Monday, March 31, 2008

High Tatras Mountains

We’ve just spent a couple of nights up in the High Tatras mountains which is a stunning range that just seems to pop up in the middle of hundreds of miles of flat lands; covering the area around north east Slovakia and southern Poland. The Slovakian side is a large national park called Vysoke Tatry. It was the end of the winter season but there was still plenty of snow on the high ground, (around 3,000ft plus) with a few die hard skiers still on the slopes.

We stayed in a ‘chata’ which is an old style mountain chalet up in the snow covered forest and had the most amazing views back down into the valley and up to the 8,000ft peaks higher up.

We took a cable car, (in fact three cable cars) up to the top of Lomniky Stit which is the highest mountain in the region and with the bright sunny day we had, offered amazing views of miles around both of Slovakia and Poland.
To get to Poland we had to take a bus to the border town of Lysa Polana, then get off and walk across the border to catch another bus to Zakopane and beyond to Krakow.

I know the poles have had a rough time of it in the past; first under the Nazi occupation and then under Soviet rule but the country is doing pretty well for itself now. The countryside is beautiful and most of the houses outside the cities are huge five story picture postcard style alpine villas.

Krakow itself is also a very modern and cosmopolitan city that has just the right mix of old and new, and hasn’t as yet been ruined by the stag/hen party crowd; although why I’m not sure as the food and drink is as cheap as anywhere! We’re staying in a fab hostel that is spotlessly clean, includes breakfast and supper in the price, has free internet, laundry etc and is perfectly positioned with a five minute walk to either the train station or the old town; which of course is where the best eateries and drinkeries are!!!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Day off in Kosice!

We've just enjoyed a relaxing day in Kosice. It's Slovakia's second city but is quite small. The main street is cobbled and there's a couple of old churches and a Tesco! There's very little to do (a couple of 'attractions' mentioned in the book seem to be closed for the winter) but it's been nice taking a day off from the rushing around and sight-seeing. We've stayed in a great apartment and indulged in a mini 'LOST-fest' on the laptop - catching up on the last few weeks episodes!! Our first opportunity to get some laundry done and the first time we've had a private bathroom too! (it's not that common compared to America, or is it just the sort of place we stay in?!)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hungary & Thirsty!!

We have just spent the last 3 days in Hungary. After an interesting 9 hour sleeper train journey from Romania to Budapest on Sunday night we arrived early on Easter Monday morning. Much of Romania is Orthadox so they were not celebrating Easter at that time and so when we left everything there was busy and open. A contrast to Budapest when we arrived - even the McDonalds was closed!! We were able to leave our bags at the station and set off for the day on foot to explore.
Our first stop was the Szechenyi Furdo (thermal baths) in the city park. They were built in 1908 and are wonderful. Huge. Outside were 3 very large swimming pools. The air was cold and the water was warm to get into compared to the air but not so much once we'd sat around for a while! And so inside were more smaller baths & saunas of various temperatures ranging from 32-38 degrees - much more like it! We whiled away our morning here until we were thoroughly wrinkled and warm!

There is much public transport systems in Budapest but we ended up spending the whole day walking around the sights - we must've walked 10km! We had a tour of the 'Magyar Allami Operahaz' (Hungarian State Opera House) which is a beautiful 1884 neo-Renaissance building and wonderfully ornate. We walked along the River Danube and across the Chain Bridge to Buda (the west banks of the River, compared to Pest on the eastern banks). In Buda is 'Varhegy' (Castle Hill) which is high on a hill with fantastic views of the city and the parliamenet buildings on the Pest side of the river (which were apparently modelled after the London Westminster buildings but have many more spires and elaborate features).

