BREAD – Western Europe Flavour
Samos, Naxos and Santorini were my Greek islands of choice. I decided against the party spots of Ios and Mykonos. I was keen to just relax, and let my liver rebuilt from Bulgaria’s assaults! It was just me, the sand, ouzo and in the distance, a group of local women in the water comparing breast sizes.
Highlights on the islands included staying on the beach-front in Naxos, zipping around Santorini on a Hells Angels approved 80cc Peugeot Scooter, and most of all, being surrounded by clear turquoise waters, and pure white and blue buildings.
I had to go back in time to book my ticket to Tirane. The ticket office was a room untouched since the 1960’s. All that was in there was a flimsy table, with a typewriter and a squeaky fan, and a sweaty man with a shiny structurally sound comb-overed-permed-mullet hair “style”, and a shiny gold tooth. He was grinning at me (the kind of grin that you get the electric chair for these days). He assured me twenty times he had booked me “a good Greek bus”, and had given me the best seat. It was the worst seat.
The seat was front row next to a little old lady, who I let sit in my seat next to the window, prompting her to pray for my good fortune and pat me on the arm every 10 mins. This left me with a 14 hour trip with nothing to lean on (apart from the little old lady). I did finally nod off, only to be woken by the driver yelling and waving his finger at me at me (whilst still driving) . A passenger told him I did not speak Greek, so he stopped, thought about it, and continued his rant. Apparently my foot was encroaching into the aisle by 2.23 mm, which I am sure you will agree, is a major red alert safety hazard, worthy of taking ones eyes off the road to shake a fist at someone.
Arrival into Tirane was probably not too dissimilar to when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I had no idea where I was, not one person spoke English, and all the surrounding buildings were boarded up! It was alien. I somehow managed to communicate with a taxi driver, who looked like he was on day release from the morgue.
The roads in Tirana were the busiest and most chaotic I have ever seen. Most people in Albania have only been driving for 20 years or so since the fall of communism. Kind of like the bumper cars at Luna Park.
Here I met some lads from England, and we decided to head up to Montenegro…it was north so why not?!
With no direct bus from Albania to Montenegro, we had to catch three incredibly dodgy taxis. The first taxi driver was a genuine lunatic, driving at an estimated 130km (yeah, the speedo didn’t work) down windy single lane roads and overtaking donkey drawn carts, all without passenger seat belts. He had put in a Montenegrin “Rock” Cassette for the drive, to help make us comfortable! At the Montenegro boarder, we changed to an unmarked taxi. The new drivers claim to fame was that he was the exact translation of the term ‘surly’.
Whilst we were in the traffic waiting to get through the border, the driver got out and disappeared. As the cars ahead moved a random bloke (with cigarette hanging out of his mouth), jumped into the car and drove it forward. He then let out a horror laugh, bid us farewell, blew smoke into our faces and jumped out onto his next adventure! Our driver returned, and we were off.
We finally arrived in Kotor…where an old local man let us stay in his house. He spoke no English, but did enjoy a beer. We joined him for a drink. Our conversation involved clanking tins every sip, followed by him grunting and chuckling. Montenegro was fantastic with a great landscape mix of mountains and coast, and an appreciation from the locals for your visit.
I had to crowd surf out of the bus in Dubrovnik, as a wave of 70 old Croatians surrounded us hawking their rooms to rent. The town was massively touristy. Although nice to look at, Croatia goes down as my least favourite place in the Balkans because of the hordes of English, Koreans, Americans and others clogging the streets. The highlight was renting an apartment for a few days, which included an hour’s induction by the owner. This covered all the necessities, like how to use the kettle, how to fill up the ice tray, how many can sit at the table at any one time, how warm the blankets will keep us, the ideal hand size for the oven mitts, why the dryer door wont open during operation, why the door is hinged on the left, why the garden hose is green…..etc.
Next Croatian stop was Zagreb, where I spent precisely two hours. I saw the train station, a statue of a horse, some billboards, and a man walking poodles. I am told that I saw too much.
Never thought I’d go to Bosnia, but it was one the highlights of my time away thus far, and the pick of the Balkans. The recent history is still very evident, and unlike in Croatia, the people are super friendly.
Sarajevo was the next, and like Mostar, was full of interesting sites. The owner of the hostel picked us up in his tiny Fiat hatchback. With our entire luggage and the four of us, it is fair to say that was my single greatest ‘shotgun’ call ever!
The last of the Balkan countries, I started in Ljubliana, a neat little town, despite the unnecessary ‘J’ in the name. The highlights were the Horse burgers (well, didn’t end up eating one, but it was nice to be able to pull out the “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” line, and have the option to follow it through).
Bled was the next stop, and it was fantastic. Not only did a witness a horse run out of a house and have an argument with a barking dog, but I got to drink at the George Best (former chronic Alcoholic footballer) Bar, willing on the Slovenian Basketball team with all the locals and their dogs in the pub. The other highlight was staying in a hostel with a hammock.
The owner of the hostel in Bled gave me a ride into Austria. It was a sweet drive, going through the Austrian Alps. Just over the border, the Austrians have left military tanks parked there, just as a way of flexing their non-existent muscles to the Slovenians. My driver flipped these tanks the bird on the way through.
He dropped me off at this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Somehow, whilst trying to find the train station, I ended up in the middle of a wood chipping factory. Turns out, this was also the train station…I was just the only person there without a hardhat and reflective vest while I waited!
I had stops in Graz (where no one knows anything about anywhere) and Salzburg…where I was the only tourist in history NOT to do the Sound of Music tour. Still waiting on my certificate of achievement!
Finally, I had reached my target….the home of Oktoberfest!!! As I was a few days early however, I had booked myself into a hostel. A 100 bed dorm! Never again! A few days of sightseeing in Munich, and I was ready for the beers!
Oktoberfest is a haze of memories, but it was everything I expected and more. One of the rare times when expectations are far surpassed!
The daily routine was up at 7am, into the grounds to queue, viewing beer wenches carrying 15 beers (steins!!) at a time. Prosting (cheers) every 10 minutes (or 5 minutes towards the days end), losing everyone by 7pm, and replacing them with new friends, dancing to the Ooompa bands on the tables, and falling into what is hopefully your own tent at the end, and doing it all again the next day! Some of the best fun I have ever had…apart from the time I got pushed around a car park in a shopping trolley.