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  1. 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
  2. Clare

    Day 2: Devín

    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!
  3. 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
  4. The weather forecasters seemed to be divided about what the weather was going to be like today, but we were gambling on it being good or, at least, not raining. Our plan for the day was to travel to the village of Tatranská Lomnica, from where we would be able to take a cable car up one of the mountains. Tatranská Lomnica is a stop on the Tatra electric railway, but in the opposite direction to Štrbské Pleso where we had been the other day. From Poprad we had to take a train to Starý Smokovec, and then change for the connecting train to Tatranská Lomnica. We had a wait of around 30 minutes in Starý Smokovec between trains, so we had another stroll around, making the most of the fact that it wasn't raining. The weather was even good enough to see some of the mountains above the village today. We had a much better view of the mountains when we arrived in Tatranská Lomnica though. There was even temporarily a blue sky in places! The cable cars in Slovakia seemed quite expensive when I'd researched them, but it was cheaper if you bought your ticket online in advance. I did this a few weeks ago and bought two return tickets up the mountain as far as a place called Skalnaté pleso. The cable car company subsquently posted me some sort of pass card, together with a letter (in English) saying that the tickets I'd purchased were loaded onto the card and so I didn't need to queue at the ticket desk, but would just be able to swipe the barriers. It sounded good - what could possibly go wrong?! The first part of the journey is in little four-person gondolas. We made our way to the cable car station and joined the queue to swipe through the barriers. Tim went first and the swipe card worked perfectly, immediately opening the barrier. He passed the card back to me, I swiped it... and nothing happened. Oh dear. We were just trying it again in case I hadn't quite done it right first time around, when we attracted the attention of the man supervising the gondolas. He looked a bit like a troll and had a similar personality. He started shouting at us, I think for trying to use one card between us. I had the receipt for what I'd purchased in my pocket so I took out the paperwork in order to prove that we had definitely purchased two tickets. This didn't impress him at all and he shoved the papers back at me, saying "Info Centrum. Info Centrum" over and over again. I gathered I needed to find somewhere called the Info Centrum to try and sort this out. Tim was already behind the barrier and the man wouldn't let him back out, so he had to stand and wait for quite some time while I went to track the Info Centrum down. Luckily it wasn't far away, but there was an enormous queue of all sorts of other people who seemed to be having problems with their tickets. When I eventually got to the front it took a while for the woman to understand what I was trying to say, but eventually she explained that each person needs to have a separate pass so I should have come to the Info Centrum first in order to get a second pass. How I was supposed to know this I have no idea, and I'm still not quite sure I understand the logic of allowing people to order two tickets online and then posting them a pass for one of them! She agreed to sort me out a second pass anyway, which was good, but then we hit an unexpected second problem because I needed to pay a deposit of €2 for the swipe card. That's not a lot of money obviously, but all our money was in Tim's wallet which was in Tim's pocket behind the ticket barrier! So I had to go back to the cable car station, attract the attention of Tim, get two Euros and then join the queue in the Info Centrum again in order to get the card. Tim may have taken the opportunity to give the troll on duty a piece of his mind!! Eventually it was all sorted though and we were off in the gondola towards the intermediate station, which is at 1,173 metres. From there we changed to what was described as a 15-person cable car for the remainder of the journey up to Skalnaté pleso. Personally I think 15 people would have been a very tight squeeze! There were some amazing views as we went higher and higher. The station of Skalnaté pleso is at 1,751m. It looked a very long way back down to Tatranská Lomnica. The mountain in the background is Lomnický Štít, the second highest mountain in Slovakia. There is another cable car which goes from Skalnaté pleso right to the summit, but this one is ridiculously expensive (€46!) and only a limited number of people can travel up each way, so the tickets sell out a long way in advance. The views from Skalnaté pleso were great anyway. The name Skalnaté pleso means something like "rocky mountain lake" and this turned out to be a good description. The guidebook had mentioned that the path around