Sunday, November 27, 2005

The end of the road... for now

Bristol - Slough - Windsor - Oxford - London

Hey everybody,

So, after over 2 years of travelling through Europe and the Middle East, I’m finally on my way home. What an amazing eye opening time I’ve had, with many places visited, friends made, memories cherished, lessons learnt, dreams fulfilled, and beers drunk. Although doing all this meant a departure from what most people consider real life, never on my travels have I ever regretted what I’ve done. Sure, now I’ll come home broke, with suspended career and old friends moving on and settling down, but it is all worth it. The way I see it is that I am in almost the same situation as I was two years ago, except that I’ve seen a great part of the world and experienced things that not many people ever will, and can never be taken away from me. Anyway, enough of this reflective tone, must be the music on the radio...


Flew from Dublin to Bristol to spend one whole day in Longwell Green, in order to catch up with old friends that I have made during my time working there as Barman and Internet Education Consultant for the schools in the area. First was Sue, girlfriend of John Barnett who I lodged with, then Helen, ex-Librarian for SBL (the school down the
road I based myself at), who I enjoyed gossiping with when working there. Then it was to SBL to quickly see my old bosses Jez and Tony, a few teachers (Terry, John, Jane) and students (Sadie, Amy, Stacy, Toni). Then to a pub to see Donna, ex waitress from the bar I worked at, cool chick who steals my heart whenever I see her , followed by
going to another bar to see my old drinking mates Tina, Nick, Tom and Luke. The next morning I visited Juliet and her kids Zoe and Robert, responsible for introducing me to Jana, their old Slovakian au pair and my secret girlfriend during my time in Bristol. Phew! I did say this was a whirlwind tour didn't I?

And then I caught a train to Slough.

Well almost, since the train decided to not stop at Slough and take me to London instead, despite assurances from station manager and ticket inspector that it was going to stop at Slough. Anyway, another train later and met up with Tim and Karin, an old co-worker back at etechgroup where I used to work before I went travelling. Here I was to also base myself for the next couple of nights as Slough is close to the airport.

Ironic how after two years of travel, the last place I go to before heading home is the backwater that is Slough.

We did a pub crawl in Windsor, home of the Queen. The palace is pretty impressive, but ill lit at night which was a little disappointing. Could not tell if the queen was actually in or not.

Slightly hungover, the next day we did a day trip to Oxford. Oxford is quite a pretty place with cool stone architecture full of detailed sculptures and gargoyles of peoples heads and animals.

There is usually much debate over which is better - Oxford or Cambridge. I must say that Cambridge gets my vote as the better city. Oxford is larger, with more tourists, and seemingly impractical people. In oxford you would see bridges designed for water being built over roads, crooked misshapen doorways on houses, and crowds that like
to congregate at places in the narrowest part of a street for no apparent reason except to slow down people trying to walk down the street, which proved quite infuriating.

There is also nothing less welcoming than paying 3 pounds to visit a university (Christchurch), then upon walking past the ticket booth find a sign saying "Cathedral and Way Out". What, they want us out already? Plus the main hall was closed, leaving only the Cathedral to visit, which wasn't really that exceptional. The grounds were pretty
uninspiring also. The city's amazing architecture saved it from me declaring Oxford a complete letdown otherwise.

Anyway, got back to Slough, where I then went into London on my own (Tim and Karin had to work) to try and meet up with people I knew in London, and spend my last night in Europe partying in the town!

Went completely awry when I discovered that the only person capable of joining me on my planned night of boozed fuelled revelry was none other than Jennie, who came all the way down from Birmingham to join me! Everyone else was either busy, sick, or just didn't bother. Oh well. Anyway, the immediate problem that dawned on us was that none of us actually had a place to stay. Although I had many offers to crash at people's homes, we decided that we would try to find a hostel or hotel instead as it meant we could stay out longer instead of going home on the last tube train at midnight.

2 pints later and a mad trawl through Coventry, Piccadilly and Earls Court amongst fully booked hostels and hotels, we finally stumbled across a hostel with available beds - at 11:10pm! By this time, despite the countries move to 24hr liquor licensing taking effect that night, most of the bars in Earls Court had closed at than their usual 11pm time! However, we were not perturbed, as we managed to find a club that was open till 2am, playing karaoke and disco music. So we happily consumed much pints while amusing ourselves with the awful singing of drunken British louts and dancing to cheesy disco tunes. All this goes to show that things always work out in the end. It also shows that you should try to book a hostel in London in advance if you want to stay on Saturday night, and not when you how up in the city at 8pm that night! Still, alls well that ends well

So now here I am in Slough, where, after miraculously getting out of being mugged on the street (long story), am about to head to the airport in a few hours time for my flight back home to Melbourne!

Plans for the future involve 1 year teaching English in Asia, followed by 1 year travel in Asia via Transmongolian and Silk Roads. Then 1 year working holiday in Canada followed by 1 year travelling the US and South America. Finally 1 year volunteer working and travelling in Africa. I also think 1 year working holiday in Ireland is also on the
drawing board.

Who knows what the next year will bring me. But whatever I do, I will try to keep you all posted

Till my next big adventure,
James Lee
Sunday 27th November 2005, 5:45pm

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

James' Whirlwind Tour of UK - Part 3: Ireland

Belfast - Giants Causeway - Galway - Dublin

Aye there, now where's my Guinness! (ok, so maybe that's not how they say hi in Irish...)


Well, it's been quite an exhausting but fun month around the UK and Ireland, considering that I’ve been going out almost every night partying it up in the clubs - since most cities in the UK and Ireland have really good nightlife. (Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Galway, Dublin).

Maybe I can stop partying in my next destinations; Bristol - nup, party town... then London, nup again, more partying there!

Looks like no break from this partyboy lifestyle till I get home, where I really do need to detox and abstain from drinking for a while (yeah right!)


Forgot to mention doing a day trip out to Rosslyn from Edinburgh, to seek out the famous Rosslyn chapel mentioned in "The Da Vinci Code" book and touted by many historians to be the residing place of the Holy Grail. It's quite an amazing place alone, although small it's interior and exterior sculptures and carvings are quite odd and eccentric, no wonder one would think there is something suspicious going on there. Take for instance, the carving of native American plants inside, made before America was even discovered! Or the strange pagan symbols and astronomical stars carved on the ceiling! Freaky!

No grail found though. Just a guy asking for 6 pounds for entry!


I like Ireland. It reminds me alot like Wales with the wild hills and sheep and rugged coastline of steep cliffs, the houses especially near the coast, and the friendliness of the inhabitants. The girls are quite stunning too, and just like in the UK, they sure love braving the elements in their short skirts and big boats and big fur hooded jackets which makes you wonder if they've forgotten to put on a pair of winter trousers to complete the ensemble. Not that I’m complaining mind you. Anyway, as with most nations with stunning girls, I can't understand a word they are saying, even though it's English! Their accent is truly unintelligible, all I can do when they talk to me is smile, say "uh huh" and nod at the end of each sentence, and when they ask me an incomprehensible question, quickly down my pint of Guinness and say I need to get another drink. Then run away.

Guinness is great here, I actually didn't like it when I first tried it in England (mainly because it is brewed in England there). But the Guinness here is quite smooth, and you can taste the burnt malt in the brew. You beauty!

Belfast is much like every other city in Ireland (and the UK), same old modern cobbled shopping pedestrian malls as city center configuration, with waterfront and a few grand buildings like the town hall. Shopping center by day, party town at night, one could easily forget what the place is like. Belfast however does have a bloody history that makes it stand out and worth visiting, being one of the battlegrounds of the Troubles that plagued Ireland for the last 50 or
so years.

Belfast also has the prettiest girls in all of Ireland.

Visited the Europa hotel, which is the most blown up hotel in the world by IRA terrorist bombings. Makes you wonder why people would want to keep checking into the place with that call to fame. Adrenalin junkies perhaps. Thrill seeking businessmen adrenalin junkies more like it - the place is big and expensive.

Also noted the Northern bank of Ireland that recently was infamously robbed in broad daylight by some guys who made two trips to take 20million from the vaults straight to their van parked outside – and no one knew it was happening till after they left!

From what I’ve gathered, basically the situation of Northern Ireland (AKA Ulster), is this - a civil war against the Protestant British loving Royalist Loyalists, (their militants are the UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force) and the Catholic Independence from British Separatist Republicans (their parliament being Sein Finn, their army the IRA - Irish Republican Army) who want Northern Ireland as part of Ireland.
See, travelling truly is an educational experience!

I've been told the situation is similar to the Israeli-Palestine issue, except instead of Jews occupying Palestinian land, it is Protestants occupying Catholic land (which occurred after Britain occupied Ireland a long while ago). In fact, you would see the star of David painted on the UVF flag, and apparently there is support from the Jewish settlers for UVF and Palestinians for IRA (also evident in the wall murals painted - more on that later). And even though it's peace time etc, there are some places I've been told to avoid at night.

Did a tour of the Trouble related sights, which took us to the Falls and Shambles areas, the front battleline of the two sides. Between the two areas is a huge wall, similar to the walls used in the Berlin wall and Israel/Palestine. On the main roads of each area near the wall you would pass famous colourful artistic murals, each depicting a political point of view supporting their cause.

Popped into the Sein Finn office where they kindly allowed me to pick up a copy of their last year's manifesto from their dumpster out the back. Hmmm...

Went up to see Giants Causeway, which is an amazing coastline of black basalt hexagonical cylindrical pillars of various heights, which stretches for miles. Apparently caused by some freak volcanic activity and slow lava cooling. The mythical reason being that it was created by a giant called Finn McCool who built it so he could cross to Scotland to see his lover. Couldn't he just build himself a boat?

Anyway, this was followed by a visit to the Bushwells Whisky distillery, currently the oldest original Whisky distillery in the world. The tour was a standard tour showing how whisky is made etc. But when they asked for four volunteers I was the fastest person with my hand up. Because it involved me and three other people testing 3
shots of whisky and comparing it with a shot of bourbon and a shot of scotch. All in the space of less than 5 minutes. Hic!

Differences? Scotch Whisky is smokier flavoured (and my preferred spirit), Bourbon is floral/perfumed flavoured, and Irish Whisky generally as a bit of bite followed by smooth aftertaste (favourite being 10yo single malt, ends with a chocolately aftertaste.)

Afterwards I was given a certificate calling me a certified Irish Whisky Tester! Woo Hoo!

