Part Five of Five

From Italy to Eastern Europe, via the Balkans and the Middle East. A year-long backpacking trip.

This humble corner will attempt to serve as a travel journal of sorts, cataloging all the ins and outs as, whatever way and in whichever direction the mind meanders, the body does likewise. If you have arrived here, you likely know me, and at least some of the details of this trip. Regardless, welcome, fellow traveler.

Chronological Order

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five


on June. 22, 2009

First stop is Plovdiv, a university town, large but not as big as the capital, with an amazing center full of Ottoman architecture, built on seven hills, ala Rome. Hikers Hostel is on a cobblestone street surrounded by old houses, art galleries, and teeny restaurants. And in addition to the dorm room, has a giant lofted bed above the common room. Not bad. I've just missed a "night of art" in Plovdiv, where all the 100-something galleries in the city stay open from 11pm until 5am, and everyone meanders about and drinks cafe, looks at art, does… life. Very Europe.

Ottoman Houses in Plovdiv, Bulgaria Ottoman Houses in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Happy to just stay and relax, but time on this trip is running short, less than two months before the flight I just booked leaves, and from Poland at that, with a half dozen intervening countries I want to see in the meantime. This line is starting to sound familiar. I catch the little local train into Sofia, capital of Bulgaria.

Sofia Train Station, Bulgaria Church in Sofia, Bulgaria

After two hostel attempts which turn out to be rather "previous" locations (the first is now a dirt lot, the second has a sign hanging outside like a storefront with a little mini-map directing you elsewhere) I arrive at Hostel Mostel – housed in a giant renovated 19th century building, tucked away in the middle of downtown. Sofia is an interesting place. Huge capital city, yes, but so much architecture and other remnants of post-Sovietism that I find fascinating. And, amazing pizza by the slice. I fail in my attempt to make it up to nearby Vitosha Mountain, my stubbornness at only taking public transport doing me in. The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Bulgarian: Храм-паметник "Свети Александър Невски"). Back to the land of the Cyrillic alphabet, of which I quickly pick up the essentials.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

I head northeast to Veliko Tarnovo, past capital of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, most of the town perched on steep cliffs along a river which winds in a convoluted S shape throughout. The fortress is massive, if poorly maintained.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria Fortress of Veliko Tarnovo

I hook up with a few recent, post-Turkey, acquaintances, for a rather memorable night at something we nickname the "twenty-four hour bar" and Spider Club, if that is your real name, featuring an old, suspended car.

The Bridge of Veliko Tarnovo 24 hour bar, Veliko Tarnovo

Fun continues as I strike east to Varna on the Black Sea coast (go Flag Hostel!), beach life and party town extraordinaire. When I arrive, another day of weddings.

Wedding Day, Varna Church in Varna, Bulgaria

The ATM just downstairs of the hostel is "controlled by the mafia", and ads a hefty 100% surcharge to whatever you decide to withdraw. So, for that matter, are a number of the beachside clubs and bars. Controlled by the mafia that is, with large men in black suits and bulges under their coats. "No guns" signs are everywhere, where I would usually expect a "no smoking" sign.

Varna Beach, Bulgaria Varna Beach, Bulgaria Varna, Bulgaria

I can't complain with life in Varna. East European attitudes about everything, just a hint of seediness and danger, a few late nights in beach bars, and the price is right.

Nightlife in Varna, Bulgaria Church, Varna, Bulgaria

We nearly make an expedition up to Vama Veche in Romania – for a night. That is, hop in a taxi at 9pm, cross the border into Romania and arrive to this beach party town two hours later. The cab leaves you, arranging a pickup place for 10am the next morning. The goal, until then: stay awake and party with a few thousand people at what is essentially a beach rave. Best for my health I think I pass, and likewise, that I spend only a few days in Varna


on June. 29, 2009

Over the border to arrive in Bucharest, at night. As I walk down the drizzly streets it become clear that this nocturnal city is ruled by gangs - of stray dogs. They tear down alleys and around corners in impressively frightful packs, and battle each other with impressive cacophony.

Bucharest at Night, Romania

Contrasts of old and new. Some of the most convoluted intersections of power lines ever, putting even Mexico to shame.

Bucharest, Romania Powerline Chaos, Bucharest, Romania Church, Bucharest, Romania Bucharest, Romania

I trek out to the Palace of the Parliament: "heaviest building in the world", weighing in at nine billion pounds, and covering four million square feet. Somewhat excessive.

Bucharest, Romania

Into the mountains at Braşov, in the Transylvania region. It is filled with all kinds of cool medieval and gothic gates, churches, and squares, and is surrounded by the Carpathians mountains. Home of many bears, I am told.

Ecaterina Gate, Braşov, Romania Braşov, Romania

Workers on the rooftops, and a view over the rooftops and the cathedral. There is even a Hollywood-esque sign atop the hill!

