Of all the gin joints, in all the world #ileftmyheartin Cairo

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

– Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

The dingy, overcrowded and dark hotel bar at the Havana Hotel in Cairo is probably not the first choice of bar to meet up with a friend. Long and rectangular with just enough room between the lounges and seats to squeeze past, during a week in October 2009 it became my regular haunt.

The not so glamourous entrance to the Hotel Havana

The not so glamourous entrance to the Hotel Havana

With time off between the summer and winter seasons in Europe, but not enough to do things independently I decided to jump on board an overland truck from Cairo to Nairobi. First things first however, visas and welcome letters had to be arranged. It was at the Australian Embassy waiting to get a letter confirming my Australian passport was real for Sudan that I met Chris. After reading an inch thick travel advice, and followed by the question, “So you still want to go to Sudan?” we had our government stamped confirmation letters and we were on our way.

Over the next few days Chris and I spent the days rummaging through Cairo’s souks, hopping between the Ethiopian Embassy and generally exploring Cairo. Throughout we met several other travellers who would be accompanying us on our adventure south. Every night we would return to the Hotel Havana, where most people were staying before the trip, to have a few beers, catch up and get to know each other.

Chris had spent some time in Dahab before arriving in Cairo to sort visas. During his time there he had met a British girl who would be joining our trip. As Chris put it, “Natalie is a really cool chick”. As the week progressed the odd assortment of intrepid adventures travelling with us filtered into the hotel, but no Natalie.

Natalie relaxing in Dahab before we met

Natalie relaxing in Dahab before we met

One evening, several days before the trip, the band of merry adventurers had assembled in the bar. A thick smoke wafted up towards the ceiling from the various shisha pipes scattered throughout the bar and the heavy scent of apple tea hung in the air. In the background Arabic dance music rang out from an old CD player behind the counter and the low drum of hushed conversation would be broken by raucous laughter from one group to the next.

The rusty old metal detector at the front door would occasionally beep as a new guest entered but the fully armed security guard would only ever give a disinterested glance. I think the security was more there to make us feel safer but I had a feeling if something did happen they would be the first ones out the door!

It was at that point my life changed forever.

Against this backdrop of curling shisha smoke and apple tea the door from the hotel opened. A stream of bright iridescent light streamed into the bar followed by a ghostly silhouette. As the door creaked closed the beaming smiled Natalie replaced the silhouette. “That’s Natalie, the chick I met in Dahab”, Chris exclaimed. I don’t know how and I don’t know why but the moment I saw Natalie I knew I was going to marry her! Little did we both know, it was on that summery night in the smoke hazed hotel bar in Cairo The Smart Way Round was born.

It must have been love...

It must have been love…

That was six years ago. Our adventures have taken us all across the world, five continents and numerous countries. November sees the one-year anniversary of The Smart Way Round but the adventure started years ago. That’s the thing about travel, you never know who you are going to meet. I am always reminded of a comment a guest made on one of my first ever trips around Europe, “You make friends for a reason, a season or a lifetime”. Well in Cairo in 2009 it was definitely the latter and it is the city #ileftmyheartin.

– Dean

The Smart Way Round was born!

The Smart Way Round was born!

Congratulations to our competition winners

Thank you for everyone who took the time to read our latest post regarding great walks in Europe.

Also a huge thank you to those of you who took the time to leave a comment and share their favourite walks.

It is with great pleasure that we can announce our competition winners are:







We will be in contact over the next day with details on how we can help you claim your free download of a city walking tour of your choice courtesy of our friends as http://www.gpsmycity.com.

In the meantime check out the list of cities available and start thinking about which one you would like to receive the promotional code for.

Thanks once again for your contributions, and happy exploring!




Essential Guide to German Christmas Market Food

It’s the most wonderful time of the year and nobody does Christmas in Europe like the Germanic countries.

While the German and Austrian Christmas markets are famed for their wooden decorations and glass baubles, the Christmas markets are also time to overindulge in seasonal Christmas food and drink. If you are visiting the Christmas Markets this December, make sure you don’t leave without trying these…


A German Christmas markets visit is not complete until you have huddled under a gas burner, nestled in close with friends, nursing a steaming hot mug of Glühwein (mulled wine). A mixture of wine, fruits and spices, Glühwein is supposed to help cut through the effects of the cold and give you a nice glow on the inside. Most markets have specialised and specific mugs for their Glühwein for which you pay a deposit (between 2.50/3.00€). When you have finished your wine you can either return your mug and receive your deposit back, or you can keep the mug as a cheap souvenir. Our tip; take your used mug back and get a clean one if you are going to keep it! You can also upgrade or turbo boost your Glühwein by adding a shot of schnapps, brandy, amaretto or a multitude of other liqueurs into it. Prost!


