Saturday, September 29, 2007

Busy busy busy

Reading, UK

I made it back home on Tuesday without incident and as predicted have been incredibly busy since then. (I did find time to watch 4 Doctor Who episodes this afternoon though...) I haven't found anywhere to live in London so will be commuting for a few weeks. I finally managed to register for my course and also made it to the student welcome evening at All Souls which is probably my church in London.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

History repeating

Maribor, Slovenia

Apologies for the slothful posting of late. I am still on the continent, but flying home this afternoon. I could of course wait until then to blog, but I have a to-do list as long as my arm before starting my MSc next Monday and hopefully moving to London around the same time!

Since the last post I've been to Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina (never heard of it? Not surprising - it's an autonomous republic within Serbia) for a day trip which gave an impression of what life in non-capital cities in the Balkans is like. The day after, I left Belgrade on the bus to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Both of these trips reinforced my frustration with public transport in eastern Europe: timetables are usually a work of fiction - as are the price lists - and the most surly employees are deployed to the ticket desks in order to baffle non-Slav speakers as much as possible. I don't by any means expect everyone to speak English, but in order to communicate a bit of facial expression, body language or even plain pen-and-paper go a long way to making sense!

Anyway. Travelling through Bosnia was an eye-opening experience. Even on the bus journey through the countryside the destruction of the country was apparent with many houses in ruins, or being reconstructed from bare breezeblocks. Litter carpeted the sides of the road, but I guess there are more important things to worry about: such as the thousands of landmines still carpeting the countryside and maiming civilians 15 years after the war.

As the bus came over the hill into Sarajevo hundreds of slender minarets showed up against the sky. Signs welcoming visitors to the 1984 Olympics were still erected on some major roads. And ruined buildings showed up every few blocks. This was going to be something new.

I hadn't booked anywhere to stay so hunted out the tourist information office, who suggested I stay in a 3* hotel for 15 euros a night! I've paid more for hostel beds so decided to give it a go. Although the location wasn't great, having my own double bed, ensuite bathroom and satellite TV - as well as free breakfast - was a pretty sweet deal.

Sarajevo has hundreds of cafes providing espresso for 1KM (that's konvertible mark, not kilometre) and an old town built by the Ottomans, who made European inroads this far in the 16th century. As well as the old mosques, there are metalworking shops and streets of one-storey buildings with tiled roofs, in contrast to the Austrian architecture in the rest of the city.

On Saturday I took a daytrip to the city of Mostar in the south of Bosnia. This city suffered terribly in the war and has not recovered yet by any means. The symbolic bridge was rebuilt a few years ago after being shelled and destroyed by the Serbs, but much of the city still lies in ruins. It was surprising (and depressing) how quickly I got used to seeing hollow shells with blown out windows and crumbling masonry in Bosnia. I suppose that travelling around most of Europe 50 years ago would have been similar. Sarajevo's history museum gives a chilling account of what happened 1992-95 when the city was under siege. For over a year the only communication with the outside world was one satellite phone in the governer's office. Over 1500 children were killed by snipers, mortars and landmines during the war, and much of the housing and food stock was rendered useless. Nothing like a spot of nationalism, is there?

Yesterday I jumped on the train to Zagreb, and a mere 9.5 hours later arrived in the Croatian capital after a rather unhurried journey. I found a hostel near the station and stayed there for about 10 hours, before getting the 07:25 to Maribor here in Slovenia, where I have 2 hours (well, 30 minutes now) until catching the bus to the airport and flying home. I should get back to Reading by 7pm where some good food, a hot shower and my own bed will be found. This trip has been a lot of fun, if frustrating at times (travelling isn't all sunshine and lollipops, although I guess it beats being at work) and I've just begun to start understanding some of the history, politics and geography of a very influential part of Europe. But the summer is over, the trees are turning autumnal and real life has to resume. Hvala i ciao!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

