There’s a slow train a’coming driving me around the bend.

It is 392 kilometres from Sofia to Belgrade and another 600 kilometres from Belgrade to Vienna. From Vienna you are on the fast rail networks of western Europe but these first two legs of my journey are about 200 years in the past in terms of train technology years.

The trip from Sofia to Belgrade in particular, is the railway equivalent of slow boat up the Nile. The Nile slow boats are a sailing boat called a Felucca, a boat, incidentally, that I know well (more of that in another post).

Felucca
Felucca, Nile River

Faster by Felucca

These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.

The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station

This is serious regret country. Where you think “was this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by train”. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.

Not much joy from the fellow passengers either

To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we don’t arrive in Belgrade until about 8 pm. The average speed is 30.15 kilometres per hour. Consider this – the average male marathon runner covers the 42 kilometres of the marathon in about 2 hours or around 21 kilometres per hour.

In other words this inter-city express would win a Boston Marathon but only by around half an hour. Or alternatively the marathoner could theoretically reach Belgrade only a few hours after the train if s/he could keep going – and the trip would probably be more comfortable than the train trip, since it seems that these trains were probably once used to torture their occupants via sleep deprivation. If you do accidentally fall asleep the lurching, bumping and grinding will have you on the deck in a matter of minutes.

There are, by my count 46 stops between the two cities which, if you work it out is one stop every 8.52 kilometres. Most of these stops, apparently, require that the driver or guard, possibly both, get off the train have a short winter holiday and then re-board before leaving the station. On average 0.75% of a person boards or descends at each stop.

From Belgrade to Vienna things decline further, other than the speed which is a little faster. We board the Vienna Express at Belgrade Station. The Vienna Express is likely the East European version of the Marrakesh Express of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.

It consists of a single locomotive and carriage and an assortment of co-passengers that look as if they stepped off the set of Midnight Express. The Avala only travels as far as Nis, where we change trains to a the more modern version of our Felucca. To ensure that we are not, however fooled by this impression of modernity, our express journey includes an unscheduled one hour stop in the Serbian countryside just after we have changed trains.

Here we wait in a small town with several other trains while they repair the railway tracks. Apparently they started work on the track the night before and forgot that trains were supposed to run on it the following day (or something like that given that my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem). It does have the advantage that we are all able to take a short tour of the village, have a smoke, get extra supplies, or whatever takes our fancy, etc.

The average passenger is also psychologically traumatised since the train, from Belgrade is called the Avala which sounds like it should be some slick modern train. In my brain it sounds a bit like Areva which is, of course, the French company which builds nuclear reactors. It’s the power of association. Even though nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60s technology.

The psychological dissonance suffered by the passengers who believe they will be boarding something the name of which sounds like the TGV but which operates like the train in the accompanying photo (below, at Nis station) is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.

Nis station (right) another model of modernity and (left) the fast train from Nis

For the first world, western European/Australian, traveller the journey through the Serbian countryside is, in itself, also a blast from the past in various senses.

Even the names of the towns such as Dimitrovgrad, where we stop on the Bulgarian/Serbian border, are reminiscent, to my ears, of the greyness of the planned cities of the Soviet Union. And, as it turns out Dimitrovgrad  was exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Dutton’s mind. Devoid of anything pleasant.

Here, we have a Bulgarian/Serbian repetition of my experience of crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria which you can read about here. Multiple border guards mount the train and make off with our passports to perform some secret police ritual in the offices of the adjacent buildings. Satisfied that any potential Syrian refugees are not, in fact, on board the train but are back in Ghouta enjoying being murdered by the Assad regime, we are allowed to proceed.

Later we will have a similar border experience at Subotica on Hungarian border, a border which is replete with a 2.5 metre, razor wire topped anti refugee fence. This stop involves not just the standard passport control but also involves the border police getting on their hands and knees and searching under each seat bench for errant refugees.

Despite its shortcomings the trip is scenically quite spectacular as we pass along the Danube River valley gorges near Gradište. The Danube swollen by full floodwaters from the recent storms surges through the gorges past the cliffside forming a spectacular backdrop to the rail trip.

We also pass a plethora of small towns each with its own unique railway building and railway staff who perform the railway rituals that seem to come with the territory in most of the Balkans and eastern Europe. These involve a variety of uniforms, strange hand signals, flag performances and assaults on the train using strange looking hammers.

 

Railway guards each with their own ritual and the railway stations – about 46 of them

Many of the cities are a different story, especially along the train lines. Here, in every country in the world, seem to be the areas that are full of the most impoverished looking, dingy parts of each city.

This is particularly so in many of the major cities of Eastern Europe where every passing kilometre is littered with dead trains, carriages and buildings but, worse, sometimes for tens of kilometres, are ground zero for seemingly uncontrolled rubbish dumping as far as the eye can see.

Abandoned buildings, trains and things. And abandoned hope.

Piles and piles of household, industrial and building waste, much of it plastic. Whether it is the absence of recycling facilities, an historical or current disdain for the environment, the absence of tipping facilities or the cost of disposing of waste it leaves an unpleasant vision of a form of industrialised hell.

