy and cool ever since, not in a nasty way, just a pleasant cool.

We could have left for Skopje in Macedonia this morning but we wanted a slightly longer stay although we have largely been retracing our steps today, which is fine.

We are staying in teh Hotel Tirana, which is a bit run-down but is very central, almost opposite the main Sinan Mosque, over the river adn next to the Aurora restaurant which does great breakfasts. Across the river, there are wooded hills, with the old town at the bottom, full of cobbled streets, bars, cafes, ice cream parlours, kebab houses, boutique shops, more bars and discos, pubs, churches and so on.

Very full in the evenings when it is warm, not so full when it rained the first night. last night we sat outside a busy pub on the banks of the river chatting with a chap we had met earlier, Ramadan, and a couple of his friends. People are into music and football and know Amstedam from Ajax and from DJ Tiesto (who is not exactly from Amsterdam but close enough for them). They also know my team, Southamption and know that they ended up very near the bottom of the second division (Championship League).

Our new friends were Muslims so they did not join us for a beer but had coffees. However, they do seem to like the odd joint and a bet on the football results, which is quite endearing.

Earlier in the day we had taken a taxi off to a lake near the Albanian border for lunch at the Liqeni fish restaurant at Vermice, the trout having been caught earlier that morning from the pools they have their which are fed from the mountain streams, before the water flows into the lake. It was grilled and served up with chips and salad and was delicious. Cost almost nothing either.

Stopped off at the main vegetable market on the way back, took soem photos and was asked if I could get them printed for them, which had me walk back to town and out again to the market, while Fred had a snooze.

Our evening walk took us to a street corner where we were asked over to joing the men in a coffee and that set us up for the rest of the early evening, with more photos which had to be printed and brought back this morning. The Kosovans tend to know more German than English as so many of them have spent some time in Switzerland, Austria or Germany. The English is picked up at school or from TV and radio.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Last night's sunset

Gjakova - sunset, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

These clouds marked the start of a cool front which brought rain, thunder and lightning to us this late afternoon and evening. Hopefully we wake up tomorrow to clear blue skies and fresh weather again.

Gjakova (continued)

Well it was a good thing that I posed teh last blog unfinished as within a minute the electricity fell out and I would have lost all my typing and that would have been very annoying....

Well, there we were in the hotel, being called on by a woman and it turned out that we had to mocve rooms. wjhich we did, even if it is very annoying. Even more annoying when after a walk around town we found the hotel that, according to the (Bradt) guide may or may not be open as a hotel by teh summer of 2008, was in fact opena nd was a much nicer hotel than where we had just checked into... sometimes it goes that way. And yet, today, here in Prizren we went straight to the hotel which may or may not be open by sumer 2008 to find that it was a very nice looking hotel but is, in fact, not yet open... typical. So we ended up staying in an old Communist hotel opposite. Seeing as we mean on stayiong innthis very interesting city a few days it is a pity we could not find a decent hotel.

Anyway, back in Gjakova, we found a city which ahd largely been detroyed by teh war but was beuing rebuilt, quite sympathetically inj places, namely teh old bazaar area, with its low level, stone and wooden shops and workshops, bars and restaurants, withb dotted in between a few old hoiuses from before including some kullas and old Ottoman houses.

The eearly evening had Fred in bed and me wandering around town with my camera being asked by some country boys/farmerts to take their photos, which all turned out so very well, that I decided to bring the memory stick to the photo shop and have them printed for teh lads.. which had me ending up posing on a tractor wjhile they figured out how to take a picture!

The evening was spent very nicely under the starts in a courttyartd of an old Ottoam mansion, where we tasted our first Kosovan wine - not as bad as our Syrian wine experience and it got better as the evening went on....

The days here are hot enough and very sunny but it cools off nicely in the evenengs and until today it has not been humid. Unfortunately, a cold front came through last night giving us some rain today, much cloud and some humidity. It has not exactly bene our best day, as we are feeling quite tired after our busy schedule and the bus trip from Gjakova to Prizren showed up Kosovo at its very worst, with lietter scattered everywhere, ribon developments of garages, tyre repair centres, car recycling plants, exhaust repairers, car washes, parts dealers, more tyre shops and so on. Inbetween remnants of old Communist time industrial plants and gravel pits.


