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Day 9 – Chernivtsi & Drive to Carpathian Mountains

23 Sep

Breakfast in Kamianets-Podilskyi mostly consisted of choux pastry and cream.  My kind of breakfast!  The walk to the bus was dry, unlike the run in the opposite direction the day before.  We drove off and shortly there were cries of “stop the bus”.   Thinking of some major disaster, the driver stopped after approximately 2 miles.  This was very handy, as we had just wanted some photos of the gorge that we crossed as we left town.  We walked back to obtain the required impressive photos.

The bus today included free wiffy, which kept me up to date with the latest news and smell reducing techniques.  We passed over the Dneister river which, lower down, marks the border between Moldova and Ukraine.

Our first stop of the day was to the Khotyn Fortress.  A local guide, Irina, give us a stilting monolgue in front of a golden colour statue before leading us into the fortress complex through a tat sellers paradise.  We stood on the hill, where we were not supposed to stand, for grand views over the inner fortress walls and newer church.  Walking downhill, I found some “sheep” had followed me to another photo opportunity before we entered the fortress across a wooden bridge over the dry, but very high, moat.

A few more words followed, but most of the group were more interested in the cats that required petting by their human slaves.  The offer of water from the fortress well, through a dirty plastic pipe was not taken up by anyone.  The warning that walking on very high fortress walls that didn’t have any safety features may result in a repeat of a recent “incident”, was unfortunately absorbed by most of the group.

Left to our own explorations we found some rotting wooden stairs and a newly restored, but equally worrying balcony.  The signs to the dungeons banning dogs were once again clearly too high and only in Dalmation.  We found some castle storming equipment (trebuchets, catapults and battering rams) and the Ards & North Down Intranet (Andi) mascot became photogenic for the first time.  Ever.

We left Seamus studying the “Throne” torture device, whilst we went to examine our own thrones.  The first was skirted due to it’s overwhelming stench, but the second was further away, and therefore hopefully cleaner.  Stepping over the tiramisu on the way in, the long drop was at least well ventilated, and I managed to add my territorial markings before searching in vain for any kind of handwash facility.

Skirting the apple sellers & tat stalls, who also offered flask dispensed beverages of unknown origin, the dogs were again demanding of attention.  Left hand only.  Got to keep something clean!  Back on the bus, we made a short stop at an OKKO petrol station to disinfect and restock the munchies.  Google Translate app proved useful if not essential for some items.

We drove on through village after village, some selling large intricately decorated metal gates, before arriving in Chernivtsi for a buffet lunch.  Joining the queue with the local school – kids who all appeared to eat vegetables without parental supervision – I selected the borsch, chicken kiev, chips and anything else cold that they wished to get rid of.  Not the best meal of the trip.  I treated myself to a turd shaped chocolate desert on the way out.

Another local then guided us around the town, past some very interesting buildings that survived the various armies of the 20th Century.  One artwork consisted of roses being used to sweep the streets, because the town was known to be very clean.  The central square currently only contains a cross, as they are waiting for the next army to invade and erect a new one.  I’m sure there is a opportunity in this country to profit from the de-Communisation policy that they have instigated in recent years.

The Art Museum, Town Hall, Theatre with walk of fame, Jewish House, Cinema (former Synagogue) and some 1960s Soviet architecture featured initially, before we also took in the red “brick” covered former court house.  Back on the bus with our new guide, we drove the short distance to the University area, only to be surrounded by every bride and wedding party in Ukraine.

The place was very picturesque, with a French courtyard (meaning they put chuckies down, rather than going to the hassle of grass).  The current red brick buildings, dating from 1882, were complemented with a patterned roof using white, black, blue and green tiles.  We tried to get in as many wedding photos as possible on the way inside – we had a strict timetable to stick to, to avoid the many other groups.  Originally built as a seminary, it has expanded to include a lot more subjects, with the former bishops’ hotel now in use for teaching.  The impressive mix of all sorts of architectural styles from Gothic to Byzantine, Moorish and Hanseatic (I looked that up, I don’t know what it means either).

The former marble has been replaced with painted marble during restoration, but the effect remains awesome.  We were led into the main chamber, where the dias is used for awarding degrees, and then into the university court – where all the professors would gather with the principal at desks arranged to make them feel inclusive and able to discuss the important issues of the day.  The mirrors in the room were of the highest quality of the time – with up to 5 layers being used, and therefore resulting in 5 separate reflections being available.

Inside the University church, a marriage was taking place, and our whole group with cameras easily doubled the attendance.  There were squeaky floorboards and echoing marble to contend with as we dashed from the icons and paintings to the wedding ceremony and candles.  Upset that we weren’t invited to the reception after giving them a wedding they won’t forget, we left them to the party.  The stretch limo outside would have easily accommodated us all.  We escaped back onto the bus with “Lady in Red” running around our heads.  Last stop of the tour of Chernivtsi was to the Turkish Well, Turkish Bridge  & Turkish Road.  Not a great place to build these things, as they get frequent floods, which put them under water.  That’s global warming for you.

After a brief visit to a petrol station (for a safety fart) – disappointed that the shop was still only half finished – we ended up at the town of Kolomuya to visit the famed Pysanka Museum which featured painted Ukranian Easter eggs.  These very fragile things are traditionally painted during the Easter season – the insides are hollow and can be put together on strings to form intricate pictures and displays.  The various processes were explained, but there was no option to try yourself.  Probably a skill that is beyond me.  Disappointingly, there was no gift shop – probably too fragile to sell.  Wooden ones were also on show, as well as jewelled, carved, painted and enamelled versions, both from Ukraine and other countries around the world with weird egg fixations.  The best part of this visit was taking a picture of a puddle outside (which nicely reflected the giant egg that the museum was housed in).

After a further hour or more of driving into the Carpathian Mountains, we arrived at Yaremche and our wonderful 3 star hotel.  We trundled our cases in through the fire exit and down the length of the hotel to reception.  After some confusion over where breakfast was going to take place, we were advised it would be in this hotel, and not the rather magnificent 5 star one next door.

Thankfully only real food option available, in the pouring rain, was the 5-star hotel.  It offered a buffet or a bar.  The bar was most welcoming with 2 white gloved waiters able to deliver Georgian dumplings – Khinkali – within the hour.  The way to eat these is apparently to pick them up, take a bite, suck the juices out and keep eating.  This results in two things – a meatless lump of dumpling in your juice covered fingers and secondly, the laughter of your photo taking fellow dining companions.

We returned to our 3 star hotel with the waiters wishing us back tomorrow.  Here’s hoping that the breakfast will be as good …


Day 8 – Back to Ukraine

22 Sep

Starting with the answers to yesterday’s cliff-hangers … the t-shirt was perfectly dry, but unfortunately still with a marked red wine stain.  Think scissors will be the only solution.  Mike turned up safe and well, 20 minutes after we had worried about him.  He slipped into Kateryna’s room to replace my note with another saying that he was back safe.  As she hadn’t read the first note, it must have appeared very strange indeed.  Water bottles were filled successfully.

