“This is where I die,” I thought to myself, as I braced for another attempt to cross a street in Tehran. Being a city boy myself, I didn’t think traffic can get any scarier than it is in Kuala Lumpur, I was wrong.
Iran Backgrounder and Tehran
Tehran is the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and home to around 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people. To say it is a busy city is an understatement, there are no empty roads, and no deserted corners until late at night. Rows of shops and mosques line up the streets and boulevards, against the sound of engines revving, and honking cars. While it is not the most touristic city in Iran, it is the buzzing heartbeat of the nation, and there is no lack of activities for travellers.
Attractions like Golestan Palace, Azadi Tower, Tabiat Bridge, and various gardens are the go-to photo spots of Tehran, and they did leave me good impressions. However, the highlight of my time in Tehran was witnessing the observance of Tasu’a, and the Day of Ashura, religious holidays of the utmost importance to Iran’s Shi’a Islamic faith. While almost no businesses were opened during the holidays, crowds, all dressed in black, flooded the streets, especially parts within the vicinity of any mosques. I could hear religious chants, songs, Quran recitals, and see parades. This was also my first encounter with Iranian hospitality, as I was constantly offered food and drinks in the streets with my fellow traveller friends. We spoke no Persian, they spoke no English, but we communicated through the language of warmth.
Iranian culture cannot be separated from religion, Islam, in particular Shi’a Islam, is present in almost every aspect of life. Religious holidays are not just days off for students and the workforce, the mosques are always full as people fully embrace their religious identities. Speaking about mosques, you can find a different mosque for every 10 minutes you walk, it is a place of worship, as well as a communal space.
It was on one of the public holidays that I decided to visit the Grand Bazaar, around 80 percent of the shops were closed. In contrast, I had became the attraction for the locals who were there, it’s not often Iranians see an obvious foreigner walking alone. I also made the mistake of wearing knee-length shorts, which is not illegal, but something that Iranian adult men don’t do. Lesson learnt, read up on local customs carefully before heading somewhere new! Women would need to always cover up their hair with a veil in public, and dress modestly, this applies even to foreigners. When in Rome, do as the Romans.
With the continuous international sanctions imposed on Iran, the country’s currency: the Iranian Rial, is constantly fluctuating. Exchange rates found online are generally unreliable so there isn’t much point to checking. At the time of writing, IRR1,000,000 is equivalent to around MYR37. You can get a good fulfilling meal easily under MYR10, so no worries about emptying your pockets on food; taxis are also pretty affordable, and usually very thrilling because of peculiar Iranian driving habits, best buckle your seatbelts. As sanctions go, it also means many international brands do not conduct business here. Coca-Cola is one of the few rare ones that do, but even so, they have to be bottled locally.
Tabriz in Pictures
As I was headed towards the Republic of Azerbaijan in the North, I took an overnight sleeper train from Tehran to Tabriz in the East Azerbaijan Province of Iran. The East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces are inhabited mostly by ethnic Azeris instead of Persians. Whilst the official written language here is still Persian/Farsi, almost everybody converses in Azeri Turkish. I spent two nights here at the home of a local – my host Milad who was nice and eager enough to show me the highlights of the region.
Tabriz is located much higher in altitude than Tehran, meaning summers are much cooler and winters much colder. I enjoyed the breezy weather in September, with temperatures staying between around 14 degrees celsius to around 18 degrees celsius. The landscapes of Iranian Azerbaijan are simply astounding. Long stretches of mountains and hills line up the out-of-town freeway, it’s the polar opposite of what you see in and around Tehran. You see the same reckless driving in the city, but when the last concrete building passes by, it becomes a scenic trail.
What can I say? I didn’t know what to expect for my first foray into the Middle East, I did have some doubts, but things turned out way better than I had hoped it would. Whilst the views were amazing, I am stunned by the enthusiasm and warmness of the people. There is no doubt I intend to return to this country in the near future, but expectations will be much higher!
Iceland was the first country I traveled alone to, and to date, it is still the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. Its iconic landscapes are easily identifiable, but based on my Instagram poll, most of you still wanted me to dedicate a post to this island of 300,000 people.
Let’s begin with a little recent background, tourism in Iceland wasn’t always as big as it is now, it really took off after the country’s financial crisis of 2008 to 2011. The three largest privately owned Icelandic banks defaulted, causing a major economic depression. I am not an expert in economy and finance but Iceland essentially shifted their focus to international tourism as a replacement for banking as its primary source of foreign earnings. Tourists started flocking in, especially from the United States with the introduction of low-cost airline, WOW air, connecting major US cities to Reykjavik and other European hubs. A two-way trip from Chicago to Reykjavik can cost as little as $200, that’s less than what I pay for a local flight from Des Moines.
