Return to Kazakhstan

What a surprisingly country Kyrgyzstan was.  I am not really sure what I expected but I guess it was the barren mountains and camels etc but not the other wonderful landscapes that would not have looked out of place in Switzerland or even New Zealand. The people were warm and welcoming – many cultures and nationalities all living harmoniously together (well at least from my perspective).  The food – well all I can say is boorsuk 😂😂😂 and of course I must give credit to all the other wonderful soups and stews we had and the incredible hospitality.  I am sure I left the country at least a couple of kg heavier than when I entered 🤦🏻‍♀️ .

We started the drive to the Kazakh border on a sealed road and then the final 20km on unsealed road as we got closer to the border, passing (and in some cases driving through) herds of sheep, cattle, horses and passed lush green grassy land as we drove in to the mountains.  Then more sheep, cows, horses, sheep, cows 😂 – there were very few cars on the road, but soooo many animals as it was the start of the autumn migration.

As we climbed into the mist, the temperature dropped and the roads got worse and it was clear we were heading to a border crossing that is not used often – I was so glad I did not pack my big coat in my bag like some others did!

The border crossing in the mountains was bitterly cold and apparently it closes in October as it is then too cold and I was not surprised! We crossed out of Kyrgyzstan and walked 100m or so in what felt like arctic conditions at around 2000 m above sea level to reach the Kazakh side – such a contrast to yesterday’s beautiful weather.

I was the first in the group to go through and the border soldiers took ages over my passport before finally stamping me in and the only customs question was ‘do I have any guns or ammunition’! A quick no and I was back in Kazakhstan. 

Our Kazakh guide Gau was there to meet us and we headed off in on the terrible road in to Kazakhstan (apparently it was under construction and definitely not a road that is used often.) 

Our first stop was in the small town of Kegen for a toilet stop and tea served with fresh pastries with cheese (which were amazing).  The café did not have a toilet so we had to walk through a small local market for a toilet which turned out to be hole in the concrete with rebar across … and better yet, two holes in the same little nook (I do wish I had a photo but sadly I did not have my phone with me)! Not the nicest but toilets have been hit and miss the last few days – with a few road side nature stops thrown in which to be honest are often nicer than the inside stinky options!

We are now in the northern part of the Tian Shan mountains (the same range as we were in in Kyrgyzstan).  These mountains are considered one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, even the name means Celestial or Heavenly Mountains in Chinese. 

It is here that we find the Charyn River, that over time has carved out the colourful and impressive Charyn Canyon – some say the Grand Canyon of Central Asia.  Unfortunately, the weather was against us and we could not take a walk to the bottom of the canyon, but the rain eased up enough for us to walk around the top for a shortly while.  Turns out it had lulled us in to a false sense of security and we got caught out when the heavens opened again so had to set a quick pace back to the van for our ‘picnic’ lunch.

The canyon was incredible and took me completely by surprise (again – I clearly had not done enough research in to where I was going on this trip as so many places took me by surprise lol).   The area was full of rocks with colourful striations, lots of different rock formations (some looking like castles – some of the canyon is known as the Valley of Castles) and we could just spot through the rain a river oasis at the bottom.

From the canyon, we drove through vast plains, where big battles took place during the Kazak – Dzungar (from Mongolia) wars in the 1600-1700s.  A more recent reference is that, along with the canyon, it was also the location for part of the music video for the singer ‘Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s’ song Skin.

By late afternoon we finally arrived in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of just over 2 million.  It was the capital of the country until 1997 (when it was moved to Astana/Nur-Sultan) but it is often still considered the main city and is the education centre of the country.

The next morning we finally got a sleep in, a little time to recharge before our walking tour around Almaty.  Unfortunately, our guide Gau was sick, so today we had Dimi, a Kazakh of Russian origin.  Despite missing Gau, it was really interesting to get different insights that he had in to the country and its culture.

The city itself was founded in 1850s when a Russian fort was built and nomads were displaced from their territory moved in to the area, but there are remnants of other settlements in the area dating back to 1000-900 BC – in fact one of the Saka Golden Warriors we saw in the museum in Nur-Sultan was found in this area.   Sadly,  most of that early town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1887.

Alma-ata literally translates to ‘Father of Apples’ and it is said that Kazakhstan is the birth place of the apple.  Vast numbers of wild apple trees use to grow around the foothills of the mountains and apples were transported from here along the silk road trading routes and beyond.  (As well as apples, apparently Dutch tulips can trace their origins back to Central Asia and a number of varieties still grow wild today – another reason to return in the spring!)

The greenery of Almaty was in stark contrast to Nur- Sultan and in the centre of the city was the beautiful Panfilov Park.  It was designed by a French architect and has wide walk ways which were originally designed for carriages.

The park has a number of worthwhile sites, starting with the candy coloured Zenkov Cathedral – apparently the tallest wooden Orthodox cathedrals and in fact one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.  Built in 1907, it is considered one of the earliest earthquake proof buildings as it was designed (by the architect Zenkov) with a sand pillow foundation.  That along with the flexibility of the wood and the use of metal staples rather than nails, saw it safely through the 1911 earthquake, though the priests would prefer people to believe it was divine intervention!

Apparently, many religious icons were destroyed during the Soviet period, so false walls had been created inside the church to keep these precious items safe from harm.  We were fortunate that internal restorations had just been completed 2 weeks prior to our visit and got to enjoy the interior in its true gold leafed glory. 

The park gets it name from the Panfilov Hero’s.  28 soliders from Almaty who died (or did they??) fighting the Nazis tanks in the small village near Moscow in 1941.  Their efforts delayed the Nazis march on Moscow sufficiently to allow the soldiers there to prepare for the invasion attempt.  Subsequently the park is also home to a massive and somewhat confronting Soviet war memorial to the Panfilov heros and all the others who fought in the Great Patriotic War (known to most as WWII).

The momument shows 15 soliders, one for each of the member states of the Soviet Union and if you look closely you can see the different ethnicities and nationalities in their faces and clothes.  They also make up the shape of the USSR (which takes a little imagination to see). 

In total, over 1.2m Kazakh soldiers fought in war and at least half did not return home.

Next up was a visit to the Green Market filled with stalls piled high with fruit (dried and fresh) and nuts, milk and meat products, honey and pollen (which you stuck a honey covered stick in to and that ate it) and much much more. 

I was the only one who wanted to try anything so Dimi, and I headed in to the stalls to try camel milk (a little fermented and like natural drinking yogurt but much better than horse milk), really tasty dried milk product with or without honey, then on to meat – horse, caribou (imported from Russia) and camel (not common) – mostly cured so like salami and pretty tasty.

Following on with the Russian theme of the day, we had a Russian lunch in a restaurant decorated like a house from Tsarist Russia – salads, Shchi Soup (basically a Russian style cabbage soup), peppers stuffed with meat, little dumplings and ‘famous’ Almaty apple for dessert.  All in all pretty tasty. 

Finally, after lunch we had some free time – the only downside of trips like this is that there is so much to see and do in such a short space of time each day is packed full!  Because of that, I probably did not make the most of the free time but I enjoyed an iced coffee and a nanna nap 😂!

That said, I did brave the short walk to the big modern mall and despite all the traffic lights and clearly marked crossing, crossing the busy roads still seems to be somewhat risky!  This probably goes back to something our guide told us in the market where there was a sign saying no photos – he said, in this country signs don’t really mean anything 🤔🤔🤔😂 good to know!

After a refreshing break we took the gondola/cable car to Kok tobe (blue or green mountains) for a beautiful view over city as the sun started to set.  It seemed a popular location for locals with its small stalls and fun fair atmosphere.  The weirdest thing was a life size statue of the Beatles!!  Apparently they were/are very popular in Kazakhstan – who knew???

We finished off our last day in Kazakhstan by visiting the Palace of the Republic  (once the Lenin Palace of Culture), built in 1992 as a large meeting and concert venue. It looked particularly pretty with the setting sun reflecting in its glass façade and having yet another lovely dinner listening to a band playing modern music on traditional instruments (Sean Mendez seemed to be a big favourite 😂😂)

An interesting point worth noting is that Kazakhstan is currently in the process of changing its alphabet from the Russia-like Cyrillic to the English-like Latin alphabet.  The change was announced in 2017 with a 7-year plan introduced to have the transfer complete by 2025.  Some say this change was to help people drop any remnants of their Russian culture and reaffirms that Russia is no longer a partner.

This is not the first time a language change has been forced upon the Kazakhs (and others in the area) as most of the Central Asian Turkic states used Arab script for over 1000 years before being invaded by the Russians.  In fact, communist Russian introduced a Latin alphabet for the Turkic language initially, before switching to Cyrillic in the 1940s!  The language changes helped disassociated people with their cultural roots as they could no longer read the literature from that time.  Of course, another alphabet change means history is going to repeat itself as now all the literature is in Cyrillic!

As of this year, this new written language is to be taught in kindergartens and primary schools and only time will tell how successful it is.  Interesting, Uzbekistan started to implemented the same change in 1993 but even today, although young Uzbek’s grew up reading books in Latin script, most publications are still in Cyrillic.  The attempt to switch in Turkmenistan has also stalled!

All things Kyrgyz 101

Our day in the yurt camp was one of my favourites, with the quiet simplicity of life in the mountains.  But with such a busy schedule we had to head off the next morning.  Thankfully we had time to walk down towards the lake in the crisp mountain morning air before getting in the vans and getting back on the dusty road to travel the 290 km from Song Kul to Issyk Kul – the second largest alpine lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca).

Before setting off, we of course had to have a huge breakfast, this time with delicious Rice porridge (more like rice pudding to me) and all the breads again!  And of course tea.

How to poor a cup of tea – when pouring tea for someone, you should only fill the cup halfway as a sign of respect.  A half-filled cup means the host wants you to stay longer and have more. If get given a full cup, it means they want you to drink your tea and go … once I learnt this, I was always asking for a cup of tea with ‘no respect’ so I could get a full one lol.

How to make felt – We stopped in the same village as the day before for lunch and this time to also visit the ladies cooperative to see how their felt matting is made.   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people lost their jobs, so a group of women created this felt making cooperative which now has 200 women in it.  Felt is important in the Kyrgyz culture as it is used not only for clothing (in particular hats) but also for the walls of yurt and mats for floors. 

Unbeknown to us, this was an audience participation stop and we were not just shown how they make the felt, but we had to join in.  We started by making a pattern with fresh (and pretty dirty) wool – the wool was piled high and in the end it was probably about 10cm high.  Next step was to roll it in reed mat and add boiling water and soap and wash it numerous times.  Then the fun part started which involved us all taking turns ‘dancing’ on the reed mat, compressing the wool within it – it was lots of fun and the whole the family joined in 😂.  During this process, the lanolin in the wool becomes like glue and sticks all the wool together and we ended up with a flat piece of ‘felt’ with some sort of pattern on it!!  Not sure we would make much money from it but it was a fun way to learn about the process.

How to spot a camel – This is easy, just look out the window of your vehicle lol!! Our next (and unplanned) stop was a very exciting one for me, we had spotted some camels on the side of the road.  They were Bactrian (or two humped) camels, the first I had ever seen.  Bactrian camels are native to the steppes of Central Asia, exactly where we were seeing them and they are can withstand the incredible range of their habitat from -40C in the winter to 40C in the summer! What an incredible animal and I was so happy to have seen them in the wild (even though they probably were a domesticated herd grazing).

How to make a yurt – Next up was a visit to a Yurt master.  Yurts have been the main habitation for Central Asia nomads for thousands of years and even today are used by nomadic farmers during the summer months (like those we stayed with the day before).  They are easy to assemble and dismantle and are strategically designed for good air circulation, heating and cooling and wind resistance. 

Our Yurt master was a 3rd generation Yurt maker and apparently 90% of the village he lives in are involved in yurt building even today. A good yurt takes around 2 months to make just the wood part (which is what he does) and he makes 5-6 per year (to order only). Incredibly, a well-made  yurt can last over 100 years!!!   Sadly, many of the yurts you see today are Chinese made with metal/plastic frames rather than these wonderful local wooden hand crafted ones.

Interestingly there is symbolism in each part of the yurt as the yurt is considered more than just a house.  The wooden circle at the top of the yurt is called a tunduk and it symbolises 4 seasons, each of 3 months – this is such important symbol in the Kyrgyz culture (as it is in the other nomad cultures) you also see it reflected in the Kyrgyz flag. 

How to train an eagle – Eagle hunting is an age-old Kyrgyz tradition (as it is in other the other countries of Central Asia) and is a popular sport in the World Nomad Games (in which our eagle hunter had come 3rd last year!).  Many nomadic traditions were almost wiped out during the Soviet era, but there has been a resurgence of interest since independence.  Training hunting eagles is a skill that is typically passed on from generation to generation and is now more for tourism and rather than hunting for necessity like their ancestors did.   

The Golden Eagles are taken them from nest at 2 months old and are trained for 20 years, after which they are returned back in to the mountains where they live as wild birds up to an age of about 50 years.  During their time in captivity, the hunters and their birds create a strong bonds which was obvious to see during their demonstration. There are only about 50 eagle hunters left in Kyrgyzstan and love it or hate it, it is part of the unique cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz people.   

Of course, the eagle hunters not only expect their birds to hunt but are also great shots with a bow and arrow too!  As I learnt that day, I am NOT!!!

As we finally reached Issyk Kul lake, we were treated to a lovely sunset and we ended our action packed day in another yurt camp.   These yurts were definitely more designed for tourists and were beautiful (apparently made by the master yurt master we had met earlier in the day) and we even had our own toilet and shower. Despite the step up in luxury from the night before, I think I slept better in the peace of the mountains rather than at this camp which was situated by the road !!

How to have an impressive lake – It is important to note at this point that Issyk Kul is no ordinary lake.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, not only is it the second largest alpine lake, it is also the second largest saline lake in the world (though the saline level is very low compared to sea level) and the tenth largest lake in the world (by volume)!  Issyk Kul basically means ‘warm lake’ and although it is often surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it never actually freezes. 

It is also a favourite summer holiday destination for Krygyz people and during Soviet times was a ‘popular’ location for Sanatoriums.  These have now been replaced with resorts and holiday homes, particularly on the northern shores of the lake.

