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 ( 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...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Brussels-Luxembourg trip - 2002

I'd gone to Brussels with my friend Ramya and her friend Anjali. We had very cheap tickets on Ryanair to Brussels, but by god the Ryanair plane was about as cheap as the tickets, almost! Kinda rickety, sort of like a Chennai bus that can fly.. but of course they had to provide the basic minimum safety facilities because after all we were going to be in the air!!! The best thing that can be said for the flight is that it's about 40 minutes to Brussels Charleroi airport from London Stansted airport.

It wasnt quite an auspicious beginning to our holiday because the Information counter at Charleroi was empty. And when the lady did come by, her spoken English (as well as her enthusiasm to help) left a lot to be desired. This proved to be the case 9 times out of 10, as we found out. And Ramya was the only one who knew a few words of French. Since we were all three of us budget travellers, we had to get to the city by train and bus and tram, not a taxi - that would've been very expensive.

Anyway, the first leg of it was by bus to the nearest metro station. The Information lady had said a bus would be outside at the kerb, and so there was. But the driver insisted it was not the one we should take because it was going to Brussels Zuid south). So we let it go and what do you know, that WAS the one we should've taken! We had to wait another hour - and Charleroi airport isn’t exactly a treat for the eyes... like most of Brussels, it's being renovated. And very likely with EU money meant for other things! :)

It was a slow train journey to Brussels Centraal. From there we had to take a bus to two stops away, and then a tram down to a stop called Botanique in French and Kruidtuin in Flemish. One thing we discovered is that we couldnt read maps... that, or the maps showing "you are here" were deliberately made impossible to follow! There certainly were enough people that we saw clustered around them at various points, trying to make sense of it!

We made it finally to the Youth Hostel, exasperated and irritable and fed-up (already) with how difficult things were without French - or at least, I was all of the above, probably because of the heat. It was really uncomfortable at about 28degC the first day and 30degC the next day... I know, I've lived through 30-odd years of much greater heat and humidity in Chennai so I shouldnt be complaining about something like this - but it's easy to get used to being comfortably cool and not so easy in reverse! Plus, the Belgians seem determined to overheat all their buildings... it's most uncomfortable, especially when the temperature outside is about the same.

The Youth Hostel was another surprise - and not really a pleasant one. For starters, the people at the reception were not particularly friendly... they never responded to greetings and they hardly ever smiled either. They were also rather stingy with information about the nearest ATM or currency exchange. Apart from that, the damn hostel was ALSO being renovated (scaffolding is a part of the skyline and architecture in Brussels, it would seem) and there were workmen and dust and planks and things lying around. (Well ok, the workmen werent lying around). Not very attractive!

Our room was an 8-bed dorm, with practically no ventilation - the windows could barely be opened... and anyway, they would only let in cigarette smoke from outside, thanks to the other residents puffing away from morn till night. There was only one toilet on the ground floor for 5 rooms and their 40-odd residents AND all the flotsam and jetsam from the other floors who happened by. NOT very nice! In fact, I think this would've been probably the least attractive hostel in Europe!

Still, we got used to it... going for our showers and ablutions early in the morning before anybody could mess up the place :) And really, once I'd kinda adjusted mentally to the circumstances, the plus points showed up - friendly roomies from different countries every night... Spain, USA, Canada, Japan, China - that was fun, talking to ‘em all. They usually stayed about 2 nights, max - and since we were staying 4 nights, began to feel like a veteran after the second night! :)

The first two days the three of us wandered around Brussels - or tried to, anyway. Technically we werent lost because we knew exactly where we were... usually about a half-hour's walk from our hostel! But the annoying part was how we couldn’t seem to find ANYTHING we went to look for! :) Streets were marked on the maps, but not apparently on the street itself - no signs. We had to go to the Free University because Ramya needed to meet a couple of people... after asking a few people how to get there (no satisfactory reply, or misdirections) and listening for 5 minutes to a completely incomprehensible Metro employee - I couldnt decide if it was Flemish or French he was speaking- we decided to take a taxi - and a good thing too, or we might never have reached the damn university!

