Tag Archives: castle

Portugal

Portugal is the westernmost country of continental Europe and includes the island groups of the Azores and Madeira (both autonomous regions in the north Atlantic Ocean.

It has existed as a country since the 12th century (originally as a monarchy) but has evidence of civilisation dating back beyond 10,000BC. The nation was integral in the discovery and exploration of Africa and South America.

The Portuguese empire differed from the Spanish empire because the Spanish conquered large areas of land while the Portuguese preferred to control only major trading ports. Throughout the 15th century, Portuguese explorers sailed the coast of Africa, establishing trading posts for commodities, ranging from gold to slavery.

The Portuguese empire created colonies in Africa including Angola, Mozambique, Guinea. Added to this was the islands of the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde Islands (off the coast of Mauritania-Senegal), and Sao Tome and Principe (islands in the Gulf of Guinea). Then there were the major ports of Cochin, Goa (in India), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Macao (China) and Nagasaki (Japan) in East Asia and of course Brazil.

Lisbon

OK, so we have been to Europe about 6+ times now and this was our first foray into Portugal. How stupid are we? This place is fantastic. We got off the plane and grabbed (a really cheap) Uber to our hotel. The driver was the nicest and most helpful person we had ever met, to the point where we both commented on it. Until the next day when we got our next Uber to the Monastery when the same thing happened, and then again on the way back.

These people are just super friendly and want to ensure that everyone who visits enjoys their time. Add to this that the pricing is more than reasonable for everything and the sights have a nice mix of natural beauty and old world charm how can you go wrong here.

We were not really blessed with the weather here, it rained for two and a half of our three days here. We got the odd glimpses of sunshine (particularly on day one) and in between there were some some pretty soggy days. Our day two was on and off sunny with the skies changing every 10 minutes or so until it finally settled in.

Our hotel was perched high on the hilltop in oldtown, which sadly had been built on the side of a damn mountain. As beautiful as the views were, it meant that everywhere we went was either up, or down, a ridiculously steep hill.

Finding your way around the old town could not be simpler, just follow the tram tracks. Be sure not to be run over by cars, trams, tuk tuks, bicycles, vans etc, that are all competing for the narrow road, but just follow along and you will pass pretty much everything that there is to see.

The tram goes past almost all of the tourist spots in the old town and centres around the main square, Praca do Comercio. This will include the churches, palace, castle, bars, cafes and restaurants. As long as you can see the tracks, you will see the bits.

Jammed in the middle of the tracks you will find Sé de Lisbon. This cathedral started being built in 1147 and ended in the first decades of the 13th century.

The tram tracks quite literally split and run either side of the triangular street entrance.

Castelo de S. Jorge Stands on Lisbon’s highest hill and offers panoramic views of the city. The fort dates back to Moorish times (11th century), and has served as military barracks and royal chambers. Currently, it functions as a national monument, museum and archaeological site, with fantastic views and great gardens. And if this is off season, I hate to see the lines in peak times.

Lisbon’s central park is named Edward VII Park taking up 26 hectares in the middle of town. It was named as a tribute to the British Monarch.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Jerónimos or Hieronymites Monastery) was originally donated to the Order of the Friars of St. Jerome. Construction began in near the launch point of Vasco da Gama’s first journey. Its construction lasted for a hundred years and was funded by a tax on the profits of the yearly Portuguese India Armadas. The day of our visit the weather kept coming and going, alternating between blue skies and torrential downpours.

To say this place is impressive is a massive understatement. Everywhere you look is a different aspect of the place and the intricately carved windows and openings act to frame the next amazing sight.

Portuguese Custard Tarts (Pasteis de nata)

Lets not be silly we have all eaten these. Whether it is the cheap boxed up ones in Costco, or the ones after a Chinese Yum Cha (bearing in mind that Shanghai was one of the Portuguese territories), or just from some dodgy bakery that does them. And they are always good, even the shitty ones are great, with their signature flaky crust and sweet custard filling they are world-famous, and incredibly delicious.

But now we are at their point of origin, and sadly, all others pale by comparison to the original version. It was created by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery and has certified origin. The original recipe is called Pastel de Belém and we found our way to Pasteis de Belem which is right next to the monastery and is recognised as their true home. And in case you were wondering, they were good.

Literally across the road from the Monastery is a park and the Discoveries Monument which serves as a monument to Portugal’s Age of Discovery on both land and sea.

The monument was reconstructed in 1960 to mark 500 years since the death of the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator).

A few hundred meters down the bank of the Tagus River you find yourself at Torre de Belém. This is a 16th-century tower that is a mix between a medieval keep tower and a modern bastion. It was built to guard the river entrance into Lisbon’s harbour.

