Manchester to Moldova

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Europe » Moldova
August 14th 2018
Published: November 13th 2018
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Travel forever
Travel is what I thought about most on this journey. I blocked out all other thoughts of work,home and the future. All I cared about was living in the moment.I tried to figure out whether I enjoyed it or not. Sure, I love the pre-planning stage: booking flights, trains, buses, hotels/hostels and Couchsurfing hosts. This was all done in the safety of our cosy living room, with laptop on knee, while sipping green tea with 2 slices of lemon in. All very nice. The actual doing it is a different ball game. It's stressful, frustrating and damn right maddening, but one thing it is not-is not boring! Travel is a roller-coaster and you gotta ride it. I know, I’m paraphrasing Ronan Keating’s ditty from 2000. Please forgive me for that. But it’s true. One day you can miss your train/flight connection, climb on board a tram going in the wrong direction, share a dorm with the loudest snorer in the world, walk miles in scorching heat to only find the cable car ride only operates at weekends. And then the next day you find a great seat on the train and you get chatting with some dude from New York, who has many amusing antidotes. Your hostel will overlook an island in a middle of lake (Lake bled, Slovenia). You will find the main square easily and take all the necessary photographs then retire to a nearby little bistro (probably Mcdonalds) with WiFi. Check in on Facebook with photo of yourself standing in front of a fountain. Sit back finish off your green tea and then blow right of town. So to sum things up: It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. Many dull people who never stray from home or from their beach resort will tell its a waste of time and money. One thing you can’t buy are memories and they are worth their weight in gold. Plus the next dinner party you attend you will have many interesting tales to tell (I’m still waiting for an invite). So enough of my rambling thoughts and on with the real rambling.

The Travellers are The EdgeMan, Marina and our two children Lisa aged 11 and Alexandra aged 8.

We are all agreed that is going to be the best holiday ever or we will disband and join other families. Homer Simpson

Day one. Hamburg The Taxi arrives at stupid o'clock in the morning. The driver turns out to be a parent of one of Lisa’s school friends so I leave Marina to chat with him while I focus on the coming journey. Our final destination is Chisinau the Capital of the Republic of Moldova. Along the way we will take in Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Its 4.15am and Manchester airport is a sea of activity. Big queues with stressed out looking holiday makers with big suitcases are snaking through Terminal three. We navigate the massive throng and find the Ryanair check in desk. We have already checked in online but because of Ryanair silly rules, Marina has to have her printed boarding pass stamped because she is not a E.U Citizen. Ryanair is the only airline who insists on this, EasyJet and Wizz Air they don't care. Boo Ryanair!!! With the aforementioned document stamped we rush to departures. I use my Iphone and scan myself ,Lisa and Alex through but Marina's print out will not scan. Damn our cheap printer! Marina now has to return to Ryanair’s check in to get a new printed out boarding pass. She is not best pleased to say the least. After about 20 mins Marina comes into view and we waltz pass the airport security and breath a big sigh of relief. Now the holiday can really begin. We touch down at Hamburg's Helmut Schmidt Airport and, after a smooth transfer to the Train Station we take a pit stop at a cafe. The plan is to ditch the bags at the station, explore the city, then return and take the 17:35 train to Berlin. As we leave the cafe Lisa, who had been engrossed in playing Minecraft, thinks we have left her behind. She is angry, upset and runs up to us, thrusting her tablet at Marina, who spins round and knocks the Kindle fire flying and it clatters noisily onto the marble floor. Fortunately it landed backside down and was still intact and working. Not a great start to our travelogue but we press on.

