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Eastern European Adventure Pt2.

So the real journey begins - Stood at Zadar bus station mid afternoon, having left my colleagues and friends an hour ago, I had bottle of water in hand and toasted cheese sandwich in my bag accompanying my laptop and three inch thick book on cryptography, previously lost rucksack in the hold of the bus, I was about to head out to Zagreb for an early morning connection to NoviSad, I was unaware of the spectacular scenery and culture that was to unfold like a flower before me on the road in front of me, I entered the bus a ride to Zagreb which was last about 4hrs which was half full in which we to rise from sea level into the chalk and limestone mountains that had been fought over so viciously 15 years earlier. We stopped for breaks every hour and a half for Toilet and food breaks at local petrol stations which vaguely resemble UK motorway service stations except with far more emphasis on beer rather than petrol.

After a quick overnight at the friendly and efficient hotel central in Zagreb (directly opposite the main train station) I arrived at the bus station at around 06.30am for a double espresso before the 7 hour trip into Serbia - the bus was packed with Brits crossing the border for the exit festival, The familiar western script giving way to a Russian Cyrillic script at the border crossing manned by noticeably frosty border security police more interested in the Croatian passport holders that the European passport citizens on the bus. Much of the physical scenery the same, but the quality of the architecture and roads degrading as we went - a lot more rotting Communist concrete openly visible - the quality of the cars noticeably changing from old western cars to the smaller more note-ably hand maintained trabants of the former Communist era.

Entering Novi Sad (the second biggest city in Serbia) with a population of nearly 300,000 a lot smaller than that of Belgrade - its billed as the Athens of Serbia -(The only way this city would resemble Athens is if Athens had been bulldozed by the Russians in the 1960s and had been re-built as a brutalist city - novisad isnt blessed with a surfeit of beautiful buildings - it suffers from a lot of bad architecture & concrete rot - with a couple of noticeable exceptions - to be commented on later ) - it is also notably called the culture capital of Serbia - I cant comment on the rest of the year but there does seem to be a lot going on in the alternative culture/graphic design scenes.

So why was I going to novisad? Novisad is the home of Europe's largest festival (over 190,000 this year)- the state of exit which is held annually in July lasting for 4 days - set in a 18th century fortress overlooking the Danube it was started by two students Dušan Kova?evi? and Bojan Boškovi?, originally started as a political protest against the then Miloševi? regime. The first festival held in 1990 consisted of local bands and arts projects it culminated a few days before the elections that saw Miloševi? regime end, the history of the exit festival is almost as interesting as the recent history of Serbia itself with allegations of corruption, embezzlement and alleged ties with both radical left and right wing parties.

With all of that in mind, I wanted to see what it was all about, what was drawing the crowds why were people coming to this festival in particular. I arrived in novisad a day early to get settled into the fantastic hotel putnik - its a Communist throwback if I ever saw one, so bad in every detail that it becomes good - almost a pastiche of itself, having become used to the gulf 5* everything marble, chrome and glass. This was brown plastic and faded hessian wall paper nirvana, complete with missing curtains in my hotel room, a mattress that had seen one too many over excited working girls and a telephone so retro that if I had stolen it I could have auctioned it on ebay and paid for my entire trip!- but what the hell I wasn’t planning on spending that much time in the hotel - the hotel putnik presents one distinct advantage over other hotels in novisad - its the closest of the hotels to the festival site - a mere 15 min stroll from the festival. And I had a fantastic view from my second floor bedroom - over the back streets of novi sad onto the The Name of Mary Church/cathedral in the central square with its beautiful ceramic tiled roof.

After settling in mid morning - I headed out to the site to scope it out and pick up my passes and to look at the developing site that was one day away from the festival, the site is huge but is totally different from what i expected, it was full of small stages and 2 large ones, The smaller stages being set in ramparts of the fortress, whilst the larger stages which were to host bands such as the prodigy and the beastie boys, i was encouraged to find many smaller stages catering for less commercial tastes including stages dedicated to latino & world music.

Back into Novi sad, the city seemed to be gearing up for the event, but the population seemed surprised by the amount of brits as a percentage of festivalgoers this year. After being questioned twice about weather I was a spy and if I had ever worked for MI6 (a deeply bizarre incident which is best left unwritten about - I get this a lot - do I look like a spy?) I decided to grab something to eat before heading out to look for a beer or two- I found the fantastic restaurant Archiv, which I was to frequent daily simply because of its quality of food and great customer service and freely available wifi. I wanted to catch up with some ‘brits abroard’ so I headed to the Irish pub – upstairs from a trainer shop, the ambience was typical for any Irish pub abroard, lots of diddly diddly music – but at least they had Murphys red & there is a rather intoxicating local dark brew that i became quite fond of, there were 2 girls in their mid 20s from Manchester their second year at the event, who were headed to Budapest the following week.