Now, is Iceland really as pretty as you see on Google images? Yes, a very hard yes. Should you visit Iceland, given the chance? Yes, let me tell you how I enjoyed Iceland below.
What You Already Know
There are places in Iceland everyone has seen on the internet now, here’s a rundown on those I actually visited. There are some I missed out, intentionally or not.
I would recommend GeoIceland Day Tours if you’re not in a position to visit these places on your own. I had a great experience with them, they picked me up at my hostel in a minivan and the small group meant it was easier to ask questions and learn stuff. The prices are also reasonable given how Iceland is NOT a budget-friendly country for backpackers.
Now, you might notice I missed out on Blue Lagoon. I did go there, but I only watched from the outside. The main reason being that I travel on a budget, but Blue Lagoon brands itself as a luxury experience. The entrance fee was (probably still is) 5000 ISK per person (35 Euros), why would I pay that to bathe alone among a bunch of tourists? I paid 7 Euros to enjoy the geothermal swimming pool at Laugardalslaug next to the national stadium. That being said, I would have been willing to enter the Lagoon as part of a group, seems to make more sense to me.
Things you might not have known
Not following a planned schedule allowed me to look into some other interesting places and activities in Southwestern Iceland. The harbour in Reykjavik has ships and boats that take you to nearby islands, It was here I discovered Videy Island.
Some things I ate…
Icelandic cuisine is a little different than most. Although fish served in restaurants are super fresh and yummy, I also tried some rather…non-mainstream food.
First, a little anecdote, I tried to save money by making soup myself. I was looking ribs at a Bonus supermarket and bought what looked like pork ribs. They turned out to be horse meat and I didn’t know until I consumed the soup and my host Birgir had told me. It didn’t really make the soup taste any different but the meat is pretty reddish even after cooked and quite lean considering how much horses run. Horse meat is one of the cheapest types of meat in Iceland, not many people eat them but they’re there.
How do I Spend Less in Iceland?
For half my trip I stayed at Kex Hostel, a very hipster place that used to be a biscuit factory. It was just about affordable enough for me as I said before, Iceland is EXPENSIVE. I Couchsurfed the other part of my trip, helping save a ton of money and knowing my wonderful host Birgir!
There are also campsites around the country and if you’re adventurous and have your own tents and essentials, why not?
For food, there really aren’t too many options. I cook myself sometimes but it would have to be a very basic meal, meat is expensive. If you want to eat outside but not spend too much, there are two options I know of.
If given the chance, visit Iceland! It is not the most wallet-friendly destination (none of the Nordic countries are,) but if I (someone who avoids touristy places) could enjoy it, I believe most people will!
Flanked by Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east, Poland was one of the biggest victims of World War II. The country was divided and annexed by their powerful neighbours while cultural hubs were systematically destroyed in an effort to wipe out traces of Polish identity.
Unfortunately, much of the historical landmarks in Poland today are not original, such was the destruction brought forth by the occupying Nazi forces. Warsaw, the capital, was almost completely razed to the ground by the Luftwaffe. Over 80% of the city was destroyed and had to be rebuilt in the mid-20th century.
When the war ended, Poland was in tatters. The Red Army had pushed the Nazis out, but this was the beginning of an era of Communist rule in the country. Living conditions were awful, many people left for Western Europe after the fall of Communism in 1989. Life isn’t always easier abroad, Poles are often the subject of discrimination due to their tendencies to take on more menial jobs.
Maciej, my host in Bialystok for a night returned after a decade in the UK, he told me he doesn’t need a high paying job in Poland anymore. Owning real estate and working a medium-wage job (for Polish standards,) he seems set for the rest of his life. The country has developed a lot and that is no small feat for a population of almost 40 million with such a heavy past. I was very impressed by the big cities like Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw, the streets were clean, public transportation was excellent. It is a country that has bounced back and not looked back.
Warsaw- The Modern Capital
I effectively started my tour of Poland in its capital, Warsaw. I could not imagine how the city would have looked after the Nazis left . How could this traditional, sunny, uplifting major capital city been a pile of rubble and dead bodies just over 70 years ago?
Krakow- The Ancient Capital
Krakow was capital of Poland until 1596. It is one of the cities left unscathed from Nazi occupation because the Germans thought it was an “ancient German City.” Instead of destroying it, they segregated it and attempted to Germanize the city. The infamous Krakow Ghetto was formed, citizens of Jewish ancestry were forcibly moved there, followed by Poles and Roma before being transported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp or Plaszow.
