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About Me

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  1. Our final morning in Slovakia got off to an exciting start with breakfast in the hotel. This might not sound terribly exciting, but we've stayed in this hotel lots of times and never splashed out on the expensive breakfast, which is at least EUR 15 per person. I had paid for it this time, so was keen to get my money's worth! It did turn out to be a good selection with warm food like scrambled eggs and hash browns, as well as pancakes with maple syrup and all sorts of different pastries and cakes. In the period between going back to the room after breakfast and checking out, we were surprised by a loud multilingual announcement telling us we needed to evacuate the building immediately. We assumed it was a fire drill and made our way down stairs from the fourth floor. There was a lot of confusion in reception; not sure what had happened, but it wasn't an expected drill. Eventually we were allowed to go back upstairs, but the fire alarm seemed to have stopped the lifts from working so we had to climb all the way back up to the fourth floor! Luckily, by the time we were ready to check out the lifts had been restored, so we didn't have to carry our suitcases downstairs. We took them in the lift, left them in the hotel's luggage room and went out for a final walk around Bratislava. I wanted to walk into town via a slightly different route this time, past the presidential palace. Just across the main road from the palace we suddenly spotted a familiar logo As you can probably see from the photos, it was a rather a damp day in Bratislava. It was light rain, just enough to be a bit annoying. We ended up having a fairly short stroll around the centre and then finding somewhere to get lunch. After lunch we went back the bookshop cafe which we'd visited yesterday for coffee and some more cake. It was a nice end to what has been a fun weekend away in Slovakia
  2. Although we had flown to Košice yesterday, we actually needed to be on the opposite side of Slovakia today. Fortunately, Slovakia is not a huge country and the trains are amazing, so this wasn't going to be a problem. I had already arranged our train tickets in advance online, booking us onto a train which was leaving Košice at 09.07. Our hotel started serving breakfast at 08.00, so we made sure we were there at the start to make the most of it before setting off on the short walk back across down to the train station. I'd paid slightly extra to travel in first class and it was definitely worth it. The tickets were unbelievably cheap, with what was ultimately going to be a four-hour train journey to Trenčín costing just EUR 20 each. The first class carriages were really nice and we had two comfy window seats with a table to ourselves. We even got a free bottle of water. Considering it costs more than £13 to get between Nuneaton and Birmingham these days, it felt like a real bargain! Slovakia is very scenic and it was a lovely journey. The weather wasn't as good as it had been on Friday, being quite cloudy and misty in places, but the landscape was still really beautiful. We went past hills.... ...and alongside rivers. Some time after 1pm, the train pulled into the city of Trenčín. This was another place we'd been to on our 2016 holiday, coming here to visit the large castle which is visible from just outside the train station. We were meeting some local Esperantists here, who came to pick us up and took us for a walk around the town centre. When we're last been here it had been August and I remember it had been incredibly hot climbing up the hill to the castle. It was much cooler today, though luckily the weather was staying dry. We didn't climb up to the castle today but we had some beautiful views of it from the centre of town. We had lunch in Trenčín before travelling to the nearby town of Nová Dubnica, which is where the Esperanto organisation we'd come to visit is based. We spent the afternoon visiting their various premises, before going out for another big meal in the evening. We stayed the night in a hotel in Nová Dubnica. The room was rather basic, but we couldn't complain about the price - just €40 for the night! We had breakfast at the hotel in the morning, before getting a lift to the small nearby station of Trenčianska Teplá. From there we had a much shorter train journey than yesterday - around 1.5 hours - to Bratislava. We couldn't visit Bratislava without staying in the hotel formerly known as the Mercure, near to the train station. We weren't technically allowed to check in until 3pm, but we decided to go and ask whether we could leave our bags at reception. Our luck was in because they found us a room and we were able to check in nice and early. Despite the hotel seemingly changing its name, the rooms look very much the same as they always did, including the bathrooms with the strange windows! Today was a bright sunny day, so once we'd dropped off the bags we decided to head out and make the most of the daylight. Bratislava looked lovely in the winter sunshine. As we walked down towards the main square, we found they were in the process of setting up booths for the Christmas market there. That meant most of the main square was blocked off, though it looked like it would be a while until the market was open. We made our way down past the national theatre... ...and back round past the cathedral. When we first came to Bratislava, I remember this being completely covered in scaffolding for restoration. It looks fantastic now. We had lunch, then another stroll around town. As we were walking back towards the hotel, we popped into a large bookshop to look around and found it had a cafe. I had an amazing piece of Sachertorte with my coffee. Bratislava is a lovely city and it's fun to be back here for a short trip