That evening we found our way down to Praca do Comercio which is one of the biggest squares in Europe, this stylish area in downtown Lisbon often displays beautiful works of art and sculpture and is a great place for a leisurely stroll.

The Aqueduto das Águas was built in the 18th century to supply water to the town. Its construction was funded by special levies on meat, olive oil and wine. It stretches 14 kilometres and can now be visited as a tourist attraction.

The blurb for the Museu Nacional do Azulejo said that it was a must-see for people interested in the history and design of ceramic tiles. Now lets be serious here, that is not a title that I have particularly aspired to. But being in Lisbon, you do get a fair old appreciation of the ceramic tile as almost every building is finished (on the outside) with them. Looking at the photos of the museum, if it is your thing, then this specialty museum does house an impressive collection of decorative tiles dating from the 15th century to now.

The Coaches Museum is one of Lisbon’s most visited attractions, and is a collection of fairytale type carriages that have been used by the royalty and nobility of Europe over the centuries. While most European royal carriages were destroyed over time (especially in Paris after the French Revolution), in Portugal they were preserved. Most of them date to the 17th to 19th centuries, but the oldest example dates back to the late 1500s.

Brazilian BBQ – Portuguese Style

On our third Uber ride, our driver asked us if we liked seafood, which of course we do. He then went on to tell us that in Portugal, they do a similar thing to the Brazilian BBQ but instead of using meat, they do it with seafood. He told us the best place in town and the price came out to about 450 Aussie per head. Well if that is not a done deal then I don’t know what is.

So we headed down to the main square, took our happy snaps of the square and then headed to a little wine bar (as we were early for our reservation. A funky little place called shoes and booze. We had a drink and watched the waitress just dancing around having a great time enjoying her work. When we ordered the second round she asked Jill if she just wanted the bottle as it was 4.50 for a glass or 12 Euros for the whole bottle. The chat continued and we got invited to a private party back at the bar (with live music) the next evening.

Anyway back to the seafood, we made it to the restaurant and ordered the all-you-can-eat thing and it arrived with some interesting fare. The prawns, mussels, crabs and clams were all good and even the crab head mousse was good, but it was the whelks and barnacles that threw us a little. We had to seek guidance on just what part and how to eat the barnacles.

The construction of the Christ the King monument was approved on 20 April 1940, as a plea to God to release Portugal from entering WWII.

The monument consists of a 82 meter pedestal with a 28 meter image of Christ.

Perched on the opposite side of the river the figure of Christ has its arms extended out facing the city of Lisbon, as if to embrace the city.

Long story short, apart from the weather, Lisbon was fantastic and we will need to come back as there is so much more to explore and do. It became very clear that the time that we had allotted was insufficient for the amount to see and do. This was further hampered by the rain that kept us hiding more than exploring.

The prices are more than reasonable and the friendliness of the people was just amazing. And I think that both Jill and I can fit another egg tart or two in, and for the record, even the shitty ones remain good. And there is so much more that missed out on seeing.

Romania

Romania is a country located at the crossroads of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. It borders Bulgaria (south), Ukraine (north), Hungary (west), Serbia (southwest), Moldova (east), and the Black Sea (southeast).

Romania is particularly known for the forested region of Transylvania, long associated with the Dracula legend. It is ringed by the Carpathian Mountains and has many well preserved medieval towns and fortified churches and castles.

Human remains found in Romania have been dated back to 40,000 years ago, making them the oldest known homo sapiens in Europe.

Castle Dracula

We did not get near this one, but I thought that I should at least mention it and provide a few stolen tourist brochure shots. More rightly known as Bran Castle it was built in 1377 and attracts over 700,000 visitors a year.

Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania.

Bran Castle is the only castle in all of Transylvania that fits Bram Stoker’s description.

The Bram castle website offers the opportunity to get in touch with the creatures of the night through an exhibition entitled ‘A history of dreads in Transylvania’. This provides a history of local myths and fears (their symbols and significance) and the way they were reflected in the historiography of the 15th century. And how they were then discovered and used by Bram Stoker in the 19th century for the creation of Count Dracula.

Bucharest

My relationship with Bucharest is a mixed one. I have both loved and hated it at the same time. My first introduction was magnificent, we hopped off the plane and straight onto a local transfer bus that delivered us (close enough) to our hotel – seamless. Our hotel was one of the best we had seen thus far and was clean and efficient. The room was luxurious with a fully functioning air conditioning unit (it was about 37 degrees) which pleased me nicely.

Bucharest is a big capital city (2.2 million), and it doesn’t really have much to make it stand out apart from the main two or three tourist attractions. While certain aspects of the place are stunning and photogenic, the majority are in a terrible state of disrepair. Billions have been spent on the presidential palace and constitution square etc. but the rest of the place is being left to crumble down upon itself.