If you watched Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” you will notice many familiar buildings and places in the Jewish Quarter because many scenes were shot here. In fact, Oskar Schindler’s factory is still here, now serving as The Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, dedicated to the period surrounding WWII.
The Tri-City Region
The most visited area in the north of Poland is probably the tri-city area with the three cities being Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot. This is a coastal area and is a little more different from Warsaw and Krakow. The unusually hot summer of 2018 made for some interesting sightings. Despite that, Gdansk is probably the prettiest city out of all I visited in Poland.
Lublin, Wroclaw and Poznan
Getting around Poland was very easy despite its size, (thank you Flix Bus.) I was very lucky to see more of the country. Believe me, this is a country you want to spend more time in, there is so much to unveil, from learning how to pronounce “Wroclaw,” to trying the St. Martin’s Croissant in Poznan, a recipe protected by the European Union.
Every midday, two mechanical goats on top of the Poznan town hall clock will come out cuckoo style and do battle. This unique event attracts huge crowds especially grandparents and children. I watched on as I tried the St. Martin’s croissant exclusive to this very city because the recipe is protected by the EU. This means the baking of this pastry needs to follow the exact recipe with no exceptions. The croissant is made up of 81 layers consisting of white poppy seeds, raisins, orange peel, walnuts, biscuit crumbs, eggs and almond flavouring. For me it tasted a little sweet, but the feeling of having tasted food protected by the EU is priceless. My apologies for not having images for both these amazing things!
All in All, Visit Poland
There’s something for everyone. Pierogis, Kielbasa and Polish Sausages for the foodies, a glut of history (both tragic and triumphant) for the scholars, pristine coastal areas for the beach bums, and well-developed cities for the city slickers.
It is simply amazing how this nation rose from the ashes of war and then emerge from an oppressive regime as one of the most developed country in an unfancied region of Europe. The Poles are nothing if not resilient, see for yourself.
I am naming this post after Michael Calvin’s excellent book and documentary about aspiring footballers in England, and how their journeys are so heavily romanticized. Less than 1% of all young players actually make it to the glitz and glam of top level football.
How many Cubans actually just sit back all day in Varadero puffing cigars and dancing salsa? People go to Cuba expecting paradise; pristine beaches, delicious rum, cheap cigars, classic cars, it is supposedly a place filled with “don’t worry, be happy” vibes. I often wonder why people long for “authentic” experiences when travelling somewhere but never actually stop to think what “authentic” really means. Cuba, like most of Latin America and the Caribbean, is an impoverished country, it is a fact, there are no ways around it.
When I arrived in Havana, I was in awe with how different this place was to any other places I’ve ever been to. It felt like I went back in time, cars from the 50s and 60s filled the streets, people gathered outside in groups. It was like a huge movie setting, making it easy to forget that everything I saw was a reflection of the socioeconomic problems Cubans face. We’re talking about one of the last true socialist countries in the world, it isn’t just another island paradise where rich White people go for crazy beach parties.
I underwent my first solo backpacking trip in 2016, to Boston and then to Iceland for two weeks. Since then I have embarked on three more separate journeys alone to different parts of the world. As much as I’d like to tell you every single moment on the road was perfect, I can’t, I don’t think that is possible in any walk of life. That being said, I would never trade my experiences in those four trips for anything else in the world. Let me separate this post into a few sections; the pros, the cons, and some tips.
The perks of traveling alone anywhere allow for enriching experiences if you organize yourself well enough. The one thing I love most about just bringing my own ass and a backpack anywhere is that I have all the freedom in the world. I get to pick where I want to go, when I want to go, and what I want to eat, no compromises needed. Traveling with a group of friends is obviously a fun thing but you don’t get to do everything your way. There might be someone in the group who does not want to stay in that cool hipster hostel you found or they just do not want to do that day trip you planned. A lot needs to be planned beforehand when you travel in a group, there needs to be a solid itinerary with everybody’s consensus if you do not want to waste precious exploration time. I don’t plan much, I never know what city I’m heading to next until a few days before I’m due to depart because I can make that decision in an instant. When you’re able to go online, everything can be settled within minutes.
Going solo also allowed me to meet people I would not have met had I had the comfort of travel companions. Living in hostels you can find many like-minded solo travelers from around the world. For an introvert, sort of ambivert-ish guy like me it’s a great way to meet people. I find it so much easier to make friends while traveling than being in university because on the road, I find people a lot more open-minded and a lot less hypocritical. Maybe that’s because we’re (if I can call myself a traveler) less inclined to be ethnocentric, and less likely to impose our own values on different societies, we’re not afraid of differences. I’ve had wonderful experiences exploring small villages and towns with fellow hostel dwellers, these are places I did not know existed nor would have I visited alone in fear of being completely lost. Yes, I am aware that I would probably never see some of these friends I made on the road ever again, but we share moments I will always remember and I think about them from time to time.
