Before reading my personal journey on my trip to the Balkans guys, remember this was written way back in 2008 and I was a lot younger and not mature, cultured and experienced traveler like I am today. Have an open mind when reading this and don’t get cheesed off with me. We were all young once! Enjoy.
30th June 2008 – the trip to the Balkans commences!
The plane doors opened and I felt the warmth of the air from outside the aircraft. It was so hot in the middle of the night and it’s been quite a while since I experienced the warm temperatures such as this. I arrived at Forli airport in Northeastern Italy around 22:00 with my travel mate, Oliver, which we flew over on a Ryanair flight. This was a start to a new adventure. Around four weeks of travelling around southern Europe. Oliver would only join me for a few days but my partner Olga would arrive at Forli on another flight the next day. The plan is to do a rail trip (with a few coach journeys) and try to visit places which I only dreamt about travelling to when I was a child, places such as Athens with its ancient ruins and to see the church in the middle of Lake Bled in Slovenia. The route which Olga & I are taking starts off here, in Forli in the north eastern Italy and onto San Marino, Rimini, Bologna, Villach (Austria), Ljubljana and Lake Bled (Slovenia), Belgrade (Serbia), Sofia, Varna and the Black Sea (Bulgaria), Skopje (FYR Macedonia), Thessaloniki, Corfu and Athens (Greece) and Saranda (Albania). A long journey but with under four weeks to do, should be achievable and hopefully a journey which I won’t forget and learn a lot on the way. I have never been on the road away from home for this long before so on the flight to Italy, I was so excited. The buzz was there but I really tried to calm myself down. In the end I was playing a game with my MP3 player with Oliver, playing games such as ‘name that dance tune’. We had to stop playing for a while when a mighty thunder and lightning storm over the alps kicked off and the electric currents, the bolts of lightning which was happening down below us was an amazing sight to see out of the window. As long as the lightning bolts don’t spring upwards and hit the aircraft!
Forli is a small town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and is probably best known for the birthplace of fascist leader Benito Mussolini who was born nearby. After arriving at the airport late at night and with no public transport to take us into the centre of town, we decided that a walk with our luggage would do us some good. It took us nearly an hour to find our hotel and my clothes and body were as wet as a dog taking a dip in the nearby Adriatic. I was so glad that the hotel I booked (by accident, as I thought I was booking a hostel at the time of the advanced booking) was a decent place, three star, modern, beds comfortable and a homely feel about the place. The first thing I usually do when arriving in hot places is have a shower to get rid of the smell and grubbiness of the journey which has just taken place and to refresh myself. Yes, I refreshed myself for the long sleep I am about to look forward to. Unfortunately I kept waking up a few times during the night thinking that Olga wouldn’t make it to Forli the following morning and kept waking up with a sweat. So much for being refreshed.
1st July 2008
Morning came quite quickly as I felt like I didn’t get much sleep. The sun rays poured through the window, straight onto our pillows (great place to put a window guys) and the birds outside making so much bloody noise I nearly went mental. So much for being refreshed and relax at the beginning of the trip. As I found out on the walk back to the airport to meet Olga later on that morning, that these birds were everywhere high up in the trees. God knows what type of birds they are but they make this weird noise which I can’t describe. It’s so loud that at some point when walking along the road, you hear more of the birds than oncoming vehicles which are about to mow you down to the ground. (I later found out a few years later that these were not birds but an insect which likes to stay on trees. They are called Cicadas and it’s the male who makes the bloody noise by trying to sing and attract the sexy female Cicadas. They produce loud buzzing-like noises by flexing their tymblas located in their abdomens.)
We arrived at Forli airport where Olga’s flight already landed and as soon as I had her backpack on my back, we were off back into Forli. This would be really interesting for me (and Olga) as this was her first proper backpacking trip and to be honest, this would test our relationship as we never been together in a far away land for a long time. We are away from all our creature comforts, our homely surroundings and comfort zone, to lands which we never been to, always travelling on the road, going in between hotels and hostels, as well as exploring the places on our planned list. This would be a challenge, not just for the trip but to learn more about ourselves and gives me a right idea for how we would cope as a couple when we get married and start to live with each other on a full time basis.
Well, it didn’t start too good for Olga & I. After collecting mine and Oliver’s luggage from our hotel, we were walking towards Piazza Aurelio Saffi when Olga kept complaining about her footwear, the straps on her backpack and for some reason kept putting her anger on me. I tried to put a brave face on the situation (and at the same time gave Oliver a worrying look), and thinking that she might be like this over the coming weeks.
Piazza Aurelio Saffi is a lovely little square in the centre of Forli which offers some of the most interesting town sights. The piazza is built in a trapezoidal shape, the buildings surrounding it have some of the most distinguished and ancient buildings of Forli. A statue of Aurelio Saffi (who was an Italian politician and an very important person in the 1800’s) stands in the middle of the square and on the southern side stands the Abbey of San Mercuriale (which is the main religious building in the region, made out of brick and has a tall bell tower which overlooks the city), but as I was trying to take in the sights and trying to get some good photo shots in the early morning sun, Olga just kept having a go at me about her footwear. For heaven’s sake woman, we are on holiday! I didn’t like the start of the trip and was in no mood to explore Forli any further so I suggested we head for the train station for our next point of our journey, Rimini.
Rimini is known for its extensive beach and nightlife. A great way to start the tour at this Adriatic fun spot! Even the bus ride to our hostel from the train station was crazy! Olga and Oliver managed to grab seats on the bus with room for their luggage but I was left to stand up with my backpack still on my back near the back door of the bus. At first it was fine, the bus was packed full of passengers and for the first five minutes of the journey, I could cope with this, despite the fact the bus felt like it was a Finnish sauna in full heat!
Suddenly loads of school children got on the bus and decided to check out my backpack as it is all covered in badges of some of the places I have been to. They were poking my bag, shouting ‘Se!’ or something in Italian and then they all seemed too buggered off a few stops down. Peace and quiet now, well, no! An old lady with her family got on at the back door with loads of luggage. Trying to make some more room, she tried to complain about my backpack but I didn’t understand her and personally, I didn’t care. Not when you got over 20kg on your back! I wasn’t going to take my backpack off and leave it on the floor. This would actually cause more problems. Then the old wrinkled lady, wearing glasses with sticky tape holding the frames together and was dressed with a headscarf, wearing a purple dress and wearing no footwear, decides to shout at some of the few remaining school children left on the bus who were standing half way down, to see if they could move further down towards the front of the vehicle to allow more passengers room at the rear. She really did have a go at them and in full voice decided that shouting at full pitch would give me a nice headache to enjoy myself for the rest of the day. Thanks sweetheart.
The school children decided to really cheese her off some more by deciding to ignore her for a while but when she got her walking stick out and started to swing it about in the bus, they decided to move towards the front allowing more room for other passengers and my precious backpack, which was still on my back. The war was won (for the old lady and my backpack) and the crazy bus journey eventually came to an end as we landed up at our destination, a good few kilometres from the centre of Rimini but alongside the seafront south of the town. The hostel wasn’t a far walk away but the area we were in is for tourists and sun seekers. Along the seafront were shops selling souvenirs, beach towels with cafes and restaurants. Hotels also lined the road and the place was buzzing with tourists with only their bikinis and swimwear on. It had a feel of Brighton back home on a really hot day. Start of the trip equals Olga & I needing some tan on our skins. I felt excited and just wanted to dump our luggage at the hostel and jump into the cool refreshing Adriatic Sea on this hot summer’s day on the eastern coast of Italy.
On one of the side streets away from the shoreline, we found and checked into a hostel. I couldn’t miss the hostel as out of all the buildings in the street, this was the most brightly coloured hostels I have ever seen with a huge orange sunflower painted on the side of the building, while all the other hotels on the street which were full of Italians, Germans and Russians, were painted white. Not many English tourists are here but I did notice a few American backpackers around. The theme of the American backpackers was about to start for this trip. I got nothing against Americans but every summer, a lot of the younger backpackers get their mummy and daddy to pay for them to go on a six month to a year backpacking trip to anywhere they want (this is my view and not that of the English nation). Most of them do choose Europe and especially in the summer, Americans tend to take over the hostels. I have nothing against that. It can be fun to get to know our cousins from over the pond (Atlantic Ocean) and most of the time, end up having a good old knee’s up with loads of alcohol involved at the same time.
Now, a lot of young American backpackers are under the age of twenty-one so they like to get drunk and go crazy, strip naked, run down hostel corridor’s, singing Britney Spears songs and shouting out slogans which I have never heard of before! Then this causes all us Europeans to give them the stares, thinking that they can’t handle their drink and in some respects, wonder why the American government doesn’t lower the drinking age. Look at France, the parents of children start giving them wine at the age of five. Look at England, my dad probably gave me whiskey whilst I was teething and look at Russia. Vodka is very good (nope, parents got that mixed up with the bottle water!)
In some respects it’s great to see the American youngsters have fun but when it comes to 4 o’clock in the morning when everyone is trying to sleep in the hostel and some young girls are only wearing their knickers shouting out ‘Yeah, I am so wasted, I want to move to Europe so I can drink’ is a bit sad and very annoying! It is so annoying in the morning when the shared toilets are all engaged with young Americans trying to clear their system out while you jump outside the room like a raging hooligan. This was going to be the theme in most hostels on this trip (a bit like my home town of Stevenage on a Friday and Saturday night). I just wish the American government would lower the drinking age so they can enjoy a tipple. I am a moaning old person, old before my time I say. It was lunchtime now so we checked out a local cafe which the staff spoke no English but luckily one of the waitresses was from Russia so Olga was basically our translator while we ordered some spaghetti carbonara and green salads. A quick trip back to our hostel, sorting out our gear and Olga managing to do a quick repair job by sewing up a small hole on her backpack, it was time to head to the beach.
Rimini has loads of private beaches for the hotels but luckily (after a while) we managed to find the public beach to which we enjoyed for a few hours. A few dips in the Adriatic were enjoyed, bobbing up and down with the strong waves which occurred, jumping and diving against them. The sea wasn’t clear, it was a bit mucky but that wasn’t going to stop my enjoyment. The bright sun rays shining down on us, the warmth, the sea, the sound of the crashing waves, this was perfect. Just the sort of cure which me (and I am sure Olga) needed at the start of the trip to loosen ourselves up with and to look forward to our adventure for the next coming weeks.
At one moment, I just stood in the sea, my back turned to the beach and I just stared eastwards. I knew the other side of the Adriatic Sea would be our finishing point on the Greek island of Corfu and that was under four weeks away but I didn’t want to think about timelines, I just wanted to take each day as it comes and enjoy myself, wanting to experience the local way of life, culture and music. So far in Italy I have to say I was enjoying myself. I wasn’t too impressed with my visits to the cities of Roma and Milano in the last year but I was really starting to prefer the Italian way of life away from the bigger cities. So less rushed and the people are kinder and helpful despite the language barrier.
After a few hours on the beach, it was evening time. The sun had set and it was time to head out for an evening meal. Before we left our hostel, as I was walking down the staircase from our room, I could see the table with the computer which enables guests to use the internet. A really heavy man in his late 20’s was using the computer and I am not joking, he must have nearly weighed about 35 stone. It was sickening, especially seeing the sight of the computer chair starting to buckle under the pressure of the weight. Poor computer chair, I wouldn’t want to be like that right now. I also noticed that the man had problems holding the mouse and that his huge hands couldn’t grab the device. I thought I was overweight but seeing this determined to change my eating style and try to lose a bit of weight on the trip and into the future (I hoped).
At the restaurant we had green salads and pasta again and with free thin bread sticks in packaging on offer on the dinner tables, Olga decided to grab loads of these and shove them into her pockets and save them later on into the trip. A good idea but I am sure I have plenty of money to afford bread if we need it and not use emergency supplies of package bread which is going to rot in our backpack for the next few weeks. A stroll around the beach watching the sunset go down over the hills which looks over Rimini from the west and enjoying Italian style ice cream, which I managed to get all over my face like a baby. I am such a messy person. All of us had an early night as the following day we would be travelling up into the Apennine Mountains to explore the small country of San Marino.
2nd July 2008
The coaches we took outside the train station at Rimini to reach our destination of San Marino can just about get around the sharp corners on the bendy roads as we went up Mountain Titanio which is roughly 657 meters above sea level. Eventually the coach made it to the top of the mountain after an hour leaving Rimini. The hour on the coach sure did sort out my stomach which was still digesting my early morning breakfast but how on earth can Oliver sleep on the coach when your head is going side to side in tune with the direction of the coach? I am sure he is going to have a sore neck ache after doing a nodding dog impression. Disembarking at the international bus station of San Marino at Piazzale Calcigni which is based right at the top of Mountain Titano, the station looks like it is based in the middle of an old fashioned fortress or courtyard. The international bus station has only six spaces for coaches and the only international destination the coaches go to is back down the mountain to Rimini. I love that, try and make the place sound like it’s important by using the words ‘International Bus Station’ instead of putting signs up around the place for ‘Buses to Rimini’ or ‘Down the hill to Italy’.
The first thing I noticed as I walked to the side of the courtyard (sorry, international bus station) was the views looking towards the west into the Apennine Mountains. The mountains themselves are not that tall but more round, just like really tall hills. Small cottages are perched on the side of the brown mountains with a few trees. I just stood there, looking out, looking at the pleasant view which didn’t last too long as thick grey clouds poured in from the south. The pleasantness went and the area became gloomy. Time to walk up the mountain a little bit further to explore the old city of San Marino. The area was full of little alleyways, side paths, cobbled streets and staircases. After a while walking upwards, we landed up on Porta San Francesco, which is the main shopping point for tourists and I noticed that most of the goods or dodgy perfumes and cheap knock offs. Yes, the country is a little bit cheaper on tax on goods compared to Italy but some of the goods I wouldn’t even touch with a barge pole. I think the big giveaway was a perfume which usually retails in shops for €60 was going for a bargain price of €5! Moving on further up the mountain side and we came across another road full of gift shops. So many of them and I was starting to feel that this place is becoming a tourist trap which I don’t like when I go travelling. I hope I don’t leave San Marino later today thinking that the country is more famous for its thousands of gift shops instead of the fortress at the very top which we were heading for. At this point the heavens opened, and rain started to pour down on us but this did feel a little refreshing as the temperature was quite warm.
The first fortress we came across was the Rocca Guaita. The fortress faces east and overlooks the flat lands of Italy, to which from here I had a great view of the Adriatic Sea. Also from here I had a great view of the lower areas of San Marino and also noticed their sports stadium which saw San Marino’s heaviest football result (losing 13-0 to Germany – written in 2008 remember, not sure if anyone has scored more since). Memories of San Marino’s shock goal after eight seconds against England came rushing back as I remember watching the goals on the television when I was a youngster. At least we got our own back during the same game and smashed seven goals into their net but that was back home in London.
At least I got the best views a few moments later and we didn’t need to go up a tower to see them. Walking along the path between Guaita and Cesta we found a great viewpoint, once again looking out towards the sea. Also a great view of Guaita was to be had and that’s when I noticed that some of the tower was overhanging the mountain side. Is it safe? Well, it’s been there centuries. I just hope an earthquake doesn’t hit this area otherwise a small village in San Marino down below is going to be crushed by the falling grey bricks of the tower. Still, it was an amazing view and I just stood there, looking at the amazing building whilst the rain still tickled down my face. I really need some window wipers on my glasses so I don’t need to keep cleaning them every two minutes.
It was time for lunch and as San Marino loves ripping off tourists with meals costing over €60 in the old town, it was time for a challenge. You see, Ollie has a challenge of eating a McDonald’s meal in every country possible and having a photo taken outside to prove that he was there. Well, the McDonalds were really hard to find here but at least it would be worth it as it would save some money and help me on my budget. After finding directions in the old city, we were told to head down towards the main town in San Marino, Borgo Maggiore. The quickest way to get down was by using the aerial tramway which is about a 1.5km journey and sweeps over the rooftops of houses near the bottom before we disembarked in a small square. We got kind of lost, walking around for ages going through a housing estate where most of the Sammarinese people live as Borgo Maggiore is the second largest settlement in the country.
Olga was getting stroppy again and I sense a repeat of Forli a few days earlier. She didn’t like the walking; god knows what she was going to be like further onto the trip. We found McDonalds after a while and when Ollie decided to pay a visit to the toilet I had a few strong words with Olga which seemed to have done the trick. I wasn’t going to come on a long trip around Europe with her in tow complaining about walking and the heat. After a few days she calmed down and started to enjoy herself. I honestly thought that she was expecting beaches everyday and having a few drinks in the evening. I said nope, it’s a backpacking tour. That’s why there is a lot of travelling and walking involved. Well, the atmosphere calmed down and Olga did actually start to enjoy herself.
It was getting on late in the afternoon so it was back on the aerial tramway which didn’t take long to find as we found a shortcut through the housing estate and then back up into the city of San Marino. Whilst walking back to the ‘International Bus Station’ we passed The Palazzo Pubblico, which is the main city hall of San Marino and has been stood on its present site for over a hundred years after being built and designed by Roman architect Frencesco Azzurri. Also in the main square (Piazza della Liberta) is the state museum which was closed today and a nice small pretty church. On the coach back to Rimini, there were a few questions I wouldn’t mind looking for the answers but I still never got round to answering my own questions about Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino – Most Serene Republic of San Marino. Why has Mexico got a consul based in San Marino? Can I ask what the staff actually does here? Do they really get loads of Mexican citizens claiming that they have lost their passports whilst on a walk around the mountain peaks of San Marino? Are San Marino’s violent towards the Mexicans? God knows. Also, why does San Marino have an honorary consul (the only consul they have in the whole wide world), in the USA but on the islands of Hawaii? Do loads of San Marino’s (with its population of 27,000) go to Hawaii for their holidays instead of Rimini and feel the urgent need that just in case they lose their passports while surfing that they will go to the consulate there. Or is it that they based the consulate there so the staff can actually go surfing on their lunch breaks. Strange little republic I thought.
The sun setting in the east and the train which Olga and I were travelling on northwards, rolled through the Italian countryside, pulling away from the Apennine Mountains and the sight of Mountain Titano on which San Marino City perched, disappeared out of the view. The land was getting flatter and flatter and the view from the train window which I was staring out of just got too boring for me and then nodded off. An announcement on the train announced that we are arriving in Bologna, which was our next destination. (Also Ollie left us at this point to fly back out of Forli and will join us again in a few weeks).
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, in the north east of Italy and we used this as a stop of point to break up our journey before heading into Austria the next morning. Reading the guide book I had on Italy, I found out that Bologna is home to the oldest university in the western world; one of the most developed cities in Italy and often ranks as one of the best cities in Italy in terms of quality of life. Also back in 2000, the city hosted itself as the ‘European city of culture’. Reading all this gave me some hunger to go exploring for some true Italian culture and lifestyle in Bologna despite the short time span we had here but I was about to be hugely disappointed.
We arrived in the early evening and checked into our hotel which wasn’t a far walk from the train station. It was a very nice hotel which had a ranking of 3 stars, (another funny looking hostel which I booked on a hostel website but at least the price was cheap) very modern, very clean, and staff very friendly. As soon as we dumped our luggage in our room, I just crashed on the bed and nodded off for a while. The heat, the mugginess with the rain in San Marino and hiking up and down the mountain seemed to take its toll on me. After a short snooze and a quick refreshing shower we wandered the streets looking for something cheap to eat, even if it means getting a snack out of a shop but this seemed like mission impossible. Thirty minutes later, a shop was found but the food wasn’t brilliant. As there was nothing else to do, we both decided to have an early night and save our energy for the morning.
3rd July 2008
Those blasted birds making that noise. I couldn’t go back to sleep, nor could Olga, so we decided to get ourselves sorted, have an early breakfast and have a walk around Bologna before we needed to board our train northwards, continuing our journey further into south eastern Europe. I was a little bit disappointed with Bologna. It just seemed like any other city to me but at least the Piazza Maggiore was a nice sight and a pleasant square to walk around with the buildings of Palazzo del Banchi, Palazzo del Notai, Palazzo del Accursio and the San Petronio Basilica. The Piazza Maggiore dates back to 1200 and are one of the finest squares in all of Italy according to the guide book. I would have to agree with this.
The buildings looked really impressive, well maintained and the atmosphere was quite pleasant. The local people going on about their everyday lives, young Italian females with long black curly hair, tall and slim, strutting their stuff down the cobbled streets, trying not to get their high heels stuck in between the stones. The San Petronio Basilica is the main church in Bologna, stands in the middle of the square and is very dominating. The church is also the fifth largest in the world stretching for 132 meters in length and 60 meters in width. To me, it was another church and after a while, standing in the middle of the piazza in the heat made me want to move on. The only other building worth visiting or seeing if you are a tourist on a flying visit like me, is the Towers of Bologna which we didn’t even get a chance to see, not even see them in a far distance as there are so many tall buildings in the way. Maybe one day I will come back to explore the towers but I had the burning desire to make tracks, to get out of Italy and head into the mountains of southern Austria.
The train journey from Bologna to Venezia (Venice) took just over an hour but once again was kind of boring, nothing to see out of the window and both of us fell asleep once again before an announcement which woke us up saying that the train was terminating at Mestre station, which is the main station on the outskirts of Venezia. We needed to buy tickets here with our railway discount cards but the queues were so long. Our train to our next destination, Villach in Austria was due very shortly. By the time I got to the front of the queue and got served, the ticket clerk at the international desk was not very helpful. So I made the decision that we should go straight to the platform, board the train and buy our tickets there, which was a very wise decision as the train guard served us and not fined us as we are railway staff. Being railway staff has its advantages.
The train was quite a long one, about sixteen carriages long and one of the old fashioned type. I’m not talking about the locomotives which were pulling the carriages but the carriages itself. Slam door stock, cabins with six seats in each, windows which you can pull down, curtains hanging to the side of the window which some yellow stains on them and a light bulb dangling in the centre of the cabin, trying to produce some sort of light. This was in some ways romantic; Olga & I had a cabin to ourselves, the fresh air pouring in from outside and the route taking us deeper and deeper into the mountains towards Austria.
