Category Archives: Europe

We saw warsaw

We saw Warsaw…

Well, not very much of it to be honest. We only stopped for one night in order to make sure we got the train to Moscow on time. In order to ensure we had seats and at a reasonable price we’d booked our Warsaw-Moscow tickets a couple of weeks earlier and had them sent to our Warsaw hostel.

We arrived at our hostel in the evening in high spirits. We’d had an easy day (only 4 hours on the train from Krakow) and were ready to go and have a couple of cheap beers and sample Warsaw’s renowned nightlife, both of us looking forward to our arrival in Moscow. Our bubble was abruptly burst when the receptionist at the hostel advised that no tickets had arrived for us. Shit. We were in a state of panic, as we had to enter Russia on the dates specified on the visa, or it can lead to problems. – Also the tickets to Moscow weren’t cheap.

So instead of going out for a good time, I hastily emailed the booking agent, hoping they would pick up the email first thing to check the tracking – whilst the hostel told us they would nip to the local post office in the morning to check it wasn’t there. Realising we hadn’t eaten almost all day, and not feeling like partying, we went to the only food shop nearby, a KFC, and drowned our sorrows in saturated fat. To make matters worse, Polish KFCs don’t do chicken gravy – Amy was almost inconsolable. After our KFC comedown, we sat weeping into our box of stale chicken carcasses, discussing all the worst possible outcomes of this terrific ball ache.

In the morning I managed to Skype the travel agent (Real Russia), and they had already been in the case and phoned up the hostel, and were trying to get to the bottom of it. – Full credit to Real Russia for doing this as if they had their proof of postage they could of just said sorry, it’s out of their hands. Anyway, cut a medium length, and slightly dull story sideways, it turns out some cretin from the hostel had signed for it, not made a note on our booking as is procedure, and filed the tickets neatly at the back of a draw of junk. Cheers.

So, after a completely unnecessary night of chicken fueled of anxiety. We were ready for our sleeper train to Moscow. We spent the day (and some of the previous evening) seeing what we could of Warsaw, which as it’s pretty massive, and we didn’t want to stray to far, wasn’t very much. It’s a big, busy, bold and brash city, but feels like there is a lot going on. Despite all the concrete and glass and massive ugly billboards, when your actually there it feels buzzing and definitely warrants some exploring. It’s reputed to be a thriving hub for students and the arts, which I can well believe, and is supposed to have a famously good nightlife (Which we didn’t get to sample this time). With its post industrial, post communist, ugliness and thriving atmosphere, to us Warsaw felt like it shared a few similarities with Berlin. We’ve previously spent a long weekend in Warsaw and can confirm that the old town, although tiny, is very pretty and well worth a gander.

This train was itself an experience. It was slightly different to our last sleeper, as there were 3 bunks on one wall, whilst the other wall has a wardrobe/luggage compartment. As we crossed the border to Belarus, we were first checked by the Polish border guards who looked like serious militia, but were an amiable bunch of blokes and didn’t seem to take the whole thing that seriously – so far so good… Then, after moving what seemed like about 10 metres, enter the Belorussian border guards. These guys (and gals) mean business. We heard the marching of heavy boots come down the corridor  and the carriage doors been aggressively slid open one by one. When they got to us, they gave the room a thorough search (presumably for any ounce of joy we may have be trying to smuggle in) and sternly demanded our passports. After checking Amy’s passport for what seemed like 10 minutes, our thunder faced border guard(ess) had a look at mine. Oh dear… She stared intently at every crease and hair follicle until she eventually decided that I was unacceptable. Shaking her head she left with both our passports, and no explanation. After about 30 minutes she returned, and seemed angry that we hadn’t filled in the requested immigration cards. All the info we needed was on the Passports, and when we apologetically explained this she seemed annoyed that we didn’t know all our details off by heart.

She eventually loosened up a little after we had to keep asking her questions about what we needed to fill in, and she couldn’t explain in English, and so we ended up in a long surreal game of charades with a Belorussian border guard. We eventually got our entry stamp, and all was well.

We got a decent nights sleep, and thankfully didn’t have to do Russian border control, which we thought we would. I guess that the Russians must trust the efficiency of the Belorussians – I certainly do.

Warsaw, Poland 13/03/12 – 14/03/13

– I’ve just done a Krakow post too. Trying to get up to date as per usual. We are now in Irkutsk in East Siberia, so have spent a few days in Moscow and done our first leg of the Trans-Siberian. We are getting back to nature and going staying in a hostel by Lake Baikal for a few days which has no internet, so I’ll hopefully write up the Moscow, Trans-Siberian, Irkutsk, and Lake Baikal posts whilst we are there. (At least the first three anyway). We hope everyone back home is well – we are on a ten hour time difference now so may not be as communicative. Keep in touch. Toodles.

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50 shades of grey…

50 Shades of Grey… 

No, not the ludicrously popular piece of chick-porn-lit by E.L. James. This is in fact the answer to the question: What colour is Poland?… From our very brief time there, I would guess that Poland must certainly be in the top 10 greyest countries in the world (of course there is such a list) along with England, Scotland, and I’m not sure where else yet. It’s a list in progress.

We arrived in Krakow from Budapest via the misleadingly named “overnight sleeper train”. Yes, it traveled overnight, and I concede it was, unmistakably  a train. However, there was very little in the way of sleep, sleepers, sleeping, or any other variation on the word. The cabins are all potentially six-berth, but some rooms only have 2 or 4 beds pulled down, it just depends how much you want to pay. Even if you have an Inter-rail pass, you must pay a surcharge on sleeper trains. We paid about £10 each to go in a 4 berth cabin. The “beds” are of the same consistency of any normal train or bus-seat – i.e. wooden, with a couple of millimeters of foam and cloth on top. Writing this now, since we’ve had more experience of sleeper trains, we have realized the experience isn’t really that bad, and can be very pleasant, it just takes some getting used to. The main problem with our first sleeper train experience was that it seemed to spend over 60% of the journey stationary, and was constantly stopping and starting. The chugging repetition of the train as it trundles along is what sends you to sleep, so the stopping and stationary periods are really disturbing. The whole journey took around 12 hours – but I reckon it was probably only about a 5 mile/10 minute journey, and we were just stopped for the majority of it. We probably should of just walked. I’ll have to check it out on a map. (Note – I checked a map – we couldn’t have walked – but you get the picture).

