August 27, 2006

Svetki Riga .....

As luck would have it we arrived in Riga on the weekend of her 805 birthday celebrations. The city streets were buzzing with families and tourists out enjoying the entertainment. A precision driving display where four cars weave dangerously in and out of each other and perform synchronised 360 degree turns didn't fail to disappoint. One of the highlights of the day was a series of choirs who performed free for the crowds in Dome Square at sunset with the crowds chorusing in for the traditional numbers that was followed in the evening by classical concert put on by a full orchestra.
A "Silent Disco" kicked off that night.... this is a novel event where a temporary outdoor dance area is cordoned off and people wear headphones to hear the DJ's music. It certainly spurred a lot of curiosity, there were droves off people (like ourselves) peering through holes in the plastic to see what was going on inside. It's bizarre to see people going crazy and dancing wildly to silence. There was even the go-go dancers on a stage and the compulsory group of girls dancing around their handbags. It was certainly interesting enough for there to be as many people outside stickybeaking in as there were inside the disco. Not sure if it's not just a fad, I guess it keeps the neighbours happy.

We stayed in Friendly Frank's hostel which was voted by as the "best hostel in the world 2005". With a title like that it's hard to resist checking it out especially since we have started reviewing places on the side. It's run by an Aussie guy and he seems to have cornered the backpacker market in Riga. His tactics are pretty good. The first question you are asked when you arrived is "would you like a cold beer?" ... incidentally the whole hotel is run by a team of attractive girls. At midnight the girls round up people in the hostel and venture out to the clubs on a planned outing. We were in the hostel bar one night when this was going on and realised that 80% of the people were guys. Guess that's the target market ... although a couple of guys seemed very nervous about the lack of females in the hostel.

The thing that surprised me most about Riga was that it had such a big beach culture. A mere 30 minutes train ride outside Riga gets you to Jurmala and 32 km of white sand. The area is really upmarket with huge beachside houses, manicured parks and little cafes. You could be at any top class beach resort in the world. One thing you do expect is that the Baltic sea will be cold ... to our credit we both took the challenge albeit shortlived ..... let me tell you it is absolutely freezing! The beach was very organised with restaurants and bars every hundred meters around the train stops. Modesty was facilitated by free changing booths every 50 meters. Undoubtedly the beach is a big part of Rigan summers - and it was a welcome little days excursion for us.

As for the food... well .... we found good Latvian food in a restaurant called Lido the second night and we didn't venture too far after that. It's not really as bad as it sounds, Riga caters for tourists so there are lots of restaurants of the variety of TGI Fridays, McDonalds etc so finding local food is not as easy as it sounds. Lido is a national chain offering Lativian cuisine at backpacker prices. The added bonus is that it's self service so if in doubt you can point. Basically it was four nights of saurkraut, potatoes and of course pork. We have definitely eaten through a couple of pigs at this stage!

Marcus here now....

Alot has changed around the old town of Riga since my last trip there in 1997. Back then the opening of a McDonalds near the center was the big stand out. Now there are plenty of classy outdoor bars and dining in the little squares and enough upmarket hotels and restaurants to satisfy the significant numbers of affluent locals. The center of the old town is "Pedestrianised" ...well sort of, if you are willing to pay the toll to get in there seems to be no restriction, so it has ended up being "Flash-car-ised". The procession of Bentleys, Porsches, BMW (only 6 and 7 series thank you) and Mercs I could only liken to the Kings rd in Chelsea or the carpark of the Peninsula in Hong Kong, it was incredible. So Money has come to downtown Riga , a big change indeed.
Cheap flights from the UK and Ireland have also left there mark on the town. The availability of cheap booze, attractive girls and accommodating nightclubs has made sure Riga is one of the top destinations for stags nights and group trips. Travellers warned us of the seediness of Riga which had us prepared for a Kings Cross like experience; in fact it turned out to be very different altogether. I'm not sure how we got such a different view, maybe we weren't out as late at night or didn't wander as far out of the old town but we found the old town to be a really picturesque, classy and very enjoyable place to visit.
One of the highlights for me last trip and indeed this trip was definitely the central market. It is vast. Spread through 5 huge old Zeppelin hangers - each one containing specialist goods - fish, meat, dairy, sweet stuff and general food, it is a great place to wander around, picking up some odds and ends for lunch. The quality of the produce is fantastic, great fruit and Veg and spectacular fish - smoked, dried or fresh.

