Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A week in Crete - October 15-22, 2013

This could have been the shortest travelogue in the world, summed up by this sentence: “We set out for Crete but didn’t even make it to Manchester airport.”

We were flying out from Manchester at 9:30 a.m, and were it up to me, I’d have preferred to set off from home at 5.30 a.m so as to make provision for any rush hour traffic jams, as it was a Tuesday. Rush hour in Manchester might not be as spectacularly static as in and around London, but it’s bad enough. Pete knew this better than anyone... but he pooh-poohed my concerns, and we set off only around 6:15 a.m to pick up our friend Adie (who would be driving the car back and picking us up again in a week).

So, by the time we got to about 20 miles from the airport, we were in steadily worsening traffic. 10 miles from the airport, around 8.15 a.m, we were crawling along at 5 miles an hour and I was beginning to panic because the gates would close at 8.50 for take off at 9.30. I was having visions of missing the flight and having to pay all over again for flights out and cutting our already short holiday shorter by at least a day... you know, the usual jumble of panicky thoughts. The only plus in all this was that I’d checked us in online and printed off the boarding passes, so that was one less hassle to cope with at literally the last minute. Oh, and we were only travelling with hand luggage, otherwise we really would have missed the boat. Flight. As it was, we got to our gate just in time to board straightaway - “by the skin of our teeth” would be a good, if clichéd, description.

That we were sat in the plane for half an hour thereafter is neither here nor there.

The Jet2 flight out was incredibly comfortable – it was not full, and also, one of the stewardesses took a shine to Pete and we were moved to the seats by the emergency exit for loads of blissful leg room.

The flight to Heraklion Nikos Kazantzakis Airport was uneventful and took slightly less than 4 hours, so that it was around 3.30 p.m (Greece is 2 hours ahead of the UK) when we landed. We walked straight out, as we only had hand luggage (sweet). The first thing that hit me was a wall of heat – well, it felt like a wall to me, but I guess the temperature was around 27 degrees C. We went looking for a place to exchange our pounds sterling for euros (having had no time for this in Manchester because of our last-minute act), but to our surprise, there was no such facility. There wasn’t even a hole in the wall. So the next thing we had to do was wait for our car hire guy (who was supposed to meet us with a sign bearing out name for easy identification), but who had (it turned out) gone off somewhere without letting anyone know – a very Indian trait. He only returned after Pete rang the hire car company to find out his whereabouts.

The car was a mid-sized something or other with air-conditioning. We nearly ran into a problem right there because we had no euros to pay Stavros (the car hire fella). He finally accepted the equivalent of 210 euros in pounds sterling, and we were good to go. Pete then rang the villa owner’s son, Yannis, to say that we were on our way.

Villa Eleftherna in the tiny village of Eleftherna is about 60 kilometres from Heraklion airport, and in the mountains rather than by the seaside. Yannis said it would take us about 2 hours to get there. We were somewhat unprepared for the drive, in that we only had a crude tourist map by which to find our way. I suppose I should have printed off the directions that Kostas (the other son) had emailed me... but I had naively presumed that Pete would have the TomTom satnav (GPS for you American readers) on his phone. Actually Pete had also assumed the same thing... but as it turned out, every country BUT Greece was there. Greece had to be downloaded specially, but obviously we didn’t have an Internet connection to do that.

I did try to navigate using the tourist map that Stavros had given us, but it was not particularly detailed, and of course the town names were completely unfamiliar. I found Eleftherna village (and another village that was one of our landmarks) easily enough on the map, but getting ourselves there was rather trickier. I could see that we needed to turn off the highway before we reached a city called Rethymnon, but finding that point in real time was difficult. So Pete decided to turn on the Roaming facility on his iPhone and use that as a Satnav. Using the roaming facility to tends to be extremely expensive (as he’d found out a few years back when we’d visited Boston), but we had no choice.

Eventually we got to the village called Viran Episkopi (our main landmark) where we finally saw a sign for “Villa Eleftherna”. With great relief we turned right where it pointed, and continued driving. Eleftherna villa is about 10-12 km beyond Viran Episkopi, the road rising in a series of switchbacks. We nearly missed the next sign for Eleftherna village in the gathering dusk, as the sign had been knocked face down by some vehicle at some point. If Pete had not noticed the flattened sign, we would definitely have been in big trouble if we’d driven on... but he did notice it, and within 15 minutes we were driving through Eleftherna village.

Villa Eleftherna is set a little away and further up from the main village of Eleftherna, and it was every bit as beautiful as the photos we’d seen on the website (I’d had a tiny kernel of doubt in my mind about that, despite the glowing recommendations on TripAdvisor). Yannis, who met us there, showed us through the villa and explained that his parents would come every three days to clean the villa, change the sheets, towels etc. His dad, Georgios, maintained the pool, the garden and general greenery. There was a quite amazing welcome gift of a very large basket of fruit (pears, apples, oranges, grapes, bananas), a large bottle of olive oil, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of honey and a small bottle of raki, the local moonshine (more on this later). All of these things were produced by the villa owners from their own orchards and beehives.

We asked Yannis if there was anywhere we could change pounds to euros in the village, or perhaps a hole in the wall to withdraw money from, but he said that Rethymnon was the closest for those facilities. We then asked if he would take payment in pounds for the rental of the villa, but he said he’d prefer euros. Unfortunately, we had no euros at all. When he realised this, Yannis very kindly lent us the 40 euros he was carrying, so that we could buy some food (or eat out), saying that if we needed more “I can get some money from my grandmother who lives close by”. Somewhat red in the face, we assured him that 40 euros was plenty, and that we would go to Rethymnon first thing in the morning and change the money. 

Once Yannis had left, Pete drove us back down to the little village shop, where children were playing in the forecourt and a few of the locals were sat at tables, smoking and chatting. I learnt my first few basic words of Greek from a friendly local who spoke a little English – “Kalimera” for good morning, “kalispera” for good afternoon, “kalinikhta” for good night and most importantly “efharisto” for thank you. We picked up some tomatoes, cucumber, local cheese (me hoping all the while that it wouldn’t be too smelly), milk and bread, then returned to the villa.

Our first meal at the villa was a simple Greek salad made with the tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese that we had bought. The cheese was locally made feta, very strong tasting, but very tasty eaten with the tomatoes, cucumber and the lovely, crusty, chewy bread. The next morning was sunny but with a nip in the air from being in the mountains – it was a welcome nip, although it did make the swimming pool rather too cold for comfort. 

The villa itself was well designed, airy and light with high ceilings. The two ground floor bedrooms each had a small sit-out balcony. The main bedroom upstairs had a massive balcony overlooking the swimming pool and with a view of the mountains; the second upstairs bedroom had its own, smaller balcony. The massive balcony could also be accessed from the first floor landing. The only slight drawback was that there were only two bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. If only each bedroom had its own attached bathroom, the villa would have been flawlessly perfect.

The garden was very thoughtfully laid out, with loads of flowering plants and a herb trough to one side. There was a tree in the middle of the garden, with an outdoor dining table for eight set in the shade of the tree. The hammock was under another, smaller tree by the wall where a flowering jasmine creeper grew. Every waft of the breeze brought a delightful scent of jasmine. I was very, very careful getting into the hammock, having seen too many episodes of “You’ve been framed” where the person getting into the hammock is dumped on to the ground because the hammock flipped over. You will be glad to know that this did not happen to me. It was blissful in the hammock, and I spent a good amount of time in it with my Kindle, sniffing madly at the jasmine perfume anytime it wafted past me.

We went to Rethymnon later in the day, in search of a money changer and a hole in the wall. We found the latter fairly easily on the main promenade in Rethymnon, next to a travel agent, who told us that there were money changing facilities in the old town. That sounded very much nicer – old towns are always more interesting – so we got back in the car and drove down to the city centre. 

Driving is somewhat free and easy in Crete – the motorways are more like B roads in the UK – not very wide, not very fast, and definitely more relaxed in that you can find little stalls by the side of the road selling fresh fruit and fruit juices, nuts, etc – and all you have to do is put your hazards on and park up. On the motorway. Did I say this was on the motorway? You even find the odd cyclist or two. I repeat, on the motorway. Oh, and there doesn't seem to be any rule for children to be belted in or seated in child seats - I saw kids standing in the back of cars, between the seats, and nobody seemed to mind. The traffic and drivers are a bit like India in that people on scooters zip around overtaking from both sides, parking any old where and not always obeying the road rules. I say “a bit” because it’s not anywhere near as chaotic as India, but it’s definitely not like orderly ol’ Blighty. 

Rethymnon Old Town was, as I knew it would be, beautifully picturesque. We parked up at a convenient spot just before the marina and walked past all the restaurants and shops to the money changer where we changed our money to euros. We weren’t even thinking about lunch when we got waylaid by the hustler at the first restaurant. Here’s some advice – if you want to avoid being reeled in like a fish, smile but keep walking. Stopping to look at their menu card is a mistake, but if you actually stop to listen to the hustler, you can consider yourself well and truly hooked.

Luckily, the food at this restaurant was pretty good. Pete had fried squid, and I had the mixed vegetarian platter, where I had my first taste of authentic dolmades or stuffed vine leaves. They were absolutely delicious and I really could have eaten them all day. I assumed that the dolmades in every cafe/restaurant/taverna would be equally delicious, which is as dumb as expecting every restaurant in, say, Madras, to serve uniformly delicious and high quality local food. So of course I was disappointed in quite a few places where the dolmades weren’t quite to my taste – too oily, too hard, too soft, too vinegary... etc. As it turned out, the dolmades at this, the first restaurant we ate at in Crete, were the best. And that is where we’ll be taking our family in 2014. 

We sat by the water, next to a moored boat and watched the fish swimming busily to and fro in two lines, for all the world like they were on a motorway. The only time that the fish motorway descended into chaos was when someone would throw in some bread or other food. Then it was every fish for him-or-herself. I’m afraid I was the chaosbringer supreme. I kept throwing bits of my food into the water, and discovered that the fish did not care much for vegetables, but they loved bread. I guess they hadn't heard of the 5-portions-of-veg-a-day principle or even the carbs-are-bad principle. 

The streets of the Old Town are utterly picturesque, narrow, with tiny little tavernas, shops selling touristy souvenirs, local bakeries etc, interspersed with little alleyways leading to hidden courtyards, with the occasional door left wide open, allowing you could peer into the houses (while trying not to be too obvious about gawking). The odd scooter or motorcycle would whizz past, but there were no cars there. I’m not sure if the streets were pedestrianised or whether they were just too narrow for any cars to get through.

