It was a dark and stormy night on the Adriatic. “’The sea was angry that day, my friends,’” said Rich, quoting the Seinfeld episode where George plays a marine biologist. “’Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.’” We were reeling about the pitching ferry, trying to find our mini-cabin in its lower depths. “You do realize,” he added, “that we’re actually below the cars and cargo? We’re in steerage.”
We were sleeping in a six- by twelve-foot closet with two stacked bunks, a sink the size of a salad bowl, and nothing else. Well, sleeping is a bit of an exaggeration; we spent the night there, dozing fitfully, praying the tiny railings would hold and we wouldn’t go hurtling to the floor. Around two in the morning, when a trip to the bathrooms became necessary, we lurched through a series of heaving corridors, stumbling and crashing into walls, hoping we wouldn’t be flung bodily through anyone’s door. It was like trying to walk on the back of a bucking bronco, but with handrails.
"Imagine weeks of this on the Atlantic,” I gasped.
“Now I know why my grandmother vowed she’d never cross the ocean again,” said Rich.
We were on deck at dawn, thrilled to see solid land on the horizon, even the unlovely harbor of Bari, which had clearly chosen the profits of shipping and petrochemicals over quaintness and charm. Leaving the cranes and silos behind and heading into the old quarter, we seemed to be the only non-locals about, which suited us just fine.
On that bright, windy morning following the storm, every balcony was aflutter with sheets and flapping clothes, occasionally pinwheels as well. Doors stood wide open, and we saw cobblers tapping on boot heels, tailors stitching, women gossiping as their fingers shaped the little ears of pasta known as orecchiette, which they spread on mesh trays to dry in the midday sun.
Our next port of call was Barletta, another town where industrialization helps keep the tourist hordes at bay. We wanted to pay homage to the town’s most famous resident, The Colossus, an ancient bronze statue standing 5 meters (16 feet) tall. No one is quite sure who he was – a fifth-century Roman emperor maybe? – or how he got to Barletta – washed up on shore after the sack of Constantinople perhaps? But everyone agrees he’s the guy who saved the city.
According to ancient legend, when the Saracens were about to invade, The Colossus went down to the harbor and stood on the shore, weeping. “Why are you crying?” the Saracens asked. “Because I am so much smaller and weaker than everyone else in this city,” he moaned. Terrified at the prospect of fighting an army of giants, the Saracens rowed back to their ships with all due haste and left Barletta in peace. And I am sure every word of that story is true...
En route to our last stop, Pompeii, we decided to visit Naples, mainly because so many people had warned us against it. And it turned out to be everything we’d heard: dirty, noisy, crowded, chaotic. As our taxi roared down the wrong side of the street along the trolley tracks, honking at anyone who stopped at a red light, we saw a city as vibrant as the back streets of Asia, as zany as a street market in Mexico, and as quirky as San Francisco’s Height-Asbury during the summer of love (but as it turned out, with much better food). Within five minutes we had abandoned all thought of going to Pompeii and spent the next few days absorbing the madcap atmosphere of a city that refuses to conform to anyone else’s standards or expectations.
Then it was time for an overnight ferry (smooth as glass! in our own stateroom!) to Barcelona and a high-speed train to Seville. I’m still getting over my train lag; I keep having urges to head to the station and board a train for somewhere. But mostly I’m simply delighted to be home, sifting through memories of the trip, and mulling over all the stories and travel tips I’ll be sharing with you in the months ahead.
Yes, I've got lots more photos of Southern Italy. And for more about the journey – planning, packing, things we've learned, how many miles we traveled, etc. – see Train Trip/Central & Eastern Europe.
“I’ve been on the road for six months,” said Denise, an Irishwoman I met in the Czech Republic. “Sure, that last town was pretty, but at this point, for me to say a place is special, it would have to be dipped in gold.” Now, after three months of travel, I know just what Denise meant. Every few days Rich and I haul out the map and start Googling destination options. And I find myself saying things like, “Well, it’s got a 12th century cathedral, an old town that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, the miraculously preserved dead body of a saint, opera in a Roman coliseum, and a two-hundred-foot waterfall … but nothing special.”
