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06 April 2010

Easter 2010 - 4 days 4 countries

Good Friday: Croatia

So I began my Easter by getting up at 6am and hauling ass to the train station - I was just a little paranoid about missing another train. See I had intended to leave the night before and spend the morning in Slovenia, but while I had written down the times correctly I had it all muddled up in my head and did not double check it. And I arrived at the train station an hour late. But that was okay, I just quickly changed my plan and went home to have one last decent sleep before I left. I had decided to see Eastern Europe after my housemate wisely pointed out that I may never again be so well placed for it. So with this in mind I decided aftger my timetable mishap to skip Slovenia because it is not quite so eastern Europe as the rest of Eastern Europe. Besides, I can't pronounce the name of the capital.

The trip to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was unfortunately rather interesting. At least it started well though. For breakefast I had an Easter Lamb - which sounds a bit weird in English but it is an Austrian tradition. It is cake, sort of. Here there are many sweet things that I would lump all together under the name cake, but I get many objections when I do this. Anyway, in the bakeries before Easter I had been seeing these lambs and I asked what it was, and do you eat it. I thought maybe it was bread. But my friend made some and it turns out that it is some sort of cake, and it's really good. Makes a great breakfast. I will have to get a recipe and the right thing to make it in so that I can make Austrian easter food when I am elsewhere.

So unfortunately after an hour on the train we had to change trains, only instead of a train we were directed onto a bus. Which did not have enough seats. I managed to get one but others had to stand. And we travelled by bus at least an hour. Finally the bus came to another station and the rest of the trip was by train. Perhaps there was something wrong with the track, I don't know. Maybe it is always like that. But the train was a decent one fortunately and the trip was going well. Until the train stopped again. And then it just sat there for about a half an hour and nothing happened. Finally there was a passport check. So I guess that's why we stopped. But did we keep moving after that? No. Eventually someone came and asked for passports again. And then a third time! Plus that last time I was asked if I had any goods to declare. All in all, I think the train was stopped at whatever border station this was for at least an hour.

Finally the train arrived in Zagreb and I had my day sort of planned out - I hadn't really had much time to do reasearch. The first thing to do on arriving in a new place was to get money, the train schedule for leaving and a tourist map - this was easy. I also had the lonely Planet for Eastern Europe, which proved to be absolutely indespensible. It was about 2 0'clock when I arrived and after wandering up to the city center the first thing that I found was the Easter market, below the usual market. It was cute, as these things usually are. Easter tradition in these parts is to decorate eggs (with the insides blown out) and then to hang these on branches and wreaths. The usual market was just produce and flowers, so I skipped that and went to the cathedral. It was of course quite impressive - cathedrals generally are. But like many of the sights that I want to see when I visit new places, it was under reconstruction. I went inside almost all of the churches that I saw but of course with it being Easter they were very crowded. I saw a few other tourists with cameras though so I figured it was ok to go in. There were huge lines for the confessionals.

Next I kept on walking and took a long detour when I missed the correct street to turn down. Zagreb was very well signposted for tourists but you can still lose your way. So I saw all the random buildings instead. And many shops. It is a very nice little city, I would gladly go back. Especially if I had money to blow - it was full of very nice little jewellery shops. And shoe shops. And nice looking (an smelling) places to eat. It had a nice atmosphere. Anyway I found what I was looking for eventually, which was mostly more churches and such. Over here the main things to see are often either to do with religion or royal families of some sort. Zagreb was very full of Easter, with great painted eggs dotted about everywhere. It was once two neighbouring towns that later became one city, so it has two main churches. The big cathedral and another with a colourful tiled roof. And the historic part of the city with all the cobblestones and old buildings is on a hill - strategic location and all that - so of course you can get a very nice view. Sadly there is not actually that much to see. A city is just a city, all you really see here is buildings.