Having relaxed and cooled off, we had to find our way to the Bucharest Nord train station to pick up our physical tickets (to Moldova) for the next evening. On the map, it seemed like a simple enough task but this is where the wheels started to fall off.

There are two stations at the Nord, one is for the longer trains while another is for the local trains. We landed at the local one one first of all and it was a dump. Having been redirected to the main one (about 800m away) we walked along the urine soaked, rusting, vandalised and generally dilapidated path that at one time connected the two stations together. Travellators had been smashed and destroyed and at some point had became shelter to the homeless population leaving a very overt stench of urine. These have now been barred off to keep the homeless out.

We eventually got to the main station and after some consternation was able to locate and find our tickets (mainly due to the magnificent website the man in seat 61).

This is actually worth mentioning (www.seat61.com) is a privately run website by a guy called Mark Smith who started it as a hobby.

If you are ever looking to get on a train you need to check this website out. It gives you answers virtually any question that you may have almost everywhere in the world.

Having gotten our tickets (and sweltered in the heat) we (at considerable urging from me) opted to catch the Metro to Old Town. Disappointment number two. Old town Bucharest is almost entirely dilapidated or under repair. The buildings are falling down or are covered in scaffolding (at least they are trying to bring it back to its former glory). Those that are open are nightclubs, strip clubs, brothels, rub-and-tugs and really loud (overpriced) lager-lout bars.

Stavropoleos Monastery is a monastery for nuns and was about the only thing in Old Town still worth looking at.

The building which dates back nearly 300 years has been heavily affected by earthquakes. Only the church still stands from its original state. 

Feeling very disillusioned, we caught the bus back to our hotel and had a nice meal in pleasant surroundings… tomorrow would be another day.

Its main draw is the Palace of Parliament is the heaviest building in the world coming in at just over 4 billion kilograms. This place is huge it is 84m tall with a floor area of 365,000 sqm. It was ordered by Nicolae Ceausescu the president of communist Romania and took 13 years to build. Uranus Hill was levelled, and the Uranus-Izvor neighbourhood was destroyed so the building could be erected. It was finished in 1997.

We came at it from the side (through the park) and were impressed by what we saw, but once you make your way around to the front things go up another level. The palace houses the two branches of the Parliament of Romania, three museums (contemporary art, communist totalitarianism and palace) and an international conference centre. The building has eight underground levels, the deepest housing a nuclear bunker, linked to main state institutions by 20 km (12.4 mi) of tunnels. From the palace, you look out onto Constitution Square.

Bulevardul Unirii (Union Boulevard) the Palace and Constitution Square were designed at the same time as an architectural unit.

It connects the Palace with  Alba Iulia Square (Piața Alba Iulia), running through Union Square.

The Romanian Athenaeum is the main concert hall in town and has been since it opened back in 1888. As we arrived almost the entire symphony orchestra was chain smoking at the side door in full tuxedos, not sure what was playing that day, but they were clearly on a break.

Kretzulescu Church is an Eastern Orthodox Church located in one of the corners of Revolution Square. 

Arcul de Triumf is a triumphal arch located in the northern part of Bucharest, Romania, on the Kiseleff Road. It was originally hurriedly built of wood in 1878 so that the victorious troops could march under it after Romania gained its independence. The current version was built in 1921–22, renovated in 1935–36, and renovated again starting in 2014. And of course, it is now the home to Instagrammers (who apparently now bring their own chairs with them for their photoshoots).

Having done the long tourist hike, we found ourselves back in the Old Town area again and thought we would give it one more try. Sadly, the CEC Palace, George Enescu Museum, peoples Salvation Cathedral, Coral Jewish Temple and many of the things we came to see were covered in scaffolding and were unable to be seen. The central part still sucked, but if you hunt hard on the fringes you can get glimpses of what it may once have looked like and hopefully what it may once again be.

There isn’t a lot of nature in Bucharest outside a few parks. It is a major city, and like most major cities it doesn’t have tons and tons of green space. However, Romania more broadly is known for its incredible scenery and nature. It is a bit of a shame that you don’t get a taste of that in Bucharest.

Other things that we missed but would like to come back and see include the Transfagarasan Highway this 80+ kilometer highway runs from Wallachia to Transylvania.

Also, the Statue of King Decebalus which is carved into the rock as you sail through the Iron Gates on the Danube River.

This 141-foot-high face of Decebalus honors this last king, who fought for the country’s independence against the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan.

And beyond Brand Castle there are another 309 castles dotted throughout Romania that would be nice to see. They were mostly created between the 14th and 18th centuries and have served as fortresses for armies to defend the country against its many intruders.

Leaving Bucharest we once again headed to the Bucharest Nord train station for our overnight train to Moldova. Having learned our lesson we went straight to the main entrance and managed to avoid the urine soaked mess that we were met with on the first day.

A few days later, we found ourselves back in Romania on our way back from Moldova. Nothing really to report other than the highway robbery that was taking place at the train station and airport. Coffee usually ran to $2 but at the railway station it was $7 and at the airport, it was just over $10. We were going to get some food but even the Hungry Jacks at Bucharest airport was charging $25 Aussie for a small whopper meal. We chose to go without.

As I said up front, my relationship with Bucharest is a mixed one. The bad here is very bad and the normal is only barely passable. But the good is exceptional. On the whole, it was ok and eventually, it probably won me over. I would however like to come back to Romania to see some of the sights that exist a little further outside the capital.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is basically the most famous Game of Thrones (GoT) filming destination on the planet. It was the filming location for the city of Westeros, Kings Landing. Within the walls of Old Town there were many GoT scenes shot. And today you can barely walk the streets without crashing into a GoT tour, shop, memorabilia outlet or sign highlighting how it related to the show. Suffice to say, that almost everything you see or that I will mention in the following is related in some way shape or form to the show.

Our accommodation (thankfully) was out of the craziness that is the old town. We were down on the water, a few kilometers away near the port. The setting was stunning and at least (while we did not know it at the time) we were away from the insanity. We arrived after 8pm and headed out for a lovely meal by the water, vowing to brave the tourist sights the next morning.

Our first introduction to what was to follow was the slow walk that we decided to take to Old Town (rather than catch the local bus). And this introduction was boat load after boat load of party boats stocking up on their quota of tourists for the day trips. The waterfront was packed with boats, each jamming 50+ people per boat and the bigger ones doing way more. And of course there is the daily cruise ships

Dubrovnik Old Town is known as one of the world’s finest and most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world. For centuries it rivalled Venice as a major trading port. It was built between the 11th and 17th centuries, affording protection to the main entry gate.

The main attractions within old town include the city walls (which you can walk around (for 35 euros a head) this will include towers, walls and defences. Inside the city proper are the clock and bell tower, churches (Sveti Vlaho, Saint Saviour and the Cathedral), monasteries (Dominican and Franciscan), squares (Stradun, Placa, Lužaand and Gunduliceva), and the GoT favourite the Jesuit Stairs.

Having navigated past the harbour we kept walking towards the old town figuring we would see some cool stuff along the way. The first sight we came across was the Lovrijenac Fortress. This is a 16th Century Fortress with 12 metre thick Fortress walls. Over the centuries the fortress played a pivotal role in the defence of Dubrovnik.

This and the Bokar Fortress (opposite side of the inlet) create a fairly imposing landing point for any old-time invading force. Bokar Fortress was built in the 15th century to defend the town’s main entrance. It is the round lump that hangs off the end of old town just to the side of the main entry gate. Currently, in its interior, there are several cannons on display as well as a small precious stones (lapidary) collection.

Pile Gate is the main entrance to Dubrovnik City, and is one of only two entrances to the city. We were here relatively early in the morning and it was already seriously busy, with bodies all over the place and hellish tour groups taking up all the available space.

As you pass through the Pile Gate you are met with two imposing buildings and a fountain. To the left if the Franciscan Monastery and to the right is the St Claire Convent with the Onofrio’s fountain directly in front. The other thing you are met with is a wall of humanity. Everyone gets through the gates and stops to take pictures. As we were here early it was fairly manageable but by the time we were ready to leave this place was a debacle.

Between the two runs the Stradun (main street) which connects the western and eastern entrances to the city. It was created at the end of the 9th century and was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1667. At the beginning and end of Stradun, there are two fountains (Big and Small Onofrio’s Fountain) and two bell towers (City bell tower and the bell tower of the Franciscan church and monastery).

Minceta Tower is the highest point in Dubrovnik City and as you would expect, delivers impressive views over the sea and the Old Town.

Locally known as Tvrđava Minčeta, the tower was built in 1319.

Palace Sponza was built in the 16th century and has been used as the customs house, armoury, treasury, bank and school.

The Rector’s Palace or Knežev dvor used to serve as the seat of the Rector between the 14th century and 1808. Originally it was a site of a defence building in the early Middle Ages. It was destroyed by a fire in 1435 and the city-state decided to build a new palace.

Sveti Ivan tower was built in the 14th century on the south side of old town. On its ground floor there is an aquarium, and on the 1st and 2nd floor there is a Maritime Museum.

Lokrum Island is located just off the Dubrovnik coast. According to legend Richard the Lion-Heart was cast ashore here after being shipwrecked in 1192 while returning from the Crusades. The vow he made to build a church on the spot where he came ashore should he be saved was kept at least in part. Although he came ashore in Lokrum, at the request of the people of Dubrovnik, he agreed to have the church built in the city itself.

