Monday, 20 July 2009

Heading through the Balkans

We're moving into the Balkans now. Thursday night we caught a sleeper train from Sofia in Bulgaria, to Belgrade in Serbia. Luckily we got our own compartment, it would have been very cosy with three people in there! The Australian guy next door managed to get a compartment to himself which he was pretty happy with :)

Sofia to Belgrade sleeper train

Belgrade is nice, friendly people, most speak English which is handy for us. Has been pretty hot the last few days, in the high 30 degrees, which I'm struggling with a bit. Pretty much unbearable around 3-4pm to be out in the sun. The city is rather cosmopolitan - much more developed and seems to have more money than Bulgaria - a lot of 'brands' I recognise from the UK, and a lot of people out spending money. Only one weird incident so far, where a drunk (or maybe 'confused'?) old guy wandered into a restaurant we were having dinner in, stole a knife off a table, and wandered off muttering to himself.

Belgrade, Serbia

There isn't a lot of touristy stuff to do, but that's a plus for me. We've been to a museum all about Nikolas Tesla, and his work on alternating currents and later work with radio, a few churches including the Sv. Sava, the largest orthodox church in the world, which is still under construction (keeps being interrupted by inconvienent wars and conflicts). Also visited the Military Museum - interesting displays of military artefacts and costumes up to the present day, including a whole section of items from shot down and captured US airplanes, which is slightly bizarre.

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There is not really an 'old town' in Belgrade, the area they call the old town is full of new buildings, and a pedestrianised shopping street. We're not too sure, but there are a lot of abandoned and crumbling buildings that may still be damaged from the NATO bombing in the 1990's - if anyone can confirm I'd be grateful.
Edit: Turns out this is the Federal Ministry of Defense building, which was bombed by NATO in 1999. It's been in ruins ever since, with no current plans to do anything with it.

Belgrade, Serbia

We took a day trip on Saturday to Novi Sad, 95km or so to the north, which took nearly 2 hours each way by bus, not surprising when the roads are so bad the bus can only travel at 40km/h. Almost a non-starter, after the lady at the ticket office sold us tickets for a bus that had left by the time we sprinted to the stand. Confusion trying to get the ticket changed, but we managed it in the end. There is a big citadel there, which was still being cleaned up from the Exit Festival, a huge music festival, that was on a week or so ago.

Novi Sad, Serbia

As usual, photos are on flickr (http://flickr.com/photos/rachaelr).

Next stop, Slovenia. Another sleeper train tonight to Ljubljana, and over to Bled for a night on Tuesday.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Two weeks down, 20 to go!

Here's a map of our travels so far... blue stuff we've done, red is the next stop (Belgrade - we leave tonight on a sleeper train, getting into Belgrade around 5AM tomorrow, ouch).

The plan after Belgrade is to head towards Zagreb, Ljubljana, and then Split and Dubrovnic in Croatia, then a ferry to Bari in Southern Italy. Nothing set in stone yet tho, we'll decide once we're in Belgrade where to go from there. Our next target date to hit is 15th August in Perpigan, France, where we're meeting K's parents for a week in a big villa in a little French hamlet.


View Europe 2009 - the trip so far in a larger map

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Bulgaria :: Sofia and Plovdiv

Arrived in Bulgaria on Sunday, taking a rather slow train from Thessolaniki to Sofia. Stayed at a fantastic hostel, 'Mostel Hostel' in a dorm. Safe, clean, central, cheap, fast wifi and really friendly staff.

Sofia looks rather run down with lots of communist era buildings that look to be abandoned or falling down. Food is really cheap, had a big dinner last night - salad, a starter, and a grill dish plus a beer each, came to about €20, about half the price we were paying in Greece. I think the hostel was about €10/night each too. A 2litre beer is €1

Monday we took a trip organised by the hostel out to Rila Monastry. 2hr drive each way, and the driving and roads are pretty hairy, but arrived back safe! The monastry and the mountains around it are beautiful, and worth the drive. They also took us to the cave the Saint who the monastary is dedicated to lived in, rather funny watching people squeeze through the tiny exit hole. Plenty of photos on my Flickr stream.