the lake was rocky, but until we got there I hadn't appreciated quite how rocky they meant! This was the path. Some parts of it were okay, but other parts of it were rather challenging! The lake was really in a beautiful location though Once we'd managed to walk around it once without falling over, we decided it was time to head back down. We had a late lunch of chicken schnitzel and chips, followed by some lovely pancakes. The weather still seemed reasonable so we decided to catch the train back to Starý Smokovec, and from there get a connecting train to Štrbské Pleso, where we had been the other day. We were all ready to jump off the train once it got to Tatranská Polianka and get onto the replacement bus service, but they seemed to have done some quick repairs to the track because this time the train was able to go straight through. We got off the train in Štrbské Pleso about an hour after we had left Tatranská Lomnica... and found it was starting to rain! The cloud seemed to be much lower over here than it had been back in Tatranská Lomnica, so we still didn't manage to get a view of the mountains. The lake was beautiful though and it was nice to be able to see it again We managed to do a circuit of the lake and get back to the station in Štrbské Pleso just on time for the next train back to Štrba and Poprad. It was another exciting day in some beautiful surroundings. Tomorrow will mostly be a day of travelling, with a 4.5 hour train journey back from Poprad to Bratislava followed by the flight home, so it may not be worth a blog entry. We have had a brilliant time in Slovakia though and it's definitely on our list of countries we'd like to travel to again
  5. Clare

    Day 7: Spiš Castle

    When we woke up this morning we were relieved to see that the light coming through the bedroom window looked a bit brighter than it had on the previous two days. Sure enough, when we stepped outside the apartment we were greeted by a brilliant blue sky Our plan for today was to visit Spišský hrad (Spiš castle) but the train we needed wasn't until 10.42, so we were able to have a leisurely stroll around the suburb of Poprad where we are staying first. And best of all, as we headed off in the direction of the main train station we were finally able to get a view of the mountains behind us From the train station itself there was an even better view. I had seen pictures of Spiš castle on the internet and it looked like an absolutely amazing place, but a little bit difficult to get to. The castle is located on a hill above the town of Spišské Podhradie, but Spišské Podhradie doesn't have a rail service. The guidebook said implied that there were numerous buses directly from Poprad to Spišské Podhradie, but when I looked at bus timetables online I could only find a couple of buses a day, none of which seemed to be at appropriate times for a day trip. After a lot of research, I decided to easiest way to get there would be to take a regional train to the town of Spišská Nová Ves and a bus from there. The train ticket to Spišská Nová Ves cost us a mere €1.50 each and the journey took around half an hour. Spišská Nová Ves is supposed to be a pretty town to visit in its own right, but we didn't have time to explore because we were on a mission to find the bus station, on time for our bus at 11.40. Luckily the bus station isn't too far from the train station so that part of the journey didn't take long. What did take a while was trying to locate the correct bus stop within the bus station! There were about twenty different bus stops, all with different timetables plastered on them and little signs indicating the destinations they served. We walked round about half of them, peering at the signs, until we discovered the stop for Spišské Podhradie was the one that had a queue of people at it. I guess we should have tried that one first! The bus arrived promptly and the fare turned out to be a mere €1.70 each. Spišské Podhradie was the terminus station, so we were able to relax and not worry about keeping track of where we were. The bus driver drove at a tremendous speed down winding country roads, stopping every now and again to let a couple of people on and off in tiny villages. It was around 12.20 when we eventually arrived in the main square of Spišské Podhradie. Spišské Podhradie might not seem like a very catchy name, but "pod" means "under" and "hrad" means "castle", while Spiš is the historical name for the region. The Spiš towns were originally part of the Kingdom of Hungary, then pawned to Poland by one of the Hungarian kings in 1412 to finance a war against Venice. The Hungarians struggled to repay the debt, with the result that the area belonged to Poland for 360 years, until it was annexed by Austria in 1772 and finally became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918. As we walked across the main square we got our first glimpse of Spiš castle and it was clear why the village had got its name. The castle looked fantastic. It also looked quite a long way