Archive for July, 2011

Venice

Getting to Venice from Ljubljana took a lot longer than expected. Due to reasons unknown there is no direct train line between the two cities. Subsequently Chris and I had to take a train from Ljubljana to a small town called Villach just across the border in Austria. Upon our arrival we discovered that the all the coaches to Venice were fully booked for the next four hours. Neither of us much fancied walking around Villach, especially when you are carrying your life in a large backpack, so we spent the duration sat in the train station drinking crap coffee and eating expensive sandwiches.

Following a further four hours on a coach we arrived in Venice. We had booked to stay in Ostello Venezia which is on the island of Giudecca rather than the main part of Venice so we had to take a boat there. Like everything else in Venice the boats are pretty expensive, €18 for a 24 hour pass. Not all that great when you only plan on using in a handful of times.

First impressions of the hostel weren’t all that great. The staff seemed pretty indifferent to our presence and there were only two showers on our floor. There was also a 9pm curfew although this didn’t seem to be very rigorously enforced. On a positive note they did offer pasta and pizza for dinner in the hostel which was considerably cheaper than eating out in town.

Breakfast the next morning was one of worst I have had in any hostel on this trip. The cereal tasted like cardboard and wasn’t helped by the warm milk. The coffee was just some brown water. Following this bad start to the morning we got onto a boat and headed for the main part of Venice.

First impression: Venice smells a bit odd.

First thought: Strange place to built a town. Seems like a lot of hard work to me.

Venice is certainly a pretty town, it just isn’t very “cool” and there isn’t much to do other than look around the place. Everything looks the same as well so it’s pretty easy to get lost. We had a terrible map which didn’t really help matters. Imagine you are on Google Maps, search for “Venice” and then zoom out as far as you can. That gives a pretty accurate impression of the map we had.

The Canal Grande is the cities main waterway and is where most of the crowds seem to gather. Chris and I walked along it for a while but quite quickly got annoyed by the number of slow walking people. Pushing them into the canal is frowned upon and causes a terrible mess.

The Grand Canal

Once you get away from the main tourist hot spots everthing looks exactly the same. Even with a decent maps it would be pretty easy to get lost as there are no good points of reference. Parts of the city looks pretty dilapidated and like they could sink into the water at any moment. Plenty of buildings are covered in scaffolding, presumably as they are having work done on them to prevent said subsidence.

There are hundreds of bars and restaurants but everything is very expensive and nothing really stands out. After a brief stop for a lasagne we did some more walking but got bored pretty quickly and decided to head back to the hostel.

The not quite so grand canal.

We got on one of the boats which was taking a long route back to Giudecca. This is actually one of the best ways to see Venice as you avoid all slow walking tourists (although the boats can get pretty packed as well).

In the evening we went out for pizza and wine at a restaurant next to the hostel.

Top tip 1: eating on Giudecca is cheaper than the main island.

Top tip 2: avoid drinking beer, it is ludicrously expensive. €6 or more for a “pint” seems to be the norm. The wine is much cheaper and even the cheap stuff is of a decent quality.

Back at the hostel Chris and I polished off two more bottles of red (each) and played cards for several hours with our fellow travellers. Concentration and level of skill decreased at a steady pace.

End.

15/07/2011 at 5:37 pm 1 comment

Ljubljana

We arrived in Ljubljana mid afternoon, and thanks to some excellent planning it was only a 10 minute walk from the main station to the M14 Alibi Hostel.

Ljubljana is a very small for a capital city with a population of just 270,000, making it only slightly larger than Reading, but much nicer (and less stabby).

Our first stop of the day was Ljubljanski grad which is yet another of Europe’s fine castles. According to the ever reliable Wikipedia the hill on which it is build was first fortified by the Romans in the year “fucking ages ago BC”. The castle in its current form dates to the 15th Century and was used by the Habsburgs to defend against invasion from the Ottomans. Travelling around Europe pretty much all the major castles I have seen have been built by the Habsburgs to defend against the Ottoman Empire.

Ljubljana Castle, complete with 15th Century restaurant.

The Castle has everything that the Habsburgs would have needed, including a gift shop, a fancy restaurant and some trendy modern art. You also get a great view over the city from which you can see the Ottoman horde approaching from the east. Unfortunately they Habsburgs didn’t think to put in any disabled access and subsequently getting up to (and down from) the castle is a bit of a steep climb. On the way down it would be particularly easy to slip and fall into a ravine.

