Tag Archives: Europe

Yorkshire Cyrillic

Welcome to the Republic of Bulgaria!

If the scenery down to the southern Romanian border was a bit lack-lustre, once we’d crossed the Danube into Bulgaria things become noticeably more interesting to the eye. First of all there’s the huge colourful border notices, and of course the abandonment of our familiar Roman alphabet in favour of the native Bulgarian cyrillic alphabet (note Bulgarian, and not Russian-invented!)

Our first Bulgarian Truck!

The warnings we’d had about lengthy and complicated border crossings were unfounded, certainly until we arrived at Gorno. 15 Mins at the Romanian border and half an hour at the Bulgarian border town of Ruse and we were on our way again.

Yup, definitely in Bulgaria!

This is only the second border we’ve had our passports checked at (not counting when we left the UK), but never fear Daily Mail readers! I’ve been reading up, and a substantial number of EU countries have also signed up to the Schengen agreement, which removes border controls between signatory countries (the UK, Romania and Bulgaria are not currently signed up). The removal of border controls actually makes a lot of sense – having spent a week trying to spot similarities between languages and cultures to understand what’s happening around us, and it’s incredibly obvious, even after just a week, just how much of a continuum there is between language and culture in Europe.

Northern Bulgaria

Bulgaria soon becomes green and undulating, with twisting rivers, deep valleys, cosy-looking villages and green fields with sprinklings of snow dust (it’s not snowing today but it is still pretty grey outside). The rolling scenery in fact reminds both of us of the Yorkshire Dales.

Northern Bulgaria (again)

There are plentiful level crossings and the odd horse and cart waiting in the small queue of cars for us to pass. Fortunately we’re not cold in our carriage as the (we assume) compulsory Eastern European practice of turning train compartment heating up to 30 degrees C.


It’s certainly worth heeding the advice of travel guides if you’re coming to Bulgaria by train, and bringing a map of the country and train route with you. We didn’t know for certain what our expected arrival time was going to be (although our tickets suggest, in Romanian, 1805), there are no on-train announcements or conductors to ask, and there’s only one sign at each station, which you will only see if you are in a coach that stops opposite the station building – so if you don’t know where you are expecting to be then you could easily miss your stop.

The last big stop before Veliko Tarnovo was at Gorno, so we rang Randy our hostel host for landmarks to look out for. While we were waiting for the train to set off again, some “undesirables” we were warned against finally got on board, and predictably plonked themselves in the compartment next to us, yelling aggressively over each other for the last half hour of our ride. On leaving Gorno, we looked out especially hopefully for Randy’s landmarks. “Look out for a ghost station, and Veliko is the next stop, I’ll be waving at the station so you won’t miss me!” Sure enough the scenery changed pretty abruptly from Yorkshire-reminiscent dales, as the train trundled through dramatic Byzantine mountains and dense and spooky snow sprinkled forests. Then – at last! We saw Randy’s abandoned town, its train station – and then at the top of a gorge, we saw our first Turkish-influenced towers of Veliko, followed by the twinkling house lights of the streets at dusk covering the hill that Veliko is set on, and finally Veliko station itself. Still screaming at each other, we snuck past the “undesirables” to freedom, and to Veliko Tarnovo!
Days since leaving the UK: 9

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys:  2824+135 = 2959

Countries travelled through so far: 8

Cities visited: 8

Hours spent on a train today: 10.5

Hours spent travelling from Brasov-Veliko:  13

Border checks completed so far: 3


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Filed under Bulgaria, Europe, Railways, Travel

The Good, the not-so-good, and the Ugly

Andrassy Ave

So as I write this (on Thursday morning, 11th Feb), it’s nearly time to leave Budapest, and by the time I get a chance to publish this I’ll be in Romania. I’d definitely love to come back here – two and a half days most certainly isn’t enough, but for now I thought I’m going to sum up what I’ve seen here so far:

Good things about Budapest


  • The beautiful buildings – residental, presidential, palatial, and worshipful. All breathtakingly splendid examples of architectural design and grandeur, towering 7 storeys and more into the sky if you count the statues that many have on top. The stereotypical 50s block-style communist buildings aren’t especially prominent in the city centre, but you can still see their influence if you look closely. Andrassy Avenue in particular, another of Budapest’s UNESCO world heritage sites, has a vast selection of impressive architectural styles along its many residences, and the city park’s fairytale Vajdahunyad Castle is a veritable schizophrenic delight for architecture and indeed fairytale nerds.

    Andrassy Ave

  • The spa baths. Famous though Budapest is for its healing mineral spa baths, I did not get the chance to go this time. Booo! I love a good spa bath, and if they’re anything like the geothermic baths in Iceland then I’ve definitely missed out bigtime. However, I consoled myself with looking at the Zoo buildings, which are very Turkish influenced (and actually next to a good baths in the city park I later discovered).

