Postcard from the Middle of Nowhere, Italy

Friday, August 26, 2005

My laundry line
We woke up just after noon and relaxed around the house a bit. As would become common in this particular house, I was the first one up, so I took a leisurely and much needed shower and read on the patio. I was to meet Rob in Naples the next day, so my initial intent was to stay for the day and leave the next morning but it proved irrisistable. Not much happened that first day. Marcello has a Fiat 500 which he'd told me I could drive since only Keira and I had licenses, and you can imagine my disappointment when we discovered it wasn't working. His dad had dropped a spark plug in the motor, so we had to pull of the cover and plug it back in. He & I did that while the others were elsewhere, and his uncle (of sorts) Pepe came to try and help. He seemed to know his stuff but would turn out to do more damage than good despite his intentions.

Sitting around the table on night one
His grandma, who lives nextdoor, made up some dinner for us that evening, a nice pasta, salad, and some fresh Italian bread. What happened that evening, I have no idea, but I think we really did just hang out. I got some laundry done that day, all of which I washed by hand and then monopolised the banister from end to end with my wardrobe. It was a nice recharge day, but since we got nothing done I decided that I should stay another day or two and get a feel for the place rather than running off, and I believed I'd still have time to meet Rob, so no problem.

Tony cooking up a storm
The next morning, I was up first again, it was sunny, and I sat on the balcony reading and slowly taking up my laundry as it dried. Pepe and Marcello towed the car into town (Atina, I think) to get fixed by a mechanic, which was interesting. It's the only time I've ever been towed and told I could go faster down the hills if I want to, which to me defies several laws of physics. Pepe's an interesting character, whatever else might be said. As we were there, it started to pour, but thankfully all my laundry was in before I left, and we headed back, stopping off at Tony's house, an uncle of Marcello's who'd invited us to a BBQ in honour of a christening, some friends from France being in town, and of course, us. We popped back and picked up the others and headed over there for the night.

Candlelit Evening
Tony is hilarious and is the stereotypical Italian. We met more of Marcello's relatives and friends, and really got to practice the Italian. The food kept coming and coming, and was terrific. One of the guys brought a guitar, so we had an impromptu singalong, and all said, it felt very much like what I remember of Greece. It's only gotten me more excited for getting there. We were there until 1:30 AM (from 6:00) and then walked back to Marcello's place where we lit some candles and chatted the night away.

Me in the Fiat 500
As usual, I was up first the next morning, and good thing. Pepe rang the bell around 9:30 AM and the car was ready, so I went with him into town and we picked up the car. It was a LOT of fun to drive, I'd love to have one back home! I brought the car back and everyone save Dan was up and quite excited to see the car arrive. The girls and I made a trip to the supermarket for some food and supplies, made some breakfast, and then Marcello, Sefra and I headed up to the castle and did a little sightseeing. We stopped at the bar owned by a brother and sister we'd met at the barbeque the night before (the brother being the guitarist and the sister being the girl I'd talked with quite a bit that night) and hung around. Then we picked up the others, went to a lake, rented a paddleboat, and cruised around for an hour. Afterwards, the girls were tired, so Dan, Marcello, and I hung out at the bar again and I introduced them to three-person cutthroat (a pool game). And also to the REAL rules of pool (they insist that a scratch/foul means you miss your next turn in addition to losing your current one). Since the Fiat only holds four people (and barely), we also had Marcello's motorbike. After returning from pool, Dan & I engaged in some heated table tennis (AKA Ping pong), the boys taught me to drive a motorbike, and I zipped around.

Out on the lake
That night, Marcello, Keira, and I made dinner, sausage, mashed potatoes with a tomato sauce that Marcello's grandma had made, fresh salad, green beans, and some nice red wine. Then us boys headed into town, met some of Marcello's friends, who proceeded to take us on the Grand Prix tour up the mountain to a little bar there overlooking the towns in the valley. We stayed for a few drinks/smokes in the case of the driver, and again called it a night after a stop for some Italian pastries.

Sports cars abound!
I had to leave to meet Rob, though I discovered upon finally getting to the internet that he had already left Naples, so I drove the Fiat in to Cassino with Marcello and Keira, and said goodbye to them all. It was difficult to leave and get back to travelling, but the pressure of my Sept 4 deadline in Athens was looming. I should also mention that the place is crawling with "chippers", Irish Italians who own Fish & Chips shops, all of whom have a LOT of money and a LOT of nice cars. You can't avoid them. Anyway, that aside finished, now I'm in Naples, and heading out to a pizzaria with some girls whose claim to fame is that one of the original owners was the guy who invented the Calzone. It comes highly recommeneded from our hostel owner, so I'm looking forward.

Tomorrow, Pompeii/Vesuvius/Herculaneum, then the next day to Bari and ferrying to Greece. Which reminds me, I should get booking my ticket...

