A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: IvaS

Train and Bus Logistics

Despite it being two years since I completed my trip, I still get asked how I organized my train and bus tickets for my round the world train and bus trip, so I present a short summary which will hopefully be of some help.

Russia, Ukraine and Serbia: These days, you can travel through most of Russia independently. You can purchase train and bus tickets spontaneously within Russia, or you can put in a degree of planning and pre-purchase your tickets either through the internet or with the help of a travel agent.

For a first timer, unless you can read Cyrillic, read and speak Russian or have an extraordinary level of patience and lots of time, I would not recommend buying too many train or bus tickets on the spur of the moment. Travelling through Russia needs a degree of planning which may not be necessary in some other countries.

The primary reason for the need to plan is because of your visa and the limited time this gives you. Most visitor visas are only for 30 days and I was told unequivocally that I must be out of the country within that 30 day period or I may be seeing more of Siberia than I really wanted. Timing and keeping track of the changing time zone are everything. Say, for example, your visa expires on the 14th. You may board and depart Moscow in the morning of the 14th, but not cross the Russian border until the wee hours of the 15th. This being the case, you are in breach of your visa and the peaks in the caps of the immigration people will look that much more formidable when you get taken off the train to "explain". Although I lost a day, I ensured that I left the day before my visa was to expire and I was still nervous passing over into Ukraine.

I started my trip through Russia by researching the cities and towns that I wanted to visit figuring out how long I wanted to stay in each. Armed with my draft itinerary, I headed to the tourist agency in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia where I was living and working. I used a local agency who specialized in Russian travel simply because of the convenience and because the Russian embassy in UB issued Russian visas only through an agency, not individuals, so I was a bit snookered anyway.

There is the potential to apply independently for a Russian visitor's visa if you reside in other countries. I was able to apply for and obtain a visa through the Russian embassy in Sydney, Australia for a previous trip. But beware......from experience in both Mongolia and Australia, your visa application must be absolutely picture perfect. The embassy has no compunction to turn you away if there is even one dot out of place.

You can book your tickets online, either directly through Russian Railways (RZD) (rzd.ru) or via a cyber travel agency. The RZD site is much more user friendly these days as a lot is in English.

If you book online through an agency, make sure you know in which country the agency is located and make sure it really exists to minimise dealing with an unscrupulous group. Also, if you book online, shop around and compare the percentage taken by the agency for fees.....some of the admin fees can total over 25% of the total train fare.

As I went through an agency, I was handed an envelope of tickets. However, be warned that sometimes these are only your booking confirmation and you still need to get the actual ticket from the ticket office at the train station, or where available, the train e-ticket machine.

It is more than likely that your ticket will be in Russian. It is not hard to decipher once you know what to look for. The Real Russia site and the Lonely Planet Russia show a sample ticket and how to read it. Another source of excellent information is the Man in Seat 61 site (www.seat61.com).

If you do venture into the bus or train station to buy a ticket, first make sure you are in the correct ticket line as some lines are set aside for special people. For example, there are lines for special groups such as the elderly, members of the armed forces and heroes of the state. There is nothing more frustrating than having stood in line for 30 minutes, tolerating interlopers and, when finally achieving your goal of facing the ticket meister, all you get is a boney finger pointing you to another line.

Although I had pre-booked all my tickets along the Siberian Railroad between Ulaanbaatar and Kiev, I faced the challenge of buying a ticket at the train or bus station when I took a sidetrack to a town in northern Siberia. The handiest item I had when I booked train and bus tickets was a small pocket calendar, like the type made by Hallmark. I would write the Russian version of the month next to the English and my destination in Cyrillic and the time in the little square with the date. This was my best aid in getting the stubbornly apathetic tellers to register what I wanted and eventually issue me with a ticket. Maps are useless as no one seems to be able to read maps or are willing to make an effort to read one: all you succeed in getting is a blank, annoyed look. Likewise with arm waving or an exasperated tone of voice.

After Kiev, I free lanced it with minimal hassle but with a lot of patience while getting through Ukraine and Serbia. Armed with my pocket calendar and best russian-czech I could conjure up, I slowly learned and became more comfortable with the system. I always had a sense of achievement and a pleased smirk on my face when I finally walked out of a bus or train station, ticket in hand.

Belgrade to Prague: I again bought tickets as I went along as I was never sure where I was going to go and for how long. Most of the time I sauntered down to the bus or train station the day before I wanted to leave and bought a ticket with no hassle. The most difficult place was in Belgrade simply because the tiny ticket office was hidden in a maze of small shops. Otherwise, particularly in the smaller towns, the train or bus station was in the center of town and easy to locate. I probably always managed to get a seat because I was travelling after the peak summer season.

