I can’t sleep more, for me it is already 9:40. The night was quite bad, I had hard time sleeping. There was a constant ventilation noise and the air was very dry. I really prefer Russian trains. When I look at the phone, I find out the train was rerouted and we will have 90 minutes delay. I look at my watch and it shows the end of a race.
Outside it snows. I ask the conductor for my breakfast, he says the bread will only come in Innsbruck. I request to fold the upper bed, so that I can seat correctly. This wagon is not made to be seated.
Soon after I see we are in Innsbruck and the train is 3h20 late already. Nothing happens from now on. The panel outside says “Undefined delay”. I wait. And wait.
The train is canceled, all should get out. “A replacement bus to Zurich will be provided”. I dress up warm, ask again for my breakfast which I get partially on a bag and go out to where the replacement bus leave. More and more people come, but no news. I use my small Swiss knife to prepare the two bread I’ve got. A while after a person comes and says she got the information that no bus is planned and we should wait inside the station until more information comes.
I decide to take a regional train to Landeck, with the hope maybe from there I can go further. Half way there is a replacement bus. At 11h I arrive to Landeck and there are no more trains or buses. Fortunately in Austria there are bakeries in every train station with tables and nice things to eat. I get a café latte and a cake.
Finally a train direction Zurich left Innsbruck at 11:46 and should arrive here at 12:56. I hope so. I see now that I missed a bus connection from here to the Swiss border. The next one is at 12:55, but is much slower than the train. I’ll wait for the train.
I’m on the train direction Zurich, but they just said that “because of the huge delay”, it will end at Buchs SG, the first station inside Switzerland. Next connection to Zurich is 25 minutes later, with change in Sargans. The platform gets full of people. I’m happy that since 1st December (yesterday) I’ve a first class pass paid by my new job.
I take the train to Sargans, then wait for the connection to Zurich. In Zurich I finally take the train to Bern.
It is 18:05 when I arrive. Just 30 minutes later as my initial plan from one month (without the flight).
I’m tired, there is beautiful snow everywhere. Eva is on the way home from Geneva.
I woke up at 8:30 and went for breakfast, which was in the hotel next to mine. It was the best breakfast apart from couchsurfing that I had in this trip.
Against the initial plans, I will have to take a plane. I fly to Vienna with Wizzair. I fear discussion about my backpack size. There was also a problem with the booking and was done twice, for the same flight, with the same name, which I need to resolve once home. More and more I’m allergic to airports.
There are two buses from the centre of Yeveran to the airport. The 201 bus with timetable and possibility to follow real-time on the phone, and since last year the 100 bus, that leaves “every 45 minutes”. It happened to take the latter one. I asked the driver for the timetable and he confirmed “every 45 minutes”.
14:00 (17:00 Armenian time)
I landed in Vienna. The flight was quiet. I almost took off with the laptop open, they did not check my row. No problem with the backpack. Now I’ve to make time until the evening. I take a train to the centre, to the Kunsthalle in the MuseumQuartier. There is an exhibition about Skopje and with Macedonian artists. It is a bit like a come back to my first days of the trip.
For dinner I see the bad power of Google Maps. When one searches for a schnitzel restaurant, it proposes first a certain one. Arrive there and a huge queue at the door. I go back to a brassiere I saw before. It is huge and many people arriving at same time. I manage still to get a table before it is full. In less than 3 minutes is my wiener schnitzel on the table with a big beer. I finish with an äpfel strudel and go to the train station.
My cabin is closed. I go to the conductor, who assigns me to another one (already with a paper prepared for my bed number). It is a double docker train, with cabins three stairs up and others three stairs down. I’m alone in a two-bed cabin. There is a lavabo inside and toilets in the corridor. I was expecting a better wagon, with shower. I see my wagon was not the one expected. I wonder if it would be better normally.
I brush my teeth and go to bed, breakfast will be served at 7:00. I’ll be at home at 09:30.
The lights go on. We are 30 minutes away from Yerevan. I did not sleep much, but well. I believe better than my Bulgarian colleague who I saw seated during the night. I need to discover what is there to see in Yerevan, look for an hotel, where I can leave my backpack and a “free” tour.
Yerevan sleeps. Only a few taxi drivers are at the station asking if I need a ride, but they do not insist. The public lights are off, the streets are illuminated by the closed shops lights. It is cold. I walk towards the centre. Some buses go by and leave passengers. In the centre I finally find a “Paul” café open. The prices are tourist prices. I warm up with a coffee and reserve the hotel.
After leaving the backpack at the hotel I go to discover the city. It is completely different from Tbilisi. Smaller, much less confusion. Large sidewalks and comfortable. Only the pedestrian lights take very long to change. I go up the “Cascade” via the Contemporary Art Museum. The timetable outside says it opens at 10:00, it is in 4 minutes. I wait and then when I go inside they say there is no exhibition per se, but a set of mechanical stairs and next to it many pieces of art. It is an interesting building. At the “Mother of Armenia” – again a big statue of a woman -, the door downstairs have a sign clearly saying “open”. Inside is the Military Museum. The lady seated at the desk at the entrance turn on the lights for me. The exhibits are about the Armenia-Azerbeijan conflicts. When I go to the other floor, another lady working there follows me at the 2/3 meter distance for the whole circuit. At the end both came to say that the museum is free but accepts donations. I don’t have dirhams, I say. No problem, we accept any currency. I give 5 Lari which I understand will be a direct tip to the ladies.
I walk down to the magnificent Matenadaran Museum, which is also a repository and research institute of ancient manuscripts. Mostly are in Armenian, but many also in other languages and alphabets. I like alphabets and this trip was rich on it.
I eat in a pizza restaurant with an interesting concept: one chooses on the menu slices of the pizzas one wants and they make a tray with the desired mix. I taste the Armenian red wine, served fresh.
The afternoon I visit the “Vernissage”, kind of souvenirs market, where there is no pressure to buy anything. So far in Armenia no one insists to sell anything to the tourist. I exchange my remaining Laris and then visit the Blue Mosque.
There are many water points, which is welcoming.
After resting for a while in the hotel, I go visit the old Yeveran neighbourhood. It is on a hill and basically where the poor people now live. There is a try to bring some live and art to the quarter, which is nice.
At the end I try to go to the Ararat brandy museum, but it is only with guided tours. I go for an early dinner instead, with Armenian specialities. There are influences of the middle-east and I manage to have a nice vegetarian choice.
I walked already 26km today, says my watch.
I still go to a bar. On the Portwine/Jerez section they listed only a Jerez and a Madeira wine. I tell them while I drink an Ararat brandy with honey.
During this trip I come across five different alphabets – Latin, Cyrillic, Greek, Georgian and Armenian. Being able to decipher what is written has been very useful in several trips. When reading timetables, menus in the restaurant, addresses in maps, or buttons in different machines. Apart of Latin/Roman alphabet, I manage well the Cyrillic.
I learned it during the first world trip we spent almost 3 months in Russia and that remained and has been useful occasionally.
Greek has some similarities to Cyrillic plus is useful to remember the mathematical symbols learned at university.
The Georgian is supposed to be easy to learn, and will be a task for the next visit. The Armenian is a bit larger (38 letters), and somehow it seemed to me that several people writes in Cyrillic. SMSes are sometimes sent using a Latin transcription.
Other alphabets I tried was in South Korea, where I learned how to read Hangul. In that language each symbol is a syllable with two to four letters and each letter try to imitate the mouth movements.
I tried to learn to read Hebrew and some Japanese, but without success.
Recently just saw this map of Turkey, which shows it is surrounded by countries with different alphabets.
I get up after a third night on the sofa at Tamo’s apartment. I take a showed and redo the backpack before she appears from her room. While she prepares the breakfast, I take again the dog for a walk, still using the stairs. On the way back the dog gets with full confidence in the building block door number 2. We climb the stairs and only at the top floor I realize we are in the wrong place. Go down again and climb the 8 floors up via the door number 1. Good morning exercise.
I say goodbye to Tamo. It was a really nice stay as I feel she is used to couchsurfers. I want to keep contact and look forward to having her visiting us in Switzerland.
I’m on the train direction Batumi. I go for the boat. A big uncertainty fills my spirit. Is this the best choice? Would not be better the night train to Yerevan and from there go home? When will the boat arrive Bulgaria? Will I have time to catch the last train Saturday afternoon to Sofia? I’ve already accepted that I will get home on Sunday morning, beyond the my self-imposed limit.
The train this time is half empty, I move to a place where I can see better outside and in the same direction as the train.
My calculations say that the boat will leave Batumi, the best case, tomorrow at 11:00 and will get to Burgas after 50 hours, midday Saturday. I hope disembarking will be fast to take the 14:30 train to Sofia.
I decide to get out of the train on the first stop, 3h away from Tbilisi. It is Kutaisi Airport. Using marine websites, I can see that the boat is stopped in front of Batumi and I don’t know when it will go inside the port. The risk to miss the train on Saturday is too big and I will be the whole boat trip full of stress.
Now I want to take the 20:20 train from Tbilisi to Yerevan.
I take the shuttle from the train station to the airport and there I see a bus to Tbilisi. The agent says it will leave in 25 minutes and trip time is 3h30, 4h max. I buy the ticket and get in. The bus leaves 35 minutes later. Google Maps says a trip time of 3h30. Little time after it stops for 20 minutes at a gas station. Again, I’m stressed and unpowerful. I know there will be crazy traffic getting in the city. After 3h30 travel time we are in the outskirts blocked in the traffic. The bus stops to let people out, but I see it is same time to walk to the metro or go to the centre. I was wrong. The last 20km take 2h.
The bus arrived to Liberty Square in the centre of Tbilisi. I run to the metro to get to the train station. The night train will leave in 40 minutes, and I still do not have a ticket neither food. Luckily the metro is very fast. At the ticket office they do not accept cards and I need to get money out. The next ATM does not allow to choose the amount, I’m obliged to get 100 Lari. With the ticket in the hand, I go down to the station’ supermarket looking for food. There is nothing that I could call dinner food. I get some biscuits and a can of beer. In front of the supermarket, I see a bakery kiosk and get a pastry and a hotdog. It will be my meal of the day. The train does not have a wagon-restaurant. I go back to the station, look for the platform – in the soviet countries the directions are always a problem.
I’m back to a Russian train. I’ve a 3rd class ticket: an open wagon. There are not so many passengers and I share my 6-person space only with an old Bulgarian tourist traveling to Yeveran to take a flight back home. I feel much better now, I’m back to my comfort zone.
We stop at the Georgian border. We need to get out of the train. I should not forget that I’m travelling with the Swiss passport and cannot say that I’m from Portugal. People get confused when someone has two nationalities.
Armenian border. We don’t need to leave the train this time. Three police enter, check the passport first by hand and then on a computer with a reader. Later come the customs officers and they go directly to the people in the space next to mine. It looks like the ladies there have goods far beyond the allowed limits. The discussion in Armenian is quite loud and takes long. Only at 00:50 the train moves again and with the help of the wagon personnel it calms down. I fall asleep.
Today I will make an excursion to an old city made from caves and carved in stone, then to Stalin Museum in Gori and two Unesco heritage monasteries. I go out early, Tamo is still sleeping. She lives near Didube metro and mashrukta station. It is a big confusion: van drivers shouting the name of the destination, street market, shops and one narrow entrance to the metro. There is added road construction (basically, they did holes, removed some asphalt but nothing is going on), no sidewalks and no crossings. I take the metro to the centre. The metro in Tbilisi is like in Russia: the tunnels are very deep, one metro comes every 2/3 minutes, and they travel fast.
The meeting point is the travel agency. There is a young, party spirit. The excursion group has an American girl teaching English in Georgia, a South African couple and a Egyptian, the three living in Dubai. Our guide is nice, speaks very fast. We drive direction Gori, few dozen kilometres out of Tbilisi.
The Stalin Museum is old, done in Soviet style with many photos and maps but very few explanations. The house where he grew up and his personal train carriage are in the garden of the museum – the museum building was already built by Stalin, other houses were destroyed. Later we visit the monasteries. One of them I find impressing. In the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, it is the second most important Georgian Orthodox church after the one in Jerusalem. Several people are praying inside.
After one hour in traffic, we are back to the travel agency office. They offer us wine (home made, so it is served from plastic water bottles). I drink two glasses and say goodbye.
