All paths lead to Maastricht

I spent my final week in Europe in the city I love best with the people I love most - Maastricht. Eight exchangers planned to meet back in Maastricht after our individual summers of backpacking. Most of us had intercepted paths once or twice along the way - but everyone came back to Maastricht with stories to share. I came rolling into Maastricht after an overnight stop in Cologne, Germany:   We all meet by the Maas Lake and spent our first afternoon outside in the sun cheering as each new face made it to our meeting spot. Over mint lemonade and stroopwaffles we laughed, cried, and lived through the adventures of each other. Pat rocked up with painted toes: Pat's blue toenails are Read more

Alternative Culture with Berliners

Traveling solo is the least lonely way to travel. With each new city come new faces, new friends, and new adventures. In Budapest I met Cassy and Mitch form Australia. Then, I ran into them in Prague. In both cities, we had a wonderful time and decided to meet up in Berlin. Around 4am we met a group of Berliners and decided to all take our photo in a photoautomat - an outdoor photo booth popular throughout Berlin. Six people in a small photoautomat, especially when one person is approaching 7ft tall, proved impossible. Instead, we opted for a photo with the photoautomat. At 4am, you never expect plans to actually happen (or even be remembered) but partly out of politeness Read more

Returning to Berlin

I've said it before in my Paris v. Berlin post, and I'll say it again. To travel to Berlin is to be inspired - creative minds flock to Berlin. I made sure to again return to Berlin and explore all the history, innovation, and art in every form. Everyone, from every walk of life, can be found on the streets of Berlin. The sidewalks are shared by blue-haired punk-rockers, young German yuppies in suits, dreadlocks, piercings, covered in tattoos, the elderly in grayscale simple clothes, fashionistas, big thick framed glasses. It is an organic city – filled with thinkers and alive with new opportunities. Berlin is a city in transition, a city regaining an identity after its long, turbulent history. Read more

Czech out Prague

The day I arrived to Prague happened to be the same day a major heat wave engulfed the city. With relentless high temperatures and air conditioning but a luxurious dream, shade and cool places became the main tourist attractions. I chose my hostel based solely on its name - Czech Inn. The most clever punny hostel name of all hostels to ever exist! After booking the hostel, I discovered that it is considered one of the finest hostels in all of Europe. Indeed, upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the upscale bar area, luxury showers, and overall trendiness of the accommodation. Though, no air-conditioning. On my first day I planned a big walking trip of the city but could only Read more

Caving in Budapest

Budapest - the city of caves, stalagmites and hotsprings! After a big night out in Budapest I ambitiously started my day early and took a long walk through Heroes Square, the museum area and Central Park as well as to the Opera House and a second hand book store. I was exhausted by the time I arrived back to the hostel mid-afternoon. My intention was to take the rest of the day easy, which was really an unrealistic luxury at my particular hostel. Every hostel has a unique culture, and my hostel in Budapest (Carpe Noctem Vitae - highly recommend!) was all about having a good time. So, instead of relaxing, I found myself on a bus on the way to a cave. Myself, Read more

Budapest Thermal Baths and Ruin Bars

There are bits of travel books that I simply skim over, some parts I skip entirely, and some that I circle, highlight and sometimes even accidentally break the book spine by reading that page so many times.  The section on Budapest Thermal baths had coffee stains and crinkled pages because it was this section that I poured over when reading about Budapest. Budapest is known as the 'City of Spas' and this reputation dates back to the 16th century with the Turks constructed public baths throughout Budapest and other parts of Hungary. These baths are built over hot springs that bring mineral rich waters into the pools. Many Hungarians believe that these waters have medicinal powers to help ailment such Read more

Mizzou Collides with Budapest

Traveling long-term includes a conscious decision to push through exhaustion and continue forward with exploration, socializing and general traveling fun. When on short-term trips, you have the capacity and energy to travel 100% all day every day because you know that you can crash when you get home. Long-term travel is a different case - and I figured that out on my eighth day in Bulgaria. Besides my illness in Spain, I sacrificed no moment to sleep in or to excessively relax. Yes, I maximized my time in each location. But also, yes, I wore myself out. I had to spend a full day sleeping at Dilyana's apartment to recuperate. The next night I caught a night train back to Read more

Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria

Dilyana said that the "spirit of Bulgaria" can be found in the small town of Koprivshtitsa located in the Sredna Mountains. The town was the center of the April Uprising in 1876 in which the Bulgarians carried out an insurrection against the Ottoman Empire. This time period is known as the Bulgarian National Revival, and Koprivshtitsa was the center of it all. The town now represents traditional Bulgarian architecture, way of life, and is the home to many monumental works of art and culture. The boy with us is Dilyana's friend, Gueorg, who is now a member of the European Commission. I had the privilege of helping him edit his English cover letter that he then used to be hired! He Read more

The Black Sea: Nessebar

  The city of Nessebar dates back 3,000 years ago with architecture reflecting the many different masks the city wore over the centuries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Charming, traditional and serene - Nessebar earned a big heart around its dot on my tattered travel map. For my journey around Europe I hardly spent anytime shopping besides looking for one, elusive item: an apron. My mom's birthday was to take place while I was abroad and with her recent gluten-free cooking hobby, she had requested an apron for her birthday. First off, an apron might be one of the most difficult items to explain to shop owners with broken English and I with very limited foreign language skills. Second of all, Read more

Sofia, Bulgaria

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | 2 Comments


I met Camilla and Dilyana during our first week in Maastricht, and we remained great friends for the entirety of the semester, the summer, and inevitably the future.

Dilyana is a political science and marketing major from Sofia, Bulgaria. Camilla is a European Studies major from Milan, Italy. The three of us joked for months about visiting Dilyana in Sofia – then one day, WE DID IT.

July 13th Cami was to fly in from Milan and I was to take the train into Sofia. Despite my ridiculous journey to make it, I was able to arrive on time. I stepped off the night train and into a massive communism structure: the Sofia Bulgaria Train Station.

