The flight from Santorini to Athens is a short one, so it wasn’t long after I waved goodbye to that beautiful island that I was back on another Aegean airlines flight heading towards Istanbul. Aegean airlines was becoming a favourite and this time I was flying business class, believe it or not it was cheaper than economy the day I booked. So, there I was winging my way back over the sparkling blue Aegean Sea towards my new destination.
I had met Selin in the Hedonist Hostel in Belgrade (yes, that wonderful hostel where I made so many good friends), a delightful young lady from Istanbul who invited me to come over so she could show me around her city. Once I had made the decision to go to Santorini I thought that would be a good opportunity to accept Selin’s invitation to Istanbul while I was in the area, I’m so glad I did.
I arrived safe and sound in Istanbul airport, the queue for visa purchase and passport control alone took one and a half hours to get through, so after landing at 3.00pm I didn’t get to my room till 6pm! Luckily I had booked the airport transfer from the Orient Hostel, it cost 25 euros but it was worth it seeing as I had no idea where I was going and it was getting late.
Finally I met up with Selin and she took me on my night time orientation of Istanbul. By the time we’d finished dinner my sense of humour was returning properly- it had been a challenge hanging on to it through the airport procedures and the less than impressive hostel, but hang on I did, just by the skin of my teeth.
We had a traditional dish for dinner (I wish I could remember the name of it) and then started the night sightseeing at the port.
The port is full of restaurants cafes and bars, all lit up in neon which reflects beautifully in the water. Along the pier you can buy street food and tea, but we’d already eaten so I wasn’t tempted. From the port we went to Istiklal Avenue, the 1.4 kilometre pedestrian street. At the southern end is the world’s second oldest subway train and the oldest in Istanbul. It began service in 1875.
The train, known locally as The Tünel, meant that diplomats and businessmen could travel between their harbour side offices in Karaköy (Galata) on the Golden Horn and their hilltop residences in Beyoğlu in 11/2 minutes on steam-powered, gas-lit, cable-drawn cars. So of course it is a must to travel on, even if it is for only one station.
Out of the train we headed up Istiklal Avenue towards
past boutiques, bookstores, cafes, night clubs, street musicians and seafood sellers who would withdraw into the shadows if they saw police (apparently they are not supposed to sell fresh seafood there). The crowds were incredible, of course this was August and Istanbul is a popular city.
We finally reached Taksim Square and the Monument of the Republic commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The monument was created by the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica. The people portrayed in the sculpture are the founders of the Turkish Republic.
It was difficult to believe that only 2 months earlier this area was the place of so much violence and protest. Reportedly it started with protests against the proposed urban development of Gezi Park and escalated into so much more. I am not going to go into any detail here, there is plenty of information online about this massive event in May/June 2013. A few weeks earlier during my stay in Berlin I had met a young backpacker who was working in a hostel at Taksim Square during the uprising, he said it was quite an experience.
Oh, and what day did I choose to arrive in Istanbul? Victory day! A national holiday hence the massive crowds at the airport and everywhere else!
We walked back along the Avenue, dropped into a club for a beer before parting ways for a good night’s sleep before another day of exploration.
Day 2 – Bathing and an island trip
The next day was a nicely paced quietish day. We started with Selin introducing me to a traditional Hammam (Turkish bath). It is an interesting process, sauna (which I shouldn’t really do as I get badly heat affected, so only did 5 mins), cold pool (hate cold water so avoided that), steam room (same problem as sauna so spent even less time in there), lots of washes of water where many other ladies were also pouring water on themselves while waiting for their turn to be scrubbed. The scrub is very thorough with a loofah while lying on a marble slab, and was followed by a massage and a soapy wash. I’m sure that scrub took off about 5 layers of skin! I was expecting to have lost my tan when I came out, but no, it was still there. If you are planning on going to a Hammam make sure you do good research or go with a local as I did, I believe that not all baths are great and anyway it is such a different process that there is no way of guessing what the protocol is. Washed and scrubbed we were off for coffee and cake, a ferry to the large island, lots of walking, some Turkish ice cream and a very long ferry ride back.
There are islands to visit when you want to get away from the city. The Prince Islands (Adalar) are a must. We only went to Buyukada (the big island ) which was just a delight. I love boat travel of any sort and being on a ferry on the Bosporus was by itself something to make me smile, but then adding the destination made it all the more special. I had no idea what to expect, this was all new and exciting. First thing to notice is that there is no motorised transport there, just bikes, horse drawn carriages and electric golf carts, what a delight. Closer to the port is where you find the majority of restaurants, shops, road side sellers and ice cream vendors, all as colourful and interesting as any good novel with a good plot would have you expect.
We set off on foot to explore a little of the island. I was struck by the architecture of the houses so reminiscent of a past age. The gardens full of colour, at that time mainly bougainvillea and the blessed quietness. Yes there are the sounds of peoples’ voices and the clip clop of horses hooves, but that’s it! No cars, no horns, no motorbikes! It was a delight and truly a must to visit as an escape from the noise of the city. The ice cream vendors are a delight in colourful costume. Turkish ice cream has mastic as an ingredient and so it is very stretchy. This means that the vendors can put on quite a show stretching and pulling the ice cream, almost a circus performance.
We originally planned to see the Whirling Devishes but because the ferry trip was so long and Selin needed to go home it was too late, so we hoped that they would be doing their thing again the next night.
Day 3 – Spices and Church
Yet another massive day! First off a walk through the spice bazaar, I thought I’d gone to heaven – the beautiful aroma of coffee followed by, and mingling with, every spice you could possibly think of!
Then I even went to
church – well I went into a church and stayed there for quite some time but not for a normal Sunday service! There is a Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul that has the reputation for granting wishes.
On the first day of each month, Hundreds of people from all faiths flock to the Ayın Biri Church where they buy tiny silver keys to represent their deepest wishes and then attempt to unlock various icons in the two levels of the church. Meanwhile the priest is holding a service. Then the priest goes down stairs and sprays holy water on everyone and all that is followed by lining up again to get a personal blessing. It was quite an event, the best thing is that it’s all faiths all in together doing the same thing, I loved it! Yes, of course I got my personal blessing.
After the church service and blessings we had morning tea at the Dolmabahce Palace and then a tour through the palace. They even took us through the Harem area. The grand ceremonial hall is indescribably intricate and gorgeous I can recommend going on the tour.
Dolmahce Palace was first lived in in 1856 and was home to six Sultans until 1924 when the caliphate was abolished. The founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used the palace as a Summer residence and spent the last days of his life there in 1938. Now it is managed by the Directorate of National Palaces and the only way to see it is with a guided tour.
Then more walking, more eating, a beer and then it was a farewell ferry ride, hugs goodbye and I went back to my hostel crossing the water alone. We didn’t make it to the Dervishes that night either. I am so grateful to Selin for entertaining me and showing me Istanbul in a way that most tourists don’t get to see. It helps to know a local.
Day 4 – Going solo in Istanbul
My last day in Istanbul was spent on my own, attempting to do the ‘touristy’ things. The day ended up quite differently to what I expected. I woke up rather late so had breakfast/lunch at the Dervish café on my way to the attractions. I found lamb chops!! cutlets really, but real grilled lamb! Yay! And coffee of course. I discovered that Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) is closed on Mondays so I missed out on that, the crowds at Topkapi palace were beyond my capabilities of handling so I thought I’d try to conquer the Turkish postal system and send some stuff home – FAIL!
Not to worry, I headed off to Sirkeci railway station instead to check on a sign I had noticed about a Whirling Dervish show. While doing that I discovered the original Orient Express restaurant. Now that was fun! When I first noticed the restaurant there was a gentleman sitting there just like one of Agatha Christie’s characters in white suit and hat. I went back, closer to show time, to have afternoon tea and take photos. At another table there were 3 lovely English ladies who were even more excited than I about finding the place and a gentleman from Sydney who’s wife had to go home to work after being at a wedding in Cyprus, he continued on to Turkey before heading home. They came over to say hello and ended up joining me. It seriously felt like an unfolding Agatha plot and I fully expected Poirot to appear at any moment. Do I sound a little excited about that discovery? You bet I am.
Whirling Dervishes are truly amazing. The band played for half an hour first, then accompanied the whirling which was very meditational. It is impossible to convey the process and the feelings evoked, you just have to be there. I discovered that Alex (the Aussie I met at the restaurant) was staying in a hotel not far from me so we both had someone to talk to on the way back. And so my whirlwind visit to Istanbul drew to a close, what a weekend that was! I will have to return and spend longer, three days was only an entrée.
3 Sept 2013
Groundhog Day! it’s 1:15pm and here I was at Athens airport again! Only difference is that this time I am waiting for my flight to Kalamata, bring it on – olives, yeah!
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. This is why it is essential to leave big spaces of unscheduled time in your travels. I found myself at Athens airport with a couple of hours to kill till next check-in and so there was time to think, wonder and be grateful for how my healing trip was working out.
I had no intention originally to be in Greece at all this trip (and yet I would find myself at Athens airport many times over the next couple of weeks), let alone going to my next stop – Santorini! I was loving this going with the flow thing. Plans for an unscheduled visit to St Petersburg from Sweden became way too hard so I threw all my ideas up in the air and what landed in my intuition was Santorini. Could I have chosen a place any further away? I began dreaming of some real chill out time, sunsets, Greek coffee and ocean. No alarm clocks (unless I decided to catch a sunrise or three) and after the Copenhagen experiences definitely no drunk backpackers waking me up. It was time for some ‘alone’ time in my own room. The thought crossed my mind ‘Who knows I may even find my inspiration and my poetry muse might return’ She had been absent while I was running around exploring.
I arrived in Santorini safely, so glad the pilot was obviously experienced, it’s a very sharp turn to line up for landing and a very short runway. It was after sunset when we landed. Driving up to Oia the twinkling lights of the various villages on the way were delightful and there was a traffic jam in Thira (to be expected I suppose).
You can’t drive within the actual village of Oia, it is all very narrow cobbled lanes winding between buildings and up and down steps, just delightful. So I was taken on foot to my hotel from the tourist office. The lane leading to my hotel is the main pedestrian thoroughfare to all the main places so, of course, it is full of jewellery shops, art galleries, souvenirs and wall to wall tourists. Everything is open late so after dumping my luggage I was off.
I thought the hotel had got up and moved by the time I’d gone out supermarket shopping and searching for a swimming costume – but no, it was there, I just kept walking past the narrow lane opening. After Scandinavia, prices on Santorini appeared reasonable, I got 2 whole Serbian salamis, 200g of Cretan cheese and a bottle of local wine for 14 euros, still expensive but less than I expected – that will last a few days (no, not the wine, that was guzzled as I was arguing with the wifi!).
I was wondering whether I should have emptied that bottle given the configuration of my room. My room number was 121, (interesting only because that was my house number back home) it had a green door, and needless to say the Green Door lyrics started, ‘what’s behind the green door’? Well let me tell you what was behind my green door. Firstly the entire floor was tiled, I understood why later when I realised that the humidity is so high that carpet would probably rot, and cleaning was easier. However, I became aware of certain safety issues. Firstly both the mirror and the fridge were down 4 tiled steps with no handrail, so I would need to be sure that my feet weren’t wet when going down there. Secondly the mezzanine bedroom was up six tiled semi-spiral steps, with no handrail, so I would need to make sure that if I had to go to the bathroom down stairs at night, to turn the light on and be fully awake! I’ve had way too many altercations with stairs in my life. Thirdly the ‘bedroom’ was in a replica cave with a curved ceiling (they have a love in Santorini of replicating the caves that people used to live in and there are many curves in Cycladic architecture) so even I (at 5 foot 2 inches) couldn’t stand up. After banging my head on that very hard ceiling several times I finally remembered that I had to slide out of bed first then keep my head bent. As a result I left my bag and all my clothes on the lower level. On the up side, the bed did have a railing so I was unlikely to fall out of bed onto the lower floor. And people worry about staying in hostels! Having said all of that it was a lovely hotel, the staff were really nice and the breakfast plentiful, it was just a matter of getting used to something very different and quite charming.
My first day dawned in time to have the included breakfast, so lovely sitting outside my door by the pool enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the warm morning air. And then I was off exploring.
My first daylight walk and I fell in love! Yes I know, that’s very fickle of me, after all I had loved so many places so far, but, funnily enough this country girl has an island heart and it seems that pieces of land surrounded by ocean just carry me away. Now I was torn between Capri and Santorini as favourite islands (I don’t include Venice in the comparison, it is in a love category all of its own), both Capri and Santorini are postcard perfect, but I guess as I was in Oia at the time it was Santorini all the way.
My camera was working overtime as I meandered along the cobbles and flagstones finding all sorts of places. It is impossible to take a bad photo in Oia. The winding lanes, the stunning Cycladic white houses with their soft curves and the blue domed churches, the bright pink and the subtler white Bougainvillea bursting with colour against the starkness of the white stone buildings. Then the caldera, sparkling blue in the bright Aegean sunlight, boats and yachts cutting through the water as they headed towards beaches or the volcano. I have seen some stunning sights, but this place took the prize.
I spent that first day also keeping an eye out for alternative places for watching the sunset. Even in the daytime it was obvious that the crowds would be horrific at the traditional viewing
spot, the Kastro, ruins of a mediaeval fortress built by the Venetians in the 1200s at the most northerly point of the village.
My first Santorini sunset
I just love how things get manifested in my life. I was walking past King Neptunes restaurant on my afternoon walk, wondering where to watch the sunset when I happened to stop and look at the menu (now you have to understand that I had no idea of compass points and hadn’t thought about it, just, for some reason, assumed that the sun would set over the caldera. I noticed that Neptunes restaurant had lamb on the menu (I had been dreaming of lamb since I left home) then I noticed that they had a rooftop terrace, so I wandered up. That’s when I discovered that west was not over the caldera at all! And the tables facing west were all reserved (of course). However, the owner said that in fact the perfect table WAS reserved but it was cancelled, needless to say I grabbed it. And what a delight it turned out to be, the meal was spectacular and the sunset just beautiful. As always interesting things happened. The next table had been booked by a young lady I’d noticed on the same flight. It turned out that she was a Ukrainian 21 year old medical student so she ended up joining me instead of us talking across tables and I got to learn a bit more about the world – Oh, I do love travel! Every day is a good day, because every day I learn something new. We have remained social media friends and so one day I will get to Ukraine to visit yet another friend in another new place. Dinner and the sunset over I went to see what happens at night in this beautiful place.
