India’s bureaucracy would give us a final shin kick in the form of enforcing Sri Lanka’s immigration rules. Sri Lanka, and many other countries, obligate the traveller to have on onward ticket out of the country before being allowed to enter. Sylvie and I have already skipped this step a few times with no problems. Often, border officials don’t even bother asking to see this ticket. But 2 days before our flight out of India, we get an email from the airline saying that we will not be permitted to board the plane without an onward ticket. Great. Now we needed to rush a decision on where to go after Sri Lanka, a month before it’s time.. and purchase the ticket, without being able to watch the prices and hunt for deals. Thanks alot. Did Sri Lanka immigration ask to see this onward ticket? Of course not.
Thankfully, the hasty decision to return to Europe turned out to be perfect. We started our tour in Greece. A mix of eye opening history, beauty from another planet and crisis in action, Greece treated us to an education like no other. The next couple of weeks would be full of deep questions and historical comparisons.. and of course some site seeing. We thought coming in the spring would be a great idea to avoid the crowds and see the mainland without the guilt and pull of the islands. We could see the guts of this country and then return another day to enjoy the sun, sands and waters. It turned out to be a perfect idea.
We landed in Athens and spent over a week living in our very comfortable Airbnb apartment just a few blocks south of the Acropolis. We walked the city by day and cooked meals over wine in our private space by night. It was like having our old apartment back in Canada all over again. It was a break from the hard work of navigating third and second world countries on a daily basis. Europe is just like home .. only way cooler. Athens was unbelievable.
We had learned back in September about the sculptures we see on television and books. The ones that look incredibly realistic. We learned that those were the work of Greeks over 2000 years ago. We learned this in Rome. The Romans would catch up somewhere in the 1500’s with the likes of Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This differentiation alone was a bit mind blowing, but the learning that would happen in the first few days in Athens changed my entire concept of “how things happened”… The real history.
It turns out that the Greeks weren’t just amazing at sculpting, but at everything else as well. It turns out that they are pretty much responsible for the way things are today, especially when it comes to government, philosophy and the arts. It could have went so many different ways if certain wars ended differently. When the Greeks beat the Persians back in 300 BC, it started carving out our modern civilization. The Romans even came in to defeat and take over the Greeks in the first century BC, but they liked the way Greeks did everything so much, that they just adopted their ways and continued on with it. The Roman Empire would continue on for 1500 years with Greek language and ways of doing things.
The awe of the Acropolis and the stories behind the scattered ruins within Athens just make my head spin. It’s amazing to see these structures, so magnificent, so old. We could just imagine this place in the summer with the heat and the tourists.. it would not have been the same. We practically had Athens to ourselves, which was great for us, not so much for the Athenians. We roamed the streets as the locals do. We marvelled at the orange trees. We shopped in the markets. We rode their subway system to get around. Such a great city.
On our last day in the area, we took a bus ride down the coast to the southern most point of the mainland. Our goal was to visit the temple of Poseidon, but this ride turned out to be revelatory in other ways. As soon as we reached the ocean, while still in Athens, we could see the crystal clear water. Crystal clear … AT the city. I had never seen this before. Water is always murky at the city. I could see for many meters out into the sea and have perfect site of the sea floor. As the bus continued along the coast, this didn’t change. The scenery just became more and more beautiful, and the water remained the same. Dark blue far out, and crystal clear nearby. The hills, the cliffs, the gorgeous houses and small communities that paint the coastline were enchanting. I dream of returning to rent a house here and spending a few weeks by the quiet sea. Something tells me that the tourists don’t make it out this way. I mean to find out. The temple of Poseidon was pretty great as well.
After a week of the Athens scene, we traveled North, deeper inland to the area of Meteora, where majestic cliffs jut out of nowhere in a vast valley surrounded by mountains. The train ride through the valley was incredible, gawking at this scenery that looked like big bucks CGI. At Meteora we took a couple of days to hike this backdrop of cliffs. There are trails through the wilderness and in the height of spring, this landscape resembled something out of a Tim Burton movie. It felt like Halloween back home, a perfect primer for Romania in the coming weeks.
At the top of this stage were a series of monasteries, perched on the top of the karsts. These refuges were built around the 15th century by monks. The beginning of these construction stories start with hermit monks that climbs up to live in a crack or fissure in the rock near the tops of these karsts. In time, the monks formed a “state” that eventually attracted followers in the years to come. The need for safe places to conduct “monk” business gave rise the construction of the monasteries. The monks could do their thing in peace up on top of the cliffs which were only accessible by rope ladders. In times of conflict or Turkish attacks, they could retract the ropes and ladders and remain safe up top. Nowadays, you can can reach the monasteries by staircases carved out in the rock or by primitive cable cars across the chasms. Meteora was an awesome historical and hiking destination.
Greece was so beautiful and inspiring but make no mistake, it’s a country in crisis mode. This is evident from day 1. The first thing an outsider will notice are the abandoned structures, from residential buildings, to businesses to building projects. The building projects were the most disturbing as you can see how one day, they just packed up their tools and went home, never to return. These sites are everywhere. Sometimes it is a lone building in a neighbourhood, and other times its an entire ghost neighbourhood. Abandoned vehicles littered the city streets as well. You could tell how long the car or motorcycle had been there by how much of it remained. These relics ranged from brand new cars covered in 2 weeks of dust, pigeon crap and dirt, to cars with no engines or wheels just sitting on the side of the road. There were a few spots where there were large groups of abandoned scooters.
Many of the businesses were clinging to stay afloat. Many of them closed their doors a while ago, but the ones that remained appeared to be doing well. You could imagine this city before the crisis as a buzzing beehive of activity. Now it is a live open air museum of the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest. We tried our best to be aware of this and to spend our money appropriately. These are a strong people. Greece has been a shining star for over 2000 years, I am confident they will rebound from this and continue to fascinate and to show the world how it’s done.
