A Travellerspoint blog

Slovakia

Are you paying attention? This is going to be quick...

This is one of those blogs were we are going to let the pictures do the talking. We only spent about 36 hours in Slovakia which is clearly not long enough to form any sort of definitive opinion on the country.

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We had our first Slovakian experience en route to Hungary when we stopped to pick up a quick lunch at Plesivic, near the border. Rob disappeared into a local cafe and emerged with his own personal shopper who decided to escort him through the local supermarket and 'translate' for him, despite not speaking a word of English! She did manage to convey that she had several sons living in London, which probably explains why everyone looked at her when Rob turned up asking if anyone spoke English...

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The Plesivic market... Helpfully, it was closed

Two days later, after checking out Hungary, we were back in Slovakia, heading to the capital Bratislava.

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Bratislava castle

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Although the Slovakian capital was chilled out and had an easy going atmosphere, the fact that they had adopted the euro meant that it was quite expensive compared to other eastern European cities, particularly as its Old Town was not as flash when compared to Wroclaw, Split or Budapest.

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The UFO Bridge - Apparently there is a nightclub at the top... We're still not sure how they get people up there

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A random trip hazard...

We still enjoyed our walk around the city and shared a (massive) plate of the local dumplings although the Slovakian idea of dumplings was closer to an Italian gnocchi, or a potato spaetzle, than what we had expected.

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We called it a night after checking out the KGB bar on the funky Obchodna Street...

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Naturally we couldn't leave without a photo with the Boss

Our impression of Slovakia was pretty good, although we didn't really have much time there. The people were generally very friendly and we didn't encounter any real problems. The biggest issue with Slovakia, as far as we can figure it, is that under the euro it simply can't compete with neighbouring countries for cheap travel – it would be interesting to head back to places like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic if they eventually adopt the euro and see how it changes things...

Posted by RobandEve 06:02 Archived in Slovakia Comments (0)

Hungary

After breakfast in Poland, lunch in Slovakia we made it into Hungary in time for dinner...

We headed straight to the Valley of Beautiful Women near Eger in northern Hungary, a region more famous for its wine than its beautiful women... The most famous is its 'Bulls Blood' wine, cryptically named in honour of the local army repelling the invading Turks.

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There are thirty-something wine caves all arranged on a few streets around a small park and the wine is typically sold, per litre, directly from the vats into massive plastic bottles. We bought the minimum 2 litres of Bull's Blood and headed back to the campsite to see how much of a dent we could make in it...

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The Hagymasi Pinceszet wine cave - they won some awards, probably for having the most pronounceable name...

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The best part of visiting wine regions... Tasting!!

The next morning we headed into the capital, and with the Smurf Mobile safely parked in a campsite, we enjoyed a slow meander through the Budavari Polota castle - not really a castle in the knights, moats, and boiling oil sense; more like a small suburb with high walls...

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We can't really explain this...

We enjoyed a couple of drinks at one of the many cafes inside the castle before continuing our walking tour. The buildings inside the castle were very well restored and the tile work on the roofs (especially the cathedral) was incredible...

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The view down the street from our cafe

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The Buda castle cathedral

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The view of Pest from Buda castle

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We walked down the hill (gingerly, having still not recovered from Poland...) and across the famous Chain Bridge linking Buda and Pest and found a fantastic wine bar near Saint Stephen's Cathedral in Pest called DiVino. Not knowing anything about Hungarian wines, we asked the bartender for his choice of local whites and three times he picked a fantastic wine for us to try.

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The Chain Bridge

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Saint Stephen's Cathedral in central Pest

After three good-sized glasses of wine we reluctantly staggered away from the wine bar and caught the metro to the Heroes Square to see the statues of Hungary's famous warriors lit up at night.

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We caught the metro back to the cathedral square and managed to resist the temptation to return to DiVino, which was by now so busy it had spilled outside and there were over a hundred half-pissed Hungarians drinking out on the street... Instead we found a small cafe and tried the local goulash before heading back to the river to grab some snapshots of Buda castle at night.

