DAY 144: REFLECTIONS ON EASTERN EUROPE


A quiet day of reflection in Plovdiv 

After a restful night’s sleep we spent today doing as little as possible and relaxing. We intentionally kept a low profile and gave ourselves a day off as there’s a good chance we won’t be getting much sleep tonight on our overnight bus to Istanbul (our overnight bus leaves at 10:00pm and is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6:00am tomorrow). Today was our last day in Eastern Europe* which we’re actually quite sad about. It’s been a pretty cool few weeks, from our first day in Bratislava (Slovakia), to our time in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. We were a little daunted at the prospect of travelling through parts of this region, but overall it’s been great – so much better than we expected. The whole region is so much more “civilised” than we expected (shows how ignorant we were!), and the language barrier was far less of an issue than we expected (i.e. heaps of people speak English and the local languages are not that hard to comes to grips with). We have experienced so many great moments in Eastern Europe that we wanted to dedicate today’s blog to our favourite highlights….

*We’ve lumped the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the “Eastern Europe” category more as a geographical categorisation than anything: they’re all East of the Europe we were most familiar with. We understand that these nations are, in fact, unique and quite different from each other and we certainly don’t mean to offend or upset anyone by calling them Eastern European countries. We had also psychologically put these 6 countries into one category as they were all equally unknown to us and coming here represented something of an adventure for us.


Reflecting on a great few weeks in Eastern Europe…

 

 

THE CASTLES

This region has its fair share of great castles – from the immense edifices in Krakow, Prague and Budapest; to the ruins of Rasnov Fortress in Romania, Tsarevetsi Fortress in Bulgaria and Brezalauspurc Castle in Slovakia. We love a good castle and Eastern Europe has definitely satisfied our craving for historical fortifications. The castles in this region are far older than those we saw in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, representing the very best in Gothic architecture. With every citadel and palace we explored we also learnt a bit more about the history of the region and gained an even greater appreciation of what makes Eastern Europe so unique. The past few weeks have been fantatsic for a couple of castle lovers like us!

 

THE CHURCHES

Neither of us are religious, but we appreciate how pivotal religion is to many cultures, and therefore how important churches are in many communities. Churches are built to facilitate contemplation, introspection and meditation/prayer, and even for ignostics like us, churches can be incredibly beautiful, serene places. Throughout Eastern Europe we have seen and experienced some wonderful churches: from the steepled wooden churches of the Maramures region in Romania, to the beautiful blue Church of St Elisabeth in Bratislava, Kutna Hora’s macabre Church of Bones and the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Gothic cathedrals abound in Eastern Europe too – with their dark ambience, pointy steeples and gargoyles, Gothic churches have a captivating feeling about them that we just love. Best Gothic churches from Eastern Europe would have to be St Vitus Cathedral and Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest, and Matthias Church in Buda.

 

THE FOOD

We love food – especially good food. For this reason alone, Eastern Europe has a special place in our hearts. The food here has been SPECTACULAR and sooooooo cheap. It’s a miracle we haven’t packed on an extra 10kgs a piece over the past few weeks! Our fondest food memories include:

  • Trdelník in Czechia – think giant, hot, sugary, cinnamon scrolls that you can wear like a delicious bracelet. Mmmmmm….
  • Dumplings in all their various forms – from the small potato-and-flour knodels (they’re a bit like Italian gnocchi or German spätzle), to giant bread dumplings that are more like culinary canon balls than a dumpling! These are an absolute staple here; I think Eastern Europe would grind to a halt should dumplings disappear off the menu!
  • Goulash in Hungary. It’s such a cliché, yes, but Hungarian goulash is awesome! Juicy, tender meat stewed in paprika-rich gravy, served with the obligatory dumplings – does “comfort food” get any better than this?!
  • Papanasi are traditional Romanian sweets. They’re like giant, deep fried doughnuts; gauranteed to bump your blood sugar levels and cholesterol up over night, but absolutely worth it.
  • Dimitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb stew in Bulgaria. The woman is a genius.Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Shashlik (i.e. grilled meat on a sword) from Bulgaria. Salads from Bulgaria. Soft white cheeses in Bulgaria. Thick, creamy, fresh yoghurt in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgarian food in general was a highlight!