Enjoying a mug with my Dad in Cologne


Ok, so you can try bratwurst anytime you visit Germany and Austria, however if one hand is occupied with Glühwein then your spare hand can easy handle a sausage! You will find all different varieties, from your stock standard bratwurst, to smoked sausage and our personal favourite found in Austria, käsekrainer. A pork sausage with melted cheese running through the middle. This bad boy is a heart attack in a hot dog roll, but be warned, it will repeat on you all day. What better way to explore the Christmas Markets than with a meal that keeps on giving.


And this is a small one!


Grated potato made into a pancake which is fried and covered in apple sauce. Only Germany could make something relatively healthy unhealthy!


Deep fried potato cakes, yum!

Chocolate Coated Fruit sticks.

Another Christmas treat, skewers of various fruits such as cherries, strawberries, banana and mandarins dipped in chocolate. We even managed to find fruit dipped in chocolate and covers in crushed Oreo biscuits – however for copyright purposes they were not called Oreo!


Does Christmas food get any better than chocolate covered fruit?


Traditional gingerbread comes in all shapes and sizes at Christmas time from heart shapes, blocks and even Santa inspired designs. For those with alergies it is also possible to hunt down gluten free lebkuchen.


Traditional Lebkuchen stall in the Vienna Christmas Markets

Kaiser Schmarrn

A form of rather heavy and gluggy pieces of pancake, sometimes mixed with raisens and accompanied by fruit sauce, sugar or our favourite, vanilla sauce!


Kaiserschmarren will stick to your insides and insulate you against the cold

Oh and did we mention Glühwein?!

Merry Christmas everyone


Museum Showdown: Ferrari vs Lamborghini

I build sports cars, you build tractors. You should stick to building tractors!” 

– Enzo Ferrari to Ferruccio Lamborghini


They are two of the most desired car brands in the world. Both brands have armies of loyal fans, make jaws drop as they drive by and have a rivalry dating back to the 1960’s when Ferruccio Lamborghini suggested to Enzo Ferrari that his cars were good, but could be better!

For those of us who are not multi millionaire’s (and we assume that is most people who read our blog) the closest we will ever get to owning one of these monsters of engineering is visiting the museums. So, like on the track which company’s museum out performs the other? Well in recent times we have been lucky enough to visit both, and one brand is certainly the first past the finishing line!

The Ferrari Museum is everything you would imagine from a super car manufacturer. Big, bold and brash the pristine white interior of the museum is tempered by the racing red of the various makes and models throughout Ferrari’s history. Immaculately manicured staff in red jumpsuits parade through the gift shops and around the museum almost putting the cars to shame.

A chance to get up close and personal

A chance to get up close and personal

The museum also showcases the rich Formula 1 history with the Hall of Champions, a room dedicated to the world champion winning cars and a wall of trophies amassed by Ferrari over the years. A gift shop almost as large as the museum sells just about anything you could slap a Ferraro logo on, shirts, caps, even LEGO sets and recreated parts of a car all waiting for the fans to snap up.

Outside is your chance to drive one of these beasts. A ten minute drive will cost you around 70€ all the way up to 700€ for two hours! With a range of cars to choose from you can put into practice what you learnt in the museum. Ferrari also now offer tours of their test track and around the production facilities (you don’t get to go inside any buildings and photos are forbidden).

Fancy a spin?

Fancy a spin?

Without a doubt, Ferrari knows how to put on a show and cater to what their fans want.The museum is excellent, exhibitions well thought out and the Formula 1 area is a definite must for fans.

Natalie in the Hall of Champions

Natalie in the Hall of Champions

So how does their arch rival Lamborghini match up?

