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Kelsey Arrives

Kelsey!

I had a lovely couple of weeks recently. I was lucky enough to have one of my best friends from Canada visit me at the start of her grand tour of Europe. She arrived safely, but without her baggage, which was lost in the flight transfer. Unfortunately it took almost three days to get her luggage back, even though the airline knew it was in the UK the evening of her arrival.  It was Valentine’s day when Kelsey arrived so I made steak salad for lunch and toad in the hole for dinner (and we had cupcakes to celebrate the occasion). I had to work all week, but we got to spend the evenings together walking around the city and having supper and on the weekend we went on a trip to Cardiff. We went out the Friday night to visit Janice at her new place of business – the illustrious flaming grill establishment called The Old Colonial. Flaming Grills are pretty similar to a Kelsey’s in Canada – pretty mediocre. Janice looked very cute in her black and orange uniform and Kelsey and I played on the quiz machine (and lost badly) while we waited for Janice to be done her shift. Frankly I maintain the pub quiz wasn’t a fair contest because of the random British celebrities and politicians that we’d never heard of… we were unfairly handicapped!

Reassuring everyone back home

On the way out!

Janice in her snazzy uniform

Janice doing her job... sort of.

At the Flaming Grill

Later the next week Kelsey made some day trips by herself to the lovely city of Manchester with its Victorian edifices and fantastic museums, and Kelsey came back wishing she’d gone to university at the beautiful Manchester University campus! She also visited the sweet town of Lincoln with its Cathedral and famous (and not so sweet) story of Little Saint Hugh who was a nine year old Christian boy whose body was discovered down a well in 1255.  His death began a blood libel after a local Jew admitted under torture to killing the boy. The man was executed but due to the political situation at the time, almost one hundred Jews were arrested and held in the Tower of London for being involved with this ‘ritual murder.’ Some of these people were hung for refusing to take part in a Christian trial but the remainder were set free eventually. This is an event I covered in one of my seminar classes at university about the History of Satan and really shows how the prejudice against the Jewish population could spiral out of control. The story is best known through Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale (in case it sounds familiar and you don’t know why!) Here’s a quote:

“O yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,
For it nis but a litel while ago,
Preye eek for us, we synful folk unstable,
That of his mercy God so merciable
On us his grete mercy multiplie,
For reverence of his mooder Marie. Amen.”

That Friday the three of us went out for dinner – we tried originally for the only Vietnamese restaurant in the East Midlands (to keep in the tradition of the lunch dates Kelsey and I used to have back home) but found that it has since closed and thus settled on a Japanese restaurant. Their raman bowls were pretty good, but a bit overpriced. We had a night out in Nottingham afterwards and met up with one of Janice’s friends from work as well as a Canadian living in Leicester and the next morning, Kelsey set out of the bus for Heathrow airport to fly to Munich. So long and come back soon!

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Our first visitor!

Our very first guest arrived the last weekend in January from France. Our dear friend Chris, originally from Alabama, came to visit for the weekend, taking Friday off from his job teaching English. He arrived late Friday and we went back to our flat to celebrate (a little belatedly) Chinese New Year’s with steamed pork buns, spring rolls and dumplings. We celebrated with the rum Chris had bought at the airport duty free and woke up late the next morning to cinnamon buns.

Janice and Chris

Chris and I

Cinnamon buns before baking (I forgot an after shot)

Later that day we went for a walk in the afternoon in Nottingham, first to the castle and then along the Robin Hood trail (signs telling the stories of Robin Hood throughout the city). We also went to look at a couple churches in Nottingham, and walked past Jamie Oliver’s restaurant! We had a lovely evening at home watching Robin Hood (the Disney version) together and on Sunday we had breakfast together before sending Chris off to the airport for his flight home.

Chris and Robin Hood

Janice and Chris doing?

Church of St Mary

Posing

Outside Jamie Oliver’s Restaurant!

