Well it’s been a while! Luckily I managed one trip at the start of this year to Krakow in Poland I will write about that soon, it’s been a fairly manic couple of months even without the Coronavirus pandemic as it is… but also a lot of exiciting and positive things have been happening so I can’t complain too much.
I had a number of trips planned for this year along other things I wanted to do going forward. I know we are all in the same boat together!
In March 5 days before Lockdown was announced in the United Kingdom I purchased a new car a BMW 335i it’s a natural evolution to my old 330Ci (as featured in my Northern European Road Trip post). It’s a wonderful car and I’ve not had the chance to give it a proper going over yet. It also meant I said goodbye to the 330Ci a trusty and faithful servant, and a good friend at the same time. Those who know me well know how much I love driving. The connection I feel with it goes back to road trips on family holidays as a child. Mostly to the South of France but other destinations such as Denmark, Belgium, Spain, The Netherlands and Germany. Driving also connects to my love of racing. Some of you will know about my time as a racing driver reaching the dizzy heights of the British GT Championship. It’s something I miss terribly but my love of travel allowed me to compensate for that gap. So a good road trip with the 335i is definitely on the cards. I’d say Italy looks likely, although that said I have still unfinished business with the Nurburgring and what better place to find out just how much the 335i has to give!
Beyond a road trip I’ve been keen to visit the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan for quite some time. The idea was to start in the Black Sea resort of Batumi before taking a series of trains across Georgia to Gori then Tibilisi before crossing the border into Azerbaijan and finishing in Baku at the caspian Sea. I took inspiration from the Amazon car show the Grand Tour for that trip, Although no Aston Martin DBS for me on that one I would imagine.
If I could also manage some kind of road trip in the United States that would be really cool. Theres something quite appealing about hiring an all American muscle car like a Camaro or a Mustang and spend some good days blasting across the wilderness seeing what I find along the way.
Sadly another plan I had being visiting Munich’s Oktoberfest won’t be realised as the 2020 festival has been cancelled. Along with most of 2020 in general…
I’ve recently invested in GoPro’s amongst other things, hopefully when I do get out travelling again I can make some videos along the way. I’ve always enjoyed editing videos and making films so why not combine multiple things I enjoy! They’ll probably be awful but we can all laugh together!
There are so many places to visit still and the list grows all the time, I’ve still unfinished business with Ukraine and Russia, You can read about those on previous posts. Both of them are wonderful countries with a lot to see and do. If I could recommend cities to visit at some point in your life Kyiv, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are all high up on the list.
These places are not going anywhere, so for the moment we just have to sit it out and wait it out for the end of the pandemic we are currently all facing. I’m horribly impatient so I’m probably finding it more challenging than most. But again, travel, adventure and new experiences are all my vice. There’s something quite magical about visiting new countries. The thrill of arriving normally in my case quite late at night in a bit of a chaotic fashion, with no money and normally no clue, heading to wherever I’m staying brimming with excitement to get out the next day to explore.
I love mainland Europe, I’ve always loved it. It always brings back fond memories of family holidays and other adventures I’ve had over the years. So in September 2019 with some free time on the horizon, an opportunity arose for a new excursion across 5 countries. The weapon of choice for this road trip would be my 16-year-old BMW 330ci, anyone who knows me well knows I’m overly attached to this car, but it’s got me through some tough times and has been a good friend. In my opinion the perfect choice for this trip!
The route for this trip would take me from my home in Essex through the Channel Tunnel into France along the A16 into Belgium, through The Netherlands into Germany along the Ardennes Forest into Luxembourg before finally returning through France back home again. The route was set and my overnight stops were set. But no specific agenda was arranged in advance. I set off on a Wednesday lunchtime with no real objectives in place.
Day one – The Channel to De Panne
I arrived at Folkestone’s Euro Tunnel terminal early in the afternoon, the Euro Tunnel is always my preferred method of crossing the Channel, I’ve got no real issue with the Cross Channel Ferries but the train is much quicker and in my opinion an all round better service, even if it is a little more expensive.
After 35 minutes travelling under the English Channel, I emerged in the now very familiar surroundings Coquelles this is normally the point where I feel any good adventure by road in mainland Europe has begun.
Heading North along the A16 passing Dunkirk and over the non-descript Belgian border coming to the first junction once in Belgium you arrive in the small Flemish town of De Panne. De Panne was only intended as a small stopover just to get me on the other side of the Channel. As I’d made it in relatively good time I figured it was worth a look around. Choice of the hotel was the Hotel Ibis De Panne, the bill for tonight’s stay was a fair €60 not including breakfast. However, the sting in the tail for this one was a whopping €20 charge for parking, extortionate parking aside the hotel had everything I’ve come to expect from Ibis’.
Shortly I was enjoying my first Leffe of the trip and then set out for an explore. De Panne was a pretty town but almost completely deserted, new developments going up all over the place but with no one to live in them. In a 25 minute walk to the beach, I don’t think I encountered another person.
Arriving at the beach I was greeted with a large statute, this was the statute of Leopold I the first King of Belgium who in 1831 sailed from England to Calais but arrived in De Panne. The statue commemorates where he landed.
De Panne is also famous for being the residence of the Belgian Royal Family during the First World War, notably as this was a small area of Belgium not occupied by the attacking German forces.
A short walk along the beachfront promenade brought the Kursaal restaurant into view. A fairly modern looking restaurant with a fairly seafood-based menu. Some may know I can’t eat seafood but lucky for me, Steak Frites was on the menu and with a blue cheese sauce available! I was in my element. A tasty steak with a couple of Brugse Zots to drink left me ready for bed! An early start was due the following morning.