No where near as flashy as Ferrari

No where near as flashy as Ferrari

From the moment you arrive at the Sant’agata Bolognese factory it is a totally different feel. The building is dark and dank, no flashy flags, bright signs or over the top advertising like in Maranello. The museum is also incredibly small. Split over several floors the museum can easily be covered in about 45 minutes, even for die-hard fans. The museum showcases all Lamborghini’s major motoring achievements including a Lamborghini Police Diablo, allegedly once owned by a Mafia boss and turned into a Police car to show that the Police were not scared of them, (the Police crashed the second one they confiscated).

The Lamborghini Patrol Car, the Police crashed the other one!

The Lamborghini Patrol Car, the Police crashed the other one!

The museum feels more like someones private collection is on show rather than the flag-ship of one of the world’s premier super car manufacturers. Lamborghini does trump Ferrari in one major area though, their incredible factory tour.

This 45 minute tour takes you onto the production floor as you watch man and machine hand craft each individual car. From ladies stitching the leather seats and steering wheels to the computers perfectly aligning each of the 15,000€ ceramic disc brakes (each worth s much as a Toyota Yaris our guide told us) the factory tour is incredible. The highlight is without doubt at the end when you watch a technician start up each car for the first time. The grumble then roar of the engine not only sends shivers down the necks of the visitors, but every engineer working in the factory looks up, a knowing smile crossing their lips as they hear their newest baby roar to life! The lack-luster museum and expensive entrance costs are worth it just for this moment.

Lamborghini has most makes and models on show in their much smaller museum

Lamborghini has most makes and models on show in their much smaller museum

While the Lamborghini Museum lacks the flair of Ferrari there is still something appealing about it. You almost feel that the museum is an after thought, the real purpose of everyone being there is that moment that car is switched on for the very first time. That being said, in the museum showdown between two of Italy’s premier brands there can be only one winner.

It would be fair to say for the everyday traveller, the Prancing Horse has more to offer than the Raging Bull, but the factory tours make for a closer contest than expected. In today’s challenge, the Ferrari Museum takes the podium with Lamborghini second!

– Dean

First past the post...

First past the post…

Stepping Back in Time: Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber

One of the most beautiful parts of Bavaria is the Romantische Strasse or the Romantic Road. Formed in 1957 to promote tourism the road links some of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany and stretches from Würzburg to Füssen a distance of over 300 km.

The jewel on the crown of the Romantic Road is without a doubt Rothenburg. It is also the most visited but it is easy to see why! Cobble stoned streets wind past bright pastel coloured houses. Vines and creepers wind their way up, through, over and around the brick work and the whole historic center is surrounded by the enormous medieval city walls.

The Roeder Tor, one of the many towers scattered throughout Rothenburg

The Roeder Tor, one of the many towers scattered throughout Rothenburg

Walking through the streets of Rothenburg feels like walking through a fairy tale or perhaps a movie set, it almost doesn’t feel real. Little wonder why people love this town. In fact Walt Disney loved it so much Geppetto’s village in Pinocchio is a cartoon recreation of Rothenburg .

The most photographed scene in the entire city

The most photographed scene in the entire city

Day trippers from Nürnberg and Frankfurt pour into the town and come 10:30 in the morning in good medieval fashion you are battling with visitors from around the world for the best photo spots, seats at cafés or Christmas decorations (something Rothenburg is famous for). Beware the coach loads of tourists pouring into the Kathe Wolfhart Christmas Museum, you have been warned!

Christmas everyday with loads of stores selling wooden Christmas decorations

Christmas everyday with loads of stores selling wooden Christmas decorations

Our best bit of advice? Stay over night, by 16:30 most day trippers have cleared out and you have these dream like streets and alleyways to yourself.

As the days get later the day trippers clear out leaving you alone in the city

As the sun sets the colours really come alive

Rothenburg is a photographers dream, a great destination for families with lots to amuse children and a romantic little getaway for couples. Put simply Rothenburg has it all and should be a real must on any visit to Germany.

Get lost in the winding medieval laneways

Get lost in the winding medieval laneways

While the city has a colourful history, the most famous episode occurred during the 30 Years War in e 1600’s. General Tilly of the Catholic armies requested that Rothenburg accommodate him and his estimated 20,000 troops over winter. After refusing to do so, the town was besieged and was only taken after one unfortunate local lit a torch inside  the Powder Tower, and…. Kaboom! The walls were breached.

