Archive for June, 2018

Part 1: Finland – Helsinki and Rovaniemi in Lapland.

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

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August 7, 2017. Tallinn, Estonia to Helsinki, Finland.

The Renault was taking its first overseas trip, as we were on the car ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki in Finland.

It was only an 80 kilometre journey but it was a day of waiting, as we needed to be at the ferry terminal at least two hours before departure. 

We were in fact there almost three hours before. 

As we left our apartment in Tallinn the tourists were arriving, by the busload. If we had departed any later it would have taken much longer to get through the streets. 

The ferry pulled out right on time at 12 noon. 

The Finlandia was a huge, 100 metres long, hermetically sealed, floating casino. 

I counted five bars and countless gaming machines strategically placed around them. 

In the area where we were sitting there was a bandstand, with a band, to entertain the punters and a Finish magician to keep them amused. We didn’t understand a word of Finnish, but you don’t need to. 

Pulling the metaphorical rabbit out of the hat, is visual not verbal. 

Just as we arrived at our hotel, the Best Western Carlton, it poured down. We had obviously brought the rain with us from Tallinn. 

It cleared in the afternoon which gave us a few hours to wander around the Old City. Which isn’t really that old, as most of the buildings are from the late 1800s and mid 20th centuries. However the area does have a history dating back to the Iron Age.

Helsinki was developed as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550. The intention was to make it a rival for Hanseatic, modern day Tallinn. Not much came of the plan and Helsinki remained a small town afflicted by poverty and plague. In fact in 1710 the majority of the city’s residents died from plague.

Helsinki became the capital city of Finland in 1812, just after it gained autonomy from Russia in 1809. Finland didn’t get full independence until 1917, after the February Revolution in Russia.

Helsinki is the world’s northernmost metropolitan area with a population of over 1 million people. It is also the northernmost capital city of the European Union, which it joined in 1995. 

Most of the city’s growth occurred during the twentieth century, after independence. It held the 1952 Summer Olympics and undertook a rapid urbanisation in the 1970s’. In 2012 Helsinki was named the World Design Capital.

In the evening we found the Bryggeri Helsinki a Gastropub just off the Senate Square. 

The beers were great as was the food. 

We both had the smoked salmon steaks, which was on a rich roasted vegetable stew of carrots, onions asparagus and fennel. 

Beer has been brewed in Helsinki for over 500 years and over that time there have been 27 breweries in the city area.

Bryggeri is the latest.

 

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August 8, 2017. Helsinki, Finland.

We had been lulled into a false security with the low prices in Eastern Europe. 

Finland was another thing. 

Everything was more expensive than Melbourne and that’s saying a lot. In Sandringham a beer and wine will set you back $20 in Helsinki its €17 ($25.50)

On our first full day in the capital we decided to take the Helsinki Hop-On Hop-Off bus, just to get a feeling for the city. 

In the late afternoon we then walked to closer inspect some of the sites that interested us most from the bus tour. 

Temppeliaukio, or Church of the Rock is one of the most visited sites in Helsinki. Completed in 1969 and designed by the architectural brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. As the name suggests it’s built directly into solid rock.

Helsinki’s central railway station is a wonderful example of the Art Nouveau style. Designed by the Finish architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) and inaugurated in 1919. The massive, Monumental Style, sculptures out the front are a feature. 

The station is a hub of both the Finland overground and Helsinki Metro and handles over 200,000 commuters per day. 

In 2013 it was voted as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations by the BBC. 

Our next site was the Sibelius Monument, designed by Eila Hiltunen and built in 1967.

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 was a composer and violinists. He is regarded as Finland’s greatest composer and credited with helping Finland develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia.

As usual a competition was run to find a suitable design for the sculpture. And, as usual, there was controversy over winning design. 

You can’t please all of the people, all of the time.

Using over 600 hollow steel pipes welded together, the contemporary design resembles organ pipes. It is very striking – especially set against a rarely blue Helsinki sky.

Critics of the design argued that it was too abstract and, more importantly, Jean Sibelius created very little music for the organ.

Hiltunen answered her critics by adding a figurative piece, the face of Sibelius, as part of the main design.

We heard on the bus tour that the Finns’ are amongst the world’s biggest consumers of coffee. There was certainly no shortage of good coffee to be found in Helsinki. 

 

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August 9, 2017. Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Finland.

The Renault was having yet another first today, as it was going travel on the training to Rovaniemi, in Lapland. 

After checking out of the hotel we put our bags into the car, which was still in the underground car park and walked into the Market Square. 

The train wasn’t leaving until 7pm so we decided to take a boat cruise around the islands surrounding Helsinki. 

We took the Historical Helsinki Cruise, which lasted about 90 minutes. 

It was interesting to see the city from another perspective. However the commentary was a bit boring as it repeated much of the information we had head on the Hop-on Hop-Off bus. 

After the cruise we had a coffee at the covered market, which has been turned into a food hall for the Market Square. We walked around the city a bit more and then wandered through Stockmann on the way back to the car park.

Stockmann is the largest department store in the Nordic countries and makes the claim that: ‘If you can’t get it in Stockmann, you don’t need it.’

They were right, the store is huge and has an enormous range of goods on offer.

We didn’t want to be late for the train so headed to the station early. 

Getting out of the car park was an interesting experience. 

We travelled hundreds of metres, underground, just to get to our parking spot. Then we must have driven a kilometre or two just to get out. We had obviously taken a wrong turn and finished up doing a subterranean tour of Helsinki. 

We emerged, like a mole after winter, on the other side of the city and were very happy to see daylight. 

Even getting to the train wasn’t without it’s problems. There were roadworks along the way and when we got to what we thought was the departure point, the station was being demolished. 

We finally got to there only to be told that we were 70 minutes too early. 

Oh well, so much for planning. 

At dinner on the train Thea met her lover – well he was in love. 

A very drunk Finnish guy thought he had it made when he discovered Thea sitting, on her own, in the restaurant car. 

I was off getting us a drink and when I returned the look of disappointment on his face was priceless. 

He had a minder, whose job was to make sure he got off the train at the right station. 

They were both retired electrical engineers and had been in Tallinn for a few days with some former work mates. 

I think it had been a big few days.

After dinner I had some work to do so we stayed in the restaurant car. The internet on the train was excellent and I was able to upload files with ease. 

 

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August 10, 2017. Rovaniemi, Finland.

The car train arrived in Rovaniemi at 7:10 am and it took another 40 minutes to get all the cars off. 

That was still too early, as the town was deserted and nothing was open. 

