Monthly Archives: November 2011

Ljubljana

The next morning we went to catch our train from Split to Ljubljana. Our journey wasn’t just one train – we took a train to a tiny train station in Croatia and w loaded onto a bus and driven to another tiny little train station before being loaded onto another train to Zagreb and finally one last train to Ljubljana. While we were getting off the first train I helped a woman get her baggage off the train, she turned out to be an American with homes in Croatia and we got to chatting on he bus before our next train. The only other hitch in our journey was during our long wait in Zagreb, we had a very old, rather smelly and very drunk man who decided to take up residence beside us and talk loudly at us in Croatian.

Once we got into Ljubljana, our host Bri met us at the train station and took us to her house. When we got there we met  her cat Pelena (which means sawdust). She was adopted as a kitten after Bri found her outside in a flood, covered in sawdust. She was very ill as a kitten and never grew properly, so she still looks like a kitten. She is one of the most friendly playful cats I’ve ever met and she loves being held and played with. That night we went out to a bar to have a drink and talk, but the bar we went to had closed their kitchen, so our waiter went across the street and got us Mexican food from another restaurant – very nice of him.

Pelena

The next day we went exploring Ljubljana with Bri, who took us on a wonderful walking tour. We walked through Metalkova – alternative culture community full of interesting artwork and interesting people. It also hosts a bunch of bars at night and is one of the coolest places in the city to hang out. If you want to learn more about Metalkova here’s a link that explains more: http://www.ljubljana-life.com/ljubljana/metelkova

Metalkova

Adorable Poster

Market

We wandered through the main squares, saw Ljubljana’s famous three bridges and went for lunch at a lovely teashop where we had delicious tea and lovely vegetarian sandwiches. Then we wandered up the hill to Ljubljana’s castle and then decided to go up the viewing tower and have coffee – but it was relatively short-lived because it was so cold up there!

Janice and Bri at the Three Bridges

The walk to the castle

The castle

That night we went and hug out with Bri’s friends – a bunch of expats and some locals who played a regular game of hacky-sack on Friday nights. So we played for awhile and then we all went to Metalkova to go to the bars – I tried wildflower brandy, a local specialty.

Dragons at Night

The next day we had another easy day in Ljubljana, hanging out with with Bri, seeing the dragon bridge, walking in the part and going to the most amazing dessert place where we had hot chocolate with ice cream in it. It was so good… I made dinner than night (curry) and we watched the movie “o” together – not a good movie but entertaining all the same. The next morning Bri walked us to the train station and we headed to Budapest!

Yum

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Split

Its beautiful here. The coast apparently hasn’t heard that its November, so its perfectly comfortable wearing just a short sleeved shirt out. I spent part of the morning sitting on a bench seaside waiting for Janice who was having trouble with her debit card. Croatian bank machines randomly decide they don’t like our cards and spit them out – I had the same problem in Zagreb. Everything was a little damp that morning because of the thunderstorm the night before. Storms here are so cool because you see them for hours as the roll in off the sea, slowly getting closer and closer to you. That morning, and for the rest of the day it was mostly clear, only a few clouds in the sky. Many Croats seem to be out and about – old men meeting friends for coffee, little old ladies with their morning shopping and families out with babies and small children.

Boulevard

When we arrived in Split the night before I was a little nervous about finding our way from the bus station to the hostel (based both on the trouble we had in Zadar and that the hostel owner told me on the phone it was hard to find). Luckily they had given us such good directions that we felt we already knew the way there. When we arrived, the hostel staff (Damien) greeted us and turned out to be such a nice guy. He gave us specific directions and recommendations for how to spend our time and both nights we ended up hanging out with him watching bad movies and laughing.

Our dorm was pretty empty both nights and as luck would have it, our companions both nights were Canadians – the first night was a guy from Milton and the second night we shared with a couple from Montreal. Canucks abroad… and together.

The next morning after we had sorted out the bank issue, we headed up the hill to one side of the harbour – Damien had recommended we have coffee up there. It was about a thirty minute walk up a series of staircases but the view was very much worth it. The town is so pretty and the view over the harbour was amazing. After coffee we headed down and bought train tickets for the next day before having a proper breakfast (plus more coffee) and writing postcards – hopefully everyone has gotten one by now (or the should arrive in the next week or so) If not, let me know because they may have gotten lost (or I put it in the wrong box!)

