Photographs From Rome’s Testaccio District

The Testaccio neighbourhood of Rome located by the Tibor river and south of the Coliseum and ruins of ancient Roma is an interesting part of the city to stroll through. For a long time it was traditionally a working-class district. In recent years the area has become gentrified and this shows in some of the trendy eateries and bars as well as the broader mix of residents. Yet unlike some neighbourhoods. which completely lose their original flavour, Testaccio has retained much of its character and this shows in the photographs. The streets are full of grand old multi-story buildings. Graffiti, both artistic and non artistic, can be found in several corners of the neighbourhood.

The main piazza of Testaccio becomes animated over the weekend with families and children playing and kicking footballs around. Old long time residents can also be found shooting the breeze on the piazza benches.

Close to Pyramide metro station on the edge of the district is a prominent Egyptian style pyramid built during the Roman period. And nearby there is a beautiful and tranquil Protestant cemetery where one can find the graves of the English poets Keats and Shelley. I describe this cemetery in another blog post.

 

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Photographs and text by Nicholas Peart 

(c)All Rights Reserved 

 

 

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Sculptures By Francesco Messina At The Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are one of the jewels if not the leading attraction of ‘must see’ sites in Rome. It’s on everyone and their Jack Russell’s ‘to do’ list. Rome is extremely well endowed with historical sites and one could spend weeks if not months trying to unearth most of them. The Vatican Museums are of course most famous for the Sistine chapel as well as the Rapheal rooms containing his frescoes and a large Pinacoteca featuring a treasure trove of landmark works of art. As a consequence of such riches, it is supremely popular and the crowds can be overwhelming.

However the Vatican Museums are an enormous place with a breath-taking collection of art impossible to digest in just one visit. As most people make a b-line for the highlights, lots of work gets overlooked. Interestingly, within the museum complex there is a museum of modern and contemporary art featuring works by Rodin, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Dali, Francis Bacon and several Italian modern artists including Giorgio Morandi, Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana. Yet it was the handful of bronze sculptures by the Italian sculptor Francesco Messina, which caught my full attention.

Messina is considered one of the most important Italian sculptors of the 20th century. His sculptures remind me of Donatello’s when it comes down to their core fundamentals. The most important of these is tapping into the soul and spirit of the subject. Donatello had an immense talent for achieving this and this is what distinguished and separated him from his contemporaries and competitors. What’s more incredible was that Donatello was creating such human and soulful sculptures at the beginning of the Renaissance and several years before Michelangelo. Most of Donatello’s contemporaries had at least one foot still in the Medieval ages. Donatello, on the other hand, was streets ahead. For Donatello it was not just about recreating and resuscitating the great sculptures of the Classical period, it was also about executing feelings and creating sculptures of his subjects in a way where he understood and connected to them.

Messina is a true student of Donatello. His sculptures of Adam, John the Baptist and David all have their roots in Donatello’s David. They are very sensitive and delicate sculptures. Messina, like Donatello, creates his subjects warts and all without any traces of exaggerated mannerisms. Messina’s sculpture of David is far closer to Donatello’s sculpture of David as opposed to Michelangelo’s. Michelangelo’s David for all its dexterous skill is almost too perfect. Donatello’s David is closer to the source and projects a David that is more real and less idealised. Messina’s 1953 bronze sculpture of David is an exceptional creation. His David is like a feral tearaway street urchin from a Jean Genet book. Messina’s David tries to act in a tough ‘too big for his boots’ way carrying a large sharp knife but its all a front and it shows. He’s really a lanky, scared and lost little boy with twig-thin arms. Messina has created a true David with all his strengths but also all his frailties and vulnerabilities.

Messina’s sculpture of a youthful John The Baptist is another gem where he deftly captures his tenderness and humanity; that of a pure and virtuous being. The gaze of the face of Christ in his Ecce Home sculpture is hypnotic and visceral. As is the face and figure of his Mary of Magdalen sculpture. And this is where Messina’s genius as an artist lies; in his ability to crystallise emotion.