Yesterday was spent going to Gjakova, a plkace we had been warned was full of bad women... where we would have to be careful about being asked by new friends to joing them in a club. Fortunately this does not happen too ofdten... I am more often asked to join people on their tractor than go to a club. Anyway, it seems the clubs are full of Moldovan women offering their services.. although the price sems to vary from 20 euros to 130 euros depending on who you ask.

We had the bad luck to choose to be broughht to the Pashtrika Hotel (named after the nearby mountains). A big odd looking place which looked fairly central on the map. The reception was 'manned' by two very good looking well done-up young women, very chic. The entra\nce was very dark and we began to wonder if we weren't enetreing one of those infamous clubs... but no iot was a hotel and we had just bagen to make ourselves feel at home when there was a knock on the door, which we opened to find it was another woman. WE asked her to come back later. Well, that didn't takle very long we thought, but it tiurned out to be the cleaning lady who wanted to tell us that we had been put n the suite although we only wanted to apy for a room (at 10 euros a night cheaper). So, we had to move rooms to a much smaller one, with a very small bed, but a nice view out across the river to the bazaar on the other side and over towards the mountains.


Here is a tractor-load of young Albanians being shipped in for the padre of the Decan Monastery... well so it seemd and this maybe explains why the padre of the monastery did not feel like having any visitors until 4 pm this afternoon, thereby disappointing the small number of tourists who had made their way to supposedly the most beautiful monastery in Kosova.

We had to make do with just taking pohotos of these young hunks and carry in our way to the city of Gjakova, city of bad (and cheap) women.... where we are now...

More about Gjakova tomorrow. We plan to go to Prizren and stay there for a few days, to rest and enjoy the atmosphere of this old Ottoman city.

The Italian area

The western region of Kosova is being looked fater by the Italian Army. They are based in Villaggio Italiano near Peja. They guard various roads, including teh roads to the Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Peja and Decan, as well as patrolling in Peja city itself. This chap was from Puglia, like his colleague who was guarding the supposedly even more beautiful monastery in Decan... maore about this in the next post.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Peja - the river, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

I am sorry, but I seem not to be able to write too much on the blog about Kosovo. The internet connections are slow, it is hot and there never seems to be enough time.

So, the briefest details now. Well, we had a day in the capital Pristina, after which we caught a bus to Peja, in teh west of the country. Only 86 kms away but a two hour journey through teh countryside, full of wandering cows, haystacks and newly built (half-finished houses) and various towns.

Peja is nestled just in front of the mountains on a river, in the north-west of the country, the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate, from the 14th century. We found the Royal Arda Hotel, the centre of social life in town and found a room for 40 uros, again we had the feeling we were the only guests in a hotel with over 80 rooms...

After a walk around the empty town - it was lunchtime on a Sunday, we took a taxi off to the Patriarchate and the Rugova Gorge. This ended up with us meeting a chap who was born and raised in a village next door to Fred's, albeit 20 years later - and he was the first tourist we met - wandering around the churches of the patriarchate, being followed around by the tall pale nun, whose job it was to stop people taking photos (I sneaked a few.. ha ha). He joined us we went futher up teh gorge past picnicking families to the rather disappointing Rugova Camp (all huts, cafes and trout farms), where we came across some people we had met earlier at the hotel below, which had us staying slightly longer than expected... which ended up with us being ripped off by the taxi driver who asked for 46 euros instead of the 20 we had agreed before. We had half of Peja involved in the discussion later, which lasted way over half an hour and had the boss of the taxi company (Peja Taxis - do not use) threatening our driver with the sack if we didn't come back with 46 euros. We paid, but it left a nasty taste. I complained to the police which ended me up having a beer wit an old bobby who is over here training the local police and various other ' internationals'.

Peja really came to life after dusk and the streets were full of people... creating a great atmosphere, similar but better to what you still see in Italy. We had our second pizza of the day, still with Martijn from Emmer Compascuum, with a few more beers and so ended our third day in Kosova...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Not so Muslim after all...

Kosova is a country which is largely filled with people who identify themselves more as Albanians than anything else. The Albanian flag is more popular than their own Kosovan flag and they mostly speak Albanian. There are ethnic minorities such as Serbs, Bosniaks and gypsies, but over 90% are Albanian.

Most of them are also nominally Muslim, but this does not seem to mater too much. Most of the people we have met seem to drink, the women dress in the shortest shorts and skirts (more about the Balkan women another time) and we never once did hear the muezzin call, just seen a few older men hanging around the odd mosque. We met a lady today who was organising the restoration of the Fatih Mosque , funded by the government of Turkey and she told us that despite having been in Turkey three times, this was the first time she had ever been in a mosque...


Newborn, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Newborn, a new country, a new capital city, Kosova and Pristina.

We arrived yesterday afternoon, aftyer a long long wait and delay in Liege, to the hot sun and an airport out in the fields some way from the city. No problems at passport control no visa to pay, just an efficient stamp in the passport and out we were into teh blazing sun. Lots of people waiting for their families to return, the flight was full of returning Kosovans living in Belgium. The security guard theer was quite surprsied to hear we were travelling here as tourists.

The first thng to note about the Kosovars is that they were quite blond, not all so dark as I ahd imagined them, quite tanned from the sun, of course. We found a Dutch-speaking taxi driver who had bene in Leeuwarden in Friesland for three years who offered to take us to town for the extortionate price of 25 euros. He told us that the hotel weher we wanted tro stay, which was marked as cheap in our less-than-one-year-old Bradt guide, was in fact very expensive and that we could better stay in a different hotel, whereupon he took us to two of the most expensive hotels in town before bringing us to a slightly cheaper one, where we eventually decided to stay. It has a large room, a comfortable bed, a shower with an FM radio and free berakfast. Comfortable but very expensive.

In the hotel for five minutes we were soon out for a bite to eat and sure enough we found a beautiful beer garden with excellent service and an excellent menu. The Peja beer was served in ice cold glasses for 1.50 euro and accompanying roast beef sandwich was just what we wanted after a day starved of food after our croissants in far-away Liege.

The clouds were gathering as we went bfor our first walk around town, always a very interesting experience in a new country and city....

... more later...

And then we were in Kosova...

Pristina - the welcome at Pristina airport

Off on holiday again

Off on holiday again, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Well, we are at Liege airport now and despite checking every which way we could, our Belle Air flight is leaving at 13.00 instead of the 11.20 we had thought - this is the arrival time of the incoming flight, so we have a three hour wait. And it means we could have comfortably left Amsterdam this morning and saved ourselves a bunch of money by not spending the night in Liege.

It was a cool and slightly wet and quite dark evening that we spent in Liege, having travelled by train first to Maastricht and then to Liege Guillemins station, a journey of three-and-a-half hours.

Liege is just over the border from holland but it is immediately French speaking, although our bosnian taxi driver spoke good English. It is a large city of 200,000 people built on the banks of the Meuse river. Lots of buildings in the dutch/vietnamese style, with narrow fronts and many stories, much Victorian architecture and art Deco, but all looking dull and drab under the grey skies. Our hotel was a small one hidden awy near the historical centre, near the catholic churches, built in the Jesuit style, as well as a nunnery, owners of a posh restaurant called The Nuns, as well as various other impressive early 17th century buildings.

Nearby wre the bars, cafes, brasseries and restaurants, patat zaken and kebab houses. So many kebab houses, with names like Istanbul, Asya, Izmir, Taksim and so on, providing cheap, healthy and nourishing food.

The streets were lined with tumbledown buildings in a bad state of decay, right next to the bright modern shopping streets, with shops like Zeeman and Cheap Shoe. We were near the river now and here were some exceptionally narow streets, full of tramps and drug addupicts and dealers. Down one of the streets were a number of brothels, Amsterdam style with ladies in the windows. Not the beauties illegally smuggled into and kept in amsterdam, but real old whores, with wrinkles, dyed thinning hair and capable of teaching many a young man or two about the delights of sex. Ten times more authentic than what we have 'op de Wallen'.

Time for a drink, so we had a couple of beers at Le Petit Paris, which turned out to be especially popular with men of a gay persuasion, quite by chance, not that it advertised itself in that way. We turned down an invitation to eat Senegalese food at Bar Senegal and found a brasserie to serve us a plate of charcuterie, baked potato and some wicked oven-heated Camembert. This alone made the trip to Luik/Liege worth it.our waiter was Moroccan and we managed to impress him both with our French and our few words of Arabic, not that we expect to be using many Arabic words this holiday, maybe some Turkish instead...

