2018 July. Slow trains through Eastern Europe’s Balkan States.

When you wake in the morning, it’s pitch dark, 2°c and you don’t have anything in your diary you make an escape plan. This was mine.

The next day I was in Karlsruhe, Germany and it was bright, sunny and 30c. I think I felt like the first day after a bear comes out of hibernation … without the fleas. My friends immediately put me on a bike and into the nearby forest. The clean fresh air immediately erased all of the sluggish fog that twenty four hours in a plane can drown you in. Throw in a wheat beer overlooking the Rhine and I was cured.

In the following days I ride here and there. Stefan, their son takes me to Heidelberg by train one afternoon. I cycle along the Necker river for 35 klms whilst he visits a sick friend. It’s 5.30pm when we start riding back to Karlsruhe nearly 70 klms away. You know where this is heading ? We stop for dinner at 8.30pm already a bit tired, hungry and thirsty but it’s still light. We push further along into a light headwind the long twilight arrives something Australian know little of. The soft light makes for beautiful riding through the farmland, small villages and forests.

Eventually it is dark, there is no disputing this but we have some distance still to go and the bicycle light searches for a clear path. Every so often out of the darkness another rider would loom and then be gone. Late, very late we arrived back into Karlsruhe, it was almost midnight. Over the day I had clocked up 105 klms and now I was almost asleep standing up but to be honest I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Lulled by the long twilight then it all went black.

I get blaise in Karlsruhe, the hospitality lulls me into a false sense that travel without a command of the local language is easy. My friends are a buffer. Time to move and immerse myself in the unknown.

An efficient day on the German train system, I slip into Munich and march the city inhaling their finest bratwurst and a liberal line of mustard. My stomach now heavy with sausages I return to the station for the final leg. I watch and sway as the countryside loses its pancake flat vista. As darkness looms the train seems to quicken, taking on an added urgency in its quest to get to Budapest, Hungry on time.

It’s still twilight when I arrive but it can’t hide the despair of a city which had been gradually falling apart since the war. The people’s faces carry a sour defeated look, battle weary after centuries of conflict. Tonight they are spilling into the street watching Russia vs Croatia in the World Cup and their history is temporarily forgotten as they cheer and throw down their beers.

Budapest, Hungry. Buda Castle is a real showcase at night.

I’m awake with the sun which is unfortunately an hour before the alarm. I shuffle back to the station to move on towards Lviv, Ukraine. Just getting my visa to visit was an expensive, difficult task and my train ticket there could only be left in my hotel in Budapest. Back at the station I look up at the departure board but there is no train for my exact time but I don’t panic. Some ten minutes later I absolutely do when a railway official splutters in broken English  “not this station “ But where ? No-one at 6.30am on a Sunday speaks much at all let alone English. I can only find a bicycle taxi he can speak some English but he wants €50 to get me there explaining how much leg work peddling involves, like I don’t know.

There are no taxis, I stumble down to the metro ticket box and a bored, stony faced employee tells me only a car will get me there in time. Back up I go and I find a yellow car, not signed as a taxi but yellow and he gestures me inside. We set off straight through three red lights, even with a police car parked nearby. I hope he knows where the other station is located. If I miss the train I’ve wasted good money, will miss my friends and most importantly it’s the only train each day. I hand him €15, I have no Hungarian currency he is all smiles so it was more than enough.

I find my train warming up for the fifteen hour rock and roll journey towards Lviv, Ukraine. I slump into my small sleeping compartment my heart still thumping and the train pulls out. I nod off to the rhythmic sway of the train as mile after mile of sunflowers bobbing away in the fields hypnotises me.

Changing the trains wheels at the border like watching paint dry.

At the border the train stops wheels are changed to a different gauge and then the workers disappear. Hours go by, nothing is said. Eventually I wander down the carriage asking “Is there a problem ?”  A big shrug, this is Ukraine. Will we be in Lviv tonight ?  “of course” the man offering me a Ukrainian cognac replies, relax. Finally we start to grind our way out of the railway workshop and build speed towards Lviv. But not before I show good relations to Ukraine by throwing back a shot of my new found friends firewater. It’s late when the train finally pulls into Lviv and my friend a few compartments along is slumped in the corner and showing distinct signs of fading.