So when I had seen all that I had put down on my list, and all that was recommended by lonely planet, and by my tourist map (except for the musuems, I didn't feel that I had time for that), I was feeling pretty tired. I wandered around a bit more to see the last few big buildings before it got too dark, and then for dinner I could not pass up going to a place named after Hansel & Gretel. And there I got very nice cake and very, very nice ice-cream. And then I was so tired, and the train I had to catch was not until midnight, so to pass the rest of my time in Zagreb I found a warm place to sit in the train station and had a read of my Lonely Planet book, so that I could plan out my next day. It was lucky that I was forced to change my plans for Good Friday I think, because after just Zagreb I was so tired, and if I had done Slovenia in the morning I would have been so shattered, and I would probably not have enjoyed Zagreb so much. One capital city a day is enough.



Zagreb


Saturday: Serbia

As I discovered from later experience, my first overnight train ride, to Belgrade, was quite fortunate. Aside from one slightly smelly, snoring man that joined the compartment I was in. The train was warm, the seats comfortable. I had two seats to make myself comfortable in, and eventually managed to sleep (not much though). Once again the train stopped for a long bout of passport checks. This time at 5 am. Dozing after that only resulted in a sore neck; I should have just stayed awake.

I arrived in Belgrade at 6.30 am and had my first encounter with a hole-in-the-ground toilet. They were clean, luckily, though you do come to expect that when you have to pay to use a bathroom (which is very common over here). But after all of that, when the attendant saw that I wanted to get changed, a key was fetched and a wee room opened for me, and what would you know but it had a real toilet. Still - you can't really say that you have travelled until you've had to put up with a hole-in-the-ground. I wonder though, how rickety old ladies manage it?

So anyway, I began my day by finding the Kalemegdan citadel, which I walked around and through - the great thing about arriving so early in the morning is that there is nobody else hanging around all of these places to get in the way of my photographs. Being such a strategic location, on a hill overlooking the city and rivers, this has been a fortress for a couple of thousand years. Climbing up on the old walls gives some amazing panorama views of the city and the rivers (the Danube and the Sava).

From the citadel I went down and saw the rather plain mosque (the last one left in Belgrade) and the first christian church to be built in Belgrade. Then on to the pedestrian zone, consisting mainly of the street Knez Mihailova (the tourist "hart" of the city) which is full of many examples of nice Hapsburg and Ottoman buildings. So I took photos of many nice buildings, then on to the Cathedral, a small mansion/palace built for some ruler's wife. Of course the thing about all of these Easter countries is that they were once behind the Iron Curtain and under communist rule. And the communist principle involved erecting very ugly, gigantic, dark concrete blocks that they called efficient housing. So you have buildings that are very nice too look at, some of which are similar to what you see here in Vienna, and some that are darker and more gothic but still very impressive, and some of this Art Nouveau stuff (one day I will have to get somebody to explain all these building types to me, you think you have it but some things are so similar). And then you have, in between and all around, these great dirty apartment blocks, some of which tower to crazy heights, and most of which are still inhabited.

So at this point it was still quite early and a had a long day to spend in Belgrade, and thanks to Lonely Planet I had a number of possibilities. Museums were out because it was Saturday, but that was okay because museums are exhausting and not for this power-travelling that I was doing. Instead I crossed the bridge over the Sava and walked along the Danube until I came to a district called Zemun. At the top of a hill, amonst the remnants of a 9th century village and fortress, is a very old church and a not-quite-so-old tower. And another nice view of Belgrade. Unfortunately no view of Belgrade is a great view, it is just a really, really big city. It is so big that even the great monuments, like the Sava church that supposedly dominates the city skyline, actually seem to be quite diminutive. Especially when you notice that it is dwarfed by those ugly communist-era apartment blocks. There is just so much that nothing really stands out.

After Zemun it was about lunchtime and finally the sun came out. It got hot, and then hotter. I got sunburnt of course. My first stop back in the central city was to see the market place. It was not what I was expecting at all - I had thought to find something like Nashmarkt in Vienna, all crowded with nice displays of a huge variety of foods. It was half vegetables and fruit, and half normal everyday stuff - not only cheap clothes but even kitchen appliances and bathroom fittings. It is not a tourist attraction. I guess that is what you get in a poorer, less developed country though. I didn't notice it in Zagreb, but then by the time I got there on Good Friday the market was closing anyway, and I was distracted with the nice Easter market below. Which brings me to another thing - while I saw plenty of Easter in Zagreb there was not really any in Belgrade.

