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The Highlights and Lowlights of Our Europe Trip

The Highlights and Lowlights of Our Europe Trip

It is hard to believe but our 5 months of back packing through Europe has finally come to the end! We’ve seen all four seasons, across 16 different countries, in one fantastic continent, and quite unbelievably, we’ve done it on budget by the skin of our teeth. The infamous spread sheet is finally at peace!

four seasons

The Four Seasons – France, Albania, Poland and Austria

As we cracked open our second bottle of wine on our last day of the trip, we decided to summarize the best and worst of the trip by setting up different categories.

So, here we go…

THE HIGHLIGHTS

BEST TRANSPORT

Germany wins best transport by far. Always on time, clean, spacious, and choc full of features. The coaches had plugs for my laptop, free WIFI, free films to watch and a steward serving snacks and even beers!

berling germany reichstag

BEST VALUE ACCOMMODATION

The apartment we rented in Skopje in Macedonia was easily the best value for money. For just 10 pounds a night each, we had a massive flat in the city centre, modern finishings, a comfortable bed and it was well kitted out with everything we needed to make it a temporary home.

skopje-apartment

BEST FOOD

 This was a toughy, as we had great food almost everywhere, but Italy wins this one for us. Great comfort food, different variations based on the region and history, easy to cook, tasty, and the cuisine that seems to have penetrated every other country we visited. Plus we got to make our own pasta which was definitely a highlight!

pasta-production

BEST PEOPLE

The super friendly Albanian people won us over straight away. It was so refreshing for so many people to go out of their way to help us, without having any hidden agenda. I asked for directions and the guy didn’t know the answer, so he called his friend up on his phone to ask him, whilst his friend helped with the translation. Amazing!

berat

BEST LANGUAGE

With all the fiery emotion, dancing and the good weather, it is easy to see how the Spanish language has formed over the years and won this category hands down for us. It just sounds sexy!

flamenco

BEST CITY

Another tick for the Spanish as we finally agreed on Barcelona as the best city. It has great food, dancing, music, architecture, beaches, boats, art, culture and good weather. Something for everyone!

barcelona-harbour

BEST TOWN

The little town of Skradin in Croatia won our hearts for best town. With ample tasty restaurants to choose from, where I had probably one of the best meals of the trip, a beautiful harbour and day trips out to some fantastic waterfalls and nature parks, it is town hard to beat.

skradin 

BEST COUNTRY

And the Spanish have hit the hatrick with our joint vote for best country. A tough choice, but we agreed due to Spain having a sexy language, amazing food, awesome weather, a great balance between drinking and napping and overall, excellent value for money for holiday goers.

Travel in Spain Barcelona Beach Spain

COUNTRY WHERE YOU COULD LIVE

After much deliberation, and having to remember to take into consideration things like job prospects and language barriers, we rounded on Austria. It offers lakes in the Summer for swimming, mountains in the Winter for skiing, and a language that can be fairly easily learned. It also has a good economy for finding work, nice national dishes, and even produces its own wine. Winner, or should I say “Wiener” (get it!) 🙂

salzburg-mountains

BEST VALUE FOR MONEY

Value for money is ultimately summed up by comparing quality vs quantity and we found that Poland had stacks of both. From great value accommodation, delicious and cheap food and efficient and well priced long distance buses, Poland was the clear winner.

polish cafe krakow

BEST FOR A COUPLES LONG WEEKEND

We had to think back to places where we instantly wanted to recommend a place to our friends and their partners. Whilst Brasov in Romania was a lovely town, it wasn’t quite a couple’s retreat. We chose Lake Ohrid in Macedonia as it has a beautiful lake to walk around, forest trails, nice restaurants, a town where you can do shopping, an old and a new quarter, plenty of history and everywhere we stayed had stunning views.

lake-ohrid

WHERE WE WOULD RETURN TO

A bit of a theme occurring here with Spain, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Costa De La Luz that had beautiful beaches, good surf, friendly locals and quaint restaurants.

Surfing in Costa De La Luz Spain

 

BEST MOMENT(S)

Too many to pick from really but a few of the highlights include:

Barcelona Boat

Staying on Rob’s boat in Barcelona

cycling-in-italy

Cycling Around Italy – Even the 40km Ride in the Thunderstorm!

renault Clio

Driving Gorges Du Verdon with the Crazy French Motorists

row-ski

And Last but not Least, Learning how to Ski in Austria!

THE LOWLIGHTS

WORST TRANSPORT

Albanina was by far the worst transport with little to no timetables, available information, or well connected routes. Every trip was taken with baited breath and about 3 contingency plans in case something went wrong along the way. But to be fair, it was dirt cheap!

albania-bus

WORST ACCOMMODATION

Although the hosts were super, super nice to us, the box room we stayed in Montenegro was just dire. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was just false advertising from the get go with the list of features that weren’t there, including the private bathroom, that was in fact, sharing the bathroom in their house. Awkward. And don’t get me started on the jumble sale decor…

montenegro

WORST FOOD

For the most part we enjoyed the food everywhere we went, but felt that Bulgaria really didn’t have a true national dish, it seems to have just stolen inspiration from surrounding countries.

WORST PEOPLE

Funily enough, the worst people we encountered on during the 5 month trip was… the English. Worst kind of tourist, drunk, loud, rude, disrespectful and ignorant. Way to go England!

WORST LANGUAGE

Worst is probably the wrong adjective here, but a category is a category… Purely because we couldn’t make heads nor tail of it or even try to guess at it, Cyrillic across several of the countries like Bulgaria made us choose it for worst language.

WORST CITY

Again, we struggled to be fair here, as some places we weren’t in long enough to really see them, or didn’t have the money to spend to get the most out of them. We felt that Sofia in Bulgaria was a bit of a low point for us and felt it didn’t have much to do, and in many ways it felt too Western for what we were expecting, which lost it some points from us. Probably an unfair call, but we had to pick somewhere! It did have a few nice buildings to be fair…

travel in bulgaria saint-alexandar-nevski-cathedral-sofia-bulgaria

WORST TOWN

Livorno in Italy was pretty average we decided as it didn’t have a whole lot to do, the drive to the beach was awful (full of shipping containers) there were beggars everywhere, and the beach was dirty and crowded. It was the most soulless place we visited in Italy. Don’t be fooled by the picture. It was the only picture I took in three days there!

livorno

WHERE YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO LIVE

Again, we had to think about getting a job, language barriers etc, and the Cyrillic issue made us choose Bulgaria. That being said, there is both a beach area and a place to ski, so some positives for life style, just I’d easier learn Chinese than Cyrillic!

WORST VALUE FOR MONEY

Without blinking we both simultaneously said “Denmark“. I appreciate they have a strong tax system that benefits the Danish people, but for a holiday destination, everything rips Euros out your pocket far too quickly. We got charged 38 Euros to do a load of laundry. I nearly cried when they gave me the bill 🙁

copenhagen-denmark

WORST FOR A COUPLES LONG WEEKEND

Maybe it was our low funds, maybe it was the shit weather we had, or maybe it was the awful traffic, but we were really unimpressed with what Marseille in France had to offer compared to the rest of France that we enjoyed.

WOULDN’T RETURN TO

To the shock of many, we have zero interest in ever returning to Rome in Italy. It was too busy, dirty and far too ram packed with tourists. Everything that was supposed to be amazing had the joy sucked out of it by the pushy, pushy crowds.

rome-crowds

WORST MOMENT

I am not sure what is worse. The body crippling food poising we caught in Albania, or the fact that it completely ruined our last days of summer on this beautiful beach resort! What a waste, especially as it took us forever to get there on crap buses!

 albania-beach

So there we have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed the journal entries – now off to New Zealand for more adventures!

