From Mostar we drove to the Croatian city of Split, on the Adriatic coast. It took us about three hours. Halfway the journey, when we had just reached the recently build moterway A1, rain started pouring down heavily. This was the first rain we encountered in a week of travelling. I was releaved it didn’t rain while we were driving on the small roads in Bosnia. Around three in the afternoon we arrived in Split, where we would stay for two nights in Stambuk, a guesthouse near the old centre. The lady operating the guesthouse met us,in the street, got into our car and showed us were we could park for free. The room was nicely decorated but the bed was a bit shaky. I had to fix the slatted base of the bed several times during our stay. This could be due to my weight though. She recommended a restaurant called Fife not far from the old city, along the water front. We tried it in the evening and had some black risotto, fried squid and a local meat dish. It’s not great but also not expensive.
The old center of Split is partly build inside the ruins of the ancient palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian and I was curious to see it. The ruins are nice but I imagined Split to be larger, with more things to see. You can easily visit it in an afternoon. Maybe I feel like this because of the weather: grey with the occasional rain shower. I was more charmed by Dubrovnik, and had the feeling I could stay there for a longer period enjoying the sights and city.
Looking back, I believe that the civil war in former Yugoslavia was one of the first world events I was aware of as a child. I still remember some images of it, that I saw in the news. For me, a symbol of that war is the destruction of the Old Bridge, or Stari Most, in Mostar. So when we were planning a trip along the Dalmatian coast, I wanted to make a small detour to include a visit to Mostar and see its famous bridge, which was reconstructed in 2004.
We rented a car, a white Seat with stickers “try me” on the sides, in Dubrovnik and drove to Mostar. We didn’t had a say in the brand, colour or stickers.
Along the way we stopped in the Trsteno Arboretum and Ston, a small town renowned for its oysters and wall, also dubbed the European Great Wall. I must say that while walking on it and climbing the hill it was build along, reminded me of my trip to China and the real Great Wall. A big difference is that the wall in Ston is only around five kilometres long, and thus falls a bit short in the comparison. The oysters however are really good.
The journey from Ston to Mostar is about ninety kilometres but it took us a little over two hours. The shortest route includes three border crossings and a highway, we decided to keep it with one border crossing and take a scenic route from Neum to Mostar, driving on smaller roads through the mountaines landscape. It was beautiful and quite lonely, since we hardly saw other cars. A little after six in the evening we passed the city limits of Mostar.
The guesthouse where we stayed for two nights is on the east bank of the River Neretva, in a narrow one way street. It took us a bit of effort to find, but it has a very central location, close to the interesting parts of the city. A young couple is operating the guesthouse and we were welcomed by the woman of the couple. She gave us some maps and told us how to get to the different sights. I found her genuinely friendly and helpful. The room was simple but ok, with a comfortable soft bed and good, hot shower. I really recommend this place if you’re looking for a place to stay in Mostar.
At this time of year there are not that many tourists in Mostar, it’s not empty, but its less crowded than Dubrovnik. Maybe we were lucky, but the weather was great: blue sky and sunshine with temperatures going up to 28 degrees.
Mostar is special in multiple aspects. It’s skyline contains the minarets of mosques and the towers of churches. Some houses still bear the marks of the war while others are renovated. On average the cars are older than in Western Europe. You notice that it’s a poorer city than Dubrovnik, Split or Zadar. But the people are really friendly. I’ve felt it not only in our guesthouse but also in a bar or in a small shop. The shopkeepers of the many souvenier stalls are also not pushy. Things are cheaper in Mostar: ice cream for 0,50€ a scoop, 2,5€ for half a litre beer with a view on the Stari Most, 40€ for two nights in our guesthouse.
Ten kilometres to the southeast of Mostar is a small village called Blagaj. It is located at the spring of the buna river and is known for the Blagaj Tekjia, a Sufi lodge built around 1520 and now a national monument. The house can be visited and is quite nice.
On Saturday the 18th of June I traveled by Eurostar to London together with a friend. It would be a short stay, only the weekend itself. Our main purpose was to see a play: we had tickets for Romeo and Julliet at the Garrick Theatre.
Although it was the middle of June, it wasn’t summer yet. The temperature was cool but pleasant, around 18 to 20 degrees. We walked from St. Pancras station to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. There was some festival taking place on the square. It looked like fun, but we ignored it since there was a huge queue to enter it. A queue that went on for several blocks, so we entered the Gallery instead. Part of the impressionist wing is still closed for renovation, but Van Gogh’s Sunflowers can be admired. We didn’t stay long since we’ve both visited the museum several times already, we just went to see our favorites again, such as Rubens’ A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning.
Belgium’s football team, the Red Devils, played against Ireland in the afternoon as part of the European Championship. Since we’re both avid fans we looked for a pub near Leicester Square to watch the match, and to have lunch. It was steak & ale pie for me, fish & chips for my friend. We flushed down the decent food with beer and cider. The television was acting odd at times, maybe a lagging satellite connection: moving players became a bit blurred and had 8 legs. Belgium crushed Ireland with a 3-0 victory. Giving us (idle) hope for the matches to come and putting us in a very good mood.
