A Travellerspoint blog

Week 33, 10.Oct.09 - 16.Oct.09

Zagreb, Croatia to Budapest, Hungary

View Week 33 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Zagreb, Croatia
Having a coffee while dodging the rain at a cafe here in Zagreb. Got on the bus earlier this morning back in Zadar and met a really sweet girl Ayumi from Japan, who was also heading north up through Croatia and got off at the Plitvice National Park - lots of fun passing the time, we had a great time at the rest stop somewhere in the middle of Croatia, with the crazy random stuffed animals on display.

I got into Zagreb and made my way to a hostel, got checked-in then headed over to the Museum of the City of Zagreb, historical artifacts of the city from ancient times up to the present with really, really interesting displays!

Of all the museums I've been to around the world (and there have been many), this ranks up there for one of the most enjoyable! As I was leaving the skies opened up and started pouring - apparently, according to the woman working at the bakery across the street that I visited earlier, this is the first rain Zagreb's had since before the summer... just my luck!

Back at the same coffee shop from yesterday and relaxing after running around all day - this morning started out with more rain (blah), so I began by visiting the museums indoors with the hope the weather would break. First stop was to the Strossmayer Gallery of the Old Masters - cool enough name for a gallery, so I thought, "Why not!".

After observing the works from the Old Masters, stopped by the Archeological Museum - sped past the Egyptian display and photos of Central American Mayan ruins.. I want to see archeological stuff from Croatia, not places I've already been! - although I had to stop and peek at the climate-controlled room with the sign outside reading, "The Zagreb Mummy". Nesi-Hensu from Thebes (390 BC) and donated to the museum.

Finally the rain stopped so I was able to wander around outside a bit, passing the Ban Josip Jelacic square (main pedestrian area of the city),

and up to get views of the town and landmark Cathedral of Assumption (with its permanent state of reconstruction) sounding off bells at noon,

and the remarkably well-preserved 16th c. Archiepiscopal Palace and fortifications surrounding it.

Continued uphill to St. Catherine's church with the spectacular baroque alter and ceiling (just barely got a photo off as they were turning down the lights!),

then over to peek inside the Klovicevi Dvori Gallery which had a really good collection.

Back outside, kept hiking up the hilltop (phew!) through the 18th c. "Stone Gate", which used to be the city entrance in medieval times and where little old ladies were praying,

to the iconic St. Mark's Church with the beautiful spectrum of colors adorning the tiled roof.

Finished up at Ivan Mestrovic's former home/current sculpture museum, which I also really liked. Now I gotta get out of this cafe, way too much 2nd hand smoke for the day!

Bled, Slovenia
Watching TV in my hostel room, catching up on world events (Pakistan suicide bombing, don't think that'll be on my list of places to visit any time soon) and about to go grab dinner here in Bled - but not before I bundle-up, I'm back into Autumn weather! Got on the train this morning back in rainy Zagreb, arrived in rainy Ljubljana and decided during the ride up that since its Monday which means all museums will be closed and with the weather conditions not ideal for strolling around the city, walked across the street and hopped on the next bus up to Bled, which was on my list to visit anyway. Very quaint little town in the snow-covered Julian Alps, with its church on an island in the emerald-green lake and medieval castle clinging to a rocky cliff, love this place... plus no rain here!!

When I arrived and got checked-in to the hostel (pretty sure I'm the only one here), went over and hiked up the path to the castle. Visited the museum inside - pretty bland and a rip-off for 7 Euros, but the views over the town did make up for it.

Descended down and then hiked around the lake, then up -- way up -- the footpath to the Velika Osonjnica viewpoint up in the mountains - very nice!

Finished the 8 km stroll around the lake and stopped for lunch where the locals were telling me that 2 days ago it was still sunny and warm (25 degrees C or so), and then overnight the cold weather came, the snow on the mountains wasn't there even just yesterday!

Ljubljana, Slovenia
I'm about to go grab a late dinner here in Ljubljana, Slovenia's smallish capital city. After surviving the crazy wind storms (and subsequent temporary power outage) last night/this morning back in Bled, got on a bus backtracking to LJ - now much nicer without the freezing rain I passed through yesterday morning! Speaking of freezing, watching the weather on the news this morning saw a massive cold front/snow storm all across northern to central Europe -- now cold weather I can tolerate to a degree, but snow??... we'll see how long I spend around this area! So I arrived in LJ, and based on the recommendations from the Aussie guys on the bus went and checked in the the over-hyped (and overpriced) former prison-turned-hostel. Started wandering around the city, across iconic "Dragon Bridge"

to the bustling Preseren Square, named after Slovenia's favorite poet (who apparently was an accountant and only wrote in his spare time... must be slim pickin's for Slovenian poets!).

Crossed over to LJ's old town where the Town Hall, Cathedral of St. Nicholas and Hercules fountain formed a very picturesque "Pogarcarjev" Square.

Bypassed the funicular and decided to hike up the steep hill to the Ljubljana Castle, where I had originally thought to do a quick walkthrough and then head back down (I've seen so many castles now in Europe that my interest is fading...), but some media event inside the castle wall was going on. Come to find out the annual tradition of "The cutting of the grapes from vine" by the Mayor of Ljubljana was taking place. There were some important political guests present (I'm guessing anyway), and everyone (including me!) was handed a glass of some kind of milk wine (awful) to toast the event. A few speeches were made in Slovenian (so I have no idea), and then the Mayor, Zoran Jankovic (so I learned) cuts down a selection of grapes that will be part of an extremely select reserve (apparently only people like Queen Elizabeth II get bottles of this).

So that was a pretty cool local traditional event I got to witness!

Budapest, Hungary
Spent nearly the whole day on the train from LJ to BP! But barely caught the train this morning, since the person who was supposed to be working at the International ticket booth was wandering around somewhere -- of course, the person working at the Domestic ticket booth couldn't be bothered with helping. Finally got her to call to the Int'l ticket issuer so I could buy a ticket 5 minutes before the train departed... thanks for making me run to catch the train, lady! So somewhere after we cross the Hungarian border the ticket-checkers switch, and the new man looks at my ticket "Budapest Spezial", and asks me if I know that I'll have to get off at some station, grab a connecting bus to another station in a nearby town, and continue on from there to Budapest? Huh? Ah, no, the incompetent ticket-issuer back in LJ failed to mention that! The ticket-checker tells me he'll let me know when to get off, so I'm thinking this is pretty strange, but oh, well! So about an hour later we get to a station where we're stopped for a pretty considerable time.. I'm leaning out of my cabin doorway looking back and forth down the passageway for the guy, hoping he hasn't forgotten about me if this is the stop to get off! So the train starts back up and then I notice, it is going back in the opposite direction, I'm thinking, "crap!" So we're just moving along backwards for a while and finally the ticket-checker passes by my cabin and I ask, "Uh, was that the stop??", but no, fortunately it wasn't! So eventually he comes back and does let me know "Next stop", and when the train stops everyone (including the ticket-checker) get off, we all follow him to a bus waiting. I see another backpacker girl and ask her, "So just making sure, you are going to Budapest also??", to which she replies, "I hope so!"... so apparently I wasn't the only one ill-informed of the schedule. It takes about 20 minutes or so bus ride then we're at another station. The girl Robin (from Vancouver) and I exchange traveling stories to pass the time, since there wasn't a whole lot of scenery along the way!

We arrived into BP 1.5 hrs late, so now its dark (and raining, go figure). Robin already made plans to stay with another traveler's family home in Buda and was getting picked up at the station by the father (lucky!). Me, I have no idea where I'll stay or how to get there, but decide to head over via metro to the busier Pest side of the city. Miraculously, I found the first-choice hostel that I saw in the poorly-detailed map in my guidebook. Got checked-into the dorm room (with the guy from Nigeria who I'm convinced doesn't understand the notion of deodorant), back out into the sh-t windy, rainy, cold weather to grab a bit to eat for the first time all day (forgot about that small detail for the 11 hour train/bus/train ride!), now going to sleep!

Just got back from dinner at the same Kebab place near the hostel I ate at last night... I thought I might have just imagined it before, but sure enough, the 1/2 hour spent in the restaurant and my clothes reek like fried meat - lovely! So this morning, after limited sleep thanks to the Nigerian Skyping or something all night, woke up to another rainy, dark, cold, super-windy day - oh, well! Went across the street to visit the impressive Great Synagogue & Museum (with tighter security than JFK airport).

Made my way over to meet up with Robin from the train at the Hungarian National Pastime, thermal bath house!

Today's weather, near winter-like conditions, made the outdoor heated baths really nice... all that was missing was snowboarding and beers! After enough baths and sauna to make me woozy, I headed over to the Museum of Fine Arts nearby. Very nice, impressive displays I was enjoying,

then one of the younger security guards mentions to me there is a special event in one of the museum wings, some bartender competition/contest sponsored by Stella, and there's free beer. Well, hello!

Everything that was being said during the competition was Hungarian, but who am I kidding... who cares?!? After a couple free samples (and free lunch!), make my way to the "House of Terror" museum at #60 Andrassy Street, which was the former HQ of Nazi supporter group and then taken over for the HQ of the "AVH" (secret police during Soviet occupation). Now a sort of flashy audio & video pretty cool supercharged memorial museum.

Friday night in Budapest, getting ready to head out for a cocktail or 2. Woke up to yet another cold, wet, windy day - crap! Still, had to go check out the rest of the sites in Pest as well as the Buda side. First swung by the Hungarian State Opera house, then over to the "Magyer" (what Hungarians call themselves) National Museum, with really really good layout and displays spanning from the first settlers in the region, up to modern times.

I really was impressed with the building itself as well!

Strolled along Pest's main tourist/pedestrian area of Vaci Utla, then up to the crazy looking Parliament, with its out-of-control # of spires.

Hopped on the metro over to Buda to roam around Varhegy (Castle Hill), where the beautiful Matthias Church was about 99% covered in scaffolding,

but fortunately the nearby Halaszbastya (Fisherman's Bastion), was open for climbing around and provided for some unobstructed views of the city.

Finished up at Kiralyi Palota, Royal Palace, just as the clouds were beginning to break!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 07:57 Comments (0)

Week 32, 3.Oct.09 - 9.Oct.09

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina to Zadar, Croatia

View Week 32 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina
Heading out in a few minutes to meet up for dinner with this really sweet girl Robin from D.C., that I met today on a Tunnel tour. After a few uncomfortable, cold, and wet (courtesy of a leaky widow I was leaning against) hours of sleep on the bus from Belgrade, arrived in the bus station way on the outskirts of Sarajevo at 05:30 to a cold and rainy morning - ugh! Knowing it was too early for me to do anything (get on the local tram bus, get a coffee, etc.), pulled out my winter hat from the bottom of my pack, slumped over on a chair in the station and tried to get a couple hours sleep. Knowing eventually sleep was hopeless, got myself to the city center via the tram - but not really sure where in the city I was... my guidebook map only had detail with street names in very center of city, so that was no help. There were tourist maps occasionally posted around, but they lacked one important piece of information... "You are Where??" Eventually by asking a couple locals found my way to the tourist information office which directed me to a hostel just down the road. Had a cup of coffee and then headed out - first stop was to the infamous Latin Bridge, site where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austro-Hungarian heir-to-throne Franz Ferdinand in 1914, precipitating WWI.

Speaking of Austo-Hungarian, went over to the Catholic Church built by the empire in 1889,

where some military/UN-Peacekeeping band just wrapped up a performance? Weird.

Had lunch, which was "Burek", a flakey layered meat pie with sour cream (awesome!!) at a diner near the church, then went to join a tour van out to visit the "Tunnel of Life", site where military dug a tunnel from surrounded Sarajevo under the airport runway to free Bosnian territory, to transport food, water & weaponry during the siege 1992-95. The tour guide was really good - informative and interesting. Having served in the Bosnian army at age 16, he had a lot to tell.

We started the tour from city center, he drove us around past the landmarks like the National Library which got torched during the siege, the market place where 80 people died from a grenade set off one morning in 1992,

Parliament building where the first civilian was killed that sparked the war, Holiday Inn where international reporters camped out for almost 4 years,

"Sniper Alley" where huge numbers of people lost their lives by Serbian strategically-placed gunmen, and so on. Arriving at the tunnel museum, watched a short movie showing clips of wartime footage, some memorabilia like newspaper clippings & MRE's, then able to enter the tunnel that helped serve as a lifeline during the siege.

After walking through, the only though I had was, "How could this have gone on for so long, known by the UN, NATO, the world.. and nothing was done to stop it?" Crazy. At the time this started I had been a senior in High School and just about to join the Marines so I do remember hearing about Bosnia/Sarajevo in the news, but didn't really understand what was happening. And until I was able to see first-hand this area and hear from survivors that went through this, I probably never would have. But then I realize the similarities today with something like Darfur and realize at times history has a nasty way of repeating itself. Leaving the tunnel back toward the center, we made a quick stop to the very impressive Jewish cemetery from 1630,

then I went over for a quick tour of the Old Orthodox Church and museum from the 5th c., to round off a very full day!

Relaxing back in my hostel and planning on turning in early tonight - so tired! Last night I met up with Robin and folks from her tour group for dinner - really nice people, the older couple from Australia were a riot! Went out for drinks after - White Russians - made with really thick cream and plenty of vodka & Kahlua, out till 03:00 so no sleep 2 nights in a row, I felt it this morning!

Started out today over at the Old Jewish Synagogue/Museum that survived the war - really informative displays that I enjoyed.

Stopped over in Trg Oslobodenja Park to relax for a while and enjoy the nice warm sunny weather (for a change!). Old men were playing chess with 2 foot-tall pieces on an oversized board on the the ground - pretty cool!

Wandered through the old bazaar area with all the souvenir shops and coffee shops lining the narrow alleys. Stopped over at the very elaborate Gazi-Hubrevbey Mosque & adjacent Madrossa, both from the 16th c.

Wandering the streets here, it is unavoidable to come across some evidence of the war: Bullet/shrapnel hole-ridden buildings and Sarajevo "roses", skeletal indentations of shell impacts, on the pavements - the reminders are all over.

I went back to the small diner from yesterday for more Burek. I asked the owner working, same man from yesterday - big guy, looks in his 30's - if he was from Sarajevo, he said "yes". I then asked (in hindsight, mistakenly), if he was here during the war. He just gave me a polite nod and half smile, then sat down and put his head in his hand and began to sob. I had such a feeling of sadness and helplessness - laying down the money for the bill on the counter with him still sitting there, all I could think of saying was, "I'm sorry for your loss".

Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina
So today wasn't the best of my trip. This morning in Sarajevo I overslept (although really needed it after the last couple nights), finally got my act together and went to the trolley bus stop, bought my ticket and waited for trolley bus #1. When it arrived I boarded, stuck the ticket in the validation machine and off we went to the bus station stop, about 10 minutes away. One stop before the station, a ticket-checker boards and asks for tickets. He looks at mine, keeps it and continues to check all others; I don't think anything of it. Then he comes back with my ticket saying it wasn't validated. Huh? He begins writing me a ticket for a fine, I'm like, "What are you talking about, I did validate this!" He then shows me how to properly validate the ticket, it appears I pushed my ticket into the slot upside down and didn't register a stamp. I told him I thought it was validated, but no dice, he told me I'd have to pay a fine. I'm arguing, saying this was an honest mistake, there aren't any pictures to demonstrate how one should validated the ticket, nor any signs in English, etc. He calls someone (his boss?) who spoke better English for me to explain my story, but still no leniency, fine of 26 KM (Convertible Marks, about US$20). This is on top of the 1.5 KM I spent on the trolley ticket. I'm arguing but realize the next bus to Mostar is leaving in 5 minutes, so I just paid it. I was so pissed! I told the checker as I was leaving, "I hope you understand English enough to know what I'm telling you now: 'This is bullshit!'". Of course, if I were actually trying to scam I still would have protested, but he had to know by my reaction that this was an honest mistake. Jerk. Got on the bus and arrived in Mostar at 12:45, planned on spending a couple hours here then onward to Dubrovnik - well, it turns out the third and last bus to Dubrovnik was at 12:30 - what! I guess maybe because of the low season, I don't know but it seems pretty early. So did not plan to stay overnight here, but found an "apartment" near the bus station for pretty cheap and they accepted Euros, so I wouldn't have to withdraw any more KMs, now that my last bunch went toward the B.S. fine. Well, I did make the most of the day and took advantage of the time to more leisurely stroll around the Old Town of Kujunkziluk, visited a couple mosques and Turkish bath house, and of course walked around the famous Stari Most bridge from 1556, with its beautiful and elegant high arch.