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Thessaloniki

The first nasty thing to happen on our trip happened on the bus from Bulgaria into Greece – my ipod was stolen. But if that’s the only bad thing to happen on the trip, I’ll take it! We arrived in Thessaloniki and set out to meet our host at the main square. Mirsini is a university student studying to be a veterinarian and she was an incredibly gracious host. She also had the most adorable 3 month old Pug puppy. I should correct myself and say the most ugly pug puppy – so ugly it was adorable! Our first night Mirsini took us on a night tour of the city (the new town section) and showed us our way around. We also stopped to have the most delicious pastries that are a local specialty of Thessaloniki. Their name translates as ‘triangles’ and essentially they are triangle shaped phyllo pastry filled with pastry cream. So rich and sweet but delicious!

Puppy!

Triangles

The next day we had breakfast (yum baklava and Greek sweets) at a nice bakery before heading to the White Tower (which is no longer very white) to have a look around. There was a storm coming in off the sea and it was drizzling a bit but it was a lovely walk. The tower got its name from a punishment in which a prisoner whitewashed the entire tower in return for his freedom. A big task for one person! Inside the tower was a museum about the history of the city – a good starting place for looking around the city. It has a rich history as a major trading hub and was influenced by the major powers in almost every era.

Breakfast

The White Tower

Shoreline

We then went a checked out several Greek Orthodox Churches as well as a Mosque and the old ruins of the Agora and the ruins of the old city gate. Lots of old ruins and buildings in Greece! We also managed to stumble on the beginnings of a riot (although we missed the tear gas that happened later in the evening) and with our luck we also managed to end up in between the protesters burning dumpsters and the riot police. We got out of there rather quickly and Mirsini explained later that there are always riots on that day because a few years ago the police killed a teenage boy on that date. Luckily we missed the worst of it!

Ruins of the Gate

Janice at the ruins

We headed to a café and had enormous salads for lunch before having the owner of the café enforce free dessert on us. This happened quite frequently in Greece – I suppose in the north they aren’t used to tourists, especially in the winter so people were very excited to see us and often we were offered free food in restaurants – the owner would bring over a plate with their favourite dish and offer it to us “this is from me!” was the common refrain. The hospitality is really quite wonderful – as was the food!

Inside the Orthodox Church

Market

The next day we took the bus up to the Old Town – built up on the hill after we explored the market and had breakfast. Once we found the Old Town, we wandered around the walls for a while before getting horribly lost. Eventually we sort of figured out where we were and decided to have some lunch at a tiny little empty restaurant. After a huge lunch (the problem with free food) we set out to find a church we saw. Unfortunately, because we were looking for it, we couldn’t find it but we did find a lovely little wilderness area up a hill and saw some traditional Greek topography before giving up on the church and deciding to wander home. Of course the minute we gave up on it, we turned the corner and there it was! It was a very lovely example of Greek Orthodox churches and I’m glad we found it at last! We wandered back down to the New Town and found a pet store selling all sorts of unusual creatures – most strange were chipmunks. I’m not sure that they’d be good pets and I’m not convinced they wouldn’t carry disease – but I suppose they’re a novelty here! That evening we went out with Mirsini to meet some friends at a bar and have some drinks which was lovely until Janice got a migraine from all the smoke and loud music, so we headed back early and I caught up on some business before heading to bed in preparation for our trip to Istanbul the next day.

Old Town walls

Pretty wild areas

The church we found

Bye for now!

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Sofia

We arrived in Sofia quite late in the evening after missing our first bus from Veliko Tarnovo. We were staying with a host in Sofia, but we couldn’t contact her because our cellphone had died. Quite a story. We left our original charger in Nottingham and had to buy another in Heathrow airport. The we found in Veliko Tarnovo that we’d lost that one – we think in Brasov, but we’re not quite sure! So our phone died by the time we were heading to Sofia! (In a continuation of this story, we bought a new one in Sofia and then left it at our host’s place – we took another by mistake! But the phone was charged enough that we made it through the rest of the trip without a charger!) Our host Rada was very accommodating when we finally arrived though and took us out to get something to eat at a nice restaurant. We all had Bulgarian style pizza and salad (quite yummy, but I’m not sure I like hard-boiled eggs on pizza). Then we headed back to Rada’s lovely and spacious flat to await the arrival of her other couchsurfer – a guy from Brazil. Tiago turned out to be lovely and an architecture student – we spent quite a lot of time with him, wandering around the city looking at pretty buildings and getting him to tell us about the various styles and histories!

