Friday, April 13, 2018

The Overland Experience, Part 1C

We reached the border near the town of Bregana, where an alternative border crossing routine was in place. All passengers had to get off the bus. Then the bus was searched and, when given the clear, the bus drove about 50 yards across the border. The passengers were all marched into the customs area where, one by one, we had our passports checked by a discerning guard and were then waved through. And so it was that, somewhere around noon on a blaring hot summer day, I walked into Slovenia.

Ljubljana, I am happy to tell you know, is a really cool city. It is full of cool bars, nice restaurants and lovely architecture. It is an amazing place yet somehow most people have never heard of it, never mind considered it as a holiday location. I had an amazing time there. My hostel was smack bang in the middle of the main street in the centre of the city, the weather was fantastic, not a cloud in sight and 38 degrees, and, well, everybody just seemed so happy.
I don’t want to drag you back in to the war again, but Slovenia had a relatively easy break from Yugoslavia. When Slovenia declared independence, the Serbian army wasn’t happy with it, but there wasn’t much they could do about it- the only way from Serbia to Slovenia is going through Croatia, which Croatia wouldn’t allow. In comparison to the other republics, Slovenia’s independence passed without any notable fighting, apart from a famous incident with a Serbian helicopter that was shot out of the sky, and only about a dozen fatalities were noted in the whole process. In the end, Serbia effectively just said ‘Meh’ and focused on their minority populations in Croatia and Bosnia. 



Ljubljana in summer


Present day Slovenia, as I said, is a lovely place. I spent a happy couple of days in Ljubljana walking from one bar to the next, sitting in the sun, and keeping myself cooled with cheap pints of beer and some of the best ice cream I have ever eaten. Oh yeah, the ice cream is amazing. I’m not sure if it’s because of its proximity to Italy, but if you are ever in the area, get some ice cream. It’s top. 
I also had a horse meat burger at a stand in the city’s main park, which was funny because around the same time, our neighbors in England were in all states over the presence of small amounts of horse meat in what was supposed to be beef. In Slovenia, they proudly passed it off as a national delicacy.

Before we continue on to our final destination on this trip, there is one more place that deserves a mention: Metelkova.
Metelkova is an old army-barracks-turned-squatter-compound, right in the middle of Ljubljana. Like most squatter sites, it has a music venue, an art gallery, a bar that is only open in the evening and some other low-impact business ventures. There was also a hostel where you could sleep if you were done partying. The thing with traveling squatters is though, they never have any money so they would basically try to sleep on the doorstep of the hostel which resulted in members of staff actively patrolling the site and waking up any sleeping hippies and removing them and their dogs-on-ropes from the premises. The hostel also had a bar, so I sat in the garden for a while, enjoying the sunshine and cheap cold beer. In the evening, the other bar on the site had a ska all nighter, and those are always great. The whole compound was full of people who were dancing, smoking and drinking the night away. It was great and, as the bar sold large cans of beer for a Euro, I had an excellent night and went back to my hostel somewhere beyond midnight.
I had to get some sleep because the next morning it would be time for the most gruelling part of the trip yet: a 10 hour train journey to Budapest.
Seriously- visit Ljubljana, it is one of the most underrated cities in Europe.




Metelkova in the Sun

I arrived at Ljubljana’s main rail station with a heavy back pack in 35 degree weather. This was at 9 in the morning. I bought 3 large bottles of water from the shop in the station’s main concourse and made for the platform. I had secretly hoped for some sort of catering facility in the train, where fresh cut sandwiches and cold beer were on sale. I should have checked my head. The train was an old Warsaw Pact era train that, at a guess, had come into service around the time that Leonid Brezhnev was carried out of the Kremlin in a coffin. The seats were uncomfortable and the train was partioned in 6-seater cabins. There was no air conditioning, only 2 toilets in the entire train and there was no possibility to purchase anything to eat or drink.

We set off at a reasonable pace, which was a good sign, but the further we got from Ljubljana, the more we were subject to unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere. Every time we picked up speed, the train would slow down somewhere in the middle of a field, come to a complete stop, sit there for 5 or 10 minutes and then come to life again. On some occasions, a train from the opposite direction came flying past, which made the stops logical, but most of the time we just sat there, surrounded by miles of corn, only to get going again without any other trains passing by. It took forever. I shared a compartment with an English guy who was kind enough to give me a cold can of beer some 2 hours into the journey and we spent some time talking about football and travelling. As we progressed towards the Hungarian border, it got warmer and warmer. Sitting in this old metal tube without air conditioning, everybody was sweating like they were running a marathon in a desert. All of a sudden, I was very happy to have carried all those heavy water bottles on board.

When we crossed into Hungary, the random stops increased and people on the train got really annoyed with all these delays. I was sick of the train by now too, but I just put my head down and read my book. Normally, on a long train journey, there are numerous stops, so you can keep your sanity by crossing of the number of stations and working towards zero, which will calm you down a bit, as you know there are only 10, 9, 8.. stops to go. With only 3 stops on this entire journey, there was no way of telling how far there was still to go, and how long it would take. It was torture. Some 6 hours into the trip, a couple of Aussies from the next carriage came walking down our corridor. They, too, had expected at least some sort of basic catering facilities but ofcourse there weren’t any so now all 4 of them had run out of water. I checked my own stash and offered them some water from one of my bottles, for which they thanked my profusely. I didn’t want to run out of water myself before we got to Budapest, but I also didn’t want to see my fellow train convicts pass out from dehydration.

When you’re on the road and things don’t go as you wish they would, there are 2 things you can do: you can annoy yourself to a point of implosion and get angry, but that won’t get you anywhere. The train or bus won’t go any faster, air conditioning or catering won’t magically appear out of thin air, and the train staff, if you can find any, will ignore you anyway. No, the better thing to do is to either go and read something and hope that time passes by quicker, or try to have fun with your fellow travellers. They’re in the same boat as you and they’re not going anywhere. As time went on, people started to make jokes about the state of the train and the boring lay out of the Hungarian country side. The train itself was first renamed The Midnight Express, after the 1980s prison movie, but also quite possibly because of our expected arrival time in Budapest, and then someone came up with Dachau Express which was a bit dark, but sometimes you have to make dark jokes to keep the spirits up. 



Our train was like this, just longer

At long last, and with the sun starting to sink towards the horizon, someone noted some buildings in the distance. A wave of anticipation surged through the train and after a couple of minutes, someone who had managed to get a cell phone signal came walking down the corridor with the news we all had been waiting for: we had reached the first commuter towns on the outskirts of Budapest. You could see the relief on everyone’s face. I discarded my empty water bottles under the seat, and saw that I only had about 6 fingers of water left in my last bottle. I had planned well.
Some 30 minutes later, the train pulled into the station and we all jumped out of the merciless heat of the train and into the soggy summer night of Budapest. I have never been so glad to get off a train. I walked to the nearest shop and bought 2 new bottles of water. My water from earlier that day was so warm that you could easily have made a passable cup of tea from it, so I threw the bottle in a bin and sat down with my new, cold, delicious water. I drank the first bottle in 2 gulps and it tasted like heaven.
After drinking some more from my second bottle, I got up. I still had half an hour on the subway ahead of me and despite my desire not to board a train again, I knew I had to.

I arrived at my hostel around 8.30 in the evening. The sun had sunk behind the buildings of central Budapest, but the heat was still unbelievable. An electronic clock outside a pharmacy informed me that it was 40 degrees. After I checked in, I lay down on my bed. The heat was stiffling. I contemplated just going to sleep, as I was exhausted from the train marathon, but I had just arrived in an exciting new city and didn’t want to go to sleep at 9 on a Saturday night. After some time, I got up, turned on the shower and washed my upper body with cold water. Any seasoned traveller will tell you that cold showers are not the cure for extreme heat, and I knew that from earlier in the trip in Slovenia, but I didn’t care. I just needed to cool down a bit, even if for only a few minutes. After my cold water bath, I went downstairs and had a cold beer in the common room, and damn it tasted good. Revitalised by the cold water and beer, and the fact that the temperature had dipped below 40, even if only marginally, I set out to get something to eat. As there had not been any catering facilities on the train, I had kept myself fed with snack food, and I could really use something solid. 

I walked around the slowly darkening streets of Budapest, where people were just starting their Saturday night out. One thing that stood out immediately, apart from couples holding hands, were the touts trying to persuade you to buy something from them. It didn’t matter what they sold, and they sold literally everything, from rugs to tea pots to leather vests, they were convinced that you needed one in your life and that theirs was the best in the city, if not the world. Normally, these people shout at you from their shop’s doorway or a chair in front of it, but here they actively chased you and tapped you on the shoulder as you passed by. It had the vibe of a Moroccan souk rather than a European capital. It was quite exhausting, especially in this weather and after a long day on a hot train. After a while, I arrived at a square that had restaurants all around it, and after some cautionary inspection, I sat down at an Italian place and ordered the largest beer they had. I took a big gulp, while the waiter scurried off to get the menu and some bread and, when he came back 5 minutes later, my beer was empty and I ordered another one. An hour, 4 pints of beer, a pizza and a basket of bread later, I was sufficiently nourished and all of a sudden very tired. I decided to call it a night and try to get some sleep.

On my way back to the hostel, I was accosted by another tout, but this one wasn’t hawking carpets or replica football jerseys. He was selling sex. He pushed a hastily designed flyer in my hand, on which a badly drawn woman was doing an exotic dance. He started his spiel with “You like pretty girls yeah?”, but I cut him off straight away and told him I was not interested in his titty bar. He kept going while walking alongside me, undeterred by my obvious disinterest in his product. “Beautiful girls! You come to my bar. First beer on house!” When I again told him I was not interested, not even at the prospect of free drink, he threw his Hail Mary play at me and proclaimed “Most beautiful girls in country! Will have sex with you! 20 Euro!” I stopped in my tracks, which made his eyes brighten up.

“So these girls are really pretty?”
- YES!
“And they’ll have sex for 20 Euros, right?”
- YES!
“And they’re really hot yeah, you’re sure about that?”
- YES! Absolutely!
“Why don’t you go fuck them yourself then?”

This shut him up, and while I meandered off into the night, he stood there on the street, not knowing what to do. Sometimes, being polite is not the answer and you just have to be the bigger asshole.
I stopped off at a small bar near the hostel, had a victory beer and then went to bed, exhausted but satisfied.

I love heat, don’t get me wrong. That is why I usually go to places where it is warm, but there are limits to enjoying the heat. Throughout this trip, the temperature had been going up slowly but steadily, from a lovely Mediterranean 28 degrees in Dubrovnik, through a pretty sweltering 35 in Sarajevo to a tropical 38 in Ljubljana. Here in Budapest, I reached the limits of what I can take. On Sunday, the temperature already hit 38 degrees by mid morning. I made a circuit of the sites in the city, walked the monumental bridge across the Danube, and decided to climb the hills on the other side of the river in the part of the city called Pest (Budapest was originally 2 cities, one called Buda and one called Pest, and eventually, as the parts merged together, they simply put the names together, which is how we arrived at Budapest.). I aborted my hill climbing mission after about 5 minutes because it was way too warm to climb anything other than a deck chair, and because climbing narrow paths on steep hills is not exactly an enjoyable activity for someone with vertigo. I made my way back down to the city and had a beer in an airconditioned pub. I’m still undecided on what was better- the ice cold beer or the airconditioning.




One of the things I had planned to do when I was planning the trip, was visit the Budapest subway museum. As most of you know, I am a sucker for trains and I love hearing and reading about the history of transport systems. As I made my way to the museum, it suddenly occurred to me that this excursion had another advantage in this murderous heat: the museum is built into an old disused subway tunnel, which meant it was underground and, therefore, cool. Tickets were sold from the original 19th century booth that had sold the first tickets when the subway opened in 1896 and I spent a happy hour and a half checking out the exhibitions and reading the cards next to old yellowed photos. The Budapest subway is the oldest in Europe, so there was a lot of history to go through. Perhaps the most interesting part was an overview of the items that had come through the Lost&Found department over the past century or so. Apart from obvious things like mobile phones, umbrellas and gloves, there was an array of items you would not think people would leave behind. There were, among many, many other things, a prosthetic leg, a sword and a huge, stadium size football banner that was left behind in a train when riots broke out between 2 rivaling supporters groups after a particularly contentious derby match. It was quite captivating.

As I walked back into the heat, I decided there was one more thing I wanted to do. Like in Sarajevo, Budapest is home to a Celtic supporters pub. I made my way there now and when I walked in, I found a sweaty teenage kid behind the bar. He gave me a beer, remarked on the Celtic jersey I was wearing and then walked into the kitchen. I heard him fumble out the back door and 3 minutes later he emerged with sweat rolling from his head. “Check this out” he said, while he handed me a thermometer he had taken off the garden wall out back. It read 43 degrees Celsius.
To this day, this was the hottest day of my life and it is about as much as I can take.

I chatted with the kid for a while, ordered another beer, and then he went back into the kitchen. Just as I was trying to work out who had let a kid in charge of the pub, the front door opened behind me, and a thick Scottish accent proclaimed “Ah, now there’s a well dressed man!” I turned around to find a man with graying hair in his late 40s, who was carrying some supplies. He put his boxes down, shook my hand and gave me a beer on the house. He explained the story behind the pub: at some point, years earlier, he had met a Hungarian girl, back in Scotland, they had begun dating, got married and when the opportunity arose, they had moved to Budapest and opened a pub. His wife was at a trade fair today, and the kid behind the bar was their son. It all made sense now. We spent some time talking about Scottish football, life in Hungary and drinking in general.

After an hour or so, his wife came in, back early from the convention, carrying a box full of bottles. While she was unpacking her box, she told her side of the story and how it came that we were now all in their pub in Budapest. After she had emptied the box, she held up a bottle to me and asked if I knew the brand. I had a look at it and found it was a *very* expensive 34 year old Scottish single malt whisky. I said it looked great and without any fuss, she opened the bottle, poured 4 fingers and put it on the bar in front of me. “Enjoy!” she said and walked into the kitchen. You know how people sometimes say that strangers can be unexpectedly generous? This was one of those occasions. If I had ordered this drink in Dublin, it would have cost 30 Euros a shot at the very least. Here I was given a more-than-double measure of it as a thank you for showing up. It was amazing, both the gesture and the drink.
I stayed there for a few more beers, enjoying my time with my new friends, but towards the end of the afternoon I decided it was time to leave. I walked around Budapest for a bit more and then decided to head back to the hostel for some relaxation. When I got there and had a few beers, I decided I was going to stay in for the night. There weren’t any sites left I wanted to see, the heat was stifling outside and I reached the conclusion that I would be happy to just while away the night in the hostel, drinking beers with my fellow travellers, so that is just what I did.



And so my trip ended. I had travelled some 1300 overland kilometres in 11 days, visited 4 new countries, crossed a dozen borders, about half of them involving Croatia, ticked an item off my bucket list that had been there since my early childhood, and had had an altogether amazing trip.

The Balkans have a troubled history, with a number of nasty conflicts, but it really is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Apart from the amazing natural beauty, the food is fantastic, the people are friendly, the beer is cheap and the weather, at least in summer, is spectacular.
But don’t take my word for it. Go check it out for yourself.





Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Overland Experience, part 1B


The weather in Sarajevo was amazing. A large electric clock on a building indicated 35 degrees Celsius, there was a slight breeze and I sat down on a metal bench at the tram stop a happy man. After some 10 minutes a girl walked up, put her backpack against the shelter and asked me if I knew when the tram would come. She was Australian. We talked about our trips for 10 minutes or so, but there was still no tram. An older local man had been sitting in the tram shelter since before I had arrived so I walked over and asked him if he knew when the tram would be coming. He lifted a finger and said ‘No tram!’. “No tram?” I asked, and he knodded. ‘No tram. Riots in city centre.’
This was great. I do not wish war on anybody but a small scale riot would only add to the intrigue that surrounds Sarajevo. I thanked him and went back to my new Aussie friend to tell her the news. She dug up one of those doorstopper Lonely Planet guides for the whole of Europe, put it under her arm, said goodbye and walked off in the opposite direction of where I thought I had to go. I went in the direction where the old man had indicated the riot was, full of excitement. Sarajevo had already delivered within the hour.
As it turned out, the riots at city hall were more a protest that had been dispersed by the police with a minimum of fuzz than an actual full scale riot, and a few people with protest sign were still lingering around, but all the action had gone. I made it to my hostel without any problems, checked in and went for a walk around the city. What an amazing place this was. Because of its ethnic diversity, it really is a city that changes every time you walk around the corner. You can find yourself standing in front of a huge mosque, then find a Catholic church across the street, next to which there is a noisy Irish pub with people drinking beer and whiskey on the sidewalk. I spent the first day getting to know the city. I found that, likely because it is not on the main tourist trail, Sarajevo is cheap. A pint of beer set me back about EUR1,50 in a pub, a 3 course meal was about 8 Euro and when I went to get a slice of pizza as a mid-afternoon snack, I found that the 2 Euros they advertised was not for a slice but for an entire 12” pizza. I spent the next half hour in a park eating my pizza while watching elderly man play chess on the nearby tables. The pizza was delicious, by the way.

Image result for sarajevo



My second day in Sarajevo, I went to the market which, during the war, had been the scene of several horrible mortar attacks, and also managed to find a brewery. There were no tours on the day, this was more a production facility than a tourist attraction, but they did have a beautiful tap room where I spent a couple of hours trying their beers and having an excellent dinner (which, again, only cost me a couple of Euros). When I had checked in at the hostel, the receptionist, upon finding that I came from Ireland, had pointed at a map and said ‘Celtic bar’. I assumed that he meant ‘Irish Bar’ which is not really what I had come all this way to see. As it happened, I walked by the place later in the day and decided to have a look. The receptionist had been right. For some reason, in a largely muslim city, a place about as far removed from Scottish football culture as possible in Europe, there was a dedicated Glasgow Celtic supporters pub. It had a Celtic crest above the archway that lead to the pub further down an alley. When I got to the pub, I found that the place was full of signed jerseys and photos of Celtic teams past and present, and all staff wore kilts and polo shirts with a Celtic logo on it. It was so weird to find that in a place like this. As it happened, I was wearing my Celtic jersey on the account of it being 35 degrees and football jerseys tend to be good for taking in sweat. Upon seeing an actual Celtic supporter, from Ireland nonetheless, I was welcomed like a long lost son and given many free beers. What a strange experience this was.