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Saint Stephen's again

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The Buda castle

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The Chain Bridge at night

Even though it was short, we had a great time in Hungary. Budapest was great fun (especially at night) and we could have easily spent several days just ticking off the amazing cafes and bars around central Pest. However, as our time is starting to slip away, the next morning we very reluctantly headed to Slovakia...

Posted by RobandEve 04:12 Archived in Hungary Comments (1)

Poland

Can I buy a vowel?

Our first stop in Poland was Wroclaw (pronounced vrak-wahf, apparently) which had been recommended to us by the owner of the Kiwi Pub in Berlin, who loved his recent trip. We found a cheap camp ground, parked up and headed into the centre of town...

We wandered around town to find the pride of Wroclaw, the panoramic painting of the Polish peasant army giving it to the Russians in a small battle that in no way effected the outcome of the war (the Russians smashed them!) Regardless of the eventual outcome, the battle has become something of a Polish Gallipoli and the people of Wroclaw take their panorama very seriously.

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The huge 360 degree painting is impressively mounted in a specially built complex along with dirt and props arranged to give the appearance of actually standing on the battlefield.

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After the panorama we wandered along the river to the town centre. We were surprised when we got there because up until that point all of the buildings were drab, uninspiring and for lack of a better word, communist. In contrast, the town square had a great laid back atmosphere and was full of street performers and buskers. The buildings were colourful and there were literally hundreds of cafes and bars to choose from...

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The colourful Wroclaw main square

We (Rob) chose a brewery and we had a few drinks while we listened to some of the buskers...

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The Gentlemen of Squalor – A fairly humourous UK jazz band on tour...

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One of Wroclaw's gnomes... There are 15 hiding in plain sight around the city centre - I think we found seven. They commemorate the garden gnomes used as a super secret signal by the Orange Alternative, a Polish anti-communist group during the post-WWII communist era.

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Rob discovered that alcohol does not improve his chess game...

We had a great meal at a traditional Polish restaurant – the slow roasted pork knuckle with Polish dumplings was amazing – before heading back to the town square to a communist-themed bar for a couple of vodka shots. Unfortunatelty, by the time we got back to our bus stop the last bus had already left so we were forced to fork out for a cab...

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The next day we headed to Oswiecim and went to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau (Brzezinka in Polish). It seemed totally wrong that we should have such a stunning day walking around places which we have always imagined on a horrible grey backdrop of sky or covered in snow.

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The "Gate of Death" at Birkenau

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The infamous front gate at Auschwitz: "Work makes free" - someone's idea of a sick joke...

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We were surprised to find that a lot of the buildings at Auschwitz (a former Polish army barracks) looked relatively normal and wouldn't look out of place at all in a sleepy suburban town.

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The barracks at Auschwitz

Walking around was a pretty harrowing experience for us and we were disgusted to see a group of tourists laughing, carrying on and posing for photos outside and inside the gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz!

Not really wanting to spend the night near Auschwitz we started heading towards Krakow. Unfortunately we couldn't find anywhere to stop on the way, so ended up driving all the way to Krakow a day earlier than expected.

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Krakow embraces alternative transport...

The next morning we grabbed an early bus and tram into town and after quick coffee we wandered around the massive castle complex.

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Krakow's Wawel Castle

We took the medieval equivalent of the tradesman's exit down a long spiral staircase into the cave complex below the castle (now called the Dragons Lair for the kids) and walked along the river to a great little vegetarian place called Momo, after the Tibetan dumplings we fell in love with on our trip to Lhasa (no prizes for guessing what we had for lunch...)

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Spooky - the Dragon's Lair

After a huge (and cheap) lunch we headed to the Jewish sector to walk it off... The area was surprisingly run down and, according to our free Krakow map, zoned as an industrial area. Although it felt (and looked) like the war ended yesterday, there were some really funky (in the unwashed Bohemian sense) cafes and bars scattered around some of the side streets.

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The Great Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

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The Singer Cafe - all the tables are old sewing machines

We made our way to Oscar Schindler's old factory but found that it had been turned into a (quite expensive) museum of Krakow during the war years, so we decided to flag it and catch a train back to the centre of town instead.