During the day we had a couple of helpings of the famous Hungarian Gulash soup to keep us warm!! That evening we had arranged to couch-surf for the very fist time. It is an internet based network of people who offer to host people on their spare 'couch' or bed. You either host or are hosted. We were staying with Zsuzsa + Daniel in Buda. On our arrival at their apartment they had cooked for us traditional Goulash and dessert which was wonderful. We also sampled the Hungarian 'Firewater'brandy 'Palinka' It is strong and fruit flavoured - this one was apricot but it comes in many flavours. It was somewhat 'warming' but very tasty!! We enjoyed 2 great nights at their apartment which was just minutes from the centre of the city. It was a great first experience of couch-surfing and we hope to try it again soon!

Our second day we took the train 20km north of the city to Szentendre (sen-ten-dreh). It is a small quiet town with narrow winding streets and many souvenirs shops, cafes and galleries. It was a great place to spend much of our day just strolling around and shopping! (and today we tried the Hungarian Pancakes (I forget the name of them) They are stuffed with meat and served smothered in a yummy creamy paprika suace!). Back in the city we visited the 'Terror House' museum. The building was formally the headquarters of the secret police. It portrays the life expereinced in Hungary during the times of Nazi occupation during WWII and the Communist occupation between 1945-1990 (they had a hard time in this country!). It was a great museum, though covered a lot more information about the Communist occupation but didn't beat around the bush about how tough life was here (some video and pictures were quite graphic and very sombering).

We had the most incredible meal on our second night. We had been reccommended a restuarnt by an Australian girl, living in Budapest but travelling in Romania when we were staying in Brasov (can you get any more confusing?!). It was a good call! Trofea was near the River Danube and was an all-you-can-eat buffet (including all you can drink wine, beer, champagne, soft drinks etc). It was very good value (though I suspect quite expensive for Hungarian standards) It cost 15GBP each. There was the most incredible salad bar, fresh meats & fishes cooked to order, many Hungarian dishes (a great way to sample lots of the them!), soups, breads, cheeses and plenty of desserts! We must've stayed there for maybe 3 hours!!

Today we are heading for Eastern Slovakia - a 5 hour train journey to Kosice and our 3rd country in 8 days!

Friday, March 21, 2008


From Bucharest we took a 3 hour train journey to Brasov - on the edge of the Transylvanian mountains. We are staying in a dorm in a hostel in town (the dorm of 7 people in itself being an interesting 'first' for us! - and possible last - I'm too old for it! - I have nothing to prove anymore!) However the hostel is good and organises cheap tours to the sights of the area. We have just returned from a wonderful day trip around the Transylvanian castles. First stop this morning was Rasnov - a small 13th century citadel on top a hill. After a 10 minute hard walk to the top there are tiny little allies leading up from the central square with some great views out over the town. I tried leaving Chris there, locked in the shackles but alas...!

Next stop was Bran Castle . It's famously called 'Dracula's Castle', but in reality Vlad Tepes only ever 'popped in for a cuppa' sometime in the 15th century. The castle is set up on a rocky outcrop and is quite harsh looking but inside it's surprisly small and currently has lots of displays of photos, not giving much of an impression of what it was actually like 'back in the day'.

The higlight was Peles Castle for sure. (Though not the footballer's, though these days most of them I'm sure would be trying to buy up this kinda joint as a summer home!) Actually it was the summer residence of the 1st King of Romania, King Carol 1 from Germany. Completed in 1914 it's pretty amazing. It had a 15 year long refit between 1975-1990 and is open for tours covering just 30% of what's there. It's simply stunning. Huge grand reception halls, dining halls fashioned in Florentine, French & Moorish styles. More carved walnut and gilding than you could shake a stick at and a particularly lovely spiral stair case 'just for ornament's sake' in the entrance hall. It was pretty advanced for it's time. It had a central vacuuming system, central heating, elevators, electricty, a huge stained glass window skylight covering the whole entrance hall (several metres wide) that can be opened electronically in summer - and all this stuff still functions! It was so cool! And our tour guide spoke English with an accent just like a female version of Count Dracula from Sesame Street!!! - Very sing-song-y!!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Roaming in Romania...

