Archive for October, 2009

Greece and Heading East

Saturday, October 31st, 2009


Taxation works. Sending the right price signals to consumers affects their behavior in the intended fashion.

In Australia, cigarettes are expensive. So we don’t see a whole lot of people smoking. Coffee, on the other hand, is cheap. And we see a lot of people drinking coffee.

In Greece I’m quite confident they’ve gotten things entirely wrong. Cigarettes are cheap, and these people are some of the most prolific smokers we’ve seen. Seems to me they particularly enjoy the really foul smelling stuff.


But the coffee. Just about anywhere you go from Athens to a remote island like Santorini you can expect to pay €2.50 for a shot of espresso, and €4.50 for something with milk in it. This sort of pricing puts even France to shame. Though, to be fair, unlike France the coffee they serve in Greece is eminently drinkable.

So we achieved a useful reduction in our caffeine habit. And now we smoke a pack a day.

Well, at least if that last bit were true, we could enjoy sharing the smoke filled space with all the others and pretend that we, too, are oblivious to the legalities.


Anyway, all that aside (and you all know how pro-coffee and anti-smoking we both are), Athens is a cool place to visit. The day we arrived did finally deliver the stellar weather we had been seeking. The bright blue skies made for postcard perfect pictures of the usual suspects.

We had to admit that the spectacle of ancient ruins including the Parthenon, the Olympian Zeus Temple in particular were every bit as incredible as the hype would have you believe.


Unfortunately it’s been easy for us to become numbed to the grandeur we’re faced with on an almost daily basis at this point in the trip. But we were happily snapped back into awe as we wandered from one site of significance to the next.

It was particularly interesting to think back over ruins of a similar age that we saw in Tikal, Guatemala, and consider how different these two civilizations must have been.


The wandering on that day was tough, on account of the overnight bus trip from Tirana in the morning. And I must say, whichever authority is in charge of these sites really needs to work on the signage. It was very difficult to work out the purpose and significance of each ruin we visited. Granted, a lot of it remains a mystery, and our cognitive capacities were certainly not at their peak, but in this instance the Greeks documentary prowess doesn’t come close to that of their restorative.

In Athens, you can make no mistake about where a large slice of Melbourne’s culture comes from. The Greek’s love of loud music, “fully sick” cars, strong flavors, outdoor drinking & dining, it’s on display in spades in Athens.

Heading to Istanbul, we didn’t plan on hanging around Athens long. In fact we had no intention of going to Greece at all, until we started madly chasing warmer climes. We didn’t fancy 24 hours of trains up and around the Aegean coast, so began looking toward the Greek islands for our route eastward.

We didn’t much like the idea of 10 hours on a ferry either (being wimpy seasick types) and luckily stumbled on a €1 flight (++ the usual taxes) to Santorini the very next day. So we departed Athens after just two nights.


We had received two warnings about pickpocket gangs operating on the Athens metro, including from the woman at the ticket counter on the way to the airport. I guess our attitude after having traveled in all manner of dodgy places for a long period of time having lost nothing made us much less careful than we should have been.

Despite my zippered pockets I managed to have my wallet pinched. Looking back and deconstructing the process I have to admit I’m very impressed by their methods, which must net them huge amounts of cash each day.

They target only people traveling to the airport, and only at a line interchange, by blocking your exit and lifting your wallet whilst you struggle to get past them in order to not miss your connecting train and therefore your flight. Afterward I was astonished at how much information your brain can miss (i.e. a hand in your pocket) when your attention is firmly focused elsewhere.

I noticed the missing wallet as I walked through the doors, so I whipped around and looked at my suspect. A bystander seemed to confirm my suspicion, gesturing as he walked off the train and onto another carriage. I followed him, and grabbed him, but then had my doubts as he feigned confusion.

Jess meanwhile was standing on the platform and we had a plane to catch. So I turned around, infuriated beyond belief, and left. Having had just 3 hours sleep the night before probably didn’t help. In hindsight I would have frisked the guy and at least stopped the train departing by standing in the doorway and considered the situation further.

All told, though, we got off pretty lightly. The wallet had just €10 in it, a drivers license, and unfortunately, our two preferred credit/debit cards. We have backup cards, and up until Europe were never carrying both these cards in a single place, but quite obviously had gotten lax about this. Lesson learned, and the replacement cards will be waiting for us in London.

