Mad Dash Across Europe

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Train number 1 – Split to Zagreb

I must admit, I was equally looking forward to, and anxious, about this trip. Four different trains, a bus replacement, some short connection times, an overnight train where we most likely wouldn’t be lucky enough to get a compartment to ourselves, two bags, and an 8-year-old to entertain for a day and a half.

We had lots of maths and English planned and all devices fully charged.

The first train was from Split to Zagreb – a two-carriage fairly modern affair, airconditioned and tilting. At times, as we tilted our way around mountain sides and sheer drops, I missed the bulky and solid, non-tilting Macedonian and Serbian trains. The lack of cigarette smoke was a huge relief though.

The views were spectacular, and gave a completely different view of Croatia compared to the coast. Small villages with houses made from local stone, seemingly with only the railway or unpaved tracks as access, craggy mountains and rolling green foothills, some of the trees starting to turn lovely shades of yellow and red, we ate our breakfast (surprisingly good pain au chocolat and takeaway coffee) while gazing out the window.

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Somewhere north of Split

In a way, this felt like the end of one phase of our journey – the bumbling about with little sense of urgency, direction or a plan part – as we now had definite dates and purpose. We needed to get to Brussels and then onto the UK before our rail passes expired.

I was a little sad to stop the bumbling, but also excited to head north, where worse weather would be made up for by friends and home comforts. In fact, as if to mark this point, the heavens opened about an hour out of Split, and suddenly we were in ‘English weather’ – cool, grey, drizzly and dull.

For the first part of the journey Lauren worked on her maths – some fairly difficult stuff involving calculating the area and perimeters of things.  She likes maths and has an instinctive grasp of many of the concepts, but gets easily discouraged when she doesn’t ‘get it’ immediately. Of course, as she progresses she won’t be able to ‘get it’ immediately and she needs to learn to deal with this. We are working on it.

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We transferred to a bus replacement about halfway to Zagreb, which actually got in 45 minutes before the time scheduled for the train to have arrived, despite having been told it’d be an hour later.

We faffed about sorting out onward tickets and Eurostar reservations with a very helpful if somewhat technologically challenged lady at Zagreb station, meaning I wasn’t entirely sure the bit of paper we had would be recognised as a reservation in Brussels.

Once that was sorted, we stuck our bags in a left luggage locker and headed out to explore. I took an immediate liking to Zagreb – there seemed to be an energy and vibrancy to it that felt more real than the touristy places we’d been, and more sophisticated and quirky than some of the non-touristy places we’d been.

One odd example of the ‘quirkiness’ of this town is the Museum of Broken Relationships. A strangely compelling little place with ‘mementoes’ and write ups from people after relationships had ended. Some were very funny, some were very sad, and some made you think. A few were not child suitable, but luckily, I’m a fast reader and managed to head Lauren off onto more promising territory.

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One exhibit at the ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’ simply said: “Squeaky toy: his dog left more behind than he did”.
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An axe a jealous ex used to good effect on some left behind furniture…

After being somewhat bemused by the Museum, we wandered through beautiful back streets – largely pedestrianised – among elegant old buildings and some ornate churches. There was a smattering of tourists but certainly not the hordes encountered elsewhere.

It was the first time the weather felt really cold and ‘northern europeany’ and I was glad I had packed warm clothes for us both.

After some grocery shopping in a massive department store, a snack of (yet more) roasted sweetcorn, and a pricey but delicious dinner in one of the vibey, busy, techno-blasting restaurants in one of the main squares, it was soon time to return to the station for the overnight train to Munich. It was Friday night, and Zagreb felt like it was just getting going.

We, however, would be crammed into a 6-person compartment with two middle aged German ladies and a lovely (if rather, ahem, gassy) Croatian guy who took on the role of protector and insisted on hauling everyone’s bags about and ‘shielding’ Lauren from a rather drunk/stoned woman who barged down the corridor in a right state.

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Train number 2: Munich to Frankfurt

In a whole carriage, only two of the 6-bed compartments were occupied, but while on Balkan trains this simply allowed everyone a compartment to themselves as the train company spread you out, the perhaps more profit-minded German company that ran this train decided to cram all 11 passengers into two 6-bed compartments… I guess otherwise, people would never pay for the 2 bed compartments, which are significantly more expensive. Lauren and I had been allocated the very top bunks, but as there were only 5 of us in the compartment, I negotiated the middle bunk. Lauren was delighted to finally be on top.

