Day 122: Top Of The Balkans

Day 122: Top Of The Balkans

02.05.09:

We got into Podgorica so early, my legs were shaking. I immediately hopped a taxi to the nearby border with Albania. My driver, Ratko, was top – he didn’t speak much English, but he got the gist of what I was doing and was happy to take me into Albania for a couple of minutes to stomp around and get some footage and GPS readings to prove that I had broken in.

But like when I went to Albania with Stan a couple of years ago, we soon turned around and headed back to civilisation. Interesting fact – everyone with a car in Albania owns an old Mercedes. Everyone. Weird.

Tell you what though – last time I came along this road, it was the middle of the night and we though that we were in the middle of farmland or something because there wasn’t a SINGLE light on in the distance.

Well, I guess if we had waited until light, we might have discovered that the land south of Podgorica is a national park. It looked like the lake district (in the north-west of England), only bigger. Beautiful.

Talking of beautiful – Montenegro – what a gem! Croatia will always have a special place in my heart but I’m seriously considering doing the dirty on the old girl. Montenegro! The mountain fortress! Wow!

…And tonight on ‘Top of the Balkans’, we may have a brand new number one…

Then it was onto the bus to Herceg Novi near the border with Croatia, some good Montenegrin nosh stuffed into my pie-hole and then the old border drop into Croatia. Soon enough, I was on a bus heading north from Dubrovnik to Spilt. On the bus, I got chatting to Tom, a recently-graduated civil engineer and fellow loather of all things concrete-and-glass-curtains. STONES and CLAY and WOOD, please. Thanks. Good chap – he was inter-railing around like your favourite ginger scouser here, only not as maniacally – he was taking a good three months to go about it, not three weeks.

Hadn’t been to Spilt before – wow! – it’s just as bloomin’ marvellous as Dubrovnik. Roman ruins! Statues! Crumbling old stuff! Yeah! Oh, I’m torn now… Can’t I love Croatia and Montenegro evenly? Like your children, no favourites? We could all convert to Mormonism and live together in a big house and… well… er…

I’ll shut up now shall I?

There were no trains north until about 10pm, so we marched off to the pub, drank more than was possibly reasonable and I polished off a big plate of fish like an big yellow, cartoon alleycat. YUM!

The guys who ran the pub were several shades of excellent, and when it turned out the owner was an Evertonian, well, it was free drinks all round. A tiny Japanese guy was so excited that he had just eaten shark that we all arranged to climb Mt Kilimanjaro together next year.

Tom and I somehow staggered back to the station in time to get onto the night train to Zagreb. It would be getting in at silly o’clock in the morning, but tomorrow, I would be heading back to Budapest… tomorrow, I’ll be getting my bag back.



Day 123: The Bag Drop

Day 123: The Bag Drop

03.05.09:

Was rudely awaked by Tom ‘accidently’ throwing water in my face. Ah, well, it did the trick anyhow. We got off the train and said our farewells. Tom would be heading to Ljubljana in Slovenia, whereas I’ll be shooting straight through Slovenia on the way to Vienna.

It means nothing to me… OH VI-ENNA!

Wasn’t there long though – a quick change and I was heading east towards BUDAPEST! AGAIN!

GET. MY. BAG. BACK!!

Now, you should know by now that things are never that easy when it comes to The Odyssey. I only had ten minutes to run off my train, get my bag and run onto the train back to Vienna.

It means nothing to me… OH VI-ENNA!

If I missed it, I’d miss the night train to Liechtenstein and end up waiting until the next day. Timing was critical. I guessed which side the train platform would be on. I guessed wrong SOMEBODY GET THESE GODDAMN DAWDLERS OUT OF MY WAY… the platform was a mass, a sea of people, running now – Platform 6 – over there, Christ it’s hot in here, at the barrier, my jacket wrapped around my waist drops to the floor, I almost go flying but my cat-like reflexes honed to perfection in the mosh-pit of the Krazy House save the day, I grab the jacket off the floor – Platform 6 – THOUSANDS of commuters coming the other way, I’m fighting against the tide, but my salmon-like instincts honed at way too many music festivals save the day, I zig and I zag… I look at my watch – six minutes – run into the left luggage office – oh no.

Where’s the bloke I spoke to the other day? There was just a toothless old hag who didn’t speak a word of English. Panic panic panic. I try to explain as best I can, gesticulating wildly like Doc Brown. The seconds are ticking away, let me over there, I’ll find it, it’ll be there, she lets me into the store room, dusty old shelves from before the war, did I mention Hungry fought on the side of the Nazis? Well they did. The rotters. And Laura Bush killed a man. No, really, she killed a man – look it up on Wikipedia.

I digress.

Back to the action: shelves and shelves and bags and bags and nothing – no toilet seat, no ‘please look after this ginger’ tag, no fresh clean undies. Two minutes.

My shoulders slump, the old lady is about to let me out of the back room when an idea pops into her crusty old head. It might be in the office. I bounded over her in a single leap. I scanned the office. A desk, a lamp, dirty faded brown wallpaper. Nothing. My fists clench. One minute. I turn around…

There.

There by the door. To the left of the door! BAG! My old grey Lowe Alpine Pax 25 backpack! The bag that has accompanied me on every crazy adventure of the last eight years. The bag that has clung to my back like a baby koala in over 100 countries and over 50 music festivals. Me and bag. Together again. Mmmmm.

I hate to interrupt this little love-in, but… Thirty seconds!

The little old guardian of the bags wanted me to write my details and sign a bit of paper. I have never written so fast or so illegibly in my life, not even when Mr Marsh was walking up the rows of desks in GCSE English collecting papers after we had been told to put our pens down.

Ten seconds.

I ran out of the office, sweat pouring down into my eyes making it difficult to see. What platform? If it was one over the other side of the station, I was done for.

No seconds.

Platform 8. Really close. Run, Graham, run you mad ginger man!

A whistle blows. My hair stands on end.

The doors are closing. I fling myself into the rear carriage – the door closes on the backpack. The station isn’t going to give it up without a fight. I heave with all my might and suddenly I’m transported into another world – a world of peaceful, relaxed, sedate commuters sitting in silence.

I take my seat.

My face is red, my t-shirt (worn for 6 days don’t forget) is stuck to me like I’ve been three rows from the front at an Arctic Monkeys gig. In Death Valley. I stink to high heaven. All I needed was a can of Special Brew and a dog on a string and the image would have been complete.

Then again: nobody has complained yet. I guess I must have a fine musk – it would explain all the looks of love I keep getting because if anyone seriously has a thing for greasy ginger hair, they’ve got some serious issues.

I made it! I made the train back to Vienna!!

It means nothing to me… OH VI-ENNA!

I took up residence in the train toilet, and washed myself with water and wetwipes. I brushed my teeth and changed my clothes. Like the bloke from Little Britain, I felt like a new man. Although… I should really have invested in some tongs to deal with my underwear.

In the morning, I would wake in Feldkirch on the border of Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

I had won.



VIDEO: Last Exit To Serbia! (2007)

VIDEO: Last Exit To Serbia! (2007)

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!!



Day 1,450: All The Old Turks

Day 1,450: All The Old Turks

Thu 20.12.12:

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.

Grr…

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.

The End of the World in more ways than one.