I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Eight Egypt and India

I find arriving in a new country near dark disconcerting. Yet once again I was doing it, landing at Cairo’s airport as the sun was setting. Though I willed the plane to arrive early and the sun to put off setting, by the time I needed a taxi to lodging of some kind, it was already dark. So I was at the mercy of the taxi drivers. And then once at the hostel, I was at the mercy of the hard sell. They place had a nice rooftop restaurant and I wanted to enjoy my evening alone, quietly eating and catching up on a book or my journal. But that just could not happen. The man sidled up to me and began his pitch. I was still tired from the illness but also from just arriving.

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Awesome. How else to describe it? Hard to believe I felt so sick on this day.

Sweet Talk Tour Guy swore to me up and down that “they,” the tour company, did a great job in matching travelers with other like-minded travelers for the best experience. I half-heartedly protested. I liked being alone traveling most of the time, so matching me up with another traveler was already going against my desires. Yet the guy would not take no for an answer and I soon found myself, against my better judgment, signed up for a tour.

The first day I had a solo tour to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. To complement my tour I had the option of either a horseback or camelback ride through the pyramid landscape. As my innards were still recovering from illness I opted for what I considered the more comfortable saddle – the horse. I cannot say whether that was the correct choice or not, only that it still felt rather dreadful. I was happy to get down and have a walk around. Yet I made the mistake of entering one of the pyramids. It was small, cramped, and quite warm. Too, too warm. Stifling. I am not really a claustrophobe, but I did not enjoy the long, low, narrow passageway down. There were just too many people in there. And by that I mean I was not all by myself.

Back in the open air I opted not to visit the Great Pyramid. I knew at the time I might regret not visiting the largest of them, but I honestly could not stomach another voyage to the center of a pyramid. By the time I reached the Sphinx I felt I no longer cared and that is a pretty terrible way to approach one of the most iconic sites in the world. My pictures though present as someone who is quite pleased with herself, standing there with the Sphinx.

Next was on to the step pyramid of Djoser and then that evening a train to Aswan with my tour group.

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The spice market where I found this cute guy and Twinkies.

An 11 hour overnight journey from Cairo to Aswan; all I wrote is I did not sleep so great.

The following day we had a tour in Aswan. It is amazing what we packed into a day. We visited the High Dam of Aswan, the Temple of Philae, and the Temple of Isis, the latter two which are located in the middle of the Nile and accessible only by boat. We had the evening to relax in the hotel on our own. I immediately set out to explore Aswan on my own, because mostly I craved time away from my tour group. I found a wonderful spice market and in a small shop located, this is almost unbelievable, Twinkies. Just two packs of them, probably smuggled in decades before. But I bought them and I ate them, relishing in each bite a forbidden taste from home. I had not had Twinkies in ages but they tasted like the most divine thing I had eaten in a long while. Perhaps that sounds like such a crazed overreaction, because it is, but despite being in this amazing location seeing relics of the antiquities, what sticks in my mind most about Aswan are 1. My disappointment in learning that there are no crocodiles in the Nile (though there are some in Lake Nasser, above Aswan Dam), 2. My fascination with the American staying in the hotel that lived and worked half of the year in Antarctica, and 3. The improbable two packages of Twinkies I found in the Aswan spice market.

I had to build up my sustenance as the next day we boarded a traditional Nile vessel, a felucca, for a two day ride down the Nile. Just me and my tour group, a captain, and a captain’s assistance. Approximately fourteen of us on a small boat for two days on the Nile.

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Feluccas look pretty in the distance and are nice to ride on for maybe an hour or two.

It should have been romantic. It started out so, I wrote in my journal: And here on this boat on the Nile with the sun shining, the wind softly blowing, the conversation in Arabic between our boat captain and that of another boat, Bob Marley playing on a transistor radio, and the occasional calls of the wading birds, and I can think of possibilities and not of obstacles.

By the second day I already felt differently: So far the felucca ride is okay. During the day it is very relaxing and lazy drifting along the Nile. The sun is very warm. But there are a few problems; the first is there is no toilet. It means having to hold it until a suitable pit stop can be made, whence we stumble off the plank from the boat and up the river bank to squat in some reeds. The other problem is it seems everyone else on the boat seems to be a recreational pot smoker.

So much for matching me up with like-minded travelers! Whatever your views on marijuana use, in some countries it is most certainly illegal and result in stiff fines or much, much worse. In Egypt it is illegal. We were “pulled over” by the Nile police. I am not kidding. A Nile police boat put its lights on, forced us to stop, then boarded us and questioned us all. They focused on the Egyptian husband of one of the foreign tourists and the boat’s captain and first mate, and very little on the foreign tourists, but it was a tense ten minutes nonetheless.

I could not wait to get off that felucca after that.

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Besides the pyramids, Luxor is the Egypt you see in the tourist brochures, the place little girls who like to read about early Egyptologists and mummies dream of visiting.

The visit to the West bank of Luxor – to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens and Karnak were incredible. But it was the Temple of Hatshepsut that really stood out. Not just because of its incredible location, but because just three years before a horrible terrorist attack had occurred there. At the time of the attack I was living in Japan. As ten Japanese were killed in the attack, it was heavily covered on the Japanese news.

The temple is a thing of amazing beauty. It is serene and imposing and fitting for one of the most successful and ruthless of rulers – the queen who crowned herself pharaoh. Walking down the long, exposed walkway from the entrance to the temple, with armed guards visible, I felt vulnerable and hyperaware. Of all the places I visited in Egypt I remember this site the most and it is there I want to revisit again the most.

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The East Bank of Luxor in fading light.

The biggest annoyance with Egypt (besides my tour group) was the unwanted male attention. I met a Nubian man while wandering who invited me to his home on the West Bank for dinner. I was reluctant to go at first, but finally caved in. It was interesting to see his home, or rather his sister’s home, where he was living, but there was the usual underlying advances. He told me I should work in Egypt because it is a romantic country. He said he is going to open his own tour company and I could work there and I would be welcome to stay in his flat free whenever I was in Luxor. While I have felt the come-ons to be slightly more subtle in Egypt than in Tunisia, though probably because I have been more secluded by the tour, it is still tiresome…Several Egyptian men asked me questions about my sex life. I very much doubt they ask Egyptian women if they have had “relations” recently only an hour after meeting. I am surprised again and again how quickly the conversation comes around to either marriage or sexual proposals.

There was another overnight train returning to Cairo. It was horrible. The harsh fluorescent lighting that never went off. The toilet that became more and more disgusting as the trip went on. The too many bodies squeezed into a small car. With one more day in Cairo before flying out in the evening, I had planned to visit the Egyptian museum, but as I was too tired from the train and I only paid to sleep through the day in the guesthouse.

