Bergiestan

IRAN

On the Iran side of the border we handed in our passports to men in portable sheds beneath the I hate America sign. An assortment of people, mostly elderly, sat around the sheds. Merrill went off to find a toilet and also found our Iranian guide, and it was probably another half hour before the customs guy yelled out “Australia!” and handed me our passports. Then we got them stamped at another office and into Iran without even a bag check! We met up with Ramin, our guide, who had brought along his sister for company (who had been waiting in the car since 8.30am and it was now midday!). We then had a 3 hour drive to Mashad through the hills; sometimes they were even green! We stopped for an Iranian afternoon tea in a car park (they’d asked earlier and we didn’t realize that it wasn’t going to get any more scenic than where we were and said no, sorry Ramin!). Had lovely tea and ginger biscuits. Dropped our stuff at our hotel then it was off to the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the holiest of the Shiite imams. Before we could look around we had to watch a video, before a rather irritating young mullah with an American accent popped out of nowhere and started interrogating us about religion. We eventually got him to stop talking but we couldn’t look at much as the provided guide wouldn’t let us into most things. But what we did see was impressive. Had a break at hotel before Ramin picked us up to take us to his parents place for dinner. This took over an hour to cover a few km’s because of unbelievable traffic for a small, remote city. His mum and dad were lovely. Abbas was a retired carpet dealer and highly educated and insightful on many topics, all of which he managed to share with us throughout the evening. Ramin had heard it all before and went to bed. The food was delicious and it was to be easily the best food we had in Iran. And lots of it, we weren’t allowed to empty our plate. At every opportunity Fatimah and Ramin”s sister would pile more on, all washed down with the very popular zero alcohol beer. After a tour of the garden, which is sadly being crowded out by unit developments (sounds familiar?), we caught a taxi home which only took 20 minutes!

Another early start to be at the airport. It was sad to leave Ramin, would much have preferred him as our guide for the rest of Iran. Flew Zagros airlines to Shiraz, where we weren’t met by the World Expeditions people (another fail). An airline employee took pity on us and rang the tour company, who told him where we were and he arranged a taxi for us to the hotel. We then joined up with our group at a beautiful garden (Eram). Our guide was Mahdia,and our group consisted of a few Aussies and Kiwis and a security risk, I mean an American. How did he get in? Had lunch then went to a market and back to our lovely hotel (the Setaragon). Later we went out to find dinner and a pretty young girl, who at first thought I was a local, suggested a really good fast food place, and it was good – nice falafel rolls and samosas. Watched men baking lavash bread then walked through the fun fair in the park before bed.

Next morning our first stop was the Aramgah e-shah e-cheragh, another imam’s mausoleum. Then to the tomb of the famous poet Hafez, who has pop star status throughout the Islamic world. Went ot another poet’s tomb, that of Saidi, and looked at a cistern that was sadly drying up. Lunch with the group at our falafel places, then went to the bazaar and then a group dinner. Good buffet and excellent traditional music.

TURKMENISTAN

Left at 7.30 for the 100km drive to the border. Just short of the border we were stopped by a policeman who wouldn’t let Valentine go any further, so we had to catch a conveniently appearing mini-bus (with a man on board that did a quick local currency exchange) the 200m to the border post. It also meant saying goodbye to Valentine, which was quite sad, a nice bloke who looked remarkably like my dad when he was younger. I think he was also a bit disappointed to not be able to take us to the border. In the Uzbek border building a snappy woman asked us to fill out another declaration form and eventually waved us through to check our bags, and especially what books we were carrying, and Merrill’s prescription medicines. She also wanted to know if we had illegal or religious items. Once the formalities were over she became quite friendly and chatty. Then it was passport control, then a filthy toilet stop and we were out into no man’s land. Was a bit of a trek to the Turkmen border so we asked a bus of blokes if they would give us a lift but they said no. So it was a hot 1.5km walk to another border post where a soldier checked our passports and then ordered the bus to take us to the customs building! At the office we met our new guide, Maksat, who promptly ordered our visa paperwork. While waiting we talked to an amzing old German couple that had driven to Kazakhstan and were on their way back, and also watched the mysterious goings on of the men from the bus, as they hid all sorts of bottles, knives and cigarettes around the office for the local soldiers to collect. They even lifted a whole counter and put cigarettes under it – you can’t get more under the counter than that. Eventually got our visas and our passports stamped only for Maksat to tell us he had to park another kilometre away, so more carrying our packs in the hot sun. Would have been a nice walk too, as it followed a waterway coming from the Oxus river. Finally reached our vehicle, a people mover and a big improvement on the last one! 45 minute drive to Turkmenabat where we had a nice lunch (very Turkish style food) in a deserted fancy hotel. Town had huge modern buildings, including an impressive racecourse. Then it was a 3 hour drive through the desert, complete with camels and a sand dune toilet stop. Arrived in Mary, a town of incredible gold and marble public buildings and checked in to our fancy new hotel. Once in our hotel and free of our guide we went for a walk around, checking out the glittering public library and the even shinier statue of former dictator Turkmenbashi. Had a ordinary, cheap dinner in a nice outdoor place then wandered through the fairground behind our hotel.

Next morning started with possibly the worst hotel breakfast of the trip so far, barely any food, stale bread and nothing to drink. Drove about 40km out to the ancient ruins of Merv, once one of the richest cities in the world and now just rubble and collapsed walls. Looked at the ruins of some 7th century Sassanian castles, and then the holy tombs of the Arkhals. Began to realize that our guide was just a stooge when he started feeding information out of the pamphlet that came with the tickets, clearly knew little about the history of the site. We certainly got the feeling there was more to see at Merv than he could be bothered to show us. While at one of the ruined fortifications met an amazing Kiwi girl who was riding from China to Europe on her own. Visited the tomb of Yusuf Hamadani, who was the teacher of Yasawi from Turkestan, and then the peaceful tomb of Sultan Sanjar, architecturally significant as the predecessor of Turkish architecture and the Taj mahal. Big lunch back in Mary at a touristy place that featured a statue o a hunchback waiter. Next was the museum, with some interesting stuff from the Gonur site and a whole hall devoted to the president. Popped into an old Russian church and saw a real Mig 15 fighter on a stand, just like the old Airfix model. Had a wander around the small market before heading to the airport for our flight to Ashgabat. Small, new airport with lots of pictures of the president of course, even one at the front of our plane. SHort flight over the desert and to our hotel in Ashgabat, the Grand Turkmen, which was more shabby than grand. Had nice pizza and beetroot salad at Cafe Gunes, with a cool Russian DJ.

Next day was a tour of the city, which is basically all centred around the beloved president. Our guide was much more in his element here as a dedicated follower of him. Started at the tomb of the first president, Turkmenbashi. Next door was a giant mosque that had quotes from the president instead of the Koran, which apparently upset a few countries attending its opening. very ornate with lots of gold leaf. Next we drove to the ruins of Nissa (Nusay) in the outer suburbs, a Parthian city dating back to the 300BC. Very interesting site with unusual walls and tunnels. Then went to a nearby park where we saw wild deer that very smartly stay in the no mans land between Turkmenistan and Iran.Also of interest was the 2nd worst toilet in all our travels (the first being one at the Great Wall, though the Hyderabad hospital one must be up there too). Next was a visit to an assortment of marble and gold monuments topped with statues, including the famous gold rotating one of Turkmenbashi. Had a great guided tour of the National Museum, which included carpets, treasures from Nissa (especially the horn shaped drinking rhytons) and a hall of pictures of the president doing all sorts of things, such as horse riding, golf and sitting in a yurt. He’s a multitalented wonder. After lunch in another deserted restaurant we visited the monument shaped like a toilet plunger and then up the hill to check out the view of this bizarre city. Had a wander around the dull Russian Bazaar then had dinner at the Gunes again which was the total opposite of the night before -waited ages for our food, got the orders wrong, then got the bill wrong, then brought the dish we were waiting for out just as we were leaving! Maybe we should have sat inside again?

