A Travellerspoint blog

Ukraine

snow

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Back in 2014, a mild mannered Ukrainian woman used to do the weekly rounds in our Moscow office, handing out sweet cheese pies. She didn't speak a word of English but would bring me two pies every Friday; most others got one. It turned out that she thought I needed fattening up, and had decided that a second helping of pie would do the trick.

Growing anti-Ukrainian sentiment across Russia at the time must have made it tough for her, yet still the pies kept coming and her smile never left. I wondered what life was like for those back home.

Fast forward three years and I had landed on a damp Friday night at Kiev’s Zhulyany airport. As airports go, Zhulyany was unwelcoming, but my hotel was something else. In true soviet style, it was huge and hardly any of the space was actually used for anything worthwhile. The lobby was dominated by the flag of the USSR and pocked with security guards seemingly all watching one another. Barely anyone spoke any English.

A particularly unhelpful receptionist suggested I eat a late dinner in the hotel restaurant, as she couldn’t think of any other options in the centre of the nation’s capital. Too tired to argue, I trudged across to the restaurant, passing two more security guards and no fellow guests. Once inside, I was shown to a table directly across from another security guard. He stopped gawping straight at me every now and then to stare at his phone. There was no one else in the restaurant. Browsing through the menu, it crossed my mind to ask him to join me for a bowl of the “bread in proteins”. Perhaps he was on a diet, in which case the “vitamins salad” was sure to go down a treat. As the sad-looking waitress neared my table, it was a straight shoot-out between the “fishes”, the “boiled egg” and the “chicken kiev”. I went for the kiev.

Forty-five minutes later, it arrived. Presumably it had taken so long to produce one solitary chicken drumstick as whoever was working back there had to pop down to the nearest Perfect Fried Chicken to source the ingredients. It did come out with a flag stuck in it, which scored high. As I cut in, milky chicken juice oozed out and the flag fell over. A metaphor for Ukraine’s fragile sovereignty perhaps. The soggy fried potato accompaniment swam about the plate, sluicing oil in the process. A side of stale bread came out a few minutes later. Perhaps the plan was that I would have something suitably dry to soak up the chicken milk and oil slop. I trudged off to bed afterwards, feeling slightly confused and a little bit ill.

Round 2, the breakfast round, started as a different but equally miserable waitress barked at me for a few minutes before returning with a bowl of coleslaw. There was a different security guard this time and he barely looked up from his phone, but he was sat in the same spot, and so was I.

That morning, I headed through the snow flurries to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Monastery, a golden-domed orthodox church sat on top of ancient catacombs and overlooking the Dnieper river. Looking across the city, Kiev’s elaborate churches sparkled through the snow storm.

Past a few more monasteries, I found what I had been looking for, the Mykola Syadristy Microminiatures Museum. Syadristy, a self-taught artist, is known for creating wondrously diminutive works, which can only be seen through a microscopic lens: a chessboard on a pinhead; a rose vine in a hollowed out hair; and the smallest book in the world at just 0.66 square millimetres with 12 pages of poetry in cryllic. Travelling through Europe never gets dull.

Kiev is on high alert, and the city is full of lost-looking bald men in military fatigues on vacation from the eastern front. A memorial to the Heavenly Hundred sits by Independence Square - protestors shot at by government snipers from surrounding hotel rooftops. Barbed wire barricades are dotted around the place: some covered in graffiti and some draped in bunches of flowers.

That evening I found a “Fun Up”, a few hundred yards from the barricades past Independence Square. I didn’t know what one of these was, but it turns out all you need is a hundred or so young, happy Ukrainians, some very loud Ukrainian pop and a man dancing around in a chicken costume. I had eaten a chicken kiev and I had now seen Kiev’s chicken. I felt like my work here was done and I headed off to eat, with the impression that Kiev was making its way through this difficult period with its head held high.

I finished the trip as I had started it, in a cold, fairly unfriendly canteen-style restaurant for which many former-soviet states are known. I had borsch and enjoyed the sort of miserable waiting staff that would not seem out of place in Moscow. I'd missed that. The scowl at the sound of spoken English and the action of violently slopping food onto a plate before dishing out a grunt or two. Something about it just felt right.

Until next time then x

Posted by Peter.Moules 06:22 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Luxembourg

sunny 20 °C

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I hadn’t really planned much for one particular Saturday in July, so I bought flights to Luxembourg returning the following day. It turned out a friend had visited Luxembourg previously. It also turned out that he had mostly just got drunk and wandered aimlessly around the city before flying back to London; his recommendation was that I do the same, as there was “not much else to do there mate”. Despite the lack of enthusiasm amongst my friends for the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which ranks 1st as the safest city in the world (and possibly last for grit, edginess, spontaneity and alternative culture), I still had literally no idea what goes on there and so that in itself had to be worth the £45 airfare.

Learning about Europe is inextricably linked to learning about castles and city fortifications. Learning about castles involves learning that all castles seem to be positioned at the top of big hills. It stands to reason then, that learning about Europe invariably involves turning up at castle gates, after first getting lost at least twice, as one big sweaty mess cradling an empty plastic bottle of water. If I had been part of an invasion force back in the day, I think I would have just sacked off the offensive and gone to the pub in town to try some local beers. In case you’re wondering, I did try a local beer and it tasted a little bit like Carling.

Fort Thüngen does not buck the trend and sits atop a hill to the north east of the city, behind which can be seen in the distance various organs of the European Union. As Brexit means Brexit, I didn’t bother with them and stuck with the fort. Luxembourg was fortified as early as the 10th century and has been scrapped over by the Dutch, the Spanish, the French (of course), the Prussians and the Austrians. Other armies may or may not have had a tear up in Luxembourg, but as the exhibition at the fort was in German and French (and not English), we’ll never know. Unless you want to look it up online of course.

Like most landlocked European countries, Luxembourg has been both catholic and protestant, conquered and conqueror, rich and poor. It’s now a very wealthy banking centre awash with sports cars, espressos and paninis. I felt that I had earned some of the spoils after wandering about the city and so settled down in a bistro for a goat’s cheese salad. A matter of seconds after I had sat down to watch locals potter from shop to shop we were all treated to an uncensored version of DJ Khalid’s latest offering on the terrace. On repeat. The system had jammed and so we just had to weather it out. Some were more comfortable than others at this point. One particularly unsavoury verse from DJ Khalid about what he was about to do to a women he had just met in the nightclub went down on the continent like the UK’s Brexit negotiations. After three repeats, a waiter worked out how to change the tune and people tried their best to return to their conversations and books. Europe simply carries on, despite what some may throw at it.

Until next time then X

Posted by Peter.Moules 08:57 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged luxembourg Comments (0)

Montenegro & Bosnia

sunny 30 °C


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Medieval Montenegrin towns lit up the hillside as we wound our way through the Bay of Kotor towards Prcanj, a seemingly never-ending settlement on the southern Adriatic. Our SUV clattered along the narrow strips of tarmac, pausing frequently to let the more appropriate sized cars inch past. This people carrier was fast becoming an unfortunate 'upgrade' on the diminutive Vauxhall Corsa I had specifically reserved in order to make light of Montenegro’s country lanes.

Unhelpfully, Prcanj (we had still not worked out how to pronounce it) does not have any street names. We soon discovered, however, that if you are on the wrong street, the police will soon pull you over and make sure you try your luck elsewhere.

The following morning we headed into town. Ava was full of beans and I was routinely checking BBC Sport while wondering, as a Brit is entitled to do, whether it was hot enough yet to start whingeing about the heat I had paid to walk under.

As we passed a rental agency, I spotted a clipping in the window advertising a motor boat. Thinking back, the last boat I had been on had been a banana boat. It had crashed a number of times and I had been entirely complicit in its crashing. I would go as far as to say that crashing a banana boat was hilarious. My only other experiences of boating had been as a passenger on the Dover to Calais ferry, and watching Steven Seagal put an entire navy to the sword in Under Siege.

Still, the boat owner did not need to know this. In fact, when asked whether I had any experience with boats, what should have sounded like "absolutely no idea how to drive/ steer/ pilot one mate" actually came out of my mouth as a semi-convincing "yeah, a bit, yeah." One ten second safety talk later we were away, motoring out into the bay to mix it with hulking ferries and fishing boats.

Once we were safely out of site, I took the wheel and we criss-crossed from one inlet to the next, dropping anchor occassionaly to dive overboard. I duly declared myself the ship’s captain. This would turn out to be a fairly premature claim, given that Ava has sailed boats before and I was mostly blagging it. As self-appointed captain, I was to park the thing where we had found it. So we neared the jetty and, with slight of hand, I accidentally turned the throttle the wrong way and we sped towards a neighbouring boat. Thinking quickly, Ava pushed off a nearby rope and redirected the boat away from danger, to the approval of a nearby Montenegrin pensioner. I mostly sat there looking thick.

We left Montenegro the following morning and dragged the thoroughly reluctant car over a sheer mountain pass in the (general) direction of Mostar, Bosnia. The city of Mostar dates back to the medieval period, but its pockmarked walls and vast reconstruction projects point to a more recent history. The Mostar of today remembers its fractured past but also looks forward, wide-eyed, towards a united Europe. A photo exhibition details the horrors of life as a child refugee in the region, while street sellers push minion toys and Ronaldo shirts like the rest of us, as clear Russian and Turkish influences make for a colourful, yet reserved atmosphere. All this while locals leap off the Mostar bridge in return for money; the reconstruction of the city's iconic bridge a symbol for hope in a region on the move.

Our day in Mostar ended in a local restaurant, as many of the best days tend to end in a foreign country. Rather cheekily, I ordered off menu. As we were next to the river, I asked whether there were any fish available, given that the menu mostly listed lamb. I received a nod of the head and the waiter rushed off, to return ten minutes later with a fish. He looked pretty pleased with himself, and so I asked what it was. He replied by pointing at the river and barking "river". I asked again but got the same response. It was a river fish. Happily, he trudged off, and left me with my river fish, and a favourable impression of an old city born again.

Posted by Peter.Moules 13:13 Archived in Montenegro Tagged montenegro bosnia Comments (0)

Liechtenstein

sunny 20 °C

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Liechtenstein is a nation of clubbers. According to the tourist board, "clubs play a major role in everyday life, with over 600 of them" spread across the country. This may help to explain why the place is so empty during the day, with the local crowd sleeping off the night before. Perhaps they're all inside furiously gobbling up the national dish, ribel – some form of semolina-like slop, in an attempt to sober up.

I took the short trip to Liechtenstein from Zurich with friend and work colleague, Jack. We were to attend a conference in Zurich the following day and so drove east beforehand. Surprisingly, no one else at the conference had done the same, and most people I spoke to thought it strange that we had bothered.

Liechtenstein shares a valley with Switzerland and if you happen to ski down the wrong hill, you'll end up in Austria. We hit the main street, being also one of the only streets in the capital Vaduz, and headed towards the cathedral. As this was under construction, we sat down in a particularly deserted part of town and tried to work out where the main square was hiding. A quick google search for images of the main square revealed that we were in fact already sitting in it. As there was simply no one about and not much to do, we turned back. A couple of obligatory pork products and a local (Swiss) beer later, we headed off on a circular walk, via the city's castle.

Cow bells sounded all around as the early evening mist descended into the valley and the locals presumably got ready for another massive night in one of the many clubs to be found all over this land. There was just enough time left for Jack to very nearly run down a pedestrian and for me to leave my phone in the locked car before posting the rental car keys into the deposit box. On to the next one.

Posted by Peter.Moules 13:10 Archived in Liechtenstein Tagged liechtenstein Comments (0)

Lithuania

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If you want to skip the queues at King’s Cross station, get there at 4.20 am on a Saturday morning: most Londoners will be far too busy fighting each other or diligently sowing the streets with chicken bones, to be harvested at daybreak by the local council. As I stumbled away from the ticket machine, I realised that the only other person on the concourse was a French friend. He told me that he was off to Strasbourg on his stag do. I mustered a rather pathetic “stag stag stag” into his face and pointed at him; it just seemed like the right thing to do, although I’m not sure he really understood. I then told him I was travelling to Lithuania for the weekend, on my own, for no reason in particular. He looked rather confused, so I muttered “stag stag stag” again and wished him all the best.

The very green city of Vilnius is surrounded by earth mounds, over which tourists are encouraged to ramble in order to get a better view of the city itself. Germanic, red-roofed terraces hug narrow alleyways as they snake around a low key old town. Despite all this, most people scale the steep, muddy steps to catch a view of a neighbouring viewpoint and then trudge towards it to snap its giant cross, before gazing back at a former viewpoint to capture its tower from a different angle.

These days, European cities tend to offer free walking tours: an informative mixture of historical snippets, amusing anecdotes and complete bull***t. Our guide was a bright, beanie hat wearing student with a marked interest in post war Europe. With a trained ear for the bull***t element of the tour, I was relieved when our guide gathered us at the entrance to the Church of St. Anne, a pleasantly symmetrical gothic number completed in the year 1500. We were then told that ‘according to legend’ (the bit where the story always appears to trail off into the realms of improbability), Napoleon Bonaparte remarked, on a visit to Vilnius during the Franco-Russian war of 1812, that he was so taken by the church that he expressed a wish to carry it home to Paris ‘in the palm of his hand.’ We were then told that Napoleon never actually said this, and probably never even saw the church. Relieved that our tour had delved into the bottomless vaults of European bull***t, we walked on, enriched by yet another far-fetched tale, lovingly passed down from generation to generation.

Vilnius is home to the self-declared, independent republic of Užupis. The constitution of the Republic of Užupis records various rights which the 'quirky' and 'arty' inhabitants of Užupis hold dear. For example, a dog has the right to be a dog, as well as the rather confusing trio of: do not defeat; do not fight back; and do not surrender. Užupis has a president, a cabinet and a flag, as well as a currency, which can be used on April Fool's Day (which was incidentally when Užupis was founded). Užupis also smells strongly of cannabis. Having visited self-proclaimed autonomous commune Christiania, in Copenhagen, which also smells strongly of cannabis, I wondered what it was that Europe's self-proclaimed territories exported to the outside world.

After all was said and done, and I had stuffed myself full of dumplings again with a friendly Hungarian/ Romanian couple currently living in Stevenage, I crossed the road to a boutique cinema and bought a ticket to see a film. The film had just started, but the usher insisted that I could still watch it, so she opened a side door and in I went. I watched the film. It seemed to document the curation of a museum in Vienna. I decided after a while not to listen to it, as it was in German. And I couldn't read the subtitles, as they were in Lithuanian. The usher reappeared and whispered that the film was not in English. I nodded. She offered me a ticket to a screening later that day. I explained that I would be on a flight. She nodded, gave me the ticket anyway and walked off. I nodded off and then made my way to the airport. Twenty two countries to go...

Posted by Peter.Moules 13:05 Archived in Lithuania Tagged lithuania Comments (0)

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