Markus Abts

Bosporus Beat & Balkan Brass

Cologne to Istanbul via Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia


Bosporus Romance - Image by Markus Abts . Markus Abts

I started in my hometown Cologne on Sunday morning, October the 10th, and took the train down south via Munich and through Austria to Budapest, Hungary.

I arrived at my hostel, the Central Backpack King, around 8 in the evening. I had my Palinka welcome shot and met some nice dudes from Berlin. They were to tired for going out, so I went by myself and found a huge bar that was half full on a Sunday evening, not too bad. I talked to 3 Israeli, a boy and two girls, who told me they got stuck in Budapest because they ran out of money. So they found an Israeli company where they have to sell salt from the Dead Sea in a mall. They explained to me how it works: they trick the potential buyers with a free taste and than the man or lady gets invited into the store to clean the oily hands and after that people get pressured to buy something by a whole group of salesmen who won´t let them out again. - Just a little story besides.

I didn´t stay too long that night, went back to the hostel, got up early and walked through both sides of the town, Buda and Pest, for the whole day. I took some nice pictures and had a short but pleasant stay. I also went to a restaurant called Klassz for lunch. I got the tip from Borbala´s page, the Mediamatic guide from Budapest, and it was supergood. You can easily call it a high class restaurant with really nice prices. I forgot the Hungarian name for it, but I had like two small Schnitzel with mashed potatoes and a sweet & sour tomato salad with onions for about 8 Euro. Perfect. It was possible to hang out at the hostel until I had to catch the night train to Belgrade around 11 pm. Watched the Motorcycle Diaries on DVD in Spanish with some Spanish guys. Though I have no Spanish skills but it was still the right movie to watch. The night train was really empty so I had a 3 person cabin for my own. The train doesn't fast and stops like every 15min for unknown reasons. So no big sleep, but still it was comfortable. No problems at the boarder and I went further south.

I woke up around 5 am and watched the sunrise over the foggy fields of Serbia while listening to some Eddie Vedder sounds. Beautiful. I arrived in Belgrade at 6 am and it was only 5min to my hostel, the Green Studio Hostel. I checked in, got a bed in an empty 4 bedroom and fell asleep for 3 hours.

About 2 weeks before the trip, my mum came up with an article from a German newspaper, it was called "Belgrade´s Renaissance" and it was about the city and it´s art scene.

They said something about a guided tour and there was an internet address so I checked it out and found Mediamatic Travel. I just contacted the guide who was mentioned in the article, Isidora, and said that I´m coming to town and that I would be interested in an art tour through Belgrade. We wrote a couple of short emails, exchanged cellphone numbers and stuff and decided that I should contact her when I´m in town. So back to my first morning in Belgrade, I gave her a call and we met like 1h later at my hostel. She also brought a friend, Smilja, who is also a Mediamatic guide in Belgrade. These 2 were just like the nicest girls ever, a little bit shy but smiling and really happy about a stranger who wants to get to know their city and it´s art scene. We started the tour and from than on it was just non-stop exciting, discovering a lot of hidden art spaces and galleries I would never find on my own, because there´s not always a sign that says "Gallery". We walked around for about 5 hours and then we just stopped and went to a bar, because our heads were too full of impressions. I really had the feeling that I got to see a special side of Belgrade. All thanks to these girls, paid them 50 Euros, what is worth every cent in my mind and got even more tips where to go in the next days. Also met Isidora again at a Jazz concert the next evening.

So that was just one great part about coming to Belgrade, the other great part was staying at the Green Studio Hostel and getting to know a ton of nice people from all over the world. Especially the Serbian Boys and Girls who are working in the hostel are really great, they help you out all the time and they write lists what you can do and where you can meet them in the evening if you want to. It feels like they´re staying there too, but they´re locals. Also a bunch of French guys were amazing, real mellow people who like to have a good time. Like coming home in the morning and one guy started to make some crêpes for everybody :-). It was only for 3 days but it was an intense time for me. Absolutely interesting how strangers can form such a smooth and well performing group. I went out to clubs, bars and concerts every evening and got to know even more great people and that basically led to some unforgettable stories that can´t be told on the internet. Good times. Visit Belgrade!

