The countries previously known as Yugoslavia
Budapest Travel Blog› entry 1 of 14 › view all entries
This year's trip was to the countries in and around what used to be Yugoslavia. It has been a cantankerous part of the world for hundreds of years and I figured I would go and see if I could straighten them out once and for all. Plus, all the recent turmoil results in low cost housing and cheap beer.
I started out in Budapest, Hungary. To digress, did you ever notice how Americans say the city and state. Like Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California. While for the rest of the world we call out the city and Country; Paris, France and Beijing, China.
Ok, back to Budapest. Hungary spent much of the latter half of the 20h century under Moscow's control when Russian troops came in to violently put down any opposition to its authority over the Hungarians. Luckily it didn't fall as far into decay as its neighbors that shared the dark stage behind the iron curtain. When the Soviet Empire crumbled, Hungary was the quicker of the newly independent countries to bounce back towards the engaging picturesque city it once was and steadily rejoin the West.
Since I was in the neighborhood I figured I would stop in and say "Hi, welcome back to the 20th century". Which is challenging since the Hungarian word for Hello is pronounced "See ya". Besides confusing, Hungarian is considered one of the hardest language in the world to learn. So I didn't even try. Luckily, Hungarians agree and speak English very well.
The extent of my planning for this trip was limited to my renting an apartment in Budapest's Opera District. Sounded like a nice neighborhood. I landed after dark so I splurged and took a taxi to the apartment. I was a bit worried when the taxi driver drove me down a deserted street and stopped me in front of a stripper bar and pointed me to a dark doorway across the street. I had my running shoes on and minimal luggage so I thought I was ready for anything. I pressed the door buzzer and was let into an even darker passageway only to be greeted by the youngish couple that owned the apartment. They showed me around the, way bigger and nicer than I was expecting, apartment. They even lent me a cell phone with their number on auto dial in case I needed help. They left and soon after I headed out for dinner and a look around. Contrary to my initial impression, I was in a busy upscale neighborhood loaded with bars and outdoor cafÃ©s. I was looking forward to my stay here.
Many say Budapest rivals Prague in the looks department and is a pretty close second to Paris. The tour books concur with descriptors like magnificent, sophisticated, enticing, enchanting, regal, graceful, elegant, romantic, etc, etc, etc. Without piling on, I have to agree. It is a pretty nice place. Repeatedly getting wrecked over the centuries has resulted in various architectural styles depending on when a wrecked section was rebuilt making for a interesting town to stroll through. Especially at night when Hungarian girls' affections turn to solo travelers wandering aimlessly thru unfamiliar neighborhoods.
In fact, on my first night in Budapest, a young lady became rather gropey right there on the sidewalk. Not sure if they play baseball there but that women was rounding the bases faster than the Seattle Mariner's Ichiro. My experience is that women tend to wait until like the 17th date before we get out of the batter's box so I was a bit suspicious. Her route to home plate was slowed down only because she lingered on each of the many pockets that come in today's traveler clothes a bit longer than would be necessary. I know where I stand in the good looks department so I knew the attraction was purely financial.
I just pushed her away with a cool little block I learned from watching too many Jason Bourne movies and ran away like a girl.
That was my only untoward incident and beyond that, it was nice strolling around the Buda side of the Danube. Not so much Pest because there are a lot of hills and steps between beer stops.
I covered a lot of the city over the next couple of days. Every corner brought some new artwork or detailed architectural effort. Budapest is young and old at the same time and theres always something else to see. But my feet hurt and I felt that I had seen enough on this trip but still had another day before getting on with the itnierary. To that end, from Budapest, it is a pretty easy train ride to the Slovakian border. I walked across the border and strolled around the little town. It wasn't Bratislava, mind you. That is where the two (or was it three) Hostel slasher movies were filmed and they kind of creeped me out so I stayed away. My accommodation budget for the rest of the trip was limited to hostels so I figured I wouldn't risk being fodder for the Hostel 8 or 9. I was happy to stroll around the little unmemorable town, keeping Hungary in sight just cross the Danube to see what there was to see. Not much of anything if I can be honest. Walked around the barely post communist town for an hour before heading back because I didn't have any Slovakian Korunas to spend or any way, that I could figure out, to get any to spend. Took the train back to Budapest and got ready for the pre-sunrise train out of town with a quiet dinner and a beer or two.
