My Rough Guide: Ljubljana, where there's more life in the cemetery than the football
Sunday 16 November 1997
No rail odyssey to the extremities of Europe is without its mishaps, but none compares with the oh-so-predictable winner of this category. Armed with a return rail ticket from London to Bucharest, I trotted off to Greenwich railway station to make my way to Victoria. Three cancellations later I was still at Greenwich. The delay meant that I'd be missing a string of connections across the continent. There was nothing for it but to go home and start again 24 hours later. But if there's a contest for Best Bacon Sandwich, Greenwich station cafe would romp home.
Most vulgar attraction
Ten minutes east of Innsbruck, Swarovski Crystal World is a high-tech theme park showing off the engineering prowess of the local Swarovski factory, purveyors of the cut-glass animals and figurines regarded as rank kitsch by some and prized collectables by others. Designed by Viennese artist Andre Heller, it features a range of environments worked out by an array of designers and installation artists (including ambient music boffin Brian Eno) meant to induce a sense of wonder or contemplation. The result is both an entertaining futuristic theme park and a brazen monument to corporate vanity.
Dullest sports event
The assertion that the Slovenian capital Ljubljana is the only city in Europe where more people go to the opera than visit football matches has long been a cliche of travel writing. I didn't realise how true it was until I arrived in time for the Slovenia-Bosnia World Cup qualifying match. Expecting a highly-charged derby clash between two former Yugoslav republics, I arrived at a rain-soaked Bezigrad stadium to find that only 500 home fans had turned up. Even the travelling Bosnians packed into one side of the otherwise deserted stadium were strangely subdued, largely because their team hasn't been in existence long enough for them to have developed any worthwhile terrace chants. Still, a moral victory to the visitors.
Famed cities of the dead, such as Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna and the Jewish cemetery in Prague, justify inclusion in any traveller's itinerary. However, Ljubljana again comes up trumps with Zale, the vast municipal necropolis at the end of bus route 22. Nobody famous is buried here, but parts of the complex designed by turn-of-the- century architect Joze Plecnik, pioneer of local art nouveau, are a good enough reason to visit. The monumental colonnaded gateway at the entrance leads to a cluster of small chapels, each devoted to individual saints and built in a melange of styles that show Plecnik's eclecticism. Classical Greek and Roman elements mix with Byzantine, Islamic and ancient Egyptian motifs, all filtered through a mixture of folk craftsmanship and twentieth- century construction techniques. Students of postmodernism should start here, although Plecnik's architectural legacy to Ljubljana is impossible to miss all over the city.
Best seaside resort
Anyone venturing deep into eastern Europe should try to reach Sozopol on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. An ancient Greek peninsula town, it has long been the favoured resort of the Bulgarian intelligentsia, and can get pretty busy in July and August. Despite the bustle, it retains a laid-back village feel - if cobbled alleyways, timber-clad houses and rustling fig trees are what turns you on, this is the place for you. All the other ingredients for a typical Balkan seaside holiday are here: black- clad crones selling lacy tablecloths, grumpy fishermen, dancing bears and excellent sandy beaches.
Most evocative ruin
Forget packed Pompeii and the smog-shrouded Parthenon; go instead to the Roman city of Patara on the south Turkish coast, a short bus ride from the resorts of Fethiye and Kaj. The site is very low key, its crumbling monuments smothered by grass and weeds. However, the amphitheatre, a vast bowl gradually filling with the encroaching sand of Patara beach, is the most gripping image of the transience of civilizations I've yet found.
Most humbling encounter
By the time I got to Antakya (the Antioch of the ancients) in south- eastern Turkey, my enthusiasm was waning. I'd been bitten to within an inch of my life by mosquitoes, had a bad bout of traveller's tummy and felt sick as a pig after a night on the raki. Refreshing, therefore, to meet a Turkish hotelier whose tales of a holiday in Britain helped ease the homesickness. "Immigration held me at Heathrow for four hours. The breakfasts were too greasy, the coffee undrinkable, and the tap water full of chemicals," he said. Suddenly Greenwich railway station didn't seem so far away.
The continent is divided into seven zones: a pass covering all seven costs pounds 279 for one month. For those over 26, an InterRail 26-plus pass costs pounds 2l5 for 15 days and pounds 275 for one month, and covers most European rail networks, although some of the key countries you're likely to travel through - notably Belgium, France and Italy - are excluded. (InterRail fare structures are, however, due to change from 1 January 1998.) The International Rail centre at Victoria Station (Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm, Sat 9am-4.30pm, closed Sun, tel: 0990 848 848) handles information and bookings for all continental rail journeys.
Buying standard return tickets to European destinations can be comparatively expensive (for example, a standard second-class return to Istanbul costs pounds 368). They are, however, valid for months, and are multi-stopovers.
Travelling overland to Greece or Turkey usually involves heading for Budapest and then choosing between two onward routes: through Yugoslavia (you'll need to get a transit visa before departure; contact the Yugoslav embassy in London, tel: 0171-370 6105), or through Romania and Bulgaria (Romanian visas can be bought at the border for around pounds 12). British citizens entering Turkey need to buy a visa at the border costing pounds 5 (hard currency).
Jonathan Bousfield researched the Austria, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Turkey chapters of 'The Rough Guide to Europe'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
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