Rubbish central. For miles. As far as the eye can see. Here near Belgrade.

As we near Belgrade our train comes to another halt. After half an hour we are informed that the train has broken down. Soon after another train pulls alongside us. The doors are opened and we all climb off, onto the tracks, with our luggage and board the relief train which takes us to Belgrade Center Station.

Now, one might imagine that Belgrade Center might be in the centre of Belgrade but no such luck. It turns out that this is merely a suburban station some 5 kilometres from Belgrade, where some tricky apparatchik has decided to fool all the capitalist visitors by naming it Belgrade Center. Apparently, there is track work between Belgrade Center and Belgrade Central Station, so you can’t get between the two.

Moreover Belgrade Center station is devoid of any immediate public transport connections or even taxis and there is zero signage or information. So I and several fellow passengers mill around wondering how we get from here to Belgrade proper. Eventually we find an office and the staff there order a taxi for us. This signals the end of our journey and where I and another lost passenger share a taxi to downtown Belgrade.

As my AirBnB host says to me, sarcastically when I explain my delay “Welcome to Serbia”

Recent posts published on this blog:

The Iron Rule: thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

Making In-Rhodes: more than just a colossus

Images from this blog and others from this trip may be found here on Flickr

97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 14) Dubrovnik – of Wailing Walls & Howling Trains

I leave Budapest on one of the few rainy days of the trip, so far. And on a day that turns out to very Australian, based on the efficiency of my transport choice.

As you head south the trains head south too. Slower, rattlier, fuller. The reclining seats, the speed, the power sockets all disappear. The restaurant car feels like a bit of an old 1950s film with the red velvet seats and the full meals for less than $10.

Beer, slow trains, rain and more rain

The south of Hungary and the north of Croatia are emptier and older, too. We pass the rail yards at slug-speed – about the speed that Australian express trains travel at. The rail yards are populated, in the rain, with old fat freight cars looking like something out of star wars.

The trains are so slow as to be 19th century, they creak and groan and as they wend their way around the never-ending bends the wheels howl on the tracks like some lost soul in Trump’s nightmare America. I could be anyway in the Great Brown Land (that’s Australia, for those unfamiliar with the term). Except maybe for the rain.

Dubrovnik, dawn

I had hoped to travel all the way to Dubrovnik by nightfall but it turns out that the timetables and routes didn’t correspond with my reality. As the rain falls I ensconce myself in the dining car – the only place with a power socket – so that I can finish the unfinished travel stories of the last week or so. Invariably restaurant cars are the best place to travel, if you can. Proper tables, coffee, relative quiet and more space. You can read, write, eat, drink and stare out at the passing landscape.

Departing Budapest, in the morning, the trip to Split requires two trains, one to Zagreb, where a two hour wait ensues, and then onward to Split arriving at night. With the velvet seats, faux wooden panelling, soft lighting and falling rain it feels, not just 1950s-like, but like some experience out of Murder on the Orient Express.

As we moan and screech our way through the mountains this sense is elevated by the pantomime when, at each successive tiny station, regardless of whether we stop or not, the guardian of the station emerges replete with uniform and signalling flags and proceeds, like some character out of a historical railway pageant, to perform a marionette-like set of gestures with the two flags he(no women were seen) carries which signal, who knows what, to the train driver.

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Liberated from his flags, the railway station guardian relaxes at his station

There seems to be no logic or reason for these rituals other than to provide employment to, possibly, the only remaining inhabitant of the region. It does not appear that any trains have actually stopped at most of the stations since about 1860 and there is zero evidence that anyone other than the station guardian lives any near most of the stations.

It turns out that there is a music festival on in Split, something I find out when I start a discussion with my fellow travellers across the aisle about why the train is so full and where they are going. They proceed to attempt to reduce me, without success since I have been forewarned about East Europeans bearing gifts, to the same level of inebriation as they are enjoying. They do this with the offer of an unrelenting supply of beer – which no matter how much is drunk continues to emerge, like some liquid form of the Magic Pudding.

Around lunch time we arrive in Zagreb, which for the geographically challenged, is the capital, and largest city, of Croatia. I have nearly two hours to explore in the rain. Like all European cities its outdoor sculpture reflects the long centuries of military conflict and nationalism and its squares are strewn with men on horses. European history might have been much improved had they fallen off.

Men on plinths, men on horses, men with swords, men on plinths in gardens.

Leaving aside the stone horseflesh, Zagreb offers plenty of choice if you like old buildings, churches, monuments, gardens and squares – and all within a gentle 20 minute stroll – plus, of course, the ubiquitous daily market. I undertake a sprinter’s tour of the cathedral, which is particularly magnificent as churches go, the main street, and the market and locate something approaching a tolerable coffee. Then I was able to say “my work here is done”, my tour returning me to the station with 30 minutes to spare.

Zagreb Cathedral

We arrive in Split after dark. I have two choices. Stay at an hotel in Split and take the ferry in the morning or catch the bus down the coast a couple of hours later. The former is significantly more expensive and more hassle but has the attraction of a good nights sleep and avoiding two hours hanging around in the bus/train station. The bus station has all the charm of a Russian security guard and, if you want to eat, requires one to have a worse diet.

The Dubrovnik arrival is early in the morning, at the bus station next to the port. From here it is a 15 minute bus ride to my AirBnB. The first rule of Dubrovnik in regard to finding your accommodation is that there are no rules other than ‘don’t panic everything will come to those that wait’. Do not assume there will be street names. Nor should you assume that your AirBnB will actually be on the street which it claims to be. Even if it is, the actual entrance will be down a side alley, shrouded in bushes, through an arch and around several turns.

Dubrovnik at night

Under most normal circumstances you would ring and get directions:

“Hello, Goran, this is Chris. I’m in Dubrovnik near your place. I just need some directions…”

“Ok, hello, welcome. Where are you? What street?”

“Err, the street doesn’t have a name, we’re by a large square, next to….. (you give the name of a large prominent accommodation establishment just opposite).”

“I’m sorry Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me what it looks like..”

Dubrovnik by night

” Well, it’s a square right under the city wall, there is the hotel (previously described), there is a shop selling vegetables, a house (#15 – the same number as are looking for), with two stone steps and many pots of flowers in front, there is a person selling shawls, there is another AirBnB, there are steps up to the city walls, there is a mural of King Kong, there is a lunatic asylum, four second hand London double decker buses, a model of an A380, a French patisserie, a statue of Winston Churchill and 15 black sheep and a camel grazing in someone’s front yard…”

En route to AirBnB #2, Dubrovnik

“I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me the name of the street…? Please wait.” For what, or why, we are not told. At this point the phone goes dead leaving us abandoned and with a $20 bill for an international phone call.

The point being that no matter how detailed the description you can be sure that “I don’t know that place” is the correct host response. Nevertheless, seconds later an elderly woman will emerge from the suspected doorway, which I had described in loving detail, and will embrace you, metaphorically, (sometimes literally) like her long lost child.

On this occasion, I am greeted not by an elderly woman but by a large man with exceptionally good English. He takes me to my extremely convenient AirBnB, just spitting distance from the main entrance to the old walled city, and deposits me in my room.

Dubrovnik night

This is AirBnB Turd…as opposed to AirBnB Mango (you see here my careful and clever use of lexicographical juxtaposition to make a contrast)  which is my normal, and positive, experience of AirBnB. To be fair that is a slight exaggeration but, nevertheless, the apparently spacious and airy room/unit with shared bathroom, turns out to be a poky flat with four bedrooms each occupied by at least two people. Which, had Idiot Traveller read further down the page which gave the description, instead of just looking at the pictures, I would have known

Use of the bathroom and/or kitchen require reservations about three months ahead and don’t plan on turning around in the dining room at dinner time or you are likely to get disembowelled by a fellow guest holding a sharp cooking knife.

I spend only one of my four nights here as, fortunately, it was only available when I booked for a single night. My second AirBnB is several notches higher on the approval rating with access to a great terrace overlooking Dubrovnik, its own bathroom etc. and it’s cheaper, too.

Night falls on Dubrovnik at full moon

Exploring the nooks and crannies of Dubrovnik is a real pleasure for anyone with an appreciation of culture, architecture, history, ambience, fantastic views, good food and for a myriad other reasons. It’s not without its drawbacks as described here in my post The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on my visit, in 2017.

Chief grumble, for me, apart from the obvious over-crowding and the fact that almost no local people can afford to live in the old city any more (thanks to people like me) is that the city walls, which in the day time swarm with a non-stop stream of people, don’t open until 8 am and close at 7.30 pm (earlier at certain times of year). Given that dawn and dusk are the optimum time to be on the walls this makes no sense at all. You can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those refused access to the wall at the best times.

On the Dubrovnik walls at night

On the positive side, if you are prepared to risk life and limb, a quick shimmy up the walls in the south-eastern corner will allow you to get in free and avoid the crowds, as well as enjoying the best times of day. There is a silver lining to everything. So I found myself on top the wall, one evening, sharing the views and the soft evening light with two couples, one from Dubai and one Italian/Romanian couple.

This is one of the great places to enjoy sunset and dusk which, for me, came at the cost of just a pair of torn shorts. A slip on the pointed iron railings or off five metres of wall could have been more drastic.

Dubrovnik dawn

Dubrovnik is only a tiny part of the attraction of Croatia and, as with all of the world’s popular tourist attractions, a short trip away from the centre brings you to a largely deserted part of the Adriatic Coast.

The Adriatic Coast heading north – largely devoid of tourists (relatively speaking)

Having gorged myself on an overdose of old buildings and crowds that make Pitt St look like the Itidarod trail on a slack day,  I hire a scooter and head north-west along the Adriatic coast.

