A Travellerspoint blog

Baltic Blast

semi-overcast 21 °C

When we first left on our trip, the top three Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) had always seemed so far away but finally we were here, which also means the end is nigh. This region has been such a long time coming and we have both been very excited about what these top three ‘mysterious’ countries had to offer. We also were hoping to involve ourselves in a particular ‘experience’ that was not available anywhere else we had visited but you’ll have to wait for that.

Lithuania was the first of the Baltics to be graced with our company and our one and only stop was Vilnius, the capital. After making our way past all the beggars we found that Vilnius has a modern old town. Its old town seems to merge almost seamlessly with the newer, modern area and there is a real mix of buildings. Stopping for a quick lunch was first on the agenda and we soon found ourselves sitting next to an undesirable character who didn’t only look dodgy but smelt like a classroom full of prepubescent boys. Unfortunately for us this was the first of many weirdos we encountered during our time in Vilnius. They ranged from the twitchers to the noisemakers to the wanderers to the just plain ‘don’t make eye contact’ weirdos. By the end of our visit we had decided, without any real research, that the weirdo rate per capita of Vilnius is undoubtedly the highest in the world. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ‘eccentric’.

We made our way to the Vilnius Cathedral which looks more like an imposing government building than a church. There were renovations happening, surprise surprise, but it wasn’t enough to take away from the grandeur inside. If you are the superstitious kind, there is a square outside for you to swivel on clockwise and make a wish. We think the locals must wish to get married because in 24 hours we saw no less than eight hen’s nights and bucks parties. Vilnius has a lot of churches but we only visited a couple or just looked from the outside, which sometimes is enough. Our church quota is pretty much at its limit. The weather wasn’t great and so didn’t really inspire us to trek around too much so we headed for some shelter.

Darkness doesn’t arrive until about 9.30pm and so there is plenty of time to café/bar hop and simply soak up the atmosphere. Our second day it was lightly drizzling for most of the day so we had to skip from awning to awning because the umbrella was safely in the car. The rain made it a little chilly and so once again the jeans were pulled out. Being in these places for Sunday and Monday can sometimes work against you as lots of shops and tourist attractions are closed, although to be honest the number of museums we have visited you could count on one hand.

Vilnius was a relaxed and low key couple of days which was fine before we headed to Latvia’s capital Riga. We had a cosy little room which was an easy but longish walk to the old town. Churches, cobblestones and pastel coloured buildings lined streets and lanes every which way. Riga, however, was all about one thing for us……..shooting. In Riga you can arrange to shoot guns in old Soviet bunkers. We booked this ‘experience’ for our second day and met our guide at the Naughty Squirrel Hostel which is owned by Aussie boys Ben and Jared. Jared is a shire boy, small world. Ben’s fiancé Gunita drove the two of us out to an old Soviet bunker, which is now part of a sporting college where small children roam freely. We met up with a short, fifty-something woman who unlocked all the jail gates to lead us down some dark, dark stairs into a dark, dark room, at which point I felt the need to ask Adam if he thought maybe we should have told someone where we were going, ‘nah’ he said “They’ll work it out sooner or later if something happens”. Our lady friend, Ladna and Gunita disappeared into a room and left Adam and I alone in the shooting hall.

The shooting hall or range, was a long room probably 80m end to end with a disarray of egg cartons lining the rounded roof and walls. At the far end of the room were paper targets still stuck up on the wall, some in good condition and some looking like they had been attacked with, well a gun. Strange that. Anyway after a few minutes of us giggling like idiots at where we were and what we were doing, Gunita came out to tell us to pick our target from the choices on the table. Adam was feeling heroic and selected the baddie with the poor female hostage and I just chose the typical bad guy with circles to mark target areas. Next minute Ladna walks out with a glock, an AK47 and…….a Winchester pump action shotgun, or the shottie as we liked to call it.

Instructions were brief and had to be translated. No photos of Ladna were allowed and put your ear protection on, that was pretty much it. The Glock was first and Adam was up; ten shots and then my turn. It was a strange feeling, power and fear mixed in and after that first shot, just power. The recoil on the Glock made you feel you were missing the target completely because as soon as you pulled the trigger, slowly slowly, the kick back on the gun forced your arms up into the air. However once we went and checked our targets we were pleasantly surprised. Adam hit his target four times and I hit mine twice, once in the upper thigh.

Next came the AK47, the assault rifle. OMG this was like Rambo stuff now and we were only having six shots. Push the gun back into your shoulder, lean your face to look down the barrel and close your left eye. There’s no need for slowly slowly on this one, just shoot. The noise is probably the worst part of the activity, or the waiting for the noise, as the ‘bang’ seems to send an echo around the room that hits you from every direction. When you are shooting though, the noise doesn’t exist because you become so focused on your target, or is that just us? We both did better with the AK (that’s our nickname for it), me hitting my guy with five out of my six shots and Adam getting four. This was exciting, so we had a little jump and down on the spot with pride, joy and pure fun.

Finally, the big man, the one we had been waiting for, the pump-action shotgun. The bullets alone are enough to worry you. In red casings, as big as my little finger, they leave little doubt as to the kind of damage they could do if they hit something. Anyway Ladna loaded them up, six again, showed us how to do the pump action and off we went. Pulling the trigger with your right and pumping with your left, you don’t even notice the smoke coming from the barrel or the casings popping out onto your feet as you pump the next bullet into the chamber. Boom, Boom, Boom into the target where little paper men can run no more. After we had shot our six bullets we casually raced over to our targets to check how brilliant we were. Results showed that shooting with the bigger guns gave us better results and also, hopefully this doesn’t sound sadistic, was more fun too.
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We were allowed to take home our targets as souvenirs and intend to keep them for prosperity or until we have a really big clean out. Strange or scary as it may sound, it was a really fun experience and something we will never get to do again. We both enjoyed the sensation that shooting the guns gave us and were surprised how powerful they made us feel, plus the big ones are pretty heavy too. After our adventure we were invited back to the hostel for a beer and had a chat with Ben, the Aussie. Our three days in Riga were great even if it was a little chillier than we had been experiencing.