Arriving in Krakow at 6.45am, after only a couple of hours of sleep, we were glad that our hostel was just opposite the train station. Typically for us, it still took about 45 minutes of trudging around with all our gear to find it (we located it just in time, as Amy was seconds away from hurling herself herself in front of a tram). It wasn’t that it the location was misleading, we walked past it about 3 times, it was just that the only indication it was there was a small weathered A4 piece of paper above some apartment doorbells.

This minor hiccup can’t detract from the fact the our hostel, Greg and Tom’s, was overall the best hostel we’d stayed in up till now. It worked out about £22 a night (between us) for a private room, shared bathroom, and access to a fully equipped kitchen/dining area. Upstairs there was a 24 hour reception with amazingly friendly and helpful staff. Also, included in the price were 2 meals a day (morning and evening) served buffet style, all you can eat, along with snacks like fruit and popcorn throughout the day if you wanted them. So, we had a nice place to stay, with a good atmosphere, free wifi and computer use, and 2 meals a day, for £11 per person. Not bad.

Despite the general Polish propensity for monochrome, Krakow in fact has a broad pallet of fetching pastel colours to accompany its greys. Krakow is Poland’s ancient Royal capital, and although much smaller, in parts it’s as elegant as Prague or Vienna – although it does win the award for most externally ugly castle of the trip so far so far. The old town is charming in appearance, but was surprisingly (to us at least) one of the most touristy city centres we have seen it terms of the amount of street leafleters and guides in little buggies selling tours. Thankfully , this touristyness is concentrated to the very centre (Market Square) and the odd street connecting to it, so it was very easy to escape and feel like you were in a real town again. The edges of the old town, Kazimierz the Jewish district (Krakows hipster hub) and the area between that and the centre were particularly interesting to walk around.

For our lunchtime meals we ate at local Mleck (Milk) bars which are simple self service cafes where locals, workers, and students eat. They serve traditional Polish fare which tastes a lot better than it looks, the vast majority of stuff being anemic, squidgy, and slimy looking. A favourite combination of many seemed to be a red or white borch to start, and a plate of pirogi  It’s really satisfying after a freezing cold trek around town, but I would imagine stodgy things like pirogi getting quickly wearisome if eaten regularly. (White borch with sausage and spuds in was my favourite, and I’m hoping to learn a recipe for making this).

As we only had 2 nights in Krakow (we wanted 3 but had to spend one in Warsaw in order to get our train to Moscow) there is a lot we didn’t see and it would be great to come back here with more time. We lost a bit of time because of having to catch up on our sleep after the “sleeper” train too.

On the last day we went for a long walk through town and along the river (Vistula) and came across Schindlers enamel factory, of Schindlers list fame. It’s now a tourist attraction you can walk round, and although it wasn’t particularly expensive (about £4 each) we didn’t bother going round as we’ve both seen the film, so we get the gist. (We thought the exhibitions just covered the events of the film – there were stills from the film hanging on the wall all over reception). At the time I thought it was bizarre as you got the impression it wouldn’t be a tourist attraction if it wasn’t for the film. We’ve since found that its supposed to be a great exhibition about the general history of the city under Nazi occupation, and it is just housed in Schindler’s enamel factory for context, so we regret not going in now. On the plus side, there was a free toilet. At first I was worried that having a dump in Schindler’s enamel factory might be a bit disrespectful, but when you’ve gotta go you’ve gotta go… (Those that know Amy will know this especially well, as she regresses to 5 years old when nature calls… “Why didn’t you go before?” – “Cos I didn’t need one then” – “well, hold it in” – “No I can’t” – “Sigh…”) <<< Potential script from movie offshoot, Schindler’s Piss?

Other things we learned about Krakow:

All hail his excellency. Pope John Paul II in a big deal here. There’s an entire street dedicated to him. There also seems to be more Nuns and Priests per square mile than anywhere else we’ve been. Seemed to be one on every street.

Bakers Dozen. Well, dozens of bakers in fact. Ranging from people with carrier bags in the park, to people with tiny little stalls on street corners, to big market stalls. There seemed to be a person selling unknown bread type things every few steps – its a saturated market.

Krakow, Poland  11/03/13 – 13/03/12

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In hot water…

Hectic, dry, and dusty were the first words that came to mind when stepping out of Budapest train station. After the trek to our digs, we also added another word to our list of first impressions: Massive… Not knowing much more about Budapest than name, location, and a penchant for Goulash, we were both surprised that the city is such a huge, busy, metropolis (the Pest side at least).

It’s commonly known that Budapest is an amalgamation of cities: Buda on the West side of the Danube, and Pest on the East. However it apparently also consists of a third city – Obuda, Buda’s neighbour on the West side. I guess Budaobudapest didn’t have the same ring to it, although I personally think it’s a cop out. The cities were only combined shortly after “The Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867” – the least dramatic sounding historical event of all time – And the beginning of Hungarian independence from those pesky Austrian Habsburg’s. Pressburg (now Bratislava) was the Capital for much of the time under the Austrians, and it only became Pest in 1848, then Budapest in 1873.

Budapest was the first city we noticed to have a distinctly more Eastern feel to it. The Ottomans occupied the place for over 100 years from 1541 and left behind, among other things, Baths, Mosques, and a general imprint of Turkish culture (and a load of 24 hour kebab shops it seems).

