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 train to the delightfully-named Ljubljana was a typically ramshackle affair (man I miss them Turkish buses) but it did the job and by the evening, I was sitting enjoying a solitary beer in the Death Bar on the banks of the Ljunljanica river. They say this place was founded by Jason of the Argonauts, which would be awesome if only it were true.
Ljubljana is quite possibly my favourite European city, I don’t know why, there’s just a feeling it gives me, it radiates from the architecture, the statues, the bridges… a feeling like I belong. Of course, for a journeyman such as myself anywhere I hang my hat is home for the night, but – oh I don’t know – Ljubljana is just the right size and the right shape and the right look for me… it’s a Goldilocks thing and I’m not explaining it too well, but scratch this place down alongside Liverpool, New York and Melbourne as a place I could quite happily hang up my backpack for a few years.
I could press on to Italy tonight, but I think I’m going to kick back for the next few days… I’ve just heard from my mum that Algeria won’t be giving me my passport back until WEDNESDAY at the earliest. This is not good news by any means. I’m stuck, I’m really stuck and the only thing I can think to do is just to head down to Tunisia anyway and hang about like a bad smell until I find a Lost-style loophole that will allow me to enter fortress Algeria or Libya for five minutes without the mountain of paperwork and months of waiting usually required….
I just want to step over the border, for heavens sake! The messing about getting back to Tunisia and all the visa malarky is going to cost me well in excess of 500 quid. Just to go to two countries out of two hundred. I’ve got a few buttons and a piece of string left in my bank account and (very) soon I’ll be breaking into my overdraft… and then my credit cards…
Overtime and overbudget, my only hope for having enough cash or exposure to finish this adventure is if the powers that be allow me to release my bulging sack of YouTube videos… something they don’t seem willing (or able) to do. Now I know how Terry Gilliam feels. I like New York in June, how about you…?
December 25, 2011 by Graham
Filed under Albania, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, England, Featured, France, Hungary, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland, The Netherlands
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.
The End of the World in more ways than one.