An Eastern European Adventure Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia Poland
|The View from Wawel Castle, Krakow|
Booking my trip to Eastern Europe was impulsive, a decision made on the spot. That's what travel has to be about, isn't it? The fact that I'd be spending two weeks on my own in foreign countries didn't set in until my plane touched down at Pope John Mike II airport and a rush of "what am I doing" ran through my mind. No way back now. After a short bus journey, I was in the centre of Krakow.
This is a peaceful city. The uncrowded streets are strolled by people with content expression, in no particular hurry. There are two parallel parks running down the east and west of the city centre. You can walk from one end to the other without seeing a car.
I walked north of the city centre in search of the BlingBling Hostel in Pedsichow where I'd reserved a bed. After wandering around with a distinctly lost expression on my face, I found the hostel, although it was closed for refurbishment. Oh well, nice of them to tell me, luckily, there was another place next door called the Dizzy Daisy Hostel.
Like most things in life, the best things are not planned but stumbled across. I would learn that the Dizzy Daisy hostel is one of these places. After checking in, I was taken to my dorm. I sat there alone for a few minutes, I was feeling down. In my mind I felt I would stay alone. I had never backpacked before, I was paranoid I would not meet anyone.
I was proved wrong when a Canadian man walked into the room. Mark was from Vancouver and, we would learn, was almost exactly the same as I. He had been travelling Eastern Europe for the past two months with a friend. Unfortunately for Mark, his companion was a teetotaler, hated bars, so Mark was gagging for a good drink, that's what we headed out for.
We wandered down to the picturesque old town and into a student bar called Climatic. It was Tuesday night, quiet, so we sat at the bar chatting and drinking Zywiec lager (tasty but strong at 6.7%). We discussed life, politics, women and philosophy. We agreed on everything and we got on so well.
The fears I'd had a few hours ago vanished. The next morning was the day the U.S. election results came. I headed to the common room for breakfast, met a few more of the hostel's occupants. I chatted to two Aussie girls who had travelled through Mongolia. I was keenly listening to their tales whilst keeping one eye on CNN.
After a bit, I headed off for a walk, to see some of Krakow. I walked aimlessly. I love that, wandering around at my own pace, nowhere to be, nothing to do… just taking in the surroundings. I ended at Wawel Castle, perched on a hill just south of the Old Town. It was pretty enough, but I was disappointed as the firebreathing dragon, the attraction I most wanted to see, was closed for the winter; maybe he couldn't take the Polish Winter?
After a while, I left the Castle and the rich digital camera toting tourists, headed for Kazimierez, the Jewish quarter. I wandered idly, looking for Schindler's factory that I never found. I took in the atmosphere before heading back to the hostel at around dusk. As I arrived, the Aussie girls had just gotten back. I met a friendly American, a Canadian and an Irish guy. We chatted and the usual subjects of travel, politics and philosophy came up. I thought how cool it was to be around so many like minded people. We got along so well, we all shared the same feeling of disgust when the news came that Bush had won the election. We tried to share the hope that it wasn't so bad… but we knew it was, the world will be a worse place in the next four years!
Our conversation moved to our respective political opinions, before we moved back to idle chat and general chilling. Despite the election results, all was well in our little world – in that small common room, at least. That evening, Mark and I went for dinner with an open invitation to the rest of the common room. Seamus and Louise came along for tasty Vietnamese food. We returned to the hostel and after a while, we decided to go for a drink. Another open invitation gave us two more companions, Katie and Kassie: American students from Moscow.
Tomorrow would be my last day in Krakow. I wanted to go to Auschwitz. I awoke early, after a 90-minute bus journey, we arrived in Osweicim (Auschwitz being its German name). It isn't possible to touch on the terror and sadness of the place. Go and see it for yourself, to the main administration camp, then to the larger, more shocking Birkenau extermination camp. It is true – no birds fly overhead.
I liked Krakow, Polish people aren't the friendliest in the world, though. It's still a great city. I wanted to stay longer but the bus for Zakopane arrived. I had to leave.
I was in Zakopane, in the High Tatra Mountains, beautiful range reaching 30,000 feet, shared by Poland and Slovakia. From there, I went Poprad – more majestic views. I reached a remote border crossing bearing the words "Slovenska Republicky". I had arrived in Slovakia.
|Petrzalka and the SNP Bridge, Bratislava|
When I was in Poland I met the most polite beggar in the world. He came up to me at Krakow bus station and said "Excuse me, I am missing one Zloty. Could you possibly replace it?" Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about his Slovak counterparts. One thing I remembered about Slovakia from my previous visit that its people were unforgettably friendly. My memory was being questioned somewhat though when I found myself being chased down the street in Poprad by a Gyspsy shouting "Prosim! Prosim!" whilst sticking his hand out in front of my face. He'd run about 50 metres to get to me and didn't let me go until I'd ignored him for a good couple of minutes. So… Welcome to Poprad! A big, industrial nothing town at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in the east of Slovakia. A major transport hub for skiers and hikers going to the High Tatras and anybody else heading anywhere else in Slovakia. I had an hour or so to kill and was about to experience my first major language barrier which would prove to be the theme for the day. After cockily ordering my train ticket to Trencin care of my GCSE in German, the smug look was wiped off my face in my attempt to find food in the only open café in the area. After a poorly played game of charades, I gave up as I didn't have the slightest clue of their extensive menu in English and neither did the staff. I resigned by pointing at a lonesome salami roll and, stale bread in hand, I headed to the train station and awaited my ride. Poprad station was an experience for me; being used to the organised and well planned British stations, I was amazed by this mass of railway lines with only one platform at the edge. Every time a train came, people would hop across the different lines in their masses and climb onto their train whilst their family and friends stood on the tracks and waved goodbye. I assumed that health and safety laws weren't so strict in Slovakia. I arrived in Trencin at around 4, a small but beautiful town in the west of Slovakia with an imposing castle perched high on a hill looking down on the entire place. Like most places in Slovakia, it has an enchanting old town square and picturesque back streets. I found my room pretty easily which was in a local high school that rents out its dormitories at the weekend. Mark the Canadian gave it his highest recommendations. After a real language battle with the friendly receptionist, I got to my room and after a guided tour from the kind old man, collapsed into bed. Despite being only 4:30 p.m. I'd been up since 5 and the cumulative effects of sharing a dormitory in Krakow with Mr. Snore USA and a hard days' travelling had left me absolutely exhausted. I had 4 hours of the most satisfying sleep and headed into town for some dinner. The language barrier again came into play when I found a pizza restaurant with that had the heady mix of a Slovak language menu and staff that speak neither English nor German. I randomly chose something off the menu and begrudged sod's law as I ate my way through my artichoke pizza. After my 'feast' and feeling extremely isolated by my lack of language skills, I strolled through the old town in search of a pub, after all, it was Saturday night. As I walked across Mierove Namesti in search of a friendly looking drinking hole, I head a voice shouting in my direction "Hey Andy". Before I could conclude that the chances of being recognized in a random street of a barely visited Slovak town were as near to zero as possible, I looked up to see the smiling Canadian faces of Louise and James. Louise had woken up in Krakow at 9 a.m. Unaware of my several attempts to wake her and went down to the common room to see if I was still about. She got the note I'd left with the reception to say I'd gotten on the bus to Zakopane, as planned, and persuaded James to go to Slovakia with her. And 12 hours later they were searching Trencin for a place to stay until they bumped into an old friend who knew a high school with empty dormitories. My depression became elation and we passed the rest of the evening in a selection of Trencin's many Irish bars drinking and catching up as if we hadn't seen each other for ages…well it had been a long day for us all. Looking up from my beer I noticed something which seems quite unique to Slovakia. Everyone was absolutely gorgeous. All the men and women standing around me seemed to be blessed with great looks and I couldn't help feel…well…British. Some guys jumped onto a table and started dancing the river dance. The staff stood and watched whilst clapping. I thought if you'd done that in the UK you'd be thrown out the pub. I was slowly remembering why I love this country so much. The next morning I had a few hours to kill before my train to the capital city. James and Louise were to stay another night so I'd agreed to meet them outside the RIP Café in Bratislava the next day. I wandered around the town on that sunday morning and soon realised I was totally alone. When you live in a large and secular city like London it's easy to forget how big a part religion plays in other places. As I strolled down deserted streets and past the closed stores and I could hear a dog barking a distance away and felt at total peace. I passed a church, it was so full of people that some of the congregation were on the street praying from outside. I headed through a park to the train station and saw a young lady sitting on a swing and singing at the top of her voice. I though to myself that this moment would be perfect…if she could sing. I first went to Bratislava in the summer of 2002. Disillusioned with the bustling, congested metropolis that was Budapest, the three friends I was with and I jumped on a train and had a fantastic 2 days there. I was concerned that I wouldn't love the place so much on my second visit but was none the less excited and spent the train journey digging through my Lonely Planet reading everything I could about Bratislava. As soon as I was learning that it was once the capital of the Hungarian Empire and that one of its buildings is an upside-down pyramid, the train had arrived. I jumped off and felt a smile come across my face. Bratislava's central train station (Hlavna Stanice) seems to have that Slavic feel about it that I can't quite explain but when standing in it you couldn't be anywhere else but Eastern Europe. The sun was out so I decided to walk the 2 kilometers to the Downtown Backpackers Hostel, one of only two hostels in the city. After an hour or so (I'm good at getting lost, as you can tell) I found the hostel which was tucked down a side street opposite the presidential palace. I dropped my bags and went for a wander in the Old Town. Last time I was here it was July, the sun was beating down and it was 35 degrees centigrade. The streets were buzzing with music and outdoor cafes, tourists and market stalls. For me right now, it had just began to rain. Darkness was closing in and the temperature was lingering around 5 degrees centigrade. The streets were desolate and the cafes and music were gone. But I couldn't feel down about it. The dark and cold streets were enchanting and I looked on in silent awe of this amazing place. I bought some roasted chestnuts and thought that there's nowhere in the UK this beautiful, not even Edinburgh! I was only slightly depressed when I realised that the RIP Café had closed down. Not only the best bar in the city but the meeting place for tomorrow which no longer existed. Back at the hostel, I met my roomies. There was a Canadian guy called Nick. Like me, he'd fallen in love with the city on a previous visit. He'd come back to Slovakia to live and was staying in the hostel until he found a job and accommodation. There was also a group of British photography students, on a field trip for a round of exhibitions in the city and an English guy called Mike who was backpacking solo like me. I stayed in the common room drinking tasty Zlaty Bazant and chewing the fat. A while later we all headed out to the Dubliner Irish pub and played drinking games. We progressed onto a club which had the coolest thing I've ever seen. A slide! A slide from the toilet door to the dance floor. Not so great when you're drunk though, as I found myself cursing when I flew off it and banged by knees on the marble dance floor during a rather acrobatic stunt. In the morning I sprung out of bed (surprisingly) as I couldn't wait to go see more of my favorite city. I wanted to go to Petrzalka, the sprawling and intimidating communist built housing estate south of the Danube. With over 70,000 flats, Petrzalka was built in the 1970s to accommodate the city's workers and had once had the dubious honour of having the highest suicide rate of any place in Europe. In 2004, it was crumbling apart and was not a shadow of its once anticipated glory. It's so vast that it occupies the area between the Danube and the Austrian border. If you stand at the castle you cannot see where it ends, only a sea of concrete. The place intrigued me so much and despite fears for my own personal safety in the estate, I decided I'd spend my day there. In the common room I bumped into a few of the British students who heard my plans and decided to come with me as they thought Petrzalka would provide some great photo opportunities, and so Charlie, Gemma, Shaun and myself headed off into un-chartered waters. The walk across the Danube and the magnificent SNP (Slovak National Pride) Bridge is an entertaining one. The bridge's walkways run underneath the road and provide a constant graffiti canvas which ranges from the absurd to fiercely political. After entertaining ourselves with such sentiments as "I'm Pig", "Phuck the Police" and "God was alive and now he's dead, if you're sad then you're a fool" we arrived on the southern bank and into Petrzalka. After crossing a pair of railway lines, we came into the estate and wandered amongst the concrete jungle. Imagine a London council