We couldn’t find a hostel with a private room in Budapest, so we ended up staying in a 1 bedroom apartment (Separate living-room/kitchen area, balcony, double bedroom etc). For backpackers this seemed ridiculously luxurious, however for £35 per night, it was bob on. (It was actually about £28 a night Wednesday to Friday and £50 on Saturday). We were even presented with a free KitKat by reception on arrival. (Not one each, that would be absurd, just a standard four finger biscuit to share between us. I must assume that some thorough market research was undertaken in order to conclude that, what a tourist pines for on arrival to Budapest, is a KitKat).

KitKats aside, Amy had undertaken a serious gastronomic mission: A hunt for the perfect Goulash. I’m afraid to report that so far the best Goulash has been had, not in it’s natural home, but in Bratislava. (Budapest’s Goulash ranks bottom so far, but was the cheapest at about £2). We will be sure to keep up to date with the findings of this vital research mission.

We spent most of our 4 days putting in some serious leg work, seeing the sights and getting a feel for the City… Buda (or at least the main area next to the river) seems to basically be an exhibition for tourists. Buda castle is an immense walled complex of palaces, churches, old buildings, museums, galleries and cafes. Although it is undoubtedly and amazing place to see, at the heart it’s so completely over-run with tourists its almost not enjoyable. You can’t move for smacking your face into somebodies iPad as they bumble around viewing the amazing sights in front of them through a digital screen. If it was this busy in February I would dread to see it in the summer.

Pest on the other hand is a proper warts’n’all city. In some places the huge old buildings with their decorative facades look like they are almost crumbling in front of your eyes, but the city bustles along around them seemingly oblivious. An eclectic mixture of huge 4 lane boulevards and little busy cobbled streets, Pest has a definite lively yet slightly grubby, charm. If you stay away from the tourist traps (which are mainly in Buda anyway) it is very cheap. Pint of beer around £1, goulash £2-£3. And accommodation is dead cheap too. Perfect for budget travelers.

The best place to be was down by the Danube. Here you see both sides of the city and the mighty river and its magnificent bridges, and it’s just a really nice place to be. It’s also particularly jaw dropping at night.

The last night we went out for a few cheeky beverages and ended up in one of the famous local ruin pubs: Szimpla. A ruin pub is, as you may of guessed, a pub – which is ruined. It truly has to be seen to be believed, and I reckon this is one of the nicest places to drink we have ever been in. Basically the building seems to be a few large derelict townhouses knocked into one, kitted out with a load of random trinkets and fairy lights, the odd bar here and there – and Voila – Ruin pub. There are little rooms, corridors, and staircases everywhere – and you get lost every time you try and find your way back from the toilet, stumbling into a previous unseen room, filled with lively chatter and strange going ons. With these ruin pubs, and the general buzz in the air at night time, I would say Pest’s night life has a lot to offer.

On the last day, a little hung over, and with a full day at our disposal before we got the sleeper train to Krakow, we decided we couldn’t leave Budapest without treating ourselves to a day in one of it’s famous thermal spas. They say that there has never been a true cure for the hangover, but I disagree. I can confirm that it is: lying in a 42degree pool for 10 minutes, then jumping into a 5degree plunge pool. Amazing… There are 5 thermal baths of varying temperature, a plunge pool, a sauna and steam room (with ropes connected to buckets of cold water to pull over your head upon exiting – if you like that sort of thing). Rudas baths is an original 15th century Turkish baths, with hot water from underground springs. It’s supposed to have healing qualities, and local doctors even give out free passes to the elderly and infirm to help with their ailments. Not being a believer in homeopathy and suchlike, I would guess the effects are psychological (apart from the obvious physical relief you feel at the time, submerged in hot water). Either way – its an lovely way to spend half a day – and is a nice break from hectic city life. Apparently it’s part of local culture and is a big weekly social event. Groups of friends and family get together once a week or so, and go and chill out and chew the fat, and just generally unwind. A great idea that should be immediately implemented in all UK cities.

The baths are now open till 4am at weekends, and this night bathing is supposed to be another dimension to the experience. Rudas used to be men only until 2006, however women are now allowed to join men twice a week, and even have a women only day once a week – Now that’s progress – lucky Gals.

Other things we have learned about Budapest:

Cardboard City. By far and away the most homeless people we’ve ever seen in a city. Under every bridge, subway, and archway there seems to be a community of homelessness. It’s very sad – but locals seem to be used to it and just ignore it. It’s actually quite hard to deal with at first. Especially since Budapest is often cited as one of the top cities in the world to live for culture and quality of life. As i don’t know anything about Hungary’s socio-economic situation, I can’t say much more – just what we’ve seen.

Hungarian is impossible. Apparently Hungarians are proud that their language bears no real similarities to any other European language – other than being a distant cousin to Finnish. This means a small knowledge of any of the main European langues ain’t going to help much with deciphering Hungarian.

A wee problem. Like pretty much everywhere since we left the UK, Budapest hates public toilets – particularly Pest. As is standard in Europe, if you find a toilet – public or in an establishment, you have to pay. That’s if your luckily enough to find one. We often came across signs like “WC 900 metres”. Great, just what I need when I’m brasting for a wee, an almost 1km bladder busting journey. I must confess that their may exist CCTV footage of some suspicious wee like activity happening in a bush on a traffic island opposite the Four Seasons Hotel. For legal reasons I can neither confirm nor deny the nature of the events captured on tape.

Amy is a Terrorist. We had a gander in the cave church, which was actually very impressive. When examining the place from the outside, Amy managed to destroy a piece of the Holy Steps, kicking it down the hill. This also appears to of been captured on CCTV.

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Blava

 

Blava is apparently what all Slovakians who don’t live in the capital call Bratislava, and the Blavians, sorry Bratislavians, hate it. It’s only been called Bratislava since Czechoslovakia was declared in 1918, and before that its supposedly had over 24 different names, most notably Pressburg – which for a few hundred years was the capital city of Hungary and its empire. The folk who live in the capital refer to all of the east of Slovakia as “the zoo” and joke that they need a visa to go there. Nothing like a bit of North/South (or in this case East/West) regional banter to endear you to a country.