 

IMG_20180418_153702033_LLThe Rising of Lazarus (1951) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_153726827_LLThe Young St John the Baptist (1955) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_153759539_LLDoubting St. Thomas (1951) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_153853995_LLEcce Home (1953) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_153938981_LLAdam (1939) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_154036905_LLThe Magdalen (1953) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_154059609_LLPius XII (1963) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_154206258_LLSt. Catherine of Siena (1961) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_154223316_LLPieta (1950) – bronze

 

IMG_20180418_154309457_LLDavide (1953) – bronze

 

 

Text and photographs by Nicholas Peart 

(c)All Rights Reseved 

Visiting Rome’s Protestant Cemetery

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Located in Rome’s Testaccio district is Rome’s Protestant Cemetery where many distinguished figures through the ages are buried. The cemetery is most famous for being the resting place of the English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both poets died young. Shelley at 30 and Keats at only 25. Keats died in Rome in 1821 of tuberculosis and is buried next to his friend, the English painter Joseph Severn (who lived 58 years longer dying at the age of 84 in 1879), in the Parte Antica (Old Part) of the cemetery by the prominent Pyramid of Cestius, originally constructed in 18-12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius who was a magistrate and member of the Septemviri Epulonum, one of the great religious corporations of ancient Roman priests.

 

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The graves of poet John Keats (on the left) and his friend Joseph Severn

Shelley drowned off the Italian Riviera in 1822, just a year after Keats. Even stranger is the fact that a book of Keats poetry was found in his pocket when his body was washed up on the shore. His friends, the poet Lord Byron and the English novelist and traveller Edward John Trelawny, cremated his body on a beach near the Tuscan town of Viareggio. The ashes were then sent to the British consulate in Rome who transferred them to the Protestant Cemetery. Shelley’s grave is located in the Zona Vecchia (Old Area) part of the cemetery in the row at the very back. His epitath reads, ‘Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea=change, In to something rich and strange’

 

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The grave of the 19th century English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

Directly facing Shelley’s grave is the small grave of the American Beat era poet Gregory Corso who died in 2001. His epitath reads, Spirit is life, it flows thru the death of me, endlessly like a river, unafraid of becoming the sea.

 

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The Grave of the American beat poet Gregory Corso 

Elsewhere in the cemetery are the tombs of the grandson of the poet William Wordsworth and the only son of the German writer and poet Goethe. The cemetery contains the grave of the uncle of Edvard Munch, Peter Andreas Munch, who was a historian. One can also find the graves of the 20th century Italian poets Dario Belleza and Amelia Rosselli. One of the principle artists of the Italian post-WW2 Arte Povera art movement, Jannis Kounellis, was buried here last year. The graves of the 19th century English sculptors, John Gibson and Richard James Wyatt, who were both students of the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, are both located in this cemetery.

 

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The tomb of the 19th century English sculptor John Gibson

The grave of the Italian philosopher and one of the founders of the Communist Party Of Italy, Antonio Gramsci, can be found here. He was imprisoned in 1926 during Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Whilst in prison he wrote the seminal Prison Notebooks between 1929-35, which were inspired by Marxist theory and by the writings of figures such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Vilfredo Pareto. In 1935 he was released from prison due to deteriorating health and died two years later in 1937.

 

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The grave of the Italian Marxist philosopher and Communist Party of Italy founder Antonio Gramsci 

One of the most prominent graves in the cemetery is that of the Italian surgeon and humanist Giovanni Ceccarini, which reigns majestically in full Neo-Classical opulence and glory.

 

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The lavish neo-classical tomb of the Italian surgeon and humanist Giovanni Cecarrini

Visiting this cemetery is definitely worth the trip. Especially on a sunny and cloudless day. It is one of the most beautiful and peaceful cemeteries I have ever visited. Some cemeteries can be a sombre and oppressive experience but not this one. Moreover, it is not an overvisited place like many of Rome’s other landmarks. There is no fee for visiting but at least a 3 euro donation is recommended in order to maintain the cemetery.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena: The Rise And Fall Of The Oldest Bank In The World

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The Tuscan town of Siena was an important city during the 12th and 13th centuries and before the rise of the powerful Medici family it was home to Italy’s richest banks. It is also home to the oldest bank in the world, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, first founded in Siena in 1472. 20 years before Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the New World. When walking through Siena’s medieval old town, you’ll find the bank’s headquarters located in the atmospheric Palazzo Salimbeni.

