Dancing to Balkan Beats in Eastern Europe

After spending a week in Slovenia relaxing on stony beaches along the coast, cycling to salt plains and exploring caves and castles, my friend and travelling partner Jess and I felt we’d got everything out of this country that we possible could. There was one exception, however – we were yet to experience any nightlife. It was our last night in the picturesque town of Piran and we were sitting back, watching the owner of our hostel and his father play music together, chatting to two Dutch girls who were telling us about their time in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. We were due to head there next, so I asked if they could give us some advice on where to go out and they told us about this place called Metelkova, an abandoned military base that comprises several bars and live music venues, which put on different events throughout the year. It sounded intriguing so, upon arriving in Ljubljana, we dumped our bags at the hostel, went for a quick meal then decided to check it out for ourselves.

Piran

Jess and me in Piran

I’m not sure why, but we both felt slightly apprehensive as we approached the place, and had agreed that we’d just go for a couple of hours, then head back to the hostel- I had to catch a flight to Vienna at 8am after all. Once we were there, however, that feeling completely disappeared. Metelkova was a playground for adults. Literally. There were swings and slides, people drinking, chatting, singing and playing various different instruments, as music blared out from the surrounding bars. In the queue at one of the bars, a guy turned to me and asked, “Do you speak English?” The next thing I know, I’m sitting at the top of a climbing frame with him, his Kiwi mate, Jess and a group of Slovenians, who were offering their weed around. We sat there and chatted for ages, observing our bizarre surroundings: old, brightly-coloured buildings, whose walls were covered in graffiti and mosaics, trippy sculptures of mutant babies and giant body parts, plants growing in empty oil drums and all sorts of other weird and wonderful things.

Metelkova

One of the many odd art installations at Metelkova

At one point, I ventured into one of the bars to use the toilet, where I encountered an array of sweaty people dancing to this mad style of music that I’d never heard before (I later learned it was Balkan music). I couldn’t resist joining the madness and it was just minutes before I too was caked in sweat from dancing so frenetically, but it was such fun that I didn’t want to stop! The others eventually joined me and Jess described the scene as ‘a barn dance on acid’- I couldn’t have summed it up better myself. We learned that there’s no particular way to dance to Balkan music, you just go for it and do your best and keep up with the quick tempo (see video below).

After almost two hours of dancing with just the occasional break, we were absolutely exhausted and ready to wave farewell to Metelkova. By this stage, we’d accumulated several locals, who had joined our little group and who tried to convince us to stay on to play a game of poker with them. Seeing as I had to catch my flight, and now didn’t have any time to sleep beforehand (so much for the ‘couple of hours’…), I politely declined and returned to the hostel with Jess. There was a minor drama involving my bus to the airport, but luckily I made it to Vienna and caught a bus straight to Bratislava, where I’d planned to spend the next couple of nights. Upon entering the hostel there, I spotted a poster advertising a Balkan beats night in a club called Dunaj. My eyes lit up. A quick nap, plate of pasta and pint of Kofola later, I was set to do it all over again.

Balkan beats

‘Barn dance on acid’

 

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Highlight of Slovakia: Zdiar

Located at the base of the High Tatras, the tallest range in the Carpathian Mountains, is the picturesque village of Zdiar, which is the oldest Tatra settlement. With its decorated timber cottages, surrounding cliffs and thick woods, and verdant hiking trails that take you up into the mountains, this has to be one of the most beautiful spots I discovered on my trip to Slovakia. However, my favourite thing about this village, and the reason I came here in the first place, was the wonderful Ginger Monkey Hostel, where I spent four nights. As a solo traveller, it’s essential in a place like this to find likeminded people who make you feel like part of the ‘family’, and the Ginger Monkey certainly has that family feel to it. On my first night, I was shown around the hostel and upon entering the kitchen, an array of smiling faces looked up at me and welcomed me in, before asking if I wanted to share their beer and delicious home cooked food- an offer I could hardly refuse! That night, we sat up till the early hours playing numerous daft drinking games, which had me in stitches (and I wasn’t even drinking).

Ginger Monkey

The view from the hostel

Over the course of the next few days, we went on lengthy hikes, swam in lakes, visited the beautiful Slovak Paradise National Park and spent ample time enjoying the sunshine and views of the mountains from the hostel’s terrace. The sunshine vanished altogether on one of our hikes though, when we were just half an hour from the peak of a mountain and the heavens opened, torrential rain drenching us all. Unfortunately, nobody had thought to bring a jacket or a waterproof and, as we’d heard there was no shelter at the top, we resorted to turning around and walking back the way we’d just come, a feat which proved difficult due to the bad visibility and slipperiness of the slope. Everybody just took it in their stride though and, despite the fact we were all totally freezing, we were immediately able to see the funny side.

