Sobe or not sobe

Dubrovnik/Sarajevo - 29/08/2010

Michelle had taken her throat singing to the patio and the cute French girl (we'll call her Laetitia) was staring at me lustily, an excellent start to the day. The old town of Dubrovnik is undeniably beautiful, a fact not lost on the world's population. It is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect such a place to remain unexploited, preserved for the select few that undertake to make the pilgrimage. Those days are gone in the shrunken world of today. I know not when they actually were but I cannot help but cast my mind back to when it was equally aesthetic but less ruthlessly commercial. It the cruellest of double-edged swords, the money that tourism brings rebuilds, renews and sustains these sights and, to cite the scientific maxim, 'whatever is observed is by definition changed'. What makes, breaks.
Enough cynicism and hypocrisy though, we've places to be and one hell of a coastline to cover. We had hired a car through Croatia as it was (nearly) contiguous and would give miles of scenic emergency stops along the Dalmatian coast. But there was one sight that drew us over the border into Bosnia i Herzegovina (though that is for tomorrow). As we entered Sarajevo the sun removed its hat and declared its day done. A judicious (fortuitous) turn led us down a tight, Turkic street and linguistic recollection found us a pension. The quarter we had stopped in was near dry, the people caffeinated rather than inebriated. Still me hearties, pirates always like a drink so a themed bar provided a sure bet of an earned beer. Byrek is fast becoming our staple meal and so it thus proved in Bosnia's war scarred capital (the bullet holes were resplendent on many buildings).
The Neretva river valley to the tune of Kalman FM and plinky plonky Eine Kleine Nacktmüsik was a wholly awe inspiring foray. Tomorrow Mostar, nos da.

Cliff driving

Schkodrä/Dubrovnik - 28/08/2010

Today we have some moving to do. Our exit from Albania wasn't as rapid as I had originally envisioned though I am glad of it. We have found it to be a country quite unlike that imagined. Far from the gloomy, rubbled remains of a country where there was the iron fist of socialism sans velvet glove, it comes across a poor but honest place that will hopefully see an increase in tourism and prosperity in years to come (without losing its character). A cold shower whilst balancing over a toilet (the hazards of hosteling) was a bracing start to the day and once I had got over the minor trauma of waking with a tongue as black as coal it was time to bid farewell. We zigzagged up the coast between mountain to our right and sea our left. The first bus took us over the border to Ulcinj in Montenegro, our 4th country. Swift, unremarkable connections to Budva and then Herceg Novi followed and then the final leap into Croatia.
The queue at the border was a great glinting snake of metal. Over two miles of vehicle cooked in the afternoon sun. Our driver saw no reason why we should have to wait like anyone else and created his own bus lane through the oncoming traffic. Other drivers seemed unaware of this new designation so our progress was much aided by the acquisition of a police escort, someone had clearly heard we had a wedding to get to. We cut a savage line across the stacked traffic at the checkpoint and were into country number 5. The 'Welcome to Croatia' board was followed by a warning sign of landmines and then another indicating that this was wine making country, dangerous business being a vintner in this part of the world. The bus circumnavigated the stunning Kotor Bay where far below giant cruise ships and tiny yachts dotted the azure plain. The end of the line at Dubrovnik precipitated the most exhaustive and exhausting search for lodgings yet. Travelers seeking a campsite here should be advised that there is only one, Camp Solitudo (ironic name given its gargantuan size). Declining to pay their monopolistic prices we pounded the peninsular's streets like pack mules in search of a hostel. At this point surrounded by tourists who were outnumbered only by the plentiful hotels and their ubiquitous 'sobe', I longed for Tirana. The sweat poured through our pores but could not quench the fires raging on the soles of our feet.
Over a couple of beers a helpful Croat set us on the right track which was good news, behind me Manchester Utd. scored another goal, which was not. Saving ourselves a worthwhile minus 5 Euros over the campsite, the hostel took our money and bunked us with 3 girls and a boy. We ate dinner and drank our Albanian wine under the stars as the Adriatic crashed against the rocks we sat atop. Every stretch of coastline in Dubrovnik seems to be privately owned, to my great sadness. Without a public beach to hand we had to resort to one in a resort. This necessitated lying prone and motionless on sighting hotel staff, our ninja stealth ensured we escaped detection. The last treat of the evening was the earth-shaking snoring from the bunk across the room, a smothering would have been too kind a punishment.

What's for byrekfast?