From Black Mountain to White City

Belgrade, SFR Yugoslavia Yugoslavia Serbia and Montenegro Serbia

Jenny, Dan and I went out for a meal again on our last night in Montenegro. We ended up in the restaurant next to the one we'd gone to the previous night (which was very good). It turned out that this restaurant was hilariously awful in comparison:
  • A moustachioed pianist who was clearly in love with high octaves, runs and trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrills played muzak on an electric piano all night
  • The restaurant had no toilet, so we had to pay 50 cents to use the public conveniences next door
  • We had to wait over half an hour for a pizza and two spaghetti carbonaras
  • And oh boy, when the food came was it an experience. The menu had mentioned that the carbonara had some sour cream in, and we imagined that a taste of sour cream wouldn't go amiss. But the spaghetti was COVERED in sour cream. It was impossible even to slurp the spaghetti properly, and we couldn't come close to finishing the meal
  • To be fair, we did get our money back, and a funny story to remember
In Podgorica I found everything I would expect from a city formerly known as Titograd and less than 50 years old. Around the Trg Republike in the centre the atmosphere was nice for a Saturday night, but walking back to the station for my overnight train to Belgrade involved unlit streets, mangy dogs and dirt pavements - all the usuals. Waiting at the monolithic train station, the wooden bench under the flat concrete canopy offered little comfort except the promise of what was to come. Across the tracks, rust and grime raced to cover the stencilled cyrillic letters on the abandoned freight wagons, whilst passengers' cigarette smoke was doing a good job of further polluting the station.

The train, for which I'd paid a hefty 22 euros including couchette, was due to arrive in Belgrade at 6am. Mercifully it was an hour and a half late, which gave me a bit more sleep. Three hours later, after finding the Star Hostel and having breakfast, I turned up at church. Last week there had been a Synod meeting in Belgrade which had brought lots of Anglican missionaries to the city, and in true Christian style there was a big lunch provided afterwards to celebrate. I was of course only too happy to rekindle my dormant Anglican affiliation.

Belgrade is a funky city and I'm glad to have 3 days to explore it. Ten times bigger than any other city I've been to on this trip, it was the capital of the Yugoslav federation and now of Serbia. Its history is very much on display and in your face than most cities. Walking down one of the main streets you pass this building which was bombed only 8 years ago by NATO.

Given this raw history it is incredible how friendly the people are. Most young people speak superb English and are very open and chatty, whether in a bar, asked for directions or asking for directions (again). Another unique thing is the food on offer. For about 50 dinars (50p) you can buy any of the following:
  • a pack of chewing gum (for reference)
  • a can of beer from a convenience store
  • a roasted corn on the cob, sold by a guy on the street with a portable corn-roaster
  • a pack of popcorn, again made on the street in a portable corn-popper
  • an ice-cream, sold by an old lady with a portable freezer - she'll also peel off the wrapper for you to eat it straight away
Tomorrow I'll be heading to Sarajevo in Bosnia for a few days' exploration. The trip is beginning to draw to a close - just time to squeeze in one more country!

Friday, September 14, 2007


still in Budva, Montenegro

(The problem with blogging on the road is that inevitably there is a shortage of time. Either you're paying for the internet by the minute, in which case you get to the point where there are 8 minutes left and a hostel still to book; or the internet is free but there's a queue of people waiting to use it after you. Compounding this problem in my case is the fact that I never draft my posts beforehand so what gets written is rarely what I actually wanted to include.

Today I went to Kotor for a few hours and while sitting in a cafe in the centre decided to write down all the blog-worthy things that have happened since I arrived in Dubrovnik on Tuesday. The list runs to 19 items, so now sit back and watch (or rather read) as I attempt to weave together a cohesive narrative that will win me a Lonely Planet commission.)

Travelling alone can be a lonely business. One of the fun things about backpacking is the people you meet in hostels, but on this trip there have not been hostels in several of the places I've stayed. It is an interesting experience staying with a local family, one of whom touted for your business at the bus station with a small folder of photos of their house, along with dozens of others. This was my experience in Dubrovnik, and it landed me in a shared room in a nice house about a mile from the old centre.

Finding the house again after going into the centre was a tricky business. The city is riddled with alleyways and stepped streets, many of which are dead ends but not signed as such. On one occasion I walked uphill for about five minutes before reaching a locked gate. The next alleyway I tried was guarded at the top by a threatening guard-dog who obviously wasn't expecting me and gave me every encouragement to leave his patch very quickly indeed.

I thought I would be alone for my time in Dubrovnik but at 11pm on the first night a very drunk but friendly Irishman called Ken and his new friend Min from Korea came in. Chatting to them was quite the experience: the conversation ranged across all sorts of topics from travel to religion to history and back to travel again. In the morning before he left I gave Ken a little something to read on the train. He called himself a Catholic but the substances he was putting into his body suggested otherwise.

Leaving Dubrovnik, and Croatia, for the brand-new country of Montenegro involved a drive along some pretty treacherous mountain roads. The bus driver clearly wasn't as intimidated as me however, and spent most of the journey talking on his mobile phone and sending text messages. It seems to me that mobile phones and buses are both good things, but in the same manner as taking a shower and reading a book they don't make for a great combination. The driver profited further from his job that day by stopping off at the duty free for a huge box of cigarettes at the border.