Finally made it to Galway in the Irish Republic after a 6hr bus ride and three bus changes. Hardcore traveller me! Anyway, Galway is a very small but lovely cultural university town, full of vibrancy and life, crowds constantly on the streets shopping, having a pint or eating, while buskers play loudly within earshot of one another so it sounds like a badly conducted orchestra. Was disappointed with the famous nightlife though, which is one of the reasons I went there, mainly because everyone else was there also looking to have a good time. The pubs were so crowded I had no desire standing squashed on all sides in the smoky haze, but eventually found a quieter place to chill and chat.

Ireland in this part of the country is quite homogenous, so I do get alot of stares and attention, some of it bordering on racism if I didn't know better. But the people are still good humoured and lively.

Day tripped to the Cliffs of Moher, stopping via the famed Dolmen which is an ancient tomb of one slab on top of two vertical slabs much like a doorway or what you see in Stonehenge. The cliffs were quite dramatic but hazy. Nearly fell off it actually when this Mexican girl wanted to take my photo and told me to move to my right closer to the cliff edge, to which I tripped myself doing but luckily steadied myself in time! Phew!

5 bars visited, 7 pints of Guinness drunk, many random friendly locals met, 1 cute German girl kissed, partying it up till 4am - all on a Monday night. What does this mean? Dublin has awesome nightlife!

Dublin is very cosmopolitan, where a huge number of Asians (as well as other ethnic minorities) coexist happily with the Irish. To see Asians working in an Irish pub behind the bar shows how well integrated they are with society. The French can learn from this.

Did a tour of the Guinness brewery, where I got to do a taste test, and got a free pint in their skytop bar overlooking the city below. Then went shopping and wandering the many pedestrian malls full of life, crossing the numerous bridges over the river, and failing to find anywhere cheap to eat (as Dublin is expensive).

Anyway, tomorrow I fly to Bristol, then a trip to Oxford followed by London, before my voyage back home to Melbourne! *sob, sniff sniff* my two year roaming Europe and Middle East is almost over! Any regrets?
None whatsoever!!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

James' Whirlwind Tour of UK - Part 2: Scotland

Newcastle - Edinburgh - (Glencoe - Loch Ness - Inverness) - Glasgow

Aye me laddies and lassies,

My last day in Newcastle involved venturing to the outskirts of the city to find the Segemum Museum which contained some Hadrian Wall ruins and a ruined fort. It was pretty unspectacular considering all that was really left was the foundations - you had to rely on their museum's computer reconstructions to work out exactly what you were looking at. I then continued on to Whitby bay, to see huge sandy beaches and freezing cold North Sea waters. Don't understand how the crazy Brits can go to beach resort places like this in the freezing cold wind and water, all in the name of relaxation and fun!

Scotland, the land of Kilts, Whisky and Haggis, also a land of large grey granite cities separated from one another by vast areas of desolate land, of highland hills and mountains, valleys and glens, and cold icy deep lochs. Also the land of thick accents and drinking lots at all hours of the day (clubs close at 3am but pubs open at 6am meaning virtually 24hr drinking if you went back to the hostel and drank during the 3hr transition period)!

Tried haggis the day I arrived. It's actually pretty good, it's just like eating the stuffing you get in your roast chicken (probably because it's made of the same stuff, just different animal). You can also have haggis on all sorts of things like jacket potatoes or some on some serving of meat. Just don't think about what it's made of (same goes with black pudding, hotdogs and minced meat).

Edinburgh is a beautiful windy city, full of grey Georgian? Style buildings which despite the bleak colours, it's style still manages to make the city very picturesque. Was fun just wandering the many closes and wynds of the old town, the model looking Edinburgh castle on top of a cliff in the centre, and the surrounding hills.

I've become addicted to Ghost tours now, simply because you get a tour of the city at night, a bit of history, some cool stories, and a bit of scary fun. So I did two in Edinburgh.

One was the City of Dead tour, which has as it's drawcard the only keys to the infamous Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars Cemetery, regarded as one of the top five most scariest places in the world because of the "MacKenzie Poltergeist", known to attack tour groups and leave scratches and marks on people the day after (though that's probably due to the drinking - Edinburgh parties every night!). Didn't get attacked though it was frightening enough being locked up in a cemetery at night sheltering within the Black Mausoleum itself. One woman even fainted. And all this in the name of thrillseeking fun!

The other one was the Auld Reekies Terror tour, involving us going down to some haunted underground crypts and vaults, including an underground pagan temple. I actually found this alot more scary, especially as I swear I saw some white figures walking past the doorway behind the guide, this doorway leading to the most haunted dangerous (due to poltergeist attacks) vault in the complex. Which we then had to stand inside with the lights off while the guide explained the scary stuff about it.

Took some photos, but hard to tell if there are any strange floating orbs of light or shadows or ghostly faces until I extract the photos from my digital camera. (apparently 1 in 2 people have orbs appear in their photos).

I do however bear some scratch marks on my arm, which no reason as to what caused it. This is what reputedly many people who visit the poltergeist places end up with, and it's more freaky when you think it is all fake until it actually happens to you!

Due to time constraints I decided to do a day trip around Scotland that involved going all seeing the highlands, mountains and lochs, Glencoe, Loch Ness and Inverness - all in 12hrs, most on bus!

Scotland has truly extraordinary nature, with towering mountain ranges topped with frost and snow, to the flat glens of grass and heather, to the deep dark depths of the lochs full of mystery and intrigue, capable of hiding a monster despite our best scientific equipment. No sigh of Nessie the Loch Ness monster unfortunately, only
replicas dotted about as statues, paintings and merchandise.

Glasgow is not really a city of sights. Besides the town hall and Cathedral, it has the usual shopping malls and chain stores which seems to be the standard British city these days. Did however enjoy the free Religious art and life museum depicting relics and exhibits on most religions in the world today. Only by comparing them can you notice the similarities of stories and rituals behind them.

I love their accent here, even though I can't understand a bloody word of it! Ireland is next on my list, and I reckon it would be even harder to understand there!

There is a bit of rivalry between Edinburghers and Glaswegians. Glaswegians say Edinboogers are moneypinchers and unfriendly snobs, whereas Edinburghers say Weegies are dirty and ugly and talk too much crap. I don't think either stereotype is true, but I do prefer the Glaswegians to the Edinburghers as I do think they are alot more
friendly and talkative. And as I said before, I love the accent.

Anyway, just arrived in Belfast now, more on that next email!

Friday, November 11, 2005

James' Whirlwind Tour of UK - Part 1: England

Cambridge - Birmingham - Liverpool - Manchester - York - Newcastle

Good Day, Ladies and Gentlemen,

So, having left my lovely vivacious Cynthia back in Estonia, I flew to Stansted Airport in London, England, where I was to start a quick 26 day whirlwind tour of England, Scotland and Ireland, before flying home on the 27th Nov (unless I can get a stopover in Singapore to visit my sister, which means a few days after that).

So, England, a place where no one actually seems to speak it, a place where one is obsessed with football, birdwatching and queuing; a place that has brought us wonderful things like pub meals, English breakfasts, The Beatles, and Monty Python; a place where I am called "gentleman" rather than "mate", "man" or "dude"; a place that pretends to be small when in reality it is stuck in some space/time warp making it bigger than it appears on the map...

There is something to be said about the trains in this country! They are immaculate, comfortable and absolutely fantastic! Even the conductor would tell you exactly where you are, and explain why the train has stopped in the middle of nowhere, and also kindly reminds you what the next station is, and to please "mind the gap" when
exiting! The only problem though is that they are expensive! Which meant I relied more heavily on the National Express buses which have a tendency of taking too long to get anywhere. At least they're comfortable and much cheaper than the trains...

First destination was Cambridge. Cambridge is a beautiful town consisting of alot of colleges, bridges and lovely cobbled streets. There are also more bikes scattered about the place than there are people that you could almost convince yourself that bikes here are the dominant species! Alot of people here don't seem to speak or even
understand English. Rarely did I overhear a conversation that was in English - because of the ethnic makeup of the area, everyone is speaking their own languages. Bit of a shame really; although I’m an advocate of multiculturalism, I do think that if you're going to live in a country, at least learn the country's language!

The colleges are full of gothic style buildings and immaculate green lawns you can't walk on, their piece de resistance the huge chapels, where every night there is a church service called Eveningsong which I attended, to hear the famous magnificent boys choir filling the chapel with their beautiful monastic voices.

Another flip of a coin landed me in Birmingham where I wanted to catch up with Jennie, an old friend from Melbourne (as well as have a place to crash ). I've been to Birmingham before, noting it for it's plethora of shopping malls, but there was also another reason to visit - to try the famous Balti curries that were invented in the region.

To do so, I was informed to head for the famous Balti Triangle just outside of the main center of town. So caught a bus and ended up getting lost (a bit like the Bermuda Triangle I guess). But then I managed to find my way by following my nose as you can smell the scent of curry and spices in the air. I picked a place called Adils, which
claims to have invented Balti. That's how much curry has integrated itself into English culture these days!

Balti comes in a wok shaped metal bowl, saucy, spicy and hot. One normally eats it with naan bread which, depending on how hungry you are, you could order the famous table naan - one that is as large as the table itself!

Verdict: I did find Balti spicy but a little bland - I prefer a nice plain curry instead.

Left Jennie after a good night at the Aussie bar "Walkabout" (and it turned out it wasn't the last time I would go to these "un-Aussie" Aussie bars) and headed to Liverpool.

I think everyone who has ever visited Liverpool and are a fan of the Beatles has at least one Beatles song repeating over in their heads while walking about! For me it started with "Penny Lane", then "Yellow Submarine", then "Please Please Me". Drove me insane in the end.

Of course I had to go to "The Beatles Story" museum, which ran through the lives of the Fab Four and contained many reconstructed famous places in their lives (the studio, the white room, etc) and Beatles collectors items, the most impressive being John Lennon's famous spectacles.

Dined at "The Grapes" where the Fab four drank before performing at "The Cavern" down the road (before they got famous). Used the toilets, where I amused myself by thinking that the Fab Four probably also urinated at the same spot I was on right then. Then I had a look in "The Cavern" which still looks as it did when the Beatles were still

On first impressions is a very red coloured university industrial city with very nice architecture, a huge shopping centre, and alot of bars and clubs. To which I had managed to dance my little feet away in after lighting some fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night here with some other Aussie dudes (none of us had a clue what we were doing). I can say that Manchester nightlife is definitely better than Liverpool. But apart from that, unless you're into Man Utd, there isn't particularly much to see or do in Manchester.