How to have impressive rock formations – As we headed around the shore of the lake the following morning, our first stop was the ‘Fairy Tale Canyon’.  Here rocks full of iron and magnesium have been carved over the years by wind and rain to form various formations with colourful striations ranging through various shades of yellow, orange and red. People flock to the ‘Rainbow mountain’ in Peru, maybe this is the next big thing lol

Next stop was the Jeti-Ögüz Rocks, better known as the Broken Heart and Seven Bull rock formation, we had left the Central Asian steppes well behind us and at 2,000m above sea level, we could have been in Switzerland as the area was so green compared to Song Kul.  Formations have been ‘carved’ out of red sandstone cliffs and tower over the village that was once a high altitude training ground for Russian cosmonauts and Soviet athletes and was apparently the site of the first meeting between Presidents Akaev and Yeltzin in 1991. The rocks themselves are famous in the country and feature in numerous poems and paintings.

There are many legends about the rocks but the one our guide Rifat told us one about a beautiful lady who died of a broken heart after her two potential suitors killed each other fighting over her!!  So not a happy legend then!   Others talk about the two potential suitors killing seven bulls, one each day and on the last day killing the lady! Not sure any of them have a happy ending.

Our final stop here was a small stall selling honey and honey products (which unsurprisingly was surrounded by bees!).  We sampled some of the honey before buying some ‘mead’ to share for dinner.

How to set a table like a Kyrgyz – I have previously mentioned the insane amount of food that we were being served at each meal.  But it is the way a table is set that shows an important culture etiquette and our lunch in the town of Karakol was a perfect example of this.

Standard hosting etiquette in Kyrgyzstan is to ensure the table is full before your guests even sit down and our tables on most days are full of salads, breads, nuts and raisins, dried fruit, sweets, biscuits, fruits etc.  Then the actual meal (often 2-3 courses) is served!  It is very disrespectful if this is not done! 

Our lunch in Karakol was at the home of a Uighur (or Uyghur) family.  Uigurs are a minority Turkic ethnic group who can be found all over Central and East Asia and are considered native of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region of  China.   It was a nice surprise to hear that the family was actually the aunt and grandmother of Rifat (our guide).

His grandmother had handmade the wonderful dumplings which were served with soup and stew and potatoes.  Apparently they often make the dumplings to sell in the town.  Dessert was apples picked straight off the trees in their garden. 

I love learning about the local people I meet on my travels and was really interested to learn that despite being from Kyrgyzstan (with roots in Azerbaijan and China) our guide and his immediate family live just over the border in Kazakhstan!  Of course, when his parents settled there, there were no borders!! They are lucky that there is still freedom of movement across the borders that now exist, not like other times in history where people have been stuck after borders change overnight such as in East Berlin when the wall went up!

How to visit Karakol – Karakol (once know as Przhevalsk after the Russian explorer Przhevalsky) is Kyrgzstan’s 4th largest city despite having a population of only 70,000 (approximately) and sits on the shores of Issyk Kul.  Given its proximity to China (which is only 150kms away) it is ethnically diverse with Uighurs (as mentioned above), Dungans (Chinese muslims who fled persecution in China in the 1800’s), Uzbeks, Russians (it once housed a large Soviet military base) and of course Kyrgyz people and this diversity is reflected in the architecture of the town.

First stop is the beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox Church built in 1895 (replacing a stone one that was destroyed in an earthquake).  During Soviet times, when religion was forbidden, the church was used as a school, a sports hall, a theatre, offices during the war and even a coal store.  After independence in 1992 it was returned to the church.

Next stop is the Dungan mosque – which is like no other mosque I have ever seen as it is built in very much Chinese style, having been designed by a famous Chinese architect and sponsored by a rich Dungan.  In fact it looks more like a Chinese Buddist temple with dragons on the corners.  The mosque was completed in 1910 and is built with NO nails, using only interlocking pieces of wood and was undamaged by a large earthquake in 1911!!  

It is worth noting, that Islam here is much more relaxed than in other places.  Many followers are relatively new to it as a religion as of course if was not allowed in Soviet times.  Rifat told us it is ok if you don’t pray 5 times a day if you are working (God knows you are busy) and women often don’t wear head covers of any kind.  Despite that, women are given long hooded robes to wear before entering the mosque compound.

Following the lake around, you can drive down the long tree lined ‘highways’ to reach the Przhevalsky (or Prjevalski) Museum which is set in a beautiful park like gardens.   If you are lucky (like us) you may pass the filming of a local tv show 🤔🤔 with traditional singing and dancing.

I must admit I was not filled with enthusiasm to visit a museum after such a busy day, but my interest peaked when I discovered that this was a museum dedicated to a man after whom the Przewalski’s Horse was named after!   I have no idea why these horses fascinate me, but I must have learnt about them at school and they can now only be found in the wild in Mongolia. (perhaps a trip for another time).  They are considered the only true wild horse in the world today as they have never been domesticated.

Przhevalsky was a Russian explorer who died of typhoid in Karakol in 1888. He was one of the first people to detail studies of geography, flora and fauna of Central Asia and he mapped many of the paths through the mountain ranges.  When he died he was on the eve of his 5th expedition, but apparently he ‘won’ the money for his first expedition in a card game.

How to stay on a Kyrgyz farm – 30km north of Karakol is the village of Tepke and it here we found are home for our last night in Kyrgyzstan – Reina Kench Guesthouse.

The guest house was on a farm which spans approximately 300 hectares where they raise horses (for racing), merino mix sheep, angus beef and yaks in the higher areas.  The owner of the farm was once the head of Agronomics during soviet times and upon independence, people were given small pieces of land.  On his land there were no trees and no water but with his expert know how, he planted every tree and built every building and purchased (or rented) the surrounding lands to build what they have today. 

As well as the farm, the family now run a successful guest house and help other local farmers make the most of their land.  The guest house side of the business is helped by having his children work at 5 star hotels in Kyrgyzstan and beyond to learn the business of 5 star service before returning home to the family business.  And they have learnt well, dinner in particular was amazing with the star of the meal being Angus beef straight off the farm, washed down with our mead purchased earlier in the day.

They gave us a demonstration of their horses and how they train them and we had a opportunity to wander around the farm – I must be honest, the view from the main guest house area could have been in New Zealand, it was so lush and green with the mountains in the distance.

How to make boorsuks – The last and most important lesson on Kyrgyz culture was the making of my kryptonite – boorsuks!  Those fried puffy dough balls I love! We helped roll out the dough made of flour, water, oil, yeast, salt and sugar (nothing special there), cut and cook them where they puff up into the beautiful golden squares of joy (this is of course where the magic happens lol).  The final step in the process is to eat them hot with a selection of different homemade Jams – goosebury, raspberry, apricot.  Of course, I ate way too many just before dinner but what a wonderful way to spend our last night in Kyrgyzstan.

Nomad life …

This morning we set off to drive 400km – we were in two vans so had plenty of room as we headed down the ‘Chinese’ road (all money invested from China and actually goes to China I believe).  Of course the great thing about this is the road was pretty good quality. 

We stopped at a small road side market – a definite indication that we are in the middle of melon season (water and other), lots of peppers and amazing looking tomatoes and fresh local bread. 

Our first official stop for the day was at Burana tower.  The tower is a 24m high stump of what was a huge brick minaret and is all that remains of the ancient cityof Balasagun.  Balasagun was founded by the Sogdians (an ancient Irainan civilization that one ruled parts of present day Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). It thrived between the 10-14th century and was closely associated with the Silk Road.  What you can see today is part of a 1970’s Russian reconstruction.

Some say the city was abandoned after a plague and the top of the minaret (once 40m tall) collapsed during an earthquake in the 15th century.  In it’s prime, it was the main economic centre of the Chuy Valley and this was seen in it’s developed structures – including water pipes, piping water from the nearby Tien Shan mountains, parts of which can now be seen in the small museum on site.

You could go up the tower but I (or my ankle) decided the steep narrow dark staircase was not worth the trouble and I was quite satisfied with the views from the top of the small mound.

Near the tower there is a field of ancient balbals.  Balbals are gravestones used by the nomadic Turkic tribes who used to roam the area.  Some are people (those holding a wine glass are thought to be a representation of the Nestorians, a group of early Christians), others are more like the headstones we would expect with text on them.  Some were carved by the greatest stone carvers of their time and some are incredibly well preserved.  As well as being gravestones, it is also thought that the stones were used to depict places of residence of the nomadic Turks of Tien Shan.

As we continued on our way we passed a field laid out for a game that is part of the World Nomad Games – a very important sporting event in the area.  The game is called Kok boru (Grey Wolf in English) as the games origin was the need for the nomads to chase wolf packs (whilst on horseback) to keep them away from their livestock.  The riders have to lift a running wolf from the ground and throw it to each other whilst the other team fight to get it from the riders!  Today the game is played with a dead goat but it still shows the strength and horseman skills of the brave riders.

Toilet stops while travelling are always interesting as you never know what you are going to find.  Our next stop provided us with relatively clean and modern toilets but with a sign that I found highly amusing 😂.  The oddest part about this is that it wasn’t even a western toilet – it was a squat toilet 🤔.

It was at this stop I was also introduced to Kurut – rather stinky, sour, salty chalk like yoghurt/cheese balls.  You can probably guess from my description that I was not a fan but they are very popular in the region.  They last for months and months and be can mixed with water to make a drink like we had the day before in Bishkek.

Our route in to the Tien Shan mountains took us through vast barren landscapes, dotted with green oasese (apparently this is the plural of oasis) along the banks of the river and reservoir (although it was almost empty as it is the end of summer) and we had lunch in a guest house in the small village of Kochkor which was surrounded by lots of apple covered trees. 

The further into the mountains we went, the worst the roads became and we continued to wind up to the highest pass at 3446m.  As we finally reached Song Kul, we turned on to an unpaved road  which quickly turned in to a dirt track.  We passed people making hay, grazing sheep and horses, yaks hanging out on the side of the road.  Oh, and don’t forget the stunning views. 

After driving 12 kms along the lake, we finally reached our Yurt camp at 3100m above sea level.  Song Kul is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and is surrounded by summer grazing grounds for the now semi nomadic people of the area.  They stay in the area with their livestock from the beginning of June till September 15th (if the weather allows).   

We quickly dropped off our bags in our allocated yurts before walking a short distance to visit a local nomad yurt.  As there are no trees at this altitude so they pack down cow manure in to bricks to use as fuel in their fires.  Apparently, it is slow burning and kepts the heat well.  We then tried fermented horse milk – like fermented fizzy very sour milk but it was not as bad as it sounds and definitely not as bad as the kurut (oh but they make that too and that is what is in the hanging bag in the photo below).

As the sun was about to set, three of us joined a local in a sunset horse ride.  It was lovely and peaceful and the sunset over the lake was beautiful.  I love these peaceful moments – time to unwind and take in the incredible world around you.

Back at the yurts and we barely had time to wash our hands before it was time for dinner – sitting cross legged on the floor (not ideal for some of the older members of the group) again, there was way too much food!!  4 different kinds of bread, soup, main with meat and potatoes, wonderful home made pulled noddles and sweets.   Unfortunately some of the group was suffering – from the altitude and/or maybe stomach issues so the numbers were not so many to enjoy the huge spread.

After dinner it was a rush to get ready for bed before the power went off at 9pm! 

Time for a little Yurt etiquette  … firstly shoes must always be taken off when entering the yurt (also important in most Kyrgyzstan homes).  You should bow your head and your right hand on your heart as you enter as a sign of respect.  This is made easy when the door frame is purposely made low 😂.  The most important/ elders sit straight ahead as you enter and then males one side and women on the other in declining order of importance.  So much to remember for upcoming parts of the trip! 

Welcome to Stan No. 2 – Kyrgyzstan

After only one very busy day in Kazakhstan, we head to the airport at 5am with a packed breakfast from the hotel for our flight to Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan.  (Never fear though, we would be returning to Kazakhstan in a few days time.

Nur-Sultan airport was modern and efficient (for some reason I did not expect such efficiency from Kazakhstan, or Central Asia for that matter!) It was also really quiet, so everything went very smoothly and we were soon on board the Air Astana flight to ‘Stan’ number 2.

  • Currency:  Kyrgyz Som (US$1 = 70 KGS)
  • Language: Kyrgyz, Russian
  • Size: 199,900 sq km
  • Population: 6 million

Bishkek airport was far less modern but no less efficient and I was out with my bag in no time. Oddly immigration asked no questions – not how long we’ll be here or where we are staying (lucky as I am already in group tour mode and my brain has completely switched off as someone else just tells me where to be and when 🥴).

At the airport we were met by our local guide Rifat before driving into the city.  Kyrgyzstan (or maybe just Bishkek seems much greener that Nur Sultan, with fields of crops including corn and watermelon’s lining the road. We could see the mountains  through the haze in the distant. (Apparently much of the ‘haze’ was from farmers burning stubble in fields.)  The country is actually 93% mountains and proudly has Issyk Kul (Issyk Kul literally translates to Warm Lake), the second highest Alpine lake (after Titicaca), the 7th deepest lake, the 10th largest lake and the second largest saline lake (after the Caspian ‘sea’ – more about this in a later blog if I remember).  What a record holder lol and one we will visit in a couple of day’s time.

The hotel we were staying at was celebrating it’s 5 anniversary so we were greeted with  sparkling wine and nibbles (actually fairly substantial nibbles) which was nice way to start our time here. 

One of the things I find most interesting about the region (and this rang true throughout the trip) was the huge range of people we meet.  As I mentioned previously, Aijan, the co-founder of Kalpak Travel who was travelling with us was from Kyrgyzstan, but had a very nomadic heritage and was very Asian in appearance.  On the other hand our local guide, Rifat, had roots in Azerbaijan and his grandparents from one side were forced to move to what is now Kyrgyzstan during soviet times.  Another way the countries and people interact in the post-soviet era is that Rifat actually lives about 25km away from Bishkek … in Kazakhstan!!  His family had lived there before the countries borders were created and just continued to live there, but he can cross the border each day for work!

