Wednesday, 26 September 2007

When Social Calendars Attack

Sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day. Not only at work, where it seems to be really stacking up at the moment, but also in socialising. I'm coming to the end of a long series of weekends where I've been fully booked for months (and also quite a few weekdays) - and while the short, flourishing life of my inner social butterfly is dying, there is one last burst of life to be endured before being allowed to rest, and that is this Saturday. Here's a rundown.

4:30am-9am - Line up outside the Finchley Road Walkabout for the AFL Grand Final. Doors open 5am, bouncedown is 5:30am. It'll be all over by about 9am. A few people are joining me for that, including Jez, Kev and a few other mates not exactly known for their sobriety.

9am-11:30am - A bit of a black spot but it will most likely involve a disgusting, extended and alcoholic breakfast (possibly involving curry, and/or chips with curry sauce). It might involve staying at the Walkabout if they don't kick us out. Eventually we have to get on the tube to travel to Borough.

12noon-6pm - In Borough, Morgs' party kicks off - a combined housewarming and birthday party for Kim (his lovely GF). It'll be a good chance to catch up. The Wallabies play Canada in the Rugby World Cup at 2pm. Oh yeah, and it's a keg party. Two kegs - one of beer and one of Pimm's.

6pm-8pm(ish) - The party moves to a 80s bar in the city, called Reflex. Kegs presumably finished by then. I'm not carrying them.

8pm - Raife's 30th kicks off in Soho. I suspect I'll be a little late, coming straight from Reflex and hopefully remembering to eat on the way. Raife has promised to keep the party going until the bar closes at 3am.

In short, this is going to be one of those mornings/days/nights where I have to take my camera with me so I know what happened. Hopefully joining the dots the following day won't be too painful an experience. This must be what getting attacked by your hectic social schedule is like. In my case I'll just be boozing for 22 hours.

Photos - obviously - will follow.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

What I Miss About Perth

Last weekend was wonderful - about 22 degrees, bright sunshine, and we managed to play cricket to boot! I might have even got sunburnt. But like so many bouncers that have come my way at closing time, the weather has closed in and summarily -comprehensively - dismissed summer. I awoke on Monday and Tuesday to clear but chilly conditions (about five degrees), and the sun was barely up as I plodded down to my train. Sigh.

With this in mind, and realising I'd have the next nine months indoors alone with my thoughts (a scary prospect), it is surely time to walk that well-worn path by listing thing I miss about home. I am aware that in doing this I am in fear of being called a whingeing pom. Family and friends go without saying obviously, don't get all soppy though. You're not all friends.

Strip Sub Combos

While my penchant for Nando's is well recorded, not much can replace a Strip Sub Combo from Red Rooster. The crusty, deep fried strips of chicken, the cholesterol-laden mayonnaise with mysterious herbs. The token lettuce. The sugar-laden baguette. Phwoar, not bad!

This, of course, could be extended to a few more foods also: choc milk and iced coffee, Vegemite, decent meat pies (rather than the "meat" pies over here).

The Beach

I'm not a huge beach person - I appreciate it more in knowing it's there and that I can head down there any time I want. Over here, that isn't the case, so I still miss it. From my arrival here on May 9, I didn't see the ocean until the end of August (and that was in Iceland). Almost four months.

To be fair I could add open space and real grass to that.

Taking the Weather for Granted

It's entirely feasible to forget the sky is blue here. Sunny weather is always noticed here. It's a bit disappointing: to appreciate every sunny day because you have to. It'd be nice to know that, bar a couple of humid changes, the next 3 months will feature cloudless skies and temperatures in the thirties.


I appreciate the irony of including this in a blog entry full of regret for things I've left behind in Oz. But it's one of the most noticeable. People over here get all hyped up, usually over an individual (Beckham, Pietersen, Wilkinson) and heap him with expectation, and follow it up with an overwhelming sigh and immediate pessimism, with comments like "typical England". The press, especially the tabloid press, do this incessantly. But no one - no one - does this more than Nasser Hussain when commentating the cricket. England never stood a chance under him.

But its not just in sport. It seems to pervade every facet of British culture.

English People

No doubt, there are more in WA than there are in London. If you want to meet a pom, don't go to London.

I don't actually miss them, I just wanted to make that point.

Customer Service

This is well known, and nowhere better than in the bureaucracy. Even confusing bureaucratic dead-ends, which obviously frustrate the hell out of members of the public, are explained with apathy as if going through the motions. Honestly I wonder how much thought some people put into dealing with the public. Put yourself in their shoes.

Not restricted to bureaucracy though. The other night I was getting a night bus home. I waited about 30 minutes for it to come along, and my Oyster card didn't work - it was out of credit. I handed the guy the fare and he said I had to get a ticket outside. I pop out to get it and the bus is driving off! I run alongside it for about 50 metres bashing the door. He opens it and says unapologetically, "Its not my job to wait for you"

I walk away and half-under-my-breath said "Fuck off" - at the pathetic comment.

He screamed at me and kicked me off the bus. I waited another 40 minutes, but I was much happier having given him a piece of my mind.

But the one thing I've noticed more than anything is the pathological inability for people that serve you to look you in the eye - even when they're handing you your change. Very, very unfriendly, and more than a little isolating in a big city.


For the inventors of this fine language, they do a hell of a job bastardising it. It seems everyone wants to substitute glottal stops for every "t", so they are actually silent. In short, people don't know how to pronounce words. I give some of my English mates shit about this when we give each other a ribbing, and that's where the fun ends. They take exception to it - even when they do it themselves. So if you ever want to annoy a pom, that's what you need to do.

I guess writing about missing home means I'm becoming a Whingeing* Pom. Talk about irony.

I'm sure there are heaps more. Any suggestions??

(* I'm not comfortable with that spelling of "whingeing" - never have been - but "whinging" just looks ludicrous)

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Plugger's Odyssey

Many of you know that Homer is my idol. Unfortunately on Wednesday 22 August, the wrong Homer was my inspiration for a long and rather trying journey.

Normally, I'm the master of forward planning for holidays. I know exactly how I'm getting from one place to another, timetables and the like. For some reason, before leaving London, when considering how to get from Sighisoara, deep in Transylvania, to Varna on the black sea coast, which is about 450km as the crow flies. All I did was set a day aside for the trip.

My "detailed" planning began the day before when, as I was waiting for a train in Brasov to take me to Sighisoara, I causally enquired how I'd get to Varna by train. It was about 6:45pm. They said I had two options. The first was to get straight to Bucharest now and get the overnight train (its about 3 hours by train from Brasov to Bucharest). Not an option as I had to get my pack from Sighisoara, two hours further away from Bucharest. The other option was to get a train tomorrow morning leaving Bucharest at 9:30am and spend the day getting there by train, changing at Russe on the Bulgarian border. That meant getting the 6:10am train from Brasov, which meant getting a train leaving from Sighisoara no later than 4am (no such train existed).

It was then I thought this might get a bit awkward.

By option was to take the first train to Bucharest from Sighisoara. That was just before 9am, and being a fast service it got to Bucharest about 1:30pm. Added to this, I had enough money on me for the hostel or the train ticket but not both. One of them had to let me pay by card because by the time I got back to the hostel it was dark as I wasn't overly keen to wander the streets with a wad of crisp notes.

So I headed to bed, and awoke about 7:30 to grab some breakfast, settle my bill and make for the train station. Plenty of time. After getting ready and packing, I grabbed some toast and the only other bloke that was up told me there had been an incident the previous night. A bloke had been beaten up and robbed by Gypsies. The idiot had got into a car full of men that had stopped to give him a lift. Still, I was happy that I decided against walking through town with heaps of cash the previous night.

I saw the owner of the hostel and paid her - in cash unfortunately which meant I needed to pay for the train ticket by card. I wasn't confident that would be possible, given the ticket office was in an old shipping container. And my fears were confirmed about 20 minutes before the train arrived. Luckily there was a taxi waiting outside the station so I raced into town to get money out and raced back, with about five minutes to spare to buy a ticket and board. Once on board all I could do was relax and watch the countryside go by (not quickly enough for me).

Upon arrival at Gara du Nord station in Bucharest, more or less on time at 1330, I set out to find a way to get to Varna. This was where the real fun began. My first priority was to see if there was any way of getting to Varna by rail, so at the train station I headed to the crowded window for international bookings desk. It seemed the line took ages to move and it seemed like there was literally no one attending the window answering queries. While I was waiting, with my pack over my shoulder, a tubby bloke in a yellow t-shirt walked up to the line.

"Varna? Varna? Anyone go to Varna?"

I asked him about it. "Thirty-five. It cost thirty-five [about £9]. We find one more person and we go. I drop you in Mangalia [a resort town on the Black Sea coast in Romania, about 6km from the Bulgarian border], you go to Varna from there."

My trusty Lonely Planet told me that Varna was about 25km from the border. I was initially very interested. But he looked a little shifty. He was hanging around, looking for a second person while I asked at the window about trains. I had a bad feeling about him.

The only train they offered to Varna was the overnight which I already knew about and wasn't all that keen on. You hear bad stories about overnight trains in this part of the world, and besides, I'd already paid for my accommodation. As I was finishing up I decided to bolt in the opposite direction. He called after me but didn't chase me, and I didn't look back.

It was almost 2pm. Famished, I got something to eat out the front of the station for lunch. Whatever it was, it was awful. There was a bus station around the corner. I looked for it, but couldn't see it anywhere. I asked over the road at an Ibis hotel. I got a dirty look on entry (must be coz Ibis Hotels are so classy they didn't want my type). They said there was no bus station in Bucharest. Turns out the bus station is actually just a bus stop over the road. I had to think about trains again.

Consulting my guidebook, I saw trains to Mangalia and nearby Constantia left from another station, Gara Obor. I decided to see what trains were on offer there, and got in a cab. The meter seemed to be rising awfully quickly, and I noticed the tariff was RON7.90/km (normal is RON1.40 - about 30p - per km).

I asked how much it would be. He said about RON40, which I could deal with.

I asked why it was RON7.90. He said "I am independent, not part of company" as if that answered it. Infact that made me a bit more scared - he could've been kidnapping me.

"That's way more than usual."

"It will be about forty," he reassured me. "You want me to stop cab?" I said no, but made sure he knew I was not happy in my usual loud way.

He proceeded to take the main roads in town which all had road works. The meter kept climbing. It got to thirty and he weren't moving. I silently decided there was no way I was paying more than forty no matter what the meter came to.

We were less than half way there when it hit forty. Its at this stage that I should mention what my chauffeur looked like. He was middle-aged and sported the mandatory Romanian moustache. He was big too. A little fleshy but definitely solid, and looked able to handle a rough customer. The meter kept climbing. In my mounting panic I convinced myself I could take him.

After a couple of surprising and scary sharp turns (see comments about kidnapping above), we arrived there. The meter read RON78. About twenty quid. I was careful to get out and get my pack from the boot before the question of money came up. He stood there and I handed him a RON50 note. His hand stayed out for more.

I looked at him with cynicism and said loudly "you're kidding - you ARE kidding - there's no way I'm paying any more." I was petrified though.

He just shot me a dirty look and got in the cab. But as he turned away from me I swore I saw a smirk escape.

He'd obviously ripped me off enough not to worry about the extra thirty or so.

It was 2:45pm. I headed into the station and it was much smaller. The information booth didn't offer too much in the way of English speaking. It was all pointing and writing times down. Turns out the next train to Constantia got me there about midnight. No good. They suggested I try the bus station next door.

No dice.

There was a bus station in Bucharest after all, and there were buses there, but noone who I could ask about buses to the coast and no destinations I recognised.

I had to get back to the main station again. With more than a little trepidation I got a cab.

It cost RON12, including tip.

It was 3:15pm now. I looked again for some sort of bus depot. That dodgy bloke in the yellow t-shirt must have some from somewhere. After about half an hour looking (lugging my backpack still), I finally found one. And there was about to Constantia. And it would go on to Mangalia. And it was leaving now. And it was a nice bus!

I asked how much. They said RON40. I smiled - less than the cab ride. It took about four hours all told. There were two stops. Constantia of course, but before that we pulled in to a truck stop in Calarasi, on the Danube.

Now my penchant for truck stop bains-marie is well known. And I've seen some very good ones in my time (road trips to the Kalgoorlie Cup top the list). But this one is right up there. Not just the usual deep fried gear (there was plenty of that), there was some classier stuff too: shishkebabs and the like. And there was also a load of traditional gear too. Fantastic! And not a bit healthy.

We were soon on our way again. After a stop in Constantia we got to Mangalia about 8pm. This place is a strange sort of seaside resort. Kinda like a Romanian version of Mandurah, pre-Dawesville-cut. But with more booze.

I was dropped there, basically without a word. I had no idea how to get to Varna. No confuse matters, there were buses going to a smaller town down the coast, Vama Veche. I kept waiting for one to Varna. After about and hour I started to get worried. After another half-hour I was looking for alternatives. Some locals suggested I head to the bus station. I hopped in a minibus and asked them to drop me there. It was another bus stop with delusions of grandure. And it was also outside a sh!tty hotel.

I stuck my head in. Buses to Varna?

An attractive girl said it was unlikely, but they'd be here if they were anywhere. The alternative was to get a bus to Vama Veche and get to the border from there. I waited. All the buses were doing a local circle route. A large Romanian family (is there any other type) got to the bus stop. They waited too. We were all waiting for the same bus, and I had no doubt that they'd let jump on to the bus infront of me.

It finally arrived at 10:30pm. They clambered on as expected. And I was about to shove on, backpack and all, when one of the guys indicated I should get on in the back. I hopped on, put my pack down and realised I would be standing with a few others in the back of this minibus. As I drove off I was thinking one thing.

This is exactly how illegal immigrants are taken to pick strawberries in slave conditions.

Luckily my fears were allayed as I was dropped off in Vama Veche. I walked down the main drag (which was crushed limestone, not sealed) towards the beach. The place was pretty cool. Nice small bars and eateries, and small hotels. I walked in to one.

"I need to get to Varna tonight."

"There are no taxis here. You'll have to stay I think."

Smelling a conflict of interest, I asked how far the border was. I knew it was close.

"About two kilometres. You can walk it in twenty minutes."

"Will I get a cab from there?"

"Maybe, but you won't get one here, that's for sure."

"OK, thanks. I might see you in half an hour, but I hope not."

I trudged off. I was happy to walk it until I realised it was pitch black with fields on either side. Noone was around. Another opportunity for kidnapping (I make that three). But I made it to the border OK.

I approached very very nervously. I donned a massive smile and said slowly and carefully, "do you speak English?"


"I need to get to Varna tonight. Is there a cab you can call?"

"Yes. Wait here please. On the Romanian side." They took my passport.

Fifteen minutes later the cab arrived. It was 11:30pm. I asked how much. He said 140lev (about 40 quid, A$100). I was aghast.

"Its 25km away! That's all!"

"25km?? No its 110km."

A couple of minutes down the road we passed a sign that showed he was right. Bloody Lonely Planet lied to me!

Anyway we made small talk as much as you can given the language barrier. He was an amiable chap. We drove in silence mostly. By the time we got to Varna it was 12:45am and I was utterly famished.

I saw a McDonalds.

By 12:47am I was full and in a taxi on my way to Gregory's hostel. The guy didn't know where he was going. We stopped in the "centre" of Zvezdesta where some juvenile delinquents were loitering. He asked one of them (the only girl, naturally) how to get to Gregory's.. It was hard to explain so she got in. A couple of minutes later we were there. Finally. It was 1:05am, and my Odyssey was over.

No cyclops. No sirens. And no sacred cattle (expect the Big Mac). But I got there safely. Eventually.

Now let us never speak of it again.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Dracula and the Black Sea: Romania and Bulgaria

G'day there all
At first I had planned a massive three week extravaganza for my summer travels - it was to involve Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. Then I realised that was too much. Even for me. Also there was no way I could afford it. So I streamlined it into nine days of Romania (the capital, Bucharest, and Transylvania) and Varna, a seaside resort town in Bulgaria.

Bish's Precis
- I went to Romania and Bulgaria
- I washed my neck specially for Transylvania but didn't get any action
- Bucharest is NOT Budapest. Its dusty and still has bullet holes from the 1989 revolution
- If you ever go to Varna, go to Gregory's Backpackers. It rocked. So did the whole town, beaches, food and nightlife
- There's another email/blog entry following about one massive day of travel
- My parents arrive here on Saturday!!
- I'm off to India next with Chop, and I'm reading Shantaram thanks to Guy and Sarah's recommendations
- This and previous travel emails are on my blog:
- See all of my pics here:


There's three things you need to know about Romania. First, their history is dominated by two tyrannical despots, Vlad Tepes in medieval times (the real life basis for Dracula, who life had the handy moniker of Vlad the Impaler), and Nicolae Ceausescu, who was a terrible Communist dictator during the Cold War (he made his dog a general in the Romanian army - it was illegal not to salute it). Secondly, Chad plagiarised their flag. I forget the third thing.

Bucharest: Its NOT Budapest

The night before I left, a buddy of mine was opining that his favourite city in Europe was Budapest. It has ornate buildings, but is still quite gritty, cheap booze, a wonderful setting, great people, a lively music and arts scene: overall it's quite a package.

Bucharest is NOT Budapest.

If the road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions, then it is surely lined with buildings from Bucharest.

Some of the buildings there are extremely ornamental and quite detailed (or at least they were when they were built). These same buildings are now very shoddy, with noticeable slants in the buildings and structural faults. I wonder how many fall down each day. So, despite their aspirational decorative design, it seems too many buildings in Bucharest have been designed to make lovely facades but fail to retain their structural integrity. Priorities eh?

Anyway, I arrived late on Saturday and found my hotel. It was in a fairly grubby area. Powerlines everywhere . I asked where I could eat and they suggested a place around the corner which did some decent stuffed vine leaves and pork. Romanian food is fairly typical eastern European fare - stews, lots of meat, cucumbers, tomatoes and dumplings - except it contained maize meal where you might expect to find mashed potatoes. I remembered that my Lonely Planet pointedly avoided calling Romanian food "cuisine." Still, I scoffed it down.

I headed back to the hostel and eventually got to sleep. It took a while because of the time difference which was a shame as I wanted to get up early for a full day of sightseeing.

Turned out I didn't need it.

I woke up early of my own accord and headed to the Palace of the Parliament first thing. It was a major reason why I wanted to go to Bucharest. This monstrosity, the second biggest building in the world behind the Pentagon, was begun by Ceausescu in the early 1980s (after he'd knocked over 15% of the Old Town of Bucharest) and by the time he was toppled and executed in 1989 was still only half finished.

Astonishingly, despite the brutality of the regime it represents, they finished it (only fully in 2005). The reason they kept going was that all the materials needed to finish it had been brought to the site and it was more efficient to build it than take it all back.

The place is an amazing folly, and incredible in its scale, still mostly unused despite the parliament being based there now. Look at the photos and consider this: it's 86 metres high. It gives you an idea of the size of the place. Something like 35 hectares of floorspace.

Strange then that the tour only lasted an hour. Entry (and compulsory tour) cost about £3, and if you wanted to take photos it was another £6. Not bad, but considering the time you get and that you can get in to the Tower of London (easily a whole day) for £16 it's a bit steep. Inside, it is incredibly ornate: marble , wood, about 1500 tonnes of crystal, and no air conditioning - Ceausescu had a fear of being poisoned by it. He should've worried more about the bullets.

The highlight was the balcony - where Ceausescu never stood - looking out over the gardens and down the magnificent avenue reserved for Ceaucescu's use only. It is also the balcony where a touring Michael Jackson famously looked out over his fans and says "Hello Budapest!"

Bucharest is NOT Budapest.

I left the Palace of the Parliament at about an hour and half in total. Walking out, I had a close look at the gardens and saw they were very poorly maintained (especially for a place as significant to Romania as this). It made me wonder what the palace itself will be like in a few years' time.

Leaving the palace, next stop had to be Piata Revolutiei, where the uprising and overthrow over the Ceausescu regime began in December 1989. There's a monument there which could unkindly be likened to a massive turd on a stick. But that would be insensitive given the number of people who died, so I won't make that comparison.

A couple of other buildings overlook the square, including the one from which Ceausescu fled as the security forces opened fire on the unarmed protesters. One building which is not standing is that of the security forces, which was torn down by the mob out of hatred ( only the shell remains).

One thing I noticed a lot of in Bucharest was bullet holes still in buildings, almost 20 years on. Even important buildings like the National Gallery still have them.

The last significant stop I made was at the Arc de Triumf, built after WWI as a symbol of friendship with France. Nearby is Piata Charles de Gaulle.

There are a lot of links to France actually. Both languages are Romance languages and had a lot of similar words (paine is bread in Romanian). I found it a pretty easy language to read actually.

By then it was 5pm, and my lack of sleep was getting to me. I headed to he hotel for a siesta, which in fact lasted the whole night.

While reading up I found that Ceausescu reserved special hatred for Hungarians when in charge of the country, regularly torturing them (eg making them ingest radioactive material, condemning them to painful cancerous death).

Good thing that Bucharest is NOT Budapest.

Transylvania: A Bite? Not Even a Stinking Hickey

My alarm went off and I was up early to get a five hour train to Sighisoara, deep in Transylvania. I made sure I washed my neck for the occasion.

On the train I was buried in my book when someone asked me something in Romanian. I said I only speak English. His old face lit up and he engaged me in conversation in English. He was shocked that someone would come to Romania without knowing anyone here (on reflection he had a point).

The old bloke was a pastor. He asked whether I was christian. I said yes (hey, I am baptised). He asked what type. After a slightly-too-long pause I recalled I was Anglican. He smiled knowingly and spoke to me about the different denominations in the country for a while, asked me about Australia, etc. Then we both settled in to our reading. As I was leaving the train he gave me a business card with some phrases in Romanian on it. Bless the old bloke!

In Bucharest I'd been surprised by the lack of Gypsies. In the country about 10% of the population are Gypsy or "Roma" (they're not native Romanian either despite the name - they apparently descend from the Persia area). There was no lack of Gypsies in Sighisoara. It was a bit intimidating actually.

After arriving at the hostel in the late afternoon (Nathan's, like the famous one in Krakow) and quickly headed to the old walled citadel where markets were set up and a festival was on, with traditional dancing and the like. The walled city itself is interesting - some of the towers have been rebuilt and its a real mishmash of styles.

The reason I headed there was because it was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes. The house he was born in is now a steakhouse (what else would it be). I ate at a very good traditional restaurant called Rustic - cheap and better than the one in Bucharest - and marvelled at the non-smoking section which consisted of a perspex booth with a table of four set there. It reminded me a little too much of the smoking rooms you see in bowling alleys etc. The tables had been turned!

I had a couple of beers and headed back to the hostel. Not along the dark, dangerous waterfront mind you, along the streets where I could see where I was going. Disappointed in the lack of social life at the hostel ("oh, we have a bar - you just need to go out and buy your own beer"), I turned in for the night.

The following day was one of vigorous travel: alarm set for 6:30am train to Brasov and then bus to Bran castle , a fairy-tale-type castle famous for Dracula even though he never set foot in there. The castle is quite funny really: inside it's all about some queen or princess who actually lived there in the 19th century and has faithfully reconstructed rooms. Unfortunately the trip in the castle was a one-way affair, where you are directed fairly quickly through the rooms (there's no space to stop and ponder and let others wander past you).

But outside in the markets is a real cacophony of rampant tackiness as I suspect only Romania can do. Among the fake fangs and awful books ("Dracula: Myth or Reality?" - you can't write that stuff. No. Seriously. You CAN'T write that stuff), were even tackier things like fake Spiderman 3 outfits (why would you counterfeit that cr@p movie?) The food was awful too, and the place was crawling with tourists of course. I couldn't wait to leave.

So I got a bus back to Brasov for the afternoon, and the town was a real highlight actually. The old town and in particular the town square are said to be the best in Romania. I wandered through there very quickly to get to the cablecar for a view of the city from the Hollywood-style letters overlooking it. The view was wonderful, although the bar at the top for some reason faced the wrong way, down the other side! They had the right beers on tap though.

It was a stunning day, and nice and hot. I headed back to the square in beautiful weather and wandered around the old town for a while. For some reason, the women there were gorgeous! So much so that I have to add Brasov to my list of "Tidy Towns," which includes Tartu, Ghent, Eger, Bergen, and London. I later found out that there wasn't much night life there though. Shame.

Anyway I got the train back and after a long day that included about 6 hours travelling, I crashed out. I figured the next day was going to be a big one - getting from Sighisoara, two thirds of the way across Romania, to the resort town of Varna on the Bulgarian coast. My alarm was set for 7:30am.

I was right. It was big. So big that it gets its own email, all by itself!

Varna: A Beach! A Beach! My Kingdom for a Beach!

I really, really needed to relax once I hit Varna, and to make the most of the beach.

I was staying just out of town in a village called Zvezdetsa, at a hostel called Gregory's. Run by a British couple, and with a couple of West Aussie guys helping them out for summer for free board and food, this is the best hostel I have stayed at in my travels. The people - guests and staff - are wonderful there, and the setup is superb.

We were all English speaking (except the yanks), and it's a small place so we all tended to do things together, like heading to the beach. And after getting back we'd just sit in the bar and get on the squirt (500ml bottles of beer 50p, shots of lethal Bulgarian spirit 55p: before, after). The relative isolation really worked - it made for a nice atmosphere.

The main beach in Varna was a bit disappointing and dirty, so I was glad to head up the road a bit on the second day. We had lunch on the beach (I followed up my steak on the first day with a whole fish on the second for about 5 quid: before, after). Another night on the lash, including heading to a beachside bar (5 vodka and cokes on the beach - 4 quid) and it was time to head back to Bucharest for my flight back to the UK.

Back in Bucharest I headed out to eat that night, totally famished. I wandered around the streets a bit to, but not too much as it was still very hot. This photo was taken at 9:15pm. I stayed a night in Friends Hostel, which was fine but I didn't think it was in a very nice area (right near the main train station).

Then it occurred to me - maybe there were no nice areas in Bucharest.

But I guess that was part of the reason I was in a rush to see Romania. Having just joined the EU, its still a bit of frontier-land tourism-wise. No bucks parties really, no yobbos (present company excluded), and not really all that prepared for visitors. I keep thinking back to the surprise expressed by the pastor on the train.

Bulgaria was fantastic, and I would go back to Gregory's in a flash. Varna was about unwinding rather than sightseeing, and you could've stayed there for a week doing different stuff each day - in fact I think I should have done that. Ah well, next year!
In Bulgaria I also liked the Cyrillic alphabet. Perversely, it made me try to learn a bit of the language, probably more than I would have otherwise bothered with. Doesn't matter though as it's all forgotten now.
It's easy to say that Bulgaria is better than Romania in a lot of ways, but I doubt that's fair. I saw the very best of Bulgaria - the sun-drenched beach full of local and international holidaymakers relaxing. While Romania included a hot dusty capital and a touristy area still full of some dangerous elements. I'm glad I went, but I doubt I'll go back to Bucharest.

What's next?

First of all, my parents arrive here on Saturday! I haven't seen them since I left, so it's gonna be a fun weekend! They're here for the Rugby World Cup (and me!) I'll be heading to Montpellier for the Australia vs Fiji match in a couple of weekends. They're back in the UK in October.

But the next big trip on the horizon is India! Two weeks at the start of November which should be ... well, I don't really know what to expect. I'll be heading there with my good mate Chop. I can't wait! On a couple of mates' advice I've started reading Shantaram in preparation and I'm really enjoying it (thanks Guy and Sarah!)

Except for my "Plugger's Odyssey" email which follows (probably tomorrow), that's about it for now though. I hope you're all well!

Cheers all!