We didn’t go to Rethymnon castle/fort because it was just too warm for a long walk and I was tired, possibly a little jet lagged. So we went back to the promenade and had an icecream while looking at the waves. Pete was very tempted into get into the water, but we hadn’t brought along his swim costume or a towel, so he reluctantly had to give up the idea of going for a dip. I would have been happy to walk the back streets some more, but Pete said we should save some of it for 2014 with my family, so that it would be new and fun for us when we explored the back streets together.

Crete is a fairly large island – to drive its breadth would be an all-day drive at least, but from north to south (relative to where our villa was, that is) it was a much shorter affair. Of course, we chose to take the long routes that wound through some spectacular mountains. One of the towns that we visited in that way was Plakias. Pete set the TomTom to “winding route” and by god, it was that. The drive to Plakias was very long and leisurely, over 4 hours, especially as we kept stopping at various points to marvel at the scenic views. If it had been a less cloudy day, the views would have been clearer and less misty in the distance – and therefore better in photographs!

It was in Plakias that Pete finally got a chance to swim in the sea. He pronounced it wonderful, although there was a fairly strong undercurrent. I didn’t have any plans of going in the water, partly because I didn’t have a swim costume, but mostly because I’m not crazy about the whole beach thing at all. The water is very nice while you’re in it; it’s the getting out part, however, that I hate. All that sand just clings to your wet body and suit, refusing to wash off unless you have a good powerful shower handy. And even then you’re shaking out sand from your shoes and bag and swim costume for days thereafter, not to mention sweeping the floors! 

Anyway, I was quite pleased not to have to go in the water, so I sat on a bench and kept a hawk eye on Pete. Yeah, he’s a good swimmer but I am not, and I had visions of jellyfish stinging him, or undertows carrying him away, or cramps getting him, or sharks taking a fatal bite out of him, and so on, with me being unable to help in any way. I found out only later that Cretan beaches do not have life guards or any kind of coast guard/emergency rescue. Eeek! As if I wasn’t paranoid enough!

We didn’t take the scenic route home from Plakias because I didn’t feel comfortable about a protracted drive through lonely mountains in case we had a breakdown – there’s no AA or RAC to come to the rescue of stranded motorists and I did not fancy spending a night in the middle of nowhere in a not-really-comfortable car. If you’re thinking “boy that’s one paranoid chick”, I would have to agree with you. Except for the “chick” part. “Big clucky hen” is probably a better description. Also, apart from the reason just stated, there didn’t seem any point to a mountainous return drive if the scenery was lost to the dark, the whole point of the long drive being the views. So the trip back home was mercifully shorter.

Cretan roads – especially off the motorways – are not in the best shape or condition – maybe like “D” roads in the UK. Potholes, broken up tarmac, open gullies by the verges, badly patch-repaired areas are all common, and driving at night when visibility isn’t good (no street lights outside of residential areas – which is normal and wouldn’t be a problem if the roads weren’t so bad) is a bit nerve wracking. You can’t really get up to any speed, or you shouldn’t – as Pete found out when the right back wheel of the car went into such a deep pothole that it felt like the jolt had knocked a few of our teeth loose.

Pete stopped the car a little further up the road under a solitary street lamp to check if there was any obvious sign of damage to the tyre – as he remarked, it was quite amazing that the tyre hadn’t burst when the wheel crashed into the pothole. But the hubcap had fallen off. So I went looking for it and discovered that it had rolled a little way downhill into the gulley at the side of the road and was waiting for me there. It was a good thing that it hadn’t gone any further, because all the area beyond was in pitch darkness, and I didn't have a torch. I went back to the car with it, put it in the boot and there it stayed for the remainder of our stay in Crete. The next morning Pete checked the wheel and the tyre thoroughly to make sure that there wasn’t any damage done that could make driving dangerous. I guess we were extremely lucky to get away with no damage to the car. 

One other thing we discovered after Pete had set his phone/TomTom to take “winding roads” was that we couldn’t seem to turn it back to “normal”. We only discovered this when we tried to return home from a day out somewhere, because the bleddy thing took us miles off route without us realising. It did this by taking us down back roads and trying to send us up (or down) narrow, steep, stony, teeth-rattling country lanes which would not have been wide enough for our car, as small as it was. Assuming that our car would have managed to negotiate the gradient, that is, and not acquire a puncture from the sharp stones. In any case, Pete was forced to backtrack on quite a few occasions, trying to find a main road that would set us on the right path home. This was made immeasurably difficult because of not knowing the area or the lay of the land or recognising any village names at all, other than our own.

On one of our drives, we came across a lake so bluey-green and set in such a beautifully mountainous setting offset by amazingly blue skies, it was almost as if we were in Switzerland. This was Lake Kournas in the village of Kournas. The lake is fed by underground springs, so it’s a fresh-water lake, used to irrigate crops in the surrounding areas and also providing drinking water for the locals. This information was given to us by the owner of the cafe which was perfectly positioned right across from the road, with tables and chairs set beneath shady trees. We had a Greek salad here for lunch, and opted for fresh orange juice to go with it. This was so incredibly delicious and refreshing, even without ice, that we both ordered another glass each. I don’t think I’ve had better freshly squeezed orange juice anywhere, ever. It was extremely relaxing to sit in the sun-dappled shade and sip at our juice, reading our Kindles, occasionally looking out at the view. We hadn’t even known that there was such a lake in such a setting, and it was just serendipity that brought us that way. It was one of my favourite drives.

Did I mention that every cafe and restaurant in Crete – and, for all I know, in all of Greece – offers raki (which is the local hooch) to customers at the end of any meal. Raki is very, very strong spirit and tastes incredibly awful. At home, I’d tried the raki that our hosts had left for us, pouring some into a glass and sipping at it delicately – quite the worst way to drink raki. Anyway, I’d come to the conclusion that it was definitely not for me and I was quite prepared to refuse it everywhere. 

Unfortunately, it is the custom for the host to raise a toast with the guests (to whatever strikes his fancy, but usually involves your good health) and for everyone to down the contents in one. That, by the way, is the only way to drink raki – swallow it down before you can smell or taste it, then suffer for a few horrible moments while it burns its way down your gullet. Delicate sipping is for posh drinks, not moonshine. Our cafe owner was happy to drink with us (he must have been bored because there were only two other customers there apart from us), and he persuaded us to more than one shot. Pete, who hates spirits, managed one out of sheer politeness (and the valid excuse that he was driving), but I was forced to have three and I’ll say my head was spinning. This was pretty much the case everywhere. After about 3 shots, you’ll probably feel that it isn’t so bad after all... but beware, if you’re not used to raw alcohol such as this, you’ll very likely regret it very much very soon. 

I don’t know if I mentioned this, but apiaries are quite commonly found in the hilly areas because of the abundance of heather and other plants that bees are very fond of. So while driving around we came across white-painted boxes lined up in rows on the hillside. I didn’t realise they were apiaries because I thought they would be ice-lolly shaped (if you know what I mean), but that’s what the rectangular or square boxes were, allright. At one point, quite high up in the mountains, we stopped by the side of the road because there was a gap in the hillside with a view of the sea far below, and I wanted to check out the path to get a better view if possible. 

When we got out of the car, we smelt a heavenly herby aroma, but over and above that the air smelt literally sweet. Fresh mountain air we’ve experienced, but air that actually had a caramel aroma? After a few deep breaths (while I was trying to work out what I was smelling) Pete suddenly said “It’s honey!” – and bingo, that’s what it was allright. The air smelt of wild thyme and honey! And when we got back in the car and followed the road as it went around a bend, we saw dozens and dozens of apiaries stacked up on the hillsides. It was an amazing experience as far as I was concerned. 

A few of the things that we noticed on our drives: 

- In the more remote areas, road signs peppered with holes... made by shepherds, according to Pete, who used the signs for target practice!

- Beautifully, blindingly white whitewashed little churches pretty much in every village. 

- Herds of goats and/or scrawny sheep stopping traffic on the mountain roads in the evenings, as they made their way home in the gathering dusk. Didn’t notice any shepherd/goatherd accompanying them. 

- Little shrines, some elaborate, some simple, sometimes with Jesus or Mary or possibly some saint or other within, dotting the roadside here and there. They looked like dolls houses, but weren’t – they were memorials for people who died in road accidents. A more permanent marker than the flower bouquets and toys that are sometimes left at the accident scene in the UK. 

- Roads that occasionally went almost literally through the backyard of remote and lonely houses, so close to the houses themselves, that I thought we’d lost our way – but no, we hadn’t. Lorries used these roads, believe it or not.

One other city we visited was Chania (also known as Hania or Xania). It is a very pretty – and naturally extremely touristy – city, about an hour and a quarter’s drive from Eleftherna. We were there on a Sunday, so it was extremely busy, with parking spaces at a premium - in those areas where cars were even allowed, that is. It was a very bright sunny day, and I didn’t fancy walking ages just to get to the old town centre. But, as per usual, Pete managed to find a space in which to shoehorn the car, I’d guess about half a mile or so from the main promenade. Then we strolled down the promenade – it really was a lovely day and the sunshine made the little waves sparkle like diamonds in the incredibly blue sea. The water was very clear and if you looked over the sea wall, you could see the fish swimming between the rocks below. Actually, in some places you didn’t have to look over the wall to see them; they were more than visible through the whacking great holes in the masonry of the parapet – easily big enough for an inquisitive and adventurous child to fall through onto the rocks. Not a comfortable thought. While I think the UK has excessively strict Health and Safety regulations in every sphere, a little of that caution would not come amiss in Crete when it’s to do with the safety of children. 

Anyway, there’s a centuries old lighthouse which you can walk to. It didn’t seem like much of a walk when you looked at the lighthouse from the promenade, but this was deceptive when you actually followed the meandering line of the harbour. We ran the gauntlet of the souvenir shops and restaurants and cafes (being waylaid a few times by the professional hustler for each eatery), deciding that we would check out the lighthouse and then return to one of the cafes for lunch. 

As it turned out, we didn’t bother in the end, because it didn’t seem quite worth the hassle - for one, there was no shade at all and I was beginning to get a headache in the sun; and for two, Pete was not wearing the right footwear and the cobbles were hurting his feet in the thin-soled sandals. So we wandered into a large boathouse where there was meant to be a nautical “exhibition” but it was possibly the dullest of its kind ever – just a couple of boats, and acres of text on the walls in Greek – which, naturally, was all Greek to us. It was not so much an exhibition as it was a cafe and souvenir shop. So we wandered back out, with the prospect of lunch appearing unexpectedly on the horizon as the lighthouse had been ruled out. 

Before we went back to the first cafe where we’d been stopped, we saw some glass-bottom boat trips being advertised on sandwich boards and also by the inevitable hustlers for each boat. A two-hour trip, with a 30-minute stop at a small island for people to snorkel, cost 60 euros per person and seemed a pretty good deal. So we booked ourselves onto one, and went for lunch. The food was very good, but also very expensive – it almost seemed like the restaurant was trying to make up for the paucity in tourists by charging us what should have been shared by at least a dozen people! I dread to think what the prices are like in peak season. However, that’s a worry for another day. 

The advantage of the off-peak season was that the glass-bottom boat had hardly any tourists on board. Apart from Pete and me, there were two tattooed and rather hungover college students, and a couple with a (very cutely dimpled) 12-year-old son. The diver/guide on board was in his mid-20s, tanned, sun-bleached blond haired, bearded and English, with a quirky sense of humour. I’m sure you’ll remember from your schooldays that history can be made boring by a recitation of dry facts if not injected with a good dose of humour. Luckily, our guide (whose name I forget but whose face is clear in my mind) kept things interesting and us laughing. 

We chugged around a few islands (one of them boasting a rare species of wild mountain goat), getting to see a few schools of fish and the rocky sea bottom through the glass floor, but were only scheduled to stop at a particular point for 30 minutes – this being a short trip - for anyone who was interested in snorkelling or diving. The only two who volunteered were Pete and the young lad. While they were changing out of their clothes, the guide kept winding them up by talking about how cold the water was and how he himself was going to stay in the water for no more than 2 minutes for fear of cramps and hypothermia, and were they quite sure they wanted to snorkel? (incidentally, the only person who got wound up was me).

Pete had a lovely time snorkelling, at one point diving right beneath the boat to come up on the other side, but I missed seeing this because I was holding a starfish in each hand. This was because the guide had brought out a bucket from under his seat (“here’s one I prepared earlier”) which contained a few starfish and sea snails, and handed them out to us on board while he gave a short lecture on their habits. The sea snails grossed me out because they were actually exactly like snails except five times the size of a normal land snail – there was NO way I was going to touch them, never mind hold them in my hand. The starfish, on the other hand, looked pretty. After he had put the starfish in my hands, the guide casually mentioned that they probably wouldn’t leap onto my face and sucking my eyeballs out, but that I should be on my guard and make no sudden movements. Luckily I wasn’t idiot enough to fall for quite such an obvious wind-up, but I am pleased to report that the starfish stayed motionless and my eyeballs stayed unsucked. Always a good thing. 

On the penultimate day of our stay, Pete wanted to take me to the Samaria Gorge, which is one of Crete’s most spectacular national parks. It’s probably one of Greece’s best, even. There’s a village called Agia Roumeli, at the foot of Samaria Gorge, which can only be reached by ferry from the starting point of a place called Sfakia, or by an arduous 16-kilometre trek from the top of Samaria Gorge (entered from the village of Omalos). As someone who is terrified of heights, the hike down (even if I was fit) from Omalos was pretty much ruled out as far as I was concerned. 

I also didn’t want to do the ferry trip (which, according to Pete, has amazing views and beautiful scenery as the ferry hugs the cliff line all the way around) mainly because I wanted to experience it in 2014 with our family for the first time. The other reason I was reluctant was that Sfakia is a 3-4 hour drive from Eleftherna; so, to catch the 1 p.m ferry, we’d have to leave at 8 a.m, for which I’d have to get up at least at 7 a.m. If we left Sfakia at 5 p.m sharp, it would still be at least another three hours of driving before we got back home. And Pete would have to do all the driving with no chance of relief, as I can’t drive manual shift cars. He kept saying this wouldn’t be a problem, but I really wasn’t keen.

So he finally decided that we would drive instead to Omalos village, so that I could see what we could of Samaria Gorge from the village. It was still a fair distance to Omalos, but not as long as the drive to Sfakia. There was a cafe at the entrance, where we had good coffee and shared a slice of bad apple pie (too much air, too little apple). There was nobody else there and To be fair, the gorge looked... well, gorgeous. It was quite awesome, but – and I don’t know if it’s fair to compare, but I am doing it anyway – not a patch on Yellowstone Canyon. Still, it was impressive, very jagged and rocky.

The information board for hikers, at the entrance to the Gorge, had some general advice with regard to shoes, food, water, the path itself, and so on, saying that the path was reasonably well maintained by the authorities. I certainly didn’t feel that would be true, and from the latest reviews on TripAdvisor, I wouldn’t count on emergency help being available in case of any accident. Apparently there’s a helicopter pad (but no mention of any helicopter) and the only other way to get out is on the back of a donkey (for which you pay a 10-euro fee)... but there’s also no mention of how you would contact anyone to bring you a donkey in the first place! Oh, and if you set out on the hike but didn’t get to Agia Roumeli by 4 p.m to catch the last ferry, you’d either have to spend the night in the gorge (if you hadn’t reached Agia Roumeli) or in Agia Roumeli itself – assuming that there were any hotel rooms available there at short notice in the first place. Because the ferry apparently waits for nothing and nobody. Not really encouraging, is it, unless you’re the intrepid sort? Which I certainly am not.

The next day, the last day of our holiday, we didn’t do much – got up late, had breakfast, packed up in a leisurely manner (while Pete worked on his software), said our goodbyes to Georgios who came by to give us some last minute gifts to take home with us – a bottle of home-pressed olive oil and a bottle of home-made honey – and finally left at around 3 p.m for the drive to the airport. 

We’d had a very good week with no rain (one thunderstorm overnight on the second night, that was all) and good weather, and this in mid-October. I can only imagine that the last week in May is going to be even more sunshiny and hot and green and beautiful, and I cannot wait to go back with the family!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

New Zealand - Aug 2000

Nearly a decade since I wrote this as an email from Singapore. I'm very glad to have got a copy of it from my old pal Jason, because reading this again after so many years brought back so MANY memories of my New Zealand trip! A great many thankyous, Jase, for keeping this email for so long, and fwding it back to me on request!

Ok, here goes. New Zealand is BEAUTIFUL!!!!!! The most gorgeous place I've ever seen, I mean, every place I saw looks like it belongs on a postcard! Impossibly lovely and green. It's supposed to be peak winter now, but apparently it's been a mild winter this year, so most of the time the weather was sunny and clear and windy and cold, instead of being wet and rainy and windy and cold. Good for me!

Anyway, the flight from Singapore to Christchurch was a royal pain. It took 10 hours to CC and another hour from CC to Wellington. The most boring, esp as they showed old movies (not in the sense of classics). I couldnt sleep 'cause I cant sleep sitting up. Hell, I cant even sit up sitting up!!! :-) I fidgeted all through, and must have irritated the life out of an old Kiwi guy who had the misfortune of sitting next to me! :-) HE didn’t have any problem snoring his head off. Bah! The only worthwhile hour was when we were nearing CC and flew over the Southern Alps... peak after snowy peak whizzing by beneath us. Lovely!

I had a short stopover at Christchurch which I reached at 11 am or thereabouts. I had about an hour to see part of the airport, which isnt very big anyway. Not like Changi, which spreads for kilometres and probably occupies half of Singapore's total area! But Wellington airport was smaller still! Would you believe people can come almost all the way to the plane to receive visitors? Imagine if such a thing could happen in India!

Of course, Lakshmi wasnt on time, but by the time I'd picked up my luggage, she arrived. One step outside the airport, and I had to put on my warm sweatshirt, which stayed over the rest of my clothes for the next 10 days! :-)

It was WINDY and beautifully cold!!! I loved it! We went by the airport bus to a place very near where Lakshmi stays, which is an area called Lower Hutt. Wellington is actually in five parts, and the city proper is called Wellington. The other areas are Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt and I forget the other two! I didnt go there, anyway. I think Wellington must be about the only place where you can see all four forms of transport in one place, and if you're in the right place at the right time (I was), all together at once - road, rail, sea, and air! It's SO cool!

I wasnt jetlagged at all, actually, and was all willing to go for a long walk. But what we did was walk to the supermarket where Lakshmi picked up stuff and then we took a bus back home. Wellington is a lovely place. Unlike Singapore, there are hardly any high-rises, and those few only in the city business area. Most of the houses are pretty little picturesque cottages, with little flowery gardens, and each one is SO individual! After 5 months in Singapore, believe me, that is so very refreshing! Even the so-called flats have only two storeys! :-)

The next day was also pretty quiet. I went for a loooooooooong walk in the evening with a pen friend who stays there - the walk turned out to be long because we couldnt find a coffee shop that was open! That's the one thing I disliked very much about NZ in general. Everything shuts down by 5.30 pm!

Oh, and Wellington is very famous for its coffee – what variety, what HUGE bloody cups of it they give you! Even the vending machine coffees are fresh, with the beans being ground automatically for each individual cup. A coffee-lover's dream, allright!

The actual travelling started on the third day - Wednesday. We went on a three-hour ferry ride from Wellington to a place called Picton. That was a lovely journey and I spent most of the time on the top deck, being buffeted by the wind and loving every last minute of it! Lakshmi and Papu stayed safely downstairs, and Shiv went upstairs and downstairs trying to keep us all company!

From Picton, we took the TranzCoastal train to Christchurch - five hours of a beautiful journey all along the sea coast. The carriages are very warm, and I spent most of the time in the observation coach, which is open to the breeze and gives excellent views!

Oh, that wind!!!! :-)

I managed to see two seals on what passes for a beach on these coasts...sadly, not a close view of them since the train driver wasnt obliging enough to stop for me! But good enough! WHAT a lovely journey!

We stayed at the YHA (Youth Hostel) in CC. I'm very glad I became a member of the YHA in New Zealand. Apparently there's a waiting list of many months if you try to get a membership in India. And only Delhi has a YHA hostel! bah! The one in CC is great. There's a big kitchen with all appliances and crockery, and you can do your own cooking if you like. Then a big common room with TV and lotsa ofas, and email facilities. It was great fun there.

Since we reached CC in the evening, we didnt have much time but to walk around the city centre. There's a great big cathedral right in the middle, and since the city centre square is all paved, it's pretty difficult to tell where the footpath ends and the road begins. At least, since I was looking around at things, I didnt notice, and got beeped at by drivers for stepping in front of them at a red signal! Not to mention bleeped by Shiv for being so dreamy.

How many lovely pubs there are in CC! And most of them have punny names. I loved it all! And the "chippies" they serve - ooh! You gotta have french fries in NZ to know what REALLY good fries are like! McDonald and the others are non-starters!

The next morning, we went off to take the scenic railway journey on the TranzAlpine train. Golly, talk about scenic!! It was amazing. Over deep gorges and tumbling rivers and across a huge glacier-carved valley and more snow-capped mountains all the way to a place called Greymouth.

