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Gap Year Odyssey

a travel blog by BenWH

My gap year advantures around the Med by any means other than plane! From London I'm taking the Eurostar to Paris, then going by sleeper to Verona in northern Italy, getting a ferry to Croatia and spending some time in Split and Dubrovnik, heading down by bus to Bar in Mentenegro, by train up to Belgrade in Serbia and from there down to Greece and beyond!

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The Night Before

London, United Kingdom

So tomorrow is the big day; and yet, despite months of preparation, there are a multitude of unforeseens. When I first decided to leave on April 1st (a prefered date because I have throughout my life stubbornly tried to challenge superstition), I did not know that the G20 summit would be being held in London, that Barack Obama would be making his first visit to Europe as President and that as a consequence, the biggest and most vicious demonstrations for a generation were forecast around London. As my Eurostar train leaves St. Pancras at 09:26, half way across town from Waterloo where I am arriving into, I am naturally a little bit apprehensive.

I have at least nearly finished packing, a task which has taken nearly two days including a number of shopping trips and only partly successful attempts to consolidate my medical supplies into one small bag. And although I have remained determined to be as independent as is possible in my preparations, I have thankfully received significant and invaluable help from my mother. Amongst other things, she has had to put up with Bosnian ticket offices that for some inexplicable reason are based in Austria, long hours of internet shopping and a most unhelpful woman in Rochester who thought she was trying to purchase an informational DVD about the Italian Rail Network. You will be pleased to hear that, after several days, the matter that has come to be known as 'The Serbian Problem', has now been resolved.

Now to bed. In eight and a half hours I have to be out of the house, and although I am too excited to sleep, I should at least make an attempt at it.

permalink written by  BenWH on March 31, 2009 from London, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged UnitedKingdom

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Bonne Voyage

Paris, France

The journey by Eurostar to Paris was bliss - gliding through the flat vernal fields of northern France. The weather that day in Paris itself was fantastic, so I took the Metro to Chatelet and endeavored to walk down the river to the next point of my journey: Paris Bercy Station.

I've never been overly keen on Paris, but this day was exceptional. The heat was the kind you can only take in small doses, and so, after about 4 hours of mostly walking around with my backpack on, I was expiring; I hurried on to the station. This was, in many respects, a bad move. Bercy Station has all the charm of a Soviet prison, and about as much entertainment. Luckily I had my reader (which I would advise for any traveller in my situation), and so I managed to get a lot of reading done.

Eventually we were allowed to board the train. I had anticipated that most of those travelling on a sleeper train out of the holiday season would be young people backpacking like myself. There were certainly some, but many were single business people, or groups of older friends. Unfortunately in my carriage there was what seemed like a whole primary school. After several hours of almost unbearable shrieking, laughing and chattering, several members of the public volunteered to stand outside the doors of their couchettes to keep them quiet and this seemed to work. Despite a snorer (there's always one!) next to me, I managed to get to sleep, helped no doubt by the gentle rocking of the train as we passed through the Alps.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 1, 2009 from Paris, France
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged France

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In Fair Verona

Verona, Italy

The train arrived into Verona a couple of hours after dawn into a misty and damp climate. Whilst I was still in the station it started to rain heavily, and so I settled into a cafe and waited - thankfully this station was mildly better equiped than the last.

I eventually resolved to make my way across town, sure that the rain was here to stay. I had, a few days ago, realised that the hotel (miraculously cheap for a double ensuite with balcony), was quite a way out of town. I also knew that the bus stop was called 'Industrie Veronisi', which hardly brought to mind pictures of quaint Italian streets and churches. I got on what I knew was the right bus, and looked out for my stop; however, we seemed to be getting further and further from the centre and eventually hit a dual carriageway - I was sure this could not be right. Getting off in a small village where the locals gave me some strange looks, I intended to board the return bus which was due in several minutes. Before this came, however, a coach pulled up and admitted me. Inside were several women, mostly octogenarian or above; nobody asked me to buy a ticket or indeed took any notice of me at all as I walked to the back of the coach. As I got off a while later, again in the centre of Verona, I couldn't help but think: had I just blagged a ride on a day trip for the elderly?

I gave in and took a taxi to the hotel, which confirmed my fears: it really was that far out. Nestled between factories and warehouses, it was nevertheless comfortable and hospitable. Dumping my stuff, I returned on the next bus, a trip of some 20 minutes or so. I didn't intend to stay long as the rain was now coming in heavy bursts, but my plans were thwarted as I totally lost my orientation and ended up walking the length of the town three or four times. Now wet through, I found a taxi again and asked to go to the hotel; however, the traffic was now so heavy that I knew I wouldn't have enough money. I asked him to take me to the station. There I waited for an hour for a supposedly half-hourly bus, boarded it, and again eventually had the feeling of having gone way too far. I got off, and took the next bus back, but then thought I had gone too far back. Now cold, wet, and walking around in complete darkness at the side of a perilously close dual carriageway, I asked for directions. 'Go straight on' said a man in a supermarket. I did, and found myself on a bridge beyond which I dared not go as it would involve walking across four or five lanes of heavy traffic. I returned, and luckily retained the presence of mind to look up a taxi on the internet on my phone. I got back to the hotel at 9pm, having left central Verona at 5, and having spent at least 50 euros on transport for the day.

This may not instill much confidence that I know what I am doing or will be safe for the next two months. However, rest assured that the remainder of my stay in Verona passed without incident. My second day was fantastically hot, and I spent the day reading in cafes and parks, and walking through the ancient streets which I had now located. Verona truly is a beautiful city, full of the Italian charm of Florence and Venice, but without the self-consciousness of too much tourism. The main square and the amphitheatre are both impressive, as are sections of the wall and many little churches dotted across town. I was sad to leave, but the weather on the third day was miserable again and so I headed south.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 2, 2009 from Verona, Italy
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Italy

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Arrivederci, Italia

Ancona, Italy

The train journey from Verona to Ancona began through drizzly and unexciting fields. Then, a short time before we reached our destination, we hit the coast and ran beside it for the remainder of the way. Heavy apartment buildings and small beach huts obscured the sea view for much of the way, but once or twice it was possible to glimpse the sea.

Ancona is not the sort of place I would go were it not entirely necessary. The town seemed to have little to offer, had a flimsy transport network and was ugly in a way that might almost be interesting, were it not for the total lack of anything to do. Annoyingly, the checkin for the ferries had moved so I had to get a shuttle bus simply to have my boarding pass exchanged for a ticket, and come back again.

The ferry itself, however, surpassed my expectations. My ticket was 'deck', meaning that for the 10.5 hour overnight trip I had no bed. I had rather romantically assumed in my naivity, however, that deck meant being placed outside to be at one with the elements and taking whatever nature could throw at you. Thank God, I was wrong, for the weather only worsened throughout the night. I spent the evening in a long gallery area with comfortable sofas reading and finally drifted off to sleep.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 4, 2009 from Ancona, Italy
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Italy

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Split, Croatia

The ferry arrived into Split at 7am, and it felt like we were in a cloud. The mist was so thick that you could barely see across the road, so I settled into a cafe. Later, having located the hostel which was within 50m of Diocletian's Palace and the centre of the town, it had cleared enough to see around the ancient buildings.

Split is a fascinating city, and for me the primary interest lay in the seamless juxtaposition of the old and the new. The centre of the town dates back 1,700 years, and many original walls and features survive. Interwoven with these, however, are the homes of many of the locals, making it very much a living city, despite also being a monument of antiquity. If you walk down one of the tiny streets it is quite likely that half a dozen different neighbours will be conversing across the street over your head. Having walked through the old part of the town, I ventured further out, into the big utilitarian flats of the east side, and then down into the richer villas of the south part, which was a kind of Croatian Beverly Hills. It really is a city of great inequality and difference.

Down on the promenade (which is an example of the modern reconstruction taking place), the last day of the Croatian Boat Show was in full swing. Not perhaps my normal way to spend an afternoon, but certainly a relaxing one, sitting in the sun and looking out onto the the Mediterranean. The boat show meant big yachts, rich Europeans and the music of Kanye West being pumped out across the promenade; again, an interesting contrast to the Roman walls behind.

The hostel I was staying at was fantastic, and it was good to be around other English-speakers again. (I even met a group of students from Connecticut!) It was, however, down a tiny , little back street and up a fairly wobbly flight of stairs; and opposite was a building that, if the signs were to be transliterated, was a less than reputable business. I am sure this was not the case, but such are the problems of trying to survive with an alphabet you only half understand.

My second day was more lazy - it was so hot that even though I tried several times to go for a walk, I failed in my efforts, so I eventually gave in and sat for most of the afternoon in different spots along the waterfront, exploring a couple of parks and new streets. I had to get to bed early as my ferry left the port at 7am the next day, and so I found myself again leaving a beautiful city behind and heading off into the unknown.

