Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

We booked a day trip with ‘Elegance Tours‘ (possibly the most basic-looking shop front you could imagine – all laminated photos and hand-drawn signs – nice people though) in Zadar (pronounced ZAHdar, not ZaDAH as we kept saying) for our first full day.

Our trip was basically just the bus there with a stop at a restaurant/minimart for supplies on the way in. We were told food was expensive at the park but we found it to be fairly similar to other places we’d been – more expensive than buying at a supermarket or bakery though.

The falls are a two hour drive from Zadar and involve travelling through quite a number of tunnels until you reach the other side of the mountains. The landscape on the coastal side is very rocky and dry but once you get through the mountains it is lush and there are fields of wildflowers. I panicked a bit as I’d stopped taking my hay fever meds but there isn’t much in the way of grass near the lakes – mostly trees and bushy plants.

Our driver was German and spoke almost no English. When he asked if anyone spoke German I indicated (rather foolishly) that I had the tiniest fraction. Luckily I understood his instruction that we’d stop for twenty minutes and then it was twenty minutes to the park. We had a little bit of confusion regarding whether we’d be at the park four hours or be picked up at four o’clock, but eventually cleared it up.

The bus company suggested a particular route around the park which took in the upper and lower lakes but used a train/bus to cut down one leg and a boat transfer (both included in the ticket cost) to speed it up. In the end we possibly could’ve walked the whole way as we took just over four hours to do the loop but it’s hard to estimate that sort of thing on your first go. We are moderately fast walkers and didn’t linger anywhere, however in a few points the crowd bottlenecked to the point where people stopped. I’d guess that we walked about 8 km in total.

The lakes and falls are all exceptionally beautiful. The intense colours come from a combination of limestone sediment, moss and algae. During most of our visit there were clouds and a cool breeze, which was good, but I imagine that sun would bring out the colours even more.

I was pleased to see many, many fish in the lakes and threw a few crumbs in, even though I probably shouldn’t have. The fish do hang around near the boardwalks so I think I’m not the only one.

Our biggest moment of excitement was when a fellow walking in front of us mis-stepped and fell into the water at a point where the boardwalk crossed a small fall, which meant he got stuck on some rocks but with the water flowing very fast around him. We leapt forward and Luke helped a couple of other people grab him and pull him up and I picked up a camera that another lady had put down in order to help as I could see it was going to get kicked in. Poor guy was ok but wearing jeans – he must’ve had a very unpleasant time walking around after that!

We made it back to the point where our driver was meeting us with nearly two hours to spare so we had a drink, took some photos by the largest waterfall viewpoint and relaxed. We saw people from our bus group congregate but they were a fairly standoffish lot who didn’t return our smiles so we left them alone.

The bus got back to Zadar at 6pm and we thanked our driver and walked back to our apartment to make some dinner and plan our next adventure!

Bus: 220 kuna/$55 AUD each

Park entrance: 250 kuna/$62.50 AUD each

Split, Croatia

We have eased into our European adventure rather gently (airline dramas aside), not doing as much as perhaps we should have while in Split. We keep looking at each other and asking whether we should be doing more, seeing more. But really, depending on the sort of things you like to do, there isn’t actually a great deal to do here. Also it has been quite hot. We have tried to get out and about and not use the aircon much in order to acclimatise, but after an hour or two of sweat running down my back and stomach I want to collapse in a comfortable chair with a cocktail and cool off.

So, what have we done here, and what is it like?

Accommodation

We booked an Airbnb apartment that is on the third and top floor of a little block of old-style flats just a hundred metres back from the centre of town. It is delightful, and if you stand up on the balcony there is often a nice view of the cruise ships that block your view of the Adriatic.

The bed is comfortable, the kitchen well-supplied and the windows have shutters instead of curtains, which reminds me of Venice.

I have enjoyed having a little kitchen and cooking us some meals. I can only eat oily Mediterranean food for so long before my skin breaks out. Which is not to say we haven’t also been buying prosciutto and cheese and slathering our bread in olive oil.

Diocletian’s Palace

The heart of the old town of Split is an ancient Roman palace. I think I heard a tour guide say that Diocletian was the first emperor to die of old age rather than be murdered but that could be wrong and I can’t be bothered looking it up.