York is a wonderful town to stroll through, admiring the beautifully preserved city gates and walls, the magnificant monolithic Gothic Minister (largest Gothic cathedral in Europe I think - though I’m sure Seville's is larger?), and the lovely medieval top stacked buildings jutting over cobbled streets. Even did the famous "Sights and Smells" tour of the Viking Museum. York is full of history, and is in fact considered the most haunted city in Europe. Because of this I had to do a ghost tour of York.

The Ghost Tour of York is definitely worth doing, as you are led around the town by a dramatic guide through dark alleys, and shown houses and other buildings where ghostly events have taken place. There were some scary ones I admit, and in fact during one story the lamp above us went out leaving us in darkness. Freaked out alot of us until the guide told us "not to worry, it's just one of those motion detector lights!" I tells you, after the tour I was glad I wasn't sleeping on my own that night...

Decided to head north into Newcastle on route to Edinburgh, simply because I heard Newcastle is a party town (which it is – perhaps better than Manchester?), but also because I love the Geordie accent. I'm not sure why they are referred to as Geordies, but the accent has a kind of lilt to it that makes them sound so friendly and cheerful. I
find it hard to take a person with a Geordie accent seriously. (For those who want an example, famous Geordies are Ant and Dec, and Lister from Red Dwarf).

Besides that, Newcastle is quite a nice place, with not much to do but wander around, shop, and admire the quayside with the beautiful sleek modern millennium bridge. The city also contains heaps of overpasses that are old Romanesque style that is actually quite picturesque and monumental to the point that at night it's easy to imagine you're in a gothic Batman movie (or maybe I’m just reaching).

Anyway, I’m off to attempt to see something of Hadrian’s Wall (would you believe there is no public transport to the better areas of the wall in November!) within the Newcastle area, then tomorrow I enter Scotland! Woo hoo! Jolly good I say!

Monday, October 31, 2005

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland

(Lithuania) Vilnius - Trakai - Siausiai - (Latvia) Riga - (Estonia) Tallinn - Paldiski - (Finland) Helsinki


TRAVEL LESSON 1: Never order a very spicy kebab before catching an overnight bus.

Clearly I wasn't thinking when, cold and hungry, I went for a kebab with extra spice. The vendor put so much chill sauce in it that I think there was actually more chilli than kebab!

TRAVEL LESSON 2: Just because you paid for it out of your little travel budget, doesn't mean you have to eat the whole thing!

A typical and illogical backpacker trait, where even though it's burning the inside of your mouth and your stomach is not taking to it AT ALL, the little voice in the back of your head is saying "but you paid for it, and you don't want it to go to waste, after all you're on a budget!!"

TRAVEL LESSON 3: Despite your best intentions and strictest vows, if you gotta go, you gotta go.

I broke one of my travel vows that night, which is for the sake of my sanity and for others, to never use the toilet on the bus! Thankfully it was one of those fancy Euroline buses and not a clattering cold dirty hunk of metal on wheels. I certainly got my money's worth that night!

Anyway, arrived in Vilnius at 3:30am (the stupid company told us 6:30am), tired, cold, and needing to use the bathroom (which there was an absence of in the immediate 1km radius of where I was).


Vilnius is quite a pretty city with the largest old town in Europe, but there's no people! I would be out on the streets at 2pm and I would hardly see a soul, and this is the capital of Lithuania! They seem to have an obsession with churches as they are everywhere. Perhaps that's where they are all hiding.

Anyway, I caught up with Cynthia, who I had hooked up with in Suceava, Romania. A funky cool free spirited New Zealand chick and partner in crime, we had so much fun last time we decided to meet up for round two and do some travelling through the rest of the Baltics together.

Discovered some pretty funky cool cafes and restaurants in Vilnius, though the food is so very rich in their potatoes and meats that even I had difficulty finishing my meals (and this rarely happens!). One such notable Lithuanian cuisine is the Zeppelins, which are basically football shaped mashed potato with minced meat inside. Very filling!

Checked out some interesting places such as the only monument in the world to Frank Zappa, the former KGB prison/torture cells, and Uzupio, Lithuania's answer to Copenhagen’s Christiania, which is another area of land in the capital claimed by squatters to be an independent republic outside of the EU!


We did a day trip to Trakai, which is a lovely little series of lakes out in the countryside containing several small islands joined together by floating wooden bridges. One of the islands contains a very well reconstructed castle. Quite a cool place to live I reckon.


We decided to head to Riga in Latvia, stopping via Siausiai, a town in Lithuania famous of it's rather peculiar hill of crosses. This hill pretty much consists of a multitude of wooden crosses, all crammed together in such a small hill. Crosses would be hanging off crosses, some crosses where enormous and lavishly decorated, all of them
memorials to those deported to Siberia after the Soviet occupation. The Soviets actually bulldozed the original hill of crosses, but the proud and persistent Lithuanians continued to rebuild it over and over again. It really is quite a bizarre sight to see, especially as it is in the middle of nowhere in the center of a cold flat field.

Crazy Lithuanians.


Riga is a joy to wonder in the beautiful art nouveau old town, although there seems to be a excess of strip joints around the place! You can be in a restaurant that would have a strip joint underneath, or wander in seemingly ordinary bars to discover scantily clad ladies dancing on poles. The hostel we stayed at is actually on top of a
strip joint itself!

What was annoying was the high number of drunken British lads on their stag parties, staggering about drunk by day, throwing up everywhere at night. Though they are generally harmless as they're only having a fun time, but it's come to the point where some bars advertise themselves as places which do not have stag parties, to attract those who want a pleasant night out rather than raucous.

One thing I did notice about the Baltic countries is the way that all the bars and clubs would have numerous places to hang coats, useful in a place where the weather is usually extremely cold (whilst in contrast the bars themselves are usually extremely hot, seems like the Baltics have no concept of moderation, it's all extremes here!).

Latvian cuisine consists of Pelmenti, which are basically dumplings reminiscent of won ton dumplings or even dim sims, fried or served in soup.


-The Estonians (and Finnish) seem to love double letters in their words. Many words contain double vowels (eg ee, aa, ii, oo). For example, the word Tallinn -does it really need the extra L and N?

-Its fun pronouncing their currency (EEK) - sounds like you're strangling a small rodent ("That would be 40 EEK!). Well actually you just call it "Kroon"...

-"Ravioli served in broth soup" is almost exactly the same as Asian won ton soup! All it is missing is the bean sprouts and chilli (and the chopsticks)!

-They love their pancakes here, and they are so big I have trouble finishing them (which is becoming the norm for me in the Baltic countries, and many of you know how much I can eat (a helluva lot)) so you can imagine how big and filling they are!)

-Tallinn is not as pretty as Riga, but more interesting in it's layout, featuring huge city walls with towers and turrets, and a hilly section containing the palace and beautiful Russian basilica comparable to the big one in Moscow.

-Estonians are a lot more reserved and introverted than the lively Latvians and Lithuanians. This is probably due to their conservative Finnish-Ugaric roots, whereas the Lithuanians/Latvians are a derivative of Indo-European and lively extroverted Russian roots.

Did a day trip to Paldiski, which was a Soviet Military training town, closed to the public until recently after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before, only relatives of the people training there could visit.

It was quite remarkable braving the cold and visiting the ruins of the military school, where much of it is being demolished now, but you can still see the main buildings, the training grounds and some of the barracks where the soldiers slept.

Helsinki isn't the most exciting beautiful town to be in. There's no real pretty old town, it's cold, dark, the people are a little more reserved, there is nothing open on Sundays.. There are a few churches and some boat trips around the surrounding islands, but that's pretty much it. In fact Helsinki doesn't really have much going for it except the nightlife, though the nightlife seems to finish up early. But despite all this, I am quite fond of little Helsinki, chilling out in it's warm atmospheric cafes, bars and restaurants, walking the empty cold streets (everyone is inside away from the cold - as I would like to be - but the sightseeing must be done (observing the Finnish philosophy of Sisu)!), and observing the way the city lights up at night wonderfully.


1. Estonians (OH MY GOD!! They are the stunning blond blue eye equivalents of the olive skinned dark haired girls in Beirut!)

2. Lithuanian (here the girls are either really attractive, or really ugly, some actually have moustaches and manly figures).

3. Latvian (though they are still slightly better than average looking compared to other countries)

4. Finland (quite shocked at this, but then I wasn't too impressed with the Swedes either, so I guess it's beauty in the eye of the beholder)

Tomorrow I head back to Tallinn, then leave Cynthia behind when I fly the following day to London, where I will begin a whirlwind tour of England, Scotland and Wales in the 26 days I will have left to go before flying home to Melbourne on the 27th Nov(?) So hopefully I will be able to catch up with all your people in the UK while doing so..

And then I'm planning to go on a two year travel stint in Asia...

Monday, October 10, 2005

The North Poland

Berlin - (POLAND) Poznan - Gdansk - Sopot - Westerplatte - Warsaw

Dzien Dobry,

Aaahh! Less than two months left before I have to go home, after an amazing and educational two years travelling Europe and the Middle East! Plans for travelling the rest of the world for the next 5 years are in the making though, so will keep you posted!


One thing I must say about the Germans is how adorably childlike and innocent they can be. For example, a traveller recounting an experience where he was in a movie cinema:

"The cinema showed an advertisement of happy people eating ice cream. When the advertisement was over, the lights went up and a guy emerged from the front with a tub and saying something along the lines of "so, anyone for ice cream?" Several happy eager German hands went up."

Bless them.

Another example was when I boarded a train to the bus station. Unsure if the train was going the right way I ask a dignified middle aged woman for assistance. Looking at my metro map she proceeded to trace the path of the train with her finger whilst making little choo choo train noises to the destination.

Bless them. Bless them all.


Spent the last nights generally chilling out in cafes, eating currywurst from a stand punningly titled "Checkpoint Curry", and even went to eat in a Vietnamese restaurant (you don't see many of these) to see how it compares to Melbourne Vietnamese restaurants (it doesn't - not to be biased but there is nothing like the quality and diversity
that is Melbourne food. Melbourne cafes also makes the best coffees!). Also went out on the town with hostel folk, drinking at a squatter owned bar, avoiding the numerous black leather corseted prostitutes on the streets, and ending the night by hooking up with one Aussie girl whilst at the same time keeping her friends head out of the toilet
bowl due to too much vodka...

Gotta love Berlin!


