Category Archives: Mystery Trip

Comparing Belgrade and Zagreb

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Belgrade and Zagreb, capital cities of Serbia and Croatia respectively, have much in common. The cities, as the countries, have a large portion of their history in parallel tracks. Both are Slavic lands and were, for the most part, engulfed in the same empires.

However, Belgrade and Serbia have a slightly less fortunate recent past. In 1999 NATO bombed the capital for two months in retaliation for strikes against Kosovo (now its own fledgling nation). It’s difficult to recover from that quickly. In 2000, citizens took to the streets to overthrow the Milosevic government in a nearly bloodless coup. But this meant temporary destabilization as power changed hands. And Croatia has a popular coastline on the Adriatic Sea to which tourists flock, providing tax revenue for the country.

Both peoples speak what amounts to slightly different dialects of the same language. Serbia prefers the Cyrillic script to Latin, but that seems to be changing. And Serbians seem to prefer affecting a deeper voice, both men and women.

Belgrade seems quite a dirty city in contrast to Zagreb. However, both feel very safe even at night. And both are cheap, though Belgrade moreso.

In both cities, young people congregate on the streets at night. They will either stand around in the pedestrian areas or fill up sidewalk cafes and bars as groups.

Belgrade also doesn’t seem quite as crowded with tourists in the off-season. That’s nice. But this will soon change, I’m sure, as Serbia prepares to enter the Schengen agreement nations. Ironically, Croatia, the better developed and more frequently touristed country, has not become a part of this pact.

Eastern European Rail Travel

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Traveling by train in Eastern Europe is unpleasant. At best. It’s slow. It’s inconvenient. It’s loud. It’s bumpy. Take the bus instead.

From Budapest to Zagreb I took the train. Meant to be a leisurely 5-6 hour affair, it was closer to eight. After the first hour we were 20 minutes late. I’m not sure how that’s possible.

And we spent about an hour on a bus, going between train stations. Apparently they were working on the track? So we boarded a pair of busses to go this distance. The one I rode on was a real throwback. I could imagine old Tito being proud of it, but since then it had definitely seen some hard times.

But the rail is still good for night trips when you want to nap. It’s cheaper and more comfortable than the bus for that. I was on a night train from Belgrade to Skopje and it was delayed approximately an hour. That gave me more time to sleep.

Again, it was a car that probably saw pretty heavy use under the Marshal’s mid to late term. It had a sink, but it was corroded, rusted and stained. The beds were uncomfortable and old. The sheets were so heavily starched they didn’t fold so much as stack like wood. But I got a night of sleep for less than the cost of a bus trip alone and less than the day train and a hostel.

I suppose the lesson here is that you should know when and whre to use the trains here. Only use them when you want a slow, leisurely stroll through the country. And a cabin that smells like smoke. And a thirty year old mattress.

Mystery Trip – Athens And The End

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I arrived in Athens before 7am and tracked down my hostel. It was still dark. I couldn’t check in so I just left some stuff there and went to try and catch the sunrise. There was a cool place looking out on the Acropolis where the Athenian Council used to meet to discuss issues. Very appropriate.

I climbed up on the slick rock and waited. Unfortunately, the sun was rising behind the Acropolis itself, meaning I wouldn’t be able to directly see it crest the mountains around. But when it did I saw this reflected in the hills around and in the buildings and houses. Athens awoke and began to glow. A 5,000 year old tradition here.

After I’d been suitably satisfied that I’d done my duty I headed over to the Acropolis to get a ticket and head in. It was already very crowded with tourists, even at this early hour. So I weaved my way through them up the stairs, waiting sometimes when the hordes blocked my way to listen to the history of this and that god and how Rome and Athens influenced each others’ religions. Yup, covered that in 5th grade (I had a Greek teacher so we got into a lot of that). Next.

Finally I crested the stairs and the Parthenon spread out before us on the mesa-like top. It was awesome and ancient. Good morning to me. It’s difficult to describe because it’s so massive and in such a historical setting. I could almost see Homer sitting on the steps as a boy listening to the stories he would later retell. Or Socrates standing there, holding dialogues with his pupils. Fantastic history.

After that, the rest of the place was unremarkable. I walked down and headed to the hostel for breakfast. The place has a rooftop lounge where you can look at the Acropolis and Parthenon while eating. It’s fantastic!

So only one day in Athens, how can I see and do as much as possible? Take a walking tour. We passed by most of the major sites and got a little history behind them. Hadrian’s Arch. Temple of the Olympian Zeus. The Agora. The current Parliament. National Gardens. Several others. That finished up at noon and I had the rest of the day to explore.

I strolled the shops and cafes and took lunch at a nice Greek place. Souvlaki – the traditional lamb meat on a pita with a tomato. Nice. Strong coffee. Walked along the streets taking in all I could. Saw a couple of other sites which required admission – generously provided by my Acropolis ticket.

There seems to be some scheme here to try to talk travelers into going to a certain bar. I’ve been approached a couple of times by somebody ostensibly asking me the time or some other thing in Greek. Then they say “Oh, sorry. I thought you were Greek!” Then they continue on in excellent English asking where I’m from and telling me some anecdote about having visited Atlanta or having a son living there or something. Then they ask about what you’ve seen and what you’re planning on doing. Then they invite you to their bar. I’ve never gone to see what it’s about, but it’s probably some kind of a scam.

If you are looking for a bar, head over to Brettos. They’ve been in business since 1909, making their own brandy, ouzo, rakomelo (highly recommended) and other liquors. The well-worn marble counters, wooden aging barrels and colorful backlit bottles give the small place quite a lot of charm.  And if you get a bit peckish, just run across the alley and grab a delicious gyro for under 2 Euro.

At night I headed up to the rooftop again to see the Acropolis by moonlight. That’s where I’m sitting now, having breakfast again and getting ready to head out for the airport. It’s a hell of a view and a great way to culminate the gathering of a lifetime of memories.

Athena And The Fates Intervene

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The Greeks begged me to stay another day here. Technically I guess it was Delta, but the people who asked were Greek. Apparently the flight was over weight so they were looking for people to take the one the next day.

So here’s the package they gave me. $1,000 in Delta credit. I’ll probably be in First Class tomorrow. 1 night at the Sofitel Hotel – a nice place 50 yards from the terminal. And an extra day of travel. How could I say no? So I said yes!

See you Atlantans tomorrow!

Into Greece And Athens

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I caught the train to Thessaloniki at about 5:15 in the afternoon. It was to take around 5 hours to get there. Then I was to take a train to Athens and arrive around 7am.  I caught the first train and was on my way. Hopefully the Eastern European rail system could get me there in time to catch my connection.

Just before the border most of the horde that was on the train got off – students, I’m told. Then it was on to the border where the Greeks came on board, dressed in civilian clothes and asked us all to surrender our passports for them to take off the train. In 10 minutes, they said, we were to come to the Police station to collect them. Quite sketchy. Fortunately I’d read about this being SOP so I wasn’t as suspicious as I’d have been otherwise.

After 10 minutes I had my passport and we were underway again. We got to Thessaloniki pretty much on time. I went down to the ticket office and picked up a ticket for the sleeping car of a night train and went to catch up on my email. It was 10pm and my train left at 11:30 so I had time. After firing off a few emails I was just getting comfortable. That’s when it dawned on me that there’d been a time change. I looked at the time – 11:30.

Pick up my stuff. Put my pack on my back. Run. Platform 1. Platform 2-3. 4-5. 6-7. Up the stairs. Train is still there. Get on board. Heart pounding. Barely made it.

But I suppose Greece is on the Eastern European rail system. We finally departed from the station at around midnight. I made my bed in the six-sleeper compartment and climbed into it. 7 hours to Athens. The long train. Time to get some rest.

A Day Trip To Matka Canyon

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I arranged a day trip through the proprietors of the hostel where I stayed. It’s a friendly, family run-place that has about a dozen beds for rent. And a couch for guests they like but don’t have room for elsewhere – party crashers like myself.

There were eight of us going to the canyon, which meant two taxis. They arranged everything and we were on our way.

Our party consisted of me, a Portugese guy, a German couple and two young couples from Minnesota. We became friends quickly and unofficially elected the Germans tour leaders since they had a guidebook which mentioned Skopje. And the taxi driver spoke more German than English – but only by about 3 words.

We strolled down the road a bit from where the taxi dropped us off and made it over to the Church of St. Andrew and one of the restaurants. Ordinarily these sit right on the lake. However, the lake was down for cleaning so only a small, shallow creek trickled below.

We began walking around the canyon walls, following a trail. We hugged the walls, as our narrow ledge was about 2 feet wide in some spots, with a 20 foot drop off to the mud flats below. We hiked on until we came to a slight clearing. I suggested we might want to turn around and head back another way. But the intrepid Germans pressed on.

When the ledge had gotten thinner, the overhangs lower and the drop higher, the Germans finally conceded defeat. The trail had beaten them. We turned back and decided to take a different route. We’d go up a couple of marked trails to a scenic overlook.

These trails were possibly made for billy goats or rabbits, but not for people. They went straight up the mountain at greater than a 45 degree angle in some places. It was difficult for me, being the fattest one of the group. But eventually I made it and the view was worth the hike.

Back in Skopje we were told that there were other monasteries in close hiking distance and that they were better than the one we actually visited. Score another win for unmarked tourist spots in Macedonia.

A Couple Of Days In Skopje

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Just across the stone bridge, first built by the Roman ruler Justinian over 1500 years ago and since rebuilt several times, from the main pedestrian square lies the old market area. Narrow streets built with large, pave stones (instead of cobbles), smoothed by the feet of generations. It could have been here 100 years, 1,000, or more. The place bustles with buyers, sellers and strollers.

This is the heart of Skopje. Cultures, regligions and races congregate to do the things they have always done. The Romans, Greeks, Slavs and Turks have all laid claim to the city and left their mark on its people and culture. And don’t forget that Alexander the Great was actually named Alexander III of Macedon.

I strolled up the terraced Teodocig Gologanov street and ducked into an obviously touristic shop marked simply “Antik”. I looked around at the relics – some old and some made to look that way – and landed upon some old post cards dated pre-WWII. The shop keeper asked 10 Euro for them, one in a frame, but I said it was too much. In clear but pleasantly accented English he told me that the owner doesn’t sell them but instead uses them for examples of clothing to sell the costumery in his shop. But he’d probably be willing to part with them for that price to an American – correctly guessing my nationality. Aha – a sales tactic! So I politely declined and said that I understood. He handed me one, saying “This is from me. It is a duplicate anyway.” I’d get used to that kind of friendliness during my stay.

At the top of the street is a nice little cafe without a name and I stopped in to review my map and to get a quick caffiene lift. Then I headed off to walk around a bit more. Several mosques peek above the skyline of the city, with their towers, and I wanted to photograph and maybe visit one of these places. But whenever I’d approach with my camera, someone would come to wave me away. One time it was a guy from a repair shop. As I’d learn, photography is not readily permitted here.

As it got close to lunch I stopped at a small restaurant with its awninged tables squeezed into the space between the buildings. The menu was in English, marking it as a tourist place, and the prices corresponded. So I sat and ate an excellent dish of sausage, ham and beef. No greens on the plate.
As I was finishing up, three locals sat across from me and started up a conversation. Only one spoke English, but he did so very well. He lives in Lund, Sweden now – a place I’ve been before. He invited me to sit with him for a beer and we talked about their city, their country and my travels. The Swede vacations here every month and the friends he had in tow were his brother-in-law and his cousin. Very warm and welcoming people.

I recognized some lost tourists by their maps, guidebook and lost look and approached them. They were Polish and were touring the Balkans on vacation. I helped them find the stone bridge and bid them farewell. I ran into them again coming back from more sight seeing and then again later in the day. Skopje is a small town for tourists.

After that I walked up to the Kale area and its predominant castle. The place was obviously not set up for tourists, though heavy construction is ongoing. It’s a nice place to spend a little time walking around and offers excellent views of the city. At the top of the hill sits the art museum as well as the US Embassy. The two virtually share a building.

On the far side of the bazaar from Kale sits the old clock tower. This was the first erected in the Ottoman empire and was used to signal the time so that Muslim shopkeepers could stop work to perform their prayers. It’s in a bit dirtier and sketchier part of town, up on a small hill. And again, I was shooed away from taking pictures there. But my motto is shoot first and ask questions later.

Just a couple of hundred meters from the main square is a church built in a similar style to the mosques. A large dome shape with a tower to the side. I went in and was greeted by a stunningly simple church. It’s not as ornate as many of the other Orthodox churches which is refreshing. And there is a magnificent fresco on the ceiling.

Sitting atop Vardna mountain sits the Millennium Cross. This was supposedly erected to celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia. However, I think they got their math wrong a bit. It seems, instead, to be a display of religious expression by the Christians, as if to remind the Muslims that they are here. It’s not too far to hike to the cross, and along the way is St. Pantelejmon monastery. I hear it is quite nice to see. I tried to find it and walked all over the mountain without luck owing to the lack of street signs and names.

For dinner I had a dish called Polovana Vechalitsa. It, again, was all meat. But it was basically two or three different meats, with onions, baked and stewing in its own gravy, served in a ceramic dish with some bread on the side. It was excellent.