The Bratislavians are rude, unhelpful, gossips, who complain about absolutely everything. Not my words, but a (slightly tongue in cheek I assume) description of the locals in the guide leaflet. This is in another of the Use-It local guides we have come across before, which are made by local young people. A great idea, helpful and funny stuff. I think the Brits may share quite a lot of similarities with the Slovaks – rude, unhelpful, gossips, who complain about everything? I thought I was reading a guide for the UK at first.

“Little Big City” is Bratislava’s tag line, and it’s quite appropriate. The old town itself is only a 5 minute walk across at its longest point, but manages to fit a fair bit into its little cobbled streets and squares. The old town is surrounded by a mix of old buildings, communist era apartment blocks, and shopping centres, and this makes up the city centre. As a whole it had a nice laid back atmosphere, and wasn’t touristy at all. Hardly any street hecklers or leafleters. As tourists, we sometimes felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. I’d hazard a guess it’s a lot different in Summer though.

The whole city did have a much more Mediterranean feel than anywhere we’ve been so far, with all the terracotta roofs and baroque churches. (Maybe the blue sky had something to do with this observation – we hadn’t seen a second of sunshine since Bruges). The place is an interesting mix of old and new and is certainly somewhere we’d come back to. (It’s cheap as chips n’all – Accommodation less than £30 a night for a private double – Pint about £1.20 – Large restaurant meal less than £5 per person)

The hostel, erroneously called Patio Hostel, yet seemingly Patioless, was nothing to write home about (apart from I’m technically writing home about it now). It was cheap, cheerful and clean, and did the job.

No drunken debauchery or particular tales of woe to report from Blava. We did think of going out-out one night but accidentally ate to much of the local cuisine (super stodgy Czech-like fare, dumplings, sausage, sauerkraut etc) and ended up having to roll home after a couple of pints, all too full and sleeply.

Other things we’ve Learned about Bratislava:

Slovaks love Ice Hockey. It’s big over there, and they are pretty good at it, apparently. I personally can’t understand the appeal, as I defy any spectator to tell me honestly that they can ever see the puck. It’s far to small and fast or the human eye to see from any point in a stadium. How people can tell there has been a goal before it’s announced I have no idea.

Always the real thing. Kofola. This is the Slovak version of Coca-Cola, which gained popularity during the communist years as it was available so cheap compared to the imported western brands. It’s Cokes biggest rival in the country, and anyone who is anyone drinks Kofola. Cokes for loosers.

This is the second post of waffle we’ve managed to churn out today, as we’re trying to bring the blog up to date. Previous was Vienna.

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At home with the Habsburgs…

Ostentatious, glamorous, extravagant  pompous, flamboyant, grandiose, theatrical, and spectacular. These are just some of the appropriate adjectives that are available to describe Vienna and its architecture. (Note to reporters and sports journalists, see above, these are adjectives, you have not “run out of superlatives”)

I suppose this is what happens when a single family rules the roost for something like 642 years. The power goes to their head. The Habsburgs have been a powerhouse in central European affairs, in various guises, for around 900 years, and have had Vienna (or Wien) as their base for the vast majority of this time.

My knowledge on the whole subject is minute (mainly acquired from the back of tourist maps, and plaques on the sides of buildings and statues) but it’s incredibly interesting, and you can really get the feel of this place being a magnificent playground for the super wealthy and powerful.

All the main sights (palaces, museums, galleries, boulevards, and extravagant buildings) are concentrated over quite a small area, so you can see a lot just gently pootleing around semi-blinded by the obscene, highfaluting vanity, of one of Europe’s least understated dynasties.

One of the nicest things about wandering around Vienna is that all the glitz and glamour is punctuated by lovely parks and green spaces. It’s mega parky. Differing sources advise that Vienna is somewhere between 50-70% green space, pretty amazing for a major capital of Europe.

It’s not all just a touristy toy town for people to poke around the grand legacy of the now defunct Habsburgs. If you want to escape the overwhelming swankyness, its just a few minutes walk to the Danube canal – where the mood is altogether different. Excellent graffiti covers the concrete walls on both sides with the odd little shack of a cafe or bar here and there. Loads of dog walkers and people chilling out with a pack of beers. In around an hour long walk we saw people bouldering, uni-cyclists, jugglers and graffiti artists. It was a cool place to be.

We only spent 2 nights in Vienna (as it’s pretty expensive), so I’m sure there is a lot more to it than these incoherent ramblings suggest – but this is the impression we got in our short stay here. We actually stayed in a 3 star hotel on the edge of town as there was a special 50% off deal online, and it worked out cheaper than a hostel. It cost us about £80 for 2 nights, hostels were about £120, which is really expensive for hostel accommodation  Of course it would of been cheaper in dorms – but as a couple we are generally trying to stay in private rooms where we can.

We only had a short stay here (and it was expensive), so we don’t have tales of misadventure to report – we just enjoyed our brief access to comfy beds, a good shower, and fresh white towels. – All in keeping with Vienna I suppose.

Other things we learned about Vienna:

– Ridiculously complicated public transport map. First place we have come across where we couldn’t work things out for ourselves of the public transport map. Too much info crammed onto it just makes it incomprehensible.

– Rags and Riches. Despite the rich appearance of Vienna – It certainly isn’t exempt from holes in its social safety net. Round the edges of town we came across a fair amount of beggars – a notable amount of Roma appearance. It’s sad, and certainly brings you back to reality. Would be interesting to know more about the reasons.

– Call the police. On the first night we committed a bank robbery. Not really, but we found that in Vienna, if you need a cash machine at night, you just walk up to the closed bank, stick your card into the door… And voila, the door opens and you can walk inside the bank to use the indoor cash machines. This is the first time we encountered this, but we’ve since seen it elsewhere in Europe. Not massively interesting – was just bizarre at the time.