After having to help push the bus to get it started, I finally made it to Poznan. Poznan is a lovely large town filled with pedestrianised streets, restaurants, shopping malls, cafes, and bars/clubs. Discovered a funky cool little cafe called "Cacao Republika" where I spent much time drinking the best thick hot chilli chocolate with cream and chilling out in the predominantly red cosy upper floor of lush carpets, soft sofas and black and white abstract art paintings on the walls; where one can look out the window and watch people walking below looking cold and miserable on the dark wet cobbled streets while feeling mightily pleased with yourself.

If the Polish know how to do anything wonderfully, it's town squares. Poznan is no exception, in fact I consider it one of the most beautiful squares in Poland, if not Europe! In fact:


1. Make a large squarish shaped area of cobbled stones.

2. Line it on all sides with magnificent historic coloured baroque/renaissance/art nouveau burgher (eventually, burger) houses. Turn the ground floors into bars, outdoor cafes and restaurants.

3. Place an extravagant and beautiful large building(s) in the middle of the square.

4. Surround this building with baroque fountains and statues of saints and pagan gods for good measure, just in case the building alone isn't glorious enough, and also to please any deities they may offend with by not honouring them in the construction.

5. Light the place up splendidly at night!

6. Add tacky souvenir stands, pigeons, buskers and tourists.

Voila! Your very own Polish town square!


I was planning to go to Torun, an town that escaped the destruction of WWII. However, due to the difficulty I faced trying to find cheap accommodation in Poznan* I opted for the more touristed Hanseatic town of Gdansk, a former Teutonic Knights stronghold, autonomous rich port town, and now a tourist Mecca.

*In Poland there are usually hostels open only during summer, every other time there are only youth hostels that close between 10am to 5pm; and curfew is 10pm!

One things for sure, after over two years of travelling, visiting a Germanic influenced city never fails to amaze and impress me with it's sheer beauty and design. Gdansk is no exception, with narrow historic burgher houses compressed together lining the streets and riverside. I went camera crazy!

A group of us at the hostel went to see a Polish Scar Rock band play one night, since the band members stayed at the hostel the night before and invited us. They were actually pretty good.

Tried some Bison Vodka. It is basically vodka containing a blade of grass or herb that the polish bisons eat, trample and do unhygienic things on I’m sure. Quite an interesting flavour.


A funky cool town near Gdansk, which is where the hip and the young go to party by the beach side clubs and bars. However, much drinking with some crazy Russians from Kalingrad I met at the hostel who insisted on shots after shots of tequila and rum, meant that we were always smashed before we even left the hostel, so my memory of Sopot is a little blurry...


Went to Westerplatte, which is where WWII started when Germany invaded Poland. The ruins of buildings on the seaside is still everywhere as testament to what occurred there. Inappropriately, I had decided that day to wear my new jacket with the world "Berlin" emblazoned on front, which might not have gone down too well in a historical place like this (but then I only decided to go there on impulse that day).

Left Gdansk for Warsaw with desires never to see another boiled egg for a while (long story)...

I didn't really plan to go to Warsaw, but it was the only way I could get to Lithuania. But I don't particularly regret it. Despite what many people say, Warsaw is actually a pretty cool city, cosmopolitan, great nightlife, friendly people... the old town is nothing exceptional however, and it's not really old since it is all reconstructed after WWII.

Anyway, tomorrow night I head for Lithuania... which will be nice since I’m getting sick of eating cabbage. ( I really don't know why the Polish are obsessed with it, they put it in EVERYTHING! )

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Lovely (Rainy) Slovenia

Ljubljana - Postojan Caves - Lake Bled - Piran - Berlin


Ah, Slovenia, such a beautiful diverse little country closed in on all sides by its bigger neighbours. A microcosm of Europe, featuring lakes, mountains, caves, beaches, picturesque towns, and food with Italian, Hungarian, Croatian and Austrian influences. For example, a pizza burek, which is a Croatian/Turkish pastry with an Italian style filling.

Slovenians are such lovely docile people. Only in Slovenia can, during a time where terrorism is the focus of the world, can a strange man approach a bus driver and say "hey, can you deliver this suspicious looking package in the bus luggage compartment for me? Oh, and please put it right in the center of the bus thanks!" and the driver would happily do so with no questions asked.


Is a lovely little town. Note that I said town, not city. Slovenians are deceiving themselves. The size and the laid back quiet atmosphere in this student populated town denotes this status in my mind. Ljubljana is a sheer delight to
wander though, pulling oneself up the steep winding ivy covered pathways to the pretty lame castle on top of the hill dominating over the sleepy town. Never had I seen a castle with a billboard advertising womens lingerie in the centre of its courtyard. Speaking of which, much billboard advertising in this country is rather sexual in its nature. You would see billboards of women in various states of undress being licked or fondled in a rather intimate manner. I’ve seen a girl in a walking billboard, which just displayed a naked woman’s body. Not quite sure what it was advertising there...

More stunning is the river cutting across the town, joined by several picturesque romantic bridges and promenades, with trees turning into autumn colours, and Italian and Austrian baroque and renaissance style architecture, some clad with auburn and green ivy.

The hostel I stayed at used to be a prison, recently converted into a funky hostel complete with oriental waterpipe chill out room, meditation room, bar, and all sorts of amenities to make a backpacker feel at home. The prison cells themselves have been decorated each in their own individual artistic way. In a nutshell, this is a rather hippy hostel, owned by the university and situated in the "free" hippy druggy area of Ljubljana.

This hostel is the first hostel I've ever been to where the bed I was sleeping in is on top of the fire exit, which is a trapdoor leading apparently to poles to slide down. I was tempted to set off the fire alarm so I could pretend to be Batman and utilise it but I don’t think that would go down too well with the hostel. Then again, I’m not impressed with the hostel after they didn’t believe/refund me when the first night I was attacked by bugs crawling from the wooden walls, resulting in me sleeping in the kitchen. Eventually they did believe me when others started complaining about being bitten, but I could not convince them to do the moral right thing. So, 23 euros wasted on a room I didn’t sleep in.

Did a day trip to the heavily touristed Postojan caves, touted as the largest limestone karst caves in Europe if not the world. We entered the cave to be led to an electric train, where we were whisked through like a funfair ride to the first couple of kilometres, oohing and aahhing at the stalagmites and stalactites and taking illegal photos of
everything. It felt like such a funfair ride that I was expecting to see puppets or characters popping up from behind the karst formations with laser lights and smoke screens. It was actually quite fun.

Anyway, we emerged into the main chamber, a massive area filled with stalagmites and stalactites and everything in between, in assorted colours of white, yellow, red, black and brown. In the centre sat a mountain covered with said karst formations. We reached a pool where we were told we would see the famous human fish. It wasn’t that impressive. For one thing, it was a salamander. Secondly it didn’t look human at all; just the colour is the colour of (Caucasian) human skin.

Finally, we entered what was referred to as the concert chamber, as concerts would be performed there due to the acoustics. Everyone thus proceeded to test the acoustics by screeching and screaming rather irritatingly. I must say the irritating screeching did reach my ears quite loudly and clearly even in the other side of the hall...

Did a day trip to the famous Lake Bled, on what was probably the worst day to choose to go. For some reason we looked at the dark clouds coming in and thought "hey what a great day to go visit the lake". Thus we found ourselves halfway around the 7km walking trail around the picturesque clear blue lake lined with trees turning into that lovely autumn colours when it started to pour down with rain. Adding to our misery, we decided to climb up the steep muddy trail up to the lovely castle perched up on the hill overlooking the lake, only to find that close up it really wasn't so nice after all, and you had to pay to get in, even if you just wanted to get out of the rain into the
restaurant within. Still, it was a lovely place to visit, surrounded by snow capped mountains, the middle of the lake featuring a little monastery on an island, where resides the bell of wishes - one can ring the bell and make a wish and apparently the wish will come true. I wondered who wished for the pouring rain...

I had two options, either catch a train to Bratislava to meet up with my ex-Slovakian girlfriend Jana, or go with Stephanie, a sweet bright Aussie girl studying medicine who I hooked up with, to Piran, a small coastal town on the Slovenian coast. Because Jana had not been able to confirm being able to meet me due to work and family commitments, I decided in the last minute to go to Piran.

We got to Piran just before it started pouring down with rain. Piran is a beautiful city on a peninsula, very Venetian except there are no water canals. We constantly came to the conclusion that 1. Piran is a pretty lovely town, and 2. The pouring rain is driving us #%& insane! To add to the romantic atmosphere, we both had colds that we were
trying to shake off. If going to the coast to find sun and relaxation was the remedy we were looking for we were clearly deluding ourselves. We still managed to have fun though, at one stage playing the most ferocious game of snap I’ve ever played with anyone with my Saddam Hussein pack of playing cards I bought in Jordan.

Parted company with Stephanie back in Ljubljana while she continued on to Zagreb. I had booked myself a flight to Berlin leaving the next day (it was the most convenient quickest cheapest way of getting to my next destination Poznan on the north of Poland. Besides, I need any excuse to visit Berlin my favourite city).

So, the last night in Slovenia was spent going out on the town. Me and some hostel folk ended up in a bar that turned out to be the location for a Slovenian reality TV show, where the bar staff are contestants who are voted off every week by TV and Internet viewers. The winner gets a million Tolars and a car. The bar had cameras all over the place and naturally everyone wanted to talk to the bar staff and perhaps get on TV. I'm sure my crazy dancing and ethnicity got me on if anything else.

Anyway, next morning, slightly hungover, I took off for Berlin, which is where I am now.


Every time I come back to Berlin it always reinforces my belief that it is my favourite city. I just love chilling out here in the atmospheric cafes and going out to the cool funky bars and clubs..

Tomorrow I'm catching a bus to Poznan to explore Northern Poland and
the Baltics.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Sampling Nightlife from Budapest to Ljubljana

Budapest - Pecs - Barcs - Zagreb - Ljubljana

Dobro Den!


So, Budapest. Second time I’ve visited this gloriously beautiful city, and the second time I have attempted to locate the real nightlife but failed miserably! It seems there are two types of nightlife places, the decoy tourist clubs with shocking music and no atmosphere, or the "hidden in backstreets with no signage" local joints, another world
that us tourists can never be part of.

Oh well, at least I got to take some great night shots of Budapest from top of the citadella, one of the best panoramic nightshots I’ve ever seen.

Anyway, deciding that Budapest was not showing me its Hungarian cultural side*, I decided to catch the next train to a town south of Hungary called Pecs.

