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Jazz holidays in the Balkans

 Belgrade, Serbia, at night. Photograph copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Report and photographs By John Watson

Many jazz enthusiasts combine holidays with festivals – mainly in western Europe, but some in the United States. It’s curious, then, that the Balkans region – with three well-established jazz festivals every October - is only just beginning to register as an interesting destination for fans seeking great music combined with beautiful scenery and superb food and drink.

An event I have got to know well, in just two visits, is the Belgrade Jazz Festival, usually held over four days in mid to late October. Cheap flights to Serbia are available from the UK, and accommodation in Belgrade is wide-ranging, from luxurious hotels (I stayed at the ultra-modern, clean and comfortable Crowne Plaza and can highly recommend it) to basic budget apartments. 

The low cost of food and wine in many Balkans restaurants astonishes people travelling from the UK and the Euro zone, and the quality is often truly superb, with magnificent salads, tender meats and delicious local dishes, all presented with style and imagination. Local wines are often good, and many meals start with a glass of the regional firewater, raki (pronounced “rakia”).

Belgrade’s architecture is a mix of gorgeous Austro-Hungarian empire baroque and rather plain modern, with just the odd example of Soviet-style brutalism from Serbia’s communist days as part of Yugloslavia. Visually, a major highlight of Belgrade can be found at the city’s fortress, approached from the city centre through the attractive park Kalemegdan. The ramparts offer sensational views over the confluence of Belgrade’s two great rivers, the Sava and the Danube.

A favourite historic street for most tourists is the beautifully preserved stone-cobbled Skadarlija, and packed with excellent and reasonably priced restaurants and cafes, many with outdoor tables. It’s a charming place to watch the world go by as you sip your coffee. Historically, it was the centre of artistic life in the city, and the home to many celebrated Serbian writers, painters and musicians.

Street scene in the historic district of Belgrade. Photograph copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

The Belgrade Jazz Festival celebrated its 30th birthday in 2014, and has presented an astonishing number of great musicians over the years, ranging from Count Basie to Miles Davis. The most recent festival continued its tradition of featuring leading international names, including saxophonist Charles Lloyd with his Quartet and the Children Of The Night Trio (pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade), plus a host of superb European bands including Italian trumpeter/flugelhornist Paolo Fresu with his Quintet, and several excellent Serbian groups.

Because of the way the festival has to manage its budget, the programme tends to be announced somewhat close to the opening night, but the organisers have such an excellent track record that it’s worth speculating by booking flights and accommodation anyway, and then booking tickets for concerts when they are announced.

The festival website, in English, is www.belgradejazzfest.rs/en.

Another festival, taking place the following weekend in the Serbian town of Pancevo, just 20 miles from Belgrade, will celebrate its 18th year in 2015. A new artistic team took over in 2014, and the programme featured such stars as John Abercrombie, Anat Cohen, Joachim Kuhn, Mark Turner and Steve Kuhn. Another strong programme is certain for 2015.

For general information on tourism, visit www.serbia.travel

River bridge in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Photograph copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

To the south of Serbia lies Macedonia, and its capital city Skopje hosts a jazz festival – often star-studded –which is usually held the weekend before Belgrade’s.

I’ve had just one trip to Macedonia, but before the start of the Skopje festival I had a brief trip south to the historic lakeside town of Ohrid. Macedonians are rightly proud of this gorgeous place, which lies on the northern bank of Lake Ohrid, with the Albanian hills just across the water. In autumn, the drive south from Skopje was a joy in itself, with the forests on the mountain passes shimmering with burnished gold.

The view across Lake Ohrid from the historic town in Macedonia. Photograph copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Skopje itself has plenty of good buildings, but in recent times the city centre has been marred by the installation of a huge number of hopelessly kitsch statues of Macedonian heroes. Avert your eyes from the giant statues, and seek out some of the truly excellent restaurants around Macedonian Square, where the food and wine is not only superb but also extraordinarily reasonably priced.

Be cautious when using taxis in Skopje: seek out only official cabs, and have the full address of your destination written down (preferably in Cyrillic script, which your hotel receptionist should be willing to help with). The problem, I found, is that Skopje taxi drivers – unlike those in Belgrade - don’t seem to know their own city very well.

The festival – which will celebrate its 34th year in 2015 - is held at various venues in the city, including Universal Hall, and stars there in 2014 included Korean singer Youn Sun Nah, US drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, the Fire!Orchestra from Sweden, American pianist Matthew Shipp and Australian piano trio The Necks.

The programme is usually announced well in advance, and can be found on this link: www.skopjejazzfest.com/mk.

The website for tourism is: www.exploringmacedonia.com.