The next stop was Ljubljana, Slovenia . Previously part of Yugoslavia, it was the first state to kick off the wet blanket of communism (early 90's) and has created a modern Europe feel while keeping the tourist friendly medieval Europe surrounding. There is even a castle on a hill in the center of the old city and a romantic cafe lined Ljubljania River.
I stayed in the Celica Hostel, converted from a military prison after it was saved from the wrecking ball in 1991. There are communal rooms and a beer and wine bar (cheap) on the main floor and Dorms on the top floor. The cells are on the second floor, each of them uniquely arted up by a different Slovenian artist. I had my own cell complete with bars on the doo and yes you do get the keys to the door. The single rooms were booked so I had to move to a dorm room the next night so I made the most of my solitude while I had it. I don't think the other guests appreciated my playing my blues harmonica all night though. Not really, the mental image made me laugh though. As you would expect, the rooms are small and any regular HGTV viewer knows that too much decor risks shrinking it further. Not a problem for my artist, he simply painted the walls white and glued some pictures from an old magazine to the ceiling. Opened the room right up. It was sparse but comfortable enough. I slept pretty well but only because of my recent affection for ear plugs. Be warned, the Celica is next to/part of a large entertainment/art/cultural complex called Metelkova Mesto with extended open hours and some pretty hearty partiers taking loud advantage of every hour. I was searching for breakfast in the morning and walked thru the party remnants of the previous night, stepping over still sleeping/unconscious partiers. Hoping to be first in line for Saturday night, I am sure. As a hostel it is way above average, and I highly recommend a stay if you are in the area.
Ljubljana is nice but small. Not much to keep a rambling man like myself entertained for long and my belly hit its limit on boiled horse burgers. I decided to follow a recommendation and take a bus to Bled, an hour north near the Austrian Border. Bled is a lake resort town ringed by the Southern Alps. Getting beyond the regrettable name, Bled is picture postcard pretty with a castle overlooking the little lakeside town and a medieval church (rebuilt in the early 1900's) on an island in the middle of the lake. I was there on a chilly rainy day which added to the dramatic views on my walk around the lake taking photos. Adding to the drama was the affect that an all day rain has on Italian marble steps made smooth by a few hundred years of tourist shoe leather. I spied a Kodak moment up a flight of said stairs and bounded up to take advantage just like hundreds of postcard photographers before me. I should have spent the euro for the postcard because half way up, my shoes decided to go in a totally separate direction.
Gravity, being what it is, left me with a good view of the sky. Luckily my left shoulder broke my fall and not my camera. As I lay there sprawled out on the wet marble looking at stunned tourists looking at me, I took stock of the situation. Nothing hurt yet so I stood up and felt a twinge in my upper left arm so I gave it a tug and felt it move a bit but there was just a dull throb and a little stiff. I thru on a fleece to ward off a chill but kind of lost interest in Bled. I made my way back to the bus stop, taking pictures the whole way, I might add. I made it back to the hostel feeling pretty good. Shock and adrenaline are good that way. I found my dorm room and took a nice warm shower. The crazy thing about showers is they are generally best taken naked. Remember that fleece pullover? That had to go. The shock and adrenaline had just about worn off so getting the fleece over my head was excruciating to a point where I started seeing those little white spots. They didn't last so I finished the shower. I was drying off when the spots came back. Past experience with this situation told me that the near future was about to suck. I sat down on the nearest seat which in a bathroom happens to be a toilet. Luckily the Celica has a top notch housekeeping staff and I didn't have to waste time laying down the free cowboy hat I sat there for just a few seconds before I teetered head first into the door. Luckily, I was unconscious before impact so it didn't hurt so much. I woke up inspecting the housekeeper's mopping skills, up close, and slowly rose to my feet.