I dont think my little Pentax could have done justice to the views, but I tried my best! The only way to get an overall view would be from a helicopter or something, I guess. Again, I was in the observation carriage even though the temperature must have been about 2 or 3 degree Celsius. I went in only occasionally, to thaw my nose and fingers out! I was wearing gloves, but it was freezing nevertheless. And what's more, I met an old American preacher whose first question was am I a Christian. When I said no, he asked if I'm a Moslem (his pronunciation). When I said no again, he looked puzzled and wanted to know if I was a Jew (!!!). I told him I was born a Hindu and he got this look on his face which plainly said "heathen" *lol* Still, he was a very nice old man from Minneapolis, even if he tried to convert me right there! Have I heard about the religion of Christ, he wanted to know, hahaha!!

Back to Greymouth... it's a tiny little place which mainly is a transit point for sports enthusiasts. It's very pretty, all the same. NZ manages to keep its cities and towns clean without ever having a single notice saying "dont litter" (Singapore is full of dire warnings!). I guess it lies in the attitude of the people. After all, there are so few of them!! I really loved the empty streets. Those people in Wellington and other smaller places, they think it's a traffic jam if there are six cars at a signal!!

The journey back to CC was not so great, because it was raining and grey. In fact, the TranzCoastal from CC to Picton was delayed by half an hour because of that, so they held back the ferry which was to take us back to Wellington. Oh, that ferry journey back to Wellington was fabulous! Nobody was allowed on the top decks because of the rain and wind and waves, so I had to stay out on a lower deck, from where you couldnt fall out! God, the wind and spray was fantastic! It was enough to blow you off your feet, and it was such gorgeous fun! I didnt go down into the lounges at all, and Lakshmi and Papu didnt come up on deck at all!

Shiv, again, spent his time travelling up and down, poor guy! :-) I'm so glad to find out that I dont get seasick either! Of course, it was only a 3-hour journey, I dunno if I could do as well on a long voyage.

The best part of the ferry trip in good weather is the view when you're getting into Picton or Wellington. The bays are fairly calm even in bad weather, and you see all these green uninhabited islands as the ship winds its way around them... ooooooh! Beautiful!!!

We got back on Saturday afternoon, and went for dinner at a friend's place. Sunday morning, and we were off again to the bus station for our journey to a place called Taupo, on the way to Rotorua. Travelling by bus in NZ is a pleasure. You dont feel any strain because the buses are so nicely upholstered and comfortable. And the views are so lovely, too. A far cry from the buses you get in India, more's the pity. I kept wishing we could take such luxury for granted too, but I dont think that will ever happen in India. *sigh* Too many people, too little money.

Taupo is good for adventure sports like bungy jumping, tandem skydiving, jet boating and the like. It has fabulous views of volcanic peaks, and it also has an enormous lake which was created during an eruption in the last century. It's about 58 km long and 45 km wide, and apparently it's roughly the size of Singapore, or slightly larger!! :-) THAT oughta give some perspective, allright! It did me! Think of 3.8 million people crammed into a space that small, when the ENTIRE population of NZ isnt that much! And yet Singapore doesnt seem crowded... I wonder how they do it.

Stayed at the YHA hostel in Taupo. It wasnt so good as the CC one, because the room was just a box! And it didnt have email either. I guess that's cause it's owned privately, or something. The owner stayed downstairs in her pvt apt.

Anyway, the next morning the YHA owner's husband took us and a Danish couple) on a sight-seeing trip all the way to Rotorua, where we were going anyway. So we got to see the Wai-o-tapu mud pools and bubbling hot lakes which were coloured orange and green and purple and rust by the minerals, and all of them poisonous! Various craters called Devil's Kitchen, Devil's Inkpot (cause the water can stain your skin if you were dumb enuf to let it touch you at all!), Devil's Playroom - all steamy and bubbly and stinking horribly of sulphur!

There was a geyser too, called Lady Knox. It's very pretty,and everyday at 10.15 am it goes off impressively because it's set off by having soap poured into it! :-) I think I MUST see the Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park... it must be pretty damn impressive!

At Rotorua we went on the skylift (the thing is called a gondola, for some strange Kiwi reason, and Lakshmi thought it was the kind you get in Italy, and was pretty disappointed!).

No big deal. Then we went to a farm show - that was pretty good. Saw a sheep being sheared - the guy finished in 5 minutes!!! That wuz quick, and the commentary was funny. Good thing the Kiwis have a sense of humour! Though sometimes the accent throws you off a little, making it a bit difficult to get the joke immediately!

The Rotorua YHA is pretty good, it's got a hot pool - spa, as they call it.

The next day we set of on an all-day tour. Our guide was one of the biggest Maoris I've ever seen, built like a house - tall, wide, solid and unyielding! And a good thing, too, as it turned out. His name was Jamal - but he's not a Muslim. Apparently his dad got the name from some TV serial character he admired! :-)
Anyway, we had a Canadian chap along too, a very nice young 19-year-old called Albert, who has already travelled to around 50 countries, including India. He waxed rhapsodic about India and it took awhile to shut him up about it and
tell him we knew all about cows on the roads! Since Lakshmi and Papu wanted to have a bath in a hot river near Wai-o-Tapu, and I didnt, I took Albert on the tour of the geyser and other assorted Devil's places. That was fun!

After that we went to a volcano called Tarawera. It's not extinct, it's just dormant. That's where Jamal's hugeness came into use. We wanted to walk down into the crater and he first took us to his usual path. That happened to look pretty much vertical to me, but I wanted to try it anyway. The whole place is ankle-deep in tiny slippery stones that give no grip, so the first thing that happened was that I slipped and was in imminent danger of going down the crater on my backside - good thing Jamal got hold of me and pulled me back up. After that he decided to take us the beginner's way down, which was much less steep and a lot more accessible! That was such an amazing experience!!! It's the weirdest feeling to be down in a crater and look up at the sides rising up at 60 degree angles all around and think - THIS is where the lava erupts from! Wow...!!!

From there Jamal took us for a surprise barbeque lunch (which he cooked) in a tiny shack deep inside a forest, with fantastic views of the hills and valleys - and golly, talk about bumpy rides, the path was hardly big enuf for our 4-wheel drive!!
After that we went to the Tarawera falls - breath-taking, and the river was SO clear we could see the pebbles and the trout that were swimming about happily! Jamal said he'd caught fish with his bare hands, but I declined the treat because the water was bloody freezing!

Back at Rotorua, we went to a Maori area of town called Ohinemutu, which is a very active area in the sense that there are hot pools everywhere, with steam rising from the cracks in the footpath and from the gardens of the houses there! It was fantastic!

Lakshmi and Papu didnt have the energy for a Maori concert in a Maori village after that, but I did. I turned out to be the only Indian in a bus filled with Europeans and Americans. We all had to sing something in our native language and I sang the National Anthem - only because some of the others got all patriotic, and I couldn't be any less!

I love Maori folk music - and we heard songs and saw dances performed by the villagers. I really like the war dance - the haka, as they call it. It's very, very VERY impressive, believe me!! Fell for the rhythm and beat immediately, so much so that I went and bought the group's CD! Yet to listen to it, of course, havent had the time yet. After that there was a traditional Maori feast, where all the food is cooked underground beneath on hot rocks... I cant say I loved the food as much. Smoked food is good in small quantities, but when the pudding tastes the same as the veggies, it's a bit much! *g* I'm afraid I didnt quite love the taste. But I DO love the Maoris, and it's a pity that the 11 percent of the population they make up is ALSO 80% of the unemployed in NZ!!!

On Thursday morning, I caught the flight out to Christchurch and by Thursday evening I was back in hot muggy Singapore, and here I am on Friday, finishing up a monster email!

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Croatian Holiday - Part 2 - Dubrovnik

We had been warned of bad weather forecasts for Dubrovnik for the entire 5 days that we would be there – not heartening news at all, especially as I believed them. Pete kept saying blithely that it wouldn’t rain. The scientific basis of his prediction? “Because I say so” - in his words. His carefree attitude annoyed me immensely because I wanted to wallow in the imagined misery of our rained-out Dubrovnik trip. I didn’t want to be told to be optimistic and cheer up.

However, when our aircraft landed at Dubrovnik’s tiny airport after a 45-minute flight from Zagreb, the skies were mostly clear. It was obvious that it had been raining because of the shiny wet runway, but Pete was right – the rain had stopped. And what’s more, it pretty much kept off during our stay in Dubrovnik (raining hard only once, on one night). So Pete’s prediction did turn out correct after all… and if his “method” wasn’t based on satellite readings and weather pattern analyses and whatever other scientific methods I imagine the Met Office uses, the fact is that Pete was right and the Met Office wasn’t. Maybe they should use him to forecast the weather.

My gloomy mood was dispelled the moment I got off the aircraft and looked around – the tiny airport, the “freshly washed” aspect of the post-rain surroundings, the mountains around us and the blue skies all combined to raise my spirits. We were in Dubrovnik! We’d made it there, it wasn’t raining. Not even Pete’s smug “See? I told you it wouldn’t rain” reminder could stop me feeling pleased.

The hotel I’d booked (when we were in Osijek) was called the Hotel Perla. They had already informed us that they did not have a hotel coach for airport transfers, but that they could arrange a taxi for us at a charge (with the driver holding up a placard with our names, so we would know him). Or we could hire a taxi at the airport and make our way to the hotel ourselves.

We decided to just hire a taxi from the airport taxi stand. Still fresh from our fleecing at the hands of the Zagreb taxi driver, we were just a wee bit wary of what our experience with them would be like in Dubrovnik. We asked the manager of the taxi rank how much it would cost to get to the hotel, and we were told “220 kuna”. And so it proved, literally to the – um, whatever the smallest Croatian coin is called.

I’d booked the Hotel Perla (http://www.perla-dubrovnik.com/) because it seemed to have the best combination of price, location and good customer reviews, even if it was a good distance from the airport. It was also not close the Old Town, being situated in the Lapad area of Dubrovnik. But there was a bus stop very close by the hotel, with frequent direct bus services to the Old City, and I was all for traveling like the locals, anyway.

Lapad proved a good choice as a base, with a reasonable mixture of tourists and locals in the area, but with more residences than hotels around. Our hotel was one among many in a pedestrianised stretch of walkway about a kilometer long with restaurants/hotels/small shops on both sides, with the bus stop at one end and the beach at the other. Put baldly (and possibly badly) like that, it doesn’t seem a particularly attractive place to stay, but it was. It didn’t feel crowded (although it was) or dirty (because it wasn’t), and it was nice to be able to stroll to a different restaurant every evening, have our dinner while people-watching, and not worry about transport back to the hotel.