It was originally founded to provide loans to ‘poor or miserable or needy persons’. Siena’s golden period of prosperity was cut short by the Black Death plague in the mid 14th century. The plague reached Siena in May 1348 and by October of that year, it had taken approximately two thirds of the town’s population of 100,000 inhabitants. Siena never recovered from this event and the majority of it’s population was reduced to poverty. The bank was created to provide loans to these people at an interest rate of 7.5%. Since its formation, MPS has played an enormous role in the development of Siena and even today during its troubling times, the bank remains the city’s largest employer. Tourism is arguably the second biggest source of income for the city. The city gets its fair share of tourists yet it’s nowhere near on the gargantuan scale of its more prominent Tuscan cousin Florence, which even outside of the peak Summer season receives tourists by the truckload. Should, in the worst case, the bank follow the same fate as Lehman Brothers and completely collapse, tourism would immediately become much more vital to the economic wellbeing of the town.

Although the history of the bank goes back to 1472, its present formation dates back to 1642 when Siena (which ceased to be a Republic in 1555) was part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. After the unification of Italy in the 19th century the bank expanded its operations across the country becoming one of Italy’s leading banks. Regardless of the bank’s territorial expansion, MPS had always had been strongly connected to the city of Siena. In 1995 the bank was renamed Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena and all the banks’ financial, credit and insurance branches were united under this new name. A not-for-profit arm was also created called Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which benefited the city and province of Siena substantially over time by investing large sums of money in the area’s education, health, culture, sports and tourism sectors. In 2006, Siena was elected as the city in Italy with the highest quality of life. Quite a feat considering how badly ravaged the city was by the Black Death more than six and a half centuries earlier. However, just a few years later the party would be well and truly over as the bank began it’s steep fall from grace.

The root of the bank’s problems go back to that same year when the bank was renamed and restructured. From 1995, the renamed Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena went on an acquisition spree buying out several Italian banks. The idea was to increase the bank’s profitability and make it a more global bank. Unfortunately, not only did the bank overpay for many of its acquisitions, it also acquired banks in poor financial health. Some even say that BMPS acquired these banks without doing any thorough due diligence such as properly scrutinising all the banks’ accounts etc. One such example of these acquisitions was BMPS acquiring Banca Antonvenata from Santander in 2007 for 9.25 billion euros. Just a few months earlier Santander had acquired Antonvenata from ABN Amro for 5.7 billion euros. The deal with BMPS netted the Spanish bank a cool 3.55 billion euros. It doesn’t take a Warren Buffett to see that BMPS had royally goofed up on this one. But that’s not the end of the story. BMPS had in fact transferred over 19 billion euros to ABN Amro, Santander and Abbey National Treasury Service to acquire Banca Antonvenata since the bank had a deficit of 10 billion euros. BMPS may well have gone to the casinos of Las Vegas with the money, since no one in the bank had bothered to do any research before making the acquisition. Quite astonishing considering the amount involved in the transaction.

The following year in 2008, the Global Financial Crash unfolded. Highly leveraged and indebted banks such as BMPS were especially vulnerable. By 2009, the bank began to experience huge loses at some of its branches. The president of the bank at the time, Giuseppe Mussari, hid these losses in the bank’s accounts by entering into derivatives contracts with Deutsche Bank and Nomura. All this was made public in November 2012 and the share price of the bank subsequently began to dramatically slide. As I type this article the current share price is 2.78 euros. In July 2016 the share price was over 10,000 euros (100 euros in old money before a 100-1 share conversion in November 2016 where 100 old shares were converted into one new share).

Since 2013 BMPS has been at the receiving end of a number of bail outs to prevent it from collapsing and creating thousands of job losses (as of 2016, 25,556 people were working at the bank). In December 2016 the Italian government raised 20 billion euros to recapitalise the country’s ailing banks. Later in the summer of 2017 the bank was bailed out by the government for 8.1 billion euros in which the Ministry of Economy and Finance arm of the Italian government acquired a whopping 68.247% stake.

There may finally be some light though. According to a Reuter’s article recently published on 4th April 2018 concerning the latest developments of BMPS, two top executives of the bank went on record to say that it was on track to meet its targets in it’s debt reduction program. This includes a disposal in mid-2018 of a staggering 25 billion euros worth of bad loans ‘repackaged as securities’. How that will pan out is anyone’s guess and the question remains of whether the bank will ever be totally free from its shackles?

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

REFERENCES/FURTHER READING

https://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/MPS-Case-Study-Final-EDITED.pdf

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/9530852/Decline-of-Monte-dei-Paschi-di-Siena-worlds-oldest-bank-leaves-city-paying-the-price.html

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/dec/22/monte-dei-paschi-the-history-of-the-worlds-oldest-bank

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-eurozone-banks-italy-monte-dei-paschi/monte-dei-paschis-bosses-confident-about-turnaround-plan-sources-idUKKCN1HB2CV

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banca_Monte_dei_Paschi_di_Siena

https://www.gruppomps.it/en/

Just Gimme Some Secrets

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In his book Zero To One, the visionary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel asks the following question whenever he interviews someone for a job; ‘What important truth do very few people agree with you on?’

