Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A short visit to Slovenia

The Virtual Tourist Euromeet weekend ended on Sunday 3rd June, and I had arranged leave for the rest of that week.
On Monday 4th June the weather turned out to be very different, as it never stopped raining all day. Daniel & I left Italy for Ljubljana the capital of a pretty & mountainous country Slovenia. After our final breakfast in Abelia Holiday Home in Bergamo, we walked to the station. According to the "Departure boards" at Bergamo station, there should have been a direct train to Venice at 08.24, but this was not to be, and by the time we found this out we had also missed the 8.07 train to Brescia, which is in the right direction. We had to wait until 9.07, but the helpful lady in the ticket office had provided us with the details of our journey. From Brescia we caught a "express" train to Venice, which meant us not losing much time in our schedule, but all the trains from Brescia to Venice had all been delayed, the 8.44 arrived at 10.24 (the time we were booked to leave) & so we boarded it. The journey was interesting as we passed through Verona & Padua. We met Collette & her husband (from Virtual Tourist), but sat with a dissatisfied (with Trenitalia) student who told us that these delays were all too frequent. This lady said she travels to Verona University regularly. We arrived into Venice & after a short wait (at the Mestra station) we caught the next train to Gorizia, a pretty Italian city with architecture from the time of the Austro-Hungarian period. At about 3pm we took a No 1 bus from outside Gorizia station to Nova Gorica station, which is in Slovenia. Therefore we passed the border, the only formality being a one-Euro supplement. Our train to Ljubljana is a small train which left at 15.31, we passed through some magnificent mountain scenery, the Soca river valley & pass & the station for Lake Bled (Bled jezero in Slovene). Some of our passengers were walkers. When we arrived in Jesenice, an industrial city, we only had to wait a short time for our next (and final) train to Ljubljana. This train was the most luxurious of the day, a EuroCity train from Austria & going onwards to Zagreb (in Croatia). In our compartment we met & talked with with Monika (a Slovene now living & working in Germany) & a student. Monika was very helpful as when we left the train, she arranged the schedule for our train to Budapest (on Wednesday) & also took us on a bus (the rain was pouring) to a square near the University, this being a short walk to the river & our hostel (the Alibi) on the bank of the Ljubljanica river.
Daniel & I checked into the hostel, but I had also planned to meet Blaz, a couchsurfer who lives in Ljubljana, and we met by the pink coloured Francescan church in Preserven Square.
We all then walked to Sokol a restaurant & gostilina, which brews its own beer & serves traditional Slovene food. I had a Sokol beer. I had a bowl of beef & noodle soup followed by a Slovenian venison goulash, served with a "potato cake", pickled cabbage & a pear. Daniel, Blaz & I talked about Ljubljana, Couch Surfing & our travels.
After supper we had to curtail our evening plans (to explore the city) due the very heavy rain. Instead Blaz went home, and Daniel & I went back to the Alibi hostel, where we met two friendly Australian girls.

On this visit our full day in Slovenia was Tuesday 5th June 2012, and fortunately the weather changed for the better, the sun shone, there was a fresh breeze, just ideal for visiting Lake Bled (Bled jezero). I had a coffee in the hostel, before Daniel & I were ready to walk to the station, arriving in plenty of time to catch the 11.28 (to Lesce Bled), so we had a coffee & a ham/cheese baguette in the station's "Prihod bar". Our train to Lesce Bled was the more luxurious type (like our train to Ljubljana the previous evening) & the journey was scenic, I even managed to video part of the journey, showing the lush countryside. In Lesce Bled at 12.11 we had a short wait for the next bus to the lake. While waiting for the bus we met & talked with two American girls (also visiting, but staying in Bled), and arrived at the bus station about 15 minutes later. It was easy for us to find the lake & decided we could walk around the lake's perimeter. The water was so clear we saw the fish swimming. Lake Bled is so photogenic, the green hills around, the small island with the Church of the Assumption, the castle on one of the hills above and the small gondola style boats. During our walk we saw very little traffic, except when we wanted to stop at a cafe/bar, Gostilnica Pletna, the owner stopped the traffic to enable us to cross the road. I had a tomato salad & a glass of Union beer, sitting on the first floor balcony which overlooks the lake. We continued our walk & when we returned to where we started we went back to the bus station. At times particularly during the later part of our walk, the weather looked less promising, dark clouds formed over the mountains around the lake. We caught the 15.20 bus back to Lesce Bled train station, and the 15.52 train to Ljubljana, a local stopping service, which arrived 17.10. We took a slight diversion to enable us to reach the Dragon Bridge, via the Metalkova street. The Australian girls from our hostel had given us vouchers for the POMF restaurant they had visited & enjoyed the previous evening in Trubarjeva street (small street of old houses, bars, restaurants & shops). This street runs parallel with the bank of the Ljubljanica river, at the junction near to the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most)
We decided to have a look around the area, take pictures of the Bridge, Squares & the buildings, before having our dinner in Pomf. We were welcomed by the waiter Boris, who helped us to select a typically Slovene meal. We had local beer (I had Lasko pivo) & wine (free with our vouchers:-), and then I enjoyed the starter (served in a kettle) of Bograc, Cevapcici (small spicy sausages) pomfrit (fries) kajmak, lepinja, postrv po trzasko, with Boris's hospitality. Outside the restaurant there were also tables, and musicians were playing & encouraging other visitors to the restaurant. After dinner Daniel & I were full & so a walk up to the castle was needed. We also walked around the Old Town, and up a steep slope to the castle. The views of Ljubljana as dusk was falling were awesome. We made our way down via Ulica na Grad, and passed the Pleznik masterpiece, the University library, before we returned to the Alibi.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Virtual Tourist 8th Euromeet Bergamo

Virtual Tourist (a web based social networking/forum based advice service) has over a million members. As well as providing advice, sharing information & photos, many members arrange to meet up in towns & cities from all over the world. Some of these meeting are arranged many months in advance, including the annual "Euromeet" in the late Spring/Early Summer, in 2010 we met in Krakow, in 2011 Bitola & Ohrid in Macedonia. In 2012 it was the turn of three English girls, Susan, Jane & Gillian, who organised an excellent weekend in the town of Bergamo in Northern Italy. Each meeting has a theme this years's being "it's Your Meet", where the only "organised" events were the evening meals (for obvious reasons). However some members made suggestions which became VT Meetings in their own right, two will be included in this report.