The last of the Baltic Three was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. With a population of 400 000, it is a reasonably small capital city and has an average summer temperature of only 20 degrees. Having only a small window of opportunity means that every man and his dog visit at this time which is why the ONLY accommodation we could find was a $200 a night spa and conference centre. We ended up calling it Terry Towelling Tosser Town because all these European specials walked around the hotel in their robes (terry towelling of course) after being in the fishbowl swimming pool downstairs. We made it part of our regular routine to stand at the glass and just stare at them, sometimes pointing and laughing. Even though we had access to this oversized toilet included in our price, the sight of hairy European men and abnormally large breasted women all squeezing into the spa didn’t seem all that inviting. We can wait to swim.

Anyway Tallinn was gorgeous, very picturesque and even though there was freshness in the air it was definitely overshadowed by the ambience of the old town. Again we spent our time roaming the lanes and café hopping. Pizza is still the number one cuisine which means you don’t have to eat the chicken brains wrapped in bacon if you don’t want to. The tourist tent was helpful and so we even managed to see a little bit of live music during our visit. We did find two quirky bars which deserve a mention. The first one was DM Bar, with the DM Bar standing for Depeche Mode (the 80’s band), which was an underground bar that is dark and musty smelling. The quirkiness however is that the owners just love, or loved, Depeche Mode and so play ONLY their music in their bar. If you’re thinking that one drink would be enough then let me assure you that you are correct. The second quirky bar was the Eco Bar which was an old red double decker bus on a disused barge down at the port. The bus became the bar and the rest of the barge is covered in furniture made from recycled materials; mats from car tyres, those kinds of things. Another rare indulgence for us was when we were lured into a dimly lit room by the delicious smells wafting in the air. It turned out this cavernous shop sold elk pies and soup so because we have been craving a good ol’ Aussie meat pie for quite a while now we felt compelled to chow down. The sweet, rich tasting meat certainly hit the spot.
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I am also starting to think that maybe all these maps we have been using can become an enriching lesson back at school so am stashing, storing and hoarding them (in Adam’s bag of course) in anticipation of continuing my job as teacher extraordinaire.

We had another plan formulating for our stay in Tallinn and that was a visit to Helsinki on the ferry. This was something we had been considering since we chatted to some Dutch boys in Varna but weren’t sure if we were going to be able to make it happen. Things were looking good though and after checking accommodation and baulking at the price, we decided a day trip was sufficient. We booked our tickets for the 8am ferry for the 90 minute ride. Early to bed, just like on Christmas Eve, meant we were as fresh as daisies when we arrived at the terminal to check in. However in true European style there was a queue, with only one person serving, which we had no choice but to tag on the end of. My toenails grew in the time it took us to move one metre while waiting for whatever it was they were doing behind the glass.
We did notice however some surreptitious movement from behind us as they tried to pretend they knew the group in front of us…..these buggers were trying to push in. Now if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about Europeans is that they don’t like to wait, whether it be for coffee, buses, tickets, entry, you to cross the street or ANYTHING. Some wannabe sneak of a woman and her daughter were pretending to be friends with a group of twenty-somethings about three in front of us and then edged their way in to the line. Now normally we would voice our disgust, however due to our proximity the only thing we felt was appropriate was to give stinkeye to the culprits and to comment on how the guy behind them has a soft piece of anatomy to allow such atrocities to occur.

Being the brainiacs we are though, we noticed the arrival of a staff member and some slight movement behind one of the curtains. Keeping a keen eye on the shadows, the absolute millisecond that curtain moved I was over there while Adam kept our spot in the original queue, in case of a false alarm. Success!! We were now number one and we were told that, due to a storm, ferries were cancelled for the day so we received a full refund. A glance over to our pusher-inner buddies noticed that they were still waiting, Ha ha ha. Is it wrong to be happy about that? Maybe all these church visits are not doing us any good.

We trudged back to the hotel, in time for breaky, or ‘shove your way to the eggs’ as we like to call it and now had another full day in Tallinn up our sleeve. It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, maybe even 23 degrees, and we decided to explore the ‘modern’ town centre of Tallinn. This turned out to be a non-event when we found ourselves wandering the streets and being told this deserted areas was the city centre. Hmmm perhaps it was time to head back to old town.

Four nights in Tallinn ended with us not having to pay for parking at the fishbowl hotel, which we consider a win. From there we headed back to Riga for two nights with a stop in Parnu. Parnu is considered Estonia’s ‘Summer Capital’, they even have a ceremony and a procession of cars where the mayor of Tallinn gives some certificate to the mayor of Parnu for the summer. Adam desperately wanted to say he has swum in every body of water so we stopped for a dip. It was cold, wet and drizzly but in he went anyway while I, having no such lofty aspirations, sat on the beach wrapped in two towels to keep me warm from the wind. He frolicked around for a few minutes and then out he came with a real sense of achievement.
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We wandered for a while and then continued the drive back to Riga for two nights where we returned to the same accommodation as on the way up. We felt better the devil you know. When we left Riga we had a mission to complete before our next town…The Hill of Crosses.
The Hill of Crosses is just outside Siauliai in Lithuania. Peasants started placing crosses on a random hill in 1831 as part of their uprising. It soon became an important religious site and became a mix of memoriam and prayer or hope. When the Soviets took over they resisted the existence of the site by bulldozing it three times, once in 1961, 1973 and 1975. After each time the Lithuanians returned, sometimes in the dead of night, to replace the crosses, risking their lives. Now that’s dedication. By 1985 the Soviets finally gave up the destruction. Pope John Paul II visited in 1993 sealing its fate as a Christian pilgrimage and sacred site.

