Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Goodbye Montenegro

So it's the new year and we spent the last two weeks of our time in Montenegro doing fairly mundane things on the whole. I did a fair bit of running and together, Rachel and I, picked and produced five photo books from our huge collection of pictures from the first year of our travels. It was a mammoth task and after we have achieved the same thing for the successive 5 years or so we will have our whole adventure in some kind of hard, coffee table friendly format. Although it will have to be a sodding great big coffee table by the look of it. The task was made more onerous due to the Printerpix website crashing or having server problems or something which caused the loss of pictures already uploaded going missing. I don't mean one or two pictures either.  I am talking about 100 or 150 pictures. These then had to be uploaded again, scaled again and positioned again. We burned through about 15 gb of bandwidth and nearly 4 days in time. I was furious and after one final push managed to process the order. Just waiting for them to come back with loads missing now....Post script they are perfect

We went to Dubrovnik in Croatia one day. It was only 57 km away so not far (in theory) and we were doubly interested in going because it featured in several 'Game of Thrones' episodes. Yeah it was nice. But there were no dwarfs, dragons, giant warriors or naked queens being unceremoniously marched through the streets so I was a little disappointed.  Still the cobbled thoroughfares, little lanes and solid castle walls were pretty impressive. Just not sure it was worth four hours of driving and braving the cold winds.

In those last days we walked and talked and did all the stuff that seems to fill our lovely days together and then our house owner came home. And with the car fueled, oiled and stocked with food we set off towards Calais some 2109 km and 23 hours away. Or rather it would have been but due to road closures the whole way up Croatia we were forced to detour to lesser roads (that's a difficult thing to achieve when the roads ain't that good to start with but we are professionals and downgraded admirably). Consequently we had to drive a hundred kilometers more on roads that allowed 70 kph at top speed. Man did it drag. There is this strange arrangement half way up the Croatian coast where Bosnia and Herzegovina divides the country in two. It's called the Neum corridor and means that you have to do two border crossing in about 9 kilometres. After our detour however, we were brought to a crossing in the countryside which was only for goat herders and locals, so had to turn about and do a detour on the detour to get to the proper crossing. Even with all of the problems you can't take away the fact that the coastline up from Montenegro, past Dubrovnik, Split and then through the mountains is stunning. Beautiful islands dot the coast that is ragged with many small bays. And, turning inland, the landscape becomes more mountainous and wild the farther north you travel.

As we drove we began to see more and more signs of snow on the hills, then on the sides of the road. Nothing to worry about and made all the more lovely because the day was sunny and warm. Really warm in fact. Shortly after we entered Slovenia we bought bread and cake from a bakery, pulled up on a point overlooking a charming valley and sat on benches outside of the van for lunch. Little did we know that 4 hours later we would be sitting in a snowstorm stranded on a motorway in Austria.

Anyway back to Slovenia. It is a lovely looking country and each of the 4 or 5 people we had to speak to for some reason or other were friendly and open. I think it could be on our list of places to go back to because we didn't have time to stick around. The roads wound through the hills and gradually the snow about us started to increase. Interestingly, it would seem that we would enter different climatic zones after driving through a series of long tunnels. Sometimes coming out in fog, then snow, then sun. Very weird. Crossing Slovenia didn't take to long coz the roads were empty and then, once the Alps came into view, the weather started to darken and it started to spit a little rain. That then turned to sleet and that soon changed to snow. 

A few days previously, Austria had a massive dump of snow.  This had caused a few problems and although the snow wasn't due to be that bad again, the residual piles of the stuff grew as we left Slovenia. No sooner had we crossed the border than the snow got heavier and heavier, and started settling on the roads. So that when a car in front left tracks in the snow  it became covered immediately in new flakes. Then came the first sight of red tail lights ahead and all came to a stop. Lorries pulled over to one side of the road and cars to the right. Plainly they knew the drill here as this was to allow emergency services a clear route to some trouble up ahead. It turned out that a lorry had jack-knifed about 100 metres ahead and had completely blocked the carriageway. So we waited and waited and as we waited it snowed and as it snowed the lorry drivers started putting on snow chains and the cars started to disappear under the blanket of white. We felt secure in our van with our full tank of fuel, lots of heating and cooking gas, food supplies and our own toilet but even so it was scary as the snow got to 6 inches. Rachel said she felt like she was in a horror movie since outside looked bleak with a few shuffling figures walking up and down the ranks of cars like zombies looking for flesh or in this case possibly for our supply of biscuits and warm cups of tea. We drew the curtains and and munched quietly! It took three hours to clear the wreck and suddenly there was motion. People running back to their cars, tail lights and headlights lighting the sky as the flashing blue lights diminished and we were off. In true aryan style the traffic sped forward. The road had been ploughed and the way was clear for the foreseeable future. So we all surged forward to escape what could have been our snowy deaths. And although it snowed heavily the momentum and numbers of the pent up traffic triumphed and turned the snow to slush and sprayed it to the sides of the road which after a another hour became German slush and after another hour became a clear and bitingly windy night. We pulled off the autobahn as soon as we could. We ate, we made our bed and cuddled up with the temperature sitting at a balmy minus five outside.

On the way out to Slovakia a couple of months previously we stayed at Alan and Petras and after a series of texts we arranged to stay again. Not only did this mean a warm and comfortable bed for the night but turned out to be an impromptu farewell dinner party with surprise guests. Thank you A and P for the excellent hospitality and to Sonja, Marcus and Ralph for your company and parting gifts.

And that's about it. The roads were clear and manic and lead to Belgium and Calais and two mornings after with the van stuffed with cheap booze we sailed home to England. But that's another story I guess. Toodaloo.