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At the Red Fort in Delhi.

The next stop was India.

I stayed only one week. I was so tired from my travel and India is so taxing, so tiring. I was not in the right frame of mind to face it. Because of this I made the mistake of contacting an Indian man I had met in Bangkok months before just before starting my around the world trip. Well, it was a mistake and it wasn’t. Because I spent the majority of my time with him I had a very different experience in India than I would have had as a single woman traveler – and that is probably what I needed at the time. I have spent the majority of my time here with P. Because I am with him I am treated differently than when I am on my own. I have noticed that when I am with P persistent vendors give up quicker and rickshaw drivers and others are less likely to steer me to their shops or to places of their “friends” or places where they receive commission. The couple of times I have been out on my own these things invariably occur. My protestations are ignored. P has heard my stories of hassles from other countries but he tells me India is not so bad, but I would venture to say it is, only when he is not around.

The night before I went to the airport, after only a week in India, P asked me to marry him. I spent some time mulling it over – I wrote quite a lot about it in my journal. But the next day, on the way to the airport, I told him no.DSCF0646

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I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Seven Malta and Tunisia

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At the gorgeous harbor of Valletta. P.S. Everyone should travel in Taekwondo pants – they are comfortable and super sexy.

From Sicily I took the ferry to Malta. It was dark as the passengers stood on a long slanted road at the port, waiting, luggage in hand, for the ferry to arrive and for us to board. I realized later that taking the four plus hour crossing in the day would probably have been a better option so as to 1. Not arrive in Malta so late in the evening and 2. Be unable to watch the incredible approach to the island and the port of Valletta. Lessons learned I suppose were I to do it again.

But I was eager to depart Italy and as the season grew later, further and further into the fall (it was already November) the ferry schedules were becoming fewer; I had to take what was available. I had expected to arrive at this juncture at least a month before, but there had just been too many wonderful places where I stayed longer and/or I added destinations.

The crossing was terrible. I felt incredibly sea sick through most of it. Though others were up and about mingling, I sat firmly in my chair, my backpack upright in the adjacent chair, my head on its top, my arms clutching it. If I moved my head at all I felt woozy and sick to my stomach. They played a movie on a screen in the center, Titanic, and I wondered what crazy, sick crewmember had thought that an appropriate movie for sea journey in the pitch black night. Yet I could not look away as that would require me to move my head; I was extremely grateful to arrive in Valletta.

I splurged on a room near the center of town so I would not have to share and could walk to many places. The sick feeling that had begun in Rome had persisted and grown worse and I needed more rest. I called the US Embassy doctor who kindly agreed to come to my hotel for an examination and consultation, thus redeeming the position in my eyes after the nurse in Skopje had so easily dismissed me and left me my possible fate by rabies. As I planned on only five total days in Malta he asked me my next destinations – Tunisia and Egypt – and suggested I meet with the doctor in Tunis as the country had inherited a French medical system and he gave me her contact information.

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The beautiful Blue Grotto from above – I was a tad anti-boat after the Sicily-Malta crossing.

Malta was so interesting, drenched in sunshine and history, an improbable small country amongst powerful countries in the middle of the Mediterranean, but blessed with some high cliffs and a long, deep harbor that made its defense possible. Despite not feeling 100% I made an effort to see as much as I could of Malta with what energy I had. I attended the “Malta Experience” a one hour movie on the history of Malta followed by a self-guided tour of St. Elmo’s Fort and National War Museum. I took a boat tour of the harbor, which helped me to realize what I had missed out on arriving at night and went to see the Blue Grotto, though from above (still traumatized by the boat trip on arrival). I spent a wonderful hour or so at the Museum of Archaeology and half a day out at Mnajdra, one of the megalithic temples of Malta that are listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Simply strolling the streets of old Valletta was enjoyable. Although I did not know it at the time, Malta was an oasis between the aggressiveness of Southern Italy and Tunisia.

I took a flight to Tunis; I could not stomach the thought of another Mediterranean ferry crossing.

I found a decent $28 a night hotel right on the tree-lined pedestrian Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the heart of Tunis. I feel pretty safe here and I have my own bathroom and TV with lots of American shows in French, which I do not understand. The shower doesn’t work so well and the restaurant has no menu, but it would be a pain to change.

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I still have the necklace but my just-polished-the-furniture fresh scent is long gone

As my hotel was within walking distance of the beautiful Medina of Tunis, I visited several times, meandering through the labyrinth of stalls and cafes. As I still had potentially months more of travel, I kept my purchases small and simple. I bought a beautiful Tunisian necklace and small vial of citron perfume, the latter of which smelled like lemon Pledge (a U.S. furniture polish brand). I could only think that it must be incredibly sexy to smell as if one has just finished buffing the dining room table.

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Sidi Bou Said

I did a day trip to the ruins at Carthage and the nearby village of Sidi Bou Said, many of its homes with beautifully decorative doors in multiple shades.

In light of the recent terrorist attack at the Bardo museum I have wracked my brain to confirm I had been there. It would have been very uncharacteristic of me to miss a museum of its caliber, but I have looked through my journal entries and there is no mention of a visit, I have no photos, no souvenir entrance ticket.

In Tunisia my energy really faltered. My illness took so much out of me. Not only was I sightseeing but I had an appointment with the Embassy doctor at her local practice and then later a procedure at a Tunis hospital. I also applied for my Indian visa in Tunisia. Now that I am a visa officer myself and watch applicants line up for at least an hour before their appointment, snake through security, then through the line for an interview, I marvel at my own experience. In Tunisia, I walked into the Indian Embassy, more a mansion, into a large hallway, where a woman came down a carved staircase to ask me if she could be of some assistance. I filled out my application, paid my fee (US$100), and returned a few days later to pick it up.

The worst part was the unrelenting harassment.

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At the Coliseum at El Jem. Resting before walking the souvenir seller gauntlet to the tour bus.

Maybe I should intensively study French and Arabic and move to Tunisia – as I am obviously very attractive here. At least that is the nice explanation I have come to for all the unwanted attention I receive here. Everywhere I go in Tunis there are men following me. I am trying to ignore the hissing, clicking, kissy noises, whistling and whispering as I pass. I try to ignore the calls of “Hello,” “Bonjour,” “Your Name?” “Italian?” “Deutsch?” and so on and practicing the fine art of looking ahead and seeing no one, catching no one’s eye. I feel my jaw set hard and my fists clenched tight.