As it happens, “nothing special” is exactly how most people describe Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital. So when our route included a brief overnight stay there, I didn’t bother to do much research ahead of time. Our train pulled in late on a rainy afternoon, and after checking into our hotel, we took a stroll around the modest neighborhood, which held a few tree-lined streets, a desultory collection of shops and cafés, and a plaza with a fountain. The next morning I asked the desk clerk for a map so we could explore the city.
“There is no map,” she said.
“OK,” I replied. “Can you direct us to the center of the city?”
She looked at me strangely and said, “This is the center of the city.”
Seriously? “OK, then could you recommend anything for us to do?”
She thought for a moment. “You could go to a café and have a coffee.”
Let the good times roll…
After that underwhelming build-up, I was pleasantly surprised by Podgorica’s geography. The city is built around a winding river flanked by lush parks, and distant hills provide a dramatic backdrop. But the urban landscape is crowded with hulking concrete buildings that range from underwhelming to astonishingly hideous examples of the Brutalist style that was such a hot fad among mid-century totalitarian regimes. “The setting is really quite nice,” I said to Rich. “If they ever figure out how to exploit the natural beauty around here, tourists will flock to Montenegro.”
I soon learned the Montenegrins were way ahead of me on this. Arriving at the wonderfully picturesque medieval port of Kotor, Rich and I could hardly squeeze through the town’s gate, so thick were the throngs of sightseers from the massive cruise ship anchored just offshore. “This? This isn’t crowded,” a local boatman told me the next day. “Sometimes we have as many as four big cruise ships, and several smaller ones – they bring maybe 10,000 people a day to the town.” With just 13,510 people living in Kotor, that’s practically a one-to-one tourist-to-resident ratio.
“I think they’ve figured out how to exploit the natural beauty around here,” Rich said.
Overwhelmed by the throngs, we fled Kotor, hopping a local bus to another coastal town, Herceg Novi, the one-time home of blogger friends Ang and Ryan of Jets LIke Taxis, who told us it was a must-see. As we stepped off the bus, we could hear riotous singing from a caffe-bar called Orange adjacent to the station. Someone was playing recordings of Montenegrin folk music, and half a dozen men were raising their glasses and their voices in a haze of patriotic fervor. Rich and I wandered on through the town, admiring the spectacular scenery and stopping at an outdoor café to restore ourselves with grilled fish and a local chardonnay. Arriving back at the bus station, we found the men still singing lustily. “These are hardy folk indeed,” I remarked.
With half an hour to wait, and the bus station lacking such frivolous luxuries as benches or rest rooms, we inevitably wound up at the Orange Caffe-Bar. Within two minutes of our arrival, the party animals bought us a round, and after that it seemed only courteous to buy them a round and join them in singing and pounding out the songs’ rhythm on the bar with our hands and glasses.
“Hoopa! Hoopa!” shouted the impromptu DJ, and somebody jumped on the bar and started dancing.
Eventually our bus arrived, and – it being the last one of the night – we had to tear ourselves away. But not before several of the men shook Rich’s hand and kissed me on the cheek. One fellow asked, “Where you from?” When I told him, he said, “Go and tell them. Tell all the people about what you saw here!”
I am only too happy to comply. Because it may not have been dipped in gold, but to me, Herceg Novi and its people will always be something very special indeed.
Belgrade is a city that knows how to keep its secrets. The underground bar we were seeking had two different names, the street it was on ceased to exist years ago, and while our map was in standard Roman lettering, the street names, if posted at all, were in Cyrillic. Naturally almost none of the buildings had a street number. However, such is the power of the Internet that we managed to discover that Улица 29 новембра (29 Novembra Street) had transformed itself into Булеван Деспота Стефана (Bulevan Despota Stefan) and by counting carefully we eventually arrived at an apartment block with a big, black, unmarked, wrought-iron gate and a doorbell discreetly labeled “Federal Association of Globe Trotters.” We were pretty sure this was the place, even though we’d been looking for the World Travelers' Club. Translations are always a bit slippery.
After that we simply had to press the doorbell, wait for the gate to buzz open, walk through the echoing lobby of the apartment building, make our way down some dimly lit stairs, find the yellow door standing slightly ajar, push it open, and enter. Inside was one of the coolest bars I’ve ever seen, dimly lit and gorgeously decorated in around-the-world memorabilia and grandma’s attic cast-offs. The fact that it was one of the city’s secret drinking dens added a small, clandestine thrill.
The speakeasy atmosphere harks back to the days of the Balkan wars, when it was imprudent to be overheard expressing anti-Milosevic sentiments, and hip young dissidents wanted to gather to discuss their political views in safe, congenial surroundings with a fully stocked bar.
Today, in the free and democratic Republic of Serbia, such secrecy is no longer necessary, but the habit of flying under the radar seems deeply imbedded in the local psyche. Just getting to Belgrade had been a challenge due to the almost total lack of signage on our train; we had a hard time identifying the sleeping car, let alone our compartment. And weren’t we surprised to discover that contrary to what we’d heard, there were no private compartments on this overnight run from Sofia to Belgrade. Each compartment held six bunks, and we might be sharing the six-by-seven-foot (1.8 x 2.1 meter) space with as many as four strangers. Where some overnight trains helpfully post signs indicating which beds are reserved, those in charge of the Sofia-Belgrade run would never willingly divulge that kind of hush-hush information. So at each of the 13 stops during the long, long night, I waited for roommates to come barreling into the tiny space. By some miracle – and the fact Mondays are less popular travel nights – we lucked out and had the place to ourselves.
Upon arrival, it seemed as if everyone in Belgrade was speaking in code. I’d heard numerous references to a district called “Silicon Valley” and assumed the city had some sort of high-tech industrial zone. It was days before I learned that this nickname referred to the silicon implants favored by many of the female patrons of an upscale district known for its slick, trendy bars.
Then there’s the ? bar. Its previous name, Cathedral Tavern, reflected its proximity to the Orthodox cathedral of St. Sava and roused the ire of the clergy, who felt using a sacred name for such a worldly establishment was bordering on sacrilege. I gather there was a spirited exchange of opinions on the matter, but eventually the owner capitulated and agreed to come up with something else. To give himself time to mull the matter over, he posted the question mark as a temporary solution, and it has remained in place since 1878.
Belgrade boasts some outstanding bars, restaurants, and cafes with off-the-wall atmosphere and great food and drinks at a fraction of what you’d pay in Western European or American cities. Of course, the mystery surrounding many of them just adds to the fun. When I posted photos of some of my favorites on my Facebook page, several people wrote in asking how I managed to find these esoteric eateries and gin joints. So I am going to let you in on a closely guarded trade secret: All this info came from Lonely Planet and the free walking tour. I did a little additional research via Google, eventually finding the website for the Federal Association of Globe Trotters (yes, even speakeasies have websites nowadays!) and articles such as Belgrade’s Secret Bars in the Financial Times online edition.
No doubt Belgrade has countless more secrets it has managed to keep hidden from Lonely Planet, Google, and the tour guides, and I hope some day to return and unravel a few more. In the meantime, I’m blessed with many fond memories of the city, including this enigmatic sign on my train out of town, a last reminder that Belgrade is a city that knows how to keep you befuddled right up to the last moment.
Rich and I are in the final phase of our three-month train journey around Central and Eastern Europe. So far we've traveled 5875 km (3650 miles) by rail, 859 km (534 miles) by ferry, 176 km (109 miles) by bus, and 10 km (6 miles) by horse-drawn cart. We've slept in 31 beds (counting overnight train and ferry berths), eaten in countless restaurants, and have far more stories to tell than will fit on this blog.
