— aleatory

Sleeping Rough in the Balkans

Skopje train station

In the days before the web backpacking was a step into the unknown.

Now it’s largely a step onto Google.

In order to recreate that sense of adventure we are forced to either go to new extremes or remix the old ways of overland travel with our new found ubiquity. This is an account of a two week excursion into South East Europe via the cheap ‘n easy Ryanair into Zadar, Croatia and following on with sleeping rough through several of the Former Yugoslav states, taking in the obligatory Norn Iron international in Montenegro before crashing out on a beach in Greece by way of Mytikas.

It had been a while since I passed through Dublin airport. The 5 euro pints were expected, not so the baggage checks on nearly every passenger boarding the plane. First time I had seen that on a Ryanair flight – from Belfast and elsewhere they let you away with everything but the kitchen sink. I slinked in behind a group of yittering women as they struggled to stuff their mutant handbags down into the bag size check railings and walked straight through, sleeping bag, roll mat and fly sheet all hanging off my 25 litre backpack.

Zadar, Croatia. To Northern Europe certainly the lesser known of the Dalmatian coastal cities, behind the likes of Dubrovnik and Split. Boasting an impressive old town that sits on a spit of land jutting out into the Adriatic cut off from the modern setting surrounding it. Wandering in on a busy saturday night I got lost in a bustle of buyers & sellers at artistic street stalls and young wealthy Eastern Europeans out in full jet set gear.

Zadar street market

One Heineken Fort pitstop later and ended up in a central park type area with bars on one side and the sea on the other. Backpackers & revellers mixed freely with al fresco drinking going unchecked. I sat down for a few more beers and when the rest left, the park bench morphed into my first bed of the trip.

Awaking the next day an Aussie recommended heading a bit further south to Split if I wanted to catch a boat heading to the islands. The ~6 hour journey by bus cost €12 and dropped me off at the port. Another few drinks before catching the Catamaran to Korcula. Fast and cheap at €7 but unfortunately no access to the deck for a better view.

Korcula, 24 hours after landing in Croatia was where I got my first bite to eat. A popular island destination for either the backpacker or the yacht set, the port town can be forgiven for being all about the tourist. It carries it off well though meal times are extremely busy when looking food though so it’s worth delaying your own eating habits. Night-time cocktails on one of the turrets is pretty cool. Pints are more expensive inside the old town proper, while outside they can be found for a couple of euro.

Sleep-wise the steps off the wee road around the old town lead down to a flat rock shelf that makes for a perfect open air spot – in fact there were 3 others doing the same thing in the vicinity when I landed. Falling asleep a few metres from the sea as it laps up against the coastline couldn’t be beat.

The next day I hired a bike and explored a bit south and a bit north. The eastern coastline – heading north out of the town – contains more of the quiet coves I was looking for than the immediate south west of the island, which is more suburban. A nice cool down in the water and it was time to move on.

I couldn’t help but notice in between the Sunseekers and other assorted multi-million pound craft swarming round the Adriatic where a flotilla of little off board motor-powered plastic bathtubs with a pair of middle aged male Croats on board. Obviously this was the Balkan coast equivalent of the Russian baths, where the issues of the day were debated and settled albeit with birch leaves replaced by sun oil.

The £16 evening boat to Dubrovnik got in after nightfall. A single stop off at another island may have robbed us of the sunset but showed us a neat trick – 30 feet from the water’s surface the ferry crew were busying themselves with finger fishing using loaves. It was easy to spot the shoals hunting the water below for the bread and at least two good sized specimens were caught. Of what I’m not sure but after baking them in foil under a nice ashen campfire they all taste good to me.

Every other mouth in Dubrovnik seemed to be speaking English. A bit contradictory to list that as a downer when I can’t yet speak any other language usefully (most of the older generation who could humoured me and accepted my attempts at broken Russian though) but ‘getting away from it’ includes obvious tell tales such as an accent you recognise to be down the road somewhere.

Still by the time I got ashore I was in a suitably inebriated state to latch onto a Zagrebian girl who seemed content to listen to me beg for a floor at her ex-boyfriends flat while we drank outside a late night club close to the massive old town. It was as difficult to explain as it sounds.

Almost impressively I also managed to pick up and lose the contact details of a pretty attractive Turkish girl whilst in mid-pleading with the Croat on the back of an impassioned Cameronian speech expounding the merits of Turk accession to the EU. Sunrise and I found myself at the bus stop waiting the first lift out of town into Montenegro.

Infuriatingly the Croat was still attached though after much hugging and extravagant throwing around, she eventually left when I decided to continuously fall asleep whilst standing beside her as she kept jabbering on. The falling asleep didn’t seem to bug her – maybe she was used to it – it was more the racket the bin made every time I slammed into it, causing it to come off it’s hinges & smash onto the road. If love is blind it’s probably also blind drunk.

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