away! Reports I'd read had been conflicting about how long it would take to walk from the village to the castle. The guidebook said 45 minutes, some websites suggested an hour, something I read on Tripadvisor sounded like it had taken some people several hours to get up. I needn't have been worried that it wouldn't have been obvious which direction to walk in, in any case. We started the uphill trek, soon leaving the village far behind us. The path was quite steep but it was worth it for the views we had as we got nearer to the castle. There were also some lovely views of the surrounding countryside as we got higher. It costs €6 to get in to the castle which is more than we paid earlier in the week in Trenčín, but this castle is definitely more impressive. The castle was originally built in 12th century and was owned by the kings of Hungary for some time. It burned down in unknown circumstances in 1780 and has remained a ruin every since. Of course, there has been some restoration work done to make sure that the walls aren't about to fall down and to create paths for the tourists to walk on. You do have to be careful in some places though because the stones used for the paths are quite shiny and would definitely be slippery on a rainy day. We explored the upper part of the castle first and had some fantastic views back down to the lower walls. The higher you got the more you could appreciate the enormous scale of the castle. It's possible to climb the tower, which you can make out in the centre of the castle here. We decided to give it a go, although I'm not sure I would have done if I'd seen the staircases in advance! As you can see from the photos (taken on the way down) they were extremely narrow. Luckily each staircase is relatively short and so people were waiting at the bottom for others to come down before making their own way to the top, meaning that at least no one was trying to pass anyone on the stairs. The views from the top were definitely worth it though; both of the castle... ...and of the countryside. Having made it down in one piece, it was time to explore the lower walls of the castle. You can walk around a lot of the walls... ...which gives you some great views back up towards the castle. After a couple of hours of walking around it was time to head back down... ...periodically turning round, of course, for more castle views Ahead of us we could now see not only the village of Spišské Podhradie which we had come from this morning, but also the little village of Spišská Kapitula (slightly higher on the hill with the two spires). We had some spare time before our bus home, so we decided to walk towards it. Spišská Kapitula is a tiny medieval village. The village is centred around the cathedral of St Martin, which is the head of the diocese of Spiš. The guidebook had said that Spišská Kapitula was only a ten minute walk away from Spišské Podhradie. This is true, but what it had neglected to mention was that it was 10 minutes uphill, and uphill wasn't what we particularly felt like doing after our climb to the castle! The bonus though was that we did have some more great views of the castle from the main street. We headed back to the main village square to try and catch a bus back to Poprad. The directions I'd written down from the internet suggested that there was going to be one at 15.45, but a bus (that wasn't mentioned on any of the timetables!) turned up at 15.30 with a "Poprad" sign on the front so we decided to jump onto that instead. The tickets cost us €2.50, but this one took us all the way back to the main bus station in Poprad without having travel via Spišská Nová Ves. Perhaps there are more buses in this part of the world than the internet lets on! It was a dry evening when we got back to Poprad so we decided to have another stroll around the town centre. It looked better when it wasn't quite so wet We stopped for refreshments, but Tim wasn't terribly happy with the size of the head on his beer Before we went back to the apartment, we wanted to see another "Spiš" town - Spišská Sobota. Spišská Sobota is technically a suburb of Poprad, but it used to be a medieval town in its own right. If the guidebook hadn't mentioned it then there would be no way of knowing that it exists, because there are zero signs pointing to it from the centre of Poprad. It's only a ten or fifteen minute walk though once you figure out which direction it is, and there are some really beautiful buildings. These ones looked like they might be the oldest. The most impressive building is the church of St George. Particularly the bell tower, which looks like it might be more at home in Italy rather than the middle of Slovakia. The entire village was really pretty and definitely worth a visit. We headed back to the apartment after that and in search of some food. We've had a brilliant day today and Spiš castle is absolutely stunning. I have a feeling that this won't be the last holiday we plan to Slovakia
