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Clare

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  1. Last night was our final night in Kiruna, so we decided to go out for an evening walk to see the Christmas lights in the town centre. The big Christmas tree looked pretty in the dark... ...and Tim looked quite regal in the ice throne We walked past the display of snow sculptures. It was actually a bit easier to make our some of the shapes in the dark. Once we'd done a circuit of the town centre, we headed back to our apartment for the night. We're flying back home from Narvik tomorrow, so the main aim of today was to travel back from Sweden to Norway. Our train wasn't until the afternoon though, so we were able to have a leisurely start to the morning. We'd just finished breakfast and were considering starting to pack, when I looked out the window of our apartment in Kiruna and was amazed to get a glimpse of some polar stratospheric clouds, just like the ones we'd seen in Abisko earlier in the week! We didn't have to check out of the apartment until 11, so we quickly pulled on our warm clothes and boots and ran outside to have a look. We walked along the main road from our apartment, trying to find a place from which we would have an unobstructed view. The clouds were the most amazing colours. Tim managed to capture them more accurately by making his camera darker. We walked down a rather slippery pavement, towards the park we'd discovered yesterday. From there we had the clearest views, without any buildings in the way... ...and the clouds looked beautiful above the snowy landscape. I could have stayed and stared at them all day Unfortunately, however, we had to return to the apartment to pack up our things and check out. Our train to Narvik wasn't departing until 14.51, so once we'd successfully checked out we had some time to kill in Kiruna. As we walked back into the town centre, the sun was rising and there were some beautiful pink colours in the sky There's a small indoor shopping centre in Kiruna, so that was our first stop. It had a cafe, where we got two rather strong Americanos From there we moved on to Kiruna's English pub (bizarrely, Kiruna has an English pub called The Bishop's Arms!!), where we were able to get lunch. I had a burger, while Tim had fish and chips. It was really dark in the pub (loads of places in Sweden seem to be really badly lit!) so we then moved back to the slightly brighter cafe for another coffee and some cake It was while we were having the coffee and cake that I got a rather disturbing text from Swedish Railways about our train When Google-translated, this informed us that due to a "nature incident" the train line to Narvik was closed. Oh dear We made our way towards the station, hoping for the best. It was still really snowy everywhere but the snow was flattened down and much easier to pull our cases on than it had been the day when we arrived It was much easier walking downhill from the town to the station, as opposed to uphill from the station to the town As we got close to the station, we passed a hill with an illuminated ski run which I hadn't even noticed on the day we arrived. When we got to the station the train to Narvik was sitting on the platform, so we boarded it and hoped for the best. It departed promptly, without any announcements about the line being closed. In the absence of announcements, I checked the Swedish trains website and found a message said that the "nature incident" had now been resolved and the line was opened again. Phew!! It was a big relief that we were going to make it to our destination; I don't know whether they would have put on a rail replacement bus if the train couldn't run, but if they didn't I think it would have cost more than our life savings to take a taxi We eventually made it to Narvik only 15 minutes or so behind schedule. It looked like it had been snowing quite heavily here and there was lots of fresh snow everywhere. Pulling our suitcases up Narvik's steep streets in the fresh snow was not the most fun we've ever had! Everywhere did look beautiful in the snow though And it was actually easier to walk on this snow than on the ice which had been here when we caught the train on Sunday. As we're just staying one night in Narvik this time and departing for the airport first thing tomorrow morning, I'd booked us into a small hotel rather than re-book the Airbnb apartment we stayed in at the start of the holiday. 895 Norwegian Krone (around £78) got us this tiny room which just about has enough space for both of us and our suitcases We do have free breakfast included in the morning though (which we intend to eat as much of as possible to get our money's worth!) and from our window we can see out across the whole of Narvik. Tomorrow will be a very long day of travelling, with two flights and about 9 hours to kill in Oslo airport, which I don't think will be worthy of a blog! But we've had a fantastic holiday, exploring a completely different part of Lapland and seeing some really amazing clouds, and I think it's definitely been worth the journey
  2. There was lots of snow outside when we woke up in Kiruna this morning The house across the road from where we're staying also had some rather spectacular icicles! It had been pretty much dark when we arrived in Kiruna yesterday, so we were looking forward to seeing the town in the daylight. As we set off in the direction of the town centre, we passed some absolutely enormous piles of snow It didn't take us long to reach the town centre. We found some large snow-covered rocks... ...some pretty Christmas decorations... ...and a whole load more snow It's hard to make them out in the photos because everything is so white, but there were also some snow sculptures... ...and some ice sculptures. I really liked these presents made out of snow We didn't know a lot about Kiruna before we came here, choosing to stay here for a couple of nights mainly because it was the end of the railway line and somewhere I managed to find affordable accommodation, but it's actually a really pretty little town. With a population of around 17,000 people, it's the northernmost town in Sweden. The iron-ore mine here is apparently the largest one in the world, producing 90% of all the iron in Europe. Extraction has been going on here since around 1900 and has made Kiruna a prosperous place. However, the mine is now so extensive that it is starting to cause the town to subside The authorities have therefore decided to demolish the town centre and relocate it to a safer site, 2 miles to the east of its current location. It sounds rather dramatic, but it isn't all happening at once; buildings are being moved gradually, with the aim that the whole town centre will have been moved by 2035. The entire relocation process is being financed by the mine, with residents whose homes have to be sacrificed being compensated for 125% of the price. The most historic buildings in the town will be carefully dismantled and rebuilt in the new location. These include Kiruna's iconic wooden church, which we caught sight of while we were strolling around. The church was built in 1912 and is one of the largest wooden buildings in Sweden. Its unusual shape is because it was designed to represent the shape of a traditional Sami tent. Once we'd passed the church, we caught sight of a rather strange sight; a model rocket by the side of the road. Apparently there is a rocket research centre located outside the town. Across the road we found the entrance to the local park, marked by a large block of ice. We had a walk around the park, which was home to some unusual sculptures, like this rather cross-looking owl. There were also some really interesting photos on display of the early settlers in Kiruna. After we'd been around the park, we walked back up past the church, towards the town centre again. We found an icy throne... ...which I couldn't resist having a sit in As we rounded a corner we saw something which I really didn't expect to find in such a remote corner of the world On our way back towards the apartment, we also saw something else we didn't expect to see; a huge container by the side of the road, full of snow. A man with a digger was collecting snow... ...and depositing it in a big pile further down the road. Next thing we know, a lorry arrives with an empty container. The empty container is deposited... ...and the digger immediately starts filling it with snow. In the meantime, the lorry is picking up the full container of snow. It was so heavy that the front wheels of the lorry lifted off the ground as it was picking it up! The lorry then drove off with the snow, presumably to dispose of it somewhere outside the town. It was a really interesting insight into everyday life here; it's hard to imagine having so much snow that you need industrial machinery to remove it! It's been quite cloudy again today, but once we got back to the apartment the sky was turning a beautiful shade of blue for sunset
  3. As there didn't promise to be a lot happening in Abisko for New Year's Eve, we were booked to visit the nearby Aurora Sky Station for the evening. This is a mountain-top viewing platform, located on a mountain near to Abisko Turiststation, and it's supposed to be a great place for seeing the northern lights. The only way up is via a chairlift and, unfortunately, Abisko had been experiencing strong winds all day, which meant that it wasn't safe for the chairlift to run. A bit disappointing, but I guess that just means we'll have to come back another year and try again On nights when the chairlift is cancelled, there is an alternative programme at Abisko Turiststation instead, so we were picked up by a shuttle service to participate in that instead. We arrived at the Turiststation at around 20.50. The activities weren't due to start until 21.00 and the number of layers we were wearing meant that it was really hot inside, so we decided to wait outside for a while. The Christmas decorations were pretty At 9pm we were ticked off the list and then invited into what I can only describe as a large wooden teepee, with a big fire burning in the middle. We sat here briefly, before being offered the opportunity to go on a northern lights walking tour. We didn't ultimately end up seeing any northern lights, but it was still a fun experience Our guide led us down a series of snowy paths for about half an hour, towards the shore of lake Torneträsk. We definitely wouldn't have walked so far in the dark on our own. The sky wasn't as cloudy as it had been earlier in the day and so we were able to see an amazing quantity of stars, although unfortunately it wasn't possible to capture the night sky with our phone cameras. Eventually we walked back up to the teepee, where there was free gluehwein and hot chocolate on offer There was also dried reindeer meat, but I gave that a miss It was definitely a different way to spend New Year's Eve When we woke up in Abisko this morning, we were in the middle of a blizzard. We were travelling to Kiruna today, but our train wasn't until 12.26, so we had time for a final walk around the village in the snow And there was a lot of snow; it didn't take long until we were both covered in it It was really beautiful to be walking through the snow on New Year's Day though We needed to check out of our hostel around 11, so after a while we had to turn around and go retrieve our suitcases. The station is only a few hundred metres from where we were staying, but it turns out that pulling your suitcase through fresh snow is hard work! We had a while to wait at the station for our train. The platform looked deserted in the snow. The trains in Sweden appear to run on time even during blizzards though There was a nice heated waiting room at the station but some of us were a bit warm after pulling our suitcases through the snow The train arrived promptly and soon we were on a journey through a snowy wilderness. It was snowing so much that a lot of the view was obscured, but every so often I could make out the shapes of mountains in the distance. It's hard to make out in the pictures, but for a while the train travelled alongside lake Torneträsk. As we moved away from the lake and got closer towards Kiruna, the weather seemed to improve a bit and the views became a bit clearer Soon we arrived in Kiruna itself. It looked like there were lots of wagons of iron ore here, waiting to go to Narvik, and in the background behind them we could just make out what I'm guessing is the mine. The station is a couple of kilometres outside the main centre of Kiruna, so there was more snow to pull our cases through. Everywhere looked really pretty though We weren't able to check into our apartment until 3pm, so we had a bit of time to explore. Everything was closed up today for New Year's Day, but we found a main street with a supermarket without too many difficulties Plus we got to see some really beautiful colours in the sunset. Then it was time to check in. This is definitely the most spacious accommodation of our trip In addition to a living room, we have a bedroom... ...and a huge kitchen/dining area. We were actually really lucky with the hostel in Abisko and were the only people staying in it for the past two nights, but it's definitely nice to have a bit more space to spread out this evening
  4. We went out for a walk to the lake in the dark last night, but it was so cloudy that we couldn't even see any stars, never mind the northern lights We were outside for about an hour or so, during which time we walked down to the lakeside and then along part of the path towards Abisko Turiststation. It was snowing all the time, and the snowflakes looked really pretty in the darkness. The unusual street lights which we'd seen earlier in the day were actually really good at night, projecting light downwards so that we could see the path, and not causing lots of light pollution. We might not have seen the northern lights last night, but when we stepped outside our apartment this morning we saw something even rarer in the sky. These, we later learned, were polar stratospheric clouds, and we'd never seen anything quite like them before. Our phone cameras weren't able to capture all the colours, but they were really beautiful; all the colours of the rainbow We were really lucky to have seen them, because the rest of the sky was quite overcast today. As we walked towards Abisko Turiststation, the top of the mountain was obscured by the clouds again. Although, when we turned around once more, we did get another glimpse of the special clouds You can perhaps get a slightly better impression of the rainbow colours in this photo We didn't have a firm plan for the day, but we were hoping to explore a bit more of the national park. We headed off through the wooden walkway again... ...and this time followed a different trail, which we hoped would give us a view of the canyon from the opposite direction. When we'd been at the canyon viewpoint yesterday, we'd seen a bridge across the canyon lower down but hadn't been able to figure out how to get to it. Today we found it and were able to stand in the middle, looking down the length of the canyon. The views were really beautiful There weren't many other people around today either, so we had them pretty much to ourselves We did meet two other people as we were on our way back up from the bridge to the viewpoint we visited yesterday though. The woman started speaking to us in Swedish, before explaining to us in English that there were two moose up ahead! They were quite a distance away and camouflaged by trees, so you're going to have to play spot the moose with the photos It was really cool to see them and they were absolutely huge animals! Once the moose had moved on, we made a quick stop at the viewpoint where we'd taken photos yesterday, to have another look at the ice. Then we followed a track which took us under the main road, then alongside the river which flows through into the canyon. The views of the canyon were really impressive on this side too... ...and we could see the power of the water beneath the ice. The wind was really strong by this point and it was snowing quite heavily. We didn't want to walk too far, so we decided to follow one of the marked trails through the woods for a while, and then turn back. There does seem to be quite a good system of marked walking trails here, although I haven't been able to figure out where to get a proper map that shows where they all go. They are numbered and colour-coded though, with strips of colour wrapped around the trees so that you know you're going in the right direction. We couldn't exactly see polar clouds at this point... ...but there were still some pretty colours in the sky. The trees were really pretty too... ...although it's still surprising me how different the trees are here to in Finnish Lapland. Once we'd walked for half an hour or so, we turned around and headed back the way we'd come. On the way back, there was just time for a final look at the canyon It was already starting to look like twilight as we walked back towards our apartment. When we got as far as the station, we were passed by another one of the iron ore trains to Narvik. From there it wasn't far to walk to Abisko's shop, where we wanted to stock up on supplies. We're travelling to Kiruna tomorrow, but with it being New Year's Day we're not sure whether any shops will be open when we get there. One of the things we needed to stock up on was chocolate; luckily we managed to find some Ritter Sport among all these sweets Then it was back to the apartment for some much-needed food and a rest before we head out again this evening for another attempt to see the northern lights. Not sure we're going to have any success, as I think it's still going to be overcast, but we can't complain when we have seen such beautiful clouds today