The meeting is over a weekend, starting on a Friday, this year was the first weekend of June (UK Diamond Jubilee) and on the 1st June some members had already arrived, however I had to book leave from work, so the first day I had to travel from Reading to Bergamo, with my flight (with Ryanair) and accommodation already booked way back in January. I have travelled to the VT Meet on my own but this year a work colleague, Daniel Renton also wanted to come. At about 09.55 we left Reading for Paddington on a First Great Western High Speed Train, then by Underground (Hammersmith & City Line) to London Liverpool Street station from where the Stansted Express trains run. We arrived at the airport just before 12.00, so still had ample time to go through security, and we boarded the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 14.00 flight. Ryanair flights although suitable for budget travellers, fill their planes up, and are constantly trying to sell their customers with either refreshments, duty free, gifts & even scratchcards!

We landed on time 16.55, passed through Passport control, and boarded the first No 1 bus to Bergamo FS (Stazione Ferrovia) and with Daniel's and a couple of ladies shopping in a supermarket (at which we had stopped to get a drink), we found the Abelia Holiday Home, where the owner Fabrizio, warmly welcomed us, we settled in, and then started a walk to find somewhere we could buy some supper.

Bergamo is a town which is on two levels, the hotel is in Citta Bassa (low), the older town is Citta Alta, with a funicular connection between the two. At the top of the city is the Citadel and many other old churches & other buildings, squares, tree lined avenues and narrower winding streets. At the top of the funicular we found an opening to the Piazza Mercato della Scarpe, where there is a bar, "PolentOne" which specialises in polenta  dishes & drinks, and for 8 Euro  I had a bowl of polenta with wild board stew & a "glass" of local beer. After our supply Daniel & I continued to explore Citta Alta, and had another beer in the Caffe Cittadella bar before we decided to head back to our hotel. We noticed that on our route back there were small porch-ways which had vending machines selling drinks & snacks 24-7.

The following day Saturday 2nd when the sun was shining, the temperature very warm, Daniel & I had signed up for a day trip to Grumello del Monte. Our hotel served breakfast, we had a selection of cereals, biscuits, toast & jam, yoghurt, fruit juices & tea/or coffee.

We caught the suggested train (09.07 from Bergamo to Brescia) alighting at Grumello del Monte at 09.28. Here we met other VT people including Rita (from Riga), Karl, Cindy & their family (from California) & others. The "main" party came by cars & minibus, but we had plenty of time to explore this small town in the hills, and had coffee in Kiwi Caffe. We all sat outside.

The meeting started 10.30, the minibus & cars had arrived and the Castello del Monte was open to us. We had a guided tour of the Castello, the rooms, tower, chapel & cellars (for winemaking & keeping wine cool), later we also tasted several of the wines which were served with local bread, cheeses, & cold meats, and even with chocolate cake.

After the tour we had the opportunity to buy some wine, and then we went to Agriturismo La Becaccia farm & restaurant. We sat outside on the terrace, and tried locally baked pasta, wine & water.

Daniel & I had a lift to Bergamo from David Sutton,

In the evening we went to the Citta Alta, for the VT evening meal in Antica Trattoria La Columbina, Via Borgo Canale 12, not far from the Citadel, however when Daniel & I arrived the restaurant wasn't ready for us, and so we joined Valentina, Patrick & other VT'ers on the pavement cafe of Marianna ( drink & nibbles)

The Antica is in an old building, has terraces with great views of Citta Bassa. Due to the large number of people attending Daniel & I had to sit separately, but we both met some great people. I was sitting with Valentina & the lovely Slovenian couple Jerca & Marko (appropriately as Daniel & I had plans to visit Slovenia later on this holiday),

The menu included:
Asse di salumi tipici, Lardo alle erbe, Prosciutto Crudo
Polenta taragna con funghi, Stinco, coniglio, brasao, Polenta, Patate al forno
Semifreddo (ice-cream & chocolate sauce).

Everyone also had a quarter litre wine & half litre water.

After dinner we were all able to meet other people and have some VT goodies, including T-Shirts & sunglasses.

Daniel & I walked back to our hotel.

On Sunday Daniel & I signed up to join in the picnic arranged by Gillian. The picnic was in park land alongside the Serio river and in the Lower Seriana Valley. We bought our own food & drink for the picnic, but everyone shared what they had with all. The Valley is near the end of Bergamo's tram line at a stop called Pradalunga. Clear water flowed from the mountains to the valley, we were truly in the countryside. Daniel & I met VT'ers at the station from where the tram left at 12.03.

A group of us sat at a picnic table & shared out our food, cold meats, cheese, salad & fruit, bread, biscuits & cakes, talked and shared stories & took photos.

