LDN to BUDAPEST to BUCHAREST to SOFIA to THESSALONIKA to KAVALA to THASSOS N BACK – travel writing

I half beer
I champage
I palinka
I red
I palinka

And then she stopped counting

Chainsaw
Holy soup
Holy goulash

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A spunk-strewn British flag lies over a black, metal trunk in the alcove of the gay bar on Prague’s outskirts. It is daytime, late December 1992. The action has left the building, leaving a smell of beer, good-times and a plastic policeman’s hat, which is scraped up from the floor by an English-speaking manager who took pity on the three of us – female students, who somehow found ourselves without somewhere to stay after a two day bus ride from London. Directing us to a grand flat, dripping with gold and literature up near the famous clock tower. We’d made it.

I’d been to Prague before. In 1990 I’d carried memorabilia from Amsterdam to Charles Bridge where me and a Dutch-Indonesian guy whom I became biro pals with (who later had plays on Dutch radio which were banned, I never asked why) worshipped at the Lennon Wall – my fave monument in the world ever, which on that first visit was just a candle, burning for world peace and love, with a photo of the dead Beatle. Flowers hung around it like a Hindi temple and a few of us left messages, in biros on the walls. (I was travelling with my parents, from Amsterdam, with my own tent, them giving me freedom to explore. It was a pretty cool trip.) By this return in 1992, the sacred shrine of Lennon’s Wall (who I often spelt like Lenin) prayed on anything alternative: The Doors, The Velvet Underground, but “I heart Guns n Roses” in massive graffiti writing – that didn’t make sense. To me, at that time, Guns n Roses stood for nothing – the west was impacting.

By 1997, of course my appreciation of songs such as Mr Brownstone grew. And it was around then, reporting for Scene with the British shock artists, that I checked in on my rock n roll mecca once more. The acid-house generation were still in naive belief that Blair would never go to war and unity would guide us into the next millennium. The popular belief he manifested (until he lost us) by getting Oasis over to Number 10 for all that champagne supernova malarky. Yet we were desperate for a government to believe in after Thatcher’s rave dissolution, taking our parties into superclubs she could tax, and monitor. In came artists we could believe in: their values of privileged liberty were explored in video, installation and on walls: porn, freedom to fuck, vegetarianism etc, and after a rather loud night on the absinth, fellow hotel residents pushed a note beneath Tracey Emin’s door saying they were “ashamed to be British”, (the note Mat Collishaw made into a T-shirt). It was punk and Cool Brittannia. Although, I found more light at the Lennon Wall, standing as a glocal foreshadow of mobile phones bringing everything closer, the iron curtain peeled back bad hip-hop graffiti, stretching far along the river. The west wanted more west, as my friends had wanted more city, back in the New Year of ’93. Taking an overnight sleeper to Keleti, Budapest’s main station. For £20. It was serious adventure. Communism fell in ’89, as it had in Czechoslovakia, but unlike Prague, we were the only tourists in Hungary. Or maybe there were a few other bravehearts, but they’ve vanished from my memory in these blurs of youth. A woman pounced us as we arrived, offering us a place to stay. Trustingly, we travelled an hour out of Budapest (!) to a pine forest village covered in snow. We fed village dogs our old salami, only to have village children pull it from the dogs’ mouths. The alpine houses were all made with local wood. It was modern and excellent for young explorers. Every little shop in the village (of which there were two, basically sheds with no signs, built onto living rooms) offered us vodka shots as soon as we were through the door. That’s the kinda behaviour that can make a girl fall in love.

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Budapest was a train ride away, and I remember it being very dark at all times. No shops with illuminated anything – no flash windows, just huge black cement buildings, Tudor-esque hills of medieval voids, wide-roads rambling ordered forever, entrancing squares of balconied houses that stood off main streets – looking down as if the centre was a theatre. If you wanted to buy something it was held in a glass-enclosed unit behind a big Hungarian behind a counter. My pride purchase was a patchwork sheepskin waistcoat “It’s for a child!” laughed the woman with big arms.

At a Turkish bath, massages were done with soap bars and buckets of water. My pal Juliette, who’d been brought up Catholic, screamed in hysterics at the proposition of walking around naked in public with a towel the size of a flannel.