Following a trip to the Castle we wondered through the Old Town and made our way to Tivoli Park which is the largest park in Ljubljana. Here we watched a mischievous Crow empty one of the bins onto the floor in search of food. Clever lad.

Another sight worth seeing is the Dragon Bridge so called because of the four dragons which sit on it’s corners. Built between 1900 and 1901 it is a simple yet fine piece of design.

In the evening we ate at a traditional Bosnian restaurant called Harambasa, as you do when in Slovenia. I can’t remember the name of the main meal but it was some kind of sausage served up with onions and cheese. Very tasty indeed. Dessert was essentially a flapjack and again had some name that I can’t remember.

A fellow traveller had recommended that we check out Lake Bled whilst in Slovenia. Staff at the hostel told us that we could catch a bus to Bled at 10:30am, so we got up at a reasonable hour and headed down to the station only to be informed that the next bus was not until 12:30pm. This would actually work out in out favour as we hadn’t yet had breakfast that morning. We headed back into the city centre and sat by the river eating croissants and drinking coffee.

We eventually got to Lake Bled which is only about 55km from Ljubljana. The Lake itself is not as big as I had imagined but it is extremely impressive looking. The water is a fantastic blue colour that I have never before seen on a lake and the town of Bled is dwarfed by the mountains behind it.

Impressive lake is impressive.

A castle overlooks the lake from the northern shore and in the middle of the lake is an island with a church on it. It is possible to get a boat there but Chris and I just decided to walk around instead. It only took us 90 minutes to complete the walk including all the time spent taking millions of photographs. If I’m lucky there might even be a few good ones.

As wonderful as Lake Bled looks it is slightly spoilt by the number of tourists. There is a tarmac path/road that goes all the way around it meaning that it is easily accessible by old people and small children. Considering the number of tourists the place is still extremely clean and you can go swimming in the lake, although I imagine it to be extremely cold.

We only had two days in Slovenia and we only really scratched the surface it what it has to offer. Despite this it is one of the nicest places I have visited on the trip. Certainly worth further exploration.

12/07/2011 at 6:55 pm Leave a comment

Zagreb

The journey from Split to Zagreb is a rather tedious affair. There are only two trains per day which crawl along at a very slow pace. The main problem seems to be that there is only a single line of track for the majority of the journey. Just a thought, but maybe putting in a second line would be a good idea?

Checked into Buzz Hostel which was about a 30 minute walk from the central train station. The hostel and the staff were very pleasant but we were given a really crappy map of the city. Due to some poor planning on our part Chris and I hadn’t eaten all day. This seems to happen quite a lot when you are travelling around all the time. Probably not healthy, but keeping hydrated with a steady supply of Ice Tea is far more important anyway. We didn’t much fancy walking back into the town centre so we found a pub not too far from the hostel and settled down to some steak and chips. By the time we had finished the meal I was getting some pretty serious cravings for Ice Tea so we stopped off at a supermarket and picked up some supplies.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a banana and a snickers bar, as you do. Chocolate for breakfast is probably a little bit mental. I wouldn’t even consider doing it at home.

First stop of the day was at a place called Bookska, essentially a bookshop with a coffee shop in it. Very cool and trendy. Not like those Waterstone’s bookshops you see selling corporate death coffees. I suspect a place like Bookska would probably last about 10 minutes in the UK and then Starbucks would move in across the street and force it out of business.

Lonely Planet says that the number one sight in Zagreb is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary so Chris and I thought we should probably check it out. I’m sure it is probably really nice, but we arrived to find that the Croatians have ruined it by covering it in scaffolding. Clearly it is still a work in progress.

Ruined!

Zagreb Old Town is is very pretty and not nearly as busy as Dubrovnik or Split. Being away from the coast it doesn’t get as many tourists. Saint Marks Church is one of the highlights. Surprisingly for a European church it wasn’t covered in scaffolding. The majority of the church is plain white, but it is the patterned tiled roof which really impresses. It’s one the the nicest churches I’ve seen on this trip. Simple in it’s design but very effective. We also stopped at the Lotrščak Tower. It was built in the 13th century and served as a watch tower to keep an eye on any Turkish army which may want to attack the city. Sensibly the tower is on top of a hill and you get a pretty good view over the city. You can pay to go up the tower if you want a view from even higher up but it probably isn’t necessary.

