01.09.2013 - 31.10.2013
Berlin. I have been before and preferred it first time round, perhaps in part due to the novelty. It’s okay but not my favorite place aesthetically, a bit grey. Brandenburg area and Tiergarten is nice and some good museums re DDR and the wars. The cold war bunkers and bomb shelters in Gesundbrunnen were very interesting, you could almost imagine the misery of staying there for weeks on end, the guides were that good. It was really nice to speak some German 20 years after leaving school, I enjoyed that.
Prague Just as you will have heard from other visitors, it is very nice. Loads of old buildings, squares, a castle, a palace and of course some rather nice bridges on the river. Found some great museums, one dedicated to torture which was eye watering, another in the crypt of the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius where Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik were killed for having assassinated Reinhardt Heydrich during WWII. I’d watched a film about it as a little kid and it really stuck with me, perhaps the first serious film that had caught my attention as a child. I never imagined I’d visit the place where they died. The film was so sad and seeing the place, well, yes, sad too I but was really pleased to go. The castle was great, I adored the ancient Golden Lane which is composed of about a dozen tiny little shops that used to be houses that are painted in lovely pastels. I can’t remember the measurements but they only cover a few square meters. There is a fantastic display of armour there too. Not something that has even seized my imagination before but it was wonderful to see suit after suit and the weapons.
Terezin (aka Theresienstadt) on a day trip. Very sad indeed with it‘s Arbeit Macht Frei sign painted over the entrance. This was an old fort that had been turned into a concentration camp for Czechoslovakians by the Nazis. The really unique feature of this place was that it was used to dupe visiting red cross workers into believing that the Jews were well cared for and happy. One room really showcased the deception. There were rows of wash basins that were just for display, they had never been plumbed in. The Germans spent an age planning the visit and even made a propaganda film there. Gavrilo Princip who sparked the first world war by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand died there years before. The cell that he was in was tiny, much like the others, poor people.
I met a really nice Aussie girl in Prague and we ended up on the same train to Krakow which was really lovely.
Enjoyed the castle and main square which is really large, one of the biggest in Europe I seem to recall.
We made a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz was grim but can’t say that there was anything eerie about the place. The events that took place are just too extreme to be able to relate too them. Have read a few books about the war so mildly informed but still, it’s like trying to imagine a trillion. You can give a convincing description of how many zeros that is but it remains essentially incomprehensible. Some of the barracks housed displays of things that had been confiscated or more accurately stolen from the victims. There was a display case of spectacles, another of all sorts of brushes, you know, shaving brushes, clothes brushes, toothbrushes and of course hair brushes. Another, which I found the saddest was a large display of all types of prosthetics, I couldn’t help worrying about how people would cope without them even though it’s obvious that the rightful owners would have been killed straight away. Finally there was a huge display of nearly 2 tons of women’s hair, pretty grim. I had never realised how awful humans can be to one another and was learning a lot on this trip from the museums that I had already visited. But here, they had four standing cells used as a punishment which are just awful. They are solid cells with no light and a tiny door that four inmates had to crawl through to enter. Once inside there was just enough room for them to stand. At no time could they manage to sit even one person down to rest and they would be left like this for days on end, weeks even with very little food.
Birkenau was really, very sad. It is just enormous. Everyone comments on how big it is but even after hearing it many times, you are just not ready for the scale of it. It was heart breaking to see the crematorium that the Nazi’s failed to completely destroy. You can see where those poor people had to undress and where the “showers” were. There were also ash pits nearby where bodies were burned above ground and in that area you are walking on flecks of bones, they look like big snow flakes on the earth. Wish we had been warned, I really think that once your dead it does not matter what happens to remnants of your body afterwards but somehow it did feel very disrespectful to be treading on these poor, poor people.
Back in Krakow, my friend headed back to London and I spent the day at a super modern dentist getting a sore tooth sorted.
