Rome to Rio

Well, not exactly… Budapest (take two (this time Buda fckn BEST)) to Sibiu (Romania) …but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Not only experiencing two very different countries and cultures, I went from polar opposites in terms of hostel. In Budapest it was my first stay at the hostel chain Wombat’s – think multiple floors of bunk bed filled dorms, key card locker access, ‘computer says no’ type staff. And in Sibiu it was the home of a Romanian man – Padre – in which I stayed along with a handful of other (just as bemused) fellow travellers (as well as Padre himself).

I arrived at Hostel La Padre to be greeted at the door by the main man, a dozen fresh apricots scattered across the floor (being clumsily collected by said hostelier), and a German father (retired) and daughter (at high school) duo who peered down at me from their bed (yes this startled me a little too) which sat on a mezzanine above the main entrance room, which turned out to be my bedroom. I had a whole bloody double bed to myself, so I overlooked the fact that my mattress was practically the reception desk. The grand tour with Padre began with the locking-of-the-front-door lesson, practical exam included (I passed first time with no minors), before he led me into his cave, asked for my money and took a photocopy of my passport (exactly as in all hostels, just much more suspect in this bizarre situation). After enquiring whether I smoked (I don’t) he assured me that smoking would be confined to his patio, which lasted all of fifteen minutes before he, and any smoking lodgers, proceeded to chain smoke throughout the property, with a full ashtray to keep the kitchen infused when there was any inhalation downtime. Lovely.

But it wasn’t all bad. Sibiu was a beautiful little city full of pastel coloured buildings and jaunty cobbled streets, and my first evening’s dinner of salmon fillet, roasted vegetable gratin and a lovely (much needed) glass of Sauvy-B set a better tone. And Padre wasn’t all that bad either. Despite his favourite (of limited vocabulary) English phrase being “fuck you, stupid”, he was actually a rather charming old man who had a heart of gold (even if he did have dirty mouth and lungs in desperate need of Kim & Aggie). On learning that I didn’t eat meat (not a recognised diet in Romanian culture) he offered to take me food shopping at the vegetable market and help me cook a veggie barbecue on his makeshift outdoor wood burning oven. (Think old school dirty dishes trolley with wooden rulers used as firelighters and an old hairdryer plugged into a long extension cable to provide air. Seriously.) So off to the food market we went, in his van, where we bought about a million aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc, etc. After completing some other shopping chores (DIY stuff for him, sun cream for me) we headed back to the ranch where he had to check some new guests in (Slovakian and highly annoying) and then begin firing up the barbie. I contemplated we would eat around 8.30 / 9.00 pm… oh how wrong I was. In amongst cleaning charred aubergine, frying onions and slicing courgettes – to cut an excruciating long story short – the police were called by an angry neighbour around 10.30 pm, and at this point we were yet to eat for what turned out to be AN HOUR AND A HALF. And the stuffed mushrooms? They didn’t make an appearance until 1 am !!! The only reason I held out was because that was the only dish that involved something other that a vegetable – a small slice of mozzarella placed inside. Clearly Padre’s understanding of vegetarianism was a little too literal. So I was tired and hangry (possibly the worst combination?) but I couldn’t blame poor Padre with his smoke infused charred aubergine salad, which he went on to top with individual heart shaped slices of tomatoes for all the single ladies. Bless.

I would like to say I was sad to leave Padre’s pad(re), but I wasn’t. I was tired of feeling sick from all the cigarette smoke and unsure whether each time he spoke to me (or anyone for that matter) in English he was being highly offensive or highly inappropriate (either way no one was winning). So I booked myself onto the earliest train after my third and final night à la Padre, and set off to Romanian stop numero duo: Cluj Napoca.

Rather than boring you, I will just say that Cluj didn’t involve much to write home about. I didn’t feel great while I was there (I don’t think the lethally strong Tokyo Ice Tea helped the headache situation) so I spent a lot of time napping and eating Nutella. (Sometimes you just need Nutella.) Luckily for me the hostel staff (all male) were mostly on the 7+ end of the good looking scale, which helped my decision to stay indoors and get myself better. And my Jewish / American / Berlin-based accelerator tycoon who was highly annoying, highly talkative, highly self-righteous and highly cringe worthy did cheer me up by going for a run in a bee costume (it was serious active wear for him (tight bright yellow top, even tighter black shorts) but I for sure was entertained), and buying me said jar of hazelnut chocolatey goodness.