I meet Tamo for dinner at a modern nice café/restaurant with windowed walls, not typical in this country. She tells me to try Khachapuri Adjaruli. A dough dish like Balkans Pide, with an egg in the middle. After dinner we go for a walk. She takes me to the “Mother of Georgia”, a big statue on a hilltop of a female with a cup of wine on one hand and sword in the other – to receive the good and bad guests. Eva sends me a message with an article about the snowstorm that touched Bulgaria and Romania. From that moment on I cannot stop thinking about the best option for the end of my trip.
I wake up and look for a towel to use after shower. The bathtub is small with preformed seat for half of it. The boiler is over the taps and there is no place to stand. I shower seated. When Tamo wakes up, she prepares breakfast with cheese and eggs, and accepts that I take Sisi, the dog, for a walk. The lift does not work, meaning 8 floors down and up. She works from 10 to 19h, it is somehow the office working hours here.
I’m at the meeting point of a walking tour, but nobody shows up. I see there is another tour starting on the other side of the Liberty square – the center point of Tbilisi. This time the tour guide is there. The tour is ok, going around the old town Tbilisi. Like in Skopje, stray dogs follow the group and bark to other people getting nearby. The weather is not cozy at all: windy, rainy and cold. The tour ends at the sulfur baths and as I’m freezing, I go inside to the public bath.
Upstairs I pay to an unfriendly woman at an old guichet while she is on the phone. She gives me a paper receipt to give downstairs. I enter the men’s section and two dunk guys in front of a table with a mess of food and empty glasses are there. I give my ticket and 3 Lari to rent a sheet that will be to cover and also serve as towel at the end. Inside the baths the people are naked. There are several showers in the middle to clean oneself – I don’t have soap or scrubbing glove… -, the sauna is next to the toilet (which is hot like a sauna), there is a small pool of very hot sulfur water and few marble beds to lay down. It is a mix of Turkish hammam with Japanese onsen in a Soviet environment and state of degradation. I do circuit from one element to another. Some people try to talk in Georgian to me. When I go back to the changing room, as my sheet is completely wet, I wait to naturally dry. The drunk guys offer glass of tea to other people. After a while they also offer me (they have only 3 glasses that rotate). It is not tea, it is schnapps – Chacha, I learn. I say I’m from Portugal and he makes me a canapé with some paté. A bit later another glass, this time with sprite. I ask for a photo and they want I do with one of them.
The cold is much more bearable after the bath. I stop in a café, take banana shake I quickly go to see the cathedral before heading back home. Tamo is doing some home work and cooking. I try to decide about the rest of the trip and the options to return home.
After diner I do the dishes and then we play Codenames. It is not easy to play this English word game, with some ‘lost in translation’, as each of us has a difference reference for words definitions.
I pick up the package lunch that the hotel prepared for me in place of the breakfast, and take a Bolt/Uber to the train station. The station is huge from outside, but inside quite empty. There is a café open. The train is waiting at the platform. It is a Swiss double decker train – Stadler – from outside exact the same I’m used to travel. At each door there is a person checking the tickets (which have a QR code) and comparing with a list on paper. I go on “first class”, which is 2+2 comfortable large seats. The seats are not aligned with the windows and I’ve very small view to outside. The train is larger than in Switzerland, like Soviet trains. There is “executive class” with even better seats and free drinks. The “second class” is 2+3 seats. The train is almost full, people bring lots of big suitcases that occupy the stairs and block one of the doors. They advertise on the loudspeakers the possibility to upgrade the tickets to business or first. When I walk and pass by the personnel, they ask me again, if I do not want to go on “first”. The train breaks constantly quite hard. Later I understand that there are many paths crossing the rail and cows or goats next to it.
The train arrives on-time to Tbilisi. Several passengers light up their cigarette as soon as they get off. The station is old. The only exit of the platform is through a door that goes into a small shopping centre. Outside is a big market, full of stands and people seated on the sidewalk selling parfum, fruit, towels… Nothing to do with Batumi. Slowly I can pass the market towards North, where the apartment of my couchsurfing host is.
I want to buy something to offer. First, I think about a bottle of Port wine, then about a game. I check where is a board game shop and go there. It is Sunday but everything is open. The sidewalks are uncomfortable, there is almost no crosswalks. The game shop is not at the address indicated into google maps. I ask and get pointed. It is behind a closed blue door saying the name of the shop, with the timetable next to it. I try the door, and the shop is open. I buy the game Codenames.
In a snack-bar I get something to eat. They weight the empty plate. I point to something, they serve, weight and note the current total weight. I point to the potatoes, they serve and weight, calculating the difference with the previous total. Each thing has its own price.
The buildings are old, without color. Everything quite soviet. The road I follow has the sidewalk in reconstruction, people walk on the road. The shops are one after the other, but grouped by specialties: 10 for automobile parts, later 10 for ceiling lamps, another 10 for house and apartment doors.
My couchsurfing host writes me saying she needs to bring the car to the mechanic and that the key is under the mat.
I get to the building of my couchsurfer. The block is fully soviet style. She lives on the 8th floor and inside the lift there is a box that accepts 5 and 10 Tetri coins (about 15- and 30-euro cents) to turn on the lift. The key is under the mat, I get it. Not easy to describe the apartment. A small labyrinth, with a room, small bathroom, kitchen corner and meal room. It is old and partly renovated. I wait for Tamo, who sends me a photo of her car in the garage with one suspension out.
I go out for a walk in the neighborhood. Tamo still did not come home. I look in google maps for a café nearby, there is none. I take a machiato in a stand next to a car mechanic and a big road.
When I’m back, Tamo is at home and cooking a soup. She is IT project manager in the Ministry of Health. She has a master in Public Health with accent on digital health. She would like to leave Georgia for a while to study more but did not get grants for it. The lentils soup is very good. After dinner we go with the Sisi – the dog – for a walk around a lake and then to up to the “Chronicle of Georgia” monument, depicting the Georgian history. It is full moon.
This was the plan I had made before starting the trip, for the first part, until yesterday. Everything went exactly as planned, if not even better.
It took me many hours to study all the connections and make sure it would fit in my tight schedule, allowing at the same time some hours to visit the cities.
