Archive for June, 2011

Sofia

Making a daily commute by train in England isn’t much fun. The trains are regularly late and you will often not get a seat. However, after my experience of the Serbian train network I don’t think I’ll be making any complaints about National Rail for quite some time.

Between Belgrade and Sofia there is only one train which runs during the day. It claims to leave at 7:50am which meant that Chris and I had a early start in order to get to the station in time. Turns out that we needn’t have bothered getting up so early because the train did not leave Belgrade until 9:30am. Given that Belgrade was the trains first port of call I would be genuinely interested to know what caused such a delay. Worse still, there were not enough seats on the train which meant standing up for the first three hours. You really do question the point of your existence when you’re on a train which insists on trundling around at 30mph passing through dilapidated looking Serbian villages and stopping at regular intervals for no apparent reason. One Macedonian guy on the train had obviously done the journey several times before and had decided that getting drunk was the best way to alleviate the boredom. He spoke very little English so the brief conversation that I had with him basically consisted of us saying names of footballers and football teams at each other. That really is all the conversation you need though.

Most of the Serbs on the train were getting off in Serbia rather than travelling all the way to Sofia so Chris and I did eventually get ourselves a seat. For the rest of the journey we shared a cabin with two fellow Brits, both in their 80s. Veteran travellers still living the dream.

It was past 10pm when we arrived in Sofia and began the walk to Hostel Mostel. After being given a map of the city and a key to the room we headed out to one of Sofia’s 24 hour restaurants. The service left something to be desired and the food was pretty average, but by that time our stomachs were starting to digest themselves so we couldn’t complain too much.

Most of Sofia’s main attractions can be seen within a day so that is exactly what we did. Walking around the city we passed by the Communist Party HQ. It’s a fairly imposing building and like a lot of Socialist architecture is not particularly attractive. Near the HQ was a small park which contained a sculpture of a massive head. Unfortunately I can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet so I’ve got no idea who it is meant to represent.

Make up your own caption for this one.


Sofia’s main attraction is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which was built between 1882 and 1912. Most of the Cathedrals which we have visited in Europe have been ruined by scaffolding, this one however is ruined by the presence of a massive car park. I’ve no idea why the Bulgarian authorities thought that would be a good idea.

One of Sofia's fine car parks with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the background.


Also worth a look is the Monument to Soviet Soldiers located next to a large park. On top of a large column in a Soviet soldier raising a machine gun above his head. Standing to either side of him are a Bulgarian man and woman. Unfortunately I know nothing of Bulgaria’s involvement in World War II so I’m not entirely sure what the monument represents.

For lunch we stopped at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant called Pri Yafata. Here I tried the tripe soup which was actually extremely nice. You’d never get people in England eating tripe soup. Perhaps its got something to do with the name. Perhaps they should rebrand. For the main course I settled on chicken stuffed with so kind of plant. Not really sure what it was but it tasted really good and that’s all the really matters. Chris decided to go for something called “Wolfs Appetiser”. Perhaps the word “appetiser” does not translate properly to Bulgarian because what turned up was a huge mixed grill. Another cause of much amusement was the “cured ham” which was listed under the vegetarian dishes. Maybe “vegetarian” doesn’t translate either.

Another day we made a visit to the Rila Monastery which is about a two hour drive from Sofia. This was all arranged through the hostel and we were driven (along with two other travellers from New Zealand) to the Monastery by a guy called Ivan. The Bulgarian driving style is a little erratic. Cars seem to weave between lanes almost at random and the white line down the middle of the road serves merely as a guide rather than something you should obey at all costs. Anyway, we managed to get there are back still in one piece.

Before going to the main Monastery we visited the Cave of Saint John. Here he spent most of his life living in isolation, praying and doing various other religious things. Even in the harsh winters he still continued to live in the cave. Perhaps he was trying to prove a point. Sounds stubborn to me. You can still crawl around the cave where Saint John lived. In places it was a bit of a tight squeeze but we emerged from the cave unscathed. Rumour has it that once you’ve survived a Bulgarian car journey and crawled through the cave you can survive anything.

After another brief stint in the car we made it to the main attraction, the Rila Monastery. Dating back to the 10th Century it is a hugely impressive looking construction. When it comes to religious buildings the Orthodox Christians have got things spot on.

The Rila Monastery


The main church is covered in extremely intricate frescoes. Hundreds of hours of work that you just don’t see on Church of England buildings. Devils and Demons are depicted. Each picture tells a story. Good versus evil.

