Balkan Beauty

"The world today can be a scary place, it's hard to keep your faith in the human race;
We're running out of trees and we're running out of space;
But we'll never run out of good people." - Great Big Sea (Good People)

From the moment I stepped off the plain in Zagreb I knew I was in for a different experience. Let the currency changes, total unfamiliarity, and language barriers begin!

I don't think I could have picked a better starting point than Zagreb. Most people spoke decent English so it was an easier transition to the very first country that posed a true language barrier. The city itself is very beautiful, with a lively cafe culture and vendors roasting chestnuts on every corner. I would have never believed that concrete could be elegant, but the crumbling facades and mock 19th century architecture proved me wrong! Walking around I noticed that people generally kept to themselves and didn't concern themselves with anyone else on the street, but they still carried themselves with a relaxed air... a far cry from the Parisian attitude. The Croatian capital also gave me my first taste of the recent and violent history of the region. Outside the national theatre, I stumbled across what I thought was an art exhibit, but turned out to be so much more. On well-lit boards were photos and stories of survivors whose loved ones had been killed or simply disappeared during the 1990's conflicts. There were 15 photos to represent the 15,000 Croatians who are still missing. For me the most chilling realization that I took away from the display, was that I was learning about a war where my generation were the ones left orphaned and alone. It certainly gave me new perspective when I wasn't thinking about grandfathers, or great grandfathers who would have been fighting. Walking away form the display, I had a hard time not trying to imagine what every person I crossed on the streets here had lived through, but somewhere on that walk I made one of the most important realization that would carry me through my travels here in the Balkans: Life goes on. This was the true meaning behind the cliche. Standing in this vibrant, colourful city, surrounded by warm hospitality, I would have never suspected this regions tumultuous past.This one moment, so early in my time here in Eastern Europe defined much of what I would experience over the next few weeks.

From Zagreb I headed south along the Dalmatian coast to the ancient Roman city of Split. The Croatian coast is known to rival the French Riviera... and I would agree! White marble streets (that are very slippery when wet) and palm trees everywhere. Not to mention great seafood! After a short, but fun stay in Split I moved on to Dubrovnik at the southern-most tip of Croatia. The landscape all along the coast is breathtaking to say the least. Rocky cliffs seemed to spring up from the turquoise blue Adriatic; this made for a very beautiful (6h) bus ride to Dubrovnik. The city itself is similar to Split, if much more touristy. The walk along the ramparts was definitely the high point of my time there. The entire "old city" is surrounded by high ramparts that overlook the sea and the city below, but the most amazing part about this ancient city, is that much of it isn't ancient at all. During the 1990's conflicts the city was heavily bombed and virtually destroyed. Since then many, many stone masons and construction crews have worked to restore the city to its original state. Today, visitors would have difficulty telling the difference between the old and the new!

As I am quickly learning my Canadian spatial sense is doing me no good over here. Distances on road signs are clearly measure "as the crow flies" and travelling between cities seems to take forever... even worse when there's a border involved! So after Dubronik I ventured inland to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina (yes, I learned how to spell that... if anyone reading this wants to know how to say it, it's "her-tze-go-vee-na"). Here began my love affair with the tiny, "heart-shaped nation." the countryside is rugged and beautiful, just like the people who live there. Language barriers were nothing to overcome, even if people spoke every language BUT English and French. Walking down the well-lit streets, Mostar has an eerie sense about it; I would pass bombed out buildings that stood next to colourful cafes and rebuilt shops. The sidewalks were in need of a little work, and locals only used them in emergency situations, like when a car would drive down the road. Mostar was also my first taste of the immense Turkish influence in the region, which was under Ottoman control for many centuries.

Next stop was Sarajevo, where I can say with certainty that I indulged in plenty of Bosnian/Balkan specialties and learned how to properly drink Bosnian Coffee. I made (and re-made) some great friends and had many unforgettable moments. My favourite had to be my last night there. I climbed up one of the very steep hills surrounding the city, just to get into the residential areas, but was treated to the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen. The sky was glowing orange and pink, and I could see the entire city below me. Just as the sun was dipping below the hills all the minarets started their call to prayer, and almost simultaneously the church bells began to ring. That was when I knew I was in love with this city, and this country as a whole. The only word that will do it justice is... magic.

