Driving in Europe, castles along the sea and the street cats of Sarajevo.

Although we’ve been back for a couple of days, we’ve been so embroiled in the first week of school I can barely find the time to even check my email. However, I know how dull it is to read a blogger’s excuses as to why the updates are few and far between, so consider this the last excuse. I always feel obligated to report every minute detail of my life abroad, but that’s impossible and gets boring fast.

Okay, the travelogue:

We agreed to meet the driver at 4 AM in front of the Faculty of Economics (Ekonomska fakulteta). This was a dodgy preposition. First, we kept ourselves awake all night, to avoid sleeping in and missing our ride. Last week we slept in quite a bit – the habit is hard to break. We walked into town, against the river of clubbers coming home from their respective parties. The main drag, Slovenska cesta, was clogged with lads yelling at each other, smashing bottles and kicking the already dented dumpsters. We were a bit spooked, so we caught a cab to the campus. Cab fares in this city are really cheap, mostly because the city is much smaller than other urban centers. When we arrived we waited outside in the dark and fog, the light from street lamps piercing the thin misty veil around us. We were cold, tired and hungry, but we were excited.

Our driver, a Czech student studying in Ljubljana, showed up and shuttled us off to pick up our other two fellow travelers: two Czech women also studying here (I will keep our travel companions names out of the public record. I’m not sure if they want their names smeared all over the internet). After some quick introductions we were off.

I like traveling. Really, I do. What I don’t like is the process. Spending eight to nine hours in a car just doesn’t agree with me anymore. Most people who grew up in Canada, if their parents owned a car, have experienced the epic road trips across the country to visit the World’s Largest Q-Tip in the summer. I am no stranger to this phenomenon. But my tolerance for discomfort has proportionally declined as I age, so my neck, shoulders, legs and feet were yelling at me near the end of each lag towards our destinations. Oh, well. The views were beautiful, the company was pleasant and I got to eat more pizza and half-liters of beer a man my age should consume in one weekend.

But driving in Europe is, obviously, a far different experience than driving in Canada. Back home, drivers go as fast as 100 KPH, pushing it at 120. Here, cars were going 180 KPH, only slowing down at turns. Most of our trip was on the coastal roads, so usually there were just two lanes, bordered by a cliff on one side and a sheer drop to the Adriatic Sea on the other, with cars and trucks speeding along with us. On our way home, I was relieved when we reached the massive four-lane highway recently built in Croatia.

I hope you folks don’t mind descriptions of the trip in point form. We visited quite a few cities in only four days and my time at the internet café is limited.

Day One, Sarajevo: A remarkable city, although still showing signs of devastation after the war. This was my first time in a city with such a large Muslim population, and hearing the muezzins who climb their minarets and call out for prayer as we stumble down cobbled streets was invigorating. I was surprised and pleased at seeing the three major Abrahamic religions being in such close approximity together: mosques, churches and temples are built next door to each other.

We stayed in a guesthouse on a hill overlooking the city, up a narrow street that passes a Muslim cemetery, tiny shops belonging to tinsmiths tapping on thin sheets of metal and groups of men standing on corners smoking and laughing among themselves. There is a strong Turkish influence in this city, like the street food offering stuffed peppers and kebabs.

The number of strays in this part of the world far outnumbers the amount in Canada. Interestingly, while in Sarajevo I noticed how many cats lived within the confines of the local mosques. I suppose the relationship is beneficial: the cats keep the rodent population in check and in return, the cats get a safe place to sleep. Most strays kept to themselves and avoided us, and others just stared as we approached them. Some even wanted a rub behind the ears! Cat-loving vegetarian on holiday = some chump who tries to befriend all the local strays.

Day Two,
Mostar: Ah, Mostar. Where else can you go that has a town that looks as though Lord of the Rings was filmed there? We stayed in the center of town for 10 Euros each, in close walking distance to the restaurants, bars and cafés built along the river that cuts through the city.

We stayed there long enough to see their famous Old Bridge (Stari Most, the pic on the left), which was destroyed during the war, and sit in a café overlooking the river and mediaeval bridges to drink beautiful Turkish coffee and chat. I visited a mosque for the first time, too.

Day Three, Dubrovnik: Next to Sarajevo, this was one of my favourite places although the food was expensive and lacked any real variety. You mostly find pizza and pasta, but since the town is on the coast and if you eat meat, the local seafood is supposedly really good.

I like castles. You like castles? Everyone does. How about a mediaeval city completely enclosed by a massive stone wall? With waves crashing against the rocks on the side facing the sea? We climbed up that wall and walked along it as the rain pelted us; but really, despite my occasional complaints and soaked jacket, I wished my more geek-minded friends were there with me to enjoy the city. Later, we watched the annual carnival celebrating Lent, with folks dressed as witches, flamenco dancers, sumo wrestlers and yaks crowding Stradun, the main street, accompanied by a marching band that went through the narrow streets in the walled city.

Day Four,
Kotor: It was late as we approached Kotor. Our driver suggested we find a place to crash for the night, and we drove through small boroughs along the highway looking for a suitable location. Finally, we decided to go into a local pub and ask for directions. We walked into a crowded, smoky bar completely populated by men. We sheepishly sauntered up to the bar and one of the Czech women asked the bartender if there are any cheap rooms available.

The bar went quiet. The bartender looked at the floor. Gradually, the bar patrons began to talk again, mostly to the bartender. They started yelling, arguing. At this point, I was confused. Suddenly, the bartender spoke up.

“Yes, yes. He has room,” pointing to a young man in paint-splattered work clothes.

The young man smiled and explained that the apartment was a few metres away and we were to follow his car. Although we thought the whole scene was pretty dodgy, we had no choice and followed him. We ended up in a spacious flat with two large bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room with a mini pool table and cable television! Our room was cold and the blankets had a stale smell to them, but we were happy to find a place so late at night.

Kotor is much like Dubrovik, but smaller. The town is located in Europe’s largest fjord (which is not actually a real fjord) and with the sun shining on the narrow streets clogged with ivy it was the prefect way to end our trip. We hiked up the hill behind the city to explore the ancient walls and fortifications built on it and get a spectacular view of the area. Later, we sat in a café in the town square for coffee and traditional desserts, like a custard cake swimming in a caramel sauce.

Most memorable moment: besides climbing the fortified hill, watching a puppy devour the skinned head of a lamb in front of a café. It was disgusting and cute.

It’s much easier to cross borders if there’s a man and woman in the front seat rather than two men. We were stopped and searched once in Montenegro (apparently many immigrants, legal or otherwise, favour that country) and I think it’s because I sat with the driver. When Lisa sat up front, we were waved across borders like we were escorting the Pope.

We left Kotor, and eight hours later we drove across two countries and made it home at around 1:30 AM.

We had an excellent time. I considered this trip an extended introduction to the Balkans, and now I know where I will return. I undoubtedly missed some events in this post, but my lovely companion will add her own perspectives.

Some sad news (for me): The Tesla experiments won’t be starting until March at the Technical Museum. Phooey.

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