Posted in Photography, travel

Racing Slowly Through the Balkans

If you want to see the perfect hostel, take a trip to northern Greece, and visit Little Big House in the city of Thessaloniki. This quaint business on a narrow and very steep street in the city’s old town is exactly what every hostel should be like – warm, friendly, comfortable, and any number of other pleasant adjectives.

I arrived there after a long train journey up the coast from Athens, and after walking for several miles across the city and climbing a rather large hill—made all the more difficult by its cobblestone streets—I was met by three smiling women, who greeted me like an old friend and offered me a beer.

From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, Little Big House was perfect. From vast breakfasts to the delicious smell of chocolate that wafted from the kitchen all afternoon, it was a treat just to be there. Which was fortunate, as the weather in Thessaloniki more or less precluded my leaving the building. After several weeks’ good weather on my travels, my days in the second city of Greece were marked by rain and even a little snow. I tried to get out and explore, but it wasn’t much fun and there wasn’t much to see. I got the sense it was a lovely place, and on my initial walk from the train station the colourful buildings really did look lovely in the sunlight… but for several days it was grey and cold and miserable.

Ships moored off Thesoloniki

Speaking of grey and cold and miserable, I began to look north to a number of countries noted for their grey, cold, and miserable weather and architecture and way of life: the Balkan states. I had only the vaguest of itineraries, but every road seemed to lead north through a number of countries about which I knew little – Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and so on.

*

I gave up on Greece and hopped a bus north, over the border, into Bulgaria. As I left, the sun finally peaked out from behind a thick veil of clouds, teasing me. It was too late to turn back, though. I was heading onwards into grey, snowy Bulgaria. The landscape was pleasant but remarkably brown – brown, snowy fields leading to brown forests and brown hills which, for a few minutes at least, glimmered gold in the dying light of the sun, which then set over the mountains to the west.

By evening we were in Sofia, the capital. Snow lay thick on the ground here, and getting from the bus station to the hostel was a tricky business. I had brought a small carry-on roller suitcase instead of my usual backpack for this trip, and it was beyond useless on the snowy streets, so I had to lug it over my shoulder and hope I didn’t slip and fall. When I arrived at the hostel, I immediately headed back out in search of a much-needed beer. I found J.J. Murphy’s – an Irish pub on a little backstreet not too far from the hostel, and enjoyed a good pint of Kilkenny.

The following day I took the free walking tour about town. Free walking tours are a common occurrence around Europe these days, and every city of even moderate size seems to have one. Last year, I took one in Budapest, and learned about disputes over parliamentary buildings and the man who invented the Rubik’s cube. They are typically operated by drama students who have a well-rehearsed routine of self-deprecating jokes and long script memorized about each element of the city’s history. They are invariably entertaining and informative, yet somehow the same-iness of them makes me weary, as every tour differs little from the others. In any case, for two and a half hours I followed a man called Stanislav around Sofia, learning more about the city than I’d learned about any of the other cities I’d visited on this trip. He had a penchant for swearing which only grew with his familiarity with our group, and by the end, just about every second word was “fucking”: “This is the fucking parliament building where the shits get fucking nothing done.”

At the end, I went off on my own to explore further. I headed east to a large park and wandered about in the snow, hoping for something to photograph, eventually stumbling upon a fluffy squirrel. Sofia hadn’t exactly been photogenic, even if the tour was educational, but it was interesting enough. After that, I wandered through town to the Elephant Bookstore and bought yet another of Paul Theroux’s travel journals. Over the past year, he has become my favourite living writer. I took his book to the Fox Bookstore Café and sat sipping a large German beer for an hour, while reading about his journey through Australia.

The following day, alongside an Irish couple, I hired a car and driver to visit Rila Monastery, a few hours south of the capital. It was pissing down all the way to the foot of the mountain, whereupon the rain changed to snow. The temperature plunged as we got higher, and when we were nearly at the top the road was beyond treacherous. The car was, at times, just sliding sideways on the ice and slush. I was glad that there were big crash barriers alongside the narrow mountain road. When we finally stopped, the driver said that normally he’d wait three hours for us, but in this weather we’d be lucky to make it down the mountain alive after even an hour and a half.