The walls are high and inside them the old town is extremely busy, especially once the cruise ship passengers start arriving in their milling droves.

The palace is full of bars, restaurants, art galleries and ice cream shops. It is charming and, despite my photos of mojito stands with neon lights sitting incongruously by the towers, generally tastefully kept.

It bustles from 9am until long after midnight but I went out at about 6:30am and managed to get photos of the main square with no one else in sight.

Eating Out

On our first night here we ate at a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host and had expected that a somewhat-fancy restaurant in Croatia might cost less than one at home. However a shared starter, two mains and two 100ml glasses of wine came to over $100.

It wasn’t much more than we ended up paying at other places or reading on other menus, some quite far away from the main tourist area of the harbour. Today we went to a fairly plain-looking restaurant that had a good view and found ourselves being charged about $30 for each plate of fish ($10 sides to be ordered separately) that was neither generous in size nor particularly good in quality.

To be honest, the cost of food and drink has been the biggest disappointment of this part of the trip, perhaps because everyone seems to rave about how cheap Croatia is – or, more accurately, was.

Even buying fruit and vegetables at the market to cook at home hasn’t been exceptionally cheap – but certainly worth it compared to eating out. We are wondering what the prices in Italy, France and particularly Switzerland, are going to be like in comparison.

I’d also like to state, for the record, that the service in Split is almost uniformly dour. I don’t know if it’s because they’re sick of dealing with tourists, or with tourists assuming they speak their given language, but I have been assured by others that if you make even a small effort to speak a few Croatian words then locals will appreciate it and look on you kindly. The only places where this has been true are our local bakery and the first market stall where we bought cheese and meat. The waiters in most restaurants almost sniff at us and our attempts at saying ‘hvala’ (thank you) and ‘ukusno’ (delicious).

The final down side to eating here is that, if you want a nice view at an outdoor table you have to submit to being surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke constantly hanging over you. I’m not a rabid anti-smoker but it ruins the taste of the food, especially when you’re not used to it.

Hvar Town

Hvar is an island that is about 40 minutes away by ferry and costs about $50 return.

It is famed as a hotspot for nightlife and celeb-spotting, and we contemplated staying into the evening but the ferry company we travelled with returned at 4:10pm and the idea of paying for an evening’s worth of drinks and then having to bus to the other side of the island to catch a later ferry was depressing. Hvar was, however, exceptionally beautiful and even more pristine than Split, whose almost rubbish-free streets are a vast improvement on the piles of waste that blights English cities.

It was also exceptionally bright and so we bought ourselves hats (I could only find one in the whole shop that fitted me and it happened to be the style that Luke liked so now we match. Yay.) and then went for a wander up through the town to the base of the hill fortress.

Then down to a cafe for food and drinks before walking along the coast for a kilometre until we came to a beach and bar that had very comfortable chairs where we sat for a couple of hours and watched people doing the sorts of things people do on beaches.

We had both brought our swimmers but I felt the water and declared it too cold. Again we have probably been ruined by SE Asia, where the water is often just shy of bath temperature. We googled and found it to be around 20 degrees – 4 degrees off my preferred lower limit. In any case, people-watching and kindle-reading was very pleasant and the seats were in the shade and a cooling breeze was blowing.

If I wanted a week’s holiday in a very pretty place with stunningly clear water and the company of loud groups of men who seemed to overly enjoy chanting (although that might be due to the World Cup being on) I’d certainly choose Hvar. I’d probably come at the end of August though, for comfortable swimming temperatures.

Walking Around

Probably my favourite thing to do in any new place, we have taken a few walks in different directions from our accommodation and at different times of the day and night. We took one long walk south along the waterfront and watched people enjoying a beach that looked, quite frankly, like mud rather than sand.

While I hate it when Australians go overseas and whine about the quality of coffee, I found myself very snobbily pitying these poor people who seemed to actually be enjoying laying on this muck – and further along people had their towels down on rocks that weren’t even smooth pebbles.

At least the rocks had the virtue of keeping the water looking clear, but that just revealed all the spiny sea urchins below.

