I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The wrong queue

I'm doing several of my favourite things in the world, all at once. How excellently pleasing.

I'm on my way to Manchester to visit friends (some of whom live only 3 miles from me, but such is life atm). I'm not at work or on call. I'm going to play a LOT of pinball this weekend, and I'm going to rack up a new parkrun. But before all of those things, I'm going to have a(nother) free beer and some (more) free food, because I'm in one of BA's business class lounges at Heathrow terminal 5. I'm going to get in a big metal tube that travels very fast and very high and I love this shit.

Two things nearly stopped this from happening (the lounge, not the flight). At security there were plenty of queues, and I joined one that seemed a sensible mixture of short and close. Seems this was the wrong queue. The actual metal detector takes people, zip fashion, from two queues. Seemingly I had chosen to stand behind all the most awkward people at once. I don't say this lightly, because Christ knows I've been through airport security a bunch of times before, but this really was bad.

6 people set the detector off. Six! Each had to try again, one person twice. Three people in my queue failed to understand half the instructions, so made a meal out of taking laptops etc from their bags, remembering to leave handbags in the trays, struggling to take jackets off, and completely unable to fit their hundreds of 100ml each liquids into a sealed plastic clear bag. Yes,  it has to be sealed. So while every other queue was barely stopping, I was stood for about 10 minutes doing fuck all, waiting for this fail bonanza to pass.

The next challenge was easy. I had thought trying to get into the BA lounge without a BA card, and with no valid card of any description in my possession, might be tricky, but the staff were nice and checked my Cathay number had renewed, as I'd claimed. So here I am, one London Pride down and supping on Woodfords Reserve, my favourite bourbon. Mmmm.

My flight is delayed by half an hour already. This is almost never a shame, though this time I'm a bit annoyed because there's someone waiting for me at the other end and I don't like putting people out, especially late at night (if I was staying in a hotel I wouldn't care at all). Oh! And as if by magic, my lift has just asked if I'd mind getting a cab because him and Martin are getting a thirst on. This is excellent and has made me smile.

Flying is one of my go-to activities when normal life is getting me down. There have been hints of depression recently. I think I should run more, and maybe start doing mindfulness exercises again. But flying, and everything about the experience, is a decent tonic too.

Sunday, September 08, 2013


Bleh. I turn 40 next year. Not that this is a surprise, I'm pretty sure it was always on the cards for 2014. But bleh. Actually I'm not that fussed by the number and I don't really do "things to do before you're " lists, but the box-ticking fauxCD voice inside has been asking: can I make it to 50 countries in the world before I'm 40?

Defining what counts as "a country" is harder than it should be. Like, do I count England, Wales, Scotland as separate? There's a whole bunch of sites which let you tot up your total based on some criteria or other and I can't be arsed using any of them. I'm going to use the UN list. This sucks a bit - I struggle with not counting Gibraltar as separate, but fuck it, the UN seem like the best authority on this stuff really.

Oh, I guess I also need to define what my criteria is for having visited somewhere. It's pretty simple: I need to have been landside of whatever border control they have. So if I've only changed planes there and not gone through passport control, it doesn't count. That's it.

Apparently (if my notes and memory are accurate) I've been to 44 countries already. So I'm going to try and recollect the order and occasion of my first visit to every country in my list. It's very self-indulgent and possibly boastful of me, I know that. Sorry if you're offended. :-/

I was born in the United Kingdom (1). I think I was probably 7 or 8 when I first went to France (2), I recall a ferry to Cherbourg from somewhere. Still a kid, we went to Benidorm in Spain (3) on a package tour back when it was a huge deal to call your grandparents using local pesos from a phone box just to say HOLY SHIT WE'RE IN FOREIGN. I was at high school when my folks took me and a friend to Monaco (4) because a friend of theirs had a free place to stay, just in the bit of France to the east. On that holiday we nipped across the border by train to Italy (5) for a couple of hours. They had lira and everything.

Once I was old enough and had my own passport, I went to Amsterdam in the Netherlands (6) with a bunch of mates from 6th form. I remember sitting up at night with the barman in our hotel, drinking and playing a fruit machine. I also remember having our bags searched for porn on the way back, and another guy got caught with an enormous pile of scud. We thought his mullet was probably a worse crime.

So that would have been 6 countries (5 "abroad") by the age of 18 and a bit. Hmm. I only remember visiting France during my uni years, which I think means my next new country was one night in Belgium (7) off one of them new-fangled Eurostar trains, for some kind of conference my second job sent me on in, er, well that would have been 1997. I only really remember the train, my colleague Bella ripping strips off some cab queue jumpers, and us leaving the only day we attended early. Not long after that I got an overnight ferry to Denmark (8) en route to a couple of days in Copenhagen with my girlfriend. There was dreadful cabaret, and we visited the Carlsberg Brewery.

In early 2001 I went west for the first time, as Yahoo! sent me to the USA (9) for 2 weeks. I remember being really pretty freaked out - I'd never flown long haul, never been out of the country for longer than 10 days, never been such a vast distance from home, never worked in an office in another country All very alien. Turns out I quite liked long haul travel, and San Francisco.

Don't think 2001 brought anything new, but 2002 was a bumper year, because Anne (my gf at the time) and I went interrailing. This almighty trip brought me Luxembourg (10), Germany (11), Poland (12), the Czech Republic (13), Austria (14) and Switzerland (15), woooo!

That trip was ace. We stayed with Funky Simon in Luxembourg, who took us out to a London theme pub where he was DJing that night. In Germany we went to Berlin and my first digital camera broke at the zoo, its last photo being a spectacular yawning hippo. (Actually flickr says I took that in Cologne on another holiday, but it's a good photo so I'm keeping it in)

In Poland we stayed with Anne's friend ... er ... shit, I've forgotten her name. She knew a lot of Lauras but I don't think it was one of them. Anyway, that was in Wrocław, then we got a train to Krakow where we ate bigos and I got ill on the overnight to Prague, a horrible hot journey at the end of which Peter met us and put us up in his flat. He asked what we wanted to do, so we made him take us to a breakdancing competition at a club. He taught us the way of Becherovka. In Austria we visited Salzburg, which was gorgeous, and in Switzerland Lausanne and Zurich, in the latter of which there was lifesize Manowar posters in the HMVs. Back in Germany we hit Munich and stayed at a colleague of mine's empty flat for a weekend. We finished the trip in Amsterdam, in which we were joined by Edonica, Mike Techno, and Pikey Jones. We watched England beat Argentina in the world cup, and got raucously drunk. The train home was arduous, but at least we made it: Mike and Jones missed their flight, the arses.

To be honest, that's a fair bit of Europe done. 15 countries already, all the big ones (and one of the smallest) in the middle at least. The low hanging fruit was almost all gone, with a stag do in Ireland (16) in 2004(?) knocking off what was probably the most glaring omission to date. Almost didn't make it though, 'cos we nearly missed the flight. Spending 4 hours cramped in a vestibule with 8 men and 9 hangovers was an unpleasant way to get from Galway to Dublin.

In 2006 Yahoo! decided it would be a good idea to get me addicted to business class travel by throwing me on a Cathay Pacific flight to Taiwan (17) to deliver 2 days of training, and the same in India (18) on the way back. That opened my eyes. What's more, Anne and I broke up that summer, and I hated my job enough to up and quit it. They convinced me to stay, but had to accede to my demands, since I'd already spunked all my savings on an epic 5 week round the world trip. I blogged the whole bloody thing (that's the first post) in more detail than even GCERC, so I won't say anything more but just list the new countries I got out of it: UAE, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan (19-24). Whoa!

Actually, I got Canada (25) out of that ticket too, but that wasn't until May 2007. I am, in fact, wearing my Granville Island Brewing Company t-shirt from Vancouver as I type this. Later that year I went to Turkey (26), a grey but fun visit to Istanbul for a long weekend. Topkapi castle has great weaponry and stray cats in rude health.

SHIT. The list I maintain in Evernote just shrunk by 1. I found a duplicate. Bollocks. It's "only" 43. Carrying on...

On another trip to Australia we stopped off on the way home at Vietnam (27) in May 2008. Saigon is awesome. The museum of the war is quite sobering, crossing the road is a lot of fun, and the afternoon rainfall is amazing. I drank a rice liqueur which was dirt cheap and so vicious I had to check each eye worked individually after each sip. Still had two though.

By now I really had the hang of earning and spending miles, and went back to Australia for the most inauspicious holiday of my fucking life in summer 2009. I'm going to claim Thailand (28) for that trip, because despite being on a layover rather than a stop, and being escorted the whole time on a tour of Bangkok, for christ's sake I had a tour of Bangkok so of course I've been. I think I got a stamp, though it's possible I didn't technically enter the country. I was walked through the security lanes meant only for airline staff in both directions, which was ace.

Went back to Australia again in early 2010, for my brother's 40th (HINT HINT).  On the way back home I stopped in South Korea (29), spending the night at a Hyatt populated entirely by people on overnight layovers (they are popular at Incheon), and being tempted to go in the foreigners only casino. I didn't go anywhere near Seoul. It was bloody freezing there.

Oh, Europe! Hello! I went to Portugal (30) in 2010. Twice. Lisbon's bloody lovely. On my first trip I fell out of love with Megadeth, as I was wandering around Belem with my headphones on and cursing some godawful music which came on random. I checked the display so I could remember who I newly hated and ... oh dear, Dave. What have you done? (A Tout Le Monde, that's what)

Mor Europe! I also went to Finland (31) in 2010, to start -- OK, clearly I started in London, you pedants -- another trip to Sydney (2010 was the first, and to date only, time I've been lucky enough to go twice in one year). As with Korea, in Helsinki I saw fuck all, but I did stay overnight - got a free shuttle bus to an airport near the hotel and got drunk before flying out the next day.

