The lovely girl in the hotel reception made me a packed lunch and before I knew it, I was on the 5am train back to Bucharest.
Once there, I went on a MISSION to find a charger for my camcorder… and it was mission successful! Got to drive past Ceausescu’s ridiculously big palace in a taxi – yep, it’s kinda ridiculous, but I guess I’ve got some begrudging respect for the fact that the bonkers mad dictator what got shot on Christmas Day, didn’t go for your typical concrete shopping-mall affair that Eastern Europeans seem to love even more than us idiots in the West.
Righty-right, onto a train and got to spend the day in a carriage with a Romanian guy called John who was on his way to Athens. I, on the other hand, was on my way to Thessaloniki in Greece, passing through the conveniently placed land of Bulgaria on the way. I’m making good time.
Later we got chatting with a Romanian couple who were in the compartment next to ours – and check this out – the guy was not only from Romania, not only was he called Vlad, HE HAD SHARP POINTY CANINES!! Serious! I slept with my pillow around my neck.
Now I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment…
One of the best books I have read in recent years is Bad Science, by Dr. Ben Goldacre. In it, he dissects the way the media and the infernal and impossibly childish ‘new age’ movement has conspired to make people distrustful of doctors and science in general, in favour of hippy-la-la woolly alternative therapies and ‘Doctor’ Gillian McKeith ‘PhD’ inspecting the poo of the underclasses like some nut from the Victorian age.
It’s a little bit embarrassing that in the 21st century, people in Britain prefer to take ‘natural’ remedies – (ignoring the fact that heroin (poppy), aspirin (willow root) and mercury (Freddy) are fairly ‘natural’ as well) than actual proven medication. As if the ‘natural remedies’ available from your local Holland and Barrett are prepared by some lovely flower children in white dresses sitting in a stone circle in Somerset singing ‘Scarborough Fair’.
They’re not. They are prepared by them thar huge multinational corporations. You know, the evil ones. Just like real medicine.
Anyway, for fat, rich, western women in their 40s with too many cats (Derren Brown’s words, not mine), this isn’t much to be bothered about, they can take their ineffective claptrap herbal cures, dance around naked in the woods and insert magic crystals up their rear ends, I don’t care (they are only ‘alternative therapies’ because they don’t work any better than a placebo – if they work, they become just plain old ‘medicine’, AND YAWN TO THAT I SAY).
But when people in South Africa start taking vitamins instead of proper AIDS medication, and the bodies start stacking up, and when the government gets in on the act and a silent genocide happens under the noses of the western media (who chose to ignore it, ‘Black People Dying’ is the equivalent of ‘Nothing Happened Yesterday’ in terms of headlines that won’t sell your paper), then I think we can all agree it’s gone a little too far.
Dying of AIDS is torture. Just imagine if F.W. DeClerk’s government had openly tortured and murdered 300,000 blacks in the 1980s? Or injected a quarter of the population with a deadly disease? The western governments would have chased him up a tree and set fire to it. What difference does it make if you murder someone through action or inaction? They are still just as dead. But that’s what the South African government under fruitcake number one Tambo Mbeki has done. And they have done it with the whole-hearted support (and guidance) of a certain WHITE, multi-millionaire vitamin pusher called Mathais Rath.
This Rath creep unsuccessfully sued Dr. Goldacre and the Guardian paper for calling him up on his crimes against humanity. The court case was still going on when Bad Science went to press, so this chapter was not included in the first edition. But now it’s available, free, online here –
What transpired to be an incredibly long day, started in Thessaloniki before dawn. It was raining hard and John and I took far too long getting off the train, so we found ourselves shunted into the goods yard and having to walk the five-hundred meters back to the station like a pair of divs.
I had a few hours to mooch about, say hello to the Aegean Sea and drink an overpriced coffee (I needed the toilet and McDonald’s was closed) before returning to the station to hop on the train to Skopje (pronounced Skopia, by the way). Incidentally, on the off-chance that the girl from Canada with the hotpants – whom I helped get the coach to Athens because no domestic trains were running – is reading this, when you ask for somebody’s help and they give it, try saying thank you next time, then people won’t think you’re a cow.
Skopje is the capital of Macedonia, or to give it it’s full crazy title, The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (keeps the Greeks happy) and the train was supposed to be a two hour affair – just enough time to grab a coffee and attempt to watch Lost on YouTube.
HOWEVER, the Macedonian border guards had other ideas and soon I found myself waiting in a freezing cold doorway with a fellow unfortunate (an American called McClane who was also heading towards Kosovo) because we were Johnny Foreigners and they wanted a doctor to come and make sure we weren’t dying of the bubonic plague, or swine flu as they are now calling it.
The train left on it’s merry way to Skopje without me – the next one wasn’t for five hours – and so after a doctor came and asked me if I was dying (the answer was no), we had to go and get the bus to the capital. Which was annoying.
But what was good was the fact that there was a bus to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, pretty much ready to go as soon as we got into Skopje. I just had time to stuff a burger-and-fries-in-one-huge-bun into my mouth before jumping on the bus and getting Kosovo ticked off my list of countries that aren’t really nations, but I’m counting them as nations because I like nice round numbers.
Arriving into Prishtina, I was then dropped into a little bit of a quandary. I bought a ticket for the bus into Serbia, but the driver wouldn’t let me on. Luckily, an American K-For guy was on hand to translate the situation. Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo as an independent state and since I entered ‘Serbia’ (ie. Kosovo) from Macedonia, the guards on the Kosovo/Serbian border will want to know how on Earth I managed to enter ‘their’ country without getting a passport stamp and consequently not let me in.
Confusing I know, but the upshot of this was that there was no way I could get on the bus to Serbia.
Never fear though – as long as I’m not trapped on an island, there is always plan B. I got the bus to Montenegro instead.
The bus dropped me off in a nowhere town in Montenegro called Rozaje in the middle of the night and I waited in the freezing cold (it was comparatively warm in the northern Europe) for the late bus over to Belgrade in Serbia. I got through the border control okay – the only funny thing was that the Serbians stamped “Annulled” in Cyrillic over my Kosovo stamp – kind of childish when you think about it, but there you go – you go around ethnically cleaning areas of your own country, you can’t really complain when they decide they don’t want to your mates any more.
Strangely enough, they also ‘annulled’ a stamp from Thailand that was put in my passport three years ago.
This event has obviously meant that Thai-Serb relations are at an all time low. Or maybe the guy with the stamp was just having a really groovy time STAMPING THINGS. WITH HIS STAMP.
I like stamping things too.
I got off at the first town over the border, Novi Padar, only to find they had not dropped me at the bus station. It was now 1am, there wasn’t a soul around and I didn’t really have a clue what to do. Luckily, a battered sign pointed the way to the bus station, so I started walking. It was a good kilometre away and when I got there, I was greeted by a nothing but sleeping tramp, who promptly farted so loudly that the walls shook.
Luckily, a bus soon pulled in – I asked the driver if there was going to be any more buses back to Montenegro tonight. He didn’t speak much English, but I got the impression that there were no more stopping at the bus station tonight, but if I went back to where the bus I was on had dropped me off, I could flag a passing coach down from the road. My gesticulation skills are currently at an all-time high.
I walked back, pursued by stray dogs, and waited in the dark beside a huge puddle on the main road. Would I be waiting here all night? Will it ever stop raining?
After twenty minutes, a bus came by. The sign in the front said ‘Podgorica’, the capital of Montenegro. I practically threw myself in front of it just to make sure it stopped – and it did. I’ve haven’t been this relieved since I found out that everybody else on the planet finds bananas as hilarious as I do.
I could have done without the 3am border crossing, it was unnecessarily cold outside – why couldn’t they come to us? There was only about ten people on the whole bloomin’ train. Well soon enough we were moving again and I fell fast asleep. In the morning, I had a couple of hours to kill in Sofia before getting on the next train to Belgrade so I sat down at a bakery and ate as many sausage rolls as I could stuff in my face… sausage rolls being somewhat of a rarity in Africa and the Middle East so smoke ’em, smoke ’em, smoke ’em, if you’ve got ’em.
The train to Belgrade was, again, fairly empty, and so I had no company for the day. Soon my laptop batteries were dead and I was left twiddling my thumbs, not wanting to read the only real book I’ve got – Huckleberry Finn – as it just wasn’t grabbing me. But the snow-covered scenery was beautiful to look at and sunset seemed to take an eternity, leaving the landscape frozen in the magic hour far longer than usual.
I arrived in Belgrade hoping to get the night train to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, but connecting train services don’t seem to be the ‘in’ thing in Europe any more (not like in Sherlock Holmes’ day) and so I found myself kicking my heels in Belgrade for the night. So I checked into the Belgrade Eye backpackers, wandered the streets aimlessly for a little while before turning in for the night.
More bad news: the Algerian embassy in London is REALLY dragging its heels over my visa request. Eddie Spinks, my reputable visa agent, was supposed to be picking up my passport yesterday, now it may be tomorrow. What’s the problem if I’m not anywhere near Sicily/Tunisia yet anyway? The problem is this: from the moment we get the passport back from the Algerians, it will take TWO WEEKS (at the very least) for my Libya visa to come through. You see, I need that passport back desperately and the Algerians seem keen to keep hold of it for as long as they can. Oh, and I STILL don’t have my Iranian visa sorted. What The Caribbean did with water, these guys are doing with visas. I’ve already told Stan there’s no way I’ll be finished in time for Glasto. Ho hum.
It looks like February may well turn out to be one of those months like June and November were I don’t end up going anywhere.
The last two blogs aren’t true. I just made them up.
Sorry, it would have ruined the surprise.
Here’s what really happened…
When I was in Cyprus last Tuesday, I discovered that it would take two weeks from the date of application for my visa for my next country (Libya) to come through. I had not been made aware of this earlier (annoyingly enough) – I thought I was just going to pick it up at the border. This meant that no matter what I did in the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t continue with my journey. I might as well pick up the visas for Libya, Algeria and Central Asia from London myself.
I might as well…
Why the hell not, eh? It’s still part of the journey, it’s still in the spirit of The Odyssey; I can’t enter the kingdom of the nightwatchers without first gaining the magic amulet of visa. If I’m going to live my life as though I’m in a 1980s text adventure game, I might as well go the whole hog.
Home… a hot bath, fresh new clothes, a Full English and a roast meal… my family, my friends. It’s just too tempting.
I cooked up a scheme which would see a bunch of my mates teaming up at the Fact cinema in Liverpool on Saturday night and my family gathering around the table for a Sunday roast – I told nobody I was coming home – and hit the road.
I did honestly go to Istanbul on the overnight coach on Tuesday night, but that’s about as far I went without telling fibs. From there, I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania (€50), and on Thursday night I headed over to Budapest, Hungary on another night train (€50).
Budapest was a bit of a headache, I arrived yesterday morning to find that the Eurolines bus to London was full and so I had to concoct some kind of plan B that wasn’t going to cost the Earth. If I got the train to Paris via Munich and Metz it would cost me in excess of €250, which is way out of my budget. Damnit – the days of buying a through-ticket from Istanbul to London are OVER. Nice to know that Europe had a better grasp of logistics back when Victoria was sitting on the throne and we all hated each other.
I headed over to the bus station to see if I could blag my way onto the London bus… no way, Jose. But there was a Paris bus that had a few seats left. That’d do – as long as I got to London before 6pm, I could get back to Liverpool in time. I got online and tried to buy myself a ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. Simple, eh?
It took me longer to buy the ticket than it takes to actually get from Paris to London on the damn train. Sitting on the floor of the skanky Budapest bus terminal, I came close to HULK SMASH levels of frustration. WHY DOES IT TAKE 10 DIFFERENT SCREENS TO GET YOUR DAMN TICKETS? Not everybody in the world has super-duper, fast fibre-optic asymmetrical data lines. Is there a low data-rate version for us poor souls hacking into someone else’s lousy wi-fi? Is there buggery.
I got to the final payment screen on 4 separate occasions only to be told there was a problem with the blah blah blah. I was in Budapest, it was covered in snow – I wanted to go out for a walk, see the place, do some filming, but no, the Eurostar website wouldn’t let me. It’s easier to get Glastonbury tickets.
In the end, I had to call the man of the hour, Stan Standryt, in London, blow my cover and get him to book my ticket for me (what a guy!). Eurostar, YOU SUCK. Hope you go bankrupt and the Channel Tunnel gets turned into a very long art gallery with moving walkways. Or, even better, a ROAD.
Well, my day in Budapest well and truly wasted. I scampered onto the bus to Paris and shut my eyes, hoping to open them in the land of red and white stripy shirts, black berets, old bicycles and garlic necklaces.
But the bus driver had other ideas… is it an EU regulation that buses have to stop every two hours and wake everybody up? Ha! Man, the buses in Turkey ROCK MY WORLD and the buses in the world’s two biggest economic superpowers – the US and the EU – SUCK! It’s a sad fact that public transport in Europe, while not as bad as Africa, is not much better. Having said that, at least in Africa you get what you pay for. Why does it seem to cost more to operate a European train or coach than it does an airplane?
So we stopped and started all the way through Austria, Germany and then through Strasbourg into France. By 9am on Saturday, we were passing Metz and well on our way to Paris.
