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Everything posted by Clare

  1. The weather forecast for today hadn't promised great things, and it was a little bit damp when we stepped out of our hotel this morning. It was also quite misty, and we couldn't see any of the higher mountains in the distance. We walked up through the village, which looked pretty with its Christmas decorations. We could see that there had been a reasonable amount of snow here in the not-so-distant past. Our plan for today was to catch the Ritten train, which travels along the plateau towards a town called Klobenstein (Collalbo in Italian). The journey was free with the travel cards we bought yesterday, which was a bonus We had a pleasant journey in a train that was nearly empty, and it wasn't long before we were stepping off the train in Klobenstein. We had come here in search of earth pyramids, and it wasn't long before we saw a sign pointing towards them. We walked past a house which had some enormous gnomes... ...and then down through the village. One of the hotels had a rather unusual nativity scene outside Signs led us to the the neighbouring village of Lengmoos/Longomoso, which looked like a really pretty little place. From there we passed what looked like it was supposed to be a viewpoint, but there wasn't much of a view today. Before long we caught sight of a little church in the distance. It looked like it was in danger of being obscured by the clouds... ...and soon it actually was! We were following the path that was supposed to lead us to the earth pyramids, but I was starting to get a bit worried that once we got there we wouldn't actually be able to see them with so much low cloud! We also passed a sign which said that the path was only open as far as the first viewing platform, so we weren't sure how much we were going to be able to see. We reached the viewing platform and it was indeed rather misty! It looked like this might be the best view I was getting of an earth pyramid When we looked over the railing, we could just make out something which might be earth pyramids behind the clouds. It was very atmospheric, but I had hoped to have a clearer view! Luckily, once we'd been standing there a while, the cloud started to move The church became visible again and we even got a glimpse of the higher mountains in the distance. Now we could see the earth pyramids better too! Once we could see them properly it became clear what unusual structures they are. The info board explained that earth pyramids were formed by rainwater eroding soil which contains large rocks. The soil under the rocks is protected from the erosion and - over the course of thousands of years - a pyramid of earth is formed beneath the stone. The process requires a certain type of soil, as well as periods of heavy rains followed by drought in which the earth can solidify. All of this makes the earth pyramids which are found here quite rare. Seeing the stones balancing on top of the pyramids is really cool - it doesn't look like it ought to be possible! By the time we were leaving, the weather was an awful lot better than when we had arrived. We walked back towards Klobenstein, to catch the train back to Oberbozen. The return journey wasn't quite as peaceful, because the train was full of children on their way home from school! Once we got to Oberbozen, we caught the cable car down the mountain to Bolzano. It was so cloudy that we could barely see a thing! It was around 2pm by this time and we were rather hungry, so we had come down to Bolzano with the aim of finding lunch. I expected there to be lots of restaurants in Bolzano, but somehow we struggled to find one. There was a restaurant near the main square (but the prices were quite expensive) and a couple of pizza places (but we had pizza last night, so were hoping for something different). There was the added complication that we'd missed the official lunch time, so not everywhere was still open and serving. We walked around for what felt like quite a while, before eventually finding a restaurant that seemed promising Tim had Wienerschnitzel with potato salad and cranberries. ...while I had a turkey schnitzel with fried potatoes The food was really delicious While we were eating the rain in Bolzano seemed to become a bit heavier though. We had a brief walk around, finding the cathedral with its colourful roof. The centre of town was looking quite festive. There was a little Christmas market in the main square... ...a beautiful Christmas tree... ...plus a ferris wheel in the distance. As we walked back towards the cable car station, we passed some more lovely decorations. There was a tree covered in red baubles beside an ice rink... ...plus these rather cool reindeer The cable car back up to Oberbozen was very cloudy again and the rain seems to have got worse this evening. The forecast for tomorrow isn't very promising, but we've certainly made the most of the weather today and had some fun
  2. We haven't been away before Christmas for several years - not since 2013 when we last went to the Christmas markets in Ljubljana and Zagreb - so booking a trip to Bolzano before Christmas this year was something that happened quite spontaneously. We were watching the Eurovision song contest... or, at least, I was watching the Eurovision song contest... and Tim was sitting in the same room watching it under sufferance... and somehow he managed to get so bored that he started playing around on Skyscanner and found cheap flights to Verona in the week before Christmas. Admittedly they were from Gatwick and would require quite an early start, but the temptation of a cheap flight was too much for us to resist. When researching where we could go, Tim found some pictures of Bolzano in winter which looked really pretty, and so we soon had a plan When the alarm went off at 02.30 this morning I was admittedly slightly less excited by the concept of an early flight from Gatwick We had a smooth journey down though, arriving at the airport by 6am and with plenty of time to have breakfast at Wetherspoons. Our plane boarded quite early too, but unfortunately it ended up taking off around 50 minutes behind schedule. Unbeknown to us, there is some sort of industrial action going on in France at the moment which includes French air traffic controllers being on strike. Because of that, lots of flights were being rerouted to avoid flying through French air space, and that was causing congestion. I ended up falling asleep before we took off, although take off itself did wake me up because it felt like the plane was being blown from side to side as it raced down the runway! There was a bit of turbulence during the flight itself and overall the skies seemed quite cloudy. We didn't have much of a view because we had middle and aisle seats, and the person next to us had the window blind closed for a lot of the flight. It was around midday by the time we touched down in Verona, where the pilot announced that it was a rather mild 12 degrees! It certainly didn't feel freezing cold when we stepped off the plane and I started to regret having brought so many cold weather clothes with me. We've been to Verona before but never to Verona airport, and first impressions were that it seemed pretty small. We had to queue for ages at passport control because pretty much the entire flight had to pass through three automatic passport control gates, but the upside was that our luggage was already coming round the conveyor belt by the time we got out There is a frequent bus service from the airport to the main train station in Verona, with tickets costing €6. There was a bus outside the airport when we arrived, but there was quite a big queue and it already seemed pretty full. We decided to give it a miss rather than try to push our way on and wait for the next one instead. That turned out to be a good decision; the next bus came within 15 minutes and it wasn't more than half full, which was good because it was one of those airport buses that doesn't have anywhere to put your luggage. We arrived at Verona Porta Nuova around 13.15 and went to a ticket machine to buy our tickets to Bolzano. It cost around €15 each on the regional train, which didn't seem too bad considering it was a journey of nearly 2 hours. The next train was leaving at 13.50, so we purchased tickets for that and then had a look around the station to see whether there was anywhere we could get a quick lunch while we waited. The eating options in Verona's station turned out to be a bit limited, and so we ended up getting a snack from Burger King (I know, this sounds like a dreadful thing to do when you've just arrived in Italy, but we were hungry ). All the signs and railway announcements said that our train was running late, but confusingly it actually turned up early and we were soon on our way towards Bolzano. Once we had left the outskirts of Verona behind, the journey quickly became really scenic. Although it was quite a grey and cloudy day, the mountains still looked beautiful (The photos aren't very good because there was a lot of reflection in the train window!) We passed through lots of interesting little places, and within half an hour or so we were getting our first glimpses of little bits of snow on the mountaintops. We arrived in Bolzano just after 15.30 and made our way from the main train station to the station of the Renon cable car. Our hotel is in the village of Soprabolzano/Oberbozen, which sits on a plateau above the main city of Bolzano at an altitude of around 1200m. Because we anticipated that we might be travelling up and down the mountain quite a bit over the next few days, we invested in a Mobilcard; this cost €28 each for 7 days and allows us to travel on most of the public transport in the region. The choices are 1, 3 or 7 days and it made sense to buy for 7, even though we aren't here for that long, because it was only €5 more than for the 3-day pass, and a single journey on the Renon cablecar would otherwise cost €6 each. This is the first time we've ever caught a cable car to our hotel and so I was quite excited As we got higher up we could see more snow in the distance. Soon we were at the top and only had a walk of a few hundred metres to get to our hotel. There were tiny little patches of snow on the grass, which suggested that there had recently been snow up here but that it had now thawed. We found the hotel without any difficulties but it was all shut up and there was a sign saying that reception would be open again at 18.00. Luckily, the owners had left us a note with our key... and luckily we were able to read German to follow the instructions We found our room and it is really beautiful It's more like a studio apartment than a hotel room. And the views out the window are fantastic I was in definite need of a nap by this point, so it was early evening by the time we set out to find some food. Everywhere was looking very festive There aren't loads of restaurant options up here, but we found a little pizzeria and shared a four cheeses plus a salami pizza. Then it was back to the hotel for an early night! The weather forecast isn't great for the next couple of days, but rain-permitting I'm definitely looking forward to exploring more tomorrow
  3. All the shops in Lefkosia seemed to be closed this morning, so we ended up navigating to a drive-through McDonalds a few miles away from our apartment for breakfast. Once we'd eaten, it was back to the apartment to pack before we set off for our ultimate destination of Larnaca. Larnaca is located on the southern coast of Cyprus, about 37 miles south of Lefkosia. It's a fairly easy drive to get there, mostly along a series of motorways. When planning the route I'd chosen a slightly scenic variation, which would take us past Larnaca's Salt Lake. We found the lake without too much difficulty, but it wasn't immediately obvious where we could stop to look at it. Eventually Tim caught sight of a small car park on the lake shore, and we were able to get out to explore. It was a rather strange place, but quite picturesque. The ground really was completely covered in salt; Tim tasted some of it to double check Once we'd finished admiring the lake, we continued on into Larnaca. It was only a couple of miles further on. The first thing we caught sight of as we parked the car was a minaret in the distance. This is thought to be the first Ottoman mosque which was built in Cyprus. It's a really pretty building. We'd driven through this archway, which is attached to the side of the mosque, on the way to park our car. A bit further up the road from here, we found Larnaca's main church. This is the church of Saint Lazarus, believed to be the burial place of the biblical Lazarus (when he died for a second time). It's a really lovely church. From here it wasn't far to the sea, so went for a stroll to look at the beach. I'm glad we didn't spend our entire holiday here There's a large promenade, lined with palm trees, which runs along the sea front. The promenade came to an end beside some government buildings. We'd covered most of the town's main sights by this point, so it was time to get some lunch. We found a restaurant right outside the church We decided to have chicken souvlaki for a final time. Unfortunately this time they unexpectedly came in a pitta bread with lots of tomato and cucumber, which we had to scrape out. The meat itself was tasty though, and we also got a final serving of baklava Then it was time to head back to the car park and make the short drive to the airport to hand back the hire car. We've had a really great week in Cyprus and seen some really beautiful scenery; I think it's fair to say that it's a country which has exceeded our expectations
  4. When we went outside on the balcony of our apartment this morning, we realised we were so close to Northern Cyprus that we could see it. The flag painted on the mountainside looks a bit blurry in the picture below, but we can see it quite clearly in real life. That was fitting, because our plan for today was to cross into Northern Cyprus again, this time by car. The border crossing of Agios Dometios is only a couple of miles from where we are staying, so that was the first place we navigated to. Because its in the middle of Lefkosia, this is a busy border crossing and so we had to sit in a queue for a while. No one wanted to see our passports on the Greek Cypriot side, but we had to show them to the Turkish border police again. It's permitted to take a hire car from southern Cyprus into northern Cyprus, but car insurance purchased in southern Cyprus doesn't cover you to drive in northern Cyprus, so we knew that we would have to purchase Turkish car insurance at the border. My research indicated that there was going to be an insurance booth to do this at the border crossing, next to the passport control booth. What my research didn't indicate was which lane we needed to be queuing in to be able to do this. There were two lanes for passport control and, in the absence of any signs, we'd ended up in the left hand one when the insurance booth turned out to be in the right hand one. Oh dear! We showed our passports to the Turkish border guard and he asked to see our car insurance. Tim explained that he wanted to buy it, so the guard told him to park the car to one side and go to the insurance booth to make the purchase. Meanwhile he was going to hang onto my passport for security I may have been regretting this adventure slightly at this point, but luckily it all turned out to be fine. Tim successfully purchased the insurance, which turned out to only cost €20, and showed it to the border guard, who promptly returned my passport. In possession of an insurance certificate written entirely in Turkish, we drove across the border and onto the main road towards our ultimate destination of Girne. First impressions were that everything felt a bit more foreign on this side of the border. The signs were mainly just in Turkish (whereas on the other side, a lot of signs are bilingual in Greek and English) and the standard of driving seemed a little bit worse (though not as bad as Sicily!). There were lots of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags everywhere, and we drove past what looked like an enormous mosque being constructed on the outskirts of Lefkoşa. The reason for today's excursion was that some of the top sights in Cyprus are on the Turkish side of the border and there were two in particular that I really wanted to see. One was Saint Hilarion Castle, which our guidebook described as being the best castle in Cyprus, and the other was the town of Girne (or Kyrenia, in Greek), which was described as having the most picturesque harbour in Cyprus. Girne is located less than 20 miles from Lefkosia and Saint Hilarion Castle is on the way, so both are easily doable as a day-trip from the capital. It felt like we