Been a bit lax with the posts lately so need to catch up. We have been to Bratislava and Budapest since, and I’m writing this in Krakow. There will be a Bratislava update soonish…

We hope all is well with everyone, keep in touch.

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Praha

… After only 5 posts, I’ve already lost the ability to create a witty title, that leads into the first paragraph, or creates an intrigue which is answered as you read on… So I’m not doing it, so there… This post is about our stay in Prague (Praha).

Our train journey from Berlin to Prague was definitely the best so far. Four and a half hours on a single train with no changes, in 6 seater cabin to ourselves, and stunning views of snow covered hills, towns, and forests along the Elbe river valley.

Arriving in Prague in the evening, with no local currency to buy a tram ticket, our first action this city, was a criminal one. After a short, bumpy, and rather anxious tram ride, we arrived at our hostel. Later finding out that they have plain clothed ticket inspectors who give a roughly £50 on the spot fine for fare dodging. Not sure how likely you are to get done, but we got lucky.

The hostel (hostel ONE) had the best atmosphere of any place we’ve stayed in. It was roughly £30 a night for a room with a fridge, kitchenette, and a balcony. Granted the cooker didn’t work, but it’s the thought that counts… “Ah, your room is on the 5th floor… I’m afraid the lift isn’t working at the moment” explained the genuinely helpful girl on reception. After a slog up to the 5th floor with our gear, I noticed cobwebs on the lift doors, and suspected that the lift hadn’t worked for a very long time… These aren’t real gripes with the place though, you can’t complain for the price (less than £15 each a night each). The young reception staff available 24/7 were all friendly and helpful, and the common room and kitchen areas felt like a proper lively travelers hub. Also – 3 days a week a girl comes in and cooks a free soup for everyone for tea! (you just give a little tip if you liked it).

Prague (or Praha) was our first experience of not being able to understand any written language at all. With our combined minuscule knowledge of languages, and a bit of logic, it was easy enough to get by in The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany – but Czech to our ignorant eye balls was pure, unadulterated  gibberish. There were plenty of signs and instructions knocking about that had English instructions, but also plenty that didn’t.

The Prague skyline certainly deserves its reputation. The Gothic towers and church spires on both sides of the Vlatva river are hugely impressive – and even more so at night.

We were staying in the Zizkov district (missing diacritics), proudly home to what was once voted the worlds 2nd ugliest building (now with added giant babies, see pictures). It was just 15 minute walk to the Old Town, not quite far out enough to be amongst all the big concrete communist tenement blocks – but far out enough to feel like we were seeing some authentic Prague, where locals lived and hung out. It was good to be able to walk into town seeing the place from a different point of view than the tourist trap.

One of the biggest downsides to Prague was the tourist atmosphere.  In comparison, based on our very limited experience, Amsterdam seems to have managed to blend tourism into a fully working, thriving city very well (although it can be a bit much sometimes). Berliners wouldn’t bat an eye lid if all tourism stopped tomorrow – the city works without it. And in Bruges, the tourism trade seems to be strictly managed so as to maintain the medieval integrity of the place… In Prague it’s a bit jarring to see people wearing “Special Offer” signs and handing out leaflets against the fairytale medieval backdrop. This is one of the main reasons why Prague can be a much nicer experience at night.

As amazing as the medieval old town and the castle are – some of the communist architecture is very impressive to behold as well (See pictures of the TV tower and the National Monument). The contrast of historical Prague and the brutal communist buildings are one of the most interesting things about the place – if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Prague like many cities, seems to have bit of a visible dark underbelly. In the places we’ve visited so far, for what ever reason, we have barley noticed a single homeless person or beggar. Here, in the tourist hotspots, the streets can be lined with them, kneeling, faces to the floor, hands outstretched. It’s sad, and it’s hard to know whether they are genuine homeless or opportunistic junkies (After dropping some money into one blokes hand, we looked round to find him walking across the street to his girlfriend and dog and hurrying off down an alley). It’s mix and a bit of both I would guess. Coming from Manchester – which has an obscene amount of homeless people and beggars on the street, we’re not judging, just noticing. We also saw two lads blatantly shooting up, sat in plain view on the grass between the train station and police station. I suppose loads of cities (especially in the UK) have these underlying social issues, it may just be more of a shock against such a beautiful background (A few smack heads are just part of the wallpaper in some areas of Leigh). And it was  more visible here than anywhere else we have been so far.

Food and drink (particularly drink) are very cheap. One night we treated ourselves to a meal each, a large beer, and a glass of wine, in an authentic Czech restaurant near the hostel – for the princely sum of £12. Pork, dumplings, and cabbage feature heavily in most of Czech dishes – great for us on a cold winters evening – not sure if I would be too enthusiastic about eating it through the summer though. For 500ml of excellent Czech Pilsner it costs an average about £1.27 (I know!). Due to this small fact, we may have ended up drinking a little too much during our stay in Prague…

A couple of times we went to a great little bar round the corner from the hostel – FUBAR. Owned and run by British ex-pat, and all round top bloke, Joe. It’s a nice cosy little place, that does all sorts of karaoke and open mike nights and the like – and it just has a genuinely nice, lively atmosphere with a great mixture of locals, ex-pats, and tourists. And you can get ace bar grub (burgers and mexican stuff) any time until closing time – which is, as far as I can tell, never.

One night in Fubar we were sinking a good few beers with Joe, and also occasionally nipping outside to try and get through some of this bag of thai stick that we still have left over from Amsterdam (Prague is pretty laid back about weed)… You can probably see where this is going… After a while Amy whispers in my ear that she needs to leave – immediately  So, helpfully propping all the buildings up as she went, we eventually managed the 30 metre stumble back to the hostel, and I heaved her into bed… It wasn’t long before I heard the Immortal words – “I need to get off this boat, the sea’s too rough” followed more alarmingly by “I’m not going to make it”. She was right, she didn’t make it. Amy leaned overboard, and hurled, into the brown wooden sea.

