The Next Trip

Now I regained the desire to blog I needed to plan the next trip. This will be the first trip in two years. I had plenty of ideas floating around in my head. After much deliberation I have decided that I will be visiting Bulgaria.

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The visit is going to take place towards the end of September. I have set the following itinerary for myself:

1. Sofia (3 nights) 27 – 29/09
2. Plovdiv (3 nights) 30/09 – 02/10
3. Varna (3 nights) 03 – 05/10
4. Veiliko Tarnovo (3 nights) 06 – 08/10
5. Sofia (2 nights) 09 & 10/10

There were other places I wanted to visit but on researching I found that accommodation was limited. It should allow me to see a fair chunk of Bulgaria allowing for day trips outside the cities.

For me the fun will now start with the planning and as I check the Easyjet app on my phone there are 191 days until I leave. Maybe there will be a chance that I can sneak in another quick trip.

What do you think of my trip? I would love to hear from you.

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve

 

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Day 13, 20 September – The Longest Day

Waking up at 5am while holiday seems a hardship but it was necessary as my coach to Belgrade leaves an hour later. Back in the UK I am used to coach drivers wearing uniforms. The drivers on this coach looked like they had come from the film Taken.

I used the journey to catch up on some sleep. It was not spectacular, the highlight being the border crossing from Bosnia into Serbia. These were the first stamps in my current passport.

Stamp Collecting

I arrived into Belgrade around lunchtime and I had no Serbian money and I could find a ATM. So I was going to have to find my way to the hostel by foot. Despite turning down the offer of a taxi, the driver was kind enough to point me in the right direction. The day was hot and I felt it while struggling with my backpack. Eventually I arrived at the hostel. I slept some more. It was a good opportunity as it was quiet.

When I awoke there was more life around. After doing some laundry and a shower I was feeling hungry. Fortunately others in the hostel were feeling the same. The hostel recommended a restaurant which was over the road. Serving typical Serbian fare I was sorted. However, they struggled to cope with the vegan in the group. She was happy to accept stuffed mushrooms. It is the tradition in Serbia to finish your meal off with a shot of Rakia. Expecting a small shot I was handed what looked like a small test tube with wings. I embarrassed myself by not being able to down it in one. It was only later that I was told I was drinking it correctly.

After the meal we headed over the road to a typical Belgrade bar which we were told to check out. This was very much a local hangout. It was lively as well as packed out. There was a great atmosphere with a band playing traditional folk songs. Everybody was getting ready for the night out. For me, the day had caught up with me. I needed my bed. (Must be my age.)

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve

 

Travel Plans for 2014

After much deliberation I am happy to finally announce my travel plans for 2014. Like most of my trips it will be limited to Europe.

Lisbon – This trip will take place at the end of March. I have never visited Portugal so I am looking forward to see somewhere new.

Istanbul – I am planning to celebrate my birthday in this city. I have heard some good reports and it looks an exciting place to visit. Also I know somebody out there.

Baltics – The tour of the Baltic cities will take place in September. I am looking to start in Helsinki followed by Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas and finishing in Vilnius. This will be the main trip of the year.

Budapest – I wanted to see the New Year away from home. After much research I have decieded to return to Budapest. I loved the vibe of the city. The first accommodation booked for 2014 was Budapest.

I would appreciate any tips on what to see while on my travels. I better start saving.

Until the next post, stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve

 

Day 10, 17 September – Oh Rainy Day to Up the Saddlers

I was feeling somewhat melancholic this morning as I was about to leave for Sarajevo. One of the main attractions of the Hostel Madjas was the tour around Mostar and the surrounding countryside. Today the majority of the hostel were going on the tour. My stay coincided with the days the tour was not running. I felt that I was missing out. Before I left I had a bit of a panic. Where did I put my iPod? I searched frantically. What was I was going to listen to for the rest of my trip? For what seemed like the fifth time I searched by backpack. Lo and behold the iPod turned up, panic over.

As I made my towards Mostar bus station I noticed that the weather felt colder and the skies were darker. It matched my mood. The journey into Sarajevo went smoothly enough. Travelling across Bosnia is a cheap option. It is also quicker than the train with more services. Also I had another chance to view the beautiful countryside. When the budget airlines start serving Bosnia Herzegovina it will really take off as a tourist destination.

I arrived into Sarajevo just after lunchtime. Now all I need to do is find my hostel. With the best will in the world the instructions to find the hostel can take some working out. The tram was simple enough but navigating the streets to find the hostel took some doing. I was tired, in a bad mood and now it was starting to rain. Could the day get any worse? After about 30 minutes of aimless wandering I found myself on the right street. Soon I was at the Hostel City Center. The first thing I noticed was that I would have to climb several flights of stairs. Once at the entrance I had to remove my shoes. That was no hardship. I checked in but not in the room I had originally booked. I did get some money back. While I was chilling in the lounge area the heavens opened up. When it rains in the Balkans it really rains. This will occupy me for the next couple of hours.

Eventually the rain did stop so I decided to venture outside. It felt cold but I was happy just to get out and see Sarajevo. The old city centre has a beauty to it. I heard the call to prayer. It was the first time that I realised I was in a prodominantly Muslim country. This was also an opportunity to get my bearings. I had a further two days to explore the city in more depth.

Back at the hostel I started talking to Tom. He was from Scotland and was spending the week in Sarajevo. We were getting on rather well. Tom suggested that we go into the old town for something to eat and I agreed.

Like the majority of cities there are people who will try and entice you to eat in their restaurant. Tom however, had his own recommendation. I enjoyed the veal kebabs washed down with a beer. While inside we noticed the Champions League featuring Manchester United was showing on the TV. This was a good way to spend the evening. It reminded me that my beloved Walsall was playing a big match tonight. Away to to local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves). I followed the match on my phone. When the final whistle blew Walsall had won 1-0. I could not stop myself letting out a shout of joy. The day which started out with me feeling fed up left me feeling elated.

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling. Up the Saddlers.

Steve

 

Day 9, 16 September – Jump to it

Yesterday we were teasing Renud the French guy about the joys French toast or eggy bread depending where you come from. Matia must have overheard us as for breakfast we were served French toast. I am enjoying this hostel. Sitting outside in the sunny weather sharing breakfast with good people. Today as with most days travelling I will be saying goodbye to most of the people who I was with at the restaurant last night.

As this was the last full day I would be spending in Mostar I thought I would explore the town more. Mostar is quite small with the places of interested situated around the Stari Most. This is the focal point of the town. I popped into a nearby bookshop. Inside they showed a continuous video of the bridge destruction and rebuilding. It must have been devastating to witness at the time. I even jumped when I saw the mortar hit the bridge.

Following on from that I visited the museum that was next to the bridge. It is interesting as it told the history of the Ottoman occupation. You move on to another section where you are told the story of how the bridge the original bridge was built. You can only admire the ingenuity of the engineering. It is also worth watching the video of the reconstruction too. I found that to be moving.

Mostar is definitely split into two sides. One Croat, the other Bosniak. There were obvious differences. The Croat side seemed to be more wealthy while the Bosniak side appeared more run down. As I walked across the city I noticed a large shopping mall that looked totally out of place. The Mepas Mall is a typical modern shopping mall. I had been told that a hospital was demolished to make way for it. Aledgially, money changed hands and a replacement hospital was built out of town. I moved away feeling sad. I needed something to cheer me up, ice cream.

For the second day in a row I made my way to the Palma Ice Cream parlour. Two scoops of ice cream washed down with a complementary glass of water was just what the doctor ordered. Feeling refreshed I made my way back to the old town.

The best ice cream in Bosnia Herzegovina

I had yet to see anybody jump off the Stari Most. However, when I reached the river bed I saw two people practicing from a smaller diving platform. One of the swimming club members was training them. Another member was checking from the bridge. Once he said everything was alright then they could jump off the main bridge. The crowd was waiting for the first person to jump. Dressed in a wetsuit he jumped in. A round of applause followed. About ten minutes later the next person appeared ready to jump in what looked like the same wetsuit. How very hygienic! He also jumped in to great applause. Had I considered jumping? No way.

Geronimo!

I had to be back at the hostel for 5pm and the evening meal. Tonight it was a hearty soup with bread. Met new people and we seemed to get on well. The evening was spent chilling out in the lounge. We then decided to head out and ended up at the Coco Loco. Sitting outside with no light seemed a surreal way to end my final day in Mostar.

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve

 

Balkans Day 8, 15 September – What a Pleasant Surprise

After one week on the road I was moving on to another country, Bosnia Herzegovina and the city of Mostar. It was an early start to the day and I tried my best not to wake anybody as I left the hostel. I think I succeeded in that regard.

The coach journey started by crossing into Bosnia and then back into Croatia before crossing again into Bosnia. I noticed that the signs were both in Latin and the Cyrillic alphabet. However, reminders of the war were evident as the Cyrillic signs were spray painted out. Eventually I arrived into Bosnia and the first thing that I noticed was the beautiful scenery. It was spectacular. Normally on a coach journey I would either read a book or catch up on some sleep. On this journey there was no chance of that as I was struck in awe.

View at first rest stop in Bosnia

Eventually I arrived into Mostar Bus Station. I needed the loo before I left for the hostel. The toilet had seen better days. Both urinals were broken and the main toilets were squat ones. I think I'll hold on until I get to the hostel.

The Hostel Madjas was something else. It felt more like somebody's home than being in a hostel. So much so I was told off for not taking off my shoes before entering the building.

After checking in I went off to explore the city. I was with Audrey an American who was also staying at the hostel. Audrey wanted to climb the minuet at the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. It did seem a good idea at the time. However, this view changed as I realised how unfit I had become. That was a hard climb. That said, the views were worth the effort. We could see the old bridge and we were lucky that somebody had decided to jump off.

A smile of relief

Making our way across the bridge Audrey had agreed to meet up with a couple of Australians, Jonno and Claire. They were on an adventure of their own tomorrow by flying to Amman, Jordan via Istambul. Jonno pointed out a empty sheel of a building. Apparently this was used by Croatian snipers during the war. If this was the UK the building would have been closed off due to health and safety fears. Here, we were free to explore. The building is now used by the homeless, drunks and drug addicts but you could climb all the way to the top. You could see the used cartridges that were left. It was chilling to be able to pick them up. It all seemed surreal. Again at the top of the building you get great views of Mostar.

Used Cartridge
View from the sniper tower

Moving on we crossed through a park. Here we came across a sight that only Eastern Europe could bring. A statue of Bruce Lee. Why is it there? Nobody could answer.

We were told about the abandoned Partisan war cemetery, so we made our way there. As we entered we were given some funny looks by the local population. There were no signs and it had all become overgrown. I felt sad as I came across the broken gravestones. It was clear that this cemetery has been allowed to fall in disrepair. These stones were Muslim and I was in the Croatian part of Mostar. A Croatian state was established by Hitler during WWII.

The Partizan War Cemetary

Back at the hostel I enjoyed my first Bosnian coffee. The ritual behind it was interesting. However, being left handed pouring became awkward. I met up with more travellers. They were from all over the world. Australians, Germans, Belgians and French. We all decided to go for a meal. In the evening Mostar becomes quiet. It felt that we were to only people there.

Stari Most at night

We ate at a restaurant called Hindin Han that served traditional Bosnian food. The food was delicious and proved to be of excellent value. The atmosphere was great as we were people who loved travelling. Swapping tales of the road was a great way to end the day.

Fellow travellers

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve

 

Balkans Day 6, 13 September – Oh Sunny Day

I woke up this morning with my head feeling fuzzy. It was not an hangover but I had felt better. Also my tongue felt like it was itching. I wondered what I was going to do with myself for the day. With the hostel being underground it was hard to say what the weather was like. I needed not to worry as the weather was hot and sunny.

Breakfast was a pastry from the local bakery. It went down well as I made my way towards the old town. Neno the hostel owner told me that there were two things I should try while I was in Dubrovnik. Firstly, tour the city walls and then ride the cable car. Today I decided to try the city walls. I was not disappointed. Dubrovnik old town is beautiful. My finger never left the camera shutter button. At 90kn the tour lasted two hours. Also I walked the city walls early in the morning and I managed to avoid the cruise ship crowds.

 

For those of you who are looking to visit Dubrovnik my advise to you is to avoid the old town between the hours of 12-4pm. You cannot move for the cruise ship crowd. They were like sheep being herded by the dogs (tour guides). One aspect of Dubrovnik that disappointed me was the lack of signs for places of interest. There were plenty for the restaurants. My remedy to avoid the crowds was laundry. It was long overdue.

The laundrette was self service to the point that nobody was there. I seemed to be doing alright until I leant back and broke the chair. Oops, I hope there were no cameras to witness this.

Once back at the hostel I was not sure what to do. Eating out was not an option as it would put a dent into my budget. So homemade sandwiches it was with potato chips and fruit. It filled me up for the evening. I met a guy from Yorkshire, England who had just arrived from Mostar. He told me that I would love it. This was giving me something to look forward to. Kelly, a girl from Belguim suggested that we should go out for the evening and get some ice cream. It sounded a good idea to me. There is always room for ice cream even late in the evening. This was also a chance to console a Canadian girl who had just arrived into Dubrovnik. Sadly, her luggage had not, the worst fear for any traveller.

I felt that this was the best time to visit the old time. It was September and the season was starting to wind down. We were sitting on the steps of the cathedral enjoying our ice cream. We noticed a couple of guys taking photos. They had the full equipment including tripods. The wives/partners were with them and they looked fed up while their other halves were trying to shoot the perfect shot. I suppose it is better than using a iPad as a camera. That would lead me to a different subject altogether.

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve

 

Balkans Day 4, 11 September – Wet, Wet, Wet.

An early start to the trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. The highlight of this trip for me will be going under a waterfall. I am not sure about jumping into a pool. All of this I believe is strictly illegal. However, Josko knows a way of doing this without getting caught.

The weather looked beautiful as we pulled away from the hostel. The scenery looked stunning. I was looking forward to this despite worrying about the cost. To reach the park it will take about three hours so I took the opportunity to get forty winks.

As I woke up the van was about to enter a tunnel. Once we came out the other side the weather had changed. It looked colder and it was now raining. We were climbing into the mountains. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts does not seem a good idea anymore. Once we arrived it was obvious that the group were looking like a bunch of unprepared tourists. I was fortunate to purchase a waterproof poncho from Poundland before I left the UK. While it felt cold once we started to move it soon started to warm up.

Me & my poncho

The park itself is beautiful. With all the waterfalls and mountains it simply took my breath away. There were plenty of photo opportunities. Even if we looked a little foolish with our posing. The park itself was popular with visitors despite the weather. So progress along the paths was slow. There was a crossing of the lake by boat which gave us the chance to rest our legs.

Natural Posing

When we reached the other side Josko took us to one side. Our fun was about to start here. First stop was the waterfall. There were no park rangers around which Josko saw as a good sign. We then reached the waterfall. The instruction was to remove your shoes and run into the waterfall where Josko would take a photo and we would run straight out. It was too cold to remove the shirt. It was a experience to tick off the bucket list. Sadly, no photo ever turned up.

Next up was the jump into the lake. I declined due to not being a good enough swimmer. Last thing I wanted was to drown especially as we were technically breaking the law.

After everybody had dried off we took a bus that took us to the caves. Every time I have travelled I always pack a torch but never felt the need to use it. That is until now. The cave experience was good. We carried on walking where we had one last chance for a photo opportunity that took my breath away.

Inside the caves

We left the park in mid-afternoon. After a hearty weel deserved lunch we made our way to the town of Knin. The main sight is the castle which was held by the Serbs during the war. Josko's mood changed when we got there. He was not as jolly. It was the reminder I needed that while the war had finished nearly twenty years ago, the scars will take a long time to heal.

The walls of Knin Castle

We arrived back at the hostel at around 7pm. The weather had turned, you could feel the thunder and lightning in the air. A group of us wanted some beer and snacks to enjoy back at the hostel. As we were on our way to the store the heavens opened. It rained hard and I was soon looking like a drowned rat. The things I will do for a beer. Overall, it was an excellent final day in Split. Tomorrow I leave for Dubrovnik.

Beautiful. The backdrop, not me.

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve

 

Balkans Day 1, 8 September – I Leave Today, What Can Go Wrong Now.

After months of planning and counting down the days the day has finally arrived to leave. I think that everybody was starting to get sick of me talking about the trip. My team I suspect were glad to see the back of me for the next three weeks. The trip has been my only focus for 2013 and it may have cost me a few sleepless nights and lost nights out.

At 7:20pm I left for the bus to take me into Birmingham. My backpack weighed heavy but it felt good to have it on my back again. No problems with the bus and I was soon at Birmingham Central Coach Station. All I need now is the coach. It arrives but was told it had pulled into the wrong bay. So everybody waited for the coach to move bays. We were going to leave late.

Once loaded the coach eventually left station. At the first set of traffic lights the driver gets off the coach and starts to check the rear indicators. This is not a good sign. We carry on until the we reach the outskirts of Coventry. The driver stops the coach, the lights had gone. Now it was time to panic as I have a connecting coach to catch. If there was a problem why did the driver say something at Birmingham. Upon advice from the garage in Birmingham the driver reset the lights. Low and behold they start to work again. Off we move towards Coventry Bus Station. What else could go wrong now.

Coventry Bus Station was chaos. It looked like that too many passengers had been loaded in Birmingham. The gentleman who was travelling with his son quite rightly was angry and refused to leave the coach. I think the driver allowed somebody to travel who was booked on another service. Anyway good fortune arrived when a woman offered to leave the coach and get another service.

We left Coventry at 22:40 over an hour later than planned. At least the coach to Gatwick Airport runs every hour, so I should in with a chance of getting on a later service. We will have to wait for the next day.

 

I’m Back

I have been back from my Balkans trip for a few days. This has given me time to reflect on the effect it has had on me. My colleagues at work have all noticed that I could not wipe the smile off my face. It was down to having the greatest of times while travelling.

I was grateful to work for allowing me to take three weeks off in the first place. This allowed me for the first time to plan a multi-destination trip. I had always wanted to visit the old Yugoslavia.

The trip itself went better than I had expected. From day 1 I met some great people who took me for what I was. Indeed, there were some people who admired me for travelling solo at my age. During the whole trip I felt alive and stress free. It is definitely something I want to do more. It was the best of times. The only problem I encountered was financial. This is one of the things I can learn from for future travels.

How do I feel now the trip is over? Surprisingly better than I thought. Last year when I returned from Prague and Bratislava I found myself bursting into tears. Now, I feel different. Maybe it is because I am a more experienced travellers. Also I felt a sense of achievement with my latest trip. It is said if you can survive a three week journey then the next step will be to undertake a longer trip. My dream is to take a long time away from work and go on a trip lasting six months or longer.

I am feeling more confident. Solo travel gives you that feeling as you have to think a lot on your feet. Meeting new people is something I feel difficult at home, yet this is not problem when travelling. After all we have something in common. Travel is the glue that binds us together. I like to feel that I have gained a level of respect from my work colleagues. They cannot stop talking to me about my trip.

What have I learnt for my next trip? The main lesson will be to be more flexible with my itinerary. I will have a starting and finishing location. This will give me the freedom to plan my destinations. Also I lave learnt not to be in one place for too long. I averaged three nights in each location. In hind site it could have been two and I could have seen more. Allow time to write my journal, update the blog and catch up on my emails. I had been lazy so I am catching up with myself.

To finish I would like to thank everybody who I have met during the trip. It has made my time more special. I wish you all safe travels.

Until the next post stay safe, stay healthy and keep smiling.

Steve