81 year old grandmother and a pregnant granddaughter travelling across Europe
Both granny and I realize we're an unusual combination for such adventures we organize on our own. But our history of traveling together stretches back for a period of 17 years, when granny first took me along with her. We got along so well that we're travelling together every year, sometimes even more than once, ever since. We started off by organized trips of tourist agencies, but soon realized it's more exciting to travel on our own. A year hasn't gone by without us going to a foreign country and so we didn't skip our trip even this year, which is very special for me. We both agree that pregnancy is not a reason to stop doing what you like, you just have to organize and adjust to the situation accordingly.
A choice of destination
When I’ve heard I’m pregnant I soon started thinking about where to travel now. The thought of not going anywhere, never crossed my mind. I just started thinking of safer countries. We were considering several options, from Costa Rica to California. Unfortunately, granny had some health issues, so we decided to choose something closer, but we’ve travelled most of Europe already… We grabbed a map and realized, there are few countries we haven’t visited yet – among other Andorra and Belarus. A strange selection, but we’ve decided right away to go to Belarus and from there to Andorra (they’re not even remotely on the same part of the continent).
From Slovenia to Belarus
We’ve made the similar preparations as always – almost none. The only thing we had to plan ahead was a trip to Belarus due to the tourist visa required to enter the country. But it’s not so easy to get one. Before you can apply, you need to ask one of their agencies to send you a letter of invitation. The easiest way is to get a tourist package from an agency and you’ll get a visa without much bother. Otherwise you need to pay an agency just to send you the invitation. So I searched for a few agencies and wrote them. I got one that sent us the letter for 35€ per person and I received the invite by e-mail. Next I had to go to Vienna, where the closest embassy is, and pay 75€ per person for a visa. You can get a visa for 60€ per person, but you need to wait for it a bit longer – but we wanted to leave as soon as possible. On the way e wanted to stop and see one of the strangest chapels (probably not only in the Czech Republic, where it stands) in the world. It’s a chapel featuring numerous human bones and skulls along the ceiling and walls. There’s many ornaments, chandeliers, and cups made of bones, with heaps of bones on one and lines of bones on the other side. I guess morbid horror sells well and the chapel is visited by people from all over the world. It’s located in a little town of Sedlec and features the bones of around 40.000 people! Most of them are used as ornaments in the interior and actual art forms were crafted from them. Many people are trying to comprehend, why were such horrific images set up in a roman-catholic chapel. The reason is simple. In the time when people were massively dying due to disease, their bones were put in the chapel because there was no place in the cemetery. Today some people even decide to be buried right in the church. It was very interesting to see, but the feeling overtook us and we continued on with quite unpleasant feelings.
After getting our visa in Vienna we travelled through Slovakia (crossing the Low and High Tatra mountain ranges) to Poland and the second biggest attraction of our trip. We got to a place we really liked – Zakopane. A smaller tourist place with a specially constructed wooden houses with very steep roofs and tall mountains in the background. It was a perfect contrast to the first attraction we visited. But following this was another dark place, with around 20.000 people imprisoned during the Second World War. We visited Auschwitz, which made a special impression on grandma as she remembers those horrid days. It’s very interesting to see places of dark stains on human history, but I wanted to have more positive sightseeing and experience. So the nice city of Krakow brightened our afternoon and the long country road towards Belarus was anything but boring. We’ve been traveling together for so long, that we get along perfectly and can chat on hours with no end. Even though granny was having health problems before the trip and I was pregnant, nothing was stopping us while travelling.
The border crossing from Poland to Belarus
My first impression after crossing the Belarus border was that I’ve returned 50 years to the past. It seemed like the life my parents were telling me about, and grandparents. I had to wait on the border for hours, everything was done in a non-strict way without anybody being in any hurry. That’s how it was and the people waiting there gave the sense they were used to waiting and it was something perfectly usual. Then me and granny showed up. We were among rare foreigners and an odd couple at that. Many people were turning to see us, after noticing the unusual licence plates on the car and then even more unusual travellers in the car. The customs and police officers seemed to be quite confused as well. A policeman that threw a spiked chain in front of our car made this very clear. He decided right away, we were suspicious and so for us not to escape, he made sure our car had to stay in place. Well, I started wondering, who would want to run into a country, where already at the border you get to see everything is quite different. All uniformed lads at the border seemed very suspicious towards strangers, not talkative, cold and as though they were a bit angry at us, for even being there. And we couldn’t even talk about anything. I had to pay something twice and once I got to know it was for some insurance and the second time was probably a road tax. The insurance was 2€ per person and road tax was 5€ per car. The prices were not high and the recites were in Cyrillic alphabet. After hours of red tape we finally managed to continue with our trip.
The most special country of our travel - Belarus
The motorway, or as I could call it – the only normal road that was also covered by GPS navigation, was the main road from Bret to Minsk. Soon after crossing the border we arrived to the city of Brest, where I was surprised by a really bad GPS coverage. Soon I realized that only the main road and some of the side roads (and even that only in large cities) are covered. So we had to get around old school – reading maps, asking people, gut feeling, and yes, asking was something different – as most people don’t speak foreign languages. Luckily their and our language have several words in common so when push came to shove we could understand each other. Driving from Brest to Minsk was monotonous for the road is endlessly long, with no almost no traffic but a whole lot of speed controls, with a few police controls along the way. There are no changes along the road – some pine trees, some lime trees and many lakes and swamps in between.
All the signs are in Cyrillic, so if you can’t read it – you’ll be traveling blind. Gas stations are quite a few, but the behaviour on them is much different from what we’re used to. At some you can’t fill the fuel yourself, on others you are obliged to do it yourself, but usually you first need to go to a little stand where you pay in advance. This was always a problem, for I never knew how much to pay to get a full reservoir. A always also had problems with communication and at first with their money as well. By exchanging 100€ I’ve received a huge number of their bills and they use no coins. But I must say, I really liked their gas prices – it’s half of what we pay at home.
Another thing that was strange for me to understand was the difference between the city and countryside. Cities are developing at a head-spinning rate. The fastest growing is the capital – Minsk. There are so many new residential buildings – mostly blocks of flats. The center of the city is very nice and neat and the people seem quite posh, like you’d expect in any big European metropolis. But the countryside is a real contrast to this. Driving around small villages really made us tired. When I first drove onto a side road towards a village, I had to stop and check if I should even go on. The roads usually don’t have asphalt and have huge holes, ok, even if there is asphalt the holes are still there. The people at the countryside were a sort of a tourist attraction for us, for they still live the way the used to 50 (or more) year ago. You can still see horse drawn buggies on the paths, wooden deteriorating – or neatly renovated – houses, each in a different colour. Elderly women in long skirts sitting on the benches. And in the end I started asking – who was a bigger attraction for whom? Them for us or we for them? I realized every time, how they were looking at us. The countryside doesn’t get many visitors and I guess a combination of a grandmother with a pregnant granddaughter were definitely their first!