Letting Go 16: Albania

Wednesday, November 8. 2006
Mother of God, few countries live up to their reputation and stereotypes like Albania does. Or as quickly. In that alone it is genuinely amazing.

I saw Tirana for the first time in a truly serene way. Five am might just be the only time this word applies, but know that it does. Passing the border was slightly novel. For a good half hour on the Kosovo side, the bus stopped so the driver and passengers could have dinner. Then I left Kosovo with no trouble or drama and on the way into Albania was charged ten Euros to get in. Later I was told that this had been removed, the entry tax, but that the border guards take advantage of tourist inability to speak Albanian and misunderstanding of the current situation to line their wallets. Pricks.

This might not be true, it could have been legit, but as far as I know it might be. Thats the way of Albania.

Tiranas only backpacker hostel shouldnt be that hard to find, but at that time of the morning the light is bad and the streets badly marked, I walked past it once, and almost twice. I leaned against a wall to take once last look at the map and wonder why the streets werent quite where they should be. Then I looked up and saw the sign on the wall. Tirana Backpackers Hostel. Id stumbled upon it quite by accident. I reckon I wouldnt have found it too, because its in far too nice a house to be the only hostel in Tirana. But there you have it.

The old man who lives downstairs let me in and I finally got to sleep.

The sound of talking got me up before midday. Being the only hostel in Tirana (not the only budget accommodation in town, but the only hostel to be sure) it houses the entire backpacker community currently resident in town at any given time. The location is on a very busy road and the traffic noise is almost deafening at times but the balcony provides a great place to hang out and discuss the big pile of crazy that is Albania.

Where to start? Even in Eastern Europe it manages to be its own special brand of special crazy. The parts that arent so far east they are still mostly Russian (dont get me into the exacts of this, just go with it), or new EU territory, or former Yugoslavia all have their own idiosyncrasies and pernicities and, most importantly for my point, partners in crime. For the most part of the last however long, poor old Albania has been alone and isolated in this world. So while you can pass through Baltia or the Balkans and feel the similarities, head into Albania and you find Unique. The way things might have been if the world had less control over it.

Walking from the bus stop to the hostel I saw central Tirana for the first time in almost sterility. The national museum, the house of culture, the national bank are all lit up at night. The statue of Skanderber is too, but the fountains are turned off. Actually, they are off all the time. Then theres the Ethem Bey mosque and the clock tower, and it all looks nice. Theres no traffic through the square at that time, and that is what makes it serene. Well get to that later on. No traffic but the ever present money changers are there. Changing money on the streets is a still present fact of life in Albania, a holdover industry from the black market currency days because its still viable and somehow safe (you dont get ripped off or mugged anymore and its all out in the open, literally, plus you get better rates than the bank) and even at that time of day, I was served.

However, walking around there that day with the other visitors it is a different world. The Tirana rally, as I could tell from the incessant honking that woke me up, is in full swing all day, every day. It reaches its zenith around the square where the roads are wide enough for at least four lanes of traffic and it fed by roads on all four sides, all sending four lanes in and out. The traffic lights are notable only for their absence. A handful of corners have pedestrian signals but no-one needs to heed them. Crossing the roads is hairy at best, life endangering at worst and the second most fun you can have for free in Tirana. The locals never ceased to amaze me with their guile and daring, wading out into traffic a hardened traveller like me thinks twice about. Yeah, I survived Taipei. Tiranans could deal with it and maybe even take over. China had Albania onside for a while, they missed what they could have used as a secret weapon to retake the rogue province. Damn, Mao would roll in his mausoleum if I told him, Ill have to go back and let him know.

And the traffic brings the dust. Tirana often gets dusty attached to it as a primary adjective and at night I didnt get it, but in the daytime hours it is apparent. Far enough south that October is still hot, and apparently dry enough to kick up enough dust all year. Where does it come from? Beats me. But it is there, make no mistake. Your time in Tirana (and most of Albania, to be sure) will be marked by kamikaze driving and dust. Yet as unpleasant as this might sound, I like the place.

That day went to the Etham Bey mosque and had a look around Blloku, the trendy part of town. It used to be a death-on-entry-to-non-party-members, where the loony paranoids lived their lives. Now its full of cafes and its no better than the middling suburbs of any other city. Lower standards, bred by less affluent circumstances, it makes it accessible. We escaped a sudden rain shower and into one establishment and enjoyed a menu-free refreshment. Tirana seems to be in a hurry, but never too much of one that it cant stop to help you out. We were looking for a particular building and we found it by asking locals. Most of Tiranas apartment blocks are huge concrete piles of ugly, but they have been painted up and brightened in a startling array of patterns. Youll see a green faade covered in yellow arrows, an array of rainbows and patterns that wouldnt be out of place in the modern art museum. Its so bold and arresting, and unique in such big cities, that even though it divides opinions, I for one like them. Therein lies one of the cornerstones of modern Albania. After the fall of the communist regime, the old system was replaced with a brand of capitalism you might call unbridled, which in itself caused the kind of problems that ultimately held the country back as the rest of Eastern Europe moved ahead. But this newfound freedom in almost everything found its way into the cracks of life (well, not everywhere, but in the strangest places) and today we see giant colourful painted apartment blocks others we will see more of later.

Our walk took us the former presidents house, at the end of a very long boulevard that begins at the train station, where Enver Hoxha used to stand and watch military parades. Hoxha was the commie dictator and was a very bad piece of work. A statue of Mother Teresa stands at the bottom these days. Next to that is the archaeological museum, two buildings divided by my personal favourite establishment in all Albania. It looks, from a distance, like McDonalds. The logo, from a distance, might well be. Inside the atmosphere and flavours are almost right. But you know, there are no McDonalds in Albania. So what is it? It is Kolonat, the local answer and blatant, blatant copyright violation. How it manages to stay open is beyond me. Maybe the right laws dont extend to Albania, maybe the right people dont know. It isnt even McDonalds having some kind of game, because Pepsi is the drink of choice in Kolonat. The food isnt worth mentioning, but the building is. It is a tent. One of those robust tents that media moguls put up for their sons birthday party, it could be taken down and gone in a few hours. Or, perhaps the Kolonat logos can zip out and overnight be converted into the worlds only Burger Queen.

I saw no more Kolonat elsewhere, so make sure to stop by and check it out if you are in town. It might not make it, you know.

After that we walked up to the martyrs cemetery, up a hill in the south down a road with no footpath, almost getting run down every step. It was worth it, because the view from up there is amazing. The gate was shut but not locked, so we let ourselves in and walked up the road. A guy at the top of the steps was gesturing at us, but we didnt understand and walked up. When we got there we figured he was telling us it was closed and we shouldnt be there, but after he saw we are foreign tourists he let us stay. The locals are good like that, because tourists are so rare they are genuinely surprised and happy to help, even if it is not quite right.

The panorama is amazing up there, but what stands out is the big old statue of Mother Albania. A wonderful socialist realist piece, she watches over Tirana even though the hill isnt visible from most of Tiranas streets. Next to it is the graveyard but how and for what cause they were martyred I am not sure. I do know that Hoxha was buried up there when he died but after the end of communism he was exhumed and put somewhere more unremarkable. His grave was turned into the monument to the victims of terror and communism.

We went back and went to the history museum. It has a great big mosaic on the front depicting Albanian partisans through the years, another great piece of socialist art, on display in the most prominent place imaginable. The museum has irregular hours, in the afternoon its only open from five to seven and we had been rebuffed earlier that day by this. So we returned and had an hour of looking through the bits of history Albania has managed to keep there (the Italians took quite a lot with them in years past) and found out that an hour wasnt enough to see it all. Turns out the country has a long and interesting history, so if you go, take at least two hours to see it all. We missed most of the recent history, including the parts about terror and communism, which was a shame, since that part of history is little know. The equivalent museums in Baltia were moving, because the details are so little known, so it was a pity we missed the Albanian story.

While we were there a local kid who spoke no English attached himself to our little group and followed us like a lamb. This is no huge issue but there was no communication going on, so it was a little awkward. However he went with us to appreciate the Pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Tirana, and joined us as we climbed it and slid down the massive concrete face of the mammoth eyesore. Designed by Hoxhas daughter as a museum to her father, it never really was that popular as a museum and these days it has a convention centre and a nightclub. Using it as a slide is just a fringe benefit but it is in no way just for children! It is so much fun that it rated as my number one Thing To Do In Albania.

After that we retired to the relative safety of the hostel and drank for quite some time.

So that ended my first stay in Tirana, unusually short by standards, but it went down that there was a Dutchman named Inch who had been hanging out there for more than a week who was heading down the Ionian Coast just where I wanted to go. So we struck a partnership and after breakfast we headed to the bus station to get a ride to Vlore. Tirana, in yet another idiosyncrasy, has no central bus station (I hear its in planning, or something) but has several terminals each serving a different direction. So to go north you have to get to a dirt patch next to the train station, north of the square, to go south you go to a dirt patch west of the square, to go east you find a shed somewhere south of everything. There are no timetables or ticket offices, no offices or even discernable companies. You just find your terminal, find a bus with the right destination and get on. When it is full, or when the driver feels like it, it leaves. The conductor asks where you are going and charges a seemingly arbitrary amount to stay on until that point, whereupon it is up to you to get your arse off. Once you master this system, getting around Albania is easy.

Easy is a relative term. The roads in Albania are up there with rural China in the race for the prestigious worst roads I ever did see award. And we are talking the main artery between the two main cities here. You are jolted endlessly from side to side, bounced around like bunnies and otherwise generally hassled by an array of potholes, shoddy mechanics and downright suicidal driving. Yet no-one seems to mind because there really is no alternative. What are you going to do, drive yourself? I hear that the trains in Albania are even worse for those unable to afford the bus. Given that the most you will fork over for a bus ride, from on end of the country to the other, is one thousand Leke (something like five Euros) and that gets you an eight hour journey, that says not a whole lot for the train system.

You also have to contend with overcrowding and every loony Albania can dredge up to make you sit next to and listen to. I had a conversation with a guy who had a swastika tattoo on his hand and an array of other tattoos he had gained during his lifetime of incarceration. I could have been mistaken but I think he told me he shot someone. Lucky me.

So we arrived in Vlore, not that far from Tirana but it took way too long to get there. It was a relief to get off the bus. We were both starving so we got some fast food. It was then I realised my camera was gone. Id had it when I got on the bus. Wed taken some clowning around photos at the bus terminal and that was the last I remember. The bus had been very crowded. Someone must have picked it up, but I cant recall if it had been in my bag, or my pocket, or it could have fallen out. I ran back to where the bus had stopped and it was already gone. Despairing, I dragged Inch to the police station where they were no help at all. They spoke zero English and had to enlist a local kid to help. I told them my camera had gone missing and could someone call the bus guys to see if they had found it, or if someone had handed it in, or some other remote possibility, but they did nothing.

The worst place in the world for something like that to happen, the absolute worst. The cops gave us a ride to the hotel we were going to stay at and all the way they ogled and called out to every girl they saw. Excellent examples of Albanian manhood, they were.

The view from the hotel window was second to none. For eight Euros a night it was unbelievable. That view would go for a hundred a night anywhere else. But Albania doesnt follow wisdom like that.

The whole thing changed after that. This whole adventure. It was never about the photos, at the start, but thats what it became. Ive taken over five thousand photos this year, of everything Ive seen. I have nothing else to show for my endeavours except for my writing and my pictures. Thats what it all became. Since I lost my camera (and all the pictures from Kosovo and the first day in Tirana) I havent been able to take any more. Not enough money to buy a new one (not that I could have found one in Albania) so that was it. I wasnt going to give up seeing the coast, but it felt like I was missing something. Almost like losing a hand, or a leg, or more like losing a sense. Nothing tangible like taste or hearing, but Id lost a way of perceiving the world I was seeing. One that I had come to rely upon to access the world I was seeing, all the places and people and things A way to process the world I was seeing. Without it I felt lost, pointless. Why bother finding all these places if I couldnt get a photo of it. To capture a moment from it, be it beautiful, ordinary, ugly, striking or normal. To take that and only that away from these places I was so privileged to be going to, that had become my reason to be out here.