I had an early start on my last morning in Transylvania with a taxi for the airport booked for 5.45 am (yikes). After frantically booking extra baggage weight the night before the flight, for fear I would go over the 23 kg limit, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my backpack weighs just – just! – 18.5 kg (which I’m not sure if is average / above / below, but at least if I start performing luggage-laden lunges I’ll know exactly what weight I’m lifting). I made it to the airport, had a good (albeit delayed) flight, and am now en Italia, beginning my five-week exploration travelling South to North, looking forward to some of my best British babes coming to join me as I work my way up the country. But for now, folks, ciao!

Advertisements

S-love-nia Stole My Heart

As I type it is 9 pm on a mild Sunday evening. I am sitting in the beautiful central courtyard of Ljubljana Castle, cocooned in the softest pink blanket, having just nurtured my soul with a scoop of mint chocolate gelato (may not be pistachio, but I am sticking with the green theme), waiting to watch this evening’s Film Under The Stars (Paterson (I hadn’t heard of it either (but it is in English) (post-film note: not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed it))). Mellow classical piano plays through the speakers as the audience slowly choose their seats, and all of this set me back less than €5. The sky is a watercolour wash of the palest, calmest blue; a deeper, richer hue waiting in the wings to bleed across the picture-perfect backdrop before darkness settles and the stars come out to play. The evening feels simply magical, which serves as a charmingly apt illustration of the past week I’ve spent in this Balkan paradise.

Bled (home to the famous Lake Bled (and the infamous Bled Cream Cake)) was my first stop, my thinking being that I would need somewhere calm, relaxing and beautiful to recover from Exit Festival. And oh Lordy was it calm, relaxing and (Lake) bleddy beautiful. The town of Bled is lovely in itself – lots of little tavernas and cafés; a fine medieval castle; cream cake on tap – but it was the central lake and surrounding nature that were the real highlights. If you are familiar with Lake Bled you will no doubt be familiar with the perfect postcard image of the tranquil turquoise waters surrounding its own (Slovenia’s only 😉) island, all framed effortlessly by dark green woodland, brighter green grass, hazy Alpine mountains and a never ending turquoise sky. Well. This image is reality. This place really is that beautiful. And after hiking to Slovenia’s most visited photo opportunity (made up fact but I wouldn’t discount the idea) Ojstrica (the third of three viewpoints we clamboured to after making a number of wrong turns) I was able to have my time in the limelight, and take an exact replica (or twenty) of the photograph found on every man, woman and dog’s smart phone who have visited this area. And of course we all then felt like National Geographic photographers who had just discovered the world’s most hidden natural beauty, and were documenting the until now unseen landscape for the world’s eyes to revere forever more. Well, maybe not, but we did all have a banging new iPhone screen saver.

During my first full day I visited Vintgar Gorge with new best mates Adele (unfortunately not the Adele, but a lovely Australian substitute) and Mark (‘red neck’ Canadian who liked to talk (a lot)), who I had met while misdirecting myself (and subsequently them) to Ojstrica. With me in charge of the directions once more (what were we thinking?) we made it to the gorge via a hop, skip, jump (and a kind-hearted Slovenian taxi driver who took pity on us). We walked the walk, oo’d and ah’d, and took dozens of photographs before reaching the pièce de résistance: the mighty 13 m high Šum waterfall. After a bite to eat perching uncomfortably (but not letting on – obviously) on the jagged rocks, watching Mark (at least three times) and Adele tackle the jump into the emerald green pool of ice cold temptation, it was my turn and I took my position on the side of the cliff (and then fannied around getting scared to take the plunge). With the prospect of a great action shot photograph to upload to Facebook, I made the leap – plugged my nose and shut my eyes tight (I might have been jumping off a cliff but I was going to do it sensibly) – and plunged into the ARCTIC waters. I surfaced with my contact lenses intact, my bikini secure, and my street cred at an all time high. (That was before the shrieking as I couldn’t get out of the ice bath quick enough (but luckily for me the photo didn’t capture that part).)

