Vilnius, genocide and the white Christmas. 

So there were some very sore heads this morning but we managed to make it to breakfast and, after an extra hours nap we departed minus 3 of the group who were still feeling the effects. 

Our main goal today was to go to the Genocide Museum and learn a little local history. Conveniently it was only a 15 minute walk away from the hotel, down near Gediminas St. It’s 4E for entry and the main floor gives you a detailed back drop to what happened under Soviet rule. It doesn’t hold back at all, it’s heartbreaking to read about the families sent to the work camps in Russia and learning about the resistance to Soviet rule. 

There’s a lot of reading but also some really interesting parts, we enjoyed the mini model of a bunker and some of the pictures were harrowing. 

The most interesting part of the museum is the prison in the basement, filled with tiny jail cells, torture chambers with think padded doors so no one can hear you scream. While we were there they had an interesting exhibit on Belarusian activists and their stories, a stark reminder that there are still issues in Europe around freedom of speech. 

(Belarusian activists)

We followed a corridor through to the courtyard which was freezing enough for us, hard to imagine what it would have been like for the prisoners. This led to the most gruesome part of the exhibit…the execution chamber, a video showed just how cold and clinical the officers were, and how terrified the prisoners must have been in their final seconds of life. There were even bullet holes in the wall. Our other friends who arrived later found it really difficult to even be in there.

Things were made even harder with the lingering hangover affecting us all. The top floor has some interesting bits on Soviet spying techniques with people being watched and tapped…imagine a world where you can’t trust anyone or anything!? After some more information on the resistance we were ready to go….walking out it was difficult not to feel for the 20,000 or so Lithuanians who died during these tragic times. 

(Big brother is watching you Sarah)

(Propaganda)

We agreed with the others we would find a restaurant to have a late lunch and wait for them there, so we walked out past the monuments and onto the main Gediminas St. 

As we walked along, the one thing we had wanted happened…slowly little flecks of snow started tumbling down. It was lovely as night was falling and when we checked it was due to continue all evening. 

We stopped in Can Can Pizza restaurant as they did a variety of dishes amd it was super cheap. Sarah and I shared a 50cm pizza, Sarah tried a dodgy oily dumpling filled with meat, and Calvin and Stef had chicken pot pie and gnocchi. Not very Lithuanian but after a hard day hungover and walking round a very depressing museum it was just what we needed. 

The others arrived as we were eating and had their food before we set off down the street back towards the markets. 

The streets were all beautifully lit up as the snow started to come down.

We arrived at the markets to merry Xmas tunes and the locals smiling and laughing. Grabbing a table we all got hot drinks, mainly mulled wine…Took some pictures of the impressively lit up tree and relaxed in the cold. 

(Calvin and Stef)

(Liz and I)

It’s a lovely way to spend an evening and the mulled wine was lovely I think the snow always makes things seem that bit more magical too. Everyone soon started to feel the chill however so off we went to find warmth and shelter. On our way I had read about the Stebuklas tile which, when spinning on it clockwise, would grant you a wish. 

We all had fun spinning on the tile making our wishes. 

After this Calvin and I remembered seeing a bar called Craft and Draft which is housed underground on Gediminas St and is pretty cool with a vast array of well priced whiskeys and beers. I had honey beer for 2E and it was excellent. There is a really good craft ale scene in Lithuania and it was nice to sample some of the local beers while we were there. 

Next up was to find a late night dinner. We had spotted a place called drama burger earlier in the day and it was in the general direction of the hotel. 

(The art of imitation) 

(Footprints in cathedral square) 

These footprints represent the 25th anniversary of the Baltic way, where a human chain was created that spanned the entire Baltic states from Tallinn to Vilnius to protest Soviet rule! 

The burgers were delicious at drama burger, Liz even making the outrageous statement that they were the best she had ever had! With that bold announcement we made our way back to the hotel where snow had started to settle. 

The next day was uneventful as we made our way to the airport post breakfast, but I would just say that I try to avoid Uber because of certain ethical points but the taxi was 5E rather than the 14.50E we were charged on the first night! So maybe my morals will be tested from now on! We also got the bonus of a young Lithuanian expressing his disappointment at the pagan conservative government currently in power in Vilnius, and I always think it’s interesting to get a locals perspective on politics. 

Vilnius and the bar crawl.

We had booked three rooms in the Grata, with me getting to share with Sarah as I’m the best sleeper in the group and she snores like a trooper…so we woke up early the next day and went for an immense breakfast. 

It didn’t quite hit the heights of Riga as there was no sparkling wine…but the little potato balls went down a treat with everyone, as did the curd wrapped pancakes. It was a great mixture of hot and cold stuff. Enough for variety every day. Filled up on breakfast we headed out into the cold, and it wasn’t too bad as we went past a lovely church. 

Saw some random writing….could do with a translation….

…and descended into the old town. We stopped on the way to get warming cups of coffee and hot apple drinks. Wrapped up warm we wandered past some beautiful old buildings and past the university. 