Up the hill

After our errands were done we headed up the shore to the beach and spend a few hours relaxing, watching the locals play frisbee in the water. We went wading ourselves – it wasn’t too bad! We wandered back into town to a fast food joint the Australian couple we met in Plitvice had recommended and ordered what was labeled “little fish” on the menu. Turned out to be battered, deep-fried whole minnows. Which weren’t bad – if you could look them in the eye! We followed our fish with gelato as we wandered around the ruins of Diocletian’s palace – a massive retirement home for an Emperor build in the 4th century (AD of course). Pretty sweet gig – ruler of civilization and then a sweet palace to retire to? How come there are no jobs like that anymore!?

Beach

Fried Fishies

Ice cream

But the ruins of the palace – the old gates, the Cathedral, the old temples, even parts of the mosaic floors that remain were incredible. So much fun wandering down an alley wondering where it will lead! After our adventures running around the ruins we went for dinner at a local restaurant (another suggestion from Damien) where everyone sat at big tables together. We ate fish (again served whole, thank goodness I can debone a fish!) and cevapici – they really are delicious! That night we hung out with Damien again and in the morning began our train adventures to Ljubljana!

At the ruins

Mosaic floors

Fish for dinner

Sunset in Split

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Plitvice and Zadar

That morning we got up early (5:30) and got ready before heading to the bus station to catch a bus to Plitvice, Croatia’s national park. Our host was sure that leaving the house at 6:30 would get us there on time, but between missing one tram and waiting for a connection, we were scrambling for time and arrived at the station five minutes before the bus was supposed to depart.

Luckily we made it on the bus, which was a little late and headed off through the winding roads and hilly countryside to Plitvice. We were dropped off in what looked like the middle of nowhere at about ten and then spent forty minutes wandering around trying to find a place to store our backpacks, because in off season, everything in the area is closed. We finally found one open hotel, stored our luggage and headed down the trail to the park. We had been told by the driver that the last bus continuing to Zadar was at two pm, so we chose a short trail to walk.

A ferry took us over the lake and dropped us off at a dock with a series of steps leading up, so we wandered up the trail and spent the next few hours walking through the gorgeous lakes and waterfalls. No picture or words can do justice to the colour of the water – such a deep blue, almost jade. And the fall colours everywhere were beautiful. Of course we took a million pictures (ok, maybe only three hundred) and even managed to spot some wildlife in the form of bright blue song birds and a woodpecker!

The lake the ferry took us across

Janice on the trail

In front of the waterfalls

Around one we were getting cold and hungry and tired from all the steps, so we wandered back to the hotel, collected our bags and trekked back to the bus stop where we met an Australian couple who had been travelling for about two months and had another two months to go. They had kids a little older than us back home and had done a similar trip to us when they were young so we chatted and shared food. While we have had really good luck with weather and such, they had had very poor luck this trip – three of four national parks they were planning on going to this trip had closed due to natural disasters and it had rained for two of the days they were in Plitvice. Once the bus came we boarded and drove down the mountain, through another series of mountains which had much more of a desert climate and finally to the coast where we were dropped off in Zadar.

We took a taxi to our host’s house (having gotten directions from Pam and directions from him via text on how to get into his place) and thus began our adventure with the host we never met. I can’t even be positive this person really exists. When we arrived he had gone to work, he worked late into the night and we were asleep when he got home, we were up and gone exploring the next day before he was up and when we came back he was gone. He was supposed to get home in five minutes when we called him but almost an hour went by and we had to leave to catch our bus. We communicated solely through notes and texts, aside from one desperate phone call when we were lost trying to get back to his place (before we realized we were less than five minutes away from his house!) So thank you to a complete stranger who was trusting enough to let two strangers live in his house for awhile!

Oh self taken photos - the only way we have photos of both of us!