After the border checks with Slovenia we all settled down and got some sleep; the train was certainly smoother and cleaner than the previous ones we had been on, but somewhat less ‘characterful’. The upper and middle beds had two vertical straps on the ‘outer’ edge which were designed to stop you falling off. At one point I woke up and Lauren was curled up into a tiny ball, with half of her body halfway off the bed; she would have easily fallen between the straps if she’d rolled over. I edged her back on without her waking and got a kick in the face as a reward as she stretched out.

A full hour before arrival the overly cheery attendant woke us all up, but all was forgiven as this time I did actually get the promised coffee, and even a bottle of water and a pain au chocolat, courtesy of the train company. Living the high life now we were in Western Europe! A very quick change at Munich went as smoothly as might be expected, and then after a few hours, an even smoother change at Frankfurt (they have diagrams of every train that runs from each platform, with a colour-coded guide to where to stand for each carriage!) saw us arriving exactly on time, exhausted but happy to be in Brussels, where we were excited to catch up with friends from Mozambique.

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Train number 3: Frankfurt to Brussels at a good speed.

Next: Red light districts and Reunions in Brussels.

Mljet Island

Mljet island is about an hour and a half from Dubrovnik, and home to a beautiful national park that houses two large saltwater lakes. It’s a sleepy kind of place, and the village we stayed in even more sleepy – a car passed through the village approximately 2-3 times an hour, if that.

The accommodation had been a bit vague about how to get to them from the ferry port, which is really just a village with a couple of bars and a minimarket on the far end of the island, but I figured things would work out. Once we got off the ferry, along with maybe 20 other people, I imagined a line of taxis waiting eagerly to transport us all around the island.

Well, not quite. There was one taxi, which also doubled as the transfer to the car hire place, with 8 seats, and the one taxi driver – who also doubled as a worker for the ferry, dealing with the cordons to keep the queues in line, and tying up as it arrived – corralled us all together and dropped us at places around the island. We shared with a German family and a French couple. Lauren had the one seat belt that worked. The roads were very narrow – in most places, not wide enough for two cars to pass – and we hurtled around bends and up inclines as if we were the only vehicle on the road. We weren’t, and there were a couple of sharp stops, but we made it to the village alive if rather shaken.

The village we stayed in was set on a beautiful bay and there were a number of yachts moored. At one end there was a playground and a small beach, and the water was absolutely crystal clear. There were a couple of restaurants and bars, one row of houses along the front, a minimarket, and a national park cabin that organized shuttles to the park.

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As it was already evening when we arrived, and after a very late night the day before, we settled for a makeshift dinner in the accommodation and an early night.

The next day we visited the national park, including getting a boat out to an island and a hike around it, admiring the beautiful and (for once) litter free surroundings.


We had lunch at one of the waterfront restaurants – again, the multi-tasking of Mljet residents was evident, as the chef also worked attracting yachts to the place, by standing on the dock and waving his arms about, then helping to tie up and giving advice about the national park. Lunch was a great slab of pork done over an open fire, with some red pepper preserve. It took its time but that was fine by me – Lauren was over at the playground, I had my kindle and the comings and goings of the yachts to amuse me.

After lunch, we hit the beach, or rather, I perched on a rock on the deserted strip of pebbles and Lauren returned to the playground, coming back every 20 minutes to check in. She enjoyed the independence of being a few minutes away from me, but actually given the way the beach curved, I could see her the whole time.

After a supremely relaxing afternoon, it was time to get that one taxi again, and let’s just say his driving had not improved overnight.

We once again boarded the fast ferry, and made our way up the coast, stopping off at various islands and enjoying a beautiful sunset on the way. We arrived in Split after 8pm, and made out way straight to the train station (conveniently, straight across from the ferry port) and a super helpful woman at the international reservations desk sorted out our onward journey, which would be a mad dash across Croatia, Slovenia, Germany and Belgium to get to Brussels. Having spent so much time in the Balkans, our rail passes were about to expire. We only needed to be there three days later, to meet friends, but I couldn’t make the woman understand that we wanted to break the journey for a night before she issued the tickets, so next up we are facing a day and a half journey from Split-Zagreb-Munich-Frankfurt-Brussels. Heading north into a northern European autumn, after the sunshine and heat of an Adriatic one. I suspect we will soon be craving some sun `again.

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Next up – Mad dash across Europe to Brussels and UK.

Dubrovnik

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We arrived in Dubrovnik after a smooth enough bus journey from Perast.

