Odessan odyssey

From the world’s largest labyrinth to the world’s the world’s first monument to Darth Vader, Odessa makes for an unusual yet captivating city break.

I know the phrase ‘Paris of the…’ gets bandied around all too often, but Odessa may well be worthy of that statement. It’s like the best bits of Paris, Milan and Istanbul have all been mixed in a Slavic hotpot. Plus, just like Barcelona, it boasts stunning beaches mere minutes from the city centre.

Odessa might not seem like the obvious city break destination, but there is plenty to see and do for a short trip, with countless eateries to suit all taste buds and green spaces that are simply captivating.

Ukraine hasn’t had its fair share of good press recently and Odessa, its third most populous city, is no exception, with violent clashes taking place there in the country’s 2014 pro-Russian conflict.

However, despite the delicate situation in nearby Crimea, it appears to be business as usual for Odessans and I felt nothing but calm as I wandered the city’s streets at all hours, being met by the locals with a warm smile and good humour every time.

Deribasivska Street
Deribasivska Street

Founded in the 18th century by Catherine the Great, Odessa blossomed from 1815 onwards when it became a duty-free port. The wealth of this period is evident in the stunning neoclassical and Renaissance revival buildings that border an easy to navigate grid street plan.

However, it is perhaps the immigrants that the Black Sea port attracted that has left the city with its greatest legacy, leaving behind a pan-European outlook evident in the wealth of artistic treasures on display and the multitude of world cuisines on offer in such a relatively small urban centre.  You only have to look at a map of Odessa to see this influence, with French and Italian Boulevards and Greek, Jewish and Albanian Streets listed, to name but a few. People from more than 130 nationalities live in Odessa today.

Tyler's in town
Tyler’s in town

Where to stay

Odessa boasts accommodation to suit all budgets, but it is advisable to book in advance if visiting during the high season in July and August. For those wishing to make their money spread even further, renting an apartment may be a good idea. There are plenty of touts offering rooms at all many arrival points, but if you arrive without a booking, your best bet is to visit the Central Vokzal Apartment Bureau, which is across from platform four near the train station’s rear exit.

Palais Royal Hotel

This boutique gem, situated next door to the ornate Theatre of Opera and Ballet, is housed in a 19th century building that was completely renovated in 2013. Plus, with only 19 rooms, you really feel looked after by the hotel’s friendly staff.

Breakfast is served in the hotel’s trendy restaurant, Sparja, which offers a choice of European and Asian-style breakfasts.

When making your booking, ask for one of the rooms with a private balcony. It’ll be perfect for sitting out on with a morning coffee while people watching below.

Room with a view at Palais Royal Hotel
Room with a view at Palais Royal Hotel

My room itself was rather clinical, but had everything I needed and was cleaned to spotless standards each day. This being Ukraine, however, there were a couple of quirks; noticeably the plasters holding up tiles in the bathroom and the mini-bar, which offered chilled condoms. Safety clearly comes at lower temperatures in these parts!

Other options

Mozart Hotel

For a touch more of the opulent, directly opposite Palais Royal Hotel is Mozart Hotel, which oozes European luxury, and its success in Odessa has seen it expand to six hotels in three countries. With an exterior designed in the Biedermeier style, Mozart Hotel is an exact replica of an aristocratic club that stood on this spot in the early 19th century.

Bristol Hotel

Across the road from the equally stunning Odessa Philharmonic Theatre, Bristol Hotel first opened in 1899 and continues to welcome VIPs, tourists and business travellers alike. Its historic legacy is clearly reflected in its décor and the Le Grand Café Bristol Restaurant is the perfect place for a romantic meal.

Places to eat

From the heart-warming stodge of traditional Ukrainian home cooking to cutting edge European fine dining, Odessa does not disappoint on the culinary front. Plus, with prices in Ukraine generally much lower than the UK, you can really splash out at every meal. Reassuringly, for those of us who don’t read Russian, most places I visited had English menus.

The café scene in Odessa is equally as diverse, with lots of independent coffee shops vying for your attention. However, if you’ve not got time for a sit down, most street corners and public squares boast at least one coffee van. These small, brightly-coloured vehicles contain an espresso machine and offer your favourite coffee variant at an equally tiny price.

Coffee vans on Katerynyns'ka Street
Coffee vans on Katerynyns’ka Street

Kompot

Walking in to Kompot is like stepping in to Grandma’s house (if she was Odessan) 30 years ago and enjoying simple cuisine that makes your stomach smile. The beetroot salad I ordered was perfectly presented, its cutlets were succulent and Kompot’s desserts felt like they were homemade just for me. Plus, don’t forget to try their eponymous ‘kompoty’, a traditional juice made from preserving fruit in jars.

There are four Kompot outlets within Odessa, but I cannot recommend the original restaurant on Deribasivska Street enough, and I enjoyed both an evening meal and a lunch here during my stay.

Kumanets

Leaving chic Odessa behind, Kumanets transports you to a traditional Ukrainian village from days gone by, complete with servers in folk dress, lavish floral displays and plastic cockerels. It may feel a bit gimmicky, but, thankfully the food hits the spot. I particularly enjoyed their ‘deruny’ (potato pancakes) and Odessan caviar, made from aubergines.

Farsh

Sometimes you just want a juicy burger and at this Odessa diner you won’t be disappointed with their meaty offerings. Haute burgers made from beef, chicken, duck, venison, ostrich, trout and falafel can all be washed down with a wide selection of artisan soft drinks and beer.

Lviv Coffee Manufacture

Freshly roasted ground coffee is the speciality in this outpost of the Lviv-based chain. Its rustic interior only adds to the charm; that and its delicious selection of desserts.

Kofeynya ZheTo

This tiny café is the perfect place to stop for a rest and beverage in the afternoon, and admire its fairy tale-like interior.

What to do

Get your bearings in Odessa by taking a stroll along pedestrianised Deribasivska Street and exploring the stunning City Garden. While here, make a point of visiting the lavish Passazh, a neo-Renaissance covered shopping arcade which echoes Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Next, head towards the Black Sea along Primorsky Boulevard. The highlight here is the majestic Potemkin Steps, made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. Avoid climbing back up the almost 200 steps by taking the free funicular railway that runs parallel to the stairway.

At the eastern end of Primorsky Boulevard stands the pink-and-white colonnaded City Hall, which has also served as the city’s stock exchange and later the Regional Soviet Headquarters. In front, there is a cannon captured from the British during the Crimean War and a statue of the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin lived in Odessa for 13 months in 1823 after being exiled from Moscow. However, it seems he wasn’t exactly welcome in Odessa either and, following clashes with the government, the local governor was able to get the Tsar to send him packing from here too.

At the opposite end of Primorsky Boulevard stands Vorontsov Palace with its Greek-style colonnade that offers views over Odessa’s busy port. You can also walk over the padlock-covered Mother-In-Law Bridge, which is just around the corner.

Vorontsov Palace colonnade
Vorontsov Palace colonnade

There are two theories as to why the crossing is called Mother-In-Law Bridge; the first one is that, due to it swaying when jumped on or in heavy winds, it’s akin to mother-in-law’s tongue (not my words!). However, I prefer the other version that claims the bridge was commissioned by the local chairman because he loved his mother-in-law’s pancakes. She lived on the other side of Voennyy Descent to him, and so the bridge meant he could get to them more quickly!

Mother-In-Law Bridge
Mother-In-Law Bridge

A great way to see Odessa, particularly the resorts further out of town along the Black Sea coast, is to buy a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off City Tours, which sees you transported between all the major sights in a nippy e-shuttle, complete with a live guide.

My tour guide Larisa was a very staunch woman and I made a note not to get on her wrong side. I saw her go from placid guide to formidable force in 0.001 seconds when the e-shuttle driver decided to take a personal phone call. He was clearly shaken by her stern telling off as, when we stopped at the next location, he took himself off to a quiet corner, presumably to contemplate what he had done.

On tour with Larisa
On tour with Larisa

Despite her demeanour, I was impressed by Larisa’s knowledge and thought she would be a safe bet to take me on a tour of Odessa’s catacombs the following day. She told me that I was underdressed though and must wrap up warmer when we next met.

Catacombs

If placed in one line, Odessa’s limestone catacombs would stretch for over 2,000km. Originally quarried out for building in the 19th century, they have been used by smugglers since and people have even lived in them. Most famously, they sheltered partisans in the Second World War, who waged a war of attrition against the Nazis and occupying Romanians.

The catacombs themselves are situated about 15km north of central Odessa in the unassuming suburb of Nerubayske and can be difficult to reach under your own steam, so I would recommend hiring a guide and driver through your hotel to save time. The excursion will certainly be a memorable – if sobering – highlight of your trip to Odessa.

Although, taking Larisa’s advice, I had wrapped up extra warm, yet proceeded to be driven in the warmest car known to mankind. Clearly watching me drip with sweat from the front, Larisa said something to the driver in Russian, they both laughed hysterically and then one of the windows was opened a tiny crack.

Entering the Odessa Catacombs
Entering the Odessa Catacombs

As I visited during the low season, the catacombs were locked, so Larisa had to telephone the caretaker who promptly let us in and then locked the door as soon as we entered. His action made me feel a little uneasy and I certainly wasn’t reassured when Larisa escorted to me to a derelict passageway and asked me to turn off my torch.

I’d be lying if I said that at that point I was a bit concerned about my welfare. I was alone with an eccentric tour guide miles away from civilisation where no-one knew where I was. Oh, and I was now in the dark in a warren of – locked – catacombs.

I kept thinking about the tragic – admittedly disputed – tale of Masha, an innocent partygoer who ventured down into the depths with some friends on 1st January 2005. While down there, she took a wrong turn or two, and got lost. It took two years before the police were able to locate her body and retrieve it from the catacombs. I also read that the catacombs are a pretty good place to stage a murder, with its labyrinth structure hiding bodies from the law. Was I to be the catacombs’ next victim?

Well, thankfully, no.

A few seconds passed – although it felt like several minutes – and Larisa turned her torch back on, smiled and we continued back along the set route. I relaxed and began asking questions about the catacombs. “Yes my dear” or “no my dear” was how she would start a response, before giving me a light touch on my left arm every time. When she wanted to reiterate a point she was making she would recap a fact with “and I repeat.”

I soon warmed to Larisa; she was so much more than just a guide, as her off topic chat wandered towards describing times of yore. She had worked on the Soviet Union cruise ships and also regaled a story of taking oligarchs around Las Vegas. “Vegas! I don’t like it”, she concluded. She also allowed Protestants to sleep on her sofa, but I am not sure of that significance of that; it was just as hot in the car on the return journey and, being more concerned about not fainting in the heat, some of what she said was lost in my trance-like meditative state.

Also on the journey back to the city centre Larisa retrieved several crumpled five and 10 pound notes from her bag and asked if I could swap them for newer ones, which her bank would accept.

“I only have ‘hryvnias’,” I replied.

“Oh. That is most disappointing.”

Darth Vader

In April 2015 a law was passed in Ukraine that required all monument from the Communist era to be removed. However, rather than destroy a statue of Lenin on the outskirts of Odessa, local artist Alexander Milov decided to encase it within a titanium façade, creating the world’s first monument to Darth Vader. I made a point to seek it out while there.

It was quite difficult to find, but as soon as I saw the reception desk for the company who own the courtyard where it stands and said “Darth Vader” (I may have done this in a slight Russian accent), a blue camouflaged-clad security guard whisked me through the building to the glorious sight. It was remarkable how the artist managed to blend Lenin’s coat into the ‘Star Wars’ Sith Lord’s famous cape.

Alexander Milov - Darth Vader
Alexander Milov – Darth Vader

Apparently, the statue also offers free WiFi, but I could only connect to a HP printer on the second floor.

Travel Facts and Tips

  • Odessa is a great city to visit at any time of the year, with moderate winters and pleasant summers.
  • There are no direct flights to Odessa from the UK, but Ukraine International Airlines and LOT Polish Airlines offer one-stop connections via their hubs from London, or you can fly via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines from Birmingham Airport.
  • Ukraine’s ‘hryvnia’ (UAH) is a closed currency, so you can only exchange money once you arrive.
  • Bargain hunters should head to Seventh-Kilometer Market – thought to be Europe’s largest. Closer to the city centre, Starokonny and Privoz Markets are also a must for shopaholics.
  • Odessa was named after the ancient Greek city of Odessos, which was mistakenly believed to have been located here, although the city was the site of a large Greek settlement not later than the middle of the 6th century BC.
  • Stay healthy while in Odessa; the city’s six kilometre-long traffic free Health Track runs along the shore of the Black Sea and is popular with walkers, runners, cyclists and rollerbladers alike.
  • Odessa was a very Jewish city in the 1920s, but the Holocaust and anti-Semitism during the Soviet period reduced their presence. Many Jews moved to New York’s Brighton Beach, which is nicknamed ‘Little Odessa’.
  • If you’re looking to bring treats back home, you can’t go wrong with a box of chocolates from ABK or Rosheen, both Ukrainian manufacturers.
  • If you fancy a night out by the sea, head to Arkadia Beach, which offers a variety of cafés, bars and nightclubs.
  • Odessa is considered one of the capitals of Ukranian winemaking and tours can be arranged to nearby vineyards.

Transnistria: Back in the USSR

On the eastern banks of the River Dniester in Europe lies the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, better known as Transnistria. Although officially still part of Moldova, this breakaway territory has proclaimed its ‘independence’ since 1990. Unquestionably pro-Russian, exploring this separatist state is like taking a walk through the Soviet Union, despite the fact the USSR crumbled in 1991.

The four-car train from Chișinău trundled through the Moldovan countryside as two elderly women chatted near to me and a girl opposite was furiously texting on her mobile phone. At the rear of the carriage, a giant urn was whistling, ready to deposit water in to cups of coffee for two men who were conversing at the snack bar.

Train to Tiraspol
Train to Tiraspol

The train had seen better days, with worn upholstery and a wood-panelled décor that would’ve been more at home in a 1960s living room. We must’ve been travelling at no more than 30 miles per hour, but I didn’t mind, as the gentle rocking of the carriage allowed me to drift in and out of sleep.

Arrival

Two hours later, the train spluttered its way into Tiraspol, the ‘capital’ of Transnistria. I disembarked and walked into the grand booking hall of the station, where I met my guide, Andrey.

I found Andrey’s travel agency – Transnistria Tour – online and was immediately won over by such phrases as “we are glad that you have interest for our small Republic,” “there are no McDonalds in Transnistria,” and “we will do our best to make your visit in Transnistria comfortable and interesting.”

After shaking hands he immediately led me to a booth where I had to show my passport and was handed a slip of paper. This was my ‘migration card’ and after filling in my details, the guard promptly stamped the paper with the coat of arms of Transnistria – complete with the hammer and sickle – and I was granted a stay of up to 10 hours.

Playing it straight

With the ‘border’ formalities out of the way, Andrey led me to his car.

“Are you married?” was the first question he asked me?

“No, engaged,” I replied?

“To a woman?”

“Err… yeah.” My heart sunk. I felt like I was betraying my fiancé back home.

“I hear that in your country men can marry men and women can marry women.” His tone suggested he wasn’t impressed by the 2013 Same Sex Couples Act. I made a note to do some research on LGBT rights in Transnistria when I was back in Chișinău, but in that moment I thought it best to play it straight.

Of course this totally backfired, when, an hour or so later, we were walking the streets in Tiraspol and Andrey got very excited by the shape of a passer-by’s derrière.

“What an ass!” he exclaimed.

Not wanting to a) shatter the illusion of me being a fully-fledged heterosexual or b) show disdain at his misogynistic comment, I simply replied with “it is very nice indeed, yes.”

Bender

Back to being in Andrey’s car, we headed for the wonderfully-named town of Bender. Every time he said ‘Bender’ I was sniggering vigorously inside, as if my sense of humour had been taken over by a randy teenager. I also kept thinking about ‘the bender going to Bender’ and, if I stooped while there, I would’ve been ‘the bent bender in Bender.’ Of course, I never said any of this because I was straight now. Instead, I walked between the sights with a definite swagger even Vinnie Jones would be proud of.

With a population of 500,000, Transnistria is only slightly larger than Rutland and it didn’t take long for us to cross back over the Dniester to reach Bender. As we traversed wide boulevards past perfectly manicured parks I was struck by how empty the place seemed to be; there was hardly anyone around. It was like being back in North Korea, just with more adverts.

Apart from the lack of people, the only other noteworthy sight en route was the colossal Sheriff Stadium. With a capacity of 14,000, it dominates a territory that also boasts five other football pitches, training fields, an indoor arena, a soccer school, residences for the players of FC Sheriff and a hotel.

Interestingly, the Sheriff corporation is omnipresent wherever you go in Transnistria. Although I only visited one of their supermarkets and saw a petrol station, as the region’s second-largest company, they seem to have an almost monopoly, also boasting – according to Wikipedia – a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories and a mobile phone network. I mean, even Tesco doesn’t have a TV channel… does it?

Sheriff supermarket
Sheriff supermarket

Railwayana

We’d gone to Bender because, as a rail enthusiast, I had read that there was an old steam locomotive you could visit. Housing the Bender Military Museum in its carriages, Andrey said it was closed for winter, but I wasn’t bothered with the exhibition and was happy snapping away around the old Russian CY 06-71 steam locomotive, much to his contempt. I also stopped by the giant granite mural adjacent to the locomotive, which commemorates the train workers who died in the 1918 revolution.

Bender Military Museum and the Monument to Railway Workers
Bender Military Museum and the Monument to Railway Workers

Realising I wasn’t joking when I said trains are my ‘thing’, he took me to the large building next to the museum which was the town’s former railway station, Bender-1 (trains today stop at the less impressive Bender-2). Again, I was treated to another imposing waiting room, adorned with socialist-realist architecture.

“Ben, come here, I want to show you something special.”

I walked over and saw a mural that featured the front of a diesel locomotive.

“It’s a train,” I stated.

“I know. But, if you look, closely, it has a face.”

“Oh… yeah… kinda.” I just looked like a train to me. Clearly, Thomas the Tank Engine hasn’t chugged into Transnistria yet. I duly took a photograph of the ‘train with a face’ and we moved on.

Our next stop was Bender’s Gorky Cinema. Inside, it could’ve been 1955, if it wasn’t for the posters of the latest Hollywood blockbusters giving the modern era away. Sadly, there was no time for a film and we headed back outside on to Lenin Street and in to Lenin Park to see a statue of… well… Lenin.

Statue of Vladimir Lenin, Lenin Park, Lenin Street, Bender
Statue of Vladimir Lenin, Lenin Park, Lenin Street, Bender

We then took a stroll along the pedestrianised Liberation Square, passing the beautiful tree-lined Sovetskaya Street. As we walked along, Andrey pointed out the bullet holes on City Hall, which were created during the civil war in 1992.

Transnistria War

The Transnistria War broke out in 1990 as Moldova began its journey towards independence. The mostly-Russian speaking population of Transnistria, fearing a union between Moldova and Romania and an exclusion from public life, proclaimed, on 2 September 1990, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic; ‘Pridnestrovie’ being the name for Transnistria in Russian.

Less than two months later, Moldovan forces entered Transnistria and the war began, although fighting only intensified in 1992, with Transnistria receiving support from Cossack unit and elements of the Russian 14th Army,

Following the deaths of over 300 people on both sides, a ceasefire agreement was signed on 21 July 1992, which has held to the present day. As part of the agreement, a three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone. As we drove around Transnistria, Andrey would occasionally point out some of the Commission’s military checkpoints and I was relieved to see that the soldiers there looked mainly bored, rather than ready for another conflict.

Passing Bender’s City Hall, we briefly enjoyed a peek inside the Pavel Tkachenko Cultural Centre, where youngsters were practising dance routines underneath huge murals of traditionally-dressed peasants tending to their crops in the fields. Approaching the River Dniester, Audrey pointed out an abandoned river port (he had no idea why it closed down) and then we stood underneath another monstrous Soviet-inspired piece of public artwork; the Monument to Fighters for Soviet Power.

Monument to Fighters for Soviet Power
Monument to Fighters for Soviet Power

Our brief stay in Bendery concluded with a walk round the memorial park dedicated to local victims of the war in 1992. An eternal flame burns in the shadow of an armoured tank, from which flies the Transnistrian flag. Over the road, the 11.5 metre tall City of Military Glory Monument glistened in the morning sun, surrounded by four blocks showing the most important dates in the history of Bendery.