On the warf

Speaking of being lost though, we have never been lost in a city as often as we were lost in Zadar. Our relatively decent sense of direction went completely out the window and we spent multiple hours lost, wandering around industrial areas looking for the downtown center. Luckily we did find it eventually and it was worth it – the pier was beautiful and the walled old town was too. They had these old roman ruins as well as a couple of gorgeous churches – one of which apparently is transportable! We ended up stopping for pizza at a little cafe by the sea and we accidentally ordered two smalls (we were going to share one) but they were delicious, so it was ok. After another adventure in being lost we found our way back to Ivan’s (our host) and eventually had to leave for the bus stop, but had trouble finding a taxi to get us there. We stopped at a bank and asked them to call us one and eventually we got picked up. Another very close call and we made it on the bus with exactly two minutes to spare! On our bus journey down the coast we watched a storm roll in off the Adriatic – very cool. Luckily, we were safely in our hostel in Split before it started to rain!

Street in the Old Town

The Church of St Mary

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Zagreb

The train ride from Vienna to Villach was one of the prettiest I’ve ever taken. We went through the mountains with pretty little towns down below and ruins of castles perched on cliffs and the whole time had our faces pressed against the windows being the lame tourist who take pictures from moving vehicles! But it didn’t matter it was so pretty. Once we got into Villach we were starving, so we bought pastries and more coffee before boarding the train again. When we realized we would have to go another five hours without food Janice made a mad dash back to the bakery to pick up some more supplies! Europe has certainly not been good for my coffee habit – I now drink coffee all the time – whoops!

We crossed through Slovenia (mostly passing through rougher neighbourhoods of cities and little farming communities before stopping at the Croat border to go through customs, which took ages and delayed us by forty minutes. We finally arrived in Zagreb and followed our host’s instructions to her house, which were very clear until we were supposed to get off the tram and cross the bridge. Of course there were multiple bridges going in different directions and we chose the wrong one. It took almost an hour for us to get sorted out and meet our host, Ivana, and we had a chuckle about running around in circles just missing each other multiple times.
It turned out that Ivana had a cold and had an exam the next week, so we only had a place to stay for two nights. We decided we would head down to the coast for a couple days before heading back into Slovenia. The next morning we headed downtown and explored for a couple hours – the food and wine market, the flower market, the vegetable market (yay markets!) as well as the Cathedral and main square. Then we met up with Pam, another couchsurfer who had offered to show us around the city. She took us on a fabulous tour and explained the history of the city – one side of the river had the religious community and the other the merchant community and they used to fight on the bridges till the water ran red. She also told us all about the problems in Croatian politics with corruption (the former Prime Minister is currently in jail) and showed us some very pretty architecture. We accidentally ended up following around a photoshoot of a group of guys who may or may not have been in band… and then we stumbled upon the filming of a political documentary (we think) so we escaped to the safety of the Museum of Broken Relationships. It was named one of the best museums in Europe in 2010 and was a really interesting experience. Some of the stories were funny – a present from an inconsiderate boyfriend led to the breakup, or the guy who made huge paper mache breasts and wanted his girlfriend to wear them (she dumped him) but many were sad – a woman whose husband was stabbed in front of her. It was all incredibly interesting to be able to peer into those aspects of other people’s lives.

Pam and Janice

Fortifications of the Old Cathedral

After the museum, Pam invited us back to her house for lunch. Her mother had prepared this huge meal using things they mostly grew themselves. We had roast chicken, roast pork, crackling, cevapici (little ground meat sausages sans casing), grilled vegetables, bean salad and a red pepper relish that was renowned among their friends and family. Everything was delicious! We mentioned to Pam that we were heading to the coast the next day and she suggested we check out Zadar and then immediately emailed a friend of hers to see if we could stay with him (he said yes) and then she gave us a crash course in Croatian! She was definitely one of the loveliest people I’ve met and I sincerely hope I get the chance to spend more time with her in the future.

On our way home we tried to stop at a grocery store near Ivana’s house to pick up some stuff to make dinner, but as we found out multiple times in Croatia, the Croats are slightly directionally challenged. Signs are often misplaced or incorrect and people will send you in the exact opposite direction of where you’re aiming. So we went back to Ivana’s and google mapped the store before trying again (and succeeding this time!) We had a lovely dinner with Ivana and her roommates and then settled down for the night. Onto Plitvice and Zadar in the morning!