After three hours or so we got back in the car and headed for Sofia. Next stop on our European tour would be Dubrovnik, although getting there would prove to be an experience in itself, and not one that I am keen to repeat any time soon.

26/06/2011 at 6:35 pm 2 comments

Belgrade

Here’s a fun free Serbia fact for you all. Since it became a permanent settlement in the 520s Belgrade has been involved in 115 wars and razed to the ground 44 times. There must be something good about the place if the Serbs have been so keen to keep rebuilding it. Either that or they are just very industrious.

Its precarious position in the world has meant that Serbia has frequently passed between Austrian and Turkish rule. The old East-West divide rearing its ugly head once again. It wasn’t until the end of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires that things settled down (for a little while at least) and Yugoslavia was formed with Belgrade as the capital. There is then the little matter of an incident that happened in the 1990s, but we don’t like to talk about that.

On the train Chris and I got talking to three Swedish lads who were travelling around the Balkans. We discussed our travel plans and football for much of the journey. It turns out that the Swedish football league isn’t up to much and consequently everyone in Sweden supports either Manchester United or Chelsea. Wherever you go in Europe you can always rely on people sharing a passion for football. Even if you don’t speak the same language, everyone knows the language of football.

The journey through the Serbian countryside was pretty uninspiring. Just lots of flat open boring fields broken up by the occasional dilapidated looking village.

This was the first time on the trip that I really noticed how bad the railways are. The train trundled along at a snails pace meaning that the train was late getting into Belgrade. Apparently crappy infrastructure isn’t taken into account when they do the train timetable. It was about 11pm by the time we checked in at the hostel, so after being given a map and advised of some things to see and do we headed to bed.

In the morning we headed to the Cathedral of Saint Sava. Depending on who you talk to it is either this biggest Cathedral in the Balkans, Eastern Europe or the whole of Europe. Regardless it is an amazing structure and one of Belgrade’s stand out features. In the park surrounding the Cathedral can be seen a monument to Karađorđe Petrović who led the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

Karađorđe Petrović with the Cathedral of Saint Sava in the background.


Afterwards we took a walk through the city, passing buy Dom Narodne Skupštine, which is the name of the Serbian Parliament building where 250 elected officials hold office. We eventually ended up in Skadarlija which is Belgrade’s Bohemian Quarter. Away from the noise of traffic it is a much more traditional looking part of the city with cobbled streets and buildings dating back to the 19th century. We stopped at a restaurant and both order a traditional Serbian dish called Karađorđeva šnicla which consisted of rolled fried bread stuffed with pork and cheese. It is every bit as delicious as it sounds. Following the huge meal a long sit down was required.

Eventually we got moving again and headed for Kalemegdan (Belgrade Fortress) which is located on a hill overlooking the confluence of the River Sava and River Danube.

The "confluence" of the Rivers Sava and Danube. That B grade GCSE Geography sure is coming in handy.


The fortress dates back to the 500s AD. Much of the walls and towers are original features. Within the walls are a park, a number of monuments and the military museum. Following a good walk around and taking far too many photographs water began to fall out of the sky so Chris and I made a dash for the military museum. It only cost £1 each to get in and if you get the chance is certainly worth a visit. The exhibit showcases hundreds of authentic weapons and outlines the violent history of the region. You start with the Roman period, go through the middle ages and finally end up in the First and Second World Wars. Once you get to the 1990s the exhibition mysteriously ends. Perhaps this was a quiet point for Serbian history?

In the evening we ate at a restaurant called simply “?”. Apparently it used to be called “Cathedral Tavern” but the owner got into a dispute with the religious folk at the church over the road. On the menu were lots of traditional Serbian dishes as well as some slightly stranger dishes like calves head and bulls “glands”. I’m all for trying new cuisine but I don’t like the idea of my food looking at me.

19/06/2011 at 1:21 pm 2 comments

Budapest

First impressions of Budapest – wow, what a shit hole. The train station is situated in a particularly uninspiring part of the city. Most of the buildings (the train station included) looked like they could fall down, or were ready to be pulled down at any minute.

The walk to the hostel wasn’t too bad though and the look of the city continued to improve along the way. We had arranged to meet one of the hostel staff at the reception and from there we would be shown the room in which we were staying.

I wasn’t expecting much of the accommodation, so it was a pleasant surprise when the hostel actually turned out to be an apartment. We even had our own balcony which provided a great view of Szent István-bazilika (Saint Stephens Basilica).

In the evening we headed to a restaurant called Klasse. Yet another recommendation by the Lonely Planet guide book. Upon arrival we were presented with a slightly overwhelming wine menu. I don’t know anything about wine anyway, least of all Hungarian wine, so I played it safe and ordered a beer instead. Everyone else in the restaurant was drinking wine, so the waitress looked slightly surprised by our choice of beverage. To eat I ordered myself a “Pike-Perch”, which I though sounded a little strange as Pike and Perch are two completely different species of fish. I later discovered that it was actually a Zander. It would have been so much easier if they had just said that in the first place. Anyway, the food was fantastic and cost us practically nothing. We left the restaurant and returned to the apartment for the evening.

Budapest is a city divided into two parts by the River Danube. On the one side you have the hills of Buda and on the other the open plain of Pest. Our apartment was located in Pest so on the second day we made the walk across the Danube and into Buda. Here we paid a visit to Budavári Palota (Buda Castle), which is perhaps the most impressive looking castle we have visited so far. Like so many other European castles it has been destroyed and rebuilt at various points in its history. Within the castle walls are various attractions including the Royal Palace, a history museum, an art gallery and a number of churches which were of course covered in scaffolding.

After walking down from the castle we took a walk along the Danube. On the opposite side of the river we could see the Hungarian Parliament which looks very similar to the Westminster Parliament.

The Hungarian Parliament. Looks familiar, eh?

In the evening we ate at a place called Menza. The two of us decided to order some wine as the beer in Budapest didn’t seem to be up to much. Once again the wine menu was huge so I just picked something that sounded reasonable. When the wine arrived I checked the back of the bottle and found that it was “best served with dessert”. Oh well, live and learn.

Waking up the next morning Chris and I treated ourselves to bacon sandwiches. For some reason bacon is very hard to come by in Hungary. Those guys don’t know what their missing out on. Having filled our stomachs we made the walk up to Hősök tere (Heroes Square). As the name suggests the monument depicts various Kings and heroes from Hungarian history. Behind the square is the uninspiring looking City Gardens. In the gardens was a lake containing some impressively stupid looking modern art. This included a shed which looked like it was sinking and four cars which had been welded together. Quite what message this was trying to convey I will never know. On our walk back to the apartment we were caught out by a sudden and very heavy hail storm. This was very strange as the temperature during the day had been around 28°C. Most other people were sensibly sheltering in shop doorways but Chris and I decided to brave the elements. After all we’re British and used to crappy weather. By the time we got to the apartment we were soaked through to the skin and spent the next few hours drying off and planning some more of the trip. At the time of writing we are booked up until Venice.

For me Budapest just got better and better. It is a city like no other we have visited both in its beauty and architectural style. My one complaint about Hungary is the currency. One British pound is equal to 299 Hungarian Forint, meaning that a meal can cost you anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000. Surely it would be sensible to just devalue the currency? Even the guy who showed us to the apartment acknowledged that it was a serious problem. Rant over.

13/06/2011 at 7:14 pm Leave a comment

Bratislava

Crippling hangover. Too much “Vienna Blood” the night before. Have to get a train to Bratislava. No time for breakfast and couldn’t face the thought of food anyway.

Fortunately it is only a short train journey from Vienna to Bratislava and I managed to avoid being sick everywhere. Always a bonus.

We arrive in Bratislava when the sun is at its hottest and make the walk to the hostel. The hangover shows no signs of easing and the heat isn’t doing anything to help matters. Most of the afternoon is spent sleeping as neither of us really feel like doing anything.

Fortunately Bratislava is a pretty small city and you can see all the main sights in a day. Following a pretty average breakfast consisting of bread, jam and some brown water the two of us took a stroll to Bratislavský hrad (Bratislava Castle) which sits on a hill overlooking the River Danube. The castle dates back to the 9th century and during its lifetime has been subjected to various conversions and reconstructions. Most notably, in 1811 the castle was completely destroyed by a fire accidently started by troops garrisoned there. Idiots. The building remained a ruin until 1957 when the restoration finally began. Evidently the restoration is still not complete as there was still plenty of scaffolding in place when Chris and I visited. Not a lot of actual work seemed to happening though. The workers are probably all sat in cafés drinking coffee.

Anyway, it’s an excellent reconstruction and you get some great views over the rest of the city. The castle sits in the traditional looking Old Town. Across the other side of the Danube is the more Soviet looking part of the city. Essentially lots of identical looking apartment and office blocks. The uniform look is not particularly inspiring. The two sides of the city are connected via a number of bridges including Nový Most, which translates as “New Bridge”. How imaginative. On top of the bridge is the so called “UFO restaurant”, possibly because it looks like a UFO.

