Archive for ‘3. Eastern Europe’ « Older Entries  

Finland : HELL-sinki

Saturday, 24th May 2008

The ferry arrived at 10:30 this morning and we chose a hostel very close to the port. To our dissapointment this hostel, together with every single other hostel in town, were fully booked for the night (hence the title of our post..)

We tried a hotel-booking agency at the train station, but not even they could find anything within our budget. In the end we just bought train tickets to St Petersburg and are leaving Helsinki at 15:23.

We are very dissapointed because we have heard many good things about Helsinki and it seems great. However it was never a major destination for us – just a quick 1-night-stop before heading into Russia.

Estonia : Time in Tallinn

Saturday, 24th May 2008

Our Lux-Bus arrived at just after 16:30 in Tallinn and we had to meet our next couchsurfing friend at a hotel in the centre at 17:30. We found the hotel quite easily and waited for Kristiina to pick us up. It was great because she drives a Toyota Rav and we felt like royalty driving in a car again.

She took us home to quickly drop our bags and then we got straight back into the car and went for a drive outside town. We visited a little waterfall and some of the nearby beaches – it was a wonderful change to be outside of the city again. We then stopped for dinner at a tiny little restaurant in the countryside and had a lovely dinner.

The next morning Kristiina had to go to work, but we slept in a bit and then had time to do some washing. We then headed into town and finally picked up Jan´s credit card that was posted to someone we knew at one of the hotels in town. Thanks again Neil for arranging all of this!

Tallinn is a really beautiful city, especially the Old Town. It is one of the most impressive and well preserved medieval city walls we´ve come across. There are loads of churches and quaint little cobbled streets.

After work, we met up with Kristiina and went for a quick bite with some of her friends – Uku and Rein. Afterwards they took us to what looked like just an apartment entrance in the middle of the Old Town. But when we got upstairs, it turned out to be a cool exclusive members club. One drink turned into many and we only got home after 2:00! Needless to say we were dead this morning when the alarm went off at 05:50..

The Helsinki ferry left Tallinn at 08:00 and we got a special deal that included breakfast. We expected only a cup of coffee and a breadroll, but to our surprise it was an enormous buffet and the food was out of this world! Definately one of the best breakfast buffets we have ever had. The best part was, that instead of paying 265 Estonian Kroon, we ended up only paying 200 each on this deal!

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Latvia : Racing through Riga

Wednesday, 21st May 2008

The bus left Vilnius at 9:00 this morning and we arrived in Riga at 14:00. Our next couchsurfing host, Camilla, was working until 17:30 so we had to hang around a bit in town. We managed to leave our bags at the bus station luggage lockers and went walking around town.

After Vilnius, Riga´s Old Town was a slight dissappointment. It is very nice to walk around, but not as cozy and there is less of an atmosphere – even on the main square. Perhaps we have just seen too many Old Towns over the last 2 months.. We only spent about 2 hours walking around and had a weak, cold coffee at a cafe on one of the squares watching girls in leopard-print stelleto´s go by.

At 17:30 we made our way to Camilla´s apartment and almost fainted when we saw the size of it! She didn´t warn us that the flat is on the 5th floor with no lift though, so we nearly both had heart failure carrying all our stuff up the stairs. But is was totally worth it when we got inside. She lives in double storey penthouse apartment 50m from the main square in the Old Town! We had the whole top floor to ourselves with an ensuite bathroom and amazing views of the city from our balcony. You can imagine that we were gutted that we were only staying 1 night – we didn´t even have time to test the little private sauna in the guest bathroom downstairs (we´ll come back for that Camilla!).

Camilla is actually from Denmark, living and working in Riga for 6 months. She is a lot of fun and very outgoing. She suggested “The Garlic Pub” for dinner (everything on the menu has garlic – even the desserts) and it was really good – great food, great service and great prices – except for our garlic-hangovers the next morning. When we got back after dinner, we still chatted for hours and had a ball staying with Camilla.

