Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Kyiv, Ukraine

Kyiv - The city of a hundred church steeples and seemingly a hundred hills

Bisected by the Dnieper River and known for its religious architecture and monuments, the Ukrainian capital seems to have shot up around many different hills meaning that whichever direction you choose, it's likely you'll be fighting a reasonably steep gradient in order to take in its many sights.

This latest trip came as the newest installment in my friendship group's quest to explore as much of Eastern Europe, and as many of its football derby matches as possible.

Sadly due to various factors and the late stage at which it was planned, the trip was far too brief to be able to pass an authoritative judgment on Kyiv as a city break, but what I can do is speak incredibly highly of what we experienced in two afternoons and three evenings.

Our hostel was located at the foot of Andriivs'kyi Descent, a winding and cobbled street which offers a throwback to 'old Kyiv', complete with market stalls selling all kinds of gifts and traditional dress.

At the top of the descent is the grand St Andrew's Church and also located not so far away is the strikingly shiny St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, something I was only able to witness briefly from a passing car due to our time constraints.

We did however find time to enjoy wandering around Kyiv's streets and rubbing shoulders with locals at the not so tourist trodden street markets.

As previously touched upon, Kyiv is a mecca for fans of religious architecture, with its many orthodox structures cutting all kinds of shapes into the city's skyline, but for me the most moving sight was Maidan and Republic Square.

Prior to visiting Kyiv, I watched the documentary Winter on Fire, a production that captured how a civil rights movement erupted after a student protest escalated into a violent revolution which eventually resulted in the resignation of the country's president.

Thousands of protesters set up camp at Republic Square unhappy with President Yanukovych's decision to turn his back on EU talks and align himself closer to the Russian Government.

Following the loss of many lives at the hands of Government forces, the staunch will of those who went out onto the street to fight for their futures prevailed and President Yanukovych left his post and fled to Russia.

Standing at an open space that only a few years ago was the violent scene of such a poignant period of time in the country's history was moving and a reminder that human beings and ordinary people shouldn't be underestimated, particularly at a time of such EU related turbulence and uncertainty here in the UK.

Finally, and somewhat naturally, after a walk around the historic neighbourhood of Podil, our trip was rounded off with a football match, which in truth, was a somewhat strange experience.

Sitting just off of Khreshchatyk Street, Kyiv's main boulevard, is the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium.

The stadium is named after the legendary manager who for many years took charge of Dynamo Kiev, the country's most successful team and previously a European football powerhouse.

These days Dyamo play at the glistening Olimpiyskiy instead of the Lobanovskyi, while the Lobanovskyi hosts Dyamo's reserves and a number of smaller teams, despite Dynamo still owning the ground and its badge being displayed around the ground.

One of those teams are Arsenal Kiev, a team that has been formed, dissolved and reformed in true Eastern European fashion.

Although they were the home team I was only able to count a handful of Arsenal fans, with the stands dominated by Dynamo supporters, who as far as I'm aware remain the country's best supported club.

As is often the case in Eastern Europe, the quality on the pitch is lacking due to the rich getting richer in the west thus creating an increasingly uneven playing field, in financial terms anyway.

Dynamo were able to run out 1-0 winners despite playing the last 20 minutes with nine men, the goal sparking spectacular scenes in their ultras section which saw an abundance of flares lit, hundreds of blokes stripping to the waist on a cold night and a few fireworks let off for good measure.

The stadium itself, although dated, lies behind a grandiose gate and is a throwback to the stadiums of years gone by. For me, the highlight of these trips are seeing the pyrotechnic displays and non-stop chanting of ultras and contrasting it to the sanitised atmosphere of football here in the UK where I am not even able to get a bottle top into the stadium.

So with a plethora of sights and iconic buildings, cheap prices and a pumping nightlife, there are many reasons to venture to Kyiv and Europe's far eastern reaches.