The hill itself is a wonder, with over 50 000 crosses of all sizes and materials. There are some carved out of tree trunks that stand over three metres high and some out of pencils that people have bound with string. It is a strong symbol of faith and walking through the pathways is a solitary type of experience. People from all over the world have left their mark here, including us. I made a little cross out of stones while Adam scratched one into some wood. Thousands of sets of rosary beads delicately dangle from the crosses that are placed in a haphazard manner all over this relatively small area. It reminds me of a game of ‘pick up sticks’. The irony though is that after visiting what feels like a gazillion churches it is a jumble of crosses on a hill that has a more profound effect on your faith and beliefs, whatever they may be, at least for me. To see and feel the passion as you are walking around gives you the warm and fuzzies. It is certainly an impressive sight and was well worth the short detour. Make sure you check out the pictures.
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Now it’s back to Poland on our way to Germany. Handing the car back on August 31st is emotional for both of us and we don’t like to talk about it except to say we will miss our ‘little girl’. However we are now looking at accommodation in the Greek Islands and that is super exciting. Six weeks to go!!

Posted by Ange and Adam 09:23 Archived in Latvia Tagged baltic estonia riga latvia tallinn vilnius lithuania parnu siualiai hill_of_crosses Comments (0)

Poland

semi-overcast 26 °C

After leaving Romania we decided to stop over for a night in Kosice, Slovakia to break up the drive. A short walk from our hotel found us in a bustling pedestrian area with a great selection of cafes, bars and restaurants. The best bit of all was the musical fountain. The music sprays up out of the jets in time to all different songs such as Bon Jovi, it was pretty cool. Lots of pretty lights always help too. One night was all we had but it was a great little town that we would have been more than happy to spend three or four nights in. However we had work to do and that involved Poland, first stop Auschwitz.

Being honest, going to Auschwitz was one of those things you want to do but don’t want to do. It’s about an hour outside of Krakow which was our ultimate destination. We had decided though, that it made sense to visit on the way to Krakow rather than drive out again the next day. As we approached a feeling of heebie jeebies sort of overcame me, not so much Adam. I was expecting an almost ghostly feel to the place but as Adam said “none of the ghosts would want to hang around there” which I think makes sense.

It is a tourist mecca and you have to do it as a group with a guide, you can’t wander it on your own. Fortunately for us though the Poles are more organised than the Romanians (thinking Peles Castle) and we were given headsets which also meant there was no jostling to be close to the guide to hear. The first part of the tour took us through Auschwitz 1. These buildings were already standing when the Nazis began their ‘liquidation’ and so they just adapted them to suit their requirements. For me, I knew the basics of the concentration camps but the nuts and bolts of it add a whole new dimension. I apologise if you know all of this already. The Nazis took the Jews out of the ghettos telling them they were going to a better place, as they got off the trains a doctor (Mengele)sized them up and gave a thumbs up or thumbs down depending on how able to work they looked ie useful. For the thumbs down people this meant death. One of the photos in the exhibition shows the shadow of the doctor’s thumb as he is giving the woman in front of him the thumbs down. The thumbs down people were then taken off to the gas chambers, being told they were going to have a shower. At Auschwitz 1 they gassed 700 at a time and then moved their bodies into the furnaces. We were able to walk through the actual gas chamber and let me tell you it was one of the most eerie, moving, saddest experiences of my life. You can see the vents the Nazis dropped the gas (Xyclon 9) into. Because there were more bodies than the furnaces could handle, some of the bodies were taken outside and burned in piles after being shaved and stripped of anything useful including teeth fillings. They then used their ashes to fertilise their crops and fields.

They also ‘recycled’ everything of the Jews. Because they were told they were going to a better life the Jews were allowed to pack a bag up to 25kg for themselves, however upon arrival their belongings were immediately taken from them. After the bodies were gassed the Nazis used their hair, which had turned grey from the gas, and sold it to textile factories. At Auschwitz in the exhibition is a display of real hair from the Jews, as well as thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes, glasses and personal items that were salvaged during and after liberation in January 1944. Walking through these rooms and seeing all these personal possessions of the victims was heart wrenching and makes you wonder how any human could be so cruel. Seeing the ‘Wall of Death’ was another moment, witnessing the spot where Jews were shot for any reason the Germans felt like such as ‘working too slowly’. Our tour guide was really informative and being a Pole herself often referred to the victims as ‘my people’ or ‘my country’ which made it more personal.