  3. It was another lovely sunny day when we woke up this morning and walked into Bratislava for breakfast. Our train to Budapest wasn't until 11.53, so we had some spare time for a stroll around the town and decided to walk across the UFO bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge we found the park Sad Janka Kráľa, which was nice and shady. As we walked through it we came across a strange monument, in the form of what looked like the top of a church tower which had been lopped off. Apparently it was once part of a Franciscan church in the fifteenth century, but the church later became unstable following an earthquake. It was about 10.30 by this point so we needed to start walking back to the hotel to check out and catch our train. We made it to the station with plenty of time to spare, only to find that the train to Budapest was delayed by 20 minutes. Oh dear It was around 12.15 before it finally arrived and - because the train had come from Prague - it was already quite full, so we initially struggled to find seats. Once the chaos of everyone getting on and trying to find place for their luggage had subsided, Tim did manage to track down a couple of spaces for us though, and after that it was a comfortable journey The train travelled through the south of Slovakia, stopping in Nové Zámky and Štúrovo, before crossing the border into Hungary at Szob. As soon as we had crossed into Hungary, the announcements on the train became utterly incomprehensible and I began to feel belatedly that I had actually understood quite a lot of Slovak Another ticket inspection took place and before too long the train was rolling through the outskirts in Budapest. The journey was supposed to take around 2.5 hours, but somehow we managed to make up the 20 minute delay en route and arrive in Budapest more or less on schedule. The train from Bratislava arrives at the station Budapest Nygati and the apartment I had booked was around a mile from there, so we set off in search of it. I'd had an email from the owner last night saying that he couldn't be there to let us in and giving us instructions for self check-in. The instructions seemed a little complex. Once we'd found the building, we had to input a code to be let through a gate then walk straight on, turn right, up the first floor and the apartment would be on our left. We then had to input a second code, this time for a box which held the door keys, and unlock first a gate and then the actual door in order to get inside. Happily, the instructions were so detailed that it all worked like clockwork and when we stepped inside the apartment, we found it surpassed our expectations. This is the bedroom... ...and this is the huge living area. The kitchen is equipped with everything you need to self-cater (including a coffee machine!)... ...and even the bathroom is really spacious. I had to consult the reservation to double-check how much I'd paid for this... it turned out to be the bargain price of £47 per night It was around 4pm by this point, so after a minimal amount of unpacking we set out to explore a bit of Budapest. Our apartment is in a really good location, with a bakery across the street and a Tesco-express-style Lidl just around the corner. As we walked further up the street it became increasingly grand, with some very big buildings that appeared to be embassies. The Chinese embassy in particular was in a beautiful building, but there was a policeman on guard outside so we decided not to take a photo We were able to take a picture of this very pretty church across the street, though. We turned left at a main road and caught sight of what looked like a tall monument in the distance. It wasn't until we got a lot closer that we could see quite how impressive it was. This is Hősök tere (Heroes' Square). The large column in the middle is known as the Millennium Memorial and was constructed in 1896 to celebrate 1000 years since the Hungarians conquered the Carpathian Basin. The colonnades behind feature statues of important figures from Hungarian history. The statues around the base of the column represent the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, who were the leaders of the seven Hungarian tribes that originally arrived in the region. They look like they were rather fierce! Across the road from the square is the Budapest Hall of Art, which has a very pretty facade. We walked out of the square and across a bridge over a little lake. We were now in Városliget, the city park. As we walked through the park we caught sight of some intriguing turrets in the distance, which we wanted to explore further. It turns out that this was Vajdahunyad Castle, also built in 1896 as part of the millennial celebrations. It was designed to mimic the architectural styles of several important castles in what was at the time the Hungarian empire (today some of them are now in Romania). It's a really beautiful building, and something we managed to miss entirely when we first came to Budapest in 2012. We walked around the castle for a while and found there were several more buildings to admire... I really liked this little church ... ...and there were some beautiful flowers in front of this statue of a Hungarian politician. We hadn't had any lunch so were feeling pretty hungry by this point. We walked down the long Andrássy Avenue, a boulevard which was apparently built to rival the Champs-Élysées, until we got to the centre of town and caught a glimpse of St Stephen's Basilica. We also saw a sign for a restaurant advertising Hungarian specialities, so decided to give it a try. We started with a bowl of goulash soup, which Tim enjoyed but I found had far too many vegetables in for my taste. For the main course, Tim tried gypsy-style pork with garlic sauce, while I had paprika chicken with what was described as "Hungarian noodles". They turned out to be very similar to gnocchi. It was nice but the more paprika you eat, the increasingly spicy it feels. We washed it down with some nice Hungarian wine, followed by pancakes This afternoon has been a fun introduction to Budapest and we're looking forward to explore more of the city tomorrow
  4. I had a nice lie-in this morning, so it was after 9am before we left the hotel and started walking into Bratislava. It was another lovely sunny day; warm, but not too hot. We decided to walk into town via a different route to the one we'd taken yesterday, so it wasn't long before we came to the Presidential Palace. There were some beautiful flowers in the gardens... ...and the front of the building is impressive too. We walked through the gate into the old town... ...through the main square... ...and onwards to McDonalds, where we had breakfast for €4.50 each; significantly cheaper than the €16 in the hotel and it included my favourite Cappy apple juice It wasn't a bad view from a McDonalds either! After breakfast, our plan was to catch a bus to the nearby town of Devín, where there is an impressive castle that we have visited a few times before. The bus leaves from the station near the UFO bridge and it only costs €0.90 for a ticket as far as Devín. I knew the bus was supposed to be the 29, but when we got to the station we struggled to find which bus stop it was due to leave from. Eventually we realised there was an electronic sign, which announced that it would be leaving from bus stop number 6, but despite walking up and down the platforms several times, we couldn't find number 6. In the end Tim realised that there was another bus stop outside the station on the main road. This turned out to be number 6, and we found it just on time to hop on a passing bus Devín is only about 12km from Bratislava, so it doesn't take the bus long to get there. From our last visit in 2012, I remembered that the bus stopped in a large carpark below the castle. After around 15 minutes, the bus arrived in Devín and drove along the high street. I expected it to then turn off towards the castle car park.... realising slightly too late that it wasn't going to do any such thing and was continuing down the main road out of the town. Oops! We quickly jumped off at the next stop and began walking back towards Devín. Luckily it turned out not to be too much of a hardship, because we soon found a pathway to follow alongside the river. It wasn't long before we got our first glimpse of the castle in the distance. As we got closer it became clear what an imposing position the castle has, towering high above the river and the rest of the town. One of the most striking bits of the castle is this little turret, perched on a tiny rocky tower of its own. We followed a pathway around the bottom of the castle rock. Devín is located at the point where the river Morava flows into the Danube, and so we had a great view from here out across the water. The Morava looks like a calm river, but the Danube was flowing incredibly fast. bratislava-day-2-27.mp4 After we'd followed the path for a while, we turned back up into the town of Devín. It's a small but pretty place... ...and occasionally you turn a corner and get a view of the castle in the distance We eventually made our way back towards the castle. It costs €5 each to get in, which is a bit more than last time we were here, but a lot of restoration work has been done since then, in particular on the upper part of the castle. Although from a distance the hill which the castle is on looks quite high, in reality the path up has quite a gentle slope and it wasn't long before the castle was looking noticeably closer. Or maybe the climb up to every castle will just feel easy in future compared to climbing up to the palace in Sintra Soon we were up high enough to look down on the little turret we'd been staring up at earlier. There was still a way to go to get to the upper castle, though. We explored the lower part of the castle first. From here the view of the confluence was even better than at ground level. Then it was time to climb to the upper part. Again it was easier than we expected, with modern staircases all the way up. Once we were at the top we had a view back towards Devín and could make out the white church we'd photographed earlier. We could see along the Morava too, where we'd been walking earlier after overshooting Devín. And if we looked really carefully, we could just make out Bratislava, in the form of a row of tower blocks on the horizon. There was a helpful map up here which showed us what we were looking at. The dotted line on the map represents the border, and showed us that everything we were looking at across the river was Austria. As we climbed back down, we realised that there were some sort of medieval games going on in the castle today. Some people were practising archery... ..others were playing a game which seemed to involve splitting an apple with a sword... ...and some seemed to be engaging in what looked like a medieval version of It's A Knockout bratislava-day-2-77.mp4 It was mid-afternoon by this point and we were starting to feel hungry, so we walked back down towards the river and had a late lunch at a restaurant we've eaten in before. Tim had goulash with dumplings... ...while I went for the traditional Slovak Bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with sheep's cheese - it tastes a lot better than it sounds!!) The food was so good that we gave into temptation and ordered pudding too. Although it looks like red cabbage, Tim's strudel was full of cherries I went for a more traditional apple one We were absolutely stuffed by this point, so had a final look at the castle before setting off to catch the bus back to Bratislava. We'd solved the problem of the bus earlier when walking through the castle car park. There is indeed a bus stop, but it's the bus 129 which stops at here and we had been on a 29. From the timetable it looked like the 129 might be a special bus which runs straight to the castle on weekends, whereas the 29 is the normal bus which runs through the town every day. Once we were back in Bratislava, we had one more task we had to accomplish before we could go back to the hotel and relax: buying our train tickets for Budapest. We are due to travel to Budapest tomorrow, but research had revealed that it wasn't possible to buy the tickets online, so we'd had to wait until we were in Bratislava. As with all international tickets, it was difficult to work out online what the price would be. The website of Slovak railways referred to a "special offer" price of €9 which was available for purchase in advance, but it wasn't really clear about how far in advance the tickets had to be purchased. It also implied that there was a limited number of these tickets available each day, without specifying how much the journey would cost if the cheap tickets had all sold out... I don't like this sort of uncertainty, but luckily when we got to the station, everything turned out to be fine and we got the €9 fare I've really enjoyed being back in Bratislava, but I'm very excited about going to Hungary tomorrow And it seems incredible that I can travel from Bratislava to Budapest for €9 when it costs me £11.15 every day to get from Nuneaton to Birmingham!
  5. We had an 08.30 flight from Stansted to Bratislava this morning, which sounded quite civilised until I counted backwards and realised that it required us getting up at 03.30. All went smoothly with the journey though and we didn't even have to queue for too long to check in our baggage at the airport, although there was a slight frisson of excitement when we realised we had to use a self-service machine and attach our own baggage labels again Our flight departed a little late because of congestion at the airport, but once we were on our way there was a beautiful view, with clear skies almost the entire way across Europe. We landed in a sunny Bratislava just before midday and probably for the first time ever here, stepped off the plane and weren't overwhelmed by a wave of heat. Although it was warm, it actually felt slightly cooler than it has been in the UK for the past few days, and there was even a bit of a breeze I was relieved to find that the vigour with which we'd ensured our baggage labels were fully stuck together had paid off, and our cases arrived without any problems. We were soon on the airport bus, speeding towards the centre of Bratislava. We were staying in the Mercure again, which is in a great location near to the train station, but couldn't check in until 2pm, so went for a drink at the station cafe to pass the 45 minutes or so which we had left to wait. It seemed like the prices might have gone up slightly since we were last here; €1.70 for an apple juice. We managed to check in a little bit early in the end which was good, because I was rather tired after the early start. I ended up having a slightly longer nap than planned, so it was 5pm before we eventually headed out for a walk. It was a beautiful evening, with a clear blue sky above the old town. We strolled around for a while, admiring the cathedral, before finding a restaurant where we could sit outside and have dinner. I had a lovely spaghetti carbonara, but Tim was slightly less impressed about the amount of gunk which came with the burger he ordered! I'm not quite sure what was going on in Bratislava today, but as we sat eating we saw a series of people on stilts walking through the town centre. We had an after-dinner stroll, which took us to the main square, Hlavné námestie.... ...admiring the old town hall from both sides. As we decided to start heading back to the hotel for an early night, we came across another group of people in costume; this time not just on stilts, but also performing tricks on a unicycle. I wouldn't have fancied volunteering to be one of the people they were jumping over Tomorrow we're looking forward to seeing a bit more of Bratislava and taking a trip to Devín Castle
  6. We had am 08.30 flight from Stansted to Bratislava yesterday morning, which sounded quite civilised until I counted backwards and realised that it still necessitated us getting up at 03.30. I had been a bit apprehensive about how much chaos there might be at Stansted on a Saturday morning in August, but things seemed to get off to a remarkably smooth start as we arrived half an hour ahead of schedule and found that the Ryanair queue was surprisingly well organised. We maybe waited for thirty minutes or so to get to the check-in desk, but people were actually waiting in proper lines (which was a big improvement on last summer!). Unfortunately, when we got to the front of the queue and tried to check in our bag, things started to go a little bit wrong. After weighing and putting a sticker on the case, the man at the check-in desk informed us that we had been queuing in zone E when we should have been in zone F, and we'd have to go to zone F to get our bag put onto the conveyor belt. Oh dear. It seems that the reason the queue had been a bit more civilised than last year was that different Ryanair flights were now supposed to be going to specific ranges of desks, rather than any flight going to any desk which is how it had worked previously. The man assured us that we wouldn't have to queue again, but when we got around to zone F there wasn't any way to hand over our bag without joining another queue. We were directed towards a desk which was technically for business class passengers (does anyone fly business class on Ryanair?!) but seemed to be serving more as a desk for anyone who had any sort of problem. The queue appeared short at first sight, but everyone in front of us seemed to be travelling either in a large group or with outsized baggage, and so we ultimately waited another half an hour in order to spend approximately 10 seconds handing our case to a member of staff. I was thinking how lucky we were to have been at the airport with so much time to spare before our flight... but in the end it turned out there hadn't been any need to rush anyway, because our flight was delayed, for an unexplained reason. It was nearly 09.30 before we were finally in the skies and on our way to Slovakia. Bratislava feels like a place we have visited a lot (I think this is my fifth time here) but when we we started thinking about it yesterday, we were amazed to realise that the last time we came was as long ago as 2012, when we travelled from Bratislava to Budapest via Szombathely. That was so long ago that we didn't even have the blog! Our aim for this holiday is to explore some of Slovakia beyond the capital, specifically some of the more central and eastern parts which we saw from a train window in summer 2011, when we made a 30-hour railway journey from Bratislava to Kiev. Bratislava still felt like the best place to start our journey though, both because it's the easiest place in Slovakia to fly to and a beautiful city in its own right It was after midday by the time we had landed and were able to make our way to the airport bus. At €0.90 for a ticket into the city centre, it was definitely a whole lot cheaper than the airport buses we took in Bergen and Stockholm earlier this year! Within half an hour we had arrived outside the main train station in Bratislava and decided to kill the time before we could check into the hotel at 2pm by having lunch in our favourite station cafe. The menu didn't seem to have changed a lot since we were last here, although the waiters maybe seemed a tad less surly than previously We checked into the hotel just after 2 and had a bit of a nap to recover from our early start, before heading out for a stroll around Bratislava. Everything looked beautifully familiar as we approached the edge of the old town. Before long we found ourselves in the main square, Hlavné námestie, looking at the old town hall with its pretty roof. From there it was just a short walk to St Martin's Cathedral, which looked beautiful in the evening sunshine. I'm sure last time we were here it was all covered in scaffolding. We walked from there to the Danube and then back into the centre of town to hunt down an Italian restaurant we had eaten at on our previous trips. We found it without too much difficulty and had a lovely meal, although it seemed to have become a bit more upmarket than we remembered it. It was lovely to be back in Bratislava again and we made quite an early start to exploring this morning, walking into the town centre shortly after 8am in search of some breakfast. The streets were a lot quieter than they had been on Saturday evening. The main square was almost deserted... ...and we almost missed one of our favourite statues just around the corner. We found a McDonalds which opened at 9 and while we ate breakfast, things began to get a bit busier. We were soon passed by several groups on walking tours, who looked suspiciously like they had come off cruise ships. I was slightly confused for a few minutes before I realised that they must be on a Danube river cruise! It was turning into a bright sunny day as we left McDonalds and walked past the attractive building of the Slovak National Theatre. This is just at the start of the pretty, but slightly unpronouncable, Hviezdoslavovo námestie. Hviezdoslavovo námestie is a long tree-lined promenade which leads down towards the Danube at the far end. We climbed up partway onto one of the bridges across the river and got our first view of Bratislava castle. The temperature was creeping up towards 30 degrees by this point and we decided to head back to the hotel so that I could apply some sun cream. When we ventured out again a little later, our first stop was the presidential palace. We'd only ever seen this from the front before, but today we discovered that around the back of the palace there are some beautiful gardens. This was the view of the front of the palace which we were more familiar with. From the palace it's not far into the old town, but rather than head in that direction we turned around and began climbing up a rather steep side street. Our destination was Slavín, a memorial and war cemetery for Soviet soldiers who died liberating Bratislava from the Nazis in 1945. From a distance the monument is unmissable, but the closer you get up the hill the harder it is to figure out where you are going. We ended up wandering around side streets for quite some time until we eventually came to a familiar-looking staircase which took us up to the memorial. Slavín is a really interesting place to see in its own right, for the history and the rather Soviet-looking statues. However it's also worth coming up here just for the views back out across Bratislava. In one direction we could see the cathedral and the famous UFO bridge... ...while in the other direction we had a fantastic view of the castle. It was much easier walking back down to the town than it had been walking up! We stopped at a nice restaurant for a late lunch and then started on a mission to find Bratislava's blue church. This is definitely one of the most stunning churches I've ever seen, but it is located on an obscure side street outside the main town centre, next door to some decaying tower blocks. It took us a while to track it down but we got there in the end By this stage we'd managed to walk 11 miles so decided to go back to the hotel for a rest. We've had a great day in Bratislava though and are excited about exploring some more of Slovakia tomorrow
  7. On Tuesday morning it was time to check out of our beautiful air-conditioned hotel room. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs at the station, we set of towards Tesco to stock up on provisions for the long train journey ahead of us. We arguably overdid it, leaving with twelve 1.5 litre bottles of water, two cartons of juice, a large loaf of bread, two packets of cheese, two tins of meat paste, assorted chocolate and biscuits and a pile of dried fruit. The most nerve-wracking part of the experience was trying to buy the water as we had no idea what the Slovak term for “still water” might be. Fifteen minutes of googling on my phone and some significant roaming charges later, we discovered that the elusive word was “nesytana”. There was no way I would have worked this out on our own and were it not for modern technology, we would have been condemned to spending 30 hours on a train drinking the Slovak equivalent of Perrier. Laden down with food and water, we had the exciting experience of catching a tram back to the main station. By this point, I was starting to get pretty nervous and was anxious to make sure that we didn't miss our train. I was perhaps a bit over-zealous, as we found our way to the correct platform with nearly an hour to spare and had to proceed to sit and wait for the train. I expected it to be at the station well in advance of the departure time, with an hour for everyone to find their cabins, stow their luggage and have their tickets checked. I don’t know whether my expectations were wrong or whether the train was inexplicably delayed, but ultimately it didn’t roll into the station until ten minutes before it was scheduled to depart. Unfortunately we had been sitting at the wrong end of the platform, so had to make a mad dash to the far end where we saw a solitary blue and yellow striped carriage. The rest of the train was made up of regional carriages, terminating in the eastern Slovakia city of Kosice. In addition to our Ukrainian carriage, there was one other carriage continuing on to Moscow. Having arrived at the correct part of the platform, we caught sight of our conductor, a man in an imposing Ukrainian hat, standing outside. I gathered that we were supposed to show our tickets in order to be allowed aboard, but there was a crush of idiotic people trying to lift their suitcases and a child’s tractor up the steps. When I did eventually work up the courage to push forward and show him the ticket, he said something incomprehensible to me in Russian. By dint of some repetition and pointing, I grasped that he was trying to tell us that we were in cabin number seven. It was a struggle to get all our belongings on to the train and, when we arrived in cabin number seven, our first impressions were not good. It was very, very small. Tim was doubtful about whether it was even first class, although I was able to assure him that it was, because there were only two bunks. Bunks… well, the lower bunk was currently decked out as a sofa, covered in the sort of ugly throw that an elderly aunt might have. The upper bunk was very high indeed, almost touching the ceiling. With no apparent railing and only a metal ladder of the sort my Sylvanian families used to use, it was unclear how a person could get up to it, never mind sleep in it without falling out. On the opposite wall, we had a small wash basin stand with a bin underneath and a lift-up table top. There was a small cupboard with a mirror, a power point for shaving, and not very much space for our suitcases at all. We wrestled with them for several hours before coming to the realisation that we could squish them into a cavity below the lower bunk. It also transpired that we could utilise some sort of mechanism to bring the upper bunk down to a level where we could access it… or, rather, where Tim could access it! Shortly after departure, the conductor came around to take our tickets and bring us a packet of bedding. We curled up on the lower bunk, munching our rations and alternately reading and watching the world go by. I had been worried that the train journey was going to be a long and unendurable nightmare – rather like the time we took a night bus from Prague to Warsaw – but time actually seemed to pass pretty quickly. It was fun to sit and watch the Slovakian countryside roll by. Slovakia looks like a really beautiful place, full of lakes and mountains and forests. Having boarded the train at 2 pm, it was late evening by the time we arrived in Kosice. Our train was detached from the other carriages before being joined on to some more and proceeding with its journey. The border was now looming but the problem was that I wasn’t sure exactly where it was or how much longer it would take us to get there. I wanted to stay awake until we had crossed it, because I thought it would be a pretty terrifying experience to be woken up in the middle of the night by a border guard. I thought that the border was quite close to Kosice, but Slovakia just seemed to go on and on and on. It was well after dark when we arrived at a place called Čierna nad Tisou, whose name seemed familiar to me from the railway timetables. Sure enough the train came to a stop and two Slovakian border guards got on. They weren’t quite as scary as I had anticipated, asking to see our passports and, when they realised that we weren’t Slovakian, speaking to us in German. The whole thing was over within twenty minutes and, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for having survived it, we settled down to go to sleep. That was a mistake! We were just nicely nodding off when the train jolted to a halt once again. Flung almost out of my bunk, I sat up and peered tentatively out of the window. Immediately I wished I hadn’t – there were a group of soldiers in camouflage gear standing outside. Hmm. Quite what the train was supposed to be doing I’m not sure, but it shunted forward a bit, backwards a bit, forward a bit, backwards a bit, as if it was trying to dance the hokey-kokey. We ended up in the same place we had started, but not before I had seen the sign on the station building which proclaimed that we were now in Чоп (Chop). Oh dear. I had a moment of panic at the fact that we were now no longer in the EU, in a country where we would be unable to understand a word any one said and where they didn’t even write with a proper alphabet. Sure enough, sleep had been a bad idea because now the proper border control was about to begin. The Ukrainian border guards marched onto the train, kicking the doors of each compartment to wake everybody up. We waited nervously as they worked their way down the carriage towards us. A female guard with an expressionless face mutely took our passports away, without giving any indication if or when we might see them again. The customs guard spoke to us in broken English and wanted to know how much money we were carrying. I underestimated slightly so that we wouldn’t have the trauma of trying to fill out a customs declaration, and luckily he didn’t want to count it. Thinking we were through the worst, I then nearly died of a heart attack when I saw a soldier with an Alsatian dog patrolling through the train. I suppose it was only looking for drugs, which obviously we didn’t have, but I was terrified that it might be tired of sniffing for cocaine and come and attack me for my chocolate. I began to see the benefits of being on the upper bunk after all! And then… nothing happened. For about three hours. The train moved forward a bit so that it was below the flashlights. A group of engineers came running out of the railway building towards it. Slowly and laboriously, each carriage was raised into the air and fitted with new wheels to correspond to the different railway gauge in Ukraine. By the time they had finished it was gone 2am. We were exhausted, and we still didn’t have our passports. I wanted to cry. We needn’t have panicked, however. Eventually we were shunted back to the place where we had started, nearly four hours previously, and the same expressionless woman reunited us with our passports. I was so happy I wanted to kiss it. On closer inspection the following morning, it seemed that they had simply taken them away to stamp them.
  8. Happily, when I woke up there wasn't a bug in sight. Perhaps it had just been one freak beetle which had landed on my backpack while I was still outside, or perhaps the rest of his family simply lived on another floor. The main thing was that he wasn't bothering us and there was no sign of any other wildlife. We awoke early, mainly as a result of the Penzion curtains being as effective as a chocolate teapot, and were soon on our way back to the airport to catch the bus into the centre of town. The walk seemed ridiculously easy now that it was daylight. I thought I had prepared well for the business of catching the airport bus, by religiously reading my Bratislava guidebook from cover to cover and even making handwritten notes of the most salient points in an old exercise book. According to my instructions, there ought to be a machine inside the airport terminal building from which it would be possible to purchase a public transport ticket. We duly entered the airport building and began to search for the said machine. We were not exceptionally successful in this endeavour. We found a machine selling tickets for the airport parking, a machine for buying over-priced soft drinks, and even a machine that offered to wrap our suitcases in cellophane for a modest fee, but a machine which sold bus tickets was sadly lacking. The information desk didn't appear to have any personnel on duty and the bus driver shouted something incomprehensible at us when we tentatively approached what we believed to be the correct vehicle. How frustrating! It was pure luck that we eventually spotted the bus stop which, in fairness to the airport, is conveniently located just outside the arrivals building. Having already arrived the previous day, we had unthinkingly been wandering round the departure hall. Happily there was a ticket machine at the bus stop and after that everything was plain sailing. After a short journey of less than 30 minutes, we arrived at the Hlavna Stanica which is possibly the least imposing main station I have ever seen anywhere in my life, but nevertheless very user-friendly, having signs to the left-luggage office in English. Having dumped our suitcases there, we emerged into the sunlight once more and went for a quick coffee at a nearby cafe. Coffee is, fortunately, something that it is remarkably easy to order in any language. Suitably fortified, we set off to explore the Slovak capital. Things didn't get off to a terribly auspicious start when I nearly tripped over two pieces of pavement in as many minutes. The pavements weren't really that bad - certainly nothing to rival the horrors of Bialystok - but they were prone to a series of strange lumps, bumps and potholes which meant that it paid to give more than occasional glances in the direction of your feet. My first impression of Bratislava was that it reminded me of Szombathely, the Hungarian town that we had visited in summer 2008. Some of old town also felt very Austrian, with its winding streets and pretty facades. If you ignored the enormous housing estates on the far side of the river, overall it seemed like a sleepy, peaceful sort of place, and non-threatening. We soon located the main square and a maze of other little streets leading off from it. I found the town hall very impressive, with its beautiful roof of little multi-coloured tiles in the national colours, until Tim ruined it for me by suggesting that it resembled snake-skin. One of the nicest features of the town centre was the abundance of quirky statues, dotted around the place when you least expected them. In the main square there was a Napoleonic soldier leaning behind a bench, plus another soldier standing sentry next to the town hall. Further on we found a man with a telescope peeping round a corner and another peering up from under a manhole cover. It all added interest to the experience, and one of the most exciting things was when we saw the UFO bridge rising up over the Danube for the first time. We had a pleasant lunch in an Italian restaurant near Hviezdoslavovo námestie, marred only by the arrival of some incredibly mouthy Americans and the fact that Tim's goulash contained an inordinate amount of cabbage. Heading back to the train station, we retrieved our baggage and went to check into our hotel. Given the option between something very basic for €20/night or something better for €50/night, I had gone with the latter, guessing (rightly, as it happened) that we would be glad of a last bit of luxury before finding ourselves in the more basic conditions of Kiev. The hotel Mercure Bratislava Centrum didn't disappoint and I am confident that I will never be able to afford to stay in such a nice hotel anywhere other than Bratislava. With perfect air-conditioning and the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in in my life, I could happily have spent the entire fortnight in Slovakia. Tired as we were after our journey (and a night spent fretting over bugs), we fell asleep for several hours and it was well after five before we headed out again in search of dinner. We found another lovely restaurant, this time close to the main square, where we enjoyed a gorgeous schnitzel and chips, followed by a dessert of chocolate pancakes, all for under €30 including a bottle of wine
  9. The holiday got off to an inauspicious start when I dropped my pedometer in the toilet. I have a long history of losing pedometers, and this is not the first one which I have sent to a watery grave in the sewerage system. My first instinct was to flush it away but, not wanting to block our drains when we were on the verge of setting off an epic journey, and seeing that some figures were still visible on the LCD display, I closed my eyes, plunged my hand in and retrieved it. To my not inconsiderable surprise, it still appeared to be working. Its adventure had obviously left it dirty and bug-infested, however, so flushed with my success I decided to rinse it off under the cold water tap. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and with its benefit I can see that it maybe wasn't the best plan in the world to hold a barely-functioning electronic device under running water for several minutes. At the time, it honestly did seem like a good idea but, needless to say, within a matter of seconds I became the sheepish owner of a hygienic, but utterly useless, pedometer. The lights on the LCD display flickered for one final time before giving up the ghost entirely. Despite this traumatic interlude and the increasingly frantic nature of my packing, we were actually ready to depart for our big adventure half an hour before we needed to be. I have to confess that, in the days leading up the holiday, I had become increasingly nervous about the whole idea, particularly when it had looked like our (very expensive) international train tickets were going to fail to arrive before our scheduled departure date. Colleagues and family members alike had expressed surprise and disbelief when I explained to them that we were going to Ukraine, particularly when I added that this would involve a train journey in excess of 30 hours. As we made our way to the airport, I was starting to wonder whether perhaps they had a point and we were mad after all. Flying with Ryanair is never a life-affirming experience and this occasion was no exception. Happily, thanks to the purchase of a set of baggage scales, we succeeded in staying within the prescribed weight limits and not incurring any additional charges. Other people were not so lucky and, the passengers being mainly Slovaks returning home, struggled to understand the barked instructions of the Brummie flight attendants as they inspected our hand luggage. Penned in like cattle as we waited to board, it was slightly surprising to note that our plane had not even arrived at Birmingham airport yet. We stood for what seemed like an eternity in small, enclosed space, while it landed, parked and spewed out its passengers. The only consolation of our late departure was that, upon our subsequent late arrival in Bratislava, the crew were unable to play that exceptionally annoying jingle which usually proclaims the fact that yet another Ryanair flight has landed on time. It was dark when the plane did land just after 10 pm, a circumstance I had not reckoned with when I booked us a room at the Penzion Slovport, an alleged 800m walk from the airport. Having endured two hours of freezing air-conditioning during the flight, I was slightly concerned that we would emerge into an equally cold Bratislava and have to suffer a long and difficult search for our accommodation with the potential to contract hypothermia before we located it. I needn't have expended the energy to worry, however, as the heat that hit us as we disembarked from the plane was tropical. Slovakia was obviously enjoying a better summer than the UK! The sense of relief I felt when discovering I had passed my degree is surpassed by the sense of relief I feel each time I retrieve my baggage from a Ryanair flight. I was disappointed on this occasion, however, to see that they had managed to break the beautiful duck keyring which Babel had bought me to help me identify my shiny new suitcase. Somewhat upset, we set off to track down the Penzion Slovport. Had it been broad daylight, I have no doubt that this would have been a laughably easy undertaking. As we discovered the following morning, the Penzion is more or less visible from the main door of the airport. In total darkness, however, it was less straightforward, and we wasted a not inconsiderable amount of time trying to exit the airport itself. Although Bratislava airport is really quite small and compact, the car park and associated slip roads have not really been designed to be negotiated by pedestrians, presumably because the local planning authorities did not imagine that any foreigners would be foolhardy enough to attempt to leave it on foot, lugging a large amount of heavy luggage behind them. That, however, is precisely what we attempted to do. The easy solution would undoubtedly have been to have hired a taxi... but it seemed like such a waste of money for a mere 800m and I thought we would probably have got ripped off. So we persevered on foot instead, eventually managing to find our way out of the airport and onto a main road which, happily, had a pavement. The streets were deserted, which was probably just as well, as it may not have been a very safe undertaking, to be walking through an anonymous part of Eastern Europe so late at night and looking so lost and foreign. The most remarkable thing about this epic, suitcase-dragging trek was actually the insect life. Thick swarms of flies were congregating under every lamppost and the ugly buzzing sound of cicadas was constant. Many years ago I read a story which involved someone going mad... or possibly being invaded by aliens/ghosts/body snatchers... and the main thrust of the story was that she could never escape from the sound of cicadas in her head. I've never felt the same way about them since. Within half an hour we caught sight of the Penzion Slovport looming on the horizon. We had been a bit remiss with our learning of Slovak, having concentrated all available energy on acquiring some basic Russian, and so communicating with the girl behind the reception was a bit of a challenge. She unleashed a torrent of Slovak at us and it was a very lucky guess indeed which enabled us to realise that she was asking us to pay the local tourist tax. I don't know what to say about our room, except to state that it was very... Soviet. Kitted out with a Paisley carpet that might have been fashionable in England in the 1970s, it contained two narrow single beds lined up against opposite walls and a long, low table which was covered by a flowery oilcloth and appeared to serve no useful purpose. A couple of decrepit armchairs, which looked like they had been painfully losing their springs for several years, completed the furnishings. For what we paid, it was more or less what I expected, and we had the benefit of a bathroom across the hallway which was clean and only shared with two other rooms. The only thing I could really find to complain about were the bugs. Now there had, admittedly, been a lot of bugs outside, but I didn't think it ought to follow that there should be a lot of bugs inside too, especially considering that we were on the second floor and the windows appeared to be shut tight. Notwithstanding this, while Tim was off exploring the bathroom, I was required to act with courage and conviction to end the life of a particularly monstrous flying ant. Later, as we were literally about to turn the lights out, I spied a beetle crawling on my rucksack. I like to pride myself on the fact that I have a very well-developed bug-radar and it was quite a feat to spot this horrible black creature against the dark blue of my bag. I hoped it was a beetle. It could have been, or it could have been a cockroach. Tim knocked it off for me and we lost sight of it before there was time to establish its identity. The very thought that it might have been a cockroach was enough to send my tired mind into overdrive though and that, combined with the frustrated buzzing of a large moth who had somehow got trapped behind the curtain, suddenly made sleep seem like the very opposite of a good idea. I did manage to drop off in the end, but it was with the conviction that I could awake at any moment to find myself drowning in beetles...
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