My streak stopped at 5 years - no new countries in 2011. Took a more legitimate visit to Thailand in early 2012: 3 days on an island. I did another 3 days on an island in June 2012 too, this time visiting Africa for the first time by treating myself to a birthday-ish trip to Tanzania (32), Zanzibar to be precise. I was on the ground but airside in Ethiopia and Sudan on that trip too.

Earlier in 2013 I got a few trains. Nothing much to speak about, but I did at least rack up Sweden, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia (33-43).  Actually, this has really tripped my fauxCD again, realising just now that I hit 11 new countries in 11 days. How pleasing.

Here I am at 43 then. How am I going to reach 50? Well, I've already got 2 trips booked for early 2014. I'm going to Australia again, this time stopping off in Malaysia (44) and Indonesia (45) en route. Visiting Bali in the latter, just to get acclimatised before Australia proper. And then a couple of months later I'm going to Russia (46) with a mate, largely to experience a bit of luxury travel at a more than reasonable price -- if you have and spend the miles, including a two-for-one voucher, you can go one way in business class, one way in first class, for £105 total. £52.50 for 7 hours in BA's premium cabins? don't mind if I do -- but also because, well, Moscow looks like fun.

I need 4 more. Doing it before my 40th birthday seems unlikely - I have no holiday entitlement for the rest of 2013 and the first half of 2014 is already pretty booked up, so I think I should try and do it before the end of next year instead. But yeah, where to go? As is obviously obvious, I'm lucky enough that I can regularly afford long haul holidays, so the world is open. That said, I'll only have a small bit of entitlement to play with, especially if I need to hold some days back for a metal festival or summat.

I'd love to try and hit 4 countries in a single trip but that seems kinda unlikely. The nearest countries, off the top of my head, are the bits of Eastern Europe we failed to hit on GCERC plus some islands, so Albania, Moldova, Greece, Cyprus, Iceland, etc. Oh, also yer landlocked postage stamp exporters like Andorra and Liechtenstein. Those are a pain in the arse to reach though. The Baltics are quite accessible and North Africa is quite close (compared to lots of the world) but some of those places seems a little unstable, just like the Middle East, and what's more most of the countries around there have just never appealed to me. I really want to go to North Korea, which would necessitate a trip to China too, but that's staggeringly unlikely to happen. The various -stans don't appeal too much unless I was to get a train across them with 10 other nutjobs...

Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.

Friday, July 26, 2013

How to visit 23 countries in 18 days

Even I'm getting bored of referencing the absurd reality of what GCERC was, in factual terms. There's only so many ways to slice and dice it and whatever happens it's always the same. 23 countries, 18 days, 18000+ kilometres, 48 trains, ... here, here's a map.

Let's start with the obvious: to do this, you need a well-integrated rail system spanning the entire bloody continent, connecting major cities via world class scenery across multiple countries with almost effortless ease. You need to be lucky enough to live nearby and be able to afford it, because you need it to be possible before it's feasible and feasible before you attempt it. If you have a partner you need a pass, and if you have a job you need a boss who'll let you take the time off (thanks, Ian!). And you need Ffestiniog Travel to sort out your tickets, because no other bastard can do it. Trust me. You need a passport and an interrail ticket and to assiduously write your train details on the included form lest an overzealous Dane try and kick you off a train to Hamburg. You don't need to write the actual train numbers in, especially in the Balkans, because the conductors do it for you. You need separate tickets for Eurostar and the Thalys, and reservations for sleepers. You need a credit card when you're caught ticketless near the Oberalp. You need bus reservations, or to be prepared to stand, for the bits of Europe without train tracks, like the fjords of Norway, the Adriatic Coast, the borders between countries which don't like each other much, or the bits which just don't have the money to fund railways right now.

That's the practical stuff. If the work, family, and train timetables say you can do it, and you have a ticket in your hand then the rest is fluff, fluff which I will now describe.

At the risk of sounding like a soppy bastard, what you really need to pull off a trip like this is cracking company. I'm a fairly well seasoned solo traveller... so long as I stick mostly to planes and big cities, with barely any risk of being found in the middle of an argument between two cab firms arguing over my fare while I'm standing near a narrow gauge railway in a town near the Serbia/Bosnia border. So as well as being fun, you need people who can cope with such situations.

It's easy to say after the trip and impossible to prove otherwise, but the whole thing was made not only special, but possible, by each and every person who came along. So that starts with Mark, our imperious and benevolent fuhrer, whose bloody stupid idea this whole rigmarole was in the first place and who spent two whole bloody years sorting every last little detail out. There's Dave and Mick, fellow train afficionados I mistakenly thought had known Mark for years, but in actuality had only been in touch since the last time he did something like this, around India. Dave knew where we were and on what type of machinery, without having to resort to anything that required battery power, and had the timetable mostly committed to memory. Mick has train credentials I could only dream of - I will forever be jealous that he went to Pyongyang to see steam trains in the 1980s - and was a perennial source of calm amongst the chaos. There was Jason and John, friends of Mark for years and experienced travellers on Stretch Tours International, able to cope with (and, occasionally, cause) the emotional meltdowns which always occur. Paul is a photographer par excellence who captured so much of what Lloyd and I tried to put into words in a few very well chosen pics each day, assiduously uploaded as soon as there was a sniff of wifi. A patient tutor of both the mechanics and artistry behind taking good snaps, even to those that just won't learn. Lloyd is a friend and ex-colleague of Mark and myself, now paid to write words more literary than vernacular, who could tell our watching public what was going on outside the window and what it really means to traverse the whole of Europe, beneath the superficiality of an 18-day absurdo-boozeathon. And Steve, a man who knew precisely none of us before lift-off, he'd had a 5-minute phone interview with Stretch after they met across the wires when the India trip had come to a close. Steve's forte is unusual travel, about which I think he found some kindred spirits. A good man in a crisis and someone who can build a temporary kitchen out of rucksacks and a chopping board in a Serbian vestibule. Terrible liar though.

Those are the folk who made the full distance. Temporary company was no worse, just briefer. Stoy started in London and made it as far as Bulgaria, ever the relaxed and happy guy, another with India experience and so able to provide a sense of "this will work, y'know" calm, even to Mark when he didn't believe. Albert and Mike played large cameos of 5 days and a week respectively, delivering supplies of booze, food in squeezy tubes, local knowledge, and a soundtrack on a Swedish night train which included a recording of a BBC news reporter barely flinching as Broadcasting House was bombed during the bulletin. Fernando managed to outdo the Norwegian supplies, just, and gets into this paragraph because he too joined us on a train, for fully 20 minutes.

Andy had gotten Mike, Albert and their supplies to Oslo station on time. Stockholm Paul delivered us all beer and me Guinness, for which I will forever remain grateful. He also supplied other Swedish food, including squeezy bacon cheese, all at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ellen came out for an hour or so in Barcelona, in the middle of the Spanish daytime when I assume by rights she should have been having a snooze. Steffen took 3 of us for very late night beer in Berlin, and popped back for breakfast. A guy whose name I never caught gave us supplies on the platform in Amsterdam. The bus driver in Narvik who gave us a lift for 3km was a diamond. Steve knew people in Venice, in the evening and morning (the latter a side-trip I didn't do). Paul knew friendly faces in various places, I made a new friend in Barcelona, and variously we spoke at, and occasionally to, sundry strangers in bars and on the trains. If all Swedish arc welding girls are as much fun as the one we met, you could do worse than finding one of those. Generally you can't do a thing like this by yourself, nor keep it to yourself. Find and make friends even if they are just for an hour or so.

More formal arrangements were made: each shop we'd ordered picnics from in advance came through, smorgastarta in Sweden, a preposterous amount of cheese and meats and antipasti and wine from Rome, um, ... were those the only two? It's all I can remember right now. Our accommodation, when not on trains, was all booked in advance and largely delivered on the promise of a cheap bed and place to wash and recharge personal and electrical energy - Sarajevo the only place where this almost faltered. That said, in future I would not recommend staying in venues with curfews if at all possible. If your Venice directions go wrong it'd a long night sleeping next to a canal.

You need currency and a tight rein on finances so it doesn't go out of control. We ran a whip, generally pitching in €50 each a day, on average, maybe a bit less. Take it in advance, do not rely on cash machines being available when you've got 15 minutes in Bratislava and want a diet coke. Plenty of countries take the euro, even those who don't have it as an official currency. If you need local shekels, go straight to a change counter at the station when you arrive. Use cards when you have to and make sure them that do get reimbursed. With such tight timings and a big group, it's pretty imperative you don't waste time going off-piste, umming and ahhing about who's going to eat and drink and contribute what. When you've only got 13 minutes to run around a supermarket you'd best make sure everyone likes bread, cured meats, and squeezy cheese. If you have 14 hours in a city then you can splinter off, of course, but mostly sticking together works and worked.

If you're boozing, spirits and wine are better to transport than beer, which you need/drink more of and thus weighs a fucking ton. You probably need to avoid the £7 beer in Norway and £8 beer in Zurich. You need to buy the sauce before you enter these parts and make it last until you leave.

You need to be able to buy metro tickets from unfamiliar machines, and read tube maps, even if most of the lines are "this'd be nice, eh?" (Bucharest, I'm looking at you). If you're never doubling back, you're often going to leave a city from a different station to the one where you arrived. And if you're doing this in a 45 minute window during rush hour you'd best not make any mistakes. You need to resist the temptation to solicit everyone's opinion: too many cooks really can spoil the broth, especially if that broth is written in fucking Cyrillic script.