Breakfast was pretty standard for a 2-star hotel, although the sign for bacon was unfortunately wrong – my fellow travellers had stolen it all.  I survived on dry toast (with jam), apricot juice and a few stolen biscuits for lunch.

As we loaded our bags onto the big yellow bus, the rain was on, resulting in an outbreak of fleece jackets and raincoats from the soft southerners.  My shorts (not the groinal drip variety from last night) and t-shirt were still perfectly acceptable.

Our first stop of the day, heading north to the Ukrainian border, as unsurprisingly at a petrol station.  It featured a large selection of cakes, iced doughnuts and coffee.  I tried, very unsuccessfully, to buy the entire selection with my remaining Moldovan Leu.  I couldn’t carry any more than four and am hoping that there will be several more such stops before lunch.  An hour and a half later, my prayers were answered, and the same brand of cakes were available again, with a wider selection.

At this point, I noticed a distinct lack of animals at the petrol station, a felt a slight pang of sadness at the thought of the missing manky dogs.  They did have a Prius there though, so I contented myself by taking a photo of that instead.

The bus driver was trying to get the heating to work on the bus – a result of the perception of the tour leader that is was cold.  She was huddled at the front with her third Explore! Fleece on, trying to start a fire with my leftover doughnut wrappers.  We also noticed an additional young woman on the bus who appeared to have got herself onboard by pretending that handing out rubbish bags was an important job.  Probably dating back to Soviet times, where everyone had to have a job, no matter how boring it was.  Passing through the town of Balti, I had the overwhelming urge to consume a curry.  A muffin had to suffice.

Some of the group became involved in editing the blog, in-between tearing themselves away from Chesney Hawke’s second album on their spare iPod.

We reached Briceni near the Ukrainian border and debussed to change the last of our Moldovan currency into Ukrainian Gringots (or something like that).  The currency exchange sign pointed to a door.  The door led to a chemist.  The chemist pointed to the door.  A lady exited from the staff toilet and raised the shutter we had just walked past.  It rained.  A lot.  My waterproof shoes were not on my feet.  First fail of the holiday!

We drove on the border, then had to do a U-turn as the border was closed.  We picked a different route and I was pleased to see that both sides of border boarded the bus at the same time to collect our passports, and they were returned with both stamps entered. In the 90 minutes that this took, I challenged the back of the bus to name 100 famous Scots.  Even accepting some highly dubious answers, they only managed 94 by the time we moved across the border, with Carol Smillie hitting the ton shortly afterwards.

With the rain still falling heavily, we arrived at Kamianets-Podilskyi – one of only 3 “island” villages in Europe.  We ran for our bags and then the hotel before being assigned our rather spacious suites.  A lobby, bidet in the bathroom, and humungous double bed with 2 seater suite and chair, desk, coffee table and plenty space to throw a medium sized party.

We met again shortly in the lobby and another local guide who led us into the light drizzle to the Arc de Triumph.  Briefly put, if you stick your hand on the cross, your every wish will come true, like the President did, before he became president.  All true.  Honest.  We also visited the outside of Ss. Peter & Paul Cathedral – one of the churches directly controlled by the Pope.  A statue of John Paul II was in the grounds, but he never managed to make a visit himself.  When the Ottomans conquered the area, they built two minarets.  One remains, with a gold coloured statue on top that features Christianity trampling on Islam.  In response, the Soviets built an Orthodox church that casts a shadow on this statue, in a strange game of one-upmanship.  Also featuring in the grounds was a non-canonical statue of Jesus – weeping for the Polish graves that were disturbed.

Out guide led us on to the town hall.  We stood on the temporary stage to hide from the rain and listened to a lot of information about the building – almost nothing of which I absorbed.  Next to it was the Armenian Well – or a building built on top of it.  The water was bad, the people that built it corrupt.  Nothing changes.  Also stood in the main area was a statue to the “tourist” – hands on hips admiring the town.  It’s a sign of how important tourism is to this area.

Having not had lunch, by the time we passed the pizza place, the group was flagging.  But the fortress was still to come.  Avoiding the river running down the street, due to lack of appropriate drainage, our guide ploughed on and led us across a dry bridge (with water on each side?) to the Castle.  We found the nearest roofed structure (East Tower) and spent a long time in it, listening again to a lot of information about the use of cannon and bastions and how the Dutch were rubbish.

It’s worth pointing out that the town is set in a natural river horseshoe, with the castle positioned at the narrow opening.  The town has steep river banks, meaning the only way to conquer the town was through the castle.  The castle changed hands three times, but (allegedly) only by the passing of money, rather than being conquered.  After saying this, our guide then mentioned how the Turks had blasted their way in, but had to stop at dusk, due to medieval fighting customs.  They then let the inhabitants leave peacefully the following day.

Out into the pouring rain again, and we headed for the dry castle prison, which (in)famously hosted Ustym Karmaliuk, a Ukranian folk hero, compared to Robin Hood.  Except that he actually kept most of the loot he stole.  His name literally translates as “pickpocket”.

Our guide was keen on earning his money, but the group were mostly concerned with staying dry.  As a result, we were shown the bastions and then retreated into a dark internal corridor between some of the remaining towers.  We descended steep wooden stairs with the aid of mobile phone torches and listened to further delicate details on the sewage system of 300 years ago.

Leaving the castle behind, we walked back into town, across the bridge and avoiding where possible the river running over it.  With only three restaurants to choose from, we avoided the warning about the slow service and headed for the former police station.  The first problem was that that there was no English menu, and no one who spoke English.  Google Translate to the rescue.  Especially the feature where you can live translate anything you can point the camera at.  Mostly.  Whilst three settled on the “twisted mushrooms and cheese” (which turned out to be a meat roll stuff with cheese and mushrooms), I went for the house speciality, consisting of a meat (pork?) escalope, with pineapple and cheese on top.  Not huge, but enough to fill the spot – especially with the additional French fries. The venue itself was full of all sorts of old objects and the centre was dominated by a large wrought iron candelabra, suspended by heavy chains. The waitress was curious how we managed to translate, so I introduced her to Google.  We managed to persuade her to pose for a photo with “the boys”.

We walked past the other part of the group still waiting on their food in the second restaurant, and headed to the third – more of a bar with snacks.  Downstairs I finally found the local liqueur – “nastoyanka”, which is made from honey and herbs.  It comes in many flavours, and we tried 4 – cedar, horseradish, raspberry and original – with a squeeze of lemon to follow, all in 50ml shots.  The two young bartenders were very helpful and patient with us, searching for pictures of the above on their phones.  We felt it only right to continue our business with them, by ordering cheesecake.  Unfortunately, what arrived was not cheesecake – it was flat, hot full of raisins and smothered in honey and chocolate.  It was nice, but not cheesecake.

Walking back to the hotel with the rain now off. We paused once again at the statue to the tourist for some very sensible photos. If only there had been a local kebab shop, the walk would have been complete.  Whilst the carp in the small tank in the hotel got a goodnight kiss from one of our group, we made sure she made it to her party room.

The question is, will anyone remember this the same way as me tomorrow …

Day 7 – Chisinau, Moldova

21 Sep

The breakfast buffet – apparently a “Swedish buffet” consisted of … nothing much. No porridge or orange juice, so had to settle for toast only.  And some dry biscuits.  The only saving grace was that the morning walking tour didn’t start until 9am.

So Chisinau is actually pronounced “Kish-i-now”.  And I managed to get it wrong every time!  Our local guide, Veronica, managed to whisk us past the UN delegation, the parliament building (with a very fetching hedge in the shape of the word “Moldova”).  She related that the building and the president’s high-rise office building and living area had been set on fire in the 1990s – no one quite knew who did it – the protestors, or the government – but each blame the other.  As a result the president now works in the agriculture office, presumably sleeping with the potatoes.

We walked down the main street, named after Stefan the Great, a local hero that features on everything.  The opera house was advertising tickets at €7-€10 (one month only) as the (rather good) opera company spends most of it’s time touring the world to make up the difference.

After several before and after pictures (not quite sure what happened in between) – we arrived at the best park in Chisinau.  After tripping over the broken stone steps, staring at the concrete flowers and wondering where all the grass had gone, it did improve slightly at the announcement of free wifi and charging points behind the park benches.

Numerous busts lined the park, with the most noteworthy being to Mihai Eminescu (1850 – 1889).  The artist had managed to include himself in profile from the back, and was therefore taken out and shot because of it.  I jest.  They probably just fed him breakfast from the Hotel Dacia instead.

The Russian poet Pushkin was exiled here, and his bust was also prominent in the park.  However, the biggest statue was to Stefan the Great (1457 – 1504).  It took pride of place at the main entrance and anyone getting married leaves flowers at his feet.  In Soviet times, they moved the statue back a few feet and put a fence around it, to try to persuade the population to take their photos at the statue of Lenin, a short distance away (no longer there). It didn’t work.

Next stop was the cathedral park, featuring the cathedral, a separate bell tower and the Triumphal Arch aka the Holy Gates.  We visited inside the cathedral on the International Day of Peace, where a service was in progress.  Young children were downing shot glasses, presumably of vodka, which the adults were feeding them together with sweets at the back of the church.  The headscarved wearing worshippers were joined by the mostly silent tourist snappers.  Heading out, we passed some local girls in national costume escorting some generals and other security folk into the service.   The Triumphal Arch sported a large flag in the place of the original bell donated by Tsar Nicholas.  They only built this as the bell tower wasn’t big enough for his donation.  The plaques on the wall were written in two languages – Russian and “Moldovan” – an invented language consisting of the actual Romanian language that they use, but written in Cyrillic script.  31st August 1989 was the date they changed back to the Latin alphabet, and it’s celebrated with a whole street named after it.  Must be confusing for the postal service.

After some more then and now photos, we arrived at the main post office, with the zero-marker emblazoned on the pavement outside.  This was the point that all distances are measured from – which in turn was originally the means of working out the postal costs.  We walked swiftly past the pensioner on the pavement – not sure if it was a mafia or a block paving issue.  The souvenir shop was pointed out, but the street sellers had everything we needed – flags and fridge magnets!

We walked for what seemed like miles until we reached the Military Museum.  The first hall was filled with flags, murals, the family tree of Stefan the Great and a couple of old swords which filled me with dread.  However, it was worth persevering as the history of Moldovan conflicts was laid out in several more.  Including some distressing scenes and videos of genocide and individual hangings during the Soviet era. Moldovan borders as they currently stand, are not the same as the Principality of Moldova, which is currently mostly in Romania.  The current Moldova contains a lot of the former Basarabian territory.  It seems to be an artificially created country that should really be part of Romania and has been tossed around in every century from one empire to the other.  The Ottomans (Turks), the Russians and the Germans have all played their part here most recently.  The Soviets are particularly to blame for the mass deportations by train to Siberia of those that they didn’t like, and their families.  11,000 children were sent to Siberia (as part of families).

One part of the museum had a glass floor panel which showed the exciting view of a horse hoof on the floor below.  It was also a reproduction of a Soviet interrogation cell.  Bypassing a collection of Lenin’s 56 volumes of teachings (almost as big as this blog), we reached the fresh air and a collection of recent military equipment i.e. tanks, rocket launchers and  machine guns.

Moving on as a group, we were abandoned by our tour guide at the entrance to the (mostly) covered market.  It felt like an episode of Father Ted, as we navigated the lingerie section, and then moved on to the potatoes.  The rest of the group had to help me out with identifying the vegetables.  Apparently, they were the greens things.  One seller was keen to let me taste one that confused the rest of them.  Horseradish.  Shouldn’t have.  Ruth however, managed to be given the largest carrot in the world.  She put it gratefully in her handbag and moved on.

Safely finding the other side of the market, we then accidentally passed the chocolate and sweet shop.  Two benefits here – the other being that it was nicely air conditioned.  The only venue in this entire country where the air con actually works.

After some flag and fridge magnet buying, we ended up, purely accidentally, at the bakery extension of the art museum.  The choice of seating was either “sanity” or “insanity”.  We chose the former, which was well positioned to order both savoury and sweet.  In quantity.

Staggering out, we perused the entrance to the National Museum of History, before interrupting the cash desk wifie from her break, trying to take a photo of the “no guns” sign and being shouted at “No Photo, NO PHOTO!”  We retreated to the safety of the railing – as she stood guard on the steps – and took a photo of her!

The fab 3, plus Dave and Seamus, took in the sights of the slightly busier central park that was now filled with loud children, beggars and the unemployed.  Also a man charging his powerchair with the free electricity.  We made use of the free WiFi to find photos of the place Seamus volunteers with in Argentina.  The fountain was now flowing and as the wind picked up, it caused small rainbows.  We settled on a park bench to avoid the Segway riders zooming around.  But the call of the ice cream was too strong, and we tried to satisfy our need at the recommended booth – only to be met with the shutters coming down.  Having to settle for the pre-packaged version instead, we headed back to the hotel, only to find another franchisee of the ice cream chain that was indeed open.  Two ice creams in 10 minutes set me up nicely for the evening activities.