Day two – De Panne to Sint-Niklaas via Ghent and Antwerp
An early start the following morning with the Medieval city of Ghent in my sights. After around an hour along a featureless section of Belgian motorway and I was in Ghent. Parking was straightforward in the city centre with pleanty of signage to new visitors.
I had never been to Ghent before, having spent a large amount of time in Bruges in the past it’s similar in style perhaps with a smaller historic centre and far less touristy. But the beautiful buildings and striking canals were a great feature. I love a canal trip and soon found a boat offering canal €7.50 was the charge for around a 45min guided tour of Ghent’s canals with the guide offering stops and explanations on many parts of the canal.
After some wandering of Ghent’s medieval back streets, it was time for a little break, stopping at a little riverside cafe to have a Belgian Waffle and another beer, this time an Orval!
Moving on I wanted to see the Gravensteen castle right in the middle of the city the entry fee is €10 and a free audio tour is included, I opted to forego the audio tour as I’m not normally a fan.
The castle was built in 1180 and from that date until 1353 housed the Counts of Flanders, you can walk the castle walls and get a fantastic view of the city from the top of the castles tower seeing almost all of the city.
It was mentioned on my canal trip that the former dungeon and tourture chambers can now be rented out for weddings… each to their own!
Moving on from Ghent to the next overnight stop the city of Sint-Niklaas in-between Ghent and Antwerp. Blander Belgian motorways followed before arriving in Sint-Niklass. A pleasant city with a nice market square and nice surrounding streets, but very clearly a commuter city supporting nearby Antwerp. Visiting Antwerp wasn’t a place I’d intended on visiting, but after a little research, it was only 20 minutes away by train at a cost of about €6 for a return trip. I decided to head to Antwerp!
After a 15 minute walk from the hotel to the train station, I found myself on the train to Antwerp, a straight forward and easy process and I found myself in central Antwerp, another city I had never visited before. The most striking thing I noticed straight away was the beauty of Antwerp station. It is a stunning building with beautiful features and styles. If you find yourself in Antwerp either by train or otherwise take 10 minutes to come and admire this beautiful building.
I didn’t have all that long in Antwerp so decided to head to the old town visiting Antwerps impressive cathedral, sadly the spire was in scaffolding so I couldn’t see it in it’s full beauty. A walk down to the river followed as the sun was beginning to set I took in the sights while trying to decide on where to eat that evening. Eventually I stumbled across a Hard Rock Cafe, a burger with a Duvel beer followed. Then it was time to head back to Sint-Niklaas. On returning to the main square in Sint-Niklaas the town hall in the centre was lit up and looked simply magnificent.
Day Three – Sint-Niklaas to Bonn via Heerlen and Colonge
An early start the following morning to head to a city that I’ve never visited but I’ve always wanted to visit, Cologne in Germany. Around a 2 hour drive was needed passing through more of Belgium and into The Netherlands. I stopped for a late breakfast combined with a Dutch supermarket visit in the small town of Heerlen. I couldn’t tell you much about this town other than it’s modern looks and feels and confusing one way systems. After a quick stop at Jumbo branded supermarket that was maximising it’s Max Verstappen sponsorship deal, I returned to the motorway with Germany in my sights.
It becomes fairly obvious that you have arrived on the German unrestricted Autobahns as speeds run at a steady 110-120mph in the outer lanes. I took the opportunity to have some fun with my BMW (I won’t tell you how fast we went!). Just before 1 pm, I arrived at my overnight stop on Bonn. Fortunately, the hotel allowed me to check in early to drop off my bags. I then headed down to Bonn central station to get the train to Cologne central station. A return ticket came in at €10 curiously however I was charged for a student ticket. So I’m not 100% sure my pricing is accurate.
As you exit the modern Cologne Central railway station it is impossible to miss Colognes Cathedral directly outside the station. The building is huge and simply dominates the skyline, construction started in 1249 and didn’t finish until 1473. Before undergoing further works in the 1800s and then finally a restoration program began in 1950 which continues to this day. This impressive monument of German Catholicism and Gothic Architecture was declared a world heritage site in 1996. Entry to the Cathedral is free, however, there are many donation boxes around the site to pay your contribution to the maintenance of this impressive structure.
I moved to cross the Rhine river over the Hohenzollern Bridge once on the otherwise you get the famous image of Cologne looking back across at the Bridge, the railway station and the Cathedral. An image that symbolises Cologne. The Hohenzollern Bridge was originally built between 1907 and 1911 as a railway and road bridge. In 1945 during the second world war, German military engineers blew up the bridge to slow down advancing allied forces. In 1959 a new bridge was completed this time for rail and pedestrian traffic rather than road. The bridge is one of the most heavily used in Germany handling around 1200 trains per day. It has also become popular with couples placing love locks on the railings of the bridge.
If you should ever find yourself in Cologne take a walk along the riverfront there’s plenty to see and do with lots of riverfront bars and restaurants, I took the opportunity to enjoy some currywurst from a street vendor. I’ve always enjoyed currywurst when in Germany it’s a lot better! I walked the streets some more passing the City Hall with a large bell tower. I settled for a pizza for dinner that night with a Bitburger to drink.
As darkness descended it was time to head back to Bonn, I couldn’t seem to get my head around Bonn, Germanys de facto capital during the split of East and West Germany. A modern city but with not a lot going on in my opinion. Suitable for an overnight stop. But not worth going out of your way for.
