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Local man jaunts about the Balkans and tells the tale

Part one of a two-part series to be concluded next Sunday

Posted: December 27, 2008 6:16 p.m.
Updated: December 28, 2008 4:55 a.m.

This is the restored old bridge at Mostar, part of the wonderful scenic areas in and around the former country of Yugoslavia.

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A 44-day ramble through the Balkans and parts of the Middle East resulted from 18 months of planning for a trip that originally was supposed to be a simple jaunt from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Ukraine on $80 a day.

I flew to Budapest via Frankfurt. Lufthansa gave me a German newspaper that sells for $2.50, the price of a weekday paper. Europeans pay dearly for news, as advertising is sparse.

A schedule change gave me four hours to kill in Frankfurt. I took the train into the city and enjoyed a stiff walk through the restored old town.

In the train station I found the dollar had gone to pot - it cost that much to use the restroom. An appetite-killer was the price of pizza at the airport, $7.25 a slice.

At Budapest's Ferihagy airport, I boarded a bus to the metro system. A ticket was 350 forints and had to be canceled in a machine in the back.

In Budapest I met Bob Geiman, with whom I had taken a couple of rough trips before, and we bought tickets to Bratislava. The agent sold us round-trip tickets, cheaper than one-way.

While Budapest was beautiful - Városliget, the great city park with its Széchenyi baths being just one example - the smaller scale of Old Town Bratislava made the capital of Slovakia especially delightful.

As we boarded the train that crossed the first border of our trip, Bob said, "I'm anxious to be on the road. That's the theme for the trip."

"I guess so," I retorted. "If it isn't, we've made a terrible mistake."

We were to cross borders more than 30 times, although those in the European Union were invisible.

Slovakia is famous for hockey-puck production and beautiful women. I did not see any hockey pucks.

In Vienna, we bought Tageskarten, tickets for 24 hours of unlimited local travel. The machine took credit cards, useful to anyone arriving without euros.

In the Karlskirche, a fine baroque church, there was a sign stating "Schreien ist uncool."

The best bargain in town was the Vienna Opera - Verdi's La Forza del Destino. It was a huge bargain - standing room along the side of the top balcony was a measly $4.25. The orchestra was big, more than 60 musicians and wonderful.

The theater was classic European, but the staging was stark, a ramp that turned, and the costuming was weird. The corps de ballet were dressed as cowboys and cowgirls.

Many European trains are still divided into compartments, good for encouraging conversations with other passengers. We enjoyed a scenic trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia.

At one lunch spot they had the right idea. "Let 'em eat cappuccino and cake." By this time I thought €3.50 - or about $5, was a bargain.

Lake Bled, Ljubljana and the spectacular caves at Postojna were wonderful. Slovenia has much more to offer, but we were soon on the night train to Belgrade.

When I took the same train in 1957 it was much slower, but more peaceful. With the breakup of Yugoslavia, riders are now awakened four times to go across the borders.

Bob had a beer. He called it "fuel." "Are you ready for some more fuel?" he asked.

"No, I get better mileage than you do," I replied.

Belgrade, where few people speak English (the letters are Cyrillic) and they have squat toilets, can be a bit disconcerting.

The bus trip for the short distance between Belgrade and Sarajevo took eight hours over winding two-lane mountain roads. After five hours had gone by we stopped for food.

However, Bob and I had no money for anything in Bosnia until we arrived in the Dobrinja suburb of Sarajevo, where there were plenty of new buildings and a bank in the American-style "shopping center."

We took the trolley downtown, and found the Pansion Lion in the old town, which was restored except for a few pock-marked and burned-out buildings.

The National Library was burned on Aug. 25, 1992. As a result, a couple of million items of Bosnia's heritage were lost. After dinner we enjoyed the muezzin call to evening prayers.

On the bus trip to Mostar, we were delayed by a demonstration of wounded war veterans blocking the road. I found a bush, and it was not until I returned to the road that I thought of land mines.

"That would have been an interesting story to tell of your departure from this earth," noted Bob.

That evening we had dinner with a U.N. economist working in Geneva and enjoyed the cats that kept us company.

We stayed in a hostel; our expenditures were getting under control.

I checked my e-mail. The keyboard on the computer was quirky qwerty, with the y and z reversed and lots of local accented letters.

