Friday, March 31, 2023

Balkans day 30: Home

That good sleep I was counting on was not really forthcoming. The “Wiener Walzer” from Budapest to Zurich was pretty full, and I’d forgotten I was booked into a couchette car rather than a bed. Two of my travel companions didn’t get on until Vienna (just before midnight) and the other one got out at Innsbruck (4:30am), so all in all hardly an uninterrupted night. But all was on time, and I made my way back to Konstanz on the now almost unimaginably luxurious Swiss train. Back at my own place before noon, and O. and S. had a big plate of meat and chips waiting for me.

I didn’t take any photos on this final part of the journey, so here’s a nice bucolic picture of some cattle that I took earlier.

Highland cattle outside Oberdorf

And here’s part three of the route map.

All in all, I’ve set foot in fourteen countries on this trip (Germany, Switzerland, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Hungary) as well as traversing three more (Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia), which isn’t bad for one month. And I’ve tried to get a sense of a whole part of the world that I knew little about. Certainly there are also spots that I would like to return to at some point.

This is the last instalment. Thanks to everyone who’s followed along on my journey! I borrowed the idea of a travel blog from T., to whom I’m very grateful, as it’s allowed me to make more sense of my experiences and also create a record for myself and others.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Balkans day 29: Pest

Adventures east of the river today. I headed out to the Hungarian Railway History Park, on the northeast side of Budapest. Ironically, this place is difficult to get to by public transport – it took me a short metro ride, two trams and a 15-minute walk. The park, when I arrived, was virtually abandoned, giving it quite a haunting aspect. There is also very little in the way of English-language signage, but lots to see if, like me, you just enjoy looking at trains.

Steam locos

The railway park from the footbridge

Heading back into the city centre, I treated myself to a fish soup and a walk around the outside of the parliament building. 18-year-old me was wowed, considering it to be the best building he’d ever seen, and 37-year-old me is hard-pressed to disagree.

Parliament building

Sculpted shoes by the Danube

My walk finally led me to St Stephen’s Basilica. We’re in Catholic territory now, but this one rivals the Orthodox cathedrals for opulence. You can also go up into the dome for a great view of the city, and I did.

Chancel of St Stephen’s

By this point, fatigue was setting in. It’s almost as if I’ve been on the road for a month, not sleeping in the same bed for more than three nights in a row at any point (and that only once). Plus the cherry tree blossoms, while beautiful, have caused the worst outbreak of hayfever I’ve had in years, and that shit tires you out. I’m sitting now looking at the beautiful frontage of Keleti station, waiting for the sixth and final sleeper train of the holiday, which will take me halfway across Europe, back to Zurich. We’re in Schengen, so no 3am passport checks this time. Dosed up as I am on antihistamines and chamomile tea, I might even sleep well!

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Balkans day 28: Buda

Romania was only tenuously in the Balkans. Hungary straightforwardly isn’t; but there are only so many ways of getting back from Bucharest to Konstanz by rail, and if one of them involves visiting a stunning city like Budapest then I’ll take it. I first came here nineteen years ago, and was really struck by the place. In that respect not much has changed.

Budapest is an agglomeration of two earlier towns: Buda, on the west side of the Danube, and Pest, on the east. Today, after arriving at the stunning Budapest-Keleti station in Pest, I made my way straight to Buda. The weather was favouring me for once.

Fishermen’s Bastion

View of the parliament building and the Danube

Buda rises steeply from the Danube up to the Fishermen’s Bastion on the hill, a tourist hotspot, and with good cause. The views over the rest of the city are fantastic. After enjoying an overpriced coffee up here I went into the grandiose Matthias Church and ogled the ornamentation.

Matthias Church interior

Queen Elizabeth of Hungary and stained glass

There is limited evidence of my other activities in Buda, as photos are prohibited in both places. Before lunch I visited the Hospital of the Rock, an underground former hospital under Red Cross protection that served Budapest citizens and soldiers of both sides during the Second World War; it was also a nuclear bunker in the 1960s. The hospital part is interesting, if a little creepy due to the many wax figures in various positions throughout the tunnels. The bunker part is very sobering, complete with detailed descriptions and maps of what the damage would be if a nuclear strike were to hit your favourite city.

