08.07.2015 - 02.08.2015 35 °C
After over 5 months on the road in Asia I decided to head back to Europe for a few weeks for three reasons...
1. A friend was having his stag do in Prague, one not to miss
2. I had been planning a trip back to Eastern Europe with another friend for a few months and finally...
3. I really needed a good kebab...so what better place to start than the home of westernised kebabs Berlin and what better place to finish than the place where the real deal was born, Istanbul.
In between Berlin and Istanbul the plan was a whistle stop tour (is there any other way) of several countries I'd only previously experienced through Eurovision, be that a bizarre attempt at europop, or some startchy looking person saying United Kingdom nil points with a backdrop of their city straight out of a communist propaganda video....I wanted to see for myself what these places had to offer and correct any false stereotypes because based on my current exposure they were all going to be woeful singers, have a terrible taste in music and run around in sequin covered outfits, with velcro skirts that rip off...oh wait a minute that was the UK!
14 hours after leaving Mongolia and via a lay over in Moscow (where at the airport, despite the Russians apparent homophobia, I heard a bit of Freddie mercury and Queen as well as Culture Club playing...keep trying Vlad, maybe its those topless hunting pictures you keep releasing that is confusing your loyal followers) I arrived to Berlin, back to where my trip had started in the snow all those months before. Time to figure out the next few weeks itinerary with my mate Moss and also tell a few travelling stories, mainly about how sore I was from that horse still and how grim horse milk is. After 2 days it was time for me to head to see some other friends...a short bus ride to Prague to surprise Matthew Atkinson on his stag do. A great city and an action packed few days, unfortunately though as everyone knows what happens on a stag do stays on a stag do and the privacy waiver I was made to sign prevents me from sharing anything. 'Stag do, what stag do?....
After 3 days of civilised behaviour and feeling suitably refreshed, I borded a flight to Ljubljana. Not before, I should add, a local woman in Prague took a shining to my wallet, that happened to be in my pocket, and I happened to see her hand entering my pocket....not a story from a previous night, but a lucky escape for me from eastern Europe's small time Ronnie Biggs and a reminder that out here it was sometimes more wild west than east...
I arrived to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, and once again met with my friend Moss. We then hired bikes to take in the few sights the city had to offer...the old town, a strange gimmick in the centre where they claimed to have created their own microclimate - basically 4 hosepipes with holes in them suspended above, and a castle with views to the neighbouring Alps. The city seen, we headed back to the hostel for a local beer and food before next mornings train to Croatia. Having been on Asian trains for the last months I'd forgotten how good trains could be, in particular out east. As part of the Soviet hangover these guys have some pretty palatial carriages and travel at rock bottom prices. Take note British rail, this is how it should be done. A few hours later and we arrived to Rijeka in northern Croatia, where we collected our steed for the next few days...Dwight the hire car, not a horse/donkey in sight.
We spent the next few days cruising the coast, heading to the incredible Plitvice lakes, taking in a football match in Zagreb...where the highlight was the hot dog and beer outside the ground and finally ended up in the tourist Mecca of Dubrovnik. A real highlight of the trip though was a short excursion to Mostar in Bosnia. The town is famous for a bridge that was destroyed in one of the conflicts in this area and has since been rebuilt. Its also possible to jump off it for the price of 25 Euros....we overheard an Australian asking why should she pay as she's jumped off stuff before....well I've jumped off the 1meter spring board at Queens Park leisure centre and you don't hear me bragging about it, especially next to a 25metre high bridge where the next round of the Red Bull cliff diving series is. If I was you darling I'd keep your jumping off your trampoline into your paddling pool stories to yourself and pay up.