Yes, hard to believe, there are cons to flying solo, from small things like being on a bus alone with strangers for 32 hours (yes, I did that) to big scary things like the consuming void that is loneliness. To be honest, I did not exactly plan my first solo backpacking trip, I did ask some of my friends if they wanted to join, I was okay with going alone but that wasn’t the original plan. There are activities more suited for parties of two and above, like bar-hopping (if you’re not joining hostel-led tours) and going for parties. It simply does not make sense to me to go to a bar and drink alone hoping people would approach me. I do not work that way. More often than not, if I had not been able to meet anyone to go out with, I find myself reading or playing with my phone in an empty hostel room at night, and sometimes night extends to nights. I’m not saying it is bad to spend time alone at night and not go out but it is sometimes harder to enjoy cities with more vibrant nightlives alone if you’re not extroverted.
Then, there is loneliness, particularly on a long trip. I felt it, there were moments I wished I could share with friends back home. Sometimes it was hard wandering the city and witnessing families, couples and friends having fun while I sat on a bench licking my melting gelato. Those moments sucked. I think some places are more practical for group travelers, like Cuba. Almost no one spoke English there and I don’t speak Spanish, the country basically has no real internet connection for visitors (you have to be at designated hotspots.) While some nights I met groups of Europeans or Australians and have some Cuba Libre, others, I go to bed by 11 p.m. struggling to fall asleep.
What I Can Share
You don’t need excessive planning but it is smart to study the region you’re heading to, where buses, trains and planes go to if you’re on a multi-city trip. I was planning on heading to Belarus by bus from Lithuania but luckily I was told by my German hostel roommate that visa-free entry into Belarus is only available through the airport, I would have been denied entry at the border. Do your research, especially if you’re going to less touristic places. Look up Google Maps and plan out a general route, what kind of transportation link these cities/countries up. In my opinion, there are no countries in the world not worthy of a visit, you can even travel solo locally, it is something I’m planning to do in the future, a trip around Peninsular Malaysia.
On accommodation, I tend to not be picky about it, I like hostels because they have all the necessities you need and you can meet people. It’s not true that hostels are dirty and full of dangerous people, there are many popular well-maintained places with quirky themes, but of course it’s not for everyone, some people like more privacy and I understand that. For more adventurous travelers, do try CouchSurfing, it is an app where you can find hosts in different cities willing to accommodate you at their place for free. It is a fun way to meet and interact with locals, learn how they live and discover hidden spots not really exposed to travelers. I wrote two articles about my experiences CouchSurfing in Ames, IA and St. Louis, MO and I’ve only met great hosts so far.
I know some people fear language barriers and getting lost. For communication, many younger folks in large cities do understand English, even when they don’t, body language and hand gestures usually bring simple messages across easily, I believe human beings have naturally strong non-verbally-built bonds. If you have internet access, it’s even easier with translation apps and maps. If you don’t I suggest downloading the MAPS.ME app onto your phone, download the map of your destination before departing and use it offline while you’re there, navigation is also available. I can’t tell you how much I loved the app while I was in Cuba. So there really aren’t many barriers to traveling somewhere alone that cannot be solved with a phone, but of course I speak as a privileged Asian male.
Do it, go on solo journeys, it can be overwhelming at first but it can be life changing. As I stated, your trip won’t be perfect, there will be bad days. There will be days with bad weather and your plans are just in tatters, days when you just don’t want to go out, then don’t, do what you want, that’s the beauty of it.
If you tell me you’ve always known that Lithuania was once the largest country in Europe, I would call you a dirty liar, or maybe I would feel extremely bitter because you might be smarter than me. Of course, back then in the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania also included Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia and Poland. Today, the Republic of Lithuania is only the size of West Virginia.
From one coastal city to another, I took a bus from Liepaja, Latvia to Klaipeda, Lithuania. I prioritized Klaipeda over Vilnius because I absolutely wanted to see the Curonian Spit (more on that.) I found the city itself a little sleepy and more family-oriented. The two ports, one for passenger transportation, the other for vehicles were pretty crowded. Klaipeda is also slightly closer to the Hill of Crosses; another must-see site, than Vilnius, making it a good stop for a few day trips.
