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!!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 🤦🏻‍♀️👍🏻

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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
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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!!

 

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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.

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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!

Magical Malta

It’s been a while between blogs but sometimes life just gets in the way.  Hopefully I will be a able to pump out a couple in the next week or so (or not), so I don’t get too far behind!  But be warned … this is a long one!

Malta surprised me. It’s wonderful mix of natural beauty, proud cultural heritage and complex history full of pirates, knights and heroic battles – what’s not to love. lol

The weekend started with a Bank holiday at the airport, it was packed and I was more than grateful for the fast track through security 👍🏻.  To be honest, it is only £4-5 so I am not sure why everyone doesn’t get it!  I was also grateful that none of the stag and hen parties were on my flight – I guess Malta is not a hot spot for that 😂

I had run out of Euros and had wanted to get some before I got on the plane but having seen the exchange range that the Moneycorp ATM at the airport I decided to wait until I go to Malta.  Earlier in the day I had converted £100 for €113 whilst the ATM wanted to charge me £122 for €100 🤔🤔 – definitely something wrong with that maths if you ask me!  I am sure so many poor people are caught out with these horrendous exchange rates – don’t be one of them!

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I arrived at around 9pm and the island looked beautiful with all the lights as we came in to land.  I always find it exciting arriving at night as you never know what to expect in the morning.  Unfortunately, at my hostel, the morning started with rolling suitcase outside my room at around 6am!

The Republic of Malta consists of a small group of islands sitting 80km south of Italy.  It has a population of just over 500,000 in an area just over 315 km2  which makes it the world’s tenth smallest and 5th most densely populated country.  What it lacks in size, it sure makes up for in character!

Day 1 was warm with some blue sky and I had a quick walk around the area I was staying in before being picked up for my dive.  I love diving but I hate all the set up!  With a water temperature of only 18C we were wearing 2 wetsuits – a long one, covered by a short one, with my skins underneath!  The guide was wearing a dry suit which is always a telling sign (I think my next course needs to be  dry suit one!)

The diving was nice but there was not a lot to see.  Apparently, the best diving around the area is on wrecks and I was with a girl who was only Open Water certified so we could not go deep enough to go there.  To be honest, that was ok with me, it always takes me ages to get comfortable again after a break so it was good we spent a lot of time in the first dive practicing skills and working on buoyance.

As well as getting some good practice in, it was also my first experience diving on Nitrox or Enriched air (a nitrogen/oxygen mix that means you can dive for longer and have less surface time as your body absorbs less nitrogen during the dive).  I decided to pay the €60 to get certified with the practical being done on the dive and the book part and test done online at home in my own time.

Back in town after the dive, I was so hungry I tried to find some local food – not much of it around in the area I was staying but I stumbled across a shop selling Imqarets.  These are one of the remnants the Arab world left behind in Malta – deep fried pastry filled with dates.  The name in Maltese is the plural of maqrut, meaning diamond-shaped, although sometimes they are rectangular!  I had my served with chocolate sauce and ice cream and it was GOOD!  Calories don’t count if you are trying local food right?

For my second day I had booked a Jeep tour of Gozo – the other big island in the country.  When I booked the tour, the weather forecast had been good, but it had deteriorated during the week.  In the morning on Malta it was breezy and overcast but thankfully still warm.  In hindsight I wish I had booked things the other way around – walking tours on the second day and boat trip on the last day but as I have said before, I try not to go too far away on the day I leave just in case somethings happens and I am delayed getting back – unlikely in this case as my flight is not until 9.25pm!

The pick up was early (which is the kind of efficiency I love) and we drove around lots of little bays on the way to the end of the island where we got in a small open sided boat – not really the weather for it so put on my rain coat (I learnt from my last weekend away – always pack my rain coat and umbrella) and I prepared for the worst.  Thankfully the seas weren’t too bad but it was cold and I was grateful for all the layers I had 👍🏻.

I guess not every travel day is going to sunny and warm, literally and metaphorically!

Getting off the boat was manic, there were so many buses filling the wharf and hiding our little jeeps.  No one really seemed to know what was going on but it turns out we were standing around waiting for people who had missed the ferry! The downsides of group tours!

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Our guide, Charlie, was an old guy from Gozo who had spent 10 years in Australia welding shipping containers!  Apparently, there is lots of emigration from Gozo as they often have big families of 11-12 children so many have to leave the island to find work, either on the other island (Malta) or abroad from where they send money home.

Gozo is the second largest island in the archipelago (after the main island – Malta) and is far more rural and less developed.  It has a population of less than 38,000 and is rich in historic locations, including one of Malta’s megalithic temples which is among the world’s oldest free-standing structures.

Every one kept telling us that the days weather was very unusual – apparently it’s always sunny – yeah right 😂  “This year we have a crazy weather” we were told (imagine this being said in a southern Italian accent) as the guide kept saying he could not believe the rain!  Anyone can see Gozo on a Sunny day – not many people get to see if like this 😂😂!

As we drove around, we passed small farms, a few cows, chickens, tomatoes, hay – all in relatively small quantities.  We drove through Xlendi – a beautiful town, which apparently has great nightlife and is packed in summer, past an aqueduct built by the British in the 1840’s to move water to the capital of the island – Victoria.

