A Balkan Rhapsody. September 2013.

Dear Rowley,

I have always been fascinated by the story of Crown Prince Alexander II of Yugoslavia who was born in Suite 212 of Claridges hotel in 1945 where his father King Peter II lived in exile. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his permission for Yugoslav soil to be transported to London so Suite 212 could be designated national territory and the Crown Prince born in the country that was his birthright. So when I received an invitation earlier this year to a luxury conference titled 24 Hours of Elegance in Belgrade with the inaugural event hosted by the Crown Prince in the White Palace I leapt at the chance to book an Austrian airline bone-shaker of a flight via Vienna to Serbia with stewardesses who anticipated the new season’s vogue for tone-on-tone red tights with matching court shoes.

it is always something of a mystery to me why a country such as Serbia that has only recently reawakened from a violent past would choose to billet visitors in the ugliest part of the capital; more specifically the Hyatt hotel where the Croatian football team were residing before a grudge match with Serbia. I did wonder why airport security was operational in the lobby of the Hyatt before an indiscreet member of staff told me Roman Abramovich was in residence doubtless poaching talent in low-lit hotel bars.

Being whisked past the chandelier strewn Hotel Moskva in the old town en route to the White Palace made one weep for the lost opportunity to witness the surviving beauty of a city repeatedly bombed and besieged. The invitation to the Palace read black tie so I obliged with a favourite  midnight blue Spencer Hart with shawl collar. The approach through the woodland estate was melancholy, passing abandoned, empty swimming pools and flower beds before finally drawing-up to the forecourt where handsome vintage cars were parked and pillow-lipped ladies in short skirts pouted. The lion’s share of the guests were dressed in anything from bleached denim to ancient 80s Armani suits.

The Crown Prince stood out in immaculate black tie tailored by Huntsman. He and Crown Princess Katherine were a model of of patience, benevolence and calm despite their home being opened to press, Balkan socialites and dubious fashion folk. I was ostensibly in Belgrade to promote The Perfect Gentleman and sign books but had no illusions that I was in any way the star turn. So it came as something of a surprise when the charming organiser Alex of the gloriously named Superstar Media informed me two minutes before the speeches began that I was ‘on’ after the Crown Prince and the British Ambassador.

We gathered in the hall of the White Palace underneath a portrait of King Alexander I and I listened while the Crown Prince gave a speech in Serbian and English followed by a rather well-refreshed British diplomat who made the most of the open mike moment. When it came to my turn, I bowed to the brass and said ‘brevity is the soul of elegance’ finishing the speech in less than thirty seconds. Fortunately my friend Hugo ‘Parisian Gentleman’ Jacomet and his charming son were in town to lend moral support and share a few laughs.

When we took the short drive to the Royal Palace for dinner things looked up considerably. Though the Crown Prince and Princess don’t reign, they do have permission from the Serbian government to reside in the palace complex built in the 20th century and furnished with a superb art collection amassed by the regent Prince Paul. We were whisked through the Royal Palace rather swiftly to a cloistered courtyard where tables were set for dinner with a gilded, crested service that the Crown Prince later told me was commissioned by President Tito.

I found myself seated next to the most amusing woman in Serbia: namely Mrs Stoukis, wife of the Netherlands Ambassador to Serbia. To add butter to the toast, Mrs Stoukis was the guest of the Crown Prince who sat to her left. The conversation was infinitely more palatable than the dinner and Mrs Stoukis had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Serbian royal relations, politics and geography making her an utter delight.

The Crown Prince was affable, urbane and charming answering questions I am sure he’d been asked a million times and told tales of meeting Prime Minister Churchill at No 10 who shook his hand and then declared it was his time for bed. He told tales about the state of the Royal Palace in the reign of President Tito (whose armchair remains on a balcony in the subterranean private cinema) and justified his decision to leave Communist additions such as red stars painted on the frescoes in the basement as the battle  scars of history.

It is to the Crown Prince and Princess Katherine’s credit that they returned to Serbia after a life in exile to do the best that they can do for their country. Half way through said inedible dinner, Mrs Stoukis asked the Crown Prince if I could have a tour of the Royal Palace. This I did and thrilled to the basement decorated by emigrèe white Russians in imitation of the Youssoupoff Palace in St. Petersburg and the art collection including a rather blackened Poussin and lovely family portraits. Returning to the table, I ended the evening hearing the Crown Prince’s recollections of the political snakes and ladders game that led him back to Belgrade.

I didn’t speak to Crown Princess Katherine but warmed to her speech before the charity auction and enjoyed seeing she switching lights off at the end of the party and kicking her shoes off. I do think people fail to realise that royalty is a business and contributes hugely to the economy of any country. Without the patronage of the Crown Prince and Princess I would have never accepted the invitation to visit Belgrade.