  5. Having arrived in Abisko in the dark last night, we were excited to see it in the daylight this morning As expected, it's quite a small place, with a handful of buildings along a main street. The hostel we're staying in is quite small (only four rooms), but we passed a couple of bigger guesthouses as we walked along the street. One of the attractions of Abisko is that it is situated on Lake Torneträsk and we soon found a path which led us down to the lake shore. As you can probably tell from the photo, it was snowing lightly and so we acquired a sprinkling of snow on us as we walked along As we approached some boat houses and covered up boats, we knew we were getting close to the lake. Lake Torneträsk is the sixth biggest lake in Sweden, with a surface area of 130 square miles. We saw a group of people with sticks getting ready to walk on the ice. It didn't look 100% frozen to us though or, at least, the ice wasn't completely covered in snow like the frozen lake we have walked on in the past in Finland, so we didn't fancy standing on it. We got close to the edge though and it was really pretty We enjoyed the views of the lake for a while and then walked back up towards the village. In the distance we could see the tall building of the railway station, where we had arrived yesterday evening. We were looking for a path which would take us to the settlement of Abisko Turiststation, which we passed through on the train yesterday shortly before we arrived here. There were no signs at first, but we followed a small road past these houses in what seemed like the correct general direction. The road led us up towards the railway line, where we were just on time to see a passenger train on its way to Narvik. Shortly after here we saw a sign pointing towards the Abisko National Park, which is what we were looking for. It was still snowing quite heavily at this point. We followed a snowy path, which was initially lit by normal street lamps. As we progressed further along it, it was lit by these smaller, more tasteful lamps instead. It's only about 2km from where we're staying to the national park. One thing which struck us as we followed the path was how different the trees are to Finnish Lapland. Finland is full of conifers, whereas the trees here all seemed to be deciduous. We also realised after a while that we had a view of the frozen lake in the distance Before too long we passed a sign which indicated that we were getting close to our destination. There's supposed to be a big mountain here with a chairlift, but the weather was so cloudy that we could barely make out the base of it. It had more or less stopped snowing now, but I had accumulated rather a lot of snow in my hair Abisko is the start of the Kungsleden hiking trail, which runs from here for 440 km to a place called Hemavan. This wooden construction marks the beginning of the trail. We certainly weren't going to walk that far, but we did want to do a little walk to see a frozen canyon which I'd read about online. We followed a signposted trail along the side of the canyon, at first not able to get much of a view. Soon we were able to look down and see water below us... ...and then the view opened up and we were able to see down the length of the whole canyon. The best views were yet to come though As we rounded a corner, we were able to see down towards a pool of water which definitely wasn't going to freeze any time soon, because we could see fast water flowing into it from behind the rocks. We could also see a huge block of frozen ice which a group of people were attempting to climb Definitely not a winter activity that we'll be attempting! We walked further along and came to another viewing platform. From here we had an amazing view of the icy canyon... ...and of the people trying to climb the ice wall! It was a really beautiful place We followed the path a little further, but the walk didn't seem to be circular so in the end we had to turn around and come back. The weather had begun to clear up a bit now though and by the time we'd retraced our steps, the cloud had moved enough for us to see the mountain which had been completely obscured when we'd arrived. As we turned to walk back to the village of Abisko, we realised we could also now see further out across the lake... ...and it most definitely was not completely frozen We're rather glad we didn't decide to try walking on it now We made it back to Abisko while it was still daylight. We decided to explore the local shop, which is situated with a petrol station beside the main highway which passes through the village. I had been a bit worried about this in advance, because when I'd googled the name of the shop (Godisfabriken) it seemed to be primarily a sweet shop. We'd brought a supply of our own pasta and cup-a-soups with us in our suitcases just in case it wasn't possible to buy any savoury food here But, luckily, that turned out not to be a problem; although half of the shop was indeed given over to an enormous display of pick and mix, the other half was fitted out more like a normal supermarket and so we were able to buy some pizza, as well as ingredients for a bolognese Once we got back to the hostel with our provisions, we realised that the view had now cleared enough for us to be able to see the blue water of the lake from outside our door. It's been a really fun day, and although I think it will probably be too cloudy tonight for us to see any northern lights, we're going to try going out for a walk down to (but not onto!) the lake in the dark later
  6. One of the main things which had convinced me to book flights to Narvik earlier in the year was the fact that it is the terminus station for a railway line known as the Ofotbanen. The train line was built between Sweden and the Norwegian coast in the late 19th century, to enable iron ore being mined in the Swedish town of Kiruna to be transported to the ice-free port of Narvik. Iron ore is still transported on the line today, but there are also two passenger trains per day which run between Norway and Sweden. This means that flying to Narvik is actually quite an easy way to get to Swedish Lapland. The journey itself is supposed to be really scenic, most notably between Narvik and a station called Riksgränsen, which is located at the Swedish border. We'd therefore decided to catch the first train of the day, to ensure that we saw the scenery in daylight When I opened the curtains in Narvik this morning, I saw to my surprise that it was raining The rain had stopped by the time we'd packed up and checked out of the apartment, but it had interesting consequences for the condition of the roads. It was really hard to tell which bits of the road were wet and slushy and which bits were more icy and slippery. Luckily our Yaktrax seem able to cope with all surfaces and we made it to the station without falling over! I'd already bought the tickets in advance online and we had reserved seats, so all we needed to do was wait on the platform for the train to arrive. There were actually some nice views of the fjord from the platform. The train was due to depart at 10.48 and it arrived promptly. There were some groups of Chinese tourists, but overall it wasn't too busy and we were soon on our way towards Sweden As the train pulled out of Narvik, we got a view of a bridge across the fjord which I think we crossed on the airport bus in the dark the night when we arrived. By chance we were sitting on the best side of the train for views The photos are all a bit blurry as they were taken through the glass of the train window, but we travelled along the fjord for miles. As we got further on, it became increasingly narrow... ...until eventually we got close to the end of it. By this stage, the scenery was becoming increasingly mountainous. Finally we passed the end of the fjord. The train took us right across the top of it... ...and then we were properly inland. On the sides of some of the mountains I could see frozen streams. We were getting close to the Swedish border now. We had decided to get off the train at the border station of Riksgränsen, where we were hoping to get lunch and kill some time before catching the second train of the day on to Abisko. We could have stayed on this current train all the way to Abisko, but we would have ended up getting there three hours before we were able to check into our accommodation and, as research suggests that there aren't very many amenities in Abisko (a village with a population of 85 people), that didn't feel like a good plan. Having researched various destinations along the route, Riksgränsen had sounded the most promising place in terms of restaurants and cafes. The guidebook had described it as Sweden's best ski resort and recommended it as a day trip from Narvik. First impressions when we got off the train in Riksgränsen were that it looked a bit small. It was scenic though, with lots of snowy hills. And we were now in Sweden, which was exciting We started walking down to explore the village. Google maps suggested that there would be a restaurant up this road but, when we got there, we found it was all closed up. Trying a different direction, we passed this bus shelter completely buried in the snow There didn't seem to be very many people in Riksgränsen and so far we hadn't seen a single restaurant which was open. We did find a shop, and Tim asked the staff for directions to a cafe. They told us that everywhere in Riksgränsen was closed and that the nearest open establishment was in a neighbouring village They described the village as being 15 minutes away, but the only way to get there was to walk down the main road which they said was a) slippery and b) dangerous because lorries drive along it quite fast. When I looked it up on Google maps, Google suggested it would be more like a 40 minute walk than 15 minutes anyway, so we quickly ruled that out as an option. We could see ski lifts on the hills above the village, but those weren't operational either. The girls in the shop explained that the skiing season hasn't started here yet because, despite the fact that there's lots of snow, there isn't enough daylight. The fact that a ski resort would be closed in December had never occurred to us when we booked this trip We didn't have any options but to walk back up to the train station and wait for our train to Abisko. The station didn't exactly have a lot of facilities. We were able to buy bread, cake and crisps at the shop and have a picnic lunch in the snow; not quite what we'd been hoping for for lunch, but better than nothing We also had some wine in Tim's suitcase (which we'd brought with us because Abisko is too small to have its own alcohol shop) and that livened the picnic up We were lucky that it wasn't actually very cold today; I think the temperature must have been above zero, because we could hear snow melting from the station roof. It was warm enough for Tim to take his coat off anyway I suppose it's fair enough that they don't ski here in December, because there really wasn't a lot of daylight. By 2pm, it was already looking like twilight. By the time Tim went down to the shop again to get some more supplies, it was properly dark. Everywhere looked very pretty in the darkness though. By 3pm it may as well have been the middle of the night! Every so often while we were waiting, freight trains came past bearing the logo of LKAB, the Swedish mining company. The trains were enormous, with so many carriages that it took several minutes for each one to pass. Needless to say, we were incredibly pleased when it was finally time for our train to arrive. This train had sleeper carriages which were continuing on all the way to Stockholm. Perhaps that's an idea for a future holiday! Our journey to Abisko only took around 45 minutes. There are actually two stations in Abisko - Abisko Turiststation, which is the site of a youth hostel, and Abisko Östra, which is the station for the main village. We were getting off at Abisko Östra. Abisko is a very popular winter destination and so, when I was booking accommodation here, options were extremely limited. There were no available apartments or hotels, so I booked us into a small hostel where we would have a bedroom to ourselves, plus use of a shared kitchen and bathrooms. The prices here are reminiscent of Icelandic prices, and so our stay here is costing £98 per night. As you can see from the photo, the room we're getting for that price is a bit on the small size It's warm and comfy though and all the shared facilities seem clean. Best of all, the owners messaged me days in advance with the check-in instructions, including the code we needed to get our keys out of the key safe, so Abisko is already winning over Narvik in that respect! The area around Abisko is supposed to be beautiful, so we are looking forward to exploring it in the daylight tomorrow
  7. We woke up feeling rested this morning and a bit more enthusiastic about exploring Narvik than when we'd arrived last night It was still dark at around 9am when Tim set out to find a shop to buy breakfast. It seems like things are slow to get started in Narvik on Saturday mornings, so it took a while before he found one that was open. By the time he'd returned and we'd had breakfast and were ready to set out again, things had got a bit brighter. Our apartment is in this red wooden house. From our windows we can see this big mountain, with its illuminated ski slope. Hopefully this picture also helps to illustrate how steep the side streets in Narvik are! We were prepared for the slippery pavements today though and had our Yaktrax on, which made it a lot easier to walk. Our first stop was the local shopping centre, because we wanted to track down Narvik's branch of Vinmonopolet, the state-owned alcohol store. We knew from our previous visit to Norway in 2013 that these shops have restricted opening hours and are often closed at times you might expect to be able to buy alcohol, like on weekends or bank holidays. The good news was that when we found the shop, we were able to establish that it was open until 15.00 on Saturdays, so we knew we'd be able to return later and buy some wine It was worth going into the shopping centre anyway to see the Christmas decorations We headed outside again, walking along the town's main street. The mountain we can see from our apartment looms across the whole town. There aren't a lot of sights in the town centre, but there are a few strange landmarks like this huge pyramid. We realised that we could see down towards the bus station, from where we'd started our uphill climb last night. In the distance, we could also see Narvik's main church. The town feels quite large, but it only has a population of 14,000 people so it's actually pretty small by UK standards. Our aim was to walk downhill, towards the harbour area, in the hope of getting some views of the fjord. It wasn't long before we got our first glimpse of the sea! As we walked towards the water, we passed this unusual building. Once we got to the far side of it, we realised that it was a church The further we walked, the more impressive the views became. We began to get better views out across the water. In places the side of the road was quite rocky and we passed some incredible icicles. I don't think I've ever seen icicles this big before Eventually we made it down to the harbour. Despite the fact that it is located very far north (the furthest north we've ever been) Narvik is warmed by the Gulf Stream and so the harbour here is always ice-free. The town grew up here in the 19th century, when a Swedish mining company realised that they could use the harbour to export their iron ore. A significant amount of iron ore is still shipped from here today, and so although some of the views of the fjord were stunning, overall Narvik does have a bit of an industrial feel to it. The ice-free nature of the fjord had unfortunate consequences for Narvik during the Second World War, because the harbour was of strategic importance to both sides. It's hard to imagine when it all looks so peaceful today, but two naval battles were fought in the fjord in 1940. There is a war museum in the Narvik but we didn't go. The views were starting to get obscured by clouds at this point and light snow was falling, so we decided we'd walked far enough around the harbour and turned around to climb back up towards the town centre. The Christmas lights in the main square were pretty. Walking along the main street in the opposite direction from before, we came across this signpost showing the distance between Narvik and various destinations. It turns out we're slightly closer to St Petersburg than we are to Oslo The daylight is quite limited here and before it got dark, we wanted to locate the train station from where we will be catching a train to Abisko in Sweden tomorrow. It turns out that it's actually not that far from our apartment. Walking towards it, we had some more beautiful views of the mountain. We were hungry by this stage, so we walked back towards the shopping centre, where we'd spotted a pizza restaurant earlier. I went for a tropical pizza, which unusually featured pineapple and spicy pepperoni, while Tim had a chicken burger. The food was filling, and not too expensive; we stuck with the free tap water again, so just had the main courses, and the bill came to just under £30. We weren't in the restaurant for long, but by the time we stepped outside, darkness had fallen. Walking back up towards our apartment, we could see the ski run illuminated again. Having explored Narvik today, the apartment is actually in a good location, not far from the train station or the main street. It was a bit of an unpleasant surprise last night to have to do so much walking uphill with our cases (and then not to be able to get into the apartment), but that aside it hasn't been a bad place to stay We're spending tomorrow travelling to Sweden, where we'll be staying in less glamorous accommodation, which will hopefully be compensated for by some amazing scenery!