We finally found a cafe open and had breakfast. 

Rovaniemi has been the business centre of Finnish Lapland since the 1800s but the city is relatively new. 

It was destroyed by the Germans in WWII and has been completely rebuilt. As a result there is a lot of featureless concrete constructions in the main town area. 

The Arctic Light Hotel is one of the oldest buildings in the newly constructed Rovaniemi. 

It dates ‘way back’ to 1949 and was used as the new town Hall for a number of years. 

Our hotel room had a record 12 pillows on the bed. Then we found another one in the wardrobe. 

Apart from an over abundance of pillows, the room was lit up like a carnival, all controlled by a computer touch pad. 

Well it was the Arctic Light Hotel.

On the outside the building was rather mundane but the fit-out was very stylish. Everything was in black, white, grey and chrome. 

It also boasts the oldest lift in Rovaniemi. 

We were up inside the Arctic Circle to visit Santa, so after breakfast we headed north to Santa’s Village. 

As you would expect it’s very tacky, but a lot of fun. 

We chatted and even had our photos taken with the bearded one. And when he discovered we were Australians, he revealed his secret love of Vegemite.

Visiting Santa is free, having your photo taken with him isn’t. We opted for the video and digital download.

Nothing is cheap in Finland.

The Arctic Circle is defined …as the line, north of which the sun never sets for at least one day in summer, and never rises for at least one day in winter.

From Santa’s Village we travelled further north, up the road, to Vikaköongäs and the Vaattunkiköongäs wilderness area. There we had a great walk around some of the tracks. 

Just as were we’re heading back to Rovaniemi it poured down. 

The rain had caught up with us yet again. 

We wandered around the city centre of Rovaniemi, which didn’t take long and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant. 

This wasn’t plan A, as were we’re going to eat at the Finnish restaurant next door. 

It was booked out. 

As it turned out it wasn’t a problem, as the hotel restaurant was excellent and no where near as crowded. 

We had Reindeer, cooked two ways, which was fantastic. 

 

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August 11, 2017. Rovaniemi to Helsinki, Finland.

The breakfast at the Arctic Light Hotel was amongst the best we’d had. 

Lots of interesting tastes but with a Lappish touch. Even smoked Reindeer with cream cheese. The breads and cheeses were also great and they had fresh berries. 

We have been seeing berries for sale in Estonia and Finland and this was the first time we were served them for breakfast. 

Walking in nature is a common summer pastime of the Finns, so we decided to join them. 

We drove about 80 kilometres east of Rovaniemi to Auttiköngäs to do the nature trail walk. 

The road was excellent and the trip took just over an hour.  

The walk was 3.5 kilometres of stairs, duckboard (boardwalk) and tracks. There were waterfalls, swing bridges and a lookout along the way. 

At the very start of the track is an old timber log chute, which is strange as this area is not meant to have been logged. 

The track was well marked and there were interesting commentary boards describing the flora, fauna and geography of the area.

It took us just over two hours, as we had many photo opportunities and reading stops along the way. 

On returning to Rovaniemi we did some shopping for the next day’s breakfast and had an early dinner. That night we were back on the train to Helsinki, boarding at 9:10pm and arriving 12 hours later.

Again we had to be at the station early to load the Renault. 

 

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August 12, 2017. Helsinki, Finland.

After an eventless night on the train, ie: no drunken engineers, we arrived in Pasila, on the outskirts of Helsinki at 9:05 am.

We again took the car to the underground car park, as it was too early to check into the hotel.

The first task was to buy an Olympus 40-150 mm lens. We had seen one before we left to go north and decided that the price was too good to miss.

Unlike so much in Finland that is expensive this lens was well below what we expected to be paying.

In the afternoon we wandered around the newer area of Helsinki and admired the street art that’s all over the city.

There was one very impressive piece of sculpture, sitting in front of the music centre, titled Song Tree. Created by Reijo Hukkanen in 2012, it’s 13 meters high and was inspired by a poem by Aaro Hellaakoski. It tells of a pike that rose from the sea and begins to sing. The song was so beautiful that birds in the trees stopped their singing to listen to the fish.

We then visited the City Park and Töölönlahti Lake, which is very close to the centre of the city. From there is was a short walk to the National Museum of Finland.

A visit to the museum gave us a good opportunity to immerse ourselves in some Finnish history.

The exhibits covers the country’s past from the Stone Age, though the Middle Ages, the Swedish Kingdom to the Russian Empire Era.

It included the rise of Christianity, the Reformation in 1517 and the influence of Martin Luther.

There are a number cafes in Helsinki that have adopted the US system of minimal service. 

It’s counter service and you clear away your own crockery, cutlery and glassware. The big difference is, that everything is real and gets washed and reused. 

No paper, no polystyrene and no tip. 

Staff levels in Finland seem to be low, compared to other places we have been this trip. 

People do multiple tasks and work very hard. 

For instance the receptionists, at two hotels we stayed in, also looked after the breakfast buffet. And at one hotel they also serviced the bar. 

Wait staff in restaurants are thin on the ground and service a large number of tables. Even the kitchens seem to operate with minimal staff.

Self service is the norm, especially in the pubs. You order at the counter, pay and basically look after yourself. 

I have a theory that it’s all to do with the basic wage and cost of employment. The unemployment rate in Finland, as of July 2017, was 8.08%. 

In the US it is currently 4.8% which isn’t surprising considering that their average wage is US$2.13 per hour. 

In Finland a bartender gets about €11 per hour, that’s about US$13. 

Basically it costs more to employ people in Finland but they get paid much more. 

We were impressed by the pub culture in Estonia but when we discovered the Sori Brewpub in Helsinki, we were overwhelmed. 

This brewery is based in Tallinn, Estonia but has a Brewpub in Helsinki, not far from our hotel. Ironically it was started by two Finns.

The quality of the beer and the food were exceptional.

We were appreciative of a cosy environment for dinner, as no sooner had we arrived than it poured down.

Part 3: Eastern Europe – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

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July 21, 2017. Poprad-Spišská, Slovakia to Krakáu, Poland.

The task for today was simple – drive the 149 kilometres from Poprad-Spišská, Slovakia to Krakau in Poland. This was one of our shortest drives but it turned out to be one of the slowest. 

If Slovakia was ‘slow-quick’, Poland was ‘slow-slower’. 

We added nearly an hour and a half to the estimated time. The traffic density was twice what it had been in Slovakia and they were building a huge freeway along most of the route. 

This new road was certainly needed. 

As soon as we got to Krakáu, we found the tourists – in their thousands. 