Overall we really enjoyed our time in Riga, finding it the most livable of the 3 Baltic capitals. It will be interesting to see how it changes over the next 10 years as its clear we are not alone in seeing it as a vibrant and attractive city to spend some time.

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August 16, 2006

Visiting Vilnius

:: Vilnius ::

The reports from travellers coming the opposite direction to ours was that Warsaw didn't really compare to Krakow for things to see or do, so we dropped our planned one night there and ended up skipping through the city on the way to Vilnius where we are now.
The slow train from Krakow to Warsaw took about 5 hours. Dee had to deal with 4 different ticket sellers in Krakow before they would even acknowledge that the train existed - it seems they railroad :-) tourists towards the double cost express trains - Dee stopped just short of dragging the girl out to look at the departures board to show her which train we wanted to catch before they said " oh that one..." so off we went (in our usual style of making a mad dash to the furthest platform to jump on the train as the whistle is blowing)

:: Vilnius ::

After arriving in Warsaw we had to set about trying to track down an onward ticket (or somewhere to stay if we couldn't get one). Luckily there was a eurolines office in the station and we snuck in 5 minutes before they closed for the weekend.....securing some seats on the overnight run to Vilnius.
We had a few hours to kill so we wandered around a but before heading across to catch the bus which was empty enough to allow us the relative comfort or the whole backseat which definitely made the night trip more bearable.
Arriving in Vilnius two and a half hours ahead of schedule (4.30 am) we sat around the bus station until sunrise as the directions to the hostel included some things like " there is no street sign but look for the grey building with the ...etc...".

We are staying at Vilnius backpackers which has turned out to be a great place to stop for the last 4 nights. Vilnius itself has been pretty sleepy as it turns out to be a 4 day long weekend here,but we have really enjoyed walking around and exploring the town. There are alot of public construction projects on the go,which will really give the city a freshen up. Alot of the buildings look to have been renovated in the past few years which has created an old town with the adjacent University area that looks great.
One of the quirky things to do here is to visit the Independent Republic of Uzupio - its basically a rundown area of the city that has been claimed by artists and declared its Independence....along with a 72point bill or rights....with things like 'A dog has the right to be a dog'.

:: Great sign as you enter the republic ::

Lithuania takes the prize for the largest range of beers we have encountered so far, there are about half a dozen breweries making at least 6 different varieties each. They seem to be strangely similar being all larger or pilsner beers varying only in alcohol content from 4.2 to 9.5. (before you ask we didn't try them all). We have also hit the stream of food we expected in the Baltics. Meat (pork) wrapped or accompanied by stodge and sauerkraut. The local speciality is a cepelinai, a meat filled potato blob shaped like a zeppelin.

:: The artists have brightened up the ramshackle buildings ::

:: Bridge to ... ? ::

Now you thought I could go a whole post without mentioning the weather....well not yet. The weather here has been really changeable. Some lovely blue sky and warmth, then some really serious rain. Just yesterday we popped out to the local supermarket, seeing blue sky on the way out we went Viennese Umbrella-less, only to find ourselves sheltering in the supermarket for an hour waiting for the downpour to pass (we left before fully passed, feeling that we had probably overstayed our welcome sitting on the window sill).

