We had pre-booked our train (#12002 / Bhopal Shatabdi Exp 0600-0805) from Delhi to Agra (click here to read our post about train travel in India) so we were up early and at the station in enough time for our 6am train. It was only a couple of hours long, and so we had booked in the standard seating area. We spent the majority of the journey asleep to make up for the 4:30am wake up!
We had also managed to be sneaky and arranged for our hotel to pickup our luggage from the train station to store it at the hotel so that we didn’t have to travel all the way to the hotel to then go to the bus station for our half day trip to Fatehpur Sikri. The bus to Fatehpur runs from Idgah Bus Stand, which is only a 15 minute walk from Agra Cantt train station, so once our luggage was safely collected, we walked to the bus stand and was directed onto a bus to Fatehpur that was the next to leave. We waited only 10 minutes and it cost us ₹40 (about 40p) per person for the hour trip.
Once the capital of the Mughal empire in the 16th century, this magnificent fortified city is easy to visit on a day trip from Agra. Once we had arrived at around 10am, we made the most of our time and were only really here for a few hours, but mostly because we were excited to get back to Agra to get a glimpse of the Taj! Depending on how long you are visiting though, you may wish to stay to experience the red-sandstone palace during sunset and stay in one of the decent hotels in the village.
We got off the bus just before the last stop, as the entrance to the site began. The beautiful mosque, Jama Masjid, sits at the top of a huge flight of stone steps and the main entrance is a spectacularly high gate which you will see as you start to ascend the hill up from the main road. Once you make it up the steps and through the daunting gate, you will find courtyards and palaces inside, as well as the tomb of the Mughal saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, where women hoping to have children come to tie strings for fertile luck. This entire area is charming, and usually very quiet, so it’s perfect for contemplation and your first experience of ancient India outside of Delhi.
We ate at Ajay Palace for lunch atop the rootop, which served great homemade curries and chapati (note that it’s not ‘Ajay Restaurant By Near Palace’ – it’s 50m further down the road and also a hotel – walk through and up the stairs.
By spending a little too much time enjoying the views at lunch, we had just missed a bus Agra-bound. Our travel guide advised buses ran every half hour, but it seemed to be more like an hour than half hour. The bus station is on the main road and once we saw the bus arrive from our lunch perch, we rushed down to make sure we got on – they don’t see to wait long! Again, ₹40 (about 40p) per person for the hour trip back to Agra.
Rather than heading all the way back to Agra’s bus stand, we got off the bus on the main road towards Agra fort and flagged down a tuktuk to take us to the entrance of Agra Fort. The Amar Singh Gate to the south of the fort is the only entry point and you can buy your entrance ticket here ₹550 (about £6) per person (foreign tourist charge).
Agra Fort is easily forgotten about, considering the countries most famous landmark is just downstream, but travellers that visit here will witness one of the finish forts in India within these walls. Courtyard after courtyard, and the many fairytale palaces and audience halls, it will take some time for the sheer scale of this fort to really sink in. You can also grab your first glimpse of the Taj from here.
The hotel we stayed at in Agra was the Hotel Taj Resort. We have already mentioned the pickup of our luggage which was very helpful, but the main attraction to this hotel was that it was only 500 metres to the entrance of the Taj Mahal. This would really help us out in the morning for our early morning visit to the sight. In fact we were so close, the road the hotel sits on is cycle tuk-tuk only – you aren’t allowed to ride a loud engine through this area!
The hotel also offered free breakfast, and a lovely pool. We ate in the hotel restaurant for dinner that evening, with silhouette views of the palace.
The magnificence of the Taj when you first see it is quite overwhelming. There is something magical about seeing one of the most famous buildings in the world, something that most have only seen in TV shows or films, right in front of you in the hazy morning glow.
I knew to be in with the best chance of seeing the Taj at it’s quietest we would have to leave pretty early. Matt was adamant we would would be fine getting there at 7:30am but as sunrise was around 6:30am, I knew we would have to there by then! We left our hotel at 5:30am, and as we were close it was around a 10 minute walk to the entrance. We entered at the East Gate, and the ticket booths were quite obvious once we reached the gate. You walk through the gate and towards the ‘Great Gate’ and the Taj will be right in front of you.
Entrance into the Taj Mahal is ₹1000 for foreign tourist (note the Taj is closed on Friday’s for prayer, so plan your trip accordingly). Tour groups tend to enter through the east and west gate, and therefore the south gate (where we entered) usually has less queues. This works well for you, as it is closer to the more budget hotels for the budget conscious traveller. Again, the gates have separate entrances for male and female, and then foreign tourists (a perk of your expensive entry price!).
Spend some proper time exploring the site – it really is beautiful. Pace through the ornamental gardens and then make sure you get a picture in front of the reflective pond, and on the Princess Diana bench – everybody that knows the Taj will ask to see this! You can climb up the steps and go inside the Taj (no photos allowed in here), and this is fascinating – look out for the “Pietra Dura” – 35 different precious stones used to create the marble inlay on the building, as well as the calligraphy that surrounds each side of the building (the calligraphy gets larger as it gets higher, giving the impression of uniform size when viewed from the ground!). The Taj Museum opens at 9am, but we were there at 6am so we were unable to go. Free entry so worth a look!