The next morning our bus was only booked for 12:30, so we had a very lazy morning. At the bus station we only paid 1.20 Lats extra for the Lux Express bus at it was great – limitless free hot drinks, free wifi access and huge seats with lots of leg room. The 4.5 hours on the bus felt like nothing.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Lithuania : Vilnius visit

Tuesday, 20th May 2008

The overnight bus from Warsaw arrived in Vilnius at about 9:00. We secured our first couchsurfing host for tonight, Marija, so we went straight to her flat from the bus station. We didn´t know what to expect, but we were welcomed with open arms!

Marija is living is a brand new flat very close to everything. She prepared a very nice breakfast for us when we arrived and we had time for a quick shower before we headed into town again.

We spent the day wondering the streets of Vilnius´s Old Town. We started the sightseeing at the former KGB Headquarters (now a museum) and found it very interesting – especially the interrogation rooms. From there we visited many churches and ended the day with a nice coffee. At that stage we were so tired (poor Jan did not sleep at all on the bus), so we went back to Marija´s apartment and we prepared dinner for the 3 of us. She got home just before 21:00 and we had a very nice evening together – and even watched Eurovision!

Marija is a very friendly and welcoming Lithuanian girl and we related to her. She made us feel very at home and we were sad to leave after just 1 night. So, our first couchsurfing experience was absolutely amazing – let´s hope the rest are the same! :)

Again Vilnius has surprised us. We had a perfect day weather-wise and the city has beautiful architecture and a lovely Old Town layout. It is a capital with a great buzz and very friendly atmosphere.

The bus to Riga (Latvia) leaves tommorrow morning at 9:00, so it is another early start for us.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Poland : 2 days in Warsaw

Monday, 19th May 2008

According to our train schedule book, we were supposed to catch the 16:12 train from Krakow to Warsaw, but at the station we were told that we could take the 15:55 fast train instead with only our train passes. When we got on the train, we soon realised that everyone had seat reservations accept us.. We chose 2 seats in a 6-seater compartment with 2 other people, but soon after that 2 others came in and chased us off their reserved places. Luckily we 2 seats we ended up with were free for the rest of the way. It was a very fast train indeed and we arrived in Warsaw within 3 hours instead of 5.

In Warsaw we went straight to Nathan’s Villa Hostel that was recommended to us by the hostel in Krakow. It is only 10 minutes walk from the station and in a great location. But all the cheaper rooms were already full by the time we arrived, so we had to stay in a more expensive room for the first night.

The next morning, after seeing what the hostel breakfast had to offer we went on a coffee shop mission and found a very nice one 10 minutes away – Green Coffee. We ordered their lunch special and had 2 delicious ciabattas and huge lattes. It was so nice to just sit in a coffee shop again and have a decent breakfast (even though it was off the lunch menu) for a change. Feeling satisfied we went into the town and saw the Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier. After this we walked the Royal Way (a 4km walking route) through the Old Town and visited the Royal Castle (free on Sundays). Warsaw’s Old Town is really nice, especially the main square – full of cafes, restaurants and horse carriadges and surrounded by colourful buildings. We found a cozy cafe on the square and had a local Polish beer while watching the people go by. Our last stop was at the Church of Crosses where Chopin’s heart is preserved in one of the pillars in the church, after being shipped over from Paris.

On the way back to the hostel we had enormous icecreams (about 10cm high!!) – it must be a Polish thing, because everybody walks around with them. We decided to treat ourselves with a nice dinner, instead of cooking pasta again in the hostel kitchen.

The second night we moved to our cheaper 12-bedded room at the hostel – BIG mistake! One guy snored so loudly that everyone in the room was kept awake for hours. It was seriously the most insane snore-case we have ever encountered! Up until last night, we didn’t think such noises could be produced by the human body.. At about 3am we just couldn’t take it anymore and asked to be moved to a different room. Suprisingly they agreed straight away and gave us 2 beds in a smaller, much quieter room at no extra cost. The joys of hostel life..

About 1 week ago we were told about the concept of “couchsurfing” for the first time. It is a global network of people that offer their homes to travellers at no cost and in return they can do the same when travelling (ww.couchsurfing.com). We checked it out and after last night’s experience decided to register immediately :)

We managed to secure accommodation in our next 3 destinations already! We are going to give it a try and see how it goes, but have very good expectations about the whole scheme.

