Readers, I have a confession to make. I was all set to write something profound for this afternoon’s post, and then, when going through my old files on my computer I came across this beauty and thought sod it…profound can wait. Profound can wait until next week, right?
In the summer of 2003 I had just finished my year abroad. To say it was a pivotal year in the Making Of Anna is an understatement, but that is for another post. Not content with living working and studying in France, Austria and Germany that year, Catherine and I planned and executed an adventure of epic proportions around Eastern Europe, trusty travel guide in hand. These are my notes from my journal form that trip. I hope you enjoy. And I KNOW some of the language is cringe-worthy but I was 21, forgive me, and a trip this epic requires authentic documentation. Happy Thursday, all.
The city of Prague in itself is justifiably beautiful, huge squares, the castle overlooking the city, a menacing and imposing skyline. I had been dubious of what to expect with all the British gap-year snobs leaping around wittering on about how Prague is being swallowed up in the dregs of Western society. Lots of sitting in squares amongst the locals and basking in the views, engaging in raving political debate. So much so that I end up being stamped on by an angry horse and cart. Agonising pain and irreparable scar on inner thigh results.
Attempting to head to Kutna Hora, a small town east of the capital. The ticket inspector takes one look at our tickets and starts screaming at me. Not Catherine, may I add, but me, right in my ear, in Czech. A piercing scream that brings tears to my eyes and images of Iron Curtain torture chambers. After a while we work out she is actually trying to be helpful, and telling us we were on the wrong train. We disembark in what is literally the middle of nowhere and I spend hours trying to figure out on the map where “Vychod” is, until Catherine points out it means “Exit”.
Arrived in Krakow after no sleep at all on a night train due to 4 passport checks at hourly intervals, and practically having to seduce an aged porter to get him to stamp our passports, obviously baffled at how just the act of stamping can make two English girls so obviously ecstatic. This was just the first of many night train adventures, including me being stuck on a top bunk and having a sweating fit, much to the disdain of the people below me. And the time we saw our train leave….without our carriage attached to it. And the time we have to walk through a train that was going at 150mph yet was made of wooden planks and had gaping open holes in the sides. Distressingly like the train in Schindler’s List.
Krakow is an amazing city, a unique mixture of architecture with a beautiful Old Town containing the largest town square I have ever seen and crowned by the Wawel, the very symbol of Poland. In the castle and cathedral there was much fervent crossing, weeping and wailing by the devout, and cynical mutterings on my part.
Walk MILES to Jewish Ghetto, practically going via Moscow, and the museum there, a photo exhibition on the fate of the polish Jews makes me cry like a five-year-old in the middle of the synagogue, so spend night shit scared about going to Auschwitz.
Discover the best snack ever – Polish pretzels, sold by vendors in carts the whole town over and as a result eat very little else for the next three days. This snack almost lured us back from Croatia, so bad were the cravings one night.
Visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yes it was vivid, emotive and disturbing and something everybody needs to see should we forget what humanity is capable of. Extensive exhibitions on the fate of the Jews, homosexuals, the Roma, the Sinti, intellectuals and disabled people. Seeing the camp itself was humbling and very emotionally difficult, not helped by the Americans taking pictures of themselves in front of the ovens and going “OH MY GOD I BET THAT’S WHAT THEY THOUGHT WERE SHOWERS” in a place that specifically asks you to be quiet to respect the millions that died there. Oh, and let’s not forget the lady who asked me to take her picture in one of the “giant ovens”. Nonetheless as upset as I was, I thought afterwards that everyone who visits that places leaves with a much better understanding of what happened during that period of history, with something having changed within them, and that may only be a small consequence of the brutal murders of those people, but never being able to forget what those men, women and children suffered cannot be a bad thing.
Arrive and head out on the accommodation search, head for the place advertised outside the station and after an hour of walking realise that it is mentioned in the guidebook, along with “communal showers are situated in the basement”! Disturbing after our aforementioned day trip but had come too far to give up and soldiered on, turned out to be the epitome of skank, but so cheap we just didn’t care. C moved into my room as mine was slightly less minging and hers was underground without a light through a corridor filled with cobwebs and boxes looking like they contained explosives. Slept for seventeen hours.
Wandered around Bratislava like the living dead as we were so exhausted, but despite this loved the place, absolute therapy for the bruised and battered soul. So chilled out and quiet, really defies the fact that it is a capital city and very very green, lanes, leafy squares and graceful buildngs. So exhausted, we fell asleep on the lawns of Bratislava Castle and I awoke with sunstroke.
Spend our time in Budapest as there is so much to do there. Fell in love with the place immediately, it straddles the Danube with hilly, historic Buda on one side and flat, industrial Pest on the other. Dynamic and incredible, mixing regal squares and tiny allyways with immense views at night from Buda, even though the climb, at night in the pitch black through muddy and woody terrain evoked images of The Blair Witch Project. – Swimming in the Gellert baths was an experience like no other – swimming surrounded by pillars supporting a yellow roof giving everything a golden glow, wearing rather attractive blue bathing caps, and then sitting in thermal bath, comatose for two hours, uncomfortably close to an aged Hungarian man.