Day Four – Bonn to Reims via The Nurburgring and Luxembourg
That morning I woke up with a little bit of excitement. That day I was heading to the Nurburgring. I’ve never been to the Nurburgring but I’m a life long motor racing fan. I was excited to have a look at this place. I avoided the motorways as I left Bonn taking beautiful roads throughout the Ardennes Forest seeing eagles and other wildlife along the way. Soon enough I arrived at the Nurburgring one of Germanys most famous race tracks if not one of the most famous in the world. At just over 14 miles long it’s also arguably the most challenging. You can take your road car on the circuit for a lap and I had spent the morning debating with myself if I wanted to take my ageing but currently well behaved BMW on a lap of the ring. Fortunate in some ways disappointing in others the decision was made for me. On arrival, the circuit was being used for a live race meeting. Meaning it wouldn’t be possible for public use that day. However, it gave me a chance to have a look around the circuit and the surrounding roads. There is a museum at the circuit with an impressive collection of racing cars and memorabilia.
A quick walk over to the paddock followed to have a look at the cars racing that day before then heading to the Brunnchen corner to watch some of the action on the Nordschleife circuit.
There was a lot of ground to cover on this day so sadly I couldn’t hang around as I wanted to be in Luxembourg for lunch. So reluctantly I set off for my 6th country in 4 days. The scenery along the German Autobahn and the Luxembourgish Motorways was beautiful running through pretty valleys with little towns below.
Around an hour and a half down the road, I arrived on the outskirts of Luxembourg City. It’s a straight forward city to navigate and I had arrived just in time for lunch. After lunch, I had a wander around the city centre and its historic streets. In the middle of the city is a great valley, this is where a river through the city once ran before being diverted and turned into a park. Not far from here is the Notre Dame Cathedral an impressive sight to see up close and personal. There is a fantastic view point looking over the Park below and the Pont Adolphe bridge.
France, my first stop was the Reims-Gueux race circuit. My second racing circuit of the day, the reims circuit was an ultra-fast circuit that was on public roads. Races were held here from 1926 until 1969 hosting the French Grand Prix 11 times as well as multiple other non-championship Formula one races, Motorcycle races, Formula 2, Formula 3 and the 12 hours of Reims endurance race for sportscars cars.
Some sections of the old track are still available to drive on as public roads, some others have been demolished and the long straight is now a dual carriageway. But the history of the circuit remains in the shape of the original pit buildings and grandstands. Still with their sponsorship branding on. There is no cost to visit this and it’s a great way to kill half an hour (over an hour in my case).
It would have been wonderful to have seen races at this circuit in the period. A frighteningly fast track with no barriers or run-off areas.
I headed into central Reims at dusk to find something for dinner, this evening was an Italian restaurant. With no more Belgian beers or Pilsners to drink, I had to settle for a Saint-Omer instead.
That evening passing the impressive Reims Cathedral an impressive sound and light show was illuminating the whole cathedral. This happens every Saturday night during the summer months. Worth a look as there’s no charge to watch the show.
Day Five – Reims to Home via Laon and Arras
In the morning I took the chance to have a walk around the streets of Reims. It was a Sunday and it was early, which meant the city was almost deserted giving me free rein. I opted to head back to the cathedral for another look around.
Walking through the streets of Reims I came across a memorial garden to the victims of the Holocaust from Reims. I actually cannot find any information on it online since returning home. Pictures around the outside told the story of some of the survivors and also stories of those who lost their lives.
I had to be at the Eurotunnel depot to return home by the evening so it was time to press on. However I took the time to stop at the medieval city of Laon, I’d never been to Laon, in fact, I’d never heard of Laon. But what a discovery. From a distance, you can see this hilltop medieval city. With its huge cathedral sitting atop. Parking on the outskirts was free and you pass through the old medieval gate before being greeted with the cathedral. You’ll find goats on the outskirts of the city walls in little pens on the hillside.
Above the cobbled medieval streets multicoloured umbrellas were hung. A sight that has been seen in other cites before. But still pleasant to walk through.
Leaving Laon and heading north the weather turned, my next stop would be Arras. But it was tricky to figure out where the centre was. A central square was found with almost Dutch or Belgian styling but nothing much to see. Sadly the rain soon came and it was time to retreat to the Eurotunnel and head back to my home in Essex.
6 Countries in 5 days and just over 1500 miles covered but nothing felt rushed.
Driving in Europe is always a joy, you see and do things you wouldn’t do if you’d just flown to a destination.
I’m already looking forward to going back soon and exploring more of Europe.
Only two weeks had passed and I was on my way to Gatwick airport for another weekend in Ukraine, fascinated with my previous visit I drove along the M25 and over the Dartford crossing with a sense of headlining into the unknown. This time I was travelling solo. For this journey I was flying with Ukrainian International Airways. A cheap last minute deal was available. UIA by way were in my opinion far worse that Wizz and other budget airlines. Which surprised me given it is the counties national airline.
The flight didn’t leave Gatwick until around 11:30pm so not landing at Kyiv-Borispol until around 4:30am. I can’t sleep on planes it’s something I struggle to do so this was an all nighter. Arriving at Borispol I was met by a driver from the hotel named Sergai we had a great chat on the way to the hotel about many things. But his favourite subject was Brexit… I’m always up for talking about politics but on this occasion the last thing I wanted to discuss was the finer details of Brexit after being awake for 20+ hours. Finally arriving at the hotel at around 5:30am I hit the pillow and immediately fell asleep!
Not wanting to loose the day I opted for a slightly leisurely start of 10:00 and headed back out into Kyiv. It was an odd sesnsation i’d only left Kyiv 2 weeks prior and I was back again. I decided to head down to indipendence square for a look around and a small beer in the square. I hadn’t actually seen in the day time it’s still impressive but I must say more so at night with the light show and the fountains in full swing.
