What’s the Bulgarian word for help?

Descending from the mountains of Transylvania we arrived at the Romanian capital of Bucharest in the middle of the afternoon. Following some dodgy directions provided by the hostel and due to some major tram-building works taking up a whole main street that threw us off track it took us over an hour carrying our rucksacks around the city until we eventually found our hostel. We then had a well needed shower as temperatures were still in the mid-thirties and we were pretty hot to say the least!

We headed into the centre of the city to explore the old town on a tour at 6pm. It provided a real insight into the city, particularly the lasting impacts of Nicolae Ceausescu, the previous Communist Dictator, whose regime redefined the city and had a massive destructive influence. His oppressive reign was plain to see, particularly with the enormous Palace of the Parliament, the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, towering over the city. We also learnt how many Romanians had tried to save the old, historical parts of the city. They even moved a whole church by digging it up and rolling it on wooden logs down the city streets! A truly fascinating city we were glad to have stopped there as opposed to just pushing through it, the Communist influence on Eastern Europe cannot be more clear in any other city.

We left Bucharest bound for the Black Sea, taking a train to Constanta where we changed onto one for Mangalia. From there we got on a bus and eventually reached our destination, Vama Veche. This old customs point appeared to have only recently discovered tourism but had a great appeal to it. Rumoured to be a home of hippies and rock and roll the place had a great chilled out feel. We spent a lazy day on the beach before moving on again. We would be leaving Romania for Bulgaria.

From Vama Veche we got on a bus to take us to the Bulgarian border and then got off and walked across. From what we had gathered from the Internet we thought a bus would be waiting for us on the other side of the border to take us on to Varna. There wasn’t.

For about 5 minutes we were thinking about what we should do. We thought about hitching or finding a taxi to take us to the nearest town where we’d hopefully be able to catch a bus to take us on. Then Dad suddenly spotted a car with British number-plates. Hoping to find someone that could help us out he approached and knocked on the window. A surprised Romanian wound it down, though he spoke very good English. It turned out he was a Romanian who worked as caretaker in England and had returned to Romania for the holidays. He was driving into Bulgaria with his Bulgarian wife who had a 20-year high school reunion in Veliko Tărnovo. We explained our situation and that we needed to get to Varna. He said that Varna was on their way and told us to hop in the back. They then drove us the entire 120km to Varna which was extremely kind, and dropped us off at the main cathedral in the city centre from which our hostel for the night was only a street away. As the Lonely Planet guidebook states, something to look out for in Bulgaria really is the kindness of strangers.

Out for the Count

Transylvania: land of mountains, forests and vampires. The supposed home of Count Dracula was the next stop on our trip.

We arrived in Brasov from Budapest at 9.30am after a 14 hour overnight train from Budapest. Not exactly the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had! We hopped on a bus to the centre and then made our way to our hostel. It luckily wasn’t very busy, allowing us to immediately check in and have a well-needed shower! Due to the lack of sleep from the previous night most of the day was a fairly lazy one, with the exception of wandering back into the centre to grab some lunch. By 6pm we were once again in the impressive main square, meeting a guide next to the fountain to go on another free walking tour. On the tour we visited many of Brasov’s main sites including the Black Church and one of the narrowest streets in Europe. A good tour that was very enjoyable.

The next day we caught a local bus bound for Bran Castle. Linked with stories of the notorious Vlad the Impaler, who gained his name from impaling over 20,000 people on wooden spikes in just 6 years, the castle is said to have been a major inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The castle was not particularly imposing from the outside, though in the height of summer it was unlikely to be. However, the inside was a very interesting mix of big, old rooms and little interlocking corridors, and the creaking of the wooden floors as we made our way around did stir some of our imaginations! We made sure to look around the museum of mediaeval torture instruments also located in the castle. Afterwards and feeling a little queasy we headed for some lunch, unsure how much we’d be able to stomach!

The rest of the day was taken up by a trip on the cable car up the mountain next to Brasov for stunning views over the city and a very winding walk back down. The next day we would be heading for Bucharest. Though we were disappointed that we hadn’t seen the famous Count who knows what we may find in the Romanian capital!

Don’t stop the sparty

After a few relaxing days in the Tatra Mountains we headed for Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Arriving late at night we were hit by a wall of heat when stepping off the air-conditioned train and made our way to the hostel, thankfully very close to the station. A patchy night of sleep followed as the hostel too proved to be extremely hot and stuffy.

The next morning we headed into the Old Town to join a free walking tour of the city. This proved to be extremely interesting, particularly the parts about the changes to the city under Communist rule and how many older Slovakians reminisce fondly of the Communist times when everything was provided for them. Later that day we set off on a train to Budapest, glad to have stopped in Bratislava where the contrast of the old city and the modernist city constructed by the Communists was definitely worth seeing, though there was no doubt in our minds that it is certainly a one or two day city.

We arrived in Budapest to more high temperatures and headed for our hostel for the next three nights, Wombats. On the way there we bumped into a girl I know from uni, it is a small world after all! That night I went for a drink with her and some of her friends in the famous ‘ruin bars’ of Budapest. These bars are literally situated in ruins and manage to achieve an effortless cool with minimal but weird decor.

The next day was a fairly lazy one due to temperatures once again hovering around 40 degrees. However, that evening, when the air was cooling, we once again went on a free walking tour. Again this was very enjoyable. One highlight was at the fountain in Liberty Square which has motion sensors that turn off the water when you approach, allowing you to walk over the areas that moments ago were spouting water. However, for one unfortunate English girl they did not turn off quickly enough and she was completely soaked! The tour ended around 9pm and we made our way back to the hostel through a city that clearly appeals to young people though which we were quickly growing to like.

The idea that Budapest hugely appeals to young people was even more apparent the next night. For the whole day the hostel was buzzing, excited for the ‘sparty’ that was on that night. Basically a party in the biggest thermal baths in Budapest the ‘sparty’ held every Saturday night had a great reputation and people were clearly excited for it. Keen to go I picked up a ticket and joined a couple of others I knew who were also going drinking with a load of very loud Australians in the hostel bar. After a couple of hours and way too many cheap Hungarian spirits we set off for the baths.

Getting off the metro we could almost immediately hear the music pumping from the baths and as we approached we saw the lights inside. Getting more and more pumped we went through the entrance and down to the locker rooms to leave our towels and valuables. We then headed outside to a sea of people in one of the thermal pools, surrounded by bars and a DJ on a stage above the pool. Needless to say a great night ensued! The only downside was having to walk back to the hostel in the pouring rain after finding out that the metro had closed, but not even the rain could dampen the experience!

Don’t ever put your bag in the back of a Polish minibus

After a very scenic train journey we arrived mid-evening in Zakopane and checked into Target Hostel, where we were reunited with Sami from Finland who we had met in Krakow. There were very few of us in the hostel as this resort town is only really busy in the ski season and the hiking months of July-October. Therefore after making some food it was a very quiet night in.

The next day we decided to take one of the cable cars in the area up to a viewpoint. The highest cable car in the area was unfortunately closed for repairs, but we were still able to get up fairly high on another and were greeted with fantastic views of Zakopane and the mountains surrounding it. Walking down a steep footpath back into the centre we stopped for a well needed beer! That night we went to a restaurant that served local food and left absolutely stuffed, having greatly enjoyed the food that was mainly meat that had been slowly roasted on a barbecue.