hadn't been travelling for long when we saw a sign indicating the turn-off for the castle. From the main road, you have to drive a few kilometres uphill on a small road which takes you through some stunning mountain scenery, with great views up towards the castle itself. Unfortunately, this road is owned by the military (there seems to be some sort of army base on the hill) and so there are big signs telling you that it's forbidden to stop and/or take any photos here. That didn't seem to stop a couple of other cars of tourists from doing just that, but we definitely weren't going to risk it! At the top of the hill there's a small car park, which was overflowing with French tourists who had just got off a coach. Tim managed to find a space and we walked up towards the castle entrance. It only cost €2 each to get in, which seemed like a bargain, and luckily they did accept Euros in cash. From here we were allowed to start taking photos of the views This was the road which we'd been driving up to get to the castle. We could see all the way down to the sea; the town on the coast is Girne, where we were heading later. It looked quite built up from here and I was starting to wonder whether it would really be as attractive as the guidebook had promised. Once we'd finished admiring the views, we turned our attention towards the castle. As with everywhere here, the castle had its two flags proudly flying. A series of steps took us uphill towards the lower part of the castle. A castle was first built here in Byzantine times, to help defend the coast from attacks by Arab pirates. The castle was later upgraded by the Lusignans, who ruled Cyprus until the end of the fifteenth century. The upgraded castle was used as a summer residence by the Lusignan kings. Once the Venetians took control of Cyprus, the castle began to fall into disrepair. It is still, however, the best preserved of a number of castles in this part of Cyprus. We'd climbed a fair way uphill by this point, overtaking most of the elderly French tour group, and we were now a long way above the entrance gate with its flags. There were still more steps to go, though! Eventually we got up to the middle part of the castle. Here there were various rooms that we could go into to explore. This one used to be the kitchen. There were some bits of the castle ruins that I didn't really feel like exploring; that ladder looks rather scary! We did, however, intend to climb a bit higher, to the top level of the castle. Although when I suggested it, I hadn't realised quite how much further there was left to climb It turned out there was a long way! Another series of stone steps took us upwards, but the stone had worn smooth and was extremely slippy. Not anticipating this, we were both wearing our trainers (despite having our walking boots in the back of the car down below), and so we found it a slightly challenging climb at times, despite the fact that several Russian women in high heeled sandals seemed to be managing it just fine The saving grace was that there was a series of strong metal railings all the way up to hold on to. At last, we made it to the highest tower Or, at least, the highest tower that you can climb to; this one was higher. It was a long way down to the car park from here on one side... ...and a long way down to Girne on the other side. It had been a tiring climb to get up here, but now that we'd made it the views were incredible. Now there was just the small matter of getting down again! It was a little nerve-wracking in places but we managed it and soon we were able to look back up towards where we'd been. Phew Now it was time to get back in the car and continue onwards to Girne. The guidebook had recommended a parking place not too far from the harbour, which we found without any problems. As we parked and started walking into the town centre, we were somewhat surprised to find that the first thing which confronted us was an English pub. Not quite what I expected when I thought we were having an exotic adventure Although it was lunchtime by this point, we definitely weren't going to get lunch from an English pub. We continued on through the town, passing a ruined tower... ...and a pretty white church. Then we found the sea The mountains made a really beautiful backdrop for it; it reminded me a bit of Montenegro. This part of the seafront didn't look quite like the pictures I'd seen in the guidebook though, so we needed to explore further. It turned out we'd walked along the sea front in the wrong direction. If we'd come out of the town and turned right instead, we would have started walking towards Girne castle. There's a long promenade here which enables you to walk around the harbour. These were the views that I'd seen pictures of We could see the castle, and the minaret of the town's oldest mosque. The water was beautifully clear and we could see lots of little fish swimming in it. We walked around as far as we could, admiring the views. The town is definitely a lot prettier from here than it looks when you are on top of the castle. The huge castle here was built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. It later surrendered to the Ottomans, who continued to use it as a castle. During the British administration of Cyprus, it was used variously as a prison and a police barracks. Today it is a tourist attraction, but we decided that climbing up one castle was enough effort for today so we didn't pay to go inside Instead, we walked back around the harbour, towards the centre of town. There were lots of restaurants around the waterfront, so we soon found somewhere to get a belated lunch. Tim ordered a chicken kiev, which looked enormous when it came. I order something which was described as "chicken meatballs". They turned out to be pieces of grilled chicken with herbs mixed through them; delicious but definitely not meatball-shaped For pudding, Tim had ice-cream and I tried a Turkish desert called kadayifi ekmek. It tasted a bit like tiramisu, without the chocolate and alcohol. I also had a coffee, which came with this rather peculiar carton of water, the size and shape of a yoghurt pot. I'm guessing that the tap water isn't drinkable here, so they have sealed cartons to serve with coffee rather than glasses of tap water. By the time we'd finished eating we were absolutely stuffed. The entire meal came to 193 Turkish Lira, which is less than €30, so it felt like good value It was only a short walk back from the restaurant towards where we'd left the car. On the way we passed the mosque whose minaret we'd seen from the harbour. The car parking cost €2 and they let us pay in Euros, which was good. Then all that remained was a drive back along the motorway towards Lefkosia, where we had to go pass back through the border control. Our passports were checked on both sides of the border this time, although only briefly, and there were no complications with insurance in this direction It's been a really exciting day and we've seen some beautiful places. Tomorrow afternoon we will be flying back to the UK from Larnaca airport. We should have time to see some of Larnaca in the morning, though not sure how much there is to see there! I don't think it will beat today for scenery, but we've had such a great holiday that we can't really complain
  5. Today it was time to leave Platres behind and travel to our final destination for this holiday: Lefkosia. Or maybe Nicosia. I have spent the holiday in a state of some confusion about what the capital of Cyprus is actually called, because personally I have always been fairly sure it was called Nicosia (and, indeed, this is what my Cyprus guidebook and the English Wikipedia call it), but all the road and other signs here refer to it as Lefkosia. As far as I can tell, the city is called Λευκωσία in Greek, which transliterates as Lefkosia. Historically the city was called Nicosia in English, although it was still called Lefkosia in Greek, and in 1995 an official decision was taken that Lefkosia would be the official name in English too. It doesn't seem to be a decision that has caught on internationally, but given that everything here is labelled as Lefkosia, we're going to use that name for today's blog Lefkosia is about 90 minutes away from Platres by car and it was a fairly straightforward journey, which only required use of the satnav for the final 10 minutes or so as we made our way into the city centre on the hunt for parking. The old town of Lefkosia is surrounded by thick defensive walls which were built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. The guidebook had recommended a car park just outside the walls and Google maps surpassed my expectations, taking us there on the first attempt The carpark seemed to be in a sort of moat outside the walls. Once we'd parked, we climbed up a steep staircase to the level of the rest of the town. Almost immediately, we found ourselves in a very touristy quarter called Laiki Geitonia, whose narrow streets were full of people trying to entice us into their cafes and restaurants. We didn't take any pictures, because we were too busy trying to evade them and track down the tourist information office, which was signposted somewhere in this warren of streets. We eventually found it and acquired a map of the southern part of the city. The man in the tourist information office even circled the main sights for us, which was helpful, because our first impression as we started walking around Lefkosia was that sights were few and far between The first photogenic building which we came to was the Faneromeni church, which is the largest church within the city walls. It was interesting to see that it had a Greek flag flying on the back of it. The church is in a square, opposite the Faneromeni school, which was the first school for girls built in Cyprus in 1857. A bit further on, we found the Ömeriye mosque, which is the most important functioning mosque in the Greek Cypriot part of the city. Unfortunately, everything in Lefkosia seems to be so built up that it was difficult to get a good photo of it from up close. We walked down a pretty little street... ...and found we had a better view of the mosque from a distance There were some interesting streets in this part of town. Some of the buildings had enclosed balconies, which reminded me of those we'd seen in Malta last year. Not far from here we found St John's Cathedral, which looked quite small for a cathedral in a capital city. The cathedral is close to the Archbishop's Palace. This is the official home of the Archbishop of Cyprus. By this point we had walked horizontally across the city and were almost at the edge of the Venetian walls. Here we found the Liberty Monument. This was built in 1973 to honour the fighters who fought for Cyprus's independence from Britain. We walked along the edge of the walls for a while, which was quite pleasant They look like really solid walls! By walking along the walls, we came to the Famagusta gate. This was the main gate into the city in Venetian times. From here we walked inwards back into the city. On the way we passed this tiny mosque with a very short minaret. We were walking towards Lefkosia's main street, Ledra Street. Ledra Street is home to one of several checkpoints where you can cross from the official Republic of Cyprus, where we have spent our week, to the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) which covers the northeastern part of the island. The TRNC came into being in 1974 when Turkey, concerned that Greek Cypriots were planning to officially unite the island with Greece, invaded the parts of Cyprus which were inhabited by Turkish Cypriots. The conflict has never been resolved, despite the fact that Cyprus is now a member of the EU. Turkey is the only country which recognises Northern Cyprus as a country, and so to the rest of the world the territory, which includes half of the capital city, is viewed as being under illegal occupation. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lefkosia has been the last divided capital in the world. Tensions are, however, lower than they used to be and the Ledra Street crossing was opened in 2008 to enable pedestrians to pass from one side of the city to the other. Crossing the border is a slightly strange experience. First of all you have to queue to show passports to the Greek Cypriot police, who admittedly didn't seem terribly interested in them. They were much more interested in opening the bags of people who were crossing back in from Northern Cyprus, to make sure they weren't importing illegal amounts of cigarettes. Then you walk through a no-man's-land kind of area, before joining a queue to show passports to the Turkish Cypriot police. They seemed more interested in them and put them through a scanner, although they didn't seem to stamp them at all. The queue for the Turkish passport control was quite long, but they have built a covered wooden walkway for people to queue in, which at least meant we were in the shade while we waited. Once we'd had our passports checked, we were officially in Lefkoşa (a third name isn't at all confusing ), the capital of the TRNC. Somewhat unexpectedly, the first thing we saw was an off licence. In general, many of the streets were lined with shops selling knock-off designer clothes. There had been a sign at the border warning people that bringing counterfeit clothing back across was an offence. There were some more attractive buildings too though... ...including some attractive porticoes... ...and pretty much everywhere we looked we could see minarets on the horizon. The highlight of this part of the city is the Büyük Han, a historical inn built by the Ottomans in 1572. During the time of the British administration of Cyprus, it was used as the city prison. Today it has all been beautifully restored and is used as an arts and cultural centre. It's also a popular tourist attraction and there were several shops and restaurants in the courtyard. We decided to stop at one of the restaurants and get lunch. The prices on the menu were all in Turkish lira, which is the official currency in northern Cyprus. We had to do a bit of careful googling to check the exchange rate (careful, because I'd had a text from EE warning me that if I accidentally connected to a Turkish mobile network while in Cyprus, I would be charged some pretty expensive rates!). The prices seemed pretty reasonable though, so we found a table and sat down The menu consisted of variations on the theme of grilled meat (although pork was notably absent). Tim experimented with a mixed grill, while I played it safe with chicken. Both meals came with pitta bread, chips and beautiful sticky rice. I had a glass of Turkish wine, Tim had a Turkish beer, and all in all the meal came to 133 lira, which was €20.50. We didn't actually have any Turkish lira, so Tim paid on his card. Interestingly, they would have accepted cash payment in Euros, but the Euro amount quoted on the bill was €24, so it wasn't a terribly favourable exchange rate! Service over lunch had been a bit slow, so we only had a little bit more time to explore before we needed to get to our apartment to check in. I wanted to track down a big mosque, whose minarets with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags flying we'd been able to see even from the Greek side of the city. This is the Selimiye Mosque, formerly a Gothic cathedral, which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period. It's very clear that parts of it used to be a church. With that our time was up and we had to head back across the border. There was less of a queue this time and so we made it to our apartment in good time. It turns out to be another spacious one. We've got a comfy living area... ...a good kitchen... ...and a nice bedroom. There's even an office if Tim wants to catch up on some work All in all we've had another very interesting day in Cyprus