Oh, the traffic in Brussels... it's horrendous! Not the amount of it, but the attitude - people dont bother to stop for pedestrians even if the little green man glows - it's a bit like Madras in that you have to stick your hand out in a "stop" gesture and run across, hoping the car wont run you down anyway! The two most common sounds in Brussels are tyres screeching as the drivers accelerate, and - no surprise this - ambulance/police sirens!

The city centre is quite nice (though I could appreciate it only after the weather improved!)... lovely buildings. Unfortunately, acres of very unlovely concrete as well. There were hardly any flowers to be seen - and when you think of England or Amsterdam, which have flowers everywhere, it's a bit depressing. There are lots of eateries, mostly Italian or Greek, in and around the city centre. The Turkish ones all seemed to be concentrated in the Botanique area - specifically, in the streets behind and around our hostel. I think the hostel was right on the edge of a not-quite-savoury area... and we found it rather unnerving to be stared at unblinkingly by dark-eyed, rather thuggish looking Turks, and hardly any women in sight - and those that were wore Muslim clothes, voluminous and all-covering.Did I mention that you get really good sandwiches in Brussels? The choice is unlimited if you're a non-veggie; they just stare at you disbelievingly when you insist on "vegetarian only" :) And man, the sandwiches are huge! After the first couple of times, Ramya and I would order one and have it cut in half - that was more than enough, really.
Toilets were quite a rarity, really... no public toilets that we ever found, nor even any signs for them. And in most places, you had to pay 30 cents to use the toilet. Anjali pointed out only a zillion times that in Chicago and most places in America, toilets are free and there are water fountains every 10 feet and nobody charges you for it! I was almost ready to pay for her ticket back, if only to shut her up :) In any case, if you were to believe all she said, Chicago must be Paradise on earth, and its inhabitants angels. Not fallen ones, either! ha!

The guildhouses (buildings that housed various merchants' guilds, with very elaborately decorated outer facades - almost royal) were impressive - but that most famous of Brussells' statues, the Mannekin Pis (pissing boy), was really tiny! When we saw him, he was clothed... and not very well, either, in ragged green shorts! He's dressed up differently depending on the occasion (like say Valentine's Day) and has more than 600 outfits! Good going for a little 2-foot statue, eh?
Another quite bizarre creation was the Atomium... a building that's built to look like the structure of an atom. Its dimensions are impressive, but we didnt really want to go inside to look at some scientific exhibition. The gardens and trees around the Atomium were actually the first lush greenery that we came across in Brussels, and what a welcome change it was! Especially as it was a lot cooler there than in the city centre.

The one-day trip we made to Luxembourg was more the kind of thing I love... it takes about an hour and a half to get there, and the route is completely beautiful. It takes you up hill and down dale, with thick forests on both sides for some of the way, and the countryside is almost English with all the green meadows. We stopped at a castle (St Anne's) on the way but though the views were spectacular, the minus points were that all the signs and explanations were in French and Flemish, two languages none of us knew.

Had it been in German, I could have coped, but as it is, I dont have much data about the place! They didnt have even the tourist literature in English - pah! Just like the French (or the Belgians) to be so arrogantly insular. One thing I did understand was that it was owned by hunting enthusiasts, because most of the rooms were full of stuffed and mounted animals and birds - boars, deer, wolves, all kinds of pretty colourful birds - and even the skulls of dead animals. Pretty gruesome, really. Not my cuppa tea, anyway.

Luxembourg is the most picturesque, beautiful little country... it's also one of the smallest - 82 km long and about 58 km wide, I think. It was a fortress in medieval times, and the huge, solid walls that you find here and there are in use even now - though not as a fortress. It's the headquarters of the translators for the various EU languages, and there are dozens of modern buildings being built to accommodate various EU offices and banks. The population of Luxembourg is only about 450,000 - and about 18000 people come in everyday to work from France, Belgium and Germany, its neighbours.

It's a very, VERY expensive city, however. And looks like it, too!

We managed to visit one more city in Belgium - Bruges. It used to be a major inland port and financial centre in the medieval ages... in fact, the word "bourse" originated here. But as the port got more and more silted up, traders moved on to ports in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and other places, and Bruges lost its importance. Its appeal now is that most of the town is almost exactly as it used to be hundreds of years ago.

Bruges is also very famous for lace. We saw a lace-maker at work - my GOODNESS it's complicated. They use upto 250 bobbins with the finest thread to make the finest lace... less fine lace uses fewer bobbins. Lacemakers have to go to lace-making school for upto 8 years! No wonder it's so expensive.

Actually when we went to Bruges, it was absolutely jam-packed with tourists - think of Ranganathan Street! Yes, actually as crowded as that! Our guide said even he'd never seen it as teeming, and he had to hold up his umbrella, yellow handle up, so that we could locate him in the throngs :) Still, it's a lovely little town – the buildings have brightly coloured and decorated facades - in fact, some of them seem to be two-dimensional, especially when you see them all in a row, side by side. I loved the quaint little bridges and the river that flowed through the town. There were boat rides to be had, but there wouldnt have been the GHOST of a chance of getting on without at least a two-hour wait, so we had to forget it. About the same could be said for the horse-drawn carriages that clopped their way around. Though tourism is the major earner for Bruges now, I wouldn’t like to be a resident there... imagine a place where you can hardly drive on the road - never mind drive, you cant even cycle! And walking involves lots of ducking and dodging to sidestep other tourists!

All around Brussels and Bruges there are loads of chocolate shops and lace shops, all claiming to have the authentic thing. But quite a lot of the lace is apparently made in Asia... you have to be very careful not to buy junk and pay through your nose for the privilege as well! As for the chocolates, I've never seen so many beautiful shapes and names, but I wasnt much tempted to try 'em out. Even the smell of chocolate can get too much.

And talking about chocolate, we went to the chocolate museum in Brussels... they could do with more enthusiastic employees, to start with, but it was allright. What impressed me were the chocolate sculptures there - hats and dresses and jewellery! None of it edible, of course, or for sale, and all of it behind glass - understandably enough, I suppose.

We left Brussels the same way we entered it - in a welter of confusion! We'd started from the hostel early enough, around 9.30am, in case we got lost or missed our way or something. Our flight was at 1.30pm, but we had to be there at least by 1pm. We took a taxi down to the station in perfectly good order, checked the train timings and destinations and went to buy a ticket. The ticket-salesperson was as true to Belgian form as we'd experienced - he didnt smile, was barely civil, didnt even look at us, but he gave us the tickets for the 10.47 express we'd asked for, which we thought went to Charleroi.

What we didnt know (and he didnt inform us) was that there are two airports in Brussels - one's Brussels airport (duh) and the other's Charleroi. The 10.47 that we'd wanted to take went to Brussels airport, not Charleroi - but he didnt see fit to put us right on that.

So we got on the train at 10.47, marvelling at how easy it'd all been and congratulating each other for being so efficient. That disappeared completely when the ticket collector came around and said we were headed in the wrong direction for the wrong airport, and we had to return to Brussels Centraal station!! And of course, this being the express train, it didnt stop anywhere but at Brussels airport. So we had to take the train back to Brussels Noord, and change trains again. Finally from Noord, we took a taxi to the airport and got there at 1.10pm - just in time! Charleroi airport didnt look any better that time either... passengers for 2-3 flights were all herded into one room (overheated as always) surrounded by boards and "men working" signs - to the last, Brussels was under renovation!

Germany/Holland trip - April 2002

Found a couple of old emails about my trip to Germany in 2002, which my sister had sent back to me as I didnt have a copy. This was pre-blog days, so the travelogue was just an email to friends. Thought I'd post them on this site and make them a public and permanent (ish) record.