Once over the main bridge north, the traffic thins out and one has to resist the temptation, at age 60, to feel that one still has the reflexes of a young Michael Schumacher and that one is sitting on a Moto Guzzi, or similar rather than a scooter with notoriously bad cornering design. Still the curves are hard to resist as one slides down the roller-coaster road.

About an hour north of Dubrovnik is my destination for the day, Trsteno, and its Arboretum dating back to 1494. It sits just about the town’s jewel like harbour, a short walk down the road, where a handful of locals swim undisturbed by the, literally, millions of visitors to Dubrovnik less than an hour away.

Trsteno harbour and Aboretum

Dubrovnik has two million visitors a year of whom, it appears, about 75% visit in June, July and August. Each day brings a new swarm of 20,000 people to a town where the population is 28,000 and where you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes.

Despite being well known, locally, it seems few tourists visit Trsteno even in the height of summer. This is another of the iron clad rules of tourism: more than a ten minute walk or a half hour drive and the visitation rate drops by 90%. Half cultural icon, stuffed full of old buildings and statues and half botanical marvel, the Arboretum Trsteno is one of those little gems that one should be prepared to travel for, with its old aqueduct that supplied water from the hills behind, its 150 year old trees scattered in among another 510 indigenous species.

Trsteno harbour and arboretum

I’ve seen other visitors comments complaining about the arboretum and saying that it is slightly run down. For me this is one of the attractions. The sort of down at heel, semi-neglected feel is precisely what gives it, its spirit and makes it well worth spending an hour or two.

The town features two other notable attractions: a beautifully crystal clear harbour to swim in and two of the largest old plane trees in Europe. At some 400 years old and nearly 50 metres tall they provide a great spot to sit and relax on a hot day. But take your helmet because a French tourist was killed by a falling branch a few years ago – arguably in revenge for Napoleon’s attempts to take Dubrovnik.

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By the old plane tree

From the gardens you can descend via a windy coast road to the small harbour below which is shared, largely, with a handful of locals cooling off in the clear and sheltered water of the harbour. To finish off the day you can return via some quiet inland villages which give one a different perspective to the coastal towns.

This is Part 14 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks
  4. Part 13 – Budapest

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Croatia Coast (north of Dubrovnik)
  2. Zagreb
  3. Dubrovnik by Night
  4. Dubrovnik Dawn
  5. Dubrovnik general
  6. Dubrovnik Sunset and Moonrise

Europe 2017 (Episode 4): A Holiday Oxymoron – Visiting Mljet – another “undiscovered Mediterranean Island”

Like military intelligence, the living dead, found missing and Microsoft Works, the concept of an undiscovered Mediterranean Island is about as near to reality as Australia being the Clever Country. So it is with Mljet – our island getaway, just over an hour from Dubrovnik. To be fair, however, the claim was “European Islands without a lot of Tourists”. Mljet could fit that definition depending on your definition of ‘a lot’.

Regardless, if you are not seeking a wilderness experience, it is a little gem, with crystal clear water, picture perfect clifftop and coastal villages, great walking and riding and spectacular scenery.

Odysseus Cave, Mljet; deep blue clear, cool water

The ferry ride from Dubrovnik takes about an hour from the modern port by the local fast cat. Coming from the north you can also, get there via the catamaran service that comes from Split.

This is the only part of the five week trip that is largely unplanned, so we arrive at Sobra, on Mljet, with no idea how we will get to Saplunara, on the southern, and quietest, end of the island.

This sort of unplanned arrival is, theoretically, the best type of holiday, where one just travels and arrives on a whim and makes the best of the opportunities that present themselves.

Saplunara; the peaceful southern end of Mljet

In this case it is just an Idiot Traveller oversight of the sort that is eminently avoidable if only I had actually given some thought to our next stop. Had we arrived on a weekend it is likely no cars would have been available so we would have been largely marooned on one end of Mljet which would have been very useful as most of what we want to do is on the other end. As it is we are able to hire a car just at the port.

This is where my instinctive reversion to adolescent tendencies cuts in and I can’t resist hiring a convertible VW Golf. Most of the cars available are, in fact, convertibles but even so my latent male bogan tendencies allow me revert to my memories of screaming around the European roads in my old convertible Triumph Vitesse. Usually I was over both the speed limit and the safe alcohol limit – albeit this was before the days when there was breath testing and before anyone, apparently believed drink driving was a problem.

Triumph Vitesse

Look just like my old Triumph – you can take away the car but you can’t take away the latent hoon

It takes about an hour to drive from one end of Mljet to the other along winding roads, and we enjoy views which, if you bought properties that had similar views, would cost $10 million if they were anywhere near the coast in Australia.

We quickly discover that the VW has no synchro, limited braking ability and a hole in the exhaust. This gives everyone within five kilometres the impression that an entire fleet of Triumph motorcycles is passing in convoy. For us, in the car, the exhaust problem threatens not only deafness but early brain damage via carbon monoxide fumes. And this is leaving aside the damage to Kaylee’s perm, and to her complexion, caused by too much wind and sun.