It was in Lithuania that I engaged more with local food due to the larger availability of non-tourist traps. It was also here that I learnt Baltic people love potatoes. Potato pancakes, pudding, dumplings etc. are served almost anywhere that sells food and they’re always among the cheapest main courses. Prices have gone up in the Baltic states since they adopted the Euro (Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014, Lithuania in 2015) as their national currencies. Much like how some Singaporeans like spending in Malaysia, some Lithuanians are heading down south to Poland (where they still use the Polish Zloty) to do their shopping. With my journalist math, I believe a cheap meal at a restaurant without a drink costs approximately €8.00, so it’s still hardly the most expensive region in Europe.
I found Lithuania to be a little more bohemic and free-spirited than its Baltic neighbors, not least due to the young artists living in Vilnius, the establishment of the Republic of Uzupis neighborhood and the fanaticism revolving around their national basketball team. Yes, they are crazy about basketball, some people call it a religion. This is particularly notable considering Lithuania is surrounded by footballing nations.
Of course, being part of Eastern Europe, the country had seen its fair share of tragedies. It was the first nation to declare independence from the USSR; fifty years after its annexation. Like its neighbors, Nazis temporarily drove the Soviets away during World War II to impose their own brand of cruelty, culminating in the Paneriai massacre, where 100,000 people were killed in the span of 3 years.
It is unavoidable that I would write about the Holocaust and WWII having visited this part of Europe. The Nazis left everlasting damage to these countries and the crimes they committed should never be forgotten, not only to prevent any future recurrences but also to remember how strong our powers of recovery can be. That being said, let’s end this post on a high note as I describe a couple of the better photos I took in Lithuania not already posted.
Since it was a World Cup period, it was essential that I was somewhere with the best internet connection to stream games (nothing else.) Latvia happens to have one of the fastest internet speeds in the world. The Baltic states in general, are quietly very technologically advanced, the best way of being good at something(my previous post on Estonia touched on how it is a startup paradise.) At 5:30 in the morning, I left my hostel in Tartu, eastern Estonia, and headed to the bus station. The bus arrived late in Riga; the capital of Latvia, and I had to rush to my connecting ride to Cesis in the northeast of the country. Through my short sprint I noticed the local babushkas at the market and a cab driver using Waze in Russian. Having never been to Russia, this was probably the closest to Russian culture I had witnessed so far.
The country’s history and Russian influence is something to take notice. Like Estonia, having been annexed by the USSR from 1940 to 1991, Soviet influences can still be seen, not least the near 500,000 ethnic Russians who live in Latvia and the 37 percent of Latvians who speak Russian. Many signs and shops display Russian as a second language.
Latvia is not the perfect destination for ravers and party animals, you won’t get the Amsterdam vibes in Riga nor would you see many Ibiza-ish beach parties along its 500 km Baltic shoreline. Nightlife in the Baltic states may not match those of Western European strongholds or the crazy Eastern European parties of Bucharest or Kiev but you need not shed your hedonistic self, Old Town Riga is as lively as it gets with restaurants and bars galore. For lonely self-deprecating nerds such as myself who have intrinsic desires to learn while on holiday, Riga itself has several interesting museums in the city centre which are either free or charges a small entrance fee. There is much to learn about the country’s fate during WWII and subsequent communist rule. For travelers with a taste for the alternative, Karosta Prison in Liepaja is a great place to visit. Built during Tsarist Russia, the former prison is now a museum but visitors can pay to spend nights there and be treated like prisoners. Basically, you can pay for people to treat you like shit and live in bad conditions.
Like its neighbors, Latvia’s abundance of beaches, forests and modern history makes for a versatile and wholesome travel experience but what fascinated me most were the sites of memory. The country’s troubled past lays bare for all to see, visitors have access to sites of mass murders and torture chambers.
What did I know about the Baltic states? I know it’s made up of three countries known as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania respectively. I know Skype was founded in Estonia. I know they used to be part of the Soviet Union. I also know they don’t have very good football teams. That was about it, but I visited anyway. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia was a 2-hour flight away from London (90 dollars, very uncomfortable with Ryanair.) This was the first time I went somewhere without really knowing what to expect.
Doing the bare minimum of research, I found out that Estonia is what they call a “startup paradise,” the Skype thing suddenly makes sense now. Most impressive to me was their e-government, all the bureaucratic bullshit we have to deal with, Estonians do it online. They were the first nation to introduce online voting in governmental elections in 2005 and now they pay taxes through the internet. This is even more astonishing considering they only reclaimed independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. It took merely one generation for this small nation to grow from an isolated post-communist state to a booming tech hub. The iron curtain was raised in an alarming speed.