* Due to the fact that it has become a tragic tourist trap that Prague, Krakow, Tallinn and the Croatian coast has become, and also being an international city where I found more Chinese restaurants than actual authentic Hungarian cuisine, the Hungarian cuisine naturally being "touristified" for tourist's benefit. Ha, funny how I detest tourists even though I am one myself. And of course it’s a hierarchy system of who you can look down with a "I am better and wiser than thou" attitude.

Here it is;


First, at the bottom of the hierarchy, its the tour groups, usually led by a pink umbrella or something stupid with a very short guideperson attached. Worst thing about them is when you want to look at a museum piece or enter a room, and they block the whole place up! Middle aged American tourgroups are the worst, with "aw my gawd" exchanges and the stupid things they say. Stop me before I become too vitriolic!

Then the eurorail/interrail pass users who only hop from one big city to the next, sometimes staying for a night before hopping on the next train to the next town (the Japanese are notorious for this insanity! In Sarajevo I met two Japanese who arrived that afternoon, who quickly saw the town, then next morning caught a train to Belgrade, to catch another train to Sofia later that day! I think for them it's about collecting passport stamps to show off back at home).

Then tourists like me, relying on public transport and hoping from town to town at random. We usually hate being called tourists, preferring the more mysterious "traveller" term. Of course, the longer we travel, the more sagious and higher up the hierarchy we are (as well as more arrogant). Seniority in a group of travellers is also dictated not on age, height or race, but by how long you've travelled. "So, How long have you been travelling for James?" "Oh, only about over two years" I say matter of factly. "Wow that's a long time!" they exclaim as I sniff pretentiously. The guy in the corner says "Really, I’ve been going for five!" The attention switches to him and I’ve suddenly become insignificant.

Then, those crazy people (usually the Germans) who just walk or hitch hike or bike ride from village to village from one end of the continent to the end of another (Europe to Asia or Africa for example). These people also usually smell.

Finally, the arrogant expats who tell you that "a week in a city is just passing through, you have to live in the city for a couple of years to really know it."(which is untrue, I’ve lived in Melbourne all my life and don't know that much about it!).

Anyway, I digress...

On arrival, I took out my increasingly unreliable Lonely Planet guide and sought out a hotel that seems to offer dorm beds which would save me money. Of course, I discover from the cute receptionist (me and hostel receptionists, its a terrible addiction I know) that they stopped having them 3 years ago! Stupid LP. Anyway, while trying to discuss possible discount rates for a single room and a date (just kidding! Really!), two English blokes walked in, with the same intention (finding a dorm bed AND chatting up the receptionist). Anyway, a quick exchange of standard traveller "where you from, how long you're staying etc" banter, pooled forces, and voila, we ended up sharing a 3 bed room for a price of a standard dorm bed. Phew!

Pecs is quite a pleasant town, but unfortunately there really is not much to see apart from the stunning 4 towered Romanesque cathedral and historical Synagogue. The atmosphere felt alot distinctly more Hungarian as there were hardly a tourist to be seen, less English spoken, and actual Hungarian meals (Though the bloody Brits insisted
on a Mexican meal the first night there.)

Oh, and did finally go to a local discotheque outside the city centre, but it wasn’t really any different to other discotheques I’ve been to around Europe. Oh well. Naturally did my standard get drunk and dance on the podium or pole dance thing I really should stop doing for sake of dignity.

After a few days I decided it was time to leave Hungary and re-enter Croatia. So, farewelled my Brit friends and, going against receptionist advice, decided to take the more macho unreliable and difficult route via bus instead of the more direct train (because I couldn’t be bothered waking up 15 minutes earlier!)


So, I caught a bus from Pecs to Barcs, a town in the border, believing naively that naturally there has to be many buses that go across the border into Croatia, where from there I could catch more frequent buses to the capital Zagreb. Boy was I wrong about that.

I was dropped off somewhere resembling the center of this village border town and was told some instructions in unintelligible Hungarian where to catch what later turned out to be an ghost bus. So, deciding that the bus was definitely not coming after an hour waiting, I ask an old lady for assistance. This started a chain reaction in the village, where I was passed from person to person like a bad penny while they discussed and debated how to get to Croatia. Soon, I had a crowd of locals around me, solving this perplexing problem. Finally, the gist I got was that I had to go to the bus station 2km down the road, cause frankly, they didn't have a clue! Oh well, at least I got them out of their morning routine.

So, walked to the bus station, while many people rode past in bikes staring at me as they passed (they love their bikes there, no one seems to walk in the town, they should change the name Barcs to Bikes! Bad joke). I got to the bus station to find out that my ghost bus actually does exist, but the 9am one I was planning to catch does not run anymore, the next and only bus across the border leaves at 4pm. But the good news is that it goes all the way to Zagreb. Great. Now, the only thing was what on earth was I going to do in this tiny town till 4pm? (it was currently 10am).

Ah, the sound of the Slavic tongue, one of my favourite languages. For some reason I find it not too difficult to learn once you get the hang of it. And the people from the former Yugoslavia are lovely, it’s a shame they are all nationalistic and hate one another (Croats hate Slovenians and Serbians).

Zagreb is a capital city that hasn’t lost its cultural charm, mainly because most people have no interest in visiting the place (the locals think the same). But it is a lovely chilled out city, with many events, such as the Red Bull BMX Marketplace Race, and the World Corporate Games, which took place while I was there.

One great thing about Zagreb was the size of their pizzas! Order a medium and you can feed an entire army! Never seen or ordered a large (jumbo) but I’m sure one could solve the problem with world hunger today!

The nightlife is excellent, though you have to seek locals to tell you the good places. Croatians I have discovered seem to be quite mellow and chilled out, but get them completely intoxicated and they become party animals! Many times you'd see me being dragged by them (literally) to the dance floor, and to other clubs nearby. Heck, I was
even piggybacked to one club from the bar by some guy as a show of admiration (can't remember what for, I think it was for being Vietnamese or something, I was drunk also )

In one of the bars I went to, I met one of the most interesting characters on my travels. He was an old funny Croatian guy who had just came out of the insane asylum that afternoon (seriously, no joke), with the mannerisms of Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Gerard Depardieu. Couldn't stop laughing at his antics all night!

I'm currently in a prison converted into a hostel (apparently) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, with lack of sleep due to yesterday partying in Zagreb. I've heard good things about Ljubljana. Having said that, it's starting to rain...

Friday, September 23, 2005

Rural Romania

Suceava - Humor - Voronets - Moldovita - Suceavita – Sighetu Maramureti - Sapanta - Budapest - Pecs - Zagreb

Jo napot kivanok! (Hungarian for hello, quite difficult a language)

European Heaven:
-English Police
-German Mechanic
-French Chef
-Italian Lover
-Swiss Government

European Hell:
-English Chef
-German Police
-French Mechanic
-Italian Government
-Swiss Lover

Left Brasov after going bear watching, which involved driving up and down the street littered with garbage bins, the boundary between civilisation and the forest. Eventually we saw what we were waiting for; dogs barking announced the arrival of a mother and four cubs who were looking to scavenge the bins for food. Unfortunately, the bears became frightened and ran off when dogs came running out barking, and everyone’s flash photography went off.

Spent the night in a corn field in the middle of remote Romania with a New Zealand girl under the full harvest moon and the stars. Quite romantic really. We actually first met in the hostel in Sibiu, which Iulia pointed out I was flirting with (I really wasn't - It was annoying how Iulia would not leave her horrible boyfriend for me (Romanians are very apathetic, tending to put up with what they're used to), yet treated me in a way as if i were hers.) It was unexpected to bump into her in Suceava, which is a rural town in the Moldavian region north east of Romania.

Stayed in the "High Class Hostel" run by an energetic enterprising girl named Monika, famous in Lonely Planet. The hostel is just out of Suceava, in a little village surrounded by corn and maize fields, tractors, and hay stacks. Got addicted to her famous home cooking and stayed longer than planned. She gave me the last night and dinner there free because I stayed quite long. I'm going to do a revamp on her dreadful website in return, shouldn't take more than a day to fix up. She's also considering coming to Oz for the winter and I’ve invited her to stay with me in that case but I guess we'll wait and see...

Suceava isn't the most exciting city, there's an old fortress and a few churches. In fact the picturesque journey through the dramatic white cliffed forested Carpathians was more interesting. The main reason for being in Suceava was to see its famous painted monasteries of the Moldavian Bucovina region.

Monika drove us around the Moldavian region to visit the four main painted monasteries in the area. All of the monasteries were covered with painted Byzantine murals, the paint itself containing a substance scientists haven't
worked out how the paintings have remained so well preserved against the elements.

Humor is the smallest and predominantly red, and lacking a bell tower as it is a family monastery as opposed to the royal monasteries of the other 3.

Voronets is blue with a fascinating Judgement day mural containing a scroll of pagan Zodiac signs being rolled up by angels signalling the end of time.

Moldovita is yellow, and is the most picturesque and grand of the 4, with a well tended flower garden looked after by the nuns.

Finally, Suceavita, green, with a interesting mural of the ladder of virtues. All these monasteries inclosed within a fortress courtyard complete with towers, all located in some isolated part of the countryside (which isn't hard to find in Moldavia).

Maramures was pretty cool, a rural farming area, they still wear traditional dress, lots of horse drawn carriages, hay stacks scattered in the vast fields, and towns built completely out of wood. Hate to see what happens in case of fire. Here you can see farm animals who are able to walk themselves to the fields in the morning and return back to their homes at night, unassisted and unaccompanied. There's also a status thing about having over the top enormous intricately carved wooden gates in front of their houses.

Anyway, there were two reasons for visiting this remote northern area of Romania, to see the Merry Cemetery, and the see the old wooden churches famous in this region. The churches was as you expect; brown, made completely out of wood, several centuries old, with very steep wooden roofs to ensure snow does not collect and collapse the
roof in. All this usually surrounded by a beautiful peaceful cemetery.

The Merry Cemetery is a cemetery that is famous for it's colourful humorous tombstones depicting a scene of the persons life and death. There are ones showing the person in their trade, also several ones showing how the person died, such as in a car accident. This is part of the traditional Romanian way of laughing at their troubles, even death (though this is probably more older generation, the younger are just chronically depressed).

Anyway, I thought, do I go to Cluj, Oradea, or leave Romania for Budapest? Coin flips and convenient bus schedules and voila, finally made it out of 18th century Romania after a long bumpy overnight bus to Budapest, quite a change being in a big city after such a long stint in small villages and towns.

I've already been to Budapest and seen the sights, so I may just chill out and go to the clubs at night that I missed last time. I'll write about that next email.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Timisoara - Sibiu - Rasinov - Sighisoara - Cisnadie - Carta – Brasnov - Siniaia - Bran (Draculas Castle) - Rasnov


Romanian Sentence to Learn: Sint Dracula, Vreau satsi sug sangele!
(I'm Dracula, I want to suck your blood!)

Most tend to be very goth pale, with dark hair and eyes, and like to listen to scar punk/rock/heavy metal music (the young ones that is, and just like the Polish). They also are very good at English as they get English shows with Romanian subtitles, and tend to be chronically depressed, or just sad and melancholy, probably due to the poverty
they live in where they can't see any way out of their predicament. For example, a house would cost 100,000 euros in a town where the average salary is 150 euros a month!

They are however, a very friendly nation, since despite their poor conditions, would do all they can to ensure foreigners are comfortable. The couple I met after wandering in the dark after midnight on arrival to Timisoara walked a few kms with me to show me a cheap hotel, and also offered me to join them to a party the next day.

The next night, was invited by another young couple to their home for a home cooked dinner. Despite the dreary conditions their old little broken down apartment was in, it was cosy, and they even refused to let me buy them beers later on, continually buying me drinks instead. Amazing hospitality!

There are also Roma gypsies, distinguished by colourful free flowing cotton garments and dresses, long hair in plaits, and hands outstretched asking for money, even though most Roma are settled with stable jobs provided by the government, some even richer than the average person in Romania.

There are two types of Gypsy, White Gypsies and Dark Gypsies. The White Gypsies are generally nice unless you do business with them. They are generally very rich, having made money begging outside of Romania, and lending money with 20% interest per month to other Romanians inside the country, yet never wash, and live in wooden huts
built outside the big house and luxury car they own. The Dark Gypsies are the ones who tend to be aggressive and have no culture.

Romanians seem to like Asians. Everywhere I go I get smiles, a wave or greeting yelled out in Romanian across the street... One guy went up to me in a club and said "Hey you Chinese? I love you guys!".

And lets not mention Ilana, the Romanian girl I met in a club whose every second word while we were together was "D'amour!"

The architecture in Romania is like nothing else you'd see anywhere else in Europe (almost). Romania is very diverse in it's architecture, each town seemingly having it's own style. In Timisoara you are confronted with colourful baroque buildings but with slightly distorted or bulged black roof tops and arch windows, some buildings almost
looking Gaudi-esque/Modernist even though they are centuries old.

Headed to Sibiu, a small town inside Transylvania. Here the buildings become a lot more unusual and distorted. "The houses have eyes!". This refers to the roofs that contain (usually) two tiny windows in the attic covered by a fold of roof tiling, giving the impression that the house has eyes, quite an eerie experience as this makes the houses seem alive with character. Yes, this is Transylvania, the land of myths and legends. In this land you'd see huge fields of tall corn stalks, morning mist that seems to linger and dissipate at random, and fortified Saxon villages with similar surreal architecture, black pinched pointy roofs and towers, the perfect setting for any gothic (Tim Burton directed?) film.

There are alot of wild dogs running about, which could be the inspiration for werewolves, more legendary than Dracula and Vampires.

Did day trips to some of the fortified church Saxon towns that are scattered about the region such as Cisnadie and Rasinov. These towns consisted of a church surrounded by fortified walls for defence – the rest of the town would be built around it.

The girls in Romania always seem to melt my heart with their beauty, their gentle disposition and sweet accented voice and their below the surface melancholy that makes me want to reach out and hug them!

Sighisoara is a beautiful (tourist) town, featuring the old walled town rising on a hill, complete with churches, cobbled streets and souvenir vendors around the area where Vlad Tepes (AKA Vlad the Impaler AKA Dracula) cheerful yellow house of his birth resides. The walls of the town feature several stone towers, each pertaining to
a particular trade guild (butchers, bakers, blacksmiths etc) of medieval times. There is also a scary looking covered long dark stairway leading to the "church on the hill" above the old town. The church is nothing special, but the German Cemetery with it's many worn marble tombstones, covered with moss and dry autumn leaves from the
trees amongst the graves, is extremely picturesque and for lack of a better word, romantic.

Did a day trip to Carta with Elena (hostel receptionist) on her day off work, which is a little village east of Sibiu. Here I saw White Gypsy houses, a picturesque ruined monastery with Saxon warrior graveyard, and a very fragile looking wooden bridge on verge of collapse, which we and her sister sat around talking and enjoying the views of the river and the Carpathian mountains beyond. Later we went to her grandmothers house there, where the house's bathroom was an outhouse behind the small house warmed up by ceramic wood furnaces you usually see in museums, grape vines, chickens and a huge vegetable and plum tree garden. Got some tuica (plum brandy) from a White Gypsy women who makes it in her backyard and enjoyed the sunset in a field while watching the horses and cows come home. Quite a unique wonderful experience.

Is a very touristy place in Transylvania, a town nestled between mountains, with beautiful coloured buildings and the famous "Black Church" which wasn't very black at all. Here I based myself while I did day trips to:

A more beautiful town than Brasnov, also a ski resort, where after going up 2000m in the cable car, one can enjoy glorious views of the Carpathian Transylvanian mountains. The highlight of Sinaia is it's multi spiked stunning Peles Palace, with it's over the top interior decoration of intricate wood carved doors and walls, silk carpets, ornate furnishings and paintings and mirrors... I've never seen so much detail before, a definite favourite palace of mine.

Was a little disappointing, since Dracula never actually set foot there. Still, it looks like a castle that could be vampirish, picturesquely situated over a cliff edge. It was also quite small and very touristy.

Rasnov is more beautiful and less touristy than Bran, a fortress town with ruins set on top of a hill through stones acting as steps through the forest. The views above extend to the plains of Transylvania below...

Tonight, bear watching, followed by heading up to the painted monasteries of Bucovina, north east of Romania.
La revederie!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

James visits Post War Yugoslavia

(Croatia) Dubrovnik - (Bosnia) Mostar - Sarajevo - (Serbia) Belgrade


Dubrovnik, called the "Jewel of the Adriatic", doesn't have the same crowds and carnival holiday atmosphere of Budvar, nor the long beaches, but it does have a really impressive walled old town overlooking the sea. Huge fortress walls enclose the spanking clean shiny marble pavemented town, where, sloping down from the walls to
the main street in the centre via a maze of narrow picturesque streets lie grand old buildings, arcades and basilicas of renaissance/neoclassical/Italian design, and numerous pizzerias that you tire of very quickly. The beaches were quite disappointingly small but pleasant. Oh, and a useless fact, did you know the Croatians invented the tie?

Bosnia is a beautiful place, yet you are often confronted with the horrors of the past years of war and torment. Travelling through the countryside amongst huge mountains covered with mist reminiscent of Chinese mountains, with turquoise rivers meandering through the valleys dotted with old romantic cottages, now abandoned or a gutted
out version of it's former glorious self - the inhabitants long vanished, perhaps now living abroad, scattered about or killed in the wars. It really is quite tragic.

It is also the more terrible when you meet the locals, who are extremely warm and hospitable, and do not mind talking about the war. It is a shame that in so many countries, people are so friendly and nice, but at the same time detest and loathe other nations. Syrians/Lebanese hate each other, Jews and Palestinians also, Macedonians hate the Greeks, Albanians are hated by the Serbians and Macedonians, Bosnians hate Serbians, Polish hate Germans, the list goes on.

Mostar is a beautiful and fascinating place. Here lies the famous Mostar bridge, a aesthetic bridge of white stone arching gracefully without supports over the beautiful turquoise rivers, the old town of stone houses with grey slate tiled roofs and cobbled ankle twisting streets clinging precariously on the steep rugged banks either side of the bridge. This bridge is a symbol of Croat-Muslim unity, and was actually destroyed by Croat shelling during the fighting between them, but is now rebuilt. Tensions between the Croat and Muslims have died down but things will never quite be the same again. In fact, walking along the front line between the Muslim/Croat areas, you could see the mosques on the Muslim side and churches being built on the Croat side - one church right on the front line with a absurdly tall steeple, probably sending a subtle message to the Muslims I reckon.

What was sad was walking down the front line, where on both sides of the street, especially the weaker Muslim side, bullet and shell holes cover the buildings, many buildings also blown up or on verge of collapse. All around are signs on buildings stating "Dangerous Ruin - do not enter or park here", dangerous not only because it could collapse, but also because of the possible unexploded mines and shells which could cause serious injury or death to those who inadvertently step on them. Landmines is a problem in Bosnia, and the rule of thumb is to keep to asphalt or concrete surfaces, avoiding soft ground or abandoned looking places and suburbs.

If there’s one place that people coming to Europe must see, it is Sarajevo, a place full of history, beauty and tragedy. A beautiful city with a Turkish influenced old town of wooden huts and cobbled streets, surrounded by cascading terracotta roofed houses up to the hills and mountains enclosing the city. Outside the old town it turns into a bleak communist style buildings of grey concrete, many still bearing the scars of the Serbian siege less than 10 years ago. Some buildings and schools are now just husks and burned out shells. On the pavement you would see what is called "Sarajevo Roses", that is, patterned concentric marks on the ground where a mortar shell had hit and exploded.

Walked along Sniper Alley, where Bosnian Serbs shot at innocent civilians all the way to the UN airport, where a secret tunnel had been dug by the locals, a tunnel which saved the city during the 3 year siege by being the only way to the outside world where they could get supplies, since the impotent UNPROFOR had been notoriously
incompetent, in fact they were supplying 50% of their aid to the Bosnian Serbs, the other to the Sarejevians, which meant that things just got drawn out longer than it should have.

The tunnel was difficult to find, at the end of a long muddy road outside of Sarajevo in the middle of nowhere, yet it is one of the most visited museums in the city. The Tunnel is a symbol of the human spirit during times of oppression and is truly an inspiring place to visit.

All around you would see on any patch of grass, numerous cemeteries, transforming fields of green into fields of white marble. It touches the heart seeing so many graves that only existed in the last 10years.

Also saw the bridge that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb, which sparked WW1 and changed this area of the world forever.

After a long dusty rickety bus ride through terrible roads (at one stage we drove through a corn field on a mud track!), I finally made it to Belgrade.

Belgrade! Not the most beautiful place to visit, in fact it's just a very typical looking city filled with Austrian-Hungarian architecture and occasional NATO bombed buildings, but the secret that is Belgrade is that it has one of the best nightlife in the world! Along the river there are several barges, all nightclubs pounding all kinds of music into the early morning. Also, bars, clubs and cafes in the city, some outside, some hidden in some old unmarked building, are fantastic places to go party. In fact, I haven't really done much in Belgrade, mainly sleeping in the day and going out partying at night. The locals are all extremely friendly and the girls are stunning and very approachable! In fact last night I went out with some staff working at the fast food restaurant near the hostel after they finished work. Belgrade is that kind of relaxed friendly place.

Of course, they also have a different view of what happened with the wars etc. They maintain that it was Bosnian Serbs, not Serbians that were fighting in Bosnia. Secondly, they state it was the Albanian Kosovians that started the conflict because Kosovo is holy ground for the Serbs, with many 11th Century churches and monasteries that were
destroyed by the rioting Kosovos which of course angered the Serbians. Not that the Serbians were justified with their bloody retributions to the thousands of murdered Muslim Albanians as a result. But it does make you always think about what you are being told on the news etc. There is always two sides to a story, and rarely is it not biased.

Anyway, tomorrow I may go to Romania, if I can actually get up and leave this city, which has a way of keeping you here...

Friday, August 12, 2005

Albania and Montenegro

Shkoder - (Montenegro) Budvar - Cetinye - Kotor - Sveti Stefan - Herceg Novi

Dobro den,

So, Albania, a country where power and water cuts are frequent, roads and public transport is terrible, buses refusing to travel after dark due to fears of banditry of times past, and currently in-between governments. Lets also not forget the lack of street names and street numbers (the postman just happens to know what is what, more to
experience and knowing who's who than logic).

Albania is also 70% Muslim, though you wouldn't know it. Being the only atheist country in the world during the communist era, everyone is a non practicing such and such, though this could change now that the country is open to the world and outside religious influence. Though I am told that Albanians would consider blowing oneself up for
God as absurd, and even more absurd would be them giving up alcohol!

Did meet some interesting people. The hostel owner happened to also be a TV anchorman, who I had hilarious discussions on the quirky, amusing (yet also shameful) story of Albanian politics. Also briefly hooked up with a pretty American Jewish girl called Olivia, with Moldavian roots, working in Kosovo, who amongst many things told me about the state of affairs with the UN and Kosovo. The UN apparently should leave Kosovo to rebuild their lives since the UN staff do nothing but seek ways to remain employed rather than solving problems.

I also discovered how friendly the Albanians really are when you are out of the capital city. It's not that people in Tirana are unfriendly, it's just that they are more reserved and shy. The ones who do talk to me always inevitably ask the question "So why are you here?" I guess they cannot perceive their country as being a tourist attraction.

The people are generally good humoured and happy, astonishing considering their past turbulent unhappy years. As with the rest of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, bad politics has ruined what was once such an affluent rich fertile land full of manor houses, country villas and romanticised people into a disorganised broken down state, with bleak communist concrete buildings and war torn ghost towns - where the people had vanished from what was once vibrant towns I wouldn't know. But it's a dreadful shame to know that all these changes had only occurred within the last 50 years.

Finally, I must not forget my tradition of rating the girls in each country I visit. In Albania I could say they are prettier than Macedonians, but can't compete with Bulgarians and Montenegrins. Albanian girls take on all sorts of appearances; it's hard to stereotype their look. Olivia was often mistaken for Albanian, which made it more amusing when shocking the locals when seen with me, an Asian, rarely seen in Albania, holding hands down the street!
Sometimes when you get stared at all the time as I do, you find it's fun to mess with locals heads...

Is a beautiful country. Montenegro, meaning "Black Mountain", is very much that; all over the tiny country are towering mountains burdened with lush green vegetation and little villages all the way to the dramatic coastal beaches and resort towns. Cheaper than Croatia and most of the popular beach resorts of Europe, Montenegro is a local secret (which will probably change in a few years time). You don't really see any foreigners here that do not have Slavic roots. So the staring and "Chinese" whispered in the wind continues...

Is a resort town that I stayed at, the largest and most populated with tourists and vacation beach seekers mainly from the ex-Yugoslavian countries. A plethora of hotels, private apartments, outdoor bars, cafes and clubs as well as street side stalls and a carnival, to create that true "I am on holiday" feeling amongst the huge "almost sandy" pebble beaches, blue water, tiny islands and the reconstructed walled old town fortress with the narrow sandstone coloured buildings and angled streets, on a peninsula overlooking the blue Aegean sea.

At night, the crowds do what Balkan crowds do best - strut their stuff in the promenades in the ritualistic evening stroll, to see and be seen. The girls here are stunning, very tall, and as with most girls I encounter, completely unattainable!

The funniest thing I’ve seen is the flying boats they have here, which is literally a boat with wings flying overhead.

The problem with travelling solo is that there are no single rooms at all in Montenegro, because they couldn't imagine anyone travelling on their own, especially here. Which makes things a little lonely for me, since I rarely find English speakers, and everyone has company. Sigh.

Was a little disappointing, the bus trip there and back was beautiful though high up on the mountains overlooking the towns by the sea. Anyway, I did check out the Monastery which contains a piece of the True cross, and also the brown mummified Hand of John the Baptist which was used to baptise Jesus. Lovely. Apart from that though, just a series of old buildings used as embassies, and many outdoor cafes.

Kotor is one of those places I fell in love with immediately upon arrival. Situated on the deepest fjord in southern Europe, the Italian influenced walled old town sits at the edge of a beautiful bay of glass, perfectly reflecting the surrounding grey mountains covered with forests and, in the case of Kotor, a solemn ruined fortress, which is a heck of a climb up, but worth the dramatic views. The town itself, consisting of narrow streets, piazzas and plenty of places to sit, have a coffee and watch people walk by. Indeed, Kotor would be on my favourite towns list, and I could see myself easily retiring here one day..

Is a small island fortress of terracotta roofed stone houses and buildings, accessed through a causeway from the mainland. Although you don't bother going into the place as it is just a hotel complex, the beaches around are quite nice, with the picturesque view of the island in front of you.

Stupid thing about Montenegro is it is not very logical. You would think there would be several buses going to touristy Dubrovnik from Budvar, which is really not that far away. But of course there is only 1 morning bus, which was booked out, so I thought I’d make my way to the border town of Herceg Novi, for surely there'd be heaps of buses going to the Croatian town. Of course, upon arrival (at 10am), I’m told "Nope, this is Montenegro, you have to wait till 4pm for the next bus!" This being annoying because I wanted to arrive early to find cheap accom. So, stuck in Herceg Novi, I thought I’d make the best of a bad situation and explore the steep hilly town (with my big backpack
mind you). But it is worth it, the town doesn't get a good mention in the Lonely Planet guidebooks, but it is a beautiful Italian inspired old town worth a look.

It is here that I am writing this, waiting for the bus to Dubrovnik...

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Sofia, Ohrid and Albania

(BULGARIA) Sofia - Rila Monastery - (MACEDONIA) Ohrid - Sveti Naum - Sveti Petrov - (ALBANIA) Tirana - Kruje - Durres


Last time I left you I was stuck in Sofia for a week waiting for the Romanian Embassy to open (when it did it took only an afternoon to process. Sucks how Aussies have to get a 40USD visa at the embassy whilst almost everyone else can get a free one at the border!) Being misinformed and waking up late due to late night partying meant I stayed in Sofia rather than go anywhere else and come back when it opened. Although there is not much to see in Sofia (I saw all the sights the first afternoon I arrived), I became rather fond of the little city, the friendly locals, the multitude of cafes, restaurants and bars/clubs! I also became quite fond of the family run hostel staff, where I preoccupied myself with causing fun and mischief to drive Toni, the receptionist, insane.

Did go on a day trip however to Rila Monastery, a stunning monastery south of Sofia, decorated in red and black candy cane stripes and magnificent Byzantine frescos covering every wall and pillar, second to the Vatican itself in it's artistic majesty. This of course being contained in a courtyard surrounded by an enclosure four stories high
containing monk cells and arched balconies. And, as with most devout monasteries, situated in a remote valley of lush vegetation and mountains.

I must say that Bulgaria, with it's food, the people, the little picturesque villages and nature, has tied with Portugal as my favourite country so far to date.

After sadly farewelling the hostel staff in Sofia after a week of hilariarty and fun spent with them, I left for Ohrid in Macedonia. Though upon reaching the border I was informed by the border guard that despite what Lonely Planet says, Visas for Aussies are not free, you must pay 25USD to get into Macedonia. Not sure if I was scammed or
not, but what can you do? So, having entered Macedonia 25USD lighter and not impressed, I arrive in Ohrid at 4am.

I was planning to stay at a house in the old city, but as fate turned out it was lucky I didn't, since I would have been walking a long distance up a steep hill in the dark to find it. Instead, I decided on the spur of the moment to ask a group of young people walking past if they knew any hostels or cheap rooms.

Such friendly people! They spoke English, and told me that indeed one of them has a cousin who lets out rooms in the residential area north of the center. So they drove me to the house where I was immediately served coffee and cigarettes. (Thing about Macedonians is that they smoke and drink coffee ALL THE TIME!!!! I've never had so much
nicotine and caffeine in my life (I don't usually smoke but only accept cigarettes because I feel disrespectful or out of place if I don't))

The mother who owned the house and her son Sasha did not speak any English, yet they were incredibly hospitable and did everything to make me feel welcome. The mother even cooked me dinner every night and called other cousins to come and take me around Ohrid and also to see the nightlife. Me and Sasha became close friends even though the extent of our conversation mainly centred around the words "Ubavo" (beautiful - in reference to nice girls walking past), and "Dobro" (good) for everything else.

Speaking of which, Macedonians like telling me that the girls are stunning in the country. Personally I think they are ok, the Bulgarian girls are way more hotter!

Luckily Macedonian is similar to Bulgarian as I was able to get the gist of many things being said by the frequent guests in the house (seems like everyone goes to everyone’s open houses at all hours to talk, drink coffee and smoke - I love it!)

Anyway, Ohrid is a beautiful place, the old town up a rocky hilly peninsula where a fortress citadel sits on top, 365 churches (for 10,000 people!), a roman amphitheatre, and the usual traditional old houses on cobbled streets. The peninsula ends with a rocky cliff where locals would dive into the deep blue crystal clear lake itself (265m at its deepest).