We stopped in a small town called San Lawrenz – where we stopped in tourist shop to taste local products – unfortunately there was no explanation as to what they were – think it was a liquor from local cactus??

Sadly, that was the story of the tour – little explanation as to the history of the place or what we were seeing. Nothing much more than – ‘there is this tourist site’ etc. None of their personal history or stories about history which I enjoy.  We spent 20 minutes in the tacky tourist shop but the guide just pointed out churches and other historic places as we speed buy.

As it was Sunday, some things were closed, but we were still taken there – “normally we do this, but today is Sunday so it’s closed”, “there was a Stone ‘window’ there but it collapsed two years ago so nothing to see now” (this was the famous ‘window’ in Dwejra bay).  “Normally you go in a boat here into the cave, but not today!”

And then the thunder started and the rain came down – tha65938720_905952726430798_2394534771070861312_nnkfully I had a seat inside the jeep, but my fellow travellers were left in the back with a roof by no sides so in just a few minutes they were soaked through!  One really interesting thing about the rain is that it was ‘sandy’, apparently with sand brought over from north Africa, just 280km to the south.

 

We did manage to get 5 minutes to visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, a beautiful church in the Gozo country side.  A chapel on this site was first recorded in 1575 but work on the current church began in 1922 and it was visited by Pope Bendict XVI in 1990.  The church has a set of beautiful mosaic walls and floor in the courtyard in front of the church, apparently paid for by a Gozitan who immigrated to Australia.   Of course, being Sunday, there was a Church service going on so could not spend much time inside!

Our guide pointed out the beautiful Citadel at the top of the hill, as we drove passed the end of the street to stop at a tourist restaurant!!  More rain came down during lunch but thankfully it had stopped before we were dropped off at the earliest of the Maltese megalithic temple complexes – Ġgantija.

The Ġgantija temples are older than the Egyptian pyramids and it is believed they were built between 3600-2500BC.  I must admit I had no idea Malta’s history went back so far!  In fact, it is believed that Malta has been inhabited since 5900 BC!!!

It is believed that the temples are elements of a ceremonial site in a fertility rite and many figurines and statues found on site are associated with that cult. Local Gozitan folklore talks of a ‘giantess who ate nothing but broad beans and honey, who bore a child from a man of the common people. With the child hanging from her shoulder, she built these temples and used them as places of worship’.

Unfortunately we did not really have any where enough time here, just enough to quickly walk around the very impressive education centre (which was fortunate as we would get dropped off with the instructions “ you’ll go there” but not really told what there was!!) and a fast work through the temple complex before have to meet back at the jeep.

Thankfully we finally made it to the Citadel (or Citadella as it is known) – and had about 20 minutes to run around and see as much as we could!  Again, this was somewhere we could have spent a few hours here with plenty to see but oh well lol.

The area has been inhabited since the Bronze Ageand during the medieval period, the acropolis was converted into a castle which served as a refuge for Gozo’s population.  A suburb developed outside the walls, but apparently, they all slept within the walls of the citadel to avoid the rampaging pirates who would capture anyone they could to sell in to slavery.

The Citadella was invaded by an Ottoman force in 1551 and it briefly saw action during the French invasion and subsequent uprising in 1798; in both cases the fortress surrendered without much of a fight.

The Cathedral of the Assumption is the centre piece of the Citadella and the information plaques describes it as showing ‘muted magnificence’.  Not really sure what that means but I like it!

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Again, we did not have enough time here before we had to rush to the boat for 3pm where we then sat for 30 minutes not going anywhere whilst the boat guys haggled with other people for rides and to get more money … while we all sat there and waited!

The whole day was really a comedy of errors.  Thankfully I was in a Jeep with nice people so the day so we managed to have fun and it was not a complete write off – apparently, one couple had been recommended the tour, not sure I will be recommending it in the near future!   Being good Americans – the 2 couples tipped our driver (I cannot call him a guide) but I took a typical kiwi stance and did not tip him as service was definitely not exceptional!

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On the way back to the island of Malta, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon on the small island of Comino – which was indeed very blue 🤔👍🏻.   It was blue, it was a lagoon … but by this time I was just ready to get back!

 

By the time I go back to the hostel the sun was out and the sky was blue – such a shame really.  Normally I can console myself with having had an interesting time when the weather is not great – this time not!  But I should not really complain, I have since read about what we saw and I am still glad I went despite it all lol.

Thankfully my third and final day was beautiful and sunny.  I checked out and headed up the hill, this time to walk to the ferry terminal. Wandering through the narrow streets, past the beautiful old houses in various states of refurbishment.  Nodding good morning to the old local men, sitting around outside small shops chatting about life in their weird language (to my ear anyway) – did you know Maltese is a mixture of Italian and Arabic?

I walked down the hill in to Sliema and got by first view of the capital of Malta, Valletta,  (In hindsight I wish I had stayed in Sliema, or if I am honest in Valetta itself but hindsight is a wonderful thing right!)