Tips for the Taj
Leave your bag in your hotel – backpacks are not permitted, and the only storage facility is at the West Gate. Use a bumbag to keep money, phone and passport.
Small cameras or phones only – use a small camera or camera phone (instead of bag with multiple lenses that you won’t get in). Video is only allowed in certain places, and you can’t take any pictures inside the mausoleum. Tripods and drones are banned.
No food or drink in the site – but a bottle of water is included in your entry fee.
Closed on Fridays – important in your itinerary planning! You wouldn’t want to get here and not be able to visit the site!
We then went back to our hotel for breakfast (it was too early when we left to see the Taj!) and then spent some more time around the pool as we were getting a lunchtime train, but if you have more time, it is worth visiting the following places:
Mehtab Bagh – relaxing gardens that have the perfect view of the Taj – go for sunset for the most awe-inspiring sunset view of the Taj
Akbar’s Tomb – further out of the city, but worth seeing this huge tomb of the greatest Mughal emporer
Kinari Bazaar – one of India’s most hectic, but mesmerising markets is worth a visit if you are the shopping mood
Our pre-booked train from Agra Fort to Sawai Madhopur (#12948 / Azimabad Express 1225-1625) (click here to read about travelling by train in India) was running late, so it eventually arrived around 2pm. This meant it was going to run late and we eventually arrived into Sawai Madhopur around 7:30pm.
Having travelled on an overnight flight, we were really ready for a shower, some food and a relaxing start. Arriving into a completely different culture can be a bit of a sensory overload sometimes, and Delhi was no exception.
Instead of fighting our way through the crowds to find a public transport option, we had picked a hotel that included a free airport taxi – invaluable in a new country when you are just off a nine hour flight – and they had sent their driver to collect us and drop us straight to the hotel. Our room was ready when we arrived at 10am, and so we were able to have a nap (needed to help adjust to the timezone and the climate change!), shower, and be on our way to explore!
We stayed at the Hotel Tara Palace. Situated really close to the Red Fort, it was easy for our early starts. The free airport shuttle was a huge reason for our stay here too!
Our 2-day itinerary
This spectacular series of structures is thought to have inspired the Taj Mahal, which it predates by 60 years. The nearest metro stop is the JLN Stadium (yellow line), and we paid ₹50 for a rickshaw from the metro stop to the entrance.
Considered part of ‘Greater Delhi,’ the Qutb Minar complex is a must-see in Delhi. If you only have time to visit one of Delhi’s ancient ruins, make it this one – and more than that, try and visit for sunset as we did. Nearest stop is Qutb Minar (purple line) and you’ll want to get a rickshaw the 1km to the ruins. Our rickshaw ended up picking up a few locals on the way too – this seems a way of life – and the driver still insisted on going very fast!
We used the metro (actually very simple to use and to understand) to get around Delhi. We bought single tickets which were cheap enough (only around ₹20-40), but when boarding the train, remember the back carriage is ladies only!
We then headed straight for dinner, and had read about some recommendations of actual restaurants (rather than street food vendors). We ate at Karim’s (one of Delhi’s most famous restaurants, as featured here in The Independent), just off the lane leading south from Jama Masjid (India’s biggest mosque). We had decided to go veggie whilst in India, but the meat here is so tempting, we ended up with curries, dal, and a chicken tandoori! It was delicious (but far too much food!).
One of Delhi’s top sights is this fort which predates the Palace of Versailles in France, and it doesn’t disappoint. During the struggle for independence, nationalists promised to raise the Indian flag over the Gate, an ambition that became a reality in 1947. Every building here is worth seeing, and is home to some very interesting museums detailing the way forward through the wars of independence. We had trouble finding the entrances here (there are multiple gates) as during our visit one gate was only open for nationals, and another gate was hard to find. We ending up having to walk back on ourselves to find the ticket hall, and then back again to the main entrance. Keep an eye out for the ticket booths, and the security entrances.
At most attraction, there are separate queues at ticket booths and security for tourists and Indian nationals. Keep an eye out – sometimes there are also even separate entrances based on gender. We generally found that the tourist entrances were a lot quieter and so you should be able to get through quite quickly!
India’s largest mosque can hold a whopping 25,000 people and was built between 1644-1658. Entrance is free (legs covered) but there is a fixed price of ₹100 if you want to climb the stairs to the top of one of the towers (well worth it for views of Delhi). Visitors should remove their shoes at the top of the stairs – you can take them with you, but you won’t be able to take them to the top of the tower.
For dinner on our second night, we visited Mughlai restaurant Moti Mahal. This was a truly excellent restaurant which has been here for six generations. Again, we had meat here – considering there were pictures of Gordon Ramsey cooking here recently, we thought we might be okay!
We headed for another early night, as we were getting a 6am train to Agra for our next step.
Tucked away roughly 45 minutes from the Guatemalan border lies the often forgotten town of Copan Ruinas. Having falling off of the main tourist track, due to the country itself being in somewhat political turmoil, this charming town seems to be surviving, despite the lack of visitors. What it lacks in numbers, it makes up in warmth and friendliness; in fact, the hotel we stayed in was our favourite of the entire trip for host friendliness and helpfulness. We stayed at Hotel Cuna Maya, a family run hotel, and every morning included a freshly cooked breakfast consisting of eggs, plantain, guacamole, beams and ham. The family were always on hand to help, regardless of a somewhat complicated language barrier!
