Friday, 30 December 2011

German Sausages

I awoke feeling even better but was still cautious with food. We packed up, paid up and headed on- through the few inches of snow on the hills that fell least night where we were and into the clear green fields below. It was funny driving about two meters below the snow line, seeing it on anything higher than us while below was clear. It was nice to see the attracive Bavarian countryside we had missed in the dark the night before although the damp skies didn't lend it's self to photos. We headed to Regansburg, an attractive and historic town north of Munich. I was astounded at the number of tour groups being led around but it is a pretty place with the first secured crossing cross the Danube in it's time. We seem to be forever crossing back and forth over the Danube since we first encounted it getting over into Romania, it's a very windey, long river. It was a nice place and Alex bought himself his second treat all holiday- a beautiful drinking horn.

We had lunch at the Historische Wurstkuchl, the sausage kitchen orgionally built for the bridge workers. I was disappointed how weedy the sausages looked after the big knoberly ones you get in Turkey and Iran and opted for potato soup instead. It was really nice to be able to just wander about a place and not feel a sense of urgency to get away to be somewhere else by a certain time. When we left we continued our broadly NWW bearing, heading towards a national park area. It was pitch dark by the time we got there and rough camping seemed a little less appealing. The first two campsites the Sat Nav found us weren't open for business so we tried one of the perfect looking tarmac roads that disappeared up into the wood with no car signs on. A wee way up the track we came to a barrier and a militairy sign and Alex twigged that some unusual speed limit signs he'd been seeing in the area were for tanks and jeeps. We headed back to the road, and didn't investigate any more- such a shame, all this perfect free camping land and the militairy had already clalimed it.

I had given up and we headed on to another campsite when just outside of the village we found the perfect place- a small carpark in the woods. We made a note of the place then decided to head into the next town for a tasty resturant meal before we came back here to sleep. It wasn't nearly as cold as many temperatures we've camped in but for one thing we've gone soft and for another it's the pervading dampness in the air that seeps right into you in the way that a healthy mountain cold never does. Neither of us wanted to cook. I managed some proper food tonight, all be it a child's portion!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Motorway Day

I awoke after a good night's sleep to feel magically healed athough when I started moving about I found I wasn't one hundred percent better but I still managed a delicious scrambled egg for breakfast. We took some time to look around the town with it's colourful and very Austrian style buildings. Everyone spoke German as well as Hungarian and asked if we'd prefer to pay in Euros or Florens- they're so used to lots of Austrains poping accross the border for a nice cheap holiday and wine that they've become very adaptable. We bought some groceries and cheap alcohol, some paprika and some goulash paste. Then, after filling up the car and all our cans with the slightly cheaper fuel here, headed on over into Austria, through the unmnned barriers.

We had thought about Slovakia and even the Czech Republic but in the end this was the most direct route. I realised in Austria that these were the first green fields I had seen in a while. We bought a vignette and got onto the motorway. The soundproof barriers ment that we saw little of the country except the occasioanal hill top castle but we made very good progress. Just a few hours later we crossed into Germany- Alex announced we have now travelled over 20,000km or 12,000 miles on our trip. It confirmed to me that has we headed north to the other counrties we wouldn't really hve seen much of them anyway.

The German motoway seemed slightly mad- it was one of the ones with no speed restrictions so while lorries are chugging away slowly in one lane cars a darting past them at umpteen kilometers and hour and with us going a speed somewhere in the middle we sometimes had to overtake in the fast lane. Alex didn't seem daunted though. Being Germany there are lots of campsites and we had ther pleasure once more of calling them up on the st nav and getting us to take us there. I rememberd how when we hit Iran the complete lack of roads on sat nav really threw us but since them we have learnt to rely so much more on paper maps in guidebooks that I'd forgoten the pleasure of being taken there with no effort at all!

The first campsite appeared to be a building site but the second is great. It's bursting at the seams with caravaners- largely of the silver haired variety going by the folk in the very nice looking resturant and bar. It looks full and jolly in there- Alex is just cooking us some food, (since I'm still on small amount of simple food it seemed best) and we shall head in there for some social interaction later.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

27th and 28th Dec Ill

In the end, a long lie in (interupted only by getting up early to put money in the meter then back to bed) and a tasty breakfast included by the hostel meant we didn't get any time at all to look around Cluj-Napoc but oh well, I feel like I've seen a lot of places already! I realised I had totally neglected my exploration of cake in this country too but I didn't really feel like ant right now. As we got closer to Hungary, the buildings were changing- the churches had the attractive in and out spires so commen over Austria as opposed to the large orthodox domes. The buildings became a lot less embelished with 'twiddly' bits, the decorations becoming simpe and blocky and the colours more muted beiges, browns and creams. There was also loads of big bunches of mistletoe growing in many trees

We passed lots of hitchers on our way, as we had throughout Romania, but didn't pick any of them up. The chair took up room in the back plus the fact we had't slept in the car in so long ment other debry had accumilated. They'd have to be quite a relaxed person to want to ride in than and we'd have to trust them quite a lot not to walk away with any of our free floating stuff. The closest we had come to giving someone a lift in Romania was in the dark on CHristmas eve- there was a guy I regretted not picking up so when we saw the next one we went about a minute down the road and then turned around and came back for him. By the time we had however, he was already gone so I didn't feel so bad about not picking up the other guy after all. There were people of all ages, with and without shopping and baggage hitching each day so I think it's a fairly normal way to get about. It's a great way for us to meet people so it's a shame we didn't take anyone but various factors always combined to make us less keen.

When we got to the border the Romanian guards checked our passports and waved us through and we spent a short time waiting for the other foot to drop- where was the Hungarian border? Was that it? Are we here already? Yes, it appeared that we were, no more formalised borders for us to cross now until the channel, weird but also a relief after recent experiences. I checked things like the national holidays and opening hours in thie guidebook for this and the remaining countries to come and they were all unexotically just like the UK. It barely seems like being away at all I caught my self thinking- then remembered how I was freaked out by having to communicate with French people at the beging of the trip! I wander how long my new found relaxed attitude will last- a life time or only until the next time I leave the UK again?

