Saturday 28 September 2013

Montenegro - a small country with a big heart

The train journey from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro was scheduled to take ten and a half hours. It took a little more than twelve hours which included passing through some stunning mountainous countryside, seeing agricultural workers bringing down plums from their trees and much stopping and starting in a very smokey, non-smoking (!) train. Luckily I had bought fruit and other snacks the day before in Belgrade as the restaurant carriage only offered drinks. From leaving the train it was a short twenty minutes James Bond style, death defying drive along mountain top roads to the ancient seaside town of Budva.

View of part of Budva's old city from the city walls
Most of Budva's 18,000 inhabitants live in the new part of town but the real attraction is the Stari Grad, or old town which is full of narrow alleys, red tiled roofs, small eateries and historical churches. The churches cluster together in and adjacent to Trg (square) Izmedu Crkava. The churches of St. Troijka, built in 1804 and St. Sava which dates from the 14th century both feature beautiful frescos and other art work but don't take pictures or you will be given a severe telling-off! I especially like this part of the city with its view of the sea from the square, its almost tropical greenery and the ruins of the Santa Marija in Punta church which dates from the year 840. One of the other highlights is a walk around the city walls which affords great views out to sea, some intimate views of the old city, especially its private gardens and roof tops. You can also see St. Nikola Island a short distance out to sea which can be accessed by boat or, I am told, by crossing a sandbank which appears at low tide. Stick with the boat I think.

The old city also has a gallery of modern art which had a temporary exhibition of sculpture when I visited and a small flea market selling an assortment of old postcards, tourist "stuff", a few antiques and various bits and pieces. Its worth a browse and I picked up a couple of 1930's postcards at one of the stalls.

Square in Budva's Stari Grad with ruins of the Santa Marija in Punta church.
One of the great things about visiting a relatively small country is that it is possible to visit several places fairly easily. Whilst in Budva, I was able to arrange for a driver to take me to Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro, a distance of 30 kilometres and then on to the stunning Lake Skadar stopping at a couple of interesting places along the way. Hotels can usually arrange or recommend a good driver and will agree a price with you in advance.

Cetinje's main attraction is its monastery that dates from the 15th century when the city was founded by one Ivan Crnojevic who based himself on this high plateau when retreating from Ottoman invaders. The Turks managed to destroy the monastery three times only for it to be rebuilt on each occasion. On the day I visited some areas were off limits because of visiting dignitaries but I was able to admire the two small chapels to the right of the main entrance which are filled with Eastern Orthodox style icons. One of the chapels is said to house the right hand of John the Baptist and a piece of the crucifixion cross. Please note, modest dress is a must if you wish to visit here. An art nouveau style statue of Crnojevic stands guard on the city, just a short walk from the monastery.

Cetinje is also home to the National Historical Museum and Art Gallery. The museum consists of a series of adjoining rooms on the upper floor of the building exhibiting portraits of important moments and individuals in Montenegrin history as well as costumes, insignia, weapons and other items. The gallery is housed on the ground floor and was staging a temporary exhibition of a contemporary Montenegrin artist when I visited. Its permanenet collection includes icons, works by artists from across the former Yugoslavia, Montenegrin fine art and works by foreign artists including Renoir, Picasso, Chagall and Dali. Not bad for a gallery in a town of less than 20,000 people! In the space adjacent to the museum there is a huge relief map of Montenegro constructed by Austro-Hungarian invaders during the First World War. Also worth a look is the reconstructed Cipur-Crnojevi church a few hundred metres from the museum which stands on the ruins of the original structure.

Ivan Crnojevic statue, Cetinje

Reconstructed Cipur-Crnojevi church, Cetinje
From Cetinje it was on to the Lake, but with a very short stop at Rijeka Crnojevica on the way. Just 10 kilometres away from Cetinje and accessed by a winding asphalt lane coming down from the surrounding high ground, this little village is famous for its 15th century triple arched bridge across the river that shares its name. Once important as a crossroads of caravans and water routes, Rijeka Crnojevica now earns its keep primarily from tourists who come to see the bridge and to eat at the Stari Most restaurant owned by former football star Nikola Jovavonic. There are also a couple of other places to eat. The village is generally in need of repair and investment but one or two pretty houses remain and there is clear potential for future (sensitive please) development here. Incidentally, the place takes its name from the aforementioned Ivan Crnojevic who spent time here in the late 15th century.