Up early the next morning (breakfasts were pretty good here by the way) only to be met by a different driver and no sign of Maksat. Driver rang him and apparently he had to go to the opening of the new airport that day. Not surprised, he was a bit dodgy. Anyway he missed out on his tip, so sucks to him. On the way we picked up another guide who seemed a lot nicer, as we had to be accompanied to the border. of course the nearest border was closed so had to go to Sarakhs instead which was about 90 minutes away. At the border the guide had to leave us, so we filled in customs forms, had our bags searched, and Merrill was refused using the toilet while the guards all had a good smirk. At the passport check a young soldier asked to see my passport after it was stamped and complained to the passport guy about something, but the passport guy told him it was fine. What a tosser. This same guy also wouldn’t let Mez use the toilet. Waited for a while for the bus, amused ourselves watching some ladies hiding contraband in their undies and then finally got to the Iranian border which was still under construction. Mez found the toilet and our next guide as well, having actually gone into Iran without her passport. After maybe an hour we got our passports and we were into Iran.

UZBEKISTAN

Got off the train at Tashkent station and had to walk about a kilometre just to get off the platform, before being mobbed by taxi drivers waving wads of Uzbek currency in our faces. Found a driver who would take tenge and were soon at our hotel, the Wyndham. Were able to get into our room early but had to haggle with the desk clerk. Cost a bit but did include breakfast, which was an impressive buffet but spoilt by an annoying harp player. Went up the road and was able to change money at the toy shop, as you do, and got a nice wad of som. Spent the afternoon by the pool, our first swim since Turkey. Interesting watching the weird collection of local mafia and foreign expats at play. Dinner at a nice italian restaurant, the Il Perfetto on Shevchenko st. Next day went to World Expeditions’ local office to collect tickets and try and make sense of our travel arrangements. At least they had our Khiva stuff. Caught metro to markets which were very extensive and fascinating. Especially loved the bread stampers and baby cradles (lots of great info about Uzbek culture here. ) Had a walk around the old town which was very quiet. Dinner at our hotel’s stylish restaurant where I had a very unique version of Indonesian mee goreng.

Early next morning we were off to the airport. This coincided with the official  announcement that the president really had died (possibly a few days earlier), which led to the bizarre situation of the Travel Possums driving alone down major avenues flanked with mourning locals bearing wreaths and flowers and lined with armed soldiers all the way to the airport. Airport was deserted so no problem checking in to our Uzbek Airlines flight to Urgench. However, the president’s flight to Samarkand meant an 90 minute wait for us on the runway. Our flight was short but interesting, flying over desert and rugged mountains before coming in over the Oxus river valley, which was like a broad green band across the desert. We then had the unique honour of being the last people out of the airport due to Mez’s toliet stop, but our taxi driver was patient and in 30 minutes we were pulling up at our lovely guesthouse in Khiva, the Qosha Darvoza, run by a beautiful family in an old house and pharmacy. Headed to the old city which is so neat and tidy it’s like a theme park! Bought a city ticket that covers all the sites over a couple of days and got through about half of them today before having a lovely dinner at the Art Cafe. Had a pleasant evening hanging out on our daybed in the courtyard.

Explored the rest of this gorgeous little place today, everything is fascinating here, from its thick and imposing city walls, to it’s high iwan wind towers, and of course the many oddly shaped minarets and wooden pillars. Some people do live in the old town, and in the evenings it is customary to splash water on the road in front of your house to keep the dust down, or at least as an excuse to play with water after a hot day. Nice dinner at a touristy place but lots of veggie options and nice cold beer.

Next morning set off on a drive to the Qalas, the ancient fortresses of the Khorezm rulers, organized by Mansour, our guesthouse owner. Nice drive through the river valley first, with lots of orchards and fields of corn. Our first stop was the Ayaz Qala, the largest of the forts, that sits on a hill above the desert. It was in poor condition but had spectacular views and it was fun exploring its crumbling walls. The next castle had more rooms surviving and were like a honeycomb, whilst the final castle was closed for repairs but had a nice river, lots of birdlife and some cute calves. Our driver was good but was very quiet and didn’t really provide us with much information.Dinner at the Malika restaurant again.

On our last day in Khiva walked to some of the sites outside of the old town, mostly dusty, rundown tombs, though the mosque outside the market had an amazing mosaic pool. In the market we stocked up for our train trip back to Tashkent. Taxi to the very new Urgench station, pity the train was so poor, dirty, worn and noisy, not as good as the Kazakh trains. Endured a long, stuffy, boring trip back, wish we had flown both ways. Were met at Tashkent station by our driver (thankfully, because the taxi drivers were yet again in a frenzy), Valentin, who it turned out was to be our driver for the rest of our time in Uzbekistan. Our car was a shitty, underpowered locally built Chevrolet/Daewoo with no rear suspension. He took us to our World Expeditions hotel, the Arien Plaza, which was an Uzbek copy of any Australian motel built in country towns in the 1970s. It was comfortable and the Russian staff were nice, but it was nowhere near anything, including transport. Had lunch at the Italian place, changed money in a phone shop (banks are to be avoided as the black market rate is heaps better) and went to Navoi park and the wedding palace, where Mez felt a bit sick and also where I met Kostya Tzyu’s cousin! This strange concrete lump is where civil marriages take place, as well as being the city archives. Caught a taxi back to the hotel, then a nice Russian style dinner at the hotel.

The next morning I went out with our driver and a local guide, and also discovered that we were going to have Valentin for the rest of the time in Uzbekistan, despite his lack of English. Mez was too sick to come out on the city tour. I visited the Hast Imam library, which holds one of the world’s oldest Korans, and the surrounding Islamic precinct with its historic mosque and madrasa. Had lunch at a cafeteria style “bistro” which felt a bit awkward on my own with the guide and driver. Then it was back to the hotel to pick up Merrill for our drive to Samarkand. The drive was pretty uncomfortable, the roads were terrible and it was all made worse by the terrible suspension of the car. Once there, about 5 hours later we checked into the nice and quirky Hotel Asia Samarkand. Walked to the nearby Registan, one of the most famous building complexes in Central Asia and it looked wonderful. Watched a local wedding for a while before getting a bus to the Old City restaurant for a very ordinary Russian dinner. had a swim in the hotel pool but the pool was infested with children staring at me.

Next morning we met Della, our local guide and went to Timur’s mausoleum, the Shah-i-zinda, an unusual ‘street’ of tiled tombs of holy saints, the Bibi Hanim mosque and of course the Registan. Had lunch at the very fancy Karambale restaurant, before returning to the Registan. We continued exploring Samarkand the next morning, starting with Ulugbeg’s observatory, which had a very interesting museum, as was the Afrosab museum which has some Zoroastrian relics as well as some famous frescos. On the way out, we spotted a nice garden that turned out to be the site of the tomb of the prophet Daniel (of Lion’s den fame). Bit annoyed that our guide wasn’t even going to mention this, and annoyed again when she ripped us off on the admission charge. Fascinating and holy place, with the grave being over 10 metres long (and according to legend, still growing!). Lunch at the enormous Samarkand restaurant, said goodbye to guide then wandered through the art deco Russian town. Dinner in our room of local bread and watched footy.