Hungary didn't sell it's self much- despite choosing to avoid the motorways to see more of the country the endless flat plains, some farmed, some not, were less dramatically exciting than we expected- especially when covered in drizzle and mist. I worked on some songs and typed stuff up instead. It took longer than we hoped due to fog and I suggested we turn south and go to the attractive sounding Kecskemet instead of Szentendre- still a good two hours away. Unfortunately it didn't turn out to be a quick option but oh well. The smaller road to the town was more heavily shrouded in fog and when we reached it. all the reccomended pensions were shut. We found two larger hotels but they wanted about 60 Euros. Happily we found a Mc Donalds and Alex made excellent use of the free wifi in the car park looking up all the options. He found a nice sounding camp site attached to Thermal baths- it was 25km away but was definatly open so we went for it. The sound of the baths sounded great- my insides had felt a bit wrong for a week now and today it had suddely got a lot worse wth occasional stomach cramps just below my ribs by this time. We arrived and all was well- camping included free access to the baths and there was a nice attached resturant too. I left Alex ordering food and went straight to the baths.

They were not quite what I hoped- there was a normal temperature swimming pool, a kiddy pool and one large juccisi style pool with no bubbles but hot spring water instead but it was at a disappointing 31 degrees. I sat in it and shivered. I'd been really wanting a swim for a while now but there was no way I could manage it- my stomach cramps were really reguar and painful now. I still don't understand how everyone else in the complex seemed warm enough to wander about in their bikinis and sit about on loungers and in the cafe and resturant areas between dips. I was freezing- which turned out to be a temperature but even Alex didn't think it was that warm there, I stayed in the hot showers a good long time. By the time I returned to Alex he had thankfully eaten- the smell of food made me nausious and I had to make a dash to the loos. We bought a bottle of water for me then he walked me back around to the car and patiently delt with the chair and all the extra stuff we'd been dumping in th back recently to make it possible to sleep in. I was sick again and looked about for somewhere to fill up more waterbottles but the water semed to be off- low season I guessed. I crawled into bed.

I didn't feel I slept at all- I felt paranoid, in that dreamy illl state you get, that I would some how suffocate if I dropped off- I was so thirsty, we only had one small bottle of water and I eaked it out to last all night. I fantasised about emptying the front passenger seat so that I could get out the cooking water from behind it and the stove and boil it up until sterile but I didn't want to do it in the night because it was still drizzling and I'd wake Alex. I got him up before seven in the end- I should have woke him earlier- not only did he have another wee bottle of water in his coat but he found there was an open and indeed nice shower block after all with tasty dinking water. Things are never as bad by the light of day and my cramps had diminished considerably.

Even so, I started to put the car straight while he was in the shower but soon stoped for a little lie down as it tired me so much. Although I continued to improve throughout the day I spent a lot of it napping whiole Alex drove so I'm afraid I saw very little of Hungary.

We came across an interesting looking fort on the banks of the Danube overlooking Slovakia in the late afternoon and I felt motvated enough to come and look at it with him- it would probably be shut anyway. It wasn't although it was free entry because of the holidays. Fort Monostori is unlike any other I've seen. It was built in the late 1800s and later utilised by the Soviets as a munitions store too but since then has been lovingly preserved and opened to the public by a large group of enthusiasts. It felt like a stange blend of the castles of North Wales and the modern Austrian Bunker museum we went to. Being built when it was, the design was to withstand cannon fire, (hasn't warfare moved on horrifically fast?). It is a large enclosed area but there are steeply sloping mounds of soil surrounding the outside walls so you can't shoot a cannon at them, then a deep wide ditch- too far for a reasonable length plank to bridge and the soldiers manning the insides of the inner walls below would pick off men through the small peep holes anyway. Earth is also packed against most inner walls, sloping into the large central area. Overall a very simple and extremely clever design. The stone work is polygonal blocks- presumably inspred by the famous super stable polygonal wall at Delphi that has withstood numerous earthquakes. The rest is brick work- the rest of the wall holds up even if holes are blown in some areas. The extensive network of rooms and corridors running within the inner wall is almost all open for you to wander about freely. one or two have some demonstrative bunks or radio stations recreated within but most are open and empty. The roofs are all pleasantly high and the windows carefully positioned so that it is all well lit with natural light- so different to the Bunker Musem- built quickly for a possible immediate war with emphasis on invisibility so all in cramped, dark, underground corridors. This fort was built for long term strategic defence. The Soviets even added rails upstairs in one building for easy carting of munitions. I managed about two thirds of the way around but left Alex to drool over the big trucks, tanks and guns by himself. I slept well in the car after this.

\We had decided on the attractive sounding town of Sopron near the Austrian boarder and were absolutely astounded to find the most reccomended place stright away; not only was it was open but it had parking just outside. It was a little more expensive than usual but seemed worth the price. Alex dusted off his German and we settled ourslves in our room with the free wifi. A little later we went down to dine- this place was two thirds resturant, and highly reccomeded it came too. I was already starving having only managed plain yoghurt and Rivita all day but smelling the cooking I was sure I could manage lots! I was controlled however and just had most of a very tasty soup and then a lighter mashed potato and spinach dish. I was disappointed that I could only manage about quarter of the latter but my cramps had almost gone and I didn't want to push it. I went up and had a relaxing hot bath then snuggled into bed sleepily watching a Jackie Chan film in Hungarian!

Monday, 26 December 2011

Such a Perfect Day...

Today has been a great day. I woke early so caught up on yesterday's blog before Alex awoke then breakfasted together. When we headed to the car I heard some really beautiful choir music from the extravagantly decorated church of yesterday, just up the street. While we packed the car, (it's amazing how much seems necessary to take in with you, especially if you're cooking), all the other churches in the area began striking their bells for services, a beautiful cacophony. We wandered down to the singing for about fifteen minutes before heading off. Like yesterday there was a general flow of people in and out the church so we didn't feel awkward. It was wonderful to be bathed in the vibrations of the sound waves- I think I've really been missing music from my life lately and made a point this evening to ignore the fact that the whole, if fairly empty, hostel could probably hear me and played fiddle for about an hour which made me feel fantastic!

