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Published: August 24th 2011
Belgrade - Serbia
Welcome to Eastern Europe!
My time in Europe is drawing to a close, but before it ends I have an amazing month to update you all on. I'm spending my last few days in Europe staying with my friend Friedolin in Graz and I couldn't think of a better way to say goodbye to Europe than to spend time with a friend I haven't seen for 3 years.
A lot has happened since I left Sweden a month ago. So much that I don't know where to start or how to describe all the amazing, fascinating, fun things I've experienced.
Let's start in Serbia. Belgrade was our destination when we flew out of Stockholm. A lot of people wondered why we were going to Serbia and some questioned whether or not it was a safe decision, but I think it was a great decision. The Balkan countries have always fascinated me, partly because of their history and partly because of their cultures.
One of the challenges with Serbia was that they use the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Roman. On the plane to Belgrade, Liz and I were teaching ourselves Cyrillic from my Lonely Planet guidebook, which was a huge source of entertainment
Belgrade - Serbia
Riding along the Sava River.
for the Serbian man sitting next to us. It was a bit like learning a whole new language and I only really got good at reading it just before we left Serbia.
Apart from not knowing the Cyrillic alphabet, knowing some Czech gave me a huge advantage when it came to understanding Serbian, as well as Bosnian and Croatian (they're basically all the same language). It's nice that even though Czech can be ridiculously frustrating and complicated to learn, it becomes very useful when travelling in Slavic-speaking countries.
My first impression of Serbia was that it was hot! We arrived at around midnight and at 1am it was still 27 degrees outside. It was a bit of a shock coming from Sweden, where it was nice, but more of a comfortable warmth. Our first day in Serbia was definitely not a comfortable warmth! I think it was about 40 degrees that day and we decided to spend the day at Belgrade's 'beach', which is a part of the Sava river that has been blocked off to form a huge lake with beaches on both sides. It was so wonderful to be able to swim and even when we
went for a walk to look at the park we only lasted about 5-10 minutes before we had to go for a swim again.
Our 2nd day in Belgrade was Liz's birthday and we celebrated by going on a free walking tour, where we got caught in a huge thunderstorm, going to an ethnological museum full of pretty folk costumes, going out for dinner at an Indian vegan restaurant (I don't think Liz thought vegan chocolate cake was an adequate birthday cake...) and then checking out a couple of Belgrade's bars.
I think both Liz and I were feeling a bit rundown during our time in Serbia and we weren't the most energetic travellers while we were there. After 3 days in Belgrade we headed to Novi Sad for a couple of days. I don't feel like I got to know Novi Sad very well because I was feeling a little fatigued and Liz was sick so our sightseeing was interspersed with lots of rests at our hostel.
I can report though that they had a horrible 'beach' on the banks of the Danube, which I would never dare swim in for fear of catching some strange
disease. I have to say that I'm not that impressed with European beaches, they always seem quite ugly and fake compared to Australian beaches.
We took a bus to Sarajevo after Novi Sad, which somehow took about 8 hours to go only 300km. Transport in the Balkans is super slow, as we later got further proof of when our train trip of about 120km from Sarajevo to Mostar took 4 hours... We spent a lot of time sitting completely still for no obvious reason.
Sarajevo was an amazing city, I completely fell in love with it. I'd always been fascinated by Sarajevo and had heard a lot about it from other travellers and it definitely lived up to my expectations.
There are so many different sides to the city, I could've stayed there for ages and never got bored. It is physically very beautiful, located in a valley between really tall mountains, called the Olympic Mountain, because many events in the 1984 Winter Olympics were held there. The people of Sarajevo are really proud of their '84 Olympics because it's the last positive event that happened in the city.
The city itself is also really beautiful,
especially the Turkish quarter called Bascarsija, which is about years old. Surrounding the Turkish part of Sarajevo is the Austro-Hungarian part of Sarajevo, which is also beautiful but in a much grander way. And outside of the Austro-Hungarian part is the newest and most ugliest part of Sarajevo, the communist part.
The western most part of Sarajevo is the newest and is unofficially called Serb Sarajevo because it's where a lot of Bosnian Serbs live. Sarajevo's second bus station is located in this part of the city, because buses to and from there serve the Serb Republic (a self-governing part of Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs are in the majority) and Serbia. We arrived at this bus station because our bus was coming from Serbia. It was really interesting to see this side of Sarajevo, because it somehow made the city more rooted in the present-day and added a new dimension to the city. It's not an area of the city I'd want to spend much time in though.