Large, grand, non-ornate but stunningly massive conrete structures – the buildings from the Bulgarian communist era are impressive. The People’s Republic of Bulgaria existed from 1946 to 1990 during which the Bulgarian Communist Party held power. Remnants of the communist era are still ever present in Bulgaria. From the architecture, to the workers continuing their trade they learned under communist education, to corruption in the government, Bulgaria is a country still transitioning into democracy.

And with this transition comes political turmoil and public unrest. Every night that we were in Bulgaria, we would join thousands of other nationals outside parliament to protest the government.

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Protests, while I was in Bulgaria, were approaching 40 days of straight protests with thousands of people gathering in the streets each night. Protesters were taking to dramatic means to be noticed:

These famous Bulgarian actors recreated the painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix to bring some of the passion from the French Revolution to modern Bulgaria.

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Despite these dramatics and the enormous gathering of people each night, the government did not acknowledge the wants and needs of the Bulgarian people. Earlier this year, the ruling government resigned after protests over energy bills. Corruption remained when a new government took power, and Bulgarians are again dissatisfied with their political situation. Dilyana and her friends passionately told us about how much of the corruption from the Communist era still permeates the current government. There is a ring of dishonesty with the appointment of officials and a large presence of the mafia.

It is frustrating how the voice of so many Bulgarians is continuously ignored by the government. It is frustrating how, as a foreigner, I had no idea about the Bulgarian protests. The Bulgarian government reported on the protests but with grossly underestimated figures – to the point of dishonest reporting. While the rest of the world simply did not report on the protests. The protests reaffirmed my admiration for the media as a faucet of change – yet in this case, the reminder came from a failure of the media to report on an important an event and demand change.

The protests showed the soul of the city and the strength of the Bulgarian people. This is not the first time Bulgarian’s are faced with political challenges; the buildings in the capital reflect the history and challenges that define Bulgaria. Architecture reflecting the Ottoman Empire conquest of Bulgaria, massive concrete communist structures, beautiful Orthodox churches – the city is like an open history book.

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Story time: For years an old man by the name of Dobry begged for money outside Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was then discovered that all the money that people gave him, he in turn donated to the church. He lives a humble life off of a pension from the government and spends all his days outside the cathedral – he was even there the day we visited!

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Cami and the founding brothers of the cyrillic alphabet. They were Bulgarians!

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New buildings surrounding ancient ruins – makes me wonder when does the old cease to have precedence over the land? At what point should innovation overpower history? leave a comment with your thoughts

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Yet of all the structural beauty in Sofia, the people are still the best sites. Snapshot of a delightful moment in the city park:

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Dilyana outside her university

Diliyana was an incredible host. She took us to the best places in the city, and SPOILED us with amazing Bulgarian food. Her mother is a fantastic cook, so we enjoyed homemade tootmanik s gotovo testo (Bulgarian cheese bread) amazing cakes, сърмички which is stuffed grape leafs and many, many other treats. Our visits to restaurants always ended up being hour long ordeals, as the three of us feasted, laughed, enjoyed rakia and each other’s company.

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Bulgarian Summer Soup, Tarator, has turned into one of my favorite meals that I now frequently prepare at home! See the recipe and try it out! 



Belgrade to Sofia Journey and the Honest Truth About Night Trains

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Travelers love to bond over shared experiences – the good ones, the bad ones, and the ugly ones.

Typically (and by typically I mean most certainly) night trains fall into the latter two categories.

Anyone traveling Europe needs to experience a night train once. And, if after that one time you decide that the night train is not for you – that is OK. There is nothing more frustrating than other people pushing their travel standards on you. Yes, night trains save daylight that can be used to explore. Yes, night trains save you a night paying for accommodation. Yes, they are incredibly uncomfortable, quite dangerous and are not the ideal transportation method for everyone. When you opt for a night train – keep this in mind.

I want to share my experiences with nighttrains to (hopefully) help fellow travelers from feeling absolutely hopeless during those rough, sleepless hours around 3am. You’re going to feel dirty. Frustrated. Anxious – I did too. Sometimes as travelers we are too proud to admit that we had a “melt down” but I’ll take a moment of humility to say it: Nearly every time I take a night train, I have a few moments throughout the night when I want to cry.

You are NOT less of a traveler for having a few internal “diva” moments on night trains. Just always be respectful, wear a poncho to not touch the bedding if you have to (guilty) and just know that you’ll arrive at a new, awesome destination in the morning.

My first night train was through Russia at the prime age of 13 – I had a blast playing cards and sleeping on the top bunk. Next night train was a seat with my family through Austria – I had a good laugh at my Dad who stood the entire time, my mom who made friends with army people and my sisters who slept with their mouths gaping open. Two fun night train experiences (which both happened to be first class tickets) gave me a false impression of the typical night train experience…

Then comes Morocco.

The 11 hour train from Tangier to Marrakech, second class seats, cost us nearly nothing in money, but everything in comfort. It was freezing cold, crowded, loud, bustling and we were located very near to a stand still pot filled with human waste. The stench, the noise, the temperature – it was terrible. TERRIBLE.

And then we got off the train and soaked up Marrakech and the misery of the night train faded into enjoyment and awe of our new surroundings.

That’s the thing – when you get to your destination the good overshadows the night train experience, so then you make the mistake of booking another night train.


Ah. The Barcelona to Granada night train. Few countries are more notorious for pickpockets on night trains than Spain and Italy. Knowing the high likelihood of pickpocketing – I entered the train prepared.

  • You are never too cool to pass up wearing a money belt. You wear that money belt, and you put your valuables where (hopefully) nobody will nab them
  • Carabeaners are great for connecting your belongings to your body. You might have to sacrifice some comfort to have your pack attached to you, but its worth the peace of mind.
  • And by peace of mind I mean don’t ever have peace of mind on a night train. Be alert. Go ahead and sleep, but I would never take sleeping pills or Nyquil or anything.
  • Pack your own snacks. First off, it is way cheaper. But more importantly, it means you don’t need to leave your luggage to have a meal.
  • Or maybe the easiest safety tip is to make sure and have your iPhone stolen your first week in Europe, then never have to worry about it being stolen again! In all seriousness, iPhones are much more expensive in Europe and are a major target – reconsider bringing a nice smart phone on your trip.
  • Travel with minimal cash on night trains.
  • I have most my books on my iPad, but I NEVER EVER take the iPad out on night trains. I read my token paperback night train book. Keep valuables tucked away, and never flaunt any kind of wealth.

