Jump to content

Clare

Administrators
  • Posts

    1,471
  • Joined

  • Last visited

Everything posted by Clare

  1. After nearly 12 hours sleep we woke up refreshed this morning and ready to see the sights of Bilbao. Our apartment is conveniently located near the old town so we set off to explore that, with our first stop being the impressive Santiago Cathedral. The day was warm but quite overcast, and as we walked through the narrow streets of the old town with their tall buildings it was quite dark. We saw the Basque flag flying from a number of houses. There were some very pleasant squares which weren't as busy as they would become once the locals had had time to ease into the day. After spending some time exploring the squares of the old town, we wandered back down to the river. The sun was starting to come out, and on the hills behind the town we caught sight of the Artxanda funicular, which our guidebook had recommended as a good way of geting a panoramic view of the city. We decided to head in its general direction. On the way we saw some more beautiful buildings, including the theatre... ...and the town hall. Outside the town hall there was a flower display celebrating the founding of Bilbao in 1300: There are wonderful (sneeze-inducing) flower displays all over the city! We located the entrance to the funicular in the backstreets behind the town hall and were impressed to discover that a ride to the top cost a mere €0.91 each. Within a matter of minutes we had ascended to a pleasant hill top with amazing views back out across the city of Bilbao and the surrounding countryside. The day was still quite hazy so we couldn't see all the way to the sea, but we could see the old town with its cathedral... ... as well as our next destination: the Guggenheim museum. The Guggenheim museum, which houses a collection of modern art, was built in the late 1990's as part of efforts to regenerate Bilbao. We didn't go inside, but the architecture was impressive from the outside at least. Scattered around the perimeter of the museum were some bizarre sculptures... ... including this metallic spider which I suspect is going to give me nightmares: The most famous sculpture of all, which features in all the souvenirs sold in Bilbao, is 'Puppy', a giant piece of topiary in the shape of a West Highland Terrier puppy. It's hard to convey in a photo just how enormous it is, but apparently it contains more than 60,000 plants. We definitely saw it at the best time of year, with all the begonias in full bloom. It was mid-afternoon by this point and the sun reflecting off the walls of the Guggenheim museum was blinding. We decided to head back to the cool darkness of our apartment, stopping off at the main train station on our way to research timetables for tomorrow's planned excursion to the seaside town of San Sebastian. The train timetables in Bilbao station make about as little sense as the train timetables on the Renfe website, so in the end we gave up and decided that tomorrow we will be travelling by bus.
  2. We made our usual mistake of deciding in February that a 7am flight from Stansted would be a great idea. It seemed like less of a great idea in June, when after a long week at work we had to set our alarms for 2am on Saturday morning with the aim of being in Essex by 04.30. We managed it though, reaching the airport parking just as dawn was breaking and joining the hordes of other sleepy travellers in the manic chaos which is Stansted airport. We were flying to Bilbao with Easyjet, which turned out to be a pleasant - albeit somewhat orange - experience, made far more civilised by the presence of allocated seating. It was a beautiful clear morning as we flew across the channel, although once the effect of our Wetherspoons' coffee began to wear off, we were probably too semi-conscious to appreciate the view. We touched down in the uninspiring concrete of Bilbao airport before 10am, and by 10.15 we were already sitting in the local bus into the city centre. As we had waited outside the terminal building for the bus, we noticed that all the signs around the airport were in three languages: Spanish, English and Basque. Within less than half an hour we were recognisably in Bilbao, driving past the famous Guggenheim mueseum and crossing the river Nervión. Although the bus stopped at several locations in the city centre, my plan had been for us to stay on until the bus terminus on the far side of town, where the Internet led me to believe that there might be some luggage lockers for us to leave our bags in. The earliest we could check into our apartment was 2pm, so we had quite a lot of time to kill and it would be far easier without luggage. We arrived at the bus station and promptly found the luggage lockers... but there were only a handful of them, and all the ones of an appropriate size were already full. Oh dear! Condemmned to keep our cases with us then, we embarked on a slow walk back across the city centre in the vague direction of the apartment. Whilst we were still walking in confused circuit around the bus station, trying to work out on which side of it we had emerged and where the main road we needed might be, an elderly Spanish couple approached us and asked whether we needed help. When Tim showed them where we were trying to get to on our map, they exclaimed in consternation and began earnestly trying to convince us that we should turn back around and catch the metro into town. The situation became increasingly chaotic as they waylaid two other passersby and they all began giving us advice in Spanish simultaneously. Tim tried to explain that we had three hours before we needed to be at our destination and that we were quite happy to walk, eventually succeeding in extricating us from their well-meaning clutches. The bonus was that we did at least confirm where we were on the map. After walking for half a mile or so we found ourselves in a shady square full of benches, so we decided to have a rest for a while, making a start on the many books we had brought on holiday with us and enjoying the view of the city with the mountains behind. We were definitely sitting in the shade - and the day itself wasn't incredibly hot - but somehow I still managed to get my arms mildy sunburnt. Oops! After a pleasant hour or so we continued with our journey, which was made slightly more challenging by the fact that the Google map I had printed was somewhat lacking in street names. Our vague aim was to head for the river, as we knew the apartment would be on the far side of it. We located it sooner than expected, and to our joy found ourselves on a road which actually corresponded to one on the map. The joy was short-lived, however, as it soon became clear that this was a road which intended to go relentlessly uphill. Bilbao, which I had somehow erroneously imagined as being completely flat, turns out to be one of the hilliest cities I have ever been to. We hauled our suitcases upwards for what seemed like forever and then, stopping for breath just short of the summit of a particular hill, I caught sight of a sign which looked suspiciously like the name of the apartment we were staying in. It wasn't quite on the road Google had placed it on, but consulting the reservation confirmed that the name agreed, and although it was only technically half past one we decided to venture inside and see whether we would be allowed to check in. Happily we were, and the lady behind reception provided us with our keys and gave us some slightly complex directions to our room, which involved several corridors and two separate lifts. These weren't just any old corridors, they were probably the strangest hotel corridors I had ever seen in my life... The statues were huge - and more than a little creepy! When we opened the door to the apartment itself, we were relieved to see that it was completely normal. In fact it was much more spacious and well-equipped than we had been expecting. After a couple of hours of much-needed rest, we headed out to explore the surrounding area. Our apartment is just above the old town, and we walked down through some steep narrow streets until we happened across this beautiful church. We then headed down to the river, which divdes the old town from the new and is spanned by numerous bridges, each seeming different from the last. There were some beautiful buildings on both sides of the river. Unfortunately our explorations were cut short by a heavy rainstorm and we had to retreat back to the apartment. Bilbao's proximity to the Atlantic coast makes it one of the rainiest places in Spain and the guidebook had warned us to expect showers most days. Lucky that we had brought a few books with us to help pass the evening
  3. We woke up about 7am on Wednesday morning and found ourselves in a bright sunny morning in Lviv. It looked like an interesting city, from the train window at least, with tall church spires and imposing buildings. It seemed less scary and Ukrainian than Chop had done in the early hours of the morning. The rest of Ukraine which we passed through for the remainder of the day was rather flat and uneventful. We didn’t go past many settlements, and the most human habitation we saw were little farmsteads. People seemed to go in for white ducks and geese in a big way, which was nice. There were a few beautiful fields of sunflowers, but otherwise there just seemed to be an awful lot of grass which no one was doing anything very useful with. For hours at a time, the view would be blocked by tall avenues of trees so that we stood no chance of seeing where we actually were. I read in the guide book later than this was partially a deliberate tactic on the part of the USSR, who had wanted to hide anything of potential military importance from train passengers. I am sure that the distance between Lviv and Kiev is substantial, but I am equally sure that the train could have got there sooner if it had gone just a little bit faster. Whenever we passed a road, we were being lapped by even the oldest, most Soviet-looking of vehicles. I don’t know why the train had to go at such a creeping pace, perhaps because the tracks are so old. We were due in to Kiev at 20.02 and about 18.30 I was starting to feel like I’d been on the train for long enough now and would be glad to stretch my legs. Somewhat to my surprise, the conductor suddenly knocked on the door and demanded the bed linen back. I had, admittedly, known he was going to do that, but it seemed a little early when there was still an hour and a half to go…. And then it hit me. Ukraine is an hour ahead of Slovakia and we had forgotten to set our watches forward! There followed a mad scramble during which we frantically repacked our cases and tried to assemble everything into a manageable order for the rest of the journey. We hadn’t drunk all of the water we’d brought, but managed to stuff the remainder into our suitcases. In a way I was glad that we were in a rush because it gave me less time to worry about what was going to happen next. I had been corresponding with one of the congress organisers in advance, you see, and he had told me that it would be too difficult for us to travel from the railway station to the congress venue on our own. He promised that, if I told him the time of the train, someone would come to meet us and show us what to do. It sounded like a good idea and I duly communicated to him the time of our train… but I never heard anything back. So while I was hopeful that we would get off the train and walk right into the smiling face of an Esperantist, I wasn’t 100% convinced that this would actually happen. And I didn’t know what we were going to do if it didn’t. Happily, it turned out to be another instance when I needn’t have worried. Within a couple of minutes of disembarking, we found ourselves being greeted by Oksana, a Ukrainian girl holding a sign saying “Esperanto”. Phew! She and her friend Sergej, who turned out to be two of the nicest people we met all week, not only guided us on the rest of our journey but paid for our tickets when we didn’t have any Ukrainian money and helped me carry my (very heavy) bag. And what a journey it was! It was a tiring, confusing blur of new impressions. We emerged out of the main station into a bustling square and, amusingly, the first thing we saw was McDonalds. We dived down again into a metro station where the crush of people made it feel like the London Underground on speed, and squeezed into a tube for a journey of one stop to Universitet. Traveling up some horrifically long escalators, we emerged into the open air once more and had our first experience of a little yellow marshrutka bus, which bumped and swerved its way across the suburbs of Kiev. In total, it probably took us 90 minutes to travel the 10km to the kongresejo. What awaited us when we arrived there is almost indescribable. First impressions were, admittedly, quite good. We approached a large building, with an attractive banner outside welcoming us to the congress. As we were arriving to the congress a day early, there was no akceptejo set up for us to register, but that seemed fair enough. Instead we were met by a smiling guy called Andrej who greeted us with “Saluton, mi estas komencanto. Do you speak English?” As a result of a truly bizarre decision by the organising team, a volunteer with a limited ability to speak Esperanto had been put in sole charge of the complex business of allocating Esperantists to rooms. We were perfectly happy to communicate with him in English, but participants of other nationalities were obviously less impressed, given that they thought they were attending an Esperanto congress. Strictly speaking, participants had the option to stay in either a four-person or a five-person room for the duration of the congress. The majority of people were expecting to stay in four-person rooms, the five-person variety being a variation which had been introduced as an option relatively lately. Being slightly antisocial and not wanting to share with other people for an entire week, I had negotiated with one of the congress organisers in advance that Tim and I would pay extra in order to have a four-person room to ourselves. I was lucky that Andrej was nice enough to take us on trust when we explained this, and proceeded to sign us into a four-person room. The procedure took somewhat longer than you might expect, mainly due to the fact that he had to translate our names and hometowns into the Cyrillic alphabet for the elderly ladies behind the reception desk. Eventually we were presented with a bundle of rather scratchy bed linen and led to the room that was to be our home from home for the next seven nights. Upon opening the door, we were greeted by something not entirely unlike a prison cell. There were three bare walls, with the majority of the fourth being taken up by a large glass window, inadequately covered by a light net curtain. As we were to discover in subsequent days, the light began to pour into the room before 5am and with temperatures of up to 40 degrees outside, by breakfast the room would already be swelteringly hot. It was possible to open the windows, but we soon learned that it wasn't particularly desirable to do so due to the prevalence of mosquitoes outside. Inside the room were four rather hard beds, a pile of itchy woollen blankets, one chair, a rickety desk and two small bedside cabinets. Sharing the space between two people was just about possible; sharing it between four would have been horrific. Upon arrival I had two main objectives; firstly, to find a powerpoint to charge my phone which had unexpectedly died during the journey from Bratislava, and secondly to locate the bathrooms. The first objective seemed like the easiest to achieve, so I began looking around the room for a socket. I looked and looked and looked. Under the beds, behind the beds, behind the desk and cupboards. I was starting to think I must be going mad when there was a knock at our door and a German friend enquired whether she could use one of the sockets in our room, as she hadn't been able to find any in her own. It wasn't just me then! It later became clear than not a single bedroom in the building was equipped with electric sockets, and I was unable to charge my phone until we returned to Bratislava over a week later. Decidedly unimpressed, I set off to find the bathrooms. Turning left from our bedroom along the corridor I soon came across a room which seemed promising, but there was no sign on the door (in any language) to indicate whether it was supposed to be male or female. Further exploration at the other end of the corridor revealed another bathroom, again with no visible sign. We asked a girl who appeared to be one of the organisers which was which in case there was some sort of Ukrainian system of which we were unaware, but she merely shrugged and asked "Ĉu gravas?" ("Does it matter?") in a tone of voice which suggested this was the most incredibly bourgeois question she had ever had the misfortune to be asked. In the end I gave up and used the first bathroom which I had found. It was quite an experience. First you entered a large room which was kitted out with a row of washbasins but no mirrors, which made applying suncream later in the week rather difficult. This led onto a shower room, which did not feature anything that would be recognised as a shower in the UK. For a start there were no cubicles, and secondly there were no shower fittings, so that essentially there was just a wall with four hosepipes jutting out of it. I got a nasty shock - quite literally- when I turned one of these "showers" on and discovered that there was no hot water. I had admittedly read in my Ukrainian guidebook before setting out that there could be difficulties obtaining warm water in Ukraine during the summer, but organisers of the congress had publicly reassured participants that this would not be the case during the IJK in an internet forum only a few weeks previously. Hmm. As for the toilets... well, there were four cubicles of which one had a functioning light bulb and (a different) one had a locking door. All of them were the Turkish-style toilets which are prevalent throughout Ukraine. For those of us not accustomed to using them, they were rather a struggle. Somewhat disillusioned by our first experience of Kiev, we decided to have an early night and hope that things would seem better in the morning.
