TAILS OF A TRAVELLING CAT
Day 10 - Sofia
Greetings, humans! It’s our final day on this amazing trip. Can you believe it? We packed in as much as we could throughout the trip and that didn’t change today, we made the most of this final day as well.
On leaving our lovely AirBnb with the galaxy sky but the strange shower-toilet cubicle combination (which our fellow Interrailers we met yesterday also experienced in their hostel – maybe it’s a Bulgarian thing?), we headed to the mineral water fountain using what would prove to be our trusty Sofia cartoon map, courtesy of the AirBnb. The mineral water spring fountains supply clean drinking water to the people of Sofia, mostly pensioners who can’t afford mineral water from the shops as their pensions are too low. The average pension is 200Leva or 100€ (although whether that is per month or year remains unclear), but why they can’t just drink tap water I don’t know. It’s perfectly drinkable, as the Sofia cartoon map told us and Charlie can attest although Jack refused to drink it. The information about pensioners was also provided by the Sofia Cartoon Map (I’ve just decided it should be granted capital letter status) which, as well as being a map, has also provided me with much useful information. How else could I learn the Cyrillic alphabet or tell you that it’s not a good idea to cycle in Sofia as the road is full of potholes? Also in Bulgaria a shake of the head means yes and a nod means no (although Charlie’s scratch-map of the world had already informed Charlie and I of this fact), a loaf of bread costs 1 Lev and the plural of Lev is Leva – such knowledge held in my paws (or the top pocket of Charlie’s hiking bag for quick over-head access).
I have side-tracked slightly, but I hope you now feel culturally enriched, as I do. Let me tell you about my trip to the mineral water springs. There were many individual fountains which Jack was quick to point out bore a rather unfortunate resemblance to urinals. Lovely. Anyway, true to the map, there were pensioners, but younger people too, filling bottle after bottle of water to take home to cool before drinking. Yes, the water which comes out of these springs is hot, so hot in fact it steams. Despite this, the water actually tasted quite nice, although we didn’t fill a bottle as after yesterday’s storm, the weather was now a much more bearable 20°C instead of 30.
After tasting this interesting phenomenon, we got slightly distracted when we discovered quite a lot of Roman ruins under the city, which had only been discovered in 2010 when the Serdika II (СЕРДИКА) Metro station was being constructed. These ruins were fascinating and included three Roman roads, several houses, a bath house and a public latrine. We were fascinated, especially as we could walk through these streets and into the houses. Distraction over, we headed back to our original route.
Next up was the Communist Palace. This seems slightly contradictory to me, I thought Communists believed everyone was equal? Maybe they are suggesting everybody should live in a palace. Perhaps I am wilfully misunderstanding. Next to the Communist Palace was the King’s Palace, now the National Theatre. Does this mean Bulgaria doesn’t have a monarchy anymore? Or perhaps they relocated?
Ok, the internet tells me the monarchy in Bulgaria was abolished in 1946. But the last Tsar (who became Tsar, age six in 1943) then served as prime minister from 2001 to 2005. Interestingly, Bulgaria had three periods in its history as an independent country – in 1018, the Byzantine Conquest occurred, ending the First Bulgarian Empire. It became independent again in 1185 (the Second Bulgarian Empire), but in 1422 it became part of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria became independent again in 1878, although apparently the referendum was manipulated. Rulers have variously been known as emperors and monarchs throughout its history, but it was the Communists in 1946 who finally abolished the monarchy.
From here, we walked along a busy road called Tsar Osvoboditel (which means Tsar Liberator – is that an oxymoron? – after the Russian Tsar who aided in liberating Bulgaria in 1877-8) where a set of broken traffic lights at a very busy crossroads meant the police were having a great time directing traffic. As I may have mentioned yesterday, it is strictly forbidden to take pictures of the police, army or customs officials. I’m not quite sure what happens if you do, but we decided not to risk it. We continued along this road into what our AirBnb receptionist had called the Hippy District. Here we passed a statue of a horse (a monument to Bulgaria’s liberator), Sofia University and arrived at a giant Soviet statue, but alas no hippies. In front of the statue (as we approached it, it was actually located to the side if you faced the statue head-on) was a small skate park and we sat high upon the steps of this ethically questionable Soviet statue for lunch. The ethical debate largely centres around whether the statue should remain as a historical monument or be torn down as it glorifies Communism and Soviet atrocities or something. I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure, but I do know it was a good place to observe the world and we couldn’t actually see the statue as we sat on it. After lunch, we crossed some busy roads and the Eagle Bridge from the questionable-Soviet-statue-park to another park, which I presume was less ethically dubious, although it did contain many, many busts of… er… people who were probably famous in Bulgaria, some of them may even have been Soviets. There were also lots of nice trees and benches which I approve of, plenty of choice for a seat for a Chesh. We had discovered an ice cream place in the locality (thanks go to Happy Cow) and so we were soon headed to Gelateria Naturala. Here Charlie had a scoop of fondant ice cream and one of strawberry sorbet, and Jack had two fondant ice cream scoops. These went down very well and soon we were headed to the National Palace of Culture (NDK in Bulgarian Latin letters or НДК in Cyrillic).
We wandered through the streets of the Hippy District (still no hippies) passing what we assumed was the British Embassy, but which actually seemed to be trying to garner tourism for the UK. We arrived at the NDK which we were rather underwhelmed by, but the adjoining gardens were very nice, until it started to rain. My foolish humans put on their raincoats and moved to sit on another bench, only partly sheltered under a tree. I was firmly hidden in Charlie’s bag, covered in a florescent orange rain-cover. I was glad the rain soon stopped and we decided to enter the Tourist Trap (it sounds like a capital letter kind of place to me, this was the way the Sofia Cartoon Map-giving receptionist described it to us). This is basically a shopping street, not normally the place my humans would visit, but they needed souvenirs and it seemed a likely place.
We had plenty of time before we needed to be at the airport and had done everything which was on our list to do, so we spent much, much time meandering in and out of souvenir shops looking for the best deals and generally looking very touristy. We eventually found the souvenirs we wanted – I was particularly taken with Charlie’s Cyrillic alphabet T-shirt. Whilst we are on the subject of Cyrillic, allow me to relate to you a few of the more important Bulgarian words – СОФИЯ (Sofia), БЪЛГАРИЯ (Bulgaria), ЦЕШ (Chesh) and КОТКА (kotka in Latin letters), which I think is a rather nice word for cat. In fact, let me tell you the word for cat in a few different languages because cat is probably one of the most important words you’ll need to know if you ever visit these countries. Cat is gato in Spanish, chat in French and Katze in German. And the languages of every country we’ve visited so far: kot in Polish, kočka in Czech, mačka in Slovak, macska in Hungarian and цат (cat) in Serbian.
Language lesson and shopping over, we settled down for dinner overlooking the Roman ruins and as we had some time to spare, decided we wanted cake and headed to Loving Hut for cake. After going the wrong way and accidentally ending up at the Lion Bridge (which was famous enough to be featured on the Sofia Cartoon Map) we finally arrived in Loving Hut, where we actually ordered two slices of quiche (one vegetable, one Lorraine), a conical chocolate and date creation, a Snickers-style cake and a strawberry smoothie. Our purchase would have been much less, but the card machine broke and the minimum we could take out of an ATM (БАНКОМАТ or Bank o mat in Bulgarian) was 20Leva (approximately £8.96), which, this being our last day, we had to spend. So we bought lots of food.
It was then time to catch the Metro to the airport, we were through check in quickly and then security, our longest queue was at customs (why was this before our flight?) and then we were through to the lounge where our flight was delayed by 40 minutes. Thank you, RyanAir…
We were finally allowed to board (more security) and we were shunted onto a bus. We were now well experienced with this type of flying and sat down on a surprisingly comfy (flat) wheel arch in the bus to wait for it to finally take us to our plane (a long enough journey for once that we could justify not walking). We boarded the plane and only 50 minutes late, we took off.
This being a 10pm flight, all was dark in Sofia and as we took off we saw Bulgaria lit up below. We saw the streets of towns, intersections of main roads and car parks. It was fascinating but then we flew too high and all below us was blackness and what I think might be the occasional flash of lightening. When we arrive in the UK, it’ll be some time after 11pm, but we’ll feel like it’s two hours later as we’ll still be on Bulgarian time.
Sofia has sure had some amazing things to offer and we’ve had a fantastic time here, as in every other city. Bulgaria and all of Eastern Europe (that we visited, anyway) we will miss you!
Well, that’s all folks. Until the next adventure! Chesh.
P.S. For those of you who read Day 9 yesterday, on the day it was published (I approve), I have now added a picture of the Dimitrovgrad stamp in Charlie's passport. I'm sure you'll be thrilled to see it and you know I'll be disappointed if you don't.
Day 9 - Dimitrovgrad and Sofia
Greetings, humans! Here we are at the penultimate day of this adventure, my, my how time has flown. We were up and off to the station to catch the 9:40 train to Dimitrovgrad, Serbia, although there is also a Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria and Russia. Anyway, this Serbian Dimitrovgrad was very close to the border with Bulgaria although there are several towns between it and Serbia so I cannot call it a border town. Initially, we thought this train journey would only last 50 minutes, but then we realised Serbia is one hour behind Bulgaria which means it actually took one hour 50 minutes. Which makes sense as that means the journey back was two hours 20 and not three hours 20. With a final check that we definitely didn’t need seat reservations either there or back (this being an international train), we entered the platforms and were surprised to discover the big old engine pulling a single worn out old carriage was our train to Dimitrovgrad.
The train was straight out of the last century (although which decade is hard to say) and was somehow reminiscent of what the three of us had been expecting of an Eastern European train. We very much liked this little train and as it moved away, it was obvious why we didn’t need reservations. Although this was the only train from Sofia to Dimitrovgrad today, there were all of six or seven passengers, this number dropped down to five at Dragoman station, our train’s only station before Dimitrovgrad. Two of our fellow travellers were also Interrailing, we struck up a conversation with them somewhere around passport control at a place called Kalotina Zapad where our passports were worryingly taken away by customs and not returned for some time. A couple of customs officials started banging the ceiling with screwdrivers, whether they were looking for drugs or stowaways or perhaps checking the structural integrity of the train remained unclear. Anyway, no drugs or stowaways were found, our passports were returned and after a forty minute wait, we were on our way again. Although Jack had read the internet and informed our gang, which had temporarily swelled to five instead of the usual three, that border and passport control was very strict between Bulgaria and Serbia (and it is strictly forbidden to take pictures of the police and army – we naturally assumed this also applied to the customs officers and their building), none of us had quite expected the checks to take this long.
We were eventually on our way again, and eight minutes later we arrived in Dimitrovgrad. Our journey had taken us through some beautiful Bulgarian and Serbian countryside and mountains, some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen. We were all set to disembark the train, but no. it was now the Serbs’ turn for passport control. Once more our passports were whisked away, a mildly less worrying experience than before, and returned quicker this time bearing a stamp (exciting!). This stamp read ДИМИТРОВГРАД (Dimitrovgrad in Cyrillic), today’s date and a nice train picture. We were all expecting to have to wait as long as at the previous control and it wasn’t until a guard asked us if we knew the train terminated here that we realised we were free to enter Serbia and piled off the train onto the small, empty Dimitrovgrad platform. (Strangely, today seemed to be the only day at which this train terminated in Dimitrovgrad, by looking at the Eurail website, it seems every other day – including other Wednesdays – the trains continued all the way to Belgrade, how very strange).
Our new Interrail buddies boarded a train to Niš and from there to Belgrade. Jack, Charlie and I, a tripod once more, crossed the train tracks – the way to exit this platform being to walk across the tracks – and left the station through the waiting room to a hot, empty, sun-baked street.
We had arrived in a rather rundown, sleepy town, which was not, we quickly discovered, a city. Perhaps we should have realised this sooner, Dimitrovgrad having no ratings on Trip Adviser and being absent from Happy Cow. We walked along the one main street, although compared to the other streets we had seen recently, it wasn’t much of a main street and we were starting to wonder if we’d made a mistake coming here with nothing to do, when we decided we could go climb part of one of the beautiful mountains, they were so close after all. We turned and walked up some smaller streets, which had some rather dilapidated buildings and an almost total absence of people, but there were some more cats. The road started to curve upwards as we neared the hill and we spotted a sign which pointed up the hill stating there was a monument 3km away. High up at the top of the hill, we had been able to make out what seemed like a church. This seemed very far away, we probably wouldn’t reach it, but we might as well find the monument. We began to climb upwards, the path weaving back and forth and around the mountain, mostly our view was lost between the trees, but occasionally we would catch a glimpse of the ground falling away below us. In no time, a large bypass high above the town became level with us and then we were above it. As we climbed higher and higher, we passed many exciting wildlife including lizards (one was bright green) and butterflies with seemingly disproportionately large orange and white spotted black wings. All of these managed to evade capture on film (or pixels, more accurately).
The path continued to climb until we began to wonder if we’d ever find the monument – was this path just going round and round the hill? No, finally we reached the monument which was in fact the church-like building we had seen at the top of the hill. We’d climbed to the very top! In just an hour and a half! As the monument was inscribed in Cyrillic, all we could decipher was that something had happened on 12th November 1885, although what happened may remain an eternal mystery.
After a lot of confusing research using Google translate and the date given, it appeared a Serbian-Bulgarian war had broken out two days after the date given on the monument. It would seem hundreds of people died and as the Serbians were defeated, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to get involved, and finally call a ceasefire. However, the Serbians continued to attack and it wasn’t until 3rd March 1886 when a treaty was signed in Bucharest (Romania).
A storm was approaching and thunder rumbled in the distance so we decided it might be a good time to get off the mountain (ok, hill). Before we were even a little way down, the thunder stopped and the clouds began to clear, by the time we had found some goats, all was sunny again. We stopped for lunch, looking out at the mountains on the other side of the town, saw a lovely old tractor and continued our descent. We sat and admired a water fountain at the foot of the hill for a little while then walked back through the town to the train station. It was nearly two hours until our train was due, but we were by now very much aware there was nothing to do in Dimitrovgrad besides climb the hill and there wasn’t time to do that again.
Therefore we sat at the train station with the intention of watching trains come and go. As it turned out, not many trains come through this station, which we really should have realised by now. Anyway, whilst we wait, let me tell you some exciting things about Dimitrovgrad, Serbia. For fear of this being a rather short list, I’ll add in some facts about the Dimitrovgrads of Bulgaria and Russia too.
Dimitrovgrad, Serbia is home to 6,278 people (as of the 2011 census), the majority of which are employed in processing and administration, although whether they work in the town or further afield is unclear. The town is a fair bit bigger than we thought, it extends between the mountains and onto the other side of the hill we climbed. Bulgarians outnumber Serbians 2:1 in Dimitrovgrad which was named after Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist who wanted Bulgaria and the then-Yugoslavia to be joined in the Balkan Federation. As Bulgarian is also spoken here (being so close to the border), in this language the town is known as Tsaribrod (ЦАРИБРОД) to avoid confusion with the Dimitrovgrad of Bulgaria. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Dimitrovgrad also has a third name – Caribrod – which is the Serbian equivalent of Tsaribrod
Now, let’s move onto Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria. This is in the south of Bulgaria with a population of 38,015 as of 2011, and was created in 1947 by the People’s Republic of Bulgaria following WWII. It was designed to be a model of a socialist city, named after the same Georgi Dimitrov as that other Dimitrovgrad.
Dimitrovgrad, Russia, is also named after Georgi Dimitrov, although until 1972 it was called Melekess (МЕЛЕКЕСС), after a nearby river. Its population was 122,580 as of the 2010 census, and I believe is the only Dimitrovgrad we can count as a city! When Dimitrovgrad was founded in 1714, it was but a humble village, providing homes for the workers at a distillery. How it has grown.
Eventually, our train arrived and we boarded. Once more, the customs people entered the train and, like seasoned travellers, my humans handed over their passports, knowing they would be returned. And so they were, with another ДИМИТРОВГРАД stamp. Our train had a few more people on board this time, but we were still stopped for forty minutes at the checkpoint on the Serbian-Bulgarian border. It was at this point that the clouds began to pour down with rain, fork lightening flashed and thunder rumbled. The storm that the weather app on Charlie’s iPod had been joyfully promising all week was finally upon us. This train stopped at many small stations after Dragoman and by the time we arrived in Sofia the little train was rather full. We believed the single carriage and engine were the very same train we had journeyed on to get to Dimitrovgrad this morning.
We returned to the AirBnb by which time it had stopped raining (good, or I would have refused to leave the station) and then headed straight to Edgy Veggy (still just a minute’s walk away!) for dinner again. This time Jack had the seitan, cheese, mayo and salad taco, although it was in a tortilla wrap as there were no taco shells and Charlie had the ‘unchicken’ burrito: seitan, mayo and salad, this was in a tortilla wrap. My humans also shared a nice large bowl of hummus which made a great dip for the burritos.
