Sunday, 29 September 2013

Slovenia and Croatia.

16/09/13 SLOVENIA

We were facing all manner of problems trying to hire a car in Italy and drop it off in Slovenia. Car hire companies wouldn't let us do it. So, our gracious host in Slovenia, who's place we are staying at for three days, agreed to drive all the way to Venice Italy, pick us up and drive us back to his apartment. About a four hour round trip.  We paid him of course but none the less it was a grand gesture and one that saved us a tremendous headache.

Hvala Andre, ste gentleman.

Slovenia is an interesting little country. It has a small population, a little over two million and has in fact only been in existence as it's own country since 1991. Scientists say that prehistoric man lived here over 250,000 years ago and the worlds oldest wooden wheel, over 5000 years old, was found in an area covered in marsh lands, just 20kms from the capital Ljubljana. 
They also have a kickarse basketball team and have just beaten the Greeks to advance to the European quarter finals. Go Slovenia.
Everyone has had a finger in the Slovenia pie over the millennia.  The Romans, the Austrian-Hungarians, the Turks, the Nazi's in WW11 but finally they are their own people.
Slovenia was a real rest stop for us. We're all off us at some stage or other of this dreaded "cruise cough" and a bit of down time is in order. So apart from a walk into town to get the new hire car we did very little.

A leisurely stroll by a Slovenian canal, could be Amsterdam or Berlin

18/09/13. Well I stand corrected. My apologies to the manic froggie drivers in the South of France. I have found your match. It would appear the crazy Croatian's love nothing better than to put on their ugly face when they hop behind the wheel. While immensely entertaining watching these idiots move into top gear to overtake a bus on a sheer blind corner it was a little nerve wracking making sure you were far back enough to not end up as collateral damage. 

19/09/13 Happy Birthday to you Callum. The first teenager in the Van Waardenburg line for  over three decades.  

Happy Birthday Handsome
We had all sorts of really neat things planned for him today. Things that we knew he would just be champing at the bit to get into. First it would be a riveting short drive down to the Plitvicka National Park that lies just a couple of kilometres from our little farm stay here in Croatia. Then a breathtaking short walk to a boat for an adrenaline soaked ride through the beautiful valleys, mountains and lakes followed by an awesome two hour walk that would leave us all begging for more. Then, saving the best for last, an explosive mind blowing action packed one hour bus ride back to the start.  He was gonna love it. Unfortunately, as my dear old granny used to say, men make plans and the gods laugh. 

We woke up on the morning of Callum's birthday, pumped and ready to go, 'til we pulled back the curtains to see nothing but dark grey skies plump with bulging rain clouds.  A chorus of thunder and some punctuating lightning made it very clear that today would now be an inside day.

Callum was very disappointed that he had to stay in his PJ's all day, eating home bake roast chicken for lunch, Nutella birthday cake for desert and playing on his I devices.
Christina supplied the chicken
Charlie supplied the entertainment
Thankfully things took a change for the better and during the early afternoon the clouds retreated and the blue skies made a return. It would seem that an abridged version of our previous plans were now possible. So, we all shed our house skins, threw some clothes on and headed down to the National Park for Plan B. We stopped just outside of the Park and took a short stroll to a set of old steps that would take us all the way down to the famous Plitvicka Lakes and a very pleasant, though crowded, meander around the pristine glass clear lakes.  
The pictures don't really do it justice
I do like this one though
Even the bus loads of shutter bug Asian and German tourists crowding the narrow slated walkways couldn't detract from the charm of the area.

We managed to snap this one in between busloads
We finished the day off with tasty takeaway pizza and Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.  I think Callum would agree while maybe not his ultimate 13th birthday, all things considered, not to shabby.

A teenager at last
20/09/13 I have something else to say about the fine folk of Croatia besides their kamikaze driving. Particularly the folks of the gorgeous little seaside town of Split.

We were let down, for the very first time mind you, by our Air B and B host who was suppose to meet us around 3 - 4 pm to let us into his apartment and show us what is what. He didn't show, he was apparently somewhere out in the Pacific, his dodgy mate told us when he finally arrived at 6.40pm. With our phones not working at that stage we had to rely on the generosity of locals to use their phones. Within 90 minutes we had three offers of help, one including a place to sleep for the night if we needed it and another left her number and said to call if we get stuck, she will come help us make other arrangements. Another said he had an apartment for lease and he could set us that night if we needed it. 
There generosity and helpful spirit went a long way to make up for the inconsiderate nature of our host.
We're looking forward to seeing more of this beautiful place tomorrow.

21/09/13. Overcast and drizzly day and everyone still feeling a bit chesty. Four episodes of Breaking Bad, nothing else to say here.

22/09/13. The sunshine is back. Clear blue skies and a very pleasant 25 degrees. The old town of Split is literally a ten minute walk from our apartment so it was pack a couple of water bottles, the cameras and off we went.

I had people treading over me to take this shot
Nothing says ancient Rome like a couple of guys in skirts with spears

Split was settled by the Greeks way back in 600 BC and today has a tidy little population of around 178,000.

The retired Roman Emperor Diocletians built his retirement palace here over 1700 years ago.  It was a massive walled complex build in the style of a Roman Fortress and spanning nearly ten acres. At one time it had a population of over 8000 living within it's walls. The place is built right on the stunning harbour of Salona which today has a wide boardwalk with bobbing boats, ferries and cruisers on one side and picturesque cafes, restaurants and shops on the other. 
A panorama of the beautiful Salona boardwalk on one side
And big boats and smiling families on the other

The walled palace itself is today home to many different retail outlets, cafes, bars and restaurants.  All set among the decayed ruins of this ancient palace. It's quite an amazing place.

23/09/13 We said goodbye to Split and headed down the Dalmatian Coast to the battered city of Dubrovnick. 

The Dalmatian Coast, I want to sail this one day, seriously, it is amazing 

The Dalmatian Coast is an absolute gem. So picturesque, so beautiful. Many people come here to hire yachts and drift up the coast. It is now on our list.

The drive took us all day so it was check in, walk down to check out the beach, a feed of Croatian Mex- that was interesting- and an early night.

24/09/13 All sorts of big plans for today. Hit the beach in the morning, go book a speed boat for the day to cruise the islands, maybe head down to the old city for a peak and dinner overlooking the ocean.
We did exactly.. none of it. Everyone is still in recovery from the "cruise cough" we picked up and while intentions were good the bodies weren't willing. House day.

25/09/13 Enough already with the coughing and spluttering. Regardless of how we felt we packed up the towels, the sunscreen and the bottled water and hit the beach. Well not exactly the beach. We found a small jetty just a little away from the crowds and camped there.  It was magic.

Our own private jetty, just deep enough to dive off
How beautiful is that water

The water is as clear as glass and a balmy 24 degrees. We lay and let the sun bake us to the perfect swimming temperature then slipped over the side of the jetty into the warm embrace of the sea. We paddle, we floated, we made like overfed sea otters diving here and there. It was the perfect antidote to our feeling under par.

On our way back we stopped in to book a boat for tomorrow.  We get our own driver for up to nine hours, fuel and drinks included. We checked the Croatian weather forecast and all looked good. 
From here it was back to the apartment for some R & R then Christina and I caught the bus down to the Old City. 
The Old City is a remarkably well preserved example of a late Medieval walled City, built somewhere around the 11th century. Bombed mercilessly during the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990's, she is now fully restored to her former glory.

It's a lively place
The crowds were big but the city is bigger so once you're off the Main Street there is plenty of room to move and plenty to see. Many people still live within the walls of the city and going by the number of retail outlets, restaurants, bars, cafes and apartments for rent, the city has found a new lease on life. 
An ancient set of steps to a quieter section of the city 

The Serbian General responsible for bombing the UNESCO protected city was jailed at the conclusion of the war. Rightly so. The damage has since been restored using as authentic materials and style of workmanship as was possible.  They did a good job. It is difficult to tell the difference between restored and original.