  6. The weather forecast last night had promised that today was going to be a mixture of sunshine and clouds. We stepped out of the apartment this morning to find that it was definitely a lot drier than yesterday evening, but the clouds were very, very thick and there wasn't the slightest hint of sunshine. We decided we'd better make the most of the dryness at least, and so decided to go ahead with our plan to ride on the Tatra Electric Railway. The Tatra Electric Railway is an electrified narrow-gauge railway which runs from Poprad up to some of the villages in the Tatra mountains. The first part of the line was built in 1896, with subsequent parts being completed by 1912. Little red trains continue to run on the route today, taking hikers and tourists up into the mountains. On days which aren't as cloudy as today, there are supposed to be some amazing views. And even on a cloudy day you can't complain, because the tickets are really really cheap We started our journey in the main train station in Poprad, which has an elevation of 670m. The Tatra trains leave from a slightly different part of the station to the regular trains and you have to buy the tickets in special machines which only take Euro coins. As with the normal trains, the price you pay is based on the number of kilometres you are going to travel. A ticket to our first destination of Starý Smokovec cost us €1.50 each. The journey to Starý Smokovec at 1,010m took around half an hour. The train started out at quite a fast pace as we pulled out of Poprad, before becoming slower and slower as the track became steeper. We were definitely getting closer to the clouds, but when we got off the train in Starý Smokovec around 10am it was still just about not raining. The first building you see when you get off the train is this very grand hotel. The village has been a popular resort since the nineteenth century. The guidebook had said that the church here was worth seeing, and it did indeed seem to be a very pretty building. From beside it we just about had a view back down to Poprad. There were quite a few interesting buildings in the village. This one appeared to be the town hall. And this one was called Švajčiarsky Dom (Swiss House). It did look rather Swiss From Starý Smokovec the Tatra railway splits off into two directions. We were continuing our journey towards Štrbské Pleso, but I had read last night on the Slovak Railways website that part of the track on this route was damaged and we would have to switch to a replacement bus service at some point. The train arrived at the appointed time saying that it was heading for Štrbské Pleso though, so we jumped aboard and thought possibly I had got it wrong. We had to buy a separate ticket for this part of the journey, but it only cost us €2. The train continued to climb until it got to a small station called Tatranská Polianka. This was where I had read that the track was damaged, but there were no announcements and none of the other passengers seemed to be moving, so we stayed sitting on the train. It didn't make any signs that it was going to depart though, and after a minute or so someone must have said something because suddenly everyone started piling off the train and dashing round the corner of the station to where there was a sign about the replacement bus service. A bus arrived after a few minutes and we (just about!) managed to squeeze our way onto it. We were on the bus for about 15 minutes until we got to a small station called Vyšné Hágy. The track was fine again after this point, so we waited for a few minutes and then transferred onto another little train which would take us to Štrbské Pleso, at 1,350m. The architecture in Štrbské Pleso isn't quite as pretty as in Starý Smokovec (there are some bigger, more Communist-style hotels and restaurants) but the attraction of the village is that it is near a lake which is supposed to be one of the prettiest in Slovakia. Unfortunately when we stepped off the train it was clear that we were well and truly in the clouds now, and they seemed to be increasingly damp clouds! We decided to hope for the best and walk around the lake anyway. It was really beautiful there, even though we couldn't see any of the mountains behind it. At times we could see little misty clouds blowing over the lake. Until eventually it got very misty indeed! It seemed like it might start raining in earnest at this point so we headed back to the village in search of some lunch. We accidentally stopped at what was quite a posh hotel, enticed by the fact that its menu was translated into English. Almost everyone else we encountered were Slovaks though and the prices were still cheap by UK standards. Tim tried the soup of the day (goulash soup!) and then we both had bryndzové halušky, which is the national dish of Slovakia. Halušky are small potato dumplings (a bit like gnocchi). They served in a sauce made from sheep's cheese (but it tastes fine, so long as you don't think about the fact that it is sheep's cheese) and sprinkled with bacon. The overall effect is a bit like a macaroni cheese. For