Macedonia, Bulgaria and Serbia
There isn’t much to say about these eastern European countries. They are all of Slavic origin, so to the lay person, everyone sounds and looks Russian, whatever that is supposed to look and sound like. We started our departure from Greece with it’s rival, Macedonia. The Macedonian motto is to deny Greece exists. A great example of this was buried in the texts of an incredible archaeological museum in Skopje. We read for a couple of hours through all their informational posters and noticed that the words Greece and Greek were oddly absent. They take full credit for Alexander the Great and his father Phillip II. I take no sides to this debate, only making the observation.
Their government is waiting for their application to the European Union to be accepted and so they are trying their best to be more “European” .. in hopes, I suppose, of being recognised. There is an explosion of construction going on in the capital which the citizens aren’t necessarily happy about. Old style classical government buildings are popping up left and right… a rushed endeavour according to the locals. A rushed endeavour from our observations as well. These brand new buildings were already showing signs of falling apart. There are also dozens and dozens of new statues all over the place. The most impressive being that of Alexander on Bucephalus in the central square. It’s enormous. I think the citizens of Macedonia would prefer the money being spent on more pressing matters.
Bulgaria was a bit more organised and built up. The capital, Sofia, had an budding artistic scene to it and young people wanting to better their lot. This place was full of artsy cafes and galleries and fancy restaurants. We took in the free walking tour offered by the energetic activist type youths and spent a few hours trying to get the perfect shot of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. We ate like kings and queens and enjoyed our posh and stylish Airbnb on the 7th floor facing Vitosha, the mountain range bordering the city.
Serbia was a bit grittier yet money was flowing left right and center. We felt uncomfortable at times as the neighbourhoods would change from block to block. Dolce & Gabbana type stores line the one main walking street but take a wrong left and you feel as though you are free lunch for some entrepreneurial predator. We had our comfort walk we would take to our favourite restaurant we frequented for 3 days.. this was Serbia for us. As I am writing this from Morocco, I am still stuck with 2000 Serbian Dinars in my wallet which no one will touch. Ugh … there should be a warning on currency exchanges.
I fell in love with Romania. From the Dacia automobile to Bran Castle, this place knocked me off my feet. We entered the country by train, from the west, stopping in at the town of Deva. At this point, I had high expectations of Transylvania, to freak me out and drag me deep into my youth of Dungeon and Dragons with it’s medieval villages and castles. It delivered the next day on our visit to Corvin Castle. This place allowed you as a visitor to roam freely the castle grounds and rooms of the buildings that surround the central courtyard. We had visited a couple castles before this time, but this was the first time we had the run of the place, able to explore and truly feel what it’s like to be in a castle. It fulfilled everything I have been dreaming about since my prepubescent days of Strahd Von Zarovich and Ravenloft. Sylvie enjoyed herself, but it was on a whole different level for me.
Corvin castle ended up being the best castle experience ever. There were others in the days to come, but none compared in it’s access, lack of tourists and authenticity. If you want to visit a castle, do this one. Aside from extraordinary castle experience, Romania was also offering some pretty amazing and ultra cheap places to stay. We had a first class apartment style “villa” for less than anything we’ve ever paid in Europe. We had those blue lights you see under spun up sports cars in our bedroom, and the shower also spewed out a beautiful florescent green spray of water from the ornate shower head. We were in for some comfortable accommodations in Romania.
The 2 weeks that would follow would continue to deliver. This place impressed me with it’s friendly and knowledgeable people, it’s impressive post communist infrastructure, it’s historical resilience, and of course it’s medieval towns, buildings, churches and squares. The food was fantastic, the towns and cities were impressive, and of course the accommodations were inviting. You couldn’t ask for a better European experience. We even managed to rent a car for a day to visit some sites in Brasov’s neighboring towns. Renting a car was an impossibility in our minds but Romania made it happen. All of this on our regular Canadian budget. We didn’t have to make a “Euro” budget like we had in September.
Romania’s history was very interesting, how it managed to stay above the fray most of the time. The one point that might interest the reader is about Bran castle. This is the castle that is often associated with Dracula. We kind of knew before going, but Bran castle has really nothing to do with the fictional character of Dracula. In fact, the author never even visited this place. The castle has some vague associations to Vlad the Impaler, a gruesome prince from back in the day who kept the Ottoman empire at bay. He had this nick name because he had an obsession with impaling people on very long spikes. He would drive it through their anus, up through their insides and out of the mouth/throat. He would prop the spike up and have the victim bleed to death for a couple of days. This is the closest we get to a vampire story in the area.
We ended our Romanian and Eastern European visit in the capital, Bucharest. Another great city to enjoy and relax in. The most notable site we visited was the enormous parliament building in the city centre. Construction of this monstrosity started in 1984 and it still hasn’t been completed. It’s 84 metres high, has a floor area of 365,000 square metres and boasts 1100 rooms. It’s the second largest administrative building in the world, behind the Pentagon. You have to see it to believe it, as the photos have difficulty showing it in context.
This leg of the journey was truly a vacation from our trip. We kind of needed it. Europe is so easy to navigate and it’s so full of things to see and do. The trouble is choosing which things not to do, which sites to skip. We witnessed over and over, innovations that should be happening in our modern Canada but aren’t. We talked to people speaking multiple languages and knowing more about history and humanity than I will ever learn. We walked and explored places that have been walked in by legends, heroes and villains. We got schooled once again. I am impressed and humbled each time. Europe, I salute you and I am already looking forward to our next visit.