Nugget and Simone’s Wedding – Chateau de Varennes, France

Get a bunch of wonderful people together in a wonderful place and wonderful things will happen. What a few days, much love.

BT

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Prague, Czech Republic

Last stop before heading home – Prague. This place is something special for many reasons. For me it’s particularly special because it’s where I had the best beer of my life, and somebody’s going to brew one hell of a beer to trump it. The Czech’s are pretty good at the whole beer thing and they’re well aware of it. The well known beer Pilzner Urquell was first brewed in the town of Plzen (about 90km from Prague) in 1842 and it’s still being brewed there today. My love of this beer hit it’s straps at a a pub called Lokal where they sell it straight off the vat – it’s so smooth you might as well be drowning in a bucket of cream. We dabbled… a lot.

There’s a lot of fun stuff to do in Prague, the architecture of the city itself is pretty amazing alone and it’s far better preserved than many other European cities, particularly in Central Europe. One major reason for this is that it didn’t get completely destroyed during World War II. It turns out Prague was one of Hitler’s favourite cities and he intended on it becoming the arts capital of Nazi Europe so he ordered that it was not to be bombed. On top of this it was just a bit too far away from anywhere to be a worthwhile target so the city escaped the same destruction as many others during WWII. It was bombed at one point when US Air Force bombers mistook it for Dresden in poor weather but not to the same extent as cities like Warsaw and Berlin.

Anyway, once again – go there, drink beer, eat a pork knuckle while drinking a beer and don’t forget to watch the most ridiculous cookoo clock on the planet do its thing.

BT

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Bratislava, Slovakia

Not a whole lot to say about Bratislava. It’s another Eastern European, post-communist city that’s got plenty of charm. What I will say is that if you’re there in Winter and it’s pouring rain then it going to be bloody cold, I assure you of that. I wouldn’t say there’s anything mind-blowing about this little city but it’s certainly a worthy stopover for a day or two if you’re passing through. So here’s a bunch of pictures that will undoubtedly tell you more about Bratislava than I just did.

BT

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Budapest, Hungary

Our jaunt through Romania was to be our last long(ish) trip in the same country. As we were soon to head back to Australia for a friend’s wedding gone were the long winded driving adventures and along came a few “pack it all in” stops. We still kept our two night minimum rule in play but we’d booked a ticket home from London and needed to make our way there. So next stop came in the form of potentially my favourite city in the world – Budapest.

One of the smarter things we made a habit of doing through our travels was to rent peoples’ apartments through airbnb. Sometimes we’d have an entire place to ourselves, sometimes we’d be living with the person/family who owned the place and other times we’d be living with fellow travellers. No matter what the scenario they all provided a new experience. One of the big benefits of this type of accommodation has been the ability to shop for a few groceries and cook our own meals. When you’re travelling for a long time you need to make your money last and avoiding the need to eat out for every meal is without a doubt the best way to save money.

So we rented an apartment for a few nights smack bang in the middle of Pest and it was absolutely spot on. Unfortunately it was freezing cold and raining most of the time but that did little to dampen this sensational city (pun fully intended).

Three things in particular have stayed with me from Budapest:

1. The House of Terror – this is a museum containing bits and pieces from the communist and fascist regimes that Hungary endured. It was also the headquarters of the secret police and many people were locked up, tortured or killed here. It really is a terrifying place to be but it gives you an extremely vivid account of the nasty side of those regimes. One thing to remember is that communism was (and is, I suppose) welcomed by some people as it evened out the classes. Poor people were no longer poor and rich people were no longer rich, there was no ‘middle class’ because everybody got the same thing. One of the biggest criticisms of communism is that it leaves a society without the incentive to advance, so economies become stagnant and things start head down the gurgler as corruption and greed come into play. It’s a tricky one to understand but it certainly benefits some and not others, at least in the short term. Either way it was a big part of Hungary’s past and is certainly evident as you stroll around Budapest.

2. The Pianist – we went out to dinner to a little restaurant in the old Jewish quarter and were sat right next to the entertainment – an older gentleman dressed in tails playing pretty much anything on the piano. We got to chatting and it turned out he’d been travelling the world for 30 years doing exactly the same thing and had just returned home to Budapest permanently, he was also adamant in reminding us over and over that he was “a pianist, not communist”. On leaving the restaurant he played us out the door to the tune of Waltzing Matilda and it was bloody hilarious.