  8. We had some difficulties with planning our post-Christmas Lapland trip this year. We'd decided that, after a few years in a row of going to Äkäslompolo in northern Finland, we wanted to try somewhere different and we were considering travelling to Ivalo, a village even further north. We spent ages waiting for Ivalo flights to be released by Norwegian, before eventually realising that they'd discontinued their Ivalo route. By the time we'd figured that out, flights to Finland after Christmas were far too expensive, and so it was too late to change our minds and go to Äkäslompolo again instead. While searching for cheap flights to anywhere snowy on the dates we wanted, I stumbled across a good deal to a place in Norway called Narvik. I can't pretend that I'd ever heard of Narvik before, but it seemed sufficiently far north that it ought to have snow, and once we did some research we realised that it was situated at the far end of a train line leading into Sweden. That sounded promising, so we decided to give it a go and I booked the flights while they were still cheap Getting to Narvik involved flying with Norwegian via Oslo, and so it was that our alarms went off at 4am this morning for another early morning drive down to Gatwick. We were flying from the south terminal this time, as opposed to the north terminal for Bolzano, so that was a bit of variety at least; it really didn't feel like very long since we were last in Gatwick We arrived in plenty of time for our 09.20 flight and survived the chaos of self-check in with only a minor blip when Tim's suitcase turned out to be over the weight limit. This may or may not have had something to do with an attempt to import our own alcohol into Scandinavia Luckily, Norwegian is a much friendlier airline than Ryanair and while we had to go to a separate desk to get the bag checked in, we didn't have to pay anything extra. All that remained to do was to keep our fingers crossed that our baggage labels were properly stuck on this time and neither of our suitcases would get lost en route! Our flight departed promptly and we had a pleasant journey. The first part of the flight was very cloudy, and although the sky cleared up about halfway through the journey, the majority of the flight was over the sea so there wasn't actually a lot to see. It was only about half an hour before the end of the flight that I got my first view of the Norwegian coast. As the plane moved further inland, snowy mountain tops suddenly became visible. We flew over the mountains, looking down on frozen lakes and rivers below. As we got closer to Oslo, the countryside became a little flatter. There seemed to be snow everywhere, even this far south. Oslo itself was covered in cloud and there was an announcement saying that the pilot wanted all electronic devices on board switched off to help him land in it We landed safely though and were soon inside Oslo airport, where we had 5.5 hours to kill before our second flight to Narvik at 17.55. We decided to kill some time by having lunch and walked around exploring the various eating options at the airport. We settled for Jamie's Italian, which I thought had gone out of business in the UK but which still seems to be going strong in Oslo. Tim had a tagliatelle bolognese... ...while I opted for a spicy meatball pizza. Both were good, although the Norwegian prices are going to take a bit of getting used to; each main course cost around £18. A glass of wine would have cost £12, so we decided to save money and drink the free tapwater Then there were just a few more hours to wait before our internal flight to Narvik. I passed them with reading, drinking strong coffee and starting to write this blog. We also had to move from the international terminal into the terminal for domestic flights, which provided a bit of variety. Overall Oslo airport is really nice. The seats were comfy and there were plenty of water fountains. We had come prepared with our own water bottles so that we didn't have to pay for bottled water. Our flight to Narvik started boarding promptly at around 17.30. I had expected this to be a smaller plane because I didn't think Narvik would be a very popular destination, but it was actually the same size as our flight from Gatwick and seemed to be completely full. I had high hopes of us departing Oslo on time, because the flight was scheduled to land at 19.35 and the airport bus was due to depart for the town of Narvik at 19.50. If the flight was delayed and we missed that bus, it wasn't the end of the world because the was another bus scheduled for that evening... but not until after 22.00, so we would have quite a long wait. Unfortunately, despite the promising start we didn't take off on time. The plane got close to the runway, but then had to join a queue of planes which were waiting to be de-iced. We sat for about half an hour before it was our turn to be sprayed with the de-icer and we could get on our way. The flight took around 90 minutes, so it was after 8pm before we landed in Narvik. There were no views on this flight as it was so dark, but as we came into land in Narvik we could see that it looked pretty snowy The airport which I've been referring to as "Narvik" is actually called Harstad/Narvik airport, a name which it seems to have acquired by virtue of being located equally far from both Harstad and Narvik, in a place called Evenes. It is a very small airport, so we walked straight off the plane and into a room which seemed to serve both as an arrivals hall and as baggage reclaim. We had to wait a while before the baggage carousel to start up, so I had time to get increasingly nervous about whether our bags were going to have made the connection... happily they both did, and so all that remained was to see whether the airport bus had waited because the flight was delayed. Amazingly, when we stepped outside the airport we found that it had indeed waited I had already purchased the tickets online for 297 NOK, which is about £26 each for a journey of around an hour. The bus waited for a while longer to make sure that everyone had had time to collect their luggage and that there were no more potential passengers, before setting off on its route. The journey took us around the edge of the Ofotfjord, so I had tantalising glimpses of the coast out of the window, whenever there was sufficient light to see anything The snow seemed to go right down to the water, but the water itself was frozen. The bus stopped at various hotels in Narvik, terminating at the bus station. I'd decided that the bus station would be the best place to get off, although I'd done so without realising that the bus station was at the bottom of a rather large hill and the rest of the town was at the top of that hill. We spent 10 minutes or so pulling our cases up very steep and icy pavements, before arriving at the same level as the penultimate bus stop outside one of the town's hotels. Oops - it would have been much better if we had got off there! We are staying in Narvik for two nights and I had booked an apartment via Airbnb. This is the first time I've ever used Airbnb, normally preferring booking.com, and I had only been tempted to use it on this occasion because the apartment I'd found was a mere £60/night which by Norwegian standards seemed like an absolute bargain. I had been a bit nervous about it all day though, because I hadn't had any information from the host about how we were supposed to check in, save for some instructions in Norwegian on the reservation which, when Google translated, gave the address, explained that we needed to enter via a back door and that the apartment was on the second floor, with a key in a key box. That was all well and good but I assumed that there was a code required for the key box, so I'd messaged the person on Airbnb yesterday morning, explaining what time we were arriving and asking for instructions. I hadn't received any reply, so I was hoping that it would turn out to be obvious when we got there. Getting there turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Nothing I had read about Narvik in advance had mentioned the fact that the town is built on a steep slope. The apartment was only 1km away from the bus station and a couple of streets away from the town's main street, so I'd figured it was in a pretty central location. It may be, but we spent most of the kilometre walking uphill on pavements which were covered in frozen snow. Our snow boots have a good grip and some of the pavements were gritted, but even so it was a difficult walk. We arrived at the address on the reservation around 22.15, cold and out of breath. Following the limited instructions we did have, Tim went in through the back door of the building, and found what might be the apartment; a door on what to us was the first floor (but could possibly be the second floor in Norwegian) with a key safe inside it. The key safe was, of course, locked with a code and we didn't have the code. Oh dear The Airbnb app had a "call the host" option, so Tim attempted to give them a ring. Nobody picked up initially, but we did get a call back shortly afterwards as a result of which we got the key code and were able to get inside. Yay No apology or explanation though as to why we hadn't been given this information in the first place! Once I'd recovered from the stress of check-in, I could see that the apartment actually is quite nice. We've got a little kitchen with a dining table... ...a comfortable living area... ...and a slightly cramped bedroom where there's only just enough space to walk around the bed We'd been travelling for 17 hours at this point, leaving home at 04.30 and getting into the apartment around 22.30 Norwegian time, so we decided to call it a night
  9. When we woke up on our final morning we found that it was actually sunny outside for a change We had breakfast and Tim managed to track down the owners of the hotel to pay for our room. Once we were all settled up, we set out for a final walk to the cable car station. It felt warmer in the sunshine and the snow had thawed to some extent, but the paths were still slippery in places. I found it difficult not to keep turning around as we walked, because there were some beautiful views behind us. This was definitely the clearest day we'd had, and I was hopeful of some good views from the cable car too. Luckily we managed to catch one which wasn't too busy and had plenty of space for our suitcase, plus managed to get a seat on the side with the best views The views were indeed spectacular. We've been up and down in the cable car lots of times over the course of the past few days, but a lot of the time we just travelling through clouds, and even on the slightly clearer days we couldn't see all these mountains. As we got further down we could see the lower slopes which would be covered in vines during the summer. Soon we were down in Bolzano. Because we were staying up in Oberbozen, we hadn't actually seen very much of the main part of Bolzano, so we'd decided to come for a walk around before catching our train back to Verona. We bought our train tickets, left our suitcase in the left luggage office at the station, and set off for a stroll around town. I was keen to get over towards the river which I remembered as being really pretty when we were last in Bolzano in 2015. Even in winter, the countryside looked really lovely We passed the victory monument, controversial because it was erected by Mussolini after Italy acquired South Tyrol from Austria following WW1. There's a good network of footpaths and cycle paths which criss-cross the river here. Once we were on the far side of the river we had a good view back towards the snowy mountains We walked alongside the river for a while. We knew we couldn't afford to walk too far, because we had to back at the station for our train at 12.31. We were catching the last possible train to the airport for our flight at 16.40. With views like these it was definitely tempting to keep going rather than turning around though Eventually we had to turn around and head back to the town centre. We had a final walk through the main square and made it back to the train station with plenty of time to collect the suitcase and catch our train. We've had a wonderful holiday in Bolzano and would definitely like to come back to this region again one day
  10. The weather forecast for today had been really positive, consistently stating that it was going to be sunny. I was quite surprised then when Tim opened the curtains this morning and found that it was snowing outside When we stepped out of the apartment after breakfast, we were the first to walk in the fresh snow The plan for the morning had been to go and see some different earth pyramids near Oberbozen. The path towards them started just outside our hotel. When we attempted to follow the route though, we found that the path was quite steep and slippery, with rocks just about covered in snow. We made it part of the way and I was hoping that the path was going to flatten off after a while, but it continued to go quite steeply down, so in the end we gave up and climbed back towards the road. The road itself was beautiful; we were the first people to walk in the fresh snow here too We decided to walk up to the station and catch the train to go and revisit the earth pyramids we'd seen at Klobenstein on Friday instead. It seemed like a good idea to stay high up, because if it had been snowing up here then it had probably been raining down in Bolzano. The walk to the station was very scenic in the snow We walked past the cable car to the train station. It was a lot busier than it had been on Friday; there seemed to be a tour group of Italians. We managed to squeeze on and get a seat though. The whole landscape which we travelled through was covered in snow and when we got off the train in Klobenstein, this was the view that awaited us. Wow. We hadn't been able to see these mountains at all when we were here on Friday! We walked on snowy pavements towards the pyramids. A pond which we'd passed on Friday was now almost completely frozen. The ducks looked rather cold! I was excited to get to a roadside viewpoint where the entire view had been covered in clouds the other day. There was still a bit of cloud today, but we could see a lot more We could see the church in the distance more clearly too, and now it was completely surrounded by snow We'd had no idea that all these mountains were here when we'd walked along the path the other day It didn't take long to get to the viewing platform for the earth pyramids. They looked really cool with snow on top of the stones that sit on top of them The views of the mountains from the viewing platform were amazing too. We were lucky that the cloud was just in the right position not to obscure the mountain tops. We even caught sight of some mountain goats in a field below us. They must have been rather cold! Then it was time for us to head back towards Klobenstein. It was nearly lunch time by this point, so we walked back towards the village to see whether there was anywhere we could get food. There didn't seem to be a lot of options, so we caught the train back to Oberbozen and the cable car down to Bolzano, where we ended up going to the same restaurant (and having the same meals!) as we did the other day. The food genuinely was really good! Bolzano itself seemed really busy, with lots of people out shopping. It all looked very festive though and there were some lovely Christmas decorations. We decided to go back up to the hotel for a while, then head down to Bolzano in the evening to see the Christmas lights switched on There was still a fair bit of snow in Oberbozen once we got back up on the cable car. The roads had been gritted though, so it was easier to walk back to the hotel. Once back in the hotel, we were able to watch a beautiful sunset from our window
