16 hours in German limbo – What to do when you lose your passport.

17 Jan

You’re on a train, sleeping. Next thing, you’re tumbling out of said train onto a freezing platform with bags and clothing flying everywhere and as you’re rubbing your bleary eyes, the train is disappearing from sight.

What country is this? No idea.

Look around. The LED board for a train that’s just pulled up says Hamburg, so this is either Germany or near Germany. Lets hop on that train.

Shit. A bag is missing.

A bag with passports. Two passports. An iPad. A purse. A camera. God knows what else.

Panic. Get off train. Get on train back to first station. Worldly possessions gone. Lost. Missing. Finito. Pulverised.

Life as we know it has ended.

Slight overreaction. Life is still passing us by, but minute by panic-stricken minute.

We happened upon German-Danish border town Flensburg completely by accident, you could even say it was the last place on earth we wanted to be, because at the time, that’s what it felt like. I have since come up with a number of less agreeable locations, such as further than three metres from shore at any of Perth’s shark/stinger infested beaches (I am terrified of both equally) or in the real life version of that movie Human Centipede that I’m too scared to watch.

We were attempting to make the routine passage from Prague to Brussels, then eventually on to Amsterdam, on an overnight train, changing in Cologne, Germany, which on the natively printed ticket, read Koln.

Mistake # 1. Returning to Prague in the first place. Fraught with disaster, but that’s a story for another time.

Mistake # 2. Not realising that the train was to split into three in the middle of the night, with each carriage creaking away toward the far reaching corners of the continent. Opposite corners.

Mistake # 3. Trusting the train conductor when she tells you that, not only are you in the correct carriage, but that she’s been ‘waiting for you.’

See now that already sounds a bit creepy.

Instead of closing in on decadent truffles and perfectly poured pints, unbeknownst to this pair of weary travellers who had already crashed the rightful cabin of a surprised young Syrian guy, innocently claiming it as our own, as we slept, the train split and we began hurtling north toward Danish seaport Kolding.

In our measly defence, if the Danish train conductor who stamped our tickets couldn’t tell her Koln’s from her Kolding’s, then how were we supposed to?

When 6 am crept around and nobody else on the train was preparing to disembark except us, Nic queried our lovely conductor who promptly threw us off the train, which is how we ended up in harbourside Flensburg.

With only a few rather aloof border police coming off night shift to help us, our options were looking slim. The closest Australian Embassy was in Berlin and an emergency passport would take a week at absolute best, which meant our long-waited and fully booked Amsterdam visit would be down the toilet.

After a futile trip into the town centre for Internet, we made our sorry way back to the train station, where a new shift of much friendlier Police had arrived. They brewed us strong black coffee in police service mugs we were tempted to keep before realising that would not help our case.

They contacted the Danish train service, who, after a nerve wracking wait, called to say hey had found our bag, untouched, in the carriage we had been ejected from, still heading through Kolding towards Copenhagen.

All we had to do was stand on the same platform at 10: 20pm that night and wait for the returning train bound for, you guessed it, Amsterdam, to glide in. Winning!

No camera meant no photos during the 12-hour Flensburg hiatus, but I did manage to have my hair cut and coloured and we bought Pick-up Sticks (Mikado) from the €1 shop, which we played while eating half frozen microwaved Curry Wurst at the train station cafe.

Everything fell into place beautifully. Brussels was a write-off, so we bought tickets for the Holland-bound train carrying our bag, waited on the still freezing platform for 10:20 pm to roll around and enjoyed an emotional reunion on board.

After almost three months on the road, we had learned how to travel by train. The hard way.

Celebratory beers after being reunited with our passports 16 hours later.
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Picture perfect, serene and well, downright weird – the one European location you should not miss.

11 Jan

YOU know when something happens that is so strange and unbelievable that people are not going to believe you when you tell them about it later?

Well, now that I’m safely back in the comfortable familiarity (if you can call 40 degrees and 50 percent humidity comfortable) of home, or the southern coastal suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, even I’m having trouble relying on my own memory of some of the happenings of the last 3 or so months. It all feels kind of like a dream.

But here’s one that was just that bit too unique to forget, or make up.

We were abruptly woken in the early hours of one morning in November 2012 by three thugs ‘from the Projects, man’ bursting into our hostel dorm in the lakeside town of Bled, Slovenia.

While two proceeded shouting in strange American accents, (they weren’t fooling anyone with that thick Slovene lilt) threatening to rob and kill us in the semi-darkness, calling out fairly offensive political propaganda that needn’t be repeated here, the more subdued offender jumped into a bed and promptly went to sleep.

