I feel sad for Herzegovina. Is that how it’s spelled? Who knows. It’s “Bosnia and Herzegovina”, but if we face facts, I’m only going to call the place Bosnia, because I know how to spell that. I think. It’s hard to know.
Former Yugoslavia is a region so poor that it can’t even afford to buy vowels for its place names.
After the ferry from Ancona… No, wait, something needs to be said about Ancona. I really liked it. It’s a port town, for sure. After the noise of Rome, it was a relief. We walked long and hard to find a place for dinner, and found Cafe Irma. There we were served by the sweetest Italian man alive, whose hands shook from too much drinking and hard rocking in his youth, while we struggled to understand each other and he brought us delicious pasta with clams and a half-litre of red wine that turned out to be on the house like you’d expect tap water to be.
The ferry from Ancona was a ferry from Ancona. I really enjoyed it, being the furthest out to sea that I’d ever been, even if that sea was Adriatic. A bit like being at the top of a mountain named Mount Eden, but still kind of awesome. On the ferry I drank bizarrely flavoured rum, like a pirate, and watched Disaster Movie (without paying for it, like a pirate). I found myself enjoying the Juno parody chick in Disaster Movie despite myself.
We arrived in Split and I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t Split. The passport-control officers complimented my passport like it was a work of art, and I told them that I was a little surprised that Gandalf and Aragorn weren’t printed in there somehow. I’m not sure they understood a word I was saying, but Croatians are friendly as all hell and it was a good start.
Split is one of my favourite cities so far. I really loved Bordeaux. Nothing else in Western Europe appealed to me as much as Bordeaux. So then I found Split. Beautiful. The waterfront was all crazy Christmas markets and lovely cafes. The only beggar in Split was a guy who came up to me and explained carefully in English that he was a computer engineer who was clearly not a drug addict and had lost his job in the recession and just needed to gather some money to get a place to sleep and a change of clothes to help with finding a new job. I tested him with a few computer-related questions, which he passed, and gave him some amount of local currency. A lot to him, little to me, and we all win.
In Florence, which I haven’t mentioned, there weren’t beggars â€“ there were umbrella salesman. They were all black Italians, perhaps from Senegal, and the violence that occurred several hours after our train left the city makes me extremely sad, because they were probably the nicest street salesmen we’d met so far.
“You want an umbrella?” they ask.
“No, we’re from New Zealand. We love rain,” we answer.
They give us the thumbs-up. Bang. We walked down the street where the murders occurred.
Croatians were uniformly lovely, and that was a factor in deciding to go to Dubrovnik next instead of moving on to another country. To get to Dubrovnik required a bus.
Diana figured that she wouldn’t need travel-sickness medication on a bus, which proved to be something of a mistake. Hell, I kind of needed some myself. The trip to Dubrovnik was via the coast, which meant every twist and turn God had devised when roughly shaving Croatia into existence. It took five hours to get 200km, which ended in a climax of our bus driver committing to bizarre and death-defying overtakes on blind corners, apparently to show a rival van that he wasn’t afraid of them. Hearts in our throats, we arrived in Dubrovnik.
We walked past the scores of old Croatians offering us places to stay, following my phone’s GPS to a place called the Jele Rooms in Dubrovnik. We found the address after knocking on a few wrong doors and spent 20 minutes yelling and knocking until the landlord arrived from nextdoor. He introduced us to the grandmother who lived there (Jele) and explained, “She speaks eleven languages, all in the same sentence.”
This lady was hilarious. I’m not sure I ever understood a word she said, but she was clearly lovely and adored by her family. We ate a bunch of clementines from her garden (like mandarins, but sweeter and harder to peel) and received directions to the old town.
Dubrovnik’s cable car and Dubrovnik’s old town were both extraordinary. We’d been in a few Old Towns by now, but Dubrovnik’s gorgeous combination of Venetian alleys, stray cats and an amazing dockside seafood restaurant totally enchanted us.
We left Dubrovnik again by bus, taking us through amazing landscapes first, then appalling impoverished suburbs, then Sarajevo proper. The land around Sarajevo is intensely beautiful, the suburbs terrible, the central city charming. Thanks to booking.com ratings and reviews, we were fortunate enough to stay at a great place, Pansion Harmony, a family-run hostel and probably our nicest stay so far since Venice.
In Sarajevo we wandered and ate and took photos and enjoyed. The people there seemed harried and it wasn’t the first time I’d feel like Bosnia had really lost 15 years ago. On our way in, we’d seen families living in apartments where the roof was literally caved in above them, leaving them exposed to the elements. No beggars there, strangely.
Also in Sarajevo we ate at the most amazing restaurant yet (enjoying the exchange rate all the more), and I was too oblivious to notice what Diana did â€“ the loud Americans in the corner were some kind of diplomatic group and the massive shaved gorillas with wires in their ears at the door were their diplomatic protection squad.
We left Sarajevo once again by bus, this time an overnighter. Despite being our only option, it felt like a mistake. The driver seemed to have no conception that he was cooking us all alive by keeping the heater on the whole way, so we were waking up at 2am dripping in sweat and being blasted with hot air from under our seats. By the time we reached Belgrade, we were miserable. Diana had managed perhaps three hours of sleep, me even less (partly due to playing Settlers of Catan on the iPad) and we were in rotten moods while we looked for our place to stay. Things weren’t helped by me confusing the address of a place we looked at (the street name) and the place we actually booked in to (the street number). Few things are as demoralising as realising you’re looking for the right street number on the wrong street when you’ve had no sleep on a 10-hour moving sauna.
In Belgrade, our place was the Design Studios, with very helpful staff. Technically we were only in Belgrade for a day and a half, but it seemed like more. We enjoyed the Christmas markets on yet another pedestrianised street and I saw proper hawks and falcons and eagles for the first time (a dream since I was 6 years old) at their zoo. The zoo also horrified me with how unhappy some of the animals appeared to be, especially the tigers, lions, lynxes, bears, etc. And for some reason, domestic dogs had their own little cages. I left sickened. Video of the elephant reaching with its trunk to try and touch Diana’s outstretched hands will be uploaded soon.
Also in Belgrade was the Nikola Tesla Museum, where we were shown around by a guy who was Tesla’s greatest fan. By the end of the tour, our guide was almost in tears telling us about how Tesla just wanted to use technology to help the world, but Edison and the energy companies and private capitalist concerns prevented free energy from being made available to everyone in the world. He stopped short of endorsing conspiracy theories around the Philadelphia Experiment, and he was easily the most engaging tour guide I’ve ever seen.
Next it was a train to Bucharest, which was easier to sleep in as we had our own little cabin. Thing were going well until we were awakened by a Romanian banging on the window telling us in broken English that we had arrived and were holding things up by still being on the train. Four or five hours’ sleep and rushing out of the train with the intention of looking around in Bucharest before taking a train to Brasov turned into a frenzied taxi ride to the bus station while a helpful local told us how we’d narrowly escaped being mugged by an army of gypsies. The most helpful person we’d met so far, it turned out he was scamming us after we overpaid for the taxi and were unreasonably grateful for having made it to the bus out of this hellpit. Lessons learned and moods darkened.
So now we’re in Brasov, and taking a few days to recover from the hurried madness from place to place, getting our spirits up after being ripped off by such an incredibly nice guy, enjoying the insanely low prices and the sauna at our hostel. Tomorrow we’ll visit Dracula’s castle and right now we’re off to walk into the old town where Diana’s going to teach me how to ice-skate.
Hope you’re all well. We’ve been here 34 days and seen rain only two of them.