The unknown took the form of a lovely little ferry. The Croatian boats are preferable to the ones we use to cross the Channel in several ways, but most notable because they don't have wall-to-wall screaming, vomiting children. Most of the passengers were rich American couples, with a few Croatians thrown in. I ate a proper meal for the first time in days and even had breakfast with coffee and orange juice, overlooking the islands. The views from the boat were indescribable; every few minutes new mountainscapes and sea views would form on the horizon, dotted with villages, farms and churches. The journey was nine hours, but felt like half that, and I soon arrived into the port of Dubrovnik.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 5, 2009 from Split, Croatia
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Croatia

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The Pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik, Croatia

I've spent the last three days in what is, without a doubt, the most beautiful city I have ever been to. Dubrovnik is exquisite in every way: clear blue waters, historical architecture, Mediterranean weather and a friendly and relaxed culture. And somehow, it is multidimensional, changing with your mood and what you do - whether you view it from above or walk within the ancient city, or even lie on a beach and look back towards it. At different times of day and with different weathers, the light quality alters so dramatically that everything appears beautiful in a new way. But what struck me first of all, when I arrived was the smell. Most cities, certainly most cities you are new to, smell different to you. Split smelled of fish and smoke, for instance - it is usually a negative quality in a place, even if it is a characterful one. In Dubrovnik, the air smells of salt and pine pollen, and combined with the heat and the heavy but pleasant pressure, I couldn't help but feel like I was back in New England.

When I arrived at the port, the family who runs the hostel was there to pick me up. The son drove me through the city, and, as we approached the hostel, he apologised for the round-about route we were taking - the old access, he said, was destroyed in the war. And I suddenly realise that he's talking about a war that happened in my lifetime. Indeed, later in my stay he explains how the very room we are sitting in was the home for his whole family for three years as they sheltered from the bombs.

It being too late to fully explore, I took a walk along the coastal path as the sun was setting, and was at once struck by the natural beauty of the place and the serene quality of the evening light. Even without a city here, this would surely be once of the most beautiful places on earth.

The next day I joined up with another guest at the hostel, a Californian girl, and we went to the Old City together. My description of the city will no doubt be inadequate, so I direct you to the photographs. We started be walking along the tiny streets and walkways; there are some ruins there, but mostly the place has been rebuilt since it was partly destroyed a decade and a half ago in the war. The people who live here clearly take great pride in their city, as they decorate it with beautiful plants, with the odd guillotine and plenty of cats for interest (see photographs!). After lunch, we walked the circumference of the walls, and managed to get some interesting, if somewhat daredevil, photo shots - the concept of health and safety clearly hasn't reached Croatia, as there were no bars or warning signs in sight, and consequently it's probably not the sort of place you'd want to take young children or rebellious teenagers, but in reality you'd have to be pretty set on personal injury to do yourself much damage.

I spent the remainder of the day again exploring the coastal path near the hostel, and found a private beach which I had all to myself to get some reading done. On the second day, when I returned there again, I managed to slice my foot fairly spectacularly on a rock in an attempt at swimming, and for some time couldn't work out why the water had turned crimson. I never did get to swim as the water is still fairly icy, and so the pedal damage was for nothing.

On the Thursday morning, myself and two of the American hostel guests were taken by the owner of the hostel to the top of the mountain overlooking the city. Before I came, I had decided this is a journey I would walk: a fairly foolish idea given the extreme heat and the length of the journey. Luckily, therefore, we were driven, and only had to walk the last 50 feet or so! The views from the top are breathtaking (and I think I can use that word non-metaphorically for the first time): on one side, the red-tiled roofs of the city hundreds of feet below and the calm Adriatic stretching into the horizon; on the other, a harsh rocky and mountainous landscape, where you can see not only Croatia, but in the distance both Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina. The hostel owner acted as our guide, explaining where the boundaries to Montenegro and Bosnia were and telling us stories about the war, in a brave attempt at English, interspersing his language with French and Italian words and phrases.

For my final full day here, two of us decided to visit Cavtat, a local fishing village and apparent favourite of visitors. The twenty minute bus ride offered stunning views over the cliffs to the sea, and when we got there we managed to find a tiny pier from where you could see the Dubrovnik city walls in the distance and the surrounding islands. The village itself was attractive, but nothing could compare to the city we had come from, and so after a couple of hours relaxing in the sun and some fish-viewing in the rock pools (during which I managed to overbalance and land in the water), we headed back.