Once the sun begins to set in that time of year it begins to get quite cold dropping down to 4 or 5 degrees. I opted to head back to the hotel to get my coat as I wanted to go for a walk around the park and garden where The Motherland Monument is situated.
By now it was dark and the park was lit up, I also found the Eternal Flame in the park a memorial to Ukraine’s deceased from military conflict. Just next to the location of the flame I was greeted with a landscape of Kyiv lit up at night. What a sight, this is definitely something to consider if you find yourself here in an evening. The Motherland Statute was just as impressive close up as it was from its view from the river trip I had taken on my last visit.
Satisfied with a day wandering around and a little weary from the previous days travelling I headed back for the night.
The next morning was an early start to go to Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station, the destination was Lviv a city on the west of Ukraine near the Polish border. Despite the fact this was a ‘high-speed service’ the journey time was around 7 hours a chance to catch up on sleep then!
The trains used are modern and clean and surprisingly spacious. I opted for a first-class ticket on this occasion as the entire journey was around £25 the difference between first and standard was about £4 and given the long train journey I figured I’d treat myself! For those thinking of visiting Lviv Ryanair now operate a service from London Stansted with fairly reasonable prices.
My train was at 5 am from Kyiv which mean arriving at Lviv station around midday. The walk from Lviv station to the city centre takes about 15 min, there are tram services but if I’m honest they always looked very busy and a little complicated so I opted to avoid the trams on this occasion.
My hotel on this occasion was the Rius hotel in the city centre the normal pricing for this hotel is around £85 a night but on this occasion, it was free as I used up some British Airways points I had earned on previous adventures. It was a little more luxurious than some of the hotels I’ve previously stayed at.
Having checked into the hotel and dropped off my bag I headed out into the city for the first time. Stopping first at Na Valakh Square, a 16th-century market square in the centre of the city. In the middle of the square is the Gunpowder Tower also constructed in the 16th century used as a defensive position and later on for grain storage. Today the top of the tower has a cafe where you can buy local Lviv coffee.
Next, I moved onto a little cafe just off of the square and had a beer local to Lviv the waiter told me there is a fast-growing craft beer industry in Lviv, it was one of the nicer beers I’d had in Ukraine.
I moved onto another square this time it was Rynok Square with the impressive town hall in the middle for a small fee you can climb to the top of the tower, upon reaching the top of the tower you are greeted with a view of the whole city. For the money and the calories burnt it is definitely worth it. Back downstairs and in each corner of the square, there is a statue of the Greek gods, Neptune, Diana, Amphitrite and Adonis. In 1998 the square was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Saturday nights in Lviv it turned out are very busy, I tried a couple of recommended restaurants to find something to eat, but each place was rammed and told of waits of up to an hour. In the end, I settled for a restaurant that on the outside looked good. When I went in and was shown a table it was nearly empty. I soon found out why. I had a terribly overpriced steak that wasn’t worth the price I paid, it was awful.
I opted to solve my disappointment of dinner with some beers in a local bar, the bar owner was a chatty individual who was convinced I was German. He was a massive Bayern Munich fan and felt the need to tell me all about Bayerns latest signings and movements in the Bundesliga. Still, now that I had become an honorary Bayern Munich fan and an apparent German earned me a free drink and some nuts, silver linings…
The next day I only had the morning before my train back to Kyiv at around midday. I used the time to have a little wander around to take in the city and its architecture. An uneventful train ride back to Kyiv followed then back to my hotel for my final morning in Ukraine.
The next morning I had a little look at an aviation museum near Kyiv-Zhulyany airport. The museum is open-air with an impressive collection of ex-Soviet jet fighters, bombers, helicopters and the ex Ukrainian presidential plane. Also, a large fleet of Russian built Aeroflot planes, little did I know at the time I’d fly Aeroflot to Russia in only a matter of months.
As I flew home from Ukraine back home, I reflected on my Ukrainian adventure. Ukraine is a wonderful country with wonderful people. Take time to visit this place sometime and visit somewhere a little different. I’d return in a heartbeat, hopefully, I can soon!
You’ve already heard about my Chernobyl experience but it’s time now to carry on the Ukrainian adventure. I flew with my friend Sam from London-Luton Airport on a sunny Friday afternoon to Kyiv-Zhuliany airport. We flew via Wizz air since this trip Ryanair now offer a service from London-Stansted as well. As well as the pre-existing Ukranian International Airlines service from London-Gatwick (I’m sure there are many other routes as well).
The flight times were not the most fortunate as we eneded up finally stepping outside of Zhuliany airport around 4am. You do not need to apply for a visa in advance in Ukraine as you receive a standard 90 days on arrival. The currency in Ukraine is the Hryvnia this is a closed currency and is only available in Ukraine. So our first stop was to find a cash machine then to find a taxi to take us to our hotel.
For this trip, we stayed at the Ibis hotel in Kyiv City centre. I’ve already said how much I trust this chain so nothing new there. You always know what you are getting. Finally around 5:30 am we got to sleep.
After a slightly late start to the day we headed out into the city for the first time. This was my first time seeing Cyrillic text in the flesh on signs and placenames. To start with I found it horrendusly disoritenting and confusing. Eventually you begin to figure out a pattern however.
Our hotel was next to the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv which was also next to the aptly named Universytet station. A single ticket on the Kyiv metro is 8 Hryvnia which is around 25 pence in Stirling. The Metro is the easiest and cheapest way to get around Kyiv, I found the buses confusing and complicated. Uber is also present in Kyiv and Ukraine’s own version called Uklon.
We headed immediately for the city centre to Volodymyrska Hill a park overlooking the river front and which also contained a number of Kyivs golden domed orthadox catherdrals. To get to the top of the park we cheated by taking the funicular railway to the top. This once again was 8 Hryvnia.