First impressions were not good. Heaving with tourists, the main street entirely given over to catering to their needs, with souvenir shops, ice cream parlours and restaurants, I found it hard to see the undoubted beauty of the old town through the hordes and the heat. Goodness knows what it’s like in high season.

On day one we simply meandered – the streets were charming enough in their way, and the tourist tat was of a higher quality than elsewhere, but it didn’t feel like a lived-in city so much as a façade for tourists. The area just outside the walls where all the yachts and tourist boats tied up was actually quite pleasant, and we spent an hour or so people and fish watching. Lauren would lean over the harbour wall so far to see the fish that it freaked me out, which is probably why she did it. There were cats everywhere, clearly well looked after, much to Lauren’s delight. In fact, that’s been something we have noticed in the whole region – from the woman at the port giving the strays water on hot days, to the old ladies leaving out scraps, to the shops that have a cat sunning itself on the doorstep.

Prices in Dubrovnik were insane, presumably driven up by the popularity of the city and the yachting crew who are here in large numbers. We had a hugely expensive dinner – 30 euros for one main course which we shared and one glass of wine – in one of the squares.

After dinner, however, the city and its people showed itself in a different light, as we attended a concert of the Dubrovnik Symphony orchestra, in a beautiful open-air courtyard of a neoclassical building in the centre of the old town.

The audience was almost entirely local as far as I could tell, and impeccably well behaved – no fidgeting, no mobile phone checking, no talking, just appreciation for the exquisite music. A visiting pianist from Switzerland gave an incredible performance with two Liszt pieces, accompanied by the orchestra, her hands flying so fast Lauren said they were a blur. She got great applause, well deserved. After the interval, the orchestra played a Beethoven symphony, which also received full appreciation. I don’t claim to understand a lot about classical music – my appreciation is a little like that for good wine – I know what I like when I experience it, I seek it out, it moves me, but I don’t know (or care) how it’s made or all the intricacies of the production.  This was music that could take you away from yourself, that swept you up in the power of it, and it left me feeling quite emotional. Lauren also enjoyed it, especially the rousing, lively and powerful parts of the Beethoven, and she was very well behaved, despite the concert starting after her bedtime. She did fall asleep ten minutes before the end, but still said it had been worth it. I’ve missed classical music while in Mozambique – no offence to the incredible work of the Xiquitsi orchestra – and I’m looking forward to being in Europe to enjoy more.

The following day we did what everyone does in Dubrovnik, and joined the throngs walking the city walls (again, at huge expense – 26 euros for the two of us! – but Lauren was keen to do it and the views were spectacular). Despite the Chinese tourists who would stop dead to take a picture, causing a ripple effect as everyone tried not to bump into the person in front, the French ladies trying to power walk round in their brand new ‘walking shoes’, the teenagers taking selfies, and the German couple who brought their dog, we made it round and did enjoy the views of the sea and the nearby islands, and the fort standing just outside the walls. Halfway round there was a café and Lauren had an ice cream, which melted rapidly in the intense heat.

After the walls, we found a shaded playground just outside the walls, and Lauren enjoyed the swings and the monkey bars. After all the steps and inclines of the walls, not to mention the heat, I was more than happy to sit in the shade of a huge tree and watch. At one point the children all gathered round a cat that had caught a sparrow. They had an almost gruesome fascination with it, and the poor cat eventually ran off into some bushes to enjoy her lunch in peace.

After this we decided we’d had enough of the throngs and headed back to the accommodation for a relaxing afternoon in the garden, before the evening catamaran to Mljet island, where we had decided at the last minute to spend a night, en route to Split, from where we would start a mad dash across Europe to get to Brussels and then onto the UK before our rail passes ran out.

Next up – Mljet Island.

Montenegro – Perast

Our main destination in Montenegro was the Bay of Kotor, a huge bay in the Adriatic, surrounded by mountains, making it look a bit like a warmer version of the Norwegian Fjords.

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One part of the massive bay of Kotor

I didn’t fancy the recently fashionable Budva (known as a ‘party town’) or the resorts of Kotor itself, so decided to book an Airbnb in Perast, a small village on the bay. This was a good decision, especially as we have been in a lot of cities recently and were craving a slightly slower pace. It did, however, take two buses after the overnight train to get here, but we agreed we would rather have a monster travel day and then relax rather than do the journey over a couple of days. One thing I am beginning to realise is that even if things are a bit rough around the edges in the Balkans, things do work and are fairly reliable, so you can plan to catch a bus the same day as arriving somewhere.