Hotel Perla was quite small and cosy, and the staff were friendly and very helpful - once again, a brilliant choice on my part if I do say so myself. Our room was not large, but it had a little balcony (with a table and two chairs) that looked out onto the walkway below, with the hills beyond, and just visible between the hills, a glimpse of very blue sea.

The beds in our room, though, were the most amazingly squeaky pieces of furniture we’d ever experienced – the slightest movement would create a cacophony of creaks and squeaks at various pitches, reminiscent of excited piglets. I don’t know if it was just our room, or whether all the rooms had such unmusically loud beds. They were comfortable enough, though, so after the initial surprise at the amount of noise, we didn’t really care.

It was still quite light when we got to the hotel, so after dumping our bags, we decided to check out the bus service to the Old City, to get an idea of how long it would take, etc. We bought our tickets at a newspaper kiosk opposite the bus stand (cheaper by 2 kuna than if bought on the bus – plus they saved time and the necessity to have the exact change for the bus driver) and took a comfortably air conditioned bus No 6 to the Old City.

Our first glimpse of what lay within the fortress walls took me totally by surprise – the buildings were beautifully preserved (well, rebuilt) but that was not the surprise… it was the fact that every building seemed to contain restaurants, cafes, bars or shops. Was the Old City then just a glorified shopping centre, albeit contained in beautiful old buildings? A little more exploration, however, reassured me – people did still live there, have homes there, but it was more a tourist area than a residential one. (I know – duh. The Old City is THE most famous and therefore the most touristy area possible… but I’d rather not see shops!)

We wandered up the beautiful main street, marveling at the buildings, then wandered back to the main gate where the tourist office was situated. There were one-hour guided tours advertised (90 kuna per person) and since we were at the right place at the right time, we joined up with a group that was just starting off. Our guide spoke excellent English but had a somewhat irritating way of asking questions of the group as if he was a history teacher and we his particularly stupid students. I’ve had other guides in other places on other tours ask rhetorical questions (“Does anybody know what this statue represents?”) but none of them actually expected any answers! This guy did, though… and because I was woefully ignorant of Dubrovnik’s history, I felt duly cloth-headed even though he wasn’t exactly singling me out. (I guess have to stop taking everything so personally – even my own lack of knowledge!)

What I knew of Dubrovnik’s history before I went there was this: That it is a World Heritage Site and was (is?) known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” because of its natural beauty and its wealthy citizenry; that, despite being of hardly any strategic importance, it was bombed unmercifully and unnecessarily by the Yugoslav army in 1991; and that it was rebuilt to its former glory by the locals with plenty of foreign assistance, not the least monetarily. Oh, and that in 1667 it was nearly destroyed by a killer earthquake and rebuilt in baroque style.

You’d think that was enough historical knowledge of a place where you were going to be holidaying for just a few days, but our guide didn’t see it that way.

“Who can tell me what happened in AD 1358?”, he would ask pompously. Everybody would stand in silence while he tapped his foot on the ground. “Dubrovnik (or Ragusa as it was known then) broke away from the control of Venice.” Oh, right. Then he would march on to another part of the Old Town. “What does that building there remind you of?” More deafening silence from the group. “Something in Italy?” Silence, shuffling feet. “Does it not look like the dome of the Basilica?” Murmurs from the group, and off he would go, explaining exactly which famous architect had built it, why it looked like it did, and so on. I’m not surprised that the boyfriend of a girl in our group started yawning 2 minutes into the tour and looked half comatose by the end of it.

Oh all right, perhaps I’m razzing our guide too much, being a wee bit too unkind, and perhaps that sleepy chap was simply not interested in the tour (although his girlfriend was perky and wideeyed throughout). I suppose that really the guide was a competent enough guy who knew his history, but what was perhaps missing in the tour was a touch of humour, which would have added some interest to his driest facts.

Here’s another fact, neither dry nor humorous… there is a board on the door of a building in one of the narrow, steep little alleys that marks the building as a former synagogue. It is not in use because there are no Jews in Dubrovnik. And there are no Jews in Dubrovnik because they all, every last one of them, died in the Holocaust.

A couple of the other buildings our guide pointed out were the Rector’s Palace, which was one of the two buildings which survived the terrible earthquake of 1667 (the other being the Sponza Palace), and the oldest residential building in Dubrovnik which was owned by a businessman, not a nobleman. The building itself looked quite nice, spread over 3-4 floors, the only drawback being that it was situated in what I privately nicknamed “Cat Pee Alley” – because that’s what the little street smelt overwhelmingly of. Our guide said that the alley was the favoured place for the fat cats (literal, not human) of Dubrovnik to have a pee. Men are men and cats are cats, but I guess they’re all animals when it comes to watering the street!

After the guided tour was over, we wandered for a little while longer around the narrow little streets, coming across shop after tourist shop, each one selling pretty much the same sort of overpriced tat. The outdoor seating areas to all the restaurants were jam packed, and because there were so many smokers among them, we were not tempted to hang about.

When we got back to the hotel, I was thrilled to notice what I hadn’t seen the first time around – books! In English! (and Croatian and Norwegian, but never mind those). The friendly, pretty receptionist laughed at my obvious happiness and explained that they were books that had been left behind by other guests and I was welcome to borrow them. It was a big relief to have more reading material at hand – otherwise I would have had to ration my reading as I was down to my last two books (bought in Zagreb that morning as emergency back-up).

We enquired about ferry trips to neighbouring islands, and the receptionist said that pretty much any ferry service would be the same. There was one right next door to the hotel and we booked two tickets for the next day at 110 kuna each. The ferry trip was to include a “fish lunch” and drinks, and we would visit the Elafiti Islands – or rather, the three inhabited ones of Koločep, Lopud and Sipan. There are, I believe, 14 islands but most of them are uninhabitable.

Because we were staying in the Lapad area, the tour lady informed us that we would be taking a small boat to the port proper in the Old City, and there we would transfer to the bigger ferry which would take us around the islands. That suited me fine. So the next morning, bright and early, we (and a few others numbering maybe 10 people) met up with her, and walked down to where the boats, private and otherwise, were moored. The small boat, as she had said, was not at all busy. It was a lovely bright morning, the sea was very blue, and I really enjoyed the 20-minute trip to the harbor.

But when we got off on the jetty and saw the milling crowds, that was when it struck me that our little group would not be the only ones on the big ferry.

And so it turned out.

By the time the ferry (already carrying passengers who had probably got on at a previous pick-up point, and who had appropriated the best seats on the top deck) docked at our jetty, the majority of OAP holidaymakers were thronging around the access point to the ferry. This allowed only one person on at a time, as it was a fair step down from the jetty to the boat, and there were two crew members who grabbed each person’s arms and helped them on board.

I have to digress here for a rant (what, you were expecting a prayer maybe?) about these OAPs. I’m a polite person and Pete, being English but not a football fan (and therefore not a hooligan), is polite in general and solicitous of older people in particular. But gosh, a lot of older people sure don’t return the favour – especially those you meet on holiday. Maybe they’re polite and well behaved in their home towns where people know them... but on holiday, they leave behind any such pretences and scrabble and squabble and push and shove and elbow others to get ahead without a second thought – and to add to this, if you request them to stop shoving, they’re not above pointing out that they’re OAPs... as if that condones their selfish behaviour.

Not all of them were like that, obviously, but a good many of them certainly were – and oddly, the majority of those were members of a German tour group. After a heavy old woman stepped on my foot while pushing her way forward with not a word of apology, Pete remarked not quite sotto voce that she probably wanted to get her towel on a good seat before anybody else. (Germans have a deserved reputation for grabbing the best seats anywhere early by leaving their towels on them as a sort of "reservation".) I shushed him but an American OAP, who had heard Pete, laughed and added “I believe Germans have a reputation for being ruthless.”

The result was, by the time we managed to get on (and we were one of the last few), most of the seats had been taken. I was extremely upset – I had been really looking forward to the boat trip, and I was annoyed that the woman who sold us the tickets had implied that we would have good seats. She certainly didn’t tell us that our little group would be the last to be picked up by the ferry.

The ferry left immediately everyone was on board. For a few minutes it looked like we would have nowhere to sit at all. The seating was very basic – wooden benches and tables squeezed in on the lower deck, in three rows with a narrow aisle between. These were meant to seat three per bench. Most of the seats had been taken by the German squad, and while we were still stood looking for somewhere to park our heinies, these delightful (not!) old folk had already begun to down the vodka that was provided along with the most godawful soft drinks I’ve ever had the misfortune to taste.

We finally managed to get a seat next to a batty old woman wearing shocking pink lipstick that had bled all around her mouth. She had a massive beach bag next to her on the bench, but did she offer to move it, or make space to give us a seat? What do you think?

I would probably have stood there, fuming and very close to tears, but Pete practically pushed me down next to her, having decided that waiting for these people to be polite was a waste of time. I didn’t want him to stay standing either, so I moved up closer to her, hoping to shame her into budging up as well. All she did was move the bag between us, so that she rather than her bag was at the “window” seat. Which was fine by me because I didn’t have a problem squashing her bag.

After about 5 minutes, the old bat decided that she wanted to find another vantage point, so we dutifully made way for her to get out. But, unbelievably, she left her bag there to guard her seat. I watched her flit from seat to seat until she found a better seat towards the top end (is it aft? or stern? whatever the term is) of the boat. I don’t know quite how she managed this, as there was a young family sat there, but she was soon seated by the “window” again, with a great sea view. It didn’t look like she was coming back, so I finally (with much prompting from Pete) put her bag under the table and appropriated the window seat.

That improved my mood a bit, especially as I could now at least see the waves sparkling in the sun. It still wasn’t an ideal place for the best views of what was ahead, but it beat standing up.

The first of the three Elafiti islands that we arrived at was Kolocep. The stop here was just for 30 minutes and there didn’t seem to be much to do or see in that short time, so we didn’t bother with getting off the boat. I did, however, take the chance to try and find a better vantage point and managed to find a place to sit at the top of the boat. This was not strictly a seating area as there were huge ropes coiled there, as well as an anchor, and there wasn’t really much place to sit, but by holding on to one of the poles at the side, I could at least anchor myself and look ahead. It wasn’t the most comfortable place, but I clung there like a limpet, refusing to move even at the next island (Lopud) for fear of someone else taking my place. This time we stopped there for lunch, so it was for about an hour.