After the match we went south, crossed the river Thames and headed to our hotel: the Westminster Tune Hotel. It’s the third time I stay there. Many services are available as an option (early check-in, WiFi, hairdryer,…) and if you select them, you pay for them. But if you are satisfied with the minimum, it’s quite cheap. We had a decent and clean room that was also small and windowless. Next to the hotel there is a pub: The Horse and Stable. We went there for dinner and WiFi. While we ate a tasteful ‘house burger’ we watched the first half of Iceland – Hungary. We didn’t see the second half because we needed to get to the theater in time for the play.
We walked back north to the Garrick Theatre, which is near Leicester Square, were we spend the afternoon. The doors closed at 19h30 and not a second late. We would see Romeo and Juliet in a direction of Kenneth Branagh with Richard Madden as Romeo, Lily James as Juliet and Derick Jacobi as Mercutio. The play has a duration of 2 hours and 45 minutes including a 15 minute break. I found it a very powerful performance. At times I didn’t understand all the words, but that did not lower my experience. Juliet did not grab me as much as Romeo. But overall, it was very good and I enjoyed it very much. The decor and costumes are set in the 1950’s and the stage changes smoothly from square, church, crypt to balcony. Next to me was an unoccupied seat, next to it was a thirty-something year old guy sitting. He used the space of the seat to store several drinks on the ground. He joked that everyone should have an extra seat for storage. I wondered if he was serious and had booked an extra seat. He had two pints of beer for himself during the first half, and came back after the break with two more. Twenty minutes into the play came the answer when a young women rushed to the seat, moving so fast that I could not prevent her tripping over some of the stored pints.
After the play we headed towards the hotel and stopped by the Duke of Sussex, near The Old Vic, for a drink. We had been to this pub in November 2014, but in the mean time it had changed, there was no karaoke anymore. When we remarked this while we were standing outside looking in, a passer-by overhearing us, burst into laughter. We had some local craft beer and we were discussing the play when we got into a conversation with a slightly drunk Englishman, who was part of a party sitting next to us. He wanted to speak German with us, thinking we were speaking German and not realizing we were speaking Dutch. We talked about differences between Dutch and German and explained that Dutch speakers are not necessarily Dutch, his next assumption, but that they can also be Belgian. This being England, the pub closed at 23u30, and we continued towards our hotel.
We chose an excellent timing to visit London. It was the opening weekend for the new wing of Tate Modern and because of this there were several volunteers giving talks about their favorite art pieces in the museum. The old power station turned into a modern art museum is very stylish. I quite like the architecture of the concrete and lines and prefer it above Paris’ Centre Pompidou. We saw the free collections in both wings and listened to some interesting stories. My favorite story was about Dali’s Autumnal Cannibalism. On the top floor (level 10) Tate Modern offers a nice and free view of the London skyline. The viewing platform of the Shard is a bit higher, but costs around 20 pounds.
We crossed the Millennium bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral, and headed to the British Museum. On the way we lunched in The White Swan where we had the Sunday Roast Beef and I had a Fourpure Session IPA to drink.
This London craft beer is quite fruity. It’s a bit strange for me to see a beer that’s only available in draft or can, not in bottles. I found it tasteful and it went well with the roast.
After the lunch we continued to the British Museum. Before we could enter the museum we had to pass through a security check where all big bags were searched. I have the feeling that the definition of a big bag is dependent on the size of the queue. We didn’t stay very long in the museum, we focused on some special items. My favorite part of the museum is the Japanese section on the top floor. No only for the displayed items, but also for some practical reasons. Since it’s the furthest to reach, it’s less busy then other parts, such as the Roman or Egyptian sections and it’s also a bit darker and cooler.
Time flies, and we didn’t have a lot of it to start with. We left the museum and headed towards St Pancras. On the way we stopped in a Starbucks for coffee and cake and reminisced a bit about all the things we’d seen. It was an excellent weekend.
To break away from weekly routine, we went to Lisbon for a weekend. Ryanair flew us there from Brussels in a little less than three hours, a short delay included. Since Portugal is in a timezone to the west of Belgium, the travel time was reduced with an hour. Borrowed time which we would pay it back on the way home. Before setting in the final descend, the plane took a wide turn over Lisbon and the river Tagus, giving us a beautiful view on the city and its landmarks. The view gave us hope of nice weather, but rain greeted us when leaving the plane. The rest of the day downpours would interchange with sunny moments. We arrived in the Lux Lisboa Park hotel shortly before noon, a few hours before checkin time. We couldn’t get our room key yet but handled the administration and left our luggage in safekeeping. We were ready to explore the city.
We asked the receptionist if she could recommend a nearby restaurant for lunch. After she suggested an Italian one and a quality burger restaurant, we clarified that we preferred a Portugese restaurant to try the local cuisine. And that’s how we ended up in O Cubo, a little family owned restaurant two streets from the hotel. We had Pastéis de nata, olives and bread with a Portugese sheep cheese for starters followed with fish and squid as the main courses. We concluded with some local liquors of the house, such as ginjinha and porto! Good food, friendly staff and not expensive.
