Sunday, April 24, 2016

Life on the move can be a drain sometimes

We all enjoy routine to varying degrees, and maybe we actually NEED some routine for days to be productive and meaningful. I find I'm putting structure into my days as and how I can. Road rules help, and here are some I have established for myself over the past couple of weeks

  • don't take a taxi from outside the train station. Just don't
  • bureck is never good for breakfast, even with yogurt
  • carry sun-screen, even if it is only 2 degrees outside when you wake up
  • night trains belong in the do-it-once category
  • always have some small change to hand (for the loo!).

  • In Belgrade I made a new rule - no hostels with bunk beds. Then I promptly made a mistake when reserving my accommodation in Prague. I fronted up at Adam&Eva Hostel (9 out of ten on Trip Advisor, number one hostel in Central Prague) having booked a bed in a female-only dorm (save money now, because France and England are getting closer, where the cheapest Airbnb cupboards cost about 21 pounds a night AND you have to drink wine with your host/hostess and I'm sure they mean BYO). Yes, I checked the pictures before booking, and I'm sure I saw spacious dorms with sitting areas and actual beds. Eva met me at reception, looked up my booking and then looked me up and down. She seemed a bit lost for words, then finally came out with it (9 out of 10 for tact) "We have a policy. I don't know how old you are, but we don't allow people over 50 to stay in top bunks, and that's what I have booked. I'm sorry, but we are full up and that's all there is. You see, we have had some complaints in the past..." It took me a moment to come to terms with feeling like a senior big-time LOSER, and then I rallied. "I like top bunks. I don't have any problems with them. You'll get no complaints from me!" I had to stop myself saying, I can carry my luggages up four flights of narrow stairs without any complaint. I can use squat toilets, in fact, I prefer them. I can get my hair cut AND coloured by someone who doesn't speak English. I can travel on an overnight train in Bulgaria and then spend the whole next day walking all over Sofia. I can do a 14 hour train trip without food or coffee - and DID I COMPLAIN?

    She offered to move me to a bottom bunk when there was a space. There's no way I was going to take up that offer.

    But, back to that important question of routine, I have started collecting manhole covers. Proof

    Friday, April 22, 2016

    Lady in Seat 63 - Belgrade to Budapest, slowly

    Belgrade station 
    I was in the mood to move on and on the advice of The Man in Seat 61, decided to take the train to Budapest.

    The thing about the station at Belgrade is the smell. I heard it was much worse a few months ago, but it was still pretty bad. There are people living in the park beside the station. I don't know who or why. Lumps of possessions or people under plastic tarps. Worn tents, litter, piles of bulging plastic bags. People milling around, sitting on the ground, lying on the benches. And right across the centre path, a stream of purposeful people like me, heading to work or going somewhere meaningfully, not making eye contact, not looking around, not breathing too deeply that stink of unwashed humanity, sewage and garbage. Two young men with dreadlocks have set up a couple of urns on a park bench and are handing out paper cups to a small queue of men.

    It's a Serbian train to Hungary. We stop at the border and I'm stamped into the Schengen Zone - the last time for a while that I'll need to show my passport to move from one country to another.
     Not much to see as we head across Serbia. Pocket-handkerchief fields being tilled and planted manually, rural houses with fruit trees, rows of vegetables, hens and beehives. Small stations in tiny towns.

    A long slow morning drags into afternoon rumbling across the plains of Hungary, as the farms get bigger and there's more machinery being used.

    Hungarian train on the left, Serbian on the right
    No restaurant car, no coffee service. No power points, no WiFi. No other english speakers. The sunset was the most exciting thing happening here.

    The day's journey ends with a buzz at Budapest Station - I'm getting somewhere now.

    This is Keleti Station, the place we saw on television last September when crowds of angry refugees who were camped outside 'rioted' in protest against the station being closed. On 3 September it reopened and those buses arrived and took thousands of the homeless refugees to Germany. There were no refugees to be seen during my time but I saw quite a few homeless folk in the subways of the metro, and a few by the river too.

    Thursday, April 21, 2016

    Balkan Beats - or not

    Belgrade - sounds so sedate and calm. Former capital of Yugoslavia, tucked away in Serbia at the confluence of two big slow rivers, the Seva and the Danube and a bit dull and communistic you might think.

    Yes, that Belgrade does exist. Plenty of elegant restaurants, old-worlde charm and no-nonsense communist architecture.