Tirana/Schkodra - 27/08/2010

A word of advice here, should an earplug dislodge itself during the night, do not pop it into your mouth and chew it like a tasty treat, it most certainly is not. Our bus north did not depart until the afternoon so with a few hours to waste we ate a leisurely breakfast of the local speciality byrek (a cheese filled triangular pastry) outside the mosque while the Muezzin warmed up. The Museum of National History provided a comprehensive if at times scattered record of Albania's past and its hero Skanderbeg's defiance of the Ottomans. Our green, German-engineered steed stood behind the train station in readiness for the journey to Schkodra. Whilst what sounded like one of Hitler's Nuremberg orations blared out of the buse's speakers we sped through Tirana's suburbs. One of the contrasts in these countries (imho) is that the people seem unburdened by strictured regulation. Onerous rules are not devised, unnecessary laws are not obeyed. They do not attempt to corall the vagaries of life nor control the essentially uncontrollable. I'm beginning to enjoy the sweat of travel on my back, the labour of momentum. It feels earnest and uncluttered. A simple goal but not straightforward means make for an intoxicating combination. I can even ignore the wrath travel has inflicted on my nails. All these thoughts swirl in my mind as I close my eyes and let every muscle go. Great waves of air break over my face from the open window and I am in a feather-light harmony.
The bus pulls into Schkodra bus station (again, a bit of road) too late to make our next connection. We sit at the foot of a tree eating kebabs and devising the next move. No campsite is closer than an hour it seems but there is a hostel round the corner. A most welcoming proprieter finds our passports both linguistically challenging and rather amusing. She has added Birmingham and Bristol to London and Manchester on the list of Inglese cities she knows. As the stuffed eagle with its wings outstretched watches us warily from the corner of the room, myself and Michelle are signed in and led to our room. Rudimentary would be an adequate and wholly accurate description but anything else would be a trip into debauched luxury and unnecessary expense. A few beers are had on Schkodra version of Broad Street and then bed, it's Montenegro in the morn.

I lekk it here

Tirana - 26/08/2010

We wended, we wove, we did not wake. That is because we did not sleep. My informative partner gave up his seat for a man whose hand had been mangled in an industrial accident, possibly with a lathe (this is all conjecture on my part). We eventually reached the end of the line and the end of our plan at 6AM in downtown Tirana. Freddy took us in but the room would not be ready for a few hours thus the city's delights were ours for the observing. We found Skanderbeg atop his horse in the centre of what disappointingly is no longer the most chaotic roundabout in the world. Multitudinous Mercedes still hared around it but it no longer has the life threatening qualities that so recommended its witnessing. No-one could in conscience call Tirana a beautiful city (though its female populace is of the highest quality) but it has a certain earthy charm. The traffic of its river is chiefly comprised of the detritus of human living but it has a most aesthetic (if unused) lake. The mosque and clock tower also please the eye with attractively secular wallpaper (n.b. prob not wallpaper). The people, though visibly surprised at the presence of tourists, were found to be a most friendly and helpful bunch. The place is also astoundingly cheap, a beer is often less than a pound in many bars. The first evening redefined parsimony however. Happening upon a lively venue the waiter struggled to get us to understand that all drinks were free owing to the occasion of the bar's opening. Cautiously we ordered two beers. What arrived were two beers, a platter of meats and cheeses and...no bill. Some more beers and then we tried our luck with a bottle of wine, success. When two whiskeys did not arrive we decided that we'd taken full advantage and went on our way, a recommended venue if you are ever in Tirana. Buoyed by our chance discovery (and a not insignificant quantity of free booze) we celebrated by attempting an ascent of the city's pyramid (sorry Mum). In reality (and next day's reflection) we didn't get that high but felt mightily brave anyway. We secured an Albanian flag that was handily suspended from a lamppost and trotted home to Freddy.