Once at the stop we saw St. Michael’s Monastery a site comprising of a cathedral, bell tower, refectory & gates, all built in Ukrainian Baroque style. The grounds are impressive and there is no charge to view inside the grounds and the cathedral.
We continued along our walk in the park until we found the Friendship of Nations Arch. This arch in a rainbow type structure was constructed in 1982 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union as well as the 1500th year of Kyiv. Concrete in structure it stands at 50m high with a bronze statue depicting Russian and Ukrainian workers holding up the Soviet Order of the Friendship of Peoples.
This arch is scheduled for demolition due to the mass decommunisation efforts in Ukraine and will be replaced with a monument to the victims of the war in Donbass in 2014.
We walked down from the park to the riverfront to the Parkovyi Bridge a suspension bridge going over the Dnieper River. On the otherside there are beaches which had plenty of sunbathers. For the more extreme among you reading there were bunjee jumping experiances off of the bridge, perhaps anothertime!
The day was slowly drifting by and it was time for lunch. We soon found an area with boats for river trips and while waiting we found a huge waterfront area with many food stalls selling hot dogs, burgers and other grilled meats. Word of warning from experiance here. Don’t eat it. Find a proper resturant.
Boat trips are often a must on these kind of breaks, the cost for this was around 150 Hryvnia which works out at about £4.50. This is in exchange for an hour and a half river trip. It’s a pleasent trip but theres no commentary onboard or anything like that but there is a little kiosk to by a beer, ice cream as well as other snacks.
The boat sailed along the river allowing us to take in many of Kyiv’s sites all the way along to the Motherland Monument before turning around and heading back to the dock.
The evening was drawing nearer and it was time to look for something to eat. We headed towards Independence square, when we got there we found something we really weren’t expecting. A total festival atmosphere was in full swing. Music, Dancers, Performers, Games for all to enjoy. It was quite an experience and a real welcome to Ukraine. We ate at a pizzeria that night it was about the only place we could get into as the whole area was incredibly busy.
Shortly after this, there was a huge commotion as people moved over towards the large fountains in the middle of the square. In a total surprise to us, an incredible sound and light show began with the fountains. With the water shooting as high as some of the buildings in the area. It was a really cool thing to watch and clearly for other tourists and locals alike. Kyiv was beginning to leave an impression on me. That evening I was able to complete a personal objective by buying a Dynamo Kyiv football scarf continuing the tradition of buying a football scarf of the local team. Those who know me well know how many of these things I have now!
The next day was the visit to Chernobyl you can read about that in my previous post.
The day after Chernobyl was another day exploring Kyiv. First stop was the Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum after our previous Chernobyl filled day it was good to see many artefacts and other bits from the distorter. You may have gathered Chernobyl is a subject I find particularly fascinating, along with ex Soviet-era places.
On a side note museums and attractions generally, are incredibly cheap in Ukraine. the museum was about 20 Hryvnia which is about 60 Pence.
We took a walk to Saint Sophias Cathedral after a quick stop for lunch the whole area is impressive again with more gold-topped spires in true Orthodox style. Once again entrance was about 20 Hryvnia. After almost interrupting a wedding we made it to the top of one of the spires and saw a fantastic view of Kyiv. For some reason, photos were not allowed inside the walls of Saint Sophia’s so I have no photos to show you.
Dinner that evening was fast approaching, my friend Sam who I travelled with picked out one of the best restraints I have ever eaten at. Suitably named Beef, Meat & Wine, a hint to what was coming. Our waiter that evening Andrei really looked after us and went all out with recommendations for food and wine, I had wonderful Frois Grois to start with my first ever tasting of Kobi beef for the main course with a fantastic cheesecake for dessert followed by cheese, dessert wines and a very kind complimentary cocktail. We were definately full after this meal!
So far as service and experience go this is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten. If you find yourself in Kyiv then do go and visit, their website is linked here http://beef.kiev.ua/en/, however, this meal wasn’t cheap compared to what we had been paying up to this point. Our total dinner cost for the two of us was about 7500 Hyyvina around £230. Pricy I know but when you consider the high-quality food, wines and the service we received it’s really actually incredible value. It was also Sams 30th birthday so we were celebrating anyway!
The next morning we were doing something a little different we were going shooting. This was another tour arranged through our friends at Chernobyl Tour https://www.chernobyl-tour.com/english/ for $150 each you get the use of 5 guns at a shooting range, we had the use of a Sniper Rifle, an AK47 assault rifle, a Shotgun, Handgun and an 1890’s Lee Enfield rifle. You get a lift to and from the range and a professional instructor guiding you the whole way. It’s a fun way to spend a morning.
After this, we went for a stroll around the city centre. Stopping at Dynamo Kyiv’s stadium which also doubles as an Olympic standard stadium. It’s a huge stadium which has a museum which sadly had been incorrectly marked as open on Google Maps but was infact closed upon arrival, much to my disappointment. We’d have to make do with a walk around the stadium perimeter.
That night for novelty factor we wanted a Chicken Kiev, now as it turns out Chicken Kiev didn’t actually originate in Kyiv but that’s another story. We found the suitably named restaurant Chicken Kyiv and had a Chicken Kiev, in Kyiv… Kievception… Interestingly the Kiev was served on the bone a new experience to me as previously any Chicken Kiev I had had had come from Tesco in a cellophane wrapper. This version was far tastier. Dessert was a Kyiv Cake a traditional cake to Kyiv the cake has layers of meringue with nuts, chocolate, and a buttercream filling. Theses were apparently very popular all over the Soviet Union.