The nightlife was pretty disappointing however, as the clubs were all overcrowded that you couldn't move, and full of smoke.

Did a day trip via ferry across the lake to Svet Naum, a 10th Century monetary on the other side of the lake. Georgian in it's style, with many soot covered frescos. Also a beautiful tranquil pool of water that becomes a rapid stream flowing icy water into the lake, the flow you can actually see in the lake itself being a greenish colour to the
surrounding blue lake. Nearby, people bathe and soak in the sun on the small beach, and here I also met many families from Melbourne (particularly from Epping), who were there like many other Macedonian families around the world, for a holiday back in their homeland.

I'm also starting to get locals staring at me and saying "Chinese" or "Jackie Chan". Not again! Same thing happened when I was in Morocco! Though they mean well, they also say "Hello" and "Welcome to Ohrid". I usually have to remind myself that they are not being racist, only curious, but it's a struggle sometimes. I wonder if less touristed
Albania would see an increase in this sort of behaviour...

I arrived back to the house on my last day to receive a surprise from my "cousins", who took me to another monetary at night up a hill illuminated with a huge cross. As it turned out, almost everyone else in the town went to this monetary that night, because it was apparently the saint day of St Petro (Macedonians are devoutly religious folk). So, was taken through the throng of people past the stalls selling icons, toys and fairy floss in the monetary grounds, into the monastery itself, where they lit candles and made many prayers at different areas of the monastery; me, the spectator, overwhelmed by the immaculate frescos, the one of the Last Judgement especially intrigued me (why is hell always depicted as a large monster with flames coming out of it's mouth swallowing the damned in this part of the world?).

And then we went to a nightclub.

After being sadly farewelled by my friends in Ohrid at the bus stop, I got on the bus and wondered what Albania had in store for me...

First, I had difficulty getting across the border because they only accept Euros for the entry tax and I only had US dollars. After some haggling they finally relented. Then, what was apparently meant to be a 3 hour trip turned out to be 6 hours, since we stopped for lunch at a restaurant for an hour, and we took the long way around, stopping at
towns around Tirana before actually going in to the capital itself.

Then, after finally arriving, I had to worry about finding an ATM that would accept my MasterCard. After trying a dozen ATMS, I finally found one that would (at least it's a far cry from 3 years ago where only one ATM existed in the whole country!).

And then I had to find the backpacker hostel (which had only opened last month, and is not yet registered. Was lucky to discover it's existence via a web forum otherwise I would have to find a hotel room which are expensive in otherwise cheap Albania).

After wandering around with a dodgy map along streets with no street signs or numbers, and asking locals who didn't even know what a hostel was let alone knew of the existence of one nearby, I finally stumble across it - a house with a large iron gate with the number 85 on it. Phew!

Anyway, Tirana is actually quite a nice looking city, due to the way they had painted all the communist era megalithic concrete block apartments and buildings with bright cheerful colours like pink, yellow and orange. It actually does work too! Apart from being pretty though, there is not really much to do.

The language is very difficult. Like the Bulgarians, they shake their head for yes and nod for no. Their language resembles nothing else on Earth. "Hello" is "Tungjajeti", "Thankyou" is "Yu falem nderit", and so on...

A pleasant little town, typically Albanian with the old houses scattered down mountain side, with imposing fortress on top and stunning views around. The little bazaar consisting of old wooden houses and cabins along rickety cobbled streets was the highlight, though they all seem to sell only souvenirs as opposed to anything practical...

Is extremely disappointing (but that's what happens when you go to the closest beach instead of the famed steep cliffed beautiful Albanian Riviera (which would have taken 8hrs and 3buses and 1hr walk to get to). The buildings were decrepit, and the water was putrid and polluted. The upside with Durres at least is that the people are alot
more friendly than in Tirana.

Well, off to Montenegro tomorrow morning!


Saturday, July 23, 2005

James encounters contradictions in Bulgaria

Varna - Veliko Tarnovo - Plovdiv - Bachkovo - Koprishtitsa - Sofia


Upon entering the country, one could feel the middle eastern influence slip away, replaced with something else, a more romantic, mysterious, melancholic atmosphere. A beautiful country, full of ancient monasteries and pretty medieval villages in picturesque settings, mountains, forests, a land steeped in folklore, legend, dancing, stories and music, the people a gentle, warm, proud welcoming race. The food is plentiful, rich and filling (though they have an obsession with too much salt!) Here lies the first contradiction - how a poor country like Bulgaria are able to have such good quality cheap food in large quantities, yet remain thin and in poverty? Consider too that salt was once as valuable as gold in the past, yet their (meat) dishes seem to contain alot of it! The second contradiction is how they could still afford to walk around dressed with the latest designer clothing when many people are still unemployed?

The women in Bulgaria are, as with most of Eastern Europe, absolutely stunning! Dressed in skimpy outfits and high heels, it's a mans paradise! However, despite that male chauvinist statement, it is indeed a "women on top" world here, where women are able to easily pick and choose out of the bunch of drooling males which ones they
prefer to have their way with and then leave hearts broken. However, on top of this contradiction lies another - most Eastern European girls are not arrogant, stuck up or snobby as one would think with their looks and power. In fact they (English speaking ones that is) are quite amiable, down to earth, fun and friendly. If only I could master their language....

Bulgarian is not the most easiest language to learn. I was hoping it would be similar to the Czech/Slovak I picked up last year (which it is in some cases such as Good Day = Dobre Den (Slovak)/Dobar Den (Bulgarian)), but there are many words like Thankyou = Dekuji (Czech)/Dekujem (Slovak), Blagodarya (Bulgarian) which is completely
different. Not to mention the alphabet is Cyrillic like Greek and Russian, which you must learn in order to get by in the country.

Because I had arrived in Varna late at night due to stupid bus I had to resort to getting a double room in a semi expensive hotel (all others were full), for 40 euros! Ironic how the most expensive room I’ve paid for is not in Paris, or England, but in poor Bulgaria!!

Found a cheaper room first thing in the morning, but did not know of the existence of a cheap hostel until I bumped into an English couple in Veliko Tarnova! Typical.

At least a nice old French couple I met on the bus to Varna shouted me lunch and dinner that day, so I guess some of the money I lost was made back through that...

Varna is a beautiful city by the Black Sea, where topless sunbathers would swim in waters that don't look as clean as I had hoped. In fact Black Sea should be renamed to Brown Sea from the looks of things. Still, Varna boasts an amazing cathedral, it's gold onion shaped domes similar to those seen in Russian architecture. Varna has large
pedestrianised streets and squares filled with chic designer clothes shops and banks, as well as overpriced hotels and amazing restaurants.

At night, the crowds shift to the waterfront, where a plethora of fancy grill and fish restaurants, outdoor bars, and beach night clubs abound, pounding music (lots of late 80's and 90's actually - seems to be an Eastern European obsession really) into the early morning...

A stunning place, a more dramatic version of Czech Republic's "Cesky Krumlov", a beautiful town filled with traditional wooden Bulgarian houses cascading down a curved gorge, several picturesque railroad and foot bridges connecting both sides of the gorge. At the highest point lies the Tsarvorets Fortress, an outstanding complex of ruins, sturdy ramparts, and a basilica in the center containing fascinating unique 80s bleak communistic style manga-esque murals of Christ.

I had also inadvertently visited Veliko Tarnovo at the same time that an International Folk Festival was being held, featuring folk acts from the Armenia, Eastern Europe, Korea, Italy, Spain, Mexico, and Russia (the latter two bringing the house down with it's fire dancing and frantic leg kicking, whilst Spain and Korea were surprisingly
disappointing and lacking in spirit. Italy's flag throwing was fascinating and original).

Stayed in a private house with a cheery old lady who was always giggling, sharing a room with a 60yo Aussie woman who had lived abroad in Spain for 16 years and was now motorbiking overland back to Oz to claim her pension. As you do.

The second largest city in Bulgaria, with a pretty medieval old town featuring houses from the Bulgarian National Revival period (created as silent protest against Turkish dominance and influence during their occupation during the Ottoman Empire, distinguished by colourful buildings with painted floral motifs and jutted out stories held up by curved heavy wooden beams...), amongst well preserved roman ruins, built upon rather uneven cobbled hilly narrow streets. Outside the old town the city is quite modern with the main pedestrianised thoroughfare lined with designer shops and chic bars and cafes.

Stayed in a private house of an old granny who I could only speak to in German, and her lovely granddaughter who luckily spoke fluent English.

Did a day trip out to Bachkovo Monastery. Was worried when I got on the bus because I asked the driver if it went to the monastery and he nodded his head. Bulgarians shake their head for yes, nod for no. To add to the confusion, they would do the opposite for our benefit. Thus I wasn't sure if he meant yes or no. Luckily, after passing through
some beautiful valleys and countryside, I made it to the monastery, containing several beautiful old basilicas with old Byzantine murals covered with centuries of soot and candle smoke, all set in a picturesque region surrounded by tall mountains.

After some difficulty of actually getting to this tiny village (public transport is not very reliable or frequent), I arrived to what is probably one of the most beautiful villages I have ever visited in my travels. Bulgarian National Revival style houses abound in the town divided by a series of small bubbling brooks and streams, crossed over on romantic stone bridges; the cobbled streets with wild grass poking through the cracks; upon which friendly farmers and locals would walk by with their herds of white goats or cows, or on a horse drawn carriage containing bundles of hay and local kids going for a ride.

The lovely woman whose house I stayed at (I could only communicate to her in French) lent me her prized book on an account of "A Bulgarian Pilgrimage from Koprivshtitsa to Jerusalem" which in the past was a rare but highly regarded thing to do, resulting in a person's name change to "Hadzni" (meaning Pilgrim in Turkish), and status being elevated to be considered an elder who's knowledge is unquestionable, upon visiting the holy land. After telling her about my travels from Jerusalem to here, I also earned the title of "Hadzni".

Sofia is the highest capital in Europe, being on a plateau 1000m above sea level. A very modern city, with no real attractions besides a few stunning Russian style influenced cathedrals, and the wicked nightlife, which I am recovering from as we speak.

It is here that I am writing this, in a lovely family owned hostel, while I await for the Romanian Embassy to open so I can get my visa before entering the country (via Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia). I could get it in Serbia but I want to get it over and done with now rather than later (Romania is the only place I am visiting in Eastern Europe that I need to get a visa in advance).