Anecdotes, Volume V: surprises on the road
So as anyone can see I have been horrible at keeping up this blog as I’ve been traveling through southeastern Europe. Honestly, I don’t have too many excuses. Yes travel can be exhausting and the last thing you want to do when you arrive in a new city after a 7 hour bus ride is write. More than that, backpacking is a social activity, and when it comes between sharing a beer with other travelers and curling up in a lonely corner to finish a post, more often than not I will choose the former. But still, I am disappointed with my own effort, and for that I apologize. Here are a few selected stories from the road so in no particular order.
An unexpected concert in an unexpected place
When I chose to make a stop in Plovdiv, Bulgaria I did so to break up a longer bus journey from Istanbul to Sofia. It sounded like a moderately interesting place with a long history but I wasn’t expecting anything particularly special. On the night of my arrival I came back from dinner to an empty hostel and asked the guy working there where everyone had went. He said they had gone to a concert and I asked who was playing. It turns out on that otherwise insignificant Tuesday night in May, American rock artist Chris Cornell was playing an acoustic set in the city’s ancient Roman amphitheater. Imagine my surprise that this artist, who I happened to know and listen to on occasion, was playing in a city of less than 350,000 people – to a sold out venue no less – that I just happened to have arrived in that afternoon. It was a random surprise and, despite the consistent rain and not being able to see because I did not have a ticket, I enjoyed listening to his set with a few other travelers and some Bulgarian fans.
Football around the world
There have now been two occasions in two different countries where football (soccer to friends back home) has featured in my travels. The first was in Istanbul, Turkey, a wonderful city where the football fans just happen to be known as some of the most passionate in all of Europe. On my first evening there I found out there was a game between two of the biggest teams in the Turkish league, Besiktas and Galatasaray. I thought to go but I could not find another traveler or local who would have gone with me, and I was definitely not prepared to go on my own. When the night of the game came, I had all but forgotten about it. While the game was starting I found myself with other travelers and a Turkish guy we had met. We all went to dinner together in a nice restaurant that just happened to be in the Besiktas neighborhood. As we were finishing it just so happened that so was the game. The final score, thankfully, was 1-0. Besiktas had won. What we walked into from the restaurant was indistinguishable from a protest turned riot. Smoke filled the dark streets obscuring the source of the continuous varied noises. Car horns blared non-stop and yells of every timbre seemed to echo from everywhere. Bright red flares sparked and people could be seen on top of cars and jumping up and down in masses. I silently congratulated myself for wearing Besiktas colors that morning. Ultimately, it was a very positive experience because the atmosphere was friendly and joyous and it did not look like the crowd would prove too rowdy that night. We were able to navigate through the packed neighborhood without difficulty and feel happy for the winning fans who welcomed us into their celebrations.
The second football moment comes from the Republic of Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. On the day I arrived I found that my hostel was about 100 yards away from the national football stadium and that the Macedonian league cup final would be played there that very night. I fully admit I know nothing about Macedonian football (and I still don’t) but given the night would have otherwise involved a lot of wasted time on the internet I decided to join the Scottish guy who was determined to go to watch. The ticketing turned out to be a complete fiasco. There was a mob of maybe 500 people crowded around 2 windows trying to get a ticket. You needed an ID, which my friend did no have, so we went back to the hostel. When we returned, about 10 minutes past kickoff, the ticket windows were closed. We walked to the entrance anyway and they let us in without a second thought. And that is the story of how I watched a passionate cup final in Macedonia, played to a small yet wild crowd, without paying a cent.
A tour worth remembering
I rarely do tours when I travel alone. I much prefer to walk around on my own and simply absorb the city as I walk. But occasionally I choose to join a walking tour, usually one of the varied free ones, as I did on a cloudy Sunday in Sofia, Bulgaria. I was attracted to this particular tour by the promise of free food, which I happen to believe are the two most persuasive words in the English language. The tour was completely free and its participants well-fed. We started the afternoon with a yogurt drink containing walnut, cucumber, tomato and dill followed by a cheese-filled bread pastry. Next we tried lutenitsa, a spread made from tomato, garlic, eggplant and peppers. At the following stop we were given a burger from a health-conscious corner cafe while the vegetarians like myself were instead given a mozzarella sandwich with house-made tapenade. Lastly, we were brought to a traditional restaurant and treated to a taste of wine and three different cheese spreads before we were taught a popular Bulgarian folk dance. This tour stands apart not only because it was free, but because the guides were really passionate about what they were doing and stressed culture and history in addition to the healthy and delicious food choices. So for the first time in my life I will gladly recommend this particular free walking tour of Sofia to anyone who might find themselves visiting there.
That time I cheated
So the goal of this trip was to go from Armenia to Germany (or wherever I choose to fly home from) and I really meant to do that, but I wound up cheating after about 2 weeks. Whoops. See the other goal of this trip was not to make an itinerary and travel based on my instinct, so I’m glad to say one goal is still intact. What happened was like this; when I got to Trabzon, Turkey, I discovered I just wasn’t feeling the north coast of Turkey just then. It is so vast, rather empty and so very cold. I juggled the decision but I decided I didn’t feel ready to take on the excursion just then. Having made the decision I had a choice between a $28, 18 hour bus ride straight to Istanbul and a $35, 2 hour flight to the same place. Realizing the only reason I would take the bus would be to save my goal of no airplanes, I buried my pride and spent $7 to save 16 hours. I have absolutely no regrets.
I’m going to leave it to just these stories for now. There are plenty more because that’s what happens when you’re traveling. I wanted to get a post out there to let people know how I’m doing and how my adventure is going. I hope you enjoy reading and as always please feel welcome to contact me with how I can improve my writing or with questions about my travels.