Canada: I bought tickets from New York to Toronto directly from the ticket office at Penn Station the day before Mum and I were scheduled to travel. I don't think you would meet with a lot of success if you did not pre-book a berth or seat on the trans-Canadian railway: travel from Toronto to Vancouver on the Canadian definitely requires a booking, particularly if you want a berth. All my tickets were booked online directly with VIA Rail Canada and all I needed to do was print out the ticket. These days you may be able to just use your smart phone.

Australia: I booked each leg of my train travel across Australia online about two weeks prior to my departures. All my bookings were made directly through Rail Australia (www.railaustralia.com.au). The only spontaneous booking was between Geelong and Adelaide when I brilliantly missed my train but did manage in the morning to book a seat on the afternoon Greyhound bus.

In November of last year, I gave myself the challenge to town hop across Australia from Sydney to Perth by train and bus, booking tickets as I went along and without taking any section of the Indian Pacific train.

I failed in my challenge. I had no problems getting from Sydney to Dubbo, taking the train through the fantastically picturesque Blue Mountains and a trip I highly recommend, and from Dubbo to Broken Hill via the bus across more typical Australian bush country. Difficulties started arising from Broken Hill. Although my map showed a railroad from Broken Hill east to Port Adelaide, the train had ceased running a couple of years earlier. Nor was there any bus. The only thing I could do was head south to Adelaide and see what transport I could conjure up from there.

With the help of the three lovely ladies at the Adelaide tourist office, we came to the disappointing conclusion that I was not going to be able to town hop across the southern, coastal region of the Nullarbor plain on Highway A1 by train or bus, where I was hoping to stop in towns such as Port Lincoln, Ceduna and Norseman. Short of hiring a car or hitch-hiking, I was not going to to get across unless I took the Indian Pacific or flew. I know the importance of the economies of scale, but it was a surprise, disappointing and sad coming to the realization that public transport across a vast expanse of Australia died somewhere in our not so distant past with little fanfare.

Posted by IvaS 17:28 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Epilogue: Seattle to Perth, Western Australia

sunny 35 °C

Epilogue: Seattle to Perth, Western Australia
1 – 12 January 2013

A slight trauma and the last stretch

A lovely Christmas was had in Seattle with my family and then it was time to head back to my home in Perth, Western Australia.

When I had finished my stint as a peace corp volunteer as a biology and English teacher in a high school in Sabah, East Malaysia, some friends of mine talked me into coming to Australia – a visit I was hesitant to make based on my rather poor opinion of the expats I had met in Kota Kinabalu. But with a bit of cajoling and nowhere else to go, I decided to make the visit.

Once in Australia, I found I actually liked Australia and Australians very much as they are so much more outgoing and laid back than Americans. I had no trouble understanding the accent, but did get into strife a few times using American terms that didn’t quite have the same meaning here in Australia. And I overdosed on Peter’s Have a Heart ice cream bars which cost an astounding 20ȼ.

I initially lived in Brisbane, Queensland and as time kept me on its treadmill, I eventually ended up living and working in Perth, Western Australia. So fast forward and I decided what better opportunity to hop overland from Sydney to Perth by train?

The only pragmatic way to get across the Pacific Ocean from Seattle was to fly: this is what I opted to do but with an overnight stopover in Honolulu so that I could do a wee bit of surfing and lounging at Waikiki. I decided that I was again going to try and stay in hostels (called budget accommodation at this end of the world), so I booked into the Waikiki Beach Resort (which turned out to be an abuse of the term “resort”) but which was located conveniently close to the Waikiki area of Honolulu. As I left Seattle with an extra box full of stuff which really overloaded my arms and as there are no lockers or baggage storage facilities available at the Honolulu airport due to security, I decided to take a taxi to my accommodation rather than the adequate transport provided by the local bus. You have to stand in line until you are allocated a taxi and amusingly, I was allocated a stretch limo. After the cramped seat on the plane, it was quite luxurious stretching out in the seat in the far back end of the limo yodelling to the driver. It was, however, a bit disconcerting being dropped off in front of my accommodation in such an extravagant vehicle as the vehicle did not match my abodings. The resort was an old apartment block converted into budget accommodation and I shared a very tiny two rooms that included a small kitchenette with eight people and all their gear. It was hot, crowded, cramped and messy. The plus was that it took me less than five minutes to be in the water.

