Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Friday, October 31, 2003 03:14:41|
Central Asia 2003: 16 - Serbia, Srpska Republic, Dubrovnik Croatia
Monday, October 27, 2003
We had been told by Turkish Airlines that nothing could be done about check in for our JAT Yugoslav Airlines flight until two hours before the 6:50 PM flight time, so at 4:45 PM we were at the transit counter. It was a pleasant surprise to find they had not lost our tickets, so the clerk took our passports and tickets and headed off to the JAT counter to get our boarding passes.
After waiting for over half and hour we inquired as to what was happening, and were rudely told to wait. Another half hour went by and Marilynn went to find out what the problem was. This time they confessed that they had lost our baggage and were looking for it.
We were seated facing the Turkish Airlines transit "help" desk. It was interesting watching one customer after another reach the end of their patience. Some started yelling, others walked around waving their hands in the air in frustration, some talked to themselves and one guy headed off to points unknown yelling at no one in particular in an unidentified language. It was a rare opportunity to pick up new swear words in many different tongues. There was even a very upset tour group that showed up, complete with tour leader. Due to some screw up they had to wait an additional day take their flight out, and the thirty people or so people involved were close to breaking into a full fledged riot.
When it got down to only 20 minutes left before our flight I went up to the desk to tell the surly staff that we were going on the flight come hell or high water, to kindly get us our passports and tickets and they could then forward the baggage if and when they found it. A staff member went off, ostensibly in search of whoever had our documents but more likely for coffee break. We were standing at the entrance to the boarding area pacing when at the very last moment the woman who first took our documents showed up with boarding passes, ongoing tickets, passports, and word that they had found our luggage. Hallelujah!
It was a mad dash through miles of corridors to get to the furthest possible gate, where JAT was holding the bus to the plane for us. What a difference in attitude these people had! The fellow in charge of the gate crew saw us hurrying in their direction and met us with the greeting, "You are Canadian. You are going to Belgrade. I am psychic, you see. I know these things!" With that we were hustled onto the bus for transport to the small turboprop plane where a very helpful steward found me adjoining seats into which I could fold my legs. The unfortunate thing about all the panic, and the fact that I had no chance to talk to JAT Airlines without paying $90 for a visa, was that we were unable to confirm our ongoing flights on JAT.
The flight was smooth, without incident, and arrived on time - with luggage. We wanted to rent a car, but of the several car rental counters only Hertz was manned and they had no cars. I've no idea what the guy was doing there with nothing to rent, but we took a taxi to the Best Western Hotel M. The warmth in the taxi was appreciated - the temperature outside was 3 degrees Celsius.
At the hotel were given a key and told to check in formally in the morning. When we reached the room we found there was no electricity or lights, except for the TV. The desk promised prompt action to get power, so we settled in using the light of the TV and my small flashlight. After 20 minutes I phoned the desk and told them to forget fixing the electricity, as we were going to bed - we had been on the go exactly 24 hours and 5 time zones at that point.
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Electricity had been restored by the morning. The car rental companies were to start work at 7 AM, and as there was no phone book in the room I asked the hotel operator to connect me with one. They have a car rental in the hotel, but it would not be manned until 9 AM, and we wanted to get going on our search of the elusive Republic of Srpska (pronounced Serb-ska) which is located within Bosnia Herzegovina. We had been told it was 300 km each way, and that driving time would be about 4 hours each way.
By 7:30 no car rental company had answered their phone, so I asked the operator if she, or anyone else in the hotel, knew of a driver to take us. An offer to pay well seemed to do the trick - in three minutes I was on the phone with a fellow who spoke reasonable English. A pick up time of 8 AM was agreed upon, so Marilynn and I then partook of the excellent breakfast buffet.
The driver had a problem and was 20 minutes late in arriving, but away we then went on a foggy morning. In less than 2 hours we were through the very easy and quick Bosnian customs, and a few minutes later passed a large sign proclaiming our entrance into the Republic of Srpska. The fog had burned off and it was a cold but clear, sunny day. We drove around the pretty farm country for awhile, surprised at the amount of new construction, then headed back across the border to the town of Sabac where a local fellow recommended a great restaurant for lunch.
There are a lot of new buildings and houses in this area, as it was pretty much destroyed during the Balkans wars. The restaurant was located a bit out of the town centre, but was well worth looking for. We shared a delicious mixed grill between the 3 of us that would have easily have fed twice our number. A couple of Serbian beer and a bottle of excellent Serbian wine helped both Marilynn and I get some sleep on the way back to Belgrade.