All in all, although due to time restraints we were unable to visit everything in the city we wanted to, it was a thoroughly enjoyable yet brief visit and a perfect stop-gap to keep me going until my dream trip to South America next month.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Barcelona terror thoughts

At 8am on Tuesday morning I arrived back at my desk but as is so often is the case after a weekend away, I was here in body but not in spirit.

From Friday evening until Monday lunchtime I had the pleasure of again staying in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, this time for the third time in my life.

As a keen traveller and someone who gets away whenever finances and annual leave allow, I try not to make a habit of going back to the same place, even twice. I’ve now been to 33 countries and believe that the world is a huge place with so much out there to explore and no matter how great a location is, there’s so much unchartered territory around the globe left to uncover.

Yet, despite this there’s something about Barcelona that keeps drawing me back. Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite? I don’t mind.

It has now become clear that 13 people have been killed in an ISIS-claimed terror attack which struck Las Ramblas, the very heart of Barcelona yesterday afternoon.

The attacker, who is said to still be at large, drove a van down the vibrant boulevard mowing into pedestrians along the way. Hundreds were injured, including several more in a separate attack in Cambrils, 120 kilometres away.

Catalan authorities have been left in no doubt that Las Ramblas was targeted for a specific reason, and that reason is that thousands of tourists visit the thoroughfare every day, soaking up the city’s unique atmosphere at the hundreds of bars, restaurants, boutiques and market stalls that line the avenue as it stretches down to the Mediterranean Sea.

Las Ramblas is a hive of activity, from the street performers who draw the crowds during the day, to the prostitutes that frequent the area at night. Las Ramblas really is truly a melting point of cultures in a city I believe to be one of the most beautiful in the world.

Sometimes when pictures of the terror attacks that now all too frequently take place both in Western Europe and countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan are beamed to our 24 hour news channels, we are gripped in a kind of morbid curiosity watching as the death count increases.

Of course we keep our fingers crossed that the death toll doesn’t rise further and the police are able to arrest all those who played their part in the planning of the atrocity. Maybe it makes me a cold person or all this crime reporting at Truro Crown Court has desensitised me, but I usually struggle to truly emphasise with those who are there.

Well I did previously, but all this changed yesterday.

On Monday morning I took one final walk down Las Ramblas before heading to the airport and back to my Cornwall home.

I was tired (no more than 15 hours sleep in three nights), hungover (I lost count of the amount of sangria I drank over the course of the weekend), broke (it’s not the cheapest city), burnt (I was a bit low on funds on our beach day and the choice was mojitos or sun cream), slightly annoyed (FC Barcelona had been trounced by Real Madrid and that tw*t Ronaldo right in front of me) but despite all of this I was still in love with the city and didn’t want to come home.

So when I was driving home from work yesterday and heard the catastrophic events unfolding on the radio, I felt physically sick. What made it even worse was when I switched on BBC news and saw people running for their lives up the exact street I had walked down just three days before.

My heart truly does go out to everybody involved and I’ve been left with one of those feelings that it could have been me. What if the terrorists decided to attack a few days earlier or even last weekend when it would have been even busier and I was sat at one of the bars playing cards over a beer with my friends?

The attackers are cowards, targeting innocent holiday makers trying to enjoy some sunshine in a bid to escape this insult of a British summer. Just as I was several days ago.

What alarms me most is how easy it is to hire a van and cause carnage, I can only pray it doesn’t happen again, however I am not confident that it won’t.

Will this attack stop me going back to Barcelona? No, never. We cannot let them win. As is the case in London, Paris, Brussels and now Barcelona life must go on although we must never forget those who have been affected.

Barcelona is an enchantingly beautiful city. There’s Plaça Catalunya, Park Guell, Camp Nou, La Sagrada Família, the Gothic Quarter and so many other amazing sights to soak up.

Yes it may get overcrowded and some locals resent the huge influx of visitors but this won’t stop me loving the city.

Nor will the acts of a number of pathetic men and I pray that those injured in the atrocity make full recoveries and the city is able to get back on its feet once the natural period of mourning comes to an end.

