28 April 2010

Golden Ring (part two)

We had take a one hour bus journey back to Yaroslavl to catch our connecting bus to Vladimir, which would take about 5-6 hours.  There was very little hangover from the shots of Vodka the previous night, apart from a bit of druth.  The bus journey was uneventful.  Audrey spent the majority of it with her backpack on her knees, as she is pretty scared of Russians reputation for road safety.  It was a pretty dodgy bus, in fairness to her, and not a seatbelt in sight, even for the driver.

The bus station had an interesting feature.  On the big “scoreboard”, it gave the usual bus details; departure, destination, service number and platform.  But it had another number that took Audrey a few minutes to work out.  Number of seats left.  As we were trying to get our bus back to Rostov the previous day, while queuing we could see the number counting down for the bus that we wanted.  15.  12.  10.  9.  7.  Finally we managed to get our 2 tickets.  5.  It was pretty much up to date.  Happy to have got the ticket, we headed to the bus, as there was only 10 minutes to departure.  We got on the bus and grabbed a seat, but where soon moved on when another patron flashed a ticket with a seat number that matched where we were sitting.  We checked our tickets.  Both had seat 0.  This meant standing.  It seems the counter on the “scoreboard” wasn’t for seats, only space left.  By the time the bus left, there was about 15 people standing in the aisle.  It wasn’t as bad as the trip back from Auschwitz, where they managed to get about 40 people in the aisle and steps.

On the bus to Vladimir, it wasn’t full, and we had a seat.  The driver seemed to enjoy a bit of tailgating when it suited him.  We spent about 5 minutes behind a car, where he was so close to the back of the car in front, we could only see the top of the rear view mirror.  Any mistake by either of the drivers could have been a disaster.  Luckily the buses didn’t seem to have an impressive top speed.  We arrived in Vladimir safely.

Along the journey I was listening to Autobahn by Kraftwerk; the roads were anything but, closely followed by Back in the USSR by the Beatles.  (I’m listening in alphabetical order now since random sucks, as usual, in music players, even the mighty iPod can’t master it.)

On our way to Vladimir, we spotted the first signs of farming since leaving Riga.  I often wondered where all the food production took place.  There seemed to be next to nothing in these areas, and they must all be dependent on the southern areas of west Russia.  And livestock was non-existent.

Vladimir was a nice town.  In comparison to the other towns of the Golden Ring it looked like it was being looked after, or been well restored. A couple of interesting churches and a monastery was about all it had to offer though.

The next day we headed to Suzdal, about 40 minutes away.  It was a proper little Russia town, but one thing it had was an abundance of churches.  I was pretty much churched out by now, but I thought I’d be able to do this one more place.  At one stage in its history it had one church for every 12 people.  It was something to do with an old Russian tradition of having a small wooden church on each street, which somehow continued here, as they had not been polluted by new thinking that came with being along the railways of having a large church for the whole population.  And slowly over time the wooden churches got replaced by the current stone ones.

More interesting were the houses, many of them made out of wood, and some of them barely a ramshackle.  They reminded me of houses from a Tim Burton movie, standing at improbable angles but also with intricate wood-sculpted features  As we wandered the dirt path/road to our youth hostel, we encountered proper free range chickens strolling around (first farmyard animals we had seen).  Godzilla’s (the owners told us they simply liked the name of the monster) was brand spanking new, but didn’t look out of place, being made out of a lot of wood.  It was a quiet place, with few guests, and an alcohol ban, which I observed.

A river meandered through the town, which felt homely, but nothing out of the ordinary.  Churches were to be seen at every turn, but it was more of the same as we’d already seen, onion domes etc.  The fatigue had set in on me again, so much so that by one of the last large ones, I let Audrey head in alone, while I waited for her at the ticket office.  She raved about it, seems like it was the only interesting one in town.

I did like the place, but more for its rural tranquillity, and a quaint local restaurant that we ate at a couple of times (choices were limited).  The next day we had to get to Perm, a city of a million in the foothills of the Urals.  This would be the end of the Golden Ring for us.  We had wanted to visit Nizhniy Novgorod, but the logistics were proving to be a nightmare, so we skipped it.