Somewhere along the way I had put on enough clothing to cover the bits that make girls laugh since I opened the door to what was now a coed dorm. They gave me a horrified look instead. Mostly because there was a strange man in their room with blood streaming down his otherwise colorless face. It looked worse than it was but they were very concerned and insisted that I head to the emergency room. As usual, I resisted doing the smart thing, but they were relentless and actually walked/ dragged me to the hospital. It was a bit rough a round the edges, dimly lit and eerily quiet. It was a pretty efficient place considering the socialized medicine aspect of it all, then again I was paying with a credit card. The emergency room exam, x-ray, a couple happy pills and an incredibly complicated shoulder/arm sling cost me about $200 US. The worst part was that the walk back took me through the party complex that had just started to get going again and it was Saturday night and I was tempted to stop by. But wisdom beat out the happy pills that were wearing off so I went back to the hostel where a fellow backpacker was giving the hostel guests a didgeridoo concert. Not quite a sing along so I sat there and drank cheap wine to replace the effects of the happy pills and stared into space. It wasn't long before I decided I would be better off in bed which thankfully was not the top bunk. The sleep was fitful since I had to sleep wearing the sling. I had to keep it on because it needed a pair of hands other than my own to put it on.
I gave up sleeping early so checked out and walked the 300 yards to catch the earliest possible train back to Zagreb for an eight hour layover before catching the overnight Sarajevo train via an eight hour layover. It was a long walk to the train station so early on the morning since I was one handed now. I can't imagine how that would have gone had I not joined the church of traveling light years ago.
Lite luggage or not, there was no way I was going to haul it around Zagreb while I waited for the train to Sarajevo. I got some local currency from the ATM, checked my luggage at the train station and walked around Zagreb until I could board the overnight train. An uneventful afternoon but more interesting than the guidebooks led me to expect. I got food and beer for the trip and headed back to the station to There are a lot of tracks at the Zagreb train station and I was having a hard time figuring out which track my train would be on. I waited for an hour at the furthest possible track since that seems to be my luck. No train though so after a while I went back to the info desk and it was a good thing because I was at the wrong track. That was good to know but there and even better good thing was that, as I was talking to the info lady, I spied a credit card on the counter. It was face down and upside down from my vantage point but I was surprised to see that my signature was plainly visible in the little silver box and told the unbelieving info lady. I must have dropped my ATM card when I got some money out earlier. If I would have figured out on my own which track to wait at, I would have not had to ask the info lady and I would have been in Sarajevo, 10 hours away, before I would have realized that without access to cheap ATM cash but only high interest cash advances from my Amex card. My Luck had changed in a big way. But then came the nagging worry that the good Kharma added to my account from not suing the Mayor of Bled for leaving all that slippery marble lying around for clumsy white guys to slip on just got burned up on this little screw up and now I was teetering precariously between good and bad. And I was heading into a country with active land mines.
Luck will go where luck will go so I decided not to worry about it. I had my own cabin on the overnight train so I stretched out and chilled with the beer(s) until the motion of the train put me to sleep. Only to be rousted out of my pain induced exhausted stupor several times at various checkpoints to get my papers checked. I woke up with the sun to find that I was sharing the cabin with a young Sarajevonian who seemed eager to chat. Mostly about stuff I didn't know any thing about. Like American Basketball. He was a nice guy though and a pleasant introduction to the Bosnian people.
I found a hostel in the guidebook near the town center. Checked in with the chain smoking very bored front desk lady and got my choice of cots in the empty dorm and went out for breakfast. Sarajevo has a long history of cultural and religious tolerance proved out by a pretty long history of peaceful coexistence. Then fifteen years ago, friends and neighbors started killing each other. The reasons are beyond comprehension. I even resorted to reading a lengthy book, without any pictures I might add, about the whole thing. I think a few pictures would have helped because I still have no idea what the problem was. In the end, a few well placed missiles by Uncle Sam finally got everyone to start behaving themselves. The city is rebuilt now but reminders of the dark days are preserved by the Active Mine Warning signs in the mountains and fields around the city, and the countless Sarajevo Roses in the city. These are the scars on the sidewalks left by the mortar shells exploding that were later filled with red resin.