 

THE TRANSPORT

Getting around in Eastern Europe is an adventure all by itself. The roads are not that great, especially in rural Hungary and Romania, and most of the time people drive like they’re race car drivers. Some of our scariest moments on Eastern European roads have involved overtaking at 160km/hour with millimetres to spare; dodging donkeys, cows, horses and various other farm animals at break neck speeds; and choosing which side of the road to drive on arbitrarily. In contrast to the endemic speeding on the roads, the trains in this part of the world have been SOOOOOOO SLOW. The only thing slower than a Hungarian train, we decided, was a Romanian horse and cart. We expected to see horses and carts around, but the sheer number of them is amazing – they seriously out-number cars in rural Romania! We’ve seen 4-way intersections “clogged up” with horse and cart traffic, each giving way to their right like “real” cars. Awesome!

 

VILLAGE LIFE

If you like rustic, you’ll love Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Most of Romania is like one giant farm stay waiting to happen. The smells were a bit pungent at times, but the people so friendly and down-to-Earth that it was worth the olefactory assault. If you want to step back in time and experience a rural getaway, definitely look at Eastern Europe.

 

CAFE CULTURE

In contrast to the rustic rural side of life, we also loved the vibrant, funky cafe culture – especially in Budapest, Brasov, Krakow, Plovdiv and Prague. The coffee was good, the people-watching entertaining (who knew tracksuits could be so fashionable?!), and the vibe very cool. Eastern Europe sure knows how to do cafe culture well – much to our caffienated satisfaction.

 

STREET SIGHTS

The streets of Eastern Europe are unique: the cobbles, the mix of old and new architecture, the ubiquitous graffiti, and the slightly “rough around the edges” finishes. There’s nothing sanitised or pretentious here! On the darker side, the streets are also home to a legion of stray dogs (especially in Romania), stray cats (especially Bulgaria) and beggers. We realise that poverty and beggers are (unfortunately) common in cities around the world, and we generally subscribe to a philosophy of supporting charities that help people help themselves, rather than just giving money to beggers. In Bulgaria, however, this principle was sorely challenged as we saw lots of pensioners on the streets, struggling to survive and trying to supplement their meagre pensions by begging. Only it wasn’t quite begging; too proud to simply ask for money for nothing, these hardy souls find ways to provide a service or goods to sell for a few stotinki (i.e. Bulgarian cents). For example, in Sofia we saw an old lady with a set of bathroom scales beside her and a sign that (presumably) said something like “weigh yourself for 50 stotinki” (about 25 Aussie cents). And in Plovdiv there was the elderly gentlemen who had picked the last few wild flowers of the season and was selling possies for 50 stotinki. The simply dignity inherent in these acts was so incredibly touching.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

Some of our best memories of Eastern Europe will be the “wild” ones – from the unique rock formations of Teplice National Park, to the high mountain scenery around Bansko and the Tatra Mountains, there are some seriously spectacular views to be had in this part of the world. Being here in autumn has made it all the more stunning, as leaves turn yellow, orange and red and whole mountain-sides look like they’re on fire. For pure, unbridled wilderness, however, Romania once again wins the prize. The hills and mountains of Romania were just awesome (full of bears and wolves, mind you, but awesome)!

 

So to all the wonderful people we crossed paths with whilst in this part of the world: THANK YOU! Thank you for your patience as we butchered your beautiful languages; thank you for your glorious food and wonderful hospitality! To all the guides and museum curators we grilled: thank you for sharing so much of your passion for your home countries with us – through your eyes we learned to look at Eastern Europe in a different way. There’s no doubt this part of the world still has its issues, but there is a vitality and an energy here that’s thrilling – and the natural beauty of the place is captivating. It’s been a blast!