We left Suzdal at 12 noon.

27 April 2010

Golden Ring (part one)

We arrived in Sergiev Posad on Wednesday evening, at about 9:20.  This would be our first excursion into real Russia, the one that existed beyond the metropolises of Saint Petersburg and Moscow.  The first thing we noticed was how to get off the platform and towards the station building to get out onto the road.  You walked to the end of the platform, and then over the tracks of the next two lines.  We’d seen this plenty in rural and remote areas in Germany and Austria, but this was a station with about 10 lines going through it, and before we got to the platform's end, an incoming train was already blaring it’s horn at the passengers crossing.  We were only 70km out of Moscow.  I can only imagine it getting more interesting the further on we go.

The town itself was dismal; badly lit, roads full of potholes and decrepit buildings.  The walk to the hotel (and I use hotel very loosely) wasn’t great.  There was loads of dogs barking in the night air, and anyone who knows me well knows how I feel about dogs in general.  The “Hotel Aristocrat” reminded us somewhat of Bates Motel, standing alone on a hill (we only took this picture during the day, so our feeling is more than a little lost).  Cold showers and bad lighting were the order of the day.

The reason we were here was to visit the Monastery.  It stood out in the night sky brightly, and was obviously the only thing the whole town had going for it.  The next day, we got there early.  It was meant to be free, and after asking the lady at the office by the gate if it was ok to take photos (quite often you have to pay to do so in Russia), she presented us with a bill for 500 rouble.  We said we thought it was free (according to the guide book), and there was no sign indicating prices, but she was insistent.  We wouldn’t have minded, but only a few of the other visitors seemed to be paying.

We were denied entry to one of the churches we tried to enter as it was closed to the general public, but noticed other tour groups going in.  A group of Japanese tourists, with a Russian guide then approached, so we went up to the door with them.  Unsurprisingly, I was refused, but Audrey squeezed in with them to get a look at the place as a Japanese tourist.  Seems like they all look alike to Russians as well  ;-)

The town is meant to be a jewel in the crown of the Golden Ring, if that’s the case, I felt like the crown must have been made of pyrite.  Although my opinion of the place is probably been altered by the hotel and that ‘bureaucrat’ (plus it took us a good hour to get a bank machine the previous evening so that we could pay for the hotel).

We moved on from there to Rostov.  On the train, we noticed an interesting phenomenon.  The train was packed, with a few people standing in the aisles.  At some point in the journey, well between stops, we noticed people streaming down the aisle past us, and into the next carriage.  This carried on for a good five minutes, before the ticket inspector arrived, and our carriage cleared out somewhat also.  As we departed from the next station, we could see a large crowd of people on the platform, no doubt waiting for the next train so that they could continue their journey without paying for a ticket.

Rostov looked awful from the outset, with the potholes even large than the previous place.  I watched a Lada Riva (stereotypically they are ubiquitous) plough into a large puddle, only to watch it lurch ungainfully to one side.  It soldiered on regardless, until it was in up to the headlight on one side, and the bumper on the other.  Miraculously, it made it out, if only to prove the durability of those old Rivas.

We were staying in the Kremlin (link) in Rostov that night.  It was a great place to stay, basic, but our wing was made completely of wood, and was the reason that we were there.  The next day we were to do a day trip to Yaroslavl, which was meant to be the main draw in that area.  Unfortunately it was ruined by the weather, very damp and very cold, and the fact the bus station was miles from the town centre.

We were back to Rostov that evening again to stay in the Kremlin.  Before we got there we stopped into a little Georgian restaurant (where we had breakfast that morning, the place didn’t have many culinary options).  We ordered a few different plates of food that Audrey could make out from the menu.

There was a table of four Russian men nearby, who’d been there a while.  I threw a cursory glance their way every so often, in the hope of spotting what we believed to be the obligatory bottle of Vodka on the table, but couldn’t see it, only spotting a nearly finished beer, and a glass of wine (plus a lot of tomato juice).

After a few minutes the curiosity of one of them got the better of him, and he asked us where we were from (Audrey’s Chinese looks, my ginger beard, and our inability to order properly normally make us stand out).  As usual, Audrey’s Russian language skills proved extremely helpful.  I did my best to communicate where possible, as most of them had a little bit of English, and some German also.