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The front at Perast

The bus dropped us in Perast, or rather, on the road that runs round the cliff high above Perast, and we had to navigate a way down the incredibly steep sides of the cliff to the village. I could see a church spire some way below us, and knew the apartment was close to the church, so I sent Lauren on ahead to see if what looked like steps turned into a viable route down the cliff. This wasn’t me being mean, I just had two bags to carry. She reported back that the steps ‘seemed to go somewhere’ which was hardly a ringing endorsement but in the absence of any other potential route down, we set off. In actual fact the steps eventually after a few zig zags, led us all the way down to the church, and the front.

There was no beach, but plenty of boats tied up and a number of restaurants along the front. The front was too narrow in most places for two cars to pass, which led to lots of backing up, but no visible irritation by the drivers, even when one woman stopped for a chat while 2 cars waited behind her. At times we had to squeeze ourselves and our luggage into small cut-outs of the sea wall, or at other times, balance precariously on the edge of the pavement with the sea right below, to allow cars to pass us. Lauren took great delight in pretending to fall in. Repeatedly.

We found the accommodation easily enough, although there was no answer when we rang the bell. Having been assured by neighbours that we were in the right place, we pushed the gate, which was open, and called out for the owner. Nothing. Lauren was now writhing about needing the toilet, so eventually I tried a couple of doors, found an apartment that looked like the vague memory of the rapidly-viewed Airbnb I’d booked, and decided to make ourselves at home. We were both in the shower when the owner turned up, not at all apologetic or concerned that we had let ourselves in.

We nipped to the tiny minimarket for groceries, and then went for an early dinner (more correctly lunner, as Lauren pointed out, as we had missed lunch). We were both pretty tired after the overnight train and two buses, plus the cliff adventure, not to mention the psychological trauma of a missed lunch, so we were both asleep by 9.

The next day was a lazy one. You need down days when travelling so much. Lauren did some schoolwork, and I did all the clothes washing.

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Helping with chores while I correct her maths.

We then made a picnic and went in search of the so-called ‘north beach’. We knew it was north of the village, logically enough, so we simply walked along the front, past the odd beach bar and mooring place, expecting to get to a beach at some point. Once we reached the ‘leaving Perast’ sign I suppose we should have started to worry, but it was a beautiful day and the views over the bay were amazing, so we kept walking, expecting at any minute to find one of the legendary Montenegrin beaches… when we got to the sign welcoming us to the next village, we realised we must have somehow missed the beach, so turned around and wandered back.

We hadn’t missed it so much as not recognised it as a beach.

The ‘beach’ turned out to be a less than 1m wide, 10m long strip of pebbles at the end of the front.  It did have a nice wooden jetty so we sat there and ate our sandwich, enjoying the sound of the bay lapping at our feet. There were lots of fish in the bay, and Lauren shared some of her sandwich with them, delighted as they came up to the surface just long enough to grab a bite and dive down again. After lunch, Lauren (who had brought her swimsuit) took a dip in the sea, even though she was quite apprehensive about this (something to do with not being able to see what’s in there) and I was super proud of how she conquered her fear. I was also proud of myself for being encouraging rather than just telling her to stop being a wuss and get in, which would have been my first instinct! She swam out a good way, thoroughly and deservedly proud of herself, and then played with a small Russian boy for a while.

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In the evening we cooked a simple meal of pasta and vegetables (we have no imminent train journeys) and had another early night.

On our second full day in Perast, we visited one of the islands in the bay, on which there is a church.

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Neither of us listened much to the history (something to do with a fisherman hundreds of years ago thinking he saw an image of the virgin mary and so building a church…) but we enjoyed the boat trip and wandering around, soaking up the views, and yet another picnic at a far end of the island the tourists didn’t seem to find.

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More fish feeding was great fun, as was watching some small sea birds who would disappear under water for over a minute – we had great fun predicting where they would appear when they bobbed back up. There were also a number of cool looking catamarans and sail boats dotted around the bay, and we whiled away the time imagining a life where we could afford that kind of luxury.

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After all that excitement, an afternoon at the ‘beach’ was called for. This time I had brought my swimsuit, and while the water was hardly tropical, it was pleasant to swim out into the bay then dry off in the sun with my kindle while Lauren came up with complicated forms of categorizing seaweed.

This is a lovely place. I feel like I actually started to relax here. It probably doesn’t make for exciting reading, but it was just a lovely, pleasant interlude where we chilled out and enjoyed being together in a beautiful place.

The village is tiny, with one minimarket and no bank, but it attracts a good few tourists, including one bunch of cruise passengers on a shore tour from Kotor. Despite the throngs at times, it’s still got local residents hanging out their underpants on the main street to dry, and communal tables in the various squares where locals of all ages seem to sit most of the day nattering, and plastic chairs left on the various mini-terraces built out over the water. By the second day here people were greeting us with recognition. Or perhaps horror in the case of the lady who runs the minimarket, after an unfortunate incident with a jar of chilli pesto….

There are downsides to the ‘local character’ of the place though – rubbish disposal has clearly not been a priority, and its distressing to see plastic bags and polystyrene amongst the fish, and cigarette ends just about everywhere.  People smoke all the time including while talking to you or cleaning up outside your accommodation, and make no effort to blow the smoke away from you.

All in all though, I am sorry to leave Perast. There wasn’t a great deal to do, I didn’t even bother to do much reading about the main tourist attraction of the church in the bay, but we both had a lovely time and enjoyed the slower pace and sunshine.

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Next up – Croatia.

Belgrade to Bar

I guess people may be getting a little sick of my train stories by now. But bear with me, because this one was spectacular.

The train was as expected – very old, smelling of cigarettes, creaky and rattly and with loos best avoided. The best way to travel on Balkan trains is constipated and I am cutting out all vegetables for the duration.

Again, we were lucky enough to get a compartment of 6 to ourselves, but this time I allowed Lauren to sleep on the middle bunk rather than the bottom one she had been allocated. This was a compromise, as she wanted to be on the top. Of course I still spent half the night worried she’d fall off, and jerking awake as soon as she muttered something in her sleep (she does mutter!) or the train braked particularly hard.

Needless to say she slept wonderfully.

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But the whole point of this journey on the ‘Balkan Express’ (ha ha) was because a number of people had said that it had spectacular scenery. We weren’t disappointed. Even Lauren put down her tablet and gazed in awe at the views.

The first part of the journey was across south west Serbia, overnight in the dark. I woke at dawn to views of spectacular hills, soon followed by the evocative sound of bells ringing out from a tiny church as the mist rolled up the valley.

Just before the border, a guy I will never forgive came down the carriage offering coffee. I eagerly requested a black coffee (he was offering cappuccinos too but I thought that might be a step too far) and he said he’d be back in a few minutes and that it would be a euro. He never returned, and that hopeful 1 euro coin sat on the table waiting for him the whole way to the coast.

Once we crossed into Montenegro, the scenery just got better and better, travelling really high up around and through the mountains (the route has 435 bridges and 254 tunnels).

We then descended fairly steeply to the capital Podgorica (which looked tiny) before passing the stunning Lake Skadar and reaching the coast.

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Lake Skadar

Suddenly we were travelling alongside beach resorts and shops selling inflatable toys, which somehow felt slightly unreal after a morning of stunning views mainly devoid of human impact.

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First glimpse of the sea.

Next: Kotor Bay, Montenegro.

Night Train to Belgrade

After the home comforts in Skopje, it was time to hit the rails again, this time getting back on the same train we’d arrived on (and I think it is actually the same train) that runs from the Greek border to Belgrade.

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Lauren was excited about the prospect of a real overnight journey, I was too but tempered with anxiety about who we might share our compartment for 6 with and if I’d be happy falling asleep with strangers near my kid. Travelling with Lauren certainly brings out the mother bear in me. I nearly decked someone who jostled Lauren on the metro in Athens.

We got to the station way ahead of schedule, and the train, against all predictions, was pretty much on time. There was the usual moment of panic as we boarded – where’s our carriage, I can’t see any numbers, just get on anywhere, what if it goes after one of us gets on and the other is still struggling with the bags, is it better for Lauren to get on first or me…. None of which is ever remotely necessary as no train, ever, has left without plenty of warning. This one certainly didn’t. In fact, it had a good three attempts at leaving.

We did our big goodbye thing to Elspeth, calling out last minute messages and invitations to visit us in Portugal, and thanks for everything etc etc … then the whistle blew, and we were off!!!

In the wrong direction, and only about 100 metres.

Then we stopped for a few minutes, still in sight of the station. I wasn’t worried. Lauren was hyper, climbing up the ladder to the top bunks, spinning around in the confined space of the carriage we still had to ourselves, opening and shutting the window, wanting to get into bed immediately.

Then, we set off again, this time (bonus!) in the right direction. Then we stopped again. Back at the platform. Suddenly there was a sharp tapping on the window, which made me jump half off the bed. It was Elspeth, who despite it being nearly 11pm, had waited to make sure the train was actually going to leave. Apparently, they were trying to attach another carriage. We had another chat for a bit, through the window and this time when the whistle blew we moved in the right direction – then stopped again after about 300m. We sat there for a good while, perhaps 20 minutes, before eventually leaving for good, and rattling through the night towards Serbia.

Once it was clear we were definitely underway, we made up our beds – much to Lauren’s annoyance we had been allocated bottom bunks – with the rather grim and hard sheets and pillow cases, which were clean but full of cigarette burns. Smoking is still huge in the Balkans, and while there are ‘No Smoking’ signs everywhere, they are routinely ignored.

Despite all her excitement, Lauren fell asleep within minutes of getting into bed. Or maybe she passed out from the fumes after her trip to the toilet – let’s just say, the train didn’t have water.

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I struggled to get comfortable and by the time I was dozing off we had reached the border with Serbia. This involved two sets of border police boarding the train and working their way methodically along it, shining torches into the compartments and taking away passports for inspection. They were generally polite and kind enough to not wake Lauren, who slept through the whole thing, including a torch shone directly on her face to check her identity.

The train creaked and jolted its way north, stopping occasionally for no apparent reason; people joined the train at various places, shouting down the corridors, but no one disturbed us in our compartment and we made it to Belgrade about an hour behind schedule, Lauren well rested and excited to be in yet another country, and me desperate for some coffee and a shower.

 

Next up: Belgrade!

Skopje

The few days we spent in Skopje have been wonderful. Staying with our friends Paul and Elspeth, and their lovely girls Anna and Isabel, not to mention the two dogs and the cat, it’s been a real treat to be in a family environment after a series of apartments and hostels. The family have been so welcoming, Lauren and Isabel got on particularly well being a similar age, and it’s been so nice for me to spend some quality time (in fact, far more than we ever had time for in Maputo!) with Elspeth.

Skopje is an odd place. A mixture of brash nationalistic kitsch and old winding streets, the centre feels like two different cities from two different centuries.

The former government had a highly nationalistic agenda, and in a deliberate two fingers at Greece, who contests ‘ownership’ of Alexander the Great (as well as the name Macedonia and various bits of territory) with Macedonia, everything that could be seems to have been branded Alexander the Great.  A number of new bridges and buildings were built, as part of the ‘Skopje 2014’ project, at huge expense, in pseudo neoclassical style, with elaborate columns and windows and domes, but they are really just concrete facades. A vast number of new statues of Macedonian heroes (seemingly, all men – many on horseback) have also been erected, including an odd one of Alexander the Great and his mother at different stages of his life – in the first she is pregnant with him, and then others show him as a small boy growing into a man. While the aim was to promote and highlight ethnic Macedonian history and culture, the result for an outsider is a surreal landscape of bright white ‘old style’ buildings and statues, making it feel a little like ‘old europeworld’ at Disneyland. They even have their own Arc de Triomphe!

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A 2-minute walk from the riverside where most of this new development has taken place, winding streets lined first with tourist tat and then with wedding dress shops, jewelers, cobblers, cheap electronics and tea houses, make their way up a hill sprinkled with mosques towards a huge local market. With the old guys sitting out on small stools drinking tea, the smoke from cooking meat and the odd lazy cat, this feels more back streets of Istanbul than Europe, and it’s a bizarre contrast to the riverside.

 

I found the capital really quite bonkers, but it’s clearly attracting tourists like never before, with cheap flights, good food and the contrasting styles to get your head round.

Another day we travelled out to Matka gorge, a beautiful canyon through steep mountains not far from Skopje, where a dam has created an artificial lake. We had a lovely lunch overlooking the lake, the food was fantastic – to start a selection of salads and warm homemade bread, accompanied by the absolutely delicious Macedonian speciality Ajvar, a mix of roasted red peppers, aubergine and olive oil, and to follow I had chicken stuffed with prosciutto in a pistachio sauce, and Lauren had tagliatelle in white wine and cream, with salmon and caviar.

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To work some of that off we headed up the trail that winds around the side of the mountain, clambering over (and sometimes through) the rocks. While there was never any real danger, the girls skipping ahead along the narrow path that only sometimes had an adequate handrail gave me nightmares later that night.

For our last couple of days Lauren went to the lovely international school that the girls attend in Skopje, and had a great time. It’s been so good for her to be able to have some ‘girl time’ and they have got on really well.  We will be sad to leave, but we hope they will visit us in Portugal next year.

For now, the night train to Serbia awaits.