Zakopane was the next place I went to which is in the High Tatras in the Carpathians on the Polish side. This is apparently a well known ski resort and I absolutely loved it. It was so nice to be in the countryside again. Cities are great for things to do, easy entertainment but the countryside brings you peace and happiness. The houses are just gorgeous, all wood with tiered roofs unique to the area. I ventured up the nearest mountain and it was quite an odd place, sort of part funfair, part market, part sports facility and some mountain. I walked away from the crowds and had people passing me in horse drawn carts which appeals enormously to the ruralite in me if there is such a word. I’d love to see that place again.
Next I crossed into Slovakia and went to the other side of the Tatras. I was on the bus to Poprad but decided to jump off early as it looked so nice. There are three towns very close together called Stary Smokovic, Horny Smokovic and Nuevo Smokovic. Really cute little places but pretty much covered in a few hours. I headed up the mountain and went for a walk in the forest. I was so excited to see a fox! I have never seen one before and this one was so bold, coming within less than a meter of me. It even stole someone’s lunch! It was lovely in the forests, I spent hours walking there but was quite scared of bear encounters. And I saw the first youngish kitten in my own living memory, I had to phone home and share the excitement.
I went to Bratislava which I liked a lot. Again, there is an old town which is very attractive and of course a castle, as is mandatory in East European cities, I suspect.
From there, I went to Ljubljana in Slovenia which I really fell in love with. It’s very compact and I did some of my most impressive navigating there. (I’d stopped of in Budapest in Hungry for a couple of hours on the way and managed to walk completely the wrong way and did not see a single tourist sight, truly atrocious effort on my part). So Ljubljana, I have to tell you a bit about this place. There is a river running through it, a castle perched on the top of a very steep hill, the main square is lovely, filled with tourists, musicians, cafes and students and surrounded by history. Leading from the square is The Triple Bridge which is very pretty. Across the river is the market, a ton of restaurants (in fact they are all over the place), more squares, narrow lanes, statures, The Dragon Bridge, The Butcher's Bridge and The Shoemakers Bridge. I’ve never seen so many musicians and singers performing. I met a lovely physicist called Bendict Popescu who was playing the Theremin which is an awesome piece of kit you play by placing your hands near to it but not touching. It looks wonderfully expressive when he is playing. There is also a huge park that you can walk in and the forest merges with it. Again, I got super excited at another animal first. I saw this guy walking a dog and I was thinking that it was ridiculously small until I got closer and realised it was a ferret! I’ve longed to see one for years and used to love looking at their pictures on the internet and here was a real live one! The man that owns her said that because of the weather, she had not been able to walk much in the last six months and so was very unfit. He was trying to coax her into doing some walking but all she wanted to do was squirm and roll around on the floor. Gorgeous beyond belief. And he let me stroke her too so I was super happy that day.
Bård came and joined me for a week in Slovenia. First we went to Bled which is impossibly picturesque with a lovely lake with an island in it towards one end with a church sitting on it. At the other end there is a fantastic castle hanging on to the cliff face and another very pretty church behind it. We did a little side trip to Vintgar Gorge which is really lovely with bright waters flowing through and a couple of waterfalls but crammed full of tourists which was a shame.
We also visited Kanjska Gora which is another ski resort. Not too much too do but worth a stop over. We spent a night at a fantastic place called Radovljica and our home for the night was a gingerbread bakery and restaurant which served wonderful food. We both really enjoyed that and in the morning it was wonderful to look from the town walls and see the morning mist drifting in the valley below, really magical and beautiful. We then headed down to Piran which is on the coast and has the familiar Mediterranean feel. It was lovely there too, and so very different. The man who ran our hostel was a brilliant source of information and we even saw the town mayor who is apparently the only black man in the whole place (he drives a Skoda in case you are wondering)! 5 starts for equality for Piran. We also went to see the superb Skocjan caves.