More pics at

Thursday, 3 January 2019


Well, here we are in Montenegro. The housesit is in a flat in the town of Tivat. A town that centres around the Porto Montenegro development and harbour. It's set on the coast of a large, virtually enclosed sea inlet that is sided with hills that slowly climb up to become mountains. It's really only a summer place so out of season half of the restaurants are closed. Still there is stuff going on over Christmas so it doesn't feel empty.

We are looking after Buddy. A Dubai born fellow who looks a bit like a vertically challenged retriever. He was rescued in Dubai, then carted off to a couple of other countries before he and his Australian owner Katrina ended up here, where she is an English teacher. He's low maintenance except for spending most of his days scratching at the door to get in where he will stay for 5 minutes before scratching to get out. The owner lives with the door open and wears a coat in the cold flat but that isn't happening as it's December and we didn't sign up for freezing, so we are sometimes at loggerheads with the little fella.

Our first day alone on our own we found a pub hosting an ex-pat Christmas lunch so tagged along for a few hours of drinking, networking and eating a yummy lunch. Not a bad group of people. A few of whom we have met up with again during our stay.

We are only a short distance from the bay so walk Buddy along coastal boardwalks, roads and small stony beaches daily. Its nice. The Adriatic reflects the blue of the sky and our first 10 days are mainly bright with only a few clouds.

On the downside it seems that a large number of the indigenous population suffer from the surly manner we have found in all of these Eastern European countries. Consequently we are often left hanging with a smile dying on our faces as we are blanked. I don't know why but the national traits of bad driving and being grumpy go hand in hand but our extensive research suggests that it's an endemic problem. It's a shame because when we have broken through they seem pleasant enough, although still a little reserved.

Example: I got offered a drink by a neighbour the other day. He saw me coming out of the drive and nodded (We had nodded once or twice before - or rather I had). Anyway, he saw me and, lifting his cupped hand to his mouth, said. "Come, drink". It was 9.30am but when in Rome and wishing to be amenable I agreed and followed him without a word as he route marched to his garage and poured us both a small glass of home brew petrol. "Salut" he said. Still not smiling. "Salut" I responded. And downed it and, just as I stopped wincing, noticed he had only taken a small sip.  He then looked at me blankly as I tried to communicate, unsuccessfully, for a few minutes. The whole time there was not the smallest glimmer of a smile on his face. He then points at my empty glass in my hand. "Drink" he said as he started to unstop the bottle. This could go on for some time - me drinking and babbling and he staring so I declined and scarpered down the drive, shouting more thanks over my shoulder as he stared on impassively.

Final collective thing about your Montenegrins - they are a very tall race. I cannot count the number of 2 metre tall people we have seen. We feel like we are on the set of 'Land of the Giants' and have to be quite nimble to avoid being squashed underfoot. All the women wear heels as well. So, with their already long legs plus a further 4 inches of 'fuck me' heels it takes ages for me to properly letch and I have found I get bored before I have even got to the thighs. Give me Rachel's little legs anytime. I've letched at hers thousands of times over the years and am still captivated.

We drove to the nearby town of Kotor the other day and climbed the mountain path to an old crumbling monastery that hangs on the hillside. It has an impressive city wall connecting it to the old town below and its possible to get to it via some steps on the wall. Steps, however, always ruin a good tramp to my mind so we opted for the rugged old donkey path and had to access the monastery by climbing through a window in the fortifications. From there the donkey paths, known as the 'Ladder of Kotor'  zig zag their way up and away into the mountains. We clamber for a few hours and  look down on the sea inlet and red tiled roofs of the old town. All very pretty with the sun glinting off windows and the water beyond..

Christmas in Montenegro will be recalled by us with frequent and very loud bangs. For 3 days before Christmas up to a couple of days after new year we were jumping, spilling drinks or shrieking in surprise as someone lit yet another touch paper and bunged these bloody things somewhere nearby. The only upside being the dog would come scurrying in and stay in for a while until he forgot and ventured out.

So the last three days have been pretty interesting. Every night over Christmas and New Year the local town has put on entertainment in either the evening or afternoons. Tivat has a pretty swanky harbour with swanky shops, swanky restaurants and mega swanky superyachts. Anyway the council pushed the boat out a little here and laid on something every evening. The square on the harbourside has been lined with pop up bars and the sky lit up with lazers, lights and twinkly LEDs fixed on cranes, buildings and the impressive stage.

On 30th December we had disco night. A great band complete with afros, white suits and stacks. Also two very energetic dancers who wore their coats to keep warm. They were good and tried to lift the crowd but just couldn't get 'em dancing. Got me and two or three others dancing but that doesn't take much nowadays.

The big night has arrived. The bangers are so close together they no longer make us jump but rather form a background continuous tone to life now. We start the day off with a walk along the old harbour, get some shopping then drop into a smokey restaurant bar - You can smoke inside here and a large number of people do. Just like the old days in Blighty when you used to have a shower before you go out then need another to wash the smell of fags off when you got home. There is a terrible entertainer keeping the locals happy with Balkan gypsy sounding singing (toneless and loud) and over exuberant organ playing with the balalaika option being used rather than piano. Still all jolly and we tuck into sausage, fried potatoes and beer.

The evening's entertainment was an Abba tribute band that carried the tunes well enough but, once again, failed to excite the crowd beyond a gentle sway and the occasional girly hip wiggle. We stepped away from the stage after a while and camped up in one of the bars overlooking the square. We were then amazed by the appearance of the main act - Zeljko Joksimovic. Mr Joksimovic was Serbia's 2004 Eurovision  entry and was the runner up on that fateful night. 2008 saw him being the producer and composer of the next Serbian attempt and then, somewhat stuck in a rut - some might say - was the presenter in the 2012 show. Anyway his star obviously continued to rise in the Balkans and he had a string of successful records leading to 2019. The roar was enormous when he arrived on stage. I had ne'er seem such emotion. The crowd, as one, suddenly started to move and sing to one another in a 'hairbrush held as a microphone' sort of way. It was lovely. Not my type of music but the locals loved the sort of euro-electric-serbian-gypo-dance-at-a-different-speed-to-the-beat kinda stuff and we tapped our toes appreciatively for the ambiance more than anything else. Midnight arrived, the fireworks erupted in a short but impressive array, backs were slapped and Mr Jok rocked on.

