Sunday, 26 May 2019

A Trip To Poland

Flying over the mountains and into Poland,
Flying over the Polish countryside.
Quick fly-by over Vienna.
December had come around, the weather turning colder and colder each day. Christmas was nearly upon us and the end of 2019. It's been a busy year but a good one. I was happy, having worked and travelled around, visited new countries and revisited old ones. I'd climbed and hiked, flown and driven around this year - but it wasn't over yet! An opportunity come up and work to travel to a sister school in Poland to give and talk at a teacher's conference, one that I was happy to take. The conference at IH Bydgoszcz takes place every year, where teachers from the surrounding school also gather and take part in the talks. It's a great way for teachers to share new ideas, re-hash and refresh older ones, and also to meet people from different school and make new contacts. I was very lucky being able to go  - a big thank you to my boss for letting me take the time off, as well as the people in Poland for the invitation. Now that I was going, getting there was next on the agenda. Not such an easy thing, even though I'm based in Barcelona, a very well-connected city, I was still flying to Poland, a country not known for it's reliable transport system, and to an out-of-the-way city as far as tourists are concerned on top of that. The last time I'd been to Poland was actually by accident - I was visiting Berlin in my van, driving down to Italy, and was heading for Prague and the Czech Republic. Somewhere, somehow, I must have taken a wrong turn and crossed into Poland - I knew this had happened as soon as the smooth, 120kph drive turned into a very bumpy and much slower and uncomfortable 70kph ride, the change happening so suddenly that I thought my teeth might rattle out of my skull. It was as if the Germans maintained their highways right up to the actual border line and not an inch further. I was greeted shortly after by the "Welcome To Poland' sign which confirmed my suspicions. Saying this, I hold nothing against Poland and actually found it a great place when I visited in 2009. I just knew it would make an interesting journey, with a few stories along the way!
Getting the train in Warsaw.
Hello Toruń!
Toruń at sunset.
Not sure what he was advertising but he posed!
The first leg of the journey was the train from Sabadell, just outside greater Barcelona, to the airport. This is normally a journey of around an hour, if the train connections are good - unfortunately the train company, Renfe, are know for their bad service and late trains. The train ride was looking good, I had a seat and everything was going smoothly, until the change of trains in the main station in Barcelona to get the airport train. It seems that every time I need this train, it runs late. I got on the train, which had already pulled up to the platform, found a seat and sat down. The train didn't move for some time and I could see people getting nervous - this was the airport train after all and it was already 10 minutes late. I few people got off, some got on, a few tourists asked me if this train was going to the airport and I told them that it was supposed to be but had been sitting here for some time. Being Spain, someone went to the front of the train to talk to (or yell at) the driver, but he wasn't even there. Nobody knew where he was and started discussing it amongst themselves - to this day, I swear the poor guy had run to the toilet for a quick break, but we'll never know. He eventually came back, jumped in and we took off. Unfortunately a few of the tourists had decided to leave just before the train left to get a taxi, but I'm sure they got there ok. Some guy banged on the driver's compartment window telling the guy to hurry it up as he was late. Spain. You have to laugh sometimes as this would never happen in the UK or Australia even. I got to the airport ok, but not a lot of time to spare, but then again, I'd left with plenty of time and didn't have a check-in bag either. If you need to get tot airport, leave yourself lots of time people! You don't want to miss that plane - trust me, I have missed a couple, some my fault, others not, but either way, it isn't what you want! I flew with Austrian Airways for a short shop over in Vienna before changing to Lufthansa for the second leg to Warsaw. These 2 companies are amazing - for a short flight (1.5 hours each), they the service was commendable and I was also served a snack and a beer. Wunderbar! I'd only visited Poland once before, and that was in Krakov, so the airport was completely unfamiliar to me, but without too much trouble I was on the train to the centre of the city, ticketless as the machine wasn't working (or I couldn't understand it...), but confident I could play 'dumb tourist' and blag my way out of a fine, given I was ready to pay for it in the first place. This was the easy part and everything was going according to plan, until I got to to the station in Warsaw for my next train to Torun, where I'd be staying with my friend.

Beautiful Toruń.
Toruń - birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus.
Brick Gothic architecture.
Where to start the tour?
I don't want to say bad things about Poland and it's transport system, but I know and every Polish person knows that it's terrible. It's not an opinion, more a fact really. Trains are consistently late, so much so that you would think it's a timetable. When I mean late, I don't mean 10 or even 20 minutes... I'm talking hours. Sometimes they are just cancelled, the train 'disappearing' without a trace. By the time I arrived at the station, I was a little hungry and thirsty, so I grabbed some refreshments then rushed to my platform. There was no need to rush to be honest - my train would be 3 hours late. Yes, I waited on that platform for nearly 3 hours before one arrived to take me to my destination. I stood there for over 2 hours, with many other people, all huddled up in far more layers and bigger jackets than I could manage, and they didn't seem too bothered - this delay was clearly normal. As it turned out, the train I got wasn't even the one I was supposed to get, but it still got me there. Who knows where my train disappeared to! I squeezed on the train like one more sardine into an already over-packed can, glad to be off the freezing cold platform. The sun had set around 3pm and the temperature dropped even more, to just below 0c. I knew it would be cold, and had bough extra clothes for just this occasion, but it was bitterly cold and dark. On my train (I hoped at the time), I stood with 1 arm holding onto a door frame, the other squished by my side, holding my bag. When I talk about being a sardine, I dreamt of being squeezed into a sardine can, craved it, longed for it! I wasn't even standing up on my own half the time it was that full! I was struggling to breath and was starting to sweat and overheat, but with not an inch to spare there was nothing I could do. The guy who was pushed right up against me told me that most people will get off at the next stop - 45 minutes away. I saw people at the door, sitting down on the steps, seemingly with enough space to stretch their legs even and began to hate. I made the 45 minutes, just, and managed to grab a seat and relax. Jackets were off, legs stretched out, music on and eyes closed, I slowly became human again. My friend Glenn, who was picking me up in Torun, texted me to make sure I was ok and on the right train. I told him the story, and he wasn't shocked at all. Anyway, this train was moving and would stop in the right place, so he told me to head to the "Wars" at the end of the train. Not knowing what this was, but intrigued by the name, I left my comfy seat and wandered to the end of the train and found nothing short of heaven - a stand up bar with full food service as well as beer, wine and snacks. The whole journey was forgotten and before long I was being picked up at Toruń and whisked away to a cosy restaurant for a beer or two and some great traditional food.

Toruń's city walls
Beautiful brick buildings are everywhere in this city.

Good food can be had here!
Toruń is famous for its Gingerbread and sweets.
Toruń is one of the oldest cities in the country with the first settlement dating back to the 8th century. Starting from small beginnings, like all places, it was expanded in the early 13th Century by the Teutonic Knight,  which gave much of the look and feel of the city today, with it's medieval fortress look. During the 17th century, the city became a very important trading hub , becoming home to many and varied people from all over Europe, making its architecture really beautiful, from Brick Gothic (very popular and still easily seen in Central European countries such as Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany), to Baroque, responsible for the Roman revival of architecture and religious buildings. The city is now home to just over 200,000 people and is twinned with the nearby city of  Bydgoszcz, and although 'small' by comparison with some other places, is still very beautiful and very much worth a visit. There are many things to see as well - the town centre of Toruń is UNESCO listed. Although it was very, very cold, I would say bitterly cold, the sky was blue and it was a great day to walk around the see the city. I also only had 1 full day after arriving and going to the conference, so today was the day - and I also had limited amount of daylight too as it's dark here by early afternoon in Winter. Glenn, my buddy who lives here, was more than happy to give me a 'free walking tour' style walking tour, in that it was free and we'd be walking. I was very happy for this as not only does he know a fair bit about Toruń, but I knew there would be beer stops along the way! We started the tour at the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, who was actually born in the city. The statue is right in front of the City Hall and used by most people as a meeting place. This great man, born in 1473 in then Prussia, formulated the model for our universe that states that the Earth isn't the centre but rather the Sun - a huge leap in Science at the time, even though the Greek astronomer, Aristarchus of Samos, in all likelihood identifies the Sun as the centre of our universe 1,800 years earlier. Copernicus wasn't only an astronomer, but a mathematician, physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist. In those days you could do and be so many things, and many great people were self taught too. His house, where he was born, is now a museum located in two Gothic tenement houses on Kopernika Street. Although I didn't go on, the outside of the building is a gorgeous Gothic tenement building, brick facade and stained glass windows, that looks nearly like a church. It's considered one of the most beautiful examples of this type of architecture in Poland.