Unlike where we had been over the last days in Slovakia, Poland was a tourist destination and Krakau was a tourist city.

Multiple languages, including English were being spoken on the streets, in the hotels and in the restaurants. Touts, hawkers and buskers were trying to relieve you of your money and souvenirs stands were on every corner. There was also Segways and horse-drawn carriages, ready to show you around.

Prices were also back to their usual inflated value and this meant that there were ATMs everywhere, just in case we ran our of cash.

I think I like places with fewer tourists.

 

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July 22, 2017. Krakáu, Poland.

We were in Krakáu to try and get an understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi  occupation of Poland.

Krakáu has a rich heritage, having grown from a stone age settlement to become Poland’s second most important city. In 1364 Casimir III founded the University of Krakáu and today it still remains a centre of academic excellence.

The 15th and 16th centuries were known as the Golden Age for the city. This was the time of the Polish Renaissance when architecture and art flourished. The High Synagogue, built in either 1407 or 1492 (scholars differ), was then rebuilt in 1570 and is regarded as one of the best examples of a Fortress Synagogue in Europe. The Jewish population played an important role in the growth of the city but even as far back as 1495 they were being persecuted. King John I Albert expelled them from the city wall and they were relocated to Kazimierz.

In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Krakáu became part of the General Government. This was a separate administrative region of the Third Reich.

The Nazis wanted Krakáu to become a Germanised city which involved removing all the Jews and Poles – one way or another. They confined the Jews to a ghetto, where many died from starvation or illness. Later those in the ghetto were either murdered or sent to concentration camps.

After working in the morning, we headed out to discover the city. Our first stop was in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter and then the High Synagogue.

Having seen Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie, Schindler’s List, we were interested to visit the factory where Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) saved the lives of over a thousand Polish Jews. Based on the Thomas Keneally book, Schindler’s Arch, most of the movie was shot in Krakáu.

The factory was built in 1936, by a  group of Jewish business men, for the Record Metal Goods Company. The business went broke at the start of the war and it was then rented by Oskar between 1939 and 1944.

The Schindler’s Enamel Factory is situated in the district of Zabłocie. In recent years the area has been redeveloped and is now a trendy new suburb, full of apartments, coffee shops and restaurants.

The exhibition, although in the Schindler factory, wasn’t about Oskar.  It was all about the German occupation of Krakáu between 1939 and 1945.

The Krakáu Ghetto was established in 1941 in the Podgórze district. This area originally housed 3,000 people but ultimately there were 15,000 crammed into its walled space. From 1942 the Nazis began deporting the Polish Jews to surrounding concentration camps.

In March 1943 the Nazis undertook the final ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto. Eight thousand, who were deemed able to work, were sent to the Plazów labour camp while 2,000 were killed in the streets of the Ghetto. The remaining survivors were sent to Auschwitz.

The Poles have had it tough and the exhibition was a stark demonstration of that. 

They gained their independence from the Austro Hungarian Empire in 1918. Then in 1939 they lost if again, this time to the German’s. Only to lose it again in 1945, this time to the Russians. 

 

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July 23, 2017. Krakáu and Auschwitz – Birkenau, Poland.

We had booked an Auschwitz-Birkenau Full-Day Guided Tour from Krakáu. 

This wasn’t our intended way to see the Nazi concentration and extermination camps but it was the only option available. 

All the tours, for individuals, were booked out weeks in advance. 

It appears that the tour companies buy up all the tickets, so you are forced to use them. 

It took us just over an hour to drive to Auschwitz. 

Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp, constructed in 1940  it was primarily to hold Polish political prisoners. Then Auschwitz II – Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution

Auschwitz II – Birkenau was the largest Nazi German Concentration and Death Camp. 

Between 1942 and 1944 over 1.3 million people were sent to the camp. 

1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, 90% were Jews.

Just as we were about to finish our tour of the death camps the rain came down.

It was a fitting end to a very sobering experience.

Later in the afternoon we went in search of something a bit more uplifting and walked around Krakáu Old Town. This area was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

We visited the The Cloth Hall, a beautiful late 15th century Renaissance building in the main market square.

We also stopped at the Town Hall Tower (1316), St. Florian’s Gate (1307) and the Barbican Gate (1498).

July 24, 2017. Krakáu to Kazimierz Dolny, Poland.

I worked again in the morning and then we drove to Kazimierz Dolny for a one night stand.

On the road we stopped at Ilźa for a break. This meant finding an ice cream for Thea and a coffee for me. The ice cream wasn’t a problem, as there were at least four places selling them, even though the town was tiny. 

Too tiny for a coffee as it turned out. 

We drove into Kazimierz Dolny and had a walk around the quaint Renaissance town.

That night it rained again.

 

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July 25, 2017. Kazimierz Dolny to Warsaw, Poland.

After I worked in the morning we then checked out of the hotel and walked into town. 

Along the way, beside the Vistula River, there’s a sculpture hanging over a wharf. It’s of a tightrope walking young boy with a kite. 

It’s by Jerzy Marian Kędzioraa, a Polish artist, born in 1947. He is famously known as the creator of the ‘Balancing Sculpture’ genre and has installations throughout Poland.

It was Market Day in Kazimierz Dolny. 

Ice Cream Day as well, as everyone seemed to be licking one. 

Apart from the Parish church and two restored town houses, Under St Nicolas and Under St Christopher, built in1615, there wasn’t much else.

We then continued on to Warsaw.

 

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July 26, 2017. Warsaw, Poland.

I worked yet again in the morning and then we walked into the Old Town, which was a lot further away than we thought it would be. From what we read on booking.com, our apartment should have been much closer. Warsaw’s Old Town appears to have grown, a bit like Brighton, and seemed to be a much larger in area than we remembered.

The last time we were in Warsaw was in 2007 and we were staying in the Bristol Hotel which was right next to the Old Town. 

Back then all the roads around the hotel were under repair, now everything was much more ordered. 

It’s not very often that coffee leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 

It did this day in Warsaw, when we found out that we were paying $13 for two double shot espressos. And to add insult to injury the service was non existent and they got grumpy when we didn’t leave a tip.

Warsaw’s Old Town has been almost entirely rebuilt following the Second Word War.

As a reprisal to the Polish resistance of the Nazi invasion, 85% of the city was destroyed. The German’s aim was to obliterate the centuries-old tradition of Polish statehood.

The rebuilding of the city included the reconstruction of the urban plan, which included the Old Market and the surrounding town houses, the city walls and the Royal Castle.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city.

We were lucky enough to see the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This  took about one minute, compared to the one at Arlington, in Washington DC, that took twenty.