Arriving in Copan in time for dinner was just what we needed, and we headed straight for Café ViaVia, a great restaurant and bar with a quiet, relaxed atmosphere. This is also a well priced hostel, and they offer some well priced tours, excursions and travel options.
Our first morning in Copan was dedicated to the ruins that lay on the outskirts of town. An easy 20 minute walk from the main square, these ruins are the towns main attraction and on a good day, are very serene and peaceful. We hardly saw any other visitors (whether that’s due to Honduras being advised against travel whilst we were there, or just because bigger parks of more impressive ruins are to be found in neighbouring Guatemala, I’m not sure), and this allowed us to really take our time to explore, and enjoy our stay in Copan Ruinas.
Having made the ruins their home, a huge amount of red macaws live within the area encompassed by the grounds. It is very entertaining spending some time with these birds and watching them feed, fly, and communicate with each other. Having not spent enough time with these birds, we spent the rest of the afternoon at Macaw Mountain, a small holding dedicated to tropical birds and their rehabilitation.
Consider getting a taxi here if you will visit straight after the ruins. It is a long walk uphill, and at our time of visiting, the main bridge for vehicles connecting the road the park is located to the main town was broken. We walked the long taxi route, when we should have got a taxi ourselves. Tuktuks wait at the ruins to take you anywhere and are inexpensive.
I have a fairly laid back mind set when it comes to …. and public transport, but be aware that Central American transport is not the same. We had arranged (and paid for!) a transfer with ….. (US$ ) and it was due to pick us up at 11am from our hotel in Copan. After half an hour of waiting, our friendly hotel landlady phoned the company who told us they would be with us shortly. In actual fact, the bus had forgotten to pick us up and, having already crossed through to Guatemala, had to illegally pass back through to Honduras, and back to Copan to collect us! If your gut is telling you to check, do it! We would have missed this transfer completely, and running only once a day, we couldn’t afford to not reach Antigua that evening.
Our Hotel: Cuna Maya
The hotel that we stayed at in Copan Ruinas was one of the best hotels of our stay. A fantastic family ran hotel (the three young boys are very helpful!) with great wifi, air conditioning, and an extremely tasty breakfast. Good cost, and super friendly. Would 100% recommend!
Our two tiered sleeper train is quiet as I start to pen this blog. Of course, I’m using my iPad to type rather than pen and paper, and the irony of the complete contrast between rich and poor, Western & Indian, is not lost on me. Matt is in the upper bunk having a nap – we have had a week of 5am starts, which has made adjusting to the time difference even worse, and again another early start tomorrow. But more about that later… we are on a short train (only 2 hours for us but the entire journey is 36 hours,) to Jaipur, where we have a very busy weekend planned, having already visited Delhi, Agra, and a national park!
We have been waiting for this trip for a very long time. It’s our honeymoon, and we asked for contributions for our wedding gift list. We have a whole itinerary made up from activities gifted for us by our closest family and friends, and day five into our schedule, we have already witnessed so many different experiences.
So for now, a thank you to everybody reading this who contributed in some way towards this trip. I am sure you will see your personal thanks soon as we tick off the India bucket list! Having celebrated Kris’s birthday with our nearest and dearest in London, we flew with British Airways from London Heathrow direct to Delhi, with our trusty rucksacks from our last big trip to Central America, and arrived into Delhi at 7am Monday morning.
When trying to decide where to go for our Easter Break (and a rare weekend we were both free!), I hadn’t really thought we would be flying off to the east to experience Soviet-led Belarus, and the irresistible sights of Lithuania and Poland. From Gothic spires to Stalinist capitals, Eastern Europe really is a warehouse of cultures waiting for exploration. In general, prices are low throughout these countries. A meal in a nice restaurant will not break the bank, and every museum we visited worked out under £5 per person. There is so much to discover, so why wait?!
When to go?
We made our trip in early May, and experienced some bitterly cold weather in Vilnius (it was snowing and lakes were frozen over still) and some boiling hot weather (it was 26C degrees when we landed in Warsaw!). High season is July and August, where you can expect high temperatures and high prices. Hotel rates can rise up to 30%! Big cities will also be crowded. May-June and September to October is often still pleasant weather, and you will beat the crowds travelling in this time.
Trying to imagine what Lithuania was like pre-1900 is quite difficult; much of its capital, Vilnius, boasts bleak Soviet-era remnants which are still sprawled throughout the city. Still, the charming 13th-century historic centre, the largest still remaining in central and eastern Europe, seems to flow seamlessly into the newer Soviet-inspired boulevards. It’s a changing city; adopting the euro in January 2017, it will soon be a top pick for weekend travellers looking for history, architectural heritage, and a bustling cafe culture that won’t break the bank.
We had planned 48 hours in Vilnius, and felt like we had enough time to explore the city. There were a couple of places we didn’t go to due to opening times, which we should have foreseen.