The border signified the transition from westernised Croatia to an eastern Europe I had been expecting, complete with dusty concrete bus stations, dilapidated coaches spewing diesel fumes into the air and piecemeal development leaving cracked pavements next to shiny new buildings. As I mentioned yesterday, there has been a price drop to match the other drops, which is making my budget feel a little less strained.

Staying at the Hippo Hostel in Budva is great fun - everything that a youth hostel should be, with a great vibe and lots of like-minded travellers staying here. Two of them who I met soon after I arrived are Dan and Jenny from Macclesfield. We had a good time out exploring Budva last night in a seaside restaurant where the other two had Sex on the Beach (that's a cocktail, in case you were wondering!) and the bill came to only 10 euros each. Result. When we got back to the hostel it transpired we had more in common than I'd thought: my copy of God is the Gospel provocatively left on my bed led to a conversation where it turned out Jenny is a Christian too. Hurrah! So travelling doesn't have to be lonely, even if you are on your own.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

New country

Budva, Montenegro

I boarded the ferry in Rijeka armed with a bagful of food (biscuits, crackers, juice etc.) to sustain me on the 20 hour journey down to Dubrovnik. I was extremely glad to have paid an extra 120Kn for a couchette, because it turns out the normal deck seats were just whatever you could find, inside or outside! As it was I slept well on the narrow bunk, sharing the couchette with a Kiwi and a Frog. For most of Tuesday the scenery of the mountains and islands along the Dalmatian coastline were entertainment enough, although I did also finish the book I'd taken with me.

Dubrovnik is at the very southern end of Croatia. It's called the "Pearl of the Adriatic" because of its beautiful Old Town, with narrow streets and steep hills leading away from the sea. The first time I went in to the centre it was raining, which put a dampener on the enjoyment of the city. The next day I tried again, only to discover that I was sharing the city with the passengers of THREE cruise ships which had turned up for the day! It was hard to move in the centre for people in the day, but when I returned in the evening sans tourists with stickers on the Old Town was very enjoyable. It is certainly scenic, but the rest of the city was also photogenic, especially where it hugs the coastline.

This morning I caught a bus to the border town of Herceg Novi, in Montenegro. The new border controls (sponsored by the EU, of course) were pretty stringent but once over the frontier, costs dropped significantly. A 1 hour bus journey including a ferry across the Kotor Fjord cost just 3.5 euros, and the hostel here in Budva is 16 euros a night with plenty of stuff included - such as a book exchange for my copy of "Rough Crossings". The city seems nice, although the cars are from Serbia and Russia rather than Germany and California (!) as in Croatia.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Bourne Comparison

Rijeka, Croatia

Just about to board the ferry down to Dubrovnik, which will apparently take about 22 hours. The supermarket came in handy for supplies for that long - although there is a restaurant etc. on board, Croatia is proving surprisingly expensive so I'm having to budget tightly.

It strikes me that the reason Jason Bourne travels around Europe by ship and train is that it's very easy to stay under the radar: if I was paying for my tickets in cash and not leaving this IP trail all over eastern Europe it would be pretty difficult to find out where I am. Thankfully I'm not running away from the CIA so am taking things a little more easily.

It was about a week ago when I mentioned that I had no idea where I'd be in a week's time. I hadn't planned on taking this ferry until somebody mentioned it a few days ago. It should be a lot more pleasant and scenic than taking the bus all the way down the coast.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Now that's something you don't see every day

Pula, Croatia

It turns out that Ljubljana is about the size of Reading, but is a capital city. In fact the whole of Slovenia has a population of 2 million, and is probably about the size of Toronto + suburbs + exurbs. What I hadn't reckoned on was the paucity of things to see in Ljubljana: one day there was plenty to cover the points of interest.
The hostel I was in was right by the river Ljubljanica and in the Old Town. It was also right below the castle hill. The castle at the top of the hill was free to enter and walk around, even though it had obviously gone through a lot of regeneration and had smart wooden floors and fancy restaurants inside. The tower provided a good view of the city - actually most of the country too, I imagine...
After wandering around the rest of the Old Town, and going to the train and bus stations to figure out where to go next, my day was done. The next morning I left town at 06:20 (apparently there is such a time) on the train to Rijeka, a port in Croatia. The journey there took about three hours, including a very rigorous customs check which consisted of two people having a brief look at my passport. After some breakfast and a trip to the bus station I headed towards Pula, 100km to the west and on the coast. For some reason the bus was pretty unstable: a little girl behind me lost her breakfast and I wasn't too far behind. So when we arrived at Pula after three hours I was in no mood to walk to the hostel, in a village 4km out of town. Taxi!