They we actually two Russians, a Chechnyan (could also be considered Russian, but I’ve heard it can be a bad idea to get into politics in Russia) and an Azeri.

It turned out it was of the lads birthday.  Then the bottle of Vodka appeared.  We were obliged to have a shot to celebrate with him.  Audrey struggled to do the necessary deed of polishing it off in one.  They were understanding though.  Many more shots followed, as they invited us to join them at their table.  The was some good banter, despite the language barrier, plus a heated argument about who Andrei Arsharvin scored 4 goals against, Man Utd or Liverpool. Turns out I was right, I’ll let the Chechnyan bloke know when we send them the photos.  Here’s one:

The Chechnyan fellow (top left) then treated us to a virtuoso performance of traditional Chechnyan dance, which we were then forced to join in with.  With one eye on the fact we had 6 hours worth of bus journeys the following day, we made our excuses and left at this point, but not before another shot of Vodka was downed (to inebriate me even further).  A thoroughly interesting encounter.

We left Rostov at 7:20 the next morning.

24 April 2010

Moscow in 4 days

(This is a few days old, as we’ve found it difficult to get an internet connection recently).

Moscow at 5:30 in the morning is not the best time to arrive, especially after a cramped kip in the couchette.  On the train, there hadn’t been much going on, as it was only a seven and a half hour trip.  The only thing of interest was that we briefly got talking to a guy who said (Audrey thinks) that he was a professional boxer.  There wasn’t too much conversation, but he gave us a miniature boxing glove (which Audrey later scrutinised carefully, it case it was something dodgy).

The night train was the only real option for us.  There are trains during the day that take about half the time.  We enquired into the price, as we were considering it, and were quoted 3750-4000 roubles.  The night train was 800.  Obviously that alone made up our minds.

Getting to the youth hostel proved a bit easier this time, as the instructions we had were excellent, although we did have to wake the receptionist before 6:30 so that she could let us in.  Trying to get a metro ticket was harder, as it seems like loads of trains arrive early, and the metro is just opening, so queues were huge.

Russian ideas of queuing in general are very different to western Europe.  First thing is to keep close to the next person in the queue, almost intimately close, otherwise you run the risk of someone getting in front of you.  Second, people may join a queue, leave it, and then come back to it at the same place (probably after a ciggie break).  Thirdly, queue jumping happens quite a bit, and officials have little or no problem with it.  Still, I found China worse.

The Metro proved to be as impressive as the one in Petersburg, full of cavernous hallway, intricate decorations, statues and chandeliers.

In Moscow we covered most of the usual tourist destination, Red Square, The Kremlin, St. Basil’s etc.  But it did feel more like what is expected of Russia than St. Petersburg.  As Nicholas I said to the Marquis de Custine about Petersburg:

    “It’s in Russia, but it’s not Russian.”

On the first evening (Sunday), we went to visit a friends of Audrey’s, called Christian Lepolard.  He invited us to his place for dinner with his family (he has two small kids).  It was interesting getting into another old communist era block of flats.  The first thing we noticed was how warm it was.  According to Christian, the heating is very simple, it’s either on or off, and currently it is on, and it normally so from sometime in Autumn to sometime in Spring.  This leaves them with the preposterous situation that they often have to open the windows to cool the flat down, even in the coldest of winter days.  Not exactly environmentally friendly, but I didn’t expect it in Russia.

The next evening, he showed us the place where the first McDonald’s in Russia was opened, which was actually very close to where we were staying.  I found it particularly interesting, as I remember the news stories about it when I was a kid and seeing the queues.  And Northern Ireland still hadn’t got any at that point yet (they wouldn’t open due to terrorist concerns I believe).

I managed to get around to using my limited Russian to order a couple of beers at the local corner shop on Tuesday.  My first attempt was a bit bungled, as I couldn’t pronounce the beer I wanted, and the shopkeeper ended up having to point at each one.  Once I’d polished those off, I went back to try again.  This time I knew the name of the beer, boyka, pronounced bodgeka, and managed to order the red version, kracni (as supposed to the blue ones I had earlier).