Following a quick shower in the hotel, 16 of us met for a trip to Orheiul Vechi.  One didn’t like cheese.  We were driven north in our new, huge orange/yellow bus to the impressive Orheiul Valley, unlike any other scenery I’ve seen before.  A large horseshoe shaped limestone ridge hosted golden domed churches with caves below.  We stopped at a viewpoint over the village of Trebujeni where we would be eating later.  Driving on, we arrived at the car park to the tourist section, and walked 900m, slightly uphill, to a small, but impressive monastery cut into the rock.  11 individual sleeping cells had been hand carved by the monks – and the one remaining monk still uses these occasionally today, when he is in need of being particularly apologetic to God. It’s a pity that the monks all appear to have been 4 foot tall.  Shells were everywhere in the rock, showing that he water level used to be far higher than present.  Whilst Seamus crashed into the exit door, the roof being too low even for him, the rest of us managed to find a small ledge of rock with spectacular panoramic views and no safety rail.  Retreating to the rock cut church, the monk interrupted his meditation long enough to appear at the cash desk for souvenirs.  These Orthodox folk must have been taking lessons from us Catholics.

Leaving the icons, gold and smell of incense behind, we climbed to the top to find a celtic style stone cross and another panorama.  Ignoring the tour guide, we headed along the ridge to a church on top of the rock.  I think they have 24 hour services in all Orthodox churches, as there has not been one yet that is not in full flow.  Unfortunately, he’d forgotten to invite anyone else in.

Descending through the nearby blue painted village, the locals were welcoming and I enjoyed a little jig with a fellow fat man.  Some wonderful gates and piles of wood ready for burning added to the dust laden, Lada driving, cow whipping, water welling, sidecar riding experience.

The bus drove us to Casa Verde in nearby Trebujeni, where we received a traditional Moldovan welcome by a group of young girls with bread, salt, wine and a TV camera crew. The family meal consisted of plates of vegetables, stuffed with sheep cheese – including one that was nicknamed the “Mother-In-Law” because of its bite.  This was followed by chicken, noodle and vegetable soup.  The chicken being served separately for the benefit of the vegetarian amongst us.  Actually, this was (genuinely) to make it look like there were more courses than there actually were.  Still plenty, thanks.  Following this, the polenta was cut with a thread and served with beef and scrambled egg.  By this point the homemade Moldovan wine had been flowing for a while and by the time the young girls returned with a dancing demonstration started, the foot tapping was going apace.  After the fourth song with the same dance moves, we’d just about got it – left foot tap, right foot tap, repeat.  Don’t forget to fold your arms.  As we thought of escaping, the girls asked us up to dance, and a Gay Gordon type arms-length dance ensued.  Unfortunately, this then developed into a circle dance where you had to choose the person least likely to take offence, as you took them into the middle of the circle, knelt and pecked them on both cheeks.  Richard was the last to have this pleasure and managed to escape the same fate as Gary Glitter only because the music stopped.

Retaking our seats, some Northern Irish jocularity resulted in a slight red wine spillage on my most precious F&F top.  Suggestions of how to deal with this included rubbing bread, parsley or horse manure onto the affected area.  The latter was not tried, and the bread resulted in more of a grating motion. Luckily the groinal drip was not tackled in public. Returning to the hotel, some proper soap and hot water was applied.

Back at the hotel, the cheese hater was not in sight and a slightly worried group slipped a note under the tour leader’s door (she was out partying with the local guide).

So tomorrow morning will provide answers to the burning questions of the day …

  1. Will the stain be gone AND the t-shirt dry?
  2. Will we ever find Mike?
  3. Will we manage to fill our water bottles in the hotel reception without being shouted at?
  4. Will we manage to spend our remaining thousands of Moldovan Leu
  5. Will the bus have an appropriate air filter, and decent ambient temperature?

Tune in tomorrow for the answers …

Day 6 – Basarabia (Ukraine), Transnistria & Moldova

20 Sep

Today the group began to show some signs of the long journey.  Breakfast was hurried and brief for me, to avoid any possibility of unwanted repercussions.  Thankfully, we were to continue our tour of Eastern European gas stations throughout the day.  Each of them normally containing a manky dog, cute cat and occasional puppy.

We left Odessa behind and headed south to the point that the Black Sea meets the Dneister River – this is a long split of land with a small gap in the middle for navigation, and we waited in line with the rest of the traffic, marvelling at the salt water meeting the fresh water in the Dneister estuary / basin.

By the middle of the morning, we had arrive in the South Basarabian area containing the Belgorod-Dneister fortress aka Akkerman Fortress. Our very enthusiastic young guide, showed the various parts of the fortress at speed – including the civil yard,  garrison yard, citadel, maiden tower and harem tower.  We then had time to dander into the Commandants Tower – where a sign told dogs it was a no pooping area.  A bit high up for them to read, me thinks.  We also managed the dungeon tower, with a lack of appropriate lighting, and then I paid double to visit the arsenal, which contained stock a hangman’s noose and a guillotine. Two of the three of these were tried.  I drew the line at the guillotine. After a quick scamper along some of the 2.5km of walls, which involved climbing the fence they’d only put at one end, we rejoined the group, whilst avoiding the celtic souvenirs.  Not having had the time to sample the archery, unfortunately.

Back on the bus we moved onwards toward Moldova, and stopped at a petrol station for the toilets.  I approached an oddly positioned (empty) dog kennel which was next to some emergency axe equipment.  Although the kennel was empty, the largest Carpathian hound, bounded from its hiding place in the shade behind and, whilst I was considering whether to cry or run, ran out of chain a few feet from me. Thankfully one of the group had some spare ginger biscuits (another story entirely) and we discovered that this puppy was very partial to a ginger nut.  Seamus on the other hand was being persuaded not to buy anti-freeze instead of water.

We joined the queue to leave Ukraine and then crossed into no-mans land and queued again to get into Moldova.  The whole process took 75 minutes, including allowing us to change money at the border post.

Travelling on, we met our Moldovan guide at a small restaurant for a (very) late lunch where the options presented were only the ones that could be made in the next 5 minutes i.e. mostly soup.  We still took over an hour to depart here, and were then given a bit of background on the various historical regions of Romania, Moldova and Transnistria.  Our guide passed around Transnistrian money – both notes and plastic “coins” – 1, 3, 5 and 10 rubles, each a different plastic coloured shape – possibly very practical, but highly childish.  It’s just as well that this money is accepted nowhere else.

As it turns out, Transnistria is not just sandwiched between the Dneister river and Ukraine – it also includes the town of Bender (pop. 90,000).  Once again, we queued to get in.  As it is officially an autonomous regions of Moldova, the Moldovan border guide didn’t bat an eyelid.  The stern Soviet era uniforms of the Transnistrian side however meant business.  We were eventually issued with a piece of paper with our names written in Cyrillic, which we had to keep, rather than having our passports stamped, as this could have caused issues when leaving Moldova.

As we crossed the bridge in Bender, the nationalistic painted colours of both the Russian and Transnistrian nations was on show.  Both flags flying prominently, and the “neutral” UNpeacekeepers – from Russia – were particularly camera shy inside their tank.

