Monday 10 October 2022 – Vienna
Rising early, I headed to the rather basic gym and then a rather good breakfast. I caught the local tram the seven or so kms into town and opted for a coffee while I waited for the Information centre to open. There I was able to purchase a day pass for the public transport and get some directions on things to do. I headed up to the Spanish Horse Stables to book a look at a training session for tomorrow morning. The buildings around town are quite outstanding. Statues: well I thought Budapest had a lot but Vienna has outdone them by far. Horses and big strong men feature predominantly. Stone masons and sculptures must have made a fortune when they built this place.
From the stables I took a stroll down to the Danube River, which, with its high, man-made narrow sides, is flowing very fast. There are a bunch of boats parked up just below a bridge, some of which will eventually make their way to Amsterdam.
Looking at the brochure the nice lady at the information office has given me I saw the Sigmund Freud museum was close by. Pushing the boundaries and getting outside my comfort zone I decided to take a look. A 20 minute walk later I arrived at the door to find it was closed due to sickness. I strolled up the hill and caught the number one tram back towards town. Not far along the route we passed pretty magnificent looking building so I dismounted to investigate. It was in actual fact the local parliament building, closed to the public but covered with massive statues and other ornaments. The road was busy with trams, cars and the odd horse and carriage.
Back on the tram we passed another large building. Once again I dismounted to investigate. It turned out to be the Museum of Natural History. As I entered there was a Ukrainian family getting tickets. I asked them how they were getting on to be informed that their town, near the western Polish border had been rocked this morning. The museum was as good as I have seen with a large area on the first floor dedicated to geology including some rocks from the moon. The next floor was full of prehistoric creatures, including the largest petrified turtle ever found. There are a huge amount of dinosaurs and other strange creatures from the past including the not too long extinct moas from New Zealand. One recreated dinosaur-type monster started moving and growling every now and again to the great amusement especially of the children.
Boarding the tram again, I ended up back in the city centre and enjoyed a bite to eat and a glass of wine in the street seating of the Sluka Restaurant, established 1891. As I sat there hundreds of people passed by and the service was excelent.
Finally I decided to check out the Albertina Museum, which turned out to be an art gallery, some parts with large rooms sparsely but expensively furnished with large chandeliers and parquas floors. Other parts were full of various art objects in many different styles. The lower floor was dedicated to graffiti. I have trued to capture some of what I saw but the photos don’t do it justice.
After a great day out in Vienna, I took the tram back to the hotel to plan out the next few days of travel. Last night I had looked and marked a hotel to stay at tomorrow night in Kosice, Slovakia, not too far from the border of Ukraine. Looking again tonight every hotel in that town, and the towns around it, are booked out. Looks like Putin has caused another mass exodus from Ukraine.
Tuesday 11 October 2022
I enjoyed another good breakfast at the hotel, despite the lights not working, apparently a common problem. Funny thing, when I got back last night I asked what time the bar opened; the receptionist said “soon”. I said ‘how soon’, thinking I might come down for a drink; ’maybe a couple of weeks’ was the reply.
I drove into town, finding a carpark near the Spanish riding stables and headed to the show, where I had a seat in the front row at one end of the stadium. I got seated next to a nice US couple from Pennsylvania to be told by the woman seating me “no photos allowed while the horses are in the arena”. Bugger, it did not say that in the info when I researched the place. The show got underway as six strong stallions and there male riders entered the stadium. They put the horses through their, for want of a better word, dance moves. Normally a horse has four gaits: walking, trotting, cantering and galloping. These had added many into their repertoire which are a little hard to describe. The riders, from time to time, reached into the back of their jackets to produce a sugar cube as a reward for their excellent footwork. They were kept on a tight rein with the neck bent so the top of the head (the pole) was below the neck, something my father hated me doing with my horse when I was a kid. After 30 minutes the horses lined up, the riders dismounted and orderlies came in and put halters on the horses and lead them out as the riders wandered off, job done. The next five stallions entered, four mounted by women riders, one in a helmet rather than the Spanish hats the other’s wore; she was a trainee. There are no instructors as such in the school as the skills are passed on from rider to rider. We did not get to see the horses rear up like you see in the movies; apparently that stuff is kept for the real show. The horsmanship and the condition of the horses was impressive; at one stage one of the stallions shied at something, jumping sideways – the rider, unphased, didn’t even move in the saddle.
The show over, I headed to a local restaurant for some lunch before hitting the road. Checking out the history of Austria I discovered that from 1945 to 1955 it was mostly controlled by the USSR with some 450 german companies owned by the germans and taken over by the Russians. Most went broke giving the Austrians the opportunity to to exit the USSR and become independent and aligned to Western Europe. It certainly now has the feeling of a very wealthy country.
Heading southeast out of the city, the traffic was light and on one side of the motorway was a large curved wall, which I have seen a lot in this part of the world, to stop the sound of the traffic upsetting the locals. As I headed further east towards the border with Slovakia the land was flat and farmed like so much of this part of the world. There were areas of large wind farms with their red and white tipped blades, a few turning in the wind and some under construction. Crossing the border and heading to Bratislava, I expected the motorway to go around the city but it went through the centre at 120kpm speed limit. I was lucky, as now heading for Demonava instead of Kosice a little further east and south, the road took me into the hills. Still a magnificent E (European road funded by the EU) road, it was an easy drive. At one point I encountered a 100-plus vehicle convoy of military trucks, fortunately heading in the opposite direction.
Eventually leaving the E road, I headed up into the mountains on an ordinary road in excellent repair. Again I was surprised by the number of large factories situated near small, remote towns. At one point I could see the evaporating towers of the Elektraren Nuclear power plant. Arriving at the top of a pass I encountered a large, I presume, ski resort with cable cars heading up into the surrounding hills. Heading down the other side I eventually arrived at the industrial town of Rozomberok with large steam pipes running along side of the road to power a massive minerals factory called Mondi SCP. There I struck a traffic jam. Fortunately a truck driver let me in and we headed along the single lane, to find 10kms of mainly trucks waiting on the other side of the road to get through.
After heading alongside Lake Lptovska I finally reached the turn off to Demanova. It too had a large manufacturing plant and some Russian style appartments on the west side. The town is now mainly a resort town with lots of nice houses and tidy streets. Checking into the Hotel Demanova, which is only a couple of years old, I was very pleasantly surprised – at 125NZD I wasn’t expecting much. The place is outstanding. From the receptionist, who welcomed me with perfect english (learnt at school), to the very comfortable cigar bar and restaurant with great food and wine, it has to be the best value for money place I have ever encountered.
Wednesday 12 October 2022
Departing the hotel at 0800 I headed southeast towards Kosice, which is which is about 80kms from Ukraine. From there the road took me southwest past a castle under restoration and though some nice farmland. Snow drift fencing is stacked next to the road and in places already up to protect the road from snow drifts come winter. They must take it down for the summer so the farmers can tend the paddocks.
Crossing the border into Hungary and on to Miskclc, then southeast to the border of Roumania. This was a manned boarder. I pulled up to the kiosk and handed over my passport, which the guy had for a while then took it to the next booth where another guy and a woman asked for the car registration. Handing those over they asked where I was heading and were a little surprised when I told them. They were all friendly and wished me a good journey.
As I headed south on the still 3 lane each way E road with a kilometre plus of trucks waiting to go north across the border, I am quite glad I am not driving a truck here. I was curious as to why why google maps was telling me it was going to take 4-hours to cover the remaining 200kms and soon found out as the E road ended and it was onto a well-patched two way country road. It was a bit like going back in time, especially after spending the last 10 or so days in what felt like really wealthy countries with great roads, big tractors and nice houses. Here, the tractors are much older and smaller; they still use horses to tow carts and cultivate in places and the houses are nowhere near as smart.
The road took me up into some small hills, which are not something one experiences in the plains of Hungary, then down and alongside Lacul (lake) de Acumulare Lugasu, part of which has a long dam wall running in a large horseshoe and a small hydro power plant. The road improved a little from here, but was still one lane each way but in better condition and called highway 1, passing through lots of small towns, one with a number of almost chateau-style houses that have not been finished. In one valley there were hand-stacked hay stacks and, alongside the run down houses, some nice looking restaurants; of course all the churches were in good repair. In places stock grazed in the fields, something I have not seen much of in this part of the world.