The Statue Park – at the end of Communist rule, all the statues erected in Budapest for that purpose were taken and all placed in one park. It was an amazing place, the park constructed in itself to be like a history lesson in the futility of said rule. Approaching the park, seeing Marx, Engels, Lenin and other such dudes rising majestically above the hills was a sight to behold, to say the very least.
On crossing the Hungarian-Croat border, C and I discovered, that after hiking up innumerable hills, towers, domes and striding around various cities, we did indeed have “buns of steel and thighs like nutcrackers”. However, his phenomenon is no more. “Why?” I hear you cry, “how can such muscles disappear in the space of a matter of weeks?” 1) when the only remotely strenuous thing you do in Croatia is put more suntan lotion on and 2) when you discover that Bosnia-Herzegovina makes the best kebabs in Europe, such facts are not conducive toned body parts. Hey ho.
Travelled through Zagreb as a stopping off point but still got to see a fair bit of the city which is lovely, especially drenched in the late afternoon sun. Head off early for Plitvice Lakes National Park, and after getting dropped off by the driver in what seems to be the middle of a forest, we eventually find our way and follow a trail through the park, passing turquoise lakes, dark green foliage and cascading waterfalls, framed by huge ravines. Absolutely stunning. Find accommodation in a bungalow and manage to flash a lot of Croats when my sarong fell off on the way to the bath house. Next day wait for hours in middle of forest trying to flag down (read: almost throw ourselves in front of) a coach to Split, but give up and just get on the next one headed south.
Zadar, staying in the home of an elderly couple who were so friendly and sweet we just wanted to give them all our money and let them look after us forever. The town is full of Roman ruins so after some exploratory activity went to sit and watch the sun set over the Adriatic. We then got a coach to Split (after crowd surfing over various vicious and elderly Croats), from where we got on the boat headed to Dubrovnik. Absolutely classic, beautiful journey with the sun coming up along the Adriatic coast, dotted with islands and framed by mountans.
Dubrovnik as beautiful as its reputation promises, get a double room (oh the luxury) together with an INSANE landlady with no teeth and the most disjointed German ever, insisting on bringing random Australian men into our room whilst we lounge around in our underwear, on the pretext of feeding us grapes from her vine. No, we didn’t get it either. C and I avoid the nudist beaches despite intense curiosity and end up diving off rocks into aquamarine waters, tearing bikinis whilst scampering across treacherous ravines to get to our towels and generally chilling out after the hectic last couple of weeks.
Our last stop was Sarajevo, the city I had been looking forward to visiting the most given by Balkan war fetish. After having spent four hours waiting at the bus station in the middle of the night (not our most sensible move) we eventually found a room in a house with a painfully attractive man who literally made me dribble. The house was situated on the mother of all hills overlooking the whole city, which, despite being completely ravaged, it set in such beautiful surroundings I could barely believe it. Sarajevo is a crazy mix of the unexpected.
Wandering round the old Turkish quarter took up much of our time, (I thought I was a good coffee drinker. I was so, so wrong…I was a coffee virgin. One shot of Turkish coffee and my veins were on fire) and much of the centre has been reconstructed, even though the scars of war are still evident. It is in the suburbs that the damage is most visible, some buildings have been left as they were after falling and it is here that the most mines lie uncleared).
The War Tunnel museum details Sarajevo’s only contact with the outside world during the siege, and drove around seeing different parts of the city with a man who had grown up during the war and talked frankly and candidly about the mentality prevalent and experiences that happened during that time, and the lack of faith many people now have with NATO and world powers for not intervening sooner. An incredible experience.
Upon leaving we met a rather interesting American woman, clocking us as the only other English speakers for miles around: adopt Bible Belt accent if you will, I shall leave you with some of the more fruitful comments she came out with:
“Have you read the history of this place?” (waving Lonely Planet at us). “I just don’t understand….this Serb problem they have…why can’t they just get on?” (bit lip til it bled to stop from screaming SIEGE. THOUSANDS DEAD. BOMBED THE SHIT OUT OF THEM. Wake up.)
“Have you seen Dubrovnik? How could they bomb such a precious little place?”
“Are the Muslims the ones with veils on their heads?” (actually thought C was going to spit at her at this point)
“We just came from Romania…I’m just so damn tired you know of seeing poverty, and dirt, and gypsies….” (why the raving hell are you in Eastern Europe you stupid, stupid woman?)
And upon tipping the driver “He won’t accept dollars! What’s his problem? Everyone wants dollars! The currency of the United States of America!” (quite what the guy was meant to do with two dollars in Bosnia remains a mystery to me)