The route which the train took was splendid. Deeper and deeper into the Italian Alps, going through valleys which I never seen in my life before with rivers and streams alongside the railway line, water rushing down from above. The mountains were getting taller and taller, blocking out the summer sun but this didn’t stop me just sitting on the train and looking at the scenic views. Udine was the last Italian town before the train crossed the border, a nice little town with a castle and its pointed white tower can be seen anywhere from the town.
The journey went on like this for at least three hours but the time was killed by a couple of Americans who decided to sit in our cabin with us, an elderly lady and her daughter. They were both jet lagged after coming straight into Milan and travelling to Vienna by train. We sat for a while talking about our travelling experiences but then both of them just went into sleep. They never woke up whilst on the trai, so we sneaked off when it came to disembarking, shutting the door on the cabin very quietly.
The hike up the mountain started a little bit too sharp for Olga but once we got into a rhythm, we had no problems walking up. Alongside the cliff faces are climbers practising their trade by climbing up and down the rock faces with their specialist equipment. The road we were walking along seemed never ending. We walked and walked, round the corner and carried on walking. After ninety minutes (funny twenty minutes!) we ended up in a small village called Altfinkenstein, our final destination. Nearby there is Latschach which is another beautiful village with thatched cottages, a nice bar and even an outdoor theatre. Fields with green grass surround the village and now a view of the local area can be seen, including the huge lake down below. Olga was getting tired and a little bit angrier as we just found out our hotel is further on up the mountain. It’s a good job we haven’t got our luggage with us. This would have been a mission with our backpacks on and I think Olga would have been more cheesed off right now.
The hotel we stayed at was amazing. I wish we could stay here a lot longer. Typical chalet with amazing views of the surrounding area. Feeling tired and hungry after a day’s travelling from Bologna just to reach here (but had a wonderful journey through the Alps), we were greeted by a member of staff who was working as a waitress. She checked us in and showed us to our room which is probably one of the best hotel rooms I have been to and slept in. Downstairs we managed to get something to eat in the restaurant and sat outside. I explained to Olga that one of my work colleagues back in London told me about a light Austrian dish which we should try. FrittatenSuppe, which means ‘Pancake Soup’, is a nice snack, made of strips of pancake with chives and chicken broth. This was gone instantly and we both gave it the thumbs up. A nice cold beer was also enjoyed for the day of travelling we had to do. Then a sudden downpour of rain occurred so we retired to our room for an early night and checked out some Austrian television.
4th July 2008
The next morning it was time to check out the local area. Altfinkenstein as I mentioned has an outdoor theatre which overlooks the area down below as it is built on the mountain side. Olga sat on the stones which are used as chairs for the audience when live performances are staged and I practise my acting skills with a little bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Romeo and Juliet mixed with some Hamlet. This didn’t go down too well with Olga and said singing ‘The Sound of Music’ was a lot better earlier on.
The hike down to the valley was a lot quicker and Olga seemed a lot happier. In Finkenstein am Faaker whilst waiting for our bus back to Villach, Olga went into the shop to grab us some drinks and she came out with this yoghurt drink for me. It was an Austrian brand, I didn’t have a clue what this drink was but when it entered my mouth, it seemed like there was a party going on. For a split second, tasting this was better than having sex! I found out later that it was a passion fruit flavoured yoghurt drink and every time I visit Austria from now on, I want to supply myself and drink this. One of the best non-alcoholic drinks I have ever tasted in my life. Olga just stares at me, probably thinking that I should up because it’s only a drink!
The bus came along and as it only goes in one direction, we were treated to a tour of the Faakersee (the lake) before heading back to Villach. Motorcyclists love this part of the world, speeding along through the country lanes. I must have seen about thirty within ten minutes enjoying the ride. Right now I wish I could have a motorbike and enjoy the ride through the mountains. Like Olga will ever let me have a motorbike again. She keeps going on about how dangerous they are. One day…
The train for our destination in Slovenia was a couple of hours away so Villach was to be explored. A small and peaceful town located in southern Austria on the banks of the Drau River, this has to be one of the most boring towns I have ever visited, even more boring than Basildon back home. A nice white church stood out right in the heart of the centre with a tall sphere on top, making it one of the tallest buildings in the town.
Restaurants and bars lined up the main shopping street with children spraying each other from the water fountain on this warm lunchtime hour. After a bit of shopping and cooling off with some really lovely ice cream, we sat outside a bar having another cool beer. There was nothing to do in the town so we just chilled out, having a drink in the sun. The main shopping street was closed off to cars as there was some sort of car rally going on, most of them must have dated between 1930-1970 periods. Members of the public would go up to the cars and chat with their owners. I sat there watching and after watching all the cars arriving, I wanted to pay our bill. We haven’t seen our waitress for quite some time and we have been sitting outside for at least ninety minutes. Other waitresses didn’t want to approach us so we just got up and left. Well, if they don’t want our money, we might as well go and that is what we did. We just walked off without paying. I was willing to pay but they didn’t want to charge us. I don’t think I am going back to that bar in a hurry, or to think of it, the town itself.
Collecting our luggage from the lockers at the train station, we killed some time on the platforms. We ate some food which we got from the local supermarket and then this guy approached us. He had a few dreadlocks, in his mid-20, white, tattoos, backpack, guitar and a goatee beard. “Hey guys” speaking in broken English. I can’t remember his name now but he was from Finland, had flown into Venice the previous day from Helsinki and then caught the train from Venice to Villach today and wanted to know if the train we were waiting for went to some town in Slovenia.
I said he was at the right place and then explained that he wasn’t much of a traveller and was going to a music festival at this town. He seemed to be a nice guy. I looked around and before the train had departed, I noticed a lot of music lovers on the platform. When we boarded the train to Slovenia, it was packed full of passengers mostly going to the same place. In the end, Olga & I managed to find seats in first class. The ticket examiner didn’t care about us sitting in first class with standard class tickets and so we entered our fourth country of the trip, Slovenia and it was around 17:00 when we arrived in Ljubljana, the capital city.
Major improvements to the train station in Ljubljana are underway since my last visit to the nation’s capital over fourteen months ago. This was to be a very short visit as Olga wanted to see the castle which overlooks the city before heading to Kranj in northern Slovenia to see my friend, Tea and our accommodation for the night. We planned a few hours here before we had to jump back on the train so after leaving the luggage once again in the locker room here at the station, it was time to show Olga around this small city which has around 280,000 inhabitants. A few hours would be enough to see the major sights as Ljubljana is one of the smallest cities I have been to and I am sure it is one of the smallest cities in the European Union, in which Slovenia joined back in 2004 with Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Malta, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Poland.
Ljubljana is a very easy city to get around and if you take the right road south from the station, it will take you to the sights straight away. I remembered the route from last time round and within a few minutes we were posing with dragons. Yes, dragons, Slovenia loves its dragons (no, I am not getting mixed up with Wales). Well actually the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most) has four fearsome dragons on the bridge which was built around 1900 when Ljubljana used to be part of Austria-Hungary Empire. The bridge was designed by an architect who studied in Vienna and built by an Austrian engineer, the bridge is now considered to be one of the finest works in the Vienna Secession art nouveau era (if that makes any sense as I am not really any artistic person and my history in art really sucks! But the bridge is brilliantly designed and built and is one of my favourites). I also found out that some residents nicknamed the bridge ‘mother-in-law’ in reference to the fearsome dragons.
Overlooking the Dragons Bridge, is the medieval castle of Ljubljana (Ljubljanski Grad) located at the summit of the hill which dominates the city centre. Since it was built around 1144 it has been a fortress, prison, an arsenal, military hospital and now cultural displays take place here for the tourists. Since the boom of tourism in the last few years, the castle has now built a funicular which links the city centre to the top of the hill which Olga & I travelled up on with hundreds of loudmouth Italian tourists (mainly students who must have eaten lots of chocolate and gained a massive sugar rush! Hyper bunnies spring to mind!). I wonder if their Roman counterparts were like this when they took control of the city many hundreds of years ago.
Up on the castle tower we had excellent views of the small city, where it was breezy but at least it was a lot clearer today with the bright sunshine compared to my last visit when dull grey clouds poured over the city. Heading back down the funicular, we took the short walk into the city centre where by now it was early evening. On our way to a nice restaurant which I remembered going to last year, we passed the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation with three bridges which is built over the main river of Ljubljanica. The church is beautiful on a sunny day, tall, beautifully designed and the pink coloured walls really stand out, making it pride of place.
Since arriving a few hours ago, I noticed that Slovenia has become expensive when it comes to buying goods compared to last time as they use the Euro currency. I was not happy with this. I am hoping countries like Serbia and Bulgaria weren’t going to be expensive like Slovenia later on in the journey otherwise I will run out of money quicker than British Gas customers receiving a 33% rise on their fuel bills!
Back at the station we collected our luggage and waited for ages on the platform for our train to Kranj. As the train came from Croatia, it probably got held up at the border control point but eventually it arrived. Another twenty five minutes later we arrived in the northern town of Kranj and met my friend Tea and her boyfriend Clement (who have since split up). Nice man whom I got on well with him straight away despite his limited English. Tall, muscular, a little bit of tanned skin, short black curly hair, Clement is a mountain climber and hiker by trade and takes tourists up the nearby Julian Alps which is a mountain range which stretches from Slovenia into north eastern Italy, which are the exactly same mountains which the train took us through from our journey between Venezia and Villach the previous day.
Tea took us to a local bar which she knows in the centre of Kranj. The bar was very busy with once again, youngsters enjoying a drink before going out to a club or a party. Sitting down we were served by a girl who looked barely over the age of sixteen. I asked for a shandy, a typical English drink which is usually half a glass of beer and topped up with lemonade. She has never been asked for this drink before and I explained what the drink consists of. She still didn’t understand so Tea stepped in and translated my order into Slovenian. That was great as the waitress understood and had a smile on her face. For some reason I was looking forward to a shandy.
A few minutes later the drinks came and I tested mine. The taste was nearly as bad as the one I ordered in Finland a few years back. It was very bitter. The drink turned out to be beer with real lemons and added sugar as that is what Slovenians class lemonade. It tasted sickly but I still try to drink most of it so I didn’t offend the barmaid. Olga found out from Tea that I should have asked for half a beer topped up with Sprite! Clement had to leave us early as he had an early start the following morning to take a tour group by the mountains.
After the bar we made tracks to Tea’s place, a small village called Podnart which wasn’t very far away from Kranj. I still wasn’t sure what to expect of our accommodation. Was it going to be like soviet style accommodation, a concrete block of apartments? I was totally wrong, her house was like a palace even compared to my parents house back in England, this was like a palace. A huge house built at a base of a mountain and has three levels, with a garage. The house was spacious, clean and was white in colour so that the next morning when the sun rays poured through the clouds, the house lit up. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was off to sleep and looking forward to the next day exploring.
