Round Eastern Europe By Mistake – Notes from my Diary, 2003

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. 

     

Czech Republic

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”.

Poland

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.

Slovakia

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.

Hungary

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.

Croatia

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.

Sarajevo

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)

Categories: Life Experience, Travel
13 interesting thoughts on this

13 Comments

  1. Esme
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    So. Much. I. Want. To. Say. But mainly I just want to grab Tom and get right on a plane and do this exact tour. Let’s see if I remember any Serbian…

    More year abroad tales!

    xxx

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Esme, do it do it do it! Did you study Serbian? I’m afriad neither Catherine nor I engaged with the language…shame…would go back in a second.

      • Esme
        Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        I studied it at University, but never actually used it on a real Serb or Croat, so it’s rusty at best!

        I haven’t been able to get this trip out of my head all night…

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      You can speak Serbian Esme?! That’s amazing. I went to Croatia in the summer of 2006, I tried to learn the language before I left, because I always do. I hate visiting countries without having learnt to say at least the basics. My Croatian, however, was so appalling that 50% of people I tried to communicate with responded in English straight away and the other 50% looked at me like I was from another planet.

      I did have a 2 hour conversation with a Croatian man on a bus, he spoke no English so we communicated mostly through him talking and me nodding and saying the Croatian word for yes. At the end he gave me a really pretty bracelet he’d made out of string while we were talking. I wish I had any idea what we’d discussed!

      K x

  2. Zan
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    “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”.” – I read this post half an hour ago and am still laughing at this bit…!

    I had a similar experiance when back-packing, except I was on my own and it took forever to work out that the sign I thought was a place name was in fact the phrase ‘do not enter’. Thankfully I hadn’t…! This was a few days after my epic ‘getting so incredibly lost in Bangkok that even the taxi driver who eventually stopped for me didn’t know where I wanted to go’ experiance. It’s a wonder I made it through Thailand in 1 piece to be honest ;)

  3. Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I nearly choked laughing at three separate points during that. This has absolutely reignited my desire to tour Eastern Europe. Excellent.

    K x

  4. Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Your description of the American woman at the end made me spray coffee all over my keyboard… Sad to say we met quite a few people scarily similar to this while travelling around South East Asia last year. A particular low point was when a couple of New Yorkers were discussing the Asian diet particularly rice and saying what lovely figures all the women have – they couldn’t believe it as we are always being told to not eat carbs if we want to lose weight (somehow they failed to notice that at this point we were up doing a tour of tribal villages where manual labour and slight starvation is the name of the game…) The way in which they chose to prove that rice makes you put on weight?
    And I quote: ‘I mean look at all those African children you see in the charity adverts, they eat loads of rice and they have great big pot bellies’.
    I.kid.you.not.
    Apparently travelling doesn’t always open your eyes to the world!
    x

  5. Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    There is a rumor that our honeymoon may be a tour of Europe. Putting most of this places on a post-it on his desk as a wee *hint*.

    I need to visit Aushwitz. NEED to. How can I have travelled most of the globe and never been to anywhere in Europe other than France for snowboarding?!

    Incredibly jealous.

    L x

  6. Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Geez. Look at those typos. Forgive me – today has left me brain-dead. You know what I mean, and I assure you I am not illiterate. :) x

  7. Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    such an amazing trip.

    one thing I remember which Anna has clearly tried to forget, is when we arrived at the house in Sarajevo (where the very attractive young man resided), his father/uncle (don’t remember what the relationship was) handed Anna and I giant slabs of fresh watermelon. I really don’t like watermelon but didn’t want to seem ungrateful so whenever he would turn his head I would force Anna to take several bites of mine.

    • Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      I had forgotten that! And do you remember when we were in that bed in Sarajevo and we heard a car backfiring and we convinced ourselves civil war had broken out?

  8. Posted April 27, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Oh, I love this post! Has brought back wonderful memories of my year abroad, also in 2003. I was based in Vienna and every weekend was dashing off somewhere on the train. The departures board at Westbahnhof was an enticing ‘to do’ list! As a result my friends and I saw a lot less of Austria and much more of Eastern Europe. We’d become Egon Schiele devotees so trekked to Cesky Krumlov, an adorable ancient place with bears in the castle, boar on the menu and beer for 50p. Could easily slide down memory lane here! Anyway, the ‘Vychod/Exit’ really made me laugh. I spent my first night in Vienna following arrow signs for ‘Einbahn’, assuming it meant the way to the U-Bahn. I only clocked my mistake when I found myself back where I started… :)

  9. Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    The quotes at the end of this post are genius.

    I’d like to see Eastern Europe… we’re off to a wedding in Poland in the autumn, I’m wondering if I can persuade S to extend the trip.

    I’d really like to see Auschwitz and Sarajevo particularly.

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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