For pudding, my humans had another of the two cookies they had had last night, once again Charlie had a berry smoothie bowl, but Jack opted for a chocolate smoothie bowl.
It had started to rain and storm again at this point, but a minute wasn’t far to walk, we were soon back at the AirBnb (I still didn’t appreciate the water falling from the sky, of course).
We are preparing for our last day tomorrow (!). To lighten Charlie’s bag, these two have just eaten an entire packet of (slightly crushed) double stuffed Oreos, one of which they put ketchup in – as you do.
Anyway, although we may initially have had our reservations about Dimitrovgrad, we did very much enjoy a chance to climb a hill and escape the cities. Although not what we were expecting, Dimitrovgrad did in some ways epitomise what we imagined a small Eastern European town to look like and we learnt some Cyrillic which is always educational. Just remember, B = v, Г = g and И = i. Simple, right?
Tomorrow we shall explore Sofia, many exciting things are in store and then we will fly back to Stansted in the evening. But tonight, I will not dwell on endings and instead finish on some wonderful pictures of Bulgarian and Serbian countryside and mountains. I should probably find out what these mountains are called. Enjoy!
Until tomorrow, folks. Chesh.
Day 8 - Budapest to Sofia
Greetings, humans! Well, here we are in another city! I am currently ensconced in our final (!) AirBnb where I am admiring myself in the mirror. So, we left our Budapest AirBnb on the sometime-past 9:00 Metro from Lehel Tér, a two minute walk away from our AirBnb, pretty good going when you have giant hiking bags to contend with. We took the Metro three stops to the other side of the city, just 82p, and stopped at a souvenir shop where the humans’ fancy card got declined for reasons unknown. We tried again in another shop and the same thing happened. Eventually, we got the card to work, paid for our souvenirs and headed for our bus, the 10:20 100E from Deák Ferenc Tér. It was a bendy bus and we were crammed into the end (there were a lot of people wanting to go to Budapest Liszt Ferenc International Airport, Terminal 2). After spending much longer than I would have liked squished in the bus, we escaped and entered Terminal 2a because no one had bothered to check their tickets and see which terminal we were actually meant to be at and the bus stopped nearer to this one. After not seeing our flight on the departures board, we decided we must be in the wrong terminal and Jack finally decided to check our tickets. 2b – that’s where we should be. Good thing Terminals 2a and b are right next to each other, so in a few minutes we were at the right terminal, had found our flight on the departures board and were queueing for check in.
During this natural interlude, I will take a moment to explain why we are getting a plane when we should be Interrailing. Charlie and Jack’s original plan was to get a night train from Budapest to Bucharest (Romania) and tomorrow get a night train from Bucharest to Sofia. However, although when we booked our flights to Warsaw and back from Sofia, there was a night train from Bucharest to Sofia, by the time we got round to making train reservations, this train had disappeared. Not being able to get from Bucharest to Sofia and no other handy routes presenting themselves, such as Budapest to Belgrade to Sofia, we conceded the only thing left to do was fly from Budapest to Sofia.
Well, now you’re caught up, I will draw a veil over security and our wait for the gate, but as soon as the gate was called, we trotted through the airport (only thirty-eight gates in total), through boarding and straight onto the plane. Or so we thought. We were actually shepherded onto a bus which got quite hot and very cramped. We were on this bus for an inordinately long time before it took us across some tarmac to the plane. The distance was so short even I could have walked it. Well, maybe not, but it would have been no trouble for the humans. We were at the plane, the wheely ladder things were in position, but were we released from what was now becoming a rather stuffy metal and glass prison?
No. For what felt to me like at least five hours (but was probably no more than five minutes), we were trapped, slowly baking in the big bus. Eventually (at this point in the writing up process, a Chesh attack occurred and I leapt on Charlie’s pen causing it to skid across the page), we were freed and stormed the plane (in my head anyway) and were finally allowed to sit down. As we’d booked this flight too late, we weren’t seated together, so we slept our way through the one hour ten minute flight, which landed right on time at 4 o’clock, Sofia is one hour ahead. The plane had landed at Terminal 1, where the Metro which would take us to our AirBnb wasn’t. A random taxi driver tried to get us to take a fare. We didn’t and ended up on the free shuttle to Terminal 2 from where we boarded the Metro to Serdika, our AirBnb was just five minutes away.
We checked into the AirBnb with the galaxy ceiling and a reception – we’ve never had an AirBnb with a reception before! Our next stop was to the station to make reservations for our planned trip to Dimitrovgrad – we are going to Serbia tomorrow! At the station, we learnt we actually didn’t need reservations, our Interrail passes would suffice.
With that done, we wandered the streets to dinner, and met many street cats on the way which made me both very happy (cats are amazing and this holiday had severely lacked them so far) and very sad (they were very skinny and clearly unloved by many people).
For once, we had found an all vegan restaurant just a minute’s walk from our AirBnb. This was Edgy Veggy where my humans tucked into a starter called the Mediterranean – hummus, tomato and cucumber in a sourdough sandwich. The mains were a quinoa burrito (quinoa, chickpeas, cheese and veg in a tortilla wrap) and tempeh burrito (tempeh, veg and mayo in a tortilla wrap). These were amazing, and you can see the humans like burritos. Pudding was a berry smoothie bowl a piece, topped with fruit and nuts and cookies, one lemon and one chocolate for dipping (or eating whilst waiting for the smoothie bowls to be made). All this came to 32Leva or £16, excellent value for money. We then made the short walk back to our AirBnb, relishing the proximity, and took a wander of the nearby streets as well.
Well, today was a slightly shorter Tail due to the amount of time we spent travelling. I’ll take this opportunity to explain Cyrillic to you, which is how words are written in both Bulgaria and Serbia. So, the Bulgarian alphabet currently contains 30 letters, and when Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, after Latin and Greek, Cyrillic became the third official language of the Union. How nice for it.
Take a look at the picture of the alphabet, the caption below it tells you what each letter is in the Latin alphabet (that’s the one we use in the UK, if you’re confused).
The Serbian alphabet is a little different, using an adaption of the Cyrillic alphabet. Although it is the official alphabet of Serbia, according to the internet, more people actually write in Latin letters. As with the Bulgarian alphabet, the Latin equivalent of the letters are found in the caption below the picture.
Join me tomorrow for our day in Serbia, our final city! Until then, folks. Chesh.
Day 7 - Budapest
Greetings, humans! Welcome back once again, glad you could join me for today’s Tail. Last night’s late night exploring left us rather exhausted and as a result everybody slept in until after 11:00. By the time we had gotten out of bed, cooked a very large breakfast in an attempt to lighten our bags and generally faffed about, it was nearly 1:00 when we were ready to go – a waste of a morning in my opinion.
Anyway, our first stop was the Varsoliget park and gardens which had – oh horrors – a lake and an island in the middle of this lake. We sat on a bench at the shallow end of the lake for an inordinately long time to allow the humans to digest their breakfast, mentally and physically. This large park was strange as it had a fairly major road running through it and Charlie also walked on water which terrified me no end. Luckily, Charlie exited the water and fairly soon we walked away from the pedalo-infested lake. But all too soon, we were back near the lake and crossing a small bridge onto the island which I must admit did contain a rather fabulous collection of old castle-type buildings, although I did note the absence of cannons, this not being a defensive castle. We then returned to the (relative) safety of the rest of the park, although both humans were slightly melting in the 30˚C plus heat. As the AirBnb was only slightly off course from the humans plans, we returned briefly to ‘freshen up’ as I have heard some humans so comically refer to it. By the time we were ready to leave, it was after 3:30 which gives you some idea how long those terrible humans spent staring at the lake.
Our plan had originally been to walk through town, across to the castle and up to Margaret’s Island, all before dinner, but they then changed their minds. Their new plan, and this is truly terrible, was to get on a boat and sail on the river! Even the promise of history during the boat tour was not enough to make me like this plan and so I hid myself firmly in Charlie’s bag for the duration of this trip.
As I was busy faking a coma, I designated Charlie to be in charge of remembering the tour for the purposes of this Tail. The tour started between the Elizabeth Bridge and Chain Bridge. The audio-guide, helpfully provided on every seat of the boats by means of a pair of headphones, was cleverly narrated by Buda and Pest, the two halves of this city. Yes, Budapest was originally two cities, Buda to the west of the Danube and Pest to the east, but they were then connected by bridges and became one, imaginatively called Budapest. We spent almost our entire trip in Pest, if you’re interested. Anyway, the tour gave us some wonderful upside down views of the bridges and some right way up views of the castle, parliament building, many churches and Margaret Island. We also passed under Liberty Bridge to the south before turning around and sailing back up to Margaret Island, passing under Margaret Bridge and Árpád Bridge which are neatly placed to either end of the island. Buda Castle (for it is indeed on the Buda side of the city) was destroyed and rebuilt many times. Buda itself was named after Attila the Hun’s brother who was murdered by Attila when Attila tried to wrest control of the city. This plan rather failed for Attila as the city became named after Buda and all that remained of Attila was a tendency for children to be named Attila.
Parliament took 17 years to be built by a work force of 1000 labourers working every day, it has a concrete slab base 20m below the river but is made of limestone and so is crumbling away. The Slovaks lived here for a bit and mined coal, Hungary at one point was part of the Ottoman Empire. Margaret Island is named after a Princess Margaret who wanted a nunnery built on said island. This wish was granted and the island, which was at one point three islands, gained a nunnery and a new name.
Our tour boat looped around the island and executed a perfect handbrake turn to drop us off on the island. We wandered the island for half an hour where we visited the musical fountain (it was only musical on the hour and disappointingly we had just missed it), a Japanese garden where we saw a dog, a duck, some fish and a terrapin, and the old water tower. We then got back on the boat (why?) and returned to our boarding zone between the Chain and Elizabeth Bridges.
My humans then decided it was dinner time (but what about the castle?) at Nepfényes Etterem. Here, Charlie had a traditional Hungarian dish of cabbage leaves stuffed with sausage and veg (but mostly sausage) topped with a frankfurter sausage, seitan, sauerkraut and yoghurt with a bowl of salad from the salad bar. Jack didn’t have a Hungarian dish and instead had a ‘coal-burner’ pizza (a reference to the coal-mining Slovaks of old perhaps?) which had a lot of cheese, some sausage and onion on it, with a strawberry smoothie. For pudding they had ice cream (again!), caramel and carob for Charlie and caramel and biscuits for Jack. All the food was delicious, and although the humans weren’t exactly hungry after their giant breakfast, they happily packed it in.
Once dinner was finished, we set of back to the AirBnb (but what about the castle?) and vainly searched for souvenirs. Out of options, we returned to the AirBnb empty handed. Not to worry, we’re off to Sofia tomorrow, we can explore more then; we’d better get to the castle! Until then, folks. Chesh.
Day 6 - Bratislava to Budapest
Greetings, humans! Welcome back to another day of exploring and train travel. We started the day by leaving the heavy bags in the AirBnb and going for a walk. Unbeknownst to me, this route took us across a big bridge over the Danube. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience for me until I saw the views back to the castle which is high up on its hill. We reached the other side of the bridge, a place of relative safety, or so I thought. Instead we were now walking along the river which as I may previously have mentioned is a very big river. All this river walking was too much for me and I had to escape to a place I knew to be safe which caused Jack to lose me. I was in a tree, of course. I soon felt sufficiently recovered to continue our walk and inspect a memorial relating to the Armenian genocide in 1915 where the Ottoman government killed 1.5 million Armenians. In 2004 the Slovak government became the 16th country to recognise this massacre as genocide.
I was promised lots of history along the Danube so I must try not to complain too much about the water. We walked some more and soon reached the opposite side of the river to where we had stopped yesterday evening.
I was relieved to discover we had soon reached the next bridge along, on which we met a Slovak butterfly and crossed back to the Danube’s north side where we found more history. This time it was in the form of a plaque, saying something about the 28th October 1918, which was when the Czech and Slovak people joined together to become Czechoslovakia. How lovely. Shame they split up again in 1993.
We continued our walk back through the Old Town streets then it was time for souvenir shopping, where I found a basket of kittens almost as soft as me, all of whom I wanted to adopt and raise as my own and teach my charming ways. This raised parental feelings in me I didn’t know I possessed! Charlie also took me through the same misting device my humans had walked through yesterday which I wasn’t happy about, even if I didn’t get wet.
We were soon back to the AirBnb to collect our big bags and check out. After another Lift vs Stairs race, there’s a slight chance the lift broke, stopping half way between the second and third floors. Again, I’m glad I didn’t get in it!
We were now on our way back to the train station, but we took a nice break in the Grassalkovich Presidential Palace Gardens. This rest was needed as according to an electronic matrix sign in the middle of the road it was 32˚C. Hot, hot, hot!
On leaving the park, we found a lovely plaque which told us on 21st August 1878 (which was a Sunday), these gardens became the first place in the country to have electric lights – how lovely for it – and good news for the assorted houses, factories, parks and streets which soon received this greatest of modern inventions.
We arrived in the station in plenty of time, only to discover the train was 20 minutes late due to maintenance work on the tracks (our train from Prague yesterday was delayed for the same reason and as this train was also arriving from Prague, this led me to believe they were following the same route). Anyway, we were eventually boarded and on our way to Budapest. During the journey the train became 30 minutes late which was unfortunate for the humans but allowed me more napping time. We all very much enjoyed Bratislava, despite my reservations about the Danube and we were all surprised how empty the country’s capital seemed. But then we searched Slovakia’s population on the internet and discovered the country had a surprisingly low population, just 5.4 million people compared to about 70 million in the UK, a country 5 times larger but containing 13 times as many people.
As we continued through Slovakia, just before Charlie and I fell into a comfortable doze, our train stopped, not at a platform, and a large number of people got off our train, walked across the tracks (which did appear to have some kind of walkway at least) and climbed on board another train. This train had in fact been on the platform across from ours when we were waiting at Bratislava. Perhaps the delays meant those travelling from Prague had missed their connection? Whatever the reason, this seemed a rather dangerous business to me.
Charlie and I then proceeded to take a nap and when we awoke, we spotted a red, white and green horizontally striped flag – we were in Hungary! Sure enough, Jack’s phone soon confirmed this, welcoming us to the country. More proof we were in Hungary? We were hungry! A great pun if I do say so myself. We cracked open a box of Ritz crackers and soon our hunger was sated.
Our train finally made it to the station, nearly 45 minutes late. One more questionably safe crossing of passengers between trains occurred, but this time we gained some more people. Soon, we disembarked at Budapest Nyagati. We set off for the AirBnb, just 15 minutes’ walk away where we were shown to our lovely room which contained a fantastic map of Budapest (annotated by our host) and a TV with a box attached (when was the last time you saw one of those?). Charlie also discovered that the toaster is very long- you could toast a baguette in there! But only if your baguette is less than about 6 inches long and as thin as a normal piece of bread. Ok, maybe it’s just for toasting extra tall bread.
We were soon on our way in search of dinner. We had discovered (another) ice cream place on Happy Cow, Hideg Nyalat, which was in the Vegan Garden in the Jewish Quarter. Here Charlie and Jack sampled a few flavours before deciding on raspberry cheesecake and cookies and cream for Charlie and brownie and strawberry for Jack. Although we were meant to be cooking dinner back at the AirBnb, we were in a Vegan Garden, how could we not enjoy dinner here? Both humans chose a seitan burger with cheese, lettuce, onion, cucumber, tomato and orange sauce with wedges and tomato chutney from Las Vegan’s. For those of you who know your Spanish, I didn’t put the apostrophe in the wrong place, that is their name. In fact, the Spanish language doesn’t even use apostrophes in that way. Despite the appalling grammar error, the burgers were absolutely delicious and filling, for once my humans actually waited before going up for dessert from Las Vegan’s’ Vegan Street. Charlie had a caramel brownie torte and Jack had a cinnamon cake. Both were amazing and the humans were now truly stuffed.
They’d better do some walking then. We continued across the Jewish Quarter to the nearby synagogue. The largest synagogue, in fact, in all of Europe. It had been built in memory of the Hungarian Jews who were killed during WWI and the Holocaust of WWII. Although I was expecting it to be big, I wasn’t expecting it to be this big! It was huge! From here, we walked passed some amazing buildings to reach the Chain Bridge. My humans had explicitly promised we would not be visiting anymore rivers today. What I didn’t know was that this was the very same Danube we had visited this morning, so while it may not have been another river, it was more time near water which I didn’t approve of.