As we entered the capital Tiraspol (pop 160,000 and shrinking), it was apparent that Transnistria is sponsored by a company called Sheriff.  The first president’s son did not apportion all the state’s money to this company, but it now appears to own everything – from the supermarkets, the petrol stations, the sports stadium and nearly all the new housing.  I think they also paid for the trolley bus lines.

We walked through the main street – past the Supreme Soviet (parliament) building aka “the Mafia”, a rather large monument to those that died in the 1990-1992 struggle against Moldova for independence, an eternal flame, a tank, a skatepark, a beach, a school, two police officers stopping vehicles randomly for no reason, a donkey, the main square, a cinema, a time capsule (2064, if you want to come to the opening), an ATM that only takes local cards and the main court house.

I can now see why the border post only granted an 8 hour stay – we were out again in under 2 hours.  But not before I sought out a flag seller, and the odd fridge magnet.  We were pointed at the souvenir shops by the guide and the currency exchange.  I first found the shop, the flag and the fridge magnet, but she was unable to accept Moldovan Leu so , in the 15 minutes allotted, I had to rush across the road to change money, throw some notes at the teller, and rush back to the goth saleswoman, who looked a little upset when I asked for her photo – with the flag of course!

Exiting Transnistria proved much easier – taking only 10 minutes – and even eliciting a smile from the senior border officer who boarded our bus to check for stowaways.

In case you are unaware of the situation, it’s very similar to that in the east of Ukraine – they didn’t want to cease being Soviet in 1992 when the USSR ceased to exist, so they continued. The result is isolation, poverty, a declining population, money of no value elsewhere and no prospects for improvement.  The Moldovans want the situation resolved, as they want to join the EU and can’t until it is.  The Transnistrians fear that Moldova wants to reunite with Romania, and the Russians don’t really care, but like having an ally so close to Europe.  The people of Transnistria could have up to 5 passports – Transnistria (which gets them nowhere), Moldova, Ukraine, Romania (if their grandparents lived there between WWI and WWII) and Russia.

Overall impressions of Transnistria – not as “Soviet-era” as we might have thought – at least not in the main street.  By this, I mean it was clean, modern-ish and there were plenty young kids about.  The back streets we glimpsed on the way out was perhaps not so glamorous, and full of the dilapidated buildings and older women that I had been expecting.

As we steamed towards the Moldovan capital of Chisinau (pronounce “Shizz-now”), the lights of the oncoming cars streaming into my eyes, I felt the need for a small nap, but resisted long enough to remain refreshed as we arrived at the Hotel Dacia – a four star establishment that obviously added an extra few stars once the inspectors had left.  The rooms all had a lobby, a shower area with a large step into the rest of the bathroom, small door and no light to see by.  Mine also featured a showerhead that managed to spray everywhere except the direction it was pointed.  The air conditioning was broken (in the whole hotel) and the sauna advertised in the brochure appeared to be in my room.

Luckily we ran to the nearest restaurant, having not paid any attention to the recommendation of our guide, and ended up in a youth centred pub – anyone over 25 was a bit out of place.  However, the burgers and chips were great, the best Moldovan we’d ever had!  And all for £4 – not the £16 I had initially thought.  Having 5 currencies in my wallet, and the lateness of the hour has led to a little confusion.

A little light banter with the some of the others who had chosen to stay in the hotel restaurant followed, before I braved the room, opened the window, and hoped that the busy day tomorrow would come slowly …

Day 3 – Driving to Odessa

17 Sep

Kateryna loaded us safely on the bus at 8am following a full breakfast, with only a few extras being added to the overflowing food provision bag.  We were destined for a long drive to Odessa.  We were all on time.

Leaving Kiev behind, for now, we first travelled through the outskirts, where our guide gave more background information – including that most people hope to inherit their property from their parents, as they’ve no chance of being able to afford it otherwise!  Lots of signs of building work to add to the low skyscrapers and shopping malls.  Probably a few more McDonalds as well!  IKEA only managed a small shop here – probably no meatballs available.  Lots of tree lined boulevards in the 5 or 6 storey “sleeping areas”, otherwise known as the suburbs.  Managed to overtake the Woman’s Institute bus by pretending to be a back seat driver, much to the bemusement of the bus occupants.

The choices for optional trips from Odessa were presented – either a boat trip in the national park, a winery tour, visiting the coastal defence or a visit to some more catacombs.  Once the votes were tallied, the price was presented, and …

11 for the park, 9 for the costal defence and 6 for the catacombs, but as soon as this was announced, a flood of more booking resulted in the price dropping even further to 875 hyrvna for all three – less than a third of the previously quoted price.  And still some time for cycling on the Tuesday afternoon.  Possibly.

We drove on through some very flat land that would rival the Netherlands, passing a signpost of 384km to Odessa.  Unfortunately, the roads aren’t as flat as the countryside.  It’s going to be a long trip.

Just when we thought the optional trip palaver had subsided, the choices for Moldova were also presented.  Winery or scenic tour followed by dinner.  Yes please!  The outcome was far from certain.  What will be, will be.

Bad news came in from the Coastal Defence visit – it is closed for a week due to some children dying there.  A fire was mentioned.  Diplomatically vague.

Yet another option was discussed – a trip on day 13 to the Mezhyhirya Residence Museum, which is the lavish property where Ukraine’s controversial former president Yanukovych resided before the 2014 uprising.  All hands went up again!  More voting options than Scotland on this trip! 760 hyrvna for the 4 hour trip.

Only one stop to examine some of the crops – beans!  Nae sass though.  Lots of sunflowers, buckwheat and other crops in this area.

As we drove into Uman, the commentary restarted, but thankfully, only really to announce a stop at a petrol station for elevenses – complete with Wog Café and Wog Market.  It sold Wog air freshners and beer from the fridge.  Mike was keen to partake, the rest went for the sweet and savoury options.  I delved into my supermarket bag for the swiss roll, purchased yesterday.

The flag got a mention – blue for the sky and yellow for the produce – such as yellow raspberries?  The coat of arms, includes a trident, but also the word “Freedom” in Cyrillic.  A lot of background information was given.  I managed to successfully tune out the tinny sound from the loudspeakers.  I’m sure I’ll ask all the same questions later on.

As the diatribe continued, I did pick up a few things – the Russian language is trying to be phased out.  They have succeeded in education – all classes are now in Ukrainian. They hate Putin.  Submarines can’t possibly fit into the ports in the Crimea, and the Black Sea fleet is all rotten anyway.  They hate Putin.  Oh, and – they hate Putin.  But not enough for war – let them have the eastern regions, and as long as they stop there, it should be OK.  Here’s hoping!