I don’t care if it makes me a hypocrite, Barcelona, I’ll be back.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Barcelona 2017

Prague, Berlin and Barcelona are all special cases for me.
Personally, I don’t make a habit of revisiting the same places time and time again, and although I don’t like to be one to bash other people’s travel choices, each to their own as my mother always told me, I struggle to see how people can be content with visiting the same resort each year sometimes not even breaking out of the confines of the hotel itself when there is a whole world out there to explore.
I have visited Prague and Berlin on two separate occasions, both for different reasons. In Prague’s case I went firstly with an ex-girlfriend and secondly with a group of friends, two entirely different trips I can assure you, whereas I visited Berlin during my first ever foray onto foreign soil on a college trip and then again as the starting point for a three week rail venture around Europe.
Now, after this weekend’s trip I have visited Barcelona three times, elevating it to the top of the rankings and perhaps even making me a hypocrite, and do I regret my choice? Not in the slightest.
All three trips centred on football and my fondness for FC Barcelona but at the same time all three trips were so much more than that. During the first visit, with my mother, we attended a relatively low-key game against Sporting Gijon in the magnificent footballing cathedral that is the Camp Nou, as well as taking in some of the city’s man sights including the bustling boulevard of Las Ramblas, the beautiful fountains of Placa Catalunya and the former Roman village area that is the Gothic Quarter, a narrow collection of streets that stretch down to the Mediterranean seafront.
And despite my love affair with Barcelona, I have had my fair share of bad luck in association with the city starting from when my hero, Lionel Messi, missed my first game after being on the receiving end of a very rare suspension.
My second dose of bad luck, came during my second visit, and was this time a little more self-inflicted. The spur of the moment trip was booked just over a week before when over several pints we decided to head out for the title decider between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, again in the Camp Nou.
At the time, wearing monthly contact lenses (switching to dailies has since been the best choice I’ve ever made), I purchased a bottle of solution small enough to take through airport security only to get into Barcelona, give my contact lenses a scrub before heading out for an evening and the next morning waking up in absolute agony feeling as if I had poured acid into my eye.
After visiting numerous pharmacists and being unsuccessfully handed several antibiotics, my friend belatedly remembered his then-wife was a nurse and picked up the phone and was told that saline would neutralise whatever on earth was going on in my eye.
It did, but only on the last day after I had missed out on a night out and spent an afternoon in the stadium looking like a pirate with an eye patch on, pretty much enable to see the action unfolding on the pitch beneath me.
So, back to the present, last Friday I left home for Bristol a full seven and a half hours before take-off and when I first joined a long tail of stationary traffic making its way out of Cornwall, I was relaxed.
Gradually the delays became increasingly concerning and the hours continued to pass as my sat-nav took me off the A30 and M5 and through a load of towns and villages which were equally congested in a bid to avoid the tailbacks.
My phone battery rapidly drained away and then came the realisation that I would be left in a place I wasn’t familiar with no sat-nav, culminating in me missing my flight. With my battery at less than 4% I finally arrived back on the M5, with little time remaining until my flight and that was the moment I began to really fear the Barcelona curse had struck again.
As soon as I turned off the motorway, with my phone long since dead, I was fortunately met with a relatively straight forward stretch and after following the signs, eventually pulled into the airport with just over an hour to spare after six and a quarter hours of 'driving' under my belt meaning I was left with no choice but to use the express parking right next to the airport at a cost of £150, wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits.
