Nachiket Athalye is studying on exchange at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, for Semester 1 of 2017. As a GLObewriter he is sharing his experiences with us every month. View the full list of his posts with the globewriter-nachi tag.
So I’ve decided to fill up all my passport pages to the best of my ability. Up for grabs are 50 states in Europe with some like Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey lying in Eurasia. Add to this 4 central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well as Morocco and Egypt (Africa) & Israel and Jordan (Middle East) that are outliers but nevertheless relatively close to Italy and of immense interest to me. As of now I have wrapped up, obviously Italy, along with The Vatican, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. That means I have ticked off 13 out of the 58 potential states that are on my hit list. I was able to tick off the final 7 countries in a frenzied two week holiday that was extraordinary.
I started with the capital city of Croatia, Zagreb, which had a one of its kind museum, the Museum of Broken Relationships. Based on the idea of a failed relationship it consists of various items sent by one or more partners in a relationship along with a story or excerpt to summarise the significance of the item, sometimes along with a general idea of what the relationship was like and how it failed. The stories are intensely captivating allowing the reader to connect with them and recall their own story, evoking emotions from laughter to sadness. I found that the primary reason why most of these relationships broke down was because partners failed to be on the same page. This resulted in varied amounts of commitment, breaches of trust and tons of broken hearts.
Later in the night the city came alive as it celebrated the yearly Zagreb Festival of Lights. There were laser shows in various places including some in ancient tunnels along with music and lots of vibrant people. The city was lit up with various kinds of lamps including some that were placed on the funicular railway (creating a valley of lights) that went up to the historical area of the city.
My next stop was Budapest, the majestic capital of Hungary. The city definitely ranks among the most beautiful I have ever visited with an ancient 1980’s feel to it. The buildings, architecture, any and all public property ranging from buses to metros gave off a very olden feel. Am not sure if the city had just stopped updating all these things due to lack of finances or whether it was done on purpose to give it the old touch. I feel like it would be the latter because everything functioned perfectly regardless of the ancient feel. Staying true to its title of the ‘City of Baths’ due to the presence of almost 125 thermal springs, the city offers a number of varied thermal bath experiences from modern rooftop baths to traditional Turkish baths originating from the Ottoman rule. I had the chance to visit the modern rooftop bath which provided the most incredible view of the city, set along the Danube, as well as the traditional indoor Ottoman bath that tends to have men only, women only and co-ed days allocated respectively.
Along with some fellow exchange students I rented a car and drove north to experience a bit of the Hungarian town life followed by a visit to the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava. The city as compared to Budapest is quite compact and a couple of hours up the UFO observatory (no points for guessing its shaped like a UFO) sum up the city in the most enthralling fashion. We followed this up with a lovely Eastern European dinner at a seemingly upmarket restaurant that offered dishes at the price of Milanese street food. Content with our day trip we returned back to Budapest.
I then advanced to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It is a city that is not hugely developed but perfectly blends architectural and natural beauty with majestic buildings set against the snow-clad Vitosha Mountains. Once again I rented a car with some friends and explored the beautiful Bulgarian landscape that was a really good representation of the unique Balkan landscape. Huge pastures, short mountains all set against the backdrop of snow-clad peaks. A visit to the Rila Monastery made me speechless. The level of peace and calm in the air was breathtaking. The huge and beautiful monastery was surrounded by mountains that had snow glistening at their peaks in the sunlight as a river made its way behind the monastery.
Later in the day we also drove to cross the border into Macedonia. The car was not allowed to cross the border due to the bureaucratic requirement of an expensive stamp so the poor thing stayed in Bulgaria as we took a cab to the Macedonian town of Delchevo for a quick Macedonian dinner. The moment we entered the restaurant all heads turned to see these weird alien-like people that had landed literally in the middle of nowhere (Delchevo is an incredibly small town in the country that almost no one goes to). The dinner was extraordinary and I had a chance to speak to some very lively and curious Macedonians who sort of got to know my travel plans and Australian origin in almost sign language, both of which were greeted with a lot of applause and excitement. Even the Macedonian officials at the border, where we spent a substantial amount of time waiting for the cab, were incredibly helpful, warm and curious. I enjoyed my time with these lovely people immensely. Their compassion and empathy assured us of a safe and good time as we waited at the border in the middle of the night. Their warmth left a lasting sense of content even though we weren’t able to experience any architectural or natural beauty that the country had to offer.
I met a very inspiring person in my hostel in Sofia, a 60 year old owner of a high finance company who shed some light on his intensely engaging life story. A very intelligent being with almost 6 bachelor’s degrees, a successful career, presumably well-off, never married but had his heart broken earlier in his life and now staying at this inexpensive hostel in Sofia for two weeks, mingling with people less than half his age. His focus on gaining knowledge was so inspiring, he never stopped learning! That was his only passion, the degrees and monetary success were just a by-product.
My next and last stop was Istanbul, with a night’s worth transit in Athens. Another incredibly lively city in a country that requires at least a couple of weeks of exploration. Greek food in the Monastiraki Square surrounded by a buzzing lively crowd and live music played by budding musicians with the lit Acropolis as the background was the highlight. This was followed by a walk through the small but cute Athenian alleyways and an incredible view of the city from the Acropolis. The location of the hostel deserves a mention as not only could I see the Acropolis as clear as day from its hostel terrace but I literally got the same view from my hostel bed as I fell asleep!
Istanbul weaved its magic from the following day as it shot itself up to numero uno in my “best cities” list. A city that is incredibly lively, buzzing with crowds, music, shopping, the Islamic call to prayer and surrounded by the most beautiful mosques, all by the seaside! Turkish food is obviously just fantastic and there is no dearth of the tasty baklava regardless of the time of day. Visits to the numerous mosques, especially the Blue Mosque created a peaceful calm in our minds. The city is also buzzing with cats which do not mind sitting in your lap for a quick nap. A really interesting sight was the huge number of Turkish Muslims that were seen visiting some of the cities cathedrals creating a very nice blend of the two religions. A visit to one of the Shisha places allowed us to have heartfelt conversations with some of the many Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan migrants and refugees that the city hosts. The amount of hard work such people need to undertake to meet their basic needs and the number of dreams they have to give up just so they can maintain a basic standard of living is quite saddening. At the same time I admired Istanbul much more for giving all of them a chance to lead, at least, a basic life and hopefully excel from there on.
I landed at the airport in Bergamo, a city about three quarters of an hour away from Milan, and a feeling of content and peace spread through me as I identified with the culture, language and people. That’s when I realised that this is what “home” feels like!
I probably should mention that I was able to undertake all this travel as most of my other peers attended mid-term exams, which I did not need to. That of course means that I will have a whole lot of preparation piling up for the final exams that are looking at me and creating a feeling of dread.