Braşov Rooftops, Romania View over Braşov, Romania

A little train ride provides me with a day trip to Peleş Castle (future site of an epic cercle show), tucked away in the hills.

Peleş Castle, Romania Peleş Castle, Romania Peleş Castle, Romania Peleş Castle, Romania

Nearby, Bran Castle - home of Dracula, or "Vlad the Impaler", as the true person was known. Not so much because he actually is known to have lived there, but because it is the only castle which more or less fits the description as written by Bram Stoker.

Dracula's House, Romania Dracula's House, Romania Dracula's House, Romania Dracula's House, Romania

Setting my sights towards the north, and more importantly, east, I head to Cluj-Napoca, a somewhat diminutive version of Bucharest.

Cluj-Napoca, Romania Cluj-Napoca, Romania A Wedding in Cluj-Napoca, Romania Leaving Romania

Drawn ever eastwards, I bid farewell to Romania.

Moldova & Transnistria

on July. 5, 2009

Crossing the border into Moldova, I feel transported somewhat backwards in time, into a region of the ex-USSR which doesn't convince that it has much changed since 1989.

Chişinău, Moldova Chişinău, Moldova

Entering the capital of Chişinău I eventually jump out of a microbus on a tickle of an intuition that a shopping center we are passing is one and the same as described on the website of the hostel I've decided to call home for the next few days. Back to the land of no maps, and a rather primeval reliance on luck together with the kindness of strangers willing to put up with a stranger sharing absolutely zero words of spoken language in common. Ultimately, I zero in on what seems to be just a normal house, in a normal neighborhood. Knocking in vain, I later realize that everyone who works there was just asleep - a bunch of Moldovan girls in their 20s - who seem to run what is, indeed, just a house, as some sort of hostel experiment.

Chişinău, Moldova Chişinău, Moldova

An eclectic mix of travelers. Among others I meet Joe Hoffman, who works on materials design at 3M and is traveling with an epic backpack of photography gear. Beyond cities and landscapes, he meets up with local models for photoshoots along the way. Cool idea. We shoot downtown Chişinău at night.

Chişinău at Night, Moldova Chişinău at Night, Moldova Chişinău at Night, Moldova Chişinău, Moldova

Before getting caught in a rainstorm, and end up cowering under the umbrellas of a plaza bar with a group of young, student types, who quickly befriend us. They are a study abroad group, all staying with Moldovan host families. They are also headed to Odessa in a few days for a weekend trip, and we promise to meet up in Ukraine.

Painting, Orheiul Vechi, Moldova

A day trip out to Orheiul Vechi.

Orheiul Vechi, Moldova Orheiul Vechi, Moldova Orheiul Vechi, Moldova

Driven by curiosity I commit to visiting Transnistria, a "breakaway state" wedged in between Moldova and Ukraine along the Dniester river. Internationally recognized by a grand total of zero real countries in the entire world, it is far below Kosovo in the dubious distinction of having to fight to have its border drawn on maps.

The Dniester River Ferry

Crossing the border from Moldova in a small microbus filled with locals, I manage to to get into a spot of trouble. The culprit: my now fully instinctual tendency to sign with a random scrawl any form requiring my signature. I never see the point of signatures, what they could possibly prove or disprove, why credit card receipts should be signed? A great mystery, one I enjoyed thwarting thousands of times with random squiggles, and not once having been confronted about it. Except now, I have handed over my passport together with an entrance form, and after a while as we are stopped waiting at the border crossing, am beckoned out of the bus by name.

Initially thinking it is related to my passport or nationality, and prepared for the disappointment of a refusal, I am ushered into a room with a small table, surrounded by government looking fellows, my passport and entry form on display. They point to my passport signature (a semi-reasonable one), my form signature (no visible relation to the former), and give me a look. Little needs to be said, the questions are clear. But, hard to convince without being able to communicate. In the end, after some laughs, I fill out another form, and with everyone watching, copy the shape of my passport signature as slowly and closely as I can. Another brief comparison: succeed! Bureaucracy satisfied, I am ushered back on the bus, and we're off.

Soviet tank in Tiraspol, Transdnistria Statue in Tiraspol, Transdnistria The Government, Tiraspol, Transdnistria The Movie Theater, Tiraspol, Transdnistria

In Tiraspol I wander free-form in search of somewhere to stay. The city has that subtle feel of the ex-Soviet Union. As in Moldova, times ten. Despite the feeling of transplantation into a truly foreign world, the facets of daily life are still the same: if a river, clearly meant for swimming. If a church, it should have golden onion domes.

Swimming in the Dniester near Tiraspol Church in Tiraspol

The fine, greenish building on the left was my hotel - an aging glory from another era, a highrise hotel, which beckons me, and I acquire a room half way up. Dusty blinds drawn, filtering out the harsh sunlight. No water. I never see any other guests. Certainly, a rival for my digs in Silopi. But in this case, a decayed decadence. What was once a luxury spot reduced to a dusty menagerie of rarely used rooms with faucets and showers long since disconnected.