Next morning it was back into the world’s bumpiest car for the drive to Bukhara, another of the great cities of the Silk Road. Apart from a scenic drive through a mountain pass the majority of the drive was not that scenic, though had an interesting stop at a water cistern and caravanserai at Rabati Malik. We stayed at the Hotel Porso, a little family run hotel near the main square. Family run in this case meant watching TV in the lobby and taking absolutely no interest in the guests at all. Our room was small and stuffy and plain, a sad contrast to our beautiful room in Khiva. Went for a walk first to find the Chor Minar, a mini version of the famous one in Hyderabad, which was cute, before heading into the old town, starting at the surprisingly unwelcoming little synagogue. Wandered through the narrow old streets to a newer part of town with some Soviet style buildings, then back up another street where we had dinner at a rooftop restaurant and watched the sunset. We met our local guide Faks, who was knowledgable but not much fun the following morning, and started our tour at the “water museum”, believed to be the well of Job, then the fascinating Ismael Samani mausoleum which had many Zoroastrian decorations and symbols. Walked through to the castle, passing a mosque with wooden pillars and interesting ceiling paintings depicting the seasons and a water tower built by the germans for the Emir and later a cafe which was closed because kids kept falling off the tower! In the rather spartan castle were assembly halls, a prison where guards were punished if they fell asleep and stables. Then walked through to the Kalon mosque, very large and beautiful with interesting acoustics, and the famous Kalon minaret that Genghis Khan spared because of its beauty. After a peek inside the still operating madrassa we walked through a series of covered bazaaars full of souvenir stalls and another madrassa, built by Ulugbeg and the oldest in Uzbekistan. met Valentine and had lunch by the Lyabi kauz pool. Had lagman, Uzbek noodles, thick and tomatoey and spicy. After lunch it was more walking, covering the Hoja statue outside the Deivanbegi madrassa, and a few more of the MMMs (mosques, madrassas and mausoleums) inclouding the Maghoki Attar mosque, possibly the oldest in Central Asia, built on  Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples.

Compulsory cotton picking by students meant an earlier start the next day. Visited the Emir’s summer palace, based on the Tzar’s St Petersburg residences. Pretty gardens, with peacocks, a nice tower pavilion and lake. Back to hotel and a bit of shopping, then Valentin literally drove us across the road for lunch! Saw lots of nice things in the bazaar but so hard to carry all that stuff around for another 7 weeks. Nice lunch by the town pond again, watching the ducks and floating mini mosques.

KAZAKHSTAN

First in line at Tbilisi airport for our flight to Almaty. Quite a disorganized airport, checkin counters are thrown in with offices and shops. Bought a few cheap souvenirs (cheaper than in town!)  then boarded our Air Astana flight. Very nice flight, roomy seats, nice lunch and great views of the Caucasus and Caspian sea before arriving at Astana with the snow capped Alatau mountains right next to the airport. Caught an Eco-Taxi to our hotel, the Voyager, nice room with views to the mountains and over the French Embassy. Went for a wander along tree lined streets and found a nice Italian restaurant, the Del Pappa on Gogol St. Wandered back along Zhibek Zholi mall, which was closing up for the night.

In the morning after a reasonable breakfast we walked to the Green Market, lots of lovely fresh produce, especially berries,  and I had a haircut for $3. Then walked to the dramatic heroes monument that looks like a film poster, then wandered through the pretty park to the Tsarist era orthodox cathedral which looks like a cake and was inhabited by hundreds of icons. Then walked up past the Hotel Kazakhstan, a Soviet era hotel that is on the 1000 tenge note and was hosting a rabbis conference. Not far away was the cable car station, which we caught up Kek Tobe. At the top was a big fun fair, a forested park, a zoo with emus and a statue of the Beatles! Nice views across to the mountains and over the city, and amused ourselves watching people launch themselves in a giant sling. A very pleasant place for the afternoon on a perfect sunny day. Had a nice indian dinner of samosa chat, dal makhani and malai koftas in the odd and very difficult to find Spice Mantra (off Zheltoksan St), which shares its premises with a disco.

Next day caught the bus to Medeu, recommended by our Kazakh friends in Tbilisi. Then boarded the cable car up to the snow fields, about 3200m above sea level. Mountains are so high all around, with snow on top, even though we are at the highest point if we were in Australia! Lots of nice scenery, and warmer than we were expecting. had a slow lunch at a branch of Paul’s before getting the cable car back down. At the bottom we explored a pretty mountain stream, then caught the bus back into Almaty. Went to the Shakespeare pub to watch Spurs play Liverpool surrounded by Liverpool fans. Pub staff were a bit unfriendly which was unusual in Kazakhstan and they had an interesting definition of a pint.Ended up 1-1.

The museum was our destination the next day. Some very interesting exhibits and some rather amusing rules too. Many exhibits require an extra payment which we didn’t bother entering, and it was all policed by some very grumpy ladies. Photography was only allowed in the lobby, so you can at least take photos of the replica of the famous Golden Man, as the original is locked up in the bank. Also amusing is the floor dedicated to the life of the president and his amazing achievements. The ethnology section devoted to all the minorities of Kazakhstan was interesting. Had dinner at the same Italian place but was disappointing this time. Headed off to the station and it got a bit frantic as we couldn’t get a taxi, forgetting for a while that everyone is a taxi in Almaty and all we had to do, and eventually did, was put our hand out. Uber was around here a long time before it was an App! Shared our cabin on the train with a Kazakh guy and a Russian/Kazakh girl who amazingly couldn’t speak a word of Kazakh despite growing up in Almaty.

Arrived early in Shymkent and took a taxi to the Shymkent Hotel, an imposing building, where we had breakfast in the airless restaurant. Went exploring, first to Fantasy Land park which was an amusement park opposite our hotel. Then walked along some dull streets to the Independence Monument which looked like a giant blender (but is supposedly a yurt chimney). We then had a futile search for the market, but it evaded us and the heat was getting unbearable. Caught a bus to Ken Baba park, which was a quirky but shady old park where we had waffles and coffee. We then visited the tourist office in our hotel, where they scared us about not being able to cross the border into Uzbekistan, then had a nice dinner of deconstructed veggie burgers at Madlen next door, which was a very stylish place, followed by ice cream at the fun fair.

Spent most of the morning sorting out cxomplications with our train tickets before finally getting into our taxi. Started first at the Aristan Bob sufi tomb, which wasn’t much to look at. Then had our bodies shaken about for an hour on shocking roads to Turkestan. Here we visited the Yassawi mausoleum which was really interesting and one of the holiest places in Central Asia, built by Timur for his spiritual guide. As usual you couldn’t take photos inside, but the back wall was nicely decorated as opposed to the front which Timur never completed. Also saw a hoopoe bird which are one of my favourite birds and a mini tornado, which was possibly a djinn. Also on site is an underground mosque and a wooden mosque, and some of the scariest spiky burrs I’ve ever seen that went straight through our shoes. Had a nice lunch at the Hotel Eden in Turkestan before another scary drive back, with our driver frequently losing concentration on the way. Dinner at the Cinzzano terrace next to our hotel. They had their own draught beer (you could even get it in a mini beer tap) but waited forever for pizzas, though it was a nice night for sitting outside.

Next day we caught a marshrutka to Sayram, a 3000 year old town about an hour from Shymkent. Dusty little place with friendly people. Saw an old tower hidden behind the school, a Sufi tomb and a road sign that commemorates one of the holiest incidents in local Islam, but is just a street sign. Dinner at Madlen again, then off to catch the very late train to Tashkent. Incredibly this train was almost exactly on time despite having started in Ekaterinburg in Russia. Sleeper was OK and had it to ourselves but the border crossing was a 4 hour ordeal of lights going on and off and constant interruptions from various customs people and curious soldiers. Once through it was only another slow hour into Tashkent.

TBILISI

After settling into our room we walked to Freedom Square, past some lovely Victorian architecture. The square has a large St George statue on a column where a Lenin statue once stood. We then walked up the grand Shota Rustaveli St, with many historic buildings and memorials to freedom fighters and also the parliament building. Had a nice Indian dinner in the slightly sleazy Akhvlediani St at the Namaste restaurant.