Boom da da boom da da

Thessaloniki - 25/08/2010

Despite being roused from sleep by (what seemed like) hourly passport checks, an otherwise decent night's rest was had. We woke to golden Elysium fields of wheat blanketing the land. We passed through them knowing that the only noise left behind us would be the gentle swish and rattle as the wind passed through the swaying stalks. A sparse, sun-baked landscape provided such a stark contrast to an Istanbul so profuse with water. We have picked up some extra carriages overnight, they have slowed us and made us behind schedule. Two hours late into Thessaloniki in northern Greece meant an extra urgency in seeing the sites, thankfully as we discovered, these are few. We first happened upon some fine orthodox churches with well kept icons and impressive iconostasis, pictures were taken. We each lit a devotional candle to Hermes, the god of travel and implored him to bless our journey and keep us safe. A seafront that Milton Keynes would be proud of in its concrete-slabbed desolation drew us along the coast calling a halt at a gold-domed church.
The Aegean sparkled in the sunlight but the city`s tourist set-up did not, curious for the country`s second largest. We found our way back to Athonos Square in search of some sign of life. Lunch was taken, however, at a pleasant little place in the market. The ancient characters forming the language in the menu were near indecipherable but what arrived via the infatuated waitress largely resembled what we thought we ordered. Anything not consumed went straight into the bags in the name of all that is good and frugal. The mandolin strumming and old boys wailing along increased authentic experience levels by 56%.
A stick or twist decision presented itself, Thessalonian campsite or Albanian bus north? The dearth of the former persuaded us as to the virtue of the latter. Mike, it must here be noted, did sterling work in the location of the ticket office. With some time on our hands we were able to make a kiosk owner very happy with our repeat business of refreshments, and assuage our doubts that the backstreet before us was in fact the bus station. Once the doors had been loaded onto the bus and live chickens had not we were free to divest ourselves of our bags. The relative calm and organisation ceased at this point and all became wonderfully haphazard and in the case of the bus driver, fighty. Mike's seating partner flat out refused to sit next to him and so the bus became a sliding tile puzzle of seat swaps until calm was restored. Seating capacity is an indeterminate and loose concept on Albanian buses, there is always room for more plastic stools in the aisle.
Cross-dressing is Albania's national sport (current national no.1 - G. Harwood) or so their television shows would suggest, their dubious quality invaded sleep. We reached the border at Kaphticë sometime around 11PM, a welcome opportunity to use the facilities (by facilities I mean bushes, but better than the high street alcove employed in Veria) since the onboard toilet was doubling as a storage locker. We were joined in this by a fellow passenger whose English was limited (limited by its non-existence) but seemed nonetheless happy to have our acquaintance, verbal though it wasn't. Thankful I therefore was for the seasoned traveller seated next to me who had made this journey more than once. By his mastery (and, un petit, mine) of the international language of gestures he regularly conveyed to me the progress of the bus and conveyed to the driver his dismay at the lack of progress of the bus.
The hours had taken their toll on the passengers and no-one was any longer in the mood for a standup argument by the time we reached the Albanian border. I had even grown to accept the toddler 4 rows back breaking into nerve-shredding histrionics with disappointing regularity and the passenger seated across the aisle from me playing Pussycat Dolls at indecent volume. The border crossing was eventually breaching despite the best efforts of Eastern European efficiency and we slalomed up Albanian hills and onward into the night...

Hamam hunting season

Istanbul - 24/08/2010

A bazaar of another kind today, its raison d'etre being spices. Again my rather romantic visions of hessian sacks festooned with great pyramids of pungent spice were disappointed. A rainbow of scarlet saffron and sandy turmeric was replaced by well ordered plastic containers complete with handy scoops. Must stop thinking I live in the 19th century. Despite the help of an Italian from Brighton and a Turk from Turkey in double act, a sought church on the Golden Horn never materialised. But at least we were on the spot for more balik ekmete. My hat nearly became a casualty in the extensive list of things I have tried to lose this holiday (the bath plugs were the first to fall, how we miss them). The way back took in the pigeon mosque, a scene of utter terror for Mike. His protestations of the unappreciated danger of these seemingly innocuous avians bordered on the lunatic. A most seemly way to round off one's hot, dirty, perspiring day is in the muggy cloisters of a hamam. Having balked at 40 lira for the experience, some shopping around had delivered steadily more expensive prices to the point where the original seemed a snip. Monosyllabic, extensive of belly, not someone you'd leave a loved one with, Mike felt in good company with the masseurs. Sweat, swill, scrub, soap, squeeze, swill, sweat, swill, sit, sip.
The streets are as if of air, my skin has been exorcised of its dirt, my soul of its lethargy. The most lovely lightness of being overcomes one's senses. Shoulders weary of bags were restored, legs worn by miles were as new. As we sat outside the football pub supping its precious gift of the wifis, the hourglass in Istanbul was nearly drained. Slightly laissez-faire timekeeping necessitated something of a route march to the hotel for checkout and an encumbered haste back to Sirkeci Station. We made it in good time and despite a near fatal slip on some steps, in good health (once Mike had stopped sweating like <insert preferred analogy here>). Our train was waiting, our cabin small but perfectly formed, our horizon filled with Thessaly. The lack of a bottle opener for the wine was no barrier to these intrepid men of the road. We bodged the cork inside, fashioned two glasses from plastic bottles and saluted our efforts with a chinkless chink. A few hands of cards over a simple but tasty picnic brought the evening to a close.