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Now, in 2014, the baths have signs in English and there are massages available in oils and chocolate and all sorts. I’m sure Grindr and Tinder and Sugardaters work as well as they do in any other western city. For now there are tourists everywhere. You can buy everything from Zara to Louis Vuitton. Budapest has become City Break Central, and with Alex, my husband, we visited Kiraly and Gellert baths. Kiraly is beautiful, more authentic than Gellert, with the obligatory holes in a domed roof, plunge pools where Alex was warned of their shrinking powers, there’s an outside tub, in a square in the gardens. It’s a right hang-out. Gellert, by comparison, is ginormous – they make women wear swimming hats to swim in the pool – men don’t. And in both, everyone wears swimming costumes. The first time I went, with the girls, it was naked and same sex. Annoyingly, if you want to swim and haven’t been before, hats are available to purchase once you’ve locked all your goods away in a locker. But there are bars, for lunch, it’s the kind of place you can stay all day, but of course we didn’t arrive until the sun had nearly set…There are outdoor pools, sun loungers, and yes, Wes Anderson has defo visited. Shame to share the water. Which I made the mistake of perhaps drinking a little too much of, having read of Agua Juventus – offering eternal youth – Bottle That Shit and Sell It To ME, I thought, drinking as greedily as I felt looking at the cream cakes at the Centrál Café (I’m lactose intolerant).

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We were in Hungary for the wedding of artist, Marta Rocamora and composer, Gregor Konready’s wedding. This Catalan / Hungarian couple met working at the Red Gallery and they helped enormously at our wedding, so it seemed a good circle to celebrate their love.
We thought we’d go five star for 4 nights, booking the Buddha Hotel – (and should have stayed at the Boscolo) – Buddha is all red and black, nailed over the top of nouveau – a nightclub-style place full of waiters laughing at the chaos of breakfast and storming into our room for a party at weird times of the night.

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Ernesto Leal, who founded Red Gallery, arrived with the co-founder, Yarda Krampol and Red director, Giuseppe Percuoco. We goulashed it up for a night before leaving town to a place where the Hungarian princes took their crowns – Szekesfehervar, or as Ernesto called it: Che Guevara. I was calling it Shake it Baby. Met by the groom’s brother, we went onto Tac, now 70k from Budapest, where we were all staying, where the reception would be…
Alex and I had a quick look around the village, he thought I was joking when I told him I was going into a shop – it was one of those sheds I’d been to twenty years ago. We returned to our room, changing into appropriate garb and the Spanish mother ceremoniously separated herself from her bridal daughter.

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A big master of marital proceedings with a huge felt cape in cream and red, fairytale leather boots and an accordion was our guide – joining us on the solidarity bus back to Che Guevara Shake It Baby, where the exchanging of rings would occur. With a soundtrack including The Bangles’ Eternal Flame, there was rice throwing, photos, and the Red contingent escaped, now with several more of us, planning to re-group in half an hour. Of course, after taking a beer, and an ice cream and photos, we missed the bus back to the reception. Cabbed it back. We were lucky enough to witness such traditions as the holy cutting of the log – where man and wife each hold an end of a saw before the chainsaw is passed to the wife, with champagne toasts and the first palinka (the stuff they’d called vodka back in the sheds)…

Uncle Andres and his revolutionist’s moustache

There was so much palinka. And pastries. I did a full palinka detox – sitting with catalans, all excited for the forthcoming Scottish election. Singing Kalinka Kalinka with Palinka Palinka. After a few hours, chicken was dropped on the table – we ripped it from the bones before broth followed with aldente gnocci pasta and pimento on the side – amazing food – then holy stew and potatoes – all hail a decent goulash, and sauercraut and gherkins – and once one’s appetite had been met – fried cheese and fried hash brown and fried rolled up ham and we danced all night, found a secret bar with a huge lizard dragon in it. And more alcohol and holy goulash and holy stew. Marta began wearing her belt around her head, all hippy child, before dosie-dohing around and coming back down for dessert dressed as a Hungarian Disney Princess. Greg was all top hat and tales, looked like he was from a century ago – which is quite a weird thing for an electronic music producer…all friends forever – the dawn rose, and the tour with Red Gallery ended at 5am, when Alex and I took a cab to the station to get our train to Bucharest…

City pipes up like rattlesnakes
Ecstasy sunrise
Crowns in the road
Capital comes
And crashes
Full metal church

Woemania.

Men with double earrings
Gypsy with wooden stick
Men with big moustaches
Helmet hat bellend rooftops
Big cereal fields
Meeting puppies on platform
Gypsy no eyes – prison tattoo number, steal a child, beg. Gypsy curse.
One way.
Pear dumpling haystacks.