Eastern Europe-ometer: 10 days, 5 countries, 4 currencies
After Croatia the real fun started as we left the package holidayers and caravans of Holland and Germany behind and headed more into the unknown, next stop Montenegro...the real eastern Europe was beggining. At the first roll call on the bus over the border the names being read out made this even more apparent....Stankovic, Markovic, Ivanovich....more itches than the morning after a night in a midge infested tent in Scotland. The first stop in Montenegro was the bay of Kotor...what's this more package tours and cruise ships! The place was overrun yet again, and despite its stunning location we headed swiftly on down the coast the next day to the town of Ulcinj. This place proved to be a real find...not due to the town, but thanks to our host for the night, a local chap called Milla who could only speak German but who cares... the place had beds, he had some beers and he then serenaded us with some Montenegrin classics before getting out his home video collection to show us his recording of a Madonna concert...I 'reluctantly' at this point said goodnight to Montenegro's answer to Pavarotti and called it a night.
The next day we planned to press on to Albania, home of the gangsters in one of my favourite films Taken. I'm sure that the film has done wonders for the tourism around here. Before we left Pavarottis though we were treated to a home cooked breakfast and some more home videos, this time of him at his holiday home...topless barbequeing...definty time to leave. After a short bus ride we arrived to the town of Shköder, where we needed to change for the capital Tirana. What kind of accent to great us here...a Brummy one of course. The chap in question who wouldn't have been out of place in down town Dudley informed us there were no more buses and we would either have to wait here for the night or get in one of the taxis, who's drivers looked like a line up from Americas most wanted...where's Liam Neesons number on speed dial when you need it? I needn't have been concerned though, as apart from being a maniac behind the wheel, swearing and gesticulating at every car with a Kosovan number plate and telling us he had served 5 years in a German prison our taxi driver delivered us to Tirana. 'What's the matter guys? Why so pale?' At this point our entourage had gained 3 brazilians, 2 Serbians and 1 Dutch, just the kind of mix you would expect in these parts....the real adventure had begun and although Tirana was a strange city, once again lacking in sights, it had that all important eastern feel. We spent the next few days with our fellow jet setters drinking the cheapest beer to date and eating plates of eastern European meat...it was then time to head even further east to Skopje, in Macedonia, via a brief lay over in Kosovo.
Eastern Europe-ometer: 14 days, 7 countries, 5 currencies
Macedonia was where the odd eastern European feel really set in. Despite not being the most affluent of places, Skopje, the countries capital was heaving with statues and monuments, las Vegas esque Roman style buildings (all built in the last 20 years) and more footbridges over the central river in the space of 200 metres than london has over most of the Thames. Within 5 minutes walk of this you could then be in neighbourhoods where houses were made out of mud and straw....corruption and misspending of public money at its finest. That evening we went to another football match, this time a much more lively affair between the champions of Macedonia and Cyprus. Although the game was a bit more exciting than the one in Croatia, I still think it was the vast quantities orange juice and cola being consumed that was putting the crowd on edge...so much so that on the final whistle being blown the players had their shirts and shorts ripped off of them...quick, get these blokes a beer.
The next day we escaped the city and went to a local gorge and river, yet another stunning location but the real highlight was a chance meeting with Macedonia's answer to the God Father at the bus stop on the way home. He had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand, not that we could understand a word of it, and rather than risk waking up with a horses head next to us the next day, we played along and breathed a sigh of relief on getting back to the city. Yet again no time to rest though, as the next morning we headed on to Bulgaria.
The controversial high speed Mansfield horse and cart line still has its critics despite linking them to London in only 4 days 2 hours.
Eastern Europe-ometer: 16 days, 9 countries, 6 currencies
Into Bulgaria and this time just a short layover in Sofia to break up the journey further north...although in this short period I proved once and for all that a beard is not a good look for international travel, the local police took a shining to me and couldn't believe my bag contained no contraband...Eastern European rubber glove treatment avoided, we lived on the the local trains over the next day and a half including a wheel change on the Romania/Moldova border...an interesting experience where they split the train into individual carriages, lift it up and then slide on some shiny new wheels...an F1 pit stop this isn't though, think 1 hour rather than 10 seconds....and at this stop it seemed to be regulation for every staff member to smoke a full packet of cigarettes, imagine that in the Mercedes pit.....'Yeh one minute Lewis, Dave's just got to roll me one'. The train was also a sauna and for a joke I said to the conductor can you turn the ac on, to which he replied about our clearly soviet made surroundings...'Sorry its broken, as its German made'...good to see the pride in the motherland still going strong. Our final destination on this train was Chisinau, capital of Moldova and one of the poorest countries on the continent.