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No seriously, tell us how you really feel...

Our arrival in Krakow apparently coincided with a massive Polish scout jamboree, so we had to wait around at the Florian gate for about ten minutes watching thousands of merit badges shuffle past us before we could get into the city centre...

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The centre of Krakow was every bit as busy as Wroclaw, but it lacked the laid back atmosphere and the town square was full of kitschy knick-knack vendors. We found a small cellar bar on one of the side streets and enjoyed a few drinks before catching two trams and a bus back to the camp ground.

The next day we decided to check out the massive salt mine at Wieliczka (yeah, don't ask us to pronounce it either...) There is no longer any underground mining done at the site and its primary focus is tourism, which meant that we almost walked away after seeing the ticket price. In the end, we coughed up the 140 zloty (about 35 euros) for entry, fully expecting to be disappointed...

We were amazed at the sheer scale of the mine, and the incredible salt sculptures (in some cases, carved by the miners themselves...)

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The amazing underground chapel... Carved entirely out of salt!

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Salt chandelier

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After a tiring three hour tour, and sharing some more Polish dumplings at a depth of 135 metres, we caught an elevator back to the surface

After getting out of the mine we drove down to Zakopane and grabbed some supplies, before driving a bit further east to Bukowina Tatrzanka (yes, that is the correct spelling...) on our way to climb Poland's highest mountain, Mount Rysy (2499m). We managed to find a guest house that let us park for the night in their car park for the equivalent of about 4 euros – we were pretty happy as it meant we only had to drive for about 20 minutes to the start of the Tatras National Park in the morning...

The next morning we were parked, fed and walking by 7.30am, although we did end up cheating a bit by catching a horse drawn carriage the 9km into Morskie Oko ("Marine Eye"), a large mountain lake which is the official start point of the Rysy trail.

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The view up from Morskie Oko

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The second (and higher) alpine lake, Czarny Staw, had some epic reflections

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Czarny Staw again, from a bit further up the mountain...

The trail was pretty good until about two thirds of the way to the summit where it basically became a rock scramble. A few of the ferrata (fixed chain) routes closer to the summit gave us a few nervous (read: “f*&cking terrifying” ~ Eve) moments.

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Eve going hard...

Unfortunately the clouds closed in on our way up and the views from the top were disappointing, although we did get a brief break in the clouds which allowed us a pretty good view past Rysy's true summit at 2503m (in Slovakia) and into Slovakia itself. The former border crossing is still visible just below the summit – before the EU, climbers used to have to carry a passport with them...

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The top - halfway done...

After seven and a half hours on the mountain we got back to Morskie Oko and smashed a couple of beers before starting the 9km walk back to the van.

The next day we were both completely farked... Eve maintains that she has never been as sore in her life and did win the 'in-the-wars' competition with a splendid 50 cent sized (the coin, not the rapper) blister on her big toe. She also copped a fair bit of flack from Rob for a hilarious saddle-sore swagger, and for insisting on reversing down staircases...

That day we headed to the Slovakia border after a brief stop to check out some crazy Polish hay bales on the way...

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Posted by RobandEve 04:14 Archived in Poland Comments (1)

Czech Republic

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After sneaking over the border into the Czech Republic, our first stop was Loket, a little fortress town with a river for a moat. After deciding that the river looked far too tame for white water rafting we spent a lazy afternoon/evening chilling out in a small camp by the river.

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The main square at Loket

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After an early morning stroll through Loket (too early, apparently – even the cafes weren't open at 10am) we headed to Prague and a campsite on an island in the middle of the Vltava River that was recommended to us by some Dutch travellers we had met in France. We were lucky to have found it because it was incredibly cheap (for a camp in a major European city) and even had its own ferry service into Old Town!

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Looking up towards Old Town from the ferry

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The Charles Bridge with the castle in the background

We had heard that Prague was ridiculously overcrowded with tourists so decided to try Lonely Planet's suggestion of forgetting the crowds by chilling out at the local bars sampling the fantastic pilsner and dumplings. Being far too hot for sightseeing, we made a beeline to the nearest shopping mall purely for comfort's sake (haven't done that since Dubai...) and then to a movie theatre where we found the last installment of Harry Potter in English...