Bosnia's history has been plagued by war and most of the tourist attractions and historic information about Sarajevo seemed to focus on one or more of its many wars. They've
Belgrade - Serbia
The thunderstorm is brewing...
been attacked by everyone, from Ottomans to Nazis to Serbs. It was impossible to not be amazed and impressed by the optimism and willingness to forgive that the people of Sarajevo showed. I'm sure they all carry some kind of trauma from experiencing the 1992-95 siege but they all seem to have accepted what happened to them and forgiven those who were attacking them.
There's a lot of humour surrounding the war and there are many jokes about the different groups involved and what happened to them during the war. Bosnians have a great sense of black humour! In Sarajevo there is a monument to 'thank' the international community for their 'help' during the siege. It's completely sarcastic because the international community did very, very little to help Bosnia and Sarajevo during the war. One thing they did do was provide food supplies to Sarajevo, as it was completely cut off from the outside world and had no access to food. However, the food that was given was either so disgusting that even animals wouldn't eat it or it was so old that some of it was war rations that had been produced for the Vietnam War!
Belgrade - Serbia
And then we got caught in a huge downpour.
learning about exactly what happened in Sarajevo, as well as the many other events that occurred in Bosnia during the war, I felt completely ashamed and appalled at how the international community, including Australia, did basically nothing to help the Bosnians and just stood by and watched as they were massacred. I don't understand how the world could allow such atrocities to happen, knowing full well the extent of the attacks against Bosnia and the amount of people who were being killed and tortured.
One thing I learnt about the war was that because the Serbs had completely surrounded Sarajevo, they were unable to get access to medicine, food, petrol, etc. The Serbs were trying to starve them to death. The Bosnian army came up with the idea of building a tunnel under the neutral, UN controlled airport that would allow them to enter the one section of the hills surrounding Sarajevo that were Bosnian-controlled. The tunnel was 800m long and there was then a trench that went into the hills, where people would bring supplies for the city. We went on a tour to the Tunnel Museum and it was really fascinating to see how such a simple
Belgrade - Serbia
Traditional Serbian folk costumes.
thing provided so much hope and was the way many people managed to stay alive thanks to this tunnel.
My time in Sarajevo was a bit of a write-off for the first couple of days because on our second day there I had a job interview over the phone for a graduate position with the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency in Canberra (more about this later). I spent so much time preparing for the interview that I lost a couple of days of sightseeing and then ended up getting very sick because I was so stressed about the interview.
From Sarajevo we took the train to Mostar, a small city in the south west of Bosnia. Mostar is famous for its old bridge in the centre of the old town, both because local men dive off of it and because it was completely destroyed by Croatians in the war.
The bridge was rebuilt in 2001-04 and we were lucky enough to be there on the weekend that the annual bridge diving competition was being held. Diving from the bridge is a kind of initiation for the local men because it takes a lot of skill
Belgrade - Serbia
Dinner on Liz's birthday.
to dive from a 20m high bridge into a very fast flowing river that's about 10 C. I'm so glad we got to see the diving competition because it's a really important event for the area and the locals are really proud of their bridge. In a way, it's come to symbolise freedom and strength.
There was a lot of evidence of the war in Mostar, with many destroyed buildings still standing and many buildings that are partially destroyed or completely full of bullet holes. It was more obvious in Mostar than in Sarajevo, because in Sarajevo they're trying to renovate all the damaged buildings to hide any obvious signs of war, such as bullet holes. They're also trying to fix up the footpaths and fill in all the holes caused by mortars and bombs. I think it's a pity that they're trying to erase the evidence of their recent history, it's important for people to be reminded of what happened and make sure that it's impossible that it will happen again. And if they fix up the footpaths there will be no Sarajevo Roses left, which would be sad.
We spent one of our days in Mostar
Belgrade - Serbia
The remaining destroyed government building.
on an organised tour with 2 other Australians and an Irish guy. We went to Blagaj, which has a cave with a river sourced from a mineral spring and an old Turkish monastery. Next stop was Medugorje, which is where a group of teenagers saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1981. It was a pretty unexciting stop, all there was to see was a large church packed full of Catholic tourists from all over the place, but especially Italy.
After the church, we went to the Kravice Waterfalls, which were really nice and a good place to stop for lunch and a swim. Although the water was freezing cold, so I only lasted about 5 minutes in the water. Final stop of the tour was the UNESCO listed Pocitelj, an old Turkish settlement on the side of a hill, with a big tower to climb up and see the great view.