The Palace of Culture and Science is a Soviet era building that dominated the city skyline and we were interested to get a closer look. Built between 1952 and 1955, in the Socialist Realism style, it has become a modern landmark in the Polish capital.

It is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth tallest in the European Union. It is 237 meters high, which includes the 43 meter spire.

It was originally known as the Joseph Stalin Palace. but after ‘Destalinisation’ its name was changed to the rather boring ‘Palace of Culture and Science’

Some less common names include ‘Stalin’s Syringe’ and ‘Stalin’s Dick’.

 

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July 27, 2017. Warsaw to Augustów, Poland.

After breakfast in the apartment we walk around the corner and got a coffee. 

12 Zloty (A$4) for both – a far cry from the 37 Zloty (A$13) the day before. And there was service with a smile. 

We then headed to Augustów, which is about 240 kilometres north of Warsaw. 

This is a seaside resort on the Augustów Lakes. 

We had booked another apartment which was in one of three old Soviet apartment blocks. 

It was small, very small, with three rooms and a bathroom. And it was painted in ‘Soviet Green’, like so much of that era. 

Soviet Green is like a Spring green but dulled down. 

After we had checked in we went for a walk into Augustów and then along the Netta River.

We only spent one night at the apartment in Augustów, which was a very Soviet experience, but well worth it.

 

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July 28, 2017. Augustów, Poland to Vilnius, via Trakai Castle, Lithuania

I have become very efficient at reverse parking onto footpaths. In a lot of places there is more room there than than on the road.

On the way to Vilnius we stopped off at Trakai Island Castle, which is on Lake Galve. 

And so did all the tour busses. 

The stone castle was started by Kęstutis in the 14th century and completed by his son, Vytautas the Great, in 1408.

Over the centuries the castle fell into disrepair and was then partially restored, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War, in 1948, that it was renovated to its current 15th century style.

The castle museum, founded in 1948, holds about 300,000 artefacts. 

There was an entire room dedicated to decorative pipes. 

Trakai is a major tourist attraction and regarded as a true Lithuanian heritage castle.

 

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July 29, 2017. Vilnius, Lithuania.

Our hotel was in a casino, but we were separate from it. 

Except for breakfast. 

This was in one of the casino’s restaurants and we had to be escorted through the casino, past the tables, to get there. Our escort was a big, burly casino security guy. 

In the casino there were people on the tables and at the bar – it was 9:30am. 

A family of three also turned up for breakfast and they were as confused as we were.  

This was Saturday and we were told that breakfast wasn’t available on Sunday. 

Why, we didn’t know, but in a way we were relieved, as we felt uncomfortable being minded by muscle that early in the morning.

We had a long walk around the city and visited Gediminas Castle Tower. The first brick tower was built in 1409 by Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania. The tower is an important part of Lithuanian history and featured on the national currency, the Litas.

Within the tower was a temporary exhibition titled ‘The Baltic Way’.

On August 23rd 1989 more than 2 million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians made a living chain from Tompea Castle in Tallin, Estonia to Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania. This was in protest of the USSR’s occupation of the Baltic States in 1939. This resulted from the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviets and the Nazis.

After the war the Soviets denied existence of the pact and claimed that the Baltic States joined the USSR voluntarily.

Vilnius is a city to see in the morning, because in the afternoon, everything is back-lit. 

After dinner we discover the Vilnius bike racks. Each rack held ten push bikes and very graphically demonstrated that each rack could take just one car or ten bikes.

 

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July 30, 2017. Vilnius, Lithuania to Ludza, Latvia.

It was about 300 kilometres from Vilnius to Ludza in Latvia. 

Given our experiences of the last few days I thought we would be in for a very long trip. 

This wasn’t the case. 

Being a Sunday the roads were very quiet and there were very few trucks and not a lot of of roadworks.

That’s until we got into Latvia. 

The roads were better than Lithuania but that was because they were repairing them. 

It was still a pleasant trip that took about six hours, including stops for coffee and delays due to the roadworks. 

Ludza is the oldest town in Latvia and first mentioned in history in 1173. 

It has a stone built, Livonian Order, crusader castle constructed in 1399. The castle, as usual, is on top of a hill that overlooks the Lielā Ezerkrasta iela (lake)

It is located on the main Riga to Moscow road and only 30 km from the Russian border. 

The town is relatively small so it didn’t take much time to walk around. 

Diner was at the Hotel Ludza, as there weren’t many options in the town. The hotel was a Soviet era building and again there were the green walls that we had seen in our apartment in Augustów.

There was a constant babble in the rooms adjoining the restaurant. As it turned out there was a birthday party in progress. 

I got chatting to a few of the guests when I went outside to take some snaps of the hotel. The group were very Russian in their look and their attitude and were intrigued as to why two Australians could possible end up in Ludza. 

 

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July 31, 2017. Ludza, Latvia to Tartu, Estonia.

It looked like being another longish drive into Estonia, up past the Russian border. 

Surprisingly the roads were free of repair gangs and there was very little traffic. 

There were virtually no trucks as well. 

Which is understandable, as the SatNav took us on a very back-roads route. This did give us some great scenery. Forests, lakes and quaint little villages were our companions for most of the drive. 

Estonia is regarded as one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. 

Fast free internet is everywhere. 

Our hotel was right next to the Emajögi River and was within an easy walk of the old town square. 

In the afternoon we wandered along the river and into town, then ended up at the botanical gardens. Established in 1803, they are small and built on a hilly site. This made for an interesting and varied landscape, and a good stroll. 

 

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August 1, 2017. Tartu, Estonia.

The Captur had done over 4,000 kilometres, so it was due for a wash. 

The roadkill was encrusted onto the front of the poor little Renault. And after the unmade roads of the previous day, it was looking rather shabby. 

The hotel directed to a local hand car wash. 

It was €20 (almost A$30) for a wash only. That’s a lot more than I pay at Clearwater in Brighton. 

Tartu was first mentioned 1030 and is the second largest city in Estonia, next to Tallinn.

Tartu Domed Cathedral has been partly restored and is now used as the University of Tartu History Museum. 

The University buildings have been beautifully restored and there is even an old elevator that still works.

In these eastern block countries there is a constant reminder of their Soviet past. In the foyer of the Hotel Dorpat, was a shiny red, rear engined, Soviet ZAZ-965. Produced in the ZAZ factory in Soviet Ukraine between 1960-1969, they were described as ‘Superminis.’

 

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August 2, 2017. Tartu to Vihula, Estonia.