    But what sort of innocent am I? I somehow had missed knowing that Belgrade is not just the party capital of the Balkans, but (so the LP bible says) the World's No 1 Party City. Yes, number one in the world when it comes to clubbing, also according to The Guardian and The New York Times.

    Belgrade rocks, folks. Especially all those party boats along the river.
    Thunder storm rolling in

    Nenad at the hostel in Nis opened my mind about Serbia. Before this trip I really only had two vague associations; something about needing a wheelbarrow full of money to buy bread and milk, and NATO intervention to try to stop the brutal civil war. Now here was this young Belgrader, Tal, our guide on the Free Walking Tour. She lived through both of these experiences in the 90s, suffered under UN sanctions and having bombs dropped on her city. The Kosovo war - I should have known more about it. Unemployment is still very high today and this goes some way towards explaining why there are so many people sitting around in cafes and drinking alcohol in the middle of the day.
    Free Walking Tour guide, Tal, at the Fortress

    Not partying - but gathered for some
    mock sword-fighting,
    promoting a spring festival coming up

    Another bit of the jigsaw fell into place in my mind when Tal pointed out one of the bridges over the Seva, where residents gathered night after night in the 90s, bringing picnics and staying through the night, acting as human shields to try to prevent NATO bombs destroying these historic monuments, lifelines of their city. So an all-night partying culture was born, she tells us.

    Perhaps because of all the hardships of living in the capital of a nation that was falling apart and a city that was being bombed in a strategically random manner designed to maximise the psychological impact on its residents,  Belgraders made clubbing an art form. Some night clubs even continue on into the day. Serbian mafia keep up the energy supplies for party people.

    All that music, and now my confession - my Belgrade is the Calzone Capital of Europe (Rachel is the calzone queen down under).

    I'm sad to say I missed the Balkan Beats, techno vibes and turbo folk. But quite a few people staying at the same hostel as me didn't.

    I'd really love to come back to Belgrade to really experience this culture - but with company and the budget for a sound-proof hotel room with blackout curtains and spectacular breakfasts.

    Sunday, April 17, 2016

    Sunny southern Serbia

    So now I cross the border from Bulgaria to Serbia, and the one of the first things I notice is that the border guards look like thugs and the small towns smell like piss.
     No pictures of the border police. I think you could be arrested for that.

    The place I'm headed for, Nis, kind of rhymes with drunken piss ("neesh" actually).

    Nis has some attractions, but I missed seeing the Birthplace of Emperor Constantine the Great, nor did I go to see the Skull Tower. So what did I see?

    I arrived just on dark and stayed in a quiet hostel in the Balkan Backpackers chain.

    This is not actually the hostel. It is the building over the lane though. A man in a grubby singlet with no teeth yelled at me in Serbian from a window of one of the apartments. Took me a moment to work out he was actually giving me directions on where to turn.

    Nenad was the best host, and quickly set about revising my stereotypes. First he made me a glass of lemonade with fresh lemons and then he gave me a potted history of Serbia. Basically it was under communist rule for less time than Bulgaria because Tito stood up to Russia and established his own brand of socialism. And now people love to party and have fun.

    Despite the hostel being on a dirt path between grim soviet-style apartment blocks adorned with graffiti, he tells me it is very safe and the two local pastry shops are open 24 hours. If that isn't enough to raise my mental rating of Nis, next day I discovered what the Fortress is all about.

    Lulled by the sun I spent quite a bit of my day in Nis at the Fortress which is a lovely park with a ruined mosque and hamman and some more roman ruins, and also lovely bars and cafes.

    In common with many of the other Balkan states, the relaxed and convivial atmosphere both hides and is a reflection of very high unemployment - around 30%. People have plenty of time sit around drinking coffee or beer or something stronger with their friends. As I was about to discover for myself in Belgrade - next post dear readers.

    Nis has the best app ever. Nis Talking is a dynamic guide to all the main sights and it works a treat. Eat your heart of Lonely Planet, because your ebook versions suck.

    The app led me to a couple of churches where I found that devotions are also very much part of everyday life for many Serbian people.

    Incidentally that other bible, LP, does redeem itself a bit in my mind when under Serbian history it says "hugely misunderstood". OK, it isn't just me.

    Plovdiv. European City of Culture 2019

    Why visit Plovdiv? That's "PLOFV-difv", by the way. It is going to be European City of Culture in 2019, so you should think seriously about this question. A word that sums up the city is the commonly heard local expression 'Aylac' meaning easy-going. It's small place, easy to get around, and charming. The city's motto, Ancient and Eternal, is very cool too.

    Plovdiv is the second city in Bulgaria and the oldest continuous city site in Europe. It has been settled since 4000 BC and just up the hill from the best place to stay, the Old Plovdiv Guest House  (a boutique hostel no less - I am selective), you can walk around the hilltop ruins of a prehistoric fortress.   In roman times the city used to be called Philippopolis, and it was an important trading centre on the Via Metropolis, the main road that linked east to west. The patron saint is St Erasmus, who was the bishop of Philippopolis. I guess that was way back in the 1st century, because after that the town was run first by the Romans, and later by the Turks for 500 years.

    Iron nails in the gate of the caravanserai known as Kurshum Inn, a landmark in medieval times. Fifty horses at a time could drink from the fountains in the courtyard.

    An enormous Roman amphitheatre that seated over 30,000 people has been discovered under the main street. It remains only partially excavated but you can sit in a modern cafe overlooking a part of it.

    The building below is now the Ethnographic Museum. It was built in 1847 during the Bulgarian renaissance, in the baroque style. As Turkish power declined, local culture again began to flourish, and wealthy people began building in European style drawing on traditional arts and crafts. Many grand houses like this are now small museums so you can look around and enjoy the architecture.

    Traditional folk costumes are on display at this one, demonstrating some fine examples of the bulgarian style of knitting that has also had a bit of a renaissance. Just check on Ravelry

    I loved the timber ceilings which are ornately carved and completely different in each room.

    Now here's just a pile of 2nd century rubbish. Bits left over when the roman amphitheatre was being restored, having been buried for thousands of years and only rediscovered 50 years ago, are now used by students from the music conservatorium as a place to sit and have a smoke or a coffee.

    Underneath the Old Plovdiv Guest House some remains of 2nd century walls have been exposed, and there they were at the end of the breakfast room. So I sat with the Romans to eat my boiled egg.

    There are two walking tours each day. The main city tour in the afternoon was led by Kathy. She and Nick are both 19 year-old law students. In the morning Nick (no that's not Nick) led a walk around the special area known as The Trap. A warren of narrow streets that used to be the bazaar until it burned down, it is now full of bars and graffiti and arty little shops - in fact if you are looking for an opportunity, you can have free rent for a year in one of the shops as long as you are doing something creative. Worth considering. I had an artisan coffee in a little place where the beans are roasted on the premises for a cost of around 60 cents.

    Don't drive into the Trap - it is a maze and there's only one way out, this one.

     The main streets are walking streets - so civilised. And there are some lovely parks.
    Just another bit of graffiti.

    So if you are headed for Bulgaria, don't miss Plovdiv. 
    Even the ruins are charming. 

    Wednesday, April 13, 2016

    Rila Monastry

    Rila Monastery was established in the 13th century when a hermit's dwelling and tomb became a holy site that attracted a devotional community who built a monastic complex. The main buildings seen today date from the Bulgarian Renaissance (1830s and 40s). The earlier complex was destroyed by fire. Ten centuries of architectural styles have been preserved, giving the site Unesco World Heritage status.

    There are rooms for up to 500 monks, but today there are only about 10 in residence. Still, the monastery bakery sells bread, honey and doughnuts. I bought a round loaf that I could have used to attack a hermit had I come across one (it made especially delicious toast that I lived on for the next two days). Some of the cells - I mean rooms - are available to stay in. You can choose to sleep in the style of the monks, on a wooden board bench without running water and electricity, or you can pay a bit more and have a modernised version. Our guide, Martin, warned us that the toilets in the complex are particularly unpleasant. Either monks don't do housekeeping or tourists are picky.
    Martin works for Traventuria. He's a graduate of music school doing a second degree at Sofia University in social experience. Here he is talking about the frescoes that decorate the outside of the church, and explaining that the chairs are for old monks.
    Gate to the bakery

    Main courtyard


    Where the monks live

    Ceiling frescoes outside church (no photos inside)
    The tour also included a visit to the tiny Bojana Church on the outskirts of Sofia. The Boyana Church is composed of three parts, each built at a different period - 10 century, 13th century and 19th century.