Belgrade was a sharp contrast to the warmth and charm of Sarejavo. Once the capital of communist Yugoslavia, this sprawling concrete jungle felt more like it belonged in Western Europe than the Eastern half. When most capitals in this region don't top 800,000, Belgrade, with a population of 1.7 million felt immense, and anonymous. Two days was plenty of time for me here.

I continued my adventure south, to Skopje, Macedonia, once again adjusting to a new language and currency... hooray! Great food was easy to come by, and very cheap, my greatest delight was that you could get vegetables... even salads! As a side note you can also get beer in 2L plastic bottles and every hostel owner and their neighbour has their own home-brewed version of the local alcoholic potion- Rakia. My taste of Macedonia was limited, but I can still say that this is one of the most under-developed countries I've seen yet. Not the absolute worst, but still a very simple lifestyle where manual labour is the tool of choice for things like agriculture, and even road building! But if I though Macedonia was rough... a day trip to Kosovo gave me a new perspective. One of the world's newest countries, Kosovo was officially created in 2008, but it still isn't recognized by Serbia as an independent state (... and I had my Kosovo passport stamp crossed out at the Serbia border to prove it). Anything outside the capital of Prishtina is best described as "third-world." Paved roads don't exist and international military installations are common- as is evident by the posted highway speed limits for tanks. The capital city is better developed and is centered around towering EU/UN buildings. This country truly feels like another world entirely.

On my way to Sofia, Bulgaria, I made an unplanned pit stop in Nish, Serbia, where I have enjoyed the scenic views of my hostel dorm room for the last three days thanks to a nasty bug of some sort. Bed rest, chicken noodle soup and tea have done wonders, and I heading off to Sofia tomorrow. From there I'll continue east to Istanbul and into the Middle East. Let the adventure continue!

The Balkans have been an amazing experience., The sights and magnificent, the history is intricate, and the hospitality is the stuff of legends. I can't count the number of times I've been adopted by older women on train/bus trips, despite complete language barriers! This place is truly wonderful and I'm thankful everyday for all the experiences I've had and those yet to come.

Hvala Vam

As usual... I will have photos up on Facebook shortly so here's the link if you want to go check them out :) This should be a public link, so even if you don't have Facebook you can still see the photos!



The French Adventures- Part 2

"Life is a long lesson in humility." -James M. Barrie

Life really does make the best teacher, and all of the lessons have a distinct purpose, even if we don't realize it at the time.

... So where did I leave off in this French saga? Brive, or rather getting to Brive. This was the day I officially named the "Day from Hell." Leaving Montpellier I was anxious and excited to go back to familiar territory, see my lycée friends, but most importantly, see my host family that I had lived with during my exchange in 2008. (Most) of whgom I hadn't seen in over 2 years. Emotions already amuck, I got to the train station early, and until then hadn't had any problems with the periodic train strikes. Well, after a series of unfortunate events, I got kicked off the train by the conductor because there was absulutely no room. I was left standing on the platform alone, as I watched the only train (indefinitively) that would make the connections to Brive, speed down the tracks, without me. Pissed off doesn't quiote cut it. The ONLY time I actually have someone waiting for me at the other end of the journey, just my luck. At that moment it felt like the end of the world.

From that point, the journey was taken in stages, usually with me sitting on the floor or standing with my heavy pack because there were no seats. Finally, late that night I arrived in Cahors, the closest I could get to Brive (about 1h by car). Michel (my host father) was going to meet me there. Exhausted, I waited in the very empty train station, content, until in stumbled a drunken bumm- great, just what my day needed. In slurred French he proceeded to ask me 1 million questions and tell me how beautiful I was, every 5 min. moving one seat closer to me. Late at night, there was no one around. However, just as I started to actually become concerned, Michel arrived to save the day! Officially the day from Hell.