So I moved on and instead of finding the church that I was headed to, I found another (these cities are really just one massive church after another). Then there was a small street with a supposedly great cafe atmosphere - it was not so great unfortunately. Finally I found the st Sava church, Belgrade's Orthodox masterpiece and the world's largest orthodox church. Despite being so iconic it is actually still in the process of being built. You can't really tell from the outside (except for the stacks of marble tiling), but inside it is mostly bare. Then two more churches; St Marks and the Russian Church. Right next to each other which really makes your sight seeing easy. Both were very nice, but I was tired.

Now at this point I was getting very tired, and hot, and exhausted. You see doing this overnight train thing means that there is no need for accommodation (saving me money) but there is also no opportunity of a shower. So what did I do? I had planned on going to a public pool - they have showers. Right? Apparently not. But I had, when this thought first occurred to me during the tiny bit of preparation and planning that I did before my trip, looked it up on Google. And it turns out that it isn't a crazy idea, others do exactly what I have done - and some for much longer periods of time. And the solution to the shower problem: hostels (i.e. backpackers). I couldn't find the first hostel listed in Lonely Planet. Unlike the ease of a large backpackers in NZ here they are often small and several floors up a big, dark building. But I found the second one, and it made my day. The guy working there just invited me in, had absolutely no problems with allowing me to use the bathroom - offered me a drink and gave me a towel. And didn't even charge me anything.If I were to go back to Belgrade I would definately stay there (it is unfortunate that I don't really have any desire to return). So after a shower I felt, for awhile at least, completely refreshed and un-exhausted.

For the evening I made my way back to the pedestrian zone, which was much nicer at this time of day. At the base of the citadel I found a small market, probably primarily for Easter and the tourists, as it was far more like what us westerners consider az market to be. Then up to the lower part of the citadel to catch the sunset (I was far too weary to go up to the top, so I missed the best view, but that's okay). Finally - dinner. Pizza, and then ice-cream. And it was very good ice-cream too. But I must say that after reading that the cafe-culture in Belgrade is "second-to-none" I could not see how it was any better than anywhere else. Plus I thought that Vienna already had that title. Though you do tend to hear the same statements made of many cities.

To end my day in Belgrade was to go back to the train station - I was so tired. I got an empty compartment on the train, but the train was not as nice as the previous ones. Unlike with aeroplanes, it seems that a train can keep on running until it actually falls to pieces. Plus the poor excuse for a bathroom was completely disgusting. And this train was cold. Again at 5 am the stops began. First for passports, one hour. Then a bit later the train stopped again, and they checked passports and tickets - again! By this stage I had begun to realise that here is the big difference between travelling inside the European Union and outside of it. These long stops are just a normality for Eastern Europe. Finally there was a third stop, for some unknown reason. Nobody checked naything that time. So eventually I gave up on sleep and went over my plan my day in Sofia.



Belgrade


Easter Sunday: Bulgaria

I chose to go to Sofia primarily for its pretty name, and only found out what there was to see there later. And I think that Lonely Planet underated it somewhat - I thought that is was a very nice little city as capital cities go. Though the first thing that I found on arriving was probably the most confusing station I have ever come across. The first thing I realised is that I had left the latin alphabet behind, and everything was written in Cyrillic. Luckily, after being woken at 5 am for seemingly interminable passport checks, I took the advice of my guidebook and began to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. It's not so hard as it sounds. And what would you know but I had crossed a time zone, but I luckily saw a clock and knew to change my watch forward (otherwise I would have missed the train to leave).

On my way into the city I first went to the Ladies' Market - like the Belgrade market it was not really worth all the hype. I saw the Synagogue, the largest Serphalic Synagogue in the world, and I even went inside. So now as well as churches, cathedrals and a mosque I have been inside a synagogue. Right next to the synagogue was Tsentrati Hali, a big and very old covered market (which was full of very delicious looking food). Now this one was far more like Vienna's Naschmarkt, only better - minus the cramped crowdedness, plus it had cakes and ice-cream. Then right next to that (everything really was very close together) was the mosque, of a very different style to those I have seen in UAE. Of course it would be far older. I liked it better. So then right next to the mosque was a big old building that used to be the Turkish baths, and was very nice to look at, but closed now. Alongside this though were springs of mineral water where the people fill bottles of water for their homes. It comes out of the taps hot, but once it cools it is really good water.

So now I continued to Sveti Nedalya cathedral, which was not right next door but still very close. On the way I very nearly missed the medieval Svetki Petka church - it is tiny and is mostly buried amonst overpasses and traffic. You get to it through the pedestrian walkway beneath the busy roads. And when I say tiny, I mean it is about the size of a garden shed. the Sveti Nedalya is very large and has very loud bells, and was incredibly crowded so I did not go inside. It was very nice but not so old as many of the others - a church has been there for a very long time but they keep needing to be rubuilt after being ruined by fires and earthquakes. Another church, the St George church, is the oldest intact building in Sofia. Around the church are exposed roman ruins, the remains of their ancient town Serdica. The church hides in the courtyard of a large building block, and to continue on my way towards the Presidential Palace, the next sight on my list, I found that I was actually already standing behind the building. The front of it was nothing special though, just a large building with guards standing outside, looking very serious and marching about at some unseen cue. Next to the Palace is a huge white building with a spire on top called the Party House (as in political parties).

So from here I continued and going down the street (paved in yellow cobblestones - a yellow brick road, just as the guidebook says) I passed first the city park, and the former royal Palace which is now a musuem, and found my way to the Russian Church. Russian churches all seem to be very beautiful, as was this one, with a green roof and a lot of gold. Not right next door, but still not far away, was the Sveti Sofia Church, which is not so much to look at but it is the second oldest church in the city, and one of the oldest and most important in all of southeastern europe, and of course the origin of the city's name. Beneath the church are many ancient tombs and you can see through panels in the floor some of those exposed through archeological work.

Behind the church was a small memorial and tomb to an important figure in the history of the city, and then of course the building that Sofia is primarily know form, the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. It is really massive, as you would expect it to be. I went inside all of these chruches, even though perhaps I should not have with it being Easter and all - they were very crowded with actual worshippers. I did see a few other tourists though. The lines for the confession were huge. The insides of these churches are generally all painted which I think I like better than the big dark gothic cathedrals, like the one here in Vienna. Around the cathdral was a flea-market of sorts, with a lot of antique stuff like jewellery, coins and oddly enough, cameras.

So I kept on walking because I wanted to find the big parks which had memorials to the Soviets and Communism, but the day got very hot and by the time I got there I found that the big memorial, one of the last remnants of the communist statuary because most of it was of course torn down, was actually completely covered in scaffolding that you could not see through. This is because it is crumbling and dangerous, but unfortunately meant that I could not see any of it. I also could not go up the building that has a viewing platform for seeing the city and is apparently usually open, because it was closed. Still, it was a nice park. But outside of the central area with all the big attractions, the city is really just like all others. Whether the buildings are old or new, it is still just a lot of concrete and cars, and it was very hot. So after this it was time to find somewhere to have a shower, and I found a very friendly hostel, I had to pay this time but it was worth it because I was so hot and exhausted - and it was a very good shower. And I was given food, and had someone to chat to briefly. After which I felt ready to go back out and do not much, just wander around all the nice buildings and buy things at the nice market stalls. Sofia was small, but there was still plenty to see. Everything of importance (meaning anything that provides a nice picture) being so close together helped. Also I think with every city you improve on the skill that is seeing a city in just a day. I had less time here than in Belgrade, my train left at 7pm. But I still had time to just stop and look at stuff, and eat ice-cream.

For the next overnight train trip I had reserved a seat because I was told that it was neccesary. It did not cost much but what a load of tripe - like the other trains this one too was half empty. And what a train! I had a seat, not a compartment, and the train was creaking so badly it seemed it would fall to pieces, and this particular wagon smelt quite bad. So I moved, and found some empty seats in a semi-compartment in the first class seated wagon (which was primarily occupied by other backpackers who like me were disgusted with the wagon I had just left). But still, the lights were on and could not be turned off. So I found some space in a compartment wagon and got a couple of hours sleep - until I was woken for a ticket check. And luckily I was to because the ticket guy managed to get across to me in poor English that only half the train was going to Bucharest and the wagon that I was in was going elsewhere. So I had to go back. So I slept across some rather uncomfortable seats with my blanket over my head to block out the light, and luckily at 6 am that same ticket guy woke me to say we had arrived - otherwise I would have slept through and carried on to god-know's-where.



Sofia


Easter Monday: Romania


I arrived in Bucharest at 6 in the morning and it was still dark out. But by the time I had gone to the information desk, etc. it was getting light, so off I went to see the city. I had read that the size and pace of Bucharest can be rather mind-boggling. But it seemed okay to me. Of course it was 6 am on Easter Monday morning. First of all, Bucharest is very very big. The streets are wide and the buildings very old. There were no people or cars around so early that morning, but there are dogs everywhere, just lying around, sometimes barking at stuff. They seemed happy enough.

My first venture into Bucharest was to find the Arcul De Triumf, because I had read that it was on a busy roundabout and impossible to get to in the heavy traffic that is usually encountered in Bucharest. It lies in the middle of a great avenue, all lined with trees, bordering one of the cities large parks. The buildings down this avenue were all very nice, historic looking villas - I think many of them were government buildings and embassies of some sort, due to the flags and security guards. It seemed a very quiet sort of place but once again, it was very early on Easter Monday morning. There were a couple of very recommended musuems - all closed of course. Then the arch, which really was very big and impressive. And thanks to the city being mostly asleep I could stand in the middle of the road to take a photo of it. Then on to the end of the avenue to see the press building, described by Lonely Planet as "stalinesque". It was very large and white, with a big spire on the top that has a (mostly faded) red imprint of the communist hammer and sickle on it. After that I made my way through the park, where I finally saw some sort of Easter decorations - this had been almost completely lacking in Belgrade and Sofia. Across a pond I could see parts of the Village Musuem, which is a collection of houses, churches and windmills relocated from the Romanian countryside. There were big gardens and fountains and heaps of busts - I could only recognise a single name.

So after the park I headed to the city centre, from the Piatza Romana to Piatza Universitatii, between which in 1989 many student protestors were gunned down and run over by tanks. It seems that Bucharest has a rather chilling recent history. I stopped on my way to pat a single dog, this one was smaller than the rest and seemed quite clean and harmless. Only then I had a wee doggy shadow for a very long time, he followed me all the way down that long busy road, until I went through an underpass. All the homeless people were patting him and calling him but he just kept right on following me.

After Piatza Universitatii I continued to the next, Piatza Unirii. Here a huge roundabout full of fountains lies in the middle of another wide boulevard, all lined with huge, white, rather boring buildings. This, it turns out, was what the top of the communist social ladder looks like. The modern addition of air conditioning units to every apartment that one sees does not really do any favours. The Palace of Parliament is huge, and like the other buildings white. To me a humongous white building does not seem so impressive, I would prefer a smaller, more interesting looking castle or cathedral of some sort. Or some scary looking ruins. Apparently Romania is full of them but you need time to visit the countryside of course. Hopefully I can do so one day. Anyway up behind the castle is a Cathedral, which instead of one building as I had become accustomed to was a series of smaller buildings, though the bell tower was very deafening. And a monastary, which really was directly behind the Palace - so I spent ages looking for it thinking it was further away. It is a very old monastary - the city is full of such things but you need time to discover them on your own, and since time was what I was lacking I just followed the guidance of Lonely Planet - and seemed to me to be primarily a church behind a wall. There seemed to be buildings around it, but as it was a functioning monastary I highly doubt that tourists are overly welcome. These churches all have beautiful paintings and mosaics. I did not go in this one as it was church time. But I did notice that the air conditioning unit had been disguised with a covering of brick-printed paper. And a small girl tried asking me for money - rather cheeky considering she was eating an apple, holding a bag of easter treats and probably at church with her family.