Anyway, we crossed the Chain Bridge, which was well lit with lights and the entrances adorned with giant stone lions. My humans wanted to take a lot of pictures, including the lit up castle and parliament building which meant crossing the bridge took a lot longer than it should have done. Finally we reached the other side, turned around and came back. This was so we could take pictures of the parliament building close up. There was also a cathedral up on the hill near the castle, also spectacularly lit. We made it back to the bank and passed the giant parliament building (which appears to be a cross between a cathedral and the British Houses of Parliament) in Parliament Square. We continued to Margaret’s Bridge which leads across to Margaret’s Island (on which more tomorrow) and the other side of the Danube. We crossed only half way as we had been promised stunning night time views of the lit-up Danube by our host. I must give some grudging admiration to this scene, even if there was too much water.
Worn out from a hard day’s walking and travelling, we returned to the AirBnb for a well earned sleep and the unexpected sight of a bat flying passed our window. That’s all for today, join me tomorrow as we explore Budapest some more, by day this time. Until then, folks. Chesh.
Day 5 - Prague to Bratislava
Greetings, humans! Welcome to Day 5, we’re at the half way point now and how fast has it gone?
Our morning started in Prague with my humans desperately trying to find somewhere to spend their remaining 165Kč. They first tried the Loving Hut, a vegan chain restaurant which had premises just a six minute walk from the AirBnb (according to Google Maps). Although for once the humans found the place without difficulty, they had been misinformed regarding the opening times. The trusty Happy Cow App claimed the Hut opened at 11:00, but on arrival we discovered on Saturdays it actually opened at 12:00, ten minutes after our train was due to leave. Slightly disappointed, my humans power walked to Puro and bought a giant burrito with salad and mayo and a chocolate cake topped with a layer of cream then a layer of chocolate icing, somewhat reminiscent of the cake eaten in Warsaw on Day 1. My humans forgot to take pictures so you might as well look at Day 1 to work out what the cake looked like. And I’m sure you can imagine a burrito.
From Puro, the humans continued their power walking (even I will admit this was impressive with their giant hiking bags attached) to arrive at the station in plenty of time for the train. By the time the humans actually got to eat this breakfast (which totalled exactly 165Kč), it was after midday and thus became their lunch. The carriage we were sat in had six-seater compartments instead of the standard rows of seats (which was quite nice) and was air conditioned (which was even better). The four hour journey took us through some wonderful Czech and Slovakian (not Czechoslovakian anymore) countryside and in no time at all we had reached Bratislava. Ok, four hours is four hours and not no time. What I mean is the journey passed very quickly, particularly as Charlie was reading a good book. I approve of this behaviour. I am suspicious of a person who doesn’t read books.
Anyway, on our arrival in Bratislava, we headed straight to the AirBnb. On route, we were initially distracted by the lack of people (this seemed a very empty capital city) and then we were distracted by a park which turned out to be the gardens of the Grassalkovich Palace (where the president lives). Soon we had entered the Old Town area and suddenly the AirBnb was upon us. We (well, the humans) lugged our bags up to the fourth floor and discovered our room, which has great views of the city, even if they were mostly obscured by the shutter blind which was closed most of the way and the humans couldn’t understand how to open it. The views included the Danube (just about) which I wasn’t too impressed with, but there was a lovely old church and we were above the roofs of many of our neighbouring buildings, which makes me feel high up and important (which of course I am).
Soon we were off to explore the city. We wandered over to the castle which was huge and entirely rebuilt in 1953 (I don’t know if it always looked as it does now or not, although it is similar looking to the castles (slash palaces) in Warsaw and Krakow). We walked between the defensive walls and discovered the castle was seemingly outside the walls, but it was up a rather large hill, so that probably made defence easier. The castle was huge and stunning, with more defensive walls and a garden which allowed great views of the city, even if that pesky Danube was visible to the south.
After surveying the castle, we set off in search of dinner. We headed to Balans Bistro where both humans ordered a burger with chips, salad, mayonnaise and red cabbage mayonnaise (probably). Charlie’s burger was the Balans burger, the burger was made of beetroot and chickpeas and was topped with cheese, gherkins, salad, chutney and some other sauces which were probably mayo. Jack’s Mexican burger was made of legumes, with BBQ sauce, cheese, salad, tomato and sauce. Both burgers were amazing and then came dessert. Charlie had another of these chocolate and cream cakes and Jack had a cake with many layers of buttercream, topped with strawberries and jelly. Both were as good as the mains and the humans were thoroughly stuffed.
To walk some of the meal off, we headed back across town to the Danube (why? What have I done to deserve this?). On discovering they couldn’t get any closer than a safety barrier at the top of the bank, my humans stood and looked at the river for much longer than I could ever consider necessary.
Eventually they decided they wanted ice cream (despite still being stuffed) and headed to Luculu’s Ice Cream Saloon (this sounds like something out of the Wild West but I promise it wasn’t, which was a little disappointing). There was a long queue back across the square, but this was clear testament to how popular it was. Anyway, the line moved quickly and we were soon ordering. Charlie had a scoop of chestnut (an unusual ice cream flavour) and one of chocolate nero and Jack had chocolate nero and After 8, both in delicious cones. My humans enjoyed these in a square where some kind of festival with many stalls and a live band was going on.
After the ice cream, my foolish humans were now truly stuffed and following a walk around some of the streets of the square we returned to our AirBnb. Here we engaged in that age old race, Lift vs Stairs. The Stairs (Charlie and I) won against the Lift (Jack) but this doesn’t surprise me as how could I possibly lose? The lift also appeared to be a rather wobbly affair, I was very glad I didn’t ride in it. Age old contest over (well as old as lifts have been around), we entered our room, where we learnt how to work the shutter blind, just as it was getting dark enough for us to not really be able to see out. But we enjoyed the views for a little while anyway.
Well, that’s it for today, folks! Tomorrow we’ll have some more exploring to do and then we’ll be Hungary bound, on a train once more, this time to Budapest. Until next time. Chesh.
Day 4 - Prague
Greetings, humans! We woke up early this morning to discover we had made it! We had arrived in the Czech Republic, or Czechia as they now wish to be called, although I’m not entirely sure why, as far as I understand, they think it will be easier for companies and sports teams to use it as the country will have a shorter name.
Anyway, we had arrived in our second country and we were determined to make the most of it. The train pulled into Prague Hlavni Nadrazi Station right on time at 8:21am. We disembarked quickly, eager to begin our day. Our first stop, although slightly out of the way, was to the AirBnb where the humans were keen to dump their giant hiking bags and continue with their smaller day bags. But they did get confused by the street numbering system and initially couldn’t find it, I think they were looking for the area code, instead of the building number. Useless humans.
Our first official stop should have been the Dancing House, but the humans went the wrong way (I sense a theme emerging) and ended up far away, having crossed a giant bridge. Although the views were fantastic, this being one of the few bridges I have met on these travels which doesn’t cross a river, I was glad to be turned around and back on track. We finally reached the Dancing House aka Fred and Ginger, so named as it (supposedly) looks like two people dancing, not because dancing takes place here. The building actually houses a bar at the top, and is the Nationale-Nederlanden building (a Dutch insurance company). This is a fairly multi-cultural building, designed by one Croatian-Czech and one Canadian-American architect.
Having not yet had time for breakfast what with all the leaving the train and walking in the wrong direction, we took the opportunity for some food near the Vitava River. I wasn’t impressed by the proximity to said river, but I survived. We then crossed the giant river (by bridge, thankfully, the humans didn’t try to swim) and we soon started a much longer-than-expected trek up the side of a veritable mountain (OK, OK, medium sized hill, but it felt like I was being carried a long way). There were some humans I spied cheating as they took the train up. If it’s long enough to need a train, I must admit it is a long way. This hike was all in the name of visiting the observatory and observation tower on Petrin Hill. The observation tower looks very much like a mini Eiffel Tower and I’m sure gave stunning views of the city. However, it cost to climb the stairs and so we investigated the views of the city we did have. We then clambered back down in time for lunch. My humans began to cross another bridge, at least soon we would be back on the east side of the river.
Alas, no, my humans descended to the island in the middle of the river called Kampa Island where they proceeded to sit right beside the river and eat lunch. I was not impressed by this, even the park (trees!) which covered most of the island could not assuage my mood. This island is known as the Venice of Prague which to me sounds like a good enough reason to leave well alone. Finally, lunch was over and we finished crossing the bridge, back to the east side of Prague.
Only to return moments later to cross another bridge! The Charles Bridge is a pedestrian bridge, connecting the Old Town to the other side of the river. Even I could appreciate the beauty of the towers at either end of the bridge but that doesn’t mean we needed to cross it, I could see them perfectly well from dry land. Of course, my humans crossed the bridge anyway, stopping to admire the very many (rather awesome) statues adorning it. Finally, we made it to the other side and set off in search of a park.