We had learnt thank you in Lithuanian – Aciu (aa-choo) and found the graffiti very polite. 

We turned down a street towards Cathedral Square and, trying to ignore the huge Christmas tree to our left we instead walked towards Gedimimas Tower, placed on a small hill in the middle of the tower. It used to have Vilnius castle perched on top but now just has the tower and some ruins. 

There were some spectacular views to be had and you can pay 5E to go into the tower. The cold wind was biting on the exposed hilltop and we walked over to look at the three crosses on the opposite hill before we made the descent back down. My lonely planet guide had mentioned a funicular but sadly it wasn’t in service when we were there. It would have been useful as it was quite steep and slippy going down the hill. 

Walking along the river we looped round the hill and passed by King Mindaugas statue, the first and last King of Lithuania. 

We then emerged into cathedral square with the tower, Christmas markets and cathedral all waiting to be explored. 

It was all very grand and pretty as we walked over to a nativity scene  (minus baby Jesus, Mary and several other characters. 

We went into the cathedral which was free, and even though I’m not a religious person I always find their buildings very peaceful. There were some interesting sights and the possibility of a crypt tour which we didn’t end up having time for. 

We had been walking for a couple of hours now so we decided to enter the markets and have a nice mulled wine. The markets themselves were just the sort of thing you’d find in ones back in the UK but the wine and waffles/donuts were cheaper and tasty.

While we drank our mulled wine we planned on our next course of action…to go and see some more churches, there was meant to be a cool street leading to St Anne’s Church with lots of pieces of artwork from local artists, but either it had been painted over or we were on the wrong street. The churches were nice and coincided with being close to the Uzupis district. 

The Uzupis district is an artsy area which in 1997 the residents declared it as a free republic with their own president and constitution. It’s compared to the famous freetown christiana in Copenhagen. 

(Angel of Uzupis)

Although it is not known whether they are serious about independence or not, their national day is April 1st (Fools day) which may be an indication. There wasn’t a lot going on when we were there but they have their constitution in several languages on one street. 

“A dog has the right to be a dog” 

Powerful stuff! Anywaaay we walked down through the district when Stef was googling where a famous graffiti piece was. Working out we were pretty close to it we took a 20 minute walk to Keule Ruke, a cool little burger/rib joint with impressive graffiti art and excellent food. 

Famous Putin-Trump kiss. 

We had a beer and some food and Stef found a map with some cool sounding bars which seemed to be leading back towards the hotel. So after a quick discussion we agreed to do a mini bar crawl. The first bar was actually a gents barbers, the second wasn’t open yet…so we ended up in a small local bar with a weird smell and an unimpressed barmaid. It was super cheap but Liz struggled to ask for a blonde beer, using a few terms for it, eventually the barmaid disappeared for a bit before returning with no answer. Whiskey and local lager it was then. 

We quickly left after warming up and tried the next bar, Bukowski’s. This was more like it, extensive range of beers and spirits, food and cocktails. It was a cool bar and we sat having a few drinks when the realisation dawned on us, this was going to be it for the night. No going back to the hotel, just good food and drinks for the rest of the night. 

(Something funny clearly happening here)

Once people had lined their stomachs our excellent bar guide took us to Apoteka, a trendy ‘speakeasy’ type place which did cocktails and not much else. It was more expensive here but still less than prices in the UK. Around 8E per cocktail. They were all super tasty and we got bat snacks! 

(Espresso Martini)

After this we were unsure of where to go, so after some awkward conversation with the bar man we walked in the general direction of the town hall where we were told we’d find bars and restaurants. Lo and behold we did! The square was lovely with lights and a tree and we met an old Lithuanian man who recommended a traditional restaurant, so we piled in and sat down. A little tipsy we decided to order some traditional things, so we got some bread and cheese sauce again, Lithuanian liquors and Pork ear. 

The breadsticks were amazing. The pork ear came however, and it didn’t have us diving in with our forks. It was a huge ear boiled and slapped ontop of some barley and bacon bits. 

It’s the first time I’ve ever gagged on food, and I’ve eaten tarantula and bbq’d frog. It was fatty, full of crunchy cartilage and the only thing to do was wash it down with the spirits. 

The spirits were almost as bad! They burned as they went down, with a couple tasting like paint stripper. It was fun to try these things though, especially seeing other people’s faces eating/drinking it. We got chatting to an older group of Norwegians, being Welsh went down a lot better than the two English girls on the table! 

After this we went next door to a bar I had read was Star Wars themed…however there was nothing to do with star wars in there, instead a collection of carboot sale items were nailed around the room. I think it was called Who Hit John and it was tiny inside but quite cool only with a scary mannequin thing in the bathroom! 

Liz then made a Russian friend who recommended a bar called Paparazzi, so we walked over there, not realising it was over 20 minutes away, but Stef did a great job finding it  

(Scary statue on the way) 

This was our final destination and a few more drinks were had before it was clearly bedtime and some sore heads were due in the morning. 

Liverpool to Vilnius and only 2 hours left in the day. 

Next up on the bucket list is Lithuania! After convincing some friends with cheap flights and accommodation we set a date and here we are. 

Although we all live in Manchester, Liverpool is the closest airport to fly direct and after meeting up in Piccadilly station we set off to South Parkway…The closest train station to John Lennon airport. We pre booked tickets for a fiver each for the 13:37 train over and picked up pizza and booze for the 40 minute journey. 

A quick taxi journey from the station and we were in departures waiting to go, flight delayed we squeezed in another pint and then spent a 2 and a half hour flight being thrown around in turbulence! Once we landed it was easy to take a taxi to our hotel on the outskirts of the old town. The Grata hotel was really cheap, and the rooms are great with breakfast yet to be sampled. 

As we arrived at 10pm not much was going on but we were told of a traditional restaurant nearby so off we set only to get there too late, it was closed! Not to be deterred Stef in our group found a couple of nearby places and the first one we stumbled onto did the trick. 

We ordered some traditional  (and not so traditional) food and local beers and spent the next 2 hours feasting, laughing and generally having fun….until the lights had been turned off and we were finally asked to leave! The food was so good with my garlic fried bread with cheese sauce going down a treat.

With no real plans and nowhere looking open we went back to the hotel ready to explore properly tomorrow.

Part time traveller, how to make it work.

One thing I’ve heard a lot over the past few years is how do I manage to have so many holidays a year. I think most people think I’m secretly rich (I wish) I have no social life (half true) or Peter is my sugardaddy (again, if only!). The truth is, with good preparation, flexibility and a real thirst for travel, you can go anywhere/do anything you like. 

  • FLEXIBILITY

I am lucky in some ways, my jobs have all been shift work, which is more flexible. For instance, I could ask to work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday all day, but get Thursday to Sunday as my days off, then vice versa – have Monday to Thursday off and work Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I do understand that not everyone is in this position, but hey, on the flip side most people get every weekend off. 

Even without this measure of flexibility in work, flexibility with your travel destination is key. I like to use Skyscanner app for my flight needs, and I have the easyjet/ryanair apps on my phone. The best thing to do is use Skyscanner, use your local airports and select everywhere. You soon get an idea of where is cheap, and be mindful that weekend flights like Thurs/Fri to Sun/Mon will usually be more expensive…along with kids holidays etc.

My other recommendation is to think big…why go to one country/city when you could do two, or three, or more! Often the flight out to one country will be super cheap, but the return with the same airline will be much more expensive. I like to look at nearby places that are accessible from the place you’re flying to, and have flights bwck to your home airport. 

(Renting a car to travel through Romania)

Examples I’ve done are to fly to Sofia for dirt cheap, spent a couple of days there as it’s not a huge city, then got an overnight train (Well bus but that’s another story) to Istanbul. I also flew to Bratislava, but got a boat to Vienna and flew back from there. In Romania we flew to Cluj in the North, but spent 7 days driving through Transylvania, ended uo in Bucharest and flew back from there. 

In April 2017 I’m flying out to Montenegro. I want to go to Bosnia and Serbia while I’m there but don’t ant to do a round trip, flights from Sarajevo or Belgrade are expensive or unavailable so we’re flying back from Budapest for about £30. 

This is all a long winded way of saying be flexible, be adventurous and you will always find exciting opportunities for travel. 

  • PREPARATION 

This next one is also key to travelling on a budget. I have studied and studied books on travelling europe and the world and a basic understanding of geographical locations of places really helps. The main thing though is advance planning, find out when airlines release their flights for different seasons. The budget airlines usually release their flights later than long haul as people will book long haul flights earlier to pay them off etc. 

(Vang Vieng River – where infamous tubing takes place)

The earlier you manage to get your flights the cheaper they usually are. I try to book my flights first well in advance. I’ve booked flights 8 or 9 months in advance sometimes, and usually at least 6 months. For 6 weeks in SE Asia we booked our flights Jan 1st to depart October 20th. This meant we had 10 months to set aside our spends. 

This means I can allocate part of my monthly pay to the flight, then the next month maybe allocate money to the hotel. I always know then that I have months to save and book things that I maybe would otherwise struggle to afford.

  • ONCE YOU’RE THERE

Last but by no means least, is what you do when you get somewhere. Again this can take a bit of planning but things like, is there a bus from the airport rather than a taxi. In Riga it was less than 2E for a bus ticket but a taxi cost around 14E. On the flipside a taxi between 4 might be the cheaper option. 

Go for the cheaper hotels, I rarely stay in hostels but go for the low to mid range hotels. I find http://www.booking.com to be the one I go back to time and again. Not only do you soon become a genius member and reap some benefits but the reviews are usually pretty accurate. In Asia we trawled them for cockroach sightings and only ended up having one hotel that was filled with the little buggers. If travelling in larger groups apartments often work out cheaper and you can usually stock up on cheap supermarket food if there’s a kitchen. 