Understandably, Sarajevo has a weird energy that is palpable. Everyone is nice enough but when you get them talking about the war, their eyes glaze over a bit and there voices contain a mix of fury and sadness. Especially the ones that had to spend their childhood underground because of the mortars and snipers. To their credit, they are quick to laugh and seem to enjoy every second of their lives. I was still painfully stiff and my big white belly was pretty cold because the sling didn't allow my shirt to be buttoned. I was not sure what the Muslim rules were for naked belly exposure seeing as how they blew up the big Bhuda statues in Afghanistan, I figured better safe than sorry. I took off the sling before heading back out.
I took a group tour to see the minefields but were turned back at the ruins of the Olympic bobsled track because the UN was doing mine clearing that day. The tour also included the remains of a supply tunnel dug under the airport to avoid the Serbian snipers. The fact that it was completed given the conditions it was built under and the coordination required to keep it going is probably the most inspirational thing I have ever seen.
The smokey bars packed with drunken revelers were a surprise given this was a predominantly Muslim city. An even bigger surprise was that these revelers were all Muslim. It was an eye opener and a good thing to see. I was not ready to leave when the time came but so far there was always something cool around the next bend so I was looking forward to moving on. I look forward to going back someday.
I was on my way to the Croatian coast next. On the way, I stopped for a night in Mostar, The scene of some pretty grisly violence between Croat Catholics and Bosnian Muslims. I didn't get this one either. This is where I got my first Sobe. It sounds dirty but is really just a room in a local's house. Generally a little nicer than a hostel but there aren't usually other travelers around. They are just a bit more expensive. The owners gather at the bus depot and accost travelers as they get off the bus with photos and descriptions of their Sobe. Again that sounds dirty, but really it is just a room. Since I didn't have any other place in mind, I agreed. The lady didn't speak English but we worked thru the costs and rules and I found it to be a really nice place. Kind of like a bed and breakfast without the breakfast.
All settled in, I took a stroll through the town. Walking to the touristy section of town for dinner, I passed innumerable blasted and bullet scarred buildings. Then all of the sudden everything turned all Disney. Quaint cobblestone streets, romantic candle lit restaurants along the river with the last Muslim call to prayer fading away. Very touristy but easy to get into.
The morning ride out of Mostar was lined with the shells of blown up buildings. A depressing way to start the day so I focused on the next few sun drenched days in a town that rivals any in Italy, Dubrovnik, Croatia. "The Pearl of the Adriatic". Easy now, all you italophiles reading this. Most of Croatia was originally controlled by the Romans and then the Italians (9), influencing the architecture and design of the Cities. They handed the territory to Louis the first, King of Hungary and Croatia but the look is absolutely Italian.
Now that I had my first Sobe experience behind me, I was far more comfortable with it and was looking to getting one in Dubrovnik. I got one in a converted garage a couple of miles away from the old town walls. Being a walker, I was happy with that. I dropped my pack and started the walk to the old town for dinner and whatever.
What a nice place. Even in the non tourist section, the leafy streets were lined with Open air cafes, bars and shops. It only got better when I finally made it through the gates of the old town. A long marble brick street stretched out to the other end of the town with narrow alleys leading off the street. These alleys had numerous restaurants and bars. Two in particular were the Troubador Jazz Club and Katie O`Connor`s Irish Pub.
The inside of the Troubador is about as big as my living room. Including the full bar and a small stage for the live Jazz playing nightly. Maybe 10 people could sit inside while the rest of us congregated at the door and at the patio tables outside. The music was good and the customers were friendly. A Large drunken Croat was getting boisterous out front and switched back and forth between anger and love for every living thing. Unluckily for me, I was in charge of keeping him busy, while the others in my group enjoyed the music and camaraderie that travelers share over beers and stories. I am willing to take one for the team but when he started to bite my face, it was time to move on to Katie's.