We started our time in Bishkek with a walking tour around the city, which in stark contrast to the glitz of Nur-Sultan, seemed to have many more Soviet era buildings and wide tree lines avenues.  Our first stop being outside the ‘Palace of Sports’ to admire the statue of national hero Baatyr Kaba Uulu Kozhomkul.  Now, I am sure we have all seen plenty of statues of men riding horses, but have you ever seen one of a man carrying a horse???

Kozhomkul was born in 1889 and lived until 1955 and it is said that he was 2.3 metres tall and weighed 164kg!  He exceled at sports, but became ‘infamous’ because of a legend which tells of him carrying his horse through snow!  He is revered by the Kyrgyz people and symbolises ‘power, ambition and humanism’. 

We walked past the very Soviet looking University of Mining and past the Philharmonic Hall which is surrounded by beautiful fountains and flowers gardens.  Another theme through the trip is the beautiful public gardens, even down to hanging baskets lining roads.  When you look closely at the detail, many of the buildings still show the Soviet star and/or hammer and sickle in their architecture. 

Of course, as with the other ‘stans’ I will visit on this trip, Kyrgyzstan has a more recent history filled with Russians – Tsars, Bolsheviks and Soviets and even today, they have a good relationship with Russia.   In fact, many of the older generation still believe life under Soviet rule was better – a time when everyone had jobs, food, health care and a good education.  

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which many thought could never happen, meant the loss of most of those things for many. Most of the factories closed from one day to the next as they lost their markets and what were once free ‘borders’, suddenly were closed resulting in many people losing their jobs.  Our guide Aijan’s parents were well educated chemist and engineer but neither could get jobs after independence. Still today her mother believes life under Soviet rule was much better.  (To me, one of the best parts of travelling is having opportunities to speak to local people and get to learn about their life and it is such a privilege that there are so many people who are willing to share their stories with me.)    

This nostalgia also means that they have kept their Lenin statues – he has been moved to less prominent locations but if you look around the city you can find him as tall and proud as ever.  (Of course Stalin is not remembered with such fondness so does not remain!)

Today the Kyrgyz flag flies proudly over the Soviet buildings, bright red (a legacy to Soviet times) with a sun with 40 sunbeams (representing the 40 tribes).  In middle of the sun is a tunduc – I will talk more about this important symbol in the nomad cultures later but it is basically the ‘window to sky of yurt’.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Kyrgyzstan has had a troubled political history with what really must be a record breaking 22 prime ministers and 5 presidents!  There was also much corruption resulting in coups and revolutions in 2005 and 2010.  Apparently, there are tunnels under the Parliament buildings which president/s used to escape to the airport! 

There is a beautiful monument to those who died for freedom during both revolutions which symbols people pushing the darkness away.  Records show over 2,000 lost their lives in the 2010 revolution alone and 400,000 displaced (mostly due to ethnic tensions during the revolution).

These days, 80% of the population are Sunni Muslims (though not so many are practicing) who are a legacy of the first Muslims that came to the region in the 8th century. 

Let’s take a break from history to discuss something almost as important – food!!  Lol It’s only day two and I am already addicted to borsok (same as the Baursak in Kazakhstan).  They became know as my kryptonite as I lost all power (will power that is) when they were on the table, normally in very large bowls filled with them!!   

Another similarity between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was the language.  Both are languages of Turkic origins and even today are similar – this made it a little easier on those of us who could not speak either language or Russian!!  In Kazak, thank you is Рақмет, pronounced raqmet and in Kyrgyz it is рахмат, pronounced rahmat – certainly similar to make it easy enough to remember.

We also sampled some traditional road side drinks, sold from big barrels on street corners – one was cows milk with sparkling water, tasted similar to sour yogurt, one was a mix of grain and corn and the last was a mixture of bread and yeast which smelt a little like beer.  None were that great 🥴 but I am always up to give things a try.

As we walked around the city we could see the snow capped mountains in the back ground – forming part of the Tian Shan (the Celestial Mountains).  Apparently, they are home of over 50 glaciers and some of the best skiing in the country.  Sadly, it was a little cloudy to see them clearly but we would be in them soon enough.

To break up the Soviets buildings, Bishkek has some beautiful tree lined avenues and parks filled with mature trees.  One of the large ones is also filled with statues of Kyrgyz royalty and legend. 

The final stop on another long day of sightseeing was at Victory Square, in memory for those who died in the Great Patriotic War (more commonly known in the west as World War II).  Every man over 20 had to go to war for mother Russia, who fought against the Nazis on the Eastern front.  Of course, as in the west, may of these did not come return.  The Bishkek monument is in the shape of a yurt with a female figure (either mother or wife) in the centre.

Of course the day would not be complete without more food – there is definitely no shortage of food! This evening we had a cultural show during dinner with traditional singing, instruments and dancing.  The performers wore beautiful costumes and the music was unique.  One of the instruments had strings made of horse hair and a body made of camel skin – they definitely use all the horse!

Again, I ate way too many borsoks 🤦🏻‍♀️, seriously I will be a dough ball by the time I get back to England 🥴.  To add to this, there was lots of fried meat, peppers and our first taste of plov, a fried rice dish we see again throughout the region and I will talk more about in a later blog. 

First impressions are that Kyrgyzstan has a fairly similar culture and ornamentation to Kazakhstan and I can not wait to explore more.

Into Central Asia

Wow – what a whirl wind of a trip from towering mountains to vast steppes, from ancient cities and fairy tale cities straight out of a movie file set, to modern cities of gold, glitz and lights!! I am not sure words will be sufficient to describe the amazing things I have seen and experienced over the last 3 weeks but thankfully I have 100s of photos too 😂

I meet incredibly warm, welcoming and respectful people from all races and backgrounds, with incredible stories of oppression and independence, people living in yurts high in the mountains and those living in modern high rise ‘smart’ apartments.  I like to think of some of them now as friends whom I plan to stay in touch with and hopefully meet again. To say this is a region of contrasts is almost most definitely an understatement.

I think many people, including myself, come to the region for the Silk Road history but by the time I left, I had been mesmerised by more ancient history, as well as a much better understanding of more recent soviet times and independence.  Again, I was reminded that you cannot make assumptions about what you think people should think and feel about the past, based on want you have been taught about history

I am not quite sure how many blogs I will write – by country or by region as there is so much to tell 🤦🏻‍♀️

The region became known as Central Asia, not because it is the centre of Asia (as it clearly is not!) but because it was the central of the Silk Road (though to be honest this was a term given to the route in the 19th century) – the central of the ancient trade routes between Asia and Europe.  The meeting place of the most dominated and enlighten civilisations which all lead to the wonderful expanse of people, culture and architecture we see today.

History throughout the region is similar yet varied and throughout the 3 weeks we often came across the same characters.  So be prepared for history lessons dating back as far as 3500 BC, stories of conquers and defeats and those who history has declared ‘great’, such as the Persian Cyrus, the Macedonian Alexander, Genghis Khan and Timur.  I will try my best not to repeat too much and will try even harder not to bore you with it, but it is part of what makes this region so fascinating so can not be ignored or left out!

My incredible journey started with a not so incredible 4.20am taxi to train station and I was fortunate that there is a train that goes straight through from Cambridge to Gatwick – it takes two hours but at least I did not have to change trains so I could settle in.  As the trained passed through London, the sun was rising, and it was beautiful as we crossed the Thames.  5 minutes later the train was shrouded in morning fog!


My first flight took me to Istanbul, followed by a very swift march to the next gate in time for my connecting flight.  The airport in Istanbul is brand new, having opened in April this year- it is bright and shiny and modern will lots of western shops and restaurants, but it is lacking things that are now expected, such as taps to fill water bottles forcing people to buy plastic bottles 😡 and only 15 minutes of free wifi – on top of that you need a working mobile number to even access the free 15 minutes which I am sure some people don’t have!

I wonder if everyone understands the joy I feel as you watch everyone walk past the 2 free seats next to you … and they announce boarding is complete💃🏻 (time for a happy dance) 👏🏻👏🏻 .  Unfortunately on this occasion, the happy dance was a little premature happy dance as they moved someone to sit in one of the spare seats 😟 thankfully not both of them.

My first stop on this whirlwind tour of Central Asia was Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Quick Kazakhstan facts:

Currency:        Tenge (US$1 = T385) 

Language:       Kazakh, Russian

Size:                 2.7 million sq. km

Population:     18.5 million

After a few hours’ sleep (as I arrived at 3am), I meet with the group and Aijan, our guide who will be with us for the whole trip. She is from Kyrgyzstan and together with her Swiss husband (who she met whilst he was studying in Bishkek) are the founders of Kalpak Travel, the company who is running the trip.  They specialise in Central Asia tours and compared to other tour companies, it has been refreshing to get such a personal service from their small company.  Writing this after my trip, I can say they were exceptional and Aijan became like the little sister I never had.   

Many of the group had arrived the day before, so had already had time to get to know each all – incredibly out of 12 people there are 3 Elaine’s!!! We will see how that goes 😂

Nur-Sultan is the new name for the capital city of Kazakhstan, which before March this year, was known as Astana (which basically means capital) and it has been the shiny new capital since 1997.  FYI Nursultan is the name of the first president of Kazakhstan, who held power from 1990 when the country gained independence until March this year!! The renaming of the city aligned with him stepping down from power in recognition of his service – that said, according to the ‘west’ no election has held in the country since independence has been free and fair!

Speaking to the girl who picked me up from the airport, the city’s name literally changed overnight – she said, ‘we went to bed in Astana and woke up in Nur-sultan’. Many people still refer to it as Astana, as it was not their decision.  The name change must definitely be causing some confusion as my Boarding pass said Astana, but the gate and the boarding announcements said Nur-Sultan, I wonder how many people have missed their flights 🤔

Did you know that Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest country??  I certainly didn’t!  It is also economically advanced thanks to its oil and minerals (as are some of the other ‘Stans’).  My first impressions were that it was a weird combination of tree lined avenues and futuristic monuments.  They like to consider the city the ‘Singapore of the steppes’ 👍🏻.

That said, Kazakhstan (as with its ‘stan’ neighbours) only got defined borders in the 1920s and before that, the region was home to nomadic animal herders who travelled right across the Eurasian steppes.  In fact, the term Kazakh, comes from a Turkic word meaning ‘free rider’ or ‘adventurer’. I love that. 👍🏻 Perhaps I was a nomadic Kazakh in a previous life??

Between 1929 and 1993, the Soviet government started enforced ‘denomadisation’, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people dying of famine and disease.  On a more positive note, the Soviet Union are also responsible for the multi-ethnic country Kazakhstan is today, primarily because of the sheer diversity of those deported there by Stalin! 

Day 1 was cold with a bitter wind blowing off the steppes and I was glad for the thick jacket I had packed at the last minute with some hesitation as we set off to explore the city with our first stop being the 97m high Bayterek Monument. (The 97m corresponds to 1997 when the city became the capital.)  This white lattice tower, topped with a large glass orb is based on a Kazakh legend about the mythical Samruk bird, who lays a golden egg containing secrets to human happiness.  Apparently, the first President (Nursultan Nazarbayev) drew the concept on the back of a napkin (though I am not sure how much truth there was in that)!

When it was built in 2002 there was nothing else around it and even today you can look past the buildings and out to the steppes, just beyond the city boundary.  My first impressions are that it reminds me a little of Dubai, with flashy futurist buildings that seem to rise out of the desert!

Nur-Sultan is definitely a city built for the future with room to expand.  The old Soviet part of the city is on one side of the river and the 21st century part on the other side.  A Japanese architecture (Kisho Kurokawa) won a competition to design the new city layout and it is very much a planned city, growing all the time.  They even have a huge 3D plan of Nur-Sultan 2030 in the Palace of Independence which we visited.

Of course, the original nomadic civilisation of the region now known as Kazakhstan had no cities, they only built mausoleums to bury their dead.  We learnt more about this as we moved on to the National Museum, which is housed in another modern building, opened in 2014.  It is actually one of the largest museums in the world and upon entering, you are greatly by a large gold eagle that ‘flies’ on the hour.

One of it’s best collections are found in the Hall of Gold and it was here we first met the ‘Golden Man’, who has become a symbol of the countries national heritage.  It is believed that the Golden Man was a Saka warrior, part of the broader Scythian nomadic people who lived in the region in 2nd-3rd century BC.  He was found near Almaty in 1969 and his golden outfit shows the incredible use of gold in the early years of civilization.  It was also interesting to learn that things such as the traditional knowledge and skills in making yurts (Turkic nomadic dwellings) are listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  I was excited to learn more about them in the coming weeks.

The National Museum borders on the city’s Independence Square, in the centre of which is the Kazakh Eli Monument – a large stellar with a sculpture of the Samruk bird (the same one that ‘laid’ the orb at the top of the Bayterek Monument.  The square is also home to the Palace of Independence (which houses the 2030 city plan) – a blue building with white beams which are said to represent the beams of a yurt, and the beautiful Peace Wall, a monument to those affected by the Soviet nuclear testing that took place in the country between 1949 and 1989. 

Oddly, the large square was completely empty! Perhaps it was something to do with the weather?  Our local Kazakh guide (Gaukhar) said it was a cold day, but I am sure it gets much colder in the winter with the cold wind blowing off the steppe.

At the far end of Independence Square, our next stop was the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Central Asia (some sources say the largest??).  70% of the population of Kazakhstan are Muslim but many are not practicing.  Religion was encouraged in the years of early Russian occupation in the 19th century and in fact they built mosques in rural areas to encourage the nomads to settle down, however in complete contrast, all religion was banned during the communist years of the Soviet Union.  The mosque can accommodate up to 10,000 people on holy holidays!!

After a busy morning, we were all ready for lunch – which turned out to be a banquet (as did almost every other meal we had).  It was my first chance to sample some of the local ‘delicacies’, including samsa (pastries with mutton or cheese), beef dumplings and a stew with horse meat and potatoes.  All were pretty good, even the horse meat – which is very popular in the region.

After lunch we visited Khan Shatyr, a giant tent like shopping mall, often said to be the most extraordinary building in the city so far (which is no easy feat).  It is 150m high and is made from heat absorbing material so it maintains summer temperatures even throughout the winter when it can be -30C outside.  While others went to look around the shops, I went straight to Starbucks to enjoy a dose of caffeine to get me through the rest of the day.