It still doesnt feel the same. The loss of my expensive gear hurt, but the material loss quickly fades. People lose much more important things. I had life and limb, I had vitality. I was still lucky. But something was missing. I thought long and hard about what to do next, about giving in, about going home. But I pushed on, feeling numb, but occasionally getting lost in the moment. Thats what the coast became being about, thats all it could be.

So the next day we hitched a ride to Dhermi with a truck driver. Several attempts by oppurtunistic locals to act as a taxi were rebuffed and we got a genuine ride. The old guy driving spoke no English and didnt attempt to talk to us in Albanian. He just put our stuff in the back, let us in and drove on. The road down the coast goes through a spectacular mountain pass. The driver stopped for food at a restaurant halfway. Looking back down the road you see a valley, framed almost perfectly by the mountains on either side and the clear blue sky at the top. The valley flows into the sea and is punctuated by a single island, right in the middle of the scene. It feels like you can see for miles up there, and you probably can, because the pass hits a height of 1000 metres.

Winding down from there the beach stretched all along the coast. That was the beach we were looking for. It looked like paradise. The driver dropped us at an intersection and bade us farewell. We walked down the road, searching for food, or a beach or something. It was still very warm, not exactly hot, but very much beach weather. Walking down the road we attracted the attention of some locals and eventually one who spoke some English. We asked him which way to the beach and which way to the shops. We had to go back the way we came and further up the road. Inch was carrying all his gear (Id left most of mine in Tirana) and had no desire to lug it all back up the hill and even further. We asked if we could leave Inchs bag there and they were more than happy. On the way back we ran into another backpacker. There, in this tiny little town on the coast of Albania, a place it takes almost a day to get to from Tirana, itself hardly the most accessible city on Earth, and we run into an Australian. Tell you the truth, Ive heard from just about everyone the legend of Australian travellers. Everywhere. No-one is surprised when they hear you are from Australia, because we get everywhere. So of all people and all places to find another one, here was the ideal place. Bloody stereotypes.

The shop was indeed back up the hill and a while further up. The old lady who ran the place was helpful enough and we had a good old time getting supplied. Then back down the road and onto the beach. It was everything it should have been. A long crescent of white and blue, backing into a row of buildings and eventually the hill and mountains. The town was serviceable at best, downright decrepit at worst. Theres mud everywhere and the amount of abandoned buildings is disheartening. The number that have fallen into downright disrepair is sad. One building is particularly bad. It has hotel painted on the side but it looks like it was never actually finished. The bottom half looks like its full of nothing but rubbish and mud.

Walking down the beach is a trial because there is no sand, just rocks and pebbles. This is really hard to walk through. The only thing not quite right about the scene is the only thing that really isnt quite right about the whole country. Of all the little things about Albania, the only part that cant be explained away by some factor, mitigating or otherwise, that isolation, or poverty, or bad luck the only part is the bunkers. Spread all across the country, in the fields, the mountains, the beaches and the towns. Seven hundred thousand concrete and iron bunkers. Unmoveable, indestructible. The isolation the country went through was self imposed, more or less. After WWII it was the communists who came to power, with our friend Enver Hoxha at the reigns. He would rule until his death, years later. The foreign policy started badly. Tito, over in the nascent Yugoslavia, made it known he wanted Albania as part of the federation, with Kosovo. This pushed a probably already paranoid dictator to close relations with Tito. Relations were called off with Moscow after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. This left Albania without allies in Europe, so they turned to China. That lasted a while, but eventually Mao passed away and the changes in China led to Hoxha to break with even them. Alone, friendless, isolated. Not the best way for a nation to be.

So a self-reliant defence policy was produced. An engineer was hired to design a tank resistant bunker. He then had to stand inside the prototype and be shelled by a tank. He survived and the bunkers became a permanent part of the landscape.

Along this amazingly beautiful beach were, at fifty metre intervals, clusters of three bunkers. Sitting there, without purpose, rhyme or reason. We ate our food, built a fire and camped out behind three of them. We swam in the Ionian Sea and all was good. We drank a bottle of Ouzo. Before sunset, a figure came walking up the beach. It was the Aussie from before. So he joined in our little camp. Once the sun had disappeared, another figure approached. We were joined by a dude from Ecuador and it was a right little party, camping out there on the beach. Improbable is the word. On an empty, deserted beach in the worlds most misunderstood country. The holy grail was hard to find, but it was worth it.

The Ouzo was cheap and bad. I had a puke and passed out. I woke up to make the fire go again because it was bloody cold. Fell asleep again. Woke with the sunrise.

There was a rumoured beach further along the coast. The Aussie told us how to find it, so with that we set off. The day was hot and unforgiving and soon Inch wanted to leave his pack somewhere. We went up to a locals house and communicated to the elderly residents that we wanted to leave the bag there for a few hours and they were ok with it. Then they gave us tea, bread, tomatoes, cheese, pomegranates Loaded us up with food and then we went off in search of beaches further afield. The road down was long, but we didnt have to walk it, because a van went past and then stopped and told us to get in. Never one to say no to a lift, we did just that. It was a rattling old trap and we had to sit on boxes in the back, but a ride is a ride.

Down to the beach, this one was better. Empty, no buildings, even sections with no bunkers. We had to climb rocks and swim around to find them, but they are there. The best beach in Europe. Might just be.

We had places to get to that night, so we packed up and put our clothes on. Back to where the van had dropped us was a restaurant, very quiet at that time of year, and we didnt know if it was even open. But they had tables and chairs so we sat and ate there. Some dogs came out, barking at us. Followed by the lady of the house, who called her husband. He was happy to see us, but there was nothing to give us to drink, being that it was out of season and closed. But he sat with us as we ate and talked to us (not with us) in Albanian. It was another moment of hospitality and generosity, much liked.

We walked back up the road, no life this time, grabbed Inchs bag and went up to the main road to try and get a lift. We actually passed a donkey carrying wood, dragged along by an old lady.

Eventually, a bus came by. It took us to Himara, from where we took a taxi to Saranda. The driver had to go back there anyway, so he took our low, low offer and got there for little more than bus fare. Take advantage.

Saranda is a town on a bay within sight of Corfu. Greece is just over the horizon. It was as close as I came to the land that gave mine so very much, and the souvlaki to the world.

We were both tired. So we found a hotel and rested up good.

The next day began as all the days I spent with Inch did. He asked what we were going to do. To call him laid-back doesnt do justice to the severity of his condition. Nor does it colour it in quite the right shade. He is far from lazy, neither does he lack the ability or will to make decisions. When he get going and sets about moving he does it with aplomb and lets nothing stand in his way. Its just that hes one of natures worker ants. Hes the A-1 psycho marine rather than the cunning sergeant leading the troops. But psycho is again misplaced vocabulary, because hes generally laconic. I make all the calls, decided when we ate, which road to follow, when to get a ride and when to say stuff it and just get a taxi. He was content to follow me. Given that he managed to spend more than a week lying around the Tirana Backpackers achieving not a great deal, I think lack of motivation caused by having a large time frame to accomplish something had given him the short sightedness that often goes with that situation. On the other hand, I had set off out of Tokyo at quite a swift pace (mainly because I had thought I had a deadline somewhere down the line, and also because I had a rendezvous of sorts, but that was a long time back) and such a malaise had only struck when the J was plying me with beer.

And now the end was in sight for me, whereas for Inch things had just begun. So I wanted to keep things concise, I wanted to see this and that and get it all in. So I think he just went with my planning and momentum, and it was a happy coupling. So when he asked what we would do, I said we were going back to the beach.

A bus runs there now, down to Ksamil Beach, on the way to Butrint. Butrint is an ancient ruin I know little about and didnt visit. I had other, more significant ruins in my future, and so did Inch. So we went to the beach. This beach was again something special. Not quite deserted as the ones we had found before, but much closer to a town. Since it was still beach weather, the locals were either picky or retarded. We were the only swimmers around that day and while the water was cold, the sun was warm and the beach was beautiful. The small pebble beach is nothing great, but in the clear blue sea are four little islands just within swimming distance. It was part beauty, part challenge. So into the water we waded and swam off to the first. Then over to the second. We dicked around there for a while, half considering whether we would go to the others, because it was maybe two hundred meters to get there. I went for it, because challenges dont come every day. The sea was calm and water clear, but I tell you I was tired when I got out there. We sat in the sun there for a while, admiring the place we had found, happy that we had it all to ourselves. It really is a special place, and to get there is not only a challenge in terms of distance but endurance, in more ways than one. Not often do you come across something like that. We swam back to shore, got changed and went back up to the town. A taxi had taken someone up the road and was looking for anyone to pay for a ride back in that situation you can offer the same as bus fare and get away with it. So we went back to Saranda in Mercedes style.

Some mundane things were taken care of, like looking for transport the next day, and we had some beers by the water. Then we went for real food, no more Albanian fast food that day, and it was pleasant. Quiet, warm, easy. Sometimes it all comes together.

Inch went to Corfu, I went to Gjirokaster. I wonder if hes going to make it as far as he dreams.

Without camera, I found little compulsion to stay long and linger anywhere, lest a better shot show up or better angle present itself, so my stay in Gjirokaster was short. Home town of Mr. Hoxha and somewhat protected for it, theres a castle and plenty of old-style buildings with stone roofing. Only now much of the castle is in disrepair, full of the requisite mud and garbage, the collection of old military apparatus sadly neglected and not labelled. A US spy plane decorates the ramparts. I can only guess that when they shot it down it justified the who paranoid approach to foreign policy and the commie bigwigs high-fived each other at their grand imagination to build all those bunkers surely the invasion was on its way now.

Too many of the old stone roofs are falling apart with no-one looking to fix them up. The castle verges on dangerous in places. The town has potential, but even for Albanian standards is too far away from everywhere to attract help. Even if it were coming.

I skipped back down to the highway to get a bus to Tirana. I met just about every crazy local the country has to offer on that bus trip. I wont forget screaming homeless guy from the middle of nowhere, who sang to the bus as it made a rest stop. Or teenager who wanted me to give him my iPod. Then theres possible mental health patient who was intent on showing me the metal pipe that he thought bore the marking of God himself. All I wanted to do was listen to some music and figure out what Id do next. God help me.

I went back to the hostel in Tirana to see who had appeared since the meantime. I dont know if Tirana has a high season, but I do know that if it did, this wouldnt be it. Still there were a few people around and we had a good old time. I had decided to get some more money and try and buy a new camera in Tirana and hopefully get moving on Sunday. This turned into futility itself, as it was a weekend and I pissed two useful day into the toilet of time because of it and eventually left on Monday night with a bunch of cash but no camera. Tirana aint the place to go buying high-tech anything. I should have known.

Nights were spent talking to the other travellers and even showing them around. The days I tried in vain to get myself sorted out, but all I managed was the conclusion that I was better off. Tested, you might say. That camera had ended up owning me. I was running around Tirana like an addict trying to get a fix. I was desperate. Man, I really felt like a junkie or something, just needing to get sorted before moving on. Was it the camera itself or the action of taking pictures that I needed? Who knows, but as soon as I realised I was better off without it, especially since it wasnt forthcoming, I felt better. I let the who incident go, I breathed out. All things grow, all things go.

I had lost time, but I wasnt going to waste any more. Albania had been a gem of an experience, more than I could have imagined or asked for. From the painfully sad, the way the country looks and had become, all the rubbish everywhere, the shitty roads and infrastructure, the unreliable systems. To the amazing, the hidden scenery, the flowers that hid from the storm, the birds that escaped the crazy cats. To the splendid, the people and hospitality, the food and the colour of what is there. Albania is a moment, grasping what is real and tangible, holding what is there. Albania is pitiable, even though I shouldnt pity, tragic and still vibrant. Albania is Damn, its just Albania. You got to go and see what goes on there, because the only thing about Albania that is for certain is that you can only get it there.

My Way 16: Kosovo

Wednesday, November 8. 2006
It was dark. It was dark a lot of the time. Such is life, and the city bus network in Prishtina is not exactly visitor friendly, so the only two other visitors and I took a taxi into town to find accommodation. The only budget place in town is right out of the city, in the hills and suburbs, so in the dark I would not have found it otherwise, no way. After getting a room, I went out for food and went walking. Finding some streets lit and others not, the houses were punctuated by ruined buildings and wrecks. I found some fast food and halfway into my kebab, the power went out. Welcome to Kosovo.