Now I'm getting to bed early - making sure that I get up on time for my bus tomorrow!

Dubrovnik, Croatia
I understand what Lord Byron was thinking when, centuries ago, he proclaimed Dubrovnik "The pearl of the Adriatic". This old town is something else! Really charming, but also overrun with tourists - I can't believe how many bus loads are piling into the parking area outside Pile Gate (no pun intended), entrance to the Old Town.

And this is October... I couldn't imagine this place in peak season! After I got to the bus station this morning, which is located next to the pier a few km from the Old Town, I was trying to figure out the local bus schedule/map when a group of young people approached me at the stop and asked if I needed help. I asked if they lived here (it didn't seem like it?), but turns out they were workers from the Carnival Cruise ship docked at the pier, and have visited Dubrovnik many times in the past. Told them I was looking to go to the hostel, they were super friendly and able to tell me which local bus to get on and which stop, we talked about my travels on the bus ride but I kept asking questions about working on a cruise ship - free way to travel, very interesting! The two Serbians walked with me saying I should stay at an "apartment", the first stop was for 50 Euro/night - yikes! I told the guy that's a tad over my budget, and will look for the hostel, but the lady running the "apartment" called her friend up the road who had another for 15 Euro/night, which sounded a lot better, so I bid farewell to the Carnival crew and went to check out the other room. It was totally fine, but I was having trouble communicating with the owner about confirming to register my stay - if I'm not registered with Croatian police, I'll have a nice fine waiting for me next time I try to cross the border. Finally he got his son, who spoke English, on the phone to translate - turns out the mother of the son/wife of the man recently passed away, and some problem with registering. So I told the man I was really sorry to hear, but I need to find a legit place to stay! Consulting my guidebook, ended up backtracking about 1/2 the way to the hostel I originally planned to stay in and passed on the bus - oh, well! Got checked-in and made my way back to the Old Town. Wandered around the super charming streets, lined with cafes, shops, etc.

After stopping in a couple museums and cathedrals,

ascended up the steep steps to the city walls, surrounding the entire Old Town and providing for some spectacular views!

Now back at the hostel and everyone in my dorm room is already asleep - only 21:00?? Oh, well - I guess another night in isn't the worst thing, so looks like I'm also turning in early!

Well, glad I went to bed early last night after all - the Japanese man staying in the dorm gets up at 05:00, loudly packing his things around with that stupid reading lamp turned on (and shining right at me), then starts eating breakfast right in the room, cutting up an apple or some damn thing on the table! Seriously?!? I suggested, but when he didn't understand (or acted like it, which I think was crap), actually got up out of bed and walked him out to the common room as a proposal for a place to eat - but the door was locked. WTF! So I went back to bed, and Japanese man went back to eating his breakfast loudly. Finally at 06:00 he leaves and goes down to the lobby reception to check-out. He starts calling out, very loudly and echoing throughout the place, "Hello! Good morning! Hello! Good morning! I want to check out! Hello! Hello! I want to check out!" and on and on, for what had to be 10 minutes. But it was still quieter than his breakfast routine in the room so I didn't mind! Finally after a couple hours back to sleep, got up for breakfast then made my way leisurely to a nice secluded beach (with actual sand!) and just read, napped, swam a bit in the (chilly) Adriatic for the afternoon.

Very relaxing day I enjoyed thoroughly! Now I'm about to head out for some drinks with the French girl Glwadys also staying here at the hostel - not staying in another night!

Split, Croatia
Here in Split, Croatia's Second City, and going to head out for a look at the nightlife in a minute, but most of the shops/markets are closed due to Croatia's Independence Day, so not sure what to expect. So last night was a good time - Glwadys and I go to a small bar down the side street from the hostel for some beers, then along comes Vladimir, this big older Croatian man staying at the hostel (I mistakenly thought he worked there... which is another reinforcement why I'm glad that I'm traveling and staying in hostels not any older than I already am, so young people don't make the same mistake when they see me!). Shots soon follow, he also goes out to buy these pita sandwiches stuffed with sausages, cheese and some tomato paste - so good! He learned Glwadys was French and loved to practice his limited French language, "Ohh la la!". We start taking pictures,

then Vladimir starts grabbing random people like the bartender and a girl who took one of our pictures, to join with us for more pictures - so funny! So this morning got up early (with my hangover) and Glwadys and I headed to the bus station (1/2 way walked... why don't empty cabs stop when you actually want one, instead passing two people walking on the side of a road wearing packs?!), for a bus ride with amazing amazing views along Dalmatia coast to Split.

Got to Split and I checked in to another "apartment" about 15 minutes walk from the center. Glwayds and I then walked around the Old Town and Diocletian's Palace (Roman ruins), checking out the different monuments and sites,

along with all the touristy stands along the cobbled streets.

Stopped for lunch at a nice place down a narrow alley inside the Palace walls, then continued walking around - went up the Bell Tower for really nice views of Split.

Had to bid goodbye to Glwadys who is heading on to Zadar for the night, which was really sad - a super fun girl I really enjoyed hanging out with last night and today!

Zadar, Croatia
I'm way over on west of city center at the poorly located hostel here in Zadar, definitely not walking the 1 hour or so back to the center from where I just came, to go back out tonight - hopefully there'll be something going on around here tonight, but seems kind of deserted! Earlier today, walking back to the bus station in Split, saw a very different city much more active with all the shops and market open.