Eventually, (like two hours later) and thankfully, we somehow worked out these unscrupulous felolows were none other than Slovenia’s most esteemed rapper Klemen Klemen and his ‘Tea Party’ who had put on a show at the tiny town’s only nightclub the evening before. Apparently they had nowhere to stay and nothing better to do than to terrorise us. Klemen actually returned later with cold and half spilt ‘apology’ coffees for us and got quite angry when Nic wouldn’t take his.

I’m almost 87 per cent certain you won’t get mugged, unless The town hosts another rap concert, so would highly recommend anyone wandering that part of Europe visit the tiny town of Bled, Slovenia.

In stark contrast to that one crazy night, Bled boasts a postcard-perfect lake, with the country’s only island, a bevy of beautiful but sometimes angry white swans, a leafy, mushroomy gorge you can navigate for kilometres above the rushing stream, leading to a breathtaking waterfall, a bar dedicated to former Man United star George Best, a sex shop with Slovenia’s only 3D porn cinema and devices designed by the owner’s husband and some of the most amazing goulash from this place.

Plus, in summer, the cosy 5000-strong population swells to 25,000 adventure sports enthusiasts who come to take advantage of the pristine lake.

There’s even a toboggan.

Check out our photos below, and if you’ve been to Bled, let us know what you thought!

This swan was friendly – and check out the gorgeous lake.
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View of the mountains while walking to Vintgar Gorge.
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Colours of Autumn.
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Welcome to Bled.
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Island view on an overcast day.
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Some interesting fungi at Vintgar Gorge.
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Vintgar Gorge
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A blog post from me would not be complete without one of these majestic creatures. Ruler of the abandoned house.
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Should you clean someone else’s skid marks off the toilet bowl?… And other quandaries.

24 Dec

I’M GOING to say all that needs to be said about the four days we spent in Italy at the beginning of November by talking about something else entirely.

Well actually, I’ll say two things. Venice = €7 coffee and… On what planet?

Oh wait, also… Croutons are not toast. Never ever. No matter how big they are.

Instead, as I sit in the beautifully temperate common room of our Kuala Lumpur hostel, knowing that the outside humidity of 99% is going to hit me like a ton of bricks – even worse than the sticky heat, the reality of going home is starting to sink in.

I’m being plagued by first world problems.

So as 2012 reaches its pointy end, so do our four months of (mostly) European travel, and if these crossroads weren’t difficult enough to navigate, we’ve just narrowly avoided being drowned/obliterated by world’s end.

It makes you think about a few things, no?

But instead of burdening you with my own woe-filled quandaries including debt, impending unemployment, a stupendous amount of weight gain and the fact that the European autumn has turned my skin so pale it is almost translucent, (see what I did there?) I will talk about another set of dilemmas – a more lighthearted kind.

FIRST WORLD MORAL QUANDARIES we have encountered during the last four months.

1. When you’re in a hostel/public toilet and someone before you has left skid marks in the bowl, do you clean them off so the person waiting doesn’t think it was you, or do you leave them there?
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2. When you’re borrowing Internet at [insert fast food chain name], is it okay to download the last four episodes of Family Guy as well as three seasons of Fresh Prince and Skyfall 007, thus disallowing everyone else in the restaurant from being able to load their Facebook pages for five hours?
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3. How do you decide which, if any, beggars you should give change to whilst travelling? Should you reward the guy playing the recorder for his incentive? Or how about the trio with the ‘For Beer’ sign, for their honesty? Or there’s the guy with the dog that’s just had puppies. Or the lady sitting right underneath the ATM you’ve just withdrawn cash from for a boozy night? Or to the street-kid that looks like he should still be having his school sandwiches made by his mum? Should you just give the money to a local charity that purports it will help the homeless? Or spend it on more alcohol so you can forget that these problems exist in the world?

Beggars in Krakow, Poland
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4. On long train journeys, is it okay to take up three seats in a cabin so you can sleep, when people around you are crammed together, when you know that if they had got there first, they would be doing exactly the same thing?

Nic on the train from Krakow to Budapest.
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5. Should you have a poo in your dorm room bathroom and risk stinking out the whole room for hours, affecting, possibly killing the other occupants by asphyxiation, or should you make the extra effort to climb down four flights of stairs to use the public loo?

Dorm in Bled, Slovenia.
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6. At the end of your meal when dining out, even if the service/food was very average, should you still tip? Should you have let them know during the meal, so they could rectify any problems, or does that just make you a whinging, difficult customer?

Mouldy bread on the train from Zagreb to Prague.
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7. When reviewing stays on Hostelworld, should you give a glowing review or should you tell the truth, that the hostel receptionist tried to bribe you into giving their filthy, creepy hostel with exceedingly rude staff a high rating in return for letting you sleep in a dodgy bed in a massive, full dorm for a few hours after checkout while you are sick and throwing up with a migraine?

