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

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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