Brive was an amazing experience. I stayed for a whole week, and loved every minute of it, surrounded my family and familiarity, home-cooked meals, time to relax, and visit with the family that I hadn't seen since I left France for the first time back in '08. Just the feeling of being home, and totally at ease did wonders for me. It was also the very first time that I actually noticed that I've grown up. I'm an adult out discovering the world on my own. Leaving was tearful as I said goodbye to everyone, with promises to return before I head back to Canada.

Next stop was Limoges to visit Coraline and more friends. Leaving there was more complicated as the train strikes had gotten worse, to the point that the company didn't even know which trains would run the next day until 6pm the night before. Reservations anywhere were impossible, so it was flying by the seat of my pants as I headed to Paris with no idea where I was going next. I ended up in Brittany, in the city of St. Malo. The region is gorgeous and the city is a medieval fortress on the Atlantic coast. It was amazing, but unfortunately crawling with tourists because it was the start of nationwide school vacations in many European countries, including France, and there was a huge catamaran regatta in port preparing for a race all the way to Guadaloupe that would start the following week. At the hostel I met some really cool Quebecois, and sure enough, had difficulty with there accent at times (in French), but thankfully, not very often.

Next was over to the North and actually into Belgium, because the hostel I had been trying to get to in Lille (France) was still booked. The next week was spent touring through almost all of Belgium, with stops in Bruges, Antwerp, and Liège (I missed Brussels). Belgium is a beautiful, but in my opinion, confusing country, with multiple lanuages that vary by region, and thus multiple names for everything! Chocolate shops, waffle and fry vendors were everywhere and pubs/bars were on every street corner. The countryside is incredibly green, even at the end of October, and is dotted with lots of little farms and brick homes. I often had difficulty finding accomodations because of school vacations, but everything worked out in the end.

Then it was back to France, to Dunkirk (north of Lille), because Lille, and the entire countris of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, northn Germany, and Northern France were entirely booked up. I'm not kidding, there was NOTHING.

Halloween day I arrived in Lille (finally), and the weather felt just like being back in Ireland. I passed through many famous areas surrounding the city, and in the end forgot what the huge draw was in the first place. Regardless it was a very enjoyable city.

Back in Paris, the next stop will be an entirely new part of my travels as I fly to Zagreb, Croatia on Nov. 3.

Amazing, difficult, but ultimately the most rewarding experiences of my life. Travel, and life, really do make the best teachers.

à la prochaine- Bisous à Tous!


"La vie est un leçon dans l'humilité qui dure longtemps." -James M. Barrie

La vie est le meilleur enseignant de tout, même si tous les lçons ne sont pas biens compris au moment, ils ont tous un but uniques.

... Alors où est-ce que j'ai terminé ma saga française? Brive, ou plutçot comment je me suis arrivée à Brive. C'étiat une journée que j'ai nommé, "La journée de l'Enfer."

De partir de Montpellier j'avais senti beaucoup des emtions; l'anxiété, l'anticipation, et j'étais heauresuse aussi de finallement revoir ma famille d'acceuil. (Le plupart) De qui je n'avais pas vu depuis que je suis rentrée au Canada. Donc avec un coeur trop chargé je me suis arrivée à la gare bien en avance. Jusqu'à ce moment je n'avais pas eu des problèemes avec les grèves de le SNCF, donc, selon moi, la journée dû derouler toute simplement. Mais non. Apès une série des événements qui n'étiaent pas de tout prévues... j'ai râté le train. Le contrôleur m'a fait desçendu du train car il n'y avait pas de la place pour moi, même si j'ai un billet dans le main. J'etais la seule laissé sur le quaiavec aucun prospêt de prendre un autre train qui faissait les connexions jusqu'à Brive, indéfinitvement. Merde. "Ennerver" ne suffise pas pour exprimer toutes les emotions que j'ai senti. La seaule fois que j'avais quelqu'un qui m'attendais à l'autre bout du trajet- violà, ça peut arriver qu'à moi.