There is a bored girl called Amelia going to Bucharesti – I give her Polish fudge, the same type my old Polish neighbours used to give me. The Danube is wide as a lake and really is blue. It’s stunning, wild, green hills forever. Takes 15 hours from 7 this morn to 11 tonight to reach:

BUCHAREST

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I leave half a bottle of wine from the wedding with a guy walking with a shepherd’s stick, defo part of the 3% of Romanians who are of Romany stock. (Blame British media for my surprise at this statistic.) 3% battered, tattooed, outcaste. It’s wild here. Loads of men drinking beer around barrel tables at a little nightshop shack at the back in the station, where hard-as-iron women serve. It seems the educational standards aren’t very EU – there’s very little English and there’s the same stupid factor you find in any central city station with boozy guys stepping over luggage rather than waiting for it to be moved. It is midnight…and cities congregations are often stupid.

Having eaten peanuts and crisps since the wedding, we relish a half grilled chicken and a spicy merguez-esque sausage, violent red, with big cut chips. Everyone else eats beer. We could have had about 4 Happy Meals from the undercutting new MacDonald’s for the same price.

We roll our luggage around the outside perimeter – got an hour before the connection to Sofia. The streets are wide and glitz-free. There a couple of uber-lights – from a Subway and the obligatory supermarket-near-the-station which makes most of its cash from meths-esque products. It’s dark here, huge communist buildings reach into the sky, without the glow of cities such as London. Black as the sea we shaln’t see the Danube wash into.

TOWARDS SOFIA

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When a weird Soviet guy starts taking your train ticket from you in the middle of the night, it doesn’t matter if he’s dressed as a night guard in the sleeper train you’re boarding to Sofia. What happens if he just takes the tickets, flogs them on, and tries to kick us off the train? All aboard for pure costume drama. We’ve stepped past an ancient tea toiler boiler, and Hey Jude sings from a ginourous comms device of the same era as the song, all inside a worker’s cabin. There’s a woman in there, bored, getting dressed or undressed. Dark wood everywhere. Red claret carpets and velvet bunks. The weird Soviet guy wants to exchange our tickets for sheets. But he can’t tell us that. Speaks no English, I have no Hungarian or Bulgarian – although later pick up a couple of words – in Greece. A fight nearly broke out as he drunkenly staggered over Alex’s shoe – he seemed to be complaining about the difference in the quality of their footwear before passing over the sheets, as we bid adieu to our evidence of purchase. I’ve always said the problem with communism is shit shoes.
Yet we wake with no problems, Soviet guy is smiling, the morning light shows Bulgaria to be far craggier than Romania, which was soft and undulating.
Raw nature. Verdant – never trodden by human foot, in any kind of shoes, there’s loads of it – on and on. Everything is written in Soviet script/cyrillic.

SOFIA

Che Guevara awaits in shops at the commie station. There are pictures of various revolutionaries, above glistening pastries. No cashpoint. A McD’s in a tent. Left luggage womanned by a little lady. Everything looks like you’re wearing glasses with a nicotine sheen. Part of Europe since 2007 but uses Lei as the currency. A few alco-groupies await tourists at Sofia station – people trying to help for 1 Lei…about the cost of the biggest bottles of beer ever – like maxi-bottles of Coca Cola. We get a train to Centrum. Metro. New. Two stops.

Homemade orangeade with mint for me and big ice cream coffee for Alex. The esplanade is wide, with cafes all along the centre of the main shopping streets. It’s mellow and cosmo with mountains at the ends of the roads. Lunch in a cafe playing house music. Every cafe played house music. Big Byzantine church – gold gold gold domes, amazing mosaics, blues. Beautiful. Walk around town for the afternoon.

Steaming through country now. Back on another train. This time to Thessaloniki. It’s a long way. Agrarian climbs down from the mountains. Rivers, roads. Slow life in the south looks richer than the dying communist bloks nearer the city.

Hark, wheels stopping. That was us and the German interrailers freeeeeaking out. Train has been going in the wrong direction for 30 minutes. It’s picked up some random carriages – we’d just got into Greece, after a 38 hour journey, we don’t really want an extra couple of hours on a train.
Yet we arrive in Thessaloniki 10 minutes early.

WHY DID WE DO THIS JOURNEY

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Thessaloniki station has a lil orthodox corner to light candles in – and an ancient photo booth. Feels like a film set – frozen when the debt happened. Trains have only been reconnected for a few months (post-recession) but it felt pretty India. As it did walking around the bus station later looking for a hotel and finding one with wallpaper over damp and mirrored ceiling tiles – we didn’t get an hourly rate.

Now at the back of a bus going past lush lakes and small fields on the northern coast of Greece – it explains so much having travelled here from the north, over the mountains, rather than flying straight to holiday central.

My big idea for the day is a philanthropic index – where tax and CSR is rated per individual. Everyone needs to do something for others. Alex doesn’t agree with me.