desert we had a pancake filled with ice-cream (and rather oddly served with some flower petals on the plate!). By the time we had finished lunch it hadn't exactly brightened up but it had definitely decided not to rain, so we decided to walk another circuit of the lake. We also saw a sign to a place called Jazierka lásky (the lakes of love) so we decided to investigate those as well. We have no idea where the name comes from, but they were two very pretty little lakes not far outside the village. The tickets we had bought earlier in the day entitled us to travel from Štrbské Pleso on to Štrba, back down at 850m. This wasn't on one of the electric trains but on something more like a funicular; the track was very steep! Once we had got to Štrba we had left the clouds behind and were able to transfer onto a normal train back to Poprad, for an extra €1.20 each We had a fun day and the places we visited were beautiful, even with the clouds, but it would be lovely to come back some time and actually see the views
  7. Clare

    Day 3: Trenčín

    Our destination for today was the city of Trenčín, approximately 120km northeast of Bratislava. Trenčín was a place I had never heard of before I started reading the Bradt guidebook to Slovakia, but once I read about it I knew I wanted to visit, because it is home to one of the largest castles in Slovakia. The train journey from Bratislava takes around 90 minutes and so it was mid-morning when we stepped off the train in Trenčín station. I had suggested we carried the guidebook with us so that we could make use of the map of Trenčín when trying to locate the castle, but it soon became clear that the map was going to be extremely unnecessary, because this is what we saw from the station platform. Wow, that definitely is a big castle! It also looked like an extremely high castle, so we decided to warm up by exploring the lower part of the town of Trenčín before we tackled the ascent. Trenčín is one of the ten largest cities in Slovakia, but it's actually not quite as big as Nuneaton, so the town centre is compact and has a pleasant feel. We walked through the city gate and found a cafe which was advertising iced frappés for the amazingly low price €0.90. It seemed like too good an offer to pass by so we decided to give them a go. They turned out to be quite different to frappés in England (very foamy and not very sweet) but it was a hot day and nice to have a cold drink. We walked into the main town square. It had a rather bizarre fountain which seemed to be providing endless amusement for the children of Trenčín. At the far end of the square, this unusual building turned out to be a synagogue. The main church in the centre of the town was unfortunately in the process of being renovated, and so completely covered in scaffolding. We did, however, see this pretty yellow church set on a hill above the town. We contemplated climbing up some steps to it but in the end decided to save our energy for the main climb up to the castle! The path to the castle was quite steep in places, but we were soon within the lower walls. As we got higher we began to be rewarded with views out across the Slovakian countryside. Finally we were there! We only paid €3 to enter the castle grounds. You can pay more to go inside the buildings, but this is only possible on a guided tours and the guided tours are in Slovak, so that didn't seem like the best idea. There has been a castle at Trenčín since Roman times, though the origins of the current castle date back to the 11th century. As we walked around the fortifications we had some brilliant views back down to the town. The synagogue in particular was easily recognisable. In the distance we could also see the surprisingly large river Váh. And we realised we were now significantly higher than the church we had decided not to climb up to earlier. As we followed one of the paths along the walls we were surprised to come across a display of birds of prey. Some of them looked rather mean. Though some of them looked quite cute (if you ignored the claws!). Once we had finished exploring, we started making our way back down again towards the town. We had some fantastic views of the castle on the way down... ...and the path was definitely a lot easier going down rather than up! On the way down we finally found the yellow church... ...from where there was also a great view back up to the castle. Once back in the town, we found a nice Italian restaurant for a late lunch. I had a spaghetti bolognaise, Tim had a caesar salad, and between us we had a couple of glasses of wine and a beer. When the bill came we were amazed to see it was only €15! Slovakia seems to be even cheaper once you get outside of Bratislava. Trenčín is a really pretty place with a very impressive castle, and we definitely succeeded in getting off the beaten track today, away from any other English tourists Tomorrow we will be leaving Bratislava behind and making the long train journey to Poprad, where we will be spending the rest of our holiday.