We set off for Sighisoara- a pretty town in the hills where Vlad the Impaler was actually born although, thankfully for them, he did not return to that town after his imprisonment and torture by the Turks in his tender years which is generally believed to have had a very strong influence on his later life. On the way we passed signs to other castles and fortified churched so deviated to see these too. They weren't open, being Boxing day, but we could appreciate them from the outside. This may be the last day we have time to sight-see so we were making the most of it.

Sighisoara was indeed very pretty with an ancient, richly decorated and fortified clock tower, churches, attractive old covered wooden walkway and old buildings and graveyards. It's a very touristy place, and despite the date there were a fair few other tourists and souvenir shops open but they weren't too detracting. While I was looking at crafts Alex managed to find an unexpectedly low key place to eat- just our cup of tea- the Burgh Hostel. We each had a traditional Romanian dish which was very simple but utterly delicious and only about 6 GB pounds in all for two courses and a drink each. Much better prices than Bulgaria- it's almost a shame we already had tasty chicken stock for soup for dinner tonight.

We moved on, the rest of the drive taking a boringly long time due to the constant stream of villages that occupy Romania's road's although there's always plenty to look at here- so many brightly colored houses. We got to our pre-booked hostel in Cluj-Napoca easily, even finding a parking space near by. The chicken soup WAS delicious- I serenaded Alex on the house guitar, (I've missed my guitar), while he cooked. Since then we've been playing music or on the free Internet. I don't feel too bad about not looking about the city- we'll have a wee look at Castle Hill tomorrow but only a quick one as we're heading for Szentendre, just north of Budapest tomorrow in Hungary- about six hours drive and a border to cross.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Morning

Awoke still quite early, at 8.15 to find a fresh layer of snow on the previously un snowy town. Just enough to make it really pretty without making getting about awkward, perfect. Caught up on blog until 9.45 when the chacophany of bells from various churches motivated me to go to a service- I've been before but this was very much going with the same perspective as to the mosque in the Imman Hussein ceremonies. The one I happened to choose happened to be an 'Evangelical ' one- I don't know my way around churches but apparently they have most forms of Christian faith here and all the churches and beautiful and ancient, this one was no exception. I think the frescos were covered up with wooden scaffolding while it was being renovated but what I could see was nice and the austere plain stone walls were a real contrast to all the tiled mosques I've seen. Unexpectedly the service was in German, although I still couldn't follow it but enjoyed humming along to all the hymns.
I returned to the hostel for breakfast and Alex, (our grand suit is the two right hand windows on the grey building), then we took a stroll about the attractive old town which seemed to to be waking up with the Christmas Market, bars and some attractions opening for business, We came across a impressively built stripy church with people poring out of it. There were kids dressed up in Morris man type outfits, (white with colourful hankies attached and odd hats), doing some sort of ongoing performance outside and people seemed to be flowing both in and out like there wasn't enough room for everybody so they all took turns- the ceremony, with a gorgeous sounding choir was still going on inside. There was a tv camera and the sound of the service was being relayed through speakers out front.
I flowed inside with everyone else and was incredibly impressed by the paintwork inside- absolutely every surface was brightly painted with scenes from the bible, angels, and filler decorations. REALLY impressive and cheerful. There were also some relics folk were queuing up to kiss and shortly after I entered the holy leader and his retinue processed outside- he had an impressively golden, bulbous hat. We continued around the town and found remains of the attractive town wall- each tower paid for by a different guild as a free town. All the buildings are also so attractive, all painted colourful pastel shades with even more detail than the rural ones, there's just not room for enough photos here.
We went back to the hostel for lunch- Alex in particular managed to have all his favourite things- his first cup of Yorkshire tea with milk in a very long time, cup a soup, (yes I know, I hate it too!), sandwiches and left over macaroni cheese! After lunch we cooked up some of the roadside home brew wine with the mulled wine sachets we had and played games. We shared it with the hostel staff and would have with guests too but they were all absent. We decided we should get a little more exercise so headed out around town again. I though I had spotted the Clock tower open from which there are great views according to the guidebook. It turned out to be another, very different church but an elderly lady was just coming out as we peered in and she gestured us inside and gave us a whispered tour of the saints
in the portraits and beautiful stained glass windows. We stopped by the car on the way back to pick up the things for our Christmas dinner. After more mulled wine and games Alex put it all on, with no help from me and we played games while it cooked and then sat down, with the different member of the hostel staff now on for a delicious roast chicken. Afterwards we boiled up the bones for soup while we played more games. We were both getting a little sleepy by then but I persuaded Alex to accompany me to the live music venue I had failed to go to the night before. It turned out that the concert was just about to begin and we got prime seats in the bar. It was a fantastic jazz singer doing classic cabaret numbers to a rather poor musac backing track on a computer but she was very good and it was great to be in such a different atmosphere. We wandered back through the Christmas lights of the town after a contented and restful day.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Unexpected Romania

