Category Archives: Grand Tour

In which there are some tips on travelling in Eastern Europe

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As part os Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, are still developing when it comes to tourism, I thought I’d pass on some tips for fellow travellers that may be of use if you’re planning a similar trip to our recent one.

Initially we thought about picking up a hire car in Split and then driving it all the way to Belgrade, but the problem was that in going to another country, every company then whacked a relocation fee on top of the hire fee, making it too expensive to justify. Public transport it was then.

Travelling around Bosnia and Serbia is not the easiest, however, as the infrastructure just isn’t there yet, so it’s harder to be spontaneous about how to get to places. Trains are pretty much non-existent, but there are buses, and with some forward planning you should be fine.

It’s always a good idea to have your passport with you when moving between the Balkan countries and Hungary — the Schengen Agreement doesn’t come into effect until you get further west.

Split to Mostar

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To get from Split to Mostar there are lots of coaches leaving from Split’s bus station. It takes about 3 and a half hours, cost about £12 each and the coach was air conditioned, and even had free wi-fi. Don’t be alarmed if you have to get off the bus and transfer to a second one once you’ve gone over the border. And do remember to keep your passport on you and not in the luggage hold as once you cross from Croatia to Bosnia, the driver takes everyone’s passports for border control. Having to get off the bus and explain to a stern-looking driver and border official that I needed to fish them out of the hold was not a fun experience. Again, handing over your passport to a complete stranger and watching it disappear from your sight is a little alarming, but it was all fine.

To get to Kravice from Mostar we hired a car, from the car hire place next to the train station. They spoke good English and while we got their last and most rubbish car, everything was fine. Pre-book if you can to make sure you get one and that it’s not as shit as ours was. It’s not as cheap as you think it’s going to be to do the actual hiring (I can’t remember the exact cost but I think it was around £50) but the petrol is cheap and it’s definitely worth it to experience the waterfalls. Bosnians take a somewhat random approach to driving (although it’s nothing compared with the Italians), so be prepared for people to turn off the road without warning.

Also, do not use the Google map directions as to where the car park is for the waterfalls. We did, and ended up going down this terrifyingly narrow bumpy single track, which ended in what I can only describe as an ‘unofficial’ car park that a few locals seemed to know about. I can only tip my hat to S for his calm head and calm driving, as I would have been having a panic attack at the thought of navigating a car over all the rocks. There’s another more official entrance which is the one to aim for – ask at the car hire place.

Mostar to Sarajevo

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To get from Mostar to Sarajevo, there are two options: bus or train. They take about the same length of time, three hours, but the difference is that the buses are way more frequent – there are only two trains, around 7am and 7pm, whereas there are around 6-7 buses per day. They both follow the same route too, which is one of the most stunning I have ever travelled – think mountain passes and sparkling blue lakes. The train is around £4.50 and the bus about £6, which compared with British prices is an absolute steal.

Sarajevo to Belgrade

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Sarajevo to Belgrade is a lot trickier. There are flights, although they’re quite expensive, and public buses take around 9 hours, so we originally opted for a private minibus transfer with http://www.gea.rs that would take around 5 hours, leave in the afternoon and cost 20 EUR each. I found this company really hard to communicate with, however, and on the day of our actual transfer, they were running three hours late due to a problem at the border, which meant we wouldn’t have arrived in Belgrade until midnight at the earliest. Add this to torrential rain and driving in the dark on mountain roads, and we decided to cancel the trip and hire a car, partly because they didn’t have any seats on the next morning’s minibus and partly because we didn’t feel the company was trustworthy. Ironically, we then ended up having to pay the relocation fee that we hadn’t wanted to pay in the first place, but it was a cheaper and more convenient option than flying and we really had limited options at this stage. The drive took around five hours and was very scenic, particularly the first part going through the mountains. Although after seeing the hairpin bends, I was very grateful we’d stayed another night in Sarajevo and not been on a minibus negotiating them in the dark and the rain.

If you take the hire car route, make sure you have the right paperwork for crossing the border – this should be standard with the bigger hire places but it doesn’t hurt to check. You’ll need to show this and your passports at the border between Bosnia and Serbia, and also be prepared for a bit of a wait here – it took us about 20 minutes to get through, but it can be more.

Belgrade to Budapest

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Belgrade to Budapest has a good train service, and as it takes around eight hours we opted for an overnight one to make the most of our time there (and save on a night’s accommodation). The woman at the international ticket desk at Belgrade ticket office was hilariously unhelpful and with the deadest of deadpan expressions, but hey, I don’t speak Serbian so I guess I should be grateful we could order our tickets in English. Ask for the 15 EUR ticket, which gets you a bed in a four-berth cabin. There is also the ‘Russian carriage’ option, which is much fancier and I think is named because it then continues onto Russia after Hungary, but this was a lot more expensive — around £50 per person. Be aware that you will be woken up twice in the night by the border guards – first by Serbian guards and then by Hungarians, both of whom want to see your passport.  The beds are the typical fold down ones found on trains (similar to those in Thailand and India), and you get a blanket, sheet and pillow. Also be aware that everyone smokes in Serbia, and your carriage will probably be full of smoke wafting in from people lighting up in the corridors. At over 6’2”, S also struggled to physically fit in this bed, so tall people take note! The train arrives into Budapest’s Keleti station, which is in the south of Buda and has excellent metro, tram and bus connections, as well as left luggage lockers.