There are a number of train routes that get you from the east coast to the west coast of Australia. As I wanted to town hop, I opted not to take the “Indian Pacific” from Sydney to Perth which takes four days and three nights if you travel straight through. Rather, I decided break up my trip so my plan was to take the interstate NSW Trainlink from Sydney to Melbourne, hop on the Great Southern Rail from Melbourne to Adelaide and then continue on the Indian Pacific a few days later from Adelaide to Perth via Kalgoorlie.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House


After staying with friends for a couple of days in Sydney, it was time to board the NSW Trainlink from the Sydney Central Station to Geelong, a port town about 75 km to the southwest of Melbourne. The plan was to visit some friends in Lorne, located some 66 km to the south of Geelong along the Great Ocean Road. The train trip from Melbourne to Geelong is somewhat unremarkable: one passes industrial sites, residential areas, open fields, cows and gum trees. The air conditioned train was a moving shell through a blanket of really hot air outside. However, a great time was to be had in Lorne as it is a place loaded with cafés, ritzy shops for browsing, places for hiking, freezing water for those immune to cold water and generally a good place to shoot the breeze with friends.

Great Ocean Road near Lorne, Victoria

Great Ocean Road near Lorne, Victoria

Lorne beach

Lorne beach


And then……it happened. I missed my connecting train to Adelaide on the Great Southern Rail. By this point, I had travelled some 14,627 km by train, 1,317 km by bus and 19,008 km by plane (give or take a few hundred kilometres). I had survived the train system in Russia with their Moscow based timetables and Cyrillic alphabet, queuing and buying tickets in unknown systems, having a couple of heart palpitation moments, but I never, ever did I even came close to missing a train, bus or plane…..and I manage to do this in the easiest of countries to travel in and in my native language.

I put full blame on my friends Graeme and Sue with whom I was staying. I was too relaxed and was totally enjoying myself, and as a result totally and utterly lost a day. I was visiting during the Serbian orthodox Christmas, so the house was full of family, food, wine, laughter and trying to talk above the din. The next morning I sauntered to a café and thought myself so clever to remember to confirm my booking for the next day. Ghastly shock describes my reaction during the course of my conversation with the operator:

Me: Hello. I would like to confirm my booking on the train going from Melbourne to Adelaide tomorrow.
Bearer of bad news: Your train leaves in 10 minutes. Are you able to make it to the station?
Me: Umm, no. My train is tomorrow.
Bearer of bad news: Nope. Wrong. Try again. You just lost $95 bucks.


It was on to plan B. Luckily I did have some leeway as I was spending a couple of days in Adelaide which is not that far from Melbourne. Greyhound Australia came to the rescue in the form of an overnight bus that got me to Adelaide via Ballarat at 0600 in the next morning. The ticket cost me a total of $127 (including $2 for green dollar carbon “travel product” to offset my travel emissions) so I was not too much out of pocket. I was staying at the very functional The Wright Lodge which did not open until 0900 so I just made myself comfortable on a bench in the park across the street with a few street people also taking advantage of the park facilities.

I like Adelaide. I always feel like I have stepped back in time - a time when a crowd would gather on the hill next to the ACG, watching the cricket for free and listening to the game on their tinnies. It’s quiet, has beautiful parks including the botanical garden, picturesque pathways by the river, some great examples of federation architecture and a pretty good chocolate shop. It’s an easy city to wander around in, the only negative being that it was bloody hot the days I was there.


I joined the entourage of tourists travelling from Adelaide to Perth on the Indian Pacific, the difference being that I was traveling the Red Service with reclining dayniter seats, while the majority (if not all) of the couples in the waiting room were travelling in berths. Spacious and comfortable are not adjectives I would use to describe the seat. I didn’t travel in a berth because they are very expensive, especially if you are travelling on your own, and anyway, they were all sold out. So I sat in my seat for three days and two nights with my travel pillow and jacket, with the occasional visit to the loo or the train café for food, and a two hour stopover in Kalgoorlie in the middle of the night. It was barely tolerable and the man sitting next to me that snored despite my jabbing him did not help.

The train between Adelaide and Perth passes through the vast, flat and virtually treeless Nullarbor Plain. It’s a landscape that I associate with Australia and one that I love.


I arrived at the East Perth Terminal at 0900 and my very good friend Alison was waiting to pick me up. It was 40oC already and it turned out to be one of the hottest summers on record in Australia. Only a few months before, I was living in a country where a temperature of -40oC was not unusual.

By the time I arrived in Perth, I had virtually circumnavigated the earth in a wee spiral covering a more or less 35,000 km over a five month period, starting from where I left but ending further south. I was home.



Posted by IvaS 02:31 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Episode 20: Prague to Seattle

all seasons in one day 13 °C

Episode 20: Prague to Seattle
24 October - 2 November

Loving New York, dreary Toronto, snowy Jasper, foggy Vancouver

I {heart} NY: one of the most cheesy, ubiquitous and imitated logos that is found throughout the world. Yet for me, despite seeing it on kitchy touristy do-dads throughout my travels, it really seems quite appropriate for New York.