July 5th 2008
Tea seemed to be a little bit eager to get us up early as she said that we had a long day of exploring to do around Lake Bled. By 9am Olga & I were up and ready and we were greeted by a nice breakfast in the kitchen which her mum had prepared for us. Honey, homemade jams, toast, eggs, croissant, yoghurts, marmalade, bread, orange juice, tea, the table was full of goodies. It was way too much for breakfast and in the end we had to explain that we didn’t eat much for breakfast. Before we left the house we said our goodbyes to Tea’s mother who didn’t speak a word of English and gave her a bottle of Riga Black Balsams (a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur) from Latvia. Back in the car we drove a few kilometres to Bled which was a bumpy and hell raising experience with the amount of bends and bumps on the narrow country lanes towards the lake. Tea said this was a shortcut, my stomach tells me differently. The approach to the lake was very busy with vehicles trying to get a good parking space and spot next to the lake to enjoy a day relaxing by the water and catching the sun rays.
Lake Bled (Blejsko Jezero) is a glacial lake in the Julian Alps. The lake itself is 2,120 meters long and 1,380 meters wide with a maximum depth of 30 meters. As soon as we parked up we walked to the shore and I took in the sight. Where I was standing is where the town of Bled stands which adjoins the lake and in front of me a medieval castle stands over the lake on the northern shore. There is an island in the middle of the lake known as Bled Island (Blejski otok) and around the lake are little beaches where people come to enjoy the lake’s bathing spots with woodland coming up close to the lake’s shores from the mountainside. The whole area is very picturesque and now I can see why the area is so popular with tourists. Even the former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito had an official residence here as he loved the lake and the area so much.
I watched a few touristy television programmes back home which had featured Lake Bled and one of the things on my to do list whilst on the tour was to ride a boat from the shoreline to the island in the middle of the lake. The boats are called Pletna and are pushed by a rower at the end of the boat with two huge oars and can hold up to twenty passengers. This cost about €10 per person and within five minutes of arriving at Bled we were on our way to Bled Island. Myself, Tea and Olga were sitting at the back of the Pletna where it was a bit more open as the roof of the Pletna only covers three-quarters of its length while the rest of the Pletna was full of Italian tourists. An elderly couple sitting next to us tried to break conversation with us with their broken English and once they found out Olga & I were engaged to be married, all the passengers came out with ‘awwww’ and started clapping their hands, wishing us all the best for the future.
Arriving on Blejski Otok, the only natural island in Slovenia, we were welcomed to one thing which hasn’t happened much so far into this trip, quietness. Even with the twenty Italian tourists who had walked straight to the church, the area remained calm, peaceful and felt like that time had stopped still. I welcomed the quietness; this is what I wanted, some peace and quiet, even if it’s for a brief moment. Standing on the shore with Olga in my arms, I looked out over the waters towards the mountains, taking it all in, the view, the sounds of the waves crashing against the shoreline and the warmth of the sun shining on my back. It was just a perfect scene and it has been a long while since I experienced anything like this, one which I will cherish forever.
The island has several buildings but the main one which is a famous landmark in Slovenia is the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption (in Slovenian it is called Cerkev Marijinega vnebovzetja) which was built in the 15th century and the tower of the church is 52 meters tall but more famously is the ninety nine steps leading to the building. Weddings are usually hosted here on the island, once the couple have been married, the groom has to carry the bride up the ninety nine steps and if successful, the married couple will have good luck and a long loving marriage. Most of the tourists were queuing to go up the tower but for us, just sitting on the cobbled stone steps and chilling out was good enough for us. Back on the Pletna across the lake via a different route, we disembarked at the bottom of the hillside where Bled Castle is based at the summit. A short walk upwards to see this wonderfully built and situated building. Blejski grad as it’s known is 130 meters above the lake and I found out that it’s the second most visited attraction in Slovenia after Postojna caves which I took on my last visit to Slovenia.
I can see why the castle is a popular place to visit with tourists. Not only do you get to pay and go around a beautiful castle which dates back to year 1004, the views of Lake Bled and the surrounding area are amazing. One of the best views I have seen in my entire life so far. It felt like my life was leading up to this moment. Not only is it a perfect picture postcard scene but also a photographer’s heaven. The amount of shots I did was unbelievable. The island of Bled looks so small, in the middle of a vast lake and tower just looks like a candle on a green cup cake from where I was standing. Wandering around the castle, I toured the oldest part which is the Romanesque tower and as I found out, in the ‘middle ages’ more towers were built and fortifications were improved. A lot of the other buildings were constructed in the Baroque period and are arranged around two courtyards which are connected with a staircase. The castle also has a chapel on the upper courtyard and a drawbridge over a moat on one side. Could this be one of the best castles I have visited, maybe?
After lunch we headed to the southern end of the lake where we relaxed for a while in the heat of the sun. Tea & I decided to go for a swim in the lake. For me who hasn’t swum much recently was a little bit scary as I was nervous. The last time I swam in a lake was back in Hertfordshire helping one of my ex-girlfriends train for a lifeguard’s certificate and I said I would assist her. This involved swimming in a cold lake in the middle of October. I gave up and let her down after five minutes. Well, I didn’t let this lake scare me and I took my time, getting in, acclimating to the water’s temperature. After a while I got used to swimming in the lake and noticed that I was going further and further out, with small fishes swimming around me. I loved it. Whilst I was swimming, Tea has now got herself ready for a dip (why does it take someone over ten minutes to get ready for a dip in a lake, it’s like waiting for a lady to go out on a date!), jumped straight in and before I knew it, she was on her way to the island in the middle of the lake. Tea is such a good swimmer. Olga didn’t join us and decided to copy the local people by sitting on the grass and relaxing.
After a while we got back in the car to head for our next destination but as I was about to sit down in the front passenger’s seat, I noticed a piece of paper under the window wiper. It turned out to be a parking fine. Tea was angry and not best pleased. How the hell are we supposed that we shouldn’t park the car where we left it? I did offer Tea to pay for it as it was around €20 but she said no, it was her fault! How was that Tea? We are guests and got you into this mess. I felt a bit upset that she didn’t want me to pay for the fine. Well, we didn’t let the fine ruin the rest of our day and we headed northwards for the Vintgar Gorge which is around 10km away.
The Vintgar Gorge (Blejski Vintgar or known as Bled Gorge) is a 1.6km gorge carved by the Radovna River, with sheer canyon walls which are between 50 to 100 meters high. The stream which goes through the gorge has many erosive features such as pools and rapids and terminates with a thirteen meter high waterfall. Footbridges and footpaths go alongside the river and all along the walk, the sound of the fast flowing water crashing onto rocks; the sides of the gorge and the waterfall were so loud. Slovenia has so many natural sights; I was falling in love with the country just because of the scenery. Unfortunately our time was up in Slovenia so after having a meal at a nearby restaurant, which we needed a nice huge meal before our long overnight journey, we said our goodbyes to Tea and headed back to Ljubljana for a connecting train to Belgrade.
July 6th 2008
When touring Europe by train the further east you go, the slower and longer the journeys but there is more of an adventure. Old fashioned trains which are roughly twelve carriages long (but tonight the train is only four carriages long) pulled by a steam locomotive, a member of staff working in each carriage to look after the passengers who are all suited and booted in usually blue or grey uniforms and hardly speaks any English, while the cabins are dim, dull, stained curtains hanging up and the heater usually doesn’t work. It’s the middle of summer and at least Olga & I didn’t need a heater on. On the journey which we traveled from Ljubljana to Belgrade in Serbia, we didn’t opt for a cabin with beds, but just a normal cabin with a row of seats on each side consisting of three seats each. To save money buying beds on the train, we just converted this cabin into our own bedroom but the train crew didn’t like this, as I can tell by their angry and wrinkled faces. I don’t care. It’s only for twelve hours until we arrive in the Serbian capital.
The train pulled out of Ljubljana station and memories of my last journey on a sleeper train from here came back to me fourteen months earlier but that time I was heading for Budapest. Flat lands under clear skies at night, a full moon shining down on us, which brighten up our dim cabin was the scene for the evening. I dozed off eventually but kept waking up at every bit of concrete which had a hut on them (sorry, they were called train stations). Croatian border control had been and gone followed by some more sleep. Half way through the night we arrived at Zagreb, the capital of Croatia and it must have been nearly an hour before we departed again. There were some jolts and banging with our train and just thought that there may have been some mechanical fault but later on into the journey I found out there was an extra four carriages being added to our service, which strengthened our train to eight.
During the journey while Olga was fast asleep and I was nodding in and out of dreamland, other passengers who just boarded our service kept opening our doors (no lock on the door) to find a seat but as our bodies was covering the row of seats and with all our luggage over the floor and not on the racks above, we were totally rebels and so annoying. The passengers would slam the door, staff members would come back moments later, have a look inside our cabin and slam the door again! Just bugger off and let us sleep will you. We are tourists and being rebels tonight. How Olga slept through this I don’t know. Border control came in (very beautiful ladies I may add) and went and the train rolled into Serbia. Back to sleep for a few more hours then.
The Republic of Serbia (Repbulika Srbija) was part of Yugoslavia since the end of World War One and after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, Serbia eventually regained its independence in 2006. Yugoslavia was formed of several countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia which of course is now known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia due to a dispute with Greece) and border disputes are still a main argument in this part of the world, mainly with Serbia about Kosovo’s independence has caused some alarm bell ringing in the eyes of Serbia and for some reason, Russia. In this part of Europe peace wants to happen and every time when a situation cools down, a new situation seems to appear. When I was going up as a teenager in the 1990’s, the Bosnian war seemed to dominate the news headlines. Shootings in Sarajevo, bridge being bombed in Mostar, the mass killings around the land, it was a terrible time. Seeing the people with the looks of despair, sorrow, anguish, sadness, to me there was no end in sight of this war ending. Hearing people especially young children when playing in fields and walking alongside roads getting blown up by hidden land mines. Back then was it possible to see myself travelling here within the next ten years.
Well, I woke up on this beautiful morning on the train, rolling through fields of sunflowers with bright sunshine and clear skies from above. Here I am in the heart of the former Yugoslavia. War has long finished but with a few certain issues to be resolved with Serbia and a few other countries in the Balkans, it was safe to travel here as a tourist, to see what the country has to offer and to see what life is like for the Serbians, nearly ten years on since the fall of the Milosevic regime. For hours I would watch the fields of sunflowers as the train rolls on with no end of sights. I was watching a field of yellows and oranges. It was totally amazing. What got me was, why wasn’t the sunflower heads pointing in the direction of the sun instead of pointing the other direction?