As the story goes Tilly was so impressed by the citizens bravery he promised to spare the town if the Lord Mayor could drink a three and a half litre flagon of wine in one go! The Lord Mayor met the challenge, passed out and saved the town! In reality the women and children of Rothenburg threw themselves at the mercy of Tilly and paid him handsomely to spare them! However the story stuck and every hour from eleven in the morning til eight in the evening this encounter is relived in the small glockenspiel on the Market Square!

Tilly's drinking challenge re enacted every day as part of the glockenspiel

Tilly’s drinking challenge re enacted every day as part of the glockenspiel

The town

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Das Schnitzel Kaiser

Walk into just about any restaurant, pub, or beer hall in Germanic Europe and there is sure to be one staple on the menu, the schnitzel. In fact the schnitzel and its various incarnations can be found all around the world. Veal, pork, chicken, turkey even fish and vegetables can all be given the schnitzel treatment.

In Australia it takes the form of the mighty chicken parmigana, a breaded chicken fillet, covered in Parma ham, tomato sauce and melted cheese. In the USA there is a hotdog chain called Wiener Schnitzel, but for the real deal or as I like to call it,  “Das Schnitzel Kaiser” or ‘The Schnitzel Emperor’ we have to head to the source where it all began – the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Now before we dive in and devour our schnitzel it is worth mentioning there is some controversy over the schnitzel’s origin. Most agree that the schnitzel recipe was bought to Vienna by Austrian General Joseph Graf Radetzky, a man more famous for the musical piece composed bearing his name by Johan Strauss Senior than any military victory he ever achieved. While down in Milan he discovered the Cotolleta alla Milanese and upon his return to Vienna the Emperor Franz Joseph, asked for the recipe.

Another story believes it originates from the Byzantine Empire, where in the 800’s Emperor Basilieios insisted on eating meat covered in sheets of gold! As you can imagine this practice was frightfully expensive so the sheets of gold were replaced with the golden coating of breadcrumbs. Regardless of the origins, Vienna is where one must head for the perfect Wiener schnitzel.

Wiener Schnitzel is the national dish of Austria, and the term Wiener schnitzel is rigidly protected. To call your schnitzel a Wiener schnitzel it must be veal, any other meat and you may refer to it as the Wiener Style, the Wiener Art or the Wiener Escalope, but not, repeat not a Wiener schnitzel.

This way to schnitzel heaven

This way to schnitzel heaven

Just like the Emperors of old, there is one Vienna institution that towers above all others in the culinary world of the schnitzel, a restaurant called the Figlmüller. In this small little restaurant nestled in the back alleys of St Stephens Cathedral, Figlmüller has been dishing out world-renowned schnitzels since 1905. So popular has it become that literally just around the corner a second restaurant was opened in the early 2000’s and every night people hungrily wait in line to try this enormous piece of history.

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Painstaking attention to detail and schnitzel pride come to the fore to feed the starving masses a schnitzel that is the size of a pizza. Every cut of meat in hammered out by hand with a mallet until it is wafer thin and roughly 30cm in diameter. It is then shallow fried in three different pans until a golden colour. So particular are the chefs at Figlmüller only one type of bread roll is used to supply the breadcrumbs. It is served, hanging off the plate with a slice of lemon and that’s it! If you have room the traditional accompaniment is either a small green salad or a side dish of delicious Germanic potato salad, but again only if you have room.

A German friend once told me there are two ways to tell if you have the perfect schnitzel. Firstly, when you cut into the schnitzel there should be a small air pocket between the breadcrumbs and the meat, and secondly believe it or not, is to place a napkin on your schnitzel and then sit on it! That’s right, if you sit on your schnitzel and no oil soaks through the napkin you have the perfect meal. If you do decide to test this theory out on your next visit to Vienna, don’t blame us if you are asked to leave!

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

Whether you get oil on your trousers or not, Figlmüller regularly wins awards for it’s schnitzels, and the huge lines every night come rain or shine to try Austria’s National dish can’t be wrong. Figlmüller truly is ‘Das Schnitzel Kaiser’.

– Dean

Vodka, the Military and News Crews – Life on the Trans-Siberian Railway

All aboard the famous Russia '2' Train

All aboard the famous Russia “2” Train


Vladivostok 13:50, the sign popped up on the check in board at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station followed by the platform number. The moment had arrived, this was the major part of this trip, the whole journey had been planned around catching the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, our home for the next 74 hours.