We plunged into bright sunshine and turned left, following a path that runs along railway tracks. We crossed a busy intersection which lead to huge lake. It was only 10am but it was already getting hot, so we chilled out on a bench and watched sailing boats bobbing up and down, rowers rowing and the kids feeding the ducks with the leftover sandwiches. After an hour or so we headed off into the city. It was a pleasant stroll and soon we stumbled into the main square. Alex was hungry (as usual) so we found an eatery with an outdoor table and munched on Bratwurst and chips. The town hall, the magnificent sandstone building that dominates the square, is a joy to view but what I thought was just as amazing was the unique Street Artists that were attracting a crowd. They were three guys dressed as statues, with brightly coloured Fezs, sunglasses, holding footballs, all balanced on top of each other and standing perfecting still. I was moved to make a small donation. With Elevenis over we checked out a cathedral and wandered around the dock area. We found a brilliant swing park in set in a grassy urban area which was a great relief to get away from the crowded city streets.

Back at the station, we waited on the lower ground floor platform for our train to Berlin. Lisa asked me to escort her to the loo. We emerged from the lift onto the busy main concourse, she then confides in me that she is going to be sick. There was no WC sign in view. I spied a cleaner’s trolley and thinking quickly I grabbed a bucket from it, handing it to her and she duly puked her ring up. I led her away fast and resumed our quest for the bogs. The long day of full on travelling and hot weather had been to much for her. Fortunately for us we had the six berth train compartment to ourselves and she slept all the way to Germany’s capital city and she woke up ' Right as Ninepence'. The digs for next two nights would be the All in Hostel located in the Friedrichshain area of the city. Marina was not best pleased with our room because there was no toilet or shower. She went back to reception and was told that to change rooms would cost 40 Euros. I was in no mood for an augment so I coughed up the readies and we moved up to the 4th floor. Later we dined out at a wonderful/inexpensive Italian restaurant,the Pizzeria Meyman, on nearby Bundestrasse. I did contemplate heading across town to the Pinguin Club in Schoenberg: the best, smallest bar in Berlin, but after 14 hours of being on the go I was shattered, so I had a few beers at the hostel and turned in for the night.

Day Two. Berlin.

After a less thrilling breakfast in the Hostel canteen (no eggs or sausages) we made our way to the nearby flea market on Boxhagener Platz. In the centre of the square is a fantastic children's play area consisting of big wooden climbing frames with slides, swings and a large sandpit. The stalls were still being erected around the square so we chilled on a bench in the park and let the kids get stuck into the amenities. After about 20 minutes a tall, washed out beach bum character entered the park. He had a mop of dirty blond hair and he sported a goatee beard( Think Shaggy/Oddball from Kelly's Heroes/ Owen Wilson) . Dressed in a baggy jumper and shorts that hung off he's slender frame and his shoe-less/ sockless feet were as black as coal. He stood on the edge off the sandpit and poked his head out rhythmically, chicken-like and blinked rapidly. He was obviously whacked out of his head on some bad shit.All the kids carried on playing normally but some of parents tried to shoo him away but he was having none of it and just moved to a new position on the edge of the pit and carried on with his head poking/blinking routine. Marina had a theory about Oddball that he had been partying in the play area the previous evening with friends. They had got split up and he was now searching for them. Marina declined a walk around the market so I mooched around the stalls and picked up two hats: one for Marina and one for Alex, a T-Shirt for me and had a new strap fitted on my watch. When I had finished circumnavigating the square, Marina, Kids and Oddball had all vanished. I found them back at the Hostel (not Oddball, he had been escorted forcefully out of the gates). We hung about the Hostel as the sun was burning bright in the cloud less sky. We didn't have to dash around sightseeing as we had seen all the main sights, Brandenburg gate, Eastside gallery and Treptower Park when we was here last year.
At 4 pm we got a tram to the Mauerpark. The name translates to "Wall Park", referring to its status as a former part of the Berlin Wall and its Death Strip. It is located in the Prenzlauer Berg area. It's a great place to hang out, and many people do, gathering around the live bands which play at random spots in the park. We had come to see the world famous Bearpit Karaoke. We managed to to find seats in the amphitheatre made of stone. We drank some beers and enjoyed the performances that mostly sounded pretty good. I wanted to get up and belt out Summer of 69, the Bryan Adams’s classic, but the kids told me in no uncertain terms that there was no way I was going to embarrass them in front of 500 people. On the way back we alighted at Alexanderplatz, the main square of Berlin and had some supper. Later we paid the 5 euro entrance fee to the Panorama Terrace on top of the Park inn. We sat in deckchairs and enjoyed the most wonderful views of the whole city, and as it got dark we drank in a brilliant sunset. A mint ending to a fantastic day.

Days Three and Four. Munich.

We arrived in the Bavarian capital late afternoon. The train journey had been smooth enough, we had good seats with a table and played cards to ease the boredom. On arrival we dined on chicken and chips in the train station, which gave us time to check google maps on how to get to our accommodation: The Tent. We caught the number 17 tram, which took about 20 minutes to get to our stop and then we walked about 300 metres to our destination. The hostel is literally a giant tent with bunk beds inside. At check in we collected thick heavy blankets and a tag with a number on it to tie around our beds. Once inside we found four bunks in the corner and made our beds, putting blankets in between and over the sides for privacy. It was like making a den. The kids love it. The only downside was that there was no pillows. After storing our bags in the lockers we went to visit nearby Nymphenburg Palace. As it was late when we arrived we were not unable to visit the inside but enjoyed the park and the gardens. The palace is a magnificent building that was used for certain frivolities back in the day. Back at the tent, and as darkness had now descended like a blanket over the camp Marina and I took seats at the communal campfire while the girls ran around playing hide and seek. It was a nice moment to enjoy the warm glow of the flames and to snuggle up close. That night in the tent the temperature dipped and because I ended with one blanket I slept fully clothed. The noise didn't stop until 1 am-it was like having a sleepover but with 200 people. Its an unique experience and I would recommend it to everyone but for no more than two nights.

We Breakfasted in the onsite restaurant (very good and affordable) and caught the tram to the Deutsches Museum. It is one of the world's largest science and technology museums. We spent a full day exploring the 6 floors of science interests, pushing lots of buttons and interacting with many exhibitions. Back in the bright sunshine we had a leisurely stroll to the Main square (Marienplatz). Family photos were snapped and then
we beat a hasty retreat from the relentless burning sun back to the hostel. We chilled out in a large hut, which had nice comfy sofas, a piano, a small collection of dog eared paperbacks and, most importantly lots of sockets for mobile phone charging. Marina was engaged in conversation by Vanessa, a mid twenties, African American chatterbox. Vanessa, like nearly all Americans you meet when travelling abroad love to tell you their life stories. She told us all about growing up in Chicago and when she was in the high school, along with a girlfriend, would speak in English accents for hours on end. She then gave us a rendition of her best cockney accent. I found it had to keep a straight face because she sounded just like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. After she finished I nodded to her and said "yeah that just fine, you should talk like that when you get to London". Alex was mithering me to play football with her on the camping field, I caved in to her wishes as I was having serious trouble of holding back my laughter of this serious pompous person. We left Marina to humour her new friend from across the pond.

Days five,six, seven Prague.

I had arranged for us to Couchsurf in the "City of 100 Spires". Couchsurfing is a website that connects travellers to find a place to stay or share your home with. At home in Manchester, over the last few years we have hosted quite a few citizens of the Czech Republic. When this trip was in the planning stage I wrote to all those who we had shared our hospitality with and not one of them even bothered to reply. As grumpy old git Victor Meldrew use to say ‘I don't believe it’. Unperturbed by their rudeness I wrote to a few hosts in Prague and got a reply from Milan who offered us his flat. Result! The 5 hour train journey had left us feeling a bit dishevelled, so we were keen get to the digs and chill out. From Hlavni Adriana train station we took Line C to Pankrac and walked about 10 minutes to what we hoped was our apartment block. After a bit of uncertain over which block of flats was ours, we gained access to the nearest one and took the lift to the fifth floor. Confronted by two doors, green and black, I plumbed for the ‘Shakin Stevens’ one and hoped for the best. A middle aged woman with dyed blond hair, swings the door open and greets us with a big cheery hello. Her name was Anna, a neighbour of Milan (he was out of town). She invited us in and shown us around the modern, two bed apartment; it seemed like a palace to us after spending two nights in the Tent. She gave us the keys, phone number in case of emergency and bid us farewell. We high fived each, please that we found such great accommodation, and all for free. That evening we took a trip to a nearby Lidl supermarket and stocked up on groceries and of course Czech Beer (Staropramen).

The following morning after a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage we took the metro to Muzeum stop and emerged in the blistering sun, outside the magnificent National Museum building. We then strolled down the hill to check out the main tourist attractions: Stare Mesto (Old Town) the lively cobblestoned area with a Gothic Church, Old Town Square (sadly the medieval Astronomical clock was covered by scaffolding), the Charles Bridge, the landmark stone bridge linking the old and new town.Twenty six years a ago I had first visited Prague with friends. Back then, there was hardly any tourists, and although the streets were not exactly deserted, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. It had a couple of nightclubs, a few decent bars, a couple of beer halls and the locals were curious and friendly. You’d be fortunate to meet any Czechs these days. Sure, Prague still has its amazing architecture and every corner you turn there is another great building and historical landmark, but its all spoilt by the mass throng of tourists. I did enjoying visiting the 'Dancing house'. А piece of modern architecture that is suppose symbolises Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The angled glass tower was meant to resemble Rogers and the concrete tower her partner Astaire. We took a lift to the top of the building where we found a small cafe. I supped a cold beer while Marina and the kids dined on chocolate cake. We then went on the viewing platform and enjoyed the great views of the surrounding area and the river. It was difficult to get a good seat and take a family photo due the bloody overcrowding.

The next day we went to Prague Castle and St Vitus cathedral. We took tram 22 to avoid the climbing the 274 steps. It was noon when we arrived and the sun beat down on our heads, people jostled for the best photo opportunities and views, just like the previous day. We didn't stay long. We exited by the aforementioned steps. At the bottom, before heading back to the digs, we chilled out in a small grassy area and played Frisbee. Later we visited the Zoo. It is spread over a large (hilly) bit of land with not many animals in it. We got there at 6pm and had only a few hours as it closed at 9pm. On the plus side we practically had the zoo to ourselves ( which made a pleasant change) but on the down side most of the animals seemed to be hiding away. Still, at the top of the a hill we glimpsed amazing panoramic views of the city.

Days 8 and 9 Brno

Getting there was a breeze: a nice two hour train ride eased us into the capital of Moravia. Brno (pronounced burn-nor, Czech Republic's second-largest city) has a lively cafe and club scene, leafy parks that easily rivals Prague but without the teeming tourists; it was the perfect antidote to the sea of selfie sticks that we had to endure in the Czech capital. I unwisely had booked us in at the City Hotel Brno, located a 20 minute tram ride from the city centre. We arrived at 1pm and was told we could not check in until 4pm. I couldn't believe it. Never in all my travelling days I have experienced a 4pm check in time. We slumped down in the foyer and plotted what to do. The staff didn't have the greatest grasp of the Queen's English but we managed to wrangle out of them that the nearest place for food and drink was the Futurum shopping mall, which we quickly nicknamed Futurama after the fab tv show; it was three stops on the tram the way we had came. We munched on Schnitzels and chips and then Marina took the kids shopping for swimming masks and snorkels for tomorrow's intended visit to a Waterpark. The room was disappointing to say the least: a small space with four bunk beds, a table with a TV that didn't work, no shower or loo and the windows were locked shut (the room was like a sauna). When I enquired for the key to open the windows I was inform it was "impossible" and was given an upright, 4 foot fan. Which was fair enough. After settling in our to our prison cell-like accommodation I made my way along the narrow corridors to the shared bathroom facilities. The showers were the most barmiest ones I have ever encountered. I stood in the cubicle and pressed in the stiff button and warmish water gushed out, so far so good, but when I stopped pressing,the water stopped. I repeated the same process and the same thing happened . Ahh, the penny finally dropped I needed to keep holding the button to get water. Showering with one free arm was challenging to say the least; the showers at the Tent was similar but there you got about 15 seconds of water before it went off. As Forrest Gump nearly said " Staying at low budget/no stars hotels is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get".

The next morning at the large outdoor Waterpark I found a space under some trees and crashed out, while Marina and the kids amused themselves on the various slides and splashed around. As I gazed around I was surprised by the many heavily pregnant ladies wandering around in swimming costumes. Maybe this was the place where Brno-ers came to have their children: Waterbabies, perhaps? At 2pm we exited the park and walked about 30 minutes to the Vida Science centre and by the time ( 7pm ) we exited the building, not a button, knob or wheel had not been pushed or twisted by us in this interactive, science jamboree. We were all famished by now so we caught a tram to Freedom (the main) square. It has lots of restaurants, pubs and snacks places; it is surrounded by some beautiful buildings and the bizarre Brno Astronomical clock. You only have to look it for a split second to know what it reminds you of-a large, black adult toy. Apparently 4 million Euros was spent on this c(l)ock that you can't read and at 11am each day a glass ball is released from it which you can take home. How all very strange! We dined in an outdoor Italian restaurant, gobbling down Pizza and Spaghetti Bolognese and, off course, drinking, good strong Czech lager. A very pleasant way to round off a very tiring, but interesting day.

Day 10. Vienna.

A morning train journey had dispatched on the concourse at Vienna main and Wien-meidling station. I was feeling befuddled regarding how far our hostel was from the station. Google maps was telling me it was 35 minutes away, by way of the metro and having to change once. But it couldn't be! I had booked 'Do Step in Hostel' because it is situated right opposite the train station. Then it hit me like a sledgehammer, that Vienna must has two train stations, and our hostel was opposite the Westbahnhof Train Station, doh! I had been looking forward to stepping out the station and into the hostel, dumping our bags and exploring 'Europe's cultural capital. I had even splashed out extra coinage because of it location. There was nothing else to do but pick up our backpacks and hoof it across town. That evening, after the sun was less intense we stepped out of 'Do Step in hostel and crammed in as much of the city's grandiose architecture as possible before darkness descended on us. When we arrived back at the digs the first thing we had to do was book on our flight to Sofia the day after tomorrow. On my mobile, Marina entered all our details and successfully check us in but there was a problem: flights from Bratislava to Sofia boarding cards were not supported on the mobile App, we would have to do it the old fashion way and print them out. We went to the reception and was dismayed to find out that they were in the middle of swapping their PCs to tablets and they were not available. The only way around this was to email the hostel our boarding passes and they would print them for us, but we would have send them as PDF files. More bloody complications! This was too much for me, so I passed my mobile to my wonderful, 'digital savvy' wife and, as usual, she worked her magic, pinging them off into cyberspace. I ordered beers at the bar while Marina went to see if they had received the files. Five minutes later she entered the room waving four boarding cards in the air, like Neville Chamberlain, when he waved his piece of paper, declaring he had ensured peace in our time, after his pow-wow with Hitler. We could relax now. I got another round of drinks in, and treated the kids to ham and cheese toasties. Fantastic! As I lay on my bunk bed that night I thought about Vienna, whether I liked it or not. On one hand it has lovely buildings, monuments and statues, but on the other hand it is one big tourist trap and everything was mega expensive; this was only place were we didn't dine out in a restaurant. In the end I concluded that I didn't hate it or love it, it just meant nothing to me.

Day 11. Bratislava.