One of the remaining mosques

The next morning we all headed to downtown Sofia to meet up with a free walking tour group, after grabbing a traditional breakfast of bouza and cheesy Bulgarian pastry. Bouza is a sweet and sour fermented wheat drink – Tiago and Janice didn`t like it at all, but I thought it was quite nice! The walking tour took a couple of hours and took us by almost all the main buildings in downtown Sofia. We saw …….. While walking by the Parliament we saw a changing of the guards and then the newly elected President walked out the front door with a single bodyguard and aide and walked right by us! He even nodded and smiled at us – which made everyone very impressed! A little later we were looking at a 4th century church that had been excavated with its roof intact and we ran into a Kiran Aluwahlia – a Canadian-Indian artist who was performing at the ongoing music festival. Unfortunately we`d missed her performance the night before!

Changing of the Guard

4th Century Church

Alexandre Neveski

Theatre

We went for lunch at a nice modern restaurant with some friends we met on the tour and had a traditional mixed grill – lots of meat and very Bulgarian. That afternoon a few of us wandered through the enormous outdoor Ladies Market (where we bought our charger) before going to a pub for a couple drinks. We cooked dinner at home that night (lentil and carrot soup) and we had a baking session, which I`d been dying for! After some decent chocolate mint cookies and a session of listening to Rush, we headed to bed.
The next day, Tiago, Janice and I took a day trip to Rila Monastery which is a couple hours out of Sofia. It’s the most beautiful monastery (still operating as such) set is the gorgeous Bulgarian countryside right on the edge of Rila National Park (which has beautiful mountains and hiking). It`s hard to describe how beautiful it was – so I`ll just show you a bunch of photos instead!
After we got back we met up with Rada at the city library to watch a performance of Native American song and dance (performed by a Bulgarian fan club essentially). They were quite good and a few looked very Native even! It was interesting to see the reception of the music and ideas about Native culture in a foreign country. Then we met up with another couchsurfer at a cute little teahouse and had lots of tea and food hanging around chatting and listening to music. Stef (the couchsurfer) has us promise to come visit her in Holland while she’s there on her Erasmus project in the spring.

Rila Monastery

Rila

At Rila

Our final full day in Sofia Tiago, Janice and I wandered around some more and went in to a bunch of the churches we weren’t able to see inside of on our walking tour – such as the Hagia Sofia and the Alexandre Nevesky Cathedral. We also wandered around the Christmas Market and had some hot wine before picking up groceries for dinner and heading back to Rada’s place where we cooked pasta and had salads. We stayed up quite late talking and the next morning we all headed out to our next destinations!

Outside the culture building

Janice and Tiago

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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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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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Hannover

We’re in Germany! We flew from London to Munich and then to Hannover earlier this week. Our plane rides were good, aside from being rather delaye. I bought a new bag in Heathrow (gasp outrageous) but my previous bag’s zipper broke and I figured that wasn’t safe… luckily I found one (albeit a very touristy one) for a little under 20 quid.  Once we arrived a very nice German man helped us buy a ticket for the S-bahn to get into the city and told us where to get off. Then we tried to contact Jeremy, but experienced great difficulties with German phones until we realized we needed to add two zeros instead of one to the number. Whoops!

In the train station trying to figure out German phones...

We managed to meet Jeremy under the statue of the King of Hannover (George III of England) and he took us to his home where we dropped off our bags before commencing a walking tour of the city with him as our guide. It was great fun (lots of photo taking opportunities!) My favourite was the statues of the large, colourful fat women we found!

Opera house in Hannover

Hannover Reichstag

Janice and Jeremy

The fat ladies statues. That one was pregnant?

Once we got sufficiently hungry we at a little German pub where I had currywurst and wheat beer (very German of me). Hannover turns out to be a lovely city, despite what seems to be the opinion of most Germans. They seem to think its ugly, dirty and full of weird people. While I can’t speak to most of the resident’s oddness, I certainly found it to be a very pretty city and no dirtier than any other. The next morning Jeremy graciously provided the most delicious chocolate croissants for breakfast before we headed to the train station to pick up our rail passes and take the train to Berlin. A quick stopover, but nice to see a familiar face!

German beer!

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