The coach got in a whopping 20 minutes early (nice!) and so I had time to do a couple of things… one of which was to get a shot of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It took a good hour negotiating the Metropolitan to get there, and once I did the top was covered in cloud! Bah!
Oh well, I got the shot I wanted and then legged it to Gare du Nord, the railway station for the Eurostar, hoping against hope that they would have a shower there – after 6 days on the road and no shower, I was beginning to smell worse than a Gregg’s pasty that’s been in a tramp’s pocket for three weeks. Nice!
Luckily for me, indeed there is a shower in Gare du Nord, unluckily for me it cost €7 and (being French) it smells of effluent. What’s that joke about French plumbers again? But any port in a storm – I don’t want to be turning up in Liverpool after all these months (and two spells in jail) smelling anything less than utterly delightful..
Attention Eurostar trains: not only is your website PAINFULLY difficult to use, your trains are dirty. Clean them. If they can keep my Merseyrail carriages sparkly clean when I’m only paying £1.50 to use them for an hour, then you can totally afford to scrub your rolling stock down once in a while? Got that? Good. I wanted to film out of the window, but it would look murkier than a Mike Leigh movie and I don’t want to depress the hell out of anyone today, thanks.
Soon enough, I was whisked through the Chunnel and arrived at the rather spankingly refurbished St. Pancras station although once again was impressed that the Victorians (bless their cotton socks) saw fit to use beautiful arching cast iron and plate glass to constitute a roof whereas the lazy drunken hacks that pass for architects these days opted for what looks a lot like plastic.
At St Pancras, I met up with Dan Martin, an old chum of mine from back in the day.. He writes for the NME and has been blagging me into gigs and festivals for free for most of the past decade, the top bloke that he is. After a couple of beers and catch-ups, I went to the Euston Station concourse to play the Euston Station Concourse Game. This is where a bunch of hapless commuters stand for the best part of an hour looking up at the information board which will… at any given moment… tell them what platform to run to with all their bags.
The platform used is allocated by ERNIE, the random number generating computer from the 1950s that they used for the football pools. The platform will be allocated 5-10 minutes after the train is due to depart and will only be valid for approximately 90 seconds, after which time the train will depart leaving behind the less athletic members of the great unwashed and anyone who got bored waiting and stupidly went to WHSmith to buy a paper.
This is the Euston Station Concourse Game and it gets even more fun EVERY TIME YOU PLAY IT!
Being somewhat of a public transportation expert these days, I did manage to cadge a place on the big empty train (well, with 99% of the population priced out of this glorious British institution, what do you expect?) and in just a jiff and a jaff, I was back in my beloved Liverpool. Cyprus to Liverpool in four days – without flying. In your FACE, Palin!!
I hurried through the crisp scouse night to the Fact cinema, a architectural carbunkle in the centre of my hometown, but the wi-fi is free and the bar is always empty (perhaps because it is about as aesthetically pleasing as a concrete box) so it was a good place to spring the surprise.
I took the lift to the top floor, took out my laptop and hooked myself up to Skype. There, I got in touch with Anna, my top mate who teaches girls how to pole dance (I only hang in Bohemian circles, darling). I had told everyone that I was in Italy, but we were going to have a virtual night out with me via the internet and Anna’s webcam – the idea being that a bunch of my mates would take the laptop out with them to the streets and bars of Liverpool. Of course, I was really in Liverpool – one floor above them… giggidy…
About thirty of my wonderful mates had turned up, but Anna’s tinny little Mac speakers were not up to the task of broadcasting to so many people, so I suggested they might hear me better if I came down stairs..
It was awesome. HELLO LIVERPOOL!!
So after many, many hugs and beers, we all set out into the night in search of magic and adventure. The Merseyside Derby (that’s when Everton plays Liverpool to you Johnny Foreigners) had taken place that afternoon and so the town centre was more jam-packed than usual with drunken scousers and by Jove, I had forgotten how much I missed this place. We managed to get chucked out of the Heebie-Jeebies, went to the swanky new Studio 2 in Parr Street, got into a fight with the bouncers at Magnet and ended up in a utter dive called Ko Samui wondering where the hell we were.
In the summer of 2007, myself and Stanley “Stan” Stanrydt, two grown men with the mentality of 13 year olds, set out on an epic journey across the heart of Europe in search of music, beer, broads and a decent sausage.