With all this said – I managed to not be robbed on the Spanish night train. Though the night was still far from an enjoyable journey. My compartment was all female and near my age – but it was full of very disrespectful females. I awoke to one girl painting her toe nails and our very small, locked  tight compartment wreaked of acetone. I had to stand outside to try and wait out the smell – which never went away. Another girl took up the entire middle section with her luggage, making it a massive challenge to get down from my top bunk bed without stepping on the beds of strangers. The final female in the compartment kept stumbling in between the bar car and our sleeper.

Belgrade to Sofia Night Train

OH GOOD GOSH. This train. The compartments and train itself were designed during communism, and the last time it was cleaned was around the same period. My bed was at a 45 degree angle, which made it impossible to do anything besides sit on it and crouch down to not hit my head on the bunk above. Train conductors do nothing but yell at you in Serbian and make aggressive hand gestures in the direction of every foreigner. The train stops at least 4 times during the night for passport control officers to shine bright flashlights into your eyes and demand your papers. You are provided with a pillow, a scratchy blanket and one grimy sheet that you need to creatively figure out how to wrap yourself in so as to have both your head and feet covered at all times to avoid touching the pillow with questionable stains or the filthy, smelly blanket.

Instead of double bunk beds, the beds are stacked in threes, so 6 of us had to fit in an incredibly narrow compartment. It was freezing cold. The beds squeaked and I kept envisioning the bunks toppling down on me because they rocked with every train bump. Dark, dirty green and gray defined the color scheme of the train. The windows had cracks, the blankets had holes, every aspect of the train dated back to before I was born.

If the train condition itself wasn’t enough to make for an uncomfortable night, I could not have been more unlucky with my compartment. On bunk above me was a bizarre couple from Australia who decided to cuddle the whole night instead of sleeping in their respective beds. I had to listen two the bed creaked and to them whispering the entire night. The very top bed was supposed to be occupied by an incredibly short British man, but he decided to stand at the window the ENTIRE night instead. It was eerie having someone awake and standing near me the entire night – I just wanted him to get into his bed and close his eyes to at least give the illusion of privacy.

The middle bunk was an unfortunately creepy looking middle aged Bulgarian. I feel terrible about my initial judgement of him, because soon after sitting down in the cabin he tried (in very broken English) to talk. We established I was from Chicago, he from Sofia, and then he dove into reading The Bible after our communicating failed and then failed again. I deemed him respectable, and let my unrest about him recede.

Then, the real problem stumbled through the door carrying that ever familiar scent of rakia. Typically a nice potent smell, he filled our cabin with a disgustingly sweet, fruity stench from his breath and open alcohol container. He was drinking it from an old soda bottle – meaning it was the very strong, home-brewed kind. He drank it like water. The man was drunk. He was sick. He threw his tissues on the ground. He obviously drank himself into a headache and sat leaning over with his head in his hands which was really into my space because the cabin was so small.

I just gave up. All I needed that night was a decent sleep – and at this point all I wanted to do was cry from exhaustion. Frustration. Discomfort. I ended up going to the middle exit car and sat on the stairs looking out the tiny, fogged up window at the passing shadows. You never realize how slow night trains move until you alternate between staring at your watch and at the standstill or slowly passing scenery outside.

Many travelers pride themselves on the ability to “rough it”. I can rough it. But that doesn’t mean I always enjoy it. Don’t feel like less of a traveler if you are grossed out by vomit filled public toilets on night trains, or are repulsed by the snot and hot breath of a stranger waking you up when you try to sleep. We are fortunate if these scenes aren’t our daily reality – just respect that these difficult conditions exist, experience them, and then if you have the means to – take another more comfortable mode of transportations.



Belgrade, Serbia

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

After the fiasco of attempting to hitchhike to Belgrade – I finally caught a bus and arrived. Exhausted from all the efforts, I hadn’t booked an accommodation. I gave one of the people outside the bus station holding signs a shot and decided on the hostel that was a stones throw away across the street. There was no sign for the hostel or anything, but such is the Balkan area.

The “hostel” smelled overwhelmingly of smoke and, despite the hostel owner assuring me that four french guests were staying in my room, I am fairly certain that I was going to be the only guest. The kitchen was a mess and it was a disaster of an accommodation, so I headed back outside to the street and decided on option two.

Before my bus ride I had posted on that I was coming through Belgrade. To my surprise, Joesefina had accepted my request to sleep on her couch. It took a while for us to communicate but eventually we sorted it out and I made my way to her place. It was nice, and I’m somewhat confused why she was on couchsurfing because it appeared that it was a guesthouse, not a private home. Or it was some kind of apartment complex where many different families shared a common area. Regardless, I had my own room and her mother was a delight and made me very, very strong turkish coffee (at around 9pm at night). I drank the coffee out of respect, then had a nearly caffeine induced sleepless night from her kindness.

We sat around the table while we drank our coffee for what felt like hours. Every time I took a sip I felt like my teeth were coated in the black coffee grains and that I looked like a toothless old maid every time I smiled after a sip. My impression of couch surfing was that the person would take you out and show you around the town, but we ended up just staying there – which was more than fine by me. I had my own bed and after the previous 24 hours I needed some R&R but could’ve done without that turkish coffee.

The next morning I had a message from my friends Kate and Zhenia who were arriving to Belgarde that afternoon to meet at a main statue in town at 3pm. None of us have phones, so if we missed each other at the statue we would be S.O.L. I went on a walking tour that morning after saying goodbye to Joesefina and met a wonderful Belgian woman who was passing through on her way to do a forestry service project in Slovenia.

This fountain at the top of the Skadarska marks the start of the bohemian street where poets, intellectuals and artists gathered in the early 1900’s. Today the sounds of gypsy music fill the air and people are found during all hours of the day drinking Rakia. 