The anger at having been outsmarted – and at being too relaxed – far outweighs the actual loss. But I’m over it now.

Landing in wind and rain swept Santorini after this incident didn’t do much to lift our spirits.



We spent a few days on Santorini, and armed with a rental car managed to “do” most of the stuff one does on the island. Which, frankly, doesn’t extend much beyond eating, drinking and lazing in pools, of which the latter was not an option given the weather.


It did clear up on our final two days, but even the sparkling blue hues of sky, sea and church dome didn’t really win our affections. The island also offers almost zero natural beauty – and reminds me of a rugged wasteland littered with milled stone and half finished and abandoned concrete construction.


Beyond the carefully manicured seafront cliffs in Thira it’s not a pretty place at all. We were quite surprised. The mass tourism – even now, let alone high season – was sufficient for us to declare the Greek islands a place we’re unlikely to return to.


That said, after an overnight ferry to Kos (what is with these timetables!?) we relented on our position a little. Kos is equipped with much more foliage, and a seemingly smaller scale experience and, against all odds, appears to have an excellent cycle path network!


We were also charmed by an old cafe owner, Theo, who regaled us with endless memories of his very happy days in Melbourne, before an industrial accident cost him his left hand and livelihood and forced him back to Greece. It was quite a touching farewell to the Greek personality before we boarded a ferry for our one hour trip to Turkey.


Tirana, Albania

Friday, October 30th, 2009

What a bizarre country.


It’s filled with some 700,000 dome shaped concrete bunkers built on the orders of former dictator Enver Hoxha. That’s one for every five people in the country. They now sit disused (not that they were ever used, no-one was interesting in invading) and provided an eerie backdrop along the highway as we rolled into town.

We made the mini-bus drivers’ day when six of us emerged from the taxi’s we used to cross the border from Montenegro and agreed to each pay €5 for a ride to the capital, Tirana. He even pulled over to buy us pomegranates for the trip.


A nice local fellow on the bus gave us a quick rundown on local customs and we discovered that Albanians nod their head when saying “no”, and shake it when saying “yes”. Except when they don’t because you’re a tourist. Except when they do. Confusing.

Honestly there’s not a lot to say about Tirana; it’s not a pretty place, the traffic and pollution is nasty, the standard of driving probably the worst I’ve ever seen.

Naturally we met a young guy from Melbourne, visiting family, with such an unmistakeable Broadmeadows accent that I instantly felt a little homesick.

Oh and there are dudes racing quad bikes around the main square in the middle of the city:


Bizarre. That’s the word that keeps cropping up.


Of course, the real excitement came on the 14 hour overnight bus ride to Athens.

Now, sure, I was aware that Albania is a predominantly Muslim nation, at least from a historical perspective. I know that I should take my shoes off if I enter someone’s house.

Evidently I shouldn’t take them off when I enter someone’s bus. Not unless I want to create an international incident.

Once, with the help of a translator, the level of the offense had been made apparent to me, I was rather glad that we had arrived on the Greek side of the border and felt, perhaps optimistically, that I wouldn’t be set upon by a swarm of angry Albanian men.

So remember, shoes off in the house, and on in the bus.

Unfortunately Albanian’s don’t seem to have any similar rules about keeping one’s engine and gearbox in the bus. Not long after the shoe incident the bus’s gearbox began to make horrendous noises, and I had absolutely no doubt that it would fall off altogether at least 300km short of Athens, at around 3am.

We began stopping at 20 minute intervals so the driver and his lackey could climb under the bus, curse several times, then resume the cog-crunching antics.

I jammed my earplugs further in, closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

To our collective astonishment we made it. An hour ahead of schedule. It was only the second overnight bus trip in our travelling career, and we’ve vowed never again.


Friday, October 30th, 2009

Is, in fact, an independent country. But one has to admit that, culturally, it’s rather a lot like Serbia.


Perhaps made famous by the James Bond Casino Royale movie, I was disappointed to discover that not a single scene from the movie was actually shot in Montenegro.


It’s the next country south of Croatia, and so we wound up there primarily because we were desperately chasing the (theoretically) warmer southern weather as quickly as possible. To avoid any suspense: It rained almost the entire time.