Our group stayed until about 15.00 & went back to Bergamo by tram. During the afternoon Daniel & I had a rest, cup of tea, before we set of for a farewell meal back in Bergamo Citta Alta. The restaurant was Il Sole, not too far from Piazza Vecchia, The menu included:

Bis di Pasta, Rissoto, gnocchetta di patate, (Rice with chicory and local cheese, potato dumplings with tomato sauce & cream)
Bis de carne - arrostodi vitallio congillo con polenta (roast veal & beef with potatoes)
Macedonia con Gelato (fruit salad & ice-cream)
Wine, water & coffee.

The meal was over by 10pm, and everyone went outside to the terrace to hear the bells ringing, a tradition which goes back to the times when the town people were called in before the town gates were closed, a medieval curfew. I also had the chance to talk to VT people including Giampeiro & Kimberly (who work for VT), & say my farewells to my VT friends.

The following day most people were moving on, some taking early morning flights, others moving on, including ourselves.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Six days in Lviv & Western Ukraine

Early in the morning of Monday 7th May, our train arrived into Lviv station, which had a grandiose station building, but the area outside the station didn't appear to be that welcoming to us, however we did manage to find out that we could catch the No31 bus to reach the centre, Due to Lviv, being one of the host cities for Euro 2012, there was a lot of road works being carried, which meant the tram route No9 from the station to the centre (Plosha Rynok) had been truncated. The time we arrived was 08.35, a time when many of the locals were going to work, and the small buses left the stop Full & Standing, eventually we boarded a 31, but passed the centre, ending up at a terminus many kilometers on the other side of the city. We then caught a bus back to a stop by Svobody Avenue, just opposite our hostel, Old City Hostel. Our checking in time wasn't due until the afternoon and so we had a wander around the stalls in Svobody Avenue, a coffee & doughnut, then visited the superb tourist information office in Plosha Rynok, and arranged a tour on Wednesday with a local historian. Around 12 we had sausages & vegetables pan fried (very tasty but arrived in a very hot pan) with a beer in one of the several pavement cafes (this one called Ratesz). When we were able to check into the hostel, we did, had a shower & rest, after meeting the helpful Irena. In the evening we wanted some supper, Irena suggested a local place called Puzata Khata, one of several places in Ukrainian cities. Puzata Khata in Lviv is on the road leading out of town towards the university. We were very impressed with this restaurant, where friendly staff in traditional Ukrainian clothes, stand behind counters offering tasty local food. This evening we tried a local soup, cake & beer. Also on our way we bought some food for breakfast tomorrow morning.

Tuesday 8th May turned out to the coolest & wettest day of the holiday. In the morning we walked around a local market selling mostly clothes & shoes, then returned to a coffee shop in Svobody avenue, while waiting for the Free Tour Lviv to start, meeting the guides & visitors outside the opera house at noon. There were several visitors waiting when the tour guides arrived. Unfortunately the lady who could speak English & knew the history was unwell, and so two others tried their best to show us some of the architecture & history of Lviv, one could speak some English, the other knew the history. After hearing about the opera house, we walked along Svobody Avenue & saw the Wave & Shevchenko memorials. The Wave symbolises the freedom of Ukraine people & T Shevchenko is the national poet. We visited the Latin and Armenian cathedrals, before ending up in the main square, Rynok Plosha. We met Doris from Singapore who is writing an article on Ukraine for a Singapore magazine. Liz & I went for some lunch in Puzata Khata, where we discovered the lovely local soup & Ukrainian cheesecake. In the afternoon we visited a famous cemetery called Lychakiv. The walled cemetery is one of the "must visit" (along with Pere Lachaise in Paris & the Zefriedhof in Vienna) cemetery for its interesting memorials, mausoleums & statues dedicated to famous people including Polish nobles, Polish Child soldiers, Communist, Polish & Ukrainian heroes. The cemetery was created from a paupers burial ground by the Austrian-Hungarians in 1786. We travelled to Lychakiv by tram No7 from the book market place (where there is a statue of a man reading a book). Lviv is also famous for its trams which are quite old, and run on a metre gauge, In the cemetery there was so much to see it took us nearly the whole afternoon. With the weather damp & quite dark, this made the atmosphere even more eerie. We took the tram back to Lviv Book Market Place, and spent the evening in the hostel, we had bought some cold meat, cheese, bread, fruit, beer & wine for our supper. We also met Viktor who is a guide/driver & interpretor & we arranged a tour of Western Ukraine for 7am on Thursday 8th May.  

Monday, 21 May 2012

My three weeks in Ukraine, Part 1 Kiev

On Sunday 29th April 2012, we travelled by aeroplane from London to Kiev with Lufthansa Airlines, our flight from London left 09.05, we were treated to a complimentary sandwich & drink. I had to change aeroplanes in Munich airport, the time for the transfer was only thirty minutes, my next flight went to Kiev, Boryspil Airport, on board we had complimentary drinks & refreshments. We arrived into Kiev at about 16.30 where we had to pass through Passport control. In theory our luggage should have been waiting for us, however my case was nowhere to be seen. So I had to report this incident to the office in the airport, the form filling & other paperwork took two hours out of schedule, and eventually we were able to take a "Skybus 322" from the airport to the city, the terminus was outside "Pivdenny" station, which linked to the main station (Voksal). Central Kiev is three stops on the city metro (Voksal'ny to Khreschatyk) The metro runs deeply underground, we bought a "jeton" a plastic disc for only two hryvnia. The "jeton" allows traveller to pass through the barrier. As we arrived at Khreschatyk, it was starting to get dark, the street, was closed for traffic, local Kievians promenaded, other people were playing music, breakdancing and trying to persuade passer-bys to have their photos taken with doves on them.
We bought an ice cream as it was still very warm (the day had been exceptionally hot +30C), we approached Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where there was a lot of activity, pavement cafes & bars, serving local food and beer. Our hostel, called the City Center Hostel, was just on a side street from Maidan Nezaleahnosti, in an apartment on the 7th Floor.