The beer was fine, the blue one was a bit lighter and very easy to drink (only 4%), but also with very little actual taste to it, which left me trying the red one after.  It was stronger, also easy to drink, but with a bit more of a lingering aftertaste.  Beer in Russia seems to be drunk quite a bit, but the beer culture seems to be very young, and it’s relatively difficult to find somewhere to have a quiet drink.  Imported beer seems to be everywhere, sometimes at extortionate prices.  That said, the local beer isn’t as cheap as other parts of eastern Europe, weighing in at about £1 a bottle from the local store.

On our final day, we went to a local market on the outskirts of Moscow.  It was pretty cool, with lots of souvenirs, and we were tempted to actually purchase something, but decided against it, reckoning that we can get them cheaper further east.

We left Moscow that evening at 7:45

19 April 2010

The first step in Russia

Been in Moscow for a couple of days now, but I still haven’t got around to covering St. Petersburg.  We got the train out of Riga at 7:30 on Wednesday evening, which was due to arrive in St. Petersburg after 9 the next morning.  This isn't our picture, but it gives an idea of what the trains are like

We went straight to where the hostel should be, according to their (ATMO HOSTEL) instructions, and spent about 10 minutes walking back and forward around the corner, and couldn’t spot it.  Eventually we spotted a small mostly peeled off sticker that we could make out an “MO HO” on.  It was a dismal hallway onto a stairwell that smelt of piss.  Atmo was based on the third floor.  It was a basic but interesting hostel, with very friendly staff.

Turns out their sticker that indicates where the hostel is keeps getting peeled off by the council workers.  They want to get up a proper plastic sign (they are a very new hostel), but it currently requires a lot of money as they need to be able afford the bribe to get the necessary application through for that.  All part of setting up a business in Russia.

Petersburg is a beautiful city, stunning 17th and 18th century architecture nearly everywhere, with few hints of beatings that had been taken through WW I, WW II and the communist period.

The first couple of things that we noticed was how filthy it was in Russia, something we’d also notice in Moscow, and how crazy the drivers were.  Cars were caked with layers of dust, and it was nothing to do with the big ash cloud:

Cars bombed along the streets are frightening speeds, and manoeuvred their way through group of pedestrians with little thought for consequences.  Red lights, while not as ignored as in China, were not guaranteed to make a driver stop.

Ladas were everywhere, which, as anyone with any knowledge of the history of Swatragh knows, made me feel nostalgic.  Swatragh used to have Lada dealership, giving it the local nickname of Ladaland, much to the amusement of our neighbours.  What with EU emissions regulations and all that, it couldn’t continue to sell them; it’s now seems to sell tractors.

The escalators into the metro were huge, taking what seemed like an age to get down.  Here it says that Moscow has one of the longest ones, so I’ll have to see if I can get to it.  I’d like to see someone ski down it. The metro was also cavernous and looked amazing:

On the second evening, Audrey and I were having a rubbish beer in cafe/bar near our hostel.  Half way through, as I was trying to practice the 20 or so Russian words I’m trying to master, a couple of Russians, Olga and Dmitri, asked if they could join us.  They wanted to learn English, and could also help us with our Russian (although I am satisfied with my dictionary of 20 words).

Audrey agreed to go the Hermitage with Olga the next day.  I wasn’t keen on going to the Hermitage anyway, so it suited me that Olga would go with her.  Also, I didn’t fancy spending the day trying to communicate in broken English.  Olga didn’t speak or understand a lot of English, but I put it down to being out of practice, as I’ve seen her written English, and it’s much better.  Audrey on the other hand would relish this chance, as she could practice her Russian all day.

The cathedral of the spilled blood was also amazing looking, with enough mosaics to cover an entire football pitch on it's inner and outer walls along with the ceilings:

We also visited a Vodka museum, I need to get in some preparation in for the trans-siberian trip.  We got three different vodkas at the end to try, and all tasted pretty similar to me.  We got an interesting insight into Russia’s Vodka history, as well as periods of prohibition in the country.