At some point in late afternoon, I remembered that I had one more choir to take care of for the day and that was booking the next leg of my journey. I went to the local Eurolines office to get it sorted. Eurolines is loosely aligned collective of local buscompanies that somehow manages to have a central planning office that allows travellers looking to cross Europe on the cheap to go from one place to the next and then decide where to go after that. They have offices in the most out of the way places and whenever you travel somewhere, you can normally rely on Eurolines to get you where you want to go. (Service is better in some places than others though, as I found out a few years later when, while trying to cross the border between Lithuania and Belarus, the driver decided that all this passport checking took up too much of his time and he drove off, leaving me and a few others stranded at the border in a blizard, surrounded by mean looking soldiers with machine guns).
My choir for the day over, I sat down outside a cafe with a cold beer and decided to take it easy. I had one more site to visit tomorrow but for the rest of the day, I had nothing on the agenda. I spent the remainder of the daylight hours drinking in the sun and then went back to the hostel to see if anything was happening. There was. It was cheese and wine night. A table in the main room had been filled with bottles of local wine and plates of cheese, crackers and other snack foods. It was paid for by the tip jar in reception so I put about 3 bottles of wine worth of Bosnian money in it and got stuck in. As the night wore on, the wine kept flowing. Every time a bottle was empty, it was dilligently replaced by a member of staff, and a great night was had by all. At around midnight, the wine ran out and most people called it a day. I decided to have a nocturnal walk around Sarajevo one more time. By this time tomorrow, I would be on my way to Croatia once again. I also realised that the easy part of the trip was over. Up till now, it had been easy. 2 hours here, 3 hours there, no problem. From Sarajevo to Zagreb would be a 10 hour overnight bus trip, which would be followed by another 3 hours through to Ljublijana, after a 3 hour layover in Zagreb. I walked around Sarajevo by night one more time, had a drink here and another one there, and went to bed a happy and really drunk man.



Image result for wine and cheese


The next morning I was up early, despite the 3 bottles of wine and 12 or so pints of beer I had consumed the day before. It was my last day in Sarajevo and I still had one very important thing to do: visit the Olympic stadium. The stadium and most of the other Olympic locations were a 20 minute walk North of the city centre. I set off early to make the most of my last day here. Tonight at 10, I would take the bus to Zagreb. On my way North, I passed a curious work of art. It looked like a giant soup can on a stone plint. I looked at it for a while and found, when I walked around it, that it was actually a can of beef. The monument had been erected by the local population as a thank you to the UN and other international organisations for food drops organised during the siege of Sarajevo during the war. I thought this was odd, and after I took a few photos, I went on my way.
When I did some research later, when I got home, I found that it was actually a wry joke as much of the food that had been dropped during the siege was past the Best Before date, with some of it even dating back to the end of the Vietnam war, and that some of it had contained pork, which obviously isn’t very useful in a city where the majority of the population is muslim. I continued uphill to the former Olympic park and arrived there in mid morning under an overcast sky. Though the clouds obscured the sun, it was still in the mid 30s, so I arrived at the stadium with sweat pouring down my back.
One of the big issues with organising an Olympic Games is that, after the games, the host city is left with a whole lot of expensive infrastructure that is essentially useless now. Some things are easy to re-purpose. The Olympic Village, more often than not, is turned into student housing, and swimming pools usually find some sort of use too. But what do you do with a 50.000 seater athletics stadium?

The main stadium in Sarajevo, I am happy to announce, is still in use. Local football team FK Sarajevo, when in need of a new home ground, took up the offer of playing in the Olympic stadium so I’m glad to see it put to good use.
This was clear on the outside of the stadium when I approached. It is covered in graffiti depicting club heroes, historic moments and, inevitably in a place like Sarajevo, political leanings. After making a circuit of the stadium, I was now faced with my next challenge: how to get in.


Image result for sarajevo olympic stadium


I had not expected there to be organised tours or anything like it, and there weren’t, but there was surprisingly little activity around the stadium. I have been to many stadiums, and I live next to one, but no matter what time of day, there is always something going on; deliveries, maintenance, tour groups, you name it. Here in Sarajevo, it was deserted. I had not come all this way just to look at the graffit on the outer walls. Just as I was about to finish my first lap around, passing behind the main stand, where the Olympic flame had been situated (the cauldron is still there) I noticed that some sort of service entrance was half open. I decided to give it a go. I pushed the door open and found myself at the start of a dark passage way. In the distance, I saw a faint light, so I moved towards it. After some 30 yards, the light became brighter and when I turned a corner, I found a local handy man who was trying to fix a door, illuminated only by the beam of a flashlight. When he noticed me, he wasn’t startled or anything, just looked at me quizically. I asked him if there were any tours, which I knew there weren’t but I hoped he would understand that I was a tourist because of that. He lifted his index finger and indicated with his arm that I should follow him. We went into another passage way and a little while later, some light began to appear in the distance. We turned around a corner, he pointed ahead and said ‘There’ and then went back to his chore. I went in the direction of the light and 15 seconds later, I walked up a couple of steps, into the light and found myself on the pitch side athletics track. After looking around dumbfounded for about half a minute, I realised I had the entire stadium to myself. There wasn’t a soul around. This was unbelievable! I had secretly hoped that I would be let in to have a quick peek inside, but this was beyond my wildest dreams. I had wanted to see this place since I was 9 and now I had it all to myself. I walked a couple of steps towards the main stand, and then I realised that this was the first time that I was on an Olympic running track. Nevermind that the Sarajevo games were winter Olympics, this was still the same track the athletes had walked on during the opening ceremony I had watched as a little boy. A tear formed in the corner of my eye while a smile appeared on my face. I was the happiest man in the world at that moment.

I spent the next 45 minutes or so touring the stadium. I climbed up the main stand, all the way to the top. The Olympic flame has ofcourse been extinguished long ago, but the cauldron is still there. It is behind the main stand and I stood next to it for a few minutes, thinking back to the games in 1984. I walked back down and around the far side. I sat down opposite the main stand and just sat there in silence. Just at the moment I got up, a guy in running gear came out of the same tunnel I had come out half an hour before, and started running around the track. When he passed me at the other side of the track I waved at him as a way of greeting. He waved back and smiled, not at all perturbed by the presence of a rough looking tourist in an otherwise abandoned stadium. When he came by for the second time, I decided to make my way back to the exit. When I reached the main stand again, and my running friend passed by for his third lap, a man in his sixties came from another tunnel in the main stand and he greeted me too. I asked him to take a couple of pictures of me with the stadium in the background and when he went off to his next chore, I made my way to the exit again. I passed by where the maintenance guy had been, but he was no longer there. I left the stadium with a warm feeling. This was the highlight of my trip, without any doubt.

Image may contain: 1 person, stadium and outdoor


On my way back into town, I took a different route as there was another thing I wanted to see. Sarajevo’s main cemetary was just a little bit out of the way, so I decided to check it out. It was a place that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Because of Sarajevo’s place in the landscape, essentially situated in a valley, with mountains on all sides, when the war intensified, the invading armies closed in on Sarajevo and cut the city off from the outside world for an unbelievable 3 years and 10 months. During this time, the people of Sarajevo had to rely on  a system of tunnels underneath and out of the city for supplies. The most well known of these tunnels led all the way to the airport, which was part of the Sarajevo safe zone and received drop offs of supplies, food and water. Inevitably, within weeks, people trapped within the city started using this tunnel to get weapons into the city so that they could fight back against the Serb forces that surrounded the city. There is a Sarajevo Tunnel museum, and I actually walked past it, but I did not visit it, something I now regret. As the situation grew worse and fighting intensified, more and more people died, and you can clearly see this here. There is such a disproportionate number of headstones with 1994 on it that it is chilling. The ugliness of war really grabs you in places like this, especially when I realised that nearly all of the deceased were around my age with the big difference being that I was walking around there and they had been dead for well over a decade. 



As I reached the city centre again, I made a final tour of central Sarajevo and vowed to come back. It is a beautiful city with a fascinating history and the weather in summer is amazing. A clock on the side of a shop read 37 degrees Celsius.

Back at the hostel, it was wine and cheese night again so I had to make a decision. I could take it easy and face the 10 hour overnight bus trip like that, or I could drink to such an extent that I would pass out as soon as the bus left the station. I decided on the latter. I spent my last 2 hours in Sarajevo drinking a mix of wine, beer and palinka, and then headed off to the busstation. The bus, as it turned out, was not a proper full sized coach, but a 25 seater mid sized vehicle. Fortunately, my strategy worked and my eyes got heavy as we drove out of the darkening city. I woke up a few times during the night, but as there wasn’t much to see outside (all was dark) I closed my eyes and faded away again soon on each occasion. It wasn’t until early in the morning when we got to the border with Croatia that we had to spring into action. Passports were collected, taken to a customs shack next to the road, stamped and then returned. And so, for the fifth time on this trip, I entered Croatia, this time at the town of Brod, or Brodski Varos as it is called on the Croatian side of the border.
The rest of the way to Zagreb passed slowly, and I failed to fall asleep entirely again. By the time we reached the outskirts of the city, the sun was climbing into the sky and the temperatures were already pushing 30 degrees again.

Here’s a really valuable tip, and I’ll throw it in for free here: When you’re travelling in a part of the world where life is cheap and a bottle of water costs about 20 cents in a shop, buy bottled water in a shop and don’t fill up your old bottle from a tap in a bus station toilet. With a 10 hour trip ahead, and not entirely sober at the time, I had checked my water stash and found that I only had about 1.5 litres with me. As I was unsure about any stopping arrangements and the possibility to restock en route, I had decided to refill an empty bottle I had in my backpack from the tap in the toilets at Sarajevo bus station. By the time we reached Zagreb, I had finished my final bottle of shop-fresh water so, without giving it a second thought, I dug into the refilled one. I sat down outside Zagreb bus station, trying to decide what to do with the 3.5 hours of spare time I had on my hands now. Should I go into the city and maybe get some breakfast, or should I just wait it out in the sun and maybe get some light sleep. Thanks to my moron decision to fill a water bottle from a public tap, I didn’t have to make the choice. Less than 10 minutes after I had gotten off the bus, the automatic alarm sign in the back of my brain went off and I walked into a toilet stall where I spent the next 20 minutes puking my guts out into a pristine Croatian toilet bowl. After I assumed the worst was over, I had a look at my water bottle and then realised what had been the cause of my misery. I stumbled back outside under weird looks from the toilet lady and went to buy a bottle of water that wouldn’t make me sick and a ticket for the bus to Ljubljana. I sat back down outside the station and took a cautious sip of water. As it turned out, the demon water wasn’t quite done with me just yet and to save you some time and me some space on the page, let’s just say that for the next 2 hours or so, I commuted between the bench outside and the toilet section of the station to get rid of whatever was left in my stomach. It was exhausting.
So, I know I’m a few years late on this, but I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the people of Zagreb, and especially the toilet lady at the bus station, for not paying any attention to their beautiful city and instead spending my time there doing a close up inspection of the sanitary facilities. I promise I’ll come back and pay the city a proper visit.

The dirty water debacle over, I boarded the bus to Ljubljana knowing 3 things: This bus trip would only take about 2 ½ hours; I would not have to be on a bus for 2 days once I got there; and in Slovenia I could pay in Euros.



Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Overland Experience - Part 1A

When several seasoned travellers end up in a bar, on a beach or in a hostel lounge, long conversations often develop about trips from the past, trips that are in the planning and, if you are on one, the current trip. One thing that always comes up in these conversations is the overland trip.

People who have been doing a lot of travelling almost invariably end up at the conclusion that travelling overland easily beats flying from one place to the next. There are several reasons for this. For starters, by travelling overland, you get to see more of the country, or countries, that you are travelling in. You will also meet local people who, like you, are going from one place to the next, rather than the tourists and business people that are found in airports. And finally, a big bonus for backpackers, is that overland travel is cheaper. Why pay $125 for a flight from, say, Detroit to Cleveland, when you can take the bus for $25? That’s a hundred Dollars in beer money right there.

People often ask me why I put myself through this every time. Why sit on a sweaty bus for 10 hours when you can cover that distance in a nice airconditioned plane in an hour and change? Why do you put yourself through the negotiations with bus drivers or station attendants whose language you might not speak when you can just take to the skies?
It is hard to explain this to people who do not have the travel bug, but somehow.. I just have to. I feel a great sense of achievement when I travel overland. It is a feeling of getting to know a place better by interacting with the people, the transport system and the local customs. On my most recent trip to North America, I changed cities 9 times in 17 days and went from Ireland to Canada to the USA and then walked back in to Canada (the 3rd time I crossed an international border on foot) and then, ultimately, back to Ireland. Yes, it was gruelling at times, and I was exhausted when I got back home, but it felt so good. I had seen 6 new cities, visited a new country and 3 US states (2 of them new) and had seen one of the world’s natural wonders at Niagara falls.  It was amazing. It was worth it. (Though I must admit that, when I got back, I had no desire to see the inside of a Greyhound bus for the forseeable future)

So to give you some insight in the machinations of The Overland Travel Experience, I thought I’d show you some of the overland trips I have done over the years and give you some ideas on how to get from A to B to C to D without getting on a plane. There are many ways to do the overland travel thing. I personally mostly use buses because they are cheap, but I love trains and ferries and will always jump at the chance to get on one. Others use specialised touring companies that offer overland trips, from bussing around Europe to specially designed trucks that drive across Africa. There are even tour companies that offer overland trips from  London to Sydney in Australia, taking in 20+ countries in 7 or 8 months. Be prepared to break the bank for trips like that, because they can cost up to 5000 Euros for transport and accomodation alone. Ofcourse, there are people who use their own transport to enhance the overland experience. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the Lonely Planet guidebook company, started out by going overland from England to Australia in an old car. Plenty of people travel the Pan-American highway from Alaska all the way down to Patagonia in Southern Argentina.

My friend Richard is currently in his fifth year of cycling around the world and has racked up some 100.000 kilometers by now. He cycled from Holland to Indonesia, then around Australia, then from Holland to Japan, and he is currently on his second lap of South America. You can follow his progress on his blog, which you can find HERE (It’s in Dutch, but even if you don’t understand the language, the pictures are worth checking out)

If you enjoy reading about trips like this, I can recommend the books of Peter Moore, an Australian travel writer who made his name with a book called The Wrong Way Home, in which he describes his epic trek from London, where he lived for a while, back home to Sydney in Australia. He wrote 5 other books, which all deal with overland travel, but The Wrong Way Home is his classic. Should you have any questions on how to go about overland travel, or how to organise seemingly complicated trips, get in touch with me and I can help you with that.

Let’s get started.

The Balkans, Summer 2011.
Route: Dublin-Dubrovnik-Mostar-Sarajevo-Zagreb-Ljubljana-Budapest-Dublin
Overland kilometres: 1274


Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s, resulting in a series of very ugly wars, causing the deaths of far too many people. The newly established countries, when the dust eventually settled, needed to re-purpose themselves and start their existence as independent nations, rather than as part of Yugoslavia. As luck would have it, the Balkans are one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, so tourism was an obvious angle. Croatia ran away with it at first, but the other parts of the former Yugoslavia are getting in on it as well. I was intrigued by the history of the area, and encouraged by a friend who served in the UN army in Bosnia. Despite the fact that he was there at a time of war, he kept regaling me with tales of amazing food, beautiful women and dirt cheap beer. I had to see it for myself. (This friend, accidentally, is the brother of my cycling friend Richard, whom I mentioned above)

I studied maps intently and eventually settled on the route Dubrovnik-Mostar-Sarajevo-Zagreb-Ljubljana-Budapest. This route would take in 4 countries: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Hungary.

I flew to Dubrovnik from Dublin on a sunny summer day, and found myself in the heat of the Mediterranean summer. It was 28 degrees in Dubrovnik. I stayed in Dubrovnik for 3 days and loved the place. Yes, it was touristy, but it was also beautiful. And fun. When I presented myself at the hostel check in desk, I was offered a free shot of Palinka, the local moonshine. I took in the historic town and took a long walk around the city walls. It was a beautiful and confusing medieval maze where every corner looked like the previous and where all the streets seemed to go upwards. One afternoon, when I was hopelessly lost again, I walked through a gate in one of the city walls and suddenly found myself in a bar on a rocky ledge looking out over the Adriatic sea. It was stunningly beautiful. I sat down with a cold beer and stared out over the sea. It is at times like this that you remember why you travel. To have experiences like this.

When I informed about the travel options to Mostar at the hostel, the girl at reception told me that I could take the local bus to the main bus station and get a ticket there. Buses to Mostar were frequent but rarely full. When after some 10 minutes on the local bus I asked the driver when we would get to the busstation, he told me in broken English that we had passed the bus station some time before. I asked him to stop and got off the bus with 2 English girls who were also heading for the bus station. As luck would have it, a bus in the opposite direction was just approaching and after explaining our predicament to the driver, he took us back to the bus station for free.

One of the interesting things about the former Yugoslavia is that while the countries are now all on their own, most of the infrastructure dates back to the time when there were no borders between them. If you have a close look at the map of the balkans above (or on Google maps if you want to zoom in closer) you will notice that Dubrovnik is an exclave of Croatia, surrounded by Bosnian territory. This was never a problem in the days of Yugoslavia, but now it looks odd. On top of that, the main roads in the area are all from back when, so when you drive from Dubrovnik, in Croatia, to Mostar, in Bosnia, you cross the border 3 or 4 times. We first arrived at a checkpoint, and Bosnian soldiers entered the bus to do a passport check. 10 minutes later, the bus pulled into a service station and the driver announced a 20 minute break. I walked into the bar, only to find a huge Hajduk Split flag behind the bar and when I ordered a beer, I was given a receipt in Kuna. Apparently, we were back in Croatia again.  Another 20 minutes or so later, we were again halted and checked by Bosnian soldiers. By then I had given up trying to determine in which country we were exactly, but after that, we continued uninterrupted to Mostar.