My humans decided it would be fine to follow the signs for Pražský Hrad, words which meant neither park nor garden or even trees. Pražský Hrad was close to the gardens on the map and my humans decided this meant it was a good idea to follow the signs to it.
Needless to say, my humans failed to find the park, but did discover a very large, fancy building with some guards stationed in sentry boxes outside. Although the humans didn’t actually know what this building was, they took many pictures and descended a huge flight of steps in search of Prague Castle. On reaching the bottom of these steps, my humans discovered the error of their ways. Hrad means castle (loosely) in Czech and the mysterious large building had actually been the castle. For reasons unknown to me, they decided to ascend these stairs and return to the area they had just photographed and knew they couldn’t enter without paying. If my memory serves me correctly, this is the second castle they have not recognised as a castle, probably because Eastern European castles seem to bear little resemblance to the castles of the UK or many of the other countries we have visited. The castles here are not as ancient as those of, for example, Oslo and Luxembourg. Not being able to get in the castle (which in my opinion looks more like a palace) and visit the cathedral inside, we descended the steps a second time, returning via the Charles Bridge to the Old Town.
Oh no! My human is malfunctioning! Apparently there’s something wrong with Charlie’s hip which means we have to walk slowly and keep stopping to sit down. I will do my best, but this slow pace is wearying.
We meandered through the Old Town, spotting some stunning old buildings, one of which we arrived at simply by seeing a tall fancy building and deciding it was a good place to go. Following this interesting building led us to the Old Town Square where we discovered a clock tower and that our fancy tall building was in fact a cathedral.
My humans then decided that was enough walking of the Old Town and decided it would be a good idea to visit a park near where dinner was planned. Because of Charlie’s hip issue, it took the humans so long to complete what should have been a half hour journey that we decided to head straight to dinner instead. We then discovered the restaurant was actually nowhere near this park and was much closer to the AirBnb, good for a quick getaway after, but this meant a longer journey to get there now.
Moment was a lovely little restaurant serving a wide variety of food. Jack chose a seitan and cheese bagel and Charlie had a quesadilla featuring cheese, two types of bean, sweetcorn and herby ‘soyanaisse’. Both meals went down a treat and desert was ordered quickly. Charlie enjoyed a nougat cake with a creamy nougat icing and walnuts. Jack chose a sweet cup of cream, biscuity-cake and strawberries. Although the humans were stuffed, they rushed through their meals to visit the Blue Vegan Pig on the way back for doughnuts. Disappointingly, when we arrived the doors were locked, the bakery had sold out. As if that wasn’t disappointing enough, the humans had paid cash for their dinner and still had 165Kč left (about £5). What to spend this money on if not doughnuts?
We returned to the AirBnb where we vowed to make use of the money, perhaps we will get breakfast before catching our train to Bratislava tomorrow morning.
Although this has been but a short trip, we have really enjoyed Prague and all it has to offer. We certainly managed to pack a lot into our day.
Well, we’re up to date now and I’m tired. Join me again tomorrow, where I’ll share with you my Tail of Bratislava. Until then, folks. Chesh.
Day 3 - Warsaw
Greetings, humans! Welcome to Day 3. Today was an action-packed day which featured much walking carrying 10kg+ bags. Well, I wasn’t carrying such a bag – who do you think I am?! I was adding to the weight of Charlie’s bag by riding in it. We packed up and left our beautiful AirBnb room. On reaching the pavement, we took a moment to assess which window had actually been ours. We found it quickly and departed in search of an adaptor plug. Although we had bought a plug with us, neither human had thought to check if it would actually work in Polish plug sockets. Needless to say, it didn’t fit, therefore our first trip was to Saturn. Not the planet, don’t be stupid, you can’t walk to a different planet. No, Saturn is an electronics shop. We set off across the city, in the baking sun, my humans weighed down by their bags and me (not that I’m a burden of course). We reached the first Saturn and discovered… nothing! The shop was no longer there and Google had not updated us about this occurrence.
Onwards! To the next Saturn located in Arcadia, a shopping centre. We were relieved to discover this Saturn did still exist and after searching through the crate of many adaptors which weren’t the one we wanted, we did find a UK to Poland adaptor. Mission complete!
Next up was the Old Town, our plan for the day, on the way to which, we passed some information about the Ghetto.
In 1940, up to 400,000 Warsaw Jews were crowded into this ghetto before being sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. In 1943, there was an uprising, the Jews revolted against their Nazi oppressors and, although a large number of them were killed when the Nazis ordered the ghetto to be burnt, up to 300 Nazis were killed too. Wikipedia tells me it was the single largest Jewish uprising against the Nazis during the war. As with the Berlin Wall which we discovered in Berlin (surprisingly enough) last year, the Ghetto Wall had been preserved with the inscription Ghetto Wall/ Mur Getta (in Polish) 1940-1943 running the length of the wall’s route.
Soon we had reached the basilica, a rather grand entrance to the Old Town, which we marched through to admire the beautiful, colourful old houses. As it turned out, a lot of these houses were not, in fact, old at all, but had been rebuilt in this old style after the city was mostly levelled during World War II. This area of Warsaw was much more tourist-infested than the other areas of the city we had visited, there was a particularly high burden of school groups. Despite there being too many people, we had a good old explore of these amazing streets and even found a big bell in the middle of a street. The view of the Vistula was rather terrifying though, but for once the humans didn’t insist on crossing to what may lay on the other side.
Presently, we came to the square which was rather large and contained a giant building which was almost pink! I was particularly happy about this. The humans’ stomachs told them it was lunch time and so we crossed a fancy old stone bridge over a road (a road which appeared to run under the square) and reached a bench in a wonderfully tree-filled area overlooking some houses and far away from the majority of the other humans.
After lunch, we headed off in search of the Royal Castle/ Palace, which turned out to be the big pink building – stupid humans. This palace had been completely destroyed during WWII but was now fully repaired. Some concrete pillars remain on display from the original building.
Although one had to pay to enter, walking around the sides and the courtyard was free, so that’s what we did. In the courtyard was a display about some Polish people, but it was written in Polish so we didn’t really understand what was happening. Charlie’s questionable translation skills don’t stretch to Polish. No matter, we exited the courtyard of the main building and went to observe the Palace with the Tin Roof. This building wasn’t pink, which made me sad, it was grey, but the roof was green, which I did approve of. Having run out of free things to do in the Old Town (and not finding any cannons in the castle), we headed off in search of the secret gardens of the Warsaw University Library. This was a terribly kept secret, the garden was full of people including many more groups of school kids. These gardens were behind the green library building, but also on its roof, accessible by a very long stair case. I’m glad I wasn’t walking it.
We reached the roof to enjoy some stunning panoramas of the city, including a certain giant building with a clock, located very near our AirBnb and favourite ice cream shop. After returning to the ground level gardens and sitting a little while under the shade of a lovely big tree, the humans decided it was time for a final trip to the aforementioned favourite ice cream factory.
It was but a short walk through some more gardens. This time Charlie ordered peanut butter, strawberry and granola and Jack opted for Oreo, banana and strawberry. This final trip went down just as well as the other two, although this time the humans actually stayed on site to eat rather than returning to the AirBnb. In fact, this was my first time entering this shop, having stayed at the AirBnb previously.
Ice cream consumed and two hours until we had to catch our train, we decided to visit a nice park and relax a bit. Unfortunately for me, we never actually made it to this most desirable of locations as the humans got distracted by a war museum. Here many fighter planes, tanks and cannons (!) were on display. We had to take a look around. I must admit I was sold on this idea when I saw the cannons.
I put up with the humans admiring the tanks and aeroplanes for my chance to finally sit on a REAL LIVE CANNON! I was very happy, as you can probably tell. There were even some giant modern cannons, painted in various shades of camouflage. I was in my element! There was also a variety of tanks and planes, dating from WWI to the Cold War, some vehicles were still being used in the 80s, one still into the 2000s. This was a nice, unexpected trip and although I won’t tell them so, I will privately agree with Charlie that this was better than just sitting in the park. There were even some trees and benches here for me to enjoy. And a rather lovely swordfish-nosed plane (I don’t know why… a fashion conscious plane perhaps? Or aerodynamics). And what may be even better – there was an amphibious vehicle, a car that could sail on water. I was very excited as I realised the possibilities. I could travel across water without getting my paws wet. But then I realised such a vehicle already exists. It’s called a boat and I don’t like them – too close to the water. Maybe an amphibious vehicle isn’t so great after all!
