There's a lot I want to say about my holiday but there are so many different voices which I want to use to tell the story I am struggling to know where to begin.
The first couple of days I was suffering a throat & mouth infection, a bit of a cold and the tail end of this cycle's depressive period - it didn't make for the best start to my trip, or incline me to feel anything terribly positive about Budapest. Like Santiago in Chile, Wellington in New Zealand and Montevideo in Uruguay it will forever be 'a place where I was depressed' and, because of the nature of travelling, cause and effect get jumbled up in your memory and I can't really rustle up any positives. Being the beginning of the trip it was also the point at which I felt most acutely alone - since 2004 I have only ever left the country with Ali so this was the first time in my adult life I had ever been anywhere single, and it takes more getting used to that you might expect; for me at least. I'm sad to say as well that tail-end depression and poor physical health meant I wasn't up to a day in the thermal spa baths which Budapest is quite well known for. Having seen photos of the baths I feel I might have missed out a bit there but, like [not going] swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura in New Zealand, I'll just have to chalk it up to hindsight being 20:20 and let it go.
Soon enough though we met up with our Intrepid group
and it was time to leave Budapest by train (which was supposed to be direct - just 5.5 hours - only the track had flooded, so we were rerouted by bus, then 2 more trains, so it took more like 7 adventurous hours) and head to Osijek in Croatia. Osijek was a lovely place but I can't disentangle anything I did or saw in Osijek and nearby Vukovar from the accompanying stories of our tour guide Igor. He was a few years older than me and slept in a basement for 6 months whilst his city was shelled. He also took us to Vukovar
, the hospital museum and the Memorial Centre a few miles out of town near the site of the mass grave and shared with us, by saying very little indeed, something of the feeling an hopes of the people of Vukovar today and Croatia at large. It was a challenging period of the trip to be sure.
From Osijek we moved onto Serbia and Novi Sad and, later, Belgrade. Inhabitants of Novi Sad seemed to be living the life everyone in the UK dreams of - a walk through the park in the early evening saw teens, families and couples all interacting and enjoying the communal space - kids playing, adults talking, teens drinking/joking/courting. I felt a real sense of longing for a life I decidedly don't have in the UK and one which may not even be possible here due to a difference in culture. I also became acutely aware of the old catch; you go somewhere in the world and see people living the kind of life you want to have and you think "I could move here, I should
move here!" and, if you're straight, you do. If you're queer, you have to go away and research and find out if you'd be welcome to live that life with a same sex partner. Sometimes, when you already feel a little blue, it makes the world seem a bit smaller, and a bit more hostile when you realise that sitting in the park with those people, doing the same things they are with the person you love is just not an option for you and yours. Well, I say 'feel a little blue', perhaps the knowledge of how Belgrade's Pride parade
went down a few years earlier was nagging at the back of my mind too.
Belgrade was a lot of fun, lots of drinks and it really marked the point at which a travelling-friendship was struck up between me and a couple of girls I was travelling with. Something I found in Belgrade also was I began to enjoy travelling for what it is again - seeing new places with new people and experiencing snippets of life different from your own. In Budapest I really didn't feel that was something I could appreciate anymore so it was like welcoming an old friend back - or reopening a part of myself. It's difficult to express but something did click for me in Belgrade.
From Belgrade it was another border crossing into Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sarajevo which quickly proved to be my favourite stop of the trip. Helped, in no small part, by running into Angelina Jolie on my first night there!! She was at the Sarajevo film festival with Brad and I just happened to be passing the theatre as she arrived (to a welcome from a small crowd, all of whom were screaming violently!) so I got to scream my heart out, feel my pulse race and generally go "OH MY GOD!" with excitement. Bosnia was also the point at which I rediscovered my absolute love of smoking - no small coincidence that it was in Bosnia I think given it's the only country I've been to where you can smoke on the train! Happily, cigarettes are dirt cheap in the Balkans - particularly in Bosnia - so I could gradually kill myself without breaking the bank.
There are a lot of really complex emotions I have about Sarajevo and even before I arrived I felt a real connection with the city - of the same kind I feel for Brighton - which only strengthened after 3 nights there. After going on a tour of the city and hearing about the Turkish builders/invaders etc etc and the older history we went on a trip to the Sarajevo tunnel
and passed along Sniper Alley
. Our guide was just 2 years older than me and described a little of his experiences and memories during the siege - which feel oddly personal so I won't recount them here. Suffice to say, never has war felt so close to home, so personal, so real
. Our last night in Sarajevo was spent in the company of one of the aforementioned girls and our trip leader, a Slovakian by the name of Tomi. We went to a Latin Dance club and got a sense for the legendary spirit of Sarajevo's nightlife. I missed Sarajevo the moment we left - still do, in fact.
From Sarajevo we took a trip to Mostar which coincided with the competition day for the unlikely national sport - bridge diving. Me and two of the girls set up in a cafe overlooking the bridge and drank beer in the shade as mad buggers threw themselves headlong into the almost-too-shallow river. The very best part of the visit to Mostar was that it meant a 7 hour round trip travelling through the breathtaking Bosnian countryside. It was like nothing I knew existed in Europe and absolutely revealed to me the motivations behind all the wistful "Oh I went there when it was Yugoslavia, it was beautiful"'s I had been hearing before I went away.
By the time we got to the Ostrog Monastery
in Montenegro for our one night stopover our small group of 7 was firmly in the travelling mentality with absurd in-jokes and catchphrases - I felt as though I'd recaptured some of the best things about my previous travels back in 2007 and regained that calm, fulfilled, happy attitude which so few things really give me. Travelling is like eating a really good meal after you've been hungry all day - completely satisfying, guilt free and, above all, necessary. Except all that connects to how my brain feels when I move from new place to new place every few days, not my stomach.
Anyway, enough of the crap similes and metaphors. After a fitful night's sleep in the sparse dormitories in Ostrog it was time to catch a bus south to Kotor, on the coast. Kotor was definitely when "too many tourists for my taste" began which was quite a difference to earlier experiences where locals in Osijek and Vukovar said hello and excitedly congratulated our guide Igor on showing tourists round again. Rebuilding in both towns is terribly slow so the prospect of tourist spending seems quite welcome. Kotor, whilst charming, pretty and inexpensive did not set me alight. There was a local festival on - dancing and music, all aimed at local families so at 9pm, when the heat of the day had passed, well rested children and their parents came out to the old town to shout, cheer and sing. Completely charming and a pleasing slice of life which was decidedly different from the UK.
Our final trip onwards was back into Croatia and to tourist-mecca, Dubrovnik. It is a lovely town/city and worth a visit but we dispatched with the tourist necessaries in a few of hours and moved on to eating, drinking an finding a local-swimming spot. With the sort of desperation for enjoyment that only the last night of a holiday can bring I found myself once again with the aforementioned girl and trip leader Tomi, going for a midnight dip in the sea. It sort of makes me sweat with humiliation when I look back on it because the beach was far
from deserted and more people than I care to imagine must have seen us make a naked dash from beach to sea (and my subsequent vomiting after we got out and dried off) but I can at least comfort myself with the knowledge I'll never see any of them again. Hopefully.
This break really did rejuvenate me and reawakened things in me that I thought were lost or dead with regards to a passion for travel. There are so many small moments or realisation or admiration that there are neither time nor words to recount here but which are firmly locked in me now. I hope I have the opportunity to return to Sarajevo again - more so than anywhere else I visited. I do find myself slipping inexorably back towards a place where I feel an acute sense of isolation and, short of packing up my backpack again and fleeing this country for good, I am not immediately sure how to mediate that.