Tour of the ‘capital’

After another short drive dotted with the occasional trolleybus, we were back in the ‘capital’ and I was stood in front of the headquarters of Transnistria’s de facto government. Dwarfing the other buildings on 25th October Street, the Transnistrian Government is flanked by a brutalist statue of, you’ve guessed it, Vladimir Lenin.

Statue of Vladimir Lenin in front of the Transnistrian Government
Statue of Vladimir Lenin in front of the Transnistrian Government

Heading east past the local government building, there was a lot of activity ahead of us, as a large stage was being erected for a concert by one of Russia’s biggest pop stars that evening. As we approached, we stopped to see Tiraspol’s War Memorial, complete with another tank and an eternal flame, as well as its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

War Memorial in Tiraspol
War Memorial in Tiraspol

Behind the concert stage, there was a large billboard welcoming visitors into the city with the Transnistrian emblem in the centre. In the top-left corner, was ‘1990’, when the country proclaimed its ‘independence’. In the bottom-right, the date read ‘2016’ to signify the current year. However, in order to save costs, the accumulating year is simply pasted over with a sticker and you could see ‘2015’ peeping out as ‘2016’ was slowly peeling back.

Continuing along 25th October Street, we stopped to admire the Suvorov Monument and the towering Stalinist House of Soviets. In front of the city hall for Tiraspol there is a bust of, you’ve guessed it, Vladimir Lenin.

House of Soviets
House of Soviets

Audrey also pointed out the only English sign in the ‘capital’. Situated outside the Gymnasia of Humanitics and Mathematics, he said that the sign was translated as many people come here to learn English. The school was named after the famed chemist Nikolay Zelinsky, who was born in Tiraspol in 1861.

Our walk finished at Tiraspol Theatre, where Audrey directed me to a plaque which commemorated the proclamation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in 1990. He was quick to point out that this was changed from the original sign that mentioned the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’, which ceased into being when the USSR fell in 1991.

Next, it was time for lunch and Audrey took me to Kumanyok, a kitsch eatery dressed to look like a Ukrainian country lodge, complete with traditionally-dressed servers. The food was fantastic though and I had succulent shashlik (skewered and grilled cubes of meat) mopped up with some homemade flatbread and washed down with kvass. Kvass is a fermented drink made from bread, which tasted much nicer than its sounds. I also had an eventful trip to the toilet too, as a mural depicting a bottom-bearing local being whipped by, presumably, his wife, looked over me as I squatted.

With a belly full of Eastern European meats, I was ready to embrace the next part of the tour. However, Andrey informed me that this was the concluding part of the tour and he’d be heading home. It was at this point that I reminded myself to ask next time I book a tour when it actually finishes.

Andrey stood by his pride and joy – his saloon car – which he spoke a lot about during our time together. He showed me the modifications, he told me about how it took him and his family to Russia and back, and he pointed out where it had had work on it before he bought it. It all went over my head, by the newly developed straight part of me was able to nod confidently and I think I even said “carburettor” at one point.

With a firm, very heterosexual handshake, Andrey wished me well and thanked me for visiting his country. His parting comments included an expression of hope for a union with Moldova, going forward, which was rather heart-warming. However, in the wake of his departing car fumes, I was left wondering what I was going to do for the next seven hours, when my return train to Moldova proper was due.

On my own

My first thought was that I needed money, as Andrey had said that Moldovan leu wasn’t accepted here and I’d need some Transnistrian roubles. As the saying goes, in London, you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. In Tiraspol, the same can be said for currency exchanges. 25th October Street was literally littered with them, boasting rates that barely differed from one another. I plucked for one inside a bookshop and left with a wad of roubles and a poster bearing the Transnistrian flag.

As you would expect, my change was given to me in coins. However, this being Transnistria, things were a little different and I was delighted to see the shopkeeper offer back a handful of plastic tokens. Boasting various bold colours, it was as if I was five years old again and preparing to play with a My First Shopping set, albeit with legal tender.

Plastic Transnistrian rouble
Plastic Transnistrian rouble

With pliable brass in my pocket, I splashed out on a coffee from a street vendor and admired the city’s largest and newest church – the Church of the Nativity – a Russian Orthodox Church completed in 1999 to serve as the Mother Church of the Orthodox Christian Diocese of Tiraspol. Turning on to Karl Marx Street (well, obviously) I think I figured why all the streets were so empty – everyone was at the market.

Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity

Tiraspol’s Central Market was positively teeming with people, busy buying fresh produce, homewares and horrendously tacky knick-knacks. Despite its Soviet façade, based on the frantic shopping habits I observed, Transnistrians have clearly embraced the free market socialism the country now enjoys.

Central Market
Central Market

Kvint

Passing under several banners featuring presidential candidates promoting themselves ahead of the upcoming elections (who depicted themselves either in a rugged business-like manner or as a staunch military leader) I stumbled across the Kvint factory.

Karl Liebknecht Street
Karl Liebknecht Street

Producing vodka in Tiraspol since 1897, Kvint is perhaps more famous nowadays as a fine producer of brandy. Producing more than 20 million bottles of the hard stuff each year, Kvint is so integral to the economy of Transnistria, the factory even appears on the back of the country’s five rouble banknote.

Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, and with reasonably-sized bottles costing less than one pound, I asked the server in the factory’s shop which was the most popular brandy they sold. Clearly not understanding what I said, she placed several bottles on the table for me to inspect and I enquired which she preferred by placing a thumbs up above each one and then pointing at her. We narrowed it down to her two favourites; a three year-old brandy and a bottle of Kvintoff vodka, infused with mint. I even got more plastic money in the change.

Housing block, Karl Liebknecht Street
Housing block, Karl Liebknecht Street

Several hours later, I had pretty much explored the entire city, as I weaved in and out of concrete tower blocks in a place no larger than Warwick. With the temperature dropping significantly and light failing, I decided to cut my losses and head for the train station, where I’d sit and read my book until my ride home arrived.

Vodka

Just outside the station, there was a convenience store-cum-café and I decided to stop for a drink before heading for the waiting room. I ordered a coffee and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the owner, Yevgeniy, spoke good English.

After we had exchanged pleasantries, I asked him about the alcohol I had bought and he was concerned that I had not bought the best produce to take home. He then made it his mission to introduce me to the best vodka his country could offer.

Yevgeniy in his bar
Yevgeniy in his bar

Sitting at the table, he poured a generous shot and after a joint cry of ‘na zdorovie’ the vodka went down a treat. He then began to pour another and, not wanting to appear rude, I accepted dutifully. However, when the third glass was poured I made a point of saying that I didn’t want to get too drunk.

“You won’t get drunk,” he exclaimed, “we will eat between vodka!”

With that, he offered me a TUC cracker. Hardly enough to mop up the alcohol being consumed, but every little helps, I guess.

In between shots and Yevgeniy serving customers we sipped on a locally-made fizzy soft drink – adorned with a drawing of Pinocchio on its bottle – and I frantically nibbled on more TUCs. The conversation was fascinating, as my host regaled stories about his experiences as a child during the Transnistrian War, when he remembered peering through curtains as soldiers fired from both sides of his street. As our dialogue flowed, so did the vodka and I was getting very, very drunk. By chance, I managed to squint and read the time on my watch.

“Shit!”

My train was due any moment and so I gathered my things together and said a fond, yet hastily, goodbye to Yevgeniy. He wouldn’t let me pay for any of the drinks we had consumed together.

“You were my guest,” he said and smiled.

Feeling guilty, I quickly bought some items from his shop for the journey back, and waddled with all my bags towards the train station.

Yevgeniy’s hospitality was the one thing that I will most treasure from my time in Transnistria and, if you go there for yourself, please pay him a visit. His bar is situated close to the train station at 57b Lenin Street.

Triaspol railway station
Triaspol railway station

As I edged closer to the station I heard the engine’s horn sound and panicked, as I knew I still had to surrender my ‘migration card’ before boarding the train. I also had plenty of cash left over that I knew I couldn’t exchange once back in Moldova proper.

Therefore, I made the snap decision to transfer my roubles back into leu and enter the station via the unlocked side gate, so as to avoid the ‘border’ guards. This worked and I was on the train with seconds to spare.

Unlocked side gate, Tiraspol railway station
Unlocked side gate, Tiraspol railway station

Leaving Transnistria

The train pulled away from the station and my heart continued racing, as I now realised that I was on-the-run from a country that doesn’t exist. However, several minutes later we had passed Bender, crossed the Dniester and were chugging back into Moldova, so I felt I could relax and let my alcohol-induced state take over. I think I was gurning on the journey back, but I didn’t remember much of it as I blanked out, only waking as the train grinded to a halt in Chișinău.

Chișinău railway station
Chișinău railway station

Walking back to my hotel, my head began to clear and I looked again at my ‘migration card’ and wondered how the Transnistrian police deal with fugitives. I reassured myself that I was safe now, but might have to rethink a return trip anytime soon.

My day out in Transnistria was both bizarre and eye-opening in equal proportions. I had visited a little corner of Europe where the iconography of the Soviet Union continues to flourish and its people seem to have ignored all that has changed politically around them with a twisted sense of history.

Still, the world still turns, and I met some lovely people who feel very passionate about where they come from, yet they offered no hostility towards Moldova proper. Perhaps the two countries will come to a more substantial agreement in the future.

In the meantime, rip up whatever you think you know about modern day Eastern Europe and embrace all what Transnistria has to offer, brandy, vodka and all.

 

 

How now Chișinău

Chișinău feels like the Soviet Union fell yesterday and no-one’s still quite sure what to do next. However, once you get past its shortcomings, Chișinău reveals a capital city that oozes sights, quality eateries and is a genuine treat for any traveller.

After a five hour delay and an erratic taxi drive through some pretty ropey areas of the Moldovan capital, I arrived at my Communist-era hotel in a pretty foul mood. I dumped my bags in my room and ran my fingers along the wall-to-wall carpet, but even this crime to interior decoration failed to raise a smile.

So, I braved the bitter winter air and ventured out in search of something, anything, to elevate my disposition and rekindle the excitement I felt 12 hours earlier when I checked in at London Luton…

Lingering at Luton

At that time, my Wizz Air flight to Chișinău – the city formerly known as Kishinev – was on time. After a lacklustre 6am breakfast at Frankie & Benny’s, the departure time was pushed back an hour and this soon doubled in duration.