There is not enough space here (there is not enough space on the internet) to explain the exact issues that led to the ugly break up of Yugoslavia but Bosnia, due to its ethnically diverse population, was hit the hardest in the conflict. The Croatians in Bosnia wanted to join Croatia, the Serbs wanted to be part of Serbia and the Bosniaks just wanted to be left alone. None of this happened and even today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a patchwork of ethnic clusters that looks like a Paint-by-the-Numbers image. 

One of the lasting images of the Yugoslav wars is the destruction of the beautiful Stari Most bridge in Mostar, which was blown up by the Croatian army in 1993. It was rebuilt in 2004 with help from the UN and NATO and nowadays you wouldn’t really know the difference from the original bridge, apart from the fact that that one stood for 427 years and this one has only been around for a decade. 

As I only had one day in Mostar, the first thing I wanted to see was the bridge. When I got off the bus at Mostar station, I was approached by half a dozen locals who all wanted me to rent a room. I informed them that I had already booked accomodation with a lady called Mira, and that name seemed to have some resonance as one of the peddlers instructed me on how to get there and the others went off in search of more interesting customers.

As I walked to my accommodation, I noticed that Mostar still had not entirely rebounded from the war. It was a nice enough town, and had some really nice Balkan style Islamic architecture, but there were still a lot of buildings with bullet holes in them, collapsed structures and empty lots where houses had once stood. Mostar is set to a backdrop of rugged mountains and it was strange to see such a beautiful place, in such beautiful weather (it was 30 degrees here) still scarred from an ugly war that had ended 15 years earlier. 


I was welcomed by a cheerful and friendly lady of late middle years, who showed me to the apartments at the back of her house. I was given a private room for what turned out to be something like 12 Euros and after having a chat with her and her daughter, I set out for the centre of town. I found it after a lovely 10 minute walk and took some time to take in the view of the bridge. It really is a beautiful piece of architecture. I had someone take a photo of me with the bridge in the background, and that it still one of my favorite photos, not just from that trip, but from all my trips. The bridge is also the location of the famous bridge jumping kids. At its apex, it must be a 60 foot straight drop into the shallow river below. Local boys ask tourists and other grown ups for a small donation (I gave one boy 4 Bosnian Marks, or about 2 Euros, a small fortune for a 6 year old in a country like Bosnia) and when they have a satisfactory amount of money, they walk up to the highest point of the bridge and jump in. I wouldn’t take that jump for 40.000 Bosnian Marks, never mind 4, but these kids do it all day long. I crossed the bridge to the other side of the water, had a look around the shops and market stalls, and then crossed back to where I had come from. 


I sat down at a table outside a restaurant, where several older men were drinking a clear liquid from small glasses. I was still reeling a bit from the night before when, in Dubrovnik, I had consumed a serious amount of beer and an equally serious number of shots of palinka, so I was taking it easy today. Tomorrow would be another day of traveling and the only train to Sarajevo was at 9.30 in the morning, so I could not afford to miss it. I had a few beers and a plate of sausages and other assorted meats, walked across the bridge again, had another drink and then decided to call it a night. I had my own room for the night, a rare luxury on a trip like this, so I wanted to make the most of it and get a good night sleep. And so I did. 





The next morning I woke up early, took a shower in my private bathroom and presented myself downstairs to check out. The lady in charge of the establishment led me in to her own kitchen and offered me breakfast. After some 20 minutes or so, I thanked her for her hospitality and said I had to leave for the train station. She told me that she would drive me to the train station, a service included in the room rate. She did literally drive me into the trainstation, as she drove her car through the back entrance and up to the stairs to the platform. How’s that for service?
I got a ticket with the minimum of hassle and still had 15 minutes to spare. I was on my way to Sarajevo, the city I had been looking forward to the most at the start of the trip.


The reason for this was embedded in my childhood. When I was only 9 years old, I witnessed my first ever Olympic Games. It was the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. We were at a friend’s birthday party when the opening ceremony was on tv, and while we were stuffing our faces with crisps, deepfried snacks and full flavor Coke in quantities that would make dieticians these days recoil in horror, I witnessed the seemingly endless parade of athletes entering the Sarajevo Olympic Stadium, waving at the crowd and proudly carrying the flags of their countries. Little did people know that this was one of the final appearances at a major sporting event of Yugoslavia as a unified nation and that, only a few years later, ethnical unrest in Kosovo would set the wheels in motion for the eventual end of the country. Mesmerized by this amazing spectacle, I saw the Olympic flame being lit and vowed that one day, when I grew up, I would go there myself.
And now, 27 years later, I was on my way there.





Most trains in Western Europe these days have an open plan set up: there are sets of 4 seats, facing each other 2 by 2, and the left over spaces near doors and stairs (most trains in Holland for example are double deckers) are filled with single and double seats. In Central Europe, most trains still have the more old fashioned cabin style trains, where you have, typically, 6 seats in a closed off partition and a narrow corridor going past the cabins. 

This train was like that. I selected a cabin near the exit, where I found an English couple and 2 silent local individuals. I spent the first half hour of the train trip having the standard conversation with the English couple (where are you from, where have you been, where are you going) but for the rest of the 2 ½ hour trip mostly stuck to my book and taking in the sights outside. 
They were pretty amazing. While Croatia gets most of the spotlight when it comes to tourism in the Balkans, Bosnia is right up there when it comes to natural beauty, picturesque towns and interesting people. The only difference from a tourism point of view is that Bosnia does not have a coastline to speak of. Apart from a 20 kilometer stretch around the town of Neum, Bosnia is landlocked and as there are no sizeable lakes in the country either, it pretty much escapes the attention of 80% of the holiday crowd. This is perhaps a bad thing from an economic point of view, but for intrepid travellers like me it is a godsend. Dubrovnik is a beautiful place and I would recommend anyone to pay it a visit, which everyone does. Locals in Dubrovnik appreciate the extra income that tourism brings but are less enamoured about being overrun in their own town by hordes of tourists. Like in Venice and Las Vegas, the locals are squeezed out to the suburbs to make way for hotels and other tourist amenities in the city centre. In the high season, the whole of Dubrovnik’s old town is one huge throng of tourists who want to have a picture taken at the ancient city walls, have an ice cream on the main square, and then go back to their rental car or cruise ship where Dubrovnik is reduced to a 2 piece part of the holiday slideshow they show their friends and neighbours when they get home. Look, I don’t plan on settling in Dubrovnik myself, but most tourists show little or no interest in the local people or history of places like that, and I can imagine that the population of Dubrovnik and Venice are sick of it. 

To get back to my main storyline here- you won’t see any of that in Bosnia and I think that this is because of the lack of beaches.
When we reached the outskirts of Sarajevo, I put away my book and stared out the window. 

There it was, the city that I had looked at with awe as a 9 year old boy, with a can of coke and a pack of crisps in my hand. I was finally there. 

I recognized the minarets of the grand mosque, the mountains in the background towards where the Olympic Stadium should be. I got off the train and walked into the main arrivals hall of the station. It was amazing. I decided to take a picture of it and got in trouble within 2 minutes of getting off the train. The problem is that in the Yugoslav wars, or any war for that matter, most key moments were related to the destruction or control of important pieces of infrastructure. Holding the main highway, a port or the capital’s main railway station are important strategic victories in warfare and the defending army wants to keep any details about these locations under high scrutiny. So when an annoying long-haired backpacker starts taking pictures of one of your vital pieces of infrastructure, this results in swift action. Before I could take a second picture of the main concourse, 2 uniformed men came running towards me, shouting in a language I did not understand (I’m guessing Bosnian), and, when they realised I did not understand them, explained in rudimentary English that it was not allowed under any circumstances to take photos of the station. I apologised profusely and played the “I’m a dumb tourist” card, which seemed to satisfy them. I walked outside in search of a tram. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The 5 best new beers of 2017.


Happy new year everyone!

Apologies for my tardiness in publishing new stuff lately, but I have been working on several other projects and the blog posts just sort of fell by the wayside. But I promise improvement in that, and if you enjoy reading my stories, there are some cool developments in the pipeline.

A new year is here. The end of the year is always a time for reflection and many people will come out with overviews of their favorite music, moments, earthquakes, or whatever else makes them tick. What makes me tick more than anything is, ofcourse, beer. I have drank quite a lot of it in 2017 and have kept track of this in an app called Untappd. 

This app is a sort of social media platform for beer drinkers, where you can find ratings, descriptions and photos of countless different beers. You can also make friends, talk and send messages and ‘toast’ each others post, similar to liking someone’s photo or remark on Facebook. I personally don’t really use the social media aspect of Untappd, because I waste enough time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram doing that, but the beauty of Untappd is the statistics section, where you can see exactly which beers you drank, from which country they came, what rating you gave them etc. 

Unfortunately, the statistics section in Untappd is not so sophisticated that it can give you superdetailed overviews, but it works for most queries. One thing that I can’t get out of it, for example, is how many different beers I drank in a specific time frame. I wanted to see exactly how many different beers (or ‘Unique Check Ins’ in Untappd terminology) I had added to my list in 2017, but this is not possible, unless you want to basically scroll through your feed for 2 hours or so and mark them off on a note pad or something like that. However, I can give you a ball park figure and tell you that I drank about 330 new beers this years. To close out my beery year in style, I thought I’d give you an overview of the best new beers I drank in 2017.




Before we get started, let me explain some ground rules for how I went about this.
“New” in the context of this list means that it is a beer that I drank for the first time between January 1st 2017 and December 31st 2017. This does not mean that it is a beer that was on the market for the first time, or even necessarily that I drank it for the first time, but merely that this is a beer that I had not previously checked in on Untappd since I started using it in May 2013. So theoretically, this can be a beer that has been available for 30 years and I drank 250 times before May 2013, but not since. There are some of these occurences in my total record for 2017, but none of these have made this list.

“New” can also refer to a new or different version of an already existing (or checked in) beer, provided that it is really new or different. On the Untappd app, there are people who check in Coors Light (2017 batch), Coors Light (2016 batch) and so on. This is clearly ridiculous as Coors Light has been the same for decades so there is no notable difference between one from 2016 and one from 2017. 

If, however, you have a beer that was originally barrel aged on bourbon casks, but is now aged on cognac casks, that does qualify as a new beer. (The Dutch De Molen brewery is very good at this. They regularly release beers in 5 or 6 different barrel aged varieties). Similarly, if you change the recipe of a beer to such a degree that the difference in taste is clearly noticeable, that also qualifies as a new beer. 

Finally, let me state here that this list is in no way conclusive, definitive or complete. For reasons of brevity, I have stuck to 5 beers. If I wanted to make this story a comprehensive overview of the beers I drank this year, it would run into the dozen of pages. (Even now, I have already written an entire page and we haven’t even started yet).
My records aren’t 100% accurate either. When you drink a lot, you inevitably forget to make notes of certain things, especially late at night, so there are beers out there that are not in my record but I definitely drank. This doesn’t matter. Few extensive records of anything in this world are 100% accurate so I certainly wouldn’t expect one based around alcohol to be. The list is in random order, as the type of beer you drink and how you enjoy it depend on a number of environmental factors, such as the weather, what you drank before, what you ate with it etc. I love big imperial stouts, but when I’m on a beach in Southern Spain and it’s 35 degrees, I’m just as happy with a can of lager. 

A final rule I made myself adhere to, was that I could only nominate 1 beer per brewery, otherwise this story would most likely have been called ‘The 5 Best Founders beers of 2017’
Enjoy!




Prairie Ales/Evil Twin- Barrel Aged Bible Belt.



Oklahoma City may not stand out as a brewing hot spot to most people, and it isn’t, but Prairie Artisan Ales is sure making its mark. They teamed up with the legendary Evil Twin again for a second version of this beer, and this time they barrel aged it. The beer is a big, heavy, imperial stout, brewed with cacao, chillis, vanilla and coffee beans. The beer is then barrel aged on Heaven Hill whiskey barrels for 9 months. The result is breathtaking. I drank this beer only once, in the BierCab bar in Barcelona, but it sure made an impression. The flavors are intense, every sip lasts for minutes and at the end you sit there, staring in the middle distance, wondering to yourself “What the hell just happened there?” It is an absolute beauty. Treat it with caution though, because it packs a punch at 13% alcohol.

8 Degrees- The Holly King Barrel Aged Imperial Stout.


This may sound like the run up to a lame pub joke, but in 2010, a Kiwi and an Aussie set up a brewery in Ireland. Over the past 7 years, their beers have become a favorite among the craft beer crowd in Ireland and, quite recently, they introduced their own barrel ageing programme. This initially resulted in a trilogy of beers called The Good, The Bald and The Fearless (Barley wine, Imperial Stout and Farmhouse Ale, respectively) and this year they added to this with 2 beers for the festive season: The Oak King and The Holly King. While The Oak King, a Belgian style pale ale, is a very tasty beer in itself, it does not quite measure up to its big brother, The Holly King. An Imperial Stout, aged in French oak barrels, it is big and full of flavour, yet smooth and subtle. With tastes of red fruit, chocolate and ofcourse the oak from the barrels, this is a great beer to enjoy by the fire place on dark winter days. Or in the pub, that will do just fine too.


Galway Bay Brewery/Boundary – Harmonic Convergence Barrel Aged Barley Wine.



You didn’t think this article was going to end without a Galway Bay Beer in it, did you?
Since its inception in 2009, the Galway Bay Brewery has kept Irish beer lovers happy with a steady stream of great beers. This year was no different, with new IPAs (Regular Legs was a personal favorite), a Saison and several other tasty beers coming from the West Coast. It looked for most of the year that Rando Calrissian, a Black IPA that proved surprisingly popular across the country, was going to take the crown but then, a few weeks before the end of the year, Harmonic Convergence hit the shelves. I have tried it on draft about 10 times and, damn, this is a fine brew. It’s big, heavy and malty. It's smooth and strong and, at 12% alcohol and with a year of maturation on whiskey barrels, it makes you glow. Which is just what you need on a chilly winter night. I recommend you act quickly if you want to get your hands on it, because supply is limited. The draft version is, alas, gone already, but you might be able to pick up a bottle here or there.


Hertog Jan Grand Prestige Barley Wine, Barrel Aged on Goose Island BCBS Barrels.

If you go back to the introduction of this story, you will see that I mentioned something about the theoretic possibility of beers that have been available for 20 years or more showing up on this list. This is sort of the case here. I have drank Hertog Jan Grand Prestige many, many times in  my life. Hertog Jan is still my favorite Dutch brewery, despite the fact that they have been bought out by one of the big boys. I still love the beer as much as I did 20 years ago. Hell, I even have the brewery logo tattooed on my arm. Grand Prestige is an amazing beer that could have easily made this list, if it weren’t for the fact that I had had it before. A couple of hundred times. Grand Prestige is a Big Beer with deep flavours that, like other well-made barley wines, will make you glow.

As I said, the brewery was bought some years ago by Inbev, the biggest brewing conglomerate in the world. This may seem like a negative development, but keep in mind that being part of  a bigger company is not always a bad thing. You see, Goose Island from Chicago is also part of Inbev these days. While Goose Island makes a whole range of excellent beers, including IPAs and wheat ales, most people will only think of 1 thing when you drop the name Goose Island, and that is Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS). Originally developped as a one off special edition to celebrate the brewery’s 1000th brew, it turned out to be so good that it immediately achieved cult status and became one of the most sought after beers in the world. These days it’s a bit silly, and as the popularity of craft beer is spreading, so is the name of BCBS. Every year around the release date, a tidal wave of hype crashes across the world of beer and people fall over themselves to get their hands on a bottle. One beer store in Holland, that had managed to get their hands on 100 bottles, found people lining up around the block more than a day before the bottles went on sale. Mind you, there was a maximum of 1 (one) bottle per person and that one bottle cost 20 Euros. I personally don’t buy into hypes like that. I am convinced that when I do eventually taste it, it will be one of the best beers I ever drank, and I’ll be more than happy to fork over 20 Euro for a bottle, but I’m not lining up overnight for anything. Not even beer.

But I digress. To get back to Grand Prestige- As both Hertog Jan and Goose Island were now part of Inbev, this opened up the way for collaboration. Hertog Jan could use Goose Island’s extensive knowledge of barrel aging and Goose Island could take the opportunity to release one of Europe’s famous beers in the USA. 
Hertog Jan eventually released 4 different barrel aged versions of Grand Prestige: Port, Cognac, Bourbon and Goose Island BCBS. (Okay, they made a 5th version, aged on Macallan Scotch barrels, but that was never released and was only made available to brewery employees and guests at the invite-only launch party at the brewery. In any case, only 200 bottles were ever made so you’ll never taste it.)
Despite the fact that Inbev has a world wide distribution network, Hertog Jan was never exported to Ireland, so I cherish my trips to Holland, when I can get it at pretty much every shop.

When I heard about the Grand Prestige Barrel Aged project and a release date that was far removed from my presence in Holland, I cursed twice but then had peace with it. I thought about asking people to get me a bottle, but beer is heavy, shipping it is costly and I don’t normally succumb to requests of sending rare Irish or American beers over to Holland if they can’t get it there. It’s too much hassle, you can’t drink every beer that is ever released and sometimes you just have to take no for an answer.

So imagine my surprise when an acquaintance, someone I had never met in person but knew through a craft beer group on Facebook, sent me a message informing me that he would be coming to Dublin in November and would I want him to bring a bottle of Grand Prestige Barrel Aged?
I explained him that I never asked people to carry over heavy stuff like beer because I probably wouldn’t bring beer from Ireland to Holland either. He insisted that it was no problem at all and he could even bring a second bottle, the BCBS version if I wanted one. Well, if it really wasn’t a problem, yeah sure. A few weeks later, I was the proud owner of not one but two bottles of Grand Prestige Barrel Aged. Happy days.

The first bottle, Grand Prestige aged on bourbon barrels, went down a treat. It had all the hallmarks of the ‘regular’ Grand Prestige, but the ageing process had brought a couple of extra layers of flavor to the table. Bourbon, vanilla, wood tones, they all combined beautifully with one of my old favorites from back home.