<Canalara Photos>

Do Brovnik, Go Italia

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sarajevo Film Festival
My last night in Sarajevo, I went out to the 11th annual Sarajevo film festival (which, incidentally, had its first year in the middle of the war - talk about not letting things get you down) and wound up watching a screening for an upcoming Greek movie called Hostage, about an Albanian who takes over a bus and tries to clear his name of wrongdoing, but has to resort to taking money instead, and taking his hostages with him to Albania. It started a little slow, and I think some editing but became riveting and the two Canadians I met at the show were as impressed with it as I was. The director and a few of the actors sat right behind us, too, so we had pretty good seats. After that, I went to a bakery they knew about (having been in town for about a week) and got some great and dirt cheap stuff. I wasn't tired, so I went over to the City Pub and met some Aussies from the hostel there for a few beer.

I caught the bus the next morning (7:15 AM) for Dubrovnik, not realizing that seats were first come first serve and almost not getting a spot at all. I did, however, get a spot, and it turned out to be next to a little 4 year old girl who could speak three languages (Bosnian, English, German) and embarrassed me to several degrees of red. Granted, she wasn't exactly fluent, but hey, she could count to 10 in English, and I could only get to about three in hers. So, she taught me the numbers to 10 and I taught her the "give me five/on the side/up high/down low" game. Fair trade. The bus was stifling, no air conditioning, sitting on the top floor, and no windows that opened. We sat in our own sweat for over eight hours, made survivavable only because the bus driver enjoyed taking frequent stops for smokes.

Dubrovnik Walls
I got into Dubrovnik and negotiated with a lady for a decent price considering that I was now single and only staying one night (these guesthouses like to fill their rooms up and do so for a couple nights to save them stress). I discovered that the old town was a 1 hour walk from the main bus station, so I hopped a city bus there and walked around the city walls. Which, aside from a few beaches, is all there really is to see in Dubrovnik. It's beautiful, but dull. I was actually on my way down from the walls to check out the closest beach when I ran across my two English friends - again! It seems that they have some sort of homing beacon on me or something, the odds seem rather stacked against. They were heading out that night, so I went with them, got a couple beer and a tasty burger at one of the few places that was hopping, and then we said our goodbyes yet again.

Meanwhile, I finished my walk around the town walls, strolled through the old town, getting a little lost in the process (all part of the fun!) and finally discovered freedom. I was still in shorts and a shirt and wanted to change my attire for the evening, not to mention finally call home (it's been quite a while!), so I picked up some bus passes and a phone card and went back to my place. Which, I should say, was nowhere near worth the price. Not exactly clean (the toilet was still dirty from the last guy that must have stayed), and while she was nice enough to offer me snacks when I'd checked in, the wafers were soggy, the grapes looked old, and the popcorn I didn't dare touch given that it was doubtless also soggy, had hair in it, and, well, was among the more disgusting culinary delights I've encountered since Portugal. As has been happening a lot lately, and probably in part as a response to me getting in at 2:30 AM and waking at 6AM the night prior as well as sitting on a hot bus, I wound up not going out. My attempts to call home were exacberated yet again by a big thunderstorm that hit, and so I stayed in and finished my latest book, Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Conner, which I must review with the highest of praise. It was an excellent book, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something to read from a new author.

The way out of Dubrovnik
It turned out that I missed nothing in Dubrovnik that night anyway, I ran into a few fellow travellers the next day and they all confirmed this for me. Also, since I was leaving and had no use for them, I gave away my phone card and a few bus tickets to some nice people I met. It was time to leave, time was tight and I didn't really need to be there another day. I left my place and went down to get a ferry, only to have the woman tell me they didn't have a spot open for another few days. As a matter of the utmost fortune, an Irish girl (whose name, forgive my spelling, was Sefra) sitting in the corner nearby overheard my plight and whispered to me that there was an undocumented ferry running from Dubrovnik to Tarni at 3:30, which only takes 4 hours (as opposed to 8) and is therefore twice the money. I checked the other line, which also didn't have a ferry today, and decided this was what I would do.

Irish Cohorts
So, I got my tickets with them and met her friends, who were all very nice and shared their spot in line with me, ensuring that I got on the boat with them. Marcello, Dan, and Keira were their names, and again, I felt very lucky to meet them. We got primo seats, or so we thought, right at the front of the boat, looking out over the water, and shoved off only 45 mins late - a miracle in this country. It turns out we were sailing right into a thunderstorm with force 4 waves, and I should mention at this point that while peeling fruit like oranges and kiwis is a great way to take your mind off the rolling sea, it's not exactly cost effective given that you don't get long to digest it. Further to this, sitting in the middle or the boat seems the best bet for combating seasickness, rather than right at the front. The more you know...

Irish Cohorts
We arrived in Italy in the heretofore unheardof town called Tarni, and after an excessively long but exceedingly friendly customs stopover, grabbed some pizza, and beer and a train to Bari. From there, I was to go to Naples, and they were off to some small town. Marcello, as the name might have foreshadowed, is of Italian descent, and his parents have a house in a little town nestled in the hills between Rome and Naples (or Napoli as it's called here). We were at the station in Bari at about midnight and I was trying in vain to figure out how to get to Naples as the hotels are quite expensive in Bari (it's the main port town for Croatia and Greece) when Marcello invited me to his place which was only an hour from Naples though possibly on a different train. I tossed the idea around and eventually knew I HAD to do it or I would regret it, so I took the train with them and history was decided.