One hostel in Prague was appalling.
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If you can help us solve any of these dilemmas or have any others to add to the list, please let us know!

The day a packet of Mentos saved our lives (well, not really). Thessaloniki, Greece. November 2-4, 2012

21 Dec

ATTEMPTING to climb a three-kilometre high mountain, Greece’s highest peak in fact, with an ascent most tackle over two days in seven-plus hours – with no torch and only a packet of fruity Mentos as sustenance, is a really fucking bad idea.

Okay, perhaps not just a fucking bad idea, but a falling down-a-sheer-cliff face-and-bleeding-to-death-with-bones-protruding-from-skin bad idea, or perhaps a getting-stuck-and-dying-in-a-state-of-undress-resultant-from-end-stage-hypothermia bad idea. Notice how I mentioned dying twice there? Well let me reiterate. If you try to go up something that is very steep for a long time and has a lot of obstacles, when it is cold and dark and you don’t have any food, warm clothes or light, then you might well die.

But I don’t need to tell anyone else this, because clearly, Nic and I are the only two utter numpties who would think such a feat was a) possible in the first place, and b) a good idea.

But thankfully (or not, depending on whether you think people who do things like this should be naturally removed from the gene pool), we survived one freezing night on Mount Olympus and in actual fact didn’t come that close to dying at all… apart from the bit where we were almost eaten by wild dogs.

First of all, we didn’t really mean to climb Mount Olympus at all. We only gave ourselves one full day in Thessaloniki, the northern Greek city closest to small town Litochoro, home of the fated geographical protrusion, in northern Greece, because we had found a cheap flight from there to Rome. Of course, we meant to go out and have a quick bask in the air of the twelve Olympian Gods, maybe even go for a little hike just around the base, especially as high season had finished and we weren’t sure what, if any amenities would be available to us when we arrived, even if we wished to climb further.

When Nic mentioned to the manager of the hotel we were staying at for two nights in Thessaloniki that he might be interested in climbing Mount Olympus the next day, he just laughed at us and said it was too dangerous because we wouldn’t have enough light and it was too hard a climb for one day anyway. He advised us that if we got there early enough in the morning we might get in a few hours of hiking and then come back to Saloniki on the last bus, at around 9 pm.

So the next day we slept in.

Then on top of that, we missed the 10.30 am bus to Litochoro by about two minutes, making it after 1 pm by the time we got to the town, with an extra 18 kilometres uphill still to cover before we reached the base of the mountain.

A lady working at a souvenir shop we stopped at to ask for advice also laughed at us, saying there was no way we would make it up and down by nightfall.

A pattern was emerging.

We half resigned ourselves to just going out there anyway and having a look and a wander around, as was the original plan, if you could call anything we talked about in the last 24 hours a plan. We had been told by a few people that one refuge at 1400 metres was still open, but others told us it was closed for winter.

So a €25 taxi (the taxi driver may also have told us attempting the climb was a bad idea) and a couple of hours of hiking later, we were somehow a quarter of the way up the mountain (gorgeous scenery and we even saw a wild mountain goat!) and had been passed by a fair few people going in the opposite direction, the right direction, the safe direction – down. No one mentioned the refuge. At the base of the mountain, we had spoken to another couple, a Polish girl and Italian guy, who were also preparing to climb. They had hiking boots and a map but so far, they hadn’t passed us on the way up.

To the refuge!
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A lone mountain goat.
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To cut a long story short, after about three and-a-half hours we got to the refuge at half way to find it was indeed shut. Windows and doors padlocked, metal shutters, bolted up for winter shut. There was not even a small crevice or cavern for shelter in sight. Our emotions went from pure elation at the first sight of the pitched roof of the thing a few kilometres in the distance just half an hour prior, to stomach-dropping disappointment and dread when we arrived to this hopeless reality. The last couple of hours had been spent talking about what we would do when we reached half way – and in keeping with the way things had been going, we hadn’t bothered to consider what we would do if the refuge was closed.

We were also on the wrong side of daylight and as previously mentioned had clearly put a lot of thought into the trip, bringing with us our coats and little else. We had water, that roll of Mentos and a Kellog’s cereal bar, oh and two tiny key ring LED lights, one of which would fade to next to useless after the first ten minutes of use.

Seriously. WTF.

Before long the other couple caught up to us at the refuge. They had food, wind-proof mountaineering clothes and a tent. I could tell that internally, they were just shaking their heads at our stupidity. They offered us food and shelter but I could tell they were glad when we said we were going back down. They would stay the night and hopefully reach the summit the next morning.

So with the light fading and the cold encroaching we turned and left, thinking we would make it down in about half the time it had taken us to get to 1400m.