The second part, the return, does not look so bright, mainly because of the boat which, as for now, is 36 to 48h late as for the initial plan. The good thing is, I will have more time to visit Tbilisi and maybe do an excursion in Georgia. The bad is that I will have to flight to replace the planned last two day legs. In case the boat has even more delay, then I will have to flight back from Asia and leave the boat experience to another time.
The bus to Hopa is not at the terminal. I ask at company ticket office and they say to wait. Another bus of the same company comes. I ask. They say it will come. With 10 minutes delay (Erzurum is the departure station) it appears. We are 4 passengers and 3 employees (driver, ticket controller and luggage/clean employee).
I’m tired. Drunk too much tea yesterday. The hotel room smelt too much the cigarette and I couldn’t sleep.
The bus travels at a speed of a car in a mountain road, cutting every turn. We go over a 2000m pass before going down until the sea. Quickly the snow goes away. The road follows a gorge. I read that a big dam was built and the original road is under water. The new road is like 80% tunnels. Outside the tunnels the landscape is amazing. They serve tea and biscuits in the bus. On a police checkpoint they ask the ID of every passenger. Arrived to Artvin the people look different, more rural.
We arrive to Hopa. I walk the kilometer between the bus terminal and the dolmus – vans for smaller connections. The driver of the dolmus to Sarp says we will leave in 10 minutes. Sarp is the border.
Lots of women with big black plastic bags or luggage with products they take to Georgia. I think it is clothes. At the Turkish border control, I think they don’t know how to queue. After a long corridor is much more confusion on the Georgian border control. While I way glued to a guy with a bicycle and a fishing rode, on another “queue” people scream and looks that someone fainted. Water bottles and police come. I try to stand my place. The border guard looks suspicious about my Swiss passport. He looks every page to make sure it is not fake. At the end he stamps it. I get some Georgian Laris out.
I look for transport to Batumi. A taxi driver says where the marshrutka – same as dolmus on this side of the border – are. Then points to the city bus that just arrived. I ask one guy that is about to board to confirm. He nods and says I need a travel card, pointing to a kiosk. I run, buy the travel card and run back. The same guy with Google translate lets me know that the card that cost me 10 Lari/3€ can be used in 6 more journeys.
In Georgia is one hour later. I go out the bus randomly near the center and look where to buy a sim card. After I reserve a room and walk to the hotel. Batumi is quite big, there is a new, renovated par near the sea, with big extravagant buildings, and the old part with very old building, and street market like bazaar. Several signs are written in the Georgian alphabet, in Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. There are a lot of Russians and Turks tourists.
The hotel does not have elevator and the room is in the 5th floor. I go out walk. I look where I’ll have to pay for the boat. I see it is two days late. I will not arrive home without flying.
I walk to the sea, touch the water. The beach is made of rocks. I look for a restaurant. The first is too slow and I get out. The second is empty downstairs and there is probably a party upstairs where loud music comes from. The server is very nice and explains me how to eat the Khinkali – dumplings – traditional here. I buy the train ticket to Tbilisi on the phone. I found a couchsurfing host.
One of the Turks woke-up very early. I stayed in bed until 08:15 and was the second to get up. The night was a night in a train. Could be better but was not bad.
I go to the restaurant with computer to transcribe my notes and get something to drink. Maria is already there with her computer. I get a coffee and a juice to go with my olive bread bought in Mont Athos. My Turkish cabin mates join to look from the window. We are following Euphrates River in a nice landscape. Then Mesopotamia history comes to mind (with help from Maria) and I want to come back, cycle here. I drink some Turkish tea and enjoy.
Time goes thru, we are always in the restaurant car. The ones from my cabin, the english woman, a family of 4 australians. We are still traveling along the Euphrates river, now at a bit more than 1000 meters high. There is snow now and then in the fields, always in the mountains. I update the blog, reserve the hotel for tonight at Erzurum and make plans B in case the boat is late. People read, play cards, look at the phone. The other train passengers do not come to the restaurant because you need to consume. But the view is much better than in the cabins.
The train arrives to Erzurum. I say goodbye to my travel companions. There is snow on the streets, it snowed maybe 10/15cm yesterday. Erzurum is at 1900m. For once I’m incognito in a city, there are no tourists here. Erzurum is big, with university and airport and very close to a ski resort. I feel good. It was good to speak with people.
In the hotel the receptionist speaks a mixture of french and english. I’ve a huge nice room for 22 €.
After speaking with Eva I go discover the city at twilight. There is a Madrasa – school – from the XVI century, with a museum, which I quickly visit. The castle is closed, the main mosque has the service going on and I should not disturb. I’m talking with my mom on the phone and wander in the city, between the people getting out of their jobs.
There are already quite some people in the restaurants eating and I look for one where I can eat something other than meat. A soup restaurant. I choose by their look, there is no menu. I found out later it is Ezogelin soup, made of lentils, onions, tomato, rice, bulgur and mint. Quite good. I try a small portion of another soup, which is a bit too oily. To finish I get a tea and go back to the hotel.
Hey travelers! Ever booked a seat on public transport and had to specify your gender? Well, welcome to Turkey! In this unique travel experience, seating next to someone of the opposite sex is a bit of a no-no, unless you book together.
Trains: Clear as Day
Turkey’s train system doesn’t beat around the bush. Try booking seats next to someone of the opposite sex, and bam! You’re hit with a clear message saying, “Not allowed.” They’re serious about keeping guys and gals in their separate travel lanes.
Buses: No Mix and Match
Now, buses take it up a notch. Most systems won’t even let you book seats next to the opposite sex. No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s a full-on restriction. Talk about keeping things strictly platonic on the road!
Why the Fuss?
Sure, some argue it’s about passenger comfort and safety. But seems not everyone’s on board with this gender-segregated journey. Critics say it’s a buzzkill for personal freedom. Solo travelers, especially those outside traditional gender norms, might find it a tad awkward or downright frustrating.
In a Nutshell
Turkey’s public transport rules add a unique twist to your travel tale. All aboard! 🚂✨
The bus arrives to Istanbul. I almost did not sleep. The trip was under very heavy rain. On the first stop, we were 4 passengers, the bus disappears while we are in the toilet. A little moment of panic before it comes back 5 minutes later.
On the border they ask where I go, if I’ve an hotel reserved in Istanbul. My answers were accepted.