About to board our carraige

About to board our carraige

The journey from Moscow to Vladivostok covers an impressive 9289km in roughly six full days. Our journey however, covered only 7858km to Beijing and if done non-stop takes roughly the same length of time.  Most people, locals and tourists alike will break up that journey or only travel a small section of the line. Our first section, Moscow to Irkutsk, covered just over half the total distance and this was our longest section on the train.

There was an air of excitement on platform number two as everybody started to pile onto the train.  Luggage, boxes, goods and supplies all being loaded on. The Trans-Siberian is not a tourist train, it is a living, breathing important transport hub linking one side of the country to the other and a vital, and cost effective mode of transport for many locals.  As we would later learn it is a service that they are immensely proud of.

Waiting at each wagon door was the ‘Provodnitsa’ or cabin attendant. They work in a team of two and ride the train back and forth for a month before getting time off. She checked our tickets, showed us to our cabin, handed us our linen and gave us a rundown of how to use the bathroom, all in Russian of course so we understood perfectly!! She also ensured the Samovar (hot water urn) was always full and had snacks and supplies to buy and generally ruled the roost.  Ours even had a pet dog that twice escaped making a beeline for our cabin and food bag (and was pulled away with Natalie chasing to stroke it!)

There was almost like a party type atmosphere on the train that first afternoon, not just because of our excitement but also from many of the locals. The main reason we wanted to catch the train was for the chance to mix and interact with the locals, meet new people and we certainly met a number of characters.

As the train pulled out of the station and meandered through the outer suburbs of Moscow, we found that we had the cabin to ourselves for the first stretch. We explored the train, settled in (took over the cabin!) and watched the city melt away to the snow covered Russian countryside. This idyllic picture was interrupted by the singing and shouting coming from the cabin next door. It was not too long until we met the culprits and had our first social experience on the train.

Sergei, his friend Petr, and who we assumed to be one of their wives or girlfriends but never did get her name burst into our cabin when they saw the door open. Sergei began chatting to us (in Russian), asking here we were from and where we were going. There was lots of giggling and laughing, apologies for his poor English and our poor Russian. Eventually his friends pulled him away, only for him to come crashing in minutes later to continue the conversation.

His friend Petr also not wanting to miss out would appear in the doorway and yell out the only thing in English he could say, ‘My name a Petr’, sounding exactly like Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Borat. He would then produce a three quarter empty bottle of vodka to which Sergei would quickly push back, tell him to hide it and continue the conversation. We were obviously causing a bit of a commotion as there were several walk-bys from the Provodnitsa giving us un-approving glares resulting in the girlfriend/wife dragging the boys back to their cabin.

This again, was only short lived. Sergei now entered bearing gifts and we had our first experience of Russian generosity, something you hear so much about from people who have ridden the train. He gave us some small sticks of a local chocolate, (and every time Petr arrived and attempted to add to the gifts with the vodka he was quickly shooed away!), and with help from his girlfriend/wife said to us ‘Welcome to Russia forever’, he then ran out the room. Sergei quickly returned this time with the Provodnitsa in tow and presented us with two cups of tea and a block of chocolate, followed again by a ‘Welcome to Russia forever!’ (Petr still reciting ‘My name a Petr’ in the background)!  With that they were gone, they were getting off at the next stop and had to drunkenly prepare their things.

We barely had time to digest our first train experience before there was a knock on the door followed by ‘Are you guys tourists?’ spoken in perfect English. The voice was owned by Jean-Francois Belanger, the Moscow correspondent for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and his local cameraman Alexi. He was doing a number of short documentaries about Russia for the lead up to the Sochi Winter Olympics and one was about the train, the people who worked on it and the people who rode on it. He asked if they could film a little of what we were doing and ask us a few questions about why we were travelling on the train. Our budding television careers had begun!

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

As luck would have it the train arrived into Nizhny Novgorod and our cabin quickly filled up, Alexi,(yes another one), a young guy who spoke a little English who left us first thing the next morning and a lady who kept to herself and left us the middle of the next day. We spent some time talking to Jean-Francois who was a very interesting guy and then settled in for our first night on the train. Oh did I forget to mention we had polished off a third of a bottle of vodka as well?  Somehow it tasted better than ever…

The following day the train was incredibly quiet. It was as if the entire train was sleeping off a vodka fuelled hangover, or perhaps the realisation of how long the journey actually is had set in. The landscape slowly opened up as we crossed the Ural Mountains and left the continent of Europe behind and with the cabin to ourselves we both had time to contemplate what the train ride meant to us. Writing our diaries, listening to the iPod, a number of cup noodle runs and all the while mentally checking off each kilometre, how long to the next station and a chance to jump off the train into the chilly Siberian air and stretch our legs.