We flew with Wizz Air from London Luton to Vilnius. Beware that if you want to sit with somebody, you will have to pay for select seats; we didn’t do this and then were separated even though we checked in together and at the same time!
Arriving at Vilnius airport was easy. The airport building itself looks more like a grand train station, and it is small. There are a few options to get into town from the airport. The Bus 1 runs from the airport to Vilnius train station, a shuttle train service runs connecting the two (this should cost less than €1), or you can get a taxi. We opted for an Uber, which we tend to try and use when we’re away – it’s easy to track where you are and where you’re going, especially if you don’t speak the language! Our Über journey cost us only €5 (£4.30) and took only around 15 minutes.
On arriving at our apartment, we decided to walk around to get our bearings of the city and planned to take the free walking tour (more about that later!) tomorrow. We were staying right in the heart of the old town, and opposite our front door was St. Anne’s Church, so started there! This late-15th-century Gothic church built with red brick, ornate stained glass, and huge arches may seem impressive, but not much of it is original; most features are reconstructed. Even so, it’s worth a visit to admire the architecture, and whilst you’re there, take a look at the Bernadine Church behind it that dominates the local skyline.
Top foods to try in Lithuania
Bulviniai blynai (potato pancakes)
Cepelinai (potato-dough ‘zeppelin’ stuffed with meat, mushrooms, or cheese)
Bear or game sausages
Smoked pigs’ ears (we did not try these!)
Kepta duona (deep-fried garlicky bread sticks)
Be aware you will start to smell like garlic if you spend too long in Lithuania! Everything seems to have it in, and this along with the smell of fried potatoes will be your lasting smell of the country! Make sure you have some mints on you!
We ate at Lokys (Stiklių gatvė) that evening as we wanted traditional Lithuanian food on our first night in the country. This restaurant has become something of a Vilnius institution, and many a local and tourist can be found in the vaulted 16th-century cellars. Being a hunter’s restaurant (with animal busts hanging through the former merchants house), it’s best servings are its game; roast venison, boar, game sausages, quail and even beaver stew. Matt had the roast boar, and I decided to go for the “Lokys House Royale,” a selection of different meats with roasted courgettes and potato wedges.
On our first morning waking up in Vilnius, we did the 10am free walking tour with FreeTour. We try to take part in a free tour as soon as we arrive in a city, as they are often run by locals, and you get to find your bearings of the city without getting lost! Our guide, Rita, gave us a combination of both history, fun facts and stories from nowadays life that only the locals know about! We covered most of the highlights of the old town, as well as Uzupis, a district over the river which is now known for its swarm of artists that have settled there. Uzupis even has its own constitution, and considers itself an independent country (not UN recognised though!). The free tour sets off at 10am and 12pm from the town hall. Check out the website for different tours they run, including a Pub Crawl, Jewish Vilnius, and an ‘Alternative’ Vilnius.
Recommended by our walking tour guide Rita, we headed to Forto Davras for a traditional Lithuanian lunch. This restaurant feels like a bit of a tourist trap, especially as it is on the main road, but it serves good food at a reasonable price, so there’s no shame in eating here (in fact we ate here twice!). Good traditional food and cheap beer, set in the downstairs cellar (something that seems to be quite common in restaurants in Lithuania!)
We had read about a picturesque red-brick castle which seemed fairly close to Vilnius. Deciding it would be nice to leave the city for a little while and explore parts of Lithuania slightly more rural, we headed to the bus station and bought an open return for around €2 each. This is obviously a popular route, as the ticket officer had pre-printed lists of the return buses and their times. We would make the 2pm bus out, and they return up until around 8pm (ask for a list when you book at the ticket office!). The journey takes around 30 minutes.
Get the bus to Trakai from Vilnius – the bus station in Trakai is around a 20 minute walk through the town to the castle, whereas the train station is a longer walk and is more complicated to find. The bus journey is also a nicer journey, and there is more to see along the way, instead of staring out into forest. Trakai-visit has information on how to travel there.
Arriving at Trakai castle was quite overwhelming. We realised that the entire lake it is situated on was completely frozen over and people were walking on it to cross over to the castle. The castle was €7/£6 or €3.50/£3 for students, and any updates listed on the castle website along with opening times. As we were dealing with fairly poor weather conditions (it was snowing and sleeting by this time), we were happy to find lots of indoor exhibits (with quick dashes across the courtyard). The museum has an interesting collection of antiques and reconstructions from its 14th-century beginnings, as well as a few more modern works of art. Lots of reconstruction work has gone on over the last few centuries, taking the castle from almost rubble and disrepair, to the major tourist attraction it is today.
On the next morning, we walked from our apartment in the Old Town north-east towards the Museum of Genocide Victims. This haunting former headquarters of the Gastapo and then KGB houses a museum dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians who were deported, imprisoned, or murdered by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Union from WWII until the 1960s; exploring the basement prison is a chilling, but poignant and important experience. The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and cost €4 (£3.50) for adult admission, and €1 (85p) for students – this museum will ask for your student card!
I was a bit apprehensive about visiting Belarus. It is the closest country politically to Russia, and doesn’t see itself as European at all. Due to high tensions in Russia at the moment, particularly with LGBT rights, I was sceptical about enjoying our visit, but what we found the complete opposite – a friendly, welcoming country with a lot to take in!