DAY 125: HIKING IN THE HIGH TATRA MOUNTAINS


Welcome back to Slovakia!

We’re back in Slovakia, though it’s just for the day. Our tour takes us through the mountainous Northern part of Slovakia on our way through to Budapest (Hungary), with tonight’s home-away-from-home being the alpine town of Tatranska Lomnica.

 

Welcome to the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

 

 

It took us about 4 hours by bus to get here from Krakow, with a change of buses in the Polish alpine town of Zakopane along the way. The bus journey itself was uneventful, though it was nice watching the scenery go past and seeing the plains gradually turn into hills and then into mountains. As the terrain got hillier there was also a noticeable drop in the ambient temperature; it is much colder up here in the Tatra Mountains – our maximum temperature today was just 3C and we’re expecting -7C tonight!

 

It’s definitely chillier up here – this lake up in the mountains behind our village was frozen solid!

 

 

The Tatra Mountains form a natural border between Slovakia and Poland and are peppered with ski slopes and small alpine villages on both sides of the border. They’re not huge mountains (compared to what we saw in Switzerland that is), but there are still numerous peaks above 2,500m within the mountain range. It snows here from October to March, and given that today is the 3rd of October, we were a little nervous about whether we would get snowed on up here. We did get sleeted on a tiny bit, but so far no real snow. Thank goodness – we may have thermals to wear to help keep us warm but we are most certainly not equipped to deal with snow!

 

We were a bit worried it would snow while we’re here, but luckily the looming clouds never turned into snow clouds.

 

We had our warmest clothes on for our hike today and still it got pretty chilly up there on the mountain.

 

The amazing views down the valley to Tatranska Lomnica, where we’re staying.

 

 

The town we’re staying in tonight, Tatranska Lomnica, is just a few kilometres across the Polish/Slovakian border and sits at the base of Lomnický štít (translation = Mt Lomnicky), one of the regions highest peaks at 2,634m. It’s a tiny village whose main claim to fame is that the only cable car in Slovakia is here. The cable car takes skiers and snow boarders up to the piste in winter and hikers up into the national park during spring, summer and autumn. Which is exactly why we’re here: to go hiking!

 

Tatranska Lomnica, the alpine village we’re staying in.

 

The very cute, family-run guesthouse where we’re staying.

 

Our very cosy, warm little room.

 

 

We spent our afternoon trekking through the Tatra Mountains with most of our tour group (a couple decided to forgo the hike as they do not have the kit to cope with the cold). It was very, very cold, but wonderfully peaceful. 

 

Hiking with the group.

 

We passed this lovely waterfall on our hike. The water was crystal clear but cold enough that icicles were forming around the edges.

 

The views through the forested mountains down to the valley below were amazing.

 

 

Much of the forest we walked through was almost stripped bare, with many trees having no leaves at all. The destruction we saw was caused by a freak tornado-like storm that swept through the area in 2004. There are signs that the forest is already beginning to regenerate, but we could also see that it is going to take decades for a the forest to return to its former glory.

 

The storm and strong winds that swept through here in 2004 stripped many trees of their leaves and destroyed 10,000 hectares of forest.

 

Shane surveys the extent of the storm’s damage from his vantage point atop a stump.

 

Where there WERE leaves remaining on the tress however, autumn in the  forest was just stunning.

 

 

The mountains up here are pretty rugged – nowhere near as well “tamed” as in Switzerland or Austria. There’s a lot more wildlife up here as well, with mountain goats, deer, chamois, boars, marmots, squirrels, lynx, wolves, foxes and brown bears being relatively common. Luckily we had no scary animal encounters, though we did see a few squirrels and heard a stag bellowing somewhere out in the woods.

 

Shane getting frisky with the local wildlife.

 

Shane gets close to one of the local “wild” bears.

 

Luckily we saw nothing living larger than a squirrel on our hike.