estate only 100 times bigger and you have a slight idea of what Petrzalka is like. The students took some photos whilst I ambled along taking in the atmosphere. After a while we saw a face we recognised. An angry looking skinhead was hanging around us and Gemma had noticed him about 15 minutes before. He was making no attempt to pretend he wasn't trying to intimidate us. We walked away across a dual carriageway onto another part of the estate but the skinhead followed and stopped about 10 feet behind us leaning on a railing. Realising that I wasn't the only one panicking, we thought about cutting out trip short and getting back to more neutral territory. I remembered in my last trip to Bratislava I had met a Welsh guy called Graham. He told how the far right in Slovakia were particularly prominent and that in such a safe country as this, the only thing you really have to fear is the skinheads. The mafia have no interest in hurting the tourist, the Romany participate in mainly petty crime, but he said the skinhead is to watched out for as the foreigner is not welcome around him. We left the area and the skinhead followed us until we were safely on the outskirts of Petrzalka. We all felt we'd wimped out, over reacted. Then we thought about it. We were a bunch of foreigners in a not so nice part of a city carrying hundreds of pounds worth of photographic equipment, being stalked by a skinhead, in a city where skinhead attacks aren't unknown. I think we made the right choice. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing pool in a bar in the modern AuPark shopping mall on Petrzalka's periphery mixing it with the Mafioso that can afford to shop there before heading back to the old town to see a couple of photographic exhibitions. The evening was pretty mellow back at the hostel. I met a couple of new arrivals but didn't like them too much. There was an Aussie ex-squaddie who called himself "Bad Newtz" and an American guy who spent the evening trying to convince me that George Bush's re-election was a good thing (he was really onto a loser there). I got away from them though and spent the rest of the evening talking to Mike who was nice enough to give me a train ticket to Budapest he wouldn't be using and the girl at reception displayed all that Slovak hospitality by serving us beers past the time she was allowed to and giving me advice on the different ways I could get to Hungary the next day. I remember thinking I really wanted to stay another day, I didn't want to leave this city behind but I had a deadline to meet and was already behind schedule. And so the next morning I stepped out into the driving rain and biting cold that passes for a November morning in Slovakia and dragged my increasingly soaking wet body through the rush hour crowds to the train station. I could get a train to Budapest which was only 2 hours from Keszthely, my destination in Hungary. However, I hadn't accounted for the changeability of Slovak rail schedules and when I got to Hlavna Stanice I discovered there'd be no train for another 4½ hours. Not wanting to retreat into the rain, I went to plan B (thank you reception lady) and got a local train to Karmarno on the border. I hadn't quite anticipated the 2½ hour journey which stopped at every tiny village on the way. Some of the stations were so small that they were literally a corrugated iron shack in a field. Eventually, after a long jaunt across the flat and barren farmland of southwest Slovakia I arrived in Kamarno on the Hungarian border. After getting lost (can you see a theme developing here?) I went into an estate agency where a kind lady photocopied a map for me and highlighted the route. I passed through the pretty streets that reminded me of a Welsh village and thought about my past few days. Before I came to Slovakia, I was concerned I had over romanticised about the place and that the illusions I'd created on my last visit would not be held true. This couldn't have been further from the truth. I loved this country and so had everyone I'd met here. Slovakia is Europe's youngest country, only 12 years old. Largely considered the poor relation of the former Czechoslovakia, it is mainly disregarded by the backpacker who is most likely to get only a glimpse of Bratislava's gritty exterior on the train between Vienna and Budapest. But that's where it's beauty lies. I don't feel that Bratislava would be the majestic place it is if it had the hordes of tourists that Prague has or indeed the High Tatra's would be so magnificent if they were swarmed by thousands of hikers and skiers. In addition, the people should be so proud of the civilisation here. Despite historically being swallowed by Czechoslovakia and the Austro-Hungarian empire, there is a distinct national pride and you see kindness and happiness in most people you meet. From the lady who helped us buy train tickets when we first came in 2002, to the old man in the school in Trencin who, despite speaking not a word of English, did what he could to make me feel welcome, I found warmness in nearly everyone I met (skinheads aside) and I've reserved a fond place in my memory for this country. It's probably the only place I've been to outside the UK that I feel I could live in and when I speak to people about travelling, it's the place I mention the most. As I stood on the bridge, in the no man's land on the border, I stared back at the Slovak side of the Danube. I promised myself I'd be back soon, I had no doubts that I'd fulfil that promise. But for now, I had to say "Do Videnia" and embrace my new land…Hungary. Hungary