My mother, father and I emigrated from Norway in the early 1950s first taking a vessel from Bergen to Southhampton in the UK, and then the Queen Elizabeth from Southhampton to New York. I was only three years old at the time so I remember nothing. I have been told that we did not have to go through customs and immigration on Ellis Island which, although still operational when we arrived in the United States, was passing more of its immigration and inspection duties to US consulates. So we landed at Pier 91 on Long Island and were processed while on the vessel. We had to make our way to Chicago as soon as we got off the boat and my mother tells me she remembers that we got off the Queen Elizabeth and hopped into a taxi to take us to the Greyhound bus depot which, to the amusement of the taxi driver and unbeknownst to my parents, was on the other side of the block to the pier. So the 10 minute drive from Pier 91 to the bus station was all we ever saw of New York.

My mother decided that visiting New York, actually seeing the city and taking the train back to Vancouver was a very adventurous idea so she flew in from Seattle and joined me the day after I arrived in NY after a very non-descript flight from Prague. We had a hey day for two days visiting all the sights that you hear in songs and see in movies: Broadway, Times Squares, Cagney Theatre, the Empire State Building, Central Park – and so the list goes on. I even finally figured out what the words “uptown girl, living in a downtown world” from the Billy Joel song meant.

We stayed in a hotel in Brooklyn so we used the underground to get to Manhattan each day. We managed the underground pretty well, only going the wrong direction a couple of times and, amazingly, we found people really helpful despite the occasional lurking figure in a dark corner. Mum had two knee replacements 10 years ago so we discovered somewhat to our dismay that there are a lot of stairs and not enough elevators or escalators to access the underground from the street. However, she managed stoically.


Our first day was spent taking the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty and visiting Ellis Island. Getting an advance ticket on the internet is just about mandatory give the line queuing up for tickets on the day for the statue cruises. We gleened ample history doing the self-tour, reading all the exhibit panels around the Statue of Liberty and on Ellis Island. From the photos of Ellis Island and looking down into the great hall, you can imagine the noise, the crowd, the nervousness and uncertainty of millions of people coming to a new and unknown land. Few, like my parents and I, probably spoke or understood any English.



We later visited the 9/11 Memorial, located at the site of the former World Trade Center complex honouring the nearly 3,000 men, women and children who perished as a result of the terrorist attacks of 26 February 1993 and 11 September 2001. I salute Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the architects who designed the memorial and surrounding grounds, and the American government for approving it. Nothing will ever take away from the terror and sadness of that day, but the memorial gave me a sense of peace, respect for the victims and recognition that you can’t forget, but you need to heal and move forward.


At the time of our visit, only the north and south memorial pools and surrounding grounds were open. The One World Trade Centre was under construction. The memorial plaza consisted of two recessed pools set into the footprints of the Twin Towers. The perimeter of each pool was surrounded by a bronze parapet on which the names of all the people who died were inscribed and water continuously cascades over the 30 foot sides of the pools. The pools are surrounded by deciduous trees which were in their gold and red autumn colour. I confess that I was quite taken aback at how small the original footprint of each of the Twin Towers seemed to be in relation to their heights, each which towered over 1,300 feet.

The next day was spent wandering up 7th Avenue to Central Park and back down Broadway to Times Square. I never thought I would enjoy New York simply because of its size and masses of people, but the place certainly hops and I could have easily spent months exploring the city. There is certainly no shortage of things to see and do, or places to eat. Wow. Too much choice and even bagels came in 17 varieties. We finally got to Times Square in early evening and both my mother and I were in awe of the sheer quantum and brightness of the lights.


After the buzz of New York, it was time to relax on the train and the first leg of our train trip to Vancouver consisted of travelling the 875 km from New York to Toronto on the Maple Leaf train departing from Pennsylvania Station. It took us about 12 hours to get to Toronto, travelling along the banks of the Hudson River passing through Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse and just edging past Niagara Falls. It was gorgeous, again because the autumn colours and the placid river.