You need a phone with GPS and maps and data and jesus christ how did people travel without that stuff back in the day? I can't even remember how a 15-strong party of us managed to do a pub crawl in 2002 which hit 10 counties in one day without smartphones. For GCERC, my iPhone was invaluable. The apps you need are:
  • Rail Planner - offline European rail timetables. had nearly everything, and could tell us where we should be at any given time. enabled us to look up alternatives when we thought we'd need a plan B. not so hot in Italy, mind, nor with trains starting in Russia. on the whole, this app had the precise timings for our trains correct.
  • MapsWithMe - offline openstreetmap maps, to show EXACTLY where we were, not merely which stations we were supposed to be between. works with only GPS, cell signal not required. OSM is much better than I expected, though I didn't see the pro-Tito sign it said was on a mountain at the Slovenia/Italy border
  • PlaceTrack - a Google latitude updater, which recorded a trail of where we went. Sadly Google Latitude is disappearing soon, but this was fantastically useful. checks in every 3-10 minutes so long as it knows where you are within 500 metres. the data enables us to relive it like nothing else.
  • Google maps - if you've got a data connection, the directions on google maps will get you back to the station or hostel. Be a slave to the blue dot on the blue line unless you have very good reason not to be.
Having data roaming on your contract is essential, despite all the offline stuff. I'm using Three, the One Plan which comes with unlimited data. They give you a hidden credit limit which it's very easy to hit, cutting you off when you're away, but you can get around this by calling up in advance and putting your account in credit. I paid £150 upfront and this just about covered my bill for July, including the fiver a day whenever we were in the EU and the £50 I spent in Switzerland because it's just so bloody pretty I couldn't wait until France to upload the pics of the Alps.

Pick your own camera app and hosting site. I mostly used the builtin app on my iPhone 5, and everything goes on flickr. Real, big boy camera stuff you will have to learn from Paul. I have a Panasonic TZ40 point and click which I barely took any snaps on. You do have to take photos though.

I updated facebook a lot from my phone - you need to get to grips with the difference between posting as yourself, and as your "page" persona - and blogged using my iPad 3. I wish I'd had a keyboard and a mini like Lloyd, though actually I really wish I'd taken my MacBook Air. There were laptops on the trip and nothing came to any harm, as far as I know. Technology seemed a safe thing to have, perhaps especially because we were such a large group, I don't know. I rarely felt threatened by anyone, but I don't want to say that it's because it didn't happen. I carried with me a sense of oblivious nonchalance and naivety too.

You need electricity. A lot of electricity. My iPhone was being caned from 100% to 10% and back up probably 3, 4, 5 times a day. I was using it simultaneously as camera, GPS logger, real time information source, and wifi hotspot for up to 5 tablets and phones. It drained it and made it very hot very often. Availability of power on trains varies widely; sometimes an individual seat had two sockets, sometimes entire carriages shared just one, and that one didn't work. So you also need a power brick, a portable USB charger which stores up to 4 or 5 full iPhone charges worth of juice. But these things take a shitload of time to charge themselves too. You need an EU charger or two and not to forget all your cables.

You need a paper pad. Well, I need a pad, and pen. With so much happening, from spectacular views to signs saying "Engeland" and snippets of conversation which made me laugh like a drain or the Hebrew writing on a can of Guinness, there's only so much I can remember without writing it down. I write and blog as much to be a memory aid for myself as I do to entertain others. Once it's on paper I can concentrate on the next new thing, and once it's on here I can recount entire days in a way I just wouldn't be able to do otherwise.

You don't need as many clothes as you might think. You need a lot of underwear. T-shirts do not smell particularly bad with 2 days wear, even 3 if you're in a cool country and doing nothing but sitting on a train all day. I took a single long-sleeved shirt and didn't wear it even in the Arctic Circle, and I only wore long trousers when I thought I'd be going to the Vatican. Four pairs of shorts were enough. I never once wore socks and only took one pair of shoes, some spectacularly hardy walking sandals which have been all over the world in the last 5 years and aren't even close to being worn out yet. You need toothpaste and a toothbrush and shower gel and you really need deodorant. This stuff should be obvious, but you also need to remember that youth hostels are not hotels and do not do the whole "if you've forgotten the shit that keeps you clean, we'll snigger at you while delivering some to your room" thing yer average Holiday Inn does. No, if you've forgotten the shit that keeps you clean then you ain't staying clean, and if you ain't staying clean you're fucking spraying yourself.

You need a micro-fleece towel because they really fold down small, and dry very quickly. You need to learn how to wash yourself and get changed in a bad loo on a train using water, soap, baby wipes, and a keen sense of balance. You need antihistamines and savlon for when the whole mosquito population of Macedonia decides to have a good ol' feed on your ankles and shins.

You need a spork and a knife and a plate and some shot glasses and a wine goblet or other plastic drinking receptacle. If you're doing it properly, you need a bread knife and chopping boards and a bunch of tupperware. Remember, I'm not recommending doing this on your lonesome. If I was on my own I'd have spent 5 times the cash, subsiding on shit food from buffet cars (or, in the Czech Republic, great food from buffet cars) and going hungry in places like Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, ... we're talking large chunks of the continent here.

Now, once you've got all that - once you've got the tickets and the companions and the accommodation and the solids and liquids and toiletries and clothes and technology and cutlery - then what you really need is to be able to withstand a mentally and physically punishing trip, a rip-roaring whirlwind ride averaging over 1000km each and every day for a two and a half weeks, with trains and boats and coaches and tube trains and funicular railways and trams and cabs and even some walking. You need to not be too stressed about what happens if you miss a train, you need the chaos of a missed connection - potential or real - to not destroy your morale, and you need to know that the strict timetable generally frees you from the tyranny of "hmm, what shall we do now?" choice. You need to submit to the plan and embrace and enjoy it wholeheartedly, even when the boss is shouting at you VERY LOUDLY.

Then, just sit back and see everything Europe has to offer, from the Arctic Circle and midnight sun to the Adriatic Coast and 8pm sunsets, from vast Bosnian countryside to rush-hour in Paris, from forests to coasts to mountains to glaciers to lakes to towns to cities to everything and everywhere. From squeeze cheese to extravagant delicatessens, from £8 a can to €1.10 a pint. Realise that Europe is an amazing place as a whole, and that travelling by train enables you to see it for what it is, a contiguous landscape, not a selection of disparate cities you fly in and out of with no appreciation for their real location, geographically or culturally or historically, in the overall scheme of things. Visit 4 countries in 7 hours, days after you spent 25 hours travelling in a single direction through a single country.

Off you go then. Tell Ffestiniog Travel that GCERC sent you...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Off the rails

It's Thursday early evening and I'm standing at a bus stop, waiting for a bus. Gripping my iPhone - now reconfigured for day to day use, rather than a command centre for navigation - fairly tight, a consequence of having my last one nicked right from my hand by a ride-by hoodie scrote back in May, just up the road from here. It's almost 48 hours since I crossed an international border and I'm heading home from a day at work, with my laptop and pager because I'm on 24/7 call.

This sucks.

It's not all bad. Far, far from it. I'm cleaner than I've been for nearly 3 weeks and my bags no longer give me a sore throat when I open them. A trip to the local Hobo-B-Gone at lunch has lessened the likelihood of people offering me change in pity, a shave doubling as a quick way to lose weight. I've caught up with the world of fake sport, with friends and colleagues - and on the whole I like my job. I've slept in a stationary bed, the same one, for 2 nights running, without having to share the room with anywhere between 1 and 11 snoring sweaty smelly blokes. I might go for a run on Saturday. I'm spending money in the same currency in which I get paid. I get paid, tomorrow in fact. I can navigate with my eyes closed, no longer having to maintain visuals with 8+ people in a strange place or cart 3 bags at all times. I can vary my route and relax the timing. I know the geography and the language and the rules. Predictability, as relief from the mental bombardment of relentless new experience, and - believe it or not - respite from all that fucking booze, are both welcome. London is a beautiful, warm, cosmopolitan, bustling city full of life and energy and it's my home.

But still...

We got to St Pancras on time, the cognac all gone. I'd narrowly avoided slicing my fingers open on a bread knife that it really should have been impossible to get on board (what are those x-ray machines for again?). Someone had a curry and I'd had a Waitrose sandwich. At the station, approaching 10pm, a welcoming committee was present. Some other halves, some parents, some friends. It was great. I was hyper as fuck, glad it was over only in the sense that we'd done something fantastic, and had such great memories and a story to tell, and that people want(ed) to hear about it. I'm better at accepting compliments than I once was and am happy people read and enjoyed my blog, vicariously experiencing a small slice of what we/I went through. Steve's friend Clare went one further, telling me to keep writing - but what about? Not that it's necessarily for me to say, but, really, I'm not so exciting or interesting. Maybe when I next travel I'll fire up the keyboard again - next February, I go London-Lille-Paris by train, then Paris-Kuala Lumpur-Bali-Sydney-Melbourne-Dubai-London by plane. But solo.

So, after 3 very welcome pints of Guinness the Betjeman was shutting. Numbers had dwindled and now it was my turn to leave, a bus to Waterloo then a train to Surbiton. I don't know how I stayed awake. Home just after midnight I went almost immediately to bed, after plugging many things into many sockets. I had work the following day. In the morning I had the most wonderful shower, and a somewhat less wonderful half hour search for my work ID badge. In the office I fell asleep at my desk 3 times, but nonetheless managed at least some semblance of productivity and lucid communication. The lunch burrito went down very well. At home in the evening I wolfed down a curry ten times hotter than the "madras" in Lisbon, and uploaded almost 300 photos to Flickr.