On another note, it looks like loads of NI has been mapped on Streetview, even tiny little back roads that get about 20 cars per day.  You can see my parents’ house here, but is difficult to see, as they’ve planted so many trees around it I've had to get an angle from up the road.  Streetview makes Moneysharvin Road (which is part of the main north-south road in NI) look like a country back road.

Finally, to paraphrase Mae West “So many beers, so little time” (this is in Riga, Russia had not been great for beer):

15 April 2010

Lithuania and Latvia (no time for Estonia)

After a nine hour train journey, we arrived in Vilnius on the evening of Sunday the 11th.  We’d set out that morning at 7:25 from Warsaw Central.  In preparation, we’d got supplies the previous evening for the journey.  I managed to pick up the following beer, which I had as the train set off (as it was just out of the fridge of the hostel, I didn’t want to chance it getting any warmer):

Strong Irish Style Stout.  It was strong, 8.1%, but a stout?  Poland doesn't seem to know the meaning of it.  I managed to polish (no pun intended) it off regardless.  Just about.

We got talking briefly to a couple from Poland (well, just the lady, as her husband didn’t speak any English).  She told us that they had just got back from Katyn the night before, where they’d been waiting for the president to arrive for the memorial ceremony.  It was a sombre few moments as she told us about it, and how they were waiting around wondering where the dignitaries were.

Shortly afterwards we had to move to another part of the train, as it splits to go in different directions.  We sat in a cabin with just one lady in it.  Audrey being Audrey eventually got talking with her.  Her name was Maria, and she had been an English language lecturer at Vilnius University, but was now working in Warsaw, commuting a couple of times a month.

Maria proved to be very interesting and informative about Lithuanian history and culture.  (Including fascinating info, such as we were passing through her actual village on the way to Vilnius that she had been born on the day the Nazis were driven from her village by the advancing Red Army).

She gave us her card, and we agreed to meet the next day at 12 in the centre of Vilnius.  What we ended up getting was an amazing tour of the University (getting into bits only an ex-lecturer can get you into), plus a number of other pieces of the old town.  This was followed by a walk out into the Polish part, following by Stalinist-era Vilnius, and finally being invited to her apartment in the “re-inforced concrete” (post Stalin era) blocks towards the outskirts of town.

There we had coffee, ice-cream and jaffa cakes along with a continuation of our discussions on all aspects of Lithuania and her experiences.  The apartment blocks were as you might imagine them, rather dull and somewhat run-down, but the area of town was on the edge of a forest, and would be quite green once spring kicked into action properly.  Hers seemed to be partially run-down, partially refurbished, and had all the hallmarks of a woman of her age.  Side-boards with lots of crockery, tables decked with table cloths and doilies etc.  And best of all, an old record player, with a huge communist era amp (not sure if that what it was back then).  But there was also the vestiges of modern life, a new looking dell pc hooked up to the internet.

The next day we got up, and had a quick walk around town before departing for Riga, on the most comfortable bus I’ve ever been on, the complete opposite of what I’d expected.  We hadn’t seen that much of the known Vilnius, but we’d got to see so much more thanks to Maria, and those other things are an excuse to come back.

The hostel we had booked in Riga was called Friendly Fun Franks.  Crap name, but it’s the best hostel I’ve been in yet, everything was great, from the free beer on arrival and being given a quick run-down of things to do in Riga to the free walking tours and the hot ladies working there   J   You could also go off shooting AK-47s, which is something we hadn't expected to see until SE-Asia.

I loved Riga, will definitely be back, and it’s currently the front runner for my brother’s stag party which I’ll be organising with him when he picks a date.  The beer and food was great, and there was loads of stuff to do, both touristy and fun (not that they are mutually exclusive).

A few things I’ve noticed:

  1. It was great to be back in countries that have banned smoking, Poland was terrible, every time we went out for a drink our clothes we stinking.  Germany was nearly as bad, despite having a smoking ban which most places contravene by pretending to be a “private club”.
  2. Vilnius was full of Audi 80s, it seemed like a retirement home for them (quite a few had German stickers advertising the original showroom where it was bought).  I’ve a penchant for these cars, since my Audi convertible at home is based on that model, didn’t see a single soft-top though.
  3. Toilets in the bus station in Vilnius gave me an indicator of things to come.  All the male cubicals were all squat toilets.  Luckily, I only needed the pissoir.  I still haven’t grasped the idea of not sitting on the toilet, and as some of you know, reading material is something I always have with me.  Can’t imagine reading while trying to keep balance like that.  I noticed that the disabled ones had a normal toilet, and, as cheeky as it may sound, perhaps they could be my saviour...
  4. Beer in the Baltics was brilliant.