We stopped for lunch at Tip Top, another Lonely Planet recommendation. The special of the day was octopus goulash which I obviously had to try. Chris went for the classic meat stuffed with meat stuffed with cheese. Fantastic food and great service. Next time you are in Zagreb pay it a visit.

To walk off the vast quantity of food we had consumed we took a casual stroll through the cities botanical gardens before heading back to the hostel.

Zagreb's botanical garden

Our room was empty when we got back and it looked like a good nights sleep might be on the cards. Unfortunately we were woken up at 6am by five British girls checking in and then liberally scattering their suitcases all over the floor. It turned out that their train from Budapest had been “slightly” delayed. They also told us that they didn’t like Budapest which led me and Chris to believe that they either hadn’t looked around the city of had spent the whole time blind drunk and consequently didn’t remember anything. Being British I suspect that the latter statement is probably true.

Having stocked up on food and drink at the local supermarket Chris and I headed off to Maksimir park where we spent a good part of the day. One of the boating lakes contained a load of turtles which was pretty cool. In England someone would have stolen them by now.

We also paid a visit to Mirogoj cemetary. Not the kind of place you go to every day. Franjo Tuđman the first President of the Croatian Republic is buried there so we paid his grave a visit. The whole place is very impressive looking and well maintained. A couple of things I noticed; many of the graves contained entire families, others contained two families. Stranger still were the tombs which had names of still living people engraved on them. Not sure I’m too keen on that idea.

Having done a fair amount of walking throughout the day we decided to eat somewhere close to the hostel in the evening. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the place but the food was very good.

Heading back to the hostel we found the “lasses on tour” sat around the room drinking before a night out on the town. They claimed they were getting a train to Split the next day at 7:50am. Needless to say they didn’t wake up in time, much to my amusement.

08/07/2011 at 9:32 pm Leave a comment

Split

The bus journey from Dubrovnik to Split provides some fantastic views of the Croatian coastline. I also had three litres of lemon Ice Tea to keep me company. Along the way we passed through many smalls towns and villages which I’m sure would be worth visiting if you were looking to go to a quiet and less touristy destination. Unfortunately I don’t have any photographs of the coastline as It’s pretty difficult to take decent pictures through a bus window. At this point doing a Google Images search would probably be a good idea.

The journey to Split took about 4.5 hours which isn’t too bad considering it’s all along coastal roads and the bus can’t get up to any decent speed.
Upon our arrival we headed to Hostel Booze & Snooze located in the Old Town of Split. Although it was less than 1km from the station it took a little while to find due to Google Maps being completely useless.

After checking in we headed out to Buffet Fife which was recommended by the hostel staff. It is a traditional Croatian restaurant with great food and service. Chris opted for the pašticada and I went for the beef goulash. Being in Europe we got talking to our waiter about football. He was a big fan of Hajduk Split and hated arch rivals Dinamo Zagreb. Fans of Hajduk Split are seen as a little bit crazy by other Croatians and I got the impression that they were somewhat militant in their support of the team due to the large number of murals that are painted around the city. Perhaps they are just very passionate?

Hajduk Split, "difficult place to go on a Tuesday night", (Football Cliché)

In the evening we headed to a bar called Charlie’s which is popular with travellers. As seems to be the norm Chris and I rocked up to the bar far too early and found the place looking pretty empty. After and hour of so things picked up and we got talking to some cool Irish lads who were also on their travels. Got back to the hostel late. Drunk.

Woke up and headed to a place called Tonik for some breakfast. Very pretentious spelling it with a “K” but I think I can forgive them as the food and drink was excellent. The places has an extensive menu of smoothies and fresh juice as well as a solid selection of sandwiches. The B.L.T and strawberry smoothie was greatly needed to get the taste of stale beer out of my mouth. If you’re ever in Split make sure you check this place out.

In order to walk off the B.L.T we decided to walk up a big hill which overlooks the city. From there you can get a good view of the Old Town and and harbour. Split isn’t a very big place at all. Population just 227,000.

Walking around the Old Town and harbour is very pleasant. It is an attractive looking city and there are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from.

Diocletian’s Palace which was built during the 4th century AD is well worth a look. The cellars now serve as a market selling all kinds of crap that I definitely wouldn’t want to buy. Other people seemed very interested though. Considering its age the whole thing is surprisingly well preserved.