Tiraspol, Transdnistria Tiraspol, Transdnistria

In the end, a night in the park is also universal: the promenade, and little love seats for pairs and people watching.

Tiraspol, Transdnistria


on July. 9, 2009

From Tiraspol to Odessa, my bus deposits me somewhere back in urbanity, but I misjudge where I am, thinking I am on the other side of the city center than I really am. As I result, I head out on foot, navigating by the sun, and a few hours (and many kilometers) later, hit the ocean from a most unexpected angle and at a most unexpected spot, coming to the unpleasant realization that I have been walking in the wrong direction the entire time. Abandoning my usual bias against public transport I jump on a street tram and make it, finally, to my hostel home for the next few days in Odessa.

The Cat From Odessa, Ukraine Odessa, Ukraine

As I understand it, my family on my mother's side is originally from Odessa, roughly five generations ago, which adds an interesting dimension to my wanderings. The beach is lively, reminds me of Varna. Well, the Black Sea! I vow to make it back to Batumi to also see Georgia in the summertime.

The Beach in Odessa, Ukraine Cliff Diving, Odessa

A later night, a group of us band together and plan for an epic trip out to Club Itaka on Arcadia Beach. One of my true club nights of the trip, I don't suppose we even leave until after midnight, and the night is a blur of light, sound, dancing. A mix of beach casual and club attire. Before calling it quits and finding a way back, swimming in the sea at sunrise.

Club Itaka on Arcadia Beach, Odessa, Ukraine The Club Itaka DJ, Arcadia Beach Nargile at Club Itaka, Odessa

I am amazed to successfully reunite with Team Moldova - we play tourists, I crash a pre-arranged boat tour along the coast they have booked. We get kicked out of a bar for playing cards. A fuzzy night out on Deribasivska Street and post-party in their oddly Kubrick-esque hotel. The group on the Potemkin Steps - an essential stop after the Eisenstein viewings in film class, for sure it would make Mr. Schloemp proud! The group:

Potemkin Steps, Odessa

All too soon it is onwards to the capital, Kiev, and goodbye to the sea for the rest of this trip. Back to the big city means a bit of nervousness, as is perhaps appropriate. I am warned against the metro, and the gangs of pickpockets which rule that domain, so effective that no one has a chance, and locals tend not to carry cellphones. Other than this detail, Kiev is welcoming, and I have a few days of great explorations.

St. Andreas Church in Kiev, Ukraine Gargoyles in Kiev, Ukraine Classic Ambulance Passage, Kiev

There are so many amazing (Orthodox) cathedrals, cloisters, and churches. Saint Sophia's Cathedral and the ascent up the belltower, for a view over the city.

St. Sophia, Kiev St. Sophia's Belltower, Kiev

A mixture of night's out, and religion (St. Volodymyr's yellow cathedral).

Nights in Kiev, Ukraine Nights in Kiev, Ukraine St. Volodymyr's, Kiev

The People's Friendship Arch, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the USSR and the 1500th anniversary of the city of Kiev. As of 2016, planned to be dismantled as part of new decommunization laws! Just in time.

The People's Friendship Arch, Kiev Kiev View of the Eastern Bank, Kiev

In stark contrast to some of the more modern crosses and symbols is the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves), a historic Orthodox Christian monastery and center of the religion since 1051. A stunning complex, including the Cathedral of the Dormition and the Great Lavra Belltower.

Modern Crosses in Kiev Great Lavra Belltower, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Cathedral of the Dormition, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, Belltower Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

And tanks.

Kiev, Ukraine Kiev, Ukraine Kiev, Ukraine

On my last day, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and the victory column shining in the sun, where the Euromaidan protests began in 2013 after Ukraine backed out of agreements with the EU in favor of more cooperation with Russia, leading to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. But for now, the departures board at the Kiev main train station beckons me towards an empire of Cyrillic destinations. Tonight: Lviv (Львів, pronounced closer to 'Lvov'), the epicenter of Western Ukraine.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev Departures and Destinations, Kiev Main Station

Lviv, population half a million or so, is a big University city in Western Ukraine, nearly on the border back to Europe proper. I take a tram into the suburbs to a friendly hostel staffed by students - one of those places where you're not ever quite sure who is in charge, or indeed, if there are any 'real adults' about.