We left our nice mountain town and headed towards the banks of the Danube for the unusual ferry border crossing at Vidin. We stopped into the town first to get ingredients for a Christmas dinner and use up our lev, (the currency). Despite looking for alternatives for ages and finding an interesting and buzzing outdoor market, (home grown veg and wine, second hand everything, you know the sort, all laid out on rugs) we got everything except the tatties at Lidls. The Bulgaria boarder was fine. There was no snow here and the boarder guards were excited to see so much still on our roof rack and enjoyed a wee snowball fight! We pulled up at the quay expecting, from Internet reports, to be there a good long time. The ferry goes when it's full and we were the ONLY car there.
We were pleased therefore when they ferry turned up quite quickly, laiden with lorries from Romania. We were still the only vehical transported from this side and we had the whole, enormous ferry to ourselves with one other foot passenger! You could see the 60% completed new bridge spanning the incredibly wide river from the crossing and it seemed sad that it would probably spell the end of this ferry service and the jobs of all involved when it opened within the next year. The passport guy on the other side was very nice and spoke good English, he noticed the snow too and said they had only had 40cm in the Romanian ski resorts so far. The next guy, despite I.D. was a bit more random and asked for ten Euros through we're still not sure what for but oh well. He was friendly. We were glad to be over the boarder fairly hassle free compared to the last four crossings.
Entering Romania I was struck straight away by the attractive buildings. I haven't really got a good photo of any of them as we had such a long way to cover to get to our pre booked hostel that we didn't want to stop for pictures so you'll have to make do with these. This church was in the boarder town but is a classic example of the beautiful ones that we found throughout the countryside- they reminded my very much of the mosques throughout Iran- bright and colourful, whatever the village was like and standing out from a distance in the landscape.
Homes were almost all very ornate- bright colours, lots of intricacy in their surface design and in the details like lintels, fencing, roof shapes, stained glass roof bits and lots of Roman columns made from nice rock, often supporting a roof over a small balcony. This gave them a very Roman villa feel. I think I expected a lot more Soviet concrete and down trodden, washed out feel. THese colourful buildings were not only old, so pre dating that whole era but many of the more run down ones were in the process of being renevated and new buildings were often being built in the same style. Many had tacky, cheerful Chisitmas decorations- Santas climbing up walls and giant glowing snowmen, just like in the UK. The Christmas lights we saw in settlements were suprisingly tasteful anc cheering, (unlike Bulgaria's more tasteless chouce of colours and light designs).THe people were dressed as they would be at home, although the hats and coats of the men looked a little more Russian. There are plenty of fancy cars and shops everywhere, including big supermarkets, (again, inlike Bulgaria).There were plenty of horse and carts people were using to transport things but the road surfaces were all good and all in all, it's not what I expected at at all- almost disappoijntingly un exotic but I'm so glad for ROmania that it's doing so well!
At dusk, the almost continuous towns that we were constantly passing through began to smell of wood smoke- at first it was a very comforting homely smell- you can't help but associate it with being somewhere warm and homely, however as the smoke got thicker we turned off the ventilator in the car as it was fairly thick and unpleasant! This is what much of Britain must have been like before the clean air Act!
Our last leg took us along a steep sided river valley with both the road on one side and the railway on the other twisting and turning in sympathy to it's bends. It was a shame that is was so dark by this point, I'm sure there were fantastic views but we could only get a feel of them. Sibiu was a lot bigger than we imagined but our hostel is in a lovely old building right on one of the beautiful squares in the old town. Because it's so empty we have an enormous room all to ourselves, plus on suite! We took a walk about the town where there is a Christmas market- so like Edinburgh or Manchester and doubtless many other places. I even found a nice feeling place to go out and see live music later however, after a filling bowl of macaroni cheese back at the hostel, (special treat for Alex) and only one glass of the home brew wine we had bought by the roadside we both fell asleep on the bed- must try and stay up later to meet some of the other hostel residents!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Leaving Bulgaria- Take 1

We left Bansko with no regrets despite the snow being on great form- our unfit bodies were quite content with the prospect of a day sitting in the car! The snowy landscape we passed through was beutiful and posed no problem for our chunky tires and four wheel drive. We stopped later in a smal town for a few things- most importantly of which was to print oiut our car insurance doccuments that Alex had downloaded from his email- It turns out all EU countries were covered, including Bulgaria so we wanted to have a copy with us- although Serbia, our destination isn't actually EU. No luck on the printer, (the librairy was out of toner) and even the young people in the hip bar where we had juice and cake couldn't think of anywhere else in such a small town. We bought a few groceries and headed on to the border.

As usual, the country we were leaving was fine but, as expected,the Serbian side required us to have Green Card driving insurance. The official Green Card booth wanted 115 Euros for a full month's insurance despite the fact we only planned to be there for three days- I almost wished this was a more bribable country like Bulgaria!.We decided this was too much and turned to go back to Bulgaria and head for Romania instead- the surprised Serbian passport guard was very helpful, diverting us to the top of the queue to re enter Bulgaria, thankfully without any shinanigans about insurance there. As we pased through, the Bulgarian guard asked conversationally, "Where are you going?", "Romania" answerd Alex and it wasn't until later that I realised how dismissive of his country that had probably sounded!

Our destination took us up into the northern mountains- the approach side had very little snow and the sunlight fell attractively between the trees. As soon as we had got to the pass however the lying snow began- it sat thickly all down the north facing side. It was very beautiful but the road was very slow and twisty, made even slower by a coating of compressed snow. The sun began to go down and when we road straightened out and we entered the town of Berkovista and saw a hotel, suddenly the idea of free camping seemed a lot less desirable. That had been the plan because we had carefully spent all of our currency before the Serbian border. When we found a bank as well we went strsight back to the hotel! Despite the remote location, it was a very nice hotel and the on suite room we were offered was huge and just above what we'd like to pay. We asked, (through an English speaking relative of theirs that was about) whether there was a smaller, cheaper room and she willing knocked some money off so we took it. I realised here that we have developed a subconcious maximum hotel price of £30 withough actually discussing it!

We parked the car properly, (still laiden with much more snow on it's roof than the less snowy streets it now sat in), went to the bank and brought our things in. We made use of the free internet then headed over to the resturant/cafe/bar that they reccomended. Again, the food was excellent and, including drinks was only £8 between us- better and better prices! We then headed back to the bar in our hotel and had a nice evening playing Stratego. I also tried one of the local clear spirits but only confirmed to myself that I didn't want a bottle, no matter how cheap it was!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Finding our 'Foo'

We were surprised to awake to at least a foot more snow and it was snowing still. By the end of the day it had been at least half a meter- as the snow on the car testified! I was still feeling a bit tired but Alex was keen and we extended our hotel reservation went up anyway. I'm glad we did- I didn't fully find my 'foo', (despite repeating all the excellent pointers my dad has given me over the years which really help- I always think of him on the slopes), but I did get a lot better in the day. To be fair, my usual style wouldn't have worked anyway- none of the the new snow had been piste bashed so, until enough people had been down them, all the slopes were like being off piste and when they had, soft puffy mogals quickly formed which were interesting to negotiate- sorry about all this detail to non skiers but those that know what I mean can sympathise! It was good though and we both made it through the whole day without stamina issues. The cheesy rolls from the bakery were tasty and we spent our food budget on hot wine and hot chocolates- much better than the cafeteria food. I complained loudly with another English guy in one of the few lift queues about the lack of piste bashing -they were using the machine as a folk lift to cart around beer instead. I then ended up sharing a T-bar with the person behind me- a local man of mature years who patiently explained, (in excellent English) that they couldn't go up until it had stopped snowing but he was very nice about it! We finished the day significantly less tired than the one before and even managed to go out to the nice, cheaper place for dinner. We consumed a whole bottle of wine between us too- the most we've drunk the whole trip I think, especially since the Muslim countries, but it was an exceptionally tasty locally produced bottle. Two courses and the wine for about 8 GB pounds each- much better value and delicious food yet again. If I could be sure that they bash the pistes sufficiently I would definitely return here for a dedicated ski holiday and to the same hotel. We shall see...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Mixed Bag