The next day it was time to return home, Kyiv and Ukraine had left an impression on me and I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface. I went to Ukraine to go to Chernobyl but I discovered so much more. The place fascinated me and I wanted to see more.
Less than a week at back at work and back at reality I made one of the most spontaneous decisions I’ve ever made. I booked a flight to return to Kyiv. I was going back to Ukraine less than two weeks after returning. This time travelling solo with other cities in mind…
My latest post is going to be broken into two parts, one on my travels in Ukraine in general from Kyiv to Lviv. This part, however, is about my day in one of the most staggering places I have ever visited – Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred on the 26th of April 1986 when a safety test on reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant failed with devastating consequences not just for the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet Union, but for Europe also as the subsequent radioactive fallout reached as far north as Sweden. The disaster caused 35 deaths to workers and firefighters in the immediate aftermath with a further 11 in later years. An untold number of peoples lives have been affected by the disaster with medical issues and 100,000’s of life uprooted and moved after the exclusion zone was put in place with a total of 96 settlements in Ukraine and 92 in Belarus abandoned as a result.
There are many books and articles on the disaster including a new fantastic series by HBO on Sky Atlantic telling the story of the disaster in full, but the reason for this blog is to write about my day in the Chernobyl exclusion zone 32 years after the night reactor number 4 exploded.
The day started at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station in the heart of Kyiv. I found my tour group then met our guides for the day, Vicky and Alexandra. This tour was booked with Chernobyl Tour www.chernobyl-tour.com and was around $90 per person. If you feel inspired to visit after reading my blog I really recommend going with these guys.
The bus ride from Kyiv to the first exclusion zone checkpoint was around 2 hours. While on the bus we were shown a documentary on the Chernobyl disaster and background on the events after. We arrived soon enough at the first checkpoint at Dytiatky here we had a small break while our guides sorted out the relevant paperwork and documentation checks for us to enter the 30km exclusion zone.
Now inside the exclusion zone, we stopped at our first village, Zalissya. This village had a population of around 3000 people before the disaster. Now abandoned completely and slowly returning to nature. Our guides gave talks on typical life for villages pre-disaster and we were given a little bit of free reign to explore the houses. Possessions still present.
Moving away from Zalissya our next stop was the Duga-1 radar a Soviet military missile defence early warning system. Used from 1976-1989 at the height of the cold war. This is an unusual installation was impressively well hidden given its size. The residents of nearby Pripyat who did notice this beast were encouraged not to ask questions about its purpose. Officially this area was actually marked on the map as a childrens summer camp.
The area today is still under the control of the Ukrainian Army and there was still a relatively heavy military presence at Duga. The Duga structure is huge and mightily impressive, Duga-1 earnt its nickname of the Russian Woodpecker due to its distinct sound when amateur radio operators tuned in, you can hear the woodpecker here.
At Duga we met Tarzan, one of the many stray dogs in the exclusion zone, “Don’t feed, only pet, dog on diet” I was told by a soldier standing by the foot of the radar. My guide Vicky explained that the stray dogs tend to have a poor diet of crisps, biscuits and other snacks and are overfed by visiting tourists.
We made a quick stop next at a Kindergarten in the village of Kopachi. Although interesting this personally was one of the more creepier stops during the day. In the distressed rooms an array of bunk beds, cots and toys were left scattered around. The earth has started to reclaim a lot of the exclusion zone. Lots left as it was in 1986 when the evacuation order was given. It was also the first place we could find some radiation hot spots, Alexandra showed some areas to hold the dosimeters over, within seconds the alarms were going crazy on them. Another surreal experience to add to the morning!
Moving on from Kopachi it was time to see the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant for the first time. The area around the plant had an eerie feel. The new silver arch-shaped new safe containment on display over the top of the remains of reactor number 4.
We were coming up to lunch time and as we’d paid for lunch to be included we were now on our way to the worker’s canteen for something to eat. There are still thousands of workers at the power plant site and this is where they eat. Our lunch was called the atomic lunch, it was all food that helps keep the effects of radiation at bay. For $5 extra it was worth having and tasty, but don’t expect a gourmet lunch!
After lunch we were taken to various sites around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, our guides showed us a small section with a bridge over a river from the nearby cooling pond. From there we fed some rather large catfish that have been happily living in the cooling pond since the accident.
We moved round to the other side of the plant where a memorial stood and at that point, we were informed we were only 200M from reactor number 4, reactor number 4 that exploded on the 26th of April 1986. “It’s only 200M away” I had to keep telling myself. A surreal experience and frankly one thought made me feel a little excited.
Having had a look at the reactor it was time to see the abandoned city of Pripyat. Pripyat was a modern city built only in 1970 with a population of 50,000 before 1986. Built to house the workers of the power plant and their families. On April 27th 1986 one day after the accident the residents were evacuated from the city. They were told only for 3 days and only to bring one bag with them and only essential documents.
The residents or Pripyat never returned to their homes.
We started at the cities football stadium not that you’d know it. All that was left of the stadium was the main grandstand and a little bit of the running track. The main pitch in the middle is now completely overgrown with trees and other shrubberies. A walk around the city center past abandoned tower blocks, many now beginning to collapse due to over 30 years of no maintenance. We visited a supermarket in the center, shopping trolleys still in the aisles and shelves that once contained goods for shoppers.
We soon found probably one of the most famous and recognisable sites in Pripyat, the amusement park. Complete with dodgems, a Ferris wheel and other attractions. The amusement park never actually opened. It was due to open only a matter of days after the accident.
Alexandra one of our guides showed us some more hot spots on the Ferris Wheel, getting some incredibly high readings from Ferris Wheel.