There are clouds across the higher hills as we head into a valley towards Turkey. What the fuck are they doing there? I do not want to see clouds for the next week. I want to turn off – see the temp rise as the minutes strike up from my first coffee in the mornings. I want the blue and white of postcards. I want the pictures in the guidebook. We’re getting a boat from Kavala, pop to Thassos or Samoraki, we’ll leave for the other if they’re too full of package holiday makers, what a weird phrase. Make like it’s a holiday, dudes.

The bus driver’s music is quiet though the air con, Chilli peppers, Guns n Roses, classic soft rock – a long way from where we started. 22km to go. Proper info travel seeing the baltic wilds, the chipped communist faces, German trains exporting cereals.

After a ferry, and a bus, I’m lying on a bed looking at weird Christmas cards framed on the walls – pictures sent from early explorers to this island, an island now overrun by Romanians. It came as a surprise – to get to a beach recommended in an out of date guidebook that you now can’t see for people. CLAUSTROPHOBIA – GET ME OFF THIS ISLAND. Seeing every beach stacked out by cafe owners’ umbrellas and sun loungers, offered for a minimum spend of 25E. So much water falling from the sky now – explains these verdant crags. These domineering hags. These green salads. A wood fire around a fig tree, grape vines, roofs sucking up the skies, sealine and clouds hazed together. My Nike insoles blown to sea. Heavier and heavier the rain and sailboat masts ticking geiger faster. Sun-dried pine replaced with pools of needles and burning logs. Men running under parasol shades and warmed by mama in towels. Water on marble. Olives falling over crazy-paving. Waves bashing over the Byzantine ruins, sandy beaches finally free of peeing children and mothers watching whilst dads channel Olympic swimmers past. This place is not for travellers like us – it is a place of reservations and organised families. But half the ferries no longer run, victims of the recession pushed by the loans offering greatness – so it’s hard to leave.

Giola pool is used on all the guidebooks to Greece – it looks bigger in pictures. Jumping in from quartz diving boards carved by the ocean into this natural round pool, filled with still sea water. Scores of people. Freeform. On a moto – no shades, trying to find an unknown beach, a place to recluse. This restaurant old, with rooms above all with the beauty of Aliki from its sights. A family palace, a unit. Something we don’t have. And then it stops and the island is bathed in sunlight.

Bread and stew go in the fire oven – I feel part of a Greek family – fuck banks – we’re in cashland – why would greeks on an island do anything other.

Moving house – moving house. The place was only available for two nights, we’d tried 6 others prior to this, used to rocking up and seeing what’s available. In a cheap place with another dodgy mattress, booked with a 14-year old spotty kid, his mum apologises for him when she drives our stuff around to the next place we found – it’s hard, getting rooms here. All the Romanians have booked in advance. We hang with some Romanian academics – they’re not coming back next year – too busy. The climate is not of the south islands – yet the sea is stunning and blue and the sun warms the stones so it’s perfect for naked midnight swims.
If we’re up that late.

Now we’re on Kinira Beach – the woman who only speaks German, and Greek, is OCD clean. Not a grain of sand is in the wrong place. We have balconies at the back and front and the sea is loud and hypnotic through the window. Proper mattresses – personal kitch – not blue and white though – here she’s gone for fleshy pink and white. BASTARDS (I WANTED BLUE AND WHITE – that’s why we came to Greece. It was here or Croatia, after the wedding – but we’d had our honeymoon in Mykonos/Anti-Paros/Serifos last year and were keen to feel as good again – and the journey here was worth this disappointment).

RAIN, CLOUDS, GO AWAY.

Epic travel frazzle. From Kinara to Poptos by moped with all our luggage and both of us. It began raining heavily. Potos – nice baclava lady feeds us in her cool Pretty Sweets shop (or something ) all Farrow n Ball colours. Not as good as the stuff we had in the mountain village – but we needed that woman’s spirit. Potos – skala Prinon by bus. Whisky stop for Alex, more camosmile tea for me. Skala Prinos to Kavala by boat. Now on bus to Salonikia.

So we did 2 nights in Aliki Archodika Restaurant, long hike to stony beach by food and they made everything from bread to olive oil on site, was well worth it and the view from the storm has all come back through writing this.

1 night of miscomm at Dolphins on Kinar – gets super- advanced bookings and final 3 nights in Kinara Clean Obsessed, next to Hotel Sylvia.

Makedonia Palace hotel at Thess. I hate arriving after the pool and sauna have shut. Top breakfast. Would return.

We had champagne cocktails by the beach in Navona, the restaurant, and later found a jewish rock bar, full of rich kids, next to a squat a few blocks back…

Paror Calor.

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