Next morning after a nice buffet brekky we explored old Tbilisi, starting at the city walls near the square, past some old houses down to the river, then along historic Shavteli st. here we saw the quirky puppet theatre, the Sioni church, where they threw me out for wearing shorts (though it was Ok for girls in very short shorts) but not before getting to see St Nino’s holy cross made of grapevines while dodging a priest waving a baby about. We then crossed the stylish Peace Bridge and then back along streets full of bars and restaurants. had lunch at the Alani cafe, I had a nice beetroot leaves khachapuri and Mez had chicken bones in oil. Dinner was not very fresh pies from the Good Mood bakery, where the staff were never in a good mood (not unusual in Georgia).

Following day did very little until venturing out for an excellent dinner in a restaurant that i didn’t get the name of on a corner of Jerusalem Square opposite a kosher restaurant. Next day it was back to the bus station where we eventually located a marshrutka to Mtskheta, a pretty little town of religious importance on a confluence of rivers. here is the Svetitskhoveli church, home of a robe of Jesus and a miraculous stone pillar, all in a beautifully decorated church and a nice courtyard. Outside the church walls there was some good souvenir shops so did a bit of shopping, then wandered down quiet streets to the river – nice to have some peace after the bustle of Tbilisi. Then walked up to the Samtavro convent which was abuzz with vacuuming and praying nuns before getting a minibus back to town. Back in Tbilisi we caught the metro to david the builder Avenue with its imporessive 1920s buildings reflecting the wealth that was once here. Dinner at a khachapuri restaurant on Kote Afkhazi st., finally finished a whole Ajarian Khachapuri to myself!

After breakfast caught the Metro over to Avlabari, the oldest part of Tbilisi. Outside the metro was a marshrutka stop we didn’t know about, and a nice Armenian church. Walked down the hill road known as the “Wine Ascent” as it was the wine market, passing the Sachino palace of Queen Darajan. At the bottom of the hill is the church of St Abo, founding saint of Tbilisi, King Vakhtang’s statue, Europe Square and the start of the cable car up to the Narikala Fortress. Chatted to a lovely Iranian lady while waiting. The fort itself isn’t much, but it does have the giant statue of Mother Georgia and great views across the city and over the Botanic Gardens that wind down the other side of the hill. Back down the cable car, over the Peace bridge and through we went to the National Museum. Lots of interesting things here, including a display of the amazing hominid skulls recently found at Dmanisi; gold works from the Chalcideans and Scythians, and religious art. Walked back to hotel, stopping for nice cake from the shop at Kikodze Street. For dinner we had Thai noodles in a funny little place off Rustaveli.

Next day we did a day trip with a local company. Our guide was very nice and amazing with her languages. We were accompanied by some Russians, 2 crazy Kazakh girls and an Scottish Aussie. First stop after a scenic climb over the Kakheti mountains  Shumta monastery, one of the oldest in Georgia. Next door was a newer 18th century one presided over by grumpy nuns. After ordering lunch in Telavi we went first to the Alaverdi monastery, once the biggest in Georgia. Very nice inside, and outside as it is set at the foot of the Caucasus on an open plain. It’s also the home of St Joseph, who brought christianity to Georgia, and the tragic St Ketevan, who was martyred by the Persians and bits of her have turned up all over the place, even in Goa, India. Next was the Ikalto monastery, built by David the Builder and supposedly where Shota Rustaveli studied. Had nice khachapuris for lunch then looked at the closed for renovation Telavi fortress and a 900 year old plane tree. Then it was off to the beautiful mansion and winery at Tsinandali, estate of Prince Chavchavadze. Inside the house is a museum where we had a very brisk tour complete with being told the origins of every item in each room. We then had a wine tasting, some nice, some not so nice, sadly the tasting serves shrunk with each glass. The gardens were very pretty. The Kazakh girls took the opportunity to have a water fight while other strolled in the gardens. We then had a very slow and stuffy drive back, cheered up with a big plate of khinkalis in a touristy restaurant. very sad that this is our last night in beautiful Georgia and the King David Hotel.

GEORGIA – AKHALTSIKHE – GORI

Got to the Kutaisi bus station in the newer part of town and surprisingly found a direct marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe. Sadly it was a crappy Ford transit and the operator managed to cram 20 people and the driver into it. One poor lass did the whole trip on a little stool between the seats.Most of the trip was through beautiful but then we went through a tunnel and came out on a totally different dry landscape. Followed a nice valley for a while and passed through the pretty town of Borjomi, once a popular Soviet spa resort, flanked by some high mountains. Arrived at our destination after almost 4 hours and checked in at the Hotel Tourist, a nice place with a courtyard. The lady gave us some rather unpleasant home made wine to try. Had nice lobiani pies for lunch, then walked to the Rabati, the castle that sits above the town. It was a curious mixture of Islamic, Christian and Jewish architecture but had been so restored it felt more like a theme park. The museum was very interesting and there were great views of the valley from the top. Called in to the bus station to check buses to Gori and also discovered the trains no longer run. Dinner at the upmarket hotel in town, a bit plain and expensive.

Next day we joined our hired taxi and headed to Vardzia at high speed. Vardzia is a monastery complex built by Queen Tamar and is set amongst cave in the side of a hill. Spent a fascinating few hours pottering in the caves, many with seats and wine cellars, and the beautiful chapel which of course you can’t photograph. The descent was fun too, climbing through tunnels in the rock. On the way back stopped at the Khertvisi fortress, perched above a confluence of rivers and groves of walnut trees (they even sell walnut vodka). Skipped the Sapara monastery because the taxi driver was demanding extra money and instead hung out in the courtyard of our hotel, watching the unexpected rain pour down and eating chunks of watermelon that the owner provided. Had dinner at a local nameless restaurant, big plate of cheese khinkalis and chips and local beer – yum!

Caught the 11am bus to Gori – well that is what we thought we had done, but it turned out to be going past Gori, and we had to quickly call out to be left at the turnoff. Luckily you are never far from a minibus in Georgia and shortly afterwards one came along and took us into town. Eventually located our guesthouse (the Savane) and the nice lady there gave us coffee under the almond tree while she got the room ready. Walked to the Stalin museum, opened in the 1950s and little changed since. Outside stands the house where he was born, a simple wooden cottage. Despite the horrors of his reign, the locals just see him as a local boy made good, and I guess I wouldn’t be around either if he hadn’t let the jews return to Poland after the war. Inside the displays were all in Russian and Georgian, whgich was a shame, as there was interesting photos and documents and objects. Highlight of course is the death mask, and we really liked the carpets woven in tribute of him by the Central Asian republics. Also outside is his elaborate train carriage. Bought some souvenirs and pies and coffee and then walked past some nice churches to the fortress. At the base was a dramatic but also Pythonesque monument to those killed in Gori by Russian bombings in the recent separatist wars. The fortress itself was like a tip enclosed by castle walls, nothing inside but a wasteland guarded by some very lazy police and their rabid dogs. Had an excellent dinner at the Sports Bar.

In the morning caught a taxi to the ancient city of Uplistsikhe. Lots of interesting caves set among strange rock formations but little left of what was once a 6th century BC pre Christian royal palace. Got taxi to the station only to find the woman there wouldn’t sell us tickets on the train, which she claimed was full. So another taxi to bus station and flew along the wide freeway to Tbilisi bus station, and yet another taxi to our hotel, the King David (aka David Sultan) and our very cute room with balcony and even a hammock!