Leaving Pripyat we were taken through the Red Forest, where a large amount of the fallout from the power plant explosion fell. It is still highly irradiated so we were told we could not stop. However, we were told to hold our Dosimeters to the windows to see what would happen. One by one they all began alarming having some of the highest readings we’d seen all day.
Next stop was a little roadside museum containing some of the robotic machinery used to clear the debris from the exploded power plant at the time of the disaster. Debris that was too contaminated and radioactive to move by hand.
Next up we visited the Chernobyl Fire Station. There there is a monument named ‘To those who saved the world’ The Fire Fighters from Chernobyl Fire Station were the first on the scene after the explosion. They didn’t know what dangers they were facing but they faced it anyway. Many of them died and those that didn’t had their lives changed forever. Without their sacrifice who knows what could have happened to the rest of Europe.
After this, it was time to head back to Kyiv. It was a long day inside the Chernobyl Exclusion zone but a memorable one and an emotional one. The disaster claimed the lives of many and changed and disrupted the lives of many more. If you find yourself in Kyiv, or even in Ukraine for that matter make the time to come here and see one of the most amazing places that you can visit on the Earth.
But you can’t visit there…
‘Isn’t it still dangerous’ is the most common question I’m asked regarding my trip to Chernobyl. The short answer is yes… but there’s a little bit more to it than that.
The total average radiation dose received from the day was 0.003 mSv per hour. That’s roughly about the same amount of radiation you’d take in on an hour on a commercial airline. So in that sense, the dose isn’t that high. However, there are huge hotspots still and areas you cannot go. Obviously, tours are carefully planned. We were warned about certain areas in abandoned villages and places not to stand or touch. If you go, respect the area and respect what your guides tell you to do. After all, they’re the experts.
Around February 2019 a bold decision was made by myself and a good travel companion to travel to Russia.
For me, this has been a location particularly fascinating and finally finding a friend with the mutual desire to visit this seemed too good of an opportunity to miss.
The first step was arranging our itinerary followed by the actual physical travel plans themselves.
Saint Petersburg and Moscow were the desired locations to visit (on this occasion anyway). With our flights booked to and from Saint Petersburg with train tickets ordered, our next step was obtaining our Russian Visas and currency. With all of these objectives completed it was now finally time to travel.
We flew out Friday 23rd of April 2019 with Aeroflot from London Gatwick to Pulkovo Airport Saint Petersburg. Being an evening flight and the 2 hour time difference we landed at 22:30 which sadly meant our first evening was spent with a taxi ride from Pulkovo to our hotel in the Centre of Saint Petersburg. Our hotel of choice was, of course, the long trusted by me Ibis Hotels, part of the Accor Hotels chain.
After a Russian beer, it was time for bed, excited at what the prospect of the next day would bring.
Day one – Exploring Saint Petersburg
After a good nights sleep and a slightly confusing breakfast experience, it was time to head out into the city for the first time.
Our hotel was a short 5-minute walk from the hotel to the Ploschad’ Vosstaniya Metro station. A travel card was purchased with 10 single journeys preloaded.
Saint Petersburg’s Metro stations reminded me heavily of Kyiv’s metro stations and brought back fond memories of my time there last year.
Our first stop on the day’s expiration was the Cruiser Aurora a battleship commissioned in 1903, this ship served actively in the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War.
The history of this ship becomes more interesting, being the ship that was used during the October revolution after a blank shot was fired to signal the start of the assault on the Winter Palace.
It was a cool feeling to be standing on the deck of this naval vessel, particularly one that signalled the beginning of the end of the Tsarist era. The lower decks are a museum entry was around 700 Rubles and certainly worth the visit.
Our next stop required a metro ride across the city to the Baltiyskaya Metro station. Why? Well, I’d heard about a museum dedicated to the Russian Railway network (Muzey Zheleznykh Dorog Rossii), bare with me here. For 250 Rubles this was a particularly impressive tour through the history of the Russian Railway network including plenty of Soviet and Russian locomotives and some of the most impressive and largest steam trains I’ve ever seen. If you find yourself at a loose end in Saint Petersburg this is definitely worth a look regardless if you’re a train fan or not.
Next up a trip back to the centre of the city to visit the Winter Palace and Palace Square. The Winter Palace is a beautiful building and an impressive sight that greets you.
The Winter Palace was the home of Russian Emperors from 1732 to 1917. The sheer scale and size of the building is awe inspiring it’s said to contain 1,500 rooms, 1,786 doors and 1,945 windows.
Long gone are the Russian Tsars and these days the Winter Palace is home to the Hermitage museum. An impressive collection of artefacts and many other artwork pieces throughout history.
It also allows you to walk the many and vast rooms inside the winter palace enabling you to admire its beautiful decorations and facades. Finding the throne room and several rooms laced with gold decorations left a lasting impression.
Three attractions down now it was time to prepare for the next step on our Russian adventure, heading to Moskovskiy Vokzal station an impressive site with a wonderful map on the wall of the Russian Railway network.
The objective of this was the next part of our adventure, taking the overnight train to Moscow.
I love night trains, they always bring back fond memories for me as a child travelling on the Motorail to the South of France.
On this occasion, we’d opted to do this properly and paid for a 2 berth 1st class cabin on the Saint Petersburg – Moscow express.
A long train was in front of us at the platform, once we’d found our carriage our passports were checked “bunks 5 and 6” we were told.
In our cabin, we were greeted with a bench seat and a small single seat the bench seat would fold down into the bunk.
Inside the cabin, we were greeted with plates of fruit, chocolate croissants, bread rolls, a chocolate bar each and bottles of water. A small tv is in the cabin also although I couldn’t get it to work.