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On Skadarska Street this older musician waved back at me then decided to be a spectacle and kiss his muscles while not missing a note of the accordion

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More charm from Skadarska Street

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The quirks of Belgrade – a new take on the “zebra crossing”

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The sweetest smelling van in all of the Balkans

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Old City Wall

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At 3pm I sat hoping for Kate and Zhenia to show up. I wasn’t alone, I had a pistachio gelato. And I was content. It was right about my first bite into the cone that I heard my name shouted from behind me – and there running up were two Australians I had met in Dubrovnik. Kate had also told them to meet at the statue – somehow three different traveler packs all ended up together, and the same statue, in a different country at roughly 3 pm in the afternoon. They also had gelato. My favorite kind of people always do.

We rejoiced in all meeting up again and then started our adventures throughout the city. We had a quick lunch, visited a museum that showed life durning the Yugoslavia times, were faces in the crowd of some Serbian zombie movie that was filming and after all this – we were again hungry.

Will and Nes had a small sheet of paper with directions to “the best, most authentic Serbian food place in town…with reasonable prices” so we set off in quest of this restaurant. We walked, and we walked, a stranger left us his dog to watch while he went into a store, and we walked some more. Finally, we found the right street (really it was more like an alley) and we headed down it with growing anticipation of how hyper local our dinner was about to be.

We reached apartment complexes and then really started priding ourselves how we’ve stepped off the beaten path. Up a few flights of stairs we started to become confused where exactly this restaurant was – in an apartment? Just as we all stopped out of sheer confusion, I kid you not, a little old woman shuffled around the corner and pointed to a door with a plaque on it. The confusion faded, and we boldly swung open the door and entered our super, local, steal of a find restaurant.

We were graciously greeted by a lovely Serbian couple who went around to all of us and shook our hands. They introduced themselves to each of us, and gave Will a sympathetic head tilt telling him he must be tired from his long travels. Will joked back that those 10 stairs were a lot to climb up to get to the restaurant but that we were happy to be there.

It was at that moment that a thick curtain of awkwardness dropped over the room. Nobody spoke, I was very conscious of my hands, and as I looked around trying to find something to alleviate the silence I noticed that there was a bathroom with a shower. A very odd thing for a restaurant to have.

It started to dawn on me that we might be in someones private apartment, and a tickle of a laugh formed in my throat. Right when I was about to speak to break the silence two more people entered the room. They, too, warmly greeted us then looked at the Serbian couple to introduce us, and the Serbian couple looked at them to introduce us. And we just wanted dinner.

So here we are: one American, one Canadian, two Aussies, two Serbs and two Brits together in an apartment in Belgrade having no idea why we were standing there together. We then conversed in a universal language: the nervous giggle.

What happened: we entered a private apartment that was just put on the market for rent. The British couple had decided to rent, and was awaiting more friends to come join them. The owners thought that we were those friends, and the British couple had no idea who we were. Before we left they gave us a tour of the apartment and offered us some refreshments. We passed on the drinks but did take directions to the restaurant.

All the way down the stairs the four of us could not stop laughing at how we entered a private apartment, and we shamelessly made fun of how excited we were about finding such a cool place to eat in a residential building.

Dinner, when we found the place, was fantastic – especially with adventure and uncontrollable laughter as an appetizer.

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When Hitchhiking Turns Into a Hike Back to Town…

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Since I am traveling on a railpass I try to maximize the amount of trains I take and avoid any other forms of transportation that requires me to pay. I decided to go to Sarajevo because there is a train directly connecting Sarajevo to Belgrade, then I can take an overnight train from Belgrade to Sofia. Looking at the train schedule online, I realized that the only train to Belgrade leaves at 6am so I set my alarm, packed my bags and left early the next morning for the train station.

At the station, nobody was working. There were no schedules, signs, and frankly the station looked deserted. I sat outside for an hour watching my clock waiting for 6am. At 5:40 there was still no train…then 5:50…5:55…6:02…nothing.

Finally, a single train cart rolled up and I was informed that there was no 6am train to Belgrade, despite the information I found online. I then headed over to the bus station to catch a bus to Belgrade (infuriated with the early hours waiting for a train, I was, at this point, OK with paying). Arriving at the bus station around 6:15, I learned that the one and only bus heading to Belgrade left at 6am.

There was a fellow backpacker at the window next to mine also exploring options to get to Belgrade. We got to talking, and she suggested hitchhiking. I’ve talked to many people my age on the road and nearly all of them have some experience hitchhiking. In The States the concept has a bad, somewhat dangerous connotation, but hitchhiking seems to be fairly common practice in Europe.

Out of options and in the mood for adventure I agreed to give hitchhiking a go with my new friend. She is German and started biking through Europe in April. She slept outside for the past two nights and appeared to really know how to backpack on a minimal budget.

After checking the map then using her compass to lead us northwest, we starting hiking outside the city limits to try and catch a ride. She said it is easiest the farther away from the city center you are – so we walked. Up hills, past apartments, schools and markets. Through tunnels – where passing cars sound like dropping bombs and the echo throughout the tunnel and created a pressure in my head that was nearly unbearable.

Finally, we found a spot that she deemed, for whatever reason, appropriate for catching a ride. We each took a side of the street and threw out our thumbs. Many people waved, some stared, others ignored us. It took about twenty minutes for our first car to stop. One of the biggest hitchhiking rules, she informed me, is to be able to have a somewhat decent flow of communication. Despite this man seeming friendly and good natured, we turned down his ride simply because communcation was too difficult.

The next person that stopped for us was a veterinary students who laughed and spoke nearly perfect English. He is a Serbian attending school in Sarajevo and had done some hitchiking himself. After suggesting a better spot for us to catch a ride, he drove us another 15 minutes outside of town and then wished us luck. Again, our thumbs were out and our quest for a ride resumed.

While we were in the car, the driver was friendly and very goodnatured. But, because of the situation, I was hyper alert and incredibly tense. As I stood on the street with my thumb out, I imagined feeling that alert and tense for the entire ride to Belgrade and decided that it would be just a miserable experience to hitchhike for that long. Hitchhiking became even less appealing when a man stopped that I got bad vibes from, which I quickly passed on getting in his car.