At its best, London Luton is just a giant Portakabin with a brightly coloured stud wall placed in front of it, but with the airport in the midst of a £110 million ‘transformation’, the duty free shopping area was as lively as a swimming pool after a child has torpedoed-out a floater.

The bar was open, of course, but I didn’t fancy arriving with a hangover, so I stared intently at the departure board as the flight time kept being pushed further and further back.

After trying the hand wash in all the airside toilets – they’re all the same, FYI – I decided to go and speak to someone. There was something about fog in Poznań and a stranded plane, but I am a sucker for a freebie and I skipped away from the information desk with a complimentary £7 ‘light refreshment’ voucher and wolfed down my second breakfast of the day in Pret A Manger.

Time moved slowly, but I managed to bond with fellow passengers as we discussed our disdain for the delay and whether it was likely we would get any compensation. Regardless of the outcome, I think I may have made Martin Lewis a minor celebrity in Moldova, as I directed everyone to his money saving website for the relevant EU flight delay guidelines.

Once the plane arrived, everything happened very quickly and we were ushered in to one of Luton’s gates, which feel more like a Prisoner of War camp hut than a holiday departure area. Within seconds, we found ourselves inside one of Wizz Air’s purple transporters and, finally, after much apologising from the crew on board, we were en route to Chișinău.

Taxi trauma

It was dark and cold when we landed, shrouding my initial impressions of visiting a country for the first time; noticing the architecture of the roofs as the plane descends and looking at what’s being grown in the fields around the airport. The airport itself was pretty clinical, but the process of exiting was a quick one. After agreeing a price with a local taxi company, I was soon on my way to my hotel.

However, the taxi driver took me on a somewhat convoluted route and I could feel bile rising in my throat as we weaved in and out of some sketchy suburbs, dodging delivery drivers and mongrel dogs.

I write about all this as, albeit in a #firstworldproblems kind of way, as I’d had a rubbish day and other than simply going to sleep and hoping tomorrow would be better, I had no idea how I was going to get that ‘I’m on holiday!’ feeling back.

La Plăcinte

Walking around a darkened capital, other than a few supermarkets and trendy wine bars, everywhere looked closed. However, as I sauntered past the city’s grand-looking railway station, some twinkly lights caught my eye.

As I approached, framed inside the Christmas lights was a bright-looking restaurant, filled with families and friends enjoying each other’s company and wolfing down large quantities of food. Above the door the sign read ‘La Plăcinte’ and, before my mouth could properly start salivating, I was sat down at one of the spare tables with a menu in hand.

I soon discovered that La Plăcinte is a national chain, offering traditional Moldovan foods in a contemporary environment. The signature dish of the restaurant is the ‘plăcinte’ itself, a large, round-shaped pastry filled with ingredients such as cheese, cabbage, eggs, potatoes and onions, as well as layered variants stuffed with meat. Ordering two pies, I was immediately sent to pastry heaven – a Greggs’s steak bake this most certainly was not – heightened by the fact I washed them down with a large glass of Chișinău, the flagship lager of the Efes Vitanta brewery.

If ever you find yourself a bit grumpy in Moldova, make a beeline for La Plăcinte. I left feeling full and with a big smile on my face, having tried something traditional in a setting that had already altered my preconceptions of what Moldova was like. Although none of the staff spoke English, they were all extremely polite and pointed out the most traditional meals on the menu to me. Plus, the picture menu was a doddle to navigate and entices repeat visits.

Cosmos Hotel

Back in my hotel, I could fully appreciate its Soviet kitsch for all it was worth. When the USSR was in full swing, I imagine the 19-storey Cosmos Hotel really impressed tourists arriving from across the Soviet Bloc. However, other than the introduction of an unreliable WiFi service, I don’t think it has changed at all since opening in 1983 – and all the better for it. People always want to stay in a place that has ‘character’, well Cosmos Hotel is like walking back in to the recent past.

Grigory Kotovsky statue in front of Cosmos Hotel
Grigory Kotovsky statue in front of Cosmos Hotel

My subdued room felt like something from a Communist-themed live escape game, but instead of offering clues on how to get out, fixtures and fittings delighted the senses at every turn. Tactile, Rococo-style wallpaper engulfed the room, only to be broken up by a round mirror that was framed by a layer of thick carpet.

Directly opposite the stiff bed was a piece of lenticular artwork that depicted a seaside scene, which seemed odd considering Moldova is landlocked. Regardless, its 3D effect was a joy to view from every angle and reminded me of something my Nana would’ve hung in her living room in the later 1980s.

Lenticular artwork, Cosmos Hotel
Lenticular artwork, Cosmos Hotel

Other items in the room included a telephone that had seen better days in the years immediately following the Second World War. Even when I had a call from reception the following day, I was sure that after answering its archaic reverberations I would be given a secret mission from the KGB, certainly not a pleasant wake up message. The television was a bit more modern. Well, it had a few channels in colour, although it lacked a remote and was about as deep as a double garage. Randomly, my room also boasted an industrial-sized fridge. There was nothing in it either, but, if there was a freak heatwave, at least I had a nice place to crawl into to cool off.

Even the room key baffled, hung on a gigantic wooden chocolate drop that was very cumbersome to carry around in my pocket and kept scratching my thigh.  The suspicious opaque mildew in the shower was somewhat worrying, however.

Breakfast in this reinforced concrete monolith was served in a gigantic room that felt like I was dining in an aircraft hangar. Despite being filled to the brim with frilly tables, there never seemed to be more than eight or so people breakfasting there and the majority of the floor space was occupied by the waiting staff, who were all dressed like bizarre nurse-dinner lady hybrids. Why so many staff were needed was beyond me, as the tiny breakfast table offered just a small selection of meats, cheeses, pastries and stodgy delights that certainly hit the spot, but hardly left me spoilt for choice.

Regardless, all the staff I met were lovely and if you prefer a hotel with character, I cannot recommend Cosmos Hotel enough.

If you’re interested, you can read more about Cosmos Hotel over on Socialist Modernism.

Dark times

On first glance, Chișinău doesn’t feel like an obvious city break destination. Its streets are hardly paved with gold, if at all – I think I walked along half-finished walkways and rubble more than I did actual pavements.

Also, apart from when I was being served in a restaurant, I never really saw anyone smile all week. Certainly, it’s very unnerving being in a country where people say ‘good luck’ instead of ‘goodbye’, as if something terrible will happen the minute you leave their company.

Plus, even crossing the road felt like I was dicing with death. Close to the derelict and modernist National Hotel, pitch black tunnels pass underneath Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt, Chișinău’s main drag. I literally thanked my lucky stars when I made it from one side to the other each time I made the journey without being stabbed at from the shadows. I almost chuckled to myself before I left, when I read the UK Government’s travel advice for visiting Moldova; bring a small torch, it said. Well, walking through those tunnels, I wasn’t laughing anymore, I was positively shitting myself.

Pedestrian underpass below Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt
Pedestrian underpass below Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt

Luckily, from the darkness comes light and I was fortunate enough to be in Chișinău when, on December 1, the city turned on its Christmas lights. These brought much needed cheer to the capital’s dark streets, as electric icicles hung from trolleybus wires and a colossal Christmas tree lit up the area in front of Casa Guvernului.

Christmas lights in front of Casa Guvernului
Christmas lights in front of Casa Guvernului

Interestingly, December 1 is also Great Union Day, which declared the Union of Transylvania with Romania in 1918, along with the provinces of Bukovina and Bessarabia, which is today mostly occupied by modern-day Moldova. It was interesting seeing this being celebrated alongside the Christmas festivities, with lots of Romanian flags being displayed – most notably on a huge electronic billboard on Strada Pușkin – and it was easy to see how, as well as a shared language, traditions and folklore, there have been calls throughout history from both nations for unification.

Despite these joyful scenes, closer to my hotel, I would see street sellers each morning offering various wares on small rugs, that hid the lack of a pavement underneath.  In my own romantic way, I saw it as a bric a brac flea market, but I was later told that people are forced to sell their worldly possessions in order to put food on the table. This was a sobering reminder that I was, after all, visiting Europe’s poorest country.

Chișinău feels like the Soviet Union fell yesterday and no-one’s still quite sure what to do next. This sense of limbo is apparent everywhere you go. However, once you get past these shortcomings and moving scenes, Chișinău reveals a capital city that oozes sights, quality eateries and is a genuine treat for any traveller.

Soaking up the sights

Arcul de Triumf
Arcul de Triumf

Firstly, there’s lots to see and do in the city itself. My first full day in Chișinău was spent pounding its streets, visiting everything from the Arcul de Triumf – watching over the Parcul Catedralei and its Orthodox Cathedral like a mini Arc de Triomphe – to the Parcul Ştefan cel Mare where I followed in the footsteps of Pushkin, who used to stroll the park grounds in the 1820s. Here, I admired the glorious statue of Stefan cel Mare – Stephen the Great. A 15th century prince, he achieved fame in Europe for his long resistance against the Ottomans and continues to hold a special place in the heart of Moldovans and Romanians alike. Also worth seeking out when here is a bizarre monument that looks like a lotus flower with a fire inside. Made of concrete, of course.

Next, I spent a couple of hours in the fantastic National Museum of History of Moldova. Before entering, the lady on the front desk laughed hysterically when I asked for the advertised student ticket. On producing my ISIC card, she didn’t laugh anymore and dutifully let me inside of the equivalent of 20p (5 MDL).

Once inside the museum, I was able to fully appreciate the history of a country that has been annexed throughout history and perhaps explains why it is still struggling with its national identity today. From its time as part of Bessarabia and the horrors of Stalinlist repression, objects and images highlight a country that has forever been at the crossroads of conflict in Eastern Europe.

I finished my visit in the museum exploring the temporary exhibition ‘Independent Moldova. Pages of History’, which celebrated 25 years from Moldova’s declaration of independence. Here, placards, posters and photographs focused around the beginnings of the Movement for National Revival and subsequent independence in 1991. I was reminded that Moldova is an extremely young state in its current form and the struggle for independence left me feeling hopeful of a country that has so much to discover about itself, as well as much to offer the rest of the world.

