I wanted to go Bosnia after Belgrade, but the roads were closed. Floods and landslides all over Bosnia and Serbia had forced buses to cancel their routes, and there was no train to Sarajevo. I thought I was having a bad couple of days, but then food trucks and suppliers also couldn’t reach parts of both countries. Electricity outages and flooding made the disaster worse, and Serbia declared a state of emergency. I wanted to stay and help but didn’t know when or how I’d get to Bosnia, so I went to Zagreb instead.
I’ve been to Croatia before, but only around the touristy coast. Zagreb is somewhere landlocked in the middle, halfway between Bosnia and Slovenia, but has been a major settlement for thousands of years with a typical hill-on-the-river kinda setup. Now its split into the medieval upper town, formerly known as Kaptol, and the lower town, filled with larger pedestrian streets and lots of shops. The most interesting attraction was definitely the Museum of Broken Relationships, which displays tokens of people´s break-ups and lost loved ones and the stories behind it. It was really sad, and many that entered left with tears. They consider it some sort of therapy, since everyone has gone through a broken relationship, but it was strange to see how personal things were – one donation was his mother´s suicide note.
I couchsurfed with a Croatian woman who speaks English, French, Russian and Croation (and the related Slavic languages nearby) fluently, plus a handful of 4 or 5 other languages. She was tiny in stature, but got a kick out of driving big trucks (like 18-wheeler big) and hanging out with big, tattooed motorcycle men. I got a kick out of them too; one was half my height and another had an all-white eye. I entered (and forfeited) a drinking competition with one of them, but hope to go back and ride on one of their choppers (or maybe even an 18-wheeler).
From Zagreb, I took a train to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, which means “beloved” town. It was much smaller, but same set up: a small hill and a river winding around it. There was an old castle fort on the top, looking down over a few narrow streets of red-roofed buildings. There were two beautiful churches, one pastel yellow and the other one bright pink, and the opera house and all the buildings surrounding it were bright yellow. I took a free walking tour and learned mostly facts about poets and architects, since much of the city was built or influenced by the poet Preseren and the Slovenian architect Plecnik.
I couchsurfed in Ljubljana with a Slovenian guy and his stepson, who were nearly the same height and size with bleached blonde hair but 20 years apart. He was the second guy I met that weekend with only one functioning eye, and I wondered again what its like to ride a bike with no depth perception. He took me on a pedal bike tour on the rain which was a cosy way to first experience the empty town. He has this wonderful idea of expanding couchsurfing into something more than just sharing a roof and a couch, so he shares his kitchen for couchsurfing cooking events. I arrived just as an Indian couple was leaving, and the place still smelled like coriander and curry, I tried some of Marko´s Slovenian cabbage and potatoes, and I made a typical fish and potato dish before leaving. Check out the videos here.
I spent 4 days in Serbia, and when I say Serbia, what I really mean is under an umbrella in Belgrade. It was raining when I arrived at 6:30 am, and I hadn’t expected to arrive so early. I took an overnight train from Hungary, which left on time and arrived on time, despite the slow border crossing. My couchsurf host hadn’t expected me on time either, so i stood shivering under cover til he found me, took me home, and tucked me in, where I finally got some dry, warm, rest. I had left Hungary in a storm, but thought I had left the bad weather, and a small ray of sunshine even broke through that afternoon. We drank dark beers in the sun on the Danube river bank, and then retreated to teenage public drinking in a grassy park with a Canadian rockstar named Eric (who I also found on couchsurfing). But, since all good things must come to an end, it then rained constantly for nearly 3 days. And I don’t just mean some slight sprinkling, Vancouver-grey kinda rain – I mean torrential downpour, streets-turned-into-rivers kinda rain.
I spent an entire day couped up in my couchsurfers apartment, shivering only from the sound of the wind and rain outside. I tried to leave the house, but within 100 m of the bus stop, my umbrella had inverted, wind was blowing at me sideways, and I couldn’t see well enough past the rain being thrown at my face to avoid the buddles, so the socks inside my waterproof boots were also wet. I returned back home, defeated and soaked. I stayed huddled and cuddled inside, as the walls started station – the leaks through the roof had started to seep in and drip down the stairs. I had tickets to the opera, one of the most preformed operas in history but still I’d never seen it, so I had to make it. The Serbian Opera company was performing L’elisir d’amore, and the tiny National theatre seemed like the perfect place to see it. It was performed in Italian and dubbed in Cyrillic Serbian, so I didn’t understand much, but for less than 2 euros for a 2nd balcony seat, I had no complaints. It was a splendid, entertaining evening, and I even indulged in a seat for my couchsurf host, who could only sit in it for half of one act.
The next night we watched the Serbian Philharmonic preform Bach’s Mass in B minor. It was also staged at a small, intimate, theatre, but not as showy or comfortable. The seat rows weren’t spaced far enough apart for even me to sit straight, let alone your average guy, and they kept all the lights on in the hall. It may have been because the Serbian Radio and TV was broadcasting it, but then the symphony and choir made lots of little mistakes. People walked in and out of the performance without any door locks, and again the seats we paid 3 euros for were actually worth double that, since there was noone sitting in the front-n-center expensive seats. But wearing informal clothes or wet jeans were a perfect occasion to seek shelter from the storm, so it makes sense the kind of crowd that fills a room of €3-6 seats. The guy who sold me the opera tickets smoked a cigarette while he did it, coat check was free at the opera and the symphony, and the drinks that you could buy cost only €1 or €2, so in many ways, the music and arts scene was 10 years behind the rest of Europe. But, in other ways, Belgrade was very forward compared to the rest of Europe. The conductor for the opera’s orchestra was female, and the crowd attending both shows was much younger than the average age of 60 (which it was in Paris).
We took home one of the very tech-forward buses (which no-one likes to pay for in Belgrade) but they do have amazing, frequent, 24 hour service and a no-touch pay system with an electronic announcement system (very helpful if you don’t know where you’re going or coming from). The rain kept falling, and eventually the roads started to close, from flooding and landslides, so long-distance buses stopped running and I considered a new life in Belgrade… not knowing when I’d leave. Buses to Bosnia were cancelled for 2 days, but after 4 hours at the bus station, I got on one to Zagreb.
Coming from Czech and Slovakia, Hungary was a whole new world. The biggest difference was the food, it was finally delicious, mostly because they use loads of fat and paprika in everything. The beer was worse, but the wine better, and the language was a whole new mumble jumble of sounds I couldn’t understand. More people spoke English, probably because of how touristy Budapest is, and that wasn’t a surprise. Budapest is a beautiful city, Buda and Pest separated by the Danube, connected by many beautiful bridges, full of green parks, old castles and towering churches.
I love visiting churches in Europe, they’re some of the most beautiful examples of architecture over the centuries and the wealth of religion. The procedure of visiting churches is always the same – after you enter, you feel the cool air and still silence of the reverent hall. Then you take a few steps down the center aisle, your boots always clicking a bit too loud, and after you get a load of the religious paintings, gold fixtures and antique wooden furniture, you spin around to stare in awe at the organ, hundreds of tall and shining pipes at the back of the church.
Budapest is also known as a party place, the night-life district in the Jewish quarter boasting the 3rd best bar in the world (according to who, I’m not sure, but Lonely planet also loves it). Its a ruin bar, the gutted out frame of a protected building that costs too much money to repair, so some guys buy it for cheap and just turn into a public space of graffiti, broken down electronics and mismatched furniture. Then the crowds come from all over and buy their cheap drinks and delicious food, filling the hollowed out space and abandoned rooms to the brim.
Hungary is also famous for its baths. Its second only to Iceland for geothermal pools, but with bigger numbers, the baths in Hungary become a public bathing ground for entire towns. I went to Szechenyi bath, a spa with more than 15 pools and hottubs, at least 8 saunas and steam rooms, and at night time the place becomes a pool-party disco club. We lazed in the various temperatures of water, the coldest dip being 16`C and the hottest around 40. I shed a kilo of skin and sweat, but felt like a new born baby afterwards.
Another ecstatic moment was wine tasting in a crazy lightning and thunder storm – the rain poured down on us in buckets at the Jásdi wine cellar, and we drank wine for nearly 2 hours for something like 6 euros. There were another things that made the trip epic, but it was these kind of simple moments that I was most enthusiastic about. We watched the storm near us over Lake Balaton, and both the lake and sky turned dark grey, but a few sea snakes and ducks swam past us just jovially enough to remind us that the storm would pass and everything would be ok, as did the rainbows that broke all over the horizon a few hours later.
Very strange things happened to me in Slovakia. Only an hour after I had arrived in Bratislava central station, I walked past the city center’s famous clock tower and right between 3 people having a conversation in Icelandic. I was so dumbfounded I didn’t even say anything, since I didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to make them feel like they had lost their privacy of speaking a language no one around them should have understood. I just stopped, turned to them and stared, but they didn’t know me and I certainly don’t look Icelandic so they didn’t speak to me either. After I finished wandering through the city I stopped in a park to snooze and tan in the sun, and when I woke up, I realized I was in the backyard of the Presidential Palace. That night I tried to book my first and only night in a hostel on this trip, but I got picked up by a couchsurf host at a couchsurfing meeting where glasses of wine cost €0.90. That meant I could now buy 10 glasses of wine for the €9 hostel bed I didn´t have to pay for.
The highlight of my trip was watching the Slovakian Philharmonic play Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto and Mozart’s Requiem in the national theater, where the symphony hall sparkled in white, gold and crystals. Then I heard about the Opera and Ballet hall in the new national theater building, where they were showing a ballet rendition of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was just as wierd as it sounds – ballerinas preforming in strange costumes without spoken word – but the story was still somehow told as I remember it.