Our final stop on our busy day around Nur-Sultan was the Expo 2017 area.  We started in the post office of all places.  But it was no ordinary post office but a post office of the future.  With Robert the Robot who could help you post a letter (sadly he did not speak English) and a virtual dressing room.  A prototype where you could try on clothes and then have them printed on a 3D printer.

Our final stop on our busy day around Nur-Sultan was the Expo 2017 area.  We started in the post office of all places.  But it was no ordinary post office but a post office of the future.  With Robert the Robot who could help you post a letter (sadly he did not speak English) and a virtual dressing room.  A prototype where you could try on clothes and then have them printed on a 3D printer.

The piece de resistance is the Kazakh pavilion – a unique spherical building, apparently the biggest spherical building in the world, which now houses a Museum of Energy.   We did not have long to look around the museum, but what we saw was incredible.  To be honest, you probably need a whole day to give it justice.  It had loads of interactive exhibits, with each floor dedicated to a different type of energy – future, solar, space, wind, biomass etc.

Outside the complex we bumped into same couple having their wedding photos that we had seen at the mosque.  They looked beautiful and some of the group joined them for one of their photos – for the first of what turned out to be numerous times during the trip.

I found it odd that I came to the ‘Stans’ for a glimpse in to the past but even on day one, I got a glimpse in to the future.  Nur-Sultan was truly surprising.

We had dinner in a fabulous restaurant with a view over the city.  Again, we had a mass spread of food – salads, samsa and horse again 🤦🏻‍♀️.  This time I was introduced to would quickly become my favourite – baursak (or borsok in Kyrgyzstan).  Basically, they are just fried dough so had can you go wrong lol.  They became known as my kryptonite, as I lost all my power – will power that is – when they were around.

And so, Day 1 came to an end and I was already enchanted by the region and was excited for the following 3 weeks.

The land of beer, waffles and Smurfs

I had initially been quite excited about catching the Eurostar to Brussels but that soon dissolved when all the passport control gates failed and I ended up standing in the queue for more than 30 minutes going nowhere – sometimes technology sucks!!  It was hot and crowded given it was the Friday afternoon of a long weekend.

All I wanted to do was to get on the train and enjoy my classy Pina Colada in a can (thank you M&S😂) and finally I got through the passport line to join the throng of people waiting for the train … where there were not enough seats, people sitting in the middle of the floor, bags everywhere.  Oh the joy of travelling.

I think I had completely over romanticized the train journey in my head – imagining relaxing in comfortable large seats with a large table … but instead it was just as cramped as a plane with a small child behind me kicking my seat and whinging most of the way!  When I think back, I have a feeling the only other time I have been on the Eurostar (to Paris) many moons ago, it was in first class (we got a good deal)… with a group of friends … drinking champagne on the way!  How the mighty have fallen.

The next issue I had was upon arriving in Brussels.  Firstly I had to find my way from Garde Midi to Garde Central … lots of trains were supposed to go there frequently but the main board only showed the final destination so I had to walk along every platform to find one that went there … thankfully I only had to wait 5 minutes and then only 3 minutes to the stop … but the train smelt so I was glad to get off it after 3 minutes 😩

Taxis, even Uber’s were expensive in Brussels (as was the accommodation. – over £35 a night for a bed in a dorm room) so I was not keen on getting a one!  Because of this I had picked my hostel due to its proximity to the station that I would get to at around 11pm … however the day before I was informed that I actually had to go to another hostel 10minutes further away to check in and get my key … even though I had already check in online!!  So, I had to walk 10 minutes past my hostel to get the key … then 10 minutes back at 11.30 at night with my bag!!  Now, I discovered that it was hidden in the small print that you had to check in somewhere else but still it basically also sucked!!!

The 15 minute walk to the hostel I had not booked seemed very long and the 10 minute walk back to the hostel I had booked even longer -when I finally got in my room it was stifling hot despite the supposed air con.  The room was cramped and the only free bed was a top bunk that had someone’s towel was draped over the railing and a suitcase blocking the ladder!  Then I had to try and make the bed!! What a joke.

First world problems I know, but this place was really not well thought out and very disappointing for the price ( oh and they have no left luggage place, if I want to leave by bag somewhere when I check out I have to walk back to the other place again – so all in all it is pointless booking it because it is close to the station!).

The only good thing that happened that evening was to see the Central Plaza at night – it was a little gaudy but pretty awesome and the hostel turned out to be just around the corner from it so I could take a better look when I was in a better mood tomorrow after a night’s sleep.

Saturday was a new day, with a new attitude and except for the person who left at 6am, no one else was up in the hostel so again I had to try and sort out my stuff in the dark.  Despite it already being 8am, the area was pretty much deserted except for the street cleaners! Great for some photos with no people but I ended up having to walk back up to the station for coffee before heading to the meeting point for my tour.

The group was a large one, 32 people but thankfully all English speaking so not one of the bilingual tours I had in Montenegro!  All on board the bus and we were off to the north of the country.

As we drove the guide filled us in on some of the facts and figures of the country – nerd alert ahead lol.  Belgium is a secular country, and although 85% of the population are catholic (due to the year of Spanish occupation) only about 5-6% are practicing.  Speaking of the Spanish, did you know the Spanish King Charles V was actually Belgium?  He was born in Ghent (though this is not something they are proud of).

Because the state and church separate, many of the churches rent out space to get money.  In some cases, they are used for art exhibitions and others as restaurants (one has a Moulin Rouge themed restaurant, with dancers and drag queens – inside the church!)

Belgium only became its own country in 1830 and its mixed heritage is still visible in its 3 national languages French, Flemish (which is a dialect of Dutch) and German.  Flanders is the region in the north of the country, where Flemish is spoken, in some instances, only Flemish and not French!

Flanders is also where you find two of the finest medieval cities in the country, if not in Europe – Ghent and Bruges.   The first stop for the day was Ghent, which started as an Abbey in the 7th century.

In the 15th century it was one of the most important cities in Europe due to its textile industry – that famous Belgian tapestry and lace!  Of course, one of the other things Belgium is famous for is beer.  There are over 1250 brands of Belgium beer and it dates back to the 12th century.  The water was unhygienic and undrinkable so the  monks started brewing beer and people (including children) drank that instead of water.  In fact, right up until the 70s children got beer when they went to school – all part of the culture apparently.  This was the original Trappest beers.  (More about beer later.)

As we walked around the central square, we learnt about the medieval market activities – markets on Fridays, executions on Wednesdays … the markets continue on Fridays today, not surprisingly, the executions do not!  The statue in the square is over Jacob van Artevelde who was an anti-French Flemish patriot – our guide told us that he is pointing towards England, the source of much of his family’s wealth due to the textile trade.  He is surrounded by the symbols of many of the city guilds around the bottom of his statue.

Many of the buildings that lined the square and the streets surrounding it are guild halls.  Many are elaborately decorated and it began trying to guess the guild by the decoration – can you guess which these belong to?  Musicians, Charities, the fish market, sailors (which is coincidentally next to the brothel … which is now a Marriott hotel lol)?

A cute story about the street lights around the city … they are linked in to the Maternity Hospital and each time a baby is born, the parents are given the option to push a button connected to the street lamps which causes the street lights to flash sharing their joy with those in the street.

We then moved on to churches, St Michael’s, St Nicholas’ and St Bavo’s, all within a stone’s throw from each other.  I went inside a couple to escape the rising temperature and it is always interesting to see the difference in style from inside to out – St Nicholas was a perfect example of this with its late Gothic exterior and its rich baroque interior.

The Town Hall was another perfect example of 2 different styles but this time both styles on the outside.  They started building in 15th century gothic style but before they finished it the fashions changed renaissance so they just built the other half in the new style!!


Back on the bus to travel the hour to Bruges, the Venice of the north and the home of the best artisan chocolate in the world.  It does not normally take an hour, but we were caught in the all the traffic headed to the coast to enjoy the sunshine and beat the heat.

These days Bruges is basically a tourist hotspot (a medieval Disneyland as our guide described it) and it is illegal to guide more than 25 people around the city without the use of radio headphones.  Although a little odd, it was good as you did not have to worry about being close to the guide to be able to hear her, on the other hand I would get distracted and almost loose the group – oops lol

Back to beginning, Bruges was settled at the end of the 9th century by Vikings who took advantage of inland canals created by a Tsunami and it was an important port for the Hanseatic League that I learnt about in Stockholm.   By the 15 century it was a cosmopolitan business hub where merchants regularly met to discuss the value of the money and prices of commodities – they actually claim fame to the founding of the stock exchange concept!

At the end of the 15th century vicious storms damaged the port and trade diminished, putting the city in to centuries of decline leaving it one of the poorest cities in Europe by the end of the 19th century.  With a population of only 2000 it was basically forgotten until Georges Rodenbach wrote a book  called Bruges-la-Morte (They Dead Bruges) which was published in 1892 – the first fiction book illustrated with photos.  The story was dark and ghostly, based in the city and it unintentionally became a great marketing campaign and suddenly people started to visit again, it was truly the start of the renaissance of the city.

I fell for the tourist trap restaurant recommended by the guide, it was very expensive 🤦🏻‍♀️🤦🏻‍♀️ for not a lot of food, but on the plus side was the good company of a Kiwi girl and an Aussie girl who were also travelling solo.  Us antipodeans always seem to find each other were ever we are in the world.  It was also my first opportunity to try a Belgian beer which was very refreshing in the heat.

Belgians love, and are of course very proud of their beer culture.  One of the craziest beer stories must be about the “Madman of Bruges”.  They dreamed of building a beer pipeline under the city, from the brewery in the centre of the city, to the bottling plant outside of town.  To realise this dream, they turned to CrowdFunding.  Those who invested Eur7,500, they were rewarded with a bottle of Brugse Zot every day for the rest of their lives!  The ultimate goal is to provide a personal beer tap in the houses of those who invested the most!!

We continued through the city and down a narrow street called ‘Stoofstrat’ (Stove Street).   The street was once home to a notorious bathhouse where weary, wealthy, medieval travels could come and freshen up after long journeys.  Normally this mean a bath (often shared with others), a meal (often whilst in the bath) and a ‘happy ending’ …. Enough said!

From raunchy bathhouses to Chocolate shops with royal warrants!  The best artisanal chocolatiers in the world (or so the Belgians say and who I am to disagree)! Unfortunately, it would break the bank to buy more than three pieces and with the heat, I don’t think they would have made it back to Brussels!

It was mid-afternoon by this time and it the city centre was hot and crowed – these were the crowds I had been dreading in European cities in the summer!!!  To escape the heats and the crowds I joined by new friends at a waffle shop during our free time to enjoy another of the most famous Belgian institutions – waffles!  Apparently, Belgians will typically have them plain or with a dusting of icing sugar, but we went full tourist on them and had fruit, cream and ice cream … and it was good!

Unfortunately, by this time my ankle was throbbing!  I had thought that my sprain (from my Lithuanian weekend) had healed but clearly it was still not up to a day’s walking which does not bode well for my next big adventure in just a week’s time!

It was a relief that the last activity of the day was a boat trip along one of the canals.  It was lovely to see the city from a different perspective and it was a little cooler and less crowded too so it was a great way to end our time in Bruges before the 1.5 hour drive back to Brussels.

Apparently, till the middle of the 19th century, Brussels also had canals like Bruges as well as a rive flowing through the city, but a cholera plague mean they covered it up to stop the spread of the disease.  So, it is now one of the few European cities without a river!

When I finally got back to my hostel and back up in my bunk bed, I thought I would never move again as my ankle seized up, but I did manage to walk the few minutes to Delirium, a famous beer bar with over 2000 types of beer. I was recommended a Chimay Doree – a Trappist beer.  Trappist beers are only brewed by Trappist monks and dates back to the 1600s and must follow strict rules – it must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist Monastery and it is not allowed to be a profit-making venture with any profits going to charity.  So, drinking Trappist beer can be considered an act of charity lol. 😂😂😂

As it turned out, I wish I had given more to charity that evening as the night in the dorm turned in to a bit of a nightmare.   A girl came in drunk which was not too much of an issue until her alarm started going off at 3.20 and she just kept putting it on snooze (when I finally woke her up after more than a minute of it going off)!  So, it continued to go off for almost an hour before she worked out how to turn it off!!  Of course, getting louder each time and ending with loud rooster crowing!  What a drama!

The following morning, I was packing again in the dark – even though it was 8.30am!  I then walked the few minutes to the station to drop my luggage in the storage lockers there (as I refused to walk all the way back to the other hostel especially as now my ankle is killing me again 🤦🏻‍♀️).

I was sat in the Grand Plaza enjoying a coffee when I received an email to say the walking tour I had booked was cancelled at the last minute but luckily I was in right by the meeting place for all the walking tours anyway so just jumped on another one – I am sure they are all much of a muchness but the guide for the tour I did was exceptional so I certainly did not lose out.  (He was also Belgian, which appeared to be a realty when I heard many of the guides waiting in the square speaking Spanish.)

As with all the stories so far, they are histories of the individual cities rather than the country (which did not exist for many centuries later).  In the 7th century, a swampy spot in the middle of western Europe seemed to be a good place to set up a trading town with it’s grandest guild halls surrounding the Grand Plaza.   Some hugely elaborate as they were always trying to out decorate their neighbour.

The biggest building is the Town Hall with its grand bell tower.  The guide pointer out that it is not symmetrical as most buildings are.  Apparently when it was built in the early 1400’s it was initial built as it was designed without a tower but the powers that be decided it needed to be bigger!  So, they added the tower, and then the other end of the building but ran out of space before they could make it symmetrical with the other part!!  Today it is still the biggest gothic non-religious building in the world.

Many of the guildhalls were built in 1697 and 1698 thanks to Louis XIV who wanted to rule the world!  In pursuit of this goal the French bombed the Medieval state of Brussels for 2 days in 1695 destroying more than 1/3 of the city.  The only two remaining buildings were the two stone gothic buildings.  Apparently, they were aiming for the bell tower of the tower and hit pretty much every but!  It was during the rebuilt that the ‘out-blinging’ the neighbour became popular!  Despite all the glitz, in more recent years and right up until early 1980s the plaza was used as a parking lot!