|The Thermal Lake at Heviz, Hungary|
One short walk across a bridge and I was in Hungary. Once upon a time this was all Hungary, the Czechoslovak border being a few miles north. Alas, the borders shifted and this town was split in two. The clean, peaceful and friendly Slovak town of Komarno and the not so clean, scrappy but just as friendly Hungarian town of Komarom. I walked into the train station and after much pointing at my Lonely Planet map obtained a train ticket to the lakeside town of Keszthely (Kest-hay). I had an hour or two to kill so took a look through the town. I'm guessed there must be some strict gambling restrictions in Slovakia because every other building seemed to be a casino. Getting the money to gamble there can't have been so easy though judging by the queue for what seemed the only cash machine. Worry not though, there's little else to do in Komarom than to spend 30 minutes spent queuing for forints… it was a blessing in disguise really. As my train came I was glad to leave the freezing cold station onto the well heated 2 carriage train and through a sleepy 2 hour train journey to the most unpronounceable town in the world, Szekesferharvar (Shek-es-fer-har-var). A short wait later and the giant intercity train from Budapest arrived. I got on and was helpfully relocated to a different carriage by the ticket inspector. Silly me, not being able to understand the Hungarian announcement that the train was to split in two! Late evening came and I arrived in Keszthely. I had no accommodation but had read it wouldn't be hard to find a bed for the night. In the summer, this place is the destination for hordes of holiday makers. With Hungary being landlocked, the towns on Lake Balaton are prime locations in the hot summer months but seem to lay deserted to all but the locals in bleak and cold November. I left the train station and just walked. I was struggling to find all these empty guesthouses that the Lonely Planet had promised. I was beginning to panic, as I did so I bumped into an old man riding a bicycle and carrying a bucket of compost. "Hello, do you need a room?" he said. Fantastic! Unfortunately, his grasp of the English language stopped there so we conversed in broken and badly spoken German until I found out that the room was only 2500 forint (around Â£7) a night. We walked in awkward silence broken only by badly pronounced German statements like "es ist sehr kalt" (it's very cold) and "Mein Hause ist Geraudeaus" (my house is around the corner). We eventually arrived at a grand guesthouse that I can guess charges a hell of a lot more than 2500 forint a night in the summer. I met the old man's wife and their dog and kitten before being escorted to my comfortable room. I wanted to explore so I promptly dumped my bags and headed out. The phrase "ghost town" kind of summed this place up really. It was 8 p.m. but no bars or restaurants seemed to be open. I walked past a gang of scooter boys who wouldn't have looked too out of place in South London, past the non-stop 24hour bar (which was closed) and ended up in John's Australian Bar and Restaurant. I found it a little too ironic that I was the only English speaking person in an Aussie Bar. The next morning I headed to Heviz, a town a few kilometres away famous for its natural thermal spa which has 'healing powers'. As my transport departed Keszthely, I was the only person on the bus but it soon filled up with a tour group of very old Germans. I've never found a group of pensioners so sinister; I couldn't quite work out why until it dawned on me that they were all around the age of 80. I couldn't help but ask myself, 'What was that kindly old lady with her knitting doing during the Holocaust?' or 'Where was the old man with the breathing troubles when my grandmother was fleeing Nazi occupied Belgium?' A terrible thing to think, I know. But I was tired, and the things I'd seen at Auschwitz 5 days previously were playing with my mind. I just wanted to be off that bus. Heviz was beautiful; a rich and colourful lake steaming in the winter air. Its temperature was 33 centigrade, 31 centigrade warmer than the atmosphere. After fighting my way through the gangs of pensioners, feeling like I had gate crashed the filming of the next cocoon film, I took a long swim in the beautifully warm waters. This was my time to relax. Over the last week I'd drunk way too much, not got nearly enough sleep and endured two very exhausting journeys. Floating in these exquisite and calming waters I felt entirely at peace and wished I could do this every day. After a brief break for a hot dog (that being the only thing on the caféÃ© menu I recognised) I swam the afternoon away