Wednesday, July 18, 2018

About the Beavertown Situation.

There is one story that has been keeping everybody in the craft beer world occupied over the last 3 weeks or so: Beavertown.
For those of you who are not really that in to craft beer, let me give you a bit of back ground- Beavertown started out in the kitchen of a barbecue restaurant in London called Duke’s in 2011. After first making beer to be served with the barbecue food in the restaurant, they later expanded to a full range of styles. In 2012, the brewery was beginning to sell so much beer that it was no longer practical to make it in the back of the restaurant so they moved production to a new, purpose built brewery in Hackney, East London. As the brewery grew further, it then moved to a bigger brewery in Tottenham, also in London, in 2014, where they would be comfortable for the next few years.
But Logan Plant, the founder and owner of Beavertown, is an ambitious man. He wanted an even bigger brewery, at the centre of a beer theme park that he wants to call Beaverworld. He also wanted to stay in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world for real estate, so he needed money. A LOT of money.

This brings us to the present day, and the story that has been keeping the craft beer world busy for the last few weeks. Rumours about Beavertown’s expansion plans had been doing the rounds on message boards and Facebook groups for a while, but Logan kept schtum. Every time he or Beavertown were asked directly if the rumours were true, he evaded the question with some throwaway remark or by saying he had no idea what everyone was talking about.
Then, on 22 June, the news finally got out: Beavertown had sold 49% of their company to Heineken.
This was bad news.
Heineken, you see, is one of the most hated companies in the craft beer world. The other one is AB-Inbev, the biggest brewery conglomerate in the world, a Brazilian/American/Belgian behemoth that sells beer in every corner of the world, most of it bland, flavorless lager.

Now let me first start by saying, that I repect everyone’s business decisions. Logan Plant built Beavertown from nothing so if he thinks this is best for the expansion of Beavertown, then it is his decision to make.
But the sale to Heineken is bad news in more ways than one. 

One of the first things that brought the rumours into the media, is Beavertown’s own festival. They organize a huge beer festival in London each year, called Beavertown Extravaganza, which is generally regarded as one of the best craft beer festivals in the world, surpassed only, perhaps, by Mikkeller’s Beer Celebration Copenhagen that takes place in May each year. 

One of the breweries who were invited to Beavertown’s festival, the legendary US brewery The Veil, had heard about the Heineken rumours and had asked Beavertown, first privately, then publicly, if the rumours were true. When Beavertown repeatedly refused to deny any deal involving Heineken, The Veil were the first to take action, and publicly proclaimed that they would no longer be attending the Beavertown Extravaganza. This was even before Beavertown officially announced the Heineken deal.
As soon as news of the Heineken deal went public, others started to follow in droves. Cloudwater from England and Scottish craft beer punks BrewDog were first out of the blocks, but many others soon followed. As it stands at the moment of writing, about half of the 90 breweries originally scheduled will no longer be attending as they do not wish to be associated with Heineken. Beavertown Extravaganza is about to collapse. 

There are more things happening though, as a result of the deal. Many craft breweries no longer wish to work with Beavertown. Many craft beer bars have publicly confirmed they will no longer sell Beavertown. My own local craft bar is owned by a brewery and they had recently made a collaboration brew with Beavertown. They will sell that beer as it had already been canned and kegged but once that’s gone.. No more Beavertown in any of their bars. And they are not alone. Again, BrewDog were quick out the blocks by announcing that their bars will no longer sell Beavertown beer. Many others have followed suit, so while Beavertown may now have a global distribution partner in Heineken, the craft beer heartland has excommunicated them.

There are 2 main questions that keep everybody busy:
1. Why sell to Heineken? Were there no other ways to finance this?
2. Why does everyone hate Heineken so much?

Let me explain this to you.

When you need a large amount of money in breweryland, there are typically 3 ways to get your hands on it: You can sell part of your company to another, bigger brewery with lots of money (say, Heineken), you can you can get money from an investment company, who usually want quick and substantial returns, or you can try to reach your target by crowd funding.
Most people immediately pointed at crowd funding. Yes, that was my idea too, but there are some issues with this. I am a shareholder in BrewDog. They have been doing crowdfunding for 9 years now and they have been extremely succesful with this way of financing. This, however, does not mean that this is the Golden Solution for everyone. BrewDog have, from the start, had a loyal following of shareholders, who have been invested in the company for a long time. Because of this, they have raked in large amounts of money without losing a crucial stake in the company. Another point worth noting in this is that BrewDog have their breweries in out-of-the-way places like Ellon in the North-East of Scotland and on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, in the USA. Had BrewDog want to build facilities in, say, London and New York City, they wouldn’t have been able to do this. The way they spend their money makes it go much further than when you insist on building a huge facility in the middle of London. So acquiring 40 Million Pounds (the amount Beavertown needed for their plans) is in no way guaranteed when you do a crowd funding round, especially because you are looking at a relatively small pool of potential investors, a lot of whom have already invested considerable stakes in companies like BrewDog. So crowdfunding probably wouldn’t have generated money to the level that Beavertown needed.