Carl Marx and Victor Hugo both lived in the Plaza at one time.  Marx wrote much or his communist manifesto whilst living here, whilst Hugo wrote Les Misérables!  Clearly a place of much inspiration!   Both of them were both lushes and would often get drunk on a regular basis.  Marx would throw wild parties whilst Hugo would wander the Plaza harassing people – both ended up being exiled to Paris!

Our next stop was the famous Manneken Pis fountain (literally translated as little man piss)!  Now I say it is famous as there were a lot people taking photos and everyone seems to know about it, but I will put my hand up and say I had never heard of it!  There are many legends about it but the one our guide told us was that the area was leather tanning area, and to tan the leather you need ammonium – at that time the only source of that was pee!  So, the poorest families would send children to the corner to sell the only thing they had to sell  – their pee!!  Believe it or not!  Of course, the country now has a great tourist market selling miniature statues or varying sizes!  I had to pass on that lol.  (And yes it is pretty small.)

Our guide was clearly very passionate about beer and proudly told that the Belgian beer culture has been UNESCO World Heritage status and a big part of the beer culture is diversity.  We stopped off at a café and enjoyed another of the great local beers – this was a fruity craft beer called Jungle Joy, with hints of mango and passion fruit.  Really tasty and refreshing as it was already 28 degrees.

69151320_484302685723275_5749197970650169344_nNext stop was the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert.  One of the oldest shopping arcades In Europe (the famous ones in Milan were based on this one).  It was built for the Bourgeoisie, so they could enjoy shopping without being bother by riff raff (you use to have to pay to get in).  Unfortunately to build it, they had to kick out all the people who live there – some refused to leave and hung themselves in their home.  Not a great start to the project but it still went on to be very popular and was one of the places Victor Hugo came to get drunk!

We walked up the hill to stroll through the beautiful royal gardens, a nice shady respect from the heat of the city before reaching the Royal Palace.  This palace is an ‘office’ these days, where the King meets foreign visitors as they live in a palace on the outskirts of the city (that we passed the day before on the way back into the city).

These days the Belgian Royal Family are figure heads and how no real power.  This is probably a welcome change after many less than desirable Kings the country has had in the past.  This royal palace being a key remind of one of the worst – King Leopold II who used blood money from his exploitation of the Congo to build it.

As the popularity of the motor car grew, so did the need for rubber (for the tyres) and King Leopold got very rich, very quickly by enslaving Congolese people for the harvesting of rubber.  Many atrocities were carried out and 10m Congolese died during this period either directly or in directly as a result of Belgian rule.  The guide normally animated guide was very sombre as he told us about this and that he considered it his duty as a guide and a Belgian share these stories.

The tour ended at big church on hill, Saint Jacques-Sur-Coudenberg, a grand neoclassical Roman Catholic church with view of old city and where the royals are baptised.  From here I wandered back down the hill to the train station for my train journey home and a much-needed rest!

Just a side note – did you know the Smurfs were Belgian??  I certainly didn’t but there is a large statue of one and many shops selling them so they are clearly very proud of the fact. lol



The one when I went to Lithuania …

18 days with no flying and started to get withdrawal symptoms lol – I was so excited I almost fell down the stairs at the airport twisting my ankle … and then the flight was delayed an hour!

Once on board it was then delayed by a further 1.5 hours – apparently there was a shortage of ground staff but the plane next to us managed to load and depart all the while we sat there ready to go!  Every other single plane had gone and we still sat there! Travelling sucks sometimes, especially when you only have a short time in each place as you can’t just spend the morning sleeping no matter how much you want to, without missing out on something.

So, instead of getting to bed at 3am, it was more like 5am which was less than ideal! Thankfully I had managed to get a little sleep on the plane but sadly age is catching up with me and I am not a fully functioning human will less than 8 hours sleep a night.

Once again, I was thankful for Uber, which gave be a cheap and easy journey from the airport to the city.  The driver spoke good English and was unexpectedly a big fan of cricket and rugby 🤔 – not sports I would have associated with Lithuania but it made for good conversation at 5am in the morning!

By the time I got to my hostel it was almost daylight but I did manage to get another couple of hours sleep.  Sadly, I woke up to a throbbing ankle (remember that stair fall at the airport?)!  Not great for the day of walking tours I had ahead of me🤦🏻‍♀️

As I left my hostel, the first requirement was coffee!!  Thankfully there were a couple of cafes just a few doors down from the hostel so with my caffeine fix I was almost ready for walking (or should I say hobbling) tour number one – a tour of the Old Town.


Lithuania’s history is similar to that of its Baltic sister (or is it brother?) with centuries of occupations.  It is the largest of the Baltic countries with a population of 2.8 m people, and in fact, it was once one of the biggest countries in Europe.  In the era of the Grand Duchy, it  was in union with Poland in the 16th century up until it was partioned in the 17th century.

The smaller country was part of the Russian Empire till 1918 when it gained independence for the first time.  It maintained its independence until WWII, when it was invaded by the Soviets, then the Germans, then the Soviets again.  It then remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991 when it finally regained independence for a second time.

In parallel with the country, the city of Vilnius itself has had an a complex history since it was first settled in the Stone Age.  It has been the capital of Lithuania since it was the Grand Duchy and this continued when it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  It then changed hands between Imperial and Soviet Russia, Germany, Poland and Lithuania multiple times before officially becoming the capital of independent, modern-day Lithuania when the Soviet Union recognized the country’s independence in August 1991.

Poland has had a vast influence over Lithuania and in fact at one time, most noble people did not speak Lithuanian at all and the language was saved by the ‘simple’ people who spoke the language at that time.

As with most European countries, WWII was devasting for Lithuania.  70,000 Jews were killed in Vilnius and 200,000 in country in total.  After the war the city was almost empty and 30% of the city was destroyed.   Today, the Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site but there are still large empty areas, now turned in to park areas and children playgrounds which once had buildings on before the war.  In some places it was like walking into a different city.


Our guide told us that Lithuanians are always looking for claims to fame, one of those is that they are rather proud of the fact that they were the last pagans in Europe, up until the end of the 14th century.  At that time, the Lithuanian Prince and Polish priests went around the country baptising people.  Most people did not actually know what was going on but they got a wool shirt as a gift so some got baptised 2-3 times to get the gifts!  Despite multiple baptisms, nothing really changed as they continued worshipping the pagan gods i.e. snakes, nature etc. and there are still some pagans in the city today.

Despite being from a Christian family, our guides name was Milda – the name of the pagan Goddess of Love.

There are 30 churches in the Old Town and at the times of the conversions, the Prince encouraged IMG_5431people to come to the city and build churches. Many rich people built their own churches to show how rich they were, mostly were Roman Catholics but a few Russian orthodox.  The second religion is of the country is basketball and apparently the third is beer!  These days, basketball and beer are far more important to young people than the church.

During the soviet time, most churches were converted to perform other functions as the communists did not support organised religion. Some were warehouses, others theatres, some as place to play basketball etc.   One of the churches has mobile antennas on top of church tower – apparently the church do not mind, and the joke that they ‘get a direct connection to God’. 😂

We walked through the independent ‘country’ of Uzupio (I wonder if I can count that as another country??).  Despite being in the middle of Vilnius, the ‘country’ has it owns president, parliament (or barliment as they like to say) and constitution etc.  They claimed independence on April Fool’s day and all fools are invited to come and celebrate each year on Independence day.  On this day, the water tap in the main square runs with beer for an hour or two so people flock there!


The country’s constitution is displayed in the centre of the ‘country’ translated in to 34 languages.  Some of my favourite lines from the constitution are:

  • Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
  • A cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help in time of nee.
  • Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.


It once was a poor, run down area, but the evolution of Uzupio has turned the area in to a popular Bohemian one and the second most expensive part of the city to live in.  It has great street art and quirky art installations lining the river e.g. the wooden pianos being given back to nature, as with the books nailed to a tree.


Next stop on the walking tour were the churches of St Francis and Bernadine, (which was once a monastery) and the famous church of St Anna.  The church of St Anna dates back to the 16th century and is of the late gothic style.  There are lots of myths and legends about the church as the architect is unknown – one of them is that Napoleon used to keep his horses in it!


We walked along the Street of Literature – a street lined with pictures and art works, each a tribute to an author, most Lithuanian, other with very tenuous links to the country … an example could be that they mentioned Lithuania in one of their books!!  (I did mention previously the Lithuanians lust for fame – they will truly take anything they can!).  Our guide seemed to enjoy telling us about the Lithuanian language which is similar to Latvian.  The amusing part is that in a lot of instances, the Lithuanian for many English words just have ‘as’ put on the end e.g. Londonas, Donaldas Trumpas, Las Vegasas 😂

The Presidential palace, which now houses the parliament, used to be a nobleman’s residence and was built in the 14th century.  It came the Presidency in 1997. The country’s flag dates back to the first Independence  101 years ago – yellow for the wheat fields (although some say the sun), green for the forests that once covered the country, and red is for patriotism and the blood lost over the years.

Just across from the Presidential palace is Vilnius University which was founded in the 16th century.  As with Scandinavian countries, most young people can get a free education, even if they get lower grades, they just need to choose a less popular university or course!  Many students leave university highly educated and with very high expectations but are faced with low salaries so often they are leaving the country in search of a better job.  Of course, being part of the EU has made this much easier for them.

The heart of the city is the Cathedral Square, which encompasses Vilnius Cathedral, the Bell Tower and the Lower Castle.  The neoclassical cathedral looks more like a Greek temple than a Christian cathedral.  It was designed by the same person who designed the Town Hall and in my opinion the design is much better suited to that.

IMG_5516During the walking tour, the guide had recommended St John’s Bell Tower for a great view.  Thankfully it had a lift as I would have struggled with my ankle on the narrow old stairs.  The view was nice but it was impossible to get a nice photo through the bars and dirty glass!  I made a mental note to try another viewpoint in the morning.


Somewhat revived by a brief nap, a red bull and some ibuprofen gel on my ankle, I headed out again in the afternoon for the 2nd tour of the day – this one was the ‘Alternative tour’, taking us in to what is know as the new town.  Thankfully the clouds that had been looming all morning went away and the sun finally came out.

In this alternative tour, we visited more of the quirky sites of the city and learnt some of the quirkier stories about recent history:

In 2011, the Mayor of Vilnius, in an effort to encourage cycling in the city, ran over a car illegally parked in a cycle lane … in a tank!  You can find a video of it on YouTube and it became a very popular symbol of the city.

The guide (who used to be a journalist) told us of the country’s struggle to market itself as a tourist destination for international visitors.  They have tried numerous ad campaigns, the first campaign stumbled because it was discovered that the photos used in it were not actually of Lithuanian!  The second and perhaps even more controversial was the ‘G-Spot city’ ads.  The ad went ‘no one knows where it is, but once you find it, it is amazing!!’  As you can imagine there were a lot of complaints, but it was very effective lol.

2015  was the year of the Vilnius street art festival.  Artists came from all over the world to paint murals around the city, each having something that symbolised Lithuania or Vilnius in them.  Some take a little imagination to see what that is, others take a lot!  The most infamous mural was that of Trump kissing Putin, but unfortunately it had been ‘removed’ just the week before.  The guide believed that someone had defaced it, but no one really knows what happened.  That same wall now displays the words ‘make empathy great again’!

Apparently, the first bagel appears in 17th century Lithuanian Poland – who knew!

We visited the nice, clean modern train station, with most things also in English.  It looked like using trains locally would be very easy and efficient.  Apparently, they are working on improving the train lines for high speed trains to run under Baltic Sea by 2026.

IMG_5534The actual reason for the visit to the station was to see the weird bar on train platform.  The seating was made up of old train seats and deck chairs with a view of the train lines, but what was weirder was the large statue of Tony Soprano 🤔 (from the TV show ‘The Sopranos’) on the platform.  Apparently, it was going to be a statue of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but it was decided that no one would know who he was!

The final stop on the walking tour was at the ‘Open Gallery’, a project opened 2 years ago as a way to present alternative, creative projects and presentations.  There are new murals going up in the industrial park all the time and is becoming a very popular tourist destination.

When my body and mind no longer had the will to go on 🤦🏻‍♀️ I got an Uber back to the hostel.  It only cost Euro 2 but it was the crappiest uber I have ever been in – clearly there are no rules about age or quality of vehicle here!  Still it got my very weary body back to the hostel for another rest before I headed out to sample the local cuisine and beverages.


I started at a place recommended by the guide on the walking tour which turned out to be just around the corner from my hostel, but unfortunately, despite it only being 7pm they had already run out of the famous Cepelinai (so called because they are shaped like the zeppelins) so I had potato pancakes instead.  Thankfully they were tasty crispy potato goodness, stuffed with meat and covered in sour cream and a local beer. I only got a half

portion (which to be fair was more than enough) and hoped I could get to try the other things later tonight (or at least tomorrow).  It seems others from the walking tour followed the same advice as I saw a few of them there too 👍🏻


Potato, sour cream and bacon definitely seem to be the way to go in Lithuania – even McDonald’s have jumped on the band wagon (see photo)!

The next stop was a wine bar recommended by a colleague – it was nice but it had no local wine or food so I had one drink, a complimentary plate of nibbles and moved on.  Finally, after much roaming I found a bar the served the local berry wine – I had raspberry wine (FYI it was delicious) with what turned out to be a huge plate of traditional fried bread – so much garlicky crispy goodness I could not finish it!

Finally, it was almost dark so I had a quick walk around to see the city at night (always pretty) and up to the ‘Gates of Dawn’, the only remaining gate of the first five original gates in the city walls that were built between 1503 and 1522.  You could actually see the famous painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy through the upper window.  Finally, I was done for the day and headed back to my hostel for a well-earned sleep!

I am normally up and out early exploring but the dull ache of my ankle on the Sunday morning (an improvement on Saturday) and the desire to keep sleeping meant I did not get out till almost 9.30am!! The horror of it all 😂  Thankfully the hostel staff had been kind enough to move me from a top to a bottom bunk so I could actually get in and out of bed on my bad ankle!