Lviv, Ukraine Lviv, Ukraine Lviv, Ukraine Lviv, Ukraine Lviv, Ukraine

I spent a few days exploring the historic center and its cobblestone streets, and just relaxing back into the feel of Europe. The transition reminds me of Alexandria in Egypt: a decidedly out-of-place city in the Middle East, and almost disappointing in the fact, reminding me as it did so strongly of Europe, European streets, European cafes, and European modes. Starting with Georgia, and over the past weeks - ever leaving Turkey for Bulgaria - the places and the people have been infused with a ex-CCCP vibe. Rough around the edges, but intoxicating in the foreignness of it all. Funny to think that five years from now, prompted by an instilled desire to know some Russian, I'll spend two semesters studying the language (to little avail!) as one of many welcome detours from my studies.

Lviv Central Station Ukraine to Hungary

From the train station, as the light fades, I am bound for Hungary aboard a creaking train, lovely as it is.


on July. 18, 2009

Arrival, Budapest. Capital of Hungary, formerly (a rather long time ago) the town of Aquincum of the Roman Empire. As all tourists are quickly told, the name Budapest comes from the unification of previously separate towns Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the Danube river, in 1873. A crazy mix of styles and architectures, from Roman to Gothic, Renaissance, Ottoman and Byzantine, Baroque, (Neo)classical, Art Nouveau, capped off by the ever charming Soviet-era blocks.

Budapest Budapest

An early stop is the House of Terror, a museum memorial dedicated to the periods of fascism and communism in Hungary. Featuring a tank in the main courtyard.

Aldozatok, Budapest

The city of two halves is carved through the middle by the Danube, over which arc a series of bridges, each from a different era.

Budapest Budapest

On one bank (the Pest side) is the oft-photographed Hungarian Parliament, a mammoth neo-Gothic building. A well deserved tourist destination, always visible from the various hills which overlook the river.

Budapest Parliament

On the opposite bank lies Buda Castle, sitting atop the aptly named Castle Hill. A sprawling complex mixing fairy tale ramparts and Stalin-era constructions. Every nook and cranny a view back over the city. Mounted patriots, cobblestones, lion-flanked gateways.

Budapest Budapest Budapest Budapest

From atop Castle Hill, the river, and the descent into nightfall. The Szechenyi Chain Bridge (that is, the old bridge of Budapest) is home these days to a nighttime jazz festival, full of music, dancing, food, and drink. Budapest marks the first time in months I am surrounded by Eurotrippers -- abundances of 20 (+/- 2) year old students cruising across Europe. Almost always with a few week long unlimited Eurail pass (not cheap!). Often stopping only in capitals, and for a single day each. A crazy pace, and a crazy group, for many memorable nights out.

Budapest Budapest Budapest

To escape the big city, some day trips out and around to the Hungarian countryside.

Hungary, near Budapest Hungary, near Budapest

Budapest at sunset, though, is beautiful.

Budapest, Hungary at Sunset Budapest, Hungary at Sunset Budapest, Hungary at Sunset


Budapest Budapest

The Danube is really the epicenter. The Parliament catches my lens again, as does life on the river. Actual swimming is relegated to barges which float on the river and have pools built in. A distinctly European idea, and rather odd to my California sensibilities. As are trams for that matter, although I do enjoy their distinctive rumble over the Liberty Bridge.

Budapest Parliament Budapest Riverside Budapest Riverside Swimming Budapest Tram

After nearly a week in the capital I am drawn southwards to Pecs. A fine statue of Ignac Szepesy in front of the Pecs Cathedral.

Szepesy Ignac, Pecs, Hungary Pecs, Hungary

Some evening later I unexpectedly run into a music festival, taking place wedged alongside the castle walls of Pecs. I am drawn like a fly to the light, a solo backpacker to the noise, grabbing a beer and joining the mob on the grass for some Hungarian rock.

Rock in Pecs, Hungary

Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe, is like stepping into a paradise of relaxation and tranquility.

Lake Balaton, Hungary

I set up at a little hostel, part of a restaurant where we all gather every night for dinner and music. During the days, hiking out into the forests surrounding the town, with curious observation towers dotted about. I have a flashback to forest fire lookout towers near Stormsriver in South Africa.

Forest Lookout Station, Lake Balaton Hostel on Lake Balaton, Hungary

It's a quick week and a half in Hungary -- the pace is picking up, and the end of the trip is palpable now. I have finally purchased a plane ticket out of Europe, fixing the end date of this trip to mid August. Until that point time had seemed limitless, with no where to be by any particular date, and only a fuzzy knowledge that all good things must end. But with the date set, and less than a month remaining, I am determined to weave my way onwards and through a few more stops in Central Europe.


on July. 25, 2009

My first stop in Austria is a pilgrimage to the home of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Graz. As the esteemed past governor of my home state of California, I expected him to be a bit of a celebrity, in addition to the normal celebrity. But, rather paradoxically, I am told that the earlier pride over this native son disappeared when he became governor and did not intervene in a death penalty case in California (illegal in Austria), causing Graz to remove his name from stadiums and so on.

The river running through the center of Graz is filled with these odd alien insectopod architectural bubbles.