I find this question interesting. On the surface it may seem simple, but it’s a difficult question to answer. Here are some statements I hear a lot;

‘Protect yourself from the sun using sun cream’

‘Brexit will cause long lasting damage to the UK economy’

‘The art world is rigged and corrupt’

‘Bitcoin is a bubble’

‘Donald Trump voters are racist and uneducated’

‘Artificial Intelligence will destroy the whole human race’

‘Sugar is bad for you’

‘Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetable a day’

‘Astrology is pseudoscience’

Whether or not these statements may be true or false, a lot of people already agree with them. With such common consensus views, it is important to challenge them. Regarding the fourth statement in response to Thiel’s question, one could argue, ‘Most people believe Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to be a bubble and it is most certainly demonstrating all the classic attributes of one. Yet the truth is that it is a revolutionary and game-changing technology, which has the power to disrupt the entire global banking sector.’ Now I am not suggesting you got out and buy Bitcoin. Bitcoin could still become obsolete, but nevertheless this view is a contrarian one.

John Lennon once sung, ‘Just gimme some truth’. But sometimes truth alone is not enough. Especially if it is the same truth that almost everybody agrees on. John should have really sung, ‘Just gimme some secrets’. Give me some enlightening golden wisdom that isn’t common knowledge.

Consensus views can change. For a long time most people believed that tobacco was a medicine (and it was advertised as such) beneficial to one’s health. Now its seen as harmful to one’s health. Before the 2017 snap election in the UK, the consensus view on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was that he was ‘unelectable’. But when the results of the election were announced, the party did nowhere near as badly as most people had originally forecasted and in fact prevented the Conservative Party from winning with a majority of votes. The consensus view on Corbyn subsequently shifted from someone who was ‘unelectable’ to someone who had a decent chance of becoming the next prime minister should he still be leading the Labour Party when the next elections take place.

Challenging consensus views enables one to stay ahead of the curve. When Google acquired YouTube in 2006 for $1bn many people thought Google overpaid. Likewise, when Facebook acquired Instagram for the same amount of money in 2014, many wondered what Zuckerberg and co had been smoking. With hindsight it is easy to say that they were incredibly shrewd and deft investments. Yet at the time, even though the leaders of both companies had the unique foresight to see the game changing potential in both those companies, most didn’t share their visions and ridiculed them for the amount of money they spent on acquiring them.

Many investors believe that Amazon stock is overvalued. If we were to value the company by its PE (Price to Earnings) ratio alone you could not unreasonably come to the conclusion that it is extremely overvalued. However, if one were to look at Amazon as a unique and powerful monopoly business in the e-commerce space, constantly disrupting traditional industries like no other company one could develop a different point of view and maybe deduce that its trading at a high premium for a reason.

The legendary US investor Warren Buffet’s often quoted mantra is to buy stocks when investors are fearful and panicky and sell when they are greedy and irrationally euphoric. Easier said than done of course. But if you can separate facts, reason and logic from emotion it could set you in good stead. One day in 1929 a wealthy US investor called Joe Kennedy was given some stock tips by a shoeshine boy. Kennedy immediately sold all his holdings and just a short time later the beginnings of the Great Depression unfolded. The stock tips from the shoeshine boy were God’s way of saying the financial markets were dangerously overheating.

Contrarian behaviour may not always work of course, especially in the case of making investment decisions. However, challenging deeply ingrained consensus beliefs is an important way of breaking out of unconscious stagnation, questioning your own conditioned beliefs and habits, developing vision and foresight, and thinking in a more balanced and broad-minded way.