Today was a disappointing day's skiing, mainly because I didn't find my 'foo'. It's like Pool- some days I've just got it and other days I can't get it for trying. The worse I skied the more my muscles were being strained and the worse I got. It got increasingly icey as time wore on as well- we had decided to go, despite not many slopes or lifts being open yet due to shallow snow, since we'd missed out in Turkey. After just four hours, one of which included a fairly horrible and overpriced lunch we were both exhausted and went down again. We shared the telecabin, (cablecar), with two English who confirmed that the cost of our meal the previous night was exceptionally expensive but they also had reports of half a meter of snow due to fall tonight. We returned to our hotel with our eye on the skies. It was only 3.30 and I had had the forethought to indulgently book the sauna for us at 6 and a massage for myself at 7 but this seemed like a long time away. Fortunately I had also chosen the room with the biggest bath so I warmed up in there and then headed out to look around the attractive old town area by daylight. I managed to get a few photos before the light went and also had a successful search for a postcard, the Post Office, supermarket, some where cheaper but still nice to eat and even a bakery where I bought rolls with cheese baked into them for lunch tomorrow. We hadn't decided what we'd do if the forecast snow did fall yet but figured it would be best to make our minds up tomorrow when we see how we're feeling. I got back just in time for the scheduled luxuries which were great. Alex had sensibly asked the hotel if we could dine there tonight, it was to early in the season for them to be open to the public but they were happy to cook something simple and tasty for us. We fell quickly asleep in bed very shortly after.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A full day

We managed to pack an awful lot in today. The hotel breakfast was unappetising as per the guidebook and we headed out to see the Selimiye Cammii a mosque in which the architect achieved his life's dream- to build one ever so slightly bigger than the Aya Sofya in Istanbul. I got us rather lost on the way but Alex sorted us out and we arrived at an impressively large building with integrated bazar. Unlike the other tourist couple in there, (taking pictures of each other) I respected the request for no photography but it was really hard- the place is wonderfully decorated- not tiles or frescos but bold block colours and painted floral boarders and stripy blocks of colour contrasting with a stark white background. There is also a stunning series of four or five circles of lights hanging at about 11 foot from the floor surrounding a wonderfully carved and painted platform above the ceremonial fountain. Hard to describe- you'll have to go there and the trip will be very worth while. The pictures are of the outside decorations and it seems I have none of Bulgaria so today's ones are all of the mosque and an example of the fantastically decorative pavements all over this town- all done in different ways.
I thought about using up the rest of the money on Turkish delight but we already had some so we used it for petrol on the way to the Serbian border. The Turkish side was fine but the Bulgarian side said we needed country specific insurance. The on site insurance booth was closed and the guards said it would be 70, no 150 Euros but we could give them a 'present' instead. Alex came back to the car and we made a show of looking in all our nooks and crannies for money while we discussed what we'd be willing to pay or whether we'd go back to Turkey and go to Greece instead. Just as we'd decided on ten British pounds they called him back over to talk again and this time the subject of Turkish insurance, that we had, came up and they decided that actually this was fine and waved us through- I think they just got cold feet. It was a disappointing re introduction to Europe- I had surprised myself with an unexpected feeling of returning to the fold as we had spied the European flags at the boarder, this experience dispelled it.
We pressed on for the ski resort of Bansko. Most of the route was on a fast road with little view. We chatted just as we were finally due to turn off it and missed the turn but sat. nav. instead took us by a series of much more interesting smaller roads as a consequence and we were please to see a bit more of real Bulgaria and it's people- older ladies in head scarves, run down looking villages, hay and corn leaves stacks, chickens, donkeys and winter wood stores. As we got closer to our destination we were disappointed by the lack of snow but we had specifically chosen this destination for being an attractive town, even if we couldn't ski.
We checked out the slopes first- they were open- folk were just coming down- it appeared to have a telecabin up to the main area which usually has runs all the way back to Bansko but with current snow conditions there were only a few of the high runs open. We then looked for a hotel- the recommended ones were closed- whether the ski season hadn't properly begun or whether they were just for the summer season we weren't sure but we took pot luck on a random one and struck lucky. It is a really nice place- Hotel Sv.Georgi Pobedonosetz, nice rooms, delicious and varied breakfasts, sauna, massage to order and they even let us park the car in their courtyard- all for £25 a night- if you're planning a holiday in Bansko, book there.
We wandered back into town to find a restaurant and naively we went into one looking all traditional with nice wood work just off the main square. It was delicious food and the prices were up front on the menu so we didn't get a nasty surprise or anything but it was medium British prices-hugely expensive for Bulgaria. By the time we had the menus we were too tired to care so didn't mind and it was great food and we did get a very good live clarinettist serenading us!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Leaving Asia

Before even breakfast we headed on up to the ski area- up about 25km of fairly icy roads. We were disappointed when we got there to find none of the lifts running and only one car ouside of eash of the huge hotels. There were people about so we asked and, through gestures, understood that there was not enough snow so the resort wasn't open. It was true that it was less than a foot deep by the road and seemed to be melting to slush so we had a picnic breakfast and started off towards the boarder, about six hours away. I didn't mind too much- less time skiing here means more time skiing in Bulgaria. We had already decided to bypass Istanbul. I have hread so many good things about it that I felt we could not begin to do it justice in the day and a half we could dedicate to it so I intend to fly there sometime to explore it more fully- anyone fancy joining me, maybe next autumn? It sounds like a city best explored without the hinderance of a car. It's interesting that I now view a trip to Istanbul as one to explore the cultures and peculiarities of that city, not of Turkey, as I once would have. I suspect is far removed from all that I now associate with the ever changing landscape and peoples of Turkey that I would barely recognise it as the same country. I spent the rest of the motorway journey typing up blog- it was great to re visit the early days of Iran, I was amazed how much I remembered, even without the propting of my notes. I've got to typo and spell check them so they won't get online tonight but they are coming. I have however filled in most of the wee gap before the Iran boarder. Alex remarked as we went over the Bosphorous that we had now left Asia, which seemed a shame. There is so much more of it we haven't seen. The write up about accomodation in the Turkish boarder town of Edirne was dispiriting so we headed instead to a campsite... which was shut. We looked around for some other ones to no avail so headed into town anyway. We headed for the chepest place in the book as they were all quite expensive but ended up parking opposite another one. The parking warden managed to get accross that if we weren't staying in the hotel opposite there was an hourly charge so we took a look around it. It looked fine but expensive, however, on saying we were going to checkk out other hotels the price was dropped twice to a reasonable one so we took it. I checked the guidebook and it is in here after all- at the first price although it says the free breakfasts are something to be feared! We shall head out shorly to a resturant for some of the local delicacy- deep fried calfs liver with toato, onion and hot chilli garnish...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The benefit of a good night's sleep

Today has been a much better day. Alex seems to be much better and can get out a good few sentences withough coughing- it makes me realise how much the effective lack of company has reduced my enjoyment of our experiances. We met the other travellers in the morning and had a nice chat- the woman is taking her two pre school kids on a tour of Europe, Turkey and Iran for a year in the campavan while her husband flies out to meet them occasionally and travels with them for a number of weeks at a time. I didn't fancy that at all- it's isolating enough travelling with one other adult when you don't speek the languge of the country but I to always have the solo care of two children when he is not with them would be so restrictive. We drove back over to the Hittie site and were happy to find they encouraged you to drive around within the 6km perimiter, getting out at various points to walk around remains of temples, gateways and a castle. Perfect for Alex's lower than normal stamina. I took much of the time to re wrap the chair so that we could store it in the car. This kept us both happy and I was happy to have that sorted and not to get another overdose of 'rocks'. Alex showed me the highlights quickly after he had explored the lot. I got just the right dose- it is an impressively enormous site and a suprising amount seems to have remained intact. The buildings had lower walls of stone with mud and timer walls and roof above and much of the stonework is still there as well as extensive areas of city walls and numerous gateways. As with the Greek remains I was most facinated by the way the odd shaped blocks were carved to fit it's neighbours exactly. We pressed on on uncrowded and speedy roads around the Ankara ringroad and on to the Bolu ski resot, happy to see the rolling hills and towns stream past our window in the sunshine. Northern Turkey has seemed a lot more western than I remember the south being but I'm not sure if it's just in comparison to Iran. It's definately less exotic than Iran- as are we- superstar status no more! Later it began to pour with rain, (the first snce Esfahan?) which gave me hope it was falling thickly as snow up on the ski slopes. The nearest town of Bolu was very western and all the hotel options we could find were £42 and upwards. Since £28 was splashing out for us we found somewhere to have dinner then drove out towards the ski resort where there were thickly forested foothills in which to spen a cosy night in the car.

Saturday, 17 December 2011


Today was a completely disatisfying day although I did at least finally get my Iranin postcards posted. We were both grumpy- for my part the late night was probebly contributairy and for Alex's part I don't think he realised how serious I was about buying a chair and wasn't impressed about either loosing visability if it was stored inside or the reduced petrol efficiency plus security issues if it was stored on the roof. With his early night and my late one we also hadn't properly discussed our route from here and we had to decide as we drove through the busy streets which road to take out of town. Alex's origional plan had been to follow the wiggly, small coast roads, passing through pretty if un note worthy villages and get as far around as we can. The previous day I had read up on all this would involve missing in the interior- princibly some extensive Hittite ruins- as I felt we had no sight seeing on our agenda for northern Turkey and that this would be a wasted opportunity. The roads here also looked a lot faster. In the end, having to decide fast, we choose the interior route although I think we both felt we'd made the wrong decision later on. The rock tombs in the very pretty and touristy town of Amasya were not that exciting, although the town it's self was quite attractive with well maintained and restored Ottoman buildings. Alex found the steep walk up to the tombs incredibly tiring which he found frustrating. I got excited when we were handed a leaflet for hot springs that were on our route but they appeared to be badly signed and we missed them. My still aching limbs slumped in disappointment. When we finally got to the Hattusa ruins there was only an hour of daylight left and we agreed that we'd rather spend the time looking for somewhere to sleep rather than have to rush around the site and then be faced with looking for a spot after dark. We spent the whole hour driving around roads and tracks all over the area and saw some lovely views but found nowhere quite satisfactory. In the end we headed back to Hittusa and took a spot at one of the out of town hotels that also offered camping space. It was out of season- the hotel was shut up and they warned us that there was no hot water but it seemed the easiest prospect by now. We were also intreiged to see a campavan there with British plates and hoped for some company at the very least plus the resturant was apparently open. No such luck- the others had young children and appeard to all go to bed at 5pm and the resturant was uninvitingly open ONLY for the possibiliy of us eating there-I hate being the only customer and Alex is still prefering to survive on cup a soups. I made a soup with slightly more body than that and we hung out in the car all night reading our seperate books as Alex still decends into a fit of coughing whenever he speaks. A dispiriting day.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Hitting the Juice!