At its center is a medieval Benedictine monastery complex that’s surrounded by botanical gardens planted with exotic trees, flowers, and bushes.  Inside the Visitors Centre on Lokrum Island is a small exhibition dedicated to GoT and it is the final resting place of the original Iron Throne.

Located near Gundulic Square in the centre of Dubrovnik Old Town the Jesuit Staircase and St Dominika Street are the two most popular areas in the whole of old town. This is the area where one of the most famous GoT scenes were filmed (Cersei’s infamous walk of shame).

We were totally over the crowds and the people and were on our way out of old town by 11am. On our way out the bedlam that we saw on the way in was multiplied by about 5 times. The lines were longer, the crowds were denser and the tempers were shorter.

Dubrovnik is an absolutely lovely city to visit. Just don’t do it in peak season. July and August are hellish and should be avoided at all costs. Don’t get me wrong, you really want to come here, but the peak-season crowds make this place unbearable.

Knin and Split

Knin

Our journey to Split started with an early morning train from Zagreb. What we did not realise was that we were travelling on the 5th of August, which is a national day of celebration and remembrance. On this day in 1995 the town of Knin was liberated from Serbian forces in a combined military and police operation “Storm”. 

In the course of the operation several towns liberated and at exactly noon, a twenty-meter Croatian flag was hoisted at the Knin Fortress. After 84 hours, Knin and additional 11,000 square kilometers of occupied territory were freed. The Croatian Army and Police forces liberated area up to the internationally recognized border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

From 1996 till today this day has been marked as a public holiday that is now called Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Croatian Defenders.

And we were belting past and briefly stopping on the train. The first sign was a bunch of military uniforms and checkpoints. The next was monster tanks and rocket launchers. A look up the hill showed the fortress and what appeared to be quite a lot of commotion, which at the time we were oblivious to.

Split

We arrived in split mid afternoon and immediately descended into a nightmare. The train station, bus station and tourist docks were all in one very tiny spot of land and there were bodies and vehicles going in every direction. It was bedlam.

Thankfully our hotel was only about half a kilometre away (up the hill) and was near Bacvice Beach (the main tourist beach in town). As it was the national holiday, most of what was available was closed.

Split is the second-largest city of Croatia after the capital Zagreb, the largest city in the region of Dalmatia and the largest city on the Croatian coast. It lies on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea and is spread over a central peninsula.

The most important thing to know is that there are three Splits.

The first is Land Split – which is full of old buildings, castles and palaces along with Game of Thrones (GoT) filming locations.

The second Split is Water Split which takes in stunning water locations such as the blue cave, blue lagoon, shipwrecks.

Unfortunately this also runs into the third Split, Party Split.

A ton of 18-20 somethings are being fed unlimited fixed price drink packages in a sunny and decadent location. This is a recipe for disaster. I’m sure in my 20’s I would have loved it.

Sadly, third Split necessitates the printing and signposting of this photo.

The main show in town is the Diocletian’s Palace. The ruins of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace date back to the late 3rd to early 4th century A.D. This isn’t just a palace or a ruin, rather it has been consumed by and now constitutes the entire old town centre. The ancient walls, gates and columns ring the palace but over the period (1700 years or so) the Renaissance houses, palaces, cobbled streets and squares all grew within the space that was once the palace.

The Cathedral of Saint Domnius was built in the 4th century and is known locally as the Sveti Dujam. Strictly the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the bell tower to Saint Domnius. Together they form the Cathedral of St. Domnius. It was consecrated at the turn of the 7th century AD, is regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure. The structure itself was built in AD 3.

In the Palace is a Game of Thrones Museum that allows fans to step inside Meereen and the GoT more broadly. The museum has some original artifacts, props, costumes, actual size figures, weapons, city dioramas, sets and more.

Froggyland – well, let’s just let the pictures speak for themselves.

About 14 kilometres out of town you can find the Klis Fortress perched in the mountain pass between Mosor and Kozjak. Getting here was a simple 20 minute bus ride on the local transport for the princely sum of three euros.

The fortress has a history going back more than 2000 years, beginning with the Illyrian tribe called Dalmatae that used it as a stronghold before it was taken by the Romans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the site became a seat for several Croatian kings. And of course, the fortress was used as a GoT film set.

Jill even found herself in her own drama with an overly entitled Instagrammer. We were appalled to hear this whiny nasal voice telling everybody to move as she was trying to take a “real photo”.

As soon as the path cleared a bit another person would step into the shot (it is a pretty popular place) causing another round of whining. I made sure to step in and get my photos and Jill stepped in a short while later to get hers, ensuring to take her time. When the girl tried to pull Jill on, she responded that we had all paid the same amount of money and were all able to get our photographs and that she was not going to pander to her sense of entitlement.