We jumped on the day bus up to Riga and have been here for two nights. Alot has changed since I was here in '97. We will post some more details to the beach at Jurmala now. Cheers

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Auschwitz and Birkenau museum

The second world war concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are a short day trip from Krakow. These days Auschwitz functions as a museum detailing the history of the camps. There are some harrowing displays which connect with people at a individual level conveying both the scale and family impact of the atrocities. Birkenau is 3kms away and lies virtually untouched but mostly in ruins.
:: Shoes plundered from victims ::

For a couple of kilometers around all that can be seen are brick chimney stacks of hundreds of old wooden barracks. Originally the primitive barracks were designed to stable 52 horses, up to 400 people were housed in overcrowded three tier bunks and enduring freezing temperatures in the winter. You can only but imagine the hopelessness of it all. The sheer industrial level of processing people through the camp is very evident. Only 25% of people who arrived to Auschwitz and Birkenau survived the selection process and lived in the camps.

:: Two to a bunk ::

We spent 5 hours in Auschwitz and Birkenau and still felt constricted by time. Birkenau is vast so there is an incredible amount of distance to cover. Auschwitz has hundreds of displays to get around so if anyone is going there make sure to give yourself plenty of time. :: Work will make you free ::

As usual the day involved some kind of bureaucracy and fist shaking. The bus station had a tourist special sign up in English offering a return ticket for Auschwitz, the deal was 20 pln return. After a bit of digging I found out a single trip each way was 7pln ... the mind boggles! Our bus back to Krakow turned out to be a far cry from the luxury coach out. Our local bus stopped at every one horse town and we made a unscheduled stop en route when the passengers from the hour before bus flagged us down after they had encountered mechanical difficulties. It all made for a sardine like experience back to Krakow.

:: To give you an idea of the unbelievable scale, enlarge this picture and you can see the guard tower entrance from above in the distance ::

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The Craic on Krakow.....

Krakow is a whole load of everything rolled up into one compact city which is good news for worn out walking feet. We really enjoyed hanging out there for a few days... lots of eating pierogi, zapiekankas and kebabs. We were introduced to zapiekankas the first night when we rolled into the city late and went in search of something to eat. In the Jewish quarter we found a square whose sides were lined with bars and in the centre of the square was a series of window hatches selling cheap food of the "lining the stomach" variety. Zapiekankas .. toasted french bread rolls with pizza topping and a trade mark squiggle of ketchup replaces the ice-cream phenomena that we've seen elsewhere. It's worth saying that we've got to the stage where we are dying for a spicy Chinese. There's been a couple of instances where we've loitered outside the window of a Chinese restaurant peering in to see if there are real Chinese cooking the food. I'm pretty sure the irony will come back to bite us in a couple of months when we are in the middle of china crying out for a pizza!

Krakow's old walled town houses the 2nd largest square in the world (or so it claims) and is overlooked by a castle and cathedral. The old town is magnificently restored and has achieved a lovely balance of having all the chain shops most European capitals have without ruining the old feel and charm of the city. A tasteful golden arches is always a welcome sign.... We spent a couple of days checking out the old town's small streets, taking in the views from the castle, visiting the little markets and generally soaking up the Krakow laid back atmosphere.

After four nights in one place the Krakow dorm room (with the creakiest beds in the world) began to feel like a home. We'd seen people come and go in all of the other beds in the room and I fear we started to get territorial over who "owned" the table and how much space everyone else was entitled to on "our" clothes horse. I caught myself straightening up the beds and picking stray bits of paper from from floor. A sure sign that it was time to move!

So taking stock so far - we're a month on the road and still enjoying it. Despite some long journeys we haven't reached for the iPods or books just yet which has surprised us both. Our approach was to ease ourselves into the travelling rather than burning out too much at the start. We seem to be almost too good at the taking it easy ...excluding the compulsory frantic last minute sprints for trains! Over the last few stops there are less and less people on holidays and more people doing longer trips like ourselves so we're picking up lots of tips for future destinations. Hostels full of long haul travellers tend to very social places so there are plenty of laughs, stories and good times along the way.