The hotel is not far from the Praça Marques de Pombal and from it we went south in the direction of Praça Luís de Camõese, where we would join a free walking tour through the city. Midway the Avenue da liberdade we took shelter from another downpour at a hotel. When we arrived at the square there was still some time left before the tour would start, so we sat down at the terrace of a bakery and had a pao de deus and a coffee. I really love this bread! The free walking tour is a tip based tour without commitment that takes around three hours and has a bit of an alternative vibe. From the square we and eight others were guided through the Baito Alto area, which is the nightlife borough filled with wine bars and pubs. Next we headed to Largo do Carmo, a pretty square with a lot of history. It was the focal point of the Carnation Revolution of 1974: the dictator Marcelo Caetano took refuge in the military police station until he surrendered. Next to the police station is the ruin of the Carmo Convent, which stands as a witness to the 1755 earthquake that destroyed two thirds of the city and killed a fifth of it’s inhabitants. At the back of the convent we had a beautiful view over the city. We took the stairs down and headed towards the Praça do Comércio, a big open square at the river side that was the entry to the city from the sea for the nobility. Next we were guided through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s oldest district: Alfama. It’s a maze and without a guide we could easily get lost in it. It’s not a rich place, but is beautiful in a nostalgic sense. We were offered a glass of ginjinha by a local lady and an old man started talking to us about the different plants on his balcony. Gabriella was our guide, a young Brazilian woman who lived in Lisbon for the past four years. She did an excellent job and I can recommend this tour. The tour concluded a bit after six and although we had an extensive lunch, we were more than ready for dinner. We headed back to the Praça do Comércio and took the ferry across the Tagus to Cacilhas. All public transport in Lisbon can be accessed with a green cardboard, rechargeable pass. The card itself costs 80 cents and each trip 1,80. Recharging can we done at machines or in most newspaper kiosks. During the boat trip sunset passed into dusk, and we left the ferry in the night. Just outside the ferry arrival there is a seafood restaurant named Farol. We had a big plate of scrimp, cooked scrimp, clams, crab and lobster, combined with oven roasted bread. A fresh feast. Tired from waking and travelling, we were ready to conclude the evening, so we hopped on the ferry back and walked to our hotel, were a very modern room with a huge comfy bed greeted us.
The next day we rose early to get the most out of our second and last day in Lisbon. We checked out, left the luggage at the hotel in safekeeping and walked to the Praça da Figueira, where we would take tram 15 to Belém. On the way to the tram we had breakfast: Pastéis de nata, pao de deus with cheese and ham, coffee and fresh orange juice.
Belém houses two world heritage sites: Belém tower and the Jerónimos Monastery. From the tram stop we walked along the shore to the tower. We didn’t visit the tower, only admired it from the outside. In front of the monastery there was a long queue so we decided to skip it. I’ve heard it’s not that great, but next to it, there is something that is: Pastéis de Belém, the most renowned pastry shop of Lisbon. And I must admit, they make them really tasty. We ate the pastéis in front of a Thai temple, a gift for 500 years of bilateral relationships. In a souvenir shop, the Indian (guess) shopkeeper recognized us speaking Dutch. He knew Leuven and had friends in Poperinge: the world gets smaller. We waited for a tram to take us back to the center of the city together with the same people with whom we’d taken shelter at a hotel from a downpour the previous day. We picked up our luggage at the hotel and took the bus too the airport where at around five a plane took off to take us home.
I would love to return to this city, to see more of it and to eat more of its food.
During the heat wave of early July 2015 we decided to ditch the scorching weather in Belgium and head for a weekend to the coolness of the coastline of the north of France. Just before lunch on Saturday we arrived in Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Opale. We walked in the fishing harbor along the quays towards Nausicaä, one of the largest public aquariums of Europe, where we saw among others: sharks, sea lions, a lot of jellyfish and African penguins.
We were in between sea lion shows and decided not to wait for the next occurrence. But opted instead for some relaxing on the sand beach besides the aquarium. There were other people sun bathing and playing in the water but it was not overcrowded like the Belgian beaches. After a while we headed to the old center of the city. The medieval walls are preserved and you can walk upon them, giving quite a view of the surroundings. Within the fortification a castle and 12th century belfry can be found, along with many restaurants and bars; in one of which we had galettes as a late lunch.
Some thirty kilometers north of Boulogne-sur-Mer one can find Cap Griz Nez. The cliffs of this cape are the closest point of France to England and it is said that on a clear day one can see the white cliffs of Dover. Unfortunately, on both occasions that I was on these cliffs, I failed to spot England.
We continued our trip by heading south, to Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, a small village at the mouth of the Somme river. It was here that William the Conqueror amassed his troops before crossing the English Channel in 1066. The village is quite lovely, as are its surroundings and the river specifically. Our trip, and our coming here, were impulsive actions, so we did not have any hotel reservation. This village has far more touristic appeal, and is far smaller than Boulogne and it quickly became apparent that we would not find a place to stay the night. TripAdvisor showed us that there were virtually none, except some very expensive, rooms available in a 35km radius. So we drove to Amiens, a large city at an hour drive, with enough availability and booked a room in the Ibis hotel near the cathedral. TripAdvisor ranked the Chinese restaurant next door as the 3th best of the city, on a total of 241. As I see it, there are several possibilities, two of which are that they bought the ranking or that they treat tourists differently. This was a culinary low point.
The following day we returned to Saint-Valery-sur-Somme but by the time we got there, the weather had shifted. Dark clouds were gathering and not long thereafter heavy rains started pouring down. We walked towards the Place des Pilotes, next to the Somme river, with umbrellas shielding us from the downpour. On this square Le Mathurin is located, this fish restaurant only has a few tables outside on a covered terrace and a limited menu written with chalk on a slate but its quality is divine. We started with oysters and a salad of squid tentacles followed by turbot as the main dish, the best fish dish I’ve ever tasted. While thunder roared and the streets got soaked by rain, we enjoyed a lovely conclusion to our short weekend out.