The weather is terrible at the moment, so we’ll just chill until we leave Warsaw this evening. We have to take the bus to Vilnius (Lithuania) as the train no longer runs this route. It is an overnight bus, leaving at 23:00 and arriving in Vilnius at 09:00.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Poland : Cracking Krakow

Saturday, 17th May 2008

Photos of Krakow here.

The hostel was fully booked last night, so there was no chance of sleeping in peace this morning.. We made sure we got to the bathrooms early but unfortunately hit the breakfast rush.

We stored our bags at the hostel and have just gone for another walk through the Old Town and Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter). Krakow is a very interesting city with a great buzz to it. It has the biggest Main Square in Europe (200m x 200m) and is full of little cafes, street performers and souvenir stalls. Large parts are semi-pedestrianised which makes for a really nice walk through town.

Just as we got to the center of Wawel Castle a military parade came past and gave us a few good photo opportunities. A bit later, walking through the Jewish Quarter, we stumbled upon a Polish market fair with traditional folk dancers, costume performers and real Polish food stalls. We had a very nice Kielbasa (Polish sausage) with a huge gherkin and bread roll for lunch.

We are back at the hostel now to pick up our bags and will be leaving for the station soon to catch the 16:12 Warsaw train.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Poland : Auschwitz

Friday, 16th May 2008

Auschwitz photos here.

It was a surreal experience being in the concentration camp where so much suffering occurred.

Auschwitz is a 90 minute train ride from Krakow and as we got close it was easy to imagine what it must’ve felt arriving by rail as a prisoner. The camp is a short walk from Oswiecim train station and the sign “Arbeit macht frei” can be seen from a distance.

As we arrived we went straight in to the theatre to watch a short documentary on the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Army. It was very interesting but cannot quite prepare you for what is waiting.. No matter how much you’ve heard about what happened there, it is not until you actually walk through the rooms and corridors and see the countless photos on the walls that you start to appreciate the magnitude.

It is possible to take an English guided tour through both Auschwitz and Berkenau (Auschwitz II) camps, but we decided to just buy the guide book and concentrate on Auschwitz I only. Each block is an exhibit of a different part of life in the camp – sleeping barracks, washrooms, prison cells, working conditions, etc. The last building on the route was the grim gas chambers and crematorium – it is difficult to explain the feeling standing there and the impact of the whole experience.

This was one eye-opening daytrip and a must-see if you are in the area.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Poland, Slovakia : Popping into Poland

Thursday, 15th May 2008

We had to bus our way back to Poprad again to catch the train to Krakow (Poland). We had originally planned a route from Poprad to the Polish border but the lady at the train station suggested an alternative route with a fast train and 1 change. When we got to Kysak to change trains, the lady at the ticket office there told us that they are working on the tracks and no trains run to Krakow from there. She didn’t speak any English, so with pieces of paper and hand gestures she managed to get the message across.

The next moment a train arrived at the station and from the Slovak announcement we made out something that sounded like Krakow, so we ran and jumped on the train. Another very friendly local helped us and double checked with the ticket inspector to confirm our destination. The journey was almost 6 hours and we arrived in Krakow at 17:45. It might sound weird, but at this stage 5 to 6 hours on a train with a few changes feels like a breeze. We have deffinately mastered the art of relaxing and letting the time fly by.

At Krakow we headed straight for the Old Town and found a very nice place to stay, Hocus Pocus Hostel, right in the middle of all the action. They offer free laundry (our 2nd load is already spinning), free internet (as you can see), free breakfast and great, clean dorm rooms.

We already had a half hour stroll through the Old Town and are about to go and sample some of the local cuisine.

Slovakia : Serene Slovakia

Wednesday, 14th May 2008

Photos of Slovensky Raj here

On Tuesday morning we caught the 10:00 train from Bratislava to Poprad in the north of Slovakia. From Poprad local busses run to the countryside villages and it took about 30 minutes to Levoca, where we decided to stay.

The accommdation we chose ended up being just perfect. Oaza (meaning oasis) is not a hostel at all but a family home with a little guesthouse (2 double rooms with shared bathroom and kitchen) at the back of the main house. This was one of the best accommodation experiences we’ve had so far and we highly recommend knocking on the Dubecky family’s door whenever in town. The Oaza website.