The lunch was, of course, broiled fish of some sort, served with a cabbage slaw and baskets of bread. There were also sausages available for those who didn’t want the fish, and the boat guys didn’t mind serving both fish and sausages for those so inclined. I, as a vegetarian, got the slaw along with a few slices of an amazingly awful cheese – it smelt and tasted like something dead, and not even Pete, who actually likes mouldy (read blue) cheese, could stomach more than a bite! Smelly cheese definitely is an acquired taste. On the plus side, for non-vegetarians, the fish and sausages were plentiful and very tasty, so worth being included in the ticket price! Also, the boat crew were very efficient about serving the lunch while it was still hot (the fish were cooked on board), and even came around asking if anybody wanted seconds. With that part of the trip I have no beef at all (if you will pardon an unpardonably bad pun).

By the time lunch was finished and cleared away, and those who had wandered onto the island had returned, I had consolidated my place quite nicely, moving the ropes a bit till I could sit reasonably comfortably. Pete went one better and sat on the edge of the boat, getting the advantage of what breeze there was – but I was too chicken, afraid that I would fall into the water. It was lovely to feel the wind on my face (because it was a hot day) and look at the bow wave created by the boat and the sun sparkles on the waves, and gradually my bad mood disappeared.

At the last island, Sipan, the boat docked for a couple or three hours, leaving the passengers to their devices. There was a tiny stretch of beach – more stony than sandy at that – where there were maybe a couple of dozen people stretched out on towels or sun loungers. A few were in the water in the roped-off area (beyond which the ferry boats were moored). It did look like they were having fun, and Pete got it into his head that he wanted to cool off in the water as well.

He was wearing swim shorts anyway, which made it convenient, but he insisted that he wanted to dive into the water from the boat. I tried to persuade him not to do so – he could get in the way of other boats coming in, he could scare the bejesus out of the fish (that I had been feeding with bread left over from lunch), he could end up stuck head-first in the sand (the water was very clear and consequently didn’t look deep enough to dive into) - but my carefully reasoned objections didn’t resonate with him. He did agree to jump in feet first, though, which I thought was marginally safer (broken legs vs broken neck – obvious choice, right?).

He wanted me to jump in too, but I declined on the grounds that I wasn’t wearing a swim costume, plus there was only one towel and that was his. (Cowardice had, of course, nothing to with my decision.)

I half thought one of the boat crew guys would yell out when he saw Pete stand on the rail, but he watched without so much as a warning peep as Pete dived in. Once I was certain he hadn’t broken anything (including any nearby fish), I took a couple of photos of him, then made my way around to the beach area, carrying the towel and his t-shirt, while Pete swam lazily across (as an aside, does the word “swam” look and sound as weird to you as it does to me?).

We sat around under the canopy of a cafe for a bit, sipping at a beer, until Pete's shorts were dry. I wanted to explore the little lanes that led up towards the hilltop, where there were the remains of a fort or something (a sign with an arrow pointing upwards helpfully said "fort", which is how I knew about it).

The steps leading up were pretty steep, there was no breeze and it was really warm... but I persevered because there were fruit trees and green grape vines and some very beautiful flowers and things growing by the steps (although behind fences as they were private gardens). Again, lots of fruiting orange and lemon trees, but I couldnt scrump a single fruit as they were all just beyond reach. I had to content myself with photographs. We went about three quarters of the way up, then gave it up as a bad job - it simply was too hot, and I didnt want to risk a headache, a very real possibility in that dazzling sunshine. The views from there down the hill to the sea were stunning, though, so it was not a totally wasted climb. All in all, the day trip around the Elafiti islands was worth it, made better by the absence of rain.

That evening we elected to have dinner at our hotel restaurant... as usual, the vegetable platter I got was literally just that - a platter with lightly grilled vegetables. I got by with a salad and a bowl of chips, while Pete had the whole grilled fish of some kind, and really enjoyed it.

Our meal was made all the more pleasant by our waiter, a friendly man of indeterminate age with really hairy eyebrows and a brilliant grin. He spoke very good English, and we got talking when he asked where I was from. I thought he would most likely not even have heard of Madras - imagine my surprise when he said that he had spent two weeks there while walking from Bombay to Kanyakumari! It turned out that he had spent three or four years travelling all around India on a shoestring budget, staying with Indian families who had befriended him on his wanderings in the country. He was very familiar with places I have never been to, and apparently he had even spent three months in Haridwar and Rishikesh with a blind sadhu whose mind-reading power he could personally vouch for.

He had lots more stories about his stay in India, and his affection for the country was obvious. This Croatian gentleman, who I thought would probably not even have travelled to Asia, had worked for 12 years on the QE2 as the chief purser (whatever that is) along with his wife, had been all over the world, lived in Dubrovnik for 8 months of the year and spent the winter months in warm South-East Asia. And here I'd assumed that he probably wasnt very well off and that's why he was working in a three-star hotel! He was an incredibly interesting man, and yet again it was a reminder not to take anybody’s circumstances for granted just because of where they were or what they were doing at the time I met them. (I never did find out why he was working at this hotel and not in some fancy 5-star one, though.)

Since our hotel was only a small one (just 20 rooms, and most didn’t seem occupied - yet), we got to know the staff quite well, especially as there weren’t many of them. The Hotel Perla was also perfectly situated as far as I was concerned, and we spent most of a day without doing anything much touristy. We had bought a large bottle of vermouth (and a bottle of Sprite as a mixer) and made large sweet martinis for sustenance while Pete worked on his software for a while, and I read a book, sitting out on the balcony, occasionally looking out over the pedestrian walkway and watching the people below.

I found it really amusing to find men and women walking around in public wearing what amounted pretty to just their underwear with perhaps a gauzy top as a basic cover (just the women – the men went bare-chested, sometimes with a towel slung around their waist) – you knew at once that they were tourists, there for the beach and the sun. The locals went about their business with not a second look at these holidaying people clad in not very much – par for the course, as far as they were concerned, I guess. This attire only extended to those who were walking, though – beachwear was not allowed on the buses. Those who were wearing clothes were so beautifully accessorised, it was a pleasure to look at them... light pastel outfits or summery colours with matching bags, sandals, hats, and so on. The ladies looked really stylish, cool and casual.

Anyway, it was a perfect sort of day to be incredibly lazy, and in the evening we walked down to the beach end of the walkway, just to see what was there. There were more shops along the way, more hotels and, on the beach, an open bar with chairs and tables on the shingle. This seemed like a perfect place for a drink, and Pete ordered his favourite Croatian beer while I had a cocktail that imitated the colourful sunset (both were glorious). There was an apricot tree as well, with fruits that were (at last!) within reach - and I finally got to eat a fruit within moments of being picked, the freshest it could get. The apricot was quite small, fairly sweet on the outside and pretty sour towards the seed part – but I was pleased with it anyway.

While we were there, we were hailed by a good looking, smooth talking ferry-trip sales guy. He was very persuasive, very amusing, talked nineteen to the dozen and very nearly convinced us to book tickets for a day trip by luxury bus to Montenegro in Serbia (just a few hours drive from Dubrovnik) along with a boat ride to some other islands.

Unfortunately, as per the guidebook, as an Indian passport holder, I still required a visa to enter Serbia. The sales guy said that entry into Montenegro would not be a problem as I have a UK permanent resident visa… but he couldn’t confirm for certain that I wouldn’t need a visa. Reluctantly we decided that we couldn’t really risk a bus trip – if the border security at Montenegro decided that I couldn’t enter, we’d be stuck in god knows what forsaken area, unable to go on to Montenegro and unable to return to Dubrovnik until the bus made its return trip… not to mention the waste of a day and the trip fee as well. It was a pity, as I would have loved to see Montenegro... but inshallah, I’ll get to Serbia some other time.

The next day turned out to be bright, sunny and extremely warm. Although I had told Pete earlier that we should not miss the Old City walls walk, the heat put me off even venturing out. I suggested that we go out towards the evening, when it would be cooler. But Pete insisted that we should stick to the plan and finish that part of the sightseeing, dragging a very reluctant and whiny me out of the hotel and down the walkway to the bus stop bright and early at 10.30a.m or so. The bus stop was really busy as well, making me even more whiny. I forced Pete to miss a couple of buses in the hope that the worst of the throngs would disappear (the buses came around every 10 minutes), but no such luck.

I guess that because the day was so exceptionally lovely, all the sightseers had decided to home in on the Old City. We bought a couple of bottles of water and tickets at 50 kuna apiece for the pleasure of walking the wall. The first hurdle was the steep flight of steps from where we started at the Pile Gate entrance. There was a steady stream of people coming down/going up. I guess it would have been much more pleasant in cooler weather – I don’t know what the temperature was, but it certainly felt very hot and quite humid… probably over 30C. (I know, I know, Chennai-ites - that’s practically freezing temperatures in comparison – but just leave me to my moaning, ok?) There was absolutely no breeze at all, the sun was blazing down, the steps were steep, leading steadily upwards, and I wasn’t a happy camper – until, that is, I finally got to a point where I got an uninterrupted view of the Adriatic.

It was glorious! A bright bright blue shading towards turquoise near the tower bases, with little waves that sparkled in the sunshine, here and there ferries making their usual trips, a massive cruise ship in the mid-distance, the island of Lokrum rising green from the sea – it was a breathtakingly lovely view. It also helped that the steps had more or less leveled out by now, with only the occasional upward slope. There was no respite from the sun. The only places where there was an actual cool breeze was, oddly, in the occasional little outcropping, tiny spaces (I don’t know the architectural term for these rooms), just big enough for 2-3 people to stand without bumping elbows. The breeze that came through the small openings cut in the stone was soothingly cool. I don’t know where the breeze came from, because the second you stepped out of the room, it disappeared. Those were oases of relief, I can tell you! Luckily Pete had his cap on, otherwise he would probably have suffered sunstroke – as it was, since he was wearing shorts, below the knee and up to his socks, and on his arms, he was quite severely sunburnt.

The sea views were beautiful but as we went further on there were also panoramic views over the rooftops of the Old City. They were various shades of red – the lighter coloured ones being the pre-Serb bombing older ones, and the bright red ones being the replacements used when the Old City was rebuilt. Some of the ruins had not been restored and they were quite a contrast to the reconstructed buildings.