There were plenty more things to see in town, but I was out of time and wanted to take a day trip before I left. For example, Matka canyon offers excellent hiking and several monasteries, as well as some dining facilities. And it’s only about 15km from the city.

Skopje was starting to grow on me after my first full day in town. Friendly people, inexpensive, relatively safe, unspoiled by tourists and it’s someplace that very few have been or even heard of. That’s a welcome combination in my book. So I decided to stay one more day.

Welcome To Skopje

In between Belgrade and Athens is the country of Macedonia, and its capital Skopje. I could either go straight through to Greece or stop over for a while. Guidebook says nothing about it so that’s where I want to go.

I took the night train from Belgrade. It was supposed to take less than 9 hours, but this being Eastern European rail, I knew it’d be more. More than 10 hours later we arrived. I walked down the platform and was greeted by the familiar “taxi” call of the drivers. I ignored them. I changed some money and went to look for some info.

The window marked “information” had no information about the city. Nor did they know where I could get any. Train info only I suppose. So I asked around the shops for a map of the city. Nothing. But one shop keeper figured that “maybe  guy over there have map. He open at 8:30.” 30 minutes to kill.

I went for breakfast and noticed the universal ‘i’ meaning “information”. Walked over to the place and it was empty inside. No desks, no chairs, no people, no maps. “Closed for lack of interest” it might as well have said. At 8:45 the map guy was still closed. I learned quickly that in Macedonia, signs mean little. Which is fine since there are so few of them.

Actually, people seemed to try to spite them. Nobody waits for the “walk” signal, but risks death as often as possible. Some wait for the “don’t walk” sign to pop up before scampering across the street. Same thing with sidewalks. They’re not just for walking, but also for parking and driving! Even at the train station, some people line up on the wrong side to wait for the train, even if there’s room on the platform!

And things get more upside-down, still. I was at a restaurant and was surrounded by flies as I sat there wondering what to order. I was preparing to defend my bounty from them, but when it arrived they went away. Twice a fly approached and was easily shooed away. The third time I didn’t try to shoo him, but he turned away anyways. After that I didn’t fear them trying to share with me again.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, trying to find any kind of tourist information I could. Well I’d seen a map of the city and I kind of knew where some things were. I knew where a hostel was and where the center was, roughly, compared to each other. As luck would have it I found a sign for the hostel so I followed it. Until it came to a dead-end with no indication which way to go.

I walked one way for a while and then another and felt like I was close, but not close enough to risk getting lost. I knew what street the hostel was on, but none of the streets are marked so that’s a crap shoot. If Belgrade was difficult to navigate even with a map, Skopje would be impossible without one.

OK, time to seek out some fresh Internet. And some coffee. I hoofed it toward where I thought the center was and ran across a park. Free Internet. Nice, but no coffee. Fortunately there was a mall just up the road where I found both.

I pulled down a map of Skopje to my phone and checked out some things to do on my laptop. (Google really let me down. According to their map, it’s only a highway with a dot beside it. Actually I just checked and they’ve added a bit more detail in the last day or so, but still not much.) I also found a great travel site with information about Skopje.

Then I set off toward a hostel to check in and drop off some of my stuff. I got settled into the place – very reminiscent of the Communist-style housing I was accustomed to by now – and headed back out to explore the city. But first, I was given a photocopy of a tourist map and had some of the places pointed out to me there. Finally.

The main sites I wanted to hit were the Old Market, Kale Castle, some of the mosques, the Stone Bridge and others. There wasn’t anything particularly spectacular about the places except that they were not at all touristic. The castle was undergoing reconstruction, but the rest of the places seemed to have remained the same for decades or centuries. But more on that later.

This only scratches the surface of a place like Skopje. And it puts it in a bad light, but this is the first impression I got. I’m happy to say that impression was not the whole story.

Belgrade, Serbia

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Serbia and Croatia have many similarities. However, when I stepped off the bus from Zagreb to Belgrade, I walked into a stark contrast of what I’d left. The streets were dirty and the park directly across was dirtier. People lounged about outside with noplace to go and taxi drivers shouted out their services.

But don’t let this description turn you off. The railway and bus station are not entirely characteristic of the place as a whole. There are many nice places there and it’s very safe. Most of the parks have free Wifi, provided by Telenor. The main square and pedestrian shopping street is nice, as is the main street for restaurants.