In the afternoon we took a walk through the very pleasant looking Old Town. It has a small main square with a handful of restaurants and bars around the edge. Chris and I decided to stop one such eatery for a well deserved bagel and coffee. I got that impression that this was not a traditional Slovak thing to do as the menu was only in English. After a further short walk the two of us decided to go all healthy and eat some fruit. We found a Tesco of all things and bought some corporate fruit. Tesco gets everywhere these days, it’s only a matter of time before they have their own private army and take over the whole.

In the evening we ate at a restaurant called Prašná Bašta located in the Old Town. Once again I feasted on a salmon related dish and 500ml of Erdinger Black beer. There is definitely a pattern emerging here.

Next stop on the tour, Budapest.

08/06/2011 at 5:47 pm 2 comments

Vienna

Woke up. Got dressed. Walked to the train station. Boarded the train. Same shit different day.

It was already the evening when we arrived at the Happy Hostel, so after dumping our stuff in the room we headed to a place called Gasthaus Franceschi which had been recommended by the hostel staff. It was a nice little pub run by an friendly (albeit slightly drunk) American called Gary. He talked to us about our travels and how he was planning a trip to the UK in the coming months. He also professed to us his love of snooker (which he insisted on pronouncing “snucker”).

It’s surprising how tired you can feel after a whole day of sitting on a train not really doing anything, so after the meal we headed back to the hostel and went to bed.

As usual we got up late in the morning and headed back to the gasthaus for a classic meat and cheese breakfast. At the hostel in Krakow there had been no option for breakfast in the morning, so it was good to have something prepared for us rather than having to worry about where the nearest supermarket or kebab shop was.

Afterwards we headed down Vienna’s main shopping high streets towards the city centre. We passed through the Museumsquartier and on towards Hofburg Palace which is where the Habsburgs used to hang out. The Lonely Planet guide had also recommended that we take a look at Saint Stephens Cathedral which is probably an architectural masterpiece, but unfortunately some wise guy had decided that a load of scaffolding would greatly improve its look. Either that or it just isn’t finished yet. This has been a constant problem/theme throughout Europe. We get to a place only to find that it has been turned into a construction site. I’m sure the same problems probably exist in England and I just haven’t noticed.

We crossed a bridge going over the Danube expecting to find plenty of bars and cafés, but unfortunately the whole place is very poorly utilised. At this point the Viennese should take note: when you’ve got a river like that take advantage of it. Cover the whole place in bars, cafés and restaurants. The tourists will love it. Unfortunately I expect that my cries will go unanswered.

We’d read somewhere (possibly on the internet) that the Viennese are very keen on their coffee, although this does seem to apply to most of Europe. Once again Lonely Planet came up trumps in recommending Kleines Café. It was full of locals as well which is always a good sign.

In the afternoon we headed to a corporate supermarket and purchased some corporate fruit before heading to the very public Sigmund Freud Park. The park is fairly small and at one end sits the Votivkirche (Votive Church), although this too had been ruined by scaffolding and advertising boardings. The Roman Catholic church certainly is selling out hard these days.

On the way back to the hostel we popped into an independent record store and had a good peruse of the shelves. I used to think that I had a reasonable knowledge of the music scene, but it soon transpired that I know little or nothing about the subject. About 90% of the CDs in the shop were by artists that I had never heard of.

In the evening, following much aimless walking around, we eventually found somewhere to have dinner. Chris and I settled down to some fine Austrian cuisine accompanied by some Schneider Weisse wheat beer.

The previous evening our American friend Gary had advised that we check out the nearby Travellers Shack. As the name suggests this is where a lot of travellers go. We arrived to find the place almost completely empty but the barman informed us that things in Vienna don’t really get going until 11pm. Because we had to get up early in the morning to catch a train Chris and I had originally intended to just have a “few” beers. However this plan went out of the window when the barman pulled out a bottle of something called “Vienna Blood”, which is a delicious chili based liqueur.

The bar steadily filled up throughout the evening and we found ourselves playing cards, table football and pool with our fellow travellers. The alcohol flowed steadily and several more shots were consumed (some of which were a little bit on fire). My pool skills went from bad to worse to non-existent and I eventually decided to call it a night. Fortunately I remembered where the hostel was and stumbled up the stairs and rolled into bed.