 

 

 

 

Obergurgl

Obergurgl

LEARNING TO SKI IN OBERGURGL

A train followed by a bus took us from Salzburg to the mountain town of Obergurgl in Austria.

Our lodge at the Gurglhof Apartments had been booked for months and thankfully it lived up to the pictures. Boasting views of the ski slopes and just a three minute walk from the ski lift, the cosy lodge was kitted out with modern appliances, a dishwasher and best of all, a posh coffee machine complete with milk frother, that Kate managed to master.

obergurgl

Room with a View!

SKI DAY – ZERO

We stocked up at the surprisingly well stocked SPAR and went to get our ski gear sorted out at the ski shop. Having barely been on a snowy mountain before, let alone ever been skiing before, I was very impressed with the whole set up. We typed in our height, weight, and skill levels into the computer and the helpful assistant quickly kitted us out with the most suitable equipment. Our boots and skis were even labelled with little bar codes with our hotel address on in case we lost them!

ski shop

Kate Checking Out the Ski Gear (and Possibly the Shop Assistant Too..)

I waddled out the shop and crept back up the hill back to our apartment, trying to carry all the ski gear like I knew what I was doing, and like I belonged in the town of experienced skiers. The boots weighed a ton and I kept accidentally swinging them into the back of my knees, which instantly made my legs buckled. This then caused a Jenga effect with the skis I had dangling off my shoulder, where I’d balanced them in an attempt to ease some of their weight off my arms. Meanwhile, the ski poles were akimbo, somewhere between trying to signal overhead aircraft to land and poking me in the eyes. Exhausted, and a little battered before I had even stepped on the snow, I gave up the sherpa routine and stored the kit in the designated ski room that was attached to the reception area of our apartment block.

Undeterred by the fact that I could barely even carry the bloody skis, I’d noticed a small patch of snow just outside of our apartment that seemed to be out of the way from the confident individuals who were carving up a snow storm on the real slopes, and decided to head back out.

I left the poles at home, mounted the skis onto my shoulder and checked the protruding length of them behind me to ensure I avoided reenacting a Laurel and Hardy sketch on my walk back to the snow patch. But now I had a new challenge – walking in ski boots. If you wanted to design a footwear to allow suicidal people to sink after jumping off a bridge, ski boots would be it. They offer very limited maneuverability and weigh an absolute ton. You also have to walk heel to toe in a very exaggerated fashion due to the inability to bend your legs or roll your ankles, so end up strutting around like you’re recovering from an electric shock or a stroke. And I thought you were supposed to look cool in ski gear?!

 ski-pose

Trying to Look the Part…

My attempt to look the part diminished with the day light as I spent a good 40 minutes struggling to clip one boot into skis as the already holstered ski slid away from me, resulting in me spending most of the time rolling around in the snow shouting at an amused Kate that skiing was “Bullshit”.

SKI DAY – ONE

I flicked through the ski brochures provided by the hotel and turned my nose up at the thought of spending 75 Euros for a group ski lesson, so instead turned my attention to the power of YouTube! Within minutes I had found a great selection of beginner’s guide to skiing theory with a friendly chap videoing himself out in the snow, taking me through every step of how to clip up my boots, how to stand, where to put my weight, and funnily enough, even how to carry skis to make them almost weightless! Where was this guy yesterday?

With my head full of theory, I kitted up and strutted over to the beginner slopes. Strutting of course, as I still couldn’t walk normally in my bloody boots. Kate, a very confident skier, left me with the 5 year olds and went off to explore the various ski runs.

I managed a little over two hours of falling over, trying to apply a brake to my “speed” with a snow plough, and constantly fighting to clip my boots into my skis, before concluding that the guy in the ski shop had configured my ski clips too tightly for my boots. Totally exhausted, I stopped by the shop to have my skis tweaked before heading home where I consoled myself with some homemade leek and potato soup. The apartment had a hand blender, so I made sure we made full use of it!

soup-prep

Soup Preparation – Beer Mandatory

SKI DAY – TWO AND THREE

So a new a day and my legs were embarrassingly sore, considering I’d barely actually skied at all. Rather than walking like John Wayne over to the beginner slope, I manned up and “skied” down to it instead, but instantly fell over. The good news was my reconfigured skis and boots were playing nicely for once and I wasn’t expending all my energy trying to ram my foot into a ski, whilst precariously balancing on the other one.

I found a gentle slope, away from the people paying 75 Euros a lesson, and practiced slowly skiing down it, putting my YouTube theory, a few pointers from Kate and a lot of eavesdropped info from the nearby lesson into practice. It helped me tremendously to verbalize my actions and over exaggerate my hip and heel movements to learn how to turn. Bemused skiers skimmed past me as I shouted “plough, plough, plough, turn, turn, turn!” to myself loudly.

I lasted about 4 hours each day, doing the same thing, again and again. Slowly going down the gentle slope, practicing my turns and my braking and eventually providing my legs instructions inside my head, rather than yelling out loud.

We finished up the day with some Austrian beers and a game of Chess on the board that the apartment had, as our legs throbbed and my blisters bore holes the size of 2 pence pieces into my feet.

chess

Chess and Beer to Finish the Day

SKI DAY – FOUR AND FIVE

Feeling more confident on the skis, but still not ready for the poles, I upped the ante and used the beginner ski lift, called “The Pommer” to help me up a fairly wide slope that was a touch harder gradient than the slope I’d be practicing on previously. The Pommer is a rubber circle connected to an automated pulley that you half sit on and it drags you up the hill. Keeping in tradition of spending more time on the ground than on my skis, I fell off the Pommer straight away, as when Kate shouted “DON’T sit down on it”, I heard, “SIT down on it”. Lesson learnt.

In the middle of a shaky run down the slope, an air raid siren suddenly went off, filling the air with its alarming whine. I figured it must be an avalanche warning and did my best to ski down as fast and as controlled as I could manage without falling over my feet. I rushed over to the ski lift operator and asked him in broken German what was going on and if it was safe and what was the noise about, to which he replied, “It’s lunchtime”. What a totally inappropriate sound to signal bloody lunchtime!

I let the lesson clear off for their war themed lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon leveraging the stolen tips I’d overheard and practiced cutting into my turns faster and stamping my foot down to allow me to turn and brake sharper, each time taking the Pommer higher and higher up the slope, until I was confidently doing full runs. I then incorporated the poles and quickly got a handle on them, using them to help me turn even better than before.

Kate appeared back from her adventures and we agreed I was ready for my first “Blue Run” – the colour code that indicates a track suitable for beginners. I fell over a few times as I got my head and legs around the track and the different textures of snow, but it was safe to say that I was actually skiing! Go me!

ski-selfie

Smiles all Around on my First Blue Run

SKI DAY – SIX

With our bodies not used to the sudden assault of exercise, we spent day six of our ski pass resting our legs in the apartment, watching films and eating our weight in cheese and wine 🙂

SKI DAY – SEVEN TO NINE

With my skiing “ability” passable for the selection of blue runs available, we gave up skiing in solitary and started to get numerous ski lifts and cable cars all around the mountains and skied down almost together. Kate would often take point as the better and faster skier, as I kept honing my turning skills on my course down. We agreed that you can unfortunately have too much of a good thing, and whilst our hearts were still happy with trying to ski for several hours a day, our legs really started to push back, making the second to last day a bit of a slog, rather than an enjoyable skiing day.

kate-ski

 

row-ski

SKI DAY – TEN

So our ten day ski pass was up, our legs were broken and the excitement to get out onto the snow each morning was starting to fade, but luckily someone had the good idea to put a pub halfway up a mountain, so that became our objective.

We did a few smaller ski runs to get our moneys worth and then kicked our skis off and parked up at the pub, 2100 metres up the side of a mountain and got stuck into a few pints each.

ski pub

ski-pub2

A Few Pints at 2100 Metres!

Now the trouble is, once you’re that high up, skiing down is really the only option to get back down. Now, if I was crap at skiing when sober, I truly became Bambi on ice with a few pints in me. I actually skied over my other ski and ended up face down in the snow, but got up with a beaming smile on my face. Cheers booze!

A little giddy we gave our ski gear back to the rental shop and headed back to our lodge.

It took me nearly a week of self teaching, repetition, falling in the snow and stealing info from those who had actually paid for a lesson, but I did it. I taught myself how to ski!

view-from-the-top

Our View from the Top

 

 

 

 

Salzburg

Salzburg

SALZBURG CENTRE

Less than two hours on a comfortable train from Vienna, we arrived in Salzburg and walked 40 minutes to Hotel Turnerwit, only to later discover that a local bus stopped right outside. Oh well, the exercise is always good and at this point on our trip, we barely even notice carrying our bags!

Salzburg was mainly chosen as it was a logical stepping stone from Vienna to Obergurgl, where we had a ski lodge booked, and because it looked like a picturesque town. Therefore, the only thing on the agenda was to walk around aimlessly, take in the town, sample some more Austria food, and ideally sample some Austrian wine too. Yes, life is stressful on the road sometimes 🙂

After dropping out bags, we turned on our heels and took the bus back into town, getting off in time to walk through Mirabell Platz, the fancy gardens of a famous Austrian whose name I have forgotten!

mirabell platz salzburg

Mirabell Platz

Every which way you turned to look out, there was something pretty to look at, like a mountain in the distance, the fort on top of the hill, or the quaint buildings that made up the town.

salzburg-mountains

Salzburg Mountains

salzburg-view

View of Salzburg Centre

To me, Salzburg was born to be a Christmas town and I cannot imagine what they do in the Summer. Every window display was kitted out in full tinsel, Xmas markets were popping up, the streets were lined with fairy lights and Christmas trees, and the cold weather just topped it off nicely. They were a fawn and a talking beaver away from being Narnia!

salzburg-window-display

Christmas Mad Window Displays

salzburg xmas tree

Christmas Trees!

Salzburg, is of course, the birthplace of Amadeus Mozart and since finding his fame in classical music whilst alive, he appears to be doing a roaring trade in selling overpriced chocolate covered marzipan balls whilst dead! A sucker for both chocolate and marzipan, I gave into the chocolate composer and bought a bag, only to see them for half the price in the supermarket later in the day (just don’t tell the spread sheet, OK!) We’d already had our dose of Mozart in concert during our visit to Prague so overlooked the numerous concerts being advertised around town.

mozart choc

Chocolate Composer!

We stopped for lunch at Sternbrau and were served up two massive plates of delicious food. I had enough roast pork to feed an army and Kate tried the beef goulash, with both of us enjoying regional favourites such as dumplings and sauerkraut on the side. It was such a nice relaxed restaurant, we sat and nursed our wine glasses for over an hour until we had room to try the ever so Austrian, Apple Strudel too!

sternbrau salzburg

Delicious Roast Pork and Sauerkraut

apple strudel

Apple Strudel and Cream!

Time to keep your fingers crossed for some serious snow, as now we are off to our final stop – the ski slopes of Obergurgl!

Vienna

Vienna

VIENNA WIENER SCHNITZEL

After a short flight we landed in freezing cold Vienna, but were luckily already somewhat winter hardened from our time in Copenhagen.

The A+O hotel was a 2 minute walk from Wien Hauptbahnhof station but we decided to stretch our legs after dropping our bags, and waked for 40 minutes into town, just as the sun disappeared for the day.

Keen to get our teeth into some typically Austrian cuisine, we b-lined for a restaurant, where I tucked into a massive Wiener Schnitzel, which for those not in the know, is a thin cut of prime Veal fried in crispy golden breadcrumbs. This came with a silky and onion heavy potato salad that dripped in olive oil. Just what I was after!

wiener schnitzel in vienna

Wiener Schnitzel in Vienna

We turned down the dessert menu and walked across to the Town Hall, as we were just in time for the Christmas Markets to open! The Town Hall (Rathaus) gardens has a whopping 151 stalls, all pitched in little wooden sheds, selling everything from food, booze, decorations, gifts and crafts, all lit up in Xmas lighting. A fun and festive way to spend a few hours, but an activity we earmarked to do properly the following day instead.

vienna-xmas-market-night

Vienna Xmas Markets

SIGMUND FREUD MUSEUM

Having studied Psychology at school, I was keen to visit the house of Mr. Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The museum is set in his old apartment/ treatment room, so it was quite good fun entering the museum via a street level apartment door and having to buzz the bell for “Sigmund Freud’s Office” to be let in.

sigmund-freud-doorbell

After paying at reception, you find yourself in his waiting room, admiring the art and relics that he surrounded himself with, before heading through to the treatment room that is sadly missing the original and infamous, treatment couch. The tour is delivered by an audio guide and you press various numbers in front of various paintings/ books/ extracts that strings together the story of his life, from school, to his practice, to fleeing the Nazis, and to his battle with cancer.

sigmund-freud-waiting-room

Whilst the museum did exactly what it said on the tin from the reviews I’d briefly read, I was hoping for more of an insight into his actual theories, experiments and his eureka moments, which were all too briefly touched upon.

VIENNA CHRISTMAS MARKETS

Having briefly seen the Xmas markets all lit up the previous evening, we back tracked to go for a proper nose around. Everyone was drinking steaming hot beverages from a variety of Christmas themed mugs, so we joined the crowds and ordered two hot amaretto punches served in a little shoe! Why drink out of a boring old cup when you can drink from china footwear? You had to leave a 3 Euro deposit for the mug, but we decided to bag our shoes instead and keep them! Everyone else seemed to be doing the same.

vienna-xmas-shoes

Vienna is the home of the snow globe, and they made sure everybody knew it, with large displays of glass trapped snowy scenes for sales on the stalls, as well as a giant snow globe as the centre piece of the ice skating rink.

vienna-snow-globe-stand

Vienna – Home of the Snow Globe!

vienna-big-snow-globe

Giant Snow Globe at the Ice Rink

Hungry from our morning of psychoanalysis, tiny drinkable shoes and yule themed trinkets, we sampled the favourite local snack, Kasekrainer. Clearly the invention of a genius who got tired of having to put cheese on top of his sausages, he decided to add the cheese INTO the sausage instead. Served up on a paper plate, a large dollop of mustard and a, quite frankly pointless, bread roll, you can feel your smile growing and your arteries clogging with every, cheese oozing, meaty bite!

kasekrainer

Kasekrainer for Lunch!

As with any market, you don’t want to limit yourself to just one of the food offerings, you want to try them all, so we also made a pit stop for some cured meats at the deli stall.

deli stand vienna

VIENNA CITY CENTRE

With daylight fading we walked around the city centre enjoying all the posh buildings. Vienna is like an architect has taken the nice parts of Mayfair in London and said, “Yes. I think we’ll take that design and just copy and paste it across the whole city, but leave all the shit bits behind”. Clearly the pressure washing business is booming in Vienna as every building is a dazzling white stone that leaves Rome’s tired and grey buildings looking like a dustbin in comparison.

vienna-buildings

Posh and Polished Buildings 

All the museums are conveniently located altogether in one area, and there was oodles of music and art to take in, but we were too pressed for time unfortunately and really not that into art! I did however, like the steps leading up to the Van Gough exhibition, that was very cleverly done.

van gough steps vienna

Next step – a turbo visit to Salzburg!

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

PLAIN SAILING TO COPENHAGEN

After being left in the cold for what felt like an eternity at a chilly outdoors bus stop in Berlin, our bus finally arrived to take us on wards to Copenhagen. After making the obligatory noise of exhaling air combined with a body spasm, (“Brrr!”), the thing you only do when you step into somewhere warm after being outside in the cold, we settled in for the ride. After a few short hours we were at the boat docks at the tip of Germany.

Once the coach had driven onto the ferry, we disembarked and found some new seats upstairs for the 1.40 hour crossing, sharing a big portion of fish and chips to warm us up after foolishly taking a walk on the outside deck. It was bitterly cold!

copenhagen-ferry

Bitterly Cold on the Copenhagen Ferry

We checked into the budget, but perfectly acceptable, Go Hotel on the edge of town, and in line with our penny saving approach to travel, headed straight to the Nettos supermarket across the road for dinner supplies. I didn’t think Nettos was still around, so thoroughly enjoyed my nostalgic trip around the isles, admiring their complete disregard for the use of shelves. Why bother when people will still buy stuff if it is just piled haphazardly on a wooden pallet?

With no fridge in our room, we used our new found “natural fridge” tactic to keep our supplies cold, by dangling the shopping bag out of our third floor window and clamping it shut in the window seal. We were worried that our “natural fridge” would actually become a “natural freezer”, given the minus temperatures, and I was also slightly concerned that the bag might slip, fall, and hit an innocent passer-by. “Cause of death Officer?”, “Killed from above by a frozen quiche. No witnesses” In many ways the perfect crime as you could then eat the murder weapon! But I digress…

COPENHAGEN IN ONE DAY

So we’d come to Copenhagen as we were desperate to go to the birthplace of Lego, and more importantly, the original Lego Land. It doesn’t matter how old you get, Lego is still effing brilliant. We’d also read that there was a roller coaster that had been operational for over 100 years in the Tivoli gardens, which seemed like a fair chance to tease the Grim Reaper! Then there was good old Hans Christian Anderson, the Godfather of fairy tales, and the need to find a certain street that appears on almost every postcard of Copenhagen and apparently encapsulates it in one shot. Other Danish items we felt we already had a good handle on included, Carlsberg, bikes, bacon, pastries and sandwiches; although I’d never had a “proper” Danish “Open Sandwich” to be fair.

No real planning went into this part of the trip as it was just so far away back when we started 4 months ago, back in Spain.  The lack of planning quickly unraveled us, as both Lego Land and Tivoli Gardens were closed, and frustratingly opening up again just a week later, so we booked just 2 nights in the end.

CHRISTIANIA

After two stops on the train from our Hotel, we were back at Copenhagen Central Station and walked East until we hit the river. The river hit back with an icy wind and we walked across the bridge into the curious hippy district of Christiania.

christiania-copenhagen

Hippy Central

Self-governed since the 1970’s this bizarre community in the heart of Copenhagen is a “free love” paradise where locals who share the same ideals as Bob Marley come to live. Many of the houses are self-built, and if there isn’t a fresh lick of artistic graffiti on every surface, then someone has missed a spot. It kind of looks like the 1960’s threw up on a recycling centre that’s hosting a Vegan convention.

After about 10 minutes of walking around and being nosey, we exited through another graffiti laden gate, via the “Green Light District”, where a number of locals muttered a list of various drugs under their breath in the hopes that you might take interest, which we didn’t. Literally just on the outer fence of Christiania a group of young teens were being searched by a waiting police car. Clearly they’d forgotten the police turn a blind eye on one side of the fence but not the other!

All in all, a very odd place, but especially odd given how clean and proper the rest of Copenhagen is by contrast.

christiania-copenhagen-rules

Rules of the “Green Light” District

PICTURE PERFECT COPENHAGEN

After zig zagging more bikes than a Halford’s show room, we stumbled upon the famed street of Copenhagen. Why this street is so famous, I have no idea, but it is pretty, and perhaps captures the time when Copenhagen was merely just a little fishing town, before it became the most visited town in all of Scandinavia.

copenhagen-denmark

Infamous Copenhagen Street

It is so famous, that even the local Lego store has taken the time and effort to build it out of miniature plastic bricks!

copenhagen-lego-street

Lego Version

In keeping with our tradition of seeing what Hollywood makes of our destinations, we had also watched, “The Danish Girl”, where Eddie Reymene portrays “Lilly” – one of the first males to undergo a sex change. Guess where he (she?) lived? Yep! On this street too, well, according to the films cut scenes anyway.

THE LITTLE MERMAID

Having read that the Hans Christian Andersen museum was both sh*t AND expensive, we decided to pay homage to our childhood memories by walking North for nearly an hour to visit the “Little Mermaid” statue instead. It was also a bit sh*t, but at least it was free.

the-little-mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Although the Little Mermaid statue was a bit of a letdown after the lengthy walk, the walk via the army barracks and around some of the smaller water ways was very nice, so worth it is in the end.

copenhagen-river

copenhagen-river2

THE LEGO STORE

Our pilgrimage to the original Lego Land had been quashed by our own rubbish planning BUT there was still a Lego store in Copenhagen, so we had to make do.

travel-in-denmark

Just Leave Me Here All Day…

I’ve always like Lego, and I think I always will. If you want to shut me up for a few hours give me a box of Lego bricks and mission accomplished! We walked around, pointing out the innovative approach that Lego has taken in recent years by piggy backing the latest films and fads and adding to their collection. You can now buy Star Wars kits and build the Death Star or Millennium Falcon and even build an island full of bloody “Angry Birds”!

They had large models for Tower Bridge, in London, as well as the Opera House, from Sydney, both icons that I have lived near to. One day I may buy them both and have them in my house as weird memory mix between my adult and child life.

lego-tower-bridge

Lego Tower Bridge in London

THE CARLSBERG BREWERY

Thirsty from all the walking, we decided to give the Carlsberg Brewery a visit. I hadn’t been too fussed about going, as for the most part, I view Carlsberg as a pretty bog standard lager. The sort of beer, that whilst perfectly acceptable to drink, you associate it with bulk buy supermarket deals and football hooliganism.

carlsberg-brewery-2

Luckily, Carlsberg brews a lot of other decent beer that they don’t widely export outside of Denmark, and we got acquainted with the Jacobsen brewery, via a tasting board.

carlsberg-brewery

Tasting Board and a “Beer Sausage”

We sat in there for an hour or so and enjoyed another tasting board, some peanuts and a “Beer Sausage” which is in fact, just a posh pepperoni stick. After a tipsy purchase of a limited addition Christmas beer, called the “Naked Golden Ale”, we headed home, just as it started to snow. We arrived back at the hotel and I was delighted to discover that not only had our quiche not frozen solid, it also hadn’t killed anyone!

copenhagen-snow

Winter has Come!

Time to double up our socks and head over to Austria!

 

 

Berlin

Berlin

SMOOTH ARRIVAL INTO BERLIN

Our 4 hour bus from Poland to Berlin went as efficiently as only the Germans know how. A punctual departure on a clean, spacious bus that not only had free wifi, but also an entertainment website full of movies. A “steward” was constantly going up and down the isles offering coffee, snacks and even beer once we’d crossed the German/ Polish border! All this bus was missing was a set of wings!

I was excited to see Berlin. It’s a city that has a shady past, but a city that has taken the right approach to shake its demons and build a vibrant, modern city, that respectfully acknowledges both the holocaust and the Berlin wall eras, but doesn’t dwell on them and hold the city back from being fantastically fresh, accessible and contemporary. Well done Berlin!

We pulled into the impressive giant glass structure that is Hauptbahnhof, one of Berlin’s main travel hubs, and set about finding transport to our hotel. Berlin has an S-bahn, U-bahn, bus and tram system which makes getting around extremely easy. We opted for the S-bahn and went a few stops West to the Hotel Pension Elegia.