In fact, with blazing sunshine all weekend compensating for this insult of a Cornish summer, the only damp thing about this exceptional weekend was Barcelona’s performance in the El Clasico Super Cup final, a 3-1 defeat against eternal enemies Real Madrid.
As has been documented a thousand times in a variety of literature, the rivalry has intensified over the years following the oppression of the Catalan state by central government in Madrid, with the Camp Nou during the Franco dictatorship being one of the only places Catalan people could gather, speak their language, wave their flags, sing their songs and ultimately express their identity.
These days the hatred and resentment is still there, perhaps fuelled by the fact that along with Atletico Madrid, the pair annually battle it out for the top honours in Spain and on the continent and then there’s also the two aliens that are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo smashing every record going, driving each other on to new heights. It’ll be a long time until we see anybody like these two again so enjoy them while they’re both still lacing up their boots.
The first half of the game was uneventful with little action to speak of, but it was odd to see Real Madrid shirts dotted among the home support, a sight unthinkable in other European countries where away support in home sectors would have to be disguised and muted to ensure any form of personal safety. Although the atmosphere was good, watching football is Spain is more like going to the theatre than into a warzone.
Fortunately for us, but not for Barcelona who look like they need some serious work if they are to push the back-to-back Champions League winners from Madrid for trophies, the game exploded into life.
First Gerard Pique inadvertently turned a cross into his own net before Messi restored parity from the penalty spot. The game then turned with the introduction of Ronaldo, who scored with a rocket from range before earning a yellow card for stupidly taking his shirt off during his celebrations, and then he saw red after being penalised for a dive. Whether he dived or not looked questionable from our vantage point but he then appeared to shove the ref, for which he has since received a five match ban. Marco Asensio then sealed a 3-1 advantage going into the second leg with an even more breath-taking strike.
All-in-all, we enjoyed quite the weekend. Some fantastic nights out in the clubs and bars of Las Ramblas and the Gothic Quater where we had the pleasure of meeting some great people and even ending up indulging in a spot of late night drunken swimming, ticking El Clasico off the bucket list and wandering the wide open avenues of the Catalan capital in blazing hot sunshine. We also temporarily reached heaven sitting on Barcelona beach, sipping beers in the Sunday afternoon sun.
As always, the city was easy to navigate with its expansive underground rail links, and despite reports of hostility from locals towards tourists, everybody we met was welcoming and hospitable. Especially the friendly staff at the delightfully named Bollocks rock bar, which is possibly now my favourite bar in the world.
My only parting piece of serious advice would be if you are planning on visiting Park Guell to capture that Instagram money shot of the colourful mosaics in front of the city skyline that stretches down to the ocean, make sure you book tickets in advance as when we arrived (reasonably early may I add), tickets to get to the front of the vantage point had sold out until the next day despite there not seeming to be a large amount of people kicking about.
So yeah, Barcelona for a third time, not something I’ll be making a habit of as the world is a big place and I want to visit as many countries as I can while I’m still young and able, but if anybody is pondering over a weekend away which combines electric nightlife, some of the best football in the world (most of the time), and a beautiful city rich in culture and history then look no further than Barcelona, you may even end up going more than once.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Korçë, Albania and surrounding villages