  11. The weather forecast for today had showed torrential rain all day in Bolzano. I was hoping it would turn out to be incorrect, but when Tim came back from buying breakfast looking rather damp, it seemed like we had to accept the inevitable and make a wet weather plan. Tim suggested that we go down to Bolzano and visit the archaeological museum, which is home to an exhibition about Ötzi the Iceman and which we visited the first time we came to this region in 2015. Meanwhile I was googling what transport we could use for free with our Mobilcards, and established that we could travel on regional trains between Brenner and Trento. When I looked up the weather forecast for Brenner, I found that rather than raining there it was supposed to be snowing The chance of seeing some snow was too big a temptation to resist, so we decided to catch the 11.02 train from Bolzano to Brenner. As we were eating breakfast, it looked like the precipitation in Oberbozen was changing from rain to sleet. In fact, once we got outside we found that it was turning from sleet to snow. By the time we had walked to the Ritten cable car station, it was snowing properly I was covered in snow It was very misty, so we had zero view as we travelled down in the cable car to Bolzano. It was pouring with rain in the town itself, so we were rather damp by the time we arrived at the train station to catch our train to Brenner. The journey took around an hour and twenty minutes and looked like it would have been really scenic if the cloud hadn't been so low. About two thirds of the way through the trip, the rain turned to snow and by the time we stepped off the train in Brenner it felt like a blizzard. Brenner (or Brennero in Italian) is a pretty small village, stretched out along one main road. I knew it was close to the border with Austria, but I hadn't realised quite how close until I got a text from EE welcoming me to Austria When I'd seen on the weather forecast that there was going to be snow here, I'd imagined that there might just be a few flakes falling. But it was actually already pretty deep The snow-covered trees above the town looked really beautiful. As we walked along the main street we passed the local church, which had a rather colourful clock tower. We suddenly realised that we'd accidentally walked as far as the border. You can't make it out in this photo, but there's a square blue sign on the building behind me saying Republik Österreich. The main feature of the border seems to be a large shopping centre, which I'm standing next to here. Having reached the limit of Brenner in this direction, we turned around and walked back the other way. When we got to the far end of the village, we caught sight of a waterfall in the distance. You really can't see it very well in this picture because it was snowing so much, but it was just in between the trees We were feeling rather cold by this point, so we found a restaurant to get out of the snow. I had a lovely Hawaiian pizza, while Tim had schnitzel and chips. For pudding, I had tartufo, which was icecream drenched in espresso Tim had a dessert called cuore fondente (melting hearts) which consisted of little cakes with melted chocolate in the middle. We had a while before we needed to catch the train back to Bolzano, so we went for another stroll after lunch. It was still snowing really hard. It was hard to tell exactly where the border was, but this bit definitely seemed to be Austria. I got a picture with the Austria sign We also found a stone marking the border; Austria on one side... ...and Italy on the other. As we got the train back towards Bolzano, the clouds started to lift a bit and we began to get glimpses of the mountains which had been hidden from view this morning. The sky was a lot clearer in Bolzano as well, as as we caught the cable car back up to Oberbozen we finally got a good view of the snowcapped mountains in the distance (the photo is a bit blurry because it was through the slightly wet cable car window!) Darkness was falling as we travelled up on the cable car and when we arrived in Oberbozen, everywhere looked very Christmassy. As we began walking back towards our hotel we got some really great views of the sunset. It was amazing now that it was finally clear enough to see the mountains properly It had obviously continued snowing here during the day too and everywhere looked very white. Unfortunately the road which we needed to walk down towards our hotel was a bit slippery as a result. And it was hard to look at your feet when the views were like this in one direction... ...and like this in the other. We may have taken just a few photos By the time we got back to the hotel it was properly dark. It turned out to be a really great day, especially for one which started out by promising to be so rainy
  12. The weather forecast for today hadn't promised great things, and it was a little bit damp when we stepped out of our hotel this morning. It was also quite misty, and we couldn't see any of the higher mountains in the distance. We walked up through the village, which looked pretty with its Christmas decorations. We could see that there had been a reasonable amount of snow here in the not-so-distant past. Our plan for today was to catch the Ritten train, which travels along the plateau towards a town called Klobenstein (Collalbo in Italian). The journey was free with the travel cards we bought yesterday, which was a bonus We had a pleasant journey in a train that was nearly empty, and it wasn't long before we were stepping off the train in Klobenstein. We had come here in search of earth pyramids, and it wasn't long before we saw a sign pointing towards them. We walked past a house which had some enormous gnomes... ...and then down through the village. One of the hotels had a rather unusual nativity scene outside Signs led us to the the neighbouring village of Lengmoos/Longomoso, which looked like a really pretty little place. From there we passed what looked like it was supposed to be a viewpoint, but there wasn't much of a view today. Before long we caught sight of a little church in the distance. It looked like it was in danger of being obscured by the clouds... ...and soon it actually was! We were following the path that was supposed to lead us to the earth pyramids, but I was starting to get a bit worried that once we got there we wouldn't actually be able to see them with so much low cloud! We also passed a sign which said that the path was only open as far as the first viewing platform, so we weren't sure how much we were going to be able to see. We reached the viewing platform and it was indeed rather misty! It looked like this might be the best view I was getting of an earth pyramid When we looked over the railing, we could just make out something which might be earth pyramids behind the clouds. It was very atmospheric, but I had hoped to have a clearer view! Luckily, once we'd been standing there a while, the cloud started to move The church became visible again and we even got a glimpse of the higher mountains in the distance. Now we could see the earth pyramids better too! Once we could see them properly it became clear what unusual structures they are. The info board explained that earth pyramids were formed by rainwater eroding soil which contains large rocks. The soil under the rocks is protected from the erosion and - over the course of thousands of years - a pyramid of earth is formed beneath the stone. The process requires a certain type of soil, as well as periods of heavy rains followed by drought in which the earth can solidify. All of this makes the earth pyramids which are found here quite rare. Seeing the stones balancing on top of the pyramids is really cool - it doesn't look like it ought to be possible! By the time we were leaving, the weather was an awful lot better than when we had arrived. We walked back towards Klobenstein, to catch the train back to Oberbozen. The return journey wasn't quite as peaceful, because the train was full of children on their way home from school! Once we got to Oberbozen, we caught the cable car down the mountain to Bolzano. It was so cloudy that we could barely see a thing! It was around 2pm by this time and we were rather hungry, so we had come down to Bolzano with the aim of finding lunch. I expected there to be lots of restaurants in Bolzano, but somehow we struggled to find one. There was a restaurant near the main square (but the prices were quite expensive) and a couple of pizza places (but we had pizza last night, so were hoping for something different). There was the added complication that we'd missed the official lunch time, so not everywhere was still open and serving. We walked around for what felt like quite a while, before eventually finding a restaurant that seemed promising Tim had Wienerschnitzel with potato salad and cranberries. ...while I had a turkey schnitzel with fried potatoes The food was really delicious While we were eating the rain in Bolzano seemed to become a bit heavier though. We had a brief walk around, finding the cathedral with its colourful roof. The centre of town was looking quite festive. There was a little Christmas market in the main square... ...a beautiful Christmas tree... ...plus a ferris wheel in the distance. As we walked back towards the cable car station, we passed some more lovely decorations. There was a tree covered in red baubles beside an ice rink... ...plus these rather cool reindeer The cable car back up to Oberbozen was very cloudy again and the rain seems to have got worse this evening. The forecast for tomorrow isn't very promising, but we've certainly made the most of the weather today and had some fun
  13. We haven't been away before Christmas for several years - not since 2013 when we last went to the Christmas markets in Ljubljana and Zagreb - so booking a trip to Bolzano before Christmas this year was something that happened quite spontaneously. We were watching the Eurovision song contest... or, at least, I was watching the Eurovision song contest... and Tim was sitting in the same room watching it under sufferance... and somehow he managed to get so bored that he started playing around on Skyscanner and found cheap flights to Verona in the week before Christmas. Admittedly they were from Gatwick and would require quite an early start, but the temptation of a cheap flight was too much for us to resist. When researching where we could go, Tim found some pictures of Bolzano in winter which looked really pretty, and so we soon had a plan When the alarm went off at 02.30 this morning I was admittedly slightly less excited by the concept of an early flight from Gatwick We had a smooth journey down though, arriving at the airport by 6am and with plenty of time to have breakfast at Wetherspoons. Our plane boarded quite early too, but unfortunately it ended up taking off around 50 minutes behind schedule. Unbeknown to us, there is some sort of industrial action going on in France at the moment which includes French air traffic controllers being on strike. Because of that, lots of flights were being rerouted to avoid flying through French air space, and that was causing congestion. I ended up falling asleep before we took off, although take off itself did wake me up because it felt like the plane was being blown from side to side as it raced down the runway! There was a bit of turbulence during the flight itself and overall the skies seemed quite cloudy. We didn't have much of a view because we had middle and aisle seats, and the person next to us had the window blind closed for a lot of the flight. It was around midday by the time we touched down in Verona, where the pilot announced that it was a rather mild 12 degrees! It certainly didn't feel freezing cold when we stepped off the plane and I started to regret having brought so many cold weather clothes with me. We've been to Verona before but never to Verona airport, and first impressions were that it seemed pretty small. We had to queue for ages at passport control because pretty much the entire flight had to pass through three automatic passport control gates, but the upside was that our luggage was already coming round the conveyor belt by the time we got out There is a frequent bus service from the airport to the main train station in Verona, with tickets costing €6. There was a bus outside the airport when we arrived, but there was quite a big queue and it already seemed pretty full. We decided to give it a miss rather than try to push our way on and wait for the next one instead. That turned out to be a good decision; the next bus came within 15 minutes and it wasn't more than half full, which was good because it was one of those airport buses that doesn't have anywhere to put your luggage. We arrived at Verona Porta Nuova around 13.15 and went to a ticket machine to buy our tickets to Bolzano. It cost around €15 each on the regional train, which didn't seem too bad considering it was a journey of nearly 2 hours. The next train was leaving at 13.50, so we purchased tickets for that and then had a look around the station to see whether there was anywhere we could get a quick lunch while we waited. The eating options in Verona's station turned out to be a bit limited, and so we ended up getting a snack from Burger King (I know, this sounds like a dreadful thing to do when you've just arrived in Italy, but we were hungry ). All the signs and railway announcements said that our train was running late, but confusingly it actually turned up early and we were soon on our way towards Bolzano. Once we had left the outskirts of Verona behind, the journey quickly became really scenic. Although it was quite a grey and cloudy day, the mountains still looked beautiful (The photos aren't very good because there was a lot of reflection in the train window!) We passed through lots of interesting little places, and within half an hour or so we were getting our first glimpses of little bits of snow on the mountaintops. We arrived in Bolzano just after 15.30 and made our way from the main train station to the station of the Renon cable car. Our hotel is in the village of Soprabolzano/Oberbozen, which sits on a plateau above the main city of Bolzano at an altitude of around 1200m. Because we anticipated that we might be travelling up and down the mountain quite a bit over the next few days, we invested in a Mobilcard; this cost €28 each for 7 days and allows us to travel on most of the public transport in the region. The choices are 1, 3 or 7 days and it made sense to buy for 7, even though we aren't here for that long, because it was only €5 more than for the 3-day pass, and a single journey on the Renon cablecar would otherwise cost €6 each. This is the first time we've ever caught a cable car to our hotel and so I was quite excited As we got higher up we could see more snow in the distance. Soon we were at the top and only had a walk of a few hundred metres to get to our hotel. There were tiny little patches of snow on the grass, which suggested that there had recently been snow up here but that it had now thawed. We found the hotel without any difficulties but it was all shut up and there was a sign saying that reception would be open again at 18.00. Luckily, the owners had left us a note with our key... and luckily we were able to read German to follow the instructions We found our room and it is really beautiful It's more like a studio apartment than a hotel room. And the views out the window are fantastic I was in definite need of a nap by this point, so it was early evening by the time we set out to find some food. Everywhere was looking very festive There aren't loads of restaurant options up here, but we found a little pizzeria and shared a four cheeses plus a salami pizza. Then it was back to the hotel for an early night! The weather forecast isn't great for the next couple of days, but rain-permitting I'm definitely looking forward to exploring more tomorrow
  14. All the shops in Lefkosia seemed to be closed this morning, so we ended up navigating to a drive-through McDonalds a few miles away from our apartment for breakfast. Once we'd eaten, it was back to the apartment to pack before we set off for our ultimate destination of Larnaca. Larnaca is located on the southern coast of Cyprus, about 37 miles south of Lefkosia. It's a fairly easy drive to get there, mostly along a series of motorways. When planning the route I'd chosen a slightly scenic variation, which would take us past Larnaca's Salt Lake. We found the lake without too much difficulty, but it wasn't immediately obvious where we could stop to look at it. Eventually Tim caught sight of a small car park on the lake shore, and we were able to get out to explore. It was a rather strange place, but quite picturesque. The ground really was completely covered in salt; Tim tasted some of it to double check Once we'd finished admiring the lake, we continued on into Larnaca. It was only a couple of miles further on. The first thing we caught sight of as we parked the car was a minaret in the distance. This is thought to be the first Ottoman mosque which was built in Cyprus. It's a really pretty building. We'd driven through this archway, which is attached to the side of the mosque, on the way to park our car. A bit further up the road from here, we found Larnaca's main church. This is the church of Saint Lazarus, believed to be the burial place of the biblical Lazarus (when he died for a second time). It's a really lovely church. From here it wasn't far to the sea, so went for a stroll to look at the beach. I'm glad we didn't spend our entire holiday here There's a large promenade, lined with palm trees, which runs along the sea front. The promenade came to an end beside some government buildings. We'd covered most of the town's main sights by this point, so it was time to get some lunch. We found a restaurant right outside the church We decided to have chicken souvlaki for a final time. Unfortunately this time they unexpectedly came in a pitta bread with lots of tomato and cucumber, which we had to scrape out. The meat itself was tasty though, and we also got a final serving of baklava Then it was time to head back to the car park and make the short drive to the airport to hand back the hire car. We've had a really great week in Cyprus and seen some really beautiful scenery; I think it's fair to say that it's a country which has exceeded our expectations