The ferry to Valletta took just 10 minutes across the harbour and a finally got my history fix on and all was right in my world 😂.  Valletta is another incredible walled city – similar to Dubrovnik, but thankfully with not quite so many tourists!  As with Dubrovnik massive groups of cruise ship tours everywhere – later in the day I saw 5 ships in the harbour!   Chatting to the guide later in day, he said that although they count number of visitors as a good thing, but those on cruise ships spend very little money in the local economy so most locals are not keen on them.)

Despite paying for my tour (in the hope the group size would be smaller than on the free tour) it was still a pretty big group but not to big not to be able to hear the guide.

Building on the original city began in 1556 and in 2018 Valletta was named European City of Culture, so there has been a lot of recent regeneration in the city, particularly around the entrance gate so there is now a real juxtaposition between old and new.

The Government engaged the services of Renzo Piano, the Italian architect who designed The Shard in London and many locals didn’t like the results, thinking it was disrespectful to the history but as with much ‘change’, it grows on people as they get used to it.

A few of his works was the morphing of the city gates in to a welcoming entrance rather than an actual gate (as there are not expecting to be invaded any more), the €90m Parliament building with a design that is an artistic demonstration of the pitting on Maltese lime stone as seen in the nearby old buildings.   One of his most controversial designs, was creating an open-air theatre out of the bombed out opera house rather than rebuilding it (which is what people had expected).

The city of Valletta was founded by the Knights of the Order of St John who completely changed the fortunes of the islands during the 268 years that they ruled.  Charles the 5th actually gave them Malta as a home when Rhodes (where they came from) was invaded by the Ottoman Empire.  They really did not want to stay there as the island was not self-sufficient (there was no fresh water supply) and therefore very vulnerable, but they really had no other option!  Because they didn’t really want to be there, they built very little in the first 35 years as they had no intention of staying long term.

Before the Knights, much of the population lived inland to avoid pirates (the old capital was Mdina is situated in the centre of the island) but as a naval power, the Knights needed to be by the water and started to build along the coast.

Jean de Valletta, for whom the city is named after, was a French Nobleman who went on to become the Grand Master, despite spending time as a galley slave and being arrested numerous times for drunken brawls, at one time spending 4 months in solitary on Gozo.

That said, he later became a hero, commanding the resistance against the Ottomans in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.  10,000 Maltese people (many of whom were normal citizens) winning against 30,000 Ottoman troops!  This was the turning point of Malta and from here, the Knights decided this would be their permanent home, with de Valletta laying the foundation stone of the city in 1565 – sadly he did not live to see the completion of the city as he died only 3 years later.

With the defence of Malta, the Knights stopped the advance of the Ottoman’s further into the European continent so various European countries helped fund the building of the city so they could continue to provide defences for them.  Even the Pope supported them and encouraged others to do so – this was certainly the golden years for the city.

Despite its small size and population, there are over 730 churches in the country of Malta, 28 in the city of Valletta.  In fact, the founding stone of Valletta was the founding stone of our Lady of Victory church in 1566.  (Valletta’s bodies were initially buried there before being moved to St John’s Co-Cathedral when it was built.)

During the baroque period, the church was renovated inside and out so the the church we see today is far more ornate that the original structure.  In fact, there are many very ornate buildings, the most beautiful of which is one of the auberge’s (lodging house) built for the Spanish knights – there were 8 auberges in total, each housing a different nationality.

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Interesting, the man who built the Spanish auberge was actually blamed for bankrupting the knights as he continued to build ornate buildings despite the slowing down of the flow of funds aligned with the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

It was around this time that the locals started to resent the Knights who were living in luxury in the city, while the locals lived in poverty in the surrounding the countryside, paying heavy taxes to do so.  So sick of the Knights feudal system, they supported Napoleon when he  invaded.  His troops easily defeated the bankrupted Knights with the locals’ support and they were given 48 hours to pack up and leave the island.

Napoleon stayed on the island for 1 week on his way to conquer Egypt, leaving behind a small army of 4,000 people.  They change lots of laws, mostly for the better, but all at once rather than bit by bit which the locals resisted.  After less than 3 months, the locals revolted, causing the French to take sanctuary inside the city walls.

Without much in the way of fire power and nothing more than fishing boats, the British stepped in to help stop the French bringing in supplies from their ships.  This battle went on for 2 years, by which time the French had eaten all their horses, donkeys and even the rats running around the streets.

Instead of surrendering to the Maltese (who they do not want to speak to), the French decided to approach the British and without the consent of the locals, the British ‘inherited’ control of the country.  The Maltese felt deceived but decided maybe the British would be better than any of the other options.   Thus, Malta became part of the British Empire until its independence in 1964.

Everything that is Maltese is a mixture of all the cultures that were here – the language, the food, the architecture etc.

We continued to walk through the city, past the Co-Cathedral of St John’s (the other co-cathedral is in Mdina) built by the Knights and is rather plain on the outside and extremely ornate on the inside and the Grand Masters Palace which is now the President’s office.

With the opening of the Suez Canal, Malta gained much more strategic importance due to it’s local and the British dockyards became the cornerstone of the economy – ships still seem to be the cornerstone of the economy, however now it is cruise ships!