Travelling to Belarus got a whole lot easier in January 2017 when President Alexander Lukashenko signed a document allowing nationals from 80 states visa-free entry into the country. You have to have proof of medical insurance for your stay in Belarus; if you don’t have travel insurance, firstly why not? But secondly, and more important for your stay, you can purchase travel insurance at the airport before security, and it will cost you €6 (£5.25) for the 5 days.
If you are travelling visa-free, there is a slight snag. You can only stay for 5 days (including the day you arrive and the day you leave), and you have to fly in and out of Minsk International Airport. Because of the times of inbound and outbound flights, it doesn’t really give you enough time to explore the country. If you are wanting to exploring further afield than Minsk, perhaps to Brest, you might be better off applying for a visa and spending more than 4 nights in the country. This would also make travel easier, as there are international trains that run to Moscow (requiring a separate Russian visa) or Warsaw (which was our next stop).
After exiting the airport, we again decided to take an Über from the airport to our apartment located just off of pr Nezalezhnastsi (Independence Avenue), one of the main streets in Minsk. It cost around 30 BYN (€12/£10.40) and took around 35 minutes.
Another tip would be to make sure you have any offline translations already (difficult for Cyrillic languages) downloaded, and you know exactly where you are going. We couldn’t find our AirBnb apartment and our greeter only spoke Belarusian or German. Luckily, we managed to broken translate from German, and then asked some locals nearby to help translate.
On arriving in Minsk city centre, we had planned to take part in a pub crawl organised by FreeWalkingTourMinsk (the company running the free walking tour on tomorrow’s agenda). This runs every Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 9pm and costs 35 BYN (€13/£12). Unfortunately, we had just missed it as it took us a while to get through security (a missing medical insurance certificate), so we headed into the first pub, Gambrinus. Self-proclaimed “spiritual gastro-pub” serves more than 100 varieties of bottled beer and 18 types of draft beer. They also offer a European food menu, and it is a great way to try national cuisine. We had local beers, and ordered the “assorted beer fries” for 30 BYN (€12/£10.40), which came out as a huge plate of onion rings, chicken nuggets, ribs and deep-fried bread!
The next morning, we met our tour guide, Roma, for our FreeWalkingTourMinsk. These run in English, and depart every day at 11am from the front of City Hall in Svabody Square, near the statue of Voigt, the bronze figure holding the key and paper. Unfortunately, it was wet and windy on the morning of our tour, but come rain or shine, our guide was ready to whisk us through the sights, with a stop at a coffee shop to warm us up on the way. The Old Town tour covers the Upper part of town (Old Town), the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald (the elleged assassin of former US President John F Kennedy), a park, the Opera House, and finishing up at the Victory Monument.
Recommended to us by our walking guide Roma, the Hrai restaurant set in the … part of town served great traditional Belarusian food at a great price. The draniki here was top notch, and we also had the buckwheat pancakes with pork and mushrooms.
Cuisine through Eastern Europe is very similar, with lots of countries boasting that their traditional way is better than their neighbours. Belarusian cuisine, similar to Lithuania and Poland, consists of lots of meals based around food from the earth. The most famous dish is draniki, which is a potato pancake (think hash brown) often served with pork, onions and mushrooms. Krupnik is a traditional Belarusian vegetable soup served in a loaf of rye bread, and pork ears feature widely throughout menus in the region. Similarly, buckwheat pancakes are heralded throughout history, known since the middle 18th century for being served at the court of King Augustus III, Stanislaw Poniatowski.
The quaint State Museum of the History of the Theatrical and Musical Culture is set in a former monastery, but includes lots of traditional Belarusian theatre and music exhibits. We were probably their only visitors for the day, and we had a personal tour by a museum steward. There are no English signs or captions, but it was a nice half hour looking at the exhibits.
On our second full day in Minsk, we decided to visit the castles of Mir and Nesvizh (Njasvich). We hired a car from the branch of Europcar based at Hotel Minsk (we had prebooked this online for £35), which was just around the corner from our apartment. An easy hour drive brought us to the small town of Mir, dominated by its impressive red brick castle. There’s not much else to see in Mir, so don’t feel like you have to make many pitstops, apart from maybe the pub-restaurant opposite for coffee or tea before you go in (this was well needed as it was cold and snowy as we arrived).
Entry fee for Mir Castle (as of June 2018) is 12 BYN(US$6/£4.50) or 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) at the weekends, with students going at half rate. Because of the inclement weather, we were happy to be inside exploring the history and original castle artefacts. The castle has towers and turrets to climb, and lovely views of the English gardens (which would have been nice to walk around had it not been snowing and sleeting!)
A lot of the museums and sights to see in Minsk are closed on a Monday. Because we were visiting the city over catholic Easter Sunday (Orthodox Palm Sunday due to calendars), a lot of these were also closed on the Sunday. To make the most of our time, we decided to leave the city for the day and visit the castles further south that were open on Mondays.
Another half an hour drive took us to the town of Nesvizh (Niasvizh or Njasvizh), where we stopped for lunch before heading onto the castle. This town has a few more sights, including a town gate, town hall and cathedral, but once you’ve driven past these, there is no need to stop. We ate lunch at Skarbnitsa, which sits opposite the town hall, and serves great draniki (I had the frying pan) and other traditional Belarusian food.