Italian Fog
Our tickets, unfortunately, didn't have reserved seats, and so I wound up being one of those people I always feel sorry for, the backpackers stuck in the narrow hallways. However, it was quite fun. We got some beer, played some cards, I used my little travel speaker and iPod for tunes, and we had a little party on the train. That was great until about 4AM, when tiredness overtook everyone (for my part, I wasn't really tired, but I felt like I should sleep and also my bones were aching). The attempt at sleeping in the area at the end of the cars where the washroom is seemed futile, so I grabbed the washroom and attempted to sleep in there, with the seat cover down of course, and my head on my little toiletries bag (how ironic) on the counter. It didn't work, and I gave up and ventured back into the hall.

Maison OReilly
We had to switch trains, which was a bit of a panic, and made it to Cassino, where we caught a taxi to the small town. Even the taxi driver had never heard of it, but Marcello knew the way, so we were off. We arrived in a 8 AM and were all excited by this veritable mansion and the promise of double beds. The drive itself was beautiful, a light fog, but turning into low clouds as we climbed into the mountains. And the house was incredible, I once again felt VERY lucky to have met these great people. And then, suddenly, VERY tired (I had travelled about 24 hours in the last two days, if you don't count the early morning of this most recent day as a third day since I hadn't slept). And so, with no reluctance whatsoever, we went to sleep.

<Bosnia Photos>
<Dubrovnik Photos>

We Shant Find Sand

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Zlatni Rat from Above
So, as I may or may not have mentioned last time, our departure for Bol was in part, in fact LARGELY fuelled by our desire to hit a sandy beach. First, we looked around Split. Rocks. Then, Hvar Town. Concrete. Then, an excursion to Palmazana, where the Rough Guide promised us a sandy beach. Rock terraces. So, we headed to Stari Grad, where once again we were told there were sandy beaches. Concrete platform (though admittedly, the other side of the bay may have had sand). And so, yesterday, we left early in the morning for Bol, of which we'd seen actual photographic evidence of sand (Zlatni Rat beach). Much like the picture on the left (not taken by me, incidentally). So, imagine our surprise when we arrived to discover that, lo and behold, rocks, when viewed from far enough away (and perhaps a touch of Photoshop for good measure) look quite a bit like white sand.

Bol from the ferry
Having said that, the water is always pristine, the weather's nice, and pebbles aren't really that bad, but it is rather amusing to me that we've had no success in discovering a sandy beach. Anyway, we arrived in Bol, which is a nice town on a hillside, and got ourselves a room. Then got all the internet stuff done we wanted to. After which, we discovered she had given away our triple even though we'd booked it and given her our passports. Because she was more likely to be able to sell these other three travellers on a triple than splitting them, and hey, she already had our passports. So we got separated despite my attempts to rectify the situation or at least come up with some recompense for our trouble. When you have only one place in town for booking and they know it, it's quite easy for them to say, "Well, fine, take your documents and try to find a place." It's again, not that bad, but it was pretty underhanded in my opinion and although I pay less for a single room than I would,, well, anyway...

Zlatni Rat from Beach Bum-Eye View
We walked to the beach, found a place near the tip (see photo for beach bum-eye view), it's actually quite nice and beautiful here on the ground as well, and did a little snorkelling. The weather was windy and fairly cloudy, so it did get quite chilly at times, but still enjoyable. We hung around there for the afternoon and then ventured back, stopping along the way for a little outdoor pool. While playing, a couple locals came over and challenged us to some foosball, which I accepted, probably to the dismay of my English collegues. It seems they were quite reticent to engage in a game where their skill was perceived to be lacking, and I actually had to flip a coin to pick which one of them would HAVE to play. We had fun anyway, and managed a respectable 5-2 loss.

Dusk as we ate our dinner
After that and a rather poor Italian dinner (because of all the Italians here, it's pretty much all you can find), we went back to our respective rooms to shower with the plan of meeting in the square at 11:00. It was here I learned that pasta, two glasses of beer, and a warm shower should not be combined with a "quick laydown". I awoke at about 4:30AM realizing I'd missed the meetup with them and worse, I had no subsequent meeting place or time for tomorrow. Not to mention they'd be stuck waiting. But there was nothing for it, and I went back to bed, only to completely randomly stumble across them the next morning. Again.

Kiteboarding and Windsurfing
We looked into kite boarding, but the first lesson cost over $100 and consisted of sitting on the beach flying a kite, so needless to say, we passed. I also checked into windsurfing, but too windy. Rental cars were almost $100 for the day as well, so we cheaped out, grabbed an ice cream cone, and returned to the beach for another day. The surf was raging and it was quite nice and easy body surfing as well, we had a lot of fun. That night in Bol we went out for a while, but we had an 8:30 ferry to catch, so it was nothing to write home about (in spite of the fact that I have, in fact, written home and to anyone else who might care to peruse the site).

Scenery en route to Sarajevo
Yesterday, we caught our 8:30 ferry, which I'm pretty sure did not make any attempt to move under its own power, but rather to let the Earth's spin carry us to the mainland only a few km away. We got in just before 10, and caught the 10:15 bus towards Dubrovnik. However, this is where I and the English (by the way, Luke does a great impression of the guy from Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous and I now want to watch it simply to hear how he talks) would part ways. I got off the bus at Ploce, a very ugly industrial town that feels deserted, and caught the 4:00 train (Jess, close your eyes - sorry!) up to Sarajevo. By which I mean, the train departing roughly at 4, choosing the wrong track and ending up almost derailing, waiting for an hour for workers to patch a section, backtracking, going forward to just past Mostar, debarking for a bus, and transferring back to another train elsewhere up the line. Yeah, it was a chaotic trip. The scenery was reputed to be beautiful and at times was, but it's very much ruined by some damming activity in my opinion, leaving mud and weird flood planes and things.

Scenery en route to Sarajevo
So now I'm in Sarajevo, I've done a bit of a tour, hard to believe everything that happened here was 10 years ago, and now I'm off to see some things we didn't cover so much on the tour. As for the tour itself, it was very interesting, seeing a tunnel used to sneak food in past the UN, to whom there is great bitterness here. There are also what are called Sarajevo Roses all over the place, basically shell marks on the ground where people died that have been painted in red (usually) and turned into a monument for them. And on the topic of the city, it's quite an interesting collection of all sorts of cultures, I think I'd say it's what Berlin claims to be but isn't, a true gateway to the East/West. Mosques, Catholic churches, synagogues, all side by side, in one part of the city only 150m apart. The city is still recovering from the war, but I think that the spirit of it is very palpable and with that, I'm off to experience it.

I leave for Dubrovnik tomorrow morning, then off to Italy where I'll probably run into Rob from my Contiki tour. Because I'm so tight for time, I don't know when I'll be posting again, but see you soon anyway.

<Dalmatian Coast Photos>

Split For The Coast? Hvar de Hvar Hvar!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I met a couple Brits on the train to Split, Luke and Joe. They were sharing my couchette and most importantly, shared beverages of a spiritual nation with me. We hit it off quite quickly. Together, we arrived in Split and together found a woman with a guest room for three through the travel agency. The room was quite pricey (these Brits have no concept of expense nor bargaining) but very nice and the woman there was great. We wandered around the old town a bit and also hit a little bit of a beach (aka a concrete pad) but the water was oily supposedly so I didn't end up going in. It was a cool place and rife with locals however, which is very nice. Otherwise, the makeup in Croatia so far has been two Italians for every other person.

Homes right in the ruins
We did take our time in Split and relax, which was nice, and also found a great restaurant with a mixed grill, nice fresh fries and salad that have been the closest I've come so far to home cooking at the lake. Which, I guess, would make it lake cooking. It's really great how they've built Split into the ruins, makes it quite an interesting place vs somewhere where the ruins are just a site. They still use them here. I should mention we stopped at the market and I picked up a new towel (to replace the Athens 2004 one I'd forgotten in Budapest), a pastry, and figs. Lots and lots of figs. MMMMMMMmmmmmmmm...

Welcome to Hvar (as seen from our balcony)
It wasn't a long time there, though, really just one night, and we caught the 3:00 ferry to Hvar Island, where we were quite fortunate. You see, we ran into a woman who wanted 300 Kuna ($60) a night from each of us and pretty much spat at us when we told her it was too much. $180 a night is a rip off for a room in someone's house, let's be honest. Another lady was standing there and looked like she might have something, so I walked up to her and, indeed, she did. 150 (aka $30), and right, literally, RIGHT on the harbour. A terrific spot for a really decent price. Balcony, kitchen, overlooking the harbour at sunset. We settled for two nights and again explored a bit.

Dusk and some massive yachts
Hvar town was a nice place to be situated. We found some expensive but decent food that we somehow thought was cheap when we perused the menu from outside. The best thing was an octopus salad, really well done. Funny how eating it as a kid made me insta-ill and now I quite love it. Next thing you know, I'll like mushrooms. Well, probably not. But anyway, after our pricey meal, we decided we'd be better off doing groceries. So, the next morning, I woke up at 9 AM, read til about 10:30, and decided that I'd just go and get groceries. I got us some yogurt, deli meat, cheese, and bread for a noon brunch, sausage, salsa, and tortellini for dinner, not to mention a few beer and some juice for the mornings. Cheaper and quite tasty.

Palmazana Beach
We went the next day to some of the small islands off the coast of Hvar, particularly a place called Palmazana, which was supposed to have nice sand beaches according to Luke's rough guide. At this point, I determined I hate all guide books (prior, only Lonely Planet), for not only was there no sand, but we were laughed at when we asked where the sand beaches were. Still, the water was beautiful, the weather was fantastic, and we had a great spot on the rocks. We had bought a snorkel set as well and all took turns snorkelling around, though there wasn't too much to see. We went out that night to Carpe Diem, which turned out to be rather snobbish, and left quickly enough for some more down to earthery. They had met a couple British girls on the train and we hung out with them for the evening, then all came back to our room, sat on the balcony overlooking the starlike lights on the masts below the moon, and chatted some more. It really was a great time.

The beautiful view from our taxi
Finally, today we left (we had a debate about staying/leaving, decided to stay one more night, then discovered our host had no room) for Stari Grad, a smaller town on the island. The taxi ride there revealed that the island is quite pretty and has some great beaches on the south side, which we really should've visited but didn't. The girls were with us again so the taxi wasn't too expensive, and they ate while we hunted out a room. It's quite difficult to find people willing to give you a room in their home for only one night. Most won't take the trouble, but we did find someone eventually. Then we went to a place north of town that also doesn't qualify as a beach - just a cement pad and some rocks leading into a beautiful but angry sea. But it wasn't too bad, even if the so-called Croatian beaches have been disappointing up until now.