As beautiful as Lake Bled is it does have some competition, which comes in the form of Lake Bohinj – its larger, less well known sibling which lies just 26 km to the southwest. I decided to investigate the Bled vs. Bohinj debate myself. The weather during my visit to Bohinj wasn’t great, but I did still manage to get a swim and sunbathe (and cappuccino) while I was there, so not a total damp squib. The situation felt more remote in comparison to Bled, which was great for a ‘back to basics’ morning of walking (and even better when I desperately needed a wee lakeside, with no public toilet in sight). The water was just as clear, but appeared slightly darker and lacked the jewel-like vibrancy of Bled (which knocked off a couple of points in the Lake-off, but was a welcome attribute when Mother Nature was calling…). The water was also colder than in Bled (increasing the latter’s lead), but the scenery surrounding Lake Bohinj was more extensive and less developed (closing the gap considerably). When I had dried off from my swim the heavens, quite abruptly, opened their doors for all eternity (or at least it felt that way). But with a quick forage into my bag I whipped out my trusty Pac-A-Mac (always prepared) which saved the day, my hair and the public from spying my bra through my ever-transparencing top, and got me to safety (the pub) semi dry. Once the coffee was down and the storm had cleared I made my way back to the bus stop, still just as unclear on the winner of the Bled vs. Bohinj Lake Championships 2017 as I had been when I set off.

Following my leisurely few days immersed (literally) in nature, I travelled to the country’s capital, Ljubljana (or, my preferred prounounciation, jubble-jarner). I hummed and harred about stopping off here at all, and Boy George am I glad I did. I would actually contemplate emigrating here. I thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone who likes a small but perfectly formed European city (and of course I’ll offer you a cup of Yorkshire Tea if I have upped sticks by the time you visit). Its size enables it to feel both explorable and interesting while remaining non-intimidating. There are shops, bars, a castle and a park. Beautiful Braoque architecture lies around every corner (I sure was paying attention to that free walking tour), and the intricate facades and statues remained enjoyable to discover (unlike my ‘not another old building’ attitude provoked by a number of other, indeed much more prominent, capital cities).

As well as wandering the city, eyes wide and neck arched back (quite lucky I didn’t have any further mishaps to be honest), I spent one morning away from the centre, at the ‘world famous’ (not convinced) Postojna Cave. It was quite a pricy trip (entrance plus transport almost double my daily budget), but so so worth it. After arriving too late for my booked timeslot (filling the subsequent hour wait with an apricot croissant and cappuccino certainly softened the blow (and my ever decreasing muscle mass)) I made it to my re-assigned slot with bags of time, and was entertained as I waited by an OAP Slovenian dancing squad complete with traditional dress (I don’t know how they coped in the sweltering heat), traditional musical instruments and traditional (I’m guessing) random whoops and whistles by the long navy sock wearing men. It was quite a spectacle. As we made our way through the ticket scanner we were each photographed (with no warning or explanation) like paparazzi-choked celebs going through customs, only to have these mugshots very crudely photoshopped onto a cave background, waiting for us like bored babysitters in the school playground when we finished our underground adventure. I made the foolish decision of looking for my photo – I’ve never looked so pissed off to be in a cave in all my life. But as for the cave itself… BUDA FCKN TASTIC! We were transported into the depths by a very speedy, very rickety old train (I’m quite amazed that none of the normal to tall visitors were deposited beheaded from the low stalagtatic ceilings) before making our way through a series of enchanting underground rooms and walkways on foot. It was flipping fantastic. Freezing, but fantastic. I couldn’t decide if I felt more like I had been transported back to my magical sixth birthday at Disneyland Paris, or had landed a leading role in the Harry Potter franchise. Either way I felt like a child again, wandering the caves eyes wide and neck arched back (and delighted to report – quite miraculously – no embarrassing trips, falls or stalagmite altercations).

Back in jubbly-jonga, there was time for a run in the sun-drenched Tivoli Park (the first since Bratislava – three (!) weeks ago – I’m ashamed to admit) before heading to the castle for the Film Under The Stars – the perfect end to my week-long date with Slovenia.

Summer of Love

July 5th 2017 was a big day. Not only was it my sister’s birthday (HBD Lou Lou) and one of my bezzie’s birthday Boxing Day (HBD Karen) (I didn’t forget either), it was my second time ever at a festival, my second time ever camping (I kid you not), and my second chance to FINALLY see The Killers play live, after eleven long years of waiting*.