Pure 'Brick Gothic' architecture is just beautiful.
The house of Nicolaus Copernicus.
The Leaning Tower of Toruń.
Churches.
The city owes its beauty to the Order of the Teutonic Knights, who arrived in the city and started large-scale building projects, including Toruń Castle. Construction on the castle, by the Teutonic Order of knights, started in the mid-Thirteenth Century and went on for 100 years, fortifying the city and allowing the city to grow and prosper. The castle, often called a palace due to the fact that was the residence of the Teutonic commander, served as a base for knights who were intent on converting Prussia, at that time still mostly pagan. Sadly, little of the castle remains today due to a town rebellion in 1454. During the uprising, a small garrison of knights were holed up behind the walls but negotiated a surrender with the townsfolk, allowed to leave in peace, but the castle was shortly ordered to be dismantled by the City Hall, preventing any Teutonic forces in the city again. This uprising signified the start of the Thirteen Years' War (1454-1466), the Prussians fighting against the Knights and Poland, aiming for independence. Toruń also has a leaning tower, built in the 13th Century in the orange-brick design so common in the city, which was linked to the city walls and built for defence. The tower started leaning due to the soft, loamy ground it was build on, and now the top of the tower is 1.5m out from the bottom. Its purpose changed over the years after it ceased being a defensive structure, and was turned into a female prison, then a blacksmith's shop and apartment for a gunsmith in the 1800s. In the 1970s and 90s a cafe used to occupy the building, but is now houses the Toruń Cultural Department and the 'Krzywa Caffe' cafe. The story behind the tower are interesting too - one is about a monk of The Teutonic Order who fell in love with a merchant's daughter and started meeting her in secret, breaking the chastity oath of the Order. They were caught, fined, she was flogged 25 times and the knight ordered to build a tower - but the tower had to be tilted just like his conduct. Now, the tale goes that if you can't keep your balance at the bottom of the tower, heels against the wall and arms out, for 10 seconds, your partner is cheating on you. Hardly fair as it's an impossible task - What does this say about Polish lovers? I tried it and only managed it by cheating and raising my toes. The other legend is the that the tower was a friend of the river and loved listening to the river's stories. Over time, the river got closer and closer, and the earth round the tower started to erode. The tower pleaded with the river to not come so close or it might fall, but the river (being a river) said "So fall down then!"The cry was heard by wanderers in the area and saw the walled city in the distance and decided to call the town Toruń (which means "So fall down, then!", in Polish).
The fiddler peasant who saves the city from a plague of frogs.
Little statutes are everywhere here - you have to keep both eyes open though!

Once a medieval torture device, now a photo opportunity.
Look up you'll miss some very interesting things.
There are a few other tales from around the city, one being the story of the frogs. This is basically Poland's equivalent of the Pied Pier tale, where a witch was denied entry into the city and so to exact revenge on the populous, she called upon a plague of frogs to invade the city. The Mayor of the town offered sack of gold to anyone who could solve the problem and a poor peasant boy came to the rescue, bringing his fiddle and playing for the frogs, leading them out of the city. and into the nearby forest. The donkey statue in the centre of the city, in the same square as the Town Hall, also has an interesting story. Back in medieval times, there used to be a wooden donkey here, on which people would be strapped to and publicly flogged for committing certain crimes. Nowadays the donkey is bronze and most tourists that visit like to jump up on his back and have their photos taken, most likely not realising the sinister history behind it. I did have a ride and a photo too, but it wasn't very uncomfortable as it modelled on a torture device basically, and have a large and uncomfortable band running right up the donkey's back and into your behind. I'm sure there are many others, as the city is old and full of history. Walking around the streets though, you have to look up or you'll miss little statues everywhere, some of cats on roofs, little men or gnomes in windows and even left-over odds and ends from medieval times. Sadly the weather was too cold and wintry to cross the river and see the city from a distance, but it is beautiful nonetheless and I hadn't even scratched the surface really.

Riverside buildings.
Everyone has to try the leaning test against the wall.
The City Hall of Toruń.
Goodbye Toruń, thanks for a great weekend!
The Town Hall is also worth mentioning. Not only is it the centre of the city, in the Old City Market Square, but it is beautiful as well as very interesting. It was built under the privilege of the Teutonic Grand Master Conrad von Wallenrode in the late 14th century, and was used for 2 purposes. The ground floor was for the merchants, called The Merchant Halls, and contained the Cloth Hall, the bread benches, City Scales, and the Judicial Hall), and the second floor was for the municipal authorities and the running of the city, called the Senate Hall. The tower is the oldest part of the building, and is said to present 1 for the Year, the small corner turrets the 4 seasons of the year and there are also supposed to be 365 windows for each day of the year. There is also supposed to be a window that is open for one day, changed daily, like a really big, real-life advent calendar! The building is now the District Museum in Toruń, and is one of the oldest and largest museums in Poland. Inside there are wonderful works of art and pieces of history, including 14th Century stained glass, portraits of the town's famous son Copernicus, and even a gingerbread baking mould from the 1300s which has the city's coat of arms on it. I didn't go and see these, as my time was limited (as always!), and I wanted to use the precious time I had to see the city itself rather than wander a museum - it's on the list for next time though. I decided to climb right up to the top of the tower, to get a view of the city before the sun set (at 3pm!). Right at the top, after hiking up loads of stairs and past the huge bell, it was a little cold and windy, but you did get some great views. Although the city isn't noisy, you always find it far more quiet and serene at the top of a tower. People look like ants, buildings are put into another perspective, the sky seems bigger and my smile gets wider at all of this.

Even I had a go!
Part of the Teutonic castle.
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The light was fading so it was time to snap a few more pics just to make sure, then head for an early evening beer and Pierogi, Polish dumplings. I didn't get much of a chance to get into Polish food on my trip, but my favourite is Pierogi, a crispy pastry that wraps around meat and vegetables, often served with various sauces - the perfect food for home or while walking! Sadly by Poland trip had some to and end as well - It started with a mammoth 13 hour journey by train, 2 planes then more trains, a day at the conference and a day walking around the city, now the long journey back home would be another long one taking all day. Thank you to my buddy Glenn for having me, showing me around, and just being a great guy to hang out with - looking forward to seeing you next time... maybe in Barcelona?
Goodbye Toruń - thanks for the great time!
Toruń on the river Vistula.

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UncleTravellingMatt. December 2018.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Time To Hit The Mountains

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Pedraforca from Comabona.

