Belgrade – 48 hours of contrasts

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Following the intense train ride from Thessaloniki, we arrived in the first of the Balkan countries we would be visiting, in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Our first perceptions of the city with bleary eyes peering into the sunny morning, was that is was quite antiquated, with the older ex-German/Austrian railcars and locomotives and many older looking buildings, some quite dilapidated.

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Once we had spilled out of the station and oriented ourselves and began walking in the direction of our accommodation, we observed a strong contrast between parts of the city that were clearly of political, religious or historical significance and those that were simply accommodation or small commercial buildings. The former were ornate, beautiful structures harking back to their relatively short Austrian heritage; whilst the latter indicate the the effort of rebuilding city so many times – Beograd has been razed to the ground some 44 times in its history!

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We see clearly the effects of more recent warring in Belgrade is quite obvious too, with several zones where the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade has destroyed buildings and their hollow shells remain there as reminder of war. I felt that there was a sense of grim pride in the nations history in the way that these buildings have been maintained as monuments.

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Once we have unpacked we begin to explore on foot to find food. Most of the city is quite grungy, with many derelict buildings also a sign of the recent history of the city. We are hungry after our overnight journey and make our way towards a recommend eatery, Gnezdo Organic. Inside we find modern international food, surely an indication of imminent gentrification? We order coffees and chicken kebabs atop cous cous, with a side of apple and goats cheese carpaccio. The goats cheese is the saltiest cheese I have ever tried and we cannot finish it.

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In contrast with the modern offerings at Gnezdo Organic, on the second day we eat at To Je To, a homely local restaurant that serves the local offering of Cevapcici. This is an adaption of the Bosnian Cevapi, and is small pieces of mince meat that have been grilled. Served in Turkish bread with onion and cabbage, it is delicious. It is a local/street food and tastes better at these sorts of locations, rather than in upmarket restaurants where I also tried it (incidentally the same thing happened in Greece with gyros – the local fast food should be eaten as such and not treated as something for fine dining!).

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As we spend some time exploring, the city feels full of youth, students and political and artistic energy. They are crammed in cafes smoking and drinking and talking. We find a large warehouse space where students and artists are selling their wares. We see street art murals everywhere, and graffiti tags in every nook and cranny.

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While it seems that these artistic expressions are welcomed, Western behaviour, such as running, which I try on our final morning, are looked at with surprise. The whole city feels partially stuck in a time warp; cars from the 70s are mingled amongst modern cars; every cafe and restaurant has people smoking away inside and Western pop from the 90s playing, with some serving modern international food and others Balkan staples; there are cobbled alleys indicating some long length of history, and it is difficult to put a finger on the pulse of this city.

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Train to Belgrade

The train ride from Thessaloniki to Belgrade follows the historical route of the Arlberg Orient Express which used to run from 1930-1930 and then again 1945-1962.

Our train felt as though it could have been one of the last ones used in the 60s. Standing outside it at Thessaloniki station, I looked at the aged patina of the carriage roof and wondered what had managed to darken the steel almost black. The sides of the carriage had been modernized with various graffiti tags.

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We had paid more for a couchette supplement which basically meant we got a shelf to sleep on. I hesitate to use the word bed, as there are six of them jammed in close proximity in the berth, and they require you to curl up your legs if you have my height. Luckily it was only Claire and I, although the guard angrily argued in Macedobian for a Greek woman to come in too, she argued back, in English that she would not when there were so many other berths that were free. She got her way.

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We enjoyed a heater that would not turn off and basically converted our cabin into a hot box. Luckily the window could open to provide some relief with the icy wind outside. Around 10pm, just as Claire was getting ready to start sleeping on her little shelf, the guard comes in and yells at us in Macedonian and then says passport and police. The passport control comes through and takes our passports and gets off the train and walks over to an office at the station. The Greek woman is feeling nervous and asks for the guard to promise that she will get her passport back. Familiar?

As I watching the station, which is veritable hub of activity at this late time of the evening, stations guards and train inspectors and some members of the public standing around. All of sudden I hear a woman yelling or shrieking, not quite screaming, and one of the guards runs over to a fence from where the sound emanated. He yells something out in Macedonian and then vaults over the fence to give chase. I feel mostly safe in the train but hope there is not a violent conflict. A few minutes later he is back and everything resumes. Eventually we get our passports back, and a customs officer asks if we have anything to declare. We trundle on into Macedonia.