Stari Grad's Party
Tomorrow, we head to Brac, and specifically Bol, which (we have photographic evidence) has a nice sand beach, and we'll stay for a couple days. I may make it to Sarajevo for a few days before Dubrovnik and then Italy and then Greece, but time will tell. I'm definitely behind schedule and John arrives in Athens on Sept 4. But Croatia's been great so far, and now I'm off to join the Feast of Assumption in the city square, where we were recently passed by a big religious parade. Internet's hard to get at here, but I'll hopefully see you soon and/or reply to emails.

<Dalmatian Coast Photos>

Slovenia in One Week or Less

Friday, August 12, 2005

Ljubljana from above
Alright, so first things first. That cool hostel I told you about. Well, here's the deal. Brian and I checked out of our other hostel the next morning and showed up at Celica Hostel (AKA The Cool One) at about 11. We ate a decent brekkie there, talked to the person at the front desk, who took our names and let us put our bags away until check-in time (3:00), and booked a two day adventure for us with a guy named Matic (pronounced Matice) on Wednesday. Brian & I left to explore Ljubljana, checking out the not so great castle, discovered a place of perpetual rain where they even have signs warning of rain and for umbrellas (AKA Overhead sprinkler), and grabbed a bite. We went back to the hostel and discovered that while we were there before 3:00 (in fact, as late as 1:30), we were there BEFORE 3:00. Which means, of course, we couldn't have checked in. Further, we were there AFTER 5:00, which meant they'd given our room away. So back to the HI hostel. Which would be the theme for Slovenia, though thankfully Slovenia's HI hostels are far above the current running average.

Lake Bled
I briefly mentioned a tour with Matic, but I should say more on that now. Brian & I both wanted to do some stuff in the mountains, hiking, biking, whatever. Matic was to take us to all these spots for swimming, hikes to waterfalls, cool out of the way places we'd never get to on our own, and throw in some adventure sports on top of it. For 80 Euro, including 2 days travelling around and touring, and food, the deal couldn't be beat, especially considering we were spending between 20-30 Euro a night on our hostel. We wanted to go on Tuesday, but while he said he'd work something out for us if we could get 5 people together, we went with Wednesday and headed off to Bled. Great choice for us, really.

Lake Bled Castle
So, we got into Bled, hostel booked, and dumped our bags before hitting the town. It's a beutiful town surrounding a lake, completely non-exploited, at least for now. Tourism done right. Brian and I hiked up to a much cooler castle with a great view over the lake and the famous island in the middle where there is an old monastery/church. We walked down from the castle along the lake, just admiring the amazing emerald water and came across a house with a couple rowboats in front. I asked the woman that lived there if we could rent one from her and got a boat for about 1500/hr, which is 1/3 the price of a gondola there rowed by someone else and much more fun. We rowed to the island, checked out the church, I rung the wishing bell, hoping only for general luck (mostly because I thought it was called the Lucky Bell and didn't know to make a wish). The island was really amazing, with a big 100-some step staircase leading to the top.

View from lookout
Then we rowed to where my Lonely Planet said there was a hiking trail for "brochure quality photos". Well, you know because I used the quotes that we found anything but. We hiked for about 45 mins on some rather challenging terrain up hill to the summit finding nothing but trees. We looked around and found only a viewpoint over the side of the mountain at other mountains, which, while alright, wasn't worth the hike and certainly not brochure quality. Brian insisted, thankfully, we keep looking (though we got some photos there in case that was the best thing to see) and we did find a nice outlook, but again, nothing fantastic, looking over the lake. Still, I wanted to hike, we did, we got a bit of a reward, and it was still great. Then we rowed back, returned the boat, and hung around in Bled.

Lookout below!
Matic picked Brian, myself, and a guy named Johnner up from our hostel a little late, but not too bad. He took us to a little river where there was a diving board and the guys (in the van already from Ljubljana were Andrew, Alyssa, and Simone) took a jump or two in while the girls took photos. It was chilly! Then, although not on the itinerary or promised to us at all, Matic made special arrangements for Brian and I to go Zorbing AS WELL AS White Water Rafting. More on zorbing later. We after took another stop in Lake Bled and another lake nearby, relaxing a little and swimming around in the beautiful scenery. The water really wasn't cold at all, but the girls insisted on not coming in.

Yes, Zorbing, I haven't forgotten. Zorbing is, effectively, getting into a big rubberish ball 3m in diameter, and getting kicked rather unceremoniously down a mountain. We had to do it, of course. It was a lot of fun, though you get quite dizzy, and in truth the mountain slope was a little on the short side. Still, we got our Zorgonaut certificates, so I'm pretty happy. Rafting was fun, though White Water was largely a misnomer, we made it fun by doing some crazy stuff. A massive bridge jump into the river, a little body surfing, and almost flipping the raft. Brian & Matic also dove into a glacial lake that was the source for the Soca river, but I had done my time in Mo I Rana and the Arctic Ocean, so I passed. Then he drove us across the quite scenic Vrsic pass before arriving at our campsite nestled in the Julian Alps, cooking up a dinner which featured some Slovenian specialties, not least of which was horse sausage (surprisingly decent). We drank some beer and some pear schnapps that Matic gratiously provided, and called it a long day.