By far the dumbest remark on this subject I’ve heard, and I’ve heard it quite a number of times, is that Logan Plant should have simply asked his father for the money. His father, you see, is Robert Plant, the front man of legendary 70s rock band Led Zeppelin.
Yes, Robert Plant is immensely wealthy. If you do a quick Google search on the subject, you will find that most sources agree that he is worth around 170 million Dollars, which is an insane amount of money and probably more than anybody who reads this will ever have, even remotely. The thing is, even with this vast wealth, that doesn’t mean that he can simply give his son 40 million Pounds. That is about a third of his total net worth, a big chunk, and then, he doesn’t have all that money laying around in a warehouse, like Scrooge McDuck, so that Logan can just pull up in a Securicor truck and load it in.
Most of that money is tied up in assets like real estate and stocks and other investments. So, no, not even Robert Plant could have financed this out of his personal effects.
So now to the next point- why is everybody getting so worked up over this? There are other craft brewers that are part owned by bigger companies, and that doesn’t excite nearly as furious a reaction. Well, there are several points to this. First of all, it reminded everyone of the Lagunitas deal from a few years ago. Lagunitas announced that they had sold 49% of the company to Heineken, but they remained in control of the business, holding on to 51%. Guess what happened? With a year and a half of the original 49% deal, news got out that Heineken had acquired the remaining 51% and that Lagunitas was now a fully owned subsidiary of Heineken. Several leading experts in the craft beer world have already indicated that something similar will happen to Beavertown, because Heineken don’t do minority deals. It’s all or nothing.
Which brings us to the next problem. Heineken is a large multinational corporation whose main interest isn’t expanding the reach of craft beer, or making the best beer- it’s making as much profit as possible. There is one simple way for making more profits: cutting costs. And how do you cut costs? By using cheaper ingredients, or simplifying the production process.
There are numerous examples from the past where we have seen that Heineken bought a brewery and then started fucking around with the ingredients, the recipe and the production process. One that I quite clearly remember is when they bought Wieckse Witte, a small Dutch brewer of, mainly, traditional Belgian style witbier. It was always quite tasty, but when Heineken took over, within a year, they had changed the fermentation process, added artificial ingredients that made the beer cloudy (this was normally established by a natural process) and eventually the beer was a shadow of its former self. I could write a separate story about all the other shady business practices that Heineken has been involved in over the years, like countless huge fines for breaking competition laws, numerous lawsuits over bribery, and many, many other things, but there are 2 things that stand out mostly to craft beer people. First, they try to simply make it impossible for other brewers to exist. In the last few years, Heineken have bought several huge hop producers, and then promptly refused to sell hops to anyone else, even though they did not need all the hops themselves. If you’re a brewer, you must be able to buy hops, otherwise you simply can’t make your product. And then, on a more local scale, Heineken has an army of sales people who constantly pester pubs around the world, trying to convince them to remove other beers and replace them with Heineken product. One bar I drink in quite regularly all of a sudden got rid of their Budweiser and Carlsberg taps, and replaced them with additional Heineken taps. When I investigated this, I found that this happens all the time and pubs get offered discounts or free kegs of Heineken if they remove competing beers. They also constantly try to get craft beer taps removed and have them replaced by either former craft brands that are now owned by Heineken, or fake craft beers that Heineken invented.
See, buying up a brewery is one thing. Trying to make competitors’ lifes miserable is a whole other order of evil.

So what will the future bring for Beavertown? They will get access to a global distribution network through Heineken, but they’re shunned now by most of the craft beer community. Maybe we will soon see Gamma Ray (or what’s left of it) on taps around the world, from Times Square to Johannesburg to Hong Kong. Only the future can tell. The question is though.. What do you want as a craft brewer? Be present in every airport in the world with one or two beers, or make many interesting beers that may not be available everywhere? The overarching feeling in most of the craft beer world was the same: this one hurt.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The best burger in Ireland.

A few years ago, I set out to find the best fish&chips in Dublin. Though I never finished the project and didn’t publish my findings, I can tell you now that the best ones I’ve eaten were the Cajun fish&chips from Say Fish, a market stand that, luckily, sets up shop outside my office every Wednesday on the local food market, and the fish&chips from The Brew Dock on Amiens Street.
I tried about 10 different versions in different places and most of them were good, some of them very good, and one was somewhat below par as it tasted of frying oil that was past it’s best before date. I ignored several people who predicted that the choice would be between Bishoff’s and Burdock’s, 2 local fish&chips chains who divide the city in rivalling camps, but neither came close to the 2 winners I mentioned above. There was nothing wrong with either, but you can taste that it is made by and for a chain, while Say Fish and The Brew Dock are independents.

Looking for a new food-related project to sink my teeth in (sorry for the terrible pun), I considered burritos because I love them and there are a lot of different burrito places to choose from, but then I realised that I have already done this- you can read my reviews on Yelp and in any case, it was clear that Boojum would come out on top so there was no use in spending money and research time on doing this again.
When I recently found myself in Galway for St. Patrick’s Day, I was told by many people there that Caribou, a craft beer bar in the city centre, served the best burger in the city, and quite possibly in Ireland. I thought that was a bold statement and wanted to put it to the test. For several reasons, involving opening hours, transport schedules and St.Patrick’s Day, I never got around to eating it, but I’ll be back in Galway soon enough. There are several renowned burger places in Dublin too, and I recently saw videos on the culinary delights of Cork and Belfast, which both included burger places, so I decided that hamburgers would be the way to go. Over the next couple of months, I will be reporting regularly on the finest Ireland has to offer when it comes to burgers. I will rate each place on several criteria, such as offerings on the menu, drink selection, atmosphere and price, and then report back to you. When the contest is over, I will declare a winner and go back to that place to congratulate them.
I hope you enjoy the contest and give me a shout if you have any tips for great burger places in Ireland.



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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.