It took two hours to walk a complete circuit of the walls, and by the time we’d finished, it was about 1.30 in the afternoon – extremely hot. The Stradun was, of course, overrun with hatted sunglassed tourists, either strolling up and down the street or seated at the outdoor tables of the various cafes. We weren’t looking to sit outside, so it was very pleasant to walk into a café and find the indoor section absolutely empty. It was dark in there, and reasonably cool, and we had a beer (Pete) and a cool drink (me) to cool off. I worked out the price for my tiny bottle of Sprite and was horrified to find that it was £3! Yikes! I didn’t want to spend all my money in just that café, and Pete, who was probably thirsting for some Guinness, suggested the Irish Pub as our next destination. It was nice and quiet to start with, and there were big-screen TV sets showing football matches. So we sat there for the rest of the afternoon, Pete drinking Guinness while I alternated between trying out the local fruit juice varieties and the different kinds of coffee from the menu. It was a pleasant way to recover from the excesses of the sun before we eventually made our way back to Lapad for our dinner.

Our last day in Dubrovnik – Sunday - was another scorcher. I wanted to do another boat trip of some sort, but since we hadn’t booked anything in advance and had started out much too late from the hotel, we were at a slight loss as to how to set about it. Pete suggested that we walk down to the bay in Lapad, from where we’d taken the boat to the Old City the other day. Dragging my heels and sulking only a little in the heat, I followed him down the shady little streets, trusting reluctantly to his homing pigeon instincts when he veered off from the road down a narrow little alley. Sure enough, we reached the mooring point quicker than if we’d gone the longer way down the main road.

So we were there. Now what?

Pete said we could follow the road around the marina to the other side, and if perhaps there would be boats that took people for rides. It looked like a short distance to the other side and indeed would not have taken 10 minutes to row across, assuming we had a row boat. But the road followed the shape of the marina, meandering around, unfolding more around every corner, and soon I was feeling really sweaty and uncomfortable (wearing jeans had not been the best idea, in retrospect) and extremely icily bad-tempered. (I’m aware of coming across as a complete misery of a travel companion – and unfortunately that’s true in very hot, humid weather. I AM not a nice person in those circumstances.)

Pete kindly tried to jolly me along (he was being extra sweet because it was his fault we were walking – I had wanted to take the bus to the Old City) but it wasn’t until we reached a tourist office that I thawed a bit (ironic usage I suppose, considering the heat). It was blissfully air-conditioned and the guy behind the counter spoke English well. (More importantly, he was rather good looking.)

The office was also a scooter-hire place, little noisy 50cc two-wheelers that you could rent for 200 kuna a day. But I wasn’t really in the mood, partly because it was already past noon and it would have been a waste of money. Also, I wasn’t sure if I would remember how to ride a scooter safely after nearly a decade of not having ridden one. In any case, Dubrovnik’s traffic was a bit iffy. Yes I know, I’m a human chicken.

The main reason, though, was that my heart was set on a boat ride, so we waited at the nearest bus-stop for a bus to Old City. As I had feared, there were no ferry trips to even the nearby Lokrum island, but at the Old City marina, we bumped into our salesman pal from the other day. He looked hot under the collar as well, and readily informed us that he was having a bad day, it was too hot and he had not been able to charm enough customers into taking his ferry trips. He did have a one-hour boat ride around the islands on offer, and since that seemed better than nothing, we ponied up 100 kuna each and were led to a small boat. There were only about 6 people on board apart from the crew, excluding us, all of them Americans on an extended trip around Europe.

The boat ride was enjoyable, as always, and this one took us around the far side of Lokrum Island (which we hadn’t seen on the other trip) which was hidden if you were looking at the island from the Old City, even from the top of the city walls. There were quite a few sunbathers perched on whatever space was available among the rather spiky-looking rocks – sunbathers with a difference, because they were lounging about “digambar” (meaning “skyclad”, meaning naked) style. Nude sunbathing/swimming was apparently restricted to that part of the island only. I have to say that the folks splashing about in the water looked mighty comfortable and cool. There were little ladders (swimming pool style) fixed to the rocks here and there to assist the swimmers in getting out of the water, and the kids were having a great time jumping from the rocks into the water, clambering out and then repeating the whole thing over. It did look like good fun…

The trip finished all too soon, but I felt a lot more cheerful thereafter. Walking back through the little lanes of the Old City, I didn’t even think to sigh about the jewellery shop where I had seen (and instantly coveted) the Most Beautiful Necklace Ever – gold beads and deep blue lapis lazuli beads somehow woven together to form a diamond shape that was pliable instead of stiff-backed. I’ve never been bothered over much with fine jewellery of any sort, but I really did fall in love with that necklace, especially when I tried it on. It looked stunning… and so was the price – something like £1,500. No way we could afford that, but it didn’t stop me from sighing over it for a few minutes.

Anyway, as I was saying, the boat ride put me in a good enough mood to even forget about the necklace.

And back in Lapad, we tried the last restaurant on our row (or the first one, approaching from the bus stop) for dinner – and what do you know, it turned out to have the best and cheapest food of all the restaurants we’d tried. Their pizza was pretty damn good, thin and crisp to the point of being nearly burnt on the bottom (which is how I like it).

Our taxi was coming at 4.30 the next morning, so we tried to check out in advance, to save us and them the trouble so early in the morning. But the receptionist said that we could do it the next morning, no problem, after breakfast - yep, they arranged for fresh hot coffee, bread rolls, cheese, ham, jam and butter especially for the two of us as a farewell gesture. That’s what I mean by friendly service and the personal touch – it’s so much nicer at small hotels with friendly staff!

The taxi driver was the same friendly chap who had brought us to the hotel when we arrived. This time the drive to the airport was much quicker, as there was hardly any traffic on the roads at that godforsaken hour of the morning. Croatia Airlines is nothing if not punctual, and our flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, and the connecting flight from Zagreb to Gatwick went off more or less like clockwork (minus some frustration at the transfer point in Zagreb airport which was run remarkably inefficiently – very reminiscent of the melee that usually happens in the international terminal in Madras!) But that was only a small hiccup and easily ignored – once we were safely at our embarkation point – after another lovely holiday in Croatia.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Croatian holiday - Part 1 (Osijek and Zagreb)

To tell the truth, I was a bit doubtful about going to Croatia in the waning half of June, mainly because I was afraid it would be blisteringly hot. Granted, not as hot as it is in most parts of India now, but hot enough to cause a lot of discomfort to me and - given my temperament which tends to match its environment - to anyone around me as well. As it turned out, my fears were mostly unfounded, because apart from the last 2-3 days in Dubrovnik, the weather behaved itself quite delightfully.

We reached Zagreb on Friday afternoon. It was quite warm, actually, and Pete felt the heat immediately. But, fresh from rainy and cold Shrewsbury, I actually enjoyed the warmth of the sunshine, helped along by a lovely breeze. We were met at the airport by our friend Zarko, looking casual and cool (as always, I might add), ready to drive us all the way back to Osijek. The drive from Zagreb to Osijek was made more interesting because I was able to see the fields and trees and everything along the way (last time we’d done the journey at night), while at the same time trying to avoid the scorching sunshine, magnified by the window glass, that nearly set my jeans on fire – well, that’s how it felt!

We stayed at the
Hotel Silver again and it was a pleasure to recognise, and be recognised by, the staff at this small but comfortable hotel. I’ll say this about the smaller mid-range hotels – unless you’re really unlucky, what you lack in the way of decadent luxury is more than made up by the personal attention from the staff who all quickly get to know you (and vice versa). It also helps if they’re the friendly kind, of course!

This time around, we didn’t do much in and around Osijek, apart from eat and drink at the various wonderful restaurants to which Zarko and Ozana took us. No, I tell a lie, we made a few emergency trips to various hardware stores and general DIY type places for various reasons, one of them being my camera.

I don’t know what it is about holidays and my camera, but I never seem to get it all together – one or the other component always gets left behind… the charger, the battery, sometimes the camera. This time it was the memory card.

I’d remembered to bring the charger for the camera’s battery, even going to the extent of having the battery fully charged and in the camera. I felt very pleased about that... until I tried to take a photo of a walnut tree at the airport and discovered that the camera didn’t have a memory card in it. So of course Zarko had to drive us all around and about when we got to Osijek to get a memory card first thing, before we did anything else (because I insisted).

And then, after all that malarkey buying a new memory card, to discover after all that the bloody battery had somehow lost its charge, when I tried to take a photo of the kids... well, suffice it to say that I was very upset and the camera came perilously close to death by drowning in the Drava.

So did the saga of the camera end there? Not on your nelly!

The next problem turned up when we got back to the hotel and I looked in our luggage for the adaptor plug that would enable me to make use of the charger with the local plug point. Naturally, it wasn’t there (the adaptor plug, I mean).

Since UK plugs and Croatian plug points are incompatible (think of square pegs and round holes), we had to go back on the hunt for a plug which would marry the two. Easier said than done, because there weren’t any such plugs available for love or money. In the end we bought Croatian plugs, along with an emergency tool kit, and Pete attached the Croatian plugs to my British charger (after detaching the British plug first). Why hotels everywhere can’t use standardised plug points that will take any shapes or sizes of plug pins, I don’t know. It would save the disorganised type of person (me) a lot of holiday hassle.

Anyway... since the weather forecasts were gloomy, we took each day as it came, without making plans that might have been spoilt by the rain. As it turned out, it didn’t rain (except on a Monday that was also a public holiday) and the weather stayed pleasant.

We had “feesh soup” again at a really characterful restaurant, called “Kod Ruže" (translation: At the Rose – thanks, Zarko). It was kitted out with all sorts of old traditional utensils/decorations and knick-knacks that are found in any traditional Croatian house, and the decorations gave the place a really warm, homely air. I found the fish soup glorious yet again, particularly as it was really spicy (pre-ordered specially by Zarko, bless the man) – Pete sweated an entire river (no, not the Drava) but it didn’t stop him mopping the soup off his plate with the fresh crusty bread that was provided along with the noodles.
And pretty much for the entire time that we were in the restaurant, we were serenaded by a troupe of gypsy musicians. The violinist in particular was extremely talented and we tipped him rather generously. The nice thing about these guys was that they didn’t go away the moment they were given money (as was our experience with street musicians in Paris and Rome)... instead, they played even more vigorously by our table, just for us! Or possibly just for Pete, who was the tipper.

Another meal, preceded by a long leisurely stroll along the Drava river, was at the Zoo restaurant – which was a restaurant at the zoo (duh). Getting to the restaurant was fun. One way is walk across the footbridge to the other side of the Drava (on which side the zoo is situated) and walk the kilometer or to the restaurant.

We, however, walked down the promenade, all the way to a little jetty directly across from the restaurant, because crossing a river is much more fun in a ferry.
This ferry, tethered to a cable that stretched above the river from one bank to the other, was not motor powered but used the Drava’s current to drift across. The cable, of course, held back the ferry from drifting entirely away - which circumstance wouldn’t have served the purpose of visiting the zoo or the restaurant at all.