I was really kind of sad that I had to leave Belgrade on Friday morning.

I took the train down to Bulgaria with 2 Irish guys and 2 Canadian girls from the hostel. The train split in Nis, my part went to Sofia and their part went to Greece. Two minutes after Nis the train got stuck and didn´t move for about 2h. I had no idea what was wrong and nobody near me spoke English or German. Then the train started rolling again and I recognized that it was only a single-track so we were just waiting for a forthcoming train. The train goes really slow in this area because the tracks are as old as the train and in a bad condition. The last stop before the boarder the almost empty train got packed with people who were trying to smuggle cigarettes into the EU. I saw some professional guys who took of the complete interior trim to hide hundreds of cigarette packets behind it. They didn´t care about me watching them at all, everybody was working together, even the ticket inspectors. 5 friendly, older ladies came to my 6 person compartment. I was confused about their fat bodies and skinny faces and that they were destroying the lamp. It was already dark so the police could only search with flashlights in the compartment. Than I realized there were cigarette packets wrapped all around their bodies - one lady panicked at the boarder right before the control and stuffed the packets suddenly from her body into a plastic bag. She heard other people getting scanned and now she wanted to hide this bag inside my backpack, but I was able to stop her by saying "njet", my only Russian word, really energetic a couple of times. So she just placed her bag behind my stuff and I was okay, hoping the Police would recognize their usual suspects. The control took another 2h, only some smaller spots were found and some people had to pay but the big smugglers and my lady got away with their cigarettes. She was just really happy and thankful that it worked out and that she´s going to make some small money. Arrived in Sofia about an hour later and just went to my hotel called Lozenetz. As I am not a too crazy socializer, I wanted to be on my own again for a day.

The last day in Belgrade and this day in Sofia was pretty rainy. I took it easy and walked through the whole city, no big plans, just a photo here and a snack there. I met an older couple from Australia that I already knew from the train. They got scammed by a hostel that doesn´t exist, the "Smoking Pig", paid it completely by credit card before the trip and now no chance to get it back. Welcome to Europe.

I decided to take the bus the next day to go to Istanbul.

I was kind of annoyed by the train and I had the feeling that people here prefer taking the bus because it´s faster and safer at the same price. It was a Turkish company who provided the ride and the bus was pretty modern and comfortable with nice staff. Both ways, Belgrade - Sofia by train and Sofia - Istanbul by bus were only about 20 Euros. Nice. While waiting at the boarder control I got to knew a young guy from Czech Republic who was traveling like myself and a Bulgarian girl who was on her way back to her English teacher job in Istanbul. We connected and met again in Istanbul the same night for some tea and some Raki with the Bulgarian girl´s American roommate and her Turkish boyfriend. Well you´re never alone when you´re traveling alone. Nice people, perfect arrival in Istanbul. I stayed at a cheap but homelike hotel called Eris or Erin at the Golden Horn, the historic center of Istanbul in the west.

With about 14 million people, Istanbul is the biggest city I´ve ever been to.

I really liked being there, but I was getting kind of unwell with cities, thinking I should travel more nature sights. I was trapped on my first day and I was already pretty ill on the second day, probably due to too much running around in the rain and not enough sleep. So I canceled a date I had planned with Kardelen, a Mediamatic guide in Istanbul. Sorry for that again. I took the bus on my third day and tried to get to the final stop near the Black Sea. After an hour in the bus, I was still in the city and got off at a nice little harbor to eat some fresh fish. Waiter tried to trick me a little bit, but the fish was perfect anyway. I did everything I wanted to do in Istanbul, like crossing the bridge to Asia, seeing all the mosques and taking the ferry by night and by day. Istanbul was an ideal destination. I also wanted to get some Baklava, but I couldn´t find a non-tourist-oriented store and realized that it´s way cheaper in Germany. It was a superb trip and it felt like at least 3 weeks, not only 12 days. Then it was suddenly over and I had to take my flight back home to Cologne on Thursday October 21st. Thanks to Mediamatic Travel for the help and for being such a great project!

Markus Abts

pictures from the trip over at Markus' Blogspot.