The tour, which was about three hours, took us to Birkenau also which is 3km down the road. This is the bigger site and was constructed by the prisoners for the Nazis solely for the purpose of Jewish ‘liquidation’. Row after row of wooden buildings as far as the eye can see, surrounded by barbed wire, untouched from the war, some still set up exactly as they were during the war so you can really get a sense of how they had to survive. The train track is still there, not connected though, and you can stand in the spot that the Jews stood in when it was decided whether they were going to live or die. When the Russians liberated the camps, the Nazis tried destroying it all and the burnt remains are still there, as a pile of rubble. The gas chambers at Birkenau were bigger but are only ruins however you can still see the spaces where the victims died. Auschwitz is one of those places that is difficult to really explain how it makes you feel while you are standing amongst it.
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The drive to Krakow was almost a welcome relief from Auschwitz and it wasn’t long before we were in our new digs just outside the old town gates. Location, Location! Krakow has an enormous town square that contains two separate churches. It was chocked full of tourists all claiming their piece of territory in the myriad of cafes, bars and restaurants. The pastel buildings gave a nice ambience along with the buskers and street musicians. The number of Cinderella style horse and carriages was huge. Deciding it was cheesy we saved our pennies, especially after finding our it was $30 for 30 minutes. We spent time doing the compulsory castle visit but found ourselves eagerly waiting for evening when all the music would come out. Being that it doesn’t get dark up here at the moment until 9 o’clock at night it could feel like a long wait. The first night we were lucky enough to stumble upon a wine and food festival. It is necessary on these sort of trips to really immerse yourself in the culture, so we did.

Sadly one of the highlights of our Krakow trip was doing our laundry. Laugh if you must but when washing undies in the shower is your daily job then finding a Laundromat that doesn’t charge $5 for a shirt is a monumental event. Even better than that was the Laundromat we found which doubled as a café. Lugging our washing bag down the street we settled in for a wash and rinse cycle, two coffees and a mineral water. Feeling fresh, clean and reinvigorated we were able to get back into the heart of the action. Krakow was declared one of our favourite cities for the pure fact that we never wanted to go home. Often, during our trip, we have been happy to toddle home after a few beverages with dinner, content with our place in the world. Krakow however is, for us, the city that never sleeps. We divided our time between plush, boudoir style jazz lounges, underground cave like rock bars and cocktail happy acoustic acts. It was also beautifully clean which made the old town and its buildings even prettier.
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Warsaw was our next stop and we had only allowed two nights in a B & B just outside of town because it was near impossible to find accommodation in town with parking. A short metro ride, which we love, and we were in the thick of it. Actually the old town of Warsaw was pretty quiet. During the war 90% of it was completely destroyed and has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. Black and white photos show the devastation and it really is hard to imagine where you are standing was once nothing more than smoking rubble. We found a square with the narrowest house, frontage being 1.5m because in the day you had to pay rates based on your frontage. What a smart cookie!

Warsaw is also home to the tallest clock tower in the world at 231m in a building which looks like something out of Gotham City. Frederick Chopin spent the first half of his life in Warsaw. The Poles are very proud of this and have about 20 different monuments or museums to the composer. Having a late afternoon break on the trendy cafe restaurant strip of Nowy Swiat we met an Aussie girl from Adelaide who was with her Polish aunt who is a famous Polish actress. How exciting! I never ever ever see celebrities in Sydney, except for the time Emily and I saw Andrew Denton at Chatswood – Woo Hoo! We entertained ourselves by watching two hapless hotdog sellers try to lure customers while lingering over their breadrolls with their cigarettes. Strangely enough they probably didn’t achieve their sales quota that day (or ever). Warsaw was fun and one more night there would have been great considering we were lucky enough to score THE MOST comfortable bed of the trip.
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Our last stop for this visit of Poland was a quiet lake resort town Gizycko. The weather was overcast (or sunny cloudy as I like to call it)so there would be no sailing but a long lingering afternoon and Adam indulging in his ice-cream tradition making for an easy night. The ice-cream tradition is first and last night in a country/town. Considering we are only in some towns for a night and some countries for only four or five that makes for pretty regular ice-cream purchases. Did you know when you are on holidays things like that are actually healthy and good for you? It’s true!

After Gizycko it was onto the border to head for the Baltics. Poland has painfully slow highways, no dual carriage and slow speed limits so reaching the border was a long time coming. It is not as picturesque to drive through as Romania and Bosnia but still lush and green. These next three countries will be a treat and we are keen to see how much Russian influence still exists, probably not much.

Posted by Ange and Adam 06:48 Archived in Poland Tagged palace warsaw music castle auschwitz krakow chopin gizycko Comments (1)

Romania

sunny 32 °C

Romania was all about Dracula for us and Bucharest was our first stop on a Transylvanian odyssey. To be honest, not much was expected of Bucharest but we were quickly put back in our box upon arrival. Large, wide streets and an obvious lack of rubbish had us rethinking exactly what we would find here. Hotel Unique was our digs and it was a decent but easy thirty minute walk from the old town (what can we say, they all have an old town). Fortunately for us we didn’t take our receptionists advice or we would have ended up in the wrong direction, she definitely needed to work on her people skills. So we found the general area but the obligatory pedestrian area was eluding us. However we must have looked like we knew our stuff because an Austrian man asked us directions to the pedestrian area. Shrugging our shoulders and giving empathetic looks we declared our ignorance and he toddled off to find someone who knew where the heck they were. Knowing a man on a mission when we saw one we decided to tail him and when he stopped to ask some police directions we knew we were on a winner. We stealthily ducked behind light poles and feigned interest in shop windows until we could tell where he was going then we were off in a race to beat him there and then saunter casually by.