Katies Irish pub was in an ancient cellar down one of the alleys a safe distance from any head eating Croats. We found another friendly collection of travelers enjoying their trip and each other's company. And so it went, every bar was as friendly as the previous, if not more so since alcohol continued to be consumed through the night. Being from uptight Seattle, it was a nice change of pace. Before I knew it, lights came on and it was time to go home. At least that was my plan. I shared a cab with a Swedish woman that I had met at the Irish bar and had stuck with us the rest of the night. Her sister had long since disappeared with another of the entourage a bit earlier and she was on her own so we shared a cab. Before you get any ideas here, to put it politely, this woman was obviously an ardent fan of the Scandinavian dining concept of the Smorgasbord. I must admit, I have enjoyed more than a couple all you can eat dinners in my day, but not every meal. We got back to her hotel and I let the taxi go because I didn't know my Sobe's name or address. I was pretty sure that I would see a landmark if I walked in the general direction of my Sobe. Soon after I started walking, I realized that I didn't actually know where I was so the correct direction was a mystery. It was about 2 am when I started walking. Sometime along the search, I found the telephone number of the Sobe owner in one of my numerous pockets that come with today's traveler clothes but by then it was too late to call so I kept walking. By 7am, I was still just as lost. I was so close but there is no way I would have found it on my own. It took a few more days before I could walk back to the room without getting lost. Just in time to leave for Split. Another walled city, an 8 hour bus ride to the north.
Before I left, I rented a car and drove down to Montenegro. It is only about 30 miles to the border so it was hard to pass up the opportunity to check out another walled city. Kotor is on a bay surrounded by mountains but still pretty typical of the Italian influence on cities along the Adriatic Sea. This one was peculiar in that in addition to surrounding the city itself, the walls were built up the steep mountainside next to the city. The trail up the mountain doesnt look too fun and the climb is a bit dangerous on the crumbling steps. The view from the top is worth the effort though, unless there is some goofy guy at the top getting in the way of your pictures.
The walled city of Split was the final staging point for the remainder of my stay in Croatia. Another walled city, sheesh. The Italians do stick with a theme when they have one. It was pretty and all but I was about done with the maze like alleys that the Italians are fond of. You find a good bar or restaurant and then you can never find it again. Unless Split is your first walled city, I would recommend that you do what I and most other travelers do. Stroll around the old town for the morning then catch a ferry to one of the islands just off the coast. I chose Hvar and am pretty happy with the choice. Although the old town did have a wall it was mostly knocked over. The town itself was a smaller version of Split but there was a Croatian food and wine festival going on so I picked the right day to be there. More friendly Croats eager for me to try their wares, especially the wines. The best part is that the wines from the region are really good. I met a couple of vinters who needed to work on the concept of sample or at least get smaller glasses. The only down side was it was a cloudless deep blue Mediteranean sky on a hot afternoon. I had neither sunscreen, hat or sunglasses. I had to take my leave to hide in my tiny Sobe room until the sun went down.
When I finally ventured back out, the day was cooler and the sun was sinking towards the Adriatic. The free food had long since worn off and I tool a stroll to find dinner. Since I went into hiding, the marina had filled up with huge yachts and the promenade with pretty people. There were catering tents set up and food and wine were being passed around. I strolled by to see what was happening but a closer look showed that it was a bit too exclusive for me and my clothes. Both of which were badly in need of a good scrubbing. I had dinner by myself at a waterside cafe and watched the daylight fade away. Oh and drank some beer.
I strolled by the tents again and things were really rolling now but didnt see any one at the entry gate taking tickets or doing a smell check so I strolled in with like I owned the tent and didnt get a second look. My Vinter friends from the afternoon had a booth there too. They welcomed me back and filled up my glass. We were chatting it up like old friends when a couple of girls from the ferry walked by. They did the same as I but definitely did not need a good scrubbing. I pulled them over to the booth and they too became fast friends with the wine makers. It wasnt long before a local guy that I'll call Archie came up and introduced himself as Archie, conveniently. He owned a bar around the corner that was also conveniently called Archies and took us there after the tent party wound down. I knew that the only reason I was there was he thought I was with the two girls. Seemed like a perfectly reasonable assumption so who was I to bust his bubble and dry up my free drinks. He ended up taking us on a pub crawl of the little town that ended abruptly when an extremely loud and drunk traveler joined us and started dropping hints about acquiring some pot. Archie was strangely offended and just disappeared. The girls grew irritated and soon disappeared too. The fun was got sucked off the island as though by a gale force win so I headed back to my cot in reasonable condition but woke to a wicked headache. There was very little left to see around the town so I went to the bus stop and waited for the next ride back to the ferry. The off-season ferry sailings and the bus schedule was limited to match. It was a long, long wait and I was without aspirin, hat, sunglasses or sunscreen. I found a bench with a little shade and waited, napped and had a long conversation with an old guy that didnt speak any English. Time did not fly but eventually the bus came for the long windy ride to the ferry terminal, Luckily the ferry was big and built for rough Adriatic seas. I napped the 3 hour trip back.
