Athens, Greece.

Our visit to Athens was short, but oh-so-sweet.

We arrived in the early evening to a clear sky with air deliciously dry and warm. Between the garish lights of the shopfronts and the chaotic city traffic I wondered, with traveler’s caution, if I was going to like this place.

Starving, we dumped our bags and took to the streets. Within minutes we had found a restaurant in a small, leafy plaza and had ordered beers, souvlaki and salad. It was a sign of things to come…

I had booked a food tour of the city for Jez and I that would take us around downtown Athens. We met with our guide, Despina, and she took us to a whole range of traditional food shops. We tried sheep’s milk yoghurt, honey fritters, pork souvlaki, fresh Fetta cheese, camel pastrami (yes, made from camel meat!), fresh honeycomb, a walk through the meat and fish markets followed by ouzo and mezze, and then finished with lunch of zucchini fritters, meatballs and calamari. Phew!

Honey fritters with cinnamon - food tour.

Honey fritters with cinnamon – food tour.

The best part about the tour was that each shop and restaurant had a legacy. It was either the same family that was running it, or the same farm supplying the shop for over 80 years. One shop had products that were highly prized in places like Armenia and the UAE.

As we walked around the city with our guide, she pointed out the numerous shopfronts that were empty. In fact, almost every other shop was empty in some parts. The recession and GFC hit Greece particularly hard and everybody has heard that the country is in trouble. It was so interesting to hear the local perspective of what is going on.

Parthenon

Parthenon

Despite my description of all the foods we ate, we did get to do lots of sightseeing – the Acropolis, Temple of Olympic Zeus, the Acropolis Museum and Olympic Stadium. My favourite would have to be the Acropolis and the view from the Parthenon down on to Athens. When I thought about how many thousands of years ago someone was looking down on Athens from exactly where I was standing, it took my breath away.

If a city’s core is a culmination of experiences and impressions, left on the streets by citizens of the past and present, Athens is not only a product of it’s time but of all time.

Jez at the first modern Olympic Stadium.

Jez at the first modern Olympic Stadium.

Budapest, Hungary.

Lush green fields, small villages and simple stations flashed past us as our train trundled through the Czech countryside. The seven hours from Prague passed quickly enough, aided by books and music, before we arrived in Budapest just before 9pm.

Our first full day in Budapest was spent wandering the beautiful boulevards, making our way to Elizabet Square. In the height of summer, this square is constantly packed with revellers for festivals and fashion shows and concerts. Despite the blue skies and fluffy clouds that greeted us for the morning, the weather turned suddenly and a spectacular thunderstorm rained out the entire afternoon. We were huddled on a ‘hop on hop off’ bus and it was the ideal way to see the city that day!

Budapest had been affected by the flooding in Eastern Europe and the river was bulging, almost ready to spill into the city. The most incredible sight was the angle of the piers as they bobbed precariously, the ramp like an arm struggling to hold the pier in it’s place. There were a number of bridges spanning the river that looked too close to the angry currents underneath.

From the hill overlooking the river.

From the hill overlooking the river.

Another day was spent climbing the hill overlooking the city – a good way to combine a workout and sightseeing – for the most incredible view of Budapest. From the hill we could really appreciate the stunning architecture of the city.

From the hill looking over the city.

From the hill looking over the city.

On the last morning, we walked a few blocks to the ‘New York Cafe’ where, at the turn of the 20th century, Hungarian writers, journalists and poets would come to work on their latest novel or anthology. At one point, the cafe was crowned ‘the most beautiful cafe in the world’ because of the ornate and delicate decorations. We sipped our coffees/chocolate milkshake and waited for inspiration (would we feel the inclination to speak in rhyming couplets?) but none came. Perhaps we should have had more!

Jez and his milkshake at New York Cafe

Jez and his milkshake at New York Cafe

We have enjoyed parts of Eastern Europe and feel like there are places we would like to have more time. Budapest is one of them! It has been a fascinating city in terms of it’s history, very picturesque and visually stunning, easy to navigate.

Prague, Czech Republic.

It’s funny how you switch off from your daily rituals while traveling.

At home I would get up, open my laptop and have breakfast while reading the news. I have looked at those news sites twice, at most, over the past 7 weeks. So it was no wonder when we started receiving e-mails with comments like ‘really concerned about the weather situation’ or ‘I hope it improves for you’ we were a little surprised.

Yeah, I thought. The weather hasn’t been what I expected… I hope it improves too! I’d like sunshine and 25 please!

Of course, without my daily news intake I had no idea that there was a disastrous situation in Eastern Europe where floods had devastated small towns and rivers had broken their banks.

On our way to Prague, we learnt that there had been terrible flooding in the Czech Republic. Initially we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to visit the city at all but we were assured that everything was fine. Despite the floods, we arrived in Prague to a beautiful spring afternoon, walked around the old town as the sun was setting and watched the astronomical clock dance above the sea of tourists.

Old Town Square

Old Town Square

The famous Prague astronomical clock

The famous Prague astronomical clock

The city had put barricades up on the roads closest to the river as a precaution, so there were a few streets that were essentially deserted by pedestrians and shopkeepers alike. The biggest disappointment was that Charles Bridge was closed to the public due to the flooding. A breathtaking example of Gothic architecture, the bridge has stood steadfast since it’s completion in about 1402. Regardless, I suppose there is even more of a reason for me to return someday!!

The viewing tower

The viewing tower

One of our favourite experiences in Prague was the Viewing Tower, positioned high upon a hill looking over the city. It was a miniature of the Eiffel Tower, complete with steps to two different levels. We did a lot of climbing that day, both up the hill and up the tower, but I think you’ll agree it was worth it

The view from the top, looking down to Charles Bridge.

The view from the top, looking down to Charles Bridge.

Warsaw, Poland.

Alternative title: When we lived above the doughnut shop.

As we zig-zag through Eastern Europe, we have found that there are a number of striking similarities between cultures. There are clear spirits in ample supply; delicious, tasty morsels of dumplings served everywhere and finally, an obsession with fried dough.

I am not complaining!

Nowy Swiat looking towards the old town

Nowy Swiat looking towards the old town

We chose to stay at a guesthouse just off Nowy Swiat, a leafy and attractive street leading through to the Old Town because of it’s central location. The room was three floors up and not having the greatest view, we left the window wide open. Why? Well, to catch the intoxicating smells of the doughnut shop below as they cooked and glazed and sprinkled their way through the day. Jez thinks that they smelt like KrispyKreme, but believe me they were far superior!

Heavenly doughnut with peanut caramel filling

Heavenly doughnut with peanut caramel filling

Even though we maintain that our senses were impervious to the unregulated sugar levels, we found that Warsaw had character and charm enough for us to feel enchanted by it’s old town and equally mesmerised by the new building works of the past 30 years. Warsaw was essentially flattened by Hitler during WW2 but the city seems determined to mend the wounds. We visited the museum of the Warsaw Uprising, detailing the Polish resistance to the German invasion, inviting visitors to appreciate the enormity of the damage inflicted upon the city but to help heal the scars as well.

Warsaw's Palace of Science and Culture

Warsaw’s Palace of Science and Culture

One of the most enduring ‘scars’ of Warsaw’s story is the Palace of Science and Culture, a gift from Stalin to the people of Poland. An imposing and grandiose structure, the building stands out in the Warsaw skyline and certainly matches it’s siblings , the Seven Stalin Sisters of Moscow. Nowadays the building holds a cinema, a museum as well as numerous conference halls.

A square in Warsaw's old town.

A square in Warsaw’s old town.

If nothing else, we felt that Warsaw was a lively and youthful city, a culmination of the city’s history and the positive outlook for it’s future.

Kiev, Ukraine

When we applied for our visas to Ukraine, the process had us a little intimidated. In the time leading up to our visit to the capital, Kiev, we wondered if it would be hard work. We’re okay with cities that require a bit more planning, but after our time in China we didn’t know how resilient we could be.

Luckily, Kiev was a great city that felt very relaxed and easy to manage. We stayed in a place along Schevchenko Boulevard which was a little out of the action but no more than a 20minute walk to some of the city’s most beautiful sights. St Sophia’s church, Alexander’s decent and Independence square are all highlights of this picturesque place.

Road leading to Independence Square

Road leading to Independence Square

The other direction, towards the river.

The other direction, towards the river.

St Michael's Cathedral

St Michael’s Cathedral

One of the main reasons for passing through Ukraine was to visit Chernobyl, the site of the worlds worst nuclear disaster in 1986. We booked a tour of the exclusion zone as well as the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat that were evacuated in the days following the explosion and fire at the nuclear power plant. The main attraction here is the desolate wastelands of these towns that were considered to be the pinnacle of the communist way of life, carefully engineered ad structured. The towns remain frozen in time as the 30,000 people who were evacuated never returned to their homes.

It was a surreal experience to walk around these towns, but even more surreal to see such lush and green vegetation. The houses have been strangled by plants and vines and have succumbed to the extremes of weather experienced over the past 27 years. Our guide showed us ‘hot spots’ of radioactivity around the towns with his Geiger counter but he seemed pretty relaxed about the readings even though they were frightening! It was awful to hear that even though there were so many affected by radiation poisoning there are still only 31 deaths officially attributed to the explosion at Chernobyl.

Reactor number 4 and the monument.

Reactor number 4 and the monument.

Our guide told us that we were lucky to visit when we did as they are building a new sarcophagus for the reactor (as the original one is wearing away), which means that the iconic red and white stacks will be pulled down in the next few months.

In short, we have loved Ukraine and feel that it is a place that deserves a lot more of our time!

Moscow, Russia.

Modern travel is pretty amazing. In one day, you can experience the dry and dusty heat of Beijing and the crushing cold of Moscow. If we were talking a hundred years ago, fifty even, that journey would take you about a week by train. In our case, it took eight hours.

As you’ve already guessed, this Moscow summer wasn’t particularly warm. In fact, it was a mediocre 16 degrees and cloudy for the first day of our stay. That’s not to say that the Muscovites felt any different in their shorts and t-shirts, but hey, it’s all relative!

The Kremlin

The Kremlin

We came across a festival in the beautiful Gorky Park on a Saturday afternoon and walked along the banks of the Moskva river which were packed with people skating, singing and even rollerblading. We had dinner on Arbat street which is a lively place to be for tourists and locals alike.

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

We spent an afternoon on a walking tour of the Kremlin, the political centre of Russia and learned so much about the tumultuous history of this small piece of land. At one stage there were more than 37 churches situated in the Kremlin, now a total of four remain. Our guide showed us around the Assumption cathedral, which was where the Tsars of Russia had been crowned and it was covered, floor to ceiling, with murals and icons of saints.

Bell tower of Ivan the Great

Bell tower of Ivan the Great

We also visited Red Square and found, like most of our time in Moscow, it was not as we had expected. St Basil’s was impressive but the square was much smaller than we thought it would be. The cobblestone square was lined with the magical buildings of centuries past and it was truly a great place to visit.

St Basil's

St Basil’s

Overall, we enjoyed Moscow but we still don’t know what to make of the city itself. One factor in this is of course the language barrier, one not overcome easily! I managed to learn a few phrases and recognise some words in Cyrillic but our visit was probably limited without more Russian! There are probably lots of ways to see Moscow but in order to really get a sense of the city you will need to speak Russian or know someone who lives there.

Uhh, where now?

Uhh, where now?

Perhaps now that that travel has become so easy and accessible it has made us somewhat unprepared for what we find at the destination.