On Saturday the 23 of May the plane carrying my father and me landed at Domodedovo airport, which is Moscow’s, and Russia’s, largest airport. We had arrived for a thirteen day trip to Russia in which we would visit the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. A stern woman stared at my passport and at my face, after which she stamped my visa and admitted me to the Russian Federation. The airport is about 40 km to the southeast of Moscow center but there is a direct train, the Aeroexpress, from the airport to the Paveletsky Rail Terminal, from which there is access to the Moscow metro. The metro stations are very beautiful, some of them are real pieces of art. There is quite some security present, and this could explain why I did not notice any vandalism or graffiti.
We took the metro to Kuznetskiy Most and then walked ten minutes to our hotel: the Budapest Hotel, not the Grand Budapest, but close enough. The hotel is incredibly long: our room was on the fifth floor and after exiting the elevator we had to walk around 200m in the corridor before reaching our room. The room was spacious with two beds and a sofa, it had air-co and a TV of the old days, a pre-flat screen model, but I was not planning on spending much time in the hotel room, except for sleeping. The hotel has an excellent location: it’s only a short walk to the heart of Moscow: the Red Square.
We passed the Bolshoi Theater, the big statue of Karl Marx on the Revolution square and reached the statue of Marshal Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army during the Second World War, who stands before the State Historical Museum, which is on the western side of the Red Square. We entered the square and I found it smaller than I had imagined. It’s still impressive though, with the Kremlin wall and the Spasskaya Tower with its clocks on the southern side of the square, the GUM shopping center on the northern side, and finally with the awe inspiring St Basil’s Cathedral on the east side. There was a big podium on the square, which diminished slightly the appeal of it. We later learned the podium was intended for the festivities of the Day of Cyrillic Alphabet, which takes place each year on the 24th of May, and would remain on the square for the remainder of our visit.
We crossed the square, passed the cathedral and walked halfway over the bridge across the Moskva river, which gave us a nice view over Moscow. The Kremlin is fortified complex with several churches, museums, and government buildings such as the official residence of Russia’s president and the senate. The Kremlin has an enclosing wall with towers, and we walked along this wall from the river edge all the way back to Zhukov. The final part lead us through the Alexander gardens, with flower gardens, fountains and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, before reaching Zhukov.
Getting thirsty, we walked back to the hotel and midway found a place with beer and food. Back in the hotel we had a vodka in the bar and ended the evening with watching the Eurovision song contest on Russian TV.
The first evening gave us a favorable first impression of Moscow. On Sunday we noticed that the Red Square was blocked by police: the festival for Cyrillic language was being held on the square and entry was with tickets only, we saw a very long queue the day before. We walked along the GUM, which was also closed, but this because it wasn’t 10 o’clock yet, to a street lined with a series of churches, but they were all in scaffolding, hiding their domes from view.
We continued to the Kitai-gorod neighborhood and the Lubyanka Square, where the monument in remembrance for political prisoners is, looking on the yellow building of the old KGB and the gray building of its successor FSB. The monument consists of a stone from the Solovetsky islands, where prison camps of the Soviet Gulag system were located. We got an energy boost from a strong cup of coffee and walked north east towards the Clean Ponds. Until the beginning of the 18th century these ponds were called Dirty Ponds because local butchers polluted the ponds with waste until a prince acquired them in 1703, cleaned them out and renamed them to their current name.
There are a great many small churches in Moscow, almost in every street there is one, and many of them have references to Moscow’s patron saint Saint George, the dragon slayer. This image is also the coat of arms and is on the flag of Moscow. From the ponds we followed the green boulevard westward in the direction of the Tverskoy neighborhood.
We passed the statue in honor of Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya and when crossing the street we saw on a building in the intersecting street a large mural dedicated to Ivan Leonidov, a Russian architect and artist. We visited along the way the High Monastery of St Peter, which was a bit run down and in need of renovation. But on a happy side note, there were several cats sleeping in its garden. Across the street from the monastery is the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, with its freely accessible courtyard with statues. Where the street of the monastery and museum crosses the boulevard, we found a restaurant and had a beef Stroganoff. First on the terrace outside, later fleeing from the rain inside. Once the rain had diminished, we headed a bit north to the Hermitage gardens where a small rock concert was being held.
Rain started pouring down again and we took shelter under a doorway. Once the worst had passed, I bought from a stand, and from the looks of it run by some young people to raise some money for an event, a freshly baked waffle on a stick and had it dipped in hot chocolate and sprinkled with grounded coconut. Yummy. We walked back to the boulevard and continued along it until we reached the statue for the poet Alexander Pushkin.
Pushkin and his lover Natalia are still very popular in Russia and there are a great many statues dedicated to them. Around Pushkin’s statue people were dancing in couples some classical dance. From Pushkin we broke from the ring way and headed east to the Patriarch’s Ponds.
At the entrance of the pond there is a bogus traffic sign, placed by an unknown person, dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita, a book considered one of the great novels of the 20th century and of which I purchased a copy in St Petersburg. The sign has as accompanying text “Never talk to Strangers”, the title of the first part of the book. While my father and me were taking pictures of the traffic sign, we saw that other visitors started noticing this strange sign and also started taking pictures. It’s quite discretely placed and you don’t really notice that there’s an absurd sign, unless you know it’s there.