My new friend, however, decided that she did want to take a ride with him. We got into what can actually be called a fight – her trying to convince me to take the ride and me trying to convince her to either wait for a different person or to go back into town. As we were fighting, the man was loading or packs into his trunk and smiling with a welcoming “come on!” gesture to get into the car – I didn’t like his sense of urgency and overly welcomeness, not to mention the total lack of English. I wasn’t sure if he even understood where we wanted to go. With my pack in the back of the car, I was slowly started to dread that he would drive off with my stuff. So, I went around and held onto my pack handle while my new friend and I continued to quarrel about what to do.

During out quarrel she put her hand on him to apologize for the arguments, and at that point I pulled my backpack out of the trunk and announced that I was going to town. She decided to get in the car. I don’t have contact information for her or else I’d message to check that she made it; though I am sure she is alright. The girl was savvy, and fearless.

Taking risks and doing things that frighten you is all part of the equation that adds up to adventure, but the most important variable in the equation is to TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. I felt sick to my stomach and nervous about taking a ride from this man, and I didn’t. Yes, we probably would’ve had a fun time and eventually make it to Belgrade. But, I was going to follow my gut feeling and decided to pass on the ride and hope for the best for my new friend as I turned to watch them drive away.

The walk back into Sarajevo was fairly miserable. At this point it was midday, and I was a good 1.5 hour walk outside of the city. I did get to see some fun sights along my hike back into town:

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I even had some company for part of the walk!

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To say it was a fun walk to town would be a lie. I was worried about the girl I had said goodbye to and my mind also started playing tricks on me. Considering the recency of the Bosnian War and the difficulties with disabling landmines, I wondered if I needed to watch my step to steer clear of landmines that were still active. And, frankly, I was tired. Mad. Disappointed. Uncertain about my next travel move. This was a low moment of my travels, but those crummy walks back into Sarajevo in the Balkan mid-summer heat is all part of the adventure.

Grad Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Reading “Sarajevo” on my map triggered images of those seventh grade history flashcards: Site of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria sparking WWI (flip card) Sarajevo.

Beyond these flashcards, Sarajevo was not a city I had heard too much discussion about. Before visiting the city, I was dimly aware of the recent Bosnian War and could vaguely recall that the city once hosted the Olympics – but other than that, Sarajevo was just a city on the map connecting me on my journey.

In fact, I had no intentions of even visiting Sarajevo, it was not on my original route and was not a city I circled as a desired destination. While in Dubrovnik I decided that going from Dubrovnik –> Sarajevo –> Belgrade —> Sofia was my best bet, and changed my plans to head to Sarajevo.

While I was the holder of a rail pass, it was fairly worthless when traveling through this region. Trains don’t run; all the transportation is focused around buses. The bus takes a very, VERY long time, mostly due to passport controls. Holding an American passport proved to be to my disadvantage as I faced numerous questions in the Croatian then Bosnian languages. The ride was not too bad, since I had made friends with two boys from Russia who filled the time with broken English conversation.

First views of Bosnia:

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The country has natural beauty that is only rivaled by the beauty of its people. Bosnians have gone through hell and have emerged as a strong, welcoming and proud people.

History records show that Sarajevo was founded by the Ottoman Empire in 1461. At which time, many Christians converted to Islam – which still remains the cities prominent religion with roughly 50% of the population categorized as Muslim (Bosniaks) according to the 1991 census. The remaining 50% is divided between Serbs (typically Orthodox Christians) Croats (typically Catholics) and a very small Jewish population.

This uniquely diverse religious and social composition of Sarajevo gives the city its charm and character today. Within one square, one can turn around in a circle and face a Mosque, Catholic Church, Orthodox Church and Synagogue. It is an incredible feat that there is, for the most part, peace today in such a diverse region.

Peace has not always defined Sarajevo, it has endured a dark recent history – and the struggle can still be seen and felt throughout the city today. Please read the following excerpt from Global Edge that does a good job of summarizing the recent history and transition from Yugoslavia to an independent Bosnian State:

The three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina are Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, and languages are Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian. Religions include Islam, Serbian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, some Protestant sects, and some others.
For the first centuries of the Christian era, present-day Bosnia was part of the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome, it was contested by Byzantium and Rome’s successors in the west. Slavs settled the region in the 7th century. The medieval kingdom of Bosnia emerged in the 12th century and ended in 1463, when Ottoman Turks conquered the region.

During Ottoman rule, many Bosnians converted from Christianity to Islam. Bosnia was under Ottoman rule until 1878, when the Congress of Berlin transferred administrative control to Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia in 1908. While those living in Bosnia came under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, South Slavs in Serbia and elsewhere were calling for a South Slav state. World War I began when Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Following the Great War, Bosnia became part of the South Slav state of Yugoslavia, only to be given to the Nazi-puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during World War II. Many atrocities were committed against Jews, Serbs, and others who resisted the occupation from 1941-45. The end of the war saw the establishment of a Communist, federal Yugoslavia under wartime leader Josip Broz Tito, with Bosnia and Herzegovina as one of six republics in the Yugoslav federation.

After Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia’s unraveling was hastened by Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power in 1986. Milosevic’s embrace of Serb nationalism led to intrastate ethnic strife. Slovenia and Croatia both declared independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991. By late September 1991, Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic’s Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) had declared four self-proclaimed “Serb Autonomous Regions (SAO)” in Bosnia. In October 1991, the Bosnian Serbs announced the formation within Bosnia of a “Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina” that would have its own constitution and parliamentary assembly. In January 1992, Radovan Karadzic publicly proclaimed a fully independent “Republic of the Serbian People in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” On March 1, 1992, the Bosnian Government held a referendum on independence. Bosnia’s parliament declared the republic’s independence on April 5, 1992. However, this move was opposed by Serb representatives, who had voted in their own referendum in November 1991 in favor of remaining in Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs, supported by neighboring Serbia, responded with armed force in an effort to partition the republic along ethnic lines. Recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence by the United States and the European Community occurred on April 6-7, and Bosnia and Herzegovina was admitted to the United Nations on May 22, 1992.

