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Sunday, 18 July 2010

It’s nearly over. Time to say “Goodbye!”…

Goodbye to Lenin and Marx (or statues of them), goodbye to Liberty Girl, goodbye to the Danube and the High Tatras, goodbye to the Planty and the shipyards of Gdańsk , goodbye to storks and the Potemkin Steps, goodbye to mountain lakes and deep caves, goodbye to canals and gondoliers, goodbye Fernsehturm!

No. Not goodbye. See you again!

Viszontlátásra! Dovidenia! Do widzenia! Do svidaniya! Arrivederci! Auf Wiedersehen!

I will leave you with a final image before I sign off this blog. It’s connected with a theme for the trip (beer!), but is also a reminder of how things can be somehow familiar, but also very strange. I took this pic in a bar in Chernivtse, Ukraine. Maybe they have the same thing in Australia or other countries but I have never seen it. If I wanted to have a beer with a group of mates in Australia, we might buy a “jug” to share. In Chernivtse, you would order this:

Thanks to everyone for reading. Maybe we could meet up one day in Mitteleuropa. That would be awesome.

Cheers!

Friday, 16 july 2010

I escaped the heat in Pest today by visiting the Buda hills, via the Cog Railway and then the Children’s Railway to the lookout at Jánoshegy (János hill), returning by chairlift. The evening was pleasantly whiled away at 3 cool bars.

First, I took the Metro to Moskva tér, the line that goes east-west from Keleti station in Pest under the Danube to Déli station in Buda. Then I took tram no. 61 (59 would also have done) west for a couple of stops to the circular Hotel Budapest. Don’t take nos. 18 or 56 as it says in my LP guide. They go in the opposite direction. I was pleasantly surprised that the Cog Railway line that goes from here up to Szechenyi Hill was covered by my 24 hour public transport ticket.

           

At Szechenyi Hill is the start of the Children’s Railway, staffed entirely (except for the driver, I hope) by school children. I got off at Janos Hill, the highest point (527m). It is certainly a few degrees cooler up here than down in Pest. I went for some leisurely walks in the shady forest area, then walked up to a building that was constructed 100 years ago to serve as a viewing tower. I returned down the hill via the nearby chairlift and caught the 291 bus back to Moskva tér. I decided to get off the bus at the Margit Hid (Margaret Bridge) stop.

     

It was getting on for late afternoon by this time. I walked across to Margaret Island from the middle of the bridge, just to see how different it looked from last time I visited (in winter when it was covered in snow), It was much busier than last time when I practically had the place to myself except for a few dog walkers.

There was a bar/cafe/restaurant I came across called Holdudvar (Moon Courtyard). I had a pasta and a hefe-weissbier (Löwenbräu). After that I caught the Metro to Blaha Lujza tér, where I tried to find a roof-top bar I had read about, Corvintető (Corvin’s Roof). It is an open-air bar on the roof of the former communist-era department store, Corvin. The lift attendant has an esky from which he will offer you a selection of palinka drinks (fruit brandy, like schnapps). It looks like they have cinema there too, from the screen I saw. I had another German hefeweissen there (a Hofbräu I think). It really is hot here, high 30s. I find myself drinking more pilsners and wheat beers than I would in cooler weather.
   
I finished up the evening by walking to nearby VII District (the old Jewish Quarter) and the Szimpla Kert bar. Or really a series of bars over a couple of levels in a cool distressed/urban/industrial space. There I had a dark beer (Dreher Bak), finally wending my way back “home” on my not-too-unsteady feet, well before midnight.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Approaching the end of my journey, it already seems a bit surreal. Maybe it never really happened, maybe it was just a dream, or a 24 hour LSD trip. Or maybe I just stayed in my bedroom in Melbourne for 6 months and made it all up, hoovering up photos from the internet, like that conspiracy theory about man landing on the moon.

But no, I have photos of Linsey and Danny as proof. It all really did happen!

In the 24 lots of 7 day weeks, 168 nights away, (i.e. 6 lunar, if not looney, months) I calculate I have slept in 41 different towns and cities, in 12 countries, and visited 14 other places on day trips.

They are (in order of first visit):

  1. Frankfurt am Main
  2. Budapest
  3. Vienna
  4. Bratislava
  5. Banska Bystrica
  6. Poprad
  7. Tatranska Lomnica
  8. Zakopane
  9. Krakow
  10. Wroclaw
  11. Katowice
  12. Lviv
  13. Uzhhorod
  14. Kolomiya
  15. Chernivtse
  16. Kiev
  17. Odessa
  18. Sevastopol
  19. Yalta
  20. Bakhchiserai, then Odessa for the 2nd time, then Budapest for the 2nd time
  21. Pecs
  22. Zagreb
  23. Lyublyana
  24. Bled
  25. Divaca
  26. Piran
  27. Trieste
  28. Venice, then Budapest for the 3rd time
  29. Eger
  30. Kosice
  31. Prague
  32. Warsaw
  33. Vilnius
  34. Klaipeda
  35. Nida
  36. Kaunas
  37. Berlin
  38. Gdansk, and Krakow for the 2nd time
  39. Olomouc, and Budapest for the 4th time
  40. Subotica
  41. Belgrade, and Budapest for the 5th time

The places I visited but did not stay overnight were:

  1. Banska Stiavrica
  2. Wieliczka (salt mine)
  3. Yarumche
  4. Balaclava
  5. Simferopol
  6. Skocjan (caves)
  7. Koper
  8. Duino
  9. Szentendre
  10. Trakai
  11. Sopot
  12. Westerplatte
  13. Czieszyn
  14. Brno

I have travelled as far west as Venice (Italy), as far east as Yalta (Ukraine), as far north as Klaipeda (Lithuania) and as far south as Belgrade (Serbia). I have seen three seas (Black Sea, Adriatic and Baltic), two mountain ranges (Carpathians, including the High Tatras, and the Julian Alps) and a number of major rivers (including the Danube, Dniester and Dnieper flowing into the Black Sea and the Vistula flowing into the Baltic).

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Between Subotica and Belgrade the train passed fields of sunflowers and corn.

Reaching Belgrade, I feel like I am in the Balkans now. Understandably, since this was the demarcation point for centuries, when the Kingdom of Hungary ended just across the Danube River from here. I guess that technically Slovenia and Croatia might be considered “Balkans” (they were both part of Yugoslavia) but they feel much more European. Before WW1 Slovenia was administered by Austria and Croatia by Hungary.

But where are “The Balkans”?. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote an article (“”You may!) in 1999 in the London Review of Books. It includes the following observation about the term “The Balkans”.

Even racism is now reflexive. Consider the Balkans. They are portrayed in the liberal Western media as a vortex of ethnic passion – a multiculturalist dream turned into a nightmare. The standard reaction of a Slovene (I am one myself) is to say: ‘yes, this is how it is in the Balkans, but Slovenia is not part of the Balkans; it is part of Mitteleuropa; the Balkans begin in Croatia or in Bosnia; we Slovenes are the last bulwark of European civilisation against the Balkan madness.’ If you ask, ‘Where do the Balkans begin?’ you will always be told that they begin down there, towards the south-east. For Serbs, they begin in Kosovo or in Bosnia where Serbia is trying to defend civilised Christian Europe against the encroachments of this Other. For the Croats, the Balkans begin in Orthodox, despotic and Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia safeguards Western democratic values. For many Italians and Austrians, they begin in Slovenia, the Western outpost of the Slavic hordes. For many Germans, Austria is tainted with Balkan corruption and inefficiency; for many Northern Germans, Catholic Bavaria is not free of Balkan contamination. Many arrogant Frenchmen associate Germany with Eastern Balkan brutality – it lacks French finesse. Finally, to some British opponents of the European Union, Continental Europe is a new version of the Turkish Empire with Brussels as the new Istanbul – a voracious despotism threatening British freedom and sovereignty.

Today has been my only full day in Belgrade (or Beograd as it is more usually known in Eastern Europe). Hence I don’t feel I am competent to pass definitive judgment on this city. I need maybe 2-3 days for that :)

Nevertheless I can record some impressions, even though I visited the downtown parts of Belgrade, and mainly the “Old City” at that. First thing I would say (and I know this is a wild generalisation) is that that the age of the average tourist here is much younger and their numbers less than in say, Prague or (extreme example) Venice. Belgrade is the place to go for a much edgier, rougher around the edges, (dare I say “keeping it real”) experience. Someone I met compared Belgrade to Berlin, and I kinda see where they were coming from. Of course my impression is probably skewed by something I should have known about, but was only dimly aware of, the “Exit” music festival in nearby Novi Sad.

This last point relates to another potential logistics “hitch”. I had booked accommodation for two nights at the Royal Hotel. Perfect position, near Student’s Park, the Kalemegdan fortress and the so-called “Bohemian” quarter, Skadarska. However, reception did not know about my booking (which was through www.hostelbookers.com, which I have used a lot on the trip and have been very satisfied with). I knew about a hostel just around the corner, Yellowbed, so I went there but they were booked out. And apparently most other places too, because of the four-day Exit festival. Apparently, it is very popular, one of the largest in Europe. The inaugural festival in 2000 was politically inspired and lasted 100 days!!

I thought I was going senile and had actually forgotten to book, but when the kind folks at Yellowbed allowed me to check my emails I found one with an official reservation confirmation, I took that back to Royal Hotel and they were forced to accept it. That was good because I am sure I could have found somewhere to stay, but somewhere probably comparatively expensive. I have noticed before that hotels have a different rate for “walk-ins” which is up to three times the rate you can get if you book ahead.

Anyway, this experience, and dealing with the hotel reception, gave me the indelible impression of Serbia as “The Land Where Time Has No Meaning”. I don’t want to be unfair, and hotel staff were very friendly, but they seemed completely unfussed about any urgent need to get the situation sorted out. I just let my natural “go with the flow” inclination take over, and  had a few “Jelens” at the hotel bar while I waited for them to let me take my bags up to my room. One of the staff even agreed with my slogan (Serbia — The Land Where Time Has No Meaning) and compared his country to Egypt!!

After the situation was resolved and I had a room, it was evening and time to search for a place for a meal. I walked to the nearby area billed as “Bohemian”, quaint narrow cobbled streets etc. Well, I think it was “Bohemian” (meaning edgy and alternative) circa 1900, but nowadays is pretty much a tourist trap (albeit a pleasant one). There was even a signpost pointing to the Bohemian quarters of all the world’s great cities (e.g. Paris – Montmartre). I didn’t notice “Melbourne – Fitzroy”. Or is it Brunswick or Northcote now? I selected the least pretentious place I could find (an Italian trattoria on the edge of the area) and had a nice pasta and glass of Montenegran wine. The food and the wine were very good, and the prices quite reasonable.

As I have said, even in only one day, I detect an energy and atmosphere in Belgrade that is really alluring. I am sure there are real “Bohemian” areas in Belgrade and I would love to come back one day to spend more time here to search them out.

Just a few pics of the downtown streets, Kalemegdan fortress, the Danube River, an Ottoman mosque and Sufi’s tomb, the largest Orthodox church in the world and a building that looks like an earthquake or a bomb has hit it. I don’t know for sure but I suspect it may have been damaged by the NATO bombings in the 1990s. Perhaps they have left it that way to remind people of the infamy of those days (to quote a word America once used about Pearl Harbour). But don’t take my word for it — IANAH (I am not an historian).

In the Military Museum, in the grounds of the Kalemegdan fortress, there were displays dating back hundreds and thousands of years. It included a very small reference to the NATO bombings. Maybe I missed them, but the LP guide says there were pieces of a shot-down Stealth aiircraft and captured KLA (Kosovan Liberation Army) weapons on display. One interesting (to me) item in the museum was the following text along with a display of the document referred to:

“Croatian and Hungarian weapons of the time and a copy of the document of Union of 1102 between Croatia and Hungary”…”After a defeat suffered on the Gvozd Mountain in 1102 Croatia entered into union with Hungary. From that date Croatia was part of Hungary until 1918″. After 1918 it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and later Yugoslavia, before regaining full independence in 1991.”

As I said, IANAH, and I am only quoting what I read in the museum. I find it amazing, inspiring and puzzling all at the same time how “little” countries manage to disappear and then reemerge after hundreds and hundreds of years. I met a guy in one hostel who took offence when I asked if he was from Spain. No, he said, Catalonia — Barcelona is my city. “The Catalan language is as different from Spanish as Spanish is from French” quoth he. And my friend Chris (whom I first met in Odessa and later caught up with in Olomouc) was, I think, a little put out by a fellow Aussie at the hostel who kept insisting (a little insensitively I thought) that Scotland was not a country and that only the United Kingdom was. Semantics perhaps, but wars have been fought over less.

You have been very patient to read this far, and so you shall be rewarded with photos.

                                                 

I return to Budapest tomorrow (Wednesday) and stay there until I fly back to Melbourne next Tuesday.

Monday, 12 July 2010

I have been travelling for so long mainly in the EU Schengen Visa area, I had forgotten about cross-border passport checks. The first one, between Poland and Ukraine, was pretty frustrating, taking 4 hours between about 1am and 5am. The next one, between Hungary and Croatia was comparatively straightforward, maybe only one hour’s delay. The latest between Hungary and Serbia was similarly unproblematic. It took about half an hour for Hungarian immigration officials to check everyone on the train at the last stop before Serbia (Kelebia) and about the same for the Serbian officials at the first stop over the border (Subotica, where I just wanted to get off and find my accommodation). The Serbian police guy looked at my passport and in a stern voice announced: “Norman John Carson – mafia“. I managed a weak smile and a half-hearted ha-ha at his little “joke”.