We loaded up on drinking water from the tap at the hostel. For the most part we would be drinking bottled water for the rest of the trip.

In Dubrovnik there were ladies offering rooms and apartments, and we paid $28 for the use of an apartment for the night.

It was great having another place with a hot shower, which turned out to be available everywhere.

Then we took a local bus to the Old City, and I said to Bob, "When they built these walls they went for authenticity and failed to put in escalators and elevators."

He ignored my attempt at humor. However, the old English couples off the Costa Serena could have used them.

Back at the apartment, the only trouble was the universal sink stopper I had brought with me. All the sinks were from another universe.

In Kotor, Montenegro (which became independent from Serbia in 2007), we negotiated with another lady at the bus station.

The room she offered was "300 meters" from the old town, and she promised dry weather.

We took umbrellas for our walk into town, just in case.

Some 300 meters.

Some dry weather.

Before it began to pour, we looked at the walls going up the mountain.

People were climbing them. "There's no one up there but mad dogs and Englishmen," I commented.
However, a few minutes later we were high above the town, and we were not English.

We descended in a light rain, and as it got heavier we ducked under the big umbrellas of an outdoor café where I enjoyed a cappuccino while it poured.

The next morning, at the autobuska stanica, while we were waiting for the bus, we went into the station restaurant. I said, "There should be two signs on the wall.

"The first should be, ‘We consider it our moral obligation not to make the tourists sick.'"

"And the second?" Bob asked.

"Yes, we have no food."

I heard "I Will Survive" on the radio. So far, so good, even if there was no food in this restoran.

Research had not revealed a bus schedule, so we waited three hours for a bus to Ulcinj, further down the Adriatic coast.

For two shutter clicks we had a beautiful view of Sveti Stefan along the way. In Ulcinj we teamed up with a couple from the Free University of Berlin to hire a taxi to cross the border.

The road to Shkodra was narrow but adequate.

Within minutes of our arrival we took another shared taxi to Tirana, once a grey ugly city made interesting by a mayor who was an artist and got the people to paint their buildings.

For 44 days we enjoyed generally fine weather, but in Tirana it poured for a few minutes. I saw a man scooting down the soaked sidewalk on his butt, pushing with one arm. They need more wheelchairs there.

A nearby traffic light was out, but people dealt with the intersection efficiently.

The drivers did not deserve the low marks given by Lonely Planet. Speeds on the road from Shkodra had been low, and were monitored heavily by police with radar guns.

Both of the clerks I talked to at the internet café spoke English with a fine accent learned in school.

In the Balkans you have to find out which travel agency can help with the bus to Skopje, for example.

One told us the name of the agent we needed. "Walk 20 meters to the wooden door." It was a very long "20 meters," and had he not mentioned the "wooden door" we never would have found it.

The BBC reported bad news about the economy, and at one point the entire news broadcast was from Washington and even included baseball scores.

When we looked for the bus to Skopje in the morning, none was marked for the capital of Macedonia.
However, the conductor of one marked "Tetovë" said, "Yes" when I showed him my ticket. I was glad I knew that Tetovo was an Albanian-speaking town in Macedonia, near Skopje.

Eighteen months of research for this trip paid off.

For three hours we drove in a wide circle through Albania, picking up passengers, without getting a mile closer to Macedonia.

I had seen two bunkers, for which Albania is famous, near Shkodra, but none since.

We passed one of many Kastrati gas stations where a litre of 98 octane gas cost 150 lekë, about $7.50 a gallon. At least they did not want an arm or a leg.

Minutes later we arrived at the border. An officer came on the bus and collected a big stack of passports. Then we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs. It was cool and dry outside.

Fifteen minutes later the driver began handing out passports. Bob's lack of an entry stamp had not been a problem, but neither did we get exit stamps.

I said, "I'll have to tell the people at home that your trip to Albania was a figment of your imagination."

Part two of Carl Boyer's 44-day trek through the Balkans and parts of the Middle East will appear in the Jan. 4 Lifestyle second of The Signal.

Carl Boyer is a former mayor of Santa Clarita and founding councilman of the city of Santa Clarita. He has traveled extensively and served as vice president of the SCV International Program and president of the California chapter of Healing the Children.

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