After Ljubljana, which seemed to be a hub of British backpackers going 'off the beaten track' (like me) Pješčana Uvala seems to be a world away. There are SUVs here from Germany, Austria, Holland, Russia and Slovenia, taking advantage of the big marina and big houses in the village. I feel a little out of place paying €18 a night for a room...

After chillaxing on the beach yesterday, this afternoon I walked into Pula and had a good look around. Pula is apparently 3000 years old, and has several reminders of that dotted around: viz. figure 2, left. There is also a Roman temple in the forum (different buildings, same shape) as well as lots of younger memorials and buildings. Apparently the Venetians tried several times to deconstruct the amphitheatre and take it to Venice as a sign of the power of their empire. Can you imagine an imperial power doing something like that? (Hmm...)
So anyway, tomorrow I'm trucking out of town back to Rijeka on the Vomit Comet. What's most distressing is that there's actually a motorway between the two places, but the bus just doesn't take it! Then tomorrow night I'll board a ferry down to Dubrovnik at the other end of Croatia. See you there.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Spontaneous travel


So... this is Slovenia, eh? No, I'm not really sure what I'm doing here either. The flights out here were extremely cheap a few months ago (20 pounds return) so I booked them as a final fling of the summer. Last month when I was househunting I was resigned to not taking this trip if I had nowhere to live, but then I thought "naah, there'll be plenty of time to find a house". And so here I am.

Until this afternoon when I caught the train from Maribor to Ljubljana I wasn't sure this was where I'd be tonight. Even when I got here I ended up in a different hostel to the one I was expecting (one where the Olympic Snoring Team have come to practice, apparently) and in 2 days I'll be somewhere else new. You know what they say about the best laid plans, so this time there are no plans!

Well, alright. There are SOME plans. I plan to go to Croatia, down the coast, across Bosnia to Serbia and back up to Croatia and Slovenia. Maybe Montenegro while I'm down there. And maybe Albania if I really get a move on.

Slovenia seems like a nice place. It's definitely the most modern ex-communist state in Europe: they use the euro, have a decent transport system and their own language which sounds like Polish spoken with an Italian accent. Eno piwo, prosim! Ljubljana has a nice old town which I'll explore tomorrow when hopefully it'll be more than 11 degrees...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

British Government in 'Big Brother' Shocker

BBC report:

"The whole population and every UK visitor should be added to the national DNA database, a senior judge has said.

The present database in England and Wales holds details of 4m people who are guilty or cleared of a crime.

Lord Justice Sedley said this was indefensible and biased against ethnic minorities, and it would be fairer to include everyone, guilty or innocent."

Umm... right.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Good morning

Sunday night: 0 hours sleep
Monday night: 16 hours sleep

Monday, September 03, 2007

Goat $4


I landed back in England this morning after my 10-day trip to Toronto. Apparently I haven't blogged since Wednesday, which is a shame because a lot has been going on: more than I can remember even a few days after the fact!

Niagara Falls

To display my blogging forgetfulness, even in my smorgasbord of a post last Wednesday I completely forgot to mention Nick's, James' and my trip to Niagara Falls for an evening. We took photos, went on the Maid of the Mist (only $14!) and spent a bit of time and money in the casino. All in all a fun day out - even the tacky tourist street was enjoyable in its own way.

Last week I was still at AMac's house in Scarborough. Unlike its English namesake, the only accents you're likely to hear are Chinese, and there is no fishing port (there is a DVP though). Like the Yorkshire version, however, Ontario's Scarborough is way out to the north-east, has a slightly optimistic regional identity and cheap-as-chips housing. While he made some phone calls on Wednesday night, he suggested that I go for a walk... along the railway line at the back of his garden. Walking on a railway line? I mean, who does that? Evidently it's not a social taboo in Canada, but then GO trains don't GO at 125mph every five minutes like my local railway here.

Getting to the Robinsons' for Sunday lunch is always popular

It was fun on Thursday night to see Shakespeare in the Park. Nearly 1000 people squeezed into the amphitheatre to see the play - a very modern rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream - including quite a few Yorkies. Josh and the Robinsons took me in from Thursday night, which was nice as otherwise I'd have had to trek back to Scarborough like a putz.

Saturday was AMac's farewell barbeque before he goes off to North Africa, so it was only right that we ate lots of pork and had some beer. Apparently that's not too popular where he's going. Weston, where the Robinsons live, is popular with Somalis. For them pork is also a no-no, but they get around it by having their own cuisine, such as the eponymous fast food.

Is it OK to eat pork if you cut the feet off first?

Going to Grace church these past two Sundays has been great. I timed my visit to conveniently coincide with a two-part whopper on Romans 5 and the difference between Adam and Christ. You can listen to them online, but I nabbed a CD of both to bring back with me.