Finally success and what a treat awaited us, cobblestone (shock horror) streets lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, and the like and a catwalk right through the middle. We pulled up stumps and indulged in our first caffeine fix of the day. That allowed us then to explore with a burst of energy and enthusiasm which had nearly been lost after hours in the car, a rude receptionist and a long, hot walk. To no one’s surprise there was construction going on and so once again you had to be very careful where you walked so as not to amputate a toe or a whole foot for that matter. We found the river and ooohed and aahed at the buildings. Not being architects we weren’t sure exactly what you would call the buildings but they looked gothic style and the intricacies of the stone work were amazing. Walking around looking up though was not too smart due to ominous trip hazards as mentioned previously.
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It was time for another pit stop and a thirst quencher was necessary, after all it was Friday afternoon and our first night in a new town AND a new country. We have become expert speculators and people watchers, sometimes combining the two commenting on the relationships between people as they walk past and how they can possibly improve different aspects of themselves. Never to them mind you, just to each other. Finally it was a respectable time for dinner so off we went to find a banquet for two. A warm cosy pub looked just the treat and fulfilled our only real criteria – comfy seats. Don’t laugh, when you are sleeping in uncomfortable beds, walking all day or sitting in the car the last thing you want is to be uncomfortable in a restaurant, this we have control over. The first two things Adam wanted they didn’t have which they tell you by just saying no when you point to what you want – “I’ll have the shepherds pie please”, “No!”

He decided to settle on a steak and we sat back continuing to people watch until about 15 minutes later, our timid waiter slinks back to tell us that the third choice is ‘No!’ too and so with that we leave on the hunt for a restaurant that actually HAS food. Unfortunately by this time all of Bucharest is eating so our only criterion is now like finding a needle in a haystack.

Day two starts with a great plan of heading to Parliament Palace and then to the movies, at opposite ends of the city but we are determined to walk it all. After a leisurely morning skyping and generally taking our time getting ready it is lunchtime by the time we arrive in old town so we stop off for a light lunch. After that we were making our way to Parliament Palace when all of a sudden tummy rumbles begin in a way that doesn’t bode well when there is a lack of public toilets. History takes second place to body comfort and we decided to just snap off a couple of quick pics and not worry about the inside. There were better things to do.

Next stop was the movies, an hour walk in the complete opposite direction. We were going to see Harry Potter and YES it was in English. We were smart enough to check that before we went. Our feet and legs were happy to have the three hour break. In Romania, smoking is not allowed inside so to compensate for that in the movies, near the candy bar area, they have a glass box about six feet tall and four metres long that smokers can go in and stand around and have a cigarette. It looked like a big fish bowl. You would have to be hanging for a fag to succumb to that. The movie was great and we headed back to old town for dinner, a long, leisurely, liquor-filled one to end a long, leisurely day.

Herastrau Park is a large park at the northern end of the city and has a lake, café and dum da dum….rowboats. It was a 45 minute walk up to the park but it looked like the ritzy end of town so we fit right in. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm, not too hot. In Bucharest though they have these things set up like a ramp about six metres long with one side coming up and over and water jets spraying down so you can walk through to cool down….what a great idea!! It required a number of walk throughs just for the fun factor. We hired a rowboat to give our legs a break and lazed on the lake for an hour to recharge and just soak up the sunshine. Then it was the walk home to rest and then walk back into old town for our last night. Good times were had by all.

It was time to head to Transylvania, Dracula country (ra ha ha (that is a blood curdling laugh…use your imagination)). We had booked accommodation in Brasov for two nights but were going to stop off in Bran for a couple of hours to visit Bran Castle. Bran is where tacky souvenirs go to die and we grabbed more than our share. The queue for the castle was huge so not being big fans of tour groups we hung back a little while to let the rush power through. Finally our patience wore out so in we went. From the outside Bran castle is exactly what you would expect a Dracula castle to be like, set amongst fir trees on a hill and to add to the atmosphere it was a drizzly, very cloudy day so the spooky factor was high. Turrets and stone work completed the picture with a sloping cobblestone path up to a grand entry staircase. HOWEVER once we were inside it was like being in a cattle call AND THEN we realised this was not even Dracula’s castle, he didn’t even live here, some sheila named Princess Irena did. OMG! It is just an ottoman castle in Transylvania and the cluey Romanians have cashed in big time on the Dracula thing. We couldn’t escape though, one way in and one way out, so we had to s-l-o-w-l-y make our way through this castle while Barry Boring in front of us took photos of every nail, screw and piece of wood in the joint.
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For those of you who don’t know the Dracula facts here they are. Vlad Drakuli was Prince of Wallachia (a region in Romania) when the Ottoman Empire was trying to take over Romania. He was a sadistic kind of guy who used to impale his Turk victims through their bottom, deliberately avoiding major organs, until the implement would come out of the top leaving the victim to die an agonisingly slow death. He was called Vlad ‘Tepes’(1432-1476) because of this, ‘Tepes’ meaning impaler. He was never a vampire. The Dracula legend came from Bram Stoker who wrote ‘Dracula’ in 1897 and used Vlad and the region as his inspiration. He was never actually a vampire. Sorry legend destroyed.
Anyway the castle was very beautiful and we were definitely not disappointed with the outside. We then headed to Brasov, narrowly missing being sideswiped by some lunatic driver of which there are many. Did you know in Romania over taking is a highly competitive sport?
Brasov is home to the Black Church, so called because of a fire that occurred there in 1689 coating it in black soot, most of which has since been scrubbed clean. It is the biggest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul. We never got to go inside because we thought we would wait for our second night and go for the organ recital (I’m sure more exciting than it sounds) but we were having quiet time in our room (sleeping and computering) and missed it. We did spend our time café hopping and soaking up the ambience. It was a great little town with a thriving pedestrian and restaurant strip.

Our second day we hopped in the car to drive 30km back down the road to Sinaia to visit Peles Castle because it wasn’t open on the Monday, which is quite common here. Due to open at 11am we were there at 10am, too early. Coffee time and the never ending but regular search for a mailbox ensued. Seriously, it’s like being in a Where’s Wally book trying to find the damn things. At the scheduled time we traipsed back up to the castle and then the fun really began. You are really going to have to use your imagination here but I’ll do my best.