Buda Castle and art gallery

After a wander around the hilltop enjoying the sunlight, and then some lunch, I headed south along the ridge to Buda Castle, which hosts the national art gallery. The building and the space is monumental, with relatively little art actually displayed within. I was easily able to find and admire my favourite nineteenth-century things, and explored the dome cupola before heading back across town for some rest in Pest.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Balkans day 27: Romania

I’d wanted to start today with a trip to the National Village Museum, but when I set out it was raining heavily, so visiting a mostly-outdoors attraction didn’t seem very clever. Instead I turned to Ceausescu’s mansion. Located in a leafy area on the edge of the city centre, this building was only recently opened to the public.

Peacock mosaic in the swimming pool

Infamous golden bathroom

Spread over two floors, there are some excesses – like the golden bathroom above – but nothing like the scale of the Palace of Parliament. On the whole I thought it was a pretty nice rich person’s house. (Plus I’ve never liked it when people project someone’s moral or ethical failings onto their sense of taste; I’m sure people wouldn’t hesitate to declare Ludwig II of Bavaria’s grandiose construction projects to be sickening if he were a mass-murdering authoritarian like Ceausescu, but as it is they’re mostly considered quaint.) Scattered around the walls are photos of Ceausescu meeting various powerful figures over the years: Mao Zedong, Mobutu and Saddam Hussein, but also more than one US president. The guy liked his peacocks: art featuring peacocks is everywhere, and there are fifteen live peacocks around the grounds, who occasionally disturb the urban monotony with their yowling cries.

When I’d finished, it was still raining, but I didn’t want to miss the Village Museum, so I splashed across Herastrau Park to get there, and roamed around taking photos of interesting buildings while dodging school trips. Most of the buildings in the museum were physically transported there from their original locations across Romania – from the Banat to the Black Sea via Transylvania – during the twentieth century.

Cute house

Painted shutters


By this point I was wet and hungry, so I got a late lunch – a coclinta, a type of pie from the Maramures region – and then settled in a coffee shop to charge my iPad. This Romanian sleeper I’m on may be the nicest sleeper yet – it’s very spacious, with a comfy pre-made bed and a power socket. As I write this we’re beginning to ascend into the Transylvanian mountains, and I’m watching the sun set outside my window. Onwards through the night!

Monday, March 27, 2023

Balkans day 26: Bucharest

Switching back into solo ambling plus coffee mode today. My first stop was the fantabulous eyesore that is Bucharest’s Palace of Parliament. Designed at Ceausescu’s bidding in the mid-1980s, it’s the world’s heaviest building.

Side of the Palace with blossoming cherry trees

I signed up for a tour, and after going through airport-like security we were shepherded around the building by a guide who rattled off facts and figures like a machinegun. I asked if it was true that the building was sinking into the ground, and she dismissed this as baseless. Everyone seemed rather on edge, and later we were told why: the president of Romania was visiting, and walked right past our tour.

Performance hall with 5-tonne crystal chandelier

State room

From the Palace I walked into town and had a tasty lunch in the courtyard of the Hanu’ lui Manuc restaurant (thanks to A. for the tip). This is right in the middle of the most lovely part of the city, and I wandered around taking photos of cool buildings for some time.

Stavropoleos church

Old university library with statue of Carol I

Romanian Athenaeum with Eminescu statue

Strangely, I learned on some Wikipedia-ing that the Romanian monarchy from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards were from “my” neck of the woods – they were Hohenzollerns, and Carol I and his son were born in Sigmaringen, near Konstanz. This only reinforces my suspicion that Germany’s most successful export product ever is royalty.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Balkans day 25: Into Romania

Time, today, to leave Sofia and head north. Romania as a state isn’t straightforwardly in the Balkans: the usual definition is what’s south of the Danube and Sava, and that’s only a tiny proportion of the country, which I’m not visiting this time. But I’ve never been to the capital, Bucharest, so will spend a couple of days there before heading back home.

Countryside doing a good impression of the default XP desktop

That meant that today was a transit day. Another very early start, possibly the last of this trip, made more painful by Daylight Savings Time doing its thing. All told, it’s a ten-hour train trip from Sofia to Bucharest, split across two trains. The first is a grubby Bulgarian compartment train, which starts by winding north along the Iskar valley through the Balkan Mountains.

Goodbye Sofia

Crags north of Svoge

I share my compartment with two loud and smelly Bulgarian men who spend the journey watching videos on their phones with the sound on, laughing uproariously and scratching their crotches. Once through the mountains, the train bears right and crosses some peaceful countryside, dotted with a few villages. At Gorna Oryahovitsa the train splits, with my part turning north again towards Ruse, on the Danube. Gorna Oryahovitsa is within spitting distance of Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria, but I don’t have any time to spare, as there’s only one Sofia-Bucharest itinerary per day, unfortunately. Similarly I’ve heard that Ruse is a nice town but I barely have time to spend my last few Bulgarian lev on supplies before hopping onto a Romanian DMU bound for Bucharest.

Ruse’s grand station frontage

Green Danube inlet north of Ruse

The train crosses the Danube on Europe’s longest steel bridge (2.5km) before stopping at Giurgiu for a passport check. Beyond here is nothing but empty fields for miles and miles, which the train slithers through at a snail’s pace, initially northwest, then swerving right onto the main line at Videse. Eventually we reach Bucharest’s bustling Gara de Nord, where this instalment draws to a close.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Balkans day 24: Dragalevtsi

My last day in Sofia today – and a more peaceful adventure. We crossed the city by metro towards the mountain in the south, Vitosha, that looms over Sofia like a snow-clad giant. From there we got the bus into the foothills, and climbed by way of steep woodland trails to the Dragalevtsi monastery.

Stream in the woods near Dragalevtsi

It’s not a long trek to the monastery, but it’s a tremendously tranquil place. Some visitors were lighting candles by the church; others were content to sit and enjoy the quiet and the various cats that roam the place. On the church’s exterior are fifteenth-century frescoes, including one of my namesake saint.


Sleepy cat

On our way back down the hill we stopped to enjoy an authentically Bulgarian meal at a lovely restaurant, together with this lemonade, which I’m told is also authentically Bulgarian, though in a different way.

Very yellow lemonade

Since there was still some daylight left, we headed across town to Boyana in the hope of seeing its tiny but exceptionally well-preserved church. The opening hours and the bus timetable were both on our side but, alas, the place was overrun by tour bus visitors with prebooked tickets, so we weren’t able to get in.

Boyana church exterior

After exploring the setting of the church for a little while, we hopped on another bus, which, after a winding tour of some of the city’s suburbs, took us back to the metro and home. Join me next time for another instalment of “George tries and fails to get into places of worship”!

Friday, March 24, 2023

Balkans day 23: Return to Sofia

Especially after a hectic day like yesterday, it felt good to be escaping the bustling metropolis that is Istanbul and return to Sofia, which comes across as cosy by comparison. This time I knew the drill, and was able to get a bit of sleep both before and after the border formalities, which in this direction take place at an even more punishing 2-3am. In Sofia it is warm, and the trees are starting to blossom.

In the afternoon, inspired by my failure to go to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, B. took me to see Sofia’s own Saint Sophia Church. It’s not a hulking monstrosity like its Istanbul counterpart, but a modest, cool brick building that has weathered many changes over the centuries since a church was first constructed here in the fourth century.

No, not this one! This is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Nave of Saint Sophia church

Under the church is an ancient crypt containing several layers of tombs and mosaic floors.

4th-century tomb with early Christian floral design

Reconstructed mosaic floor

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Balkans day 22: Istanbul

Having rested and recharged overnight, today was a day of zooming round Istanbul like a maniac. First stop was the Theodosius Cistern, a huge underground space that plays host to a series of lightshows illustrating the city’s history.

Theodosius Cistern

Within easy walking distance of here is the enormous, mazelike, and intimidating central bazaar. I let myself be carried by the crowds in, around, and back out again while absorbing as much of the atmosphere as I could take.

Central Bazaar

Then it was onto a tram, across the Golden Horn, and up the hill to take in views from the Galata Tower.

City rooftops

Back down the hill, past the fishermen on the bridge, and through old Sirkeci station, I hopped on another Marmaray, this time under the Bosphorus itself to the Asian side of the city, for a coffee and a stroll along the waterfront.

Maiden’s Tower, ship, and Topkapi Palace in Europe

Finally – since the Blue Mosque was denied to me, and my attempt to visit the Hagia Sophia failed – I made my way through a bustling commercial district to the Süleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by Sinan, the architect who probably did more to shape Constantinople/Istanbul than anyone else. It also features Suleiman’s tomb in the mosque grounds.

Dome of Süleymaniye Mosque

After all that, it’s now time to leave Istanbul. I’ve never been to a city where the price differentials are so steep: today’s lunch cost literally a tenth of the previous day’s lunch, despite being very similar. There’s some serious tourist-gouging going on here. I’m also not a fan of the many dudes who hang around on the street and ask you where you’re from, presumably trying to make some sort of money out of you. Relatedly, it’s weird how about two thirds of the people you see out and about are men, often hanging around in hypermasculine-looking groups, even in the sort of service jobs I’m more used to seeing staffed by women. But the city as a whole has left an impression. Istanbul – and Turkey in general – deserves much more time than I’ve been able to give it on this visit. (It’s the first time I’ve “properly” visited the country; previously I’d only changed planes here.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Balkans day 21: Constantinople

I wasn’t sure I’d make it this far, but Istanbul is an excellent fit for a tour of the Balkans. The city isn’t straightforwardly part of the Balkan peninsula (at most, some of it is), but during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century essentially all of the Balkans was ruled from here, under its previous name, Constantinople. Since today’s ventures are mostly around historical sights, using the older name seems appropriate for this post.

The Hagia Sophia and its queue

Another of the glorious survivors of the good old days of inter-Balkan rail connections is the sleeper from Sofia to Istanbul. This train is very nice: my compartment even had a mini fridge! What’s not so nice is that there’s a passport check just before midnight, and another, more serious one shortly after, at Kapikule in Turkey, where everyone has to troop off the train and show their passports and faces to the two unhurried border guards and their cameras, then have their bags X-rayed. By the time the train gets going again it’s 2am local time. This effectively means that one’s chances at a solid night’s sleep are scuppered; at best, you can hope for two 4-hour blocks of sleep.

The train before its departure from Sofia

Arriving in the outskirts of Istanbul, you then have to take a suburban train to get into the centre. It was rush hour, and everyone was heading for the same stop as me – deep under the city centre – but for different reasons. I rose from the depths, got breakfast in town, and began to wander.

The Blue Mosque was closed for renovation, and the Hagia Sophia rather overrun; I only have 36 hours here, so spending six of them in a queue didn’t seem appealing. Instead I visited Topkapi Palace, from where the sultans had once ruled the Balkans and more. The only place I’ve ever been that’s comparable in scope and setup is the Forbidden City in Beijing. (It’s worth adding that, while not as big as the Chinese capital, Istanbul still dwarfs anywhere else I’ve visited on this trip, with a population of nearly 16 million.)

Palace grounds

View of the Bosphorus and the Asian side

Sultan’s room

Tomorrow I aim to visit a few more parts of the city. For now I’ll try to get in to Hagia Sofia before it closes. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Balkans day 20: Rest day

I didn’t do anything interesting today. Sorry-not-sorry to my loyal readers. But here’s a picture of a “Balkan” cake bar and the itinerary for the second part of my trip in video form. Tomorrow, a new country!

Balkan cake bar, with kakao.

Spot the city with the misattributed, er, continent.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Balkans day 19: Sredets

I made a mistake in my post yesterday! It’s not the Serd- in Serdica that’s cognate with heart – it’s the Sred- in Sredets, which is another historical name (this time medieval) for Sofia. So today is/was Sredets day.

B. was kind enough to give me a tour of Sofia University today. Sofia is a glorious riot of architectures, from Roman ruins to fourth-century churches to Austro-Hungarian interpretations of Byzantine architecture to Art Nouveau to massive Communist oblongs to “glass-fronted shite”. The university itself is also a mashup of different styles, but the old central building – which still houses the humanities – is elegant as well as imposing, and its interior is a delight.

Card indexes in the central library

St Kliment watches over the books

The English resource centre

One enjoyably nerdy moment was visiting the former study of Andrey Danchev, a prominent Anglicist. This room is hidden away under the English resource centre: one only has to open a tiny locked door, hasten down a narrow spiral staircase, along a short, book-filled corridor, and round a corner. The collection is largely as it was when Danchev died in 1996, and is incredibly impressive, especially given that he was working behind the Iron Curtain for most of his life.

Part of the Danchev collection and the man

We also saw a palaeontological highlight of Sofia’s collections: a deinotherium skeleton!

It’s a big one

And it would be remiss of me not to mention the highlight of the day: the mighty Perlovska river, equal in its majesty and epic scale to the very Rhine itself.

The Perlovska river

Well, almost.