I was there to see what was going on, what was up, and most importantly, what was going down. The worlds current big headline making destination, and the only destination on my list that is currently on the Australian governments travel advisory list. Recommending against all but the most necessary of travel. I thought it was bullshit, that nothing would happen, and I was right. I wasnt there that long, but I will say now that nothing bad went down. I saw no incidents, violence, or anything. Not that I expected to, but I wanted to get that out of the way right here. Also, it is technically still part of Serbia and not independent, but Serbia does not run anything. It is administered by UNMIK (Un-Mick) and everything is held together by the omnipresent UN troops, Kosovo Force (KFOR, or Kay-Four) as well as the Kosovo Police. There are troops of one kind or other everywhere. But what really keeps thing stable and safe is the fact that almost all the Serbs were kicked out or killed in 2004, thus reducing the possibility of Albanian Kosovar led violence on Serbs to nearly nothing. The Serbs still there live in ghettoes, protected by UNMIK and KFOR.

So yeah. I got back to my room and there was nobody to talk to and little to do. I pulled my computer out and was writing away when the power went out. So I went to bed.

Walking was my real only option and the limited information from LP my only guide. Prishtina is short on quite a few fronts, including (but not limited to) public transport maps and assistance, tourist information and unreliable power. That and a reputation for violence recently makes the sight-seer a rarity. So I found a bank and then found the bus station. Central Prishtina is dirty and dusty with little in the way of must-see places, you have to get out of the city to find anything worth finding. So thats why I went to the bus station, to get to a place to Gadime where I heard there was a cave. Getting there was not easy. A bus ran along the highway to a point where there was a turnoff to get there. So I got that far and without any compulsion to do anything else, walked in what I figured was the right direction. It was, but it was a long way and I attracted a number of looks. Not too many tourists full stop, let alone out there, let alone walking on the road.

Most of Kosovo is startlingly unpretty. The fields that are being worked are, but in a very unordered way. The houses are either old and falling apart, or new and badly made. There is little to look at and the scenery is very visually assaulting. I rounded a bend in the road and came to an extra dusty collection of buildings that included some shops and a bus stop. It turned again and crossed the stream that ran through there. No sign that this was the town I wanted nor indication that it wasnt. Or any cave looking places. So I kept going, through the little town, and down the only road that wasnt dirt. I walked for what seemed ages and things looked worse, so I turned around and went back. I was on the verge of giving up when I was back in the town and I saw a door in the rock wall. Bingo. I poked around a little and found no way in, and went further afield to investigate. Someone pointed me to the unsigned ticket office. I had made it! And for my effort, I had my own personal guide and tour in Almost-English (the old man who showed me through the cave could do the tour in Albanian, Serbian, Italian and German. But not English. He did a good job, however, and pointed out the various stalactites and stalagmites, told me how long it took for them to form. There were some rare ones, too. Made of marble and other kinds of crystal. Curly ones and diagonal ones. This cave is the only place to see some of these formations. Theres a pair that will eventually join up in about ten million years. They call them Romeo and Juliet. Other highlights were the headless kangaroo formation and the hand. And unforgettably, the one that looks just like a penis. I kid you all not a little.

Thoroughly happy with the experience and friendly guide, I had earned it all. The payoff was worth it. The bus stop to get back to Prishtina was right there and a bus came along almost right away.

Back in the city, I walked about some more and enjoyed the novelty of the massive traffic snarl caused by the power going out and leaving the traffic lights worthless. The UNMIK building is unremarkable, but worth of note for being an instrument of the mighty UN (who I have little faith in, having heard the stories from Sarajevo) and the real interesting building is the Orthodox church. Still standing but otherwise burned out inside, it stands huge and silent. Dark and dead. Like Orthodoxy and Serbian control in the province. A giant symbol. The dark half of the Kosovo story. The modern story, anyway.

I bought a couple of pirate games and went back to my room to play them. I had little luck, because the power went out soon enough. That was that day.

Peja is a town in the north west of Kosovo where there is s little more surviving culture, so in my last afternoon I went for a look. I found a dusty, bedraggled little middle of nowhere town. It reminded me of China more than anything. Intensely poor and dirty, there is a huge market through the town selling all sorts of stuff, mostly clothing. But lively indeed, life is strong, thriving and living. I wasnt there long enough to get out of town, to the monasteries, but as a look at life in the rest of Kosovo, it was revealing.

More revealing is the level of destruction. In Prishtina, I saw way too many destroyed homes for comfort. They would have been Serb houses. At night, they are just ghosts, but by daylight it clear that things were still inside when they were destroyed. All that couldnt be looted, so you see mattresses pinned under massive bits of rubble. People still live next door and around. In between the towns, there are entire villages that have been wiped out. Orthodox churches that are crushed. All the signs are in Albanian, the Albanian flag is all around. The first violence in the 90s was the Serbs trying to empty the Albanians out and finding that the world was against them. NATO bombed Serbian cities, including Belgrade, and the army withdrew. In 2004 the Kosovars took to the streets after the uneasy peace was broken when Serbs killed a pair of Kosovar children, and this time the Kosovars took to the Serbs. They were more successful in driving the minority Serbs out and today theres not many left. Serbian money cant be changed and Serbian speakers dont dare speak the language outside their enclaves. Its a sad story, and I wont try and get to the bottom of it here, but I see both points of view. The Serbs in Belgrade I spoke to said that no way would Kosovo ever become independent. It was part of Serbia and always would be. The Kosovars all agree that they will never go back to being part of Serbia after what happened and you know what? The way things have gone in other places makes me think that the Kosovars will get their way. They are there and its their land now. They all told me that they would be free, it was just a matter of time. So watch that space. I think UNMIK still have a long way before they can leave, so dont take too many hours from your day to do it. But remember it.

So I went back to Prishtina to get on the overnight bus to Tirana, Albania.

Letting Go 16: Serbia

Wednesday, November 8. 2006
Sleeping quite a lot of the way, the bus rolled on through the rest of Bosnia, through the part known as the Republic Serbia, controlled by Bosnian Serbs since the end of the war. The only real difference is that signs are in Cyrillic. We crossed the border into Serbia proper and by around midday we were in Belgrade. Once the capital of Yugoslavia, the affairs of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia were managed from here. All the people Id met so far in the aforementioned now-independent countries have very little good to say of Serbia, since the break-up of Yugoslavia, or Serbians in general but they all told me Belgrade was worth going to. Now, after the divorce from Montenegro in July, Belgrade is the capital of Serbia alone, and even then not all of the country, since Kosovo is a UN protectorate. I knew little of whet life there was like, but I was quietly expectant, and happily surprised.

The highway into the city passed the biggest Roma ghetto I have ever seen. In the dust bowl between elevated highways, there is a tent city full of shacks and looked like hell. It was full of people, all dirty and dusty, with all they had on view to anyone on the road.

Walking into the city to find the hostel with Chris, Belgrade shows itself to be vibrant but not colourful, slightly ramshackle but easily serviceable, blue collar all the way. It works, it gets by, and it likes a party. It also has lots of hills, which sucks when you have a big backpack on. The people were incredibly friendly. When we looked lost or turned around, they would approach and help. We did not need to solicit advice from anyone, they came and gave it without provocation. For such a big city, this is rare indeed. The hostel is hidden just enough that walking past at least once is mandatory.

We went up the stairs and we were greeted by the giant who owns the place. He laughed because he knew we had taken the stairs and not the elevator. I think he used magic to know this.

The hostel is small, only ten beds, but militarily friendly. You are almost under orders to relax and have fun. This seems to be a part of Serbian life, this particular setting. Once you get this in your head, Serbians are nice people, very nice. Made me wonder what all the fuss was about. But only for a second. I know that war and violence is the result of a few assholes pushing people about and getting people scared, or similar, so these people and what Id seen in Bosnia were not related in any hateful way. But it is a good thing I went there and found out, because it is the ordinary people who suffer in pariah nations. When the massive inflation was ruining the average civilians life in the 90s, I doubt the pricks who would go on to start wars were struggling with all those zeroes on the paper money.

But I get ahead. That afternoon I walked around with Chris and saw the big famous churches, and the king Daddy of all Orthodox churches. This church is mesmerisingly massive. Enchantingly gigantic. Orgasmically huge. It might be big enough to house several of the more vertically oriented dinosaurs of times past. It isnt finished yet but the outside is all painted and coloured, and you can get inside to see the construction going on, so it was we stood under the massive dome (still a concrete grey colour) and felt genuinely puny. The other sights of that part of Belgrade are parks and well-known buildings. The national museum was mostly not open, just the first floor which was housing an exhibit on amber. I could have sworn that I had seen it all before in Baltia.

Laid back enough to be likeable, working class and aspiring. Serbs these days are working to work past the sins of the last decade, it feels, and hold more than a fair share of resentment towards the USA and NATO. This is understandable, but unfairly encouraged by the government, who should at least do something with the bomb damaged buildings that look like they have been left since 1999 with no discernable purpose than to keep people angry at the US. But again, getting ahead.

We went out and had some nice sort of food at an Italian restaurant. That was the last nice meal I had, and it was expensive. But I had finally recovered fully from the food poisoning and I was pleased. The hostel was home to a crowd of random backpackers, a couple of long-term occupants and the staff. Serbian and English were the flavour of the conversation. It sounded like everywhere else in the region.

In the morning Chris and I set out to see the citadel of Belgrade. The land the city sits on has been fought over for as long as people have lived there. Some forty times has the city been destroyed and rebuilt; the citadel has hosted one hundred and fourteen home matches in the international military league campaign. Some of the most violently contested real estate in an already highly contested corner of the world. Today its a big park that overlooks the Danube and Sava rivers, meaning it also has a great view of current proceedings. It is also home to the military museum given how things have gone down in Serbia over the years, bound to be interesting.

And it was. Weapons from as far back as I can imagine line the displays, with various sharp and blunt instruments, armours and eventually guns all on display to be ogled. Maps and explanations abound, some even in English. But it all stops at 1919, then picks up in 1999. This leaves out WWII and the war in Bosnia, rather conveniently, and goes right ahead to the NATO bombing and what they see as Croatian rebellion and Kosovar separatism. The defences at Belgrade managed to shoot down one US bomber, part of the wing and all the crews gear is on display alongside descriptions of the damage done. No mention of why it happened. Next to that are captured Croatian and Kosovo Liberation Army weapons, behind it are some graphite bombs dropped to destroy power lines and photos of civilian deaths. Again, no explanation, just a display regaling the visitor about how poor Serbia got bombed and how parts of it tried to run away

The omission of WWII, in particular, is of interest, because far from the independent land being rolled by an aggressive neighbour, Serbia in the second war was an ally of Nazi Germany (sowing the seeds for Milosevic and his nationalistic ideals later on) and quite possibly still not interested in talking about it all. The guest book was full of complaints about this part. Revisionist history is dangerous, tell the whole story, get over it Sort of complaints. The lack of objectivity in the NATO bombing displays also riled people, but there was a strange lack of people questioning the absence of Bosnian War artefacts. I couldnt help but agree with most of it. Except the neo-Nazi asshole who left a long rant which might have blackened the pages if I hadnt known better.

It turns out that later, a couple of Aussies who had gone the same day had found the WWII era display. They were upstairs with the toilets, mysteriously closed to the paying visitors. The presence of the displays is once thing, sure they have put them together, but to keep them closed surely makes more trouble than having people go and look at them. Maybe, maybe not. It sure divided the public.

I found a guy in the park selling 1990-era hyper inflation economy paper money. In the early 90s Serbia, left faltering by the transition to a market economy and the departure of most of the industrial power when Slovenia left and most of the tourist industry income when Croatia left, suffered the worst inflation in history. Worse than early nineties Hungary and worse than post WWI Germany. I dont know enough about economics to really follow what went on, but I understand this: if a country sees inflation rise three percent in a year, things are not good. In 1993, inflation was rising three percent a minute. Yeah. The crown jewel of the collection is the granddaddy five hundred billion Dinar note. Worth about three US when introduced, it was worth about half that same evening. Such a thing is surely worth collecting.

