24 August 2023


My journey from Sofia to Bucharest was painful. It started with getting up at 5am for 7am train, and got progressively worse.

The dilapidated wreck of a train was probably built in the 50s and has not been well maintained – or even cleaned – since. There was no air conditioning in 40C and the facilities consisted of a stinking hole-in-the-floor toilet with no paper and no running water. We were delayed in rural Bulgaria for two and a half hours waiting for a locomotive to arrive from somewhere.

I'm a big fan of train travel, but in this case I should have taken a bus. (Don't tell anyone I said that.)

Bucharest is a city of great contrasts. I've decided not to focus on the depressing state of many of its historical buildings. There are encouraging signs of development, but it's going to take a long time to recover from 50 years of disastrous economic and political management.

Palace of the Parliament

This monument to the cult of the former communist-fascist dictator is mind-blowing in its size (look at the cars in the picture for scale). The late "Hero of Romania" was apparently inspired on a visit to North Korea in the 70s and decided to destroy an entire neighbourhood and cripple his country's economy for decades to imitate the style.

Palace of the Parliament

Today, 70 percent of the building is empty.


I attended an Orthodox church service for the first time in my life. No, I haven't been born again, I was just curious.

Zlătari Church

And to my eyes, it certainly was curious. My experience of religious services is very much post-Vatican II, but I have vague memories of the style before the big changes in Catholic rites. This service reminded me of those rites, but even more arcane.
The altar is hidden from the congregation by an ornate floor-to-ceiling grill, which allows you to see that something is going on, but you can't quite see what. Several priests behind it perform a rite with chalices and crucifixes. At certain moments, a blind is lowered so you can't even see shapes moving. I presume that's when the magic happens, so it has to be hidden from the hoi polloi.

The rite is performed behind this grill

Occasionally, one or other of them steps through to say some words to the people, then withdraws behind the grill. 
Most of the congregation perform the sign of the cross repeatedly. Some write supplications (I presume) on pieces of paper, wrap them round thin candles (bought at the shop inside the church), then wait at the side of the altar grill until a priest opens a small door and receives them.
I slipped out discreetly during the sermon.

Old Town

The Old Town is alive day and night. It is packed with bars and restaurants of all styles and standards, though I couldn't find a single place that would show the Ireland v England rugby match the other day.

I stayed in a small hotel just outside the old town, close enough to be able to walk there and far enough away from it to be able to sleep at night.

Take a chance on Bucharest. It's going in the right direction and they could do with your money.

19 August 2023


I travelled from Greece to Bulgaria by bus – quelle horreur! – as there are currently no international trains to or from Greece.

The first bad surprise was that Bulgaria is not in the Schengen Area, so the queue at the border was horrendous. Two hours it took to get to the top of the queue, then everyone on the bus had to get off to be controlled by Greek and Bulgarian police. 
The Bulgarian police officer asked where I was going. "None of your f***ing business, I'm a citizen of the European Union," I said in my head. "Sofia," I said out loud.

After that, things got a lot better, I'm happy to report.

Sofia, known as Serdica in Roman times and Sredets in the Middle Ages, is the capital of Bulgaria. Named after the church of Saint Sophia, the oldest, though not the most important, in the city.

Sofia herself

This is my first time in Bulgaria, so I didn't really know what to expect. I did take the precaution of getting advice from a native on which neighbourhood to choose for accommodation, however. She gave me good advice.

My hotel is right next to the parliament, the presidential palace, and multiple ministries and embassies. A bit like the 7th and 8th arrondissements in Paris, but fun.

Changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace

On a stroll around the city on my first evening I discovered a great bar called After 5

The barmaid was very friendly as were the two locals I ended up chatting with. One of them, Nikolai, is quite a history buff and very proud of his Bulgarian heritage. He filled me in on a certain number of points.

I visited only two of the many churches in Sofia: the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky (a Russian), and the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-maker (aka Santa Claus, a Greek). 

Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky

Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-maker

I discovered that Orthodox churches don't have a lot of seats or benches.

The origins of Sofia go back several millennia. The Regional History Museum – housed in the former Central Mineral Baths – tells the story of the city from the Stone Age to the modern era, through the various regimes that have risen and fallen (with a rather conspicuous gap for the period in the early 1940s). 

Regional History Museum

The current temporary exhibition is on the theme of "Childhood through Socialism" – an eye-opener for a westerner like me.

Childhood through Socialism at the Regional History Museum

A more palpable view of the history of Sofia is at the archaeological site near Serdika metro station, where they discovered a whole street from the Roman period. They had the decency to preserve the site, which is now open to visitors free of charge.

Remains of Serdica

A charming city, I'll be back.

Next leg

On Saturday morning at 07.00, I take the train to Bucharest.

16 August 2023


Thessaloniki (Salonica) is the capital of the Greek region of Macedonia (not to be confused with the neighbouring country, North Macedonia) and the second-largest city in the country.

I had the benefit of a local guide, Giotis, a friend of George "Delaney Blue" Betzounis (aka "The Ancient Greek"). He showed me some of the local bars and restaurants and introduced me to his charming friends.

With my host in Thessaloniki, Giotis (right) 
and his friends Christos and Lena

The ancient roots of the city are not obvious. Most buildings seem to be from the 20th century, but there are some archaeological sites being excavated, including the Roman Agora.

The Roman Agora

There are also some visible traces of the old city fortifications, the most impressive being the White Tower.

The White Tower

The tower itself is well preserved/restored. The "museum" on the inside, however, is a complete waste of time and money. 
The exhibitions consist solely of videos and photos. There are no historical artefacts at all. Not a single one!
All the captions are in Greek only. The audio guide – that you download to your phone if your QR code scanner works – makes reference to "exhibit 1.2", for example, but you have no idea which screen/image that refers to.
Admire the building from the outside, but don't waste 6 euros to see six floors of nothing. Five, actually; you can buy a fridge magnet on the 6th floor.

Next leg

On Wednesday I take the bus (ugh!) to Sofia as there are no international trains to or from Greece these days.

13 August 2023

Chilling in Athens

I've been very lucky with the weather. A couple of weeks ago we all read about the inferno that was southern Europe and I was dreading the ordeal.

That all changed last week, just in time for my sailing trip, and the relatively mild temperatures are continuing now. I didn't even need the air conditioning in my hotel room last night. Perfect conditions for a relaxing few days.

On Day2, I took a 90-minute bus tour of the city to get a feel for its layout and to decide what I would visit – and what I'd avoid.

The Acropolis Museum was opened to display the artefacts from the rock in a safe, protective environment. The marble friezes are displayed in the same configuration as they were in the Parthenon.

Some of the panels are originals, the others plaster casts of the originals that, according to the prominently displayed notices, are "currently located at the British museum in London." (Or the Louvre, in some cases.)

The Old Royal Palace now houses the Parliament of Greece. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is in front of the palace, guarded by the Evzones of the Presidential Guard in their pleated skirts and bobble-toed boots. The guard is changed every hour in a ritual of high kicks and stamping.
Changing the guard

The Panathenaic Stadium was built in ancient times, renovated on many occasions, and was the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

Hadrian's Arch

Named after the Roman emperor, but historians are not sure why.

The Church of Panagia Kapnikarea is one of the oldest in Athens, in the middle of a busy commercial district. An old lady who entered just after me kissed several icons and made the sign of the cross (backwards) at each one.

Church of Panagia Kapnikarea

On Day 3 I went for lunch by the sea. The restaurant that had been recommended to me was full of loud backpackers, so I retreated to a more sedate venue next door.

I spent the evening sampling ouzo in a rooftop bar, souvlaki in a tiny family-run dive, and wine in a hopping downtown bar.

I'm taking the train to Thessaloniki on Sunday morning.

10 August 2023

Arrival in Athens

Tap/click here to get updates by email.

I arrived in Athens by overnight ferry from Leros, where I left my fabulous hosts, Dave and Paula, after a week's sailing.

There is s free shuttle bus from the port of Piraeus to the metro station. The metro is clean, modern and equipped with escalators from street to platform, so I had no problems with my heavy bag. I got from ferry to hotel in under an hour.

My hotel is in the cheap-and-cheerful category: a simple, clean, rather old-fashioned room, but with all I need, including air conditioning. It's in the Plaka neighbourhood right next to the Acropolis. I recommend it.

Rooftop terrace, Hotel Phaedra

Day 1

I walked all the way round the Acropolis to get a feel for the neighbourhood. There are thousands of souvenir and ice-cream shops, of course, and grand terraces with mist-spraying fans, but if you go just a few metres off the main drag there are plenty of discreet tavernas and bars that are worth a stop.

The Acropolis, Athens

After more than a week in Greece it was about time I tried a gyros. I chose To Neoklassiko as my pork provider, with mixed results. The meat was very tasty, as was the accompanying mix of onion, pepper, tomato and sauce. The bread, however, was soggy – straight from the microwave – and the wine undrinkable. I abandoned it and had a beer. 

The staff were friendly and efficient. When I commented on the wine I was told they've been serving the same for 15 years. Maybe it's just me.

On my way home, I stumbled across what turns out to be an Athens institution: Brettos Bar. Founded as a distillery in 1909, it is now a thriving cocktail bar. I tried the Mediterraneo cocktail (ouzo, mandarin liqueur, fresh lemon juice, orange juice). Well impressed!

Mediterraneo cocktail

Tomorrow, Friday, I'll take a bus tour to get a better feel for the geography of the city.

08 August 2023

From the Cyclades to the Dodecanese and good wine – at last!

For the last day of my sailing trip we're going to Leros in the Dodecanese, the home port of Planit Earth.

We lifted the anchor at 06.25 as the Sun rose over Donousa.

Sunrise over Donousa

The plan is to get to Leros and tied up safely before the storm arrives.

This is what we're trying to avoid

We arrived in Lakki on the island of Leros after a long, almost windless run of about eight hours.

The harbour master found us a perfect spot in the marina. It was a right squeeze, but the skipper handled it perfectly, with a little help from the crew. That should keep us safe during the expected hurricane.

Leros marina at Lakki

The town of Lakki was built by the Italian occupiers in the 1930s. They called it Portolago, but it was renamed Lakki when the island was transferred to Greece. The architectural style is described as Italian Rationalist or Fascist. Interesting, but not very pretty, in my opinion.
School, Lakki 

The restaurant in the marina, Skippers, is very good. They have a very interesting menu of mostly local produce and, best of all, a varied wine list. In my experience so far in Italy and Greece the options are usually white, rosé or red; here, there is an actual wine list. Oh joy!
Main courses at Skippers

The boss – Nikos , obvs – told me he was good friends with Jack Charlton's daughter back in the 90s. Olé, olé, olé!

07 August 2023

Naxos, not Paros

The weather forecast for the next few days shows ever stronger winds, building up to gale force by Wednesday. This is not sailing weather!

We decided to skip Paros and make for Naxos, giving us the possibility to reach Leros by Monday evening. Leros is the end of the sailing part of my holiday.

Passing Paros

We did not go to the main town on the island, but to a discreet village on the northeast side called Moutsouna. It's another unspoilt spot with only a couple of boats anchored in the perfectly sheltered bay.

Planit Earth anchored in Moutsouna Bay

The seafront consists of a small beach where lots of kids – all Greek, I'd say – were playing, overlooked by a couple of tavernas from where their parents watched.

We had a very nice dinner of salads, seafood and fried vegetables, all delicious. The wine was a little less special, sadly, but the beer was a good replacement.

Moutsouna – Greek or what?

Next leg: Leros.