I took a day trip with another backpacker to Častá, a nearby town famous for its red stone castle. We took a local bus to the town, and then had to walk 2 km up hill to reach the castle gates. The entire first km of road was lined with speakers, dating from the propagandous communist era, and nowadays its used as a sort of public radio. Scratchy Slovakian folk songs played in the streets, loud enough for any house dweller to hear, and me and my friend considered sharing a dance but carried on instead. When we reached the castle, we realized it also doubled as an eagle training center, and casually ran into two different men at different times strolling the castle grounds with eagles on their arms.
Bratislava was another charming little town, with a lot of old churches and a castle fort. The city castle wasn’t that impressive, since it was only rebuilt in 1958 and recently renovated, but who goes to Europe to see a new castle? Every europtripper know that only old, crumbling ones are interesting, so Devín castle satisfied much better. On my last morning, I headed for the bus station, where both buses to Budapest were full. The next way out was a train in 4 hours, so in the meanwhile I wandered up to the Slavín monument, a memorial for the thousands of Soviet soldiers who died in WWII trying to protect Bratislava. It was a sad, sombering place, with an incredible view over the town from where I waved it goodbye.
I sat on a wooden bench, waiting for the first delayed train I’ve had on this trip. I shifted slightly to the right and implanted 4 huge slivers through my pants and into my ass cheek. I waited another 10 minutes sitting on this uncomfortable situation before dislodging them in the privacy of the train toilet, but please empathize for moment how difficult it is to remove slivers from your own rear end. The first thing I did after leaving Slovakia was watch a film about Iceland. My next couchsurf host in Budapest had made a video about his 2 week trip there, and watching it made me more home sick than I could have imagined. I had a hard time remembering where I came from, where I was or where I was going, but Iceland is definitely on the horizon and that’s exciting.
I think I made it through my whole visit in Czech-land without accidentally referring to Czechoslovakia, but it definitely slipped my mind a few times. Its cumbersome to say ‘the Czech Republic’ every time you ask a question, so I came up with Czech-land which was maybe an equally stupid tourist thing to say.
Czech land is a wonderful land, a green and charming place where summer love is in the air. PDA is out of control here, with frisky couples making out in the central squares and casually having sex in public parks, hidden only by the girl’s flowy skirt and not the broad daylight shining down on their bench of choice.
My allergies have confirmed that its really summer, but never get in the way of spending more time outside lying in freshly cut grass. There’s so much green space around Brno, the second largest city, and its by far the dog-friendliest city I’ve ever visited. People take everything from toy-dogs in purses to rottweilers yielding teeth guards on public transport and inside the bars and restaurants. Prague had less dogs but a bazillion more tourists, since I ended up there over a long-weekend without knowing it and got lucky enough to find probably the last possible couch on couchsurfing to surf. Every hostel and hotel was fully booked, and the central square in Prague bustled like a circus fair, attended by every nation in Europe to see the bubble blowers, snake charmers and horse carriages parade around. My Czech host was a tango dancer, and we avoided the crowds by spending our nights tangoing and ballroom dancing, where I learned the not-so-significant difference between English and Viennese waltz.
The Czech Republic is a very outdoorsy-kinda place; its popular among the locals to take camping, hiking, climbing, or biking trips around Czech-land, and even horse back riding and yoga is easy to find. This also means people walk around with big, back-packing back packs all the time, so I really felt like I fit in when I was wandering around the train and bus stations lugging my life around. Other things that were popular were not very Czech, like shisha bars, tea, and lemonade that’s usually made without any lemons. They think that if its fruity and carbonated it counts as lemonade, but whatever they want to call, its damn good, home-made stuff. Even more wonderful than that is the fact that vineyards cover the south-east countryside with delicious, affordable wines, and beer is actually cheaper than water. I heard they tried to pass a law against it, stating that beer could not be the cheapest drink on a restaurant menu, but as far as I noticed, this was rarely true.
My couchsurf host in Brno was not a local, but for a Jewish American guy he spoke pretty good Czech and had a hold on all the restaurants and local food culture (and makes killer bbq’d burgers). We were pretty active too, as I followed him through his various work-out days at yoga and the swimming pool. I met a dutch guy who took me horse back riding on his big dutch warm blood, and I spent all my free time hiking around little Czech villages, churches, castles and caves. The Moravian caves were magical and wonderful for many reasons, although they kind of smelled like bad breath and I never figured out if that was the odour of the cold, underground humidity or the wafts of air leaving the tour guides’ mouth. The more famous Punkva cave included a boat ride on a river through the cave, after standing at the bottom of a 200m sunken-cave hole, and then there was my very own name-sake cave, ‘Kateřinská jeskyně’ which literally translates to ‘Katrin’s cave’. I pretended they knew I was coming, but they didn’t get the joke. They don’t joke much in Czech-land, so I’ve also stopped calling it Czech-land, but if people did smile a bit more and spoke a language that wasn’t impossible, I could easily find myself staying here forever.