The rest of the day we walked about, sorted bus and train tickets for the next day, then went off to visit Tito in his grave. The House of Flowers, as it is known, is reputed to be a worthy site and used to be quite the pilgrimage, but now it is broken down, overgrown and neglected. Things have not gone well since Tito departed this life for this part of the former Yugoslavia. Clearly less prosperous than Croatia and Slovenia, faring better than Bosnia but not Montenegro. I wanted to pay my respects because I had a newfound appreciation for what he had built, keeping it all together, when it had been torn apart so effectively in the years since he died. The site was grand, but no kept, so it was overgrown and broken. He deserves more respect than that.

Next door was a modern art gallery, which was excellent.

Trying to get back to the hostel, we had some bus mishaps and had a mini tour of the suburbs. It was kind of funny. Nothing much more happened in Belgrade. I said goodbye to Chris that night, because he was going to Sofia the next morning, and took myself to bed.

The bus ride was inevitable long. The road was good, but not straight, so it took a long time to get to Novi Pazar, in the south of Serbia, when the bus stopped and I had to get off. The Serbian bus company didnt go any further than that, so I bought some snacks and got onto a minibus to cross the border and onto the next adventure.

Letting Go 15: Bosnia and Hercegovina

Wednesday, November 8. 2006
The bus went over the mountains behind the city and into Bosnia and Hercegovina. At the time I didnt know exactly where the two parts of the country were. I later figured it out, solving a life-long riddle for me. The answer is, it doesnt matter. So Im going to go ahead and just call it all Bosnia from now on. Even though past the nebulous border of the two parent entities, there is another recent development that cleft the country in two but more on that later.

The bus took me to Mostar. Famous for the bridge, even though it was a replacement, in being that replacement it is entirely more important than it might have been. It stood for five hundred years before being destroyed in 1993, in a war that was more than just the destruction of a nation, but the very fabric of a society, innumerable lives, and hope itself. If it hadnt been destroyed and rebuilt as a symbol of rebuilding and reconciliation, it would just be a bridge albeit very old and of architectural importance instead it is known world over for what it is now.

I thought about war a lot. On the bus on the way, walking around the streets. There are several graveyards in Mostar, presumably because there was not enough room in the existing ones around the small town, that are full of new white gravestones and all with the same date. Then theres the old front line. The fighting went right through Mostar and the main highway through the town is still lined with shelled out skeletons on buildings, full of bullet holes, waiting for something to happen. Maybe nothing will. Maybe whoever owns them cant afford to fix them up, or isnt here anymore. But it is a sight to behold all right.

You shouldnt go poking around inside the ruined buildings, or even park your car outside if you can help it. Just like you should avoid wandering off through the hills and mountains of Bosnia, because there are more land mines still out there than were even laid in Cambodia. I heard there were grassfires in the hills above Mostar over the summer and there were explosions all day as the heat detonated mines. The abandoned buildings have a good chance of having unexploded ordinance inside somewhere, on top of the existing danger that they could collapse at very little provocation. The effected of war are still visible and still very real. The fighting at Mostar was between the Serbs and Bosnians at first, but as the fighting moved away the town came under Croat attacks, which is where most of the damage came from and when the bridge was destroyed. Today the bridge is repaired, using stone from the original quarry site, built by people from both sides. But the city is still divided and few people cross the old front line. It is Catholic Croats on one side and Muslim Bosnians on the other. Or something like that.

I stayed there overnight, but after finding a place to stay I looked around the old Turkish area (the Muslim side) with its numerous mosques and old Turkish houses, tourist oriented souvenir selling street and over the bridge. The cobbled streets have some of the roundest, most painful cobblestones I have ever walked over. The were a surprising amount of tourists around, but this might have been because they dont have anywhere much else to go. Apart from the old part of town and the bridge itself, theres not a great deal to see. Thats why I wished I had planned a bit more, because I could have been on my way to Sarajevo that night, instead of having to stay around. The things you see are pretty, pretty enough, but limited. So I sat at the room I was staying in and wondered what to do, when the other guys staying there came in and saved me from myself.

They were from the USA and going the opposite direction to me, having just come from Sarajevo. They were only in Europe for a short while, starting in Bosnia and heading towards Croatia together before going off on their own after that. They were older than me, but we got along just fine and went to eat together. So it was not that I had a night wasted there, but enjoyed that most random of travel incidents, the good company of strangers.

The train to Sarajevo the next morning was early, so I woke and got my things together in good time. Still I was at the station well early and after getting a ticket had to stand on the cold platform for nearly half an hour, watching the crowd build, before the small train came rolling in. There were only two passenger carriages and the engine, but even so I had a compartment to myself. The rails go through the mountains, in and out of tunnels, through the countryside rarely following the road. It switchbacks over high passes and gives the passengers the most amazing views of valleys and mountains alike. Most of Bosnia is still like this, hard to get to and undeveloped. If it werent for the threat of mines everywhere, it would be a paradise for outdoors and hiking (not to mention winter sports) but as it is, the situation is look but dont touch.

Then we stopped in the middle of nowhere for almost three hours. There was a problem with the track, or something. None of the workers on the train could speak English or even German (which is more common around there) and none of the non-Bosnian speakers could communicate with them. So we all wondered if we would be moving soon, or at all, and all wondered together until it finally moved. We arrived late in Sarajevo, but not too late.

The lady who had put me up in Mostar had a cousin in Sarajevo who did the same thing, so had phoned ahead and got me someone to get me at the station. They had been waiting just as I had, but they were not too far from the station. So I threw my things down and went looking.

Sarajevo had been in my head for a long time. Everyone who was alive and watching in the nineties knows what happened. The very name of the city inspires feelings of sadness, grief, tragedy, and some sprouting survival. Tragic were the events that thrust the city into the imagination of the world, and the growing apathy of the generation whose job it should have been to shout and save it contributed to its condemnation. Every day, then every other day, then once a week, then once a month, with thoughts of, is it still going on? This pattern persisted as the seemingly impotent UN failed to save the city and the people had to do it themselves. The name became synonymous with war for my generation and the other attachments distance, inability to help, incomprehension as the situation, and more distance unfortunately join themselves to our recollections. But in our thoughts and minds was this city and I had wanted to go and see for myself for a long time. A train delay put it off but not forever.

I had no idea what it would look like. The shell scars on the streets, the Sarajevo Roses, were at first a shock, then a reality as I walked along busy shopping streets filled with beautiful people, the idea that death had rained from the sky all those years ago onto these very footpaths as foreign as I myself was to it all. This could have been London or Paris, just on a smaller scale, just for this street. Designer brands and high class shopping was the byword. This passes into the old Turkish quarter, with cobbles streets and old style houses. Within a 200 meter block you pass a Catholic church, a mosque, an Orthodox church and a Jewish synagogue. They have existed peacefully in the city for hundreds of years, the fighting that came to the city was not wrought by any, it tore apart none. It is an amazing thing and the locals are very proud of what they have.

The area is not very big. Filled now with shops, restaurants and souvenirs, it comes to an apex at the fountain and square around it, known as Pigeon Square (because its full of pigeons). From there you can see the towering minarets, the brown roofs of the Turkish style buildings all around, then the mountains rearing up on all directions around. The hills are filled with houses and several large cemeteries are visible. No war damage is visible without close inspection. There is no misery, suffering; no troubles or fear. These are all in the past. Sarajevo has rebuilt and moved on, put things behind it and looks forward. It is a wonderful feeling.

I ate some very good food and retreated for the night.

There was a Kiwi in the same room as me and we got to talking; there was a hostel slash travel agency in town that did a tour of the city, including the tunnel museum. This made me interested the museum tells the story of the tunnel that saved the city, with relics and photos and part of the tunnel itself, but is hard to get to without your own transport. This sold me, so the next morning we had breakfast together and set off to the meeting point.

I would say almost all the backpackers in town were there on the tour, which set me back 25 KM but was worth all of it. The first stop was the tunnel museum. The house that protected to end of the tunnel in the free village outside Sarajevo is where it is, with handmade signs and everything inside the house itself. Everything there is exactly as it was left when the war ended, so when we saw the video of all the footage they had, we all recognised the house and coverings. It made it all the more real, seeing that footage again. The sort of thing that had been on the news when we were in high school. Only now we were there, had walked those streets and been into that tunnel. No army was camped in the hills shooting anymore, but empathy is so much easier when the man who owned the house was there telling us, Serbian army never intended to make four year siege, we had nothing to fight with but our spirits and we won. That the tunnel, built to get arms into the city, survived for four years and allowed food, electricity, oil, water and most of all, hope, is a complete miracle. Everyone we talked to about the tunnel mentioned that, used the word, and maybe even believes it. Sarajevo was meant to survive even the siege, as it has every other threat, to continue as a multi-ethnic, multi-religion city. And so it does, and so we left the tunnel behind. A simple affair, in the house that it always was in, but maybe the most unforgettable thing I saw.

We then went to the old Jewish cemetery on the hill closest to the city. There had been a Jewish population in the area since the Jews were expelled from modern day Spain centuries ago. They bought with them a holy book; when the Nazis were there in the second world war they searched for the book and the cities Jewish population. Our guide told us this story, and the reason for the survival of both the book and a large number of Jews was simple. The book was not in any synagogue, which were thoroughly searched, but in a mosque. The Jews were not in Jewish houses or ghettoes, but in Turkish, Bosnian, Serb and Croat homes. The city banded together and held together against evil then, and again. We heard how the ancient sacred ground we stood on was used by Serb snipers from the socialist Yugoslav army to pick off civilians as they ran across the section of highway that became known as Sniper Alley for that reason. It was the only way to get to the closest water supply. We heard how the UN took control of the airport, but in return the Serb army took 50% of the humanitarian aid destined for the city. We heard how the Serb army had been fooled by the presence of a single tank into thinking the otherwise unarmed city was fostering an armed division, so instead of taking the city (which could have been done almost any day of the siege) they held out in the hills and fired at anything that moved. We heard how the spirit of the people got them through and how there is no hatred, now or then, for the Serbs in the city. We heard how the UN tried to negotiate for four years to end the war and failed; that NATO had only needed four days of bombing Serb positions to end it all.

The mysteries and questions of this situation, few people have answers for; our guide did not, we did not, so we pondered for a while and then left. Next stop was the ancient Turkish fort above the city, now home to the best view of Sarajevo short of a hot air balloon. The city has a long, long history of many different people and mostly happiness and prosperity. The huge graveyard was right below the fortress. There are graves of all different faiths represented, all white and still new. The wounds of the incident that made the city famous are healing well and tolerance is the real byword, we all left thinking that there is so much more for the city to be famous for than an act of war. I think that was the point.

After I had lunch with some of the other guys, then we wandered around to look at other sights. The museums were closed, because it was a Monday, so we walked along the river to the Latin Bridge. That was the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The only marking is a plaque on the wall next to where the shots were fired from. I couldnt help but feel that such an event, such a pebble that caused an avalanche, such a monumentally world changing event should be marked by the very gods themselves. Like ripples in the air, or a strange light. It is an ordinary street corner, just another footpath next to an ordinary road. Nothing to show that Europe ripped itself apart twice over the events that followed, nothing to show that most of the world was drawn into conflict never seen before or since. That it would leave the world rent in two and on the brink of potentially Armageddon bringing nuclear war. But a moment or two of contemplation is all you need.

After that, we all got drunk and talked about war and sport. Mostly sport.

The next morning, Chris and I were up and at the bus station and on our way elsewhere before the sun was even up.

Letting Go 14: Montenegro

Wednesday, November 8. 2006
The bus was actually at ten thirty, but it was also late so everything was fine. The jerkarse driving it was refusing to give people change and he also raised the exchange rate of the Kuna, from seven to eight. He used to no-understand routine not only on me but everyone else. He must have cleared almost two euros worth of other peoples money. Jackass. The bus was going to Montenegro and I had semi-rashly decided to go all the way to Bar. Not so long ago the bus to Montenegro only went to the border, then you had to walk over and get a connection to wherever. Now it just goes right on through. This might have happened as recently as the break up back in June of the union with Serbia; either way it just makes things easier. Man, almost too easy.