Here's a question that comes up often in Pub quizzes: What are the two closest capital cities in Europe? I will put you out of your misery and tell you. The answer is Vienna and Bratislava. So, no surprise that this was our shortest train journey of the trip. On the concourse, under the large banner saying "Welcome to Slovakia" I told Marina to watch
the luggage while I went to change money. I found the exchange bureau, located on the second floor, stuffed 50 Euros under the glass divide and said "Change money please". The lady picked up my cash and gave me a quizzical look. I then stepped back to confirm that it did say Exchange Bureau on the sign above the glass. Back at the counter I repeat my original request. She then said "Sir, you already have Euros". Then it dawned on me that Slovakia has the Euro as its currency. Well I never! I scurried back to Marina feeling rather foolish. We got tram number 1 to our digs. This time I made sure that I booked accommodation in the centre; close to the old town, amongst many bars and restaurants. Back in 2004, a US teen comedy was released entitled Eurotrip. The basic plot is that Scott and Cooper , high school friends decide to travel to Germany to meet Scott's female penfriend who he has a crush on. They visit many of the obvious tourist European destinations: London, Amsterdam, Rome. They then attempt to hitchhike to Berlin but due to language misunderstanding the end up in Bratislava. The Movie depicts it as a ghostly, deserted town and a post-socialist nightmare where $1 is a fortune. If they ever got around to making a sequel and returned they would find the place unrecognisable. I know I did, because like Prague, I was there back in 1992 when it really did have a ghost town vibe and a Eurotrip feel to it. Now it's full of people (but not like Prague), teens on Roller skates, cyclists, Joggers, groups of handsome folks sitting outside of the many cafes and bars.

Keen to explore the city we dumped our bags in the room and strode out into the sunshine. We mooched round the old town and the Castle aka Bratislavsky Hrad which didn't take long and then moved on to the new town, where i was hoping to find something familiar. I scanned the pedestrian streets with the many fountains, strolling, smiley happy people and spied nothing until I clapped eyes on the Hotel Carlton. Over 25 years ago we was going to stay there, as it recommended by the Frommer's guide to Eastern Europe (the only budget hotel in Bratislava). We stood outside, scratching our heads looking at all the drab, grey exterior with dusty,cracked windows and a sign saying ‘remont’, obviously we wouldn't be staying there. We moved on and eventually found the brilliant Guesthouse Europa. The Carlton has now been restored to its former glory; It is the most prestigious building in Bratislava. Sadly, it’s owned by the Radisson chain and is no longer a budget hotel.

With stomachs rumbling it was time to eat. We checked out the Slovak Pub . It is the largest bar in town with 11 rooms, each tuned into a different era of Slovak history. We walked in and walked back out. No air conditioning! You would think that having all those rooms that at least one would be chilled. After doing the same routine in more bars we eventually settled on the KGB pub. This underground boozer had neat historical pictures from the USSR: large Stalin and Lenin portrays taking pride of place. The beers were cold and inexpensive and the food wasn't bad either.

Day 11 Flight to Sofia.