  4. On Tuesday morning it was time to check out of our beautiful air-conditioned hotel room. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs at the station, we set of towards Tesco to stock up on provisions for the long train journey ahead of us. We arguably overdid it, leaving with twelve 1.5 litre bottles of water, two cartons of juice, a large loaf of bread, two packets of cheese, two tins of meat paste, assorted chocolate and biscuits and a pile of dried fruit. The most nerve-wracking part of the experience was trying to buy the water as we had no idea what the Slovak term for “still water” might be. Fifteen minutes of googling on my phone and some significant roaming charges later, we discovered that the elusive word was “nesytana”. There was no way I would have worked this out on our own and were it not for modern technology, we would have been condemned to spending 30 hours on a train drinking the Slovak equivalent of Perrier. Laden down with food and water, we had the exciting experience of catching a tram back to the main station. By this point, I was starting to get pretty nervous and was anxious to make sure that we didn't miss our train. I was perhaps a bit over-zealous, as we found our way to the correct platform with nearly an hour to spare and had to proceed to sit and wait for the train. I expected it to be at the station well in advance of the departure time, with an hour for everyone to find their cabins, stow their luggage and have their tickets checked. I don’t know whether my expectations were wrong or whether the train was inexplicably delayed, but ultimately it didn’t roll into the station until ten minutes before it was scheduled to depart. Unfortunately we had been sitting at the wrong end of the platform, so had to make a mad dash to the far end where we saw a solitary blue and yellow striped carriage. The rest of the train was made up of regional carriages, terminating in the eastern Slovakia city of Kosice. In addition to our Ukrainian carriage, there was one other carriage continuing on to Moscow. Having arrived at the correct part of the platform, we caught sight of our conductor, a man in an imposing Ukrainian hat, standing outside. I gathered that we were supposed to show our tickets in order to be allowed aboard, but there was a crush of idiotic people trying to lift their suitcases and a child’s tractor up the steps. When I did eventually work up the courage to push forward and show him the ticket, he said something incomprehensible to me in Russian. By dint of some repetition and pointing, I grasped that he was trying to tell us that we were in cabin number seven. It was a struggle to get all our belongings on to the train and, when we arrived in cabin number seven, our first impressions were not good. It was very, very small. Tim was doubtful about whether it was even first class, although I was able to assure him that it was, because there were only two bunks. Bunks… well, the lower bunk was currently decked out as a sofa, covered in the sort of ugly throw that an elderly aunt might have. The upper bunk was very high indeed, almost touching the ceiling. With no apparent railing and only a metal ladder of the sort my Sylvanian families used to use, it was unclear how a person could get up to it, never mind sleep in it without falling out. On the opposite wall, we had a small wash basin stand with a bin underneath and a lift-up table top. There was a small cupboard with a mirror, a power point for shaving, and not very much space for our suitcases at all. We wrestled with them for several hours before coming to the realisation that we could squish them into a cavity below the lower bunk. It also transpired that we could utilise some sort of mechanism to bring the upper bunk down to a level where we could access it… or, rather, where Tim could access it! Shortly after departure, the conductor came around to take our tickets and bring us a packet of bedding. We curled up on the lower bunk, munching our rations and alternately reading and watching the world go by. I had been worried that the train journey was going to be a long and unendurable nightmare – rather like the time we took a night bus from Prague to Warsaw – but time actually seemed to pass pretty quickly. It was fun to sit and watch the Slovakian countryside roll by. Slovakia looks like a really beautiful place, full of lakes and mountains and forests. Having boarded the train at 2 pm, it was late evening by the time we arrived in Kosice. Our train was detached from the other carriages before being joined on to some more and proceeding with its journey. The border was now looming but the problem was that I wasn’t sure exactly where it was or how much longer it would take us to get there. I wanted to stay awake until we had crossed it, because I thought it would be a pretty terrifying experience to be woken up in the middle of the night by a border guard. I thought that the border was quite close to Kosice, but Slovakia just seemed to go on and on and on. It was well after dark when we arrived at a place called Čierna nad Tisou, whose name seemed familiar to me from the railway timetables. Sure enough the train came to a stop and two Slovakian border guards got on. They weren’t quite as scary as I had anticipated, asking to see our passports and, when they realised that we weren’t Slovakian, speaking to us in German. The whole thing was over within twenty minutes and, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for having survived it, we settled down to go to sleep. That was a mistake! We were just nicely nodding off when the train jolted to a halt once again. Flung almost out of my bunk, I sat up and peered tentatively out of the window. Immediately I wished I hadn’t – there were a group of soldiers in camouflage gear standing outside. Hmm. Quite what the train was supposed to be doing I’m not sure, but it shunted forward a bit, backwards a bit, forward a bit, backwards a bit, as if it was trying to dance the hokey-kokey. We ended up in the same place we had started, but not before I had seen the sign on the station building which proclaimed that we were now in Чоп (Chop). Oh dear. I had a moment of panic at the fact that we were now no longer in the EU, in a country where we would be unable to understand a word any one said and where they didn’t even write with a proper alphabet. Sure enough, sleep had been a bad idea because now the proper border control was about to begin. The Ukrainian border guards marched onto the train, kicking the doors of each compartment to wake everybody up. We waited nervously as they worked their way down the carriage towards us. A female guard with an expressionless face mutely took our passports away, without giving any indication if or when we might see them again. The customs guard spoke to us in broken English and wanted to know how much money we were carrying. I underestimated slightly so that we wouldn’t have the trauma of trying to fill out a customs declaration, and luckily he didn’t want to count it. Thinking we were through the worst, I then nearly died of a heart attack when I saw a soldier with an Alsatian dog patrolling through the train. I suppose it was only looking for drugs, which obviously we didn’t have, but I was terrified that it might be tired of sniffing for cocaine and come and attack me for my chocolate. I began to see the benefits of being on the upper bunk after all! And then… nothing happened. For about three hours. The train moved forward a bit so that it was below the flashlights. A group of engineers came running out of the railway building towards it. Slowly and laboriously, each carriage was raised into the air and fitted with new wheels to correspond to the different railway gauge in Ukraine. By the time they had finished it was gone 2am. We were exhausted, and we still didn’t have our passports. I wanted to cry. We needn’t have panicked, however. Eventually we were shunted back to the place where we had started, nearly four hours previously, and the same expressionless woman reunited us with our passports. I was so happy I wanted to kiss it. On closer inspection the following morning, it seemed that they had simply taken them away to stamp them.
  5. On Monday, following a spontaneous suggestion of Tim's, we decided to go to Vienna. Although I knew that the two cities were very close, I hadn't intend to visit Vienna this time around because I thought we didn't have very long to spend in Bratislava itself as it was. With the centre of Bratislava being smaller than we anticipated, however, we decided to give Vienna a try. Hoping to make an early start, I thought I had everything taped by setting the alarm on my phone for 8am. It went off as planned and I snoozed it for a further half hour, enjoying the novelty of being able to lie in bed on a weekday. Casually glancing at my watch, I was utterly horrified when confronted with the fact that it was in fact already 09.30. It seems I had forgotten to put the time on my phone forward by an hour! It was a rather rushed start to the day then and we didn’t really have time to have breakfast before we jumped on the train to Vienna. The journey took just over an hour and seemed remarkably good value, with a return ticket costing just €11. Having arrived in the Austrian capital, we actually had no idea what to do, on account of not having planned in advance. We came out of the Sudbahnhof and followed the mass of people in front of us, hoping they would lead us to the town centre. Coming across some roadworks, we struck off into what looked like a small park and unexpectedly turned out to be the Belvedere gardens. The gardens were truly beautiful and we enjoyed a pleasant stroll through them before hitting the main road once again. The buildings began to look grander and more imposing and we could see that we would soon be in the centre of things. At one point we came across an anonymous war memorial with text in Cyrillic and spent some time trying to decode it. It turned out to be a memorial for the Soviet soldiers who had died in the fight to liberate Vienna from the Nazis in 1945. As we approached the main shopping streets it started to rain and we dived into the nearby tourist information office. Picking up a free town plan proved to be no problem at all, although purchasing stamps for our postcards was slightly more of a challenge. With the rain becoming more intense, we popped into an Australian pub and fortified ourselves with burgers while we waited for the storm to pass. Pass it did and within an hour or so it was bright and sunny again. We walked through the main city centre, crossing the Danube canal and seeing the famous Stephansdom. My plan was to get us to the Prater for a glimpse of the Riesenrad, but it proved to be a longer walk than I had anticipated. We got there in the end, and saw the giant wheel looming high above us. Babel asked me whether I wanted to go on it, and suddenly I wasn’t entirely sure… We did go on it in the end though and, slow and creaky as it was, there was a great view of the city. We were also able to spy a wide range of other rides in the surrounding theme park that we wanted to try. Tim convinced me to go on the dodgems to start with. I was a bit unwilling, because I’m not really a fan of rides where you’re in control of your own destiny, but in the end it was okay because the only other people driving were small children. To cool off, we went on a ride similar to the river rapids that you get at Alton Towers, except for the fact that the dinghy you are sitting in is lifted high into the air and then set off down a giant, curving slide. The weight of the people in the car causes it to spin round like a walzer, which is both scary and exciting at the same time. We followed that up with a log flume, and then I had the bright idea that we should finish off with a rollercoaster. I saw a great, old-fashioned one with a twisting, turning track and it reminded me of one I went on at Scarborough many years ago. We got into the train, but due to Tim’s larger than average girth(!), we were unable to get the safety bar to lock into place. I started having flashbacks to the time my sister and I failed to get the bar on a chairlift to close on time and had to endure an entire ride down a mountainside with nothing to prevent us from falling to our deaths. I tried to check with the man operating the ride whether everything was safe but he just grunted at me in a very Austrian way and before we knew what was happening, the train had pulled out of the station. As we climbed the steep hill to the first drop, I was convinced that the bar wasn’t going to hold us and that Tim would be thrown out to his death. Luckily, the bar did hold – I should have had more faith in the power of TÜV – and we were soon sitting on firm ground once more, enjoying an Eiskaffee! The walk back to the station seemed long and we stopped en route for an expensive apple juice at the Opera House. When we eventually arrived back in Bratislava, we found that our train terminated at the station Petržalka rather than Hlavna Stanica, so we were rather confused. We initially tried walking off, in the hope of finding the river and a bridge back into the Old Town, but the risk of getting lost in Europe’s biggest housing estate seemed too great, and in the end we managed to jump on a bus back to the town centre, where we found a beautiful Italian restaurant on a side street and enjoyed an enormous pizza.