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Vienna

We got off the train in Vienna after dark, although it was only six or so. We wandered, mostly following the other travelers until we found the tram station our couchsurfing host had told us to get to. Vienna was our first couchsurfing experience – it’s a system through which travelers are matched up with hosts in various cities. We found it easy to use – sign up for a profile, search for hosts in the city you want to go to and narrow it down to people you like or who seem to share interests with you. Then you contact them with the dates you’re in the city and if they’re available and think you won’t rob them blind, you have a host!

Its part cultural exchange part cool way to travel and in Vienna, our host Roland was to be our first host. His instructions for the metro system were pretty clear and we had no trouble getting to his place, except for a slight mixup where I thought we had to stay on the tram one more stop and we missed where we were supposed to get off. No problem though, we just backtracked one station and were on our way again. While we were walking to Roland’s house, clearly looking like slightly lost tourists, an old Austrian woman stopped us and asked where we were going but then spoke no other English and had no idea where we were supposed to go (turns out it was about four houses up the street). This we found was atypical for Austrians, like Germans they seem to mostly ignore tourists. However, if you stop and ask them for help, they will do their best to be extremely helpful. Part of it I think is that most are embarrassed about their English proficiency, even though most of them speak excellent English. We definitely found this with Roland and his friends, who all seemed fluent by our standards, but were a little nervous of their grasp of the language. Once we got to Roland’s flat, he made us feel right at home – it was a fantastic first host. He loves tea, so we drank countless pots (which I got along with just fine!) and he kept telling us to treat it like our own home. After a couple pots of tea we headed to the grocery store and picked up ingredients for dinner (my chicken and grapes recipe) and a couple bottles of wine. Several of Roland’s friends dropped by that night and we all hung out with the food and wine.

Originally Roland thought he would be very busy while we were there due to his job (in a hotel restaurant) but when we arrived he had quit three days earlier, so the next day we all headed out together to explore the city. We wandered through Vienna, visiting the Stephansdom, Petersplatz, the huge Viennese market, the university district and the Museum quarter. We stopped in a pub for a beer and bought maroni (roasted chestnuts) from a street vendor. In the museum quarter Roland showed us where he and his friends used to hang out when they were younger – a square full of odd chair-like objects where young people often hang out and drink. Of course we climbed all over them and leapt from one to another, garnering some bemused looks from older museum patrons passing through.

Janice and Roland

Stephansdom

Karlskirkje

Close up of the columns with carvings on them

Hanging out at the strange chairs

Museum District

On our way back to Roland’s flat we passed through the main shopping district and Roland suddenly had the idea to take us to a shop he knew that you’d never know about unless you already knew it was there. An odd arrangement surely! Turns out it was a funny little apothecary that sold all types of herbs, some for medicinal purposes (sleep-aids and things to lower cholesterol) and some that were hallucinogenic, all legal of course, so no pot. Janice and I bought bhunda, this odd herb from northern India that was apparently a relaxant and a mild hallucinogenic if taken in large quantities, but as Janice and I found, it was so bitter and unappealing that we couldn’t tolerate it at all – ick. So the relatively straight and narrow it was for us!

Maroni

Bhunge

That night we decided to go to a bar to meet another of Roland’s friends who was at or in this show going on there that night. Roland didn’t think ID was necessary, in Vienna they aren’t very strict and he’d never been asked for ID before. Of course that night would prove to be the exception, likely because Janice looks relatively young, but eventually we found a bar that didn’t ask for ID. Unfortunately, Roland told us a story about that place as we were heading in – he and his friends had been there a few years before and had run into some trouble with a white supremacist group that hangs out there. Needless to say we were very nervous heading in, but luckily there was no such group and we just hung out and played foosball (which I suck at).

The next morning (more like 1pm due to our late night) I woke up with extreme back pain (perhaps from sleeping on the couch) and wasn’t up for much, so we mostly hung out with Roland and did some laundry. We hung everything to dry in his living room from pipes running through the ceiling and the place ended up looking like a cheap dry cleaners – maybe not the ambiance he was going for! That evening we decided to go out for dinner (I had cooked both nights previously and we wanted to try Viennese food) so we headed to Wienerwald, which means Vienna Forest, yes named for the forest just outside the city. It’s essentially their version of a Swiss Chalet, so I had roast pork with sauerkraut and potato dumplings – very tasty. Roland also introduced us to Sturm, which is Viennese young wine. It’s the prettiest thing, like a jewel in a glass. It’s opaque and a gorgeous magenta colour and it tastes like alcoholic juice – delicious but dangerous!