Our Canyoning Group
The next day, the girls went rafting, and Matic took us four guys Canyoning again. It was quite a different experience from Switzerland, but I love this sport, it's just always so great. I could see doing that everyday for a living... at least until, you know, you push your luck and hit some rocks. It wasn't as intense as Switzerland, but there were some crazy things anyway, like jumping from 3m high into water that was just barely past waist deep and remaining surprisingly unhurt. The slides started smaller, 1m, 2m, 4m, and were less technical, but it was more fun in some ways, even if less of a rush. The last slide was plenty of a rush though, 15m high and REALLY steep. We drove to a castle, the Napoleon bridge (20m high where Matic told us we could jump if we wanted to, but he'd only heard of people doing it and had never seen anyone). Naturally, no takers. 20m is quite high. We stopped at a lower 12m bridge where he & Brian jumped, though, and also hiked 30 mins to a waterfall. The thunder started rolling about halfway there and we got trapped in a wicked downpour which flooded a lot of the trail and we had to force our way back in, but that only added to the experience. Then he drove us back to our hostels and the tour was over, but I cannot recommend Matic and his little startup company highly enough (email me if you want more info), it was a great time and well worth every cent. The guys and girls on our trip all agreed.

The next day, i.e. today, I left for Zagreb, determining, sadly, that I was financially unable to join some friends in Spain for La Tomatina (a tomato throwing festival) on my birthday, but now at least I know I'm heading to the south of Croatia and then Italy and then Greece. In fact, I have an overnight train leaving from Zagreb in just over an hour. And, on that note, I should get moving. But I should say once more, Slovenia is DEFINITELY worth a couple days in any itinerary.

<Ljubljana Photos>
<Photos from the Julian Alps>

Budapest Est Paris (Est)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Indeed, Budapest, Queen of the Danube, is also referred to as Paris East, and I think with good reason. It's beautiful here for one, and the arts and vibe in the city are very much on par with a city like Paris. Friday was a good day. I got a little walking around did and bought my first non-necessity for myself today, a new shirt. I just needed something different. Three months of the same four or five shirts has gotten tiresome. I strolled up to the Parliament buildings, to the castle, and through a little on the Buda side of the river (Budapest is or was actually three cities, one called Buda, one called Pest, and one called something much like Buda. So now you've learned something from my blog, and I've set a new milestone for myself.

Caving was a Squeeze
So... I met Jess and her friend (whom I'd met the night before), Melinda, and we went caving. There are vast limestone caves beneath Budapest, formed by volcanic heating of the water which forced it up through the limestone and eroded it nicely. This, incidentally, is the same water that is used in their renowned mineral baths. Caving itself was a good time, I kept thinking that my mom would not quite have enjoyed it, however. A lot of the spaces we went through were really, really small. Places with names like the Birth Canal, the Sandwich (you're the meat between two crusty layers of limestone), and Pooh's Place (a hole named from the time that Winnie the Pooh gets stuck in his house). The latter was optional, but I gave it a try and managed to squeeze through it, though with great difficulty (put it this way, it was too narrow to get my shoulders through unless I put both arms ahead of myself). We had a great time, and afterwards, as is surely tradition by now with Jess, we bought a watermelon from a farmer. The intent with this one was to fill it with vodka, leave it overnight to soak in, and eat it tomorrow.

That's What The Fascist Beast Gets
We were starving afterwards, and my hostel guy as well as several co-inhabitors, recommended a place called Paprika. Big plates, good food, that sort of thing. So we went (really, the word is voyaged) there only to find it full and a 45 minute wait! But we convinced them to open the patio and we sat outside. The goulash wsa terrific and not one of us finished our plate despite a great effort. We went to Hero's Square afterwards, and more importantly, didn't climb a certain statue, before checking out a cool outdoor billboard exhibit with a bunch of fake ads. It was pretty cool stuff. They also had a section on war propaganda with lots of Russian ones like the one on the left (hold your mouse over for English translation)which were very interesting too. Given our tiredness from the tonne of food, the caving, and general malaise associated with the weather, we called it a night early (though I was up til 3 uploading pics and reading).

Spiral outside the Museum
I stayed yet another day, and so on Saturday, I met with Jess and Melinda at about noon (after missing a meetup at 11:15, 11:30, and 11:32), and we checked out the Basilica, walked back to the Parliament, and also checked out the Museum of Modern Art. In a warm and sunny Budapest. Happiness! The Museum had some really cool stuff in it, one of the better ones I've seen (especially compared to the weak-at-best-if-you're-English Museum of Terror), though the highlight might've been the toilets that automatically wipe the seat, which I had thought up some time ago but sadly not gotten around to inventing. Thieves!