  6. We discovered last night that there is only one tiny shop in Platres - and it doesn't have a huge selection of food to choose from - so we had a rather limited breakfast of toast and honey this morning, before setting out on our first adventure of the day. The guidebook had listed multiple walking trails starting from the vicinity of Platres, two of which led to waterfalls. I decided that we should start the day with a walk to the Millomeris waterfall, which was described in the guidebook as being an "easy" hike of 1.5km. The path started not far from our apartment. As we walked along the main road towards the centre of Platres, we passed the village church. A little further on from there, a signpost pointed us towards the waterfall trail. The path led us steeply downhill, which didn't feel like a good start, because this wasn't a circular route, so we were going to have to climb back up here on the return journey. Once we got to the bottom of the descent, we found ourselves next to a small river. A bridge led us over to the opposite side. This is the only river which we've seen so far in Cyprus. The path led along the side of the water for a while. It was quite narrow in places, though. After a while we started climbing uphill again. Tiring, but we did emerge to some scenic views. No sooner had we finished climbing uphill, then the path started taking us downhill again. This was on a gravel road, which was a bit slippery. We were getting close to the waterfall now. When we paused and looked up, we were surprised to be able to make out the village church at the top of the hill above us. We had come down a long way! Finally, we climbed down a steep stone staircase and we were at the waterfall We hadn't met anyone else while walking on the nature trail so I thought we might be the only people here. Turns out that you can drive here, so that wasn't the case; there were a couple of groups of people in flipflops Never mind, it was still a beautiful waterfall. Once we'd admired the waterfall for a while, it was time to start the long climb back uphill to the village. It was hard-going in the sunshine, but eventually Platres started to look a bit closer. Just one more bit of uphill to go! We got there in the end and went back to the apartment briefly to recover and stock up on some water. That was definitely not what I would describe as an easy one-hour return stroll! The walk to the second waterfall outside Platres was described as being more difficult, so I decided that we should give that one a miss! Instead, we drove about 10km on an uphill road, towards the village of Troodos. Troodos is located about 250m below Mount Olympus, which is the highest mountain in Cyprus at 1,952m. A path called the Artemis trail leads around the mountain at an altitude of around 1,850m and was described as being a mostly flat, circular route. It sounded promising so we decided to give it a try The walk starts from a car park a few hundred metres up the road from the main village of Troodos. We didn't have to walk far before we started getting great views. The path lived up to expectations and was reasonably flat, although parts of it were quite rocky. It was also pretty well signposted, with visible arrows and markers to tell you how many kilometres you'd walked. We were slightly confused by this direction with an arrow and a cross though! A lot of the walk was through the forest, which meant it was cool and shady. Every so often we emerged into a clearing and could see the views There were little signs giving the names of various types of tree and stone that we passed. I was particularly excited when we passed this one and realised it was a Cyprus Cedar, like the ones we'd seen in Cedar Valley yesterday There were lots of interesting trees along the route, some of which looked pretty old. There were a number of benches along the route, where we stopped for water breaks. Despite the fact that it's October and that we were fairly high up, it was still really warm. We didn't meet anyone else the whole time we were walking, so it was very peaceful. A few kilometres in, the path started leading downwards to cross what may once have been a stream, but was completely dried up today. Then it was back up the other side. As we got further around the mountain, we could see further afield. This next part of the walk turned out to be particularly rocky. Although the path was quite narrow in places, it wasn't as scary as it looks; all the rocks were quite solid, so you never felt in danger of slipping. And the views were really wonderful As we walked further on, we could see down towards one of the villages. After another corner... ...we could just make out a splash of water in the distance, which looked like it might be a reservoir. We turned another corner... ...and now we were far enough round the mountain to be able to see the sea. (It hasn't come out very clearly in the photos unfortunately!). Unbelievably, Troodos is actually a ski resort in winter and towards the end of the walk we passed some ski lifts. Once we'd got to the end of the walk, we were able to drive slightly further uphill to a restaurant which seems to serve skiers in the winter. Although we'd missed lunchtime by this stage, they were still serving food I may have had chicken souvlaki for the third day in a row, and then we finished up with some chocolate cake. The second walk was definitely a lot more fun than the first one and the views were really amazing Tomorrow we are leaving Platres for Lefkosia, where we may have a less active day than today
  7. This morning it was time for us to leave Paphos behind and travel inland to our next destination: Platres. Today was going to be all about the journey, because I had planned what I hoped was going to be a very scenic route to Platres through the Tilliria forest. We checked out of the apartment at around 10am and began driving towards the small village of Lysos, which is located about 25 miles north of Paphos. Once we'd left the sprawl of Paphos behind us, the road took us up into the hills and we soon had some beautiful views Lysos was a small place, but it had a pretty little church... ...and we could even see all the way back down to the sea. From Lysos, we followed a small road (F723) towards the forest. The Tilliria forest is very remote and some of the roads which cross it are only dirt tracks. My research on the internet had suggested that the F723 was a proper tarmac road, so it was a relief to get to it and see that it was The road soon began climbing higher into the mountains. Every so often there were little laybys where we could pull over and admire the views. The road took us deeper into the forest. The guidebook had warned that there were no petrol stations once you were on this route and no shops either, so we'd made sure we were well stocked with both petrol and water. We were driving towards a small hamlet called Stavros tis Psokos, which seems to be the only habitation within the forest. It was only 12 miles from Lysos, but it probably took half an hour to get there because the road was so steep and winding. Once we arrived and parked we were confronted with a sign which warned that the risk of forest fires was high today. Not surprising I guess, given how hot and dry it is. The main reason for stopping in Stavros tis Psokos is to see the mouflon. These horned sheep are a national emblem of Cyprus. There is a small path you can follow around the mouflon enclosure. The sheep themselves are behind a high fence; apparently someone who got inside the enclosure and started goading the sheep was gored to death The ones we saw seemed quite timid though; the younger ones ran off when they heard us walking around. Apart from the sheep there isn't much else to see here and so we were soon on our way again. We stopped at several viewpoints outside Stavros tis Psokos and came to one which seemed to be the start of a short signposted walk. We decided to give it a go. The path was a bit narrow in places, but overall a lot easier to walk on than yesterday's. We soon had some lovely views The start of the path was quite uphill, but the higher we climbed the further we could see. It was all so beautiful that it was hard to stop taking photos After a while we realised we could see one of the little roads cutting through the forest. Partway through the walk we came to a crossroads with several possible directions and we didn't have a clue which one was correct. After looking at our photo of the map, we eventually realised that the scratches on this sign post were showing us the way to go. It was quite a sharp turn (we'd come from the wider track and the arrow was pointing up the narrower path). We could easily have missed it and gone the wrong way! The next part of the walk continued to have some amazing views. It hasn't come out very clearly in the photos, but at this point we could see the sea in the distance The narrow path eventually took us back to where we had started. Then it was back in the car again, towards our next destination. Our next destination was a place called Cedar Valley, described in the guidebook as being one of the most picturesque places in Cyprus. We found it about 15 minutes further on and parked in the small car park. It wasn't immediately obvious what there was to see, so we started following the only signposted footpath which we could find. The path led uphill through the forest. Finally we started to see some cedars! They have a rather distinctive shape. They were growing in amongst lots of other trees though, so sometimes we had to look quite carefully to be able to pick them out. I had thought the walk was just going to be a stroll, but it ended up taking us quite steeply uphill. We could look down towards the road we'd been driving on. Unbeknown to us we were climbing to the top of Mount Tripylos. When we finally got there, there were some great views though Then it was time to head back down towards the cedars again Once we got back in the car, we started driving towards Platres, our destination for the evening. On the way we passed the Kykkos monastery. This is apparently the richest and most famous monastery in Cyprus. From there it wasn't far to Platres. We found the village without any problems, but finding the correct address for our accommodation was a bit more challenging. We got there in the end though and found we've got quite a spacious house for the next two nights. In addition to a nice living area with a kitchen... ...we've got a bedroom with a four poster bed... ...and a spare bedroom in case we fall out We've also got an outdoor area... ...with some nice views. We were pretty hungry by this point, so we walked uphill into the centre of Platres to find some food. We found a nice restaurant, where I had chicken souvlaki again and Tim had a chicken schnitzel. He didn't get to eat all of it himself though, because he made a new friend Afterwards we had more baklava and coffee. Tim ordered something which on the menu was called "Cyprus coffee". It turned out to be very similar to Turkish coffee. The sun was just setting as we made our way back to the apartment. It's been another lovely day, and we're looking forward to exploring more of the region tomorrow
  8. We had a leisurely start to the morning in our apartment before getting in the hire car and driving north from Paphos, towards the town of Polis. The route took us through the built up coastal area outside Paphos, before turning inland and taking us through increasingly hilly countryside, towards the island's northern coast. As we drove along we saw fields of rather unusual trees by the side of the road... The fruit was mostly wrapped in blue plastic, presumably to protect it, so it took a while before I realised they were banana trees Once we reached Polis, we turned left along a pretty coast road. Our destination was the Akamas peninsula, a small peninsula sticking out into the sea at the northwestern corner of Cyprus. The peninsula is protected as a nature reserve and has escaped the sort of development which has taken place along much of the island's coastline, because until 2000 it was used by the British army as a shooting range. There's no shooting these days, but that history, combined with the remote location, mean that there are not even any tarmac roads on the peninsula. The coast road eventually comes to an end at a car park, and you can only travel onwards by foot or on a jeep tour. A lot of people who come here don't, in fact, intend to go very far at all, but have come to visit a tourist attraction called "The Baths of Aphrodite". This is a pool where legend says that the goddess Aphrodite used to bathe. From the car park, a well-signposted path led uphill towards the baths. When we got there, I think it's fair to say that we both found it a bit underwhelming It looked like quite a dark, dank pool and it smelled a bit funny. There was some water dripping down from the rocks, which was quite pretty, but we didn't linger long. Fortunately, we hadn't just come to Akamas to see the baths There are several signposted walks on the peninsula. I had been considering doing the easiest one, which is a flat 6km walk along the dirt road you can see in the photo below. In the end we decided against it, because I realised this was the same road that the jeep tours go down, and having dust blown in our faces by passing jeeps for 6km didn't sound like a very attractive prospect. Instead, we opted to follow another signposted walk, the Aphrodite trail. This one was described by the guidebook as harder, and I knew it definitely wasn't going to be flat. We were soon climbing high above the dirt road. The path was quite relentlessly uphill at the start, but the views were spectacular. In one direction we could see the sea and the northern coast of Cyprus... ...while in the other direction, we could see the forested interior of the peninsula. There were a few other people on the path, but it wasn't busy by any stretch of the imagination. We were soon so high above the parking area that we thought we must nearly be at the top. The path led us through a bit of forest... ...and then flattened off for a while. I'd read that the route was about 7.5km. After over an hour, we figured we must be almost halfway round. Haha, no We passed a marker telling us that all our exertions so far had taken us a mere 2km. And it soon became clear that there was a lot more uphill to go! Could this be the top? Nope! The path was extremely rocky in places and I was very glad that I'd managed to fit my walking boots into my carry-on sized suitcase. There's no way we could have done this in trainers! We found a bench for a much-needed rest Not long afterwards we came to a flatter path through the forest, where there was a map showing the route. We were doing the Aphrodite Trail and had come from the small red dot at the Baths of Aphrodite to the other small red dot labelled Pyrgos tis Rigenas. So there still seemed to be quite a lot of the trail left to do! The good news is that the rockiest part was now behind us. The next stage of the walk was easier, although still uphill, along a forest road. Brown metal signs with arrows cut into them showed us the way. They were actually quite hard to catch sight of, often camouflaged into the surroundings. The highest point of the walk was ultimately just below the rocky outcrop which you can see on this photo. A bit further up the forest road... and then we were there We really could see for miles along the coast. But I didn't realise that the best views were actually about to come as we started to descend. Wow. We could now see all the way along the peninsula and it was really beautiful I couldn't devote all my time to looking at the scenery though, because parts of the walk down were a bit challenging! The path zigzagged its way down the hillside. In some places it was quite narrow, in other places it was covered in rather slippery gravel, and in some places it was both. In other places there were big rocky steps to negotiate. Overall, probably a walk which would have been better with a pole. But I definitely couldn't have fitted that into my suitcase The path descended quite quickly and so it wasn't long until we were quite far below the rocks. And of course, as we got lower we were closer to the wonderful views of the sea. It was such a beautiful shade of blue Eventually the narrow path began to come to an end... ...and we were walking on part of the flatter forest road which we would have taken if we'd done the other walk. There was a bit more uphill involved here, as the road wound its way around the hillside. Now that we were lower we had a better view of the cliffs. The peninsula definitely has a very rocky coastline. There wasn't much further left to go now. We did get passed by a couple of jeeps en route which, as predicted, blew a fair bit of dust into the air, but apart from that it was a pleasant end to the walk. Bizarrely we did also get passed by someone who was trying to drive a small Kia rental car along the track as well, despite this sign! It was a really spectacular walk but quite tiring, so we were both pretty hungry by this stage. Tim drove us down the coast a bit to the small town of Latsi. It was around 3pm by this point, so past the traditional lunchtime, but we found a restaurant by the sea that was still serving food Tim had beef stifado, which seemed to be like a Greek beef stew, while I had chicken souvlaki. We shared some baklava for pudding (well, I may have eaten most of it!) plus an iced coffee for me and milkshake for Tim. It was really pretty on the beach... ....and we could look back towards where we'd been on the peninsula. Overall it was a really great day and we've had a brilliant time so far in Cyprus Tomorrow we will be leaving Paphos behind and travelling on to our next destination: Platres.
  9. We had a relatively early start this morning, because we needed to be at the airport for 10am to collect our hire car. When I was initially planning the holiday, renting a car from the airport seemed like a good idea compared to trying to find our way to some random other place in Paphos to pick up a car. At least we knew where the airport was and that there would be a bus to it. I hadn't realised though that the buses to the airport are so infrequent, which meant we needed to leave the apartment at 08.45 to get to the airport for 10. And I also had no idea that Paphos is absolutely bursting with hire car agencies. Our apartment is literally next door to one and on the walk from there to the bus station we must have passed about 20. Never mind, I will know if we come again We got to the airport without any difficulty and waited outside departures for someone to arrive with our car. We had to wait for 15 minutes or so, but when the guy turned up it was the most informal car hire in the world. The man didn't mark the location of scratches on the rental agreement or even want to see Tim's driving licence. There was a fair bit of damage to the car, so Tim made sure to take a video of it before we drove off. Our destination for today was the archaeological site at Kourion, about 40 miles to the east of Paphos, near the town of Limassol. It was a pretty straightforward journey, although navigating on this holiday isn't going to be quite as smooth as I'd hoped because, unlike cars we've rented in Sicily and Iceland, this one is quite old-fashioned and doesn't have any USB sockets. We were planning to plug my phone into a USB socket and use it as a satnav, because we couldn't get a map of Cyprus for our actual satnav. We can still do that to some extent, but using the phone to navigate kills the battery pretty quickly, and it definitely wouldn't last for an entire day of driving. So we may have to do some more old-fashioned navigating at times and save the phone for trickier parts of our routes Kourion is located within the British Overseas Territory of Akrotiri, which is one of two bits of the island of Cyprus which Britain retained when Cyprus gained independence in 1960. There are some large military bases here and as we got close to Kourion, we passed lots of buildings protected by high fences, as well as roads with names like "Isle of Wight Road" and lots of signs forbidding any photography. Once we got to Kourion, it cost €4.50 each to get in. The site is on a hill overlooking the sea and just from the carpark we had a great view There was a town here until around the 4th century, when it was destroyed by earthquakes. The first sight we came to was the remains of a large villa, whose floor was decorated with mosaics. A large TUI coach had just been leaving as we were arriving and it was much quieter here than it had been around the mosaics in Paphos yesterday I'd managed to pick up a map in English today and we followed that towards the next attraction, which was an ancient theatre. It was in a beautiful location, overlooking the sea. Apparently it could sit 3,500 people, but it didn't feel anywhere near as big as the theatre we saw in Plovdiv last month, so I was brave enough to climb down to the bottom of this one Again, this was quite a large site and so we had a bit of a walk uphill towards the rest of the sights. This was signposted as the "Earthquake House". The house was originally built in early second century and destroyed by earthquakes in the fourth century. We climbed higher towards a viewpoint. From here there was an even better view of the sea and we could see some amazing cliffs. We were walking towards the ruins of an early Christian basilica. We could make out some of the arches which had once formed part of the church. There were some very pretty columns too. As you can see from the photos, there weren't too many other people here and we were able to explore in peace Moving on, we came to the remains of the town's thermal baths. There were walkways here around the floors, but they weren't quite as impressive as the mosaics we'd already seen. We continued to walk around the site, getting some even better views of the cliffs. We came to the remains of a villa known as the House of the Gladiators. From the mosaics, it was obvious why We'd reached the edge of the site by this point, so it was time to retrace our steps back to the car. We'd only been driving for a couple of minutes when we saw a sign which looked like it was pointing towards another archaeological site. This was the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates. The remains here date from the first century AD. If Kourion had been quiet, this place was practically deserted and we were able to explore almost completely on our own The most striking ruin is the temple of Apollo. There's just enough of it left to give a tantalising glimpse of what it would once have looked like. Apollo was worshipped here as early as the 8th century BC, although the ruins today mostly date from the 1st century AD. It was a really pretty place to visit anyway and the benefit of hiring a car is being able to make spontaneous stops like this Tomorrow we plan to do some more exploring, this time in the northwestern part of the island.
  10. It was a beautiful sunny day when we woke up in Paphos this morning, and after nearly 10 hours sleep we were feeling a lot more awake. We had a relaxing breakfast on the terrace, before setting out to explore the town. Before I started planning our trip to Cyprus, my assumption had been that Paphos was just the sort of place people come for a beach holiday. Once I started reading the guidebook though, I realised that there were several archaeological sites around the town, and that was what we were hoping to see today. Our first stop was the ruins of the Chrysopolitissa basilica. These are the remains of an early Christian basilica, built in the 4th century AD, whose floor was entirely covered in mosaics. You can still see a bit of them today. Within the ruins are the remains of a pillar (the one on the right), known as St Paul's pillar, which tradition says that St Paul was tied to and beaten during the course of a missionary visit to Cyprus. There is also a smaller church, called Agia Kyriaki, which was built around 1500. It was a really pretty place to walk around And there weren't too many other tourists, which was good. From the church, we walked down towards the seafront. We wanted to see Paphos castle. Originally built as a Byzantine fort, it was dismantled by the Venetians in 1570 but later restored by the Ottomans. It's a very square castle, so it was difficult to take a good photo of it! There were some nice views of the sea from the rocks beside it though. Not far from the castle is the entrance to Paphos Archaeological Park. It cost €4.50 each to get in, which felt like a bargain, because the park covers quite a large geographical area. The main attraction of the park is the remains of four Roman villas. They all have beautiful mosaic floors, which are very well preserved. The most elaborate mosaics are in covered areas to protect them, but there were some that we could just wander around outside and look at too That turned out to be a blessing, because there were some tour buses here, and some of the areas with covered walkways were incredibly busy if you had the misfortune to arrive at the same time as a tour group was being shown around. We managed to push our way around a little bit to see some of the most impressive mosaics... ...but one villa in particular was so busy (with a group that looked like they had come off a cruise ship) that we had to give up and go back outside. Happily there were plenty of Roman remains to see outside too And away from the mosaics, the park was almost deserted. We caught sight of a white lighthouse in the distance and decided to walk towards it. While there are tonnes of British tourists in Paphos, the second biggest group of tourists here appears to be Russian. There are Russian signs everywhere; on estate agents, car rental agencies and restaurants. I'd even accidentally picked up the Russian version of the free map for the archaeological park and so I was able to learn the word for lighthouse: маяк The lighthouse is comparatively modern, built in 1888 when Paphos was occupied by the British. When we were walking towards it from the middle of the park it gave the bizarre impression of being inland, but once we got up closer we could see the sea It was also nice that we could see inland a bit towards the interior of the island, which looks quite hilly From the lighthouse it wasn't far to the remains of the Roman theatre. The large flat space in front of the theatre is where the Roman forum once was, but there isn't much left of that now. Beyond the forum, the far end of the park was really deserted and it was less clear what the various ruins were. We did find an enormous cactus though As we walked back towards the centre of the park, we found what looked like the remains of a castle. These are the remains of Saranta Kolones, a ruined fortress. It's thought that it was built in the 7th century and was destroyed by a strong earthquake in the area in 1222. From here we had a lovely view back towards the lighthouse We'd seen the majority of the park now so we went outside, drank a very large bottle of water, and then started walking back in the direction of our apartment. Paphos' other main archaeological attraction is not far from where we are staying and has a rather ominous name: the Tombs of the Kings. This slightly strange place is a world heritage site, consisting of a collection of underground tombs, dating back to around 4 BC. This is where the aristocrats of ancient Paphos would have been buried. The whole site is on a beautiful location by the sea. It was quite breezy here, which was nice on what had otherwise been a very warm day. I thought better of sitting on the wall though once I saw the size of the local lizards You could probably have stayed here a lot longer if you were interested in tombs. We may only have stayed for about 20 minutes, before going back to the apartment to cool down for a while In the late afternoon we went out again and walked in the opposite direction to normal, climbing uphill towards the higher town of Ktima Paphos. The guidebook had said that the old town here was interesting, but we failed to find it very photogenic. The most attractive building was this enormous mosque, located in what was historically the Turkish part of town. The mosque was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, on the remains of what was a Byzantine church. Once we'd seen the mosque, we walked back down the hill towards the lower town. We had dinner at a restaurant not far from the apartment, which involved some rather impressive desserts Tomorrow we're picking up our hire car and looking forward to exploring some more of the island
  11. Even by our standards it was a very early start this morning, with a 07.15 flight from Gatwick. We'd booked some cheap airport parking at a small hotel, which turned out to only run a shuttle to Gatwick twice an hour, so although we were technically booked into it for 04.30, we were aiming to arrive by 04.15 to make sure we had time to hand over the car keys etc before the 04.30 shuttle. Counting backwards, that meant we needed to leave Nuneaton at the incredibly early hour of 01.45 Normally when we leave home at about 03.00 to catch early flights, we see lots of taxis around Nuneaton bringing people home from nights out in Birmingham. But today we were too early even to see that; everywhere was completely deserted. We got to the parking for 04.15 and checked in with plenty of time for the shuttle. This was another one of those low-budget affairs where the same person is manning the reception and driving the shuttle, which I guess is why it only runs twice an hour. After our horrendous experience checking in at Gatwick with Thomas Cook on the way to Burgas, I was a little bit apprehensive about checking in today, but it turned out that the Easyjet check in couldn't have been more efficient. There were no desks - just a huge row of self service baggage drop machines - and we barely had to wait any time at all. That meant we had plenty of time for breakfast in the airport, which was good because it was probably going to be early evening before we got any more food. The flight to Cyprus is quite a long one, at 4.5 hours, and there is a two-hour time difference to the UK. That meant that although it felt like we had a really early flight at 07.15, it was going to be 13.45 by the time our plane touched down in Cyprus. Luckily for such a long flight, the plane turned out to be quite nice and it wasn't 100% orange inside, which is always a concern with Easyjet I think I fell asleep during the safety demonstration (I have no recollection of take off!) and I woke up properly a couple of hours later when the pilot made an announcement about the flight path. We were flying over Belgrade at that point, which he said was the midpoint of the route, before carrying on across Sofia and Plovdiv, into Greece and then across southern Turkey towards Cyprus. Unfortunately, the whole of Europe seemed to be covered in cloud today and so there wasn't much of a view. The cloud only began to break up as we flew over Turkey and the sky didn't become completely clear until we were flying over the sea towards Cyprus. Passport control at Paphos airport was rather unusual. We had to scan our passports at a small machine, not dissimilar to the sort of check-in machine that prints boarding passes, and then look into a camera. The machine took a photo of us, which it then printed onto a slip of paper, together with our names, passport numbers etc. We then had to walk past a man sitting at a passport control desk, who just collected up the slips of paper without looking at them. Never seen a system quite like that anywhere else! When I was planning the holiday a couple of weeks ago, I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out how to get to Paphos from the airport. The airport is less than 10 miles outside the main town, but the airport buses run really infrequently. The first bus I found, which runs from the airport to quite close by where we are staying, only runs four times a day for example. Eventually I found another bus, the 612, which runs once an hour or so to the main bus station in Paphos. The next one was due at 14.35, so we had a bit of time to kill in the airport. When we got to the bus stop, there were only a handful of other people waiting for the bus. It seems to be one of those airports where almost everyone is getting onto a tour operator coach or taking a taxi. When I'd researched taxis online, it seemed like they cost around €30, while the airport bus only cost us €1.50 each It was a slightly bumpy ride though and it seemed to take quite a roundabout route, taking around 30 minutes to cover the fairly short distance to the centre of Paphos. Once we got off the bus, we could see the sea straightaway. Probably the best view we've ever had from a bus station It was a walk of just over a mile from here towards our apartment. We found it without too much difficulty and the owner met us outside. It turned out to be much bigger than I was expecting, with a bedroom and outdoor terrace... ...kitchen with another terrace... ...plus a living area. It seems like really good value for €50/night. There's a clear British influence on Cyprus; we'd already been surprised to find out that they drive on the left hand side of the road here, and we were even more surprised once we'd settled in to the apartment and found that all the plug sockets were British too and we didn't need our adapters! Some things felt very reminiscent of Greece, though! Despite the extra sleep on the plane, I was still pretty tired and definitely needed a nap by this point. I slept for about an hour, so it was around 17.30 by the time we left the apartment and started walking back into the centre of Paphos. We passed what looked like an interesting building... ...and turned out to be a slightly bizarre Roman-themed hotel. Soon we were back near the bus station where we'd got off the bus earlier in the afternoon. One consequence of going away in October is that, although somewhere like Cyprus is still really warm, it starts getting dark pretty early. The seafront area is pedestrianised, so we had a little stroll along in the sunset. I'd booked an apartment away from the centre of Paphos in case it turned out to be full of drunk English people, but so far it seemed pretty quiet We stopped at a restaurant by the sea to have dinner. The main courses were a bit mediocre, but we had delicious baklava for pudding. By the time we'd finished eating, it was completely dark. Tonight is definitely going to be an early night, but we're looking forward to exploring more of Paphos tomorrow
  12. I had an email from Wizzair the other day saying that, due to congestion at Cluj airport, they advised us to arrive more than two hours ahead of our flight. Our flight is scheduled for 18.30 this evening, meaning that we were planning to be at the airport by 16.30 anyway, so we decided that given this extra warning, we didn't want to stray too far from Cluj today. When we checked into our apartment here on Friday, the host had explained that Cluj had a botanical garden, so we decided to spend the morning exploring that. We checked out of the apartment after breakfast and walked to the train station, where Tim had researched that there was a place where we could leave our bags. Sure enough, there was a man with a baggage room and we only had to pay about £2 each to deposit our bags there. With that done, we were free to walk to the botanical gardens, which were a mile or so on the opposite side of town. It didn't look very far on the map at all and we soon reached a sign in the city centre which announced that we only had 850m to go. What I hadn't realised, however, was that the botanical gardens are located on a hill and the last part of the journey would therefore be rather steep! We made it up the hill in the end and it only cost us another £2 each to get in. As soon as we entered the gates, we were greeted with a beautiful display of flowers. The botanical garden was opened here in 1872 and is linked to the local university. Apparently it is home to over 10 000 plants and covers 14 hectares. I'd hoped that once we got into the gardens themselves they might be flat, but no, the whole garden is on a hill and so there was more uphill to go Once we'd passed through the part with the flowers, we soon found ourselves in a different part of the garden which was more like a woodland. Some of the paths where were a bit more challenging than I had expected from a botanical garden! There was a stream running through the middle of the gardens. We crossed over it on a bridge. Once on the far side of the bridge, we caught sight of some beautiful purple flowers. They looked a bit like crocuses, although they can't have been! By this stage we'd completed a loop and were back in the flower gardens that we recognised We now just had time to walk back into the city centre and get some lunch, before finding the bus to the airport. We found a different restaurant in the old town to last night and sat outside in the sunshine. I had a diavola pizza and Tim had chicken quesadillas. We had time for pudding too; a lava cake for Tim (this one was supposed to be white) and Nutella pancakes for me The final remaining challenge was to locate the airport bus, which we believed departed from somewhere near the station. We retrieved our bags and found the bus stop without any difficulties, but struggled to figure out how to find a ticket. In the end Tim went into a shop to ask someone and we managed to figure out the machine. It only cost 5 lei for two trolleybus tickets - less than 47p each As I said yesterday, it's been a really great holiday and we've had a lot of fun exploring two new countries. It's also been an incredibly cheap holiday; both Romania and Bulgaria have been really affordable and the accommodation in particular has been a real bargain We've also had incredible weather; not a single drop of rain in the entire two weeks. I don't think we could have hoped for better
  13. As we'd seen most of Cluj yesterday afternoon, we decided last night that we needed to plan another day trip for today. Tim had a look at our Transylvania guidebook and read about an interesting place called Bánffy Castle, located in a nearby village called Bonțida. We decided to give it a go. Bonțida is on a direct train line from Cluj, so it was fairly straight forward to get there. The only problem was that the trains run quite infrequently, especially at weekends, so there was essentially only one train which we could get out in the morning and one which we could catch back to Cluj in the evening. We made the morning train at 11.01 and 40 minutes or so later we arrived at the station in Bonțida. First impressions were that we seemed to be absolutely in the middle of nowhere. We had to stand and wait for our train to move on before we could walk across the tracks to the station. It was a very pretty place to wait though Eventually the train moved on and we were able to walk across to the station building and check that we had the right time of 17.53 for the return train. Train time confirmed, we set off towards the castle, which is a couple of miles away from the station. Luckily it's quite an easy walk, all down one main road through the village of Bonțida. The village itself is small but it's in a lovely location. There were some posters up, presumably for a forthcoming election. This politician's slogan reads "For a normal Romania"; not quite as ambitious as making Romania great again After a while we crossed a river. It was bigger and faster flowing than some of the rivers we've seen on this holiday. Once we were across the river, we were getting closer to the centre of the village. There are two churches close together in the central square. This is the Catholic one... ...and this is the Orthodox one. There were also some really big flags in the centre of the square. Just round the corner from here, we got our first view of the castle. It only cost 10 lei (about £2) each to get inside. A castle was first built here in 14th century, with most of today's fortified structure dating from the late 17th century. Renovations were made during the 18th and 19th centuries and the castle was so ornate that it became known as the Versailles of Transylvania. Unfortunately, during the Second World War the castle was destroyed by retreating German troops, taking revenge on its owner - Count Miklós Bánffy - who had been assisting the Allied forces. During the Communist period, the castle fell further into decay. Today efforts are ongoing to try and restore the castle and several bits of it are now open to the public to walk around. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a display of statues. Or rather, the remains of statues, which used to decorate the facade of the castle and which were destroyed by the Germans. We then walked into a room where the walls were covered in patterns. It wasn't entirely clear, but I think these were examples of how the castle would have been decorated. Some of them were really pretty From there we were able to walk around some of the rooms which have now been made safe for visitors. This was the main castle building... ...where there was a big ladder to climb up. (Though not a lot to see once you got up there!) This building would once have been the castle's chapel. The castle used to have a large landscaped park. That hasn't been restored yet, so at the moment there's only a little lake which you can walk around. It's pretty though Once we'd finished exploring, we still had some time to kill before our train back to Cluj. Luckily one of the restored buildings is home to a cafe, so we were able to sit there and have coffee and chocolate (/beer and crisps!). Then it was time to start walking back through the village towards the station. It was a really scenic walk and we were passed by three separate horses and carts on the way. We were back at the station on plenty of time for our train to Cluj, which arrived very punctually. Romanian trains always seem to be on time! Once we got back to Cluj we were hungry, so we decided to walk into the town centre in search of food. On the way we passed some interesting buildings which we'd missed yesterday. There was this really pretty church... ...and this very striking synagogue. The restaurant we ate at yesterday was so nice that we decided to go back. We both had the goulash with gnocchi that Tim had had yesterday. While we were eating, some rather strange figures appeared in the square behind us. It was a group of slightly scary people on stilts Some of them were dancing, while the others were beating drums. Partway through the performance, the lightbulbs hanging above the street were suddenly turned on. We thought the performance was over and everyone was walking away... ...but a few minutes later they all reappeared... ...and danced past us again. It was a rather bizarre performance, but it was nice seeing the old town all lit up with the light bulbs Overall we've had a great two weeks in Bulgaria and Romania It's been really fun to explore two new countries, both of which have turned out to have some beautiful countryside and some really interesting towns. I have a feeling we will travel to both countries again at some point in the future
  14. We had a leisurely start to the day in Sighișoara, enjoying breakfast on the terrace and then walking to the train station, with a detour via Lidl to pick up some food for lunch. Our train to Cluj was leaving Sighișoara at 11.48, so we knew we wouldn't be able to get a proper meal until the evening. We'd opted for first class again with the train, so we had a comfortable, air-conditioned journey through the Romanian countryside, arriving in Cluj around 15.45. There hardly seemed to be any habitation between Sighișoara and Cluj at all; just occasional hamlets, where people still seem to get around by horse and cart. We're staying in an apartment in Cluj. For some reason this has turned out to be the most expensive accommodation of the holiday, at £42.50 per night. It's a really nice apartment though and we've got air conditioning in the bedroom, which is always a bonus Once we'd unpacked a bit, we went out to explore the city. Our apartment is right by this pretty square. As with everywhere we've been in Romania, we didn't have to go far to find colourful houses. We headed towards the city's central square, Piața Unirii, which is dominated by this large church. This is St Michael's church, a Catholic church built by the Hungarians in the 15th century. It's the second largest church in Transylvania, the largest being the Black Church in Brasov which we saw earlier in the week. The owner of our apartment had warned us that the main square was going to be dominated by an event for children. Sure enough, we arrived and found it full of stalls and balloons! There was also a stage with dancing gnomes. In front of the church is a large statue of a man on a horse. This is Matthias Corvinus, who was king of Hungary from 1458 to 1490, and who was born in Cluj. From the main square we caught sight of another church which looked interesting, down a side street. We wanted to go and explore that, but first we took a detour to Cluj's central park. We'd seen on our map that there was a lake in the middle of the park. There were some rather colourful boats on it As we left the park we came across a monument to people who died resisting the Communist regime in Romania. From there it wasn't far to the church we'd seen. This is Cluj's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. Work started on the building in 1923 and it was officially opened in 1933. Outside the cathedral is a large statue of Avram Iancu, a Romanian national hero. It was regarded as controversial when it was erected, because historically the population of the city was majority Hungarian. Across the road from the cathedral is a bright yellow theatre and opera building. It's a really pretty part of town overall We walked along one of the main streets, which was decorated with Romanian and EU flags. There's a statue of Romulus and Remus here too! There was still plenty going on in the main square, so we walked to a quieter side street to find somewhere to eat. We found a nice restaurant where I had spaghetti carbonara and Tim had goulash. For pudding we both ordered "lava cake", which was a warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce in the middle, served with raspberry ripple icecream. It was getting dark by the time we'd finished eating. The main square looked pretty lit up at night... ...as did the square by where we're staying. I think we've managed to see the highlights of Cluj this afternoon, so we went back to the apartment to try and plan a day trip for tomorrow
  15. One downside of our guesthouse not being located in the town centre is that we (or, more precisely, Tim!) had a long walk to the nearest shop to buy breakfast. He did get a nice view on the way though Once he'd returned from Lidl, we sat outside on the terrace to eat breakfast and our landlady brought us coffee and homemade chocolate cake, which was a nice surprise We were able to have a relaxed start to the day because we were planning to visit the town of Mediaș, about 25 miles west of Sighișoara, and there wasn't a train until after 11am. Luckily, the train journey between the two towns is only short. We travelled through some pretty countryside, before stepping off the train in Mediaș around half an hour later. The first sight we came to when we started walking from the train station into the town was this synagogue. We've seen a lot more synagogues on this holiday than I expected! We'd chosen Mediaș for a day trip because we'd read that it had a well preserved historic centre. It did indeed look very pretty as we walked towards it. It didn't take long to reach the main square. There's a little park in the middle of the square, full of colourful flowers. Little streets lead off from here in all directions. We followed one of them, towards the edge of the old town. There we found the remnants of the old town walls. We were able to walk along the side of them for a while. We came to one of the old gates into the town... ...and went back into the main centre. There were so many colourful houses here Mediaș is believed to have been founded in 1146, making it one of the oldest towns in Romania. Again, this was historically a town that was settled by Saxons, and so it wasn't until the 19th century that the first Romanian church was built here. The big church which dominates the town is a Lutheran church. It was originally built as a Catholic church by the Transylvanian Saxons in the 15th century, but converted to a Lutheran church during the Reformation. It was built as a fortified church, in the middle of a fortress complex, and as we got closer we were able to see a big tower, known as the Trumpeter's Tower. It was so called because a trumpeter would sit at the top of it and alert the citizens of the town to approaching danger. This pretty building next to the church complex is a high school, founded by the local pastor Stephan Ludwig Roth. He upset the Hungarians by arguing against Hungarian becoming the sole official language of Transylvania and was executed in 1849. All the exploring was making us hungry, so we set off to find somewhere to get lunch. We found a nice restaurant where we could sit in the main square. I played it safe with schnitzel and chips again, but Tim was more adventurous and chose a Romanian dish. It was a pork stew, served with polenta and peasant-style potatoes. For pudding, Tim had pancakes filled with nuts and honey, while I had a chocolate brownie. Unbelievably, the entire meal (including a glass of wine for me, a beer for Tim, a bottle of water and a coffee) only came to £21. After lunch we did some more exploring. We caught sight of another tower on the opposite edge of the town to where we'd been previously. It was a really impressive tower, complete with portcullis There's a whole stretch of wall which has been restored here. Just outside the walls, we found the town's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. It was nearly time to go back to the station to catch one of the infrequent trains back to Sighișoara, but we just had time for a final stroll around. It felt like some of the houses in this part of town were competing to see who could be the most brightly coloured This blue was rather striking... ...as was this yellow... ...and with this green As we had a final walk through the main square, we realised belatedly that there is a Mediaș sign here. Admittedly not quite as impressive as the one in Brasov, but it still made for a good photo The train journey back took a little longer than expected, because the train went really slowly for no clear reason (there have been zero train announcements on any train we've travelled on during this holiday - both in Bulgaria and Romania!). But we'd paid for first class again, so we had comfy seats with air conditioning and it didn't really matter. Tomorrow we will be leaving Sighișoara and travelling to our final destination of the holiday: Cluj.