3. The Pub – so we’re again walking through the Jewish quarter and we stumble across a tiny pub and crammed inside like sardines were a billion people playing and dancing to some of the most fantastic folk music I’ve ever heard. Turns out these guys were a Jewish folk band and they were just chilling out (well kind of, in reality they were going off like a raw prawn on a summer’s day) at the pub, taking turns playing instruments, singing, dancing traditional tunes while drinking and just generally having a ball. One guy was playing a jug, as in an old metal milk jug and it sounded amazing. We sat there knocking back beers and a few cheeky local schnapps’ while the craziness ensued, I’ll dine on the memories of those few hours for a long time.

Apart from all that, Budapest is stunning and you should go there. Do it.

BT

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Chasing Dracula – Romania

Well check this out, somebody’s actually posting something here. It’s been 236 days since my last post due to a severe backlog of photo editing along with a severe backlog of laziness. But here we are and let’s not dwell on how lazy I am.

Romania, what a place. I think every country we visited was a surprise package but Romania really blew us away with it’s stunning countryside. We kicked off in the capital, Bucharest, for some touristy stuff which was fun for a bit (Bucharest has a sensational pub scene, one whole suburb within the old town is pretty much just pub after pub) but it wasn’t long until we were keen to hit the road and hunt down Dracula. Not before an epic plugga blowout that kept us entertained for half a day hunting down the only surf shop in Eastern Europe.

So we hired a car and worked our way to Transylvania (which is actually a lot bigger than you might think), stopping off firstly in an stunning town called Brasov because we’d met a few people along the way who told us how beautiful it was, the hostel we stayed in made amazing curry so we jumped on that one like a couple of fat kids on cupcakes. After hanging around there a couple of days we drove the Transfagarasan Highway which the blokes at Top Gear coined the “greatest road in the world”.  I’d say that’s an entirely accurate statement but I’d also say they had a very different experience than us as they drove their Lamborghinis and Astin Martins around the thing at Mach 2 while we struggled to get out of second gear uphill. It was brilliant.

So we kind of circumnavigated Romania over the next few weeks, working our way clockwise through most of Transylvania, Cluj Napoca, Ieremia Movilla, Voronet, Tulcea (where the Danube Delta meets the Black Sea) and ended up on the beach, of course, at Constanta before making our way back to Bucharest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen somewhere so green and lush – a little different to driving through the bush back home in Australia that’s for sure. I’ll let the pictures tell the story. We did find Dracula in the end, not at Bran Castle where you might expect but pretending to be dead in a coffin in what is supposed to be Dracula’s bedroom in Sighisoara. I say ‘pretending’ because he scared the living daylights out of Lauren when he lurched at her as she posed for a photo. I found that one way more entertaining than Lauren for some reason.

And that’s that, there are a heap of pics below that I haven’t explained so if you want to know what anything is just comment and I’ll tell you. The highlights though, apart from EVERYTHING being amazing, was stopping for a dog to use a zebra crossing as we left Constanta, going into a massive old salt mine that’s been converted into some sort of weird theme park and watching three belligerent donkeys hold up a car at on the Transfagarasan. Funny as hell.

Be back soon (hopefully)!

BT

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Bulgaria

Getting to Bulgaria from Istanbul involved potentially the most feral train ride I’ve ever experienced. The cabin wasn’t all that bad, it was just grossly hot and opening a window only force fed the joint with diesel fumes. On top of this the toilet was a good old squatter and naturally everybody who tried to use it while the train was hooting along the track managed to ‘spread the love’… so to speak. Border control is also a bit of fun, at least you get off the train and do it yourself rather than some dodgy looking official taking your passport away for hours (long enough to make a few copies I suppose) but between these guys and customs there’s very little sleep going on.

All whining aside it’s a great way to move around Europe and I’d much prefer the train that a bus for a 12ish hour trip. You get a bed, a chance to see everything along the way and an opportunity to meet some interesting fellow travellers.

So we arrived in Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria) pretty early one morning and wandered along to the hotel. Turns out we’d booked a place in the red light district so there were plenty of hot looking dudes sauntering around with double D’s selling their… wares. It was pretty funny trying to deal with being surrounded by bulk prostitutes and transvestites after an epically long night on the train when our brains were at about 5% functionality. This was a poor intro to Sofia because it’s actually a wonderful city with a rich history, incredible architecture and heaps of new stuff to see. We spent a few nights here and enjoyed it immensely before driving the pride of Romania – a Dacia Sandero – around the country for a couple of weeks.