as well before heading back to Keszthely. On my way out I realised I'd lost my admission ticket. The man on the gate let me out for free instead of making me pay the lost ticket charge. My faith in human nature was running high. I was back at the guest house by 5 p.m. After a walk by Lake Balaton, I was at a loose end. What does someone do in a place where there's nothing to do and nobody to see? I whiled the evening away reading, broken by another meal at John's Aussie Bar. By 9 p.m. I was asleep and ready for my journey to my final destination, Slovenia. I suppose I was looking forward to leaving as I was bored here and wanted to be in a city with lots of people and lots to do. But I'm glad I came. I first went to Hungary in 2002 and didn't like it. I stayed in Budapest and did not feel comfortable in the ultra-capitalistic surroundings. I found the people rude and intimidating and the accommodation awful. But I had been in the capital city in mid-summer. My judgement on the accommodation was based solely on the bed bug ridden Yellow Submarine Hostel and the people in Budapest were probably like people in London, Paris or any other large city… just too busy to be polite. I didn't like the in-your-faceness of Budapest which seemed to embrace capitalism in the American way rather than the more subtle European way but that was the city's choice and it only seems to be present in the Pest half of the city. I was foolish for judging the country on half of its capital. What I had learned in the past 2 days that this was a beautiful and friendly country. I don't think it could even begin to rival Slovakia for fondness I hold but that's not to take away all that Hungary has to offer. I was pleased, pleased I'd disproven my judgements and found another side to the county. I arose bright and early. I'd told the man who owned the guest house I had to leave at 7 and he made sure he was up to give me a wake up call and say goodbye. As I left he offered me some schnapps to keep me warm. I declined but was so touched by his friendliness. We couldn't even speak more than a few words but I can tell you he was such a fine host. A one hour bus journey later, I was in Zalaegerszeg, the place where I shot myself in the foot. I had arranged my journey and knew that there was a train I could catch in a couple of hours that would get me to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, by 3 p.m. But I was obviously in an adventurous (reckless) mood so I decided to jump on a bus to the border town of Lenti instead, deciding to walk across the border. As I got off the bus, I was not disheartened to find that no international buses left from Lenti, so I walked out of this rugged market town and headed off on the 4 kilometer journey to Slovenia. I assumed that there must be a town just on the other side of the border a similar distance away. As my heart sank, it seemed that I had forgotten that assumption was the mother of all cock-ups. Looking up at the sign that said "Lendava 15 kilometers" I decided to press on. There wasn't a bus back to Zalaegerszeg that would get me there in time for my train so it seemed that lugging my backpack the whole way seemed the only option. I was half-heartedly poking out a thumb in the hope of hitching a lift but was having no luck. After a while, a clapped out old Lada Riva pulled up. That would have been great had it not been a police car. Two coppers and a guy in army camouflage got out and barked at me in Hungarian. As soon as they saw my British passport their manner chilled a little and they just took a few minutes to question me about what the hell I was doing here. It seemed that this foot-route into Slovenia wasn't exactly a popular one. They left, without offering me a lift, and I walked to the border stopping only to buy a bar of chocolate in the desolate village of Redics. I finally approached the border post. It was clear that this was not a pedestrian friendly route as I had to duck between lorries then push in front of a queue of cars to see the officer. He spent a good while checking my passport closely and asked a colleague for a second then a third opinion. I must have looked dodgy as hell but he eventually left his box and slammed my passport on the desk of the Slovenian officer. I was pleased to have finally reached Slovenia but my day was about to get worse, a lot worse. Slovenia I must have been looking particularly rough. After the Hungarian border police spent an age examining my passport, the Slovenians decided to launch questions at me in broken German about why I was visiting Slovenia and what I did back in the UK. I didn't know the German for "I can travel freely in the EU, you can't ask me these questions so go away and leave me alone" so I obediently answered and then set off on the last 9 kilometres of my walk to Lendava. The Slovenian side of the border was more pleasant and I walked along a field until I came to a junction and the only option I had was to make my way along the hard shoulder of the motorway. A couple of kilometres down the road, a blue Skoda pulled up. I thought I'd finally managed to hitch a lift until I noticed it was the police. Not wishing to break the theme of the day, they started barking questions at me and asked for my passport. The lady officer spoke to me and I asked if she spoke English. The reply came "I am speaking English"; I wasn't off to a good start. After a brief interrogation (I was getting used to these questions by now) the male officer opened the back door of the car and told me to get in. I was unsure about how much of an illegal offence walking along a motorway was, the officer sensed my worry and laughed, "We're giving you a lift to the bus station". He then put his arm across me to stop me getting in so that he could take the AK47 off the back seat and place it in the boot. It got more surreal as the coppers started to chat to me casually and gave me a brief tour of the village. They told me that if there were no buses to Ljubljana I should go to Maribor where I'd be able to catch the connection, I think I'd stumbled across two very bored coppers who needed something to do. So this is Slovenia. The first part of Yugoslavia to become independent, after a very short-lived war, and is easily the most westernised country of the former Eastern Bloc. Looking more like Switzerland than Yugoslavia it is a small, peaceful country with a phenomenally low crime rate and strong economy. I suppose you could say the country should be proud of what it's achieved in it's short history; on accession into the EU, it was richer than Greece and Portugal. I had found myself in Lendava, the tiny and isolated town that has the middle-of-nowhere feel that doesn't exist in the South-east of England. I strolled to the bus station (I say bus station, I mean a small space of concrete with 2 bus stands), it was midday. The only bus to Ljubljana had departed 6 a.m.; the last of 3 daily buses to Maribor would depart at 2 p.m. I had 2 hours to kill. With not much else to do other than sit at the bus stop, listen to music and realise that even in Slovenia, school kids are obnoxious, I waited. 2 p.m. came and so did a bus. As I stood up to get on it, it opened it's doors, let somebody off and pulled away before I could get there. I assured myself it can't have been the bus to Maribor, which would've stopped, so I waited. 10 minutes or so later I saw a driver get on an empty bus. I asked him if he was going to Maribor, he told me that I'd missed that bus. I was furious that the bus had come and didn't even stop long enough to let anyone on. I asked the driver how I could get to Ljubljana, he said I couldn't. I turned to the only other person at the bus station who was so scared of me he said "no" and walked away before I could even ask him anything. Panicking, I left the bus station and walked round the village. There was nothing, no place to stay except a 5* hotel which I could not afford. Desperate for information, I want into the hotel and sought the help of the croupier. I'd expected him to look down his nose at this scraggly, dirty and pissed off backpacker; instead he saved my life and told me how I could get to Ljubljana. 30 minutes later I was away, sitting on the comfortable heated bus to the eastern city of Murska Sobota, I got there just after dusk and went straight to the train station. Just as the croupier advised, there was a train to Ljubljana, although it didn't leave till 8 p.m. I was happy to know I'd get to my destination and spent the next four hours perfecting the much sought after skill of entertaining myself in god-forsaken places in Slovenia. When I was in Ljubljana, I met a Slovenian guy who was from Murska Sobota, I told him I'd been there, his immediate question was "why?" when I told him I had four hours to kill he asked me how the hell I'd managed to kill four hours in Murska Sobota; a few hours there was a very long time. After visiting the library to use the internet and failing to find a bar or restaurant after walking round the city 3 times, I went to the train station still with an hour to kill, still time for one last treat though. "Can I see your passport," said the voice. A policeman decided he didn't like the look of me. Like all the other coppers I'd come across today, he relaxed when he saw a British passport and smiled and said he hoped I enjoy my stay in Slovenia. It seems that with such a low crime rate and hence so few criminals, the police have to while away the days harassing foreigners instead. The train pulled into Ljubljana Station just after 11 p.m., only 8 hours later than I'd originally planned. Cold and tired, I walked in any direction, not really knowing where the hostel was. Luckily, I'd guessed right and stumbled across the former prison that is the Hostel Celica. Being the only hostel in the City Centre I'd made a reservation in my name "Andy although when I gave the overly bureaucratic receptionist my passport which said Andy kindly informed me that I did not have a reservation. After painstakingly informing him that Andy is short for Andrew and rebutting several statements like "I'm sorry but this is somebody else with the same surname but different first name, it is not you" I broke through the bureaucracy and