Archive for September, 2013

We stayed at a small hostel in Serbia chosen for it’s proximity to the bus station and Tesla museum, which made it easy to buy tickets for the bus to Foca (pronounced Fosha), where we were to be collected by Drina rafting. Possibly the best feature of the hostel was the free turkish coffee and an enthusiastic receptionist eager to hone her english skills. She gave us some tips on places to visit in Montenegro, and which restuarant to go to in Skardarka St, a touristy Bohemian quarter. We ended up not going to the restaurant – poor weather and Mike decidedly under the weather with flu, so spent the afternoon relaxing in the lounge area of the hostel chatting with the receptionist.

Belgrade main mall

Skardarska sign

Skardarska St Belgrade - quiet on a weekday

Mix of magnificent and bombed buildings

Belgrade has a nice feel to it, despite the eerie mix of  magnificent old buildings and bombed buildings. Many of the grand buildings were private houses that were taken over by the communists. The buildings were bombed by NATO, with impressive precision that demolished the targeted building while leaving the adjacent buildings untouched.

Just as well we bought the bus tickets early in the day before we left – there were no empty seats on the bus to Foca at all.  (Tickets for the 8 hour trip were $18 each, plus $2.00 for the luggage stowed in the cargo  bay, but it was a very basic bus – perhaps cerca 40 years ago – air con, but not the big windows of today. ) Halfway through the trip we  were transferred (along with half the others on the bus) to a smaller bus g0ing to Foca.  For virtually all of the trip we drove through fantastic scenery – rural scenes of quaint houses, sheep and and the odd cow, haystacks,fields of crops and an abundance of  thick forests. The climate here is extreme – summer is like our summer,but in winter it gets to 20 degrees centigrade below. The forests are suprisingly thick and lush,  and just starting to slow a little autumn colour – mostly bright yellow at this stage. At Focca there was no sign of our pickup vehicle, and a drastic shortage of english speakers. We pointed at the address, and eventually got the message in broken english that there was a bus to take us to the rafting centre in 10 minutes time, which we eventually realized meant that the rafting crowd would soon arrive to pick us up.  Sure enough a car from the rafting crowd did arrive and collect us about 10 minutes later.

near Foca

sheep near Foca

River next to rafting campsite

It’s a mystery to me how Sebians and Bosnians manage to stay slim given the generous size of the helpings and the abundance of various pastries, filled doughnuts, pizzas, chocolate and other sweet things in their diet.  Perhaps smoking helps, perhaps it’s the fact that they are party animals. They party any night of the week, not just the weekends, and  at our campsite that meant loud music from 1.5 metre tall speaker until midnight on the first night, and 2.30am on the second night. If the campsite experience was anything  to judge by they party just as hard in the morning as well – they start boozing as soon as they are awake. This video was  7:30 am following the 2:30 am party the night before.

We met an english couple on our first night at the campsite – he was a radiologist now working as a sales rep in Bosnia. He said it was standard procedure to start each business meeting with a drink of rakija, which is a clear drink made from fermented fruit – 40% alcohol. We saw it frequently skolled by a groups in unison, accompanied by a loud ritual cheer.

The actual rafting was great fun – fantastic  scenery all the way. The water was icy cold so thankfully there was no risk of the raft tipping over and dunking us. Some crazy people chose to go for a swim, but even in wetsuits they were covered in goosebumps. We seemed to be the only people in the group with english as our first language, but were boat in a boat with several other english speakers.

Faced with the prospect of another sleepless night  we cut short our planned stay at Tara canyon and headed for Kotor in Montenegro. Although there were buses to the Montenegran coast they seemed to leave at midnight and arrive in the wee hours of the morning, so we caught a taxi for the 3 hour trip for 60 euros (about $90), with the added benefit of having our own personal tour guide, who would stop at scenic points so we could take photos, and of course deliver us right to the doorstep our accommodation, which as it turns out is about 6km out of Kotor. We were pleasantly surprised to find it was a complete air-conditioned apartment – lounge, kitchenette, nice bathroom, bedroom and excercise machine in front of the colour TV, lovely grounds and a swimming pool for the princely sum of $AU37 per night. Lovely to have a feeling of space, instead of having to pile items on top of each other all the time. The landlady gave us a bowl of plums picked from a tree in the garden when we arrived.

Apartment garden plum tree

man-made waterfall

Singapore was  Jurong Bird Park, with its enormous artificial waterfall inside an enclosed atrium, shopping at the huge 24hr Mustafa department store where Mike scored a couple of T shirts,  a laser light show  at the bay, and an evening  restaurant meal  on the waterfront ( where large TV screens showed a football match with the Wallaby) and the world’s largest ( or something) ferris wheel.