This happened absolutely every time I left my hotel. The avenue directly in front of the hotel was divided in the center by a long pedestrian walkway lined with old style street lamps and trees filled with song birds. It seemed perfect for strolling, if you are a man on the hunt. If you are a woman who just wants to go out for a walk alone, you will be out of luck. Notice I did not say a “single woman,” just “woman” because no matter if I said I had a boyfriend or I was married, if I was alone at that time, I was prey. Several men told me that if my boyfriend/husband really cared about me, he would not have left me alone, and that THEY would treat me right. <eye roll>

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At the desert oasis for our overnight stop.

Given the health and stalking situations I decided to do something unusual—I signed up for a two day group tour, conducted in French and German. I spent awhile refreshing all the French and German words I knew, which together was perhaps a dozen. The tour visited the Roman Amphitheater at El Jem, the cave dwellings at Tataouine (made famous in Star Wars), Chott El Jerid, the giant salt lake shared by Tunisia and Algeria, and rode a camel in the desert oasis of Tozeur.

I also experienced a strange bout of homesickness: I could swear I saw a mirage out in the desert. From the tour bus window, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the reflection of a Taco Bell sign. I knew not to turn my head, I could not have suffered the disappointment. I sure wish there were a Taco Bell or a place to get some nachos or some great pizza or enchiladas, or just a place that had cheese that does not taste like tofu.

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Camel riding with an intestinal illness is not recommended but I still managed a smile and an hour ride in this get-up.

Overall it was a good tour, generally free from male harassment, although my body often felt awful and I understood little. My tour guide spoke some English but for whatever reason she started each place off in German. “Blah, blah, blah,” [in German accent] for 5 minutes. Then, “blah, blah, blah,” [in French accent] also for 5 minutes. Then she would turn to me and say in English, “This is the X. You have X minutes to look around, then meet back at the bus.”

As I was leaving the coliseum in El Jem a salesman says to me “Scorpians? Marlboros?” I thought I must have heard him wrong, but I took a peek at his table and sure enough he had resin encased scorpions and packs of cigarettes for sale. I declined to purchase anything but I admired his ingenuity.

Then with my Indian visa, diagnosis and medication in hand, I am ready to leave Tunisia. Unfortunately with my open ended ticket, it takes three times to leave. Three times I check out of my hotel and head to the airport, and twice I return later in the afternoon having to check back in. My planned eight day visit turns into eleven, but third time is the charm and I am on my way to the next destination.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Six Italy

After Greece I took a brief departure from the road; I flew back to the US for a week with family and to attend my high school reunion. That was a bit weird but I did win two prizes: 1) voted “most cultured” and 2) the person who traveled the furthest distance to participate.

After my brief trip back “home” I had a little trouble getting back into backpacker mode. I haven’t completed changed over to travel mode again. In my brief stay in the States, I think I became too accustomed to the idea of life there again. I watched a television mystery that was part 1 and 2 of a 3 part series, and I will never see the rest. I hardly remember what it was about and my life will go on fine without knowing, but it added to the disjointed feeling I have. At any rate I have found myself on the road again and I warm to it more every day.

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I got this close to Pope John Paul II

Italy. It was a great way to start off the next phase of my journey.

I started in Rome, where the first thing I did was head down to the US Embassy with my absentee ballot to vote. I visited all the must-see sights: the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Boca di Veritas, the Vatican, and the Roman Forum. I was outside the Coliseum but unfortunately did not feel well enough to go in—this was the beginning of my health issues, though I did not know it at the time.

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If you were wondering, I still have the hand. Bocca della Verità, Rome.

Despite the beauty of Rome, what I remember most vividly was meeting the American former Peace Corps volunteer at the hostel who had been forced to leave the Solomon Islands coup and while walking back from the Colisseum with Liz from the hostel, a gypsy child tried to run off with her bag.

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San Marino, one of the smallest nations in the world. Beautiful.

I traveled with Liz to Pisa for the requisite photos by the Tower and then on to Florence, where we tired ourselves out walking the city to see the sights and searching for the best slice of Italian pizza. I found it enjoyable to travel with someone a few days, the first since my escape from Romania. Yet after five days, it was time to strike out on my own as I headed north to Bologna, where the weather kept it a short visit, and then on to Rimini.

Rimini was my stepping stone for a visit to the Republic of San Marino, one of the smallest countries in the world. Despite its size, I remember the day was bright and warm and walking along the steep and winding cobblestone streets. No tour. Just a public bus from Rimini to San Marino and then back, with three hours to soak in the history and pick up my requisite passport stamp, postage stamp, and coins.

Then on to Venice. I stayed here for only two days. Italy was expensive and Venice was one of the most expensive places in Italy. Twenty dollars an hour at the Internet cafes was plenty reason to never log on. The weather did not favor me here. Mostly it was overcast though it rained once, hard for some time, and I had the opportunity to stroll through a St. Mark’s square filled with water. The city was beautiful with its iconic bridges, narrow streets, and of course canals. Besides the pervasive underlying smell of the water and a wonderful Italian pizza dinner at an outdoor café by the water, my strongest memories are visiting a glass blowers shop on one of the smaller islands and my hostel. I stayed at a women’s lodging on the island of Guidecca run by nuns. This hostel was reached only by water taxi, not too many places where one can say that. My bed was one of 50 in a single room. They served a simple breakfast and the curfew was strict, 10:30 pm. At that time an old nun, dressed in traditional garb, would enter the room and say in English, “Good night girls” and turned off the light.

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Venice was beautiful and pricey. Worth it!

From Venice I headed to Milan with a stop in Verona to visit the old castle, the cathedral, and of course Juliet’s house. Milan was just a stopover itself before heading to Genoa and then to Monterosso in the Cinque Terre. It was here, walking through one of the villages, when one of my most improbably travel meetings occurred. While walking to the train station I passed a woman I could have sworn was GM, who had stayed in the same room as I in the hostel in Skopje, Macedonia. I called out her name and sure it enough It was her! So we spent the day together and had a great time. We wanted to walk along the Via della Amore that linked the last two towns, but it was blocked with a high spiked fence due to recent landslides (there had been a locked gate and a fence on an earlier walk but we had easily circumvented them. We squeezed through the gate and swung ourselves over a cliff face to get around). We had a lot of time to talk while waiting for the train between the towns. Given the towns were small it seemed not many trains stopped there; three zoomed past without stopping. It grew dark and the next train scheduled to stop was in four hours. Luckily a random train stopped and picked the few of us stragglers up and we made it back to Monterosso.

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I did not go in I swear.

Then it was time to go south, way south to Naples. I caught the train to La Spezia and then to Naples seven hours later.

The weather in Naples that early November was perfect. The views of Vesuvius were amazing. The trip to Pompeii was somber and engrossing. The historical sites were wonderful. The pizza was delicious. But I did not like Naples. First, there was a trash pick-up strike and mounds of garbage bags were piled up in several locations. Second, the harassment. Whenever I left my hostel I was exposed to the catcalls, the whistles, the stares, and being followed by men. I felt hunted and stalked. The first day when I had been traveling with a fellow male traveler I had been left alone, but once he had departed and I made my way around on my own, the harassment began.

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Pompeii. Amongst the ruins of the dead, I mostly found the peace I needed from the harassing streets of Naples.

I remember even walking along the road near the waterfront in the direction of the train station and my hostel, a car slowing down alongside me. I do not remember if the driver spoke to me or not but I recall the feeling of dread, particularly after the car drove off and then I watched it make a u-turn, speed down the adjacent street, and then turn to return to drive alongside me. I began to hate Naples and was happy to leave for Sicily.

Next stop Syracuse. It may have been the most classical and beautiful city I visited in all of Italy. The wide clean streets of the historic area were a pleasure to stroll along and such a relief after the gritty and illicit feel of Naples. I wished though I had visited Sicily earlier in the trip because by that time I had become fatigued by Italy. I was tired of the prices and, believe it or not, tired of the pizza. But most of all tired of being harassed. I traveled out to a Greek amphitheater where I sat at the top of the stone seating and reveled in the historic beauty and in being on my own. I saw two young Capuchin monks at the train station, sitting together on a bench, the hoods of their brown robes shielding their faces. I rather wished I had such a robe. I then headed to Catania where I had a day of sightseeing before heading on to my next destination. I love history and culture and Italy is beyond rich in these. Italy is beautiful, but it also took its toll on me and I was glad to move on.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Five Macedonia to Albania

Things became only more interesting in Macedonia.

After checking into the hostel in Skopje I contacted the US Embassy nurse. Although the doctor in Sofia had said the likelihood of rabies was very small, he still suggested I receive the shots. I contacted the nurse on her cell phone and it was costing me a lot of money so I asked if I could call her back on a regular line. She told me to call her back in 10 minutes as she was walking back to her office and she would think what to do. I called back every 10 minutes for the next hour and could not get through. I left two messages, one with the telephone number of the hotel. I stayed there two nights and she never called. The worst part was when I did first talk to her she asked me when I had been bitten and she told me “well, then it is too late.” And even then she never called me back. My first experience with a US Embassy nurse was not a good one.

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Skopje. Dry, horses (!), and ugly modern architecture.

Skopje was warm and dry. The Vadar River though was pretty full and gave the city it’s only real color. The dry grass along its banks, the ecru stone and red tile roofs of traditional areas, and the unfortunate modern structures all rather blended together. There were horses drinking from the river which seemed about as crazy a thing to see in a capital city of Europe; they might as well have been giraffes! What I remember most about Skopje were the rude whistles from men as I toured the old town, the games of chance – high stakes ball under shells – played on the Stone Bridge, and meeting GM from Australia. She arrived to share my room in the hostel as I awaiting the call that would never come from the Embassy nurse. We hit it off right away and chatted for hours until dinner, and then walked together to the new town for some alfresco dining, continuing to talk. She only stayed the one night, heading off to her next destination the following morning, but when she left it was as if we had known one another for a much longer time.

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Beautiful Ohrid. Byzantine churches set on a gorgeous lake.

Next I headed to Ohrid, a town on the banks of the lake of the same name. Both the city and the lake are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the lake for its importance as a Biosphere Reserve and the city for its incredible cultural and architectural sites; it is the site of one of the oldest human settlements in Europe and the location of some pretty spectacular Byzantine churches. It was beautiful. The narrow, winding stone streets of the old town were spectacular. Yet I remember most seeing the US and NATO troops on leave from Kosovo.

I had originally planned to cross into Albania from Ohrid, but the closest I came was taking a bus to the Sveti Naum monastery and from there the return bus to Ohrid drove up to the Albanian border and then turned around. I had been trying to follow the news along the way and it seemed that the government was not functioning too well, so I decided to give it a miss and head south to Greece.

Happy Birthday to me. I am now in the Greek town of Florina after crossing the border from Macedonia. I took a bus from Ohrid to Bitola and from there a taxi to the border, then caught a taxi on the other side to Florina. I had intended to take a bus on to Kalambaka today. But I learned at 1 pm at the bus station there are only two buses a day at 8:30 am and 8:30 pm and the later bus would get me in at 12:30. So here I am celebrating my birthday in a hotel room in rainy border town Florina.

I missed the morning bus the next day too when I showed up at 8:15 am to discover that the bus had already departed. Another time change although I had traveled due south – an example of some political disagreements between countries even affecting the time! I was not impressed with Florina: my first impressions of Greece are not improving. The men all seem on the dirty side. They smoke, stare hard at women, and there are those gems with gold chains resting in the mound of chest hair visible because their shirts are unbuttoned so low. Loud arguments erupt everywhere for no apparent reason.

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Meteorea. Breathtaking if the clouds clear. And yes, there was a Bond move set here.

I skipped waiting again for a direct bus from Florina and opted to instead take the terribly draining four bus route to get to the town of Kastraki. The rain had let up; although it was still cloudy I could see the amazing rock formations that give Meteora its name. However, when I awoke this morning, it was raining once again. Therefore I decided to take the 3:20 bus to Ioannina, but spent the early part of the day going to see at least the biggest monastery. Even though standing across the chasm that separated the parking area from the monastery rock, I could barely make out anything. The fog certainly made things interesting, because standing on the edge of the cliff I could not see anything of what was below. Luckily the rain had stopped and for fifteen minutes the fog around the monastery disappeared and lo and behold there were two more monasteries perched atop their own needle-like rocks. I also lucked out in finding a Belgian couple with a car willing to give me a lift. They took me with them to a nunnery on another rock, and even on to Kalambaka, stopping to get my pack in Kastraki.

I had a brief overnight stop in Ioannina, where it continued to rain. Then I headed on to the island of Corfu. The island was beautiful but my visit was marred by the arrival of a large US Navy vessel that let loose hundreds of 20 something men on the unsuspecting town. I know they are young but that does not excuse their behavior. My first night here I had dinner out and I had sit next to a table of these men. They talked loudly about being laid and how big their d*cks are. They harassed the waitress. And when a small group of protestors arrived with a sign saying “Yankees Go Home,” the men went crazy yelling that Greece “would not even be a country without us.” On another day at a restaurant a table of them loudly rated the physical attributes of every single woman that passed by. I know I was not in a good place to hear and see these kinds of things. I had written in my journal just the day before about a Greek man harassing myself and three other women at a bus stop. I know that not every single one of those sailors was like that. Actually while sightseeing at the Old Fortress in town I fell in with five of them touring the castle and they were thrilled to hear I was from Virginia. At an Internet café I saw one of the officers of the ship. I screwed up the courage to talk with him and to tell him of my disappointment in the behavior I had seen and how it made me feel bad as a woman and an American. He very respectfully listened and thanked me for telling him.

