Welcome to the Balkans!

Well we had a very eventful journey to Skopje today. We turned up at the bus station to find the "bus" is in fact a minibus, and chock full, so there's even a passenger sitting shotgun between the driver and his mate in the front seat.

The driver seemed to lose his concentration completely after the first stop (did he have a beer or six perhaps?) and thereafter was completely unable to keep his eyes on the road for more than two minutes. He's look at the scenery to one side, then jerk the steering wheel back to get back in the lane. Then he'd last another thirty seconds before deciding to have a good look at the girl in the middle's tits.

Over the four or so hours of this, we had rather a lot of near misses: either veering off the road into the barriers (where they existed) or into oncoming traffic. Then, of course, there's the ridiculous blind-corner overtaking maneuvers, with several near misses.

Well, if we needed any convincing that we're in the Balkans, this was it! Sofia and Skopje are only 300km apart or so, but the journey took 5.5 hours.

That said, there are advantages to being in the Balkans. The food is better, with kepabci and burek. Then there's the essential Balkan character of the people: fun-loving, charming and light-hearted. Makes a big change from the more stoic, staid attitude of the Eastern Europeans.

So we made it to Skopje. We'll be here a couple of nights and then head down to Lake Ohrid. My phone doesn't work in Macedonia or Albania, so if you need to get in touch in the next couple of weeks, call or text Holly's number.

Sofia, off to Skopje

We've been in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, the last two nights. It's a pretty scruffy place and there's not a whole lot to see. We stayed in a really lovely hostel, nice and quiet. Not a whole lot to see in Sofia though. Yesterday we went out sightseeing at midday and had seen all the big sights within a couple of hours.

The main purpose of staying here, however, was to get my Macedonian visa. Picked that up this morning and we're off on the five hour bus to Skopje, capital of Macedonia, this afternoon. Not much in the way of cheap accomodation in Skopje, so we're going to camp.

Veliko Tarnovo

We're in Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria. Nice little town and we got an apartment in the centre for €15 a night which isn't bad. Even has a telly with English channels on it!

Tomorrow we're off to Sofia for a few days. Not sure how long it'll be as I need to get a Macedonian visa. The Macedonian Foreign Ministry's web site doesn't work so I can't get any indication of how long it'll take but for turning up at the embassy. Not exactly inspiring confidence at this stage.

From Sofia we'll tool off into Macedonia and see a bit around there. Lake Ohrid sounds particularly good.

Beach bumming in Varna

We've been in Varna a few days and we've had loads of fun. Staying in a very fun hostel with loads of people, including some Brits we met in Krakow. We've spent most of the days lazing on the beach. There's a great bar called A Lounge which has sun lounges and serves you drinks and food while you laze around. Fantastic!

Here's some photos we've taken so far. Mostly people you don't know though.


So we made it to Varna after our mammoth train journey. It wasn't anything like we expected. The sleeper compartment was comfortable, though a little dated and old, but the carriage seemed to just get hitched to different trains along the way. That meant we were confined to the one carriage for the whole 35 hours. Very lucky we took lots of food as there was no dining car!

We awoke on the train yesterday morning to a completely different view from Central Europe. It could have been Jamaica: hot, with green hills covered in trees. Beautiful!

We spent yesterday and today on the beach, chilling out and swimming. The Black Sea here is a bit grotty, with rubbish and stuff, but nice anyway. We're hoping to go on a day trip to some cleaner beaches, maybe even do some kite- or wind-surfing as well as snorkling. Should be fun.

Leaving Krakow

Having hangover? Ask receptionist for alka seltzer

So we've now spent seven days in Krakow. We found an awesome hostel with a really relaxed atmosphere and incredibly helpful staff, so we stuck around.

The visa dash to Warsaw was successful, with the visa being done within four hours. €30 for a visa to a place I'm not even visiting, just passing through on a train, is a bit annoying though.

We're off on our huge train ride tonight, heading to Varna in Bulgaria. 35 hours should be interesting. We've got a private sleeper compartment, so that should be nice. Charging up our mp3 players and we've laid in supplies of food, snacks, vodka and books.

Poland has been loads of fun. The people are very friendly and it's pretty easy going. We've got some photos up including our trip to Auschwitz.

We've had some interesting food experiences here. There's the Polish classics which are always good: pierogi, borscht and their tasty sausages. We also discovered a new thing for us, zapekanka, which are kind of glorified cheese on toast. They're incredibly cheap and available everywhere, taking much the same place as kebabs in the snack food field.