26/09/13 Today we get to cruise the calm waters of the islands off Dubrovnik, the sandy beaches, the Blue Grotto cave, the spectacular diving spots. Sounds great doesn't it. Well, imagine if you will, your worst experience as a child on the most traumatic theme park ride you ever took.  I'm talking the sort of stuff that still gives you nightmares today. Maybe you were seven and your Uncle thought it would be fun to take you on the bumper cars where for a full five minutes every dropkick in a Stay Calm T shirt rammed you at speed sending your poor growing organs from one side of your body to the other.  Or the first time someone convinced you to go one one of those tumbling rides where you get harnessed in that tightly it's hard to breathe then you're continuously and repetitively thrown head over heel like a lone sock in a dryer.
That was our first hour and a half of our relaxing day cruising the Adriatic coast on our own little private boat. It started when we left the heads and turned into the open sea to cruise down for a look at The Old City from the water. 

Tearing away from the Old City to dry land, soaked before we even got in the water

The clear skies that the Croatian Bureau of Meteorology promised were probably there but just hidden behind massive grey clouds threatening to break open and shower precipitation upon us at any second. The waves mirrored the clouds, big grey and ugly. We moved along at about 5 knots, the waves too big to aqua plane across the top. After about 45 minutes of bouncing from one wave to another we reached the Old City. It was breathtakingly unimpressive but it put us between the coast and another island so the waves were calmer. We took a handful of quick photos and directed our fine driver to head for the nearest bit of land which happened to be Lokrum Island. Apparently Richard the Lion Heart was ship wrecked there in the 11th century. Someone being shipwrecked here comes as no surprise to us.

We docked and wandered into the island, thankful to have some solid ground under our feet and the opportunity to put some of the food we had bought with us into our stomachs. 

There were peacocks everywhere. They were like quokkas on Rottnest, roaming everywhere and totally comfortable coming up and trying to snatch crusts from your hands.
Dont let the pretty feathers fool you, they're just Liberace seagulls

They hovered like technicolor seagulls grabbing any scrap they could see, sometimes leaping up to try and grab something straight from your mouth. 
We finally found a little cafe and settled in for a coffee and some hot chocolates before heading back to the boat. Then the clouds gave way. Unable to hold on any longer, like an old man with too many shandies in him, it let rip and down she came. It just poured.  Oh this was so worth $500.

We finally said stuff it and walked back to the boat in the rain, not looking forward to the return trip.We spoke to the driver and said pretty well much, this isn't working, take us back. Half way there the weather appeared to be breaking behind us and we gave the driver the benefit of the doubt when he said, "just let me show you this one beach, if you no like we go back"
To cut a long story short, the beach we got to was great but he had to anchor off shore and we had to swim in with all our gear. No thanks. But, the weather had broken and we were now in calmer waters so we told him to find us a great place to swim, where we can anchor at a jetty and there are good places to eat.
"no problem, we go to next island"
And we did and it was perfect. 

At last, a calm port
We ate, we swam and we basked in the now copious amounts of sunshine. 

Spaghetti Marinara and grilled fish and chips.  Dobar tek
Sunshine = smiles

Come four o'clock our bodies were water logged and the salt was now starting to dry on our skin. We decided it was time to head back in but our illustrious boatman wanted to show us one more spot.

The Blue Grotto is a slit of an opening in the cliffs off the island of Kolocep. Not a particularly inviting gap to swim through but once you make the effort it opens up into the most glorious cavern. 
That tiny gap on the right is the doorway to another world
What a fantastic way to finish the day

The light shines off the white sandy bottom and illuminates the cave like the twinkling of a thousand blue diamonds. It was truly one of those little gems that you find when you travel. There were no cameras to capture it so we bobbed and swam and tried to soak up as much of the experience as we could before heading back out to the boat. And finally, back to the jetty.

An absolute disaster had turned in a truly memorable day.

27/09/13 Nothing memorable about today apart from finding a bar that had has been built inside a cave just down by Lapad beach. This was very cool.

28/09/13 Last day today before we fly out to Rome and we could not leave without one final swim down at our favourite little jetty and another great home cooked meal. 

Looking back from our jetty to Lapad Beach

The famous Croatian culinary cuisine seemed to have eluded us this trip. The bureks were nice but basically they were just a flaky pastry with a meat or a cheese filling. 

It was an opportunity to indulge in some good old home cooking and we took full advantage of the kitchen.
We have loved Croatia. The people have been friendly and although english is not as well spoken here as in other European countries you get by and everyone is happy to have a go at making themselves understood. Including us. The coastline is spectacular and certainly worthy of a longer visit.

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