Graz, Austria Graz, Austria

Next stop is classic Austria: Salzberg, and the Mirabell gardens. Created in 1687, made open to the public by Emperor Franz Joseph I, and a key tourist stop due to its importance in The Sound of Music.

Salzberg, Austria Salzberg, Austria

Salzberg castle, Hohenzalsburg, looms over the city, is a very cool, very large, and nicely preserved fortress, dating to 1077. The only time it actually came under siege: during the German Peasants' War of 1525.

Salzberg, Austria Salzberg, Austria Salzberg, Austria

Street music (what is that contraption??), churches, domes, rooftops, and the Alps always omnipresent in the background.

Salzberg, Austria Salzberg, Austria Salzberg, Austria Salzberg, Austria

Panoramic view of the valley from atop Hohenzalsburg.

The View of Austria from Salzberg

I quickly find myself in Vienna, capital of Austria. It is so... clean. Ordered. Perfect. The first time in my life I get a real taste of the more Germanic approach to urban life. In addition to churches, Vienna is certainly a celebration of its musicians and composers: Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Salieri, Schubert, Strauss. It's a damn impressive list.

Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria

Superimposed on the old is stark modernity. And, the Sator square. Particularly apt since AREPO will dominate the next six years of my life as the name of a simulation code I will work on during my PhD.

Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria

Old and new, a fitting juxtaposition to describe Vienna.

Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria

The painters at work, urban graffiti celebrated. I can't ever recall having seen someone actually working on outdoor graffiti, although this isn't exactly the illicit kind. It'll be a while till I make it to the graffiti tours of Bogota.

Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria

The streets of Vienna, old and new. At times, very Freud.

Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria

Near the Schonbrunn Palace and the Opera House is the Palm House, a green house in the middle of Vienna. Pretty amazing design, wrought iron and greened glass, it is like stepping into the past.

Vienna, Austria Vienna, Austria

The students, their studies and the art, and the teachings, continue.


on July. 31, 2009

Vienna to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is a quick train hop. It feels like, possibly, the least touristed European capital I have ever been to. It feels... functional? A city of actual people. An oasis of normality in the midst of what is rapidly becoming summer holidays in Europe.

Bratislava, Slovakia Bratislava, Slovakia Bratislava Rooftops

Just a couple of wandering days, narrow streets and colorful buildings. A night time classical music festival in a main church square draws a crowd, and me alongside.

Bratislava, Slovakia Bratislava, Slovakia Bratislava, Slovakia Bratislava, Slovakia

For reasons I cannot quite remember, perhaps a recommendation from weeks or months ago, I forge up into the mountains, the High Tatras of Slovakia. Mountain folk indeed! I set up shop at an amazing place, The Ginger Monkey Hostel, near the village of Zdiar. First experience: a log dragging competition (?). Farmers and draft horses pulling giant bundles of logs back and forth across hill tops, kids riding in wagons, and afternoon beers on the mountain top. A past time to become quite familiar in my future home of Bavaria.

High Tatras, Slovakia High Tatras, Slovakia High Tatras, Slovakia High Tatras, Slovakia

Another sunny day, and I am off on a recommended day hike. As per my aversion in life to ever going to the same place twice (be it a restaurant, city, or country), I also bias towards a one-way adventure, up a wildflower strewn valley, into the peaks, and down the other side. The 'book of hikes' is amazing, as is the scenery - a rarely visited mountain range on the Slovakia-Poland border I wouldn't mind returning to.

High Tatras, Slovakia High Tatras, Slovakia High Tatras, Slovakia High Tatras, Slovakia

On the other side of the mountain, the official (only) way back to the hostel is hitch-hiking. I try in vain as the sun dims, a few dozen cars lazily passing but no one in the mood to pick up a solo hiker. I am quite happy when two girls from the hostel, trailing me on the same hike for the day, catch up. The three of us, a rather more alluring group, are swooped up by the next truck which passes, and deposited back at our hostel. Evening at the Ginger Monkey is beers, sausages, and stories over the fire.

Yellow Monkey Hostel, Slovakia

Czech Republic

on Aug. 4, 2009

The Czech Republic! First stop: Olomouc. To me, city of chess, ice hockey, and plane bars. On a first afternoon I stumble across a national chess tournament taking place across a dozen tables set up in a cobblestone square. Each little table hosts two opponents, and two clocks, each inexorably ticking down, and only paused after you make your move and give the button a quick slap. The sound is a constant pop, pop, pop as the turns move back and forth: these are crazy fast games. That night I join forces with some hostelers, and we manage to buy tickets to a local ice hockey match - a big deal in Czech, of course.