Next up on the hit list was my birthday, Loz had been organising a surprise day full of extreme activities with a rather strange guy and I had no idea what was going on. We drove to a little place called Trud which is essentially in the middle of nowhere just North of Plovdiv. As we’re driving through town Loz gets a message saying something like “Go over the train tracks and keep driving, I’m on the side of the road in a Subaru.” Ooooook.

Off we go and sure enough there’s our new best mate Atanas Koev sitting on the side of the road in his Suby waiting for us. After a brief intro where we find out he’s a former fighter pilot from the Bulgarian Air Force (who incidentally taught Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden to fly a Mig-21)  and we follow him through the bush in the sturdy old Dacia to an airstrip where a semi-naked 50 something fat guy is rigging up an ultralight for a flight. Following a reasonably safe session in the ultralight we headed back into Trud for lunch. On the way we drove past a clay shooting range and Atanas nonchalantly tells me that if I want to go back and shoot some stuff then that’s cool. Okie doke, we hook a U-Turn and head back and fire off a couple of boxes of shells with a giant called George before lunch.

After an overdose of pork we head back out in the deadly Dacia and turn up at another airstrip where an even older (but fully clothed at least) gentleman is waiting for us next to what I can only describe as the most un-intimidating aeroplane I’ve ever seen. What a gross misconception. Turns out this thing had won awards from NASA as the most agile motorised hang glider in the world, it also turns out that our elderly pilot was a Chief of the Bulgarian Air Force for 53 years and had been flying some of the fastest fighter jets in the world since Jesus was knee high to a grasshopper.

What followed was a series of aerial acrobatics with enough G-Force to make Rambo’s eyes bleed and then something that’ll likely never happen to me again. As we finish punching out loops, barrel rolls and dangerously low flybys, we level out before old mate hands me the controls and tells me to fly the plane for a while so he can have a smoke. So not only am I flying a plane but I’m also in the smallest dutch oven in the world. Safety first! Loz wasn’t going to go for a fly but after seeing me fang around she couldn’t help herself and went up for a quick run. She did 5 loop the loops in a row, mental. Lucky the pilot was probably already deaf from old age because he certainly would have been after that little joyride.

The rest of the day got a little weird. We ended up at Atanas’ house drinking tea, playing guitar and some old school traditional Bulgarian flutes before driving around the local villages to sample the healing springs and see some of the ancient Roman ruins. That was fine but he’d been telling us all day about the amazing hot spring shower that he goes to and that the day wouldn’t be over until we’d finished up there. Problem was it was already about 11pm and we were totally spent, but we followed him out there anyway to a scene straight out of Wolf Creek where he rigged up a home made “shower” in this old water tank with a natural spring plumbed into it (there’s a pic below), stripped off and told us we could join him in there if we want to. “Errrrr, no thanks mate. We’ll wait until you’re done.” And that was that, he did his thing, buggered off to the bush to camp by a river for the night. I’ll give him credit where credit’s due though, that hot spring was something else end was the most refreshing 50deg C water I’ve ever been in contact with. Still weird as hell though.

Needless to day – best… birthday… ever. Even if it was a bit out there at times.

So that’s my most memorable story of Bulgaria. We spent the next 12 days driving all over the gorgeous countryside starting with a wine region called Melnik, some incredible painted monasteries, a bit of beach time on the Black Sea at Sinamorets before working our way back along the Northern ranges back toward Sofia stopping at a bunch of great little spots along the way. One thing that made Bulgaria memorable was the novelty of picking apples, grapes, plums, figs and whatever else you feel like eating off the trees all over the place. We spent more than a couple of nights eating fresh honey figs straight off the tree with a nice blue cheese and crackers.

Bulgaria threw a few surprises in our direction and although our first couple of experiences made us take a bit of a step back the whole time was nothing short of sensational. There’s so much unique natural beauty that’s far more impressive than any man made stuff you see in the cities.

BT

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Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is many things, quiet isn’t one of them. 14 million people in one city is bound to be hectic and no doubt it is. Don’t believe all the media beat up of instability or insecurity in Istanbul though, it’s another world and it’s awesome. Put it on your list pronto.