There's a bit more life to eke out of GCERC yet - like I said, a post about stats, technology and a map and stuff. A roll call. And I'm looking forward to telling tales down the pub with my friends, in the flesh rather than in [like]/SMS/comment form, including the bits that didn't, couldn't, and never will make it onto here. But right now I'm finishing this standing in a hot, crowded, cramped commuter train trundling through SW London. Tonight there'll be no late night beer as I cross a border towards yet another capital city while trying to convince some Australians that we went to Rome, en route from Venice to Milan, to pick up a €1000 picnic that we didn't eat until Switzerland, largely because the deli in Milan doesn't open before 8am, as if that made any fucking sense whatsoever let alone seemed perfectly rational. Instead everything is back to normal. There's a girl loudly complaining about SEO on her phone. She just actually said, out loud, OH EM GEE, and I winced. When I get home I will slump on my sofa and watch horror movies or cartoons, and then sleep in the same bed as last night, wake up in the same city as today, ..., ..., ...

 It's over.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Home Stretch

It's 2015 in Paris on Tuesday 23rd July. I'm on a train. I've been on trains for pretty much 19.5 hours of today, including the Paris metro. I'm on here for just over 2 hours, and later on it will take me 90 minutes or so to get home.


It's been a long trip.

I'm typing quickly because I'm almost out of energy, in various forms. 18% on the iPad, 45% on the phone, nothing at all on the power brick and no sockets. There's a small welcoming party at St Pancras waiting. I want to finish blogging the trip before the trip finishes.

We boarded the train in Lisbon in celebratory mood. Smiles everywhere. Our third trenhotel in 3 nights, so we knew precisely what to expect. Claimed our berths and cracked open the port and wine that had been bought to toast our last city, last country, last sleeper, so many lasts.

Soon after we set off, some of us went to the bar. We bought drinks and had fun. There were no interesting Australians or others to talk to, not that I remember. We had the place to ourselves, apart from the odd faux-surly teenager. Elbows out and glances that were supposedly threatening. Aww, bless.

I've blogged a lot about the booze we've had. The "we" is important. It hasn't been a mad rampage by myself, and in fact there haven't been masses of properly drunken nights. We're on holiday, so most of us have had a drink when we feel like a drink, but it hasn't been an outrageous piss-up, not every night.

Last night kinda was. Me, Lloyd, and John stayed up way too late drinking way too much. John is not a quiet man to lead back to a cabin at 1am. We woke Stretch up. Oops.

It was a long train ride. With the time travel of the previous night being reversed, we lost an hour when going through Spain, but this time there were no passport interruptions. Better yet, we didn't get off until 1130, so we had a lie-in, breakfast, and time to recover our heads. A few of us sat in the buffet car enjoying the views of the Basque Country. Undeniably nice, but I'm pretty much unable to process new information any more. 17 days seems to be my limit. Today, trains are transport.

Or so I thought. Actually there was some interesting stuff left to note. Our overnight train crossed two borders, Portugal-Spain-France. We crossed a timezone, and on this train we're crossing again. We're hitting 4 countries on this date, the first time we'd done so since about a week and a half ago when we did that in 7 hours, We hit 300kmh on the way from Hendaye to Paris, the train which was our final Interrail pass service.

Paris was a mad dash across the city. Only a single tube line, but 14 stops and at Montparnasse we probably walked for longer to get to the platform than we spent on the metro. At Gare du Nord we have around 8 minutes; there is illness, photography, shopping, and smoking to contend with. Stretch, our leader, goes missing as rumour flies but we slowly realise there's no primary source that heard he'll meet us up top - we all heard it from someone else. But in the final analysis it doesn't matter - we're through, trainside, and on our way back to England.

This has been, in the skipper's words, the biggest fuck-off train trip of all time. He's not fucking wrong. We're toasting it with some fine 40yo Hennessy cognac. I might write some more stuff in the next few days, some stats and some photos and some maps and some other stuff, more timeless than in diary form. But, for now: cheers!

The last supper

Once upon a time I had a flight booked from Auckland, New Zealand to Apia, Western Samoa. It was a 1pm flight, taking 4 hours, arriving at 5pm local time on the previous day. This was the only reason I wanted to do it, to engage in timezone tourism across the international date line. For various reasons that flight never happened, and in fact now cannot since Samoa hopped across the line (though I've now got my eyes on the Cook Islands). So crossing the border from Spain into Portugal by train, arriving at one station 55 minutes before the last, would have to suffice.

It wasn't a pleasant experience. I was asleep, which was fine, until I wasn't because the border guards woke us up demanding to see passports. Between Spain and Portugal. What?

The extra hour in bed was cracking. It was a nice and long ride anyway. We got in just before 8am and were leaving from the same station 13.5 hours later, mercifully, which made left luggage a breeze. Breakfast custard tarts were bought, metro day passes sourced, and we'd found a municipal swimming baths near the station where we could have a swim. It was about 25 metres away but 400 metres in height or so it felt.

They wouldn't let us swim. They also barely spoke English, though a cleaner helped. The pool was tiny and a class was on. We could get in, in shifts, first people at 0930. We needed ID, flip flops, and hair nets. All a bit much for a quick dip, we negotiated and negotiated and eventually were, after a phone call to someone important, allowed in just to take showers.

Oh, my god. A proper shower. Not on a train. Not in what feels like a temporary cardboard structure as in some of the hostels. Not cramped. Hot water, high pressure. Bliss. Cleansed and changed clothes, and after that sleep, with a whole day still ahead of us: c'mon Lisbon, what've you got?

I actually already knew what Lisbon had to offer, 'cos I've been here twice in the last 4 years. I love the place. Unlike Barcelona I had no desire to escape memories. The weather was beautiful and I wanted to ride some trams.

Metro. Tram 12. Up and down steep hills, screeching around narrow corners, crawling through streets barely wide enough for the vehicle and 2 pedestrians, we could've knocked on doors. Dave shepherded s off in a part of the city I'd not been to before, where we stopped for a beer and some pastry (actually, in my case, a slice of pizza with bacon on). Back on the tram into the city and cue an outrageous amount of cooing over the city from the newbies. One of those moments where you watch other people experience a first-time joy you remember having yourself, about the same subject.

I forget the order in which we did stuff, but there were trams and funiculars and, finally, the lift. I'd never been on it before, It was huge but only holds 15 at a time, the opposite of most office block of hotel lift space/body ratios. Combined with an interminable 15 minute wait between each ascent/descent - we had to wait for 2 of our group - and colour me unimpressed.

Oh, lunch. We'd had lunch. A huge feast of fish dishes and other stuff plus wine and beer, my sea bream was bloody lovely. The dessert pie was wonderful, and I hoovered up the remains of two other desserts too. Apparently I was quite hungry. Or our restaurant, in capital 23 of country 23 was at number 23 on its street. The end felt nigh.

At the bottom of the lift we split up. A side trip to Belèm for some, a wander for one, and a rule broken by me and Jason. One of the things we were all absolutely forbidden from doing is visiting places of worship and museums. This is not your average cultural tourism, as if that wasn't obvious. Well, Jason and I went to a museum, rules be damned. We're renegades like that.

It was the museum of beer.

We didn't visit the actual museum part of the building, rather preferring to sample some of the wide range of beers from Portugal and her colonies while enjoying the aircon. Within a couple of hours, most everyone else joined us and a plan for food was devised, settling on Goan cuisine. The Brits abroad wanted a curry. Enough cured meats and cheeses. Enough.

Tripadvisor told me about the best place to go, a short but vertiginous walk back through town and into a shady cobbled residential side street which caused some raised eyebrows. Slavery to the blue dot worked once again and we found the restaurant. It was shut. Bollocks. Double bollocks, as it was in fact meant to be at yet another no.23 address. These things tickle me.

Never mind - two doors up we piled into a Pakistani/Indian restaurant staffed by a smashing Nepalese chap who indulged us wonderfully. The starters were corking but main courses somewhat lacking in spice. Well, a bit more than somewhat, I've had hotter yogurts than the madras he served. But it tasted lovely, once the disappointment over heat was dealt with.

Back to the metro. Two tubes. Back to left luggage. A supermarket run, and onto the train. Whereas the previous few days had involved vast distances but few countries, here was a single train which would see 3.

It's our last night on the rails. We've only been and gone and done it. Over the course of 17 days we've been, by rail, to England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain, and Portugal.

Time to go home.

Barça loner

The Paris to Barcelona train was, on paper, our poshest night train yet. Branded as a "trenhotel", it's pimped as something approaching the comfort of a regular wheel-less hotel. So it was a bit of a disappointment - no, a lot of a disappointment - to discover there were no showers and the corridors were cramped as hell. Nonetheless there was a bar carriage with convivial Australians in it, on their own tour of Europe with slightly less haste and speed. The beds were bloody comfortable though.

Before arriving, the only thing I had on my mind for Barcelona was to go visit the Nou Camp. But given the extreme temperature, and the time it took for us to make our way from Estacio de França to Sants and pack our luggage away, I decided against it. Paul had gone to see friends who happened to be around; Mark and Steve went to Sagrada Familia; everyone else went to the beach. I headed off on my own.

Originally I was heading for Scobies, a pub which came up first in my search for Irish pubs near Placa de la Catalunya. It was shut, so I just searched for pubs near where I was standing and up came the Shamrock, the place I was treated so absurdly well which I mentioned at the start of the last entry. BCN trips and bacon strips and ...

Barcelona has so much more to offer than dark Irish pubs with Guinness and English breakfasts. I know that. But I'd been here before, recently - my first ever visit was only in February this year. It's all so fresh in my memory, a bit too fresh: when I came, it was with my beautiful girlfriend. But I was a depressed and hopeless fool, and we split up within 2 weeks of getting back home, without seeing each other again. Bleh. So I was in the mood to escape Barcelona rather than be reminded too much of it.

I didn't want to forget or escape the overall trip though. I had a great time explaining the whole thing to Christian, the barman, and his boss Pedro. Of all the people I explained, or was present during the explanation of, our journey to, he was easily the most impressed and jealous. Nailed it with "surely you don't have wives or girlfriends!" though eh? (Bad Darren, enough with the rumination)

I took the time to blog a bit, plus talk with Ellen. She is an ex-yahoo living in Barcelona and we were trying to arrange a meet. With Mark's phone out of commission and mine out of reach in a pub kitchen we spoke via Facebook and she came to join me, just as I was finishing my second pint. Goodbyes and good lucks from the staff, we buggered off to Sants on the Metro where Mark, Steve, Mick, and in fact pretty much everyone, within 5 minutes, were having beer and a snack. Lots of catching up done, a full English inquisition into Ellen's time in Catalonia.

And then, a goodbye, again. The trains from Barcelona to Madrid involve airport style levels of security - x-ray machines for luggage, landside/trainside separation, a boarding gate. All this for a domestic train. Mad.

I was feeling very fired up and in cracking spirits after my great morning, so it was a genuine surprise when I sat down and promptly fell asleep for the first hour or so of the journey. I hadn't felt noticeably tired so, like, what?

The rain in Spain fell heavily on the plain. There was a real storm, particularly striking as we passed into the very edge of it. The onboard display told us we were travelling at just over 300km/h, and also that the outside temperature dropped from 36°c to 14° during the storm. Wow.

It was back up in the 30s when we hit Madrid. Before leaving the station whose name I forget we went for a wander around the back of it, the old station building which is now a giant greenhouse with loads of foliage and also turtles. What should then have been a regulation single line transit across the city to Charmatin turned into a pain in the arse 3 tube trek because they'd shut the middle 3 stations of the line we want to use. Grr.

At Charmatin we occupied the corner of an outdoor section - under a roof - of a tapas restaurant and ate a huge feast of cheeses and potatoes and anchovies and salads and all kinds of other stuff. There were power sockets. I have really struggled a lot without regular access to enough power sockets to keep my devices going and since Italy both the blogging and GPS recording have had to take a serious back seat.

A massive thunderstorm took place overhead, finishing just before we set off to the station. Our train didn't get a platform until very near the departure time, a wait entirely filled with me frantically hitting refresh on the BBC TdF coverage desperate for a Cavendish win. 2 laps to go and we slowly walked to the platform. 1 lap to go and we hung around outside. Bah, Kittel.

A virtually identical train to the previous one was taking us to Lisbon, Portugal. Our last country and city, our simultaneously southernmost and westernmost point. A small party stayed in the bar talking to a theoretical computer scientist/mathematician/philosopher. No Australians though.

Tourisme Grande Vitesse

I'm writing this at midday in Barcelona. I'm the only customer in an Irish pub, which I don't think was open when I arrived, more like it just had the doors open to let some air in. Nonetheless the barman was more than happy to serve me a Guinness, complimentary in fact about my early start. He asked what my story is, and listened wide-eyed in wonder as I regaled, in brief, the previous 15 days' journey. I've given him a bit of paper with some URLs on. They don't have a breakfast menu but are making me some specially. There's a poster on the wall for the KISS Army, Spanish branch and they've lent me some electricity to charge my phone. It's dark and cool while outside it's about 30°c already.

I like it here.

I'm not really gonna say much about Zurich. We stayed in a cheap grotty hostel in the centre, popped out for some EIGHT QUID beers, and I had a dream about shopping for hats - as usual I couldn't find one that fitted me for ages, until finally a leather trilby was perfect, but cost £168. Great dreams I have. Stretch says he woke up several times in the night wondering why the fuck we weren't moving, the 4-bunk dorm making him think it was a train, delayed again, delayed again...

Soft caffeinated fluids plus pastries at the station. A brief chat with an Australian in transit, whose luggage was still in Singapore. We told him what had happened in the cricket during his flight. He seemed crestfallen.

No reservations for the Zurich to Geneva train. Stupidly busy, we picked a coach and seats at random and made camp. Only once we were settled did we notice they were reserved for someone, but we waited to get kicked out. Lester took his rail pass out to write the journey on, and out of the bum bag came a reservation slip he didn't remember ever seeing before.

It was for the seats we were in. Fuck me!

No mountains, but lots of lakes and fields. The odd bit which looked like Warwickshire. And then a fucking huge lake. Hello, Lake Geneva. Treated to some great views towards the mountains over which the day's Tour de France riders were cycling, we pulled into Lausanne for our briefest cameo appearance, as old colleague Fernando jumped on for the 20 minutes to Geneva. He brought with him wine, cheese, meats, chocolate, a great spread. Lightning discussions about life since he last saw any of us were had, then we had 15 minutes to change country. At Geneva you go through a border before the train leaves, having to bugger off outside and up the street into the customs and immigration bit of the station to platforms 1 & 2 for France.

The train to Lyon was a baking hot heavily crowded service, made better by cheese, chocolate, and electricity. Not a great deal out of the window. 2 hours to travel 170km or so. Yawn. At Lyon we had three or so hours to kill, and after a pub/left luggage fiasco we all but Paul settled in a pub with no television while John set off to find somewhere we could watch the Tour.

The 10 minute walk to that place was one of the hottest walks I've ever done, worse than going between two hotels in Dubai. I hated it. Thankfully the bar was air conditioned and empty, and sold us nice drinks and food while indulging our appetite for cycling. Some Aussies joined us. My god there's a lot of Aussies in this continent.

There's also a lot of Iron Maiden shirts. I think I saw at least one in every capital city except Skopje, Belgrade, and Sarajevo.

Back to the station to regroup with Paul, and Mick, who had valiantly stayed behind with the bags, it was time to get on possibly the fastest train of the trip. While some journeys were all about the scenery, and some where about getting from capital to capital, this was about speed: 550km in less than 2 hours. We've only got long haul trains left now, really, no short changes or distances, and lots of modernity.

No fucking plug sockets though.

Only Dave and I stayed awake the distance, experiencing the sections of 300kmh+ travel on the ground. We made it to Paris early - early - and carted our gear across the river from terminus to terminus, de Lyon to d'Austerlitz. 3 hours taken up by a variety of croques and drinks. We're not exactly grumpy but it's ever so slightly feeling like a grind. Having to get to Barcelona via Paris is a ridiculous route, but the only feasible one by train. We're moving into ever hotter territories with 2 full weeks of exhaustion in our bones. Only 2 unvisited countries and capitals left over 4 remaining days, 4 countries in a single day feels a distant memory. Maybe Iberia will be a struggle.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hannibal Lester

The sleeper to Milan was a smart train. 4 person berths with pre-made beds, spacious, proper pillows. A real treat, the best rolling accommodation since Norway or so. Very pleasing and welcome. Unfortunately no water in the carriage, making loo visits a little precarious. Nightcaps were had - quickly, as it was almost midnight when we boarded, and we were scheduled to arrive at 0711, though obviously history dictated that we'd be in around 9am.

We got to Milan early. You heard. A sleeper train had arrived early. And not just on any day, but this, the day of days, the most important connection of our trip since the bus to Narvik.

Day 14. Lester was herding us across the alps, via a mere 8 trains.

First, the sleeper on which we awoke. Good accommodation, an early arrival. A portent of things to come?

A tube trip to Milano Centrale's grand architecture and the 0820 train which appeared on very few timetables. Splinter manoeuvres to retrieve coffee and platform information while surrounded by impossibly stylish and/or pretty people.

Train two, from Milan to the Italian/Swiss border at Tirano. Featuring Lake Como, some hills with delusions of mountainous grandeur, endless sunshine. An appetiser for what was to come across the border, the first glimpse of which being the valley opening to our left, just before our arrival. It looked kinda nice through there.

A brief stop for water, and for an open air observation carriage to be attached to the rear of the 1127 to St Moritz. A station which is actually split in two, platforms 3 and 4 being technically across the Swiss border. A train ride that is a UNESCO heritage site. We were about to board train three, the Bernina Express, star of our Facebook page cover photo and GCERC blog header.

The picnic started in earnest. Endless bread, olives, cheese, meats, antipasti. So much that we shared it with about 20 other people over the course of the day. We had way too much food. But enough about the food.

Train three starts by turning into a tram. The journey goes through the streets of Tirano, passengers in mobile Swiss territory almost able to knock on the doors of Italian Tiranista. A mad start.

We climbed. And climbed. And climbed. Starting at 400m above sea level, we were at 900 before we really appreciated what was happening. Jaws hit floors, repeatedly. We spiralled up. There were virtually no sections of track which were straight apart from at stations, each one a couple hundred metres higher than the last. See those mountains? No tunnels. We're going over them, not through, not around, but over.

I can't do it justice with words. The scenery was outrageously outrageous the whole way. World class. And a regular railway - no cogs, no pulleys, no other mechanisms but wheels on tracks pulled by engines - to take us to 2253 metres altitude, past glaciers and glacial lakes, beneath and above still, off-season chairlifts at ski resorts. There was snow. The spectacular nature combined with the height made it all so dizzying.

Our descent into the pokey sleepy backwater of St Mortiz coincided with the briefest of showers, sending some of us scuttling into the main carriage. I fell asleep for 10 minutes. Despite claiming not to be feeling the effects of the altitude, I arrived a bleary dizzy befuddled dazed mess. But it was worth it.

Train 4 goes through mountains. Right fucking through them. Viaducts built between opposing rock faces, tunnels with virtually no frontage, just a hole bored through so we can carry on carrying on. More spectacularly greenery and scenery. Stuff straight out of the Great Escape. A continually awe inspiring mix of nature's beauty and man's engineering feats.