Diocletian’s Palace. Apparently he used to hold some wicked parties here.

We headed to the train station in the afternoon to try and get reservations for our journey to Zagreb the next day. However, we were told that we couldn’t get reservations as we did not have our Inter Rail tickets with us. This is stupid for a number of reasons which I won’t go into and I decided that it probably wasn’t worth getting into an arguement about. No need to spoil diplomatic relations with Croatia.

It was still a little too early to have dinner so we stopped for coffee along the harbour and did a spot of people watching. This is always a good way to pass the time. In other news, Croatian coffee tastes suspiciously like espresso.

Next destination, Zagreb…

08/07/2011 at 12:16 am Leave a comment

Dubrovnik

There is no train station in Dubrovnik. The train line which used to go there was closed in 1976. Not sure why. As a result it is not the easiest of places to get to, unless you are travelling by aeroplane.

The journey from Sofia to Dubrovnik is just over 700km. A similar length journey would be to travel from Truro to Newcastle. Unfortunately the shoddy infrastructure of the Balkans makes the whole experience somewhat frustrating.

Act 1: Our first task would be to get from Sofia to Belgrade. Based on previous experience of what is now known as the “informal Serbian train network”, Chris and I were not particularly looking forward to this stage of the journey. On most international trains it is a requirement that you get a seat reservation, which I assume is to avoid overcrowding. They only cost a couple of Euros so it isn’t a big deal. Unfortunately the Europeans have no idea how reservations work. They just sit anywhere regardless of what the tickets say which renders the whole thing a complete waste of time.

Anyway, we did get a seat on the train although it was not the one we had been assigned. Even the ticket inspectors don’t seem to care. We shared a cabin with an American who was also travelling around Europe and a German who was returning to Belgrade where he worked. Long boring train journeys are an excellent way to meet people. It’s not something you could ever do in England though. Start talking to a random stranger and everyone else on the train would think you were mad. You’d soon be carted off and thrown in the loony bin.

After about 12 hours we arrived in Belgrade. We had booked a room for the night at the Backpackers Lounge where we had stayed on our previous visit. By the time we checked in it was close to midnight so we pretty much went straight to bed.

Act 2: The next day would prove to be even more fun than I could have hoped for. The train to Bar (in Montenegro) was at 10am so we had a reasonably early start in order to get to the station on time. Much to our delight when we got to the station the train was already there waiting. More impressively it actually left on time. Unfortunately this was about as good as it got.

In my previous post on Belgrade I commented on how “uninspiring” the countryside is. Turns out that it is just the northern part of Serbia which is dull. The further south you get the more spectacular the scenery gets. Unfortunately the rolling hills, mountains and thick forests don’t quite make up for the heavy train delays. Part of the problem is that large sections of the track are a single line meaning that you have to stop to let other trains go past. I’d call it bad planning. Other times you seem to stop for no reason at all. At this point all the Serbs get off the train and have a cigarette break, walking along the tracks like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Although thinking about it Serbian trains only travel at 20mph so you’d probably be OK if one hit you.

The border crossing into Montenegro is also one big hilarious joke. The Serbian authorities seem hell bent on ruining everyone’s day and causing the biggest delay possible.

By the time we got to Bar train station it was midnight. A total journey time of 14 hours had covered a distance of just 473km (similar to travelling between Bournemouth and Leeds). Ahead of us we had a 3km walk to the hostel. Getting around in the Balkans is not easy.

Bar is a tiny town in the ass end of nowhere. Population just 13,000. Quite why we had decided to stay there is beyond me. Granted we were walking around in the dark but there seemed to be absolutely nothing of any interest.

It was close to 1am when we rocked up to the hostel finding the place to be pretty deserted. Fortunately at that point two Swedish guys, who were also staying at the hostel, turned up and let us in. Apparently the hostel staff had all gone out drinking for the evening and wouldn’t be back until late. Chris and I stayed up for an hour or so talking to the Swedish guys about football and our travel plans. Eventually we decided that it might be a good idea to get some sleep as we had another days travelling ahead of us. One of the dorm rooms had been left unlocked so we went in and crashed out for the night.