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One of the lovely highlights of Corfu – there were nice things besides harassment.

Then came one of the craziest days of my trip.

I decided to take a cruise to Albania as a belated birthday gift to myself, to make up for Florina. On Monday I was at the port customs and immigration office at 8:30 as the boat was scheduled to depart at 9. At 10 minutest to 9 there is no sign of the boat, or any other passengers. “Don’t worry,” said an immigration official, “your boat leaves at half past 9.” At 9:15 no boat and no other passengers. I run around the corner to the ferry office to ask “where is the boat?” I was told the excursion was cancelled due to bad weather (and I was the only one they could not reach as I was staying in a cheap-o sailor hostel by the waterfront).

I return to the port to tell the officer the trip has been cancelled and to collect my passport. “You want to go to Albania?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Well, that boat over there is going to Albania.” “When,” I ask. “Now,” he replies. I ran back to the ferry office to get my tour refund, return to the port, my passport is stamped, and I leap onto the departing boat as the gangplank is pulled up. It is only once on board that I wonder – where in Albania is this boat going?

I confirm the boat is heading to the same destination as the tour and the other questions of “what am I doing?” and “what will I do when I get there?” fade away.

An hour and a half later we arrive in Saranda, Albania. This is when my problems began. Albania requires no visa but charges Americans a US$45 “border tax.” I was only going to be in Albania for 3 ½ hours, yet the immigration police insisted I pay this fee. I did not have that much money on me. The police were not quite sure what to do with me. A woman waved a paper in English with a bunch of crazy, arbitrary rates, but I caught something at the bottom about daily tourists. I was then taken to the police office and given an interpreter.

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My good-natured police guards – while detained on the boat. I told them to look mean while I would look scared. They just found it all too funny.

I looked at the rate paper again. It said “daily individual tourists can be admitted with a visa-free entrance fee of US$10.” This was translated to the police commander by two tour agents serving as my interpreters but the Comandante refused to believe either of them. The Comandante took me back to the boat and placed me under guard while he held on to my passport – I guess in case I tried to run away. A friendly English speaking taxi driver translated my story of woe for my two police guards and they agreed to take a picture with me.

Then the captain of the boat invited me over to the port café for a drink. The Comandante was a little upset to walk by and find my off the boat and enjoying a drink with several boat workers, but he had my passport and the men called out cheerfully to him, so he seemed to accept my expanded definition of imprisonment. I was told he was working hard to find a solution to my problem.

A few minutes later the Comandante came riding back with the friendly taxi driver and told me to get in the car. I was driven to the local police station where the police captain got out of the car and informed me the driver would take me wherever I wanted to go, while he held on to my passport. So I asked the driver to take me to Butrint, the UNESCO World Heritage Site roman ruins that had been on my original tour. I paid for this privilege for 7000 drachmas, which wile not a bargain was pretty good given I was not technically in the country. I also had to pay the Comandante a “helping fee.” But I did not pay the US$10.

After our trip he returned me to the port where the Comandante returned my passport and I was escorted to the boat back to Greece, my fan club waiving me a cheery goodbye.

So it worked out. I got into Albania. The taxi driver made money. The commander made a little money. I even got two stamps saying I went to Albania, although I guess not quite legally.

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I could never have imagined the adventure to get here – Butrint, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Albania

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Four Hungary to Bulgaria

Hungary got off to a rough start. I dislike arriving in a new country after dark. If I had stayed the night at the unfriendly hostel in Zagreb I would have arrived in Pecs early afternoon the next day. Instead I arrived at Pecs after 9 pm. The train station was a ghost town. No money changers or restaurants or anything at all was open. I had no idea the exchange rate or the direction to go for the hostel. I went to an ATM to withdrawal money. I went with 2000 forint and hoped that I was not withdrawing my life savings. Then I found a taxi.

I arrived after dark with no map of the city and no bearings. I had only the name of a hotel from my youth hostel guide. I probably could have walked – it would only have been about 30 minutes – but I did not know in what direction to go. So I took a taxi and was ripped off royally. The taxi ride, according to the hotel desk clerk, should have cost me only 600 forints, but the driver’s meter moved at a furious pace and it cost me 2000! I was so tired I just wanted to cry because it was all the money I had just taken out of the ATM and I was hungry but I had no money to buy food. The hotel was more expensive than I thought as there were no single rooms. However they were nice enough to let me pay the following day when I could get some money. The hotel was pretty nice and the staff was extremely kind.

The next day though I learned the exchange rate was quite in my favor making the 2000 forints only about US$7 and Pecs turned out to be a very pretty town. After two days I headed to Budapest.

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A little Buda and a little Pest

I did not write much on Budapest. My time there was a lovely respite after the realities of the Balkans and the coming craziness of Romania. I took day trips to Szentendre and Eger, the latter where I had a glass of the famous local red wine with my Hungarian pizza lunch and then walked delightfully buzzed through the castle. (I rarely drink so one strong Hungarian red was quite the treat) I walked both hilly Buda and flat Pest, crossing the Danube multiple times. I soaked in the Turkish baths and sat languidly in parks overlooking the city. I even eschewed my usual alone time and hung out with several other backpackers from the hostel, most of whom were also taking breaks from the rigors of the road while in Budapest. I played billiards at the hostel and even made out with a fellow backpacker (ha! I bet you were beginning to think I was too prudish for such a thing.) Budapest seemed to be the place to let my hair down.

It was a good thing because Romania was about to test my traveler mettle.

Romania. So far it has been quite a test for me. I took an overnight train from Budapest. When I bought my ticket I picked up a handy flyer on how to stay safe on the train. One tip was not to sit in a train compartment alone. Unfortunately I was the only person in my compartment and there seemed only ten other people in the whole car. I thought other people might come in, but no one ever did. As a result I felt a bit uncomfortable sleeping. The pamphlet mentioned that many compartment doors, when closed, could not be opened from the outside. Not my compartment door. I had a bicycle chain with me to sometimes secure my backpack if I need to use the facilities. I could have chained it closed had there been anything to chain it to. So I made sandwiches I had made and packed and read a book.

I had fallen asleep when after 11 pm a conductor came to check my ticket. He informed me I was in the wrong car. I pointed to my ticket, which clearly showed car 454, the car I was in. He pulled out a book showing the train carriages—there were two cars with the same number! I was told to move to the next car because very soon the train would separate. At the station my passport was checked by border officials and I waited a while. I could feel the train being disconnected, but I was still alone in my compartment and unsure if I was in the right place. I went in search of someone to ask but there was no one else in my car or any of the other cars I checked! I looked outside of the train, in the pitch black of the Hungarian-Romanian border station, and saw no one. I began to panic. I was very tired. Finally, I saw a man with a flashlight and I asked him if I was on the train to Sighosoara. He said no and began to laugh. “Where?” I asked. He pointed off into the distance and with a sinking feeling I came to the conclusion I had been left behind. I lost my cool, kicked the train door, and could feel tears starting to form.

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Sighisoara. It does not come off as the hometown of a blood-thirsty prince.

I gathered up my things and got off the train to look for someone. Picking my way along the train tracks in the dark I found some border officials who showed me my train – still there but on another track. Again, I was the only person in my compartment, but I spoke with the other six people in the car. Three were Romanians, one of which spoke English, the other three were Czech or Croatian, two of which spoke English. I tried to settle down to sleep, but this train was in much poorer condition than the Hungarian train. My previous compartment had been warm, the new was one was very cold. We stopped again at the Romanian side for some time for the border formalities.

I woke up around 6:10 am and began to prepare to disembark. The train was scheduled to arrive in Sighisoara at 6:35. The time came and went with no sign of my stop. I asked a woman in my car who told me we had passed the stop some time before. After a minute or two of despair, I decided to continue on to Brasov and just find a place to stay there. Luckily no train conductors came to check my ticket on the train or upon exiting the station in Brasov. I later learned that there had been a time change; Romania was one hour ahead. So when I woke at 6:10 it really had been 7:10.

The excitement of Romania did not end there. From Brasov I took a day trip to Sighisoara, the birth place of Vlad Tepes or Dracula. When I took a bus to the Brasov train station, I had a narrow escape from two overzealous ticket checkers.

I was pulled off the bus by two bus ticket collectors who demanded I show them my passport. I refused and they pulled out some licenses that appeared as if they had been made on a Fisher Price laminating machine and demanded my passport again. My offense was not validating the 20 cent bus ticket with a hole punch machine that looked more like a bottle opener. I refused again. I had after all bought a bus ticket and had given it to one of them. I refused again and tried to walk away. They grabbed my arms and I shook them off and yelled at them. They followed me five or ten minutes down the street threatening me with the police and fines of $1000, occasionally coming close and shoving me. I was nervous but grateful it was broad daylight and I tried my best to ignore them. Finally I turned around and poked my finger into the chest of one of the men, yelled for him to leave me alone, and then turned and bolted down the street, running as fast as I could toward the train station. They pursued for a block or two and then gave up. Whew. I figure they were probably not even legit bus people but had hoped I would be afraid enough to give them money or my passport, which they would then use to extort money for its return.

Despite the great bus ticket chase, I enjoyed my days in Brasov. I remember the amazing beauty of the old town; particularly people watching as I slowly dined in a sidewalk café on the town square. Day trips to the medieval town of Sighisoara and to Bran Castle, getting my Vlad Tepes fix, were in order. Sighisoara, with the exception of some modern conveniences, felt little changed since the days The Impaler took his baby steps in the town. I had lunch at Casa Dracul but kept to a light meal despite blood being on the menu. In keeping with apparent Romanian tradition to try to rip off foreigners the restaurant tried to pull a fast one by sneakily adding the “bread I didn’t order or eat” charge, but I was on to that one. At some ruins before Bran Castle, myself and two other backpackers were stalked by a ticket seller demanding a camera charge – for taking pictures of some low stone ruins on a hillside. I did not relent on that one either.

From Brasov I headed to Bucharest with a stop off to tour the more modern neo-Renaissance Peles Castle in Sinaia. I enjoyed the tour of the palace and the wooded walk back to the train station. A fellow US traveler joined me. He was heading north, while I south, but on the way to the train station he regaled me with a tale of his recent attack by dogs. I was fascinated, but would soon realize that his words were more than apocryphal.

I previously wrote about my own unfortunate incident with a dog attack in Bucharest and departure from Romania in my post A Blast from My Travel Past. It is unfortunate that my eight days in Romania are colored by so many attempts at minor extortion and bribery culminating in the dog attack. Even on departure day, an additional swindling attempt and a fake border official wrapped up my visit. I cannot say I was not glad to put Romania behind me.

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The photo is a bit blurry but I liken it to “instagraming” instead because it gives Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo a soft dreamlike feel which it was after Romania.

I traveled five days in Bulgaria with an Aussie backpacker I met my last day in Bucharest, after returning from my dog confrontation. We stopped first at Veliko Tarnovo to visit the historic town and castle that served as Bulgaria’s medieval capital. Then we headed on to Sofia, the modern day capital. What I remember most about Sofia is unfortunately not any of the sites other than the gold-brick streets. I remember an old woman swathed in traditional garb and baggy stockings squatting right in the middle of the road to, uh, loosen her bowels. I remember contacting the US Embassy doctor to see about getting my rabies shots. He arranged to come to the hostel to give me the first shot (he called back later to suggest I wait until arrival in Macedonia as they had the international grade serum for the US troops stationed there, rather than the Bulgarian-made serum). I also remember meeting the US single mom traveling with her seven year old son; they were also staying in the hostel and interestingly enough I would meet them again, six months later, on the north shore of Bali. It’s funny what you remember.

On our last day the Aussie and I visited Rila Monastery. Then the following day we parted ways as I headed to Macedonia.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Three Austria to Croatia

After Liechtenstein I returned again to Austria. I stopped first for a few hours in Innsbruck to break up the train journey and then continued on to Salzburg. I remember the scenery from the train was beautiful and I sat next to an American woman who worked as an opera singer in Europe. I loved Salzburg. I took a day tour out to the Hallein Salt Mine and another day to the whimsical Hellbrunn Palace. I remember both trips quite well although my diary is mum on them both. I also spent a day exploring the hilly city itself. It seems hard to believe it was just a day given I walked up to the castle and to Mozart’s birthplace and many places in-between. Generally I could only write when on long trips between cities/countries because I filled each day at a destination: My God, the time flies. I put my pen down to rest and days pass. There is just so much to do and see – I am constantly moving. I think my only times to rest are when I am asleep or when I am eating. Occasionally, I have a long train or bus ride, but I don’t always take advantage of the time to write in my diary.

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Happy to be in Salzburg

I also felt that I had to keep moving. I am waiting for a train to take me to Slovenia. I had wanted to stay another day in Salzburg, but the weather was not very good yesterday so I thought I should move on today. Besides, I am six days behind schedule due to so many other places I wanted to stay just an extra day in… On the way to Slovenia, I recall the train ride was rather eventful. First at the border the Slovenian immigration officer spent a very long time examining my passport, almost causing me to miss the train. For one year, between April 1993 and March 1994 the US issued passports with a green cover to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Consular Service. Though I had had that passport for several years and had not previously had an issue, the Slovenian border patrol doubted its authenticity! The other bit of drama happened when part of the train uncoupled from the rest and did not continue into Slovenia. Two travelers I had been talking with in one train car realized they had left their backpacks in another car and went back to discover that car was no longer part of the train! Unusual in my travels, I did not much care for Slovenia. I am now in Ljubljana, Slovenia and I have four hours to kill before the overnight bus to Split, Croatia. This is my second day in Ljubljana and I feel it is too long. While in Bled, I met a girl who had just come from here and she told me she had loved it and wanted to love here, but I am not so impressed. There is something here I do not quite like, but I cannot quite put my finger on it. Bled however was beautiful and I can imagine going back there. Then in Split, Croatia I had one of my most disorienting experiences while backpacking. I had arrived on the overnight bus from Ljubljana , still groggy as I disembarked into a crowd of pension owners. At the time the economy was not in very good shape and many families were making ends meet by renting rooms in their homes, often without a license. A man with such a pension met my bus and I agreed to check it out. I followed him from the bus stop, up the hill, some twenty minutes on foot. In uncharacteristic fashion, I paid no attention to where we were going. I am lost. Or rather I know where I am, but I cannot find the pension where I am staying. When my bus arrived this morning at 6 am, I went with the first guy that offered a room. I was very tired and we walked the whole way to his house, but it was very confusing. A few hours later I went back into town, but with another person staying in the same home, and we went another way. About 10:30 I began to head back. I passed a few landmarks and figured I would find it any moment, but I didn’t. I looked for a whole hour. Then I was so dehydrated and hungry I turned around and went back to town and then it took me nearly an hour to find a place to eat. I tried again to retrace my steps this morning and find the apartment. Nope. I do not know the street it is on or the name of the man I am “renting” from. I have only the key with no name on it. I am tired and want to lie down. Now it is 1:40 and I still do not know where it is. Despite that hiccup (I stayed another day in town as a result) and the poor weather, I enjoyed Split very much. Diocletian’s palace and the Roman ruins at Solin were fascinating. Actually, Diocletian’s palace is more than great, it is flat out amazing. Though I only remained in Split two days, my strongest memory, besides feeling like a fool for losing my guesthouse, was the sense of awe at walking in a lightly falling rain in the historic center of Split, past shops and apartments, the marble of the street slick and slippery, and to think it had once been the floor of a Roman residential complex. I next headed to the stunningly beautiful coastal town of Dubrovnik. I loved being in Dubrovnik. I know this because I stayed there for three whole days! I noted this in my diary: I stayed three days (!) in a lovely pension for less than $10 a night. I say I stayed three days especially because I have stayed for three days in only two other places-Cesky Krumlov and Krakow; they have all been trip highlights. The weather was absolutely perfect – warm, sunny, bright and clear. The blue sky glinting off the turquoise waters of Adriatic Sea. The walled city of the 16th century Old Town jutting magnificently into the sea. And I spent most of my days in deep conversation contemplating the meaning of life and love and travel with a male UK backpacker staying at the same pension; I am somewhat sorry we never stayed in touch. Despite the idyllic setting, there was still a pall over the city. The tours of the Old Town somberly detailed the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik, in which the UNESCO World Heritage Site was heavily bombarded, damaging more than 60% of the buildings and killing approximately 88 civilians. Nine years later and restoration had really only just begun. Mortar damage was still visible. It was in Dubrovnik that the reality of the recent war and its aftermath crept into my travel reverie. My original plan had been to travel from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, but looking at a map it did not make a lot of sense. Rather than backtrack up the Croatian coast and cut northeast to the Croatian capital, I decided to cut through Bosnia, visiting a place or two along the way. I was thinking geographically rather than geo-politically. The kind pension owner in Dubrovnik had supplied me with the name and contact information of a woman in Sarajevo who also rented out rooms. With that in my hand I boarded a bus headed into Bosnia. At the border a South American backpacker, I think Venezuelan, was ejected from the bus and left at the small border patrol post because he did not have a visa. I watched him standing forlornly by the side of the road, looking very alone.

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Peacekeepers walk through the market in Sarajevo.

From the border it took about two hours to reach Mostar, the cultural capital of the Herzegovina region. I had wanted to stop there, perhaps for a night, and see the site where Stari Most, the 16th century Ottoman bridge which had been destroyed in 1993 during the war, had stood. When the bus stopped in the center of town, I changed my mind. From the bus windows I could see buildings riddled with bullets holes and several tanks manned by international peacekeeping forces. I thought I heard gun fire. I reasoned the highlight of the historic town, the bridge, lay in ruins, so there was no need to get off. I stayed put. The pension owner’s friend met me at the bus station in Sarajevo, which was a nice welcome after two and a half more hours on the bus through countryside that still showed signs of the war. Sarajevo too has buildings more full of bullet holes than people, and the scars of war are also plain on the sidewalks as you walk by “Sarajevo Roses,” imprints of where mortar shells hit that were later filled with red resin. The apartment I am staying in is in what had been the Serbian controlled area, and I walked along the road once dubbed “Sniper’s Alley” to the damaged iconic yellow Holiday Inn and into the Old Town. The woman I am staying with lost her husband in the war, though not in any battle. She pantomimed someone knocking on the door and bursting in, demanding something. A gun was held to her face and I guessed it was at this time her husband was killed. She receives 100 convertible marks a month in pension. With all the international forces with expense accounts in town, Sarajevo is not a very cheap place to live, so she tries to take people like myself in. My strongest memories of Sarajevo are these: the guesthouse owner pantomiming her sad tale, standing on the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, walking past armed peacekeepers in the market, and passing burnt out buildings where families appeared to be residing while walking to the bus station for my departure. The overnight bus from Sarajevo to Zagreb was to take eight hours. Around midnight we entered the Republika Srpska, where though not an official international border, they had their own border check. It was almost pitch black outside with only the dim fluorescent light from the border control building. Two tall male immigration officials entered the bus and began checking passports. I was sitting in the back of the bus with three male backpackers from Canada. To our knowledge we were the only non-Bosnians on the bus; we were at least the only English speakers. The officials reached us and motioned for our passports. We all complied. Then we were all asked to get off the bus. I will not lie and say I did not feel a touch of panic. As my Canadian counterparts and I waited near the bus, we all talked in soft tones about what this might mean. It seemed to be taking the officials a long time. This had not been expected, and though I did not anticipate any problem, I did think back to the poor Venezuelan left behind not a week before. They had taken our passports and gone into the building. I do not remember if they told us much or anything at all, but we knew we had to wait. We did not know if the bus driver and the other passengers would wait for us. After what seemed like an eternity but may have been only ten minutes our passports were returned to us and we silently, gratefully, returned to the bus. I arrived in Zagreb around 7 am, but the hostel would not let me in until 2 pm and they would not hold my bags either. So I took my pack over to the left luggage at the railway station and then set out to see the city. I picked up a guide and did a walking tour, and then went to a cemetery, supposedly one of the most beautiful in Europe. The cemetery was lovely, though I do not spend a lot of time in them to really compare. But given my recent trip to Bosnia and my preoccupation with thoughts of war and death, I think I should not have gone. As I was preparing to leave, a funeral procession entered. I decided to leave for Hungary that day if I could. I liked Zagreb, I liked it much more than Ljubljana, but I wanted to move on.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Two Slovakia to Liechtenstein

I arrived in the beautiful east-central (now UNESCO World Heritage Site) Slovakian town of Levoča. I was feeling pretty darn good about myself and my backpacking prowess. I was getting used to the weight of the pack, packing and unpacking, finding accommodation and transport. So of course something shitty happened.

Not the “no one will change my Lithuanian Litas” shitty or “I have no money for a public toilet” shitty, but more “the world is full of creeps” shitty.

I headed for the bus stop to go to Spissky Hrad, the largest castle in Slovakia. I was passing through a town gate when I saw a tiny black kitten. I am a sucker for cats, especially black kittens, and I was appalled that someone had abandoned it there.

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Spissky Hrad is a castle worth seeing

I tried to keep walking, I did, but I just had to pick it up. I imagine on its own it will die, so I wanted to make it feel loved, if even for a short time. I noticed a guy ride through the gate on a bicycle, and then stop just outside and turn around. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him fiddling with the front of his pants, but thought, well men just have to adjust themselves in public sometimes. Then it occurred to me that he might flash me, so I wasn’t going to look.

I was wearing a tank top and had the kitten near my face. The bike guy, still on his bike, leaned over and made some sympathetic noises and started to pet the cat. Suddenly he put his hand down my shirt and grabbed my left breast. I pushed his hand away and shouted “nyet” (or some version of that), slapped him really hard and then kicked him really hard, repeatedly. He rode away pretty quickly after getting himself squared away on his bike.

I was pretty worked up after that situation and had a bit of a hard time putting it behind me. I did continue on to the castle and I remember how very much I enjoyed it. The setting was amazing. I had a lovely meal in a restaurant on the town square. I felt good that I had punched and kicked him, but it was so maddening and troubling it had happened in the first place. I thought if I see him again I am going to chase him down and kick the crap out of him some more. So I spent the rest of the time there looking around for that guy.

Next was the castle town of Trencin and Bratislava, from where I took a boat tour on the Danube. I had great weather every day in Slovakia and it is a beautiful country, but I wanted to move on.

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At the ruins of Devin Castle on my Danube river tour from Bratislava

I headed next to Vienna.

Based on a recommendation from a girl at the hostel in Krakow, I stayed in a university dormitory as the students were away for summer break. For about $13.50 I had my own room, very convenient to tourist sites by tram and subway. Fresh from my first operatic experience in Latvia, and feeling like a splurge, I bought a ticket to a Mozart and Strauss concert which included opera singing and ballet. At $28 it was not hugely expensive, but it cost more than any single day in Slovakia and Poland. (I mean in total, everything included from hostel and food, sightseeing and toilets) I also visited the St. Stephen’s Church and the Hofsburg Palace. That was all in one day! On my second and final day I visited Schonbrunn Palace. Once in the morning for the grand tour of 40 of the 1,440 rooms and later to stroll in the gardens. I loved Vienna and despite melting in my un-air-conditioned student room I remember the two days vividly. (I started my first ever Harry Potter book here) Yet given my budget I could not stay longer and go as far as I wanted.

From Vienna I headed next to the Czech Republic. As I had visited with my aunt only the year before while visiting her in Germany, and it being the high tourist season, I decided to skip Prague and see other cities. I went first to Brno, the only city with a bus from Vienna besides Prague. Though I only walked around the old town for three hours while waiting for my onward bus to Telč, I have a memory of the cobblestones and the alleyways.

Brno was nice, but I wanted to live in Telč. I stayed in a pension on the main historic plaza and remember eating a fabulous dinner at a place on the square, sitting in outdoor seating watching people and the sun set. Another stunning UNESCO World Heritage City, Telč was the first city on my trip where I started imagining myself returning to live for awhile. Until I arrived next at Český Krumlov. Český Krumlov really stole my heart.

In Telč I met two German-Serbian sisters with whom I traveled with the next several days. We stayed at the same guesthouse in Český Krumlov and toured around together. The sisters, Zenet and Sami, introduced me to some Czech cuisine they said was much like the food they grew up with. On our final day in CE we took on what turned out to be an epic bike tour through the countryside.

The woman at the tourist agency swore the route we were about to undertake would take only three hours to complete. We set off around 11:40 and the bikes were due back at 6 pm. We also had a bus out that evening from Krumlov to Budejovice in order to catch the bus to Munich. We arrived back at 5:59 pm, our hands, legs, and bottoms very sore. At least 50% of the route was up steep rock strewn hiking trails or down steep paved inclines, which made us go way too fast. We didn’t have good brakes on the bikes so our hands were sore from clutching them. When we returned the bikes the woman told us that usually her two sons, 5 and 8 years old, can make the trip in less than 4 hours…

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Sami pushing her bike through the gorgeous Czech countryside

I had had no plans to visit Germany on this trip, but I enjoyed the company of Zenet and Sami so much that when they invited me to come and stay with them in Munich for a few days I readily agreed. I stayed in Sami’s apartment while sightseeing around the city. She also gave me a behind the scenes look at Oktoberfest as the company she worked for was involved in the preparations. I was a bit sorry to bid the sisters farewell as I then headed off to Bavaria.

As I had made this detour into Germany I might as well make the most of it, right? I headed on to Füssen to visit the castles of Mad King Ludwig. I visited Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, and Linderhof. The weather was perfect every day in Germany.

At the train station I inquired how I might get to Austria and the information clerk pointed down the street and told me to walk for a kilometer! However, I headed next to Liechtenstein. Just because.

Unfortunately when I arrived there it was overcast and later began to rain. Yet despite being told to give the little country a miss, I am glad I made the trip. It was just interesting to visit such a small country and get a sense of its size and history. It was so green! I climbed up to Vaduz castle and was rewarded with overcast, thought still pretty, views. I was very excited to get the stamp in my passport even though I had to go to a post office in town and pay for it. I might like to come again, though to arrive from the Swiss side and stay another day or two (in good weather) and venture to the other towns, or even walk across the country! It is a mere 6 kilometers wide!

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My proof I made it to Liechtenstein