New years day. Although officially the first day of the new year is more of a pause, a comma, a hiatus than a proper day. It's the day when any resolutions made are often, conveniently ignored because it's hardly the right time to stop smoking, drinking, eating too much etc. It's a time for nursing hangovers, comfort food and a quick one in a pub before life kicks off on the 2nd.

Hence this last blog of 2018 will include this magical day because for us it was a great end to the last year and a start to the new.

We drove to Budva along the coast. The sun shone, the wind dropped and people were out. We parked about two km from the old town and sauntered along the glittering Adriatic to a classical concert in the ruins of an old church or something. The Opera pieces and stirring choice of music were perfect. We then walked around the old alleyways and byways of the town until further music caught our ears and we, with hundreds of others, sat at tables on the shingle beach whilst a folk band played to the setting of the sun. Quite magical.

So that's it for 2018. Happy new year to anyone desperate enough to read this stuff. iIn 2019 we start here for a couple more weeks, then there's a 2000km drive to England, a brief visit to Spain and then on to live and work in Chile for a year. It's a dull life but someones gotta do it!

Bye for now,

Chris and Rachel

Love this. Spot the gap between good intention and bad management

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Snow, snow, nick, nick snow.

So, we finished our last day teaching in Slovakia and now had a 1,100km sprint down through Eastern Europe to Montenegro where we are house-sitting over Christmas until mid January. We headed home at 2.00pm and still had to scrape the snow from the windscreen and the heavy frost from inside of the van windows,  The temperature had dropped to -7 over the last two days so it felt like a freezer inside and looked like an igloo from outside.As we drove the Slovakian drivers took the last opportunity to amuse and scare us as we headed South towards the border. It was going to be a long haul so we were pleased that Slovakia slipped past fairly quickly. The single carriageway roads being relatively empty and the stretches of dual carriageways allowing us to cover the miles whilst we chatted and took in the white blanketed landscape. Fog was starting to obscure some of the fields as we drove and more and more it looked like a desolate, post apocalyptic scene.

It's always interesting how the environment, people etc. change when you enter a new country and Hungary announced its arrival with some lovely buildings and a very impressive, dominating castle that cocked a snook at its poorer relation back across the river. 

We whizz along the considerably better motorway system for a few more hours until the thickening fog and boredom make us call it a day in Mohacs on the banks of the Danube. It's a lovely town. All the Christmas decs were up, twinkling lights reflected on the snowy ground and heavily laden trees lined the roads. We sleep the night in the square beside the town Christmas tree and even with the bitter cold we sleep soundly. Admittedly I did have a scarf wrapped round my head like a turban and Rachel was covered by so many layers I had to give up any idea of egress after some strenuous attempts.

The next day we hit roads early and in no time arrive at the Croatian Border. This is a skinny bit of the country separating Hungary and Bosnia.

We cover it in an hour whilst looking out over more endless snow covered fields and are pleased with the the continued reasonable speed until we come to a standstill at the Bosnia and Hertsawhatnot border. We spend 15 minutes watching  the preceding five cars go through the collection of little grey booths and buildings with ice stiffened flags hanging and then it was our turn:

Smile. "Good morning officer"
Scowl. "Papers"
Smile. "There you are"
Grunt. "Auto papers"
Smile "Certainly"
Impatient 'gimme' fingers gesture "Green Card"
Questioning look "Sorry. A what"
Stare "No Green Card?"
Confused look "No. I don't kn..."
Pointing to an empty bay "Wait there"

And so we sit and wait 'there' for 20 minutes watching the mist, sludge and progress of other cars until a man who can smile and very nearly does. Tells us we need to buy a special insurance for the company which is a bargain at 30 euros and will last for 17 days. Didn't see that coming in the travel calculations.

Bosnia comes with its recent history still fresh in our minds. It still looks a bit knackered. But part of that is obviously due to the bleak weather and piles of ploughed snow lining the roads. Perhaps we would need to spend longer to make any valid comments but I don't think that's going to happen too soon. Bosnia ain't that big. But, when you have to travel on single lane roads, hemmed in with drifts, driving at speed limits of between 40kph and 60kph and constantly having to brake to avoid crashing into some lunatic who has cut you up because they have misjudged how long it takes to overtake 30 cars in a row -  it takes forever. Horrible driving. They had had a lot of snow and whilst the roads had been cleared no one had thought about the pedestrians who were having to clamber over mounds on what might have been pavements or risk life and limb and a sound dousing of sludge spray to walk on the road. All seemingly wearing black and therefore in the gloom barely noticeable. At one point we are driving up an icy hill with no escape route when a double trailer, logging lorry with a full load comes flying down towards us on our side of the road doing 90kph in a 50kph limit to overtake someone who had also been observing the actual rules of the road. Luckily everyone expects this sort of recklessness and all there was to show for the event was our open mouths, two brown smudges on our seats and a spray of cold water on the side of the van as it hurtled past.

We arrive in Sarajevo and quickly push through the early rush hour traffic to exit the city and head for what will turn out to be several more unexpected hours of mountain road driving. On the outskirts of the city we were travelling at 66kph in a 60kph area when a  hidden copper walked out in the road ahead waving a flashing baton. We are just about to curse and pull over when the car behind, who had been tailgating us for some miles and not seen the copper, decided to floor it and overtake. Perfect timing and as he then becomes the focus of the coppers attention. We decide to take advantage of the reprieve and calmly pull past the copper who is still deciding whether or not to stop us as we drive away.