That night we went out to Mostar's famous cave club with the people from our tour. It was packed with people but pretty interesting to be at a club that's inside a cave.
So that was Bosnia. I really loved Bosnia, it's physically beautiful,
has beautiful cities, an interesting mix of cultures and religions, friendly people and a fascinating history. I know that they still have a lot of problems with corruption, unemployment (currently about 43%!) and economics but it doesn't affect you much if you're just a tourist. That's my travel tip for all of you out there – go to Bosnia!
Next stop was Dubrovnik, which I'd heard was beautiful but very touristy and it lived up to my expectations. The old town is very beautiful but it felt a bit like being at an amusement park because there were so many tourists everywhere. We only had one day in Dubrovnik so we wandered around the old part of the city and then headed out to Lokrum island, which was only a short ferry ride away.
Dubrovnik was so ridiculously hot that we had to go swimming to cool off. We hadn't taken our bathers but were so eager/desperate to swim that we just swam in our underwear and lay in the sun to dry out. There was a small lake on the island called the Dead Sea lake because it was really salty. We went swimming there and I
Belgrade - Serbia
The Zemun area of New Belgrade.
was excited to discover that I could float completely flat on the surface! Normally I just sink straight to the bottom.
After a very last minute decision to take a night bus from Germany to Croatia, my friend from Melbourne Uni, Clare, was waiting for us when we arrived in Split. It was great to have her travelling with us because I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to see her in Europe at all. It turned out to be an advantage to be three people when booking accommodation as well, because we managed to get private rooms everywhere we stayed until we got to Zagreb and had to stay in a dorm again.
Our time in Split seemed to be dominated by the same things as in Dubrovnik – swimming and walking around the UNESCO listed old town. It became a bit of a pattern for our time in Croatia. The old towns of the coastal cities in Croatia felt a lot like Italy to me and I discovered that there was a huge Roman presence in the cities, which I didn't know before. They were all quite beautiful, although quite blinding as well,
Belgrade - Serbia
as the strong sun reflected off all the white stone and marble surfaces.
While we were in Split we went on a day trip out to the island of Solta, with the main purpose of our trip being to swim and to see a donkey. We definitely succeeded with the first purpose, but failed miserably with the second one. We were quite excited about donkeys being used as an alternative form of transport on the island.
That night we disturbed the peace and quiet of our relaxing day on the island by going to a European League qualifying football (soccer) match. The match was between Hajduk, which is the team from Split, and Stoke City, from England. The stadium was completely full and it was a great atmosphere! A little crazy sometimes, but a fun experience. Hajduk ended up losing 1-0, which was a pity because it would've been fun to see how the Croatians celebrated if Hajduk had won.
From Split we continued further north along the coast to Zadar, which I had heard very little about. We stayed in a small village just outside Zadar called Bibinje and I'm so glad we did because we
Belgrade - Serbia
The destroyed buildlings.
got to see a different side of Croatia than just the touristy old town. The day we arrived in Bibinje was the Croatian Victory Day and National Thanksgiving Day and that night we went to a concert in the town centre, which was so nice that both Liz and I dozed off during the concert. It's strange to think that Croatia was just recently involved in a war because there were basically no signs of the war anywhere we went in Croatia. The Victory Day and National Thanksgiving Day is really important for Croatians though, as we noticed when almost the whole town of Bibinje turned up for the concert.
We spent a day in the actual city of Zadar, mainly wandering around the old town – no surprises there. And eating ice cream. We ate a lot of ice cream in Croatia! We even managed two swims in one day.
Both times we went swimming were in the old town, just off the Sea Organ. The Sea Organ is an absolutely amazing musical instrument that's been created next to the ocean, at the end of the promenade in the old town. There are steps leading down to
Belgrade - Serbia
Inside Serbia's largest Orthodox church.
the water that are hollow underneath and contain many pipes, with openings in the steps. When the waves come in against the steps, the Sea Organ plays music by the waves forcing air through the pipes in the steps and the notes that are played change depending on the size and the speed of the waves.
The Sea Organ is such a fantastic idea, I don't understand why there isn't anything else like it in the world. It was so nice to hear the music that the ocean was creating and swim next to it.
Just behind the Sea Organ, on the promenade, is another amazing creation called Greeting to the Sun. There are many very small circular solar panels and one very large circle made up of many solar panels that collect the solar energy during the day. At night time the energy that's been collected is used to power small coloured lights that make really pretty light patterns all across both the small and large circles.
We were in that area to watch the sunset and the atmosphere was amazing. There were so many people there, not just tourists but also a lot of locals
who'd all come to enjoy watching the sunset, listening to the Sea Organ and looking at the Greeting to the Sun's light display. Everyone was in such a happy, festive mood and I was really impressed that it was something that happened every day and required no effort or energy by anyone, just the power of nature.
Plitvice Lakes was our next stop and for that we needed to head inland. It was strange to not be able to go swimming every day – even though we were going to lakes, they are a national park and swimming is forbidden. I remember seeing pictures of the lakes and Mum and Dad telling me about them so I was interested to see what they were really like.
The lakes and the national park were really beautiful, there are about 16 lakes that are mainly crystal clear and bright blue, surrounded by forest. Only problem was that they've become so popular that the park was full of hundreds of tourists. We stayed there for about 7 hours though, so we had plenty of time to explore and get away from the hordes. The lakes at the lowest altitude were bright
blue because the water is filtered through limestone and it felt like being back in Mount Gambier and looking at the blue lake because the water was the same colour.
After the lakes there was no more swimming, no more beaches and no more nature because we headed to Zagreb, the capital. We had heard from other travellers that it wasn't a very exciting or interesting place so a day would be enough to see everything. I completely disagreed though, I thought Zagreb was really nice and would happily be able to stay there for a week. It reminded me a lot of Prague, especially in how it looked.
We did only have one day in Zagreb though, it was sort of a transit stop for Liz and I on our way to Budapest. On the Tuesday, Clare took the train to Slovenia and a few hours later Liz and I were on our way to Budapest and the Sziget festival.
Part 2 - Hungary & Austria
Finally time for Sziget! Liz and I had bought our tickets to the 5 day music festival in Budapest in March this year so we'd been waiting
a very long time for it to come around. I wasn't really sure what to expect and it turned out to be even more fantastic than I'd even imagined!
We were staying in a 'hostel' that was university student accommodation and it was very similar to where I was living in Prague so I felt comfortable and settled there. Although it was worse quality than in Prague...
There was no kitchen equipment, such as plates, bowls, cups, chopping boards, knives or forks so we became very resourceful with our equipment. We used shampoo as dishwashing liquid, our pocket knives and sporks as utensils, a cardboard takeaway container as a chopping board and collected all our plastic bowls, plates and cups we got eating takeaway food at Sziget.
We were walking distance to the festival so every day at around 2pm we walked to the island where the festival was held and would walk home at around 1am. Our sleeping patterns were completely upended by the festival – I was going to bed at around 3am and getting up at 11am, even midday.
There was such a huge amount of stuff to do at the festival, not
Novi Sad - Serbia
Novi Sad's 'beach' on the Danube.
just seeing concerts, but activities and other performances. It would be impossible to write about everything we did, so it'll just be the highlights.
In terms of the music, my favourites were Empire of the Sun, Pulp, Gogol Bordello, Goran Bregovic Wedding and Funeral Band, The Prodigy, Kaiser Chiefs, Peter Bjorn and John and Marina & The Diamonds. We saw about 25-30 bands over the 5 days and they were all a lot of fun. Some for different reasons to others though, such as when we went to see the Swedish heavy metal band The Haunted.
There were hundreds of tents with all sorts of activities to try out and each day we made sure to do something new. Although when we discovered that there were paints that could be used to do your own body painting, that became a definite daily event! I got to let my love of face painting loose on Liz and luckily she was happy to be my model/victim.
We went to the ability park, which had games based around different abilities and disabilities, such as a wheelchair obstacle course (turns out using a wheelchair is a lot harder than it looks!),
Novi Sad - Serbia
playing a detective game in the dark, drawing a picture together with someone else without talking to them and tracing your finger through a maze while blindfolded, which turned out to be completely impossible for me to do.
Another favourite place of ours was the Hungarian Village, where we learnt how to walk on stilts, got our hair braided, played ten pin bowling, watched folk dancing and created a silhouette photo artwork.
The bands on the main stages finished at 10:30/11pm every night so most nights we ended up going to the Roma Tent, where we could listen to awesome gypsy music until late into the night. Although later on when we discovered the Ambience Tent we started to head there before going home, for a cup of tea and a relax on the big cushions.
