OK - So picture, if you will, the following scenario...hooning out of
Istanbul in a blaze of gory glory (street soccer with THE KIDS) and the
attendant melancholic farewells. Turkistan was too difficult to wrap
my head around, as is so often the case with those pesky near-Eastern
dialects, but football - and I mean REAL football, ie - "soccer" - is
THE universal language, 'specially when you happen to be travelling
during the quatrilennial cultural mardi gras that is the World Cup.
Plus, of course, north-eastern Turkey is forever riddled with Australians
trying to come to terms with their various ancestors' deaths during a
decidedly over-publicised navigational cock-up on the Australian
military's behalf on April 25, 1915...
Onto a 12 hour train to Sofia, Bulgaria. Six months previous I wouldn't
have been able to locate said capital on a map and suddenly here I am,
hi-jacked by a charismatic, vegetarian/Canadian Brad Pitt look-alike
named Rob zipping through the Balkan night to a country that refuses to
even utilise our comfy, familiar Roman alphabet. Cyrillic figures? Sounds
like some weird erotic plaything, until you have to read them on every street
sign for your minute-to-minute survival. Saw Titanic with Cyrillic
sub-titles, in fact - wouldn't have bothered with the over-hyped Hollywood
poo, but the gregarious Bulgarian box-office matron with the garish
(read: purple) hair screeching "Deecahpreeoh! Deecahpreeoh! Four dollar!"
at the top of her lungs sold me. Some fads travel a looooong way.
Within hours, I'm drinking 13 cent espressos - five at a time - and
eating my 85 cents-for-a-kilo-bag of spring cherries bought fresh from
the local street market while I contemplate a sleepless night filled with
Rob-of-Canada induced health-food spiels of epic proportions. It wouldn't
have been so bad - Rob is an amazing conversationalist - except for his
profound belief in the healing powers of garlic, the organic world's
strongest natural antibiotic. I'm a firm believer in naturopathy and
herbal remedies too, but we are talking about sharing a stinking, rickety
2x3m rail carriage for 13 hours with a guy who eats whole raw cloves of
the stuff. D'oh.
We reminisce about our run-in with the Turkish mafia; the stoned guy
who bailed us up as we headed for the train station and our present foray,
ensuring us that we would not get busted for possession of the joint we
were being asked to roll for him (on account of his dysfunctional hand,
the result of a very obvious, very recent knife wound...) because the
Istanbul police were in his pocket.
And the far less menacing Bulgarian mafia now hassling us, who
assured your (then) witless and humble narrator that all the bureaux
de change were evil, that the black market rates were far superior.
Feeling smug because I'd pre-read on the collapse of the Bulgarian lev
and it's current inflation rate, I cut an extremely propitious deal with a
rather robust looking Ivan. Only to find out 10 kms down the road and
attempting to pay for my taxi that the 20,000 lev I'd purchased with a
20 Deutschemark note (that's about 17 Australian bucks) were in fact
worthless dinar, the currency of the former Yugoslavia. Note, former
Yugoslavia. Much Cyrillic shouting and worried antipodean looks ensue,
only for the humble yankee greenback to save the day. Oh, well. What's
17 bucks to learn an invaluable lesson?
Twenty DM down and thirteen 90c Belgian biers later, Rob and I decide that,
charming as Sofia is, we'd rather be in Romania. Adventure! Excitement!
So after another 12 hour train ride, this time with Bernice the mad Mexican
and Arlene the cheerleader from DC, no less than 13 passport checks,
rolling green hills, Bulgarian cigarette smuggling gypsies (I kid you not...)
toilets featuring projectile diarrhoea-motif wall-paper by the House of
Dysentery (making even the Trainspotting khazi seem "quaint")
and singing the theme from Mork and Mindy with people I've barely known
72 hours before being delayed for further hours at the border by guards
with H&K M5s who wouldn't crack a smile until we traded Australian and
Canadian coins and shared our 3 dollar bottle of vodka with them.
A tip for Mexican passport holders intending to travel in the Balkans: don't.
The border guards will separate you and vast quantities of US dollars
"You vill buyink visa, pliss." And ask you three hundred questions
just barely this side of rubber gloves.
Bucharest used to be called "the Paris of the East," though I'll be
buggered if I can figure out why... It has all of the dirt, even more crime,
rude, bordering-on-violent locals and little of the French capital;s
simultaneously urbane and exotic charm. But where that particular
comparison is most spurious is in the culinary arena.
Though Parisian eateries have their deficiencies - namely overpriced
set menus featuring cliched crap that wealthy tourists might believe is
"authentically French" - they at least understand that balanced meals
include vegetables of some description. A traditional Romanian meal
consists of some kind of stewed flesh, potatoes, doughy dumplings,
oodles of thick, dark meat gravy and bread on the side. That's it.
Soul Food - so called because that's all that's left of you after
three meals, your pitiful corporeal dimension taxed by the dearth of
nutritional value: big on flavour, big on bowel cancer mortality rates,
or axioms to that effect.