Up relatively early the next day we got on a minibus to Poprad, Slovakia at 9.15. We intended to visit Aquacity, a water-park there, before continuing to Bratislava on the train. Another scenic journey through the mountains ensued and we duly arrived in Aquacity around 2 hours later. We got off the minibus, looking forward to a few hours swimming in good weather. However, when the boot was opened to collect Dad’s bag (there had been no space for mine and so I had it with me on the minibus) it was nowhere to be seen. Very shocked and worried we tried to figure out what we should do. We wrote down a list of everything that had been in the bag, thankfully there was nothing of any value as that was all in our smaller bags. We had passed through the main bus station in Poprad just a few minutes before we arrived at Aquacity, and had only stopped a handful of times at smaller stops on the rest of the journey, so we thought that the bag must have been taken from there. Deciding to return to the bus station we aimed to look around the streets next to it, hoping that if someone had stolen the bag they would have realised it contained nothing of value and dumped it somewhere. We approached the driver of the minibus to ask if we could get a lift back to Poprad. He asked us what the bag looked like and so we said it was black and described its shape. The bus driver, though his English was very limited, told us that he thought he had seen a blonde woman around 30-35 take the bag off at one of the smaller stops. He pointed out which stop it was and we asked if he could take us there on his return journey. He said that was fine, clearly slightly embarrassed about the whole situation.

About 20 minutes later we arrived at the stop and started looking around trying to find the bag, thinking that it may have been dumped behind a building or a wall. It was looking very unlikely that we would find it. Approaching a small wooden hut in the corner of the car park in which the bus stop was situated I noticed a sign that said ‘Parking Attendant’. A man was sat inside and I suggested to Dad that we should ask him if he had seen anything. Dad was hesitant to ask but I decided that it was worth a try. Nearing the booth I suddenly spotted a black bag on the floor of the booth. Asking Dad to see if it was his it turned out it was, untouched and with everything inside! The only reason we can think of for this is that someone took the bag out of the boot to take their’s out and forgot to put it back in, thus leaving it in the middle of the car park where it was collected by the parking attendant who put it in his office.

Thanking our lucky stars we waited in a nearby cafe for the next bus back to Poprad, determined to not let the experience ruin our day and still enjoy ourselves and relax in Aquacity. Dad ordered a coffee and a shot of vodka to calm himself down whilst we waited. Needless to say he needed it! About half an hour later another bus bound for Poprad pulled up in the car park. We went to get on and as we did the bus driver asked us a question that we certainly knew our answer to: “Would you like to put your bags in the back?”

There’s always a first time in a police car

After a very good night out with some of the others staying at Hostel Mosquito the next day brought with it our final day in Kraków. Up at around 9am we set off on the tram for the museum at the renowned Schindler’s factory brought to international attention in Spielberg’s film. The exhibition turned out to be extremely good, with a very thoughful layout taking you through the history of Kraków from its prosperous pre-war times to it’s experiences and changes under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. It also included personal accounts from those working in Schindler’s factory and their gratitude to Schindler for making the factory one of the best places for a Jewish person in Kraków at that time to work. 

However, after leaving the museum the day suddenly took a turn for the worse. A mix up with the tram system and a run in with some ticket inspectors meant that about half an hour later we found ourselves being bundled into separate police cars heading for the main police station in Kraków. Faced with threats of not paying the fine and not keen on spending the night in a Polish police cell we confirmed the amount, and after a trip to the bank to take out the necessary funds and handing over the money headed on our way a bit shaken up. 

Heading to the Rynek Underground Museum where we had booked tickets for an entrance slot earlier on, that we had clearly missed, we were shown kindness by the ticket seller who felt sympathetic and arranged for us to go into the museum right then even though we should have arrived about two hours earlier. Our luck was proving to be changing, though it was hard to focus clearly on the museum and the museum experience was therefore slighty detracted from. After a quick look round we headed back to the hostel to collect our bags, looking forward to getting on our next train. We would be heading for the Tatra mountains that lead into Slovakia, keen to be escaping cities for a few days and getting some fresh mountain air.

Just as we were leaving the hostel with all of our bags the hostel staff gave us a few stickers with the hostel’s logo on. They said that we should try and get a picture with the stickers stuck in an adventurous location and send it back to the hostel to be put up on a wall they had there. I said it was a pity we didn’t have one earlier that day, we could have put one in Kraków’s police station!