After breakfast at the hotel we went over the road to the Taska Mall to get a coffee. 

Estonia is a very different part of Eastern Europe. The technology, culture, fashion and language all seem to be more Nordic. 

English is very widely spoken, not just in the tourist related establishments but all types of businesses. 

I had a haircut and they spoke English and in the car wash, again, English. 

We had been on the move since we left Berlin and decided to have a few days off in the country. 

The Vihula Manor Country Club and Spa was in a large old Estonian estate set within the Lahemaa National Park. 

It was spread over acres, with ponds, bridges, walkways and accommodation set within beautifully manicured gardens. 

They even have an old Dutch stone windmill at the front gates. 

Visual Vyoll, as it was then known, was first mentioned in history in 1501.

There is nothing left of that era as it was destroyed in the Great Nordic War of 1700 to 1721.

The structures that are there today date from the late 1800s.

During the Russian Revolution the Red Army Guards devastated the manor and then it was nationalised between the wars.

From 1941 to 1944 it was an Intelligence School for the German Abwehr. Then under Soviet rule it became part of the Ubja State Farm and from 1951 to 1980 it was a senior citizens asylum.

The park is set on a coastline that encompasses four peninsulas that jut out into the the Gulf of Finland. 

Lahemaa is one of Europe’s most important forest conservation areas, where many large mammals live. Apparently the area is home to moose, wild boars, brown bears, lynxes and foxes. 

We hope to see them, not meet them. 

Within Vihula Manor there is a car museum, with a small collection from the Soviet era. 

Volga (gAZ-21) 1959, Chaika (1970), Pobeda (1953) and a French Berliet (1927) and German Opel (1936). 

 

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August 3, 2017. Vihula, Estonia.

There are two nature trails around Vihula Manor, one is 3 kilometres and the other is 1.5. 

The longer of the two takes you through part of the forest, along the Vihula River and across the hay fields that are within the property. 

The property area of Vihula Manor is large, with the buildings occupying over 8,000 square meters, all set within 50 hectares of parkland.

In the afternoon we drove to the small fishing village of Altja on Vérgi Bay. We then drove further west to the much larger town of Vösu. 

There was a sandy beach and a very strong wind.

Windsurfers and sailboarders were taking advantage of the wind, while the sun bakers were hiding behind the long grass on the foreshore.

There were a couple of brave bathers actually in the Straits of Finland. 

In the evening we decided to go to the ‘swish’ restaurant. 

We were advised to book in advance. 

When we arrived there was only one other table occupied, and by the end of the evening there was only one more. 

At breakfast the place seemed full. So where are they eating?

My guess is, in their rooms. 

We have seen this a lot throughout Eastern Europe. The cities and sites seem busy, but the tourists retreat at the end of the day. 

We often see travellers, loaded down with plastic bags full of groceries, heading into their hotels. 

August 4, 2017. Vihula, Estonia.

We woke to the sound of rain pouring down the drainpipe, just outside our window.

Luckily we did our exploring the previous day, when the weather was fine.

Estonia has a vibrant craft beer industry. I don’t know how much is draught but there is certainly a lot of bottled beer on offer. 

At the Vihula Manor tavern there were 13 bottled craft beers on the bar blackboard. They were from three different breweries, Vihula, the local brew, Ollenaut and Purtse. 

They covered a wide variety of styles, including IPA, American Pale Ale, Pilsner, Brown Ale, Stouts and Porters. 

Over the last few weeks we have seen many storks and their nests. They are usually high up on a man made, purpose built, stork nest platform. 

We wondered why. 

Thea did a bit of digging and came up with a possible answer. 

Superstition. 

Apparently German peasant farmers believed that it was good luck to have a stork nest in your property. So they build places for them to do just that. 

The were originally cart wheels placed on top of chimneys, now they are metal frames on top of a specially erected pole. 

With the migration of Germans to all parts of Eastern Europe, this tradition has been maintained and stork nests are everywhere. They don’t just set up home on the man made locations but also on power poles and very occasionally in the tops of trees. 

 

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August 5, 2017. Vihula to Tallinn, Estonia.

We had our final breakfast at Vihula Manor. It wasn’t as crowded as the previous two days so the staff had a chance to be even more polite than usual. 

Then as we were leaving the hotel it dawned on me. The staff had obviously been trained in the You’re Welcome School of Hospitality. 

Wherever we went in the hotel we were greeted with “Have a nice day” and the phrase, “You’re welcome” was so overused that some of the staff actually said it before they served you. 

The weather has been very erratic over the last few weeks and suddenly it had taken a turn for the worse. 

On the drive from Vihula to Tallinn we were constantly buffeted by brief storms. We would have a few minutes of torrential rain, followed by bright blue sky. Then it would happen all over again a few kilometres down the road. 

The same pattern continued when we arrived in Tallinn. 

Our apartment was close to the old city and crowded with tour groups. 

They blanketed the road and it took me an age to wend my way through the narrow streets and alleys. 

After finding our apartment, we parked the car and went for a walk. 

Then the rain started again. 

While we were dodging the showers I noticed a graphic stencilled on the pavement. It was warning people about pick-pockets.

Well, Tallinn is a large city and there are lots of tourists.

 

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August 6, 2017. Tallinn, Estonia.

In the morning the rain was still pelting down and we were forced to stay inside. 

It persisted, so we made the executive decision to have a long lunch.

After all it was Sunday. 

By mid afternoon the skies were a little clearer so we set out to explore the city. 

Tallinn is the oldest capital in Northern Europe with a history dating back to 1154. 

The Old Town is one of Europe’s best preserved, walled, Medieval cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

It’s also only 80 kilometres to Helsinki in Finland, as the ferry flies. 

Because of its location Tallinn became an important trading centre from the 14th to the 16th centuries. As a result there are a number of wealthy merchant houses in the Old City. 

Tallinn wears its history proudly with well restored buildings and lots of tourist signs pointing to its colourful past. A large number of the old houses have been turned into museums. In fact there seems to be a museum for just about every topic. 

Just next door to our apartment was the Tallinn Museum of Estonian Drinking Culture. I think it was really a front for a bottle shop and bar. 

Tallinn a very popular destination with Russian tourists, as it’s a lot cheaper than Scandinavia and Western Europe. 

We had got a good feel for Tallinn in the time we were there but weren’t too concerned that we hadn’t done it justice, as we were due to return after visiting Finland. 

 

Part 2: Eastern Europe – Slovakia.

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

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July 8, 2017. Brno, Czech Republic to Bratislava, Slovakia.

