Balkans Day 8 – Dubrovnik
18th September 2018
Last night was an accommodation fail. The apartment is over a hostel bar where they played music so loud the walls vibrated and then shouted to be heard over the music until 2 am. By 7 am the church bells were ringing and the neighbour was singing. The bed is uncomfortable and there’s no hot water. Lack of sleep and a cold shower has made me grumpy. To make matters worse, the old man decides against the cold shower, so the apartment smells of sweaty old man.
Breakfast is ‘included’ – this means the owner has left some eggs and jam in the fridge. There’s no bread but we can go and collect some from his mother’s shop.
After we have cooked our eggs we pack and trek back to the car. Leaving Kotor is hard work. The Queen Victoria, a cruise ship literally bigger than the town, is moored outside the town and its thousands of disembarking passengers are simultaneously attempting to cram themselves in through the gate as we are fighting against the tide.
We only have a 57 mile drive today across the border to Croatia and the city of Dubrovnik. The first 30 miles hug the Bay of Kotor; a beautiful kind of figure of 8 kink in the Adriatic. At the Croatian border there’s an element of schadenfreude; having been queue jumped by so many Albanians yesterday, the Albanian in front of us today gets denied entry.
It’s a relief to be back in the EU where my phone works for free (it cost £4 to send a text in Montenegro), we can buy petrol that doesn’t make the car sad and it’s compulsory to label allergens in food. Meals will no longer involve poking and prodding unidentifiable ingredients trying to determine if it might be nuts. My normal routine, if I am unsure, is to ask the old man to taste it. This is not a failsafe way to avoid anaphylactic shock as; (1) he isn’t very good at determining the contents (this morning almond pastries were identified as cream cheese) and (2) if it tastes good, he says it contains nuts so he doesn’t have to share.
We reach Dubrovnik and try and find somewhere to park. It’s the hardest place I’ve ever tried to park and I’ve lived in 3 capital cities. We do a full circuit of the one way system. All the parking is for residents only. On our 2nd circuit we find public parking but it’s 1000 Kuna. That’s £120! We stop by the ticket barrier while I Google if I’ve actually got the exchange rate right (I have), so we go round a third time. We finally find a hotel that will let non residents park for a mere £15.
It is only a kilometre to our apartment; Blue Lagune, but it is all up steps. Hundreds of steps. In 31 degrees. With luggage. By the time we arrive we are very sweaty. But the owner is there with very welcome glasses of cold orange juice. It’s a small apartment but it opens onto a balcony overlooking the old city.
We sit for a while admiring Dubrovnik from above, then set forth to explore. This requires many more steps. Dubrovnik is very pretty, but very expensive. It is peppered with more cashpoints than a Vegas casino. We wander around admiring the quaint narrow streets and old buildings.
We take a cooling walk along the seafront overlooking the forested island of Lokrum and stop for a while to admire a surfing dog.
Then it’s time to ascend the hundreds of steps a second time, stopping at the supermarket to purchase a healthy supper of sausage rolls and beer, which is consumed on the balcony watching the sun set over Dubrovnik and Lokrum.
Balkans Day 12 – Split
22nd September 2018
Today, after breakfast in the fake forest, we return to Croatia and the city of Split. We settle our bill, which comes with a free pipe (never know when that will come in handy) and depart.
Once out of Sarajevo, we drive along the Neretva river until the SatNav tells us to turn right, into the mountains. We climb and climb and climb. The views are spectacular. Eventually the road becomes a gravel track and we have to pick our way along 4 km of trail. It’s so ‘off road’ that after a long period of not seeing another vehicle, we start to get passed by 4x4s with drivers and co-drivers wearing helmets. We’re caught up in some sort of Paris-Dakar style rally.
Finally we reach the top, there’s an archway, the tarmac appears and we’re on a beautiful plateau with Swiss style chalets dotted around. It’s like we’ve driven through the gateway to another world.
We reach a fork in the road. Split is to the right but the road is closed, so we have no alternative other than turn left and begin our descent in the wrong direction. At the bottom is a small town with a border crossing. It has no queue and we sail straight through. We have driven miles off course but gained much of the lost time back not having to queue at the border.
Shortly after arriving in Croatia, we are on a pristine motorway with tarmac so shiny and smooth I could kiss it, although it’s 29 degrees so it would probably burn my lips. We descend further until we finally reach the coast and Split.
As if karma has decided to give us a break, just as we pull up outside our guesthouse; Vrlic, in the old town where parking is notoriously bad, a space becomes vacant and the landlady appears and tells us if we put £1 in the meter, that’ll cover us for the weekend (as parking is free from 2.30 on Saturday to the rather random time of 6.47 on Monday morning).
It has taken us just short of 5 hours to cover the 150 miles from Sarajevo, so we’re a little frazzled but Split is such a lovely place that it doesn’t take long to unwind.
Two things I know about Split; (1) it’s by the sea and (2) it has Roman stuff. We start with the Roman stuff; Diocletian’s Palace to be more precise. It’s a fortified town – a square with a gate on each side and containing hundreds of shops and restaurants.
The key buildings are in the middle. One ticket costs around £5.50 and covers entry all of them. Starting in the Peristil; a colonnaded courtyard, to the left is the octagonal Cathedral of St Donmius, built in the 4th century as a Roman mausoleum.
Next to it is a bell tower. It’s 57 metres high and a bit like a wedding cake, with each tier smaller than the one below. It you’re brave, you can can climb a narrow, winding metal staircase to the top.
I manage about two thirds before I end up clinging to a flimsy bannister unable to continue.
After our Roman white knuckle ride, we exit the city gate to the promenade and watch the hustle and bustle in the harbour with boat tours, ferries and cruise ships all jostling for position.
We round off the afternoon by climbing the 250 steps to the viewpoint in Marjan Forest Park. It’s hard work, but worth it for the great view over the city and the harbour. Also, there’s a bar at the top where you can take a drink whilst further enjoying the view.
Then we return to our guesthouse via a sculpture by the Croatian artist Ivan Mestrovic; Gregory of Nin. He’s supposed to bring you luck if you touch his toe but he’s surrounded by a Chinese tour group and they’re taking no prisoners. So we return to our room where I fight a losing battle with a very unpredictable shower attachment – maybe I should have held out for a go on Gregory’s toe after all?
Balkans Day 13 – Split
23rd September 2018
The last few days have been quite busy, so today is a day without driving or city sightseeing. We walk along the Split seafront to the enormous Marjan Forest Park, stopping for an al fresco breakfast on a picnic bench on the prom. It’s almost like being back in Bournemouth, except it’s a sunny 28 degrees.
We visit the former home of Ivan Mestrovic where plenty of his sculptures are on display. A game the old man likes to play with sculptures: to stand next to it mimicking the pose. Either Mestrovic had some very flexible friends or else a vivid imagination. He also appears to have had an aversion for wearing clothes.
We wander round the villa admiring his work, stop for a drink in the little café overlooking the sea, then continue to the Kastelet. Here, a small chapel houses more of his work including a series of carved wooden panels depicting the life of Jesus. A £5 ticket covers both venues.
By now, the heat is beginning to defeat us so we walk back into town, stopping to cool down with a tub of Slag ice cream -not likely to catch on in the UK…
I’m so sweaty it’s time to do battle with the shower once again. An invention that hasn’t reached the Balkans: the shower head attachment. Here, you have to hold the shower in your hand. Despite several tries, I can’t work out how to wash my hair. I have failed to do it one handed, and any attempt to put the shower down results in it turning into a crazy snake and spraying water all over the bathroom and beyond. And as for shaving my legs…
We finish our last day in Split with a walk round the port to the beach of Bacvice. It’s a Blue Flag beach. I’ve obviously misunderstood the criteria for awarding a blue flag, as apparently swimming amongst soggy cigarette butts and used wet wipes is acceptable. We do not stay long.
We return to the edge of Diocletian’s Palace and have dinner at a café called Misto, where I order a fish burger which comes in a black bun. The old man orders fish stew, which also comes in a (very soggy) bun. We finish our strange but tasty dinner and return to our room to pack. Tomorrow we leave the city and head for Plitvice National Park.
Balkans Day 14 – Split to Plitvice NP
24th September 2018
We get up early and set off on the 158 mile drive north to Plitvice National Park. It’s going to be a shock to the system; after 2 weeks of travelling in temperatures around 30 degrees, by night time it will be minus 2.
The majority of today’s route is along the A1, a lovely modern motorway which is a relief after some of the gravel tracks we had to negotiate in Bosnia and Montenegro. It is, however, not cheap. In 100 miles we notch up over £10 in tolls. The drive is another spectacular mountain extravaganza. It’s an incredible piece of engineering, consisting of a series of bridges, raised sections and tunnels. One tunnel is 5800m. That’s more than a parkrun worth of tunnel. On the other side of the tunnel we are met by torrential rain and the temperature has plummeted by 12 degrees.
By the time we reach Plitvice, the weather is hideous; it’s cold, it’s raining, the wind is blowing the trees sideways and visibility is almost nil. Going outside doesn’t seem like a great option, less still communing with nature. We try and check into the guesthouse early but the room isn’t ready, so we buy some bread and cheese and have a picnic in the car in the supermarket car park. An event of great excitement; we fill the car with petrol and the emergency engine light which came on in Albania a week ago finally disappears. The man in Montenegro was right – it was caused by bad petrol.
The nice man from guesthouse Nenad finishes cleaning our room and lets us check in 2 hours early. The view from the window across the forest is nice, which good because I have no intention of leaving the room.
The old man, being old, decides he needs a nap and proceeds to sleep for the entire afternoon. So much for looking forward to leaving the constraints of the city for the great outdoors, I spend the afternoon watching the rain pour down and listening to the old man snore.
In the afternoon, we take a short walk around the edge of the park, find an ATM to pay the hotel bill (Croatia is very much a cash economy, which we aren’t used to, and we spent the last of our cash on petrol), buy some food and retire for the evening. We want to make an early start tomorrow, the National Park isn’t cheap and we’re determined to get our money’s worth.
Balkans Day 15 – Plitvice NP
25th September 2018
We get up early (not a problem as we have already been woken by the man next door being violently sick) and set off to Plitvice Lakes National Park; a chain of 16 lakes linked by waterfalls.
Once we have bought our ticket and selected which route to follow, we are taken by shuttle bus into the park. The bus consists of three carriages and we’re in the back one which is quite disconcerting; the driver slows down for bends then accelerates out of them, which means we accelerate into the bends, which feels wrong.
Once in the park, we commence our walk around the lakes. It’s not as easy as I’d expected because much of the route consists of boardwalks constructed from logs, they’re uneven and not particularly flat, so walking on them requires concentration.
The lakes, however are magnificent. When we arrive, there is still mist hanging over the water. As the mist clears, the turquoise colour of the lakes becomes apparent. The autumnal colour changing of the tree leaves adds to the palette on display. A bonus of all yesterday’s rain is that the waterfalls are in full flow.
After a lovely two hour walk, we reach a jetty where a boat takes us to the top end of the lake. It is now midday. Up until this point, we have had a wonderful morning. However, once we land, we are in tour group hell. There are literally thousands of people, mostly in groups, attempting to walk in the opposite direction along the narrow boardwalks, with no handrails, suspended over the lakes. We spend an hour fighting our way along the boardwalks, while gangs of tour groups push and barge, stop to take photos, then push and barge some more.
By the time we reach the top, I have a headache from the whole ordeal of trying not to be knocked into a lake by someone with a Nikon with a foot long lens, who has just spotted a duck. We exit the park, stop at the village store for provisions and return to our guesthouse for tea on the balcony.
It has been a mixed day; Plitvice is beautiful but there needs to be a limit on visitor numbers, or a one way system in place for a visit to be a totally pleasant experience.
Balkans Day 18 – Zagreb
28th September 2018
We have reached the farthest point of our journey. Now to start the 1000 km drive back to Skopje. Today is our third and final visit to Croatia, to the capital city of Zagreb. It’s all motorway, so progress is rapid but dull. After days of yearning for a decent road as we picked our way along Bosnian goat tracks and Albanian roadworks, I’m bored of motorways now. The old man alleviates the the boredom briefly by taking a wrong turn and accidentally heading for Austria.
We find our way back onto the Zagreb road, cross the border and reach our destination by 10.30. Lonely Planet doesn’t have much to say about Zagreb, which is fine as I am out of clean underwear. So, first port of call is the laundrette. While I’m waiting for the machines, I admire the communist era statues in nearby Strossmayer Square.
Armed with clean pants, we check in to our B&B; 4CityWindows, which is run by a lovely couple. We are in the Cartoon Room which features hand drawn cartoons from war time animated films.
Our hosts help us plan a route to visit the old city and we set forth to peruse the various churches, notable buildings and parks. It’s a pleasant walk as most of the roads are pedestrian and there are plenty of parks and squares. After visiting the cathedral and the market, we take the funicular to the upper town, where we accidentally get caught up in the filming of a documentary.
Next, we head for the intriguingly named Museum of Broken Relationships (somewhat ironically in Dverce street). People donate items which remind them of the end of a relationship, together with an explanation. There’s quite a range on display from the moving (a mother’s suicide letter, a court document from a child raped by someone she trusted) to the more humorous (a Divorce Day mad dwarf thrown at an ex’s new car).
My guide book describes the museum as ‘quirky and innovative’. While some of it is interesting and poignant, there are many long-winded self- indulgent explanations of failed love affairs. Frankly, I can think of better ways to spend £5.
After another gourmet dinner (calzones, purchased in the market, sitting on a fountain), we return to our B&B to shower and repack ready for tomorrow’s drive to our 8th and final country; Serbia.