April 2002

This weekend just past (Easter time), I got to use my European Schengen visa for the first time...

Pete took me to Germany, because everybody had a long weekend here – from Good Friday to Monday, which was a bank or public holiday. We got back just this morning, after four really lovely days. The best part was that the weather was very fine, too... sunny and clear and not too cold.

Pete decided that we'd take the car on the ferry to Holland, and then drive from there to Germany. The trip to Hoek von Holland (Hook of Holland) took about 7 hours by ferry. From there we (that is to say, Pete) drove down to Cologne, in Germany. My god, the first thing - and the most impressive - you notice about Germany is the motorways, the autobahns. The speed at which the vehicles go is fantastic. I used to think it was quite fast in England (about 70mph officially on the motorway, but most cars do about 90) but Germany must be the most lenient where speed is concerned... can you imagine, Pete was almost chased down the autobahns by dozens of cars, and he was doing an incredible 110 miles per hour (about 190 kmph, I think). Is it any wonder that German race drivers are the best in the world??? They have a headstart on every other country's champs! I must say it was great to be going that fast, though - and boy, it certainly saves on travel time! But Ithink Pete was rathe r startled to find that cars were sort of queuing up behind him to pass... he's not used to being less than the fastest maniac on the road, I guess!!

Anyway, to get back to Cologne... I found my German came in very useful in translating the traffic signs and things, and in understand what the Germans said, even if my spoken language wasnt exactly fluent! :) I think I was a pretty good navigator! I'm certainly getting better at reading maps. We drove right into Cologne city centre and found a hotel right opposite the main railway station. Cologne is a very beautiful city, situated on both sides of the Rhine river and connected by some rather nice bridges.

Our hotel room balcony looked out at the railway station - goodness, the trains are very colourful! Red and yellow, blue and yellow, black and orange... rather like butterflies! :) And right behind the railway station is the Cologne cathedral, a great Gothic building that soars into the air in spiky towers. It looks like something escaped from a fairy tale... very incongruous between all those modern buildings, especially as we could only see the tall spires. The cathedral is absolutely glorious inside, with huge panels of stained glass showing scenes from the Bible and Jesus' life. Since it was a sunny day, the glass absolutely glowed - it was incredibly beautiful.

The rest of the cathedral's interior looks almost drab in comparison, but there are some lovely carvings of angels and things if you look closely in the dingy light. I guess if they put in bright modern lamps, the beauty of the stained glass would be lost. Gothic architecture is unreal... the eye just keeps going up because the towers and pillars and everything are so narrow and tall and spiky. There's no sense of breadth, just height.

There are also some Roman ruins in Cologne... we didnt get to do the official Roman road walking tour in the city because it was not at a convenient time - or something like that. Anyway, we walked around the city centre to the different plazas and found some Roman relics on our own. There's the remnants of a really huge Roman sewer system - yeah I know, of all things to walk into, a drainage system!! :) But the tunnel is man-height and of course it's bone dry and clean now (but who knows, I might have some ancient Roman dust on my shoe!!). It was also rather cool to see the original stone walls and all... real Roman ruins!!!

Cologne has lots of very nice street-side cafes... and on mild summer evenings, I guess they get really crowded with people. It wasnt too bad when we went because it's only spring now and the good weather was unexpected... not many tourists were about! :) Actually, the second notable thing about Germany is that there seem to be many many more non-Aryans than actual Germans around... plenty of Muslim Turks and Greeks, Chinese and some Negroes as well. Oh well, I guess they were very liberal with asylum-seekers, after all.

Since Bonn is only 21 km from Cologne (trust me on this, since you go on the motorway, you're in Bonn almost before you start!!) :) Bonn is not as pretty as Cologne, but it's also situated on both sides of the Rhine. Most people go for long walks by the Rhine... it's very pleasant, and you get to look at the fabulously elaborate bungalows and mansions and penthouses which look out over the Rhine from a height - they're all situated at a height, and have lots of trees hiding them from the common people! :) Not that any of the Germans look common... they all seem to have great new cars and dress very well - I didnt see much evidence of poverty or dirt. On the other hand I didnt actually go anywhere near what could be called the seamier side of the cities.

We took a detour into the German countryside on our trip back to Holland... the German countryside is rather different from the English countryside - I'm not sure exactly how, though it's just as pretty, and the houses are very nice too. One thing I did notice is that the fields there dont have borders - whereas in England, they usually are bordered with low stone walls or hedges cut to size.

Since we had almost all of Monday to kill (the ferry back was at 10pm), I persuaded Pete to drive to Amsterdam. We picked up a Dutch hitchhiker on the way, since he wanted a lift into Amsterdam. We thought he might be useful in directing us there, but he was rather less than that! :) He didnt know the way in, he didnt know where there were parking areas in the city centre, he didnt know where the central station was, and he didnt even know what some of the street signs meant, when I asked! Silly fellow. It was a little difficult navigating in Holland but not impossible, because I could usually make out what the words meant, even though I dont know Dutch... but it's fairly similar to German, and that helped.

Anyway, since Monday was a bank holiday, there were very few empty parking lots in the city centre. But finally Pete found a tiny space behind a trailer somewhere, and squeezed the Landrover into it - he just about got all four wheels in! :) That man can make the Landrover almost sit up and beg... what a driver! Someday I hope to be able to be a 10th as good! :)

Guess what the first thing you'll notice about Amsterdam? No, not the flowers... the bike roads! Cyclists are given as much importance as cars and lorries, so ALL streets have a cycle-path and at least one car lane, and most big roads have tram lines as well. In fact, you could say your chances of being run over are threefold - cars, cycles and trams! :)

Amsterdam the city was jam-packed with tourists and locals. If I thought Germany had lots of foreigners (or people of non-German descent, anyway), Amsterdam beats that hollow. Actually it seems like it's been taken over by the Chinese... a large chunk of the city centre is commanded by the Chinese - shops, businesses, eateries, even Chinese souvenir shops! What a brilliant idea - buy authentic Chinese buddhas and other trinkets in the middle of Europe. Ha! Anyway, there are many people of Jamaican/African/Chinese/Philippine extract in Holland, it seems... many of the Dutch are mixed-race offspring.

Back to the city... it's full of long narrow streets, chocabloc with shops and eateries... the lovely thing about it is that there are canals all over the place, and little squares and bridges overlooking the waterways where people can sit and have coffee and watch the barges and boats going by. And then there are the "weed" cafes, where you can smoke cannabis – the drug is legal in Holland! It smells dreadful, I must say - rather like a cigar gone bad. Pooh! And cigars are enough to make you sick!

I got quite tired of the city... it's too crowded and noisy for my tastes. I did feel bad that I couldnt go to a single museum, but they were shut because of the bank holiday. Never mind, I'll do that in May!

Anyhow... we didnt have the time to do a round-the-city tour on a barge, so I elected to go driving into the countryside and take the long way back to Hoek von Holland to board the ferry. So we took off to a place called Haarlem... the route from Haarlem to another place further down towards Hoek von Holland, called Leiden, is the main flower area. It's too early now for all the flowers to come out, but we managed to find some in a little town called Keukenhof. That's the main town for visitors and tourists who want to see the famed tulip fields.

The tulips were only just flowering - we could see the little buds, but they hadnt opened out yet. Still, there were huge rows of bright yellow and cream daffodils, and wonderful purple flowers with an amazing fragrance, and some vivid red ones... I cant wait to get back in May and see whole fields of 'em!

The way back to Hoek of Holland, the route we took, also went through The Hague! :) That's one heck of beautiful city, but man, it looks posh. The houses are huge mansions, with loads of trees and parks and things around them, and every other car seems to be a Porsche or BMW... unfortunately we didnt have time to see anything of interest there, but my overall impression of the Hague is - plenty of money!!! :)

Well, that's about it... we made it to the ferry about right on time, and got here this morning.