A long bus ride from Budapest (on which I will say no (FCKN) more) brought me to Novi Sad where I met my LA babe Sophie (romance first blossomed in Kraków) for the renowned Serbian Exit Festival – this year themed the Summer of Love (absolutely no attempt to incorporate this ‘theme’ into the festival whatsoever) – held in the magical (and supremely dusty) Petrodian Fortress. We made our way in the sweltering heat (with our backpacks, without any injuries) to the campsite, which, in comparison to the torture that was the queue to get into Reading Festival 2009, was a bloody breeze. (I’ll skip over the minor hiccups of Sophie’s ticket not arriving in time, her back-up ticket not including The Killers’ set and her driving license not being deemed an acceptable form of ID required to allow her entry. Minor hiccups.) We approached the tent rental desk with trepidation; neither of us had the foggiest on how to put up a tent, let alone in the mid-thirty degree heat. So when we were taken personally to our pre-rigged tent, sleeping mats and bags (and we didn’t even order (or pay for) bags!) within, all ready and waiting for us in a freaking great spot on the grass and in the shade… we knew this was going to be a good week.

The first night of the festival – Day 0 – was headlined by The Killers (I reckon the band were unable to play any of the dates of the actual festival, so the organisers just bunged another day on at the start to accommodate them). We were both super excited and set off to the fortress with plenty of time to get aqauinted with the layout, have a bite to eat and secure a great spot for the set. (Which was bloody lucky as we arrived at the fortress after a ONE HOUR walk from the campsite.) On entering the complex we soon realised that the police security meant business. If you thought airport frisking was thorough then let me introduce you to a whole new level of public body search. (Let’s just say if you’d had anything non-surgically inserted to enhance what yo mamma gave yo, you would have been flat chested in the space of ten seconds.) Gateway groping complete, we were free to explore the venue (and rearrange our lovely lady lumps). Dinner down, beer in hand, it was time for The Killers. We got an almost incredible spot just one row back from the security fence behind the superfan pit (we are fans but let’s not get carried away), behind two of THE MOST ANNOYING GIRLS WE HAD EVER ENCOUNTERED. (Well, initially we were third row, but after a sneaky have-the-rest-of-my-warm-beer-if-we-can-swap-spots deal with some tall Serbian teenagers, we achieved second row status.) The first (of the annoying girls, not Serbian boys) liked to jump (I have no problem with jumping) while holding onto the railing for support (still a-ok), with each takeoff catapulting her arse back into the crowd behind her (giving me the right hump). The second just got very emotional, and proceeded to sob through the majority of the set (and tried to use this hysteria to get some more (probably just as annoying) friends to join the front row (which we were having none of)). But despite the non-stop arse and tears, the concert was bloody brilliant, culminating perfectly in their most famous smash hit. My fourteen-year-old self was finally able to open up her eeeager eyesss to Mr Brightside.

Daytime at the festival was very chilled, and a step up on the hygiene front from my (very limited) prior experience – thank the lord. The toilets were individual portaloos as opposed to the large open trough cesspit (akin to that iconic Slumdog Millionaire scene) of Reading ’09; showers were easily accessible (as opposed to my rather sticky bank holiday weekend in Berkshire); and I avoided the pleasure of being offered someone’s rhythm stick surreptitiously disguised in an empty popcorn box held cunningly at hip height (that did happen and I did nearly reach in for some popcorn…). The music didn’t start until the evening, so our days were spent fluctuating between chilling in the shade at the campsite and chilling in the sun at the beach, all the while sipping on delicious smoothies and grazing on pasta. (Someone’s gotta do it.) And there was no need to worry about getting sick of eachother (obviously this would never have been a problem for Soph) because we met a great bunch of equally crazy festival goers. The first and in many ways most memorable was an Arg from towie lookalike, with the accent, tight shorts and hair styling rucksack (and love of eating) to make you double take, wondering if you were indeed in the vicinity of Brentwood royalty. Unfortunately not. But this guy was bloody hilarious anyway. He had a serious(ly unrequited) crush on Sophie (bless him) and farcical stories involving illegal substances, kinder eggs and a certain orifice (one story not three), the visualisation of which will stay with me as a lingering lasting memory of my time at Exit. (Sorry if FTMI (far too much info for your delicate eyes) – my ears had no choice in hearing it either.)