 

By Nicholas Peart
©All Rights Reserved

Image: jplenio

Photographs From The Streets Of Venice

Venice is one of the most visited cities on earth and probably doesn’t need more attention. Yet it is a unique city whose popularity is justified. Venice was an important global trading centre and traded with corners of the globe as far as China. Like Istanbul and Sarajevo, its a place where east meets west. Venice also played an important role in the development of the Italian Renaissance and frescos and paintings by the Bellini family, Titian, Tintoretto and Vitorre Carpaccio adorn many of the city’s churches and other institutions. There are lots of important landmark sites to visit. But if you have time and are not under pressure to tick off a long list of ‘must-do’ sites, the best thing you could do is to simply lose yourself in the never-ending labyrinth of small streets not knowing where you are going. Its a very easy city to get lost in and if it weren’t for the Google Maps app on my smartphone I would have struggled to pinpoint some of the sites I wanted to visit. But not knowing where you are going and leaving things in the hands of chance can throw up surprises and unexpected delights. The following photographs are witnesses to my Venice meanderings…

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Photographs by Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved 

 

 

THE KOSOVO DIARIES (Part One) – PEJA, DEČANI and PRISTINA

Day One: Mon 25th September 2017
Travelling to Peja

Yesterday I arrived in the provincial Montenegrin mountain town of Berane at 7pm. 12 hours earlier I departed the town of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the city of Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. I get into Pod’, or Titograd as it used to be called at 1.30pm. My connecting bus to Berane departs in two hours. Perhaps I am mistaken but Podgorica is not a pretty place. Knackered Communist era living blocks surround the bus station and even the bus station itself has barely changed since about 1974. I think Titograd is a more fitting name.

I find a modern pizzeria restaurant about 100 metres outside of the bus station from where I take the opportunity to use the bathroom (immaculately clean I could eat my capriccioso pizza off the ceramic floor – yet the lights go off when I am already doing the business) and the free wi-fi to book my accommodation in Berane, and have a good meal that isn’t crisps and chocolate bars. The waiters speak flawless English.

For the duration of the Pod-Berane bus trip, we journey through the Montenegrin countryside; an authentic and unspoilt slice of rural Balkans. When I arrive in Berane the sun is already setting and I realise I have already traversed through most of Montenegro in less than a day. It’s not a big country.

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The Montenegrin mountain town of Berane

Berane is not the kind of place you would want to be anchored to for too long; especially if you are young and alive. Not much goes down here and it reminds me of a scoop of time-forgotten Brexitville unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the countryside. There is a bus to the Kosovan town of Peja leaving the following day at 11am. Apart from the hotel receptionist where I am staying, absolutely nobody speaks English in this town. I know perhaps ten words of Serb-Croat with a few more Polski words to boot but that only gets one so far. I soon learn that the 11am bus is delayed by 40 minutes. That’s quite a delay but I refuse to leave this one horse station for fear that I will miss the bus. I constantly keep my eagle eye peeled for the bus. When it arrives it’s one of those retro Communist era buses from about 1981; a far cry from gap yarr Euro Rail travelling. I am the only tourist on the bus. Most of the passengers are Kosovan/Albanian.

When we arrive in Peja three hours later, it is raining hard. I have no map of this city of functioning wi-fi on my phone. I wait at the bus station for the rain to soften. I realise I’ll be waiting a long time. Foolishly, I have no umbrella (I lost my last one somewhere on the Paris metro, I think) and I decide to brave it. As I walk along the main road towards what I think will be the centre of town, I am soon rewarded by the sight of a modern Diner style restaurant. They have wi-fi, much to my delight. Not only that, there’s a decent menu and a front display of delicious deserts; many of which I remember from the historic family run patisserie in Sarajevo called Egipat. A filling plate of shredded chicken kebab with chips, salad, and a generous slice of tiramisu for dessert all comes to just €3.50.

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Peja town

I continue walking up the main road. I soon approach a pedestrian square, where a large mid to high range hotel, Hotel Dukagjini, is located, but I am on the lookout for the more modest Hotel Peja. Close to me is an airline travel agency. I enter in the hope that someone there may know the whereabouts the hotel. The attractive and courteous young woman at the desk greets me in perfect English. She isn’t sure where exactly it’s located but she kindly offers to call the hotel and the owner duly meets me at the agency. A stocky white-haired man, perhaps in his late sixties or seventies, arrives and together we walk to the hotel. The hotel is only a couple of blocks away directly facing an enormous future-retro eyesore of a building; like something concocted by the architect of the Barbican tower blocks on acid laced Kool Aid. It is unique in it’s ugliness; the No Retreat No Surrender of global architectural monuments. My hotel is nothing noteworthy but perfectly fine for a couple of nights.

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Eyesore or work of art?