After breakfast and a coffee with Kate and Mark we parted ways. They still had more touring to do in the Czech Republic and we were heading to Bratislava in Slovakia. 

On the way we stopped in Mikulov, which is very close to the Austrian border. This small town is known for its architecture, with many buildings having Italian features.

Sitting above the town is Mikulov Castle. This reconstruction, built over the site of a 13th century castle, was built between 1719 and 1730 – it dominates the skyline.

Again weddings were everywhere. It was certainly a photogenic town and a great background for wedding snaps. 

This is in the heart of the Moravian wine district and there were hundreds of locals, on push bikes, doing wine tours. 

Just after we crossed into Slovakia we were forced to use the motorway, which was a toll road. 

However just before the toll station there was an office where you could buy an electronic toll pass. 

It was simple, relatively fast and saved all the hassle of having to find change at toll gates. 

In fact there are no toll gates, so you have to have buy a pass. 

We arrived in Bratislava mid afternoon, about the same time as the rain. 

Our accommodation in Bratislava was at the Film Hotel. It was, as you might expect, about all things ‘film’. 

There were human sized Oscars in the reception area, while the walls were covered in black and white photos of film stars, old and new. 

Each room was named after an actor or actress, we were in room 9, Leonardo de Caprio. 

We have been travelling for almost two months and this is our first new country on the itinerary. 

 

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July 9, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.

Bratislava is the only national capital that borders two sovereign states, Austria and Hungary. 

It sits on the banks of the Danube and Morava Rivers. With a population of just over 450,000 it’s one of Europe’s smallest capital cities.

Bratislava was first mentioned in written history in 903. It became the capital of Slovakia, after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, in 1993. Then, with the help of foreign investment, the economy took off.

In 2017 Bratislava was ranked as the third richest region in the European Union. It was certainly evident in the art, architecture, lifestyle and the people. 

Street art is everywhere within the city centre. The one that got a lot of attention was a bronze sculpture of a worker emerging from a manhole.

In the afternoon we spent a few hours wandering around Bratislava Castle. This massive fortification stands above the city, overlooking the Danube River, on the Little Carpathians.

It dominates the city and has done so for centuries.

On a clear day you can actually see Austria and get a glimpse of Hungary. It wasn’t a clear day when we visited.

It was progressively built between the 9th and 18th centuries and rebuilt between 1956 and 1964, following a catastrophic fire in 1811.

Because of its location, within the centre of Europe, the site has been inhabited for thousands of years. First by the Celts and Romans and then by successive European dynasties.

The architectural style is a rich mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. There is even an English park.

There was a glassware exhibition within the castle, celebrating 125 years of Rona in Bratislava. Rona was established in Ledniké Rovne, Slovakia, in 1892 and is famous for its unleaded drinking glasses. 

Craft beer isn’t just in Germany and the Czech Republic, it’s crossed the border, and is well and truly established in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Over two days we found two craft brewpubs serving excellent craft beers. Both Zil Verne and Klubovña had a selection of imported craft beer, as well as their own brews. 

However I don’t think they were serving their beer in Rona glassware.

 

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July 10, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.

Bratislava was an interesting city, as was the Film Hotel, so we decided to stay an extra night. 

Rather than moving on we made a day trip clockwise around the Bratislava area. 

The main purpose, and highlight, was a side trip to the Red Stone Castle, which is between Píla and Častá. 

Červený Kameň or Red Stone Castle was originally constructed around 1230 as a border castle between the Bohemian and Hungarian Kingdoms. 

It has been home to many noble families, the last being Pálffy who were there from 1583 to 1945. 

The beautifully crafted ceiling frescos in the living area were a feature. 

Being designed as a fortress, the castle cellars were very impressive. The largest being 70 meters long, 7 meters wide and 9 meters high. The cellars are unique and the largest of their type in Europe, there’s even a 110 meter deep well.

Weather in this area is reliably unpredictable.

One moment there’s a blue sky, with patchy clouds. Then suddenly, all the clouds gang-up on you, and there’s a thunderstorm. After being here for a few days we realised that this is a regular afternoon occurrence. 

No sooner had we arrived back at the Film Hotel than the thunder started to rumble. Which, by now, was to be expected. 

On our last night in Bratislava we found yet another brewpub. Výčap U Ernöho is on a corner, just outside the city gates. 

Just in front of the pub was a small square, which was well used by the pub patrons. They were chilling out in all styles of chairs and there was even a fountain and water spray to help cool the warm evening breeze. 

They do know how to relax and they don’t have to pay a fortune for it. 

A round of drinks (a large beer and wine) was €4.20 (A$6.50). We would be paying $20 in Hobsons. 

 

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July 11, 2017. Bratislava to Čičmany, Slovakia.

We made one stop on our way out of Bratislava and that was to see the Church of St Elizabeth. 

Built in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style between, 1909 and 1913, this church is number six on the top ten sites of the city. 

And it’s blue – very blue. 

The exterior is covered in mosaics, much of them glass. 

The vast majority of the drive to Čičmany was on a motorway. Then we got into the ‘slow-fast’ driving of the country roads. Slow through the villages, where the speed limit is 50 km/h and then a little faster through the countryside in between. 

There were lots of villages so the going was slow, then occasionally fast. 

We reached Čičmany in the early afternoon and were able to check into the hotel. 

It was then off to explore the village. 

Čičmany dates back to 1272 and is famous for its painted wooden houses. Which are much younger.

The houses date from the early part of the 20th century. The white motives painted on the black walls are inspired by the local embroidery. 

Off to the side of the village, behind a group of trees, sits the the Baroque Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross.  

It didn’t take us long to explore Čičmany so we were glad we had only booked one night. 

Our accommodation was at the Kaštieľ Čičmany. This was a traditional old house that had been completely renovated. It retained the old exterior but the inside had been made contemporary. 

And all the furnishings came from Ikea, which was a refreshing change from all the ‘old world charm’ we had been experiencing. 

The little village is surrounded by ski runs. So when it’s not hosting tourists in the summer, it’s full of skiers in the winter. 

Not much is in English in Čičmany, so it is really catering to the local tourist trade. 

It was obviously low season there as most places, that were open, shut early. 

We found an ‘interesting’ local bar and restaurant down the road from our hotel. Come 9pm we were the only ones left in the place. 

 

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July 12, 2017. Čičmany to Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia.

On the way we stopped stopped at Bojnice Castle. This was first mentioned in history in 1013, when it was originally a wooden fort.

The most famous owner of the castle was János Ferenc Pálffy (1829-1908). He was a man who loved art, more than anything else. After a failed love affair he devoted his time, energy and money to the castle. He was one of the greatest collectors of antiques, tapestries, drawings, paintings and sculpture of his time.