As for getting around, it’s nearly impossible unless you know exactly where you’re going. Only about one-in-five streets is marked. Which is more than can be said for the numbering on the buildings. Some streets are just missing altogether, due to construction. And it doesn’t help that the signs are in Cyrillic but the maps are in Latin script.

But I can sound out the foreign type fairly well and still couldn’t find my way around. I looked for five hostels but only found two. And after meeting some guys we tried to find three different locations of the Black Turtle but were unsuccessful. One is tempted to give up because of the need to climb up and down hills to get everywhere. I’m guessing the town is under some kind of a curse from way back. I mean maybe not, but what other explanation could there be?

That being said, once you get to the main part of the city, it is very walkable and compact. The main street is completely pedestrianized and strolling around is easy. It begins at the Trg Republica and ends at the semi-restored Kalemegdan Fortress.

This ancient structure, some walls 15 meters thick, presides over the Sava and Danube Rivers. Surrounding the batlements is a nice park for strolling. Or you can have a seat and use the aforementioned free Wifi. There are several little stands selling inexpensive tourist merchandise as well. Just make sure to haggle a little. Sunset over the confluence is striking.

The hillside overlook afforded this area explains the importance of Belgrade to civilizations stretching back over a thousand years. Control of this point means controlling trade. And the strategic importance is only enhanced by the high vantage point overlooking the surrounding area. The view lets you see the incoming invaders and traders and strongly defend and attack, if need be.

The area around the old athletic complex on the southeast side of the city is a testament to the recent turbulent past. In 1999, NATO bombed the place for a couple of months. The scars are still visible in this area. The complex itself, carved out of the rock hill on one side, is now host to a couple of dreary cafes and clubs but not much else. And a building lies in ruins one one side. A memorial commemorates two who lost their lives in the campaign.

A day is all you’ll need to see most of the sights by foot. Stay longer if you want to visit any museums or enjoy the nightlife, said to be some of Eastern Europe’s nicest. There are plenty of sidewalk cafes which turn into bars after dark, as well as dance clubs. If you can find them.

One restaurant of note is the “?” restaurant, across from the cathedral. Service ranges from a step above hostility to mildly courteous. And you should be prepared to dispute extra charges (though not the 18% service fee). But it’s a landmark.

Built at the same time as the cathedral, of which it offers an up-close view, the church was unhappy about the proposed name so the ? was a temporary solution that has stuck. And the menu is similarly quixotic. Bowels. Entrails. Calf’s head in tripe. Hungry yet?

As Serbia prepares to enter the list of Schengen countries, travel here will become easier and the capital city will greatly benefit. In 5 years it will likely rival Zagreb in cost as well as cleanliness. Construction is going on in large sections of the city in anticipation of new visitors. See it now while it is still one of the best deals in Europe.

Plitvička Jezera, Croatia

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Plitvička jezera (Plitvicka lakes) is a National Park area in Croatia. It has been treated specially by the government since the late 1800s and is a UNESCO site, meaning it has special heritage to all nations of the world. And yet my guidebook doesn’t mention it.

The park is about 2 hours outside of Zagreb and is about 3 hours outside of Split. That makes it an optimal stopover in between the two. The only public transport is by bus. So I headed to the station to get my ticket, hopped on the bus and informed the conductors where I was headed and sat back and relaxed.

About 2.5 hours later we went by a bunch of signs for the park, then the signs lessened. I went to inquire as to when we’d be getting to the park and was told that I was supposed to signal the driver just before the stop. That seemed a bit counter-intuitive for a tourist destination because if you know where you’re going you’re probably not a tourist. So I was let off at the next stop where I caught a bus going the other way.

An Austrian woman was busy trying to convince the driver that yes, in fact, she did want to go to the park and to please let her off at the entrance. He feigned ignorance of the place. “I don’t know which is right stop. You tell me when.” She protested and finally convinced him that he’d be worse off by making it hard on her than by just complying. I took advantage of that and got off with her and the very well marked entrance with large signs, nearly impossible to miss if you’d driven the route even once.

Once inside the park, there are trams and ferries to get you around from place to place. There is also a wooden board walk that navigates the area. It’s well marked and there are several different suggested routes with estimated times to complete. The place is very well run.

The lakes are mineral lakes and come from deep springs, or so I’m told. In between each is a waterfall. The unique topology and mineral deposits apparently make this possible. It reminded me of Yellowstone National Park in the US.

The park is serene and peaceful and you can spend hours there. I’d suggest going in the morning – maybe even overnighting there. A number of hotels, hostels and private rooms dot the area surrounding. It would make a perfect stopover between Split and Zagreb.