Lviv is turning to darkness as I take a taxi from the station towards the Airbnb I am sharing with Jane, Trish and Paul in the old city. Again no local currency so a US$10 is bartered for my journey. It’s 10.45pm when I stumble across the rough cobblestones to the cafe we have agreed to meet in. Inside three Westerners are busy telling stories of their various encounters in reaching this far-flung, rarely visited city. I join them and am soon levering the lid off a jar of a local beer. Another first, another gimmick but its beer and goes down a treat.

Yes freshly ? canned beer. Other than slowing me down it tasted terrific.

We head back to our apartment which is on level five above the Main Street and above the White Rabbit. I hadn’t noticed the White Rabbit earlier but it is a very popular exotica bar opening at 10pm till dawn and they are true to their word. For the next three nights every drunk from ten miles around gravitates to the White Rabbit, like moths to a light. When refused entry, because they can only crawl or because they are over excited by the scantily clad girl in the window they would squeal and scream till they passed out. Meanwhile upstairs sleep was taken in small blocks of time.

The White Rabbit lured every drunken loud mouthed reveller for ten miles.

Another day Paul enthusiastically takes on the tour guide role and tramps us up to the old citadel high on the only hill. It was easy to find just follow the gigantic buzzing television tower emitting electro magnetic fields on par with nearby Chernobyl. Paul was starting to find his unruly group a handful, I could tell, he peered at us over the top of his glasses like a disappointed headmaster. The afternoon takes on a religious tone, we weave from Church to Church till I know the Latin words to all the songs. A museum of Ukrainian history becomes far more fun as we slip about on the highly buffed parquetry floors in fleecy overshoes. They should have been paying us we slipped and shone their ancient parquetry floor. A delicious cherry strudel (confession, not my first ) was in fact the highlight consumed in the museum’s courtyard. The day finished nicely with the second half of a World Cup semi final and more sloshing of beer as we tried to cheer underdog Belgium home against France to no avail.

What I thought was going to be a midnight train to Sofia, Bulgaria changed when the ticket office man asked for my date of departure. Tonight I said confidently. His reply was just as confident, no… the next train is at 1pm tomorrow and here lays the issue with Eastern bloc countries. Their timetables are rubbery and I will have to be too. It was easy enough to find a nearby hotel, a meal and a few beers whilst watching England go down to Croatia. The roar in the hotel lounge when Croatia kicked the winning goal confirmed the locals support for nearby Croatia. A wander of the city saw huge numbers of magnificent, commanding masculine soviet style buildings. Show stoppers in many cities but all a little shabby and all scarred by mindless tagging graffiti worse than Melbourne. It’s like dogs pissing on trees that tagging.

Sofia

I wave down a taxi to the bus station he’s all smiles when I tell him I have only euros. He turns the radio on tapping the steering wheel. It’s Tom Jones singing “Mamma told me not to come” and he starts waving his hands around clicking his fingers and snapping his wrists, he’s the full rhythm section all rolled into one. I breathe music he proclaims and breaks into song as we weave through the traffic with his hands rarely on the steering wheel. My day is made in that ten minute ride best €10 I’ve spent on the whole trip.

Sofia bus station 9am. A concerned guy steps onto the long haul bus just before it leaves heading to Thessaloniki five hours away. Behind him a frail lady follows. This is my mother she is ninety years old. You will look out for her and gestures for her to sit beside me. She is a bright old girl however she frets easy, losing her ticket every time they ask for it. We climb a slow grinding hill before finally reaching the top, she smiles and mutters Thessaloniki and her hand gestures to the downhill and the sparkling Mediterranean ahead.

Rubbish slaps backwards and forwards on the tide at Thessaloniki promenade

It’s stinking hot and I hide till 7pm and then walk towards the water hoping for some breeze but even there the air is thick and the sparkling sea is a dirty scum of plastic bottles and reeds slapping the sea wall. I find a small restaurant and feast on roasted eggplant smeared with soft feta and a serve of spicy ground meat sausages the same size as your index finger dipped in a mound of spices to kick it along. The waiter keeps my fluid levels up with a regular flow of the local beer. I wander home realising how good the Greeks have always been at hospitality.

Now that’s Greek hospitality with a liberal dash of olive oil.