Hiking up Comabona with the kids.
Summer was well and truly here in Spain, August marking holidays for nearly everyone in the country and most people around Europe too. I've always found it strange that the entire country basically shuts down, or goes into a sort of hibernation, for a while month. The first week is called "Operacio Salida," or 'Operation Exit.' News is filled with images of crowded airports, wheeled suitcases, traffic jams on the motorways, as well as beaches full of sunbathers and city centre packed with people eating ice-cream. Welcome to Europe in the Summer! I've never been one of these people that wait all year just to lay on a beach and get burnt - I still find it strange that people do this. Why work your life away for 2 weeks in the baking hot sun, on a beach with no scrap of sand free not covered by another person's towel, hawkers moving up and down the beach offering everything from massages to food and alcoholic beverages. What a waste! Getting away from the day-to-day, breaking the routine and making a holiday memorable is about doing something that charges the batteries, leaves beautiful memories and also seems to last longer, individual days with memorable things done rather than a block of days that meld into one forgettable block. Although I'd had my holidays already, the sun was still shining and there was always the weekend. Luckily I share a passion with the outdoors and mountains with a group of friends, and so when they asked me along for a hike, I happily said yes. This time we'd be heading for a mountain called "Comabona," up in the Cadi Moixera Natural Park, in the north of Catalonia, just before the Pyrenees. The boots were packed, snacks for the hike, water and food for the top, and of course the most important thing - the camera.
The view from the carpark.
The view of the carpark.
The mountains of Catalonia.
Our goal - the peak of Comabona. Nearly there!
From Barcelona we headed up the C-17, a road that I love. There's nothing special about the road itself, it's just a 2 lane road, but it speeds straight up north towards the mountains, passing by towns like La Garriga, Aiguafreda and Centelles. La Garriga is the most 'Modernist' village in Catalonia, with large mansions beautifully built around the turn of the 20th Century, and Centelles is where I love going climbing, as the town is backed by straight cliffs that have a ferrata with multiple difficulty levels. This drive also leads up to Pedraforca, a beautiful, fork-shaped rocky peak that I've climbed up on a few occasions. We stopped at the carpark to start our hike, changed into our boots from our comfy city shoes and got everything ready, backpack, walking sticks, food and water, as well as the kids. There were 7 of us on this hike, including 3 kids under the age of 12 - so we'd be stopping frequently to feed them and keep them motivated. I knew they could do it, kids are amazing, but sometimes they need to be distracted, entertained, have their mind taken off the fact that they will be walking uphill for 6 hours. The carpark itself offered great views, so right from the start this was a very scenic Sunday hike. As we started on the trail, we could see our goal, the peak of Comabona, 2,547m high sitting on our left, and Pedraforca always watching from our left. We went down first, into a valley and across a river, before the uphill trek started. This is always amazing to me, the fact that kids can do long, hard hikes, sometimes better than most adults! Is it the fact that they have unlimited energy (until they crash), as only kids do, or is it just the age difference? I'm 38 and although this hike wasn't the hardest, it was fairly long and really tested my endurance. I was slightly out of shape, but not completely - even when you stop for a minute to catch your breath after a hard incline (I use the excuse that I'm taking a photo or enjoying the views... both of which I do as well), if you're fit, this shows in the time taken to stop breathing hard and be ready to continue. In this regard I did well, and my legs kept me going all the way to the top, I but I was tired at the top and very thankful for the 30 min lunch break!
Enjoying the view at the top.
Enjoying the moment.
A Chamois.
One of a few vultures we saw that day.
The views at the top are always something, but here it was incredible - 360 degree views of the mountains around us, one side a slope down towards where we'd started from and a view of Pedraforca, the other side a more or less sheer drop into the green forest. I love the time at the top - you can rest and relax, have some of the best tasting food you'll ever eat (something to do with having made the hike to the peak I think), and of course just bask in the sun and enjoy the views. Something I think there is nothing better than this - up a mountain with friends on a sunny Sunday, not even thinking about work on Monday. All things must end, good and bad, so it was time to head down. Most people hate the uphill hike, as it is harder and a constant stress on legs and lungs. I actually prefer the way up in a way, as it's safer and easier to just get lost in the walk - going down is harder on your body, and it can be dangerous - you have to concentrate more on the path ahead of you, taking away opportunities to appreciate what's around you. Look up and you may end up on your face or even your backside! What keeps me going on the up is the goal at the top and the chance to stop and look around you - what keeps me going on the way back is the promise of the car and maybe even a reward beer in the nearest town. Along the way, we were lucky enough to see some vultures making their loops high up in the sky, searching for prey, as well as some Pyrenees Chamois on the higher parts. Although I love reaching the top of the mountain, I also like getting back to the car - what I call the "Hallelujah Moment," when you stagger back to the carpark, tired, hungry and thirsty, then you see your car and say a big hallelujah! We all headed back to Baga, a town close by, to have a beer and something to eat before driving back to the city. I need these trips, these days away on the weekend, to keep me going during the week. Someone work the week for Friday or Saturday night out, drinking, dancing and partying. Not me, it's the mountains and the fresh air for me!
Morning in the mountains.
Taga covered in light December snow.