Okay here goes….Peles Castle was built by King Carol the first and was completed in 1883 and truly is a fairytale castle. It is the most magnificent castle we have seen (maybe outside Salzburg) and has a true Victorian and Romantic feel to it. We powered up the sloping path full of anticipation and excitement, THIS was the castle we were dying to see. The flowers sprang from all directions and had bees buzzing harmoniously in the air amongst the lush green grass. Closer to the top a busker was playing folk music on his guitar and it continued to set the scene beautifully. We followed the signs into the central courtyard to buy our tickets. Your ticket price depends on how many floors of the castle you want to see…..Let’s go for it and paid $30 to see the ground and first floor. At Peles Castle they only do groups and lead them in a variety of languages. The very very limited signage implied you just told them what language you wanted and were added to a group. WRONG! After purchasing your ticket you then walk over to the entrance which is a grand old double door, however only one side is used and only opens every 15 minutes to let in about 30 people. Outside the door every man and his dog who has bought a ticket is pushing themselves up against the door like it is a million dollar giveaway. Not joking! Like old women at a Tom Jones concert these people were smushed up like sardines desperate for entry. The only way we were going to get in this year was to join them, so we did. Then after about 15 minutes one side of the door opened a woman stood there, yelled something in some language and people started pushing forward so we did too and grasping each other’s hands like death we made it…we were on the inside. The fun wasn’t over yet. There was now a mad scramble to claim booty things to place over your shoes and they placed them all in one corner so the slow people all miss out. We missed out. Foreign language instructions given again and resulted in Adam walking over to the lady to say “We don’t understand what’s going on and I’m getting cranky”. The English tour will be soon we were told, this one was a Romanian language group. Sit down and wait here, five minutes. Then the group finishing came back and had to push out through the masses of people wedged up against the door trying to get in. Chaos, complete and utter chaos.

Meanwhile two more groups come and go with us sitting impatiently, our bladders tightening by the minute. How were we going to make it through an hour and a half tour. This was ridiculous. We didn’t even want to do the tour anymore. If the next group wasn’t English we were asking for our money back. Lo and behold, the next group was Italian. Right, up we go over to the desk, into the restricted area, ooohhhh. We expressed our annoyance quite strongly and we think we actually scared them because they all kept scurrying around us pretending like we weren’t there. Finally Adam walked over to the supervisor and asked for her name….that got the ball rolling. Adam stood there and explained his bladder situation and then (I love this bit) put his hand on his heart and said “I am a human being”. Even I had trouble not chuckling at that. Anyway alls well that ends well and we received a full refund. Yay us.
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We continued our Dracula odyssey through to Sighisoara, Vlad’s hometown. Driving through Romania is spectacular. Greenery abounds and the traffic slows constantly to allow for all the horse and carts that are regular users of the highways. They sit in their cart with their melons, tools or wives sitting in the back as the horse trots along, seemingly oblivious to the racing traffic around them. If you wave at them they usually wave back. The further north we got the higher the number of horse and carts.
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Sighisoara was a one nighter and we climbed the clock tower and saw it was 15 438km to Sydney. Lunch in Vlad’s house was an obvious choice and then searching high and low for the sculpture of him and the obligatory photo. The smaller towns are often more fun because they have character and the little Romanian men and women still strolling around carrying their brooms made out of sticks (that is true and they use them)or sitting on seats all day watching people. There is also a large supply of watermelons over here. Never before have I seen such an abundance of one particular fruit. Roadside stalls are every 2-300m and have massive piles of them, easily 200 watermelons, that they sit beside all day and wait for drivers, walkers, bikers, anyone to stop and buy.
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Sighisoara was also our first real sample of Transylvanian food and it was rolled beans with onion and sausage and Transylvanian goulash with maize porridge. I am telling you the truth that it tasted heaps better than it sounds however we wouldn’t want it to be our main diet. Getting vegetables with a meal is a real hurdle and will cost you extra every time. In saying that though the food is as cheap as chips, as is the drink. Bon Appetit.

Finally we were on our last leg of Romania. After taking 6 hours to do just over 300km, which is pretty normal in Romania due to the constant roadworks and the horse and cart situation, we arrived at our pension in Sapanta. Villages don’t get much more authentic than this. A main street that ran for about 300m with a couple of crossroads pretty much covered it. The attraction here though was huge, people from all over the world travel to this village to see the…….Merry Cemetery. This cemetery is special because all the headstones are wooden and painted a bright blue. Then they have little painted pictures (cartoon like almost) of the person and how they died on the back and what they did while they were living on the front. For example one guy obviously got run over by a train because his picture was of him with legs trapped under a train. Very, very quaint. Unfortunately we couldn’t read the epitaphs, which apparently are humorous anecdotes about the deceased, so we just had to use our imagination. It feels wrong giggling in a cemetery but the whole notion behind it is that life is to be celebrated by having fun memories of the person. Good philosophy.
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Romania now gives way to Poland with a night stopover in Slovakia to break up the drive. We are heading to Krakow first which receives rave reviews. On the way we are going to stop in at Auschwitz to visit the camps and probably come away emotionally scarred…let’s hope not.