Day Two – The morning after the night before
Well that was an interesting night! I was in my room writing up my story for my Facebook friends when just as I realised that it was 1.30am and I should go to bed, the lights went out, literally. Having conveniently forgotten about islands, small towns and sudden blackouts I had to cast my mind to what to do. Then I remembered that my dear son Ginski, who, over the years has said many things both useful and unuseful, had given me a piece of backpacker advice, that was about to prove to be one of the most sensible things that he has ever said…..’you need a headlamp Mum’ he said to me at Lake Bled in Slovenia. He, having travelled for the previous 2 years was, of course, more experienced in these things. I bought one in Ljubljana and hadn’t had a lot of need for it but boy did it come in handy that night, as did my phone which I needed to find the lamp! It was fun crawling up those steps (which didn’t have a banister) to the bedroom in total darkness to find the phone! But at a least I knew where it was, unlike the headlamp which was buried in my bag.
After realising that the whole town of Oia was blacked out, not just the hotel, of course I had to go and find out what Santorinians do at these times. The lamp wasn’t needed outside, it was half moon so there was plenty of light. The restaurant across the lane was lit up like a Christmas tree and I could hear the hum of a generator. Earlier in the evening I had noticed a band playing in the church square so I went that way in case things were happening. Yes, I found the band still playing, people still dancing, dogs still wandering, and old men still smoking by the light of the moon. The caldera was dark and only faintly reflected the lights from cliff top villages that hadn’t been blacked out, obviously the problem was local. A little breeze played at the hem of my dress and brought just enough cool into the air. I finally decided I really ought to go to bed, I wanted to be up for sunrise and at 2.30 there was still no indication that the electricity was coming back. Sunrise? that’s another story, missed it by half an hour, forgot that my phone wasn’t set to Santorini time.
Seeing as I’d missed the sunrise day two was taken up with more exploring, more photos, more ducking in and out of art galleries and shops. The cluster of buildings that was Oia constantly amazed me. How on earth did they manage to build this place which was perched on a cliff? And how do they manage to renovate and maintain buildings with such tight access?
A walk to the Tourist office was a battle against the tide of tourists coming the other way. Most of them seemed to be Russian, that was pretty much the only language I could hear. I needed to see if I could book a sunset cruise (more on that later) and also to find the post office.
This is when I discovered an interesting aspect of Greek communication. I popped into the shop where I’d found a suitable swimming costume to ask directions to the Post Office (importantly, it was 2.45pm). The lovely lady gave me excellent directions and off I went. I found the Post Office quite easily and went in through the wide open door. I wasn’t prepared for the tirade that greeted me. Having asked for stamps the man in there started yelling at me that I should have come earlier. I asked why and he pointed at the door where there was a small sign which apparently said that they closed every day at 2pm. It seemed that he was only there because he was running late and was sorting mail. I realised that you have to know the answers to your questions before you ask them because you may not be given the extra information needed (a bit like going to a solicitor or doctor back home, you need both degrees in order to know what questions to ask). I struck this problem again later in my Greek travels but that is another story. The evening was spent at Neptunes again enjoying dinner and the sunset.
The manifestations and serendipities kept rolling in. I felt like I was being held up in a supportive hand and everything I wanted was happening, it was a great feeling of safety! I decided that as the lady from the travel agency was going to call to let me know if there was a mini bus running at the time I needed it to get to the super cheap basic cruise (which was the only one left, the rest were booked out), I wouldn’t bother going back to the office to check. Instead I thought I’d go for a walk in the other direction and explore the fortress ruins. As I walked out of my hotel I ran into the lady from the travel agency, who was passing by, who told me that someone had cancelled out of the better sunset cruise the next day and if I were to get down there the space might still be available. So I hot footed it down to the agency and got yet another surprise, the cruise company had decided that as there were so many requests for that cruise they would run two boats and the space was on the second one – the one they normally use for private cruises. Woo hoo! So, not only did I get to go on the cruise I wanted I also got the bonus of the top notch catamaran. I couldn’t wait for Day 3.
Day 3 – Sunrise
Finally, I managed to get up in time. Oia is not the best place for watching a sunrise you would be better located at one of the villages on the Eastern side of the island, but I didn’t have enough time to travel there, perhaps next time. However, Oia has its own sunrise mystique and beauty. The wall near the church square was going to be my vantage point.
The caldera was shrouded in morning mist when I arrived at the wall. I noticed that there was a homeless man asleep on the park bench and I was surprised, I hadn’t thought about the possibility of homelessness in such a tight knit community. As first light approached the mist started slowly clearing. I saw a young man approaching with a takeaway cup in his hand. He headed straight for the man on the bench, woke him up and gave him the cup of coffee and left. The mist kept clearing and soon I could see that sunlight was creeping over the cliffs to the east. The man on the bench finished his coffee, walked over to the wall, leaned over and pulled out a broom. He started to sweep the flagstones in front of the shops and cafes. I guess this was his way of paying for the coffee.
There is a certain light that envelopes the island at both sunrise and sunset a particular mix of pink and blue that is indescribable, the French call it crepuscule, the Italians crepuscolo and the closest inEnglish would be twilight. It appears briefly before the full brilliance of the sun melts it away in the morning or after the sun has set in the evening. As my gaze shifted between the mists and pastels of the caldera and the east, the sun started peeping further and further over the cliffs and as it did the mist cleared and revealed the pristine caldera in all its beauty.
It was time to meet the bus to be taken to the port for my sunset cruise. The bus drivers need to be good as the last bit of road to the port is very narrow and downhill so they need to reverse all the way down as there is nowhere to turn around.
The cruise was so much fun, the people on board with me were
friendly and easy to chat to. We headed into the caldera and stopped in various places for people to swim. One of these was the sulphur springs hear the volcano, you can see the yellow of the sulphur in the water and apparently it’s warm. I’m not a swimmer and I also have a sulphur allergy so there was no way I would be testing out the springs. Others went swimming and reported that it really was warm and pleasant. We also anchored not far from the black beach, the guys on the cat did warn people not to sit on the black sand as they would never get it out of their costumes. Yes, this was a time I wished I didn’t have my fear of deep water and that I could swim, never mind, it was fun watching everyone else frolicking around.
In the cliffs along the beach are doors. Behind these doors are the original caves where, according to our boat crew, local people used to live. They are now used mainly for storage.
The barbecue was ready by the time everyone returned and we had the nicest lamb barbecue ever! That done, we were off to position
ourselves for the open water sunset along with all the other boats. Oh! what a joy that was! I will let a few photos speak for me, words are just not enough.
There was a moment on that day when I thought that yes it would be nice to have someone traveling with me. Why? Two reasons, one obvious one is to share the beauty of that place (to paraphrase what one friend said on her travels ‘just to be able to look at a friend with a silly grin on your face and share the amazement’) and the other – so I would dare to hire a quad bike and go hooning! Yes, I know I could do it on my own but never having driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and never having ridden a quad bike I’d feel a little dorky and unsafe if anything went wrong, I’d be so much braver with another person. Yes, sometimes I’d like a friend with me.
It was a day of ‘lasts’ , and two firsts. Last night on Santorini, last walk along the tourist lane along the edge of the caldera, last amazing gelato from Lolita’s, first island gyros and first local beer and sadly my last Santorini sunset. I caught myself having conflicting thoughts on my way back to the hotel, while munching happily on 3 awesome gelato flavours…. one thought was that I hate the farewells to places I really like, and there had been many of those already in those first 4 months (and no doubt there would be many more) but then that is balanced by the excitement of what will I find in the next place. Then I was thinking that in a way this was part of what I needed to really ‘get’ during that trip, the letting go, the being OK with farewells, loosening up on the need to hang on to things – gosh, it sure wasn’t easy. In fact it’s almost as hard as the day I realised that I had to let go of being the ‘all knowing’ mother and talk with my kids as equal adults. But nowhere near as hard as letting go of Mum.
Next thought was that once I’m off the island I may stop feeling like one of those eccentric old English ladies in a broad brimmed hat that I used to read lots about in English novels – you know the ones where she would move to a Greek island and wander around in her hat being eccentric and having afternoon teas?
Time to say goodbye
Well, that was it, four fun filled days on an island I had fallen in love with. I woke up wishing I could stay on, but there were other places to go. It was time to pack and get down to the tourist office for the shuttle to the airport. There is always one, isn’t there? This time, it was two, and amazingly it was two men who were late and holding us up. One arrived half and hour late and said the other was off doing last minute shopping, oh dear! We just made it and were on the plane at 11.20. heading back towards Athens and an on to my next unscheduled, unplanned visit – Istanbul!
It is truly amazing what you can fit into two and a half short days in a city when you have too. That’s all the time I had, flights to other places were organised and so Copenhagen was a transit city this time. But seeing as I was here I wanted to see all I could in the time I had. Hopefully there will be a next time to see more.
I had arrived safe and sound in the Generator Hostel in Copenhagen, after a fantastic train journey. I loved the train from Stockholm, quiet, fast, comfortable, tables and power for the computer at every seat, a real treat. As if such a comfortable trip wasn’t enough, after Malmo (yes where Eurovision was held earlier that same year) there before me appeared the most amazing sight, the double decker Oresund Bridge over the Oresund strait. Eight kms of beautiful white bridge over blue water. Then the bridge turns into a tunnel for another 4 kms. A stunning piece of engineering. The motorway is the top level and the railway is the bottom level. Such a beautiful entrance to Copenhagen.
I caught a cab from the station to the hostel, better than dragging luggage around trying to find the place. The bits of the city I saw from the cab were delightful so I was looking forward to the next day of exploring. The hostel was pretty awesome, massive with its own bar, food and night time barbecues, so I knew I would survive. Remember that Scandinavian countries aren’t cheap so hostel prices reflect that (this isn’t the Balkans or Central America), do your research well and be prepared, most places are similar in price, nothing is cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but very worth it. I wasn’t exactly prepared for having a large group of drunk Swedes in the dormitory but, had I thought about it I would have expected it. It was hilarious watching one fellow trying to climb to his bunk and failing many times over. Eventually he gave up and fell asleep on the floor, oh the young ones!
First full day – 23 August 2013
It was still the middle of Summer but the temperatures at this latitude were very pleasant, nothing like the 40 degree temperatures of the Balkans in July, so walking around was going to be enjoyable. First I needed to find a spectacle shop to fix my glasses, the screw had started coming loose and a lens kept falling out, bad timing for this to start happening I still had 8 months of travel to go. Stroget the pedestrian shopping street is a delight. Really, European cities have got the concept of the central pedestrian shopping streets exactly right, we could learn a lot from them.
Having found a spectacle shop and had my glasses fixed at no charge I was on my way to find the Hop on Hop off bus. I have to say that by the end of the trip the guys running the buses there were the most disorganised I had ever experienced before and after Denmark. Everything was going well until one bus broke down then the replacement bus broke down. Instructions were confusing, people from the cruise ships were demanding their money back as they had no more time to wait for yet another bus, it was chaos for a while. Luckily it was at the very end of my tour so I didn’t care but I got a lot of amusement from watching what was going on. Before all the confusion and chaos though I’d had a wonderful trip. My main goals were Christiania and the Little Mermaid.
Christiania (Freetown Christiania)
I really enjoyed wandering around this unique place. Christiania is a self-proclaimed autonomous area. It has about 850 residents. It is a controversial neighbourhood and has had many ups and downs since it started as a squat back in 1971. The cannabis trade in the neighbourhood is once again tolerated by the Copenhagen authorities but beware, if you walk out of Christiania and have cannabis on you, you will be caught. Within the streets of the neighbourhood there are very strict rules about photography, it is NOT allowed and trust me sneaking one in is not worth it. I saw one fellow caught taking a photo and out of nowhere a guy on a pushbike whizzed over and made him delete the shot, after all no one wants their photo plastered all over the internet especially if they happen to be doing a deal, it is after all, illegal.
After all that cannabis talk a bit about the other side of Christiania that has nothing to do with drugs. The place is delightful, Freetown is a good name for it. It is full of artists, jewellery makers, musicians etc stalls are set up all over the place so there is a roaring trade in locally made souvenirs. T-shirts and clothing of all sorts, jewellery, paintings pretty much anything. Buildings are decorated by the resident street artists and all in all it’s a very chilled out place. Definitely worth a visit, it is unique. I would have liked to stay on but there was so much more of the tour to do.
Back on the bus and off to see the Little Mermaid. Yes she is little but perfectly formed. The poor thing has had quite a turbulent existence, decapitated twice, painted pink, blown off her rock and removed to Beijing for an exhibition just to name a few events. It was the wrong time of day for a good photo but at least I got some.
In the same area is the large and impressive Gefion fountain which depicts the mythical story of the creation of the island of Zealand on which Copenhagen is located. I had never realised that Denmark is actually made up of over 100 islands, a bit like Venice except this is a whole country.
Copenhagen is full of impressive sculptures and fountains. I’ve discovered that anyone taking photos for commercial use has to verify that the artist has been dead for 70 years before posting the photos or they have to get permission to use them, thankfully I’m not commercial. Seems that there are various versions of these copyright laws in every city in the world relating to public artworks, the things you learn when you travel. Copenhagen is full of sculptures and fountains, some of course are related to Hans Christian Andersen and his stories.
And so, last day in Copenhagen arrived, I thought I was up for a lot of walking judging by the map, but many things were closer than I thought. First stop Nyhavn. You know those pretty postcards of
colourful buildings in Copenhagen? Yes it is as pretty as the postcards make it look. Like all ports it had quite a reputation in its day, as the commentary on the bus said ‘ you wouldn’t tell your mother if you’d been there’. These days it’s full of restaurants and expensive apartments. Of course I had to stop for coffee. While enjoying my time there who should come along but a bunch of Morris men, yes, really, in Copenhagen!
The changing of the guard at Amalienborg was a must, I arrived a little early so off for some exploring close by. Not far from Amelienborg is the marble church which I also wanted to see, unfortunately there was a wedding on so I couldn’t get inside. A little further down the street is the Russian church but it was also locked. So it was back to catch the changing of the guard at the Amalienborg Palace (the Winter residence of the royal family) quite a process as there are 4 Palaces exactly alike and they have to do the changing ceremony at each one.
This happens every day at 12 noon. There are four different versions of the watch depending which members of the royal household are present. We got the smallest version called the Palace Watch, this is when no royal members are in the palace, sadly no sign of Mary. However, it is still very impressive with the young men in their blue and white uniforms and bearskin hats marching in very strict order.
I’m so glad that I managed to see wonderful
Copenhagen, it is a pretty city and definitely worth a visit, backpackers beware though, it definitely isn’t cheap (even though the alcohol is supposedly cheaper here than in Sweden, but not by much) apparently it’s cheap enough for Swedes to come over here and have their weddings in the Swedish church and stay on for the reception, so that possibly explains the group in my dorm. And then it was farewell, I chickened out of singing ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen’, one of my mother’s favourite songs, so it remained a very annoying earworm with nowhere to go.
Packing finalised and off in the middle of the night to the airport. By bye Copenhagen I loved every minute of being there.