In March 1994, Muslims and Croats in Bosnia signed an agreement creating the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ending a period of Muslim-Croat conflict. The conflict with the Bosnian Serbs continued through most of 1995. Many atrocities were committed, including acts of genocide committed by members of the Army of Republika Srpska in and around Srebrenica in July 1995, where approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed. The conflict ended with the November 21, 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which was formally signed on December 14, 1995 in Paris.

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia ( in The Hague in July 1995 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity stemming from their role in crimes against civilians throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina culminating in the Srebrenica massacre. Karadzic was apprehended and transferred to the ICTY in The Hague by Serbian authorities on July 21, 2008. Mladic was apprehended in Serbia on May 26, 2011 and transferred to The Hague on June 1, 2011.

Bosnia and Herzegovina today consists of two Entities–the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), which is largely Bosniak and Croat, and the Republika Srpska (RS), which is primarily Serb. In July 2000, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina rendered a decision whereby Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs are recognized as constituent peoples throughout the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In March 2002, this decision was formally recognized and agreed on by the major political parties in both Entities.

The most recent national elections took place in October 2010, electing new state presidency members; state, Entity, and cantonal parliaments; and the RS presidency. The BiH presidency was sworn in on November 10, 2010. The RS government was formed in December 2010, and the Federation government was formed in March 2011. The BiH Council of Ministers was formed in February 2012. The next municipal elections are scheduled to occur in 2012, and the next general elections will take place in 2014. In October 2008, Bosnia and Herzegovina held municipal elections, where mayors and members of municipal assemblies were directly elected (in all municipalities except Mostar and Brcko District).

The international community retains an extraordinary civilian and military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) stemming from the Dayton Peace Accords. The Dayton Accords created the position of High Representative, an international official charged with overseeing implementation of the civilian aspects of the agreement. The current High Representative (since March 2009) is Austria’s Valentin Inzko (

In December 1995, NATO deployed a 60,000-troop Implementation Force (IFOR) to oversee implementation of the military aspects of the peace agreement. IFOR transitioned into a smaller Stabilization Force (SFOR) in 1996. With the end of the SFOR mission in December 2004, the European Union (EU) assumed primary responsibility for military stabilization operations. Approximately 600 EU troops remain deployed in Bosnia ( NATO maintains a small headquarters operation with responsibility to assist with defense reform.

The April 5th, 1992 armed attack of Sarajevo started with a sniper shot from a Holiday Inn skyscraper killing Suada Dilberovic – a medical student. The Holiday Inn where the Serbian sniper was stationed is still standing and marks the Sarajevo skyline with a bright reminder of a tragedy not too many years in the past.

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Through my hostel I met a Bosnian girl a few years older than me. She was four years old when the Siege of Sarajevo started. Her father was a serving member of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and fought against the much better equipped Serbian army that encircled the city.

She told stories about life within the seized city. For her birthday, her father traded a pack of cigarettes for a bicycle. She couldn’t ride her bicycle outside because of the danger of shells and gunfire from the Serbian army an estimated average of 329 shell impacts occurred per day.

This is a preserved shell i saw in Sarajevo:

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Many facades and building corners show shell impact marks throughout the city.

She also explained about daily challenges – electricity was often cut off, even to hospitals. Food was scarce and people lived in constant fear of leaving their homes or where the next shell would strike. It is estimated that 12,000 Bosnians died during the Siege, with roughly 1,500 child deaths, and another 50,000 were injured.

To militaristically understand the Siege:

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Holding the mountains was a key military success for the Bosnian Army and led to the construction of the Sarajevo tunnel. The tunnel connected Sarajevo with United Nations controlled territory and was the only way for humanitarian aid to enter the city and for people to exit.

I visited the tunnels after hearing about their wartime significance. I was anticipating a massive network to allow a large movement of supplies and people, but was shocked when I had to duck down into a very small, one lane tunnel. It required me to hunch my shoulders and keep my head down to make it through the tunnel. For the two minutes I was underground, I felt uncomfortably claustrophobic.

It took about two hours to walk from the beginning of the tunnel to make it to the Bosnian Territory side. Foot traffic could only move in one direction, so each side had to alternate sending people in and out. I can’t image that a large quantity of humanitarian aid was able to make it into Sarajevo with a tunnel so small. I also don’t want to entirely imagine the condition the tunnel must’ve been – the injured and dead were carried through, people where essentially trapped ducking underground for two hours of crowded movement forward.

War is not pretty. Sometimes throwing yourself into learning about a difficult time in history can be easily avoided by enjoying natural scenery and the delights of foreign cuisine. But, to visit Bosnia and not spend some time learning about the country’s history is a disservice to your trip and a missed opportunity to understand the devastating events that have shaped the modern Bosnian people.

Smart, charming, proud and most of all: strong. The Bosian’s remember their past as much of the population lived through the Bosnian War. My Bosnian friend pointed out how much of the older population smokes – and I soon noticed how prevalent smoking is. She attributes the high amount of smokers to the remnants of stress from the war. The eyes at the tip of the cigarettes are alert and darkly alluring. The Bosnian War is a chapter in the life story of the Bosnian’s who call Sarajevo home.

And, it is a chapter in the tale of the city. Since the Siege, Sarajevo has taken on the enormous project of rebuilding. New modern buildings are bringing renewed life to the city that existed as rubble less than two decades ago. The city is winning all kinds of awards, and I am excited to see what growth and success the future holds for Sarajevo and its incredible people.

Kayaking in the Storm Dubrovnik

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We could see islands from our vantage point during out morning hike, and we decided as we looked out over the horizon that we wanted, at some point that day, to be on one of those islands. Kayaking was deemed the best way to get there, so at around 6pm we set out on a trek to an island where we could go cliff jumping, swim and enjoy the crystal clear water.

Jimmy and Kate hopped in one kayak, while Imogen and I joking flexed our muscles at the other two as we tripped and climbed into our own kayak.

