No air-bridge for our budget flight, but we were treated to yet another beautiful, clear, crisp, early autumn morning as we boarded our flight to Dubrovnik. Although the English have been complaining about the heat this year, they must surely appreciate this Indian summer weather.
From the outside, Stansted looks like a fairly small terminal. It isn’t on the scale of Heathrow, but it is much bigger that it seems. It is, however, very traveller friendly, and far better organised than other, much larger European airports.
Customs in Dubrovnik was relatively painless; again a small airport with high volume traffic and well organised processes. Our Airbnb host was to meet us at the Main Bus station in the city. We were sceptical, because we have never been managed to have a pre-arranged pick-up actually work. But against all odds, there he was, Luka, our man!
Our home for the next few days is a thoroughly modern little apartment on the hillside just a 15 minute walk from the old city, a very Mediterranean little compound with grape vines and fruit trees.
Our bus made a stop in the centre of the old city. Thousands of tourists were massed in the small square at the bus station, lined up behind guides waving numbered paddles in the air. Oh no! Our worst fear. Cruise ships! Sure enough, as we approached our stop, the Main Bus station at the harbour, there they were, lined up in their multi-storey grossness. Our host, Luka, didn’t seem too happy about the thronging crowds either. His advice was reassuring however. The boats will leave tonight and it will be quiet for a couple of days.
It has to be said, so let’s say it now. Your average Croatian is not one of the world’s happiest souls. Avoiding eye contact, grunting a begrudged greeting to our cheery hello and ignoring our attempts at thank you, which, in Croatian is easy for us, “koala,” or that’s how it sounds. We have encountered this attitude in the past throughout much of Eastern Europe and in some parts of Russia, although it must be said that it as not quite as pervasive in western Russia. Perhaps we have just been a little overwhelmed by our week in England, where everybody is so cheery that it becomes just a little too much of what we call “jolly hockey sticks” behaviour.
14 September, Dubrovnik
Most of our previous travels in Europe have been in the shoulder, or even off season. We have become accustomed to chilly weather, forests of leafless trees and quiet streets with mostly closed shops, restaurants and attractions. This trip, we are just off the top of the peak season, particularly here on the Dalmatian Coast. Dubrovnik was positively drowning in tourists today. Cruise ship shore parties moved through the streets like herds of cattle, tagged with their group number and following a cheery leader waving their numbered paddle. More subtle were the electronically tethered groups with their earpieces and chest mounted receivers all radio-tuned to their guru. There were still a few umbrella- waving Asian group leaders, steering their highly-disciplined charges along the ancient streets of this beautiful city.
Who can begrudge the good citizens of Dubrovnik this tourism bounty? Less than a quarter of a century ago the city was under siege, its ancient city walls and narrow, medieval streets shelled and bombed, in the worst European war since the end of WWII. So, pack a stack of cash or a big credit card limit before you take to the hot crowded streets of modern Dubrovnik, because its good citizens are out to make up for their losses.
For younger folk, there is a lot to do in the pristine waters around the city. Armadas of kayaks paddle around the beautiful rocky cliffs, jet-skis zoom hither and non and thousands of sun lovers lounge on the beaches. The less adventurous wander the narrow streets and steep lanes and gasp at the panoramas that can be seen from the 2kms of city walls.
High summer here must be almost unbearable. It was a beautiful day today with a forecast temperature of 29C. But down amongst the white, reflective floors and walls of the crowded city, the “feels like” temperature was more like 35C.
We had planned just one day for Dubrovnik itself and that was all we needed as it turned out. Tomorrow we are off into Bosnia and Herzegovina to the city of Mostar, another place that fell victim to the horrors of the 1992-5 Homeland War.
15 September, Dubrovnik
An early indication of the political complexity of the Balkans was the fact that our tour today was to include six border crossings. Our bus pickup point was just a couple of minutes away from our apartment, so we were away quick enough in what was to be a very long and somewhat confusing day. We were travelling to the Bosnia and Herzegovina city of Mostar, just 90 kms from Dubrovnik.
