Water jets, parks, physics labs…

Geneva has them all and more. I’m going to rush through everything here as I don’t have much more time to add to the blog before I have to set off. A shame as there’s so much to tell! There are a few videos on my YouTube "MoshTour" player so go to my default channel to enjoy them all.

Delphine flew up from Nice on the Saturday and together we toured the city centre and surrounds. One of the major sights is the water jet in the "harbour". This thing fires water into the air at around 200kph and has been running for well over 100 years. Impressive stuff. Also around the lake, you can hire a myriad of different boats or sit on an artificial beach. The botanical gardens are rather nice with some animals in one corner, fish ponds, art displays, greenhouses and the like. On the way up there from the city is the History of Science museum which was great aside from the lack of signs in English. OK, so I’m in a French-speaking country, but it’s quite annoying when around 25% of the exhibits are marked in English and the rest aren’t. It’s also mainly a shame as it’s such a good place to visit with tons of things to see. There are other gardens on the south (or "old city") side of the lake which are also worth a visit. More like a park than a garden, really, but relaxing and with some lovely flower displays with views over the lake that the Botanical Gardens don’t have. Getting around Geneva is moderately cheap with 1-hour and all-day passes available across the bus, tram and trolley networks. Watch out for the ticket machines, though – they don’t give change. If you over pay for a ticket, you can save the little bit of paper (it has how much you overpaid printed on it) and get the money back from an office. Apparently. I never found one. An alternative is the free bike service. There are at least four "depots" where you can pick up a bike for a 20 Franc deposit and a copy of your ID. For four hours, the bike is free and can be returned to any of the drop-off points. After that, it starts at 1 Franc per hour, so still remarkably cheap. It’s even cheaper when you hire three and return them at different times and they give you the deposit back twice over… But, the coolest thing is that Geneva is home to the main offices of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. As well as being the headquarters for the largest nuclear accelerator on the planet (a 27-kilometre ring situated 100m underground and crossing into France for a fair part of that), it’s where Tim Berners-Lee drafted and tested the WWW. In fact, I’ve seen the first ever Web server, encased in glass in the Microcosm exhibition. And I am sad enough to admit that I was awestruck by a fairly crappy old PC. We went to CERN three times. The first on the Saturday as there is a free demonstration / lecture at 3pm once a week where a mad professor-like guy does stupid things with liquid nitrogen (like making ice cream which is scrummy). We didn’t get time to finish our walk around the Microcosm museum, so we went back on the Monday to finish it off. There is also a 3-hour daily tour around the facility, but it’s a different language each day and all the tours are booked up for 10 months in advance. We settled for buying geeky t-shirts and playing cards instead. That is, until Delphine invited a friend of hers over for fondue at it turned out over conversation that he works at CERN! More to the point, he could take visitors around… Not in the same capacity as the official tours, as he has to fit it around work, but all the same we leapt at the chance. Thomas was a great guide. We started off with lunch in the canteen (steak and beer!) before he took us to see the CMS Project, part of the enormous LHC ring. This thing is phenomenal, made up of parts weighing upwards of 800 tons each. These are all assembled and tested on the ground and then lowered through a tube into a chamber 100m down – the tube is barely 10cm wider than the parts themselves, so it’s precision work just getting the parts assembled underground. Our little trip was barely an hour, but definitely well worth the bus ride out (and Delphine almost missing her plane home). Just to feel the scale of the thing is something that can’t be achieved without standing right next to it. Well, as I said, Delphine flew back to Nice and I caught up with all this stuff while Daisy, my kind host, was out for the evening. The dogs kept me company as I watched us lose to Germany (on BBC1… in Switzerland!) and I finish typing this at 4am when I should be in bed! I think tomorrow will be a fairly short walk.

Castles, castles and more castles

The hostel I was at did a good deal on a day-trip which would save me quite a bit of time and some money. Rather than getting the bus / train / fire-breathing horse-drawn carriage to Rasov and Bran, then going to Sinaia on the way to Bucharest I could do all three in one day for the very reasonable price of 65 RON including a guide. Smart stuff.