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It took us about an hour to reach the island, and it was not as easy of a trek as the guides initially made it seem. Everyone was exhausted, but we all felt proud and accomplished for making it to the island (nobody wanted to think about how we had to eventually paddle back to the mainland)

Cliff Jumping

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While we were swimming we watch rain approach us from the distance, and it approached fast. Our guide rallied us quickly to head back into our kayaks and we departed back to land way earlier than planned. As we paddled the water got choppier and the waves more difficult to push through. Dusk blanketed us and it got colder, and at this point a hushed concentration fell over the otherwise chatty group. Everyone was on edge, nervous, exhausted but relentlessly paddling. Harsh Croatian works kept exchanging between our two guides and Croatian is one of the last languages you want to hear people speak in during a panic. Basically, it took us somewhere between 2-3 times longer to get back to land. I honestly have no idea the exact amount of time, but we absolutely collapsed once we fell out of our kayaks on the beach.

We made it guys, WE MADE IT!

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Split and Dubrovnik and a Series of Fateful Encounters

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Be it the large festivals in Croatia, the alluring beaches or the planets aligning – somehow, multiple friends and I all ended up in Croatia at the same time. I expected to meet up with Kate in Dubrovnik, but after Gil and I went our seperate was after Zadar (him back to Israel and me back on the road) I was prepared to hit Split by myself. But, minutes before I stepped onto the bus, I saw Kate post on Facebook that she had changed her plans and was, within the exact same hour, stepping on a bus herself from Zagreb to Split.

I got off my bus with no accomdation and exactly 1 hour before Kate arrived, and I decided to try and find us an accommodation. When you depart the busses in Croatia you are greated with a massive swarm of people waving signs reading SOBE on them. A sobe is a room in a house that a family opens up to travelers, or its a proper hostel, or an apartment. You never really know. I decided to try my luck and asked the least aggressive woman sitting on the bench gingerly holding a SOBE sign. To get to her I had to pass through the swarming crowd, and she watched me the entire time. Thinking she would award my persistence to reach her by walking me to the SOBE or something hospitable, she simply handed me a telephone number.

I thought it was a hysterical business process, and was amused by her antics, so I called the number and booked a room for two. When Kate arrived we headed to the Sobe which was maybe the most confusing of directions and even opened a beer for the passenger of a passing by car – he left us holding two beers and drove off. Croatia man, Croatia. We took a navigating break to sit with our gifts and enjoy the sunset.

We found the Sobe and it turned out we lucked out and actually ended up with a decent one! There was a kitchen and a bathroom and even…AIR CONDITIONING! Kate and I were on the same page of mental, physical, emotional exhaustion and we spent the night walking around Split, watching the sunset and recuperating with each others’ company.

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The next day I visited Diocletian’s Palace and did some more exploring of Split before I headed off to Dubrovnik to again meet up with Kate, who departed early in the morning. We had planned to rent an apartment in old town Dubrovnik together – and when I arrived to the apartment I was thrilled to find Kate, Jimmy and Shopvy all there! It was unreal that all our travels brought us to the same city at the same time. Even more than that, our other friend Imogen was also in town and yet another friend Zhenia was arriving the next day!

We met up with some people Kate met in Budapest that night and all had a blast getting to know each other – nearly everyone was from Australia besides Kate (Canada) and me. Early the next morning, Jimmy and I took a hike. It was an unplanned hike because we intended to take a gondola up, but it turned out to be obscenely expensive and budget travelers must do as budget travelers do – we walked.

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and it was worth it.

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The bandage on Jimmy’s forehead is from an angry Croatian man hitting him over the head with a glass bottle but Jimmy is alright and I hope his parents never read this blog because I believe the story they know does not involve a bottle and most certainly does not involve an angry Croatian man.

Photos from the City Wall

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We got weird.

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Why, fancy seeing you twice in Croatia!

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Dubrovnik continued, Kayaking in the Storm

Croatia: Plitvice National Park

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Gil and I headed to Trieste in Italy then drove down the Croatia coastline until we reached Zadar. Zadar is a fantastically located city to reach many of the attractions in Croatia and was relatively easy to reach from Italy. There is also an airport near Zadar that RyanAir flies to – overall a great city to use as a “base” when traveling through Croatia. We were able to easily travel to Plitvice National Park as well as explore islands just off the coast and enjoy serenity on the incredibly uncrowded beaches on the islands.

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*Map courtesy of World Guides


Nature is neat!

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View from one of the small islands we visited off the coast of Zadar:

It cost about 5USD round trip to hop between islands using the ferry service. The islands were the least touristy of a otherwise fairly touristy way to experience the Croatian coast. Incredible nature, opportunities to hike and beaches to lounge on. A trip to Croatia is a must, and no visit to Croatia is complete without spending a full day at Plitvice National Park.

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La Biennale di Venezia

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Gil and I made a special trip to the 55th Venice Biennale contemporary art exhibition. The exhibition is held once every two years and is the leader of international art exhibitions. Over 30 permanent national pavilions in La Giardini host each nation’s chosen artists and works to display at this “world fair” type art show. See the complete list of countries represented as well as the selected artwork here. Two central exhibitions also displayed international works – The Encyclopedic Palace: Arsenale and Giardini.

We arrived, in typical Gil fashion, right as the doors opened for the exhibit. I’ve already explored the Louvre with him and I was fully aware that la Biennale meant a few things:

1. I would have a private tour guide for free. He has an incredibly extensive knowledge about art and shares his knowledge, interpretations and thoughts on each piece. I’m good at listening and contributing non-scholarly things. We viewed so much art together that my knowledge of art transformed from a blank canvas to the beginings of an understanding, all under his direction and patience answering my questions.

2. Our tickets came with a map, with which Gil would strategically mark out our route.

3. He would feign fatigue when he could tell I was tiring, though he never needs a break when it comes to art. And this break would most likely include ice cream.

4. We would, within minutes of closing, RUN to see more art to ensure that we squeezed in as much as possible into our day. We were actually kicked out of the Louvre at closing, and we were of the last to drag out feet out of la Giardini at the close of the day.

Gil wasn’t even supposed to be with me during the summer. We said our goodbyes in Maastricht before I headed off to Spain, then when I was ill in Spain I called him and he bought his plane ticket to meet me in Italy. I had planned to trek around this summer alone, but he ended up joining me for a week and I could not have been happier that he did because exploring la Biennale with the art nerd I care about was one of my favorite days of the summer.