Any number of a thousand venues that evening were blaring out beats . Enticing customers in with cheap beer and food, to spend there tourist money in the cities hostiliarys before the main festival event, the young festival crowd were going for it and were out in force, on this the first un-official day of the exit festival event. The local museum/arts board put on an event for the cites b-boys and girls on the main museum’s steps, the young festival crowd seem to mingle easily with novi sads traditional residents watching the adept choreographed dance steps on the museums classical cobbled streets,, it reached 11pm and decided it was time for bed.

Day One

I woke up early and dosed (thanks to the lack of curtains) and eventually exited the hotel had breakfast/lunch at a place around the corner, caught up with some other british journalists based out of Prague, Wendy (co-incidentaly knows my friend Charlie who works here in Doha - I found this out subsequently upon my return to doha) - we chatted about festivals, journalism in the fringes of Europe & had a beer in the sun and subsequently talked fringe Baltic politics for hours, and about the war, i remember the war the first war, from my early teenage years, the atrocity's and the lies told, The EU and its reluctance to accepting Serbia as a member - well until at least they give up their remaining war criminals to the Hague. There is also huge resentment over romania's recent ascendance into the European family, for many years the poor relation in the region and now receiving billions in European grants and aid. but there are so many other major issues here from crime (on the rise) to privatisation and its effects on a population so used to the ‘communist’ way. What i hadnt realised is the difficulty that young people have trying to travel, i know im lucky with two passports that allow me very easy access to the vast majority of the western world, but the youth here cant travel to Europe without tedious levels of visa application etc. And with that comes the burden of proof of wealth. Is it punitive that Europe still punishes Serbia over the 'missing' war criminals of the Balkan wars over ten years ago? If so it is punishing the wrong people, the youth arguably the future of this region have little connection to the crimes of the past.

Headed up to the site via the long set of stairs (which really belong in a tolkein story), I never counted them but if there were 1000 I wouldn't have been surprised that wind up through long dimly lit arched corridors I eventually made it to the top out of breath and sweating to meet the gate staff - I got questioned quite severely about the aspirin I had in my bag (and have had in my bag for months - I always try to carry pain killers esp. if only for the early onset of hangover & headache from staying up all night) go knows what would happen if you were found carrying drugs. I finally got in for the 7pm kick-off as the sun was going down, I caught some of the early acts on the metal/punk stages, with a thin crowd - I wondered if it would be like this for all the stages - little did I know the crowd were massing in-front of the main stage for one of the main headline acts of the weekend , when I eventually got there must have been 80,000 in front of the prodigy i couldn't get within a 1000 yards of the stage, when the first chords of firestarer hit, the crowd was jumping, I felt like I could feel the earth tilt just for a second - I have to face it im old now, jumping up and down to the prodigy isn't my thing, esp. if i have to fight 80,000 for the right to do it, maybe im just tired and cranky? But from what I heard the prodigy are back on form - belting out the later classics - to me the prodigy will always be about the albums ‘experience’ & ‘Jilted Generation’, for me and my early musical taste the prodigy is still some of the best electronic music ever produced - clean, crisp and straight to the point - no messing, I don’t hugely care for the ‘fat of the land’ album and the less said about the album ‘always outnumbered’ the better - I can understand the appeal of the fat of the land album and some of its more popular tracks but I always hark back to previous albums. Initially when I heard that the beasties and prodigy would be on the bill I had hoped they would be on the same stage on the same night - but in hindsight with the reading festival incident as part of festival folk-law and the bad blood running between the bands, it was never going to happen. i gave up in the end, and retired to a stage with a view over the Danube to listen to a band playing classical instruments producing fantastic sounding rock and metal sunk a few more turborgs and headed back over the bridge and to bed past the large number of Novisad’s residents having set up camp to sell products to the passing trade.