I cannot possibly do justice to this city in this blog, and I am sure I will return here again and again. The only two things I could find lacking were good sandwich shops and sand, but I suppose if it had these, Dubrovnik would be infested by even more tourists than it already sees in the summer.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 7, 2009 from Dubrovnik, Croatia
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Croatia

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One for the Road

Bar, Serbia and Montenegro

I was supposed to leave the hostel at 9am, so I could catch the bus down to Bar in Montenegro. Getting up was a little more difficult than I might have hoped, due entirely to the consumption of an authentic Bosnian pie the previous evening, which was so heavy in comparison to the sandwiches and pizza slices I have been surviving on that it took a long time to sleep off. Bosnia?, you might ask. Dubrovnik is very close to the Bosnian border and as such shares some of its cuisine and culture. We ate in a small pub/restaurant that was playing music of the Eurovision meets Orff meets Total Eclipse of the Heart in Croatian variety to which the locals were singing along in all their inebriated glory.

The next morning, the mother of the family who runs the hostel was saying her goodbyes, and happened to ask where I was going. When I told her that I was heading to Bar, she said something about young people and then made a noise which could have meant 'motor vehicle collision' or 'shooting' - it was unclear. Either way, it did not sound too promising, and so I prepared for the worst.

The journey in the bus down to Bar was in some ways idyllic; in others, it was an ordeal of epic proportions, from the stressful and prolonged stop at passport control to the fact that I found out at the last minute I had to change buses 40km from Bar and had difficulty locating the new one. My fellow passengers were an unusual mix of individuals, from a man who kept swearing to himself and changed seats nine times during the duration of the three hour journey, to a guy who was making loud retching noises at the front of the bus. The driver was an incredibly unpleasant chain smoker with a picture of the Virgin Mary above his mirror. All this aside, however, the views from the window were extraordinary, and once we were into Montenegro I kept on wishing I could get off the bus and explore.

I would have done except I was booked into a fairly costly hotel in Bar - the only place a room could be found. I therefore promised myself that I would keep other costs as low as possible, and so for my first meal I decided not to give a tip. Bad move: the same man was serving in the evening and I was overcharged. Despite trying to kick up a fuss, nobody claimed to be able to speak English and so after some time I had to accept my bill as it came. I did have some success at the hotel however. When I discovered my television in my room did not work, I complained and was upgraded to an even better room. I did feel during my one night stay that I was somewhat betraying the backpacker fraternity but it was nice to feel clean for 24 hours for once. And it is a good thing the hotel was pleasant as Bar in every other respect is a fairly uninteresting town - certainly not a tourist hotspot, except possibly for Montenegrins themselves.

The next morning I caught the train from Bar to Belgrade, a 10.5 hour journey. The first 2 or 3 hours gave some of the most stunning views I have ever seen of mountains, canyons, crystal blue rivers and small Montenegrin villages. The countryside of Montenegro and southern Serbia is beautiful - the inhabited areas on the other hand are not. Litter is abundant in a way that you just cannot imagine in Western Europe and the buildings scattered in the low-lying areas are particularly bold, industrial and ugly. However, it was certainly an education, and there is a kind of charm about seeing goats and cattle grazing peacefully by the side of the railway whilst the locals go about their daily lives, seemingly oblivious to the train rushing past.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 11, 2009 from Bar, Serbia and Montenegro
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Montenegro

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Once, in the Blue Moon ...

Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro

Belgrade is a fascinating city; not particularly beautiful or visually extraordinary, but culturally one of the more interesting places I have had the chance to go to. The first person I met was the taxi driver who despite being fairly friendly didn't set the meter and overcharged me, I later discovered, by 400%. I then found the hostel, which although central, was up four flights of stairs in what can only be described as a 'work in progress', or a building that appears to virtually be being rebuilt whilst people live inside it. I arrived quite late in the evening and couldn't at once tell who worked there and who was a guest, such was the laid-back atmosphere, but I was shown to my room and then had the opportunity to meet everyone.

Although I have met great people in every city I have been to, there were more during my five days in Belgrade than anywhere else. The hostel was so small that it felt like we were flatmates, albeit very briefly, and strangers would come and go as they pleased. Neighbours and friends of the owners would walk in for a conversation or to use the computer and one night a woman brought her young daughter in so that she could use their bath. The owners themselves were friendly, helpful and generous with their supply of rakija, a deadly concoction that I have vowed never to go near again. Being so centrally located and with the advantage of the local knowledge of the owners, we went out most nights to spots that few tourists probably ever get to see. It was to a venue called the Blue Moon that I twice went with two Canadians from the hostel. As musicians, they even got a couple of chances to jam with the band, though for the rest of the time the music was mostly in Serbian. The atmosphere here was so much more intimate and inclusive than most of the places I used to go to in London, and despite speaking a different language it was easy to at once feel welcomed.

During the day, the weather was pretty downcast for the first 48 hours, and so I decided to extend my stay to five nights so that I could see more of the city and make the most of the great company. On the third day, however, the sun came out and it became so hot I was able to sit in the park all day reading and listening to music. I probably never did see as much of the city as I should have, but what I did see was unlike anywhere I'd previously been to. The old castle, dotted with tanks and missiles that have been installed there as part of the military museum also gives views out over the rivers. And it is here that you notice just how close the centre of the city is to the open countryside, as trees line the waterside for much of the northern part of the town. The most extraordinary site, however, was the location of two bombings in the centre of town that are around a decade old. Many cities would have cleared these up by now - Ground Zero in New York is probably the closest comparison I could think of. But here, nothing appears to have been touched, and you can see the damage that the bombs have had on the buildings, with floors and walls ripped apart. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a nation who so recently was bombed by America, there is a certain attitude that many of the older residents take on when they hear you speaking English. However, most of the younger generations are more open minded and are in fact happy to talk to you. One time I did fail to pick up on the difference in culture was when I wore shorts to an Orthodox Church. I remembered just in time, as I was about to go in, so stopped at admiring it from the outside. The church, the biggest of its kind in the world, was quite a distance from the hostel, however, and I did not have the energy to go back the next day.

Back at the hostel I met a mixture of local Serbians and travellers, some of whom have been on the road for years. The state of mind of a traveller is so different to the people who you meet at home that speaking to them is very enlightening, even if you can't quite understand the mentality of someone who is permanently on the move.

For my final day or two in Belgrade, I made the most of everything a Westernised city has to offer; for although it is obviously an Eastern European city, in the centre are all the shops, cafes and restaurants you will find in London, Paris and New York. In fact, if anything it was more like London than any other capital I've been to, and many of the shops were British rather than American or continental. I did my first bit of shopping, having realised that I didn't quite have enough clothes with me to compensate for some of the slower laundry service turnarounds I have come across, and several times had access to an internet cafe and even to Costa for coffee. (A note on Serbian coffee - it is not coffee in the sense that we think of coffee in Britain and America, the bottom 25% of the cup being filled with a thick grainy goo; so Costa was a life-saver).

On our final night, I went with the two Canadians to a restaurant near our hotel that is enigmatically named '?'. The full story is complex, dating back to some argument with the church it is opposite, but the restaurant is a popular and famous one for tourists and locals alike, and offers authentic Serbian cuisine. Of course, most Serbian food has a pretty heavy meat content, so I went for something a little more Westernised. We later met up with a guy from Slovenia and an American, and went to a small and well hidden bar playing live music that would have been more at home in 1950s Louisianna. The walls were adorned with pictures of Elvis and an old motorbike - quite a surreal experience in Belgrade. Finally we headed out to a club we had been advised to go to, and although the entrance fee only came to less than 1GBP, I can safely say it is not somewhere I will be going again on my next trip to the city. Unbeknown to us, the theme was of the gothic variety. I was, I believe, the only person wearing white, and under the UV lights I glowed boldly in a place where only people's teeth and eyes were visible. Some time later, we thankfully escaped with our lives. I went to bed knowing that I had a train to catch in four hours.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 12, 2009 from Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Serbia

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Three Countries, 24 Hours

Sofia, Bulgaria

I had to get up early to catch my train, which left the central station in Belgrade at 7am. My train map, which I have carried with me everywhere so far for easy reference, highlights interesting and scenic parts of routes in green. Most journeys have some, and my journey from Bar to Belgrade was nearly all highlighted. I was about to embark on a 24.5 hour journey, none of which was highlighted in green - I would have to amuse myself in other ways.

I had found out the day before that instead of a single train, I would have to change at Sofia in Bulgaria, which would give me an opportunity to stretch my legs at least. The first part of the journey therefore, was on a normal European train, in a six seat carriage. For the first five hours I was in a carriage with three Serbian students who were travelling home to spend the holiday with their families. In the intense heat and without air conditioning, the carriage was quickly heating up, and as I tried to draw my curtain to at least shield myself from the sun, it got stuck. At this point one of the students swore loudly in English on my behalf, and we all starting laughing. From that point on, we talked the whole way to their hometown about everything from Shakespeare to Communism, and History to Music. As drama students, they knew English history and literature, and it was fascinating being able to draw comparisons with them. The one downside was that they were convinced I looked identical to Jamie Oliver; how Jamie Oliver has even found his way into the Serbian consciousness is beyond me.