Posted by Ange and Adam 01:10 Archived in Romania Tagged old_town sinaia brasov sighişoara bucharest dracula merry_cemetery sapanta bran_castle peles_castle Comments (0)

Bulgaria

A Little Less Salt

sunny 35 °C

Bulgaria, home of the Black Sea and more weightlifters per capita than any other country (we just made that one up), was border crossing number fourteen. Leaving Turkey would have been confusing for even the smartest of cookies, it was a matter of guessing what the customs officer was really trying to say as he grunted and pointed. However nothing prepared us for the debacle that was Bulgaria’s border crossing. There were about five stages, stage one was driving through a puddle of water after being waved on by not one but three officers which had us believing a water pipe must have burst (?). Stages two and three and even four were stock standard and then we got to stage five which is where the problems began. The officers at stage five wanted our certificate…..what certificate? Apparently it wasn’t a water leak, it was disinfectant and we were supposed to ‘know’ that we had to get out of the car and retrieve this certificate. So we had to backtrack to the disinfectant man sitting in his box and then redo everything over, meaning all in all crossing into Bulgaria took forty minutes longer than necessary.

Sozopol is a beach tourist trap on the coast of the Black Sea and our home for two nights. We checked into our hotel and this is where we met our new best friend (sorry everyone) Mariya. She was gorgeous and we loved her. Mariya is Bulgarian but a true world traveller and was very excited about her arrival because we were Aussies, so we were off to a good start regardless. She helped us with our accent, or tried to, and told us which bar to go to if we wanted to be cool. We were all ears. We sauntered, strolled and wandered the streets of Sozopol which was a refreshingly clean change from the grime and grubbiness we had come to expect of Turkey. The beach was sand, long goldeny stretches of it with a busy little cove as the town beach. The ambience was busy but laid back, if that is possible. After arriving back to our hotel on the very first night we booked ourselves a third night because of the love for Bulgaria that was coursing through our veins. We had great summer weather and shared our time between the hotel pool, cruising the streets or laying on the beach. Lots and lots of boobs at Sozopol, all different shapes and sizes and that goes for the bodies attached to them as well. It’s kind of like a car accident, you don’t want to look but at the same time can’t help yourself. We were both glad for having mirrored glasses, for different reasons though. We spent some quality time at Mariya’s haunt, Tequila bar, after dinner and indulged in four cocktails and three large vodkas for the bargain basement price of $21(Australian). Needless to say we were a bit fragile the next day and luckily enough had the warm sunshine and cool water to freshen us up. Interesting fact….the Black Sea has 50% less salt than any other ocean/sea in the world so you didn’t quite get that crusty feeling on you like you do from normal ocean swimming.
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After three nights by the coast it was time to head inland again and off to the town of Plovdiv. It had ottoman houses, cobblestones and six hills. Apparently it used to be seven but they blew one up during construction (or something like that). A decent walk into town and the Cyrillic alphabet on street signs ensured we worked up a sweat plodding up and down the biggest cobblestones to date. Our hotel had an in house beauty salon and so we decided to treat ourselves to a massage. Months of walking and lugging bags are taking their toll. Bitterly disappointed is probably the best way to describe the effort produced by our young wannabe masseuse. After the hour we walked away oiled up and unsatisfied…..from the massage that is.

Veliko Tarnovo was stop number three in Bulgaria and is a small university town with a castle (surprise, surprise) and apparently a damn good light and audio show. Based on Lonely Planet and Mariya’s recommendation we booked a room at a very stylish hotel for one night. A quaint atmosphere made up for the fact that the super spectacular light show was a no go for the one night that we were there…typical. Never mind, doesn’t matter. Final stop on the itinerary was Varna…beach town number two.
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Varna is like Sozopol but multiplied by 100….bigger and busier. The beach wasn’t as long but still golden sand and cool, clean, refreshing water. The Europeans build cafes, bars, souvenir stalls and fast food outlets right up to the beach, which in some ways ruins the beach atmosphere but amps up the party atmosphere. Varna is also home to the Guinness World Record Holder for biggest cocktail list and at $4 a pop, what choice did we have? They were very tasty and refreshing. One of the restaurants also had a sushi bar which was the first one we had seen since leaving Australia so because I love sushi we ate there for three meals in two days….yum yum. Whoever said variety is the spice of life is wrong.
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Our hotel in Varna was a five starrer which was great and so we squeezed in a sauna and a dip in the rooftop pool. Varna was full of international tourists as well as local tourists unlike Sozopol which seemed to just attract the local tourists. This made Sozopol a bit more fun because we were more special there and we liked feeling special.

Bulgaria was beautiful, friendly and clean and we enjoyed all the towns we visited. By the time we left the morons at the border were nothing more than a distant memory and meeting Mariya was a great way to start Bulgaria. Romania is our next destination and we are looking forward to Dracula territory….I feel a tacky souvenir spree coming on.

Posted by Ange and Adam 12:39 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged beach sozopol varna plovdiv veliko_tarnovo black_sea Comments (0)

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

From Castles to Battlefields

sunny 40 °C

Kizkalesi was the first stop on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey for us. It was only going to be a one nighter, a stopover plus it had a floating castle about 500m off the coast which read really nicely in the Lonely Planet bible. To understand Kizkalesi you may need to refer back to the section on Budva (remember 80’s Gold Coast?) and you’ll get a fair idea of what it was like. The big difference though were the muslim women wearing swimming suits that looked like raincoats, full length, head covering, ugly patterned swimsuits. Mind you, the people were, once again, super duper friendly and couldn’t do enough for us. However after feeling the need to wear gloves when touching anything we were happy to leave the next morning.