    Budapest Zoo

    They did have have statues of animals at the entrance in the old animals-as-exhibits style, but as this included a baboon, I had to take a photo for my monkey-mad friend Katie:

    Zoo baboon

  • The oldest tube line in continental Europe. The Metro 1 takes you up to Heroes Square where there is a huge monument reminiscent of the Brandenburg gate, constructed to honour the 1000th anniversary in 1896, of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian basin. Lesser scale statues to national heroes and warriors are everwhere throughout the city which if you care to investigate will give you a starting point to myriad bits of Hungarian history.There’s also a lot of other underground history here, including an underground labyrinth, an underground bunker/hospital that was used during WWII and a church carved into a cave in the Citadel area.

    Heroes Square stop on the M1 line

  • The wine. As we’re here midweek and have been getting back from exploring late and tired from doing lots of walking, it’s been tricky to find time to go out to the bars in Budapest and experience the famous party scene here. It’s definitely somehting on my list for next time though, as well as going to some of the folk music clubs here, and will be easier and more fun to do with longer here and a weekend evening to play with. We took a walk through Franz Liszt square (named after Hungary’s favourite composer son), which in the summer is a hive of cafe culture, wine imbibement and dancing, with trees, park benches and a lively cosmopolitan atmosphere, but in February it’s a little quiet unfortunately. I’ve got a wine tasting session planned for later today, but for now we made do with sampling the delicious Egri region red wines from the supermarket while our host at the hostel regales us with conspiracy theories and plans for world domination through blood type testing, upon which I will make no further comment!

Not so good things:

The buildings may be beautiful but they are in varying states of repair, and if nothing else grubby with pollution. Gold leaf and painted mosaic illuminations that adorn many apartments are covered in grime and it’s not unusual to see large chunks of plaster crumbling off buildings, some of them to the extent where they have to be propped up like this:


Now I’m not a knowledgable historian nor here long enough to investigate first hand, so I don’t know whether this is just because the buildings are old and have never been repaired, whether it’s neglect from the communist regime, or whether it’s just neglect in general because of Hungary’s poverty prior to joining the EU in 2004 and then the 2008 credit crunch. Part of me actually thinks it’s nice that the authorities are propping up these buildings rather than bulldozing them as would happen in the UK, but realistically, it’s likely bulldozing and rebuilding is too expensive, and maybe bulldozing on its own is too. Still nice though that they’ve thought it through as far as whether they’ll be able to rebuild, something Bradford council could learn from (they have a penchant for knocking down beautiful Victorian buildings and then leaving the city with massive holes for years on end). Despite the poor states of repair of a lot of buildings that I’ve seen, the city’s pride and individuality is still obvious, something which would become much more hidden if it were to be knocked down and “regenerated” (which has already happened in the centre nearest the Danube).

The Terror House

So this brings me to the communist regime, which lasted in Hungary from 1947 till 1989-90 when the iron curtain came down. There is a sense here if you talk to people about this part of their history that they just want the tourists to stop banging on about it, forget about it and move on – and I can’t say I blame them in the slightest. Communist statues have been removed from the city centre and dumped 8 km southwest of the capital at Memento Park, and although I’d planned on going to see them, having been to the Terror House, I just felt it had the potential to be a bit of a gawpingly inappropriate tribute and was glad I decided not to go in the end.
Communism is a very dark period of Eastern Europe’s recent history, but as with the victims of Nazi fascism, there are memorials and museums dedicated to the memories and stories of the victims of the communist regime in Budapest, and rightly so, especially as I think it’s easy to forget, or fully understand as a Westerner who was 12 when the wall came down, just how tyrannical and fearful a hold the communist regime had over the lives of millions of ordinary Eastern European citizens – and also easy to forget how incredibly lucky that as a Westerner I’ve never had to live in fear of my life for thinking the wrong thing, or of losing a loved one to torture, execution, imprisonment, or labour camps with no warning, trial, information or reason.
Budapest’s memorial dedicated to the Jewish victims of the holocaust was set up by the late Tony Curtis (the Nazis occupied Hungary from 1944), and the Terror House, former headquarters of both the Nazi and Communist terrorist dictatorships, has been converted into memorial museum. All along the outside are black and white photos of people executed or disappeared by the Hungarian communists. Under each photo is a name, an occupation, a year of birth and a year of death or disappearance. Many are young, hardly into their 20s, but many are older opponents of the regime. There are a variety of jobs too, from baker and secretary to “intellectuals” such as radio journalists and writers. The roof of the house has a mirror-image stencil of the word TERROR in the overhang, and when the sun shines in the right direction, you can see the word the right way round shining as a shadow on the specially designed walls of the house that extend across the pavement. Always there, never knowing when it will cast its shadow, it’s a powerfully metaphorical tribute.