Just as I thought the war was going to break out immediately, we arrived at the secret nuclear missile base, just 25km north of Pervomaysk, home of the “rocket army”.  It was so well hidden that the bus driver had initially driven straight past the turnoff for it.  Set in amongst fields of sunflowers and wheat, almost everything was underground – 12 storeys in the case of the silos and the separate command centres.

We started with a tour of the displays above ground, including a motorcycle and sidecar with machine gun mounted on top.  Seamus and Cliff manage the deranged look quite well as we were encouraged to sit on and pose for photos.  The Russians had tried to get rid of the missile silos, but they were so well built, that they couldn’t do much with them.  Originally there were 86 missiles here, mostly pointed at the USA, but also the UK, France and Germany as well.  The operators weren’t told where they were pointed, so that they didn’t think about the destruction they would cause.  Our museum guide did tell of the close encounter of world wide annihilation when a Soviet satellite detected an explosion in the US – the instruction was to launch immediately, but the general thought it was unusual that the US would attack Russia with only one missile and so didn’t give the order.  As it turned out, it was a solar reflection on the satellite which caused this, and not a rocket launch at all.  However, as he had disobeyed orders, he was dismissed from the army.

Outside we saw an array of different sized rockets, including the biggest of all – the SS-18 aka “Satan”. The Russians still use the exact same rockets – but the live ones are now all in Russian territory.  They also used them to launch some satellites into space.

We walked to the guard post, and saw the gateway security – if the beam was broken, the machine gun opened fire on anyone who approached.  If that didn’t get them, the very thin electric fence would – up to 800V on a normal day or 3 times that if they were on a war footing.  Of course, before that they had the minefield to negotiate.  The locals didn’t know what was going on, but the Americans probably did.   The vehicles that transported the missiles were lined up outside –  one with 48 wheels.  These are big beasts!  The top of the missile silo was open and we could peer in.  The wireless receivers were still in place.  The silos were spread all over the nearby countryside, each with their own command centre not too far away.

We then all filed into the top of one of these command centres, by descending a flight of stairs, having turned on the very noisy air pumping system.  A narrow corridor filled with pipes led to a yellow door with a red handle on it.  Despite cries of “don’t touch the red handle” from the back, it somehow managed to be used, and ended up stranding those (from a different group) in the lift.  After rescuing the occupants, we were ushered THROUGH the very small lift into the top level of the command centre and told not to touch anything as it all still worked.  It had an emergency escape hatch and a lot of machinery.  Floors 2-10 were sealed off by the Russians, but we took the lift in groups of 3 or 4 to the 12th floor (down).  Peter, Alison, Anne and I ended up together in the lift, with the operator.  It was a very tight squeeze.  Very.  We just about managed to reach the buttons and the handle to open the door on the other side.

Exiting on the 12th floor, there were 3 very hard beds, a samovar and a fridge, together with some cupboards and a separate toilet.  A hatch above allowed Peter and I to climb to the 11th floor, which contained the command centre desks and the “nuclear button”.  We got some snaps before pressing it for real.  Worryingly, as everything else worked!  The simulation lights came on and the US got blitzed 62 seconds later after we fired all 10 missiles.  It would take a further 25 minutes for them to reach their target, by which time I could blame someone else!  In the event of a retaliatory strike, they had 45 days food to survive on, and then they would have had to climb out to die a slow painful death above the surface.  I don’t know why they bothered really.  It had been proved that it was difficult to live there for 2 days, so they probably wouldn’t have lasted 45 anyway.

Alison and Anne hadn’t managed to climb the ladder, so the nice army man took them up one flight in the lift.  This resulted in a bottleneck, and Peter and I being locked in the lift together.  Alone.  It was a scary moment that felt like a lifetime.  It was much better when another 3 people crushed into us and I felt the circulation going as we sped upwards at 30cm a second. (Normal lifts are 70cm/sec).  I feel that my personal space issues are over for good.

Back on the surface, it had turned hot, and we boarded the bus reflecting on how having such a complex was a completely stupid idea for everyone involved.  It is a magnificent piece of engineering though.  The silos were reusable as they had a gunpowder explosive to get them out of the silo, before the main rocket fired.  (Unlike the USA who had to rebuild their silos whenever they fired one.)

By this time it was 3:30pm, and well past second lunch.  I manage to find a few more pickings in my bag from the supermarket – a melted jelly, cheese crisps, a cheese pastry and a swiss roll (yes, all of it.)

Back on the road, Seamus told me about his current volunteering role in Argentina and how he helps those who have a disability, been abandoned and are unloved.  Suspiciously, the bus then rolled to a stop on the hard shoulder and the bus driver got out to examine the engine at the back.  I say “hard shoulder”, but it was really only wide enough for broken down motorbikes.

We then stopped at another “Wog” petrol station for an ice cream, which the pack of disabled dogs didn’t seem interested in.  They just craved attention.  Only another 2 hours until Odessa.

With the batteries running out of all devices, and the light beginning to disappear, I was beginning to think that Odessa was a feature of a cartographers imagination, when it appeared – red traffic light after red traffic light.

The driver eventually found the hotel, and dropping our bags in the 4 star hotel (3 nights, wahoo!) we headed to the main pedestrian street, to be met with a horse dressed as a unicorn, and another as a giraffe.  A third was sporting a Nike saddle, but was otherwise unadorned.

Our guide showed us to a local Ukrainian restaurant which had unfortunately closed sometime in the 20 years since she was last here. It was very good though.  Luckily the street was littered with places to eat, so we picked the nearest one at random, and was pleasantly surprised by the herring I ordered, although the chicken with hot sauce was a bit plain.  More than made up for by the plum sour, the first of which was a bit suspect, so I tried a second to make sure that it was really good.  And the unisex toilets had a wonderful washbasin with shared soap in the middle and a charcoal drain.

Walking back to the hotel, we passed the unicorn and giraffe dressed horses.  Honestly not due to  too many plum sours!

We supported the bar profits, although they don’t seem to be selling any Ukrainian drinks.  Had to settle for a Cubanito … but they have free sweets and good WiFi.

Will sleep well tonight…

Day 2 – Tour of Kiev

16 Sep

Negotiating the hotel lifts, I managed to sniff out the breakfast table.  Peter still didn’t have his bag yet, but on the plus side, I found some “milk porridge” – more milk than porridge.  Certainly looked better than the egg porridge – basically cubes of omelette. Loading up on toast and cakes, we all mostly made it to the 8am introductory meeting, where our guide for the whole trip, Kateryna, welcomed us along before talking through the important parts of the trip (to her!)

Shortly after, we left on foot to walk the short distance to the Palats Sportu – Sports Square.  Not exactly my natural home.  Small yellow buses and lots of people, small coffee shacks and advertising billboards.