Then the scenery suddenly changed. Our train was now going through the outskirts of the Serbian capital, Belgrade (Beograd) with typical soviet-style buildings littering the place. Going from bright orange sunflowers to dreary dull grey looking buildings put a little damper on the morning. It felt depressing to arrive at such a place. I should have expected it really as I have travelled to a few places in the former states of the USSR. Burnt out old cars on the side of the roads, welcome to Belgrade I thought. With the temperature now well up in its 30’s, smoke and dirty air filled the area, I just wanted the train to go straight through Belgrade and onto our next destination in Bulgaria. No, don’t always let first impressions let you down and give the place a chance I always say. The train rolled through the suburbs of northern Belgrade which seemed never ending, over the River Danube and we were at the main train station. Leaving the train station we were welcomed but a traffic jam with old cars and buses on the road outside, dirty fumes coming from the exhaust pipes. Cables for trams, phone lines were everywhere above my head. Hotels surrounded the area, in their grey dreariness and the smell of some food, which I haven’t got the faintest of what it was, filtered the air.
Crossing the road, and being really early in the morning, we found our hostel. Olga & I were really hoping to dump our luggage off and maybe get a few hours sleep but when we went into this old run down building, the elevator not working and walking up six flights of stairs, we reached the hostel. The door was left wide open. Great security I thought.
Walking in, the reception was empty and a male hippy was sleeping on the sofa in the lounge. The walls were brown with posters of maps from various countries trying to brighten up the place. I walked around and I could see everyone was still asleep. The carpet on the floor was ripping up, and light switches weren’t drilled into the wall. I needed the toilet, great, went in and I never saw the toilet bowl so brown and on the sink taps were green in colour and loads of limestone can be seen! Back into the lounge a Japanese guy came into the hostel from the staircase and actually asked me if this was the hostel and if there were any beds going. I just looked around, looked at him, he looked at me and we both stared at each other to which we had the same idea. The place was horrible. How could anyone stay here? When I booked up, the beds were cheap, but there is only a certain standard I will degrade myself too.
I said to Olga that I wasn’t prepared to stay here and don’t mind losing a bit of money and to find some other accommodation within the local area. Olga agreed, despite the fact that we didn’t get as much good sleep on the train than I thought we would. After checking out another hostel next door which didn’t have any rooms (but did seem nice), we walked down the road until we came across a hotel called Hotel Beograd. From the outside, the restaurant which we saw within the hotel looked expensive with posh looking red curtains everywhere. For some reason Olga wanted to see the room rates so we stepped inside and checked it out. Inside the reception area looked like a scene from the film Hostel and would make a great location for a film set based on a scary story line. It was dark, a weird smell was present and the staff looked odd. A tall man, well over 6ft, and to whom which looks like a stroke had occurred on his left hand side of his face popped up behind the desk. I am sure he was Lurch from the Addams Family movie. After getting a price (which was triple the amount of the hostel), I just agreed and told Olga that I really needed to rest my eyes for a few hours before checking out Belgrade. She agreed, I paid up and walked up the stairs with the luggage as the elevators were also not working in this building (but to our relief, they did get fixed later on in the day).
I paid for this? I really should have asked if we could see the rooms first before agreeing to stay here. I wasn’t sure which one was worse, the hostel earlier on or Hotel Beograd. Walking to the room was a bit scary at first. Down the corridor was wallpaper peeling off, dim lighting, dull royal red carpets to which there was heavy dust in patches and the corners were torn out of place. Opening our bedroom door which felt like a pavement slab and had the presence of a prison door (heavy, grey and thick so you feel looked in but how do I know, I never been to prison!). There was no air conditioning and the outside temperature was really rising fast (to which later in the day it hit +42). Olga looked outside the window to which there was another traffic jam with the cars letting their exhaust fumes blow out towards our window, and she noticed that the two rooms either side of us had an air conditioning unit but we didn’t. The bathroom pipes were rattling really hard when we used the sink, and the temperature of the water was temperamental, at which one point I slightly burnt one of my fingers when washing my hands. I also hate it when trying to rinse my mouth with hot water after brushing my teeth.
July 7th 2008
It was a good job we were catching up on sleep straight away when coming to Belgrade. Sunday morning and despite all the traffic outside, a lot of people were probably still at home recovering from a heavy nights drinking or gone to pray at the local Serbian Orthodox Church (which is one of the autocephalous Orthodox Christian churches and is ranked sixth in order of seniority behind Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Russia, to which is mostly confined to Serbia, Kosovo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia state). A few hours later after sleep, we wandered around the local area for some breakfast to which we found some milk and corn flakes (and we had packed a bowl with plastic spoons back in our luggage), we returned to the hotel for a feast (well, it was a feast in our eyes).
On route to the hotel we noticed large buildings which were falling to pieces, concrete rubble lay on the ground and looked like the place was bombed during the war and has been left since. Back at the hotel, the elevator was now working but Olga didn’t want to risk it so she walked up the stairs. I decided to risk it. It was one of these old Parisian elevators from a hundred years ago, a narrow bird cage which is pulled up and down all day long. After entering I decided to call it a toilet cubicle as it smelt like one and the door slammed hard behind me, which nearly snapped off my fingers. Every time for the rest of my stay here in Hotel Beograd this would get me and I am still pondering why I still got fingers intact on my right hand. Another short sleep later and it was afternoon so it was time to go out and explore Belgrade and I also hoped that my first impressions would disappear and to find out that the city is a great place to be in. The air quality wasn’t great; the temperature was so hot, so within a few minutes my t-shirt was completely soaked. I wasn’t used to temperatures like this. Give me the Arctic any day of the week.
Kalemegdan Fortress is a brilliantly built fortress which is located 125 meters high up on a hilltop which overlooks the River Danube and River Sava at its confluence to the west with an island known as Great War Island (Veliko ratno ostrv) in the middle of the rivers and to which the fortress was protecting the centre of Belgrade with many of its important buildings. Strolling around the place (as it was a free entry and I do love my free stuff when I go travelling), the fortress also tells you about its and Serbia’s history through the years. Serbia wasn’t only just been apart of the former empire of Yugoslavia but many centuries ago it had Turks, Ottomans, Austrians, Hungarians and for a brief period during the Second World War, Nazi Germany and soviets from Bulgaria. Most of the battles which involved Serbia over the years to which the Kalemegdan Fortress played a major part, were mostly lost.
Slowly walking around the brick walls and walking on the dead dried grass underneath we came across tanks from wars gone by. Not just Yugoslavian tanks but also tanks from the USA and Germany lined up on one of the main walking routes inside the fortress. Also on display were two warheads (or missiles). I just hoped they have been deactivated. There are a few lookout towers (to which one had a nice beautifully carved clock on), but one of them as we found whilst walking around had a museum. Not just any museum but it was a museum to the space and technology used in space. Well, I thought this was unusual, not just because space programs and Serbia in the same sentence don’t mix to me but also the location of the museum. Why wasn’t this in the centre of Belgrade? Well, I decided to pay the small fee and go up. Not only just because of the museum but we could stand out on the roof of the tower and have an excellent view over the River Danube. The museum is great as I do like to learn a bit more about space now and again but it’s no good if you can’t understand Serbian Cyrillic writing. The fortress is a huge place and also consists of a park inside its ground, a few other museums, mainly towards forestry and hunting and a monument of gratitude to France overlooks the rivers. A tall monument of The Victor is found here and can be seen from far afield. The Victor (Pobednik) is a monument which was erected after the first world was to commemorate the first allied victory of the war, which was the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Kingdom of Serbia which ruled the lands back then and which took place at the Battle of Cer to the south west of the capital.
I looked at the statue and wanted to know why it was a naked man holding a dove of peace in one hand and a sword in the other. A did a bit of research on this monument which I don’t usually do but I was fascinated by this. It is one of the most famous works of the Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meatrovia. The statue itself was originally supposed to be placed on the Republic Square but ended up at Kalemegdan Fortress after people complained about its nudity. This monument on my short visit to Belgrade is probably the most powerful visual symbol of the city. To me the monument means people from Belgrade will live in freedom, with peace and we will not bow down to anyone, leave us alone! Well, my feelings exactly. Walking through the park with some nice promenades, young couples were giving each other mouth to mouth survival skills, or just kissing the day away, exercising their mouth muscles. Any excuse will do but there were hundreds of couples doing this. Olga didn’t want to join in, too hot and my sweat wasn’t that appealing and all that romantic.
Leaving the fortress we wanted to check out the main centre of Belgrade, the shops, the bars, any historical sights to see. To be honest, I didn’t really prepare myself for Belgrade so getting around was a mystery. Luckily once we got lost in a suburb, an elderly couple whom Olga spoke to (with help of the Russian language, to which Serbian is similar in some ways) showed us the way. On the side of apartment blocks and walls, graffiti was everywhere. Slogans of ‘No to EU’ (European Union) and F### off USA with offensive markings all over the pictures of the Statue of Liberty can be seen. Nice welcome but whilst writing this, Serbia has applied to be a member of the ever growing European Union.
The shopping and main centre of Belgrade was found and like most other cities in Europe, it had all the main high street brands and cafes. Despite it being way too hot on this muggy Sunday afternoon, Olga kept wandering into the shops. I didn’t like this idea as I didn’t come all this way to be towed around the shops. I really honestly thought she was window shopping at first but she eventually told me that all the shops had air conditioning units, which were all switched on and was keeping her really cool. Never had shopping been more pleasant in the situation regarding the weather outside so we did this until the temperature cooled down a little bit. Sitting outside a restaurant we decided to have a Serbian style pizza which was ok. I called it a Serbian style pizza because it was like any other pizza anywhere else on this planet but flies keep landing on it and making this either impossible or horrible to eat. Fly with bacon, sausage, and tomato and cheese pizza. Nice.
A long walk back to the hotel afterwards was not that enjoyable. Watching out for dog waste on the pavement, graffiti slogans everywhere, elderly people selling fake bags or trying to convert you to orthodoxy, the cars which filled the air with dirt, it was horrible. The only thing which inspired me was a huge poster overlooking a major road junction which had the Serbian Olympic stars to compete in the Beijing Olympics in a few weeks time. It’s a shame that the UK doesn’t have huge posters of our stars to inspire the youth to get off their Playstation game consoles and lose some weight by doing some weights with bags of sugar or doing 20km cycle rides. Back at the hotel which to me seems to be based on the 1970’s British television drama series, Crossroads, I tried to get some sleep during the night. The room was so hot that it was unbearable for me sleeping in. I opened the window during the night due to no air conditioning in the room but this didn’t help. Nor did we have any sort of entertainment in the room such as a television which I could watch to send myself to sleep. So much for watching tacky Serbian television programmes which I have heard so much off before coming out here.
July 8th 2008
The next morning at a really stupid early hour, being a Monday as well, I was awoken to car horns, the sounds from lorries and buses and the smell of petrol. The early morning rush to work has started. So much for getting some more sleep and I had to make the decision to close the window. Keep it open, you get more noise and the awful smell from the vehicles, keep it close and the temperature raises even more. It was a no win situation. This was fast becoming a terrible place to stay and wish to get out of Belgrade as soon as possible. Can it get any worse here?
Breakfast was to come. In the restaurant there were no menus to be found and eventually a waitress who spoke no English just stood at the end of our table expecting us to give her our order! We asked for the menu and she gave up on us and got another waitress who spoke only a certain amount of English. Not even Olga’s first language of Russian would help us now. The choice which we were given was a bit of bread, with tea or coffee and a cheese and ham omelette. I thought it was a bit bland but we had no choice and had to go with this option, which actually turned out to be really nice. The only disappointing thing here was that, being very typically English and accustomed to having no smoke smell inside buildings anymore, is that all the other customers and staff (even the staff member waiting at the kitchen door for orders) were smoking and made the room a bit misty and smelly. Olga started to choke a little and in the end we were really glad to get out of there.