We got the night-train out of Riga at 7:30pm yesterday evening.

12 April 2010

Poland, unluckiest country in Europe?

Poland’s done and dusted. We arrived in Vilnius today after a 9 hour train journey, but I’ll go into that in the next posting, as I’ve yet to cover most of the Polish stuff.

We went to Auschwitz on the 8th (the day after my last posting), with the two lads we met two days previously in Bratislava, plus a couple of other random South Americans they’d picked up on the way. Turns out they’d also got bored of Bratislava pretty quickly. The bus journey was long and bumpy, and as far as we could see, devoid of any farmland, despite the fact it was mostly through the countryside. I always thought Poland was a land of farmers.

Maybe it was just that area. We had a five hour journey out of Poland today and actually some farmland, as well as spotting some between Warsaw and Krakow. But not once did either see a single farm animal. Zero.

Auschwitz. I don’t find these types of things as harrowing as a lot of people say they do. Being very interested in history in general, and knowing quite a bit about the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s (living in Germany for a few years also plays a role in this), a lot of the stats are nothing new. The famous rooms with the hair, suitcases and shoes were also something I was prepared for.

But the absolute scale on which all of this was carried out on was what really hit you when you got there. It is terrifying that this was able to happen in the last 100 years without very little of the outside world understanding what was actually happening at the time. How the peoples affected, the Polish in general and the Jewish in particular, have managed to get back on their feet after such a deadly chapter in their history is amazing. Although the numbers of Jewish people in east and central Europe is most certainly much, much lower than pre-WWII.

While there we seen an exhibition about Polish history around that time, but also covering it generally, and it really makes you feel sorry for Poland. In Ireland, we’ve always thought we were unfortunately positioned (you know what I mean), but the Poles have had it worse. Being between two of the major aggressors in wars in the last few centuries (as well as the nice Swedes, they were once ruthless as well) have left it being a country that has ceased to exist a few times.

The following day, we went out to Nowa Huta (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nowa_Huta), which was a commie town built outside of Krakow in the 50s, but that is now part of it. It’s a huge sprawling place with a huge steelworks that used to be a major polluter. It actually seemed ok, as some of the pictures from the Wikipedia article show, but then again, this is 20 years after the fall of the berlin wall and billions of $s of investment in east Europe.

We got the train to Warsaw later that day, and on the journey got loads of interesting info out of a native, didn’t get his name, but we’ve named him Pawel for now. He filled in loads of our gaps in knowledge of Polish history, and how Catholicism has been a uniting factor for Poland for many years, through communism and the dissolutions of the state, leading to why it is still so religiously followed today.

Pawel also told us of the great 'gift' to Poland from Stalin, the Palace of Culture and Science (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_Culture_and_Science,_Warsaw). Which he made the Polish pay for. According to the wiki article:

An old joke held that the best views of Warsaw were available from the
building: it was the only place in the city from where it could not be seen (a
claim originally made by the French writer
Guy de Maupassant about the Eiffel
Warsaw was a very different place to Krakow. Decentralised, sprawling, wide avenues, high rises, edgy. Beautiful Krakow wore thin after a couple of days, as it was a pretty town, but similar in many ways to other pretty towns. Nice market square, ornate churches and rarely leaving the centre.

Due to Warsaw being 80% destroyed after WWII, a lot of it is relatively new, with an eccentric mix of old, reconstructed-old, stanlinist and modernist architecture mixed with a few skyscrapers. It also means walking/moving around a lot to get to see things. The bit I enjoyed most was the dodgy run down east bit of the city (why is that all things east, in my experience, tend to be the run down bits, e.g. Munich, London, Europe) and trying out a real milk bar.