So up I got at a reasonable hour and joined my little group for the drive. We started at Sinaia, which was usually the end of the trip. The driver was new, Sinaia the furthest, and our guide wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the castle there as it’s also the one which closes the earliest!

Peles (the “s” should have a cedilla underneath, but I don’t believe there’s an HTML code for it) Castle is more like a palace, and is another reason our tour guide usually prefers to save it for last. The turrets look like something from a fairytale and it’s set in some beautiful gardens. A tour is compulsory as the building is mainly constructed of wood and has some incredibly expensive and rare decor. Having said that, the price was reasonable (especially as our own tour guide had a handful of spare student IDs to get us in cheap) and the Castle guide both interesting and loaded with information.

The tour took around 45 minutes and encompassed the lower floor of the building. Access to the upper is only available on the last Sunday of month in the off-season (September to May). This is to restrict numbers and potential damage to the building. With three to five thousand tourists a day during the peak season, the stress would tell on the timber structure all too quickly.

Next up was Bran and a lunch stop where we argued for ages over where to eat and couldn’t pick one overpriced tourist trap from the other. The shops round here all sell Dracula souvenirs as this is the castle featured in the Bram Stoker’s Dracula film – very briefly. The castle itself is imposing, looming over a cliff edge, but the interior is a little bit disappointing. It’s mainly been reconstructed with smooth, white plaster walls and some mildly interesting knick-knacks of the period. The stories about Vlad are more interesting than the building itself, but the exterior’s nice.

And on to Rasnov (another missing cedilla – wake up W3C), with another different “castle” up high on a hill. This is a set of ruins and somewhat more interesting, though not as pretty, as Bran. Included in the nominal entry fee is a nice little museum with some old gidgets and stuff, and there’s an archery range towards the back that I didn’t get to see. The view from the un-refurbed collapsed ruins at the top is rather nice – mainly as you can’t see the wretched Hollywood-style “Rasnov” sign that’s plastered in front of the Fortress.

After a good hour or so there, we headed back to Brasov where I wandered back into town and gorged myself on my obligatory Romanian KFC. As I re-returned to the hostel, some of my companions from the previous night were heading out for dinner so I joined them and topped up my carbs with some rather fine jam pancakes from the same place we’d dined at the previous evening.

Yes, Brasov is a nice place for a couple of days.

Dracula’s birthplace

The real one, apparently. Vlad Tepes, also called Vlad Dracul and Vlad the Impaler, lived in a little house in Sighosaura until he was around four years old. It’s now a restaurant. He must be rotating in his grave. Or on a stake. Or whatever.

The old city, the interesting part, is very small and can be wandered round in an hour or so. It’s very gritty and atmospheric with three museums which don’t take too long to visit. The main one is in the clock tower and worth the entry to get to the top for the view. Most of the main signs are in Romanian only with smaller ones being in a random choice of others. Bizarrely the first floor had a lot of rocket ships in it. It seems the chap who pretty much invented rocket-based propellants and got the US to the moon was born in a nearby town but grew up in Sighosaura. Very rightly, they’re rather proud of him.

The other two museums are the smallish armoury and the tiny torture museum (one chamber, 8 exhibits) but you can get one ticket that covers all three for a tiny price. They’re meant to open at 10:00 but don’t expect them to stick to it. The torture museum didn’t open until almost 11:00 and that was after I’d asked someone at the armoury where it was twice as I couldn’t find it.

For lunch I had a chicken roast and chips and I’m sure I was overcharged for it. I sat at Joe’s and it took ages getting served. The chicken seemed a cheap option until I came to pay for it and found that the price was “per 100g and you have had 300g”. It still didn’t ad up mathematically but it was too hot to waste my time arguing over pennies so I walked off.

A quick internet check and then I walked to the train station via the hostel to pick my bags up and jumped onto the 14:28 to Brasov. As I got on the train, several people I’d met in Cluj were coming the other direction, doing the same route as me but a day behind.

At Brasov, I was met by a nice girl from my hostel who made sure I got the right bus there. Checkin was quick, the staff superb and I was shortly settled in, showered and heading out to dinner with some people from my dorm. We found a nice pizza place where we supped wine, ate cracking food and chatted.

Afterwards we grabbed some beers from the nearby supermarket and sat in the hostel nattering until we started to drop from exhaustion.

Rapidly round Cluj

Cluj Napoca (or just Cluj) is a lovely little place to visit with the emphasis on “little”. You can certainly walk around all the nice stuff in a day, and get some good photos. The people are nice, the streets pretty clean and it has some great buildings to go “wow” at.

On the way in on the bus – during a rare “awake” moment – I’d spotted a church next to a freeway and between a load of hi-rise flats. It was perched within its own little bit of green land, covered in wild flowers. All very cute. So I set out to find it. This turned out to mean a thirty minute walk both ways, but it was worth it – and the nettle stings I suffered plodding through the foliage to get some pictures. On the grounds I couldn’t hear the nearby traffic. All very tranquil.

I also tried to visit the zoology museum on the university grounds, but after ages wandering around to locate it, I found it to be locked up though the signs did say it was open. Not to worry. I found the ethnology museum and had a quick wander around that which was quite interesting before walking to the nearby train ticket office in the town centre to sort my ticket for that evening. Only it was closed (it being Sunday) and I had to walk to the station to organise things.

With a handful of spare change I grabbed some snacks to eat as I waited for the train, and killed some time on the internet. The crisps I got were not quite like Quavers in much the same way that carbon monoxide isn’t quite air, but never mind.

The train journey wasn’t hugely enjoyable as I’d booked one of the super-cheap ones which had no aircon and there were umpteen flies all over the place. Fast ones as well. I only managed to nail one of the buggers on the whole four-hour journey. Still, I got to Sighosaura after the sun had dropped out of the sky and walked the 50m to my convenient hostel otherwise unmolested.

The poor guy at the desk was exhausted after working a longer shift than he’d been expected, but was still friendly and helpful despite not being able to check me into my room. The one other person staying there had gone out for the night with the only key! As a result, I ended up in a room of my own with a telly showing Soulfly videos. What a shame…

I popped out for some snacks and a beer across the road before everywhere shut for the night then crashed out in a very comfy bed.

Swords and torture instruments

No, I didn’t head back to the restaurant from last night. Though the thought did cross my mind.

Early doors and before checkout, we moved my bags back to the Apple hostel where I’d booked another night. Viv was due at the airport by around 1:30 so we walked around aimlessly in the sunshine just trying to find places we’d missed before. In the Old Square, a medieval event was being set up with people walking around with swords and roasting dead animals on spits. All very interesting. We sat, ate cherries and watched the world go by. In helmets and chainmail.

The time came for Viv’s checkin and we took the quick journey up to the airport. Again, it was lovely to see her and have someone else to appreciate Prague with. I’m sure I’ll catch up again once I get back to the UK!

Back in the city I had a rather tasty Subway for lunch (with incredibly lovely staff to serve me – certain higher-class eateries could learn from these people). Then the Torture Museum just off the east side of the Charles Bridge. This was pretty cool, though small. I knew about virtually all the exhibits (my scary book collection is safe in my parents’ basement) but it was pretty impressive to see them close up. The comments book on the first floor seemed to vary between “this is cool and I want one of those pointy things for my ex-wife” to “you people are sick” – which is a bizarre thing to put in a book for a museum you’ve paid money to enter.

As I walked out, I bumped into Phil the bald Scotsman from the other night and we arranged a time for dinner. They’d got “stuck” in Prague, basically getting very very drunk for several nights and he looked like death on a slow roast.

9pm after I spent a fair amount of time online and… no show from Dom and Phil. Not to worry, they were probably being ill somewhere so I went exploring so I knew where the bus station was for the morning. In doing so, I found a host of cheap places to get food which I should have discovered several days ago. Ah well, I’ll know for next time.

Food. Room. Book. Bed.