I realized on the way back that I was without a Sobe and it would be late on a Sunday evening when I got back to Split. I was worried that the owners would had booked up or given up for the day. There weren't many to choose from but they were there. I ended up setting a price with a VERY old lady who spoke no English. She walked me back to her little flat and I became worried. Up until now, my Sobes were nice little separate units. She showed me her second bedroom in a three room house and the tiny little bathroom. That is my problem with B&B's here in the states. I feel bad going out and coming home late. So I resolved myself to an early night with absolutely nothing to do. My travel reading had long since been exhausted and there was nothing on the TV or Radio that I would understand. I don't even think I saw a TV anyway. She did offer me some homemade brandy or expired Nyquil, I am not sure which it was.
I headed out early in the morning to catch a train North where I rented a Ford Fiesta to drive to a National Park called something that my word processor cant write. It sounds like Plitvichka Jezera. In English, It means Lots of Lakes with waterfalls all over the place, not really but it should. It is the site where in 1991 the first armed confrontation of the Croatian War of Independence that resulted in fatalities took place. It really is beautiful. Do a google search and you will find tons of pictures to show you what words can't capture.
On the drive back from the parks, I finally found what I came to see, an active mine field, I survived the photoshoot with all my appendages and headed back to the coast
I was glad I drove down the Adriatic coast on my way back to drop off the car. There were lots of little beach towns and since I couldnt drop the car off until the morning, I started looking for a place to stay. I was on a budget though and had grown accustomed to the $20 a night Sobe. The challenge now was that there was no traveler drop off point for the little old ladies to congregate. I started looking for a hotel but they were extravagantly priced although none of them seemed to warrant the price. I was on the outskirts of the town and thought I was going to end up back there. Kind of a dumpy little town and I wasnt sure that the car would be safe over night. I started hitting the roadside hotels and finally found a nice looking one with a little restaurant and a good looking hotel manager. Pretty much all I was looking for so I said yes. I think it was about $40 for a room with bath down the hall. Dinner was good but the driving day left me too tired to hang around. I retired to my room, brushed my teeth and laid down on the bed. Which I was surprised to learn was just the box springs. No Mattress. I was too tired to fight about it and figured it couldnt me any worse than camping on the ground. I was right, it was exactly the same as sleeping on the hard ground. I tried to sleep but as in camping, I couldnt find the sweet spot. I got up and looked thru the other empty rooms that were unlocked. I grabbed the covers off of them all and piled them up on mine. I slept pretty good after that. At least until the morning commuter traffic and truck noise woke me up around 5am. I packed up and left before breakfast and headed in to drop the car off. I got in before the drop off time so I hung out at their version of a Walmart for a while. I finally was able to drop of the car and hopped the bus back to Split.
I got back to Split with 3 days left before I was scheduled to fly out. And like I said, there is nothing to do in Split except walk around, Drink coffee and smoke. I had the Sobe lady (14) do my laundry, I sat on the beach, and took some side trips. Nothing memorable, except for the laundry. My clothes smelled really good and were folded as perfectly as when I bought them.
Finally the day had come to go home. I caught an early plane to London to see some friends before I left for the long flight home. They got one of those really cool glass rim salting things that really are only good for one thing. Salting Rims. So they were having a salted glass rim party that night and I was invited. The good thing about glasses with salted rims is they look kind of silly unless the glasses are filled with maragritas. And that night they were.
I was worried that my 10 am flight out of Heathrow would leave while I was still on the futon so I got up early and snuck out, ran to the train that got me to the airport with time enough to have the free liquor tastings at the duty free. The flight home was long and cramped. The downside of going to good places by air. This trip was memorable and well worth the risk of getting deep vein thrombosis.