Back on the road, there is a panoramic viewing point allowing for exceptional views of Lake Skadar and offering an opportunity for the thirsty to have a tipple. A local "entrepreneur" has set up an open air bar selling his own wines and spirits and inviting visitors to tell him which country they come from. At the time of my visit he had received visits from 81countries and was keen to show me his hand written records of who came from where and when! The first visitor from a country receives a small bottle of home made plum spirits. I wasn't his first UK visitor, but he did give me some delicious fresh figs grown on his own land. A bit of a character you might say. I didn't get his name, so let me know if you have it!

House is Rijeka Crnojevica

Open air bar above Lake Skadar
Lake Skadar makes up 391 square kilometres of the 400 kilometres Skadar Lake National Park. It is surrounded by Montenegrin mountains on three sides and by Albania to the east. It is home to one of the largest lakes in Europe with 40 different kinds of fish and a major bird reserve. Two thirds of the lake belong to Montenegro and the remainder to Albania. On the day I visited, there was a slightly dark and cloudy sky which added to the other-worldly atmosphere. The darkness of the landscape illustrated perfectly how this country got its name - the black mountain. The area around the lake is extremely green and forested and it is easy to imagine earlier times when great armies crossed this land, people lived in tribal communities and there was even more wildlife here. 

I stopped for lunch in the town of Virpazar by the lake and arranged to go on the water for an hour or so. At high season there are a number of locals taking tourists out in boats of various sizes but I had the Lake almost to myself and felt very small on this huge and almost silent expanse. 

View of part of Lake Skadar
The final stop on my short tour of Montenegro was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kotor. The city sits at the very end of the Boka bay and beneath the towering Mount Lovcen. I know that its towering because on the first day I took all 1,440 steps to the citadel at the top for a stunning view of those red tiled roofs and the deeply blue bay. On the way up I visited the small but beautiful Chapel of our Lady of Salvation. Built in the 16th century by survivors of the plague its a good resting point on what can be a very demanding ascent. Remember to take water  with you, otherwise you may have to pay inflated prices from casual vendors on the way up. Relieved to make the top, I couldn't resist taking a picture of the Montenegrin flag flying over the city and the bay, as proof that I'd made it!

The old city itself, encased by 4.5 kilometres of walls (twice the size of those at Dubrovnik!), has a distinctly Mediterranean feel to it with strong Italian influences, narrow alleyways, washing hanging between buildings, wooden shutters and a church around every corner. When exploring the city it is hard to believe that in 1979 an enormous earthquake levelled huge parts of both Kotor and Budva, killing 94 people, injuring many and leaving over 80,000 homeless. Due to the amazing perserverance of local craftsmen both cities have been totally restored, piecing together fallen buildings bit by bit over the last few decades.  

The thing I liked best about Kotor was wandering the narrow alleyways, discovering yet another church from the 15th or 16th century, a small craft shop or tiny cafe or restaurant. St. Tryphon's Cathedral, a survivor of several earthquakes has both romanesque and baroque features as well as holding a number of religious artefacts in its small museum at the upper level. In the basement there are also remnants of Byzantine influenced frescos from the 14th century. 

Outside the city walls, there is a small produce market selling local fruits and vegetables including more of those fresh figs mentioned earlier. There are also some good cafes along the water front and the long promenade along the bay. Ice cream is available everywhere and I can confirm that its good. As in Budva, there are many Italian restaurants in Kotor, serving pretty much the same menus and of course, many fish restaurants. The Italian influence is also noticeable in the Kotor dialect which is peppered with Italian words - people greet each other with "ciao" in this city. There is a tourist information point just outside the walls where you can book a one hour walking tour of the city with one of the knowledgeable guides who will talk about the history and culture of Kotor.

Montenegro's flag flying over the city

Aerial view of the old city of Kotor 

Finally, no trip here would be complete without some time on the water. For 20 Euros I was able to take a boat trip from to Perast and to the tiny island of Our Lady of the Rock. Perast is a tiny town that hugs the bayside with its elegant balconied Bujovic Palace which houses a maritime museum, a string of cafes and restaurants and boats that will take you to the aforementioned island. The island itself  is manmade, initially from the hulls of scuttled hips reinforced by boatload after boatload of stones. The original chapel was dedicated in 1630 and then enlarged in 1725. The interior of the church has 68 paintings by local artist Tripo Kokolja (1661 - 1713), all of them biblical scenes. Even smaller than the island holding Our Lady of the Rock, is the natural reef just across the water, shrouded by cypress trees and home to the Benedictine Monastery of St. George.

Montenegro may be a small country but it is rich in unspoiled scenery with a great relaxed feel and very welcoming people. I might well be back!