The walk from the castle car park to the castle itself is a nice walk along the lake, and the castle is impressive on first sight. Entrance is 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) and half rate for students. The exhibitions there are well laid out across different floors, and wind around the different areas of the castle (it is all inside apart from the run across the courtyard to different exhibitions!). Nesvizh Castle feels more traditional than Mir, and closer to what it would have looked like, and the interiors and decorations are fascinating.
We had devoted the next day to the great Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This museum hosts an excellent display detailing Belarus’ suffering and heroism during the Nazi occupation. It is an interesting look to see the national pride of the country and it’s close ties to the Soviet, and the role they played in helping the country; of course the Soviet’s “saved” Belarus from the Nazi’s, and the country has leant this way ever since. There is also a range of tanks, airplanes and artillery from WWII, and some great dioramas throughout, making it one of Minsk’s few must-see attractions. Entrance is 9 BYN (US$4.50/£3.30) or 7 BYN (US$3.50/£2.60) for students.
Another highlight of the museum is the stunning Victory Hall, which on a clear day, is one of the best architectural designs you will see on your trip!
After visiting the museum, we stopped by the haunting Zaslavsky Jewish Monument and the still snow-logged Memorial Gardens.
For dinner that evening, we ate at Kamyanitsa, located slightly further east on the north part of the river. This restaurant is a great grill restaurant serving loads of traditional Belarusian food, and is thoroughly recommended. We had the ribs from the grill, which were great!
This filled us up for our visit to the Opera House that evening, where we saw a Belarusian production of La Traviata. We had been told about the Opera House on our walking tour, and our guide, Roma, explained ticket prices are inexpensive due to state funding and low expenses. We paid a total of 18 BYN (US$9/£6.75) for two dress circle tickets! Bargain! If you have a free evening, and there is something on, I’d definitely recommend it!
The next morning, before heading back to the airport, we ate breakfast at My English Granny, and had a sorely missed fry up! The restaurant serves the closet thing to traditional food we found on the trip, and was a nice change to pastries on the move!
When leaving the country from the airport, be aware that most airlines require you to tag luggage, regardless of if it’s being checked in or carried on as hand luggage. We queued for 45 minutes to get through security to be told we didn’t have tags on our luggage and had to go back to check in (even though we had checked in online!).
What you will learn about Warsaw from your stay is that it is different to much of Poland, and other European countries. It has suffered the worst history imaginable, including virtual destruction, but it has survived, rebuilt itself, and flourished into a diverse, friendly capital. Our third and final city treated us to glorious weather throughout our stay. We arrived at the airport to 25 degree sunshine, and again took an Über to our apartment. This took about 30 minutes and cost around 30 BYN (US$15/£11).
I wouldn’t usually offer recommendations for AirBnB’s as I think they are so personal to what travellers require, but our apartment was beautiful. Jan was a great host, and has renovated the apartment perfectly; everything we needed was available, and we were just a five minute walk from the town centre. We were just sad we didn’t stay for longer!
Free Walking Tour Warsaw operate a huge amount of tours, and we met Agatha for the 4pm free tour of old town Warsaw. This fascinating walk took us around the city, and gave us lots of interesting local knowledge.
The legend of the Warsaw Mermaid
The City’s literature says that two mermaids from Denmark were swimming in the Baltic Sea. One, Den lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid), bored of swimming returned home to Copenhagen (where she now sits on the waterside), but her sister, Melusine (or Melusina), decided to carry on swimming and made her way to Warsaw, stopping on a riverbank near the Old Town. Fishermen noticed something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish. They planned to trap the animal, then heard her singing and fell in love. A rich merchant trapped and imprisoned the mermaid, thinking he could make money from her. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her. Ever since the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents.
For dinner we ate at Pub Pod Zegarem, which was recommended to us by Agatha from the tour. If you take a free walking tour, get a map and show it to the restaurant at dinner and you even get a free shot of Polish vodka! Here is the best place to try every type of food you’re supposed to try in Poland – we had the pork knuckle and the ribs (and shared both of them!)
The next morning, we had breakfast at Warszawski Sznyt to set us up for the day, and then made our way to the Palace of Culture and Science. This huge building is like marmite; half of the city hate it, and half love it. Given by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, this ‘gift of friendship’ is the tallest building in Poland, at 231m. The building basically houses some shopping malls and conference spaces, but take the high-speed lift to the 30th floor and there is an observation deck where you can see the span of the city. This costs 20zl (US$5.50/£4) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for students (in the summer they open the terrace in the evening as well, so you can see the city with the sun setting).
After viewing the city from above, we made our way towards the Chopin Museum. Being a pianist, Kris was very excited to visit this museum. Completely high-tech with interactive multimedia including images, videos and score extracts for you to listen to, this museum is a must-see for any music fan. They even have the last piano that Chopin owned on display! Entrance price is 22zl (US$6/£4.50) or 13zl (US$3.50/£2.60) for a reduced ticket, and it is recommended to book in advance as they limit the entrance of people to the museum.