About four hours later the pitch black mountain spat us out, sans dignity and our Mentos packet, into an almost as dark car park. The last few hours had been extremely shit. It’s hard to explain, but trying to climb down 1400 vertical metres that were really hard to climb up with full light, in the dark with a key ring LED light that looked like it had come from a 20 cent machine, knowing there are vertical drops of more than ten metres less than a metre from where you are (hopefully) walking, is not particularly cool. I might have cried.

After recovering from our excitement at still being in one piece, we could see a fire still burning in the closed restaurant and some cars (presumably with people preparing to climb the next day) but the occupants were either asleep or pretending to be. 18 kilometres of unlit cliff-side road still lay between us and our salvation.

Oh and it was about 8 pm and we had a flight out of Thessaloniki the next day, for which we had not packed, nor checked in online or printed our boarding passes, which had to be done by 8am.

The decision whether or not to try to walk the 18 kilometres back to Litochoro was made for us as we could not even see the exit to the car park.

With a small (maybe large) amount of manual labour and Nic’s dedication to squeezing through the tiniest hole, about an hour and a ripped jumper later we had shelter in a small hut,the last occupants of which had kindly left us a camp bed and a blanket. We were saved!

We must have drifted off to sleep at some point, because we were awoken by the sound of a dog howling in the distance. We were woken again a short time later, but this time the dog was right outside our hut, howling very loudly. So having survived all we had in the last hours, we were about to be savaged by wild dogs. That made me very sad face.

Our hut.
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After that narrow escape, we emerged into the daylight at about 7 am to find that still, no one was about. Except for a large black, menacingly barking, snarling dog (the wild dog from the night before? We will never know.) that was guarding two jewellery-adorned horses and at the same time blocking the only path to town. Albeit with a love of canines of the waggy-tailed domesticated kind, neither of us was game to try to pass this one.

If we didn’t check into our flight by 8 am, we weren’t going to Rome. But we were still stuck on the mountain and a taxi and two buses from Saloniki and another bus ride away from the airport.

Miraculously, within minutes, a taxi rolled up with some Asian tourists. We jumped in and another €25 later, we were at an Internet cafe in Litochoro, printing our boarding passes and then on the first bus back to Saloniki.

Ok, so the dog wasn’t so scary.
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The rest, as they say, is history. Litochoro is actually a really nice little town with absolutely gorgeous views of the mountain. As for Thessaloniki, the one night we actually had there was lovely – we had literally the best salad I have ever tasted (one of the few I have actually eaten lately), but the City is pretty obviously affected by the country’s economic situation. We saw a lot of boarded up shops and the restaurants we passed (and the one we ate at) were quiet.

View from Litochoro.
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I don’t know what they did to it, but this salad was the best!
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I could say that we learned a lesson from the whole debacle, but as we came off relatively unscathed, (save my falling on my arse about 50 times on the descent and Nic’s ripped jumper) even catching our plane in perfect time – we probably didn’t.

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 26 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 163 hours

If you’re a crazy cat lady… Go here! Istanbul, Turkey. October 25-31.

2 Dec

SENDAR reached down and gently lifted the stray from its makeshift cocoon of white hessian under an old table by the roadside. The wide-eyed chocolate-coloured tabby almost fitted inside his curved palm. Her mother had died giving birth and she was the only surviving kitten of the litter, he said. When the snow came, she would be allowed inside the hostel.

On the third day of our stay at the bottom of the steepest road in Istanbul, Sendar told us he had named the kitten Gül, the Turkish word for Rose.
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The collective care of animals, mainly stray cats in Istanbul was one of the first things that struck us as unique about the Turkish capital. With no RSPCA or similar, there are a lot, and I mean a lot of stray cats around. They are freaking everywhere, which was lucky for me, because I am a crazy cat lady.

A pounce of cats?
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Brothers – Near Arasta Bazaar, Sultanahmet.
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Coming from a media background in Australia, animal cruelty charge statements made a fairly regular appearance in my email inbox, so it was surprising, in a country lambasted for its slaughtering methods last year when activist group Animals Australia released video footage of the mistreatment of Australian live export sheep at Turkish abattoirs, to see an old man breaking off parts of his sandwich to feed to a cat hovering around his feet outside a cafe.

It was equally surprising to see small home made shelters littered along the city’s notoriously winding alleyways with cats lazing in or in top of them to catch a couple of hours of sun, and even more so to watch a fishmonger throw a small fish to a black and white cat that had been eyeing off his day’s live catch, before reaching up and feeding two huge seagulls that had settled on the red awning of his stall at the bustling Karakoy fish market.

Street shelters.
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A scene from Karakoy fish market.
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The seagulls’ rooftop vigil paid off – they were fed by a fishmonger moments after this photo was taken.
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But Istanbul was just full of surprises for us.