It’s also different depending where you go. In Europe last minute hotel deals are rare and usually the prices go up the closer to the date you get. In Asia we booked places the day before or even on the day a couple of times and it was still super cheap as they have the backpacker market to consider. 

(Package holiday to Bodrum – standing on the site of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus)

I find that eating out and alcohol really rack up the costs of holidays. Obviously there’s nothing better than a cold beer in the afternoon on a hot day in Europe but it does soon add up. We sometimes found that a cold drink or coffee was more than a beer though! 

Sometimes it’s nice to push the boat out in restaurants, in Bratislava/Vienna and Romania we treated ourselves to a nice big meal one night but then ate in normal range places the others. In Asia we really took advantage of the street stalls and small plastic cafe type places, we couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. Sometimes a package holiday can be the best and cheapest way to get somewhere, if you check what excursions or day trips out you can do you may get to see a lot of the country you’re in. 

If you have the thirst to travel but aren’t sure where to start, I hope this has given you some good tips to get started. 

(Travelling by boat along the Danube)

Vienna and the out of season riding school. 

Unfortunately this hotel didn’t include breakfast but we made up for it with pastries and coffee in a nearby cafe, sat out in the morning sun. 

Another cute crossing. 

I checked the map and it looked like we could walk behind the plaza and garden from yesterday and through to the riding school. Turned out you could as long as you walked right round for an extended ten minutes. It wasn’t all bad as we saw the Palmenhaus as we walked round and we still made it in plenty of time. 

We made it to the riding school and took our seats. I knew very little about this whole enterprise but Peter filled me in on the whole horses performing etc. 

Unfortunately when we booked our tickets they didn’t tell us that the main stallions were down in Slovenia for the Summer and we had the backups and next generation horses! It was still a fun event to do but I think Peter was disappointed that it wasn’t what he had hoped for. The horses trotted about and did a few manoeuvres but nothing like the stuff Peter had shown me on youtube. 

Once it was over we had to decide what to see today. So after checking out some Roman ruins we took the underground  (Which is super impressive and easy to use.) to Schonbrunn Palace, a summer retreat for the wealthy Hapsburg family, surrounded by acres of land.

It’s free to get into the grounds but we didn’t enter the building as the weather was again glorious. The palace is huge and very impressive.

The grounds are even more entertaining, with mazes and flower gardens, a huge water feature and a great summer house perched on the top of a hill, looking down on the palace. We could just imagine the pained look on the servants when the royalty decided to dine up there.

You could even walk up and round the back of the fountain and look through to the palace. 

We walked up to the summer house and looked down to the palace. From here you could really appreciate the grandeur and you’d expect nothing less from the Hapsburgs. 

On our way back down the hill we took the scenic route through the woods and took a paid detour into the maze. 

It was loads of fun trying to race around the maze and get to the middle first. I thought I was beat for sure but some how made it to the prize first and then had loads of fun laughing at Peter and attempting misdirection. 

The prize was a lucky stone that yiu hugged to feel it’s energy. Once we were all energised up we hit the next maze and walked through the shaded parks where it wad a bit cooler. 

Once we left the palace grounds we found ourselves down by the canal and thought it would be a good time to stop for lunch. We found a table in a big restaurant across the road from the water and I ordered a ton load of food. 

Sausages, wrapped in bacon, filled with cheese. Yum! 

We walked through the streets of Vienna in the sunshine. It’s a beautiful city with grandiose buildings around every corner, green spaces everywhere and cafes/restaurants spilling out into the streets. 

Finding ourselves back by the Palmenhaus we stopped for a drink outside this incredible building. 

We continued on through the nearby park and sat out on the grass for a while. Loads of people were enjoying the early evening warmth and there were aerobics groups, art groups and what looked like book clubs out on the lawns. 

The only regret from the holiday was not spending time in any of the museums or galleries as they looked impressive and I imagine their content would be great. 

We walked back through the museum quarter down a route we hadn’t used before and back to the hotel. We had noticed some more bars and restaurants round the hotel the night before so got changed and went to a cool mexican themed bar where we had margaritas. 


We continued on, by now a little typsy and in need of food, we couldn’t make a proper decision so tumbled into a quaint little place down a dimly lit side street where we had I more schnitzel and Peter had steak. 

The food was cheap and cheerful amd we found our way back to the pub from the night before. Sat outside with some beers we reflected on what an ace holiday it had been. 

The next day was uneventful, the airport is an easy trip from the underground station marked on the map. We were just sad the holiday was coming to an end! 

Vienna and flying in the theme park. 

Our last day in Slovakia was here! Bratislava was such a great city and it certainly charmed us. Luckily our transport to Vienna was next door to our botel, so a slightly dodgy hotel breakfast later we were on the boat travelling up the Danube river. 

https://www.wien.info/en/travel-info/to-and-around/twin-city-liner

It was so easy to book, it’s around 20Euros for a one way trip that takes about an hour and 15 minutes. On the way we passed Devin Castle, an old fort high atop a rocky crag on the border of Slovakia and Austria. 