Rila Monastry

Right now we're on a coach to Plovdiv, the 2nd largest city in Bulgaria, for the night. Back to Sofia tommorrow night, and train to Belgrade the next day.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Moving up the Greek Islands

Kos and Kalymnos to Thessaloniki (8-11th July)

We spent the morning looking around Kos, it's various Roman ruins and a castle built by Knights of the Crusades. It's starting to get very hot during the day now, well into the mid 30s. We took the hydrofoil across to Kalymnos which takes about 30 mins, we're staying here for 1 night and catching the late(10pm) ferry to Thessalonaki on Thursday. Sonia from Pension Alexis organised the accommodation for us at Greek House, we have a small studio which looks out across Kalymnos' capital of Porthia. Spent the afternoon relaxing before heading out for a swim at the beach where all the locals cool off in the evening at about 6pm.

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The monastary above Porthia, Kalymnos

Thursday - it's hot, 29 degrees by mid morning, in the evening the locals at the bar said it reached 39 during the day. Spent the morning looking around town and visiting the museum, lunch down by the harbour. In the afternoon we took a bus up to the monastery that sits above Porthia, the view from there is fantastic, walked back down into to town afterwards and headed straight for the beach. The sunburn from Rhodes is starting to dissipate, still very pale compared to the locals.

Boarded the ferry at 10pm, we had a 4 berth cabin for just the 2 of us, very comfortable and the 20 hours flew by with the help of a few cans of local lager, leftover pizza, and a movie and some TV episodes on the netbook. Arriving into Thessaloniki at 6pm on Friday, no surprise it's hot, we wandered around looking for our hotel for far too long. The city is mainly boring/ugly concrete apartments, but has lots of lovely old churches dotted everywhere and the main bar/restaurant area is really cosmopolitan and relaxing.

Our little cabin on the ferry
Our cabin on the Ferry

Saturday was spent visiting museums and so forth, have now seen enough broken pots and reconstructed graves to sink a very large ship. A short but violent thunderstorm hit late afternoon so got a bit wet, was quite welcome though as the shower at the hotel leaves a lot to be desired, water for example. R in a bit of a flap when she realised she'd thrown out a crucial bit of our InterRail passes, so a speedy trip to the Train station and some rather confused people at the ticket office, and managed to get replacements, so we dont get fined 50 Euros each for messing up the tickets! Note to self, even if it looks uninportant, don't throw anything away!

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Agia Sofia, Thessaloniki, Greece

Our train to Sofia in Bulgaria leaves at 7am Sunday morning, another late night (most people seem to start eating around 10pm in Greece) and early start on the cards.

More photos to follow! Yes, there will be some of us, and no, there are no '18-30' type photos, we're much too old for that kind of carry on haha. The whole collection is on flickr here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rachaelr/collections/72157620533221612/

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Lovely Kos (Κως)

Arrived in Kos town last night, on a ferry from Rhodes.

The island is beautiful, as most Greek Islands seem to be! We're staying at Pension Alexis, which is fantastic. Large, clean rooms (ours has a balcony overlooking the port and Castle!), and a very friendly welcome from Sonia and her son, who run the Pension. Dinner was at a local Taverna recommended by Sonia.

Today we hired scooters and drove out to Mastichari Beach in the morning, where I had a quick swim, and we had lunch at 'El Greko' restaurant, where my sister L. used to work 5 or 6 summers ago (photo on the left was taken there, mix of salads and dips, yum!). The owner Catherine was there, and she remembered both L., and Mum, who was a holiday rep there at the same time. Lovely food, and a beautiful location right on the beach.

Drove back to the Askipillion, where Hiprocates used to teach apparently. Almost had a problem with taking the camera in, which was weird... no tripods OR 'professional' cameras, tho I've seen 'pros' working with point and shoot cameras, and total incompetents with the big 1DS Canons, so the type of camera really doesn't determine what you'll be doing with the shots! Was ok tho, took lots of 'snapshots' with us in them, so there is no way we could have been mistaken for 'professionals' haha! Bit more driving around in the afternoon, then found a cafe with free wifi.

I've been quite impressed with the wifi and internet access in the Greek islands so far - fast ADSL connections, and most cafes leave their wifi open to use as long as you're drinking. Beers are around 2.50-4.50 euros for a 500ml, so it's not too bad, esp as we were going to have a beer anyway!

Booked up ferry for tomorrow afternoon (hydrofoil!) going to Kalymnos, the next island over. And also booked a cabin on the big ferry from Kalymnos to Thessenolaki for Thursday night - takes about 20 hours, but a lot of that is overnight (leaves at 10PM, arrives at 6PM the next night), and we have a private cabin to hide in with air con, and there are plenty of bars aboard to keep us entertained.

Next post may be from Kalymnos, or from the Ferry to Thessenolaki, even the ferries have internet here!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Rhodes, but where's the Collossus?

Arrived in Rhodes, Greece on Sat 4th July, after a rather boring flight from Cyprus to Athens, a delayed plane (not sure why), then sitting on the runway for another 2 hours while security threw a group of Greeks off the plane. Wish we knew what they were saying, was rather heated for a while, with some fists being thrown about.

Rhodes Old Town

Weather is much more forgiving than Cyprus, only a lovely 22-24 deg, and a nice breeze. Got up really early this morning to take some photos before the hordes of tourists came piling off their cruise ships. Cats everywhere, most are strays. Staying at 'Mango Rooms', a nice budget place with double rooms, and a bar right in the middle of the twisting Old Town alleyways in a lovely square.

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Found a fantastic taverna last night, Taverna Kostas, which is in the Loney Planet, so not that off the beaten track, but the food was good price and really nice and rustic (spicy meatballs YUM!). Today we trawled the tourist trap shops for a while, and we both picked up knock off sunglasses for €6 each (Gucci for me!), then up a tourist-trap clocktower (which did happen to have the best view in the Old Town), and onto the Palace of Knights, which is full of mosaic floors 'borrowed' (forcibly removed?!) from the Island of Cos (Kos).

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K is off on his own now doing some exploring, as I'm too tired to go out in the sun.

Next stop, the island of Kos, via ferry tomorrow afternoon.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

First stop - Cyprus

We've arrived at our first stop on the mammoth tour of Europe, Cyprus!

Our first stop was Pafos for a night, staying in a Holiday apartment right on the harbour/beach, with a very welcome swimming pool.

Pafos Harbour

Yesterday we hired a car and drove up to Polis and the rather disappointing 'Baths of Aphrodite', had a nice ocean swim, then back down to Limmasol and through to Lefkosia.

Lefkosia (South Nicosia)

The weather is fantastic, it hit 34 deg C today in Lefkosia (Nicosia), which might not have been the best choice of day for a walking tour outside the Venetian City walls. We've been all over Lefkosia today, including into the Turkish occupied section of the city, where we looked at the mosques and indoor markets. To cross into the North of the city, we had to get issued Turkish visas on a piece of paper to keep in our passports - the short 20m walk through the UN 'green line' zone was like walking into another country all together, from a modernised, busy city, to a small Turkish town. Dinner tonight will probably be at a Taverna, which doesn't really get going until 9.30-10pm.

North Nicosia

Tomorrow we fly to Rhodes, from Larnaka Airport, so we have about a hour to drive tomorrow morning to reach the airport.

No photos online yet, we need to find an internet cafe or connection we can upload some pics from, hopefully soon.

Edit: Uploaded some pics, and added to post