From Geneva to Sofia by Train

 

Day one.  Am through security by 1:30pm.  Another 80 minutes till we leave the gate—which I use to find the missing pair of glasses, carefully packed away--but our departure is only so Lufthansa can claim it leaves gate on time, as we sit on tarmac for an hour before takeoff—as we failed initial equipment check.

 Lufthansa ground and flight staff take excellent care of traveling families.  Food passable. We arrive late in Frankfurt and as we did in Paris on our Alitalia flight, it is necessary to pass again through passport control and security (where they catch me bringing water bottle I filled up on flight from the US; I lose one bottle, chug the other), up and down stairs and along corridors as  I change from concourse B to concourse A, climaxing in a long, long trot (aided by moving belts) to the very last gate on A concourse, where I am 2 minutes late for my plane.  Yes, they are able to get me a seat leaving an hour later—from concourse B.

 

  Wait an hour for bus through tunnel to Stars Geneve Hotel where I got much less than I paid for. Dirty, noisy, no frills, no stars.  No receptionist; must walk further 100M to pick up key.  Wash traveling clothes. 

 

Day two. Took bus into Geneve (just 20 minutes), bought a day pass to use on the buses and alternated walking and taking buses/trolleys thereafter.  Saw the fountain in the Lake, the botanical gardens (with its wretched excuse for a vegetable garden), and the natural history museum. The latter has a huge collection of the local birds and the local animals posed in life-like positions.  Switzerland has turkeys ! (different species than North American).  Had seaweed salad for lunch from a Japanese take out.  Many Turks live in Geneve and many coffee places provide hookahs for patron’s use.  Many individuals from the French-speaking parts of Africa.

   Found a discount grocery near the hotel and loaded up on food for the next day’s train trip.

 

 

Day three.  “Poor wee timorous beastie, awe what a panic’s in they breastie.” Inexplicably, got only two-hours sleep while mind tossed and turned.  Alarm watch and call from wife get me out the door on time to catch the only bus into the city train station.  Took four trains today, making all three five-minute connections as the trains in Switzerland definitely run on time.

 Passed through incredibly beautiful scenery both in Switzerland (the sun rose over the distance Alps as we rode along Lake Geneve) and amid the Austrian Alps.  Apparently, we passed through Liechtenstein as well, in and out in five minutes while I dozed.

 

  Great hotel this evening.  Wash clothes, then walk a block to a biergarten and have a bratwurst, sauerkraut, fried potatoes, and a tall, full-bodied autumn wheat beer.

  Hit the sack at 8:45 pm and immediately went to sleep;  slept for three hours; biergartens close at midnight which explains the steady stream of walking drunks beneath my window.  Then back to bed for a further full-night’s rest.

 

 

 

 

Day four. Walked about Salzburg.  Splendid view to be had standing on a bridge midway across the river.  Salzburg's dramatic new museum of modern and contemporary art, the Museum der Moderne, sits atop the sheer cliff face of the Mönchsberg, 60 meters above Salzburg’s historic old town. The cliff top offers a view that I seem to remember from a child’s book of fairy stories. At noon, church bells pealed out everywhere up and down the river, each of the many churches taking its turn to add a different note to the din.

Inside the museum was a Max Kline retrospective filling room after room with his paintings, sculptures, comic sketches, and graphic novels.  Lunch was a salad bar.

   

 

 

 

 

Day 5: Awake again when the alarm sounded.  Proprietor comments on fact I seem to have inner turmoil.  Walk to station.  We leave on time—and are given a timetable!  Quality of train drops dramatically when I change trains at Villach on the Austrian border.   Next train takes us through a 17.5 Km tunnel built with pickaxes by prisoner of war in Nazi prison camps. (Oops:The Karawanken Tunnel was opened on October 1, 1906, by Archduke Franz Ferdinand – there is another tunnel (for cars, named Ljubelj) that was built by prisoners of war during WWII. ) We emerge in Slovenia.

