A Travellerspoint blog

Belgrade - A Mixed Bag

overcast 16 °C

The Serbian capital of Belgrade was not high on our bucket list. James visited in 1987, before the Balkan War, and had found the city to be uninspiring at best. Despite heavy NATO bombing in 1991 to end the war the city has managed to recover somewhat. However, although Belgrade is one of the great cities straddling the Danube river, it can't hold a candle to its upstream cousins of Budapest and Vienna. There are some elegant buildings on its wide pedestrianised boulevards...
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And it has an enormous Turkish-built fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube... large_Tanks_at_Fortress.jpgD12DFEFA0B866D9033BBEE59ADE72287.jpg
But the whole place needs a facelift. They could start by cleaning off some of the graffiti that is sprayed on almost every building...
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The Christmas lights brought some cheer to an otherwise gloomy scene, although, in truth, Belgrade was considerably better than we expected.
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However it was somewhat disheartening when the cafeteria manager at the railway station told us that things were much better under Tito and communism than it is today.
On the positive side: the Belgradians were helpful and friendly; our ultra-modern apartment in the old city was as swish as we could expect anywhere in the world and the restaurants served traditional Serbian food that was not only plentiful, but was excellent value for money. This is Skadarlija street - restaurant central in old Belgrade...
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Every restaurant has its own gypsy 'orchestra' who will enthusiastically play at your table until you pay them to go away...
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And every restaurant not only permitted smoking but actively encouraged it. Even the small 'non-smoking' sections were littered with ashtrays. The Serbians we spoke too are actually proud of the fact that they almost all smoke – they see it as rebellion against the rules of the EU. Smoking has been the norm on this trip all the way from the Baltics and we have been dismayed to see large number of young people lighting up.
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If we were cynical we could say that the best thing about Belgrade is the railway line to Bulgaria. But that wouldn't be true. The train was as scruffy as much of the city and we were the only passengers for much of the 10 hour journey to Sofia. The linesides were littered with derelict factories, crumbling villages and dilapidated rolling stock. Belgrade is not Zagreb, (but we didn't expect it to be).
We left the Eurozone sometime ago so now we are changing currencies as we slip from country to country. We have also left the Schengen area of Europe so have to produce passports at every border. How much nicer it is to travel between countries without borders manned by officious petty bureaucrats who view everyone with a suspicious eye. Travelling here in the ex-Eastern Bloc countries reminds us of a time that we hoped had past – an awful time when fences and walls divided people and communities – take note Donald!

Posted by Hawkson 00:07 Archived in Serbia Comments (6)

Zagreb - The City of Squares

semi-overcast 15 °C

From the moment you step out of the magnificent railway station in Zagreb you realise that you are in one of the most elegant cities of Europe...
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These are just some of the parliament buildings that surround the decorative church of St. Mark's...
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Here is a view of the cathedral from the upper city...
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And this is St. George slaying the dragon – a symbolic representation of power used by many European countries...
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In addition to the usual national museums and art galleries, Zagreb distinguishes itself with several unique collections of artifacts. We never found the Museum of Illusions and we didn't bother with the Mushroom Museum because there were plenty on offer in the huge outdoor market in the square in front of the cathedral...
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Other museums include the descriptively named Torture Museum and the more esoterically named Museum of Broken Relationships. Croatia is a country of broken relationships with a history of alliances and confederations dating from long before it was part of the Roman Empire a couple of thousand years ago. The broken relationships with the other Yugoslavian countries of Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia et al is still fresh in our minds as we walk the beautiful streets of Zagreb among crowds of happy locals. We wonder how they deal with the fact that they were engaged in a bloody war with their neighbours just 25 years ago.
There is certainly no sign of conflict here in Ban Jelacic Square...
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...although we were shaken by a very loud explosion at lunchtime - only to discover it was the midday cannon which has been fired daily from the Burglar's Tower since 1871.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is dedicated to the love, pain, drama, irony and even humour in breakups and reconciliations and has proved so popular that a second branch opened in Los Angeles this year.

Zagreb is a city of squares and at night they are thronged with students, tourists and revellers who overflow from the numerous bars and cafes. Nowhere in Europe have we seen such scenes and it reminded us of the festive street life in Hong Kong or Bangkok...
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Cheap beer and inexpensive food often end up on the pavements by the morning, but we were assured by our apartment hostess that there is never any trouble in the streets at night and it is a very safe city.
Zagreb was yet another surprisingly beautiful and well presented city on our tour. Gone are any traces of its communist past and recent conflicts. It is full of interesting sights including these chains from Lord Nelson's battleship, HMS Victory, at the city's 13th century Stone Gate. Though how they got there is a mystery.
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Posted by Hawkson 01:38 Archived in Croatia Comments (5)

Surprising Slovenia

sunny 11 °C

The railway from Venice to Ljubljana is broken at the moment so we were forced to travel north to Villach in Austria by coach to catch a southbound train through the mountains for the rest of our journey. The alpine scenery was spectacular as we weaved our way alongside rivers and through forested passes painted red and gold by winter's approach...
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We really had no expectations of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, but we were heartened by the warm reception we received, in English, from the hotel receptionist and restaurant waiters. We soon learned that almost every Slovenian speaks good English and they are proud of their city – as they should be. The old city which spans the river is dominated by the castle...
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Beneath the castle are numerous elegant buildings and ancient churches...
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But there is nothing 'ancient' about Ljubljana or its citizens. Our hotel had the fastest internet and best selection of English language television channels so far in Europe, and a machine in the central market square dispenses litres of fresh milk for a euro...
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Cars are banned from the historic streets so a free electric taxi will take you to your hotel...
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An untra-modern all glass funicular will whisk you up to the castle and part of the deck on Ljubljana's historic Trnovo bridge has been glazed – but are you brave enough to trust it?
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And we met another world traveller on one of the other bridges in the city..
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This is Abhishek Sharma from India. He is travelling the world the hard way – by E-bike – and has already clocked up some 20,000 kilometres in an effort to promote peace and harmony between peoples and to highlight the dangers of climate change. His website is: www.abhishekkumarsharma.com