We head for the hills. Or rather the mountains. When we looked at Google Maps we had no idea how laborious this route would be. We figured the extra 20 minutes driving was worth saving the 220 kilometers but we had figured wrong. Petrol, hours more than 20 minutes and danger outstripped it all. The road winds and turns and the slush on the road thickens as we steadily climb higher and higher. It's pretty (I suppose) but all we can really see at night is rock on one side and trees on the other. And it goes on and on and on until finally we reach the Montenegro border tucked away in a fog filled gulley with one man sitting there peering out at the glimpy barrier in front of him.

Staring at us and our outstretched passports "English?"
Smiling back hopefully "Yes"
"Green Card"
Here we go again. This time I have to drive a few hundred metres to a cafe where I am the only customer and here in a stifling room with a Slavic game show blaring out I pay another stealth payment (15 Euros). A bargain I thought. It reminds me of a comedy set by the Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges. He tells a story in his broad Glaswegian accent of how he is held up at knife point and told by his assailant "Gis us a fiver or i'll stab ya". Bridges then ponders "A fiver! Ah right, Thas nay a bad deal. Jest a fiver an I dinnay get knifed and get my night an clothes ruined. Yer on pal!"

Anyway Montenegro. I don't know why I was expecting good roads. After 6 hours of driving through shite conditions I had built up the final destination into Oz. Alas the yellow brick road was actually the worse road by far. 90 percent of the time it's completely covered in snow and every now and then there are mini avalanches that covered half the road. Even worse we seem to continue climbing and crawl along at about 30kph - through rough hewn tunnels through the mountains. These tunnels being lined with magnificent icicles up to 2 metres in length. The dripping water that oozed from the roof had formed pools of ice which proved interesting because our muddied headlights (with deflector shields) barely lit the road let alone the black ice. So we skudded and skidded and dodged the occasional snowplough, mad car drivers and ice piles for a further 2 hours until we started to descend and eventually found a place we could actually stop which was a disused car park by a small village near a lake.

I had driven for about 8 hours and my eyes looked like a drug addict with wide staring pupils. So when we made up the bed it took a while to go to sleep. 3 hours later Rachel wakes me and says "Is that someone at the back of the van?" I was disorientated and confused (this is my excuse) and about to tell her to go back to sleep when I too hear something. So jump out of the bed, pull open the back screen and where there is normally a bike cover obscuring the view there is a clear view of carpark. A movement at the side of the van gets my attention so  I grab my trousers and tee shirt and a recently acquired burglar stabbing knife.

After the incident 6 weeks ago when we realised that our only proper means of defence was a Swiss army knife with which I could effectively only remove stones from an attackers shoes or possibly unscrew them a bit. We had decided then to get something a little more intimidating. A little more Crocodile Dundee with which to discourage any shenanigans. So I jump out of the van in time to see a black figure running off and realise I had made a huge mistake and was about to take on the baddie with a potato peeler. Not the pointy kind which might make sense but the safety razor type. It was dark. It was a new knife. I panicked. Luckily I didn't need to peel anyone this night so after shouting obscenities at the retreating shadow, I got back in the van and still muddled and befuddled set off to a safer location. Sadly the road conditions worsened and it was another hour before we finally found a clear patch of ground - still  miles from any town - at a junction with two parked gritting lorries to give us a safety in numbers feel.

We dropped off immediately and the following morning - 4 hours later - after being woken by the lorries running their engines and  their drivers generally preparing for a another day doing drivey stuff. We checked the bikes (some straps had been slashed and an attempt at sawing through the bike locks had begun but apart from that all was well. So we sit and eat breakfast then drive for 30 minutes more and suddenly everything was beautiful and the Montenegro we might know was upon us. All charming, no snow, the temperature 12 degrees higher and our journey over. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Bratislava. Done. Cheers. Bye. Don't bother calling.

I wonder whether we would have liked the place better if it it had not been cold, damp and foggy. Of course not! The reason is that Bratislava is always gonna be full of Bratislavians and there lies the problem. We have been astounded at just how rude they are. The term 'Customer Service' has never been heard of here let alone implemented. I watched a Tesco employee tutting and cussing a Chinese customer for using a load of Tesco's own vouchers. Appealing to the rest of the queue with a "For f's sake" face. I wonder what the collective for these people might be? "A Scowl of Bratislavians"; Possibly "A Sneer of Brats"; Or maybe just "A miserable bunch of .....". Now hold on there Chris. Enough's enough!

OK. one last thing. We finished at the school where we had taught for two weeks. Bear in mind we are pretty good at this stuff. We get a lot of praise and make friends easily. Not one teacher came to say goodbye or officiate over the certificate presentations. Just me and Rachel and a huffy cleaner waiting to sweep up after us. Appalling.

On a lighter note we did see Bohemian Rhapsody on our last night. The very good cinema was only a short walk from our lovely apartment so we wrapped up and braved the snow. A Good film. Took me back to the times when I saw them in concert. Clap Clap Stamp Clap Clap Stamp.

Next stop Povasky Bystrica. A fantastic sounding place. The sort of place that you would expect to see dragons nested in the town square. Actually it was a really dull looking Communist hangover type of town with block buildings and a concrete square so any mythical beasts would stand out like a sore thumb. That aside it was a fantastic week. Our digs were lovely spacious and stylish. The School kids were 16 and 17 with good English so you could have decent conversations. Not only that but they were engaged and interested in what we were doing. They even took us on a tour of the town and treated us to coffee one day. Finally, to top it off, the teachers were lovely as well. We developed a great relationship with Lenka and Tanya who took us out for lunch as well as having us to dinner at Tanyas house one evening. Anyway. Thanks for that lovely people. You helped claw back points for Slovakia and we left with our attitudes greatly improved. 