This was met by giggles from those around and prompted a steadily annoying stream of people standing exactly where she was trying to clear. The worst thing about all of this, the whiny, nasal voice was accompanied by an overtly Australian accent. I am hoping that this is not the future touring reputation that Australians will get.

Back to town to see the remainder of the Palace and old town and then back to our accommodation to prepare for the next leg through to Dubrovnik.

The next day we had hours to kill while we waited for the bus trip that we had been dreading for a while now. The further east you go in Europe, the shittier things get. The organisation and schedule of Germany falls by the wayside and is replaced with increasingly half-assed versions. The trains go from fast, comfortable transports through to old diesel clunkers. And eventually the trains disappear all together and bus transfers are all that is left.

This was the first of the bus transfers. And our dread manifested immediately at the chaos that was the bus station. There were about a thousand (literally) people with luggage waiting and no board available to figure out where/when (if at all) your bus may turn up. Busses turned up and left with little or no explanation and the poor drivers were besieged by confused (and annoyingly needy) tourists.

Ok first things first, the Croatian coastline is stunning. After the debacle that was the bus station, the rest of the trip was perfectly satisfactory. There were some overly chatty (chain-smoking) bus drivers that answered every question (from each other) 4 -5 times. So the bus was filled with second hand smoke and the sounds of da da da da da or ya ya ya ya ya ya. But otherwise, the trip was great and the scenery was incredible.

Slovenia

Slovenia is a country of a little over 2 million that is known for its mountains, ski resorts and lakes. 

Getting here, for us, involved an 8 hour train ride from Budapest through to the capital of Ljubljana. Now this train ride, while long, was relatively pleasant and the scenery out the window was very nice indeed. The Slovenian countryside is fantastic with scenic landscapes popping up virtually every kilometre of the journey. And the tourist shots below (not ours sadly) really show it well, but Jill did manage to get some great bridge and church shots from out of the train window.

Ljubljana The city of dragons

The dragon is the symbol of Ljubljana and has pride of place on the city coat of arms and throughout the city.

Legend has it that Ljubljana was founded by Jason (the hero of Greek mythology who stole the golden fleece and fled) with his comrades (the Argonauts). They came across the Black Sea, up the Danube and the Sava until they reached the Ljubljanica. There they dismantled their ship to carry it overland to the Adriatic coast, where they rebuilt it and set sail back to Greece. On their way to the coast, they were forced to stopp (for winter) at a large lake in the marshes near the source of the Ljubljanica. There a dragon was said to dwell, whereupon Jason fought, defeated and killed the monster.

Ljubljana today is Slovenia’s largest city (280,000 people). Car traffic has been restricted in the central area making Ljubljana one of Europe’s greenest and most liveable capitals, not to mention ideal for pedestrians. The Ljubljanica River flows through the city’s heart and in summer, cafes set up terrace seating along the river.

The main show in town is the Ljubljana Castle which sits atop the 375 meter hill overlooking oldtown. Originally a medieval fortress, it is thought to have been constructed in the 11th century and then rebuilt in the 12th century. Most of it today dates to the 16th century after it was again rebuilt after an earthquake. Over the centuries, the castle has played an important role and remained a symbol of the city.

Because it was not a home of a ruler or another important noble person and because a fortification in the area was no longer required, the castle started to lose its importance. The maintenance costs were too high so the castle began to crumble. From the top there are some fairly spectacular views over the entire city.

The easiest way to get up to the castle is by using the 70m-long  funicular.

 It goes from Krek Square near the centre of the old town and the Ljubljana Central Market to the Ljubljana Castle.

It is a one minute ride up or a 6 minute wait between trips. About 30 can ride at a time and there are massive queues at the bottom if you wait too long to get up and get moving.

The Dragon Bridge is a vehicle bridge that is adorned with four giant sheet-copper dragon statues.

There are also sixteen smaller dragon statues that can be found on the bridge.

It was built at the beginning of the 20th century when Ljubljana was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Butchers’ Bridge is Ljubljana’s love bridge. It is a place where countless couples have symbolically padlocked their love and dropped the keys into the river Ljubljanica, which flows underneath.

The Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) was built to open up the city to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Today vehicles have been banned and is now solely for pedestrians.

The Cobbler’s Bridge is the oldest bridge in Ljubljana, connecting two areas of the medieval town. In olden times, cobblers would display their shoes on this bridge.

And all around the old town area are the usual mix of funky bridges, statues and old buildings (that have now been repurposed into banks and shops etc).

Slovenian waiters are amazing. Over two different nights we saw two different groups behave atrociously in the restaurants that we had gone to. The first night was a big storm that took away the ability to seat people externally and a Spanish group of 4 parents and 4 children demanded to be seated inside, while around 30 other people waited patiently. Needless to say they had failed the attitude test and were sent away to find another place to eat.

