Europe Thumbs-up and Thumbs-down

Published on November 10th, 2016


“Thumbs-up” (and “down”) on My Trip through the Balkans

As you all know, since my return from Eastern Europe 3 weeks ago, I’ve been hunkered down here wading through my bazillion pics from the trip (well o.k. a mere 3,555 but still…).  And though I hope to slowly peck individual posts detailing each of the 19 different locales I visited, that will (understandably) take a good many weeks/months.  So meanwhile…

My last post (highly subjectively) rated each of the 19 corners I wandered through.  But there’s quite a few stray aspects of the adventure (unrelated to specific locales) that likewise deserve mention.  Thus much like my “thumbs up”/”thumbs down” assessment on my skip up the coast of OZ in 2012,  I thought I’d jot down a few of the hightlights and lowlights of the trip (as there invariably are for any trip) while they’re still crystal clear in my head.

First the highlights (and there were many more than what I’ve pecked here):

Thumbs-up highlight of my Balkans tripFirst and foremost on the upside:  I DID IT!   Quite honestly, at my stratopheric age I had my doubts if I could still go the distance.  Backpack no less, for 44 straight days through 8 different countries.  Would I have the stamina?  Would my bad knee and (Morten’s neuroma) feet hold out?  I’m surely blessed with good health and I dare say enjoy extraordinary energy for my age, but I’m definitely no Spring poultry and I do have my fair share of dodderin’ aches and pains.  So such a marathon travel plan loomed dauntingly ambitious even for an adventuress as hell-bent as me.

Ah but it turns out that – not only did I manage to clamber up a bazillion ancient steps and trek miles and miles of cobbled lanes (with a jam-packed rucksack on my back and dragging an 11 kg rollie behind) – but I actually got STRONGER with each country I passed through.

Indeed, while I’ve long suffered from a seriously weak right knee that needs to be constantly pampered and prevents me from running even at a toddler’s pace, just a few weeks into this trip – all the walking and traipsing up and down stairs with luggage, strengthened it so that I had almost NO WEAKNESS in it at all!

Yes, yes, at the end of each day my dodderin’ bones were decidedly weary with plenty of aches and pains.  But nothing a single Ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep wouldn’t cure, and I was good as new come morning!

Furthermore, I had not a single day of sniffles, and I even lost a bit of weight along the way – despite feasting on all manner of tasty new local foods at every turn.  In short, even I’m amazed that I managed so well as a solo dodderin’ backpacker for so many continuous weeks.  I’m supremely grateful that I can still keep up with the youngsters on the Trail, and I only hope that my own saga pecked here – will serve as inspiration to some of you out there: You CAN do it.  If this dodderin’ old lass can do it – YOU CAN TOO!

Thumbs-up highlight of my Balkans tripReuniting with my TRIBE!  Yes, my tribe – my fellow travel cohorts who likewise live primarily for their next foray in some far-off foreign land.  Folks of all ages from nations far and wide, who are either on the Trail, or huddled at home (often, as expats in adopted lands) planning their next adventure into the wild (read: some distant spot on the globe).  While rarely have I found such kindred ardent wanderlusts either in my native land, or my adopted home in Cuenca – as soon as I hop on the Trail, I am once again reunited with such (arguably rabid) true travel addicts – on planes, trains, buses, hotels and hostels.

Thumbs-up highlight of my Balkans tripSpeaking of hotels and hostels – I must say, I managed to sleep in a perfect mix of both.  Hostels are cheap, generally have strong wifi, and are a great way to meet other travelers to share tips on what to see and do.  Often I can team up with a dorm partner or several to share costs on an excursion and enjoy a burst of company along the Trail.   Hotels on the other hand, offer peace, quiet and privacy (albeit more often than not, at the expense of abysmal wifi – what’s with THAT?) which is often most welcome after a string of hostels and/or hard days on the Trail.

For this trip – 43 total nights, my sleeps were divided between planes (3 nts.), dorm hostels (12 nts.) and private hotel rooms (28 nts.)  Furthermore, the latter hotel rooms ranged from an (unconfirmed but nonetheless mighty suspicious) near-brothel in Izmir, Turkey, to a family suite that could sleep 4 for a mere $150 for 7 hours sleep in Obertraun, Austria (’twas the absolutely LAST room available within 25 miles, and it was either that or – thank goodness for plastic – sleep in the streets of Hallstatt).  Stay tuned for details of THAT foolish travel blooper in a future TL post.

Note:  stay likewise tuned for a full “Balkan Sleeps” post detailing the 20-odd different sleeps I had – including my first ever delicious wallow in First Class plane sleep!

Thumbs-up highlight of my Balkans tripPERFECT timing on my visit to that part of the world (Sept/Oct).  Not only was the weather fabulous (but a single day of rain in the entire 40+ days with temps hovering around 70F everywhere I went), but the tourist crowds were considerably thinned from the height of the summer months.