Olomouc, Czech Republic Olomouc, Czech Republic Olomouc, Czech Republic Ice Hockey, Olomouc, Czech Republic

"Plane bar?" Aeroplane Bar Letka Tu-104 which is, as its name implies, a bar inside a grounded Soviet Tupolev 104. Now googling for this phenomenon a decade later, I find only "Dnes o pulnoci vas navzdy opoustim. Mejte se tu blaze..." and a picture of plane sections being craned away. Fare thee well, friend.

Bar in a Plane, Czech Republic Bar in a Plane, Czech Republic

Onwards to Prague, bisected by the Vltava River. Prague and Budapest are an unbeatable duo for me: few other cities in central Europe are more evocative in the sound their names bring to mind. And Prague, although by now in mid-Summer, is a tourist hotspot, is amazing.

Prague, Czech Republic Prague, Czech Republic Vltava River in Prague Vltava River in Prague

On the old bridge as sun falls, lights flickering on to illuminate Prague Castle on the distant hilltop. The streets of Prague at night are mesmerizing.

View of Prague Castle at Night Prague at Night Prague at Night Prague at Night

The bridges in and around Prague.

Bridges near Prague, Czech Republic Bridges near Prague, Czech Republic

River views in Prague, where a rather lumpy and misshapen building reminds me of the Stata Center of MIT. And indeed it's another Frank Gehry design, the "Dancing House", and as always, also with its critics.

Vltava River in Prague Vltava River in Prague

I wasn't sure what an "astronomical clock" is, and still don't know. But the Prague Astronomical Clock "Orloj" is certainly impressive, dating to 1410, gaining it the honor of being the oldest operating clock in the world? Sitting in the Old Town Square it is a sight, with the twelve apostles, Death as a skeleton with an hourglass, Vanity gazing into a mirror. And a magnet: weddings galore. Perhaps most impressive to me is the light show I stumble upon a later evening - perhaps a permanent feature? A "light show" meaning a synchronized set of digital projectors which light paint across the clock, in perfect alignment with the physical structure, making it come to life. To be honest, it is the most impressive public art piece, in style and execution, I have ever seen. I compare it to a similar production in Merida, on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, years later. How cool it would be to someday do something similar!

Wedding in Prague, Czech Republic Prague's Astronomical Clock

A hike up on the other city of the river, and a great vantage point over the city from the Petřín Lookout Tower, a mini-Eiffel Tower. Innumerable churches along the way. Sometimes, gazing up at the ceiling inside an old church, I lose track of whether I am staring at a painting of reality, or reality itself.

Church Fresco in Prague Church in Prague Prague, Czech Republic Prague, Czech Republic View over Prague, Czech Republic

A critical item of importance on every backpacker's visit: a Prague pub crawl! Joining up with dozens (hundreds?) of like minded spirits, we are guided through a series of bars, and then a series of clubs, the group fragmenting and slowly dissolving as the misadventures of life thin the herd. Three of us manage to make it back towards the hostel on a sunrise metro ride.

The Prague Pub Crawl The Prague Pub Crawl

A day, perhaps not the next day: Prague Castle, Cathedral, and Schwarzenbersky Palace.

Prague, Czech Republic View over Prague, Czech Republic Prague Castle, Czech Republic Prague Castle, Czech Republic Prague, Czech Republic Schwarzenbersky Palace, Prague

Historical relics, antique scenes, and the stained glass monument which is the inside of the cathedral.

Prague, Czech Republic Prague, Czech Republic Prague Cathedral, Czech Republic Prague Cathedral, Czech Republic Prague Cathedral, Czech Republic Prague Cathedral, Czech Republic

The changing of the guards, a time honored ceremony. I have a flashback to the tomb of Ataturk in Istsanbul. As they stand at attention, gazing out of the series of bridges across the Vltava.

Prague, Czech Republic View over Prague, Czech Republic

Farewell: the cold blue of the Namesti Miru metro station, having ushered me in, now gently sends me out, and onwards.

Namesti Miru Station, Prague


on Aug. 10, 2009

A quest is afoot! My mission is to make it to the medieval market in Krakow, Poland, to find a chess board for Cam. He remembers this place, from years ago, as filled with stalls selling intricately made wooden chess boards. Having purchased, over the past year, exactly zero things to take home, I decide that an exception in the last few days is appropriate. Cracow, an ancient city, was the capital of Poland until 1596, and kicked off the idea of the UNESCO world heritage sites as the first.

Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland Krakow Market, Poland Krakow, Poland

There is a certain philosophy, almost artistry, to the city.

Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland

Atop Wavel Hill sits the royal castle and its complex.

Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland Krakow, Poland

A mandatory visit from here is the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, which occupy the sites of the original concentration camps from World War II. I am expecting a rather somber and depressing experience, which is accurate. Birkenau is a dismal, gray, rain soaked field of razor wire fences, railroad trains, guard towers, and bunk houses.

Birkenau, Poland Birkenau, Poland Birkenau, Poland Birkenau, Poland

Auschwitz, the entryway enshrined with the infamous words 'Arbeit Macht Frei'.