There were lots of groups of caramel-coloured men standing in the water playing the local version of ‘keep a ball in the air’ and diving theatrically and then shouting at each other a lot. In the bars along the beach there were also rowdy groups of muscly and tattooed young men, nearly all of whom sported beards, suspiciously large triceps and sharply-defined six-packs. Sometimes it seemed as if every nightclub in the world must have been deprived of its bouncers.

We also walked up nearby Marjan Hill (307 steps to the viewing point), which has quite a good view, although I would not recommend going at sunrise as the sun is on the far side of the valley and taking a decent photo is impossible.

I would also recommend bringing a picnic and enjoying it on one of the many shady benches along the way rather than paying through the nose for mediocre food at the restaurant near the top.

On the whole I think that Split is an attractive town and the weather has been good apart from a very heavy shower the day we walked along the beach and today, when it rained on and off during the morning. In fact I’ve seen more rain here that I did in two months in the UK, although that isn’t saying much and I quite enjoyed the sight and sound of it after so many blindingly bright days. In hindsight we probably should’ve stayed a night at Hvar or one of the other islands and explored more but the heat was sapping and Luke is still getting used to new shoes and the fact that I want to spend all day walking and climbing lots of stairs.

I would certainly be interested in others’ opinions of the place. What were your impressions of Split? We’re off to Zadar next; if you have ideas on what to do there please tell us now and not the day before we leave ;-).

London to Split: It Could’ve Been Worse.

Before we had even begun, our trip from England to Croatia had already suffered several blows. Our original plan had been to meet our friend Lauren at Heathrow on the 27th then leave from Gatwick at 5:45 the next morning. Unfortunately, I’d unthinkingly booked us a hotel at Heathrow rather than Gatwick so that meant getting up at 2:30 to get  a taxi at 3am to get to the airport at 4 so we’d have plenty of time for our flight. Unfortunately Lauren’s job situation was thrown into confusion just days before she was due to fly out and she ended up having to cancel the trip, which we were rather sad about as she is an excellent (tried and tested) travel companion and would’ve relieved us of the monotony of talking to each other. Just kidding! (Mostly)

So, we made our way from Cambridge to the Premier Inn on Bath Road – would you believe there are FOUR Premier Inns at Heathrow? Luckily only one is on Bath Road and the bus there is free.

The room was nice, the food at the hotel wasn’t too bad, people were watching Germany get kicked out of the World Cup and seemed to be enjoying it. We got about six hours sleep (champions that we are.. drinking lots helped) and woke up in time to meet our taxi and encountered no traffic or road works on the drive. We congratulated ourselves for being so well-organised and checked in our bags then headed for the gate.

This was when Luke realised that he’d left his passport in his checked bag.

As the blood drained from his face he experienced an adrenaline rush like none in recent memory. We raced to the gate and were initially told, by a geriatric flight attendant who looked to be one of those ‘I know the rules and I’m going to tell you about them multiple times’ types that Luke flat-out wouldn’t be able to fly. What precisely would happen to his bag, since it was checked in under my name, we struggled to work out.

He turned and told another member of staff that Luke had left his passport in his checked bag. “If that’s true,” the man said, “that is the most monumentally stupid thing I have ever heard.” Luke agreed with him wholeheartedly. Then this man, a Turn Controller named Jonathon, proceeded to be just the type of guy you want in your corner during a crisis of this nature. He was calm, kind, decisive and communicative. It also helped, as he pointed out, that the plane couldn’t leave until he signed off on it – and he’d do everything he could to remedy the situation before he did so.

What that involved was Jonathon waiting for Luke’s bag to arrive at the plane, snagging it before it was loaded, and then getting security to oversee Luke removing his passport from the bag before loading it on to the plane. While that all sounds straightforward, given that time was ticking, security was being slightly unhelpful and the geriatric gate guard was blustering at us any time Jonathan wasn’t around to fend him off, it was a very close call. But in the end the passport was retrieved, Jonathan saw Luke on to the plane with a handshake, and he took the seat next to mine.