Last Sunday we noticed a queue of about 100 people outside an ice cream shop, and noted the location for a later visit. For 1.20 Zloty (30c in Euro) you get three scoops of luscious handmade ice cream. Definitely worth queuing!

This hostel has had some really friendly, interesting people staying. A really different crowd from the rich trust-fund American college kids you get in Italy and Spain. It's been loads of fun just hanging around the hostel, chatting and meeting people from around the world. Hopefully the hostel in Varna will have a similar style. It gets great reviews on Hostelworld, so here's hoping!

Doing the visa run

So it turns out I need a transit visa to get through Romania on our train to Varna. What a pain in the arse! So we're off to Warsaw again to get this stupid visa for a country I'm not even visiting.

Yesterday we went to Auschwitz which was very moving. It's incredible that human beings can be so crap to each other. I half expected the site to be a blasted wasteland, the evil of what had taken place there stopping the grass growing and warning off birds. Of course it's actually quite green and has birds twittering, but otherwise it's eerie and sinister.

It really is important that we make sure nothing of the sort happens again. The inaction of the world in subsequent genocides like Rwanda and Bosnia is depressing.

The day before we went to the Salt Mines South of Krakow. It's pretty amazing: enormous chambers carved out of rock salt including an amazing church.

Euro beach bums

We're in Warsaw to meet my old colleague Robert and pick up our repaired camera. It's damn hot, with tomorrow forecast to hit 33. Phew!

This morning we booked our mad dash to the coast. It's too hot to be stuck in landlocked Central Europe, so we're making a beeline to the Black Sea. Our 35 hour (!!!) sleeper train leaves Krakow on 4th August at 22:30 and arrives in Varna, Bulgaria at 10:30 on 6th August.

We'll spend at least a week on the coast before visiting Sofia and then heading South through Macedonia and Albania to reach the Adriatic, then head North to visit Europe's newest country, Montenegro. By then it might not be quite so hot, so we'll head inland to see Bosnia and Serbia and keep going North to see all the countries we bypassed.

So this 35 hour train trip should be, erm, interesting! We'll have to stock up on books, snacks and new card games I think. I just hope it's air conditioned, but wouldn't bet on it.

Trakai, photos and off to Warsaw

Today we went to the lovely town of Trakai with its beautiful castle. Really nice weather, though I think Lithuanian buses need to discover the joys of air conditioning or at least have windows that open!

I've uploaded a bunch of photos now, including our time on the coast and Vilnius.

We've booked our bus out of Vilnius for tomorrow night. We're heading to Warsaw. We weren't originally planning on visiting Warsaw--it was pretty much levelled during the War--but we need to get our camera posted to us from Scott in London, and I have a former colleague in London who fits the bill. Thanks Robert!

So we're off to Warsaw tomorrow afternoon, arriving there around midnight. Plan is to get to Krakow and then take the 35 hour direct train to Varna on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. Still keen to get some beach time in!

Vilnius, trying to get to Varna

We're still in Vilnius. Switched to the youth hostel after Hannah and Des left. Quite a cheap place, which is good. We're trying to work out our next step. Ideally we'd fly straight to Varna in Bulgaria, but there's no scheduled flights. We're investigating charter flights that seem to be going. Otherwise it's a bus to Krakow and then some kind of transport there.

Yesterday I talked about lousy food here in Vilnius. You might be wondering why we haven't been eating Lithuanian food. Well we've tried a fair bit of it, and much of it is stodge. Great in winter but pretty heavy in this heat.

One of my favourite things about this country is that every menu has a "Snacks for Beer" section, with a range of yummy snacks designed to munch on with a beer. The best is the fried bread with garlic, where they fry up black bread to crispiness and smother it in fresh garlic. Fantastic! Other options include fried bread with cheese (too greasy) and fried pigs' ears (chewy, would be better if they were crispy fried). What a great idea though, having tailor-made snacks for beer!

I've been getting into the Baltic soups though. In Tallinn I had a cold cucumber and yoghurt soup which was lovely and refreshing. In Lithuania evey menu has a cold borscht, beetroot soup, which is also delicious. I like the idea of cold soup on a hot day.

The classic Lithuanian dish is the Cepelinai or Zeppelin, a grated potato pocket filled with meat. These things are huge and insanely filling. Would be great with snow on the ground, but pretty stodgy for summer. I quite like them though.

Last night we found good food too. A Mexican place across the road from the hotel had quite passable Mexican fare. A nice change.