Subotica is in the region called Vojvodina which was in Hungary before WW1. It still has a large ethnic Hungarian, Hungarian speaking population. Recently Serbia allowed a Hungarian government official to make a tour of the area, as part of the Hungarian government’s efforts to support and maintain contact with culturally Magyar populations. In my view this was good, and not as paranoid as the attitude taken by Slovakia which banned a similar visit on its territory. Many of the nations surrounding Hungary (Romania is another) are a little suspicious and fearful about their large ethnic Hungarian populations having divided loyalties. Hungary has recently proposed giving ethnic Magyars Hungarian citizenship, which has added to the tension. Slovakia has similarly exacerbated tensions by enacting a language law, emphasising the pre-eminence of Slovak over other languages (including Magyar).

This multi-cultural stew is evident in Subotica, with signs and street talk in both Serbian and Magyar.

Exiting the train station at Subotica (coming from Budapest) in the late afternoon I went in search of my lodgings for the (single) night. I wasn’t too surprised that I had trouble finding it. It’s name, after all, was the “Incognito Hostel”…

Subotica is not big enough to rate a map in the Eastern Europe LP guidebook. There was a Googlemap I found on a website but very sketchy and actually misleading. I walked across the park next to the station and up the pedestrian street (Korzo) to the Town Hall on the main sqaure (Republika Trg) to get my bearings. My hostel was supposed to be only 300m from the Town Hall. I couldn’t find it so decided to have a bite to eat. The place was called “Green Food”. I don’t know why, the food did not seem particularly green (in either the good way or the bad way). I had cevapci (the Balkan sausage) with Srpska salata (Serbian salad) and my first Serbian beer (Jelen, with a picture of a stag with antlers on the label). It is a good straightforward Pilsner, very thirst quenching in this hot weather. The temperature is about 33 deg by 9.30am currently. Not surprising since we are now deep into summer and Belgrade will be the furthest south in Europe I have been on the trip.

In a better mood, I decided to go back to the station and get a taxi (an unusual necessity since I have been travelling light). The taxi driver didn’t recognise the street address but we drove to a shop near where he thought it was, and a customer overheard and offered to walk me there, since she lived in the same street. I paid the cab fare and followed after her. It was only 2 minutes away. I marched in the door and up the stairs but there was no-one around, so I went back to the shop and the shopkeeper very kindly phoned for me. I paid her the money for a local call or a little more.For some reason my mobile phone didn’t work at all in Serbia (no connection to a local carrier) unlike every other country I have visited. I went back to the hostel and a short time later two guys showed up and checked me in. I had forgotten, but this time I had booked a “private room” for 35 euros which is the same price I have paid for practically every other single room on the entire trip (about a$50). Dorm beds have averaged about a quarter of this, say 10 euros. Which makes sense, because the room I had booked was actually a 4-bed dorm (all separate, on the floor, not bunks), en-suite toilet and shower.

Sorry to inflict on you that long and boring story, but there is a point to it. The point (I think) is this. If you are going to be an independent traveller, there will inevitably be some logistics hiccups. But they are always solvable if you stay cool, calm and flexible. That’s been my experience anyway.

Most places I have visited have contributed at least one memorable moment. In Yarumche in the Ukraine it was the sighting of my first stork’s nest and stork. In Subotica it was watching the World Cup final (Netherlands vs Spain) at an outdoor bar on the Korzo. I decided to join the local guy sitting next to me in supporting Spain. High fives all round and shouts of “Viva L’Espagna” when they scored the decisive goal deep into extra time. It was the first time Spain have won it (Netherlands have never won it either).

Some pics of Subotica:

            

Thought for the day:

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own…

Marcus Aurelius — Meditations, Book 12/4.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

I am back in Budapest after my zig-zag Northern Loop odyssey. I have got it in my head to do one last side-trip, so I am going to Keleti station today to catch a train to Subotica just across the border in Serbia. I will sleep there tonight then go to Belgrade (on the Danube) for 2 nights and return to Budapest on Wednesday.

Serbia will be the 12th European country I have visited on the trip. The only one of Hungarys seven neighbouring countries I wont get to this time is Romania.

If I can get internet access I will post from Serbia. Otherwise in a few days when I am back in Budapest.

So long for now,

Brno

Thursday, 8 July 2010

I went on a day trip to Brno, the second most populous city in the Czech Republic, only a bit over an hour away from Olomouc by train.

         

It started raining quite heavily when I was in Brno, so I spent some time in the nice cafes of the city. The most interesting sight was at the Capuchin Monastery. In the crypts are the mummified bodies of lay people (including a chimney sweep benefactor wth his boots on) and about two dozen monks. Some of the bodies were incredibly well preserved with fingernails, toenails and full sets of teeth. The bodies of the monks were lying  in rows with their heads to the wall, propped up with a couple of bricks.

I have seen mummified bodies in the Lower Lavra at Kiev, but those were covered in cloth, apart from the heads and the occasional mummified hand poking through a hole cut in the cloth. These were full bodies and it was quite a memorable experience.

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