The owner, Mrs Dubecky, is a very friendly and helpful lady who gave us great pointers of things to do and see in the area and even printed out bus timetables for us. We were planning to do a 1-day hike and she suggested the ideal hiking route through the Slovensky Raj National Park – complete with maps and brochures. The pictures looked amazing and we were real excited about our first proper outdoor experience on this trip.

The next morning we had to catch a bus to Spissky Svrtok (don’t even try to pronounce this one!) and then another on to Hrabusica, but there was no second bus.. We asked the locals but there were no busses to the Park entrance and they told us we would have to do the remaining 6km by foot. Not too happy about this, we started walking and hiking at passing cars – at least the scenery was beautiful with the road winding through fields of yellow flowers. About 10 minutes into our hike, a local couple stopped and offered to take us to Hrabusica where we just had to walk the last 2km to the entrance.

At the park we started the trail at about 12:40 and the first section took us up a river gorge – absolutely stunning! The trail starts next to a stream but as you accend it quickly gets more serious and large parts of the route are ladder- and chain-assisted. It is pretty cool but also very scary at times because at certain areas it is very high with a shere drop-off right underneath you. We followed the instructions we got and linked about 5 different routes, eventually leading us back to the valley, lasting a total of about 5.5 hours. We were absolutely knackered but had an amazing time and it was a great change from city sightseeing. It was everything we expected and more – really reminded us of the Tzitzikama hiking trail.

The Slovakian countryside is really beautiful with so much to offer. Part our train journey took us past the snow capped High Tatra mountains – an awesome sight! So far our entire route through the Eastern European countryside has exceeded our expectations – lush, green fields, beautiful mountains, great coastlines, stunning old towns and last but not least very friendly and inviting people everywhere you go!

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Austria, Hungary, Slovakia : Tale of 3 Towns

Monday, 12th May 2008

We started the day with breakfast in Budapest (Hungary), took the train at 09:30 and arrived in Bratislava (Slovakia) at 12:15. We only had a few minutes to find a hostel, check in, drop our bags and get the 13:00 1-hour train to Vienna (Austria). So we covered 3 capitals in 4,5 hours..

Photos of Vienna here
Photos of Bratislava here

Like we said before, Budapest is a wonderful city to explore with loads to offer. Moving on to Slovakia, we never expected too much from Bratislava, which is why we decided to take a quick afternoon trip to Vienna. Of course Vienna is lovely and has some amazing sights, but in the end we only zipped through the main part of town in about 3+ hours to get a good feel for the place.

Catching the 17:30 back to Bratislava (where we’re staying tonight), we thought we’d have enough time to see the 1 or 2 sights here. We were wrong, Bratislava exceeded our expectations and is also a really lovely city with plenty of pedestrianised streets, lovely coffee shops and a wonderful atmosphere. These capitals are so close together and all have great things to offer that we highly recommended it for a long-weekend trip.

Easter weekend seems to follow us around – from Greece all the way to Slovakia we’ve hit public holidays. So far we’ve been lucky that it hasn’t affected train schedules too badly.

We’ve now seen and crossed the Danube river for the 5th time, but we have yet to take a cruise on it (too expensive so far). Eastern Europe have been a real eye-opener for us and countryside and people are lovely.

As a result of the extra countries we included in South-Eastern Europe we were 7 days behind schedule, but we managed to make up 1 day by cutting our stay in Budapest short with a day. We are fairly flexible, but have a maximum of +-15 days to play with because of our Vietnam visas.

Tonight will be spent in Hostel Possonium which has a great location for us – literally 800m from the train station – which is exactly what we needed today. We had never heard of them, but saw them advertised in the train station and walked straight here. Our room is a 10-bed dorm and unfortunately some of the other occupants are currently downstairs in the bar getting warmed up..

Tomorrow we are booked on the 10:00 train to Poprad from where we’re hoping to get the bus to Levoca to see a bit of the Slovakian countryside.

Vienna slideshow

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Photos of Bratislava here