Some of our favorite exhibits included, of course, our own nation’s pavilions:

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At the United States of America Pavilion artist Sarah Sze created a chaotic series of rooms with what appeared to be rubbish, childhood toys, everyday household items and even what appeared to be the remnants of her airplane food dinner all connected by a series of thin strings, perfectly balanced yet on the verge of collapse. We concluded that the artistic intentions behind this exhibit was to display the fragile balance and how easily one out of aspect item has the ability to topple everything.

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The Workshop (2013) created by artist Gilad Ratman, documents the journey of a community of people from Israel to Venice, through a non-linear presentation of video, installation, sound and a physical intervention in the fabric of the Pavilion itself. – Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem.

Other honorable mentions include the Russian, Great Britain, Korean and Polish exhibits. Many of these pavilions were a mixture of experience and art, where us patrons had a big role in creating the art. In the Russian exhibit, we were expected to collect gold coins then put them in a bucket that then showered the coins onto the floor below where only women were allowed to walk around with umbrellas. When you first walked into the exhibit, peanuts fell on your head from a man sitting upstairs eating peanuts.


The Korea exhibition took you from an overwhelming display of colors as you walked through rooms of prisms and mirrors to a chamber of total darkness entirely devoid of noise. It was an experience for the senses as well as a slightly psychologically thrilling experience transitioning between sensory overload to nothingness.

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Another sensory experience was the Polish exhibit. Great bells were set to high powered microphones, thus amplifying the ring and reverberations – we heard discreet sounds of the bell that the human ear otherwise would’ve never heard in an overpowering, rumbling magnitude.

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Ai Wei Wei featured in the German Pavilion because of his dissonance with the Chinese government, his art was not allowed in the Chinese exhibition. Watch this great documentary on Ai Wei Wei to learn more about the artist and his political activism.

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The art collective, Falling Frees, combined Finnish artist Terike Haapoja and Antti Laitinen works into a complementary two part exhibition respembling a garden-esque whole. Terike Haapoja work, displayed in the Nordic Pavilion, was fueled by patrons exhaling and lighting up the exhibit full of fauna composing an eerie forest feel. Antii Laitinen went through turmoil to create his exhibit. He traveled deep into a forest, manually chopped down trees, hand-carried the parts back to and reassembled the pieces.

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Venice is expensive, and we lived off bread and cheese for our meals, but we had an incredible time at La Biennale and I sincerely plan to try and attend as many Biennale’s that I can manage. As if we didn’t have enough culture in our day, we managed to catch a free choir concert as a cherry on top of our day of art, music, beauty and good company.

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San Vino

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Spain has hundreds of festivals each year, and for some bizarre reason many of these festivals involve throwing things. At La Tomatina tomatoes are thrown, at other festivals goats, and at the Spanish festival I attended in Haro, Spain, the item of choice to throw: wine.
Haro is located in the north of Spain, thus giving me the perfect excuse to pick up my good friend Theresa Beno who is living in Pamplona. Theresa is, beyond a doubt, one of the rare kinds of people who are always, and I mean absolutely always, down to have a good time. Last year, I spent an absolutely ridiculous weekend with Theresa in Chicago for St. Patricks day, and now we were meeting up in Spain to attend La Batella De Vino  – the wine battle in Spain.
Theresa had to babysit the morning before we had to catch the bus – and she ended up having to RUN onto the bus about a minute before it was leaving. I had been standing outside the bus for about a half an hour trying to decide how to stall the bus until she showed up. I had just decided to climb onto the windshield when Theresa made her tardy appearance – we were on our way!
The drive had incredible views and we drove by many pueblos, vineyards, rolling hills and many shades of green.
Arriving in Haro, we pulled into a campsite loaded with vans and makeshift campsites. Then, at the back of the camp, we heard loud music and saw tent city…this is where we were staying. Stoke Travel, the company we traveled to Haro with, had set up a full bar, tents, and massive party area for our relatively small group. It ended up being a lot of fun, but at first I felt bad about the amount of space and ruckus our group was causing in the otherwise peaceful park.
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Once dusk struck, our camp was just a player in the chaos. More Spanish people piled into the campsite and the entire place erupted with music and dancing. Theresa and I partied at our camp with two Australian girls we met, enjoyed the BBQ and then headed into town at about 2am.
The town was in shambles. People were hanging off statues, sleeping in allies, and multiple music stages were blasting live music with an enormous crowd swaying to the beats. Haro is a small town in La Rioja region – and though I knew it would be a party, I was shocked at the magnitude I was witnessing.
We stayed downtown all night, then headed back to camp around 6am. We ate a breakfast with others who were just awaking or returning from the night out like us, and at 7:30 we started our hike up the hills to the wine battle grounds.


It was an incredible morning walk traveling through vineyards. Everyone dresses in white for the battle, so we were faces in a massive exodus of people hiking through otherwise deserted vineyards. On our way, we caught glimpses of people with water guns and massive jugs of wine. These foreshadowing glimpses could not prepare us for what we walked up to when we arrived at the “battlegrounds”



We ran right into the center of the fights with people of all ages, from kids to the elderly, splashing us with wine. The more aggressive participants dumped buckets on each others heads. Large trucks lined the perimeters and blasted out wine from firefighter style hoses. It was unbelievable to wipe my eyes clear of wine, then look around me and realize that full grown adults were throwing wine on each other.


Besides our group from Stoke, the event was entirely local. Nobody really knows when the fight started, or why, but it is an event ingrained in the culture of Haro and an event that is looked forward to each year. For me, attending once was enough. I wore a white rain jacket that didn’t hold the purple color of wine, so I was always a target being the only person with an inch of white-ish colored clothing. After about the fifth bucket of wine dumped on me, I was ready to take an observer stance of the event.


Observing lasting a solid 5 minutes until I was back in the action. For as ridiculous as the event was, it was also a lot of fun connecting with Spanish strangers by throwing wine on each other.
 A small piece of me was cognizant about how hedonistic the event is, and how gluttonous it is to be covered head to toe in wine. But, this is culture in Haro. Children and grandparents alike laughed together and splashed each other. It is a bizarre, though magnificent local tradition and a huge testament to the ability of the small town of Haro to enjoy life, abundance and pleasure.