Traversing three countries by rail and road, Nic and I stepped off the third bus of a 22 hour journey to Turkey at dusk, finding ourselves at the foot of Istanbul’s most famous road and in the midst of a pulsating crowd of two million people celebrating Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).

I suppose we should have realised something was going on in town when our bus crossed the Bulgarian border into Turkey passing hundreds of commercial trucks backed up for about 6 kilometres. (Check out the video we took!) We had set down in one of the world’s most populated cities at the beginning of a major Islamic holiday, followed directly by Turkish Republic Day.

The start of Istiklal Caddesi near Taksim Square.
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From the subdued hum of weary travellers chatting quietly on the bus, we were thrown headfirst into the myriad of lights, sounds and smells that is Istiklal Avenue.

Kebab cooks in dirtied white aprons called out to us as we squeezed past their gaudily lit shops, laden with 18 kilogram conspicuous backpacks, to enter the main vein of the street. The crowd resembled giant schools of fish guided by invisible currents. Pairs of inebriated men with linked arms stumbled past street vendors spruiking mussels, sizzling chestnuts and pretzel-like bread rings. Families and groups of women in various degrees of hijab moved in tight groups, halting occasionally to look in clothing and sweet-shop windows. A bright red tram periodically parted the masses as it rattled past, gathering barnacles, or numerous young boys who jumped aboard to hang off its back and sides. Yellow taxis, heavily scratched and dented, beeped loudly, nudging their way out of side streets. Before we disappeared down one such alleyway, we soaked up fleeting loud moments of bass-filled dance music from second floor clubs.

From the very beginning, we were in awe of the spectacular energy of Istanbul. Already accommodating a massive 3 million people per day on a regular basis, hostel owner Sendar later told us that during the holiday, up to two million people filled Istiklal Avenue during any one moment.

Istiklal Caddesi.
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Slipping away down Bogazkesen Avenue to our hostel, Cheers Midtown, we found it was a narrow, undulating road on a steep downhill slope, running almost all the way to the Galata Bridge, which connects the cities two major commercial and tourist districts, Taksim and Sultanahmet, and the Asian and European continents, over the Bosphorous Strait. Closer inspection of our surroundings revealed a ramshackle of convenience stores, a book shop, trendy bars, clothing boutiques, cafe’s, barber shops, bakeries and even homes – from various eras and in various stages of disrepair. A steady stream of taxis shot up the road and a woman stood in the shadows waiting for something or someone. She held the end of a rope that was tied around the neck of a thin sheep laying on the footpath. We later realised the animal was to be sacrificed in religious ritual.

Bogazkasen Caddesi.
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We arrived at the hostel late, but gracious host Sendar put us up in a better room than we had booked for the night anyway.

The next (early) morning we were introduced to the surprisingly soothing call to prayer, met Rose and the dozens of other cats inhabiting Bogazkasen Avenue and found out just how unfit I had become during the past seven weeks of holiday, when tackling the uphill part of that really steep downhill I was talking about earlier.

We could hear the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque from 4 am!
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Rose.
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We ended up staying in restaurant and nightlife district Taksim, or more specifically Beyoglu, for three nights and moved to the tourist-centric Sultanahmet for a further three. It was in Taksim we gained the most cultural insight.

Despite being a republic – with 99.3% of its population Muslim and smack bang in the middle of a religious holiday, we weren’t sure how a night on the town was going to go down. But we needn’t have worried. One day we lunched in a two storey Shisha bar overlooking restaurant alley Nevizade Sokak. Below us, a young Muslim woman sucked on a Shisha pipe the entire time we were there (we saw this a lot) and we could see a few pairs of young guys having lunchtime beers. When we went out that night, to our delight, we found a live music pub scene that could rival that of any openly beer guzzling nation in the world.

While we sat street-side downing a few Efes pints, complimentary beer snacks (yays!) and a pineapple flavoured water pipe, all kinds of debauchery, table dancing included, was going on around us. After soaking up a mixture of live Turkish folk music, some cringeworthy Eurodance tracks and a few plays of Gangam Style we ended up in a really terrible nightclub with really expensive drinks. I hear that there are some great clubs in Istanbul, but the extortionate door fee is a huge turn-off when the pubs are so much fun and are also culturally rewarding.