Iron Curtain

If this isn’t moving enough, outside the house is a sculpture symbolising the iron curtain, and on each end is inscribed words which really bring home how much the regime was hated, and how hard Eastern Europeans fought to overturn their countries’ dictatorships and win their freedom from terror:
“Shall we live as slaves or as free men? (Sandor Petofi)

It isolated the East from the West

It split Europe and the world in two

It took away our freedom

It held us in captivity and fear

It tormented and humiliated us

And finally we tore it down”

Days since leaving the UK: 5

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys:  still 1911

Countries travelled through so far: 6

Cities visited: 5

Weather: sunny and 5 degrees. And then drizzly


Filed under Europe, Hungary, Railways, Travel

Hello World

This is a rather long-overdue post. Which I blame partly on Christmas and mince pie eating, partly on me doing a fair bit of other writing work in December (I’m putting all my written work on my portfolio now and keeping this blog for posts about travel and other generally cool experiences), and partly on spending time trying to co-ordinate madcap adventures – which I can proudly announce today I have just about finalised!

Reykjavik city centre will have to wait…

Some of you may know that spending 6 months volunteering in Iceland was my original plan for February, but unfortunately there’s been a problem with funding and the place I was promised has fallen through. I’m still hoping to go in May for a 4-6 week stint volunteering but that’s yet to confirm still.

But May’s a long way off right? Yup. Am I going to sit in my flat waiting for May? Nope….

I’m a big fan of slow travel, a concept embodied nicely by the Slow Travel Berlin Website. Take the time to soak in your surroundings, experience the culture and quirks of where you are, find out about what makes it tick, and enjoy yourself. So in this spirit I and my lomography-mad friend Dave are embarking on a 2-week train journey from St Pancras to Istanbul, via Brussels, Vienna, Budapest, Transylvania, Bucharest, and Veliko Tarnovo. Probably. From Budapest onwards we’re going to play exact timings by ear and explore the mystery and uniqueness of Eastern Europe. We plan to keep a photo blog on the trip in addition to my own entries here, although as Dave uses film a lot this may not be practical! I shall post details when I have them of course.

St Pancras to Istanbul. Click through for the original on seat61.com

But 2 weeks won’t keep me occupied for long, so in addition I have applied to live and work with the Maasai people of Kenya for 6 weeks. I will be working teaching kids at primary level and doing some blogging for them to help promote the Maasai culture (although this all could change of course). I’ve been anxious about making plans so different to my original ones, and have been agonising about where I’m going, why I’m going, how long to go for (and whether to keep my flat on or put everything in storage) and who will look after my cats (I’ve found them a fantastic holiday home with my other half Jamie’s best friend and his wife – phew! Their last cat lived on roast chicken though, let’s hope they don’t lose their taste for cheapo biscuits when I get back. At least I know I can always win Tinker over with a bit of broccoli and some cat crack (aka Whiskas Temptations in Salmon flavour…)).

Apparently there are elephants in Kenya

Most of all if I’m honest I’ve no idea what Kenya will be like – while a lot of people I’ve come across have either been to or done voluntary work in Africa, or at least have a burning desire to visit and meet the locals, I’m a bit Africa-naive. It’s always been the northern and baltic countries I’ve been drawn to – Russia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Japan. Even central America has had more of a draw to me than Africa has, which is odd because it’s undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful and diverse continent. Perhaps it’s because I had family in Kenya when I was a kid, so even though I never went to visit nor was in much contact with them, it somehow seems not as mysterious, and consequently not as interesting . Or perhaps I’m wary of the legacy that white meddlers from just a few generations ago have left and I’m just not sure what my place would be. Yet.

MEAC volunteer with some of the Maasai

This has been part of the reason I have chosen to volunteer with an organisation run by the Maasai, for the Maasai, called Maasai Education and Advocacy for Change (MEAC) – rather than a Western organisation working with local Africans. The Maasai in particular are an intelligent and proud people with a pastoral heritage who have been marginalised by even their own Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, and denied use of their ancestral lands which have been designated game reserves for tourism. I like an underdog and I think that’s another reason why this particular organisation appealed.

Satellite image of Kimuka in the Ngong region. Click through for the original interactive GoogleMap

So I’m now booked and paid up to go as of today, and I’m starting to feel more confident and excited about my adventures. I think it’ll be a pretty fast learning curve over the next few weeks until I go (I’ve managed to order 11 books and novels on Eastern Europe and Africa which will at least keep me occupied for a while), but I think it’ll be worth it. If anyone has any questions, tips or advice then please feel free to ask and either way it’ll help!



Filed under Art, Asia, Europe, Kenya, Travel