We continued south west, back to the ring way and to another square dedicated to Pushkin and Natalia, with a statue of the lovers and a large modern mural of Pushkin taking a selfie of him and his Natalia. A bit to the east of the square, you can find the Ryabushinsky Mansion, a house built by Russian architect Fyodor Schechtel, and the residence of writer Maxim Gorky after his return to the Soviet Union in 1932. The house houses a museum dedicated to the writer, but the architecture is much more interesting. The house was designed in it’s entirety, including the furniture. In order to avoid damaging the wooden floors, we had to were special slippers over our shoes. After leaving the house, we noticed the sky darkening and not much later heavy rains started coming down.
With haste we passed the TASS building, the Russian news agency, and headed in the direction of the Kremlin to visit the GUM, crossing the Alexander Gardens once more. This three story high luxury shopping center, with its three parallel galleries is marvelous, but I’m not really into luxury shopping centers.
After a vodka and a nap at the hotel, we returned to the Red Square around 11 o’clock in the evening, to see the red stars on the Kremlin towers lit up. The atmosphere of Moscow center does not change at night: tourists are walking around, without any security concerns.
On Monday we visited the Kremlin itself, after purchasing tickets in the Alexander Gardens we entered through the south gate and walked along the Amoury, skipping the jewels and 10 Fabergé eggs inside, and passed the Grand Kremlin palace towards the Cathedral Square.
The square is surrounded by six buildings of which three are cathedrals. It was used for the coronation of the tsars and is still used for the inauguration of the Russian president. We visited the different cathedrals and churches and continued by strolling through the Kremlin gardens. When crossing the square separating the cathedrals and the garden, you have to follow an L shaped zebra crossing, if you cut corners or divert from the sidewalk at another location, one or several of the many traffic police agents start blowing their whistles, until the offender corrects his erroneous ways. We heard a lot of whistling, many of it directed at groups of senior Chinese tourists.
We left the Kremlin through the Spasskaya Tower to the Red Square and visited St Basil’s Cathedral. Sadly the main church was being renovated, but the crypt and the side churches were visitable. I found it a claustrophobic experience wit a lot of small rooms connected to each other and low ceilings. In one of the rooms we found a 5 men choir singing Orthodox church music. Quite a special experience, my father bought a CD of them. As lunch we had some beer at our regular spot and afterwards walked the street towards Tverskaya street and headed north towards city hall.
On the other side of the big street from city hall there is a small park tucked away with a statue of Lenin. Ironically Lenin sits next to one of the most expensive shopping streets of Moscow.
We headed to the statue of Pushkin that we saw the day before with the dancing and followed the ring way boulevard south to the Arbat neighborhood. The car free New Arbat street is very touristic with a lot of shops and bars. My father bought a Russian flag hat in one of the shops. At the corner of New Arbat and Arbatskiy we found a good looking terrace with an even better looking red headed waitress. We had a bowl of borscht and a pint of beer on the terrace. We continued westwards in New Arbat street and found the only graffiti in the city: the Tsoi wall at the intersection of New Arbat and Krivoarbatsky Lane, which is dedicated to Russian rock pioneer Viktor Tsoi who died in 1990.
A bit further in Krivoarbatsky Lane there is a building in modern architecture style and further in New Arbat we found another statue of Pushkin and Natalia.
Looking back in the street we saw in the distance a large mural of Marshal Zhukov. At the end of the street there is one of the Seven Sisters, as the seven Soviet skyscrapers in Moscow are called: the main building of the ministry of Foreign Affairs. From here we walked towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour at the river side.
Friedrich Engels is looking at the church from across the street. The church was already closed and we would visit it a later day. We circled the building and then crossed the pedestrian bridge halfway for a view over Moscow. While walking back to the hotel we passed the National Library of Russia with a statue of Dostoyevsky in front of it. We ended the day with cookies and vodka at the hotel.
On Tuesday we started our day with watching the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Gardens. They do it every hour, and while waiting for the ceremony to commence, we both a pair of vodka glasses engraved with the Russian double-headed eagle that we saw the previous day in the Kremlin ticket office. Although it was before noon, the temperature was already quite high and would rise above 30 degrees Celsius. This probably explained why the next two guards were in white shirts,and not in their full garments as the previous two.
After the ceremony we went to visit the Lenin Mausoleum, which is at the middle of the southern edge of the Red Square, next to the Kremlin wall. There is always quite a queue because it’s only open three days a week between 10 and 1 o’clock, but it’s free and there is only a security check, so the queue passes quickly. Seeing Lenin lying there, is quite impressive. You pass around him, at less than two meters distance. He is sealed in a glass coffin. It’s not allowed to take pictures and the room is quite dark with a reddish shine.
Before entering the mausoleum, you pass the tombs of other Soviet leaders, I noticed that Stalin has the most flowers. This is the only statue or public reference to Jozef Stalin I found in both Moscow and St Petersburg, except for the Fallen Monument Park. In the Kremlin wall there are other hero’s of the Soviet Union buried, such as Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space.
After exiting the memorial, we walked along the river and the Kremlin wall to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The cathedral is enormous and it is the tallest Orthodox church in the world. Stalin had the original church demolished in 1931, but between 1990 and 2000 the church was rebuild. About 200kg of gold was used for the different domes, that shine magnificently in the sunlight. The church is also beautifully decorated on the inside.