We didn’t check out the zoo itself but the restaurant décor was appropriately all leopard and zebra print, with lots of greenery. It was a very hot day, but the heat of the sun was mitigated by a fresh breeze – the only time we felt the sting of the sun’s rays was when the breeze dropped.

As we sat out in the patio garden while our table was being readed, there were a few loud explosions which puzzled me and Pete a bit. Ozana said that it was probably due to work on the mines, news to me as I hadn’t read about any mines being in operation around Osijek.

I asked what sort of mining was going on, and that was when Zarko made it clear that these weren’t the kind of mines you dig into, but the kind that blow up people – basically, the explosions were most likely from mine-clearing operations. Apparently 40% of the land in Croatia is still a minefield – literally. A sobering, quite frightening thought, to be sure, and a situation that makes farming a lot more dangerous in some areas than it would otherwise be. You certainly wouldn’t want to go wandering off the beaten path, as it were.

Landmines, a menace in war-time, obviously continue to be a menace in peacetime as well. Companies that manufacture landmines and sell them to war-torn countries should all be blown up – I for one wouldn’t care if the fat cats making money off the suffering and danger caused to innocent people were blown up along with their product! Actually, left to me, I would send the weapons manufacturers out into minefields one at a time. That way they would at least be useful.

Anyway, getting back on track... the meal at the Zoo Restaurant was a fine one, and I was actually lucky that they had a proper vegetarian entrée – a soya-vegetable patty, with fresh green peas, served with chipped potatoes and one of the gorgeous mixed salads that were such a pleasure and a part of nearly every meal. I had a cabbage slaw that was ever so slightly sour – I don’t know if that was sauerkraut, but if it was, it was scrumptious!
No trip to Osijek is complete without visiting a winery, as far as Pete is concerned. With that in mind, Zarko and Ozana arranged for a trip to a vineyard in the Baranja area which also boasted an exclusive, very impressive restaurant in the wine cellar.The surroundings were lovely, and I saw my first ever grape vines in the vineyard there – an exciting moment. The grapes, of course, were too sour for words - I knew they would be, but I tasted one all the same. Call this the only occasion where the sour grapes didn’t cause a “sour grapes” attitude, heheh! What made our holiday an even greater pleasure this time was the fact that the Croatian government had enforced a smoking ban in public buildings – you can’t begin to imagine the difference this made to us as non-smokers. Obviously this meant that the smokers had to go outside if they wanted a fag – and pool ol’ Zarko and Ozana had to keep popping in and out of the restaurant while we were there! There probably aren’t many Croatians happy about this rule – for certain, Zarko isn’t.

Our flight to Dubrovnik was from Zagreb on Wednesday, so on Sunday evening we went to the railway station in Osijek to book tickets for the early morning “fast train” on Tuesday – which takes about 3 hours from Osijek to Zagreb, with no stops on the way.

I have to say the station looked a bit bleak, especially as the sky was overcast and dull – or perhaps it was very quiet as it was a Sunday evening. There were also building works going on nearby – new tram lines being laid, plus a rather fancy pedestrian overbridge being built. Building sites are never pleasant on the eye, and this partly made the station area look bleaker than it was.The problem, as Zarko explained it, is that neither project has been completed, and may not for a good few years yet. I don’t know if it’s disheartening or reassuring, the realization that governments everywhere bungle up on new constructions by underestimating the funding required, or not coming to a consensus on some vital issue or other, and so on. Osijek is a pleasant city, and deserves a better deal.

We spent Monday – which turned out to be very rainy – scuttling from coffee shop to coffee shop between rain showers, until we got to Osijek town centre… only to find that most of the shops were closed because it was a public holiday. Luckily there were icecream shops and cafes open, so we didn’t do too badly – Pete worked on his software while I read my book. And when I’d finished my book, it was time to return to Zarko & Ozana’s for a slap-up, scrumptious dinner on our last night in Osijek.

The next day we were at the station bright and early – well, early, anyway. Our train was at 5.45 a.m, but we got there a good hour early because I didn’t want to risk missing it. There was hardly anybody at the station when we got there and poor Pete couldn’t even get a coffee because there wasn’t a vending machine. He comforted himself by hauling out his laptop – Pete’s laptop is to him what a pacifier would be to a baby.

The journey to Zagreb was nothing out of the ordinary – no spectacular scenery or anything… but it still felt nice to be on a train rather than on an airplane. I dozed off and on so the journey went quicker than it would otherwise have, I suppose.
We reached Zagreb railway station (Gravni Kolodvor – and I haven’t managed to figure out yet whether it means “railway station” or whether it IS the name of the station itself) pretty much on time. The uplifting aroma of fresh bread made its way to our noses as we entered the main hall, and I bought two chocolate croissants from the bakery outlet there because suddenly we felt really hungry. Alas, the aroma was better than the taste. The thing about croissants, much as I like them, is that they tend to flake all over my clothes no matter how much care I take while eating them… but these Zagrebian croissants didn’t so much as shed a single crumb. Good, in a way, but not the mark of a true croissant. No?

Outside we found a taxi stand and got into the taxi of the first man who approached us. We should really have checked at the Information counter about the best way to get to our hotel – the Arcotel Allegra – and the approximate taxi fare to get there. But we didn’t – and paid for that omission literally, because the bloody taxi driver fleeced us like a pair of sheep. We discovered later that not only had he taken us the long way around to our hotel, he had also not reset his meter to zero... so basically instead of paying maybe 30 kuna, tops, we ended up giving him close on 100 kuna. I guess it served us right for being lazy.


The hotel was in a pretty good location, with the city’s most famous area – Jelacic Square (Trg Bana Jelačića) – just about 30 minutes stroll away. Our room wasn’t bad either, and I have no complaints about the level of service we received... but there was no warmth or any real feeling of welcome. I guess the Allegra fell somewhere between mid-to-largish in terms of size… and hotels that size tend to be somewhat soulless. Besides, according to the guide book, Zagreb’s hotels are geared to the business traveler on an expense account rather than tourists on a limited budget. (Make of that what you will!)

Anyway, we dumped our bags in the room and went downstairs for breakfast, which was quite a substantial spread, almost decadent... they even had champagne at the bar (not that we had any). Then it was back to the room so that Pete could catch up on lost sleep.

When we finally set out to check out our surroundings, I didn’t really have an idea of which direction the city centre was in, so we chose a street at random and began walking down it. The buildings didn’t seem particularly interesting, and I was beginning to wonder if we were going anywhere useful, when we came upon green and lovely Tomislav Square
and across the road from King Tomislav’s statue was the railway station (which was when we realized that the taxi driver had duped us, incidentally). The distance would have been maybe a mile or so from our hotel to the station.

Zagreb’s railway station is a rather beautiful building and the looming rainclouds did not detract from it in any way. The fact that the square is surrounded by lovely, expensive looking buildings also helped. I took a few photos and then we set off around the square, following the arrows which pointed towards St Mark’s Church, the cathedral and Jelacic Square, which is the heart of Zagreb city centre.

There were rainclouds but it didn’t rain, so the afternoon was pleasantly cool for walking – a big relief to me, because I’m not at my best (behaviour-wise and otherwise) in hot weather. The whole place looked very European – specifically Parisian, especially the buildings – and there didn’t seem to be many reminders of the damage caused by the war.

Eventually we came to Jelacic Square – a large open square, which has been around since the 17th Century, with the famous statue of Josip Jelacic on a prancing warhorse with sword held aloft (the statue made in 1866 by an Austrian, Anton Fernkorn), and many tram lines. The buildings around it were constructed in the last 200 years in a variety of styles. Mostly all pretty, which is about as much as I know of architecture, unfortunately.
The square was reasonably busy, I suppose, with both tourists and locals hanging around. I took the obligatory photographs of Josip Jelacic’s statue (which from certain angles reminded me of Rana Pratap) and then we wandered up a side street that I hoped would lead me to Dolac Market. Not that the market would be open at that time, but I wanted to pinpoint its location because I really, really wanted to see it the next day, during opening hours. (As it turned out, we didn’t have the time for this – something I regret rather a lot. But no doubt I’ll make it there the next time.)

The street was lined with little posh boutique-y shops, mainly selling bags and shoes. There didn’t seem much point to looking at anything in the shops because all the labeled goods were from the usual suspects – overpriced and overhyped. Perhaps there are places which sell things unique to Zagreb’s culture, but not around Jelacic Square, I don’t think.

North of Trg Bana Jelačića is the Upper Town, Gornji Grad. The historic hill towns of Gradec and Kaptol can be reached via the steps to Dolac market square.
So we trudged up the pretty cobbled street, following the signs for Dolac Market. There was a statue just outside the market, in the centre of a little square surrounded by restaurants (with plenty of outdoor seating), which drew my attention.

At first sight it looked like a jolly musician playing his guitar… but then Pete pointed out the hangman’s rope around his neck – and when I went round it to look at the guitarist’s companions, it was obvious that the statue was not exactly meant to represent festivity and cheer, because the two other men appeared to be dying
gruesomely too, one with his ribs all showing as if he was starved. I don’t know the significance of this statue and couldn’t find any reference to it... but I have to say it would not be top on my list of things to look at while having lunch!

Since Dolac Market – did I mention the main market is underground? - was not open, we went on to Kaptol, which is the churchy area of Zagreb.
Or in more formal terms, Kaptol is traditionally an ecclesiastical centre, dominated by the twin-spired Gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of Virgin Mary and St. Stephen.It was being renovated, with lots of scaffolding somewhat marring its façade – but apparently this has been ongoing for the last few years. Right in front of the cathedral was a column with a golden statue of the Holy Mary (whom I mistook for Jesus at first – pardon my ignorance) at the top, and with four golden angels (I think) at the foot of the column.The entrance door to the cathedral was beautiful, with statues of various saints and some really intricate designs and carvings that looked almost like filigree work, they were so delicate.

Photography was forbidden within the cathedral, so I had to content myself with taking a photo of the stained glass interior from the entrance, stealthily using the “museum” mode on my camera so that there wouldn’t be a flash to disturb the faithful at their prayers.

We didn’t go inside the cathedral for the same reason, which was a bit of a shame because it was really rather beautiful in the way of such places.

After that it was lunch time... a very very late lunch, very nearly supper. Although it would have been very nice to sit outside, the smokers had the upper hand here, so we elected to sit inside – which meant that we had the pizzeria pretty much to ourselves.

There wasn’t much time to see anything else, because it had gone quite dark, so we elected to walk back to the hotel. I felt bad about not having had enough time to see St Mark’s Church and quite a few other places in and around Zagreb, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. There just literally was not enough time, as we were leaving for Dubrovnik the next day.
To be contd...