Ahmet's city tours

Istanbul - 23/08/2010

Today Topkapi (apologies to Zuhal for pronunciation), tomorrow the world! Well Greece anyway. Good progress was being made so we took the decision to leave a day early buying us a extra 24 hours along the way. Thus tickets for the Thessaloniki Express are booked for the evening of the following day. The next POI was the aforementioned palace though. Taking the circuitous route along the coastal road afforded the opportunity to scramble (with the surefootedness of a mountain goat) up onto its extensive walls. This done, a little exploration revealed bandits had already claimed this section and fearing robbery and flaying we retreated back down. The Topkapi is a sprawling palace complex with many and varied buildings and isn't without that palace essential - the circumcision room. The live demonstrations prompted a hasty exit. The Grand Bazaar is epic in extent, an industrious warren of sellers, shoppers and multitudinous wares. Each little nook that houses an outlet is rather sadly derivative of its neighbour two shops down. Furtive eyes had located a suitable bar in which to watch the Liverpool game that evening. The 'match' was pony, but it did grant us an introduction to the owner, who gave an informative lecture on his city, and to a chap called Ahmet. How much of what the latter told about his estranged family owning half the city was true is debatable but there was no doubting his inebriation or, egged on by raki, our willingness to follow him on a pub crawl. Stopping in each bar only long enough for our NBF to buy us a drink, press the flesh and offer himself to any ladies present the money eventually had to run out. And run out it did, after Ahmet kindly offered to buy a large group of English a round. Desperate pleas for cash went unanswered, his iPhone (at a mere 10 lira, does anyone need one?) went unsold. We showed a modicum of pity and fished out some money and walked erratically home. P.s thanks for the bus fob Ahmet, free transport!

To cut a long story short

London/Istanbul - 22/08/2010

Second bus comes, we embark. Driver, who even if never uttered a singular word to you could not help but be supposed a curmudgeon, was grumpy as is his habit. Gatwick looms, we check in and wait for the plane. I note with interest that Easyjet's 'Speedy Queue' optional extra seems to have been created primarily by slowing down the normal queue. Having said that there must have been something vaguely efficient about boarding as the captain felt able to spare 10 minutes to deliver an impromptu standup routine at the front of the plane. He was, it must be said, a refreshing change from the dour sobriety that is the modus operandi of the airline community normally. Having closed my eyes (yet not slept) I somehow missed the take off and landing completely. The middle bit was as interesting as (and did include) an airsteward's safety brief, thus we find ourselves in Istanbul. A shuttle bus to the western limit of Asia Minor and ferry across the Bosphorus facilitated our entry into the queen of cities. Soaring minarets pierced the skyline as our taxi driver pierced backstreet after backstreet in forlorn search of the Rose Hotel. We drew on the advice of the greater proportion of the residents of Istanbul in its finding. But find it we did and its location was of the primest kind (cheap price too, especially if you think it's in lira) in Sultanahmet and we were but a local's hocked gob from the magnificence of The Blue Mosque and the twin splendour of Ayia Sofia, the latter which we entered. For 1000 years the largest enclosed space in the world (nb, this may not be right, do check) it makes its rival brooding at it from across the hippodrome seem almost contemporary by comparison. The interior is as awing as the time-worn facade and extensive work goes on to restore the original Byzantine iconography so cruelly defaced by its new Ottoman landlords after 1453. The Galata Bridge houses a teeming mass of shops and restaurants many serving balik ekmete (fish sandwiches); dirt cheap, damn good, recommended try. There's quite a fishing scene off the bridge too, although by far the largest thing we observed being hooked was a 150 pound tourist. Sunset over old Constantinople's dreaming spires was taken from the Galata Tower just over the Golden Horn, though a haphazard system for delivering people to the top meant the best light had gone. A day which began 48 hours ago in Birmingham drew to a close with us taking relaxing puffs on a hubble bubble pipe (or Nargile, Hookah or Sheesha if you prefer) in the well furnished environs of Ozlër's bar and haberdashery. Surrounded by cushions, inundated with cats (if they do have 9 lives them surely this must be a city of a billion souls) travel seems elementary and elemental (this, I pray, will not change...)

Dissonant

London - 21/08/2010

The concrete strip bisects the grand old capital and moves us closer to Turkey by the second. Suspended as we are above the minutiae of life on either side we could be 10 or 100 feet from the ground, the endless towers offer no clue. The heat of our destination is as nothing to the fug of our 6 wheeled locale, a thoughtful aid to acclimatisation by National Express. But only the metronomically audible consumption of crisps introduces a sliver of black rage into my otherwise calm disposition. Looking out of the window at the burgeoning city I can't help but slip into a London-centric mindset for a second as it seems no idea was ever had that was not conceived here first. And yet somehow I already feel in a foreign country, doubtful the people around would understand if I were to speak. Time has ceased to be a point of reference, location is my barometer. We arrive as London is closing for the night, pub after pub shuts its doors to us, this stopover will go slowly. Grudgingly accepting that an entry charging gay bar is our oasis, an overdue drink is had. There is an empty, seat-devoid coach station we should be at though, so here I now sit, impressing upon flattened tree, the trivialities of my mind.

Man we look travelish

Birmingham Coach Station - 21/08/2010

The toilet seats are leather.

Birmingham - 21/08/2010

And so we go. Destination: climes and shores foreign.

Amen to no planning!

"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us." -- John Steinbeck

Hopefully not an obit

Have adopted the chaotic approach to packing favoured by headless chickens that generally works so poorly in other aspects of my life. Time is moving far faster than I am it seems.