Our AirBnB at Saplunara sits on a quiet dirt road about 30 seconds walk from a spot where you can plunge off the rocks or, in the opposite direction a two minute walk from a quiet, partially shaded beach. It’s not really my type of beach but Kaylee is like the proverbial pig in shit with the tranquility, the sunshine and the water. Plenty of time to relax and read. On top of all those good things, the local village about five minutes drive away has a restaurant with a great location and good food and wine like a scene out of the Lotus Eaters¹.

In the morning we roar off, literally, to the other end of Mljet. The northern end is mainly national park but, if you want the party scene, also has the town of Pomena, just on the tip of the island.

The only real attraction of Pomena, for me, is that it has the only dive centre on the island, and so I get to go diving on our third day.

The owner of the dive centre, dive-master, boat captain and laconic Mjletian is, Ive Sosa, from the Aquatic Diver Centre, who quietly tolerates my apparent inability to organise or put on any of my equipment in any sort of manner that will ensure my survival for more than a few minutes underwater.

In our modern world, diving is a curious anomaly. It requires a massive infrastructure of boats, dive shops, ports, and equipment and the consumption of huge amounts of fuel to get to the dive spots but is one of the most tranquil, peaceful and meditative experiences available to humankind.

You slide beneath the waves and are left with just the sound of the escaping air. Your vision is narrowed to just what lies in front and you descend into this almost soundless nether world of rhythm, soft light, and sensuous movement. Everything, even the divers, try to move with a minimalist elegance of effort, conserving air and energy.

Meditation, yoga, the mountains, the wild lands – all places or states to which people go to find some form of tranquility, a type of transformation in a society where there remain few quiet places. The rhythm of swimming gives a form of meditative state to some but there are few greater states of grace than that experienced below the water’s surface.

We dive on an ancient 5th century wreck which is still surrounded by the pottery and old bricks that were destined for the, now ruined, palace at Polace, nearby. Visibility is about 50 metres. At about 12 metres I understand why Ive insisted I wear a hood on my wetsuit when we encounter a thermocline and suddenly the water temperature plunges from a pleasant 20°c down to about 12°c in the space of one metre. Thermoclines are most evident during the summer; the first at 3 – 5 metres, the next one at about 12 metres, and another at 18 metres.

Diving Mljet, crystal clear water, few currents and multiple great dive sites

To get to Pomena, our route takes us along the eastern side of the mountain ridge and past numerous jewel-like coastal towns, sitting hundreds of metres below our route along the main road. Each town has its own perfect bay filled with million dollar yachts, .

We visit four towns, on our way to Pomena and back, Korita, Okuklje, Kozarika and Blato. They are all perched around their bays with crystal clear water and old stone buildings, largely unspoilt by the waves of tourism that have overtaken much of Europe.

We venture down to each in turn, over the next two days, to see what they have to offer. Each is quite different with the sole shared quality being those crystal waters and a bunch of perfectly located AirBnBs and cafe-restaurants.

Korita, tranquil crystal clear water, million dollar yachts

En route to Pomena we also do a side trip down to Odysseus Cave. The descent is down several hundred steps which is a fortunate deterrent to many. We arrive at 9 am and have the rock platforms and caves entirely to ourself. Here you plunge off the rock platform into fifty metres of clear water and then, in calm weather, swim into the cave. Inside are the remnants of the old ramps on which fishermen used to store their boats and massive falls of rock which have carved off the cave roof.

Okuklje

Our first stop in the national park is Great Lake, at the centre of the park. The lake is encircled by a walking and cycling track and its history is dominated by the ancient 12th century Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Saint Mary. It remained a monastery until 1808 when Napoleon decided the monks had better things to do with their lives and then subsequently became a hotel. It has only recent started being repaired after the Croatian Government returned it to the church. The lake and its surrounds provide a relaxing days cycling, kayaking, swimming and checking out the local history.

Great Lake and the Island of St Mary

Our return trip takes us to Blato. Unlike the coastal towns that have benefited from tourism, Blato, once a thriving town of 250 is now a largely empty and much abandoned old town of just 40 people. It was the third settlement on the island and is the location of one the islands perched lakes as well as being one of the main agricultural areas on the island.

Blato provides the Idiot Traveller with a standard travellers’ intelligence test. This requires us to work out how to put on the roof in order to prevent further carnage being visited on us by the intense afternoon sun.

Travelling in a convertible one quickly realises why they never became the dominant transport mode since there are only about two countries on earth where the climate is sufficiently benign to prevent you either getting fried by the sun or frozen in driving wind or rain.

Blato, once a thriving community of 250 now largely abandoned in the flight to the coast

From Mljet it is back to Dubrovnik. We drop the Suzuki off, which has replaced the VW Golf when we could no longer tolerate the sense of imminent death that the brakes of the Golf engendered. The return trip is on the catamaran from Split, which was probably built in Tasmania (the catamaran not Split), a trip we do in company of several dozen teenagers. They spend the trip taking selfies and the males spend the trip preening in front of the girls each like latter day versions of Warren Beatty, about who the song “You’re so Vain” was allegedly written (at least in part).


¹ In Greek mythology the lotus-eaters (Greek: λωτοφάγοι, lōtophagoi), also referred to as the lotophagi or lotophaguses (singular lotophagus /ləˈtɒfəɡəs/) or lotophages (singular lotophage /ˈltəf/), were a race of people living on an island dominated by lotusplants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were a narcotic, causing the inhabitants to sleep in peaceful apathy.

This post is the fourth in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence
  3. The Balkans

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on this link

Europe 2017 (Episode 3): The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo

The trip through the mainland Balkans starts in Dubrovnik. But to get to Dubrovnik we must first leave Bari, in Italy, by ferry. We arrive at the port to find that the ferry is delayed by several hours, apparently. No one is quite sure how long and, like the quintessential Disappearing Man of Isaac Asimov novels, any staff member of Jadrolinija Ferries who could supply useful information is as disappeared as they can be.

Hence we wait in the not very salubrious terminal served by one slightly seedy takeaway that, in common with most of Corsica, from which we have just travelled takes only cash. Light entertainment is served by watching the ferry to Albania which appears to have no timetable, having been loading for appears to be give hours and is still doing so and by also watching the other passengers for our ferry.

Dubrovnik

Periodically an additional Albanian will appear and leisurely make his/her way to the ship. There appears to be no rush. I assist one of them, a young woman with child, who is struggling with her luggage. Unsurprisingly since it turns out since her suitcase weighs more than the average fully loaded semi-trailer. She claims to be carrying clothes. In which case they must be gold lined bras and panties. No damage is done other than about five herniated discs in my back.

The ferry dock cannot be seen from where most people are sitting so we are able to observe metaphorical flocks of sheep in action. About every fifteen minutes  someone will pick up their luggage and head through the doors towards the hypothetical location of the ferry. At this point, and despite there being absolutely no new information or any rationale to their decision to move, at least half of the ferry passengers will pick up their bags and follow. This is the cult/crowd mentality at its best of the sort that leads to mob lynchings, gas chambers and queues for iPhones.

We, meanwhile, are not fooled, as we are with two Kiwis, Helen and Kemp, who of course understand sheep-like behaviour extremely well. They are going to Croatia for a wedding because it always makes sense if you are from NZ to hold your weddings in the farthest corner of Croatia.

On the other hand it gives them (and us) an excuse to drink champagne. Even better it is their champagne. Given that rugby season is coming it is unlikely Australians will be buying champagne any time soon. We also consume the bottle of Corsican mead that I brought on one of the walking trails. This is the best form of travel: random meetings, good conversation, champagne, mead. In this context delays are irrelevant.

For those that have not yet visited Dubrovnik which, judging by the crowds on the main street of the old city, can only be about half a dozen people, Dubrovnik is, daily, like a beautiful dessert placed before a crowd of gluttons. It will survive for seconds before being entirely ruined. It’s beauty is best appreciated in the two hours around dawn – that is before it is effectively destroyed by the descending hordes.

Dubrovnik

Like many other places where tourism has effectively, if not actually, destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg, it is hard to appreciate the real beauty of this ancient city when fighting ones way through the thousands of visitors, not least the hordes that descent ‘en masse’ from cruise ships like some sort of biblical plague.

In the last 20 years or so the population of the old city has plummeted from 5000 to 1000 as the locals are driven out by rising rents, lack of any shops other than cafes, bars, and shops selling un-needed gifts to unthinking travellers. And that’s leaving aside the conversion of almost every available bit of sleeping space to AirBnB.

Dubrovnik

We have two stops in Dubrovnik, one on arrival in Croatia and one on departure. For some reason known only to the Idiot Traveller I have managed, on both occasions, to book AirBnBs at the very highest point of the city just inside the city walls. Thus, several times a day we are required to stagger up about 200 + steps to the top of the city. Bad for both my knee and humour.

These ascents involve a sort of game of chicken with those descending where, at the hot times of day, everyone tries to stay in the sixty centimetres of shade next to the buildings. Fortunately it is only mid thirties while we are there as opposed to the 45ºc which Croatia endures the following week.

Like every couple, Kaylee and I have points of difference in our travelling routines. I like to avoid every market and shop as if they were sources of the Black Death whereas, for Kaylee, shopping and buying is one of the pleasures of travel. It seems that every second shop sells potential gifts for friends and relatives and our trip is punctuated by approximately 652 visits to inspect potential purchases.

This difference has been exacerbated, on this trip, by the “imminent” arrival of the first MacKenzie grandchild. As a result all of Europe has been scoured for baby clothes and gifts even though “imminent” in this case means at least six months away.

We also differ on beaches and driving speeds. Kaylee feels, for whatever bizarre reason, that, since I almost killed her by rolling her Subaru station wagon some years ago, I should restrain myself from acting like Ayrton Senna on Croatia’s windy roads. Perhaps justifiably, since Senna is dead.

