Balkan Odyssey Part 24: The End

The ending of any vacation is always a sad affair. Sure, it’s nice to return home after a long time on the road, but a little piece of me always dies when leaving a place that has brought me so much joy and adventure.

The Balkans turned out to be far better than I had expected. Although much of the region is still very synonymous with war and tragedy, the people are moving on, becoming part of a greater Europe from which they strayed during a painful bout with communism and an even more painful one with post-communism.

For the most part, tourists have stayed far away from the Balkans. The civil wars, riots, and ethnic cleansing that plagued the region during the 1990s were simply not good PR for the local tourism industry. Visitors are just now starting to trickle back to Croatia, but places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania still evoke fear amongst outsiders and therefore continue to remain off the beaten path.

I’m happy to have been part of a short-lived era where so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, scenic coastlines, rugged mountains, and warm, friendly people are simply being overlooked by the rest of the world. This won’t last for long. Economies will improve, infrastructures will be built up, and wars will eventually be forgotten. Tourists will then invade en masse and alter the region in so many good and so many bad ways. But, for the moment, the Balkans remain unadulterated and true to themselves.

I hope in writing this 24-part series that I’ve been able to inspire others to follow suit, to take a chance and venture forth into lands where bullet holes and charred buildings outnumber McDonalds and Starbucks; where vacant beaches and soulful mountains are devoid of fancy resorts; where medieval walled cities prohibit cars from driving within; where cheese and bread are made by local farmers that very morning, and finally, where time itself seems mired in a peaceful eddy of Old World charm.

(Yesterday’s Post: Final Stop, Gallbrunn, Austria)

Balkan Odyssey Part 23: Final Stop, Gallbrunn, Austria

The final stop of my very long Balkan Tour was the small town of Gallbrunn, Austria which is nowhere near the Balkans.

I had come here to visit my girlfriend’s hometown and stayed to enjoy the charm of a small farming community about half an hour east of Vienna. Gallbrunn is the typical, small village populated with one church, one grocery store, and two pubs/restaurants. A small road cuts through the center and is lined on either side by traditional farmers’ houses. Each has a large gateway to accommodate farm equipment and livestock. On either side of the gate are two wings of a home, one of which traditionally houses the parents, while the other houses the family of the eldest child. Such living arrangements have passed down through the generations and continue today.

My girlfriend and I stayed in the house in which her father was born and in whose basement he and his mother hid from the Russian army in the closing days of World War II. The other side has been converted into the town’s only shop, which is amicably run by the wonderful Doris Glatzer. Be sure to stop by and ask, “Haben Sie Schnapps?”

For such a small town, I was surprise to discover the very fine Landgasthof (hotel) Muhr, a popular weekend escape for Viennese looking for a little country relaxation. The hotel’s accompanying restaurant is superb and has a fantastic wine cellar. In fact, the whole region is quite well-known for the spectacular wines it produces. As you drive along the country roads, wine cellars are built into the hillsides like little hobbit houses.

A popular evening activity is to visit a local Heurigen where one can taste such wines. We went on a Sunday night with Doris and her husband, Franz pictured above. The outdoor restaurant, located amongst a wide swath of fields, is like a beer garden without the garden. Long tables and benches line a patio filled with local farmers dressed up in their Sunday best trying out the various wines and having a jolly old time. You may have never heard of Austrian wine, but let me assure you, it is quite excellent, and very affordable.

The Heurigen also serves food. Schnitzel is, of course, on the menu, as was a mouthwatering pork roast, dumpling and sauerkraut special that was simply delicious.

Certainly the highlight of my time here was being invited into the homes of some of the locals. In traditional European fashion, the schnapps and/or wine comes out in a hurry, followed soon thereafter by food and great conversation. European hospitality is so very,… very hospitable. I love it! Immersing myself in the small town feel of provincial Austria was simply a wonderful way of ending my travels.

Yesterday’s Post: Hungary?!?! That’s not in the Balkans!
Tomorrow’s Post: The End

Balkan Odyssey Part 22: Hungary?!?! That’s not in the Balkans!

Sometimes when you travel by the seat of your pants, things work out wonderfully. Other times, they don’t.

I usually have a pretty good idea of the places I plan to visit on any given journey. But as my Balkan Odyssey was winding down, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in Split, Croatia wondering how we were going to get to Vienna where she had to do some business and I had to catch my flight home. I had some rough itineraries in my head, but as is often the case while traveling, we were woefully short of time.

So, we decided to fly part way to save some time and then take the train onwards, stopping somewhere along the route.

It seemed like a good plan, and a convenient one. We woke at 9:30, walked to the Croatian Airlines bus stop just down the street from our hotel, rode the bus to the airport, grabbed our 12:05 flight ($83 each), landed in Zagreb at 1 p.m., took the Croatian Airlines bus to the center of town, and grabbed a taxi to the train station where we immediately met two Irish girls who had left Split on the early morning train and had beaten us there. Damn!

Since we were heading north towards Austria, and my guidebooks only covered the Balkan countries, I asked to borrow their Lonely Planet Europe. After a quick perusal of the cities that lay between Zagreb and Vienna we settled on Koszeg, a small Hungarian town of 12,000 that promised to have a very nice, medieval town center (above photo).

Our first indication of trouble occurred at the train station in Szombathely where we made our final connection. The train onwards to Koszeg wasn’t located on one of the main lines, but Track A, just off to the side. It was a rickety old train all nasty and stained and full of flies. The provincial line moved very slowly, dropping people off at various small villages along the way.

Koszeg was the end of the line. Literally. By the time we reached our destination, only a couple of people were left on board and they quickly disappeared. The train station itself was tiny, vacant and very weathered. It had a small waiting room with an ancient, ceramic stove which served as a heater. I could just picture a couple of World War II soldiers wrapped in blankets warming themselves next to that stove; nothing had changed here in the last fifty years.

Before stepping out of the station, we paused for a moment to check out the train schedule so that we’d know when to leave the next day. As we were looking it over, the only person in the whole station wandered over and asked us in very poor German if he could help. After chatting a few moments about the trains, he eventually asked us what were doing there. He seemed a bit surprised to see a couple of tourists in his home town.

After stepping out of the train station, we asked ourselves the same question.

We were somewhere on the outskirts of town. There was almost nothing around except a pub across the street and a road which stretched off in both directions. There were no taxis, buses, or even any people for that matter. A bit puzzled, we walked across to the bar where I asked the barman to call us a taxi. After dialing a couple of times, he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head no.


So, we decided to stand on the side of the road, just outside the bar and wait to see if a taxi happened to drive by. The only problem was that there was hardly any traffic at all. One of the first cars to roll past us was an old Russian Lada with a mattress tied to the roof. Inside were two gypsy men who stared at us an uncomfortably long time, and then swung by a few minutes later to do it again.

A short while later, a car stopped about a hundred yards away. I had been looking in the opposite direction and when I turned back, I was a bit alarmed to see a man and a bicycle lying on the ground just in front of the car. At first I thought the car had hit him, but when the driver stepped out, helped the man up and then drove off, I realized I was wrong; he had crashed on his own. I watched as the man climbed back on his bike and then slowly weaved his way down the road towards us until he peddled by, bleary-eyed and piss-drunk on what was obviously a girl’s bike with large, high rise handlebars.

It was at about this time that another drunk came reeling out of the bar. He was young, perhaps in his mid twenties. He tried striking up a conversation but unfortunately all he spoke was Hungarian. This didn’t stop him from trying to speak with us, however, with the muddled, drunken belief that if he repeated something enough times, we’d miraculously start understanding Hungarian.

He did make one attempt at English. “Red. Hot. Chili. Peppers,” he said proudly, and thrust a grubby finger at my girlfriend’s red shirt to show us that he understood at least one of the words in the band’s name.

It didn’t take long for Friendly Drunk to become Irritating Drunk. He wouldn’t shut up and he wouldn’t leave us alone. And, he grew uncomfortably more leering.

Even worse, dusk was quickly approaching; the 45 minutes we’d already spent in Koszeg was more than enough time to realize that this was not a place we’d want to be stranded in the dark with all of our luggage and no place to go. So, we did the only logical thing left to do; we turned around, crossed the street, and caught the last train out of town.

The train took us back to Szombathely where we grabbed a taxi and asked to be taken to the nearest hotel. It was dark by this time and we saw almost none of the town as the taxi driver weaved his way through the tree-lined Hungarian streets. We knew nothing about Szombathely and were a bit worried about the type of dive he’d take us to. But, when we finally pulled up to the hotel, it turned out to be the four-star Hotel Claudius–a very welcome respite with an extraordinarily friendly, English speaking staff.

We dropped our bags off in a beautiful, clean room ($60) that seemed so much farther away than a mere hour train ride from Koszeg, and then popped downstairs to the hotel’s swanky restaurant where we inhaled some excellent food and wine.

Early the next morning, we caught the first train to Vienna, having seen nothing of Koszeg or Szombathely other than some provincial drunks and a four-star hotel.

The joys of Hungary will have to wait until another trip.

Yesterday’s Post: Split, Croatia
Tomorrow’s Post: Final Stop, Gallbrunn, Austria

Balkan Odyssey Part 21: Split, Croatia

I’m sorry to say but Split, Croatia was my second-least favorite town I visited on this trip (just edging out Shkodra, Albania).

Split is not a horrible place by any means, but it did take a while to warm up to. My girlfriend and I had arrived after a long bus trip from Mostar and were a bit taken back by all the hustle and bustle. Split is a large port town with enormous ferries pulling in and out at all hours. The bus station and train station are right next to the port making transfers easy but congestion a real nightmare.

We escaped as quickly as we could to a fine little hotel about a quarter mile from old town called Villa Ana (Vrh Lucac 16, Tel. 021/482-715) and then rushed off to what turned out to be the best Italian food we had all trip at Restaurant Šperun (Šperun 3, Tel. 021/346-999).

The main attraction in Split is yet another old town completely enclosed by thick stone walls. After visiting Dubrovnik and Kotor, I suppose I got a bit spoiled because Split’s old town was a little disappointing. I can’t exactly explain why, other than the fact that we visited shortly after seeing two of the best walled cities on this planet. Had we gone to Split first, I’m sure I would have like it a lot more. It just seemed a bit too modern and Disney-like and tourist-friendly.

As the sun started to go down and the tourists thinned out, however, I slowly began to warm up to the old town. The feeling began while we were exploring the underground passages (above) which riddle the foundations of Old Town.

Old Town is actually a palace built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century AD to serve as his retirement home. And what a home it was.

The architecture, however, can be heavy and brutish, although it oddly becomes somewhat endearing as the night arrives.

The more we wandered in the evening, the more cozy little bars and tiny alleyways revealed themselves. This was especially true near the back northern wall where we found an unnamed restaurant in the most perfect little courtyard.

Just down another alleyway, not so far away, tables had sprung up in a small square and a man and woman with guitars were singing to a smartly dressed crowd of mostly locals. The lights were dim and shadows danced on the ancient stone which surrounded us.

Hmm. I guess Split isn’t so bad after all.

Yesterday’s Post: Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Tomorrow’s Post: Hungary?!?! That’s Not in the Balkans!

Balkan Odyssey Part 20: Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

I’ve learned over the course of my travels that those “trouble spots” which make the news often stay lodged in the public consciousness far longer than such spots actually remain troubled.

With this in mind, I was a little concerned about talking my girlfriend into detouring our travel plans to include a visit to Bosnia. So, I broached the topic by showing her some photos of Mostar similar to the one above and touting its beauty and history. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, after she decided it might be a cool place to visit, that I let her know it was actually in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Getting there proved quite easy. We grabbed the 3 p.m. Dubrovnik bus from Kotor, Montenegro and headed north along the fjord towards the Croatian border. The main bus line which connects the major coastal cities of Montenegro with Dubrovnik is a surprisingly comfortable, cheap, and convenient way to travel the region. We were a little concerned, however, because our connecting bus in Dubrovnik was schedule to leave at 5:15, just ten minutes after we were supposed to arrive. Unfortunately, we were 15 minutes late. As my girlfriend went running through the terminal to see if the bus was still there and I grabbed our stuff out of the baggage hold, I noticed our driver remove the Dubrovnik placard from the front of the bus and replace it with one that said Kotor. What luck; we were already on the bus!

