The Hungarian town of Pecs has a super sized statue of a horse in its main square - points for that. We were lost for ideas as to where to go from Budapest so we picked the cheapest place we could find within a 10 hour radius, Bratislava. The "up and coming" Slovakian capital is worth the visit but we spent most of our first day there sitting by the river at an outdoor bar in the sun. The real objective was to catch the train the next day to more expensive Vienna just over the border. Although Apple Strudel was at the top of my priority list, it was soon overshadowed by the Museum Quarter and later the Theme Park. The former is a local artists' residence full of galleries, design stores and studios. We were stoked to find a permanent installation by Space Invader and I had to be dragged away from the stores selling all those cool things you don't need but are too awesome not to own. The park on the edge of town turned out to be not just a Ferris Wheel but a massive collection of new and vintage rides and entry was free. €4 to go on the tallest chair-o-plane I've ever seen in my life.
After Slovakia we back tracked through Budapest and onto Pecs in Hungary. I'll admit I didn't know this town existed until about three days prior to going there but definitely one of the cooler ones we've seen. It helped that our hostel was above a pub in the centre of town and there was no shortage of bars and restaurants to pick from (handy since it rained the whole time we were there). Picture quaint parks with fountains and red tulips blooming by the hundred. We went on the most underwhelming cave tour of my life complete with fake dragon and plastic "fossils", but the cornetto afterwards wasn't half bad. Oh and did I mention the giant horse? I've watched Troy and I'm certain Brad Pitt and the Trojans had nothing on this thing.
From Pecs we crossed the border into Croatia for three nights in Zagreb. We had hoped to get to the coast but the forecast was for pouring rain and the weather didn't disappoint. I'll just be honest, we spent our whole time in Croatia at a series of different cafes and restaurants within a four block radius of the main square... And taking trams without paying. From there we made our way straight through Slovenia and Austria (neither of which we can afford anymore) and into Munich in one day. Munich is awesome, but I think in all fairness Germany is mostly awesome. Whatever they do it seems to be better engineered, better run and more convenient than the rest of the world. We started the day at the biggest outdoor store we've ever seen. It has a climbing wall and via ferrata route running up the inside of the 5 storey building. The markets were cool but we were craving open spaces and took a long walk through the park to one of the city's Beer Gardens. It takes a long time to get through a German sized beer and it was some time later that we emerged and made our way to the BMW museum. From here the 1972 Olympic Complex is visible over the tree tops. If you aren't familiar with Olympic history these games were supposed to showcase how relaxed Germany was now (the last games they hosted were Hitler's Games). As a result security was kept at a minimum - an unfortunate decision considering the Palestinian terrorists that took members of the Israeli team hostage in their apartments. The venue has been kept in amazing condition and you can wander through the stadium, row a boat on the lake or drink beer of course. We opted for a quick round of mini golf on this sunny afternoon before discovering the one thing Germans can't do - putt.
I don't know what exactly we were expecting from Romania but Bucharest, Brasov and the surrounding towns should go to the top of your to do list. The trip from Istanbul, across Bulgaria and into Bucharest was full of beautiful forests interspersed with crumbling ghost towns straight out of a Stephen King novel. If it weren't for the high proportion of beers and wolves we would have loved heading into the mountains for a few days. Bucharest itself was worth a day exploring and boasts dozens of great bars, restaurants and clubs amongst more beautiful old buildings. We were happily starting an awesome meal in the courtyard at one such establishment when the heavens opened up and a torrential downpour worthy of the west coast fell upon us. Being the practical (read poor) travellers that we are, we stayed to finish our meal as my wine glass filled to overflowing and water streamed down our faces. Thankfully there was a conveniently placed Irish pub around the corner where we warmed up and watched reruns of Piha Rescue - go figure! From Bucharest we took a short train to Brasov in Transylvania and the greatest guesthouse in the world. La Despani is run by an eccentric Romanian couple who live next door with their two young boys and have travelled more extensively than anyone else I've ever met. We passed an interesting evening with them drinking home brewed wine and getting a lot of advice about life. From our base camp in Brasov we took day trips out to Rasnov, Bran and Sinaia to visit a fortress, Dracula's Castle and the Peles Castle respectively. Despite the tour group of obnoxious foreigners we had to join, Peles was pretty incredible and unlike Versailles looks as though the Royal family could be back at any moment. Bran Castle we got to explore by ourselves and although we never found Dracula we also saw very few tourists which was a bonus. I know I sound cynical but I'm talking about people that ignore the Do Not Touch sign and instead sit on the priceless antique coffee table whilst talking loudly over the already irritated guide. We were even feeling pretty confident about our mastery of Romanian public transport until I made us miss the bus back to Brasov. The following hour was spent watching gypsy families travelling by rickety looking carts attached to mangy looking horses that would have the SPCA in a fit. The other highlight of Brasov was being able to get a taxi home when we couldn't be bothered getting wet (it rained most of the five days we were there). Just let this sink in - 48c per km with no base rate. It was a sad morning, and not just because it was 5am, when we had to jump back on a train bound for Hungary. Budapest was nice, after we got over the hour we had to wait in our hostel foyer before we could get hold of the owner. He had kindly left instructions for us in an envelope on a bunk bed in a room with a PRIVATE sign on the door. As we had booked a six bed dorm for the night it is obvious that this should have been the first place I would look. Budapest is another beautiful European city and I'm sure it has much to recommend itself but due to budget constraints we spent the day walking along the river front and eating really well. Onwards to Bratislava.
The trip to Turkey took an unplanned detour to Bulgaria for three days. My husband insisted it would be an easier way to get to Istanbul as Greece is lacking a little in the public transport presently. In reality we spent three days in Sofia walking from one side of the city to the other looking for cheap mountaineering equipment at each of the fifteen different outdoor stores. Don't get me wrong, I love a good looking ice axe as much as the next girl, it just seemed a little convenient. After doing absolutely nothing touristy for three days, we jumped on our first overnight train since Russia and set out for the border with Turkey. We relived the joy of 3am customs checks and were tossed onto a bus at 6am to make for the city. The cool thing was we turned up outside Hagia Sofia just as the sun was coming up and not a tourist was in sight. Istanbul is an incredible experience from the eerie wailing that signals the time for prayer to the cheeky gypsy kids asking you to buy them MacDonalds for lunch. We hit up the Blue Mosque with my hair appropriately covered in the requisite head scarf and climbed underground to the Roman Cistern now full of fish. If you walk all the way to the back of the massive cavern there are two columns held up by giant stone Medusa heads. Oh and Istanbul is full of cats. I don't know a better way of describing the total domination of strays throughout the streets, parks and stations but it's like nothing I've ever seen before, even in Thailand. The best bit is the locals feed them so often they hound anyone with food in their hands - unnerving. The real highlight was definitely our day out at Gallipoli which is a 4 hour drive south of Istanbul. Studying the war and seeing the beaches in person were so different and our guide spent the day proving and disproving the different theories we had been taught. We visited the cemeteries, the stands made ready for April 25th and walked along the beach at ANZAC Cove. Standing at Chunik Bair with Turkish school groups surrounding the memorial to the kiwis was pretty special and I understood why so many people make the trip out there. We had a whole day to kill before another overnight train to Romania and we spent most of it in the bars and restaurants where we had already befriended the staff on previous nights. I had so much complimentary apple tea in three days I became a little addicted to the stuff. Cannot recommend this city enough, especially spending an afternoon haggling in the Grand Bazaar followed by a Chicken Kebab.
Rachael and Jeremy