Finally reaching Cluj-Napoca, a city of some four hundred thousand and dating back to the Roman days. I was not too impressed as I drove along alongside the river, lined with old soviet styled apartments. Eventually, arriving at the hotel on top of a hill in the middle of a park, I checked in. It looked a bit rough from the outside and old but tidy on the inside. The room is okay with clean linen and a great view from the 6th floor. I dropped my bags and headed down to the restaurant but the lights were not on. The friendly maitre’d said ‘come in, we are open’. I decided to have a drink in the bar first and was presented the worst glass of wine ever. I couldn’t finish it and went to the reception and asked if there were any good restaurants in town. After, with stops, nearly 9 hours on the road I was thirsty. She said ‘lots, just follow the steps down through the park’. Arriving at the bottom of the hill I was pleasantly surprised to find a stunning old city, bustling with people and lots of bars and restaurants. I popped into a busy bar and enjoyed a couple of glasses of very nice Romanian Chardonnay, after which I headed to a restaurant close by. There were three people sitting at the next table conversing in English. I asked them where they were from and it turned out they were here at medical school, training to be doctors, two from Germany and one from France. We had a nice chat and I enjoyed a very nice New York style steak. It had rained when I first got down to the old city but luckily it had stopped as I went back up the hill to the hotel.
Thursday 13 October 2022
I woke to heavy rain, which fortunately had eased as I got on the road at 0800. The traffic wasn’t too bad on the way out of town and soon the route took me onto a good motorway with the traffic steady at 130km/h. Passing lots of farmland and every now and again a large factory or distribution centre in the middle of nowhere, there were a large number of huge, high-voltage powerlines running across this country often with sub stations in the middle of nowhere.
The motorway ended after a couple of hundred kms and it was back onto a one lane each way road that lead into some really nice hill country running alongside a river. There were lots of hold ups as the retaining wall on the river bank was being replaced and the road was down to one lane. There are lots of rather derelict looking buildings through the valley and, in places, large areas of still water held back by dams, of which there were many along this (I think) Prahova Piver. At one point, a couple of fishermen squatted at the edge of the water trying their luck. Shops often had their wares displayed on the footpath in well-presented displays. Another thing I have seen a lot here are the old style kilometre markers on the road side. Every now and again there was a nice resort-type town with nice apartments and, in some cases, high-rise buildings. At one point there was a large, I think, conference centre, built of brick in the shape of large oil tanks. In places the mist hung low in the hills but the rain held off. I was glad the motorway does not go all the way as this was really nice country and a good change from the flat and sometimes rolling farm land.
Leaving the hills the road lead onto another 130kph motorway. Closing on Bucharest there are large distribution centres on the roadside and many factories, all serviced by this nice road. The motorway ended and the last 20 odd kms were through the city, where the traffic mostly flowed well. Arriving at the rough-on-the-outside but nice-on-the-inside Christina Hotel, the street was packed with cars. I turned down a dead-end side street and a woman parked on the foot path on the corner vacated so I took her spot. Heading in to the hotel I asked the very helpful good English-speaking guy if it was ok to park there – he came and took a look and said it would be fine.
After settling into the room I took a stroll into the old town, a couple of kms away, with a large tree-lined avenue leading to it. Not as nice as the area in Cluj-Napoca, it was a lot more spread out with the many streets lined with tables and chairs and lots of people around. There was a big police presence, all armed with pistols and big pepper-spray canisters. There was a group of soccer type fans in town but I am not sure if this was the reason or whether it was just normal. I stopped at Beer O’clock and enjoyed a local IPA before wandering on and stopping for a Romanian Steak at one of the many restaurants. The Romanian steak turned out to be exactly the same as the New York steak I had had last night, even served on the same style wooden board. The service was great, as was the food and wine. A good end to another long but interesting day of driving.
Friday 14 October 2022
After a bit later than usual start and a good breakfast at the hotel, I headed down the road, purchased a day pass for the metro at 8 locals (2.84 NZD) and headed off to the Parliament Buildings. I had read about these a couple of years ago – they were built between 1984 and 1997. Construction was ordered by Nicolae Ceausescu, the second of two long-ruling heads of state since WWII, who was executed after the uprising in 1989. Reaching a height of 84 meters with a floor area of 365000 sqm and weighing in at 409,850,000 kgs it is the heaviest building in the world. I think also after the Pentagon it is the second largest. It is the largest and most expensive admin building in the world, valued recently at 4B Euros. Arriving at the gate a friendly young policeman said it was closed for a conference this month. He also told me that when it is open there are only parts of two floors open to visitors. He said to walk around the outside and have a look at the large church at the back. I bet, looking at the size of the place, there are bureaucrats that have occupied the same office since it was built and nobody knows who they are or what they do.
Across the road to the east are large apartment buildings that mirror each other. To the south is a large Academic building. I strolled the almost 2km along the south wall to the entrance to the church on the west side. It too was closed, by the look of it, for a rebuild. There was a small crypt part that was open, where priests moved around and people lit candles and prayed. By the look of the concrete rot in the surrounding walls it looks like there will be some hefty maintenance bills coming up sometime soon.
That part over I headed back on the metro to the old city and enjoyed a nice cottage pie lunch at Kilkenny’s Bar – yes there is an Irish bar in just about every place I have been. The staff were very friendly and I enjoyed a couple of local Grivita IPA beres (local spelling). Back on the train, I headed to Primaverii Palace. This was the home of Nicolae Ceausescu. His pad is still pretty much in its original state, complete with peacocks, which are descendants of the original ones donated by the Japanese emperor back in the 70s. I arrived just in time to be added to a guided tour that was about to take place. Joanna, the very informative guide, took us from room to room, but not all of them as there are some 88 rooms in this 4500 sqm mansion, with lots of carved walnut walls. From the eldest son’s apartment we went through the main rooms used for meetings and other stuff. Then to the wife’s day room, then their apartment, complete with gold bathroom, reported some years ago as solid gold but that was not the case. Apparently the marble in the passage way from India cost much more than the gold used in the palace. There were lots of tapestries and ornaments gifted by just about every world leader at the time. Then came the winter garden complete with mosaics. We looked in the dress-making room and the wardrobe with its collection of dozens of animal skins such as foxes, lynx , sable and more. Then it was down some stairs to the 3m deep and 14m long pool complete with wave machine, heating etc. A million plus peace mosaics covered the walls, completed by local artists over 3 years.
Back in the day no-one knew how they lived as the place was totally off limits to the people. As Joanne said, they lived in this while the rest of the people lived in apartments smaller than their bathrooms. In a corridor, as we exited, there were pictures of all the world leaders in meetings with Ceausescu during their visits to this place. All the leaders of the time are pictured there.
Tour over, I headed back to the hotel and then off to the old city for some dinner and a drink. The place was rather busy and as I wandered about looking for something different to eat it became obvious that in spite of their being hundreds of restaurants they pretty much all sell the same stuff. I settled on salmon and salad in the end, which came out with chips and no salad and a rather bad glass on wine.
Saturday 15 October 2022
Heading out of town at around 0800, the traffic was light as I headed southwest to the border. Prior to reaching the border, which runs down the centre of the Danube River, there is the Romanian border control. The process was efficient and quick and shortly I crossed the bridge by the Bulgarian city of Ruse Pyce, a small industrial city with a large power plant and other industry. Reaching the Bulgarian check point there was a large queue, but after about 90 minutes I reached the booth and had my passport stamped and car ownership papers checked and was on my way south. The land was mainly flat and rolling for the first 150kms, then there were some bush covered hills. I passed another industrial type city and a few villages here and there. The tractors and farm machinery were bigger and newer than in Romania but the roads were a bit basic most of the way – all sealed but one lane each way and a little rough in lots of places. The last 80ks into Sofia was a double lane highway with a good surface. Entering the city the traffic was light with quite a few new, large commercial buildings along the roadside.
I checked into the COOP Xoten Hotel, which is a little old but ok. From there I took a wander into the old city centre. The footpaths along the way were quite rough. Reaching the centre square there are a couple of large buildings facing each other. A tall Saint Sofia Statue is at one end, some steps take one down into what looks like an old archaeological area. From there an under pass goes under the road and leads eventually to a large mall area with lots of shops and eating areas. There are many large restored buildings around the area and some nice parks and a fountain. Eventually I spotted a Thai massage place called Arsanta and wandered in. I was greeted by a really friendly Bulgarian lady behind the counter and had a massage by a lady called Sudani, who had moved here from Bali. It turned out she and the lady from the reception had set the place up a year ago. I had one of the better Thai massages I have had, especially after having stiffened up from the many days of driving.
Sunday 16 October 2022
As I left town the traffic was quiet as I drove through the main square, past the statue of Sofia. There are lots of old Soviet-style apartments along the way plus some new and better looking ones. Heading out on to a not-too bad motorway, I passed a couple of large manufacturing towns and a coal fired power station. The scenery was nice especially as I approached the border.
There I pulled up to a booth but no one appeared so I started to back up when I heard a whistle. A rather rotund guy had come out of the booth, asked for my documents and wanted to look in the boot. When I lifted the boot he spotted a open shopping type bag I had some food in and rummaged through it. He pulled out an open box of energy bars asking if they were nice. I said “a bit average” as he slipped one into his palm. “You can have one if you want’ I smiled as he did. He then went off and stamped my passport. I then moved to the North Macedonia booth where things were pretty straight forward.
Heading down a gorge, which was pretty rough going, a new road is under construction to one side. The countryside was quite nice with lots of small villages and people selling stuff on the side of the road, including the motorway, grapes in one area, then honey in another. As I passed Skopje Ckonge (the capital) cops were there giving out speeding tickets. I missed out this time, having being warned that they make tourists pay cash and I didn’t have any locals on me. There are lots of mosques throughout this country, although at one point the mosques stopped and churches were present, then it went back to mosques. Heading up over some nice hills on my right there is a new motorway being constructed with massage earthworks going high up the hills in the form of retaining walls, some impressive engineering. Further down a valley the motorway was sort of half finished with two-way traffic using one side.
Heading out into a large valley to Lake Mavrovo the road runs on around the lake and up to the Albanian border, where another of the, often-seen, large North Macedonia flags flew on a tall pole.
Something I have forgotten to mention, is the almost smog-like mist that I have experienced right through eastern Europe – it’s quite hard to define exactly what it is.
The border crossing was pretty easy with a bit of a queue. The road went along a ridge and then down a valley to a small city that had lots of piles of bricks on the roadside, even though the local, once brick factory, looked like it had been closed for some time. At one point a large truck, some distance in front of me, just stopped, the driver disembarking and going into a local shop to get some food. The traffic just waited until he came out and got going again. The road wound its way through a valley with a rail line to the right. Passing through lots of villages, many with roadside stalls, I eventually arrived on the outskirts of Tirana. It is quite a pretty city with lots of striking white buildings. As I drove into town the traffic was quite light, which made things easy, especially as Google maps had the hotel on the other side of the road and way further down the street. As Vodafone doesn’t have a deal in this country I had my data turned off, hence one can put the map in and use it for directions but you can’t put in any new routes, hence it can be a bit tricky. There is lots of high rise construction going on around the city centre.
Beside the Hotel Colosseo is a barricade to a private street, manned by a guy with a pistol. I pulled up and said I was going to stay at the hotel and he went and got the concierge, who came out and showed me where to park. Checking in to the hotel, I then headed down to the local square to check it out. What struck me was on the street leading to the square most shops were closed being a Sunday I presume, but over the next 500m there were some 15+ cell phone shops ,some selling E scooters as well, all open and trading. In the Square, where lots of people gathered, many were sitting glued to their Phones. I was amused by three blokes, obviously mates, sitting together all engrossed in their phones, maybe they were chatting by phone!!
Heading back to the hotel, I enjoyed some nice wine before heading to the restaurant for a meal of sea bass, which the waiter not only brought to the table, but also removed all the bones for me. The service here is top notch and the staff really friendly.