I decide to take an earlier train to Ankara. After some complication buying the metro ticket – luckily, I had some Liras – I arrive to the train station where the train depart. There is nothing in the station. No tickets, no café. I go through the security and ask a young guy for help changing my ticket on the phone. I feel an old person. Fifteen minutes later they open the access to the platform and check the ticket. In my first class seat I try to sleep a bit more.
In Ankara I put the backpack in a locker and go explore the city. First, I walk to the monument dedicated to Atatürk the founder of Turkey. The city is big but there is space and it is easy to walk and get coordinates. The monument is a huge space, protected by armed guards. There are school groups and many Turkish tourists visiting, with Turkish flags and carfs. Exposed are the 3 redone cars that Atatürk used. There is his tomb and a museum. And a view over the gigantic Turkey capital.
I go further to the other side of the town. I find the bazaar, still with streets having each its speciality – men clothes, women clothes, big appliances, small appliances, heaters, pans, silver…
I found an hammam. I do not remember well anymore the ritual when I’ve been in Istanbul years back. There are two prices for tourists: entry + scrub + foam massage for 280 Liras and with oil-massage add on for 300 Liras more – about 10 €. I only have left money for the small program. They point to what I’ve to go and do. First sauna to sweat. The other client leaves the hammam soon after I get in. The hammam is all for myself, but I’ve no one to copy. I do some steam bath and then comes the masseur that points me where to lay down for the exfoliation. Turn, seat, shower, then back for the foam massage. He creates foam by dipping a pillow cover in soapy water, some air inside and then removing the air over me, creating huge amount of foam. The massage is short but hard. I do some more sauna and steam before going to rest in my cabin. I give 30 Liras tip to the masseur, for a work priced at 80. His face seems that is less than what tourist give, but I find it is quite good percentage of the price.
I look for a bank to get money without extra fee and a döner to eat. I feel I’m tight in time and decide to take the döner as take away, but I would like to seat in the restaurant in the middle of the market. I end up start eating in a park and finishing in the train station. My train is ready for boarding.
Two retired Turks (55 and 57 years old) from Istanbul that go spent 3 days in Kars and a 31 year-old young from Wales – Tom – that visits Istanbul and Georgia. With Google Translate I speak a bit with the Turks and much more with Tom, I miss speaking with anyone. We go all for tea in the wagon-restaurant. There are other tourists speaking English in the train.
One of my Turks cabinmate gets out the electrical extension and multiple sockets from the bag. The other gets a Bluetooth speaker and puts music. I take from my bag a Toblerone chocolate and offer. Two times he asks me if I don’t want to go to bed, I look tired.
I return to the restaurant to write and a woman – Maria – from London asks about my trip. She is doing the Silk Road and is about 65 or 70 years old. It will be a nice trip. When I return to the cabin, they prepared their beds and are lay down. I do my bed, brush the teeth and follow them.
My room partners get up already for the liturgy at 07:00. I stay in bed 30 more minutes. At 7h the liturgy starts. Monks and pilgrims walk around in the church kissing each religious figure, while other monks and priest read and sing. The incense passes, more music. It lasts until 09:15. Then is lunch, composed this time by fish soup, salad and biscuits. I talk a bit more with the Serbian room mate, he is going to every monastery in the peninsula. While making time for the return boat, I drink a greek coffee.
I arrive with the boat at Ierissos and walk fast 20 minutes to the village, hobbling. My right foot hurts and is swallowed from twisting yesterday. I get a antiinflammatory in the pharmacy. The bus back to Thessaloniki will takes 2h.
I already have the ticket for the night bus to Istanbul. Since Covid there is no train from Greece to other countries. I exchange my remaining Macedonian dinars to Turkish liras and do the laundry. I found out that the storm in the Black Sea few days ago might imply changes in my plans. I get a Gyros before going back to the station where the bus will leave.
The bus is quite new, we are so far 3 passengers. Got served tea and water, but proposed movies are only in Turkish. Well, I’ve radio Paradise on the phone.
There is a long queue to reserve the boat to Mont Athos. I go and get the authorization to enter at the next building. “Religion?”, “Without”, I feel almost ashamed of saying it. This authorization allows me to visit Mont Athos during 4 consecutive days. It will be a next time that I’ll stay that long.
I buy a feta pastry for breakfast and some other pastries for the hike and add-ons to the small meals said to be given at the monasteries. It is not more possible to reserve anymore the boat, I should go directly to the port, they inform me. The Greek coast guard verifies the authorization and passport before allowing to get into the boat. Only men and lot of luggage. Several handcrafters commute to work.
At Dafne port most people get out. Others did already get out and some go further to stops on monasteries next to the sea. I go directly to the van which takes me to Karyes, the center of the peninsula. The road is steep, concrete and later dirt. I see we are not on the main road anymore, which has construction works going on.
Karyes is a small village, with cafe, supermarket, restaurant, hospital. There are some monks dressed in black, but most of the people (here said ‘men’) are either workers or pilgrims with not so practical luggage. I saw only one “tourist” equipped like to for a hike.
The expectation and surprise have disappeared. Mont Athos is like any other valley or small region with houses, roads and so on. The difference is that there are many monasteries and there are only men, some cats and some dogs.
I follow the planned stone path, very slippery, often with thin pipes on the side taking water to the houses.
On the way man hear always cars, the dirt roads are never far. Later a jeep passes by and proposes to give me a ride, which I nicely refuse. After an hour I arrive at the Prophete Elias Skete. People are talking around a table. A monk stands up and I say I would like to visit the church. He opens the door, and the amount of gold elements surprises me. It is quite rich. It was founded a little more than 100 years ago by Ukrainians and Russians, explains me. He is my age and is called something like Filipos. Then he offers me the typical gift: a sweet and glass of alcohol. Other people arrive and he left me tasting the gift on the monastery’ patio with view to the sea.
I arrive to Bogoroditsa Skete. Everything is closed and a big silence. On a door something in Greek is written with a phone number. I hoped to be welcomed like on the first Skete. Instead I appreciate the silence and write these lines.
I’m at Vatopodi Monastery. This last part of the way was not easy, part of it was not cared of and I got scratched all over to make my way.