The second night was at the oldest restaurant in town (started in 1776) when (another Spanish group) four older people came in demanding the world from a table that had only just been vacated but had not been cleared yet (maybe a 30-45 second window). We had finished eating by then and were ready to pay, so we warned our waiter of their entitlement and he just smiled.

His response was that in Slovakia, they did not put up with poor customer behaviour and can and are encouraged to be worse to bad customers.

In Slovakia, there is an abundance of brown bears, so much so that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Spatial Planning has approved the culling of 230 brown bears (in 2023).

The aim is to gradually reduce the country’s brown bear population to prevent major damage and keep people safe.

The meat from the brown bear cull does not go to waste and is harvested for use in restaurants, primarily for the making of bear goulash.

Ok…that was an overly long and politically correct way of saying I ate the brown bear goulash.

Ljubljana was nice. There was plenty to see and do and it was well priced. Not as cheap as Budapest but around 20% of the cost of Switzerland. If you push hard you could probably do the whole tourist run in a day. We were here for two and a half days and enjoyed the leisurely pace and still found enough to amuse ourselves. The people are really helpful, but do not suffer fools lightly. And don’t even try being an entitled westerner at restaurant or who knows what may happen to you.

Slovakia

Slovakia is yet another landlocked country in central Europe, with a population of over 5.4 million.

It is bordered by Poland (north), Ukraine (east), Hungary (south), Austria (southwest), and the Czech Republic (northwest). The country is mostly mountainous (Carpathian Mountains) offering views of wine-growing valleys, picturesque castles, and historical cities. 

In 1536, Bratislava was declared the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Getting to Bratislava from Austria was a breeze, a tiny puddle jump of a bit more than an hour. We hopped off our train and did the 600m walk to our hotel, dropped our bags and hit the streets. Our day started and ended in a sunny manner, but at around 4pm all  hell broke loose as rain tumbled from the skies and flooded the roads, for about an hour.

Bratislava

Bratislava sits on the Danube River by the border with Austria and Hungary. It is the capital of Slovakia and at its heart lies the pedestrian-only, 18th-century old town. This has all of the usual mix of old buildings and churches along with the tourist shops, cafes and bars.

As usual, the big show in town is Bratislava Castle. The first written reference to the city was in 907 but the castle hill was thought to be populated as early as the late Stone Age. The first known inhabitants were the Celts, who founded a fortified settlement here called ‘Oppidum’. In the 16th century, King Ferdinand ordered the rebuilding of the castle in the Renaissance style.

Michael’s Gate is the only preserved 14th century gate of the city fortification system.

The 51-metre-high tower provides a great view of the Castle and Old Town. The tower houses the Museum of Arms.

The SNP Bridge was built in 1967-1972 as a symbol of the Slovak National Uprising. It has a UFO restaurant on top of the 80 metre tall pylon.

The bridge is 432 m long and 21 m wide.

Old Town Hall is the oldest city hall in the country with the tower being built around 1370. It became the town hall in the 15th century when three townhouses were connected.

St. Martin’s Cathedral was the site that ten men were crowned king between 1563 and 1830.

The first reigning king was Maximilian from the Habsburg Dynasty, while the famous era of coronations came to an end for Bratislava with the crowning of Ferdinand V.

Primates Palace was built in the 18th century and today serves as the seat of the Mayor of Bratislava.

It also houses a gallery of 17th century English tapestries.

Grassalkovich Palace was built in 1760 and is now the official residence of the President of the Slovak Republic.

The Blue Church is officially known as the Church of St Elizabeth of Hungary.

The blurb tells me that “It is Bratislava’s most appealing art nouveau building”.

Not sure if I agree.

The Slavin is the largest war memorial in Central Europe. It is 52m tall.

It commemorates the 6845 soldiers who died during the liberation of Bratislava in World War II.

Sadly, due to a tight schedule we never got to Devin Castle. It is a castle ruin on the border with Austria, built on a high rock towering above the merging of the Danube and Morava rivers.

As our luck has been running, we jag being in town for the Bratislava Coronation Celebration, where ceremonies are reenacted by actors and enthusiasts wearing period costumes. It runs over multiple days with events such as jousting (featuring knights in armor), theater and music performances, lectures and exhibitions, and guided tours. We were sadly only in town for the procession.

Bratislava was great, however given its proximity to Vienna and the ease of access, we could easily have done this as a day trip. Hopping a train each way would give you plenty of time to see everything in Bratislava and get back to Vienna in the late afternoon/early evening thereby allowing you to spend more time in Vienna.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg, officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is a tiny landlocked country of around 2500 square km and a population of under 650,000.