Now back to the music. The line up of über cool DJs which I had never heard of was interspersed with some not-all-that-fitting British (Jake Bugg, Years & Years, Rag & Bone Man) and American (Jason Derulo (shockingly bad performance bulldozed our exceedingly high expectations (we didn’t even stay for Ridin’ Solo))) artists, with Hardwell’s closing party being the friggin’ best thing ever, which really came as a shock to me! I started the week hating the guy. His face was just so annoying. Good looking (don’t get me wrong) but annoying. And then he played the best set ever – along with fireworks IN TIME WITH THE MUSIC – and I realised he was simply very, very good looking. It was a pleasure to watch.

After pretty much every single night of me being the first one to bail on the music and escape to my tent (we all know I’m a boring bitch who needs a lot of sleep), our aim for the last night was to party until sunrise, for which I am very happy (and a little surprised) to confirm: we totally did. After falling in love with Hardwell, we got our groove on at the reggae tent ’til it was light, and posed in front of a pink elephant and blue santa (why the hell not?) to capture the beautiful moment. After a couple of hours of recovery tent time, Exit Festival was over and out.

*Rewind to fourteen-year-old Rachel, year 9 at high school, having just been invited by now-Berlin-based Kirsten (scroll down to relive the breakfasts) to join her at The Killers gig in Birmingham. Wahoo! Get home. Tell mum. [Insert older sister getting in mum’s ear.] Suddenly I’m not allowed to go to the ‘heavy metal’ ‘mosh pit’ concert aimed at grown men with face tattoos and metal spikes on their shoes and shoulders (ok maybe I’ve embellished a little). I was told over a barbecue in the garden – such a nice setting for such horrible news. So after over a decade of passive aggressive renditions of Hot Fuss classics in the shower, on July 5th 2017 I was finally able to give (to Serbia) my – slightly withered by now – Brandon Flower. The climactic Mr Brightside hit all the right spots.


BUDA FCKN PEST

I am going to have to commence this post non-chronologically because yesterday I had such a chronically frustrating day that it deserves first spot, and thence forth I can move onto happier times. 