Skopje, Macedonia is a surprise package but I had no preconceived ideas and knew nothing of the place. Set on the Vardar river it has had numerous earthquakes over the years and much hardship. The city has found money somewhere and there are a stretch of commanding new buildings lacing the waterfront. All lit up at night it’s like Monte Carlo  but in the hard light of day when your eyes stretch beyond you can see the hardship has not drifted too far from the river.

Skopje Macedonia riverfront looking for all the world like Monte Carlo

My bus to Tirana Albania on Hak bus is interesting. The driver stops for the passengers to have a cigarette every hour although he smokes the whole way and on these roads who’s going to complain. We leave one poor guy behind when he stuffs up the head count. We make up for this by picking up two hitch hikers ? A massive freeway sits half complete nearby and I’m told the last Government was corrupt and did not pay the contractors till they simply left. It has just restarted but meanwhile I take the scenic route through soft mountains back down to the Mediterranean. Into Tirana bang on for the World Cup, the city is bare as everyone has found a television to sit in front of. A roar goes up as I walk to a hotel it’s the Croatian goal to draw level with France. They want their neighbour country to win. Croatia lose but with guts and dignity. I head off into the central square where thousands are still gathered after watching the Cup on a huge screen. The music has those that can dance twirling about whilst those that got carried away watching a the football are now curled up amongst the chairs sleeping it off.

There’s a magnet within us all pulling us recklessly towards a carousel horse

Another day, another bus. A long day to Dubrovnik and the bus starts late and is packed tight with everyone fighting for every allocated millimetre of their seat. The border crossings steal more time with tight checking of each persons passport at each checkpoint. It’s also a chance for another cigarette and I am a minority I stand in a thick cloud of second hand smoke. I’ve watched bus drivers, school children and pregnant women pulling hard on a smoke in every Slavic country I’ve visited. Why I ask ? “They are cheap, I learnt in the army” says one young guy.

Dubrovnik before the rampaging hordes of tourists descend and turn it into a battlefield

Into Dubrovnik late and we are tipped out into the dark at a bus station near the port. I find a cheap room. It’s cheap because you have to climb one hundred steps to reach it without tripping over a cat or three.

My room in Dubrovnik, its price reduced by a dollar for every step you climbed to get there.

My room is stifling hot with only a tiny window, I set up a fan against it and head out for dinner. It’s no better when I return but two large drought beers allow me to sleep till 4am. At this point I simply open the front door not really caring if I am robbed or worse. I’m certainly being robbed of sleep. I take a taxi to the old city very early. It’s just me, the street sweepers, small trucks loaded with more cheap trinkets, beer kegs and food stock. There’s a calmness though with no tourists  about and I climb the winding laneways getting flashbacks of my visit here a few years ago. It’s compact, of course it’s compact, it’s walled. It’s both historic and romantic and for the first time I feel a little lonely here on my own. I try to shake it off with a decent breakfast but all around me couples stare back at each other or laugh as they share memories.

The Croatian Coast is breathe taking, literally but it soon turns to tough, rock inland

Croatia is a hard land and it has made their people tough too. The mountains are all light coloured flinty rock, hard to work a living from. Even the trees struggle to take root in this arid ground which gives nothing away.

The tourists even invade Dubrovnik by kayak these days

Their sea is dotted with fortress like villages built to repel attacks yet gives them easy access to the sea. Like Australia many of their people cling to the coastal towns. My bus winds it’s way back up into the mountains on roads carved precariously into the hillside. I’m heading to the airport for some time in Ireland where English is spoken, sort of and I can relax a bit. You never really fully relax in countries where you struggle to understand what’s said. Where you are always second guessing and trying to read body language as much as the words spoken. Balkan dialects are all hard vowels and are spat at you with a deadpan face. You are never sure if you are being abused, punched in the face or shot at but it’s one of those three ! ha…

I fly out from Croatia for a lap of Ireland, a few days in London then home but it’s familiar ground really. Except for the fact that the Irish countryside is brown and there is water rationing. “Drink more Guinness” they cried.

Spent a lovely day at Bloomville house 1790 in county Offaly, Ireland. Magical spot.

London’s Tate modern art gallery held my interest for much of a day. A massive old power station which somehow manages to be quirky. A few shows at night and a slight dose of sunburn, “surely not” cry the global warming denialists.

Keep exploring, stay curious.