Independent Moldova. Pages of History exhibition, National Museum of History of Moldova
Independent Moldova. Pages of History exhibition, National Museum of History of Moldova

Another place of note was the sombre Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame, which honours Moldovans who perished in World War Two. The Eternal Flame burns brightly underneath a giant Communist-era structure which is guarded by soldiers. Time your visit around the top of the hour for the changing of the guard, complete with some impressive goose-stepping and bayonets.

Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame
Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame

The Victory Memoria is situated in perfectly manicured grounds that also include a World War Two cemetery and a Monument to the Victims of the Transnistrian War in 1992.

On the other side of town stands the eerie Chișinău State Circus. Opened in 1981, this Soviet-era circus appeared all but abandoned when I visited, but I understand that restoration work is going on to bring the venue back to life, so do check local listings if you visit, as it is said to be very impressive inside. 

Chișinău State Circus
Chișinău State Circus

Chain reaction 

There was no shortage of places to stop for a coffee or a quick snack when out and about in Chișinău either, as tiny booths on every street corner offer a freshly brewed caffeine fix, sweet treats and lots of delicious bakery items. Reversing the trend of other underpasses in Chișinău, the area below the intersection of Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt and Strada Ismail had some particularly good on-the-go eateries, which filled me up for a few pennies. 

Lunch on-the-go
Lunch on-the-go

Apart from one McDonald’s, Chișinău boasts few multinational chains. I’m certainly not against Starbucks, but it was refreshing to visit a capital city where its two-tailed mermaid logo is not adorning every street corner. However, Chișinău boasts its own, down-to-earth alternative; Tucano Coffee. Proudly promoting ‘Love. Peace. Coffee.’, Tucano Coffee offers the convenience of second wave makers, such as Starbucks, but with the craftsmanship of third wave representatives. I visited a couple of its branches in Chișinău and was pleasantly surprised at the knowledge its staff had of their products and appreciated the personal touches (after you’ve ordered, the baristas bring your drink to your table to save you waiting at the counter, for example) offered in their South American-themed shops. 

Tucano Coffee
Tucano Coffee

Moldova impressed with its Western-style eatery chains too. I’ve already mentioned my gorge-fest at La Plăcinte, but I also tasted the dough at its sister chain, Andy’s Pizza. Admittedly, it varied little to that of Pizza Hut or Domino’s Pizza back home, but when you can leave stuffed for just over £3, I certainly wasn’t complaining.

Andy's Pizza
Andy’s Pizza

The other chain I tried was Star Kebab, which opened its first store in Chișinău in 2011. Offering wraps filled with meat or falafel, French fries and all the trimmings, their meal deal comes complete with a glass of neon blue iced tea. When in Rome, eh? It was actually surprisingly thirst-quenching, but I had no idea of its taste or what was in it. I imagined I was going to experience a ‘Sunny Delight’ transformation and wake up the next day looking like a Smurf, but, alas, that did not happen. 

Star Kebab
Star Kebab

Independent eateries 

Steak at Propaganda Café
Steak at Propaganda Café

However, Chișinău really shone for my in the culinary department with its independent offerings. For example, not only did I have one of the succulent steaks since I can remember in Propaganda Café, its décor was a ravishing feast for the eyes. Its antique interior feels like you’ve stepped in to a Victorian dollhouse and there is something interesting to look at in every nook and cranny, from vintage television sets to contemporary artworks.

Propaganda Café
Propaganda Café

Even the toilets were a treasure trove and, after relieving myself, I spent a good few minutes flicking through the old novels on display – after washing my hands, naturally – and admiring, randomly, a hot water bottle hung on the wall.

Toilet in Propaganda Café
Toilet in Propaganda Café

Also close to the centre of Chișinău, Vatra Neamului felt like it belonged to an even older era than that of Propaganda Café, complete with themed rooms boasting imaginative names such as Artistocrat Hall, Sala Antica and Sala Regala.

I was seated in an area that felt more like a cellar than a restaurant, but it all added to the charm as I made my way through the humongous menu. Giving up several pages in, I asked my waiter for recommendations and soon enjoyed stewed pork served with a generous portion of mămăligă, a cornmeal polenta-like staple.

My waiter was certainly very well-informed about the wines on offer and this was something that resonated throughout my stay in Chișinău; the Moldovans clearly know their wine. In a country where grapes have been cultivated since 2800 BC, the knowledge on offer should come as no surprise. Every restaurant or bar I visited, there was an extensive wine list and the locals were eager to assist in choosing what red I should partner with my meal or finish my evening with.

It was therefore only apt that I spent my last day in Moldova fully getting to grips with its well-established wine industry. Thanks to the fantastic Moldovan tour operator TatraBis, I was able to arrange for a driver to take me half an hour south of the capital to Mileștii Mici, which boasts the world’s largest wine collection.

Paradise of wine

Arriving at the entrance, which felt more like a border crossing, a cheery guide jumped in the car and we promptly drove through a giant limestone tunnel to slowly descend 85 metres underground into what I can only describe as a ‘wine city’. I’d visited cellars before, but never one where it was so large, I had to traverse it in a hatchback and one that it had its own street names.

As we whizzed past countless oak barrels filled with reds, whites and dessert varieties, the guide informed me that this underground kingdom keeps the wines at a constant temperature (12 -14°C) and a relative humidity of 85 to 95 per cent to best preserve and mature them. In total, the cellars stretch for around 200km, which made my head spin before I’d even tasted a drop.

After seeing more butts than you can shake a stick at, we parked and walked to see Mileștii Mici’s collection of over two million bottles, which houses the winery’s Golden Collection, along with stashes belonging to private wine collectors. I was even given a glimpse into secret room, where, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s period of partial prohibition in the Soviet era, wine bottles were hidden away from the Russians.

Mileștii Mici's Golden Collection
Mileștii Mici’s Golden Collection

The tour was a whirlwind, where my guide offered fact after fact after fact with supersonic delivery – presumably to get me to the tasting session even quicker. It was not quite 10am and I was already sipping a full-bodied red. I was clearly following in the footsteps of Hollywood royalty too, as the faded photographs of Steven Seagal and his wife visiting around me in the tasting room showcased.

Wine tasting at Mileștii Mici
Wine tasting at Mileștii Mici
Steven Seagal and his wife visiting Mileștii Mici
Steven Seagal and his wife visiting Mileștii Mici

After trying a few more sips – OK, glasses – and grabbing a few more bottles for home from the giftshop, I was being whisked back to Chișinău by my designated driver, as I sat swaying tipsily in the back.

Leaving Moldova

Hours later, and having had several coffees to wash away the morning’s alcohol intake, I was en route to Chișinău International Airport. I was genuinely sad to be leaving Moldova; a county that had quietly charmed me during my time there.

Not only was the visit easy on my wallet, I felt that I had truly experienced an Eastern European country that has yet to be spoilt by mass tourism, but yet offered all what you expect from somewhere more developed – as long as you are prepared to root places out yourself.

At the airport check-in I pulled a sad face at the lady behind the desk and said, ‘I don’t want to go home’. She wasn’t convinced and winced back at me as if to say ‘have you actually visited my country?’ However, when I said that I was gutted I wouldn’t be able to enjoy ‘plăcinte’ for a while, she knew I wasn’t taking the piss and smiled sweetly back at me. ‘You’ll just have to come back again soon’. I think I will.

Stocking up on Bucaria chocolates, a bottle of Nucul de Aur (be careful – that stuff is lethal) and more wine, I boarded my Whizz Air flight, which departed, this time, on time.

(Almost) 48 Hours In Geneva

How the search for an unusual birthday present paved the way for a surprisingly affordable city break at this Swiss gem.

Knowing what to get my partner for his birthday is always an arduous task. I love him dearly, but he never wants for anything and knowing that his Mum had bought him two pairs of shoes – that he so desperately needed (his previous trainers were practically held together with string, brown paper and sealing wax) – I was at a loss at what to get.

Then, all of a sudden it came to me… via, of all places, Genève Tourisme – the official tourist board of Geneva in Switzerland. As part of their generous #InvitedByGeneva campaign they were offering 1,000 free nights in the city over summer 2016, so as soon as I heard about it, I jumped at the chance and put my name in the hat.

It was only a few days later that I received, among spam and international bank transfer requests, that my application had been successful. Without missing a beat, I quickly booked the most swanky looking property on the list – primarily chosen because it had its own Wikipedia entry.

The time around my partner’s birthday was hectic at work and, with Switzerland also hardly famous for its affordability, I decided to see if we could get away with just one night there and maximise our time either side. Luckily, British Airways fly eight times a day from London Heathrow (and three from London City) at prices that won’t break the bank, and with early morning and evening flights, it was possible for us to have two full days in Geneva with just one night in a hotel.

Present sorted! I also managed to keep it a surprise, which was somewhat of a first for me…

Smooth arrival

After enduring the two-hour drive to Heathrow refusing to tell my partner where we were going, the big – and, thankfully, well-received – reveal led to a pleasant 8.20am flight over France and the Alps, before we touched down in Geneva mid-morning.

We made our way to central Geneva from the airport in less than half an hour. We didn’t even have to get out our CHFs either, as a machine in baggage claim prints out free train tickets to the city centre.

Postcard view

Our first glimpse of Geneva proper was the pleasant café culture along the appropriately named Rue du Mont-Blanc… which gives you an idea of what you’ll see at the end of the road. Indeed, the view awaiting us by the lakeside literally took our breath away.

The city’s most famous landmark, the Jet d’Eau, was spewing water 140m above the crystal Lake Geneva, while the top of Mont Blanc poked out in the distance like a giant piece of white chocolate Toblerone (although the famous bar is modelled after the Matterhorn on the Italian border in the south).

Jet d'Eau, Lake Geneva
Jet d’Eau, Lake Geneva

In addition to this, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the Old Town glistened back at us on the shoreline at the other end of the Mont Blanc Bridge. Pure bliss. This is how you do a proper summer, I thought to myself.

Lap of luxury

A few minutes’ walk away from the Old Town next to the Italianate Brunswick Monument we reached our hotel, Le Richemond. Normally, a hotel littered with Julien Marinetti sculptures in its foyer wouldn’t be an abode within our price bracket but, when Genève Tourisme were footing the bill, I thought it rude not to book.