  6. Happily, when I woke up there wasn't a bug in sight. Perhaps it had just been one freak beetle which had landed on my backpack while I was still outside, or perhaps the rest of his family simply lived on another floor. The main thing was that he wasn't bothering us and there was no sign of any other wildlife. We awoke early, mainly as a result of the Penzion curtains being as effective as a chocolate teapot, and were soon on our way back to the airport to catch the bus into the centre of town. The walk seemed ridiculously easy now that it was daylight. I thought I had prepared well for the business of catching the airport bus, by religiously reading my Bratislava guidebook from cover to cover and even making handwritten notes of the most salient points in an old exercise book. According to my instructions, there ought to be a machine inside the airport terminal building from which it would be possible to purchase a public transport ticket. We duly entered the airport building and began to search for the said machine. We were not exceptionally successful in this endeavour. We found a machine selling tickets for the airport parking, a machine for buying over-priced soft drinks, and even a machine that offered to wrap our suitcases in cellophane for a modest fee, but a machine which sold bus tickets was sadly lacking. The information desk didn't appear to have any personnel on duty and the bus driver shouted something incomprehensible at us when we tentatively approached what we believed to be the correct vehicle. How frustrating! It was pure luck that we eventually spotted the bus stop which, in fairness to the airport, is conveniently located just outside the arrivals building. Having already arrived the previous day, we had unthinkingly been wandering round the departure hall. Happily there was a ticket machine at the bus stop and after that everything was plain sailing. After a short journey of less than 30 minutes, we arrived at the Hlavna Stanica which is possibly the least imposing main station I have ever seen anywhere in my life, but nevertheless very user-friendly, having signs to the left-luggage office in English. Having dumped our suitcases there, we emerged into the sunlight once more and went for a quick coffee at a nearby cafe. Coffee is, fortunately, something that it is remarkably easy to order in any language. Suitably fortified, we set off to explore the Slovak capital. Things didn't get off to a terribly auspicious start when I nearly tripped over two pieces of pavement in as many minutes. The pavements weren't really that bad - certainly nothing to rival the horrors of Bialystok - but they were prone to a series of strange lumps, bumps and potholes which meant that it paid to give more than occasional glances in the direction of your feet. My first impression of Bratislava was that it reminded me of Szombathely, the Hungarian town that we had visited in summer 2008. Some of old town also felt very Austrian, with its winding streets and pretty facades. If you ignored the enormous housing estates on the far side of the river, overall it seemed like a sleepy, peaceful sort of place, and non-threatening. We soon located the main square and a maze of other little streets leading off from it. I found the town hall very impressive, with its beautiful roof of little multi-coloured tiles in the national colours, until Tim ruined it for me by suggesting that it resembled snake-skin. One of the nicest features of the town centre was the abundance of quirky statues, dotted around the place when you least expected them. In the main square there was a Napoleonic soldier leaning behind a bench, plus another soldier standing sentry next to the town hall. Further on we found a man with a telescope peeping round a corner and another peering up from under a manhole cover. It all added interest to the experience, and one of the most exciting things was when we saw the UFO bridge rising up over the Danube for the first time. We had a pleasant lunch in an Italian restaurant near Hviezdoslavovo námestie, marred only by the arrival of some incredibly mouthy Americans and the fact that Tim's goulash contained an inordinate amount of cabbage. Heading back to the train station, we retrieved our baggage and went to check into our hotel. Given the option between something very basic for €20/night or something better for €50/night, I had gone with the latter, guessing (rightly, as it happened) that we would be glad of a last bit of luxury before finding ourselves in the more basic conditions of Kiev. The hotel Mercure Bratislava Centrum didn't disappoint and I am confident that I will never be able to afford to stay in such a nice hotel anywhere other than Bratislava. With perfect air-conditioning and the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in in my life, I could happily have spent the entire fortnight in Slovakia. Tired as we were after our journey (and a night spent fretting over bugs), we fell asleep for several hours and it was well after five before we headed out again in search of dinner. We found another lovely restaurant, this time close to the main square, where we enjoyed a gorgeous schnitzel and chips, followed by a dessert of chocolate pancakes, all for under €30 including a bottle of wine
  7. The holiday got off to an inauspicious start when I dropped my pedometer in the toilet. I have a long history of losing pedometers, and this is not the first one which I have sent to a watery grave in the sewerage system. My first instinct was to flush it away but, not wanting to block our drains when we were on the verge of setting off an epic journey, and seeing that some figures were still visible on the LCD display, I closed my eyes, plunged my hand in and retrieved it. To my not inconsiderable surprise, it still appeared to be working. Its adventure had obviously left it dirty and bug-infested, however, so flushed with my success I decided to rinse it off under the cold water tap. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and with its benefit I can see that it maybe wasn't the best plan in the world to hold a barely-functioning electronic device under running water for several minutes. At the time, it honestly did seem like a good idea but, needless to say, within a matter of seconds I became the sheepish owner of a hygienic, but utterly useless, pedometer. The lights on the LCD display flickered for one final time before giving up the ghost entirely. Despite this traumatic interlude and the increasingly frantic nature of my packing, we were actually ready to depart for our big adventure half an hour before we needed to be. I have to confess that, in the days leading up the holiday, I had become increasingly nervous about the whole idea, particularly when it had looked like our (very expensive) international train tickets were going to fail to arrive before our scheduled departure date. Colleagues and family members alike had expressed surprise and disbelief when I explained to them that we were going to Ukraine, particularly when I added that this would involve a train journey in excess of 30 hours. As we made our way to the airport, I was starting to wonder whether perhaps they had a point and we were mad after all. Flying with Ryanair is never a life-affirming experience and this occasion was no exception. Happily, thanks to the purchase of a set of baggage scales, we succeeded in staying within the prescribed weight limits and not incurring any additional charges. Other people were not so lucky and, the passengers being mainly Slovaks returning home, struggled to understand the barked instructions of the Brummie flight attendants as they inspected our hand luggage. Penned in like cattle as we waited to board, it was slightly surprising to note that our plane had not even arrived at Birmingham airport yet. We stood for what seemed like an eternity in small, enclosed space, while it landed, parked and spewed out its passengers. The only consolation of our late departure was that, upon our subsequent late arrival in Bratislava, the crew were unable to play that exceptionally annoying jingle which usually proclaims the fact that yet another Ryanair flight has landed on time. It was dark when the plane did land just after 10 pm, a circumstance I had not reckoned with when I booked us a room at the Penzion Slovport, an alleged 800m walk from the airport. Having endured two hours of freezing air-conditioning during the flight, I was slightly concerned that we would emerge into an equally cold Bratislava and have to suffer a long and difficult search for our accommodation with the potential to contract hypothermia before we located it. I needn't have expended the energy to worry, however, as the heat that hit us as we disembarked from the plane was tropical. Slovakia was obviously enjoying a better summer than the UK! The sense of relief I felt when discovering I had passed my degree is surpassed by the sense of relief I feel each time I retrieve my baggage from a Ryanair flight. I was disappointed on this occasion, however, to see that they had managed to break the beautiful duck keyring which Babel had bought me to help me identify my shiny new suitcase. Somewhat upset, we set off to track down the Penzion Slovport. Had it been broad daylight, I have no doubt that this would have been a laughably easy undertaking. As we discovered the following morning, the Penzion is more or less visible from the main door of the airport. In total darkness, however, it was less straightforward, and we wasted a not inconsiderable amount of time trying to exit the airport itself. Although Bratislava airport is really quite small and compact, the car park and associated slip roads have not really been designed to be negotiated by pedestrians, presumably because the local planning authorities did not imagine that any foreigners would be foolhardy enough to attempt to leave it on foot, lugging a large amount of heavy luggage behind them. That, however, is precisely what we attempted to do. The easy solution would undoubtedly have been to have hired a taxi... but it seemed like such a waste of money for a mere 800m and I thought we would probably have got ripped off. So we persevered on foot instead, eventually managing to find our way out of the airport and onto a main road which, happily, had a pavement. The streets were deserted, which was probably just as well, as it may not have been a very safe undertaking, to be walking through an anonymous part of Eastern Europe so late at night and looking so lost and foreign. The most remarkable thing about this epic, suitcase-dragging trek was actually the insect life. Thick swarms of flies were congregating under every lamppost and the ugly buzzing sound of cicadas was constant. Many years ago I read a story which involved someone going mad... or possibly being invaded by aliens/ghosts/body snatchers... and the main thrust of the story was that she could never escape from the sound of cicadas in her head. I've never felt the same way about them since. Within half an hour we caught sight of the Penzion Slovport looming on the horizon. We had been a bit remiss with our learning of Slovak, having concentrated all available energy on acquiring some basic Russian, and so communicating with the girl behind the reception was a bit of a challenge. She unleashed a torrent of Slovak at us and it was a very lucky guess indeed which enabled us to realise that she was asking us to pay the local tourist tax. I don't know what to say about our room, except to state that it was very... Soviet. Kitted out with a Paisley carpet that might have been fashionable in England in the 1970s, it contained two narrow single beds lined up against opposite walls and a long, low table which was covered by a flowery oilcloth and appeared to serve no useful purpose. A couple of decrepit armchairs, which looked like they had been painfully losing their springs for several years, completed the furnishings. For what we paid, it was more or less what I expected, and we had the benefit of a bathroom across the hallway which was clean and only shared with two other rooms. The only thing I could really find to complain about were the bugs. Now there had, admittedly, been a lot of bugs outside, but I didn't think it ought to follow that there should be a lot of bugs inside too, especially considering that we were on the second floor and the windows appeared to be shut tight. Notwithstanding this, while Tim was off exploring the bathroom, I was required to act with courage and conviction to end the life of a particularly monstrous flying ant. Later, as we were literally about to turn the lights out, I spied a beetle crawling on my rucksack. I like to pride myself on the fact that I have a very well-developed bug-radar and it was quite a feat to spot this horrible black creature against the dark blue of my bag. I hoped it was a beetle. It could have been, or it could have been a cockroach. Tim knocked it off for me and we lost sight of it before there was time to establish its identity. The very thought that it might have been a cockroach was enough to send my tired mind into overdrive though and that, combined with the frustrated buzzing of a large moth who had somehow got trapped behind the curtain, suddenly made sleep seem like the very opposite of a good idea. I did manage to drop off in the end, but it was with the conviction that I could awake at any moment to find myself drowning in beetles...
  8. Clare

    Day 5: Oslo

    After a day of travelling yesterday, we decided to spend our final day back in Oslo. After a leisurely start to the morning, we set off on a walk towards the Bygdøy peninsula, on the western outskirts of Oslo. The guidebook suggested that it was a pretty forested area, with popular beaches in the summer and a large number of museums. We weren't sure how long it would take us to get there - and we weren't sure how to pronounce the name of the place either(!) - but it sounded like a nice way to spend a morning. Here's an idea of where we were planning to head: Our route led us through the city centre, where we had time to enjoy the unusual Christmas decorations again. From there we walked down to the harbour and began to make our way along the seafront in the direction of the peninsula. We were slightly concerned at one point when we caught sight of what appeared to be a cruise ship, but it turned just to be an extremely large ferry which had come from Kiel in Germany. After just over an hour, we rounded the corner and entered Bygdøy. We followed the main road through an increasingly rural landscape, surrounded by fields on one side and dense forest on the other. Every now and again we came across signposts which pointed the way to the various museums. Unfortunately with it being New Year's Eve, they were all closed. It looked like the Norwegian folk museum might have some interesting buildings though. After another hour of walking, we came to the end of the peninsula and were rewarded with some beautiful views out to sea... ...and back towards Oslo. We had walked about 8 miles by this point, so decided to catch a bus back to Oslo rather than walk. It was about 1pm, so we thought we would head to the Vinmonopolet in the central station and buy a bottle of wine to celebrate the new year, just in case the shops were due to close early. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at the station and found Vinmonopolet in darkness! Several other people were standing around in confusion. One man explained in English that Vinmonopolet was closed today... not just this branch of Vinmonopolet, but every Vinmonopolet across the country. In other words, it is impossible to buy a bottle of wine in Norway on New Year's Eve :'( This was an eventuality which we had not foreseen, although possibly it is what the guidebook meant when it said that Oslo was once voted the most boring capital in Europe!
  9. Having spent a few days exploring Oslo, we were keen to travel further afield and visit a different town in Norway. There were all sorts of interesting places we could have gone to, but ten minutes researching the prices of train tickets on the Norwegian railways website was enough to confirm that we couldn't afford to travel very far at all. In the end we found a regional train to a town called Halden, which we had never heard of but which the Visit Norway website was quite enthusiastic about. At £25 each per direction, the tickets weren't exactly what Tim would have called a bargain, but for Norwegian prices they seemed to be quite good value, so we decided to give it a go. Our train to Halden left Oslo at 10am and arrived shortly before midday. We have had some extremely cramped experiences travelling on regional trains in Italy and in Latvia this year, but regional trains in Norway proved to be so comfortable that we almost felt compensated for the price of the tickets. The seats were so spacious that we were initially worried we might have strayed into first class by mistake, and all the carriages were equipped with coffee machines and free wi-fi. Halden didn't seem to be a very popular destination, so we almost had a carriage to ourselves as we enjoyed a scenic journey through the forested countryside. When we arrived in Halden, we found it to be surprisingly icy. It hadn't been particularly cold in Oslo and there wasn't any frost on the ground, but as we travelled further out into the countryside we had noticed a thin covering of white on some of the fields. It appeared that it had rained in Halden overnight, then the water on the roads and pavements had frozen leaving parts of the town positively treacherous, even though it was nearly midday. We made it as far as the main square, and caught our first glimpse of the imposing Fredriksten fortress. We slipped and skidded our way around the town centre for a bit, crossing a bridge over the river and passing this unusual church. We had hoped that we would be able to climb to the top of the fortress, but once the path started seriously sloping upwards, it became clear that that wasn't going to be possible. There was so much ice, and it was almost impossible to see before you stepped onto a particular piece of pavement whether it was safe or not. The path would have been steep at the best of times and if by some miracle I had managed to get up it without falling over, I was pretty sure that I would never manage to get down it again in one piece, so this is as close as we got. Back down on flat ground in Halden, we began to feel that we might exhaust the local sights long before the limited daylight ran out. We skated along a few more pavements and came across a beautiful view of the Iddefjord, but it was impossible to walk along the waterfront because of the ice. We headed back to the station instead to see whether there was anywhere else we could travel to. As luck would have it, we found a timetable indicating that a bus would be departing for the town of Strömstad in Sweden within the next 15 minutes. The prospect of visiting another country was too exciting for us to resist, and so before long we were sitting on the bus and watching more forests pass us by. The journey to Strömstad took about 45 minutes. Crossing the border was almost unnoticeable, except for the fact that shortly afterwards the bus stopped at an enormous out-of-town shopping mall and nearly all the Norwegians got off. I had read in the Oslo guidebook that food, clothes and alcohol are cheaper in Sweden and that large numbers of Norwegians regularly travel across the border to do their shopping. First impressions of Strömstad were that it was a pretty coastal town. The town hall was very interesting, with an unusual turquoise-coloured roof. Best of all, there was no ice on the pavements We explored the town centre for a while and then walked down to the sea, where we had a lovely view of the harbour and some islands. We were pretty cold by this point so we headed to a pizzeria to warm up and fortify ourselves for the long journey back to Oslo.
  10. Clare

    Day 3: Oslo

    It was a nice sunny day in Oslo today, so we decided to make the most of it by heading out to see the ski jump at Holmenkollen. According to our Oslo guide book, this is the most popular tourist attraction in the whole of Norway, so although we weren't entirely sure what there would be to see when we got there, we wanted to give it a try. Holmenkollen is located in a hilly district, about 10km outside the centre of Oslo. It seemed like a bit too far to walk, but luckily there is a metro line which runs from the main train station to the bottom of the ski jump. This was our first attempt at using public transport in Oslo, and it nearly ended in disaster as we came to the erroneous conclusion that our destination was within Zone 3 of the public transport map and tried to purchase tickets valid to there. When the ticket machine informed us that a single ticket would cost £7 each, Tim started making mutterings along the lines of "maybe it wouldn't be such a long way to walk after all!" Abandoning our ticket purchase, we stopped to review the transport map again and this time - fortunately - realised that all underground lines were within Zone 1 and that we had been getting confused by a place with a similar name to our destination which happened to be in Zone 3. Tickets within Zone 1 were about £3 each, which seemed like a positive bargain in comparison. Phew! The journery to Holmenkollen was more enjoyable than I had expected, as after three stops the train ceased to be an underground and became decidedly overground instead. As we travelled through picturesque Oslo suburbs, the train began to climb slowly uphill and we caught sight of the ski jump in the distance. There was also an amazing view back down towards Oslo and the sea. From the station there was a short walk uphill to reach the bottom of the ski jump. On the way, we passed this pretty Norwegian hotel. When we eventually arrived, we found that there was a museum about skiing and a lift which would take visitors all the way to the top of the ski jump. At £11 each it was a bit expensive to get in, but having come all this way we thought we'd better give it a go. I think you would have to be extremely interested in the history of skiing to read all the exhibits in the ski museum, but the glass cases of skis were interspersed with large stuffed animals which made things slightly more exciting. Having negotiated the skis, next stop was the lift to the top of the jump. We had to queue for a little while as the lift - which is actually more like a small funicular - can only carry 13 people at a time. When it was our turn we sped to the top in a couple of minutes and emerged out onto a viewing platform on the top of the ski jump. Wow. There were some amazing views out over the Norwegian countryside. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy and so the view back towards Oslo and the fjord was partially obscured. It was a long way down the jump and hard to imagine why anyone would want to throw themselves down there on a pair of skis! Having soaked up as much of the view as we could, we caught the lift down and began our walk back to the train station. The clouds had cleared a little bit by this point and so we had a better view out towards Oslo. When we got back to the city centre, our first stop was a visit to Oslo's opera house. Opera houses aren't normally part of our sight-seeing itinerary, but this one is special in that it has been constructed with a sloping roof which allows members of the public to climb up it from ground level and enjoy a panoramic view of Oslo. It's so unusual that it's hard to explain, but it looks like this: From the top we had a beautiful view out across Oslo.... ...as well as a lovely view of the waterfront and harbour area... ...and an amazing view out to sea. From the opera house we were able to stroll along the sea front and around to the Akerhus fortress. By this time it was nearly 3pm, so we headed back to our apartment in an attempt to have lunch before darkness fell. I think we definitely made the most of the daylight hours
  11. Our choice of where to go for a post-Christmas holiday was largely determined by the availability of cheap flights. We wanted to go somewhere which would be cold and snowy, ideally leaving on December 27th and being home on time for work on January 2nd. Everywhere in eastern Europe was ruled out, because the flights home were almost sold out with people returning to the UK after Christmas. We were struggling to think of a suitable destination, when Tim came up with the idea of Oslo. Oslo should definitely be cold and snowy, and there were some reasonable flights from Stansted on the days we needed. Our visit to Helsinki over the summer had made us aware that going to a Scandinavian country could prove rather expensive, so we decided to book an apartment rather than a hotel, in the hope of keeping costs down by self-catering. The weather forecasts prior to our departure were not terribly auspicious. First of all, the temperatures in Oslo were reported as being unseasonably mild, with light rain expected rather than snow. Secondly, a storm was forecast for England over the night of the 26th and morning of the 27th which could potentially have scuppered our flight. Luckily Stansted seemed to escape the worst of the weather, however, and while our drive down was a bit windy and the flight itself a bit bumpy in places, there were no delays and we were treated to the infamous Ryanair jingle upon arrival, informing us that yet another flight had touched down on time. Seeing as we were travelling with Ryanair, we didn't actually land in Oslo but in a town called Rygge, about 40 miles to the south of the city. Reaching Oslo was easy though, with a free shuttle bus to take us from the airport to the nearest train station and then a direct train into Oslo. We were lucky enough to get seats in the silent compartment and so enjoyed a peaceful journey through the Norwegian countryside with views out across the Oslo fjord. We arrived in a wet and windy Oslo shortly after 2pm and after the usual confusion after exiting a train station and finding that none of the roads bear any relation to the ones on your map, we eventually located our apartment block, which was only a kilometre or so from the main town centre. Having searched in vain for a doorbell, we realised that we had to ring a number posted on the door to alert someone to come and let us in. This seemed like an unfortunate system given the cost of international phone calls, but once we managed to get through a lady soon arrived and showed us to our apartment. We were pleased to see that it was a nice spacious room, with a good-sized kitchen and enough implements to enable us to cook. We were less pleased when we tried to pay in cash and were told that we could only do that if we had the exact change. The bill happened to come to a figure ending in 8 - and we only had krone notes in mulitples of 10 - so this was a bit problematic. Tim ended up having to go across the road to a grocery shop and buying a can of Pringles in order to get the correct change! Successfully checked in, grocery shopping was our next task and one which proved to be somewhat painful. We picked up a few necessities, including some bread, ham, cheese and juice for breakfast, and some mince and pasta for tea, and were horrified to find that the cost came to the equivalent of £37. I hasten to add that the shopping did not contain any alcohol, as the supermarket was strangely devoid of wine. We had located the drinks aisle, only to find that it was stocked with beer and nothing else. At a price equivalent to £3 per can, Tim declined to buy any but we asked the cashier as we paid where we could find wine, and he informed us that we needed to go to a place called Vinmonopolet. Vinmonopolet (The Wine Monopoly), it turns out, is controlled by the Norwegian government and is the only shop in Norway allowed to stock drinks with an alcohol content of 4.75%! It was pouring with rain by this point so we didn't try to locate an outlet that evening, but resolved to track one down the next day. I was intrigued to know how much the Norwegian government would sell wine for. After a quiet and sober evening in, we were up early on Saturday morning, eager to explore Oslo and make the most of the daylight hours. Having started getting dark at about 15.30 the previous day, the sun began to rise around 9am which gave us a better window than we had anticipated to see the sights. We set off promptly, and the first sight we came to was the rather impressive Oslo cathedral, the main church in the Church of Norway which is the location for public events of the Norwegian royal family. Round the corner from there, we came across the building of the Norwegian parliament. From there the road continued down towards the Royal Palace. Plant pots along the route had been filled with beautiful purple heather rather than flowers - presumably to withstand the cold winter, although today was still rather mild. The Royal Palace itself was rather impressive, and had a very low security presence compared to London. Downhill from the palace was Oslo town hall. It doesn't look like a very attractive building, but it's one of the most famous buildings in Norway, because it is here that the Nobel peace prize is awarded each year. More attractive than the town hall was the sea, which we found just across the road from it. The photo looks dark, although it was about 11am by this point; this seems to be as much daylight as Oslo gets in December! The next sight on our agenda was Vigeland Sculpture Park, a park housing a large collection of sculptures by the Norwegian artist, Gustav Vigeland. This was described by the guidebook as one of the biggest attractions in Oslo, so we were quite excited to see it. After a lovely stroll through the suburbs of Oslo, we arrived at the entrance to the park. There are 212 sculptures in the park in total, of which 58 are located along this bridge. Some of them were stranger than others! The highlight of the park is the so-called 'Monolith' sculpture, a huge granite structure which apparently represents man's yearning for the spiritual and divine. We struggled to see it personally There were some amazing views of Oslo and the surrounding area from the top of the staircases though. On the walk back into Oslo city centre, we came across the elusive Vinmonopolet. There was a very extensive display of wine, almost all of which was way outside our price range. After scouring the shelves for some time, the cheapest we could find was a bottle of Riesling for just over £10. Tim managed to charm the checkout operator into giving him a free carrier bag, and we carried it back to the apartment very very carefully indeed lest we break it. Vinmonopolet closes at 3pm on Saturdays(!) so there would be no opportunity to acquire any more.
  12. We had a really nice day in Zagreb on Thursday, but managed to see most of the main sights within an afternoon, so were in the unexpected position of having a free day for an excursion on Friday. We contemplated going to Maximir Park, which is a large landscaped garden on the outskirts of Zagreb that we visited last year, but we thought that we probably wouldn't be able to spend a day there so we turned to the guide book for ideas. Unfortunately I hadn't brought the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to Croatia with me, so we were reliant on only a small city guide to Zagreb which suggested a few places outside the city centre. One of its best suggestions was to visit a mountain called Medvednica outside the town where you could apparently take a cable car to the top and have a lovely view. It sounded like fun, but when we googled it on the shaky hotel wi-fi connection with the aim of working out exactly how to get there, we established that the cable car had actually closed for repairs in 2007 and wasn't expected to open again until 2015. Oh dear! Luckily the guidebook had another suggestion, the city of Varaždin which is situated about 50 miles north of Zagreb. Although only a small town today, it used to be the capital of Croatia and has some beautiful baroque buildings and a castle. It sounded like an ideal location for a day trip, so the only decision remaining to be taken was how to get there. The guidebook told us that it was possible to reach the town either by train or by bus. The bus journey would be faster, taking only 90 minutes, but would also be more expensive at about £9 each per direction. The train journey would be much slower, taking two and a half hours, but would also be cheaper at only £5 each per direction, and according to the guidebook would be really scenic. We decided to go for the train After breakfast in the hotel, we crossed the road to the train station and succeeded in purchasing the tickets. We had time to spare, so picked up some tasty meat burek from the station bakery to sustain us on our travels. The guidebook had warned us that the train would be slow, stopping at a number of local stations on route, but I don't think we were prepared for quite how slow it actually was. No sooner had it started up and begun to approach a decent speed, it slowed down again and stopped at the first station. Some of the places we stopped at on route looked more like bus stops than train stations, devoid even of noticeable signs saying announcing where they were. A range of people got on and off as the journey progressed, though we seemed to be the only people who were travelling the whole way from Zagreb to Varaždin. Whenever the railway followed along by the side of a road, the cars had no difficulty in overtaking us, and at times we were slightly concerned that the train wasn't going to make it, as it began to shake and rattle in a quite peculiar manner! It was an extremely pretty journey though, taking us through quite mountainous countryside at times. There was even a sprinkling of snow left in some places When we eventually arrived in Varaždin, the first thing we noticed was that there wasn't a sign to the town centre. This posed somewhat of a problem, as we didn't have a map and the information desk in the station didn't appear to be open. Luckily there was an information board on the side of the station building, which detailed some of the station's history and explained that a street called Kolodvorska led from the station into the main town centre. We managed to find this street and started walking towards the town, passing a variety of imposing villas on the way. When we reached a crossroads we were uncertain of which way to go next, but Tim bravely practised his Croatian by asking for directions and a few more streets took us right into the centre of the town, where we were greeted with a magnificent view of Varaždin castle. The weather had really thawed compared to earlier in the week, so we were able to sit outside at a cafe and enjoy a much-needed coffee. The coffee in both hotels had been quite disappointing, seemingly not containing any caffeine, and so we were feeling a bit withdrawn. Suitably revived and now armed with a map of Varaždin from the local tourist information office, we set off to see the sights. The town plan made the place look deceptively big, but when we accidentally walked past a couple of sights by mistake, we realised that it was actually quite compact. We started by walking around the castle, which had been built to withstand the Ottomans and was surrounded by big embankments which we were able to stroll around. We then made our way into the main town where we saw some colourful churches and some really beautiful buildings. There was also a slightly scary statue of Grgor of Nin, a bishop who incurred the wrath of the Vatican by holding church services in the local language rather than in Latin during the tenth century. Apparently rubbing his big toe will bring you good luck, but we felt a bit squeamish about toes so didn't try it! There were also some novel Christmas decorations around the town. I particularly liked these ones We chanced upon a nice pizza restaurant to have lunch in. The food was amazing and the bill was even more amazing; for two pizzas, a schnitzel and chips, two apple juices and a beer we were charged a mere 140 kuna, which equates to about £15. Varaždin is definitely the cheapest Croatian town which we have ever been to. It was soon time to embark on the long train journey back to Zagreb. The train was surprisingly full this time, with lots of schoolchildren from the surrounding villages travelling home, but once again few people were making the entire journey between the two cities so for at least an hour we managed to get a compartment to ourselves. In the evening we headed out into Zagreb for a final walk around the Christmas markets and enjoyed some more Gluehwein in Zrinjevac. There wasn't a lot of food on offer at the market, so when we started to feel peckish again we ended up in a grill restaurant where we had some nice wine and some even nice flatbread called lepinja
  13. We had a lovely evening exploring the Christmas market in Ljubljana, eating Kaiserschmarrn with apple sauce and drinking white gluehwein. The Christmas lights were difficult to capture on a camera, but there was a beautiful, if slightly unusual, display of shooting stars and planets, as well as a big illuminated Christmas tree in the main square. We had a relatively early night, because our train to Zagreb was at 08.25 the next morning and if we missed it, there wouldn't be another one until mid-afternoon. We made it with plenty of time to spare in the end though, having succeeded in not getting lost on the way to the train station, and even had time to buy a coffee in McDonalds to cancel out the horrendous substance being offered as coffee in the hotel! The journey to Zagreb took just over two hours, and took us through some mountainous Slovenian countryside. Some places were covered in a dusting of snow, while others didn't appear to have any at all. The journey would have been a big quicker if we hadn't had to sit for a while at the border, while two separate sets of border police checked our passports. There was a slightly confusing moment when they wanted to know Tim's age, and a slightly sticky moment when he thought he had lost his train ticket, but we all made it to Zagreb in one piece and by mid-morning were strolling around a surprisingly sunny Croatian capital. We headed into the centre of town to see the Christmas decorations. There was an enormous Advent wreath in the main square. There was also a slightly scary Santa Claus on stilts walking around the statue of Ban Josip Jelačić. We climbed up into the old town to see Zagreb cathedral, the tallest building in Croatia. There were still some renovation works ongoing, but more of the facade was visible than last time we were in Croatia We climbed across to the other side of the old town to where the Croatian parliament is situated and saw the church with the world's best roof. By then it was nearly midday, and Helen had read in the Zagreb guidebook that there was a cannon fired from one of the towers in the old town at 12pm each day. We were a little bit sceptical as to whether this was really going to happen, but sure enough when we found the appropriate tower there was a small group of people congregating beneath it. We looked up and could see a small cannon protruding out of one of the upper windows. As soon as the church bells began to chime twelve, there was an extremely loud bang and bits of shrapnel started falling from a smoky haze above the tower. It was quite impressive, but if you hadn't known it was about to happen it would have been a bit disconcerting! Having had enough excitement for one morning, we headed off in search of a really nice restaurant which Helen and I ate in last time we were in Zagreb. The menu was just as nice as we remembered, and we were able to order two glasses of the Croatian drink miš-maš, which consists of a mixture of fanta and red wine. Although it sounds a bit odd, it tastes absolutely delicious and even Tim was forced to admit that it was better than he had been expecting
  14. In 2012 my sister Helen and I visited Ljubljana and Zagreb for a few days before Christmas with the intention of visiting the Christmas markets and giving me a chance to practise my Croatian. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to return in December 2013, and bring Tim along with us this time to sample the delights of white Gluehwein. It's easy to fly to Ljubljana from Luton with Wizzair, and we managed to book return flights for the bargain price of £50. We flew out on Tuesday afternoon at the civilised hour of 4pm, and arrived in the Slovenian capital a little after 7pm. We had planned to catch the public bus which runs from the airport into the centre of Ljubljana and costs €4.10. Tim and I had caught this a few years ago when we visited Ljubljana in the summer, and although it took a rather circuitous route, stopping in numerous small villages, it did drop us off conveniently outside the main train station. As we emerged from the airport, however, and investigated the bus stop to confirm that there really would be a bus at 8pm as promised, we were approached by an enterprising taxi driver who had three spaces free in his shuttle bus. He offered to take us to the train station for €5 - a bargain compared to the normal shuttle bus price of €9 - on the grounds that it was better for him to do that than have empty seats. We gladly accepted and so arrived at our hotel earlier than we had hoped; so early, in fact, that the hotel restaurant was still open and we were able to relax with a tasty pizza. We were fairly tired after a day of travelling, so we had an early night and agreed to meet for breakfast at 8am the next morning to make the most of the daylight hours. The hotel had quite an extensive breakfast buffet, marred only by the fact that the coffee didn't seem to contain any actual coffee and the central heating in the entire hotel seemed to be an extrordinarily high setting. We shouldn't have complained, because we were about to become very cold indeed as we ventured out into a misty Ljubljana. Our first stop was the train station to buy tickets to Zagreb for tomorrow, and and as we made our way there we were excited to see tiny drops of snow starting to fall from the sky! The timetable at the station confirmed that there would be a train to Zagreb at 08.25 the next morning. It was time for me to practise my Slovenian and buy us some train tickets, a process which seemed to go remarkably well; I even understood when she asked if we were travelling today and when I said no, explained that the tickets were valid for a month. Travel arrangements sorted, we headed into the main town centre and towards my favourite bridge in Ljubljana, Zmajski Most (Dragon Bridge). The dragons are really quite scary when you look at them up close, but we spotted some cute baby dragons as well We soon found ourselves in the main square, complete with enormous Christmas tree, which looked like it was going to beautiful once darkness fell and the lights were turned on. We stopped for a photo outside the pink Franciscan church, where Tim got accosted by two Slovaks who wanted their picture taken together. It seemed like a simple request but their camera was rather complicated and poor Tim had to have multiple attempts before he got one which they were happy with! It was quite a misty day but we decided to climb up the hill towards Ljubljana castle and see what we could see. The branches of the trees looked amazing, covered in dusting of white snow. It was a steep climb up and when we arrived at the castle, we found in shrouded in mist so that we could hardly see back down to the town. We decided not to pay €6 to climb the viewing tower, but we were able to walk around inside the courtyard and around the castle ramparts. We could just about make out a few roofs in the town below through the trees. We took an indirect route down from the castle, through the forest and back into the town along the river. Just outside the castle we came across this slightly frightening monument commemorating the Slovene peasant revolts. It was only just after 11am when we reached the main city centre again, but we were feeling frozen and also pretty hungry so we decided to opt for an early lunch. After a little walking around, we found a nice restaurant which we'd eaten in last year and which seemed prepared to serve dinner before noon. Tim decided to experiment with Slovenian sausages, while Helen and I played it safe with pasta. The food was lovely, but we were a bit disappointed that the restaurant itself wasn't particularly warm! Once our meal was over, we weren't appreciably warmer than when we had started, so we took the opportunity to have our first white gluehwein of the holiday... and it was then that we made a shocking discovery: TIM DOESN'T LIKE GLÜHWEIN!!!! Not even white glühwein Somewhat confused by this revelation but at least now suitably warm, we decided to go for a walk in Tivoli Park, an enormous park just outside the city centre. It looked absolutely beautiful in the snow We went for quite a long walk, climbing up another steep path to a hill called Cankarjev Vrh where the Slovenian poet Cankar once lived in an inn. When we were there last year there was quite a nice view back towards Ljubljana, but today everything was hidden in the mist. We did see some more beautiful trees though By the time we got back down to Ljubljana, it was not quite 3pm but we were cold through and needed to go back to the hotel to warm up. Unfortunately we had been so hot in the morning that we had all turned down the radiators in our rooms to zero, so they weren't quite as cosy as we hoped. It took the best part of an hour before we felt properly warm again, and then it was nearly time to head out into the cold again to see the the Christmas lights and markets...
  15. The final day of our holiday involved travelling from Dubrovnik to Split by bus. Our flight back home was at 1pm on Saturday from Split Airport and, because the travel time between Split and Dubrovnik is about 4.5 hours on the bus, we would have struggled to get to the airport the required two hours before our flight if we had stayed an extra night in Dubrovnik. We were sad to leave though, particularly because as soon as we woke up we noticed that it was the first time all week that there wasn't an enormous cruise ship sitting in the port. The journey back to Split was spectacular though, with the main road following the coast for almost the entire route. There was a great view out across the Adriatic and the experience was enlivened by the New Zealand couple sitting behind us, who were engaged in a constant dispute about which islands we were able to see. The husband was particularly excited when he got a glimpse of the island of "Mill-jet", more commonly known as Mljet (pronounced "mlyet" - all one syllable)! We arrived in Split aroun 3.30 and our first task was to locate the apartment where we would be staying for the night. This turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated when I booked an apartment a mere 900m from the main bus station. Using a Google map, we navigated to number 23 on a particular street without much difficulty; this was the location at which Google had marked the apartment but, when we arrived there, there were no signs on the door indicating that this was the correct place. A panicked consultation of the booking confirmation revealed that the apartment was actually located at number 7 on the same road... but when we wheeled our suitcases back down a very steep hill to number 7, it transpired that this was actually the address of a travel agent through which (unbeknown to us!) we were renting the apartment. We had to wait there for a few minutes while they called the actual owner of the apartment and she came to fetch us. Fortunately, the apartment was only a five minute walk away and when we eventually got there it was very clean and pleasant, but checking in did feel like it had been an unnecessary rigmarole. With a few hours of daylight left, we headed out almost straight away to explore Split. Split definitely hadn't been our favourite place in Croatia when we stayed there for a few nights last summer, but some parts of the old town, which is built within the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian's Palace, are extremely pretty. After wandering round the city centre for a bit, we headed out of town along the promenade, or Riva, which runs along the entire length of the sea front. There was a new section of promenade that had been under construction when we were here last year and when we reached the end of it and turned around we had a fantastic view back towards Split. There was just time for a final stroll under the palm trees before darkness fell and it was time to head inside for food. We went to an Italian restaurant which we remembered eating at last year, only to end up with a large jug of the only horrible wine we had encounted during any of our three holidays this year! We can't complain though - we have really had a wonderful couple of weeks in Croatia and Montenegro
  16. While we were walking the walls in Dubrovnik yesterday, we had a great view of the island of Lokrum. We noticed it when we were in Dubrovnik last year, but didn't realise that it was possible to visit it. Since then I'd found out that the island, which used to belong to the Austrian Archduke Maximilian, is supposed to be a good place to visit if you're looking to avoid the hordes of tourists elsewhere in Dubrovnik. That was exactly what we were hoping to do on our last day in the town, so we decided to give it a try. Ferries to Lokrum run from the harbour in the old town every half an hour during the daytime in summer. We paid 60 kuna each (about £6.60) each for the return journey, which wasn't too bad and included some sort of entrance fee for exploring the island. The boat journey seemed like it was going to be nice and peaceful, until a couple of minutes before departure when a large group of extremely noisy Polish tourists came on board. By the time we pulled away, it was so busy that I was starting to worry that Lokrum wouldn't be any quieter than the old town. From afar the island looks quite small, as if it wouldn't be able to absorb many visitors at all. Somehow, however, once we arrived the majority of the other passengers on the boat seemed to vanish and we didn't see them again for the duration of the trip We started to explore. The first thing we noticed is that the island has a large population of peacocks, who don't seem to have any fear of humans and in fact seemed to be terrorising some of the diners at neighbouring tables when we were eating lunch. We spotted this family of peacocks with two babies wandering around the ruins of an old monastery. The Benedictine monastery was founded in the eleventh century. Parts of it were badly damaged during a serious earthquake in 1667 and it was later deserted by the monks. We spent some time exploring the ruins and the exotic gardens laid out by Maximilian. Our boat had docked on the far side of the island, so we had an excellent view out to sea but were unable to see Dubrovnik. We set of on a quest around the island in the hope of getting to the other side and finding a view back towards the old town. En route we found a salty lake, known as the dead sea, which some people seemed to be swimming in. It looked rather rocky to us! The island was very rocky in general and some of the paths were quite hard going. We climbed steeply upwards for some time and just when I was starting to give up hope, the path opened out and we got the view I'd been hoping for We managed to walk around almost the entire perimeter of the island, before heading back to the monastery where there is an outdoor restaurant to get some lunch. I tried ćevapčići, a Balkan dish consisting of pieces of grilled minced meat. The overall effect is a bit like eating sausages and they were really nice. The meal was made slightly stressful, however, by the high number of wasps and the aggressive stance of some of the peacocks, who were clearly expecting to be fed. By the time we'd finished eating the day was starting to turn cloudy, so it was time to head back to Dubrovnik on the boat. The sea was starting to get a bit choppy and there were a couple of enormous waves that made our stomachs churn as if we were on a rollercoaster. I'm glad I won't be sleeping on a cruise ship tonight
  17. We woke up on Tuesday morning in Dubrovnik to two unpleasant surprises: firstly, that it was pouring with rain and secondly that one of the cruise ships which had been in Kotor the previous day had followed us here. Postponing a visit to the town walls until Wednesday in the hope of better weather, we instead enjoyed a relaxing day exploring the Lapad suburb where our apartment was situated. While buying stamps to send our postcards in the local post office, we chanced across a display of extremely cheap books in Croatian and ended up with four for about £10, which ought to keep me going for several months with my current reading speed probably being that of a six-year-old. Fortunately there was a dramatic improvement in the weather on Wednesday, with brilliant sunshine and temperatures soaring back up to 34 degrees. We wanted to make the earliest possible start into the old town to enjoy the atmosphere before the narrow streets became swamped by cruise ship passengers. Although we got up promptly at 7am, we ended up setting off somewhat later than we had hoped because it turned out that the supermarket where we needed to buy bread for breakfast wasn't open until 8am. I figured we had until about 10am before the centre of town became unbearably crowded, which turned out to be a fairly accurate prediction. The sun was already starting to beat down as we made our way into the city. It was about 3km from our apartment to the old town and while most of that seemed to be uphill, towards the end we were rewarded with this magnificent view of the sea. The streets of the old town were still relatively deserted as we strolled around, with shopkeepers and waiters setting up for the day ahead. It was great to be able to appreciate some of the beautiful buildings without being trampled out of the way by herds of tourists on guided tours. We made it all the way to the old town harbour without encountering more than a handful of people. The view out to sea was fantastic, though at times we were in danger of being splashed as occasional waves leapt over the harbour walls. From there it was a race against time to get back across town to the entrance to the city walls before the cruise ship passengers struck. We made it - just! The many coaches which transport passengers from the main ferry port to the old town were starting to deposit their loads outside the main gate, but the tour guides were still busy trying to marshall people into the correct excursion groups. The walls were still reasonably busy, but nowhere near as bad as I'm sure they became later in the day. It's impossible to describe the amazing views as you walk the walls, so we have put together a sequence of photos instead: It takes about an hour to walk the walls and by the time we were getting towards the end of our journey, it was becoming increasingly busy. We skipped climbing to the top of the final fortress tower because we couldn't bear the thought of pushing up a narrow spiral staircase in a queue of people. When we emerged back down into Dubrovnik once more it was madness; completely overrun by thousands and thousands of cruise passengers. We left them to it, confident that we'd had far more fun exploring on our own this morning than they would following their leaders' parasols
  18. Sunday was a relaxing day in Kotor. We were slightly perplexed when we woke up and found that there was no electricity, but our landlady soon appeared and reassured us that there had been a power cut in the whole area. I was glad that in an idle moment I had memorised the obscure phrase "Is the heating gas or electric?" from the "Renting a flat in Zagreb" chapter of one of my Croatian textbooks, or I wouldn't have had a clue that "struja" was the word for electricity. Our landlady was amazingly friendly but had taken my admission that I spoke a little bit of the language as a licence to carry on detailed conversations at full speed! My Croatian/Montenegrin was at the stage where I could almost always get the gist of what she was saying, but found it difficult to reply coherently in real time. We managed to communciate though, and the only time she lapsed into broken English was half an hour later when, with the power back on, she reappeared to say that she was baking us burek, but we needed to sit on the terrace for an hour and wait for it. The confusion on my face was more a result of the surprise that she was offering us a burek than that I hadn't understood what she meant, and the general confusion only became greater when she translated this into English as "My cake is ready at one clock" (the word "sat" in Croatian means both "hour" and "clock/watch"). When the burek appeared they were amazing; enormous, still warm and filled with cheese. The view from our terrace during the day was marred somewhat by the arrival of a massive cruise ship in the Bay of Kotor. I looked up the name of the ship on the Internet and found it had space for almost 3,000 passengers; a shocking number given that the population of Kotor itself is around 5,000. The majority of those 3,000 people spent the day traipsing around the old town in organised excursion groups and presumably being pleased that they could spend their Euros here after the inconvenience of them not being accepted in Dubrovnik. Montenegro doesn't have its own currency and, after a spell of using the Deutschmark, has adopted the Euro despite not yet being a member of the European Union. I doubt many of the cruise tourists made it to the top of the fortress and I bet even fewer of them were able to pronounce the word for fortress (tvrđava), which is probably one of the most difficult words I have tried to say this holiday! They certainly all missed the spectacular sight of the fortress walls being illuminated as dusk fell across the bay. We got a bit complacent about booking bus tickets after our successes on the holiday so far and didn't head out to the bus station a couple of kilometres away until late afternoon in order to book our tickets to Dubrovnik the next day. Imagine our horror then at finding that what we believed to be the only bus of the day - at 14.45 - was already sold out! Thankfully, it turned out that on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays there is an additional bus which runs at 15.55 and there were plenty of seats left on that one. That meant we had almost another day to spend in Montenegro, so the next morning after kissing goodbye to the wonderful landlady and getting permission to leave our suitcases in her garage until later, we set off on an excursion to the nearby town of Budva. Or, perhaps more accurately, we tried to set off on an excursion to the nearby town of Budva... The timetable at the bus station in Kotor indicated that there were several buses to Budva every hour. Arriving just after ten, I purchased tickets for us on the 10.17 bus and we stood on the platform waiting for it to arrive. Our tickets indicated that we had been allocated seat numbers 33 and 34. No bus appeared at 10.17, but being aware of the relaxed attitude to time-keeping which is prevalent in this part of the world, I wasn't unduly concerned. About 10.25, a minibus pulled into the station. In appearance it was similar to a Ukrainian marshrutka (ie. twenty years past its best!) and, while it did display a small sign on the front indicating that it was going to Budva, it also clearly indicated on the door that it had a capacity of 27+1 people. It couldn't be our bus, then, because we had seats 33 and 34. There wasn't much space left on it anyway and there was a big queue of people trying to pile on, so we decided to ignore it and hope that our bus would arrive soon. A few minutes later another bus did arrive. This one was also a minibus, but much emptier, and also displayed a sign on the front which, at first glance, suggested it was going to Budva. Perhaps this was ours, then. Unfortunately, when I approached the bus driver to confirm, he explained that this bus had come from Budva and was going to Herceg Novi. We should have got on the other bus, which had just departed. Oh dear. Tim went back into the bus station to seek clarification from the woman in the ticket office. When she stated that the 10.17 bus had already left, he explained that there wasn't enough space; we had seats 33 and 34 but there was only place for 27. She shouted back at him in English that the numbers didn't refer to the number of seats on the bus but to the number of tickets which she had sold, ie. she had sold 34 tickets to a 27-seater bus. Right. Okay. In our defence, the numbers did appear next to the word for "seat", but there was nothing for it except to buy two more tickets for the 10.44 bus! The 10.44 bus, when it arrived, actually resembled a proper bus and had enough space for all the passengers to have a seat. Within half an hour, we had arrived in the seaside town of Budva. We had been motivated to visit it after seeing a beautiful postcard picture of its old town, although the Montenegro guidebook did warn us that it was a busy coastal resort and extremely popular with Russians and Ukrainians on package holidays. The guidebook's adjective "Eurotrashy" was probably a bit unkind, but it was immediately clear that it wasn't quite such a classy resort as Kotor. The extended sprawl of the town gave the impression that anybody who owned a small patch of grass was in the process of selling it to build holiday apartments. There were various signs for strip clubs and the like which gave the impression that it could be a bit seedy after dark. The driving around town was nothing short of manic and the best strategy for crossing the road seemed to be to say a prayer to the Orthodox God and just start walking in the hope that some vehicles might stop. That said, the old town itself was impressing, with big foreboding walls like in Kotor. The majority of the historical buildings were destroyed in a serious earthquake in 1979 and the town spent the best part of a decade rebuilding them. The stonework on this little church certainly looked rather new. Some of the little streets were still very atmospheric though. The day was a bit cloudy, but from the edge of the old town there was still a lovely view out to sea. Once we'd seen the main sites, we decided it was better to be safe than sorry and jumped on an early bus back to Kotor. It was a minibus this time, but we managed to get a seat after the driver made two Americans move their oversided rucksacks into the boot. We arrived in Kotor with plenty of time to have lunch, retrieve our suitcases and get back to the bus station for our 15.55 bus to Dubrovnik.
  19. Our day at the Plitvice lakes was amazing and exhausting in equal quantities. The scenery was so fantastic that it was tempting just to keep walking and walking in order to see as much as possible, and by the end of the day we had walked 15 miles and climbed the equivalent of 120 staircases. We were both extremely tired, and Tim had developed a sore foot after being unfortunate enough to tread on a sea urchin while at Kornati on Monday, so we decided to spend a less strenuous day in Zadar on Wednesday. After a leisurely breakfast on our balcony, we went for a walk along the coast and into the town. Our ultimate destination was the bus station, where I wanted to make an advance purchase of our bus tickets for the following day when we would be travelling to Dubrovnik. There are only a handful of buses which run directly from Zadar to Dubrovnik (without having to change in Split) and I was keen to make sure we had a place on the 10am one. Booking a day in advance paid off, as we were allocated seats 3 and 4 at the front of the bus and so had a fantastic view of the coast for almost the whole 8.5 hours of the journey. We spent the rest of Wednesday relaxing, before heading out for a final walk around the old town in the evening. We stopped on the way to feed some ducks in a local park, before being rowed across the sea to the old town by one of the Boatmen of Zadar. Our last night in Zadar turned out to be our first meal out of the holiday (not counting a burger in Split bus station!) and we enjoyed pizza in the centre of the old town as we watched the sun set on Zadar. Almost the whole of Thursday was spent travelling. We got on the bus in Zadar at 10am and finally left it in Dubrovnik at 18.30. It was nowhere near as painful as spending 8.5 hours on a bus sounds like it ought to be though. The bus itself was nicely air-conditioned and, as mentioned, we had ended up with the best seats. The view was superb as we travelled down the coast, with mountains on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other. We passed so many pretty towns and villages on our way that we began to contemplate hiring a car during our next holiday so that we would be able to visit some of them. We passed through the little strip of Bosnia's coast too, showing passports to a very bored-looking policeman, and arrived in Dubrovnik a few minutes ahead of schedule. We weren't actually planning to stay for more than a night in Dubrovnik on this occasion, the apartments where we stayed last year being full until Monday, and so were heading to Kotor in Montenegro for a long weekend. There is a daily bus between Dubrovnik and Kotor, but the Internet suggested that catching it could be fraught with problems. The infrequency of the timetable might mean all the seats were already sold out, for a start. Some online comments suggested that it could turn up an hour late, others that it might not turn up at all, and none implied that travelling on it would be a particularly restful experience. The first thing we did upon getting off the bus in Dubrovnik then was to attempt to purchase tickets, a process which went far more smoothly than expected. We ended up with seats 31 and 32 this time, so people evidently had been booking in advance. Panic over (at least for now!) we located the apartment where we were stopping for the night, a mere few hundred yards from the bus station. Another pizza plus an early night and we were ready to start our Montenegrin adventure! The bus to Kotor was due at 10am. We were pleasantly surprised, upon arriving at the bus station at 09.35, to find that it was there before us and there had been no need to worry at all. The only remaining mystery was how long the journey was going to take, as online reports had suggested that it depended greatly on how big the queue at the border was. The journey from Zadar to Dubrovnik had been beautiful, but the journey from Dubrovnik to Kotor was extraordinary. As we pulled away from Dubrovnik there was a fantastic view back towards the old city but this was really just the warm-up for the scenery which awaited us once we had crossed the border and began to make our way around the Bay of Kotor. We were lucky that there wasn't much of a queue when we got to the border, but it still seemed to take an awfully long time. First we stopped on the Croatian side and a policeman boarded the bus, collecting up our passports and taking them away. I hate being separated from my passport and really can't see why it was necessary now that Croatia is in the EU. About 15 minutes later the passports of the entire bus were returned, but seemingly not in the same order in which they had been taken. One particular energetic passenger volunteered to hand them back out and spent several minutes dashing up and down the bus calling out different nationalities. We had all just been happily reunited with our documents... when we arrived at the Montenegrin side of the border and another policeman boarded the bus to take them off us again! The waiting time at the Montenegrin side seemed frustratingly long but, when we eventually got our passports back for the second time, we did find they had been stamped which was a bonus As we drove through the border town of Herceg Novi and towards Kotor, the mountains became steeper and more foreboding and the road was squeezed into an increasingly small strip of land between the mountains and the sea. I think we had a glimpse of Kotor from quite a long way away, but the journey to it took some time as we wove in and out of the intricate inlets of the bay. It looked very much like I imagine a fjord looks, although the Montenegro guidebook informs me that it isn't a fjord but a ria. We arrived in Kotor at 1pm and weren't able to check into our apartment until 2, so ordered a coffee in the bus station cafe to kill some time. Oh dear. I think that was my first experience of drinking Turkish Coffee, and not one I will be keen to repeat. I nearly had a fit when I got an unexpected mouthful of granules towards the end of the cup! When we did check into the apartment, we found it was a little small but amazing value for £32/night given that it includes a terrace with a view like this
  20. Our aim for today was a day trip from Zadar to the Plitvice National Park and back again. I use the word "aim" deliberately, because I had spent a significant amount of time in the weeks prior to the holiday trying to work out whether such an excursion was indeed possible as a day trip. The Plitvice National Park, which is both the oldest and largest national park in Croatia, lies approximately halfway between Zagreb and Zadar, and so is theoretically possible as a day trip from either city. The entrance to the park is just off what used to be the main road to Zadar, along which all the public buses from the capital used to run. Since the opening of a new motorway a few years ago, however, the number of buses passing through Plitvice has steadily decreased, so that there was only really one suitable bus we could catch in the morning and a bus back at 17.23 in the evening (which, if missed, would result in us being stranded for 12 hours!) On the one hand the journey sounded doable, but our guidebook had cautioned against trying to catch a bus from Plitvice, pointing out that there isn't a bus station (just a bus stop by the side of the road), that the buses only stop if they are flagged down and that they may simply drive past if they are already full. The same advice was repeated in various places on the Internet, but whether it was because people had genuinely been stranded or just because everyone else had read the same guidebook, it was hard to tell. The safer option was undoubtedly to book onto one of the many organised excursions from Zadar, which ferry tourists to and from the park on private coaches before leading them around on guided tours. I had initially been tempted by the security of this, but as we weighed the options up for one last time on Monday night, we decided that it was worth risking the possible inconvenience of being stranded overnight in a national park inhabited by bears to avoid the certain inconvenience of spending a day being herded around by a tour guide in a group of sheeple. I think we made the right choice It was a relatively early start, with our bus leaving Zadar at 9am. The journey to Plitvice was supposed to take two hours, but our driver wasn't overly concerned with the timetable, setting off ten minutes late and stopping at a service station for a 15-minute rest break, which most tourists on the bus spent confusedly getting on and off and trying to work out whether we had arrived in Plitvice or not. We eventually did arrive in Plitvice at 11.20 and upon alighting from the bus, were immediately accosted by a man offering to sell us bus tickets back to Zadar. Accosting people appears to be a legitimate way of drumming up business in Croatia; when a bus pulls into a major bus station, hordes of women with rooms to let start swarming towards it, and taxi drivers aren't content with sitting neatly in their taxi rank, where anyone who wanted a taxi would be sure to find them, but instead feel the need to mill around saying "Taksi?" in a hopeful manner to anyone who is so much as glances in their direction. I was therefore mildly suspicious at first, but he turned out to be representing a genuine bus company who had - quite enterprisingly - set up a stall on the opposite side of the road selling tickets to Zadar and arranged a bus 20 minutes before the official bus (of a rival company) was timetabled to depart. We paid 100 kuna each for our tickets, which was 10 kuna less than we had paid on the way out, and were able to go off and enjoy the park without worrying about our return transport. The Plitvice National Park is an interconnected series of lakes whose water is famous for being a remarkable shade of blue. Hundreds of waterfalls, ranging from tiny cascades of a few feet to the enormous "Veliki Slap" (Big Waterfall) at 78m pour into the lakes. An intricate series of wooden walkways and staircases lead around the sides of the lakes, enabling visitors to get fantastic views of the falls. The park is divided into two parts - the Upper and Lower Lakes - of which the Lower Lakes are the more famous and contain the picture-postcard views which anyone who has heard of Plitvice will doubtless have seen. They are also the place where the tour operators take their organised excursions and therefore can be extremely busy between 11am and 3pm in high season. We decided to start our day in the Upper Lakes where we hoped that there would be fewer people, then head to the Lower Lakes in the afternoon when the tour buses might have started to go home. It cost 110 Kuna (about £12) each to get in the park, and I spent an extra 20 kuna on a decent map. There is a system of signposted trails round the park, with the length of routes varying from 2 hours for the shortest to up to 10 hours for the longest. We opted to start with one of the shorter routes in the Upper Lakes (route E) and while we were wandering around attempting to find the correct start point, we caught our first glimpse of the lakes. Wow. Proof that they don't photoshop the postcard pictures; the water really is that shade of blue! We failed to find route E, so caught a boat across to the far side of the lake and started walking route F in reverse. Walking a route in reverse seems like quite a good idea actually, as it can be easy to walk past a large group of people coming the opposite way than to overtake them when you're all walking in the same direction! The Upper Lakes were quite peaceful though, as we had hoped, and at times the only other creatures admiring the waterfalls were the ducks. Our biggest problem was trying not to fall off one of the platforms and into the water; the views were so amazing as we made our way around the series of lakes that it was difficult to pay proper attention to your feet. We passed some beautiful waterfall: The Upper Lakes were so spectacular that I find it hard to understand that many people who come to Plitvice never visit them at all. We walked around for over three hours in total before catching a boat across the main lake to the place where the trails for the Lower Lakes are supposed to start. Once again we failed to find the trail we had been looking for, but instead began following a track which promised it was leading to a viewpoint. It was a steep slog uphill and I was starting to wonder whether we should turn back and try a different direction... when we found this: Probably the most amazing viewpoint I've ever seen! That was as close to the edge as I was going, though - there was a sheer drop on the other side. When zoomed in, you can see just how many little waterfalls are falling into the lake. It was getting close to 4pm at this point and we knew that we needed to start making our way back towards the bus stop. We had strayed slightly off the beaten track and I was starting to despair of us ever finding Veliki Slap, the biggest waterfall in Croatia. Although we were sure we were walking in the correct general direction, with time ticking on we decided to give up and follow a path back down to ground level. But five minutes after we stopped looking for it, we stumbled across the 78-metre waterfall by accident. Mission accomplished, from there we just had time to make our way along a few of the walkways in the Lower Lakes on our way back to the station for the land train which would drop us off near our bus stop. The journey back worked like clockwork, which was a relief Our pedometers revealed that we had walked nearly 15 miles and climbed the equivalent of 120 staircases during our travels. It's definitely possible to see a lot at Plitvice on a day trip, but the park is so large that you could easily spend a couple of days exploring. Maybe next time we'll do just that!