Hungarian Baths
Then, we got our train tickets and headed for the baths. Ah, the baths. They were well worth the 4 hours spent in there, that's for sure. Terrific stuff, and I had my first ever professional massage. Anyway, after caving and all the walking around, it really hit the spot. We ate dinner at a grill around the corner from my hostel, ate the watermelon for dessert (finally!) and went out to this really cool bar that was kind of inside a warehouse district, off the street but in a courtyard, if you will, between warehouses and industrial buildings. They used the walls of the buildings as giant screens, and Jess has some pictures she'll be sending me soon (ahem!). After some red bull and vodka, Melinda and I were quite gung-ho to go out, but Jess was sleepy, so we said goodbye at 3AM and Melinda and I went out and closed the bar down at 6. Being so late, and with a train to catch at 8:35, there was no point attempting to sleep, so we checked out the sunrise on the Danube and said goodbye there.

Zagreb was a little dead
I just made it to the train to Zagreb after getting back to the hostel and getting packed up. I think I even slept about 30 mins to an hour on the train. I met some more Aussies who had all bought these awful sandwiches where they had put little pieces of what was supposed to be inside them at the edge of the bun. They shared their food with me since I had no local money and hadn't eaten since the watermelon 12 hours ago. Zagreb was a little light on things to do, and raining, and the one good hostel was full, so I walked around a bit, got some food in me, and left for Ljubljana, where I am now. I may stop by there when I go to the Croatian coast, for another few hours, if the weather is better. I met a Canadian, Brian, on the train and some locals who told us all about Slovenia for the entire "2 hour" three and a half hour train ride. So I have a good idea of what I want to do here. Brian and I got a hostel last night (and also a bite to eat after an exhaustive search for a Plus interac machine and then some place that served food or a grocery store), and tonight we're moving to a good (i.e. not HI affiliated) hostel called Cecila, which is a converted prison and looked really cool when we were there checking for availability last night. It's in a Christiana-of-Copenhagen style area, should be interesting. Then we're off to Bled and Bovec for some really great scenery in the Julian alps and some good times.

As for photos, many are up in the gallery, but I've not gotten around to adding them to my posts or captioning them yet, will do that soon. You can check the gallery in the meantime if you're so inclined...

<Budapest Photos>
<Zagreb and Ljubljana Photos>

Happiness Is A Warm Budapest

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Leaving Poland and Slovakia
My last day in the Tatra mountains, the weather got nice, but nevertheless, I took off to Poprad, one of the few places I was able to get to in Slovakia from Zakopane. But, because of the timetable for getting there and the fact that there was only one train to Budapest, I could either try to find a place and stay another two days (to make it worthwhile) or just go. As you can guess from the title, go I did.

Now, perhaps because I didn't take advantage of the weather there, or perhaps because of air currents, ocean currents, and something called meteorology, the weather here hasn't exactly been warm. Well, no, that's not true. It's warm. But it's wet. Which makes it humid. And likely to thunderstorm. With this in mind, I set out on the town. And that's really all the weather I've seen here, other than the night I arrived, which was hot.

Budapest by night
Ah, the night I arrived. I remember it well... I arrived at 10:40, thanks to my train running almost an hour late, thinking that I'd be out of luck for a map or place to stay. Lo, the Tourist Info was open until midnight. Budapest - 1, Zakopane - 0. They got me a hostel and even a shuttle there, which took me across the Danube river and really got me excited to be here; it's beautiful! Budapest took an insurmountable lead over Zakopane. Or did they? Yes they did. Coming up next, did they really?

More Budapest by night
The answer may shock you: yes. I loved Budapest and I'd only been in it for an hour. My hostel was across the street from a garden bar which was hopping even at midnight on a Tuesday, the city was beautiful, and the Tourist Info guys were actually very useful. It turned out that my hostel was garbage, though, the Hostel Bakfark, dirty showers, no shower curtains, a pillow that doubled as a heavy duvet, and as nice as the proximity to the bar was, well, it was loud. Even with the windows closed, which just made the room all that much hotter.

But I left there the next day, found a better hostel (Prima) and, since they were full on Wed night, I stayed in a guest house across the street for the first night, which was pretty much like staying in some cool young guy's house. With 12 other people. Good times! The guy at the hostel told me about this cool show on boat A38 on the river, outdoor, very alt/indie rock Hungarian band, and best of all... free. So I set out on the town until then, just sort of walking around in the rain. My rain jacket had come in handy, but I thought the show would be cancelled.

The A38 Boat Club
I went out that night with plans of doing a little shopping/looking around, and then heading to a pub the guy from the guest house recommended for live music. The rain had stopped and I thought myself in the clear (so much so that I left my rain jacket at home), so I decided to give the boat a go. As did many others. It was too full to even get on, but looked very cool (sad I couldn't get in), and I met a couple Hungarians living in France and a guy from Paris, all young film directors, and after a little chatting, we decided to give up on the line (the boat was already beyond capacity according to the bouncers) and head out. So we went to a little garden pub which was quite cool and there's NO WAY that anyone there was a tourist aside from me. Because you'd never find the place. It was behind an unmarked anonymous door, but full of Hungarians. I don't know why the camera didn't come out while we sat there, but sadly it didn't - it was a good time.