So I wake up on Tuesday morning, my last day in Budapest, with ambitious plans. I had been there for two and a half days at that point but hadn’t yet got a proper feel for the city, so wanted to explore more, see more, and get a better sense of the place. I made a to do list (obviously). I wanted to see the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, explore Heroes Square, visit the basilica, buy a slogan cap from the BUDAFCKNPEST shop (my trusty dusty pink cap is now just very dusty), and have an evening cocktail on a rooftop bar. But first I just needed to reserve a seat on my train to Serbia for the following day. (With Interrail some trains require a compulsory seat reservation; the train I was getting being one of them.) The station I needed to catch the train from was a little out of the centre so I set off from the hostel, hoping the whole thing would be a one hour round trip. A metro, a walk, a bus, getting off the bus too early (thus another walk, slightly frustrating) and one hour later I arrived at Pesterzsébet station. If you have had the pleasure of visiting this station in Budapest (which I’m BUDA FCKN SURE you wouldn’t have) you will know that it barely deserves the title of station. It is a section of railway with a little tin kiosk on the side. And that’s it. (Thank God I didn’t need a wee.) I though to myself – this cannot be right! Another look on my Rail Planner app, one singular click on the route from Pesterzsébet to Novi Sad, and I discover the stations prior to Pesterzsébet. This is when the frustration rapidly escalates from mild to hot hot hot. Two stops before PesterzFCKNsébet it goes through Budapest Keleti. “And what?” I hear you say. Well. Buda bloody pest Keleti is three direct metro stops away from my hostel, with the total door-to-door travel time approximating fifteen minutes. FIFTEEN FUCKING MINUTES!!!  I am definitely going to catch the train from this closer station tomorrow (I might be exhibiting severe imbecilic tendencies but I do have some common sense). So I try to reverse the journey I had just made to the tin can station, and find that no buses seem to be going anywhere I had heard of, and the drivers of each, although eager to help, seem to have no idea of the destination I am trying to get to. (Long-term emigration to Pesterzsébet did cross my mind at this point. Maybe I could use my design skills to pimp up the train station a little.) Attempting to board what felt like the 20,000th bus (probably about right if you take into account the exchange rate), I pointed my phone at the driver once more, giving him genuine puppy dog eyes, pleading he would say he was going in the desired direction, he nodded, said something about the metro and pointed for me to continue to a seat. My Hungarian prince! I had no idea where I was going but at least I was leaving Pesterzsébet. About half an hour on this bus took me to a metro station, from which I could continue my journey to Keleti. I was back on track. Phew. However it was now 3 pm and I was hangry, so naturally prioritised getting lunch over getting the job done. I decided to re-visit a houmous-focussed Hungarian chain which I had frequented earlier in the week. This window of houmous heaven was the ONLY enjoyable part of the day. (But it was pretty enjoyable.) Houmous + aubergine + boiled egg + cucumber and tomato salad + pitta = (momentarily) happy girl. Chickpea’d up, I returned to the task in hand. I decided to walk to the train station as I’d already spent a lot of (unfcknnecessary) time on public transport and wanted to walk off lunch. A thirty-or-so minute walk brought me to Keleti. The station was big, making it even more ironic that I travelled all the way to the tiny cardboard box of Pesterzsébet. I found the Information and Tickets office, took a ticket and waited to be called. Nearly there now (I thought to myself (foolishly)). I got called up to the desk and asked to reserve a seat on the train to Novi Sad tomorrow morning. Simple? No! This was the domestic ticket office (signposted nowhere); I needed to go to the international ticket office. So I went to the international ticket office, took a ticket and waited to be called. Same question again. She asked to see my ticket for the train. I explained that I didn’t have a ticket; I was using an Interrail Pass. She needed to see my Interrail Pass. I explained that I didn’t have it with me, but they always check when you’re on the train so please could I reserve the seat? No. She must see the Interrail Pass. I offered the email confirmation of the Pass. No. I pleaded. I begged. Still no. After some heated words I buda fckn left, frustration levels now so high they came with a health warning. I made my way back to my hostel to collect my Interrail Pass and passport (and have a swift FaceTime with Mother Hubbard who made all the right noises and offered the much needed “what a buda fckn pest” towards the horrible ticket lady). I travelled back to the station at 5.45 pm, tickets in toe, not sure what time the ticket office was open until, but by this point I had lost the will to live so figured I may as well make my way to the station once more even if it was friggin’ closed. I arrived to find that luckily it was still open. I took a ticket and (you know the drill by now). I got a different lady this time. Third time lucky. Her response: reservation not required on this train. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! “But it says reservation is compulsory on this train?” She repeats said response. I HAVE NO FCKN WORDS. I leave the station, AGAIN, make my way back to the hostel (it is now 6.30 pm), lie on the sofa (a lovely corner sofa), curl up into a ball and fall asleep. Well that was a successful day exploring Budafcknpest.

Frustration over and out.

My first day in the Hungarian capital was super chilled. I arrived at the hostel at lunchtime to a very warm welcome, a parcel from my mum (the forgotten Interrail Passes…), and – as I’d stocked up on groceries en route – poached eggs and smashed avocado on toast for lunch. I spent the afternoon chilling (on the lovely common room corner sofa), chatting (on the lovely common room corner sofa), and composing my previous blog post about The Ginger Monkey (on the lovely common room corner sofa). (I do love a corner sofa.) The hostel organised a free family dinner each night (kerching) followed by drinks and a night out in the city. We went to Fogash, one of the large ruin bars that Budapest is known for. These ruin bars are basically old empty buildings (ex army accommodation and the like) turned into bars rather than being demolished. It was full of random, quirky objects and decorations, a maze of rooms with different vibes and music, and a large central courtyard teeming with locals, tourists, and far too many stag parties. We explored the rabbit warren of rooms and dancefloors, lost friends, found friends, cut some shapes and got a little sweaty. (Some things never change!)

The following morning (after an enviable eggs and avocado brekkie) I partook in one of the city’s free walking tours (something I was initially very sceptical about, but I’ve now become rather accustomed, and even – gasp – enjoy). Unfortunately on this tour I was under the guidance of wannabe comedian Lara, a short (even shorter than me) and loud Hungarian lady who insisted on repeating all of the (bad) jokes we had heard two moments ago at the initial briefing, including her imitation of Lara Croft every time she introduced herself. It was going to be an interesting couple of hours. Much more worthwhile that the tour itself, on it I met New Orleans based bar tender Nichole; a tattooed miniature bundle of joy who, in her mid thirties, had the energy and appearance of someone ten years younger. We tried out the aforementioned houmous bar (Hummusbar) for lunch and spent the rest of the day walking, walking and… walking. (Total distance covered was 0.2 km less than my most-walked day so far (which had involved a 25 km mountain hike).) Climbing up the hefty Gellért Hill we said hello to the Lady of Liberty before making our way to the beautiful Castle District, stopping for constant breaks to watch the Red Bull Air Race World Championship going on above (and sometimes below!) us.