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Just as Claire was getting ready to start sleeping on her little shelf, the guard comes in and yells some Macedonian at us… Then a greek woman translates that we are switching trains unannounced, as we near the Macedonian capital, Skopje. We all pile out of our carriage with its defective heater and watch as it is shunted away. Standing around for half an hour, our disparate group huddle around each other, sharing the comfort of knowing we all share the same discomfort. We watch as police go through the leftover carriages, peering underneath for stowaways and inside the roof for smuggled goods. Eventually a carriage identical to the last is shunted in and connect back our train.  We clamber back aboard only to discover the next couchette is cold, and I don’t want to turn the heater on in case it gets stuck like that last one (keeping in mind these trains are ex-German, and probably 30+ years old).

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Eventually we are curled up in multiple layers ready to get some sleep and there is more yelling in Macedonian, in addition to flash lights in the eyes – passport control exiting Macedonia and entering Serbia. This consists of a stop near the border, and again someone collecting passports. After a while, we drift back into sleep and awaken roughly to the next guard checking that you have nothing to declare for customs and asking where you are from. A final guard does a sweep with a torch to see if you are smuggling people across the border.

We drift off and sleep heavily for the rest of the night, punctuated by occasional stops through the night. Upon waking up in daylight in Serbia, we are happy to think our journey is almost over near eight o’clock. We pass the countryside which looks sparesly inhabited, just rolling green hills. The few builsings we see appear to be regional and exrremely old, crumbling, and the odd vehicle is abandoned and rusting.

The train is delayed somehow and takes until almost ten o’clock to arrive. As we pack up and tighten packs to our backs we are filled with excitement at having experienced our train journey and also at leaving it behind. Hello Belgrade!

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Piraeus and Athens

We flew from Milan to Athens in the afternoon and arriving, after a delayed take off, around 8:30pm. The first thing I notice once we are out of the terminal is that it is marginally warmer than than Italy. Delightful! The second is that the Greek alphabet is beyond me. Beyond some high school maths classes, I have never encountered many of these characters! This stays with us for the remainder of our stay, and we find less English speakers than we did in Italy. Which brings me to my third; most of the people we meet are warm and at ease. They are patient with our pointing and gesturing and ordering Capucinos. The pace of life in Greece feels good.

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We stay in the port town of Piraeus which connects Athens to all the Greek Isles. We will save these for another trip when I is warm enough to get the most out of them. For now we explore Piraeus and are continually surprised by how liveable and enjoyable it is. Not particular touristy but comfortable and good to get about on foot.

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Which we do, making the most of the sunny mornings to go running and explore the ocean views and the twisting alleys throughout the town. We have been lucky enough to run everywhere we have been in Europe, and it is a great way to see more of the countries we visit and well as keeping healthy both physically and mentally. Running in the urban environment I see a great range of experiences; marble columns of government buildings; beggars sitting on footpaths, downtrodden; small vendors selling roasted chestnuts; men smoking and drinking coffee at little bars; the glimmer of the ocean; old disused buildings; hovels tacked together from plastic sheeting; motorcyclists zipping past with no helmets; an endless see of houses making a beautiful mosaic.

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The town of Piraeus is gorgeous, surrounded with little coves housing boats of all shapes and sizes. We pass tiny one person fishing boats, family size sail boats, large luxury snub nosed boats, and a couple of hugely impressive sleek luxury super yachts. And one sail boat that is so huge we can see its masts from the street near our accommodation several kilometres away from the actual vessel.

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We stay in a great little hotel, Phidias Piraeus which is very well priced but also comfortable and spacious inside. From there out explorations of the Piraeus reveal multiple cheap gastronomical delights; lamb, chicken or beef gyros, wrapped in hot pita with the tang of Tzatziki cutting through the flavour of the meat. Spanakopita and it’s myriad variations; crunchy and flaky pastry housing warm spinach and cheese combinations. All the pastries. All of them. The best clearly being some sort of chocolate/caramel/nutella pie that is off the charts. It is actually the single best thing I have ever eaten.

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Or it could be where I am sitting as I eat it, on a small pure white marble bench, bracing against the icy cold wind under the bright sun, with the Parthenon standing majestic to my right. Athens has some historical sites that are second to none. We visit the Acropolis on the sunniest day that we are in Greece, and it pays off. The marble columns of the Parthenon and the friezes of the temple of Athena Nike are resplendent under all the natural light. The names bring back the stories of Greek mythology that I loved as a young boy, as we see an amphitheatre named for Dionysus, a temple for Artemis and of course the various tributes to Athena, whose named is the origin of Athens.

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We have dinner on two separate nights at Gazi College, a hip bar/cafe full of university students eating, drinking and smoking(!). The food is cheap and tasty and it is nice to be ensconced in a local venue, although the smoke gets irritating after an hour or so. Our final night we go out to have some gyros and lamb cutlets at a small souvlaki shop. More good food! 🙂

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On our final morning we are up around 5:30am, and once we are in the taxi to Larissa station, watch the city wake up with the sun and wistfully reflect on how beautiful it has been.

Northern Italy – Bologna, Milan and a retreat to Tuscany

After five days in Florence we caught a train to Bologna with the plan to spend two nights in the city, hire a car and drive out to the Tuscan region to spend a night in a B&B organised by a local family we had connections with.

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On our way up!

We hired a little smart car and navigated through crazy tollways onto the Autostrada. Mostly this drive was a fun adventure, made occasionally stressful as motorists making use of the “flexible” speed limit!

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Road tripping!

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Within a few hours, we were snaking up narrow roads on snow capped mountains into the most stunning area we’d seen in Italy. The roads are beautiful to drive on with our tiny car.

Qe stayed at the agritourism B&B Spino Fiorito in Casola. Our hosts David and Gabriella served us the most mind-blowing food (on par with the Bistecca Firenze) on our trip so far and we ate until we were extremely uncomfortable! Homemade tortellini, steak, local wines, bread and olive oil and caramel pannacotta (which we had twice!)..it was worth it!

We highly recommend this B&B as an escape for everybody. We realised how much we craved some solitude, quiet and a reprieve from all the stimulation of the cities. Other than eating, the best parts involved running and walking through seculded hills, a perfect bath and the silence of the mountains at nightfall. We will be back for sure!

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Thanks Gabriella!

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Bologna itself wasn’t outstanding for us. All the snow lining the streets was a shock after Florence and the whole place had a different feel.

The food was mostly disappointing and overpriced, although we did find a tiny, thriving pizza joint in the university area pumping out 2.5 pizzas as fast as they could make them!

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Cheap pizza!

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Nick and I in snowy Bologna!

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Milan was much the same but bigger and we had only a day to explore.
Both cities seemed like there was more to discover but we were unfairly biased after the experiences of Rome, Florence and Tuscany!!

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Our walk to find the best salad in Milan!

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Northern Italy – A breath of fresh Florence air

A week after arriving in Sorrento, we left the rainy seaside to journey to Florence in the North of Italy. A mere 515km trip.

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The first part involved a grungy and dirty public train (Circumvesuviana) from Sorrento to Napoli, and then a high speed train (Frecciabianca) from Napoli to Florence. Due to train delays, we left Sorrento an hour later than we’d planned but knew that we had at least 20 minutes to move through Napoli station and find the platform for our connecting train to Florence.

This was our most expensive train ride, costing us 58 Euro ($84 Aus) and getting up to speeds of 300km/h+. To our horror we arrived at Napoli and discovered there were actually two stations and we had no idea which one to get off at.

With 50/50 chance and some hesitation, we stayed on for the first stop and exited at the second, only to discover it was the wrong one!
We had 15 minutes before our next train departed.

With desperation in our voices, we were able to communicate brokenly with the assistant and jump on another train back to the station we’d just come from.
Minutes ticked by and slowly the train began to move. We fastened our packs and as soon as the doors opened we pounced onto the platform and began to run!

We had less than 8 minutes to run the length of the station, scramble up stairs, find out which platform to go to and go, go! We made it. Just.
Unfortunately for us, high speed trains already have the tendency to make you feel nauseous, let alone with an added dose of adrenalin and cortisol!

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Florence!

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Upon stepping off the train in Florence we were immediately struck by the tourist friendly atmosphere. It felt safe, it was clean, and like most parts of Italy, very beautiful.

We found it easy to navigate to our Florence Plus hostel, passing many restaurants and shops we were keen to return to. Our hostel room was modern and better than many B&B’s we’d stayed in, as well as having an indoor and outdoor pool, sauna, Turkish baths, laundry, gym and buffet breakfast. Definitely the most well equipped backpackers we’d found!

In Florence we lost ourselves in walks around the city, running along the river warmed by the winter sun, the amazing architecture and the food. We ate brioche, soups, pastas and surprisingly, kebabs and falafel from the many Turkish cafes around the city.

The most amazing food was introduced to us by fellow backpackers. A secret gem restaurant tucked away in the backstreets and 400m from our hostel. If you are in Florence you simply must go to Antica Trattoria Tito

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This place was packed with locals on the weekend but nice and quiet during the week. When busy it had an electric atmosphere, when quiet it felt homely. At all times the food was divine.

Antipasti, bruschettas, pate, wine ordered by the litre, and the famous Florentine steak. Either a huge 1kg T bone or our pick, the eye fillet. Thick, rare and oh so rich! Accompanied by Gorgonzola and pine nut sauce and roast potato and spinach sides. This steak was so good, we went there three times (not only for steak!) throughout our stay and not once did it disappoint.