Having said that, even if we did get out a second mortgage to stay there, it would’ve be worth every penny just for the service the staff offer. Warm, relaxed and unbelievably knowledgeable about the city, I couldn’t fault each and every one we came into contact with. We were even treated to a complimentary coffee on the veranda while we waited for our room to be made ready.

Our room, as you can image, was stunning and we could’ve spent our whole time relaxing there in the exquisite marble bath or freestanding rainforest shower, while lathering ourselves in L’Occitane en Provence bath amenities. Needless to say, we did a bit more than just that…

Our room at Le Richemond
Our room at Le Richemond

And the icing on the cake? On check-in we were given a free travel card for use on all public transport in Geneva valid throughout our stay. This is given to all hotel guests in Geneva, but it meant that we saved some money and didn’t have to worry whether we had the right ticket when hopping on and off the various modes of transport on offer.

Old Town

After ogling at the fixtures and fittings of our room for longer than is deemed acceptable we headed out to explore Geneva proper. Our first stop was Cité du Temps, the former pumping station that straddles the River Rhône. Today, it houses a temporary exhibition space and we were treated to a free photography exposition of portraits and self-portraits from Magnum Photos.

Inside the main building we did a quick sweep of La Collection Swatch, the world’s largest collection of the aforementioned watch brand, boasting designs from 1983 to today. It’s a real treat for the eyes, as their bright timepieces evoke a sense of nostalgia and awe, while some watches, such as the Cardinal Puff, make you question whether there was something in the lakewater when those prototypes were drawn up.

La Collection Swatch, Cité du Temps
La Collection Swatch, Cité du Temps

Heading deeper in to the Old Town, we meandered through some of the most high-class buskers I’ve ever seen (string quintet, anyone?) and paused for a peak around the airy Cathédrale St-Pierre, where Protestant Jon Calvin preached in the 16th-century. Round the corner from here, we stopped once more for a breather overlooking Parc de Bastions. However, this wasn’t just any rest stop; we had purposefully placed our buttocks down on the world’s longest bench along Promenade de la Treille.  Admittedly, this record is a contested one, but at 120m long, it was an impressive sight to sit on.

Promenade de la Treille (world's longest bench), overlooking Parc des Bastions
Promenade de la Treille (world’s longest bench), overlooking Parc des Bastions

By now it was lunchtime, so we walked back along the cobbles of the Old Town to Chez Ma Cousine. This simple restaurant boasts ‘on y mange du poulet’ (we eat chicken) when you enter and that’s exactly what we did. We were swiftly served half a chicken each with a helping of roast potatoes and a gigantic salad to share. On the side we had a small pot of piping hot ‘sauce Cousine’ which tasted so good, I daren’t ask what it was made of.

With our stomachs feeling joyous at such a feast, we attempted to burn off some of the calories consumed by walking around the lake to enjoy a closer look at the Jet d’Eau, which turned out to be a fairly torrential experience, but refreshing nonetheless. Along the way, we stopped to admire the Horloge Fleurie (Flower Clock) in Jardin Anglais. After waiting for a break among the hordes of tourists clamouring for their own view and selfies, we managed to get a clear shot of the timepiece, which is said to be crafted from 6,500 plants and claims to boast the world’s longest second hand, at 2.5m long.

Horloge Gleurie (Flower Clock)
Horloge Gleurie (Flower Clock)

Drinking and eating

Some downtime and a freshen up paved the way for a night on the tiles. Al fresco drinking in Geneva reigns supreme – in the summer, at least – and after a beer on busy Quai de Mont Blanc overlooking the Lake, we headed for the more funky Terrasse La Paradis by the Rhône. Alas, this is an alcohol free joint, but it doesn’t matter when its homemade ‘citronnade’ (lemonade) hits the spot.

A short stroll from here, we parked ourselves outside Bistro 23. Although not much to look at from the outside – it felt like we were dining on the outskirts of an industrial estate – the trip to the toilet encouraged lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ as a shabby chic interior somehow blended perfectly with the contemporary furniture, simplistically peppered with the odd antique piece here and there.

Fresh produce is the order of the day at Bistro 23 and I let a steak tartae literally melt in my mouth, while my partner tackled a thick tuna steak served with black pasta. Even the little loaf of bread served prior to our main course was perfect and if it wasn’t for the army of gnats that decided to attack us over coffee, we would’ve gladly stayed longer beside the Rhône for a cocktail or two.

Steak tartare at Bistro 23
Steak tartare at Bistro 23

A sleep at the beginning of the Universe

Day two started rather early and we were the first down to breakfast at 7am. Needless to say, Le Richemond didn’t disappoint with its lavish buffet and handcrafted coffees. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted French toast better than I did there. Still, barely had my smoked salmon bagel gone down when we were rushing towards Geneva’s main station to catch tram 18 to CERN.

Situated on the Franco-Swiss border, CERN (from its original name, Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory helping us – well, scientists – uncover the secrets of matter and the forces holding them together. In recent times, CERN’s 27km Large Hadron Collider (LHC) helped boffins discover the Higgs boson particle, but British scientist Tim-Berners Lee also invented the World Wide Web in 1989 there and many of the organisation’s technological advancements have benefitted medicine.

Tours of CERN are free but, for individuals, you have to treat it like applying for Glastonbury tickets as there are a limited number available to mere mortals each day. Reservations for most tours open 15 days in advance – I put a reminder in my Outlook calendar – and you must bring valid ID with you.

Administration aside, we were soon escorted on site by a rather handsome Italian researcher who took us to our first stop, CERN’s original accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron. He then overloaded us with a wealth of scientific history and knowledge, which seemed to take us to the very beginning of the Universe. The rest of the group were hooked but, unfortunately, it was not yet 9am and my little brain couldn’t cope, so I did fall asleep a couple of times.

The Synchrocyclotron, CERN's original accelerator
The Synchrocyclotron, CERN’s original accelerator

Propping open my eyelids, we next headed over the road to the ATLAS Experiment Control Room; the nerve centre of the LHC. As if in a zoo full of academics, we were separated from the operations by large glass panels and, despite anticipating it to all look like something from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, the Control Room felt more like an office in Milton Keynes than the epicentre of a world-class science experiment.

The tour concluded back at CERN’s reception and we were directed to the recently revamped Microcosm exhibition. I think it would’ve helped if we visited this exhibition first, as many of CERN’s complex operations are broken down and explained in a rather simple, yet uncondescending way, with colourful displays and fun interactives.

On the other side of the tram line, visitors can also explore the aptly titled Globe of Science and Innovation. Inside, my grogginess was punched out of me as the pomp and circumstance of Universe of Particles awoke all my senses, with vivid visuals and a pumping soundtrack immersing me in to the world of contemporary physics. Interestingly, the Globe was originally built for Expo.02 in Neuchâtel, moving to CERN in 2004, and, fact fans, it is roughly the same size as the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although the tour doesn’t include a visit underground to the LHC tunnel, a mock-up section of the accelerator can be seen outside the Globe. I should probably note that you don’t need to pre-book to visit Microcosm of Universe of Particles.

Globe of Science and Innovation, with a mock-up of the LHC infront
Globe of Science and Innovation, with a mock-up of the LHC infront

Diplomatic mission

Taking tram 18 back to Geneva’s main train station, we changed to tram 15 and headed to Nations for a tour of the United Nations. Before entering the UN’s Palais de Nations (Palace of Nations), we met a lovely Geneva Tourist Angel beside Daniel Berse’s ‘Broken Chair’ sculpture. Despite clad in an unflattering – and somewhat unangelic – bright orange ensemble, she was extremely helpful with directions and even pointed out a potential pit stop at the Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge en route.

Unlike CERN, tours of the United Nations Office at Geneva do not require prior reservation for groups of less than 15. However, there is a charge (CHF 12 for adults) and entry is granted after airport-style security, so arrive half an hour early and bring valid ID.

Daniel Berse - ‘Broken Chair’, with the Palace of nations in the background
Daniel Berse – ‘Broken Chair’, with the Palace of nations in the background

The UN tour departs from the Palais de Nations’s New Building, with its cavernous rooms and wide corridors echoing some of the grandiose interiors I saw in North Korea three years ago, rather than its ethos as a monument to peace. Admittedly, some passageways were broken up by the odd rug or mosaic donated from member states, but there was a distinct lack of people milling around. I guess they were all busy working away in the countless closed doors we passed.

Regardless, I was genuinely blown away by the cavernous the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, decorated by Majorcan artist Miquel Barcelò. His gigantic artwork on the ceiling resembles an inverted ocean floor, with tapering stalactites jutting out at all angles. Covered in every colour under the sun, the artwork seamlessly changes depending on where in the 754-seater room you look up at it. Barcelò’s sculpture is a sight to behold and I have no idea how the diplomats manage to concentrate with such a multi-coloured sight hovering above them. Speaking of which, whilst here, I took the opportunity to pose with the conference system in front of my seat, only to be told off by our tour guide for tampering with the microphone. My dreams of being a UN diplomat were shattered there and then.

Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, decorated by Majorcan artist Miquel Barcelò
Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, decorated by Majorcan artist Miquel Barcelò

We next entered the older part of the Palace, which was home to the ill-fated League of Nations from 1936. It has served as the home of the United Nations Office at Geneva since 1946, although – fact alert! – Switzerland did not become a member of the UN until 2002.

Along with the jaw-dropping 1939-seater Assembly Hall, another highlight here was the Council Chamber, which hosted the negotiations to end the 1991 Gulf War and is today where the Conference on Disarmament finds itself at home. With gold and sepia murals, painted between 1935 and 1936 by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert, depicting the progress of humankind through health, technology, freedom and peace, the Council Chamber clearly echoes the optimistic period it was originally built in. From here, I left with a great sense of all the historic meetings that have taken place across the site, whilst also appreciating the fantastic work the United Nations continues to do in Geneva and around the world today.

Council Chamber, home to the Conference on Disarmament
Council Chamber, home to the Conference on Disarmament

The Palace of Nations is located in Ariana Park, which was bequeathed to the City of Geneva in 1890 by Gustave de Revilliod de la Rive, on conditions including that the park always remain accessible to the public. However, on the day, we visited, we were not granted entry and I was a bit disappointed not to see the monument that was donated by the former USSR to commemorate the conquest of space close up.