So we're in Romania! It's lovely and warm - unseasonal I think but we're not complaining! We arrived at lunchtime yesterday in Bucharest and sorted ourselves out within a couple of hours with a nice hotel in the historic part of the city. It took some wandering around with the rucksacks on but all good in the end! We had a great receptionsit who chatted for ages about all the things to do and good places to eat - a veritable fountain of knowledge! (Although quick to confess she doesn't really like Bucharest!). We whiled away a couple of hours in the lovely Cismigiu park and lake (though the lake is bone dry - perhaps it's a summer lake; we haven't found out!) We had a GREAT Romanian traditional meal at 'La Mama' on recommendation of both the receptionist and Lonely Planet. Meatballs & Meat stuffed Cabbage rolls with lots of 'peasant style' country potatos and veg - all delicious!

Today we had a good lie-in after yesterdays 4am start! We did a lot of walking around the city (not wanting to miss out on our usual morning 'hikes'!) We stopped at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant which had a host of tradtional costumes, an old wooden church and house (all inside!) and lots of artifacts - good stuff but not as good as...The National Village Museum - another mile out of town, past the Arc de Triumph (yes Bucharest has one too!) and to the gardens of Herastrau. They've collected together dozens of buildings from around the country and carefully restored and recontructed them all here. They've separated them up into the different regions they've come from and made proper little 'villages' with many peasant houses, farm buildings and churches. You're able to walk in amongst them and go inside many. It may be a poor hard life but in almost all cases they were rich with colour and 'love' There are many ornate, besutiful hand carved gates and ornaments inside and most are decorated with cheerful woven rugs and pottery. Really enjoyed that! We walked back into the Historic part of the city and checked out the Palace of Parliament. It's the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon apparently). It was built in 1984 by Ceausescu and covers 330,000 sq metres and cost an estimated 3.3 Billion Euro! It's pretty sizeable and I'm sure we couldn't see the half of it from the road as it's depth is at least as wide as its width! We did pass the Bank of Transilvania and it was all I could do to stop Chris going inside and asking if it was a blood bank.

Next stop - the Mountains and castles of Dracula's stomping grounds...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

One Down...

One Down…

Well it looks like all our hard work paid off; the second person to view the house has put in a decent offer and we’ve accepted!
After spending Christmas and New Year with family and a busy January DIY’ing for said family, we moved back into Helen’s house in Swindon to redecorate. In fact it was more like renovate as the tenants had been asylum seekers put in the house by a housing association so we really did have our work cut out. Thankfully Helen’s folks were on hand as we had neither the tools nor much of the skills needed to put the house back into order; I say ‘on hand’ but that’s if you count 100 miles away and half a dozen trips up to help us as on hand!
So with new carpets upstairs and the downstairs wooden floors sanded and re-varnished, new flooring in the kitchen and bathroom, a top to bottom repaint and more than a few repairs to walls, floors and ceilings we let a bunch of estate agents loose…
Naturally they all promised lists of potential buyers all waiting for a house just like this one but some seemed more realistic than others so we chose the most down to earth person with a realistic valuation and reasonable fees. (Is there such a thing?) we gave the go ahead on the Wednesday, had two viewings that week, a second viewing the following Tuesday and an offer, (for more than we hoped) on the Thursday!
Of course anything could still happen up until completion and I’m not one to count my chickens but there is this new motorcycle that’s been eyeing me up lately; and what with the Dollar being as weak as it is and us flying back to the states next month…

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Off to Eastern Europe!

Hoorah! We've finally booked ourselves some adventure! We fly off to Romania on Tuesday and fly back from Estonia in a months time.

We've spent the last month working on the house in Swindon and it went on the market last week - now just gonna get us some buyers (actually just one will do!)

Saw this and loved it. Came through the letterbox whilst working on the house. Loved the sentiment (even though yes I suppose this houses's soul IS up for sale!)