Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Best of the Balkans: July 21-August 2

This blog, it seems, is getting more and more infrequent and general. The title of this post bears witness to the fact. This is mostly because a. I was worried about running out of money, and spending 3 euros a time on the internet seemed like too much to waste any of the time on writing blog posts when I could be emailing and facebooking and researching the name for giant greek beetles and b. I thought it would be rather pathetic to say to people I´d spent the majority of my time in Europe blogging about it rather than actually seeing it.

Skopje, Macedonia

100 Macedonian Denari:
That said, the Balkans were great, and despite having enough to say about certain ones to fill several posts, I´ll be brief. Macedonia, or its capital Skopje to be specific, was not too different from what one might expect of a former Yugoslavian country: a bit depressed (not depressing, mind) and bleak (especially the weather), but enjoyable nonetheless. A few interesting experiences there included: being ripped off by the taxi driver, whose English-speaking friend told me my taxi driver would take me to the address for a hostel I had written on a scrap of paper for 5 euros. I was sure this was probably exorbitant, and the distance to the hostel confirmed this, but I was willing to pay it. On arriving though, I discovered that I only (as I thought) had a 10 euro note; on presenting the driver with this, he said, "ok, thanks", and only after 5 minutes of protestations from yours truly did he fish around in his pockets for 100 Leva (I think that was the currency, can´t remember for sure) change, which of course meant nothing to me. I later found out that was worth about 1.40 euros. The next morning, while exploring, stopped to ask a young Macedonian couple for directions and found out that they weren´t Macdeonian at all, but Turkish, so I had a nice chat with them in Turkish before moving on.

Belgrade, Serbia
                                                                                                                                       Milosevic fan shirt

That evening I caught the train for Belgrade, meeting on the way a 20 year old Portuguese pizza-delivery boy taking a similar (but even more whirlwind) tour of Europe and a Slovenian student who was returning to Ljubljana after a long weekend away. We arrived there a couple of days after Milosevic´s capture, and exited the station to find a street vendor selling t-shirts with his (Milosevic, not the street vendor) face on the front and something in Serbian no doubt about what a wonderful hero he was for the Serbian people. The Slovenian student had to catch a connecting train back to Ljubljana, so the Portuguese guy and I spent the day walking around Belgrade, chatting on political and theological issues and the like. That evening I boarded the train for Zagreb.
Another train, another interesting character. I was happy in the prospect of having my carriage to myself, as I was the first one there and no one else was coming in. At the eleventh hour, though, a somewhat tough and sketchy (read: a bit mangy and scruffy) looking guy came in. His name escapes me, but it seems he had quite the existence. Currently manager of a floating hostel in Belgrade (two guests of which I´d shared my room with in Skopje, incidentally, and who he was able to identify), he was more in the longrun a filmmaker, and had once hitchhiked from Barcelona to Palestine to make a documentary (I think only about Palestine and Israel, so I´m not sure how the hitchhiking fit in). "Hmm," I thought. I wonder if he has tips on hitchhiking large distances across several countries, as it had recently entered my mind as a rather hare-brained scheme to do likewise, starting in Colorado and ending up in that land of cows, fat and drug-addled erstwhile football superstars, and Madonna: Argentina. Turns out he did: get dropped off and picked up at gas stations, and offer to pay part of the gas money. Logical enough. Anyway, he was originally from Chile, although he´d grown up in Greece. His English was excellent. He told me his great dream, or next adventure anyway, was to cycle (I think it was cycle, not motorbike) from Morocco to South Africa with some friends, filming everything they encountered on the way.

So that was that. Apart from his very smelly feet, and the fact that he made up for them by having a laptop on which he proceeded to play some music of the lulling-to-sleep variety, the trip was uneventful, and I woke up the next morning to find the train was stopped at a station. Turns out it was Zagreb. I dashed to grab all my things and hurtled out of the train, all the while Chilean-Greek-Serbian filmmaker was leaning out the window shouting at the station attendants who were about to signal to the train driver, "Waaaaaiiit!"

Croatia: Zagreb, Pag, and Zadar

As it was still 5 in the morning, I decided to wait a couple of hours to call Nika, so I waited an hour for the exchange bureau to open, then left my behemoth of a bag in a locker, and set out to explore Zagreb. Well. What a pleasant surprise.

As you leave the station, you might be forgiven for expecting more of the same post-Yugoslav architecture, drab and derelict buildings destroyed by the Balkans conflict of the early 90s, and bleak weather. But instead a very clean and well-kept park awaits your eager little eyes, as you step out into the sunlight, and...