To fully complete your Chopin story whilst in Warsaw, visit the Church of the Holy Cross (ul Krakowskie Przedieście), and find the second pillar on the left side of the nave. This pillar, adorned with an epitach of Chopin, contains what remains of the composers heart. It was illegally smuggled here from Paris after his death by his sister, who did it to honour the composers last will and testament; although he had body from Poland to France, his heart remained in Warsaw.
The museum is closeby to Łaziesnki Park, where we then walked to and explored. We stopped for a refreshing Aperol spritz at a cafe, and then spent some time spotting red squirrels in the trees.
Our last full day was spent visiting two great museums. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is a huge exhibition with lots of multimedia and interactive features, illustrating 1000 years of Jewish history. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for a reduced ticket.
We also visited the Warsaw Rising Museum, which is well recommended. This museum traces the history of the city’s heroic but doomed uprising against the German occupation in 1944. Filled with displays, photographs, film archives and personal items, there is even a bomber plane which fills much of the 1st floor. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 20zl (US$5.40/£4) for reduced rate (admission on Sundays is free!).
No matter where you visit in these three beautiful countries, you will always find friendly faces welcoming you to their home, and wanting to share as much culture with you as possible.
Roatán is the largest and most developed of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. Long and thin (50km long, but only 2km to 4km wide), the island is a real diving and snorkelling hub – almost all of its coastline is surrounded by a diverse coral reef teeming with tropical fish. Set 65km off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Roatán sits a golden jewel. Sandy beaches, cheap food and drink, and a surprisingly great vibe for an island whose mainland is currently experiencing the worst political unrest it has faced in years.
Roatán attracts a far more midrange crowd than its neighbouring island, Utila, with far more budget options for sleeping and eating. The main hub for backpackers is in West End, which is where we decided to stay.
On arrival at Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport in Coxen Hole (the ‘capital’ of Roatán), we haggled with taxi drivers to get to West End. We tried to share with a few other tourists that had been on our flight, but as the drivers here price per person rather than per journey, we weren’t really able to get it any cheaper. We had read in the Lonely Planet that a colectivo runs from the highway just outside the airport. We tried to strategy but could not find any kind of bus stop, or see any minibuses running. As we were about to give up, a taxi arrived dropping somebody off, and agreed to take us to the West End to US$10 (£7) for the entire journey, instead of the US$30 they wanted inside the airport compound. Maybe we were getting an unlicensed taxi, but it saved us money and was quick and easy!
A point to remember if you visit the island; there are only a few ATMs on the island, and most of the time these don’t work! The most reliable ATM is at the airport in the terminal building. There is one in the West End, but it tends to be emptied fairly quickly in an attempt to curb crime. Make sure you have enough cash for your entire time on the island – not all restaurants and bars accept card! We had a bit of a nightmare trying to get cash out on our way to the 7am ferry off of the island when we realised we wouldn’t have enough cash to pay our taxi driver!
Eating in the West End
There are a couple of really good haunts in the West End that the regulars will always swear by. Luckily, a lot of the finest eateries are based in the West End as there is so much more passing trade.
Creoles Rotisserie Chicken is described in the Lonely Planet as an “island institution.” It is exactly that. Umming and ahhing at the entrance, a local passed us and told us it was the best on the island. It offers excellent Honduran-style roast chicken (we had the half chicken and a number of sides including rice, carrot salad, and coleslaw). Let me say this; the chicken here was better than any creole chicken we’ve had, even in New Orleans!
Cannibal Café was the next choice for us. Seriously large tacos are a specialty with traditional Central American food in this relaxed eatery. We got stuck in a massive rain storm having finished our food, so kicked back with a few more Salva Vida’s (Honduran beers). Matt had a huge chimichanga, and I had sizzling chicken fajitas. This place also offers wine at an affordable price, which was a rare treat on Roatán!
Activities whilst on Roatán
Half Moon Bay, which forms the northern part of the West End, is a lovely sandy beach, with sheltered water. The few days we were on the island wasn’t the best weather, and because of this we only really had a little time on the beach, but I think this would be the best bet if it were complete beach weather.
Diving and snorkelling are obviously top of the list when it comes to activities other than lounging by the sea. There are a number of different companies based in the West End. We went with Eco Divers as they were offering a discount through our hotel. We paid US$15 each for an hour trip, and we basically had free reign of exploring. We were the only people snorkelling on the particular trip, and so we were joined by a few others doing scuba diving (one of whom was doing their first deep sea dive!) and once we were dropped off, we were allowed to swim freely for 40 minutes. We had a great vibe from the instructors, and a successful first snorkel! They even let us borrow the equipment for a couple of hours before to have a little swim around in the bay to get used to it, as it had been so long since either of us had done it. Check out a video here!
Being on Roatán for the weekend felt entirely different to what I thought it would. The island felt a lot more American than Central American, and it was easy to forget it’s Spanish roots being out on an island in the easy Caribbean. Honduras is currently experiencing a very bad political scene, but out in the Caribbean life is easier and there are no worries. We just hoped that the next few days travelling across mainland Honduras would be just as easy…
Having spent five wonderful (but expensive) nights in Costa Rica, we were ready to cross into our next country. Having read a lot of horror stories about the Nicaraguan border, we were nervous but excited for the trip.