Deciding that one day in dog-ugly, full-of-criminals Bucuresti
was enough, I opted to spend my 25th birthday in Brasov, a mere 2 hours
north of the capital, at the foot of the Carpathian mountain range in one
of the castles that was reputedly sacked by Vlad Tepes, alias the impaling,
blood-drinking Count Dracula. Niiiiice Transylvanian sunset. Stayed with
a lovely old couple named Maria and Greg who are the perfect hosts in Brasov,
a town with one hostel and many private rooms. They meet you at the bus
station, take you to their place, feed you, show you where the (rare as hen's
teeth) ATMs are in out-of-the-way Brasov, hand-draw maps for you etc.
Joy. Maria and Greg are so well known in the Euro-hostel/budget travel scene
that other elderly couples with spare rooms approach gormless travellers
professing to be said couple. But only the REAL Maria and Greg sport
their gorgeous dog-eared sheaf of personal references, consigned to
paper by travellers from, like, everywhere.
It hurt to leave, but I'd heard that Budapest now was what Prague
was like six or seven years ago, before the Travelguide legion (Let's Go!,
Berkeley, Fodor's, etc.) seized on it as a dirt-cheap place to sink bier
for "vacationing" American college students. Eventually decided not to go
to Budapest because, for some esoteric and unfathomable bureaucratic reason,
the damn Hungarians see fit to charge Australians 80 US dollars just to
enter the country. D'oh.
Instead to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic (since 1989)
beer (and, therefore, youthful tourist) Mecca and all-round amazingly
cool town. There is a danger sometimes with travelling in those instances
where you hear so much about a particular place that when you finally arrive
there it can't possibly meet your expectations. I had pretty damn high
expectations of Prague: Amadeus was filmed there (as a cheap 18C Vienna
substitute); Kundera set a couple of his metaphysical tomes of note there,
replete with many a laudatory adjectival exposition on his hometown, etc.
And still this town surpasses them! Dreams of European cities literally
brimming at street-level with Music! and Art! and Culture! are ten-a-penny,
and largely the stuff of media stereotyping and over-romantic
(as a factor of geographic isolation) Australian imaginations. But
Prague is perhaps one place where the Euro-Myth is Real. And, unlike
pretty much every other national capital in Europe, it is cheap.
Does it get any better than this, one asks? The answer is probably "no."
Famous for its excellent orchestras, Prague's many winding alleyways
and district plazas/squares are a feast for starving ears, with a barrage
of classics spilling onto the streets. The re-furbished architecture
(a cunning legislative beautification plan to boost tourism after the 1989
"Velvet Divorce" with now-Slovakia) stabs at your retinas in a dazzling
rainbow of pinks, greens, yellows and oranges - a far cry from the
Regulation-Issue Grey of many other Eastern European capitals. Corners
(and there are lots) advertise the latest operas, films and puppet shows
and the numerous show times. Yes, you read right - the former
Czechoslovakia was and, in at least one of it's two independent spawn,
is - the home of the some of the world's most innovative marionettes
and Black (puppet) Theatres.
And then there's the absinth. Derived from the French word for "absence,"
absinth is the 150 proof (like, 73% alcohol) aqua-blue/green,
aniseed-flavoured wormwood derivative that was said to exacerbate Van Gogh's
epilepsy and drive Rimbaud (among other French poets) stark raving mad.
Containing a THC-like component called thujones, the absinth high
is unique to say the least. Outlawed for pretty much the last 120 years
throughout most of the sane world due to the "absinthism" that resulted
from habitual consumption - blindness, delirium, spontaneous violent
outbursts and, frequently, death - the Czech Republic is one of about
four places in the world where absinth in its original form is still
both available and legal.
The bar staff laughed at me when I ordered mine, presumably because
they knew what was coming next. The following morning I felt like I was
wearing a very tight hat and was reliably informed that I had told at least
one barperson that "the thickness of the pipe [was] 30 cm" in bounced Czech,
and spent at least some part of the evening unclothed. I remember little
more than staring mindlessly at the Vltava River from the beautiful Karlovo
Most (Charles Bridge) for hours on end, so my companions may have
fabricated the whole debacle. I'll never know.
Called it quits after a week in Praha, because if I'd stayed any
longer I might've seriously sought out a mail-order spouse and ended
up living in bewitching, beautiful Bohemia forever. Eastern Europe rocks,
but a person can only handle so much pollution and heavy artillery,
not to mention pork-based soups. The rest of my little European sojourn
took in Austria, France, Spain, The Netherlands, a little of the UK and
a couple of quick stops in Switzerland and Germany. But even though my
Eastern agenda was little more than a hectic 2-week slice out of a 3-month
itinerary, it's attendant ups and downs made it probably the most exciting
and fulfilling of all my travel experiences.
Anyone considering a side-trip through any of the countries where
communism has collapsed within the last 15 years would be well-advised
to do so. One tip though: throw away that guide book your travel agent
convinced you you'd be helpless without. Those things may be handy in
popular destinations where it's harder to find a bed or a cheap meal
during peak season, but as far as the more (culturally) distant
countries are concerned, they're practically worthless. The traveller/hostel
grapevine will yield much more abundant and useful information, plus
there's little that can't be gleaned using the universal sign language
of smile, handshake, point.