The country has been of strategic importance for the British during both world wars.  In WWI, it became known ‘Nurse of the Med’ due to its military hospital and was also key getting supplies through to North Africa.  In WWII, Malta was the most bombed place in the world between 1940-1942 and in 1 month, more bombs fell on than it did on London during the whole war!  The country gave so much but still gave so much support to Britain during the war, it was awarded the George Cross by George 6th – so, since 1942 the George Cross was added in the corner of the Maltese flag.

Another big industry for Valletta (in fact the whole of Malta) is the movie business – numerous movies and TV shows have been filmed there like Gladiator, Troy, Game of Thrones etc.   The diverse architecture of the city means it can be used in place of a world of places and it has been used to represent Jerusalem, Spain, Italy and Istanbul in the past!

My next stop on this busy day was Mdina – the original capital in the middle of the island.   I decided to catch the local bus to Mdina and managed to navigate around the massive, but fairly well laid out, bus stop to the right bus stop, but I had forgotten how bad Europeans are at queuing and it was just once massive of shove to get on when the bus arrived.  The worst offenders were little old ladies who elbowed their way to the front causing much grumbling around me in Maltese but no one spoke out lol

The bus was full and I was glad to have a seat as I had no idea how long the journey was but knew I was getting off near that end – just not exactly where 🤦🏻‍♀️😂  Luckily I had 2 hours before the start of the next tour as it didn’t seem that this journey was going to be a very quick one.   I watched the bus route along the map as the time ticked away and was lucky I had not chosen to sit down and have lunch in Valletta!

This next tour had the same guide and there was only 5 people – that’s my idea of a tour 😂!  Compared to the 6,000 people who live within the walls of Valletta, only 250 people live within the walls of Mdina.

Predominately a medieval city, nothing much has changed in Mdina since the 1720s and in fact it was on the site of an early city that dated back as far as the Bronze age and the city has seen it fair share of people through it’s gates – Bronze age, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors (who are partly responsible for the Arabic influence in the country as well as the name Mdina) and the Spanish.  And that was all before Charles the 5th gave the country to the Knights as a home!

As the Knights preferred to live near the sea, they did nothing to the city of Mdina until an earthquake in 1692 caused significant structural damage and the Portuguese Grand Master decided his legacy would be to repair the city and so, in 1720 the once medieval city became a baroque city.  Even today, the medieval tower has his coats of arms on it.

The flag towers played an important roll in communication around the islands and they are dotted round the country.  All men between the ages of 16 and 65 had to take their turn as look out and signal if pirates or other dangers were approached.  The towers formed a chain the islands and so the message was spread for people to seek refuge within the walls of the city.

The city was full of narrow intertwined streets and they actually made for additional defences (as I was easy to get lost)!  This is a complete contrast to the wide grid patterned streets which help the ocean breeze get through the city and provide direct routes from one wall to the other for the limited soldiers to defend the city.  It also had a pretty gruesome history of siege warfare including pouring boiling oil on attached (through a hole by the gate) and putting dead bodies on the walls to spread disease!  Interesting the city had a dry ditch rather than a moat as there is no rivers or other source of what in the city of the island to fill it!

Mdina was a beautiful city, the wonderful baroque buildings (often only with baroque facades and plain medieval backs. Fancy door knockers, often customised for rich families.  All the mix of architecture styles makes it very difficult to date the buildings in the city as they have been modified so much over time.

It was so good having such a small group as we had lots of time to ask questions, not just about the city but life in general – it was really interesting and definitely finished my time in Malta on a high 👍🏻

I had been worrying about how to get back to St Julian (where I had been staying) to get my bag but given that the journey required 2 buses and what would take 20 minutes in a taxi could take up to 2 hours in the bus … sense won over frugality and I got the taxi.  It was definitely the right decision as with all the traffic I don’t know if I would even have made it back by 7pm when I was being picked up to go to the airport! Rush hour traffic in Malta is not to be toyed with!

All in all I was captivated by Malta though in hindsight I do wish I had stayed in Valletta so I could have wandered around the city in my free time.  Although not bad, the area of St Julian was much more modern, with many international chain restaurants, rather than anything traditional and there was not much else to see or do.

 

 

 

 

 

Marvelous Montenegro

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Day three of my long weekend and it was time for a quick trip to Montenegro – country number three for the weekend.   WTF?? I know right, but it was just so close I could not resist and so glad I did – what a stunner. I only wish I had much longer … I seriously need to consider a new career (again) where I can be a digital nomad and work on the road!

And so, to another early start and another morning of joining the rabble at the gate waiting for the buses – this time to travel the short distance to the Montenegro border and beyond … 

It was a much bigger bus this day with very reclining seats (which were great for napping 👍🏻) and yet again, another bus with Latin music 🤔.  Annoyingly this tour was a dual language tour so the guide had to say everything in two languages which got very tedious very fast!  I made a mental note to look out for this when booking trips in the future.