I spend the remainder of the rain drenched afternoon and early evening mildly exploring what I can of this city within relatively close proximity to my hotel. In no time I discover a small bazaar like street named “William Wolker” street. William Walker, not to be confused with the clumsy failed wannabe 19th century American conquistador, was the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission, which was a peacekeeping mission established to put an end to the Kosovo War of the late 1990s. Former president Bill Clinton and former US general Wesley Clark also each have a street named after them. As does Tony Blair. Many people view Blair as a “war criminal” owing to his involvement in the 2003 Iraq war, but not the people of Kosovo. Here he is regarded very highly and some families who survived the Kosovo War even went as far as calling their sons ‘Tonibler’. The side of WW street is decorated with a maze of tangled black electricity wires, like its trying the outdo the legendary dishevelled mess of wires found in most of the narrow old bazaar alley ways of Old Delhi, but no matter how hard it may try it will never come close.

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In Kosovo Tony Blair is held in very high regard

My meanderings soon lead me to the Peja Arts Gallery featuring a solo exhibition of beautiful paintings by the local Kosovo artist Isa Alimusaj. Sadly the gallery appears to be closed even though all the lights inside are blazing. As much as I want to enter, I cannot find anybody who is in charge. Next to the gallery is a library called the ‘Azem Shkreli” library. I wonder if Azem is related to the controversial American-Albanian multimillionaire “Pharma bro” businessman Martin Shkreli? Although I later discover that Shkreli is quite a common Albanian surname. Not far from my hotel by the river is a statue of Mother Theresa, who was originally from Albania. And nearby is a memorial to four soldiers who died during the Kosovo War. In the evening the temperature plummets. I buy a bottle of water and some pears and retire to my room at the Hotel Peja.

 

Day Two: Tuesday 26th September 2017
Visiting the Patriachate of Peć and Visoki Dečani monasteries

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The old Ottoman era bazaar of Peja

Early in the morning I leave my hotel room and walk to the main square where I find a tourist information office. It is staffed by a woman who speaks excellent English. She provides me with a map and highlights all the places I want to visit. My first destination is the city’s old bazaar; like a miniature version of the Baščarsija bazaar in Sarajevo. Walking through the bazaar I try to locate somewhere where I can have breakfast. Ordinarily I skip breakfast, but not this morning. I am so hungry I could burn down cities in return for a large plate of čevapi. I follow my nose, towards the source of the pungent smells radiating from the town’s burek and čevapi eateries. I am led to a čevapi joint called Oebaptore Meti. And what a good call that was. The Cevapi here is as good as it gets in the Balkans. Not only that. I also receive a generous side of salad and grilled vegetables. And all for €2.50. The overpriced pretentious bistros of Paris can do one. The food here is divine. I think Anthony Bourdain would concur.

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The best cevapi in Peja

Belly overstuffed and belt loosened, I revisit the Peja Arts Gallery containing all those magical paintings by Isa Alimusaj. Initially I come to the conclusion that the gallery must be closed, but after giving the retro gallery entrance door a firm push, to my delight, I stumble inside. The paintings of Alimusaj are magnificent. Wow! What a privilege it is to discover such a brilliant and gifted artist in the unlikeliest of settings. Those paintings don’t deserve to be hidden in some remote and hard to reach corner of Eastern Europe. They should be on the walls of the Royal Academy of Art. I could reference some well known artists when I look at his paintings; Klimt, Dali, Munch and Bosch perhaps. But the truth is they are like no other artist. Alimusaj is in a league of his own.

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Paintings by local Kosovan artist Isa Alimusaj at the Peja Arts Gallery

Feeling lifted by seeing such magnificent art, I make the 2-3km walk towards the Patriachate of Pec monastery. As I walk further out of town, I see houses and buildings that were scarred from the war of the late 1990s; destroyed areas covered with newer bricks next to older bricks. The scenery on the walk is beautiful. Even with the sky heavy with low nimbostratus clouds, the mountain countryside sparkles. The entrance to the path leading to the monastery is guarded by NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR). At the entrance I show my passport. A group of other visitors soon arrive. A young Englishman called Jack from somewhere in Essex stands out like a whirlwind. He has beautiful long blond curly hair like a youthful Robert Plant and is clad in neo-dandy/hipster ware with shades of his Essex soul brother Russell Brand. He’s with his travelling companion who is an older reserved American who looks like an academic scholar on early Native American history. I get talking with the dude from Essex. They both arrived at the entrance in a battered Mercedes taxi. ‘The taxi geezer charged us 15 euros from the bus station to here. I think he charged us too much’. I think so too. Then apropos of nothing, he points to his reserved travelling companion and blurts out, ‘E’s a West Ham fan too!!’ And here I was thinking, perhaps naively, that I was going to have a quiet uninterrupted trip to this monastery, in a hard to reach little travelled part of Eastern Europe, where I’d have it all to myself. How wrong was I. I like Jack though and he seems to be having a thoroughly great time travelling and seeing awesome things and not allowing himself to be trapped in some depressing-ass road to nowhere job in Basildon or someplace around his neck of the woods.