Wandered around a bit in the morning, then hopped on the bus taking me here to Zadar. Took the local bus to the hostel, then walked all the way to the center - from a straight line not that far, but there are all sorts of turns around the piers and docks, makes for a super-long stroll. The center of town was interesting - loads and loads of churches, some which have the crazy circular shape from the Byzatine age in this Dalmatia area.

Passed by the old Roman Forum ruins from 1st c. B.C., loved the still-standing "Pillar of Shame" where naughty people were chained and pilloried in ancient times.

Made my way to the Adriatic waterfront for a view of the (self-declared, and reinforced with posters of celebrities, like Alfred Hitchcock, who stayed in Zadar and said as much) "best spot for sunsets in the world" - I will admit, very impressive. Also enjoyed the unique "Sea Organ" (2005), a series of pipes leading down into the sea from which the waves produce the different tunes - very cool!

Not knowing the local bus schedule from center made my long trek back to the hostel, now I really need a shower - its still summer weather here!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 10:01 Comments (0)

Week 31, 26.Sept.09 - 2.Oct.09

Skopje, Macedonia to Belgrade, Serbia

View Week 31 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Skopje, Macedonia
Just about to head out for Skopje's "White Night", annual celebration where everything stays open all night. I asked this local man, Adam, who works at the hamburger stand I've been frequenting here in Skopje, what the origin of this Macedonian (originally Russian's) festival/celebration was about, but other than starting up about 7 years ago, wasn't too sure. My suggestion if Macedonia wants to copy a phrase, make it more relevant - it gets dark at 19:00 here this time of year! Toured around the town today, visiting the Skopje museum with a few relics, like the Alexander the Great coin,

excavated from the castle across the river and up the hill. Passing some mosques, cathedrals and monuments/statues

over to said castle, also stopped by to visit one particular little monastery, Sveti Spas, built below ground level since in Ottoman times it was illegal for a church to be taller than a mosque (or so says my guidebook).

Finally, visited the museum of Macedonia with some really cool displays on this ancient land.

Came back to the hostel to find all of my stuff gone.. found it moved to another room? Found out that, although the owner saw me this morning and we talked about useless info ("How was your night?" "What is the weather today?"), he failed to mention the first room was being renovated today. I guess I would have been less annoyed if I had known and was given the opportunity to pack up my stuff, like my toothbrush sitting out - the thought of the housekeeper grabbing it with her recently-scrubbed-toilet hands is not one I'm savoring. Good thing this place has hot water, because I'm sterilizing the sh-t out of that!

Pristina, Kosovo
I'm about to head over for a late dinner at the pizza place (coincidentally, its where I had lunch, and I already know I'm ordering the pepper pizza!) down the road from my guesthouse here in Pristina. After very few hours sleep last night (this morning, really - around 05:00 woken up courtesy of the loud b-tchy French girl staying here, coming home and practically yelling while talking in the kitchen), caught a bus back in Skopje up here to Pristina, capital of the brand-new Republic of Kosovo (but don't tell Serbia that). Now, the only thing my somewhat outdated guidebook offered up about Kosovo region of Serbia was, "Don't travel there". The little information I could piece together was a former map of Serbia-controlled Kosovo to figure out where I was, and flipping back to the Albanian phrases chapter, since this is their spoken language, to figure out what to say. Arriving at the main bus station, couldn't figure out the city bus system for the life of me, so negotiated a cab to my poorly-located (but only cheap option) guesthouse I reserved yesterday online. After a seemingly lengthy check-in process (the old man is just slow, and kept commenting how "One day in Pristina isn't very long.".. Yeah, especially if you spend forever getting checked-in!), went out for lunch (pepper pizza), then the long hike to the city center, where I just wandered around making my own list of interesting sites, since there's no guidebook available. There's a pretty crazy-looking library

next to what I initially thought was a bombed-out church, but asking a local was told it is actually unfinished Serbian Orthodox church, started in 1995 but abandoned at the beginning of the 1999 conflict, and now no one is funding it for completion. Crazy!

Visited the Kosovo museum where most of the belongings are actually not in Kosovo, but stored for safety and protection during the war, in Skopje. Walked by a few of the mosques which were really nice,

and over past "Bill Clinton Boulevard" (hilarious),

to the main pedestrian strip where PRI, Prishtina Int'l Film Festival is taking place.

Finished up at the Dodona park, really nice & peaceful place to relax.

Podgorica, Montenegro
I'm here in the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica, having spent the majority of the day traveling by bus from Pristina to Peja (wishing I could've stopped for a beer....),

connecting bus to Rozaje, then another connecting bus to arrive in Podgorica. Decided 1 day is actually enough for Pristina, saw everything worthy of seeing in a few hours, which is kind of sad. And I'm not sure what else there is to see in Kosovo, other than bombed-out buildings, without having established a tourist industry yet - and from what I've heard, a majority of the country is still unsafe with unexploded land mines all over. So now after 7 months traveling, although not every place is all that memorable/exciting, I must say I'm still really enjoying this time in my life, and maybe feeling a bit reenergized, sort of second-wind! Now to head out and check out a bit of Podgorica night life...

Zabljak, Montenegro
I'm taking a rest from hiking here in Durmitor National Park, overlooking the Black Lake sitting in the shadows of some pretty spectacular mountains.

Got up today at 05:00 to grab a bus from Podgorica - decided not to stick around other than the one night, from what I've heard/read, there's not a whole lot to see there. Arrived this morning in the super-quaint town of Zabljak, gateway to the Durmitor National Park, with all of the steep rooftop houses dotting the mountains and hills.