Train 5. Which one was this? Christ, I can't even remember now. I think it was Reichenau-Tamins to Disentis/Muster, but I forget the features. It may have been just more ravines and gorgeous and mountains and nothing of individual note, because it was all great and we had already been spoilt.

Train 6, to Andermatt. An incident! We'd all dutifully filled out our interrail tickets with the start and end stations, only to be told they weren't valid. Oops. So we had to pay. It was no big deal, but a bit of a surprise.

We saw more mountains and lakes, and we wound down around mountains so steep it scarcely seemed credible, once we reached the town, to look back and up to see where we'd been. Because we'd climbed up to 2000m again first, before adopting roller coaster angles past belled-up cows. At some point we learnt that Australia were all out for 128. How fucking good was today?

A mundane interlude in our half an hour on the ground. Jason and I headed to a shop for drinks. The shop was shut. We bought 8 beers and 4 soft drinks from the station cafe, for about 35 bloody quid.

Train 7. A 15 minute journey to join up with the main line to Zurich. Nothin special...except the rock faces, and that most of it was as steep as some funiculars. Paul and I tested the angle by leaning forwards as far as we could without falling over. Must have been 45° or so. Lots of fun.

Train 8. Come on, Switzerland, take us to our beds. But if you can do it mostly while hugging a beautiful, still, blue lake as the sun sets, that'd be nice. Oh, you are doing.

You'll have to excuse me for the increasing brevity of each successive train's description. It was hard to keep track of everything. I took in so much landscape, so many amazing things, and caught 8 bloody trains while carting luggage all the way. Overwhelming and almost impossible to process or even believe. This was always promised to be something special. It delivered in spades.

Hats off

Oh dear. I got grumpy. I suppose it had to happen sometime.

The train from Venice to Rome was thoroughly nondescript. Really. A bullet through the backbone of Italy, it's fast and not picturesque and in large part through tunnels. After a convivial start where we chatted to some seat mates from England and Australia, mostly people slept and I knocked out two blog posts. Noticing that we were stopping at Tiburtina, the starting point for our sleeper service later that night, we hopped off there rather than Termini, so we could drop our bags off.

Roma Tiburtina is a new, modern station, Rome's attempt at slowly shifting their long distance services to a suburb. Af least I think that's the case. Anyway, it has no fucking left luggage storage. It's massive, an interchange and terminus, but has nowhere you can leave your proxy bags. It took us about 30 minutes to confirm this to our satisfaction, because it was frankly unbelievable, and once we did we had to schlep on the non-air conditioned rush hour metro to Termini. I felt like passing out. It was about 6pm and I was running on empty - in fact a net loss on calories, having had zero food and just one can of lager (plus lots of zero calorie fluids) throughout the day, and that 10km walk around Venice in the morning.

Termini is a confusing boiling hot chaotic mess of a building site. Left luggage was fucking miles away and cost a fortune. We got a private storage room because we had so many bags. They close at 11pm. Hopeless.

Back to the metro via a stop for water. Really not having fun here. Another long schlep to an insanely crowded platform to get the train to the Vatican, for which I had worn my only long trousers of the trip. First train was way too busy to board, and after that we'd decided (Ok, realised) that actually we didn't have though time, because we needed to go pick up a picnic at a deli in another part of town. Bleh. I really wanted to visit Vatican City, my last new passport stamp of the trip. Not to be.

A slight diversion about the term "passport stamp". It seems to be the only term I've ever used which has been so widely assumed to be literal. "You won't get stamps in Europe". Of course I know that. But people almost always seem to think I'm meaning actual stamps, not just another country added to the list of those visited. How is it not an obvious slang term or metaphor? Hnnngh.

Ahem. Anyway, changing metro lines, we mostly had long corridors to ourselves. Rome had been the first place where we'd seen proper crowds, and suddenly it was like being in Sofia again. But that soon changed and another hot ride later we emerged at a big road junction. Maps came out and Volpetti's was found, a 600m walk away.

It's an amazing deli full of the most astonishing meats and cheeses and antipasti. I failed dismally to appreciate it as much as I normally would, or indeed it warranted. Rome was just pissing me off. Tempers and temperatures running higher than usual, 4 of us set off to the bar in the park/playground we'd walked past while plans for transporting the frankly ridiculous amount of food and wine were made. As colosseum old hands, Lloyd and Steve were going to transport the food by cab to Tiburtina; the rest of us would do tourism and, later, get the bags.

The bar in the park/playground we'd walked past shut the second we got there. Back past Volpetti's we went into a different bar. I got changed back into shorts. Mood slightly improved due to the combination of alcohol and air to my shins. Got told to neck my beer because we were off, as a group, to walk up a hill and eat a picnic. My feet and thighs were hurting.

Up top of the hill, in a park with a stunning hazy view, Rome actually seemed quite nice for a bit. I drank and disliked the top notch wine, we all ate cheese and meats and olives. The transportation unit went back to pick up the shipment, Paul went to take photos, and the rest of us went to the Colosseum.

It's a pretty impressive ruin. The experience is sullied a tiny bit by there being a main road directly in front, and in fact the first thing I focused on was the lamppost advert for an Irish pub. Whither Guinness?

Upstairs for a better view. Looked for, and eventually found, somewhere to have a drink as the sun set. Ordered beers and were served giant glass steins of them, as you get in Bavaria, prompting me to say danke schön. Despite my accent and, y'know, all the other English words I was speaking the whole time, this seemed to make the waiter think we were German. A few minutes later he delivered two plates of savoury snacks to us, which we hadn't ordered - they were a freebie, "you don't get this in Germany, hey?". Huh.

Two giant beers later and my mood had vastly improved. But Rome had a final act. I paid a tactical visit to the facilities and on my return just grabbed my bag and we set off.

Without my hat.


Friday, July 19, 2013

The Great Circular Venetian Shanks' Pony Challenge

I'm flattered to have been the recipient of compliments about my blog on this trip, in particular from Lloyd. He is a man whose words are quite literally worth a lot more money than mine, being worth money at all, so this is not credit I can take on the chin. Moreover this is not someone living vicariously through my descriptions of booze fuelled rampages, but he's been here every step of the way too.

Yesterday he promoted my piece about our evening in Venice on Facebook, and also posted his own entry about how to do a morning there on the cheap. Since we splintered into multiple groups and I ventured off by myself, and I'm a fearsome plagiarist, here's my version in the same format.

- wake up in Domus Civica, a residence acting as a very cheap hostel during the off season when students aren't living there. €30 a room a night

- be shouted at by your skipper to shower, after he himself had had two in the space of half hour

- leave at 9am and go walking, with "just go anywhere, you can't fail to find nice stuff" ringing in your ears

- have the first things which jog your consciousness be a Union Jack, some graffiti of a spunking cock, and some OFFICIAL ULTRAS footy hooligan graffiti

- reach into your pocket for some shekels and pull out some mystery currency it takes a long second or so to recognise. it was a twenty quid note.

- buy a diet coke after 3km or so, from a shop so small it can barely fit 4 people inside, the other 3 of which are scratching scratch cards or playing fruit machines, and which appears to be a knife and crossbow merchant that just happens to have a drinks fridge. an extravagant €2.50

- cross numerous canals and bridges, spotting hundreds of gondolas but only one with an accordion playing singer

- reach St Mark's square, experiencing all the fuss and seeing what it's about

- be blocked in a tiny alley by hordes of people going in the opposite direction, none of whom will let you pass, until a monk detects your exasperation (but clearly not your irreligious nature) and nods you through

- give a €20 donation to a lass with a moderately official looking clipboard, who claims to be a 4-years clean smack addict raising money for a charity to help other people like her. have no real reason to suspect she wasn't legitimate, but wherever your money goes it will be appreciated one way or another

- take some guy's photo over possibly the least picturesque bridge you see. realise "least picturesque bridge in Venice" is like saying "worst pint of Guinness in Dublin"

- find the Realto bridge

- be amused by the shop window bagpuss, moving a second after a kid says "that cat looks so realistic"

- be exhausted by 9.5km on foot, non-stop, with a bag, in 25°c temperatures with lots of steps on the way

- finally and only get a map out when your navigation sense tells you you might be lost. Do this after 9k and about 5 minutes from the hostel, having done the circuit you wanted

- crow loudly of your achievement in such a geographically ludicrous city

- grab a shower at the hostel and be rewarded with a pint that doesn't touch the sides, bought from the whip

Total cost: €52.50

Venice is bloody amazing.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Just one vaporetto

We spent twice as long in Venice as the whole of Slovenia (and about 5 times more than Slovakia). It was kinda worth it, I guess.

Originally we were meant to arrive at just before 8pm, giving us enough time to get to our rooms and shower before making it to the streets for sunset at 8.55pm. The delay scuppered that, but it scarcely mattered. Those of us who had never been to Venice before were suitably awestruck by the place: from the second you step out from the station you're greeted with a canal, a glorious bridge, many boats, amazing architecture, a couple of grand churches, etc. Meanwhile the non-debutants were all glad to be back again. Steve, in particular, was in his element. This was his city, many plans made with help from many contacts.

The rooms were not a long walk. We were staying in a cheap hostel with a curfew and reverse curfew - in before 0030, no going out til after 0700 (so no sunrise tourism). That mattered to me at the time, but not ultimately. Showers were had and phone calls were made: a water taxi was to pick us up at 2145 and takes us to near our restaurant for the evening.