We waved to a pretty riverside town and mostly passed through forest with lots of little fishermen’s huts lining the banks. It felt fun to speed along on a catamaran with the wind whipping around us. It didn’t feel like much time had passed before we hit the city limits and passed through onto the canal, before arriving between steep walls to the centre of the city. 

We disembarked and through my brilliant sense of direction headed towards the hotel I had booked via St Stephen’s cathedral, a huge spectacle towering above a small square surrounding it, with a beautiful spire touching the sky above us. 

After passing several cake shops we found our way to the underground, where it was only a short journey up to the museum district and our hotel viennart in the museumsquartier. An easy friendly check in later and we were sorted, with lovely clean rooms and great views out over Vienna. 

A quick freshen up and getting our bearings we went out to take our time wandering past tye different museum buildings and parks that lay before us. The weather was again brilliant and it really helped make the holiday.  

Vienna is such a grand city, and we were quite happy to explore without going out of the sunshine into the galleries and museums surrounding us, instead preferring to leisurely pass through parks and relax in the sun with a beer. Plus there was enough to see outside without heading in. 

We walked through Heldenplarltz and Volksgarten, passing through to the Spanish Riding School, something Peter insisted we must do. We picked up our tickets for the following morning and returned to our trail via some interesting fountains and buildings. 

Our path took us past the parliament building and we stopped off in a park a short distance along from there. We wound our way round to Rathausplatz where they hold an outdoor cinema in the summer which looked really fun. 

As we found ourselves getting carried away with no purpose to our walking we swung around the Sigmund-freud park, hopped onto an underground, fueled up on huge sandwiches and headed to the Vienna Opera building. I loved the road crossing lights, with the walking man or woman hand in hand with another man or woman. It was a cute little thing but a nice sign with the little heart in the middle.

The sheer amount of culture in Vienna is amazing, with nods to historical figures of all types around every corner as we looped around the city.

We found ourselves walking through another park, with hordes of pokemon go players glued to their phones. It was nice that there were so many people out enjoying the greenery and the hot weather. 

After the park we were back on the streets, walking past lovely art shops and clothes stores. Through little arcades and across wide shopping streets with the smell of food and the sound of laughter all around us. 

Our plan now was to walk back to the hotel and relax for a bit, ready to go across the city to Vienna’s own theme park: Prater. 

We arrived early evening and joined the various groups of all ages heading towards the entrance. It’s free to get in and you pay for the various rides. We had come for the big wheel and hopefully sunset views from the top. 

It’s a really vibrant place with an old school feel, lots of bumper cars, food stalls and rides like water rapids, ghost trains and this snake that flipped people up and over again and again. 

If we hadn’t been budgeting we would have gone on so many rides but we ended up spotting one which took you high up over the park, and span you round while you sat in a little chair with metal chains securing you to the main pillar. I think we egged each other on a bit to go on it but it was totally worth it.

It went so high! Peter had his eyes closed for a lot of it but I enjoyed looking out over the city and even managed to get a great photo from up there. 

I enjoyed the adrenaline thrill and we were buzzing as we walked away. Going round the rest of the park you could see how much fun it would be and I’d definitely go back there. 

Our main aim was the big wheel and with the sun getting low in the sky it was time to board. Some people had booked to dine in some of the cars going round and it was funny to watch the waiter go in and fill their wine glasses and deliver their next course while they waited patiently for the next journey round. We even got to see models of a post apocalyptic Vienna!

It was soon our turn and we jumped in, luckily with only a handful of others due to a huge group of Chinese behind us. 

The views were as stunning as I had hoped and you could see for what felt like forever. 

It was very romantic and you got a good amount of time to go round and soak up the views. 

Once we landed it was food time, we decided to just grab something in the park and ended up with traditional pretzels, schnitzel and erm…chicken wings. All washed down with a refreshing fruit beer. 

By this point the sun had set and the park too on a whole new look with all it’s neon lights shooting into the sky, the only problem was a sudden influx of midges, hordes of them under every light which made my head itch. Again there were rides we really wanted to go on but hadn’t brought the money to do it. 

This one had 5 loops! 

All lit up for night time, still with people arriving, we left to go back closer to the hotel and have a drink. It ended up being harder than we thought and we had to walk past our hotel till we found a small pub with outdoor seating jutting out onto the road. 

A few beers and some excellent music later it was time to head back and get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow was a full day in Vienna. 

Bratislava and the party beach. 

We woke up with the sound of the waves lapping up against the boat. There was actually nothing really wrong with the hotel, and for the price/location it was perfect. We went to sample the breakfast which was very basic and set off to climb the hill that looms above the city. A quick tram journey back up to where we had started our tram journey the day before and we were at base camp. 