  15. When we went outside on the balcony of our apartment this morning, we realised we were so close to Northern Cyprus that we could see it. The flag painted on the mountainside looks a bit blurry in the picture below, but we can see it quite clearly in real life. That was fitting, because our plan for today was to cross into Northern Cyprus again, this time by car. The border crossing of Agios Dometios is only a couple of miles from where we are staying, so that was the first place we navigated to. Because its in the middle of Lefkosia, this is a busy border crossing and so we had to sit in a queue for a while. No one wanted to see our passports on the Greek Cypriot side, but we had to show them to the Turkish border police again. It's permitted to take a hire car from southern Cyprus into northern Cyprus, but car insurance purchased in southern Cyprus doesn't cover you to drive in northern Cyprus, so we knew that we would have to purchase Turkish car insurance at the border. My research indicated that there was going to be an insurance booth to do this at the border crossing, next to the passport control booth. What my research didn't indicate was which lane we needed to be queuing in to be able to do this. There were two lanes for passport control and, in the absence of any signs, we'd ended up in the left hand one when the insurance booth turned out to be in the right hand one. Oh dear! We showed our passports to the Turkish border guard and he asked to see our car insurance. Tim explained that he wanted to buy it, so the guard told him to park the car to one side and go to the insurance booth to make the purchase. Meanwhile he was going to hang onto my passport for security I may have been regretting this adventure slightly at this point, but luckily it all turned out to be fine. Tim successfully purchased the insurance, which turned out to only cost €20, and showed it to the border guard, who promptly returned my passport. In possession of an insurance certificate written entirely in Turkish, we drove across the border and onto the main road towards our ultimate destination of Girne. First impressions were that everything felt a bit more foreign on this side of the border. The signs were mainly just in Turkish (whereas on the other side, a lot of signs are bilingual in Greek and English) and the standard of driving seemed a little bit worse (though not as bad as Sicily!). There were lots of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags everywhere, and we drove past what looked like an enormous mosque being constructed on the outskirts of Lefkoşa. The reason for today's excursion was that some of the top sights in Cyprus are on the Turkish side of the border and there were two in particular that I really wanted to see. One was Saint Hilarion Castle, which our guidebook described as being the best castle in Cyprus, and the other was the town of Girne (or Kyrenia, in Greek), which was described as having the most picturesque harbour in Cyprus. Girne is located less than 20 miles from Lefkosia and Saint Hilarion Castle is on the way, so both are easily doable as a day-trip from the capital. It felt like we hadn't been travelling for long when we saw a sign indicating the turn-off for the castle. From the main road, you have to drive a few kilometres uphill on a small road which takes you through some stunning mountain scenery, with great views up towards the castle itself. Unfortunately, this road is owned by the military (there seems to be some sort of army base on the hill) and so there are big signs telling you that it's forbidden to stop and/or take any photos here. That didn't seem to stop a couple of other cars of tourists from doing just that, but we definitely weren't going to risk it! At the top of the hill there's a small car park, which was overflowing with French tourists who had just got off a coach. Tim managed to find a space and we walked up towards the castle entrance. It only cost €2 each to get in, which seemed like a bargain, and luckily they did accept Euros in cash. From here we were allowed to start taking photos of the views This was the road which we'd been driving up to get to the castle. We could see all the way down to the sea; the town on the coast is Girne, where we were heading later. It looked quite built up from here and I was starting to wonder whether it would really be as attractive as the guidebook had promised. Once we'd finished admiring the views, we turned our attention towards the castle. As with everywhere here, the castle had its two flags proudly flying. A series of steps took us uphill towards the lower part of the castle. A castle was first built here in Byzantine times, to help defend the coast from attacks by Arab pirates. The castle was later upgraded by the Lusignans, who ruled Cyprus until the end of the fifteenth century. The upgraded castle was used as a summer residence by the Lusignan kings. Once the Venetians took control of Cyprus, the castle began to fall into disrepair. It is still, however, the best preserved of a number of castles in this part of Cyprus. We'd climbed a fair way uphill by this point, overtaking most of the elderly French tour group, and we were now a long way above the entrance gate with its flags. There were still more steps to go, though! Eventually we got up to the middle part of the castle. Here there were various rooms that we could go into to explore. This one used to be the kitchen. There were some bits of the castle ruins that I didn't really feel like exploring; that ladder looks rather scary! We did, however, intend to climb a bit higher, to the top level of the castle. Although when I suggested it, I hadn't realised quite how much further there was left to climb It turned out there was a long way! Another series of stone steps took us upwards, but the stone had worn smooth and was extremely slippy. Not anticipating this, we were both wearing our trainers (despite having our walking boots in the back of the car down below), and so we found it a slightly challenging climb at times, despite the fact that several Russian women in high heeled sandals seemed to be managing it just fine The saving grace was that there was a series of strong metal railings all the way up to hold on to. At last, we made it to the highest tower Or, at least, the highest tower that you can climb to; this one was higher. It was a long way down to the car park from here on one side... ...and a long way down to Girne on the other side. It had been a tiring climb to get up here, but now that we'd made it the views were incredible. Now there was just the small matter of getting down again! It was a little nerve-wracking in places but we managed it and soon we were able to look back up towards where we'd been. Phew Now it was time to get back in the car and continue onwards to Girne. The guidebook had recommended a parking place not too far from the harbour, which we found without any problems. As we parked and started walking into the town centre, we were somewhat surprised to find that the first thing which confronted us was an English pub. Not quite what I expected when I thought we were having an exotic adventure Although it was lunchtime by this point, we definitely weren't going to get lunch from an English pub. We continued on through the town, passing a ruined tower... ...and a pretty white church. Then we found the sea The mountains made a really beautiful backdrop for it; it reminded me a bit of Montenegro. This part of the seafront didn't look quite like the pictures I'd seen in the guidebook though, so we needed to explore further. It turned out we'd walked along the sea front in the wrong direction. If we'd come out of the town and turned right instead, we would have started walking towards Girne castle. There's a long promenade here which enables you to walk around the harbour. These were the views that I'd seen pictures of We could see the castle, and the minaret of the town's oldest mosque. The water was beautifully clear and we could see lots of little fish swimming in it. We walked around as far as we could, admiring the views. The town is definitely a lot prettier from here than it looks when you are on top of the castle. The huge castle here was built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. It later surrendered to the Ottomans, who continued to use it as a castle. During the British administration of Cyprus, it was used variously as a prison and a police barracks. Today it is a tourist attraction, but we decided that climbing up one castle was enough effort for today so we didn't pay to go inside Instead, we walked back around the harbour, towards the centre of town. There were lots of restaurants around the waterfront, so we soon found somewhere to get a belated lunch. Tim ordered a chicken kiev, which looked enormous when it came. I order something which was described as "chicken meatballs". They turned out to be pieces of grilled chicken with herbs mixed through them; delicious but definitely not meatball-shaped For pudding, Tim had ice-cream and I tried a Turkish desert called kadayifi ekmek. It tasted a bit like tiramisu, without the chocolate and alcohol. I also had a coffee, which came with this rather peculiar carton of water, the size and shape of a yoghurt pot. I'm guessing that the tap water isn't drinkable here, so they have sealed cartons to serve with coffee rather than glasses of tap water. By the time we'd finished eating we were absolutely stuffed. The entire meal came to 193 Turkish Lira, which is less than €30, so it felt like good value It was only a short walk back from the restaurant towards where we'd left the car. On the way we passed the mosque whose minaret we'd seen from the harbour. The car parking cost €2 and they let us pay in Euros, which was good. Then all that remained was a drive back along the motorway towards Lefkosia, where we had to go pass back through the border control. Our passports were checked on both sides of the border this time, although only briefly, and there were no complications with insurance in this direction It's been a really exciting day and we've seen some beautiful places. Tomorrow afternoon we will be flying back to the UK from Larnaca airport. We should have time to see some of Larnaca in the morning, though not sure how much there is to see there! I don't think it will beat today for scenery, but we've had such a great holiday that we can't really complain
  16. Today it was time to leave Platres behind and travel to our final destination for this holiday: Lefkosia. Or maybe Nicosia. I have spent the holiday in a state of some confusion about what the capital of Cyprus is actually called, because personally I have always been fairly sure it was called Nicosia (and, indeed, this is what my Cyprus guidebook and the English Wikipedia call it), but all the road and other signs here refer to it as Lefkosia. As far as I can tell, the city is called Λευκωσία in Greek, which transliterates as Lefkosia. Historically the city was called Nicosia in English, although it was still called Lefkosia in Greek, and in 1995 an official decision was taken that Lefkosia would be the official name in English too. It doesn't seem to be a decision that has caught on internationally, but given that everything here is labelled as Lefkosia, we're going to use that name for today's blog Lefkosia is about 90 minutes away from Platres by car and it was a fairly straightforward journey, which only required use of the satnav for the final 10 minutes or so as we made our way into the city centre on the hunt for parking. The old town of Lefkosia is surrounded by thick defensive walls which were built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. The guidebook had recommended a car park just outside the walls and Google maps surpassed my expectations, taking us there on the first attempt The carpark seemed to be in a sort of moat outside the walls. Once we'd parked, we climbed up a steep staircase to the level of the rest of the town. Almost immediately, we found ourselves in a very touristy quarter called Laiki Geitonia, whose narrow streets were full of people trying to entice us into their cafes and restaurants. We didn't take any pictures, because we were too busy trying to evade them and track down the tourist information office, which was signposted somewhere in this warren of streets. We eventually found it and acquired a map of the southern part of the city. The man in the tourist information office even circled the main sights for us, which was helpful, because our first impression as we started walking around Lefkosia was that sights were few and far between The first photogenic building which we came to was the Faneromeni church, which is the largest church within the city walls. It was interesting to see that it had a Greek flag flying on the back of it. The church is in a square, opposite the Faneromeni school, which was the first school for girls built in Cyprus in 1857. A bit further on, we found the Ömeriye mosque, which is the most important functioning mosque in the Greek Cypriot part of the city. Unfortunately, everything in Lefkosia seems to be so built up that it was difficult to get a good photo of it from up close. We walked down a pretty little street... ...and found we had a better view of the mosque from a distance There were some interesting streets in this part of town. Some of the buildings had enclosed balconies, which reminded me of those we'd seen in Malta last year. Not far from here we found St John's Cathedral, which looked quite small for a cathedral in a capital city. The cathedral is close to the Archbishop's Palace. This is the official home of the Archbishop of Cyprus. By this point we had walked horizontally across the city and were almost at the edge of the Venetian walls. Here we found the Liberty Monument. This was built in 1973 to honour the fighters who fought for Cyprus's independence from Britain. We walked along the edge of the walls for a while, which was quite pleasant They look like really solid walls! By walking along the walls, we came to the Famagusta gate. This was the main gate into the city in Venetian times. From here we walked inwards back into the city. On the way we passed this tiny mosque with a very short minaret. We were walking towards Lefkosia's main street, Ledra Street. Ledra Street is home to one of several checkpoints where you can cross from the official Republic of Cyprus, where we have spent our week, to the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) which covers the northeastern part of the island. The TRNC came into being in 1974 when Turkey, concerned that Greek Cypriots were planning to officially unite the island with Greece, invaded the parts of Cyprus which were inhabited by Turkish Cypriots. The conflict has never been resolved, despite the fact that Cyprus is now a member of the EU. Turkey is the only country which recognises Northern Cyprus as a country, and so to the rest of the world the territory, which includes half of the capital city, is viewed as being under illegal occupation. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lefkosia has been the last divided capital in the world. Tensions are, however, lower than they used to be and the Ledra Street crossing was opened in 2008 to enable pedestrians to pass from one side of the city to the other. Crossing the border is a slightly strange experience. First of all you have to queue to show passports to the Greek Cypriot police, who admittedly didn't seem terribly interested in them. They were much more interested in opening the bags of people who were crossing back in from Northern Cyprus, to make sure they weren't importing illegal amounts of cigarettes. Then you walk through a no-man's-land kind of area, before joining a queue to show passports to the Turkish Cypriot police. They seemed more interested in them and put them through a scanner, although they didn't seem to stamp them at all. The queue for the Turkish passport control was quite long, but they have built a covered wooden walkway for people to queue in, which at least meant we were in the shade while we waited. Once we'd had our passports checked, we were officially in Lefkoşa (a third name isn't at all confusing ), the capital of the TRNC. Somewhat unexpectedly, the first thing we saw was an off licence. In general, many of the streets were lined with shops selling knock-off designer clothes. There had been a sign at the border warning people that bringing counterfeit clothing back across was an offence. There were some more attractive buildings too though... ...including some attractive porticoes... ...and pretty much everywhere we looked we could see minarets on the horizon. The highlight of this part of the city is the Büyük Han, a historical inn built by the Ottomans in 1572. During the time of the British administration of Cyprus, it was used as the city prison. Today it has all been beautifully restored and is used as an arts and cultural centre. It's also a popular tourist attraction and there were several shops and restaurants in the courtyard. We decided to stop at one of the restaurants and get lunch. The prices on the menu were all in Turkish lira, which is the official currency in northern Cyprus. We had to do a bit of careful googling to check the exchange rate (careful, because I'd had a text from EE warning me that if I accidentally connected to a Turkish mobile network while in Cyprus, I would be charged some pretty expensive rates!). The prices seemed pretty reasonable though, so we found a table and sat down The menu consisted of variations on the theme of grilled meat (although pork was notably absent). Tim experimented with a mixed grill, while I played it safe with chicken. Both meals came with pitta bread, chips and beautiful sticky rice. I had a glass of Turkish wine, Tim had a Turkish beer, and all in all the meal came to 133 lira, which was €20.50. We didn't actually have any Turkish lira, so Tim paid on his card. Interestingly, they would have accepted cash payment in Euros, but the Euro amount quoted on the bill was €24, so it wasn't a terribly favourable exchange rate! Service over lunch had been a bit slow, so we only had a little bit more time to explore before we needed to get to our apartment to check in. I wanted to track down a big mosque, whose minarets with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags flying we'd been able to see even from the Greek side of the city. This is the Selimiye Mosque, formerly a Gothic cathedral, which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period. It's very clear that parts of it used to be a church. With that our time was up and we had to head back across the border. There was less of a queue this time and so we made it to our apartment in good time. It turns out to be another spacious one. We've got a comfy living area... ...a good kitchen... ...and a nice bedroom. There's even an office if Tim wants to catch up on some work All in all we've had another very interesting day in Cyprus