At the entrance of the Monastery a monk points me to the guest house. There are already some people seated around tables. Another monk invites me to seat and brings me water, sweet cubes and glass of alcohol. He explains me the day: mess at 16h, then dinner, then free. Mess again at 4h in the morning, and “lunch” at 9h. He tells me where my room is and remains with the other people.
There are 6 beds in a small room. I choose a free one. One needs to finish to prepare the bed, only the lower sheet is installed. The top sheet and blanket are folded. I see a shower and profit to wash myself. On the 15km hike I sweat quite a lot.
Mess. I get into the church and don’t understand anything. There is construction going on and scaffolding inside. The pillars of the church make it look like a labyrinth. The men go to each figure and venerate and kiss the glass that protects them. The monks read and sing, everything in Greek. On the first half I’m seated, but after is standing and I’m not used to stay at the same quiet position so long. My foot hurts from twisting it during the hike.
We go to the refectory. I read there is not so much food and there is short time to eat, one should be fast. It is vegetarian – rice with raisins and spinach, olives, salad, fruit and biscuits. There is a lot to eat and they keep serving. Everyone has time to eat and also finish their glass of wine.
Each monk looks for a group of men who speak the same language. No one takes me until a monk with a Italian group asks me why I’m still alone. He looks for the monk who speaks English, who was already inside the church. This is an Australian monk that explains the history and miracles of Vatopedi Monastery. The treasures that they keep – part of the cross of Christ, the ear of a Saint, the crane of another. We are two listeners: me and a Serbian that found Orthodox Christianism recently and wants to become a monk. From hearing him speaking, I see that is looks to solve other problems he has with himself and the mother of his daughter. The monk knowing that I’m not believer, tries to convince me that there is always a beginning and that beginning needs to be a person. He offer us two gifts from the monastery that should help a person to heal in hard times.
I’m in the room writing and the Serbian speaks with a Romanian in English about his problems and how he looks for a solution in the church. Meanwhile the timetable changed, and there is a special service to Nectarius at 21:00, which might last three hours and the morning service will be at 7:00.
At the church I look soon for a seat, to I can rest time to time. They are limited number. As the service starts I see there is much less man as before. Also some leave after some minutes. I stand and go the front part, where I can see the monks and priest reading and singing. At 21:40 I follow some other people and leave. I stay for a while alone in the patio, looking the moon and clouds. Something that I believe. The service is interesting, but I do not feel staying longer than some believers here do.
I come back to the guest house and in the bathroom one men listens to some podcast in German while shaving. The church bell rings 4 times. It is 22:00, hour 4 of the Byzantine time.
I’m freezing, The air conditioner does not produce hot air and the two blankets are not enough. I take a third one.
I’m still cold. I try once more the AC. The feet are cold. I wear thermic underwear and hat. I redo the bed to reorganize the blankets. I’m sleeping in the sofa of the deceased grand-mother of the couchsurfing host. The house is not heated.
I get up. I’ve the feeling the sun outside is warmer than inside. I wash my face, dress up, redo the backpack. Eat a packed croissant that I had bought in Albania. The couchsurfing host said he will appear at 9:00.
I stand outside at the sun. Macedonia is one sunniest countries of the world. Backpack is ready. Without signs of Georgi at 9:28 I call him. He says he comes immediately, I think I woke him up. Soon after comes a black Mercedes to pick me up. It the the father of another couchsurfer, who will drive me to Polykastro, the first village in Greece, about 30km south from where I’m. Georgi appears in pajamas and I quickly say thanks and goodbye.
My driver does not speak English. With google translate – that translates in Macedonian, written in Cyrillic – I tell him about my trip. He seems to understand. At Polykastro I buy the bus ticket to Thessaloniki, get something to eat and a coffee. I’m very tired.
The bus arrives Thessaloniki, at the terminal about 3km from the center. There is no side walk at the first kilometer, everyone seems to take a taxi. I find the travel agency that confirms where I can pick up the bus on Wednesday. I walk a bit more and see with the Moovit app that I can probably catch the previous bus to Ouranopolis at planned, if I take a city bus. There is lot of traffic, it will be really short. The bus arrives to the terminal at 14:32, my bus to Ouranopolis is scheduled at 14:30, the next one at 17:45. I already start thinking what I’ll do in this time and at the same time I look around if the bus is still there. No sign of bus ready to leave. I turn back to the city bus, when a bus with sign Ouranopolis comes in my direction. I stop him and managed that the driver accepts to sell me the ticket directly. The trip is nice, via green hills of the Halkidiki region. I take a nap.
The bus arrives at sunset. It is really beautiful the sea. I take a room in a hotel, turn on the AC to warm the room and get a hot shower. The stomach complains that is long time since he had some food. After a tour in the small village, I decide to go to a restaurant where already some group of men are seated. Take a grilled feta with tomato and then a grilled octopus accompanied with a glass of cold red wine. Really nice. But I’m really tired. Happy that in Greece I can again pay with card everywhere.
Tomorrow will be another long day. I’m not sure if I’ll have the opportunity and internet to post something.
I take a shower while the hostel still sleeps. To approach the bus terminal, I take a city bus at 6:40 and walk 15 minutes. There is a very special side of seeing a city during sun rise. It is empty, life starts to appear and there is an amazing light.
When travelling there is no perfect time to go from one city to another. In the morning or during the day, one “misses” the sunlight to visit the city. Travelling after the sun set means arriving at night at a new place, which is not nice either. At the end I think that going early morning is a good compromise, even if one needs to wake up early.
The café at the bus terminal has nothing to eat and points me to the kebab/bbq shop. Salad, bread and 6 meatballs are my breakfast, together with a bad coffee. At 7:25 sharp leaves the van direction Skopje. I’m the only one with luggage among the 10 passengers.
With clear sky and snowy mountains it is again beautiful.
At the North Macedonia border the control does not want to accept my Portuguese ID card. “Passport? Don’t yo have passport? Cannot read this card”. I don’t know why, I did not feel like getting my Swiss passport from the backpack. “I don’t need passport, I’m from European Union”, I answered. He asked me to wait. The other passengers went back to the bus and the police officer went to the main building. One minute later comes out running back to the reading machine, puts back my ID card, does something in the computer and it worked.
As soon as the bus opened the door at the terminal in Skopje there is “taxi?”, “airport?”. I get myself quickly into the building and sit down to check why mobile internet is not working and plan the day.