A day to kill in Belgrade seemed to be an impossible task but we found things to do and explore. A trip to the zoo was needed as I couldn’t find many places to visit in this city so after heading back to the fortress where Belgrade Zoo is located, we paid £3 each to go in and was very disappointed. The animals weren’t disappointing, it was the conditions to which they were being kept in. I thought my visit to Riga zoo in Latvia a few months earlier was bad enough to see the conditions there (which recently the main male lion had died due to not receiving the right food!) The animals here were bored, held in small cages, the animals in open places didn’t have much green grass around there and the worrying distressing sight I saw was that some animals were having mental problems. Some I saw were swinging their heads all the time, or walking up and down the length of their cage all the time, or the bears just banging their heads on the wall all the time. This was really sad and I can’t believe that the zoo owners would allow the animals to come to this state of mind. There were also animals kept in glass enclosures facing direct into the sunlight so they were getting fried! I really did feel sorry for the animals but was also gobsmacked that the local people seemed to be enjoying watching bears smacking their huge rounded heads against the wall. Who was the really mental creature here? The bear or the father of four children pointing and laughing at the bear? I was so annoyed, that eventually I was happy to leave such an awful place. The zoo needs a major improvement and fast.
In the end, I found Belgrade rather boring. Before coming here, Serbs from back in the UK and even Slovenian people said that Belgrade is such a fun place to be in, vibrant and full of atmosphere. I have seen more excitement and vibes coming from my local supermarket back home whilst having a price war with other major chains! Wandering around the streets, sitting in cafes, topping up my tan in this awful heat in this dusty city, I really wanted to get out of here. I didn’t like the place and I found that some of the local people here in such a short space of time, were rude, arrogant and sometimes very smelly in this heat. I wasn’t comparing the country or the city to any other place and came here with an open mind but the place to me wasn’t one which I enjoyed and I was feeling down by being here. I can tell Olga didn’t enjoy her stay here either and we both came to the conclusion, that the sooner we were on the sleeper train later that night heading towards Bulgaria, the better.
July 9th 2008
We arrived at Sofia train station early in the morning and Olga & I didn’t have long before a connecting coach journey to the Black Sea resort of Varna. Sofia will wait for another day as we wanted to check out the coastline and chill out by the sea. The bus station was next door to the train station, buying tickets was a doodle and before we knew it, we were on a modern, comfortable coach making our way eastwards. Nine hours later (and most of the daytime gone), we arrived in Varna, checked into our hostel and walked around the centre a bit, checking out the impressive churches and grabbing a meaty meal.
July 10th 2008
We left in mid-morning from our hostel to catch a minibus to the resort known as Golden Sands, one of the upcoming beach resorts in Europe for people from Western Europe to check out (especially if they wanted a cheap deal). I heard some great stuff about this resort so we decided to check out the area, whilst in the progress getting a cheap deal with a five star hotel (to be honest, it was like a four star hotel but I don’t give a damn, it was probably one of the best accommodation stay we had on the trip). The resort however was a bit of a tourist trap and I wasn’t keen on the place. Things were overpriced, locals trying to pull visitors into clubs and restaurants but when I said ‘NO’ to them, they still kept on trying. The beach was rather rocky instead of sandy. It was a bit dreary to be honest and I just didn’t like the resort. We spent most of the time on our two night stay in the hotel and only ventured out for food. Also it was a great chance to do our laundry. We just brought powder out of a nearby shop, filled up a bathtub, washed our clothes and hung it out to dry on the balcony.
July 12th 2008
It was the morning to head back to Sofia and whilst waiting at the bus stop to take us back into Varna, taxi drivers would pass us and see if we needed a lift. I wasn’t interested because of the taxi scams I have been hearing about in the country. Most of them drove off apart from one taxi. The driver kept asking me and I kept responding ‘no’. He just didn’t get it. He didn’t speak perfect English so he slipped into German and started calling me names. I responded back in German by saying ‘I know what you have just said, f*** off right now before I bury you six foot underneath the ground!’. He just kept on arguing and I kept on responding but the tone of voice was now getting harsher and harsher. Eventually he gave up when our bus arrived.
Back into Varna and it wasn’t too long before we were on the coach back to Sofia for another fun nine hour ride in the heat. In the capital we met up with Ollie that afternoon who had flown in from England to meet us for this part of the trip. To be honest, we just chilled out in the summer evening sun, walking around the capital, seeing the beautiful cathedral and having another good hearty meaty meal before our trek up in the mountains the next morning.
I always love a good hike whilst on the road and when I was checking out the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, one thing high up on my list was to hike the nearby mountain, Vitosha. This was an easy hike to do if wanting to spend one day doing this. A few more days is needed to do hiking elsewhere in the national park where the mountain lies (just watch out for those bears which roam around). Quick little fact I want to tell you, Sofia is the only capital in the European Union which has a huge mountain next to the city (which is uncommon) but if anyone wants to get picky, Madrid is the highest capital city in the European Union (so high up above sea level) but outside the European Union and still inside Europe, the capitals of Andorra and Liechtenstein claim the record for the highest cities above sea level. Anyway…I am blabbing.
To spend more time up the mountain, from the Hladilnika bus terminal take the bus 66 all the way to the final stop of Aleko. This got me, Olga and Ollie halfway up the mountain and was able to enjoy more time up here in the heat of the summer. (Hint: take sunglasses, sun cream, hat and a bottle of water – unlike me who wanted to go up for a tan). The bus journey takes about fifty minutes to one hour as the journey is very slow with the traffic in the city and the winding road up the mountain. Really didn’t like taking the corners up there on a bus dated back from the 1960s.
Then from Aleko (just for fun), we decided to take the chair lift which has probably been working since the 1940s and falling to bits and managed to survive the journey. I honestly thought the whole thing was gonna collapse under my weight. The chair lift is here as during the winter months, Vitosha turns from a hiking paradise to a ski resort as snow is guaranteed to fall every winter.
The hike is a pleasant walk, no tough climbing, good walking path on hard mud and taking in the views of the city which lies down below. We spent about five hours up here just walking around, laying in bits of snow to cool down (then stop doing it when I saw dogs playing around in them and decide to urinate on the white stuff!).
July 14th-16th 2008
I could have been arrested at the border of Bulgaria and FYR Macedonia for drug smuggling and I didn’t know I was doing it at the time. On the approach to the border, I was happy chatting away to other folk on the bus before we had to get off for passports and customs. On every seat in the aisle of the bus was a black bin bag. The sniffer dogs got onto the bus with their customs handlers and a few minutes later after all the checks were done, we were allowed on and the bus carried on with it’s journey through the Balkans.
On the outskirts of Skopje, the bus stopped and a few people got off. There was an elderly lady and a young boy on the back seat who got off but before she did she went into my black bin bag and grab this package which look like drugs with cling fling wrapped around it. Was it cannabis, weed, other stuff…god knows. I never touched the stuff in my life. She buggered off the coach and then it dawned on me that if the dogs found the drugs during the checks, I would have been arrested. Rule number one of international bus travel now, don’t have a bin bag next to you.
Welcome to Skopje I said. Later on that afternoon after checking into an apartment, it was time to discover the city in such a short time. Stone Bridge, Mother Teresa statue, big square, a fancy looking Bazaar, 10p ice lollies, the city was pretty cool.
However that wasn’t the reason I came here. Ok, the city is charming, I liked it and glad I saw it but there is one mountain I always wanted to hike up. Not sure why. It’s not massive. It’s not spectacular, all I remember at the time when I was looking into this trip was going to a mountain called Vodno. It sounded like a place in the Pacific Ocean. The next day I was to hike this with my best buddy, Ollie.
It was an early start, however we kinda slept in most of the morning and was quite a far distance from the bottom of the mountain which lies on the southern edge of Skopje. We had to cheat a little and grab a taxi to the Saint Pantelejmon Monastery (Gorno Nerezi). This small but beautiful 12th century Byzantine church is dedicated to the patron saint of physicians. I wanted to have a sneak peak inside but the doors were closed. Nobody was home. It was time to start the hike.
We walked up this path and for some reason the path got narrower and narrower and before we knew it, we were walking right on the edge of a mountain cliff for about 500 meters. It was crazy. Was this a path that never got used because it was so dangerous? To be honest I was getting a bit worried because a slip or a trip and I would be stranded. We were nowhere near buildings, a road and our cellphones didn’t pick up a signal in this country. However we managed to carry on, climb over huge rocks until we found a road. Which way shall we go we both asked each other. The direction where we can see the tarmac going up. And it was up we went.
It wasn’t long until we were at the summit. Here at 1066 meters (that’s a horrible number to write as it was the only time the Brits got invaded by a foreign nation after losing the Battle of the Hastings), we saw the latest tourist landmark to be put up by the government, the Millennium Cross which is one of the biggest Christian Crosses in the world. However, the locals hate it. We basked in the mid-summer sunshine for a while, taking in the breathtaking views of the Macedonian capital down below.
To be honest, after that minor mishap with the path on the way up, the hike was actually pretty uneventful. We walked down the road we hiked up but carried on all the way to the city centre before making our way to the apartment. It probably took us about 60-90 minutes to walk down, it was a brisk walk. At the bottom, cheap beer awaited us and we were happy with the short hike despite sleeping in that morning.
July 16th 2008
Walking outside the main terminal building at the train station in Thessaloniki, the city looked like a bomb had just been dropped on the place but I didn’t let first impressions get me down here because the local council are building a brand new metro line for the city, hence all the work and building site materials all laying about. Checking into our hotel nearby which was named after a dog’s name ‘Rex’, our accommodation looked like a doggy style place with brown stained wallpapers, brown carpets and there was a weird smell to the place. We chilled out for a few hours whilst having something to eat as it was lunchtime now and the heat was just unbearable outside. I didn’t enjoy having Cartoon Network on the television because it just seems to me that I was watching the Teletubbies whilst on drugs with the Greek language duped over it. Afternoon came so we walked down to the seafront and the first thing I noticed was the huge ferry port with most of the boats going to the nearby islands of Limnos and Sporades. The area had a sewage smell in the air so we carried on walking along the seafront from west to east with the views getting better as we moved further on.
Despite Thessaloniki having no beach, the heat of the sun, sound of the waves and the music from the bars gave this place a wonderful, lively Mediterranean atmosphere as if we were walking through the streets of a Majorcan resort. The city claims to have the best bars and nightlife on the mainland, by the sounds and looks of it we weren’t going to be disappointed. All along the seafront, music was blurring out the latest tunes with most people sitting outside having cocktails and some weird cafe-latte style of drinks. After walking the length of the seafront of central Thessaloniki we came across the city’s most famous landmark, The White Tower. Deciding to carry on walking eastwards along the seafront towards the outskirts of the city we found statues of famous war heroes and a bunch of umbrellas which formed an monument before finding a bar to sit down for a while as we decided to wait for the heat to cool down a bit as it was now late afternoon. I noticed by now that a lot of Greek people like their fast food and in the bar we were in, a Greek couple, well, especially the female went to sit down on this plastic chair outside and the legs started to buckle under the strain of her body mass! Such a horrible sight! Afterwards we strolled back to the main part of the seafront to experience the Greek nightlife.