 

 

We finished our walk at a mountain hut with a warm cup of HOT APPLE®*. It was lovely sitting inside the chalet, warming our hands around our drinks and marvelling at the eclectic mix of skiing and hunting paraphernalia up on the walls.

*HOT APPLE® is this amazing drink Eliza, our tour guide, introduced us to. It is widely drunk in Czechia, Poland and Slovakia and is basically like a sweet, nonalcoholic hot apple juice. It is sooooo good – good enough that when I saw some sachets of it in the supermarket today I had to buy some!

 

Approaching the end of our walk and the mountain hut.

 

The eclectic mix of paraphernalia on the walls of the mountain hut. This poor guy didn’t stand a chance by the look of all that fire power!

 

Nice to warm ourselves by the fire after being out in the cold!

 

 

Upon returning to our lodgings we freshened up and then went out as a group for dinner to a local restaurant that specialises in food “as grandmother would have cooked it”. We decided grandma must’ve been a great cook, because the food was fantastic! And so, with full bellies and tired legs, we’re off to sleep nice and early because tomorrow we leave at the crack of dawn for Budapest and the next part of our adventure!


Off to Budapest tomorrow where hopefully the temperatures will be back up above zero!


 

DAY 115: JUST ONE DAY IN BRATISLAVA


Vitajte na Slovenskom!

That is: welcome to Slovakia! The Eastern European leg of our adventure has well and truly begun with today being our first day in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

 

Welcome to beautiful Bratislava! 

 

We caught the local train with our tour group this morning out of Vienna. Bratislava is only 65km away from Vienna but it is a world away from the structured, regimented Germanic lands we have been travelling through for the past 6-7 weeks. As soon as we crossed the border from Austria to Slovakia the view was noticeably different. Not in terms of the landscape (we’re still surrounded by the wide plains of Central Europe here), but more in terms of the state of the buildings and the roads. Everything here in Bratislava is just a little more “rough around the edges” – i.e. roads have big potholes in them, many buildings are dirty and in disrepair, and virtually every building has graffiti on it (and not the cool street art kind of graffiti we’ve seen in places like Berlin and Vienna, just crappy tags and swear words). The main touristy part of Bratislava is pristine, but you just have to go one street back and the cityscape are much more like what we expected from a former Communist state. 

 

The good side of the Bratislavan cityscape – quite pretty and well cared for.

 

The main touristy part of Bratislava is lovely – cobbled streets, elegant architecture and lots of lovely cafes.

 

Literally one street back behind the touristy facade and this is what the REAL town looks like.

 

The contrast between the bits you’re supposed to see as a tourist and the bits you’re NOT supposed to see was quite stark.

 

Bratislava is actually a very small city (it has a population of just over 460,000), and we easily saw all the major sights in 1 day. The old part of town was particularly pretty, with its small cobbled street, many fountains and quirky bronze statues (see below for more on this). The historical centre is only about 500m in diameter and sits along the banks of the River Danube; it contains an eclectic an mix of buildings – from 14th century medieval halls to 19th century palazzos, and everything in between.

 

The stará radnica (translation = old town hall) was built in 1370 and is one of the oldest buildings in Bratislava.

 

One of Bratislava’s fancier 19th century buildings. The Grassalkovich Palace is the residence of the president of Slovakia.

 

St Michael’s gate is the last city enterance gate remaining from the original 13th century city walls.

 

Bratislava’s lovely central square.

 

Bratislava was first settled by the Celts and 200BC and later became a Roman frontier town. Around the 5th century however, as the Roman influence was waning, Slavic tribes migrated to the area from the East and established a permanent settlement here. The settlement profited greatly from trade along the Danube and soon became a wealthy town. In the 9th century the local lords built a castle up on the hill behind the town: Castle Brezalauspurc.  This castle was extended and renovated numerous times, with its current incarnation taking shape in the 18th century. The castle today retains its prominent position in the cityscape and continues to function as the political heart of the state as it is used by the Slovakian parliament as their seat of government. 