Some early rain cleared up as we headed towards Montenegro, but it took almost 1.5 hours to travel the only 20km to the border!   We had no idea what the bus was doing but it had a couple of pickups at random places and then went one way only to turn around in a tiny space a bus had no business turning around in 🤔. I think they forgot to pick someone up and we had to go back to the last pick up point – it then turned out that the passengers were late to the pickup point and then, they had not brought their passports so could not come anyway!  Another example of the downside of bus tours (there were a number of them on this trip unfortunately).

There were only 2 border crossing today but as with yesterday, the Croatia border checks were much more thorough and time consuming (with the border guard coming on the bus to collect passports), with cursory checks on the Montenegrin side.  As with BiH, the queues at the border in the height of the season can be hours long!

Between the two borders is a small area of ‘No man’s land’ were a few people live.  Given that they technically do not live in Croatia or Montenegro, they pay for electricity from Croatia and water to Montenegro.  I wonder what nationality they have???

It is all in the name, as from the minute we crossed the border the beautiful hilly landscape was covered with lush dark green forest –  Montenegro literally translates as ‘Black Mountain’.

Montenegro is one of smallest and youngest countries in the world, less than 14,000 Km2  in size and with a population of just over 620,000.  It borders Bosnia & Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia and Kosovo to the east, Albania in the south and Croatia to the west, given this it shares a similar history to those countries around it.  With a legacy of years under Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman rule as well as years of de facto independence. 

After the Montenegrin-Ottoman War, Montenegro’s independence was recognised at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the country became a kingdom in 1905.  The Kingdom of Montenegro lasted only a few years as it became part of Yugoslavia after World War I and upon the breakup of Yugoslavia, it became part of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (along with Serbia of course).  It finally gained full independence in June 2006.

Interesting, Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic, has been prime minister or president since 1991 when he was in his late 20’s and when the country was still in the Yugoslav Federation.  It is also expected that he will get re-elected in 2023 which means he would be close to overtaking Josip Broz Tito (leader of Yugoslavia) as the longest serving political leader in the region.

He was clever enough to break from his ally Slobodan Milosevic a few years before his political downfall in 2000 and now the country profits from relatively friendly relationships with all its neighbours, though some say it will take at least another generation or two before they truly forgive the Serbians for what went on during the war.

In my brief time in the country, it does not seem that the country suffered as much as it’s neighbours during the Civil War (certainly not in the area I was) and to be honest, the guide did not talk much about it. However, the country’s tourism suffered greatly during that period, but it has now built back up and the country has put much emphasis put on repairing and rebuilding infrastructure like roads and hotels.

Already part of the UN, NATO, the WTO and the Council of Europe, the process to join the EU has begun though they may not be granted full EU membership status until 2025!  A fun fact, Montenegro use Euros as their currency (despite not being in the EU), before which they used German Mark!

We were told that the weather here is more Mediterranean than Adriatic and the culture is more laid back, not a lot happens in a hurry 😂 – I should have taken that as a warning lol.

Our first stop was a beautiful shore side restaurant with amazing views over the fjord like shoreline.  I complained about big queues for the toilet yesterday but today was worse – not because there were big queues but because the stop was at a posh restaurant who insisted that you sit down, order coffee, drink coffee and then … and only then can you join the queue for the toilet – when we only have 15 minutes!! I managed to sneak into the loo queue and then missed the coffee I was desperate for as I had no time (and they did not do take away!).  Not really the kind of stop you need on a trip like this but I guess it was all there was. The view over the Adriatic Sea surrounded by mountains was spectacular 

Lord Byron was right when he said, “The Montenegrin coastline really is the most beautiful encounter between land and sea.”

It didn’t help that when the mandated time to leave came (and we were all warned not to be late) the guide and driver were still sitting drinking their coffee and smoking their cigarettes – I guess she had already warned us when she said nothing moves quickly in Montenegro 🤔 lol.

It was from here we had our first view of Our Lady of the Rocks, one of the small islands off the coast.  The island is manmade, and according to legend it was created over the centuries (dating back to the 1400’s) by local sea men laying a rock in the bay after each successful voyage after finding the icon of Madonna and Child on the rock in the sea.   As well as rocks, the island has been built up by the sinking of old ships loaded with rocks.

They continue the tradition even today, every year on July 22nd the locals meet at sunset to throw rocks into the sea around the island.  A tiny Orthodox church was original built on the site, but this was replaced by a Catholic chapel in 1630 when the Venetians took over the area.

Apparently they say, if you don’t visit the Our Lady of the Rocks, you have not visited Montenegro, so we caught a small boat from the restaurant out to the island in what was very changeable weather – one minute it was sunny and hot, then it clouded over and was cool, then it would rain, then it would repeat that cycle all over again.

The church was later renovated in 1772 and now houses a museum – I did not go in as there was a long queue and I preferred just to wander around the small island and admire the views of the bay.  But, apparently, the museum houses a number of famous painting by Perast (I must admit I am not familiar with his work) and also a tapestry embroidered by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović from Perast.  It took her 25 years to create whilst waiting for her love to return and she eventually became blind.  She used gold and silver fibres but what makes it more famous, she also used pieces of her own hair! Sorry I do not have a photo of the hair tapestry for you to admire!