Albania must surely have to rank as one of Europe's lesser known countries and I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have visited the strip of land on the Balkan Peninsula which is lapped by both Adriatic and Ionian sea coastlines.
Of those who visited, the majority were on military deployments but all came back raving about a fascinating and beautiful country, where the people are genuinely welcoming and proud to show off their homeland to the rest of the world.
In fact, to say Albania is fascinating is probably an understatement. 
Until 1992 the country's borders remained closed and nobody was allowed in and out, meaning that the country is still in its infancy as a travel destination.Albanian citizens were forced to live under the rule of hard-line communist leader Enver Hoxha, who kept control of his populace through a combination of fear, paranoia and brainwashing until his death in 1985 of a heart attack.
Farmers were made to hand over the majority of their crops to the state for redistribution and any private enterprises were strictly forbidden. 
Money was in parts of the country replaced with tokens which would then be exchanged for a carefully regulated amount of goods.
As you travel through the Albanian countryside you'll notice curious markings in the luscious green mountainside which our informed guide told us was a result of farmers being forced to pointlessly plough even when there were no crops to produce, all in the name of work, discipline and ultimately hardcore communism.
Following tedious passport inspections both leaving Macedonia and entering Albania (between the borders there is a couple of hundred metres of no-man's land), we finally crossed the border near St Naum and entered the city of Pogradec after passing a few tacky looking resorts on the shores of the southerly end of Lake Ohrid.
Pogradec's bustling city centre was an assault on the senses with some locals going about their daily business whilst others hung out on the street corners, selling everything from rugs to live rabbits in an area where unemployment is rife.
After stopping briefly for a caffeine hit which arrived in the form of a cappuccino, we hopped back on the bus and headed inland towards the student city of Korçë, population 80,000ish.
A flat tyre resulted in an enforced stop in the Albanian countryside, where we were able to take in the splendid view of country houses backed by the towering mountain landscape.
The brief pause also allowed for us to examine one of Albania's most common sites, bunkers.
All across Albania Hoxha built huge bunkers, often in people's front gardens, in a bid to convince his people that the country was under threat of foreign attack and that his word should be followed indefinitely.
Bunkers still lie in gardens, on the side of roads, in fields and in cities and many of them have since the fall of communism and Hoxha's death, been converted into colourful murals and innovative indoor spaces.
As our bus chugged past the bleak factories and heavy industry that surrounds the perimeter of Korçë, the skies darkened as we pulled into town.
We again disembarked the bus and set about strolling through the chaotic market where animated salesman peddled out some of the freshest looking produce I've ever seen.
There was barely room to swing a cat in the market and we soon excited exhausted onto the city streets flanked by that stereotypical high-rise tower block housing, clearly a hangover of the communist regime.
A couple of twists and turns later and we found ourselves in the newer part of town and what a contrast it was.
We browsed the modern cobbled streets dotted with bars, restaurants and clothes stores and strolled alongside Korçë's huge student population, who arrive from all over the country to study at the city's universities.
At the top of the newer end of town sits the grand Orthodox Church of St George, again sitting beneath the imposing mountains.
In Albania various cultural influences are evident including that of the formerly occupying Ottomans, and these days the south of the country is predominantly Christian and the north, Islam.
After a thoroughly enjoyable few hours in the hugely contrasting city of Korçë, we headed to the countryside and the settlement of Pustec.
In impoverished Pustec we were greeted by friendly locals who even at some points welcomed us into their homes.
Pustec is interesting in that the population is largely aged under 18 and over 40, with the majority of young people leaving the rural areas of the country to move to the city to study and in search of work.
Curiously despite parts of Pustec resembling the villages featured at the start of the comedy film Borat, a number of grand houses exist just a short walk from the considerably more modest farmers' shacks.
Despite spending less than 12 hours in just a small part of Albania, the visit left me wanting more.Known mostly for the mafia and dodgy roads (a lot of improvements seem to have been made to road surfaces), Albania is a melting pot of culture, friendly locals, natural beauty and a rich and varied history and I would wholeheartedly recommend anybody with an interest in the region to go and discover for themselves how a country can find its feet after emerging from the dark shadow of communism.