Our travels only covered the coastal towns of Kotor and Budva, Kotor in particular being a stunning place, poor weather notwithstanding.


“Montenegro” is a cool name, a few minutes study of any of the romance languages would reveal that it means “Black Mountain”. Which in the local lingo is “Crna Gora”. Nice name.

Kotor is reputed to cater to a lot of “nouveau-super-riche” Russians and Ukrainians, and the yachts parked in the harbour (even in off season) tend to support this theory.

(The most trashed scooted ever seen)

The official currency is the Euro, although they’re not (yet) part of the E.U. I’ll bet they’re glad they didn’t pick US Dollars after independence.

Much like in Croatia (and indeed all of the rest of the former Yugoslavia) everyone smokes. Everywhere. Except, luckily, the fairly excellent hostel we stayed in.

(mmmm börek)

We met an interesting and diverse crew there with whom we day tripped over to Budva, and eventually onto Albania with.



Monday, October 19th, 2009

Heading South for warmer weather I say? Clearly my understanding of climate and its relationship to the latitude is flawed, or maybe the equator really isn’t where I think it is. It’s been cold around here lately.

(Sarajevo + Snow + Mosque)

We took a pretty lengthy train ride south from Budapest to Novi Sad in Serbia for my long awaited first encounter with the Cyrillic script. Even the name of the city looks cool: Нови Сад. I like.


Once we reached the first station on the Serbian side of the border, the train went from 80% empty to 130% full – the extra 30% accounted for by the exceptionally tall Serbian men (and similarly statuesque women). The carriage was all long arms and legs, frenetic SMSing, and, well, not all that comfortable given that we had to disembark at an unknown, unlit (and evidently unmarked) station rather than the end of the line.

Which is a handy example of one of the innumerable stresses of nomadic travelling. Every single transport connection you’re wondering if you will get on / off at the right time in the right place. Our success rate is rather good so far so I probably ought to stop worrying about it.


One thing that struck me about Serbians was their ruthless efficiency in retail & service environments. We’d speak English at them, they’d reply in Serbian, there’d be a flurry of activity and every time the outcome would be ideal, and very fast. Fantastic.

Serbia was cold, but comparatively bearable. Nonetheless, we intended to strike westward to the Adriatic coast with its more temperate climate. So we picked Sarajevo as a halfway point.


We were quite affected by the obvious reminders of recent history in Sarajevo, as indeed we were in all parts of the former Yugoslav Republic that we visited.

We couch-surfed with a lovely Turkish fellow, Nagy, who is teaching at a local university, having recently returned from a several year stint in Korea. What a contrast! I have to admire his fluent Korean skills – now there’s a tough language. Interestingly he said the word order is the same as in Turkish.


In some ways the bitter cold in Sarajevo added to our experience, particularly as we slowly froze inside the history museum eyeing artefacts of the Bosnian’s daily struggle with snipers, mortar shells and indiscriminate shooting which today still perforates the outer walls of most buildings.

(Very strong Turkish influence no doubt from Sarajevo’s days under the Ottoman empire)

The snow cover is beautiful and is very effective in softening such bleak and war-torn cityscapes. But absolutely far, far too cold for the clothes we’re carrying in our sub-10kg backpacks. I can honestly say (and say I did many times) that I have never been that cold in my life.

The one full day we lasted in Sarajevo saw a maximum of 3 degrees. And lots of snowfall. Lovely, but we walked into the Eurolines office and bought bus tickets to Dubrovnik. “This is Sarajevo, welcome to the mountains” said the girl behind the desk.

We arrived in Dubrovnik (and our third country in 5 days) to clear blue skies and a balmy 16 degrees, and of course the throng of pushy old ladies at the bus station trying to flog their “just 15 minute walk to old town” spare rooms.


You could say Dubrovnik is like Prague but with handy sea port access allowing 4 mega cruise-liners a visit per day. Amazing, stunning, beautiful and totally out of control.


Nup, no sign of Ms Lapthorne here..


There’s plenty of good coffee to be had in Dubrovnik, and it seems most of the Balkans. They like it strong, which is the perfect antidote to the weak & milky option that most of Western Europe seems to prefer.


We had a nice old touristy time in and around Dubrovnik until the weather turned. The sunshine and expanses of lightly coloured stone is fantastic this time of year, and although swimming and diving options abound in spectacularly clear waters, I’m not sure I’d like to visit in the height of summer / peak season.