We spent three days in Toronto and the weather was fine for the first three hours and twenty minutes and then it went ballistic: freezing cold, rain, howling winds. What we did not realise until we got to Seattle was that we were two days in front of Cyclone Sandy, which explained the abrupt and severe change in the weather. We managed to do a boat cruise in the Toronto Harbour and around the Toronto Islands which was quite pleasant until the end when the bad weather started to set in. The next day, as the weather was so wet and blustery, we decided that the most practical thing for us to do was take the Toronto Double Decker City Tour bus and do the city tour circuit a few times. Not a bad way to see the city really: you sit and view and get a running commentary (after about the third circuit, we were tempted to blurt out the jokes before the tour guide) and you can hop on and hop off at any stop along the route. We did make one pit stop between rain squalls at the Distillery District complex but after a quick hot chocolate, we returned right smart to the bus and back to the hotel as we got soaked in three seconds. The highlight of the nattering tour guide was that in one café a cappuccino made from civet coffee costs $55. Pretty exorbitant given you are drinking coffee from seeds eaten and pooped out by a furry creature that is prone to abuse by humans.


It was then time to get to Union Station to start the first part of the train trip from Toronto to Vancouver on “The Canadian”.

The trip from Toronto to Vancouver covers 4,466 km (2,775 miles) and usually takes four days going west (it takes a wee bit longer going east as you are going up hill), passing through forest, prairie and mountains. I had organised a three day stopover in Jasper as the weather was a mild 66oF at the time of the booking and I thought it would be good to have a break and stretch our legs. Also, hiring a car and taking a little tour through the Rocky Mountains sounded like just the thing to do.

In a couple of words, the train trip was rather pampered and luxurious. Mum and I had our own cabin with two bunks and an ensuite bathroom. Each morning we would tell our porter what “sitting” we preferred for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We would leave our unmade bunks, go to breakfast and return to a cabin where the bunks were put away and two very comfy lounge type chairs and clean towels were set out. We spent most of our time in the dome car as we both found the cabin a bit confining after a few hours and it helped put some interest during the stretch through the rather flat, monotonous prairie countryside. And besides, they always had tea, coffee, fruit and croissants available. Dinner was silver service: white tablecloth, an a’ la carte three course menu, wine and a carnation in a vase. The challenge with this arrangement was that you had to share a table with two strangers and sometimes it was most difficult to carry out even a semblance of a conversation. After dinner, we would return to our cabin and to immaculately turned down bunk beds. In truth, despite the comfort, I preferred the smells, noises, hub bub and sheets in a plastic bag provided by the Russian trains.


To our dismay, by the time we got to Jasper, the town was no longer a balmy 66oF but a freezing 27oF and under one foot of snow. A two hour train stop in freezing Winnipeg should have gotten us acclimatized, but it didn't. We didn’t hire the car because of the icy road conditions, so we had to settle on comparing pancake breakfasts at various cafés, visiting shops and buying hats and scarves with maple leaves on them and, in my case, spending heaps of time in the indoor and outdoor spa pools at the hotel.

The stretch of railway between Jasper and Kamloops is the highlight of the train trip because of it passing through the Rocky Mountains. It was a bit overcast, but we still managed to see most of Mt Robson (the highest peak in the Rockies) and the surrounding mountains. As it had been snowing quite heavily, I rather enjoyed the snow covered landscape and the train shoosing up the snow along both sides of the train track. We had spent a lot of time in the dome car up to Jasper, but people queued to get a seat after Jasper, so we were very happy to sit in the more austere lounge car and watch the scenery go by.


We arrived at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver two days after we departed Jasper and were met by my brother, sister-in law and nephew. Vancouver was also in rain, so we only stayed overnight and drove to Seattle the next day, which is what I thought was the ultimate end of this trip.


Next stop: Perth, Australia via the train…and a little bit of bus, just because.

Posted by IvaS 03:49 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Episode 19: Zagreb to Prague

sunny 21 °C

Episode 19: Zagreb to Prague
16 - 20 October 2012

Family history, nostalgia and grand castles

Train 172, wagon 256, seat 51 second class saw me taking a very comfortable 6 -ish hour train trip from Vienna to Prague. My sister and cousin met me at the train station and I confess it was nice having someone meet me and guide me rather than my trying to figure out where I was supposed to go and by what means while juggling backpack, day pack and my hand drawn directions.

My first visit to Prague was in 1966 and at that time my mother, brother and I stayed in an apartment where some friends of my grandmother lived. It was on the top floor of a building located on the upper part of Wenceslas Square and despite battling jetlag, I remember being most impressed by the man carrying two huge jugs of beer across the square at 7 o’clock in the morning. Given that I grew up in the land of the prohibition, this was unheard of and unseen in Seattle let alone to a 16 year old. I was also very impressed with all the red roofs of the buildings surrounding the apartment block as all the roofs in Seattle are a dull grey. Unfortunately, the original house was torn down and a rather atrocious ugly green building with a round window was constructed (and is still there). And further, that end of Wenceslas Square has been changed from a pedestrian plaza to a two-way road. In 1966, Prague was a depressing city where there were few cars and smiling people, no feeling of cheer and no stores: everything was handed to you over a counter by a dour saleslady.