There were already a few people around, but to be honest I have been surprised by how quiet (comparatively) the city was. I had expected any old city in Europe to be overrun with tourists but this was not the case which was great … for me anyway.

I had wanted to go up to the tower of the Gediminas Tower of the Upper Castle (the one on the hill) and found out it had a funicular up which meant I did not have to hobble up the cobblestone hill (cobblestone are the worst with a bad ankle!!), so I set off on the walk to the base to be there when it opened at 10am.

Most of the castle today is a reconstruction of a structure originally built in 1409.  Today it is part of the Luthuanian National Museum and had some great exhibitions about the history of the city – historic and more recent.


One of the exhibitions was about the ‘Baltic Chain’ (sometimes known as the ‘Baltic Way’) which I had also heard about in Latvia.  It was a peaceful demonstration against Soviet rule that took place in 1989 in which people (approximately 2 million of them) formed a human chain across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.  It spanned 675.5 km started in Cathedral Square in Vilnius and finished in Riga (though Latvians would say it started there and finished in Lithuania).

After walking slowly around the exhibitions, I did have to walk up the narrow winding stairs to top of tower – thankfully it had good handrails for me to use.  It was certainly worth it as the view was beautiful – I have to disagree with yesterday’s guide who said that the St. John’s church tower was the best view in her opinion.  I think the castle tower was a much better (and unobstructed) view of all of the city – the old on one side and the new and shiny on the other.

I could see from the ‘Hill of Three crosses’, the unfinished stadium (which has sat abandoned since 2008 when Government funding dried up) and to the modern high rises across the river.  It made me chuckle to myself as I had seen a picture on Instagram only the day before depicting ‘every European city’ (except for the unfinished stadium of course which is unique to Vilnius).

Thankfully the tower was just a few minutes away from the meeting point for my 11am pick up for my trip out of the city so my morning timings worked out perfectly.  I was picked up right on time and headed out with a few others (Dutch and American) to head just 30 minutes from the city to the Trakai Island castle.

As we drove, our guide shared with us her experiences in newly independent Lithuania in the 90’s.  The transition from communism to democracy was not an easy one and for many they thought that communism was better as they always had a place to live and money for food.  Everything was privatised as quickly as possible not everything went smoothly.

Lithuania in general is a fairly mono-national country, with 85% of the population being Lithuanian.  There are 5% Russians and some Tatars and Karaims (more about these shortly).

The countryside used to be covered in forest and as previous mentioned, paganism was key, the belief in the spirits of nature and it was these forests that helped with the protection of the country as with no roads, it was hard for the invaders to navigate the way.  On one side they were fighting the crusaders, on the other side the Tartars and Mongols so thankfully they had extra assistance from the nature they worshipped!

It was in Trakai that I first heard of Karaims.  The earliest Karaims were taken prisoners during battles in the Crimea in 1397.  They were brought back to Trakai and served as royal guards.  They have maintained their customs and traditions throughout the centuries and today they are a big part of the town.  Apparently, their religion is based only on Old Testament of the Bible and some believe is an off shoot of Judaism.

IMG_5685Their cute, painted, wooden houses (with three windows at the front with the ) line the main road of the town and stalls selling the popular Kibben line the waterfront  – fast food from the Middle Ages our guide called them.  Something like empanadas (and delicious) – I have said it before and I will say it again, calories don’t count when the food is part of the cultural experience 😂👍🏻


There are 20 islands on lake in total and the castle is on one of the largest ones.  Today the castle is accessed by a couple of bridges, but when built it would only have been accessible by boat.


The castle was once a formidable stronghold when it was built in the early 15th century.  Sadly, it was destroyed by the Cossacks in 1655 and it laid in ruins for centuries and in the 1950s the Soviet authorities sanctioned the reconstruction as a “monument to Lithuania’s glorious past”.  So, pretty much everything we see today, except for the basement (which is all that remains from the original castle) is recently rebuilt.   That said, painstaking efforts were made to study the rubble and written histories and rebuild as close to the original castle as possible.

In its golden era in the 15th century, the nobles rooms had a central heating system and was the location for many grand visits by international guests.  There were no hand rails on some stairs as the walls dated back to the 15ht and they cannot drill in to them. As I put my hands on the wall to make my way slowly down the stairs, I found myself wondering about the people who had touched that same piece of wall over the centuries.

Did you know there was actually a purpose to narrow winding staircases in castles???  I certainly didn’t but apparently they are added defences.  The narrow steps which are wider on the outer side allows better traction for defence coming down the steps, whilst the very narrow step on the inside makes it very difficult for those trying to attack coming up the steps!

The guide on the tour was great and it was so interesting hearing her personal stories about the more recent occupations and the struggle for independence from Russia.

Back in the city and I had only a couple more things to tick off off my list.   Firstly … a journey through the more recent history at the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, also known as the KGB museum as it is housed in the old KGB headquarters.

Whilst the upper two floors houses the museum detailing the numerous occupations of the country during the 20th century, the basement has been left as a museum to the years of the KGB.  The some of cells have been left as they were.  One full of bags of shredded papers left behind when they fled in 1991.   It is a vast underground complex, some of cells being sound proofed and padded, others with no room to lie down.  It was a thought provoking display of such chilling times but an important dedication to those who fought of the independence of Lithuania and her people.

And my final stop (after various unsuccessful attempts to find some strapping for my ankle) was food related and I finally got my Cepelinai  Though it was not visually appealing and the potato was quite glutinous and the whole dish a little oily, it tasted good! Again, that tried and tested combination of potato sour cream and pork 😂 for the win.  But even the half portion defeated me and I had my curd filled pancakes to think about (another traditional dish). Not sweet in themselves but served this time with jam and …. you guessed it … sour cream 😂

So, I pretty much rolled out of that place feeling like a potato dough ball filled with sour cream and got another less than stellar Uber to the airport. Drivers are nice enough but clearly there are no vehicle requirements here! Still cheap and effiencent so I will get over it.

My ankle was about ready to seize up completely by this point – 2 days of walking with no compression ( that is my fault really as I did not think about getting something when I could and when I thought about it I could not get it – I did finally get one at the airport!) has made the swelling worse and I cannot wait till I can actually treat it properly, most importantly rest!

I had received an email saying be at the airport 2.5 hours before the flight as the airport would be very busy … as i must always follow the rules I did just that and there were no queues anywhere, for anything! It sure where all the people they were expecting were coming from but they certainly did not get the same email as me 😂😂😂

To ensure a quick turnaround, these budget airlines start boarding as soon as the plane lands … if you have paid for priority boarding you get to go through first but it just means you have to stand for 30 mins plus in a huddle by a door whilst everyone gets off the plane that has just landed and they clean it!! Not sure that this a priority or not lol



Roaming ramblings around the UK – Part 1

Despite what people may thing, of course there is the odd weekend when I do not travel abroad and I try and spend that time seeing as much as I can of the UK … please excuse the disjointedness of this blog which is merely musings on those weekends spent roaming closer to home …. Kings & Queens – April 2019 When I first got to Cambridge, I did a free walking tour around the city, but I decided to pay for a tour to two of the colleges you have to pay to visit – Kings and Queens. The tour started at the information centre and the first stop was not related to Kings or Queens, but was outside the famous Cavendish Laboratory. When established in 1874, the locals didn’t like the new facility as they don’t like change, but they dislike others doing better than them, even worse!  It is certainly done them well since then, seeing 31 noble prize winners pass through its doors!  Notable discoveries include the electron, neutron and the structure of DNA!!  Outstanding work! We then moved on to Queens’ College, (the wife to Kings College (the husband) as the buildings are next to each other and built around the same time).  Still today, the Queen is a patron of Queens’ College. Queens’ College was founded by Margaret Anjou in 1448 and some of the buildings we see today date back to that time.  The college is set around a medieval courtyard (based on that of monasteries of the time) and straddles the Cam – apparently there is the ‘light side’ and the ‘dark side’, separated by the famous Mathematical Bridge across the river. The official name for the bridge is the Wooden Bridge (not so catchy I guess) and was originally built in 1749 and rebuilt in 1866 and again in 1905.  It is called the Mathematical Bridge due to the sophisticated engineering design that makes the bridge appear arched, despite being made out of straight timbers! IMG_2195 The college chapel was built in the 19th century to replace the original chapel which was too small as the college grew, at that time, all students were required to attend chapel every day! Today, Queens’ College has more postgrad students, than undergrads and has almost 50% women students (impressive considering they only admitted women in 1980)! Next up was Kings College, founded in 1442 by King Henry VI.  He had set up Eton for poor boys (this is much changed now as it caters for the rich rather than the poor) and he created Kings College so they could continue on to university, in some cases it was an automatic transfer. The jewel in the Kings College crown is the wonderful (and huge) Gothic Chapel.  It took 100 years to build being started by Henry VI and then finished by Henry VII.  They brought stone from different parts of the country by river and you can see the different parts of the chapel are in different coloured stone which indicates it was built at a different time. As well as different stone, the end built by Henry VI is very plain inside and out, in comparison the other end which was built later, is much more ornate.   It is a stunning building and is in fact it has the largest fan vaulted ceiling in the world. Inside, the ‘new’ end of the building was filled with ornate carvings and stone work, in comparison to the older end which was ‘decorated’ with the graffiti left by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, who camped inside with their horses the civil war. Henry VIII took over the completion of the interior, paying for almost all the stain glass windows.  If you look closely they all tell stories from the bible, but oddly some of the main characters (including baby Jesus in the left panel ) look somewhat like  Henry VIII with red hair?? IMG_2227 During WWII, they took all the windows out as they were worried they would be bombed.  They stored them under ground and it took 5 years to put them back in after the war! Today, they carefully regulate the internal temperature to ensure the care of the beautiful Reuben’s painting displayed there. It was definitely worth the cost to have the guide in these colleges to learn about the wonderful histories. A Staycation in Cambridge – April 2019 My next Cambridge weekend was a special one and we stayed in a hotel in the heart of the city along the river.  It was great being able to walk out of the door and enjoy the sights of the city.  Not to mention the view from the room which was lovely, particularly at sunset. We enjoyed many of the well-known Cambridge past times, ticking off some more of those ‘111 Places in Cambridge that you shouldn’t miss” (though I must admit I am not getting through them very fast!)
    • 69040779_877729369287488_1350992919418372096_n (1)The famous Fitzbilles chelsea buns, which have been described as “legendary and peerless”! – Cambridge’s oldest bakery is well known for its incredible sticky chelsea buns which are apparently so good they are exported to all seven continents (including Antarctica)!  They were indeed sticky and sweet!
  • Punting along the river – probably one of the most iconic things to do in Cambridge.  It was lovely cruising along the backs of the college and learning the stories.
  • A pub lunch in The Eagle, one of the oldest pubs in Cambridge (c1600s) and it still retains the courtyard from where stage coaches use to depart.  It’s more recent history is perhaps the reason it is well-known today as it was the regular haunt of Francis Crick and James Watson (it is very close to the Cavendish Laboratory where they worked) and it was were they announced that they had “discovered the secret of life”.
  • Beautiful walks along the Cam, stopping for drinks in one of the many riverside pubs
  • And last but not least, having lunch in the beautiful Orchard tea gardens in Grantchester which was especially beautiful with all the fruit trees in blossom.
Wisteria hysteria (and other blooms) – May 2019 One of the special things about early summer is the Wisteria, as many of the old buildings are covered in the climbing bloom.  I had found a little walking tour online which was supposed to take you to the best of the Wisteria around the city. Unfortunately I was probably a week or two too late to get the Wisteria at it’s best  🤦🏻‍♀️ and the rain didn’t help, but it wasn’t cold and I do love walking around the city, finding different corners I have not already explored,so it was not a total loss lol. It was also lovely to see  Jesus College with all the scaffolding gone from pedestrian entrance (which was there when I visited the first time). Wisteria is not the only flowers in bloom at this time of the year, the countryside is full of colourful rape seed fields – beautiful fields of gold. This one was right by my office so took advantage of a short lunch time stroll to get up close and personal with it lol. 68396199_337911957091536_4419322941569761280_n (1) “In proud memory of their valor” – The American Cemetery – May 2019 “The Americans whose names here appear were part of the price that free men for a second time in this century have been forced to pay to defend human liberty and rights – all who shall hereafter live in freedom will be here reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and with the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live eternally”.  This is one of the inscriptions found on the wall of the Cambridge American Cemetery. I must admit I was not aware the cemetery even existed until I drove past it one day on the way to somewhere else and I made a mental note to be sure to return for a visit.  The morning I choose was a misty one and I was there early so was the only person there and it was beautiful .  Perhaps an odd thing to say about a cemetery, but there was just a peace about it. The cemetery is multi denominational (I saw crosses, Latin crosses as well as some graves topped with the Star of David) and is home to the graves of over 3,800 Americas and a memorial to over 5,000 more who are still recording as missing during WWII.  One of the missing remembered here was Big Band legend, Glen Miller, who was lost when his plane disappeared over the English Channel in 1944. It has a beautiful chapel with a stunning mosaic ceiling depicting angels escorting planes to heaven and stained glass windows bearing state seals and a really interesting visitors centre which documents America’s involvement in the war in Europe. It truly is a beautiful monument to those who fell. Bury St Edmunds – May 2019 Searching the internet (again) for an informative walking tour of places near home, I came across one for the historic market town of Bury St Edmunds, so off I set. My walk started at Abbot’s Bridge which dates back to the 12th century and once linked the street to the Abbey vineyard across the river Lark.  I then entered the Abbey gardens – beautiful gardens with ruins of the Abbey dotted around it. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was once among the richest Benedictine monasteries in England, until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.  It was also the burial place of the Anglo-Saxon martyr king Saint Edmund who was killed in 869, hence the name of the town that grew around the monastery– Bury St Edmunds (not a lot of imagination used there)! Much of the wealth of the Abbey came from the taxes the monks charged on pretty much everything, including the collecting of horse dropping in the street!  They ran the Royal Mint and each monk was entitled to 8 pints a day from the Abbey vineyard! The local population had had enough of the Monks by the 13th/14th century and started to revolt and the Monastery suffered extensive damage and the it’s decline began. The Abbey Gate was also destroyed during the Great Riot in 1327 and had to be rebuilt in the 14th centre, but the Norman Gate/Tower dates back to between 1120 and 1148 and has traditional served as the bell tower for the cathedral. Once dissolved, what was left of the Abbey became somewhat of a quarry and you can see the Abbey stone around the town in the walls and houses. 68747771_912589239094276_582832001279590400_n (1) On part of the ruins of the original monastery, there is a plaque commemorating the spot where, in 1214, the barons of England swore to compel King John to sign the document now known as the Magna Carta! (The Magna Carta, or The Great Charter, is considered one of the most important documents in history, establishing that everyone, even the king, is subject to laws and guarantees the right to justice and a fair trial for all.  Still the foundations of the law today.) During WWII, there were a lot of American personnel based in and around the town and keeping with the American war theme, I visited the beautiful rose garden dedicated to them. 68883050_521868225218472_5767291495342145536_n (1) Past the dominating Cathedral and you reach the Martyr’s Memorial, which remembers the 17 protestant martyrs who were killed for their beliefs during the region of Mary I (or Bloody Mary as she was known) as she wanted to return England to Roman Catholicism. Then on to St Mary’s church, completed in 1427 and the burial place of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and sister of Henry VIII (and the same Mary who was killing protestants!). On to the more modern part of town and Bury St Edmonds has the oldest provincial civic building in England (built as early as 1220).  The Angel Hotel, built in the 1830’s is actually mentioned in Charles Dickens novel “The Pickwick Papers” and the final point of interest in my walk that day was the “Pillar of Salt”, a Grade II listed road sign.  It was listed in 1998 being described as “individual and probably unique” and is thought to be the first internally illuminated road sign in the country! Enough ramblings for now, but stay tuned for the next installment of Roaming Ramblings

Meatballs for breakfast …

I started my trip to Stockholm with some trepidation!  Firstly, I had to drive from work to Gatwick for my 5pm plane (about a 2 hour journey) and recent road trips had taught me that drive times could change in front of your eyes if there is an accident. A 2-hour journey became a 4 hour journey only weeks before!

Not a problem if you are on your way home or going to meet someone, but planes won’t wait! Thankfully there was no need to worry, the trip took exactly the estimated time and I had ample time to enjoy something to eat and a drink before boarding.

Second concern was they this was not to be a solo trip! I am sure that sounds odd to most people, but I have been loving the freedom to decide where I want to go and when, without having to coordinate plans and wants with other people.

Not only was I meeting a friend from home in Stockholm , but she was also meeting other people before, and after I got there and she was having massive issues getting details from them as to where she would be and when!  So off I headed with only the Friday night’s accommodation booked and a loose plan to meet her at an apartment in the suburbs on Saturday morning.

Now I am not sure if the gentleman doing the flight announcements at the airport was some kind of comedian or having a bad day 🤔.  First he called the flight as going to Copenhagen (rather than Stockholm) and then he asked us all to make sure we knew the ‘boarding group’ we were seated in as they would be boarding that way … next announcement, all groups can board now 😂😂.  Some days just the smallest things amuse me!

As we came into land, there was a beautiful view of the archipelago that Stockholm is part of – forested islands and water ways.  I also noticed 3 large cruise ships just off the coast and had a slight feeling of concern over the number of tourists that would be in the city!

Arriving in Stockholm was a surreal experience to say the least. I had been sitting in the first row of the plane, so I was the first to get off and for a long time, there was only me and the guy sitting next to me … add to that the long empty corridor (of Scandinavian white pine flooring straight out of an Ikea catalogue), only one immigration guy, then we walked through a silent baggage claim hall.  No people, no carousels running – finally we turned a corner and there were people!   Now I know it is a public holiday here (for mid-summer Solstice) but seriously, it was like we had landed in another dimension!

When I got to the Arlanda Express train platform, I felt like I had gone back to that other dimension as the platform was empty!!  As it happened, I had clearly just missed a train and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one!   That wasn’t really a problem as the train took only 18 minutes to get to the centre of the city, and my hotel for night was right by the station.

The train even had a nursery area! Oh, and it goes 180km – not sure if that is fast for a train but it seemed fast to me 😂👍🏻

In hindsight I should have booked a cheap hostel but when I booked it, I had no idea what I was going to be doing. That said this is Scandinavia, so not even a cheap hostel was that cheap!

My not so cheap hotel room was somewhat cell like will two very small single beds and no windows (probably not a bad thing when it doesn’t really ever get dark) but thankfully it was just for one night and I tried my best to get my money’s worth out of the free breakfast which of course included meatballs – of how Swedish!

After a full breakfast and I mean full breakfast, I headed out to walk the 7km to meet my friend. Of course, there were other transport options, including (according to google maps) taking a lime scooter 😂 but I fancied the walk which would take me through the less touristy parts of the city.

Stockholm is an archipelago and I crossed over a number of islands on my walk, some separated by large waterways, others by narrow canals …all seamlessly joined together by bridges.  Until you look at a map, it’s easy to you forget that it’s all separate islands.

Having met up with my friend, we jumped on the train back into the city centre – as in Austria, the train network was cheap and efficient!    We stopped for lunch before taking a quick boat trip around the harbour as part of the hop on hop off tour.  Thankfully the boat was easier to catch than the bus, which we had a couple of attempts of chasing after it at bus stops before we finally got on board!  We didn’t even get off but just enjoy the sights around the city and the commentary as we went along.

We did however spot a number of beautiful waterfront bars, some floating on pontons, others that people could just drive right up to in their boats … and we quickly found our way back to one of them after getting of the bus.  It was loving enjoying a few drinks in such a beautiful location catching up on news from home.

After what probably turned out to be one too many drinks (lol), we then headed back to the suburbs where we caught up with some friends for dinner at a place that specialised in Danish smørrebrød (open sandwiches) and Czech beer – a great combination and a great way to end the day.  I didn’t get to bed until 11pm and it is still light! Wish I had bought my eye mask as I was sleeping in the living room – on a very comfortable sofa but with thin curtains!

First stop the next day was the Central station to drop off my bag in the storage lockers, get a coffee and some  cash so we could tip for the walking tour.  Ironically, the one time we wanted to use cash; we were surround by places that only took cards!  We later learnt that Sweden is not a ‘country of cash’.  Apparently, shops have to pay higher taxes if they accept cash which explained why lots of the kiosks at the train station only accepted cards!  The country’s goal is to be cash free by 2030!!!   Oddly, we were learning all this from our Free Tour guide, who recommended not taking cash out – we only took out cash to pay her a tip 😂😂😂

Our walking guide was a nice young Swedish girl who was full of Danish jokes – only after she had checked there were no Danish people in the group 😂, and as always, the tour was incredibly interesting … here comes the history lesson 😂

The rivalry with Denmark goes back centuries.  Denmark ‘took’ the southern part of Sweden and they have had 11 wars over 300 years over the piece of land!  They even have a statute of St George and the Dragon (apparently Swedes claim this story as their own). Apparently, the horse and rider represents Sweden and their army, the princess is the beautiful Swedish people and the Dragon is Denmark!  The statue is to remind to people that Sweden is better than Denmark!!

They have also been at war with Norway over the centuries, but they ‘let’ Norway win to avoid having conflicts in the north and south.  They say that Sweden and Denmark are liked the divorced parents of Norway, who everyone prefers lol.

Next the name, Stockholm – Stock = pole, Holm = islands.  They used to put poles sticking out of the islands in the water, so ships could not just sail in and if they did, they would ram the poles and sink! What a warm welcome to Sweden!

We started the walking tour at the ‘Island of Knights’ where told you see a lovely Church and some very nice houses.  It is the oldest settlement in the city and of course where knights used to live (the name is a bit of a giveaway).  The first tower was built on the island in 1252 and the church soon followed in 1270 – sadly the church is the only building that survived from that time.

No other buildings from that area remain today as there was a rule that all buildings had to be of wood.  Of course, this is not very logical in a country like Sweden where it is very cold in the winter and they were lighting fires inside.  So, in 1625 they started building in stone.

Now, Sweden has a slightly different and somewhat quirky political history – in 1632, a 6-year-old girl called Christina, became King.  Yes, that’s right, she became King!  According to the laws of the time, a King had to rule the country and so she declared herself King!  From then on, she was raised and lived as a boy.  (Apparently someone reopened her coffin in the 60s to check if she was a boy or girl!).  She ruled Sweden for 25 years until she abdicated in 1654 to move to Rome, allegedly to live with her girlfriend.  Prior to this she has also secretly converted to Roman Catholicism, which in Lutheran Sweden was banned.  She lived in Rome until her death but she certainly added some colour to the Royal family!

We wandered through some of the narrow streets of the city.  Thankfully it was still fairly early on the Sunday morning so they were not too busy.  We started in Hell Alley, named as such due to the prostitutes and criminals who lived in the street.  It was also home to the Executioner.  Interesting the job was given almost as a punishment.  If you were caught committing a crime three times (ranging from stealing, murder or rape), you could be given the choice to kill people as the executioner or be killed.  Of course, if you choose to kill, your first job was to kill the existing executioner.  If successful at the ‘job interview’ your ears were cut off so you could not hear the people scream!

On the upside, you got free housing (on Hell Alley) and free food – people who he got close to would throw things at him to go away, including food.  Having a job also made him popular at local pubs as he had money and paid for rounds!  Legend has it, the longest anyone held the position was 4 years, the shortest was 2 hours!

The next street was Priest Street – clearly a step up from Hell Alley, but still pretty grim.  Each apartment had a garbage shot that sent waste of all kinds (including human) into the street!  You can just imagine the smell!  So, after many complaints, the council went around and blocked up all the holes – simple enough solution you would think, but they did it in the middle of the night and did not tell anyone so the rubbish just build up in the pipes. They then resorted to just throwing the waste out of the windows in to the street below!

The next solution was to block the street for one hour per day when people could throw out rubbish.  A ‘shit carrying lady’ (literal translation of her job title) then came through to collect it all and threw in in the sea – this lasted for 300 years so you can just imagine the state of the sea surrounding the city at that time!

The city finally got a sewage system in 1910, and in the 1970’s private flush toilets were installed – up until that time, apartments in the old town shared an outhouse with whole apartment block!   Enough with the toilet talk I hear you cry! lol

Interestingly, Germany has been key in Swedish advancement over the centuries, dating back to the Hanseatic League Which was a confederation of merchant guilds and market towns which dominated Baltic maritime trade between the 1400s and the 1700s.  In fact, in the early 1500s, more than half population of Stockholm were German, mostly from Hamburg.  They started trading iron and copper and set up the German area of the old city complete with German architecture, particularly in German Priest Street.

We walked into a small square near the sea where it was quite clear that the buildings were sinking … flash back to 300 years of dumping trash into the sea.  So much trash was dumped it began to build up so they built a street on top of it!  Unfortunately, it was not very stable (as you can imagine) and so in some places the floor or a building can vary 1m in height!

One of the buildings most affected is the oldest bank in the world (apparently) (yellow building on left of photo with sea in the middle).  Our guide also pointed out a lot of fake window (in the photo to the left)… to avoid a window tax!

During WWII, Sweden was technical neutral.  However, when Hitler came knocking, they made a deal to exclusively trade iron with Germany rather than be occupied.  This deal made Sweden super rich and they used the money to create the welfare state we see today – including invests in education, welfare and infrastructure.  In the last year of the war, when Sweden realised Germany would lose, they quickly started discussions with the allies to provide support to them – and that is what they remember and have in history books!!

Sweden today is definitely a happier place than at some points in its history and it has no real poverty issues.   ‘Social law’ says you should never think you are better than others and that you should treat people with respect. That said, they don’t call people by last names, not doctors, teachers, friend’s parents … all are called by their first names, which to the English is a sign of respect!.   School, including University (unless you go to a private one) is free and students even get a ‘salary’ of 100 euros per month from grade 1-12.  It is also completely normal; in fact, it is encouraged for young people to take a gap year or 2 before starting university!

A few fun facts about the city (well I find them fun anyway lol):

  • It is illegal to open fermented herring in area where people are/live as it stinks! Of cours, if I were in charge, it would be illegal to ferment herrings full stop!
  • Abba are considered by some to be the true Swedish royal family 😂😂 and we passed by one of their old apartments on our tour (with a lovey flowered balcony). Although I know their music well, I was not aware that they have sold more records than the Beatles!
  • The flag on the Royal Palace used to indicate if the Royal family home but for security reasons, it now just shows if they are in Sweden. (Does the Queen of England still do that?)

Swedes don’t like the Royal Palace much because they think it looks like a shoe box!  Apparently, it is much more spectacular on the inside than the outside.  Not surprisingly, it is not the original palace, in fact it is the 4th, after the first three burnt down. 

Charles (or Carl) XII became King at the age of 15 and was King between 1697 and 1718. During one of palace fires, he took the throne, a portrait of himself and the corpse of his father!  They then started throwing anything else they could out the windows!

These days, the Royal family live out of the city, but the Palace is still used for official state visitors to stay.  They are very popular amongst the people, and these days they are all married to commoners.  The next in line for the throne, will be first official queen unlike Christina back in the 17th century.

One of the most savage parts of Swedish history took place in the ‘lovely’ square we had had lunch and it was this event that cemented the distrust between Sweden and Denmark.   In 1520, newly crowned (as Swedish King) Christian II invited many of the city’s Nobleman to a party which ended in him  executing all noble men with sword and then on the next day, executed 5 members of each Noble house in the square.  The rain washed all blood to sea and seas around the city were red for 3 weeks.  It became known as the Stockholm bloodbath – Christian went on to be known as Christian the Tyrant in Sweden and Christian the Good in Denmark!

The Swedish War of Liberation swiftly followed, lead by Gustave Vasa who was the son of one of the noble man killed during the massacre.  It became the catalyst that permanently separated Sweden from Denmark and Gustave became the next King of Sweden.

One of the wooden houses in the square was painted red with blood to remind people of the day.  The original one burnt down, and a new one built to represent the massacre – the stones on the house represents the heads of noble men killed that day (91 in total).