Some other things we learned about Prague:

Beer is VERY cheap – see above
Amy will never smoke and drink together again – see above
Prague looks better, and has a better feel to it, at night.
Dog walkers are provided with free poo bags!… But in the area where we were, nobody uses them. Bag dispensers on on lampposts on the corner of many streets, however the streets seemed to be absolutely covered in dog shit. That’s the only downside to the otherwise charming and buzzing little area we were staying in. Sort it out Zizkov.
The communist museum is terrible. (We don’t usually go in the museums and such as we are on such a tight budget, but ‘cos I’m really interested in this sort of thing, I unreasonably dragged Amy around, and on a hangover she’d like me to point out!). There are hardly any exhibits apart from the occasional trinket from the era. You just walk around reading from huge information boards. Interesting stuff, but I could of just looked it up in a book or on the net.

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Achtung!

Achtung! Wiener! Schnitzel!.. Just three of the many common words to be seen on signs and shop fronts around Berlin, which for some reason it is almost impossible not to repeat out loud in (an attempt at) a German accent, and smile. Amazingly, aside from general words that sound amusing to our ignorant foreign ears, Berlin had even more to offer…

Before we get to Berlin, It’s worth just mentioning the journey there. In the last post I was papping on about how amazing train travel is in Europe, which it is… However… At our change over in Brussels, we left the train to be immediately engulfed in what I can only describe as, a massive riot. The whole of the train station (which is huge) was overrun by people wearing either red or green coats. There were people chanting and hammering signs, with loud bangs that sounded like gunshots going off everywhere, and small groups of Police occasionally running towards the (still unknown) source of the bangs. Amy has a real phobia of fireworks and the like, and was almost in tears. As if this wasn’t enough, I was wearing a big green coat, and Amy a big red coat… We initially thought there must have been a football match, and were worried that we might both get lynched for fraternization with the enemy. After the sight of a large group all wearing blue coats, we thought shit was about to go really crazy, until we soon realised that all the different colours of people were actually on the same side. After some further investigation we found out that they were civil servants protesting against budget and salary cuts. Anyway, we eventually made it out alive…

Our hostel (Hostel PLUS) was in a great location, right next to the Warschauer Strasse U-Bahn station, on the edge of the up and coming, apparently hip and happening Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg districts. These areas are poor but are habitat to a vast amount of young, arty, alternative types. The area is genuinely buzzing – the streets seem packed 24 hours a day and it always appears that there’s something is going on just around the corner (at different times we saw a rap music video and a documentary being filmed on the streets).

The hostel was absolutely massive, with I think about 500 rooms. Its not the sort of cosy intimate place where you’re going to sing songs around the fire with new friends – but that’s kind of appropriate for Berlin. The rooms were large and clean – and amazingly for a hostel, there was even a swimming pool and sauna, but we didn’t use them. It did the job and I would recommend it for the location alone. Plus the actual building itself was pretty mint – Apparently a 100 year old neo-gothic building (maybe a hospital or factory) with large stone staircases and corridors – all decorated by local artists…

East Berlin as a whole is fucking cool. You have to say fucking, because cool just isn’t enough (And the Germans love to say fucking – a lot). It’s also beautiful – in the way that the peaceful death of a relative after many years of suffering could be considered beautiful. Or a bulldog. It looks like a sprawling post apocalyptic waste land, where society is just starting to rise again from the ashes. Every single available surface is full of graffiti  or posters, or graffiti on posters. Despite the above description, and the general feel of lawlessness – Berlin never felt threatening or unsafe – even late at night. It just feels genuinely buzzing.

Central and west Berlin is also very impressive – partly just for the sheer scale of everything from the streets to the buildings. On our first full day in Berlin we did the obligatory walk through Mitte – along Unter Den Linden – taking in the centre of the city and all the most famous sights – from Alexanderplatz and the TV tower, to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and various things in between. We finished of with a mooch and some dicking about in the impressive Tier Garten (Park).

Next day we visited the East Side Gallery (right near the hostel) which is the largest preserved section of the Berlin wall and is covered in graffiti paintings from international artists. At the end of this stretch of wall we found what is possibly the coolest bar of all time – YAAMAICA! This reggae bar is a little ramshackle hut in the middle of a colourfully graffitied courtyard – playing top notch reggae. In the courtyard there are toilets which also double as a shop – selling munchies and rizzlas, and a hut selling jerk chicken. What more could you want? There’s also a stage area for concerts, 5 aside, and a kids play area. Apparently Yaamaica is not just a bar – but a genuine community hub, operating its different functions according to the relevant time of day or week. (Yaamaica is the whole set up, it turns out that the bar within is actually called the cool runnings bar – which was even more appropriate as we were sheltering from a blizzard).

This night we had a good few drinks out in East Berlin and ended up chatting to a couple of young British lads who were also currently travelling Europe. I think they’d just come from Nuremberg, and as their next destination was Salzburg, they expressed a concern that their trip was unnervingly starting to look like a Nazi tour (It definitely wasn’t). Anyway – All the best Alex(I think)  and mate (sorry, shit with names and was a little wobbly anyway) and have a good time in the states.