After visiting the church and refraining from buying an icon as souvenir, we returned to our normal café for a liter of beer. While sitting there my wallet dropped from my pocket but a woman sitting at a nearby table attended a waiter of this, and before I knew what happened I had my wallet back and before I could thanks someone they were back to their previous occupation. The Russians are not a talkative people, they just get things done. After lunch we visited some of the finer metro stations. The stations are highly decorated with murals, statues, chandeliers, and are incomparable to the cold and hard metro stations of the west.
We concluded the evening at Pushkin Café, a restaurant which was highly recommended by TripAdvisor, and is situated not far from the Pushkin statue which we saw a few days before. The interior gives a feeling of a 19th century literary cafe with a lot of woodwork, it reminds me of Germany or Austria. It’s quite large, with multiple floors. We hadn’t reserved a table and were quite lucky to obtain one on the fly. The waiters were very helpful: giving explanations with the different dishes. We started with a, recommended by the waiter, Russian salad of garlic marinated red cabbage and pickles, followed by borscht and as main dish a sort of minced lamb covered with bread-crumbs accompanied with potatoes baked in their peel. All dishes were very good. We ended with, also recommended, a horse radish vodka, which has, of course, a very intense radish taste. A very good and recommendable experience, only down side was that a few hours later, in the middle of the night, I woke up with an unquenchable thirst: the food was probably quite salty.
Gorky Park is a large park to the south of the city center along the bank of the Moskva river.
To reach it we walked from our hotel to and through the Alexander Gardens towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, crossing the pedestrian bridge behind the church to the Balchug island in the middle of the Moskva river. At the far end of the island there is the old Soviet chocolate factory which in old times made the entire neighborhood smell of chocolate, but which now is closed. Currently it houses artists, bars, restaurants and clubs. Next to the factory an enormous bronze monument in honor of Peter the Great has been erected. It’s quite controversial and I agree with the critics: it’s a extravagant display of kitsch.
To the north of the factory on the Bolotnaya square you can find the bronze statue group Children are the Victims of Adult Vices, which was unveiled in 2001, displaying adult vices closing in on a playing boy and girl with a large middle figure being indifferent.
On the east side of the island there is a line of love trees, similar to the Paris bridge filled with locks, and you can lock you lock on an iron tree.
As such, they don’t have to worry as in Paris that the bridges will collapse. We crossed the river to the south bank of the Moskva river and headed in the direction of the Peter the Great statue. We entered the Fallen Monument Park, a sculpture park full of old statues of the Soviet time, at first they were gathered here and piled up, but now they have been formed in a statue park.
Further south along the river is the New Tretyakov Gallery, a large museum displaying Russian modern art. We had lunch in the small cafeteria of the museum and afterwards crossed the street to the entrance of Gorky park.
The park is very large and filled with lots of people cycling, skating, relaxing… It has a several bars, ponds and even a beach where people sunbathe.
Midway the park we crossed the river and headed to the Novodevichy Convent. This cloister has remained virtually intact since the 17th century and has become a world heritage site in 2004.
We strolled through its gardens and visited several of its buildings and churches. Next to the southern wall of the convent is the Novodevichy cemetery where we saw the graves of Boris Yeltsin, Nikita Khrushchev, Sergei Eisenstein and Nikolai Gogol.
The info stand was unmanned, so we couldn’t buy a map of the cemetery . On the big info board at the entrance we first had to search/translate the names of the famous people whose graves we wanted to see, and then note down their coordinates, the sector and the row their grave was to be found. While searching for Anton Chekhov, we ran out of time, for it was 5 o’clock and the cemetery was closing.
We pushed on south to the Moskva river, accross the sporting facilities around the Luzhniki Stadium. When we reached the river, we walked along it to Vorobyevy Gory metro station which is on a bridge across the river. We used the bridge to cross the river to Vorobyevy Gory park or Sparrow Hills in English.
We sat a little on the grass to rest and then walked up the Sparrow Hills to the observation point, near the Moscow State University. From some points the view was spectacular, but trees were blocking a complete view over Moscow. It started to rain a little so we called it a day and took the metro at Vorobyevy Gory station back to the center, where we concluded the evening with pizza and beer on a terrace with a view on the Alexander Gardens and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
On our last full day in Moscow we visited the VDNKh, this large park was build as an exposition park and has museums and exhibition pavilions, fountains, food stalls, statues, …
It has the strangest statue dedicated to a former president, Boris Yeltsin, I’ve ever seen: A small blue dog holding a large column with a vase that’s threatening to fall. We walked passed the pavilions across the entire park, trough an area with fruit trees, through a forest and along several ponds in order to reach Botanical Gardens.
A lot of things have been renovated the last decade, but the Botanical Gardens, a bit out of reach for tourists, is still on the to-do list: the main glass house is currently being rebuild, but the main building and the other, smaller glass houses are a little run down. The aging administrator was nevertheless very happy to see us. She did not speak English but she did speak French, and she clearly enjoyed the change to speak it with me. It was raining softly when we were heading towards the Botanical Gardens but while heading back to VDNKh the raining intensified. We had a burger and a coke, and like the other parks in Moscow, no alcohol is served at any of the food stands. We had to wait a bit for the burger to be ready, but we didn’t mind, we were happy to sit under a shelter sheltered from the rain. The teenager baking the burger was very happy to be able to practice his English.
We headed back to the entrance of the park were the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is located in the base of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. The museum is which was quite interesting, and has replicas of the different Sputniks, space suits and exhibitions about the exploration of space and the space programs. Outside the museum and monument there are several statues of the first space explores such as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space.