Fruit juice that is- there is alcohol in Turkey but tonight I went out to one of the more more common alcohol free cafe venues. Poor Alex is still in recovery so I forced myself to go out out the town by myself tonight- it's Friday night after all! I got a couple of recommendations from the hotel staff of where to hear live acoustic music and, with some help from friendly folk, found my way to one of them. I've have had a very enjoyable, if loud, evening- the only spare seat was fairly close to a speaker so I improvised earplugs fairly early on. The performers were really good and it was very laid back- just what I was after. There was a birthday group next to me, (late 40s I'd say) and it was so laid back that the musicians even accompanied a few different individuals from this group so they could serenade the birthday lady with unexpected talent. The group all sang well- on one song the singer left the group to sing the whole song as they were doing it so well, they danced for some of the songs too. A great evening after waking up grumpy, stiff and aching from yesterday's exercise and cold this morning. Poor Alex got quite sick of me moaning today I'm sure- I've been whining for a sauna or hot springs and a massage all day- the shower here at the hotel in Samson barely counts but an evening of music and the warmer climate here, (14 degrees C as I walked back late tonight) helped. The rest of the day was spent in getting here via fuel, grocery shopping and lunch stops along the Black Sea coastline. It's a shame about the prevailing litter on the beaches and pollution hotspots as it really is a lovely coastline. Unusually we arrived here in enough time to look around the shops in Samson tonight before they shut and I bought a Turkish style chair that I had been looking out for. I tried one in Edinburgh and it was immensely comfy- but not £200 comfy. This one here was a steal at only £35 and I got them to wrap it well so it can spend at least some of the time on the roof rack-sorry Anna, only room for one, I know you wanted one too! Every day Alex gets better- he's just left with a persistent cough and low appetite now that leaves him tired and I think in a day or two he'll be just fine.

Thursday, 15 December 2011


We next day we discussed long and hard whether to go on or not- the wather didn't look bad, Alex insisted he was feeling much better and we managed to get the snow chains on so we went for it. I think I'm still glad we did although my unfit body would still hold that to question. We got through the previous drift easily- Alex had waked on a way last night and said that there was nothing that bad after that he could see. Another bend or two from where he'd walked to and we ran into another drift- you've got to run at them hard to have a good chance of getting through but this also means that we managed to beach the poor TLC good and proper in snow that went over the running board so. There was so much snow under the body that the wheels were suspended too far above the tarmac for even thr snowchains to take effect. The next half hour was fun- I enjoy digging and relished the exercise. The next hour after that I grsdually got bored and cold. It involved a lot of sitting on the ground in (previously) waterproof trousers so I could get right under the car, scraping and digging away at the snow, varying my position so different bits of my body took it in turns to go numb although there was nothing I could do to stop my my arms and shoulders getting tired. The las half hour was frankly a real pain in the neck. Alex did take turns but I mainly monopolised the job. In the end I had to clear ALL the snow from under the 5m long car plus a good way back on all the sides so that it didn't fall back under whenever the wheels were tried. We got out- there was never any question that we wouldn't just of how much damn snow we would have to clear. We had provisions, stove, heating, sleeping bags e.t.c., we'd be fine even if we had to dig back half the damn road but I'm glad to say it didn't come to that. With one chain (the other came off although whether due to breakage or inexperienced fitting we haven't yet checked), using both of the blessed waffle boards, my shovelling and Alex's skilled driving we were off back down the way we had come by early afternoon. The alternative valleys we passed through were snow free and very beautiful so we didn't feel too hard done by and we found an easy enough place to park up for the night but we knoew we'd have to press on the next day to make up for the lost time.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Extremes 12th-14th Dec 2011

The last four days have been two of draining inactivity followed by two with rather too much! Alex's temperature got a lot worse again over night and into the day but with the introduction of ibprofen he got it in hand enough to come down to the hotel's restaurant for dinner. We met an extraordinary charismatic Frenchman that was traveling, on foot through large patches of the world and had been doing so for 18 months. He had a brilliant way abut him that Alex can mimic brilliantly- so you'll have to wait to hear that, but he also INSISTED we try the Turkish pudding Sutlac, on him. It was extraordinarily good- a strange blend of custard and rice pudding. Other than that, the highlight of my day was starting to catch up on my blog and another visit to the cake shop for lunch and the supermarket for various supplies. We both slept a LOT better that night- Alex, more through pill management than good heath, didn't have a temperature and we slept so late I missed breakfast. Alex managed to leave the hotel and we went on a little drive up to the ski slopes- just 5 km away. It has been very frustrating for me that we had had a good dump of snow the day before we got here and fine sunny weather (all be it with a daily high of minus three degrees C) ever since. When we got to the slopes we didn't feel so bad about missing out- while there was a reasonable amount of lifts and pistes, only two of the lifts were running which limited things considerably. There was also a weird system of 30TL per day for each individual lift or 5TL per trip, (10TL=£3.50). Alex did offer that I could ski all afternoon, he wasn't up to it, but it get dark by 15.45 and by the time we'd lunched and I had got changed there wouldn't be much time left. I kept Alex out for lunch but then he crashed for the rest of the day. Sucked in by his lethargy and repelled by the challengingly icy streets I hung about the hotel room too playing computer games and reading. We looked at the maps and confirmed what we had feared- we were running low on time- if he was well enough we needed to move on the next day- no time was left to ski here and we'll have to have some long driving days over the next month in order to create time to ski elsewhere. Luckily, Alex was feeling up to driving the next day but we probably should have taken a slightly tamer route. We went on a small road over the mountains to the coast. Later on in the day. the road we were wanting was vaguely closed but having tried and conquered such roads before we accepted the challenge, keeping our eyes peeled for the reason, so eloquently described in Turkish on the signs. They appeared to translate that it had merely not been ploughed but we had snow tires, four wheel drive and snow chains in reserve. We sailed onward easily as we hit the first snow, a good way up this road. The area we were passing through was very weird- large numbers of separate dwellings built from whatever people could find spotted the hill side. Many looked like they had been improved over successive seasons, some had bricks and motor and most included a layer of thick blue plastic. Stoves, solar water tanks and even more frequently TV satellites gave the strange dwellings a greater air of permanence than their building materials as well as more than one properly built mosque. There were no foot prints in the snow to any of them. I have decided they must be seasonal homes- some for tourist purposes but most for summer grazing. Either way, this snowy ghost town was a strange environment to dive through. We quickly passed beyond the tire tracks of the few people that had tried this road and proceded, almost without any problems over the summit and some way beyond. We were distracted, studying the tracks of a large mammel as we drove, (maybe the linx we had seen pictured on a sign further back down the track?), whose prints had been leading us through the shallowest patches of snow on the road when bumph! We hit a slightly bigger drift and can't go forwards or backwards anymore. It wasn't too serious- I got out the shovel and it took a few tries but I cleared it sufficiently for us to reverse in the end and we went back to the ghost village, parking in the snow shadow of a mosque to camp for the night.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Return to land of Baclava