Good morning cows!
A shy calf.
Sadly, these hikes are not always as frequent as I'd like. There are a few reasons for this: I don't have a car, so transport is always a problem; hiking alone isn't the safest thing in the World, although I have done it many times, it's not something you should be doing; and there is the weather. There is also the issue of people being busy - everyone has things to do, family and work, and it's not always easy to line things up for a group of people. Between August and December, I didn't get to do much hiking, but as my birthday is in November, that meant that I could make my friends go hiking with me! No party for me, just the mountains! The weather was changing, slowly turning colder and there was a little bit of snow around, so we couldn't just hike anywhere. The original plan for my birthday hike was Puigmal, a 2,900m mountain on the Spanish-French border in the Pyrenees, but as we got closer to the day, it wasn't looking like the weather would let us. The day before we settled on another mountain, close to the original plan, but not as high or snowy - we decided to hike El Taga. This mountain, one I'd never heard of before, is just outside the town of Ribes de Freser (famous for its spring water), in the comarca of Ripolles. Not that high, at only 2,040m, but it should offer a great view from the top of the Pyrenees, Puigmal (the original plan) as well as some other beautiful mountains, even Pedraforca. We drove up on Saturday afternoon, as I now work every Saturday, and headed to a tiny little village where a friend of ours had a weekend house. We got there just before dark, got out gear inside and settled in for dinner and some sofa time in front of the fire - it was going to be an early start the next day. The weather was looking good for the hike and I was excited! I wasn't sure of the way, but I was in safe hands with my friends, who knew the way and had done this before.
Blue and white - the colours of a Winter hike.
Hiking up Taga.
The trail to Taga.
Stone villages dot the moutains.
We drove a little way up a dirt road, to get a little closer to the start of the actual hike. We parked the car just outside a big Catalan country house, a 'Masia,' with chickens and dogs running around everywhere. The morning was crisp, frost still on leaves and also covering small puddles of water in tractor tyre marks in the soil. The sun was out though and it was a glorious day. The path would be fairly easy, following a small dirt road before turning off and going up the mountain along a walking trail to the Coll de Bac - easy! The sky was blue, with long, soft white clouds making the scene even more beautiful. There were very few people on the hike, in fact, we didn't see anyone at all until we reached the top! Along the way, we heard many cow bells, which now always remind me of Switzerland, and we did see some paddocks with cows in them. I'm not sure when baby cows are born (I would have thought in Spring time), but there were some young ones there too, staying close to their mums. I've always loved cows - large yet docile, soft to the touch and very cute. The sun shone down on the white and cream coloured cows, highlighting their big furry ears, their big brown eyes always watching us for any sudden movements. They're cute, but not very bright, and although not really dangerous, they weren't up for a pat either. We left the trees and the cover from the wind and headed up along the side of the mountain, towards the top. It was windy and a little chilly, I was constantly zipping up and unzipping my jacket, trying to achieve the 'sweet' temperature where you aren't cold and aren't sweating. Not an easy feat today, so I found myself a little cold, yet sweating at the same time. It wasn't long before we reached the top and were able to have a snack and enjoy the views - but first we found a place out of the harsh, biting wind. There were plenty of people up here - although they must have taken a different path to us as I didn't see anyone on the way up. Real hikers in their brand gear and hiking poles, as well as a few weekenders with their dogs and selfie sticks, and us, possible a mix between the two. We all posed for photos though and wandered around at the top admiring the amazing views - complete 360c, unbroken views of mountains. I could see Pedraforca and even Comabona, Puigmal stood not too far away, covered in snow, but in between all of these big mountains were smaller, wooded hills and mountains, surrounded by a sea of fluffy white clouds. It was absolutely magical. The wind, however, was not - it cut right through us and before long I was shivering and so we decided to head back.
A sea of clouds.
Photo time at the top.

Crunchy, frozen leaves on the trail.
Making tracks.
Although I'd been busy this year after Summer, I was still missing the mountains and climbing as I'd not done much of that recently. A few trips here and there help, but I wanted more. It can be tough sometimes though - I work Saturday mornings, making it a 6-day week with only one real day that I can completely relax. It's not always easy to make plans with more people, people with families and lives too, and there's always transport. I'd done ok so far, using the trains here to get around, but there's only so many places I could reach that way - the best places are only accessible by car. It was now December, the weather getting cold, and I was off to Poland for a short break and then Australia for Christmas - so I can't complain really! I vowed to myself that I'd make more time for the outdoors, more time for me, but also to work harder and save more money for a car to be able to hit the mountains whenever I wanted. Let's see how that goes! Christmas and New Years is just around the corner and you never know what the next year will bring - come on 2019!
At the top of Taga (2,040m).
Precious time in the mountains - I hope I will have more time for this in 2019.

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Maramures Part 2 - Churches and Countryside

Good morning Maramureș! Who are you? Oink! So I'd been travelling up in the North of Romania for the last day and a half, a...