Our flight to Bulgaria's capital city wasn't until 9.35pm, which meant we had many hours to kill before we could go the airport. We had a leisurely breakfast in Mcdonalds and then caught a tram to the train station, dropped off the bags in lockers and trammed to it Magio Beach. Located on the opposite side of the Danube, this area is the nearest the locals get to lazing in the sand as Slovakia is a landlocked country. We found sun lounges and chilled, enjoying the stunning views of the old town and castle. At around about 3pm the heavens open and thunderstorm struck our little Bratislava on Sea, so we hurried off through a park at took refuge in a nearby shopping mall. We got to the airport mega early; a smooth, easy check in, waltzed through security, found the only restaurant in the terminal and ordered Pizzas all round. The flight was delayed by one hour which meant we didn't land until 2 o'clock in the morning. I prearranged a pick up from the hostel, and sure enough there was Oleg waiting for us holding a cardboard sign with EdgeMan wrote on it. He was a tall, barrel-chested guy, broad shouldered. His hair was black and he had bushy eyebrows. I shook his hand and I got a whiff of booze on his breath. Had he’d been on the piss? I kept my own counsel. As we we trailed him to the car park, he indicated that his car was just in front of us. I opened up the boot and was about to throw my rucksack in when Oleg shouts, while wagging his finger "not my car" I slammed it shut, and as walk past the car a woman in the front seat shouts something in foreign to me. I gave her a wave, thankful that it was dark and my red face was hidden. Of course Marina and the kids find it all highly amusing. Oleg must have eager to get back to drinking because he floored it all the way to the city centre, and in no time at tall we pulled up outside our hostel (Guest House Tha Place). I nudged Marina and said, Do you think they are missing a T? She didn't have time to answer as we had to climb three flights of stairs to our attic room. We had planned to stay to 3 nights in Sofia but I was only able to book one night in this hostel (thank god) so in the morning we was on move again, navigating the city' uneven walkways to our new place of residence for the next two nights: Shans 3 guest rooms. It was situated even closer to the city centre and a much superior hostel; we had air conditioning, cable TV and balcony just outside the room. Not long after check in Marina rushed off to meet her friend Petja, a Bulgarian woman, who she had befriended her when she lived in Moston. Petja, now back in her native land was eager to meet up. I was still tired from last night shenanigans, so I choose to chill in the room, watching the History channel. A few hours later Marina returned, hot, tired, worn out from the sightseeing, with tasty pastries snacks for me and the girls. She relayed the information that Petja and her partner Stoja wanted to to take us for a traditional Bulgarian meal. My heart sank, traditional restaurants were not really my cup of tea. I no choice but to go along with it. They lead us to the Hadjidragana tavern, a large place, all wooden beams and tables. In the packed, outside dining area, the six of us were seated, me and kids on one side and the Bulgarians and the Moldovan on the other side. Petja, Stoja, were both in their early forties: she was very petite, her body was like that of a 14 year old girl's. Her face was typical Slavic looking, her black hair was tied into bun. While he was a squat guy, carrying a paunch and had brown, balding hair. My meal had various meats and a side order of sauce, served on a square wooden board. A fug of cigarette smoke from a chain-smoking woman on the table next to me spoilt the ambience. We wolfed down our food except for Stoja who took an age to finish his dish; he must have been the slowest eater in the world! Much to his annoyance I order the bill before he had chance to lick the wooden board clean. On the walk back to the hostel I spoke with him and he told me all about his job: he was cook on cruise ship which mostly sailed around the Black sea. He favourite port was a place in Slovenia called Koper because the roads were practically free of traffic. Each to his own, I guess.

The following day they gave us an escorted tour of their magnificent city: we did all the main sights and landmarks: Aleksandâr Nevsky Cathedral, Hagia Sophia Church, Rotunda of St George but the most interesting for me was the Soviet Army Monument. It is situated in a pleasant park not far from the centre. One of the finest pieces of Socialist art that I have ever viewed (and I have certainly seen many): it is a masterpiece with realistic sculptures of soldiers fighting, flanked by a woman and a man on top of a huge column. After I snapped away with my camera we hiked a bloody long way to a children's rope park called Kokolandia; located in woods and surrounded by wilderness, it was not easy to find. The climbing activities kept the kids quiet for a few hours, which gave us adults a chance to chat and sink a few, well earned, cold beers. That evening, following a domestic situation that forced our Bulgarian friends to retreat back to their seaside home in Varna, left us to own devices, so we tried out the nearby Spaghetti Kitchen;a huge place, shiny and new. Inside it's like maze with many seating areas. Predictably, we ordered pasta dishes, and as waited for their arrival I mused on the name of the restaurant, saying that they missed a trick by not naming it Spaghetti Junction. Blank looks all round. Before I could explain it was a nickname of a six-lane carriageway near Birmingham, the smiley waitress appeared with our order. Saved by the Bul(garian)!

