Countdown to Zero: Day 30

Today’s throwback: Pliva Lake, an hour’s walk outside Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, early August 2013. Clean and clear, calm and peaceful, and practically devoid from any other people, it took practically no effort to find a secluded place along the lake to go for a swim, soak up the sun, and relax before a bus ride to Mostar.

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Curiosity at a cafe

I was walking back to my hostel in Shkodër, Albania when a couple of men at a cafe made a gesture of hello and stopped me, then insisted I go inside to buy a drink and join them.

During times like these, instead of asking myself, “Why?”, I find that it’s often better to ask, “Why the hell not?”

So I bought an ayran (a salted liquid yoghurt drink) and sat with them. They spoke absolutely no English and my Albanian is limited to a mispronounced “thank you.” But I was able to introduce myself and tell them my background and nationality. Beyond that, they talked a lot and I couldn’t decipher any of it. It was a lot of fun but no less sufficiently awkward.

Isn’t it great, though, to have these interactions with people with whom you can barely communicate but who are so welcoming and curious to know a bit about you and why you’re in their country? That’s such a great part about travelling that too often gets lost in the scuffle when you’re principally concerned about just getting somewhere…

Another photo for the Balkan sunset collection

I’ve seen so many sunsets in the Balkans that I feel I can make a photo collection out of them. Well, I took another one for the collection today. Unfortunately, I took it from inside a bus and the windows were dirty and stained, which contributed to a blurry image, one certainly not worth posting. But the sunset was so vivid and stunning that it’s certainly worth the effort to at least attempt to describe what my eyes witnessed.

It happened shortly after crossing the Bulgarian-Macedonian border on narrow, winding, bumpy roads through empty hills with low-lying mountains in the distance. The horizon was every shade between purple and yellow, and the sun made a striking appearance under the few clouds accentuating the sky, clouds shaped like free-formed swirls echoing the whims of the people in the Balkans. It was the same sun I’ve seen thousands of times before, but today particularly remarkable and spectacular, a perfectly circular, pulsating orange sphere slowly descending into the mountains. A flock of birds, black shadows flying in unison in the sky, rendered the image even more arresting. A lone shepherd tending to his flock of grazing sheep in the rolling fields might, too, have noticed.

The sun’s disappearance signalled the end of another day of travel, a day when I left Bulgaria after spending two wonderful weeks there, a day when I came back to Macedonia and reminisced my time here last year. It’s the end of another day in the Balkans, another day of intense vibrancy in which I recognize how alive I always feel in this corner of the world. The Balkans is my favourite place in the world – there’s something about this region that does something for me – piques my senses, gives me energy and makes me feel more alive, makes me strive for something better yet makes me appreciate all that I already have…

How many sunsets I have admired over the past four years in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and hopefully soon in Albania and possibly in Greece…

Another “rescued by locals” story

I took a train from Bucharest, Romania to Gorna Orjahovica in Bulgaria where I befriended a Japanese man named Ari while waiting for our connecting bus to Veliko Tarnovo, which dropped us at the railway station outside of the medieval town. We decided to walk to our hostel, first across the highway, then through weird passageways, then up a hill to the edge of the town centre.

About an hour in, we stopped to look at Ari’s map and make sure we were going in the right direction. A couple of Bulgarians, Miro and Alex, saw us foreigners with our big backpacks and asked us if we needed help. After looking at our map, they decided that the distance was too far to walk and offered to drive us to the hostel. Tired and sweaty, we gratefully accepted at this point and it was a fortunate turn of events because after the ride, we figured we’d be walking at least another 40 minutes to get to the hostel. We also got a brief history lesson and a mini-tour of the city on the way there.

If this was any indication of the interactions I’ll have in Bulgaria, I’m sure I’ll love it here. The hospitality in the Balkans never fails to surprise or inspire…

Travel updates

Looks like I haven’t posted anything in two and a half months!  It’s not for lack of anything to write, that’s for sure.  Initially, I wanted to take some time out while on the Camino de Santiago, and then I didn’t know where to begin blogging again once I had finished my pilgrimage.  And from there, it was just one place after another, with me overwhelmed about doing my experiences justice by putting into words everything that I lived and sensed and immersed myself in.  This post is a humble attempt to summarize where I’ve been the past few months and where I’m going the next few.