The following day Monday 30th April the hot weather continued, the hostel had a kettle, and so we had a coffee before going outside, we had breakfast of "veraniniki" (dumplings stuffed with sweet & savoury fillings, not too dissimilar to ravioli or periogi) & a fruit drink.

The Tourist Office of Kiev, provide "Free Walking Tours" ( , which give visitors a taste of the sights of the city, and the first walk which starts daily at 12.00, took us to "Ancient Kiev". We met several other "tourists" as well as our guide "Fedor", at Point Zero, a monument topped by a globe, at the bottom are arrows pointing to other cities in Ukraine. Our tour continued by passing the Southern Gate, uphill to two sacred sites, where there are two beautifully decorated Monastery complexes of Saints Sophia and Michael (Archangel). We also approached "Andrew's Descent" Andriivsky uzviz, which was under reconstruction. We passes through a children's park, which had colourful sculptures depicting characters in children's literature. Continuing along Volodomyrska vul, we arrived in St Sophia's square, on which is an equestrian statue stands. Other interesting statues included a horse designed by students, a wooden hedgehog, a bronze cat & another cat made of plastic forks. Our tour ended at the Golden Gate, a large wooden gate, complete with a statue of Jaroslav the Brave, carrying (a model of) St Sophia's cathedral. Some of us accompanied Fedor back to the tourist office, Here I met Marina, and some of her team, who helped us with tour & other bookings and information. I had heard about Marina and Free Kiev Tours through Klara (Prague Extravaganza tours). The rest of the day we took it easy trying local beer, later meeting Olga in the Tourist Office, who recommended two local restaurants, one called "Varpobeda" ( a sort of "diner" with decor of the "soviet time", but the food, service and beer was very good.

The following day (1st May, which historically has been associated with the labour movement) was another hot and sunny day.  After a coffee & light breakfast we walked to Khreschatyk, which was closed for traffic.Soon we were watching a march & rally by the local communist party, complete with music, bands, and red flags! We then went to Maidan Nezalezhnosti where we had some vareniniki & soft drink. Our other plan for the day was a visit to Babi Yar, a ravine somewhere out of town, and two stops away from Khreschatyk on the metro (stop called Dorohozhychi), the site is poignant due to tragic events, the first being the murdering of Jewish, Romany, Ukrainian & others during World War Two. We saw the memorials in the park, one of a menorah, the other of a child & her broken doll. In the 1960;s the same site was hit by a tragic landslide, After walking through the park, we were lead to a street, from where we caught a trolleybus No 18, back to Maidan Nezalezhnosti. We spent the rest of the evening in Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

After the history and politics from yesterday, we decided to have a more peaceful & relaxing day by visiting St Sophia's Cathedral (Sofiysky Sobor) but stopped for a McDonald's breakfast, although not our ideal choice it only appears that McD's is the only place open before 10am. The cathedral is inside a walled compound, and we hired an audio guide which told us about the buildings, some of which date back to the 11th century. The grounds were so peaceful, and blooming chestnut trees made the area very photogenic. Inside the cathedral are many interesting mosiacs and because of these UNESCO have made this site, one of it's World heritage Sites ( We continued walking along Volodomomyrska to the start of Andrew's Descent, a fairly steep hill of many historical buildings, starting with St Andrew's church at the top, a couple of museums & several shops and bars. We had a beer in a wooden building called "Svitlichya", and nearby was the fantastic Bulgarkov (Ukrainian author) museum at Number 13. this museum is where Bulgarkov used to live, and has many fascinating rooms, and a collection of the author's work. Another museum is called the "Museum of One Street" as "One Street" refers to Andrew's Descent through the street's history. As an end to the day we returned to Volodomosky street, and had a meal of chicken kiev, fried potatoes, and a sweet pancake in a touristy restaurant called "Spot'ikoch",

On Thursday 3rd May, we had booked a Jewish Theme tour with the Tourist Office, which was due tostart at 13h00, so had time time for a breakfast of strong coffee & vareniniki. The weather changed to a cooler with showers at the time we started the tour, our guide was Konstantine, who started the tour by taking through the Khreschatyk Metro station, to an area known locally as "Little Paris", with amazing architecture, a small park, which had in it, displays of painted eggs (nothing to do with the tour, but a display for the Orthodox Easter) a statue of Gnat Yura (an actor in his role of  soldier Schweik). Just outside the park is a theatre. Konstantine continue the tour with a visit to a sugar merchants house, the Ukrainian National Bank, we visited the Synagogue, the statue of Shalom Alachiem (whose books inspired "Fiddler on the roof", a successful musical & film about "shetl life in the 19th century), We finished our tour at the house of Golda Maier, who became a president of Israel and the Bessarabian market. We soon realised that this market square wasn't too far from Khreschatyk boulevard. We also saw the only remaining (in Kiev) statue of Lenin.

In the evening we had arranged to see the performance of "Swan Lake" at the Kiev Opera House. A performance like this would have cost a fortune in England & Western Europe, but is affordable in Ukraine, we had a good view of the ballet, with three scenes, the lake, inside the castle & back to the lake. After the ballet we had a beer in Maidan Nezalezhnosti & then back to the hostel.

On Friday 4th May, the warm weather returned & we had a late breakfast in Kult Ra (a cafe recommended by Olga (a friend of Marina in the tourist office). The cafe/restaurant was in traditional Ruthenian/Ukrainian rustic style, the staff we met were friendly, spoke English well, the cafe also sold books & provided information & staged performances by local and visiting musicians. Our waitress was called "Kritini" who was keen to show us the decor and the restaurant on the second floor.. We had a herbal tea & delicious apple slice. The staff also mentioned that there was going to be a concert that evening & we decided to attend. We then walked to the National Art Museum of Ukraine, No 6 Hrushevskoho Street ( where we saw Ukrainian work of art including early works (mostly of religious icons) through paintings of life in the 19th & 20th centuries, finishing with rather disturbing & frightening modern works. We returned to Maidan Nezalezhnosti for lunch (vareniniki & beer). As arranged in the evening we attended the concert in Kult Ra, after we had a borshch soup (a thick vegetable & beer soup with beetroot. During the concert Donya (one of the waitresses) kindly took photos of the performer/concert, we returned to our hostel after the concert.

Saturday 5th May turned out to be very hot. Our plan was to visit Lavra (a complex of monasteries, churches & caves) which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To reach there we needed to travel by bus (#24), which we caught from outside the Dnipre Hotel in European Square. Arriving at a stop near to Lavra, we came across a very different memorial (to the victims of Famine) and the Eternal Flame. We first saw this golden domed church which appeared to need some Tender Loving Care, but this was nothing compared to what we saw later, however as mentioned we came across to this memorial to Famines (not caused bt crop failures but man-made in 1932-33, when several million Ukrainians starved, the Angel of Sorrow, the girl with five ears of corn (Sad memory of childhood), The Candle of memory and the display of photos & machinery made the visit more poignant. We passed the Eternal Flame with soldiers on guard, and a newly married couple, who were being photographed. The couple even had vintage (or maybe replica) cars. We walked to the Lavra, which lived up to the beauty mentioned in the guidebook, and seeing the churches and other buildings in the monastery took most of the afternoon. There was a museum of Folk Art (with many interesting pictures painted by Ukrainian artists & a collection of costumes from different parts of Ukraine) and stalls selling souvenirs, food and drink. The monks with their flowing gowns with the beautiful buildings were definitely photogenic. Getting back to European Square proved very difficult as we saw no No 24 buses, but many full microbuses, eventually we crammed ourselves onto one of these, and started to talk to a young student. For our last meal in Kiev we went to the "Varpobeda", the Ukrainian diner in the soviet style

Our last day in Kiev was Sunday 6th May, which started off like most of the others as hot & sunny, but the weather changed as we went on our afternoon walking tour. This day there was also a marathon in Kiev, which meant closures of Khreshchatyk & other main streets, including the route to the Lavra & the Great Patriotic War Museum. Instead we had to use the metro to Arsenalna, and walk to the museum. We walked around the outside looking at the murals of Soldiers & civilians, guns & tanks, and the huge statue of Mother (a 200 ft titanium lady, inside the statue are steps to the top of her hand). In the middle of the outside display were two brightly coloured T34 tanks. We walked back to Arsenalna, took the metro back to Khreshchatyk, and had a quick lunch of vareniniki & beer in Maidan Nezaleshnosti, before meeting Viktoria, who was taking the afternoon (16.00) tour of Kiev. The afternoon tour is themed on the more modern Kiev, and we headed from Majdan Nezalezhnosti to European Square, where we saw the theatre & the "Arch of International Friendship". We walked across the Lover's bridge into the Khreskhatiy Park (passing the Dynamo Kiev football stadium), this park lead into another park called the City Garden & then another Mariinskiy Park. We also saw Maryinsky Palace, which was being renovated. There is a statue of a famous Ukrainian actress called Maria Zanikovchbka in this park, and we saw the Parliament buildings & a statue of Generalovi Batutiynu. When we came out of the parks we walked along a main street, passing the National Bank & a shop, which in communist times was known by the locals as the "slops-shop", as they were only allowed to buy what was left after the "important" people had done their their shopping. We continued to be one of the architectural masterpieces of Kiev called the House with Chimeras, as designed by Vladislav Gorodetsky. Made of concrete the house was on the side of a hill, three stories on one side & six on the other. Even more interesting were the "chimeras" (animals & birds) which decorated the building. The tour then ended with a visit to a small enclosed park, which had statues of an actor Gnat Yura (as Soldier Schweik) & Nikolay Yakovchenko (on a bench with his dachshund) & near to the Touriist Information we saw & photographed Vladislav Gorodetsky, sitting a table. Visitors were able to sit in the spare chair opposite him.    Liz & I also met Anna, a Ukrainian, who was hoping to be a tour guide herself, and after the tour, the three of us went to have a pot of tea in the shopping centre underneath Maidan Nezalezhnosti. All too soon it was time for Liz & I to go catch our train which left Kiev at 21.56, which went to Lviv. We travelled in a second class compartment of four bunks, the (gentleman) steward, helped us on with our cases, and served us tea in glass cups.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

My brother's special birthday in Cornwall

Will's 50th birthday weekend April 6th to 9th 2012

Friday 6th April 2012

I managed to have time off for the Easter weekend 2012, as my sister-in-law (Jane Moffett) had arranged a weekend in Treyarnon Bay, a picturesque bay in Northern Cornwall.

This is my first visit to Cornwall since 2005, although I have made regular visits to places in Devon, so I was looking forward to making a return visit.

Jane (Moffett) had instigated the weekend, and has done a wonderful job, in organising a place to stay (the Treyarnon Bay Youth Hostel), and inviting guests, and at the last count we expected 39 visitors.