Day 12 Sofia to Bucharest

We are standing on the concourse of the Central bus station blinking at the timetables on the big screens; we are dumbfounded as there is no 9.40 bus to Bucharest. I check the tickets again: the date, time and the place is all correct. We ask at the information point but they pretend not to speak English and are not helpful. Marina and Alex wander off to search the lanes to see if they can find our bus stop, while Lisa and I mind the luggage. As we wait i noticed an advertisement for Hotel Cheap. I said to Lisa "Do you think that is a budget accommodation for budgies?". Another blank look, not even a titter. I don't know why I bother. Turns out our bus stop was in the building next door and our Flixbus was parked up waiting for us. The 7 hour coach journey was pleasant enough as it had on board Tablets fixed to the seats in front, which had movies (all in Turkish) and games. Over the next five hours I became quite an expert on Angry Birds ( with help from our oldest daughter Lisa); I have never played it before and I can now see why it is so addictive. Sure enough both kids got travel sick, yakking up their breakfasts into plastic bags which Marina had the foresight to pack. They pleaded with me "Please, Dad no more coach rides".

At tea time the coach finally crawled into Bucharest Autogara Militari bus station. Happy to have reach our destination we walked with some vigour to the nearest metro station. Some 30 minutes later found us at the Gara de Nord train station, and then it was only a 200 metre walk to the three star Elizeu Hotel. This turned out to best place we stayed in the whole trip; it had cable tv, aircon and was in a great location. What's not to like? That evening we dined in a restaurant in the train station where the waiters did there best to ignore us, even tho there was only us and one other person in the whole place. We were all proper starving by now and the food took forever to come and when it finally did arrive, well just say it wasn't great! Welcome to Romania!

Day 13. Overnight Train to Chisinau (Moldova).

The final leg of our epic journey begins at 7.35pm when we stepped on the old Soviet rattler, a train so ancient that it belongs in museum. I must have made this trip at least a dozen times over the years and I can safely say that it's not pleasurably in the slightest; more of an endurance. We get into the 4 bed compartment and it's like a bloody sauna, the windows are sealed tight, the only cool air comes from a small window in the corridor. We make up our beds as the train slowing chugs out of the station. Later we take a trip the restaurant car. There are no seats, only 3 high tables and it serves only crisps and warm beer, but we are thankful for small mercies. I drink as many beers as possible before it closes at 11pm. (I have learned from past experiences the best way to cope with this unique experience is to get pissed). We got chatting to old English guy who on a whim decided to go to Moldova; he didn't know anyone there nor had booked any accommodation, and a young French guy who was taking the train back the following day. Rather him than me. We informed them about what to expect tonight: arrival at the border will be at 2ish. You will be woken up and your passport will be checked by the Romanians. Thirty minutes later the Moldovans get on and then the fun really begins. Your passport gets taken away for closer inspection and then the custom guys enter the compartment demanding bags to be opened, they check under the bottom bunks. Contraband cigarettes are what they looking for. With the inspection over, you naturally wish to go back to sleep, but there is no chance of that because they need to change the wheels on the train.The carriages shakes and banging of steel on steel is so bloody loud that only the heaviest sleepers can get some shut eye, and all this takes two hours. The reason why the wheels are changed is because the railroad tracks are slightly thicker in Moldova. It was all that bastard, Stalin's fault. He's great idea was that certain countries should have different thickness on their tracks; apparently his logic was that this would stall any invasion of Russia. These days it's just a major pain in the ass!

Day 14. Chisinau

We made it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. At 9am, we climb down from the train and walk the short distance to Marina's flat, where her mum is waiting to greet us. After scoffing down eggs and ham I go into the bedroom and sling my money belt and passports to one side and climb into bed, safe in the knowledge that I don't have to worry about being robbed. Before sleep drags me under I think back on the epic fortnight journey of planes, trains and automobiles: the kids didn't like travelling, they cared only for WiFi and Waterparks. Along the way there was arguments, tears and tantrums. The thing about being in such close proximity is that we could not fall out with each for very long. I hope that when the kids grow up they will look back on this adventure and think, 'it was the best holiday we ever had'. As for me personally, I enjoyed every minute of it. I am already planning the next expedition for next year. Ssh, don't tell Marina and the kids.


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