The past that has passed

My trip through France was leading me from the centre of the country down to the southwest to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the starting point of the Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances, Way of St. James).  It was a great ten days exploring different cities in a country that I’d wanted to visit for so long, especially learning French throughout school.

The Camino de Santiago was an intense, unrelenting, unforgettable journey of the spirit that took my body from the Pyrenees all across northern Spain, walking on average between 20-30 kilometers a day with a rucksack on my back through rain, shine, and wind over all sorts of terrain.  I very much hope to write more about this experience because I believe that it has been the most significant thing that I have done with my life, and these mere words right now cannot possibly explain everything that my body, mind, and soul encountered during this blessed time.

I spent a few days in Santiago de Compostela, afforded with the luxury of sleeping in the same bed for more than one night and walking the same streets daily, even having a cafe that I frequented.  After moving around every day for the past month, it was a welcome change!  Then, I headed into northern Portugal for six days.  Portugal is a country that will always be on my list of places I want to return because of the friendliness and sincerity of the people.  Of course, there’s also the food, the port, the cities, the landscape, the Mediterranean way of life…

From Portugal, I flew to Morocco where I spent thirteen days.  Morocco is an explosion for the senses where everything hits you unapologetically and makes you feel more alive!  Everything from the exquisite food, the calls of the vendors in the souqs and its related hustle and bustle, the oppressive desert heat – it’s overwhelming and intoxicating, but somehow leaves you wanting more… DSC00669

After Morocco, it was back to Europe where I relaxed for a couple days in Madrid, then a few hours exploring Zurich and a few days in Budapest, Hungary where I did a few things that I hadn’t done during previous visits, like ride a railway line run by kids!  The conductor, of course, was an adult, but the selling and validating of the tickets were undertaken by kids 10-14 years old…

From Budapest, I took a train to Vienna where I didn’t do nearly as much as I would’ve liked due to an illness that unfortunately had me staying at hostels more often than seeing the city.  After moving on to Salzburg, however, I got my groove back and did plenty of hiking, including a 1400-metre ascent up the Untersberg mountain (part of the Alps), the accomplishment of which highly lifted my spirits!DSC01957

And now, I write this post on a couch in the common room of a hostel in Bled, Slovenia, where I have spent the past four nights.  Bled and the surrounding area is a haven for nature and adventure enthusiasts, and I’ve thorougly enjoyed the past few days strolling around Lakes Bled and Bohinj, taking a dip in pristine waters, appreciating a lazy boat ride, and of course, hiking – to waterfalls, through gorges, through quaint, picturesque towns…

Foreseeable future

There’s just under three months left of travel for me, and I do have at least a rough idea of where I’m going.  I’ll be heading to Ljubljana in a couple days, then southeast to Bosnia and Herzegovina (possibly with a short stop in Croatia), down to Montenegro and the wonderful
Adriatic Sea, then up to Serbia where I’ll catch a flight in Belgrade to London.

I’ll spend a few days in England with family and friends, then fly into Dusseldorf where I’ll meet up with a friend for a couple days before going to Brussels to meet up with another friend.  From there, I’ll fly to Tbilisi, Georgia – the beginning of a one month itinerary in the Caucasus which will also include visits to Armenia, and hopefully Azerbaijan, if I can secure a visa.

After this month, I’ll fly back to Belgrade from Tbilisi, and from there, round out the Balkans with forays into Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria before heading into Turkey where I’ll spend my last week or two before heading home!

Anyone care to join me?

Belgrade rising

There’s an energy and authenticity to this city, one of the largest in the Balkans, that I can easily appreciate. Often during travelling, I feel like I’m just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, walking around and doing the same thing. It’s a feeling that I dread and most times do my best to avoid; it’s usually not an issue here in Belgrade…

Zemun

Zemun – once the limit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the Turks controlled Belgrade

The beauty of Belgrade is that by and large, mass tourism is non-existent, or at the least much less obvious than most European cities. As such, it doesn’t put on a show for tourists and I can walk around the city and feel like I’m getting a sense of what the capital of Serbia is about. I think this is what makes Belgrade unique. True, a city like Belgrade has many similarities with other large cities – that faster pace of almost everything compared with being in the countryside or a small town; the pollution and noise of crazy speeding cars; higher prices (though still one of the most ridiculously cheap places I’ve visited in Europe). But to be sure, Belgrade as a city has its share of unique gems that easily attract the traveller’s eyes.

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La revedere, Romania

This post comes belatedly; as I post this, I am actually in Frankfurt and the majority of this post was written in the hostel lobby in Kotor, Montenegro. Naturally, I say that posts about Serbia, Montenegro, and Hungary are also upcoming, however sporadic they may be.

The list of places I want to visit is a long one, and the list keeps getting longer with each trip after hearing stories of adventure and intrigue from other travellers I meet. While my time in Romania was part of a longer Balkan/southeast Europe trip, I’m extremely glad that I ended up staying almost two weeks in the country. To be sure, two weeks is still a small fraction of time to spend in a country like Romania. I visited Bucharest, Brasov, Bran, Rasnov, Sighisoara, Sibiu, Cisnadie, Cisnadioara, Cluj, Suceava, Gura Humorului, the monasteries of Humor and Voronet, and Timisoara, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating country.

Highlights

Bucharest

Palace of Parliament - Bucharest

Palace of Parliament – Bucharest


The capital city of Romania is an intriguing mix of brutalist Communist-era architecture, exemplified most strikingly by the gigantic Palace of Parliament, grandiose buildings built in the second half of the 19th century, and wide tree-lined boulevards which have once garnered the city the name “Paris of the East.” It’s a vibrant city where contrasts are the norm, definitely worth exploring despite what the guide books might say.

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The real Romania?

Yesterday (24 September 2012) was undoubtedly the most fulfilling day I’ve had in this beautiful country. I checked out of the hostel in Suceava in the morning, backpack and all, moved my way along to the neighbouring bus station, and took a bus southwest to the small town of Gura Humorului. From there I walked to the train station that looked as abandoned as some of the communist-era factories that one sees; fortunately there was a clerk and after combining my elementary Romanian with her elementary English, I was able to buy a ticket with a couchette reservation to Timișoara on the other side of the country to the west (a 661km overnight journey lasting 12 and a half hours). My fortune continued when she let me store my backpack in the station, freeing me of 15 kilos off my back.

Gura Humorului is a good base for exploring a couple of the famed monasteries in the region, namely Voroneț and Humor, each about 5 km away. While it’s possible to take a maxitaxi (essentially a shared cab the size of a large van) to these sites, me being me, I opted to walk and in retrospect, it’s a decision for which I’ll always be grateful. The road to Voroneț is a single winding lane and I feel like walking through it transports you back in time…

On road to Voronet Monastery

I could see up close and personal, without any filter, rural life in this country in which just over half the population lives in urban areas. And from what I experienced, it’s a country where horse-drawn carriages share the same road with cars and trucks; where the clean country air is cut by the powerful odour of manure; where cows, chickens, sheep, and goats roam and graze freely and outnumber the human population. It’s a Romania of endless cornfields, at this time already harvested (and hence, one can understand why mămăligă is so often found on the dinner table) and countryside of varying shades of green.

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The food post

So, what is Romanian food anyway? I’ve been in Romania for about a week, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on this country’s cuisine, I definitely do have some impressions. The food here is rich in meat, cheese and dairy, and starches like polenta, potatoes, and bread; as such, it is quite hearty and filling. I’ve found that a good meal at lunch is more than enough to last me for the rest of the day, leaving me craving only a small snack to nibble on during the evening hours. Like in other Balkan countries, fresh fruit are found in abundance, even in small grocery stores, though the quality of which at times may leave something to be desired. While perusing a menu, there are two things that strike out: one is the use of all the parts of an animal – meat, liver, tripe, brains, tongue, testicles (yes, you read that right); the second is the presence of dishes normally associated with German and Hungarian cuisine, owing to the presence of these cultures in Transylvania – you’re just as likely to find goulash and schnitzel on the menu as you are sarmale, which is perhaps the country’s signature plate, consisting of minced meat and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves and most likely served with the ubiquitous mămăligă (polenta).

sarmale – minced meat and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves, served with polenta

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