Act 3: Wake up. Finding someone to pay proved to be our first challenge of the day. We also didn’t have any cash so we headed into town in the hope of finding an ATM. Bar is even worse in the daylight. At night you can’t see how crappy and concrete it looks. The night before the Swedish guys had told us that there was a beach somewhere which was apparently OK, but apart from that there is nothing else to do. Fortunately we found a cash machine at a nearby supermarket, withdrew €80 and then headed back to the hostel. Having packed up our things we found a member of staff who we paid for the nights stay and enquired about the best way to get to Dubrovnik. We were told to take a bus to Podgorica. From there we could get a bus to Herceg Novi and finally a bus to Dubrovnik.

Having stocked up on food and drink we made the walk back to Bar station where we would be able to catch the bus to Podgorica. Annoyingly the train we had taken the previous day had passed through Podgorica. If only we had planned things a little better we could have spent the night there and saved ourselves some effort.

Turns out the buses in the Balkans are a lot better than the trains. They run more frequently, are on time and many of them have air conditioning. The connection to Podgorica only took one hour.

Next challenge was to get to Herceg Novi, another crappy town, but conveniently located just 48km from Dubrovnik. Although it took us about 4 hours to get there it was one of the more enjoyable parts of the journey. The views of the Montenegrin coast are wonderful especially around the towns of Budva and Kotor.

At the hostel in Bar we had been informed by the receptionist that buses from Herceg Novi regularly run to Dubrovnik. However we arrived to find that there are only two buses per day and we had already missed them both. Perhaps in the Balkans this is considered a regular service.
As we didn’t much fancy hanging around in Herceg Novi for the night we jumped in a taxi and headed off to Dubrovnik. It cost us another €40 but at least we eventually got there.

Dubrovnik: We had booked three nights in the Begovic Boarding House situated on the top of a big hill. It was more of an apartment than a hostel, but it was good to get a decent nights sleep after all the travelling we had done.

Although Dubrovnik is one of the smaller cities we have visited with a population of just 43,000 it feels fairly spread out along the coast line.

Dubrovnik Harbour


Before Chris and I embarked on this tour of Europe Dubrovnik was one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting. All the hype suggests that it is brilliant and I was worried about being let down. Fortunately Dubrovnik does not disappoint. It really is a beautiful city.

The main attraction is Stari Grad (The Old Town) and the Harbour. Unfortunately it was shelled by the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) during the 1991 Croatian War of Independence. The siege lasted for around seven months killing 114 people and leaving thousands more homeless. Repairs to the city were done in the original style and completed by 2005. Apparently if you stand on the hills above the city you can tell by the colour of the roofs which buildings have been recently repaired.

The only problem with the Old Town is the number of tourists. You can hear every language other than Croatian, and personally I don’t blame the locals for staying away. Dubrovnik is certainly a city I would visit again, but perhaps next time I would do so out of the main holiday season.

Too many tourists.

To get away from the crowds Chris and I stopped for something to eat and drink. Although it is more expensive to eat in the Old Town it isn’t unreasonably priced and the food and service was very good.

Having eaten a sufficient quantity of food we decided to head to the supermarket and pick up some bits a pieces for the morning. I have developed a serious addiction to Ice Tea and hadn’t had my fix for the day. Three litres seemed like an entirely reasonable amount. Going back to England is going to be an issue as Ice Tea seems to be quite hard to come by. I guess I’ll have to start importing it.

In the afternoon we headed down to the beach for a swim. Unfortunately it is a pebble beach which meant that I couldn’t build a sandcastle or dig a massive hole for people to fall in. I’m not one of those people who can just sit on the beach and sunbathe, partly because I would just get burnt but also because it is excruciatingly dull. Taking the Kindle down to the beach was also a big “no no” as I’d almost certainly get salt water on/in it. Bobbing about in the sea with no intent or purpose is much more interesting and an excellent location for people watching.

View towards the pebble beach.

I realise that most of this blog just consists of a list of things that I have eaten, so just for a change here is another restaurant recommendation. Buono is a fine eatery away from the main tourist attractions. It seemed to be very popular with the locals which is always a good sign. The menu is extensive, possibly even too large, meaning that you might accidentally order everything. I hadn’t eaten a lasagne since Copenhagen and decided that it was the right time to give in to the cravings. It was definitely a good choice and proof that you can never have too much cheese.

I can’t really fault Dubrovnik itself, the only problem for Chris and I was getting there in the first place. Beautiful town, lovely people and good food. Good first impression from Croatia.

Next destination, Split…

03/07/2011 at 7:00 pm Leave a comment


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