On the Friday (Good Friday) I had to get the first bus to Reading, which was 08.15 from Calcot, arriving in time for me to catch the 09.11 train to Birmingham New Street. I travelled with my good colleagues Daniel Renton (Reading First class host) & Philip Potter (Bournemouth Retail service manager). From Birmingham to Exeter St David's I travelled on the train with Carol (Plymouth Train Manager) & Helen (Birmingham Retail Service Manager) arriving Exeter early afternoon.

Jane (my sister) lives in Exmouth, which is a short train ride from Exeter, a ride along what is known as the "Avocet" (a wading bird often seen in the estuary) Line. My plan was to break my journey in Exmouth, proceeding to Cornwall the following day with Jane & her husband Rob.

I took a walk along the beach before reaching Jane & Rob's place. That evening we stayed in and had a Chinese supper (as it was Good Friday, I chose a seafood option of squid & Chinese mixed vegetables.

Saturday 7th April 2012

The weather looked doubtful when we left Exmouth about lunchtime. Jane & Rob Ferguson & I travelled in Jane's VW Camper van, and we travelled along the main A30 road, and when we reached Cornwall (Kernow as the county is known in the local (Cornish) language, we made a slight detour to call at Jamaica inn (a pub immortalised in a Daphne de Mourier novel). Here the weather was wind & drizzle, we could imagine how times were hard upon Bodmin Moor, when the book had been written. However the pub inside was warm & cozy, and I had a pint of the St Austell Tribute ale.

We continued onto Treyarnon Bay, arriving outside the Youth Hostel about 4pm. I couldn't check in until 5pm, but this gave me the chance to meet my brother Will, his wife Jane (M) & my other brother Tim & his wife Sue. I also had the (rare) opportunity to take a photo of the four Barker siblings. Later on I was enjoying tea & meeting the other guests (most of them being friends of Jane (M) & Will, and their daughters Hannah, Mary & Beth.

We continued our celebrating on the beach, the tide was out, the sun shining, and barbecues were cooking sausages, chicken legs, burgers, sweetcorn & even marshmellows. Some of the younger (and brave) people went in to the sea. As the sun went in, we lit a bonfire for warmth, and I was happy talking to some of the friends including the Herbert family (David, Maddie, Sophie, Milo), Bridget & Dawn, Jill, Charlie & Ela..

When it became too cold, we continued our celebrations in the Hostel common room, although Tim & Will couldn't play their melodian & guitar loudly due the (hostel's other) guests sleeping in the rooms above.

After a final cup of tea everyone went to bed.

Sunday 8th April 2012.

I was awake at 06.30, so had a shower, and made a cup of tea, before anyone else was awake. The hostel also served a buffet breakfast of eggs, bacon, black pudding, baked beans, tomatoes, as well as croissants, yoghurt, toast & muesli. In the morning I joined Jane & Will on a walk to the shop in Constantine (a small hamlet) then walking back along the beach.

As Jane (F) & Rob, wanted to visited Padstow, I said goodbye to everyone, and took a final picture of Will, with Hannah, Mary & Beth, before we left in the VW Camper van)

Padstow is a small harbour town, but as we arrived the traffic was horrendous, car parks signs showing "FULL", and the town very busy with day trippers & holiday makers. We bought a Cornish pasty & had a beer in the Harbour Inn (less busier than the Custom House akin to a Wetherspoons (a popular English pub chain) on a Friday or Saturday evening. Again I had a local Cornish ale.

We then travelled back to Exmouth, where we spent the late afternoon/early evening. We were all very tired and went to bed quite early.

Monday 9th April 2012

My last day of the holiday, Jane (F) had suggested me visiting the Otterton Mill (a place where she, Rob, & her son David work), and we took a ride to the small village. I saw remnants of a railway which used to run between Exmouth & Budleigh Salterton. The mill is still working, producing enough flour to make bread, scones & other bakery products. In order to attact visitors there is also a gallery of local art, a gift shop and a small restaurant & shop. We also met Emma & Jill (Jane's colleagues).

In the afternoon I started my journey back to Reading & took the loacl service to Exeter, a Cross Country train (with Bernadette (TM Plymouth) & Jenny (RSM Birmingham) & finally the very overcrowded 19.04 Cross Country service from Birmingham to Reading. On board this train I helped Daniel Renton (covering an RSM job) we were unable to offer a Service at Seat.


Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A train journey to Istanbul

After boarding our train in Plodiv, we settled in our compartment, and managed to have a little sleep, before reaching the Bulgarian/Turkish border about 2-3 hours. Crossing the border was a long procedure. Everyone needed to leave the train, men, woman and children, and queue up to buy a visa to enter Turkey. Once we had the visa we needed to queue again to have the passport stamped.

Back on the train everyone went back to sleep, we woke up travelling in countryside, with the sun shining, as we were arriving into Istanbul, around a piece of coastline called the Golden Horn the travellers were talking to each other about their plans. A real sense of adventure. One kind traveller has given me a card with some Turkish words and phrases, but even for me Turkish is hard to use.

When we arrived in Sirkici station (the terminus) our first priority was a coffee from the Red River cafe, on the way to Second Home Hostel.
When we arrived at the Hostel, the small rooms were booked, but the hostel offered us a luxury suite, which was very welcome, as we had the opportunity to have a shower, a rest before exploring Sultanahmet,  Opposite our building is Cafe Bolu Lezzet Sofrasi. We had Stuffed peppers, aubergines, fresh orange juice, baklava & apple tea (a popular refreshing drink, the "normal" tea is served black)

Can (pronounce "jon") invites his hostel guests to supper in the hostel, which as well as introducing guests to Turkish food, and this was a highlight to what became an interesting stay and the opportunity to meet some great people. We had a soup made with yoghurt, chicken with fried vegetables, and we talked with Diana (from Sweden), Shara (an Iranian/American lady), two Canadian girls ..