So from Piatza Unirii you are basically in what is left of the historic district. There is apparently a very old inn, but it was under construction. I did come across the national library though, which is a huge dark old building. Then there is the Old Princely Court, which is the remains of a 15th century courtyard and contains a statue of Vlad Tepes Draculea, the count that the character was based on. When they say that Bucharest is undergoing gentrification and restoration of the historic areas, they really do mean that it is just beginning. You can see it happening, the heart of the historic centre is mostly terrible run down, with nicely restored buildings containing cafes and shops being very eye-catching amongst their broken up and crumbling neighbours. There is a very impressive looking bank, called the Economic Palace, across the road from and equally impressive looking (though not as dark) natural history musuem. Back up another small historic street brung me to the Stavropoleos church, and such a pretty wee church it was too, with a little quiet courtyard behind it.

From the historic area I walked up yet another very old street, by now beginning to get busy with traffic. I was on my way to yet another city square, the Piatza Revolutiei, but first I stopped to look at another church. The piatza is home to the Communist Party building and what is left of the residence of the former dictator. It was here that the protests begun back in 1989. There is a very odd looking memorial to the revolution and those that died, but memorials are often strange. This one is a great spire with some sort of round metal thing on it. Across the road was the art gallery, that was once the Royal Palace. Apparently it is very good, but it being Easter it was of course closed and I did not have the time anyway. The Hilton Hotel is the old Athenee Palace, where the KGB used to hang out - but it is not very interesting. Better is the Romanian Athenaeum behind it - a great, columned, domed building where they hold concerts.

By now it was mid afternoon and time to find the train station because the trip back to Vienna was a long one. I had seen all the big stuff though, except of course museums. And I was tired. Bucharest has an interesting history but I had seen enough. Plus it was starting to rain. So I managed to find the train station again, via a nice city park, and got ready for a 15 hour journey. It wasn't so bad, I had a compartment to myself (once again, how pointless it is to reserve a seat) and I slept away most of the journey - by that stage I could have slept through anything. But come 2 am and I got a ticket collector who for once had very good English and informed me that my rail pass was no longer valid. It turns out that I had confused the rules somewhat - if you want to take an overnight train you have to board the train after 7 pm, otherwise it will take two travel days of your pass. And I did not have two days left. But she was very nice and I brought a ticket of her to get me from the Romanian border to Budapest. And then when she left I sneakily changed the 5 on the ticket (because you fill in the dates that you travel yourself) to a 6 as it was now, at 3 am, the 6th of April. And then the next ticket collector also tried to have some problem with my ticket but this one did not speak English and gave up before long. Come Austria, no more problems, they barely looked, just stamped my ticket. I got back at 9 am, in time to go home for a quick shower and get to work. Where I really did not actually do much, but nobody that matters noticed.



Bucharest

So that was my Easter, and I felt okay on Tuesday, not too tired. But then Wednesday and Thursday I was so falling asleep at work. In looking back at my photos I see that the later ones, from Sofia and Bucharest, are generally taken on an angle. The camera seemed straight at the time but I guess I was not perceiving things very accurately by that stage. Eastern Europe was cheaper by far than here in Vienna, but there were also more beggers and they were more in-your-face - some of them would even grab my arm and speak to me in English, asking for money. And unfortunately so many nice buildings are covered up with huge billboards and adverts - they are just that commonplace. Of course they do that here to some extent also. If I had the time I would definately go back to Croatia and Bulgaria, and perhaps Romania - to see the actual countries and not just the capital cities. And then there are so many more countries still to see. Stupid work getting in the way of my travel. My next big travels will probably not be for some time.

And I hope that everybody can see these pictures - slideshows were the only way to show all of the photos that I could not choose between.

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