This makes it both one of the smallest and least populated countries in Europe.

It borders Belgium (west and north), Germany (east) and France (south).

Luxembourg’s recorded history dates back to Roman times but the modern day version is considered to begin in 963. The House of Luxembourg was a royal family that ruled in and around the region for centuries.

There is evidence of primitive inhabitants dating back to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age over 35,000 years ago. The first real evidence of civilisation is from the Neolithic or 5th millennium BC, from which evidence of houses has been found. 

Originally, the City of Luxembourg was originally built in the mid 10th century as a small fort (the castle). It was built on a steep rocky outcrop at the junction of the Alzette and Pétrusse Rivers. Due to it’s strategic position it has been occupied and controlled by the Italian, Spanish, Belgian, French, Austrian, Dutch and Prussian. With each iteration and rule various engineers contributed to the fortifications stronghold. The fortress was so strong that at one point it earned the title of “Gibraltar of the North.” 

Luxembourg was one of Europe’s greatest fortified sites between the 16th century until 1867, when its walls were dismantled. The fortifications and the old town have been classified as world heritage sites by UNESCO since 1994. 

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg became a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and in 1949 it also became a founding member of NATO.

This is a catch up as I published this one out of order, we were actually in Luxembourg, before Switzerland but I got the two L’s (Luxembourg and Lichtenstein) mixed up in my head and only just realised (3 countries later) that I had missed this one.

Luxembourg City is modern and the capital of Luxembourg it has done an excellent job of blending history and modern progress. The modern city is a highly efficient and functioning centre of commerce (particularly banking) while the Old Town area has kept the history and beauty of the city alive.

The first thing to know about Luxembourg is that all public transportation is free.  

From our hotel (in the red light district near the train Station) we did the tourist walk towards the Old City to check out what Luxembourg had to offer.

The first thing that we aimed for was the Pont Adolphe Bridge. Originally built between 1900 and 1903 during the rule of Grand Duke Adolphe, the bridge had the biggest stone arch in the world at the time. The big double arch spans more than 85 metres across the Pétrusse valley at a height of 42 metres, and a total length of 153 metres.

Crossing the bridge you come to the Monument of Remembrance, officially known as Gëlle Fra. It is a war memorial dedicated to fallen Luxembourg soldiers. 

At the top of the obelisk is a golden statue of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. She is holding a wreath and looking down on a fallen soldier laying at the base of the pillar.

Constitution Square, or Place De La Constitution is next.

This is a lovely garden built on the site of a former bastion or fortress wall.

At the center of the square the Luxembourg flag waves, towering over the green space.

Across the road is the Notre Dame Cathedral. It took more than 300 years to construct and is free to enter. Looking nothing like the more famous Cathedral with the same name, this one has three towers, stained glass windows, intricately carved pillars, and a vaulted nave.

Place Guillaume and Place d’Armes are the two main squares in Luxembourg City.

Place Guillaume is home to the Luxembourg City Hall. A statue of the former Grand Duke William II riding a horse dominates the eastern half of the square. 

Place Guillaume and Place d’Armes are the two main squares in Luxembourg City. Place Guillaume is home to the Luxembourg City Hall. A statue of the former Grand Duke William II riding a horse dominates the eastern half of the square. 

Place d’Armes is in the heart of the pedestrian zone of Luxembourg City. It is lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops. During the holidays, the square hosts a Christmas market and every other Saturday there is a flea market in this central square. 

Grand Ducal Palace was originally Luxembourg City’s first town hall that was built in 1418.

It is the official residence of the grand ducal family.

During the summer months, the Luxembourg City Tourist Office runs exclusive guided tours of the Palace. These 75-minute tours are booked out months in advance. They allow visitors to take a look behind the scenes, including the Grand Duke’s office, the dining room and the “Salon des Rois”.

The money raised from ticket sales is used to support a foundation that supports humanitarian and solidarity initiatives to assist vulnerable people and those in distress, both in the Grand Duchy and in developing countries.

Luxembourg is lovely, there is plenty to see and do but in real terms, you can do the lap within half a day, perhaps a little longer if you do the palace tour. I feel this may be the case for many of the smaller European countries. The train in and out is a breeze, and the free transportation around town makes this place a dream for a quick pop-in and look around.

Luxembourg food

Luxembourg is a very international country, as over the years people have moved here from all areas of the world. Their food is a mix of French, German, and Belgian cuisines, but other countries also feature strongly in restaurants across the country.

This actually blew us away, Luxembourg has delivered the best food that we have eaten all trip. Strangely enough we did not eat traditional but rather we had Syrian and Italian and both were exceptional. We did not eat in flash hotels or restaurants, we picked the local small joints (as we usually do) and were totally blown away with the quality, taste and service that was on offer.