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After completing our travels round the northern half of Poland and the Baltic states, we made a brief interlude to fly to Brussels to visit Stefan's mum for her birthday for a couple of days. We flew from Warsaw to Brussels and a few days later returned to Warsaw to pick up where we had left off. See route description for details.

We loved the eastern and southern parts of Poland as much as the northern. We now left behind the influence of the Baltic Sea. As with northern Poland and the Baltic states, by far the most visitors were from Germany, with a small number of other nationalities, French, Dutch, Italian and, of course, Russians. Hardly an American or a Brit in sight. We took in a variety of places and sights, from the renaissance town of Zamość to the chilling concentration camp of Majdanek on the outskirts of Lublin (which in its bleakness made a far greater impression on us than tourist-infested Auschwitz), and culminating in the beautiful surroundings of the Tatra mountains and Zakopane.

We were very glad to have taken the trouble to visit much smaller Slovakia. Whilst we didn't spent as much time there as in Poland, it certainly packed a punch: the atmospheric town of Levoča, which we used as a base to explore the surrounding countryside, with trips out to Slovenský raj ("Slovak paradise") for hiking with a difference, and the ruins of mighty Spišský hrad. Slovakia has one of the largest populations of Romanies (gypsie) in Europe and this made it more exotic. I loved observing the gypsy faces and expressions, and it wasn't hard to understand why they are often sidelined or blamed for theft and dodgy dealings. Later we also visited Bratislava, formerly known as Pressburg, a small capital that is getting the full EU revamp. We're glad we saw it before it is totally sanitised. The "UFO" bar at the top of the Novy Most, the bridge across the Danube, has to rank as one of the best bars we've been to.

Oh, we "did" Vienna too, while we were here. If any city has the right to call itself the capital of Europe it must surely be Vienna. Right at the heart not only geographically but more importantly as the seat of the powerhouse of the Habsburg empire over the centuries. More recently it may have taken a bit of a backseat in history but it still has grandeur in spades.