  21. Today we decided to something we have never done on one of our holidays before and go on an organised excursion. We definitely prefer travelling independently whenever possible, but today's trip was to somewhere which we couldn't have got to on our own: the Kornati National Park. The Kornati National Park is one of Croatia's stranger attractions, being an archipelago of islands distinguished by the fact that they are almost barren and devoid of life. Entry to the national park, which lies a couple of hours' sailing off the coast of Zadar, is only possible if you are on a registered boat with a permit. Unless you happen to have your own boat and obtain a permit, the only real option therefore is to join an organised excursion. We suspected that organised excursions would not really be our cup of tea, so it was with some trepidation that we left our apartment for nearby Borik Marina at 07.15. The advertised departure time of the boat we were booked on was 8am and we were worried about being late as we struggled to locate the meeting point. We needn't have worried, however, as it was about 08.15 before the boat even arrived at the harbour and gone 08.30 before it showed any inclination of departure. It was a big boat, which was good, because there were a lot of people on the excursion. We managed to get a seat at the side, which gave us fantastic views as we pulled away from the old town of Zadar... ...and made our way towards the islands. The tourist brochure had promised breakfast on the boat but, luckily, we had opted to have our own breakfast prior to leaving, because it transpired that this consisted of a shot of rakija (a Croatian spirit) and a small biscuit. You could buy coffee on board though, which cheered me up after our early start. The boat had interesting commentary in five languages as passed points of interest on route. It was fun to listen to the information first of all in Croatian (and understand a little bit of it), then in German and English to see how much I had understood and what I had missed. In between the commentary, we had atmospheric Croatian folk music to listen to. There was some beautiful scenery as we sailed into the national park. After approximately three hours on the boat, we arrived at our destination; an island where we would have two hours of free time to explore and swim before being served lunch and transported back to Zadar. After so long sitting down, we were eager to get back on dry land and investigate the island, but it turned out to be more difficult than we had anticipated. The Kornati islands are extremely rocky and one of our guidebooks had described them as a "moonscape". We could see what the author had meant when we started trying to climb across our island to get a view to the sea on the other side. There was no path to speak of and we were picking our way across large boulders, trying not to accidentally slip and end up in gorse bushes. It was worth it for the amazing views like this one though The island was so small that we'd seen most of it within twenty minutes and decided to head back down to the beach for a swim. We were suitably prepared with swimming costumes and a towel but one thing we hadn't anticipated was how rocky the seabed would be. I knew, of course, that Croatia isn't renowned for sandy beaches, so was expecting a beach with the consistency of gravel. Instead we found a beach which was more like a rockery, and once you approached the sea in the area where the stones began to get wet, they were covered in a green mossy substance which was extremely slippery. I took about two steps before ascertaining that paddling would be akin to walking on an ice rink... without iceskates! I decided to sit and enjoy the view instead... Tim was a bit braver though and (somehow!) managed to edge himself into the water and out again without breaking any bones. Once we'd recovered from the beach it was time for lunch, which was served on board the boat. Our hearts sank as we saw other people in the room being served plates of a rather dubious-looking fish, accompanied by some even more dubious-looking salad. Fortunately there was a second option of chicken or we might have gone very hungry indeed. There was an overriding smell of fish in the dining area for quite some time, so we had to make use of the unlimited free wine to block it out. After another few hours of sailing, we were back in Zadar by 5pm. It was an interesting day and the islands were definitely worth seeing, but I think it reinforced something which we already knew; organised excursions are not our thing! Tomorrow we are planning to go to another Croatian national park, but this time on our own by bus!
  22. The final day of our holiday was one of the most exciting as we set off on a spontaneous trip to Helsinki. I was slightly apprehensive about how we might fare without a map, a guidebook or a single word of Finnish, but it was definitely going to be an adventure if nothing else! Our ferry was due to leave Tallinn at 10.30 and arrive in the Finnish capital at 12.30. The instructions on our ticket implied that it was advisable to be at the ferry terminal an hour before the boat departed, to make sure that there was enough time for check-in and boarding, and we weren't completely sure how long it would take us to walk to the terminal from our hotel, so our intention was to have breakfast in the hotel as soon as it opened at 8am. We arrived at the breakfast room at 07.59 only to find it completely full of what appeared to be a tour party. Every single table was taken (in what wasn't a very large room to start with) and it was clear that we didn't stand much chance of getting a seat within the next 20 minutes. How annoying! We ended up adding Estonia to the list of Eastern European countries in which our lives have been saved by McDonalds and having breakfast there en route to the ferry. The journey to Helsinki was extremely pleasant. It was a big ferry and although there was a large crowd of people waiting to board it, we managed to get find seats by a window with a great view. As the boat pulled out of Tallinn, we were able to see some of the landmarks along the coast which we had visited during our trip to Kadriorg the previous day. We passed some small islands off the coast of Estonia and then there was nothing but miles and miles of blue sea. The Baltic was beautifully calm and so we really enjoyed our trip. We arrived at Helsinki's western ferry terminal, which is a bit outside of the city centre. There was a helpful display of local leaflets in the terminal building, and we picked up a brochure for an open-top bus tour, thinking that this would be the ideal way to get an introduction to new city which we knew very little about... until we saw that the tickets were priced at €25!!! Wow, what we've heard about Scandinavia being an expensive place must really be true then. We were fortunate, however, that the leaflet for the bus tour featured a useful map of all the main sites and the route the bus would take between them. We decided to save some money by travelling along the route by foot and seeing what we could see. There was some sort of tram between the ferry terminal and the main part of the town but there was such a horde of people waiting at the stop that we decided to give it a miss and walk in instead. The route was well-signposted and we were rewarded with some nice sea views as we made our way around the coast and into the town. Soon we were on what appeared to be Helsinki's main street and were able to get a proper town plan from Tourist Information. So far, so good. Our main aim at this point was to find some lunch, but the main street didn't seem the best place to do so because we assumed the prices would be a lot higher than elsewhere. We struck off down some side streets and somehow managed to walk for an hour along a route which missed every single eating establishment in Helsinki. We did find some beautiful cathedrals though The impressive white church above is the Lutheran cathedral, the main symbol of Helsinki. It was built in the nineteenth century as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and known as St Nicholas' Church until Finland became independent of Russia in 1917. The equally striking red church below is the Finnish Orthodox cathedral, built on top of a rock on the eastern side of Helsinki. The largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, it was originally a Russian Orthodox church and a symbol of Russia's domination over Finland. Just around the corner from the Orthodox cathedral we finally chanced upon a restaurant - yay! Even better, there was an English version of the menu and amongst all the slightly unusual fish dishes which I guess are normal in this part of the world, we found a regular burger and chips meal. Excellent... except for the price! Tim's face was a picture when he realised that beefburger and chips was going to set us back €17 - each. Wow. Luckily there was a jug of free tap water on the table, so we were able to save some money by not buying anything to drink. The meal was nice when it came, but it felt like incredibly poor value compared to Vilnius, where we had had two main courses, half a litre of wine and two beers for the grand sum of €14 earlier in the week. Finland is definitely the most expensive place I have ever been. Lunch over, we had four hours left until our return ferry so we set off to see as much of the city as possible. Dodging occasional showers, we strolled around the main sights in the city centre which included an imposing railway station, a pretty blue town hall and numerous tree-lined squares. This rather grim-looking building turned out to be the Finnish parliament. Not far from the parliament building was the start of a beautiful park, where we were able to walk alongside the shore of a lake with great views back towards the town centre and the cathedrals. We found Helsinki's Olympic stadium, as well as the Botanical Gardens, and then proceeded to get rather lost looking for the Sibelius monument, a sculpture dedicated to the famous Finnish composer. Despite being one of the key sights in Helsinki, it didn't appear to be signposted at all and we are indebted to two separate locals who saw us looking confusedly at a map and gave us directions. The monument is hidden away in another beautiful park and our route back towards the ferry terminal took us past some gorgeous stretches of coastline. At times it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a capital city. Having somehow walked another 15 miles, the ferry back to Tallinn was a welcome excuse to sit down for two hours. It was slightly rowdier than on the way out, filled with Finns evidently looking forward to a cheap night out in Estonia. I don't blame them; if I lived in Helsinki I think I'd sail to Tallinn every time I felt like burger and chips! If you're ever looking to do a similar trip, it's worth noting that although there are multiple ferry companies which sail between Tallinn and Helsinki, several of them have timetables which are only geared to doing a daytrip from Helsinki to Tallinn (rather than the other way round). Our brief research indicated that Tallink was the best company to use in the less popular direction, and it certainly worked out cheaply for us. It was after 10pm by the time we got back to our hotel - a late night considering that we had to be up at 04.30 to catch our bus to Riga airport - but it had been worth it. We were rewarded by this wonderful view of the sun setting over Tallinn; a perfect end to a perfect holiday.