Finding decent coffee at 5am at Copenhagen airport proved impossible. I was totally confused when I asked a fellow at the only place open how to order a coffee and he went away and came back with a glass of liquid that looked like flat cola. After more questions I discovered that this was my coffee and I should go over to another counter to pay and get food. I have to say that was definitely the worst coffee I had ever experienced. So off I went in search of another place. The only other place opened by this time was a Starbucks, oh dear! I don’t do Starbucks and I should have known better than to even try, but try I did and as always was highly disappointed, in fact, this one was even worse than usual and did nothing to kill the first coffee.
Not to worry, I was off to the land of coffee – Greece!
Essential to have in your travelling kit – a quirky sense of humour! OF COURSE the minibus driver from Belgrade dropped me at the wrong hotel at Budapest airport! Sigh, do they never read things properly? OK, so both hotels start with the words Airport Hotel but the wrong one also stops with those words, the right one has several more words in its title AND I gave him the full address! Oh well, at least this time I could get a cab and it only cost 5 Euros to get the wrong hotel to take me to the right hotel. So I had a quick shower and went off to explore the ‘Budapest Airport Hotel Stacio Wellness & Konferencia’ –(How can anyone get that wrong?) and see if I was really saving 412 Euros on the internet deal.
A few words before I swing into my story. Those who have been following my blog know that mainly I am writing and hoping to inspire people of a ‘certain’ age (as well as anyone else of any age) to get out of their doors and go travelling solo (if they don’t have someone to travel with). The Sweden story is a bit different. Like Poland where I had a friend to visit and who showed me around, I had friends in Sweden. Now I have many more friends in Sweden.
Jen was a friend of my son Ginski in Sydney, we hit it off and stayed friends, Frida and Agnes I met at the Hedonist Hostel in Belgrade and also struck up a friendship. It is amazing how things work out, I was going to Uppsala to stay with Jen and wouldn’t you know it Frida and Agnes also lived there!
My point is that if you don’t want to travel totally solo, go visit some people. Those lucky enough to have friends in other places really need to make the effort. Having someone to show you around also gives you a different experience.
Day 1 – I Arrive in Uppsala
So it was Helloooo Uppsala! I arrived in Sweden, Land of the Vikings and crayfish, on Norwegian Air, a nice comfortable flight. Then to Jen’s place after the best train ride ever, from the airport. A very pleasant walk and lovely home made dinner with the Bermet spiced Serbian wine, and it was time to just chill – aahhhh! It was also the time to meet Bosse, Theresa’s (Jen’s sister’s) Pomeranian – oh what a character! There were to be many meetings with this little fellow.
Day 2 – Shopping and Crayfish
Food shopping was the name of the game before preparing for dinner, this is where I discovered the Swedish fetish not only for seafood but also for cheese. What an experience! Walls of cheese of all sorts and sizes. I was in cheese heaven. Blocks of many kilo weights and finally my search for Jahlsberg was at an end! There it was!
And so we move on to the evening. I knew that a Swedish crayfish party was being planned for my arrival but I had no idea what one of those was, well….. I soon found out!
Family and friends arrived with food and drinks, kilos of crayfish were cooked and off we went. Crazy Swedish crayfish songs (somewhere there is still an embarrassing video of me singing a solo after someone gave me a song sheet and said ‘sing this’!) Now, I don’t know a word of Swedish (except for the Swedish chef on the Muppets) nor do I have a good singing voice – it’s more a foghorn. Somehow I got through and at the end was greeted by looks of amazement as my friends said they even understood a few words in my attempt – trust me travellers, go to a Swedish crayfish party in midsummer time, they are such fun!
On top of that I found that this bunch of Swedes liked Gogol Bordello as much as I do! Who would have thought! So between the Crayfish party and Gogol Bordello songs the Swedes were winning the fun stakes. Thanks Jen and friends, and this was only day 2.
Day 3 – Raggare and Cars
I was reading the in-flight magazine on my way to Sweden and discovered that many Swede’s are car freaks, just like friends back home. They own and drive American 50s and 60s cars and indulge in good old rockabilly music and clothes. They are known as Raggare and they organise car shows all over the country, and that’s how day 3 was spent in Uppsala. Loved the crowd, masses of cars very well presented and their owners obviously passionate about their steeds. A live band pumping out rockabilly and stalls of the right fashions made for a very pleasant afternoon, thank you Swedes for liking the right sorts of cars. Of course, this meant that I met a whole lot more people including Jen’s Mum Yvonne. Later I also met other family members including gorgeous grandmother.
To quote Jen ‘So we survived the American car show. Cars, cars, cars, raggare, drunk raggare and then a quick visit to see my grandmother and my aunts. And my heart just melted when my grandmother told me to tell Helene to have a nice stay (my grandmother doesn’t speak english) at the same time as she was hugging her goodbye. My grandmother is the cutest’ Yes she is!
Day 4 – Rest Day
Sunday, chill day, after crayfish Friday, raggare Saturday, cars cars cars, rock and roll, masses of booze (oh that Fireball is a killer), lots of walking, meeting awesome new Swedes, Jen’s family and friends, especially Grandma, such a sweetheart. So this was the day to get around to cooking my rissoles and Ginski’s vegie recipe for dinner and taking life easy.
Day 5– Four Ladies Exploring
Massive day, Jen took me to just about every sight there is to see in Uppsala, we were joined by Frida and Agnes (the two lovely Uppsala girls I met in Belgrade) and off we went! Oh boy, that was a week’s walking in one day but we managed to cover the largest Cathedral I’ve seen so far (it is huuuuuge!) and if you stand in front of it and look up to the top of the spires it looks like it’s falling towards you – weird sensation. The cathedral has many notables interred there, just to mention a few; Emanuel Swedenborg, John III, Eric the Saint and Saint Bridget and many more.
Then we were off to the castle, the library, parks, Botanic gardens, sitting by the pretty river Fyris, playing with and climbing on all sorts of sculptures including the Warm Man – seriously, in winter they heat the metal statue of a recumbent naked man so you can sit on him and warm up, only in Sweden! All that was followed by shopping and cafes Wow! It was nice doing what essentially was a Sunday stroll through the town, on a Monday. I have no idea how many kilometres we covered on foot but it was a lot and time and distance went by quickly with fun company, a very nice way to spend a Monday.
Day 6 – Gamla Uppsala
This was the day for the original capital of Sweden visit, Gamla Uppsala about 5 kilometres out of Uppsala.
So much to learn, the displays were fascinating, everything from Viking paraphernalia, to costumes and jewellery, to boats, statues, explanations of the neighbouring burial mounds etc etc. Way too much to describe here, so you will just have to go and see for yourselves.
Gamla Uppsala kyrka (the church)
The current stone church was built over the site of a pagan temple
which honoured Thor, Odin and Freyr. The church dates from the early 12th century. Unfortunately, the present church is only a shadow of the original cathedral due to past fires .
Inside the church are wall paintings and the tomb of Celsius, yes the thermometer man and a great display of ancient bibles, I wish I
could have handled them, love such old books. Near the church is its impressive red, wooden belfry.
Royal burial mounds
The Royal Burial Mounds (Kungshögarna) although they look just like any other hill, are very interesting. There are three large burial mounds dating from the 5th and 6th centuries.
The Eastern Mound contained the grave of a woman (or a young man and a woman) with grave goods including carved bronze panels and a comb. A man was buried in the Western Mound, along with animals and luxurious weapons. I hope all the kings managed to get to Valhalla like they planned. There’s also an area where they have found remnants of buildings from the Iron Age and possibly earlier as well. I didn’t realise that this place is so old. If you go for a walk there are many other mounds to make you wonder, the area dates back several thousand years.
Disagården (Disa Farm)
This is a working farm set up the way a farm would have been in the 1800s. Essentially it is an open air museum where you can see how a farm and village would have looked and worked in the Uppland region. They grow grain, vegetables and fruit and tend various animals mainly native breeds. A fascinating place to visit. The estate is owned by Upplandsmuseet (Uppland County Museum). It was fun wandering around discovering all sorts of things like old wooden farm implements and a group of boys playing a traditional Swedish game.
I was amazed how much we covered in a short space of time. It was lunch time so the decision was made that the most Swedish thing to do was to have meatballs at Ikea. I’ve never been to Ikea anywhere so a lunch of Swedish meatballs and mash was it. Thank you Yvonne for driving us around and showing me places that otherwise we could not have got to easily.
Last Day -21 August
My bags are packed, I’m ready to go, the taxi (would be waiting soon) outside the door……… I’ve been singing this theme song ever since my days of working on Lord Howe Island for a season in 1971, it was brought back more recently at the Hedonist Hostel where so many would sing it on their way out – always leaving somewhere (note to
self, write an arriving song! because every time I leave one place I arrive in another). So yes folks it was time to move on again. It took me a full day of trying to figure out where to go next as well as when and how. Originally I was going to go to Stockholm and then on a cruise to St Petersburg (you can go there for up to 72 hours without a visa now, under certain conditions) but that was all too hard, it wasn’t falling into place. I had promised myself, at the beginning of the trip, to follow my intuition and if things seemed too hard then it would mean that it wasn’t the best idea, so, I reluctantly swapped St Petersburg for Santorini (of course I would choose almost the furthest place away from Uppsala to visit next!). However, everything quickly fell into place, first stop Copenhagen, although last minute accommodation was a little tricky (it’s a popular place!). So it was farewell to Uppsala, lovely town, farewell and a million thanks to Jen for looking after me (it’s so good having a Swedish ‘daughter’) and farewell and thank you to Therese and Yvonne for your friendship and taking me around places, introducing me to people and I can’t forget Bosse (even though you barked at me) you are still sooooo cute! So it was look out Copenhagen, I was finally going to get the chance to make a goose of myself and sing (or is that croak) ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen’ in Copenhagen, somewhere, and scare everyone! Maybe!
I like Melbourne! I’ve always liked Melbourne, ever since my mother sent me off on a holiday to a friend’s place in Fern Tree Gully when I was 15 (that was 1966). Melbourne has its cosmopolitan culture all sorted out, you can find just about everything there easily.
Since then I have visited several times for various reasons both with and without family and friends and each time I have liked it just as much as the first, and so, several excellent reasons to go came up this year and the plan was made.
Firstly there was to be an exhibition in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, I didn’t have to think twice, so I built the visit around that. I have friends in Melbourne so of course seeing them was a must and then discovered that a dear friend (the closest thing I have to a sister) from Canberra had never been to Melbourne so she joined me. Oh what a time we had!
Two years ago in The Hedonist hostel in Belgrade I met many wonderful people who have remained good friends. One of these was Natalie, a young Aussie lady who hailed from Melbourne. It’s funny how the sliding door effect works in life. If I hadn’t made a split second decision when in Pisa to go back to Belgrade for a second visit, I would never have met Natalie, would never have got to know this lovely young lady and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to stay at her place in Melbourne. In Belgrade and in many messages since then we promised to catch up for coffee either in her town or mine. Time passed and here finally was the opportunity. Not only did we catch up for coffee but that generous soul put both my friend and me up at her place, we had so much fun, can you imagine this group of women….although 3 of us are Aussie by nationality we are also of ethnic backgrounds so a Russian/ Serb, a Serb/Maltese, a German/Pole and an Italian flatmate. What a week that was!
I have other dear friends in Melbourne as well, my Russian tutor and husband who had moved there many years ago and a friend from an intensive course I did in the Dandenongs in 1988. Dinner with my Russian friends was hilarious! It was as if the 15 years since I last saw them just melted away and the six of us spent the entire evening talking, laughing and eating.
So what does one do in Melbourne? And how does one prepare for a trip there? Firstly all the stories of Melbourne having all four seasons in one day can sometimes be true, I experienced it on one trip, luckily not this time, but always have an umbrella and a jacket, just in case, it did shower over 2 days of our visit.
Secondly, research well and allow time, there is more to see in Melbourne than you would think and that’s just in the CBD. We had 5 full days there and still not enough time to do everything I would have liked. OK, perhaps if I were 10 or more years younger I could have raced around to a lot more, but these days more rest stops are needed.
We chose to go down by train, it’s cheaper than flying and once you are in Melbourne much easier access from Southern Cross Railway Station to all transport than it is from the airport. As seniors it was even cheaper. From Canberra, as we don’t have a direct train, it’s a coach to either Yass or Cootamundra then train to Melbourne, we chose Yass as it gave us more time on the train. I prefer train travel for many reasons including the extra room so the more time on the train the better. It’s a full days trip but I rather like just sitting back and watching the countryside roll by.
I had several missions for Melbourne one was to get a good affordable outfit for my son’s wedding and Melbourne is the place for shopping! So on to the free tourist tram and off to Harbourtown, the biggest shopping outlet ever! I love that it’s not built as a mall but more like a suburban shopping centre with all shopfronts on pedestrian streets. There you will find just about everything including pubs, food, coffee, clothes etc, a circus playground for children as well as the Melbourne Star (the ferris wheel similar to the London Eye and the Singapore Flyer). No, I didn’t go on it, not a fan of heights, but I believe that the view from the top stretches for 40 kms. It does seem to be situated in an odd place but I guess there is a reason for that.
Success! It took a few hours but we left Harbourtown with me totally kitted out for the wedding plus a bit more. So back onto the tourist tram and back to Natalie’s for dinner.
You may be wondering what is there to do in Melbourne apart from shopping? And there is an awful lot of shopping you can do from the ordinary to the designer. Let me tell you there is a ton of other things to do that will keep you busy full time. Let’s start with the CBD.
Usually when I visit a new city I hop on one of those Hop on Hop Off buses (for which you pay) and get myself orientated, in Melbourne you don’t have to (unless you want to go a bit further out than the CBD) because they have got it right.
Melbourne kept their trams (unlike Sydney) a very smart decision, the centre is built in a square so everything is very easy to find. They have the gorgeous old-school brown (‘talking’) tram which is free (actually all trams in the inner city are free but this one gives you tourist information) route 35. You can hop on this tram, listen to all the explanations to you hearts delight until you have orientated yourself and then you just get on and off wherever you please. It used to only do the inner city now it also goes to Docklands and Harbourtown. I think the best way to describe it is to use the words from the government transport site: https://ptv.vic.gov.au/route/view/1112
‘The City Circle tram service operates within Melbourne’s central business district. The service operates in a circular route passing major tourist attractions, as well as linking with other tram, train and bus routes in and around Melbourne. Trams run in both directions approximately every twelve minutes between 10am and 6pm Sunday to Wednesday and extended hours, 10am – 9pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Clockwise service: Flinders Street > Harbour Esplanade > Docklands Drive > La Trobe Street > Victoria Street > Nicholson Street > Spring Street > Flinders Street.’ It also travels in the anti-clockwise direction.’