                                                          The front of Zagreb's train station

But really, it is that nice, and in fact the whole of old Zagreb, with it´s amazingly well-maintained roads, parks and fountains, and beautiful architecture, plaza, and busy little trams are charming. After an hour of walking around, I went back to the station and called Nika, who told me her dad had a meeting and to come back at noon to call her for further directions, as he´d probably be done by then. In the interval, I walked down to Novi Zagreb (New Zagreb), which ironically looks older and more depressing than the old city. I then walked back and called her, to be told that his meeting would last till 4, and to return to the train station then and await a man (her father) who was "tall, wearing sunglasses, and looks like a mafioso". With a foreboding mixture of anticipation and fear, I waited.

4 o´clock came, and a black Renault Laguna pulled up. Out jumped the mafioso, smiling. He extended his hand: "Andrew?" I got in the car, prepared for an awkward, three hour silence on the drive down to Pag, where my friend from my Madrid days, Nika, and her family had an island house. Instead though, her father regaled me with tales of the former Yugoslavian republic and its breakup while we drove through beautiful mountain passes and forests.

Pag itself is the longest, though not biggest, of the Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea, and the town of Pag, of some 1000 people, its capital, about 40 km along the island. The next four days were for me easily the most peaceful and relaxing of the whole trip, as Nika and I often meandered through Pag´s little streets and squares down to the waterfront, where we spent hours drinking cafe au laits and reminiscing about the good old days!

 Right: ice cream on the streets of Zadar (mainland) with Nika and her sister, Lina.

Her mother was an incredible cook, and pulled out all the stops in preparing lavish dish after dish for us, including a squid salad, a pasta with tomato sauce, and a sort of baked octopus dish. Okay, I´m not very culinarily minded, I know. Hence the descriptions may be a bit lacking, but the food itself most certainly was not.

We also took the family´s boat out to a little beach around the headland a couple of times, and spent the majority of the day there, the beach shared with us only by a handful of families from Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Sharing a bottle of wine and Pag's famous goat cheese at an atmospheric wine bar:
One last experience, before I move onto Slovenia, was undoubtedly also the most bizarre. Every year during one weekend in July, it seems, the town conducts a mock trial for some poor, fictional fellow whose name escapes me and who apparently fulfils a sort of role as the town´s scapegoat. The judge inevitably finds him guilty, and, at midnight on the culminating night of the holiday, a funerary procession follows his coffin down to the water´s edge, where, after his coffin has been set alight, it is tipped off the bridge into the watery depths, down, down, down... The celebration also includes a few other interesting characteristics, such as a lot of young people of the town dressing in their grandmothers´ traditional black dresses (including, maybe even especially) the young men. There is also a dance in the central square, where everyone links arms and does this simple little three-step of increasing speed around its perimeter while being accompanied by a volunteer brass band (many in their grandmothers´ clothing). A word to the wise though: if you ever are lucky enough to witness this holiday, unless you have a Pagite with you, or one who can teach you the dance beforehand, as I was, don´t jump in, as they don´t take kindly to tourists who can´t keep up or mess up the rhythm!

Well after a lovely 5 days in Croatia, it was time to be moving on, so I caught the bus into Zagreb, before getting an evening train for Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

I was met in Ljubljana by another friend from my Madrid days, Laura, who was interning for the summer at the U.S. Embassy there. She also happened to be housesitting a palatial apartment (with dog--B.B.King by name--included) for an embassy couple who were away on vacation. It was good to chat about SLU and hear the latest on what´s been happening there. The next morning I got up early so I could be out of the apartment at the same time as Laura, and set off for a day on the town. Well, once again, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover the charms of the old city, established on the banks of the Ljubljanica river (Ljubljana means "beloved", so it´s fair to assume Ljubljanica has something to do with love, too!). There are several pedestrian bridges crisscrossing the little river, with a couple leading to the main plaza of the old town, dedicated to a poet and his unrequited love for a woman whose statue cruelly taunts him from the other side of the square. Apart from idly wandering along the waterfront and taking in a few cafes along the way, I stopped in at the city museum, which is surprisingly modern and well laid-out, if a bit on the small and sparse side. Well, it´s good to have an excuse not to wear yourself out for several hours walking around a museum! In the afternoon, I returned to the apartment, and Laura and I went out for dinner--an interesting place with no menus, where the waitress simply mentioned some things that were on offer. You tell her which one sounds good to you, mention any modifications you want, and you´re set. Not bad at all.  Here is a picture of the restaurant in question, and although I look a bit disgruntled, really I'm just tired!

                                          A unique dining experience in Ljubljana, Slovenia

So that was my Balkan experience. That evening, I walked to the train station, and caught the 2.20 am train through Trieste to Venice. Vincero, vincero, vinceeeeeeero!

No comments: