Archive for November, 2010

Macedonia Skojpe-Ohrid 30th-1st Sept -An aussie, a kiwi and a Yank walk onto a bus….-

 

After two nights in Sofia, Bulgaria, I’m off to grab a bus to Macedonia first thing in the morning. I get in the taxi and he scoots of at a, shall we say, a most efficient speed.

We get half way to the bus stop and the driver turns a corner and bashes the dash board a few times. He grunts in protest and points at the dash angrily.

I surmise that we are now driving without indicators. He winds his window down and starts waving his arms around in an over the top fashion, pointing in our intended direction. The other drivers on the road don’t seem to bat an eyelid, and they make way for us appropriately. Obviously not too uncommon an occurrence in these parts.

We thankfully reach the bus stop intact and despite the lack of English going around I manage to find the one of eight companies strewn about that run trips to Macedonia.

On the nearly empty bus I meet two blokes, one an early twenty something kiwi, and the other a late thirty something American-Japanese.

We get talking and decide to depart from Skopje (the Macedonian capital) straight away and head three hours South West down to lake Ohrid. The lake area of Macedonia is truly spectacular. Beautiful landscapes and impressive history in the one package.

Top of the fort at Ohrid

When we get to Ohrid though we are bombarded with locals flashing photos of their “best rooms, 5 Euro!” It’s an odd occurrence as a full group of grown adults clamour over each other fighting for your attention.

The two lads and I exchange confused looks before picking one of the locals to go back to her house. We are followed by the rest of the prospectives as they continue to talk to us showing us their rooms and telling us that, “the woman you follow is a liar, she has no rooms in her house.” And other things of that nature.

Thankfully all is well, the lady Maria has a lovely house and the three of us share a room for the two nights and have a wonderful time.

The days are spent exploring the amazing landscape, beautiful lakes and of course the stunning ancient architecture.  Old forts, thousand year old churches you name it, brilliant!

Maria and her mother take us out one night to experience the local cuisine.  They show us a lovely Macedonian restaraunt where we enjoy a nice beer and a lovely macedonian meatloaf.  We leave absolutely full and satisfied.

Sadly after a few days of travel together me and my two friends must part ways.  I managed to make contact with one of the Melbourne Contiki lads Tom and he’s in Bitola, a town just Easat of Ohrid.  Due south of Skojpe the capital. 

I’ll go and see him and see what trouble he can get me into!

Bulgaria 28th-29th August -out of Spain into Balkens

  I wonder into Barcelona airport on one fine Sunday afternoon with my backpack in tow as always. I’ve just spent three days in Barcelona and I’ve had a gut full.

My liver has packed it in, my immune system just said ‘bugger it’ and went to the pub and I’ve not seen it for three days!

Something has just dawned on me. Aussies really REALLY drink.

I now have the perspective to say, yes! In fact we do drink way too much grog and we’re all crazy!

After seven weeks I’ve thrown in the towel, I’ve got a flight booked to Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria). Those of you who aren’t sure where it is (I sure wasn’t) it’s basically going from Spain- all the way in the west- to Bulgaria -all the way in the east. You couldn’t go much further East and still be in Europe.

Bulgaria is a part of the ‘Balkans Peninsula’ which is basically made up of the old Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia etc.) Bulgaria’s east touches the Black sea and kisses Turkey ever so gently, so yeah I do mean EAST.

Whilst waiting for the check in time (I have arrived stupendously early) I wonder up to the line and find that the only person who speaks English is likewise flying to Sofia, Bulgaria but then heading straight away via bus into Macedonia.

“Oh that’s funny,” I say “I’m heading there in a couple of days.”

After a few hours of waiting for our plane and then chatting all the way I discover that the lady in question Gordana is a Pharmacist from Skopje (Skopee-A) which is the capital of Macedonia. We talk a lot about our travels so far, I find out that she is heading back to Macedonia straight away due to her being back at work first thing in the morning… YIKES!

She offers her details and I promise to contact her when I get to Macedonia. (I do in fact do so, stay tuned for that next story).

So we say goodbye and here I am first time alone as a backpacker in Bulgaria at 11pm. The pick up from my hostel is smiling warmly, he must do that because he speaks no English. We hop in what looks like a soviet aged station wagon, I’m pleased when it starts first time.

A hysterical woman comes running up to the window knocking erratically.

I open the window a crack and she talks to the driver. I surmise that her and her friend are also needing to catch the bus to Macedonia and weren’t sure how to get there, my driver offers them a lift.

The two young women can in fact speak English. They’re amazed that an Australian has found his way so far East. I do enjoy being a novelty!

Both women are like Gordana, based in Skopje, Macedonia.

The driver puts in a cassette and plays some music “Bulgarian music” he smiles warmly.

He drops me off at my hostel, he needs to show me in, I can’t even find it in amongst the scaffolding and other places of business. I elect to decline any attention from the women on the street corner as I enter. I had said goodbye to the two Macedonian women thinking little more about them but in a peculiar twist they were friends with someone in Macedonia who I was to meet only 5 days later thanks to Gordana, my Pharmacist soon to be tour guide.

Talk about your six degrees of separation!

I spend the next day relaxed and take in the sights by day and night.  I have to quickly adjust to the idea of the locals shake of the head meaning yes and a nod meaning no.  It makes ordering a  coffee rather confusing at first.

That night I enjoy the company of some English and American backpackers but decline on the going out and seeing the nightlife thing.

There seems to be an ample amount of sex shops, bottle shops and casinos, none of which appeal.  I put my feet up, relax and enjoy the solitude.  The temperature is about 10 degrees cooler then Spain and I’m feeling a little better already. 

housing block. View from my hostel

Bulgarian church

Chill time, off to Macedonia tommorow.

Valencia 23rd-24th LA TOMATINA BABY!!(Sluitens assemble!)

The origin of La Tomatina or ‘Tomato day’ or ‘Tomato festival’ is a messy one (excuse the pun).  Long story short it started in 1944 when a Gigantes y cabezudos “Giants and Big-Heads’ festival was on.  Standard get dressed up, party Spanish style.  Some of the youth however were upset that they weren’t involved, so they started a brawl.  As the fight went on, guess what?  They progressed into using weapons, a tomato stand was nearby.

Next year they bought their own tomatoes so as to not upset the local fruit vendors, same result, the police were ready for them.

By 1950 the event was cautiously made an organised ‘thingy’.  Last wednesday of August is the tradition and the slightly overripe tomatoes are brought in by the truck load!

Our group made a hectic dash to the buses in Valencia (the festival is in fact about a half hour away in Bunol).  We all go seperated the night before.  How you ask? simple we caught up with all Spanish located contikians!

The day started off with Bill and I sneaking a couple aussie girls into our Hotel.  They’d not booked for the tommy festival so they were out of options.  Backpackers code states: Help each other out.

A few hours checking out the place and lounging on the beach hit the spot nicely. 

Early in the evening our awesome foursome make contact with the other Contiki travellers who’d made their way to town.  As we’re waiting outside our Hotel, Tom and Lee the Melbourne boys turn up (they’re staying a few minutes around the corner) and another group of English/Kiwi/Yankee who are staying at our Hotel help us loitre around outside.

Suddenly a window in the adjacent Hotel opens and a strong aussie accent can be heard. “BILLLLLLL!”

“MAAARRRK” comes the reply.  The Hotel next to us is the temporary home of three of our friends.  The group is assembled.

We head into the ‘old town’ where there are bars a plenty.

There are HUNDREDS of yellow shirts, “the fanatics’ are in town.  Look out! They’re kind of like if you got a contiki tour of mostly Aussies, gave them all Heroin and let them go, that’s the fanatics for you!

They systematically destroy each venue, many of them have only shreds of their yellow uniforms remaining as they walk the streets.

Some of our group are linked to the fanatics so we follow them around dubiously.  We manage to scrounge some cheap drinks and not get glass broken over our heads so all is well.

The three remaining lads from Central Queensland turn up and the partying really kicks in.  The Sluitens have assembled.  (If you’ve not been following the blogs or are not from contiki then just smile and wave at this point.)

Old habits kick in and we manage to take over whichever pub we enter, bad dance moves and good times a plenty.  Ahhhh my friends, how I have missed you all! My liver does hate you all though I’m afraid.

As the night went on we all went our seperate ways, some got to bed at a reasonable 1am or so, others i suspect didn’t waist time sleeping too much.

So now we’re all running around desperately trying to find each other, none of us phones because we don’t want to risk anything being destroyed whilst at the festival.  Why so difficult? Well confusion with who’s going on which bus for a start, also some ppl didn’t end up in their own beds :s these things happen.

Anywhoo, we manage to make it to the festival without a drama.  We then attempt to make our way to the front.

  Imagine in your mind the stereotype of European cities, those small streets that can’t possibly be used for cars and pedestrians but somehow are. Well now imagine a few small such streets and two squares that would hold a few men and their dogs. Now imagine that space filled with 40 000 tourists clambering forward hungrily towards the goal!

Which goal you ask? A greased pole with a ham on top (I’m not joking) the festival begins once someone clambers up the top and gets the ham… Why I can not tell you!

The crowds are more intense then a music festival mosh pit, except no music is playing, just tomatoes, lots and lots of tomatoes.

Once it begins truck after truck filled with oddly dressed fanatics hurl mountains of over ripe tomatoes into the crowd. (Just in case you were wondering, the tomatoes smell a little like vomit once in the sun for any extended period).

The end result is some bad smelling smiling tourists who don’t quite know if what they just did was a smart thing, but it sure was fun!

My thoughts: drink water, stay at the back and let the action come to you and it’s a barrel of laughs, the exact opposite of what 90% of the people actually did. But it is one of those things you can say you’ve done and one things for sure, you will have shared your experience with many many MANY people.

Now to getting back to Valencia…. hmm only one bus per hour… that’s smart Spanish organising commitee.  *KICK IN THE FACE* to you!.

Our group manages to hitch hike, bus and taxi it back.  Ironically it’s not that easy because the taxi and bus drivers wait for it…. don’t like tomatoes in their vehicles…. HELLO IT”S TOMATINA!!!!

I love the Spanish ppl I really do, but come on Francesca what the hell!

Anyway fast forward a few hours and we’ve all cleaned up (some of us are still scraping tomatoes out of our hair and ears and the like) and we’re heading out again.

We all head to the beach to find this ‘awesome pub’ apparantly as advised by some of the fanatics.

We walk the full length of the beach before finding it.  It’s a dodgy night club, 8euro Heinekens, bad service, LOUD.

“Right, anyone who wants to stay in this hole is welcome to it, I’m heading back to the beach” I bellow to the crowd.  Much to my approval two thirds of our clan head back, we find a local lad with an esky.

“Ah senor, ocho cervaca por favor.”

We then procede to sip on our 1 euro beers whilst Ronald the resident musician scrounges a guitar and we start a sing along.  Others are walking past taking a look at our activity.  “Quick, put a hat down, we can make some money.” Says Ronald 

1am, moonlit beach in Spain, Singalongs, best friends a person could ask for.  Sorry to all who missed it!

People may ask me, what was the best travel experience I had. The swiss Alps? Eiffel Tower? Oktobafest?

Nope, this exact moment.  Pure magic! I shared it with some of the best people I’ve known and I’m privelleged to still know them now.

It’s not the sights and the cities that you see, it’s the people you see them with.

That’s the moral of the story dear reader, please take it to heart and keep it with you.  

Chillin on the beach.... perfectContiki crew nd friends after the chaos of Tomatina

Madrid 21st-22nd September- Sleep… must have sleep!

The last two nights in Madrid were rather full on, although thankfully not due to the crazy excess drinking unlike the last two nights.

We spent a nearly full day checking out Toledo.  An ancient town now home to around 80000 Spainish about 70kms south of Madrid.

Toledo was a major administrative area during control by the Romans, but after the Roman empire collapsed it became the centre of Spain during the ‘golden age’.  It was called La Convivencia, or the co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

After the capital was transfered to Madrid, Toledo was then in a major decline.  The upside of this is that it was never redoveloped.  You can tell as soon as you enter the place.  It looks like time stopped a couple hundred years ago.  The down side is that at last count the unemployment was up to over 22%.

There are a few places looking touristy but largely the winding cobbled streets and castle towers are original and untouched.

Our group coincidentally bumps into the Dutch girls from the night club the night before.  Weird ….

Anyway, we get the bus back to Madrid in time for some dinner and a few drinks.  A whole group of us from the hostel head out and enjoy a few beverages and tapas and end up sipping a few uno euro cervaca in one of the lovely town squares at 3am before calling it a night.

The last night in Madrid turns out to be a lovely little outing of tapas, 1 euro beers and some of the best company you can have.  Backpackers having a chilled out time, is there anything better dear reader?  I think not.

Although being hassled at 5am by the hostel bloke to go back to your own gender segregated room is not so fun…

Such is life… Goodbye Madrid, I will see you again.

But La Tomatina awaits!!

Toledo, in all it's ancient glory

Tapas bar and 1 euro beers… I think we ordered 30

Hot legs

I’m terribly sorry about any expectations that the title gave you, I’m afraid the topic is in fact my own legs. 

Firstly my own opinion of my legs is that they’re not the greatest, kind of stumpy footballer’s legs.  Hairy and thick, which would be fine if they were attached to the muscular physique of a titan of a Rugby player! Alas I’m not in that catagory, allthough I’m rather pleased that I don’t emmit any “meat head” persona in my day to day.

So, they’re not that great I’ll be honest, they are handy for getting around but that’s about it.  So what am I talking about it for?

I’ve been getting some odd looks and comments from the local English population when I’ve been walking through the town to go to the Gym wearing my standard ‘running’ shorts, something similiar to the old aussie stubbies.

It’s not a good look but it’s practical and as the English would say, I just couldn’t be arsed taking my long strides off when i get to the gym.  Even though it’s cold it’s only a 10 minute walk.

The usual is a cursory glance and a raised eye brow, sometimes someone (usually a middle aged woman) says something like, “Oh my, you’ve got legs.”  “Indeed, they’re an ideal form of transport.”

Or my personal favourite, “Excuse me?” from across the shopping centre.

“Yes?”

“NICE LEGS!”

“Thankyou.”

So what is the English fascination with bare legs in day to day life?

Well I guess it’s a novelty for a start, the English are so used to the weather turning bad in a brief moment that even during summer many of them still stick to Jeans or slacks each day. But is it something more then that?

My current location in itself is a curiosity.  Firstly to get some context, England is a country of some sixty million people and the country could squeeze into Australia nearly sixty times, so yes it’s a densley populated nation.  Also, the town in question, Basingstoke, is about 45minutes to an hour west of London (you’ve heard of London, 7.5million ppl, busy, underground breaks all the time!).  Basingstoke is a ‘small’ town of a megre 100 000ppl.

In Australia, particularly in regional areas, 100 000 would be a major centre of focus, a reasonable sized city.  Here in England, the scale is all out, so 100 000 next to London = small town.  It’s like anything in life, it’s all relative.

But it’s not just relative size, it’s mentality.  If you’ve spent any decent time in a country town in outback Australia then you know what I mean.  Things move a touch slower, the people are a little more content with a little less, but still don’t look to kindly on the ‘spoilt city folk’.  On top of that, outsiders are treated cautiously if deemed a little ‘too’ different.

An example dear reader? Certainly.  After a wild party on a recent weekend I left my friends house in the early hours of sunday morning and made my way through the underground of London to catch my train back to Basingstoke.  As I walked along I received barely a look or sideways glance about the fact that I had my face covered (and I mean covered!) with blue and red face paint.  It was like I’d lost a fight with Braveheart or something. 

I wrestled my way through the oft’ damaged underground (yes I’m disgruntled) and got back to Basingstoke before lunch time.  Instantly the looks started.  Here was this odd chap on a sunday morning walking the streets with a small backpack and face covered in paint.  Oh the Humanity!  The looks of ridicule stabbed into me, the humiliation!

Ok I’m overstating it slightly but you get the idea.  It’s the idea that when faced with the different you stare and laugh/ridicule due to your own lack of understanding.

How wide spread is this? Well you get places relatively small like Brighton on the south coast that is known as a very happening little place.  Firstly it’s a seaside town, the gay capital of England and a good little getaway for a week at the beach.  But what’s the message here?  The culture is diverse, there’s few places where you can get jammed into a sardine can of a genuine Japanese restaraunt, walk twenty metres find a cafe run by a cheery middle eastern family and then a few more metres gets you an English pub with rum tasting meetings every month and THEN a boutique cafe that brews it’s own recipes of coffees from around the world.

There is laid back tolerance of all and ideas are encouraged to flourish.  Mohawks, piercing, purple hair, skin tight jeans and yes even bare legs don’t get a second look.  So what’s the point?  This place is an exception.  In England you get a sense of a certain old world stuffyness that’s rebelling against the new world.  Tollerance is not so common as we’d like to think and political correctness and an outdated politcal system stop free speach and understanding from getting through the masses.  Instead, fear and conjecture crawl through digging in their claws into the narrow minds of the general populace.

What is clear is that the places in England who have embraced diversity (London, Brighton to name two of few) seem more culturally free and more content (excluding the anger caused by a faulty overpriced underground public transport system… Ok I’ll leave the London underground alone now I’ve made my point.)

The new generation seems to be carrying with it a quiet willingness to embrace new things with a cheery smile and with a shrug of the shoulders, brush away some of the percieved troubles of the world.

There is hope for England yet, with this new generation of free spirited people leading the way, but regardless they’ll still have to put up with my hairy legs even with the cold setting in.

Or maybe I’m wrong and I do have hot legs….. there’s a thought :s