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Saint Wenceslas Square

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The Powder Tower in the centre of Old Town

By the time we got out of the movie there was no more public transport to the island so we decided to catch our first taxi since Albania, with mixed results – after being driven through an abandoned ship yard, and Rob trying to tell the driver (who did not want to admit that he was lost) where to go, we eventually got back to the camp to have the always pleasant “discussion” as to the fare...

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The view from our campsite...

The next day we checked (no pun intended) off the major Prague sites as we walked across the Charles Bridge to the spectacular Prasky Hrad (castle) before catching the metro train to Saint Wenceslas Square and walking back to the ferry.

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Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge

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The rooftops of Prague (the view from the castle)

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The Cathedral in the castle had some pretty amazing stained glass windows

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Pretty funky for a metro station...

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The statue of Saint Wenceslas in front of the National Museum

Prague is a beautiful city and after three amazing nights we reluctantly headed for the Polish border. Our last night in the Czech Republic was spent at a forest campsite near a lake just north of Trutnov... Obviously a very popular spot with Czech holiday-makers, probably due to the aqua-zorbing on the lake!

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Posted by RobandEve 01:04 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (1)

Germany

We were so keen to leave the Netherlands that we didn't care where we went as long as it we got out and were heading in the direction of Berlin. We ended up spending our first night in Freren, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it town near the Dutch border. We found a quaint (and dirt cheap) camp ground with even quainter showers. On the plus-side it had a Bavarian version of a fish and chip shop (schnitzel unt pommes?) nearby so we were able to get stuck into our first proper German sausage!

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The next morning we awoke to the blissful (and almost forgotten) feeling of sunshine on our faces and enjoyed a drive through the German countryside to Hameln (of Pied Piper fame). We wandered through the old town and dodged as many tourist traps as possible before heading back to the campsite...

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The photo doesn't really do it justice but there is a giant golden rat on top of the bridge!!

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Pretty much everything here is rat or piper orientated...

The next day we headed to the central Harz mountains and based ourselves in Bad Harzberg for two days so we could walk the Goethe trail to the summit of the Brocken, the tallest in the range. Despite the “mountain” only just managing to crack 1140 metres, it was a fatiguing 16 km round trip from the closest town.

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The lazy option...

After getting some long overdue laundry done, we headed straight for Berlin. We managed to find a great spot called Tent Station, an old sports complex that has been converted into a camp ground near Berlin's northern train station which gave us an excellent base from which to explore.

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The Reichstag

The foot falcons once again got a good working over as we made our way around the major sights. The first day took us to the impressive Reichstag building. We couldn't get inside the new dome because you now have to book online two days in advance – its ugly anyway (not that we're spiteful or anything) and the Brandenburg Gate.

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The Brandenburg Gate

We had a minor Lonely Planet fail when we got to Berlin's Museum Island just after 6pm (all the museums were supposed to be free between 6pm – 10pm every Thursday...) Apparently free Thursdays went the way of Communism last October and nobody bothered to update the websites. Thankfully, the interesting, interactive (and very cheap) DDR museum was nearby which gave us an insight into East Germany under Soviet administration.

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I don't remember this from Scouts...

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The Berliner Dom with the TV Tower in the background

After the DDR museum we wandered along to the TV Tower, Berlin's tallest structure, intending to have a few drinks and watch the sunset over the city at the unimaginatively named 360 Restaurant. Unfortunately when we arrived we discovered that there was going to cost us 11 euros each just to get up to the restaurant, so we abandoned that plan and found a small pub nearby instead.

The following day began at the Holocaust Memorial, which in hindsight was a terrible way to start the day... The underground visitor's centre contains about five rooms of displays containing extremely graphic photographs, videos and personal testimony either related by survivors or recovered from the belongings of the victims. The information is presented in a brutally honest way and the facts are not sugar-coated which, given its location in the middle of the German capital, makes the emotional impact of the displays even more tangible.

