OK, finally got off my ass and wrote this next chapter of my travels, hope you enjoy! My first stop after Denmark was Berlin, which I have to say, is still probably my favourite city I have visited in the world. I was there for a week in 2006 with my Danish class and it's just such an amazing mix of unique history with modern art, culture and nightlife. On the first night I joined the pubcrawl which leaves from the Citystay backpackers where I stayed, together with about 30 other travellers. It was an awesome night, finishing at a club which is on the first floor of a squatter building where a lot of homeless people live and is covered in art and graffiti with a beach bar out the back. Very cool. The next day, my only full one in Berlin, was spent wandering around checking out a cultural festival and markets; I had seen most of the sights last time I was there so it was nice to just relax.
The next day it was time to head into Eastern Europe for the first time and meet up with Matt and Latham again as I arrived in Prague! We headed out to our accommodation, me in the budget backpackers and them in a hotel, although they ended up spending more time at the backpackers anyway possibly due to the indoor pool and bar? The following day we headed out to do the walking tour of the city. I introduced the boys to some of the girls who would also be on our tour who I had met at about 2am when they woke me up getting home from a pub crawl :P. Two of them were nurses from Aus and Canada who had been working in England for a month, very nice girls and the 5 of us got on really well for the whole trip J. On the walking tour we learnt a bit of Czech history, saw the commonly overrated astronomical clock and the amazing Prague castle. We took our own trip up to the castle after the tour, over a 900 year old bridge and through the historic castle district where we enjoyed a beer and a view of the city from the hill. After dinner and a couple of drinks we got a fairly early night ready for the official start of our eastern trekker tour.
Up early for breakfast, we met the rest of our tour group before jumping on the bus for the first leg. Our first stop was the UNESCO listed Kutna Hora or Church of Bones. Inundated with excess bodies to bury, a creative priest decided to decorate the church with literally thousands of human skeletons. The final configuration was completed in the 19th century, including a chandelier that contains at least one of every bone in the body. After this somewhat creepy experience, we continued on to the medieval town of Olomouc which we explored during the afternoon before having dinner with the group. We then headed to an interesting bar located inside an old soviet plane. A little short on space but was a good chance to meet everyone over a few drinks.
The next day we headed into Poland where our first stop was the concentration camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau. The former concentration camp is a truly haunting place. You can't help but have tears in your eyes walking through the gas chambers where so many people died, but one of the most moving things is the exhibits of the victims personal belongings including thousands of children's shoes, suitcases and actual hair shaved from the heads of 50000 women. We were also shown the barracks where the prisoners were kept and many died and the firing wall where dissidents were more immediately executed.The simple memorial there states in many languages "Forever let this place be a cry of despair, and a warning to humanity. Where the Nazis murdered about 1.5 million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. 1940 - 1945". A place you will never forget.
After this sobering experience it felt a little strange to get into a party mood, however our next stop was Krakow, renowned for some of the best nightlife in the world. After some traditional food including Borsch, a Russian style beetrootsoup, we headed out to Diva nightclub. Vodka was the order of the day although it sometimes got lost in translation after attempting to order a vodka with grapefruit juice and instead receiving a shot of vodka with a piece of grapefruit. We danced the night away to a few 90's classics.
The next day we took the Bike tour around the city, taking in the sights of Krakow castle (where legend has it a dragon once lived until a young boy had the bright idea of killing it by feeding it chilli, forcing it to drink water, swell up and explode! or something like that), the city wall and the Jewish quarter. We also visited Schindler's factory, made famous by the movie Schindler's list. Inspired, we bought the DVD and watched some of it that night.
The next morning we were on the road again toward Zakopane, a ski resort town in the winter and tourist mecca in the summer. We hiked to the top of one of the surrounding hills where we enjoyed a stunning view and bought some souvenirs from the surrounding markets. After the descent we bought a few blocks of the local cheese which look like loaves of bread and seem impervious to decay judging by the length of time they spend sitting out in the sun at the markets :P. But for the record it goes pretty well with a beer or glass of wine. Today was also Latham's birthday, so we had organised to the best of our ability a mini surprise party complete with something resembling a cake! J Dinner that night was at a place called Meat Palace, obviously not a favourite with the vegetarians. We shared platters containing more meat than I've ever seen in one place before heading to a small bar for some beer and darts.
The next day we travelled through three countries, leaving Poland to cross Slovakia into Hungary. Arriving in Budapest in the afternoon, I went on a sunset cruise along the river. The city is really magnificent by night. The Palace, The Parliament Building and cathedral are lit up like a medieval fairytale (you know, the ones where they have electricity). Afterwards we kicked on with the city pub crawl, ending up at a really cool bar with an open air section. In the morning we saw Budapest by day, taking the bike tour and learning about its extensive and tumultuous history. It didn't all go smoothly as Latham hit the pavement and left a few layers of skin behind after getting squeezed between some cars. After he got patched up, we spent the afternoon at a wine tasting session, sampling some of Hungary's finest before heading out in the evening to the thermal baths. We relaxed under the stars in the various pools and saunas, another one of those moments you have to pinch yourself.
The next morning it was off to Croatia. On the way we were scheduled to stop in at an open air war museum commemorating the serb-croat war. Unfortunately one Croatian driver didn't know this and apparently didn't see our bus indicate either as he tried to pass us as we turned in, with his small car coming off second best. We thus ended up waiting there for a couple of hours as the driver insisted on talking to the police and refusing to admit his fault. Eventually it got sorted and we continued on to our destination with a little wine and cheese helping to pass the time on the bus. Our accommodation for the night was in log cabins at a campground just outside Plitvice National Park. As it was already getting close to the end of the tour it was time for Kanga court, with people nominated for prosecution for their various misadventures in the form of a shot of some disgusting Croatian drink. I personally earned a booking for calling Latham one night to find out where our backpackers was so I could tell a taxi driver when I was literally around the corner, then getting him to pay cause I had no money on me :P.
In the morning we headed into Plitvice National Park which really was as advertised, an aqua wonderland. A series of crystal blue lakes, interconnected by waterfalls and cliffs, the only bad thing about it was that you aren't allowed to swim there. After several hours walking through the park we headed on toward the Croatian coast. Arriving in Split, we were billeted out to various apartments around the town, the standard form of accommodation in Croatia apparently. The town was built around a Roman palace built over 1800 years ago, large parts of which are still standing today, it feels like stepping back in time walking around the jumble of walkways and streets that make up the old centre. Our last official night together with the group, I enjoyed an amazing seafood dinner on the water with some even better company, before heading out to 'The Red Room' bar (sound familiar?) for last drinks with everyone. The next day, it was sadly time for goodbyes. We saw the girls onto their boat as they continued on a sail Croatia tour and then Matt, Latham and I set off to find ourselves accommodation for the night. After this was sorted, we headed up the hill above the town for an amazing view over the town, harbour and surrounding islands.
Then it was time to say goodbye to the boys again as I continued on alone toward Bucharest and Romania. I will update you on that and my time in Moldova very soon.