So that is what we did, firstly because it’s been 15 years since I’ve been in Melbourne proper and couldn’t remember where everything was (I’ve been down but visiting friends briefly on the outskirts so no tourism) and secondly to give my friend a sense of where things are so she wouldn’t feel totally lost. So once you are orientated you can start hopping off and exploring. There are so many museums, galleries, dining places (just google Lygon Street and you’ll get an idea of the range of restaurants), gardens, historical buildings, markets, churches etc etc scattered thoughout the city centre, seriously there is something for everyone.
THE HERMITAGE EXHIBITION – NGV
As I mentioned in the beginning the Hermitage exhibition was on, I had bought the tickets online for the Saturday so off we went. First breakfast of coffee and Italian cakes at Brunettis, then a walk past the famous Flinders St Station. ( The story goes that supposedly the reason that the station is so different is because the architect designed both the station for Melbourne and one for Mumbai and the designs were mistakenly swapped. I’ve looked that up and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this and the magnificent Mumbai station was apparently built in the late 1880s so it seems that it’s just a rumour but, true or not it’s a great yarn and a beautiful station!). We crossed the Yarra River and then on to the National Gallery of Victoria. Outside there was a delightful Chinese man busking, playing what I think is an erhu, I’m not very acquainted with Chinese musical instruments but that was the only thing I could find on the net that looked similar. The exhibition was outstanding and the NGV needs to be applauded for the design, just brilliant and really made me want to speed time up so I could go to the real thing. As an aside, if you haven’t seen the Russian movie ‘Russian Ark’ I recommend you find it as it was filmed in the Hermitage in it’s entirety.
There is one problem in
Melbourne, so many choices of good food and coffee! It is seriously difficult to decide where to eat and you could spend years working your way through all the magnificent cafes, restaurants and specialty foods from almost every corner of the world. We stumbled across Gelato Messina in Richmond – Wow and Yum! The Greek coffee, baklava and kataifi at the International Diethnes Cakes and Coffee were awesome too.
Markets, that’s another thing that Melbourne has a plethora of, and the absolute must in markets are the Queen Victoria Markets (QVM). That expedition was scheduled for Sunday. We met up with my friend Lesley and went exploring. The QVM are massive and so well organised, divided into fruit and veg as well as plants , general stalls like clothes, toys, linen, souvenirs etc etc, a huge amount of shops with amazing delicatessen foods, liquor stores and of course the buskers. Many a band has started at the QVM like one of my favourites ‘The Band Who Knew Too Much’ This time we came across a fantastic Latin band called LaRumba. They were so good I bought the CD, that was a real treat. Lunch and then off we went to wander along the north bank of the Yarra. Time came for farewells and the tram back to Natalie’s to get ready for dinner with my gorgeous Russian friends. Limor’s Turkish banquet for 4-6 people was just wonderful! Thanks to my dear friends we spent the night eating and laughing, truly I hadn’t laughed so much in years! They say laughter is great for weight loss, so thanks friends I must have lost heaps that night. So ended Sunday.
OLD MELBOURNE GAOL
A friend had suggested that we should be sure to visit the gaol so that was the plan for Monday. It certainly is a fascinating place. Luckily we bought the tickets for the guided tour, I didn’t realise how much information there is. The Old Melbourne Gaol was built in the mid-1800s, in Russell Street. It held dangerous criminals alongside petty offenders, the homeless and the mentally ill. There were 133 hangings carried out there including our most infamous bushranger Ned Kelly.
The conditions for the prisoners must have been horrific and how anyone survived amazes me. The ticket includes a visit to the old City Watch House as well. I chose not to do that tour, as most of it is 40 minutes of being ‘arrested and locked up’ by a charge sergeant. This reminded me of Berlin, where on the eastern side of the Brandenburg gates you can have a passport stamped and be yelled at by a ‘Soviet’ guard, which I chose not to do (seriously why would you want to?) but then to each his own, so if that’s your thing, go for it. As a staff trainer in my working life I was given a tour of a local gaol and totally hated when that door slammed shut, I didn’t need that experience again.
Now to the churches, I like churches and Melbourne has heaps. Unfortunately not all of them are open all the time which can be somewhat frustrating and massively time wasting, but we got into a few. Firstly St Patricks Catholic cathedral a massive Gothic Revival style structure,
lovely on the inside and is reputed to be the tallest and overall largest church in Australia. Churches in Australia are nowhere near as ornate as those in Europe but they are beautiful and the architecture wonderful.
Next it was St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral on Flinders Street. It is a neo-gothic structure and has beautiful stained glass windows. Unlike most other churches you can’t take photos unless you buy a $5.00 licence which allows you to take photos! I decided I wasn’t that desperate. So if you visit be aware of this as they do keep a strict eye for people disobeying the rules, one guy got caught while we were there.
The next day we wasted a terrible amount of time trying to get into St Michael’s Uniting on Collins Street and The Scots church, so I’d give those a miss, although their advertising tells you that they are very worthwhile visiting, we missed out on the Immigration museum because of those locked church doors.
STREET ART LANES
There’s not a lot to say about the street art lanes except that they are really worth finding and exploring, they are pretty self explanatory. Best for me to just put up some photos. It took us a while but we finally tracked them down. If you are a fan of street art it’s probably a good idea to take one of the walking tours so you can get the explanations. I’m not a fan but wandering Hosier Lane and the surrounding lanes was quite an experience and in its own way pleasurable.
So it was farewell to Melbourne after 5 spectacular days, back on the train and back to Canberra for my friend and the coast for me. One day soon I’ll get back there again.
My last careful climb up and down the steep stairs to breakfast on the boat and then it was off to Belgrade again.
I was beginning to get a little concerned as I waited for the minibus to pick me up from the Budapest Boat Hotel. It was late and I was getting very hot standing outside. After my experience the week before of being dropped at the wrong place and having to walk a few kilometres in 43C degree heat I wondered whether this driver would find me. Eventually, an hour late, he did. So started the 380 odd kilometre trip back to Belgrade through the border, past the sunflowers and fields and back to the Hedonist Hostel.
The Hedonist felt like home the very first time I walked in there three months earlier with my older son Ginski and on this third visit it still felt the same. The warm welcome never changes.
As always the place was full of interesting people, this time mainly Swedes with a few other nationalities. Hostels are such interesting places, you get to meet heaps of travellers and as you are all doing the same thing (travelling) most are eager to meet each other. There will always be the odd person out who is either annoying, rude or smelly but mostly everyone is really great. I found that most times there will be at least one person to whom I relate well but this time it was quite a few. Swedish mother and daughter Karin and Kim and Turkish Selin and I somehow gravitated together and went off on a few adventures around the city. These ladies were such a delight and we still communicate through social media. Although Karin didn’t speak English and I definitely don’t speak Swedish we somehow managed to communicate and have a lot of laughs even when Kim wasn’t there to translate. Have I mentioned I love travelling and meeting people? I realised along the way that the major benefit of staying in hostels when travelling alone is that you are more likely to have someone to go exploring with. I love travelling solo but on those occasions when you stumble across someone who wants to see the same things it all gets a little easier to make decisions and build fun memories.
Four women, Three nationalities and a Fortress
Day 3 dawned late, perhaps it had something to do with the amount of beer that was consumed the previous night at the weekly hostel barbecue. Love the barbecue nights, Hedonist has a gorgeous outside area that is just perfect with a huge outdoor barbecue, seats, tables and a rather large drinks fridge. Then there is the large lounge area and dining/kitchen area. So many a night was spent there laughing, chatting and meeting new people.
We four ladies managed to find each other and decided to go exploring after a very healthy breakfast/lunch on Skardalija. Off we went to the fortress. I find it wonderful going to the same place with different people, I always get to see things from a different perspective and through another person’s eyes. We roamed the ruins, were amazed by the age of the structure and of course, took heaps of photos.
Below the upper part of the Kalemegdan fortress is a pretty little Serbian Orthodox church dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God (Crkva Ruzica or Little Rose). There was a medieval church with the same name on this site which was demolished in 1521 during the Turkish invasion. The current church was a gunpowder store in the 18th century and was converted to a military church in the mid 1800’s. It’s an unusual church and a must to visit. There was a service when we went there and then a parade to the almost adjacent St Petka church. Without the language it was difficult to decipher what was the occasion, but you could buy bottles of holy water from the holy spring in St Petka church.
The rest of the afternoon was spent chilling with beers on the terrace of the Kalemegdanska Terasa restaurant. We succumbed to pizza for an early dinner and watched the sun set over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers as the large fountain on the terrace gurgled and splashed next to us. Always at the back of my mind was the question, did Mum and Dad watch the sunset from the fortress? That I’ll never know but I would like to believe they did and that I was sharing something precious with them.
The walk home was a delight. Knez Mihailova takes on a different atmosphere after dark. It’s a subtle change yet noticeable. I’m not sure what changes when the sun goes down and the lights come on but no matter where you are in the world something changes.
Learning about Nikola Tesla
Although this trip back to Belgrade was mostly about completing as much research as I could about my parents’ time there, I wasn’t about to pass up company on my explorations so while Selin and the group of Swedish guys were shopping and creating an awesome barbecue for that night Karin, Kim and I took off on a mega walk starting with checking at the Russian church to find out if the priest was back. He was, but I would have to go to the Sunday service to be able to talk to him.
That was followed by the Serbian St Marks next door, another amazing structure which contains the tomb of King Dusan (The Mighty) 1308-1355 King of Serbia and Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks. He was one of the most powerful monarchs of the time. His constitution of the Serbian Empire known as Dusan’s Code is said to be one of the most important literary works of mediaeval Serbia.
Then on to the Nikola Tesla Museum. I knew about Tesla’s alternating current (AC) invention but had no idea of the multitude of other inventions, the man was a genius, see;
The heat outside was horrendous still in the high 30’s so we three were so happy to go inside to a cool museum. I’m Australian and pretty used to heat (although I don’t handle it well) and even I was struggling, poor Karin, from cool Sweden, was really suffering. So initially we just sat down in the film area, watched the Serbian film and listened to a Serbian history lesson on Tesla and didn’t care that there was no translation. It’s amazing how much I could pick up with my less than basic knowledge of Serbian. We stayed for quite some time enjoying the coolness and learning so much from the exhibits.
All this was followed with a stop at a cafe because Karin was looking a little pallid, I think I might have made the girls do a bit too much, then back to the hostel where Selin had created massive plates of beautiful salads and the Swedish guys were in full swing cooking the BBQ. Sometimes it’s just awesome being the Golden Oldie and being looked after by the young crowd, they are just terrific! I don’t allow anyone to complain to me about young people any more, just about all the ones I know and have met on my trip are wonderful caring people. There are good and bad at all ages so we can’t label all youth with one description, just because we aren’t young anymore. We can all learn something from the upcoming generations. I have been learning from my own sons all of their lives and learned heaps on my trip not the least of which was how caring, respectful and delightful many young people are.
Sunday morning found me off on the very long walk to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity again. Standing in church for ages is just so bad for the old back but that is tradition and stand you do! At least I did get to briefly talk to the priest who said that his uncle should be able to point me in the direction of useful information on the period I was researching, ‘Leave your email and I will pass it on’ so for the third time I did just that. This time I was hopeful that I may learn something, however, sadly, no one has ever contacted me. I guess I place much more importance on my search and expect too much from people who have no connection to it. However, I did find little bits of interesting information in my visits (like discovering General Wrangel’s tomb inside that church, leader of the White Russian Army against the Soviets) and have realised how much work history authors must go through to find information.
Finding the School of Medicine
When Mum completed school in 1938 she entered the University of Belgrade to study Medicine and so I went in search of where her footsteps may have been. I travelled on the tram assuming that the line wouldn’t have changed much, although, not knowing where my mother lived I wasn’t sure which tram she would have caught. However finding the stop where she may have got on and off the tram near the University was more important as it featured highly in her changing fortunes.
I found the School of Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine, I suspect it was one of those buildings (or even both) where Mum began her studies in 1938/39 with great dreams of becoming a doctor, a dream that was never to be. The School of Medicine door was open so I stuck my head in and took a photo, the building old and crumbling but renovations were under way. I still don’t know why there was a European Union plaque at the entrance as Serbia wasn’t (and still isn’t) a member of the Union. Perhaps this is one of those tests that countries have to go through before being admitted or perhaps the EU had lent money for the renovations. There were people upstairs but again without the language I chose not to interfere. I don’t think they were thrilled that I had taken the photo as they closed the door as soon as I left.
Wandering further I found the chapel dedicated to the twin brother physician saints Cosmas and Damian, it’s possible that Mum may have on occasion popped in there, it is there for all medical staff, students and patients, also under renovation but there was an entrance from the rear of the church.
A massive area of land is dedicated to the medical faculty, clinics, hospitals and administration it’s a small suburb. I could see why my mother would have felt quite at home in such an academic atmosphere.
I think I found the right tram stops where Mum would have caught her tram and where Dad (in his taxi driving days) ‘picked’ her up. Not long after their meeting Mum’s University days were over as she travelled the country with, and then married my father in October 1939 so she only had one glorious year of University. (Her interest in things medical remained and came to the fore when she was caring for my father in his old age and his specialist call Mum ‘his assistant doctor’.) As it happens those stops are right in front of the St Sava Cathedral. It’s interesting that Mum would have seen the beginnings of the church as building work started in 1935 and the walls were up to about 7 metres in height when she would have entered university. Sadly everything stopped during the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 when Mum’s life changed for the worse again. The inside of the church is still not fully finished although the construction was completed in 1989. It is solely funded by donations from all over the world and is one of the biggest Orthodox churches as well as one of largest church buildings in the world. It is dedicated to the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and important mediaeval figure, St Sava. The church is built on the Vracar plateau where the Saint’s remains were burned by the Ottoman Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha in 1595. It is a grand and beautiful structure, a must to visit.
Ada, Belgrade’s Beach
Then I thought I’d check out Ada (Belgrade’s beach). Previously dear Marjan at the hostel had asked had I been there, my response was a little glib and arrogant I must admit (something along the lines of ‘I come from a country with some of the best beaches and you want me to go to a pebbly river?) sorry Marjan that wasn’t nice of me. So for two reasons I thought I should go. Firstly it is a very popular place for the locals and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and secondly just in case that was the part of the Sava Mum used to tell me about. I’m now sure it’s not, I believe where they ‘promenaded’ in those days would have been along the Sava River near the fortress, that area fits her descriptions better.
However, Ada is definitely worth a visit. Ada is an island in the river Sava which has been artificially turned into a peninsula.
I wasn’t prepared for its size, great planning and the incredible amount of pastimes for visitors. There you will find beautiful barbecue and picnic spots with lots of trees for summer shade, areas for swimming, multiple sports on both land and water (including cable water skiing/wakeboarding) cafes, hotel and so much more. It covers and area of about 2.72kms. For golden oldies like me (or anyone of course) there is the cute little train that drives you all the way around the lake so you can choose where to stop or just keep going as I did to get a good overview. What a day! Thank you Marjan for the suggestion.
The Long Farewell
Finally the day came when I had to say goodbye. I hadn’t quite done everything I wanted in the three trips to the land of my parents and I hadn’t found out all the information I wanted but I got some of it, enough to keep me going and to get an understanding of my parents’ stories. Last visit to the medical precinct and St Sava, this time I caught the #31 bus. One bit of advice, if you are in Belgrade and you have a bad back, before going to any therapists take a ride on the old yellow, articulated #31 bus, you just never know, it might fix it! The bumps, jerks, rattles and rolls (not to mention a braking technique that can send you running all the way from the back down the aisle and through the front window, if you aren’t hanging on) have to be experienced. If, however your back is fine, get in, sit down and hang on for dear life, because you may need a chiropractor at the end of the ride if you don’t. That bus was fun, I must admit.
Last walk past Studenski park and the Faculty of Philosophy building to visit Knez Mihailova, on to Kalemegdan but this time along the river side of the park where I hadn’t been before, so glad I did that. Back past the market stalls in the fortress park, past the hotel Moscow and the chimney cake store – I discovered that I had become somewhat attached to this city.
So it was goodbye to the Hedonist, you guys are awesome and you will stay in my fond memories forever, farewell Belgrade, the most chilled out city I had come across so far with its incredible architecture and history and Serbia, you served me well. I wish I could have seen Kosovo, but the destruction that has happened to Serbia’s spiritual heart and its ancient churches since the rest of the world got involved would have been just too sad, so I don’t think I’ll ever go there.
It was farewell to my new friends with whom I’d had so many adventures and laughs, most of us have been in touch on social media since then so memories continue. Sadly it was also farewell to cheap beer, that awesome honey rakija and good food. There were other good times to be found and I was off to Uppsala in Sweden.
To see what else I got up to in Serbia go to my other to posts on this blog site; Golden Oldie and First Born Take off to Serbia and Golden Oldie Returns to Belgrade.
The time had come for decisions. As the Russian priest was away in Moscow and I couldn’t ask him any questions about the years my parents were in Belgrade, I had 2 choices; stay for another week and hope that he would return on time or take a trip to Budapest and then return. I chose Budapest and I’m so glad I did because I managed to catch up with a friend’s relative and got to see the absolute wonder of that city.
In recent blogs of my senior gap year I have changed to writing in the past tense as I am so far behind, however, I’m going to keep this one in the present tense. As I re-read my notes I even inspired myself with my excitement of the time, so I’ll make minimal changes and in so doing hope that I pass on to you how I felt about Budapest. There will be heaps of photos too, I went quite mad over there.
29 July 2013
Checking the weather I wish the forecasters would make up their minds, for Belgrade tomorrow they are predicting anything from 39 – 45 degrees in the afternoon, luckily I’ll be travelling to Budapest where they predict only 38!
So here I am, sitting on the top deck of my boat hotel on the Danube, sipping on a Dreher beer and watching the sunset behind the trees on Margit island.
I came in on the minibus from Belgrade a few hours earlier (temperature at the time was a sizzling 43 degrees, forecasters wrong again!) and the first reaction was OMG! I hadn’t seen much out of the bus window (we seemed to have driven through the most uninteresting parts of the city) and I was so knocked out by the architecture of the buildings where I was dropped that I didn’t even think of getting the camera out. I’ll be here for a while so the camera will be working overtime anyway.
Finding my boat hotel was a problem. The bus driver thought he knew where the boat was and dropped me as close to Parliament House as he could (there are massive road, garden and paving works, so no way of getting to the river easily, he said it was right behind Parliament). After about half an hour of walking in massive heat in the wrong direction I discovered that there were no boat hotels behind Parliament House, they were all further along the river. So another very long walk through the roadworks, not knowing exactly how far I had to drag my case through streets and over cobblestones. It was seriously hot! Eventually the Budapest boat hotel came into view, I was dripping wet from both sweat and pouring warm water on myself, I couldn’t drink it anymore as it was now very warm from the 43 degree air temperature (I have rather serious issues with heat and so I was getting a little concerned by the time I found my destination).
This place is amazing already and I’ve only seen a little of the outside of some parts! I’m going to love this week!
First things first, room organised and bar and grill found, beer drunk in celebration and the view suitably honoured. My room on the boat is a little hot and smells a bit (not quite sure of what), the air conditioning isn’t very efficient so it’ll be a hot box tonight, but I DON’T CARE! Right now I am on deck wishing all my dear friends were here to share this beautiful sight of the Margit bridge (and Parliament behind it) and the Danube all lit up and gorgeous. There’s a storm brewing so the temperature has dropped a bit and the wind has picked up, so darned glad I chose this place!!! Think I’ll have a lemonade to celebrate, all beered out at the moment.
This morning there is a cool wind blowing and it is clearly bringing the music from the multi-media fountain on Margit Island to my ears, can’t remember the name of the first classical piece but it was followed by ‘Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart’ the land of contrasts.
Today was Budapest orientation day, 2 lines of the hop on hop off, wow! This place is incredible, there are so many places to hop off that I’m thinking a week isn’t going to be enough! Apparently Budapest is often called the Paris of Hungary but I think it’s more like Rome, Vienna and Paris all rolled into one city. I could easily photograph every building and every corner of every building, just as I did in Rome in ‘06, stroll down boulevards and the river bank as in Paris and ogle at the amazing architecture just like Vienna. Tomorrow I will find out if the castle is equal to Schonbrunn, after all Sissy had a strong connection to Hungary, and there is the Elizabeth bridge named after her as well.
I went for a walk to find lunch and stumbled across this pub called the Wreck pub that uses old tyres, motorbikes, posters of the Ratpack and Miles Davis and old LP records for decoration, 44 gallon drums are tables! So of course that’s where I had lunch. Cappuccino and 2 slices of Hawaiian pizza (what else would you have in Budapest!) equivalent of $3.70 Australian, not bad.
Ah! The smell of diesel from a boat parking itself nearby – just for a second I thought I was back in Venice.
Big day today and still so much more to cover in this amazing city. I managed Buda Castle (Royal Palace), Heroes Square, the outside of the Synagogue during the day and the multimedia fountain tonight. The castle is just stunning, the turrets and battlements that surround the Royal Palace are just what all fairy tale castles are like. I simply have to get back here one day and spend a lot more time exploring. Heroes square is incredible, the fountain provides blessed relief to kids of all ages in these heat wave temperatures and the sculptures are stunning. Further on is the City Park within which is a lake for rowing in summer and ice skating in winter. There is heaps more there but my time being so limited I had to skip Vajdahunyad Castle and all the pretty walks.
All places were simply amazing but if I had to choose a favourite from today it would probably be the multimedia fountain, perhaps because it was the last thing I experienced, you know the ‘primacy and recency’ factor. I’ve been hearing the music as I’ve sat on deck and seen a little of the fountain in the distance so tonight I went and had a look, how wonderful it is! I think
I’ve found my new favourite celebratory medium, playful, colourful water with music, better than fireworks. The music actually makes the water move so it is truly synchronised unlike the attempts to synchronise music with fireworks back home, it never seems to quite work. The Budapest fountain is absolutely on par with the equally beautiful one in Wroclaw, Poland (although the one in Wroclaw is much bigger). Fortunately this one is on every day on the hour, it plays 2 tunes and then at 9pm every night it has a half hour of the whole repertoire, just gorgeous, by then it’s dark and the colours are more vibrant. Going again tomorrow night, once is definitely not enough.
Ah there it is, the Slaves Chorus from across the water, beautiful! Decided not to go over to the island tonight, after all of yesterday’s and today’s walking I thought better of it, need to save something for tomorrow, yes this ‘I don’t do tours girl’ is going on a tour. But what about today? Learnings, things to see and lots of walking. Figured out the tram and bus travel to get to all the things I wanted to see today. A balanced day of religious tourism mainly. Visited the Great Synagogue (Dohany), I had never heard of this branch of Jewish religion, apparently it is only found in Hungary, called Neolog, not as conservative as Orthodox Jews and not as modern as Reformed Judaism. The area of the ghetto is next to the Synagogue. Interestingly the Synagogue has an organ. There is so much more information that I invite you to check it out for yourself at;
As I wandered around the courtyard I learned more about Tony Curtis (one of my favourite actors from the 60’s and of Hungarian heritage, real name Bernard Schwartz). He commissioned the stunning Tree of Life (through the Emanuel Foundation) as a memorial to all who perished (as well as in memory of his parents), this is a beautiful work of art created by Imre Varga and a must see. To learn a little more so I don’t overdo the amount of information here please have a look at;
Then I was off to visit the neo-classical St Stephens Catholic Basilica designed by Miklos Ybl. Yet another huge and ornate church, the third highest building in Budapest, beautiful and again lots of history to be gleaned. Again, I ask you to check it out at; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Stephen’s_Basilica
On the way I came across a lovely little street market with cute wooden stalls (never did make it to the huge central markets) and Erzsébet tér a lovely park within which is the love tree. No hanging locks on bridges over the Danube here, in Budapest there is a tree with a cage around it and at a guess thousands of love locks. Then there is the cow.
Budapest is full of stunning ornateness and fascinating architecture. I only came across one modern architectural design (but then I wasn’t looking for them) so next time I’ll search more out, a search online shows images of modern constructions which are equally as amazing as their older cousins. It’s already becoming obvious that Budapest will be a place to re-visit one day.
So then I needed to conquer Vaci Utca (the 1.3 km pedestrian street). It’s very different to Knez Mihailova in Belgrade and Corso Italia in Pisa. These days the rent gets very expensive so shops apparently come and go rather often. As a result there is not a lot of point in describing specific shops as they may be gone by the time you get there, but let me say that if you don’t go to Vaci Utca you will miss out on an amazing street, go there, have fun.
The best of today? Morning tea in the ultimate cafe poets venue! The New York cafe! What a history, a place where poets and literary people met and so ornate it’s amazing! I think it gives Paris a run for its money. The prices are 4 star but oh, so worth it! Come on fellow poets, we need a place like this back home! Surrounded by Versailles worthy glitz I felt very special as I munched my way through a degustation plate of assorted desserts. Sadly though even they didn’t have the Dobos Torte, never did find it, so couldn’t compare my mother’s recipe.
Right then, 2 glasses of Szent Istvan Korona Cabernet Sauvignon (those who know me and wine will at this point be saying ‘Whaaaaat’?) Yes a red I could drink, local, just might help me get to sleep so I can get up in 61/2 short hours to go on the tour. Firstly I have to get to sleep, then have to wake up, then stay awake and not embarrass myself by falling asleep on the bus! Let’s see how this pans out, that’s right I’m not a natural early riser.
Jo regelt! (that’s good morning, learnt that at breakfast) Tour day. It was fun. A Japanese mother and daughter were already on the bus when I got on and Yayo-i (the mum) started chatting to me before I’d even sat down. We three hit it off really well and spent a lot of time together. I’m glad we did because I got this niggling feeling that most people were steering away from these 2 lovely ladies. We all oohed and aahed at the size and ornateness of the cathedral in the original Hungarian capital Ersztergom, what a history this country has had! But then that’s Europe I guess, invasion after invasion, each conqueror destroying the past and the next one rebuilding it. Lots of Roman ruins all over the place but as the guide said there is no money to even start reconstruction.
Lunch was lovely then on to Szentendre (now also called the Artists Village because quite a few artists of various media and many fashion designers have moved in). It was interesting and quaint although pretty typically set up for tourists with all the souvenir shops and restaurants, a pretty place nonetheless with good street food and lots of artisan goods, definitely worth a visit.
The boat ride back was very pretty, and yes that Danube isn’t blue, the guide laughs and says that Strauss must have been in love to ever think it was blue (perhaps it was blue in Vienna when Strauss composed that beautiful waltz).
It turns out that quite independently the 2 Japanese ladies and I booked the same tour to the Puszta (Hungarian Plains) so we’ll spend Sunday together too. I am looking forward to some open spaces and horses.
Well, here it is nearly 9pm I’m on deck with the spiders and mosquitos, Venus has risen, the horizon is a pale apricot colour, the boats are chugging up and down the river and I’m hoping to hear some of the music from the island – tomorrow night I’m definitely going over there again.
4 August 2013
Midday, here come the sounds of Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli from the island. Yes I’m being lazy today, still on board, but for a very good reason, I will be meeting up with my friend Steve’s cousin here after lunch, so looking forward to making connections with family of friends. Love having friends all over the world, even got invited to Japan yesterday with a promise of free accommodation in both Takushima island and Tokyo.
What a wonderful afternoon with Steve’s delightful cousin Kata. Walked over to Margit Island for coffee, they didn’t have the Dobos Torte either so went for iced coffee for dessert instead. We talked heaps about all sorts of things, had coffee, walked around and found things I didn’t know were on the island, talked some more, discussed everything from family to world politics, discovered lots of similarities. Thank you for a terrific afternoon.
Having a local person to show me around meant that I saw and learned things I wouldn’t have found on my own. On that island are the ruins of the Dominican Monastery of the Blessed Virgin, founded by King Bela IV of Hungary. His daughter Margaret (Margit) was a nun there. There is quite a history surrounding Margaret who lived in the monastery from the age of 10. Worth checking if you are interested.
Apart from the monastery ruins, coffee shops and the multi media fountain the island has romantic walkways through copses, a multitude of sculptures of poets, writers and composers, a small zoo, open air theatre and cinema, a water tower, swimming pools, a water park, clubs, a medieval chapel and a 5300m rubberised running track, you could almost spend your entire life there.
Great day today, tour to the Hungarian Puszta. Apparently in the old days it was a desert caused by the usual misuse of the land and the robbers used to hide out there. They became the horse herdsmen we saw depicted today and developed some incredible horsemanship. The Puszta was slowly regenerated by firstly introducing the Canadian Acacia tree, apparently it has roots that could reach the water in the sub-soil and bit by bit with good management the place turned green again. They have kept a few tourist farms that give you a sense of what it was like in the desert days.
The herdsmen have whips that sound like gun shots, supposedly developed in the days of the robbers, they had to make the police think they were armed, clever guys. Lunch was yummy, learned that what we call goulash, isn’t, that dish has a different name. Here goulash is goulash soup, it’s awesome. The gipsy band entertained us perfectly, so much fun and terrific musicians, my Japanese friends were so excited as the daughter plays several instruments including violin, so she was enthralled and became very excited when the violinist played Sukiyaki for her. We were greeted with shots of Palinka, a rather nice apricot brandy, of course we were served the very mild version, with it was a traditional bun of some sort, unfortunately it was very dry and no water to help swallow it, as a result I look as if I have the mumps in all the photos I have of me on the ox cart, so there is no way I’m sharing those.
This place has a little zoo of Hungarian animals and birds. Interesting place Hungary, their animals seem to like dreadlocks and strange hairdos, I already knew that their dogs have dreadlocks (my friends Steve and Sasha have a Puli dog) but I didn’t know their sheep and goats seem to have a penchant for the reggae style in both wool and horns, and their chickens! Well tak a look…..
All in all a gorgeous day, not over yet though, I am really going over to the island for the fountain tonight. If you get over the bridge at the right time of sunset you get buzzed by what I was told is a Soviet Antonov bi-plane. He comes in very low almost touching the treetops!
Well, it’s farewell to beautiful Budapest, perhaps I’ll get another glimpse on the way to Sweden in a very short while, who knows. Farewell Kata, thank you for meeting with me and see you on Facebook, one day hopefully we’ll all meet in Australia or back here in beautiful Budapest. Farewell fountains, bridges, sculptures, castles and the boat on the Danube, I’ve loved every joyous minute of it. Now it’s back to Belgrade.
As the rain buckets down in the place I now call home on the the South East coast of Australia, the bouillon is simmering on the stove in preparation for a pot of Borsch and Django Reinhardt is keeping my energy up, I arrive at my first massive blogging challenge. How do I write up 2 weeks (broken up by a week in Hungary) of an amazing re-visit to Belgrade without it becoming a stodgy long diatribe? Do I break it up into categories thereby losing the daily flow? Do I write it week by week? – eeeeek! Well as they say, just start with the first word and the rest will come, so here goes…….
Tuesday 16 July 2013.
My nice, calm and very expensive Alitalia flight from Rome arrived in Belgrade safe and sound. So it was back to the crazy drivers, but at least they usually stop at pedestrian crossings in Belgrade unlike Italy and Poland and many other places, but still best to double check. They all tend to drive flat out and slam on the brakes at the last minute.
My welcome back from the staff at the Hedonist Hostel was a delight, hugs all round. It felt like a real homecoming, these guys start feeling like family very soon after you first get there, no wonder so many return. So, a big thank you to Marjan, Anja and Milica, there were others who totally made me feel welcome but unfortunately names escape me, after all I am running almost 2 years late with this blog.
After my first visit in May 2013 the Hedonist, located at Simina 7, became the hostel that I judged all others by. They set the bar very high by knowing exactly how to make their guests feel at home and providing all the right information and entertainment. To think that I almost ignored this place when I was originally researching hostels in Belgrade, what a mistake that would have been.
As I mentioned in two of my previous blogs; ‘Golden Oldie and First Born Take off to Serbia’ and ‘Golden Oldie Achieves a Dream – Bocelli in Tuscany’, the most important part of this world trip was about researching my parents’ early lives. As they spent most of their youth in Serbia it was logical for me to go back there again to continue the research and attempt to do some writing.
This time there were heaps of Aussies and, of course, lots of other travellers at the hostel. The Exit Festival had just finished in Novi Sad so Belgrade was full of young tourists. (Exit is not my style of music but if you want to know what it’s all about, here is where you’ll find the line up for 2015 http://www.exitfest.org/en/lineup-2015).
The hostel was bursting at the seams with fascinating travellers, just on my first night back I met one English lawyer, 2 Australian student lawyers, one Australian theatre nurse who had just spent 6 weeks volunteer nursing in Nepal, one Australian student engineer and a Dutch Scout leader, what a mix! Belgrade, a super melting pot of people from all over the world. That was just one group which was gathered around the dining table scoffing the hot crepes (palacinke) that the staff provide regularly. Palacinke night is just wonderful at the Hedonist, hot crepes cooked right there in front of you, nutella, cream, Plazma biscuit crumbsetc and a whole lot of fun.
These guys also put on a regular barbecue (for a small fee) which is just fantastic, lots of salads lots of meat.
Right there are 2 reasons I prefer to stay in hostels (the good hostels of course), the fascinating people you meet and the social events that the staff put on. In the great hostels they know exactly how to balance the in-house entertainment with peace and quiet and advice for out of house entertainment. Hotels tend to leave you to your own devices so I only stay in a hotel when I either need a break from socialising or there are no good cheap hostels to be found (and that is rare, hostels are everywhere). Unfortunately the mega hostels either try to force socialising on you or act like hotels and provide very little.
The plan was to hop into bed, get some writing done for the blog and get a reasonable amount of sleep before heading off to the local market the next day.
Well as Robbie Burns said ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley’ (translates to ‘often go awry’), no writing got done, my Norwegian room-mate started chatting and we sat up late into the night sharing travel stories, luckily we were the only two people in the dorm that night.
Bakery, Murals and Markets
As a result of the late night my day started later than I had planned so top gear was needed to achieve my goals which included finding the markets. To get to the closest markets it is easiest to take a walk down the ‘old’ street Skadarlija, used to be known as the Monmartre of Serbia where the Bohemian life was led by poets, writers, singers and artists in the cafes and restaurants. Reading more on the area now as I am writing this I have discovered that amongst the singers performing there in the early 20th century was Olga Janceveckaya a Russian gypsy songstress who has always been one of my favourites. There were rumours that she was a spy (not sure for which side), true or not it all adds colour to this place. Skadarlija is very much a tourist area now but maintains it’s old world feel with restaurants serving up wonderful food at reasonable prices. There are, no doubt, other more ‘real’ local eateries but that was not my goal so I didn’t specifically go in search of any.
I found it interesting how tenuous connections kept appearing as I continued to research my parents’ lives by living in their favourite city. It is quite possible that one or both of my parents frequented this street in their youth and now there I was walking along the same cobblestones. That thought just kept amazing me every time it struck me as I wandered Belgrade.
First it was back to the bakery that Ginski and I discovered when we were there in May, for some local ‘street food’. Their specialty is goulash made mainly from offal meats served in a scooped out bread bun, love that stuff, it reminded me of Mum’s version, son wasn’t too keen though, he much preferred the Burek (another wonderful local specialty found throughout all the countries of the former Yugoslavia). It was so nice to be back albeit on my own this time.
I hadn’t realised how close the markets were to the Hedonist. Down Simina, turn left on Skadarlija, through the Bohemian Quarter of cobblestones and charming restaurants, past the murals, across the major thoroughfare of Cara Dusan and there it was. Not immediately obvious but once I found the entrance I discovered how big it was, hidden behind the buildings which line the street. I loved the markets, cheap, colourful full of vibrancy and wonderful fresh produce. Being so close to the hostel cheap self-catering with awesome produce was going to be easy. I wondered if this was where Dad, as a young boy, worked?
On the way back to the Hedonist I dropped into Jevrem restaurant (at 36 Gospodar Jevremova ) for lunch. That was very enjoyable but seriously, 6 types of meat in the mixed grill!? Plus vegies? I’m a huge meat eater but there was no way I could get all of that into me! The Serbian (my parents called it Turkish) coffee was nice and it was lovely to know that someone still makes it in a restaurant in Belgrade having been told by several cafes and restaurants that nobody serves it any more, I think the more traditional places do actually still serve that wonderful coffee. I also discovered that on a Friday night they have a pianist playing at dinner time so, I booked myself in.
Hostels and why I love them
Back at the Hedonist it was lovely catching up with people I’d met on my first visit and just happened to be there at the same time again, it seems to be a place to which people just keep coming back. So there were lots of chats with the two Russian girls (Eva and Julia) and we became friends and happily still communicate over social media and hopefully will meet up again somewhere, perhaps back in Belgrade or Russia or both.
Now here’s another thing I love about hostel travelling, when you find a really good one which is set up perfectly for socialising, you end up sitting around chatting and meeting other travellers, you hear their stories, get invited to their countries, you learn more and sometimes make life long friends. That afternoon was one of those times and low and behold I struck up a friendship with Natalie an absolutely delightful and interesting young lady from Australia. We seemed to have a lot in common and she asked to borrow Mum’s book. We have also stayed in touch ever since with plans to meet up back in Oz at some stage. It was becoming obvious that my original reason for coming back to Belgrade (thinking I would find time and quiet space to start some serious writing) just wasn’t going to happen, although I did manage to at least write up each day’s events in between the fun. This visit was again about meeting new friends and researching.
It seemed that word was spreading that I ‘write’ – not surprising I guess seeing as I was sitting at the computer a hell of a lot (attempting to write) and people kept asking me what I was doing so my research of parents’ lives and blog story was repeated many times. A young fellow came up that night and the first thing he said was ‘I’ve been told you write and I need to talk to someone who might understand’. So that took us into a lengthy conversation about muses, people thinking he’s crazy etc etc. All he really needed was confirmation that other people also have words forming themselves into creative expressions at weird times. Poor guy has obviously been put down by both family and friends when he has shared his thoughts. It was delightful to have a chat and support him in actually writing things down instead of just letting them get lost out of his head. I hope he felt better about his creativity and actually gets something on paper.
Knez Mihailova – The amazing pedestrian street
Only in Belgrade! I went for an innocent walk, popped into an antique shop for a quick look and ended up joining the owner and a customer in rakija, white wine, cevapcici, loud music and dancing. I could not believe the other two when they both got on the furniture to dance!
It was difficult extracting myself from the clutches of the antique store – which was taking on a surreal ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ atmosphere and I thought that at any moment a piece of furniture would drag me into some parallel universe, so I finally made my excuses, left the other two to their dancing and continued exploring Knez Mihailova the longest pedestrian shopping street I’d come across.
You’ll find all sorts of things along that amazing street, fountains, sculpture displays, cafes, restaurants, hotels, shops, people selling weird stuff on the pavement and lots more. You could easily spend an entire day there. Knez Mihailova is protected by law as one of the oldest and most valuable landmarks of the city. It is named after the Prince of Serbia Mihailo Obrenovic III. Its 1 kilometre length takes you from around the Department of philosophy to the entrance of Kalemagdan Park and was the main street when Belgrade was the Roman city of Singidunum, which is why it leads directly to the fortress. If you would like to know more about the history (particularly of the fortress) I recommend you have a look at this site; http://tripandsleephostels.com/2015/04/the-city-of-a-thousand-wars/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knez_Mihailova_Street If I were to repeat all the information that you can find on these sites (and many others) the blog would go on forever. Suffice to say that Central Belgrade is a place to walk, there is so much to find, see and experience there.
It was time to get organised and go to dinner and some live music at Jevrem . Some self imposed time out from re-reading Mum’s book and researching was called for. As if I hadn’t challenged myself enough, now it was dinner by myself in a slightly ‘up market’ restaurant – that was worth a pat on the back.
Jevrem has a wonderful atmosphere with both inside and outside eating areas. The night turned out to be rather interesting, once again only in Belgrade! I sat down at my table and while the waitress was chatting to me I noticed an elderly man and lady looking at me and smiling, I began to feel a little awkward. Then the sweet gentleman came over, he was the pianist and wanted to ask what sort of music I liked so he could play it for me, so nice, I must stand out like a sore thumb as a tourist. No sooner had he left to go to the piano an older lady came in (I figured out she was 75, although I swear she looked older) and decided to sit with me and proceeded to give me a Serbian history lesson in Serbian. Luckily I understand enough to have made some sense of a lot of it. The waitresses couldn’t stop apologising, but it was really sweet. Anyway, she stayed for a drink, decided their food was too expensive and left (after giving me several hundred years of history) perhaps she was hoping I’d buy her a meal but that thought didn’t strike me at the time.
A lovely dinner, interesting talks, nice music and then back to the hostel. I walked into a party in the common room, the obligatory partaking of vodka before going clubbing. Soon they were all jolly enough and it was late enough for the young ones to go out and although I was invited to go along I had to say no , I’m still ‘old school’ going out at midnight just doesn’t fit into my reality. So there was quiet time for me, at least until everyone came back much worse for wear.
Searching out churches
Flash of inspiration the previous day, who would/should be able to point me in the right direction for information on the period when Mum and Dad were here? Maybe if there was a Russian church they might know. So a bit of research, yes there is a church in Belgrade (The Church of the Holy Trinity), within walking distance according to the map. So after a night of emotions, reading the saddest chapters of Mum’s book in order to get my questions organised (so glad the dorm mates were all out) I was off to church in the morning. A very long walk followed by 2 hours of standing and a long walk home took it’s toll, but I was glad I went, although as usual it caused more questions than answers. It turned out that on that day a Serbian priest was leading the service as the Russian priest, who could have possibly given me answers, was in Moscow and wouldn’t be back till 4 August.
The church warden took my email address promising to pass it on to the priest upon his return, with my questions, needless to say that didn’t happen. The absence of the priest caused some re-organisation of my thinking, I wasn’t planning to stay that long, what to do? It seemed, though, that he may have been able to help me out, as this is the church where General Wrangel, leader of the white Russian Army is buried. I had heard many a story from Mum about the General and the evacuation of the army to the Yugoslavia, seeing as Mum’s uncle was in that army. That was a cool find. Although no research could be done, once the choir started singing I just had to stay on, a very small choir but what voices!
On the way out of the church I ran straight into a Serbian wedding going to St Marks (next door to the Russian church) complete with ‘lumpovanje’. This is a traditional musical accompaniment for the bride and groom, a very loud brass band with accordions and drums accompany the wedding party through the streets playing a very loud style of traditional music. Again I remembered my mother’s stories of weddings in various towns and villages. If you would like to get a taste of what it’s like have a look at this video on Youtube
On the way home I came across the biggest post office building ever!
Tuesday was taken up with exploring the fortress, it is a fascinating rambling place built at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. However, I have given a couple of sites above for you to explore so will refrain from any description here – except for a few photos.
Museums and mausaleums
An interesting visit to the National Museum, located on the main city square called Trg Republike. A small museum but certainly some learnings for me, I hadn’t even thought about this area being part of the Roman Empire, but there it is, lots of relics and ruins. On top of that I hadn’t known about the Milan Edict either, hmmm perhaps in our current times we need to be more aware of what it says and perhaps expand it.
It was the day to visit Tito’s Mausaleum (also known as The House of Flowers) and the 2 museums next to it. So a lovely Finnish lady and I hopped on the tram. I found both the mausoleum and museums interesting but not spectacular, however these things must be seen if you are in the city and there is a lot to learn. Not only is Tito’s white marble grave there (although supposedly he is actually buried outside amongst the flowers) but also displays of all the gifts he had received. One of the displays fascinated me in particular. This was the display of the batons brought to him each birthday on 25th May. It all started in 1945 when the youth of the country organised mass baton relays throughout Yugoslavia. The batons conveyed birthday wishes for long life and good health to Tito. There are apparently 22,000 of them in the museum many very elaborately decorated. Eventually the 25th of May became known as Youth Day.
The other sections of the museum had all manner of costumes and items from other countries on display.