Day Two

Decided to bimble around the city in the morning, looked around the tiled cathedral and synagogues, I rode the busses and explored some of the more obscure parts of the city, the city as a whole seems to have migrated back toward the Danube in these post Communist times, with the city noticeably falling apart the further away from the tourist sections of the city you go, large looming tenement housing built from the omnipresent crumbling concrete with very evident patch up jobs. After about 4 hours I headed back to the hotel to change and to archiv for a late lunch, a beer and a bit of blogging. Headed to the festival sight via the hotel to pick up a jumper (its cold out on the festival sight at night if your not in the middle of a crowd), caught a few very good local bands and DJs on other stages, prior to the beastie boys (arguably the biggest act on the line-up), Hmm - is it me or are they getting old - middle aged men in sunglasses knocking out classics. The crowd was enthusiastic (a number of whom took to dancing on-top of the portaloos - I think its a Baltic phenomenon) but I wasn't Ive seen far better performances - and the act although polished through many years of touring has not, like a fine bottle of chateau petrus aged well.

So I headed back to the stage/chillout area via the Danube after about 10 tracks, and oh boy was I glad on the way back discovered a fantastic rock/punk band that sounded like they were straight out of 1978, full of energy and vibrancy - i will admit it i feel slightly dirty bouncing around to retro punk but it was soo good - there called peter & the test tube babies (...) there UK based but a bit of a Serbian legend with their previous gigs in novisad- they were so refreshing and so humorous in their crowd interaction and just what i needed after a slightly flat and stodgy beastie boys gig! I don’t usually like punk (i was an old-school punk fan years ago) but modern punk has turned me cold - maybe its the kiddy emo stuff - all that woe is me bullsh*t that seems to fill the scene at the moment but if 5 middle aged fat geezers can rock this hard and produce such powerful emotional music- emo kids you know where you can stick it with your bad dress sense and bad poetry. Anyway headed back to the Danube for a couple of Jagermeisters and tourbourgs to round the night off and to ogle some of the most attractive women I have ever seen who were running the table service.

dAy THrEe - hmm - maybe I had one too many Jagermisters but woke up with a foul headache and little else apart from warm sparkling mineral water and warm LAV beer - nursed the hangover for a few hours with previously mentioned Water and beer before heading out for food prior to the ‘big night’ Lauren Hill, Basement Jaxx, Snoop Dog & John Digweed, caught up with some British lads - their first festival ever (despite being in their mid 20s) and drank a lot of turborg lots of silly poses with 80s sunglasses(if my memory serves - 12 beers between the 3 of us) waiting for Lauren Hill to turn-up - who was over an hour and a half late when she eventually made it onto the stage looked like some bad rendition of jimmy whales bride of Frankenstein, to produce when compared to the memorable album ‘miseducation’ a poor show - its interesting to see the decline of this performer esp when looking at her tirades against her record buying public “I would rather have my children starve than have white people buy my albums” - its kind of a slow and tragic breakdown. When she left the stage, a quick turnaround was necessary to get basement jaxx on stage - these boys are as good today as when I first saw them at the Brixton telegraph many many moons ago. Run through the classics and some new content im not that familiar with - its still very very fresh and not jaded with their pop success - even more people on-top of the portaloos tonight - its a phenomenon now, alot more beer whilst waiting for snoop dog - at this point I cant work out ether snoop dog is a genius or just plugging out old tracks on top of DAT tape or both. Sun rises after a brief sojourn to the dance stage.

Hung-over to hell, very very slow day in bed and the push for the last night - the the final night is headlined by Wu-Tang Clan, by far and away the best major act that I had seen all weekend, the line-up was missing Method Man but still sounded incredible - so much energy, almost better than they did 15 years previously, I decided to call it quits very early that night as I had a bus to catch to Belgrade the next day early if I was to get my connection to Romania. As I left the festival I was hit with mixed emotions - the festival itself is an incredible feat - that number of people, the number of good bands on the smaller stages that opened my eyes to Baltic turbo folk & re-invigorated my love for early punk - the disappointment came from the major performers and their lack luster stage craft.

To Belgrade and beyond

Early taxi with what seems to be thousands of others all making a beeline for transit out of the city. Grab some food in possibly the biggest and most art-deco bus station I have ever seen - 3hr bus journey to Belgrade to the station, I snoozed through most of it, a sneaky beer in the station side canteen prior to my afternoon train into the wilds of Romania and Transylvania this would be the biggest adventure of the trip so far with scenes reminiscent of the Marrakesh express with drug smuggling, armed border guards, thousands of miles of sunflowers, American peace core workers, train toilets last serviced under Tito, road construction, abandoned bobsleigh tracks, 2,000m mountains and more besides to come in the next 16hrs……

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