  8. 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
  9. We woke up about 7am on Wednesday morning and found ourselves in a bright sunny morning in Lviv. It looked like an interesting city, from the train window at least, with tall church spires and imposing buildings. It seemed less scary and Ukrainian than Chop had done in the early hours of the morning. The rest of Ukraine which we passed through for the remainder of the day was rather flat and uneventful. We didn’t go past many settlements, and the most human habitation we saw were little farmsteads. People seemed to go in for white ducks and geese in a big way, which was nice. There were a few beautiful fields of sunflowers, but otherwise there just seemed to be an awful lot of grass which no one was doing anything very useful with. For hours at a time, the view would be blocked by tall avenues of trees so that we stood no chance of seeing where we actually were. I read in the guide book later than this was partially a deliberate tactic on the part of the USSR, who had wanted to hide anything of potential military importance from train passengers. I am sure that the distance between Lviv and Kiev is substantial, but I am equally sure that the train could have got there sooner if it had gone just a little bit faster. Whenever we passed a road, we were being lapped by even the oldest, most Soviet-looking of vehicles. I don’t know why the train had to go at such a creeping pace, perhaps because the tracks are so old. We were due in to Kiev at 20.02 and about 18.30 I was starting to feel like I’d been on the train for long enough now and would be glad to stretch my legs. Somewhat to my surprise, the conductor suddenly knocked on the door and demanded the bed linen back. I had, admittedly, known he was going to do that, but it seemed a little early when there was still an hour and a half to go…. And then it hit me. Ukraine is an hour ahead of Slovakia and we had forgotten to set our watches forward! There followed a mad scramble during which we frantically repacked our cases and tried to assemble everything into a manageable order for the rest of the journey. We hadn’t drunk all of the water we’d brought, but managed to stuff the remainder into our suitcases. In a way I was glad that we were in a rush because it gave me less time to worry about what was going to happen next. I had been corresponding with one of the congress organisers in advance, you see, and he had told me that it would be too difficult for us to travel from the railway station to the congress venue on our own. He promised that, if I told him the time of the train, someone would come to meet us and show us what to do. It sounded like a good idea and I duly communicated to him the time of our train… but I never heard anything back. So while I was hopeful that we would get off the train and walk right into the smiling face of an Esperantist, I wasn’t 100% convinced that this would actually happen. And I didn’t know what we were going to do if it didn’t. Happily, it turned out to be another instance when I needn’t have worried. Within a couple of minutes of disembarking, we found ourselves being greeted by Oksana, a Ukrainian girl holding a sign saying “Esperanto”. Phew! She and her friend Sergej, who turned out to be two of the nicest people we met all week, not only guided us on the rest of our journey but paid for our tickets when we didn’t have any Ukrainian money and helped me carry my (very heavy) bag. And what a journey it was! It was a tiring, confusing blur of new impressions. We emerged out of the main station into a bustling square and, amusingly, the first thing we saw was McDonalds. We dived down again into a metro station where the crush of people made it feel like the London Underground on speed, and squeezed into a tube for a journey of one stop to Universitet. Traveling up some horrifically long escalators, we emerged into the open air once more and had our first experience of a little yellow marshrutka bus, which bumped and swerved its way across the suburbs of Kiev. In total, it probably took us 90 minutes to travel the 10km to the kongresejo. What awaited us when we arrived there is almost indescribable. First impressions were, admittedly, quite good. We approached a large building, with an attractive banner outside welcoming us to the congress. As we were arriving to the congress a day early, there was no akceptejo set up for us to register, but that seemed fair enough. Instead we were met by a smiling guy called Andrej who greeted us with “Saluton, mi estas komencanto. Do you speak English?” As a result of a truly bizarre decision by the organising team, a volunteer with a limited ability to speak Esperanto had been put in sole charge of the complex business of allocating Esperantists to rooms. We were perfectly happy to communicate with him in English, but participants of other nationalities were obviously less impressed, given that they thought they were attending an Esperanto congress. Strictly