When we got out at Rila, I was delighted. It was absolutely breathtaking and, what’s more, there was no one there except for us. I had read online that Rila was a tourist magnet and would be packed, but evidently no one else was stupid enough to brave the snowstorm. I trudged about in the snow for an hour, shooting what I thought were beautiful photos of the lovely old hermitage, but when I got home I realized that getting a good picture in such conditions is more challenging than I had imagined. Hardly any of my photos were useable. They were just blurry messes ruined by flurries of snow about the lens.

Bulgaria is a huge country with so many things to see, but, like Greece, I left after visiting only a few of the more obvious attractions. I felt a strange force pulling me onwards, perhaps towards the end of my journey. Or maybe it was just the fatigue that sets in after several weeks on the road, living out of a suitcase and sharing big dorm rooms with lots of people, moving from city to city and covering thousands mile each week… In any case, I was ready to leave cold, grey Bulgaria and head on… but to where?

*

My research on where to go next left me baffled. Contradictory information about trains and buses to other countries left me uncertain of where I should go. However, a sudden impulse caused me to choose Belgrade. One cold morning, I got up and walked to the train station, and boarded a tiny little train that was supposedly going over the border to Serbia.

This was going to be an exhausting journey. The relatively short hop from Sofia to Belgrade was set to take an astounding 14 hours. How could this be?

At the border, the train was stopped for an hour as immigration and customs from both countries boarded and inspected the train. A Bulgarian man asked me, “Do you have anything to declare?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“No drugs or guns or anything?”

“No.”

He winked. “Ok, I take your word for it.”

As he left the train, he asked, “Hey, where are you from?”

“The UK.”

“I see,” he said. “Have a good day, my friend… and GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!!!”

Beyond the Bulgarian border, the train not only moved slowly but stopped off at seemingly every farm house and wooden shack between the border and the capital. At each of these rudimentary stations, an old man or fat little women, wearing a bright red hat and a sad blue suit, stood beside a bored dog and waved a little stick to tell the train it was time to rumble on. A handful of people got on or off, but the train never filled, even though it was just two small carriages stuck together. This was not what I expected of the only train heading for the capital.

Serbian train station

From the window, I could see that Serbia was similar to Bulgaria, except even more Soviet-looking. In Bulgaria, there were little dilapidated houses spewing coal smoke into the sky, old boxy Russian cars, and even the occasional formerly red star, now turned brown. In Serbia, the houses were all sad, Soviet-era buildings, simple and functional, yet possessing the purely communist sense of soul-sucking conformity. The snowy fields were eerily beautiful, and I even saw a big orange fox playing in the snow, but the country seemed sad and lethargic.

We stopped for an hour in Nis, a small city in the middle of the country. I got off the train in a fit of restlessness and wandered off into the city. I had no Serbian currency on me, but managed to find someone who would trade me dina for euros, and then traded my dina for a sandwich and a bottle of wine, which I brought back to the train. We were soon off again, racing slowly towards the capital city.

Belgrade is not conventionally attractive.  It is no Paris or Venice, that’s for sure. It is certainly not the sort of city one would see on a postcard and declare, “My god, I must add that to my bucket list!” You would not snap a photo of it and stick it on the front of a travel magazine, expecting floods of tourists to descend upon the city. Belgrade is more like a Soviet version of Dundee… and not the good parts of Dundee, but the parts you steer clear of after dark, or few several hours prior to a big football game. It is littered with pawn shops, betting shops, and the sort of shitty bakeries that just need a Greggs sign above the door. The buildings alongside the main roads are blackened, presumably by pollution, and everything has the functional-but-not-remotely-pretty look you often find behind the former Iron Curtain. The people walking the street have a special look in their eye – or maybe it’s better to say that they’re missing something, rather than possessing something. As you find in Cambodia and other countries that suffered war or genocide in their recent history, there is a blankness behind the eyes, and a certain step in their stride that belies the knowledge of true human misery, and that holds back memories of horrors the likes of which most of us thankfully will never know.

Yet somehow Belgrade is a genuinely nice city. It may not look it, but it is. Once you get past that deprived inner-city look, you find it’s really quite charming, and the people, despite that despondent outward appearance, are genuinely very friendly. I had been told to expect the coldest people in Europe, but everywhere I turned I found nice folk – reserved and almost afraid to smile, for sure, but nonetheless helpful and friendly people.

In Belgrade I stayed at an incredibly nice hostel for two nights and for one long day I walked about the city. When I left the hostel, my charming host told me in a very serious tone, “We like to laugh in Serbia,” but I had not seen anyone laugh or smile.