We arrived back in the city before 3 PM, so had the driver drop us off at the main downtown pedestrian shopping street - where else? We arranged for him to pick us up at 6 AM to take us to the airport in the morning - his charges were less than half of the amount we had paid coming to the hotel. As we visited the various shops which interested Marilynn we were surprised by the number of people who spoke English, but were told it is taught for ten grades in the school system, so pretty much everyone has a good basic knowledge of the language. Credit cards are widely accepted here, as are Euros, but US dollars are not. Belgrade is a pretty city, and seems very safe. Unfortunately, in spite of trying on what seemed like 300 leather coats Marilynn failed to find the exact one she had been looking for.
Eventually we retreated to our hotel to thaw out and have a light dinner. As we had an early departure we turned in early, forgetting once again to confirm our flights for tomorrow.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Neither of us slept well - Marilynn was too cold and I was too hot! We both were up before the alarm went off, which was just as well, as I'd set it for the wrong time. When the driver arrived right at 6 AM we checked out and left without the included breakfast, the restaurant not having opened yet. It was a drive of about thirty minutes to the airport.
While arriving an hour before flight time for domestic flights is all that is required, we arrived two hours before the 8:25 AM time shown on our tickets so I could try for seats with leg room. I knew we were in trouble, though, when the agent at the desk took a look at the tickets and without a word headed across the room and into an office.
We were invited into the office of the station manager, who explained that such a flight time had never existed in their system, and that the flight number on which we were booked had left at 6 AM as scheduled - half and hour before our arrival. On checking he also found that the return flight, shown on our ticket as 10 AM, actually would leave Podgorica at 7:25 AM. Missing that flight would have also had us miss the connecting Zurich flight. I pointed out to him that while we were booked on their Zurich flight; our tickets said we were booked to Rome.
The station manager could not have been more helpful. He changed Rome to Zurich and officially stamped and signed the ticket with no charge, even though it is a more expensive flight. He then confirmed us on the 2:20 PM flight to Podgorica and the return flight as well. Their competing airline, Montenegro Air, had a flight to Podgorica at 9:40 AM, and while apologizing that JAT had no ticket exchange agreement with them, suggested we could try this route as the tickets are only $60 each. After waiting for the ticket office to open, then standing in line, I was informed the flight was full. Back to the JAT station manager, who then suggested we try standby for Montenegro, which we did - unsuccessfully. The station manager allowed us to pile our luggage into his office while we waited for the afternoon flight.
Marilynn had had it with airport waiting by this time, as our whole plan for seeing the Dalmatian Coast had collapsed. Today was to have been a full day of sightseeing after our early flight arrival, and now we would be driving in the dark. We were to have three days in Dubrovnik, but that was now impossible as we would have to drive back on the second day to stay in Podgorica to ensure we were at the airport at 6 AM for our flight to Zurich via Belgrade, so Marilynn suggested we scrap it, catch the afternoon flight to Zurich, spend a couple of days there, and head home early. That went by the boards when I checked with the airline and there was no flight to Zurich.
To pass the time we walked to the flight museum not far from the terminal. This specially constructed building is very well done, with a huge number of aircraft on display right from the beginning of flight. There were a lot of WWII planes from both sides, Russian planes, US aircraft, plus various US aircraft and missiles which were shot down during the attack on Yugoslavia which eventually toppled Milosovic. At the museum shop we bought a couple of flying adventure books in English for very low prices and some gift items, which cleaned us our of both local currency and small bills in $US. It was a great way to pass a couple of hours.
When we returned to the terminal to check in, we found the station manager had upgraded us to business class. JAT is rapidly becoming my favourite airline! None of the problems we have were their doing, yet they have gone to such great lengths to be considerate and helpful. No telling what they must do when something is their fault!
The airport was filled with the sound of drunken male voices raised in song. There were about three dozen football fans, all with beer of various sizes in their hands, having a great time singing at the top of their lungs as they progress through check in an off to their plane. That should prove to be a fairly lively flight! A dozen stern faced police officers were doing nothing to interfere with them, but were making their presence very obvious. They seemed to have little sense of humour about the proceedings!
We hung around for a long while before anyone was permitted to go to the boarding gates - they didn't open them until 20 minutes before flight time. When we shuffled to the point where it was our turn to head for the gates we were informed that we had to purchase airport tax. After all the hours we had hung around the airport this was the first we heard of it, so we rushed down one level to find the tax window with only minutes to spare.
