travel guides

The Trip, Part Two/Dva/Két/Dvě

LAST TIME ON THE TRIP:Alex “Dash” Spencer and Dominic “Party Pants” Parsons began their sweep across South-East Europe, encountering artery-killing food, wrestling Russians, and Western European Guilt. But with three destinations down, there were still eight countries to visit, drain dry of their chocolatiest resources, and write about at length. Their adventures continue in this, the second thrilling installment of The Trip. Because what more magical time is there than 5am? The walk from the station, as the sun began to happen, took us past what would remain my favourite sight in all of Zagreb: the long wall of graffiti. It was (officially-sanctioned) street art at its finest, blank stretch of urban space and transforming it into something playful. To be honest, it’s something Zagreb could have done with more of. It’s handsome city, well-kept and just the right size, but it felt a little like a blank slate. In the blistering heat of first day, heavily punctuated by naps, putting our own stamp on it just felt like far too much effort. It took until the next day, jumping from bar to bar drinking irresponsibly and with veracity, for it all to click. Dom choked down an accidentally ordered ‘Amaro’; in a moment of conciliation, I burnt away a few throat cells with some ‘Stock’. (The exact nature of both spirits remains a mystery.) Everything just worked, landing us in Kaptolska klet for the largest mixed-grill-to-share ever encountered by humankind. Train 4: Zagreb –> BudapestBy now, we’d settled into a rhythm. Not full-on ADVENTURE!, not the mind-losing boredom of Train 2. Just a peaceful seven hours spent keeping to ourselves, until the train was invaded by a load of post-festival local tweens with no respect for personal space. Never have I become so quickly acquainted with a young lady’s feet! And without socks! I say! For our shortest stay of the trip (approximately 18 hours, including a lengthy and much-needed sleep), I felt strangely done with Budapest by the time we left. We were masters of time and our own fate… or just lucked out a bit. Picking a route to and from dinner (Trofea Grill, uncontested king of surprisingly classy all-u-can-eat-and-drink meat and wine) through the Városliget park is probably the reason for this. Coming back along its north edge at twilight exposed us to Vajdahunyad Castle, beautifully lit, and along the Andrássy Út boulevard. Delightful! Train 5: Budapest –> PragueTwo trains in two days. 14 hours out of 48. Travelling shouldn’t have been this much of a pleasure. But the novelty of modern, air conditioned trains, plenty of food and drink, and a cabin to ourselves? This was the Interrail experience we’d dreamed of. The first stop I – in fact, both of us – had visited before, three years earlier, on the holiday that served as a blueprint for this journey. The entire city was overlaid with half-memories – is this where…? didn’t we…? – and expectations. And of course we landed, completely by accident, in the same cocktail bar we’d behaved disgracefully in three years prior (Harley’s, Dlouhá 18, complete with slightly dodgy Jack Daniels rock theme, graffitied walls and inexplicably ice-filled urinals). One reasonably priced Long Island Iced Tea later, and it wasn’t hard to remember why. Many cocktails later, it was hard to remember how we’d even gotten there. In the meantime, the city had hit that weird hour where bars were just getting lively, but all the restaurants were closing. And so we ended up in La Casa Blů (Kozí 857/15), a tapas bar, eating a Czech interpretation of everyone’s favourite pick-&-mix Spanish food. Cue the next morning, more half-memories and a day of wandering the city feeling hazy and homeless. The hangover landed us in some tourist trap restaurant (Hotel Prague Inn, 28. října 378/15), looking to repent for the tapas and get a solid, honest, ‘Polish’. On this front it delivered: well-cooked meat, slightly sweet cabbage and dumplings galore (my moravský vrabec) and a touch of the strange in Dom’s svíčková na smetaně, beef served with whipped cream. But then the accumulated hidden/semi-hidden charges and apparently compulsory tip kicked in, as is a tourist trap tradition. The feeling of disparity and being cheated (and homeless) knocked us off balance for a few hours until we found another centre in Petrin Hill. We were chasing an ambiguous road sign promising a possibly non-existent maze, but a steep climb to the top yielded great, if tree-obscured, views and a sense of smug self-satisfaction from watching people get on and off the funicular. Homeless or not, we were empirically better than them, and what greater holiday feeling is there? (Additional photos over on the Dirty Mistress Tumblr)

The Trip, Part One/Unul/един/Jedan

Roughly two months ago now, Dominic “BFF” Parsons and I begin an InterRail adventure. There was a lot of dead time on trains. Me being me, a lot of it was filled feverishly writing stuff down. Here’re the results: one part diary to two parts travel guide (and hopefully semi-useful to anyone ever considering a trip themselves). is pretty much defined by its central turf war, between two factions: noisy cars, and stray dogs. Areas of the city are given to one, or the other, almost exclusively: the five-lane roads take what should be the centre as their territory and push the dogs out. The dogs regroup on outskirts, around abandoned buildings and patches of wasteland – of which there are a lot. Bucharest isn’t a conventionally pretty place, mostly appearing to be halfway through being built, or torn down. Apparent derelicts and squats will, on closer inspection, turn out to be totally open bars and shops. For us, this meant a lot of confused wandering, searching for where, exactly, the actual city was. The semi-incomprehensible road system pushes everything into a tiny space. This makes Bucharest a difficult city to experience (especially if, like us, you’re staying nearly a mile south of everything). But crack open that tough exterior, and there’s a veritable bounty on offer. (That was a coconut gag; good, eh?) The endless Soviet concrete is balanced out with fat green swathes of park. If you can actually find the centre, there’s a good selection of bars. Based on our experiences at the Tiki Bar (Intrarea Nicolae Şelari), the cocktail bars are of a good quality, too, if a little expensive. (Budget Eastern Europe Holidaying Lesson #1: Don’t drink spirits. Spirits are the devil, as far as your wallet’s concerned.)Food, on the other hand? Food is incredibly cheap. We ate at reliable Romanian chain restaurant La Mama (Episcopiei 8, one of a dozen locations) and, more spectacularly, outside of the Palatul Cercului Militar Naţional (Strada Constantin Mille, off of Calle Victorei), a nice patio outside a building that, on a visit to the toilet, was revealed to be the gilded hall of a stately home.Romanian cuisine? Hearty is the word that leaps, like a spring-loaded cliché, to mind. The best example I can think of is caşcaval pane: a mild, cheddarish cheese, battered and deep fried. It’s food designed to accompany beer. Tasty, satisfying and deeply, deeply bad for you.Train 1: Bucharest – SofiaOur first train, our first overnight journey and our first terrifying encounter: being chased through the carriage by a bearded man shouting at us in Russian, who’d ripped our tickets out of our hands. Tired and suspicious, we snatched them right back. This chase was followed by some mild wrestling before a kind Dutch couple pointed out that, as far as they could tell, he seemed to be the conductor. Oh. Sorry! Travel guides all seem to fall back on phrases like “diamond in the rough” or “unpolished gem” to describe Sofia. You can see why: the odd facet shines bright, but it’s a matter of finding them, of excavating the places and moments it has to offer. And the truth is: we ran out of time. We managed to find the odd unexpected spot – an underpass that hid a makeshift bar, where the low bass of the generic techno bounced perfectly off the tinkling water feature it sat alongside – but our dig went unfinished. The memories left were buildings halfway to being knocked down, peeling graffitied plaster and endless masses of concrete. We managed to squeeze in a visit to Happy’s Bar & Grill (ul. Georgi S. Rakovski 145B) before departure though, with its slightly awkward meeting of neon-brite miniskirts and grilled meat skewers. Train 2: Sofia – BelgradeTree, tree, mountain, tree, tunnel, tree. For ten hours. Was I ashamed of how happily I realised Belgrade was not the tufts-of-weeds wasteland I’d expected, but something sleekly modern, something familiar, something – and I say this with blushing cheeks – Westernised?Of course. A little. Yes. Did it give me a second’s respite? Not one.It just made it that little bit easier to fall in love with Belgrade. Okay, the Cyrillic signs started to melt away, more people spoke English, but mostly: the road system makes sense; the centre is compact, with promising spots dotted all over; finding the good stuff isn’t just possible, but simple.The most prominent example of that good stuff being Kalemegdan Fortress. And oh my, what a place to have a beer. The vast space between its crumbling walls has been turned into a park, complete with giant plastic watermelons to sit on, and bars. We chose first an expensive (relatively speaking) cocktail bar, then a more humble set of umbrellas on the other side, both offering completely different, but equally handsome, views across the Sava and Danube rivers. It’s a sign of how much of an English townmouse I am that a proper river – with ragged, forested edges – feels like the Amazon or something.After a quick trip to the (impressively non-depressing) zoo, we decided to follow the Sava, our only view of Belgrade’s less attractive side – the pale, chicken-skin undercarriage of the semi-abandoned boatyard – as we got heavily lost. It only took a couple of cheap cocktails – as easily found as ever – and a friendly waiter, though, to wash that all away and remind us that we were definitely pro-Serbia. (Additional photos over on the Dirty Mistress Tumblr)