Serbian Meat Platters and Other Travel Do’s and Don’ts
By David Infante
It was the middle of the night and I was wide-awake, locked in a three-person sleeper compartment on a Slovenian overnight train rocketing through the pitch-black European countryside. Two of us were racked with food poisoning, and through the paper-thin walls we could hear our belligerently drunk German conductor crash around his cabin.
As relatively inexperienced hostel-hoppers, we’d make a few bad decisions that turned an otherwise fantastic Eastern European backpacking trip into a Continental comedy of errors. Things would only get worse, but that’s how fast things can turn on you when you’re traveling abroad and don’t get the inside scoop.
Though he’s yet to touch down in Europe, Jon Olson has been all over the globe with his insightful, accessible, and educational travel show Next Stop. From Walla Walla to Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo; Mexico to Kelowna and British Columbia, Olson gives an in-depth tour of his destination’s can’t-miss sightseeing attractions as well as deep-cut local finds like ceramic tile-making artisans and working coconut plantations. No matter where he goes, Olson has the bead on that location’s coolest spots, and equally as important, he knows how to travel smart.
Click to watch the first episode of the new travel series Next Stop, “Oahu”
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When done intelligently and safely, travel is one of the most rewarding experiences out there. You enjoy a new culture, eat weird food, party with hopefully attractive foreigners, and generally sample the best a country has to offer. But when your jet setting acumen lacks the benefit of Olson’s years of experience, you may find yourself trapped in a rickety railcar, staring down submachine guns held by Slovenian border guards. Let’s take a look at some of my missteps, and how Olson gets the most out of each of his trips while avoiding a similarly harrowing fate.
Do: Make sure the restaurant is quality before you try local foods. Olson is always sure to stop off at a curated selection of dark taverns, white-tablecloth chophouses, and bustling street bazaars when he’s in country to sample the best of what the locals are eating and drinking. From lush crates of fruits at the Zihuatanejo Market, to five-star mixology at Australia’s finest cocktail bar, he finds top-notch cuisine of all calibers.
Don’t: Order the “Serbian Meat Platter”. Fresh off a turbulent flight from the beachside resort town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, we set off on a mission to locate something greasy and heavy to sop lingering hangovers from a Fourth of July spent partying with expats. In Zagreb, the Croatian capital, there was no shortage of options.
On the menu at a cafe off the main square was something called the Serbian Meat Platter. As invincible Americans, we felt compelled to try it. What followed from downing this mountain of sausages, schnitzels, and bratwursts was an almost Biblical bout of food poisoning. I’ll save you the gory details, but suffice it to say that enduring it with only a filthy train bathroom at our disposal was a categorically grotesque experience.
Do: Double-check your transportation arrangements well in advance of your trip. As a television host, Olson travels in style with Alaskan Airlines and Qantas, as well as by chartered boat, bike, and car. He knows the rule of the road — always make sure you know how you’re getting where you want to go.
Don’t: Wait ‘til your train is leaving the station before discovering you don’t have tickets. When waiting for our night train in Zagreb, we made a terrible error, mistaking our reservations (effectively, seat assignments) for tickets (your pass to actually ride the train). After the fateful meal, and a brief-but-intimidating encounter with a beefy Croat who looked like Jaws from Moonraker, our train finally arrived. Upon settling into our tiny cabin (more on that in a minute) we met our not-yet-drunk German conductor, who, using his very limited grasp of the English language, informed us that the slips of paper we handed him were mere reservations, and we’d need tickets to ride the train.
By now, night had fallen in Zagreb, and we realized that if we didn’t catch this train — leaving in 10 minutes — we’d be stranded in the Croatian capital overnight with no place to stay but the station or a last-minute (and thus, assuredly high-quality) hostel. We barreled back into the station, where we cut a line of kindly peasant folk and paid an exorbitant number of Croatian Kuna for tickets. With time ticking down we filled out the forms, swiped our credit cards, and sprinted back to the train, barely making the doors as they were shutting.
Do: Find the best accommodations you can afford. It’s worth it. No matter where he goes, Olson always sniffs out cool digs at places like Sydney’s Kirketon, Chicago’s Conrad Hotel, and the Eden Roc Renaissance in Miami Beach. Part of what makes Next Stop so cool is that it gives you an insider’s look at accommodations you could only afford if you were really splurging, but even if you’re traveling on a budget, there’s probably a high quality – or at least, clean room out there if you look.
Eden Roc Renaissance, Miami Beach
Don’t: Try to save on a hotel by booking a night train. You won’t sleep a wink. By the time we got situated in our prison cell-sized, three-person cabin (it was kind of like this, except disgusting, wet and smaller) it was late, and we were exhausted. Keeping us from sleeping were several factors. The lowest of the three bunk cots – calling them “beds” would be a gross exaggeration – doubled as the bench seat, and it took us about 45 minutes of fumbling with various levers and latches to convert it to a sleeping platform.
Then there was our neighbor, the German conductor, who broke into a liter of vodka as soon as we’d pulled out of Zagreb. He thrashed about his cabin like a caged animal, and could be heard alternatively singing and groaning well into the wee hours of the morning.
Conductor’s Kalashnikov Vodka
Do: Read cautionary signs before making decisions.
Nonetheless, our biggest obstacle to catching some z’s was the security in the cabin itself. Our door had literally four different locks on it, each more suspect than the one below. This begged the question of “what in the scary hell do we so desperately need to keep out of our room?” We then stumbled upon a posted warning that thieves and gypsies often boarded the train illegally and robbed passengers. Apparently we shouldn’t open the door under any circumstances unless we knew the person knocking. Insomnia inspiring.
Don’t: Argue with anyone sporting an automatic weapon.
We ultimately did not get gypsied, but were treated to a middle-of-the-night interrogation by submachine gun-toting Slovenian border guards. They were less than thrilled, it seemed, at a few foreigners who seemingly boarded a train without intending to buy tickets. Sleepless-induced retorts at the subpar conditions didn’t get us anywhere either. Our new friends decided to keep us close a while, effectively detaining us on our ride.
At about 5:30 a.m., just as the sun was coming up and we were finally dozing off, our now very hung over conductor pounded down our door to inform us that the train would not be traveling to our destination of Prague. Apparently there weren’t enough Prague passengers to warrant that stop anymore, but they’d happily let us out to find “other means of traffic”.
Forget the fact that our tickets – for which we’d paid thousands of Kuna — clearly read Prague. We were actually relieved when, after much deliberation in German and Czech, the engineer decided on a compromise: they’d attach our sleeper car to the back of a Prague-bound freight train…
So would I go back to Eastern Europe on another trip? Hell yeah. But not before I explore several of the cities Olson has been to, armed with a foolproof itinerary from each episode of Next Stop.
Click to watch Next Stop, “Cabo”
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David Infante is the Merchandising Editor at Thrillist. He’s a lover of reality TV, Rangers hockey, and Elmore Leonard stories. A graduate of UVA, his affinity for cheap beer is matched only by his staggering collection of button downs.