Balkan Summer

No, I really did try. I did try to come home. It just wouldn’t work for me. There was a mysterious voice in the air, calling: ‘Leave! Go travel some more! It’s summer here in Europe, after all!’.

So I had to. Italy & southern France to warm up, the climbing was as excellent as always. Just a bit cooler that year, but this only meant that we could head straight for the south faces. And get a good tan, too.

What followed a just few days later was an adventurous journey through the Balkans, a region I long wanted to pay a visit. I added ‘adventurous’ with a purpose there … have you ever tried to take a night train from Beograd to Sofia? You should. Anyway, the trip started off with a real proper train up to big Berlin, examining some great graffiti there. Then, by now we (that is, Maria and I) headed down to Dresden just to hear the accent (and some very knot-y climbing in the Elbsandstein) before following the call of Budapest. I’ve been dreaming since years to check out this praised city, and this year, our timing was even perfect: Sziget Festival! Being one of the biggest music festivals worldwide, it also proved to be the most amazing one I’ve ever attended. A whole island, literally in the middle of a stunning city, filled to the bursting point with world-class gigs and people rejoicing at the sun. Beat that!

The next stop was Beograd, capital of proud Serbia. Once again, wandering around and getting lost turned out to be a superior tactic to explore the very heard of it; At the end of the day, we’ve had a cheerful (and also considerably hungover) group of locals showing us all around their city, inviting us for local food and, of course, beer & home-brewed rakia. We even ended up driving to the favorite local ‘pool’: A dammed up side-arm of the Danube. Where all we planned to do was to lie in the shade of a tree to take a rest from the train ride … well, didn’t quite work out that way.

But after that, we’ve had enough of big cities and the Bulgarian mountains were luring us into their endless serenity. To start things off properly, we unexpectedly found ourselves (by utter random chance, as so often) amidst the annual gathering of a nature-worshiping cult, praising the sun. Nice people, though; Quite fascinating to witness a few hundred people dressed in pure white dancing and jumping around in huge, concentric circles. And so we wandered on, worshiping the sun, too. Besides that, the Rila and Pirin mountains of Bulgaria seem to have a liking for crystal-clear mountain lakes – perfect to pitch your tent just right next to (anyone agree with me that there is no such thing as getting up at sunrise and splashing ice-cold creek water all over your face?).

Turned out that it is actually really hard to communicate with people in Bulgaria; Furthermore, it doesn’t really help what everything is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. At one point, we ended up in a border town and our plan was to cross over into neighboring Macedonia, through Albania, and up to Montenegro. But all we got was a lot of ‘No bus! No bus!’ and so we figured what the situation probably won’t be much better in the countries to follow. And we needed a shower anyway. Thus, we decided to take a route a bit less complicated and headed south towards Istanbul, the promised city (by, well, just another night train). What we experienced there was once again mind-changing. The hostility of the Turkish people was simply incredible and CouchSurfing turned, as so often, out to be an unforgeable experience. Great folks, great days. And that is in a mega-city of 13-or-so million people; I’ve only heard the stories of other traveler’s experiences in the countryside. There’s a lot to learn for you, Western Europe!

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