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The Patriarchate of Pec monastery 

The Orthodox Serbian monastery dating back to the late 13th century is a jewel painting in red-terracotta. Yet it becomes even more spectacular when I enter. What immediately impresses me are the frescos covering all the walls and ceilings; rich, luxurious and brilliant. Its hard to comprehend how after over seven centuries they are still so alive. The extraordinary skill of them is up there with the very best of the early Italian Renaissance painters. I am particularly spellbound by a specific ceiling fresco, which, through centuries of decay, has morphed into a composition that makes even Goya’s most dystopian works look tame. This fresco appears like its engulfed in Mother Nature’s foulest weather and Tesla’s coil violently erupting. I stay at the monastery for a while, marvelling at the frescos before walking back to town.

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13th century frescos from the monastery 

As I reach Pec town I head towards the bus station to visit another monastery called the Visoki Decani monastery located outside of the town of Decani, which is situated between Pjac and the town of Gjakove. When I arrive at the bus station I have half an hour to kill before my Decani bound bus leaves Peja. So I walk across the main road to a bar and on a whim I order a large cold bottle of Peja beer for only one Euro. Time marches on as I begin to feel the initial effects of tipsiness. Before I know it I have just five minutes remaining. I am no barfly but I drain the remainder of my bottle of beer in a way that would have made Oliver Reed proud. When I get on the bus I indicate to the driver that I want to get off at Decani specifically to see the monastery. Nobody speaks passable English on the bus, but I think the driver gets the message. Forty minutes later as we appear to approach what looks like my destination, the driver signals for me to disembark and points to a road that will lead to the monastery. Decani town seems down at heel and depressed and I don’t think the war was kind to this town. There are memorials to soldiers who died in the war and about ten minutes away on the road back to Pec there is a massive, and I mean gigantic, cemetery, where many citizens who died during the war are buried.

I walk for almost 30 minutes along a quiet country road with lush forests and mountain scenery before I approach the beginning of the entrance to the monastery. This monastery has much more security than the Patriarchate of Pec monastery; its almost as if you are going to a Royal Family wedding. I hand over my passport and rucksack at the entrance before entering the compound. It is a handsome white monastery dating back to 1327 during the reign of the Serbian King Stefan Decanski who was the father of King Dusan who ruled Serbia during the golden age of the Serbian Empire. Yet the monastery has a turbulent history becoming the target of many attacks and attempted attacks. Since the Kosovo war, the monastery has been extremely vulnerable to attacks including an incident on 30th March 2007 when suspected Kosovan Albanian insurgents threw hand grenades at the monastery. Fortunately, not much damage was created. This is one of the reasons why the monastery is under constant tight security.

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By the Decani monastery

Like the Patriarchate, the Decani monastery is decorated with monumental frescos. When I enter a procession is already in full swing. The main area of the monastery is exquisite with a sky-high ceiling, elaborate frescos and many tall candles on a suspended chandelier, which one of the orthodox monks would put out one by one with a long metal candle snuffer stick.

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Inside the Decani monastery 

It has been an awesome and active day today. I am exhausted by the time I return to my room at the Hotel Peja.

 

Day Three: Tuesday 27th September 2017
Travelling from Peja to Pristina

At midday I check out of my hotel room. The young woman who is in charge arranges a taxi to come and collect me to take me to the bus station from where I will take a bus to the Kosovan capital of Pristina. She is very kind and speaks excellent English. Last night she made me a complimentary mint tea. She tells me that a taxi to the station should not exceed one Euro. I ask her, out of interest, how much a taxi should cost from the station to the Patriarchate monastery? She tells me two euros. I mention my Essex friend paying 15 euros. She looks at me as if he jumped out of a plane without a parachute. As I go to my taxi she insists that I don’t pay more than three euros for a cab from Pristina bus station to the location of my accommodation over there.