All too soon it was time to leave this museum and return to the station one last time. Our departure was rather sped up by the arrival of another school group at the museum meaning we arrived at the train station with half an hour to spare. This was a good thing as our train appeared to be going to Vienna! Or Budapest. Or maybe even Prague, which was where we were hoping it would take us. After looking at the carriage labelling on the platform, it appeared the rear carriages would split from the Vienna train somewhere and continue to Prague unaided. Minor confusion sorted, we waited happily for the train. When it arrived, a guard checked our tickets on the door and rather alarmingly stole our Interrail passes. But not to worry, apparently we get them back at the end of the journey.
We found our compartment where we had two bottom bunks of a six bed compartment. As another two people wouldn’t be joining us until Krakow (the very same station we visited yesterday), we made the most of exploring all six bunks in the compartment. There wasn’t much headroom so we had soon rearranged one middle bunk to make the back of a seat. Settled for the evening, we had a packed dinner and watched the sun set as the train sped across Poland.
We have all thoroughly enjoyed our trip in this stunning country. Although there were several things we couldn’t fit into our Warsaw adventure, such as the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the Neon Musuem, the Vistula beaches and Brzeka Street, featuring pre-war houses and street art, we didn’t feel deprived of entertainment and historical learnings. The humans particularly liked the cheap food and we had a great time sampling the culture and all Warsaw and Krakow had to offer. This country will be missed but not forgotten. So long Poland and thanks for the memories!
Well, that seems about all I have to say to you now! See you in Prague! Until then, folks. Chesh.
Day 2 - Krakow
Greetings, humans! And here I am, back with Day 2. As promised, we are off to Krakow (pronounced Krak-uff). We boarded the 8:15 train and settled down for a four and a half hour journey. It was rather long, but we found ways to occupy ourselves such as observing the beautiful countryside and eating food, an important use of one’s time, I suppose, if one does in fact need to eat. I, however, do not.
The train arrived at Krakow Glowny right on time and my humans, in their over-exuberance to leave the station left by the wrong exit and became very confused. Eventually they worked out where they were and where they needed to be, but by this time I had got bored and was taking a cat nap. To access the Old Town (our first stop), we had to cut back through the station and Galleria (a shopping centre). On next stepping into the sunlight, we were in a large open plaza and from here it was but a short walk over to the city defensive wall which was lovely, huge and well preserved (or possibly rebuilt). Within the city wall was St Florian’s Gate, a fancy gate at the crown of the Royal Route. That was quite a good pun actually (or maybe I mean metaphor?). After a few photos, we crossed through the Gate, and were once more outside the wall. Here was the Basilica which we took a look at and a metal model of the wall. Very nice work.
We then re-entered the city wall and started our walk down the Royal Route. There are many, many churches in Krakow which we took a lot of pictures of, as well as other assorted fancy buildings. We reached the end of the Royal Route and entered the Main Square which was pretty large and complete with another church. The square was rather crowded and featured a surprisingly large number of horse drawn carriages and a batten-twirling display by some children. It was quite impressive but I didn’t really understand it, I suppose it’s not a cat thing. There was also a large statue of a dead poet (the statue is not of a dead poet, the poet it is a statue of is now dead in real life – I thought I should just clarify that) and a large building in the middle which might have been the old town hall.
We exited the square at the south end and wandered aimlessly while we decided what to do next. A helpful map-sign appeared to inform us we were very close to Wavel Hill, a giant fort on the bank of the River Vistula. The very same River Vistula I thought we had left behind in Warsaw. Alas, no, we had not left it in Warsaw. It was following us! We wandered through a lovely (water-free) park with some perfect trees and benches, we didn’t need to go near the river, we could have stayed here for hours.
But no, my water magnets wanted to go to the giant hill fort by the horrid river. We climbed the slope high up to the fort, where we entered under a portcullis (dangerous!) and began to walk around, unsure of how much was free to enter. As it turned out, quite a lot. We began wandering around the battlements where I was severely disappointed by the total absence of cannons. It’s not a holiday if I don’t get to sit on or in (preferably in) a cannon. I will survive though, this isn’t the only castle fort we are planning to visit on this holiday. The views from the battlements were quite spectacular, even if a lot of them did feature the very large river. We then entered the centre area of the fort, where there was a big cathedral with a golden dome and two very tall green towers, one with a bell and the other with a clock which chimed every quarter of an hour.
We returned to the battlements and saw a very cool tall tower, but unfortunately it seemed one had to pay to enter. My feline desire to be as high as possible at all times was scuppered and I had to make do with looking over the battlements at the puny humans below.
My humans then decided they wanted to visit the river (why?!) and so descended from our great height to river level. Thankfully, our visit to the river didn’t last long and we were back up on the battlements not a minute too soon.
We were attempting to make a circuit of the fort but were met with a locked door (how rude) meaning we were forced to double back on ourselves and re-cross the courtyard to once again stand in the fort’s centre. From here, we left through another portcullis into an area which showed us why the buildings of the fort were in such good condition. Floor-to-ceiling scaffolding encased the inner walls of the buildings in this courtyard and renovating work was in progress. Stellar job, folks, well done.
On leaving this courtyard, we were faced with more locked doors (I tell you, that is very rude behaviour) and so we set off back across the courtyard searching for the elusive Dragon’s Den. Yes, readers, there is a real-life fire-breathing dragon living under the fort. As it cost money to visit the dragon, the humans decided not to visit and we finished up our tour of the battlements. So you’ll just have to take my word that the dragon is real!
With two hours left until we had to be back on the train, we decided it was time to visit the Jewish Quarter. Here, to no one’s surprise, we saw a lot of synagogues, although no Jewish priests which was disappointing in comparison to the large number of Christian priests, monks and nuns freely wandering the rest of the city. We journeyed to Szeroka Street, a famous street in this quarter and observed the Jewish Square. Here was a restaurant proclaiming Falafel and Happiness, my humans agreed falafel was a type of happiness. We now had little over an hour left in this lovely city, we hit the souvenir shops via a statue of two mathematicians on a bench, having a mathematical discussion about… well, me, presumably.
We then decided it would be a good time to visit some places outside of the Old Town. We exited the city wall and close to the station found a wonderful blue metal bridge (it could have been improved by being pink, but still, it was lovely). Said bridge turned out to be two bridges, one foot and one train, we crossed the foot bridge, not being a train, and then descended some steps to the road below. From here we wandered up the road to a park which may have been part cemetery or memorial garden. There were a large number of head stone-plaque type things about many people, who I’m sure were very famous in Krakow. Although one was Pope John Paul Two, so we did recognise one of them!
We sat and relaxed in this maybe cemetery until it was time to board the train back to Warsaw. It was a great, fun day trip (with the exception of the water), we took the express train which stopped at only three stations, all in Warsaw. Forget the four and a half hours it took to get here, this return train was only two and a half. According to the board scrolling along above the carriage door, we reached speeds in excess of 150km/h. This is in the region of 93mph for those who like your distances in imperial units.
The journey back was surprisingly quick seeing as our seats didn’t have a window (how dare this be?). Soon we were returned to Warsaw and took the opportunity to revisit Nice Cream Factory – I told you what would happen when food was so cheap!
Charlie’s ice cream was apple pie, Oreo and granola, almost like a chocolate apple crumble. Jack had a cocoa, Oreo and cherry jelly ice cream creation and an apple pie, Oreo and salted caramel milkshake. These two love Oreos it would seem.
All were thoroughly enjoyed by my humans. I get the feeling they’ll be there tomorrow night as well!
Now Day 2 is over, join me tomorrow as we explore Warsaw Old Town and catch our first (and only) night train of this trip as we travel onto Prague. Until then folks, Chesh.
Day 1 - Warsaw
Greetings, humans! It is time! We’re off on holiday, first stop Poland! Well, actually the first stop was the airport, but anyway, Day 1 is set in Warsaw, with some scenes on location at Stansted Airport in the, erm, lovely county of Essex. So, at 5:30am, we hit the road to drive to Stansted. There was a very long queue for bag check-in and Jack and Charlie both reminisced of our recent Benelux trip (see the Benelux Edition) where we travelled with only our hand luggage. As this queue was of no interest to me (refer back to the Before we Begin section for a complete list of all the things which are of no interest to me), I took the opportunity for a cat nap. Once we’d been through that queue, we then had to deposit the bags in the Out of Gauge area because they had too many straps. What is the exact definition of too many straps, one may ask. I am afraid I cannot tell you the answer as I don’t know.