I want to buy the train ticket for this afternoon at the train station that should be just next to the bus terminal. I see a door that goes to another building and behind a second door open and stairs that look like in a train station. Look above this second door and it confirms. Everything is dirty and abandoned. A row of guichets with no one. There is one with light and I go there. Someone comes. I ask for the ticket to Gevgeljia, he confirms me the 16:55 time and adds: “better 16:00 buy ticket. Maybe problem with train”. The state of abandon of the station talks about the railway status of the country. I hear some train arriving, check at the screens which can be but none matches the time. On the platform no one comes out and no one waits to get in. Later I’ll see if I’ve train.
When I arrive to the central square looking for a café to go to the toilet, I see a group of people starting a tour. The umbrella of the guide states “Free tour”. I join. The toilet will have to wait a couple of hours.
“You can follow me or these two stray dogs, they also know the way”. There are a lot of stray dogs in Skopje (there were also some in Pristina). These two, they follow every day the guided tour and bark to the cars that pass on the road next to the group, as to protect us tourists. There are double decker buses like in London, but these are Chinese made. There are many buildings being built or redone, part of the “Skopje 2014” project which did not finish yet. The guide say that Macedonians are calm and tolerant, that like in the Balkans they do not follow all the rules, several – including himself – escape taxes, and that even if they do not accept the decisions of the government, they end up accepting them.
The city centre is nice, easy to walk and with several big statues. The bazaar is the second biggest in Europe, after the one in Istanbul. Today as it is Sunday it is quiet.
Toilet, finally. At one restaurant recommended by the guide I eat a typical dish of beans and a salad. Fortunately, they accept Euros, as I did not get Dinars yet and the restaurant does not accept cards. I look for a Café to rest and write a bit.
At 16:00 I could buy the train ticket. The lady at the counter confirmed it will be on time and that a small part will be done with a bus, as there is a problem with a bridge. After that I go to walk a bit more, seat at a Café for a machiatto.
The train is not old but is dirty and uncared. It is pitch dark outside, so I take out the computer to type the memories of the day.
There is a bridge with a crack, so between two stations there is a bus transfer. There are so few passengers that all of them plus 3 people from the train fit in a mini-bus. The train at the other side, in a middle of nowhere train station, is closed and turned off. The train driver comes with the passengers to open and start it.
My initial plan would be to go tomorrow morning to Thessaloniki, from Skopje. However, the only bus is in the afternoon. Today there were no buses. Instead, I go to the border town this evening and tomorrow morning I go to the first city in the Greek side to take a bus to Thessaloniki.
At Gevgeljia I meet Georgi, a couchsurfer that accepted that I sleep at his grand-mother house, next to his place. We go for a burek dinner and then beer and waffle. Georgi is translator between French, English, Turkish, Macedonian, Greek and Bulgarian. We speak in French, he tells me about his trips in the region, how he is now afraid to visit new countries, after what he sees on you tube. Tomorrow, the father of another couchsurfer – Angel – will drive my to Polykastro, in Greece.
I arrive at the bus terminal and ask if there is a bus at 7h to Pristina. “Now”; “No, is there one also at 7?”; “Yes, but there is one now”. It is not easy to get information. I’m going to the coffee, take a machiatto and at 6:29 get on the bus. A Venezuelan woman was so far the only passenger and is happy to have someone who talks Spanish. She doesn’t speak English and is going to visit a friend in Kosovo. After leaving Tirana some passengers more get in and out of the bus and also a second driver. It is a beautiful trip with snowed mountains and some houses. A little before the border we stop for coffee and switch driver.
Arrived to Pristina, the Venezuelan accepts to pay 10 € for 3km in a taxi to her friends place. I walk the 1.5km to the center. It is amazingly cold with frozen wind. The first impression from Pristina are that it is built in a more Soviet way than Tirana. Seems poorer, greener and better for pedestrians.
I get in the National Library building. Everything is very dark inside. There is almost no one and I don’t know what is behind to other closed wooden doors or even if they are open.
On the streets there are flags of US, Albania and Kosovo scattered around. There is an avenue and statue of Bill Clinton, who helped Kosovo to became independent.
I walk in to a mosque to warm up. Inside is not as warm as expected, but I stay checking my plans protected from the wind. I choose the hostel where to stay, private room for 21€. It opens only in the afternoon.
Walking back to the center, pass through the bazaar and then end up in a ‘bobo’ kind of bar/restaurant. While eating a wrap I try to find a way to withdraw money without paying extra 5€ tax. Seems to be a way using Western Union.
I’ve walked so far 18km today. Time for a beer. I managed to get the money from Western Union, by sending money from my card to myself and picking it up at their desk.
There is a train station in Pristina for two trains a day. Behind the station is the embassy quarter and KFOR (NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo). A very modern neighborhood, contrasting with the one where I’m staying.
At night had a nice meal with tomato stew and chicken kebab. Leaving the restaurant some snow flakes were coming down the ski. I somehow wanted to check a bar, however alone the energy was not so high and next day I had again to wake up early.
Kosovo does not have (yet) a fixed internet domain name. For that it needs to be recognized an independent state by all members of the UN, and Serbia still blocks the process. Most of the companies in Kosovo use a ‘.com’ domain, but some are using the temporary assigned ‘.xk’ domain.
There is not much to see in Pristina, being however quite nice to stroll with the open spaces, pedestrian street and not so much traffic.
The night at the boat reduced the storm of feelings from yesterday. I even dream about a difficult situation at one client.
I’m at 6th bridge – name for floor in boats – where the reception is, together with about hundred passengers waiting authorization to disembark. Mainly seem immigrants returning home and truck drivers. No tourists in sight. Next tasks: breakfast, sim card and bus to Tirana.
Still at the port I buy a Vodafone Albania sim card. There is a roaming free area with neighboring countries which might be useful. For this quick trip, relying on wifi to check hotels, maps, timetables would increase the stress.
The first touts offering taxi services come as soon I step out the port building. I had memorized the way to the bus terminal and could easily ignore. On the way there is the Dürres train station, where they are rebuild the line.
The bus leaves in 10 minutes, ticket is 2 euros. I quickly buy a 2 kefka sandwich before boarding. The bus is full and I stand during the 30 minutes drive without many road rules.