*

The train from Belgrade to the border at Sid moves at little more than a walking pace. You look outside and see a small village ahead with a little church tower, and thirty minutes later it is still ahead. Little old Soviet-era cars and rickety buses pass you by on the adjacent road, and when such a road intersects the railway line, the drivers and passengers look bored, as though they have been sitting there for hours, waiting for this ridiculous little train to move on by, letting them finally speed off.

Mercifully, we soon reached the border with Croatia, after which the train gained speed, finally moving across the landscape at a respectable pace. It skirted the border with Bosnia before cutting up to the capital city of Zagreb, and from there on to the border with Slovenia, my next destination. It was dark by this point and I could see little except for patches of snow here and there. I was weary of train travel, after spending some 24 hours in just 3 days travelling through the Balkans.

Late at night, I arrived in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, whose name is not quite as hard to pronounce as it may look from that odd cluster of consonants. I checked in at my hostel and again took a walk around the city, rather impressed despite the rain. I had no idea what to expect, but Ljubljana was quite cosmopolitan – a very modern version of, say, Budapest. A raging river runs through the middle and around a castle on a steep hill, underneath which sits an “old town” that is really rather gentrified now – in some respects a tourist town. It looks like someone took Prague and Budapest and Bratislava and smashed them all together.

The next day I woke and spent several hours editing essays for some students on my online IELTS writing course. It was pouring down outside and I didn’t fancy going out. However, by lunchtime the rain had not let up and I decided I may as well try to see some of the city, so I stuck on a raincoat and ventured out. I trekked through the city centre and up the hill to the castle, which was uninteresting, and then around the hill on which the castle sits, eventually circling most of the small city. The rain and fog and clouds made it hard to see anything or enjoy anything, but I did get a few decent photos, much to my surprise:

After my walk, I found a small pub/restaurant and went into sample the IPA they advertised outside.

“It’s only available in the summer,” the woman behind the counter told me. She seemed angry that I would be stupid enough to ask for something that was advertised on the door. “But we have mulled wine.” She gestured to two huge vats of bubbling liquid.

“Ok, gimme some mulled wine, then.”

“Red or white?”

I had never in my life heard of mulled white wine before. As far as I knew, mulled wine was red wine. Sticking to my prejudices, I elected of the traditional red wine, and drank the delicious – though far too surgary – hot beverage. About halfway through, I asked myself if I would ever get the chance to try mulled white wine again, given that Slovenia was the only country where I’d ever encountered it.

So I ordered a mug of mulled white wine. It was fine; the red was far superior.

Later that night, after much walking in the rain, I traipsed back to my hostel and the girl on the reception desk asked, “Do you want some mulled wine?”

She did not ask whether I’d prefer red or white; here, evidently, there was only white wine. She handed me a two litre jug of reasonably pleasant mulled wine, which I sipped until it was gone. By the end, I was beginning to doubt whether I had been right in my initial prejudices. Perhaps white wine was the way to go in terms of mulling – it lacked the ludicrous amounts of sugar inherent in red wine, and with a healthy dose of cloves, it lost that sour bite and became actually quite pleasant. Or maybe I was just pissed.

*

The next morning I set off on a bus for Bled, a well-known lake an hour and a half to the north of Ljubljana, right on the border with Austria. On the way, I noted just how green Slovenia was. In Bulgaria and Serbia everything had been shades of brown, but here it was bright green that broke up the snow. The mountains soared into the clouds, which obscured their snowy tops.

The bus pulled up in a small, touristy town, and we poured off. I walked quickly down to the lake and then began to circumambulate it, before finding a hidden hiking trail leading steeply up a hill. After hauling myself to the top, I was afforded several beautiful views over the lake, the town, and the surrounding areas. Sadly, cloud obscured most of the nearby mountains, but it was still an attractive vista nonetheless.

When attempting to get down the mountain, I managed to get hopelessly lost and had to descend much of the climb off-trail. This was somewhat difficult, but did allow me to see a family of deer pass by. At the bottom, I continued my trek around the lake, getting back just in time for sunset. Alas, the heavens suddenly broke and any hope of a nice sunset photo over the lake frittered away. I walked back to the bus and it took off for the capital.

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Author:

I'm the editor of Beatdom magazine and author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'.

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