When we left the museum, the sky had cleared up and it remained dry for the remainder of the day. Before heading back to Moscow center, we walked to the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue, which is also the logo of the Mosfilm film studio.
Since this was our last evening in Moscow, we drank a White Russian at the GUM terrace looking out on the Red Square. The evening was warm, so we walked to Gorky park along the Moskva river. There were celebrations for the troops with firework, but contrary to what we thought, the fireworks were not in Gorky park, but some distance from it, so we didn’t see much of the fireworks.
On Friday we said our goodbyes to Moscow and took the metro to the Leningradsky railway terminal. When we came above ground and walked along the different platforms, we were confused. we saw trains heading to Vladivostok and Beijing and other places far in the east, but not to our intended destination: Saint Petersburg.
After a while, we realized that we were walking in Yaraslavskaya railway station, which is adjacent to Leningrad station. We were early, so there was need rush or worry. We walked to the other, correct, station and enjoyed there a Baltika 7 beer in the waiting room. Saint Petersburg is about 600 km to the north west of Moscow and the Sapsan high speed train completes the distance in just under 4 hours.
On Friday the 27th of March at around 23h our plane landed at Dublin airport. There my two travel companions and me got on a bus that would bring us from Ireland’s east coast to it’s west coast, and three hours later we arrived at our final destination: Galway, City of the Tribes, a city of seventy-five thousand people on the River Corrib. We were staying in the Bunk Boutique Hostel, which has the seeming advantage of being located across the street of the bus station: so very easy to find. The three of us had booked beds in a shared dormitory of six, the smallest room available, and we where hoping finding it empty. But no, three of the six beds were taken. Two of the available beds were solitary ground level ones, but the third was the top level of a three story high bunk bed. Agreeing that this one was the least desirable, we played rock-paper-scissors to determine the unlucky owner. I can only imagine what our roommates must have thought, seeing three men playing this game at three in the morning, in the semi-dark, to determine the bed ownership. The advantage of being close to the bus station turned sour when the buses started coming, waiting and going very early in the morning, especially because the windows next to the other occupied beds were open. At around quarter before seven I noticed I was not the only one among my friends laying awake, so we got up, got dressed and got out exploring the city. The sky was grey and it rained a little: the dominating weather conditions of the trip. We walked to Eyre Square and then through Shop Street, the main shopping street, towards the River Corrib and Galway Bay. Breakfast was included in our stay and was served from eight ‘o clock onwards, so made sure we were back at the hostel by eight. It was basic but sufficient: there were three types of cornflakes, brown and white toast, three types of jam, milk and coffee available.
The goal of trip was to visit a friend, Willem, who has been working and living in Galway for the past nine months. So after breakfast we set out to achieve our goal and walked for about an hour in eastern direction to Doughiska, a suburb of Galway City, passing the Greyhound racing track where we refrained from placing bets. We arrived in a sort of gated community of a few hundred similar houses called Fiodan, where our friend lived: quite a nice neighborhood, with a lot of well maintained green. I rang his bell, twice, and on his first floor a window opened where an old lady appeared asking what we wanted. I had the address wrong, my cell phone’s battery was dead, and to make matters worse none of my travel mates had his current number. We walked a bit the streets of the neighborhood and asked passersby if they knew a bearded Belgian guy living nearby. Non did however. We had come a long way and were so close but it seemed we were stuck. My travel mates might not have his current number, but they had his mothers number, and she guided us to the correct house, which was just around the corner. It’s a small three bedroom house with a spacious balcony and a nice view. We got a tour of the place and noticed our goodbye gift to him, a signed Belgian flag, which we gave him when he left Belgium some years ago, in his room. Against all agreements there was no cider in the fridge but our friend corrected the situation and jumped on his bike to get some.
Once all the cider was processed, we took the bus back to Galway City. We had lunch in the McDonald’s of Shop Street and afterwards explored the city further. Walking back to the River Corrib and following it upstream towards Galway Cathedral. The light drizzle had changed into a downpour, getting us all soaked. We waited out the rain in the Cathedral, which is quite ok, but since it’s only fifty years old, it lacks history. Since I wore a leather jacked, I didn’t have a hood, so to keep my head dry, I went looking for a Sou’wester, and Galway being a fishing town, I expected to find it. Easier said than done, it took us several stores and several trips crisscross the city, in the rain, before our local friend remembered a small fishing and shooting shop, Duffy’s, where they would certainly have what I was looking for. Ironically we had passed this store already several times that day, before looking for a hath, without paying any attention to it. They did have what I wanted and with the joy of a small child I walked back to the hostel, along the way going through a shopping mall which has parts of a medieval castle incorporated into it.
We refreshed ourselves at the hostel and scoured through TripAdvisor to find a good restaurant with local cuisine nearby. We decided on Oscar’s Bistro, a little but cozy fish restaurant across town, just on the other side of the River Corrib. We had some difficulty finding it, mainly because of the piercing wind numbing our senses. We arrived shortly after the restaurant opened and we were the second party attending, but it wouldn’t take long before the restaurant was full and people had to be refused at the door. I counted myself lucky being, for once, early. As appetizer I had oysters, fresh from Galway Bay, and prosecco: these were the best oysters I ever tasted. Great structure and flavor. The shellfish was followed by Gambas prawns in garlic and lemon butter: the dish was nicely presented and tasteful. Monkfish, or sea-devil, was to be the main course: one of my favorite fish for its big and meaty structure. To put the devil to rest, we moved on to rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice. And concluding the meal with, of course, an Irish Coffee. Of the entire meal, two things stick out: the superb oysters and the attentiveness of the adorable waitress. We were really taken in by the restaurant, it was also not expensive, we paid around €60 each, and were planning to comeback the following day for other fish and more oysters. Sadly Oscar’s Bistro was not open on Sunday evening.
We walked back to town and in Shop Street we went into the Coyote bar, looking for a bit of fun. We found only a handful of men watching the Netherlands – Turkey football match. We ordered a Guinness and joined them. Then a hen party came in, and another, and another until the bar was filled with partying women celebrating the wedding of their friends. Quite the turn around, apparently the bar advertises for its stag/hen party location. There was a cocktail bar, but the waiter was quite incompetent and the cocktails contained almost no alcohol. Around midnight we left the bar and walked to the hostel. At the Eyre Square we said our Goodbyes to Willem and lent him some bus money because not all bus drivers give change, after which he got into a cab.
On Sunday morning we had breakfast at the hostel and decided to take the Cliffs of Moher bus tour. This tour travels south of Galway, to the other side of Galway bay, over the limestone covered hills with its grikes and clints to Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher. We met Willem at the bus station across the hostel and the four of us set off for a day of sightseeing.
Our first stop was Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay. It was a quick 15m stop, a mere photo opportunity, because it was not possible to visit or enter the castle. Our bus driver talked ceaseless, first about the state of Ireland’s economy and people of the years from the potato famine, to the Celtic tiger years which ended in the recession, and the now the recovery. Then about every detail along the road, including local folklore and historic events. He did his job well.
Another highlight before the cliffs was the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a portal tomb of around six thousand years ago in the Burren. The structure in the desolate limestone landscape is quite beautiful, it gave me a sort of melancholy feeling. We continued to Doolin, a small coastal village where we had lunch in a local pub. There are walking trails from the village to the Cliffs, which are situated around 8km to the south, but we stayed with our bus.
The cliffs themselves are spectacular, rising up to 200m above the Atlantic. The ocean pounds them violently and I’ve never encountered a fiercer wind then on the edge of those cliffs. We saw and felt upside down rain: water drops taken by the wind and pushed up along the cliffs until at the top edge they form little geysers. And it was not even a stormy day, only a bit grey. The cliffs have featured in a number of popular films, probably the most memorably of them is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where they are the setting of the sea cave in which a Horcrux is hidden.
We had an hour and a half free time at the cliffs, and we made good use of them, walking along the top as far as we could in the time provided. Strangely, we met our hostel roommates along the trail. When we left our room they were still in bed, and what is even more strange, when we got back to our room after the bus drive back to Galway, they were once again in bed, at around 6 ‘o clock in the evening. That evening no Irish fish was to be on the menu, but Irish steak. we had found a promising restaurant on TripAdvisor, but it was full, and there was waiting queue of three parties in front of us. They suggested leaving our mobile phone number and waiting, but we were famished. Willem advised us to go to Maxwell’s in Shop Street, he had been there before and was quite pleased with it. You could catalog it as a family restaurant, a clear space with lot’s of light, several tables were occupied by parents with small children. And one table was now occupied by four Belgian boys. Maxwell’s doesn’t have a liquor license, which became apparent when we tried ordering a Gin-Tonic to kick off our meal. The Irish steak I had was good and the Chilean red wine accompanying it was decent. We spent the remainder of the evening in Sonny’s, a pub in High Street, drinking Guinness and watching the Irish football team draw against Poland. Once more on Eyre Square we said our Goodbyes to Willem, this time it would take longer than a day to see each other again.
Monday morning at eight ‘o clock we were faced with a closed breakfast room, the attendant had overslept, probably not expecting anyone to be so early eager for food. But we were in a hurry, we had a bus to catch. Check out was simple and quick and we got on the Dublin bus at 8:45. A bit before noon we got off our bus at O’Connell bridge, we went up and down O’Connell street, crossing the River Liffey, moving thourgh Temple Bar towards Christ Church. At the cathedral we changed course to the National Gallery. This museum can’t be compared to its sibling in London, it is much smaller but nonetheless it has some works worth visiting such as Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. We had some coffee and a brownie in the cafeteria of the museum. While discussing the things we’d seen these last couple of days we became aware that spread around the room three woman were busy breastfeeding their babies. Thinking of the hens parties of the first evening it appears the Irish do things separately together. When we left the museum rain was pouring down, we headed to the shopping street, Grafton Street, but decided against another march through the rain. In Suffolk Street we saw a pub O’Donohgues and wanted to take shelter there for the remainder of the afternoon drinking Guinness. But we still had to figure out how to get to the airport, so after some beers we headed into the rain searching for a tourist info point, we found one at the end of Grafton Street and there is an airport shuttle that had a stop nearby. Glad with this, we returned to the pub for some more Guinness. A bit before five ‘o clock we headed through the rain to the bus stop and after waiting quite a bit in the rain, the bus appeared. We still had an hour forty-five before take off so there was little stress. Dublin rush hour however raised our stress levels. The bus trip that should have taken us about twenty minutes now took us well over an hour. We got to the airport five minutes before the official closing hour of our gate. We ran to the security check where there was luckily no queue, we passed and continue running to our gate were we arrived in the nick of time, only to see that our plane had yet to land. No stress.