Bård then left and I headed off to Belgrade in Serbia which at first glance was a miserable looking place round by the train and bus stations. However, once you get up the hill there is a nice pedestrianised shopping area and an old fort housing a good military museum. The Nicola Tesla museum is brilliant, I got to hold a fluorescent tube and when the guide switched on the Tesla coil it illuminated and of course we all felt like Jedi knights for a short while. We were also given electrical shocks but I can’t remember what unit’s the electricity was in, but something in there had a million of something electrical.
Next Split in Croatia which was very nice and I made another great new friend, this time a woman from Argentina. The centre of Split is an ancient Roman palace where people still live with a lovely promenade along the shore and a very peaceful area called Marjan where I spent hours walking alone. There is a mix of different buildings also including Greek and I can’t remember what else and a multitude of narrow lanes and squares, really beautiful. From there I did a day trip to the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park. This has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, I didn’t know the world harboured such a wonderful place. It is a chain of 16 lakes that spill into one another through hundreds of waterfalls and cascades. You walk along wooden walk ways which for some reason pleases me enormously and the plant life is rich with ferns and mosses which I really love. I really cannot recommend this place enough.
From Split I went to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina which is gorgeous. It has two lovely bridges and an old town with winding cobbled alleyways homing various craft shops, some of which actually sell cool stuff rather than tat. It’s here that I started seeing the effects of war in the form of derelict bombed buildings. This destruction was hugely evident when I got to Sarajevo. I really liked the place though, the old town was wooden buildings which is unusual in a capital city. The hostel where I stayed ran a very good guided tour that I joined, conducted by the husband and wife owners. We visited the old Olympic bobsled that was destroyed during the war and went to the tunnel near the airport that was the only means of obtaining supplies and weapons during the siege. The husband was actually born in a concentration camp during WWII and managed to survive, although I thought it better not to ask how his mother achieved this. He is a Bosniak so left the city when the trouble began and had a house that was taken over during the war. It was destroyed by the Serbian family that moved in but luckily his hostel remained intact. We also headed up into the mountains and looked down on the city. It’s in a very narrow valley so the snipers had the perfect vantage point up there. They used to pick off people in the streets and worse still, they would shot people through their apartment windows. Back down in the city, you cannot imagine the battle scars. Apartment blocks all over the city are covered in bullet holes and there are the shells of buildings all over the place. I just can’t imagine what it must have been like, terrible.
I went back to Croatia, this time to Dubrovnik which well deserves it’s reputation. Again, there was a lot of damage inflicted on the city during the Croatian war but they have done an amazing job of restoring it. It is pristine and the Croatians have really got tourism sussed, the main tourist areas are spotlessly clean and litter free. I really enjoyed Dubrovnik despite staying in what was one of the worst “hotels” I have ever encountered, but it was so bad it was fun. You never knew when the lights would suddenly go out, the door to my room would not lock, the windows would not close, the shower was freezing, the place smelt awful and the bed had never been comfortable I’m sure! Everyone walks the walls as I did but I have to say, for me, the highlight is roaming the little lanes and endless stairs on the hill at night, they are incredibly cute and you mostly have them to yourself. Near the bottom of each set of stairs there are tiny little restaurants which look very romantic with their atmospheric lighting, like they are out of a film.
Next I went to a miniature Dubrovnik in Montenegro called Budva. My backpack weighed very little so I was able to spend a few hours trotting around before heading to Virpazar at Lake Shkodra where I met a wonderful man called Dyen who was my guide for a few hours on the lake. We spent most of the time talking rather than looking at things, he’d been a seaman for years before settling down to get married and was really worldly wise and wise in general. The lake is huge and there are lilies on it’s surface in the summer and masses of birds. I stayed at a place called the Pelikan Hotel where the owner seemed to have a talent for getting money from tourists, not in a thieving way, he was just an astonishingly good business man. Added to this talent of his, he seems to own half of the town and it’s boats so he can’t help but make a profit. I was reluctantly impressed.