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The Holocaust Memorial

After the memorial we wandered past the former location of Hitler's bunker (tastefully, there is nothing there - although as one of our friends suggested perhaps they should consider a public toilet?) before grabbing a currywurst (Berlin's favourite street food, apparently) and heading to the Topography of Terrors exhibition at the site of the former SS headquarters.

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Despite being very well laid out, the Topography of Terrors was a serious case of information overload – the best bit was a section dedicated to the Nuremburg Trials and the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem several years later.

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Where the wall once stood...

Our next stop was the Checkpoint Charlie museum just down the road from the replica of the Cold War checkpoint... Unfortunately we found the museum to be even worse for information overload than the Topography of Terrors and would definitely not recommend anyone trying to do them both in the same day!

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The Checkpoint Charlie replica also comes complete with a replica American officer (who doesn't speak a word of English and charges 2 euros for a photo...)

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The free world ends here?

Having said that, we did enjoy a break from WWII, the holocaust, etc; although the Cold War and East-West escape attempts ending in hails of gunfire isn't exactly cheery subject matter! The Checkpoint Charlie museum does contain a lot of exhibits showing the inventiveness (or sheer desperation) of some people in their attempts to escape East Germany. One of our favourites had to be the bloke who tried to get out in a home made mini submarine!

After working up a thirst traipsing from one side of town to the other, we headed to a chilled out bar in an old yacht club overlooking a small canal. Several drinks and a pizza later we walked to the East Side Gallery (graffiti painted on one of the longest remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall) before heading back to Tent Station for a well earned sleep.

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Some other impressive graffiti from around Berlin...

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Not so impressive, but still, either this guy really hates canned ham or he has been receiving unsolicited emails...

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The site of one of the notorious Nazi book burnings commemorated...

Saturday was museum day for us (yes, we did have to fork out the cash in the end) and we spent most of our day trying to tear around as many museums on the island as we could. The undisputed highlights were Nefertiti's bust (no photos allowed!) in the Egyptian Collection at the Neues Musuem; and everything inside the massive Pergamon Museum, named after the reconstructed Pergamon Altar inside - although we think it should probably be renamed the Museum of Dubious Acquisitions. It also houses the spectacular Ishtar Gate from the city of Babylon, and the Market Gate of Miletus.

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The Pergamon Altar

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The Market Gate of Miletus

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The Ishtar Gate... The smaller of the two massive blue tiled gates of Babylon and our absolute favourite!

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A mihrab from the museum of Islamic Art on the second floor of the Pergamon

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Bust of Athena in the Altes Museum

After spending several hours on our feet, we looked into a suitable location to catch the NZ/SA tri-nations game. We discovered Berlin's 'Kiwi Pub' way out in the suburbs and decided that it would be the best bet for rugby in Berlin. As it turned out, there were only three of us (including the owner) for most of the game...

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Despite spending the last 20-odd years in Germany, the owner still hadn't lost his Kiwi accent and was pretty happy to hear it reciprocated from what we could gather. The Monteith's was cold, the rugby was on a big screen, and despite the result, we had a fantastic night with Rob scaring the crap out of the locals with an impromptu haka...

The next day we slept off our well-earned hangovers before heading towards Dresden. We did have a stopover near Moritzburg on the way.

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The beautiful castle at Moritzburg

The next morning we got up early and drove into Dresden...

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Whilst very tastefully restored, it is mind boggling to see how little of the original buildings are left following WWII.

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Yay Communism! Traces of East Germany still remain...

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The former royal stables (left)

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The impressive Furstenzug, or Procession of Princes is a 102m long porcelain tile mural - amazing that it survived the war!

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We had a great breakfast near the Dresden Cathedral before stocking up on bratwurst and heading to the Czech Republic...

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The Dresden Cathedral was pretty much destroyed during WWII but has been very well reconstructed.

All in all we had a great time in Germany and really only scratched the surface of funky Berlin where there was so much going on. We are looking forward to returning to Germany to explore the south a bit more after we have had a spin through Eastern Europe...

Posted by RobandEve 12:45 Archived in Germany Comments (1)

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