With German being the “strongest” of my odds and ends of knowing a few words in a foreign language, I was all set to check in to the hotel speaking broken German. I mentally prepared phrases like “Guten Abend” (Good Evening) and “Wie gehst?” (How are you?), ready to finish up the transaction with a “Vielen Dank” (Many thanks) and “Guten Nacht” (good night).

The receptionist smiled and opened the conversation with a very English, “Hello”, which washed all the poised German phrases out of my head, and I proceed to check in to the hotel in fluent English instead. Useless.

WEST BERLIN

We started the day with a pretty crap breakfast of, “left over baguette”, that had been wrapped in a napkin and pocketed from a previous breakfast out, smeared with an individual serve of jam, that I’d been carrying in my bag since bloody Florence (3 months earlier) “just in case” we were caught short. This was served alongside a luke warm cup of tea in a disposable plastic dentist style cup that I’d also been carrying in my bag since the dawn of time. After being spoilt by cheap apartments with fridges, kettles, hobs and utensils, we were now in a hotel room that had little more than a bed and a desk, so we ran the bathroom tap until it was hot enough to infuse a tea bag! Living the back packing dream eh!

Despite the ever so easy public transport, we opted to walk around expansive Berlin to get some exercise in, clocking up over 10 KM by the end of the day. Seeing as we were staying West, it made sense to explore all that that side had to offer first, so we left our restaurant packed neighbourhood of Savingyplatz and headed into the city.

TIERGARTEN

After passing the Zoo and aquarium, we cut into the Tiergarten and kicked through the leaves, commenting on how nice it was to have such a large green space in the middle of the city. Kate even found her inner child and had a go in on the swings!

Tiergarten Berlin

berlin swings

The Tiergarten led us all the way down to Victory Monument, a tall column with a gold statue on top that has been modified over time to commemorate various Prussian victories in war. The monument looks over a busy roundabout where several sets of jugglers were performing during the red lights for the cars in exchange for some coins through the window. Makes a nice change from the usual “can I wash your windscreen” routine I’m used to.

Apparently there is a large pub in the middle of the gardens somewhere, but I didn’t find out about it until we were too late unfortunately. Maybe for next time.

victory-monument-berlin

Victory Monument, Berlin

BRANDENBURG GATE

Strasse die 17 Juni led us all from the Victory Monument to the main symbol of Berlin, the infamous Brandenburg Gate. The gate was built as a sign of peace and is known as a key symbol of not only Berlin, but of all Germany too.

brandenburg-gate-berlin

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

We passed underneath it to take it in from both sides and dodged the touts trying to sell us a tour of some sort. I was trying to imagine how it may have looked at the end of the Second World War and luckily enough, I later came across this merged photo that formed part of a free history plaque in the city.

old-brandenburg-gate-berlin

WW2 vs Modern Day

 THE REICHSTAG

Just around the corner from the Brandenburg gate was the Reichstag, Berlin’s main parliament building and where Hitler ruled from when he came to power.

berling germany reichstag

The Reichstag

Deciding on where to head next, Kate did her best impression of a tourist using our free map and we decided to check out Potsdammer Platz, and once again passed by the Brandenburg Gate, as well as the Holocaust Memorial.

tourist-kate-berlin

Tourist Kate

HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL

We’d been to the scene of the crime itself when we visited Auschwitz, and now we were at the confession and acknowledgement of it. It was agreed that Germany needed to build a permanent and highly visible memorial for what had happened which resulted in a curious design being put forward – a plaza full of different sized smooth grey blocks, all at different heights.

I thought the flatter pieces resembled a stone coffin and that maybe that was the inspiration. Walking into the middle of the memorial, the height of the pieces tower above you, creating a maze like long corridors and the feeling of being lost, perhaps to emulate the feelings of the victims? Just my interpretation anyway.

holocaust-memorrial-berlin

Holocaust Memorial 

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POTSDAMMER PLATZ

Potsdammer Platz was once baron land after it was bombed to pieces, but now it is a pioneer for quirky architecture and a business district.

Postdammer platz berlin

Potsdammer Platz

It was here that we got our first glimpses of some of the original pieces of the Berlin wall, staggered across the square with the perimeter of the fallen wall marked out on the pavement.

berlin wall segment

Remaining Segment of the Berlin Wall

berlin-wall-marking

Original Wall Marking

There was a small Christmas market set up that was serving up beers, mulled wine and the culinary delight that is the German Bratwurst. Mammoth sized sausages served in fresh white baguettes, oozing in mustard and ketchup. How can you say no to that?

bratwurst-stand-berlin

The Ultimate Sausage Sizzle!

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One Happy Bratwurst Customer

 TOPOGRAHPIE OF TERRORS MUSEUM

On our way to Checkpoint Charlie we looked around the Topographie of Terrors museum. It is a free museum that details the rise, reign and fall of Nazi Germany, explaining not only what atrocities that occurred, but also how and why so many people were swept along by it all. It is easy with retrospect and hindsight to question how a man as outrageous as Hitler managed to build a faithful following of Germans, but he was a smart (and unfortunately twisted) leader. In many ways, he did a lot for the German people, brought them out of an economic slump, created jobs, gave people purpose again, introduced new public holidays to celebrate being German, and boosted industry and economy tremendously. Little did people know at the time that he wasn’t building a country, he was building an army.

Much of the museum was a refresher to my knowledge, having studied the pre Hitler times of the Weimar Republic, as well as Hitler’s reign, WW2, and even post Hitler times i.e., the Cold War. I was however shocked by the manner in which Hitler turned the police force into his personal arm of terror and how they got away with pushing their political agenda. For example, in the early days of Hitler’s reign he made the SS use phrases like “Protective Custody” to round up Jews and send them to prison centres. The SS explained, probably in quite a concerned way, that Jewish people were viewed as an “Enemy of the State” and that “the mob” of pro German supporters may try and cause harm to them. Therefore, it would be safer for everyone if they accepted being put in SS “Protective Custody”. This sort of “wool over the eyes” routine allowed the Nazis to seamlessly imprison thousands of people with the rest of Germany thinking that all was fine and above board! Unbelievable!

CHECKPOINT CHARLIE

After the museum, we headed further into the city centre, past a shop offering Trabant tours. According to Channel 4’s Travel Man, you can take a self driving guided tour of Berlin. It was apparently voted the worst car in 1975! We just opted for a photo of the fleet instead.

trabant-berlin

Kate and the Totally Crap Trabant

Berlin has clearly read the guide book of “How to Attract Tourists to You City”, and have set up a fake Checkpoint Charlie where the original once stood. A checkpoint, once at the centre of the tension filled Cold War, is now a place where you can have your photo taken with an actor dressed in military gear outside a faux guard post.

checkpoint-charlie-berlin

The Tourist Twist on Checkpoint Charlie

I am not sure if the “Entering/ Leaving” sign posts are the original or remade, but you’ve got to love how the big food chains manage to ruin every single spot of historical relevance around the world.

I wonder if you were given a pass to go to East Berlin for the day, to conduct some important political business, you could nip into finger lickin’ KFC for a bucket of chicken first? Perhaps McDonalds is more your tipple? Both own a huge tourist guzzling “restaurant” either side of the checkpoint.

checkpoint-charlie-signs-berlin

 checkpoint-charlie-signs-2-berlin

Grab Your Big Box Chicken Combo Before you Face the Russians!

So, with our papers cleared at Checkpoint Charlie and a box of fried chicken in our ration packs, we crossed the now invisible boundary into East Berlin.

EAST BERLIN

I was quite surprised how quickly I noticed a difference between the two sides, and how obvious it was that the East had been somewhat held back compared to the affluent shopping districts of the West.

The East had a grungier vibe to it with many of the buildings sporting a fresh lick of graffiti and the attire of the people I saw being a lot more punk rocker/ hippy in style. We also walked past several large refugee camps that looked like the tent block at a musical festival.