Ohrid, Macedonia

Although its name may sound like an ancient kingdom out of a Terry Pratchell novel, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia undoubtedly boasts one of Europe’s richest areas of breath-taking natural beauty, that of Lake Ohrid and its array of surrounding settlements and national parks.

As is often the case I was alerted to this semi-hidden gem whilst browsing a Lonely Planet article detailing 2017’s must visit locations.

A quick Google search was enough to convince me that I needed to get to Ohrid, especially as my list of European countries that I had yet to visit was quickly diminishing and within the space of a few weeks the trip was booked.

Touching down at the minuscule Ohrid Airport I didn’t have a great deal of idea what to expect, other than excellent photographic vantage points from which to capture the grandeur and beauty of the lake which measures 34 kilometres in length and at certain points, 300 feet in depth and is home to tonnes of species of fish and other water-based creatures.

Known for being the home to many beautiful churches which number well into the hundreds, Ohrid town itself is a charming collection of cobbled streets and an atmospheric old quarter which cascades gently down the side of a hill.

From our base at the charming Villa St. Sofija we were able to comfortably navigate the sites of the UNESCO listed old town on foot, taking in the spectacular views from St Clement Church and towering Tzar Samoil’s Fortress which looks over the town, as well as checking out the old amphitheatre and scores of medieval buildings, many of which are still homes to locals ensuring that the town still has a lived-in feel.

The boardwalk to Kaneo allows for easy access to the fishing village packed with restaurants and small beaches and following the boardwalk further is an absolute must, as it leads to The Church of St Jovan of Kaneo, a medium sized place of worship (by Ohrid standards) with behind it an excellent vantage point allowing visitors to capture that postcard Ohrid image of the church overlooking the pristine waters of the lake.

As is the case with all of the previous former Yugoslav states I have visited, the locals were exceedingly welcoming and intrigued by us with an excellent command of the English language.

Naturally Ohrid does welcome its fair share of international visitors (mainly Dutch), but is still just about worthy of being dubbed a ‘hidden gem’, with crowds not yet becoming overwhelming.

A range of traditional and international bars and restaurants line the waterfront dotted with local captains offering boat tours of the lake and the nighttime scene keeps kicking into the early hours, particularly at the weekends.

With an average wage of around 250 euros a month, western visitors can enjoy excellent value with a bottle of beer pricing around a £1 and a good feed available for less than £5 a head.

No trip to Ohrid is complete without a dip in the crystal clear lake itself, and as difficult as it may sound, try not to be put off by the chilly early summer water and the snakes which can be seen pouncing on some of the unsuspecting smaller fish.

Once we’d spent a day exploring the old town, we decided to take a tour to the ancient Orthodox monastery of St Naum, stopping on the way at Trepejca, the St Tropez of the Balkans, a small village which comes alive during the summer months and again offers yet another great spot to try and snap a photo which does justice to the lake’s incredible beauty.

A little further afield between Ohrid and the capital Skopje, but absolutely undoubtedly worth the two hour drive is Macedonia’s (interestingly the only state to leave Yugoslavia without a war) biggest national park, Mavrovo.

As well as being the home to bears and lynxes, Mavrovo offers crisp air and stunning views (again) of Macedonia's highest peak, Mount Korab, which reaches 2,764 metres above sea level.

After a stop at the Albanian feeling town of Debar, we enjoyed a look around Sveti Jovan Bigorski, probably the best situated monastery in the world, perched high up a valley, interestingly right across from a mosque meaning that at times both the monastery’s bells and the mosque’s call to prayer can be heard at the same time.

Mavrovo also offers skiing during winter months and is also the site of a number of small traditional mountain villages with an authentic feel of remoteness and detachment from the real world. Scruffy shepherds herding their flock along potholed roads are a reminder that life in the national park area for many, remains unchanged by the evolving world going on around them.

The catch with Mavrovo and indeed Ohrid being, that if you're anything like me, you'll fall in love with any one of a number of the stray dogs, all of whom did though seem to be friendly and well-fed.

As a sucker for Yugoslav history and travel (Kosovo is now the only state I haven’t yet visited), it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up visiting Ohrid when travelling to Macedonia, but I’ve also heard rave reviews of the capital of Skopje, said to be a cultural melting pot complete with bustling bazaars and markets.

Ohrid and its surrounding areas are certainly must-visit spots for nature lovers, culture junkies and religious folk and visiting you cannot help but be swept away and marvel at the picturesque setting, with every turn unearthing a new view that will have you reaching for your camera yet again.

Following last year’s introduction of flights from London Luton it is undoubtedly only a matter of time before more Brits clock on and follow the lead of the Dutch and pack up and head off in their masses to take up a spot on the shores of the placid lake. So my advice would be get to Ohrid and do so quickly before the crowds grow to the intolerable levels seen in the likes of Dubrovnik and prices begin to rise to match.