The Tirana regional bus terminal is 4 km away from the center. It is raining. The umbrella partly hides my tourist look. I decide to walk to the international bus terminal, half way to Tirana center. “One country or city development is measured by the comfort given to pedestrians” is one of my sayings. Tirana can still gain several places in that area.
I’m trying to know when there are buses to Pristina tomorrow. At the billboard tells about 2 buses, I read about 4 online. Travel agencies touts trying to convince me to buy tickets. The say about the times not in the billboard when I insist. The 15 € price seems fixed. There are dozens of travel agencies selling the same tickets. Tomorrow I’ll decide.
I’ve decided for a “boutique” hotel for 40 €. I could already get the room and leave the backpack. I ask how to get to Bunk’Art 1, which I know is in the outskirts of Tirana. “Is far, only by taxi”. I had seen that a city bus goes there. The receptionist asks the cleaning person who confirms and explains me where to take.
Level -3 of the main bunker from communist times of Albania. One interesting exhibition about the influence that Italy, Russia and China had in the history of the country. The country was very closed, all furniture was produced locally, all machines. For long time the TVs were made in a way they could not receive foreign channels.
Little after 16:00 it starts to get dark at this longitude. Tired of walking in a noisy city I retreat to the hotel. Excellent timing as a thunderstorm arrives soon after. Tirana has little interesting spaces and surely with more time one would appreciate more. There are quite some people cycling, even in the chaotic traffic. Some separate cycle lines (dis)appear in the city center. Time to look for a restaurant, now that the rain stopped.
Final thoughts about Tirana: it is impregnated with live. Every ground floor is a shop, open from early until 21h or 22h. The new influencer in the country is Saudi Arabia, which builds nice new buildings and has an exhibition in the city center. Many motor-bicycles have a rain cover, quite funny. There are still water tanks at top of some buildings – usually related to not so stable electricity.
I’m on the completely full train to Milan. Already crossed the border to Italy. The weather is cloudy with some sunlight going through illuminating the valley that goes to Domodossola.
I’ve a strange feeling and ask myself if this is the type of travel I want to do right now. Just before I was paginating the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, reading what I’ll not have the time to see or where I’ll not have the time to go. My feeling is not fear of missing out, rather a feeling of sadness about not being doing again a longer trip.
In Milan I’ll have 25 minutes to grab some food and change train. The next train lasts more than 7 hours.
Before depart I had booked the transport for today and a night train in the middle of the trip. Other transportation and sleeping will be on the go. The preparation for this trip was about finding timetables, bus and train connections, which would allow to take a glimpse of a city and go further.
The train arrived late to Milan and allowed me 13 minutes to get around. While in Zürich or Bern stations this is an eternity, in a unknown big train terminal it makes short. Managed to grab a sandwich and a bottle of water.
The Frecciarossa fast train is so far quite good. I took a supersaver business class ticket and have until now four leather seats only for me. Leaving Milan the train goes up to 300 km/h. As with cycling – much better than expected – I’m impressed with the service of the italian trains. For this long train trip there is a webportal with films, series, newspapers. As soon I sat down, a box with some commestible food and drink was delivered.
The train ride has been very quiet. Looking at the window, re-checking which sim card should I buy tomorrow. Exchanging messages with couchsurfing hosts concerning a lift over a border on Monday morning. And choosing where to eat today, before heading to the port. The train is running 13 minutes late, which is not a problem for the next connection.
I rethink about the message exchange over whatsapp just before. Sometimes we do not make effort to communicate clearly. I did two yes/no indirect questions in one whatsapp and got one unique binary answer without context. Would that reply apply to both questions or just to one, which? The questions should be clear and direct, better one per message. And is better to include the context of the question in the answers to assure it refers exactly to what the other person expects.
It was night when arrived to Bari. South of Italy reminds me of Portugal many years back, with a charming disorganization. A multicultural city where the common spoken language is Italian. After getting some pasta with seafood tartar and a cheesecake, I walk through the old town of Bari to the port.
Soon I see the huge boat from GNV which will take me to Dürres in Albania. Near the entrance building a man approaches me and asks if I’ve done the check-in. He offers to take me by “taxi” there, it is 4 km away he says. I refuse and go to the security control, which confirms, I need to get a shuttle bus to do the check-in. The bus should come in 10-15 italian minutes, just outside. After 15 minutes I decide to start to walk – I see it is 2 km away. The second car that I wave stops and offers to take me there. Luckly, as part of the way is forbidden to pedestrians. The check-in is in some lost containers. Show ticket on the phone, show ID, get a paper. The shuttle bus is there and takes me back.
After the security, the entrance to the huge boat is the ramp where at same time trucks get in backwards. The ferry has 10-floors, the old signs disclose it is an old second-hand Norwegian ship. (post-edit, the boat is 42 years old, and started in Sweden, then went to Norway, source Wikipedia)
The South-American Indian (Bolivian, Peruvian? post-edit: they are Philippinos) looking crew takes my ticket, changes the cabin number it was assigned to me just 10 minutes before at check-in, and gives me a key. The cabin is cold and the air condition only has Chinese characters.
I imagined a much nicer boat – style the one between Finland and Sweden. Or between Korea and China. It is older than that. Most of the restaurants in the boat are closed. There are few dozens people hanging around, getting into their cabins.
It was a long day and the one I had the most time to write. Next Stop: Albania.
East. Like in 2009 with Eva. Next Stop: Where? was our blog. This time I am going alone and only for 17 days instead of 1 year.
Today was my last day at Trivadis/Accenture. After 13 years, I decided it was the moment to change employers. I’ve had great moments and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to work at Trivadis until the end of the company and its integration into a large corporation.
Until I start working at Tradeware, I’ll have two full weeks to myself. I had a lot of options as to what to do, and I soon decided that I had to take the train. “I’d much rather go by train”, is a citation I’ve printed on a t-shirt. Where to go, that was the next decision.
The challenge began to come together. There is a cargo ship that crosses the Black Sea. There is Mount Athos in Greece which can only be visited by men. There are many places in Eastern Europe that I haven’t been to and that I’d like to cycle one day with Eva. The planned trip is almost a challenge to go the furthest and come back in 17 days only by land and sea.
Tomorrow I’m going to take the train to the south of Italy. Next Stop: Where?