East berlin refugees

First Glimpse of East Berlin

EAST SIDE GALLERY

We’d walked the hour from Checkpoint Charlie, across a bridge to see what is now called, “The East Side Gallery”. The East Side Gallery is a mile long section of the original wall that has been decorated by various local artists. A nice way, I thought, to turn a negative into a positive.

east-side-gallery berlin

An Artistic Take on the Events of the Past

I thought I was straddling the East and West side at one point, but then remembered the area of space in between the walls, known as the “Death Zone”, that was patrolled by guards and dogs who would shot anyone trying to cross.

berlin-wall-straddle

Straddling East and West Berlin?

death-zone-berlin-wall

Not Without Crossing the Death Zone First

We gave our weary legs a break and caught the S-bahn home and watched the sites of the day unfold in reverse through the window.

We finished up the day having a budget supermarket meal in the hotel room. Kate had the ingenious idea to use the balcony ledge outside the window as a natural fridge, as the temperature wasn’t going to rise above 5 degrees, so we were able to get some items that would have otherwise been out the question. The innovative things you come up with when you’re trying to save a penny or two eh!

In keeping with our tradition of getting Hollywood’s take on it all, we watched Steven Spielberg directed “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks as Jim Donnovan, a Lawyer who negotiated the trade of Russian and American spies via East Berlin during the height of the Cold War. Worth a watch.

I won’t sign off as JFK once did with his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, but I can safely say “Ich liebe Berlin” and would happily return – although definitely with more money this time to enjoy the copious amounts of nice restaurants, bars and cafes that I wasn’t able to sample this time around.

Next stop – Copenhagen in Denmark!

 

Zakopane

Zakopane

ZAKOPANE – CREEPY OR MAGICAL?

The bus from Krakow in Poland down south to Zakopane took a speedy 2 hours and we found ourselves in the oil painting beauty of mountainous Zakopane.

A little too early for the ski season, where I imagine the town gets pretty busy, we had the place pretty much all to ourselves, barely passing more than two or three people each time we went out. It felt like a fairy tale town as all the buildings were constructed with thick beams of wood and had pointy, slanted roofs. Replace the wood with gingerbread and I could have bumped into Hansel and Gretel during a walk in the woods!

zakopane house

Fairy Tale Magical

That being said, there were a number of older, more run down houses that were more reminiscent of the ski lodge in Stephen King’s “The Shining”. As I write this I need to keep checking Kate is actually Kate and not a ghostly butler or a set of twins on tricycles!

zakopane-house

Stephen King Creepy

 

Zakopane had that small town feeling where people didn’t lock their doors, you helped your neighbour, everyone knew everyone, and you always felt safe. The perfect setting for a Polish version of “Broadchurch” really, where every week you’d try and work out “who done it”. Was it the shifty ski lift operator? Was it the quiet man who lives in the shack on the mountain? Was it the lady in the post office?!

With daylight fading we got supplies in at the nearest supermarket and Kate kick started her pancake production for the week, starting with Polish Potato Pancakes for dinner, served with meat, veg and gravy. An ideal and hearty meal to contend with the minus temperatures outside.

MOUNT TATRA

The day started with Kate back in the kitchen, this time cooking up sweet pancakes with summer berries. We had 4 days to use up a box of eggs, a bag of flour and a litre of milk so it would be a pancake party until every scrap of ingredient had gone!

Full to the brim we headed out for the mountain paths, kicking through the Autumn leaves and puffing our breath on the chilly air. After a quick scan of the sign warning us about snakes, wild animals, avalanches and steep drops, we took the steep path up into the forest. Each step was a deep lunge over rocks that formed an exhausting staircase and after about 40 minutes of going pretty much vertically up, we stopped to take in the view point.

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Kate doing her Sherpa impression in Zakopane

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View from the top of Mount Tatra, Zakopane

We saw a few other people on the trail, kitted out in all the right gear, who we instinctively smiled at and confidently said “hello” to as we crossed paths. I then thought, why is that OK? What is it about a country walk that suddenly allows you to so assertively greet a perfect stranger? If you walked down street in London waving at everyone and shouting a friendly hello at them, people would think that you’re mental! Put a few trees in the mix and it is suddenly A-OK! You can never be too careful though, that hiker could have been the main suspect in some sort of Polish based “who done it” crime thriller… 🙂

We refueled from our hike with artery clogging portions of cheese from the local deli and enough pork terrine to guarantee a spell of gout. Fan-bloody-tastic!

ZAKOPANE AQUA PARK

Feeling suitably sluggish from our pancake, cheese and red wine diet that we were so consistently sticking to, we decided that some activity was in order so dug our swimwear out from the bottom of our back packs.

The Aqua Park was awesome! A large sports complex, considering the relative size of little Zakopane, that boasted swimming pools, 4 slides, jacuzzis, saunas, a lazy river and even bowling lanes on the top floor.

We paid for two hours and splashed around until our fingers wrinkled like prunes. The slides were great! I wasn’t deterred at all by the fact that I was pushing 30 and standing in a queue with a group of bemused looking 10 year olds.

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Aquapark, Zakopane

We finished up the day with an hour of bowling. I’ve had it on my mind ever since watching the movie, The Big Lebowski, during the bus journey into Poland. It was closest I could get to a Polish movie at the time…

It was great fun, I even got in a few strikes! Although, I think they were the lowest scoring games of bowling in the history of bowling…

zakopane-bowling

Bowling Champion in Zakopane!

Next stop – Wroclaw!

Krakow

Krakow

POLSKI BEER TASTING ON A BUDGET

Our comfortable Polski Bus took just over 8 hours to get us to Krakow (pronounced Crackov) from our previous visit in Prague.

We were booked in at the excellent value for money, Premium Hostel and scored a room right by the kitchen, which made it feel like it was our own private facility. With only a few weeks left on our epic 5 month jaunt through Europe, we were really starting to feel the pinch of having no income. We therefore settled for a belly filling, wallet pleasing jacket potato with baked beans for dinner, cooked in our private communal kitchen. We padded it out with what I can only describe as “Deli Meat Roulette” – a see through plastic variety box of what was clearly the discarded miss cuts from the cured meat counter in the supermarket. It was actually pretty good, and most importantly, cheap!

premium hostel krakow poland

Premium Hostel in Krakow

We do of course like to ensure we try the local beers in each country, so the compulsory “Cheap Local Beer Tasting” was dutifully undertaken to wash down our student dinner. There is always room in the budget for beer tasting 🙂

cheap polish beers krakow

Budget Beer Tasting in Krakow

Knowing what lay ahead in our itinerary over the next few days, and, in keeping with our tradition to get Hollywood’s view of the history of the places we visit, we watched the emotional, “Schindler’s List” before going to bed.

SCHINDLER’S FACTORY

The next morning we headed out for the real Schindler’s Factory after a nostalgic bowl of inappropriately named “Cheerios” – Inappropriate considering the museum we were about to go and visit.

The walk took a little under an hour but we cut into Krakow’s Old Town and admired how the classic Eastern European architecture of the Old Town was nicely surrounded by a string of leafy parks at the outer edges.

Krakow sign

Krakow Park

Schindler’s factory is now a museum dedicated to the history of occupied Poland and the unthinkable horrors they endured at the hands of the Nazis throughout the 1940s. We were able to walk through Oskar Schindler’s old office/ apartment where they’d set up a display of the various pots, pans and ceramics made by the thousands of Jews he both employed and saved from being deported to nearby concentration camps.