After our supper Liz & I explored Eminou area before settling into the suite.

Monday, 30 January 2012

A couple of days in Bulgaria


During our May 2011 adventure we decided to continue from Belgrade to Istanbul, we left on a Wednesday. Bulgaria is on the route. There was the overnight train from Belgrade to Sofia, which turned out to be an endurance test, as the train didn't have sleeping accommodation. We travelled in a compartment with some scruffy men, although we had booked our own compartment, the reserved seats had not materialised.

So after a sleepless night we arrived into Sofia station at about 8.45. As we got off the train, several men offered their "help", and took us to a coffee bar, but then insisted the tip we offered (2Lev about ,£1) wasn't enough. So after that we didn't accept any help offered to us. We found the station grey and unwelcoming. There was a train to Plovdiv in about an hour after we had arrived, About 3 hours we had arrived at Plovdiv station which was more welcoming. There were plenty of places to buy drinks and food and no-one pestering us.

Our first priority was to have a drink (beer) and then to find somewhere for the night. Almost opposite the station was the Trakia Hotel, but we could only stay for one night. There was a festival that weekend and, as we found out later, all the accommodation was fully booked.

After a brief (and much needed) sleep and shower we started to explore Plovdiv, which we found very pleasant as the streets from Trakia to Stefan Stambolov Square were tree lined, here we stopped for a drink in one of the pavement cafes, before moving into the old town, a hilly part of Plovdiv complete with Ottoman style houses, Orthodox churches, museums, souvenir shops and art galleries.

We found an interesting Bulgarian restaurant, where we had our dinner (local beer and Bulgarian chicken and vegetables (served in ceramic bowls)).

We returned to our hotel at about 10pm. The following day we had more time to explore this interesting area

On Friday 13th May, we had enjoyed the much needed sleep at the Trakia Hotel, and after checking out we needed to sort out a ticket reservation for the train to Istanbul. Fortunately there was a ticket issuing office opposite the railway station, where the staff spoke English, and were more helpful than the staff at the railway station.

Back at Trakia we had a breakfast at the hotel balcony restaurant of omelette, chips, coffee and beer, and then we continued our exploring of the Old town. Mira from Virtual Tourist, had sent me a walking tour guide, which we used to explore Plovdiv.

Hinsilijan House, Djamaja Square, and Saborna Street. We visited an art gallery where the artists was present and had some very interesting paintings on view.

As the weather had turned out to be very warm, we spent the afternoon outside the Arena bar, which overlooks the Roman Amphitheatre.

We returned to the station and had some coffee and a roll at the station cafe and then waited for the train to Istanbul, which arrived at the station some 40 minutes late. We met an American (Saraja) and had an interesting conversation. We settled into our sleeping compartment and had supper and read.

Our final morning in Sarajevo (Tuesday 9th May)


We had enjoyed staying with Mona and her staff at Pension Lion, and having our lovely breakfasts at the Bosanska Kuca, it was sad to have to say goodbye to Mona and the lovely staff of the restaurant with whom we had become friends. The photo shows one of our breakfasts with fresh meat, fruit and salad, which we enjoyed with vanilla latte.

Just a little about the tram ride from and to Sarajevo station, itself an interesting ride as it travels along the main road, running alongside the Miljacka river, then turns sharp right by the Cumurija bridge, then left into Telali/ Mulamusafe Basaskije, it passes the fruit and vegetable market, the Eternal Flame, City park and City Hall.

Sarajevo tourist info 22, Zelenih beretki (E-mail to

Our train for Beograd (Belgrade) left Sarajevo at 11.15, we took our final tram ride, and enjoyed the train ride through lovely sunshine and into and out of Croatia finally arriving into Belgrade at about 20.03

As we knew there would be no refreshments on board, we had taken our own rolls, fruit and drinks.

We contacted the Hostel 40 in Lumina street, and we were able to return there for the night. The picture is of the wonderful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling in this recently built hostel.

In the evening we had a mixed grill in the restaurant "3 Sosiri"



During our stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina, we felt we should visit Srebrenica, a small city in North East Bosnia, the reason being paying respect to the people who died during the 1992-95 "war" in Bosnia. I feel part of my travel experiences should include places/sites where sad but important events occurred.

In the former Yugoslavia and before 1914 Srebrenica (meaning "Silver Mine"), was a prosperous town. It was a centre for mining minerals, including silver, and because of minerals in the waters, it then became a popular spa town.

However due to the 1990's war Srebrenica was destroyed, so our visit was poignant .

To reach Srebrenica we needed to catch a bus from Sarajevo bus station at about 7.10am, we took a tram from Vijecnica at 06.15. The bus station served coffee and other refreshments. The journey took us into the mountains where snow had fallen, and we stopped for a comfort break in Olovo, at a motel with a small shop.

At 11.15 we arrived in Srebrenica, and at first we thought there was nothing here to see, everywhere looked shut, the weather was cold and wet, but we found a restaurant, which although appeared to be closed, was opened by the owners for us. We were invited to join in for lunch and a beer, and were offered a delicious meal of home-made chicken soup, cevepacci with onions and bread. We finished with a freshly cooked pancakes/fruit.

After lunch we took a walk to the main street, meeting/talking with local people, and looking at homes which were being rebuilt, and also a rebuilt mosque.

At about 16.00 we needed to head for the bus station, but as the bus driver who had been on his break, recognised us and allowed us to board the bus at the place he was parked.