Finally we were through, security was reasonably quick and we headed through to the lounge and breakfast. Nothing stands in the way of these humans and food, I can assure you. The gate was soon called, the humans boarded a train. Wait, what, I thought this was an airport? Oh, we had to get a train to the plane, ok, I’m with you now. We lined up, tickets in hand, ready to board, then… the plane was delayed by 40 minutes. This wasn’t a great start to the holiday, but we did eventually make it onto the plane and we were off!
It was very cloudy as we left the UK behind, which was a good thing as it meant I couldn’t see the sea. After being woken up so early, we all decided it was time for a cat nap. My humans are learning from my example!
Charlie and Jack next woke up over a lot of fields, interspaced with some trees. We were an hour into this two hour flight and guessed we were flying over eastern France or western Germany. I don’t know how we would tell the difference, we were too high up to spot flags, which is my preferred method of country identification. Number plates also work well.
Soon we were descending and know we had arrived in Poland, Warsaw is quite far east, in case you were unaware – although if you’d looked at my helpful map located in Before we Begin, you would be aware. We touched down and were shortly out the airport and looking for the trains. After some confusion, we were informed one must take a bus to the train station and this journey wasn’t covered by our Interrail passes, nor was the train journey. No matter, as we were soon to learn, things are very cheap in Warsaw and the bus and train journey from Modlin Aiport to Warsaw Centralna Station, a journey of approximately one hour cost just 19 złoty or £3.85. You don’t get that kind of value in the UK!
We boarded our bus to Modlin Station, where we disembarked and boarded the train to Warsaw Centralna. Hmm… something wasn’t right, all the seats were reserved. Turns out our 19 złoty tickets weren’t valid on this train. Oops…
We escaped this train at the next station Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki) which coincidentally was the name by which Warsaw Modlin airport used to be known. I can see why they changed it, much less of a mouthful. The train we were meant to get stopped at this station too so we sat down and enjoyed a packed lunch before boarding our actual train and heading into the city. Warsaw, here we come, I hope you’re ready for me!
So, we made it into the city and headed straight for the AirBnb, ready for our holiday to begin. Warsaw, having been mostly destroyed during World War II, suffered an almost complete absence of older buildings, many were built in that lovely 1950s prefab and concrete style. However, there were some beautiful old buildings and a stone proclaiming the distances to various cities, which provided photo opportunities. A lot of Warsaw seems to be underground, the city’s pedestrian subways under the busiest streets are teaming with boutique style shops, selling everything from haberdashery to food to clothing. If you want it in Warsaw, you can probably find it sub-terra.
This subway system initially caused a great deal of confusion for the humans (I was napping again so my navigation skills wouldn’t be called into use), especially as the steps of the subways kept leading out to the middle of the roads, tram stops only it turned out. Eventually the humans got the hang of the system and after taking another wrong turn (this time not subway related) we made it to the AirBnb. The apartment was a combined bedroom-kitchen with an attached bathroom on the third floor (no lift, the host pointed out, but this was no problem for my humans). The room was high-ceilinged and over-looked a Mexican restaurant and what might be a pastry shop marked proudly on the glass as vegan. The high ceilings have facilitated a wonderful cubby-hole to be located above the door, which I lost no time in thoroughly exploring and then claiming as my own.
The room was very warm (as was the day in fairness) so we put the fan on full blast and bathed in its cooling glory. Soon we were cool enough to venture outside the building. Well, I say we, my humans had returned to coolness, I have been as cool as a very stylish cucumber this whole time.
Interesting side note – I have previously referred to my humans as the humans. When did I become so possessive? I may need to take a look at my interior motives.
Anyway, we were soon on the move again. We headed briefly to a whole foods/ deli shop for some food for dinner. It was a nice enough shop and gave my humans opportunity to take in a few more sights. After dropping off our purchases in the AirBnb fridge, we were off again.
Back to the train station, we had to attempt to book some train tickets for our planned trip to Auschwitz tomorrow (cheery, I know). After waiting in two wrong queues, we eventually made it to the right place. Here we took a ticket and waited our turn, like in a medical clinic, not that I have ever been to such. We waited for the nine people in the queue before us to be seen before taking a seat at the desk of a very helpful customer services information–tickets–reservations person. I’m sure there’s a more condensed job description out there but I am nothing if not loquacious and accurate in my writings.
It turned out that rather unfortunately, our Interrail passes wouldn’t be valid on the trains we would need to get to Auschwitz, meaning my humans (but not me) would have to spend 43 zł each way to travel. Although Jack thought this was £43, it actually amounted to £16 each for a return. Not too expensive but the reservations for the Krakow train were free, and included in the Interrail pass, so tomorrow we are hitting Krakow instead.
Reservation made, we headed off to Marszałkowska Housing District (MDM in Polish), which is apparently where the good communists lived in the 50s. We walked most of the length of the large street and although we did see some nice buildings, the socialist architecture and giant statues we were promised remained disappointingly absent. At the very end of the street, we did eventually find the MDM, which was now mostly covered in scaffolding. Ironically, part of the MDM had been converted into a Hotel and another section into a Deutsche Bank, a symbol of capitalism if ever there was one.
Unlike many of my fellow internet users (and many general humans) I am using ironic in its correct literary sense. At least I believe I am. If I am wrong, would that be ironic?
We took a detour down a side street where we discovered some lovely old-ish buildings and the very grand Politechnik, which according to Google was a school. I have my reservations about that, it didn’t seem very school-like. Distraction over, we continued in a circle and approached the MDM from the other end. This area was a plaza, surrounded on three sides by what were once highly-coveted apartment buildings and on the fourth side it met Marszałkowska, the street from which it gets its name. From this side, we could see a sculpture of some socialists and a dog (perhaps a socialist dog?) attached to the wall of the west apartment building, next to a vegan food-stall – my humans’ minds are never far from food. In the centre of the plaza were several very tall, glorified street lights and many cars. There are lots of cars in Warsaw, although not as crowded as London or New York, there are very few (if any) pedestrianised areas, the streets are wide and seem to be designed for vehicular access.
After investigating the MDM, we set off in search of food. This treasure hunt took us passed a vegan burger joint and a vegan bakery serving Polish delicacies. This city, it think it would be fair to say, deserves its title of third best vegan city in Europe (according to our friends at Happy Cow).
We soon made it to the Lokal Vegan Bistro where we settled into our seats and attempted to peruse the menu. As my humans were not proficient in Polish, the English menu was a better choice. The bistro was clearly popular as it had sold out of one and a half of its main dishes. The humans both ordered a fried soya fillet (battered) with potatoes and salad in a yoghurt dressing. The food arrived quickly and all parts were thoroughly enjoyed. The portion was large and totalled 19zł each, the same price as our train tickets earlier!
The humans were so impressed they ordered pudding almost straight away. This was a large slab of Polish chocolate cake, a very thick layer of cream, sandwich between two layers of chocolate sponge of the same thickness, topped with a layer of chocolate icing and a cream floret and a strawberry and vanilla cheesecake. There were real strawberries in the cheesecake but no biscuit base which leads to the important question – can it still be called a cheesecake? Whatever it is called, it was delicious, the filling tasted more like a cross between custard and yoghurt, but this is of course not something to complain about. The chocolate cake was equally good, each pudding costing just 11zł or £2.25.
The humans left the bistro satisfied. Not for long though. After a brief stop in Flying Tiger (which I believe is just called Tiger in the UK) for Jack to buy some Tupperware, we headed for Nice Cream Factory for some Nitrogen ice cream on the same road as the wholefoods shop. Those of you who know the chemical symbol for Nitrogen will understand why it was called Nice Cream.
Here, a huge array of options greeted the humans who could choose any three flavours to make their own unique ice cream. To a soya milk base, Charlie added peanut butter, Oreos and salted caramel sauce and Jack added salted caramel, apple pie and cocoa and we watched our ice cream delights be mixed up and the liquid nitrogen added. Nitrogen vapour flooded out around the bowl in a scene worthy of stage dramatics. The ice cream was ready and absolutely delicious, costing just 14zł each (£2.85). Bargain! Food is stunningly cheap in Poland, which means the humans could end up buying a lot of food. Plans are already hatching for another trip to the ice cream factory.
After a very busy day, my humans made up a packed lunch and dinner for our trip to Krakow tomorrow, hit the shower (I don’t want smelly humans in my life) and crashed in the very comfy beds. I spend the night on the windowsill, pretending I could see the city below through the blinds. I still like to be close to the view. Maybe tomorrow I’ll sleep in the cubby-hole which I have claimed as my own, mostly because the humans can’t reach it.
Join me tomorrow for my travels to Krakow! Goodnight for now, folks. Chesh.