You receive a small pack each containing soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, some slippers and a small sponge. Each 1st class cabin has a little washbasin and plenty of places to store belongings. For those travelling alone, there are two small safes in the cabin as well to store valuables.
At 11:30 I felt the train begin to move, we were on our way to Moscow! That night I settled into a surprisingly comfortable bed and went to sleep wondering what excitement tomorrow would bring.
Day Two – Moscow
We were awoken around 7:30 the following morning with our attendant knocking on the door, breakfast was served. We’d preordered our meal I’d chosen a cheese and ham omelette (which was more like a quiche), my friend Sam had his first taste of Blini a Russian pancake. Coffee followed after with some apple juice.
We soon pulled into Leningradskiy Railway Station on time at 8:30 I stepped out onto the platform and there I was, in Moscow.
We soon found our way down the platform to the front of an impressive station concourse and soon found the familiar M logo signalling the Moscow Metro.
Moscow’s Metro stations had that beautiful Soviet style of marble walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Next stop was Red Square…
A short walk from the Metro station and there I was standing in the middle of Red Square with the Kremlin and Saint Basils Cathedral in full view. One advantage of our early arrival on the train was that Red Square was almost completely empty, we had the place nearly to ourselves.
After a small wander around we decided to head to an attraction that we’d both picked out. The Museum of Cosmonautics.
I love space travel and particularly the space race so for me, this was going to be a real treat.
Another Metro trip to the VDNKh an impressive exhibition ground opened in 1939.
Interestingly on this particular day, the Museum of Cosmonautics was free entry which was a nice bonus.
Inside there was a fantastic array of Russian spacecraft including Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1. The first spacecraft to carry man into space and a mock-up of the space shuttle Mir.
Honestly, if you find yourself at a loose end in Moscow it’s worth a look!
After the museum, we decided to head back to Red Square, with the objective of visiting the Kremlin grounds and the Armoury, advance warning the queue for tickets is a long one. It was also quite a hot day by this point and the Red Square area was now very busy and bustling with people.
I don’t have any photos of the interior of the Kremlin Armoury as photos were generally not allowed. But it houses some very impressive collections of jewellery, artefacts, armour, Faberge eggs, dresses worn by various princesses and collection of various Tsar’s personal carriages.
After this, we moved on to a walk inside the Kremlin grounds. The whole area is well presented and very smart indeed. The Tsar Cannon and the Tsar Bell are both proudly on display.
The Tsar Bell was the largest bell ever smelted but was sadly dropped when being placed into the tower the resulting drop broke a huge piece out of the bell. The Bell and its subsequent broken piece are on display to see.
We exited the Kremlin grounds back onto Red Square, by this time incredibly busy and almost completely jammed with people.
As time was getting on we decided to head back to Leningradskiy Railway Station to catch the train back to Saint Petersburg. But a perfect photo opportunity presented its self to get a photo of Saint Basils Cathedral, a truly wonderful piece of architecture.
Arriving back at Leningradskiy Railway Station we headed to the platform to be greeted the Sapsan high-speed train. Our overnight train had taken 9 hours the Sapsan now takes passengers along the Saint Petersburg-Moscow route in just over 3 hours in new high-speed trains on purpose-built track.
On this journey we’d opted for Business class travel, this included slightly more comfortable seats and a three-course meal. Another little travel bag greeted us with more slippers a sleep mask and a comb!
The train soon pulled out of Moscow and we were whizzing along the Russian countryside, I love train journeys just watching out the window seeing the world go by.
Dinner soon came along. A Waldorf salad, followed by Chicken with Georgian rice in a tomato sauce. A coffee and a desert soon followed, after a full-on day and a couple of beers I soon found myself drifting off to sleep, the next thing I knew we were back in Saint Petersburg.
Day 3 – Wrapping up Saint Petersburg
Waking up in the familiar surroundings of the Ibis hotel in Saint Petersburg we now had to plan our final day. We had a couple of key objectives, the Faberge Egg museum and a river trip.
A short 25-minute walk from the hotel found us at the Faberge egg museum cousin an impressive collection of these ornate wonders. Most of these were given to the various Tsar’s as gifts and the value of these treasures are estimated in the millions.
A short walk down the road from the museum was the Savior of the Spilled Blood cathedral another impressive cathedral similar in design to Saint Basil’s and just as impressive.
A simple pleasure followed next that I always enjoy on any trip is a boat trip. This particular one was a trip around Saint Petersburg’s canals seeing the sights, the tour its self was in Russian so sadly I couldn’t understand what was being pointed out. But it was very pleasant all the same!
We were very fortunate to learn that my friend Sam who I was travelling with had friends based in Saint Petersburg so we had extra company at dinner that night. Dinner at a secret restaurant and some bar hopping later we finished off a wonderful evening with new friends with a shot of Russian vodka.
Thank you to Leo and Dora for your incredible hospitality!
Day Four – Home and summary
Our taxi was to pick us up at 11:30 to take us back to Pulkovo so only time for some last minute souvenir shopping and a last brief look at Saint Petersburg before heading back to the airport.
Russia is a truly wonderful place, I enjoyed every second and would encourage anyone else to visit.
If you do come, try and learn some Russian phrases the locals seem to appreciate it more if you at least make an effort. English is not widely spoken and it can be rare to find other English speakers, you are very much in the minority.
Buy a Russian SIM card, I bought one for my phone as my network provider didn’t provide roaming in Russia. for about £10 worth of credit on a pay and go sim I had as much data as I would ever need and allowed me to update my Instagram story, but more importantly, use Google Maps and Google Translate.
But most importantly see Russia see this wonderful country. I’d be back in a heartbeat… in-fact I’m already in the early stages of mapping out a trip on the Trans Siberian Railway…