Apparently, I have just missed days of heavy rain that resulted in flooding locally.  My Slovenian host pick me up at train and drive me to my lodgings for the next two days.  After lunch, I join the group for a guided tour of Ljubljana which goes on perhaps an hour too long (or three trips at 0.17 Euros each to the public toilet).  At 7:00 our large group returns to hotel, though the invited speakers exit from the bus early for a dinner of authentic Slovenian food.  Many of this tiny group of statisticians drink too much and the conversation goes downhill rapidly. The high points of dinner are the mushroom soup served in a bread bowl and  the multi layer apple/raisin-cheese-strudel for dessert.  I send my book MS off to Wiley; in bed by 0:30.

 

Day 6: I attend permutation lectures in morning.  Encounter at least three separate groups  among attendees who have read my books! Thai’s (who  persist in having their photographs taken with me) drive me down to Lake Bled and I take a 5-mile walk back along country roads—they grow grapes and very small corn plants (I’m told are for popcorn).

 

 In the evening, Andrei (my host) drives me up to the castle that overlooks Lake Bled.  We have a beer on the terrace, then head for supper only to get lost when Andrei misses an exit, or rather, just like California, construction results in an exit gone missing.  We have supper back at hotel, for me, a far too rich and filling pasta with truffles, and chat with a young conference attendee from Christchurch.

 

  Conference participants include 1 Algerian (woman in burka), 1 Canadian (me), 1 Yank, 1 New Zealander, 1 German, 3 Iranians (2 of whom disappear), 4 Turkish girls (all of whom disappear), 5 Thais, a Brit, a Hollander, a Czech, no Austrians, Croatians, or Hungarians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 7.  I focus, first on preparing my talk, and then giving it.  Champaign is served at conclusion of conference.  Andre is handed a sword and uses it to knock the top off the bottle.  I am also handed sword and bottle but am unable to support bottle with my left hand.

  Go for brief hike in morning.  Limit of 20 attendees is placed on admission to my talk, and 24 attend.  Afterward, I’m invited to speak at 2 Thai Universities and one Algerian.

   Am invited for drinks and try to decline, saying I need to eat, so they supply me with both a beer and a fantastic sandwich.  I eat half and wrap up the other half to take with me.  Andrei says to fellow Slovenian, “See I told you he was like that.”

   I’m totally fatigued—lecture took a lot out of me—but Andrei has arranged to transfer me to a hotel in Ljubljana so I can have a place to stay until train time.  Of course, we take a side-trip along the way for veal stew with kasha.  Restaurant is popular, and fellow guests include mayors of two nearby towns.

   I’ve confided to Andrei that I both want to go on with my trip and go home immediately.  He suggests I compromise and eliminate side trip to Rieka.  C’est un bon idée. 

The new hotel is wonderful; but I stay up much too late checking out new reservations for the following day. 

 

Day 8.  Lavish breakfast buffet at the City Hotel with a number of Slovenian specialties.  One could eat breakfast here for several days in a row and not eat the same food twice.  Eat a big breakfast at the new hotel, then buy new train tickets, exchange Euros for Croatian and Serbian currency,  and make reservations at the Hotel Lipinski in Zagreb.

 Leave my bags behind at hotel and walk down to the three-bridges for a second look.   River is lined on both sides by  eating and drinking places and outdoor tables.  I eat my own lunch on a bench at riverside.  An outdoor market fills an entire square.  Seems kind of dangerous to me as the grapes at each stall are buzzing with wasps.

 

Train trips are like plane flights; the scary parts are on take off (will I be at the right track at the right time to catch my train) and landing (how do I get to my lodging for the night).  My lodging in Zagreb was just a 20-minute walk away, but with the help of a Croatian female who uses her phone to call the desk clerk, it took fifty.

Had a beer at the bar next door, where the waitress is playing sudoku.

  Note: Croatia and Serbia are not in the European Union.  Had to show my passport to two sets of officials on the way into Croatia, expect to do the same at Serbian and Bulgarian borders. 

 

Day 9: Had a fantastic sleep in noisy hotel (paper-thin walls and ceiling) even without a yellow pill, as Croatia and Zagreb are pollution and pollen free.  Very slow train today and very old.  Train had only two cars as we cross border.  Lunch is roll filled with meat at hotel breakfast. Ran out of water; no drinking water on train but purchased a small paper cup of espresso from vendor on train.