It continues to be cool and grey today and remain so during the weekend, probably getting better next week. Let's hope we see some sunshine in five hours when we finally arrive, a whole day lost to travelling and we only have two weeks...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

This week's produce from the allotment

We just had a dinner of courgette spaghetti, the first courgettes from the garden. We are going to have to get used to eating courgettes as we have about five plants, thinking that two of them may be pumpkins, but they ahve grown up into being courgettes after all. The spaghetti was delicious, but whether that was more to do with the accompanying onion, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan cheese or the courgettes, I am not sure.

The blackberries are just getting ripe, about six weeks earlier than they used to come out in the old days of the 1970's (or maybe it is just the variety). We are going on holiday for two weeks, so we will probably miss the best of the blackberries, back in time for the courgettes no doubt.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Anyone joining the Mediterranean Union?

Working under the big boss..., originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

The papers are full of talk about a Mediterranean Union, to match the European Union and also be funded by the EU. This is an initiative of President Sarkozy of France and seeing as France is hosting the EU Presidency this half-year, they have managed to get the respective countries to all meet in Paris, all countries need to have some Mediterranean coastline, which would exclude countries further into Africa like Sudan and Chad.

I am all for international co-operation and bringing Europe closer to Africa and the Middle East, so I really hope this initiative will work. It might help solve the Turkey issue by having Turkey a leading member of the ME rather than a member of the EU, which many people do not want because of the human rights situation there (and all the other reasons, such as an Islamic background/culture and so on).

It is interesting to see that the Presidency of the fledgling MU is being shared by France and Egypt. Egypt is a country with a so-called democracy where the sitting President gets over 90% of the votes every time. Compare this to Mugabe, who only manages around 50% despite cheating, killing and torturing. I suppose the main difference between the two is that Mubarak has not wittingly condemned a large number of his people to hunger and starvation, as has his Zimbabwean counterpart. But this is not a question of democracy vs dictatorship but bad/disastrous dictatorship vs not so bad dictatorship. Just don’t be a blogger in Egypt…

And then we have our friend Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is also a dictator and it is a matter of opinion whether he is in the good, moderate or bad camp. It depends quite a lot on who you are, I suppose. He was there at the MU meeting, having talks with Israel, as guest of the Turkish Prime Minister, following on their peace process. Of course, there is a lot of noise from the Israelis about not giving up the Golan Heights and not trusting Syria and all that. But would it not be much better for Israel to have peace with Syria and Lebanon as well as the peace they have with Egypt and Jordan? I very much think so, but maybe it is easier to say this at a distance without any particular personal experience. Will the US let it happen?

So, while we are on the subject of democracy vs dictatorship, how wonderful is democracy when it brings in governments in Israel, one after the other, which encourage and perpetuate the crimes against the Palestinian people, degrading them, stealing their (best) land and building walls to keep them out and obstruct them from going about their work and lives, imposing sanctions and stopping them for even exporting the few surplus products?

Back in Syria, and I know we are jumping around here, we read an article in the NRC which called Syria the Cuba of the Middle East, given its closure to many American multi-nationals (more probably because the US government forbids them from selling into Syria than the other way around). The BBC reckons that Assad wants to end his international isolation in order to attract money and investment from the US. If this is so, then I think he is treading a very sticky path. He will get hung up by debts and economic policies which will play to the hands of Western interests, the rich will get richer the poor will get poorer and the country will have lots its independence (and charm) as Syria become just like any other American satellite state. Let’s hope the Mediterranean Union can offer an alternative.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gay Pride - Imaan - LGBT Muslims

In the meantime, here is a nice image of how it can be in England between gay Muslims...

Being gay in Syria

Three friends, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

The BBC reports that French President Sarkozy has received Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Paris and has arranged that Syria and Lebanin will re-open diplomatic ties, this representing Al_Assad;s retrun to the world stage after years in the wilderness after the assassinationation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Good news, better to talk than to isolate.