Unfortunately, Gustave was not a good king and after centuries of poor leadership, at one point the Swedes, asked Napoleon to be king of Sweden but he said no (I think they dodged a bullet there), so they then asked French man Jean Baptiste Bernadotte – a man they believed to be his best friend. He accepted but when on to fight against Napoleon and in fact defeat him in the battle of Leipzig in 1813!

He did a good job and even changed his name to a Carl Johan (or Charles John in English) to become more Swedish.  He also made the country one of free religion and ensured that everyone had one day off in the week.  Legend has it, he had a big tattoo on his leg saying “death to all kings” as he was a true revolutionary at heart.  It was not discovered until after this death to the shock of some.

After the tour we headed back to the palace to try and see the changing of the guard, but there were just too many people … but we could watch it live through other people’s phone screens 😂🤔.  The Army band accompanying the guards played some jolly tunes played by whilst the guards performed their change over duties.  We then walked through palace courtyard and found a little place to spy through the windows to see the parade 👍🏻 (just) 😂

I made it to the train station and retrieved my bag I had stored in a very efficient locker storage facility and luckily, as always, I had plenty of time as there were issues with trains so the 20 minute train was delayed but no stress – I could relax and read (though I could also have still been in a bar with my friend enjoying a last holiday drink 🤔)

Unfortunately, then the plane was delayed – firstly 1.5 hours in the small holding area past passport control and then another hour on the plane where we left the gate and then returned as the pilot had been told he could not take off for 1 hour! So, the 2.5 hour flight was delayed by more than 2.5 hours, meaning my 8pm-10pm drive has become 11.00-1am drive – Definitely not my finest hours!

I also had not eaten as I thought I would grab something for the road when I landed, now I was torn between trying to sleep and eating on the plane!

Driving home so late, I was treading the fine line between having enough energy drink to kept alert driving and not too much so I could sleep when I get home.  I thankfully got the balance right and reached home safely!

Ah Vienna – this time I will remember

A mere five days later and I was back at Stansted airport again. The drive at 6.30am on a Saturday was great with very little traffic until I got to within a mile of the airport and came into a massive queue of traffic!

That was telling of how crazy the terminal was going to be. Mostly full of football fans going to Madrid for the champions cup final (I think I got that right) – it looked like extra flights had been laid on so it was even busier than normal. It is days like this where paying the small extra fee for fast track security is worth all it costs and then some!

(I also learnt the benefits of paying of priority boarding on my flight back from Malta just a few days ago. When the plane is full there is just not enough room for everyone’s bags and arguments were breaking out between those who boarded near the end and could not find space in the overhead lockers for their bags .  That said, I am pretty certain some of the bags on board where above the size and weight limits!

While I was waiting for my flight there was an announcement was made saying that one of the flights to Madrid had its departure time moved from 9am to 8.30 – when do they ever bring a departure forward?  I wondered how many would have missed it as they are drinking in the bar 🤔.  Apparently, there were also some famous old football players sitting near me in the airport – lots of people asking to take photos with them but I have no idea who they were 🤦🏻‍♀️👍🏻


Despite all the extra payments and fast tracks, it does not get me priority in any of the cafes which were packed with big queues … or on the tarmac with the queue of aircraft waiting to take off!

As this trip was partly a business trip (yay for an office in Vienna), I had the luxury of a taxi pick up from the airport and free accommodation in the form of the company apartment – of course the downside of that is that I am staying out in the suburbs. The upside is not only that it is free, but that I get the fun of working out the underground network!

Of course I would expect nothing less than an organised, efficient underground service and that is exactly what I got – it would have helped if I could remember what station I needed to get off at but that was a minor detail 🤦🏻‍♀️😂.  First stop in the city was food – a Viennese sausage and a Viennese beer – both went down pretty well 👍🏻

Now this is not the first time I had been to Austria and in fact I had been to Vienna before (it was last century to be fair) but oddly I remember nothing about!  I remember other parts of Austria like Salzburg and Innsbruck but just nothing about Vienna so clearly nothing stuck out at the time (I must take a look back at my photos next time I am home). I must say it did a better job this time lol.

It had been a lovely warm day when I arrived, but the clouds came over just as my late afternoon walking tour started and I had not brought either my umbrella or raincoat with me (they were in my bag in the apartment) but thankfully I did not need them.

As with all most European cities, Venice has a long and interesting history and in fact, in the early 1900s it was the 5th largest city in the world and it was an important cultural centre.

For 640 years, Vienna was the seat of power for the Habsburg dynasty.  At the height of their power they ruled most of continental Europe, mostly achieved through shrewd marriages.  It was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the heir to the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian throne) in Sarajevo in 1914 that instigated World War I and the decline of the family dynasty.

During their rule, they were generous patrons of the arts and this attracted great musicians, artists and minds from around Europe to the city with great balls and concerts taking place.

Of course, over the years, different rulers had differing styles of leadership.  Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II who ruled from 1780 to his death in 1790 was known as one of the three great Enlightenment monarchs.  He built an incredible reading hall when most locals were illiterate and his daughter Maria Theresa made it mandatory for children between 6-12 to go to school.

He used his own money to build hospitals and homes for homeless and was known as “a man of people”.  He would walk the streets in disguise and talk to people on the street.  One of his more progressive moves was to give religious freedom – before then people had to be catholic, leave the country, or go to prison!  Unfortunately, after his death, many his new laws were overturned as they were too progressive.

In stark contrast, his sister Marie Antoinette lived a lavish lifestyle filled with balls and ballet.  She went on to marry Louis 16th of French and was decapitated during French Revolution!

In 1810, Napoleon married Marie Louise, one of the daughters of the head of Hapsburg family and a granddaughter of Joseph (another political move), however he did not attend the wedding in Vienna and one of her uncles (Archduke Charles) stepped in his place to act as proxy!  The French Ambassador wrote “the bridegroom’s absence did not dampen the festivities” … “The marriage of H.M. the Emperor with the Archduchess Marie Louise has been celebrated with unsurpassable magnificence, to which the preceding fêtes bore no comparison.”  They did later have a civil wedding (in fact two) in France which they both attended, still these European aristocrats had some odd ways.

Beethoven moved to Vienna from Germany in 1818 as he had always wanted to study under Mozart – unfortunately, Mozart died years before he got his chance in 1791 at the young age of 35.

Another great Viennese institution is the Vienna Boys choir which was initially formed in 1498. Today the choir (not the same boys of course lol) continues to enthral audiences.  I did not have an opportunity to see them but apparently their  “voices fill the hall like sunlight”.  There was a lot of free music around the city but none at times I could go 😩 as I always had other plans.

The Hapsburg monarchy collapsed as World War I approached and after the war, what used to be a huge Empire, Austria became a small land locked country.

As World War II approached, 130,000 Jews fled Austria, including the likes of Billy Wilder (Hollywood director), Max Steiner (film composer who has had multiple Oscar nominations) and Dr. Sigmund Freud (famous Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis).  Sadly, the vast majority of the 65,000 who did not or could not leave died in concentration camps during the war.

A square in the city has been left empty in memory of the 400 people who were buried alive in an air raid shelter under a building on that spot.  Instead of rebuilding, a 4-part monument  in honour to those who died during the war was put on the sight.

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As we walked around the city admiring the wonderful architecture, through arches into beautiful courtyards and boulevards.  There was a beautiful curved building lining the street.  There was supposed to be two curved buildings but the second one was never built.  In 1938, Hitler stood on the balcony of this building promising food and jobs.  People cheered him, not knowing he was leading them into the city’s and country’s darkness years.  No one else has ever given a speech from that balcony!


In the architecture, the Hapsburgs where not just showing power but also

showing their legitimate right to power.  Carved statues of the Deeds of Hercules, half man/half God – the Hapsburgs believed that they related to him as they were men doing the deeds of God and that some people were just born to rule!!


It was such a beautiful evening to explore such a beautiful city when it wasn’t crowded and the sky and lighting was stunning.  We strolled down one of the beautiful shopping streets, spotting the shops that had proven themselves good enough for the king and emperor, noted by the sign on door or window.  This street also had the ‘most beautiful public toilets’ decorated with mosaics and glass inlay doors.  They are still toilets today, but they also have poetry readings in them!!



In the middle for the shopping street we found the Trinity column.  Each time there was a plague or a flood (or other such tragedy), people thought they were being punished by God so the statue depicts Leopold begging for forgiveness on behalf of his people, as well as the coat of arms of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia.  On the top sits a choir of Angels with the Holy Trinity.  The Holy Trinity had particularly significance when they were fighting against the Ottoman empire as they believed it was three (the Holy Trinity) against one (Islam).

The final stop for the evening was Vienna’s (if not Austria’s) most important landmark – St Stephens.  There has been a site since 1137 and what you see now is the third iteration.  It took 200 years to build and at the time no other tower in the empire could be taller than the 147m high tower of the church.


After the tour I wandered around the small market by the church – weird and wonderful flavoured cheese (not sure sitting in the hot sun all day did them any favours), giant pretzels, some covered in chocolate (the same Place sold pretzel Christmas decorations – a must for all good Christmas trees 😂)!  I was going to get what I think was raspberry beer but they were sold out so instead had a giant tubular donut kind of thing – apparently called a Baumkuchen (also know as a funnel cake).

The streets were filled with very talented musicians – string quartets, pianist, singers and on the way back to the train station I passed the famous Vienna Opera House.   They screen the operas live on a big screen outside and sat for a short while and enjoyed one of the songs from the opera (don’t know what opera though ) – I am sure the outside viewing was as well received as those inside and makes the opera available to everyone.

Of course, I have  really only seen a small part of the city, and not the ‘real’ everyday Vienna of today and planned to see a little more the next day.

Sunday morning and it was already 21 C by 7am so I had to get out into the day.  I caught the train to a station along the Danube and planned a walk back from there to where I was meeting friend’s late morning.  (Another reason for the trip was to meet up with some friends from New Zealand who were on holiday in Europe.)

When you plan a walk online, purely to get from one point to another, you have no real idea what you will come across.  I was pleasantly surprised by my walk – along the banks of the Danube, past the University, apartments, some very modern Biotech companies and through a huge beautiful park.  It was all so peaceful at 9am on a Sunday.

I then walked past a smaller river, lined with beautiful old buildings and then an even smaller river (or canal) with some very odd sculptures on one of the bridges crossing the canal??? 🤔🤔🤔

By this stage, I was back in the first district with contrast between the beautiful wide tree lined boulevards and narrow cobbled streets (not narrow by Valletta or Dubrovnik standards though).

After all this walking I was ready for some breakfast and I decided to go to the famous Cafe Central.  In 1913, it was the place to be seen.  In that summer you could have bumped into the likes of Dr Sigmund Freud (world renown psychoanalyst), Joseph Stalin (Soviet Politician), Leon Trotsky (Russian revolutionary), Josip Tito (Yugoslav communist revolutionary) or  Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Austrian throne).  Even a young Adolf Hitler frequented the café.

There was a queue to get in, but only because it had not opened and it was massive inside so there was plenty of room. I just had to make sure I ordered quickly to get ahead of the rush.

The interior was beautiful, unchanged from the times all the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ of the world sat here and caused (rather than solves) the problems of the world.  I choose my words carefully as surely, they all were all great minds – sadly some of them used their greatness for evil and collectively they changed the future of Europe.  If only these walls could talk!

I enjoyed an iced Viennese coffee (espescially as it came with ice cream) and apple strudel (could I be more cliché?? 🤔😂) as well as the famous Viennese cafe culture which is as important now as it was then.

I did a quick change in to pretty sandals and top before heading to meet my friends and take in yet another of the famous Viennese must dos – the Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School.

Once I found the right entrance (3rd time lucky) the narrow winding staircase was a clue to the fact I was definitely in the cheap seats 😂 though paying the cheapest price was probably a giveaway – just meant I had to stand to look down on the horses.  To be honest I was happier with that than paying the 200-300 euros required for the lower tier seats 👍🏻.

It was a beautiful ornate, air-conditioned auditorium with Viennese classical music playing.  Apparently, they use to hold beautiful balls in the same space.

The Spanish Riding School dates back to the Habsburg Monarchy in 1572 and is dedicated to the preservation of classical dressage and the training of Lipizzaner horses.  The horses originally come from Spain (hence the name) and apparently are known as the Ferrari of horses!

Both horses and riders spend over 10 years training until they are full ‘schooled’ and the performance showcased the different stages of their training.  A couple of fun facts … firstly, the first women riders were admitted in 2008, breaking with 436 years of tradition of only men being allowed to ride and secondly, the horses are actually born a dark grey colour, which changes to  pure white as they age.  Many of the younger horses in the performance were still grey rather than white.

It is a common myth that the movements were developed to aid in battle; in fact, they were used to strengthen the war horse’s body and mind and make him a supreme athlete, not to attack.  Most of the movements are based on those naturally performed by the horse when at liberty apparently.  Despite that, and although I could appreciate the beauty of the ‘ballet’ of the horses, I am not sure I am a fan as the trainers use whips in training and the ring and wear spurs on their boots when riding!

That said, it was beautiful and it was a shame that you could not take photos during the performance.

After the performance I had time to catch up with my friends and we enjoyed a couple of hours wandering around the lovely Albertina gallery.  It was full of beautiful art works by the likes of Rubens, Picasso, Monet, Degas and Matisse.  My favourites were by someone called Paul Signac, a French neo-impressionist who lived between 1863 and 1935.  I had never heard of him before but I was really drawn to his pieces.

After lunch, I had the chance to go inside St Stephens where it was nice and cool (compared to the 28C it was by this time outside).  The cool air was filled with the scent of candles and incense which was lovely.

I was surprised to see that the shops (except for the specific tourist shops) were not open, nor were the supermarkets which resulted in me eating a bar of chocolate my friends had bought me from NZ for my dinner as I was definitely caught out by the observance of the ‘day of rest’.

Monday rolled around and it was back to work for me, all be it in the Vienna office. It was another scorcher – 29 C and unfortunately the office aircon was not working!! It was hot and I joked that we had done it to make the client delegation from the DRC feel at home as they tuned up in their dress uniforms looking cool 😂😂.

I had a couple more days of the heat before returning the cool of the UK office!