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August 11, 2006

It hasn't rained in two days......

Our number one purchase since the last blog was an umbrella and it sure has seen a lot of use. We've had to learn how to say "thank you" in three different languages and our pockets are filled with worthless coins from the last country.

After some hasty research at the last minute we realised that accommodation in Bratislava was expensive and the standards left a lot to be desired. On a tip off from one website we made our way to Juraj's Hostel ... there were warnings that it was a "different" place. Juraj turned out to be an eccentric who opened the hostel three years ago and is "still renovating". You got the feeling every project was started and stopped at 90% completion. Juraj seemed to run the place singlehandedly working unbelievable hours to keep everyone happy. When we arrived I asked about getting sheets and pillowcases (it was raining and everything about the hostel seemed at sixes and sevens so getting dry sheets was a priority) Juraj looked at me and said "yes .. and you'll need towels too.... later later ... who wants a lift into town?". At 10:30pm that night Juraj came by with sheets etc. by that stage he'd driven half the hostel around and was taking everyones laundry to do overnight.

Interestingly this is the first hostel we've taken upon ourselves to review for We came upon a nice little earner where you can review and photograph places and get paid for it. Incidentally the ads on the top of the blog are our other little earner. "A click a day keeps M and D away!"

Bratislava is a beautiful little city, well worth a weekend hop if you live that side of the world. We don't have a lonely planet for Eastern Europe, the plan was to get by, do the leg work and depend on Marcus's excellent sense of direction to guide us around. This has worked pretty well so far but every now and again we are missing little snippets of information. We suspect there's a party on somewhere .. and there usually is .. it just takes on a while to find it. Our first two hours in Bratislava were spend wandering deserted streets and checking out the only shop open which happened to be Tescos, needless to say Marcus was pleased! No sooner had we exited Tesco and rounded the next corner we came across the last thing you'd expect to see on a Sunday afternoon in Bratislava - the Slovakian beach volleyball finals complete with, real sand, grandstand, dancing girls and hospitality tent in the middle of a big square. On a recommendation from Juraj we headed out of the touristy area to the 1.Slovak pub for some real Slovakian beer and food. All good value .. made all the better sitting in the covered beer area with the rain hitting tarpaulin.

:: Bratislavas Beach ..... ::

In an effort to outsmart the high euro prices of Austria we decided to base ourselves in Bratislava for a couple of days and take a day trip into Vienna. The two cities are only about an hour away from each other. On the morning of our departure from the hostel in Bratislava the skies were grey but looking promising. Please note we had checked the forecast and it had advised of widespread rain. We still look back and wonder how two people with the full spectrum of outdoor gear could have departed in sandals that day leaving quick dry pants and waterproof shoes behind safely locked up in the rucksacks. Marcus was, and still is determined not to take his raincoat out until we get to some latitude far north of here or until winter arrives whichever comes first. Anyhow we arrived in Vienna at 11am and the rain was so bad that we contemplated getting the 12:15pm train back. Half an hour later and thoroughly drenched we had stretched the budget to purchase a stylish over the shoulder umbrella for 2.50 euros. We emerged from an underground station into St.Stephans Platz looking for a picturesque place to make our picnic lunch only to take the escalator back down and sit like bums on the floor of the underground eating our rolls. Following lunch we did a whirlwind expedition around the fantastic buildings dodging puddles and bracing ourselves against the wind. We managed to find a nice tram that ran around most of the sights and took shelter in that for a while - squinting out fogged up windows. At 5pm we called it a day and headed for the train back to Bratislava. To round of a miserable day the train took us to a little local station the other side of Bratislava leaving us with a sizeable trudge home. Opening the door of our hostel looking forward to hopping into our nice bed we met Juraj who was waiting to tell us that we had to move rooms. Our new room had a guest already installed and there was an inhumane stink in the room. Thankfully Juraj offered us a bed in an open common/ clothes drying area and gave us a beer to sweeten us up. Turned out to be a great alternative!