Our small boat then took us to a town on the other side of the bay where we got back on the bus and headed around the beautiful coastline to our next destination – the old walled city of Kotor, situated in the Bay of Kotor (also referred to as ‘Boka’ or the Bay).

Kotor is a very small city, with a population of only 13,500.  The small walled city was built during the Venetian period and sits in what is sometimes called Europe’s southernmost fjord, despite it not actually being a fjord, but a submerged river canyon, surrounded by limestone cliffs!

Another UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best-preserved medieval cities, the number of tourists coming is increasing rapidly, most coming on cruise ships.  In the short time I was there, I saw two cruise ships – one out, one straight back in!  Thankfully our timing was perfect, as the first cruise ship passengers had just got back on as we entered the old city, and the second cruise ship passengers had not disembarked before we were finished.  With such a tiny city it would not take much for it to be far too crowded for any kind of enjoyment and the cruise ships dwarf the old city walls.

There has actually been a fortified town on this site since the early Middle Ages and has changed hands many times over the centuries (as with the other countries around it).  Romans are considered to be the founders of the city sometime between 168BC and 476 AD) upon the break-up of the Roman Empire, fell under the reign of Byzantium until 1185.

It was the most important trading port in the Kingdom of Serbia/Serbian Empire until the city was taken by the Kingdom of Hungary in 1371 and then the Republic of Venice and then Kingdom of Hungary and then the Republic of Venice etc etc … until 1384 lol.  Next up was the Kingdom of Bosnia for 7 years and in fact the king of Bosnia minted his coins in Kotor.

In 1391 Kotor became fully independent but in 1420, wary of the dangers from the approaching Ottoman Empire the people of Kotor voluntarily gave management of the town to Republic for Venice for protection, under which finally they almost had some stability for over 350 years (except for a couple of times when they were besieged and ruled by the Ottomans). 

The almost 400 years under Venetian rule has given the city the typical Venetian architecture some of which dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries though many of the builings are newer than that as much of the city was nearly destroyed by earthquakes in 1563 and again in 1667 (to mention just 2 of many earthquakes). 

Unfortunately the ‘pass the parcel’ of ownership did not stop there as Kotor was given to the Habsburg Monarchy in the Treaty of Camp Formio in 1797 (but oddly was run by Russians for a year) and then it was assigned to the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy in the Treaty of Pressbury in 1806).  Next up Kotor was captured by the British Navy in 1810 forcing the French garrison finally surrender in 1814, but never fear, it was then restored to the Habsburg Monarchy by the Congress of Vienna.

In World War 1 Kotor was one of the main bases for the Austro-Hungarian navy and it was after the war in 1918 the city became part of Yugoslavia.

As with the whole region, they were exhausted by centuries of occupation but the biggest battles were still to come including the Nazi control of World War II (the date above the city gate is the date of liberation from the Nazis) and of course the Civil war.

The city also endured another major earthquake in 1979 where much of Kotor and other towns in the area was devastated.  The clock tower in the main square has been on a lean ever since.

As with Dubrovnik, there was a large number of cats roaming around the city (there is even a cat museum)!  Legend has it, that cats saved them from the plague as they killed the rats and mice that carried the plague carrying fleas.  For this reason, all the street cats are well looked after and well feed.

Kotor was yet another beautiful old city filled with cobblestones streets, old stone houses with colourful shutters and a large number of well maintained Catholic and Orthodox churches – however our guide told us that only two of the many churches are active today and despite 90% of the population are Orthodox (the majority of the rest are catholic), the catholic cathedral of St Tryphon’s is one of the cities main landmarks.  (The first church on that site was actually built in 807 with the current church initially built in 1166 – though not sure how much of that original building remains.)

It seems that the different religious get on well and in fact, one of the old Orthodox churches was originally Catholic, given to the Orthodox Christians when they did not have a place to worship.  The church has never been damaged by earthquakes and today stands as a symbol of unity.

To get a view of the beautiful ‘boka’ beyond the massive cruise ship that blocked most of the view, I decide to walk up the hill behind the old town for a beautiful view of the bay.  Whilst there I watched one cruise ship leave and another one very soon take its place … obviously another popular place on the cruise ships routes!

My final stop in Montenegro was Budva (or the Budva Riviera as it is know), a town much larger than Kotor with a population of around 60,000 and at 2,500 years old, it is the oldest settlement on the Adriatic Coast dating back to the 5th century BC at which time it was part of Greece! It is now well known in the region for its medieval walled city and famous (or maybe infamous) for its night clubs and sandy beaches (I did not really see it but there seemed to be a lot of abandoned bars and clubs lining the beach looking more like a faded fun fair) but I am sure on a warm summers day it is one of the most happening places this side of the Adriatic.  😂

Given it’s popularity, apparently a lot of local people are now accepting offers of lots of big money to sell their houses to wealthy Russians to use as holiday homes.

Again the walled city was built by the Venetians during their almost 400 years of rule, between 1420 and 1797, and again to protect themselves from those pesky Ottomans.   Much of the old town was devasted by the same 1979 earthquake that hit Kotor but almost all the buildings were restored to their original form and as with Kotor, the very small walled city is full of churches!  Around the tiny main square there are three – 2 catholic and one orthodox. 