Despite all this talk of it being the Silicon Valley of Europe, Tallinn’s historic center is one of the best preserved medieval old towns in Europe, rightfully earning a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
I stayed in a hostel 5 minutes away from the old town by foot. The early summer weather made it easy to walk everywhere, on good days, the sun would shine so brightly but temperatures would stay around the perfect 22 degree celsius mark. It had all the makings of me falling in love with the city and yes I did. I don’t have anything negative to say about the city. It’s clean, public transportation is top notch, it’s beautiful, it’s contrasting past and future makes for an interesting narrative, and the growing startup culture is attracting young people to the city.
However, one tiny downside is that people are starting to notice this city, there were multiple travel tour groups from as far as Korea visiting the city. If there’s something that repels me from a city, it’s crowds of tourists. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the city and country is getting the recognition it deserves.
Basically, I find Estonia to be at the crossroads of Scandinavia and the Eastern Bloc. Helsinki is a 3-hour ferry ride away across the Gulf of Finland, but the shadow of Russia looms large in the east. Perhaps the longing of some locals for a Nordic identity rose from an urge to erase its Soviet past, still fresh in the minds of some. Former KGB HQs and offices have been converted into museums like their neighboring Baltic nations with the cells intact, everyday commodities of the communist era are preserved in museums, including the Estonian National Museum in Tartu I had the pleasure of visiting.
However developed Estonia may be today, the nation remembers where it came from, hard-earned independence taken away by the Red Army in 1940, German occupation and the Holocaust during World War II followed by decades behind the Iron Curtain from the rule of Stalin up to Gorbachev. The will of the Estonian people to put a rather tumultuous past behind and successfully form a strong modern nation is one to be admired.
It is a regret of mine that I didn’t see more of Hungary other than Budapest, I simply did not allocate enough time to do so, but I am very glad I saw Budapest before it truly becomes one of the Barcelonas, the Pragues, the Londons, before it is completely taken over by tourism, it’s getting there.
My House in Budapest, My Hidden Treasure Chest
I arrived in Budapest all grumpy and tired, I couldn’t sleep on the train and I hadn’t showered for a day, I also got ripped off by a cab driver (note: lots of them in Budapest, cabs and exchange offices). Once I started exploring the city everything was better, Budapest was definitely the highlight of my trip. Easily accessible streets, the river, the city is as vibrant as it gets, things to do from dawn to dusk, and also after that. Strolling around the city in the hot sun for 3 hours was not ideal but it was worth it.
It’s a beautiful city but I think the best thing is getting vibes from the people here, they know how to have fun and enjoy, there’s never a shortage of people. There is also the small matter of cruising down the Danube at night getting absolutely hammered (not me.) After a wonderful 3 nights in Budapest I decided to use Bratislava as a buffer zone between Hungary and Austria, like many people do (no offense, Slovakia is great.)
Budapest is only 3 hours away from Bratislava by bus, do consider RegioJet Bus, it’s the best bus service ever and trips usually only cost 5 Euros. They operate mainly in Central and Eastern Europe but offer routes to as far as London. Imagine an airplane on land (basically a bus), yes, with wifi, food (payment needed of course), movies, radio and games, I tried looking for their services whenever possible. No they did not pay me to do this, (I have like 5 readers,) I just liked them a lot and wanted to share this info with you. So, yes, Slovakia.
Old Town Bratislava is a very charming place, people were passing out drunk as early as 2pm, I can certainly see why Bratislava is a party city. I was supposed to have a host here but she went on jury duty out of town without telling me, I spent half the day trying to contact her with my bags walking around the city. Ultimately a fellow couchsurfer took me in for the night and he was super nice. The dude was crazy in a good way, for awhile he had the left side of his head shaved before fully shaving it and he showed me his half-tanned scalp, that was the funniest thing ever. Slovaks are my favorite people because as my host Juraj told me, they’re the fun side of Czechoslovakia (I didn’t say this, Czechs).
For the first day I climbed up to Bratislava Castle with my bags because I didn’t want to waste the day waiting for a response from my original host, the castle was okay, nothing quite special. The atmosphere of Old Town was sick though because it was Champions League Final day and many bars were showing the big game.
The next day Juraj could not host me so I checked into an Airbnb dorm, weather was shit but I took the bus 30 minutes out of Bratislava to Devin Castle, it was pouring and I didn’t have an umbrella (meaning I don’t own one, I still don’t.) I don’t know why but my adrenaline kicked in when I reached the top of the castle, I stood there looking at the Danube for a good 10 minutes and the greenery surrounding it, I was all wet (not in a good way) on the bus back. This was the third city and country I had seen the Danube in, a goal of mine, to see them in all possible countries.