I then spent a long day in the pissing rain and some not very interesting but dry museums in a pleasant town called Cetinje whilst I waited for my bus to Podgorica. Now Podgorica is an odd place. It’s very industrial and is not geared to tourism at all. The old town was destroyed during their war leaving only a clock tower and I think that this is about it. I engaged in some more spectacularly poor navigating (the girl at the hotel was incredulous when she realised the route I had accidentally taken and I was very embarrassed!) so I may be doing the place a disservice but somehow I really liked it and it keeps popping into my mind, bit of a mystery. I did see my first lenticular clouds whilst I was there and coming down the mountain onto the planes, you could see what I have too assume was an inversion where the thick industrial smoke suddenly flattened out at the top and spread sideways. So whilst it wasn’t much in the way of pretty, I did get to see some cool atmospheric stuff.
I then went to Skopje in Macedonia which was really impressive. I could not believe the size and number of the statues there. All pretty new by the looks of it and some equally impressive fountains. I had a ferret around the bazaar and looked in the shops and got some laundry done then headed off to Pristina in Kosovo as my friend who was going to join me in Skopje could not make it at the last minute.
Pristina isn’t much for the tourist to be honest, there is a nice enough shopping area and the newborn sign is a happy declaration of their independence. It was ok but not somewhere I would really recommend, a lot of hardcore road works and pavements being dug up, perhaps it will evolve into a wonderful city, I hope so, the people in Kosovo have to be the sincerest and friendliest I have ever encountered.
I headed west to Peja for the afternoon. I got off the bus and walked through the town as there is nothing much to see there apart from the usual traffic carnage, dodgy infrastructure and basic shops and stalls. Beyond the town there is a gorge that it very nice and barely anyone around. I walked for some time but had the sudden thought that if a bear ran out of one of the many caves near the roadside that I was buggered because I can’t outrun a bear. So I got a bit scared and headed back to catch my next bus to Prizren further south. On my way back to the town, an old chap stopped me to talk but we couldn‘t understand each other although I did work out that he was offering me cake, so nice. On the bus to Prizren, this very scary looking bloke suddenly came over and asked my name and where I was from. I was on my guard but it turned out that he just wanted to ask and to wish me a happy stay in Kosovo. I was in Prizren all of a couple of minutes as I was just changing bus and heading to Albania. The sweet and very old guy at the bus ticket desk could thankfully speak German and he ran at full tilt to stop the bus for me and everyone was helping to yell for it to stop so I could get on it. I loved these people and will never forget their kindness.
So next, I find myself in Tirana in Albania which I liked very much. In fact, I liked the whole country even though it is covered in litter and the roads are collapsing. Tirana has a gorgeous square and I splurged and stayed in a four star hotel overlooking it. I really like Tirana at night as they have nailed the lighting there, the buildings look fantastic. There is the Tanners Bridge which is really cute, covered in cobblestones and there is a nice walk from the main square to get to it. I had another nose about during the following day but it had lost it’s charm with the sun, at least for me. So I headed south to Himara for some beaches and sunbathing. Well, I finally went for a swim in the sea but compared to the beaches of Jersey they are not so good so I flaked out on my balcony instead. Met a fantastic couple whilst I was there, we were more or less the only tourists there.
My last real stop was a place a touch further south called Saranda. Again coastal and to be honest, nothing to write home about. I was mainly there for the sun for one day as I was running out of time.
Then I made my way to London, a 40 hour trip involving travelling back to Skopje, flying to Istanbul and home via the UK where I visited various relatives. I might have been able to plan that part a little better!
I truly adored Eastern Europe. It is absolutely gorgeous and I cannot believe that there are so few tourists in a lot of these lovely places. The further south I went, the warmer the climate and the people that I met. It also got cheaper but the cities and towns are modern so you can have your five star hotels and flash meals if that is what you want. Go there, help boost their economies with your tourist pounds. I am a terrible traveler in that I normally don't care about meeting locals, I'm just not a people person, at home or abroad. But in places like Albania, Kosovo, well, the people there caught my attention with their kindness and friendliness. I hope they get their towns and roads built and prosper in the future. I will certainly be going back to check one day.