BT

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Selcuk, Bergama and Gallipoli

Aaaaaaaaaaand we’re back. After a seriously long hiatus I’ve decided I’d better pull my finger out and get up to date with these posts. So here’s a start.

After Pamukkale we spent a few days in Bodrum and realised it wasn’t our scene – it’s a total resortsville and the hassle from restauranteurs and shop owners is a little unbearable. So we hit the road to Selcuk where we met up with our old mate Kathryn (A.K.A. Lynchie, Lynch Dog, Lynch Diggity, Lynchenzo or Drunky McDrunk). By this stage we were pretty much sick to death of seeing ancient ruins but we sucked it up and visited a bunch in the area including Ephesus and the Acropolis in Bergama. Ephesus was crazy, we rolled out there very early and there were already hundreds of people there which didn’t give us a great first impression. Luckily the ruins themselves are absolutely sensational so we had a ball with it anyway.

So Selcuk and Bergama were pretty fun in plenty of ways – as always we ate great food, saw some new stuff, swam at yet another stunning beach and caught up with a friend via excess booze. There was only one real downside, it was the beginning of the fabled Turkey belly that would result in many moments of self reflection over the coming week or two.

The highlight of this bit of the trip was without a doubt getting the chance to visit Gallipoli and ANZAC Cove. As kids we all (at least here in Australia) learnt the stories of bravery and hardship endured by the ANZACs during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War but as you can expect you don’t get a real appreciation for the whole thing until you visit ANZAC cove. It’s a really special place to get to and forces you to take a good hard look at yourself and think about how good you’ve got it. It’s certainly on par with the US war memorial in Normandy in that respect. Whether reading the inscriptions on headstones or looking back over the Sphinx from Lone Pine, there’s plenty of time to take a moment and remember the sacrifices made in those hills.

There’s a strange, mutual respect or understanding between Aussies and Turks when it comes to Gallipoli. It feels like it’s something that began during the war and has just naturally flowed down through the generations. I was asked a few times when making idle conversation with a few Turkish guys why we were even there during WWI and it’s a hard one to answer really. Obviously the end game was to allow the Brits/Frenchies take control of the Dardanelles and eventually capture Istanbul (then Constantinople) but there’s still a circle of confusion surrounding our involvement beyond simply supporting the goals of allies. The amazing thing is that there’s no obvious animosity surrounding the war whatsoever to the point where you almost feel a bit connected to the Turkish people as a result of the war. Anyway, it’s hard to describe so make of that what you will.

The Naval museum at Canakkule is definitely worth a visit as well, even if it’s pretty one sided in glorifying the heroism of the Turks and good old Ataturk while attempting to portray the lifestyle of the ANZACs during the Gallipoli campaign as jovial and luxurious. Obviously that’s not the case. One thing that shouldn’t be missed in the museum is two bullets (well the projectiles anyway) that collided mid-air and basically melted together, it’s there to show just how many rounds were fired, there’s a photo of this bit below. There’s a spiel there saying the odds of that happening were in the order of 160 million to on, who knows how they came up with that number, sixty percent of statistics are made up, but either way it’s pretty speccy. Unfortunately, I saw this part of the exhibit at about 20km/h as I bolted past to find the John after old Turkey belly reared its evil, spiteful head. You’d think there’d be a toilet somewhere at an old Naval base but it turns out there’s bugger all and potential spray painters are required to scour the streets of the old town for any form of reprieve. If you do one thing today write this down: When taking a dump at a a dodgy squatter at the back of a mosque BYO toilet paper, end note.

BT

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Pamukkale, Turkey

Next stop was Pamukkale in the South West interior where we discovered yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Pamukkale” means Cotton Castle in Turkish and it’s not hard to see why. Emerging from the middle of nowhere, this brilliant white mess of travertine stands out like dog’s you-know-whats formed from millions (I suppose) of years of deposited minerals from the thermal springs flowing over the hill. It’s a pretty amazing thing to see, particularly if you can imagine it not swarming with busload after busload of tourists. It wasn’t so bad for us though, since we’d driven there we stayed a couple of nights and were able to spend as long as we wanted at the travertines. We spent an entire day from around 9am to 9pm there and got to explore every inch of it which was fantastic, better than the two or so hours the bus groups get.