Yesterday, when we woke up, Poland was mourning the shock loss of their president (who Pawel had been slagging off the previous day...) and many of the cabinet. There was a strange feeling around the hostel, as you can imagine, and as we were out on the streets, you could see people gathered around any TV screen in the hope of getting more info.  It was somewhat ironic that they were going to visit for the 70th Anniversary of Katyn, where Russians wiped out a sizeable amount of the Polish intelligensia.  Polish flags were out in force:

We departed at 7:25 this morning (11th April).

06 April 2010

Get them out, Bratislava!

We landed in Bratislava at about 8pm on Sunday night.  Unfortunately, it was Bratislava Petrzalka station, which is south of the river and a reasonable distance from the city centre, and even further from the main train station, near which was our hotel.

It did show us one interesting facade of Bratislava that we wouldn’t have got from arriving at the main station.  That was of green fields suddenly giving way to communist era tower blocks almost immediately, with no hint of suburbs or out-lying towns and villages that you get most other cities.  It’s the most densely populated residential district in central Europe.  When looking at it the next day from the vantage point of Bratislava Castle, it is almost feels like it is continuous block of high rises, with barely a gap.  If the weather had of been decent, it would have made an interesting picture, instead, I’ve had to grab this one from the web:

Coming out of the train station on a dark cold wet April night wasn’t much fun.  It looked pretty dodgy and closed, but there was one ticket office open (although it was difficult to tell, the lady at the desk seemed to be doing her best not to be seen).  With about 5 words, she managed to tell us how to get a bus to the main train station (down stairs, up stairs, over road).

We managed to get the bus, which was quite efficient and quick.  Arriving at the main station, though, left us with a similar feeling to the other station, dodgy and somewhat menacing.  Eventually we managed to find our accommodation, Hotel Spirit, which was a delightful place, despite the weather.  We were re-acquainted with the eastern European custom of getting ketchup with pizza (which we'd noticed while living with a Romanian couple).

The weather on the next day continued as it had been, cold and wet.  Continuous drizzle.  We realised pretty early on that there wasn’t that much to do in Bratislava.  It did make a difference that it was an Monday, but worse than that, Easter Monday.  Nearly everything that a tourist might want to do was closed.  Even if that hadn’t been the case, Bratislava felt limited.  We’d already booked a couchette train to get us out that night.

We eventually settled in a pub called the Slovak pub, which our helpful receptionist had recommended to us the previous night.  I like to equate it with a Slovak equivalent of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

A couple of random tourist sat down at the table next to us.  After about 10 minutes, a group of mature Slovaks got up to leave the pub.  A 50-something lady amongst them had spotted the fact there was a few foreigners nearby.  Pulling up her jumper, she flashed us!

Audrey hadn’t seen it, and I looked around at her stunned, speechless.  She looked at me, and then beyond me, and her jawed simply dropped.  Then the ‘lady’ left the pub.  It was a good talking point to start a conversation with the other foreigners, they'd been similarly shocked.  We enjoyed a few beers with them, before making our way to the hotel to pick up our bags and head to the train station.

The night train was as pleasurable as ever.  Bumpy ride and difficult to sleep.  Arriving in Krakow at 6:30 this morning, we made our way to Hostel Faust.  Today was a typical tourist day, loads of nice old buildings (especially churches – We've never been to so many of them in a single day), but the weather was rubbish, and I was knackered due to the night train.

I’ve settled in for the night, and have made a few more friends over the last couple of days:

Kelt beer (left) was alright, nothing to write home about, but the Zlaty Bazant was pretty good everywhere we had it (below).

Zlaty Bazant again (lower left), but the dark beer version, very malty, very sweet, and easy to drink.  The other, Kosovice (left), tasted pretty crap at this pub, had one later that was better, but not much better than average.  They were all Slovak beers I managed to get in.

These are my Krakowian friends.  Mr Karnas is just being polished off as I post this, have enjoyed it, but it wasn't as good as Warka, which both Audrey and I thought was a damn solid beer.  Both reasonably strong, 6% and 5.7% respectively, but nothing on Kaper, which weighed in at a hearty 8.7%, but really didn't taste like it.  Easy to drink, dark and malty, could get rubbered on it very quickly.

I get the feeling this could be more of a beer blog than anything else.