…We stayed in Berlin a total of 4 nights…

Other things we learned about Berlin:

– The Holocaust memorial is inappropriate – hang on, I’ll explain. It’s basically a huge expanse of steps increasing in height from the edges to the middle – which creates a kind of maze of corridors around the centre. Our issue is that the piece as a whole encourages physical engagement – jumping from step to step, running and hiding through the maze. (It’s full of people doing this, and them pretending to look solemn when they run into other people who are doing the exact same thing). This would be perfectly fine – if it wasn’t a memorial to millions of murdered human beings. Its an ace sculpture – maybe not fit for purpose though. It is great how Berlin openly acknowledges and discuss the past – and is looking firmly to the future. In my opinion the Neue Wache (Memorial to sufferers of War and Tyranny) is much more powerful – A large satue of Kathe Kollwitz’s Mother with her dead son, sits in the large empty expance of the Neue Wache – lit by a single hole in the roof. Seriously eerie, sad, and thought provoking.
– Berliners HATE milk. We couldn’t get anything other than UHT type stuff. What’s all that about?
– All the food in Berlin is incredible. We only ate from junk food places and street stalls but its all in a different class – Even the Kebaps.
– Currywursts are not disgusting. The specialty street dish of Berlin seems to be the currywurst – smoked sausage chopped up and smothered in ketchup and curry powder. Sounds disgusting? It’s not, its well nice – along with all other street food.
– Like the Amsterdam(ians?) – the Berliners love a good sausage dog – they are everywhere. Just hopefully not in the sausages.

Just realised how long this one is – oh well, apologies for the piffle – hopefully there’s sumet in there worth a goose.

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On the road again…

On the road again…

This highly appropriate but rather dull Willie Nelson number (click the link above if you must) has somehow become the anthem for days when we are on the move… Once we are all packed up and ready to go, Amy will invariably try and start a little sing along with her glorious *ahem* silky velvet tones.

Seeing as we are on an actual journey, I thought we’d do a little blog about the traveling side of things – Getting about, modes of transport, and how we’re living on the cheap etc…

If you’ve looked at the pictures, you may be wondering why Amy appears not to understand the concept of a BACKpack. In truth, we both wander around looking this ridiculous. Our backpacks (they call them travel packs) are designed with travelers in mind, as apposed to hikers or adventurers, so they zip all the way round for easy access to you stuff, and they have a separate 10 litre day sack that zips and straps on to the main pack, piggy back style. This little pack can also be clipped on to the front, which despite how ludicrous we may look, is an absolutely cracking idea. All the stuff we want easy access to all the time goes in the day sack, so when we are getting trains, we put the big packs up on the racks, and keep the little ones with our essentials in with us. Also – we are going a fairly long way, for a fair old while, so our packs are heavy. Putting the little one on the front improves weight distribution massively and substantially reduces the amount of times you nearly kill yourself by falling off balance onto the train tracks.

We’ve had quite a few strange glances as we both stand fully packed up, staring blankly at the train arrivals board trying to decipher it, slowly spinning around in circles, bashing into each other like a pair of strange, slightly ill beetles… – but its worth it.

So far we’ve got: a train to Newcastle – a bus to the ferry port – a ferry to Imujdlik – a bus to Amsterdam – 3 trains to Bruges – 2 trains to Berlin – and a train to Prague…. And touch wood, it’s all been unrealistically easy so far. The train network that we’ve experienced in Europe (and the general inner city pubic transport) has been amazingly punctual, efficient, and easy to use. Trains are regular, and always seem to run on time, up to date electronic information boards are everywhere – and – there is leg room – something us Brits are not used to. The international and intercity trains (ICE and IC) are particularly luxurious, with large comfy seats and plenty of room. But even the smaller inner city trains all seem to be great – although it can get a bit mental in rush hour… – Unfortunately we may have been responsible for death (or at least severe annoyance) of quite a few commuters as we spin around in train stations bashing things with our immense rucksacks.

We are managing to stay well fed and watered whilst on a budget. At hostels, breakfast has often been included in the price, but where its isn’t we just buy cereal and milk (we have mess tins, and as its winter – window ledges provide a free fridge!). For lunch we shop at supermarkety type places, buying sticks of bread, cheese, tomatoes, meat, hummus etc – and this keeps us in sandwiches for a couple of days. Some places have pretty cheap food stalls too. For tea we tend to eat in cafe’s or from food stalls. There’s a big difference in cost from country to country, but roughly we can keep well fed and watered with the occasional coffee for an average of about £20-£25 a day (between us). This average may well start coming down as we get further into eastern Europe. (Just arrived in Prague and its mega cheap). Obviously if we’re having a few beers, thats when things can get expensive – so you just have to be careful.

We’ve just arrived in Prague (the scenic train journey here from Berlin was by far the best to date), but we’ll upload some pictures and some inane wafflings about Berlin first. I’m also pathetically trying to grow a travelers beard, so the pictures of this may be a laugh for some.

In Bruges…

Ashamedly, Amy and I admitted to each other that we’d never heard of Bruges until we saw the 2008 Martin McDonagh film, In Bruges. Surprisingly  a lot of other people hadn’t, and tourism in Bruges has boomed since the release of the film. Our hostel even did a tour of the city based around the film. The film certainly wasn’t made by the local tourist board, as Colin Farrels character ponders the towns merits: “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t”.

Apparently, this is the second time Bruges tourism has had a helping hand from popular culture. In 1892 Bruges la Morte (The dead city of Bruges) was published by Belgian Author Georges Rodenbach, describing the city as ‘dark, poor, and ugly’. Locals weren’t to happy, but some people saw romance in it, and tourism boomed.

Anyway, back to our trip. We are aware that some people might have picked up on the small fact that by going from Amsterdam to Bruges, we are actually heading in the wrong direction to get to Oz. We had originally intended to do a bit of a wiggley journey through europe in order to sight-see, but we never intended to actually go back on ourselves. We were going to go via Brussels or Antwerp rather than Bruges, but we had trouble booking hostels, so that’s how we landed up in Bruges (Also, as we have bought the inter-rail passes, the route we take makes no odds really as we can get on pretty much any train in Europe without extra charge).

It is a decision we have absolutely no reason to regret, as Bruges is a pretty amazing place. The photos we’ve taken can’t even come close to doing it justice. Some of the worlds best beer, waffles and chocloate combined in the one of the worlds best preserved medieval cities, what’s not to like?… Yes, we have come off season, so our opinion might be different if we had come in the Summer, and it does feel like a bit of toy town, but after a couple of days you realise that in some aspects it is still a thriving, working town, with a genuine priest school, nunneries, and big bi-weekly markets.