Dès ça le voyage était fait en plusieurs étapes, d'habitude je n'avais pas une place assise dans les train, sinon c'était assise sur mon sac-à-dos ou par terre. Mais j'étais quand même contente d'être sur les trains. Enfin je me suis rétrouvée à la gare de Cahors à 21h, où il n'y avait personne. Je serais été contente de rester là, tranquille, jusqu'à Michel est arrivé pour me chercher, mais non. Un homme totallement bourréeétait entré dans la gare et il s'assoyait à côté de moi. Il avait commencé de m'embêter serieusement, quand Michel était vénu. Voilà la journée de l'Enfer.

A Brive j'ai passé un bon moment et j'ai rester là pendant une semaine entière. J'ai adoré chaque jour, chaque moment, et même chaque seconde que j'ai passé là. Je me suis senti comme une enfante gâté, entourné dans toutes les affections de l'amour d'une famille, mma famille. En plus je connassais déjà la ville, presque mieux que les Brivistes (peut-être). La cuisine maison, le temps pour me reposer, et une soirée avec "les amis"; c'est difficile d'exprimer toutes mes emotions, mais le meiux que je peux faire est de dire que j'étais "chez moi." Il y avait un autre côté de ma séjour à Brive aussi, je me suis sentie pour la première fois que j'avais grandi. Que maintenant je suis une adulte qui voyage toute seule dans le monde. Les aurevoirs étaient dûrs et j'avais les yeux pleines de larmes à chaque fois. J'ai dû absoluement passer par Briver en revtrant du Canada l'année prochaine. Donc ce n'étaient pas forecement les "aurevoirs," plutôt les "à juins."

Le prochain arrêt était à Limoges pour visiter avec Coraline, voir son apartement, et aussi de rencontre les amis de qui j'avais entendu parler de depuis longtemps. et voilà j'ai passé encore des bon moments à Limoges et c'était dûr de partir (surtout à 6h du matin)!

Pour partir je ne pourrais pas faire les réservations à cause des gèves et car je n'avais aucunes idée quel trains circulerait. Le plan était de partir pour Paris et après pour Lille, mais le plan était completement refait à Paris car l'aubèrge à Lille était complet. OK, donc... à St. Malo! Il y avait la place dans l'aubèrge puis il y avait les trains qui circulent, Parfait! La Bretagne et très belle et la ville est une ancienne fortresse Medéivale au bord de la mer. C'etait dommage que la ville était pleine des touristes qui viennent soit à cause des vacances scolaries (qui juste viennent de commencer dans plusieurs pays Européens, la France incluse), soit pour un concours de batreau entre le St. Malo et la Guadaloupe qui partira la semaine après. A St. Malo j'ai rencontré deux Québecois qui étaient vraiements géniales et tellement drôles. C'était bizarrecar pour la première fois que j'ai rencontré quelqu'un de mon propre pays, je ne me suis pas rendue compte qu'ils étaient forecment "canadiens", plutôt "québecois." En plus, en français j'avais eu de defficulté avec leurs accent, mais heureusement, pas trop.

Le prochain déplacement m'a fait traversé le pays et enfin rentré dans la Belgique, car Lille était encore complet. La prochaine semaine j'ai passé en Belgique avec les arrêts à Briges, Anvers, et Liège (j'ai manqué Bruxelles). Un très beau pays, mais difficile à navigué car il y a plusieurs langues et plusieurs noms pour tous les choses (les villes incluse). Il y avait les chocolatier et les petits vendeurs des gaufre et des frites partout, et aussi il y avait les bars/pub sur chaque coin. Le paysage est encore très vêrt même si c'était le fin d'octobre. Par contre j'au eu beaucoup de difficulté à trouver les aubèrges de jeunesse à cause des vacances scolaires, mais enfin c'était bien passé.

L'Halloween était arrivée et finallement je me suis rétrouvée à Lille. Le temps m'as semblé que je me suis rentrée en Irlande, mais ça. Enfin, la ville et le paysage était très jolis, mais je ne sais pas qu'est-ce qui m'attirais si fortement à cette ville.

Maintenant je suis rentrée à Paris pour commencer la prochaine partie de mes voyages. J'ai un vol à Zagreb en Croatie le 3 nov.

Merveilleux, difficile, mais enfin les plus belles expériences de ma vie. De voyager, et la vie, sont les meilleurs enseignants.

A la prochaine- Bros Bisous à Tous!