A waitress sat us down and took our order of coke and local beer. As she went off a male waiter turned up with three glasses and a litre bottle of still water. I said to him that we didn’t order this and he looked so confused that he just turned and walked away with the water. He then came back three minutes later; this time with ice as well as the water and glasses and we told him again that we didn’t order this. He then goes away and comes back with the waitress who spoke good English as the waiter didn’t have a bloody clue what we were talking about and she explained it is a Greek custom tradition to give a free bottle of water with the other drinks ordered. I didn’t know this as we only been in Greece for a few hours now and felt a bit dumb inside. All was forgotten, so we just chilled out to the music and listened to Ollie’s plans of an American trip which he was planning for later this year.
The next morning was another hot day with clear blue skies, the sun already over the city shouting out ‘Yeah, have some of my rays and burn ya all!’ No sign of any clouds and now I am forgetting what rain feels like. I haven’t felt any since that small rain shower back in San Marino three weeks earlier and since then everyday the temperature has been in the late thirties to early forties. A little bit more exploring of Thessaloniki was to be done so we headed upwards into the hills which the city is built on to see some great views of the city.
We found the Kastro (Castle) which was a really old stone bricked castle falling to bits but still poured in loads of American tourists in tour groups to have a wander around the place. The views were amazing to see the sun rays shine off The Gulf of Thessaloniki was brilliant but even more amazing was a water tap in the street and decided to spray this all over (and Ollie) getting completely wet and cooled down. I had a guide book with me which had a walking tour through the sights of Thessaloniki, places which I wouldn’t usually go to or find when exploring towns and cities. From the castle we followed the book (and the road) around the Kastro which is all in ruins as well as its Byzantine Walls. Heading away from the castle and down the hillside, we came across some Turkish Baths and churches but to be honest after the horrible breakfast I experienced earlier on, I didn’t feel like doing this walking tour and started to feel a little bit unwell. Bus number 23 pulled up alongside us and took us down to the seafront to which the sea air did me some good and somehow cleared the sickness out of my body. Sitting down on the sea walls with my feet in the water which attracted little fishes up to have a suck and nibble on my toes, I decided that there wasn’t much to do in this city apart from drink and chill out in the bars.
Whilst sitting here a local news crew came along to film and interview the local mayor in front of the White Tower so this gave me a great idea of appearing on another television channel whilst in another country. (I have appeared on Latvian, UK and French television so far and also spoiling the filming of an Irish drama which was filmed on a Dublin bridge some time ago). To be honest the film crew wasn’t impressed with me being the only person in the back shot as I was marching around, then deciding to stand still and rub my stomach which was on show then doing a dance move! Makes the news more interesting! English man doing chumba-wamba dancing during a live news broadcast. Ollie was laughing his head off (whilst feeling ashamed at the same time) and Olga was not too impressed with me at all. The local major stormed off after the interview and the news crew gave me such a dirty nasty look.
The waves of the sea started to get violet as time went on and after a while, (after getting myself completely soaked from a huge wave) it was time to go. The day went slow and we just strolled around the city. It was boring but at least we brought some ice cream from a local supermarket and eat them whilst enjoying watching the sun set in the west over the harbour.
The next day we boarded an express train journey from Thessaloniki to the capital of Greece, Athens. More delays on route as the train was delayed for over an hour in a place in the middle of nowhere but this gave me a chance to get some ice cream and drinks in the town we stopped in. Then eventually we arrived in the capital in the evening, where by now Ollie was not feeling very well so he just crashed out on his bed in the hostel we were staying in, which was not to far from the train station, whilst Olga & I enjoyed our welcome drink of Ouzo provided by the hostel staff which made me nearly vomit.
July 19th 2008
3,400 years old, records state that Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities. Legends of ancient times and the tales mostly come from this bustling city but its not all gods, scientists and mathematicians which come from here, Greece also started the Olympics nearby in Marathon in ancient times and the city recently held the Eurovision Song Contest which countries from Europe get together to try and win a song contest which is usually full of cheesy pop songs or a rock group wearing devils masks.
Ollie was feeling a lot better this morning which is a good job too as we only had one day here before he would set off back to England by plane while Olga & I head northwest by coach to the island of Corfu later this evening. To miss out on viewing Athens monuments and historical importance sights would be very upsetting as Greece showed, told and gave the world a lot of useful items and knowledge over the centuries. Wasting no time, a short journey in the metro system was needed and we arrived at Monastiraki station. I knew Athens is overpopulated, dirty streets in the suburbs but when we came out of the metro system, we all saw an eyesore. The place was a building site. Cranes, rubble and sewage pipes laying everywhere, the area was just dumped. The pavements had paving slabs coming out of the ground to which I saw a lot of locals tripping over. The temperature was already in the early forties so this was making the day really unbearable already.
Eventually we made it pass the adult’s playground (that’s what I renamed the area too), and right in front of us was the Acropolis which is a flat topped rock (a small hill) which rises to 150 meters above sea level and on top of that, was one of Greece’s most famous landmarks, the Parthenon. The trek to get to the top of the Acropolis was long and hard due to the heat and wearing trainers didn’t help as the floor/stairs leading upwards was made out of marble which made the trek a bit slippery. The place was crowded, mainly really fat western European’s or Americans to which you couldn’t walk pass as they were blocking the way with two tonnes of lard on them (not all people were like this, don’t worry) and too many Japanese and Chinese people with their cameras around their neck, trying to take photos of everything they see from a bubble gum wrapper on the ground to a marble pavement slab on the stairs!
At the top of the Acropolis is an amazing place to be especially for getting a great view of southern Athens where the city meets the sea. Hills surround the city to the north. The city is full of white buildings covering every bit of land possible. Down below us we saw an amazing ancient outdoor theatre known as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus which was built in 161 AD by the man himself, Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife who died shortly beforehand. The amphitheatre can hold up to 5,000 people and still hosts music concerts but unfortunately there would be no performances today. Walking towards the centre of the Acropolis we came to the Beule Gate which is the entrance to the ancient city and after that we passed the Temple of Athena Nike was in ruins and looks like no attempts to reconstruct the old temple. Afterwards we walked through the Propylaea which is the main monumental gateway that serves as the entrance to the Acropolis ancient city. Half of the gateway isn’t here now but looking at the old paintings and designs, the central portion of the Propylaea looked very familiar. Of course, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is specifically copied from the Propylaea.
The main sight is the main building of the ancient city, the monument I always wanted to see in Greece, was of course the Parthenon. This is a temple for the Greek goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their protector. Built in 431BC it is the most important surviving building of Ancient Greece. The temple is built on the highest part of the Acropolis and had a dual purpose when the temple got built. It was to house the great statue of Athena and to serve as the new treasury in the ancient city. I stood there with Olga in my arms, looking at this brilliant ancient building in front of us. Years, centuries of history stood in front of us, all around us. I remembered learning all about ancient times of Greece, the monuments in Athens and to which the gods lived. I have to admit that I did feel like a little school child again, having memories of my lessons back in school at home in England, where our teacher Mrs Foley introduced the world of Greece to us. It was 1992 and I was ten years old. The question she gave us at the start of this topic was ‘Does anyone know what Greece is famous for?’ and I remember that most people said the Olympic Games and hot sunny weather where a lot of British people go on their holidays. I don’t think she was too impressed with the answers but we were children of course. Then she told us over the coming weeks about ancient Greece, its gods, buildings, places, lifestyles, it was like a whole new world was opening up to me. From this period of my life, I wanted to go to Greece and see the monuments for myself, with my own eyes. To stand in front of all this history was amazing. Words can not describe how I feel. Never before had buildings or an ancient city had so much importance to the modern day world, to which local people still believe in the ways ancient Greeks gave to the world.
After a while we left the Parthenon and walked around the other remains of the ancient city to where we saw the site of the Altar of Rome and Agustus and back to the main entrance where the Porch of the Caryatids (god knows what this is) and the Erechtheion (another ancient temple) is based. At the bottom of the Acropolis on the southern side we came across another outdoor theatre known as the Theatre of Dionysus which is huge and can hold up to 17,000 people. This was built in 325BC and is dedicated to the god of wine and fertility. I sat on one of the marble slabs were important people of the city used to sit (near the front) and thought about what events of the olden times must have been like, with all the music playing, acting or speeches by the important men of the city. I had that feeling of the history lessons coming back to haunt me again. I also had this feeling when I visited the amphitheatres in Pula, Croatia and Rome, Italy, where I would stand in the middle of the arena and wondered about the fighting and lions coming out to attack people way back in Ancient Roman times. I just love a little bit of history now and again. All my lessons during school wasn’t a waste of time but I wished a paid a bit more intention.
Ten minute walk to the east and after leaving the Acropolis area, we came across the Arch of Hadrian and The Temple of Olympian Zeus was next to explore on our exploring the ancient times to do list. The Temple of Olympian Zeus is a colossal ruined temple in the centre of Athens to which was dedicated to Zeus, who is all the almighty king of the Olympian gods. Learning about this temple, construction started around the 6th century BC but was not completed until the Romans invaded the city and Hadrian ordered the temple to be completed and this happened some 650 years after the first stone was laid. Most of the temple has now been destroyed and pillaged in a barbarian invasion around the 3rd century AD and was never repaired afterwards. After the Romans decided to up sticks and go home, the temple was extensively quarried for building materials to supply other building projects elsewhere in the city. Oh well, I had a great time walking around the temple, so I wasn’t disappointed.
After lunch we walked across to the western side of the Acropolis and arrived at Roman Agora, the Roman part of Ancient Athens. Ollie had an argument with the girl at the entrance booth as the attendant found him being offensive because he was wearing his t-shirt around his shoulders and showing off his stomach and back. The response was that girls in this area should also cover their stomachs and breasts over with their clothing and turned into a huge sexism row, in which neither won the argument, the girl shut up nor Ollie walked away in a huff. The Greeks love an argument here I noticed. Inside the Ancient Agora, the mostly noticeable building on a top of a small hill is the Temple of Hephaestus which to me is a small version of the Parthenon. The temple also served as a Greek Orthodox Church until recently as 1834. Other ruins lay around the area, including The Tower of the Winds which is an octagonal pentelic marble clock tower and the structure features a combination of sundials, a water clock and a wind vane. Historians do not know when the tower was built but I don’t care, it was bloody amazing.