The road from Split to Dubrovnik had been incredible, and the scenery was just as impressive up to the border. If only the bus made photo stops (unlikely with Assface and Fartbreath driving the thing) I would have been a happy camper. The border was quick and easy. The tension over that border over the last ten years or so, when once upon a time it was shells flying over

The scenery, superficially, was the same after that but on closer inspection it was somehow grottier. The coast of Montenegro attracts quite the holiday crowd but it is nowhere near as clean as nearby Croatia. Most of the people were off the bus by the time it got to Budva. So was I, because past there I had to get onto a smaller bus. Looked like not too many people were going further than there. That was the first bad sign.

The next was that things got worse after that. Everything looked run down, beat up or broken. There was nothing new around, no good looking cars or nice houses. By the time I got to Bar I was totally ready to turn around and go right on back. And when there was no one at the bus station to hook me up with a room and a walk around showed it to be a total hellhole, I did just that. A few more euros and I was going right back to Budva.

A second look at the scenery proved that the setting is amazing but the prosperity is elsewhere. It could be wonderful, as good as the coast to the north, but there needs to be work done. The buses that run along the coast act as public transport between the towns and all the little communities in between. People were forever jumping on and off, seemingly in the smallest little groups of buildings, paying the driver and his companion whatever he thought was appropriate.

Budva was nicer but I got there too late to see it properly. By the time I found a room, in another locals house, it was dark. I went down to the boardwalk and bought some food, then walked over to the old town. Its a walled settlement like Dubrovnik, perched on the edge of the water. From a distance it looked good, lit up and proud, almost like it had been painted in. I walked over and it was a similar experience, cobbled streets, narrow alleys, all made of stone. Picturesque indeed. The harbour is next to it, followed by the swimming beach. Its all very nice in the street lighting. I walked through the streets and look in the shops, had some dessert at a caf. A guy with a camera and a girl with a microphone asked me a question for a local TV program. It was a good end to an otherwise unexceptional day. Going all the way to Bar had been unwise, but I had to go to find out what it would be like and I think I might have gone anyway, so at least I swallowed my pride and didnt waste too much time hanging around there.

That night was not unexceptional. Just as I went to bed I noticed my stomach looked swollen. The next thing I know Im throwing up the pizza I had for dinner into the bathtub. I made quite the mess of things. I was up all night vomiting, then with the runs. Food poisoning, you win again.

The next day was more of the same. I had planned to get moving real quick but I went nowhere further than the toilet. I tried drinking water but that all came back up too. I was in danger of being really dehydrated, because everything that was going down was getting out again real quick. I felt better by the evening, after telling my distressed but caring hosts that I would be staying another night. They were concerned, as you might expect, but not terribly impressed. Hey, Ill never eat reduced to clear last slice on the plate pizza from a beachside fast food place ever again. And sorry about the mess in the tub. That was not cool. But it would have clogged the toilet if Id gone in there (I didnt because I was busy using it for something else) so small graces, eh?

They gave me food that night and I kept it down. I would be all right, I knew. I just had no energy and my gut hurt after walking around for too long. That day I made it out to see the old town by daylight and got back just in time. I didnt even have the energy to take pictures.

I slept long, long and heavy. I woke up and it was almost midday. So I talked to the family, apologised again and was on my way. Kotor was the next stop and I was only thinking of doing a flying visit but I was too tired to manage anything more than getting to the bus, riding the bus, finding a room and then some hardcore sitting around like and old man. So in the fantastically old and dramatic setting that the town sits, behind the ancient stone walls at the end of a huge, long fjord, with the fortress running up the hill behind it all, Kotor served as little more than my second sick bed.

I made it out for food and a gander about. I had seen a lot of places just like it, older than history it felt, but there was a lot of rubbish around. The beach was horrible, I wouldnt swim in it if you paid me. So back to try and find my room.

A new day, a better feeling. Still not perfect but better. I made it out for some food and a better look around. Kotor is nicer than Budva, but there is still a lot of rubbish around and a bad smell, like manure, in the air in some of the smaller streets. The old town, enclosed by the city walls, is as it always was. The buildings are on the tall side and everything is made of stone. It is not very big, so you can walk around most of it in a half hour, but the maze like layout doesnt help when you need to find your way. I managed to walk all the way up the cliff to the fortress and back, but I was going slow and it took a lot longer than the half hour they told me. There and back, it was more like three hours all up. Still, it used the day and there was not much else to detain me. The view from the top was incredible, the entire town was visible and the fjord stretched a long way and turned towards the Adriatic. On the way down I encountered a few goats who seem to live up there. From there, all the energy I had was used getting my bags together, walking to the bus station, getting a ticket and going back to Dubrovnik. There I stayed the night and was back on a bus at seven the next morning.

Letting Go 13: Croatia part 2

Wednesday, November 8. 2006
Four am. Holy crap. They just get worse, I tell you, just get worse. This was especially bad. Can a bus get more uncomfortable than this one was? Maybe, but dont worry about the study, or at least dont bother asking me to join in. Add to that a pair of hefty Croats who were sharing a pair of earphones at such a volume I could hear every tinny fucking note they did. I hope they go deaf (but only in one ear, so they know exactly why they are being punished).

The bus station in Split was, as per regulations, fully of sleeping homeless people at that time of the morning. I had been informed that finding a place to stay in this part of the world was easy, just look white and get off a bus and there shall be a pack of locals waiting to rent their empty rooms to you. They were all home asleep when I arrived. I had not slept at all. Sheer exhaustion had not even done the job, so I was beyond fucked when I hauled my bag out and sat next to a sleeping bum. Great. Now Im too concerned with getting transient man dribble on my shoulder to rest and wait for some elderly woman to make her my salvation. So I sat there wired so about half an hour when someone came to talk to me. It was an offer of a bed. I asked how much. One hundred and sixty. Too much, Ill wait for someone else. Thanks. This fazed her not, these people are good at what they do. I offered a hundred and she said no and left. She was back and forth a few times, seeing as I was the only traveller to alight that early on that day. Eventually we found an agreement and it was to be one hundred thirty, exactly thirty more than I wanted to pay and thirty more than I knew I should but there was no one else there to enter into the negotiations, so I went with her.

The place was well located, I will give her that. She also let me sleep there and then and didnt charge me for the whole night.

I awoke about midday to explore the city. Split is the biggest city on the Dalmatian coast so I was expecting quite a sight, but it turns out there isnt that much more than a city centre and a ring of especially ugly commie housing. It was almost a comfort that the commie housing is identically bad from Tallinn on southwards, you could have called the whole thing the Concrete Bloc and nobody would have thought it a pun.

But the killer is in here. Central Split just happens to be inside one of the biggest Roman ruins in the world. The old palace is now the city and everything inside. Everywhere you look, especially if you have those magic evil ugly tour groups go bye-bye glasses on. If you arent a super fairy from la-la land you didnt get a pair at the border you just have to try and pretend they arent there or push them out of your way. Soon this gets tiring and you have to keep dodging police between the old columns, skipping past crumbling palace walls and tripping over cobblestones. It really is impressive. The story goes that there was a Roman settlement there, but it didnt become a centre of any great importance until the nearby Solin settlement was abandoned in the face of marauding attackers. The people all moved in to the walled settlement and things havent really looked back, not even in the face of the British Near Death Tours Company invasion of 2002.

Theres a beach down the way, too. I changed into my board shorts and went for a look. It wasnt the best looking but there were people and they were swimming so I had no problems in jumping right in. Its a great thing to swim in the sea and even in a place like Split, with all those people and the nearby harbour, it is still clean and clear water. The surroundings arent so pretty but hey, is anywhere that nice? Really?

So I dried off and went back for a shower, then finished looking around. Seen and done.

That settlement at Solin is still there. Or at least the ruins. The next day I went to check it out. A local city bus runs out there so I found it without too much trouble. The site is huge and at first look its not much, just some busted up looking ruins on the side of a hill, but get further in and try to imaging what the houses, the temple, the huge amphitheatre and forum looked like all those years ago. Try to get your mind around just how long they have been there and feel small. Look beyond them and see the modern world framing it all and see the before and after, where it all came from and what we have done since. Its enough to make your head spin a few times. Maybe because you need some water and there just isnt a shop when you need one.

Clamber along the highway for a bit and theres a bus stop on the road to Trogir. I did that and was on my way. I will be honest and tell you I dont really know what the story is with the place, but its a World Heritage Listed site and it looks like a very old town indeed. Its about thirty kilometres from Split and reminded me of Piran, so it might have been Venetian in heritage, the same stone buildings and paths, winding and narrow, every corner hiding a little corner of its own and the light coming in at angles the rooftops allow. It was a little surprise, unexpected goodness.

But all in all, two days in Split was too long and given better transport arrangements could have been all knocked off in a day, with time for a swim. The towns and cities along the coast arent huge, there were no huge cities in the immediate future either, so I resolved to tighten things up and move a little faster from there on.

Dubrovnik was next up. The hype was thick in the air, as the reputation precedes it, just a little. It was justified, but I will say this: one day was enough to get it all down. Off the bus I finally witnessed the scrum of room renting old people and got a place for the hundred I was willing to pay. Well played. The old lady was old indeed, maybe the oldest there, but her establishment was tightly run. For the hundred I got a double bed and a huge room. Not huge, maybe, but bigger than I was expecting. A room and a bed that big make me wish there was someone to share it with. So I got out of there and ate a pizza. Then walked to the old town.

While not a reconstruction, it was shelled in the recent war and then repaired. There wasnt total devastation, so I will let it slip, plus you cant tell. The sunlight on the stones All that It didnt inspire poetry in me, but maybe if I had those magic glasses

So I went to the beach. It was another pebble beach but the setting was perfect. The walled old city over the side, the cliffs behind. Theres an island just off the coast that sits there, all green and surrounded by the emerald sea. Thats no poetic embellishment (there were too many troopers from the Retired Italian Out and About Sightseeing Package Tours Companys 2006 infraction to the Croatian coastline about for me to stretch myself that far) because it really is that colour. Like some kind of rare jewel or stone or something from a crown. More people should know about that place, they really should.

I looked around it all again after dark, then went to my lodgings to sleep. The bus I had to catch the next day was leaving at eleven, so I had plenty of time and yet very little to be doing with it. Croatia is a place to be with your friends, if ever there was a place like that.

Letting Go 12: Slovenia

Monday, November 6. 2006
In honesty, Slovenia had been two thing to me before I got off the train in Ljubljana. Actually, after typing that, it had been three things. Firstly, it had been a mystery, in that I had no clue about it. What, where, why, all that, which I felt bad for. Turns out I am far from alone in that. It had been, after I read up on the subject, home to the best-named capital city in Europe (maybe even the world). It had also been somewhere I had not planning to go. It was, as part of Yugoslavia, the economic powerhouse of the country and had always been economically ahead of the rest of the region. As an independent nation it is one of the more prosperous in Europe and as an EU member is a net contributor, bringing more to the table that most of the other members and giving to the propping of up other members (such as Poland and founding member Portugal) and thus is as expensive as Western Europe. So when Rok answered my message and invited me to come stay at his place in Ljubljana, I jumped at the chance. Slovenia was added to the itinerary so quickly I jumped and did a little spin.

Which was all great, I just had to make the best of a few nights at Roks place and watch the spending. I was getting to the end of my money and reality was poking his unwanted head around the door of La-La Land. But a chance is only a chance if you take it and I wasnt going to let this slip. A foot in the door and a handout to look inside the most misunderstood country in Europe. George W. Bush made a speech there and actually called it Slovakia. I have done the same, just in my head, and I dont run a nation. So I empathise and laugh all the same. But Rok and his roommate Manuela tell me the same thing. Quite a few Europeans wouldnt be able to tell you where it is on a map, let alone give you a few facts about what goes down there. Turns out quite a lot for a nation of two million souls all looking for something to make their land stand out just a little more. I say give it some time and people will take it in their stride and remember it, because it is an awesome place. A little expensive for what you get, but I still cant help but feel it was good value for money. Compared to her immediate neighbours Italy and Austria, things are still on the affordable side of pricy and Ill be damned if they aint just as good.

Ljubljana is a lovely city, the centre and castle probably nicer than anything in Austria apart from maybe Venice itself, while the scant 45 kilometre coastline boasts a string of towns that look more Italian than the real thing (mostly because they were Italian) and are simply charming.