 

Castle Brezalauspurc is today the site of the country’s parliamentary sittings.

 

Castle Brezalauspurc sits on a hill about 85m above the old town, looking across the city and the River Danube.

 

Views over the city of Bratislava from the castle.

 

The town and its surrounds came under Hungarian rule in the 11th century and remained part of the Hungarian Kingdom (and thus the Holy Roman Empire and, later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire) for a 1,000 years. During this time Bratislava was actually called Pressburg The city became a key economic and administrative centre on the kingdom’s frontier. This strategic position destined the city to be the site of frequent attacks and battles, but also brought it prosperity and high political status. So important was the city of Bratislava that from 1536 to 1830 it was actually the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom. During these centuries, 11 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned in the city’s central cathedral, St Martin’s.

 

St Martin’s Cathedral, built in the 13th century, served as the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary between 1563 and 1830.

 

Following WWI many national borders in Europe were redefined and, in 1919, Slovakia was forced into a union with The Czech Republic. To shake off the last of the Austrian (Germanic) influences, the city was renamed Bratislava. Then, after the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the city became part of the Eastern Bloc. There are still many buildings around town left over from that Communist era. These functional but UGLY buildings a dotted throughout the old town, built on sites where older buildings were destroyed during WWII.

 

A great exampleof the hideous Communist-era,giant toilet block type buildings dotted around Bratislava

 

Bratislavans anticipated the fall of Communism with the Bratislava candle demonstration in 1988, and the city became one of the foremost centres of the anti-Communist Velvet Revolution in 1989. In 1993, the city became the capital of the newly formed Slovak Republic following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Since then the city, and in fact the whole country, has moved ahead in leaps and bounds. The city is one of Eastern Europe’s most prosperous and foreign investment in the region has contributed to a standard of living not seen in many former Communist countries. Obviously all this wealth doesn’t quite translate into good public works (e.g. repairing pot holes, cleaning up graffiti), but maybe that will come with time….

 

The Church of St Elizabeth is a Catholic Church in Bratislava that was built in the 15th century.

 

The Church of St Elizabeth is often called “The Blue Church”, for obvious reasons.

 

The amazing interior of the Church of St Elizabeth.

 

One of our favourite things about Bratislava’s old town were the statues hidden around the place. These quirky statues started appearing in the mid-1990s and were apparently commissioned by the local council in an effort to create a unique tourist attraction. the statues were such a hit that more and more have been added over time. I’m not sure how many there are in total in the city, but these are the ones we found.


The guy peeping out of the sewers is called Cumil. Not sure what he’s up to, but he’s certainly got character!
 
This guy, Schone Naci, was a well known local figure in Bratislava in the early 20th century. A mentally ill man, he paraded the streets of Bratislava in old, but elegant attire, greeting passers-by by raising his top hat.
 
Leaning over a bench in the hlavne namestie (translation = main square), this French soldier may have been modelled on one of Napoleon’s soldiers in (Napoleon I and his army visited Bratislava in 1805).

 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

Damn paparazzi! This sneaky character is forever trying to get photos of unsuspecting passers-by.


Bratislava is just our first stop in Eastern Europe; tomorrow we head back to Vienna by train to then catch a bus to the tiny medieval town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic (the map below gives you an idea of where we’re headed over the next couple of weeks). 

 

Our travels over the next fortnight will take us through Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.


Bratislava has actually been quite a nice,”soft” introduction to the Eastern Bloc countries – a little rough around the edges and very different in vibe to any of the Scandinavian or Germanic places we’ve been, but not overly unsafe or “dodgy”. We’re pretty excited to see what The Czech Republic will be like, though it’ll be a bit of work getting our heads around the Slavic languages (we’d just gotten goodish at German too!). And no more giant schnitzels and beer from now on – it’s all going to be dumplings and beer for a while now! Will let you know what we think of Cesky Krumlov tomorrow night. Dobrú noc for now….


Keen to see what The Czech Republic will bring…