Saturday, July 31, 2004

Here Comes the Bride


I took a walk along the main road that leads to the airport earlier. As its former name of Sniper Alley suggests, ten years ago I'd have been summarily shot, but these days colourful trams rattle happily up and down past such buildings as the absurdly bright yellow Holiday Inn, now fully back to normal after a spell as the world's most infamous hotel.

That part of Sarajevo is away from the old town and city centre which both look great in the Saturday afternoon sunshine. The only thing that gives it away is the off-duty soldiers mingling with the tourists and locals on their day off. But down where I was today there are still plenty of huge, derelict buildings riddled with bullet holes. On the pavements, lots of what they call 'Sarajevo roses' - big gashes where wayward artillery shells landed. The ice rink used for the 1984 Olympics has seen better days too.

As I was pondering all this rather sober stuff, cars tooting their horns all started whipping by. About 15 - and yes there were some Yugos and Ladas in there - went by with flowers tied to their bonnets. Arriving back at the hostel later, I found they'd all parked up at the restaurant down the road for what was clearly a wedding reception. I stood and watched all this until I realised I was in the photographer's shot behind the bride and groom, and quickly legged it before I was pursued by an irate Bosnian mob.

The call to prayer's ringing round the streets, time for me to head on back and get ready for a night on the tiles.

Beautiful Bosnia


It was more than eight hours on the coach down from Zagreb, but the last four made it worthwhile. The road after Banja Luka suddenly turns into a winding track alongside a river at the bottom of a steep, craggy gorge. Sometimes it climbs and you can get an amaying panorama of the lakes and forested hillsides - like the Rhineland on steroids. It's the most dramatic stretch of road I think I've ever seen.

Even though it's nine years since the fighting stopped around here it doesn't take much to see the scars of the war. Coming through villages and small towns on the road here, often half of the roadside buildings would be bombed out, half-destroyed and abandoned. Sometimes you can look in and see what's left of the paint on the inside of the walls. Each little place has its own cemetery with a series of eerily fresh-looking graves. Seeing the bright white Muslim headstones against the dark forest is very sobering.

Sarajevo seems different to the rest of the country, though no less beautiful. It's quite Middle Eastern (the Turks have been here) rather than European, especially the way they've built up the hillsides, and there are dramatic views almost everywhere you look. It's big, or at least much bigger than I thought it would be, and last night in town there were stacks of young people out boozing and partying. Quite a contrast to the old town which is largely Muslim and an alcohol-free zone.

On getting to the hostel the guy at the counter said there was good news and bad news. The bad news was there was only one bed left and it was across the river, up the hill and down a back street in another part of the hostel. The good news - I'm sharing with four girls. And it's only five quid a night. I think I might stay here a little longer.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Police Camera Action


Chaos at the hostel in Ljubljana as I left this morning. I followed three Slovenian police in through the front door. A very camp and very French guy was sat in reception, wailing and wailing after he was apparently beaten up outside a nightclub. He seemed to have the beginnings of two black eyes so I don't think he was making it up, although he was certainly making the most of it. "Zees ees terrible" he shouted, "I just want to get my passport so I can go back to my countree." Then he moaned about not knowing where his friend was, only for said friend to appear through the front door, which prompted another outburst of wailing complete with floods of tears all round. All round that is, except for the grim-faced Dixonovski of Dock Green and his two chums, who said something stern about "going down to ze station" presumably to give the French guy another beating. You'll be proud of me - I managed to keep a straight face throughout.

Accidentally got into a smoking compartment on the train over here. Was stuck in there with two real Eastern European alpha males - one bald, one with moustache - who chain smoked all the way. The guy with facial hair looked like David Bellamy, and to be honest didn't look as if he was going to make it here without choking to death. Thankfully he just about managed to hold on.

Zagreb is a big city, a proper capital, with all the bustle and noise that that brings. Even the trams seem to be going much faster, to say nothing of the locals who seem to be in a perpetual hurry. Plenty of welcoming bars though, so I might just sample some of the local ale later.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004



The sleeper here was a bit of a production. There wasn't much chance for sleep with two Japanese girls wittering away at the other end of the compartment, and a series of stern looking men in increasingly silly uniforms barging in and turning all the lights on to check my ticket/passport/teeth. The outfit they make rail workers wear here is a belter - olive green slacks with a green and white striped shirt. Very sports casual.