Very impressed with all this awesomeness, I let the second bottle rest for another 2 weeks and then the moment was there. Hertog Jan Grand Prestige aged in Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout barrels. To give you an idea what is going on here, let me explain the process. Goose Island brews their famous Bourbon County Brand Stout. They then age it in bourbon barrels for a year. And then they take those barrels and age the Grand Prestige in them.
This bottle, unlike the bourbon aged version, had a crown cap rather than a cork, so I flipped it off  and poured my first glass. I let it settle for a couple of seconds and took my first sip. Even now as I write this, 2 months later, I still struggle to find the words to describe it. It was phenomenal. There was so much depth of flavour. It was so beautiful that I wanted to cry. I have been drinking for nearly 30 years now, and must have drank at least 1500 different beers, but on maybe 10 occasions have I been so impressed by a beer as I was now. It made me think of the movie Ten, starring Dudley Moore. In the movie, in which he pursues what he considers to be the most beautiful woman on earth, he is asked by his therapist
“On  scale of 1 to 10, how beautiful is she?”
‘11’.
That is how good this beer is. It was breathtaking.

Founders – Doom Imperial IPA aged on Bourbon Barrels.




Founders is my favorite brewery in the USA, and one of my Top3 breweries in the world. I can’t tell you exactly when I first started drinking Founders, but I quickly realized that they know how to make amazing beer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As luck would have it, the company that imports Founders for Ireland does a lot of business with the pubs that I am a regular at, so there is always a steady supply of Founders beer and all new releases stop off in Ireland first.
 
Apart from their core range of IPAs, rye ales and stouts, Founders is particularly famous and loved for their Barrel Aged programme. They release 6 barrel aged brews each year, and one of the highlights on the beer calendar is the annual release of KBS, their Imperial coffee and chocolate stout, aged on bourbon barrels. It is one of the most highly praised beers on the planet and on Ratebeer.com, one of the world’s leading beer appraisal sites, it has a score of 100. (Yes, the scale is 1-100)

This year, we were particularly well supplied with KBS in Ireland, and I have drank it quite a lot. It would easily have made this list if it weren’t for the fact that I had had it numerous times before 2017. Fortunately, Founders does not rely on KBS alone, and I considered several other of their brews. In the end it came down to DKML, Double Kentucky Malt Liquor, a malt liquor aged, you guessed it, in bourbon barrels, and Doom, an Imperial IPA also aged in bourbon barrels. They are both whopper beers, with 14.2 and 12.4% alcohol respectively and it could have gone either way.
I ultimately chose Doom, because I think that the bourbon barrels work just a little bit better with Doom than they do with DKML.
Doom is a big brew. It is dark gold in color, pleasantly hoppy and has a malty taste to the back of that. The bourbon barrels give it a deeply boozy flavour and it is a beer that is sure to make you happy. Should you ever see Doom somewhere, get it. You won’t regret it.

There you have it. My 5 favorite new beers of 2017.


As I said in the intro, this story could have been 30 pages long if I had wanted to highlight every noticeable aspect of my year in beer. I visited several beer festivals, of which Hagstravaganza, the birthday party of the White Hag Brewery in Sligo, was undoubtedly a highlight. 20 brewers, 60 beers, many of which had never been poured in Ireland, and a 1000 beer fanatics sure make for a good party. I already have my ticket for this year’s festival so watch out Sligo, I’ll be back.

Also worth mentioning is the Beats, Beer and Boogaloo festival in Tisno, Croatia. I went there, courtesy of the Galway Bay Brewery, after winning a photo contest on Twitter and it was brilliant. The festival was mainly focused on funk and Northern soul, music wise, but also had a large selection of craft beers available, mainly from breweries in the Balkans and Central Europe. I discovered a great many new brews that I would normally not have come across and, this being Croatia, the weather was spectacular. So a big thank you to Will, Jason and Mick from Galway Bay for making it happen.

Another highlight in my year was my first trip to Canada. For 2 ½ weeks I travelled from Toronto around Lake Eerie, taking in 10 breweries and ending up back in Toronto. The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly my visit to the Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was great to be at the source of all those amazing beers. It took me 10 hours on a Greyhound bus to get there and back from Detroit, but it was totally worth it, and once the staff found out that I had come all the way from Ireland, just to visit Founders, they kept buying me beers until I stumbled out the door around closing time. It was a night I will never forget (except for the end maybe, but hey..)

Also worth mentioning are Batch Brewing in Detroit, Great Lakes in Cleveland, Big Ditch in Buffalo and Left Field Brewing and The Only in Toronto.

One of the great things about the craft beer scene is that you can be 5000 miles from home, but when you show an interest in brewing and the local area, you are treated as a long lost friend and given a warm welcome. It’s great to be part of that.

So with that, let me wish you all a, somewhat belated, Happy New Year. I will keep you up to date on my beery whereabouts throughout 2018.

Cheers

Lennard

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why festivals suck

Image result for phones at concerts


As you all will have noticed over the last few weeks, summer is now well and truly upon us.
With spring and summer, a number of things return to the daily routine. It’s already light outside when you get up, it’s still light when you get back from work, temperatures rise, clothes are being exchanged for lighter versions, ice cream trucks emerge from hibernation and outside drinking becomes part of life again. 

Football seasons end, trophies are lifted and people plan their summer holidays.
 

For over a decade, from 1995 to 2006, I spent my entire holiday budget, and most of my allocated days off, on one thing: music festivals. Every year, from January on, me and my friends would spend long hours planning our summer getaways. Now mind you, back then, the internet was not as ubiquitous a presence in life as it is now. Things like Google and Wikipedia did not exist in the mid nineties, and even later on many festivals still did most of their advertising through magazines and other printed media, rather than websites.
We would carefully pick the festivals to go to in the summer (though, inevitably, we would always end up on more or less the same ones every year) and be giddy with anticipation from March onwards. Line up changes would be carefully scrutinized and instantly communicated when noticed (it was a badge of honor if you were first to break the news that Slayer would be playing at Dynamo Open Air), festival gear would be accumulated, transport would be booked, often for your entire group of friends, and then the countdown began.
50 Days to Dynamo Open Air! Just one month to go! Guys.. this time next week we’ll be at the festival raising a cold beer! 

Image result for beer at wacken



In short, I spent pretty much my entire twenties booking, planning and going to festivals. While my friends who weren’t into music all that much spent their summers on Spanish Costas and Greek isles, we spent our time on muddy graslands in Germany and Belgium, listening to songs about war and death. It was one of the best periods of my life, and I remember it with great fondness.
I can’t really point out why I stopped doing it exactly. It was a combination of me moving to Ireland, finding other interests and the idea that I maybe wanted to do something else with my free time. Whatever the reason, my festival-going career ended and I decided to pursue other goals.

Because I had so many friends who were still going to festivals, I was kept up to date with what happened to a certain degree, but after staving off the initial empty feelings when I knew they were at a major festival while I was reading the paper in a Dublin pub, the idea slowly disappeared from my mind. What I did notice though, after a few years in Ireland, is that more and more people started to drop out. Some of them gave up altogether, like me, and most others seriously cut back on their summer schedule. This was for a number of reasons- children, mortgages, serious jobs with little or no time for frivolities, etc. etc. but one reason that I heard from most of them was clear: It wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. I wrote this off against progressing age, the absence of friends that always used to be there and the urge to see other things than mud and the same bands for the 25th time, but there was always a feeling that there was something larger at stake here.


 The first time I realised that all was not well in festival land, was when I saw this video:








Honey!! Where's my shotgun?

What the fuck was happening there?

This is not what you would call ‘festival ready’. In fact, as a veteran of the scene, I would put clothing like this at the very bottom of the advice list. Shocked by this revelation, I set out to investigate and, as it turned out, the festival scene has been infected by people who have no business in attending festivals. They don’t give a shit about the music, they have no respect for the generally accepted rules of engagement on festivals, and the only reason they want to be there is because their colleagues or neighbours are there so that they can say that ‘they’ve been there’ too.
This increased attention from people who don’t care about festivals or the music has lead to the deterioration of the atmosphere of old and I have found why that is.
Basically, there are 3 main things that are wrong with festivals these days, and I will explain them to you right here.

0. The entry price.

Ha! Fooled you! The ever increasing entry prices are not a reason for the downward slide of festivals. They’re a consequence of the fact that we are now into a second generation of people who think that paying for music is the most ridiculous thing ever. 25 years ago, performing artists made a large chunk of their money from selling records. With the advent of the internet, this line of income went out the window. Apart from the real superstars, no musician makes any significant money from the actual music itself. The only way to make money as a musician these days is by selling merchandise and playing live shows. This in itself leads to a clogging up of concert venues further and further ahead, as tour bookers are trying to tie down venues as early as possible to ensure a continued string of concerts and income. So the next time you complain about the high prices of concert tickets, consider buying an actual record instead of streaming or downloading it. You only have yourself to blame, and the widespread use of the internet, which brings me, conveniently, to the first real reason that festivals suck these days.