After an hour of playing the card game UNO and working our way through another third of a bottle of vodka we were contemplating what to do when Jean-Francois knocked on the door and invited us down to the dining carriage for a beer. How could we say no?

Dating back to the late 70’s the dining carriage is the place to meet people. There was Jean-Francois, Alexi his camera man, Yelena their ‘fixer’, Michael, an American guy from Oregon we had met the day before, and a number of young Russian military guys. By the time we had arrived the party had well and truly begun.

The army boys were continuously toasting and downing shots of vodka, while we decided to play it safe and stick to beers. One of the young locals, Vladimir was heading home after completing his military service, and for him it was time to celebrate.

Natalie and Vladimir getting 'Gangsta', though Natalie didn't know what that meant!

Natalie and Vladimir getting ‘Gangsta’, though Natalie didn’t know what that meant!

Vladimir was only 20 years old and had served his one year compulsory military service in the dog squad detecting landmines. His English was very good and was eager to practice it with us as well as teaching us a few Russian words, none of which are printable here! A couple of beers later for us and many more vodkas for the army guys, they finally excused themselves and retired to bed. As they did a voice piped up, ‘I hear you speaking English, may I join you?’

Sergei, (yes another one) now joined us, and true to the amazing Russian hospitality more beers arrived without us knowing how to say we had had enough. Armed with a gravelly voice that belonged in an action movie, and a face a bit like Sylvester Stallone, Sergei worked in the oil and gas fields in the north of Russia, one month on, one month off and was heading home for some much needed rest. His English was incredible and was another great person to chat to. We finally made it back to our cabin knowing we had an early start the next morning as the train was making one of its only stops of the day early and we wanted to get some fresh air.

With another Sergei

With another Sergei, who do you think he was more interested in?

The alarm went off at 6:30am and it definitely felt early – we are not sure if that was the beers of the third time zone change in as many days!  The train came to a creaking stop at the town of Barabinsk and we had 30 minutes to jump off and explore, do some exercise and hunt down some provisions. Jean-Francois and Alexi wanted to shoot some footage of us sourcing out supplies from some of the local ladies on the train platforms and we bought some interesting cabbage filled pastries and caviar bread. It would be fair to say the caviar bread was not really a hit, but it was great to support the local economy. Things could have been worse, we could have bought the smoked fish hanging off wire clothes hangers from another lady!

With one of the local ladies selling goods on the platforms

With one of the local ladies selling goods on the platforms

We retired to the dining car for a tea and a last chat with Jean-Francois and Alexi before returning to our cabin to watch the Siberian flatlands stretch out before us. We arrived into Siberia’s capital, the city of Novosibirsk, where we said farewell to Jean-Francois and Alexi, took a couple of photos of a WWII memorial dedicated to all the Siberians who left this train station for the war, before reboarding the train to continue our journey.

The series of trains known collectively as the Trans-Siberian Railway have played an important part in Russia’s history, particularly during WWII and Soviet times, a show of strength and engineering know-how. Many stations have either a memorial to commemorate locals heading off to war or an old steam locomotive on a pedestal to celebrate the train line’s construction linking that city to the larger network.

That’s the amazing thing about the Trans-Siberian, it does not matter how small a village is, how remote or isolated it may appear to be, one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements means somehow, nearly every Russian is connected to it. However, many of these stops also have darker history, either being used to transfer exiles to the infamous Gulags (such as in the town of Perm), or to relocate those ‘unwanted’ members of society, such as the Polish Jews deported to Zina.

It was the final day of our journey on the train that this all dawned on me. The Trans-Siberian has played such a vital role throughout Russian history, but it also gives you a glimpse into all aspects of Russian society. From our vodka swilling friend Sergei to Vladimir the young man returning home after his military service, this was why we wanted to ride the train.  Most people only ever visit Moscow or St Petersburg, but to get a better understanding of Russia what better way to do it than to take one of the world’s most iconic overland journeys?