  16. This morning it was time for us to leave Brașov and travel onwards to our next destination, Sighișoara. Train timetables in Romania seem to be quite irregular, so we had a choice of an early train this morning or a late afternoon one which wouldn't get us to Sighișoara until it was almost dark. We decided to go with the earlier train, which involved us leaving our apartment at 8am this morning to walk to the train station in Brașov. We made it just on time for our train and were able to buy tickets from a machine. We went for first class again and it cost around £12 each. The first class carriage was reasonably comfortable, though the air conditioning was so cold that I wished I'd brought a jumper! It was a scenic journey of around three hours to get to Sighișoara. We travelled through miles of sparsely populated countryside, passing the occasional small town. As soon as we arrived in Sighișoara and stepped out of the train station, we got our first view of the old town in the distance. Because we'd caught the morning train, we were too early to check into our guesthouse at the moment, so we decided to walk towards the town centre to kill some time. We soon found ourselves at a bridge across the river Târnava Mare. On one side we could see the old town... ...while behind us we could see Sighișoara's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. We didn't want to walk too far with the cases, so we found a cafe just across the river where we were able to sit outside with a drink (and a nice view!) until it was time to start walking towards our guesthouse. I struggled to find accommodation in Sighișoara when I was making bookings earlier in the year, and so we've ended up staying in a small guesthouse here rather than an apartment. The place we're staying is really nice but when I booked it, it was on the basis that I thought it was within a mile of the train station. It turns out that it is... but a mile in the opposite direction from the train station compared to the rest of the town The guesthouse is on a bit of a hill, so we've got a nice view from our windows. We settled in for a while and then set off to see Sighișoara properly without our suitcases. Sighișoara is another historically Saxon town. German craftsmen and merchants came and settled in the area in the 12th and 13th centuries. Sighișoara became an important medieval city and today is a world heritage site because of its well-preserved fortified old town. As we walked towards the old town, we noticed that there were some serious traffic jams on the main roads into the town. It turned out there had been some sort of cycle race going on today (it looked like a Romanian version of the Tour de France) and so presumably the roads had been closed. There was still a lot of cycling related activity going on in the main square when we arrived, which slightly obstructed our view up towards the old town. Even with the cycling banners, the streets looked really pretty though. The fortified medieval town was built on top of a hill and is known as the citadel. We started climbing up towards it... ...and soon had a good view out across the newer part of town. We emerged at the top of the hill, near Sighișoara's city hall. From here, we wandered through the colourful streets. We passed the house where Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad the Impaler who inspired the character Dracula, was born. There are lots of towers in the town, but the most impressive one is this huge clock tower. This was historically the main gate to the city. The tower also used to serve as Sighișoara's town hall. It's got a very elaborate clock face with figures which looked like they might do something when the clock struck the hour, but we just missed it. From the clock tower we emerged into a really colourful square. This white building is known as the Stag House, because of the stag's head attached to its facade. Down this little street we found the town's Catholic church. It was built by the Hungarians, who have also historically been an important minority in the town. The historical defence system in Sighișoara was organised so that each guild was responsible for defending a tower. This was the bootmakers' tower... ..this one, hiding slightly behind a tree, was the tinsmiths' tower... ...and this one was the ropemakers' tower. This building isn't a tower, but it has a really unusual roof! As we wandered through the streets, we realised that we weren't actually at the top of the hill after all. To get right to the top, you have to use this staircase, known as the Scholars' Staircase. It's an extremely steep staircase, originally built in 1642 to allow people to reach the school and church at the top of the hill more easily during winter, when snow made other routes slippery. The school is right at the top of the staircase. We were rather out of breath by the time we got there. There's also a large church on the hilltop. This is, appropriately enough, called the Church on the Hill Work started on a church here in 1429 and today it's apparently the third largest church in Transylvania. We spent a while walking around the hill top... ...and enjoying the views. Then it was back off down the stairs again! We found a nice restaurant in the square where we could sit outside and get dinner. I had chicken schnitzel with chips, while Tim had Hungarian goulash, and we shared a bottle of Romanian wine. For pudding, Tim had an apple crumble and I had chocolate pancakes It was a lovely place to sit outside After dinner we climbed back down out of the old town. The more modern part of town at the bottom of the steps was pretty too... ...and there were still plenty of colourful houses here We found another Romulus and Remus statue. This definitely seems to be a thing in Romania! The walk back to the guesthouse (the orange building below) didn't feel quite as long now we knew where we were going. And when we got in, we found that our hosts had left us shots of a Romanian spirit to try Not sure what it's called; it tastes a bit like Croatian rakija and it's very strong!
  17. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up in Brașov this morning We didn't need to go far from our apartment before we caught sight of the Brașov sign on the hills behind the town. The glimpse we'd got of Brașov while out getting food last night suggested that it was going to be a really pretty place. Brașov is the seventh largest city in Romania. Historically, it was the capital of the Transylvanian Saxons. The Saxons began to settle in Transylvania from the 12th century. They originally came to help defend the borders of what was, at the time, the Hungarian kingdom, but they soon became involved in mining and trading too, and built fortified settlements all over the region. Transylvania was unified with Romania after the First World War, and from this point the German population began to decline. There must also have been a significiant Jewish population in Brașov at some point, because we found a very elaborate synagogue. You can't really see it in the photo, but it had really pretty stained glass. We caught sight of turrets in the distance and went to investigate. It turns out that this white turreted building used to be the main gate into the city in medieval times. However, in the 19th century a new (bigger) gate was built in order to allow in more traffic. From the gate we walked towards the town's main square. We were confronted by an absolutely enormous church. This is the Biserica Neagră (the Black Church), a Gothic Lutheran church which was built by the German community. It's so large you have to get quite a long way away from it to fit it all in a photo! The church sits in Piața Sfatului. The centre of the square is dominated by this large building, which used to be the town's council house. Today it houses a history museum. The entire square is so beautiful that it was difficult to know in which direction to look first All sides of the squares are lined with colourful buildings. There were some interesting churches too. And, of course, we could see up to the Brașov sign above the town. We left the main square and explored some of the side streets. There were even more colourful houses here On the edge of the old town we found a park. There were some very unusual flower displays here; this one looked like a peacock with a tail of flowers. There were also some attractive buildings in this more modern part of the town. And we found what looks like another Romulus and Remus statue. We'd read in the guidebook that there is a cable car up the mountain behind the town, so we set off to try to find it. We climbed up a steep road, followed by some staircases, on the edge of the town and into the woods, where we found the cable car station. It only cost 18 lei each (£3.40) for a return trip. Admittedly, when we got to the top there wasn't much of a view initially, because everywhere was so forested. We followed a sign which indicated a 10 minute walk to a viewpoint... and before we knew what was happening, we realised we were behind the Brașov sign! It was really cool to see it from the other side! Once we walked past the sign, we found there was a small viewpoint jutting out over the trees. It was quite busy so we had to wait our turn for photos. It was worth it, though; the views of the town were spectacular. We could see right town to the central square where we'd been this morning There didn't seem to be a lot further you could walk on the top of the hill, unless you wanted to walk all the way back down to Brașov, so we went back towards the cable car station, where there was a small cafe. Tim decided to sample some of the local beers. The cable car was quite busy, but we managed to get positioned near the front for the ride back down From the bottom cable car station, we went for a stroll through the woods on the edge of the town. There were some lovely views from here as well. We could see bits of the old town walls... ...as well as back towards the Black Church in the centre of town. There were some interesting buildings as we came back down into the town too. Even the town's tennis courts seemed to be surrounded by historic buildings. We also found a church with a beautiful silver roof. We set off back down the colourful streets towards our apartment, where we wanted to cool off for a bit. In the evening we set out again, in search of some food. We made our way to the main square, where there were lots of places to eat. It was really cool to see the Brașov sign again now that we'd been standing behind it We could see the cable car station and where we'd walked too. We found a restaurant with a great view to have dinner I had lasagne and Tim had rigatoni... ...followed by tiramisu It's definitely one of the most scenic views we've had dinner to, and a great end to our time in Brașov
  18. Today we were due to leave Bucharest and head north towards the town of Brașov. However, Romanian train timetables seem quite irregular and so our train wasn't leaving Bucharest until the afternoon. That meant we had time to do a bit more sight-seeing in Bucharest, and there was one more sight which I particularly wanted to see but which we hadn't managed to fit into yesterday because it's located a bit outside the city centre: Bucharest's "Arcul de Triumf". The Arcul de Triumf is located near a metro station called Aviatorilor so metro seemed like the best way to get there. We walked to Piața Romană, the metro station nearest to where we were staying, and bought our tickets. What I hadn't quite thought through was that this was a Monday morning and it seems like Bucharest's rush hour is later than we have in the UK. When the metro arrived it was extremely full and we only just managed to squeeze our way on! I hadn't expected it to be so busy, because we were travelling from the city centre to the outskirts, but it felt like a lot of people must live in the centre of town and commute to offices further out to work. Luckily we only had a couple of stops to go, so we survived the crush and were soon out in the open air at Aviatorilor. Once we were off the metro, it didn't take us long to find what we had come to see A triumphal arch was first built here in 1878, to celebrate Romanian independence. This first attempt was a wooden structure, which was eventually replaced by this more solid version in 1936. It certainly looks rather similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but Bucharest has historically been referred to as the Paris of the East, so maybe it's not too surprising Unfortunately the arch is in the middle of an extremely busy traffic junction and so we couldn't get any closer to it. While we were admiring it though, we caught sight of a church in the distance. This is the Cașin Church, which is dedicated to the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The arch is also not far away from a large park, called Herăstrău Park. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to explore it today, but it looked like it would be pretty. We caught the metro back to our apartment, packed up our stuff and checked out, before walking a mile or so across Bucharest to the Gara de Nord. Once there, we needed to buy our train tickets to Brașov. Romania seems a bit more modern than Bulgaria and it was possible to buy the tickets from a machine rather than having to queue for a ticket desk. Having learned from our experiences in Bulgaria last week, we decided to pay for first class. I'm not sure what the price difference was, but we ended up paying 70 lei each for the journey (around £13). We found the correct platform for our train, but we were a bit early and it wasn't there yet. We were travelling over lunchtime and beginning to feel a bit peckish, so Tim paid a visit to the station McDonalds to get us something to eat on the train. We were therefore in the slightly surreal situation of sitting in Romanian first class while eating chips from brown paper bags First class was quite nice and spacious and, unlike Bulgarian trains, there was air-conditioning. The seats were laid out airline style rather than being divided into compartments, which also seemed a bit more modern. The journey from Bucharest to Brașov took just under three hours and it was an unexpectedly scenic journey, as we travelled past forests and mountains. When we arrived in Brașov we had a bit of a walk ahead of us, because the train station is a couple of miles outside the town. As we made our way down one of the main streets towards our apartment, we caught sight of a large sign on one of the hills above us. Not quite Hollywood, but still quite impressive We found our apartment and checked in. At £35.50 per night, this one was another bargain We've got a spacious kitchen/living area... ...a separate bedroom... ...and what looks like quite a posh bath. There's also a pretty good view out of our bedroom window By the time we'd settled in and gone out to get food it was getting dark, but this photo shows the hills behind where we're staying. Brașov looks like it's going to be a really pretty town and we're looking forward to exploring it properly tomorrow
  19. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up in Bucharest this morning. After breakfast, we set off in the direction that we'd taken yesterday, soon coming to the familiar building of the university library. What I hadn't realised yesterday was that this was really close to Bucharest's Revolution Square. On one side we had the former Royal Palace (now an art museum)... ...and on the other side of the road we had the former headquarters of the Romanian Communist party. The dictator Ceausescu gave his final speech from one of the balconies on this building, during Romania's 1989 revolution. On the corner of the square is the Kretzulescu church, originally built in the 18th century. From the square we were walking down Calea Victoriei, one of Bucharest's main streets, which was modelled on the Champs Elysee in Paris. There were lots of pretty buildings along it. Partway down we found this fountain... ...with a huge Romanian flag flying above it. Every so often we'd come across tiny little churches, squeezed between bigger more modern buildings. This beautiful big building is the headquarters of a Romanian bank. Just across the road from it, we found our way into Bucharest's old town. A lot of the old town was demolished during the reign of Ceausescu, to make way for his new plans of urban development, but the bits that remain are really pretty. Down one of the side streets, we came across this incredible church. This is the Stavropoleos church, originally built in 1724. It was decorated with really beauitful paintings. Not sure what this church was called, but it had an impressive silver dome... ...while this one was the Curtea Veche church, built in 1559, making it one of the oldest churches in Bucharest. I was surprised at how busy the old town was; we came across several walking tours of tourists, and there were souvenir shops everywhere. There were also a lot of restaurants clearly aimed at tourists, including Irish pubs! Once we left the old town behind, it was a bit quieter. We walked through a park... ...and caught sight of what looked like a huge fountain in the distance. It turned out that it was an entire complex of fountains! As you can see in this shot, there was a traffic island full of fountains in the middle, with cars driving around it, and then huge pools of fountains on the other side of that. We walked down one of the boulevards leading off from this fountain square, which was itself decorated with smaller fountains. We were walking towards the Palace of the Parliament. This absolutely enormous building was built by Ceausescu, inspired after a visit to North Korea(!), and is believed to be the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. As well as what you can see above the ground, it has eight underground levels, including a nuclear bunker. Today it is home to the Romanian parliament, plus several museums, and is also a venue for conferences... but approximately 70% of the building still lies empty. We walked all the way around the outside of it (which took ages!). On the way we caught sight of the domes of an enormous church. This is the People's Salvation Cathedral, an extremely new Romanian Orthodox cathedral, on which construction only started in 2010. The cathedral was consecrated in late 2018, but it looks like there's still a fair amount of work to be done before it's finished. From here we walked back down the long boulevard... ...towards the fountains. Taking a different direction this time, we walked towards the national library of Romania. The library is situated on the banks of the river Dâmbovița and it was really pleasant to stroll around here. We were looking for a bookshop, in the hope of buying some Romanian Asterix for Tim. On the way back towards the centre of town, we passed what looked like a statue of Romulus and Remus with the wolf. We thought Romulus founded Rome rather than Romania, but who knows Down this street we found the bookshop we were looking for. It was a really beautiful building inside We found the books we were looking for and then climbed up to the top floor, where there was a lovely cafe, to enjoy some cold drinks. From the bookshop it was back out into the sunshine again. We soon found ourselves in University Square, a large square which was home to several statues. In a gap between two buildings we got a glimpse of Bucharest's Russian church We were really hot by this point; this thermometer suggested it could be as hot as 36 degrees! We decided to go back to the apartment to cool off for a bit, before heading out later for an evening meal. On the way back, we strolled through one of Bucharest's parks. There was a big boating lake in the middle of the park... ...and we found some unusual brown ducks So far our experiences of Romania are positive I was worried from some of the things I'd read online that there would be packs of stray dogs roaming the streets, but so far we haven't seen a single one! Bucharest definitely feels like a big city and we could probably have spent more time here, but tomorrow we will be on the move again as we head to Transylvania
  20. Today it was time for us to leave Veliko Tarnovo (and Bulgaria) behind as we travelled to this holiday's second country: Romania. One of the reasons that I'd planned Veliko Tarnovo as the final stop on our Bulgarian tour was that, on paper, it looked like this would be the easiest place from which to get to Bucharest by train. However, when I looked into it more thoroughly, I realised that that the trains to Bucharest don't depart from the station in Veliko Tarnovo, but from the station at Gorna Oryahovitsa where we had to change on our way from Sofia the other day. That wouldn't be a problem in and of itself, except for the fact that there are only a handful of trains between Veliko Tarnovo and Gorna Oryahovitsa each day, and they don't co-ordinate in any way with the trains to Bucharest. So if we'd wanted to travel by train, we would have had to entertain ourselves in Gorna Oryahovitsa railway station between 10.25 and 13.15 while we waited for a connection. I thought about it for a while, before deciding to book bus tickets instead I'd booked tickets online with Flixbus and our bus was departing from Veliko Tarnovo bus station at 12.45. That meant I was able to have a nice lie in this morning, after a relatively late evening last night seeing the light show and finishing the blog Our bus arrived promptly and was more comfortable than the bus on which we'd travelled from Burgas to Plovdiv earlier in the week. That was good, because the journey to Bucharest was scheduled to take around 4.5 hours. The tickets had been very reasonably priced, at around £10 each, including a seat reservation. We left Veliko Tarnovo and travelled through the rocky river valley that we'd been looking at from the fortress yesterday. From here the route led through increasingly flat countryside until, after a couple of hours, we got close to the border near the Bulgarian city of Ruse. The Bulgarian-Romanian border is marked by the Danube, and first of all our bus had to join what seemed to be a queue for permits to cross the bridge. The Danube is incredibly wide at this point. Once we'd crossed the river, we were officially in Romania Almost straightaway, a member of the border police got on board to collect up our passports. Our bus then had to pull over into a bay and wait for half an hour or so before the passports were returned to us. I never like being separated from my passport, but it was relatively painless as border crossings go. The bus was due to arrive in Bucharest at 16.10 but it was running a bit behind schedule by this point - and we got caught in some traffic trying to get into Bucharest - so it was nearer 17.00 by the time we pulled into Bucharest's Autogara Militari. This was not a terribly scenic bus station, on the outskirts of the capital. However, our research had suggested that it was going to be relatively simple to get into the centre of town from here via the metro. The only slight problem was that when we stepped out of the bus station, we couldn't see anything which looked like a metro station or indeed any signs towards one. Tim tested out his Romanian by asking a taxi driver where it was, and soon we were on our way The metro was unbelievably cheap and two tickets cost us 5 lei (95p). When the train came it was modern and spacious and we had plenty of room for our luggage. It was notably different from the metros we've used this year in Russia and Ukraine though, because the escalators were incredibly short; no sooner had we stepped onto them then it was time to get off again We got off the metro at a stop called Piața Romană, from where our apartment was only a short walk away. I'd had a message from the owner earlier in the week, explaining that it was self check-in and giving me a code for the key safe, as well as photos of what the apartment door looked like etc. We found the correct place with no problems and everything worked like clockwork. The apartment is lovely inside. We've got a living area... ....with a dining table, and a small kitchen in a separate room. The bedroom comes complete with its own air-conditioning unit, in addition to the one in the living room. Accommodation in Romania is (slightly!!) more expensive than in Bulgaria, and so this place has cost £36 per night. Once we'd unpacked a little bit we headed out to explore the neighbourhood and get some food. As we'd been walking from the metro station to our apartment, we'd passed this really beautiful building. It turns out that this is the Romanian Athenaeum, a concert hall opened in 1888. There seemed to be some sort of concert being screened in the square outside it. A little further down the road, this impressive building is the central university library. The statue outside is of King Carol 1 of Romania. Our first impressions of Bucharest are that there are some really beautiful buildings, interspersed with some really ugly ones We found this pretty yellow house, for example, overshadowed by a large communist-looking building behind... ...while this building made me feel like we were already in Transylvania We're definitely looking forward to exploring more of the city tomorrow
  21. We woke up this morning excited to explore Veliko Tarnovo. Veliko Tarnovo was the medieval capital of Bulgaria and is supposed to be one of the most picturesque towns in the country Armed with a tourist map from our apartment, we set off in the direction of the town centre. First of all we passed the military monument which we had seen last night. Unbeknown to us when we booked our trip, 6 September is a national holiday in Bulgaria. We'd noticed earlier in the week that some of the places we visited had roads called "6 September Street" and it turns out that's because 6 September is Unification Day, which commemorates the unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia in 1885. It seems to be a holiday which is taken seriously here, and we'd arrived at the monument just in time to see a Bulgarian military parade That was rather a surprise! Once it was over, we continued on our way down the main street. Lots of the buildings here were decorated with Bulgarian flags and also bright purple ones, which we assume must be the flag of Veliko Tarnovo. The guidebook said that there was some interesting architecture in Veliko Tarnovo. This house was marked on our tourist map as "The Monkey House". It's got this creature, which we assume is supposed to be a monkey on the facade, but we're not sure why! After the monkey house, we found ourselves on a street called Samovodska Charshia. This is the street where the town's market and craftsmen used to be located. Today there are lots of souvenir shops, but it's still a really pretty road to walk along. There were lots of pretty buildings back down on the main road too. As we turned a corner, we got a glimpse of what we assumed must be the town's cathedral. As we began to walk towards it, we got our first proper view towards Veliko Tarnovo's most impressive sight: the Tsarevets fortress. Veliko Tarnovo is situated on the banks of the Yantra river, and we could also see some of a rocky river gorge in the distance. From here we could look up towards the cathedral. The cathedral was initially built in 1844 but was destroyed by an earthquake in the same year and had to be rebuilt! Just past the cathedral, there was a booth to buy tickets for the castle. It cost 6 lev each (£2.76). Once we had our tickets, we were able to begin walking up towards the fortress. This big lion marked the entrance. It was impressive how intact the fortress walls are and how much of them it seemed like we were going to be able to walk along. The fortress at Tsarevets was the most important fortress of the Second Bulgarian Empire, which existed between 1185 and 1393. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the empire and the most prosperous city in Bulgaria during the period. Inside the fortress walls were a church, royal palace and over 400 residential buildings. The fortress was repeatedly attacked by the Ottomans and was ultimately conquered in 1393, after a long siege, marking the end of the Bulgarian empire. It was clear when walking around what a great location it would have been for a fortress. We could see down towards the town... ...including back towards the cathedral... ...and we could see along the river gorge in the other direction as well. From here we really got a feel for what an unusual town Veliko Tarnovo is, perched on the banks of the river, and why it had been so hard to figure out where to walk to get from the train station to where we're staying. The building at the very top of the fortress hill is the Ascension Cathedral. This was the home of the Bulgarian patriarch until 1393. The building was destroyed by the Ottomans and reconstructed in the twentieth century. From up by the cathedral there were some amazing views There was a bit of a breeze, but it wasn't quite windy enough to blow the huge Bulgarian flag on the top of the fortress to its full extent. Looking down from the fortress we caught sight of some churches in the lower part of the town. There was this one, which looked like it was made out of brick... ...and this one (you may only just be able to make it out, below the bridge) which looked like it had a gold-domed roof. As we climbed down from the fortress, we decided to head down to that part of town next to explore. We began to walk on a downhill road, in the shadow of the fortress walls. As we got lower we could see two bridges across the river Yantra. Before long, we came to our first church. This was the Holy Forty Martyrs Church, originally built in 1230. The church was heavily damaged by earthquakes but has been reconstructed to look how it would have done in medieval times and the remains of various Bulgarian emperors are buried here. Just behind the church, there's a big stone bridge across the river. Beyond that, we found the church with the golden roof We crossed the river on a wooden bridge, known as the Bishop's Bridge. It was built in 1774, funded by the local bishop. The wooden boards felt a bit creaky in places as we walked across, but there were some beautiful views We found a little restaurant to get some food, just below the bridge. It was one of those places where the menu was a list of all the things it might be possible to order at some point in time The waiter explained to us that our options today were grilled pork, grilled chicken, kebabs or a salad. Tim went for the chicken, while I had kebapche, which tasted very similar to Croatian ćevapi. The food was beautiful, and for pudding we both had baklava Definitely one of the best views we've had lunch to, and the entire meal cost around £17. Once we'd finished eating it was time to climb back uphill towards the town centre. On our way back to the apartment, we took a slightly different route to the one we had in the morning, and found a couple of viewing terraces we'd missed. From here we could see out across the more modern part of town and the countryside beyond. Then it was back along the colourful streets and towards our air-conditioning to cool off for a bit We were planning to go out again later in the evening, in the hope of witnessing a light display to celebrate the national holiday.