The waters are supposed to have healing powers so swimming is a must if you want to live beyond 35 apparently, there’s even a giant pool there that used to be a hotel. A few decades ago one smart cookie, realising the potential for tourism, built a hotel smack bang in the middle of the place and filled the pool with ruins and of course the thermal spring waters. Nowadays the hotel has been shut down but you can still swim in the pool.

Heirapolis is the other part of this place that we spent a lot of time at. It’s just behind the travertines and is a massive ancient city. There would have been at least 20 separate archaeological digs going on as we walked around. It makes you wonder how much more is buried there. It’s truly impressive and there’s hardly anybody around so we got to take our time and absorb everything properly.

The town of Pamukkale isn’t much of an attraction in itself. Turkish people are well accustomed to tourists and would attempt to persuade you into buying their grandmother if they could, we had one guy run out onto the road three times to sell us a book in Turkish – yeah real handy. We did however manage to find a Japanese restaurant which was unbelievably exciting. The lady who runs the restaurant is Japanese and came to Pamukkale on a tour over ten years ago. She obviously caught the eye of a Turkish Casanova who chased her down on his quad bike and professed his love for her, hence she’s live there ever since. Crazy.

Good times, I think it’s a must if you’re going to Turkey to see this.

BT

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From the Mediterranean to the Aegean, the Turkish Coastline

Cappadocia and the rest of the Anatolian region was superb but it was lacking the ocean in a big way. Being one of the pastiest humans on the planet it was imperative that I maintained the mediocre (for a normal person but epic for me) tan I’d developed after a month in Croatia.  Hence our next few weeks in Turkey involved a lot of beach time – nothing wrong with that.

Note: There’s a lot of photos in this post so I’m going to spread out the descriptions a bit between photos, just for something different.

Before we could hit up the azure waters of the Mediterranean we first had to get there. We decided to spend a couple of nights in Konya to get a real feel for conservative Turkey. Konya has been described to us as few times since as the Muslim capital of Turkey and that’s pretty obvious when you’re there. We were there during Ramadan and Konya introduced us to Ramadan drummers. The job of these guys is to walk around an hour and a half before dawn beating the bejeezus out of a drum to wake people up for Suhoo, which is the last meal they can have prior to dawn prayer and of course for the remainder of the day. These dudes don’t hold back, if you were asleep before they did the rounds you certainly weren’t afterward. So we endured that for the next month or so and it’s not something you really get used to.

Not that I’m complaining, the poor buggers fasting didn’t get to eat from pre-dawn until around 8pm, not even a glass of water. We ate all day. Their dedication is very admirable and the whole concept of Ramadan is pretty amazing, from what we could gather through talking to locals it’s all about teaching yourself empathy for those less fortunate. There’s a lot of misconception about the Muslim religion brought about by poorly educated media types who give the rest of the world a jaded view. There’s still parts of it that I’m not overly fond of, to me it still feels like women don’t have the same freedom in some ways as men but there could be a number of cultural influences that contribute to that, it’s not like there’s any feeling of severe oppression at all. I’m not an expert by any means but it was an eye opening time in Konya and in a very positive way.

We saw some pretty amazing stuff at Mevlana Museum. There’s a glass case with a small wooden box inside that apparently contains hairs from the beard of the prophet Muhammed which, considering the number of Muslim people in the world, must be a pretty significant thing for them. There’s a bunch of old transcripts and Qurans from something ridiculous like the 6th century that are perfectly intact. Impressive stuff.

We didn’t think we’d enjoy Konya but we did. It’s WAY off the tourist radar normally but it gave us a touch of old school Turkey.

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The first touch of the Turkish coast came in the form of Antalya. Hello resortsville. Not really our scene but the old town is brilliant and there are some pretty spectacular Roman ruins close by. We stayed in a really cosy little pension in the middle of the old town where we actually met another Australian couple in Mike and Heather. These two old battle axes had ridden their bicycles from Melbourne, across the Nullabor to Perth, through pretty much all of South-East Asia, across China, Pakistan, Turkistan, all the other Stans, across Turkey and were working their way to London. They’d done WAY more km’s on their pushies than we had in all of our cars combined. We threw them in the car for a day and went out and saw a bunch of ruins, I think they appreciated sitting on a seat wider than a two by four for a change as much as we appreciated their company.

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