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One day in Florence we visited the Uffizi gallery and wandered the hallways lined with hundreds of pieces until we were saturated in art and needed a thick, lindt hot chocolate to keep our energy up 😉
Loosing time in Florence is easy, loosing weight on the other hand is unlikely!

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Pompeii

In year 7, I remember having to give an oral presentation with my friend Matt, to our English class on the topic of Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius. It was one of those defining moments that has stuck with me since. Being a shy young thing, presenting to the class was quite a challenge for me at the time. Matt and I worked well and had done our research, and had a lot to say about the history of this town and the disaster of 79AD. Claire and I got the chance to explore the ruins following our drive down the Amalfi coast.

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What stood out to me was how well parts of this ancient town were preserved. The town was basically entombed in ash from the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, and was largely preserved intact, free from exposure to the elements. The archeologists who went to work discovering what was in the town were able to create plaster casts of people who had died and being entombed in ash, and seeing these was quite chilling.

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Mt Vesuvius

Mt Vesuvius itself deserves some attention too; we decided not to drive there to visit giving how cold and wet things were that day, but it is simply enormous. Dark and ominous it presides over Naples and the current version of Pompeii. It is still active, and there are many more people living in proximity which is a little worrisome! If you get a chance, Pompeii is a worthwhile attraction, especially so in cold weather as we had views of whole streets with almost no other tourists.

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Sentiero degli Dei

When we stayed in Sorrento, we were able to complete day trips out to the Amalfi coast. For one them we drove a Fiat 500 down the coast. For another, we caught the bus to Positano, and then went for a hike on the Sentiero degli Dei, or Path of the Gods.

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Near Nocelle

We had researched the Path before arriving in Sorrento, and were quite excited to get outdoors and do some hiking. We hoped the weather would hold off, as it rained every single day that we were in Sorrento. Luckily, on the day that we chose to bus to Positano, the rain finished early in the morning and we were left with the sunniest day there. The bus over the hill out of Sorrento showed us that it likely would be cold, but hopefully clear skies.

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On the way to Monterpertuso

We arrived in Positano about 45 minutes after leaving Sorrento, having gone through the town of Massa Lubrense. In Positano we had no idea of where the start of the climb was, although we had read that you could reach it there. Most visitors instead catch a bus up to Bomerano and then do the climb back downhill to Positano or even Praiano. We decided the uphill return would be the way these two intrepid travelers got their exercise for the day.

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Standing of the edge

After a bit of a false start searching for a tourism office or anything resembling information, we found a cafe down at sea level. We grabbed some coffees with a brioche and wondered how we would find anything. We left and headed up – everywhere from this point was up – and then continued to climb up and walk the streets of Positano. The town itself is beautiful, with meandering little lanes tucked up against the cliffs just off the ocean. On one such lane we eventually arrived at a sign that said Monterpertuso, a town I recognised from reading about the climb.

We asked a local woman if she knew how to get there, and she just pointed up and nodded. We started climbing.

And kept climbing.

And kept climbing.

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More climbing please
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The views…

1000 steps – eat your heart out.

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Monterpertuso
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Cute Trattoria and Fiat just past Monterpertuso

Once in Monterpertuso we turned to follow the road, and eventually came across a small pathway that led to Nocelle, the town in which Sentiero degli Dei begins. Nocelle was gorgeous, and perched precariously at the top of more than a thousand steps down into Positano. We found the sign labeling the beginning of the path, and started hiking.

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Nocelle

It was a gorgeous route out and back, with varied terrain. The views off the cliff are amazing. Turquoise ocean swirls out below. The are small nests of various birds of prey tucked away on the escarpment. We heard small bells ringing, and looked up to see small black goats eating the sparse grass 100m above our heads. We got to around around 550m above sea levels, and could not reach the tops of the hills sprawling before us, dusted with snow. The views into the deep gorges are physically stunning.

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Italian Alpine club markings
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Towards the top of the hills behind us 
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Caution
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Gorgeous

 

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The views
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The view down not far from Praiano
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The handrail is sturdy… in places
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Knackered…
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The view climbing down from Nocelle

If you get a chance and have a good level of physical fitness I would highly recommend taking the time to try this hike. I would probably recommend getting to Positano, then heading along until you see the signs up to Nocelle, climbing those stairs and then starting it. We hiked for around 3 hours and did not make the entire route up to Bomerano as we were wanting to make sure we back before sunset. The descent back into Nocelle is extremely taxing, even with fitness. We both had shaking calves after!

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Lucky with the clearish skies