On the scale of weird Moldova would rank pretty high. As one of Europe's poorest nations...recently a well known businessman/politician was accused of stealing £1billion from the country, roughly 1/8 of their entire GDP... they aren't exactly rolling in it. We were greeted by a local market where locals were seemingly selling anything and everything, this one stall offering that well known combination of goods...a toasted sandwich maker and trousers...
...and at another local market it became apparent that here forgot you are what you eat, here it's you wear what you eat and in this case as the local model in green kindly shows a cabbage.
Eastern Europe-ometer: 19 days, 11 countries, 8 currencies
The more I write on this blog, the more I realise how much we covered in a short space of time, as once again the next day a train took us from Moldova to the penultimate country on this leg of my journey, Romania. My preconceptions of this place had also been shaped by Blue Peter and their yearly shoe box/tin can appeals to help the countries less fortunate. On arrival to Bucharest it seemed like their dirty work was still being finished off by half of the world's population of Scouts....these guys were everywhere. The city of Bucharest was vast and contained the second largest administrative building in the world, second only to the Pentagon. An over the top, marble fest, over 1million cubic meters apparently, dedicated to the memory of the old communist dream. The building and its 2000+ rooms now playing host to droves of tourists, and a few conferences...probably to discuss Blue Peters next tin can appeal...'Next time we should ask for marble instead of tins, we could use another few rooms on the back of this place'. This city has also been confused with a few others on the continent by some of the intellects of our times...Michael Jackson apparently said on the balcony of the palace to his adoring fans 'Hello Budapest' and Robbie Williams said he 'Couldn't wait to play in Belgrade'. I'll remember to leave Robbie off my pub quiz dream team next time.
After two more days and failing to see another football game...this lot had a stadium ban, Moss and I went our separate ways. He headed back west and I headed further east to the place where East meets West, Istanbul.
I had the next two days in Istanbul, and having been met by my host Atilla...I just can't seem to shake off those Mongolia connections...and getting a quick overview of what was on offer, set off into the old town... after that all important first kebab of course. The cultural mix and architecture was incredible and that was before I got off of the residential street I was staying on...the local streets were straight out of a Charles dickens novel (his Turkish brother at least), teeming with activity and how life probably used to be in more mediaeval times elsewhere. In the old town the streets heaved with tourists and the place was full of mosques. To name a few you've got the famous blue mosque, the new mosque and the one that Dickie Bird must have named, Eyup Mosque. That evening I watched the sunset over the Bosphorus and then the full moon rise over it. The following day and my last on this leg of the trip, I took ferry to the near by Maidens Tower, sight of many wedding photos, the local hairy man swimming club...where to be a member you must be 1. A man, 2. Local, and 3. Hairy enough to be confused with bigfoot and also where Dame Judy Dench playing 'M' was held captive in the James Bond epic die another day, as James bond saved the world from nuclear melt down beneath the Bosphorus. And what better way to round off a trip to Turkey than 2 kebabs from a local gem of a place... even better after the guy on the till asked me where I was from, stroked my beard and said 'very good'. In any other situation I may have said something, but not when the guys mate is brandishing a huge kebab carving machete.
Eastern Europe-ometer final reading: 24 days, 11 countries, 8 currencies, 5 genuine Turkish kebabs
Apparently this blue moon phenomenon only happens once in a blue moon. Who'd have thought it?
Whistle stop tour of eastern europe complete its time to leave Europe and head back to Asia... bring on the Orient (and I don't mean Leyton in North London), next up Beijing.