When we got to the front of the tax line we were informed that only dinars, the local currency, or euros could be accepted for tax. The fellow in line behind us gave us 400 dinars, (a little over $7) and said not to worry about it, but that was only enough for one of us, so I went to the money changer with a $100 bill. I was able to change this into euros, so back to the airport tax where I was informed that if I was to pay in euros it had to be exact change. With my sense of humour not holding up well it was back to the money changer where I bought a handful of dinars. At last the tax was able to be paid! We tried to find the Good Samaritan who had given us the money but to no avail - he must have been on another flight.
After all of this the flight was late anyhow, as a passenger who was in very bad shape - perhaps having had an operation - was loaded onto the plane. When we finally got underway it was going on for three PM.
There was a lot of snow on the ground between Belgrade and Podgorica, but when we reached Podgorica the weather was cold and rainy but no snow. While Marilynn waited for the baggage to get off the plane I went in search of a rental car. In spite of the assurances of the internet that there were several at the airport, the reality was that there were none. Outside there were two buses from hotels, but neither of the drivers could speak any English and I could not determine how far away the hotels were - I thought one may have a car rental desk and we could make a reservation for our departure night at the same time.
I walked the whole area around the airport in the rain to no avail, and asking for help proved useless as no one spoke any English. My next plan was to take a taxi, but that had to be a last resort as that would then be the only way to get back as well, and I couldn't get a price from a taxi anyhow as we could not communicate.
When we re-entered the terminal with our baggage there was a police woman and an attendant in the previously abandoned information booth. Apparently Podgorica has one car rental in the entire town. She gave me the brochure with the phone number, but there was no phone I could use. To resolve this impasse the police woman agreed to use her cell phone, but for the next fifteen minutes the car rental line was busy. While waiting for a phone connection a young fellow from the US starting trying to get across that he wanted to take a bus to Dubrovnik, which turned out to be impossible. He had no money for a taxi, and there was no Dubrovnik bus. I told him that should we have any success in renting a car that we'd give him a ride, which made his night. Shortly after that the car rental was contacted and in about half an hour someone was at the airport to collect us.
We all crammed into the tiny Fiat and went to a rather dilapidated Hertz office where the paper work was done. The airport pickup charge was 40 euros (About $50) I was told, and that would have to be paid in cash. I told him I thought that was outrageous, but that I'd pay it when the car was picked up at the airport, thinking that would be incentive for him to actually show up with my bill and blank credit card slip that I'd had to sign. When I asked for the IATA discount that Hertz gives I got the "what have you been smoking look", so knowing that he had me right where he wanted me I desisted from any further attempts at negotiation and signed whatever he wanted me to. The rate turned out to be not as excessive as it could have been at 60 euros per day.
By now it was pouring rain and pitch black. After asking directions half a dozen times, made possible by pointing to our destination on a map I'd bought in Belgrade, we found our way out of town and onto a mountainous, narrow, two lane highway. The skies had opened, rain poured down, lightening flashed and now and then we'd get a glimpse of a village far below through the blackness, so we knew we were skirting cliffs as we wound through the mountains.
I picked a car that was travelling at a reasonable speed and whose driver seemed to know the road, and stuck with it. The tactic worked. With help from Marilynn and our passenger we navigated unerringly through Monte Negro. Things seemed to be turning around for the better when we drove straight onto the car ferry just as it was leaving to cross a bay. When we reached the Croatian border the rain had stopped, and the border guards waved us through after a cursory glance at the car documents and our passports.
We are staying in a small, coastal village called Cavtat, about 16 kilometres south of Dubrovnik. It is a real beauty spot with many coves and sheltered harbours. We drove into the harbour which is the centre of town and Chad, our passenger, stepped right onto the local bus which would take him to his destination in Dubrovnik. He was a happy guy!
After exploring every road in the area of the small town, and asking directions a couple of times, we finally found the deluxe Hotel Croatia. Check in was simply a matter of saying who we were and the room key was presented, everything had been done in advance. Our car was parked for us and the luggage was on its way to the room before we were. At last, a safe haven! After a good meal, drinks and wine it was off to bed - it had been a long and draining day! The balcony is right above the rocky shore of the Adriatic Sea, so we will be serenaded by the sound of waves hitting the shore. Tomorrow we can look forward to exploring one of my favourite places, Dubrovnik.