The last independent owner was Ján Bata of Bata Shoes.

Ironically the Bata family were never mentioned in our guided tour. Which is surprising as the Bata Shoe story is a very interesting one. Maybe not the noblest of families but certainly one of the most industrious.

Founded over 122 years ago in the Czech Republic by Tomáš Bata, Bata Shoes have over 5,200 retail stores in more that 70 countries with production facilities in 18.

The family were originally cobblers, and to overcome a serious debt developed a new style of shoe made out of canvas.

They were one of the first shoe companies in Europe to industrialise, by installing steam-driven machines. They later introduced mass production techniques from America.

The Bata’s were the Henry Ford of shoes.

They received military orders during World War 1 but they fell into decline during the depression years that followed.

Rather than put off staff, the company reduced the price of their shoes and put their staff on a reduced salary. They also provided subsidies for their food and clothing.

They then gave their staff share options in the company, giving them added incentive to work hard and remain loyal.

This radical approach saw Bata Shoes actually increase market share during the depression and helped them to survive.

Many others went under.

The Family may not have collected art or built magnificent castles but they were certainly a family of great resolve and ingenuity.

Just as many Slovakian are early to bed, they are also late to rise. Well if our hotels in Čičmany and Banská Štiavnica were anything to go by. 

The one in Čičmany didn’t start breakfast until 9am, while the Hotel Salamander, in Banská Štiavnica, didn’t start till 8am – how very civilised. 

The Slovakian national summer pastime is eating ice cream. Everyone does it and they seem to do it with great regularity. I was so impressed with their ice-cream eating that I devoted an entire post to it.

Parking is always an issue in Europe but when you get into the small towns it gets worse. 

In Banská Štiavnica we were staying in the Hotel Salamander.

They boasted parking. 

When we arrived all but one of the five spots were taken. Apparently that was ours and it was partially on the street. So if any of the four cars in front of us needed to move, we would have to move, in order to let them out. 

The solution was simple – just leave your keys at reception.

 

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July 13, 2017. Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia.

We took the ‘Tourist Train’ around Banská Štiavnica. Unfortunately the commentary wasn’t in English as English speaking tourists don’t seem to have discovered this part of Europe. In fact most of the travellers seem to be either local or from bordering countries, such as Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

Banská Štiavnica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s built in a caldera.

It was first mentioned in history in 1157 and has been the centre of mining, especially during the Hapsburg Monarchy of the 18th century.

The oldest mining school in the Hungarian Kingdom was set up there in 1735 and in 1846 it joined with the Forest Academy which was founded in 1808. University and college buildings are dotted all over the city.

With its many attractions and relatively few tourists this area of Slovenia might just become a new ‘Hot Spot’ destination.

The Calvary of Banská Štiavnica was built in 1774, on the plug of the extinct volcano, which is in the centre of the caldera. It was under renovation, but its 23 monuments are worth the walk from town and the climb to get to the top.

The New Castle and the Old Castle are also worth a visit. The New castle has an interesting exhibition of Turkish artefacts and documents the history of the war with the Ottoman Empire. 

It was built as a defence against Turkish invasion. 

In the evening we found yet another brewpub, ERB. Edward Rada Breweries brew on the premises and also in an old synagogue, that’s just over the road. 

The Synagogue was built in 1893 and was used as a place of worship until 1941.

It has been used for a number of business over the years, such as a sheet metal workshop and a driving school.

It has been a National Heritage site since 1955.

 

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July 14, 2017. Banská Štiavnica to Košice, Slovakia.

This was the longest drive we had done for a few days. 

And made even longer by us going down a new motorway, the wrong way, for quite a few kilometres.

The motorway was in the middle of nowhere and there were no turn-offs.

Arriving in Košice and finding our hotel wasn’t without its difficulties. The usual road works and one way streets hindered our way. 

This is always going to be an issue when we chose hotels in the centre of the old town, which is usually pedestrian only streets.

The Hotel Zlaty Dukat is in one of the oldest buildings in Košice and built over the foundations of the old city wall. There is a staircase that descends to the basement, where there is a small wine bar built among the ruins. 

After checking in we spent an hour or so just wandering. 

Košice is the second largest city in Slovakia. The old town is concentrated along Hlavná (Street). This is a long walking area that’s dominated by St Elisabeth Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic churches in Europe. 

There is a green area between the two walking streets. This is occupied with parents and children playing, two fountains, a glockenspiel and wedding photographers with their victims.

Restaurants line both sides but it’s hard to find one where people are eating an evening meal. 

Most main meals seem to be taken at lunchtime, with pizza and cake being the staple in the summer twilight. 

Maybe we should consider lunch as an option. 

Košice was originally mentioned in history in the year 1230 and was the first settlement in Europe to be granted its own coat-of-arms in 1369.

 

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July 15, 2017. Košice, Slovakia.

After a bit of housekeeping, AKA ‘washing’, we headed back into the old town. 

The weather had threatened to be horrible but then turned out to be fine. Which meant the light was in the right position for most of the historic buildings. 

We paid the ridiculously low price of €1, that was for both of us, and ventured below, into the old city fortifications. 

They were from the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, and 3 metres below the current city streets. Where we entered was the site of the original Lower or Southern Gate. 

Later in the afternoon we climbed to the top of St Elisabeth’s Cathedral Tower to get a better view of the city.

The city sprawls off in all directions from the old section. Out in the ‘burbs the architecture was very 70s, Soviet high rise and not very interesting.

It did start to rain late in the afternoon but by that time we had seen all there was to see in Košice.

 

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July 16, 2017. Košice to Viničky, Slovakia. (With a side trip into Hungary)

It was a day of ups and downs – literally. 

The drive from Košice to Viničky was very short so we arrive very early and then headed out to explore the Tokaj wine region. We were at the very top of the wine trail as most of the region is in Hungary.

We managed, even at an early hour, to check into Pension Zlatá Putňa, so we had most of the day left to explore.

Most of the vineyards are tiny plots of land huddled around small villages. 

There are the large commercial wineries but these are outnumbered by the small ones.

Out first stop was at the Tokaj Viewing Platform – our first up for the day.

The platform has been developed, with the help of some Swiss Francs, as a tourist attraction.

It’s 12 meters high and shaped like a wine barrel. It is certainly an interesting piece of architecture and was awarded so in 2015.

We then decided to make a side trip into Hungary. From the viewing platform we had sighted a cable car, and having nothing better to do, decided to try and find it.