 

GEORGIA – KUTAISI

Caught our marshrutka early after awaking to heavy rain, and not long after we all had to swap minibuses to a much older, cramped one. What should have been a pleasurable drive up the coast and through the verdant subtropical forest turned into a nightmare drive of dangerous overtaking, suicidal high speed idiocy and numerous passengers including us becoming very religious. It was too scary to even look out the window to enjoy the amazing scenery. Even the Iranian guy on the bus was scared, surprising as we later discovered they were just as crazy on the roads! It was with great relief we arrived at Kutaisi bus station. We caught a taxi to our hotel, the Imperator Palace, a cute almost Indian style hotel right next to a fast flowing river. The rain only got heavier when we went for a walk, ducking into a market for shelter and discovering yummy lobiani bean pies. The rain cleared briefly for us to make it as far as a very trendy cafe in the lobby of a former hotel. A quirky place that wouldn’t be out of place in Fitzroy or Newtown. The rain didn’t cease so we eventually worked our way back to our hotel and sat on our balcony drinking beer. Dinner was just stuff picked up from the market.

Next day we caught a bus to Gelati monastery, a complex of chapels and a larger church in a lovely hilltop setting, unfortunately a lot of scaffolding. In a gateway was the grave of King David the Builder.There were many old monks wandering about and many locals there to light candles. Grabbed a taxi because we had no idea when the bus was coming and he took us to Motsameta monastery, a much prettier group of buildings on the edge of a ravinea few kilometre down the valley from Gelati. Back into town and got off near the theatre and an interesting fountain featuring statues based on Colchian jewellery. Walked back through the park and bought more pies. After lunch walked up the hill to the Bagrati cathedral, one of Georgia’s most famous, but apart from the great views was disappointing as the renovations were poorly done, especially the metal and glass tower built into the side! Old photos of the cathedral showed how much had been rebuilt.Walked along a nice residential street up the hill and over the other bridge into town, where we found the street closed for filming a bollywood movie. After a few shots of the empty street they packed up and we saw the stars walk past, Sana Khan and Gurmeet Choudhary (not exactly big names). Film is called Wajah Tum Ho. Had a great dinner at the oddly named El Paso restaurant on the main square. Yummy khinkalis, lobio and bread and drinks all for $6!

GEORGIA – BATUMI

Checked out and Devrim sent his offsider with us to the bus station. is there a word for when someone does something really nice to help you but it turns out to not be that helpful? This has happened a few times, but this time he nicely booked our bus for us, but ti turned out to be the worst possible bus that goes to the border. hot, cramped and stopping every 5 minutes, including to drop off someone’s shopping! Anyone the scenery was beautiful all the way to the border. For a while the road was flanked by hills covered in the bronze leaves  if hazelnuts. This gave way at Rize for tea terraces, for which it is famed throughout Turkey. We also passed through the towns of Of (yes Of!), Findikli and Hopa on the way to the chaos of the border town of Sarpi. After taking photos of the amazing sight of a border with people swimming at a beach beneath it, we joined the queue at immigration, which was a demonstration of Georgian women’s rugby skills as we were shoved and buffeted by them and their shopping bags. One of them even told me I should be in the Turkish line! Once through Turkish customs it was a 500 metre walk to the Georgian post.Easily through and got our 360 day free entry visa, how good is that? If only all countries gave you a year. Caught a “marshrutka”into Batumi for 1 lari and hopped off near our apartment. It then took us a while to find the right building as the street number wasn’t quite right, but eventually tracked down the nice girl that managed the place and we settled into our lovely sea view apartment. Weirdly though you had to pay for trips in the elevator! Went for a walk along Batumi’s famous promenade. The beach was disappointing, looked more like a stone quarry, but the causeway was a real buzz, with lots of people out and about. Headed inland to find a money changer and food, eventually finding both. Had dinner at the Tserodena restaurant on Melikishvili Street, a great find. A family style restaurant with very nice waitresses, got to try my first ever khachapuri here. This is a pizza on steroids, or perhaps cholesterol. A bread “boat”filled with strong cheese and an egg, topped with a slab of butter. Absolutely delicious but sadly I failed at eating it all, and that was even with sharing it with Mez. Washed it down with a local beer. Walked from here up to the Alphabet Tower, a twisty building looking like a model of DNA and highlighting Georgia’s equally twisty alphabet. Back along the promenade which seemed to have got longer (in fact it was over 3km) watching the locals enjoying the balmy evening, buskers, skaters, dancers flooding the seat. So nice to see such sound and colour after the quiet Turkish coast.

Next morning had brunch in the La Brioche restaurant in the fake Italian plaza. Very ordinary and expensive. Wandered through the old town with its nice buildings, the dramatic Medea statue and down to the harbour to see the famous Ali and Nino statue, which looks like a representation of the Gotye video and we later found that the two statues move together and merge. Caught a bus to the bus station to find out about Kutaisi buses but no luck there, so walked further to the Nobel Brothers Museum, about the founder of the Nobel prize and his brother who made their fortunes in Batumi. Very interesting museum charting the history of oil there. The lady that worked there followed us the whole time, maybe she was excited to actually have a visitor! Dinner at La Terrasse restaurant on Gamsakhurdia Street.

In the morning we booked the rest of our georgian accomodation then went to the Lonely Planet recommended travel agent to book our bus or train to Kutaisi. The office was occupied by two very rude snobby bitches that couldn’t be bothered helping us. After getting nowhere we tried another bus office but all the buses were booked so it meant getting a dolmus instead tomorrow. Went up on the cable car to the top of the hill behind the town, very good views up the Black Sea coast and of the town and its distinctive architecture. The cable car went over the older houses, with their tin roofs and even tin walls. Then watched the Tottenham game in the Quiet Woman pub (strange name!) followed by another attempt at an Ajarian Khachapuri but again I failed to finish it. Nice evening walk home along the promenade, watched a great Peruvian busker and the colourful musical fountains, not quite as humid tonight.

ORDU TO THE BORDER

Mucked around town trying to find the red dolmus to get to the bus station. Amazing how none of the locals we asked seemed to know where it went from, including a shopkeeper whose shop was right next to the actual stop! In no time we were on the bus to Ordu. Trip took an hour through valleys covered in hazelnut trees. They look nice from a distance but it is a really ugly weedy plant. Nice upmarket hotel this time, bell boy did a great job tearing the strap off my backpack by jamming it in the lift door and then barely apologised. My poor old Berghaus pack is really copping it this trip. Walked up to the old Armenian church, which now forms backdrops for wedding photo shoots, then walked down through the old Greek quarter with its lovely mansions. Stopped off at the Limon cafe, one of many lining the waterfront, for cake. After watching Olympic highlights we walked through the very lively town and discovered the excellent Hüner restaurant, a flash multistorey place selling all sorts of cuisines. Back along the waterfront, which would be nicer without the nonstop traffic.

A cable car ride started the next day off, up to Boztepe hill. Great views and interesting watching paragliders launching from the summit. Cake and coffee at Hüner again then caught a dolmus to Persembe, near where The Argonauts supposedly landed. Nothing much there to see except some enormous jellyfish in the harbour. Dinner at Hüner again!

Next morning it was back to the Otogar and onto the bus to Trabzon after some confusion due to my poor Turkish. Very pretty coastal drive, went through nice towns like Giresun, passing the island where Jason fought the harpies and the town where cherries originated, and the very pretty town of Tirobolu. Hopped off the bus on the highway at Trabzon, and eventually found our apartment, run by the lovely Devrim. Went for a walk to the old town which sits on top of a ridge above a gorge. The bottom of the gorge has all been turned into a nice park, in contrast to the other gorge that cuts across the town, which is a storage area for concretention rubble. Also looked at an attractive mosque built for Suleiman the Greats mother. Back to the maydan and a ripoff dinner at a kebab restaurant.

Following some  morning washing we caught a dolmus out to Aya Sofya church, a lovely Byzantine building with some surviving frescos. Oddly the building is both a historic church museum and an active mosque, with partitions and screens to hide the idolatrous paintings. Dolmus back to town past Trabzonspors football ground and walked through the old bazaar, the caravanserai and historic mosque. Nice late lunch at the Calender restaurant. Out the front a man told fortunes using rabbits to choose your fortune paper. Dessert was halva from one of Trabzon’s famous shops. Got a huge slab of pistachio halva for $3!

Next day started at the museum, in a huge old Mason once belonging to a Greek merchant. Amazing statue of Hermes found in the town. Caught dolmus up the hill to the Attaturk mansion, dolmus driver actually departed from his normal route to drop us off there. Beautiful house with very pretty garden. At the bus stop a local lady gave us her bus card so we could get a bus instead of waiting for a dolmus! So many lovely kind people in this town, including our host who has left sweets for us and is taking us to bus station. Had dinner at Calender again but not as nice. Checked out the next day and was driven up to Otogar for bus to Georgia. His helper bought tickets but unfortunately it was for a terrible, hot old bus but the discomfort was eased by the beautiful drive, passing through Rize, the tea capital of Turkey, the weirdly named town of Of, Hopa and then to the border town of Sapi. Sadly our last  hour in Turkey was spent being crushed by pushy people in the hot sun to get through border control. What a nice time we had in Turkey, though I must say we probably spent longer along the Black Sea coast than was required. However it was always relaxing and the people are so friendly and helpful.

BLACK SEA PART 2

There was no direct link to Sinope so had to first get a minibus to Kastamonu, industrial town and halva capital of Turkey. Landscape changed from forest to dry scrub as we cruised along in the Nilufer coach to Sinope. Saw some birds of prey and even some baby storks in nests built on top of telegraph poles. Arrived at Sinope and caught dolmus into town.checked into the eccentric Hotel Denizci almost on the waterfront. Its foyer was like a  museum with guns, antlers, statues and a large amphora decorating the walls. Our room was like the captains room on a ship, with wood panelling, portholes and peaked roof. Great views across the harbour. Went for a walk through the port area, past the city walls and through a nice green park full of tea houses. Had good pizzas at Angelico pizza opposite the park.

Next day caught a local dolmus up to Karakum beach to see what it was like, then back into town to explore Sinop’s history. We got off near a thriving market full of lovely fresh produce, bought some bananas and grapes. Followed the old walls to the statue of Diogenes, who was born in Sinop, probably the world’s first mystic hobo figure. Spent rest of the afternoon in our room sorting out Singapore Airlines flight stuff up. Walked up hill to look at all that remained of a byzantine church and Sinop’s Greek community and chatted to an art student working on a dig there. Church was in poor condition. Awful dinner, ordered vegetarian pasta and they gave me meat, then tried to tell me it wasn’t meat! They brought me another dish, boiled ravioli with butter on top.

Next day was a beach day at Karakum beach. Met an interesting local who now lives in Amsterdam and spoke good English learned from the American kids that lived at the US cold war listening post that was up the hill above town. Told us that property in Sinop was very expensive compared to rest of Turkey. Spent rest of day swimming in the lovely warm water. Dinner at the Diyarbakir restaurant, where once again was poisoned with meat, this time by accident with what we thought was a couscous dish but was stalls raw mince and wheat. Blah! Good pides though. Spent morning in the archaeological museum which had some interesting things, especially some mosaics found in the main street . Pizzas at Angelicos again for dinner.

Checked out and caught the bus to Samsung and then changed there for the bus to Unye. More nice scenery along the way. Found our guesthouse (konak) in an old Ottoman house. The building had been completely restored from a shambles like many old houses along the coast here. Room was very tiny with an odd bathroom. Walked down to the waterfront and up a few old streets and wondered why we were bothering with this town! Just shows you can’t always believe guidebooks. Luckily the next  morning a guy at breakfast told Merrill about a nice beach so we went there. Called Uzunkum if turned out to be very nice, with soft sand, warm water, no pebbles, loud pop music and cheap lounges. Had a lovely day there. Bought delicious su boregi (like a cheese lasagna but made with super soft pancake layers, tastes just like my mum’s cheese blintzes in pie form), some tinned veggies and had picnic in courtyard of our konak. Walked down  to the maidan to watch the local flag waving and ended up talking to a local villager in a mixture of Turkish, English and mime for a while. Also had great waffles and the guy decorated the plate with our names and a love heart. One of those moments that happen when you don’t have your camera. A better day than expected in an otherwise dull town.

ALONG THE KARADENIZ COAST

Just like Jason and his Argonauts, today Mez and I embarked on a journey to Georgia, the  Colchis of ancient legend. But instead of cruising the Black Sea, we are doing the coast by Bus and dolmuş. Our journey begins at Istanbul Otogar (bus station), which we arrived at on the still free Metro line. So nice of the government to keep public transport free the whole time we were in Istanbul. Caught the 9.30 bus and after a few stops around Istanbul we were on the highway skirting the Sea of Marmara. Our bus even had a “flight attendant” complete with trolley, dispensing food and drinks. We whizzed past some very high mountains to Karabük before arriving at Safranbolu. A few dolmuşes later and we were in the pretty town square of the old town. Climbed up a steep hill to our hostel, which we missed the first time due to a lack of signage. Tiny room but the Beyaz Konak was very cute and the people that ran it very hospitable. Wandered around town, a few narrow streets jam packed with souvenir shops, and lots of lovely old wooden houses that are Unesco listed and a creepy gorge. Had a nice dinner of piruhi, a local version of ravioli and the Polish pierogi at the Zencefil restaurant oposited the caravanserai. Delicious! Spent the evening in the nice garden of our hostel, sipping tea.

The next day the guy from hostel gave us a lift to the bus stop in his battered Turkish Fiat. Caught the bus to Amasra. Very nice drive through green forested hills and the town appeared before us as we emerged from a tunnel in the hillside. You could actually hear other people on the bus gasp in surprise as the Black Sea appeared. I do like the Turkish word for it better – Karadeniz – which just means the same but sounds more romantic. Found our hotel, the Buyuk Liman, a short walk across the headland from the waterfront Otogar. Wandered through the old town overlooked by fortifications, crossed the Roman bridge and had great views everywhere across the small harbour and across to Rabbit Island. Out on the breakwater the sea was very rough and the water really looked black. Dinner at the Amasra Sofrasi wasn’t too bad. Watched the sunset on the site all harbour and saw several dolphins!

Tried to visit museum next day but it was closed for renovations so spent the day at the beach across the road from our hotel. Rented our lounges and umbrella for $10 for the day, and it was pretty hot and the water freezing and couldn’t stay in long. Had pide at the Karadeniz Pide shop. Next morning waited for the bus to Cide. When it arrived it was already full so had to stand until the town of Kuracasile about an hour later. Arrived at Cide another 2 and a half hours on, but it didn’t look much so continued on to Inebolu. Well looked after on this bus by a nice driver, and lots of great scenery with green valleys going right down to the sea. This was in contrast to the town, where we were dropped off in the middle of a construction site and then had to wander about trying to find a hotel. But we got lucky and chanced upon the Ionopole hotel (named after the ancient Greek name for the town) and got a quirky but expensive room in the loft. Didn’t take long to look around the town and had a nice dinner with the friendly folk of the Palmiye restaurant, the only place to dine in Inebolu. Wondered to myself what we were doing here! What was stranger is why we chose to have 2 nights. But the next day we managed to pass the time at the town’s pebbly beach,reading and munching on simit (like a sesame bagel). Dinner at the Palmiye again.

ISTANBUL

Taxi to Prague airport which was totally deserted but had good facilities. Took about 30 minutes in a Skoda taxi to get here, driver knew all the short cuts and was a bit like our Mascot rat run. Nice flight with Turkish Airlines. Weren’t sure when we first heard of the coup attempt at whether to go or not, but things seem to have settled down quickly so we will see how we go. Our need to get some visas there means we really have to at least go to Istanbul. Through immigration quickly with our evisas. Big surprise that public transport was all free as a reward for stopping the coup, this ended up lasting the whole time we were there which was great,no stuffing around with ticket machines or the Istanbul kart.