Note, lifting and unlifting now simplified for me as I make use of a trick my mother employed when she reached my age, and asked a nice young man to lift it for me.  Today’s nice young man walks me though the streets of Belgrade, pulling and lifting my suitcase till we reached my hotel a hostel with a multi-national group of guests.

  Ate most of an oil-soaked meat pie or burek for supper.

 

Day 10: Breakfast on sausage (I think) and fried bread purchases on the way to the station. The longest (duration) train ride from Belgrade to Sofia was occasioned by a 30 minute stop that Serbia emigration used to hassle their own citizens and two separate 30-minute stops so that first Bulgaria immigration and then Bulgaria customs officer could hassle all of us.  With two customs officers in compartment, plus railroad worker doing god-knows-what with his screwdriver--the only tool he carried, plus the five of us passengers that were there to begin with loading and unloading our luggage for inspection from the racks above, the whole resembled the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup.

(Oh, and while the officials rummaged through my backpack, my suitcase was too heavy to lift down, so they let it alone.)

The train itself was an ancient relic; compartments held six each with smoking in the corridors; WC’s were disgusting with no water to wash hands.

Farms by trackside had chickens and goats. A group of goats crossing track held us back for 10 minutes.  Family gardens favor cabbages, squash.  Corn at end of season is still only as tall as a German Shepard’s eye.  On Bulgarian border are cultivated fields of sunflowers.

  A 5Euro cab ride brings me to my 40E hotel far outside the city; room is spacious quiet and has a spectacular view.

 

Day 11.  Wake to a nasty rain-soaked day. I climb aboard a bus, headed I think toward the center of Sofia. Sofia is not at all like Salzburg or Ljubljana, but like Paris it stretches on and on, albeit absent a subway.  The bus line my hotel is on—the 40E hotel was chosen for its value--follows a hyperbola with respect to the city center (the old city one sees in the guidebooks.  To view the buildings of historic interest, one must transfer to a trolley line that runs at an angle to the bus line.  No surprise that on my return from the old city, I overshoot the bus line following the trolley line to its end and back, and then head out in the wrong direction along the hyperbola.  Oh well, for an hour and a half, I had shelter from the rain.

 Once downtown, I move with care, praying I will be able to retrace my steps. In order to urinate at regular intervals, I step into a Casino and later into a fancy hotel—the Sheraton.

  The buildings in the historic center, even individual buildings range in age over many centuries.  For wars and earthquakes were always followed by periods of reconstruction. The ruins that lead from the Archeological Museum date back to the 4th century.

 I exchange my Serbian dollars for Leva and then head back to my hotel where I dine on Shopska Salad and Chicken Kavarma.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 12.  Early morning fog soon lifts to reveal a bright sunny day.  I have a map! And a plan as to which bus to take and where to get off.  I delay my departure, working on an MS, until a power failure shuts down my computer.

  I take the bus to the big mall, then walk into the city center (about a mile and a half).  The walk takes me past a museum (closed apparently, though the concierges sit outside sipping coffee) and over a bridge with a display of photography.  Through a park (where I pause to enter a pisscatoire;  am assaulted by an old man as I exit; he wants something, presumably money, but I ignore him with a casual wave and walk on) , then down a narrow cobblestone street to face the national art gallery, I pass the old (14th century) Russian Church, then enter the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Nevsky_Cathedral,_Sofia.

  One is impressed by its enormity, perhaps because there isn’t a pew to be seen. (Do they kneel to pray on its marble floor?) The priests are draped in voluminous black.

The paths leading to the Cathedral on one side are lined by stalls selling religious icons, some stolen from the monasteries and preserved from the communists, some newly minted for quick cell.  The stalls on the other side sell lace and decorated cammisars.  A woman sits by each table sewing the items she will sell. 

I walk past the National Academy of Sciences (where I was to have lectured) and then go to lunch.  I’ve omitted the frequent stops in which I sit on  a bench, exchange pairs of glasses and study my maps.

  My lunch in a deserted French restaurant is a mixed bag of the superb (the salmon soup and the nut pie with vanilla ice cream) and a perfectly dreadful main course (rabbit wrapped in greasy salty bacon).  On my return walk to the bus, the occasional raindrop does fall on my head from a passing storm cloud.

  Back at my hotel, the power is restored!

 

Day 13. Going Home!