I lived in Nuremberg Germany for a couple months while working on an ill fated revision to ZooPlus.de. This was during the dot com boom / bust so I worked a lot of hours and didn’t get to enjoy living in Europe much. I did travel on three weekends, once to Paris, once to Luxembourg, and once to Prague. On the way back from Prague knowing my time working was coming to an end I asked myself, if I could go anywhere in Europe, where would I go?
I immediately decided I wanted to visit the Nikola Tesla museum in Belgrade Yugoslavia. It wasn’t too long before that Belgrade was being bombed and the then director of the museum posted how a building nearby was completely destroyed. The Chinese embassy in Belgrade was also accidentally bombed… Canada was one of the few countries not to shut their embassy and I wrote the director of the museum personally, as I had to be invited into the country as a visiting scientist. The Germans I was working for managed to lose my official invitation letter, so I had to get a faxed copy sent to me the day before I left in a language I couldn’t even read.
I also researched that the nearest Yugoslavian embassy was in Vienna Austria. Vienna was also home to a distant cousin of mine and the start of the Trans Balkan train route which I could take to Thessaloniki Greece where I also knew someone through the Internet. I also stopped in Sofia Bulgaria where I had another acquaintance I had only met online. I think people tried to warn me out of taking this trip, but I decided to at least try to complete this journey as I had already visited the grave of another hero of mine. Apparently people kiss Oscar Wilde’s grave now, but I left a single pink carnation.
Generally travelling alone by train through the Balkans at night is inadvisable.
With my time working in Germany over I decided to at least attempt to get into Yugoslavia to see the Nikola Tesla museum. I travelled to Vienna by train. I documented my travels with a journal, an old fashioned pen and paper journal. I also had a cheap 35mm camera, and I spent a lot of time alone on trains reading books connected to the areas I’d been travelling and living in such as “Candide”, “The Birth of Tragedy through the spirit of Music”, and also possibly a little Kafka and Conrad. My backpack ended up having a lot a books in it, I used to be in shape so I’d rather tolerate a heavier pack than be without reading material. This was long before smart phones and free WiFi became omnipresent.
I made it to Vienna and met my cousin’s husband. I happened to be in Vienna on St. Patrick’s Day. It is always good to be a strange city on St. Patrick’s Day, people are generally extra friendly at least in the exPat pubs. My cousin and I spent a lot of time drinking that day, we had to migrate to a different Irish pub after the American GIs showed up and starting pissing people off.
While I was in Vienna I found the Yugoslavian embassy and lined up. I spoke almost no German and definitely no other language that I thought would be common. There weren’t a lot of people applying for special visas to travel to Belgrade at this time. I still had to line up and go in a back room with no windows. They looked at my faxed letter, my passport and asked for some sum of money in Austrian Krone. I read in the Lonely Planet that if you were to travel into the Balkan you were to bring Deutsch Marks and you weren’t supposed to take any pictures of anything that was damaged in the war or had armed guards posted outside, so photographic proof of my travels is sparse. I didn’t have the Krone, but I gave them 100 DM bill and they took that, the letter, and my passport. They also found their best English speaking diplomat who was a busy man.
I can’t remember saying much, contrary to popularly held opinion I can keep my mouth shut. In fact I recommend when travelling alone through Eastern Europe by train to say as little as possible. If someone bangs on your cabin door, you open up, if they have a weapon, they want to see your passport, if they don’t have a gun, they want to see your train ticket. The most suspicious officials I encountered were the Germans coming back from Prague. I was sharing my car with a Slovak and I let him do all the talking as his German was better than mine. I didn’t know him at all, we just shared a train car for several hours. I don’t think the German border official believed I was Canadian. He got out a magnifying glass, even tried to scratch my picture off my passport, finally he just suddenly switched from asking us questions in German to asking me questions in English.
So yeah practicing your German on border guards is also not something I advise.
Eventually the Yugoslavians gave me my passport back. I think they may have kept my letter from the museum director, but I did have a fancy visa stamp which I couldn’t read. I can’t remember the exact exchange rates at the time, but lets just say I didn’t get a lot of change back from my 100 DM bill.
Armed with my visa and the correct train ticket which I cleverly bought from a travel agent which spoke English, I set out through the Balkans alone. I also planned to travel mostly at night as I figured why pay for a hotel when you could sleep on the train for less? I didn’t get a lot of sleep on the train. I also didn’t make a hotel reservation in Belgrade as many businesses had ceased to exist, the Lonely Planet admitted none of their writers had actually been to Belgrade in a long time. The Internet was also no help. The only hotel I could find that was still standing on the map in the Lonely Planet, was right by the train station. Lets just say arriving in Belgrade alone, in the dark, in the rain and wandering around looking for a hotel isn’t that fun.
I never did change to another hotel. The one I did stay at was fine, it did have a scary warning inside the closet explaining that I was not to store ammunition or explosives in my hotel room. I got a picture of that somewhere…
I met up with the museum director no problem. I avoided running afoul of any Yugoslavian officials, others I know had more difficulties because they did not head the no photograph warnings. I bought all the Nikola Tesla books they had and shipped them back to Canada. I even got to make use of my French one rainy night at a restaurant. I spent a couple nights at the Caffe Gaudi (which is now @Gaudi_Cafe on Twitter) which I learned was named after an architect. I just liked their coffee and ambiance. I’d like to go back to Belgrade someday. Nikola Tesla has become a lot more famous, the Euro and European Union has made travelling in Europe a lot easier, but when you’re young you think of course I’ll get back here, but over a dozen years have passed and I’ve never been back to Europe.
I made it all the way through the Balkans alone by train. I spent time in Sofia Bulgaria, even got to sit in the same VIP section of a club that Bill Clinton visited while he was president. I also had a brief encounter with someone high up in the Bulgarian mafia at a cafe. Basically everyone leaves the cafe when the Bulgarian mafia arrives for their own safety when it is late at night.
I probably have more stories and observations in the journals I kept, but photographic evidence of this trip is scarce as this was before I had a digital camera let alone a smart phone and it was very much in your best interest to try not to draw attention to yourself and the fact you were a tourist far from home travelling alone. Most of the people I met were nice, I never was robbed, or had any real trouble with government officials. I think the special visiting scientist visa might have helped. I think the worst thing I saw was a pedestrian get run over and the driver never even stopped. Other pedestrians had to pick him up and move him on to the sidewalk. I don’t even remember an ambulance arriving. I made sure to look carefully crossing the street from then on. I’ve actually seen people get run over several times in my travels around the world.
Below are a few pictures I took and recently rediscovered on my laptop, none from the Balkans. I think I kept my camera well out of site much of the time. They were taken with a cheap 35mm camera, developed, then scanned, then resized to 600 pixels. We’ll see if Pinterest loves them: