Flight Control 01Aug09 | [stylianou] 1

Absolutely sick of the sight of each other, we woke each other up at about eleven o’clock through trading expletive-laden insults.

Thank God this trip is over.

With each of us taking an absurdly long time to shower, we left the flat in search of some breakfast.  Sadly, as it was the beginning of the month, nowhere was open, so naturally we thought we’d do a bit of sightseeing before eating.  On the way, we saw an apartment block, just around the corner from ours, surrounded by sapeurs-pompiers and the remnants of smoke.

Nothing to worry about.  Ticking off Hôtel des Invalides, where Napoleon is buried, it was time to find an adequate eatery.

Off we went to that lovely (albeit pricey) café near Tuileries, again.

Surrounded by only Francophones, we spent a nice mid-morning (which turned into early afternoon) having brunch.

Eking out our final hours in continental Europe, we wandered back to the flat where we packed our bags.  It suddenly dawned on us that this was the end of 2009’s trip.  Apocalyptic weeping ensued.

NM dropped off our key to his covert operative while I waited in the downstairs entrance to the apartment building.  I fretted that the Russians had enacted their revenge on the metro and I’d be having an awkward conversation with Mr & Mrs Manners as to why their son was the victim of a Soviet skinning…

But it was alright; NM returned, just in time for a final photo-call before our taxis arrived.  NM was due to be jetting off from Paris-Orly for a familial rendez-vous in the South of France, whereas I was due to  be getting a flight from Paris-Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle (CdG) back to the UK.  We parted, saving any public displays of emotion.  We’re men, remember?

I arrived at CdG twenty minutes after my comrade had initiated contact to notify me of his arrival at Orly, and I began my wait for 1730hrs, before I could check in for my 2015 flight.  It’s really not a great airport.  I picked my seat and checked myself in on that funky British Airways machine and was licking my lips in anticipation of the paid-for meal I might receive later.  It would be a far cry from easyJet.  Through the degrading ritual known as the security check and I was airside.  A chocolate bar here, a chocolate bar there and parental presents were sorted.  Now for the inevitable wait at the gate.  It’s really not a great airport.

Sooner or later (well, it was quite a bit later, actually, as I watched the ground baggage handling staff make an absolute mess of putting the cargo containers onto the plane…), I boarded my flight.  Behind a French lady, her husband and two daughters, who appeared to be gripped with something worse than Swine Flu:  Swine Flu Paranoid Hysteria.  Yep, that’s right, this French famille were kitted out in face masks.  Needless to say, I started sniffing and coughing and spluttering as much as I could behind them.

Picking up all of the free newspapers on my way to the plane, except the Mail, I was left with Le Figaro, Liberation and The Times.  The cabin crew, believing my journalistic choices were indicative of citizenship, directed me to my seat in French and that was pretty much the most exciting thing that happened to me on that little hour-long journey.  I sat next to two miserable Australian adolescents; I was given a coffee and a chicken wrap; I landed at the bleak, overcast London Heathrow Terminal 5.

My bags, miraculously, weren’t lost, and neither were my parents, who were waiting for me at Costa.  One more stop on my journey – Burger King – and I was back in the confines of South West Surrey.  At the end of my travels, I blithered about continental Europe while uploading more photos.

interthink 2009 was definitely a brilliant one.  And now, what next?  We’ve been to practically everywhere in Europe, save for Scandinavia and a select Eastern bloc.  There’s plenty more miles to be had, I can guarantee, and plenty more border-transcending travelling to be done.  After all, there’s only so many things I can take photos of in Guildford, and our ‘cabaret double-act’ show (thanks Tamara!) simply must go on…

Oh, no.  This trip is over.

Concorde et canards 31Jul09 | [manners] 0

Today didn’t properly start until quite late by our standards. We weren’t out of the flat until at least midday so we decided to grab the metro to Place de la Concorde and sit down at a pricey but delicious café that I had been taken to before. NS was pleased, I had done well.

After a lovely French brunch, we walked down through the Jardin des Tuileries and through the centre of the Louvre.

This was followed by a walk west by the Seine through the not-so-aptly named Paris Plage (they tried, bless them, there was a small amount of sand…) and across the river to Ile de la Cité. This is the isle in the middle of the Seine with Notre Dame on it. We didn’t stop, but passed through and admired the building. Speedy sightseeing.

We crossed over to the other side of the Seine and NS was in his element as we passed several second hand and vintage book stalls. Since the start of this trip, NS has been on the lookout for a gem, a book or object that he will appear with on Celebrity Bargain Hunt in 30 years and be told he could sell it for a 60,000% markup. Thus far in the trip, he has been unsuccessful…and today was no exception.

All this book hunting obviously took its toll on the poor young Cypriot, as he promptly refuelled his tanks on a Nutella crêpe before continuing any further. Further, in this case, was the Jardin de Luxembourg; another set of palace gardens that provided a lovely backdrop for the pleasantly warm Parisian summer afternoon.

On they way back to the flat, we passed by the Montparnasse Cemetery and NS recognised several of the famous people buried there; including that carmaker Mr Citroen, l’écrivain Samuel Beckett and a certain Jean-Paul Sartre.

We found Sartre’s grave, which was bizarrely enough covered in used metro tickets among the poetry and drawings in various languages. Upon further inspection however, the tickets had various messages on them to the deceased playwright, philosopher and thinker.

We failed to find any other of the graves we intended to as it is a very large cemetery, but we did have a shock on the way to the exit. We passed a family grave that had four members deceased in 1942 and the French inscription read, “À ma famille Dikerman, exterminée à Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

This was shocking, to say the least, such a poignant reminder that something we had seen weeks ago, a thousand or so miles away had had such a profound effect here. Again, the enormity of the horrific actions perpetrated during the second world war hit home. “Shocking” is the only word I can think of.

We came back to the flat for a shower and a small amount of blog maintenance and then it was off to the duck restaurant that I had been so eager to visit again since my stay here during Christmas.

The duck restaurant was actually called Sud-Ouest & Cie and it was fantastic. Over a bottle of very nice Bergerac we enjoyed foie gras, slices of duck in honey/fruits of the forest and profiteroles. Having such wonderful food while a Paris summer sunset during is one of the finer experiences in life and is recommended to all.

The day didn’t finish quite there though, as we still had some drama left in us.  On the metro home, one stop before our destination, a man, who appeared to be homeless and drug-addled, dived out of the train just before the doors shut.  His bag, however, was left on the seat opposite.

Being British and self-important, we didn’t make the natural assumption that the man had been too high on god-knows-what to notice he’d forgotten his luggage, so we therefore landed at the logical conclusion that we were about to be blown to bits.

The concerned citizens of a fellow EU member state, we marched up to the ticket office upon disembarking the train.  NS then expertly co-ordinated his French language skills to detail what had happened.  His A-level French was definitely worth the money.  Nevertheless, I provided essential help to confirm the station at which the incident happened – Pasteur.  The man at the ticket office promptly phoned the appropriate people.

I guess our medals must be in the post…

Paris, Je t’aime. Or, An Arrondissement Adventure. 30Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

Up early for the final time on our journey, we packed our bags over croissants served by the lovely Janet. Then, graciously accepting more sandwiches, we left Brussels.

Now, we’ve been on some average buses, and some nice trains.  We’ve been on some average trains and some nice buses.

However, once at Bruxelles-Midi, we boarded a Thalys train.  For those in the know, this was a rebranded SNCF TGV.  For the uninitiated, this was one step below the luxury of the Eurostar, but travels at the same speed.  That’s right, to get to our final stop, we were travelling on the Concorde of trains.

Casually dozing at 300km/h, we woke up at Paris Gare du Nord.

Once we’d arrived en France, NM took me for a top-secret rendezvous at the entrance of an unnamed metro station to pick up our safehouse key from a clandestine interthink sympathiser.  Then, it was off to a lovely flat in the 15ème arrondissement.

Not wanting to over-cliché the most beautiful city in Europe (damn.) on our first day, we decided to take a late-afternoon stroll up to Sacre Coeur, after checking out the Moulin Rouge.  Moral vs. less-than-moral.  We’re all about balance.

Featuring a terribly tourist-laden wade through Montmartre, autrefois Amelie, now host to a deluge of portrait “artists”, we settled on a café with a prixe-fixe dinner menu.  Paying 24 Euros for a sub-average meal (although I did have a nice half-lobster starter) was not a high point.

A placating walk home accompanied by a short metro ride and we decided to pop in one of our host’s grand selection of DVDs.  Being rather up on the historical events in question and having visited certain places of note, we decided to watch Schindler’s List.  Three hours and seven minutes of breathtaking, moving cinema later, and we were long overdue for some rest.

Mussels near Brussels. 29Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, Nick Stylianou, Nick Manners.

We were to join the list of famous people associated with Belgium’s picturesque medieval town: Bruges (or Brugge, if you’re native).

With sandwiches packed by Janet and a cooked breakfast inside us (at no additional cost), we managed to haul ourselves onto a completely packed train from Bruxelles-Centraal to Brugge.  Seriously,  my leg occupied space shared between three Belgian men and the entire torso of a dog.  This Bruges place must’ve been popular.  It also might have something to do with us not getting a train until midday, because we had a lie-in. See?  This is what happens when you give in to fatigue!

Rolling off the train we sauntered towards the central part of the town, aiming for two large, old-looking towers.  The map in our RGTEOAB (Rough Guide To Europe On A Budget, our Bible) was little more than a sliver at the side of a page, so we were convinced we could leisurely complete all the sights-to-be-seen.

On the way, we saw the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, which is a bit of a mess of a building, but it interestingly houses the delicate marble Madonna and Child by Michaelangelo.  Sometimes Europe spoils us, you know.

Next: lunch. (Our sandwiches had long-since been eaten.) And we all know what comes with lunch, don’t we? Beer.

Sitting down in the Markt (the central square with gabled buildings on three sides) and picking something typically Belgian from the menu over a frankly disproportionately large glass of Hoegaarden, NM went for moules-frites and I went for a ‘Belgian endive’.  I had no idea what that was, but seeing as it came with ham, I doubted that I’d need appropriate snorkelling equipment. (No?)

As it turned out, a Belgian endive was a sort of mashed-potato-with-melted-cheese-and-a-bit-of-ham-and-what-looked-like-a-leek-sort-of-hotpot-sludge-thing.  It was alright.  And then I helped NM finish his mussels, which was very nice.  And then we decided to climb the Belfry.

This turned out to be a massive error of judgement.  Hoegaarden wheat beer + potato-and-cheese-endive + moules-frites + about 200 very steep, tapering stairs = incredible, crippling indigestion.  The views from the top were nice, as I struggled to not black out/revisit my internal organs outside my body.  The building dates from the thirteenth century.  I was praying the mussels we’d ingested were slightly more recent.

We admired the Burg, a smaller central square, and reached ground level to have a prolonged rest before attempting to move to the fairly impressive Basilica of the Holy Blood, which contains The Actual Blood Of Christ*.

*might not actually contain the blood of Christ.

Still, having paid nothing since our entry to the Belfry, we thought it’d be best if we lightened our load of Euros on some more attractions, so off to the Stadhuis, where, ina beautifully turreted (and sandstone-laden) façade, we could see the magnificent Gothic Hall in all its glory.  Hosting New Testament scenes and Romantic paintings depicting the history of the town, the calming audioguide finally soothed my aching insides.

Included in our modest ticket price was the nearby alderman’s mansion, or the infinitely more complex Renaissancezaal ‘t Brugse Vrije.  It’s only got one attraction, which is a massive sixteenth-century marble/oak chimneypiece carved in honour of the ruling Hapsburgs, who are predictably portrayed with enormously flattering codpieces.

A quick visit to your bog-standard cathedral and all of a sudden it was almost five o’clock.

We went to buy our fantastic hosts some chocolate and some champagne to show our gratitude, while taking a leisurely walk back to the train station via a lovely park/river combination.

We had another fifty minutes to kill at Brugge train station, so we naturally thought we’d pay homage to the film and discuss issues of guilt, morality and redemption.  This was short-lived, but it was a step up from discussing which birds were most suitable for a licking.

Now, interesting to note was that our train was at 1758. Up until 1750, the train platform was deserted.  At approximately 1755, people were filtering into the station and appeared to be waiting for the same train.  At 1757, however, when the train arrived, it seemed as though Brugge was conducting an entire evacuation of the town through this one train.

Somehow, we ended up seated near a drunk Francophone Belge who was sitting on the floor crying to everyone (including the Flemish Brugge contingent) that he “was not an animal” and a Spanish couple with friendly toddler (who liked my purple t-shirt) who had been to the zoo.  It was like having my language A-level exams simultaneously, and I thought my head would explode with animal vocabulary and the subjunctive.

Once in the safe confines of Brussels, we hopped on the metro to the end of the line at Stockel, and found a lovely roast chicken dinner waiting for us upon our arrival!  Staying up until very late learning all about the European Commission and forming the ultimate antidote to the UKIP misinformed, we finally retired to bed shortly before midnight.

We were well-fed, well-informed, and well onto the final leg of our trip.

ICE, ICE, Baby 28Jul09 | [manners] 0

Today was interthink’s surprise bumper edition surprise stop in Köln, or Cologne as it’s known in English. The cathedral, as luck would have it, was just outside the station where we had two hours to make our connection from the sleeper train to the ICE to Brussels.

The cathedral, although not extensively decorated inside made up for it in sheer size and architectural grandeur.

It was another box ticked. Cologne…done.

Onto the ICE it was and we in speed and style we were whisked into Brussels. The train itself was comfortable and frankly, gorgeous.

Upon arrival at Bruxelles-Midi we acquired a taxi and were driven to our temporary residence for the next two nights, Hotel Lina (Auntie of NS). I say hotel, but it was far better than that, as upon arrival we were met by the ever-pleasant Janet, Lina’s housekeeper. She was immediately helpful and volunteered for the frankly dangerous task of attempting to wash her clothes. After getting her to sign the customary waiver accepting no liability for any injury sustained while handling our clothes, we showered and made our way back to the centre of Brussels for our half-day or so of sightseeing.  Our metro station had just been repainted to feature characters from Tintin, which we thought was cool.

Today we did very well for lunch. In a square just off the Grand Place NS had a croque-madame and I had one of the most delicious salads I’ve ever had (with baked goat’s cheese, smoked salmon and a honey-scented glaze). With a ice-cream-laden waffle to finish off we visited the beautiful Grand Place that contains the town hall and a variety of other gorgeous buildings.

We then walked through the streets up to the cathedral and then on to an exhibition dedicated to the Belgian hero – Tintin, but due to the high price we decided against going in. Coming back to the centre we went to the upper town that included the glorious Park-de-Bruxelles that opened out onto the Royal Palace.

Having been to many such venues across the course of this trip, we were not expecting much, yet the interior was gorgeous. However, the highlight was a science exhibition that would have had us playing around on the practical (and…er…children’s) exhibits for hours had closing time not quickly come and the power been turned off.

After seeing a few more churches NS took me to see the Mannekin Pis – in what turned out to be a strong contender for ‘Biggest Disappointment of the Trip’. It is literally a 30 cm tall statue of a pissing boy. No other country would even count it as a tourist attraction.

At this point – after pausing for a particularly messy chocolate waffle – we headed back to the house on the metro.

Here I met Lina, a lovely woman and an excellent hostess. There was nothing her and Janet could’ve done to be more welcoming and this culminated in one of the best meals of the trip: a Cypriot version of lasagne that was delicious followed by one of the best puddings ever. I cannot really describe it as its name doesn’t accurately describe what was in it.

But, needless to say, as for any dessert to get my thumbs up it was chocolatey, very chocolatey and insanely tasty. After much very pleasant and interesting conversation our eyes began to droop and we headed to our private rooms (yes, private, no strange foreigners to chat to – a nice change) and hit the hay in preparation for our trip to Brugges the following morning.

Pretty in Pergamon 27Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

The morning after our pub crawl came and after we’d blearily packed our bags and checked out of the hostel, we groggily made our way to Potsdamer Platz for a much needed hangover cure of whatever meaty dish was available.

Over a schnitzel and a burger, we remembered meeting two girls who looked remarkably similar to two girls we knew from Guildford.

More than just a coincidence, we remembered that these two sets of people were one and the same, and my phone buzzed with text messages and phone calls simply begging to experience our famous sightseeing tour.  Renowned for our incredible landmark-absorbing technique, we soon instructed the girls to meet us at  our brunch stop and we promised a whistle-stop trip around the stuff we’d seen and a slightly longer trip around the stuff we hadn’t seen.

Wandering down towards the Topography of Terrors, we remembered that for some reason other people like taking photos of each other in foreign locations, so stops were made to accommodate for this.

The Topography of Terrors, under construction, was to be a phenomenal exhibition housed in a revamped site on the former SS headquarters.  To be completed in 2010, we’d arrived a bit early, so we had to make do with reading the placards of SS members and detailed accounts of the organsational structure and rise to power of the Nazi Party outside.  In the sunshine.  Somehow, we coped.  The most disturbing thing I saw was the seemingly normal photos of people celebrating their birthdays, in mundane-looking meetings and conducting inspections, briefly forgetting that these SS members and Nazi Party officials were responsible for terrible atrocities.

Onto Kochstrasse on the metro, to wander to the West Berlin Starbucks and enjoy the delights of capitalist globalisation while the girls saw Checkpoint Charlie and equally reviled at the tourist feel to the place.

Picking a museum by cross-referencing Uncle Steel’s recommendation, our bible (The infallible ‘Rough Guide To Europe On A Budget’) and Jo’s ‘Top Ten: Berlin’, we picked a museum to go to from the vast array Berlin has to offer.  It was to be the Pergamon Museum.

Built entirely around housing the giant Ancient Greek Pergamon Altar, which was somehow recovered and transported to Berlin, we were given a detailed audio guide and spent a good while admiring the frieze around the base as well as learning the history behind its construction.

The incredible detail of the motifs on each piece were also something we baulked at.  The altar itself was understandably the main attraction, yet there was still a lot more to explore.

The museum had three more exhibitions, as well as the following structures:

We had our work cut out.  The absolutely huge classical hulks of architecture made us feel just like ants.

Aside from the mammoth structures, one exhibition was simply entitled ‘Dionysus’, and told the story of the Greek god of, in a word, excess, and we learnt about the origins of his myth and the reason behind his differing depictions.  Along with the statues, there were also some pretty cool masks which were worn when carrying out the orgiastic drinking and revelry depicted on nearby pots.

Another wing was devoted to the brand new ‘Return Of The Gods’ exhibition, with a small variety of artifacts of each major classical deity, with an explanation of each god’s historical portrayal.  What wasn’t mentioned, however, was that Aphrodite was from Cyprus.  I was inconsolable.

Upstairs was the Islamic and Eastern Art exhibition, which had your standard fare of tapestries, crockery and colourful carvings.  Less predictable, however, was the entire recreation of an Aleppo Room recovered from across Syria and Jordan

Extremely modern, well-informed and well-thought out, the museum was an impressive insight into the classical world – not to be missed.  I was incredibly glad we’d picked this museum above all others, although my heritage might owe something to my favoured affinity with classical Greek mythology…

The most important initiation of all was about to take place for our wannabe-interthinkers:  beer o’clock.  Not greeting it with as much gusto as previously hoped, more photos were taken by the girls while we enjoyed a wheat-beer Paulaner.

Feeling a little peckish by this time from our alcohol intake and expended energy appreciating antiquities, we stopped at another important landmark:  Dunkin’ Donuts.

A six-pack was more than enough to tide the four of us over and it was soon time for the genders to separate.  Saying our goodbyes, boys went south and girls went north.

Returning to our hostel to pick up our bags from a Lady GaGa T-shirt-sporting Berliner (in every definition of the word), Uncle Steel arrived to take us out for dinner.  In a twist of generosity for his impending lift to the Hauptbahnhof, we bought his coffee for him.  We’re smarter than we look.

Returning to the remarkable Berlin station with its umpteen platforms and umpteen floors, we remarked on how nice it was to have our trip broken up by some friendly faces from home.  Oh, and we waxed lyrical to each other about how cool the station was.  Seriously, it’s a feat of engineering.  Ask Mr. Manners.

With my Uncle and our friends now just a distant memory and meeting a high-school couple from The Bronx, we boarded the couchette of our night train at 0032 for a well-deserved six hours of sleep.

Bahn crawl. 26Jul09 | [manners] 0

Today we did what we do best and headed off into the Berlin wilderness for some culture. But before that was breakfast, which we couldn’t find anywhere as it was a Sunday. NS vetoed a Subway so onwards we went, eventually walking to the Kurfurstendamm, or ‘the K-dam’ to its friends.

Here were the remains of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche Church. The old part of this building (please don’t make me spell it again) had been heavily damaged during WWII with only the tower remaining. It was decided to leave the ruins of the church as a reminder of the horrors of war and build a new church with the same name beside it. Both were great structures in their own right, the original in its imperial magnificence and the modern with a fantastically blue and calming glass interior.

But culture-vulturing cannot be sustained on an empty stomach so to Dunkin’ Donuts it was for a bagel and – surprise surprise – donuts for breakfast.  Onwards past the zoo and up to the western extremity of the Tiergarten (200 hectares of public forest/gardens).

We wandered through here (which took quite a while) and on the way saw the Victory Column/Monument, but due to a panoramic plethora the day before we decided against climbing it.

The time was approaching 1400 on an F1 race weekend, so we anxiously sped up through the Tiergarten and emerged at Potsdamer Platz.  Here, we thought, was the most likely place to catch the Grand Prix. As it turned out: it wasn’t. For a good 45 minutes we combed every bar, restaurant and culinary establishment but to no avail in the 7km we’d walked.

Eventually we gave up and ended up at the Gendarmenmarkt, where we had originally been amiming for – a very old and pretty square. Here we had a hot chocolate between the almost identical French and German Cathedrals. We later found out that less than 800m around the corner was a sports bar. Bugger.

After resting our weary legs, we took the U-Bahn to the East Side Gallery. However, what was meant to be 1.3 km of Berlin Wall with authentic street art became more along the lines of 1.3 km of ‘reconstructed’ graffiti – it all seemed a but fake and done for show, in a particularly grubby neighbourhood.  We did, however, stumble upon a nice-looking faux-beach bar, complete with sand and expensive drinks.

During our sojourn East, the NSphone rang and our communications with Interthink Special Guests Jo O’Malley and Sophie ‘Tolla’ Tolhurst commenced. We arranged to meet them later for dinner and a pub crawl (the acceptable social activity when you’re students). It was great to see friendly faces that you didn’t have to ask the same “So where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?” questions. Over pizza and pasta, anecdotes of each others’ adventures were shared and, soon we were off to the first bar for all-you-could-drink beer.

Despite NS offending the admittedly stand-offish bar crawl ticket sellers, the rest of the evening went well.  Jo was challenged to 16 Jaegermeisters and ‘triumphed’.

We went to various bars, as is customary in a ‘crawl’ and ended up in a train station on the northernmost side of the city.  This was apparently to get an S-Bahn train to the club but after half an hour the damn thing hadn’t turned up, so we arranged a meeting time for the next day with the girls and went our separate ways.

The girls managed to get one of these exceedingly rare S-Bahn trains and the Nicks queued for the night bus at the advice of the Deutsche Bahn night-lady. After more than just a while wait, attempting to translate the timetable and a Frenchman telling us the night bus wasn’t running, we got a taxi back to Jetpak, and thus our night ended.

Plenty of Panoramas 25Jul09 | [manners] 0

Today was our first day of sightseeing in Berlin and had a lot of ground to cover.  We started off with Checkpoint Charlie – the main border control between East and West Berlin. Many stand-offs between the Ruskies and the British/American/Western forces occured here so we were expecting a fitting attraction.

What remains however is a large photo of a Russian soldier, a sign and a small wooden hut – complete with actors in various soldier costumes who could, if you so wished, stamp your passports for entry/exit into West Berlin. For a price, of course. Considering our last experience with Russians and border controls, these soldiers would have had to pry these passports from our cold, dead fingers.

Disappointed at this most blatant of tourist traps (including the >£10 small private museum) we moved onto stop two: Potsdammer Platz. This is now a thriving modern business/commercial district that had used to be no-man’s land between the East and West, and houses the attractive Sony Center. A short walk from this was meant to be the Führensbunker, where Hitler had lived out the last few days of the war. After much searching, we eventually found a sign that explained that the bunker had been effectively destroyed (by the Soviets) and was built over for flats and a car park.

Just beyond this was the striking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or The Holocaust Memorial. This is composed of 2711 concrete blocks that are all of differing sizes. This doesn’t sound particularly impressive but it is actually a very fitting memorial, something just feels right about it.  Each concrete block is coated with a special anti-graffiti lacquer which was entirely paid for by one of the companies who profited from the Nazis during WWII.

Beneath the monument is an underground museum that documents the passage of Jews from all over Europe who were murdered in various labour camps and ghettos.  Covering literally every country affected with raw statistics for every nation (ranging from three figures in some areas up to seven figures for Poland) as well as with touching personal stories. Some survived, most didn’t.  It made for bleak reading.  In the collection there was also the earliest surviving letter thrown from a train carriage which revealed that prisoners had started to realise that the ‘Final Soolution’ involved being gassed.

Afterwards we had some lunch nearby. A currywurst for me (a hot-dog with tomato sauce and curry power on it) plus a bratwurst for NS (your standard German sausage). Dunkin’ Donuts for pudding and we were off again in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate.

Although quite impressive as well as historically important… it it’s just a gate.  We therefore followed the road behind it – the green, tree-laden Unter Den Linden to eventually arrive east of our original position at Alexanderplatz (the central square of East Berlin).

On the way, we visited the Berlin Dom. Berlin’s cathedral was relatively recently (in church terms) restored, and it’s been a fantastic touch-up job.  Inside, it’s marvelously ornate fashion and, quite simply, huge. We went up the domed roof and after many steps were rewarded to a great panorama of Berlin before heading completely in the other direction to the crypt before continuing on our journey.

We completed the rest of the walk to Alexanderplatz and after being convinced to purchase some alcohol off the street by a bride-to-b as part of her hen party (these Germans, eh?) we decided one panorama was not enough. We queued forty minutes to go up the iconic TV Tower, and we weren’t disappointed by the view (at 206 or so meters up) but it was quite expensive at ten euros each.

The expense was regained by a dinner that was in a recommended burrito restaurant/canteen nearby. Although not totally sure what was being put in our burritos and quesadillas, it was very tasty for about five euros each, so we left full up and with a smile on our faces.

We got the U-Bahn back to Potsdammer Platz and joined the evening queue for the Reichstag – the German parliament building. Although it looked like one of the longest queues we’d seen this side of St. Petersburg, it only turned out to be about 45 minutes.  The entry was free, but was worth so much more.

A brief security search and a lift ride later, at 2130 we were at the base of the Lord Norman Foster (yes, the British architect!)-designed panoramic dome.  By now, we could see Berlin lit up in all its glory. Definitely the best panorama of the day, even though this was to be our third!

Furthermore we got a free audio guide that automatically triggered commentary as we went up the interior circular pathway of the dome. As we climbed above the roof terrace and looked out over the city we were given information on landmarks, the Reichstag itself and an overview as to how the German government operated with full openness and transparency. From all angles of the dome, you can see directly down into the plenary chamber through the central glass viewing area.

There was also a stack of mirrors for directing sunlight down into the plenary chamber from the dome and a sunshade that automatically moved with the sun to prevent glare into said chamber. This combined with many other energy-saving initiatives to make the Reichstag an incredible building and a very appropriate one for housing the government.

Three panoramas of the city done, we’d seen almost every angle of Berlin from a great height, and although the mythical bunker of Hitler and Checkpoint Charlie were little more than anti-climaxes, our day ended with the recommendation that visiting the Reichstag is a must.

Steel Going Strong. 24Jul09 | [manners] 0

Today we caught the train.

Early: at  0700. 

We got off the train.

Late: at 1800.

It was a long trip, very little happened in the intervening period, but I have to make a blog entry out of something, so here it goes:

Breakfast was the traditional ‘7 Days’ chocolate spread-filled croissant that was washed down with a healthy dose of sleep. At some point later (hours really did blur into each other) we read books (The Kite Runner for me, very good), magazines (finished the issue of Empire that had been teasing me for weeks) and played iPhone games (FlightControl!). Then we slept some more.

Lunch was a variety of cookies and sandwiches we had brought onboard and was more a boredom-relief measure than anything else…

…we slept a bit more…

…then NS disappeared off the the back of the train to take some pictures. Minutes later he returned with an awkward grin.

“I can’t shut the door,” he half snickers.  With sharp words I sent him on his way to sort it out as he had now made me accessory to manslaughter. It turns out that he had opened the back door of the train to take a photo like last year.

But this was not Romania and the doors are electric. So once they were pulled open, they would not shut.

He returned satisfied he’d made the train door toddler-proof and our journey continued…until the German boarder. Here, we incurred a mysterious delay as an army of DeutscheBahn technicians headed to the rear of the train with a variety of power tools – how curious!

We slept….

…until we arrived late in Berlin Hauptbanhof, a monumental building with many layers of train tracks running through it.

 We were met by Mr. Stylianou’s Uncle Steel and his son, George who gave us a lift to Jetpak Hostel, where we spent an inordinately long time checking in thanks to the overly chatty Australian masquerading as the receptionist. Afterwards we went for an Italian at a local restaurant and had a very pleasant dinner with good company.

After this, we were desperately flagging with travel fatigue, so we gave our thanks and headed back to the hostel for another very deep sleep.

Venturing Fort (Into The Briney Depths) 23Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

Rising early to pack in as much of Krakow as we could (not that there was much left too see), we set off in the sweltering heat to Wawel, the Krakow Castle fortifications, with a tentative plan to catch a day trip to the Salt Mines in the afternoon.


Passing another one of Poland’s impressive churches on the way, up the hill we went. For over five hundred years, Wawel Hill was the seat of Poland’s monarchy, and we bought ourselves tickets to the Royal Treasury & Armoury. Of note, we managed to see the country’s original coronation sword (“Szczerbiec”) and some weaponry. We’re boys, we like weaponry; so we spent a while admiring the vast array of guns, bayonets, crossbows and cannons.


Also on the hill was the cathedral, built ion 1020 with many additions added during the 1400s. The cathedral museum was a bit like a walk-in wardrobe, with lots and lots of religious robes, not least including those belonging to the Catholic Pride Of Poland, Krakow’s very own John Paul II.

Inside the cathedral, the crypt houses the majority of Poland’s forty-five monarchs and the many other tombs and side-chapels have a vast array of influences, among impressive Renaissance and Gothic artistry.

A trip up the tower was in order (and included in our entry price) and we admired views of Krakow around the cathedral’s frankly enormous bell.

With all that done, it was time for lunch, And a beer. With the knowledge that the bus for the salt mines left at 1500 and our synchronised watches telling us it was already 1415, this would have to be a quick one. Settling for some nice pierogi z miesem on the castle hill, the lovely Polish waitress admired my linguistic skills in ordering the food so much that she was willing to abandon her career to teach me her language. Sadly, we had to love her and leave her, and off we went – full of carbohydrates – back to the centre of town and the Krakow City Tours office where we nabbed the last two bus tickets for the Salt Mine Tour.

Glady welcoming the air-conditioned bus, we set off on the hour-long trip to the drop-off point at Wieliczka, where we had to walk up a pedestrianised hill before coming to the entrance of the salt mines.

Along with the rest of our multi-national group, comprising such far-away citizens of Australia, UK and the United States, we descended many, many, many stairs.

During our >3km walking underground tour included various statues [like Madame Tussauds] of workers in the mines throughout the ages,  There were even horses working (and living) down there in the Middle Ages! 

With NM sceptical that everything we saw (including statues) were made of salt, he licked the wall to check,  It tasted salty and we were satisfied we were not being scammed.  After this fairly dark and mundane guided tour, we saw what was the most impressive highlight of the tour – the underground chapel. 

A huge room, still used today for special concerts wit fantastic chandeliers and an altar were housed 200 metres underground.  With everything made of either salt or wood due to the corrosion sustained by having any metal around, the place had a stunning ashen colour. 

Our tour concluded, we were led past some more of the same exhibitions and told that the mine has not been commercially operational for a good few decades, yet tourists were allowed to visit the mine as far back as the late 19th Century!  Dreading the steep stair-climb to exit, we were taking to a small lift shaft and crammed in to be taken to the top.  Why the shaft is only operational to leave the mines is beyond me.  It was a bit like Russia in reverse – easy to leave, tiring to enter.

Satisfied that our Krakow City Tour experience was satisfactory, we retired to our hostel after a final Polish meal at our favourite Polish log-cabin restaurant.  However, what we didn’t know is that there was a swanky formal restaurant underneath the self-service one we frequented, with live lounge piano music.  Beer in hand, we were turned away from this establishment and sent upstairs with the other commoners.  Still, we enjoyed our meal.  When we got back to the hostel, a quick shower was in order and after leaving my shower gel and shampoo in the bathroom for narry an hour while I wrote this post, I returned and they were gone.  Hostel theft, it’s not big and it’s ot clever.  Anyway, a storm’s a-coming along with an eleven hour train journey to Germany.  Farewell, Poland!

The Day We Went To Auschwitz 22Jul09 | [manners] 0

Forgive me, but understandably – I hope – this will not really be a blog full of the usual witticisms and humour as the subject matter really demands respect.

Today was the day we had been looking forward to but not wanting, we were to visit the place that has adorned so many photos, films and textbooks, the centre of activity for the Nazi’s “Final Solution”: the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

As you more than likely already know, this was the dual purpose labour and extermination camp. I’ll try and recount my thoughts and feelings on the day rather than the history that can be found on a multitude of websites & in multiple books.

We’d bought our tickets, got up early and boarded the bus at 0800.  We arrived at the first part of the triple-sited camp, Auschwitz I. What struck me was that the place did not remind me of any of the things that I’d seen in books. All the buildings were brick and there was a tourist centre between a café and a shop.

Originally Polish barracks, pre-war, that the Nazi had converted these brick buildings into their death camp. These have all now had their interiors painted in the interests of restoration and they’re now full of exhibitions dedicated to various aspects of camp life. The barbed wire and guard posts however, remain intact around the perimeter.

Some of these exhibitions were just a variety of pictures, and although poignant they were sometimes hard to associate with. The more moving exhibits were those tangible artifacts, such as two tonnes of human hair.  Removed by the Nazis after women were killed, the hair was sold on for manufacture into felt, rope and socks.

The thousands and thousands and thousands of paris of shoes belonging to the slain – big and small, adult and children’s sizes were also on display. These objects were obtained by either by confiscation from the 25% of the people that arrived who were considered suitable for work, or it was pillaged from the other 75% that were considered unsuitable for labour and sent straight to the gas chambers.

It took us just under two hours to complete the tour of this part of the camp. culminating in a visit to the sole remaining extermination ‘morgue’. This had been a converted munitions dump and the only reason it had not been destroyed during the Soviet’s liberation was because the Nazis had also used it as an air raid shelter. For me, this was the most horrific part of the trip. We walked into one room that was where the victims had been told to undress for their ‘shower’. This then led into the gas chamber.

A bare room, with nothing out of the ordinary apart from the big doors and the holes in the roof, for locking the innocent people in and for pouring in the crystals of Cyclon-B. Knowing the way that tens of thousands of innocent people, like you or me, had perished in this unassuming room left a horrible, indescribable impression on you. These people simply had their lives, hopes and dreams destroyed by stepping into a simple room.

It’s a feeling that makes you ill when you think about the sheer terror of what went on, what it was like when the doors were shut and when people began to really understand what was about to happen, to fear the inevitable, and then to die.

After this room was the ‘crematorium’: industrial sized ovens used for nothing other than destroying the evidence someone’s body had ever existed.

The overall impression Auschwitz I had on me was just an understanding and repulsion of how industrialised the whole killing process was. It could have been any industrial setting – processes are analysed, evaluated and then streamlined, to add more efficiency to this killing factory.

After the tour of this part of the tour, the bus took us to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This is the lesser visited part of the camp 3km away; the section people will have seen pictures of: the Gate of Death, where the railway tracks led straight up to a platform (the Judenramp) where the poor prisoners were again separated into suitable for work and those for suitable for nothing other than immediate extermination.

The majority of the camp was destroyed by the fleeing Nazis in an attempt to cover the evidence of their crimes, including four other purpose built gas-chambers (the one we had seen in Auschwitz I had the smallest capacity). What did survive was a number of wooden and brick huts, the main guard house and the chimneys from the huts.

We saw inside the wooden huts – originally built as stables – and were shocked. Hundreds of people were fitted into conditions not suitable for animals. Many cramped onto tiny bunks – I’m sure you’ve all seen the pictures but it’s so much more terrifying in person.

If Auschwitz I gave a sense as to how streamlined, well-prepared and planned the whole operation was, Birkenau showed the scale. From the watch tower you can see across the whole camp – all 175 hectares of it – and see all the chimneys left from the huts. There are a lot of chimneys, The place is truly massive.

Leaving Birkenau and returning to Krakow on the coach, we had a chance to reflect upon what we’d seen that day. We had a massively enhanced appreciation of what had been done to people that had no reason to deserve it (as if anyone deserves such treatment?). Along with this, we felt an anger that anyone could do such a thing to anyone and that so many involved had almost got away with it. Not only that, but there are people who still deny this event ever happened.  In all honesty, I can’t really express my full thoughts on a blog, there’s just too much that goes through your head – it’s overwhelming.

All we can say is, that to truly understand, you have to go there, but even then you will still struggle – as I do – to grasp the sheer scale of the atrocities committed.  The numbers boggle the mind, but it certainly gives you an appreciation at the suffering and will make you hope above almost all else that such a thing is never allowed to occur again.

We didn’t do anything else that day, after arriving back to Krakow at about 1500.  We sat in the Old Square, we had a late lunch and went to an Italian restaurant for dinner – all the while we reflected about what we’d seen and how we’d seen it.  A sunny day in the Polish countryside never seemed so sombre.

Changing Tracks 21Jul09 | [stylianou] 1

Today was the day we made the fabled transition from buses to trains.  Today was the day we were certified Inter-Rail Global Travellers once more!  We thought it’d never come, but through the Eurolines Baltic Express and the Russian border officials, nothing could now stop us getting on a train at 0915 from Warsaw Central Station.

In keeping with our intrepid-travelling roots, we were to kick it up a notch and visit our second destinations in Poland.  Heading south, we took a three hour journey, in a modern train, where we could stretch our legs and have our huge bags crammed by our sides.  Luckily, there was only a mother-daughter combo to hardly fill our six-person compartment, and we busily scribbled away on our reserved seats.

Enduring the torture of no free wi-fi, we filled our time reading and listening to our respective Apple-branded mp3 players.  I’d brought only one book with me, specifically for this journey: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  With a visit to Auschwitz on the agenda for the following day, I thought I’d read John Boyne’s 2006 best-selling tale of Holocaust literature.  Written as a fable, and in the style of a children’s story, I’d finished the novel two hours later, haunted.

A short while dozing later, I’d recovered and we were in the centre of Krakow.  Going up some stairs and down some others and through a maze of a modern shopping centre, we stumbled into the medieval heart of the small town.

But something was wrong.  Either we’d learned to speak fluent Polish or there were a lot of English speakers around.  Sadly, it turned out to be the latter, and the small town was over-run by tourists.  We found our way to our hostel briskly enough, which appeared to be above a club on one of the main Old Town thoroughfares.  Upon hearing the (now-to-be-expected) news that we couldn’t check in for another hour and a half, we set off in search of lunch.

Picking a Polish ‘milk-bar’ canteen, we ate some meat-filled pierogi (dumplings/ravioli) and returned to ‘Tutti Frutti’ hostel.

Having spent far less than the 6-8hour pre-requisite amount of sightseeing, this was no time for rest.  Having a quick chat with some of our English room-mates, and seeing Jezz (who we met in Vilnius), we hit the Old Town square again.

The main attractions of the Stare Miasto square are: the Cloth Hall (the Sukiennice, the Mariacki Church with its Gothic spire and the copper-domed Woiciech/Adalbert’s Church (the oldest in Krakow).

With the Cloth Hall now housing nothing more than your standard tourist-tat market and the Oldest Church In Krakow fairly basic, it was up to the Mariacki Church to pique our interest. Inside is the stunning triptych high altar, built around 1480, which is a magnificent wood carving depoicting the Virgin Mary among the apostles.

Heading up the Church Tower for our standard set of town-panorama shots, we were greeted at the summit by one of the seven local firemen who play a sombre melody entitled the hejnal every hour.

Why do they do this, I hear you ask?  Well, legend has it that during one of the Tartar raids in the thirteenth-century, a gard watching from that very tower saw the invaders approaching and blew his readily-available trumpet, only for his alarm to be inconveniently cut short by an arrow through the throat.  Therefore, every hour, these firemen play the first segment of this melody, stopping at the point where the guard was supposed to have met his demise.

Beer o’clock soon reared its thirsty head, and we set ourselves down in the square oto enjoy a cold one. Or two.

After this hops-based ritual, it was soon time for dinner, and we ventured to a delightful little Polish self-service restaurant, designed like a (genuine?) Polish cabin.

With a plate full of indigenous pork and potatoes, and some more beer, we ate and drank well before heading for another night-wander through Stare Miasto, accompanied by another travel-favourite: ice cream.

While casually debating deep philosophical questions such as the meaning of life and whether or not we ever want to go back to Russia, we were approached by what, on first impression, appeared to be a homeless man.  However, this remarkably clean-and-healthy-looking gentleman with a long white beard turned out to be none other than an English-speaking guitar-playing Swedish vegan hippie, travelling through Europe on his bicycle.

We gladly held conversation for a little while, enjoying his anecdotes aboout sleeping outside the castle, among nature (in the only true ‘million-star hotel’), but made our excuses to leave when he talked of Nazi-like atrocities committed in the present day.  Typical Surreyites, never wanting to hear about unsettling things happening under our very noses.  Not true.  When we thought he’d be talking about human rights abuses, corrupt politicians and world poverty, we were intrigued.  When he started harping on about extreme animal rights and veganism, we switched off.

With a day trip to Oswiecim-Brzezinka necessitating an early start, we headed to the hostel for an early night.  With the hostel situated on top of a thriving bar/club, however, our ‘early night’ was due to be a little delayed.

Up, Up(rising) and Away. 20Jul09 | [manners] 0

Our last day in Warsaw was to be dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising museum after the usual hostel breakfast of cereal, bread and cold meats.

The walk was quite long – by a mere mortal’s standards – but we took it in our stride (quite literally) and made it there in about half an hour to forty minutes, despite the extremely blustery conditions.

The museum itself was definitely one of the best we’ve encountered to date. The history of the 1944 Uprising, along with a look into the life of those involved and the events leading up to it, was vividly portrayed through a use of traditional and more interactive exhibits. The museum also had a wall with the names of all the Poles who died in the uprising. Needless to say, it was an extremely large wall.

After being in the museum for about two and a bit hours we went to the observation deck that looked out over the entire city. Boards helped you to identify all the buildings that were built before the Second World War. From that high point in Warsaw you could only see 40 – over 85% of Warsaw was destroyed from 1939-1945.

The museum was a highly informative and moving experience: if you have to see one museum in Warsaw, let this be it.

After we’d finished we walked back to Nowy Swiat (the street our hostel is on) for lunch.  Heading to our inexpensively nicer Polish equivalent of Maison Blanc, Blikle’s, we both enjoyed a variety of Polish ravioli with a cold pint.

This was followed by – yet again – afternoon tea and cake. Isn’t life grand?

The rest of the day frankly wasn’t that interesting as we got back about 0500, also known as blog o’clock. We went to the supermarket and bought some stuffed pasta, resulting in the first pasta dish we actually enjoyed – you get what you pay for. The more important news of the evening though was the discovery of a MaxiBon ice-cream in the depths of the Carrefour freezer. Naturally, much excitement ensued and NS had to slap me back to reality from the giddy delirium that I was in.

The night was finished with a few more beers over the pasta and watching Bandits – a film I’d seen when about twelve but was actually surprisingly funny and equally good the second time around. I must’ve had good taste.

In all honesty I will be very sad to leave Warsaw. It’s a beautifully vibrant city with some great places to go and inhabited by a very hospitable, friendly set of people. My accomplice and I both have it down in our top 5 cities and would thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone that gets the chance.  We’d love to come again.  We’d even show you around.

Pole Position 19Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

We’re getting used to this lie-in lark. We woke up more refreshed than ever, leisurely rolling out of bed far nearer to 1100 than 1000. That’s about as close as we get to a lazy Sunday morning on our travels.

Although we were ready for a new day of baking Polish heat, the Warsovian weather had other ideas. Torrential rain was the order of the day, and we suited up in our cagoules. Yeah, that’s right, I gave another outing to my malfunctioning waterproof – more in. Holding up far better this time, we braved the brief walk to the Old Town. This was bit of a misnomer as the entire city was rebuilt (albeit painstakingly faithfully) after World War II.

Choosing to visit the Old Town on a Sunday appeared to be akin to hitting the sightseer’s jackpot, because everything was free! Skipping most of the churches on the way up as a result of Sunday Mass being given, we decided to visit the Royal Castle/Palace.

An array of art appreciated and paintings perused, we had a quick look at the perimeter of the city’s fortifications and moved on to a traditional Polish lunch at Subway. Killing time before Mass finished with our footloong sandwiches, we finally braved the oldest church in Warsaw: St. John’s Cathedral.

Altars appraised, it was off to the Warsaw Historical Museum, contained within a labyrinth of Baroque buildings in the Old Town square. Not the most organised of museums, it’s informative look at Warsaw’s development took a rather scattershot approach to artifacts and exhibits – a costume piece here, a bunch of paintings there, some posters of the museum’s previous exhibitions among a model of WWII Warsaw & a Luftwaffe plane? Why not.

Before we knew it, we’d finished looking around the Old Town and the drizzle had finally stopped. Celebrating with a typical Polish tall whippy ice-cream, we went to see the impressive Warsaw Uprising monument in preparation to a visit to the city’s most famous museum tomorrow. Commemorating the Polish resistance, the monument was easily one of the most striking things we’d seen, reminding all of the rebellion beginning in August 1944.

After all of that, we deserved a break, and less than two minutes away from our hostel was Blikle’s Cafe, dishing up the best cakes in Warsaw since 1869. It woould’ve been rude not to have some Assam tea and a pączek (a traditional Polish doughnut, filled with rose jam…)

By the time we returned to our hostel, some American girls had arrived in our dorm, as well as two English guys they’d met in Krakow who’d followed them here for the day. Although somewhat perturbed at the revelation that these boys had brought their hair straighteners with them, they both seemed nice enough.

Going our separate ways for dinner, we managed to rustle up a takeaway pizza from the local Pizza Express clone, Pizza Marzano. Sitting in front of The Talented Mr. Ripley with our new dormmates, we enjoyed the slightly homoerotic thriller before retiring for the evening.

A Warm Warsaw Welcome 18Jul09 | [manners] 0

It was 0500 on a clear, warm Warsaw morning when we pulled into the bus station on the outskirts of the city.

As is customary in these situations, bags are collected and iPhone with directions to the relevant hostel on is whipped out in order to determine our next course of action.

iPhone tells us to catch bus: no problem. We look for somewhere to buy tickets but there is nowhere in sight and the driver doesn’t appear to be interested – but the people with official-looking badges who get on at the next stop seem to be… Funnily enough, they don’t go for the locals (who as far as we could tell didn’t have tickets on them), so we engage in a brief exchange in Polglish. We play the dumb tourists (not too far off the mark) and just about any other angle you can think of (well-honed through conversing with Russian border officials) but this does not please them – so we are marched off at the next stopo to the nearest ATM and told to get out 106 zloty for the ‘special tax’ that we have now incurred. Brilliant start, followed by the even better response to the question,

“So where do we buy tickets from?”

“Driver… sometimes.”

How useful – they just charged us £20 for being ignorant.

The next bus we got on we tried to buy a ticket from the driver – and guess what? He’s also not interested. So by directive 2981 of the Independent State of Nickdom it is decreed that we’ll just stay standing and jump off the bus at the sight of anyone in uniform. Luckily enough no other personnel get on and we take the bus to the end of the line, forced walk the rest of the way as the street we needed is pedestrianised at the weekends.  Of course.

What a street. It’s lovely, with a lot of fairly high-end shops, restaurants, coffee bars (including a Starbucks – I guess this now counts as ‘the West’) as well as a UK-baiting Warsaw University. The hostel is indeed located on the street, and it’s similar to St. Petersburg’s Crazy Duck, large-ish dorms, nicely decorated in a modern style and plenty of facilities while remaining very personable at the same time. But as is the way with these things, check-in isn’t until 1430. For any other travellers this might be an issue, but after doing a similar stint in St. Petersburg we’re actually looking forward to this city and so after a cheap and filling breakfast  at 0800, off we intrepidly went.

Off we intrepidly went, past the impressive and very Soviet Palace of Art and Science – a gift from Stalin – to the financial centre. This is filled with a vast plethora of weird and wonderful architectural constructs. It’s as if there is a city ordnance against plain buildings: everything has something jutting out, a curved section or even bits that missing that probably should be there.

This led us to the Jewish ghetto, or where the ghetto was. After the ghetto uprising the Nazi completely and utterly razed the place to the ground, leaving very little evidence it was ever there.

On the way back to the hostel we passed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that was constantly guarded and had an ever burning flame – a tribute to all the Polish soldiers in all the conflicts in which the nation had been involved.

Lunch followed and 1430 slowly rolled around. We’d already covered a large distance on foot, so what could we possibly do that afternoon? As any good interthinker would know, the correct answer is, “Walk further.”

So off we crusaded a few kilometers south to Lazienki Park. The walk was long and extremely sweaty (you would be too at 34 degrees Celsius) but worth it. The parks were magnificent and colossal, including a lake, a statue of Chopin, a palace and enough grounds to get lost in for a significant amount of time. All this in combination with some toffee ice-cream made for a pair of happy Nicks.

After the trek back, the best time of the day was due – nap time.

The rest of the evening passed without much incident – a few Zzzzzs were caught, some pasta was cooked and we finished the night watching Polish-subtitled Apocalypse Now.

Warsaw starts with two thumb up.

Bye Bye Baltics 17Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

It was our last day in Vilnius, and our last day in the Baltic states.  To commemorate this, we had breakfast in Double Coffee (we can’t recommend them enough, they’re cheap and they’re all over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  Special offers include adding a Double Cappuccino to your fry-up for 20p…).

With not much left to see, we leisurely strolled up the hill (funiculars are for wimps) to Vilnius Castle for midday.  Enjoying the sunshine, the views and the replicated suits of armour, we completed our sunny, tower-top photo-op and wandered back down the hill.

The tree-clad Gedeminas Hill was no match for my hardened battle-trainers, but traction proved to be a problem on the way down for the be-flip-floppèd Mr. Manners.  Alas, another hill was on the horizon in the baking heat, and onto the outskirts of the city, sweaty money-belt strapped to our backs, we climbed to see the Three Crosses Monument.

The Three Crosses were…uh…three crosses to commemorate the first Christian Missionaries to arrive (and get promptly killed) in Lithuania.  Unperturbed, the Vatican sent more envoys until Christianity was as ubiquitous as Double Coffee.
Another important landmark recommended by the Rough Guide To Europe On A Budget was safely ticked off.  Next up, St. Anne’s Church and a miscellaneous Orthodox Church where we might’ve accidentally interrupted another wedding. Every good wedding photo needs a man with a dSLR and a man in shorts in the background, right?

Before we could reward ourselves with beer and lunch, we were determined to have an amble through the self-declared independent republic of Uzupis.  Yep, this small region of Vilnius, in an action which can only be due to the carbohydrate-drunk diet of Lithuanians, has drawn up its own constitution for their little bohemian district.

Oh, and there were some padlocks engraved with various proclamations of everlasting (and marital) love on the bridge as well.

Well-deserving our lunch, we generously ate and drank before heading to the hostel to militarily-check and re-pack our bags. (PostScript: NM forgot his shower gel.  Court-martial date TBA.)  Before we knew it, we were stocking up on pancakes (again) and off we trotted to the crummiest bus yet for a journey to Warsaw.  It wasn’t too bad, but if ain’t got wi-fi, I ain’t interested.

Oh, and thanks to the wonder of time-zones, the journey is an hour longer than I anticipated.  On the upside: it’s an hour longer to sleep.  Sweater expertly fashioned into a travel-pillow, seat reclined enough to break the knees of the person behind me, and it’s over and out from Vilnius.

Very Wet in Vilnius 16Jul09 | [manners] 0

After another night out, we took the customary lie-in until about 1030. Waking up refreshed I had to wait an astonishing 40 minutes for a shower, despite being next in line for the bathroom (turning the handle at regular intervals so ignorance of the occupant was certainly not an excuse).

Up, up, up and away to Double Coffee we flew for the usual post-drink breakfast of excess egg and meat and then onwards we went to the Catholic Cathedral that boasted a beautiful interior with many paintings and some lovely architecture. Outside, between itself and the belfry, there is a tile with the Lithuanian for ‘miracle’ on it. This is where the two million person ‘Baltic Chain’ started from Vilnius, going through Riga and all the way to Tallinn, as a way of showing unity against the USSR in the late 1980s.

At this point the heavens decided to open and my fliopflops showed themselves to be woefully inadequate in the rain, so umbrella in hand me and NS made haste to the KGB museum (after a quick spin past the Presidential Palace – he wasn’t in).

The KGB museum/Museum of Genocide Victims is the Lithuainian equivalent of other Baltic States’ occupation museums, but this was by far the most haunting. The museum itself is located within the old KGB headquarters/prison and features many in-depth displays from the partisan movements during the first Soviet occupation, to the deportations of thousands of Lithuanians to work camps in Russia right up to the 1991 independence.

For me, however, the most moving part was the prison cells in the basement – these included solitary confinement cells, cells that were filled with a layer of cold water and a padded cell (to muffle the sounds of torture and the anguished screams of those who had eventually cracked under the mental pressure of such treatment).

The prison also included the execution chamber – standing in a room where so many had lost their lives was an extremely harrowing experience and I’m sure I’ll get that feeling again when we visit Auschwitz in about a week or so.

Coming out of museum the rain still hadn’t stopped, so onto full wets it was (i.e opening the umbrella because we still hadn’t got anything waterproof) and off to Double Double Coffee Coffee.


Refuelled, we decided to continue the rest of our sightseeing tomorrow, but still managed to see the statue of Frank Zappa on the way back. Frankly, this was a massive disappointment, being a small bust on a tall metal pole, but I guess you must take the good with the bad.

Dr Oetker again kindly provided us with pizza (via the supermarket) and after the dodgy oven failed to heat up for about an hour, we finally managed to sit down in our kitchen among various other intrepid travellers. At this point we were party to a frankly riveting conversation between an African gentleman and a Dutchman. Although this sounds like the beginning of a joke, I can assure you it was not.  Basically, the Dutchman was a vegetarian and had just refused the African’s generous offering of chicken. However, this somehow lead to the African announcing to the entire room his fervent belief in God and then grilling the Dutchman as to why he was a non-believer (via a small detour about the divine right to kill animals).  After the African told the Nederlander why he was going to Hell, I was sitting in the corner hoping desperately not to get involved (“I’m technically Methodist, we play acoustic guitar and let children make macaroni pictures” – I don’t think that was this man’s idea of a religion)…

After slipping away unnoticed we went in search of Tarantino’s bar/club. Named after the director himself  and rumored to play only songs from his films, we found it to be completely empty. After last night’s escapades we did not have too much of a desire to go out again tonight so we weren’t too disappointed.  We briefly admired the film stills on the walls and returned to the hostel for some well earned blogging.

Stop, Baroque & Stroll 15Jul09 | [stylianou] 1

Dragging ourselves out of bed at about 0600, we struggled the short distance to Riga’s bus station with the sad news that our penultimate bus would be our final ‘Lux Express’ journey.  While NM went to buy a distinctly dodgy chicken sandwich from the terminal kiosk, I admired this wheeled black beauty (this ebony chariot, this dark diesel carriage…) for one last time.

Four hours later (with a brief stop for a charming Lithuanian man in combat fatigues to check our passports) we were in Vilnius – European Capital of Culture 2009.  Apparently, though, due to the credit crunch and the bankruptcy of the national carrier, tourism and investment this year was at an all-time low, which meant fewer tourists and more travellers like us.  We had reached our final stop before storming Central Europe, and personally I was excited at the promise of completing our Baltic Bingo.

Winding through the pretty cobbled streets, we found Hostelgate to be a pleasantly accomodating place.  Grabbing a map and dumping our bags, we went round the corner to sample some Lithuanian cuisine for lunch – we were starving.  Seeing as carbohydrates are standard fare for the Baltics, we knew what to expect & ordered ourselves some meat dumplings.  Nicknamed ‘Zepplins’, these things are freaking huge.  And gelatinous.  I couldn’t finish mine, and I was absolutely ravenous when I’d started.

To kick things off in a leisurely fashion, we wandered around the generically-named Old Town square, had a walk down to the monasterial Holy Trinity Church, saw the perimeter governed by the Gates Of Dawn and went inside the magnificently-Baroque Jesuit Church of St Casimir.

Less impressive, however, was Vilnius University, which had a pricey entrance fee  (much like UK universities, then…) and the Vilnius Defence Wall Bastion, which probably couldn’t withstand an attack from two Surrey guys.

Before returning to our hostel, we managed to find another local pancake house for an evening meal.  The oven looked like a giant pancake, there was pancake-themed décoor on the tables and walls, and the ceiling had lampshades in the exact style of….our Young Enterprise moodlamps, circa 2007.  Yep, for those who remember ‘thinkbright’, tesselating quadrilaterals and all, the ceiling was adorned with precise replicas of these things.

I had a pork-filled pancake, followed by one with banana and chocolate, but could barely contain my outrage when, upon being presented with the bill, it appeared these pancakes were almost £2.  That’s a whopping £1.50 more expensive than Riga.

Suppressing my rage, we trundled back to find our roommates – two Slovenians, an American man and a British (yep, one of us) man about to go on a pub crawl hosted by an Australian who’s been living across the street for nearly three years.

For ten litai (about £2.50) we got into a club at the end of our four-bar-tour, with no free drinks.  Our host blamed the fact it was a Thursday, everyone else just blamed him.  It was pretty sub-par, as we marched from bar to bar, raising our hands for beers and being instructed as to how long we had left in each location.  The club was little more than an oversized TGI Friday’s, with a Lithuanian man half-heartedly stripping as part of ‘Ladies’ Night’.  The Australian and Danish ladies who were part of our group weren’t particularly impressed.

We made a hasty exit soon after, straight to the kebab house where NM again braved the unknown meat and I settled for some paprika-fried chips.  Then, predictably, we turned in for the night, dreaming of what starchy-treats and stories of Soviet oppression might await us.

Sun, Sleep and Sloth 14Jul09 | [manners] 2

As can be ascertained from the title, today was fairly lethargic. With Riga being the fairly small city it is, we managed to accomplish most of the sight-seeing on Monday. This is of course with the exception of those attractions that fall under the Monday curse.

First thing’s first though, and after a pub crawl we needed a lie in – it was an interthink record of 1130 in the morning until we clambered out of bed. So late that we were in fact the last ones left in our hostel dorm. Breakfast was egg, bacon and hash brown at the local coffee shop to force out the last remaining dregs of Zelta beer in our system so we were ready for the off.

The first on the itinerary was St. Peter’s Cathedral Tower. This was easily accessible by a lift with an old lady in it and at 121m above the city provided a great panorama. The shutter on Nick’s camera clicked incessantly as we ingested the sights around us. Although only a brief stop, it was a worthwhile one none the less.

After this was a trip to the Museum of History of Riga and Navigation. A small but enlightening museum that gave a look back into the city’s past that went further than just the Soviet and Nazi occupations…and to the periods under German and Swedish rule. You can’t help but feel sorry for a country that has effectively been annexed more times that it’s declared its independence.

After this it was the customary pancake house stop for more 45p pancakes. This time we were smarter though, getting pancakes one at a time and separately so that we could maximise the time we could stay inside without appearing to be taking the proverbial.

By this point it was late afternoon so we returned to the hostel for some R&R. The Belgian bar that we had visited the previous night was the venue for dinner tonight, where we had the Latvian speciality of a beef burger and a steakwich (don’t complain, we ate local on the first night).

Admittedly it was not a busy day, but after the fast-paced, high-octane, rollercoaster ride that was Russia, I felt we deserved and very much needed our rest day.

Alka-Zelta 13Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

Arising free from the burden of any stressful border crossings, we scrambled to the industrial bathroom (two showers, single sex, side by side – nice.) of our large orange-walled hostel and moseyed on downstairs to see what Latvia’s capital might offer us.  We’d already sampled the local brew (“Zelta”) last night and we were thirsty for more.

Briefly getting caught in the rain, it was hot for the rest of the day.  This anomalous downpour was to probably remind me that I still didn’t have a functioning waterproof.  Thanks.

Breakfast was had at Double Coffee – a sort of Starbucks-meets-Wetherspoons-meets-inexpensive-and-up-market-food.  I had caramel pancakes and NM had a salmon crépe.  Total bill?  About £12.

A wander around the compact Old Town, we went into the inevitable Museum of Occupations, where photographs of Prince Charles, the Queen and other worldly dignitaries visiting the museum greeted us on arrival.

The museum itself was informative and contemporary, with a lot of information about the Soviet/Nazi/Soviet occupation.  God, were we glad to be out of Russia.  I had to stop The Other One boiling over with Russian Rage.  Although we’d been to a similar museum in Tallinn, this one was slightly newer and had another interesting perspective on this Baltic nation’s repression.

At some point on the way, I also dropped a large wad of excess Rubles I’d been carrying around to change into real money.  This leftover memento from our extra night in Russia was anywhere from £20-80 and I was pretty pissed off to have lost it.  It just goes to show that everything that connects us to Russia is doomed.

A few churches later, the Dome Cathedral and garden, a quick peek at Riga Castle and what do you know, it’s time for a beer (Zelta, of course) and lunch.  We didn’t go in Riga Castle because it’s the President’s residence.  And there was a heavily-armed soldier standing outside.

Rounding off the afternoon with a stroll through the park near the Freedom Monument (with more solders standing guard), we found a delightful array of atmospheric pleasures.  There were the child prodigies playing instruments on every corner, and an OAP native who was inexplicably dancing in knitwear, on her own. Expect to see her on Latvia’s Got Talent in the near future.  (Quick proposal:  Baltic nations try to impress Simon Cowell, called ‘Latvia’s Got Tallinn’ – wha’d’ya think?)

Minutes away from our hostel, we stumbled across our personal Mecca of Riga: a 45p pancake café.  Cream cheese, regular cheese, mushrooms, meat, banana….these were just some of the pre-prepared options you could buy for less than £1.  An assortment of jam was an extra, though, at a pricey 15p per preserve.  We ate and ate and ate and ate.  Then we got a hot chocolate (for about 60p) and ate some more.

Waddling back to Friendly Fun Frank’s Hostel (with Frank still nowhere to be found), we signed up to the 8pm Bar Tour.  Five Bars, Five Beers, Five Lats.  Another bargain.  Before we knew it, we were off again, sampling the gaseous delight of Latvia’s hops-and-barley concotion again.

A lot of Zelta later, and a lot of talking to the eleven people we were with (among them a Polish guy who told us about our Krakow/Warsaw destination; a Swedish brother-brother duo; our sober Latvian guide who wants to study in London…), at some point I believe we staggered home, after a hastily-gobbled McDonalds 2am treat.  Then we blacked out.

A pretty city, pancakes and plenty of beer.  Perfect.

Escape From The Iron Curtain (part two) 12Jul09 | [manners] 0

“Let’s just get the fuck out of this place.”

Day breaks over the Russian-Estonian frontier at about two o’clock in the morning. From here on the sleep is intermittent at best. Sharing a bed certainly did not help and neither did being in a sleeping bag liner (due to appropriate fear of bugs etc) in the radiator-less chill.

Eventually the 0830 alarm went off and we were up – we avoided showering, as we didn’t particularly wish to further endanger our health.

As instructed the night before by the border guards we “went to bank for 0900” (unfortunately contradictory to what we were told, it didn’t open until 0930) and unintentionally had a rendezvous with the drunk Russian from last night, who was considerably more sober and fairly chatty. Once we finally reached the counter we pointed at/showed forms to the clerk and had our new friend (Dennis) speak very loudly and continue our gesticulation.  Between the three of us (and some help from the elderly locals) we eventually managed to get the visa elongation(?!) we needed. The actual piece of paper that caused us so much trouble was only the size of a receipt from a small shop.

Off we plodded down the road, holding our passports so tight that our fingers went white. Over the next hour we were fairly silent as Dennis did the loud and admittedly slightly confrontational talking. Keeping our mouths shut was seen as the best policy to get this palaver over as quickly as possible as the general Russian viif you can’t speak Russian then that’s tough and they probably don’t consider you worth talking to.

The tones of the voices conversing varied wildly as we received mixed messages from Dennis, who had assumed the role as local fixer and translator. It might be worth mentioning that the man we met last night who had claimed to be able to help us was nowhere to be found, but had apparently invited Dennis back to his house after we’d left, for a cup of tea and a hamburger…

At various points we thought we’d be able to leave and at others we thought that we might well be staying in the customs building for another four hours.

Eventually, though, they’d had enough of us and we were escorted to no man’s land – the bridge of the dividing river to Narva (which boasts some gorgeous scenery.  Probably because it’s outside Russia).

Again, we started to fear the worst as we approached the Estonian border and another set of officials, but after less than twenty seconds at the immigration desk we were waved through with a smile (something many Russians seem to lack) and we were in Estonia. Again.  The air smelt fresher and sweeter, filled with the aroma of the Schengen Agreement, the wafting scent of globalisation and of the subtle musk of the European Union.

From this point on things got comparatively simpler. We obtained some money (from an ATM, obviously) and after some long deliberations using a pen and paper with the booking office lady at Narva bus station, we discovered the fastest way to Riga was not direct but via our current-favourite stop, Tallinn, and then we’d have 15 minutes to make a change to another bus to Riga.

We received a mild form of compensation for the early morning’s events in the from of the bus to Riga from Tallinn being a ‘Lux Express’. However it wasn’t just this that made us smile, but also the 4 chairs and a table we had to ourselves at the back of the coach that helped lift our pretty dampened and weary spirits.   We spread out our Lion Bar, our M&Ms and our water from the kiosk, stretched back and watched the Estonian countryside give way to Latvia.  I couldn’t tell you when we crossed the Latvian border – it was just that easy.

Upon arrival in Riga we found Friendly Fun Frank’s Hotel and got a free beer – with that sort of compensation for our troubles, it seems like a pleasant place. Having said that, anything is better than our exit disaster from Russia.  The hostel here seems massive, with a fully-stocked bar downstairs broadcasting The Ashes on not one, not two, but FOUR TVs.

We’ve just had dinner in a Latvian style buffet in town and I’m now being forced to write this blog but I am well and truly exhausted and the man (who makes up one of four foreign roommates) below Nick is snoring very loudly so it may be a night to sleep with the iPod on.

Executive summary reads: We’re alive, we survived, and we’re never going back to Russia again. However, this probably isn’t an issue because we’re almost certainly blacklisted for another visa anyway.

Escape From The Iron Curtain (part one) 11Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

After surviving another night parasite-free, we woke up on our last day in Russia determined to make the most of it.  To satiate our thirst for culture: Peter & Paul’s Fortress (with a lovely cathedral, beach and….helipad?), St. Isaac’s Church (with a 300-step climb to the top of the colonnade), Kazan Cathedral (with – astoundingly – more worshippers than tourists) and a trip on the metro to briefly spy Alexandr Nevsky Monastery.

We then returned to the hostel for a snooze, a chat with new arrivals and a farewell to our departing multi-national friends over a hearty home-cooked Dr. Oetker pizza.  We also found out that Mark and an American were involved in a late-night scuffle with the St. Petersburg locals following Tamera’s birthday celebration – it’s true what they say about going out at night…

With our hand-drawn map of St. Petersburg’s metro system from the receptionist, we left Crazy Duck hostel and arrived promptly at Baltiskaya – our supposed bus terminal.  In truth, this was just the square in front of the metro station and, after trying to get on the wrong bus in a blind panic, we boarded the off-white 2355 Eurolines Baltic Express, stopping service, to Riga. ETA: 1045.

2356: no free wi-fi.  0115: thunderstorms and the first stop.  0230: the routine stop at the Russian border that we’ve all come to know and love.  Humorous anecdotes were shared only three hours earlier in the hostel about the lax security at the edge of the Iron Curtain.

Apparently, however, they’re much more concerned about people leaving the country than entering it.  When I’d hauled my bags up to the passport desk, I was met with a steely gaze and a frown at my passport pages.

Customs officials muttered into their walkie-talkies, and I was escorted through a labyrinth of doors to a back room.  A beer-drinking Ruskie and a non-descript young man awaited me.  The uniformed official left and shut the door.

Well, this is it, Nick. You meet your end at the border of Estonia and the Russian Federation, at the hands of a drunk and someone claiming to be there for “assistance”.

On 12th July 2009, it seemed my luck had run out.  Not only my, luck, but my visa, too.  Yes, that’s right, it was 12th July 2009, and our visa expired two hours ago, on 11th July 2009.  Let’s just forget that we boarded the bus at 2355 on the 11th, shall we?

Mr. Manners wasn’t too far behind me, so we were at least matched in terms of numbers.  The plain-clothed “official”, whose English was so poor we had a better job communicating with the drunk Russian, eventually managed to tell us that it cost 300 Rubles to prolong our visa.  That’s not too bad – I had that in my pocket.  I see how this works: I give them 500, they keep the change and we all go our separate ways.


After politely arguing our travel details with him and two other uniformed customs/immigration people (who still had our passports), we were told to obtain a document from the bank to go along with our visa.  At 9am.  No passport so far, no bus (that had long since left) and no visa meant no exit.  They didn’t budge.  I threw everything at them – doubling the money, blaming the embassy,  pretending the bus was late….and still, nothing.

Finally, a severe-looking woman in charge of this whole palaver came to preside over this five-way debate.  Her English was the best out of the lot, and after no consideration to our situation, simply gave us the same information we’d already digested.  She was even prepared to let us stay in their lovely clinically-decorated room for free!  We’ll take the nearest hotel, thanks.  800 Rubles a night is far better value than the company of an intoxicated native and Soviet-era desks and chairs.

We were given our passports back, a map (in Russian) and instructions for obtaining our document in the morning (in Russian).  A heavily-jacketed Russian soldier then escorted us to the side of the border we were so desperate to escape from and we were then left to our own devices.  After failing to navigate to the hotel in a place we’d never heard of, let alone located at half past three in the morning, that plain-clothed official had followed us in his new capacity as Russian fixer.  Leading us up inside the drabbest post-Soviet dilapidated relic known to man, it was time to wake up the old Russian proprietor to check us in to our room.  Of course, to get a room, they required such important details as your passport number and exact place of birth,  Clearly a little riled about being woken up so early/late, she wanted a conversation out of the three of us – we joked and laughed like old friends.  Just don’t ask me what we talked about, because I have absolutely no idea.  After much studious perusal of some ancient chart, there was a room free on the third floor with two beds.  1500 Rubles each.  Sorry, what?  We’ll just take a single bed, then.  Cue more careful studying of the chart.  Fourth floor: 750 Rubles each.

We climbed up to the top floor (penthouse!) to spend a night in what many Russian salesmen must have done before us.  Think of all the stereotypes you could fit into a dodgy Russian hotel, and it was fully furnished with all of them.  Even the check-in card had the year of birth section listed as “198_”. We locked the door behind us.  Double-locked it. The novelty of the situation has long-since gone.

I’m sitting on the chair, finishing this entry before squeezing onto the bed.  No, I’m not going to risk the floor.  I’m barely going to risk the pillow.  You know what? I might just stay on the chair.

In about three hours, it will be time for us to have another go at leaving the country.  I’ve no idea where we’re going to get another bus from, either.  Our Russian fixer said he’d help us, but I’ve got a feeling that once we’re in Estonia, we’re on our own.

Until then, here we are:  trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Museums & Monstrosities 10Jul09 | [manners] 0

We lazily dozed through our alarms (something I am personally becoming very skilled at) we eventually arose and got out of the hostel and to the supermarket for breakfast roundabout a rather lethargic 1120.  Not the most taxing start to the day, but it was all yet to come.

Refuelled and raring to go we began the familiar commute up to The Admiralty and Winter Palace that bordered the Neva river. The aim was to cross the river and venture to the Museum of Political History. The one thing you should know about St. Petersburg is that it is bigger than one would expect – even just walking the apparently small distance across the river and finding a building on the other side took a long time. It didn’t help that the nearest metro station was shut, either. We arrived at the museum and played our favourite Russian game of Student Card Roulette. For those of you that aren’t familiar with this engaging past-time, it’s when you go to a museum in Russia and take a punt on whether they’ll give you a discount on the attraction or claim it’s a fraud and then proceed to rip you off.

Today, the gods were on our side and we got through for some paltry sum of Rubles. The exhibitions themselves were quite interesting, giving a very detailed history of specifically St. Petersburg’s governance from the time of the Tsar’s to the present day (Putin was born in the city).

After this, admittedly, quite heavy-going,museum we walked to the nearby Peter & Paul’s Fortress. Due to it getting late in the day, after a lunch of cold soup and even colder pastries we decided to forgo the fort and get to the Kunstkammer (there is an ‘s’ in there, you dirty-minded people).

This was Russia’s first museum and apparently one of ethnography, but the guide book indicates a more compelling reason to visit (we did enough ethnographical museums in 2008 to last a lifetime). Peter the Great, who started the museum, had an interest in ‘curiosities’, and the museum still houses its original collection – what can only be described as a pretty grotesque freak show.

The collection included tens of horrifically aborted foetuses preserved in a tasty cocktail of vinegar and vodka. These had afflictions ranging from no limbs to cyclops babies, even by our lewd ‘standards’ it required quite a bit of a stomach. Also included were skeletons of two-headed calves and even more baby bits (limbs, heads etc).

Overall we’d proclaim this experience as a fun day for the whole family (if you visit this place on our recommendation you may never forgive us).

Having had enough of freak shows and museums for one day we began the massive trek back to Crazy Duck. On return our wish to have something resembling nice food was destroyed by our laziness after walking many many kilometers, so Dr. Oetker pizza it was, warmed in the oven by our very own Gordon ‘F*** f*** f***’ Stylianou and Nigella Manners.

After all this excitement, we slept…

…and slept…

…and slept until…

‘Hey guys! Get up!’

It was Tamara’s birthday and she certainly wasn’t going to let us sleep. We traipsed to the common room and despite (weak) protests, our two Serbian friends promptly got everyone to do five shots of vodka (lest we be described as ‘not normal’) and that really set the tone of the night. We all eventually went and mooched around St. Petersburg and found some bars and a club that resulted in (fantastic) dancing from myself until the early hours of the morning.

Unfortunately the Cypriot contingent of our travelling duo was unable to make it so far due to feeling a bit under the weather – weak, but I wasn’t going to risk a parasite-scare. I’d just have to do the drinking for the both of us.  Despite the very late night, there’s no respite: we were to rise at 0800 the following day.

Teeing off. 09Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

It’s Mr. Manners.  He’s shaking me.  What on earth does he want?  I was so comfortable!  He points at his watch.  It must only be about five-oh, what’s that?  He points at his watch.  Right.  Ten past eight.  Time to get up, lest we want a four hour wait for The Hermitage…

The Hermitage, as Wikipedia will helpfully inform, is a museum of art and culture situated in Saint Petersburg, Russia. One of the largest[1] and oldest museums of the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise nearly 3 million items[2], including the largest collection of paintings in the world.

It sounded like a must-see.  Free for students, it had notoriously long queues.  We were going to order priority tickets, before we found out that the $18 passes may take two to three working days to arrive, and we didn’t have that long!

Braving the queue, we set off later than expected, with Tamara and Mark (an entrant for the Tall Ships Festival taking place in St. Petersburg this year, and a fellow Crazy Duck hosteller) in tow.  The minute we joined the back of the queue, the heavens opened.  Still, we were in better moods than we had been the day previously, and put on our waterproofs – we were prepared.

During the course of our two-hour queueing session, however, I found out that my five year-old waterproof was, sadly, no longer waterproof.  The only function it had to perform was to keep me dry, and it failed spectacularly.  I was soaked to the skin.  Not even an adjoining pastry kiosk or a cup of coffee could save me from shivering like a wet puppy.  But, we were in, and we spent the next four hours in The Hermitage, admiring not only the exhibits of fine art, but also the stunning architecture, frescoes and sculptures that made up the interior of the magnificent building itself.

In no way did we feel those four hours were wasted, and the breathtaking decor of the building was more impressive with each room we entered.  Works by Matisse, Monet and Van Gogh hung on the walls, and we passed an impressive library room – a personal favourite among the gold leaf and high ceilings.

I still had one wardrobe malfunction left in me,as my belt completely snapped. I was forced to return to the hostel with my trousers being held up by my indestructible money belt – another must-have.  Personal failures aside, we felt our day was well-spent, even though we had yet to sample any of St. Petersburg’s other historic landmarks.

Dinner was a pleasant meal in a modern café, where our dishes were analysed for possible parasitic content and the bill was served inside a book.  Returning to the hostel, we met a variety of new friends: two Serbian men, two Canadian men and two American girls.  The evening was spent in true intrepid-traveller style:  drinking beer and playing cards.  We were taught a fantastic new game called ‘golf’, but I was sadly more Tony the Tiger than Tiger Woods.

Switching to the universal card-based drinking games, another day in St. Petersburg faded away.  Except, it didn’t quite fade away, because St. Petersburg gets approximately one hour of darkness between 1am and 2am during their Midsummer ‘White Nights’, but I’m sure you can afford me some artistic license…

Cakes and pains 08Jul09 | [manners] 0

Although ‘endure’ is probably not the right word, the trip from Tallinn to St. Petersburg was a long one.

The bus itself was not uncomfortable – far from it;

“This was not and ordinary bus. This was a homemade, farmhouse, free range Lux Express Bus covered in a rich, creamy balsamic glaze.”

We should definitely do Eurolines’ new advertising campaign.

Although commonly mistaken for a stealth fighter, as previously described, we Facebooked, Tweeted, Skyped and everything in-between until we reached the frontier of the Russian Federation with virtually not a wink of sleep (this would come back to haunt us later), fuelled only by various baked pastry-like goods we’d brought (smuggled?) from Tallinn.

We were both intrigued by the prospect of the impending border crossing, mostly due to the sheer volume of hassle and paperwork that had to be processed before even leaving Britain. The reality however, was rather less exhilarating: passports collected, passports scanned, passports returned.

“That was easy,” I said as a witticism to The Other One. How long have I been saying this? Surely I would know when to keep my mouth shut. Well, needless to say that wasn’t the last of our official border crossing duties: we had to unpack everything from the coach and wander through the ‘customs’ building – an odd experience as no one’s luggage was checked and one man seemed to get through border control simply by complaining about the toilets.

After this kerfuffle we reloaded the coach and we rumbled onwards to Russia. I found it rather untypically difficult to sleep, which didn’t help when we were told to get off the bus in the middle of St Petersburg’s version of nowhere and started a game of walking dot-to-dot between the sparse tourist information signs. Do not fear, worried readership, we did indeed find a metro station (opulently decorated in what appeared to be marble) and got ourselves to the nearest station to our hostel, saying a tearful (not really) goodbye to our new-found Irish companions at about 0715, who had accompanied us from the bus station to the depths of the deepest Metro line in the world.

Ringing the buzzer, climbing the stairs and perusing the smashed glass, worn stone and rotting walls, we were pleased to see that “Crazy Duck Hostel” was well-kept in this USSR-building relic.  This was where the fun really started. We couldn’t check in until 1300 – not a problem, we knew this already. However, there were also already people lying on the common room sofas that we had planned to use, so sightseeing it was.  We dumped our bags in the care of our not-so-knowledgable-and-equally-bleary-eyed-boy-receptionist and set off.