Benedictine Monastery of St. George
You can see more pictures from Montenegro here.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Serbian modernism - a forgotten heritage

Like many European countries, Serbia (then as part of Yugoslavia) was a centre of immense creativity and artistic endeavour during the 1920's and 1930's. Writers, artists and above all, architects gathered in Belgrade and other cities in the newly formed country and although much has been lost or damaged, a great deal of their legacy remains today. This post will cover a few of my favourite examples of Serbia's remaining modernist architecture.

During the 1920's, Belgrade underwent rapid development in response to significant population growth. A battle ensued between supporters of the more traditional national style and those who advocated a move to modernism. The modernist camp included many young newcomers to the city, several of whom joined the Group of Architects of the Modern Movement of Belgrade (GAMM) which was formed in November 1928. The founding members were Milan Zlokovic (president), Branislav Kojic, Jan Dubovy and Dusan Babic. Each occupied positions in academia or in the city authority whilst also working on their own projects. GAMM was a loose organisation and the four held their meetings in a range of cafes (good choice!) The group survived through its own financial contributions and the pooling of a percentage of any winnings from architectural competitions. Costs were kept down by co-operating with artists Sreten Stojanovic and Branko Popovic, mixing art and architecture in a number of exhibitions.

Over time, more young architects became attached to this movement, including Dragisa Brasovan who joined the group in 1930. Born in Vrsac, Serbia in 1887, Brasovan was already a successful architect when he joined, having worked previously in the historical style. A number of his buildings still survive in Belgrade and I was able to see two of them on my recent visit.

Apartment block, Brankova Street, Belgrade. Dragisa Brasovan, 1932.
His apartment block on busy Brankova Street, with retail properties on the ground floor and residential above is one of my favourite modernist Belgrade buildings. I especially like the central recess with its balconies (at least one of which has been filled in - grrr!), the clean lines and curves, reminiscent of some of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus apartment blocks and the triangular glass and metal art deco feature at the top of the recess. Francuska Street is home to another Brasovan designed apartment block. In slightly better condition than the Brankova Street beauty, the upper floors appear to have been re-clad in recent years in lighter colours, whilst the top floor looks suspiciously like an addition to the original building - but I am happy to hear otherwise if readers know better? I like the striped pillars on the balconies of this impressive corner block.

Apartment block, Francuska Street, Belgrade. Dragisa Brasovan, 1931.
One of the richest areas for modernist architecture in Belgrade is a small circus called Kosancicev Venac Street which faces the entrance to another treasure trove - Marsala Birjuzova Street. The circus features three modernist apartment buildings on separate islands, each with a cafe at ground floor level. My favourite of the three, and possibly my favourite building in Belgrade, is the Miladin Prljevic designed apartment block pictured below. A seven storey building at its tallest, it includes art deco style portholes on one aspect, five parallel columns on the main aspect and those pull down shutters that can still be seen on many buildings in Belgrade. Unfortunately it also features a number of ugly air conditioning units but even these cannot detract from the grandeur of Prljevic's work which was completed in 1938.  

Apartment block, Kosancicev Venac Street, Belgrade, Miladin Prljevic, 1938.
Just across the road in Marsala Birjuzova Street there are several buildings worthy of a visit. Two are of particular interest. At number 21, is the Lektres building, designed by GAMM founder member, Dusan Babic. Built in 1931, drawings for this apartment block were included in the First Yugoslav Salon of Contemporary Architecture in Belgrade in the same year. One contemporary critic noted that "a constant exploration and development can be felt" in the design. Today, the Lektres building is in dire need of a clean, but its asymmetrical facade, with decorative features on one side and its large decorative panels between the windows of the apartments still demand attention. 

Babic was born in Banja Luka in 1896 when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna before working in Sarajevo for the municipal construction bureau before coming to Belgrade in 1928 - just two years before helping to found the GAMM. At least one observer described him as being quiet, calm and composed in contrast to his co-founders who may have had more compulsive personalities! 

Another apartment block in Marsala Birjuzova Street, this one the work of architect Djuro Borosic and completed in 1932 is also attention grabbing. The series of balconies and decorative stripes on the facade give some clues to its original splendour, but like its near neighbour the Lektres building, it needs a good clean and the ground floor level graffiti removing. It also has a number of the dreaded air conditioning units on display on the front of the building and satellite dishes on the roof. Whilst walking through this area, I noted the similarities to Bucharest and the wonderful collection of modernist buildings in that great city.