Bratislava is small, but it’s super underrated, I guess that’s how it maintains its charm, as a buffer zone or layover destination for people wanting to get to Vienna, which was where I was heading.
Ich Liebe Wien
So there I was, in Vienna, music capital of the world, the city where Mozart rose to fame, painfully expensive tourist city but also a very enjoyable place. I spent probably the most in Vienna, not least the many 2.20 Euro metro tickets (please plan ahead in Vienna so you know if you need the day passes, I didn’t). It’s the only city I didn’t buy keychains from as souvenir, they’re usually 9 Euros each.
Let’s not talk about the cost, overall I would compare it aesthetically with Budapest, supremely beautiful, especially in the Innere Stadt (old town) area, but there wasn’t much going on, not many people were out and about, sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so much. The metro is very accessible and easy to use, I easily navigated the city despite its size.
Highlights include Schonbrunn Palace, probably the most well known attraction in Vienna, normally I don’t pay for tours of historical places but I took an exception for this one and I didn’t regret it. I took an audio guided tour of 40 rooms in the palace and it was fascinating, especially if you like history of Habsburg monarchies.
Take a stroll at Volksgarten, it’s the perfect place to relax and read a book, and one of the few free things you can do in Vienna. Small tip, have bratwurst or currywurst for lunch to save some money (not everyday), they’re also very good, to treat yourself find some cool gasthaus(es) and order anything from the menu, they’re usually all in German and the staff members might not even speak English, I’ve only had good experiences ordering blindly. Discovered leberknodelsuppe or liver dumpling soup this way.
From Graz with Love
From Vienna it takes around 2 and a half hours to reach Graz, the 2nd largest city in Austria after Vienna, but is actually very much smaller (feels so.) I did enjoy myself here more than in Vienna because it is a university town, I don’t know what it is with me and university towns. I couchsurfed with a Guatemalan student here and it turned out there was an AIESEC event going on that week, I tagged along and met a bunch of other students. Always a fun time hanging out with other students. Graz is less grandeur-esque compared to Vienna but I think it has everything a student needs within its boundaries, including a myriad of cafe bars serving cheap food and beer, tried pfandl for the first time here (german pasta-ish dish), it was excellent, you get to choose what you want in your pfandl, cheeses, meats, veges etc.
Walked 260 steps on stairs up to the Schlossberg, a hill with a public park on top and a clock tower. You see a great deal of the city there, the view was great (might just be a defense mechanism to convince myself I didn’t waste all that energy going up.) I also treated Graz as a sort of layover between Austria and Slovenia, but it certainly exceeded my expectations. Fact: Arnold Schwarzenegger was born 1 mile from Graz in the village of Thal.
The city name you can’t pronounce
My final stop was Ljubljana, Slovenia. I spent 4 nights here because I wanted to settle in one place a little longer, I was moving every 3 days prior and was tired from all the travelling. Ljubljana was a good place to settle for a while, I enjoyed my night walks in the city center because it was always teeming with life, there were performers, people were outside, there was just something that made me very happy.
It is a small city but most points of interest are congregated in the city center, buses are fairly straightforward and accessible although you need to purchase a card from the kiosks in the city to be able to pay for buses. After walking around the city for a couple days I became an expert of the local dessert scene, my favorite place is Cacao, probably the best ice-cream place around that also serves cake, I had cake for dinner once, no judging.
The Slovenian national football team were also in town to host their Maltese counterpart for a World Cup qualification game and I was there to witness as Slovenian star striker Milvoje Novakovic played his last professional football game and also scored to much fanfare from the home fans.
If you find yourself in need of some nature, just take a bus to nearby Bled, about 50 minutes away. The Vintgar Gorge that I did not fully explore was gorgeous, especially on a nice sunny day, bring your bathing suit, water is fucking crystal clear and cooling. The famous mountain treks for Triglav National Park also begins in Bled, it’s something I would like to explore in the future.
Lake Bled which was supposed to be the main attraction was disappointing for me because it looked just like an oversized swimming pool, but the surroundings were nice, too many mosquitoes though. Slovenia is also a country I feel I did not explore enough, would love to go back and visit Koper and Maribor next time. When you’ve been to other former Yugoslav countries and visit Slovenia, Slovenia doesn’t feel like the others, (as of this sentence I have not been to Croatia and Montenegro yet.)
Macedonia, the epitome of Balkan weirdness
Fast forward a good 2 weeks, I would be in Skopje, FYR Macedonia for a long weekend due to Bajram. Buses to Skopje from Prishtina are frequent and the journey only takes 90 minutes. It is a city of mixed cultures with Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish populations. The Stone Bridge across the Vardar River seemed to also separate the Macedonians from the Albanians and Turkish because from my observations, one half of the city looked more Greek, the other more Ottoman.