The taxi driver is a stocky middle age Kosovan-Albanian with a severe crop. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but he can speak some German having lived in Germany for 18 months as a refuge during the war. I communicate with him in my fractured German.

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Inside Peja bus terminal 

At the bus station I locate my knackered old school Pristina bound bus. I nod in and out of consciousness for the duration of the journey. As we approach the outskirts of Pristina my first impressions are not full of joy. Arriving at the rundown bus terminal I begin to feel that the city centre, and more importantly my guesthouse, is no stone’s throw away. I haven’t the faintest notion where I am in relation to the city centre. With no map to guide me and no SIM card in my phone it is going to be challenging. My hopes lift when I get talking with a young man at the information desk in the terminal who speaks reasonable English. He gives me the password for the terminal wi-fi and finally I can take advantage of good ol’ Google Maps. I have already mapped out my journey from the bus station to my accommodation. When I approach two outside taxi drivers they both want at least ten euros to take me to my accommodation which is more than triple what I was advised to pay by the young woman back at Hotel Peja. I walk on. Even with the assistance of Google Maps, I am obstructed by a loud and aggressive dual carriageway with no infrastructure to cross it. No way am I going to cross this death-trap with vehicles driving at out of sight speeds. I swiftly come to the realisation that paying ten euros for a taxi may not be such a bad idea after all. So I approach another taxi driver. This one speaks no English. Nevertheless I show him the address of my accommodation. After looking at the scrap of paper with the address for what seems like an age, he brusquely says, ‘OK!’. When I press him on the taxi fare, he grunts in German, ‘Drei, vier Euro’. Fuckin’ A. Lets go.

Everything goes swimmingly until we approach the district of the city where my accommodation is supposed to be located. It is situated on the edge of a hill overlooking the city centre. After driving aimlessly across multiple narrow streets, the taxi driver stops at a small convenience store to ask for directions to my place. A middle age woman with red curly hair appears. She speaks refreshingly good English and advises me to go to an Italian restaurant located further down the street, which may be able to better assist me. When I tell her that I am from England, she almost gets down on her knees repeatedly telling me, ‘I love England! The war was so terrible and you defended us!’ The taxi driver then proceeds to drop me off at the Italian restaurant, continually apologising in German for his navigation blunders. I tell him not to worry and get out of the cab. At the Italian restaurant, I find a waiter who speaks excellent English yet he has no idea regarding the whereabouts of my accommodation. Happily though he allows me to use the wi-fi in the restaurant. I call my host via WhatsApp telling him where I am. He duly arrives in a black BMW X5 looking like the ring leader of some sordid Albanian human trafficking gang. I am absolutely petrified of him. On arrival at the location of my accommodation it appears that I got more than what I expected. Not only do I have my own private room, I have my own mini apartment all to myself with a breath-taking view over Pristina. As I take it all in, he ominously barks, ‘Pay!’ like some Costcutter Don Corleone. I have a look inside my wallet and discover that I only have six euros. I ask him whether I can pay later? He’s not happy with my response. ‘Ok come with me I drive you to cash machine’. And so I put back on my shoes just as I took them off and we had to his black mafia mobile. He drives me to some BNP Paribas cash machine located outside of the city. As I attempt to withdraw 100 euros, the bank tells me there will be a flat five euro withdrawal fee. So I double my withdrawal amount to 200 euros. When I pay him he becomes less intimidating. The hard Lennie McLean façade morphs into soft as butter Dr Phil. He offers to drive me all the way to the centre of the city.

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Pristina at night

My impressions of Pristina become more positive the closer I get to the centre. My quest to find a tourist information centre and a map fails miserably. On a positive note, I ask two random young guys for directions to a city centre based hostel where my chances of finding a city map are high. They are both wonderfully friendly and speak fluent English. At Hostel Hun, located on the forth floor of a building, I meet a young hostel worker who speaks perfect English. He gives me a map of the city. I am not a fan of dormitories, but this hostel is quiet, clean and appears well run. I make a reservation for one night in the six-bed dormitory room for my third night in Pristina.

Afterwards I walk to a nearby diner where I order a combo of chicken and beef kebab meat with chips and salad. I haven’t eaten all day. I am still peckish after finishing my meal and so I order a sandwich with small hamburger-like patties and salad. Then I head back towards my mini apartment. On the way I pause at a modern café/bar and order a slice of the Three Milks cake. It is delicious. Later I amble up the hill back to my pad.

 

By Nicholas Peart

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