In a Mazda sportscar we christened ‘Traci Lords’ (she was underage but could still squeeze us both in), we shot through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Croatia in order to arrive in Novi Sad, Serbia, for the rather epic Exit Music Festival, held in an ancient fort on the Danube river. There we watched the likes of the Beastie Boys and many other bands that I vaguely don’t remember.
After four days of drunken debauchery, we sobered up and decided to take the long way round back to the UK. So we went to Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dubrovnik in Croatia, rattled through Montenegro, got scared by the scary road in Albania, opted to take Traci out for a spin around the streets of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, before dripping our toes in Macedonia, skirting the city of Sofia in Bulgaria and crossed back over the Danube into Romania.
After a spooky trip around Bran castle in Transylvania (where Dracula was supposed to have lived), we thundered hell for leather back to Liverpool via Hungary, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. A music festival and about twenty countries visited for no good reason other than we could? Now that’s MY idea of a holiday!!
So arrived at Istanbul international bus station bang on 8am and then started the usually fun (but not fun today because it was cold, damp and my feet still hadn’t dried off from the day before) process of finding me a bus goin’ en-eeee-where. Turkey has dozens of bus companies going to every corner of the country and much of Europe. Greece was quickly struck from the list as the buses only seemed to leave at night and it would take 10 hours just to get to Thessaloniki, not even half way to Igoumenitsa. The other option then was to take a bus to Germany. As I didn’t have a map with me (and there wasn’t one on the wall in the office) I figured that Düsseldorf might be a good option. The bus would take 40 hours and arrive around 7am on Friday morning. I could walk back to Liverpool by then and still make it by 2.45pm on Saturday.
I bought my ticket (an extortionate €150, but this is no time for bartering… HSBC can pay for the damn thing) and then headed over to the shopping arcade for internet and kebab. Damn Turkey does good kebabs. I sussed out by using the excellent DB Bahn website that I could easily get from Düsseldorf to Brussels and from there take the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to London. Sweet!!
So then, onto the bus which was for some reason populated only by the Turkish version of the elderly tearaways from Sigur Ros’s video for Hoppípola.
They played crap repetitive music (all featuring a non-stop kazooage… this is Turkey you know) via their tinny mobile speakers. They wanted to stop every five minutes to smoke cigarettes. They were incapable at conducting a conversation as any volume level that wasn’t set to ‘ear-splitting.’ AND they snored REALLY LOUDLY.
When you start being the grumpiest old man on a bus full of grumpy old men, it’s totally time to come the hell home. It can’t come quickly enough.
We passed into Bulgaria, having to get off the bus in the night and stand in the bitter cold (it was -1°) waiting to get stamped out of Turkey, then again waiting to get stamped into Bulgaria. Only I don’t get a stamp because Bulgaria is in the EU.
For some reason (possibly forgetting the frigmarole that Stan and I had getting from Bulgaria to Romania in our little Mazda back in 2007) I assumed that the bus would be heading up into Romania and then across to Hungary and into Germany through Austria. This would mean no more freezing cold border jaunts and it would also mean that my Turkish exit stamp would be the last stamp in my passport. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.
I was wrong.
We took the more direct, but ultimately more waking-up-and-waiting-at-the-border-in-the-freezing-cold way of getting to Germany: via Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. So then out of Bulgaria (freezing), stamped into Serbia (freezing), out of Serbia (freezing), stamped into Croatia (freezing), out of Croatia (freezing) and into Slovenia (freezing).
It was a long couple of days. Every time we stopped at a service station I would charge my crap-top as the battery on this one only lasts 30 minutes before it dies a death (I miss my old HP – on a full charge it kept going for 6 hours straight, like a rather enthusiastic whore). I couldn’t afford the extortionate prices for meals so I stuck to eating extortionately priced sandwiches instead. Luckily, we hit the Alps in the daytime, so I got to enjoy some eye candy out of the window (I like mountains, okay?) before we hit Austria and then Germany, getting into Munich around 9pm and – yay! – all the oldies got off and left the entire back-end of the bus free for me to stretch my legs and enjoy the quiet.
It was then that I thought of something. Wouldn’t it be a lot more sensibler (yes that’s a word, Word) to get off in Cologne? The bus hits there before Düsseldorf and there’s a direct train from Cologne to Brussels. The word ‘Cologne’ doesn’t translate very well as in German the place is called ‘Köln’ and Christ knows how it’s pronounced. But I somehow got my point across and the conductor said he’d wake me up when we got there. I settled in for a decent night’s kip, exceptionally excited about tomorrow: I told Casey I’d see her again at The End of the World and it looks like I’m going to make good on my promise.