By the time they got off I had had no access to food or water all morning. (We had been told there was a cafe - instead there was just one man making Serbian coffee on a stove in a neighbouring carriage.) They kindly got me some water and food on the station and passed it in through the window, so I was at least hydrated for the rest of the journey. Some hours later, we passed through Bulgarian border control and eventually reached Sofia. I had originally intended to stop here, but after extending my stay in Belgrade decided not to; seeing the littered fields, the slums and the miserable communist architecture, I was instantly pleased I wasn't spending the night. Whilst I'm sure the centre of the city has its fair share of sights, the outskirts were by far the most horrific of any place I have seen in Europe, and I couldn't believe I was within the EU, so great was the ubiquitous poverty.

At the station, I had huge difficulty finding the correct ticket sales office, as it is laid out like an airport and all the signs are of course in cyrillic. Thanks to the help of another tourist who apparently spoke both English and Bulgarian, I found it eventually ... to be told that there were no seats left on the train and the next one was not until the next day. I begged, I pleaded, and eventually I was offered a bed on the train but it would cost more. It did not matter; I was getting out of here at the first opportunity. In my remaining hour at the station I managed to locate a piece of bread, the only vegetarian food available, and my first and only meal of the day. Finally able to board the train, I was shown my carriage by a strange old man, who, after rubbing his fingers together and repeatedly saying 'very nice', I realised was after a tip - for what?! For walking my down to a carriage I could have found perfectly well on my own? I had even carried my own bag. Unfortunately I had a couple of Bulgarian bills hanging out of my pocket, but as I knew I wouldn't be needing them again I passed them over. He then had the audacity to ask for Euros, so I told him in no uncertain terms that he was wasting his time. I am still not sure if he even worked at the station or whether he was just a random local who thought he could make some easy money.

The journey was uncomfortable, due to a lack of storage space that meant I had to share a single bed with both my bags. However, the train itself was nice, and if you discount the toilet, the experience was not too bad. We were woken up several times throughout the night at the Turkish border, had to buy visas in USD or Euros after standing in the cold for nearly 2 hours - some people nearly ended up having to stay at the borderline because they didn't have the correct currencies - and eventually I woke up in the early morning somewhere outside of Istanbul.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 17, 2009 from Sofia, Bulgaria
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Turkey, Serbia and Bulgaria

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20 Lessons in 20 Days

Istanbul, Turkey

I've been on the road now for twenty days, and it has been the most educational experience of my life. For other travellers and for those thinking of doing something like this in the future, I thought I would compile the 20 most important things I've learnt so far:

1 - Nothing is free.
2 - Beware the Serbian gypsy woman who tries to give you her child. Best case scenario: you get mugged. Worst case scenario: you become an unwilling adoptive parent.
3 - Time is relative. In Eastern Europe 10 hours is a short journey. In Asia, 20 hours is a short journey.
4 - Never wear white to an underground gothic rave.
5 - Don't accept 'there are no tickets left' at face value. Be prepared to smile innocently, then to beg, then to bribe.
6 - Drink the local homemade drinks with caution.
7 - Don't wear shorts in a Muslim country unless you like being stared at.
8 - Talk to the locals, forgive bad English and don't patronise them by trying to speak their language (except in Western Europe, where the opposite is true).
9 - Sleep is your currency.
10 - Eat and drink water whenever you get the opportunity because the next one might not be for 24 hours.
11 - 'Pie' does not mean the same thing in the Balkans as it does in the UK.
12 - Everywhere there is someone trying to rip you off. If someone asks for money, make sure you know why you're giving it to them.
13 - This is the important one: if you are ever unsure about anything, ask someone.
14 - If someone spits on you, swears at you, or is generally unpleasant, it's probably nothing personal.
15 - In some countries there is no pedestrian right of way, and unlike London, they won't stop if you walk out into the middle of the road.
16 - Make sure you always know the name of the place you are staying; otherwise you might never find it again.\
17 - Carry some USD/GBP/Euros at all times, as these can be used anywhere.
18 - Get lost once or twice for the hell of it.
19 - Enlightenment and self discovery will find you in the strangest of places.
20 - There are good people everywhere who will do everything in their power to help you; without these you would be truly lost.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 18, 2009 from Istanbul, Turkey
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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