Hello, hello. After my long online absence I have returned to a country where sanctions no longer restrict my Internet usage- I think the cafe in Tabriz may have had a sneaky proxy. SO three weeks of the most fantastic adventures in Iran to catch up on which I will do gradually but for now we are back in Turkey. The boarder crossing was a real pain, such a shame after such an amazing time in Iran but boarders are known for people out to make a buck. Annoyingly we got a bent person 'helping' us with our carnet this time- we managed to persuade him that we only had £20 on us which he considered until he found that we hadn't done all the paperwork we should have and he'd have to do extra and refused to do it for so little. Thankfully at this point, we tried the number of the super super nice and English speaking customs official that had made our way in so easy and he, luckily, was working that day and came and took charge and did it all for free, quickly and easily. At the Turkish boarder customs got us to empty the car so they could xray it and while the re-packing took some time there was never any question of bribes so that was fine if a little tedious.
By the time we were across (3 hours later) is was still early, especially as we had gained 1.5 hours on the clock moving into Turkish time so we took a look around a ruined palace nearby which, while not thrilling, was ok. We dithered about where to go next- there is an interesting complex of ruined Armenian churches to the north but I felt a bit done with places near boarders, (even closed ones) and Alex was feeling less into camping as the cold he had caught from me was beginning to set in properly today. We ended up driving over 300km to Erzurum, a town we hope to ski from and the first one with hotels in the guidebook. Looking around a smaller town for the possibility of a hotel just didn't appeal but it turned out to be a very long treck. About quarter of the road had packed snow and ice on it so we couldn't go faster
than 50kmph. Just like the Van road on the way out, it was scattered with queues of trucks in places stopping to put on their chains: one we saw had gone right over the edge, only half the load end visible, sticking almost straight up into the air. Alex was AMAZING, he not only did all the dealings at the boarder but drove this huge long way in ice and snow and dark and all while getting iller and iller. We found a nice hotel and then he crashed, having now developed a temperature. I dinned alone, bringing him back a take away and early this morning went through our kit, amazed to find neither of us had brought paracetamol. The hotel staff were really helpful at 7.30am, despite no common language, calling around to find a pharmacy open on a Sunday morning. One they sent me to was shut but had a helpful poster of open ones and they helped me get a taxi there. I'm glad to say the pills hit the spot and Alex now feels a lot better having spent the day in bed and will probably even ski tomorrow. I went and explored the town and it's cake shops. Not that exciting although some attractive Ottoman mosques and citadel, (and tasty cakes) and I got taken to tea by a nice, genuine old guy that runs hiking tours for foreigners.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Too hot to Handle 8th-9th Dec

I go for a dip in hot springs and find it too hot! Sary-a-em Camp comfortably in minus 10 to find the diesel didn't fare so well as anitifreeze isn't standard in Iran. Make it to Maku to spend last of our Rials via Armenian church and Azabazan boarderland.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Imman Hossein- 6th-8th Dec

We watch self flagulation Imman Hossein ceremony processions as we drive along the coat of the Caspian sea. Arrive at the pretty mountain village of Masuleh and get taken in for tea 15 mins after we arrive! Try mountain route but turn back due to snow. Delay means we take camp near our destination in mountians- owner of field finds us and invites us to mosque ceremony and the family home- we get double dinner!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sights and slopes 3rd and 4th Dec

We saw the Golestan Palace one day which was absolutely stunning with mirror tiles of many shapes and sizes covering the walls and ceiling of many rooms to dazerling effect and we saw some of the best archeological finds from Persepolis, now housed in the National museum. Our host helped find a reliable garage to got the oil and air filters in the car changed which made
Alex very happy and we even managed a day on the slopes to the north. Overall an extremely enjoyable chapter of our trip and really nice to touch base in a very welcoming and friendly home full of English speakers half way through our trip- a real restbite from looking for places to sleep every night and very peacemeal comunication (on our part), in various different languages! I'm sure I've put
on pounds in Iran as every home and resturant we have eaten at has produced really excellent food in enormous quantities that has been very hard not to eat too much of! Have a strict swimming regime planned for myself when we get back home...

Friday, 2 December 2011

Tehran 30th Nov- 2th Dec

What can one say about a city that is 80km north to south and has about twice the population of Greater London? Well, it's big and the road network is predictably complicated and with over 30 million cars, it's busy. A perfect day for Google Earth on ALex's computer, with a map of how to get to our friend's flat, to break down. With our GPS only showing main roads (apparently only two in Tehran) and only a large scale road map for the whole country we were stuck just telephoniing for directions and then relying on ALex asking a long series of very friendly and helpful people for directions every couple of junctions! From hitting the city limits it took us about 3 hours to negociate our way to the appartment, including getting them to guide us by car the last 15 mins or so!
We got there in the end through,(barely fitting into the car port!) and were VERY warmly welcomed and after a chance to shower joined in a large family dinner party with three generations and fantastic food. This set the tone for our fabulous stay in Tehran- amazing food at every breakfast, lunch and dinner, sight seeing, local shopping at the bazzar and large and frequent gatherings of both families and friends at daily intervals. One day a minibus was hired and we went on a full day tour with a mixture of friends and family of our hosts to local, often closed, attractions that they had arranged special permission to go to. It was a very different experience to sightseeing by ourselves and very interesting to gain something of the urban Irani perspective, so different
from that of our less cosmopolitan frends we have made. One of the sights was the shrine of an Imman's wife and I was greatly amused at the completely non religious attitude of the cosmopolitan ladies we were with- refusing the provided chadors and taking lots of photos, even of the more religious people visitors who obviously found the pilgramidge a much more emotional experience. The ladies regrded them as much of a novelty as we did. It was a great day with the sights not as dramatic as those we have seen else where but travelling as part of a group, especially with Iranians, was an excellent and very special experience with picnics and singing and dancing on the bus as we cruised down the roads.