Caught metro then tram to our hotel, the Enderun in the Fatih district near the bazaar. Hotel really cute with a nice garden, and we had a great balcony looking down to the Marmaris sea. Such an oasis in a very daggy street in the shoe and handbag market! Went for a walk along Diven Yolu to the pretty Gulhane gardens. Had dinner of overpriced meze and pide near the gardens.

Next morning walked through old town to the Iranian consulate to get our visas. In a nice old villa and friendly helpful man got it all organized and we just had to pick up passports in the afternoon.  Went through Grand Bazaar which really hadn’t changed since the last time we were there, but guess it never does change. All a bit repetitive though. Then went to Suleimaniye mosque, got there just as prayer time began but it wasn’t a problem  as the gardens were  ice and it had superb views across the Bosphorus. Once inside it was beautiful, such a well proportioned building. Behind the mosque are the tombs of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife,and outside the walls the tomb of his architect, Sinan. Walked down to the water where it was very frantic, picked up our visas and had a nice dinner at the Şar restaurant near our hotel.

Started the next morning at the Blue Mosque. So few people here, tourism really down because of all the troubles. Nice to see inside as last time we were here (30 years ago!) It was all scaffolding. I then went to the Archaeology museum, which was partly closed and did have scaffolding. Not a great museum, very poorly presented, as was the Oriental one. Did have some interesting Hittite artefacts. Şar for dinner again, really great meze.

The following morning caught a tram and bus up to Ortakoy as we couldn’t find the ferry there amidst all the Sunday crowds. Ortakoy really cute, with its wedding cake like mosque on the waterfront, craft market and shaded teahouses. Found a cheap ferry cruise that took us up the Bosphorus a few bridges, then all the way back to Eminonu. Very nice out on the water but sun still really strong. Lovely views all the way of villas and palaces. Ferry was swamped with people at Uskudar. Dinner at trendy place, Mona at Laleli.

Next morning off to Levent to get Uzbekistan visas. Consulate was just a house in a quiet street and the man at the gate sent us off to get forms. Luckily someone was able to tell us there is an office around the corner where a nice guy filled them out for us. Back to the consulate and this time we were sent to the bank by a man sitting in the garden shed. By the time we got back our visas were ready! Such a relief. Wandered around a shopping mall and bought a Turkish dictionary then went to bus station to organize our bus to Safranbolu. Looked at  some historic stuff including the aqueduct then dinner at Paris restaurant in Laleli.

WROCŁAW

Was good being so close to the station, no need to rush for our early train to Wrocław. Checked in at the Hotel Piast opposite the station, first unfriendly hotel person we’d had in Poland. Room was great overlooking square in front of the lovely old station building. First stop had to be to Swidnicka street, to see the spot in the old photo of my grandfather taken there in the 30s. Had a few attempts at reenact in the photo, not that many changes really. Continued on the street past the opera house and discovered Staria Pączkaria, a shop that had people queuing up for the best donuts in the world. After a massive sugar fix we walked up to the Rynek (old square) which was nice but the weather was miserable. Had a great dinner of veggie burgers at the terrific Soczewka burger restaurant on the square, amazing value for its location.

Had breakfast the next morning in the Galeria mall, then explored the islands that make up Wroclaw, Sandy island and the very important religious site of Ostrow Tumski. Some nice old churches and great views from the cathedral tower. Lunch at Vega vegetarian diner, nice but plain food and a bit confusing trying to order,but a nice place and on the square too. Gave the famous Panorama painting a miss, too expensive for what is just a big painting of a battle field. Did involve Kosciusko though, who has a mountain named after him in Australia. Went back to Vega for a snack, tried pierogi again and were slightly better than the last pierogi I tried, but just can’t get into them. Walked through the old university, a baroque church  and the Ossinium archives. Back to hotel via the pączky shop! Nice Italian dinner at the Capri restaurant in the mini Italy on Wieczienna street.

THe next day it was back to Prague again. Went by Polskibus which was a bit uncomfortable after all the nice trains. Wifi cut out at the Czech border. Some interesting historical Silesian towns along the way including a famous monastery. Over the border the bus went a strange way up through the hills, which was really pretty but added a lot of time to the trip. From Florence bus station got metro to main station and our hotel was across the road, the Chopin Vienna. Rather dull hotel with a very spartan lobby. Walked past the decorative Jerusalem synagogue around the corner, on the way to Wenceslas square. The square itself was disappointing, but had some interesting art deco arcades running off it. In one arcade there was a cinema which was previewing a movie, and we saw two famous Slovakian actors! Saw the Wenceslas statue and then had Thaidinner, where the vegetarian curry had fish and chicken in it!!

Next day it’s off to Istanbul!

WARSAW

Breakfast in the station cafe of coffee and cheesecake. Caught 11am train to Warsaw, very nice train, like a plane. Were amused by a dippy American/Polish girl who had heaps of shopping bags and was in the wrong seat in the wrong carriage. Scenery not spectacular, just orchards and fields the whole way. Got off at Centralna station, short walk to hotel but involved a network of tunnels and underpasses to cross busy road. Really nice apartment on Ul. Złota. Building looks terrible but apartment perfect. Had lunch in local Chinese dumpling shop, then walked to the Palace of Culture, Stalin’s unwanted gift to the Polish people, just on the other side of the station. Much nicer building than guidebooks say, the Staines factor obviously clouds their judgment. Very art deco. Inside it has offices, museums, and even a shopping centre. Wandered through to the Royal Way, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, a beautiful street of mansions, churches and many sites relating to Chopin. They even had clever information park benches that played his music while you read about the building! Also looked at an interesting photo exhibition outdoors, with the photos printed onto waterproof plastic. Back through the Ogrid Saskie gardens with its war memorial, and looked at the Nozykew synagogue, the only one to survive the war. Excellent Indian dinner at the Rasoi restaurant around the corner from our apartment.

Next morning we went to the POLIN museum, the history of Jews in Poland. Ended up there for almost 5 hours as we were engaged, moved and had very sore legs looking at all the exhibits. For a museum it does not have ma y actual objects, but brings the Jewish world to light through multimedia, oral history and clever displays. A great museum and worth visiting WARSAW for it alone. From there we got the tram (with our 3 day ticket) to the Praga district and had a coffee. There was a pretty orthodox church there but it was surrounded by cops so gave it a miss! Tram to the cool street Nowy Swiat, lots of nice student bars in side streets such as Foksal. Had Vietnamsee dinner nearby at the Toan Pho restaurant.

Following morning caught the train to my father’s birthplace of Łowicz. Couldn’t get a seat on train so sat in dining car which upset this woman from first class! Arrived at the sleepy station, walked into town to Zdunska street and found numbers 23 and 35, the two houses my father and grandparents lived in. One is now a kitchen showroom, I think the lady there was worried we were going to claim the building back off her. Then headed off a on a very long hot walk to the Jewish cemetery, which unfortunately was closed and couldn’t get in because of high, glass topped fence. It was very overgrown but peaceful. Walked back and looked in the very good museum, but would have been nice if they had some tribute to the Jewish community there which accounted for half the town’s population. Also looked at the old Lutheran church, another group that Hitler hated because the Polish Lutherans did not back Germany. Had coffee at the Cafe Lody then back around the block to the station. Back to Warsaw, enjoyed our visit and Łowicz is a charming little town. Went shopping at the big mall next to Centralna bought some cool t shirts, then had dinner at the ultra cool Tel Aviv restaurant on Poznanska street.

