Where East meets West and a whole lot of miles in the middle

January 2nd 2011
Published: January 2nd 2011
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The next leg of our journey has seen us making our way to all sorts of out of the way places, towns and cities that were not on our list of places to see, but we survived and, have come out the other end.

After a really nice 5 night stay in Zdiar Slovakia we said our goodbyes and, on another very cold & snowy day, it was back on the train, this time heading for Budapest. Ian at the Ginger Monkey Hostel in Zdair had written very precise instructions, on how we could manage the train connections and where to find our next bed, and at 9.30pm on a very cold Sunday night, it was nice to know where we were going and, I must say we were very grateful to him. I think at times this has been the hardest part of the whole trip, finding our next bed in a new town or city, usually in the dark, when we have absolutely no idea where we are going.

Anyway after a great nights sleep, we headed out for a wander around the Pest side of the city visiting the Christmas markets, Parliament and the most amazing church of St Stephens. We spent quite a bit of time in there, trying to take in the beauty of the place. Amazing. That evening, being in another country it was time to try some more local food. Wow, beef goulash and pork knuckle, highly recommended and just what the doctor ordered on a very cold winters night.

After a dinner like that, the next day we thought we needed to walk it off, so with quite a few other travellers did another free city tour. These tours have been great right throughout Europe and really help you understand a lot about the different cities and their history. On this tour we headed for the other side of town, Buda. It's very different to the Pest side, being the side where most of the old palaces, churches etc are. It's also the side where most of the people live and has lots of nice parks, art galleries and the walk alongside the Danube is lovely.

From Budapest we headed next to Belgrade in Serbia, (Serbia was not on the list of places to see but, broke the long journey for us on the way to Dubrovnik ), and the contrast between places that we had already been to and there was amazing.

It started on the train really, the Hungarian train guard was a real nice guy, even through he couldn't speak too much English, we had a few laughs with him. At one long stop we hopped off, and he even asked Dean if he would like to ride up front with the driver! (never happened, the train started again, before he made it) but anyway things changed quite quickly when we got to the border of Serbia. As we waved goodbye to our new Hungrian mate, two Serbian guards got on and, immediately you felt that you should stand at attention when they walked past. They started shouting, and and waving their arms about and we could only think that they needed to see our tickets, no smiles there. And just to add to the whole experience we were slapped with a 5 Euro fine ( from the same unsmiling guards) for smoking bewteen the carriages, alright for Serbians, not alright for tourists! Welcome to Serbia.

Belgrade its self is not really much of a tourist town, filled with lots of run down apartment blocks with lots of graffiti, but does have a wonderful old fort which overlooks the of the two rivers which run through the city. There is great view of the city from there, and Dean enjoyed seeing all the old Soviet tanks and armery that they have on display there. We also visited the bombed remains of the Army Barracks which NATO had a go at some years back, supposedly in response to the human rights issues in Kosovo. The Chinese Embassy was also bombed at the same time, why, makes you wonder, strange really! Anyway I won't get on my soap box.

From Belgrade we took the easy option ( always a good thing) and headed by mini bus to Sarajevo. We were picked up from our hostel and dropped at the door the other end, fantastic. The trip there was really beautiful through some amazing snowy hills and mountains. The countryside had been very flat since we had left Slovakia and it was great to see some mountains again. The hills start right on the Serbia/ Bosnia border, and the road follows a river most of the way. As we got further up the mountains the weather got colder and colder, the countryside was in fact frozen - something about frozen trees that I find really beautiful, anyway then it began to snow and in no time we were right in the middle of a blizzard. Great. The journey took forever but fortunately or unfortunately, we got struck behind a snowplough, which did slow us down, but at least we got through. Vehicles travelling in the opposite direction were not going anywhere.