It was soon the evening and time for a picnic watching the sunset with a group from the hostel. Stocking up on houmous (never too much houmous), bread, cheese, etc., we headed out to find a good spot to enjoy the scenery. And where better to take in the city and the Danube descend into darkness than from the ruddy great Gellért Hill. (My thighs got it good that day.) The view itself is pretty incredible, and watching it transform before your eyes from blue to orange to pink to black (while eating tons of houmous, bread and cheese) was preeetty spectacular.

For some unknown reason (maybe the walking had made us loose our minds) Nichole and I decided to meet at 7am the following morning to visit the famous Gellért Baths (this had been pushed back from 6.30 am in a moment of sanity). When my alarm went off at six thirty I wondered what I had ever done to deserve this brutal treatment, highly considering sacking the whole thing off for a couple more hours in bed. But then I receive a message from Nichole: “Morning!” Fuck. I can’t cancel now. I dragged myself out of bed, got my shit together and headed to the spa. And boy were we glad we went early. There was just a handful of other bathers – all over seventy, none annoying or loud – enabling us to explore the huge complex in peace, with no waiting, no screaming children, and no one from our generation to make us feel inadequate about our bikini bodies. We simply bathed. There were varying temperatures of pool, sauna, steam room; an ice cold pool; an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, an adventure pool… All with a backdrop of beautiful architecture and bright blue skies. By 9.30 am we had exhausted the indoor facilities and set up camp by the outdoor pool, a day of glorious sunbathing ahead. And that’s pretty much what I did. All day. For nine hours. It was great.

As I was walking out of the Baths I saw that they had a beauty salon. Aha! I needed to get a wax, I had the time, so I enquired. (You may be wondering why on earth am I writing – on the internet, for all to see – about getting a bikini wax. Well, dear readers, you are in for a treat.) She had availability for me there and then. I quickly popped to the toilet and on returning to her treatment room found another woman (client not beauty therapist) leaving her bags and then walking out. Hmm. A little strange. The beauty therapist explained that this other woman, let’s call her Claudia (she looked like a Claudia), had booked a facial but that she (beauty therapist (let’s go for Henrietta (she looked like a Henrietta)) wasn’t expecting Claudia to turn up as she had been a no-show yesterday. “Oh, ok, I see.” (Me speaking.) “Shall I wait until you’ve done her facial?” Henrietta assured me that it wasn’t going to be a problem; she was very quick. Hmm. Ok… So I get ready for the wax (i.e. trousers off, on the bed, area to be waxed…visible). Then in walks Claudia! “Just take your top and bra off and lie on bed” (Henrietta to Claudia) (there is a second bed) (less than one metre to the left of me). No explanation to Claudia regarding the stranger – ME !!! – lying, rather unglamorously, to her right. And then Henrietta just gets on with the wax. With Claudia lying right there! She does a bit, then moves over to cleanse Claudia’s face, then comes back to the business end to finish the job! All WITH CLAUDIA THERE! A very interesting twenty minutes to say the least. When it’s over I put my trousers back on and Henrietta is already doing Claudia’s facial, asking her how her day’s been, with me right behind putting my bloody trousers back on!!! She takes a break from the facial to take my money (I was tempted to ask for a discount seeing as it was basically – with the level of intimacies it involved – a couples treatment). I decided, though, that I’d had enough embarrassment for one day, gave her the money and left Claudia to have her facial. And you know the first thing I thought? Well that’s a ruddy great story for my blog!

The evening to follow was the usual free dinner, drinks and ruin bar (interspersed with regailing my embarrassing afternoon to much amusement). And that was the evening before the dreaded last day… I shall say no more.