Another day – another market. We seem to run into markets everywhere we go and Ljubljana was no exception. But here the sauerkraut was the main attraction and dozens lined up to buy it by the barrel load...
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Ljubljana is a great little city full of interesting sights and excellent restaurants. One day was sufficient to see the sights and we have to push on to Croatia to keep ahead of the weather, but we would happily have stayed.

Posted by Hawkson 09:09 Archived in Slovenia Comments (6)

Getting About in Padua

semi-overcast 15 °C

As we resume our journey through the great cities of central and eastern Europe we were concerned that we had reached saturation point regarding medieval architecture – and then we came to Padua. How can we not show you the murals painted by Giotto in 1303 that completely cover the walls of the Cappella degli Scrovegni...
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If you are not impressed by 700 year old paintings how about an 800 year old palace of justice...
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The Palazzo dell Ragione was originally Padua's courthouse. Today it houses the public market and it is surrounded by stalls selling all manner of fruits, vegetables and foodstuffs.
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Padua has a wealth of historic buildings, but this blog is about the way the old city has come to grips with the traffic woes that dog so many densely populated communities. Firstly, private cars are totally banned on many of the city's narrow cobbled streets. Other streets are one way only and priority is always given to pedestrians, buses, taxis and cyclists. These cycles are parked in the square in front of the 15th century clock tower...
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The builders of this, and other, Italian cities from the 15th to the 18th centuries knew that shoppers would be more likely to dawdle if they were sheltered from the heat and the rain, so they covered all of the sidewalks with lofty colonnades...
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This was not just good for business. It enabled the developers to build the upper stories right to the edge of the road without impeding traffic and the contrasts of light and shade makes for interesting photographs...
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Perhaps Padua's greatest success has been with the ultra-sleek single track electric trams that run almost silently through the cobblestone streets. This tram is circumnavigating one of Europe's largest public squares - Prato della Valle...
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But how does a tram operate using only a single track? And why is a city the size of Vancouver unwilling to invest in such an excellent mode of public transit? Answers on a postcard please to the mayor of Vancouver, BC. Canada.

Our time in Italy is very short on this trip as we are racing to keep ahead of winter. The first snows are already falling in the Alps so we are pushing further east to Slovenia. Arrivaderci Padova - we will return.

Posted by Hawkson 01:51 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

A Year in Provence

sunny 21 °C

Crisp, starlit nights melt into misty dawns. A chorus of song birds awakes us to another glorious day. The clocks have lost an hour and Halloween is upon us, but we still bask every day under the warm Mediterranean sun. Our 'home' for the week is an ancient country cottage, with low beams and a log fire, surrounded by vineyards and oak trees, and it is easy to see why people would want to live here...
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Medieval villages of mellow sandstone flow down the hillsides and land gently in the verdant valleys below...
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Vine covered cottages grow out of the rocks and clamber slowly up the cobblestone road to the centuries old church...
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And everywhere is tinted rouge by the grapevines as they blush from yet another successful vendage...
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When Peter Mayle wrote his bestseller about life as an expat in the nearby village of Menerbes in the Luberon he could not have anticipated the effects, both positive and negative, that his autobiographical tale would have. Ancient stone farm buildings that were once just abandoned shells are now ritzy holiday villas for the well-healed business folk of London and Paris...
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Pierre Cardin, the billionaire fashion designer, owns the Marquis de Sade's ruined castle and half of the village of Lacoste and is reportedly trying to buy the other half...
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Restaurants that once fed the workers for a few sous now charge the earth for a plate of fancy lettuce, and the village shops that at one time catered solely to the daily needs of the locals are now filled with tiny jars of truffled foie gras and large tins of caviar. Fortunately the supermarket prices in the nearby towns of Coustelet and Cavaillon are generally comparable with those at home. However, it has been a long time since we could buy a baguette for one dollar, a Camembert for two dollars and a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for five dollars in Canada...
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Tourism is a double-edged sword in any community and in the summer months these deserted village streets in the 'ochre' village of Roussillion are jammed with visitors from around the world...
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Luckily for us we are able to enjoy the wonderful sights, scents and sounds of the Luberon much as its inhabitants do – in peace and harmony with nature and with the vines...
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The Luberon is surely one of the most beautiful and fascinating parts of France but, despite the timelessness of the landscape and its ancient villages, time moves on. The vignerons have picked their grapes for another year and the newly fermented wine is headed for the bottling plants; truffle hunters are training their pigs and dogs ready for the harvest of black gold in December; and the lemons and oranges are ripening ready for Christmas. Life in the Luberon truly is 'La vie en rose', and after a week under the warm Provencal sun it is tempting to stay. But we still have many places to explore on this trip so now we must say “Au revoir” to France and “Ciao” to Italy.

Posted by Hawkson 10:03 Archived in France Comments (7)

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