Romania part 2: Transylvania and Saxon Land

We arrived in Brasov to find a bustling train station filled with taxi drivers offering to take us to Bran castle, or otherwise to drive us anywhere in the city for 100 lei (£20), who we ignored and got a cab to our hostel for a sixth of the price. Here we were back in real backpacking territory, with no more hotel staff who comically gaped wide eyed at arrivals who knew no Romanian, but ‘normal’ international hostels filled with westerners and locals who knew exactly what a tourist was. This was a bit of a relief but also slightly disappointing – it had been quite fun pretending to be the only intrepid budget visitors from our neck of the woods. But Kismet Dao hostel soothed our worries with an extremely jolly member of staff (who was replaced the next day with his grumpy counterpart) and a schnauzer called Zara, as well as lots of other friendly travellers.

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This is the town where vampire hunters gather, as people in search of Count Dracula follow Vlad Tepes’ footsteps and excitedly go on tours to Gothic castles in the hope of finding an eerily pale Transylvanian looking down on them from the rafters. We preferred to stick to the confines of the town, though, climbing up to yet another city castle and wandering around the walls which used to separate the town’s Saxon inhabitants from the native Romanians, who were kept out of sight beyond the city fortifications. The confusing placement of ethnic groups stems from the 12th century, when a wave of Germanic people settled in various bits of Transylvania and did pretty well there, being favoured by the ruling classes and enjoying a fairly privileged lifestyle. Nowadays the strongest traces of this history are the architecture of the towns they settled, which looks much more Western than the typical Romanian style, and the fortifications they built to keep out first the Mongals, and later the local riff-raff. But the vast majority of the Saxon settlers emigrated in the 20th century, leaving behind only a very small minority who have integrated with the rest of the population and some strangely Germanic architecture.

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Catherine’s Gate, part of the 16th century Saxon fortifications of Brasov

We only had one day in Brasov, and spent a fair amount of that time recovering from our bumpy night train, but here is what we liked about it:

– the hilltop castle is free to enter and gives great views of the city
– there are nice parks and gardens around the centre of the city, with tables complete with chessboards
– the fruit and veg market is large and runs into the evening, making self catering cheap and healthy- there is a huge, lively central square, where a vastly over-amplified band was playing when we arrived.

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Brasov, seen from the castle

The next day we travelled northwards again to Sibiu, another Transylvanian town that is slightly less overpopulated with backpackers than Brasov. We fell in love with this place as soon as we walked out of the station: here is a place that is small enough to walk around, but full of hustle and bustle nonetheless. The huge central square, which is actually officially three smaller squares blended into one, is crammed with bars and restaurants, while when we were there the middle was taken up with a pottery fair that spilled out across the central part of the city, as tradesmen of all types jostled to sell their wares. We sat at a cafe nearby to soak up the atmosphere, serenaded with the tapping of hammers on silverwork and the sound of bartering and laughter.

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Sibiu is probably one of the best examples of a Saxon fortified town, as it has not one but three layers of defensive walls around the city. Apparently in case of attack the outer part also used to be flooded, turning the town into an elaborate castle in itself, complete with a moat. Now the walls make for enjoyably lazy walks and create a focal point for the town, with plenty of photo-ops (don’t forget to look out for the creepy eye-shaped windows in the attics).

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Stairs Passage, which connects the Upper and Lower towns – right by “Smart Hostel”

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The Carpenters’ Tower, part of Sibiu’s city walls

On our second day in Sibiu we went to what my Lonely Planet guide calls “the oldest and probably finest art gallery in Romania”: the Brukenthal Museum. We’d noticed that the previous evening the building’s courtyard was being used for a very exclusive fashion show that was broadcast into the main square, and decided to have a look inside in the daytime. Here we went to a brilliant exhibition of Salvador Dali’s 100 woodcuts of Dante’s Divine Comedy: one for every canto of the Commedia. Dali’s bizarre but expressive style suits the theme extremely well, and both the interpretation and the artistic variety and skill were really impressive. You can have a look at the whole collection here (they’re really really good).

Sadly, we had to get a train that afternoon to start our long and slow journey down to Bulgaria, but we just about had time for a pizza in the square before packing our bags and heading off once again to a new city and a new country.

Romania part one: Oradea and Suceava

The Romanian language is a funny one. It’s another linguistic oddity in the heart of Eastern Europe, whose roots tie closely with Latin. Geographically separated from the other Romance languages by Slavic languages and Hungarian, it has evolved in a significantly different way to the Romance languages of Western Europe. It still has cases, and while a large proportion of the language is inherited from Latin, it also has a strong Slavic influence. Technically, it should be a breeze for a recent graduate of Russian and Italian. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Written down, Romanian seems vaguely  comprehensible to someone with any knowledge of Italian and French, but the pronunciation makes it pretty impossible to understand the spoken word. And the more rural you go, the less likely it is you’ll find anyone who knows English who can help you out. But this is all part of the fun.

We decided to spend our first couple of nights in Romania in the town of Oradea, which is close enough to the Hungarian border to seem easily accessible. We bought our tickets being sure that the 250km journey from Eger in Hungary to Oradea would take six and a half hours and involve three changes, and set off from our campsite with plenty of time to spare and impeccably prepared for our border crossing. We weren’t going to let any stupid mistakes get in the way of our efficient arrival into Romania.

It turns out they’re on a different time zone to Hungary, doesn’t it.

We waited in the small border town of Valea Lui Mihai for about an hour, impatiently wondering when we would arrive at Valea Lui Mare, the station where we had meticulously planned to change trains. As we pulled out of the station, ten minutes before we were expecting to reach this fantastical place, a ticket inspector entered our carriage and gesticulated that we should have left at the previous station, pointing frantically at his watch which we realised despairingly was an hour faster than ours. And so we chugged north, knowing with every passing second that we were going further and further from where we wanted to be. Three laborious stations later, the ticket inspector signed to us to get off, at a gruesome station whose lead up was filled with skeletons of buildings covered in scribbled graffiti saying “666” and “turn back” and “yr next”. Here we stood in between the tracks with the inspector, who grimly offered us a cigarette and held up the train we’d been on just long enough that he could inform the inspector of the train that would take us to Oradea of our situation and put us on a train going in the right direction, before hopping back onto our previous carriage and chugging northwards again.

We set off in the other direction and arrived in Oradea as night fell, miraculously only about an hour and a half later than we had planned. We got on a tram to our B & B without having managed to find anywhere we could buy a ticket (turns out the answer is supermarkets) and rode fareless and guilty into the centre of town. We found our hotel “Avalon Rooms”, which trumps everywhere we have stayed so far in that we got a plush double ensuite for a tenner, but it was locked and we couldn’t get in. By the time we’d found a bar with wifi, got in touch with the proprietor to find out the code we needed to get in, struggled with said code for far longer than seemed possible and managed to get to our room, we were pretty much ready to give up on Romania altogether. But we had a quick shower, changed into some nice clothes and convinced ourselves that we WOULD be able to find something to eat at 10 30pm on a Sunday and went out, promptly finding that “Queens Music Pub” down the round not only serves till midnight on Sundays, but is also very reasonably priced and serves a big enough portion of tortellini al forno to cater not only for a very substantial dinner but also lunch for the two of us the following day.

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Oradea

The next morning we could see Oradea in a new (i.e. daytime) light and it stopped being big, scary and foreign and became pretty, Hapsburg influenced and interesting. We spent the day wandering around, nosing into churches and finding castles. The later proved pretty difficult, despite the fact that it was in the centre of town, as it was surrounded by communist apartment blocks and hiding across a busy road. Arriving on the east side, it looked as if there was nothing to see at all, with the entrance blocked off and nothing more than a peeling sign on the outer wall giving a brief history of the site. As we decided to move on a have a look at the river to the south, we spied an entrance into a little park and saw that the south and west sides have been done up to make a peaceful garden area, with little information plaques about the architecture of the castle, its history, and the types of plants in the park dotted around it. Its incomplete moat has also been turned into a little wild pond full of fish and water lilies.

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We stumbled across a couple of other interesting bits and bobs on our wander, like the “Luna church” on the main square, which has a strange little black and yellow sphere on the tower that mirrors the lunar cycle throughout the month, and is full of beautiful frescoes inside. We were interested to see how full the church was despite there not being a service, with even jeans-clad teenagers walking in with their friends to sit and pray in the middle of the daytime on a Monday. Nearby there’s a fancy art nouveau shopping mall with a big crow on the stained glass window above the entrance and full of seedy looking bars that apparently get quite buzzing at night. The area that we spent most of our time in, though, was the pedestrianised Strada Republicii, which was full of cafes and edged with romantically decrepit neo classical and art nouveau buildings.

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Romantically decrepit

The next day we set off bright and early to the train station, ready to board our ten hour train to Suceava, in the north eastern region of Bucovina. The sheer length of this journey says more about the speed of Romanian trains than the substantial size of the country, but as we were to find out later on in our trip, we were lucky to find a direct route. The relaxed speed of the trip meant that we could get a good glimpse of the agricultural Maramures region where we unfortunately hadn’t had time to stay, thanks largely to the afore mentioned speed and unpredictability of Romanian trains. But the journey was entertaining enough, with plenty of views of the traditional methods of gathering the harvest that are employed in this part of the world that make it very easy for train passengers to imagine that they’re riding along the countryside at the very beginning of the industrial revolution rather than in the twenty first century. This impression was heightened about three quarters of the way through the trip, when a numerous Roma family piled into our cabin, complete with headscarfed and wonderfully wrinkly grandmother and a large bag of metal working tools. The laptop on my knee gave away the modern age too much, so I stowed it away and went back to looking out at the marvellous mountain scapes outside the window that signalled the crossing of the Carpathians.

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These haystacks are EVERYWHERE

We arrived at Suceava station to find a post industrial wasteland and a taxi driver who, on hearing the name of our B & B, refused our business saying: “that is sh*t sh*t sh*t pension. I no go there. No way.” Pretending to be unperturbed, we found someone who would deign to take us where we wanted to go and set off into town. It turns out that the station is a good 7 km away from the town centre, and the outskirts were a reminder of a time when the region of Bucovina had a thriving industiral output, thanks to its production of glass and tractors. This makes the drive into town pretty bleak, but it eventually cheers up slightly as derelict buildings give way to shopping malls and Macdonald’s, and there are signs of life in the parks and squares in the centre. We got to Leaganul Bucovinei B & B (whose websit may be slightly optimistic) to find the proprietor waiting for us with a nervous smile, gesturing wildly for us to come inside before confusedly triple checking our booking and leading us up to our room in a whirlwind of “please, moment, moment”s that were to become a running theme for the rest of our two night stay. Once again, we’d managed to find a double, ensuite room for less than 10 euros per night, and while the whole affair looked extremely homemade, it was comfortable and even came with wifi. We had dinner in the small restaurant downstairs – schnitzel with “mexican vegetables” (a frozen pea, carrot and runner bean mix) – that was served to us by a lovely girl who chattered away to us in Romanian despite our obvious incomprehension, and repeatedly ran off looking mortified about the clear language barrier.

The next day we explored the town, starting off at the most helpful tourist information centre in the world (I am convinced of this). From here we went on to explore St John the New’s monastery, which is painted outside in a way typical of the region, and then followed what was marked on our map as a “road” but turned out to be an extremely narrow concrete track through a WOOD (bearing in mind we’re in the centre of the city) that went up something like 200 steps before opening out into a clearing with a massive statue of a horse in it and a couple of benches and nothing else.

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We kept following the path until it led us out of the wood into a building site with a castle in the middle. Despite the loose electric cables and piles of rubble that would make any British health and safety inspector quake in his boots, the castle was still open to the public and was much more fun to explore than the average edifice of this type, entirely because of the lack of lighting, handrails and signs that can turn medieval fortresses into tame tourist attractions.

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We made it back into town along another “road” (read: broken concrete track) that was home to a little pack of wild dogs who we left behind as we moved further in towards the centre. Here we had a two course lunch that came to about £3 each for beer, the local delicacy of tripe soup and stuffed peppers at the misleadingly named “Cina” restaurant.

We had an early start the next day, as we’d booked ourselves in for a guided tour of the painted monasteries of the region. These are really spectacular: they were all built in the 15th-16th centuries, and fortified to defend themselves against the Turks. The idea of painting the outside as well as the inside was thanks to the much loved Stefan III of Moldavia, who would build a church every time he was victorious in battle (which was frequent) and wanted every inch of it to show Biblical scenes. The ones we went to were all surprisingly well preserved, given their age and the extremes of weather typical to that region. Sucevita monastery was particularly beautiful, set nestled in among the mountains, with its frescoes almost entirely complete.

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Sucevita monastery

We set off that evening on a night train to Brasov. Anyone with a map to hand or a reasonable understanding of Romanian geography may be surprised that this journey was long enough to merit a night train, but the Romanian train lines explain this, as there are no connections between the two cities apart from in Bucarest, significantly further south than Brasov. This meant we travelled for nearly twelve hours to cover a distance of about 325 km as the crow flies…

Hungary: land of wine and horses (paradise)

We’d decided to camp in Budapest, but seeing as we’re still incapable of booking anything earlier than the last minute we had to spend our first night in a hostel (Avenue Hostel) as the campsite was full. It was actually quite sad to leave it, as it had nice things like curtains on the bunk beds and a big breakfast included, but we haven’t been lugging a tent around for nothing and thought it was high time to use it again. So the next morning we packed our bags and trundled down to Haller campsite in a nice leafy bit south of the centre, where we set our little tent up underneath an enormous poplar tree and made ourselves at home.

We had high expectations of Budapest and we weren’t disappointed. It’s hard to describe what it is that sets Budapest apart from other European cities: it holds its own in terms of grand architecture and scenic riverside views, but it also has a sort of tantalising allure that draws you to keep exploring. Maybe it’s because of the amalgamation of the two Danube-fronting cities Buda and Pest into one entity in 1873, or maybe it’s partly to do with the incomprehensibility of the Hungarian language, whose only linguistic ties lie much further north in Finland, Estonia, and some remote villages in the Ural mountains. While up till now my knowledge of Slavic languages has helped us through, we arrived in Hungary with no clues about lexis, grammar or syntax. Basically, this meant that the few words we could remember from our phrase book were almost impossible to string together in a way that would make anyone understand us. Luckily, most people spoke English, and the looks on their faces when we managed to utter anything resembling Hungarian was worth all the difficulties with the language.

Our introduction to the city started on the yellow ‘number 2’ tram, which goes along the bank of the Danube on the Pest side, giving beautiful views of the Buda hills and the Royal Palace as it trundles in towards the city centre. We explored the bustling shopping area to the East of Szechenyi (Chain) Bridge, before crossing over to the little funicular railway that runs up Castle Hill to the Royal Palace. This building is truly magnificent, and now houses the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum (which were shut by the time we got up there, but looked very nice). You get amazing views of the city from up here and the sheer splendour of the surroundings slightly discourage you from going inside to an art gallery – how could anything in there be any more impressi ve than what’s outside?

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Proper Grand Budapest Hotel style funicular

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Parliament and the Danube

From the Royal Palace we walked along Castle Hill towards the Fisherman’s Bastion, a pointy-domed neo-gothic arcade that looks magically out towards the Parliament building, which puts Westminster to shame when seen from across the Danube. We had a nice evening stroll back along the river, before having a typical Hungarian meal of meat and stuff to a setting of live guitar in the little restaurant at the campsite.

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As if the Fisherman’s Bastion wasn’t romantic enough

We decided to be proper tourists and invest in ‘Budapest cards’ for the next couple of days, which offer free use of all public transport in the city as well as free entrance or discounts into some museums and attractions. We mostly used this going up and down the Danube on the number 2 tram, but we also got in free to an art gallery in a building called “The Whale”. This is a big glass structure on the Pest bank that folds in on itself in a whaley way and houses, alongside the gallery, classy shops and cafes. The gallery gives a very succinct tour of Hungarian art through about five rooms, which actually makes it pretty much the perfect size for an hour or so’s browse without being too taxing. It’s also practically opposite the famous Nagycsarnok market, a massive building stocked full of meat, pastries, fish, fruit and vegetables, spices, and isles and isles of lace upstairs. We had lunch here, courtesy of the cheese, bread and lettuce salesmen, followed by probably the best strudel I’ve ever had (it was cherry flavoured and I’ll remember it forever more).

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After lunch we went to the “House of Terror,” which supposedly was supposed to enlighten visitors about the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Hungary. We’d heard good things about it, and we were expecting some more eye-opening information about a brutal 20th century, but what we got was a series of “exhibits” (such as socialist realist paintings, ubiquitous bicycles and jackets) with little or no explanation, with the only information being on bits of paper you pick up to take away with you that gave probably the most biased and uninformative view of any museum we’ve been to so far, without going into any detail about the disastrous anti-Soviet protests in 1956. All this was set to highly dramatic music and dim lighting, which I suppose are supposed to “terrify” you into understanding the Soviet regime, but just ended up being confusing and underwhelming. Never mind, eh.

Budapest is famous for its thermal bath houses, a tradition that reaches back to both the Roman and Ottoman occupations. Our Budapest cards gave us free entry to one of the less famous but still very nice ones (Lukasc baths) north of the centre on the Buda side. Apparently its waters are the most healing in all of Budapest, and after spending a couple of hours wizzing around the “lazy river” (a current that pushes you around in a circle); bouncing on top of gushes of water and sitting in a sauna we certainly felt pretty well restored.

On the way back from the bath we got lured into a pub that offered 50p beer, where the bartender convinced us to sample some of Hungary’s famous spirits: schnapps inspired ‘unicum’ and the fruit brand Palinka. Feeling more ready than ever to explore some more of Budapest, we ventured out into the centre to sample the city’s famous night life. All I will say is Szimpla Kert is a magical place, with old cars for seats outside and a DJ on the roof.

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Szimpla Kert – the best place to have a beer in a bath

The outskirts of Buda are home to a strange little collection of memories in a little corner of countryside called “Memento Park”. This is a kind of dumping ground for Soviet statues, open to visitors in a very low-key sort of way. It’s supposed to be a way of preserving the memory of communism in Hungary, as destroying the statues would simply deny it had existed at all. Instead, the place bears witness to the struggles Hungary faced against the Soviet regime, particularly in the 50s and 60s. All that remains of the enormous statue of Stalin that was pulled down in 1956 — his boots – marks the entrance, commemorating the struggles against, and eventual freedom from, the dictatorial reign the statue represented. There’s a tiny museum in a wooden shack that we almost overlooked, but in one room it was far more informative than the “House of Terror,” with a chronological explanation of Hungary’s Soviet history. The other room showed real police footage used in the 60s to train spies, which taught us the proper use of hidden video cameras and the procedure for bugging private homes. So watch out!

DSCF8614We got back into the city, went to City Park, and fell asleep. Then we had a very slow walk around our surroundings, paid a visit to the massively grand “Heroes’ Square” and looked at the wonderfully silly architectural mishmash of the castle on the banks of the lake. We had the delicacy of cold spaghetti for dinner, our first real attempt of cooking on our camping stove, which was cheered up by a huge salad courtesy of the food market and Hungarian wine in mugs.

And then the next day we went to Eger, where we CAMPED AGAIN! (Tulipan camping – blissfully peaceful and about 5 minutes away from the nearest wine cellar.)

DSCF8666Eger is a quiet little town in the Northeast of Hungary, famous for the production of “Bikaver”, a dry red wine whose name translates as “bulls blood”. This all dates back to the Turkish attacks of the 15th century, which Eger resisted heartily and improbably given the size of its army, prompting the belief that they got their great strength from drinking the blood of beasts. Now the wine gets drunk in large quantities by the many Polish visitors to the city, who, along with whichever other tourists manage to find their way there, enjoy the freely flowing red stuff that gets downed to the sound of gypsy bands in the so-called “Valley of Beautiful Women” (Szepasszony Volgy). WE GOT A FREE GLASS OF WINE AT THE MOST FANCY RESTAURANT IN TOWN. IT WAS REALLY REALLY NICE. (Apparently we were the 100th customers that evening and they didn’t take no for an answer, so…)

The other main draw of this town is its castle, which probably played a more important part in the whole “army of about 200 000 Turks gets defeated by 2000 Hungarians” thing than copious amounts of red wine did. It’s currently under restoration as, it seems, is most of the rest of the town centre, but still gives really good views and ample wall-climbing opportunities. It also houses a torture museum in the dungeon, which has such disturbing exhibits as Vlad Tepes-style impaling spikes and other gruesome instruments that give away the possible depravities of the human race. There’s also a slightly more tame history museum, which outlines how the area changed hands over the centuries.

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Eger from the castle, featuring Europe’s most northern surviving minaret from Ottoman times

Probably the best thing about Eger, though, was that I finally got to go on a horse. It was a grey Lipizzaner (they are bred in the area), called something along the lines of “Muzhe”, who took me for a nice stroll among the vineyards while Wimbledon chilled out at the campsite and read his book. Matyus Udvarhaz stables also boasts a “carriage museum”, which is really a two room collection of old carriages. Pretty interesting, but best when combined with a £10 hack on one of their beautiful horses.

Slovakia: a backpacker’s paradise (once you’ve left all the other backpackers behind at Bratislava station)

We arrived in Košice, which is a studenty town in the East of Slovakia, at 8am, knackered but excited to be in a new country. The roads around the long central square are lined with cafes, and a musical fountain in the centre provides a constant background of nice tunes accompanied by the splashing of water as you wander between the big Gothic cathedral (Europe’s most eastern, apparently) and the opera house. We decided we liked this town as soon as we crossed the park away from the station into the town centre, and realised we could have a big plate of scrambled eggs with sausage, coffee and orange juice at a nice bar in the centre for about five euros each, with a view of the cathedral to boot.

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The inspiration for angry birds? On the porch of Kosice cathedral

We stayed in “The Hostel Above Club Madrid”, another hostel above a bustling bar filled with locals, although this one was a nicer place to stay in than the one in Ceske Budejovice. The staff spoke good English, were interested in the hostel as well as the bar, and the accommodation was comfortable. On top of that and most importantly, the bar’s beer garden is a massive sandpit filled with boats you can sit in and comfortable chairs.

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hostel boat

 While Kosice is a great place in itself to chill out and people watch at one of the many bars or cafes, it is also the gateway to the beautiful countryside and dramatic castles that fill this region of Slovakia. So the next day we decided to brave the rain and head off to see Spis castle, one of the biggest castles in Central Europe. The trip was complicated somewhat by the fact that we had decided to move straight on from there to Zdiar, a village in the high Tatra mountains where we were planning to spend that night. So instead of choosing the straightforward route of a return bus trip to the castle from Kosice, we went to the nearest town with a station that has a left luggage office – Poprad – where we stored our bags before getting a train to Spiska Nova Ves, where we got on a bus that would take us to Spiske Pohrady, from which we could walk to the castle. This entire journey took about five hours, and covered very little distance. But we got there in the end, slightly cold and ratty, and set to the task of climbing up the extremely slippery hill up to the castle.

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Spis castle in all its glory

It was well worth it. The footpaths up to the castle don’t cope very well with wet weather, but we finally scrambled to the top, where we realised that there’s a paved road and a carpark for those who are lazier but probably more sensible than us. Inside, there’s a cafe (very much needed after the cold, wet climb), souvenir stalls and really good castly things like walls you can walk on, cannons, dungeons and more. But probably most impressive of all is the sheer beauty of the landscape around, which in the rainy weather looked perhaps even more dramatic, as thick white clouds mulled mysteriously around the encircling mountains and the odd ray of light would break through the clouds and illuminate parts of the village below.

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By the time we got back to Poprad at about 7pm we realised we’d missed the last bus before 10pm by about five minutes. After a day of sitting around at bus and train stations our resolve cracked and we agreed to split the costs and get a taxi up to Zdiar.

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View from the Ginger Monkey hostel, Zdiar

We arrived as the sun was setting and had just enough light to find our hostel, which was tucked behind the church. This was probably the most magical place we’d stayed in so far, as we arrived after a long day to find a warm, welcoming place with a dog and piles of walking maps, books and DVDs. They also do an amazing free breakfast, with copious amounts of thinckly sliced bread with jam, butter and boiled eggs, as well as real coffee. We were celebrating being exactly half way through our two month long trip, and were humbled to meet someone there who had been travelling for two years. The hostel’s called the ‘Ginger Monkey’ and is one we will definitely return to one day as a base to further explore the Tatra mountains, “Slovak Paradise”, the Polish lakes north of the border and more, as well as hang out with the cool staff and the friendly guests the place seems to attract.

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Our hostel, complete with “Wally” the dog

It was sad to stay only one night, but the next day after two walks through mountains and along rivers we had to move on, as we were going to meet some family friends who have a summer home in a beautiful traditional Slovak village in the low Tatras. They live in a small cottage they built themselves, following the traditional style to the letter, bar a bathroom that’s in the process of completion despite the lack of running water yet (there’s a much more traditional “manly toilet” in an outhouse that Wimbledon was ceremoniously invited to use if he preferred: an offer he politely declined). The village is Velke Borove, and its one of the few surviving places where you can see real traditional wooden houses in Slovakkia. It’s suffering the same fate as villages across Europe, as the young are moving out to find better paid jobs in the city and holiday home owners are taking their places. The influx of richer city dwellers has its plus side though, as at least some of them bring the money and the desire to preserve the traditional cottages typical of the region.

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“Donatello” outside his house in Velke Borove

A shortish walk away from the village there is an impressive watermill, entirely reconstructed by a group of people working to protect Slovak heritage. Now it’s a fully fledged saw mill as well as a popular attraction for Slovak and Polish tourists, set in a beautiful gorge and home to three friendly goats and a few cats. There’s a huge network of walks reaching out from here, one of which follows an extremely steep and (again) slippery path up to a viewpoint over and across the gorge. It was probably worth going up there for the view, but passing streams of children going down, wailing as they realised their wellies gave them no grip on the treacherously slidey path was just a bit worrying.

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Goatish inhabitants of the watermill near Velke Borove

Once we were safely on flat ground we had traditional sheep’s cheese dumplings for lunch in the village. These taste deliciously like an even more stodgy macaroni cheese and are the perfect comfort food, but a whole plateful will probably dissuade you from eating for a few days at least. With our stomachs bulging, all four of us plus Donatello the dog piled into the car, as we hitched a lift all the 300 km to Bratislava with our hosts Viera and Josef.

Bratislava is fairly small for a capital city, and the uncontrollable influx of Brits on stag parties can make the city centre a bit claustrophobic for travellers who have come from the dramatically beautiful East. As the marvel of pretty onion domes and quaint churches has started to wear off us, we decided to move on quite quickly to somewhere where the quantity of drunk British tourists per square meter might be lower (there were three people from my home town in the common room of the hostel alone at one point), and got on a train to Budapest at 4pm the next day. We did manage to find some bits of piece and quiet in the city though, in places like Grassalkovich park, which commemorates electric light and was holding a contemporary sculpture exhibition when we visited; and a nice cafe called “Savage Garden” that faces onto a strange dry concrete fountain.

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Wet fountain and sculpture in Grasalkovich park

So our conclusion is that while Bratislava is nice, if you want to really see Slovakia, go ANYWHERE outside of the capital and you will never want to leave. We didn’t. Well, except maybe to go to Budapest…

From Ukraine to Slovakia: a world in limbo

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Setting off from Lviv with Iryna’s sweetts

After an almost sleepless night on the train from Lviv, we were woken by the conductor telling us that we were about to pull into Chop, a border town on the Ukrainian-Slovak border. It was 2:20 am. We crept cautiously down from our bunks, tried for what seemed an eternity to wake up the child who was dead to the world, asleep on the folding bench that our backpacks were stored in, finally succeeded in retrieving our things and lugged ourselves and our luggage out onto the platform. After only a few stumbling steps into the darkness we were stopped by two border officials who looked intently at our passports before writing my name down on a piece of paper and letting us move on, into the station itself. Chop station is huge, and it was almost entirely deserted. The enormous entrance hall has only five or six benches lining the walls, leaving a great expanse of nothing between the one open ticket window and the place where we could sit down. A vast Soviet frieze lines the walls, and the sparse lighting above the benches does little to provide illumination, giving the Socialist Realist figures above us a ghostly demeanour that seemed rather appropriate for the situation. We made our way to the ticket office, where I asked in Russian about crossing the border and riding on to Kosice, Slovakia’s second city. The price that we were quoted (12 euros 50 each) was vastly more than we had paid for transport so far in Ukraine and we didn’t have enough Hryvnias between us to cover it. So, seeing that there were no facilities to pay with card or euros, we set off out into the shabby border town at half past three in the morning, in search of a cash machine.

The area around the station was almost deserted, bar one or two lingering drunks who we stayed well away from. The roads were unpaved or at least in very bad condition, from what we could tell from the singular street light. From what we could tell, there was one main street, sparsely lined with fast food outlets and shops advertising “cash for gold”. Finally, turning a corner, we found a promising looking neon bank sign and an ATM below it. It didn’t work. After lugging ourselves back into the station and asking the lady in the ticket window if there were any other ‘Bankomats’ nearby, we set off for a second time into the darkness. This time we did manage to find one that reluctantly spat some money out at us, and we set off back to the station slightly richer but even more paranoid about potential muggers. We bought our tickets with a sigh of relief and the instruction that “the train will arrive at 5:25. The border doors will open for you forty minutes beforehand. You must go there then.” Unsure where these “border doors” were but feeling relatively safe in the knowledge that we could see every corner of this inexplicably large and empty building, we went back to the distant benches and sat down to wait. Eventually a slim woman appeared at a doorway across the room from us. She beckoned to us from across the hall and we went over. We were led into what looked like a small airport security check, where a Ukrainian man asked us IN ENGLISH if we were carrying any alcohol, cigarettes or medicine. Looking rather confused at our answer of “just paracetamol” (why would anyone try to cross into the EU from Ukraine if not to smuggle their unbelievably cheap fags and booze?), he gave our bags a brief pat down and pointed towards the security booths, where our passports were stamped unceremoniously and we were herded off towards our train.

We were the only passengers on the night train from Chop to Cierna nad Tisou, the town on the other side of the border. We were met on board by a smiley woman who jabbered away to us jollily before saying in Ukrainian “ah, you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” which, ironically, I understood. She checked our tickets and moved on, leaving us alone in a rickety carriage clearly belonging to a train that was old and broken enough to be relegated to the simple job of ferrying people the five or so miles from one world into another. It was just beginning to be twilight, and the carriage was scantily lit. Eventually the train pulled off, reaching a high speed of about fifteen miles an hour, its internal doors opening and shutting themselves ghostily as it creaked along. Dawn gradually started to break through the darkness, and we placed bets on when exactly we were crossing the border. Large fences and look-out posts gave the game away just as we pulled into a small platform. Here two men entered, demanding to see our passports before doing a much more thorough search of our bags, still incredulous as to our lack of smuggled goods. They took away our passports and we waited.

By the time our passports we returned to us and the train pulled away from the border crossing it was light. We arrived in Cierna about ten minutes later, where we got off the train and wandered around being lost before being picked up by a friendly ticket inspector who had clearly been told to make sure the confused, travel-worn Brits made it safely onto the train to Kosice. Once on board, safe in the knowledge that we were once again in the comparatively safe haven of the European Union, we fell asleep, and were finally awoken by the same ticket inspector, telling us with a smile that we had got to Kosice, and that it was 7:30 in the morning.

Looking back on that journey, we’ve both decided that it would have been much easier to get the direct train from Lviv to Bratislava, but that that would have been much less fun. We would advise anyone doing the same route as us to take more than one bottle of water with you, as there are no shops in Chop or Cierna stations where you can top up, and travelling is very dehydrating. Also to book odd-numbered seats on Russian or Ukrainian sleeper trains, so that you end up on the lower bunk with easy access to your bags. And to bring at least as many hryvnias with you as you would normally budget for a day’s accommodation and food in Lviv in order to get across the border. But despite not having done any of those things we survived, and it was an adventure.

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Leaving Ukraine on a veritable ghost train

From Ukraine to Slovakia: a world in limbo

DSCF8318

Setting off from Lviv with Iryna’s sweetts

After an almost sleepless night on the train from Lviv, we were woken by the conductor telling us that we were about to pull into Chop, a border town on the Ukrainian-Slovak border. It was 2:20 am. We crept cautiously down from our bunks, tried for what seemed an eternity to wake up the child who was dead to the world, asleep on the folding bench that our backpacks were stored in, finally succeeded in retrieving our things and lugged ourselves and our luggage out onto the platform. After only a few stumbling steps into the darkness we were stopped by two border officials who looked intently at our passports before writing my name down on a piece of paper and letting us move on, into the station itself. Chop station is huge, and it was almost entirely deserted. The enormous entrance hall has only five or six benches lining the walls, leaving a great expanse of nothing between the one open ticket window and the place where we could sit down. A vast Soviet frieze lines the walls, and the sparse lighting above the benches does little to provide illumination, giving the Socialist Realist figures above us a ghostly demeanour that seemed rather appropriate for the situation. We made our way to the ticket office, where I asked in Russian about crossing the border and riding on to Kosice, Slovakia’s second city. The price that we were quoted (12 euros 50 each) was vastly more than we had paid for transport so far in Ukraine and we didn’t have enough Hryvnias between us to cover it. So, seeing that there were no facilities to pay with card or euros, we set off out into the shabby border town at half past three in the morning, in search of a cash machine.

The area around the station was almost deserted, bar one or two lingering drunks who we stayed well away from. The roads were unpaved or at least in very bad condition, from what we could tell from the singular street light. From what we could tell, there was one main street, sparsely lined with fast food outlets and shops advertising “cash for gold”. Finally, turning a corner, we found a promising looking neon bank sign and an ATM below it. It didn’t work. After lugging ourselves back into the station and asking the lady in the ticket window if there were any other ‘Bankomats’ nearby, we set off for a second time into the darkness. This time we did manage to find one that reluctantly spat some money out at us, and we set off back to the station slightly richer but even more paranoid about potential muggers. We bought our tickets with a sigh of relief and the instruction that “the train will arrive at 5:25. The border doors will open for you forty minutes beforehand. You must go there then.” Unsure where these “border doors” were but feeling relatively safe in the knowledge that we could see every corner of this inexplicably large and empty building, we went back to the distant benches and sat down to wait. Eventually a slim woman appeared at a doorway across the room from us. She beckoned to us from across the hall and we went over. We were led into what looked like a small airport security check, where a Ukrainian man asked us IN ENGLISH if we were carrying any alcohol, cigarettes or medicine. Looking rather confused at our answer of “just paracetamol” (why would anyone try to cross into the EU from Ukraine if not to smuggle their unbelievably cheap fags and booze?), he gave our bags a brief pat down and pointed towards the security booths, where our passports were stamped unceremoniously and we were herded off towards our train.

We were the only passengers on the night train from Chop to Cierna nad Tisou, the town on the other side of the border. We were met on board by a smiley woman who jabbered away to us jollily before saying in Ukrainian “ah, you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” which, ironically, I understood. She checked our tickets and moved on, leaving us alone in a rickety carriage clearly belonging to a train that was old and broken enough to be relegated to the simple job of ferrying people the five or so miles from one world into another. It was just beginning to be twilight, and the carriage was scantily lit. Eventually the train pulled off, reaching a high speed of about fifteen miles an hour, its internal doors opening and shutting themselves ghostily as it creaked along. Dawn gradually started to break through the darkness, and we placed bets on when exactly we were crossing the border. Large fences and look-out posts gave the game away just as we pulled into a small platform. Here two men entered, demanding to see our passports before doing a much more thorough search of our bags, still incredulous as to our lack of smuggled goods. They took away our passports and we waited.

By the time our passports we returned to us and the train pulled away from the border crossing it was light. We arrived in Cierna about ten minutes later, where we got off the train and wandered around being lost before being picked up by a friendly ticket inspector who had clearly been told to make sure the confused, travel-worn Brits made it safely onto the train to Kosice. Once on board, safe in the knowledge that we were once again in the comparatively safe haven of the European Union, we fell asleep, and were finally awoken by the same ticket inspector, telling us with a smile that we had got to Kosice, and that it was 7:30 in the morning.

Looking back on that journey, we’ve both decided that it would have been much easier to get the direct train from Lviv to Bratislava, but that that would have been much less fun. We would advise anyone doing the same route as us to take more than one bottle of water with you, as there are no shops in Chop or Cierna stations where you can top up, and travelling is very dehydrating. Also to book odd-numbered seats on Russian or Ukrainian sleeper trains, so that you end up on the lower bunk with easy access to your bags. And to bring at least as many hryvnias with you as you would normally budget for a day’s accommodation and food in Lviv in order to get across the border. But despite not having done any of those things we survived, and it was an adventure.

DSCF8319

Leaving Chop on a veritable ghost train

 

From Ukraine to Slovakia: a world in limbo

DSCF8318

Setting off from Lviv with Iryna’s sweetts

After an almost sleepless night on the train from Lviv, we were woken by the conductor telling us that we were about to pull into Chop, a border town on the Ukrainian-Slovak border. It was 2:20 am. We crept cautiously down from our bunks, tried for what seemed an eternity to wake up the child who was dead to the world, asleep on the folding bench that our backpacks were stored in, finally succeeded in retrieving our things and lugged ourselves and our luggage out onto the platform. After only a few stumbling steps into the darkness we were stopped by two border officials who looked intently at our passports before writing my name down on a piece of paper and letting us move on, into the station itself. Chop station is huge, and it was almost entirely deserted. The enormous entrance hall has only five or six benches lining the walls, leaving a great expanse of nothing between the one open ticket window and the place where we could sit down. A vast Soviet frieze lines the walls, and the sparse lighting above the benches does little to provide illumination, giving the Socialist Realist figures above us a ghostly demeanour that seemed rather appropriate for the situation. We made our way to the ticket office, where I asked in Russian about crossing the border and riding on to Kosice, Slovakia’s second city. The price that we were quoted (12 euros 50 each) was vastly more than we had paid for transport so far in Ukraine and we didn’t have enough Hryvnias between us to cover it. So, seeing that there were no facilities to pay with card or euros, we set off out into the shabby border town at half past three in the morning, in search of a cash machine.

The area around the station was almost deserted, bar one or two lingering drunks who we stayed well away from. The roads were unpaved or at least in very bad condition, from what we could tell from the singular street light. From what we could tell, there was one main street, sparsely lined with fast food outlets and shops advertising “cash for gold”. Finally, turning a corner, we found a promising looking neon bank sign and an ATM below it. It didn’t work. After lugging ourselves back into the station and asking the lady in the ticket window if there were any other ‘Bankomats’ nearby, we set off for a second time into the darkness. This time we did manage to find one that reluctantly spat some money out at us, and we set off back to the station slightly richer but even more paranoid about potential muggers. We bought our tickets with a sigh of relief and the instruction that “the train will arrive at 5:25. The border doors will open for you forty minutes beforehand. You must go there then.” Unsure where these “border doors” were but feeling relatively safe in the knowledge that we could see every corner of this inexplicably large and empty building, we went back to the distant benches and sat down to wait. Eventually a slim woman appeared at a doorway across the room from us. She beckoned to us from across the hall and we went over. We were led into what looked like a small airport security check, where a Ukrainian man asked us IN ENGLISH if we were carrying any alcohol, cigarettes or medicine. Looking rather confused at our answer of “just paracetamol” (why would anyone try to cross into the EU from Ukraine if not to smuggle their unbelievably cheap fags and booze?), he gave our bags a brief pat down and pointed towards the security booths, where our passports were stamped unceremoniously and we were herded off towards our train.

We were the only passengers on the night train from Chop to Cierna nad Tisou, the town on the other side of the border. We were met on board by a smiley woman who jabbered away to us jollily before saying in Ukrainian “ah, you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” which, ironically, I understood. She checked our tickets and moved on, leaving us alone in a rickety carriage clearly belonging to a train that was old and broken enough to be relegated to the simple job of ferrying people the five or so miles from one world into another. It was just beginning to be twilight, and the carriage was scantily lit. Eventually the train pulled off, reaching a high speed of about fifteen miles an hour, its internal doors opening and shutting themselves ghostily as it creaked along. Dawn gradually started to break through the darkness, and we placed bets on when exactly we were crossing the border. Large fences and look-out posts gave the game away just as we pulled into a small platform. Here two men entered, demanding to see our passports before doing a much more thorough search of our bags, still incredulous as to our lack of smuggled goods. They took away our passports and we waited.

By the time our passports we returned to us and the train pulled away from the border crossing it was light. We arrived in Cierna about ten minutes later, where we got off the train and wandered around being lost before being picked up by a friendly ticket inspector who had clearly been told to make sure the confused, travel-worn Brits made it safely onto the train to Kosice. Once on board, safe in the knowledge that we were once again in the comparatively safe haven of the European Union, we fell asleep, and were finally awoken by the same ticket inspector, telling us with a smile that we had got to Kosice, and that it was 7:30 in the morning.

Looking back on that journey, we’ve both decided that it would have been much easier to get the direct train from Lviv to Bratislava, but that that would have been much less fun. We would advise anyone doing the same route as us to take more than one bottle of water with you, as there are no shops in Chop or Cierna stations where you can top up, and travelling is very dehydrating. Also to book odd-numbered seats on Russian or Ukrainian sleeper trains, so that you end up on the lower bunk with easy access to your bags. And to bring at least as many hryvnias with you as you would normally budget for a day’s accommodation and food in Lviv in order to get across the border. But despite not having done any of those things we survived, and it was an adventure.

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Leaving Chop on a veritable ghost train

 

Ukraine: I think I want to LVIV here!! (Get it?)

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Evening dancers in Lviv’s main square

Well, maybe not. You may have picked up on the fact that the country isn’t in a particularly good way right now: a new chocolate-king president, a lost peninsula and a very real war-zone in two of the country’s eastern regions. The fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk has been a news-reel staple since it began in March and it’s a common – and not necessarily unjustified – assumption that the entire country is on the brink of disaster. But the western city of Lviv is carrying on as normal, albeit clouded by the same nervous tension as we encountered in the Baltics, where people fear that Putin’s desire for expansion won’t stop at the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

This was my third visit to Lviv, a city which seems to have become an annual destination for me. And it doesn’t seem to have changed much since last year, despite the Maidan protests and all the aftermath. The historic town centre is still just as full of tourists, although the balance now tips much more heavily towards those from the East than the Westerners I had previously encountered. The cafes are still buzzing, transport is still running like clockwork and the hostels are still almost full. The biggest changes we saw on a surface level were that the famous Lviv chocolate shop is now running a line of chocolate Putins (that customers can dismantle at their leisure) and television sets show a steady stream of gunfire on the local news channels.

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A new arrival on Lviv’s chocolate shop shelves: chocolate Putin

According to Iryna, a friend of mine we visited in the small town of Horodok near the Polish border, the only way you know that there is a war on in the country is that eastern Ukrainian refugees are arriving in the West and young men are leaving to fight in the East, and sometimes they don’t return.

Nonetheless, the night bus we caught from Krakow was full of Polish and Ukrainian passengers, even if we were the only Brits aboard. The border crossing went slowly, with our passports being taken away twice and mysteriously, before being returned with a new orange Ukrainian stamp. We arrived in Lviv over an hour early, in a part of town I had never seen before – the two previous trips I’d been on had started at the airport and the train station respectively. The coach station is further out, located a good half an hour’s bus ride from the centre in the middle of a huge expanse of nondescript 1950’s Soviet apartment blocks. Even when we were dropped off the “marshrutka” bus in the “centre” I still wasn’t a hundred percent sure that we were actually in the right city – we could see no road signs and nothing was familiar. Luckily, after a five minute dazed walk, we turned a corner and came face to face with the impressive opera house, and knew that we hadn’t come all this way to end up in some God-forsaken town in the middle of a country that all our friends and relatives had strongly advised us against going to. We were in Lviv, and it was beautiful.

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Lviv Opera House

The first thing we did after dropping off our bags and showering in the small but jolly “Arthouse” hostel was look for breakfast. We found it at Strudel Haus, a 1930’s Vienna-themed cafe that offers a full breakfast including a drink for 30 hryvnia (about £1.30). Still reeling from the small amount of sleep we had on the night bus, we went straight from there to one of Lviv’s most impressive themed cafes (Lviv doesn’t really do cafes that don’t have some sort of theme or activity… this makes coffee drinking a much more interactive experience than you might be used to): Lviv Coffee Mining Manufacture. To get there you go down a dark staircase, at the bottom of which you are handed a hard hat with a headtorch and directed off into the “coffee mine”. Here an incredibly silly and elaborate route leads you along minecart tracks past displays of “miners” harvesting coffee from the rocks below Lviv, before eventually dropping you off into an underground cafe. The speciality is caramel coffee, served hardcore crème-brulee style with a huge blowtorch and the warning not to lean forwards into the enormous jet of fire being spouted by the waiter. You exit through a gift shop which probably sells all the silly coffee-themed inventions under the sun as well as offering you the chance to bring home your own freshly-bagged Lviv coffee.

The next stop on our tour of extremely inventive cafes was the “House of Legends”. Each room in this five-floor building is devoted to a different aspect of Lviv, with sections dedicated to the city’s lions (the town’s symbol); the history of publishing in Ukraine, which started in Lviv; the river that was forced underground in order to find space for the huge opera house and a rooftop terrace featuring a flying car and a chimney you can climb up. This is where ate lunch, overlooking the sea of rooftops below us and the old castle hill before us.

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We spent that afternoon perusing the streets of Lviv, enjoying the faded grandeur that seeps from buildings that were once witness to a much more prosperous time for the country, when it was one of Poland’s crowing jewels. Now the once faultless façades crumble elegantly above the rickety tram lines and noisy cobbled streets. It even made me quite poetic.

Our walk took us along a small path leading behind the Bernadine church, just inside the city walls. Here a laid-back violinist was filling the air with perfectly performed folk tunes in a nook in the old crumbling wall while people were strolling past. We came out through the city gates onto the noisy Pidvalna street towards the towering statue of Ivan Fedorov, the first printer in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The area around the statue is now a bustling book market, full of people perusing and enjoying books in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.

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We had dinner in yet another themed restaurant: this time it was torture. Meat and Justice offers a reduced menu of chunks of meat, served in a setting of guillotine chairs, cages and scythes. The heavy metal atmosphere died down a bit towards the end though, as the soundtrack blaring through the speakers moved from Guns and Roses to Celine Dion.

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A tortuous meal at Meat and Justice

After dinner we were lucky to catch a live jazz session at Dzyga bar. The bottom floor of this wonderful place houses art exhibitions, which are open as long as the bar is, while the upstairs part offers Ukrainian food, beer and cocktails. Sipping a cosmopolitan to the sound of a live jazz band, I certainly felt far from the war zone I’m sure my mother imagined I was in.

The next day had a disappointing start as we tried to have breakfast in the scenic Jewish restaurant “At the Golden Rose”. Seeing that the menu didn’t have any prices on it, we agreed a fair price to pay with the waiter and had a nice meal. When the bill arrived at a considerably higher price than what we had been quoted we raised the issue with the waiter, who wouldn’t back down but said that this sort of ambiguity was “part of his culture”. We left with a very bitter taste in our mouths, sad that this was the way Jewish culture was being portrayed to tourists, as well as feeling rather out of pocket. At least the food was good!

We spent the next couple of hours following one of the extremely high-quality and informative booklets we were given for free at the tourist information office. It followed the course of the underground Poltava river, which had been embedded under the city in the 19th century to make way for the Opera House. Our walk started by drinking some Lviv coffee (traditionally sweet with cinnamon) at the “Left Bank” restaurant located underneath the Opera House, where you can see part of the river running alongside the entry passage.

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Outside the Opera House

That afternoon we climbed up “Vysoky Zamok” hill to get the best view of the city around. The arduous climb was followed by an idyllic picnic stop at a bar with little cabins you can sit in and a ludicrously well decorated interior. Wandering round the park below the “castle” (now just a mound with fantastic views over the city and the hills beyond) was probably one of the most relaxing experiences of the trip so far: the trees had started to turn into their autumnal colours, which complemented the green green grass below. Small gaps in the foliage gave glimpses of the onion domes below, which we eventually returned to after our stroll.

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We had dinner in “Kryjivka”, the most Ukrainian of all the themed bars in Lviv. The entrance is hidden: in order to get in, you have to knock on a window and, when requested by the armed guard who opens the door, say the password “Slava Ukraini” (glory to Ukraine). The response to this is “Heroyam slava” (glory to the heroes) and this lets you through to the entrance hall, where you are given a shot of traditional Ukrainian honey vodka before heading through to the restaurant. The point of all this is to commemorate the Ukrainian partisans, or the UPA, who fought against the Nazis, Poles and the Soviets from 1943-9. It’s a strongly patriotic place, but as long as you know the password and its answer, and respect the Ukrainian traditions, you are made to feel fairly welcome as a tourist (as much as possible when the serving staff carry guns, anyway!). We sampled Lviv’s “Lvivske” beer, a delicious plate of “varenki” dumplings stuffed with cabbage with a mushroom sauce, and the traditional fat spread, “salo”. This was the first weird traditional food that Wimbledon didn’t like, so I felt like I scored a little victory there.

Sticking to traditional Ukrainian things to do, the next morning we went out of the centre of town to visit the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life “Shevchenkivsky Hay”. This huge park has over 120 traditional wooden buildings grouped into farmsteads, and is a great way to spend a peaceful morning exploring. It’s incredibly scenic, and displays building styles that are traditional from across Ukraine. A highlight is the Cossak’s homestead, where a Cossak brandishing a sword serves you home-made kvas, a refreshing drink made of fermented rye bread, and kulish, a sort of delicious broth made of millet, salo and potatoes.

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At this point we realised that it was much later than we thought it was, so rushed home to pack our bags and head off to the station to print our tickets to the border town of Chop, which we were leaving to later that evening (you can buy a receipt online but still need to queue for hours to get the official paper ticket in the station) and get on a bus to see my friend Iryna in the small town of Horodok. It was great to see her and her family, with her little boy now a year older at 17 months. We didn’t have much time there unfortunately but managed to fit in an enormous dinner of borscht, schnitzel, potatoes, cheese and biscuits, as well as husband Bo’s home-made red wine, before being packed off back to Lviv with our bags bulging with chocolates and cakes.

We made it back to Lviv station with just enough time to spare to have one last quick half litre of Lvivske before jumping onto our sleeper train. From here we headed south towards the Slovakian border and started one of the most bizarre journeys we’d had on our trip so far.

Krakow

It turns out there are no direct public transport links between Brno, one of the largest towns in eastern Czech Republic, and Krakow, probably the most important south-eastern Polish city. Even the indirect routes didn’t make sense, most of them going all the way back west via Prague. Luckily we stumbled across the very slow-to-load and slightly dodgy-looking “Tigerbus” website, which just about proved to be our saviour from public transport woes mark II. I say slow-to-load and dodgy, but in reality this company arranged for us to go on a “StudentAgency” bus to the delightful “Czech Republic’s Birmingham,” Ostrava, where we got picked up in a very clean, stripy, extremely speedy minibus that took us across the border. All this for the very reasonable sum of about 15 euros, including a free bottle of water and a much more comfortable ride than what we’ve been used to so far.

We’re back in Poland!

DSCF8184We arrived at our perfectly functional and friendly “GlobArt hostel at about 10 30pm and set off to explore the town at night. Here we found what promised to be an extremely beautiful old town with a massive centre square that houses a little market that was still going on at this time of night. I got very excited about the hundreds of horses trotting around with carriages and Wimbledon got concerned about the relative cost of beer on Krakow’s main square compared to what it is in the Czech Republic. I was too distracted by watching a pair of spotty horses to really care.

DSCF8157The next day we decided to relax and recharge our batteries, and spent quite a lot of this time in the lovely park that runs round the border of the Old town. Sitting by the impressive barbican next to a fountain and birch trees in the sunshine… perfect.

DSCF8148Once we managed to drag ourselves off the grass we carried on wandering around the Old Town, admiring the beautiful churches and pretty cobbled streets. We stopped for a smoothie at the cosy “Bona cafe and bookshop”, which is located opposite SS Peter and Paul’s church. The church is famous for its mottley crew of the twelve disciples hanging around outside, who were a rather impressive audience to our stop for refreshment. All this was accompanied by a busker with an amazing voice singing Italian arias as if she were performing in La Scala. I don’t think we’ve ever felt so classy.

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SS Peter and Paul’s church

That evening we met up with my friend Solomiya, who convinced us that Krakow is not as expensive as we thought by showing us to BaniaLuca, a chain offering drinks for one euro and food for two. We then dragged her to a pretty average Japanese restaurant that had been described in our “InYourPocket” guide as “the best tempura outside of Japan”. Having tasted that, we decided to stay in Europe for a while. At this point Solomiya went to meet another friend and we went to explore the Kazimierz district, which we had heard had unparalleled fun bars and cafes. This didn’t disappoint, as we found a microbrewery with live music and deckchairs called the Beer Gallery before heading to Mechanoff bar on the buzzing Plac Nowy. This place is really fun, with weird human shapes splurging clay-like out of the walls, empty picture frames and a great atmosphere. After feeling a bit fed up with the Old Town’s rather-too-pristine vibe the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz was just what we needed. It’s also the best place to get hold of the Krakow speciality of things on toasted French bread, called “zapiekanky”. Our evaluation of this much bigged-up food stuff is “it’s fancy cheese on toast”.

Our last day in Krakow involved our usual trick of trying to see an entire city in one day, failing at that, but still doing a pretty good job. We went up to the impressive Wawel castle with the intention of having a little look around and maybe popping in on one of only four portraits of women done by Leonardo da Vinci: the Lady with an Ermine. Sadly the Lady is currently a refugee, being termporarily housed in her own gallery in the castle (yeah, an entire gallery just for one picture) while her usual house is being restored. In order to see her you have to join the ridiculously long queue of people trying to buy tickets for all of the castle’s various attractions, so we decided to give that a miss and come back to Krakow to visit her when the Czartoryskis museum reopens and she can move back into her permanent dwelling.

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Wawel castle’s impressive cathedral

Any trip to Krakow can’t ignore the city’s brutal past, particularly regarding what happened there in under Nazi rule. Shiny posters advertising day trips to Auschwitz abound, alongside those encouraging people to visit the nearby salt mines or go on a brewery tour of the town. We didn’t feel quite ready to join a band of jolly juice-carton swigging ‘lads on tour’ on a trip to probably one of the largest sites of genocide the world has ever seen so decided to stick to some reflection inside the city’s boundaries with a visit to the Schindler’s factory museum. We didn’t regret the choice, as the museum was extremely hard-hitting without making you feel like you’re trespassing on a place that witnessed the suffering and execution of thousands (not that I’m condemning visiting Auschwitz, we just personally couldn’t face it). The museum still manages to portray the horror of the Holocaust in extremely vivid multimedia exhibitions, including a cramped walkway through a mock-up of the towering gravestone-like ghetto walls, which were papered with succinct and extremely shocking accounts of life in the ghetto before it was raised in March 1943. Visiting the museum took up a large amount of the day and we needed a fair bit of recovery afterwards, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the Holocaust in greater depth.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the old Jewish quarter, which has now risen from its ashes to become a vibrant, bohemian quarter of town. Small arty shops abound, particularly around Jozefa street, and we found lots of beautiful murals like this one:

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We spent the evening walking by the river and thinking about stuff before getting on our 23:15 bus that was to cross the Ukrainian border towards Lviv. Thus marked our exit from the EU for a couple of days and a border that was to prove noticeable in more ways than just giving us the first stamp on our passport of our trip so far.

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Here’s a pigeon pretending to be a brick. Essential part of blog post.

On the shores of South Bohemia: České Budejovice and Český Krumlov. PLUS a dip into Moravia

We left Prague early-ish the next morning to embark upon the two and a half hour train ride to České Budejovice, home of the real Czech Budvar beer (not to be confused with the American rubbish, Budweiser). Pulling in at around three in the afternoon after a very hasty departure from our campsite and a hairy tram ride making it to the station just in time, vowing never to leave that late again, we found our hostel and breathed a sigh of relief.

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The highlight of Ceske Budejovice’s main square: a silly fish fountain

We were staying at Cuba Bar and Hostel, a wonderful establishment with a real live buzzing pub full of Czech locals housed underneath a clean and homely guesthouse. The main problem was that the bar staff were also in charge of the hostel and most of them had extremely limited or non-existent English. So, a good chance for me to practice my Czech but probably not an ideal solution for people who are afraid of miming the fact that they want to wash their clothes in front of a crowd of Czech locals at nine in the evening. Dorm rooms are single-sex and I recommend being a girl if you end up going there: instead of the standard bunk beds given to the boys, girls are housed in what resembles a head teacher’s spare room, with lots of comfy embroidered sofas, proper wooden-framed beds and a big mahogany table. There are also no fewer than three fully-equipped kitchens, giving us ample opportunity to avoid large lumps of meat or fried cheese and actually eat something healthy for a change.

České Budejovice is a nice chilled-out town that I wish we could have spent more time in. Its main draw is the huge main square and the Budvar that flows extremely freely, but it’s also worth visiting if you want to experience a more “real” and friendly town than the capital. It’s also less than an hour away from the tourist haven of Český Krumlov, a fairy-tale town with a castle that gets completely rammed with gawping tourists from April to October. As I’d been there once before and had been completely enchanted by the place I dragged Wimbledon along to gawp with the best of them.

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The fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov

On re-evaluation I would say that while this town is absolutely beautiful it might be wise to visit one of the other picturesque castles in the region if you’re there in the Summer and save Český Krumlov for when you happen to be in the Czech Republic out of season. Visiting in August, certain things are impossible: trying to go up the tower (I have never been so squashed in such a small, high up space), looking for a reasonably priced meal in the centre, or moving anywhere at any speed. The town still has its highlights though, namely the amazingly well-preserved Baroque theatre that you get to across an incredibly scenic covered bridge that connects it to the castle. Here you can see an ingenious 18th century method of changing scenes and sets involving lots of wood and pulleys, while appreciating the beautiful baroque paintings on the walls and ceiling. Apparently its one of only two theatres of the era preserved to such a high standard in Europe, so if you like old theatres then here is the place for you.

Also, the castle is protected by real bears, in a real bear pit, who eat carrots. Almost certainly the highlight of the trip. (Don’t worry, the bears looked happy and had loads of room to roam around and eat salad)

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Surely bears shouldn’t look this cuddly?? Enjoying a salad in Cesky Krumlov’s bear pit

There’s also a tiny modern art exhibition which changes weekly. It was fairly entertaining and free so probably worth a look in to here on this incredibly helpful website. The area around that on the west side of the town is covered with a series of slightly annoying stencils about true happiness, photography and facebook. Clearly some of the locals have had enough of shutter-happy tourists swarming around their town without really looking at it.

We also found a good restaurant! I had some really good trout and would fully recommend it, and it wasn’t even too expensive, with lovely views of people kayaking along the picturesque river: Babylon

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It’s a real castle!

Feeling like we could really have done with spending another day or two in České Budejovice, we packed our bags again and set off on the train for Brno, the capital of Moravia (the eastern part of Czech Republic).

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Wimbledon deciding trains are actually really fun after all

The first thing we did on arriving, after dropping our bags at the lovely Fleda hostel, was to go on a mad search for an art exhibition I’d been looking forward to seeing for… well, for about three years now. It turns out that the Moravian Art Gallery is currently housing the cumulation of a three-year long project led by the Czech artist Kateřina Šedá. The project is called “Bedrichovice on Thames” and kicked off at the Tate Britain in 2011, with a day-long event called “From Morning till Night” that involved eighty local British artists, including myself. As far as I understood, the point of the thing was broaden the horizons of the inhabitants of the tiny Czech village Bedrichovice, linking it to London in a series of cultural ways. I was pretty interested in seeing the outcome of all of this, and knowing that we were going to be in Brno for no more than 24 hours, I dragged Wimbledon off to see it as our number one priority.

The person at the till in the Moravian Art gallery looked slightly surprised to see two travel-worn tourists marching into her gallery, asking in broken Czech to see the Šedá exhibition. She seemed a bit unsure about where exactly we should go, explaining that the exhibition is actually held in display cases across three of the gallery’s buildings scattered around the city. Undeterred, we set off to find the first one. After poking our heads into several rooms and sternly being told we were in the wrong place, we were put in a lift by a cross Czech woman who sent us up to the second floor. Here we found ourselves in the permanent exhibition halls, where, it turns out, an impressive set of Czech cubist paintings is displayed. We were hurriedly ushered past these and pointed in the direction of a room where apparently the first part of Šedá’s work would be displayed “in a pink box”. And a pink box there was, plonked in the middle of a wall in a room that outlined the artistic movements in 20th century Czech Republic. Inside it were three or four pictures of extremely ordinary concrete houses and a group of people standing in front of them in traditional dress, with no explanation. We both unceremoniously burst out laughing in the middle of the gallery: so this is what we had hurried to Brno to see, after changing our travel plans to make sure we caught the exhibition before it closed?! At least it got us free entry into a very impressive gallery.

By this point the sultry, muggy weather we’d had on our trip so far had broken, and Brno was covered in quite a heavy downpour that, once we’d finished with Art, we went out into and got soaked in. This weather made us reluctant to go up the castle hill or walk around looking at pretty churches, so we found a nice underground brewery to shelter in, which turned out to be the home of “Pegas” beer: you can find out more here. Later on that evening, we met up with Nick, a member of my Czech class at uni who was doing a summer school in Brno while we were there. This was very jolly, and it meant we could explore the cheaper, more studenty area around Sumavska and Veveri streets.

The next day the weather had cleared a bit so we ventured out of our hostel to visit the Museum of Romani Culture. We thought it would be interesting to pop in and have a look, as education about Romani culture seems to be a pretty rare thing, and we ended up spending about two hours there. It’s definitely a worth-while place to visit, as it covers the entire history of the Romani from their roots in India and progression into Europe and outlines the pretty shocking relationship towards them across most of the places they’ve travelled. Art and music is also gone into in detail, with great exhibits such as this silly violin scroll:

DSCF8136Once we’d thoroughly perused the mueseum we just about had time for one last Czech beer by the bus station before heading off to Krakow!! See you in the next post….