  17. We discovered last night that there is only one tiny shop in Platres - and it doesn't have a huge selection of food to choose from - so we had a rather limited breakfast of toast and honey this morning, before setting out on our first adventure of the day. The guidebook had listed multiple walking trails starting from the vicinity of Platres, two of which led to waterfalls. I decided that we should start the day with a walk to the Millomeris waterfall, which was described in the guidebook as being an "easy" hike of 1.5km. The path started not far from our apartment. As we walked along the main road towards the centre of Platres, we passed the village church. A little further on from there, a signpost pointed us towards the waterfall trail. The path led us steeply downhill, which didn't feel like a good start, because this wasn't a circular route, so we were going to have to climb back up here on the return journey. Once we got to the bottom of the descent, we found ourselves next to a small river. A bridge led us over to the opposite side. This is the only river which we've seen so far in Cyprus. The path led along the side of the water for a while. It was quite narrow in places, though. After a while we started climbing uphill again. Tiring, but we did emerge to some scenic views. No sooner had we finished climbing uphill, then the path started taking us downhill again. This was on a gravel road, which was a bit slippery. We were getting close to the waterfall now. When we paused and looked up, we were surprised to be able to make out the village church at the top of the hill above us. We had come down a long way! Finally, we climbed down a steep stone staircase and we were at the waterfall We hadn't met anyone else while walking on the nature trail so I thought we might be the only people here. Turns out that you can drive here, so that wasn't the case; there were a couple of groups of people in flipflops Never mind, it was still a beautiful waterfall. Once we'd admired the waterfall for a while, it was time to start the long climb back uphill to the village. It was hard-going in the sunshine, but eventually Platres started to look a bit closer. Just one more bit of uphill to go! We got there in the end and went back to the apartment briefly to recover and stock up on some water. That was definitely not what I would describe as an easy one-hour return stroll! The walk to the second waterfall outside Platres was described as being more difficult, so I decided that we should give that one a miss! Instead, we drove about 10km on an uphill road, towards the village of Troodos. Troodos is located about 250m below Mount Olympus, which is the highest mountain in Cyprus at 1,952m. A path called the Artemis trail leads around the mountain at an altitude of around 1,850m and was described as being a mostly flat, circular route. It sounded promising so we decided to give it a try The walk starts from a car park a few hundred metres up the road from the main village of Troodos. We didn't have to walk far before we started getting great views. The path lived up to expectations and was reasonably flat, although parts of it were quite rocky. It was also pretty well signposted, with visible arrows and markers to tell you how many kilometres you'd walked. We were slightly confused by this direction with an arrow and a cross though! A lot of the walk was through the forest, which meant it was cool and shady. Every so often we emerged into a clearing and could see the views There were little signs giving the names of various types of tree and stone that we passed. I was particularly excited when we passed this one and realised it was a Cyprus Cedar, like the ones we'd seen in Cedar Valley yesterday There were lots of interesting trees along the route, some of which looked pretty old. There were a number of benches along the route, where we stopped for water breaks. Despite the fact that it's October and that we were fairly high up, it was still really warm. We didn't meet anyone else the whole time we were walking, so it was very peaceful. A few kilometres in, the path started leading downwards to cross what may once have been a stream, but was completely dried up today. Then it was back up the other side. As we got further around the mountain, we could see further afield. This next part of the walk turned out to be particularly rocky. Although the path was quite narrow in places, it wasn't as scary as it looks; all the rocks were quite solid, so you never felt in danger of slipping. And the views were really wonderful As we walked further on, we could see down towards one of the villages. After another corner... ...we could just make out a splash of water in the distance, which looked like it might be a reservoir. We turned another corner... ...and now we were far enough round the mountain to be able to see the sea. (It hasn't come out very clearly in the photos unfortunately!). Unbelievably, Troodos is actually a ski resort in winter and towards the end of the walk we passed some ski lifts. Once we'd got to the end of the walk, we were able to drive slightly further uphill to a restaurant which seems to serve skiers in the winter. Although we'd missed lunchtime by this stage, they were still serving food I may have had chicken souvlaki for the third day in a row, and then we finished up with some chocolate cake. The second walk was definitely a lot more fun than the first one and the views were really amazing Tomorrow we are leaving Platres for Lefkosia, where we may have a less active day than today
  18. This morning it was time for us to leave Paphos behind and travel inland to our next destination: Platres. Today was going to be all about the journey, because I had planned what I hoped was going to be a very scenic route to Platres through the Tilliria forest. We checked out of the apartment at around 10am and began driving towards the small village of Lysos, which is located about 25 miles north of Paphos. Once we'd left the sprawl of Paphos behind us, the road took us up into the hills and we soon had some beautiful views Lysos was a small place, but it had a pretty little church... ...and we could even see all the way back down to the sea. From Lysos, we followed a small road (F723) towards the forest. The Tilliria forest is very remote and some of the roads which cross it are only dirt tracks. My research on the internet had suggested that the F723 was a proper tarmac road, so it was a relief to get to it and see that it was The road soon began climbing higher into the mountains. Every so often there were little laybys where we could pull over and admire the views. The road took us deeper into the forest. The guidebook had warned that there were no petrol stations once you were on this route and no shops either, so we'd made sure we were well stocked with both petrol and water. We were driving towards a small hamlet called Stavros tis Psokos, which seems to be the only habitation within the forest. It was only 12 miles from Lysos, but it probably took half an hour to get there because the road was so steep and winding. Once we arrived and parked we were confronted with a sign which warned that the risk of forest fires was high today. Not surprising I guess, given how hot and dry it is. The main reason for stopping in Stavros tis Psokos is to see the mouflon. These horned sheep are a national emblem of Cyprus. There is a small path you can follow around the mouflon enclosure. The sheep themselves are behind a high fence; apparently someone who got inside the enclosure and started goading the sheep was gored to death The ones we saw seemed quite timid though; the younger ones ran off when they heard us walking around. Apart from the sheep there isn't much else to see here and so we were soon on our way again. We stopped at several viewpoints outside Stavros tis Psokos and came to one which seemed to be the start of a short signposted walk. We decided to give it a go. The path was a bit narrow in places, but overall a lot easier to walk on than yesterday's. We soon had some lovely views The start of the path was quite uphill, but the higher we climbed the further we could see. It was all so beautiful that it was hard to stop taking photos After a while we realised we could see one of the little roads cutting through the forest. Partway through the walk we came to a crossroads with several possible directions and we didn't have a clue which one was correct. After looking at our photo of the map, we eventually realised that the scratches on this sign post were showing us the way to go. It was quite a sharp turn (we'd come from the wider track and the arrow was pointing up the narrower path). We could easily have missed it and gone the wrong way! The next part of the walk continued to have some amazing views. It hasn't come out very clearly in the photos, but at this point we could see the sea in the distance The narrow path eventually took us back to where we had started. Then it was back in the car again, towards our next destination. Our next destination was a place called Cedar Valley, described in the guidebook as being one of the most picturesque places in Cyprus. We found it about 15 minutes further on and parked in the small car park. It wasn't immediately obvious what there was to see, so we started following the only signposted footpath which we could find. The path led uphill through the forest. Finally we started to see some cedars! They have a rather distinctive shape. They were growing in amongst lots of other trees though, so sometimes we had to look quite carefully to be able to pick them out. I had thought the walk was just going to be a stroll, but it ended up taking us quite steeply uphill. We could look down towards the road we'd been driving on. Unbeknown to us we were climbing to the top of Mount Tripylos. When we finally got there, there were some great views though Then it was time to head back down towards the cedars again Once we got back in the car, we started driving towards Platres, our destination for the evening. On the way we passed the Kykkos monastery. This is apparently the richest and most famous monastery in Cyprus. From there it wasn't far to Platres. We found the village without any problems, but finding the correct address for our accommodation was a bit more challenging. We got there in the end though and found we've got quite a spacious house for the next two nights. In addition to a nice living area with a kitchen... ...we've got a bedroom with a four poster bed... ...and a spare bedroom in case we fall out We've also got an outdoor area... ...with some nice views. We were pretty hungry by this point, so we walked uphill into the centre of Platres to find some food. We found a nice restaurant, where I had chicken souvlaki again and Tim had a chicken schnitzel. He didn't get to eat all of it himself though, because he made a new friend Afterwards we had more baklava and coffee. Tim ordered something which on the menu was called "Cyprus coffee". It turned out to be very similar to Turkish coffee. The sun was just setting as we made our way back to the apartment. It's been another lovely day, and we're looking forward to exploring more of the region tomorrow
  19. We had a leisurely start to the morning in our apartment before getting in the hire car and driving north from Paphos, towards the town of Polis. The route took us through the built up coastal area outside Paphos, before turning inland and taking us through increasingly hilly countryside, towards the island's northern coast. As we drove along we saw fields of rather unusual trees by the side of the road... The fruit was mostly wrapped in blue plastic, presumably to protect it, so it took a while before I realised they were banana trees Once we reached Polis, we turned left along a pretty coast road. Our destination was the Akamas peninsula, a small peninsula sticking out into the sea at the northwestern corner of Cyprus. The peninsula is protected as a nature reserve and has escaped the sort of development which has taken place along much of the island's coastline, because until 2000 it was used by the British army as a shooting range. There's no shooting these days, but that history, combined with the remote location, mean that there are not even any tarmac roads on the peninsula. The coast road eventually comes to an end at a car park, and you can only travel onwards by foot or on a jeep tour. A lot of people who come here don't, in fact, intend to go very far at all, but have come to visit a tourist attraction called "The Baths of Aphrodite". This is a pool where legend says that the goddess Aphrodite used to bathe. From the car park, a well-signposted path led uphill towards the baths. When we got there, I think it's fair to say that we both found it a bit underwhelming It looked like quite a dark, dank pool and it smelled a bit funny. There was some water dripping down from the rocks, which was quite pretty, but we didn't linger long. Fortunately, we hadn't just come to Akamas to see the baths There are several signposted walks on the peninsula. I had been considering doing the easiest one, which is a flat 6km walk along the dirt road you can see in the photo below. In the end we decided against it, because I realised this was the same road that the jeep tours go down, and having dust blown in our faces by passing jeeps for 6km didn't sound like a very attractive prospect. Instead, we opted to follow another signposted walk, the Aphrodite trail. This one was described by the guidebook as harder, and I knew it definitely wasn't going to be flat. We were soon climbing high above the dirt road. The path was quite relentlessly uphill at the start, but the views were spectacular. In one direction we could see the sea and the northern coast of Cyprus... ...while in the other direction, we could see the forested interior of the peninsula. There were a few other people on the path, but it wasn't busy by any stretch of the imagination. We were soon so high above the parking area that we thought we must nearly be at the top. The path led us through a bit of forest... ...and then flattened off for a while. I'd read that the route was about 7.5km. After over an hour, we figured we must be almost halfway round. Haha, no We passed a marker telling us that all our exertions so far had taken us a mere 2km. And it soon became clear that there was a lot more uphill to go! Could this be the top? Nope! The path was extremely rocky in places and I was very glad that I'd managed to fit my walking boots into my carry-on sized suitcase. There's no way we could have done this in trainers! We found a bench for a much-needed rest Not long afterwards we came to a flatter path through the forest, where there was a map showing the route. We were doing the Aphrodite Trail and had come from the small red dot at the Baths of Aphrodite to the other small red dot labelled Pyrgos tis Rigenas. So there still seemed to be quite a lot of the trail left to do! The good news is that the rockiest part was now behind us. The next stage of the walk was easier, although still uphill, along a forest road. Brown metal signs with arrows cut into them showed us the way. They were actually quite hard to catch sight of, often camouflaged into the surroundings. The highest point of the walk was ultimately just below the rocky outcrop which you can see on this photo. A bit further up the forest road... and then we were there We really could see for miles along the coast. But I didn't realise that the best views were actually about to come as we started to descend. Wow. We could now see all the way along the peninsula and it was really beautiful I couldn't devote all my time to looking at the scenery though, because parts of the walk down were a bit challenging! The path zigzagged its way down the hillside. In some places it was quite narrow, in other places it was covered in rather slippery gravel, and in some places it was both. In other places there were big rocky steps to negotiate. Overall, probably a walk which would have been better with a pole. But I definitely couldn't have fitted that into my suitcase The path descended quite quickly and so it wasn't long until we were quite far below the rocks. And of course, as we got lower we were closer to the wonderful views of the sea. It was such a beautiful shade of blue Eventually the narrow path began to come to an end... ...and we were walking on part of the flatter forest road which we would have taken if we'd done the other walk. There was a bit more uphill involved here, as the road wound its way around the hillside. Now that we were lower we had a better view of the cliffs. The peninsula definitely has a very rocky coastline. There wasn't much further left to go now. We did get passed by a couple of jeeps en route which, as predicted, blew a fair bit of dust into the air, but apart from that it was a pleasant end to the walk. Bizarrely we did also get passed by someone who was trying to drive a small Kia rental car along the track as well, despite this sign! It was a really spectacular walk but quite tiring, so we were both pretty hungry by this stage. Tim drove us down the coast a bit to the small town of Latsi. It was around 3pm by this point, so past the traditional lunchtime, but we found a restaurant by the sea that was still serving food Tim had beef stifado, which seemed to be like a Greek beef stew, while I had chicken souvlaki. We shared some baklava for pudding (well, I may have eaten most of it!) plus an iced coffee for me and milkshake for Tim. It was really pretty on the beach... ....and we could look back towards where we'd been on the peninsula. Overall it was a really great day and we've had a brilliant time so far in Cyprus Tomorrow we will be leaving Paphos behind and travelling on to our next destination: Platres.