speaking, participants had the option to stay in either a four-person or a five-person room for the duration of the congress. The majority of people were expecting to stay in four-person rooms, the five-person variety being a variation which had been introduced as an option relatively lately. Being slightly antisocial and not wanting to share with other people for an entire week, I had negotiated with one of the congress organisers in advance that Tim and I would pay extra in order to have a four-person room to ourselves. I was lucky that Andrej was nice enough to take us on trust when we explained this, and proceeded to sign us into a four-person room. The procedure took somewhat longer than you might expect, mainly due to the fact that he had to translate our names and hometowns into the Cyrillic alphabet for the elderly ladies behind the reception desk. Eventually we were presented with a bundle of rather scratchy bed linen and led to the room that was to be our home from home for the next seven nights. Upon opening the door, we were greeted by something not entirely unlike a prison cell. There were three bare walls, with the majority of the fourth being taken up by a large glass window, inadequately covered by a light net curtain. As we were to discover in subsequent days, the light began to pour into the room before 5am and with temperatures of up to 40 degrees outside, by breakfast the room would already be swelteringly hot. It was possible to open the windows, but we soon learned that it wasn't particularly desirable to do so due to the prevalence of mosquitoes outside. Inside the room were four rather hard beds, a pile of itchy woollen blankets, one chair, a rickety desk and two small bedside cabinets. Sharing the space between two people was just about possible; sharing it between four would have been horrific. Upon arrival I had two main objectives; firstly, to find a powerpoint to charge my phone which had unexpectedly died during the journey from Bratislava, and secondly to locate the bathrooms. The first objective seemed like the easiest to achieve, so I began looking around the room for a socket. I looked and looked and looked. Under the beds, behind the beds, behind the desk and cupboards. I was starting to think I must be going mad when there was a knock at our door and a German friend enquired whether she could use one of the sockets in our room, as she hadn't been able to find any in her own. It wasn't just me then! It later became clear than not a single bedroom in the building was equipped with electric sockets, and I was unable to charge my phone until we returned to Bratislava over a week later. Decidedly unimpressed, I set off to find the bathrooms. Turning left from our bedroom along the corridor I soon came across a room which seemed promising, but there was no sign on the door (in any language) to indicate whether it was supposed to be male or female. Further exploration at the other end of the corridor revealed another bathroom, again with no visible sign. We asked a girl who appeared to be one of the organisers which was which in case there was some sort of Ukrainian system of which we were unaware, but she merely shrugged and asked "Ĉu gravas?" ("Does it matter?") in a tone of voice which suggested this was the most incredibly bourgeois question she had ever had the misfortune to be asked. In the end I gave up and used the first bathroom which I had found. It was quite an experience. First you entered a large room which was kitted out with a row of washbasins but no mirrors, which made applying suncream later in the week rather difficult. This led onto a shower room, which did not feature anything that would be recognised as a shower in the UK. For a start there were no cubicles, and secondly there were no shower fittings, so that essentially there was just a wall with four hosepipes jutting out of it. I got a nasty shock - quite literally- when I turned one of these "showers" on and discovered that there was no hot water. I had admittedly read in my Ukrainian guidebook before setting out that there could be difficulties obtaining warm water in Ukraine during the summer, but organisers of the congress had publicly reassured participants that this would not be the case during the IJK in an internet forum only a few weeks previously. Hmm. As for the toilets... well, there were four cubicles of which one had a functioning light bulb and (a different) one had a locking door. All of them were the Turkish-style toilets which are prevalent throughout Ukraine. For those of us not accustomed to using them, they were rather a struggle. Somewhat disillusioned by our first experience of Kiev, we decided to have an early night and hope that things would seem better in the morning.
  10. 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.
  11. 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
  12. 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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