Back in the Balkans

Get the phone call – revise the route – hop on a train – and enjoy the best of Serbian hospitality. Just another Sunday in my world. I’d planned to go to Belgrade anyway, so this diversion wasn’t too much out of my way.

12.35 arrive in Subotica 12.50. Find my pick-up – friends of a friend whom I’ve never met before.13.10 stop at the goat lady to buy some cheese.

The sprightly 63-year-old retired locksmith has about 40 goats and lives in a house she built herself. Her account of a run-in with the local authorities over the rights to the grass at the airport was so animated that I didn’t need to understand Serbian to get her drift and be suitably amazed and entertained. I can only home that I’m in as fine a fettle when I get to her age. 14.00 arrive at  Palić to the No. 36 to meet my friend and the rest of the crew and to sample some grapefruit beer (a first for me). 15:15 depart for Paprika čarda, a restaurant on the shore of Palić lake.

At some stage, we passed the Olympic tower. I’ve been to Palić before but hadn’t realised the story behind it.  In the late nineteenth century,  before Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympic Games took full flight, local entrepreneur Lajos Vermes organised sports competitions in Palić, gathering the best athletes from Central Europe. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Lunch had been ordered ahead of time as our party had now grown to nine. The most fluent in non-native speaker of English by far was 12-year-old Makarije, who wowed me with his plans to enter the world of stem cell research as soon as he turned university age. When I asked where he had learned his English – he shrugged nonchalantly and said:  Television. Perhaps it’s time I invest in one!

Our menu was simple: fish and chips to start with, followed by fish soup. A little arse-about-face, I thought… but when in Serbia do as the Serbs do. And I was starving. Mention fish and chips and I am transported to an Irish chipper  and greasy chips with cod in batter or perhaps to the more refined Cajun-style offer now available in Budapest, so I wasn’t expecting the communal platter of breaded whitebait. As we picked our way through the mouthfuls of fish, conversation flitted from Hungarian and Serbian politics to the joys (or lack thereof) of school inspection systems, from what we could expect later on the Tisza to the neutrality of the Press. We covered sailing in Montenegro, the cyclical nature of life, nationalism, citizen engagement and the sublime joy of food, wine, and travel. The patience of those present with my lack of Serbian and their willingness to involve me in the conversation was lovely. My Balkan affair was renewed and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live by a lake.

The fish soup was sweet and tasty and served with noodles. Not a bone in sight.  Chunks of fresh, fleshy fish floated in good company with balls of fish eggs. I had not one, but two helpings, and had I had more time and notches in my belt, I could willingly have gone back for more. Another first for me as fish soup isn’t high on my list of culinary delights.

The view from the table was calm and serene. The weather was a little hot but the crisp local white wine mixed with gentle splashings of soda water made it easier to assimilate. It was a gorgeous afternoon. As we readied ourselves for the evening and our visit  to the Tisza River to watch the mayflies mating, I was reminded once again of how travel has broadened my horizons and how casual conversations and serendipitous introductions can herald the beginning of lasting friendships. Thanks, MM.

Apple ice-cream at Palić lake

In 2008, Ken Loach won the prestigious European Film Festival award. If you are a fan, it might also have registered with you that the festival takes place, each year, in  Palić, a little village about 8km outside Subotica in Serbia. If you’re not a fan, and you’re not Serbian, then you’re excused from never having heard of the place. And if you ever find yourself in Subotica and want to venture forth, then take the No. 6 bus … but remember that in this part of the world, you enter at the back of the bus and pay the man sitting in the booth. The driver… drives. Quite the division of labour. If you do as we did, be prepared to be assaulted by a passenger chorus which is both unintelligble and a little intimidating.

Owl Castle

The village sits on the edge of Palić lake and is home to about 8000 people, most of them ethnic Hungarians. It has about 450 guesthouses/villas, so it’s a fair guess what most of them do for a living. The Hungarian style of Art Nouveau is well represented and is probably why the village is said to have a Disney feel to it. It would take very little imagination to see Rapunzel dropping her hair down the side of Owl Castle, or to envisage a 1920s Gatsby-style cocktail party in the grounds of the Grand Terrace. It really is rather pretty and with 17km of bike paths, it’s a nice place to spend an afternoon. If you’re that way inclined, that is. I’m not. So I settled for wandering the paths, testing the surprisingly good, neon green, apple ice-cream, and reading the notices. Mind you, if I had kids, I’d consider it for a holiday – pedal boats and beaches, bikes and bikebuggies, and the zoo just around the corner. And did I mention the ice-cream?

The Grand Terrace

I learned a lot by reading the notices. For instance, I didn’t know that in 1956, the village was home to a refugee camp for Hungarians fleeing from Hungary. Makes sense, really; the area was once inside the Hungarian borders. Even more interesting though is what I found when I went to find out more! I never knew that 541 Hungarians took refuge in Ireland in 1956, in a camp at Knocknalisheen in Limerick. And while I never cease to marvel how much I don’t know, at times I really wonder where I’ve been most of my life.

All roads into the ‘resort’ fan out from the Water Tower and standing with your back to the lake, if you take the road on the far right, you’ll pass the Hungarian Embassy – or at least that’s what I think it is. But then I could have sworn I saw one in Subotica, too. Perhaps this is the summer residence.

The local post office

All along that row stand what must have been Communist Party villas in the early 1900s. A large number are now small hotels – each one beautifully maintained. All rather splendid and sedate. Even the local post office is something to write home about – and following my own particular word association there, Palić, like Subotica, is devoid of postcards. Neither town appears to attract foreigners, as we were told when we went to see the excellent ‘Love it or Leave it‘ exhibition of contemporary art from the region, and when we had a guided tour of the American Corner.

Although the sun was beating down and messing with my photographs (I really must get that thingy that shades the lense), the haziness did lend an ‘other worldy’ feel to the place.

It was Friday – and it was quiet. I can only image what it’s like at the weekends. There were a couple of villas for sale and the thought did cross my mind that I still have that retreat B&B on my bucket list. I have no difficulty at all imagining myself coming down this stairs to breakfast every morning. And it’s when inside starts to affect the outside that things go well with the world. At least, that’s what the skinny me told the huszi me, as I held up a size XL and wondered what sort of stick insect would fit into a Serbian XS. I guess I’m just not prepared to give up the apple ice-cream.