Everywhere you turn in Istanbul there is something going on. There is a vibrancy there unlike anything I have ever encountered. There is no such thing as a quiet alleyway. Just when you think you have exited one bazaar or market, selling spices, tea sets, glassware and textiles, you turn a corner into an open air market, this time selling tools, kitchenware or knock-off clothing. Then, when you come to the end of that market, there’s a guy selling kofte (meat balls) or fresh fish burgers straight from a rolling grill. And this isn’t even touching on the crowds…

Crazy crowds near Eminonu.
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Spices at the Egyptian Bazaar.
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Fish cook.
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Tobacco seller at Karakoy.
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We arrived in Istanbul at probably its busiest time of year, but with a population of 14 million on a regular day I’m guessing it wouldn’t diminish a lot.

Now, I couldn’t finish a blog post without talking about food. All I can say is that I have a huge appreciation for Turkish tea, coffee and cuisine, fast, street and slow. I didn’t even miss bacon… that much.

Turkish tea and coffee.
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Neither myself nor Nic tried that dodgy looking wet hamburger (Islak Burger) and I will trust anyone who tells me it is awesome. With no kitchen to use at either hostel, unfortunately (Ha! Not!) we had to eat out a lot. Tavuk (chicken) Shish appeared regularly, served with green pepper, salad, chips and rice. We also ate a ton of chicken kebab meat, but found the best 2 am meal to be the not so authentic Patso. Chips, pide bread, mayo, amazing.

Chicken shish and chicken kebab.
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Karniyarik, aubergine stuffed with mincemeat, was my favourite dish from the cafeteria style workers eateries, along with baked beans. But the highlight had to be at Serbethane, this beautifully decorated restaurant inside a 300 year old compound with views of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. We first went for endless cups of Turkish tea with Shisha under the stars and went back for the Testi Kebab. Lamb, chicken and vegetables, cooked over hot coals in a ceramic urn – we were lucky enough to have the restaurant manager bring ours out, still over a flame and smash it open in front of us.

Testi kebab at Serbethane.
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Istanbul deserves a lot longer than the six nights we afforded it and was truly worth every minute of the 22 hour journey it took to reach. Nic even came out of our stay about 5 years younger, thanks to a traditional Turkish cut throat shave and hair cut from the barber on Bogazkesen street!

Cut throat!
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TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 148 hours

How a bottle of brandy opened a can of worms. Belgrade, Serbia. October 21-26, 2012

16 Nov

THE trouble started when Nic walked into the kitchen with a bottle of Slivovitz Plum Rakjia. He was stoked because he had picked up the traditional Serbian Brandy at one of the corner supermarkets for the equivalent of about A$4, but the look on Pavle’s (name changed) face when he spotted the bottle in the kitchen was priceless.

The bottle that started the world’s most frustrating conversation.
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You could probably call Pavle, the owner of the central Belgrade hostel where we stayed, a Serbian Nationalist. And, unbeknownst to Nic, the picture on the label of the offending Rakjia bottle was apparently a well-known Orthodox Church in Kosovo, the ownership of which is the centre of ongoing dispute between the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. For Pavle, this small bottle of Rakjia was a symbol of years of deadly ethnic conflict.

Lingering sentiment over the Kosovo War clouds the everyday lives of many Serbians. Most adult Belgradians will have a story to tell, usually one of tragedy, loss and resentment stemming from the 1999 NATO bombings of Belgrade and greater Serbia.

During two and a half months of air strikes, more than 450 Yugoslav civilians were killed and many of Belgrade’s major landmarks including bridges, defence headquarters, telecommunications facilities and schools were destroyed – actions that Pavle and countless others will never forgive the Americans, British or Kosovar Albanians for.

Though a longstanding (pre-WWI) issue between Serbian and Albanian communities in Kosovo, tempers flared during a series of events in the 1990′s including a Declaration of Independence by the Kosovar Albanians. This push for autonomy was overturned by Yugoslav Prime Minister Slobodan Milosevic. In a nutshell, life was made very difficult for Serbians living in Kosovo. Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed and some Serbians were killed. In retaliation and in a push take Kosovo, Milosevic began massacring hundreds of Kosovar Albanians and forcing the rest (hundreds of thousands) out on trains and on foot into forest hiding and as refugees into neighbouring countries. The Kosovar Albanian community and Albanian separatist group the KLA (though previously declared terrorists by the US) won the support of NATO.

When peace talks failed, (incidentally right at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal) NATO bombed the shit out of Belgrade between March 24 and June 10. Milosevic was convicted of war crimes including ethnic cleansing. To this day Kosovo remains without status and is administered by the UN.

Working as a sound engineer for Serbia’s TV industry at the time, Pavle lost more than a dozen close friends and colleagues during the bombing of Serb radio and TV headquarters on April 24. He now considers America ‘evil’ and he is resolute in his conviction that World War III will occur during his lifetime.