  20. We had a relatively early start this morning, because we needed to be at the airport for 10am to collect our hire car. When I was initially planning the holiday, renting a car from the airport seemed like a good idea compared to trying to find our way to some random other place in Paphos to pick up a car. At least we knew where the airport was and that there would be a bus to it. I hadn't realised though that the buses to the airport are so infrequent, which meant we needed to leave the apartment at 08.45 to get to the airport for 10. And I also had no idea that Paphos is absolutely bursting with hire car agencies. Our apartment is literally next door to one and on the walk from there to the bus station we must have passed about 20. Never mind, I will know if we come again We got to the airport without any difficulty and waited outside departures for someone to arrive with our car. We had to wait for 15 minutes or so, but when the guy turned up it was the most informal car hire in the world. The man didn't mark the location of scratches on the rental agreement or even want to see Tim's driving licence. There was a fair bit of damage to the car, so Tim made sure to take a video of it before we drove off. Our destination for today was the archaeological site at Kourion, about 40 miles to the east of Paphos, near the town of Limassol. It was a pretty straightforward journey, although navigating on this holiday isn't going to be quite as smooth as I'd hoped because, unlike cars we've rented in Sicily and Iceland, this one is quite old-fashioned and doesn't have any USB sockets. We were planning to plug my phone into a USB socket and use it as a satnav, because we couldn't get a map of Cyprus for our actual satnav. We can still do that to some extent, but using the phone to navigate kills the battery pretty quickly, and it definitely wouldn't last for an entire day of driving. So we may have to do some more old-fashioned navigating at times and save the phone for trickier parts of our routes Kourion is located within the British Overseas Territory of Akrotiri, which is one of two bits of the island of Cyprus which Britain retained when Cyprus gained independence in 1960. There are some large military bases here and as we got close to Kourion, we passed lots of buildings protected by high fences, as well as roads with names like "Isle of Wight Road" and lots of signs forbidding any photography. Once we got to Kourion, it cost €4.50 each to get in. The site is on a hill overlooking the sea and just from the carpark we had a great view There was a town here until around the 4th century, when it was destroyed by earthquakes. The first sight we came to was the remains of a large villa, whose floor was decorated with mosaics. A large TUI coach had just been leaving as we were arriving and it was much quieter here than it had been around the mosaics in Paphos yesterday I'd managed to pick up a map in English today and we followed that towards the next attraction, which was an ancient theatre. It was in a beautiful location, overlooking the sea. Apparently it could sit 3,500 people, but it didn't feel anywhere near as big as the theatre we saw in Plovdiv last month, so I was brave enough to climb down to the bottom of this one Again, this was quite a large site and so we had a bit of a walk uphill towards the rest of the sights. This was signposted as the "Earthquake House". The house was originally built in early second century and destroyed by earthquakes in the fourth century. We climbed higher towards a viewpoint. From here there was an even better view of the sea and we could see some amazing cliffs. We were walking towards the ruins of an early Christian basilica. We could make out some of the arches which had once formed part of the church. There were some very pretty columns too. As you can see from the photos, there weren't too many other people here and we were able to explore in peace Moving on, we came to the remains of the town's thermal baths. There were walkways here around the floors, but they weren't quite as impressive as the mosaics we'd already seen. We continued to walk around the site, getting some even better views of the cliffs. We came to the remains of a villa known as the House of the Gladiators. From the mosaics, it was obvious why We'd reached the edge of the site by this point, so it was time to retrace our steps back to the car. We'd only been driving for a couple of minutes when we saw a sign which looked like it was pointing towards another archaeological site. This was the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates. The remains here date from the first century AD. If Kourion had been quiet, this place was practically deserted and we were able to explore almost completely on our own The most striking ruin is the temple of Apollo. There's just enough of it left to give a tantalising glimpse of what it would once have looked like. Apollo was worshipped here as early as the 8th century BC, although the ruins today mostly date from the 1st century AD. It was a really pretty place to visit anyway and the benefit of hiring a car is being able to make spontaneous stops like this Tomorrow we plan to do some more exploring, this time in the northwestern part of the island.
  21. Clare

    Day 2: Paphos

    It was a beautiful sunny day when we woke up in Paphos this morning, and after nearly 10 hours sleep we were feeling a lot more awake. We had a relaxing breakfast on the terrace, before setting out to explore the town. Before I started planning our trip to Cyprus, my assumption had been that Paphos was just the sort of place people come for a beach holiday. Once I started reading the guidebook though, I realised that there were several archaeological sites around the town, and that was what we were hoping to see today. Our first stop was the ruins of the Chrysopolitissa basilica. These are the remains of an early Christian basilica, built in the 4th century AD, whose floor was entirely covered in mosaics. You can still see a bit of them today. Within the ruins are the remains of a pillar (the one on the right), known as St Paul's pillar, which tradition says that St Paul was tied to and beaten during the course of a missionary visit to Cyprus. There is also a smaller church, called Agia Kyriaki, which was built around 1500. It was a really pretty place to walk around And there weren't too many other tourists, which was good. From the church, we walked down towards the seafront. We wanted to see Paphos castle. Originally built as a Byzantine fort, it was dismantled by the Venetians in 1570 but later restored by the Ottomans. It's a very square castle, so it was difficult to take a good photo of it! There were some nice views of the sea from the rocks beside it though. Not far from the castle is the entrance to Paphos Archaeological Park. It cost €4.50 each to get in, which felt like a bargain, because the park covers quite a large geographical area. The main attraction of the park is the remains of four Roman villas. They all have beautiful mosaic floors, which are very well preserved. The most elaborate mosaics are in covered areas to protect them, but there were some that we could just wander around outside and look at too That turned out to be a blessing, because there were some tour buses here, and some of the areas with covered walkways were incredibly busy if you had the misfortune to arrive at the same time as a tour group was being shown around. We managed to push our way around a little bit to see some of the most impressive mosaics... ...but one villa in particular was so busy (with a group that looked like they had come off a cruise ship) that we had to give up and go back outside. Happily there were plenty of Roman remains to see outside too And away from the mosaics, the park was almost deserted. We caught sight of a white lighthouse in the distance and decided to walk towards it. While there are tonnes of British tourists in Paphos, the second biggest group of tourists here appears to be Russian. There are Russian signs everywhere; on estate agents, car rental agencies and restaurants. I'd even accidentally picked up the Russian version of the free map for the archaeological park and so I was able to learn the word for lighthouse: маяк The lighthouse is comparatively modern, built in 1888 when Paphos was occupied by the British. When we were walking towards it from the middle of the park it gave the bizarre impression of being inland, but once we got up closer we could see the sea It was also nice that we could see inland a bit towards the interior of the island, which looks quite hilly From the lighthouse it wasn't far to the remains of the Roman theatre. The large flat space in front of the theatre is where the Roman forum once was, but there isn't much left of that now. Beyond the forum, the far end of the park was really deserted and it was less clear what the various ruins were. We did find an enormous cactus though As we walked back towards the centre of the park, we found what looked like the remains of a castle. These are the remains of Saranta Kolones, a ruined fortress. It's thought that it was built in the 7th century and was destroyed by a strong earthquake in the area in 1222. From here we had a lovely view back towards the lighthouse We'd seen the majority of the park now so we went outside, drank a very large bottle of water, and then started walking back in the direction of our apartment. Paphos' other main archaeological attraction is not far from where we are staying and has a rather ominous name: the Tombs of the Kings. This slightly strange place is a world heritage site, consisting of a collection of underground tombs, dating back to around 4 BC. This is where the aristocrats of ancient Paphos would have been buried. The whole site is on a beautiful location by the sea. It was quite breezy here, which was nice on what had otherwise been a very warm day. I thought better of sitting on the wall though once I saw the size of the local lizards You could probably have stayed here a lot longer if you were interested in tombs. We may only have stayed for about 20 minutes, before going back to the apartment to cool down for a while In the late afternoon we went out again and walked in the opposite direction to normal, climbing uphill towards the higher town of Ktima Paphos. The guidebook had said that the old town here was interesting, but we failed to find it very photogenic. The most attractive building was this enormous mosque, located in what was historically the Turkish part of town. The mosque was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, on the remains of what was a Byzantine church. Once we'd seen the mosque, we walked back down the hill towards the lower town. We had dinner at a restaurant not far from the apartment, which involved some rather impressive desserts Tomorrow we're picking up our hire car and looking forward to exploring some more of the island
  22. Even by our standards it was a very early start this morning, with a 07.15 flight from Gatwick. We'd booked some cheap airport parking at a small hotel, which turned out to only run a shuttle to Gatwick twice an hour, so although we were technically booked into it for 04.30, we were aiming to arrive by 04.15 to make sure we had time to hand over the car keys etc before the 04.30 shuttle. Counting backwards, that meant we needed to leave Nuneaton at the incredibly early hour of 01.45 Normally when we leave home at about 03.00 to catch early flights, we see lots of taxis around Nuneaton bringing people home from nights out in Birmingham. But today we were too early even to see that; everywhere was completely deserted. We got to the parking for 04.15 and checked in with plenty of time for the shuttle. This was another one of those low-budget affairs where the same person is manning the reception and driving the shuttle, which I guess is why it only runs twice an hour. After our horrendous experience checking in at Gatwick with Thomas Cook on the way to Burgas, I was a little bit apprehensive about checking in today, but it turned out that the Easyjet check in couldn't have been more efficient. There were no desks - just a huge row of self service baggage drop machines - and we barely had to wait any time at all. That meant we had plenty of time for breakfast in the airport, which was good because it was probably going to be early evening before we got any more food. The flight to Cyprus is quite a long one, at 4.5 hours, and there is a two-hour time difference to the UK. That meant that although it felt like we had a really early flight at 07.15, it was going to be 13.45 by the time our plane touched down in Cyprus. Luckily for such a long flight, the plane turned out to be quite nice and it wasn't 100% orange inside, which is always a concern with Easyjet I think I fell asleep during the safety demonstration (I have no recollection of take off!) and I woke up properly a couple of hours later when the pilot made an announcement about the flight path. We were flying over Belgrade at that point, which he said was the midpoint of the route, before carrying on across Sofia and Plovdiv, into Greece and then across southern Turkey towards Cyprus. Unfortunately, the whole of Europe seemed to be covered in cloud today and so there wasn't much of a view. The cloud only began to break up as we flew over Turkey and the sky didn't become completely clear until we were flying over the sea towards Cyprus. Passport control at Paphos airport was rather unusual. We had to scan our passports at a small machine, not dissimilar to the sort of check-in machine that prints boarding passes, and then look into a camera. The machine took a photo of us, which it then printed onto a slip of paper, together with our names, passport numbers etc. We then had to walk past a man sitting at a passport control desk, who just collected up the slips of paper without looking at them. Never seen a system quite like that anywhere else! When I was planning the holiday a couple of weeks ago, I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out how to get to Paphos from the airport. The airport is less than 10 miles outside the main town, but the airport buses run really infrequently. The first bus I found, which runs from the airport to quite close by where we are staying, only runs four times a day for example. Eventually I found another bus, the 612, which runs once an hour or so to the main bus station in Paphos. The next one was due at 14.35, so we had a bit of time to kill in the airport. When we got to the bus