Fast forward to 2012. My sister, cousin and I stayed just outside of Prague the first night. We wandered into the Old Town (Stareměstské namesti) in the evening and met up with Lubos, a friend of mine from Mongolia. We were invited to a secret squirrel place where you had to go up the alley way, knock on a door, go down the stairs and you found yourself in a renovated, crowded and noisy cellar. Wine, sausage and cheese were on order and the owner showed us his wine cellar which, for a total wine novice, looked very impressive. The streets of the Old Town were crowed with predominately Japanese tourists that seemed to thrive on the crystal shops that all sold the same style of crystal and I heart Prague magnets.

Autumn colours

Autumn colours

The next day we went to the cottage my grandmother lived in during her latter years. The cottage sits on the outskirts of Senohraby, a village about 30 km to the southeast of Prague which has been around since the 15th century, and very near the railway line and Sázava River. Although located in an open, grassed area, the cottage is surrounded by forest and the log cabin my father hand built in the mid-1930s when he was about 15 years old still stands on the small hill next to the cottage. The Sázava River is within walking distance of the cottage and was a very popular swimming park (Senohrabske Plovarne) when my parents were growing up. It is still very popular and if you look at early pictures not a lot has changed over the last 60 years.

My father's log cabin and storage cellar

My father's log cabin and storage cellar


What has changed is Hrad (castle) Zlenice, commonly called the “Watchtower” after the name of the original village attached to the castle, which is undergoing a rather nice restoration. The castle is about a 5 minute walk into the forest from the swimming park. Built in about 1351 by Jan of Zlenice, it sits on a small promontory overlooking the river. Jan seems to have been part of a gentry family and really didn’t seem to fare too well: in the same year he named the castle after himself, he had to forfeit the castle as part of a loan to his brothers. Later on, the castle was used as a popular background for several Czech artists, Josef Lada being the one most familiar to me.


I remember walking by the ruins with my sister back in 1966 and there was a small gang of young boys hanging around who just stood there and stared as we walked by. I confess, in retrospect, that I may have been a wee bit of a sight to stare at given that I was wearing my plaid yellow Bermuda shorts which came to my knees. They were the ‘in’ garment at that time in Seattle. Unfortunately, they were only ‘in’ in Seattle. They were a point of conversation wherever I went in Czechoslovakia and I’m sure that the Bermuda style never made the fashion pages in Czechoslovakia. The girls were into wearing what we called “hot pants” at that time which was considered a bit riské in Seattle. This was also my first introduction to speedos on the male body and at 16 I had no idea where I was supposed to look as American boys generally wore very austere cut-offs which came to their knees. I was never sure, but I suspect that the boys were squatters but my sister and I just glared back at the boys as we walked by, no words were exchnaged and all passed by peacefully.

Forest around Hrad Zlenice

Forest around Hrad Zlenice

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Prague or Senohraby as we wanted to spend a few days castle hopping and in a nutshell, the weather was fine, the autumn colours stunning and the palaces we visited were all grand despite the fact that the only way we could see the insides was to go on organised tours.

Hrad Karlstejn, a late Gothic castle located about 20 kilometres southwest of Prague in the village of Karlŝtejn was the first castle we visited. It was built by the Czech king and Roman Emperor Charles IV in the mid-1300s as a place for safekeeping his little stash of royal treasures and jewels. There is lots of history and fables and myths associated with the castle, but the most entertaining to me is the story about Katerina Bechynova, a wife of a burgrave who lived in the castle. Katerina had a bad bustle day and murdered fourteen maidservants and topped the cake by obviously having a thing about cats as she hid them alive in various places around the castle. Betcha they would have smelled like prawns in a hubcap after a few days.

Hrad Karlstejn

Hrad Karlstejn


Hrad Krivoklat founded in the 12th century was the second castle we visited. The castle is about 40 km west of Prague and sits on a promontory of rolling hills overlooking a mainly deciduous forest which was flush with autumn colours. It was said to be the favourite castle of King Wenceslas IV as he quite enjoyed the hunting and sporting he could do in the surrounding woods. Some movie company was shooting a period film on the day we were there. Most of the action was inside the castle, but it was good fun looking at the actors in their costumes, many standing around smoking very modern cigarettes. The most outstanding and impressive feature of this castle to me was the huge library with over 52,000 volumes of books. The dungeons and torture chamber were not visited as listening to the monotone drone of the unsmiling tour guide was torture enough.


Hrad Loket, located about 140km to the west of Prague, was the third castle we visited and was my favourite, mainly because it was the smallest we visited and seemed the most unpretentious. We stopped in Karlovy Vary on the way to the castle which is a spa city located about 130 km to the west of Prague. The city has had a rough history having been incorporated by Czechoslovakia and Germany at various times and then was under Communist rule until the fall of the Soviet Union. Karlovy Vary is famous for its hot springs and is supposedly very popular with jet setters and celebrities. A part of the 2006 film Casino Royale with Daniel Craig was filmed there and if the cars that parked in front of the Grandhotel Pupp were any indication, there were certainly lots of people with lots of money there. It was also evident by all the signage that there was a significant number of Russians in the city.

Karlovy Vary

Karlovy Vary


People have attributed lots of healing powers to the mineral spring waters of Karlovy Vary. These waters purportedly can treat diabetes, liver disease, neurological disorders, obesity and gout. The practice of balneology (sitting and drinking spa waters) is still very much in effect. People fill their made in china traditional sipping cups, “made in a shape especially designed to preserve the temperature and CO2 content”, with the warm mineral water and sip the water while strolling around the streets and colonnades.

Karlovy Vary is also the home of Becherovka, a 76% proof liqueur made from a secret squirrel recipe of herbs and spices. My parents always swore that Becherovka, taken in the evening, was of great medicinal value for ones stomach. I just remember it causing a group of us to happily, animatedly and un-abashedly sing YMCA.

Hrad Loket is one of the oldest stone castles in the Czech Republic and is surrounded on three sides by the Ohre River. It’s been called the “Impregnable Castle of Bohemia” due to its thick walls. It burned down in 1725 but was rebuilt by 1822. The village of Loket surrounds the castle unlike the other castles we visited where the village was at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk up the hill to the castle. I was quite entertained by the brochure that advertised wedding ceremonies you could have in the castle: the standard ceremony of 20 minutes will put you about $4,700 out of pocket while the Ceremony with Program III, lasting one hour with a performance of fencers and musicians, will cost you about $15,000.

Hrad Loket

Hrad Loket

When I started planning my trip, I was pretty determined that I was not going to leave terra firma or terra marine at any time. I investigated taking a freighter across the Atlantic and after spending an inordinate time on the computer, I decided I needed to be pragmatic. There is an entire community out there that are freighter travellers so there was no shortage of information or advice. However, the two obstacles I faced were scheduling and cost. Most of the freighter trips starting from Europe or the UK took at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, and many times there would be a suggestion of a departure date and arrival date, but no guarantee. A ship could be stuck in port for any period of time and without warning if there were any sort of hiccups. I did investigate the Queen Mary as I thought that as we had immigrated to the United Stated on the Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s, it would be rather good fun to travel again on her sister ship. However, I needed to get to New York on a certain date as I was meeting my mother and the Queen Mary schedule just didn’t work out. Also, although freighter travel may have been the paupers’ way to travel at one time, the costs associated with the freighters these days are more for the king and would have covered another three trips around the world for me.

So, after our short castle hopping trip, I bade my sister and cousin farewell and I jumped on a plane to get to New York.

Next stop: New York

Posted by IvaS 04:30 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Episode 18: Makarska to Zagreb

overcast 15 °C

Episode 18: Makarska to Zagreb

Another gem; stopped clocks; pancakes and singers on the street

Zagreb was never on my radar. I didn’t even know it existed. However, as the non-beach, rainy and grey weather caught up with me while I was in Makarska, and as I had a few days up my sleeve before I had to arrive in Prague, I decided to do a pit stop in Zagreb.

I had no preconceived ideas, images or, in fact, any knowledge about this city. My mind was a blank page. And as it turned out, despite the rather dodgy weather, particularly on the first day, Zagreb turned out to be another unexpected gem. I totally enjoyed exploring the city, eating yummy pancakes, listening to street buskers, and learning its history.

I took Bus 1 (seat 9) from Makarska to Zagreb departing at 0930 with a pit stop in Split for about 30 minutes. It’s 459 km from Makarska to Zagreb, 419 km being a non-descript four lane motorway which we plowed through in pouring rain and no visibility. From Split, I sat next to a young Croatian lass who lived in New York but had been visiting her family in Băska Voda and was on her way to visit a friend in Zagreb. We had an interesting conversation about Croatians and what she saw was the stubbornness and intransigence of her family, and her opinion that Croatians have no sense of entrepreneurship, risk or imagination. She maintained that they liked to play it safe and as a result, there are 100s of pizza shops lined up next to each other as no one is willing to break the mold and do something different. She was not far wrong. The lack of diversity was something I did notice in Makarska – there was little variety in the types of restaurants and shops: pizza dives and jewellery shops were definitely the go along with a multitude of seafood restaurants all with basically the same menu. How so many of the same type of shop manage to stay afloat (although for how long) had me beat.