Skopje is a city of a ridiculous amount of monuments, most of them unfortunately have no significant relevance to the history of the city. They were built as a recent initiative by the government to (insert word here) the city and also very weirdly placed and built very close to one another, I don’t really know how to describe how the city looks, it’s not super ugly but it looks very weird. There are also piles of trash in random corners. I arrived close to the peak of summer and my days in Skopje were the hottest days I experienced in Europe, it was even hotter than Malaysia.
In terms of things to do, there aren’t much but it’s nice to walk around and see some of the weird shit that shouldn’t be placed together, placed together. Half an hour away from Skopje is the Matka Canyon, supposedly a large canyon with a network of caves, I say supposedly because I never saw it, because I never got there, not because I didn’t try but because someone decided to commit murder in a nearby village the day I was trying to go. Roads towards Matka was closed, the bus driver who didn’t know what happened dropped us off 3km from our destination and told us to walk there, halfway through police told us we couldn’t go further.
As a consolation, I decided to walk to nearby Lake Treska with 2 Slovaks I met there before finding the bus stop for buses back to Skopje. The lake was very shitty, it looked like a sewage treatment plant, there were also cows around, one cow looked really pissed, I was afraid it was gonna charge. We then spent almost half an hour locating the correct bus stop to go back. All in all, my time in Skopje was rather weird, it was strangely quiet for a weekend and there was a murder case. Lol.
As my semester abroad in Serbia finished, I took 3 week holiday. I spent it across 9 cities in 5 countries, best time of my life. Tried to spend as little as possible on accommodation by Couchsurfing, you’ll be surprised by the people you’ll meet. I recommend it to everyone because it is the easiest way to assimilate and understand where you are, who lives there, what they do, and of course you save money.
For my first stop I took a short train ride to Timisoara in the west of Romania. Even though Romania is one of the more prosperous countries in the Balkans, expenses are still pretty cheap here compared to most of Europe. I spent more time here than other countries I visited because I thought I had more time than I did. Here’s how I rank the cities I went to, Cluj-Napoca>Brasov>Timisoara>Bucharest (smh).
Ironically, my favorite city in Romania is also the city I took least photos of. I find myself drawn to this city because of its potential, it had all the makings of a modern well functioning cityscape with a young population, the country’s best (?) university and a shit ton of heritage buildings. Versatile. A significant number of Hungarians live here and it is very easy to get to Budapest from Cluj.
The Legacy of Dracula
To be honest, I came to Brasov only because it is the closest major city to Bran Castle (Dracula’s Castle). I had high hopes for Dracula’s Castle but in the end I felt that I wasted my time in Bran, could have done more in Brasov. The small town of Bran has been milked by the tourism industry so much it is now a resort town, going into the castle costs 8 Euros.
Peles Castle in nearby Sinaia was so much prettier imo, it was the vacation home of the royal family until 1947, and you don’t have to pay to see the castle up close. I really like the “Brasov” sign on top on Mount Tampa (pictured), even though it looks like a cheap Hollywood knockoff , you can actually hike up to where the sign is. Generally a very chill city, good place to spend a whole afternoon in the centre reading a book.
Street Smart Timisoara
Aesthetically I think Timisoara was the most beautiful city I went to in Romania with a rich mixture of Baroque and Gothic buildings. Piata Unirii was simply breathtaking and the most picturesque area I went to. You can find glimpses of the city’s local history turning corners of the many streets with signs telling you info about old factories and bridges. I rank it only in 3rd mostly because of myself, it was the first city I went to and I was not yet in the mood to engage with people and communicate.
The Lesser of the Bu-est capitals
Bucharest is the capital of Romania and maybe because of that I had higher hopes for it, but usually people say capital cities are never representative of any country. I didn’t have a wonderful experience here, I thought the city looked ugly, it rained all 3 days I was there, my host was very friendly but creepy and made me feel uncomfortable (a me problem).
The highlight of my first day there was hiding from the rain in a shitty mall with half of its shops closed and stealing Wifi from H&M. I need to go back there someday when the weather is better. All in all, I just couldn’t identify anything with Bucharest, maybe that’s why people know Budapest more than Bucharest. Ouch.
I took an overnight train from Cluj to Budapest, a 7 hour journey. Romanian trains are not very comfortable, when you use the bathroom, you’ll notice you’re peeing or pooping directly onto the tracks. In summer you also have to deal with the heat and your own sweat, when your seat mate is 100% Romanian who speaks no English, 7 hours feel like 70.