We followed the green M to the metro station, pushing through stiff metal doors that made it impossible to see if anyone was trying to come the other way.  As it turns out they were designed to withstand a nuclear attack, which probably explains a lot.  The round blue tokens were purchased for travel – one was valid on any of the three lines for as long as you stayed underground.  Two tokens were available for 30p.  The tickets barriers weren’t all operational, so you didn’t really need one anyway.  We descended the escalators, deep into the ground, and were given strict instructions to get off after one stop.  Surprisingly, we all managed this, although close personal contact with a suited and booted local wasn’t so pleasant (for him or for me).  Following several large major events, the stations are now all numbered, to aid those of us whose Cyrillic alphabet is a little rusty.  Or non-existent.  Changing from the green to the red line, we caught another train to Arsenalna (two stops).  Most stations were quite plain, but the occasional chandelier and decorative motive was apparent here.  It was also the deepest metro station in the world, at 105m. Two escalators took us back to the surface, with some great acoustics on the way up.

Skipping the old arsenal, which the Soviets had doubled in size, we boarded a local yellow bus – with seats for a lot less than 17 (of us), not to mention the locals that also got on.  With the doors closing, two more local woman, somehow managed to also wedge themselves in.

Walking past a Prius police car, we arrived at the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra.  “Lavra” meaning important abbey / monastery.  It was a big site, which a local guide, Anatolia hurtled us around.  We’d paid £6 for a photo pass, but were constantly told not to take photos.  Anatolia told us how to ignore them.

The place was full of small chapels with fantastically decorated iconostasis, all layered up with gold paint, or real gold.  The Orthodox church is still strong here, although as it’s currently part of the Russian branch of the church, there are moves to separate control.  I learned that God is represented by a triangular halo, rather than a round one, and that nearly everything has been restored.

The main dormition cathedral suffered during WWII, but no-one is owning up to who did it.  The records were taken back to Moscow following recent “issues”, and the Ukrainians don’t believe the official Russian account that the Nazis blew the place up.  It appears that the Russians blew up the cathedral to stop the Nazis stealing everything.  Some flawed logic there, if you ask me.  It was reconstructed in 2000, and looks brand new.  We had an opportunity to observe a service taking place – lots of burning wax, chanting by the priest and bowing by head scarf wearing woman.

Returning to the bright sunshine, we also had time to view an exhibition of microminatures by Mykola Syadrystyy.  These were fascinating, if extremely small.  Roses inside a hair, highly detailed ships on the heads of pins.  I hope you get the idea.  Luckily, they provided microscopes to actually see them.  It would never have been possible to take photos, but there was a sign forbidding it anyway.  I did ask for permission to take a general photo of the room, which was readily granted, as long as I also took a picture of Lenin, which was made using the words from ALL of his writings.

We headed back to the refectory church – a very impressive dining hall, I must say, and then out on to a terrace overlooking the lower part of the site and also the Motherland Monument, sporting a Soviet emblem (which they want to remove).  Also some nice views from here to the left bank of the the Dneiper river.  The left bank is confusing on the east side, and therefore the right of most maps.  I coped.  Just.

Leaving our guide behind, we entered the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, surrendering our bags, but not our dignity or freedom.  Another guide sped us round the 9 rooms full of very well preserved gold and silver, from ancient times – 4th Century BC and the Scythian people.  Of note, included a helmet, that was also used as a bowl to contain the scalps that were removed from the losing side.  They didn’t like the Mongols.  Let’s leave it at that.  There were also metal bars (ingots) that were originally used as money, and now feature on the current paper notes.

We wandered to the lower part, and entered the caves / catacombs.  The ladies, with long trousers, still had to don a natty green wrap around skirt, whilst the men like me, in shorts, were able to pass security without an issue.  Dark narrow tunnels full of flickering candles and lots of people trying to walk both directions.  We squeezed past to witness the glass coffins with draped mummified remains, where they had uncovered the hands to show how well preserved the bodies were.  Over 200 bodies are displayed like this, but we only managed to see a handful inbetween the queues before heading for the exit.  There are lots more buried deeper.

Heading uphill, we were accosted by a pirate captain who started a war of words with our tour guide.  She was embarrassed, but this is apparently not usual.  Tensions are high, and any conversation can turn to political discussion quickly.

Exiting the complex, we headed for lunch in  local restaurant, where Dave and I shared a table, and a taste for the same foods.  Borsch (beetroot soup), washed down with a stewed fruit juice (and a coke for safety).  The juice was decidedly smoked.  Coke was required.  The borsch was served with rolls with garlic butter melted on top.  All good for less than £5 each.

Our tour bus turned up to take us to several more places around Kiev.  First was to a candle monument to those who died in 1932-1933.  Presumable a revolution of some sort – they seem to like these a lot.  Further on, we saw some wedding photos being taken overlooking the river.  The wedding car had two large rings and a large ribbon.  Also featured was a monument to the founders of Kiev – Ky, his two brothers and sister.  “Kiev” literally means “city of Ky”.  A bit of the Titanic theme tune crossed my mind with this one.

Moving on, the bus passed the Dynamo Kiev football stadium shrowded behind trees, before stopping at the Rainbow Arch, otherwise known as the arch of friendship – built as friendship between Russia and Ukraine.  They are thinking of changing that somehow …

Overlooking the lower part of the city, the views stretched as far as “The Meadows” – a suburb now consisting of skyscraper after skyscraper of flats.  No-one remembers why it is called that anymore.  I attracted the local drunk – Igor, who was very keen for me to take his photo, and pointed me at the best location to take the local ground graffiti as well as the arch.  Despite his breath smelling like The Glens on a Friday night at chucking out time, and him clutching two, litre bottles of alcohol, he wasn’t drunk.  To prove it, he threw both bottles in a skip.  I think he will regret that. I avoided paying him anything and disinfected my hands thoroughly afterwards.  Nice chap though.  The rest of the group tried to avoid him, but I introduced him to as many as possible.  Hand gels at the ready.  He waved us off as the bus moved on.

We drove around in circles, passing the university area, the funicular (or was it a cable car?), horse rides for kids in the street, an overwhelming number of CCTV cameras, some fancy brickwork, a sign boasting “Beer Online” and a lot of construction projects.

Eventually we stopped at the “Golden Gates” and walked around the outside, admiring the bronze cat statue and the cat in a tree made from plastic forks.  Vladimir (still to find out who is was) held what looked like a cake (that’s what the kids call it), but was actually a model of St Sophia’s Cathderal, built to model the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople at the time).  The reconstructed fort was originally a part of the city walls, but had been rebuilt very recently, and looked very strange without the walls to give it context.  There was apparently a chapel on top, but we didn’t have time to visit.

We drove past the opera house, which had been extended by two storeys from the original design to accommodate the scenery.  How nice of them.  Three churches form a triangle of the upper part of the city – St. Sophia, St Michael and St. Andrew.  We stopped at the latter, and paid 10 hyrvna to be allowed to walk around the outside.  It did have a terrace with views, but there was no access to the inside.  I bought a guide book instead.  The first of the Hard Rock Café – Chernobyl t-shirts were spotted, as well as toilet roll featuring the face of Russian President Putin.