Night time Dubrovnik

I also feel that any beach without waves or somewhere to kayak, dive etc is not a real beach, whereas she is quite happy to be on any beach with sun and water. She is also unsupportive of puns, word plays or interesting statistical analyses, all things which any reasonable partner should be prepared to endure until death do us part. I on the other hand, being inestimably tolerant, put up with the 652 gift shop visits with good humour and patience. Such is life.

Beyond these differences we travel reasonably amicably following the itinerary which I, as resident travel agent, have picked out. Croatia is the third country on our five country European tour and, like most places, if you can get away from peak periods and peak locations, it is beautiful and relatively deserted.

Dubrovnik in the morning and at night, after most people have either not yet got up or have already gone to bed, is a magical town of tiny streets, magnificent old buildings and breeze-kissed rock rock platforms perched above the Adriatic.

Dubrovnik

Travelling through the Balkans and Turkey is like a primer in life. Sometimes it seems a hard and brutal road if you look at the history, but, at the same time one is surrounded by ineffable beauty and acts of compassion. To know and understand the history of this region is to understand the total and utter failure of the concept leadership as defined by western democracy and, more generally, humans.

Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Armenia, Kosovo, Montenegro. These are lands swept by repeated genocides. An eye for an eye makes us all blind. So far as I can tell only the Bosnian Muslims are largely innocent, in recent times. Even so there was at least one massacre of Serbians by Bosnian troops during the siege of Sarajevo.

The Greeks murdered the Turks, the Turks the Greeks, The Armenians murdered the Kurds and Turks and vice versa. The Croats murdered the Serbians and the Bosnians. The Serbians murdered the Croats and Bosnians. And on and on.

Unlike the Jewish holocaust, but like the Rwandan, Nigerian, Syrian and other genocides, these are repeated mass murders largely already forgotten. In Srebrenica alone the Serbians murdered 31000 people. Or at least there have been 8000 bodies recovered but another 23,000 Muslims remain unaccounted for 25 years after the war ended.

These were not casualties of war but victims of a brutal civilian ethnic cleansing where the Serbs executed almost every last able bodied Muslim male they could get hold off. Those that fled to the mountains were also hunted and murdered wherever possible. In total more than 100,000 people died in the war.

Our journey, in the Balkans starts in Dubrovnik, follows the bus route to Mostar in Herzegovina and wends its way onto Sarajevo in Bosnia also by bus. As I travel I read Rose of Sarajevo and Birds without Wings, both historical novels that document the sweep of history of 40 years of massacres during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire and through to the civil war in Bosnia. An un-ending tapestry of blood and brutality.

En route Mostar to Sarajevo

Each nation – one cannot say ethnic group because all these nations are composed largely of South Slavs – Yugoslavia means South Slavia – document carefully the atrocities committed by others against them but ignore totally the identical genocidal fury they unleashed at other times, in return.

Thus we find ourselves in the old fort above Dubrovnik where, in 1991-2, a handful of ill-equipped Croats held out against the entire remnants of the old Yugoslavian army, navy and airforce (the latter two of which the Croats had none). The Serbs, in defiance, of world opinion and seemingly out a spite that achieved almost nothing, proceeded to pummel world heritage listed Dubrovnik reducing large parts to rubble.

Here the Croats have created a museum commemorating that resistance and documenting the brutality of the Serb invaders. There is no mention, of course, of either the genocidal slaughter by the Nazi backed Ustashe Croat fascists during World War 2 nor of the revenge slaughter and expulsion of Serbs, in 1995, after the Croats had rebuilt their own army.

Mostar War Damage, the old town and old bridge

From Dubrovnik we head north and east to Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina (The name Herzegovina means “duke’s land”, referring to the medieval duchy of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača who took title “Herzeg of Saint Sava”. Herceg is derived from the German title Herzog).

We travel from Dubrovnik to Mostar by bus mainly because in the aftermath of the war many of the train routes connecting Bosnia to Croatia and Serbia no longer operate and we are deposited at a typically ugly bus station – nowhere in Eastern Europe is immune from the plague of soviet era architecture and the descendants of that architectural style.

From here we are fleeced double the normal charge for our taxi ride from our bus station to our AirBnB. The same taxi driver offers to take us on a tour of the local area at a price that we later find is as inflated as buying smashed avocado in eastern Sydney. This is the sort of price that the Idiot Traveler would pay without checking.

But as usual we are smart and fail to take up his offer out of sheer inertia. The route to the AirBnB takes us through Mostar’s civil war front line where the Croat leaders having betrayed the Bosnians, with whom they were formerly in alliance, sent their troops to try and create a greater Croatia from stolen Bosnian land.

Mostar

Mostar is an odd city. In many ways it is nothing special – much of the city is just a pretty ordinary modern urban centre. The old city, the part for which most people visit, is a tiny part of Mostar, just a street or three wide and a few hundred metres long. There are genuinely old parts that survived largely undamaged but significant parts were entirely reconstructed after the damage of the Balkans war and many buildings remain as ruins, or are full of bullet holes.