The walk up is pretty simple if you just take every turn that is heading uphill. We were walking up to see the war memorial Slavin. Dedicated to thousands of soviet soldiers who liberated the city in WWII. It was opened in 1960 and I imagined it was a stark reminder of who the Slovakians should be grateful to for their ‘freedom’. 

Politics aside the walk up is nothing to write home about, lots of interesting houses and little shortcuts upwards. We had somehow walked round to the back of the memorial and were struck by the size of the memorial. You could feel the history of the place with the graveyard and monuments scattered about the hill. 

I think that coming up the way we did was better, as we walked towards the huge steps leading up to the memorial at the front, Bratislava unfolded before us and you could see for miles in the sunshine. 

We walked down the steps and worked out a route through the city that would take us past some more of the sights. Grabbing a quick snack we walked through the gardens of the presidential palace when it started to rain! We took shelter and as the rain passed overhead we continued our journey to the front of the palace. 

Our wandering took us through another park with what looked like a huge water feature which was in complete disrepair. It all looked very Soviet-bloc era, a lot of the surrounding city had this vibe to it, away from the kitsch old town. 

Our wandering took us past the church of St Elizabeth, a bright eggshell blue church that looks really cute. I’m not one for religion but some of these buildings are so pretty in the midst of chaos. 

From here we walked past some dilapidated towerblocks and towards the shopping mall for a coffee, just as we entered the heavens opened and it started to absolutely pour down. We spent some time walking the length of the place which was super modern and with an impressive water feature. Then took the time to have coffee and cake, this was lomg enough for the rain to cease and we walked out into beaming sunshine again. 

After seeing a lot of the city we had heard about a beach type pop up bar that was meant to be pretty cool, so we crossed the danube and found ourselves walking along it’s banks on the opposite side to the city. 

The Magio beach was down as one of the top things to do in Bratislava and in the sunshine you could see why. It looked like something I’d imagine was in Ibiza with trendy chairs and pools dotted about on decking with chillout dance music pumping out. 

We sat and got a couple of beers and started to sweat in the afternoon heat! It was boiling hot and so nice to have the cool river breeze around us. 

After a couple of beers we decided to move on, if I was there with a few friends etc I think it would be a really cool place to hang out and enjoy. 

Carrying on up the river we found ourselves in a huge green park with the floor dappled from the sunlight creeping through the close knit leafy ceiling. As we walked round we noticed the crowds of people of all ages playing pokemon go. There were a couple of nice statues and a lovely fountain which shimmered in the bright sun. 

Finding ourselves crossing back over the danube into the old town we came across a man peeking out of his drain in the floor, completely made from metal of course. Then we went for the ice cream, it was pretty good, but I think we had built our expectations up the day before!

We sat and enjoyed soaking up the sun and the city atmosphere before gettong a beer on one of the small streets when evening set in and we went back to the boat to relax and get ready to go out for dinner. 

We had a beer on the boat sat outside looking over the river, and walked back to the big square to find food. We settled on a lovely place with huge wooden tables with thick planks, surrounded by trees and the sound of water trickling through. As dusk fell the trees lit up with lanterns strung between them. It was magical surrounded by the old buildings and people walking past laughing and chatting. 

We ordered drinks and starters and i had a huge tasty pizza while Peter had steak for the 2nd night in a row! Again we over ordered and were stuffed by the end, I think I got chips on the side too! So we tried to walk it off and looked for somewhere to have another drink. As we walked round in the dark it became increasingly clear that we were too fat, tired and lazy to stay out so we agreed to go back to the hotel ready to be fresh for our trip up the danube to Vienna. 

For more information on Bratislava, check out this blog post over on MapsandMerlot : http://mapsandmerlot.com/2016/11/30/bratislava-slovakia-photo-ops/

Bratislava and a stay on the danube. 

I have been a bit bad, I started this blog as a way for family and friends to keep up with me and my friends as we went round SE Asia. I enjoyed writing and decided I would try and write about each holiday I went on. Unfortunately I decided for some reason not to write about a great little trip I took to Bratislava and Vienna. 

Basically this means I’m writing about a holiday from 5 months ago, so there may be gaps in my memory but I’m sure I can recall most details and use my pictures to fill in the rest. So here goes! 

Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a gorgeous looking country nestled between The Czech Republic and Austria, and probably overshadowed by both. In my quest to visit every country in Europe it was on the list and a cheap destination, made even cheaper by booking a one way flight there and one way back from Vienna as the two are so close. 

This worked a year or so ago when we visited Sofia, Bulgaria and Istanbul, Turkey. It’s a good way of seeing two countries/cities on a 5 day trip. 

The flight was uneventful and it was easy to jump on a bus from the airport to the outskirts of the city centre. From there it was easy as we took a tram down to the river where we were staying. I had booked a Botel, a hotel in a boat, as I thought ot would be a fun experience. As we walked along the riverfront we went past some lovely looking botels and I knew for 30 quid a night they weren’t ours. Our boat was moored up a couple of hundred feet from the main bridge into town with the famous UFO restaurant high up on the opposite bank! I had been looking forward to seeing it for years and it didn’t disappoint. 

