Category Archives: Europe

Zeppelins and our escape to Russia

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was our first stop with the luxury of a night in a hotel. For me (Vicki writing today – hello!) this really was luxury as she didn’t want to qleave the most comfortable bed she has slept in for a long time. Sightseeing waits for no one though and the Old Town of Vilnius was calling. One the largest surviving medieval old town in Europe, Vilnius offered a lot to explore and seemed to tick all the boxes: Cathedral, Presidential Palace, many churches and lots of little bars set in pretty squares (note – next time we should come when the weather is actually nice enough to sit in the little bars in the squares!).

Lunch was traditional Lithuanian fare – Rich got stuck into some “Zeppelins” (thanks Rob for the recommendation) whilst I had a bread bowl full of soup (which was so good I had it again the following day).
Lunch was very good, but it also very heavy, and so in the afternoon we walked it off with a trip up one of Vilnius’s 2 hills – this one had a small castle on it. It was a steep walk up, and probably the not the best way to let lunch settle, but the view from the top was amazing, and well worth the slog up.

IMG_4737

On the way back to the hotel we came across some trees and lamp posts that had covers thoughtfully knitted for them. No idea why, but they looked pretty funky. One even had a knitted RFID, but sadly, it didn’t work.

IMG_4760

Dinner that night was in a specialist beer bar which was hidden down a small street, and without Trip Advisor directions, we would never have found it. Rich seemed to enjoy the beer, and the food was definitely an experience (Lithuanian food seems to involve a lot of pig’s ears).

Early the next morning, it was run time! We planned a route that would take us to the “Uzupis republic”, a small area in Vilnius which has its own constitution and where, on April Fools Day, the police will stamp your passport. Whilst the run was very scenic (it is always a good way to see a  city) it was distinctly hilly, with one part being a gigantic set of wooden steps (in various states of disrepair) up to the highest point of Vilnius.

IMG_7009

The post-run breakfast was provided by the market across the street from the hotel. It seemed to sell everything from hundreds of varieties of sausages, to clothes to wooden souvenirs – and the traders didn’t even bat an eyelid at 2 sweaty runners wandering around.

The afternoon saw a trip to the Genocide museum, following the brutal history of Lithuania from the 1940’s up to independence in the 1990’s, housed in the ex-KGB building. The most chilling part was the KGB execution chamber, where you could still see the bullet holes in the walls.

That evening saw the most torrential rain I think I have ever seen – we practically had to swim to the station to get our train. It meant that we were getting an overnight train with soggy clothes and shoes, which were already a bit on the pungent side. This would have been fine if it was just the two of us in a compartment, but this was one of the few times we were sharing a 4 berth cabin.

This second night train to St Petersburg was very different to the first (Cologne to Warsaw). The antique train had corridors with dark wood panelling and burgundy patterned carpet. The cabins had a net curtain, and a lace doily on the table. After a nodded hello to our cabin mate we settled in for a quiet evening as our Lithuanian / Russian wasn’t yet at a conversational level.

As this train was to take us into Russia, we had been advised that at the Russian border, the guards would come aboard to check our tickets. Having heard various horror stories about Russian visas, I would say that this was the bit I was most nervous about of the whole trip! About 2am, a guard came aboard the train and checked our visas, closely followed by a sniffer dog (I’m not kidding – at 2am it is very odd to have a dog’s nose thrust in your face – next time I am taking the top bunk!). Having thought that was all sorted, I went back to sleep, until at 3am, the door opens and another guard wants our visa – and this time takes it away with her. 30 minutes (and two more cabin inspections) later, we finally get our passports back and I can breathe a sigh of relief – we made it in to Russia!

Euro Nights (Trains vs Buses)

We have just had two quite different night time travelling experiences. When we last left you we were heading into Poland on the EuroNight train. Today we are in Vilnius having seen Warsaw and moved on using the overnight bus, Lux Simple Europe. How different the two were!

First off, let me give you a Poland update. It was promised in two entries already and now we have been there and done that. Warsaw was always going to be a short stop. In fact we had 12 hours between our train and bus. This means no hotel, just sightseeing and then waiting. Unfortunately Warsaw tried to make this hard for us by emptying the contents of several clouds on our heads.

Being hardy travellers, we simply donned waterproofs, grabbed umbrellas and tried to make the best of it. Warsaw central station is located in the newer part of Warsaw, and so we made the 25 minute trek/swim to the Old Town. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that it was bucketing down, the Old Town was pretty quiet.

IMG_4647

Having had enough of walking in the rain we decided a pit stop was due so went into a chain restaurant just off the main square. We had already seen another outlet for this chain which featured Polish dumplings (pierogi) for Rich and potato pancakes for Vicki. We thought it was a good meal even if some trip advisor reviews describe it as the Polish equivalent of McDonalds. One of the highlights was watching old German men trying to take photos of the young waitresses who were wearing supposedly authentic dress as uniforms (see sample from their website below – http://www.zapiecek.eu/).

On leaving lunch the rain was still falling so we decided some culture was in order. Therefore, we went in to dry off in the castle. A bit of quick history of Warsaw, during the second world war it was pretty much entirely flattened. Houses gone, shops gone, old town gone, castle gone. So the castle we went it was built in the 1970s and opened in around 1981. This was the story with a lot of the old town, it isn’t actually that old with most places having been rebuilt in the 1950’s or later. Most buildings had two dates associated with them, one old and one post-war to indicate when the building was first built and then when it was rebuilt. It was amazing to see just how much devastation had been caused in the city and how much work had to be done to rebuild. Back in the castle, it seems they have done a very good job. Many original artefacts were saved even if the original building was not. This meant there was still a lot of history to see with the old and restored combined with great effect.

IMG_4684

On leaving the castle the weather gods smiled on us and held back the rain. This gave us chance to properly explore the old town as other tourists also came out from hiding and the place livened up a bit. The afternoon passed with a drink/wifi stop to rest for a while then the walk back to the new area of town where we had left our bags at the station. This seemed like a mistake at first as this part of Warsaw is seriously devoid of character. We passed very few bars/restaurants and none that we even considered going in. We were almost considering heading to the same chain as at lunch time when we stumbled across a little gem.

The Radio Cafe was once the headquarters of the Warsaw branch of Radio Free Europe. I won’t pretend to know much about this but just think of people living behind the iron curtain but spreading news/propaganda from the west via radio. Basically although we didn’t fully understand the history, going into this bar was like a step back in time. With 4 hours to fill before our bus, we managed to spend 3 of them sitting in this bar, drinking, snacking on plates of Polish appetisers and people watching.

At 10pm we began to move towards our 11:20pm overnight bus. This left from an out of town railway station (Warsaw Zachodnia) built in 1936 and not updated since, and this gave it an ominous atmosphere. Poor lighting and few people gave Vicki the feeling of being in a horror movie. Fortunately we found the other people waiting for overnight buses huddled in a small waiting area, which we were subsequently thrown out of when it closed at 11pm, instead being made to stand in the rain outside.

When the bus arrived it was a pleasant surprise. It had wifi and in-seat on-demand entertainment. I would say it was better than quite a few airlines (I am talking about you Ryanair). Although technologically equipped, it can’t compare in comfort terms to the cosy cabin we had on the Euro Night train the night before. As a necessary evil due to engineering works stopping all trains in September on our route the journey to Vilnius passed pretty quickly and was far less horrendous than expected. The sleep wasn’t great but luckily on arrival in Vilnius we were about to check into our hotel early and catch up on a few of the hours sleep we missed on the bus.

Mussels in Brussels

Day 1 was very much a travelling day. This means you are about to get a summary of several train journeys. Feel free to look at the pictures and skip ahead. We took the Berrylands flyer into town (no seat as usual on the rush hour train), Victoria line to Kings Cross St Pancras, Eurostar to Brussels, domestic train to Liege, Thalys train from Liege to Cologne/Koln and then onto the Euronight train to Warsaw.

After the Eurostar left us in Brussels at 14:05 we had until 18:14 to get to Liege for our next train. Our ticket allowed us to travel anywhere in Belgium but we settled on a quick hop into the centre of Brussels. Leaving our bags at the left luggage at Brussels Midi we arrived in at Brussels Central very quickly and soon found ourselves in Grand Place. We treated ourselves to lunch in the square, having some very good beer and mussels.

IMG_4566

No trip to Brussels would be complete without a visit to the Manequin Pis -who wouldn’t want to see a little boy pissing? The real highlight for Vicki though was the chocolate covered waffle she devoured on the way back to the station. The small amount I was allowed was very tasty. (Vicki: well, you can’t go to Belgium without having Belgian chocolate, it just wouldn’t be right!)

IMG_4575

As we were being cheap we didn’t get the ICE train directly to Cologne but instead moved to Liege for a Thalys train. This was under half the price of the ICE train when we were booking and proved worthwhile as it was a simple trip to Liege on a comfortable domestic train (even at rush hour there were plenty of seats – Southwest Trains take note) where there is a fabulous modern station. It was a really impressive sight and well worth seeing on our train adventure. A short stop allowed time for a raspberry beer/Baileys and hot chocolate. The 5th train of the day was probably the most comfortable, an hour on the Thalys (free wifi always pleases me) and we were in Cologne for dinner.

IMG_4598

Cologne is a fabulous city and well worth a visit. This was my second short stay their following an evening stop over on a tour round Europe with my brother John in 2001. I always said I wanted to go back and now I have. Unfortunately there wasn’t much time for sightseeing, having arrived at 19:30, but we had time for a stroll around town and dinner by the Rheine before boarding the Euro Night Sleeper train for Warsaw.

IMG_4633

After some deliberation on the platform and consultation with the leader of a school group we interpreted our ticket and found where to stand. We had a short panic moment when we realised we had beds 42 and 46 in the carriage and thought we may be in different compartments. Fortunately they skip a lot of numbers and we weren’t placed with any strange Polish people for the journey. We settled into our cosy cabin for our first nights sleep on a train. (Vicki – the cabin was a definite highlight for me – it was so cosy being just the two of us, and the beds were surprisingly comfy. The guard even brings you a cup of tea in the morning!)

We finished our last blog by saying see you in Poland. We still haven’t made it there by this point so once again, see you in Poland!

Here we go!

IMG_4537

Well, we have made it to Kings Cross St Pancras, and are now sat on the Eurostar – so that is a good start! After a tearful goodbye to Steve, and a quick photo shoot at Berrylands, the first two train rides of our journey were completed uneventfully. Our train has just departed, and hopefully the weather will be as good in Brussels as it seems in London – mainly because the waterproofs have been packed in the bottom of the bags.

IMG_4536

Over the last two weeks we made the most of our time off by taking long cycles, visiting Chessington World of Adventures and having a few rounds of mini golf. The time flew by but we found we got a lot done and managed to catch up with lots of friends before heading away. We think some people were sick of us by the end of the two weeks and thought we would never leave, particularly so at running club where we seem to have had 4 different last runs.

IMG_4541

Look out for more blog posts coming thick and fast as we travel through Europe. Today’s destinations include lunch in Brussels, dinner in Cologne and then an overnight train to Warsaw. See you in Poland!