The Ginger Monkey

Little did I know when I set off on my European expedition almost two months ago that I would end up in a little cottage in the depths of the Slovakian High Tatras, taking Wally the dog on my first ever solo dog walk through the beautiful mountainous terrain, or indeed that this would be my best stop by far. Thank God I was recommended this gem of a getaway by a fellow traveller in Poland (Harriet (the hilarious one), Kraków), and go me for adding it to my itinerary.

I arrived in the picturesque village of Ždiar rather bruised (ego) and battered (knees). (En route to the train station in Bratislava that morning I had tripped up – with mahousive back pack strapped on – fallen over, my knees as my breaks, unable to get up due to the weight of my back pack, lying in the middle of the street like a capsized tortoise, with three Slovakians rushing over to come to my rescue / fight back their hysteria (I don’t blame them; it must have looked bloody (literally) ridiculous). Unclipping my back pack I was able to right myself to sitting, and appreciate the gravelly damage in all its glory. For my knees it was like a re-run of when I fell over while running (lol) last February, and I think they rolled their eyes and sighed as I bust open the scarring once more. It was a great look. But I had a train to catch! After trying to style it out with the kind Slovakians – attempting small talk while emptying my bottle of water onto my legs, looking up at their totally bemused faces from ground level – I needed to get going. I walked (limped) to the station with weeping knees, hoping that no passers by would notice my unfashionable plasmatic leg accessories. I managed the last ten minutes of the walk with no further injuries, and headed to the pharmacy next door to the station. I thought (naively) that they would clean and dress me (my knees not the whole of me – don’t be silly) as the nurse had done in Leamington following Knee Bust Up #1 last year. I wasn’t to be so lucky, and had to spray and patch up my knobblies myself, and even made use of my trusty first aid kit (thank you, Karen!). Open wounds amateurishly covered, I made the train and subsequent bus with relative ease, which brings us back to where we left off.)

As I hobbled from the bus stop I couldn’t stop looking around at the scenery (probably unwise for someone who is prone to tripping up…). Huge majestic mountains surrounded me, with cute little huts dotted around covered in bright flowers and wooden decking. It was as if I had been transported back to a simpler time, where being at one with nature was simply the way of life. It felt magical and exactly what I craved. Arriving at The Ginger Monkey I was welcomed by Dan, the coolest, funniest, shell-embellished-hat-wearing, long-haired, slipper-loving Aussie who ran the hostel. He was great. After removing my shoes (house rule) he showed me round as if he was giving me a tour of his home, and I felt instantly part of the Monkey family. 

The mornings consisted of fuelling up on soft boiled eggs, toast and tea; the days spent hiking, walking the dog and gazing at the unbelievable view; and the evenings enjoying hearty dinners and drinking beer. It was a tough life. On my first full day I tackled The Saddle – a 26 km hike through the mountains with 26,000 stops for photographs. It was steep, long, windy… and I loved it. We celebrated with pizza night at the local pizzaria (I made my own and chose blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, onion, walnuts and rocket (possibly the poshest pizza Eastern Europe had ever been asked for)). The following day we were due bad weather and a village-wide powercut – the perfect opportunity to pretend we were nature-loving hippies who didn’t miss WiFi, hot showers or toasted bread. After a very cosy morning spent in pyjamas, laddleing gas hob heated water for our tea, a couple of us took Wally (the dog) for a river walk (my second ever dog walk (my first being with Rachel and Rocky in Brinklow (not quite as scenic but enjoyable none the less))). After such a back to basics day we relaxed in the evening – when the power resumed – by watching Liam Neeson strut his stuff (Taken) while nursing our electronic gadget separation anxiety. And then all of a sudden it was my last day, and not even a full one! I had until 14:51 precisely to end my time in the Tatras on a high. I decided to spend my last morning having some alone time with my latest bff (that means best friend forever, dad): Wally. We were going to do the forest walk. We set off in good spirits, and got about five minutes down the road before Wally decided he did not want to go on the forest walk, but was much MUCH more interested in smelling his friends’ urine markers. Lovely. Despite a good ten minutes of my best negotiating skills, I could not win this war. I had to return to The Ginger Monkey, tail between my legs, and return the defiant dog before setting off (for the second time) on the forest walk. I managed to progress past the piss path without Wally, and had a lovely lone stroll through the woodlands, making it back in record time (they said four hours, I did it in two hours ten 😉), giving me time for a last Ždiarian lunch before making tracks (and I’d like to point out that the onward journey did not involve any capsizing tortoises).