  22. Today it was time for us to leave Sofia behind and set off towards our final Bulgarian destination: Veliko Tarnovo. We were planning to travel by train, but after our experience of being stuck in a very hot and stuffy Bulgarian train carriage for the comparatively short journey between Plovdiv and Sofia on Tuesday, we were slightly apprehensive about the journey from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, which is about twice as long. When I was reading up on Bulgarian trains in the guidebook the other day, I'd realised that we could actually have done the Plovdiv-Sofia journey in first class for only a couple of extra lev than we paid for second, so we decided to investigate how much it would cost to buy first class tickets for today's journey. The difference between first and second class on Bulgarian trains seems to be limited to the fact that second class carriages have eight seats per compartment, whereas first class carriages only have six, but we figured the extra space might be nice. We had toyed with the idea of trying to catch the metro to the train station in Sofia this morning but the metro map seemed a bit confusing when I looked at it last night, so in the end we decided to walk. It was a nice stroll in the morning sunshine, and we arrived at the station at around 09.30 with plenty of time to buy our tickets and get to the platform before our train departed at 10am. I knew from the guidebook that Sofia station is quite regimented in terms of which sort of tickets can be bought from which desk, and that for same-day travel in Bulgaria tickets we needed to make our way to desks 1 - 13 on the lower floor. We obviously didn't look decisive enough when we walked into the station though, because no sooner had we arrived and started looking around, then we were pounced on by a man who claimed to be in charge of information. He did have a badge saying "information" around his neck, but I wasn't 100% sure whether he was a genuine employee or not, because I was sure I'd read somewhere about people trying to accost tourists in train stations and help them buy tickets, then demand money. He was quite persistent though and when we said we wanted to go to Veliko Tarnovo, he marched us downstairs to the correct ticket counter, inserted us in what to me looked like the middle of a queue rather than the end, and proceeded to help us buy the tickets. He may have thought he was scamming us when, when the ticket lady asked whether we wanted a seat, he said to her in Bulgarian "Give them first class", but given that this is what we'd already decided to ask for it worked out quite well Unbelievably, the cost of first class tickets worked out as 19 lev (£8.71) each. It costs me more than that to get to work every day! Tim gave the man some small change to say thank you/make him go away and he didn't want to accept it at first, so maybe he was a genuine customer service employee! We soon found our way to the platform and settled in to the train compartment, which was indeed a lot roomier than than the one we'd travelled in the other day There are no direct trains between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo. Instead, trains on the Sofia line stop at a nearby station called Gorna Oryahovitsa, about 10km from Veliko Tarnovo, which seems to be a major railway junction. The journey to Gorna Oryahovitsa takes around 4 hours, and we were due to arrive there at 13.53. It turned out to be a very scenic journey as we left Sofia behind and travelled through some really pretty countryside. The hills progressed from being forested to quite rocky in places, as the train travelled along the route of the river Iskar, a tributary of the Danube. Every so often we passed through little settlements, but there weren't many large towns. We arrived in Gorna Oryahovitsa promptly at 13.53 and our second train to Veliko Tarnovo was due to depart at 14.15. It was delayed for 15 minutes or so for unspecified reasons, a bit bizarrely as it was already at the station when we arrived, but at least that meant we were able to sit on it while we waited for departure. The journey on the second train was brief - only 20 minutes or so - but I had to track where we were on my maps app because there don't seem to be any announcements at all on Bulgarian trains and the signs with station names are quite low key. Once we got to Veliko Tarnovo, we weren't entirely sure how we were going to get to our apartment. On paper it looked like it was only 2km away, but every time I looked at a map of Veliko Tarnovo I just got confused. The station is a bit outside the main town, in what seems to be an industrial zone, and it wasn't clear from the map what the best way to walk to the town centre would be. We thought we might have found a route but, when we came out of the station, we found that there were no signs and also no pavements, so we decided to admit defeat and jump in a taxi. Tim asked the taxi driver how much it was going to cost, trying to make sure that we didn't get scammed. The taxi driver seemed slightly affronted by the question and told us that he had a meter. In the end it cost a mere 3.50 lev, despite the fact that we drove around in circles for a bit trying to find the exact street that our apartment was on, and Tim gave him 5 lev (£2.30 - I'm pretty sure more than that is already on the clock before you even step into a taxi in Nuneaton!). The building which our apartment was in didn't look terribly appealing from the outside but, once we got inside, it turned out to be lovely There's a large bedroom... ...and a nice living/dining area with a kitchen. Not bad for £27.50 per night! The only slightly strange thing is that when you switch on the light in the bathroom, it starts playing what I assume is supposed to be relaxing music out of a speaker in the ceiling Once we'd settled in to the apartment, we set out to see a little bit of the town and try to find some dinner. Not far from our apartment there's a park... ...with a huge complex of fountains. Fountains seem to be big in Bulgaria! We didn't have to go much further before we found a large statue in a square. This is the Monument to Mother Bulgaria, which commemorates losses in the Russo-Turkish and First World Wars. We spotted that there was a restaurant opposite the square with a nice terrace, so we decided to go there for some dinner. We were rather hungry, having missed lunch while on the train, so had pudding as well as a main course. Despite the fact that we had wine and coffee too, we still didn't manage to spend more than £23. By the time we'd finished eating we were stuffed, so we decided to save exploring the rest of Veliko Tarnovo until tomorrow
  23. Today we had a full day to explore Sofia We had a leisurely start to the morning in our apartment and then, before heading into the main city centre, decided to explore one of Sofia's large parks, which I'd seen marked on a map of the city. Our apartment wasn't too far from Borisova gradina, Sofia's oldest park which was created in 1884. We found the park without too much difficulty and started strolling around. First impressions were that it was virtually deserted and felt more like a forest than a park. We walked for quite a long time on wooded paths which felt more like they were in the middle of the countryside than in the middle of a capital city! Eventually we reached the far end of the park and, when we started walking back along the other side, we found ourselves in a part which seemed a bit more like a conventional park. The large obelisk in the distance is a Communist monument, known as the Mound of Brotherhood. A bit further on we found this pond, whose surface was almost completely covered in water lilies. At the edge of the park there is a lake and a good view towards the mountains outside the town. We crossed over Sofia's river via Eagle's Bridge. Given how small the river is, they have put some effort into the bridges On the other side of the bridge, we found the Monument to the Soviet Army. This was erected in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Sofia by the Soviets, but today it is a controversial monument and is periodically vandalised. The main sight we wanted to find today was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Construction on the cathedral started in 1882 and it was completed in 1912. It was named after St Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince, to honour the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish war. It's definitely an enormous church. We walked all the way around it, enjoying the views. Just behind the cathedral is Sofia's art gallery, which is also an attractive building. On the other side of the road, this ornate building is the home of the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox church. Meanwhile, this very unassuming church is the church of St Sophia, originally built in the 4th century, and the church which gave the city its name. There was one more church which I really wanted to see. This is Sofia's Russian Orthodox church, built as the official church of the Russian embassy in Sofia. It had a really beautiful facade. Once we'd seen the Russian church, we were almost back in the part of Sofia which we'd visited yesterday. In the main square, near to where we'd found the underpass with the archaeological remains, we caught sight of this rather unusual statue. It turns out that it's a statue of St Sofia, which was erected here in 2000, replacing a statue of Lenin which had previously stood in the same spot. Although we'd already been in this part of town yesterday, we decided to stroll around and look at some of the sights again. We realised that from this point we could see the mosque and the synagogue at the same time. We also found this little medieval church, which we'd missed yesterday. It's named after St Petka, the patron saint of saddlers, and was discovered during excavations after the Second World War. We were hungry by this point so set off down the main shopping street in search of somewhere to get lunch. We found a nice restaurant where I had pizza and Tim tried some Bulgarian sausages. Again, very good value at about £18 for the meal. It was a really hot day again in Bulgaria, so we went back to the apartment for a while to enjoy the air-conditioning, heading out again once it was a bit cooler. There was a second park marked on the map of Sofia, so we decided to explore that. The map had a "National Palace of Culture" marked on the map in the middle of the park, which sounded like it might be something impressive. It turned out to be this big concrete building The fountains were pretty though! We've had a great time in Sofia Tomorrow we're on the move again, heading towards our next destination of Veliko Tarnovo.
  24. We had a great time in Plovdiv yesterday, but we're not staying anywhere long on this holiday and today it was time to move on to our next destination: Sofia. We were travelling to the Bulgarian capital by train, so our first task was to find Plovdiv's main railway station. Tim succeeded in navigating us down a scenic route, so we were able to see Plovdiv's colourful main street one more time. The guidebook had warned that the queues to buy train tickets in Bulgaria could be enormous, so we'd arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare. It turns out that I needn't have worried; the queues were quite small this morning and we got served within a few minutes. The train fare from Plovdiv to Sofia - a journey of around 100 miles - cost 9 lev each (£4.17). We were charged an extra half a lev each (23p!) to make a seat reservation. I wasn't sure how much to budget for travel in Bulgaria originally, because the part of the Bulgarian trains website which is supposed to show prices seems to be permanently down, but I don't think I need to worry about not having enough cash The train itself arrived promptly and the seats were reasonably comfortable, but the train was incredibly hot. There were windows which could be opened, and periodically someone would open one in the corridor, letting a nice bit of breeze into our compartment for a while, but then someone else with a fear of draughts would come along and close it and it would be very hot and stuffy again! The journey itself was scenic, taking us through some mountainous countryside towards Sofia. It took us just over 2.5 hours to get to the capital. Once we arrived, we had a walk of a couple of miles to our apartment. The area around the train station wasn't terribly scenic, but as we got closer to the centre of town, things improved. We crossed a bridge known as the Lions' Bridge, which was quite imposing. It crosses the river Vladayska, which was a bit underwhelming From here the city started to look a lot more appealing. Some of the pavements were very uneven though, which made pulling our suitcases hard work. There were also some busy main roads, which had to be crossed by going down steps into an underpass; not the most fun in the world when you've got heavy cases. We went down into what I thought looked like a particularly grotty underpass... ...and were surprised to find that it seemed to be home to some sort of archaeological remains From there it wasn't far to our apartment. The owner had sent me a message on Whatsapp to say that it was next to a bank and to text him when we were outside. I was glad for the directions because I think we would have struggled to find the correct building otherwise! Checking it was a rather surreal experience. The guy who owned the apartment communicated with us by speaking Bulgarian into Google Translate and showing us the English version! It worked remarkably well The apartment seems really good, with a comfy living area... ...a large kitchen... ...and a nice bedroom too At 88 lev per night (£41) it's more expensive than our apartment in Plovdiv, but Sofia is the capital and we are in quite a central location here. Once we'd settled in and enjoyed the air-conditioning for a bit, we set out to get some food and to explore a bit more of Sofia. Not far from our apartment is the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church. This is a Bulgarian Orthodox church, inside what was formerly an Ottoman mosque. We'd seen some really impressive buildings while we were walking with our cases earlier, so we wanted to try and retrace our steps to take some photos. This building seemed to be something to do with the Bulgarian president. There were uniformed guards on duty outside. We went back into the underpass to have a closer look at the remains. It turns out these are the remains of the ancient city of Serdica and were only discovered within the past few years when construction work was taking place on the Sofia metro. We saw a few bits of mosaics... not quite as impressive as the ones we'd seen in Sicily in July, but definitely the most interesting underpass I've ever been in Once we'd come up the opposite side of the underpass we caught sight of a mosque in the distance. This is the Banya Bashi Mosque, which was built in 1566. It's still a functioning mosque today and as we walked around it, we heard the call to prayer. Behind the mosque we found this beautiful yellow building. It was historically home to Sofia's public mineral baths, but is now a museum. A little further on, we found Sofia's synagogue, which is one of the largest synagogues in Europe. By this stage we were back near the Lion Bridge As we made our way back towards the apartment, we caught a glimpse of what looked like a pretty church. It really was just a glimpse, because it was surrounded by trees When we crossed the road and got around to the other side of it, we had a better view This is the church of St Nedelya. We'd almost managed to come round in a circle back to our apartment by this point. First impressions of Sofia are that it seems like a small but pleasant capital, and we're looking forward to exploring some more of it tomorrow
  25. We had a leisurely start to the day in Plovdiv this morning, before setting out to explore the town. Plovdiv is Bulgaria's second city and is European Capital of Culture for 2019. The city is situated on the Maritsa river and the apartment we are staying in is just to the north of the river, whereas the main town centre is on the south, so our first task was to locate a bridge. The guidebook says that Plovdiv is built on six hills and it felt like we had to walk up several of them to get to the old town once we'd crossed the river. It was worth it, though; the old town is home to some really unusual buildings, built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a style known as "national revival" architecture. Bulgaria was still ruled by the Ottomans at this time, but there was a growing national consciousness and a middle class who could afford to build some impressive houses. This bright blue one, known as the Hindliyan House, was built in 1835 by a merchant who had made his money trading in India. Lots of the houses were really colourful, with beautiful decorations on the front. Some of them are now museums, but many others are still lived in by people today. As we were walking around, I was a bit confused that several buildings seemed to be displaying what, on first glance, looked like an Argentinian flag. It turns out this is actually the flag of Plovdiv As we got towards the centre of the old town, we caught sight of one of Plovdiv's main churches, the church of St Constantine and Elena, with its pretty bell tower. Around the corner from here was the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate into the old town, built in the 11th century. From here we followed a cobbled street uphill. It was so narrow that the houses almost touched in the middle. This took us to a place called Nebet Tepe, which is one of the hills where ancient Plovdiv was founded. We could see out across the modern part of town where we are staying... ...but the views out towards the old town and the mountains beyond were more scenic We could just make out the minaret of one of Plovdiv's Ottoman mosques. Plovdiv isn't just famous for it's more modern architecture; there are also Roman remains here. The city is home to one of the world's best preserved Roman theatres and that's where we were heading next. It cost 5 lev (£2.33) each to buy a ticket to enter the theatre, which seemed like good value. When we walked through the entrance, this was the view that greeted us. The theatre is enormous and can apparently seat over 5,000 people. It was built in the 1st century AD and lay buried for hundreds of years before finally being rediscovered following a landslide in the 1970s. Today it is used for concerts and plays, so there was a bit of sound and lighting equipment lying around. Tim climbed all the way down to the bottom but I stayed at the top, enjoying the views It really was an incredible location and definitely worth seeing. After the theatre, we made our way back down through the old town, towards the more modern city centre. On the way we passed the Church of the Assumption, which in the mid-nineteenth century was at the centre of the struggle for an independent Bulgarian Orthodox church, when the bishop of Plovdiv began to hold church services in Bulgarian. The inscription on the tower reads "In memory of the liberators" in gratitude to the Russian soldiers who liberated Plovdiv from the Ottomans in 1878. Following the treaty of San Stefano later in 1878, Plovdiv became the capital of a newly independent Bulgaria. But the treaty didn't last long and after the Congress of Berlin, the region of Eastern Rumelia was separated from the rest of Bulgaria. Plovdiv became the capital of Eastern Rumelia instead until the region was reunified with Bulgaria in 1885. By that time, however, Sofia was firmly established as the Bulgarian capital and Plovdiv has been the second city ever since. Once we were down in the town centre, we found the mosque which we had seen while up on the hill. This is the Dzhumaya Mosque, which was built in the 14th century and is believed to be one of the oldest European mosques. It's located just in front of the remains of Plovdiv's Roman stadium, built in the second century AD. It was free to climb down into the stadium and have a look around From here we walked along Plovdiv's main shopping street. Even though this was the more modern part of town, there were still some really pretty buildings, decorated in pastel colours. We found a nice restaurant to get some food; pizza for me and chicken with broccoli(!) for Tim. We finished up with tiramisu for me and cheesecake for Tim. Again it was really cheap - less than £20. After lunch we had another stroll around. We found the Roman Odeon, where it looked like renovation and excavation work was still ongoing. We also walked to Plovdiv's main park, the park of Tsar Simeon. Hopefully this is the closest we'll get to a bear during our trip The park is home to something called "The Lake of the Singing Fountains". It looked like a swimming pool with fountains in it But apparently there is a light display with classical music at weekends. By this stage we were pretty hot, so we decided to start making our way back through the town towards our apartment to cool off and blog. Plovdiv is a really beautiful city and we've had a lovely day here
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