But now the rain and wind has set in, and we’ve ducked down to Montenegro. Now here’s a country I never imagined we’d visit on this trip. Not sure if I even knew it was a country ;-)

Middle Europe Musings

Friday, October 16th, 2009


Stepping out from our hostel and into the circus spilling down from Karlovy Most right in the historic centre of Prague brought a giggle and a snicker to me every time. Euro-tourism really is something else, you can see every stereotype, every tourist scam, absolutely every thing on offer that you could imagine.


But what a city for tourism! It really could be the most beautiful city in the world, so it’s easy to understand how it wound up like this. All told, it actually seems to work pretty well. Competition for your dollar is high, so the prices for most things are generally quite reasonable, and there’s certainly no shortage of choice.

It’s eminently walkable, and indeed you can occupy yourself for a few days just wandering, gawking eating and drinking. No decision making needed. Tourist paradise, really.


With Jess’ Czech heritage, and that she hadn’t visited in 18 years (which was shortly after communism collapsed) the visit had some extra significance for us. We also were fortunate to meet up with Bart, a Belgian friend whom we met on a boat in southern Chile two years ago. Pictured below in anticipation of some proper Czech cuisine:


Before the night turned into another vintage performance from the ubiquitous Praha Drinking Team


Cesky Krumlov

Another return visit for me, but a first for Jess, CK remains a lovely place for a couple of days providing a refreshing contrast to the much busier Prague. Plenty of good food and beer on offer, although most of the restaurants seem to have an almost identical menu. Great value (although rather cold) in the off season.
It has a stunning setting hemmed in by some nearby hills which made for some nice (light) hiking. Very cold nights made the cellar style wood fired drinking dens all the more appealing. The Czech’s really do stand out from the crowd with their beer.


A first time visit for both of us, Vienna’s famed cafe culture is an interesting experience. The staff are a touch surly, and the drinks eye-wateringly expensive, and best kept in moderation due to the gob-smacking sugar content. Plenty of buzz for half an hour after consuming one, though. The original – and definitive – Sacher Tort was a little plain compared with the interpretation we see in Australia. Very surprising to see that smoking is still permitted in most places.


Vienna as a city seems like it would be a lovely place to live, not least due to it’s fantastic metro system. Every time we’d make our way underground, we’d be disappointed by the relentless arrival of the next train eating into our slouching time on the platform. And we’d invariably arrive faster than our time estimates. A brilliant system, it could be a model for any city.
We had a short stay, but a locally-infused one thanks to our CouchSurf hosts Alex & Sabine. Perfect weather, a backyard BBQ, local cider-wine named Sturm and Sabine’s home baked Apfelstrudel gave us a lovely insight into the day to day Viennese lifestyle. And a nice one it is.



We met up with my father for a few days exploring Budapest and my Hungarian heritage. My major impressions are of a fantastically impenetrable language, gorgeous women, good coffee and fantastic food. In all honesty we’d also have to mention the slightly downtrodden looks to pervades most of the faces in the street scape.
Of note is that this is the first city in the world where I can pronounce my surname rather than spell it out to inquirers. And for that matter we share our family name with some former aristocrats and consequently it’s used to name least one street in the capital. As is Gyula, the Hungarian translation of “Julian” which was, in fact, the street we were staying on. Lots of fun.

We met / re-met some of our extended family, including a trip to the country side near the Slovakian border on the Danube where my great-aunt’s-daughter’s family have built a very pretty country house with stunning views.
And look at the brilliant technique for cooking the quintessential Hungarian goulash:
The views from the house bring me to my impressions of Autumn which I’ve been musing since we arrived in London. In Melbourne, the omnipresence of evergreen flora means that Autumn doesn’t make its presence particularly felt. Probably also the fact that I’m not normally wandering the streets & parks much at that time of year.
IMG_6255 (this is a section that forms part of the Euro Velo 6 trans-European bike route)
Autumn in Europe is a decidedly grander affair. As we’ve progressed east and south, we’ve been delighted by an ever growing array of colours in the trees and along the paths. For the first time I can really feel Autumn, and the impending winter, encircling me.
So, south we head to chase warmer weather ;-)