The sigh of relief Luke let out as he sat down was both palpable and heartfelt. Jonathan popped in to the cockpit to approve the plane for take off and even gave Luke a wink as he left the cabin. What a hero!

Well, obviously we congratulated ourselves on dodging a situation that might have cost us a great deal of time and money (well, cost Luke… I would’ve gone anyhow to save having to buy two new fares) and relaxed, safe in the knowledge that surely nothing else could go wrong.

Honestly, what else could go wrong? Nothing, that’s what.

After enduring the free-for-all that is Croatian passport control, we headed out to pick up our bags. Because we’d been in the non-European queue we were almost last out and the conveyor stopped moving almost immediately with only a handful of pieces of luggage left. Luke’s bag was visible but mine wasn’t.

And wasn’t.

And wasn’t.

We waited for nearly an hour before going to the lost property office and registering my bag as missing. Because of the passport issue in London I had accidentally left my luggage receipt at Gatwick but had, oh-so-fortunately, taken a photo of it before handing it to the staff there, which meant I had all the details of my tag. THANK GOD. I don’t know how hard it would’ve been to retrieve the bag without it.

Somewhat heavy of heart we boarded the bus into town, having to stand up for the forty minute drive because we were nearly last in line.

After a bit of wandering around the back streets of Split we found our Airbnb (phone GPS doesn’t always work so well in narrow stone alleys and apartments don’t seem to have numbers here) and our host was lovely and helpful.

The local markets were only a few steps away and I bought a cheap spare pair of underpants and then we bought a few bits of food and wandered around town.

When I got back I took a photo of everything that was in my small backpack.

Of all the things I didn’t have, a belt was probably the thing I missed most as my new jeans were stretching and I had to keep pulling them up every five minutes. So dignified.

Fortunately that afternoon EasyJet sent us a message letting us know the bag had arrived at ‘an’ airport (which one wasn’t clear but it was nice to know it was definitely somewhere) and the next morning my bag was delivered and order was restored to the universe.

By far the most upsetting part of the whole journey was Luke’s passport incident. I think my weeks of camping and being grotty had left me quite happy to wear the same clothes several days in a row. We also felt good, once the whole thing was over, about how calmly we’d dealt with it. You learn a lot about yourself and others when you have to go through a crisis (however small) together.

Lesson learned though – passport in hand when checking in bags!

Luke Arrives!

The moment I had been anticipating for weeks! I got up at 5am and caught the Tube to Heathrow. I managed to arrive with enough time to buy a bottle of soft drink and accidentally spray it all over myself before Luke messaged me to say he was on his way out of immigration. It’s times like these I am glad I keep all my unused napkins from restaurants and I managed to remove the worst of it before Luke appeared and we reenacted all those cheesy airport reunion scenes that you see in movies. Big hugs and smiles and kisses. Revolting!

We caught the Tube back to Camden and Luke worked out that he had actually had a decent amount of sleep on the second flight but he remained a zombie for the rest of the day.

We spent two nights in London, on the second day we managed to walk 17 kilometres around the city, mostly along the Thames.

The sun was shining and it seemed everyone was out enjoying it. We found the River Cottage Botanical Bar quite by accident and stopped for a drink.

We walked through the Tate Modern and had go on the multi-person swings. We also did a short Facebook Live video from the viewing platform and then ended up at the Borough Markets for lunch.

Then we headed back to Camden for a quick nap before returning to the city to meet Luke’s uncle Mark for a couple of drinks at the beautiful Leadenhall Market.

Luke handed over a bag of Tim Tams, Mint Slice and Cheezels that he had brought from Australia and we also had a look at Mark’s office – he works for an architectural firm – and admired the pencils that decorated one wall. Why pencils and why orange was not revealed [they’re an architect firm and their corporate colours are white and orange – Luke] but it was very attractive and if I worked there I would be sorely tempted to remove one every so often so as to annoy any OCD people.

After Mark left we had dinner at The Ship, a charming pub that was fairly empty inside because it was such a nice evening that everyone was out standing in a huge crowd outside. Or maybe people stand outside in all weather here? There are so many smokers in the UK I wouldn’t be surprised.