I awoke the next day to find my face covered in paint. Sign of a good night.

06/06/2011 at 10:50 pm 2 comments

Auschwitz

For ever let this place be
a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity
Where the Nazis Murdered
about one and a half
million
men, women and children,
mainly Jews
from various countries
of Europe.

(Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial inscription)

03/06/2011 at 9:30 pm Leave a comment

Krakow

Following the concrete blocks of Warsaw, Krakow presented us with a nice change of scene. Although the Nazis did occupy the city during World War II they didn’t blow it all up and as a result Krakow is quite an attractive looking place to visit.

Krakow’s main claim to fame is Rynek Główny (Main Market Square) which, at 40,000 m² is the biggest medieval town square in Europe. At the centre of the square is Sukiennice which is essentially an indoor market selling clothing, fabrics and “I ♥ Krakow” T-Shirts.

Wieża ratuszowa (Town Hall Tower), which dates back to the 13th Century is the oldest building in the square. Also of note is Kościół Mariacki (Saint Mary’s Basilica) and a statue to celebrate the works of the Polish romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz.

Around the edges of the square are many bars, cafés and restaurants. It was one of these restaurants where Chris and I went for our evening meal. Here we indulged in some fine cuisine, several glasses of beer and talked of philosophy (as you do). There seemed to be a direct correlation between consumption of beer and the quality and coherence of the conversation.

By the second day the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The clear blue skies had been replaced with dark clouds and rain. Chris and I decided to brave the elements and headed out in our rain coats. It is all but impossible to look in anyway “cool” whilst wearing a raincoat, especially if you already look like an obvious English tourist. Hoping that the weather might improve we headed to a corporate coffee shop, where we had some corporate lattes and corporate sandwiches. The sandwich looked like something you might find at the side of the motorway and tasted much the same (probably).

Once we’d finished our drinks we headed outside again to find that the weather had not improved. Feeling slightly narked we headed back the hostel where we did some planning for the rest of the trip.

By the evening the weather had improved slightly so we headed out to find food and somewhere to watch the Champions League Final. After a short search we were able to find a restaurant which was showing the match on a massive projector screen. The food was pretty good and was helped largely by the 1 litre jugs of beer which we were drinking from. Obviously this would never be allowed in England at the risk of people “having a good time”.

The football didn’t really go the way I wanted, but I was pretty drunk by the end of the game and didn’t mind so much. The result just confirmed my belief that Barcelona are far and away best team and the world and that everyone else (including Manchester United) have a lot of work to do if they are to catch them.

The next morning, feeling slightly worse for wear, we headed out in search of something to eat. We decided to go for the healthy option of a kebab, which turned out to be a pretty good choice and was ridiculously cheap. Afterwards we took a walk along the Vistula River towards Wawel Hill. Along the way we passed by a sculpture of a dragon which at first I thought looked pretty shitty, but managed to change my mind when it started breathing fire!

We made the climb up Wawel Hill to the Castle and Cathedral. From the top you get a good view of the city and the river down below.
Interestingly the Cathedral, which is of Gothic design, has two domes although only one of them is gold. Perhaps they were working to a tight budget?

In the evening we went to a traditional Polish restaurant called Chłopskie Jadło . Here we had one of the best meals of the trip so far. We both started with beetroot and potatoe soup, for the main course I had pork roulade with dumplings and Chris settled for beef wrapped in cabbage with rice. Had we known how large the portions were we probably wouldn’t have bothered with the starter. The food was fantastic but I regret to say that neither of us managed to finish the main course (a very rare occurrence for the both of us). The quality of Eastern European food has been a very pleasant surprise during this trip. Most meals consists of a combination of meat, cabbage, potatoes and dumplings, and although they don’t look particularly attractive they certainly do a good job of filling you up. It’s a cliché to say it but this is good hearty honest grub.

On the way back to the hostel we found large numbers of Wisła Kraków football fans to be roaming the streets. Despite seeing their team lose 2-nil the fans were all in high spirits. It was the last game of the season anyway and Wisła had already wrapped up the title a few weeks ago. One group of fans, who all looked to be in their late teens and early twenties were being followed by a couple of police cars. The mood of the group seemed to be very light hearted until one of the police cars pulled over, a cop jumped out (with truncheon in hand) and proceeded to bundle one of the fans into the back of the car. I took this to be a little heavy handed, but perhaps I am being naive and this was just some traditional Eastern European policing.

03/06/2011 at 6:21 pm Leave a comment

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