Those few streets are an archetypal tourist trap of market shops and restaurants perched above the river selling a mixture of everything from genuinely gorgeous art pieces through to junk. The famous old bridge itself is not, of course, old having been famously, and deliberately, destroyed by the Croatians during the war.

Mostar

But despite all that one cannot but be struck by the sublime juxtaposition of the old city and bridge perched above the deep green Neretva River. Mostar is named after the ‘mostari’ (the bridge keepers). We are fortunate to have one of the best AirBnBs in Mostar with a stunning view of the bridge, a breakfast costing $5 that would cost $20 in Australia and hosts who are friendly and who also double as our tour guides to the areas around Mostar.

There are five mosques and two churches visible from the balcony a reflection of the diversity that means Bosnia has one of the world’s most complicated political systems reflecting the disparate political ambitions of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats – something that further exacerbates an economic situation that has led to 27% unemployment including youth unemployment of 66%.

From Mostar we move onto Sarajevo arriving after a circuitous bus trip through the spectacular mountain scenery and gorges surrounding the Neretva River.

We would have preferred to go by train as the train journey is reputed to be scenically one of the best in Europe but for reasons best know to Bosnian railways the line, which re-opened in July, only has two trains a day. The first of these requires you to get up at about 5 am, or some similar ungodly hour, and the second, and last, of which deposits you in Sarajevo in the middle of the night. No one, apparently, wants to travel at any civilised time of day.

We find our AirBnB is within spitting distance of old Sarajevo. In common with Mostar much of the old and a great part of modern Sarajevo had to be rebuilt having been shelled repeatedly by the Serbs, who controlled all the hills surrounding Sarajevo and mounted a siege of the town.

Reports indicated an average of approximately 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege, with a maximum of 3,777 on 22 July 1993.[6] This urbicide [6] Among buildings targeted and destroyed were hospitals and medical complexes, media and communication centres, industrial complexes, government buildings and military and UN facilities.

Sarajevo: Despite the bloody war & graves, still multicultural

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. After being initially besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 (1,425 days) during the Bosnian War.

The siege lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.[4].

More than 10,000 people died during that time and for much of the war the only access in and out of the city was via a 1.6 metre high tunnel dug by Sarajevans under the airport which was controlled by the UN. All Bosnian arms supplies came in and out of the city by this route. The siege was effectively ended by NATO intervention in 1994/5.

Sarajevo

Although Sarajevo was besieged by the Serbs and the city was divided into areas controlled by Serbs and others controlled by the Bosnian forces the population of Sarajevo under siege was a mixture and Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks and all fought together in the Bosnian armed forces.

Today Sarajevo remains a city which is proud of its continuing multicultural heritage and the city is dotted with signs proclaiming this, as well as with a multitude of cemeteries where the war dead were buried including the famous grave of the Bosnian ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić, a mixed Bosnian-Serbian couple who tried to cross the lines and were killed by sniper fire.

They became a symbol of the suffering in the city but it is unknown from which side the snipers opened fire . Even so, in addition to the thousands of refugees who left the city, many Sarajevo Serbs left for the Republika Srpska, which is a semi-autonomous part of Bosnia. As a result the percentage of Serbs in Sarajevo decreased from more than 30% in 1991 to slightly over 10% in 2002.

Sarajevo

The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo (RDC) found that the siege left a total of 13,952 people dead: 9,429 Bosniaks, 3,573 Serbs, 810 Croats and 140 others. Of these, 6,137 were ARBiH soldiers and 2,241 were soldiers fighting either for the JNA (former Yugoslav army) or the VRS (Serbian militia). Of the ARBiH soldiers killed, 235 were Serbs, 328 were Croats and the rest were Bosniaks.

Sixty percent of all people killed in Sarajevo during the siege were soldiers. In particular, 44 percent of all fatalities were ARBiH personnel. A total of 5,434 civilians were killed during the siege, including 3,855 Bosniaks, 1,097 Serbs and 482 Croats. More than 66 percent of those killed during the siege were Bosniaks, 25.6 percent were Serbs, 5.8 percent were Croats and 1 percent were others.

Of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city, at least 40% had been directly shot at by snipers; 51% had seen someone killed; 39% had seen one or more family members killed; 19% had witnessed a massacre; 48% had their home occupied by someone else; 73% had their home attacked or shelled; and 89% had lived in underground shelters.

The tunnel that saved Sarajevo and winter Olympic ruins destroyed by the Serbs

Today the old city of Sarajevo has been largely restored and provides a traffic-free pedestrian enclave of shops, churches, mosques and museums which reflect the remaining diversity of the city.

The museums, displays and ‘siege tours’ provide a salutary exposition of the futility of religious and sectarian violence as well as the human potential for both brutality and for overcoming the hatred of war.

Sarajevo also provides a reminder of the most futile and bloody of human wars, World War 1 which started as a result of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian extremist and act that is marked by the plaque on the corner of Zelenih Berentki St.

This post is the third in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on the links below:

Dubrovnik

Mostar

Sarajevo

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