More rain in Budapest
It had begun to really pour while we were in the garden part of the bar, so we went inside and sat some more, and the rain had let up a bit. I caught the tram home but decided to miss my stop; I wanted pictures of the river by night. So, I got off on the opposite side of the bridge and snapped a few. I was crossing towards the middle of the bridge and the rain really started to pour again. But I had to get my picture. So I stood there shielding my camera, drying a spot of railing, and trying in vain to get a good night shot. Finally, I had to give up and hug the lampposts for dryness. I ran across the bridge, stopping for breath here and there on the lee side of the lamps, and getting soaked all the while. Finally, the bus came and I grabbed it back towards the hostel, where it REALLY started to come down. In the end, I was drenched but I made it back.

Melinda and I at the reunion with Jess
And today, imagine my surprise when, once again, it's raining. So I didn't get to the statue park but am instead posting this lengthy update on my activities and looking around in indoor museums and a bit outdoors. Jess emailed me late last night that she had arrived in Budapest, and we went out for a drink tonight. Tomorrow, definitely some sightseeing, maybe one of those famed Hungarian baths (Turkish bath avec bathing suit) and caving under Budapest. Rain or shine, I'm loving it here and could easily spend a week in this city. There's so much to see and to do and to have done to me. And with that, I leave you.

<Budapest Photos>

Zakopana, Schmakopana

Monday, August 01, 2005

The weather in Zakopane
So. I still wasn't feeling so hot yesterday, and I decided that wherever I went, I didn't want to have a hassel of a trip. The weather for Zakopane (pronounced the way it's written in the title) was to be light rain, so I thought maybe I'd better abort that. Straight to Bratislava, then. Except that the overnight to Bratislava left at 11:00, had a switch at 4, and arrived at 6:30 in the morning, which sounded like it wouldn't exactly leave me feeling better. But I didn't really care whether I saw Bratislava or not anyway, I've heard some very mixed and predominantly negative reviews from other travellers. So, genius that I am, I decided straight to Budapest. The overnight train leaves at 10, a switch at 11, and arrives at 7 AM. Enough time for a good snooze at least. I even bought a ticket for it before realizing that I had not received a bed/couchette. So, back in line to double check, nope, no couchette, none available. Cash refund. Zakopane it is.

The bus to Zakopane was right through a heavy fog (as we reached altitude) in parts and also a thunderstorm, so that stayed exciting. You could look over the thin guardrail and see nothing but white in places. I knew that accomodations in Zakopane were rather thin, and that most people would have luck with private rooms, which I would have to hook myself up with once I arrived at the bus station.

I didn't count on the fact that we would be unceremoniously dumped at some random bus stop in town instead. I was stuck there with no idea where anything was alongside two equally (perhaps even moreso) perplexed doctors from Iran, in the pouring rain. One of them tried to appeal for help but came across as quite rude, so I got the next young couple before he could scare them off (by shouting "INTERNET!" into their faces) and they were quite nice and spoke English just fine. They pointed me at the bus station, which turned out to be just down the street. Regretfully, there were no people with accomodations signs in the bus station. I was looking at the shop in there and debating getting myself a map when the couple walked by, must've seen me inside, and came to check on whether I'd found someone. Which, if you think about it, was really incredibly nice of them.

Where I stayed in Zakopane
Anyway, long story short... well, less long than it could be, they helped me chat with an accomodation guy over at the train station and got me hooked up with a private room for 50 zl, which is 5 zl less than I payed for a dorm bed in Krakow. Sure, it's 4km from the city, but hey, it's a bed and I can stop searching. We got in his car and he drove me there, pointing out in Polish where the bus (BOOHS) was to "Zakopane Centrum", a bar on the corner which may or may not have been a nav aid for me, and then the house.

Banff like in appearance
I caught the bus into town the next morning, which was indeed cast in a fog and not so picturesque as it would be in good weather I'm sure. But looking around and finding the main street, I discovered that it was actually a nice albeit touristy town, reminding me a lot of Banff. I was looking for the tourist info place and instead stumbled across a cable car up one of the mountains. I wasn't going to pay to go up there and discover that I couldn't see anything but fog, but there was a pathway along it that I thought I'd climb partway up. Of course, once you start, you can't turn around, so I scaled the whole mountain to the top, about 1000m high, and by then the fog had begun lifting a bit.

Ooh, slidey slidey!
In a stroke of good fortune, they had one of those Sesame Streetish (or should I say Sesame Park) cars on tracks, so I took one down (you know I had to) and then back up again. Believe it or not, it was actually pretty fun and they got going at a decent clip. I walked along the trail across the mountain and it, even in the fog, was fairly beautiful. I walked a couple klicks up there and then headed back down, finally discovering the train station/tourist info (no thanks to the woman of questionable parentage working at the infamous HI youth hostel here - but that's another story).

Everyone here seems to be of the opinion that the only way to Bratislava or Zakopane is through Krakow, but I'm going to find another way. If the weather's nice tomorrow, I might stay and rent a bike and take a nice trip to some mountainous lakes just to make my trek here a little more worth it. Otherwise, goodbye Zakopane and good riddance. While some people here have been really nice, there certainly is no shortage of rude people. One of which (yeah, the H.I.-hate-my-life woman) I had some not so pleasant words with as a result. But it could be worth staying if I get away onto the mountain trails. Or have some opportunity to chase after her with a broomstick (which I will borrow from her, provided it doesn't fly off with me).

<Zakopane Photos>