After Kizkalesi it was on to Antalya, one of the biggest cities on the coast, where we had booked a room in the old town for three nights. With the coastline being what it was we made sure our hotel had a pool. A gorgeous little boutique hotel that saw a lot of us over the three days because lo and behold Sultan’s Revenge struck again (known as bali belly in other regions). Adam was the lucky victim this time and was laid up for a day getting familiar with the bathroom. We blame it not on a particular dish but on a nut vendor who offered us samples from his bare hands (I know, I know how stupid were we)and then proceeded to become slightly miffed when we didn’t want to buy the $20 worth of nuts he shovelled (again with bare hands) into brown paper bags. He was not going to let us walk away empty handed but relented when Adam requested that he ‘don’t touch’ him. He’d be happy to know we were both a bit delicate for almost a week. Adam fared worse than me because after working around snotty, sneezy kids (not you girls) my immune system can handle pretty much anything.

Anyway it gave us plenty of time to lounge by the pool while the overzealous cleaning lady basically rearranged our belongings to the way it suited her, right down to stacking our books and throwing our dirty clothes back into our suitcase. We did discuss giving her a stern talking to about touching our stuff but one look at her face sent us scurrying so we were all talk and no action on that front.

We decided to can the rest of the coastline and head inland to Pamukkale. This town is known as the ‘Cotton Castle’. For centuries volcanic activity has forced water full of calcium caltrate to flow out of the earth and as it has flowed down the hillside it has hardened. The hillside looks like it is covered in snow or ice but it is actually caltrate with naturally forming thermal springs all up the side of the hill. You can walk up them, bare feet only, and dip in the pools all the way up to the top. The water trickles over the hardened caltrate the whole way down and is something unlike anything we have seen before. It is a truly remarkable sight and yet probably only covers an area of about 5km2. At the top of the hill are the ruins of Hierapolis, a retreat built by the Romans, which took advantage of the so-called health benefits. One thing that did pique our interest though is the way Eastern European women feel the need to pose for photos. Compared to them our photos are tame and prudish. These women drape themselves over rocks, ruins, pools in provocative positions and often become the main feature of the photo rather than the scenery they are posing in. It is truly bizarre, some of the poses, unmentionables, have us shaking our head or laughing or both. Think Ralph models and you’ll be halfway there.
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From Pamukkale it was off to Izmir and we had scored a five star hotel, the Swissotel Grand Efes, no breakfast included though. On the way to Izmir we stopped off at Ephesus, one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Roman Empire, we were a bit ho hum about looking at more ruins but knew it was a must see and we are glad we did. It covered an enormous area and had amphitheatres and the old latrines (that’s toilets for the uneducated). They sat pretty close in those toilets. It is amazing that even with their lack of technology and industry they were still able to build things that can withstand ‘life’ for 5000 years. Their ‘technology’ and ‘industry’ could possibly be better than our modern version. The heat was stifling and the paths were crowded but it was definitely worth the effort to see.
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We arrived at Izmir hankering for the three nights of luxury we were about to enjoy; not much to report really except we spent a lot of time by their gorgeous pool. The hotel had a great feature in the rooms though, scales. Don’t scoff, these scales made you skinnier each time you stepped on them. I truly believe that I was getting skinnier every time I stepped on but Adam was cynical and so the hotel earned the name ‘Anorexia Hotel’. Izmir has a great promenade and we prowled along up to the bazaar area to look again at stall after stall of quality Turkish merchandise a.k.a junk.

Another location on the list was the ruins of the city of Troy. It was 9km off the main road towards Canakkale and knowing the legend we decided to stop in. There is hardly anything left just the bases off some marble columns. We were through in about 20 minutes and were not very impressed by the ruins. Ephesus gave a much better indication of ancient life. If you are wondering about the Trojan horse, well they have a very poor imitation of it in the main entry area. It looks like it has been constructed of fence palings and is only about 15metres high.
Our last and possibly our most important stop was Canakkale, which was the town we were based in to go to Gallipoli. Once again construction in the streets, not just one but all, hindered our search for our hotel but we finally found the Grand Anzac Hotel. We immediately booked a tour for the next day as this was not something we wanted to do ourselves; we were going to trust the experts.

TJ was our tour guide and we were on a bus with a small group of Aussies and Kiwis (about 15 of us). TJ is Turkish but is married to an Aussie girl who lives in Corowa (near Albury-Wodonga) and he is officially an Australian citizen who is the only person to take his citizenship pledge in Gallipoli. He has a passion for the region and really knows his stuff. He was fascinating to listen to and gave a great background to each sight as we pulled up. Perhaps the most poignant places were Anzac Cove and the Lone Pine Cemetery. Anzac Cove has suffered from erosion and now only has about six metres of sand left. To see the harsh landscape that the Anzacs had to scramble up and over really hit home about how terrifying this must have been for them. We visited the graves and were able to sign the visitors book at Lone Pine. Being there also highlighted how far the Anzacs were from achieving their goal and how they really were fighting an unwinnable battle. TJ had some great anecdotes from the time and he had everyone in the group hypnotized with his storytelling. It is difficult to really explain Gallipoli only to say that it made us proud to be Australian and to hear the stories of these brave soldiers. It is a pilgrimage every Aussie should make.
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Another great thing about the day was being around other Aussies, and really understanding again how laid back we truly are. We didn’t have people pushing in front of us to take photos or be first on or off the bus. By the end of the day we were sitting with some of the guys from Curl Curl who are three weeks into their five month trip and so we were all swapping stories. It was fun.

So now it is time to leave. Turkey has been an enormous culture shock for us in many ways and even though we are ready to leave and head to our next country, Bulgaria, it has been a great three weeks full of friendly people and amazing sights, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Posted by Ange and Adam 13:04 Archived in Turkey Tagged beach town izmir castle old antalya anzac gallipoli pamukkale çanakkale calcite Comments (1)

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