I had to dig through the bottom of my pack for coat & long-underwear shirt, Autumn is in full-swing here! Staying at another "apartment", or spare room in someone's (older lady, I think her name is Godiva or something) home, near the center of town. I think this National Park - which I'm so glad I got to see - is all there is around here, so will move on tomorrow and try to get to make my way to warmer weather!

Belgrade, Serbia
Yet another bus-filled day! After breakfast back in Zabljak, went to the bus station for my 11:00 to Belgrade. I knew this time because I went to the station yesterday to confirm. Unlike, apparently, the annoying old German woman who I kept bumping into in Zabljak (price of a small tourist town). Not sure where she wanted to go, but apparently there was no bus or she just missed one, she starts yelling "No!", and all the people working at the station just shrugged their shoulders - hilarious! So my bus was on-time for departure, but got into Belgrade here 1 1/2 hours late (go figure). So just got checked in to the hostel (pretty swanky place), now heading out for dinner.

I'm a fan of Belgrade - definitely gritty-city feeling, not so touristy. Had a really good day wandering around. Started out walking along Knez Mihailova, the main pedestrian boulevard lined with cafes and restaurants, great place for coffee and people-watching! Made my way up to the Kalemegdan, where the military museum had some interesting displays like the wall of decapitated skulls that was part of the citadel fortress used by the occupying Turks as an intimidation factor.

Also saw more modern pieces, like proudly displayed bits of a US stealth-fighter shot down in 1999... I guess it wouldn't help to remind them that Serbia didn't win that war with Kosovo!

Afterwards, wandered around (despite the warnings) the nearby citadel fortress.

There was an outdoor temporary exhibit that showed photos of castles all over Serbia - upon closer inspection of the maps, realized that they're still considering Kosovo as part of Serbia, even pointing out castles in that area - sheesh!

Wandered through a couple parks (with some badass statues) for some shade in the trees... if I was anxious to get back to warmer weather, my wish was granted today!

Checked out the ethnographical museum with all its costumes & folk art (not terribly interesting), then over to the Nat'l Gallery of Frescoes, a collection of the artwork in Serbia's monasteries (much more interesting).

After dinner & a few drinks, went out and wandered around a bit - really cool art nouveau buildings all over!

Having dinner at my regular spot, Sandwich King, down the street from my hostel. I think all the meals I've eaten in Belgrade have been at this place, the staff certainly knows me by now! Today, after sleeping in a bit because of awful night sleep (damn mosquitos!), took the trolley bus to the south part of the city for a visit to the Historical Museum of Yugoslavia, with details on, well.. the history of Yugoslavia.

Next door was Josip "Tito" Broz museum & grave, where the former had all kinds of knick-knacks and gifts presented to Tito from leaders all around the world.

The grave site had on display the Youth Baton collection of races every year on Tito's birthday.

Crazy - Yugoslavians just idolized this guy...

Made my way over to Nikola Tesla Museum to learn about this great inventor... remote controls, electricity transponders, radio (even though Marconi got it patented first), etc. Very cool and educational!

Then stopped in Sveti Marko cathedral with huge pillars and housing the tomb of Emporer Dusan (1308-55).

Finally, took the #2 tram that I've been meaning to while here and got a cheap version of a tour bus all around city center. Now I have to say goodbye to the folks at Sandwich King and off to the bus station for my overnight to Sarajevo.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:03 Comments (0)

Week 30, 19.Sept.09 - 25.Sept.09

Berat, Albania to Skopje, Macedonia

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Berat, Albania
I'm chilling out back in my hotel room here in Berat, after touring around today visiting the sites. Took the overnight but from Lamia, Greece (where the super-friendly Albanian woman working in the bus station was acting like a concerned parent... "You're traveling to Albania alone?? You've never been there?? Here, take my cellphone number."), and having passed through really pretty Albanian countryside at dawn with fog all over, arrived early morning in Berat.

Went and checked in to this hotel which is pretty dull (but cheap so I'm not complaining!), had lunch then hiked up the steep rocky road to the 14th c. Kala (Citadel), where castle ruins are accessible to walk around (in fact, no ropes/railings anywhere - sort of, "explore at your own risk").

A whole village exists here in medieval looking houses!

There was a museum housing some paintings, and loads of old churches and mosques. Then swung by (and waited for the reopening to) the Ethnografic Museum with its 18th c. Ottoman objects.

It started pouring outside, I'll have to see whether this lets up to head out tonight!

Tirana, Albania
Sitting here outside the National Historical Museum waiting for it to reopen (all museums in Albania seem to close from 13:00-17:00 then reopen for 2 hours until 19:00) here in the capital city of Tirana. Just had a really nice conversation with a man (I think his name was Byra) about life in Albania during communist days and after - he seemed to prefer the former. This conversation followed my less pleasant one on the other side of the museum where a younger guy sat down and interrupted my reading, forcing me into a conversation that ended (when I got up and said "I gotta go") with him asking me for money ("No, sorry"). There are some colorful observations I've made of Albanians so far: (1) Nearly all women between the ages of, say, 40-60 look identical with short dark-brown hair feathered and parted down the middle with a little swoosh at the bottom - awful, like frozen in the early 1980's.. reminds me of Elane's friend the physical therapist on that one Seinfeld episode. (2) Nearly all boys, in their teens and younger, have a tendency to constantly spit. (3) On the buses - which drive agonizingly slow (but also super cheap so again not complaining!) - while there is no smoking for the passengers, it doesn't stop the drivers from chain-smoking the entire trip. And (4) most bus passengers - usually involving a family with children, have an inability to pick one seat and stay for the entire journey - constantly getting up to move the whole family to another seat one row up or back or other side. On that bus ride up this morning from Berat, passing along the Adriatic coast (really nice), I saw countless (although estimates put an actual number somewhere at 700,000) concrete bunkers dotting the countryside.