Them boats around them canals are pretty good, eh? What a cracking way to travel. Getting off 10 minutes later we set off through alleys to a small square where 9 seats outside were reserved from us. Max and his pizzeria staff looked after us for a decent while, plying breadsticks wrapped in ham, some kind of savoury doughnut things, and after a gap during which Paul presented his latest photographic masterpieces (really, go look at them), along came a 2 metre long pizza. Actually not a single dish, but 6 or so small pizzas served interconnected and presented on a 2 metre long plank balancing on upside down beer steins. Beer and wine and, somewhat unbelievably, extra pizza came and went. We tailed off with grappa, photos were took and hands shook. It was a fantastic evening...and then the fun really started.

Domus Civica's curfew does not fuck about. Apparently they are ruthless; you miss by 10 seconds and you are locked out. A boat would be quickest in theory, but would require the gamble of a 10+ minute wait. We decided to walk, with 35 minutes on the clock and google maps telling us it was a 24 minute trip on foot.

I was so ignorant of Venice that I'd never heard of St Mark's Square, nor the Realto bridge. Basically the only thing I knew was that it has fewer miles of canals than Birmingham, and that there are gondolas whose punters sing about delicious ice cream made by Wall's. So naturally I was the best person to lead us home. I am chief navigation officer after all, tasked with at all times knowing where we are, where we should be, and how to fix any problems a disconnect might cause. And looking like Jim Royle wearing Micky from Snatch's hat.

I grabbed some walking directions and we set off. As if to prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, I was overruled a couple of times by people who had been to this city before. I preferred to remain a slave to the blue dot and the blue line, fearing deviation would cause a big problem in such a maze of torment. Granted, being overruled did at one point mean we managed to hit St Mark's square at the crack of midnight, which was quite cool (and inch perfect tourisme grand vitesse), but it wasn't bloody getting us back now was it?

I reclaimed authority and stamped my feet down. We took unlikely looking turns, hit canals and alleys people were convinced were wrong. Nothing looked familiar to anyone, but to me that was the natural state and not remotely a cause for concern.

Our leader, simultaneously the most vociferous of the unsure and most panicky about the curfew, bowed in respect when we got back, which did his back much less good than my ego. Domus Civica had appeared from seemingly nowhere, with 8 whole minutes to spare. NEVER ANY DOUBT. My credentials intact, I intended to put them to good use in the morning.

Not in Balkansas any more

Zagreb was reached around 10 minutes late, within a fleeting window of opportunity wherein we may have had the chance to grab an earlier train to Ljubljana and get 3 hours there. We failed at this, and so resorted to plan A: 5 more trains to reach Venice by sundown.

First, a little under an hour in the Croatian capital. Most of us got straight on the train, a gloriously modern affair with electricity 'n that, heading to Buenna., 2 plugs to the seat in some places in fact. Steve sourced breakfast, solid and liquid. A little under 0730 and away we went.

There was a passport control,  8 or so guards. Between two EU countries. On the land border. What?

Sevnica is a bit more picturesque than Crewe. It's a small town next to a river, which we had largely hugged en route but could now not see. Surrounded by mountains though. We had 2 hours to kill here, adopting our now well honed strategy of taking over most of the seats and mains sockets in the nearest cafe. Losing track of time a bit, I was admonished for even mentioning beer. It was 0845. Oops. So lots of caffeine was had, and some half hearted exploration. Paul and I set off to try and find the river but stopped at the end of the island platform for a lesson in photo composition, plus a recap on ISO/f/shutter speed combinatorics. I will get it. I will. I even plugged my camera in for a bit, aiming to take at least one decent shot with it in manual mode before the trip ends.

Train 3 of the day (I'm including the sleeper we woke up on) took us to the capital, lovely jubbly Ljubljana. A curious station, the building is about half a kilometre from any of the platforms at which trains were stopping. Still yet to see any legitimate clouds, we most of us perched outside a bar and toasted the new country with a local beer. After we left we realised just how local - the brewery was about 30 yards away. Some folk had a Golden Arches run, some went further afield and reported that Ljubljana was pretty pretty. I spent most of the time wondering why the fuck I couldn't browse Facebook and the Secret AFC Wimbledon Guestbook when connected by 3G, but could on Edge, on the same network. And the bloody iPhone doesn't give the granular control to let me pick what to use. First time I've missed android in many many months.

I've been getting a kick out of walking across train tracks. No third rail, no terrifying videos shown to primary school kids about getting your shoelaces caught in the rails and being killed by a high speed train, around these parts you can just wander up and down the tracks. Even most capital cities since, I dunno, Prague or so, have had fewer trains an hour arriving and departing than, say, Surbiton. It kinda brings home just how different London is to the significant chunks of the world and throws my concepts of what's normal and abnormal into reverse.

Train 4, a fairly modern local stopper to Jesenice. Yawn. Another comfortable ride through glorious mountains, gorges, valleys, ridges, etc. Another 2 hours on a bloody train. Today is actually kinda tough. It's harder to enjoy when you change so often. The scenery was lovely though, until our destination revealed itself as a fairly bleak industrial town with a rank station whose toilets were hidden behind a jail cell door and down two flights of pitch black unlit stairs. You have to ask for a key to use them, which is a bit odd. Mark and I made use, then came back up, but we couldn't lock the door because we'd heard someone else go down there into the ladies. The ticket lady wouldn't take the key back and we were hardly going to lock this girls in the bogs. But really, what were we to do if someone else wanted to go there? Pass them the key/buck, I suppose.

Train 5. Bloody hell. It looked horrid, though inside was fairly OK. Another stopper, through the other side of the valley to the border with Italy at Nova Gorica. A crawling train with good views but forest fatigue was hitting hard. I kept myself to myself, dicking around on my phone and earwigging the lads heading off to that extreme(-ish) metal festival that was happening somewhere along the way. Wait. There's a metal festival around here? Colour me tempted next year, if the bill is worth it.

At one point the Serbian lad was bitching about his journey to get there, 30 hours on trains from Belgrade. I appreciate his experience with Croat passport control may not have been overly pleasant ("they are massive arseholes") but 30 hours on a train? Aww, diddums.

After the least picturesque part of Serbia we'd seen - a mile-long concrete plant - Nova Gorica was upon us. Unlike most of the other stations, which had resembled temporary military checkpoints, this was a grand building with a fantastic booking hall, left luggage area, etc. All wood and brass, like something from a 1940s film. We crossed the border on foot, what with it being 5 feet or so outside the forecourt. So long, Slovenia. Thanks for a beautiful but moderately arduous 8 hours.

At the bus stop an English couple asked me where we were going. "Erm, Italy" was my less than helpful response. They thought the bus went to Gorizia, the station from which we were to get our train to Venice. But I was now a lot of yards from the breakaway pack and couldn't make up the gap before the next stop, next to which Mark had been into a shop, confirmed the couple were correct, and bought us all tickets.

At the station there were signs in English. Not mere individual words like EXIT, PLATFORMS, etc, but full sentences. Do not cross the tracks. Very western Europe. No fun. :-(

35 minutes to the train, we got supplies and headed to the platform. Train was 90 minutes delayed, our first significant departure delay of the whole trip. Thanks, Italy. We think it's Lloyd's fault, after he regaled us with his "the last time I got a train in Italy" story involving throwing his wallet and passport out of a train window, a train which he himself was subsequently not allowed to leave for 2 hours.

Using the 90 minute delay to revert to type, we took up most of the seats in the cafe and had beer. Steve replayed his previous night's attempt at playing the unbelievable truth, by telling us again about the link between space shuttle components and the width of a horse's arse, and the killer whale transported on the world's biggest plane (the An-225). The latter story involves an Icelandic civil servant whose job it is to consult with The Hidden People to make sure what the government wants to do is environmentally sound and meets their approval. He insists he shits us not. I didn't buzz for anything I believed.

Jason wanted to buy another round. We were planning on getting the 1840, rather than wait for our 90 minute delay at 1910. Duh. It was about 1817 now, so I upped and went to check on whether this new train was delayed. For all we knew there was a line problem and before long we'd need a plan B.

Here's a plan B: that 90 minute delay has been cut to 40 minutes which meant the train was now leaving in just 3. Pegged it back to the cafe, c'mon lads, get a fucking wiggle on.

Is it bad of me to say some of the station names made me feel hungry? I couldn't help it. Casegliano just sounds like a nice dish.

Exhausted and on train 6, we all vegged out. I charged my phone AGAIN and kept on plotting the route. It's looking pretty good and I hope I can export it to something which will do all the latitude data justice.

35 minutes late, we approached Venezia Santa Lucia over the looooong bridge. Everyone stuck their heads out of the windows. This is a very special way to approach a very special place. Shame it stank as bad as Vienna on a bad day.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hey EU

As I type, it's 11pm on the night train from Split to Zagreb. This is the best sleeper service since Oslo to Trondheim, without doubt (based on accommodation - i.e., smoky staff party pub carriages notwithstanding). We have sinks in the cabins and business class style amenity kits and more. But that will all have to wait, as there's 24 hours to catch up on first.

I learnt something today. I learnt that the bribe to the conductor at Beograd yesterday was just to get us on the bloody train at all, not a failed attempt to get seats. Hadn't realised if was quite that hairy. My nonchalant ignorance comes in handy sometimes.

We all needed to catch ourselves a little after the extraordinary journey to Sarajevo. A veritable Bosnian/Serb conflict had been created and defused before our eyes, though such jokey descriptions seem a little inappropriate once you've been around the Bosnian capital and seen all the bullet holes, sniper nests destroyed by RPGs, not to mention the graveyards which had decorated the landscape for hours. I confess to a large degree of ivory tower ignorance about the Balkan conflict, but now travelling through what had instantly become my favourite country so far, and knowing just the flakiest of details, I felt very sad about the very recent past. I hope peace lasts a long time, and Sarajevo is somewhere I already want to revisit soon.