Thumbs-up highlight of my Balkans tripI conquered my solitary personal fear:  acrophobia.  I floated in a tiny (*open*) wicker basket at more than a THOUSAND feet above the earth in Cappadocia!  Strangely, I never have a moment’s qualm about hopping into a silver cigar tube and speeding through the icy heights of the stratosphere at 30,000 feet for hours on end.  But put me on a chairlift or a scenic walkway atop a skyscraper like the Seattle Space Needle, and I’m reduced to a terrified, wimpering toddler.  So needless to say – in the back of my mind, I was seriously ambivalent about jumping into that wicker balloon basket.

But of course there was NO WAY I was going to miss out on such a wondrous once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  So (as I’m reluctantly compelled to do with many of my more adventurous solo travel capers), I pushed past my fears, and… well the videos will tell the story.  My ballooning experience was supremely enchanting.  As the basket lifted off the ground in the soft pre-dawn light, I barely noticed we were airborne.  Indeed, throughout our hour-long balloon flight, I was so captivated by the 360 degree scene beneath me, I never gave a thought to my silly acrophobia.  I snapped pics and videos left and right and was able to enjoy every blissful moment aloft.

Thumbs-up highlight of my Balkans tripTaking only my phone.  Truly one of my BEST decisions on this trip.  Suffice I dithered long and hard about whether to tote my netbook along.  I mean, it’s so bitty, and unlike tablets (which offer little more in the way of technos than a bloated smartphone) my sweet netbook is a full-blown computer that I can transfer photos to as a backup, peck blog posts on, etc.

Ah but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?  A chance for a semblance of digital detox.  An opportunity to step away from the keyboard for 6 weeks, and not worry about carrying, charging, securely stashing in hotel/hostel lockers, and more importantly – the guilt of taking the time to peck a blow-by-blow of my adventures as I went along.

In short, in the end I dutifully pre-pecked a half-dozen TL posts that I could easily click “Publish” from my WordPress app on my smartphone each week, and focused all my precious travel time/energy instead on exploring the new lands I passed through.  Yet, I still had a tiny digital connection for booking my next room, transferring photos from my camera to my phone (via the magic of Bluetooth) and uploading them safely to Dropbox, and… taking a moment each day or so to pop a stray pic on Instagram and Facebook.

And now a sprinkle of minor, but nonetheless low-lights:

Thumbs-down lowlight of my Balkans tripI packed too much.  Even with winnowing down to but a carry-on size rollie and a small rucksack (for 6 weeks of travel!), suffice I could easily have left close to HALF of it at home.  More details of what I didn’t use at all, what I used but a handful of times, and what I couldn’t live without – coming in a packing postmortem post soon.

Thumbs-down lowlight of my Balkans tripSpeaking of packing – I deliberately packed a “travel size” tube of Colgate in the interest of saving even that small extra smidge of space/weight.  Normally that would be plenty for a standard 2 week holiday, but triple that?   Suffice – even with stringent rationing – I ran out of toothpaste in Cappadocia, 40 days into the trip.  Worse, the only toothpaste I could find was a Turkish brand of childrens toothpaste , and let me tell ya – those poor Turkish tots apparently are getting their fair share of sodium chloride.  BLEH – it tasted so salty I could barely brush my teeth with it for the remaining week of the trip!

Thumbs-down lowlight of my Balkans tripDitto my comb.  In my early morning rush to escape the squalor of Split, Croatia, I must have left it in my hostal bathroom.  Not a biggy as my pigtails require little maintenance.  But… I did have to part my hair with a plastic FORK until I could unearth another comb in the tiny seaside village of Perast in Montenegro!

Thumbs-down lowlight of my Balkans tripThen there was the time I couldn’t find my hostel in Dubrovnik.  Luckily it was daylight, but even with the hostel’s coordinates in my GPSr, after an hour of repeatedly getting within a tantalizing 600 feet…  Suffice my geocaching chums will understand.  Yes, yes, GPS coordinates are a wondrous thing and can direct you to verily a nickle-sized spot on the Planet.  But altitude?  Uh, those lat and long numbers don’t tell ya nuthin’ about altitude.  And let me tell you, the city of Dubrovnik is all about al.ti.tude.  It’s spread out pretty much vertically on a steep hillside, with hidden staircases hither ‘n yon to reach the upper levels.  Thus, after more than an hour’s frustration (with rucksack and rollie in tow), I finally broke down and hailed a taxi.  Granted, we had to drive a mile or two around to the upper street, but nonetheless that taxi spin turned out to be a 10 buck investment – to go 600 vertical feet!

Thumbs-down lowlight of my Balkans tripSmoking.  Ugh!  The prevalence of cigarette smoking among Europeans (and Germans in particular) is much higher these days than in my native land, or Asia, or here in Ecuador, and I’d forgotten just how unpleasantly invasive it can be.  On my first day out and about in Munich, at a nearby restaurant I was astounded to see – really? Could it be??? an old fashioned CIGARETTE MACHINE in the lobby!  And in the (otherwise purely blissful) tiny village of Motovun in Croatia – despite eating on the terrace – I could barely keep from gagging as I (tried) to enjoy my truffle soup, thanks to the thick fog of smoke from a nearby table of four smokers (who repeatedly lit up in unison, before, during and after their own lunch.  ;(

Oh, and one more thing:

Thumbs-side, neither high nor lowlight of my Balkans trip8 countries in 44 days – hmmm… what happened to “slow travel”, Dy?  Actually, I think of “slow travel” as expating/settling down in a foreign nation as I’ve done first in Vietnam, then Thailand and now 2.5 years in Cuenca.  All of it is “travel” in my book because – though I get to shed the “tourist” label, I still have the traveler’s constant day-to-day challenges of communicating in a foreign language and adjusting to cultural changes (both challenges that I THRIVE on!)

Besides, for this trip – given the 48 hours of in-transit that it took to get over to Eastern Europe from down here in South America – I couldn’t help but be tempted to see as much of that part of the globe as possible.  Was 44 days and 8 countries in one go too much?   Yes and no.

For one thing, I was wise enough to take a little sabbatical in the tiny haven of Lepetane in Montengro about halfway through the marathon, so as to shake off the blur of “Global Glut” and rejuvenate for the final march through Turkey.  And in retrospect – while future trips might well be a tad shorter (with fewer countries) – I’m not sure if some locales (like Split, leastwise in my book) are worth more than a day or two’s stay.  So let’s just wrap this up and give this one an “it’s a wash” thumb!

Thumbs-Up? Thumbs-Down? on my trip through the Balkans

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About the Author

Off-the-beaten-path travel is my passion,and I’ve always lived life “like-a-kid-in-a-candy-store” – eager to sample as many flavors as I can. Indeed, my life motto has long been: This ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!

4 Responses to “Thumbs-up” (and “down”) on My Trip through the Balkans

  1. Wow, Dyanne, did you pack a lot into your “What I did on my vacation” jaunt! We too wondered about our professed preference for “slow travel” after our recent trip to the US when we added up the miles, states and sights, the beds, the homes and hotels and various methods of travel. But what awesome memories you’ll get to relive as you sort through your 3,555 photos and share the highlights and lowlights. Looking forward to reading it all and I’ll be taking notes as we plan on heading to less traveled places in Eastern Europe (are there any?) next summer. Anita
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go kindly contributed to world literature by posting…Three Days in July, A Cyclorama and the Enduring Symbolism of GettysburgMy Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      Yes Anita, “slow travel” can take many paths, and I think folks like you and I – as expats permanently choosing to *live* in foreign lands have the best of all worlds when it comes to travel. I mean, what could be better for a true wanderlust – than reveling in the daily challenges of living in exotic lands, while enjoying short jaunts to ever new places?

      And (lucky you) – you’re already ensconced there in Portugal, with the entire European continent now at your fingertips. As far as “less traveled places”? I can’t say I visited too very many of those on this trip (though I’ve always been able to get my fill of local experiences by simply stepping a block or three off the well-trodden tourist track and seeking out locals to chat with wherever I’ve gone).

      That and… I honestly believe that traveling on a budget (i.e. “low-to-the-ground” as I call it – whether by necessity or choice) via local transport (vs. renting a car, group tours, etc.) is the best route to experiencing truly authentic travel.

  2. I saw myself in this post. (When you were my age, I think you were within 2 years of backpacking across South Africa, so I think I might be a tad ahead of you in the aging process). On pretty much every trip now, Mr. Excitement and I have at least one (usually more) moment when we look at each other and say, “We need to keep doing this while we still can.” These usually occur when confronted, upon arrival with luggage, by a 3rd floor (or higher) hotel room with no elevator, or a 20 minute trudge from one terminal to another at an airport (I’m looking at you Madrid Barajas Airport). And, I’m undergoing a course of physical therapy as we speak to try to remedy some insult to my rotator cuffs (shoulders) caused by hoisting my suitcase (a 20 inch roller bag) up onto luggage racks on our last trip to England and Iceland. I did part of the trip s olo and that’s when it happened because I was too ashamed to ask for help—-so need to get over that. Then, there was the lack of desire to go hiking on a glacier, having had some problem just with the sidewalk in Philly and Brigantine. I enjoyed following your trip in real time on Instagram or was it Facebook or whatever. Eastern Europe (beyond Budapest and Prague) is still on our list of places to go.

    • Dyanne says:

      Yup, I was just shy of 6-uh-oh! when I opted to backpack solo across South Africa and Mozambique for likewise 6 weeks, Suzanne – and I now marvel at how YOUNG I was then. 😉

      And yes too, trust that I never have a moment’s hesitation about asking for help (starting with heaving my carry-on rollie up into the overhead). Nothing wrong with politely enlisting the aide of those younger/stronger – rather than risk an injury.

      And about that “…while we still can.”? Yes, no doubt there will come a day… But honestly – I saw quite a few stalwart fellow dodderins with canes and even walkers slowly making their merry way up the steps of those ancient city walls around Dubrovnik. And in the back of my mind, I was already thinking “yup, whatever it takes, I’ll still be doing this until I’m in my grave.”

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