On our last night at Sziget, the band in the Roma Tent was boring so we headed over to the Magic Mirror tent before, which was the gay & lesbian tent. We'd never been there before and after 5 minutes we were thinking “Why haven't we been here before?!” It was so much fun! We managed to see the last 20
minutes of their nightly variety show, which was hosted by a drag queen and included a circus performer and the Washington DC Cowboys dance troupe. The tent had the best atmosphere out of any of the others we'd been in and when the variety show finished there was music by a dj, which ended up with us dancing on the table to George Michael's song Freedom.
Sziget was a very multicultural experience – there were people there from all over the place, mainly Europe though, with some from Britain, USA and Australia. People watching was one of our favourite activities at Sziget because there were some amazing costumes among the crowd!
Other things that typified the Sziget experience were filthy shoes, walking through huge clouds of dust and ankle deep beer cups, getting squashed by crazy crowds or kicked by wayward crowd surfers, eating yummy vegan takeaway food including vegan fried cheese (!), Bollywood dance class, car racing games and tightrope walking (I couldn't even walk a metre).
Being at Sziget was like existing in an alternate world, away from normal society (hence the title of this blog post). It was hard to remember that we were
actually in Budapest at all because for 5 days our whole world was no bigger than our hostel, the walk to the festival and the festival site. There was everything you could ever need at the festival and it was sad to say gooodbye to Sziget on the last night. But in a way it was good that it ended then, while it was still good and before we got too sleep-deprived and exhausted from being at the festival all day. It was also good to wash our filthy clothes and shoes and finally be clean again.
Life after Sziget consisted of 3 & ½ days in Budapest to do some sightseeing and in my case, shopping. I spent my first 2 days running around Budapest's shopping centres buying things that I needed for my trip to Malawi. It was stressful and exhausting and I was so sick of shopping after that!
Luckily my third day was a bit more relaxed and didn't involve any shopping. I went to get my yellow fever vaccination and then met Liz to have lunch in the park and spend the afternoon at the Szechenyi baths. Budapest's thermal baths are really well
First view of Bosnia, complete with mosque.
known and Szechenyi is perhaps the most famous. It was really nice there, there were 3 outdoor pools and about 20 indoor pools, as well as some saunas.
The temperature of the pools was mainly between 30 and 40 degrees, which was initially a bit uncomfortable because it felt like having a bath with your clothes on. It was so nice though, to just soak in the pools, hoping that the claim of the water being a miracle cure for everything was right and would prevent me getting sick from my yellow fever vaccination (it's worked so far).
That day was Liz and my last day together, after travelling together for about 6 weeks. The next day she took a train to Ljubljana in Slovenia and later that afternoon I took a train to Graz to stay with Friedolin for a few days.
Friedolin helped me to do my last, but most important bits of shopping for Malawi while I was in Graz – I ended up with a mini laptop and a pair of hiking shoes, plus a much lower bank balance...
Then on Friday and Saturday night we went to stay at the choir
camp that Friedolin is on for 3 weeks, where he's both a member of the choir and one of the leaders who helps look after the children. It was really nice staying there because it was out in the country surrounded by beautiful scenery and the school where the camp is held is in a small castle!
On Sunday morning the choir sang at a Catholic church mass, which was interesting for me to go along to. I really enjoyed listening to the choir sing and people watching, but apart from that, I'm not sure Catholic masses are really my thing. Especially when they're in German! There were a lot of older people in the church wearing traditional clothes such as dirndls and I even saw some men wearing leather shorts and knee high socks.
That afternoon we went to an open air museum that has buildings from the 18 & 1900s from every region of Austria. That was my last European activity. After that, no more European sightseeing for quite a while.
As I write this, I'm sitting in the Munich airport about to board my flight to Johannesburg. After that I'll get another flight to
Lilongwe and then I'll be in Malawi!
I'm a little bit nervous to be leaving Europe, which I know so well, and going to Africa, which I don't know at all. I have no idea what to expect from Malawi and I'm sure life there will be very challenging at times, but I think it's going to be a wonderful experience and I'm looking forward to sharing that experience with all of you.
Goodbye from Europe, see you in Africa!
P.S. Remember the job interview I had in Sarajevo? Well, on the morning of my 3rd day at Sziget, I found out that I got the job! I couldn't actually believe that I got it, because I didn't think I did that well in the interview and writing test I had to do. I guess I must have though. So I'll be moving to Canberra next year to hang out with all the politicians and public servants.
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