Next was my little surprise for Luke – a reservation for drinks at the Sky Garden. The building, officially called ’20 Fenchurch’ is generally referred to as ‘The Walkie Talkie’, a much catchier name and very appropriate.

I’d booked us a table at 8:45 so we could watch the sun set, and I was very glad I’d made a booking because it was quite busy and people swooped on any unoccupied tables. We ordered a cheese platter and a couple of cocktails and enjoyed the view over the city. There was a band playing and we stayed for about an hour and a half before feeling very tired and heading home on the steaming hot Tube.

That was the end of our little London adventure, next stop: Cambridge! (yes again)

Kettleshulme and Family

My second cousin Angela and her husband Rick had invited me to visit them on my travels and after all my changes of plans and moving around I realised that time was running out if I was going to make it before Luke arrived and we were off to Croatia, so I booked a bus from London to Manchester and off I went.

The trip on the bus was a bit of an experience in itself. The bus station in London was quite big and arranged so that everyone crowded into too-small waiting areas (obviously I was there super early so I got a seat) and then all the buses left every half hour. All the buses were filled simultaneously then the doors to all the waiting rooms were locked and then the buses left in a big group. It seemed like a very good way of avoiding having people dashing between moving buses but it also meant a traffic jam on the way out.

Before getting on the bus I saw the Peggy Porschen bakery and I tried to have a snack there but the service was so slow I had to leave.

I was sitting in the second row and enjoyed listening to the bus driver, who had an almost impenetrable northern accent, talk to a lady in the front row who obviously took buses all over the country and only had one arm. They chatted non stop the whole way and by the end they were both making jokes about her having one arm and she was sharing some cakes she’d made with him. They were both very funny and the lady next to me kept chuckling to herself as we listen to their banter.

Upon getting to Manchester I had to change to a train, which meant a short walk across town and then I accidentally got on the wrong train as there were two trains on one platform. Luckily I’m the sort of person who doesn’t mind asking people if I’m doing the right thing and jumped off the wrong one just in time.

Soon I was in Macclesfield, a picturesque town in the Cheshire Hills, where Angela and Rick were already waiting in the car park. Seeing family always lifts the spirits and Angela and Rick looked exactly as they did when Mum and I saw them five years ago.

As this was just a quick overnight visit we didn’t have time to do much but I was perfectly happy to just sit and chat and catch up on family news. Angela had recently had a cochlea implant and was getting used to hearing again. It was interesting to learn that music didn’t translate properly through the device and that it was still important for Angela to use lipreading to understand people.

Rick had retired from his work as a minister for the Church of Scotland but had since been ordained as a minister in the Church of England and continues to do bits and pieces locally. I can well imagine that being a minister is not a job that finishes abruptly when a decision is made to retire. Angela and Rick moved around quite a bit for Rick’s job but are now living in their own house.

Kettleshulme is a small village in a beautiful area that seemed quite similar to the Lake District. We went for a drive on the way to the train station in the morning and I could easily imagine doing a lot of walking in the area – out of hay fever season. As we drove around everything still looked very green but the lack of rain this year has had a dramatic effect on the local reservoirs, which were lower than ever before.

I also got to meet Angela and Rick’s dog, Teal. A friendly spaniel who wanted to sit on my lap and sniff my face as often as I would let him.

His expression would alternate between desperation and annoyance.

As soon as I arrived I wished I’d made more time to spend with them, and being able to sit with family and enjoy beautiful home-cooked food and properly relax after dashing about in London was a real pleasure. If you’re reading this, Angela and Rick, thank you for a lovely visit, it was just what I needed and it was so good to catch up!

AirBnb In London

Over my couple of weeks in London I stayed in five AirBnb flats, the last one was with Luke and we’d prebooked it months ago, the rest I booked fairly last-minute. I’ve never had a really bad AirBnb experience and in London it’s a much, much cheaper option than hotels, and more private than hostels. Also you get to see inside a stranger’s house so there’s plenty of opportunities to goggle at weird habits or admire nifty storage solutions and such.