Kate and I silenced by it all, walked around barely whispering a word as we took in fact after fact about the atrocities that the Polish and Jewish communities went through during that period. Our sombre approach to the museum wasn’t however adopted by everyone. Due to the pace you naturally walk around Schindler’s Factory, we got sandwiched between two groups of irritating and quite frankly, pig ignorant arseholes. I think I probably observed them in silent disgust as much as I observed the exhibits on display. Watching them stomp around, crassly take photos of absolutely everything without a moment’s thought, pause, or reflection of what they were actually photographing. They may as well have been taking pictures of their friends the way they were carrying on. And what would they do with all those photos? Sit down at home and re-read all the information again? Look through pictures of a persecuted nation being systematically starved to death? Print them all out and create their own version of the bloody museum in their living room?! I really do despair sometimes at the state of the general public in this day and age.

Over the 2 hours that we were there, I took just one photo – a quote by the German Chief of Administration, Hans Frank, that really registered the extent of the crimes being committed by the Nazis.

hans-frank-krakow

THAT’S YOUR PIEROGI-ATIVE!

Feeling suitably hollow after Schindler’s Factory, both emotionally and because the poorly named Cheerios had worn off, we decided to find some traditional Polish cuisine to celebrate the Polish way of life.

And what could be more Polish than good ol’ Pierogi?!

For those not in the know (and I wasn’t until this trip), Pierogi is a Polish dumpling that can be filled with either sweet or savoury fillings and is served up with a selection of sauces. We found the most quintessential Polish café (Pierogarnia Krakowiacy) that we could and got stuck in to ordering, trying to decide which of the numerous filling options to choose from. Kate ingeniously said, “Pick what you want, that’s your pierogi-ative!” (as in prerogative, get it!?! 🙂

We settled on a selection of meat and cheese with a side of garlic sauce. Delicious! And bloody filling!

polish cafe krakow

pierogi-krakow

Kate and her Pierogi

WIELICZKA SALT MINE

What is Poland famous for other than pierogi and a horrible history? Salt apparently! I had no idea, but within a 20 minute train ride from the centre of Krakow we were outside the entrance to over 300 Kms worth a mineable salt.

We started our descent by a never ending column of stairs that took us 64 metres underground where we were met by a network of tunnels, reinforced by tree trunk pillars, and a selection of salt sculptures that stand the test of time due to the stable temperature conditions in the mines.

salt mine tunnel krakow

salt-sculptures-krakow

We were lead down further into the mines, as far as 130 metres deep, learning all sorts of facts about methane explosions, how they excavated the salt using ropes, pulleys, horses and tracks and how precious it was as a commodity. The fun fact we’d learnt in Florence was told again about how people were paid their wages in salt, hence the origin on the word “Sal-ary”, and we were led past more curious salt sculptures, including a set of dwarfs – often associated with mining.

The Wieliczka Salt mine even has a functioning church carved deep within it where everything, including artwork such as “The Last Supper”, is chiseled out of the salty walls! You can get married down there too!

the last supper krakow

Please pass the salt at “The Last Supper”!

LUCKILY LOST IN KRAKOW

On our return trip from the Wieliczka Salt Mine, we decided we’d jump off at the stop prior to the main station as logically it should have left us further south of the centre and closer to the Wawel Castle we had intended on seeing.

We were so confident of the plan that we got off the train without first checking our trusty map and suddenly found ourselves bloody miles away from where we thought we’d be. Ironic really, when we had got off early in hopes of a short cut!

But luckily we did get momentarily lost as the walk unearthed the corners of Krakow that we would otherwise not have seen!

As the sun set, we crossed the river using the Bernatek bridge, and smiled at the acrobatic figures that had been built into the cables.

bridge-figures-krakow

The bridge flowed down to “Heroes Square” – a plaza sized commemoration of the Polish youth resistance movement during the war.

Thirsty from being buried in dehydrating salt all day we stopped in at craft beer micro brewery called Ursa Maior that we walked past by chance.

At first we tried their selection of 6 beers, complete with a print out of tasting notes. Then we went back for a second round, but had them mix up the glasses to see if we could pick them out ourselves against their distinguishing flavours.

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Beer tasting board at Ursa Maior in Krakow

With the taste of booze on our lips, we felt compelled to sample Poland’s favourite spirit – Vodka –  and after weaving through the market square we entered Pijalnia Wodki, apparently a favourite amongst students and budget conscious drinkers.

Pijalnia Wodki had an extensive menu of different flavoured vodka based concoctions, all served in a shot glass. Raspberry, blueberry, chocolate, you name it, they had it. They also had some interesting bar snacks that we felt compelled to try, such as pickled herring with sauerkraut, which was surprisingly tasty, and pork in jelly, which both looked and tasted like cat food.

cat food krakow

Cat food with a side of vodka anyone?

I naively overlooked the fact that the shot glasses all contained full strength vodka, despite them being dressed up in a selection of fruit based colours, which to me, indicated they were somewhat diluted. Certainly not the case…

A pyramid of shot glasses each later plus a few beers and I was loving life – talking loudly, slurring my words and questioning why they would serve cat food in vodka bar. Time for bed!

shots krakow

 

AUSCHWITZ

No trip to Krakow would be complete without taking the time to pay your respects at Auschwitz.

We took a local bus 2 hours, through the town of Oswiecim, to right outside the museum and queued up for our pre booked allotted time slot.

We entered the camp via the infamous black gate that has “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work is Liberating) twisted into the metal. The “museum” is in fact the old camp buildings converted into a selection of exhibitions and displays, with each building being dedicated to a different chapter in the nightmare that was Auschwitz.

arbeit-macht-frei-krakow

“Work is Liberating”

auschwitz

Original barbed wire electrical fence

auschwitz

A chilling memorial

We respectfully made our way through each exhibition, avoiding where possible, the inevitable hordes of tour groups who blocked doorways left, right and centre. I read as much of the information as I could, much of which I’d already read about or learnt about at school, and shook my head in disbelief that this actually happened. It sounds awful, but due to me having prior knowledge of the events of the holocaust and having had already emotionally processed a lot of the harrowing facts and figures numerous times before, the experience didn’t register with me like I thought it might have. That was until we walked into the camp for woman, and I was chilled to my bone.

There was a wall of human hair, a metre deep, over a metre high that spanned the entire length of the long building encased by a glass wall. I had no idea that the prisoners were shaved so that their hair could be used in the textile industry to make clothes and carpet for Nazi Germany. I mean you’ve got to be one sick f**k to not only try and eradicate an entire nation, but to also try and profit from the “waste products”? What mind thinks like that?

The next exhibition in the following building continued to play on the heart strings. Cabinet upon cabinet of personal effects stolen by the Nazis from the doomed prisoners were piled up behind the glass. A wall of labelled suitcases that would never see their owners again and an avalanche of pots and pans that would never be cooked in.

Some people took pictures but I kept my camera firmly in my pocket. These aren’t images you show your mate on your phone. For me each suitcase, pot, pan or crumbled glasses frame was a gravestone, a memory for that person. You wouldn’t walk into a cemetery and start taking pictures of the marble headstones, so why would you do it here?

BIRKENAU

Although shell shocked by what we’d seen, we took the shuttle bus over to nearby Birkenau which was historically the site of the gas chambers, most of which were pulled down by the panicking Nazis as the war drew to a close to try and cover up their crimes.

An eerie fog smudged the sunset just as we got there and shrouded the baron camp with a real feeling of uneasiness. The train tracks were still intact and I got increasingly angry with people who stopped to pose for photos on them. This isn’t a bloody theme park people! Have some decorum. It is fine to take a respectful photo, but not one with your big smiles and thumbs up. Morons.

tracks at auschwitz

watch-tower-at-auschwitz

Seeing the fences and the watch towers that are still intact and just the sheer size of the landmass it takes up really hit home with just how truly terrible it all was.

