2023 Travelogue: Bologna, the Boss, and the Balkans

Well, this was a hell of a trip. An epic 11-day journey through Italy and the Balkans.

Last year I was mindlessly browsing social media when I saw a post that Bruce Springsteen was announcing a European tour, his first time in Europe since I moved here, and his first proper tour since 2017. I’d seen Bruce once before, during his Wrecking Ball tour which served as somewhat as a farewell to Clarence Clemons, who had died the year before.

I’m a huge Springsteen fan. It’s no exaggeration when I say his music saved my life. So when I saw tickets were available, and better yet, he was playing two shows in Italy during a German holiday weekend, I bought them right away. The end of May this year has more of those Christian holidays in it, with a Thursday holiday, followed by a normal working week, followed by another 3 day weekend. This meant that by investing only 5 days off, I could take a twelve day vacation. Even better that it’s on my birthday weekend, too.

The deal got even sweeter when the NightJet service announced it would resume its Munich-Rome route, and so I began planning what was supposed to be an 11-day trip through six countries, though some circumstances ended up changing a bit of the trip. No matter, let’s begin.

Leg 1: Berlin to Bologna

The night train left from Munich on Wednesday, which means I had to find a way to Munich without taking time off. No matter—my company has an office in the city, so I concocted a plan that I knew would leave me with major regrets later. I got up at the crack of dawn and took the 6 AM train from Berlin Hauptbahnhof and headed straight to the office with my bags. The train left a bit late, so after finishing my workday late and heading to Munich Hauptbahnhof, I hopped on board the NightJet and joined five other folks in a sitting car.

I don’t recommend the sitting car. There’s hardly any space, no legroom, and the luggage racks are a deathtrap. I know this because the train stopped short twice, twice spilling my baggage onto the other passengers, and very nearly a toddler. This was pretty uncool, even as the bags were quite securely stored. I had hoped to get some sleep nevertheless, and did, but it was in fits and spurts, I probably stole 3 hours of sleep over the course of the trip.

The train got into Bologna at 5.15a and here I made my second mistake. I had assumed that most major cities' train stations would have some self-service baggage storage. Bologna did not. Eventually, I was able to find an app that would allow me to store the baggage at a nearby 24h hotel, so after a bit of stressing, I made my way there and dropped my rollerbag. This left me several hours to check out the city before I would be able to check into my hotel. I saw the sights and read a bit about the neo-fascist bombing in Bologna in 1980.

The Two Towers in Bologna, black and white

The hotel was actually located in Pieve di Cento, about an hour away by train and bus, so after scavenging up some lunch, I headed over there, exhausted and ready to nap. I would need to get some sleep in before the concert in Ferrara.

Pieve di Cento is a small exurb of Bologna and I actually quite liked the area, it was rural and charming, despite the annoyance of the hotel not really being in a walkable place. I checked in, took a solid nap, and headed back over to the train up to Ferrara.

I suppose there’s an element to this story I’ve left out. While I was on my way from Munich, I checked the weather and learned about the historic flooding happening in Italy, specifically in the region I was visiting. Bologna and Ferrara weren’t strongly affected, but many of the surrounding communities were. In fact, I was supposed to head to Rimini the next day before heading off to San Marino. This was obviously not possible, as Rimini was underwater, and I narrowly avoided being trapped in that city. It’s still more evidence of the devastating impact climate change is having on Europe, and European leaders need to wake up to the climate disaster facing us.

Bruce got a lot of criticism for not canceling the concert, but it’s also hard to see how that would have helped much. Most of the attendees had already arrived, and Ferrara was far enough from the disaster area as to not disrupt the rescue and recovery efforts. This is not to say that everything was fine. The venue was in a large park and the region had seen some rain. This meant the park was extremely muddy and it was quite a mess; I was thankful for bringing washable shoes.

The next challenge awaited me: my hotel in Pieve di Cento was not reachable by public transportation at the end of the concert. So I ducked out of the Ferrara show a little early to find a cab. Covered in mud, I painfully walked around the venue until I could find a cab that would make the 45 minute drive. I got back and immediately hit the shower before passing out hard.

Leg 2: Bologna to Rome and the Vatican

Because of the floods, my San Marino stay was canceled, and I was lucky to find a cheap open room in Bologna. So I headed back there and spent the day reading and recovering. I went out to a pizza restaurant and had the best pizza I’ve ever had. It’s true; pizza in Italy is something different.

The fast train to Rome left midday on Saturday, and I made it to Rome in time to stash my bags and get to my scheduled visit of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. As expected, this was essentially a visit spoiled by the mass of tour groups, but who am I to complain about being a tourist while being one myself. I’m glad I saw the Sistine Chapel, but honestly it’s not the best viewing experience. It’s impressive, but a little dark, and it’s hard to really take it all in while craning your neck. I guess Michaelangelo had it worse. It wasn’t a religious experience for me. I suppose I have gone through some of the Catholic rites, but I wasn’t brought up in the church and know little about its rituals.