Crikey its cold here. We are currently hovering around 0 in the day and -4 at night. Snow is hanging in the sidelines the whole time and little flurries keep the roads and fields dusted. We are in a place called Moravsky Krumlov (Tolkien characters spring to mind) a little village a few miles away from our digs. The school is another winner. Entertaining kids aged 15 to 18. Once again interested in what we are doing and fairly motivated. This place is, however, in the Czech Republic. Astonishing, difference between Czechs and Slovaks. It's like a switch has been thrown. The second you cross the border attitudes change. One of the highlights of our stay in Moravsky Krumlov was being taken to the Krum Brewery. A small brewery owned by one of the students father. Radek (the dad) claims to make the best Peevo (Beer) in the Galaxy. A claim i was happy to accept considering that this magnificent man was Hagrid Incarnate.  6ft 5in tall, barrel chested with a Santa claus belly held in with a thick leather belt. A huge, bushy beard and heavy brows covered most of his face but could not hide his smile and lively eyes that kept you engaged without even needing his sonorous and jolly voice. I think i have a bit of a man crush on him simply because his nature and image was far bigger than life. Kinda weird since my last man crush (I worry too) was Bruno Mars singing Uptown Funk. Ho hum. We tried his beers and left with a hearty handshake and some bottles to drink at our leisure.

Brno Town centre statue in the ice rink
We spent the weekend in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. We stayed near the centre in a bijou little studio apartment which we were quite pleased with until we heard that the area was known as the Bronx of Brno. We feared for Itchy alone and dusted with snow in a hypermarket car park. So much so that I woke up and went and checked her at 1.30am in the morning - expecting the streets to be crowded with drug taking thugs, broken bottles, roaming gypsies and bin fires. Nothing! You could hear a pin drop. Ichy was sleeping and and all was well. Brno was lovely. Christmas markets, nice buildings, cool restaurants and smiling, yes smiling, people. Buskers played, Christmas songs blared out of shops, Mulled wine burbled and the sun shone. All in all a far better place than I thought it would be and personally a place I found more appealing than Prague due to reduced numbers of people. 

Jasna - The Low Tatras nr Liptovsky Mikulas
Our last week is in Liptovsky Mikulas. A long trek of 5 hours up to the Northern part of Slovakia. We are teaching in a Hotel Academy. A high school that grooms its students for life in the service industry. A mixed bag academically but fantastic lunches with waiter service. I am so glad that our places of work have been better. I don't think i will hurry back to Slovakia but its been an experience. In closing I would like to congratulate the country on its skiing. I spent a fantastic day in the Low Tatras with only me to worry about. Skiing for several hours on well maintained slopes on the opening day of the season. Truly beautiful and I didnt even fall over.

So tomorrow we leave. After lunch we have a 1200km slog down to Montegnegro and will need to be there in two days so not much stopping...Just as well as its due to be -9 over night on Wednesday.....and we will be in a tin box

Thursday, 29 November 2018

First weeks in Slovakia

Plainly my work as a teacher is done!
Right. We arrived in Slovakia and after three weeks I can still attest to the fact that the Slovaks are the most miserable bunch I have ever met. For a while we considered it a bit of a challenge to get them to smile but now, after many wasted greetings, squandered smiles and ignored waves we have decided to give it up as a bad lot. The thing is, it takes effort to be surly. If someone smiles it is almost a reflex action to smile back. To be sour faced requires concentration and not a little disdain. I know we should not judge other cultures by the social rules that our own lives are lived by. But these are Europeans. These are our brothers and sisters. Everything about them is familiar and yet this one glaring difference separates us. Perhaps it comes from the socialist years. Who knows? What I do know is that when we meet that one in ten person who is friendly - and we have met them, we are overly thrilled and act like we are parched desert travellers finding an oasis. Desperately drinking in their smiles and kindnesses. Tipsy last night from drinking mulled wine with some other teachers and our boss, we chatted with two or three groups of Slovaks and laughed, slapped backs and ended up in a bar dancing till the early hours. It felt like a gift!!!

View from our apartment
Anyway. Back to the start. We arrived in Slovakia and shortly after crossing the border we pulled over to the side of the busy road into a sort of layby. We had just dished up beans on toast and a cuppa when a car with three men pulled up beside us and they got out, ostensibly, for a piss. One of their group, a particularly shifty, gypsy looking Romanian type starts gabbling away at us through the partially opened window in Romanian or Czech. The whole time is eyes were darting over what was in the van. My wallet was on the dash, the keys in the ignition and we were behind the table in the body of the van. Whilst talking his hand began moving up to the window edge and fearing his intentions Rachel surreptitiously pushed the central lock button beside her hand. He seemed unsure of what to do because we were sitting there acting very nonchalant and eating the whole time -answering a few questions but not engaging in much conversation. The chap was then joined at the window by one of his cronies and started asking us to give them money. We laughed dismissively and said no. They asked again. Rubbing their greasy fingers together in the universal 'money' sign. We firmly said no again and continued eating and just looking at them. I cannot imagine what went through their heads because we must have seemed so unfazed (that's because they couldn't see the poo stains on the seats though). The intimidation failed. I suppose their only option would have been to try to force entry but the road was just too busy and desperate people already holding knives (and spoons) with hot cups of tea are something of an unknown quantity, so they left. It was unsettling and it didn't help that we had seen a film called 'Nocturnal Animals' a couple of days before where something similar, but much worse, happens in it.

As a result of the incident Rachel posted something on a motorhome group site she is a member of. The replies were fast coming and violent in their nature. I never realised that so many of the all-weather clad motorhomers were such psychos. We now have a whole gamut of self defence tricks should we be in a similar situation again. Ranging from home made chilli sauce spray to conveniently placed knife blocks, tyre irons or pitchforks.