So Dad is too old for hostelling!

After a few very good days exploring the streets and sights of Prague we continued on our journey. Our first experience of the rail system in Eastern Europe was to be an overnight train from Prague to Kraków, the city which used to be the Polish capital. Departing at 22.29 and arriving at just before 07.00 the journey was a little cramped in a 6-bed dorm, with bunk-beds three storeys high and about a metre separating the two sets. However, we were lucky in that we were sharing the dorm with just an Austrailian couple and that the beds were comfy enough, allowing both myself and Dad to get a semi-decent nights sleep before our early arrival.

Upon our arrival in Kraków train station we walked outside and, spotting a map, we tried to locate our hostel with the strange name of Hostel Mosquito. We knew that it was close to the train station and we found it on the map just a couple of streets away. We arrived and got buzzed into the building, instructed to come up to the second floor. First impressions of the building were not good, it reminded us of a classic Communist-era building, and not a good one! However, we duly reached the second floor and were pleasantly surprised to find the hostel extremely well decorated and welcoming. Needless to say we were very relieved having booked two nights here!

We had booked these two nights in a 12-bed dorm and whilst checking in we discovered that there was an age-restriction for those staying in dorms in the hostel, 18-45. Therefore the question was answered, Dad is too old for hostelling! However, these restrictions luckily turned out to be more like guidelines and the hostel staff said that they were happy for Dad to stay in the dorm as long as he was okay with it, as people may be coming in at all hours. Naturally he was, joking that he may be the one coming back at 5 in the morning!

We spent the rest of the day exploring Kraków, beginning in the market square with a coffee overlooking the square, observing as it gradually began to fill with tourists and horses and carriages. We made sure to catch the bugle playing from the tower of St Mary’s Church, which suddenly cuts off in memory of a past bugle player warning the city that it was under attack before being struck dead. From the square we made our way to Kraków’s castle, exploring the grounds and seeing the “real fire-breathing” dragon outside of the castle’s walls by the riverside. Picking up lunch from the market next to our hostel we had a quick break and then headed out again, this time joining a free walking-tour of the Jewish quarter of Kraków. On this tour we stopped at many sites including multiple locations used for filming the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List as well the site of the old Jewish ghetto created during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Following a similar theme of Jewish history in Nazi-occupied Poland we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau the following day, reaching the museum site by train. Neither of us were as shocked as we thought we might be by the exhibits on show, even though these include 2 tonnes of real human hair and over 40,000 pairs of shoes belonging to the former inmates of the concentration camps. What we were shocked at though was the enormous scale of the camps. Birkenau was particularly hard to take in, having been comprised of 360 buildings over 420 acres as well as 4 gas chambers, now in ruins. The day truly was a sombre experience but one incredibly worthwhile!

After returning to the hostel we found some of the other hostellers planning to go out in Kraków, some for the fifth or sixth night in a row! Picking up some beers from the supermarket across the street I joined in for some drinking games and a night out on the town. Dad was invited but politely declined. Like I said, maybe he’s too old for hostelling!

And so it begins…

And so it begins. Three weeks in Eastern Europe with my dad. What have I let myself in for!

We arrived in Prague at 7pm local time after a very stress-free journey thankfully not affected by French strikes. Still very warm when we arrived we decided to head out, both driven by a mutual longing for a beer and something to eat. Having asked the hostel receptionist for a recommendation of somewhere close by with good, local food we were directed just a few doors down to “Lokal”. We were certainly not disappointed with authentic Czech food and, more importantly, authentic Czech lager!

Feeling very content we briefly wandered along Charles Bridge before heading back to our hostel for the next two nights, Hostel Mango, conveniently just a street away from the bridge.

We’re in a 6-bed dorm tonight, time to see if Dad is too old for hostelling!