Auschwitz, Poland Auschwitz, Poland

It is a grim day, third from the last. And odd, but appropriate, how the same groups which take hedonistic tours across central Europe on the summer blitz also find themselves entombed in at least a surface layer of the history, and culture, of the place.

It is almost odd how the trip comes full circle. In the beginning, meeting new travelers at every hostel and exchanging itineraries both past and present, there is a natural divide between those starting, and those ending. To say that you're just a few weeks into a year long adventure is to wield a certain power, almost mystic, and certainly intoxicating. In the possibilities, endless, unbounded, for the future. The reaction of others who don't have the same freedom is palpable, a wonder, an amazement. To say that you're just a few days away from finishing that same year is something else entirely! And to meet someone who is on the flip side, just starting as you are ending, is to endure a lovely pang of nostalgia. As it should be - one's endings are another's beginnings, and so, on it goes.

The End

on Aug. 15, 2009

It is ten years ago now that I said goodbye to Europe and got on a plane – just the second of the trip – headed home. Things at the tail end sped up again – as soon as I bought a plane ticket home, a few months distant, there was the constant sense of urgency again, so casually left behind for many months in the Middle East. But as soon as I leave Istanbul, heading west and back into Europe, I involuntarily find my pace quickening. In the end, just as in the beginning. Back to the real world. School, work, bills, taxes. Responsibilities spanning more than a few days. Friends and family. Having conversations with people familiar for more than a few days. Finally a chance to rest, to stop moving with that frequency which makes it all one part reward to one part exhaustion. For the next six years of life, my home will be Boston.

A new beginning: Boston

In the end this record is a bit delayed, a bit procrastinated, and here we arrive. But better late than early, as they say. In writing I thought quite a bit on the question of revision. History is written by the victor. I always liked that saying. And with no one else present (it must be admitted that this story is one only between you and I) the whole chronology and remembrance of events might have had a tendency to drift, ever so slightly, off course. In the end this account is more about me, what traveling meant to me, and all the inglorious realities that come along for the ride.

I discover in the back of my journal a “list of things accomplished on this trip.” The purpose of this list I cannot quite recall, nor can I really remember when, why, or in what order items got added. Reading down it, I have a great glimpse of what this trip was to me, fragments and scraps of some of the most memorable moments:

  • Hitchhiked, for the first time, across the border into Albania.
  • Got lost in the snow, at night, on Christmas, in Skopje, Macedonia.
  • Been offered a flat for a month in Athens, Greece, by a mid-30s, decidedly gay, Romanian writer.
  • Went clubbing in Belgrade, Serbia with a Bulgarian death metal fan.
  • Held up the leaning tower in Pisa, Italy, while balancing a bottle of wine and a cute girl in the other hand.
  • Learned the holiness which are 24-hour bakeries in Zagreb, Croatia.
  • Zipped around the North Lagoon on a vaporetto (water taxi) near Venice, Italy.
  • Watched the sun set over the Adriatic Sea from the ruins of some ancient fortress in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
  • Learned to scuba dive in Dahab, Egypt – certified to 18m!
  • Sailed down the Nile on the Bob Marley House felucca – with Captain Bob.
  • Smoked h------ and danced around the fire with Bedouin guides in the Grand Sand Sea near Siwa Oasis, Egypt.
  • Witnessed the kind of sunset that makes an entire trip worthwhile from the caldera of Santorini, Greece.
  • Told a girl she was beautiful in a club in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
  • Attended a local water polo match in Budva, Montenegro.
  • Watched a man fall in love in Zagreb, Croatia.
  • Eaten pizza in Napoli, Italy.
  • Hiked between the five towns of Cinque Terre, Italy.
  • Gone to the disco, on the back of a motorbike, with what turned out to be the local mafia in Luxor, Egypt.
  • Sat mesmerized by the parade of white U.N. trucks in and out of UNMIK headquarters in Pristina, Kosovo.
  • Counted down to midnight on New Years Eve watching fireworks over the Acropolis from a rooftop in Athens, Greece.
  • Smiled uncontrollably with the feeling of things just going right.
  • Hiked through a snow filled Vintgar Gorge near Bled, Slovenia.
  • Rode the train into the heart of Postojna Cave, Slovenia.
  • Paid my respects to the Tomb of Juliet, of Romeo and co., in Verona, Italy.
  • Felt the pangs of isolation and loneliness, but also the joys of the company of newfound friends.
  • Ate a horse burger in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
  • Became addicted to Bedouin-style mint tea in Siwa, Egypt.
  • Experienced love at first sight in Mostar, Bosnia.
  • Slept under the stars in the desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan.
  • Joined in on the fun with those who are truly living life in Beirut, Lebanon.
  • Decided that six months or a year learning Arabic in Damascus, Syria is definitely on the to-do list.
  • Hiked to the top of Mount Sinai in Egypt.
  • Swam in the Dead Sea near Amman, Jordan.
  • Been followed by the Syrian secret police on suspicions of being pro-Kurdish CIA agents in Ein Al-Arab, Syria.
  • Fell in love, for the second time, with Beraá in Aleppo, Syria.
  • Learned how to gorge scramble in memory of Indiana Jones in Petra, Jordan.
  • Been bombarded by rocks thrown by kids atop the crumbling walls of Hoşap Castle, Turkey.
  • Sat mesmerized during a Sufi Whirling Dervish dance in the burial city of Mevlana – Konya, Turkey.
  • Swam in the Black Sea.
  • Learned how to say “hello,” “cheers,” and ideally, “you’re beautiful, I love you” in as many languages as possible.
  • Chased after turtles on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, Turkey.
  • Worked on my Kurdish with a free lesson in Dohuk, Iraq.
  • Listened to the records of torture in the Amna Surak, a Saddam-era prison and now museum in Sulimani, Iraq.
  • Paid my one and only official bribe of the trip to a Turkish immigration officer while crossing into Iraq.
  • Bused halfway across the country for three days of debauchery at the Odtü Spring Fest in Ankara, Turkey.
  • Went swimming in the ocean every day traveling along the coast from Antalya to Çanakkale, Turkey.
  • Had vodka and toast for breakfast in Varna, Bulgaria.
  • Checked out Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, Romania.
  • Searched for the Druze in the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon.
  • Visited the home of Khalil Gibran and the Forest of the Cedars of God near Tripoli, Lebanon.
  • Successfully dodged the Mafioso in Chisanua, Moldova.
  • Flirted my way across the border into Transdniester (?).
  • Climbed the Pushkin Steps from Battleship Potemkin in Odessa, Ukraine.
  • Went to my first artificial beach in Budapest, Hungary.
  • Swam in Lake Balaton, Hungary – the only lake in Europe visible from space!
  • Visited the hometown of the Governator in Gaz, Austria.
  • Listened to my first organ performance in Kiev, Ukraine.
  • Narrowly avoided a tank battalion mutiny while staying in the birthplace of Stalin – Gori, Georgia.
  • Prowled for Natasha’s in the bars of Trabzon, Turkey.
  • Feasted on khinkali (dumplings) and homemade white wine while learning a traditional folk dance in Batumi, Georgia.
  • Avoided any Hostel-esque experience in Bratislava, Slovakia.
  • Watched a spring festival featuring horse-drawn log races in the High Tatras Mountains, Slovakia.
  • Cheered for the right team at a Czech vs. Slovakia ice hockey game in Olomouc, Czech Republic.
  • Conquered my first (and hopefully last) “the crawl” in Prague, Czech Republic.
  • Eaten kumpir (baked potato) in the Ortakoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey.
  • Experienced the Auschwitz and Birkenau WWII concentration camps near Krakow, Poland.

I also discover, in the back of the journal, a list under the caption: "decided that, when I get home, I want to...". Half are hobbies I want to start, or restart. A few are curiosities, questions that have arisen on this trip, in need of answers. The rest are languages! In particular, I record Serbo-Crotian, Arabic, and Russian as what must be interpreted as my top three. Indicative of regions I want to return to, perhaps. Even more importantly, I realize, places I want to go whose language (and culture, to some extent) overlap with places I've been on this trip. Places that have resonated strongly with me. Styles of living that I find myself enjoying more often than not.

My last find, tucked away in these pages, is a list of "nearly made it" – intentional or otherwise:

  • Libya (10km away, in the desert near Siwa)
  • Sudan (20km away, in Abu Simbel)
  • Saudi Arabia (8km away, across the Gulf of Aqaba, in Dahab)
  • Israel (6km away, across the Dead Sea)
  • Baghdad (250km away, near Kirkuk)
  • Iran (10km away, in Doğubeyazıt)
  • Armenia (30km away, in Kars)
  • Azerbaijan (1km away, on the slopes above David Gareja Monastery)
  • Russia (30km away, in Gori)
  • Belarus (80km away, in Kiev)
  • Germany, where I would eventually move to live (1km away, in Salzburg)

A few countries were on the verge of making that list, but tumbled from the precipice instead to land on the side of actually having been visited. And some of those, as it turns out, were some of the most enjoyable of the trip.

Travel is a succession of sunsets admired and mountains conquered. Travel is also a never-ending stream of introductions and farewells. Reading over these adventures and caving in to the oh-so-pleasant crush of nostalgia have made me yearn again for the freedom of the open road. I would claim that these pages were written for me, and me alone. I hope, nevertheless, that this ride you have so unwittingly come along for has been a most enjoyable one.

The end.

Dylan Nelson, December, 2020