Now having completed part of the journey it feels kind of weird to call to hear the reverence people use when speaking of the Trans-Siberian. The journey has developed a mystic over the years outside of Russia, and we kind of got the feeling many of the locals were amused by the ‘tourists’ catching the train. It has been there for over a hundred years, while incredibly proud of it, it was merely a simple way to get locals from A to B.

That may be the case for the locals, but for us that mystic still exists. It doesn’t matter if you ride non-stop the whole six days to Vladivostok or break up your journey along the way, the Trans-Siberian will change the way you think of Russia, and is an experience you will never forget.

– Dean

With our train

With our train

From Russia With Love

I first came to Russia eleven years ago. Since then I have been lucky enough to return on several occasions with work. When the initial planning of this adventure began the inevitable question and discussion arose between us and several friends who had visited Russia as well. Which city do you prefer, St Petersburg or Moscow?

Since I first visited Russia this had always been a pretty simple question for me, the answer was Moscow, without a shadow of a doubt. However, on this visit, the answer is not so clear cut. A lot of water has passed under the Neva and Volga rivers since I was last here, and a lot has changed.

It would be fair to say that St Petersburg wowed Natalie. The architecture is stunning, from the St Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilt Blood and all culminating at the Palace square with the Winter Palace, it is obvious the city was built with a plan in mind rather than built generation upon generation like so many cities around Europe.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Every building was once a palace built for another noble family wanting to be as close the Czars as possible. Every street, every corner, there is another amazing building waiting to wow you. There are so many similarities with other Central and Eastern European cities yet also so many differences.

According to the current edition of the Lonely Planet Trans Siberian guide book, the city is looking the best it ever has, and to be honest I have to agree. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city was. You struggled to find even a cigarette butt on the ground which is incredible in itself considering how many people still smoke over here. The metro is spotless so are all the streets, also quite incredible considering the lack of rubbish bins everywhere.

The next thing I noticed that had changed so much was the amount of ‘Latin’ signs everywhere. Cyrillic can be tricky at the best of times, (I clearly remember taking one of my tour groups in completely the opposite direction to the one I wanted to go in on the Moscow Metro one day because I had misread the direction I wanted!), but now the Metro stops are all labelled in Latin, and even some announcements are made in English. The difficulties that once existed for non-Russian speakers seem to have dissolved away, in fact in some sense St Petersburg felt very European.  Perhaps that is why for so many people who visit Russia, St Petersburg is their favourite city.  It is not only beautiful, but it feels familiar and you are no longer too far out of your comfort zone.

Maybe that is why I always preferred Moscow.

Today we caught the fast train or Sapan train from St Petersburg to Moscow, and there were almost more English announcements than Russian, and all the messages on the carriage electronic info boards were in Latin and not Cyrillic, another sign of the times.

Moscow couldn’t be more different than St Petersburg. As the train rolls in you see row after row of former communist apartment blocks, many desperately in need of some love and attention. Arriving into Leningradsky Station those differences become more apparent. That dull grey architecture hits you as you exit from the station, the vibe feels different as well. Moscow definitely has that big city feel and its citizens that big city mentality, but what else would you expect from a city with a population of eleven and a half million?

However, while St Petersburg has all the palaces and the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums), Moscow has the Kremlin and Red Square and for me this is why Moscow wins. The Kremlin/Red Square area is quite simply, breathtaking.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

I think my fascination with Red Square comes from growing up in the days when the Cold War was petering out. My main memories and all I ever remembered of Russia, were the military parades on May Day that were beamed on TV all over the world. The troops marching, the tanks, missiles, here was the Soviet Union in all its military glory. All the history in that square – the powerful figures who have graced the steps and are buried in the walls of the Kremlin, not to mention the preserved figure of Lenin (if it’s still really him).

Moscow appeals to the history nerd in me, and as depressing as it looks, I also love the former communist architecture and Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’.

I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of the sights around Moscow over the next few days before we board the Trans-Siberian, and as much as I loved St Petersburg, I think Moscow will always be my favourite, but the gap is getting smaller! This of course will lead to many discussions between the two of us and with our friends on our return, but I guess that’s the beauty of travelling, different things appeal to different people, maybe I’m just a communist at heart…..

Do you prefer one city over the other? If so leave a comment below and let us know your preference.

–          Dean