Arriving in Budva, it was time for lunch where I had the biggest burger patty I have ever seen  (basically the same meal as in Bosnia but with the meat in the shape of a patty rather than a Sausages).  Just as I started to walk towards the old town the heavens opened!  Within minutes I was soaked, my poor umbrella had no chance.

I was left running around the narrow streets trying to find a recommended cafe for coffee and the famous Montenegro cake called Moscow cake!  Vanilla sponge with vanilla cream and fruit, it went down well despite being soaking wet.  I never really got a chance to dry out as I had to quickly run back to the bus, trying to dodge the worst of the puddles now filling the strees – buses are great fun when filled with 20 soggy people lol

The drive back was shorten by taking a car ferry across one of the bays between Lepetane to Kamenari, just a 5 minute journey on a small car ferries (fitting just  a couple of buses and a few cars) that would take 1 hour to drive.  The ferry just goes back and forth across the nay every 15 minutes or so, 24 hours a day and makes a huge difference to those driving the route.   The other great thing about the ferry is the beautiful views, many small villages clinging to the sides of the mountains as they flow down to the sea.

The weather finally seemed to clear up as we drove north towards the border and I was hoping to see some sort of sunset (if I could stay awake 😂) but sadly queues at the border (annoyingly today’s two borders took longer than the six borders we crossed to and from Bosnia) meant we missed the sunset by about 20 minutes (which is also about how long we had sat waiting in Budva for 2 of the group to return late) not that I am bitter or anything lol. 

Still another good day seeing another part of this beautiful world and learning more about the crazy history of the region.

Beautiful Bosnia

I had an early start on my second morning in Dubrovnik but I had time to have a quick look around the old city which was beautiful in the morning light and oh so peaceful without all the tourists!

That was until I headed to the meeting place for my tour!  All the tour buses and transfers met there around the same time so it was a little crazy – the buses and tour people didn’t have names or signs so everyone just stood around waiting to be called. Thankfully it actually all went way more efficiently that I had anticipated and even better, they were on time.  First 24 hours in Croatia had led me to expect nothing less lol.

What a day it was – 10 hours, 6 border crossing and 2 countries 🤔.  And so, to my first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).  Given that all the day trips left the city around the same time, I left Dubrovnik with some apprehension about how long all the border crossing were going to take!

As we left the city, we drove up the beautiful coastline, flanked by many islands – did you know Croatia has over 1000 Islands along its coast.  (No wonder it is a popular destination for sailing holidays).   I wish there were stops to take photos but I guess we were in a mad dash to the border – one of the biggest downsides for me of organised tours is having no flexibility to stop where you want (and of course spending so long on a bus!).  I also always want to sleep on buses but can’t because I am worried I will miss something.

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As we continued around the coast, we passed by the Croatian city of Ston, also known as the City of Salt.   The city is surrounded by thick stone walls 5 kilometres long, built in the 15th century to protect a precious commodity – salt!  They have been harvesting salt there for over 4000 years, making it the oldest active salt pan in the world.  Incredibly, at the peak of its success, 1kg was equal in value to 1kg of gold, hence the reason for those strong defences.

But I digress, this blog is supposed to be about BiH isn’t it??  Let me start with the reason for so many border crossings.  I was completely unaware of this, but you cannot drive the coastline of Croatia, without having to cross in to BiH (for 20km) before crossing back into Croatia.

How on earth did this happen I hear you ask (or not, but I will tell you anyway lol).  For that story, you have to go back to when Dubrovnik was an independent state and the entire coastal region was called Dalmatia (yes, where the spotted dogs originate from). When the Great Turkish war broke out in 1683 the Independent State of Dubrovnik found itself in the middle of war that had nothing to do with it, so in order to shield itself from attack, it cut itself off from the rest of Dalmatia by giving a small piece of land (an area known as Nuem) to the Ottoman Empire (which controlled what is now BiH).

The plan actually worked but jump forward 400+ years when Yugoslavia broke up, this piece of land remained part of BiH, causing the issues we see today.  On the Croatian side, the border staff review all passports when exiting and entering, whilst on the B&H they were far more relaxed but I can only imagine the monster traffic jams in the peak tourist season despite the efficiency!

Since 2007, the Croatian Government have been building a bridge from part of a Croatian peninsula to point on the mainland (a distance of only 2.4km) so Croatian’s and travellers alike can avoid going through all the border crossings when wanting to travel through the country! It was supposed to be finished in 2-3 years but the money disappeared! More recently they have now given the contract to a Chinese firm along with some EU money (80% of the cost) so everyone lives in hope this time the bridge will be completed.  If you look closely, you can actually see the start of the bridge in the distance in the photo below.

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A slightly odd and unrelated observation was the love for Latin music – buses and shops are more often than not pumping out reggaeton lol.   I could close my eyes and transport myself back to Colombia where I was this time last year!

The first border crossing in to BiH only took around 15 minutes.  The guide collected all the passports so we just needed to wait on the bus in Neum (hence the name of the Neum corridor) and once through we stopped at a café/restaurant for snacks and toilets.  Unfortunately, all the tour buses stop as same place so there was the expected massive queue for toilets and little then time for coffee 🤦🏻‍♀️.