Checking into my hotel, which was a bit outside the city (hotel rates were obscene), I got ready for Sunday, where I’d see Bruce again, this time at Circo Massimo in the center of Rome. I headed into town early Sunday, taking my camera along to see some of the typical sights—the Pantheom, the Colosseum, all that good stuff. Honestly, I’m glad I did. The Colosseum is an impressive building, and being surrounded by that much history is a privilege. After a lot of travel, I took the next day as a rest day and stayed in, doing some reading and writing. Honestly for as expensive as the hotel was, it was nice to make use of some of the amenities.

The Springsteen show in Ferrara was great, but honestly the Rome show was a disappointment. Circo Massimo is, let’s be honest, a terrible venue. It’s long and narrow, which means that to have a good experience you need to have a lot of video screens spread out. There’s no easy way down to the general admission area, and Rome, too, had rain, which meant it was also a mudfest. To make matters worse, there was a major synchronization issue with the audio and video—actually I think the audio was delayed. This made it hard for Bruce to work the crowd at all. The concessions situation was a nightmare, and I made the right call by spending the entire time up on the wings of the venue. I ducked out a couple songs early—I knew his encore would mostly be some of the stuff I don’t like as much. I’m actually a huge Springsteen fan, it’s no exaggeration to say that his music saved my life more than once. I’d have been sad if this was my only chance to have seen him, but it was my third show (after the one in Ferrara), and I’d already had the privilege of seeing him play Jungleland in Charlottesville a decade ago, so there’s only a few more songs I’d like to get to see him perform sometime.

National University Library of Kosovo

Leg 3: Rome to Vienna to Pristina

After the show in Italy, I wanted to take the week to explore a bit more of the Balkans. It’s the largest area in Europe I have unexplored, so I’ve been trying to get to that area more and more. I went to Tirana last year and loved it, and I was in Sofia just recently, so I figured I’d continue working my way up. I bought flight to Pristina from Rome, but it involved a 12-hour layover in Vienna. I had never been to Austria before (somehow, despite dating an Austrian!), so I set out for the airport and explored the city center a bit.

After a day stomping around Vienna, I headed off to Pristina, Kosovo. The country delcared independence a decade and a half ago, and lately there’s been continued tensions in some regions. Pristina was fine, however, and I was thrilled to see that it had a beautiful and vibrant downtown area. I’ve been wanting to see the National University Library, which is this fantastic brutalist structure with white domes and covered in a metal mesh. It’s a really fantastic building.

National University Library of Kosovo

Kosovo is an interesting country, it’s clear that it’s a country trying to find itself. There’s a lot of development, and some things that are being reconstructed. It’s also not an area accustomed to travelers, although I had no problems speaking English there. After the flooding in Italy, I was worried that my tendency to be forever on the margin of disaster would strike. Kosovo is still going through unrest in some parts, and sure enough, barely after I left, there was a lot of violence in the north. I hope that cooler heads prevail, and I’m glad I got to see the city.

Leg 4: Pristina to Skopje

To round out my trip, I decided to spend a couple days in one more country: North Macedonia. I checked the internet and it looked like there was a daily train at 7 AM from Pristina to Skopje, so I got up early and walked the 15 minutes to the train station. This was my first mistake. Apparently, the station had closed months ago, and the building had been gutted. Undeterred, I knew there was at least one daily bus in the afternoon, so I walked another 20 minutes, rollerbag in tow, to the bus station. On arriving, I bought a ticket and learned that the bus was leaving in only five minutes! The bus cost about 8 euro.

I made it in time and enjoyed a rather calm drive through the Balkans. This was really beautiful land, the rolling mountains reminded me of the Blue Ridge, and the trip was short enough that I was able to simply zone out and enjoy the scenery. A quick stop at the Kosovo border crossing, where we didn’t need to get off the bus, followed by the Macedonian crossing, which we had to walk through, and we were well on the way to Skopje.

As I got there, I was stunned: Skopje is an amazing city! The city had gone through a lot of development in the past decade, perhaps with some, um, questionable political motivation, but it felt quite modern and cosmopolitan. The people there were super friendly and I greatly enjoyed the Vardar riverfront. There’s a lot of neoclassical architecture there and wide, tree-lined pedestrian areas. Skopje was incredible, it’s definitely a city I’ll go back to.

The Macedonian Architecture Museum

Exhausted, after 11 days of travel I was happy to grab a cab to the airport and head back to Berlin… on my birthday! I guess this trip was a birthday present to myself, a prime-numbered birthday, and a birthday in my middle ages, where I get to live my dreams of traveling the world. Five countries (almost six!) in eleven days. Two Bruce Springsteen shows. Museums, art, and architecture. What could be better?

Italy, Vatican City, Austria, Kosovo, and North Macedonia now mean I have been to thirty countries in Europe.

Posted: 29.05.2023

Built: 18.04.2024

Updated: 24.08.2023

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