Our guide was an extremely well informed and articulate young woman who was very keen for her charges to gain some understanding of the history of the Balkans and of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. From what we can gather the problems of the region started from the first time roaming Slavic tribes from the north moved into the peninsula about 600AD. Previously, coastal ports like Dubrovnik and Split had been settled by the Ancient Greeks and then the Romans. What the Slavs bought to the region was an unsettled tribal settlement pattern that was to prove difficult enough, but added to this mix, the invasion of the Ottoman Turks and, much later the Austro-Hungarians and the stew becomes frightfully lumpy!
Today the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is really two clearly-defined geographical regions, Bosnia and Herzegovina, plus two internal republics, one Serbian Orthodox Christian and one Bosniak Muslim. The republics form a federation, but are not adjacent geographically. They are determined by the ethnic mix of an area. Simple enough so far? Wait, there is more. Bosnia and Herzegovina has three Presidents, one Bosniak Muslim, one Serbian Orthodox and one Croatian Catholic. Yes there are significant numbers of Croatians in B-H, about 20%, so they get a say as well, but not their own internal Republic. These Presidents rotate through the position.
In Mostar, as in many other cities in the Balkans, the scars of the Homeland War of 1992-95, at least the physical ones, can still be seen. While most of the beautiful old town has been rebuilt, there are still bombed-out buildings everywhere and shrapnel scars on many other buildings.
We were lucky enough to be able to engage a group of young people in Mostar in an interesting conversation about how modern B&H works. To cut a very long and very frank conversation short, it doesn’t. The contrast between Croatia and B&H is stark. As soon as we crossed the border , housing standards declined dramatically, deserted factories haunted the outskirts of the towns and many houses looked deserted. Apparently B&H is experiencing about 40% unemployment and a serious population decline, as those with marketable skills emigrate to countries in Western Europe.
Despite all of this, Mostar itself is booming. Tourists throng the reconstructed streets of the Old City and marvel at the reconstructed arched bridge over the river that divides the minaret-spiked side of the river from the cross-topped towers on the Christian side. The young people we spoke to told us that they know many people who have never crossed that bridge and they never will.
On the way back through four more border check points, we stopped off at Kravica Waterfalls, nice and very popular with the locals and throngs of tourists as well, but we think we have been spoiled by our recent visit to the Iguazu Falls in Argentina.
16 September, Airbnb, Split, Croatia
Five hours on the bus today, but the scenery along the Dalmatian Coast made it well worth while. We are fairly regular users of long distance bus stations, most notably in South America. Our experiences have almost universally been confusing at the best and simply terrifying at worst. We had high hopes of a far more organised experience here in Croatia. Not to be. Seems bus stations the world over work on the principle of the more chaotic the better.
Despite the crowds of puzzled punters roaming aimlessly along the platform and not at all helpful signage, we did manage to find our bus which, with true European efficiency, departed two minutes early.
Split is a much bigger city than Dubrovnik, so we hope that the thousands of tourists corralled on the cruise boats we passed lurking in the harbour on our way into town will be a little more spread out here. We have never been fans of the notion of cruise ship-based tourism, but that is just a personal travel preference. What we do have a difficulty with is the many thousands of people these ships off-load into popular places like Dubrovnik and the hundreds of other ports around the world they visit. Locals we speak to in many of these popular destinations are also beginning to oppose the massive influx of bodies into their city.
While there is no question that the thousands of tourists delivered to their towns are a financial boon, in many places the numbers are just unmanageable. In Dubrovnik, for example, the city has now restricted the number of ships allowed to off-load passengers to two per day. This was in response to a recent incident where 14,000 visitors were unloaded within a few hours, physically clogging the entrance to the old city, while the hundreds of buses required to move them about blocked the narrow city streets, causing total gridlock.
We understand that local people in other popular destinations such as Venice are having the same reaction. It is impossible to imagine what will happen when the Chinese tourists we are now seeing in fairly small numbers in Europe start arriving en masse.
17 September, Split
The harbour was clear of cruise ships this morning. Those we spotted on our way into town yesterday must have skulked away in the night. This morning we were able to walk the narrow streets of the Palace of Diocletian, the original Roman town, in reasonable peace.
Split is very different in appearance to Dubrovnik. The heart of the old city is the palace itself. Around 3000 people live within the walls of the palace. Over the millennia, they and their predecessors have rebuilt the city, creating a fascinating mix of styles reflecting the major phases of the city’s history.
Much of what we see today seems to have been built using the original Roman building materials. Roman temples have become Cathedrals. Ancient palace portals have become the entries to medieval palaces and more modest pillars and arches grace the entry to currently occupied private houses, restaurants and public buildings. Ancient palace walls support more modest homes, probably built in the late middle ages.
The Greeks, Romans, Barbarian tribes, Venetians, Slavic tribes, Hungarians and Austrians have all had their turn at changing the character of Split. Through all this, the mercantile nature of the city has allowed it to trade on and continue to reinvent itself.
Despite previous comments about the universal chaos of bus stations, we are finding the online booking of buses extremely convenient. E-Tickets, using QR Codes on our smart phones, are accepted by many companies. So far we have been able to book our travels with companies that don’t require printed tickets. What is a bit of a shock is that some companies charge for luggage! Not a lot, just a few dollars a bag. So far there have been very frequent services between our destinations and fares are very reasonable at about AUD$6-7 per hour of travel, even less on longer trips. Sadly, buses are nowhere as flash as in South America. Perhaps we were just spoilt by fully reclining seats and cabin service.
18 September, Split
The number 37 bus was just where it was supposed to be in the northern bus station in Split, 1km or so from our apartment. Even at 9:30am the walk became more of a very slow stroll in the early morning heat. We were off to visit Trogir, a well-preserved medieval old town and Solin an outer suburb of Split, where extensive ruins of the ancient Roman town of Solana can be found.
Our trip took us through those ugly industrial suburbs that are characteristic of most of the world’s port cities, though it has to be said that Split’s industrial areas are in very sharp contrast to the beauty of the old city itself.
Trogir is fairly much a mini-Split. The cathedral and tower are cut down version of the more grand Split ones. The main difference is the more medieval feel to the city. It is about an hour on the local bus to Trogir, but very few travellers arrive this way. Most take tours out of Split, an option we had considered, but the cost difference was enough to see us on the number 37 local bus at around AUD$8 each to Trogir as opposed to $60+ each for the tour. We also wanted to stop off in Solin on the way back, which turned out to be a little more of a hassle than we had expected.
The Roman ruins in Solin are not very well known and seem to be off most of the main tourist bus menus. We were not well prepared for our visit. We knew roughly where to get off the bus, but we weren’t sure where the entry to the site was. A quick consultation with a very hot and weary looking German couple at the bus stop put us on the right road to the entrance which was about 2km from where we got off the bus. The temperature was in the high 20s – low 30s, but the sun was a demon! To top that all off we were short of water and for once there weren’t any kiosks in sight. It might sound silly from us coming from the sub-tropics as we do, but this Mediterranean heat is a bit of a killer. After another application of sunscreen we finally found the entrance and a fountain to top up our water.
The ruins were quite extensive and fairly well signed and best of all, we had them fairly much to ourselves. The Romans were no fools, the hillside site they chose picked up the breezes from the sea below and as long as there was some shade, it was a reasonably pleasant stroll through the ruins and the olive and grape fields that were interspersed with the stony tracks that in some areas exposed old Roman cobbled streets. As with many of these ancient sites, it is interesting to see what those who followed the original builders did with the ruins they came across. Christian occupiers built churches with the very stones their pagan predecessors had used. Even today, houses that border the original Roman site have been constructed using rubble from the ancient ruins. The best preserved ruins were those of the old amphitheatre at the lower level of the old city site where the oval-shaped field of the theatre was fairly intact, as were the arches that would have held up the higher levels of seating.
Dreading the hot climb back up the hill to the site entrance and the long haul back to our bus stop, we explored a little bush path behind the amphitheatre that bought us out on the edge of a short stretch of two lane, uncrossable freeway. All was not lost. We spied an underpass that led us to a bus stop on a service road, saving us a 3km walk in the blistering sun.
A civilised start tomorrow to catch a 10:15am bus to Zadar, our last stop on the Dalmatian coast.
19 September, Airbnb, Zadar, Croatia
Packed bus today for the 2hr 30mins trip to Zadar. Nevertheless, it was a very comfortable trip on a super smooth motorway. Many of the legs of our journey here in Croatia have not been served by regular train services. Though we prefer train travel where possible, the cost difference in these parts is prohibitive. A bus trip like ours today cost around AUD$15 each and the buses leave every hour or so. Trains for a similar distance are around AUD$50 or more and the frequency is down to a couple of trains a day.
Bus travel is not for those who lump heaps of luggage about with them. The companies here charge for extra baggage above a 20kg limit. Some even charge a small amount for any stowed bags. Bus stations are often crowded places where you don’t want to be struggling between parked and moving buses dragging a couple of trundle bags.
Longer trips, more than a few hours, can be a bit of a bladder challenge. In South America, the buses have good, generally clean toilets. Here, longer trips do include the odd comfort stop, but they are usually only 5 minutes, just enough for a quick fag for the frequently puffing Croatians, more on this later, and a quick dash to the, usually, pay loos of two to five kuna.
While the towns and cities of Croatia are just amazing, with interesting histories and great architecture, the countryside of the Dalmatian coast is less than inspiring, with stony hills covered with stunted vegetation, peppered every now and then with struggling olive plantations or vineyards. However, the deep blue waters of the Adriatic and the sunshine surely compensate. The coast line is almost continuously built up. Croatia has a population of just over 4 million, smaller than New Zealand. The number of condos and holiday homes crowding up the coastal slopes could easily accommodate twice the local population and there are enough boats moored in the hundreds of marinas along the coast to evacuate Dunkirk a hundred times over.
Back to the frequently puffing Croatians. The number of smokers here is just staggering. We have noticed the same sort of plain packaging with dramatic and graphic photographs of cancer suffers as we have at home, but it just isn’t having the same impact. School kids light up on the footpath outside their schools. Twenty somethings roll their own in street-side cafes, where smoking is still allowed and most older folk seem to be smokers too. A contributing factor may well be the cost of cigarettes. A pack of 30 is just AUD$6!
20 September, Zadar
We seem to be settling into a bit of a routine at this point in our trip. Three days in a city, one to arrive and get sorted and oriented, one day to see the local sight and a side trip for the third.
Our main reason for coming to Zadar was in fact the city’s proximity to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. We had investigated a full day tour for around AUD$100 each, until we came upon the Elegance Tours no-frills option. This company has hit on a nice niche market for those who don’t want the fully-guided tour which may well provide a guide and some, hopefully, well-informed commentary on the area and those who don’t want to negotiate the local bus network to make the trip to the park.
Our trip was just what those who paid the AUD$100 got, but without the guide. We paid under half the price of the guided tours and got fairly much the same thing. We met at the company office in the city and walked to the nice air-conditioned, 15 seater bus for the two hour drive to the Park. We were given good advice on how to best see the park and set loose for six hours to do our own thing.
The park is rather large and a little crowded, but we understand it is much worse in the peak season. The entry fee of AUD$35 included a bus ride through some of the less scenic areas and a nice, electric boat trip along the lakes. It was a mild, 20C day and most of the walk was in the shade of the birch and pine forests. We probably covered 10 to 12 kms, but at a very sedate pace as the ever-present tour groups still managed to clog the paths, waving their selfie-sticks and posing with their group while the rest of us waited patiently on the narrow boardwalks behind them.
21 September, Zadar
We had never heard of Zadar until we started to do some research on Croatia. The city is a real find, small enough to be easily manageable on foot, yet far enough away from the normal cruise liner routes to be not too crowded. The city’s narrow medieval and even ancient streets are lined with coffee shops and restaurants for those who wish to join the locals for the seemingly all day drinking and talking-fests that occupy the lives of many of those who live on the beautiful Dalmatian coast.
The Croatians seem to have a real knack for combining building styles from the many cultures that have dominated their region over the past 2000 years or more. The Romanesque church of St Donatus is a prime example. While extremely Roman in external appearance, it was actually originally built around 950AD, using materials scrounged from the ancient Roman Forum, the original pavements on which it still stands today. Inside the church, stone blocks bearing Roman inscriptions hold up more modern pillars. The external walls are also built on a base of fallen sections of fluted ancient Roman pillars. The structure’s long history has been modified by the Ottomans, Venetians and, more recently, by modern European builders in the early 20th century. Just to complete the long history of modernization, a computerised light and sound display runs in the church every night.
We usually visit archaeological museums in places like this and to be honest they get to be a bit same old, same old. The Zadar Archaeological museum is a significant exception. Sure, it has the same old stuff, but with a well-sequenced and extremely well-written commentary. They even go to the trouble of providing translations of the Roman inscriptions on the many large and small artefacts on display. To top it all off, everything is linked to the city of Zadar and surrounds.
22 September, Airbnb, Zagreb
Leaving our apartment in Zadar was a bit sad. It was probably the best Airbnb we have ever had, a real “don’t judge a book by its cover” story. The place was an absolute gem, newly-renovated, beautifully fitted out and right in the centre of the city. Sadly for the hosts, the building looks like a run-down tenement block. The four flights of stairs and no elevator would put most people off. We just loved it.
Settled into our Zagreb apartment tonight, we have done our shopping, thrown our bags on the spare bed, hung up our gear for tomorrow and cracked a couple of beers.
Our bus was 30 minutes late out of Zadar, then there was an hour long traffic block due to road works on the motorway, so we ended up over two hours late. Luckily, our apartment is just over the road from the bus station and we were in constant communication with our host, who had the keys, so he wasn’t hanging around for all that time. The supermarket is five minutes down the road, so we have “hunted and gathered” our dinner and done a quick orientation of the neighbourhood.
Sounds like good luck doesn’t it? Not at all. It’s all down to planning, which is not difficult at all with the technology available to us today. We constantly wonder how on earth we managed 20 or 30 years ago with just paper maps.
Silly as it might sound, we can’t remember whether we have been in Zagreb before. If we have, it was over 30 years ago when the Balkan states were Yugoslavia and our memories are of depressing, dark, dismal cities and country roads, where old women carried bundles of sticks on their backs and men pushed wheel barrows loaded with produce, along rutted roads heading to town and village markets. That was Yugoslavia in 1987. Even in 2000, neighbouring counties of Eastern Europe like Romania and Bulgaria were much the same. Horse-drawn carts and people travelling on donkeys were a common sight.
24 September, Zagreb
Zagreb was a little slow to awaken yesterday, on what was a fairly fine autumn Sunday. The area we are in is very close to the old city centre, but the view from our 11th floor perch is of rows of renovated Soviet-era housing blocks, thankfully not as depressing as they would have been in their original livery.
Our usual round of museums was easily achieved in a half day or so. Of note were the Zagreb City Museum, surprisingly large and informative, the Archaeological Museum, with its excellent Egyptian collection and best of all, the Image of War Photographic Museum. We have become interested in the complex history of the Balkans and in particular the wars of the 1990s. This small exhibition of, often graphic, war photographs is a moving condemnation of the almost tribal infighting that bought misery and tragedy to this region.
We were awoken by howling winds at 4:00am and shuddered at the thought of following through on our plans to bus it out to the small city of Varazdin, with its well-preserved, medieval Old City. After a miserable start, the skies cleared and by the time we reached our destination, it was sunny and clear.
We have constantly complained about the crowds in Dalmatia. Today we had the town to ourselves, almost. There they were, a small group of Chinese tourists, just five or six young people, but they are what we call The Vanguard. We have seen them in their own country. They love to travel and there are a lot of them! They are coming! in Australia they came from nowhere to be the largest group of incoming tourists in less than a decade.
Everything was closed in Varazdin today, Monday. We had planned on just a few hours anyhow, so we were happy to wander the cobbled streets and small squares.
Our bus trip back to Zagreb was through some beautiful, almost Swiss-like countryside. The storms overnight had cleaned up the air and visibility was almost limitless. Rolling hills, with colourful villages topping the ridges and fields flowing down into the valleys met our view at every turn. Again we wondered how four million people could have so many houses. Surely, we have seen enough apartment blocks and houses to accommodate many times the nation’s population.
Tomorrow we leave Croatia after almost two weeks. We can’t help but feel great sympathy for the Croatians in their struggle to maintain their national identity in the face of the tensions in the Balkans, not just in recent history, but over the centuries. Sure we have only heard one side of the story, but it has to said that their arguments are cogent and believable.
Visitors to Croatia shouldn’t expect a uniformly open and warm welcome. There is a certain gruffness in the national character that many outsiders may find abrasive. This is merely our impression and doesn’t apply to all.
27 September, Airbnb, Ljubljana, Slovenia
We’ve had a busy couple of days since our bus trip from Zagreb to Ljubljana. Again, our apartment is just a short walk from the bus station and ten minutes or so from the centre of the old city. Yesterday we took the local train, an hour or so, to the small village of Postojna and then walked the two kilometres to the caves, Slovenia’s main tourist attraction.
The temperature has dropped markedly since we left the coast, so the walk to the caves, in the autumn sun, was a welcome heart starter. We had pre-booked our tour of the caves and a visit to nearby Predjama Castle. Booking in advance was probably a good idea. Even this late in the season, plenty of buses were disgorging hordes of excited tourists in the carpark as we arrived.
The caves are the largest we have visited. Twenty four kms of caves have been explored, though only about 4kms are included in the extremely well-organised tour. When we booked our visit to the caves and castle, we thought there was a free shuttle bus between the two as they are nine kilometres apart. To our dismay, the shuttle service ended in very early September and we were now up for a 30 euro taxi ride to the castle and back.
Talk about the luck of the Irish! As we were asking the staff in the Ticket Office to call us a cab, we overheard a young couple at the next counter being told that they would need to take a cab as well. After a quick negotiation we agreed to share a taxi. The young guy was in fact Irish and we thought his partner was English/Indian. During the taxi ride, we got chatting about our travels and the young woman’s accent took on a fairly obvious Australian flavour. Turns out she was from Melbourne, born and bred. He was from County Wicklow where Paul’s family originated and his mother was an O’Neill. He had lived and worked in Australia as well.
The castle was rather spectacular. Built into a large cave opening, it made great use of the hidden, natural tunnels and caverns behind it. At one point in its history, it withstood a year-long siege by bringing food and water into the castle through the hidden cave system. Just to rub salt into the wounds of the frustrated attackers, the besieged garrison taunted them by throwing them fresh food from the castle walls. At one point, they threw a freshly-slaughtered cow down to feed their enemies. (Shades of Monty Python)
Another beautiful, clear, but crisp morning of 4 degrees greeted us today. Ljubljana is a great city for walking, with a touch of Vienna and Prague about it, not surprising given how long it was under Hapsburg rule. We headed for the Castle that overlooks the city centre, taking the funicular rather than the long, steep, walking path. Sadly, the castle was a bit of a disappointment.
Rebuilt, rather than restored, it felt a little like a Disney Fantasy World experience rather than an historical one. An open-air restaurant in the courtyard didn’t fit with our ten year old memories of a lovely old castle. However, we have to admit it is tourist-friendly, with well-presented exhibits and a safe climb to the tower. For the rest of the day we wandered through the mostly pedestrian-only streets, visited a couple of museums which chronicled the archaeological and social history of the city and country and lapped up the increasingly warm sunshine and central European ambience.
We have returned to the land of the Euro, but supermarket prices are on a par with the Croatian kuna and museum prices accommodate us old folk. The cost of the Funicular plus Castle was seven euros per person, about AUD11 and the museums were four euros, about AUD6.50. Try getting into an Australian Museum for that price!