In the meantime, I traced back my flickr photos to a site called Gays Without Borders which calls itself "An informal network of international GLBT grassroots activists working to make the world a safer place for GLBT people, and for full GLBT equality in all aspects of legal and social life…"

The article in question was about "Syrian Jojo Jako Yakob, Gay Asylum Seeker, Will Be Thrown Out of UK", after the Home Office turned down hsi application for asylium because he is gay and afraid to go back tp Syria. We had Peter Tatchell quoted as saying the refusal was “irrational, ill-informed and insensitive”, which it might well ne.

But! He was found in the country (Scotland) with a false belgian passport and he had not applied for asylum. It turned out that he was arrested in Syria for distributing anti-government propaganda and then was later beaten up by the police/prison guards when they found out that he was gay.

The man in question says that "They believed that I was gay but they said it was not a problem to be gay in Syria if you keep your mouth shut. But how do you live? That is no way to live. I want to live my life and be free, and I could not do that in Syria."

Well, I think this man is beinga bit cheeky playing upon the stereotypes that people have of countries far away, particularly Arab ones, as if they are all like Iran. Yet our experience (albeit that we were not beaten up by the police) is that it is very easy for men to display affection for each other in public in Syria than it is in, say, Scotland.

Not to mention the fact that the British media talk about him being a Christian member of the repressed Kurdich minority in Syria, as if Christians and Kurds all have such a bad time in Syria.

Luckily, we know there is another side to the story...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Raspberry tiramisu

Pre-Pride - rainbow fruit, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Life isn’t really so bad sometimes. Two days in Grenoble and two times raspberry tiramisu? Can it get better than that? The sun even shined most of the times and the mountains looked magnificent.

Last night, I was working late at the office and then had a long wait for the taxi driver to find the office, a service he charged me € 18 for even before I entered into his taxi (nice one), so it was already after nine before I emerged onto the streets to find a bite to eat whereupon I realized it was a Monday night and most of the better places were closed. I eventually found a nice looking Lebanese restaurant with an interesting menu and delicious looking food on people’s plates. A charming waitress eventually found me and told m, with a big smile on her face that the kitchen was closed. It had just turned 9.30. So off I went round the corner to find a fish restaurant, asked if the kitchen was still open and could I sit at one of the tables outside. Which I did. I sat there for forty minutes and in that time I received a knife and fork, a jig of wine, stale brown bread and a plate of oysters. No water, no glass. After continually failing to catch the waiter’s attention, I walked away, found a place up the street, ordered a salad and was about to go home after a satisfying meal when I spotted them… the desserts in the see-through fridge. What were they? Tiramisu, coffee tiramisu and raspberry tiramisu. My goodness what a treat! The raspberry tiramisu… wonderful! The best dessert, certainly of this year, more than making up for the mis-haps and frustrations of earlier in the evening.

And the feat was to be repeated when going out for lunch with my dear friend M, from the office, this time preceded by excellent conversation, good service, some pleasant rose and a tasty main course.

Unfortunately, after an excellent start, which had me thinking I might have time to go for a nice walk in the sunshine, I got to the balance sheet and it all went wrong… oh well, its what I get paid for I suppose, just not sure when I’ll find the time to put things right.

Gay Pride in London in 2008

Gay Pride in London in 2008, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Last year, the first weekend of July meant the start of the Tour de France in London, the Wimbledon finals, a day trip to Paris and a Marc Almond concert. Oh! Happy Birthday, Marc! Must be 51 this year, seeing as we were celebrating 50 years last year. The weather was kind as well as one’s luck as after queueing for just about two hours and paying five pounds we managed to get in and watch the Federer v Nadal final from the comfort of Henman hill.

This year, and it was another weekend in London, staying with Fiona. No Tour de France or Marc Almond, but Gay Pride in London, the Wimbledon finals and a trip to Grenoble the following Monday. I did not make it to Wimbledon, despite my intentions. It rained most of the day and I had a hangover from Pride having drunken too much on an empty stomach… Still, had a great time though…

This was my first London Pride since 1995, a year I remember because it was the same summer that Pentire was winning all his races as a three year old, just missing out on the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes by getting to the lead just a bit too soon…. But that is another story. Fred and I were staying at Mum’s and we came up for the day. There was a big march, meeting at Hyde Park and winding round past the Houses of Parliament (remember we were only just a few years off Clause 28 and the Tories were still in power…). It was a real march and anyone could join in and it was very much a political march, as could be seen by the route taken down past Parliament. There were still some pink triangles but the rainbow flag was already in its ascendancy and various people were giving out promotional whistles for us to blow on and make as much noise as possible…

Not exactly sure where the march fizzled out but then there was a big party in Brockwell Park in South London, where lots of pop acts from the charts would perform (amongst other things) – and in those days people still bought singles and pop groups still properly existed, the world not having been taken over by downloads, the American multinationals and big name DJ’s… Anyway…. One thing which had not changed was my liking for talking photos, particularly of good looking young men, and there were many on that warm sunny day back then.

We were good boys back then and I can’t remember us having more than a drink or two or doing anything other than returning to Mum’s (or Fiona’s) at a reasonable time.

Move on thirteen years and how things have changed. Pride became even bigger, got commercial, started charging a lot of money for people to attend the party, which eventually came to be dominated by the big London clubs, the entrance fee kept increasing and one year people stopped going. Pried was bankrupt, victim of its own success and greed. I think they tried a gay Mardi Gras a few times but now Pride was back and quite different from its predecessor.

The March became a procession of floats and interest groups, such as gay firemen, gay footballers, gay Sunday walkers (that’s us), no Gay Birding (which we had in 1995, I remember), Amnesty International, gay civil servants and gay youth groups. The March had changed its route, starting in Baker Street, going along Oxford Street and Regent Street and ending up at Trafalgar Square. No political march, but a celebratory one and an opportunity for groups to promote their activities. OK there was not exactly a great deal of inventiveness, and we had the Asian princes and princesses, the Brazilian samba dancers, the black people with animal make-up (made up to look like a leopard, zebra and so on) and so forth…

No Pride party in the park, but a stage in Trafalgar Square. No commercial pop groups, just a few singers and mostly from the ‘gay community’ – we had gay rap and transsexual pop amongst other things. No entrance money, but speeches from the Lord Mayor, the leader of the Lib Dems and a government Minister, Harriet Harman who, with her large handbag in tow, reminded us what the Labour Government had done in the 11 years since they came into power, some of the things one could only have dreamed of back in 1995, like civil partnerships, the right to adopt, asylum seeker and immigrant rights, anti-gay hate crime law and so on…

There was a lot of activity in Soho, commercial companies setting up stalls around Soho Park, a tint Black, Asian and Minority Groups (BAMG?) stage and lots of pubs selling beers in plastic glasses, at were probably inflated prices. A place to hang around, hang out and meet your friends.

The weather was warm and mostly sunny, it was a beautiful day and a day to feel out and proud in one of the world’s most happening cities.

I took my photos, many to be uploaded and I met some new friends, mostly Brazilians, having stopped to ask one of them if he was happy with the photos he had taken. We eventually found our way to the drinking haunts of Soho, having first quenched our thirst with some canned beer from an off-licence… and it was only the next day that I realized I hadn’t eaten since a quick falafel for lunch and that I was suffering as a result. Still, a great fun evening and a great way to end Pride 2008. Roll on another thirteen years and it will be 2021 and, all being well, I will have turned sixty. Where will we be then?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Goodbye Henk

Fred with Henk, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Here is Fred our our dear friend and neighbour for these past 15 years, sitting on the bench on the pavment in front of the house, photo taken about 7 years ago. Henk has lived in this house for about 30 years but yesterday he handed over the keys to some new people. He is leaving.

He will spend t'he summer travelling and staying with friends, doing the 'strandesdagen' and so on. He will then move into a smaller appartment about a kilometer away.

We used to spend many summer evenings having a beer or two in front of the house, surrounded by the grape vine and the tobacco plants, watching the dusk turn into night, having a chat to passers-by and so on.

We will miss all this and, although we will still see Henk regularly, we will miss him as our neighbour. Good luck, Henk, in your new life.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Smoking ban in Holland

Blijburg - having a fag, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Today marks the first day of the smoking ban which prevents anyone from smoking inside a public place (incl. bar, cafe, restaurant etc) in Holland... the health busy-bodies have taken over (here as well). The government is happy for free markets to work, where their friends in big business can make lotsamoney... but no free markets in smoking. If smoke-free cafes and bars would be so popular

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