The location really couldn’t have been better and once we had checked in and Peter had been very silent on what he thought of the (very) basic room, we went off to see the sights. The weather was absolutely gorgeous with the sun shining and, after grabbing a coffee from a little vendor we crossed under the main road towards the castle that overlooks the old town. 

We wandered up through small alleys and up winding steps, through the gatehouse and emerged into a nice shady park. We had a good wander through the trees and enjoyed some great views over the danube and towards the old town walls. 

The castle itself is lovely and we climbed up to the main part before heading down the other side of the hill, circling the castle and having a quick toilet break/looking at dodgy art in the local gallery. As we wound our way down we found ourselves opposite the walls we had seen before and noticed a great little bar selling cheap beers. We had to stop and have a break, enjoying the lovely view opposite. 

After just the one beer we followed the path back over the main road and entered the old town by a lovely church. The old town looks old and quaint, and some of the buildings were crumbling. We navigated our way to the main streets filled with restaurants and little gift shops. 

Somehow we had managed to make our way to Michael’s Gate, one of the sights to see in our http://www.booking.com travel guide! We paid to go up to the top, up spiral staircases past historical artifacts until we reached the 360° balcony. The views were stunning, even with Peter worrying about the integrity of the floor.

After enjoying the view and getting some good shots we walked back down and continued to explore the beautiful old town.  The nicest thing about Bratislava is that you can just wander and see random statues/monuments, old soviet era looking buildings and cute littoe restaurants or bars. The old town really has got a bit of magic about it as we encounted squares lined with outside seating, fountains in their midst and beautiful buildings in the background. 

One such square, which was more of a huge rectangle, had water features running through the middle of it and trees lining either side. We stopped for an early afternoon bite to eat in one of the many restaurants. Enjoying the sunshine which made everything 10x better. The food and drinks were delicious and cheaper than in the UK. 

After making sure we had seen the majority of quirks and hideaways we popped back to the hotel to get ready to go out in the evening. We had to time it well as we were going up to the UFO and wanted views of the city before nightfall. We crossed the bridge and found the entrance, paying the entrance fee as we weren’t booked in for a meal. 

It was definitely worth it as we found our way to the very top, with amazing views and to top it off the sun was setting in deep yellows and oranges over the danuce as we stood and looked out over the city. Even though I had looked forward to it just because it’s shaped like a huge UFO this made it all the more special. We soaked up the atmosphere and when the view had been exhausted we went down to the bar and got two reasonably priced cocktails while the place vibrated with every truck passing underneath. It was a really enjoyable thing to do and the sun set in front of us as we sat and enjoyed the drinks. 

Our plan now was to go back over the bridge and to a restaurant in the same big square from before. I forget the name but it had a lovely covered outdoor area and we sat and enjoyed a Slovakian wine with great food and a cool ambience. I think we spent loads on dinner even though it was well priced but we ended up getting 3 courses! 

(Goat cheese panna cotta)

Lovely and satisfied we had noticed an ice cream place with a huge queue all through the afternoon and evening and made a mental note to go the next day. For now though we had heard about a skybar so we went up the lift and into a darkly lit bar, we sat down next to the window but couldn’t see loads. Once we had our drinks we went onto the balcony where it had started to drizzle with rain, once again the view at night was incredible. We were lucky with the amount of great panoramic sights we got to see in Bratislava. 

A couple of cocktails later and it was back to the boat, listening to the sloshing waves beneath us we drifted off. 

Latvia and the beach town in winter. 

Today we only had a few hours to make the most of our last day. Especially factoring in the lie in and subsequent feast at breakfast. We decided we had seen everything we wanted to in the city so once again we hopped on a train. Today we were travelling West towards the Baltic sea, through the Riga suburbs and countryside. It’s a seaside town around 30 minutes out from Riga centre by train.

We arrived at our stop, Majori and disembarked the train. We followed the crowds across to a park and veered off to look at a statue of a viking killing a dragon.

We walked straight down towards the sea past a dodgy looking 70s style hotel and emerged with a stunning view. After taking the obligatory pictures with a bronze turtle we stepped onto the soft white sand and went straight for the waves. The sun was out and we could see over to Estonia, we thought it would be freezing but it was fine.

We strolled up the beach looking for Baltic amber but only finding the same shells, seaweed and flotsam. The beach was quite busy with Sunday strollers and as we turned back we walked along the top of the beach, turning off to head inland.

Jurmala is very pretty with lots of cute coloured buildings made of wood often with a turret or tower of some sort attached. The main street is filled with restaurants and shops including little market stalls in wooden sheds. We stopped for the now obligatory coffee and cake which was, as always, divine.

There was also a gallery which we thought we’d have a quick look in and needn’t have bothered, along with the cultural centre which housed some interesting photos of Latvia but not much else. As we walked back to the station the sun was slowly going down which gave us a great view over the river of the fishermen out in their boats.
The train back was uneventful but we noted how efficient all the transport services were.