Sarajevo was a really nice surprise for us. The city is in a valley surrounded by hills/mountains and you enter it through mountain tunnels. The city has a really nice village atmosphere, and is filled with mosques, churches and cathedrals. There are still lots of evident of the war there with infrastructure damage everywhere, but the old town is lovely with its cobbled lanes and ancient shops, and they make a very mean kebab, and great Turkish coffee there also. After Sarajevo we headed through some more stunning countryside to a small town called Mostar, another great recommendation from someone that we had met along the way.

Mostar is known for its elegant old bridge originally built in the 1500s, It unfortunately was also destroyed in the war, but had now been rebuild, back to its former beauty. On either side of the bridge run small cobble stoned alleys filled with souvenir shops selling local handicrafts and artwork. It really is very beautiful. Whilst wandering the old town we stopped to chat to a couple who run a shop there, and he suggested that we take a short bus trip out to a village called Blagaj, well what can I say, apart from don't ever be tempted to take the trip there. There is nothing there, bare hills and a few houses. It was there while we waited one hour in the freezing cold for a bus to take us back to Mostar (playing who can guess the colour of the next car to come along) that I suddenly realised that at that very moment in time, that not one single person on this earth knew where we were. Quite scary really. Just a thought.

From Mostar next came the beautiful city of Dubrovnik. We had seen lots about Dubrovnik and it surely lives up to its name of 'The Pearl of the Adriatic'. Croatia is so very different to its neighbour Bosnia. On the trip from Bosnia we had seen not only lots of bombed and abandoned houses, but lots of people living in what looked to us as unfinished houses, houses made from blocks, with boarded windows and very little to keep them warm. A very hard life for lots of people. In Croatia things seem very different. Although they too are suffering from the economic downturn, people there seem to be much better off than some of their neighbours, and certainly enjoy a much kinder climate.

Dubrovnik is on a beautiful coastline of crystal clear blue water, has lots of palm, orange and olive trees and really was a breath of fresh air for us. The old city is a lot bigger than I had imagined and its marble streets lined with sandstone coloured buildings with terracotta roofs is magnificent. We walked around the city walls which are supposed to be the best in the world and the views are great. I don't know how high the wall is, but the water was so clear that you could actually see the fish in the ocean below, amazing. After Dubrovnik and declaring that one day we will be back, we headed for the coastal city of Split, another beautiful city on the Adriatic. The road from Dubrovnik follows the coast all the way and has to be one of the worlds most beautiful. There the snow capped mountains come right to the sea. We spent a couple of restful days in Split, admiring the luxury yachts and enjoying a drink or two at one of the many cafes that line the coast. From Split we decided on a quick flight to Zegrab, this was going to save us about another eight hours on a bus and at $12.00 more than the bus fare made a lot of sense.

In Split Airport they have some very diligent security officers, and after putting our day pack through the x ray, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were only going to be told once and to move away from the bag. Touch it once more and that's it! It seems that two lonely planets, an ipod with batteries and an electrical lead for the dock adds up to an explosive! OMG I thought we were going to be arrested!

We were only in Zagreb overnight and the next morning, bright and early headed for Lake Bled in Slovenia, not without incident though, back on the train again and again along came the Police to see our passports, and again no smiles. Just lots of questions as Deans passport has sticky tape on one of the pages ( where a baggage label had been stuck), fortunately for us, he did have some other form of ID in the way of an expired International Drivers Licence which convinced them that Dean was in fact who he said he was. Another sigh of relief.

We had read in the Lonely Planet that Lake Bled must have been designed by a postcard maker, with its glacial lake complete with swans, picture postcard church on a islet, castle on a rocky cliff and surrounded by mountains, and its all true. It really is very very beautiful, and just to add to all that, they also make the most fabulous cream cakes. Seven layers of butter pastry, topped with egg custard and fresh cream, another seven layers of pastry and dusted with just the right amount of icing sugar, cut into 7cms squares yum, couldn't stop at just one!

Whilst there we also took a trip out to a small town called Bohinj were we went to the Vogal Ski resort. They have a cable car there which takes you to the top, where apparently there is the most amazing view of the Julian Alps, unfortunately the day we were there it was a complete white out, but next time. We had four nights in Bled and it was nice to recharge our batteries in such a nice place, and another one on the list to return to one day.

Next came Vienna, just in time for Christmas. The train journey was really lovely through snow covered hills and mountains which surrounded valleys where the villages are set. With the houses all painted different colours, and the very steep church steeples it was just how I imagined Austria to look.

We arrived at the Hostel thinking that they may have organised a Christmas lunch for their guests for the next day, wrong, and being Christmas eve all the shops were now shut, so we did the mad dash back to the convenience store at the train station hoping to find something that could at least pass as some sort of Christmas dinner for us both. Well as luck would have it, the only meat left was some veal, just right for schnitzel (how appropriate) some frozen veg, a packet of mushroom soap and a small Christmas cake, perfect. Christmas dinner sorted, and it has not taken me a week to think about it and it wasn't going to take me six hours to cook, great.

The next morning, being Christmas was just perfect, just as we left the hostel for the city it began to snow. The white Christmas we had hoped for. We first made our way to the Imperial chapel and were lucky to hear The Viennese Boys Choir singing, a real treat, they were amazing. We then treated ourselves to a horse & carriage ride around the beautiful city. Very touristy thing to do I know, but it was Christmas, and it was snowing! Being so cold we weren't out too long, but headed back again the next day for a bit more of a nosey around the beautiful city. This time making sure that we had five layers of clothing on.

Vienna is a beautiful city, and we really thought that it would be a very special place to spend the Xmas period, but we were really disappointed in its lack of Christmas feel, all the Christmas markets had finished, there was very little in the way of Christmas decorations, and no one apart from the tourists seemed to be terribly interested. But we enjoyed our time there, an are certainly pleased that we went there.

Next stop the wonderful city of Prague, where it was all happening. The Christmas markets were still going, and were filled with people from all over the world, a really great atmosphere. The whole city was packed, and we can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. We did another walking tour there, and managed to take in all the good bits, we think. We also did the pilgrimage up to the castle and the view over of the snow covered city was amazing. We stayed in a great hostel there where they had live music every night, and did a fantastic breakfast, always a good thing.

From Prague, back on the bus for the down hill run into Berlin for the New Year. The snow covered roads should have warned us of what was to come weather wise. The rivers and lakes were all frozen, again some of those lovely frozen trees, and we weren't disappointed, boy when we got off the bus the snow was knee deep and lots of fog! The instructions to the hostel clearly told us to get off the train and head west towards the TV tower, hmmm, only good on a sunny day! but hey we did find it eventually.

With another city to explore, we were up bright and early off to see the sites. First the Brandenburg Gate, and the hotel where a certain King of Pop hung his baby over the balcony, than the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the Memorial to the Murdered Jew of Europe. Then the place where Hitler & Eva Braun ended their lives, now a car park. We found it interesting that there are no signs marking this place, but the modern day Germans don't wish to have this place turned into a shrine, and rightly so. So with the sightseeing over it was time to celebrate the New Year.

And New Year here go off, we decided not to follow the 1 million odd crowd to the Brandenburg Gate but instead stayed local in East Berlin and just walked to the corner of the main street and it was like WWII all over again. The locals, armed with bags and bags of fireworks have what seems like some sort of competition against each other. They were lined along each side the street, and down the median strip and it was anything goes. Some of the loudest bangers you have ever heard. They put the real big ones on the road and the unsuspecting drivers just go right over them, OMG. It lasts for about 2 hours, and is unbelievable. The lawmakers in Perth would have a fit.

Anyway it is now time to head for our last stop in Europe, Amsterdam for 4 days, then a quick stop back in the UK before our flight to Bali for 2 weeks to defrost, before our flight home on 26th January. The journey continues............ Happy New Year everyone.

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