We're on our fourth night in Krakow now and heading for Vilnius on the early morning train. There's been so much to do here that we haven't had enough time to get it all posted so we'll catch soon.

:: Vienna in sandals.....::

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August 5, 2006

Singing in the rain ....

:: Lake Bled ::

Up until now the weather has been glorious. Unfortunately on the morning of our departure to Bled the heavens opened and the rain began pelting down, it hasn't abated since and the forecast remains ominous as a nasty weather front covers Eastern Europe. At the moment we are stationed in Budapest within easy walking distance of sheltering structures old, the Palace and slightly newer, the local Mammoth shopping centre. Our adventures in Lake Bled did not last as long as expected. Our bus pulled into the bus shelter amid torrential rain. A surprising amount of people boarded the bus back to Ljubljana leaving behind a huddle of drowned looking girls who had spent a couple of nights in the campsite and were now heading for Italy to dry out. We located the fully booked youth hostel past a farmyard of chickens and ventured on to "The George Best Bar and Backpackers" an odd addition to the little town of Bled. After a couple of hours of wandering around in the rain the magic of Bled had wained and we headed back to examine the George Best memorabilia located underneath our sleeping quarters. I have to say the authenticity of Mohammad Ali´s hand print on the way to the toilet threw suspicion on George Best´s golden boots hanging from the rafters. We were later to meet the owner John, a Belfast man, who briefed us the origins of everything. To find that out you´ll have to go yourselves! Following a two day weather check and a quick group vote we decided that there wasn't much to do in Bled in the rain and we might as well advance northwards and catch the dawn bus back to Ljubljana and the early train on to Budapest.

OK so we took the cheap train to Budapest, and the only difference the lady told us was that this one went through Croatia (although we didn't get to see any Croatian border guards)...but.....what we did have to endure on this journey was the frustrating train manoeuvre of heading into a town, moving the engine from one end of the carriages to the other then driving off the same way to a different track up the road....basically we tacked up the country to reach Budapest. Our plans of dropping into Siofok on Lake Balaton were foiled when we realised this train didn't route through there, so we found ourselves in Budapest when we had mentally prepared for sunshine and water. Well we got the water craving satisfied, straight off the train into the drizzle only a grey formerly communist city can provide. From a rather unwelcoming start we then managed to bump into the only guy meeting the train offering accommodation. He was very quietly spoken and seemed to be offering a good product so we headed with him a couple of tram stops ("Don't worry about tickets no one ever checks") down to his place. Through the grey door into quite an elaborate apartment complex , into a lift "The lift used to be nice and carpeted, before the communists" and into our nice dry room we went - All good.

:: Tacking train .... ::

So Budapest. Well its scale is something we are yet to hit on our journeys so far, so our wander out to grab a bite on the first night found us on a bridge mid-Danube saying to each other "gee, it really is a long way across here". The buildings are awesome, the scale is vast (roads, Buildings, bridges), the city is bustling (no doubt contributed to by the F1 Grand Prix on this weekend here). We have spent a couple of days wandering around checking out the castle, palaces and neighbourhoods and have spent an afternoon in one of the famous Baths. This was a great experience - grand old buildings containing and surrounding various pools and tubs of different temperature mineral water. There were saunas and steam rooms to balance the cold and hot (38c ish) pools. One of the outdoor pools had a great circular walled area which had jets propelling the water in a whirlpool - you could just float along and be whizzed around the loop. We went to this one Széchenyi and we walked out feeling sooo relaxed.

:: Catherdral in Budapest ::

So we have had our fill of Goulash and the huge range of beers here and are heading on to Bratislava tomorrow...will check in soon.

P.S - we have uploaded all our photos so far to the Flick page so check out the link on the right to see them

:: Spectacular Parliament building in Budapest ::

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