Arriving back in Riga we attempted to find a beaver in the parks along the canal but again only managed to spot signs they were about. I had read that they were becoming a nuisance in the city, one report stated a man had even been attacked by one!

This was our last wander and we picked our luggage up and, after a slight error in bus stops we were back on the 222 for 2E to the airport with the sunsetting on our journey.

The trip was wonderful, people and place were warm and friendly with enough to keep us occupied  The festival of light was a real surprise and treat to be involved in it all. Next stop in December….Lithuania!

Latvia and the latest Welsh bobsled team. 

We were up and ready for breakfast just past 7 before finding out it didn’t start till half past on a Saturday! We sat, waited then rushed in and quickly ate/grabbed a load of breakfast items. The train left at 7:54, luckily for us the station was only 5 minutes walk away and we soon had our tickets and had found the platform. The train was waiting for us in the dark morning gloom so we got on and the it was soon trundling off through soviet high rises and deep into birch and pine woods.

The journey to Sigulda takes just over an hour and it was fun going through the baltic forest trying to spot deer and other animals. Unfortunately we didn’t see any wildlife on our way. Sigulda is a small town with lots of hiking, biking and winter sport activities. It cost just 7E return for both of us. We arrived just after 9am and took the main st following the signs towards our first destination. We had read about a cable car taking you across the valley towards old castle ruins and a relatively new manorhouse. The cable car building seemed deserted till a man came out to let us know it opened at ten. With some time to kill we looked out over the valley towards a castle poking out of the trees high up on the opposite side. Eating our little breakfast qe wandered over to look at the new sigulda castle through the trees and back in time to be the first and only to cross in the cable car.

(Sigulda)

It was actually a smooth journey over the huge river and trees lining it’s banks. There was even a bear waiting high up in one tree that we passed over.

Arriving on the other side we had a look at the ruins, crossing a lovely wooden bridge to get to it before descending down the steep hillside on wooden stairs that seemed never ending.

From here we followed a trail towards a cave we had read about where a healer once lived, using the fresh spring water to heal ailments once upon a time. The walk was lovely past ponds and little streams with bridges criss-crossing over them. The cave was more of an indent in the cliff face, only going around 18metres back but it was interesting as hundreds of years of carving were in the rock. It was funny to think that people basically wrote ‘I was here 1652’!

Our walk now took us down to the river where we kept our eyes out for beavers and more wildlife without really seeimg anything but signs that they could have crossed paths with us at some point.

The trail on our map took us back towards the other side of the river, past some currently unused ski slopes and a tarzan park which looked quite fun. I realised our destination was unavailable from this side of the hill so we had to walk through the woods and round the side of the valley, back up around 400 steps to the summit and the edge of Sigulda town.

Our destination was an old olympic bobsled track that you could use for the princely sum of 10E. We were given a couple of helmets, sat in a padded bob sled with a Latvian family, and pushed down without a driver, a 30 second instruction course shouted at us, and it was so much fun! We zoomed down on the ice, banking high up on the walls of the track, hurtling downhill. Mum always says she hates theme park rides but really enjoyed this as we reached the bottom in record time. Look out for us at the next Winter Olympics!

We were driven back up the hill and took an opportunity to take some pictures of us in a real bobsled before continuing on our little journey back into Sigulda town.

Luckily the road we were on took us right back to the station, and with an hour to kill we munched on pancakes filled with spinach and feta, mozzarella and tomato and served with a spoonful of sour cream. Just what we needed to refuel after our hike, I also had a slightly large slice of cake….

(Pancakes)

On our journey back we watched the Arsenal – Man Utd game on the train wifi and back in Riga we made it to a pub to watch the second half. As the game finished and Mum went to get another round in she realised she’d lost her purse. Probably in a little shop by the station in Sigulda, so we nipped back to the hotel to sort it out, unfortunately getting nowhere trying to ring the shop.

Although annoying for Mum we didn’t allow it to dampen our spirits and carried on our plans, so we dressed up and walked into the new part of town and the skyline bar on the 26th floor of the radisson blu hotel.

Although the 5E entry is pricey the views were amazing and the cocktails were great. Mum had a raspberry gin sour and I had one made around black balsam, the liqueur of choice in Latvia. The waitress even got us a table next to the window where we could see the festival lights around Riga.

Although the rain had started to fall there were loads of people about of all ages as we walked back down to the old town to find somewhere to eat. It was almost 9pm yet all the restaurants were full, after finding a table in one, we looked through the menu and although I could sample local delicacies such as beaver and elk, I couldn’t bring myself to pay 36E for the privilege!

We sneaked out of there and ended up in a little Japanese place where we had tempura, ramen and a coconut fish dish. It was cheap and tasty and nice to get out of the rain. At this point it was cold wet and the streets were quieter so we wandered back through to the hotel.After a full day of walking (13 miles according to my phone) and an early rise it was nice to get in bed and drift off.