I often think about the reasons why I travel and I’ve concluded it is to allow me to get some “Life Perspective” – a reference point from which you can gauge your own life, your own perceived problems and take stock. You feel pretty shallow moaning about your day to day quibbles when you know that other people have had to face such horror.

With need for a new location to lift our spirits, we headed for Zakopane.

 

 

 

Prague

Prague

WANDERING AROUND PRAGUE

We caught the 4 hour bus from Bratislava in Slovakia to Prague without a hitch and checked ourselves into another mini apartment compete with a kitchen, lounge and bedroom, which oddly enough only had bunk beds in, and called it a night.

After a lazy start to the day we caught the 207 bus into town and watched Prague unfold before us through the window. Colourful pink, yellow and mint green buildings, with the turrets of Gothic churches and castles poking through the skyline against the backdrop of an autumnal tree line, where the green, brown and red leaves reflected off the wide river. Much prettier, we felt, than the makeup of recently visited Budapest.

charles bridge prague czech-republic

View of the Charles Bridge in Prague

prague old town

Prague Old Town

Prettier than Budapest, even with some crude weeing statues taking a leak for all to see!

weeing statues prague czech republic

Weeing statues in Prague!

We mooched across the Charles Bridge, taking in all the religious statues and sculptures and side stepped the inevitable and painfully spatially unaware guided tour groups, and enjoyed the mix of artists making their living from paintings, sketches and musical solos.

CATHEDRAL CHARLATANS?

Just as we’d stepped off the bridge, a sign caught our eye advertising a 60 minute concert in St Paul’s Cathedral that promised pieces such as the Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Ava Maria, Mozart and several others that both Kate and I knew. We were mulling it over to ourselves, feeling guilty that we’d been doing a lot of drinking and eating but not too many cultural activities – well, other than walking around the various cities we’d visited – when the ticket man started his sales spiel on us. “Just 20 Euros”, he said and that he would give us a student discount even though we weren’t students. He went on to provide an overview of the symphony orchestra and rattled off the pieces from the board. We signed ourselves up, parted with the cash and received two tickets for the performance the following evening.

Vivaldi concert prague

Home made or legit?

30 metres down the road I turned back around and reflected on the whole exchange. The cathedral the guy was standing outside looked like it was under construction. The location was where hundreds of tourists were streaming off the iconic Charles Bridge. The sign was professional looking, but it was essentially just a wooden foldaway ‘A-frame’ billboard and the tickets could have been knocked up on a home computer with some gloss printing paper.

I turned to Kate and questioned whether we’d just been fleeced of 40 Euros and I was told to stop being so cynical, but she agreed that it would have been the perfect scam. A line of people queuing outside a derelict church for a non existent concert whilst the ticket man laughed his way to the bank!

CZECH BEER MUSEUM – TASTING EXPERIENCE

Although we had the official Czech beer museum “Tasting Experience” planned in (my Birthday present from Kate), we decided to do our own supermarket budget version to warm up our taste buds the night before.

home beer tasting in prague

Budget Beer Tasting in Prague

We had opted for the Czech Beer Museum out of the numerous beer tasting experience options/ tours available in Prague, as we could rock up with no prior booking, walk ourselves around at our own pace and complete it all, including drinking four beers, within about 2 hours.

The Czech Beer Museum took us on a tour of beer production throughout the ages finishing up with a somewhat interactive model of a brewery. I spent some time trying to work out how many of the “Wall of Beers” that I’d tried in my time and enjoyed the random stats that filled up the museum walls.

wall of beer prague

Wall of beer at the Czech Beer Museum, Prague

Beer Stats Czech beer tasting museum Prague

Summary? Best to be on minimum wage in Belgium!

The museum ended downstairs in a little microbrewery where we were given 4 beers, light to dark, and some tasting notes to work our way through. Even the beer tasting area had a museum feel to it with various information cards dotted around. For example, it was commonplace in communist times to receive a pint of dregs that had been rounded up by the glass collector. Yummy!

A MR BEAN MUSICAL

We headed back to St Paul’s Cathedral, excited for our concert, and a long queue hugging the side of the building indicated that either we hadn’t been scammed, or, that a lot of people had 🙂

Luckily we, and the rest of the queue, hadn’t been conned and we quietly filed in, taking in the art work on the high ceilings whilst we jostled for a seat near the front.

st pauls cathedral prague

Musicians warming up in St Paul’s Cathedral, Prague

The quartet played beautifully for the hour, with fantastic renditions of the classics we’d been promised by the conman salesman. They started with Mozart, onto Handel, with the Soprano singer joining the stage for a neck tingling version of Schubert’s, Ava Maria, before finishing up on The Four Seasons (Spring and Summer) by good ol’ Vivaldi.

But don’t get me wrong – I am not a classical music buff at all. There were several pieces played in between by some Czech composers that I’d never heard before and found myself like a pained Mr Bean in places. Raising my hands to clap, believing it was the end of the piece and then realising, just as I was about to thrash out a heavy and loud clap, (that would have echoed all around the stone silence of the cathedral) that the musical was just in a crescendo! I had to quickly fake a yawn or head scratch to give purpose to my flailing, near clapping hands as the music suddenly bounced along again! Talk about faking trying to be cultured!

Next stop – Krakow in Poland!

 

Bratislava

Bratislava

BIRTHDAY IN BRATISLAVA

We caught our 4 hour train from Budapest to Bratislava after I frittered away my last handful of Hungarian Florins on several chocolate bars at the station. No point carrying around a pocket of coins I couldn’t exchange.

It was my birthday and the mini coincidences of acknowledging my big day started to stack up. Upon checking into our 20 quid a night bargain room (more like bargain mini apartment) at the Freddie Next to Mercury Hostel, I noticed our room was decorated with iconic London artwork such as Big Ben and a red London Bus, a nod, I thought, to my time living in London. I logged into the WIFI only to realise the password contained “87” – the year I was born. A second nice coincidence on my day of birth!

Bratislava hostel room

London themed room for my Birthday in Bratislava!

BRATISLAVA OLD TOWN

We took a short walk down to the Old Town and agreed that it had a similar vibe to our beloved town of Brasov in Romania. Small streets where different alleyways opened up the view up to the castle on the hill, and numerous buzzing independent cafes, pubs and restaurants lining the streets. There was even some interesting sculptures hidden around!

Bratislava man in drain

By complete chance we wandered through the town and stumbled across the one and only Roland Cafe! Close enough with the spelling for me to think it was a third and final nod to my birthday so we went in for a birthday beer. There was even a man playing the piano but we didn’t request a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ from him unlike at our dinner the previous evening in Budapest.

Bratislava Roland Cafe

Birthday Coincidence! The Roland Cafe in Bratislava

That evening we threw a party in our room and I was delighted that everyone on the guest list showed up! (Just me and Kate ha ha!) We swilled back spiced rum and cranked out birthday related tunes including ‘Happy Birthday’ by Stevie Wonder and ‘Celebration” by Kool and the Gang, to initiate me into my 29th year.

BIRTHDAY MEAL IN BRATISLAVA

On our last day in Bratislava, we finished up our short stint in Slovakia with a traditional Slovakian meal at Klubnova and naturally washed it down with some locally brewed beer. I was still playing the birthday card to warrant excessive drinking and thankfully even the menu supported me in consuming several units of the good stuff, summarising that it was in fact good for my health!

bratislava beer guide

Beer IS good for you!

We picked what we deemed to be the most traditional Slovakian options from the menu, comprising of boiled beef cheeks in a cream and horseradish sauce served with dumplings, and, grilled venison loin in a red wine sauce, also served with dumplings. I ended up eating a good half of Kate’s before realising I was eating the wrong meal so we did a 50/50 split in the end!

travel in slovakia bratislava Meal

 

So it was short but sweet time in Bratislava – now onto Prague in the Czech Republic!