finally fell into bed at midnight. I chatted briefly to a Brit and a South African before dropping into the most peaceful and well deserved sleep in the world. I awoke very fresh and summed up my surroundings. The dorm room I was in seemed more an experiment to see how many beds can be squeezed into one space than anything else, but the rest of the place was very cool. The Hostel Celica was once a prison but has been renovated in an art nouveau style with cool little alcoves to chill out in here and there and all the rooms being cells complete with bars on the windows. Downstairs was open to locals as well as guests so it was more of a café bar than a hostel common room. Nonetheless, it was still fantastic. Most notably, an Arabic bar with no chairs, just cushions on the floor and lots of hookah pipes and a sign above the door asking that all shoes be removed on entry. After breakfast, I strolled into the city. I was keen to do touristy stuff but had run out of money so entertained myself with random wanderings. Ljubljana seemed to have everything you could ask for in a city. A beautiful little old town with narrow cobbled streets and deserted alleyways, a peaceful river running through the centre with market stalls dotted here and there. An amazing castle perched high above the town; climbing the steep and wooded paths to the top are rewarded with the most amazing views. But as I walked, took in the ambience of the place, I realised I didn't like it. Even the kind café owner who gave me an extra slice of pizza because he was closing or the masses of beautiful women who inhabit this city couldn't make me keen on it. See, Ljubljana is beautiful. It's clean, peaceful and safe. It's friendly and orderly, rich and prosperous. Everyone is entirely not threatening and the city encourages schemes like the one to turn a squat into a nightclub and have the squatters run it and live there rent free. A modern utopia…but boring. You see its the safeness, the cool mix of fiscal conservatism and liberal politics, the happiness that seems wall to wall that makes it dull for the traveller. Incredibly selfish I know, and surely a fantastic place to live but for me it lacked the seediness of Prague, the grittiness of Bratislava. The anonymity of life in London, the in-your-faceness of many cities around the world. I suppose I could best sum Ljubljana up as the person that everyone knows in their lives. The person they find attractive and get on with but could never have strong feelings about because they're just too ordinary and nice. A pleasant and easy place to end a journey all the same. Later on in the hostel, I entertained myself with reading, music and cooking the cheapest food I could find. I got to meet a Scottish guy called Harry and an American called Mitch. They were both very cool and on my wavelength; it occurred to me that I hadn't had a proper conversation in the last 4 days. We talked music and politics and told jokes over coffee. I ran into the South African guy again who joined in conversation as Mitch and Anthony left. He was living in Ljubljana, having spent the last few years in Prague. He tried his best to sound enthusiastic about the place and I'm sure he liked it. I could sense, however, that he missed the Czech capital and would leave here before long in search of something a little more exciting. He asked me if I fancied smoking a hookah with him so we went down to the Arabic bar and chatted some more, he had to leave to meet friends after a bit so I was left alone with my thoughts. I was happy and comfortable. I ordered a beer and drank the smooth, cold liquid whilst toking the fruity Hookah and letting the buzz of Slovenian voices settle in my brain, I reminisced. It seemed a lifetime ago, not 12 days that I'd arrived in Krakow. All the people I'd met, the things I'd experienced good and bad, the moments of boredom and solitude and those of intense excitement and happiness. All those things that had passed over 12 days seemed drawn out in my memory over a much longer and fragmented period. I'd come here to test myself. I'd always felt a strong desire to travel the world but was unsure of my own ability to look after myself, make friends with strangers and cope with problems. On a very small scale I'd achieved that and had given myself the confidence and belief to attempt such a thing on a much larger and more adventurous setting. By dipping my toes in the water I've confirmed my belief that I love finding new places, meeting new people, experiencing unknown things. If plans come to fruition, I will backpack a long distance in 2006. I know it won't be easy and I'll experience fear with love and a longing to be back with my friends and family with the excitement of my next destination whatever it may be. But as daunting as it all is, I'm now confident that with a little more organisation, I will do it and more importantly… enjoy it! I considered my surroundings again. As I sat on my cushion the bar was vibrant with young Slovenians laughing and smoking. I turned to my hookah and took a pull but tasted nothing. The tobacco was finished and so was my adventure.