One problem was that Hungary doesn’t use Euros, they have the Forint.

We managed to purchase tickets with our Visa card on the Nagas-hegyi Chair Lift and had our second up and down for the day.

We were in the Sátoraljaújhely area, which is an adventure playground for the locals, and they were there in their hundreds.

Apart from the chair lift there was a zip-line, cable car, stock car track and a strange style of toboggan run that was on rails.

We seemed to have been driving for kilometres but when we reached the top of the chair lift we could see Viničky, our village.

It was only about 8 kilometres away.

On our way back we stopped in Borsi to look at the castle. There wasn’t really much to see, as it was only a shell.

It seems its only claim to fame was that Ferenc Rákóczi II was born and lived there. Born in 1676 Ferenc Rákóczi is regarded as the hero of Hungary, leading the Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburgs between 1703 and 1711.

Our hotel was on the main road in Viničky and there wasn’t much else in the town.

Luckily the hotel had a restaurant. 

We seemed to be the only people staying in the Penzión Zlatá Putňa but there were certainly a number of drop-ins, all local. 

Thea had made enquiries about where we could have a local wine tasting. 

The receptionist arranged for the chef to do a tasting with dinner, which all sounded very swish. 

However it didn’t eventuate – apparently he was too busy. 

 

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July 17, 2017. Viničky to Prešov, Slovakia.

The next morning we didn’t seem to be expected for breakfast but it all happened, despite the confusion. 

We were also told, by some guy we had never seen before, but seemed to carry some weight, that we could go into town and have a wine tastings there.

Apparently the family owned a cellar in Viničky and his uncle, Attila, would show us around. 

It all seemed rather loose. 

After breakfast we headed into Viničky for our cellar tour and tasting. 

When we arrived at Zlatý Strapec, the wine cellar, nothing was open. After trying various doors, two women emerged from the adjoining building.

There seemed to be confusion as to why we were there. 

We had a taste of the wine we had the previous night and we decided to buy two 500 ml bottles. 

What else were we to do. We then headed back to our car. 

Suddenly a guy turns up and tells us to come with him, to do the cellar tour. This turned out to be Attila, the uncle of they guy at the hotel. 

Attila’s English was a little better than our Slovakian but he managed to communicate very well – especially with the help of Google Translate. 

After our very weird but confusing cellar tour we went to the Zemplinska Śirava or Slovak Sea, as it is sometimes called. The reservoir dam was built between 1961 and 1965 and covers an area of 33 square kilometres.

This is a recreational area and there was a café, resort and a sandy beach. There were also a number of rather impressive sand sculptures just near the beach.

When we arrived in Prešov the hotel felt empty, in fact the entire town seemed to be empty. We were starting to wonder if the tourist season hasn’t even started yet.

 

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July 18, 2017. Prešov to Poprad, via Spiš Castle and Spišsja Kaputula, Slovakia.

At breakfast there was only one other table – the hotel, like the town, was empty. 

We were getting the feeling that the tourist season hadn’t really started yet in Eastern Slovakia. 

When we got to Spiš Castle we found out where all the tourists were. 

The place was overrun. 

The car park was full and the overflow was lining the steep road leading up to the castle. 

And when we purchased our entry tickets we were told that they had run out of Audio Guides. 

Spiš Castle along with Calvery at Spišsja Kaputula are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It is one of the largest castle sites in Europe with an area of 41,426 square metres.

This Medieval Castle was first mentioned in history in 1249 and then destroyed by fire in 1780.

From that point forward it fell into ruin.

There isn’t much left today, although there was an attempt at a partial reconstruction before 1993.

There are still remains left of those works that were done just after the break up of the Soviet Union.

The best views of the castle are from below, looking up. However it does have a small museum and chapel in the reconstructed castle tower.

We arrived at Poprad, at the foot of the High Tatra Mountains, at 3:30pm. 

The weather was being its usual cantankerous self and the dark clouds were building. 

 

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July 19, 2017. Poprad-Spišská, with a side trip to Dobšinská Ice Caves, Slovakia.

The main destination for the day was to the Dobšinská Ice Caves, which was 33 kilometres south of Poprad.

We again discovered where all the tourists were – they visit castles and caves.

At the ice caves we had to pay for everything. Parking was €3, the tickets were €7 (with seniors discount) and the toilets €0.50. 

However the most outrageous cost was €10 to take photos.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is part of the Caves of the Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst site.

They were discovered in 1850 by Eugen Ruffinyi, a mining engineer. Although they have been known by shepherds and hunters since time immemorial.

They were known as Studená Diera or Cold Hole.

They are regarded as one of the most important cave systems in the world and have been in existence for an estimated 250,000 years.

Once you have parked your car, and paid the fee, there’s about a 20 minute hike up to the entrance. The temperature was in the mid 20s for the climb up, but plummeted to zero once we got inside the caves. It certainly was a cold hole.

There was no English speaking guided tour so we joined in on the end of a Slovak one. We didn’t understand a word, which gave me the opportunity to hang back and take photos. At €10 each we decided to buy only one ticket to take snaps.

Apparently there has to be a minimum of 30 people to have a specific language guided tour.

Thea and I were the only English speakers, so we didn’t count as a group.

The caves are only open four and a half months of the year from May 15 to September 30. So I guess they have to make their money while they can.

The rest of the day was spent driving through the mountains.

By mistake, or good fortune, we ended up staying in Poprad-Spišská, not Poprad. 

This was about 1.5 kilometres away from the downtown area of the main city. 

It was built around a long, tree lined, square. There was a church at one end and old historic homes on either side. 

There was also a surprising number of restaurants in this small area. 

We booked three nights in the Boutique Hotel Fortuna and this gave us the opportunity to do two day trips. 

One to the Dobšinská Ice Caves and another to the High Tatras. 

 

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July 20, 2017. Poprad-Spišská, with a trip to the High Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

We initially headed to Vysoké Tatry for our Hight Tatra experience but it was far too crowded and the parking scalpers were everywhere. 

We then drove down the road to Tatranká Lominica, where parking was free and the cable cars and chair lifts were open. We went as far up Mt Ve’ká Lomnická veža as we could, which was about 2,200 metres. 

We would have liked to go to Lomnickŷ Štit, which is at 2,558 metres, but that cable car was completely booked out. 

It was crowded but a very pleasant climb along the ridge that runs from the end of the chair lift. 

After our walking in the mountains, we went driving in them as well. 

First to Štrbské Pleso, then to Tatranká Štrba and finally back to Poprad-Spišská. 

It was a very pleasant day in the fresh air, without a church in sight.