1. The internet and mobile phones.
Perhaps the main attraction of festivals in the mid nineties was the fact that you effectively disappeared from the face of the earth for 4 days. You and your friends would gather on Thursday morning at a local train or bus station, go to the festival and would not be heard of again until mid afternoon on Monday. This was great. For 4 days, the only thing that mattered was the festival and having as much fun as possible. There was no interference from outside news, no politics, no football scores, nothing. For the entire weekend, all that mattered was the festival, the bands and the party. What happened on the outside was irrelevant. Early on, mobile phones weren’t even a thing. Nobody had them, simple as that. Even when I did get my first mobile phone in 1997, I never brought it to a festival. What was the use? Mind you, mobile phones back then didn’t have internet access, games, or apps with public transport info or pizza delivery services. The only thing you could do with them was call people (remember that, calling people on your phone?) and send text messages, so there was no use in bringing a mobile phone. Anyone that mattered was at the festival, and the only thing that could happen was that you could lose your phone.
It was bliss. For 4 days, we were in our own world that consisted of live music, beer and partying. The outside world didn’t matter. Those who were at the festival forgot about the rest of the world, and those who weren’t had no idea what was going on inside. If you weren’t at the festival, you weren’t in on it.

I had a ritual that I always followed upon returning from a festival. Unable to cope with the real world just yet, I would get home, get a huge Chinese take away and spend the rest of the day listening to music, watching cartoons and working my way through an endless pile of plastic containers full of noodles, grilled pork and chicken satay. The day after, I would slowly start resuming contact with the outside world.

How different things are these days. From the second people leave for a festival, you are treated to a neverending stream of photos, videos and updates from the festival ground. Every single band is streamed live right into your living room, and everybody is connected to the outside world at any given time. It sucks. The whole idea of being away from the world is gone. While people are at the festival, watching bands, they constantly get live updates on their phones about what is happening outside the festival, who has been elected or deposed and what the winning lottery numbers are. This takes all the fun out of the whole idea of going to a festival.
Apart from ruining the experience of being entirely closed off from the rest of the world, the advent of mobile internet has another unwanted effect:

2. The crowd has changed.

Back in the days, when I told colleagues or other people who weren’t into music that I was going to a big festival, they would always stare at me with a weary look in their eyes. Their questions would always give me the idea that they had a picture of a festival being a strange cult-like gathering, where people would perform dark rituals and run around half naked, dazed off their head on drugs. While this wasn’t entirely wrong, it was nowhere near accurate either, but the point was that the ‘regular’ people (for want of a better word) had the idea that us festival goers were all weirdos who had sold their soul to Satan and spent their free time jumping around in the mud, which suited us fine. These people wouldn’t dare go near a festival in their lives and they preferred to remain in the safe confines of their own back yard, with all conveniences at hand. The arrival of mobile internet has changed this. As soon as the regular people saw footage of festivals coming at them, first on message boards and then on Facebook and other social media, they started to take note. Yes, we were still a bunch of degenerate weirdos who drank more before lunch than they did in a year, but somehow this looked like... fun. After some hesitant initial enquiries about how dangerous it was, and how the sanitary conveniences were arranged, a shift started to become apparent in the attitude towards festivals. This was noticeable as early as the turn of the millennium. One of the most clear cut changes in crowd happened right before my eyes at the Lowlands festival in Holland. The first couple of years I went there, everybody hung out with everybody. Technoheads drank with skaters, punks smoked joints with dreadlocked hippies and metalheads had a beer with anyone who was interested. It was one great happy family. On the last 2 occasions I went there, the change was shocking. Musical subcultures clustered together in their own segregated corners of the camp sites, and if you were crazy enough to play punk in a techno zone, you were in for a reminder of where you were.
And this was even before the regular people started moving in. With no interest in any of the bands that were playing, these people cornered off large swats of camp site, where they would play regular chart music, observed rather christian bed times and would tell you that ‘some people enjoy their sleep’ if you happened to make noise after midnight. One night, at around midnight, me and a friend were walking across a camping field, singing songs and laughing, and someone shouted from a large family sized tent that we should shut up as it was late.
It was then that I knew the festival was lost. 

Why these people don’t go to a regular camp site, far away from noisy drunks like me and my friends, I never understood, but the urge to be able to say at the watercooler at work that they ‘were there’ must go some way to explaining it.
This situation has not improved over the years. As I said, I haven’t been following this as actively as I used to, but I regularly see photos on social media, posted by festival veterans who are disgusted by the behaviour of people who don’t appreciate the festival atmosphere and therefore try to turn it into an extended version of their local football club’s annual summer barbecue.
That is not how it works. Festivals are different. 

And that takes me to point 3 of my rant:



3. The new crowd expect comfort.

When you’re at a festival, different rules apply. You leave the conveniences of home behind to be part of a special occasion. You accept that you will be eating luke warm hamburgers or fallafel for the duration, and don’t have your own kitchen or the chef of your local pub to feed you. Instead of having a nice pint on your comfy seat in your regular pub, you sit on the grass drinking mediocre lager from a plastic cup. And yes, you’ll have to take a shit on a mobile toilet that has been used by 500 other people before you since the start of the day. That’s all part of the experience. When you get home, you will appreciate the comforts of home all the more and you’ll be a better person for it.
But no, this does not sit well with the 21st century crowd. They are too good for this.
Look, I’m all for choice. I love it that I can choose from 15 different types of hummus at my local supermarket, in 3 different degrees of fattyness. I love that my local beerstore has 300 different types of beer for me to choose from, and ads new brands almost on a daily basis. And I love that the pub at work has 12 different hamburgers that I can choose from for lunch. On a festival, however, this isn’t necessarily and advantage. Festival bars work under high pressure and deal with enormous crowds, often concentrated at certain times (the time frame between the end of one band and the start of another). Having 25 different beers on tap would make it nearly impossible to deal with the crowds, nevermind the pricing system. The same thing goes for food. If your customers can choose between a hamburger, a cheeseburger and a hotdog, you can serve one every 15 seconds. If every customer gets to order a custom-made snack, and decide on whether they want pickles, tomato or mayonaise on their burger, this will take far too long and the queue will soon rise to dangerous length. Live with a relatively limited choice for a few days, it won’t kill you.

The same thing applies for other comforts you are used to at home. Showers are a daily part of most people’s routine and I’m glad that they are. I wouldn’t want to sit next to people who haven’t showered in 4 days
in the office, but on a festival this doesn’t matter. You’re either walking around in a neverending mudslide or in a midsummer dustfest. Your hair is going to be sticky, your clothes caked with dirt and your boots will need 2 days of solid cleaning when you get home. Taking a shower is a waste of both your time and your money. Rinse your face and brush your teeth in the morning and you’ll be fine. You can also do without extensive make up supplies, hairdryers or curlers and razors.

Image result for beauty case
NOT Necessary.

Sleeping at festivals is best done in cheap tents. The best model is the so called igloo tent. These things are lightweight, can be bought for about 40 bucks and, best of all, are so easy to assemble that you’ll have your fortress of drunkitude standing within 10 minutes, even if you have consumed a dozen beers before you commence the assembly process (I know this from years of experience)
Tents add to the atmosphere of being out and about together and feeling part of the community. Should you go to bed early and not pass out immediately, you will hear the rest of the festival partying on, just inches from your head, which is an excellent incentive to get up out of your sleeping bag and back into the party. Alternatively, you can do as a friend of mine did at Wacken Open Air, some time in the early years of the century, and set up shop at the 24/7 bar tent. We arrived at the festival, he went for one quick beer and then spent the next 4 days there, in an area that we had sort of adopted as our group’s central meeting point. He would occasionally fall asleep under a picknick table for an hour or so and then stir back into life for the next round of partying.

But again, this is not to the liking of the current crop. Apart from ‘Quiet Zones’ where you can camp in the knowledge that it will be quiet after, say, midnight, they have come up with annoying things like phone charging zones, lockers for your valuables, and, I am loath to use this word, something called Glamping. Glamping is tied first for most annoying new word for this decade, together with the Dutch term VrijMiBo. This ugly abbreviation for the words Vrijdag (Friday), Middag (Afternoon) and Borrel (Drinks) is used mainly by middle aged women who don’t get out much and consider it to be a wild night when they have had 3 small glasses of white wine. People who use this word should be avoided at all costs.
Glamping is pretty close though. A lazy contraction of glamour and camping, it is a typical sign of the state of festivals these days. Rather than roughing it for a couple of days like you’re supposed to, the new breed of festival wannabees has demanded (and gotten) pre-erected deluxe tents with electricity, mirrors, fridges and other conveniences that go entirely against the spirit of festivals. Other festivals offer campers or even bungalows with all the trimmings that you can think of. It is ridiculous.
As I indicated at the start of the story, this makes me sad. The spirit of festivals has been erroding for a long time now, and nearly all the things that made festivals such a unique thing, a mountain of happy memories to be cherished for life, have now gone by the wayside. 
I miss going to festivals, but I know I made the right decision when I decided to call it a day and hang up my tent.


Having said all this.. I will be attending a festival once again this weekend. It is different from the ones I used to go to, as this festival takes place at an open air club on the Adriatic coast. There will be no rain or mud, no half cooked hamburgers and, most significantly, no heavy metal. This festival is about funk and soul music and will be more dancing than headbanging, more surfing than crowd surfing and more cold craft beer than luke warm lager.
The reason I’m going there is that I was invited by my good friends at the Galway Bay Brewery to tag along. They are one of the beer suppliers at the festival and I am ofcourse more than happy to keep an eye on proceedings.

Oh yeah, I will be staying in a hotel apartment. Bite me.