The first place I booked was a room in Lambeth, which is on the south side of the Thames but a very short walk from Big Ben etc. As far as proximity to the big tourist attractions go, this place was probably the best location. I was a bit dubious about booking somewhere with no reviews but it turned out to be pretty great. The guy who lived there was between housemates and his landlord had said he could advertise on AirBnb. He also had a German shepherd puppy, which pretty much sealed the deal for me. I think I put a photo in another post but here’s Cooper again.

Apart from the location and the dog, the best thing about this place was that it was on the ground floor. I kept forgetting to check this when I booked later places – not that I mind stairs but some are really steep and narrow which is awkward with a big backpack. Which was something I learned at my next place, which was…

An attic in Camden! I always visit Camden when I’m in London. Even though it’s a bit of a cesspit in some ways it’s also colourful, interesting and has great alternative clothing stores. Believe it or not I don’t always wear polar fleece and moisture-wicking clothing. I found a fantastic store called Collectiff that sells 50s and 60s-style fashion that is exactly the sort of thing I like.

This AirBnb room was very nicely decorated, had an ensuite, fridge, kettle and microwave. This is very rare! In fact it was the first time I’d stayed in a room with a fridge since I left Australia. I don’t know whether mini fridges are more expensive over here, but it’s so handy to be able to buy milk and make my own breakfast and cups of tea, as well as cooling a bottle of wine. The only downside about this property was the very steep, narrow and curved set of stairs, but it was a small price to pay for a big airy room.

I rewarded the owners of this excellent property by losing their keys when I left my raincoat (my $150-down-from-$500 gortex coat… it pains me to think about it) in a shop changeroom. I called them that evening but it wasn’t there. I used to be quite notorious for losing clothing when I was a kid – hopefully this is the first and last time on this trip.  Anyway, my AirBnb host didn’t seem at all upset and didn’t want to take any money for replacing the keys.

Next up I moved to Spitalfields, primarily because I had read about the markets and Brick Lane and hadn’t ever been to that side of the city. The room I booked was in an artist’s apartment that was on the ground floor but I kind of wished hadn’t been – it was a pretty rough area with tall housing estate-type flats all around and several loud arguments happened during each night, as well as people driving like maniacs and revving their engines up and down nearby streets. The flat had two rooms for rent and in the other one was a young woman who talked loudly on her phone for hours each evening. I was very glad I’d brought my headphones. I have a feeling the young artist also liked to cook a lot of stir fries as the kitchen had that patina of oil that comes with spattery cooking – it meant nothing seemed properly clean and I ended up eating out for most meals and avoiding the kitchen.

The street art in the area was pretty amazing though!

After Spitalfields I left London for a night to visit family but then came back for two nights in Camden at an odd little apartment that also had two single rooms for rent and was advertised as women-only. It was in a terrace house that had clearly been hastily divided. The hallway was half the normal width and a few of the doors barely opened wide enough to get through. The whole place was decorated in pink, although not to a crazy level, and the window in my room didn’t open. It wouldn’t have mattered except the weather was in the high 20s each day and the room became rather stuffy. It also had a foam mattress, which didn’t help with cooling down. The young woman who lived there spent a lot of time in her room with the tv playing loudly but the door ajar – as it was directly opposite my room it meant I kept my door shut all the time. The bathroom was also adjacent, which meant every sound came through the walls too. Lucky I’m a heavy sleeper!

On my last day I left all my luggage and caught the tube to Heathrow to meet Luke and then left him at a cafe in Camden while I went to retrieve my bag then we walked to the next place, which was only a few blocks away.

Our last AirBnb was definitely the best, with a super friendly host, a decent sized room with lots of light, and a good quality mattress. It also offered, much to my excitement, a choice of quilts of varying thicknesses. None of the other properties I stayed in offered anything except a winter-weight quilt, all of which were far too hot for summer nights.

Really, AirBnb isn’t far different from staying in hotels – you get what you pay for and it’s always worth booking as early as possible. When travelling alone it is nice to have a friendly host to chat to and ask for advice. Also, if you’re coming to London it doesn’t really matter which part of London you stay in as the public transport is so frequent  so picking a nice place close to a train station is really the key thing to do. That being said, as the weather got hotter the Tube became almost unbearably stuffy and I wasn’t sorry to be leaving London for Cambridge!