I am a curse. I should never go on holiday.
Last year Peter and I went to Vietnam . . . and were in Hanoi when super-typhoon Haiyan hit the coast. This year we’ve come to the Balkans . . . and they’ve suffered the worst floods in recent history. Maybe I should never leave the UK. (Maybe I should hire myself out to drought-ridden countries as a guaranteed source of rain).
Without wishing to downplay the nightmare currently being lived out by the tens of thousands of people affected by this horrific act of nature, it didn’t change the fact that our travel plans were now completely scuppered. Our intention had been to take the train from Sarajevo to Zagreb, and another the next day on to Ljubljana, but to my immense disappointment we realised that no trains were crossing the border, and huge swathes of the Bosnian transport network are in serious trouble. We despondently looked for alternatives but soon realised that the only practical option was to fly directly to Ljubljana, and skip out Croatia altogether.
There were silver linings. We spent a little longer in our lovely Sarajevo hideaway up in the hills. We had more time to chat with our hosts Nedzad and his wife Amina. We got to fly via Belgrade.
Wait, what? Belgrade?!
Yes: another unexpected, unintentional transfer via a country which is actually in the opposite direction to that in which we wished to go. This particular layover, admittedly, was only an hour and a half. But at (a nonetheless purse-stretching) £94, these flights were the cheapest available; the rest were over £400. Fine. Skyscanner had spoken. We were going to Serbia.
The flights weren’t too long but to my horror, both took place in tiny propellor-driven planes with a passenger capacity of 66. (I later learned that they’re actually safer than jets because they can glide for 2-3 hours if one of the engines were to stop working, which led me to wonder how they knew that, but I thought it better not to ask).
The fact that Peter couldn’t even stand upright in the low-slung cabin meant an obvious need for emergency exit seats, and due to the squashed nature of the layout, put us directly in front of one of the two cabin crew members. His name was Mihailo and he had been flying with Air Serbia for precisely two months which is probably why he was so eager to chat. Mihailo was bright, intelligent, spoke incredibly good English (which he had learnt, inexplicably, by watching The Weakest Link) and refreshingly communicative. We discussed the floods and he admitted that in a strange way, it had been a blessing.
“The Serbs are . . . complicated people,” he explained. “We fight a lot. This has brought us closer together”.
We were flying at a relatively low altitude and he pointed out when we flew over Obrenovac, a small city which lay in the bend of a river and, following the floods, was now entirely underwater. We gazed out of the window in dismay at what looked like a gigantic lake and tiny spots which were presumably roofs. He showed us where the river had burst its banks and how narrow it should have been. From our air-conditioned vantage point, with snacks and coffee, calmly passing over the horrors below, we saw raft-like houses and fields – livelihoods – now resembling swimming pools, glistening benevolently in the afternoon sun.
We landed in Ljubljana a day earlier than anticipated, heading to a guesthouse in a village out in the Slovenian countryside. It was lovely and calm, apart from three churches clanging away at the hour in close succession. We had been promised a mountain view, the snow-capped tips of which we glimpsed from the road with great excitement. Now we were really on holiday! Alpine villages! Ski resorts! Glorious European countryside in the golden late spring! Indeed, from the road the location looked like this:
Meanwhile, our balcony overlooked this:
Luckily it got dark pretty quickly.
This morning, we discovered that everything in Slovenia outside of Ljubljana (and half the stuff in Ljubljana) is closed on a Sunday, including the bus, and grudgingly ordered a taxi to take us to the city. €46 later, we arrived. I miss Sarajevo. Dinner for £2 and a taxi up the hill for 85p . . . can’t go wrong.
Whilst the whole point of this trip – travelling by train back to London – is receding ever-further into the distant annals of “great ideas that didn’t quite work out”, I’m quite grateful for having made the excessively roundabout journey from Sarajevo to Ljubljana, if only for the conversation with Mihailo. He also briefed us on the strangest things people have asked him to do whilst working as cabin crew, life in Belgrade, and his dream destination. He definitely underlined my belief that unexpected encounters are often the most memorable. (Even if the other person learnt English from Anne Robinson). So thank you Mihailo; and I truly hope you make that trip to London, and get your photo taken with one of the Queen’s guards, and that it’s worth every single toothpick.