Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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“Whatever you do, don’t take the train to Serbia!” my tour guide exclaimed. “The best way to get from Zagreb to Belgrade is by bus.” Unfortunately, I’d already purchased my train ticket. On the morning of my departure, fearing the worst, I climbed aboard a decrepit, graffiti covered train to find a surprisingly clean coach with comfortable seats. I stowed my luggage and settled in for a relaxing, seven-hour ride through the unbroken, green countryside.

With Europe experiencing the worst heat wave on record this summer, I had confirmed that the train was air conditioned before purchasing my ticket. Soon however, the interior of the train started to get uncomfortably warm. By the second hour, passengers began to politely ask the conductor to turn on the air. Word trickled through the coach that the Croatian conductor did not have the authority to turn on the air in this Serbian train. We would have to wait until a Serbian conductor took over.

Hopes for relief after crossing the border were dashed; pleas to the new conductor were met with indifference. Temperature soared to unbearable levels as the sun bore down on our metal coach. Many of us tried to open windows, hoping to at least catch a breeze, but not only were the windows sealed shut, the train began to slow down. We crawled along at 20 miles per hour for the last few hours, stopping completely in the middle of the Serbian countryside for long periods of time. Seven hours later, we finally pulled into Belgrade. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, I followed my soggy fellow passengers out onto the platform.

Bombed out shell of an ex-government building, destroyed during the 1999 NATO intervention to stop the Serbian war in Kosovo

My first impression of Belgrade was this bombed out shell of an ex-government building, destroyed during the 1999 NATO intervention to stop the Serbian war in Kosovo

Manga Hostel had advised me not to bother getting local currency at the train station, as there is an ATM right next door to the hostel. They also advised that the hostel was easy walking distance from the station. With waning energy, I tossed my 22-pound, equipment stuffed backpack over my shoulder and headed up the main street with my rolling suitcase. Three blocks later I turned left at the bombed out craters of two ex-government buildings and groaned at the hill before me. I trudged uphill, kicking myself for not having gotten local currency each time a tram or a taxi passed me. Spent and out of breath, I finally, arrived at the address shown on my reservation, but where the hostel was supposed to be I found only a high metal gate pulled across a dark archway. I wedged myself and my luggage through a small opening in the gate and followed the oil-stained asphalt to an inner court parking lot. At the far end of the lot, a tiny sign marked the Manga Hostel. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Read More

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Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park in Belgrade, Serbia stood guard over the Danube River, the most important trading route in Medieval days

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Belgrade Fortress, in Kalemegdan Park in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. These fortifications stood guard over the Danube River, the most important trading route during Medieval days and the major source of income for the city, as it had the right to collect tolls from vessels using the river to transport goods.

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For some inexplicable reason, I had long wanted to visit the region of Puglia, Italy. Sometimes I can trace my chosen destinations to a travel article, a recommendation from a fellow traveler, or even to an overheard comment, but in this case, I have no idea why the heel of Italy’s “boot” held such fascination for me. Perhaps what drew me was my eternal search for places that have not yet been ruined by tourism. Puglia qualifies in that regard, as it is little known in travel circles outside of Italy. Certainly, I knew next to nothing about it. I pictured rainbow-hued houses cascading down high rocky cliffs and pocket beaches where brilliant white sand beaches cozied up to turquoise seas. The reality was not quite what I had envisioned.

My journey began in Split, Croatia, where I hopped aboard a Blue Line Ferry for the overnight sail to Italy. Twelve hours later, having suffered a sleepless night in a cabin that reeked of sewer gasses, I disembarked in Ancona, located midway down Italy’s east coast. A short walk took me to the train station, where I hopped aboard Italy’s famed Adriatic Railroad. Within minutes of pulling out of the station we were rolling alongside the sea, with only a few feet separating our track from the water.

Town after town flew by, each less interesting than the one before it. With their unadorned facades, flat-roofs, and dull colors, the houses and apartment buildings reminded me of the Soviet architectural style referred to as brutalism. Many appeared to be vacant, as if they had been put up in haste during boom times and left to decay during the ensuing bust years. Beyond the towns, not even a molehill interrupted my view over an endless baked plain dotted with cactus.

Saint Oronzo Piazza on a grey and rainy day in Lecce, Italy

Saint Oronzo Piazza on a grey and rainy day in Lecce, Italy

A few hours into the ride, the train crossed into Puglia and veered inland to skirt the city of Bari, considered to be the gateway to Puglia. By the time I arrived in Lecce, thunderheads were threatening a deluge. I raced through the ancient stone streets, stopping every few blocks to check my GPS, hoping I would find my hostel before the storm let loose. Exhausted from 36 hours of continuous travel, I collapsed into bed without so much as a stroll around Lecce’s Piazza Saint Oronzo, heart of the city known as “Florence of the South.” Read More

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Local men gather to share the day's news in the historic center of Gallipoii, Italy, visited during my Flavours Holidays cooking holiday

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Local men gather to share the day’s news in the historic center of Gallipoli, Italy. Visited during my Flavours Holidays cooking holiday.

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The waterfront in Otranto, Italy, another of the southern Puglia towns we visited during my week long Flavours Holidays cooking vacation

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: The waterfront in Otranto, Italy, another of the southern Puglia towns we visited during my week long Flavours Holidays cooking vacation.

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Lighthouse overlooks the harbor in Leuca, Italy, visited during my Flavours Holidays cooking vacation in far south Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Lighthouse overlooks the harbor in Leuca, Italy. Visited during my Flavours Holidays cooking vacation in far south Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot.