7-20 February 2011: London, Oxford, Twickenham, Brighton

9 February 2011

Well as we went for a walk/jog on Monday and Tuesday, it was time to undo all that good work and head out for a local pub meal with a drink.  We went to the coach & Horses for dinner as it does two main meals and a bottle of wine for GBP20 on a week night, so we imbibed and had a great night reading the local papers, listening to the locals and enjoying the warmth of the log fire.

11 February 2011:  Oxford

Up early today as we are catching the 8:22am train from London Paddington to Oxford.  I have to say it takes almost longer to get to Paddington that the overland train service too to get to Oxford.  We opted for the bus from Kew Bridge to Hammersmith which just took forever as it stopped at every stop and just slowly made its way through traffic.  We should have caught the train from Gunnersbury – but hindsight is great.

On arrival to Paddington, the object of the game was to find the self-service ticket machine, as the tickets you print off are only for your record.  We finally found the one and only ticket machine and joined the queue, put in all our details to get our tickets (9 individual tickets were dispensed, so there is no idea of sustainability and reducing resources in this process), before standing around trying to work out where our train was as the platform isn’t printed on any of the handful of tickets.  What was even funnier, is that none of these tickets worked through the barrier, you have to show them to the guard, begs the question of why bother and just use the voucher we printed off?  We had booked a window seat in a quiet carriage.  We ended up with an aisle seat in a quiet carriage, which I can only presume was noisier than the normal carriages.  The lady next to me, just loved the sound of her own voice and prattled on for the 2 hour journey about management training skills etc.  God I was almost sick with the information she sprouted.

We arrived in Oxford and eventually found the tourism office and booked our walking tour, before going around the block to the public toilets (these are probably worse than India, just awful and seem to be the only ones), however, not far away we found a lovely cafe (Heroes) for a coffee. 

Oxford is a cyclists nirvana
Oxford is a cyclists nirvana

There were a variety of nationalities on our tour and Felicity our tour leader was full of information and kept us on track.  We went into Jesus College, Divinity College, walked through some streets and found out a lot of information on how the colleagiate system works.  Oxford is made up to approximately 38 colleges based on a federal system and has been in existence for 800 years (older than Cambridge).  Entering the colleges is like stepping back in time, they are steeped in tradition and history and the most beautiful architecture.  They still operate similarly to when they were first founded and are heavily in the news these days for increasing tuition fees to the maximum of £9,000.  To be honest, just studying where some of the great minds have been before you would be awe-inspriring. 

Of course, Felicity’s big information of the tour was that Exeter college was where J.R.R. Tolkien studied and that “The Inklings” drank at the Eagle and Child pub, so that was our afternoon sorted out.  Felicity also pointed out areas where Morse had been filmed and also the restoration processes being currently undertaken in the Bodlean Library section.  This is a huge restoration project and doesn’t look like it will finish anytime soon.  Inside the Bodlean library was fascinating, and we sat in the hall there the undergraduates prepare to walk through for their graduation ceremonies.  It would seem that this has been happening since the start of Oxford and whenever a new piece of tradition is attempted to be introduced it gets voted down.   This hall was also used in the Harry Potter films as the hospital.

After the tour we headed straight to the Eagle and Child pub  where both J.R.R. Tolkin and C.S. Lewis used to come with other writers in Oxford at the time to drink and discuss their writings.  I would suggest that the pub is riding on the glory of times past.  However, Scott was excited and stuck his nose into the part of the pub called the Rabbit room (convenient name) where all the discussions used to take place.

The Eagle & Child, stomping ground of Tolkein & Lewis
The Eagle & Child, stomping ground of Tolkein & Lewis

After a, I must say, ordinary meal and drink, we walked back through Oxford to Exeter College.  This was meant to be open to the public, but is strangely enough closed, however, on looking very bewildered and disappointed, the porter let us in to have a wander around.  The first quadrangle was surrounded by gorgeous architectural buildings and a wonderful chapel.  The colleges were originally aligned with the church, but, apparently, no longer have this alliance, although I would still have to question this.

J.R.R. Tolkein
J.R.R. Tolkein

So Scott is now very happy, having seen where one of his favourite novelists lived.  We can now go back to focusing on seeing the architecture of Oxford – oh, now I am mistaken.  Apparently in the Museum of the History of Science there is one of the actual blackboards Einstein wrote on in one of his three lectures in Oxford (1932), so that was next on the list.

If only Scott was Einstein
If only Scott was Einstein

The Museum was an intersting place, having a huge variety of exhibits – including the equipment used by Florie in his penicillen experiments.  Amazing that people remember to keep this stuff, as I presume so much would have been destroyed.

We were now free to wander the streets of Oxford and enjoying the atmosphere, trying not to get run over by cars, buses or bikes.  We have booked the late train on the expectation that Oxford would be packed and lots of things going on.  Alas, hardly any of the buildings were lit up and although we enjoyed a drink etc in the White Horse, it soon thinned out.  Obviously there is the after work drinks crowd, but I suppose a lot of people have to commute, so they didn’t stay too long.  We continued to walk around the area, finding another nice pub to rest up before making our way to the train station.  This time our tickets were also booked, but we couldn’t sit in our seats due to the sleeping person who took up his seat and the rest of the table and therefore our seats.  We sat in another spot and before you know it, we were back at Paddington and then making our way back via tube to home – exhausted, but having a great day out.

12 February 2011:  Twickenham

Finally Scott is excited.  We have had the tickets to the England vs Italy Rugby Union 6 Nations game for a while and it is today – plus it looks like it may not rain.  We head off early on advise that the roads may be busy, so better to get there earlier rather than later.  We arrived in Twickenham to what felt like a million other people – we had to ask directions where to go, but the Police were very helpful, even giving us a map where to go.  so we walked off to Twickenham Stadium, even though we were early. 

Twickenham - rugby union's hallowed ground
Twickenham - rugby union
There was a great outdoor area set up with loads of food, pubs and general entertainment areas, along with huge screens to show previous games and highlights.  Strange that were was so much alochol, two different teams and more people than you can imagine, but there was no trouble, everyone was jovial and the biggest thing forus, there was no rubbish on the ground – everyone put their rubbish in the big bins provided.  In Perth this would be unheard off.
Pre-game drinks
Pre-game drinks
We watched the England team bus arrive, with the biggest cheer by far reserved for Johnnie Wilkinson, he may not play a full game anymore, but is still a massive crowd favourite.
Watching the local talent warm up - go Johnny
Watching the local talent warm up - go Johnny
We didn’t have the best seats in the stadium, but were able to get close to the english team as they were warming up.  Everyone around us was great to listen to, they certainly had their opinions about what was happening etc.  The game was a total whitewash for England, with lots of singing and dancing from the English supporters.  Not that we worked out the signing and dancing as it didn’t happen everytime there was a try scored.  However, the minute Johnny Wilkinson came onto the field the crowd went wild and you feel a bit bad for the other kickder (excuse my rugby incorrect naming, but not really my thing).  The most exciting thing to happen for me was that Johnny kicked the ball straight into the crowd and it was coming straight for me and I was paralysed, but luckily Scott put his hand out to hit the ball away.  Of course in hindsight apparently he should have let it hit me, and I would have been on the TV!
Scott watching the game.
Scott watching the game.
And proof that I did attend:-

13 February 2011

This now the traditional Sunday walk followed by a roast dinner at the Coach & Horses in Kew.  They have a log fire and also a big TV so Scott can spend the afternoon watching the France v Ireland game in the comfort of a local pub with a cleansing ale.

18 February 2011:  Brighton

We are off to Brighton today.  Catching the 9:21 from London Victoria on the express service.  I have to say it is very cold and bleak and as usual we think we have undercatered in the layers and clothing department.  Never mind, too late now.  We arrive in Brighton at 10:30 and walk into the cultural quarter.  Quickly ducking into the lanes to find a coffee shop to dethaw.  We head to the Royal Pavilion.  This is one very strange but so interesting building.

Brighton Pavilion
Brighton Pavilion

Built by the Prince Regent, later King George IV, in stages between 1787 and 1823, it reminds you of an Indian Palace with its scoped domes and intricate carvings.  So different to the regency architecture of the time.

There aren’t many tourists here (no surprise as it is definately a stay inside near a fire day).  After walking through the grounds and the building, we now head into the lanes for some lunch, finding a new Thai Cafe that is awesome – great food and wine, worth hunting down if you are there.  Next on the list is a walk along Brighton Pier.  Brighton Pier was originally opened in 1899 and in 1984 it was upgraded with new features, as well as free admission.  It still has some of the original features such as filigree ironwork arches, but alas looks like an old theme park with very dated equipment and some average looking food outlets and of course a casino.

Brighton Pier
Brighton Pier

We walked from there along the “beach” in the loosest terms.  Scott is fascinated that it is a beach when there are only pebbles.  Anyway, there is a large sailing fleet here, but it looks sad and deserted, hopefully in the summer it would be a sight to see all the boats out off the coast.

Anyone for sailing?
Anyone for sailing?

It is now getting even colder, so we head back into the Lanes for a wander through the historic shops and also for a respite from the wind.   

The Lanes
The Lanes

We eventually give up and head back to the train station and buy some earlier tickets back to London.

16 January-6 February 2011: London/Chiswick

16 January 2011 – London, England

Up early this morning as we want to visit the Borough Markets in the morning and get in before the crowds.  It is also not raining.  So we decide to walk to Borough Markets which is about an hour away – we get there only to find it is only Thursday to Saturday, luckily we weren’t the only people walking around totally puzzled and bewildered/.  There are so many different websites it is difficult to know what is on etc without being connected to the itnernet or finding a tourist Information counter which doesn’t seem to be located in many places and do lack qualified staff that can help or even understand English, but I suppose that is the way of the world, gone are the days of actually speaking to someone who is knowledgeable about the area.  So we walked back to the apartment before heading off to the Natural History Museum which has the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.  We had to queue for about 45 minutes just to get into the Museum and it is packed inside.  Anyway we are only going to the exhibition so head there and get our tickets.  Wow and awesome, there are fantastic pictures.  Although I wasn’t convinced about the winner, he did take a fantastic selection of photos and his winning photo certainly stood out from the rest.  There are some photos there taken by children which I would be happy just to take on off in my life.  It was certainly worth going and I hope to get the chance to go back before it closes on another day that isn’t so busy.

We then headed around the corner to the Science Museum (literally) to meet the Strahans who are enjoying their last few days in London before heading back to Perth.  We spend a few hours wandering through the exhibits.  It is a very hands on museum and great for kids as there are loads of things to do and everything is laid out and explained well.  Strangely enough we spent a lot of time in the computer and “nerdy” sections which just gave me a headache and made my head spin.  Scott of course loved it.  We said goodbye with plans to catch up over the next few days.  We headed slowly back to Holborn.  It is only 3:30 but getting dark and has decided to rain yet again.

17 -20 January 2011:  Holborn, London, England

I am back into the London Office from today, so Scott and I head off for the 1 – 1 ½ hour tube journey.  Scott then walks/jogs home through some of the sights i.e. Hyde Park etc in the usual rain and busy streets.  He does get to see heaps of sights and also has managed to find some fantastic statues and local art.  From today I am going to start making some enquiries into getting an apartment closer to the office.  It has been great in central London, but we want our own space and also somewhere that I don’t have to spend 2 hours a day travelling for, beside Robert and Kevin are fairly booked up with people staying, so time to say adieu is fast approaching.  So the hunt begins and it is phenomenal, there is a lack of short term accommodation that isn’t a flea bitten expensive kennel.  The rest of our week is similar, but we are heading out for dinners and some wandering around the streets.  It is good to be able to get out so easily without the hassles of a car and parking.  On the downside is the fact that Scott and I are apparently invisible and everyone must walk through us – sometimes I make a real effort and put my head down and just plough on, but am driven back.  Finally on Tuesday I manage to contact an estate agent that deals with short term furnished rentals (under three months) and I go and see an apartment that is 7 (yes 7) minutes walk from the office.  It was more expensive than we had originally budgeted (rents here are huge (GBP350-450 per week, which makes us wish we had charged more rent for our complete house with garden back in Australia), but due to location, availability (rare as hens teeth – and having hens this is a good saying) and the fact we would save on travel fares etc, I make the executive decision to rent the apartment and set the wheels in motion to move in by the end of the week. 

Scott has also been and caught up with the Strahans to visit the Hunterian Museum (at the Royal College of Surgeons) and have a farewell pint.  Scott was fascinated by this museum and the amount of displays and information that is here.  He is going to see them off at the airport, but will be sad for them to leave.  I know Scott loves having them so close, even if we don’t see them a lot, he has always had them in his life and heart and the kids are just fantastic, so interesting and as they get older have such diverse personalities, they are great to listen and talk to.

The Strahans
The Strahans

 

 

Of course today is also a nightmare day as I have checked my visa statement to find someone has kindly used my credit card to book flights in China.  So now get to spend my spare time trying to get some form of assistance from ANZ back in Australia – who are incompetent.  Anyway after faxing the form to three different numbers and speaking to four different people, they have cancelled my card and are going to courier a replacement card in the next 5-8 working days.  In the meantime I have had to register for International Services so I can pay the rent and deposit from the bank account.  Who said banking overseas was easy, certainly not with ANZ.  Particularly with the supposed fraud software they use, which seems to be useless considering I told them very specifically what countries I would be going to and the time period.

Anyway on 20th January 2011, we got the all clear to move into the apartment tomorrow morning, so I race home to Holbourn and we do a very quick pack – it isn’t like we have a lot ofstuff and then head out for dinner and Kevin and Robert are both out, so we decide to go for a walk and see the area for the last time.

21 January 2011, Chiswick, London, England

Up early to finish packing and tidying up our room.  Saying goodbye to Robert who we are forever thankful to for putting up with us for a few weeks, it isn’t easy to let people stay for so long.   We board the tube with our luggage and head off to Chiswick.  This is where it all goes wrong.  I am directing and we arrive at Kew Gardens, to find it is the wrong train station, we needed to get off at Kew Bridge which is an overland station.  So we get out of the train station and finally find a taxi driver who takes us to where we should be.   Not my fault, Scott should just take over with directions – it shouldn’t come as a surprise to him I got it wrong!  We arrived at our new address and moved into our apartment.  It isn’t huge, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, living room, dining room and balcony.  However it is quiet and close to lots of places.  We unpack what we can and make a list of definite must haves before walking up to Chiswick High Street to the local Sainsburys to buy some staples.  The street is full of nice little shops and pubs and market stalls. 

We walk back towards the river Thames (which we are one street away) and find a lovely pub (Bulls Head) on Strand on the Green and decide to venture in for a drink and some lunch.  It has a great view of the river and you sit there and watch the rowers going up and down.  There is also loads of birdlife to see, this part of the river is literally up to the pubs door with all the birds and swans being able to either swim or walk.  Being suitably refreshed we continue along the river front past another couple of pubs before making it back to the apartment for some unpacking and some lovely quiet time, before going for a walk up the river to have a sticky beak in the barges and canal boats that people are living in.  Why anyone would want to live on a boat is beyond me, but I presume Scott would think of it as perfect.

Thames and houseboats - stones throw from our apartment
Thames and houseboats - stones throw from our apartment
 

22-23 January 2011, Chiswick, London, England

We have decided to venture up and down the river and get our bearings.  So first up is a trip back to Borough Markets to get some pantry items .  This market is constantly packed – on the days that it is open of course.  So we buy some cheese and meats – after suitably trying as many products as possible.  although I did get one lecture from one of the cheese sellers about cheese not being suitable for vegetarians and I just kept thinking that he was sucking all the fun out of cheese and I don’t have a lot of excitement in my food choices as it is.  We then negotiated the maze that is called London Transport on a weekend where it seems that most of the tubes and public transport options are closed or amended for repair works, it is almost impossible to get anywhere you require without walking from one end of London to the other – bad luck if you can’t do that.  We eventually get back to Chiswick and head to another local pub on the river – The City Barge, this is one of the oldest in the area, but is about to undergo some major refurbishment, so I can only presume it will become like a lot of the other pubs and put its prices up as well. 

On Sunday we get up earliesh and decide to walk along the river to Richmond.  This is the Thames Path and is packed full of joggers and cyclists, you feel like you are in the way.  However, we hang in there and continue on watching the rowers go by – we are surrounded by rowing clubs and it is busy at weekends.  Considering how cold it is – and I can only provide a guideline with it is frigging cold and probably colder or similar to Nepal, it must make you a fairly committed rower to get up every week. 

We made it to Richmond and then walked back past the Royal Botanical Gardens.  This looks like a lovely park but is extoritionately expensive, we didn’t go in, but peer longingly through the gates and any other opportunities to look inside.  We did decide to go home, have a shower and head back to a local pub we walked past for Sunday lunch.   We were lucky, we hadn’t booked a table at the Rose and Crown, but managed to find a table and have our fill of food, before going on another walk up the Chiswick High Street.  Yes it is Sunday, but the shops are open, so we spent a while browsing through a few shops, including a bookstore, where I finally couldn’t resist and bought a nice big pile to read.  I know I have an eReader, but I love sitting there with a new book.  We stopped at the Barley Mow which was having an early Australia Day.  So   Scott was able to have a beer, watch rugby and listen to Australian music.  I think he thought he was in heaven.

24-30 January 2011

Quiet week planned as we are still getting acquainted with our new home and location.  We did venture out on 25th January for Burns Night to the local, but wasn’t very busy, so we had a quiet meal and a few drinks at the Rose & Crown.  The 26th is Australia Day, but it was too cold to really go anywhere, so we celebrated at home.  The main thing of the week was to cook at home with the fresh produce from the market stalls near to our apartment and actually take some time to do some planning on what we want to do over the next month.

Friday (28/1/2011) Today we found ourselves at the Bulls Head for lunch (the second Friday in a row, almost becoming regulars).  We just like the atmosphere and sitting there watching the world go by.  Yes I know I should be reading for www.ourbookclub.net.au, but after a busy week at work, this was the perfect antidote.  We watched the wonderful wildlife paddle up and down the river and adapt to the urban surroundings.  Again we remind ourselves to come and take some photos on a day that is sunny – probably limiting outselves with that requirement, as it is never sunny.

In the evening we have tickets to the Natural History Museum’s Great Science Debate, so set off for that, having no idea what to expect.  We got there and the entrance had been transformed from last week, there were loads of tables with candles, a jazz band and several other bands in different areas of the museum. 

The debate itself was lively and fun and definitely recommend going.  When we came out of the debate, the museum was just great, it has a real fun feel to it.  

  

 

  

 

Fantastic way to get people into the Museum - wine, food and music
Fantastic way to get people into the Museum - wine, food and music

 

 

We then ventured to Darwin’s cocoon which lets you map the evolution or science research.  It is fantastic to saunter around the museum with a glass of wine and listening to music. 

We eventually finished at the museum at about 10pm and headed home on the tube. 

On Saturday (29/1/2011) we thought we would go to Acton Markets, what a disappointment and waste of time, except for the walk.  It seemed to be a depressing area and we can cross that off and not visit again.

Sunday (30/1/2011) was another long walk up the river past some more rowing clubs to have a good look at this side of the Thames Path before coming back home and heading to the Horse & Coaches for Sunday Lunch.  This was another local pub which is full of different age groups playing board games etc. 

31 January – 6 February 2011

Back to the work routine.  Scott is now jogging around the river paths to get in some more exercise.  The big night of the week for me, very sadly was Wednesday night when it was the final episode for Inspector Barnaby of Midsommer Murders , I can’t help it, I really like that show.  However, it isn’t the end of the show, just Barnaby, with his cousin John seeming to take over the position.

On Thursday (3/2/2011) we ventured to The Botanist in Kew, which is a pub I definately like the look of from the inside.  It has an interesting decor and the menu looked good.  On Thursday it was very quiet, but we enjoyed the wine and the people inside were interesting to watch and to listen to – I am a great lover of people watching, and trying not to get noticed while doing it.  They are advertising that they will be showing the Six Nations Rugby tomorrow night, so we may venture back and try out the food. 

Big day (4/2/2011), I am actually having a hair cut, the days of letting it dry naturally in curly knots has come to an end and it is driving me mad, so after finding the local hairdressers (Cascade in Chiswick) last week, I ventured back for my appointment with no idea what to expect.  First up was the colour, amazing, everything was discussed and then the colouring started and I was given a great little coffee plunger etc to keep me occupied.  After my colour was all done, next was the cut, where short I went – they were a great hairdresser, even recognising Scott when he popped in to see how long i would be before he headed off to the pub.  I will definately be back, which is high praise considering my usual ability to find crap hairdressers in the past.

I met Scott at the Bulls Head, our usual Friday afternoon drinking/eating spot, for a late lunch and drink.  We had our usual slow meal listening and watching all the comings and goings in the pub.  Just before we finished a couple (4) Australians came in, asking the most stupid questiona bout how many drinks you can have and be under the legal limit – same as Australia idiot!  Anyway we left after a while listening to them, as they made the average Australian seem like a rocket scientist.   

After some shopping we went home and got ready to head back to The Botanist.  We got there tonight and it was packed, we thought everyone was there to watch the rugby, but alas, Scott was the only person who wanted to see it, but they turned on the TV and put the sound up just for him, also got him a table and chairs right near the TV – you can’t say they didn’t go out of their way to get organised.  Scott is of course amazed that in a pub full of Englishman, he was the only person watching the rugby. 

Saturday (5/2/2011) was an up early and out day as we were off to Westfield Shepherds Bush, this is a huge, huge, huge shopping centre with every shop you can imagine under one roof and not just crap shops like in Perth, but Gucci, Prada, LV etc, I know my eyes were swivelling in my head.  Anyway I sat Scott down at the coffee bar with his iPhone and went shopping, coming back every now and then to drop bags off with him. Strangely enough he went shopping (yes Scott) and bought some running gear – not exactly my kind of shopping, but shopping all the same, hmm is he changing.  We walked most of the way back home seeing the different markets etc.

Sunday (6/2/2011) was a big day for us.  We are venturing into Chintatown for the New Years Day parades and dislays and catching up with some friends.  We seriously underestimated how many people would be there, I am sure the whole of London was the the Chinatown strees or surrounds.  we managed to see some of the displays and found Wong Kei.  Wong Kei is a restaurant I used to go to when I was about 20 as it was cheap and known for having the worlds rudest waiters.  we got there, just as Pete had managed to secure a table and surprised Sally with our visit.  I haven’t seen them for about 15 years, so it was fantastic to catch up and see James (their eldest, who was only 2 when I last saw him) and also Francesco who I had never met before.  They are both fantastic articulate kids who have very different personalities and great communication skills.  James has just been accepted to Oxford, so what parent wouldn’t be proud of that.  We had a great fast lunch – although it has certainly become a lot more commercial and expensive than our youth, there was still a huge queue.  We left there and headed to Abercrombie & Finch, which is Francesca’s epitomy of style.  I obviously enjoyed seeing the half naked male model at the entrance way – although he appeared to be very young (Kylie you would be in seventh heaven).  The store was very dark inside, with the sales staff dancing on the balconies, it was also super expensive, so we wandered around cramping Francesca’s shopping style before heading off in our different directions.

Scott and I walked back back towards Green Park station stopping at the some art to have a look and be amazed at how interesting they ere (near Marble Arch).  We made it to the station and eventually got home, exhausted but happy to have caught up with old friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 – 15 January 2011: Sofia, Bulgaria

10 January 2011

Well up at the crack of dawn and into the cold cold English early pre-dawn morning.  The only good thing as that the streets are quiet and it doesn’t take long to get to Heathrow.  On arrival at the huge Terminal 5, we dropped off the GPS bag for Avis – who have been very good about the missing bag and didn’t charge us an exorbitant fee as car rental companies love doing.  We then ventured tentatively into the British Airways Executive Club (there is no Qantas Club in Terminal 5), and they let us into the hallowed club lounge and it was fantastic, can’t believe the array of food, drink, snacks and a variety of other things to keep you amused and occupied while waiting for your flight.  In future we will get there earlier.  Anyway our flight was called, so we loaded up our bag with packets of chips, fruit, bottles of water etc in case of the likely event I don’t get my vegetarian food, something that happens more often than not.  We had managed to get exit row seats and had to listen to the spiel about getting the doors open etc etc etc, of course I can honestly state that I would probably only really care about me, but nodded etc to keep the seats.  It was a fairly uneventful flight – I got my vegetarian meal which was nice, and Scott who had made the decision not to worry about gluten free meal was faced with pasta, so lesson learnt, book him a special meal in future.  The flight to Bulgaria only takes approximately 3 hours and there wasn’t much to see, even during the landing as it was just bleak, no greenery, just snow and ice. 

Sofia Airport is new and we passed through all the immigration formalities quickly – they didn’t worry about how long we were staying etc, got our bags and found our driver who escorted us to our car.  So we bundled in and were greeted with the melodic sounds of Metallica at full blast.  Strangely I wasn’t surprised, as I always had the impression that Eastern European countries loved heavy metal.  The trip to the hotel highlighted the large amounts of ice and snow everywhere and also the huge amount of new buildings going up – I think they need to invest a bit more in the road infrastructure as the tarmac only seemed to hold the potholes together.   Before you knew it, we were at the Hotel Anel, not sure where it is as it isn’t on the Lonely Planet Guidebook map and we couldn’t find the street, so could be anywhere.   We checked in easily and were soon ensconced in our huge room.  The hotel is decorated in the art deco, overzealous art collector and floral style, with patterns everywhere and all over the place.  Of course centre of our room was a large concrete pillar which added to the strange layout.  We had enough furniture to fill a house packed into a large room.  Anyway as it was only mid afternoon and sunny outside we decided to brave the minus temperatures and headed back to the reception counter to get directions of where to go and get some money etc (no maps, so we left hoping we were going in the right direction). 

We found the Mall Sofia, Sofia’s newest shopping centre, probably about the size of Garden City, but housing some very ordinary stores.  We found an ATM and took out some Bulgarian Levs (or shit bits as Scott calls them) from an ATM that was located in the front door of the shopping centre, now that possibly was a big mistake as we found out afterwards.  We wandered through the shopping centre, finding a supermarket and getting some snacks, wine and beer.  There isn’t a huge variety of groceries, but everything looks fresh and is certainly very cheap.  So far we have realised that people can’t understand us and we can’t understand them, so may be having fun in the coming days.  It was starting to get cold and dark outside, so we continued back to the hotel.  The roads and sidewalks are treacherous with ice, making walking fun (not) and then you throw in the fact that everything is on the opposite of the road, we can only follow other people when crossing, hoping we don’t get him but trucks, cars, trams etc and stay upright. 

Due to the cold weather – it takes about 20 minutes to get rugged up to go outside, and the fact that we can’t find anything in English, we are going to eat in the hotel restaurant for dinner.  The restaurant is meant to have views of the surrounding mountains, but as it is dark you can’t see much and as there were only two tables with people we were also the centre of attention for the seriously underemployed wait staff.   The food was very good though – I had a greek salad that was lovely and fresh and full of flavours and Scott went with pork and vegetables which he said just melted in the mouth.  So after eating and a few drinks we retired early, it has been a long day.

11 January 2011

Sofia - beautiful christian architecture
Sofia - beautiful christian architecture

 

OMG huge panic, Scott woke me up at 9:30 and as the breakfast buffet closes at 10 we went racing down.  We have never been ones not to have a free buffet breakfast, so we entered the breakfast room with great trepidation, wondering what would be provided.  It was a feast – there were tables just groaning with produce, and strangely we were the only people in there.  So after filling up on yoghurt (Bulgaria is famous for creating this dish), muesli, nuts and fruit, we rugged up and headed out into the ice and snow. 

We had bought the Lonely Planet guide book as our Cyrillic isn’t the best and couldn’t find much information that was in English.  So we worked out where we were and where we wanted to go and off we went, slowly ice skating our way across the non-existent pathways. 

Banya Bashi Mosque:  Sofia’s only working Mosque, we were unable to get in and almost expect the Mosque to be in the process of being demolished or maybe refurbished, hard to tell.  The Banya Bashi Mosque was originally built in 1576 and architecturally stands out from the other buildings, with its minaret.  We also did not hear any calls to prayer etc.  Maybe it is closed for the winter. 

Mineral Baths:  this building is behind the Mosque and between the two is meant to be a modern fountain and hot-water drinking fountain.  The modern fountain was boarded up and the surrounding area looked like a rubbish tip.  The main building is beautifully restored on the outside, but not open for viewing, so not sure how far they are going with the new civic museum – slowly I would have thought as it has been ten years of renovating so far. 

At this point Scott suggested I navigate to where we should go next, so off we headed and as usual in the wrong direction.  Although we had been walking for what seemed like an eternity of taking our lives into our own hands, Scott finally asked where we were going.  When I showed him on the map, he took over and we backtracked for a while.  I have no idea why he lets me navigate, as I have never been able to, it is unlikely I will in the future.

Sveta Nedelya Cathedral:  This is a massive domed church that you seen from a lot of the capital.  It was built in 1856 on the foundations of older churches.  We couldn’t find the glass case with Sveti Kral Stefan Miloten.  But then again we couldn’t see much, it was very dark inside, lit only by candles.  It is a working cathedral though with people constantly lighting candles and visiting their favourite saints.  This cathedral is famous for the explosion in 1925 in an attempt to assassinate Tsar Boris III – 120 people were killed, but Boris survived.

Sofia Synagogue:  This was the only place we have visited where we had to pay.  We weren’t sure if the person we had to pay worked for the Synagogue or just had a rort going on, but anyway, we were let in and left to our own devices in wandering through the Synagogue.  This is a relatively new building (1909) and has the biggest brass chandelier in Bulgaria – it was huge.  There is room for 1170 worshippers, but there aren’t that many seats and it was also one of the coldest places we have been inside – that is saying something considering where we are.

Sofia Monument:  This was originally a monument of Lenin, was changed to a gigantic civil symbol which is a female figure that bizarrely seems to have half her face in gold and the other half in concrete (the guide book says bronze).

Royal Palace:  we didn’t realise we had even seen this until we retraced our steps and went back.  It is now used as an Art Gallery and isn’t that impressive from the outside.

Sveti Nikolai Russian Church:  It doesn’t matter what religion is the church, they are all basically similar with golden domes and glittering mosaics.  Particularly today when the sun was out, they did look beautiful.  This church was also very dim inside and considering it looked big on the outside it was very small and you can’t imagine more than a couple of people in here at one time.  So far the churches we have visited are in serious need of restoration inside, as you can see the basis of the murals, but they are blackened due to the candles or other lighting used. 

Sofia City Garden:  Accordingly to the guide book, this is a hive of activity with people sitting around amongst the flowerbeds.  Hmm in winter, it is covered in snow, the pathways are covered in ice and people are only scurrying through on the way to somewhere warmer or more interesting. 

 

 

 

Presidency:  We came across this by mistake, wondering if it was originally the Royal Palace.  There were a couple of weather hardened soldiers out the front, but no other visible signs of anything military or presidential apart from a long row of blackened window Mercedes.   It really looks like an office block.  Of course the other half of the Presidency is the Sheraton Hotel.

 

Sveti Georgi Rotunda:  wow this was very impressive and for me the highlight of all the sightseeing in Sofia.  In between the Presidency and the Sheraton, this small preserved building (the oldest in Sofia) was originally built in the 4th century AD and is a roman structure.  It was rebuilt in the 6th century and converted into a mosque in the 16th century.    After being damaged in WWII it is now opened to the public and you can ramble through the ruins and see the restoration works that see the different murals.  Definitely a highlight and also looks beautiful with ruins covered in snow.

 

Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church:  This is huge, although relatively new in the scheme of church dates here in Sofia.  Built in 1912 to commemorate those 200,000 Russian soldiers that died fighting for Bulgaria’s independent.  Again it has huge golden onion domes that compete with the gorgeous mosaics.  Inside, the church is massive, but very sparsely furnished and adorned.  One thing that we have noticed is the lack of graveyards and also the lack of memorial plaques within the churches themselves. 

Church of Sveta Sofia:  for a country that is relatively small, there are a lot of churches.  However, this is another old church and the oldest Orthodox Church in Sofia being originally being in the 4th century; however the present structure only relates to the 19th century.  Outside is a tomb to the Unknown Soldier and its eternal flame which is guarded over by a huge lion.

Sofia University Botanic Garden:  Another garden, which I am sure will be beautiful in Spring/Summer.  However, in winter it is fairly bleak and you can’t see what it includes except for rubbish.

Borisova Gradina:  This is a huge park that seems to have been overtaken with graffiti and skateboarding ramps along with a large collection of broken bottles and rubbish.  It is a shame as there are some beautiful pathways and sitting areas.

Yuzhen Park:  From this park you are meant to be able to see Mt Vitosha the large mountain that overlooks Sofia, but there seems to be a constant haze of fog, smog or both and you can’t see anything.  Again this would be a beautiful park except for the rubbish.  There are loads of bars and cafes here, but they seem to have shut up shop over the winter months and everything looks derelict.

So our sightseeing day drew to a close along with the afternoon and with the cold increasing, we skated back to the hotel.  Our mini-bar isn’t working, so luckily we left the wine and beer on our balcony as they are suitable frozen for a pre-dinner glass.  We did venture to have a look at the gym/pool area of the hotel which is very impressive and made a note about coming back tomorrow, and then went to dinner and had another glass of wine.

11 January 2011

We are again down for the buffet breakfast which is the same as yesterday with plenty of variety and freshness.  We have our fill as I am off to the office and Scott is heading out for another wander around the town to see what there is off the beaten track.  The office is only a 10 minute walk, but certainly gets your heart rate racing with the treacherous conditions and the addition of a lot of traffic that makes crossing the street a nightmare.

Scott spent the day finding some local markets and walking the streets looking at different places to eat for dinners and trying to work out the language.

On arriving home from the office, we had a refreshingly cold glass of wine before staying in the hotel for dinner again.  It is just so cold that going outside really involves approximately 5 layers of clothing.  Besides everywhere seems to encourage smoking – even the restaurants with non-smoking, allow you to sit at a smoking table which are interspersed with the non-smoking ones.  Not sure if they understand the problems, but it is their laws.  If you are a smoker, this is the country for you though.

12 January 2011

Another day in the office for me.  Scott today was going in the other direction of the Hotel to find some of the local growers markets and some of the areas that people live in.  He managed to find a market that you could bring your own bottles and fill up from wine casks.  Some of the fruit and veg were of good quality and there was mounds of cheese.  It is one thing we are loving and that is having the variety of cheeses – you name it, you can have it in a cheese. 

Not a bad way to buy wine ?
Not a bad way to buy wine ?

 

We had dinner with a few people from the UK Office in the hotel restaurant, where yet again we were the only people.  They surely cannot make any money and that is considering the hotel is nearly full and there aren’t many places close by to eat at.

13 January 2011

Scott found a restaurant on his walk today that we went back too.  A pizza/pasta/salad and other bits restaurant.  We entered through the smoky haze that we are getting used to and found a waitress that could speak English and a menu that was also in English.  So we ordered a salad and pizza, along with the prerequisite bottle of wine and the food was great.  The pizza had a thin crust with exactly the toppings we ordered and the salad was freshly made and full of flavour.  Rozko Pizza was just around the corner from the hotel and did a great selection of meals, definitely recommend it.

14 January 2011

I am only working a half day in the office today.  So as soon as 12:00 comes I zoom back to the hotel to pick Scott up.  It is sunny and the snow and ice has almost melted so we can enjoy the walk around the city and get some different photos.  On our wander up through the mall and shopping districts, we come across a wonderful Indian restaurant.  We enter with trepidation as it looks deserted, to find that downstairs the restaurant is full.  We order our usual staples of Indian cuisine – Palak Paneer, it is my thought that if a restaurant can cook this dish well, it is a good restaurant, and we weren’t disappointed; the food, service, drinks and atmosphere were great.  So if you are in Sofia, check out Kohinoor (www.kohinoor.bg).

We made it back to the hotel in time for my massage that was booked and Scott was also going to venture into the gym.  Considering it has been there all week, we haven’t made it any further than the bar.  I have a really sore back and neck from the chairs in the office, so Scott has booked me a massage for an hour.  I will call him Sven – wow, I could feel my back groaning under the pressure, but sucked it up and let him work on my back and neck and when the torture was finally over I could actually turn my head sideways, amazing.  Should have done this each day.  Scott in the meantime had gone through a few machines which he rated as good quality and worked up a sweat.  So what is the best way to recover – a few beers on our last night.

15 January 2011 (Saturday)

Our flight isn’t until lunchtime, so we can go out for a walk around the town and wandered around back to the Sveti Georgi Rotunda where the snow has now totally defrosted.  It is an interest city, but what would be more interesting is to come back in the warmer months just to see the change in people (who all seem depressed and without a smile amongst them) and also see the gardens and parklands.

Back at the hotel, we got into our organised car and headed to the airport.  Surprisingly there was no British Airways lounge so we had to sit with the common people, however we bought some duty free and waited for the trip home.  The plane ride back was extremely bumpy and the flight was full.  Although my food arrived, I was too paranoid about the bumps and jolts, I almost cheered when we landed at Heathrow. 

We then queued for the agonising wait at Immigration for Scott.  This time we are fairly prepared, itineraries, bank statements etc, however, yet again they questioned us about our plans and cannot believe that anybody could afford to have 6 months off work.  However, Scott was given a three month entry visa and we were also advised that for the foreseeable future he can come through the EU residents passport control lines.  Yippee, now we can actually make some real plans.  We then piled onto the tube for the trip back to Holbourn and some well deserved champagne.