Budapest to Vienna

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Once you’re in Budapest, everything travel-wise becomes a lot simpler and a lot more modern (and also more expensive, obviously, but that’s the pay off). There’s a frequent train service from Budapest’s Keleti station to Vienna’s Hauptbanhof, which takes 2 hours. We pre-booked our seats and got one in second class for 19 EUR and one in first class for 29 EUR, which was much cheaper than buying on the day at the station. Check both the Hungarian railways website and the Austrian one as they have individual ticket allocations. I very kindly gave S the first class ticket, but ironically, I had a much nicer seat in an open carriage with a huge amount of leg room, whereas he was in an old-fashioned carriage with the individual compartments, sharing with three very grumpy people! Hungary and Austria are part of the Schengen Agreement so you won’t have to show your passport to go between the countries.

Split to Dubrovnik

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I also thought I’d include an answer to a query about driving from Split to Dubrovnik that I struggled to find a definitive answer to on the internet when we went on our Croatian trip two years ago. On this route you cross into Bosnia for around 20km, going through what’s called the Neum Corridor (given to Bosnia when the countries were formed in the 90s so it had access to the sea). This is not considered by car hire places to be leaving the country, so you don’t need to worry about having the extra insurance and paperwork that you would if you’re going to Montenegro or Serbia. Do mention it, however, when you hire the car and make sure you have the car’s registration documents. There is a border at Neum and you’ll need to stop and show your passports, so have them with you.

I hope this helps if you’re planning a similar trip, and do let me know if you have any further questions as I’d be happy to give more info.

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In which there is a lot to catch up on

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I’m sitting here looking out on a grey sky and with the leaves whirling off the trees, so it’s safe to say that autumn is most definitely here.

August, September and October passed in a haze of work — I’ve been mostly fully booked as a freelancer, to which, yay! — but also lots of much more fun things. We saw a comedy gig in the zoo, we watched one of the comedians from that gig (Adam Hills) film his television show The Last Leg a week later (stalker alert!), we went to the Edinburgh Festival for a week and saw a load more comedians. (No more Adam though, that would just be weird.)

While in Scotland we knocked off another off the Three Peaks, accompanied by my dad, and managed to be the highest people in the entire UK for a few minutes.

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I also took part in my first ever official bike event, the Stroke Association’s 25/60/100 route in September. I went for the 25 miles, as I felt the latter two were a bit much for me, but the aim was for a sub 2 hours time. I didn’t quite make it but was near enough, and it got me my first ever medal for something sporty! Hat tip to S for moral support and buying me a very stylish cycling jacket, which has special back pockets and everything.

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My freelancing has also given me the freedom to take some weekdays off and visit lovely people, so I’ve finally met two friends’ new(ish) babies, and spent a lovely weekend in the warm autumn sun in Oxford with my mom.

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More friends’ babies were born, so more booties were made, and I’ve started knitting my first mini teddy bear in anticipation of the five babies already expected by more friends in 2016.

We celebrated five years of marriage by spending a weekend in Lyme Regis at an amazing cottage, which was part of an old Victorian estate that had its own private beach! We kept up with tradition and ate Italian, finding a lovely restaurant in Lyme where we toasted half a decade over Prosecco and scallops with butternut squash puree and melanzane parmigiana. Then a week later we got a final dose of sunshine via a week in Portugal, staying in a little wooden hut on a farm just outside Olhao, in which pastel de nata, books, beer, fish, a trip to Seville and swimming in the sea all delightfully featured.

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We have also had an offer on our old house, and fingers crossed that everything should go through by Christmas, as it would be lovely to think that the new owners can start a new year in a new home.

And now it is late autumn, and winter is coming, but we have the woodburner so all is well.

In which there is a surprise trip to Amsterdam

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For S’ birthday earlier this month, I figured he needed a really special present, after working so hard for the past year, and since it was somewhere we’d wanted to visit for ages, I booked us a three day trip to Amsterdam. I would have loved to make it a total surprise: mentioning on the Sunday evening that he didn’t have to go to work for the next three days, and as I know his boss (I used to work for the same company) then it might have been possible. But I had visions of his booking meetings without her knowledge, then panicking on said Sunday night, so I had to settle instead for telling him we were going away, but not to where.

It was fun to listen to S’ guesses for the preceding two months, which included the correct place, Brussels, Dublin, Belfast (too many episodes of The Fall) and the Bahamas (ha!). Even on the morning itself, his actual birthday, he still had no real idea, although driving the familiar route to Bristol airport kinda made it obvious we were flying, and when we arrived, the only two flights that fitted the time were Amsterdam and Faro (which I had actually considered but discarded on the basis that we’d talked about going to the Netherlands for the last three years so it seemed daft to go somewhere random).

It had been a somewhat stressful few days before leaving (work being busy, plus the cat deciding on Saturday evening to come in limping, necessitating an emergency trip to the vets on Sunday morning and a contingency plan formulated with my mom for her to come and stay in case Olivia needed 24 hour attention, then having to brief our cat sitter on giving painkillers when it was found that she was fine after all), but as soon as we landed at Schipol I was in full-on pancakes, coffee and beer tourist mode.

We spent the three days cycling round the city, getting our cheeks whipped red with the February wind, loving the freedom the bikes gave us. They had come as part of the lovely apartment in Westerpark I rented through Air BnB, and I can’t recommend cycling in Amsterdam enough. I love to ride, but the roads in Bristol fill me with fear, partly the steep gradient but mostly the cyclist-hating drivers and having to share bike lanes with motorcycles and First Buses. Cycling in Amsterdam was a total and utter pleasure, as there are clearly segregated lanes and drivers are always aware of you. Oh, and the total, total flatness!

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We loved being outside in the blue skies so much that while we popped our heads into the Rijksmuseum to check out the refurb, the lure of exploring more of the city on two wheels overcame the excellent Old Masters collection.

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On the Tuesday night, we met up with two of our Dutch friends from our Salkantay trek three years ago, who took us to the Food Hallen, a newly-opened collection of food stalls and bars in the old tram terminus, where we drank Dutch beer and ate an amazing meat platter with fresh bread and pickles. Since were tourists in the Netherlands, we also sampled pancakes and waffles (with Nutella, natch), saw tulips and canals, were mildly surprised by naked ladies beckoning to us from windows in the red light district, and had no need to speak Dutch whatsoever, thanks to the amazing language skills of every single person we met (as always, I was ashamed of the British inability/laziness/lack of teaching at school in other languages).

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So after three years of wanting to visit, Amsterdam didn’t disappoint, although I feel I may have set the bar very high for future birthday presents!

In which both goodbyes and hellos are said

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2014 has not got off to the best start, as my grandma died on 7th January. Losing any loved one is harsh, losing two within seven months of each other was doubly so. Combine this with a busy freelance schedule on top of daily work, and it means that I’ve barely had time to register January before it’s nearly over.

Despite the rubbish beginning, there have been some January highlights, the best one being a four day trip to Germany to see close friend B and her new daughter. To make a sweet trip even sweeter, our mutual friend Steph came all the way from Ottawa – and let’s pause for a minute here to consider the cost and time implications of this – to hang out with us too. It put my two hour flight and 20 minute bus ride to the airport right into perspective. This amazing gesture meant that the three of us got to spend a lovely long weekend together, getting to know (and cuddle whenever the sleeping schedule permitted) the baba, drink coffee, enjoy long leisurely breakfasts, eat cake, drink wine, take a walk in the grounds of the Nymphenburg Schloss and generally set the worlds to rights. And after everything that had happened so far this month, seeing good friends with whom I can be completely myself was just what was needed.

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Gazebo in the grounds of the Nymphenburg Schloss

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Munich city centre in the winter sunshine

It might have been three years since the last time we were all together but it felt like five minutes. If 2011 was Paris, 2014 was Munich, where will 2017 be?

S and I also managed to make progress on our new house, which we became legal owners of on 23rd December. Since getting the keys we have gone on a wallpaper-stripping, Pinterest-pinning and balcony-research frenzy, made easier by the fact we don’t have to actually live in the house until everything is done, and we’re not on a strict timetable. Which is good, because after doing all this before, we’re way fussier this time around about everything!

So despite a shaky start, I have high hopes for 2014 – a new house to make our own, new work challenges to enjoy, no doubt more new babies to welcome (8 of my close friends gave birth to 9 babies last year!). I’ll keep you posted…

Postcard from our holiday

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Our trip to the Alps was beautiful views. Hikes through the mountains. Trips on cable cars. Cheering on the Brits. Drinking lots of vin mousseux. Sitting in a hot tub until prune-like and wrinkled. Floor to ceiling views of the mountains. Meals enjoyed on the sun-drenched balcony. Terrible coffee in little cafes. Edelweiss hunting with no success. Marmoset hunting with no success. Eating camembert that had melted in a rucksack.

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Our trip to Bruges was walks through the warm evenings over ancient bridges. The smell of chocolate wafting through the streets. Our first ever go on a tandem. A boat ride on the canal. Eating warm waffles with whipped cream. Living in a 17th century house with an uneven staircase. Moules et frites (with mayonnaise, of course) in a cobbled square. Watching people tango in an ancient fish market. Beer, beer and more beer. Lots of swearing in Irish accents.

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Today marks exactly a year since we set out on our Awfully Big Adventure. This time last year, I was boarding our plane at Heathrow, getting excited about an upgrade to premium economy and loving wearing my new purple hoody which I’d bought especially for the trip. We were full of plans, full of excitement, unsure of what lay ahead but knowing it was going to be so much fun to find out together.

One  year on, we’re home again and we’ve slotted back very easily into our life here. We’ve got new jobs, sure, but everything else is the same (except Olivia and I both have a few grey hairs now). This past twelve months have skimmed by so quickly; it actually scares me how fast things pass me by now. Has anyone else been finding this, as you get older, that a month has gone before you’ve even realised it?