Dad and I took an overnight train from Lviv to Budapest. We had a lovely cabin all to ourselves, and my bunk was big enough to move around in, which is always a plus. I settled down for what I hoped to be a relatively pleasant sleep, but it was not to be. First, I was jolted awake by the Ukrainian border guards, who just looked at my passport. Then it was the Hungarian border guards’ turn (“no, my bag does not contain cigarettes, but feel free to have a poke around and good luck closing the zipper!”). Finally, they had to adjust the wheels of the train to the Hungarian standard, which involved a lot of clanging and jerking around. It was a bit like trying to sleep during an earthquake, but less peaceful.
This was my third time in Budapest. My first visit was in May 1989, and I’m sure it was lovely, but I remember absolutely nothing. My second trip was in March 2010, and I got hailed on as I tried to visit the sites. This time, the weather was fabulous, 28 degrees and sunny! It was perfect for wandering around the city. My main priority was to visit some baths. It was women only day at the Rudas Baths, which were built in 1550. These baths had a nice authentic feel to them, with their stone columns and Turkish dome ceiling, and they weren’t crowded at all. Unlike in Japan, where nakedness was a requirement, I saw everything from one-piece suits, to half a bikini to the full monty. I went with the full monty option, mostly so that I didn’t have to haul around a wet bathing suit the whole day. Very convenient. Dad and I then both went to the Szechenyi baths, the largest medicinal bathing complex in Europe. There are 15 indoor baths of varying temperatures, and three giant outdoor baths. My favourite was the whirlpool, where you can ride the current around in a giant circle. When I visited the Szechenyi baths in 2010, there was just me and a handful of old men in speedos. This time around, it was an absolute zoo. I can only imagine the number of people at the height of summer!
Back in 1989, my parents took a number of photographs of my brother and me as we explored the city. I decided to recreate one of my classic squinty-eyed photos on a fountain in Budapest’s main pedestrian zone. Dad and I tried a number of different angles before we finally took one that more or less matched the original. I am quite pleased with how it turned out, and with all the nice feedback on Facebook.
Getting on the train from Budapest to Belgrade was unnecessarily eventful. We had booked seats on “car 422” the day before. When the train arrived, there was no car 422, but there was a car 423. The harried-looking conductor checked our tickets and assured us that car 423 was actually car 422. Of course! Makes perfect sense.
After arriving in Belgrade, we picked my mother up at the airport, and we spent the next few days exploring the city together. When she was about my age, my mother attended a two-week Serbian dance workshop near Belgrade, and she later lived in the city for about four months. She was fascinated by how much the city has changed and improved since that era. I loved Belgrade, especially Skadarlija Street, where many of the restaurants had live bands playing beautiful traditional music.
The train from Belgrade to Bar, Montenegro, snaked through the mountains and we had terrific views all the way to the coast. We stayed at the Hotel Residence in Milocer. I have a history with that hotel. In 2010, I was taking TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) courses at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Algonquin has a satellite campus at the Hotel Residence where locals can earn both a Montegrin and Canadian diploma in cooking or tourism. In 2010, they incorporated a TESL component where they would send English student teachers to the hotel for their practicum. I was one of the first two student teachers to participate, and in February 2010 I spent a month living at the hotel and giving classes. I really enjoyed it, even though it was only sunny for about four days out of twenty nine. I liked the people, and I thought the concept was wonderful. The hotel staff received English classes as part of their job, and the student teachers got both travel experience and some much-needed practice. I was thrilled to learn that the program has continued since 2010. I highly recommend the Hotel Residence, although it is not really suitable for a backpacker budget (but they do occasionally offer great deals!) If anything, I would go just for dinner. I had one of the best four-course meals maybe of my entire life.
I loved visiting Montenegro in the warmth and sunshine. I took my parents to see the nearby town of Budva. While the town is still charming, many hotels have gone up recently and some are an unbelievable blight on the landscape. It is such a shame. We also visited Kotor, where we climbed to the ruins of a fortress. The guy at the bottom said it would take about forty to fifty minutes, and I was determined to take no more than half an hour. My final time was 27 minutes! I have a serious and somewhat odd passion for charging up hills. Gotta make good time 🙂
We took the bus to Dubrovnik, a city I had also visited on my trip in 2010. This time, there were at least three cruise ships in port and the city was awash in a sea of tourists. It was busy, but not too bad. May is really the perfect time to explore the Balkans. The weather is mostly decent, it is not overly hot and crowded, you can get great deals, and there is lots going on. The best thing to do in Dubrovnik is to walk around the walls of the old city. You can spend hours exploring the fortifications and admiring the views, while stopping at cafes to get refreshed.
Being the daughter of avid folk dancers, I have been exposed to Balkan folklore for as long as I can remember. Croatian music and dance, with its fabulous rhythms and harmonies, has always held a special place in my heart. Back in 2006, when I first searched for Croatian dance on YouTube, I found a video of a group performing in Dubrovnik and I thought how wonderful it would be to see them live. When we arrived in Dubrovnik, one of the first things we saw was an advertisement for that very group! The ensemble performs every Tuesday and Friday night from May to October. The hour-and-a-half show was absolutely spectacular. The group is named for one of the dances they perform, the Linđo, where a dance master sets the rhythm and calls out instructions, often in rhyme. (For those who are interested, here is a video of the last two dances performed by the group on another night. One is stomptacular, and the other is just way too much fun.)
Split was our next stop. Our apartment was right next to the old town, and within walking distance of the beach. Since I still have sand from Thailand floating around in my backpack, I really liked the concept of the concrete beach in Croatia. You can go down the steps from the “beach” right into the water. No need for sticky sand! We managed to catch a Macedonian folklore performance on the Split waterfront one night, and we recognized a lot of the music.
We decided that we needed a break from all the moving about, so we settled for a few nights up the coast in a town called Lovran, near Rijeka. Our beautiful hotel was an old villa right on the waterfront. There was a seaside walkway from our hotel all the way to Opatija. We were lucky enough to see yet another Croatian folklore performance as we were exploring the path. We also went to the nearby town of Mošćenice, where we sipped drinks on an amazing terrace overlooking Kvarner Bay of the Adriatic Sea.
In keeping with our passion for hiking, we climbed up Mt. Vojak right from the town. It’s very different hiking in Europe. In New Zealand, I was completely in the wild. In Croatia, we wound our way up through the village, crawled up through a forest, and then scrambled up the rocks to the summit, only to discover that you could drive right to the top from the other side of the mountain. Oh well, our way was better 🙂
After Lovran, we spent one night in Ljubljana, Slovenia. We arrived fairly late, so there was only time to explore the fortress on top of the city. It was once used as a prison where they kept POWs during World War I, and there was a cool little museum.
A comparative study of two winding staircases, both leading to the tops of towers:
At our hotel in Lovran, we met a British expat living in Spain who wanted to attend her own funeral. She planned her “wacky wake” to coincide with her eightieth birthday. She invited all her friends so that she could hear all the nice things they would say about her while she was still alive. An undertaker even came with a coffin! She made the news in Spain 🙂
We were highly entertained by this old lady and her cat in Lovran:
The waiter at the restaurant underneath the window says he is just waiting for the day that the cat falls, since he always seems to be hanging out.