My first impression of BiH was of people smoking inside WTF 🙅🏻‍♀️ and lots of people were smoking (though I have noticed it is still a fairly popular habit in Europe)!  Also, it is important to note, the coffee was not good – I would not have missed out on much if I had not rushed so much in the bathroom 😂.   That said, the sun was out and it was warm and there was a beautiful view over town (and out to the beginnings of the bridge).  I would not be surprised if this town is sabotaging the bridge build as it will lose a whole lot of business when buses don’t need to go through it!

The next border crossing was even quicker than the first and we were then back in Croatia!   From here we left the coast and drove inland and past vineyards (and from my dinner the night before, I had come to the conclusion that Croatian wine is pretty good) and orchards growing mandarins, oranges and tomatoes.  Apparently, the gastronomic speciality in the area is eels and frogs brodet (or stew).  I will pass on that!

The 3rd and final border for the morning was easier but took slightly longer and I was glad I brought my kindle with me to pass the time whilst waiting at the border.  Finally, by 10.30 we were in BiH for the second time that morning 👍🏻.  As we were leaving the EU, I had to turn off my mobile roaming on my phone.  Over the last few months I have got so used to just using my phone as normal in Europe, but outside of the EU roaming chargers are GBP6 per mb so definitely not worth making the mistake of mindless scrolling!  (We can kiss goodbye to that little perk at some point in the future when the UK finally leaves the EU!! I bet those who voted to leave did not think about wanting to stream their football whilst on their summer holiday in the south of Spain! (excuse the ever so slight stereotyping there 👍🏻😂)

BiH’s history is as interesting and if possible, even more complex than that of it’s neighbour Croatia.   Settlements in BiH date back to the Neolithic age with a Celtic migration to the region in 4th century BC.  Since then, they have been part of the Western Roman Empire, ruled by Ostrogoths, Alans and then Huns (I am going to have to do a lot more reading to understand who all of these people are).  It was part of the Byzantine Empire and then overwhelmed by the Slavs, all before the 7th century and it was during that time the tribes of Serbs and Croats are first noted.

Subsequent centuries find them under the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – that saw the end of the Kingdom of Bosnia in 1463.  4 centuries under Ottoman rule left behind an obvious Turkish link in the BiH we see today, in its architecture, religion and food and it led to the emergence of a native Slavic speaking Muslim community.   Apparently when the Ottoman Empire took power, much of population were Christian.  Christians were taxed more than the Muslims (who had other benefits as well) so many of the citizens converted to Islam to avoid becoming second class citizens.

Next came the Austro-Hungarians until the end of WWI when It joined the King of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently called Yugoslavia) along with its neighbour Croatia.

The first stop back in BiH for the second time was the Kravica waterfalls – according to the pamphlet they give out it was ‘created by the flow of the tuff surrounded Trebizat river’ 🤔. It goes on to say it is an ‘anatural phenomenon and it’s under the country’s protection as a natural rarity’. You have to love these translations 😂 I believe it is also important to note that you cannot perform any “religious rites” in the water!

The waterfalls are between 26-28m tall and use to provide power to many mills for rolling cloth that used to surround the waterfalls and lake.  It was beautiful and peaceful and there was even a little blue sky but as with Dubrovnik, I can image it is horribly crowded in the summer.

BiH is made up of two regions – Bosnia and Hercegovina (go figure), on this trip we only stayed in the Hercegovina region in the southern corner of the country.   Despite that, the citizens of BiH are all Bosnians (not to be confused with Bosniaks). The majority of the population then fall in to three ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, along side which there are three main religions – Islam, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic.

The city of Mostar was the main stop for the day and the Turkish influence was quite apparent here.  The city is surrounded by hills/ mountains and apparently it gets very hot in the summer!

We met up with a local guide who took us through the beautiful old city (or in most cases, not so old city).   Mostar was a fighting hotspot during the war in the 90’s and many of the historic sites were destroyed (also 70% of the infrastructure) and many have been rebuilt.  There are still a number of buildings around the city that are pockmarked with bullet holes, and others that have not been rebuilt – apparently this is purely because the owners never returned, so they have just been left as they were.

One of the main Government building has also not been repaired.  Our local guide told us that the Government say they don’t have money to repair it (or knock it down and rebuild) but of course they have money to drive nice cars and live in nice houses!  I think we can all agree; this is not a problem unique to BiH.

To align with the three main ethnic groups, the country has a unique Presidency with 3 members (one from each of the three main ethnic groups).  They serve a 4-year term as collective head of state with one member designated as Chairperson, a role that is rotated twice around the three members every 8 months!  Phew!

Worse than the physical damage the city was subjected to, the horrors culminating with the Srebrenica massacre, where more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered in July 1995 as part of an ethnic cleansing by the Bosnian Serb army.  Not to lessen the horrors of that event, the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat forces also committed war crimes against civilians from different ethnic groups, though on a smaller scale.  War is a truly horrid thing.

Given such a difficult recent history, the groups appear to get on relatively well these days and live and work side by side.