In the morning we caught the tram to the Old Town, starting with the Royal Palace, which was free today. More interesting than I expected, nice restored rooms and a great library that holds the palace manuscript and map collections. Walked through the old town a bit which wasn’t much after seeing Krakow. Had a great lunch at DosTacos Mexican restaurant on Jasna street. Then to the Warsaw Uprising museum, which was also free. Although once again the displays were interesting and imaginitive, it was a bit of a rabbits warren and hard to follow the chronology of the ghetto and the uprising. Liked the use of old newsreel and movie footage. Then went to pretty Łazienki park, and saw a squirrel at last, as well as the pretty palace on the lake, and lots of lovely trees and shade. Also saw the Belvedere palace, just like on the vodka bottles. Takeaway dinner from the Rasoi again, yummy.

KRAKOW

From Prague, caught a very nice train to Ostrava, still in the Czech Republic. Transferred to a very ordinary coach for the trip to Krakow. Short walk to our apartment, where we met by the rep to get the keys. Apartment was compact and had everything we needed except aircon or even a fan, and it was 34 outside! In a nice old building opposite the station and a shopping mall. Walked through part of the nice green ring that surrounds the old city, past St Florians gate and the Barbican fort. After a coffee and cake went to the old square, with its market building in the centre. While there we watched the march past of all the participants of the junior canoeing championship, including an AIS team. Walked through to the river next to the Wawel castle and then got a tram back to the shopping mall. Had nice Thai dinner in the food court there.

Went to the Wawel the next morning but long queues put us off going in. We were still able to visit the impressive cathedral there, and saw the dragon bones that hang by the door to protect the city. This relates to a legend about the city, and a virgin eating dragon that was defeated by a cobbler. The bones are believed to be some prehistoric mammal, possibly a rhino. Back in town and tried pierogi, Polish dumplings, which were a bit disappointing. I was expecting something like the dumplings my grandmother made but these were stodgy, sour globs with a fatty, oily dressing. Cute restaurant though. We then caught a tram out to Nowy Huta, a Communist planned steelworkers city on the outskirts of Krakow. Built in the 1940s, you would expect something miserable but it is in fact a well designed estate, and the excellent local museum demonstrated further the innovative modernist designs that thrived at the time. The area is also famous as one of the main battlefields of the Solidarity movement. Caught another tram to see St Bartolomeusz church,one of the few remaining in all wooden medieval churches in Poland, and it’s neighbouring Cistercian monastery that had a serene garden.

Back on the number 70 tram (just love these all day tram tickets, makes hopping about so easy) to the Lubicz pub brewery, part of the old brewery complex that is now a luxury housing development. Had some great craft beer with chips, and admired the rather cute staff there too! And it’s right next door to our apartment.

Then had a very filling and tasty vegetarian dinner at the Glonojad restaurant opposite the Grunwald monument. Unfortunately, and like many veggie restaurants to follow, it closed early and by evening had run out of most dishes.

Next morning we caught a tram to Podgorze, across the river. Here is found Oskar Schindlers factory, which is now a museum about the Jewish ghetto and the contribution of Schindler in saving hundreds of Jewish lives. The museum makes a point of what an arsehole he was as a person before he managed the Email enamel factory. The museum itself is brilliant, lots of great displays, interactivity and recordings of the people he rescued. From there we crossed back over to the Kazimierz district, the original Jewish quarter. As well as a few surviving synagogues it is the home of a market specialising in zapiekanki, a wonderful toasted cheese bread with a variety of toppings. Yummy!! Walked through a nice leafy suburb to the Skałka monastery,a lovely church dedicated to St Stanislaus and significant in Polish church history. Sure to be much busier when World Youth Day is held in Krakow at the end of July. Dinner was disappointing, an average pizza at La Spagetti restaurant near the square.

 

PRAGUE

Caught early train from Munich to Prague via Regensberg and Pilsen. Scenery very nice from Schwanndorf and house style changed almost as soon as we crossed the border. Also had to buy Czech train ticket from conductor once we crossed over. Got off at Smichov and bought 3 day metro ticket and went to Andel, where we checked into our apartment, that was plain and functional. Had a coffee in the very suburban shopping street with bars everywhere. Walked down to the Vituva river where there were little popup bars along the riverbank so of course had to try one. Had a boruvka beer which turned out to be blueberry, not that it tasted like them. Crossed back over the river and walked through Adel and had nice dinner at the Hombre Mexican restaurant and then went to shopping mall to buy provisions from huge supermarket.

Next morning went to station to organise tickets to Krakow then went to Prague castle, getting lost on the way because the metro didn’t have any signs saying which way to go. Castle was very interesting, all styles of building within the one complex. Not worth paying admission though, you can see most of the best bits for free and looks better outside than in. Dylan arrived from Berlin and we had dinner at the Loving Hut veggie restaurant in the mall at Andel. Who would have thought that you’d get a vegan place in a all here, would never happen in Australia. Terrible sleep, so noisy with people using  clanging door, trying to enter our apartment and floodlights in carpark coming on all the time.

Met up with Dylan at his hostel and walked through to Charles bridge. Such a perfect sunny day. Charles bridge didn’t look as good as it did on Amazing Race. Went to the Kafla museum which was really interesting but a bit overpriced, but fascinating. Sadly most tourists seemed more interested in David Cerny statue out the front of two men pissing on Czech republic than in Kafka. Back over the river and filling lunch at Tex’s burger bar. Then toured Jewish Prague, home of the mythical Golem. The cemetery was  very spooky and saw some very old synagogues,the Old New one being the oldest and most unusual. The Spanish synagogue was beautiful, with its Moorish decorations. Next stop was the astronomical clock on the Town Hall which was anticlimactic, with a few marionettes looking out the windows and that was it. By accident we came across the Clementium, a Jesuit university which turned out to have that beautiful library that is always in the 10 most beautiful library lists on the Internet. We did the tour with a wacky Czech guide who spoke fluent Chinese (no doubt he was some delegate when Czechoslovakia was communist). Lots of stair climbing and astronomical details, but sadly you can’t go in to the Baroque library or take pictures!! I can assure you it was superb. Had an Indian buffet dinner where you paid by weight at the Beas Dhaba restaurant. Back to our apartment and Dylan and I went to a bar to watch the Euro final. First bar was smoky and uncomfortable so at half time we swapped to the Lupe Fiasco bar where the barman told us he had lived in BondI and Maroubra! Unfortunately Portugal won, proving yet again how you can win in soccer by being the shittier team.

At this point I would import pictures but can’t seem to do it on WordPress.

 

 

 

GERMANY

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Arrived early at a deserted Munich airport to be greeted by signs promoting the way to the new showers which seemed a bit disturbing. Had a good flight over with Singapore Airlines. First leg was on the A380 which was the best. Second leg on a 777 was a bit less comfortable. As usual didn’t sleep much but got through 5 movies. Zootopia, The Lobster (which was very traumatic) , Son of Saul ( also traumatic but not as disturbing as the Lobster!) ,Mike Moore new one which was great except for the end when he tries to claim everything for the USA, and Dirty Grandpa which was a good antidote to the traumatic ones. Started two Bollywood ones but both were rubbish, standards have fallen apart in Bollywood lately, the movies are just collections of poorly written skits. Anyway back in Munich, quickly through immigration and onto the Sbahn to Poccistrasse station, and our hotel was right above. As if was only 8am we couldnt get our room so had a coffee then walked to Marienplatz and then the Viktualenmarkt which was very disappointing, just like an outdoor Myers food hall and nowhere near as good as the ones we saw in France and Madrid. Watched the glockenspiel clock at the Rathaus, got lunch from a department store food court then took Metro to the Olympic stadium which still looks impressive. Saw the pool where Shane got her gold medals and popped into BMW world to use their toilets, but stayed longer as it was quite good, like a mini motor show, even though I don’t like their cars that much. They did have a very nice convertible though. Checked into our room and had nice Thai dinner at Mama’s near Sendlinger Tor. Sat up to watch Euro semi final but fell asleep!

 

The Travelpossums are away again, This time to Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The Silk Road will never be the same again.

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