We had pre-booked a shuttle through CaribeShuttle.com to pick us up at our hostel in Santa Elena, Monteverde at 6am and take us to Liberia. This shuttle runs only once a day, and at US$35 per person, was the most expensive form of transport for us (bar other flights) but it was by far the best way to travel in this instance.
It was just us and another couple on the shuttle to Liberia, so it was nice and quiet, but the road to the highway was pretty rough. It went from perfectly smooth tarmac to bumpy stones every thousand metres or so, which really didn’t make for a smooth ride! After about an hour along this road (with some pretty stunning views if you aren’t fast asleep – see above) and half an hour on the highway, we arrived at the Santa Rosa Plaza, where the bus was terminating (likely following a short coffee stop just outside of Liberia). I thought it might be more of a bus station, but was literally a car park for a shopping centre!
Don’t fall for the taxi and shuttle drivers offering to take you from Liberia to Peñas Blancas or beyond. It is a five minute walk from the shuttle Park to the bus station and buses leave regularly (and transport beyond the border is easy and cheap too!)
As we reached the bus station, we saw a Peñas Blancas (the border) bus sitting ready to leave. We were able to get our luggage on and paid around US$4 each for us and the luggage (and receiving some change in colónes) before two other travellers joined, and the bus left!
The fun really begun at the border. We had heard so many nightmare stories about how people were queueing for up to five hours around Christmas, and we were worried the same would happen today on New Year’s Eve. An international bus had arrived moments before we arrived, so we were keen to be speedy and miss these passengers!
The first thing to do at the border is to pay your exit tax. When you arrive, there will be people calling for this and leading you to a shady looking building about 500 yards away. There we paid our exit taxes (around US$8 each). The next thing to do is to go to the border office. This is found to the right of the border, and there you get your passports stamped for exit. We then started walking through the border, which is a long, unpaved road between the two countries. We passed border security who made sure we had paid and had our passports stamped. Arriving at the Nicaraguan side, we then had to pay US$1 each at the door (we had used all of our small notes for the bus) and around ~US$12 each entrance fee (you can pay in US dollars if you don’t already have Nicaraguan Córdoba – “NIO”) at the desk where our passports were stamped for entry. We did this whole process in the wrong order at first, so it took a lot longer to retrace our footsteps than it should have!
Make sure you have lots of small US dollar notes for border taxes and exit/entrance
Take public transport where you can – it’s quick and cheap – the only place we couldn’t find it available was getting out of Monteverde to the nearest city, Liberia
Pay your exit tax as soon as you get to Peñas Blancas, and then start your walk through the border – ask somebody if you are unsure
We changed US$25 into NIO with somebody sat outside the office who had an official badge (we bartered to get a better rate!) and then as we were walking away, saw a chicken bus heading to Rivas about to leave. We jumped onto the bus and clutching our bags in the overhead shelf, we stood for the 45 minute journey to Rivas. This cost us 20NIO each.
Unsure where we were getting off, I kept an eye on the map, aware we had to get to San Jorge ferry terminal to catch our boat to Ometepe. The bus guard also knew this and shouted us off and helped us down with our bags.
Two different type of boats service the island; a boat costing 35NIO and a bigger ferry costing 50NIO. If you are prone to seasickness, the ferry is a much smoother ride. Ferries run less frequently though. The Ometepe website also advises that only the ferries run on a Sunday – this wasn’t the case for us, but that may have been because it was holiday season – we weren’t quite sure!
It was 11:40am and a 15 minute drive away, meaning the midday ferry we hoped to be on would be tight. We haggled with a taxi driver (difficult when he knows the ferry was leaving in 20 minutes) and he drove us to the ferry terminal for US$10 (we should have been able to get this for about US$5). We arrived with time to spare, but one of the ticket windows informed us it was too late. Somebody from another window came and told us the next smaller boat (not the ferry) was at 12:30pm and we could buy tickets from him. We bought our tickets for 35NIO, along with another couple who were also travelling to the island for ‘Año Nuevo’, and managed to get a taxi sorted for the journey on to our hotels from the arriving port for US$10 per person.
The boat was choppy, and took around 75 minutes, but we were rewarded with excellent views of the Isla Ometepe, and the two volcanos. Our pre-booked taxi driver was waiting for us on the other side, and we spent around 45 minutes driving around the island before our drop off at our ecolodge Totoco at around 2:30pm. The alternative would be to take Ometepe’s public bus. This wasn’t running over the holidays, but would be cheaper (and slower of course!)
The island of Ometepe is composed of two volcanoes, Concepción, which is still active, and the extinct Maderas. The small island has one main road which rings around the north volcano, Concepción, another road which rings around the southern volcano, Maderas, and a third road which links the two. The majority of the boat services run to Moyogalpa, which is on the north west of the island. There are some services that run to San José del Sur, which is to the south of the northern volcano. If you are staying south of the island, the San José ferry would save you some time once you are there, but the journey from Moyogalpa isn’t too long anyway!
Overall, a perfectly reasonable journey for what we thought could end up being a bit of a nightmare. We checked in for two evenings and brought in the new year! Read what we got up to in the next post!