stop, there were only a handful of other people waiting for the bus. It seems to be one of those airports where almost everyone is getting onto a tour operator coach or taking a taxi. When I'd researched taxis online, it seemed like they cost around €30, while the airport bus only cost us €1.50 each It was a slightly bumpy ride though and it seemed to take quite a roundabout route, taking around 30 minutes to cover the fairly short distance to the centre of Paphos. Once we got off the bus, we could see the sea straightaway. Probably the best view we've ever had from a bus station It was a walk of just over a mile from here towards our apartment. We found it without too much difficulty and the owner met us outside. It turned out to be much bigger than I was expecting, with a bedroom and outdoor terrace... ...kitchen with another terrace... ...plus a living area. It seems like really good value for €50/night. There's a clear British influence on Cyprus; we'd already been surprised to find out that they drive on the left hand side of the road here, and we were even more surprised once we'd settled in to the apartment and found that all the plug sockets were British too and we didn't need our adapters! Some things felt very reminiscent of Greece, though! Despite the extra sleep on the plane, I was still pretty tired and definitely needed a nap by this point. I slept for about an hour, so it was around 17.30 by the time we left the apartment and started walking back into the centre of Paphos. We passed what looked like an interesting building... ...and turned out to be a slightly bizarre Roman-themed hotel. Soon we were back near the bus station where we'd got off the bus earlier in the afternoon. One consequence of going away in October is that, although somewhere like Cyprus is still really warm, it starts getting dark pretty early. The seafront area is pedestrianised, so we had a little stroll along in the sunset. I'd booked an apartment away from the centre of Paphos in case it turned out to be full of drunk English people, but so far it seemed pretty quiet We stopped at a restaurant by the sea to have dinner. The main courses were a bit mediocre, but we had delicious baklava for pudding. By the time we'd finished eating, it was completely dark. Tonight is definitely going to be an early night, but we're looking forward to exploring more of Paphos tomorrow
  23. I had an email from Wizzair the other day saying that, due to congestion at Cluj airport, they advised us to arrive more than two hours ahead of our flight. Our flight is scheduled for 18.30 this evening, meaning that we were planning to be at the airport by 16.30 anyway, so we decided that given this extra warning, we didn't want to stray too far from Cluj today. When we checked into our apartment here on Friday, the host had explained that Cluj had a botanical garden, so we decided to spend the morning exploring that. We checked out of the apartment after breakfast and walked to the train station, where Tim had researched that there was a place where we could leave our bags. Sure enough, there was a man with a baggage room and we only had to pay about £2 each to deposit our bags there. With that done, we were free to walk to the botanical gardens, which were a mile or so on the opposite side of town. It didn't look very far on the map at all and we soon reached a sign in the city centre which announced that we only had 850m to go. What I hadn't realised, however, was that the botanical gardens are located on a hill and the last part of the journey would therefore be rather steep! We made it up the hill in the end and it only cost us another £2 each to get in. As soon as we entered the gates, we were greeted with a beautiful display of flowers. The botanical garden was opened here in 1872 and is linked to the local university. Apparently it is home to over 10 000 plants and covers 14 hectares. I'd hoped that once we got into the gardens themselves they might be flat, but no, the whole garden is on a hill and so there was more uphill to go Once we'd passed through the part with the flowers, we soon found ourselves in a different part of the garden which was more like a woodland. Some of the paths where were a bit more challenging than I had expected from a botanical garden! There was a stream running through the middle of the gardens. We crossed over it on a bridge. Once on the far side of the bridge, we caught sight of some beautiful purple flowers. They looked a bit like crocuses, although they can't have been! By this stage we'd completed a loop and were back in the flower gardens that we recognised We now just had time to walk back into the city centre and get some lunch, before finding the bus to the airport. We found a different restaurant in the old town to last night and sat outside in the sunshine. I had a diavola pizza and Tim had chicken quesadillas. We had time for pudding too; a lava cake for Tim (this one was supposed to be white) and Nutella pancakes for me The final remaining challenge was to locate the airport bus, which we believed departed from somewhere near the station. We retrieved our bags and found the bus stop without any difficulties, but struggled to figure out how to find a ticket. In the end Tim went into a shop to ask someone and we managed to figure out the machine. It only cost 5 lei for two trolleybus tickets - less than 47p each As I said yesterday, it's been a really great holiday and we've had a lot of fun exploring two new countries. It's also been an incredibly cheap holiday; both Romania and Bulgaria have been really affordable and the accommodation in particular has been a real bargain We've also had incredible weather; not a single drop of rain in the entire two weeks. I don't think we could have hoped for better
  24. As we'd seen most of Cluj yesterday afternoon, we decided last night that we needed to plan another day trip for today. Tim had a look at our Transylvania guidebook and read about an interesting place called Bánffy Castle, located in a nearby village called Bonțida. We decided to give it a go. Bonțida is on a direct train line from Cluj, so it was fairly straight forward to get there. The only problem was that the trains run quite infrequently, especially at weekends, so there was essentially only one train which we could get out in the morning and one which we could catch back to Cluj in the evening. We made the morning train at 11.01 and 40 minutes or so later we arrived at the station in Bonțida. First impressions were that we seemed to be absolutely in the middle of nowhere. We had to stand and wait for our train to move on before we could walk across the tracks to the station. It was a very pretty place to wait though Eventually the train moved on and we were able to walk across to the station building and check that we had the right time of 17.53 for the return train. Train time confirmed, we set off towards the castle, which is a couple of miles away from the station. Luckily it's quite an easy walk, all down one main road through the village of Bonțida. The village itself is small but it's in a lovely location. There were some posters up, presumably for a forthcoming election. This politician's slogan reads "For a normal Romania"; not quite as ambitious as making Romania great again After a while we crossed a river. It was bigger and faster flowing than some of the rivers we've seen on this holiday. Once we were across the river, we were getting closer to the centre of the village. There are two churches close together in the central square. This is the Catholic one... ...and this is the Orthodox one. There were also some really big flags in the centre of the square. Just round the corner from here, we got our first view of the castle. It only cost 10 lei (about £2) each to get inside. A castle was first built here in 14th century, with most of today's fortified structure dating from the late 17th century. Renovations were made during the 18th and 19th centuries and the castle was so ornate that it became known as the Versailles of Transylvania. Unfortunately, during the Second World War the castle was destroyed by retreating German troops, taking revenge on its owner - Count Miklós Bánffy - who had been assisting the Allied forces. During the Communist period, the castle fell further into decay. Today efforts are ongoing to try and restore the castle and several bits of it are now open to the public to walk around. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a display of statues. Or rather, the remains of statues, which used to decorate the facade of the castle and which were destroyed by the Germans. We then walked into a room where the walls were covered in patterns. It wasn't entirely clear, but I think these were examples of how the castle would have been decorated. Some of them were really pretty From there we were able to walk around some of the rooms which have now been made safe for visitors. This was the main castle building... ...where there was a big ladder to climb up. (Though not a lot to see once you got up there!) This building would once have been the castle's chapel. The castle used to have a large landscaped park. That hasn't been restored yet, so at the moment there's only a little lake which you can walk around. It's pretty though Once we'd finished exploring, we still had some time to kill before our train back to Cluj. Luckily one of the restored buildings is home to a cafe, so we were able to sit there and have coffee and chocolate (/beer and crisps!). Then it was time to start walking back through the village towards the station. It was a really scenic walk and we were passed by three separate horses and carts on the way. We were back at the station on plenty of time for our train to Cluj, which arrived very punctually. Romanian trains always seem to be on time! Once we got back to Cluj we were hungry, so we decided to walk into the town centre in search of food. On the way we passed some interesting buildings which we'd missed yesterday. There was this really pretty church... ...and this very striking synagogue. The restaurant we ate at yesterday was so nice that we decided to go back. We both had the goulash with gnocchi that Tim had had yesterday. While we were eating, some rather strange figures appeared in the square behind us. It was a group of slightly scary people on stilts Some of them were dancing, while the others were beating drums. Partway through the performance, the lightbulbs hanging above the street were suddenly turned on. We thought the performance was over and everyone was walking away... ...but a few minutes later they all reappeared... ...and danced past us again. It was a rather bizarre performance, but it was nice seeing the old town all lit up with the light bulbs Overall we've had a great two weeks in Bulgaria and Romania It's been really fun to explore two new countries, both of which have turned out to have some beautiful countryside and some really interesting towns. I have a feeling we will travel to both countries again at some point in the future
  25. We had a leisurely start to the day in Sighișoara, enjoying breakfast on the terrace and then walking to the train station, with a detour via Lidl to pick up some food for lunch. Our train to Cluj was leaving Sighișoara at 11.48, so we knew we wouldn't be able to get a proper meal until the evening. We'd opted for first class again with the train, so we had a comfortable, air-conditioned journey through the Romanian countryside, arriving in Cluj around 15.45. There hardly seemed to be any habitation between Sighișoara and Cluj at all; just occasional hamlets, where people still seem to get around by horse and cart. We're staying in an apartment in Cluj. For some reason this has turned out to be the most expensive accommodation of the holiday, at £42.50 per night. It's a really nice apartment though and we've got air conditioning in the bedroom, which is always a bonus Once we'd unpacked a bit, we went out to explore the city. Our apartment is right by this pretty square. As with everywhere we've been in Romania, we didn't have to go far to find colourful houses. We headed towards the city's central square, Piața Unirii, which is dominated by this large church. This is St Michael's church, a Catholic church built by the Hungarians in the 15th century. It's the second largest church in Transylvania, the largest being the Black Church in Brasov which we saw earlier in the week. The owner of our apartment had warned us that the main square was going to be dominated by an event for children. Sure enough, we arrived and found it full of stalls and balloons! There was also a stage with dancing gnomes. In front of the church is a large statue of a man on a horse. This is Matthias Corvinus, who was king of Hungary from 1458 to 1490, and who was born in Cluj. From the main square we caught sight of another church which looked interesting, down a side street. We wanted to go and explore that, but first we took a detour to Cluj's central park. We'd seen on our map that there was a lake in the middle of the park. There were some rather colourful boats on it As we left the park we came across a monument to people who died resisting the Communist regime in Romania. From there it wasn't far to the church we'd seen. This is Cluj's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. Work started on the building in 1923 and it was officially opened in 1933. Outside the cathedral is a large statue of Avram Iancu, a Romanian national hero. It was regarded as controversial when it was erected, because historically the population of the city was majority Hungarian. Across the road from the cathedral is a bright yellow theatre and opera building. It's a really pretty part of town overall We walked along one of the main streets, which was decorated with Romanian and EU flags. There's a statue of Romulus and Remus here too! There was still plenty going on in the main square, so we walked to a quieter side street to find somewhere to eat. We found a nice restaurant where I had spaghetti carbonara and Tim had goulash. For pudding we both ordered "lava cake", which was a warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce in the middle, served with raspberry ripple icecream. It was getting dark by the time we'd finished eating. The main square looked pretty lit up at night... ...as did the square by where we're staying. I think we've managed to see the highlights of Cluj this afternoon, so we went back to the apartment to try and plan a day trip for tomorrow
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