Want to see more? Check out my photos of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
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“Sorry about the smell,” said our hostess, leading us into a large, chilly apartment that stank of sewage. “There is nothing we can do about it.” She flung open a window, and the temperature began to plummet. “Unfortunately there is no heat. Heat is controlled by the building, and they have not yet turned it on for the year. Let me know if you need more blankets.” There were two cheap ones in the cupboard, none on the bed. Temperatures were predicted to drop below freezing during the night. “I must hurry, I am parked illegally.” And she was gone.
Rich and I were in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and having just spent three days roughing it in the mountains, we’d been looking forward to such luxuries as heat and comfortable places to sit and work. I looked around the vast apartment. A few pieces of shabby, uncomfortable-looking furniture huddled disconsolately in the corners. A cheap, fake-wood coffee table with a missing leg leaned against the wall like a dying bug. “It’s a flop-house for nightcrawlers,” I said.
Since leaving home two months ago, we’ve slept in 25 beds in hotels, apartments, guest houses, hostels, night trains, and a ferry. We loved our charming bohemian attic in Prague, the Count’s guest house in Transylvania, our trendy modern flat in Bucharest, and our various other temporary homes.
We’ve found some of our best (and cheapest) through AirBnB, a website that connects individual owners with short-term renters and provides ratings and reviews that (usually) prevent hideous surprises. Checking their website a few days in advance, we look for location, features, and amenities (e.g. WiFi, heat). We read the reviews, pick five, and contact the hosts to see which are available. We try to read between the lines (rustic can mean fewer amenities) and look for omissions (no photos of the bathroom doesn't bode well). In the case of The Stinker, the clues were there, we just didn't pick up on them in time.
There were no AirBnB rentals in our first stop in Bulgaria, the border town of Ruse. Our modestly priced hotel surprised us by scattering rose petals across the tasseled bed linens, providing fresh fruit and chocolates, and serving breakfast in a dining room with crushed-velvet armchairs studded with diamonds. The clientele included lots of pretty young women with prosperous older men. “Isn’t it nice seeing so many fathers taking their daughters to breakfast,” Rich remarked. I was surprised the breakfast buffet didn’t consist entirely of oysters and chocolate.
Leaving behind the fleshpots of Ruse, we traveled to Bulgaria’s former capital, Veliko Tarnovo, known for its dramatic ruins and mountain scenery. We stayed in a hostel, springing for the 21€ ($28) private room with bath instead of the dormitory. There was a notable lack of rose petals, chocolates, diamonds, or heat in the bedrooms. But the dining hall was toasty warm, and over breakfast and dinner we spent many happy hours in conversation with interesting travelers from around the world.
Heading south to Sofia, I was immediately charmed by the city’s trendy shops, upscale cafes, and lively street life. Arriving at our rental, I wasn’t daunted by the graffiti-covered front door, knowing that the best apartments often lie behind underwhelming, even grisly exteriors. Minutes later, Rich and I were alone in the cold, smelly apartment – immediately dubbed “The Stinker” – regarding our new, pre-paid digs with dismay.
“If we’re going to be this cold and uncomfortable,” I said, “we might as well sleep in the train station.”
We left our bags in the flat, attached to the radiator (a basic security precaution which seemed doubly advisable there) and went out in search of alternatives. It took us about ten minutes to find a nearby hotel that was perfect. Well, maybe not perfect unless you like smoky glass, glitzy wallpaper, and breakfasts of instant coffee and cardboard muesli, but the room was cozy, warm, comfy, and smelled of roses.
And the happy ending doesn’t stop there; we got a full refund on The Stinker. The beauty of AirBnB is that both guests and hosts provide evaluations, enforcing fair play for those who want to continue in the system. Guests who make endless frivolous complaints find fewer people willing to rent to them. In our case, The Stinker’s owner returned our payment without a fuss to avoid a negative review.