Rok came to get me at the train station and we made our way back to his place (a student dorm) via the supermarket. I was back to feeding myself. The dorm smelled of pot, so it was genuine, and semester had just begun. Rok was not a student but worked in a lab at the University, doing something involving watching bacteria eating dead bugs. Looks as much fun as it sounds and you just know that something so creepy and inane will have to change the world some day. It just has to. His roommate is a girl, which strikes me as an odd setup, but there you have it. They are old friends and not sleeping together, they have that brother-sister air to them. Manuela is wonderfully sarcastic and I think they match each other brilliantly. Good friends do just for that reason. Balance, its everywhere.

The first two nights Rok pulled some strings and I had my own room, a dorm room that was not yet occupied. Bingo, free accommodation that was even better than what I would have got had I gone and paid money. What can I say, there is some incredible kindness out there and I had just picked myself up a huge slice of it. I thank my lucky stars sometimes, I really do.

I chatted with Rok and Manuela until about midnight and they had to go to bed, busy the next day, so I toddled off and slept.

The next day I had a day out in town. After managing to walk into town (we had taken a bus the day before and it had been dark, so I dimly knew the way, and made it with not a small amount of luck) I looked around. First measure was to find a bank and exchange money. Done, I walked along the river and up to the castle. The old part of town is not as big or glorious as other cities but it has a charm that not Prague nor Budapest can claim; a small town feel not unlike the smaller, more homely cities of the Baltics but yet with the Venetian air of the region. Prague in minor, perhaps, as I read it described, maybe just a good city made great by virtue of it being overlooked for major assignment in favour of its more famous neighbours by ruler and conqueror alike. The winding set of streets at the core along the banks of the river, with the bridges that span it, are lined with subtle old buildings and it might be called genteel. Take the good of Prague and Glasgow and you might have it. The castle is not a big affair but a small edifice with a tower that gives a full three hundred and sixty degree panorama of the city. The mountains seem to ring the city on all sides, beyond them rise a set of even higher, improbable mountains. I was taken in right away and wiled away the afternoon wandering semi-aimlessly. There is a fair share of communist era concrete and ugly going on, but it is done in such a way that yes, it is ugly, but somehow inspired. Like the guys who get to do these horrible buildings took their outlandish ideas here because the dudes at Moscow would likely never see them. Or there is a spirit in the locals that shines even when the sky is darkest.

I almost didnt find my way home in the real dark, but I did none the less.

Waking up to the student filled fiesta that is a university dorm, I decided to take the advice Rok gave me and headed up to Bled for the day. Jumped on a bus and it took about an hour. Theres not even much of a town out there, but it is a sort of resort area. Plenty of expensive hotels. The personal retreat of one President Tito. Theres a lake that has an island in the middle, more off centre than centre, and its got a church on it. Overpriced boats ferry tourists out there to ring the bell, then bring them back. I walked around the lake, it took a good few hours. Then up to the castle where they charge too much to get in. Its all the tourist package but it looks oh-so good.

Like a big postcard you can just walk into, look around and go home. That night the separate room service ended, exactly why I didnt pick up, but I can only assume that someone else had to (legitimately) sleep in the room I had been in. Rok procured a sofa bed from somewhere so I got to sleep on that. I decided that night that to go somewhere else the next day, since I had done pretty much everything there was to do around there. So in the morning I had another long chat with Rok and left at the same time as he did, and I went to the bus station and took a bus to Koper, on the coast.

Its an old Venetian town, a little fishing village with a long history and just out of the way enough to have been overlooked or overrun in any recent conflicts. I found my way into the small town and made my way to a house that does home stay style accommodation. There was no-one home, so I despaired and went for a kebab. God I love kebabs.

I went back, for one last look before giving up and going for alternative accommodation, and lo, someone was there. Friendly guy and his house has the steepest staircase I ever saw. It nearly killed me getting up. I am sure it had claimed a few victims over the years. Just not safe. The price was five Euros more than I had heard. Inflation, you bitch. The bed was too small to sleep comfortably in, so that night, after I had taken the afternoon to walk through the maze like streets, wander along the shoreline (a postage stamp sized beach with no sand, just black pebbles included) and slurp up an ice-cream, I slept badly. Good ice-cream, bad bed. Cant have it all. The town is lovely. How many places truly deserve that adjective? It would take a lifetime of looking but that search would surely include Koper. Life slows to a crawl once you pass into the old part of town and it might have just been the autumn sunshine and the cobblestones, but it felt like the clock had jumped back a hundred years. It might have just been.

The sun set after I walked to the Harvey Norman and bought new earphones. My really, really good earphones that I loved like children had developed a crackle in the left ear. The problem was at the plug end, so if I jiggled it right and didnt move it, it was ok. But it meant that no more walking with tunes. Life was going to get boring if I didnt do anything. The pair I bought turned out to be not so good for my purposes, since they tended to fall out easily. Damn. Then there was the dodgy, overpriced bed (cheapest in town, yes, best thing I could have done, no) and it ended a day that could have gone better.

I woke up cold and early. Packed up, grabbed bag and left. I had a plan, of sorts. To the bus stop I went and on a bus going to Piran I jumped. Piran is a lot like Koper, only nicer. One of a handful of little towns on the Slovenian coastline (I think there is 45 kilometres that touch the Adriatic sea) it is also Venetian in heritage, feel and history. The same applies here as in Koper and I was enchanted enough to wander for a while. I had bought a postcard and the man who sold it to me let me leave my bag in his shop for the morning. Score indeed. Piran is small, possibly even smaller than Koper and it occupies a point sticking out from the coast that has a lighthouse on the end. Theres a few churches and spires and at the top is a hill with the old town walls climbing over it. After wandering aimlessly around the downright cute little streets I found a pathway around the coast and followed it along. It went along a cliff, a sheer drop to a metre wide stretch of rocks then nothing but the clear, bright blue Adriatic. It was glorious to see. I could see in the distance there was someone on the rocky part, they looked like they were stretching or something. My sixth sense (the one that lets you know when there is nudity about) told me to go have a closer look. I was right. It was a female, doing yoga and stretches on a submerged rock at the bottom of the cliff. Almost completely naked. The things you see.

I went back into the town and up to the city walls. After scaling them I could appreciate the strategic value of the town, it would have been very casualty-causing to attempt attacking that fortification. I dont know how the seaside defence used to be, but given the geography, things were very defensible indeed. This, almost as much as the towns beauty, attracted me to it as a place. That and the naked woman factor. That adds points anywhere.

That afternoon I had in my mind to go to Trieste, which is not even a half hour from Koper, to cash some travellers cheques. Since Trieste is actually in Italy, it means less hassle for me on that front and it turns out that the connections to the Croatian coast are much better than in Koper. So it looked good there, it really did, until I got back to Koper and found that the Italian company that ran that particular bus was on strike that day. Damn, what a hurdle. I sat at the bus stop, at first wondering why the bus wasnt coming, then a few old ladies showed up and waited, then a younger girl came. She talked to them in Italian for a while and then to me. She was Canadian, it turns out, living in Trieste. She informed me about the strike, which was good and kind, otherwise I would not have known, and arranged with the old ladies to get a taxi with us over to Trieste. Again, bailed out by some strangers kindness. Twice in a day.

In Trieste I found out that the bus company that ran to Croatia was not on strike, so I did the rounds of the banks to try and get some cash I was told sorry twice and the third bank just hit siesta time as I went to go in. Damn, screwed the pooch. I found a left luggage office and took a look around the city. It was bigger than I thought, but given I had no data on the city whatsoever, any news was news to me. My East of the Curtain ideals had not slipped, dear wary reader, and I must inform you why. Trieste was, during the cold war, a politically nebulous zone, something like a free zone, a lot like Berlin. So since I had allowed Berlin into the deal, here was good too. So there. Mind you, East Germany was a lot more commie than anything in Italy ever was, so I think five days versus the five hours I was in Trieste for just about leaves me safe. All I got to do (not knowing what was out there) was wander about and change money. All I really needed to, so it was that I had hard currency and jumped on the five thirty bus that would take me back to Croatia.

Letting Go 11: Croatia part 1

Monday, November 6. 2006
The train arrived at about midday. It is a weird thing, but not one I question too much, but it was cheaper to buy a return ticket to Zagreb than to get a one-way ticket. Apparently there is a sizeable discount on return fare to other ex-commie countries that facilitates this. So it was I used my ticket to mark my page and jumped off the train, as I had woken at the border to have my passport inspected, lest I be swept away to Venice with the rest of the rolling people. Zagreb was already a good place in my mind because I liked the name. It sounds like it works at a nightclub and beats up drunk guys while not searching guys like me too thoroughly and doesnt give you a dirty look if you perve at his girlfriend. Zagreb.

Other than that, Zagreb did nothing to distinguish itself. As my host, the magnanomous Ivan, pointed out after he found me at his tram stop, Zagreb is tiny. You can, and I did, see just about everything worth seeing in an afternoon. It is pleasing, nice, charming in its way, worth a look but not demanding of an overly long stay. That is the flavour of it and as the capital of Croatia, doesnt inspire much at all. But give it time, its only been in the job a few years. I pointed out to Ivan over some food that he was older than his country and he could only laugh. Ivan was letting me sleep at his place while I was in town and he was very cool about it and gave me as much food as I could possibly eat. Too nice, this guy, and I love him for it. Almost worth going back to Zagreb for! One day I just might and I hope he is still there.

The whole of this former Yugoslavia (I might acronymise this to FO if it becomes convenient) area presents a sticky story, no matter how many times I read over the notes and blurbs it makes little sense. How it came to be and how it tore itself apart, the latter part in front of my eyes in headlines (at first) and gradually to page five news (as it all got old and stopped selling) as I went through high school, it is all one hell of a story. At no turn does it present anything to really feel good about. Too easy it is to look at it as the combined result of everything bad the rest of the more powerful nations of Europe have pushed down there, like upstairs neighbours in a Taiwanese apartment block flushing toilet paper and the poor bastards in the basment apartment coming home from their shitty factory job to find that the whole thing has filled up with shit. Both theirs and other peoples. But mostly other peoples. The more I think about it the less sense it all makes.

Bosnia, Hercegovnia, Serbia, Croatia, Muslims, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Kosovo, Albanians, Milosovich, Sarajevo, Belgrade, land mines, ethnic cleansing, killing field, genocide, war crime These are the keywords from my high school classes and they make no more sense now Im older, but hang in my head they have. I know, I know for sure, that they are not the entire picture of this area just the shitty results of a blocked pipe about 15 years ago because the communists didnt have enough plumbers. Or because the communist plumbers all left and what they were plugging up exploded. Exploped all right. I had a picture and I wanted to hold it up to the Balkans and see how much was right and what the truth was.

Heres some more keywords: Slovenia, Ljubljana, Montenegro, Split, Dubrovnik, Adriatic, Mostar, Kotor. I never heard of them before now and how did this happen? I didnt pay that much attention to it all. Now to dive in and find out what went on and more importantly, what was going on there now. Would I find out what the people thought of it? Maybe. Its a touchy subject, especially politics. I hesitated to bring up the war with Ivan, because he was so nice and I had no idea of knowing if he had been affected by it (in hindsight, of course he had been almost no-one in Croatia wasnt) so I didnt find out. What he was, however, very proud of was his country as it had come to be, regardless of how it happened. My country, right or wrong. Its the modern balanced nationalism and what it equates to are people wearing soccer shirts and selling beach towels with maps of Croatia on them.

Back to Zagreb. The first day I sat around and chatted with Ivan and Ollie, another guy staying there. Ollie was German and had been living in Bosnia for the last six months and had a lot of advice on going to the area. I listen with interest. Ivan had a bunch of DivX movies for me to copy, so I busied myself with that. The next day I took a walk around downtown Zagreb and found a nice place full of sunlight, smiling people, and not a sign of damage. I almost expected this, but not a sign. The tower has a cannon that fires at midday, scaring the shit out of any unaware visitors. I was not the only one not informed of it, for I hear that Croatians from the countryside are often startled by it. Occasionally to the point of hitting the deck and yelling for everyone else to get down, theyre attacking again. I find it a little tasteless that they still fire it, but I guess a centuries old tradition should not be abandoned just because of one incident (that would be like letting the terrorists win).

Theres a bunch of park and no-one checks tickets on the trams, thus rendering them free of charge. Essentially. I didnt buy a ticket and didnt get caught. After looking around for a while I went back to Ivans place. That really was all there is to it and I told Ivan Id be leaving the next day, as Id organised somewhere to stay and everything was falling into place. So the next day I took a late afternoon train, I spent the morning riding around on Ivans bike, and that was Croatia for now.

Letting Go 10: Hungary

Monday, November 6. 2006
The first impression was good, oh so good. Every other part of Eastern Europe, no matter what the rest of the city looks like, comes complete with a shitty old concrete lump of a run down station. Bus stations, train stations, from Prague to Tallin and Im willing to bet further south, all look like they were designed and built by the Communist Talentless Artificers Society. Not Budapest. Keleti station is shiny and nice, not crammed with wall to wall confusion and not a single block of concrete in sight. At least not any grey concrete. I alighted from the train, changed a handful of money, bought a phone card, located a phone and was talking to Rika (after some guy trying to get me to stay at his hostel helped me out) within about 15 minutes. I had said maybe not to her offer of sleeping on the floor of her apartment, a one room affair she shares with her boyfriend, so I went from there to the hostel I had booked. We arranged to meet at seven thirty, so after checking in (the hostel was a converted apartment on the third floor of a normal looking building and very nice, almost cosy) I took myself to the streets.

I walked toward the Danube. The sight of Buda over the river in the mid afternoon sun was incredible. Buda is on the hilly west bank of the Danube and plays eternal dance partner to Pest, on the flat eastern side, and holds most of the monuments, the castle and all the remaining medieval buildings in town. There was the freedom monument on the hill with the citadela, the castle next to the Presidents residence, a huge gothic church and the remaining city walls. All as grand as ever, all looking like something out of a watercolour, all greens, browns and oranges glowing in the sunlight, the marble reflecting it all against itself. Such a vista is what might be a stereotype of a European city, like something from two centuries ago, barely a commercial sign mars the view. Two grand bridges spanned the river from where I was standing. I was breathtaken, I just stood and stared at it, mouth open. Who on earth built this, who on earth helped it stand in between all the years of fighting? Budapest has been fought over for centuries, from before the founding of the Hungarian crown in the year 1000, to the Habsburgs and the Turks, who both left their architectural legacy, onto the more recent German occupation. The Germans time in Budapest was largely bloodless, there was only fighting at the very end and bullet holes can still be found all over town. This was followed by the armed crushing of the revolution in 1956 and the struggles that marked the end of the communist era. Somehow it mostly came though unscathed, no great destruction took place, no natural disasters either, so now all the city has to repel are the hordes of tourists who invade every year.

Like Prague, there really is no down season here. Summer, I was told later that night, is optimal party time, because of the numerous outdoor clubs and party spots, not to mention one of the biggest festivals in Europe. Things were winding down when I got there, but I had done my summer partying back in the Baltics and London, so I was all good (and getting toward the arse end of my finances) but still a bit green that Id missed it all.

I walked along the Pest side bank, still gawking at the scene on the opposite bank, while taking time to appreciate the equally ornate buildings on this side. I would later hear that most of them are well over a century old and quite a lot of restoration work has been done in the last ten years or so. I walked down to the chain bridge, walked over it and back. The view from the bridge was a struggle. Which way to look? The dilemma.

I went back up the way Id come from and walked over the other bridge. There was a waterfall and a stairway leading up. I followed it, and it kept going, though a park-like area, up and up up to the freedom monument. The views were amazing and the statues looked impressive. But the views were great. Such a city, is it possible to look bad? There in the now-late afternoon sun, it was spectacular. So was the walk down, to meet Rika at the Burger King near the hostel.

When she came in, she made a joke about me coming all the way to Hungary and eating the finest fast food in the world. Then she took me to one of the finest restaurants in town and it was awesome. The local beer is exceptional. Having experienced the various local beers of Europe I was fast appreciating the differences and rating them accordingly. Going back to the dog piss in Australia (and Japan for that matter) might be tough after this. The food was really good, so thanks to Rika for that. Then we went to check out the party going on at Parliament House.

Party indeed. The whole week there had been demonstrations, the right wing was kicking up one hell of a stink over a major faux pas the ruling Prime Minister made. He was caught on camera talking about the institutionalised lying and deception the party had used during the last election and the subsequent time in office. The media had been implicated too, and the incident had grown into a real mess. Essentially, the local right wing elements had taken a Rottweiler-like hold on anything they could use against the incumbent government and with blunt manipulation had brought out the vocal minority. Backed it all up with the local skinhead element (a popular movement in those parts) and what we saw was near rioting in the start, followed by constant rallying up to the weekend election. The first night had seen riot police and arrests. I saw a gathering, lots of flag waving and angry guys shouting in Hungarian to the crowd. I asked a few people about what was happening and a few told me how the government had lied, and they wanted them to step down. A few more said uglier things. No-one wanted to be in a photo. They were all right with being part of the mob, but no-one was willing to have their face attached to it. Cowards, thats what they were.

And the real kicker? They were angry about politicians lying. Last time I checked, thats their job.

Either way, I had stumbled into an international incident and I wanted to check it out. There was no violence going on that I saw, but plenty of police around in case it did, the only dodgy elements were the skinheads hanging around the peripheral. Rika took me there and quickly left she was, as most fair minded citizens were, embarrassed by the whole thing, that this is how it goes down and that the world happened to get a look. Mind you, the fair majority of people outside the country probably didnt give it a fair look anyway. It was a case of the desperate right throwing punches in the dark the government was fairly well entrenched and popular, and with an election coming up the gloves always come off. The majority were just embarrassed by it all, the tourists a little mystified (given the lack of understanding we usually have of Hungarian) and the streets were decorated with Hungarian flags.

By the way, the locals dont like it if you point out how much it looks like the Italian flag. Just dont do it.

The next day Rika took me over to the castle district. It looks even better up close. We jumped a bus without a ticket and went up to the castle building. Its really a mixture of other buildings that used to be parts of previous incarnations of castle, and buildings that happened to be in the area. It was never actually home to the royal family, various members had stayed there at times but now it holds the national library and the national museum. A much better use of the real estate if you ask me. The buildings are beautiful, of course, and from the front your get an amazing view of the city.

Walking down from the castle you pass the Presidents house and a building that is undergoing restoration. Its still full of bullet holes from one fight or another, but given the location I am surprised it stood idle for so long. Maybe it was being used and now they are getting around to fixing it up? I think it adds reality to the neighbourhood. Past there is the church and I went in by myself. It was built in the gothic style as a catholic church and rather than destroy it, the Turks added their own artistic style to it, so the interior is a mix of traditional catholic decoration and the more otherworldly aspects of the Ottomans. Also inside is a small museum to the history of the church and the Hungarian crown jewels. The real things are on display for the eager visitor.

After that Rika took me to Margret Island, where we had lunch and a beer. She had to go after that, so I looked around the island (a giant park in the river, a sea of green surrounded by river, right in the middle of a huge city) and then wandered off toward Heroes Square. It was a long walk and I had to stop along the way and sit under the trees. I think I need new shoes.

Heroes Square is like you might imagine. Big, open space and lots of statues of local heroes, all of whom you are not familiar with. Art galleries fill the huge buildings either side and there is a huge park behind it all. In the park is one of the bigger baths in Budapest, as well as the zoo and a kids amusement park. In winter theres an ice-skating rink. Summer is not the best time for ice. There was a Picasso exhibit going in one of the galleries, but I got there past closing, so I put it on my to-do list.

The park is huge. I walked around it and found the worlds biggest hourglass. No kidding. I measures out one year. Thats awesome.

I took the subway back to the hostel after it started getting dark. Checking my e-mail I found that there was a reply from Rolly, a friend from my Japan days. Hed been a long term exchange student at the same university I was studying at for a year and had been there for a few years when I got there. Rolly therefore fit into the slot of adviser and role model. He showed up to our parties whenever he didnt have some girl to go our with (which was not very often, as it turns out) but was always around on the edges, and right in the middle of things when the occasion called for it. He had stayed in Japan and so had been around for the last few years, when the other members of the crowd faded away. He was a good friend, and Id sent him an e-mail a few weeks before, but there had been no reply. The only contact I had was a business card that had a few phone numbers and an e-mail address. The phone numbers didnt check out, but the card was old, so maybe it just meant he had a new number. So I had tried e-mailing again and like magic, right on cue, there was a reply. He was living in Budapest, he said, and left his number.

I called it the next morning and there he was. He said he lived a few blocks from where the hostel was. We arranged to meet at seven that night, at the Burger King.

The rest of the day I had a few things to do. I was planning to go to Romania, but that wasnt going to be as simple as these other places. My loose plans were formed mostly around two things. One is proximity what else is near where I am and does it look interesting? The other is practicality. Will they let me in with a smile and a nod or do I have to jump through hoops of fire? Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, for all their must-see tourist charm, require official invitations and payments of real money to pisshead officials, thus fall into the pain-in-the-arse-country list. Everywhere else I had been in Europe either needed a simple stamp, acquired at an airport or border, or nothing, since they were part of the Schengen agreement. Most of western Europe was covered by this, and the new EU members had loosened their visa requirements to almost the same point, so no pre-arranging was needed. Romania is not yet EU, but Australians usually get in without too much trouble. But looking it up, it turns out I needed one before I left. So that morning I went on down to the embassy to be told that I needed travel insurance, bank account details and a hotel reservation, as well as the cash. Too much effort to get that all together, so like that Romania was struck from my plans. Too bad, since I was only going to spend my tourist money. Their loss.

Then I walked over to the art gallery to find that it was closed, because it was a Monday. Then I thought about going to a bath house, only I didnt have a towel. Damn. I knew of a few other things to go and see, but they were out of the city and it was too late to get the provided bus. There were a few shops I wanted to go and visit, so I did that. One was a second-hand bookshop, where I acquired some second-hand books.

I walked around and looked at the other bits of the city, stopping to read every so often, and to eat. I was essentially killing time until I was going to meet Roland. I really didnt like that it had come to that, but there you have it. Fast forward to that.

There he was, out the front and waiting. Good to see him, and he hasnt changed at all. He lives with his girlfriend and we went back to the apartment they share. It is a real nice place they got there and I got to stay there until Saturday morning. The rest of the week I spent the day wandering around Budapest, looking around the back streets and high places, going to the bath house and one memorable morning, the statue park where a whole bunch of communist era statues are kept. Its a real sight, seeing these grand statues that used to grace public squares and places, that used to take place of pride in the city streets, reduced to living huddled together in a bare patch of dirt on the edge of town. They were not destroyed or hidden away by vengeful locals after the collapse of communism, but instead kept somewhere on display because as much as they represent a hated time and hated figures, they are still art and even in the most emotional of times, destroying art (no matter what it represents) makes you as bad as them. Still, they were hard times and nowhere else in Eastern Europe does such a collection exist. Almost nowhere else will you still see a single example, outside of museum pieces, and it remains the only place I saw a statue of Lenin outside.

The baths of Budapest are something too. A remainder of the time that the Turks spent in possession and a legacy of the geographical specialities of the land the cities lies over, they are special among the worlds natural hot water springs. You will find similar structures the world across, but Hungary is third only after Japan and Iceland in the number of natural hot springs and after the years of history have had their say you get public baths that look like cathedrals. A mixture of local, Austrian and Turkish influences, there are outside baths that look like swimming pools and you find jet baths, circling currents and chess boards; look behind some of the doors and there are hot pools, cold pools, the self-torture-abuse centres that are saunas and all sorts of novelties.

I also took plenty of time to write and take advantage of the wireless network that Rolly has set up. It was good and slow, all except the last morning, when I had to be at the train station at eight to get a ticket and jump the train to Zagreb. Rolly took me there on his way to school and we said our goodbyes, reflecting on how the last time we were on the other side of the world and wondering where the next one might be. Seems I have quite a few of these kind of relationships going. Is it deliberate or just a product of the kind of life I have made so far? Such things I pondered as the train pulled out. Then I fell asleep.

Letting Go 09: Slovakia

Monday, November 6. 2006
The sky was grey again and the weather questionable. It was raining with all the enthusiasm of an eight year old ADD kid staring at a maths test. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go, but little idea of how to get there or if I even wanted to go if the weather was going to be a little bitch like this.

I still went. I arrived in Poprad, looked around and decided I did not like the place. I asked about trains to Spisska Nova Ves (to be called Nova Ves from here in, that part of Slovakia is the Spis Region, so most of the towns have Spisska or Spisske or something similar in the names) and I got a ticket for one leaving in an hour and a half. It was Sunday and theres not much action out there at the best of times.

I was heading for the heart of Slovakia, away from big cities and people for a while, to take some time and get into nature. The big cities are all in the west, that forty percent of the country that is national park is mostly in the east and that is where I was headed. A few days of trees, cliffs and quiet. To think about the way Id been and the way I was going not to mention the inevitable.

From Poprad on the train to the stop before Nova Ves then I dragged my bags and my poor arse up a hill for what seemed an eternity to a hotel that ended up costing more than I thought it should have (but ended up being the same price as a hostel bed in Bratislava) and oh boy, they really dont speak English out there. I couldnt tell if the lady at the hotel was saying no, we have no rooms or no, I dont understand you, white boy and it was not until I found the basic travel phrases in the back of the Lonely Planet that any communication actually happened. It turns out that yes they have rooms. I stayed two nights. I finally saw, as I left on the second morning, other guests. I was essentially alone out there the whole time. The old lady who cleaned and stuff was really nice and got around the language barrier by ignoring it. I like this approach.

Following the successful appropriation of accommodation, I went back toward town looking for food. I was starved and the hotel restaurant looked a little quiet. That is to say, not doing much. It was a long walk back but minus backpack it was much more manageable. Then every place that advertised restaurant turned out to be closed or dead. Maybe it was the Sunday, maybe the economy, but I was hungry. Goddamit, I was growing irate. Not even the supermarket seemed to be functioning. What was this place? A ghost town? There were people And buildings And eventually, after I had walked further than I had on the way to the hotel, I found not one but two giant supermarkets. Fantastic.

I purchased some bread and milk products and ate them out the front. The police drove past slowly. I smiled and waved. They waved back.

Then I walked into town and the tourist information centre, most of the shops and all the restaurants and every souvenir stand was closed. Nothing. Zip. Nada. So the tourist info I had come for was not likely to be forthcoming. This was depressing. I walked for quite a while to get there and there was no luck interpreting the local busses. Or even finding out where to catch them. Yep, I even thought about asking a local, but they dont, as I said, speak English too well. My Slovak clearly needs work.

So I bought supplies (bread, fruit, snack-type stuff, water) and went back to the hotel. On foot. It took a while. Busses passed by and one bloke even tried to offer me a lift, but gave up when I couldnt make myself understood. I had food, which was a positive thing, but it dawned on me that I had arrived there early enough to have done some hiking that afternoon instead of my nearly pointless walk. I was a little peeved but it turned out that I could not have done it better.

The hotel provided breakfast the next morning. It was raining. But I had hot food and I purloined the extra bread rolls and jam and after a while it stopped raining and I went off. The hotels advantage was that it is close to the trail heads for Slovakia Raj National Park, which I had seen a few photos of and I made I snap decision to go there. It turns out that close is a relative idea and it wasnt as close as I thought but I was used to this. Again, over at the trail head, everything was closed. I had thought about buying a map, lest I get lost, but there goes that. It turns out that the trails are pretty well marked and I didnt have to worry. I followed a few of the trails that day, up and down some steep parts, sometimes over bridges and a couple of paved roads, lost the trail a few times and took my t-shirt off. I saw cliffs and waterfalls, huge trees and tiny mushrooms. It really is a beautiful place and I had it almost to myself. I could have been walking through it all naked and almost not have to worry. There were other hikers around, so its a good thing that I kept my pants on.

The weather was great. The sun filtered through the trees and shone off the creeks, bounced off the rocks. The forest is pine trees so every step feels as fresh as the last, every time the trees open out to a cliff and suddenly you can see across the gorge to a wall of mountain and sky that is so immense and colourful, your eyes think you are playing a trick on them and theres no way that six mega pixels can possibly capture it all. I sat on the edges of a few sheer drops and thought about life and how to live it, about what I was even doing so far away and it all came clear. It was magical.

I made it back moments before the sun disappeared for the day. The restaurant at the hotel was still not serving food, so it was a lucky thing that I had enough left over to fill my belly. Or I might have gone crazy and eaten the window.

I left the next day at about ten, humped the bag to the train station and waited. There was no-one working there and no timetable. The next train to stop there might be in two minutes or two hours. I was going to wait anyway. I would go about half an hour down the line and change to a small branch line. The train came after about five minutes best of luck to me and I got on, ticket less, and waited for something to happen. It didnt. I came to the point where I needed to get off and I did. I got on the connection and waited. When we were moving a guy came checking and I bought a ticket from him. Too easy. Spisske Podrahie is a nothing little town that just happens to sit under a hill crowned with the biggest castle in Slovakia. From the train you see it in the distance and it is huge, imposing and almost beastly. But the closer you get you can see how its little more than the ruin of a great castle, the skeleton and fossils of a past age that survived enough to get our attention now. Grand is still a word to use, the same way a dinosaur fossil is grand.

I found a pension in the town and they cost half what the hotel did. Hot damn. The town itself is not much, but far be it from me for talk down these little towns. They used to be the heart and soul of Europe, before big city life became not just a choice but the only choice. They have a smell of death about them, but the ones that have it the worst are the ones we dont see, because they have nothing to see. Podrahie is probably not the vibrant place it once was and it has two tourist drawcards, plus proximity to several others to play from, and it still looks bedraggled. The streets as I walked around are noisy, because the cars are in need of attention and the Roma kids are running around. Its easy enough to find angles where it all looks amazing, dusty streets lined with houses from a century ago and a huge ruin of a castle behind it, but equally as easy is finding a shot that makes you depressed. Rusted out Skoda roaring along a streets filled with dirty kids who have ragged hand-me-down clothing, chasing a skinny looking dog and the parents sitting on a pile of wood and staring into space. This is still EU territory, this is the new Europe but I get the feeling places like this are trapped between the prosperity brought on by the new age not getting the benefits but having to obey the rules, Roma used to be called Gypsies and made their way freely but no longer free to live they way they used to (ways you can still observe if you go far enough east). There were no boarded up shops in the streets and public transport is still viable. The tourist market clearly keeps things going, but not providing enough to let these people out. As I said before, not many of them know English and I imagine other languages might be out there, but nothing that will let them participate in the outer world.

It is different, it is something most travellers dont get to see and it is a sad picture.

You cant ignore it if you go there. On the way up to look at the castle I passed a couple of Roma guys selling souvenirs. The hill makes for a climb that should not be as hard as it is. By the time you get to the top, you are pretty knackered. The castle is huge, even if the outer parts are mostly walls now. I paid student prices to get in and the girl selling tickets was none the wiser for my deception. I walked along the ramparts and up into the middle. The view was extraordinary. The whole village and several to each side were all visible, bordered by fields of varying colour and the whole scene was hemmed in by the mountains. These become the High Tatras that I passed to get there. Behind the ones close by are yet more distant mountains, shrouded in mist. The sky was an uninviting grey. The walls of the castle are white, almost grey, and the top sections are built on a rocky outcrop. The whole thing looks eminently defensible. There are gophers running around the hillside.

Up in the main building there are souvenir stands (thankfully open) and some food options. Further in is a museum. Its all very nice, especially the displays of things that used to be actively used for torture. Climbing to the top of the tower, I was assaulted by the same bugs that had waylaid me in Gdansk. No photos this time.

Walking back out, I noticed that my camera battery was dead. The most picturesque place Id been in a long while and the battery gives out. Yay.

I walked around the castle for a while, to the hills surrounding, and was not heartened in my enterprise because I couldnt take pictures. I went back to the pension before dark, ate at the restaurant and watched a movie before bed.

The next day I took a bus to Levoca, about twenty minutes down the road. Its a walled town that retains most of the medieval buildings, a couple of churches, town hall and a speed of life not seen outside of slow-motion replays. I did not take long to see everything, electing not to visit the city museum but going inside the church. The decorations inside are famous all through the country, decorated by one Master Paul, and the masterpiece is the alter, which is the biggest gothic alter in the world. The statue of Mary in the middle features on the 100 Crown note. It was all very tastefully done.

I had a long, slow lunch followed by a long slow walk around town. Recharging, I called it, and there was no reason to hurry. The town was pretty enough but I couldnt shake the feeling that it wasnt worth the bus fare and the idea that I could have done it all in a day and already been on my way somewhere else. But time I have.

On the way back I got off the bus outside of town and walked in. That side of town is also supposed to be a major attraction, another walled section of old town, but I saw nothing to detain me. So it was back to the pension, much earlier than expected, where I watched a couple of movies and ate at the restaurant. Nothing else seemed to be open, you see.

Then I left the next morning. I spent all day on the bus to Bratislava, several pass through on their way somewhere else, and it took almost eleven hours to get there. It stopped at quite a few places and sometimes for quite a while. So I spent a half hour in a sleepy little mountain town, the air was fresh and the atmosphere positively green. Another half hour was spent in a depressing grey communist era town, but the toilet was free. I got to Bratislava before sunset and made my way with previously unknown precision to the single hostel in town. I took the last bed. Whod have known so many people would want to stay in Bratislava? Lucky I was not one of the turned away ones. A couple of people were, and quite late at night, poor souls.

I dropped my stuff and went out to take a look around. There was music happening in the main square and beyond was a Tesco. I got some food and went back to find the poxy band who had been doing their thing replaced by some good old fashioned punk rock. I joined the locals in a game of punk rock pinball (took some dudes shoulder to my mouth for my efforts, now one of my teeth is slightly out of line and get food stuck behind it) and the music was good enough for me. Id walked into the annual music festival and Slovak punk does it for me. I slept well after that.

The next day was sightseeing day. Theres the castle, the obligatory old town with preserved buildings and cobbled streets, churches older than you can imagine and the curve ball comes in the form of the Primates Palace (Primate meaning head of the bishops, not the simian variety) which is ornate in the Habsburg styling, contains some amazing tapestries, the hall of mirror where Napoleon once signed a peace treaty and is free if they think you are a student. I look enough like one to get by they didnt even check my ID. It was nice but nothing that I would have paid money for, just my opinion.

In fact, thats basically what Bratislava is all about. Its nice, but nestled as it is along the Danube, downstream from Vienna, upstream from Budapest and within invading distance of both Prague and Krakow its too easy to compare and all to easy to think of it as a poor cousin. Which it is, of course. All the ornate building and history comes not from the Slovaks, but the several hundred years it was the seat of the Hungarian royalty because the Turks had control of Budapest. The church that was the scene of the many coronation ceremonies is austere but generally unremarkable; the castle looks functional rather than impressive; everything else thats old and valuable was leftover from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Slovaks never really had their own country until the divorce with the Czechs in 1993 and when they left each other, the Czechs took most of the assets. It is indeed the poor cousin of the family, but therein lies the charm.

It only really takes a day to appreciate it all, but it is a very down to earth kind of place, away from the almost endless and sometimes overwhelming streets of its neighbours. A worthwhile stop for some fresh air.

Later that day I walked up the hill to the war memorial and down again toward the radio building. Both are relics of the commie days. The former is well done and tasteful, no angular sculptures and not too many stars. Sitting on top of a hill, it looks over the whole city and has a view of the castle. Apparently it is the local communist rally point. I saw mostly couples looking for some privacy.

The radio building is possibly one of the ugliest, and therefore noteworthy, examples of communist era architecture Ive ever seen. Big upside-down pyramid. Hideous. Awesomely hideous.

After that there was no much left to do but watch some more music and go catch the bus.

Except there was no bus. I had looked it up and there was supposed to be a bus at twenty past eight, but waiting at the bus station there was no sign of it. So I slunk back to the hostel and managed to find a bed for the night. I was most pissed off.

I got up first thing and went to the train station. Screw the cost, whatever I have to wait And a three hour wait. Ya, what a little fuckup. But I was on my way out of there.