It was the end of the day now and it was time to part from Ollie who made tracks back home. Sitting on the overnight coach from Athens to Corfu (which included a ferry journey), I had a sense of great satisfaction inside me. After a horrible few days in Bulgaria and a nice steady time in Skopje and Thessaloniki, it was nice to see the ancient wonders of Athens and to have a history lesson which reminded me of school. A great day indeed, just what the doctor ordered. I am not sure if Olga enjoyed herself much today as there was a lot of walking involved in the extreme heat and we also heard that there were forest fires not far north from Athens which did concern us. Before I looked at the photos on my digital camera and remembered the day’s events, I fell asleep; the camera fell on the floor and slept for a few hours before boarding the ferry to take us to our next destination for a few days, the island of Corfu. (Good job I looked down on the floor as I nearly lost my camera).
July 20th 2008
Arriving at Kerkyra Town’s (Corfu Town) ferry port in the early hours of morning is not such a great idea as I was completely tired and exhausted from yesterday’s walking around in the heat during my time in Athens. The coach journey was alright I suppose but I kept going in and out of sleep. The sun had just risen from the east and now our coach was off the ferry and going through the streets of Kerkyra Town towards our destination for the next few nights, Agios Gordios. I was trying to stay awake on the final leg of the coach journey but we so many bends in the road and going up and down hills whilst our driver pretended to be Lewis Hamilton, I was feeling a little bit sick. Just get me to the hostel I was thinking all along the journey and looking forward to putting my head on the pillow. The coach pulled outside our hostel, The Pink Palace, around 7am on this bright warm Sunday morning.
The local people and visitors of Agios Gordios were still asleep. Nothing was moving. No sound. The only sound of the waves can be heard from the Ionian Sea down below from where we were standing. After dumping our luggage in a storage room, we were ushered to the main reception area to have a run down by a guide from the hostel on what happens within the Pink Palace. She told us we couldn’t check into our rooms until 10am and I was gutted by this. I was so looking forward to getting some shut eye. I was so tired that I found it hard to concentrate on what the female guide was talking about. She was an American citizen, long blonde hair, thin, late twenties, not bad looking and she was jabbing away some activities which we could do here like kayaking, drinking, jumping off cliffs, more drinking, quad safari’s, drink some more, cross dressing in the nightclub within the complex and to top it all off, more drinking!
Right now I could sleep and every other sentence involves the word drinking and cheap bar with the bar open twenty four hours a day. Everything you do here seems to involve drinking. It’s alright if you love drinking but at the moment, my heart wasn’t in the spirit of things. I tried to lean my head against my arm to make myself stay awake then she decided to give us a welcome drink of a shot of Ouzo, with a pink colouring added. This is all I needed. I still drank it but I was really ready to sleep on the table I was sitting at now then she said we can have breakfast down at the beach bar if we liked, which turned out to be quite a bit of a walk down the hillside towards the sea shore. It was a buffet breakfast and there wasn’t much choice of food or you were allowed seconds. You couldn’t even have a big portion with breakfast and this really sucks. It felt like we were on rations during the Second World War, which I don’t know what it was like back then as I am only twenty five years of age. Anyway I chose to have an egg omelette which wasn’t really egg but tasted of rubber, some slices of cold ham, with a weak cup of tea with some pieces of bread which must have been left over as they were stale. I think I am going to enjoy it here.
After problems with checking in due to my credit card (the Greeks love an argument), we were finally shown to our room which wasn’t bad, as I had paid an upgrade. It was our own private room with washroom facilities as I didn’t like the look of the shared rooms which were above or next to the hostel’s nightclub. Double bed looked ever so good but before I jumped on it to rest for a while, the view from our balcony was amazing, with the sight of the beach, the sea, the cliffs, and the smell of fresh sea air which was a lot better than the dirty air I endured in Athens yesterday. The good thing is about our room, that as we are staying in the Pink Palace, which all the complex and outside walls were painted pink (and by this point I was sick of the sight of the colour pink!), that our bedroom and bathroom walls were painted white. During our stay at the Pink Palace, there was one bugging problem about our balcony and our room. Well, it didn’t bug me but it sure annoyed Olga quite a bit. It was the small lizards from outside. There weren’t many but they kept on climbing the walls outside and Olga just hates anything small and which moves. I kept telling her to calm down but in the end it landed up me poking them to move them away. I didn’t mind them at all. I love wildlife and the wildlife I have seen on this trip has been amazing. Standing on the balcony every morning here in Agios Gordios seeing the lizards, the sound of the birds in the tree throughout our trip all the way back from the start of the journey in Forli, Italy, swimming in Lake Bled and also the sea here in Corfu with the fishes and seeing some wildlife which I have never seen before in the zoos of Belgrade and Skopje, despite their appalling conditions.
There was one more little annoying thing during our stay at the Pink Palace. This was when we were sleeping at night and then getting woken up at 4am by so many under-21 American girls getting so drunk they felt like slamming doors, shouting out ‘Oh my gosh I am so F@@@@@@! Yaaaa!’ and running down the corridors of the hostel completely naked! They just couldn’t control themselves and I am not talking about one or two girls, there were about fifty of them. ‘Let’s compare breasts and see who has the smallest and whoever has the smallest breasts can drink a bottle of Ouzo!’ shouts out one girl! This was so annoying especially when the walls in the bedroom are paper thin so you can make out who was having sex in the next room or not. Was it Cindy, or Mindy, who knows, who cares. One morning when walking down to the beach bar, the corridor outside our room had about five girls lying on the floor, sleeping, still in the previous night clothes, with a pool of vomit next to them and empty bottles of beers. I thought I was back home in Stevenage all of the sudden on a night out in the leisure park.
Whilst strolling around Agios Gordios we encountered tourists who had trouble finding a car parking place down near the beach due to now parking spaces, which would then lead to arguments, the usually daily occurrence of German tourists laying down their beach towels early in the morning on deck chairs on the beach just to piss off the English and the amazing sunsets over the Ionian Sea. This was a typical seaside resort which Olga & I needed at the end of our long journey to relax before heading off back to England. I couldn’t relax completely so we decided to do two days trips away from Agios Gordios. First off we went to Saranda in southern Albania and then we checked out Kerkyra town (Corfu Town), which is the main city of the island of Corfu (which is called Kerkyra in Greek).
We boarded the local bus and departed for Kerkyra Town, which is situated on the north eastern tip of the island. When we arrived in the centre, the town is quite small despite being the administrative centre for the island but walking around the Old Town area, with its beautiful small winding streets with its brown coloured buildings, cobbled streets with market stalls everywhere and a beautiful decorated church in the heart, the area had a Middle Eastern feel. Either side of the old town was the New Fortress to the east and the Old Fortress to the west. The Old Fortress simply had to be explored first because from where I was standing in the old town, the fortress simply looked like an old fashioned English castle, but that was not the real reason, Olga just loves her castles. So we decided to hot foot it over to the ruins.
The Old Fortress is built on a hill overlooking the sea and Kerkyra Town, with excellent views over the Ionian Sea and in the distance, the country of Albania can be seen. The Old Fortress is mostly built with stone bricks and is huge in size. The place had so many corridors underneath the ground, with many hiding places for the defendants who had to defend the town centuries ago. To be honest, despite the way it is built and laid out, with all the outstanding views (and a great place to see planes take off from the nearby airport), the Old Fortress got a bit boring after a while so we took the decision to check out the New Fortress to the east of the town. This is built on an outlet going into the sea, so technically when it came to defending the town centuries ago, this fortress would be better placed than the old fortress as it is next to the sea and has space to park boats down below, or basically jump off the fortress walls and go for a swim (or to escape of course). At the highest point stands a lighthouse which was built many years later.
To be honest Kerkyra Town got a little bit boring for me. It is a beautiful built town but as me and Olga were coming to the end of our adventure for now, I was getting a little bit bored of doing the exploring and just wanted to either be on a beach with a beer taking in the sun rays or swim with the fishes in the sea or take the next flight home. For some reason, I just wanted to get back to normality which is strange for me as I love being on the road. Maybe I was expecting too much on certain parts of the trip and got left disappointed and didn’t come here with an open mind. I know for sure for next time I would do a long trip on the road like this, that I will clear my mind, be more open to the local people and enjoy myself a bit more. To me and Olga this was a learning curve and I am sure that future adventures on the road will be more enjoyable but before our time was up in Corfu there was a small little matter of hoping over on a boat to Albania for a day trip.
July 24th 2008 – the end of the Balkans trip
A short ferry ride over the Ionian Sea from Corfu Town and we arrived in the port of Saranda, a small town right on the southern end of the country of Albania. On my research of this town the pictures I had seen looked like that Saranda is a stunning place to be on the Albanian Riviera. How wrong it turned out to be. Ok, Albania is improving the lifestyles of its inhabitants and trying to turn the country around, economically and socially. There was a beach right in front of us which was packed with many locals having a fun day out. The sea looked a bit dirty so I didn’t take a chance of going in and the beach was golden but stony, so in the end I just couldn’t be bothered to go for a dip. The seafront was like a building site with many cranes, concrete blocks, cement mixers and sand all over the place to build many more hotels overlooking the sea. I could see this place turning out to be another Spanish disaster where this town is beautiful with its sea, beach and the mountains overlooking while there were these white coloured horrible looking buildings scattered all over the place just to accommodate more tourists to gain more income. This is the kind of place I hate staying in and to be honest after an hour walking around, I wanted to go back to Corfu but the next ferry back didn’t leave for another five hours.
I noticed that everyone around here buys a Mercedes Benz car and are usually black in colour. This is because Albanians don’t trust any other car manufacturer and the car itself is capable of withstanding all the dodgy roads with potholes in or the lack of tarmac present. I was told by a local old lady who had a red perm for a hairstyle, wearing Dame Edna’s glasses and a red/pinkish flowery dress, that driving in Albania is a slow process and can take ages just to get across the country. More investment is needed and hopefully the government would provide it in the next coming years. Checking out the small town centre behind the seafront with its soviet style post office still in use, most of the buildings seem to be falling down and need a bit of tender loving care. I know the place looks horrible now and I really hope it will receive the uplift it needs but for now, I just hated the place. I got on with all the people I met here, despite the lack of English language used but we did come across a nice restaurant on the seafront and the owner (who did speak English), was very nice to us and offered an excellent service and served a great meal of pasta. I noticed that all the other eating establishments were either kebab bars or pizza outlets. It seems like Albanians love fast food which looks dodgy and reminds me of Greece.
I was mighty relieved to get back on the ferry where I enjoyed the waves splashing over me as the sea was a bit choppy today. This was the end of my four week adventure backpacking around south-eastern Europe and it was time to head back home. The heat was getting a little bit unbearable for me and in some ways, I was actually glad that I was flying out to England shortly just to get back with ‘our’ typical British summer of mixed sunshine and rain. I learnt a few things on this trip and also learnt a lot of new things about my partner, Olga (who I have only been with for two years now) and how to cope with living with her when we eventually get married. The five major points I have learnt are:
1) Try and not to argue whilst touring. Try to agree and be relaxed about certain situations. Try to agree, if not, meet her half way.
2) Always take toilet rolls when hiking into mountains. Ollie’s survival skills.
3) McDonald’s is not always the cheapest food whilst touring.
4) How to turn a bathtub in a hotel into your own manual washing machine to wash clothes in.
5) You are never going to win an argument with old ladies.