As I write this, we’ve just stepped off the overnight train from Sofia to Belgrade, Serbia, and in a few hours will settle in to another AirBnB apartment. Wish us luck!
I’ll let you know how it smells.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never obtain any free services or products in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know about stuff we've learned that has made our travel lives easier, more comfortable, and more fun.
The communists have a lot to answer for, not least of which is their brutal architectural style. In Bucharest, Romania, hideous, concrete, Soviet-style apartment blocks blight the downtown landscape, often mashed up against some genteel old Victorian with filigree, turrets, and an air of being appalled to find itself in such rough company.
Of course, when it comes to architectural monstrosities, nothing in the city compares to the Palace of the People, Nicholae Ceausescu’s monument to his own unbridled ego, built at a cost of somewhere north of $4 billion at a time when his people were starving.
The keen observer will note that Ceausescu chose a let-them-eat-cake style of architecture for his 1100-room palace, which is filled with reception halls the size of cathedrals, an enormous balcony for addressing the populace, and a main staircase that was rebuilt three times so that it would more precisely match the size of his feet. The staircase came out perfectly, but the timing was off, and in 1989, before the building was completed, there was a revolution, and Ceausescu was deposed and executed. More than 200 soldiers volunteered to be on the firing squad.
So as it turned out, the first person to use the massive balcony wasn’t Ceausescu but Michael Jackson. In town for a concert, the King of Pop stepped out to greet his fans, waved and said, “It’s great to be here in Budapest!” He wasn’t the first to mix up the names of Budapest (the capital of Hungary) and Bucharest (the capital of Romania and the place he happened to be standing at the time). Nor was he the last. Just about everyone from the lead singers of Iron Maiden and Metallica to Ozzy Osbourne and Lenny Kravitz has stood up before cheering crowds and misidentified the city. Last year 400 Spanish sports enthusiasts chartered a plane to attend the Europa League final but found themselves 397 miles from the action when they landed in Budapest by mistake. Arriving at the correct location for the game, a British announcer started off his program with an enthusiastic, “Good evening, Budapest!”
Clearly something had to be done, and ROM, a Romanian candy maker, decided to step in and clear up the confusion, launching a “Bucharest Not Budapest” campaign with t-shirts, billboards, and the name of Romania's capital clearly stamped into each chocolate bar. When a certain well-known singer was scheduled to appear, an enormous billboard was put up in the main square, saying, “Hello, Bruce! How was your flight? Kind reminder for tonight: It’s “Hello, Bucharest,” not Budapest. You didn’t start the confusion, but maybe you can help end it. Thanks.” I believe he got the message.
Rich and I spent a week in Bucharest, and it was love at fourth sight. Having spent three weeks enjoying the storybook beauty of Romania’s smaller cities and rural villages, it took us a little while to look past the brutal apartment blocks, massive tangles of electrical wires, decaying old buildings, and graffiti to see the charm. But we now know Bucharest as a city that has survived just about everything, cherishes the best of its old traditions, and knows how to take life as it comes, with a joke, a swig of homemade plum brandy, and an arm around your shoulder. This is one of the friendliest cities we’ve ever encountered. We were welcomed everywhere, are leaving many new friends behind, and hope to return again soon.
We even learned a bit of Romanian. Spelled phonetically, hello is “bon jour,” good evening is “buena sera,” thanks is “merci,” house is “casa.” and the word for carp is "crap." (See, you've been speaking Romanian for years and didn't even know it!) The ease of picking up useful phrases was just one more reason we hated to say goodbye, which is an Italianesque “arrevaderi.” Now we’re on the road again in a new city and a new country, and are doing our best to greet it properly with “Здравей, България!” (Hello, Bulgaria!)
For more photos of Bucharest, click here.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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