Having slept in my clothes two nights running, it was something of a relief to get to the hostel here and finally put some different ones on. I realised I'd changed only my trousers since leaving Luxembourg. The local army were called in to do a controlled explosion on my socks earlier on. I can't begin to say how good it feels to have some clean clothes on and to have got rid of my ridiculous stubble.

It's another great city. Doesn't feel much like a capital but then it wasn't until ten years or so ago. It's still got an easy going provincial atmosphere about it, and the view from the castle on the hill that overlooks the whole place was alone worth coming for, the lung-bursting climb notwithstanding.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004



I've managed to kill a day here and it turned out rather well in the end. The sun came out, I had some bratwurst rolls in the park, and I started to feel up to tackling a couple of jars in one of the beer gardens. I went along to the Augustiner Keller, these places are like huge school canteens round the back of major breweries. You go up to the counter, grab a beer, go through a checkout and take a seat round any of the hundreds of tables. It was barely two thirds full and I reckon there was up to a thousand people there, many of them in hats and sporting facial hair that wouldn't have looked out of place on a 1970s Second Division footballer. Shout "Fritz" in any of those places and you'll suddenly have about 100 new best friends.

The beer itself is a treat. They serve it in one litre tankards, with the liquid frothing suitably over the top. It's fresh from the brewery so free of all the additives they put in lager back home, and once you get over the initial sweet taste it goes down a storm.

Hopefully the two I had will help me get some rest on the train. I'm off to lose my sleeper virginity and travel through the night to Ljubljana. I wonder if it's full of Australians too.

Making a Meal Of It


Trying to get hold of some lunch earlier I went along to the Viktualienmarkt and did my best with the local stallholders. At a butchers, I picked something random off the board (mainly because it had the word "schwein" in it)  not realising it meant sausages. Forced through sheer embarrassment into buying a couple I decided against eating them raw and left them on a bench for some fortunate passing dog. The beer-guzzling Bavarians were starting to creep me out, so I ran away and hid in the Englischer Garten.

I can't decide whether I like this city or not. It's great if you want to consume lots of meat and beer, but I don't really feel like doing much of either today. Probably a few too many bottles of Hell Pilsner last night. You couldn't call it a particularly attractive place for the most part, but I suppose most of the nice stuff got carpet bombed away in 1945. Everyone who lives here seems to be having a good time so I suppose I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, although if I spent as much time drinking as they do here I'd probably look pretty happy too.

Avenging Pearl Harbor


So I made it here and found a party of sorts. I stayed last night in a dirt cheap glorified refugee camp called The Tent, where you turn up and get a few blankets and a space on the floor of a marquee for about half the price of a hostel. It was raining hard so I was pretty soggy by the time I found it so I just plonked down my stuff and ambled over to the bar. It made a pleasant change to meet some real people, even if most of them were Australian, and we all drank, played cards, sat around the campfire and discussed various hostel showers until the wee hours. On returning groggily to my spot in the tent, I found some Japanese bird had moved my stuff out of the way and was fast asleep. Taking a few moments to weigh up my options, I decided the just thing to do would be to steal my blankets back and leg it over the other side of the tent. The mission proved a complete success.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Duchy Delight


Before leaving Brussels I checked out the comic strip museum - the first and conceivably only strip I´ll get to see on this trip. Having done Holland and Belgium I decided to go for the Benelux hattrick and grab a train to little old Luxembourg. And I´m very glad I did, the capital city (called - you guessed it - Luxembourg) is a real treat - clean, quiet and spectacularly beautiful at every turn. I can´t imagine there´s a more dramatically situated capital anywhere in the world. It´s a bit pricey, but a helpfully vague man in a newsagent gave me five euros too much change so I had a couple of free beers in a cosy bar I found underneath the old fort walls which dominate the place. Walking back to the hostel the walls were all floodlit and they reflected perfectly in the river. And I was the only person there to see it! Makes me wish I´d brought a better camera.

The Grand Duchy may have a lot to recommend it, but ease of internet access isn´t one, which is why I´m writing this in Frankfurt. Got up this morning with the vague intention of heading to Stuttgart, but after getting over the German border (on crossing said frontier it immediately began to rain) to Trier the only trains were heading north. So I took a slow local one up to Koblenz, and enjoyed two hours of more lovely scenery with the Rhine running alongside the tracks and vineyards all around on the steep slopes. Got another train over here, but to be honest I don´t really fancy staying so I´m off to Munich on one of those high speed trains in search of a party. All this solitude and scenery-gazing can only be satisfying for so long.