The journey back to Sarajevo passed through the same mountainous scenery, we arrived back about 20.15, although we had no comfort stop.

We took a tram back to Bascarsija, and had our supper with an excellent red wine, cappuccino and Bosnian cakes in the Bosanska Kuca as this was our final evening in Sarajevo. (this refers to the official website for Srebrenica)

The photo is of the bus we took, at the end of our journey in Sarajevo, we felt the driver had been very helpful to us, and although he spoke no English he still helped us with our journey.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Walking tours of Sarajevo, Saturday 7th May 2011


We had stayed two nights in the Postillippo hostel, but the experience we had had wasn't good, as there didn't seem to be anyone to talk to, nowhere to make coffee, and no open reception.

We took our luggage to the Lion Pension.The day was sunny, and before we checked in we had a Nescafe Vanilla coffee and a fresh cold meat/salad platter at the Kuca Bosanska.  The friendly and helpful receptionist called Mona, also had a friend called Samra Kondo. Samra is a tourist guide, and we had arranged to meet Samra for a walking tour of Sarajevo. We started at the Inat Kuca (Spite House) on the opposite bank of the Milijacka river, the history about this house (now a restaurant) is that when the Austro-Hungarians decided to flood the ar ea, the owner of this house insisted it was moved brick by brick! From outside the main library (Vijecnica) we walked down Kazandziluk (coppersmith alley), and Saraci /Ferhadija (the main artery in Bascarsija) where there is a Caravansaraj (an area where travellers are allowed to stay in rooms, while their horses are fed/stabled). The caravansaraj is now a cultural/community centre. We passed and visited the Serbian orthodox church, Saborne Krkva, inside there is a museum of Orthodoxity. The same street leads to an area with very different architecture, the type typical to cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where we visited the Roman catholic cathedral and Novi Hram (Synagogue). Our tour included four different places of worship, we saw two mosques, Begova Dzamija (Gazi Hubrevi Bey's mosque) and next to the Serbij Fountain there is the Dzamija Havadze Duraka, where the "call to prayer" is still carried out live from the minaret  (rather than a recording through a loud speaker).

After seeing these places of worship we visited the Latin Bridge (Latinska Cuprija) the place where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were assassinated (the event kickstarted the first world war). On the same corner, there is a museum dedicated to the period.

We also visited two houses, an 18th century Ottoman nobleman's home (Svrzina kuca), which is now a museum, and features the style of Ottoman's homes. The other nobleman's house included the period when the Austro-Hungarians ruled Sarajevo, and from a rather humble beginning, the building included a theatre room, and "devoted" rooms, Ottoman houses the rooms are multi purpose, the sofas can become beds, etc.

This is the Despic House (Despjceva kuca), a part of the Sarajevo city museum (musej Sarajeva)

After our walking tour Liz and I returned to spend the afternoon, exploring Sarajevo (Bascarsija) we visited the Post office, a CD shop and ended with an evening meal at the Bosanska Kuca in Bradadziluk.


Thursday, 19 January 2012

Day trip to Mostar

Zdrava, During our stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina last May, we decided that we should visit Mostar for its historical and political interest. Mostar is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Mostar is named after the bridge-keepers (mostari) who looked after the bridge which joins two communities, We were staying in Sarajevo and the train to Mostar was due to leave at a rather ungodly 07.10, so we needed to leave our hostel about 6.15 am to ensure we caught an early tram from outside the library building. The day turned out to be bright and sunny, but as Sarajevo is among the mountains, it was still cold. A tram turned up in good time and although we had sufficient time to buy a coffee and breakfast, there was nowhere open, except one place where we had to be satisfied with a cold coffee. The train passed through magnificent mountain scenery, the train journey ended in Konjiv (like in England, there are weekend engineer workings here too) Our journey then continued by motor-coach to Mostar station, a rather unglamorous building (Autobuska stanica), and a fair walk from what we expected to see. A walk towards the centre was well rewarded when we arrived at the famous site of the bridge (Stary Most), which symbolically is more than a simple bridge. The bridge is a link across the Neretva river and links the former Carsija (pronounce Charshiya) to the mahala areas (ie the craft/commercial centre to the residential area). As we approached the bridge we passed through the Carsija, which comprised of narrow streets, containing craft and souvenir shops. The bridge itself is very steep and is only open to pedestrians, and by the "kapia" there is a visitor centre, showing films of Mostar under siege in the 1990's Yugoslavian wars, when the bridge was destroyed. On the other side of the bridge (the Mahala area) we soon found restaurants, bars and cafes and settled for our lunch at the Restaurant Sadrvan (pronounced Shadrvan) where the waitresses (dressed in national costume) greeted us from the gateway. The restaurant served traditional Herzegovinan food, we had Mostarski Sahan (small sausages, stuffed onion in cabbage leaves) local beer and dessert. See photo below. 

After lunch we continued to walk and explore the Mahala, crossing other bridges, and seeing an interesting golden colour building and Roman Catholic cathedral. We also spent some time sitting under the Stari Most, enjoying the sunshine, and then returned to the station in good time to catch our (now) coach. We still had some time to have a beer, coffee and local cheeseburger and chips. However the wait for the coach to Konjiv proved longer and by the time (about 1 1/2 hours late) the passengers were impatient and those behind us were pushing as we boarded the bus. The wait was caused by the need of a 2nd bus. By the time we arrived back into Konjiv, it was too dark to enjoy the scenery, and we eventually arrived Sarajevo 22.15, the tram stop outside the station looked like it wasn't going to see a tram again that evening and we eventually caught one from the main street.

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