The next morning we headed to the train station to head to Zagreb, a lovely nine hours away!

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Bratislava

We took the train from Prague to Bratislava and after a short kerfuffle figuring out how to buy tickets for the tram we quite easily made it from the station to our hostel. I was coming down with a cold at the time (too many late nights in Prague perhaps? Or sick dorm mates?) Either way, we headed out into the city to walk around but after an hour or so it started to get dark and cold, so we headed back to the hostel and had a meal of odd tiny potato dumpling with sheep cheese sauce. Good, but incredibly salty. Then we figured we’d relax, catch up on emails and have an early night. Janice was using the computer and I was waiting to start writing an email looking at our maps around nine when I fell asleep. I didn’t wake up until nine the next morning!

Pretty Pink Church!

Bratislava Town Hall

Odd potato dumplings

The good news was that I felt way better that day, so we headed out to see Bratislava castle. We spent most of the morning there, walking around, seeing the pretty buildings and gardens and admiring the views over the city. We’d been told that Bratislava wasn’t a very pretty city – it does have far more remnants from the Soviet Era than other cities, but I found it fascinating to look over one side of the castle walls to see the pretty old town, and the other to see the industrial, Soviet style buildings. Quite a contrast.

Bratislava Castle

Cute tour bus!

Outside the castle walls

We wandered down from the castle in the early afternoon and headed down to the Old Town and the two main squares. We wandered around finding bronze statues to take photos of (and with) and looked at the pretty buildings, venturing into courtyards where we weren’t supposed to be! We stopped for lunch at a traditional pub and I ate garlic soup and this spicy goulash that was wrapped in a pancake – very good! What I have noticed about Slovak food is that it’s awfully salty for my tastes – perhaps home cooked food isn’t this way and it’s only a restaurant thing. We wandered around the town some more in the afternoon and then headed back to the hostel in the evening, still recovering from the cold. We had a quiet night hanging out with two guys from New Zealand who were in our dorm watching really bad American television – the only thing we could find in English!

You know, just chilling...

Soldier

Goulash pancake

The next day we were leaving Bratislava so we left our bags at the hostel and went and hung out in a cafe for awhile, enjoying the morning, before taking a walk by the Danube in the sunshine! We wandered passed the university district and the National Theatre quite by accident before picking up our bags and heading to the train station. Onto Vienna!

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Prague

We’ve been in Prague for the past five days! Prague is possibly the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen – but I’m pretty sure I didn’t encounter any Czechs while I was there. It’s a very expensive city to live in and it seems populated by mostly ex-pats, diplomats and politicians. And the tourists – even at the end of October, the city is full of tourists and sometimes you can barely move there are so many around – I can’t even imagine it in the summer!

Prague near Charles Bridge

When we first arrived in the city, with no map and only basic directions to our hostel of course we got lost. We managed (barely) to set off in the right direction and find our way into the Old Town but then we took one wrong street after another trying to figure out what ‘walk past the New Yorker” meant. Eventually we found a street map (and our hostel) and checked into our twelve person dorm. Yes, it was a huge number of people. We dropped our stuff at the hostel and headed out to explore Old Town Square, one of the most beautiful areas of Prague before finding a restaurant (that was a little pricy but delicious). We ordered and received a huge amount of food, so the price was worth it because we got lunch the next day as well! We ended up with roast duck, roast pork, sausage, sauerkraut, and three types of dumplings!

Sausage and roast pork and dumplings

The next day we got up fairly early and crept around like mice trying to avoid waking our dorm mates who were out very late partying the night before! We proceeded over the Charles Bridge (the prettiest one in Prague) to the castle district. Charles Bridge is bounded by two enormous gates and then decorated with a couple dozen statues of saints and other icons. It’s full of tourists with a fair sprinkling of musicians and artists trying to earn some money through performance, portraits or the various wares they sold. Past Charles Bridge we didn’t really know where we were going so we headed up – castles are usually on hills – and low and behold we came across a few tour groups, a mass of people waiting in lines and the castle. Skipping the lines to enter the art gallery and palace complex, we made our way to St Vitus Cathedral and waited in the short line to enter the magnificent nave. It’s a stunning church and its prized possessions are the grave of St Wenceslas and apparently his preserved arm. A little creepy, but many churches have such relics.