Hiking

Before we all got rained on…

My last day was possibly my favourite; it began with another hike, this time with uninterrupted sunshine, along an exceptionally beautiful trail that led to a place where you could go luging on a rail. For a mere €8, we were able to purchase three goes on this crazy virtual luge, whizzing through the woods faster with each turn – that certainly brought out the kid in me. We then took a (considerably slower) chairlift down the mountain and hopped on the bus to take us back to Zdiar. By that point, I was starving, so I returned to the traditional Slovak restaurant we’d visited the night before and ordered the beast of all meals: roast pork knuckle, Zdiar’s local delicacy. Words can’t even describe how tasty and immensely satisfying that dish is… I can feel my mouth watering just thinking about it.

Luge

Luge!

The day only continued to get better, with us returning to the first part of our morning hike and walking back up the hill to get a prime view of the town and its surroundings. With snacks and beers in hand, we sat down on the grass and watched the sun set behind the mountains- a truly spectacular sight. Near the foot of the mountain, there was an old, abandoned hotel, which had had us all intrigued since we’d arrived and we thought it might be fun to check it out at night. In an attempt to spook one another, we switched off the lights on our phones and lit a candle, before setting it down on the floor and writing eerie messages in the dust around it. I began telling a ghost story, and was almost at the end when out of nowhere, we heard footsteps and saw a figure appear at the window with a torch (at this point I genuinely was a bit scared!) The figure turned out to be a policeman, who wanted to know what an earth we were all doing in an old building that hadn’t been open to the public in years and demanded that we get out immediately. Once again, we all saw the funny side and luckily, so did the policeman (once we’d assured him we wouldn’t be returning).

Sunset

Sunset behind the mountains

It was back to the hostel after that, for unsurprisingly, there wasn’t exactly much nightlife in Zdiar; the previous night, we had gone for a couple of drinks in the one bar that stayed open past 10pm and had been the only people in there. The barman, who had made continuous hints that he wanted us to leave, was instead forced to watch us get up on the table and start dancing, something I’m fairly sure he’d never before witnessed in his bar! Still, he didn’t object and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely for the short time that we were up there.

Table dancing selfie

Dancing on the table

The following morning, I was up early and back on the train to Bratislava, a lovely scenic train ride, during which I reminisced over the fantastic four days I’d spent in Zdiar. If there was one piece of advice I could give to anyone travelling to this part of the world, it would be this – don’t just city hop. So many people visit Eastern Europe and go from one capital city to the next, never branching out or bothering to look at what else each country has to offer, meaning you miss out on all the hidden gems. I’m very glad I found out about Zdiar and the stunning Tatras Mountains and would highly recommend a trip here to anyone. If you stay in the Ginger Monkey, please send them my love and give their gorgeous dog Wally a big pat from me!

Slow Cooked in Italy

If you thrive off the fast-paced, high-pressured lifestyle which most big cities subject you to, then don’t even think about living in Italy; a country where the trains never run on time, shop owners enjoy three-hour lunch breaks, places close without warning and every meal is slow cooked certainly isn’t for everyone. It took me a while to adapt too, for I was initially impatient and irritated at the amount of time I felt I was wasting there, but then I gradually began to embrace what I like to call the ‘slow cooked’ way of living.

The view from above in Firenze

The view from above in Firenze

There were so many occasions during my stay in Italy where time would simply pass by without me being aware: slurping away on a Spritz and nibbling aperitivi in bars with friends, ambling along cobbled stone streets, enjoying a freshly baked pizza while watching the sun go down, practicing the language with strangers on rickety trains, sitting in the plaza and admiring handsome Italian men on the street behind a pair of shades… the list goes on and on. The place I spent the most time, however, was on the balcony of my very own apartment, where I would sunbathe and gaze out over the mountains while conversing in Italian with my dear old housemate, Tullio. Tullio is one of the kindest and most amazing people I’ve ever met, he taught me so much as well as helped me improve my Italian a great deal, and we always seemed to have plenty to talk about. We passed endless periods of time out there and, whereas it may not seem particularly exotic, when you have exceptional views and company, you really don’t feel the need to stray very far from your own living space.

Please click here to continue reading this article, which I entered for a travel writing competition on We Said go Travel’s website. Thanks!