Sometimes hostel life can be awesome as it was that evening with crepe night, a birthday watermelon (spiked with vodka of course) for one of the girls and live entertainment by a bunch of Swedes and a saxophonist from somewhere else.
At other times it can be very annoying as in the next night when I was awoken at some horrific hour of the morning by the Brazilian boys who had been out all night
and for some reason needed to have a conversation in the dorm (as if they hadn’t had enough time to talk to each other).
The 31 degrees in Belgrade felt so much ‘hotter’ than 31 at home, maybe it’s the humidity, putting that together with a lack of sleep and it ended up that a walk to the post office, the gelato place and the supermarket (for watermelon, chicken and booze) was enough for one day! The afternoon was spent sitting around chatting to lovely Ursula (from Chile) about Mum’s book, my research and her amazing search for family while drinking local beer, now that’s the way to spend a hot languid afternoon on holidays.
Hostels and some of the challenges – Manners
Yes there is an unwritten set of hostel manners that the decent travellers adhere to, others unfortunately think they are the only ones there. It was quiet until 5am (didn’t even realise a new dorm mate had come in) then, shattered silence! Alarm goes off, obviously the Turkish girl’s as she finally got up looking for the phone. Is it in the locker? No, maybe in the luggage? Yes! Alarm gets louder, Hmmm can’t see in the dark, light goes on, finally alarm goes off. She visits the bathroom, back in bed, silence again, till 5.45 when same person decides it’s time to get up, bed light goes on, lots of rustling, zippers opening, She leaves, light stays on – sometimes I love hostel life, other times I’m over it.
I decided to go out to Zemun even though it was 33 degrees outside. Zemun lies on the Danube and was once a separate city. I walked along the river past lots of little restaurants, it was a time I wished I had someone with me who spoke the language properly, would have been nice to stop and have a bite to eat, I settled for an icecream on the way back to the bus stop. I couldn’t cope with the heat and tiredness so decided not to explore further. There is a rich history to Zemun and of course way too much to put here so Wikipedia comes to the rescue once again, take a look at;
On my way out to Zemun I had noticed a massive market with a very Ottoman looking roof so on the way back I hopped off the bus to take a look. Located across the road from the central transportation hub Zeleni Venac is massive, it was a delight wandering up and down the rows, you can buy pretty much anything there not just food products. Once again the thought crossed my mind, was this where Dad, as a young boy, worked?
‘The town market became the base of his activities. He ran messages, doing any kind of work. He made himself indispensable at the market. He started to make some money but still slept under boxes at the market until a Serbian farmer offered him a job on his property. So Tony became a shepherd.’ Excerpt from my mother’s memoirs, Jermolajew, Tamara. It Can’t Be Forever. Gininderra Press, 2005.
Sadly Mum is gone and I can’t ask those questions now.
The 29th July arrived, my decision had been made to go to Hungary for a week before returning. A note about going to Budapest from Belgrade, it is much cheaper and more convenient to go by mini bus. The Hedonist books the bus for you, you leave at a civilised hour of the day, it is safe and the driver looks after the border crossing by collecting all the passports. The border guards have a good look at you before handing back your passport, however we didn’t have to get out of the bus so that was good. One thing, best not to have any alcohol or cigarettes (except enough for yourself for the trip) with you, the Hungarian border is pretty strict about that. The only thing about the mini bus (or at least the 2 drivers I had on 2 separate occasions) make sure you know exactly where you are going, if it is possible, because both times I was dropped at the wrong place which caused a little more than just annoyance.
So it was a temporary farewell to Belgrade with great thanks to my newly found friends Eva, Julia, Natalie, Alex, Rachael and Ursula, and the rest of the guests and onward to Budapest.
Thursday 11 July 2013 arrived and sadly it was time to leave beautiful Venice. A smooth train ride via Padova, Bologna and Firenze (gosh there are a lot of tunnels between Bologna and Firenze!) and there I was in Pisa. Why? You may ask, when I could have stayed in Venice which I love so much? Well…. it was all because of Andrea Bocelli.
While still at home I bought a ticket (the big gift to myself) to see Bocelli in his open-air theatre in his home village of Lajatico, situated about 45kms out of Pisa. He only performs there once a year and it was on that weekend! So, it was time to slow it down a bit, have a look around Pisa, go to the concert and perhaps catch up on some writing, the only challenge was where to next? I was hoping to catch up with a friend in Milan but she and her husband were down south sailing around islands somewhere, so the first lot of thinking was do I go to Paris via San Remo or Uppsala via Budapest? Decisions, decisions! But first, Pisa.
It was a little warm in the hotel La Pace room and the air conditioning was weird, I had no idea what temperature it was set at but no matter what I did it only turned on for about 5 seconds at a time, I think round about when it felt like 30 degrees Centigrade in there. Anyway, I wasn’t about to complain, I had my wish, a real, proper bathroom with a proper shower where I could stand up, have lots of beautiful hot water flowing over me and have both hands free – yay! AND it had a door! A real shower recess. Sometimes it’s the small things that get me excited! Not having those sure made me appreciate our system back home. Whoever thought it was comfortable and convenient to sit in a bath with a hand held shower was wrong, or to have no rim around the shower so water flowed into the bedroom area, or to stand holding the shower in one hand was oh, so wrong! That said my first night was impressive, I went to the bar for a couple of beers to take back to my room and got a bowl of free pistachios, rather decent I thought.
First day in Pisa and first success was finding my way through the Pisan postal system, and although I did ask for clues at hotel reception (which they happily provided and listened while I practised), and the system is the same as our banks and shopfronts (ie take a ticket and wait for your number to be called) and the lovely lady spoke reasonable English (after she let me test out my limited Italian) I was still pretty proud of myself.
The centre of Pisa is much like many European towns with a central pedestrian shopping plaza (Corso Italia) which you walk along to get to almost anywhere. It stretches from the Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II (not far from the railway station) to the river Arno with shops on both sides and streets leading off it. On the way to the Post Office I came across an interesting sight, two men in orange robes obviously meditating and doing something that appeared to be impossible. How does one person hold a pole in one hand with another man sitting on top of it? The photo says it all, I’m still incredulous.
Then it was off on the first leg of my Pisan Hop on Hop Off experience in the heat of the Tuscan Summer sun. Yes, the bell tower leans! I think it wanted to have a better look at the Baptistry and couldn’t straighten up again. Quite an interesting history around that building. There are all sorts of explanations about the lean. In all of them only the Tower is mentioned. On the bus the guide said that many buildings in Pisa lean a little, even the Baptistry in the Campo dei Miracoli, but not as much as the tower. Apparently it has something to do with the amount of water in the soil, however there are a lot of sites on line which discuss the whole engineering of the Tower and don’t mention any other buildings in Pisa, so who knows what the true story is, and after all, guides are known to make stuff up sometimes (‘Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’ perhaps?). The tower had the worst lean and apparently they have now straightened it a little and after stabilisation it’s back to the lean it had 200 years ago (again according to the guide, that is not necessarily what is said on line). After all you can’t straighten it completely, nobody would come to visit the ‘Previously Leaning Tower of Pisa’.
I was quite surprised by the open green area where the tower leans. I guess we only ever hear about the tower and there are many photos of it alone. However, there is also the Duomo (cathedral) the Baptistry and the Camposanto (cemetery). All the buildings are stunningly beautiful and the surrounding bright green grass of the ‘field’ seems to accentuate their ‘whiteness’. The surrounding ancient wall seems to add a feeling of security. Of course there are huge amounts of tourists and many souvenir stalls catering to their needs.
There appeared to be much more to Pisa than the Leaning Tower, for example the ancient university. It is an Italian public research university founded in 1343 by an edict of Pope Clement VI. It is the 19th oldest surviving university in the world and the 10th oldest in Italy. Not only is it one of the top universities in Italy but it also houses Europe’s oldest academic botanical garden, founded in 1544. There are also many ancient churches and other interesting buildings to see not to mention the river, bridges and surrounds. So I thought I would check a bit more out on my last day, of course I couldn’t do it all, I should have read up on the place, but then I was only really going there for one thing as well as a bit of a break from excessive sight seeing. I was beginning to feel a little weary and heat affected. Now that I know so much more about Pisa and have had a taste, I think a re-visit is in order.
The day of the concert dawned (13 July 2013) and I was starting to feel much more with it. One downside to staying in hotels (as compared to hostels), is that if you’ve had too much sun and fun and would like to just lie around all day relaxing before a big night out, you need to put the ‘do not disturb’ sign up. Unfortunately then your room doesn’t get done. So off I went into the town all the time hoping that the room would be attended to while I was out and about so I could relax upon my return and be ready for the night.
Successfully negotiating the buying of a rail ticket to Rome in Italian at the station felt wonderful. The next challenge was to walk to the supermarket for supplies for the concert and some lunch. Firstly though, prevention of my possible reaction to being overheated for too long 1 salt tablet followed by 2 litres of water, I’ve lived in this body a long time and know exactly what would happen if I didn’t pay attention.
The supermarket yielded 2 very healthy and yummy peaches followed by a block of Milka chocolate (coming across things that I hadn’t seen or eaten for a while is always a delight, who cares if some of it isn’t exactly ‘healthy’ at least it was balanced). According to the official Milka site, the name is derived from combining Milch and Kakao, which are the German words for milk and cocoa, chocolate’s main ingredients. However, Croatians claim that the name of the purple wrapped chocolate is a tribute to Carl Russ-Suchard’s love of Milka Ternina (1863–1941), a famous soprano of the time. We’ll probably never know the real story, however I prefer the romantic one.
A little lie down as I knew it would be a long night, (yes the room had been cleaned in my absence) and I thought I was organised. Then panic! I received an email that my booking for the coach was too late and there were no seats after all. What to do? I had visions of missing the concert, the whole reason for being there. As this was one of the few hotels I’ve stayed in where reception was very helpful and fun, I rushed to the front desk to see what their advice might be. I knew whatever the solution it would cost mega bucks, but I wasn’t prepared to miss the concert. Yes they had a solution and yes it would cost mega bucks but there was nothing for it, it was either take the cab they could arrange or miss the concert. They did say that if they could find more passengers of course the fare would be cheaper. We did find more passengers but it didn’t make the fare very much cheaper.
The cab turned up and off we went, we were just getting to the edge of town when a call came through that there were more passengers so back to town to pick them up.
The passengers turned out to be a father and son from California, the father had given this trip to his son as a 50th birthday present, what a fantastic gift.
To get to the concert you drive 45 kms out of Pisa, there is no public transport hence the cab (or a coach if you remember to book one). You get dropped off about 500mtrs or a bit more away from the entrance at the bottom of a Tuscan knoll. You walk up the hill and then down the other side. Walking up the hill was fine but then we came to a complete stop and stood around waiting for an hour (to this day I don’t know exactly why, they never explained but there were rumours about security not being sure whether to check bags or not). A few older people began feeling the heat, I was so glad I’d had the sense to take my precautions. Finally they started letting us in and it was a shuffle for the last about 100 metres until we got through the entrance and into the field of the theatre. The view when we got to the theatre was tremendous, the beautiful golden rolling knolls of Tuscany all around with the higher green/blue hills in the distance.
The stage was set with 2 massive statues of naked men, one crouching at the front the other a torso looking like he was about to hop over a wall. During the concert they were lit in different coloured lights and became very effective. Then there was the massive amount of equipment and structures that later became stages for dancers and singers.
As fate would have it I sat next to a young Indonesian guy who had lived in Switzerland for 12 months and who is a mad Bocelli fan, so we had some nice conversations and laughed that 2 people from a similar area of the world would end up sitting next to each other in Tuscany. I don’t know how many thousands of people there were in the audience but there were a lot of people from all over the world!
As the sun set over those golden knolls and the crescent moon rose, the music started. The atmosphere was electric, sometimes a hush over the crowd and other times the applause was deafening. The music was stupendous and of course it wasn’t just Andrea Bocelli it was his friends as well. The first half began with a reading of Andrea Bocelli’s poem Borgo Natio (My Native Village) read by the Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi. The first half was of course classical, mainly Verdi, with arias from Aida, La Traviatta and Il Trovatore. The second half was lighter music so everyone got a bit of everything. The second half started with a reading of another Bocelli poem Al Crepuscolo un Angelo Mi Parla (At Dusk an Angel Speaks to Me a poem about his daughter).
Here are just three verses from the middle of that beautiful poem which touched me (as translated in the program).
In vain I have meditated, in vain have sought
along the streets of the whole world,
to live love, to run, to create,
and to the game of one lone second give us all!
Oh vain cruel worm inside my thoughts
that on the threshold of mystery will fall
All of a sudden a sound then catches me:
where does it come from? And if to listen to it
I dread and fear,
the moment after I am glad to hear,
a soft noise, a crawling, that comes near
I recognise it, and yet it seems unreal.
Then from afar I hear a voice,
just speaking to my heart confused
and fills that infinite void, to which
my shivering being bows ,
it is my child, and she has found me
and something has wakened deep inside me.
The second half of the program included Anema e Coure, Love me Tender, My Way, La Vie en Rose (they very cleverly inserted a film clip of Edith Piaf) and so much more. The guest musicians, singers and dancers provided terrific entertainment. There were names like Lindsay Kemp, Francesca Malacarne, Ricardo Cocciante, Simona Molinari, Paoletta Marrocu amongst many others and of course the choir of the Theatre of Silence. (Why is it called the Theatre of silence? Because Andrea Bocelli only performs one concert there in July each year, the rest of the time there is silence) The choirs rendition of O Fortuna was incredible. The dancers, the choir, all the soloists were amazing and then of course Bocelli himself! What can I say other than WOW! and BRAVO! Even now, as I write this, more than a year later, and look through my photos and souvenir program my spine tingles and eyes mist.
I found myself sitting there and every now and again it would hit me ‘I am in Lajatico, under the Tuscan sky listening and watching Andrea Bocelli live!’ I mean really, how awesome is that! The whole concert was brilliant and of course the encores brought the house down (if there were a house to bring down) Time to Say Goodbye and Nessun Dorma oh my! accompanied by a mass of fireworks. So there it is folks, awesome night and I am so thrilled I gave myself this gift, even though it cost an arm and a leg.
The photos unfortunately aren’t fantastic, although I had great seats they were just a little far away even for my long lens. But it’s better than not having any photos at all. I suggest you all go one day, while the concerts are still happening.
And so suddenly the evening was over and the crowd started walking back to the coaches and cabs. At one point I could see the lights of the traffic as it wound its way back towards Pisa. I found the cab and my fellow passengers and off we went, joining the snaking traffic line.