Anyway, all seriousness aside, the exertions of the day were dealt with by the provision of essentials: a shower, some electricity, and booze. Power has been a constant craving of mine on this trip, readily available for the first few days but ever scarcer the further east we went. I'm charging my phone 3 or 4 times a day as the GPS and mobile data, where available, cane the fuck out if it. My camera has been dead for days because it's always the lowest priority (go look up Paul Clarke's photos. man's a genius with a lens), my ipad has rarely been above 50%, and the brick takes forever. Plugged all but the camera in; this morning both iPad and iPhone at 100%. Beautiful. (Currently 14% each, mind)

The booze was raki, partaken in the communal lounge room. We needed it. Probably would've been useful for sterilising cutlery too. Some girls from the next dorm via Australia spoke to us, Mark gave the spiel about the shirt, route, trip. They looked at us as if we were mad, and fucked off. 8 of us went exploring, putting Lloyd in temporary charge of finding us somewhere to eat and drink.

We ate and drank very well. There were chips and there was meza and there were kebabs and there were more chips and there was beer and wine and more of both. Cracking meal, lots of fun had. We barely touched the surface of the city but found it bustling without being crowded, the atmosphere overwhelmingly welcoming and convivial. I must return.

Going back to the hostel was a good idea. We had to be up very early, with cabs booked for 0620 for a train at 0651. Also there was a midnight curfew. So as we turned the last corner, and spotted the Aussie girls outside the pub, it probably would have been a bad idea to drink two more beers with them. That's precisely what John and I did anyway. Christ knows what they thought of us, ranting nutjob pissheads getting mightily enthusiastic about surreal train rides and the vagaries of Australian television. Got back a smidgen after lights out, stumbling over Paul on our way in. Sorry, Paul.

Bleurgh. 0530 and time to rise. John thought those two beers had indeed been a mistake and was about to pack it in and go home, and Steve accused me of being a bad man (so I must have done something right). A bleary nine filled 3 cabs and here was the 0651 to Ploče. Time to get back to the EU.

Have I mentioned that Bosnia is amazing yet? Once again, we were treated to world class scenery for hours. Ravines and views and mountains and rivers and aqueducts and just so much. I've been lucky enough to see some amazing things over the last few years, eg Big Sur, or some of the scenic routes of New Zeakand, This whole country seems to be up there with them.

Mark constructed an impromptu kitchen from the luggage bay, and I reclined unflatteringly in my seat for a kip while plotting the journey. You've probably seen the photo on Facebook. The carriage was an old wooden one supplied by Swedish railways. Good work, Sweden. The end-of-carriage recliners where very good and we made it to Ploče, well, I hesitate to say on time because this was another service my rail timetable app knew nothing about.

Ploče is seemingly not a place with any attractions save for transport connections to other, more beautiful places. We'd come in by one and, after an hour of wifi and fruit and a border crossing toast, left by another, the bus up to Split.

It almost didn't happen. The woman tried her hardest to not sell us tickets. Nine of you? No. No space on this or the next (they are hourly). But somehow with seconds to go, we had them and we were away. It was a hot bus and a few people had to stand, though thankfully there were enough stops that the passengers were fluid and soon we all had seats. I was in an aisle seat landside and saw only glimpses of the glorious Adriatic coastline to our left, or mountains to the right. Did hear a lot of tinny shit music from my seat mate though.

Split was upon us after 2.5 hours and we went to the second left luggage place we saw, negotiated a discount, retrieved trunks, and made our way to and beyond Bačovice beach (have I remembered that right?). We piled indoors to an empty pizzeria and made base camp. Wifi, beer, and food were in plentiful supply and the toilets were used as a changing room so most folk could take a dip in the sea. Our waitress was lovely but slow, mostly it seems as a consequence of her being the only one doing any real work. The diabolo pizza was alright, nothing special. I heard bad things about the burgers. One of them was called the David Cameron, "our most conservative burger". I imagine it's oily, made of ham, and causes people to feel sick.

After a while and still with a couple of hours until the train, those of us that hadn't already done so went for a wander around the old town. The first stop seemed to be the. insides of an ancient palace having been turned into a crap souvenir market. The town was lovely, slippery streets and 1800 year old bricks and a bell tower, some outdoor music being set up, and a bunch of restaurants down tiny alleyways. Found myself a bit disappointed somewhere historic and wonderful was in a place so full of beach bums and hawkers. Like putting the Tower of London in Blackpool. Just a bit too crowded for my liking, but lovely nonetheless.

Ice creams sustained us on the walk back to get luggage, our final schlep through the corridor of people trying to sell us rooms for the night, as if we were the sort of people who'd spend two nights on the spin in stationary beds. Pfft. Doesn't everyone know who we are yet?

As I type, it's 5:10am on the night train from Split to Zagreb. The sun is just about up and the countryside looks grand. It hasn't taken me all night to write this, rather I interrupted myself with 5 hours of very comfortable deep sleep. Remarkably, considering most previous sleeper trains, we seem to be pretty much bang on schedule. The beds, which were made up before boarding, are very comfy and come with proper pillows. They are 3 to a cabin and there's a decent ladder, none of this Ukrainian 3 step shit. We have sinks and a bathroom cabinet, which in my cabin has been filled with the empties of the various Croatian schnapps bottles we drank last night. It's roomy and the door locks. We have kits containing toothbrush and paste, some wipes, a few other odds and sods. Very impressive work, Croatian railways. Shame the electricity doesn't work though.

We land in an hour or so. 60 minutes on the ground then a series of 5 trains to reach Venice in time for the sun to set, via Ljubljana and a couple of hours in where our captain describes as "Slovenia's version of Crewe". I think we may cross a border on foot later, when we finally leave the -ia countries.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Incident at Mokra Gora

You'd think we'd be used to a bit of surrealism and chaos by now.

Three guys with cabs were at the station. They mentioned Sarajevo before us, and were indeed going to take us there, via a narrow gauge tourist railway called the Sargan Eight, so called because the line follows a figure 8 as it tunnels and climbs its way up, down, and through some mountains. Off we go, then.

After a cannonball run drive through the countryside, punctuated by a stop at a petrol station where the driver ahead of us bought the passengers beer, but our cab remained dry, and a narrow miss at the single lane bridge, we got to Vitasi Sargan with about 15 minutes to spare. Not quite the dilapidated nowheresville we expected, this was actually a very well presented yard with nice water features and a train-bike thing and well looked after rails and HELLO, SHE'S SELLING BEER.

We bought beer.

What we (almost) didn't buy was tickets. Obviously we'd not actually got any Serbian currency, expecting to pay in euros everywhere. Moreover, we didn't bloody expect the conductor to refuse not only the currency but the amount. We wanted to pay with €50, which was roughly 50% more than the asking price, and we only wanted to go one way. He only agreed when it was obvious that he couldn't bloody leave us behind, especially because our cab drivers - told to wait until we'd got on the train just in case something went wrong - had fucked off.

The ride was top fun. Twisty turny tunnely stuff, great views across the valleys and of the tracks we were yet to use, or had already left behind. A couple of stops, lots of photo opportunities, and a descent into Mokra Gora where our carriages waited.

Ah yes, about these carriages...

So, we now only had one cab driver, one of the Serbian guys from Uzice. Also 2 Bosnian fellas, who apparently had no wheels but swore blind they were our real ride. What? This was an incident.

Lots was shouted in lots of languages, some of it into phones. Yer Serbs wanted the €300 to take us the rest of the way. If we agreed, the other two would turn up with our bags and we'd go. Yer Bosnians said oi, we were at Uzice, we came from Sarajevo to meet you, you're our fare so come on, get in our vans, and pay us the €300.  They're around here somewhere. Probably.

We just wanted to pay the sovs and get there. However, this was all meant to have been sorted by a Sarajevan who was also in control of our accommodation. Oh dear.

Hand shakes and hugs were exchanged, laughs were had. It seemed the incident was over. It wasn't. For another 15 minutes or more voices were raised again, by now added to by the train guy who insisted we take our return trip to Vitasi (er, no). Again the phone came out. Some truth had been learnt: the Serbs were just enterprising cabbies, and the Bosnians had turned up late, missed us, and headed here to catch us up.

They were our transport, but had to catch us up. Like fuck were we going to pay full whack to them, but we obviously had to pay the Serbs for taking us to the start and hanging around (doubtless catching new fares, but still ...), The main Bosnian guy wouldn't accept our offer, but the man on the phone told him to. Cabs and luggage arrived, the Serbs shook a lot of hands, some minibuses appeared. The conflict was over.

For now.

Mokra Gora is very close to the border with Bosnia. We crossed, noticing there were businesses in the no mans land between the two (exit and entrance). How does that work?

Perhaps as a display of geographical sibling rivalry, our Bosnian drivers were even more insane than the Serbs. There was a palpable sense of dismay, disdain, disgust whenever traffic approached us on the other side of the road, using their lane legally but denying us our right to keep the racing line at all times. We zoomed, we overtook when it was dangerous and illegal, we had lots of fun. Well, I did.

Bosnia is gobsmackingly beautiful. The first, I dunno, hour or so of the journey was jaw dropping. Like the bus to Fauske but with trees and colour, a long trip hugging mountain sides and a new vista at each turn. It was amazing. After a while we were merely treated to expansive countryside, but soon enough it became grand again, mountains everywhere and then, oh, hello Sarajevo. You're beautiful.

So, er, why are we still driving?

The vans took us way up hills to a youth hostel way out from the manifestly gorgeous centre. We weren't happy with this. Were we being punished for the incident? Whether we were or not, more voices were raised, a phone came out again and before we knew it the 9 of us were ensconced in a decidedly central hostel, full of showers and lovely precious electricity.

And, relax. Time for a raki.