So we jumped back on board and continued heading north along the beautiful Croatian coastline. Eventually we forked off and the bus headed inland through miles of fields and farmlands and across the Bosnia & Herzegovina border.

It was getting towards evening when the bus finally pulled into the dismal looking Mostar bus station. Since my girlfriend was still a little concerned about the whole Bosnia thing, and I felt a bit bad about dragging her here, I decided to check us into the nicest hotel in town, the four-star Hotel Bevanda.

It was all shiny and clean, but more than half a mile from the historic center. We ordered some food from the restaurant since we hadn’t eaten all day and this is when I realized why I so often hate fancy hotels. Although the food was good, the hotel was soulless and without character; we could have been sitting in any hotel on this planet. We were insulated from the surrounding city and there was almost no way to tell where, in fact, we were.

After dinner we walked to the center and came across another hotel, one which had been highly recommended in Lonely Planet. Motel Kriva Cuprija was what a hotel should be like. It was built of stone, like the surrounding old town, and sat astride a narrow rushing river. The owner was a young, energetic local who had spent time in Germany working in the hotel industry (but apparently hadn’t learned that “motel” doesn’t have a very good connotation in English). His place was immaculate, centrally located, and charming–although the rooms were a little small. Fortunately there was a cancellation and we were able to move in the next morning.

Mostar is a fantastic little town rich with Ottoman influences. It is most famously known for the ancient bridge which spans the Neretva River and connects the Bosnian half of the city to the Croat half. The famous bridge was commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century and stretched triumphantly across the gorge for 427 years. Sadly, by the 20th century it had become the poignant symbol of a horrific war which ripped apart this region. It was almost impossible to watch the news or open a newspaper during this time without coming across images of the old bridge festooned with tires in an attempt to prevent it from being destroyed. The daily news vigil kept the world updated to the bridge’s status and when it finally exploded and fell into the river, the international community collectively mourned along with those who live here.

The bridge was blown up in 1993 (check out the depressing footage here) but eventually rebuilt in 2004 to the exact same specifications. Every July a diving competition that has been going on for hundreds of years is held here–although it wasn’t until 2004 that the event finally received its first corporate sponsor: Red Bull.

Standing at its highest point and looking down 70 feet to the water is a bit unnerving and yet I found myself wondering if I could do it. The hot weather was certainly beckoning me to do so, but I had a feeling that the “professionals” who collect money from tourists and then dive off would probably have chucked rocks at me.

On either side of the bridge, a narrow cobblestone lane winds past numerous little shops tightly pushed together like a Turkish bazaar. It was a little disappointing to see that nearly every single one was crammed full of tourist knickknacks such as jewelry, handicrafts, and t-shirts.

There are also many items made from copper. The traditional copper workers who have been plying their trade on this street for centuries have recently incorporated a new item into their repertoire. In a slightly morbid twist, they are etching intricate designs onto shell casings left over from the war.

There are also some very nice galleries and paintings to be found here, although it does get a bit tiring seeing the same old bridge rendered in a thousand different styles.

Other than the shiny new stone of the rebuilt bridge it is hard to imagine that this little slice of Ottoman history was shelled so heavily just over ten years ago. Everything has been nicely put back together again, but if you wander just a block to the west, and walk along Maršala Tita, you will come across a number of gutted buildings copiously plastered with bullet holes. Even more sobering is the small cemetery lined with headstones, nearly all of which bear the same year of death.

One doesn’t linger too long in the war-torn parts of town. Instead, we found ourselves frequently enjoying cool drinks in the numerous bars and cafes which line the hills on either side of the old bridge. Soaking up the wonderful atmosphere of this ancient place dominated our time here.

Yesterday’s Post: Kotor, Europe’s Southernmost Fjord
Tomorrow’s Post: Split, Croatia