I have come across some very negative reviews online of this concert complaining about the price of tickets, that there was not enough of Andrea himself on stage, that there was too much dancing, that Andrea wore his sun glasses the entire time, that the creative director ‘should hang his head in shame’ etc etc etc. Some people are never happy. No, the tickets weren’t excessively expensive given who was performing. What difference does it make if a blind singer wears his sunglasses in the concert? Andrea likes to introduce other singers and performers to his stage and seriously I thought he was on stage a lot. I’m no fan of creative dance but I’m sure there are plenty of people who are and who appreciated Lindsay Kemps interpretations. All I can say is ‘get over it’ and count your blessings that you have an opportunity to see such an amazing singer in his home town in the open, along with others for whom he has artistic respect.After that spectacular night there was only one day left to finish exploring Pisa before moving on. I would have liked to see more of Tuscany and the coast but there is one downfall travelling solo if you don’t drive left hand drive cars. It’s hard to get around to the smaller villages or go on country trips. I wasn’t prepared to risk driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road so had to be content with seeing what I could without a car. Had I been staying longer I would have figured out how to get places by bus or train, however, that will need to be another trip.
The orange guys were still there, still sitting on a stick, I wondered if they ever went home because no matter when I walked past they were there, both day and night. If I hadn’t seen some one of them swallow, once, I’d have believed they were statues.
The visit to the supermarket this time yielded the best find yet – coffee yoghurt! My coffee fetish was definitely a theme on this grand tour and it drew me to itself on a daily basis in its many forms.
There are some lovely art works, statues and buildings in Pisa. I came across Keith Harings Tuttomondo, an acrylic created in 1989. The statue of Vittorio Emanuelle, 1st president of unified Italy, stands significantly in a piazza just before the entrance to the Corso. The paving around the railway station is almost a work of art on it’s own and the airport building is quite different with all it’s greenery. The river Arno with bridges separating the two sides of the town is beautiful and the ancient city wall is apparently one of the most complete surviving walls in Europe.
There were a few obligatory beggars and gypsies to contend with as the hotel was only half a block away from the railway station and the entrance was in an alley, but all in all they were pretty well behaved and didn’t harass anyone too much, perhaps because the police came around often enough and the hotel staff seemed to deal with them nicely. In fact the area around the railway station was the cleanest and best I had seen. I didn’t come across any beggars in the other parts of town, unlike other cities in Europe where they are in almost every doorway. Pisa appeared to be a reasonably quiet place, outside of the tourist area it was just a pretty city with many cultures. One day I’ll get back there and allow more time to explore the area properly.
Time to say Goodbye
Why is it that the night before travelling I don’t sleep very well, leaving me tired and having to think harder to make sure I don’t mess anything up! My next step, was farewell to Pisa, to Bocelli and the tower and hello again to Belgrade.
I caught the train to Rome then an Alitalia flight to Belgrade. I could not find any way to check my luggage in online, the website said I had to check luggage at the airport, well, that cost a small fortune, 75 Euros for one bag! Right there and then I decided I’ll never fly that airline again. Luckily the lovely guard on the train to Rome didn’t fine me for forgetting to validate my ticket, so that money went towards Alitalia instead.
Always, remember to validate your train ticket, it can get expensive if you don’t.
Yes I’d been to Belgrade with my son Ginski in May, tracking down my Mother’s schools, I described that trip in my blog on Serbia (Golden Oldie and First Born Take Off to Serbia). So why back to Belgrade? I still needed a rest from sight seeing (although there were a couple of things we didn’t get to do there the first time) and I still had more research to do on my parents, especially my mother. I needed to get the additional chapter/s to Mum’s memoirs done. I thought perhaps the place where she lived for a while and spent a year in University studying medicine before she got married and the war broke out (no I don’t think her marriage caused the war) might give me some inspiration to get on with the job and get it finished. I’d been avoiding re-reading her book which I had to do in order to be able to fill in a few gaps as well as take it up to the end of her life. This was the major emotional challenge of the trip.
So, farewell Pisa, I do want to re-visit and see more of your surrounds.
Moving right along………while pretty much everyone in the land of Oz was happily sleeping in their warm toasty beds I sneakily hopped on a Ryanair plane in Wroclaw Poland (yes I dared!) and landed in VENEZIA!!!!
Ah Venice! Historic home of canals, bridges, sculptures, food, glass, masks, lace, gondoliers and of course amazing engineering.
‘In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone, but beauty still is here.
States fall, arts fade, but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy.’
(Venice, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Venice wasn’t on my original list for this grand tour (after all I discovered on my first trip there that it is yet another of those places that are best shared with an understanding, normal fellow traveller). However, seeing as I needed to get to Pisa I discovered that the easiest and cheapest way to get there from Wroclaw in Poland was by Ryanair to Venice, then by train to Pisa- so of course I had to factor in some days of canals and vaporettos. I had fallen in love with Venice on my very first trip there in 2006 and had sworn that one day I would return, and here I was! It was night time on Sunday 7th July when I arrived, I had no idea where exactly my hotel was, nor how to get there after catching the bus from Treviso airport. Luckily for me a friendly Italian lady who spoke English came to my rescue.
There were two things immediately noticeable – 1) The huge number of mirrors in the lobby and 2) The tiniest shower/bathroom space ever!
I was still pinching myself the next morning, not quite believing that I was really in Venice, so unplanned and so exciting. I couldn’t wait to get back to explore more of the islands, passageways and canals. I started out thinking I’d get a vaporetto to San Marco Square from Piazzale Roma (where all traffic stops) but then I saw the sign so I thought I’d walk it! Pretty soon I decided that the signs pointing to San Marco and Rialto are designed to make sure you walk past every possible shop and cafe. So exciting though, finding little places in those alleyways, I was so glad I walked otherwise I wouldn’t have seen so many little nooks and crannies along the way especially the myriad of Venetian mask shops. I just love the variety of stunning masks. As in most of Europe though there are very few places to sit and rest so be aware of this if walking long distances is a challenge. The other thing you will find, especially in tourist areas of Italy, are signs in shop windows saying ‘No photos’, I guess they haven’t caught up on the idea of advertising through social media, oh well, the long lens came in handy at times.
I got to the Rialto before I found San Marco Square so I thought coffee and the obligatory photos would be a good idea, especially the coffee giving me an opportunity to sit down for a little while. I knew this place was expensive and expected it but 9 Euros (about $AUD13-14) for 2 coffees? Admittedly I did sit down to have them AND it was the cafe closest to the Rialto so that shouldn’t have been a surprise.
(Tip for the new traveller
For those who haven’t been to Europe, be aware that you are charged more if you sit down at a café, so if you don’t want to pay double the price, get take aways)
The Rialto was of course packed with tourists, it was high season, but the view, was as beautiful as I remembered. The Grand canal, boats, gondolas and of course the charming palazzos rising from the water with waves lapping against their foundations. The crowds, of course, made taking selfies difficult and then the saviour of solo travellers kicked in, the random stranger. I made a deal with a lovely American guy with a professional looking camera that if I moved so he could get his shot would he take one of me on my camera, of course he did. Choosing the right person to take your photo for you is quite a game when you travel solo, these days of course, if you have a smart phone I guess it’s much easier, however I still prefer a real camera.
I was very quickly ‘peopled out’ by the crowds at the Rialto so I decided I’d go to Burano instead of San Marco Square. In July Venice is packed, it’s impossible to get a photo of anything without tourist crowds in the main tourist areas. So off I went. It took quite a walk to find a jetty where I could catch the correct vaporetto but find it I did. However, I must have mis-heard the boat man and he must have mis-heard me when I checked that the boat was going to Burano – because after travelling right around Murano I had a look at the map and figured I’d better get off, because this boat wasn’t going to Burano after all and there wasn’t enough time to go back to Venice and catch the right boat. At the time I didn’t realise that I could have caught one from Murano. I guess I should have brushed up on my Italian before leaving home. So instead of lace I set off looking at glass. Back in 2006 I missed the glass blowing because we got to the island too late, and I didn’t get to it this time either. It took me 3 hours just to check out all the galleries and shops in the area around the Colonna jetty, not realising when the factories closed. Murano glass is certainly something to behold. Some of it is so recognisably garish and some spectacularly stylish and beautiful. There was a coffee and wine/water set in green and gold that I would have loved to see in my own home – I didn’t dare even look at the price!
The sculptures around the island are of course all mostly made of glass, I hadn’t noticed these on my first trip there 8 years earlier, perhaps they weren’t there. This time, as I was on my own, it was a delight to be just aimlessly wandering around and suddenly coming upon a massive, colourful glass sculpture. Next time I will be more prepared and allow a lot more time for exploring Murano.
And so ended my first day in Venice, a sunset boat ride back to the main island topped off a beautiful day.
Day two of Venetian Adventures
I wanted to give my feet a rest after all that walking the previous day, so I thought it would be nice to do more tripping around on vaporetti. As it happened I was given lots of opportunity for foot resting. First off it took an hour to get to Venice from my hotel on the mainland instead of the normal 15-20 mins (thanks to an accident near the bridge and the resulting traffic jams). Then I decided that I just had to get to Burano, the island of beautiful handmade lace. I didn’t realise just what a long trip it was, especially when I got the slow boat to Fondamente Nove and then a very long trip via Murano on another. So my feet got heaps of rest and I got lots of boat travel, pity it’s all inside though I would have liked to be outside with the wind and the waves. I didn’t get to Burano till just after 3! So worth it though! I found myself thinking I could rent a place for a couple of months and get those books written! There was beautiful lace everywhere, colourful houses and lots of canals and bridges (I seem to have developed a ‘thing’ about bridges). Normally I hate shopping but Venice was different. Every store has stunning creations to enjoy, it was so tempting to buy more than necessary, however, good sense prevailed and I only succumbed to a few souvenirs on Burano to send home to friends. On Burano the trick is to find the shops where you can see the owners creating the lace as there are some selling the cheap imports as if they were made locally. Then, back to the main island and the Jewish ghetto.
Ah, learning after learning! The previous day I learned (luckily by observation, not experience) that it’s not a good idea to sit in the back of a vaporetto, a bunch of people got drenched by a rogue wake from a passing boat. Today I learned that the word ‘ghetto’ used to mean ‘foundry’ in Venetian (one of the etymological roots for the word) and took on the new meaning after the Jews were confined on the island where foundry slag was stored, forming, apparently, the first ever ghetto in 1516, interesting how meanings change.
I’d vaguely remembered reading about the ghetto ages ago and looked it up – well blow me down if the Old Ghetto wasn’t the setting for Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (probably should have paid more attention seeing as we did it 3 years in a row in High School). The ghetto is in the Canareggio region and is divided into the Ghetto Nuovo (new) and Ghetto Vecchio (old). The two areas are separated by a narrow canal. There are memorial wreaths with explanatory plaques on many buildings commemorating previous inhabitants of the houses, synagogues and schools and who perished either there or during WWII.
The ghettos have many kosher stores and restaurants as well as synagogues. Of course I had to investigate at least one Kosher restaurant as I love the food. I came across Gam Gam, just the name fascinated me. The menu was extensive and so I, of course, ate too much, again! Surprise, surprise! How could I not when the flavours were so wonderful and the ‘red’ Israeli beer was really good. I can highly recommend this restaurant especially the sardines.
I managed to get some thinking time, why not spend a bit of my time relaxing over dinner next to a Venetian canal. My thoughts took me to another learning. I noticed that people thought I was doing something amazing in my life. The lovely owner at the 4 Seasons in Wroclaw thought it amazing that I spoke fluent Russian although born in Australia. The very helpful Italian lady (named Elena) on the bus from Treviso who helped me find my hotel in Venice, couldn’t believe that I was travelling alone and kept congratulating me. The waiter at Gam Gam was equally amazed. I guess I should pay attention and give myself some recognition for the things I take for granted about myself. Traveling solo was giving me the opportunity to take time out and think through many things.
Having had a delightfully full day of experiences it was time to make my way back to the mainland for the evening.
A Sad Farewell
10 July 2013, my third day in Venice, was a day of saying farewell, and isn’t it ridiculous but it actually brought tears to my eyes! There must have been a reason for this but I didn’t know what it was, perhaps this time I had made a closer connection to the city and the thought that I could see myself spending more time on Burano writing may have had something to do with it. I certainly would have liked to stay much longer. Anyway, as it was my last day there I thought I’d better do some of the things I hadn’t yet done, so….. off to the Bridge of Sighs, only from the outside as I had no intention of standing in line for hours, the line stretched a very, very long way. However, one day I will return, perhaps in October again when the crowds are gone, and go inside the bridge which connects the Doges Palace to the prison. Descriptions I’ve read of the inside of the bridge are very interesting. One can only imagine the devastation felt by prisoners being led from the court to the prison, especially if they really were innocent. Poor old Casanova (the only prisoner to ever escape, did he have help I wonder?) must have had some interesting thoughts go through his head. Others knew they would never see the outside world again.
‘I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand;
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Looked to the wingéd Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
(Venice, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
In my wanderings I discovered the royal gardens, a lovely green area with trees and flowers and seats! The majority of tourists obviously weren’t interested in this lovely space so it was really delightful to be able to sit and dream.
I walked the arcades of St Mark’s Square (I don’t remember the facades being quite so black in 2006). I really wanted to have coffee at the Florian Café but it was right on lunch time so I realised I could be there for a long time, so instead, I went back to the Guglie area, planning to get some good healthy fresh smelling strawberries and nectarines for lunch! I started well with a cup of watermelon, ended up at 3pm with an espresso, a mini pizza and a Sicilian cannolo.
Then a brief re-visit to Murano followed by a re-visit to Burano. All this mainly in the interest of some decent sunset photo chasing, although I really did want to say a personal farewell to the two outlying islands. Unfortunately this time of year doesn’t seem to lend itself to great sunsets in Venice (or maybe it was just the 3 days of my visit there) – they were so much more spectacular in October 2006. However, I had a ball just riding around on boats and and checking out the views of ruins, sculptures on the lagoon and passing boats of various uses.
I miss the creak of the boats at their moorings, the smell of the diesel when you stick your head out of a vaporetto to take a photo, the rush onto the boat to try and get an outside seat, even though you risk getting drenched (it helps when you can either understand the verbal language or read the body language).Then there is the window and door closing ‘police’ (there is always one) who keeps telling other passengers to close the windows and doors (because the vaporetto to Burano is airconditioned, when it works!) I had to laugh when a guy told everyone to close the windows, then went round and closed them all, then discovered that it got hot, he then went off somewhere, (perhaps to talk to the captain) and came back and opened his window!) Hilarious!
And so it was farewell to beautiful Venice, with a promise to return one day, there is so much more to experience in that unique city, and who knows, maybe I’ll figure out a way to spend a few months there writing, after all, miracles do happen.
Since returning home I have seen a program on Venice that covers those parts that you don’t really see there, the emergency workers, the method of rubbish disposal etc and I find it fascinating how innovative Venice is and I wonder why we can’t adapt some of their ideas, especially the rubbish disposal. They have a way of recycling the rubbish and turning it into energy for use in the city that is nothing short of amazing.