Back on the bus, we were dropped at Maidan Square (Independence Square) where we had the choice to walk back to the hotel.   This was the scene of one of the most recent revolutions (3 in the last 25 years), where the students ran for the shelter of the monastery as the special police chased them up the street kicked and beating them to death.  The president left in his helicopter and the military didn’t know what to do, so stopped beating everyone to death.  There are memorials to those that died all around.

Nine of us ended up at fast food restaurant looking for Ukranian dumplings, but only finding Chicken Kiev.  A full meal including drinks for only £2 though.  As we were sat next to the Italian ice cream stall, it would be rude not to, so I doubled the bill with a couple of scoops – banana and orange! Yum!

After leaving the restaurant, I left the group to take some photos of the Eurovision sign and a student raising funds by being dressed as a minion.  Some more serious money collectors with official ID were next to the photos of the fallen, wanting a contribution for military veterans.

The main street had been cordoned off by the police Prius’ and the whole place was alive with music and young people enjoying themselves.  I caught a drummer with a full drum kit in the middle of the street, a man playing an upright piano to the accompaniment of a iPad and a female poi juggler (that’s fire balls) trying not to set her skimpy top alight.  There was also some Ukranian music to which 2 drunk people seemed to be dancing.  I’m guessing.

Big stages were being set up for further events (stage crew were milling about waiting for someone with a clipboard), and the GUM department store was lit up in every colour.  I ventured in to the very modern store and headed for the 7th floor terrace.  A little bit disappointed that the suicide prevention barriers prevented any view whatsoever, but there was a bar, indoor grass and a hammock.  On the plus side the toilets were excellent.

Still being 22C at 8pm, I headed back to the hotel.  Trying to cross the road, underground, I ended up in another shopping mall – all gleaming white and spotless – but managed to follow the breadcrumbs to the “Palats Sportu” and from there to the 24 hour supermarket to stock up on food for the long drive tomorrow.  I tried not to get sidetracked with the alcohol and sweets, but ended up with a large bag that should keep me going through 2nd breakfast, elevenses, lunch and mid afternoon snack.  The man behind me in the queue helped with my “what is …” questions – for his own benefit really.

Back at the hotel, some of the others were anxiously waiting for me – whilst consuming some rather bad red wine.  I joined them for some Ukranian bleach – vodka – and regretted it instantly.

Blogging can wait.  Time for bed after such an extensive trip …

Day 1 – Travel to Kiev

15 Sep

Why do I always book the flights that need an early start?  Was waved off just before 5am, having surprisingly awakened before my alarm rang at 4:15am.

An easy drive to my parking place with the only “highlight” being the lights on the Queensferry Crossing.  Not the fancy colour changing illuminations – I’m meaning the curious lights that are supposed to shine on the road, but actually stare you straight in the face.  Thankfully, they must have run out of money for the middle section.

Parking up outside a random house, I drop my spare key through a different random letter box and hope that it’s the one that has pre-agreed to look after the car! (Thanks Brian!) (If you need to move it – foot on brake to start the car and to put it in gear, don’t forget it has a manual foot brake (left foot) instead of a hand brake, and the “P” on the dash takes it out of gear.)

In my spare time the night before, I’d manage to investigate Uber, the internet taxi booking firm.  Give them their due, 4 minutes after keying in the details, Ilir, an Albanian café owner, turned up to whisk me off to the airport before I’d even got the bags on the pavement.  No money changed hands – it’s all magic.  Definitely the best way to do it, although I’ve no idea how expensive it would have been otherwise.  If only he’d combined his café business with his taxi services …

Second, or was it third? breakfast at the Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh Airport – the traditional Wetherspoons departure grease up.  Once again I embraced technology, downloaded their app and the bacon roll arrived before I had even read the receipt.  The hot chocolate took a little longer – perhaps it was all those marshmallows!

I seem to be lucky with gates this trip.  Sat outside gate 12 waiting for the gate to be announced – gate 12, we have a winner!

Settling on to the first plane to Amsterdam, I noticed that I was surrounded by children.  8 of them to be precise.  Only three had forgotten to leave their vocal chords at home.  All from the same family, with the father wisely sitting several rows in front, leaving the mother to appease the other passengers.  She did a sterling job as she told the man in front that “children are like that – no need to be so grumpy”.  To be honest, all she had to do was learn not to shout herself!

An omelette on a sandwich – must be a Dutch thing – probably wasn’t the best thing to feed an entire plane, but thankfully the air circulation system meant it couldn’t be traced to me.

Data roaming in the EU meant that there was no need for a mad rush to turn phones back on as we landed, but addictions are hard to overcome.  It doesn’t help that Amsterdam has free WiFi, and plenty spaces to charge devices.

With luck, I landed at gate D18 and had to walk less than 100m to D28 for the next flight.  No chance of missing the flight or additional security gates to pass through.  Also thankful that it’s not Easter!  Every time.

Devices fully recharged and stomach refilled it was off to Kiev on Ukraine International Airlines … not at all like Aeroflot.  Except that the food was not free.  €2 for a juice – I think not.  I sat and starved as the couple next to me munched their pre-packaged sandwiches.  I was in the exit row, so had extended leg room – I’d asked at check in to swap from the middle seat, and expected to be pressed up against the window, so was pleasantly surprised.

In less than the allotted time, we had arrived in Kiev, and managed to swiftly deplane, before spending just as long waiting for our luggage to turn up.  I think it got a different plane.  In the arrival hall, I met our stand in tour guide for the day, and Dave – who we quickly established from passport stamps had been on a previous Explore tour with me to Cuba in 2015.  Some others from the London flight also joined us, but we waited for over an hour until Peter finally came through the doors.  His luggage hadn’t been so lucky, and he wasn’t best pleased about it.

We eventually found a minibus to take us to the hotel, and after passing the other half of the group dying from hunger in the foyer, we checked in, found our rooms, and were then led through town to as many cash machines and foreign exchange places as possible.  Like my fellow sensible passengers, I’d managed to use the hotel exchange booth (32 hryvnia to the pound), however we did find a suitable collection of options next to the Jewish Synagogue, to satisfy the others.

Cash in hand, we headed for food (PanTeLaPase), and being a sucker for the word “traditional”, tried the cheese soup, served IN a huge hunk of bread (messy to eat!) together with some chicken in a tomato sauce – unfortunately also served together and therefore cold by the time I got to it.  A quick chance to meet some of the others before they drifted off.

Wandering back to the hotel past the 24 hour supermarket and the teenage snogging, drinking and skateboarding area (sometimes all three at once), I collapsed in front of the BBC World News and weather predicting a stonking day tomorrow.