Istanbul  is amazing, and Turkish men generally delightful (women don’t seem to be about much).  I doubt that we would have found our ‘hotel’ without the aid of the taxi driver from the airport – who  keyed in the address into his mobile phone in one hand, while reading the address from a piece of paper we gave him in the other as he sped along the highway. The driver’s inattention to the road along with the fact that he didn’t speak english  slowed down Mike’s attempt at conversation. Eventually the taxi driver phoned the hotel and got instructions from them (while driving of course).  We then wandered around the winding and hilly streets of the area around our hotel, which was about 15 minutes walk from the major attractions of Aga Sophia, the blue mosque etc at Taksim square, and many young turkish men with the same pitch – hello, where are you from – oh Australia, I have a cousin who lives in ….(any capital city). I would like to show you around because we Turks like to help visitors to our city. ….eventually it turns out that he would like to teach us about carpets. No doubt they hear the bit about magic flying carpets almost every time they try this pitch, but they laugh delightedly as though they have never heard it before.  On our second day we decided to leave Taksim square early in the afternoon to rest back in the hotel in the afternoon so we could make the most of a boat tour/meal/entertainment evening that we had booked. We were to be collected by a bus from our hotel shortly after 7:00 as part of the package.

The bus didn’t arrive until 8:00pm, and then spent another hour working its way through an appalling traffic jam, with traffic virtually at a standstill in all directions.  No traffic lights, just a perpetual game of chicken as vehicles pushed past and squeezed through impossibly small spaces. At one stage our bus gained a little time by cutting diagonally across the footpath corner.  By the time we arrived at the waterfront the boat had gone and people were pretty cranky – some had been on the bus for 2 hours. The boat id come back to collect us, and after some haggling we were assured that we would not miss out on any food, and that the entertainment would go for later than normal to make up for the later start. We were told that the  problem was the gas used in the demonstration – which was the first we knew that there had been a skirmish at Taksim square – heavy handed police broke  up a peaceful demonstrations with tear gas.  Our evening’s entertainment out to be a good night. On the bus going home,  the driver couldn’t find our hotel, and we could see he was driving around in the wrong area. Unfortunuately we didn’t have a map with us, but we did have the address which didn’t seem to help much . Our driver drove off to collect another driver, and for a while the combined efforts of the two still wasn’t getting us any closer. I remembered that the easiest directions were to turn off the tramline going past the Grand Bazaar at the corner with the AKBANK building, so after stopping at a bigger hotel to find someone who could understand English instructions we finally made it home after 1am.

The next morning we were supposed to be collected  by a prepaid  shuttle bus to take us to the more distant airport for our Belgrade flight.  The hotel owner had wanted us to use his friend – a private taxi , for nearly  4 times the price. He said that the shuttle buses weren’t reliable, sometimes they didn’t come, and people would  miss their flights.  When the shuttle bus hadn’t arrived an hour after the scheduled time we were starting to get anxious, especially after the previous night’s escapades. The delightful man at the hotel counter would regularly ring the company for us to find out what was happening , and was regularly told they we two minutes away. After several calls the pitch changed to 5 minutes away.  By this time ( an hour after the scheduled pickup time)  we started to think that we had done our shuttle bus money at best, and would miss the plane at worst.  As it turned out all was well  – guided by the hotel employee who had been making all our phone calls on our behalf  we walked to a nearby intersection where the bus was waiting for us, and getting on the plane was non eventful.  Pegasus airlines have a delightful safety procedures video, subtitled into English, with small children playing the part of the air hostesss and the pilot.

Our first stop in Belgrade was the nearby Tesla museum – not very big, but nice explanations/demonstrations of the pros and cons and safety issues  of high and low voltage current, which made sense at the time but which I have now unfortunately forgotten. Apparently high voltage can be quite safe, as was convincingly demonstrated as we let high voltage sparks fly to our fingers.

In the evening I went to a small restaurant for an early evening meal  (Mike feeling unwell and staying at the hostel)-  and  tried the menu of the day consisting of a lovely chicken and vegetable soup, salad (which turned out to be a huge amount of finely shredded cabbage with vinegar on it), slices of coarse but tasty thickly sliced bread,  and goulash – chunky generously sized beef cubes in a thin broth with mashed potatoes. It was a huge meal – far more than I could eat – for the princely sum of 450 dinars ( there are 125 dinars to the Australian dollar –so the meal was $3.60).