  23. After two relaxing days in Latvia, it was time to move on to what was scheduled to be our third and final country: Estonia. The journey from Riga to Tallinn took about four and a half hours but it didn't feel anywhere near that long, as we had the good fortune to be travelling on one of the world's most comfortable buses. We had booked tickets with a company called Luxexpress and although, with the benefit of hindsight, I probably should have noticed that the company name included the word "lux", I really wasn't expecting anything special given that we had only paid €16 each. We were therefore amazed to find that we had extremely comfortable seats, more leg-room than we knew what to do with (there were so much space, our legs weren't actually long enough to reach the footrests!) and free wi-fi. The comfort was surpassed only by the Luxexpress bus on which we travelled back to Riga on Sunday morning, which had seats so soft they actually felt like beds. Tim began mentally planning future holidays which would involve spending the maximum possible time upon Luxexpress buses! We arrived in Tallinn around 13.30 and began navigating our way towards the hotel. When booking hotels in new places, I normally aim to find somewhere within 1.5km of the bus/train station we will be arriving at, so as to minimise the dragging of cases, but in Tallinn this hadn't proved possible and we had about 2.5km to walk. This wouldn't necessarily have been a problem, had it not been for the fact that my suitcase was broken. If you have been reading the blog assidiuously, you may recall that Italy killed my suitcase. After the nightmare of dragging it around Abruzzo without functioning wheels, one of the first things I did when I got back to the UK was to order a new one. Tim and I did quite a bit of suitcase research on Amazon, and I eventually opted for a big hard case made by a German manufacturer. The wheels looked sturdy, as far as we could tell from the Internet, and the fact that it was German-made gave me hope that it would be good quality. I was extremely disappointed, therefore, to find that one of the main wheels broke during its first outing in Vilnius. The wheel had buckled somehow, which made pulling it rather difficult, and by the time we got to Riga the unexpected friction as I dragged it along was causing bits of wheel to melt and fall off. By Tallinn, the wheel had ceased to function in any meaningful way and we were left wishing that we had brought Tim's indestructible (Ukrainian!) suitcase instead. Anyway, we progressed slowly towards our hotel and we were more or less coping until we reached the narrow streets of the Old Town. The Old Town in Tallinn is truly beautiful but on that first day we were in no condition to admire it as we alternately pushed and pulled the wretched case along cobblestones, up and down huge stone kerbs, in and out of random holes in the pavement... Adding to the trauma were the facts that it was over 30 degrees, the town centre was full of tourists so it was impossible to walk in a straight line and the Google map I had printed was far from sufficient to correctly decipher the rabbit warren of streets. A lack of street signs meant that we completely missed the final turning for our hotel, accidentally walking out of the city walls, and ultimately it was gone 14.30 by the time a pair of very hot and bothered travellers arrived at the Olevi Residents Hotel. We were looking forward to checking into our room, turning on the air con and doing some serious cooling down. Unfortunately, things didn't exactly work out like that. We checked in at the hotel reception and they explained that a porter would show us to our room. He was a nice enough chap, though his command of English was only slightly superior to our command of Russian. He led us out of the reception, down an extremely tight spiral staircase, through what appeared to be part of a restaurant kitchen, along a corridor, down some more steps and eventually stopped outside Room 18. We opened the door and were hit with a blast of heat. There was a large fan on the far side of the room, which the porter obligingly went to turn on for us. It whirred briefly, before deciding that that was too much like hard work and cutting out. Oh dear. We would have opened a window to cool down... except there wasn't one. It appeared that we had been given a room in the basement and there was no natural light at all. Tim suggested that the porter might like to go and get us another fan. He returned a few minutes later with a tiny device which seemed designed for blowing out warm air rather than cool and if it made any impact on the temperature of the room, it probably made it hotter. We stuck it out for a few hours before heading out to explore Tallinn and grab some food. When we returned to the hotel room later in the evening, it was like a sauna. There was no way we could have slept in there, so Tim headed off to reception to complain. The hotel seemed pretty full so I wasn't sure he'd have any luck but his impressive negotiating skills (=telling the staff that the room was "dangerously hot") had the desired effect and he soon returned with the keys to room 62. Room 62 was on the sixth floor and the hotel didn't have a lift. Reaching it was rather a struggle but it was worth it when we did to achieve the luxury of a window. There was still no air conditiong or fan, but opening the window cooled the room down to a reasonable temperature and it was a massive improvement on being stuck in airless basement! Accommodation problems suitably resolved, on Friday we were ready to start exploring Tallinn in earnest. What a beautiful city! Almost every street that we walked down was photo-worthy and so it is difficult to know where to start when describing it. We deliberately made an early start with our sightseeing, because we knew there was a risk that the Old Town would be swamped by visitors from cruise ships during the middle of the day. By the time the coach-loads of them arrived at 10am, we had already enjoyed the best of the sights in peace and quiet. The one good thing about our hotel was its central location and so we were able to wander straight out into the main square, which is dominated by the enormous town hall building. From there we found our way to the East Gate, where we saw the first of countless fantastic towers built into the old city walls. The towers weren't the only noteworthy sights, though. Among our other favourites were this amazing Russian Orthodox cathedral: As well as the Estonian Independence monument: Having seen the main sights of the Old Town during the morning, we had a cunning plan to avoid the hordes of tourists in the afternoon by heading out to Kadriorg park. Kadriorg, which means "Catherine's Valley" in Estonian, is a suburb of Tallinn which is dominated by an enormous park, originally commissioned by the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, and named after his wife. As the park is a few kilometres' walk outside of the town centre, we gambled that most other tourists wouldn't find their way there... and happily we were right. After a lovely stroll around the park grounds, which house the palace of the Estonian President and a cottage which Peter the Great lived in while the park was being developed, we unexpectedly found ourselves at the seaside. The heavens opened not long afterwards and sheltering under a somewhat inadequate trellis, we watched the ships cruising in and out of Tallinn harbour. That seemed to plant the seed of an idea in Tim's mind and as we embarked on the long walk back into Tallinn (we walked over 15 miles in total that day!) he said, "Why don't we go to Helsinki tomorrow?". Erm, maybe because Helsinki is kinda, like, in Finland?! Actually, it turns out that Helsinki isn't very far away from Tallinn at all. A bit of research on the Internet that evening revealed that a company called Tallink runs regular ferries which travel from one capital to the other within two hours. Initially the prices looked expensive, but by going out and returning on the same day we became eligible for a special day-cruise discount so that the final fare was only €30 each. It seemed like too good a chance to miss out on, so we booked our tickets and went to bed extremely excited by the prospect of visiting country number FOUR!
  24. With an extra day to spend in Latvia and a pile of unspent Lats now adding to the Litas already burning a hole in our pockets, we decided to head off the beaten track and visit the Latvian seaside. It was news to me that Latvia had a seaside; while it does logically follow from the fact that it has a coastline, I've never seen adverts for breaks on the Latvian Riviera advertised in the local travel agents. Apparently it has always been very popular with Russians though, and the guidebook recommended a small resort called Majori as an easy day-trip from Riga, so we decided to give it a try. We managed to work out from the Internet that there were two trains per hour from Riga to Majori. The train station was only a short walk away from our hotel, so catching a train would have been a simple task, if Riga station hadn't been a warren of tunnels lined with plenty of shops and cafes, but no visible ticket office. We did eventually locate the correct general area for ticket-buying and, after initially standing in the wrong queue, managed to acquire a ticket to Majori for the bargain price of 1 Lat each. After ten minutes on the train, I came to the conclusion that I would rather have paid 10 Lats and had some personal space! The train was already fully when we boarded it, so we found a convenient place to stand in the vestibule area. It was a little difficult to balance upright as the train was exceedingly bumpy and prone to jolting in unexpected directions, but we were confident that we could put up with it for the brief 30-minute journey. We hadn't taken into consideration the fact that the train was due to stop at approximately eight other stations on the way from Riga to Majori and that at each one there would be a crowd of people on the platform wanting to join the train. Everything was okay for the first few stops as people piled into the interior of the carriage. That was soon full, however, and so people began to cram into the vestibule with us. It was breathtaking to see how the (already full) train would pull into a station and an army of old ladies with beach towels would somehow manoeuvre themselves into spaces which shouldn't logically have existed. By the end of the journey we were crammed into the vestibule like sardines and it was with no small amount of relief that we arrived at our destination. The first thing we noticed about Majori was not the sea, but the forests. The town seemed to be built on the edge of some beautiful woods and, as we progressed further into the centre, it became clear that the majority of houses were built out of wood. The wood was mostly painted, however, so they didn't look anything like chalets, and we saw some rather ambitious constructions such as this one: We followed helpful signposts to the beach, which led us down the town's main street before branching off towards the sea. The main street was in some ways a typical seaside road, flanked by stalls selling fridge magnets, postcards and icecreams, but the variety of restaurants was rather exotic. Rather than rows of fish and chip shops interspersed with burger bars and hotdog vans, Majori boasted an Armenian restaurant, an Uzbekh restaurant and several Russian restaurants. We stopped for a drink at an outdoor cafe and were served in Russian, which was a slightly unusual experience. It felt like we had been walking towards the beach for quite some time by this stage but we still hadn't had so much as a glimpse of the sea. I was starting to get slightly concerned and hoping it wouldn't turn out to be like our infamous trip to Narbonne Plage (where we walked about 20km in search of the Mediterranean!) when all of a sudden the Baltic appeared over the top of a hill. The beach completely surpassed our expectations of how attractive it was going to be. The sea was a beautiful shade of blue, while the sand was some of the finest, whitest sand I have ever seen, completely devoid of rocks, pebbles or other sharp objects. Best of all, there was hardly any seaweed The part of the beach nearest the town was pretty busy, although it was helpfully divided into an area for "active recreation" (yellow sign) and an area for "passive recreation" (green sign). We walked in the direction of passive recreation, which mainly seemed to involve people sunbathing, reading, and eating Russian kebabs. Within five or ten minutes we had left the mass of people behind us and found a quieter stretch where we were able to enjoy the lovely sand in peace. We indulged in a spot of paddling, dipping our toes in the Baltic for the very first time. It felt cold at first, but surprisingly warm after you had been in for a couple of minutes. Paddling also gave us a lovely view of how the forest was stretching down almost to the edge of the beach. We later ventured up through the forested sand-dunes and found ourselves in a place called Dubulti, which was the next station down from Majori and the terminous for most of the local trains. Spotting an opportunity to outwit the horde of other travellers who had got off the train in Majori, we resolved to come back here after lunch and guarantee ourselves a seat for the journey back. The town itself seemed pretty with an interesting church and a statue which appeared to be St George killing a dragon. Our plot was ultimately successful, as after an enormous pizza for lunch in Majori, we found ourselves sitting happily on an almost empty train in Dubulti. The guidebook may have been right when it said that Latvia had the worst trains in Europe, but they are certainly a lot more comfortable when you get a seat
  25. We were staying only two nights in Vilnius, mainly due to the guidebook implying that it was the smallest of the Baltic capitals, but it was so pleasant there that we could easily have stayed longer. We certainly could have afforded to stay longer, as I had significantly overbudgeted with £40 of Litas per day, and despite eating out twice on Sunday and sitting drinking in an outdoor cafe until twilight, we still had some of the day's allocation left for Monday. We weren't leaving on a bus to Riga until 14.15 and so I had cautiously budgeted an additional £40 of Litas for Monday morning, to make sure that we had enough money for a filling lunch before setting out on our travels. Oh dear! With more Litas left than we knew what to do with, the best solution we could think of was to blow some on an open-top bus tour of the city centre. We picked up a leaflet for the bus tours from our hotel. There was one scheduled to depart from the cathedral square at 10am, so we had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and another stroll around the old town. The bus was one of those ones with audio guides that you listen to through a headset. The driver kindly set ours to English for us, but it proved to be a little difficult to understand. Firstly, because the Lithuanian accent of the narrator was quite strong and in places what was being said didn't appear to entirely make sense. Secondly, because the maximum volume that the headphones were able to operate at was hardly audible above the noise of the rest of the traffic on the road. Thirdly, because there was something wrong with the headphone socket at my seat so that I was only able to get the audio at all if I physically held the headphones in place with one hand, while desperately clinging on to the handle of my seat with the other as we bumped and bounced around the cobbled streets of Vilnius. The first part of the tour wasn't very exciting as it mainly took in the churches and other monuments in the town centre which we had already seen. The second half became more interesting though as we drove further out of town and along by the river. The commentary gave some worthwhile insights into the history of the town, and it was particularly interesting when the old KGB building was pointed out. After lunch we headed to the bus station to await our coach to Riga. I was somewhat nervous upon entering the bus station and observing vehicles reminiscent of the buses in Kiev (not a compliment!). Thankfully, when our bus arrived it was extremely modern and comfortable and the roads (on the Lithuanian side of the border at least) were so smooth that I was able to read on a bus for probably the first time in my life. The journey to Riga took four hours, crossing into Latvia with about an hour to go. Once we had left the outskirts of Vilnius behind, the countryside became extremely flat. We drove through mile upon mile of forest, passing very few towns or villages until we were virtually on the outskirts of Riga. The main excitements of the journey were when the bus driver became so frustrated with a slow Estonian van in front of us (which was refusing to let him overtake) that he whipped out his iPhone and took a photo of its registration plate. And when we had a document check after the Latvian border by a slightly scary policeman who stared at our passports for what felt like a very long time before deciding that they were okay! We disembarked from the bus in Riga into a swirl of noise and people. It felt like a different universe from quiet and peaceful Vilnius and we were initially disorientated, struggling to work out exactly where we were on the map and which direction we needed to go in to locate our hotel. We found it eventually, on a quieter side street a few kilometres outside the town centre. Happily the staff spoke English and we were able to check in without any difficulties. There was even room service, which we were able to take advantage of to obtain a couple of drinks and a pizza without having to venture out into the metropolis. Room service also provided Tim with the most awful sandwich that he'd ever faced; thick slabs of tomato gunked in mayo. On the back of the tomato he found slight traces of fish... he'd ordered a tuna sandwich and hates tomato. YUCK! We were up early the next morning, eager to see what a Latvian breakfast buffet had in store. It was a distinct improvement on the Lithuanian breakfast buffet, which (once the gherkins, salad and anything pickled had been discounted) consisted mainly of toast. There were a few oddities here too, including something which looked suspiciously like cabbage, but there was also a big container of scrambled eggs and - even better - an enormous pile of pancakes. By 9am we were suitably stuffed and out exploring Riga. First impressions were that it was big. The roads were big, the buildings were big and the river was big. The pavements weren't too busy but the streets were home to a confused mayhem of trams, trolley buses and random vehicles which looked like they should have been scrapped twenty years ago. Crossing the road was an interesting experience! Once we got away from the vicinity of the bus and train stations, however, things calmed down a bit and the centre of the old town was, happily, traffic-free. The first significant sight which we came across was the Freedom Monument, Latvia's own mini-version of the Statue of Liberty. It was erected in 1935 as a celebration of Latvian independence and although the bottom part of it was unfortunately undergoing restoration, we were still able to crane our necks and appreciate its scale. From there we wandered into a beautiful park, following the bank of a canal which used to form part of Riga's moat in olden days. Lots of trees, ducks and pretty flowers! We then moved inwards into the centre of the old town and encountered a whole host of beautiful buildings including this gigantic cathedral, apparently the biggest church in the Baltics. Another particularly striking building was the so-called House of the Blackheads, constructed in the 14th century as a guild for unmarried German merchants in Riga. They must have had pretty high opinions of themselves as the facade is extremely ornate, covered in different sculptures and paintings. The original building was damaged by German bombing during the Second World War and the remains demolished by the Soviets afterwards, but post-independence the Latvians began to reconstruct it and it was completed in 2001. It's been done extremely well because we had no idea that it wasn't the original when we were looking at it, realising only after reading about it in the guidebook! The photos below show some of the other lovely buildings that we saw
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.