Supposedly the former dictator Hoxha had these designed so indestructible (as to withstand tank blasts), that they seem to be now and for the foreseeable future a permanent fixture on this landscape. Well, now that I actually read the sign on the museum, looks like it doesn't open this afternoon after all (I guess "winter hours" start in September here). So now to find out what to do the rest of the day!

Relaxing back here in my hotel, having just dodged the afternoon downpour outside... its been hot & sunny all 3 days in Albania, with each day producing the afternoon showers with the subsequent power-outages (I've learned not to go without my torch after dark in this country). Had a pretty slow-paced day, after a nice omelette breakfast at a cafe with great coffee (going there again tomorrow for sure!), went over to El'Hem Bey mosque, kicked-off my shoes and went inside for views of the beautifully painted dome.

Waited around outside the Bell Tower to climb up inside for views of the city, but the guard or whomever never showed up to unlock it... which is fitting - the dysfunctional clock in the tower had 4 different times showing anyway!

Then went over to check out the Tirana Int'l Collaboration Art Biannual Exhibits (TICABE); really enjoyed Erik Olofsen's "Drives" with slow-motion effect, and Adrian Paci's "Per Speculum", with reflecting sunlight from glass pieces held by kids up in a tree.

Well, walking around this city for the past day, I'll retract my earlier statement about Albanian women - there are definitely good looking ones here in Tirana! But I'll also add one more observation: If I am sitting at a cafe on one extreme side and 100 empty tables around me, it is a guarantee someone or group will sit right next to my table and proceed to light-up. Unbelievable!

Pogradec, Albania
Sitting out on the vine-covered (with loads of grapes - smells like a big jar of Welch's Grape Jelly!) balcony at my hotel here in Pogradec.

Earlier today back in Tirana, after having my new favorite coffee, went back to the (now open!) National Historical Museum to see some great exhibits on Albanian history.

Grabbed the next furgon (taxi van) that was heading out of town, and braced myself most of the way as the van sped around the curvy road along the mountain cliffs, most of the road without guard railing!

Arrived in Pogradec and got checked-in to this hotel, but neither confirming the destination in the furgon, nor the availability of rooms in the hotel, was easy (More cultural observations): Albanians shake their head (or rather, kind of wobble) back and forth when they mean "yes", and nod up and down when they mean "no". I was so confused about whether the damn furgon was going to Pogradec or not, and "Do you have a single room available? Yes?Ok? Yes or no??" I then remembered reading about that custom in my guidebook, but it was the funniest thing to see this in practice. Wandered around the town with all its torn-up streets (seems like every street's pipes are being replaced or something) and then down to the lake, which is really pretty. Overall, the town is pretty quiet, it seems the busy summer season's over!

Ohrid, Macedonia-FYROM
I must say, Ohrid is sure living up to its reputation as an amazing place - beautiful town bordering lake with the same name, in Macedonia.

This morning I got in a taxi to the Albanian/Macedonian border (with a wallet full of Albanian Leke that I couldn't exchange!! - WTF, what border crossing has no exchange offices or even black-marketeers working??), and waited for the bus to take me up here to Ohrid town. As soon as I got off the bus a couple different guys approached me asking if I needed a place to sleep, they have "apartments" available for 15 Euro. Ordinarily I would have been very skeptical, but I had heard about this from another traveller back in Albania, this is how they do it in Ohrid - most of the accommodation in the town is spare rooms in someone's house. My place, Stephan's apartment, is actually pretty nice (but I still negotiated down to 10 Euro!). Had a coffee with Stephan, he got me registered with the tourist police and an exchange office to change my Leke for Macedonian Denar (phew!), then I was off to stroll around the Old Town. Many ancient cathedrals,

some with recovered (removing the Turkish whitewash covering) painted frescoes dating back to the 11th c.

Climbed up Samoil's Fortress for some great views of the town/lake,

then over to the ancient amphitheatre, which according to the guidebook, dates from the birth of Christ. But was altered during Roman era when the first 10 rows were removed & wall put up for allowing blood sport events (sweet!).

Today was spent in Ohrid at a pretty slow pace. Slept in a bit, had a great omelette & coffee at the restaurant down the road from my "apartment", then back into Old Town to visit a couple churches I missed yesterday, as well as the National Museum. Pretty weird setup, 5 floors but a good number of display cases were empty, and of those containing items, majority were without any description - not even in cyrillic! They did have a random drawing of G. Washington up on the wall for some reason.

Read my book (novel) down by the lake and then did some shopping, where I finally bought a new pair of black shoes to replace the Doc Martins - sort of sad to give them up after around ~ 15 years and countless miles hiked in all over the world, sort of like losing an old friend (a completely beat-up, worn out old friend!).

Skopje, Macedonia-FYROM
I'm about to head out and check out Skopje nightlife a bit; arrived a while ago from my bus trip from Ohrid & got checked-in to the nice, but definitely cramped, hostel. While the Macedonian countryside is really pretty - mountains and rivers running through, from the initial looks of the capital Skopje, seems a bit run down!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:21 Comments (0)

Week 29, 12.Sept.09 - 18.Sept.09

Rethymno, Greece to Thermopylae, Greece

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Rethymno (Crete), Greece
Started out today with an excellent omelette at my new favorite restaurant down the alley with the cat and old people, then strolled around this town of Rethymno, which is pretty touristy with all its shops, but they do it well!

After, went to Rethymno fortress on top of a hill,

which had some excellent views of the town and the Sea of Crete.

Now I'll try to crash early (amongst the loud kids staying here in the hostel) for my long hike tomorrow...

My long day started at 05:00 wake up, to catch a tour bus I had signed up for yesterday to hike the Samaira Gorge. Bus took the group to the head of the Gorge at Xyloskalo just as the sun was coming up and cast this beautiful light on the mountains.

The 16.7km walk was all downhill (starting at 1,230m elevation to sea-level), but not necessarily easy terrain; definitely strain on the knees! There were some spectacular views along the hike,

leading to Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea Coast where I decided to relax after the ~4 hour hike and catch some rays (and maybe get rid of my farmer's tan!).

The beach was black rocks/pebbles that were literally cooking in the sun, looked like asphalt does with the heat waves rising. But, the water was about as turquoise-blue as I've ever seen, and really quite warm. I was so tired on the bus ride back to Rethymno, that I fell asleep and almost missed my stop!

Corinth, Greece
I'm in Corinth, gateway to the Peloponnese & unfortunately stuck here for the night (as there's not much to see) in my fairly expensive hotel. Earlier today, took the bus from Rethymno back to the airport for my flight back to Athens, then straight to the train station. I bought a ticket to Corinth with the hopes I could grab an onward bus into Peloponnese once I arrived, but I got here too late, the train station was way on the outskirts of town and frankly now too tired to try and figure out the bus schedule!

Olympia, Greece
Drinking a beer on the balcony of my (second consecutive) fairly expensive hotel here in Olympia, having just returned from touring the museum and ruins where the ancient Games took place. Mostly the Altis - sacred grove at Olympia - is ruins, but the significance of this place still made it worthwhile to come and see. Touring the grounds today first came upon the "Gymnasium" from the 2nd c. BC, where athletes trained.

Passed by a couple temples until I came out overlooking the ancient Stadion (Stadium), which is actually pretty big - although no seats apart from the stone throne in the center, the map information estimates 45,000 spectators (all men) filled the embankment.

I took time to practice my wind-sprints running back from setting my camera timer to get in a good pose for a photo!

Passed by some other temples and ancient Baths to the workshop where Pheidias created the 11m high gold & ivory statue of Zeus (from 470 BC),

as well as the Temple itself, which the Statue remained for centuries.

The guide map listed it as one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient World (which was transported some centuries later to Constantinople and subsequently destroyed). Looking up what exactly the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World are (or were), looks like I've been to 3 (or in the presence of, if no longer in existence): The Great Pyramid in Giza, Lighthouse of Alexandria, and now the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. After the ruins, went inside the museum which carried all the remaining in-tact artifacts from the site, with really impressive collections!

Delphi, Greece
I gotta say that Greece's transportation infrastructure isn't as good as I thought it would be. Intercity buses run infrequently at best, and most cities have split stations on opposite ends of town so if you're arriving from one area and want to go to another, you have to cross the city in a local bus/taxi. It wouldn't be such a big deal except when I am able to catch a bus, its pretty damn expensive! One thing I miss about Central America - show up at a bus station and 9 times out of 10 a bus is leaving to your desired destination within the hour, and never more than US $10 no matter the distance. So having said all this, it took me the entire day to reach Delphi starting out this morning from Olympia. Fortunately found a hotel right away (considering they're everywhere, not difficult at all) as it is already pretty late. But since the town seems to still be alive here at midnight, I'll go and check out the bar downstairs!

Spent today exploring the museum and ancient ruins of Delphi, which was considered the center of the universe in antiquity (kind of like NYC today, maybe?). The ruins were quite spectacular considering the history of this place - all Greek city-states had their individual offering temples and treasuries.

There were rockslides yesterday from the mountains above which limited where tourists were able to walk, so I could only get up to the edge of the Temple of Apollo, but still got a good view of where the Oracle used to sit and dole out her prophecies.

Continued down the Sacred Path past the ancient gymnasium,

to the Temple of Athena and the awesome 4th c. BC columned rotunda Tholos.

As the rain started to fall, made my way back to inside the museum where most of the recovered artifacts are displayed, like the Sphinx (not surprisingly Egyptian-influenced),

Stone statue (oldest in Greece, 6th c. BC) of the Twins of Argos,

and the famous Bronze Charioteer.

Thermopylai, Greece
I'm recording this journal entry on some sacred ground... I'm sitting at the "Hot Gates" of Thermopylai, site where one of the most famous battles in history took place, the 2nd Greco-Persian war of 480 BC. This place wasn't the easiest to get to - no information in my guidebook (the book was published before the 2007 movie "300" came out; I'm sure next edition's will have clear info), so I had to research on-line to the location of the site, then figure out which bus could get me here from Delphi. Earlier today I got on a bus to the closest main town, Lamia, then after arriving had to (unsurprisingly) lug my pack across town to the other bus station serving points southeast, to catch a bus here to Thermopylai. But sitting here now at the Phocien fortification spot at the Hot Gates, where "numbers count for nothing" (Leonidas & 300 Spartans battled Xerxes and 1 million Persians),

makes it all worthwhile as an awesome conclusion to all of the amazing historical sites in Greece (For effect, I took the liberty of turning up the Soundtrack of "300" on my Ipod while filming the battlefield :0)

Now back to Lamia and the other station across town (of course) to try and catch the overnight bus to the next destination, Albania!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 09:03 Comments (0)

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