Teaching in the first week was tiring. As you will know we are not prone to excessive work and 6 hours a day of really active teaching is a surprisingly tough gig. Our role is to get the kids to talk by any means other than beating. We can play games, role play, chat... pretty much anything to raise their communication ability. It sounds easy but there needs to be structure otherwise you are just an outgunned children's entertainer. There are three of us at this school - Rachel, myself and Rob (A 30 something new dad with wife and baby in tow that hale from Brighton). We are all finished at the school by 1.30pm but we have not really used that time to do much else other than plan the following lessons or take a small walk around the not very attractive town. Unsurprisingly the school faculty were morose and positively cold towards us. With our English contact being a taciturn woman who spoke little English. Plainly not a qualification for being a language teacher at that school. We did get a chocolate bar and bottle of water each day which was nice but I think we would all have better enjoyed more smiles.

Trencin castle
Our week finished we headed off to a pretty town called 'Trencin' for the weekend. It's getting colder so we wrap up in the van and stay in a stadium car park right by the town. It was a nice place with walks through the woods and a good street busker.

Week two - Skalica. What a difference. The teachers are really friendly. The headmistress is lovely and friendly and our contact - Kristina - speaks excellent English and smiles constantly. It was quite unsettling in light of our other interactions. We have two dedicated rooms and the levels of the kids English is much higher. We even had a local tv crew in to film us and ask questions about Slovaks learning English. A link to the clip is on our facebook pages if our friends are interested in seeing us in action. It was so nice that our second week was good. It filled us with a warm fluffy feeling and the cake and wine that we received as a parting gift sealed the deal for us as to who the best school was.

Skalica town
We finished at the school by 2.00pm Friday afternoon so we set straight off to Vienna in Austria for the weekend. Wow. What a nice city. Majestic buildings, wide boulevards, modern shopping plazas, big squares and lots of greenery. It felt stately but in a good way. We stayed the Friday night outside the city and then drove in on the Saturday morning to park up outside the Austrian government in a lovely plaza surrounded by museums. A place we had heard we could stay for nothing - How weird is that for a setting?

Where we stayed the night in Vienna
Almost as soon as we entered the city we were pulled over by the Austrian police. We thought it was due to our driving  but no, it was because a lot of English campervans get stolen by gypsies and are driven back to gypsy land (wherever that is) via Vienna. Now on the one hand I like the fact that the police were so vigilant but was a little miffed at being mistaken for a thieving Romanian gypsy. Anyway we are allowed to go but told firmly that we could not park at the parliament buildings. We said we would look elsewhere then and as soon as we turned the corner headed straight to the parliament buildings and did indeed stay there for the weekend.

The beautiful Lipizano horses - Or there would have
been if we hadn't lost loads of our pictures
We had a fantastic time in Vienna. There were several huge Christmas markets, the streets were all prettied up for the season. Ice rinks had been constructed and mulled wine was on sale everywhere. The weather was cold but beautifully sunny so ideal for walking. So walk we did. Taking in many sites including going to see the Lipizano horses parading in the 400 year old stables in the heart of the city. It's extraordinary looking down onto the training/show area that is housed in such an old and imposing building. Anyhow, the horses were amazing and really made the weekend memorable. We then drove back to Slovakia and once again got pulled over by the police on the way out of Austria who were checking for road toll stickers on vans driven by Romanian gypsies. Luckily we had bought one but even so the police thought it best to check.

Vienna Christmas market
The third and now fourth weeks here presented us with nothing much worth reporting upon. The school in Bratislava is not very friendly, in fact quite icy and we will be glad to be done with it and the grumpy teachers. Bratislava might be a nice place but it has been misty, cold, sleeting and raining the whole time we have been here so we have been dissuaded from sight-seeing. We did bike into the centre one afternoon and chained our bikes up near a restaurant. When we returned a few hours later one of the locks had been cut off so obviously someone had tried to steal the bikes. Luckily we had put two locks on so didn't lose them both - subsequently bought much bigger chains. Bastards.

To finish off this blog I have two last things to say about the Slovaks, First, they are impatient and quite dangerous drivers. It's deffo not fun to have to drive a f***ing big campervan about a city packed with would be boy racers. I admit we are on a downer about the country, and I am sorry if that upsets any nice people we have met (the three of you know who you are) but that's the way it is. The last thing is, some places we like and some places we don't. And Slovakia, so far, is a big DON'T like.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Slovakia here we come

Hello again. I trust you are all sitting comfortably and ready for further tales of our travels in Europe?

Prague - Everyone always says how lovely it is and, of course, they are right. Stunning buildings, squares etc. But there is nearly always a trade off with beautiful tourist spots and, in the case of Prague, it’s the people. Just thousands of tourists. So many tourists that you have to sit upon the shoulders of other tourists in order to fit into busy streets. 

There are lots of restaurants - no surprising with all those hungry tourists and bars and stuff but if, like us, you have a cultured bent and want to elevate your minds above that of casual beer drinking and stuffing your face then check out very accurately named  ‘Sex Machine Museum’. Yup. A museum dedicated to automated sex in all its glorious forms from inny-outy machines with huge pokey bits to the ingenious, although I doubt not terribly sensual, licking seat. A seat with an hole (a little like a commode) with a wheel beneath that has numerous leather tongues fastened to its perimeter. The wheel is powered by pushing pedals that are in front of the seat. The faster you pedal the faster those tongues whip past the hole and titillates either dangly mens bits or, hopefully, not so dangly lady bits. It's an interesting journey into another world which is finished off (pun intended) with a grainy 1890's porn film about a stern schoolmaster and his naughty students. I tell you, they deserved the cane for things they got up to.