I stayed in the Palmers Lodge Zagreb which, although almost directly across from the railroad station, took some effort to walk to as you had to walk about 500m in one direction to cross the tracks and then backtrack to your starting point. The lodge was functional but dark given that my room was in the basement and all I saw through the small window near the ceiling were feet walking through puddles. The room had two bunk beds and a bathroom ensuite, which, admittedly, was convenient. However, the rather amorous couple from Slovenia were more than happy to share one of the single bunks until I decided that I was most uncomfortable being forced to be a voyeur. A question asking if their parents knew where they were saw them leave for the nightclubs in a rather sprightly manner – and, as I discovered, this is what young Slovenians do. The nightlife in Ljubljana seems to cater more to the geriatric set (i.e. anyone over 25), so the youngies come to Zagreb over a weekend for a bit of excitement and a tickle as the trip one way takes under two hours by train.

Zagreb is very hilly and is divided into 17 districts with the most interesting being the Upper Town and the Lower Town, although I am not really sure where the demarcation line lies (on the flats and up on the hill, perhaps). The Lower Town has the grand neo-renaissance buildings, the museums, national library, stock market, the main railway station, the botanical gardens and theatres. Zrinjevac Park, with its Meteorological Post constructed in 1884 where you can check the temperature and pressure, and co-ordinate your watch to a 24 hour clock, is located in this area as well as King Tomislav Square with its monument dedicated to Tomislav, Croatia’s first king. Ilica Street, once the longest street in Zagreb, is lined by shops, theatres, government buildings and markets and there are some ripper pastry and coffee shops along the street. The Zagreb orange or tangerine fair was being held in Ban Jelačič, the main square, so the square was crowded and there were people in costume dancing and singing and free bags of tangerines were being given out (there were so many in the bag, they lasted me until Prague).


I liked the Upper Town (Gornji grad) better with its small lanes taking you into cobblestone streets and the past and this is where I spent most of my time. The easiest way to get to the Upper Town is taking the little funicular, but as it wasn’t working I walked up the hill via a cobblestoned street that passed through Kamenita vrata which is the only surviving gate to the Upper Town. The story is that in 1647, Zagreb was gripped by the plague and all the gates were closed except this one and it was guarded by the most respectable of citizens, who, I assume, could tell if someone was afflicted with the plague.

Strolling up and down the maze of streets was a joy and I was particularly taken by the Lotrŝčak Tower which gives a fantastic view over the Lower Town. For whatever reason, the tower and streets were empty but there was a busker playing a guitar on the street below which was really very bohemian and soothing to listen to while enjoying the view. I also got particularly fond of the jam pancakes they make for you from little stalls on the street.


There is no shortage of churches in the Upper Town: the very gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary with its defensive walls, St Stephan’s Chapel, the Franciscan Church and, the highlight, the 13th century Church of St Marks with roof decorated in tiles showing coat of arms from the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia which dominates St Mark’s Square.


As a point of trivia and general interest, there are 217 gas street lamps in Gornji grad which are lit every night by two gas lighters. And every morning just before sunrise, two lamplighters douse the lamps. Supposedly it takes two hours to light the lamps and another two hours to douse them. Also, there was a major earthquake of magnitude 6.3 in Zagreb in 1880 which not only caused severe damage to the Cathedral and about 500 other buildings but also stopped many of the clocks in the city from working. The Cathedral clock stopped at 7 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds which is the time it still shows. I find this rather interesting as, supposedly, the earthquake hit at 7:33.



To me, Vienna is the grand dame, the fat lady who sings the last song of the opera, the sound of music. It is majestic, statued, cultured and shrouded in geraniums. I have visited Vienna a number of times and have always enjoyed touring the city and surrounding countryside. This time, my trip was just an overnight stop and it was the pits because it was cold, blustery and rainy and I was once again happy the next morning when I was back on the train.

Train K220 departing Zagreb at 0725 saw me arrive in Vienna about 7 hours later. The countryside, between cloudbursts, was stunning and green as one expects of Austria. I stayed at the Pension Vienna Happymit on Liebenfrostgasse and although the pension was not far from the bus station, it took me ages to find the building as signposts seemed to be a rare commodity in this part of the city. I scored a room that would have fitted into a shoebox and I had to step over my backpack to the bed due to lack of space. But it was only overnight and it was within walking distance to the Innere Stadt (central district) where I bought a Mozart music motif scarf (as one does) and visited Julius Meinl am Graben, the yummy and excessively expensive deli to stock up on a favourite comfort food, Mozart marzipan chocolates.

Next stop: Prague

Posted by IvaS 04:51 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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