The Rakjia has opened up old wounds for Pavle and I wonder whether he espouses these views to all of his hostel guests. But despite the heavy subject matter and Nic’s earlier liquor-purchasing faux-pas, Nic, Pavle, myself and Irish DJ Chris, with the help of the Rakjia and other super-cheap but surprisingly good social lubricants, (wine A$3/bottle, beer A$2.50/2.5L) are having an entertaining, albeit bizarre, night. The conversation circles dangerously around religion, ethnicity and this ominous prediction of war, entirely commanded by Pavle and his unashamedly bigoted views. It is a sometimes difficult and frustrating conversation, but it is a valuable one to be a part of during our short time in this still-traumatised country.

The day we arrived in Belgrade, we passed by a heavily damaged building of murky-coloured brick, only later realising it was the rocket-fractured remains of Serbian Defence Headquarters. The government chose to leave it in its half-destroyed state as a daily reminder of injustices suffered. Further evidence of this country’s need to be remember lies in cobbled areas of pavement dotted around Belgrade, installed in recent years reminiscent of a grim era of Ottoman rule. Instead of looking to the future with well-designed memorials in the way that cities like Berlin have done for WWII, Belgradians seem to want to lament in loss, pain and resentment.

Serbian Ministry of Defence headquarters – bombed by NATO in 1999
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On a lighter note, but not disconnected, national pride in Belgrade is rampant. I thought we Aussies were bad flashing about our $2 Chinese manufactured flags for weeks surrounding Australia (Invasion) Day each year, but these guys beat us hands down.

T-shirts of tennis export Novak Djokovic can be bought at news stands on every street corner; Serbians will not waste a minute before telling you how beautiful and bountiful their fountains/ bridges/ women/ fortress/ rivers/ churches/ clean water supply are; They will usher you along to ‘Silicone Valley’ a street in town, something akin to Fremantle’s Cappuccino Strip, where guys roll by in turbo’d cars with muscular arms jutting from open windows and bleached blond hair extensions trail in the wind behind blinged-up buxom Belgradian women, who, I was told, come to the Valley to show off their new rack. I saw a slightly riced up Honda Accord drive past when I was there, and maybe a couple of dogs on leads, but that was about it. I was also told a number of times that Belgrade’s Bomhemian Quarter, which is actually just one street (Skadarlija Street) closely rivals Paris’ Montmartre district. But let’s get back to the women thing for one minute.

There are fountains like this all over Belgrade!
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And drinking fountains too…
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Belgradians love their hundreds of years old fortress
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And they say artsy pub and restaurant alley Skadarlija Street rivals Paris’ Monmartre
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I’m painting a pretty grim picture of a guy who in essence, is a good human being. But in addition to his staunch nationalism, Pavle was also totally chauvinistic. I know a lot of girls who would have kicked this guy’s arse for some of the things he was saying. But, when a tour guide recited a Serbian proverb (which I cannot find or remember) about Serbian women’s boobs causing men’s pants to unbutton themselves, I realised again, while Pavle’s views were on the extreme side, this attitude was widespread. I think the following video pretty accurately summarises the night we drank with Pavle.

Overall, Belgrade is quite a lovely city, with good hearted people and thankfully, a progressive youth. Like in every society, young Serbians seem to be far more liberal than their parents’ generation, possibly in part because their memories of that dark time in their countries’ history are few and fleeting.

At the Nikola Tesla museum, (Tesla, another outstanding but less talked about Serbian export) our guide, a young electrical engineering student began to restore my faith in Belgradians and later, chatting to some uni students being interviewed for a position at the hostel, I was further buoyed. The direction of Belgrade’s future lies heavily in the hands of its youth.

I really love the fact that Serbia actively protects its heritage – live folk music is played in most restaurants, families continue to produce home made apple and pear Rakija and use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet is widespread. Instead of a supermarket giant monopoly, the corner store, something we mourn the loss of in Australia, is alive and well. And residential streets are littered with small bars and cafe’s – meeting places for neighbours and friends. It’s small things like these that strengthen social fabric. While we didn’t spend enough time in Belgrade to understand all its nuances, i get the distinct feeling that if the city and its people can move past the rubble and an at-times destructively nationalist attitude, a future Belgrade can be a vibrant and more welcoming city.

Serbian Cyrillic,while hard to read for foreigners, is important to Serbia’s heritage.
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This very old Kafana is one of many like traditional drinking holes, where folk band play and customers drink themselves under the table.
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This is a table at the cafe near our hostel – South Park Cafe!
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HOSTEL
Hostel No. 9 – Vlajkoviceva 9, Belgrade, Serbia.

    Pros:

New, big and clean. Close to City centre. Interesting owners. Let us play whatever music we wanted and stayed up to drink with us.

    Cons:

None really. Breakfast was a bit lame.