That's us (bottom right) sleeping in the grounds of the monastery
So, overall Prague got a 6.5 from us. Maybe next time we should visit early on a sunny Sunday morning (possibly the best time to see any city)  and therefore be able to truly see what is there instead of who is there.

Poland – GOING BACK TO MY ROOTS – YEAH! Is it because of my dad being Polish that I was wearing rose coloured specs or were the people friendlier and the buildings really nicer. I like to think the reality is that the Poles ar not only bloody good plumbers but are a pretty hospitable lot whose star is on the rise. I was thrilled, when I paid for some petrol and the attendant was intrigued by my name on my credit card (an uncommon name in Poland as well as England) and the fact that I drove a UK registered car. Apparently he was taught by a guy with the same surname and this teacher was a great teacher. I explained as best i could that it ran in the genes. I don't think that the other Lenartowicz teacher was as good as he suggested because he replied "Yes, Levi's". 

Krakow -  A good city – Its big and sprawling but who goes outside of the lovely old bits unless you live there? I was last here ten years ago and I was pleased to see that little had changed. Maybe there is more money in Poland nowadays but everything still seems reasonably priced. The roads and buildings are in great condition and the people seem content. We wandered about the usual sites of the city - Although once again shunning the Auschwitz tour and the rather macabre option of being able to stay in the grounds of Birkenau concentration camp overnight - behind locked gates. 

In the Jewish section of town known as Kazimeirz – coincidently, my dad’s very cool name as well– we had one of the best meals we have ever had at 3.30pm in the afternoon. We sat in the squares and sipped beers. We sat in a church and had our ears soothed by a pleasing rendition of the 4 seasons (a staple for this kind of thing) whilst candles flickered on the golden altar ornamentation which served as the backdrop. 

We had parked up about 5km outside of the city in a motorhome dealership who provided us with a hard standing, all the water, lecky and poo emptying facilities we could ever need. For our 6 Euro we also got a 24 hour manned security gate so fell warm, cared for and safe. The only downside is we had to park next to other motorhomes for sale so occasionally a perspective buyer would peer in the window. Anyhow to get to the city we would bike along a lovely cycle path that ran beside the river, park our bikes and walk.

There is a lot to see in the city (although no sex related oddities spring to mind). It's home to the largest city square in Europe and its scale helps dissipate the numbers so its pleasant to wander. One of the other attractions are the salt mines. This vast network of tunnels and antechambers stretches for 240km crossing and recrossing one another over multiple levels. Plainly they don't let hoards of ill equipped tourists roam through the entire labyrinth but the tour still covers 2.4km. Down hundreds of stairs and along tunnels lined with crystallised wood. The highlight being several huge chambers housing sculptures made of salt and an impressive church with carved tiles in the floor. 

Final stop in Poland is Zacopane in the Lower Tatras (a mountain range in southern Poland). A ski town with rising hills around the pretty centre where mulled wine and toasted cheese with raspberry sauce is sold from little kiosks. Its nice. We stay in a clearing in forest by a river that looks like its a movie set and take a long walk up into the hills. 

We then hop across the mountain road into Slovakia. My goodness, what a difference. THe houses have gone from chocolate box to cardboard crates - no style whatsoever. Driving has suddenly become a challenge. It seems all Slovaks drive like idiots with no one thinking about consequences. They even overtake in towns with 50kph limits and enjoy heavy brake usage due to driving a couple of metres behind you. Its really bizarre. As is the fact that no one smiles. There is a collective dourness that pervades everyone from shop assistants to waiters; new mums through to old women. 

Lets hope that its a glitch and not evidence of the national psyche.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Back on the road again

I started writing this latest blog and suddenly realised that it was terminally boring so had to scrap it all and, whilst Rachel was doing her online teaching in the van, rewrite it all by hand. Consequently, my glamorous life finds me sitting in a disused car park in Poland next to a dilapidated sign for ‘Rio Disco Dancing’ – The sign has two scantily clad Brazilian beauties captured mid-gyrate. Their big smiles and bigger still bosoms luring Polish country women away from the turnip fields to sway their hips to that Calypso beat and a better life. I love misguided aspirational advertising!

Once again we are afoot in the world (or should I say a-van). We have bought a small motorhome - or is it a camper? I am never sure what to call it. Camper suggests middle class pretensions, with Thule top boxes, ideas of stealth camping and money to burn on branded cramped living. Motorhomes, on the other hand, conjures up the idea of people with matching Northface walking jackets, electric bikes and a tendency to flaunt the copious amount of living space they are driving around. Just the other day I saw a camper van the size of a coach towing a 4-wheel drive jeep. How mental is that. Anyway, by the time I had finished that previous sentence I decided to refer to it as our “van” – sun newspaper, fag packets and sandwich boxes and a tattooed arm sticking out of the window.

So, we have this “van” (which, from now on, I will stop saying in a way that demands speech marks) and we have put on winter tyres in preparation for the freezing and copious amounts of winter snow we are supposed to see over the ensuing months we will be using it to toodle around Europe and work in Slovakia. And, to ensure a constant source of fuel (You can’t get Calor Gas in mainland Europe) have fitted an LPG tank for cooking and heating water. A task that was, quite honestly, a little scary - cutting holes in one’s vehicle and fitting a potential bomb under your front seats.

Plainly the bomb didn’t detonate when we eventually came to fill the tank and make a cup of tea. But just in case I did retire a few metres away for a while to see what would happen. Anyway, here we are many hot showers and cups of tea later and still alive. And after 2 weeks on the road life in the van is “Saul Goodman” (Full explanation available by watching ‘Better Call Saul’.

80 miles of France passed in a blur. Belgium, a natural continuance of the same countryside with it’s excellent motorways, does the same until we reach Mons. One of those nice towns that isn’t quite enough to be a great tourist draw but is nonetheless charming. The old town centre has a big beamed Hotel de Ville sitting in a large cobbled square which is surrounded with café seating, umbrellas and gas heaters. All standard faire but made more interesting by the various sculptures dotted around the city – especially those of Niki de Saint-Phalle whose work is visually stunning being somewhat fantastical in proportions and covered with multi-coloured ceramics.

Luxembourg (What a lovely sounding country). Essentially the place is forest – One huge forest. All showing off its autumnal colours of golds, russet and brown. Luxembourg City appears at the end of the motorway – A little like the Emerald City all roads in the country lead here. It must be the magnetic pull of money because the place reeks of old cash. Everyone we passed (apart from the not infrequent beggars) had an aroma of Jo Malone soap and Chanel No 9 perfume about them. They all looked like they were heading to meeting in any one of numerous solid looking buildings before nipping out and doing lunch. Its probably a super place to live and work but its leafy suburbs and efficient municipal style was not for us.

Germany is calling and at 75mph that ain’t gonna take long. OK, its only 50% of what some cars go by us at but, for us, 75mph is greased lightning.  So far, our nights have been spent in picturesque settings that Rachel has found on one of her many websites – mists on lakes swaying trees, and burbling rivers have all been the back drop to our evening meals and when the light goes we close up the shutters and sleep like babies in our cosy capsule.

The Mosel is a delightful river and meanders through steep sided vineyards which are periodically dotted with little villages that are visited not only by motorists but by river cruises ships that chug up and to Koblenz and the Rhine (that’s from memory so any pedants out there who can prove me wrong can just bugger off). It is along this river’s shores that Bernkastel Kews lays and it is here we enjoy the slight change of scenery. It is so Hansel and Gretally that you could be tempted to poke your fingers into the walls of the buildings to check for marzipan. It fairly busy but in a gentle ‘middle of a wine region so everybody’s laid back and drinking’ sort of way. The little squares are cobbled and lined with alternating wine bars, gift shops and….. well, more gift shops and sell the sort of shit that elderly river cruising types like to litter their shelves with back home in their own countries.

However, lovely as it was, we had two days in a comfy bed to look forward to so we upped sticks and headed off to stay with our friends Alan and Petra. A cool, and I hate to admit any of this, trendy couple (same age as me so that just proves I am not unique) who enjoy their digital employment in a very nice, spacious penthouse flat a short jaunt from Frankfurt.
We have been here before and there always seems to be plenty to do. This time they have organised for us to sightsee around the old part of Frankfurt en Mainz on bikes; to eat well both at the flat and at some restaurants. To see a Ba’hai temple and take a walk through a huge vineyard with them and some friends of theirs we met on our last visit, Then to sit and drink that particular chateaux’s wine in the warm autumn sun overlooking the vineyards. Finally we get to watch some bands in a chilled café overlooking the river. A place with a really eclectic clientele and some tame (as opposed to feral) sheep wandering through the crowds.

On leaving we are given a list of some ‘must see places’ along our route. The first is Rothenburg. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. Given what the place looks like I am somewhat shocked by our collective ignorance. Imagine Carcassonne (assuming you know of that particular little French gem) that has been taking steroids for some years and there you have Rothenburg. It’s old, preserved, beamed, protected, cared for and beautiful. All enclosed in a high wall with slitted windows from where, in the olden days, they could shoot tourists. Yes, there are too many gift shops. But if you squint or head off into the less peopled routes it is easy to be taken back a few hundred years. We ambled for some time exploring alleys and narrow byways (truth be told we got lost for about 30 minutes but it was still jolly interesting).

Bamburg in ‘Little Switzerland’ is probably not the best of towns and the scenery not actually a patch on ‘Big real Switzerland’ but if you are passing by then do drop in. It’s pleasant enough. There are some good parks, a small river and they sell a smoked beer that tastes of bacon.. More of a breakfast beer one supposes. It’s a leap of the old grey matter to imagine that it tastes good. Mainly because in it doesn’t. But that’s not to say it tastes bad either. It just tastes. And, with enough of them in your belly, I guess you could develop a taste for the stuff. But then thinking on the subject. Many things take on a new reality when you drink a lot of beer – driving skills, putting traffic cones on your head and fighting big men or lippy women spring to mind.

Enough of that. Before we speed on towards another biggie of the tourist route – Prague, let me leave you with a rather funny story about a biggie of another kind. So. Rachel was teaching and I decided to go for a bike ride around the lake where we were camping. Can’t remember where. Anyway, after about 30 minutes biking, and when I was nearly back at the van, I found myself wanting a poo. It was quite …. pressing and since Rachel was mid lesson I knew I couldn’t use the van but neither could I wait. So, I pulled over to the side of the deserted path. Looked out across the narrow neck of the lake and up and down the path to ensure the coast was clear. Placing myself between two trees (which screened me from the road) I dropped my trousers and set about wrestling out a monster turd on the shoreline of the lake. My thinking being it would be washed away by the slight waves. Flash forward to 30 minutes later. Bright biking clothes removed and bike loaded on the back of the van we drive off along a road on the opposite bank of the lake to where I had shat. Suddenly my eye catches a movement and there, just 50 metres across the water from where I had merrily defecated are dozens of fishermen who were obviously in some kind of angling competition. Fishing as you will know ain't that entertaining so I have no doubt that a brightly clad cyclist pedalling on the opposite bank drew their attention. Further that their attention would have been even more focused and quickly turned to horrified as I exposed by arse and gave them a HD shot of a full on stealth poo. Like all fishermen I bet they exaggerated the actual size when they told their wives that night.

You know what. I think we will leave Prague and Poland, with the beautiful car park I wrote this all in for next time. Bye for now.