Touching the lucky image?

St Vitus Cathedral

After the cathedral we wandered the castle grounds and found the parliament building complete with a hundred Mercedes Benz all with a different flag (we wondered what important meeting was going on that day!) Later we found another church, the castle towers and a museum of old toys before wandering out onto the castle terraces for spectacular views of the city. We took a different exit out of the castle and got a little lost, but that was lucky for us as we soon found ourselves in the botanical gardens where we observed a hawk show and wandered among the pretty trees with informative placards until we came upon the summer palace, another gorgeous piece of Prague’s architecture.

Botanical Gardens

While we were wandering back to our hostel that afternoon we sampled hot wine (which is sold like hot chocolate from road side stands). It turned out to be quite tasty! We had lunch (leftovers) and then gelato! Ice cream is so cheap here and there are so many interesting flavours – I had apricot. We then wandered over to the chocolate museum (a recommendation from a friend in Berlin) and while the museum wasn’t overly exciting, the candy store attached to it was amazing. Every couple hours they have candy making demonstrations, which involved two large guys rolling out huge logs of syrup and shaping it into little fruit shapes before pulling and chopping it so you get little hard candies. It was fascinating to watch – and of course we bought a bag!

Trying hot wine

Finished product

That night we went to a play with a friend we’d made in the hostel. The play was at the Black Light Theatre and was a version of Alice in Wonderland. It was performed almost entirely in the dark with black and florescent lights to emphasize the action – pretty trippy! It was also the strangest Alice in Wonderland I’ve ever seen. The first act was pretty normal with Alice going through the pains of growing up, having nightmares and feeling lonely as well as making new friends and experiencing the wonderment of new discoveries. In the second act however, Alice appeared to be very grown up as she got it on with the White Rabbit and had a baby… Nothing like any Alice I’ve seen before!

New friends!

The next day we took a day trip outside the city to Kutna Hora, a little town with a spectacular bone ossuary. We wandered into a cathedral first and were amazed that we were allowed to wander almost anywhere, including up to the very top balconies. The ossuary itself is hard to describe. We knew going in that it was decorated with forty thousand sets of human remains, but I couldn’t really fathom that until I walked in. There are bones everywhere. Not just stacked bones, bones used to make candelabras and wall hangings and parts of altars. It’s very odd to see human remains used in that way. We wandered around the rest of the town for awhile, taking in the beautiful autumn colours before heading back to Prague where we visited the sex museum. It’s a funny little museum filled with oddities from the Victorian Era and such, before heading out to the largest club in central Europe that night for a sort of Halloween celebration. I didn’t particularly appreciate that in Prague everyone still smokes in clubs – the heat plus the smoke plus the sweat made for a lovely aroma. Pure Calvin Klein!

Train to Kutna Hora

Bone ossuary

Our last full day in Prague we wandered around Old Town, looking at things we’d missed the first time and we decided that since it was lovely and sunny out that afternoon we’d head up the clock tower for a view of city. We bought tickets and on our way up we ran into a friend from the hostel rushing down the stairs to see the figures in the clock move from behind the clock surface. We decided to join him and rushed headlong down the stairs to the clock face where we had to buy a ticket for a little less than one euro to see the clock move. It was very cool, but lasted a little over five minutes, so we decided to head back up the tower. All of a sudden the woman watching us herded us out of the room and into another where we met a guide and were taken on a tour of the city hall cellars (which at one point had actually been at street level). The whole city was raised a story over a period of eighty years to deal with flooding issues. It was a fantastic history lesson and very cool to see some beautiful old buildings – including the mosaic room. This room is almost entirely covered with mosaics depicting Czech life and nationalism. When the Nazis invaded the mayor decided to plaster over the mosaic to protect it, which was done in less than two days and then the whole thing was uncovered after the war ended. Finally we managed to make our way up the tower just before sunset to see some spectacular views before heading back to the hostel for one more sleep. On to Bratislava!

Top of the clock tower

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