I could try and recite where we went in great detail, but it would be a waste of time for several reasons:

i) I’m not totally sure where we went. The entire thing is a bit of a blur. We were in delirium for most of it – hauling ourselves around St. Petersburg giggling like schoolchildren, taking frequent rest-breaks in parks as we discussed which birds would be the most hygienic and pleasant to lick.

ii) In true interthink style, St. Petersburg shuts down on Wednesdays,so the places we did visit like the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was shut and the Hermitage/Winter Palace had a 3-5 hour queue. This necessitates anothier visit which in turn results in another visit on another day that will be recorded in another blog.

iii)  It was freezing, windy and wet.  We were incredibly uncomfortable for the large part of our ‘sightseeing’, so our trips were punctuated by Mr. Stylianou’s burkha-style re-arrangement of his scarf and various photo opportunities where we pretended to throw ourselves into the nearest river.

We eventually returned to the hostel at around 1400 (after a spot of lunch from a café) and caught up to an extent on our Zzzzs for in excess of three hours. Upon waking we met several of the characters at Crazy Duck hostel including Tamara. She’s an Austrian twenty-something who gave up PR to travel around for a few months. We went with her for dinner to Sbarro pizza in the local shopping centre (yes, the very same one that provides a staple nutritious diet to the bowlers of Guildford Spectrum) as well as getting some bottled water from the supermarket (the tap water has super-diarrhea-inducing parasites in it).

This leads me pretty nicely up to the present, where it’s nearly midnight (local time) and it’s still as light as late afternoon. Nick has discovered he still has the keys to his Tallinn locker – sorry Tallinn Backpackers (he’s cursing that he’s lost his 100EEK deposit) – and things are starting to quiet down in our homely dorm, with only the buzz off BBC World News next door to usher in tomorrow’s mega day of Soviet sightseeing.

Occupational Therapy 07Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

If I could use one word to summarise my experience of Tallinn, besides the hospitality of our hostel and the beauty of the city (and the inexpensive price of food and drink), it would have to be ‘wi-fi’.  Seriously, it’s everywhere, and it’s free.  If I bought an apartment in downtown Tallinn, I probably wouldn’t need to pay for internet at all, as wireless access is so prevalent. More on that in a bit.

We kicked off the day with a trip to the Museum of Occupations, where we learned about the ill-fated first Soviet occupation, the WWII years under the Germans, the Stalinist regime through the 50s and 60s until finally Estonia regained its independence in 1991.  We ended up watching three of the seven half-hour documentaries and spent an additional half an hour perusing the sparse artifacts from each era.  We now consider ourselves experts on 20th Century Estonian History.  This was rather ill-timed, as the overwhelming animosity we now felt for the Russians as we left the museum didn’t heighten any excitement about going to St. Petersburg later that night.

Breaking for lunch, and to debate the best scenario for liberating the Estonians if we were in charge during WWII, we found a terrific café called simply ‘EAT’, where you could get a full bowl of fried Estonian dumplings (meat, meat and spinach or potato) for less than £3.

While Nick bought another of their fried delicacies for dessert – a doughnut – I got chatting to one of the tourist guides who actually made the map I was looking at and who’d popped in for a bit of lunch himself.

By the time we’d left the café, it was raining.  Hoorah.  I hope the leftover trait from 2008 isn’t inevitably poor weather following us around…

We walked to the Old Town Square and had a look at the impressive Town Hall building, and then took a walk north to see the part of the Old Town we hadn’t yet managed to cover.  St. Olaf’s church and Fat Margaret’s Tower awaited our acknowledgment and….yeah, they were alright.  Everything looks a bit more dull in the drizzle.

Remembering something that the friendly tour guide mentioned, we wandered back into the Old Town Square and checked out a quirkily rustic coffee house for a spot of tea, coffee and cake.  Then it was back to the hostel to chill out in the common area and hit the supermarket for some dinner.  Buying the staple carbohydrate-laden assorted sweet and savoury items from the bakery to save for our bus journey, we ended up buying  the cheapest pasta and the cheapest sauce to cook back at the hostel’s kitchen, That was an error, as the pasta was akin to molten lead and the sauce appeared to just be sweet ketchup,  Needless to say we didn’t quite clean our plates and learned a lesson to serve us in good stead.

Giving travel advice to our Aussie friend Rob and meeting two nice young Irish ladies who were willing to share a taxi to the International Bus Station, we avoided the now-heavier rain outside by watching Anchorman to while away our final couple of hours in Tallinn.

A seven-minute journey took us to the aforementioned International Bus Terminal, where we met some more people from our hostel who were taking the slightly later version of our bus.  We were all hastily giddy with excitement when we saw our jet-black Lux Express bus pull up.  Thoughts of a champagne reception and a caviar bar quickly formed in our minds as we wondered what our extra supplementary expense might buy us.

As we boarded our formidable wheeled transport (although it did look a bit like a cockroach), we were greeted with: comfortable seats, a reasonable amount of legroom, a power socket per two and, of course, free wi-fi.  See, I’m typing this up while making two Skype phone-calls on my iPhone through an admittedly slow but reasonable connection provided by our bus.  Yes, that’s right, we have internet on our bus.  I can check Facebook while hurtling towards the Russian border.  The 21st Century is great, isn’t it? I hope you’re listening and taking notes, Gordon Brown, because ‘Digital Britain’ has got a long way to go to match this techno-savvy Baltic state.

And they were under German and Soviet rule for 53 years, so don’t give me all that ‘recession’ talk….

(Black and) Blue (and White) Monday 06Jul09 | [manners] 0

After the escapades of several youths in the street at  four o’clock in the morning ensured that we would have to have a lie-in to regain the several hours of sleep lost, we eventually got up at about 10am.

Breakfast consisted of a variety of croissants and pastries from the local supermarket’s bakery – two each for just over a pound. Bargain. Meaningful activity started shortly afterwards with the now age-old tradition of renting bikes, that we then rode into the old town centre up to the castle area of Toompea, annoying our fair share of footsloggers on the way.

Inside the old walls we found discovered the Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral – an ornately decorated orthodox building that greatly contrasted with the Lutheran Dome Church that was sparsely decorated with various crests across its walls, found on the far side of the Toompea district. Up at the castle there was also a grand variety of tourist-y things to do, including archery. I was tempted to go, but after missing most of the Robin Hood for Beginners module at Nottingham due to incarceration by the Sheriff I thought better of it.

After visiting these parts of the Old Town, we decided to get the most out of our two-wheeled steads and rode the two and a bit kilometers to the Kadriorg Palace. This however, was shut…but the surrounding parks weren’t and were a very pleasant cycle around the park and past a monument next to the coast road. This in turn lead us to our first cycle path, so we went cruising along the seafront until we stumbled upon the rocket-shaped spire of the Maarjamae War Memorial. This was a soviet memorial to the soldiers that had died in the area.

Soon though, our stomachs were trying to tell us something and we cycled back into the the park to find the cafe…which was shut. Towards the top of the park however was the Kumu museum of Estonian art (which was open) and we had a beer and lunch (a tuna salad for me and an omelette for my partner in crime – just in case you were wondering).

Stomachs filled, we journeyed back to the old town and got back to the bike hire shop in excellent time – we went so fast the FIA would’ve banned us. F1 in-jokes aside, me and Nick were curious as to the nightlife Tallinn had to offer, however after a trip to the travelers’ info tent we were told:

“You chose the wrong days to come to Tallinn, nothing happens on a Monday night!”
“What about Tuesday night?”
“No. It all really kicks off Wednesday to Sunday.”

Fantastic, Tallinn effectively runs a restricted timetable on a Monday.  The clues were, in retrospect, laid out by all the closed museums and exhibitions we’d passed…oh well, back to the hostel we went for a power-nap. This however was rudely interrupted by meeting two new occupants of our room. One was an Australian named Rob who’s been traveling all over for the last 7 weeks or so and the other is Rebecca from Costa Rica who had been visiting relatives in Moscow and couldn’t really stop herself travelling to Tallinn. With our new compadres we went to Kompressor, a cosy pub selling incredibly calorific and cheap savory pancakes that also tasted damn good (bacon and cheese, yum).  This was followed by an extended visit to a bar that sold 87 varieties of beer and cider from all corners of the globe that enabled us to sample some of the very best.

Unlike many of the cities we visit that come with the weight of expectations, we had no idea of what would be awaiting us in Tallinn, what we found was a city with plenty of history but that was obviously as up to date as forward thinking as any typical ‘western’ city. A city that had plenty of winding streets and back alleys but that always felt homely, comforting and always friendly.

Tallinn, a tale. 05Jul09 | [stylianou] 0

With no fanfare, no last supper and no five-strong mixed-gender band of travellers, two Nicks modestly set off to explore a different part of Europe for the remainder of July.

The trip to Stansted was easy enough – some might say a little too easy – we had checked in half an hour before our check-in was even due to open.  Emotional farewells also out of the way, it was off to international departures and the relative obscurity of the world beyond.  Or so we thought.  Ten minutes airside, and I’d already seen my RGS Spanish teacher, Ms. Lopez-Garcia, and her gaggle of pre-GCSE students eager to go on their homestay trip to Santander.  Well, that was a blast from the past.  I knew something was up when three 15-year-olds passed me and not-so-quietly remarked to one another “Isn’t that whatshisname….Stylianou?  Nick Stylianou?”

Finally!  Fame! Glamour! Celebrity status achieved!  Not quite.  Two ex-RGS boys travelling together for almost a month?  Tight t-shirts and jeans?  In retrospect, nothing spells out ‘homosexual holiday’ quite like us.

As for easyJet, they were all too happy to delay the plane for an hour in case we thought we’d started our journey a little too smoothly.

This was, of course, after the mandatory rush onto the plane, in which I was left stranded to find a seat. Luckily, I was spared sitting next to one of three screaming babies and ended up finding a place almost at the back of the plane, with Nick somewhere in the middle.

At around 1800 local time (we lost more time because these Estonians are two hours ahead) we touched down in Tallinn.  As soon as we got off the plane, our rabies vaccinations earned their money while a customs dog was waiting to sniff us as we walked past.  No sooner had we thought we were free from Tallinn’s canine security force than another smaller dog was wandering around the baggage carousel to sniff our luggage.  It seemed to be having a jolly old time, although reasonably confused when the carousel was moving as to why it was going backwards and covering less ground when it trotted forward…the hilarity of a dog being transported in circles around international arrivals wasn’t lost on us.

Finally in the brisk air of the early evening, we waited at the bus stop for a lift into the centre of the town,  Who was to be our first acquaintance, having only just left the terminal gates? Why, it was travelling postgraduate law student Jules, of course, from Oxshott in Surrey. We got chatting, and as he was looking for a place to stay for a night (because he’d arrived a day early), we made the relatively short journey on bus and by foot with him to our hostel.  Sadly, it was fully booked, and we left Jules to find another hostel, and to have a nice summer.  Or so we thought.  We ended up seeing Jules while we had dinner, and invited him to join us in a post-dinner er…food run to the local McDonald’s.  Hey, we’re all growing lads, with fresh Estonian currency burning a hole in our pockets.

Another farewell to Jules (have we seen the last of him? Who knows?) meant it was time for us to turn in for the night.  A return to the hostel after a wander in the twilight of 10pm (!) found us acquainted with one of our room-mates: a boozy American called Brendan who couldn’t quite work out why we’d want a cultural experience of the city, preferring to wax lyrical about the ‘beautiful women’ he had found.  Another, quieter gentleman from Norfolk, educated at Oxford, introduced himself and we all promptly went to sleep.  I think I’ve given up a tally of meeting people, let alone single-travelling Caucasian English-speaking men.  And it’s only the first day.