Apartment building, Marsala Birjuzova Street. Dusan Babic, 1931.
Apartment building, Marsala Birjuzova Street, Belgrade. Djuro Borosic, 1932
The apartment block of Dr. Duric, designed by Branislav Kojic and located in Prizrenska Street, is regarded as one of the best examples of modernism in Belgrade. Located on a very tight and sloping site adjacent to the busy Terazije Square and with a view of the River Sava on one side.  The balconies and the portholes on the rear of the apartment block again give this building a Bauhaus feel and like several buildings from this period, has retail spaces on the ground floor with residential accommodation on the upper floors. A number of passers-by stopped to see what I was photographing when taking pictures of the block. One or two paused and showed interest, whilst others merely rolled their eyes or shrugged their shoulders wondering what the fuss was about - evidence of the lack of knowledge about the built heritage of this city.

Apartment block of Dr. Duric, Prizrenska Street, Belgrade. Branislav Kojic, 1933
The Albania Palace stands just a short walk from Kojic's apartment block. It was completed in 1940 under the direction of Miladin Prljevic and Dorde Lazarevic based on a 1938 project by Branko Bon and Milan Grakalic. At 53 metres tall, it was the first high rise building in Belgrade and remained the city's tallest building for some time. It takes its name from the kafana that previously occupied this space and is an important building for a number of reasons. The Red Army and Yugoslav partisan forces placed the red flag there on October 20th 1944 when the city was liberated from German occupation  whilst in the 1950's the facade was decorated with banners carrying slogans and portraits of former Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito. The Palace, with its slightly concave front marks the beginning of Terazije Square and also of Knez Mihailova Street - the city's main pedestrian thoroughfare and remains an important point of reference and orientation.

Albania Palace, Belgrade. Branko Bon, Milan Grakalic, Dorde Lazarevic and Miladin Prljevic, 1938-40.
The examples so far quoted are all in Belgrade, but Novi Sad, just one hour further north, and Serbia's second city also boasts some significant modernist buildings. The Tanurdzic Palace at 1-3 Modena Street was designed by architect Dorde Tabakovic. Commissioned by merchant Nikola Tanurdzic, it was built between 1933 and 1934 with an extension being added in 1939. This five storeyed building in the busy commercial centre of Novi Sad still looks extremely modern today with its visually pleasing lines, curves and colours standing out on the main thoroughfare. Part of the Palace is currently covered in scaffolding. Let's hope that nothing is going to be done to spoil this beautiful building through "improvement". 

Tabakovic was born in 1897 in Arad, Romania to a Serbian family. He studied in Budapest and Belgrade and designed a number of residential buildings across the Vojdovina province as well as a children's home, a library and several Serbian Orthodox churches. His father, Milan was also an architect who worked across what is today northern Serbia as well as Banat in Romania.

Tanurdzic Palace, Novi Sad. Dorde Tabakovic, 1933-34.
The Tanurdzic palace is a large building, but it is dwarfed by Novi Sad's other significant modernist building - the Palace of the Danube Regional Government, designed by our old friend Dragisa Brasovan. The largest and most expensive of his works, Brasovan was directly appointed to design this regional government building following an abortive design competition in 1930 which failed to produce a winner. The next few years saw financial crisis and political instability in the regional government and it was not until 1936 that Brasovan completed his designs and work began.

The most striking feature of this building is its monumental 180 metres long horizontal body, rounded at one end and complemented with a slender vertical tower. It was Brasovan's original intention to clad the facades in red brick but the client demanded instead a white stone from the Adriatic island of Brac. 120,000 square metres of the stone were required to complete this task. The plainness of this enormous white building is broken by the curve and the tower but also by some of the art deco influenced decorative features on the doors and the windows as well as the parallel piped forms on the tower. Construction was finally completed in 1939, almost a decade after the project was first mooted.

Palace of the Danube Regional Government, Novi Sad. Dragisa Brasovan, 1936-39.
Detail of doorway, Palace of the Danube Regional Government, Novi Sad.
There are many more examples of modernist architecture in Belgrade and possibly others elsewhere in Serbia and readers are invited to share their knowledge of them. I would like to note my thanks to Milan Prosen and Davor Salom in putting together some of the details for this post and also to direct interested users to an excellent website - Nothing Against Serbia, which is an excellent source of information about Serbian architecture generally. Ljiljana Blagojevic's book Modernism In Serbia is a probably the bible on this subject and was also extremely useful in identifying, dates, architects and other data.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like these:
Belgrade, secret star of the Balkans
Modernism, an elegant swimming pool and Red Vienna
Modernist Riga - architectural treasures from the 1930's