From here, we returned to collect our bags and grabbed a bite to eat at the Cornavin branch of Holy Cow, a lip-smackingly good, Lausanne-based burger joint specialising in local produce. After a bit of time set aside for trainspotting at Geneva Cornavin station – it just had to be done – we were hurtling towards the airport for our 9.20pm flight and to the end of our mini Swiss adventure.

Trainspotting at Geneva Cornavin station
Trainspotting at Geneva Cornavin station

CHF CHF CHF

Many people I speak to about Switzerland are often put off by the perceived notion that it is an expensive place to visit. In all fairness, Switzerland is one of the priciest of places I’ve ever visited – £15 for a McDonald’s meal should put things in to perspective – but, for a short break, it’s perfectly doable on a modest budget. For example, over the two days, we spent just over £200. This may sound a lot, but that covered all our meals, drinks, snacks, entry fees and a few little souvenirs, and we weren’t particularly cautious about what we were spending as we were going about.

However, there are plenty of ways to cut costs when in Geneva. As well as the obvious stocking up on the breakfast buffet (we managed to sustain ourselves for the whole day with just a small pretzel sandwich to keep us going on the second day), I would highly recommend carrying a plastic bottle with you during the day. Evian water comes from sources close to Lake Geneva (incidentally, the lakewater was first bottled by Henri Nestlé in 1843) and there are countless fountains around the city labelled as safe for drinking and where you can fill up your bottle on the go.

Water fountain at Place de la Madeleine
Water fountain at Place de la Madeleine

Eating out doesn’t have to be expensive either. As well as a plethora of affordable cafés, consider ‘al fresco’ dining in one of the city’s gorgeous parks. Otherwise, lots of the high-end eateries offer fantastic set menus at lunchtime, often at a fraction of the price evening diners would pay.

Elsewhere, seemingly every public place from parks to stations and the airport to larger shops offers free WiFi, which allowed my current Pokémon Go obsession to continue internationally without racking up a huge phone bill. Plus, along with free public transport, Genèveroule offers free bike hire for four hours.

Geneva has a fantastic public transport system, which is free for anyone staying at a local hotel, youth hostel or at a campsite
Geneva has a fantastic public transport system, which is free for anyone staying at a local hotel, youth hostel or at a campsite

City break gold

Geneva is the perfect summer city break; beautiful, historic in parts yet modern in others – although the two blend almost unnoticeably – and, boasting more attractions than you can shake a stick at, it punches above its manageable size.

It is a pity that we didn’t have additional time to visit more of the exquisite countryside surrounding the Lake outside the city, but our touch-and-go visit has encouraged us to make that journey again at some point in the future. However, with so many places to discover in Switzerland, it could be another city or another spot of natural beauty that we explore there first. What’s more, it’s reassuring to know that – free hotel or not – we won’t have to increase our overdraft to do it.

Jet d'Eau, Lake Geneva, lit up at night
Jet d’Eau, Lake Geneva, lit up at night

Skirting the Danube

Road trip across Romania and Bulgaria

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, I travelled to Romania and Bulgaria – the EU’s two newest states – where the two nations are clearly embracing being part of the single market. Dramatic renovations in the Romania capital and improvements to infrastructure along the Black Sea coast clearly highlight the pace at which the two countries are embracing EU membership, which is also making them more accessible to tourists than ever before.

Bucharest’s Communist past

My trip began in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, where beautiful neo-classical buildings sit side-by-side with gigantic structural hangovers from the oppressive Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. His most obvious contribution to the city’s makeup is the Palace of Parliament, the world’s second largest administrative building after the Pentagon. Some 40,000 people were relocated from the old city centre to create the building, which, since the Romanian Revolution of 1989, has been the seat of the country’s parliament.

Mingling with tourists from across the continent, we spent much of our tour of the Palace of Parliament with our jaws wide open, struggling to come to terms with the sheer size of each room, chandelier and staircase.

Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania
Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

As one audacious ballroom led to one that was even larger and more glamorous, I felt like I was walking through a young girl’s fairy tale dream – although the feeling came with a bitter aftertaste courtesy of a Communist dictator’s megalomania. Following a thorough two hour tour, the guide told us that we had seen only four per cent of the entire building.

The humongous figures of the Parliament called for a stiff drink and we spent the evening bar-hopping along the pretty cobblestone streets of Bucharest’s Old Town.

Old Town, Bucharest
Old Town, Bucharest, Romania

We followed the hordes to the famous Caru’ cu Bere, where we were instantly tempted by its menu of classic Romanian dishes, including cheese-filled  Kransky sausages, vine leaves stuffed with goose and roasted pork knuckle. The prices are a bit steep compared to the rest of the city, but when your hearty meal comes accompanied with a couple dancing the tango to Tom Jones’ ‘Kiss’ in their most flamboyant polyester, you can’t really complain.

A stroll through Ruse

After a relatively wild night in Bucharest, we slowed down the pace, picked up the hire car and crossed the border in to Bulgaria for a relaxed afternoon in Ruse. Crossing the mighty Danube along Europe’s longest steel bridge, we were welcomed by a Vienna-lite city, complete with Neo-Baroque architecture, pedestrianised streets and elegant parks.

Lunch was taken at Chiflika and served by waiters in pantaloons. Yes, pantaloons. After devouring more reasonably priced grilled chicken than you can shake a kebab stick at, along with a mountain of salad, we managed to waddle our way onto restored railway carriages belonging to Bulgarian tsars at the National Transport Museum.

National Transport Museum, Ruse, Bulgaria
National Transport Museum, Ruse, Bulgaria

A special mention must also go to the scrumptious banitsa’s (cheese pasties) we picked up for the journey back too.

Beside the Romanian seaside

After another night in Bucharest we made our way towards the Black Sea, crisscrossing the Danube as farmers traversing fields in horse and carts, dilapidated factories and another one of Ceauşescu’s grand projects – the Danube-Black Sea Canal – rushed past us.

We soon arrived in the port city of Constanța, a place that will be best remembered as the city that said ‘no’. We headed for its famous Roman mosaic and I enquired to the lady at the door if they were open.

“Yes… tomorrow.” And with that, she turned away, bolted the door shut and sauntered off to do something more interesting.

Later in restaurant On Plonge, we were enjoyed harbour views any Balearic eatery would crave, yet there were only one or two dishes available among its voluminous menu. Clearly, ‘catch of the day’ has yet to take off in Constanța.

Furthermore, the city’s finest building, an Art Nouveau casino along the shore of the Black Sea, has remained vacant since 1990 and is desperate for some TLC.

Casino, Constanța, Romania
Casino, Constanța, Romania

Even Constanța’s most famous resident, the Roman poet Ovid, struggled to adjust when he was exiled there in AD 8 by Emperor Augustus. Whatever he thought of the city, the locals have let bygones be bygones, as his statue today stands proudly in the eponymous Piata Ovidiu.

Lively Varna

Crossing the border once more the following day, we headed to Bulgaria’s maritime capital, Varna. As well as being a well-kept seaside resort, Varna boasts plenty of Roman sites to keep any classicist content, alongside a generous shopping and restaurant offer. We stayed in the Grand Hotel London, an opulent abode that looked as if it had stepped right out of a Wes Anderson film.

However, the remnants of communism was never far away and we enjoyed sweeping views of the Black Sea from the somewhat eerie Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, as the shadow of a gigantic EU flag wafted in front of us.

Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, Varna, Bulgaria
Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, Varna, Bulgaria

Stone and concrete

Having enough of the sea air, I drove inland for my last full day in Bulgaria, starting with the Stone Forest, a group of natural rock formations up to seven metres high. There are various scientific theories on how they were formed, but the guide there was more interested in explaining their holistic properties and encouraging me to enjoy their supernatural energies. The stones were all named, with ‘The Grumpy Man’ and ‘The Soldier’ embodying their titles, as did what the guide described as ‘Bulgarian Viagra’.

'Bulgarian Viagra', Stone Forest, Varna, Bulgaria
‘Bulgarian Viagra’, Stone Forest, Varna, Bulgaria

After making a quick stop to see the Madra Horseman, Bulgaria’s only known medieval rock carving, I entered the gloomy city of Shumen. Here, I was greeted by a city of half-finished buildings peppered among a confusing one-way system, plus there didn’t appear to be a soul in sight. However, this all added to the suspense as I snaked my way up the hills behind Shumen to the monolithic Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument.

Unfinished Post Office Tower, Shumen, Bulgaria
Unfinished Post Office Tower, Shumen, Bulgaria

Built in 1981 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of the Bulgarian state, I was immediately dwarfed by its 18 metre-tall Cubist sculptures that watched over me like stone Transformers. The entire monument reaches 70 metres, with 50,000 cubic metres of concrete alone used to create this memorial that really does have to be seen to be believed. If you’re looking for a destination wedding like no other, I’m told that you can get also get married there.

Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument, Shumen, Bulgaria
Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument, Shumen, Bulgaria

Back to Bucharest

Crossing the Danube one last time, we made our way back to bustling Bucharest to hand back the car. The Romanian capital is quickly shaping itself as the next major European city break destination and my experience there certainly reminded me of Prague, albeit without the large crowds and rowdy stag parties.

Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania
Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

Despite Brexit looming, there are a plethora of airlines now offering cheap travel to Romania and Bulgaria from the UK, so I have already started planning my next trip to the European Union’s newest recruits – perhaps Transylvania or Bulgaria’ capital, Sofia.

North Korea

I really don’t know where to begin. The last week has been one of the most strange of my entire life – totally eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable, but very, very weird.

I made it across the border and after nearly 24 hours on a train, I’m back in Beijing – and back to a land where I can walk freely along the street, use the Internet and not be presented with spiced cabbage at every meal.

I really don’t know where to begin. The last week has been one of the most strange of my entire life – totally eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable, but very, very weird.

It started the moment I stepped on to the plane in Beijing. Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea – sorry, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is clearly a small outfit, as the air stewards on our flight were also the stars of the safety video. Furthermore, this video was set to a Casio keyboard (with Oriental keyboard function-turned-on) remix of Dreams by The Cranberries. The plane itself was a Tupolev and I think had seen better days flying under the Soviet Union.

The flight and immigration was pretty uneventful, which, in some ways, was somewhat disappointing… No phones confiscated, no dramatic bag searches and no awkward questions. At the other side we met out North Korean guide (whose name was difficult to pronounce but sounded like ‘come here’, so I called her Come Here – although when addressing her, I said it fast so it sounded more like her actual name – and Come Hither when I was being formal), Driver Lee (legendary dodger of potholes and, as we were proudly told, has driven nine years without an accident – although he did clip a cyclist in the countryside) and two university students (who were basically spies making sure we weren’t going anywhere we weren’t supposed to).

Arirang Mass Games
Arirang Mass Games

The group was a mixed bag of mainly British tourists of all ages. I was the youngest, followed by Shelly and we struck up a good friendship as the week progressed – bonding over the ludicrous nature of North Korea and our need for a good laugh to see us through.

Most of the week was spent in Pyongyang, the capital city of the DPRK. It is the size of Leeds – and looks a little bit like Leeds, with its endless rows of tower blocks and concrete delights. The first thing that struck me was the lack of advertising… There is only state-approved advert in North Korea and that is for a home-made car called Peace (we saw this only three times during out visit).

Pyongyang as seen from the Juche Tower
Pyongyang as seen from the Juche Tower

However, where there is a lack of adverts, they make up for it in propaganda posters, which tower over the streets below crying out messages to encourage people to work harder, grow more crops and generally revel in the fact that their army is the strongest in the world and the enemy will be defeated etc. etc.!

It soon got dark after we arrived and that brings about the next realisation that there is clearly an electricity problem in North Korea as there were hardly any lights on… anywhere – just the odd public monument (and they don’t do monuments by halves here – 80-100ft.-tall beasts that dominate Pyongyang’s skyline).

By day two it was pretty clear that everyone in North Korea is indoctrinated to the point that it seems unbelievable – almost like everyone living there is in on this international joke at our expense. But, everyone we meet seemed to truly believe in the Kims and what they’d done for the country since the Second World War.

Women in national costume, outside Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
Women in national costume, outside Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

Believe it or not, the country is run by a dead person. Kim Il-Sung, lying in state (I paid my respect to him and his son and bowed three times in front of both, as is customary), is the country’s Eternal President, with wearer-of-sunglasses Kim Jong-Il, their Dear Leader. Current leader, Kim Jong-Un, is known as the Marshall, but he is working on bolstering his reputation by modifying artworks of his father to make paintings across the country look more Jong-Un than Jong-Il.

Photographs of the dead Kims are everywhere – from school classrooms to train stations – and their influence is felt everywhere too… For example, every North Korean wears a pin badge featuring an image of one of the dead Kims. Higher ranking members of society also have an elusive ‘double Kim’, featuring both leaders – our guide was awaiting hers. You can’t buy these and you are only given them by the state.

Elsewhere, museums on any subject do not cover their topics as we would expect – they simply refer to when the Kims offered advice in that field, visited a place relating to that subject or quoted that area of life. Put it this way, most North Korean museums look like the website Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things. We went to one museum about farming and, instead of agricultural techniques, we were treated to some wellies that one of the Kims had inspected, grains of wheat that one had glanced over (as well as the chair he sat on whilst doing this) and a picture of Kim Jong-Il actually visiting said museum (sort of a Möbius loop for the whole concept).

Wellington boots that were inspected by Kim Jong-il at the Chongsan-ri Cooperative Farm Museum
Wellington boots that were inspected by Kim Jong-il at the Chongsan-ri Cooperative Farm Museum

Of course history is rewritten in North Korea – Kim Il-Sung ‘liberated’ the North Koreans from the Japanese (with no mention of the two large atom bombs dropped over Japan) and the Korean War Armistice is claimed a victory by the DPRK – which is brought up everywhere (North Koreans are living in a timewarp circa 1953).

But, I digress… In terms of interacting with locals, we were generally kept very separate and mostly had the run of most restaurants and museums we visited to ourselves. That said, there was opportunities for us to meet ‘normal’ North Koreans, though at times it felt staged. Although, we stumbled upon a group of people dancing in a park on National Day to some current hits (pop music there is like Eurovision classics from the 1970s) and I got involved, much to the crowd’s enjoyment. Despite feeling like that annoying guy on YouTube who dances all around the world afterwards, it was a really touching moment that seemed to transcend our different beliefs and way of life.

Dancing with the locals in Moran Hill Park
Dancing with the locals in Moran Hill Park

People we met did seem happy and healthy, but I had to keep reminding myself that we were spending most of our time in the capital city, where elite members of the Workers’ Party of Korea are invited to live. Still, in Pyongyang, public transport is made up of mainly old vehicles from the former USSR and new buildings resemble something that would seem more at home in the UK some 30-odd years ago (the DPRK seems to be finally entering the 1980s, with roller-blades the latest craze amongst its youth).

There are literally so many things that I can tell you about North Korea that will amaze – and bore – you, but, for now, I’ll give you a little tour through some of my highlights from my time in the DPRK.

Arirang Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games
Arirang Mass Games

No words can truly describe one of the most incredible things I have ever seen – 80,000 dancers and acrobats flanked by 20,000 students creating jaw-dropping mosaic patterns from little flipbooks performing to a stadium crowd, all accompanied to propaganda songs, fireworks and more synthetic fibres than you can shake a stick at.

It’s performed every summer for three or four nights a week and volunteers rehearse for up to six months beforehand. People in our group said the spectacle was worth the trip alone and I found it hard to disagree.

Although highly political, the sights and sounds made hairs stand up on my neck and the scene at the end featuring most of the performers was breathtaking. If they could enter Eurovision, they would win for sure (and the half-time show would be the best ever). I mean, when you’ve got ballet dancers dressed as soldiers, what’s not to love!?!

Pyongyang Railway Museum

Pyongyang Railway Museum
Pyongyang Railway Museum

So I sniffed out this gem pre-departure and twisted Come Here’s arm to get us to go there. Naturally, it was mostly full of pictures of the Kim’s on trains, but there were some impressive full-size locos (all of which carried the Kims at somepoint – obvs.!).

Pyongyang People’s Cultural Palace

Here, at this huge library and teaching facility, I was invited to speak to some students learning English. All good, apart from there was a mix up and I was actually addressing the Chinese class… Bless ’em, the students tried, but they didn’t have a clue. Once the mistake was realised, I went next door to the right class of what seemed like 200+ and spoke to the students who, when asked if they wanted to ask a questions, glared back. I don’t think they get asked to ask questions often. 😦

The Palace also had a room full of over 100 boom boxes for listening to music. They had a Beatles’ CD ready for us to enjoy. When we asked for the list of other Western pop music they held, we were told it would not be possible to see it. 😦

Pyongyang People's Cultural Palace
Pyongyang People’s Cultural Palace

National Day Parade

National Day Parade
National Day Parade

Although we weren’t allowed to see the main parade – with all the tanks and bombs and the likes – we did see the secondary parade through Pyongyang, which basically involved 9,000 soldiers (10% of the British army fact fans) driving past in trucks smiling and brandishing various weapons (although the rocket launchers looked a bit suspect).

Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

The resting place of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jon-Il saw us bowing to their pickled bodies (and their statues) before seeing their trains, cars and a yacht, as well as all the medals and honours they have been given from around the world – including one from the County of Derbyshire. Peru seemed to have bestowed the most awards on the Kims – FYI.

Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

 Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

A huge complex for extra-curricular activities. Clearly there are some talented children in North Korea, but it felt somewhat staged as we passed from room to room seeing another group of child geniuses excelling in dance, art and music. There was a random room with children just typing too. The computers were very old.

Afterwards, we were treated to another propaganda-fuelled performance by the children singing about their love for the Kims. I got the giggles when some members of the choir were actually wheeled on to the stage on some kind of track. Just bizarre.

Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

During our trip we ventured inside the buffer zone between North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel. I thought it was going to be scary, and there was certainly lots of barbed wire and armed guards, but both sides have turned the area in to a tourist attraction. We did get to stare in to South Korea, but the guards on the other side seemed to be having a day off and there wasn’t much happening there.

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Our guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Our guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

As well as rewriting history, the museum featured a display of captured enemy aircraft, vehicles and weapons, as well as the moored USS Peublo – the only ship of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive (and as a tourist attraction). There was also a huge recreation of what Seoul looked like after the North ‘liberated’ it from the U.S. – but, they never mentioned that they lost control of it soon after.

Massive monuments

Everywhere in Pyongyang there were massive monuments praising the Kims and their ideologies, including the Arch of Triumph – which is just that little bit taller than the one in Paris.

Arch of Triumph
Arch of Triumph

No cars

There was more vehicles in Pyongyang than I thought, but certainly nothing that would rival a small town in the UK. Away from the capital, we would travel along four-lane highways and not see vehicles for miles. Most of the roads were poorly maintained apart from the Youth Hero Motorway, built recently by students and lasting for all of a couple of miles. It was the smoothest ride we had all week.

Youth Hero Motorway
Youth Hero Motorway

Food

Although a poor country, we lived in relative luxury (it was always sad when we passed packed trams in Pyongyang, whilst we sat in our air-conditioned coach two seats apiece) and although the food generally lacked in quality, it was made up in sheer quantity.

Every meal would by a shower of meats (mostly fat), fish, rice, egg (I’d be happy not to see an egg for a while, actually), bracken (really), cucumber, cabbage, broth – and it would just keep coming in all its oily and fried forms. Plus, we’d be plied with local beers and spirits at every sitting.

Needless to say, I’m currently enjoying a detox now I’m back in China. Although we did try some ‘delicacies’ and traditional dishes – dog soup, anyone? – we tended to get separate food to what our minders had and I think they were offering their interpretation of Western food at times.

On the last day we were even taken to North Korean’s only fried chicken restaurant. It was similar to KFC, although the coleslaw was clearly replaced by the spicy cabbage.

North Korea's 'KFC'
North Korea’s ‘KFC’

I think I’ll leave it there for now, although I’ve not even mentioned the West Sea Barrage (!), the National Gift Exhibition (featuring all the gifts given to the Kims from Koreans from the North, South and around the world – including a fantastic set of golf clubs, an mp3 player and a furniture set that wouldn’t look our-of-place in DFS), the Pyongyang Metro (imagine if the inside of Buckingham Palace was underground and had trains running through it!?!), or even the Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel (it sounds better than it actually was)…

Pyongyang Metro
Pyongyang Metro

The blog post was original written immediately following the trip in September 2013