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 126 hours

The most fun you can have whilst trapped in a tiny room. Budapest, Hungary. October 16-20, 2012

7 Nov

STARTING this blog post on our time in Budapest (while on a very flashy and modern train from Rome to Venice) was really difficult. Was it such a dull place that I couldn’t recall anything exceedingly good (or bad, for that matter) to write about?

The people we encountered were not remarkably friendly and the typically Eastern European food we ate (Goulash, meat stews, potato dumplings etc), whilst certainly not bad, was nothing to write home about either. The day we arrived, it poured with rain. But the four following days were beautiful, so nor can I pass judgement on the weather. Straddling the Danube River, the City’s West Bank, Buda, is hilly, with some pretty architecture and over on the commercial East Bank, Pest, there are some lovely wide pedestrian areas and parklands that are a pleasure to stroll around.

Pretty streetscape
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Stunning architecture
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But then, only a few minutes walk away, where whole districts are still digging their way out of the post-WWII Communist stranglehold, fashion and hairstyles look like they have roughly caught up to about 1995 and I would be lying if I said we did not pass by more than our fair share of very dodgy characters.

It looks like I’m painting a pretty critical and unappealing picture of this often-raved-about City, but bear with me. I soon realised that Budapest, though lacking any kind of definitive cohesiveness, is actually a magical and extremely enjoyable sum of many tiny factors.

Here is why…

You can bathe outdoors, in crystal blue ,40 degrees Celsius water – in the middle of European winter.
Budapest sits on a fault line in the earth, which has produced 118 thermal springs, so there are a number of naturally heated public baths in the city that offer a range of services. We went to Szechenyi Baths. There were a lot of seniors wearing shower caps and bobbing around in the whirlpool and it was a great novelty. We bought an hour massage for about A$50 each, but unfortunately it was pretty awful.
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You can pay a man A$40 to lock you in a tiny, creepy room, with no key, a series of cryptic clues and an hour to get out.
Kind of like the horror movie franchise ‘Saw,’ except you don’t die. ParaPark is tucked away underneath a pub in south-central Pest. It’s basically another one of those adult playgrounds that I adore, except in this one, you have to work in a team and think quickly in order to find keys, unlock codes and escape. We played on two separate days, failed the first time and got out with about 3 minutes to spare the second. While I ran around panicking and holding up bits of overhead projector plastic to a computer monitor, Nic’s God-like knowledge of electricity compelled him to Macgyver a random piece of metal from somewhere in the room to complete a circuit, thus opening the door to our freedom.
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Paprika.
Need I say more? This crimson spice is the national food, emblem, religion and major export of Hungary. Well, probably not the last three, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It is sold en masse to tourists in dedicated shops along with every type of related memorabilia you can think of – tea towels, tins, spoons, bags, aprons, the list goes on. Hungarians are also fond of serving chilli peppers, bell peppers and capsicum with every dish, even breakfast.
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Budapest’s Metro system has the worlds longest, fastest and scariest escalators.
Don’t look down.
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You can stroll across a bridge that actually looks like a chain (Chain Bridge) into Medieval Budapest.
Castle Hill can be reached by funicular or a decent hike uphill on foot (our stupid? choice). There’s a great view of the Danube, the Royal Castle and surrounds are very cool, as is the mosaic tiled roof of Matthias Church – and I am not a church person, but by far the coolest thing is the underground Labyrinth. It’s dark, damp has been used throughout the centuries as a jail and a harem. Apparently Count Dracula was imprisoned down there during the 15th century! It costs about A$8 to get in, which we thought was a bit steep until we got to the really dark bits, then we thought it was worth it. There’s also an old nuclear bunker and wartime hospital inside the hill that you can take a tour of.

Chain Bridge
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Matthias Church
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Cave Labyrinth
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The bar scene.
There are dozens of small bars and ruin pubs (open-air pubs established inside disused and decaying buildings) scattered around the Jewish district. Hungarians are clearly not congruent with the Red Bull-Vodka concept, as we got strange looks when we asked for it – otherwise, the atmosphere is really fun. One bar we went to had wine carafes suspended from the ceiling and a toilet called Lady Gaga. Win.

There were fish in our hostel toilet.
Well, in between the two panes of window glass anyway. I didn’t get a good photo, but the toilet window had been turned into an aquarium, so while you’re sitting there happily taking a dump, so are the goldfish! The whole hostel, called Lavender Circus, was pretty bizarre actually. Our room had a massive painting of a fat naked lady on the wall and the common room had furniture stuck to the wall. The staff were really nice though.
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I can safely say we only scratched the surface of what Budapest has to offer and I do believe that it’s a City that deserves more than a few days to get aquatinted with, but before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the olive-skinned, blue eyed Magyar people and moving south to Spearwo–, I mean Serbia.

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 115 hours

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