As you might imagine, we don’t have as many tales of drama, drugs, and debauchery as we did in Amsterdam. We’ve had a lovely time eating delicious chips, chocolate and waffles and drinking top notch beer, and just mooching around the city marveling at the streets and buildings, but it doesn’t make for particularly interesting blog material, so we’ll just mention a few things that have made our stay here ace:

One thing that helped us really engage with the town is a Belgian scheme called USE IT by Tourist Info For Young People. TIFYP produce illustrated fold out map/guides for Belgian cities that are free to pick up at hostels. They are made by local young people, for young people, so the information inside is priceless, mentioning local people their establishments by name and noting things you would simply never find without it. It’s a scheme they are trying to spread across Europe and seems like a top idea.

The hostel set up was pretty decent too. It’s called the Bahaus, but has been taken over by the hostel chain St Christophers. Even though it’s a chain, St Christophers do the hostel thing very well: Large, comfy, clean, rooms, helpful staff and reception. Wi-Fi, common room and Laundry. Free breakfast, and reasonably priced, cosy wood and brick bar and restaurant two doors down.
We saw loads of interesting stuff, churches and general history and the like. I won’t bore by going on about it, but I’ll just say that we saw plenty of class stuff, and we were well unlucky with the amount of things we wen’t to see that were shut for renovation or closed because of unforeseen circumstances. For example, Jesus’ blood (seriously, they have a vial of it they reckon) was unavailable to see as the church was shut Wednesday afternoons…

Things we have learned about Bruges:
– Still no public toilets anywhere, and they have the highest weeing on the street fine in Flanders, 152 Euros!
– Bruges is fairly expensive, waffles with choclate and cream cost between 5-10 euros, but a pint is about 3.80euros, so cheaper than Manchester at least. Bottled beers in the shop are well cheap though.
– Monks are piss heads. All the Trappist beers (brewed by monks at monasteries) are ludicrously strong. Some are proper nice, but they’re a bit hit and miss. I reckon once you take a beer past 10%, it’s impossible to make it very enjoyable, it’s just rocket fuel. (Bruges Zot was the nicest and cheapest local beer, actually brewed within the walls of Bruges. It’s not a Trappist though)
– Loads of stuff shuts on Wednesdays, we missed a few things we wanted to see cos of this…
– Everyone should go up the Belfry. It’s good fun, the view is amazing, and if you have seen the film In Bruges, you can act out the chase scene with Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, like we did…

We are now in Berlin, so these blogs have a bit of a time delay on them. We intend to do a mini interim blog just to mention what the actual journeys are like, and how we are living for cheap on the road etc, just cos we thought some people might like to know…

We hope people are enjoying the blog, I realise I can waffle shit a bit (Amy is going to start writing soon, some might be relieved to know). We do really appreciate hearing what’s going on back home, so we’re very glad of comments on here (and whatsapp etc). As we are on a shoestring budget, we can’t be out galavanting all the time, so it’s nice to keep in touch during our downtime.

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Sleazy Birds

On Saturday night we thought we’d go out for a few cheekies. We knew Amsterdam wasn’t cheap, but you don’t realize how expensive the booze is until you actually try and get drunk. Cheapest pint is 5euros, although bizarrely there isn’t a huge price difference between the good (budvar, leffe etc), and the bad (Heineken)… With the help of a hostel bar happy hour (12 hours long), and some new friends, we somehow manged to get pretty sozzled, arriving back to our boat (covered in chips and sauce) at around 5am. On descending to our quarters, Amy managed to gracefully slide down all 12 steps on her bum, landing in a crumpled heap at the bottom, smiling bemusedly. This was the second major mishap to befall us, as on Friday I managed to drop my hat and gloves in a toilet containing my own wee (I forgot they were under my arm when flushing the chain).

– By the way, cheers for the drinks Mark, and nice to meet you guys (Mark, Lee, Marvin and co) – All the best.

Sunday was a bit of a wasted day as we lay below deck, nursing our heads and feeling generally sorry for ourselves… On Monday we took tram out to Vondel Park, we wanted to get bikes and really get into the Amsterdam swing, but our local bike rental guy had disappeared and we needed one close to the hostel to get our stuff as we planned to get the train later. Vondel park is ace, definitely in my top 3 city centre parks of all time (yeah, don’t you?). As you can see from the pictures I became a wildlife photographer for the day, mainly because we kept running into this magnificent ninja heron who mysteriously appeared just feet away from us a couple of times. He didn’t care about humans at all and would greedily flap himself within touching distance for a bit of delicious port salut cheese… Vondel Park also seemed to be the red light district for a sleazy bunch of parakeets. They were noisily at it all day, and although it could be ignored, it became a bit much when we were trying to peacefully enjoy our hummus and cheese sandwiches.

More things we’ve learned about Amsterdam:
– For backpackers, beer is very expensive. As are the galleries and museums. We didn’t really go in anything as a lot of the main ones were between 10-15 euros each for a ticket, not much less than the price we were paying for a bed and breakfast.
– The Dutch love Daschunds (Sausage dogs) – Much to Amy’ delight, they are literally everywhere.
– There are no public toilets anywhere – you’ve got to go in a McDonalds or something and pay an old lady at least 50cents.
– The Dutch generally seemed to be really laid back, very friendly, and helpful.

The following afternoon we geared up for the next leg of our trip to Bruges. Somehow our backpacks now seemed twice as heavy. We said goodbye to our super cool tattooed host Roy (who’s diet seemed to be cuppa soups, vodka, and fags) and headed to the station.

– We would strongly recommend Roy and the Vita Nova to anyone looking for cheap bed and breakfast in Amsterdam – Rooms are tiny, walls are thin, but everything is clean, no curfew, staff are great, its really cheap, and it’s on a boat!

And so, on Monday, we left Amsterdam with many fond (sometimes blurry) memories, a couple of very heavy backpacks, and Amy’s heavily bruised backside…

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