Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Split and Dubrovnik, Croatia

Our Busabout tour concluded in the Adriatic seaside town of Split. We had a final official meal which took place at one end of the waterfront. There was a bit of drama as everyone was keen to try some locally caught fish only to learn that they were out of fish except squid and seafood risotto. We (except two of girls) stayed anyway and ate and when Zakk and Claudia went outside for a smoke they noticed other people eating fish.. Our tour leader had a word to the staff who made excuses about the catch only just arriving.

Our only full day in Split was spent wandering around. The central tourist area of Split is very small and so once the random storm passed over, Pip and I headed up the hill where we took in some great views of the city.

We met the few tour people left in Split for dinner that night and all went out for a really nice meal and back to one of the hostels for a couple of drinks.

The next morning Pip and I were off on our own once more, this time down the coast on a bus.

Traveling from Spilt to Dubrovnik by bus is fantastic. The road is almost entirely costal, and you are treated to some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. When we arrived and made our way to the information center just outside of the old town, it began to rain. What followed was a very uncomfortable hour of contacting and trying to find our host who could not find us in the crowds of people sheltering from the storm. We tried to find the address twice in the pouring rain to no avail.

Dripping wet with big heavy bags on or backs, we were about to leave the information center one last time when I found myself standing next to a lady who matched the description I'd been told on the phone. Luckily I asked her as she was a very passive person, but it was indeed our apologetic host who showed us to our amazing room in Dubrovnik.

We were staying in a very flash B&B style apartment two minutes walk from the main entrance to the old town. A beautiful cove and white stone walkways with cute apartments awaited us. This was the neighborhood where we would be spending three nights. This is the sort of thing that you need lots of money for right? Well not if you do your research. Dubrovnik in May has not hit the tourist high season yet so we found that wherever we went, we had space to ourselves. Because of this, we got to stay close to the old town, walked the town walls where we had all the space in the world to explore and take photos. It was warm enough to go for a swim at the beach but not too hot that you need to seek air conditioning all of the time.

The first day we explored the old town which is very beautiful, and the second day we swam in the ocean and took the cable car to the top of the cliff overlooking the town for views which were just unbelievable. Having only a few people up on the hill made the experience very relaxing as we sat in the outdoor restaurant overlooking the city and out over the Adriatic sea sipping drinks.

If we are to ever tour the Northern Hemisphere in future, it will be in May. It's not hot enough for everyone else it seems, but it suits us just fine. We can deal with a rain day here and there if you get to experience these incredible places, usually filled with tourists, in peace.

Split

Split
Split again
Nice view of Split from a big hill
Fish markets
Art market. I know none of these people...

We arrived in Dubrovnik as drowned rats

Luckily we had a washing line



Pip and I on the town walls





Plitvice Lakes, Croatia


The past day and a half have been one to remember. Our Busabout tour has been fantastic and seemed to be far more grown up than the Topdeck trip we did last year. That said, it was still and Australian booze-fest. Luckily for Pip and me there were a few Americans and the two of us from New Zealand to keep things a little bit mixed.

The bus trip to the Plitvice lakes was nice as we sped through lush Hungarian countryside. We stopped a couple of times along the way, once to a park where the communist statues has been shifted to from the city centre. We also visited the open air war museum just inside the Croatian boarder. One of my favorite things about these tours is that they give you a nice background on the places you are going, and Mel, our tour guide, had certainly done her homework when she explained the wars, Croatian history and gave us all a bit of context for the Plitvice lakes.

It was late evening when we arrived at our campsite, right on the edge of the national park. We had a BBQ dinner and chatted with the others, while most people had a few too many drinks. We had little cosy cabins which did the trick for the night.

The next morning was a beautiful, as we opened our front door to blue skies, Pip and I got quite excited as we'd been expecting a cloudy foggy day (cheers Google). But, we had a perfect day and we were taken into the parks before the crowds descended on it.

I can't really describe what it was like at the Plitvice lakes, it is a UNESCO protected world heritage site for good reason. The only way I can think of describing it would be to imagine the Disney movie 'Atlantis' or 'Avatar' (The same movie at Atlantis don't you think?). Apart from that description, I figure the photos we took will be the only thing which can give you an idea of the most beautiful place on earth that we've seen so far.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Budapest

On our bus journey from Prague to Budapest, I realized that I had developed a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of each place we'd visited so far. I had decided that for Budapest I should make an effort to write about the good things for once. I need not have worried because we absolutely loved Budapest.

There were the inevitable irritations which I will dedicate only a single paragraph to. When we arrived at the bus station and I asked the information counter where I could change some money, the lady took her time finishing off her text message, looked up at me, considered killing me, and then managed to utter the word “ack”On the way to the apartments, we were met with a storm which was a bit off-putting as we splashed though puddles trying to find the address. The next issue was with the accommodation itself. It was my fault because I took my directions from the website instead of the email, so we ended up on the top floor of a decrepit old building with a rusty lift for almost an hour. After running out of ideas to rectify the situation, a lady came and informed us that we were at the incorrect address.

Now to the positives, of which there are many.Our apartments were great. We had it pretty much to ourselves, and it's location could not have been any better. When exiting the building we were right next to St Stephen's Cathedral. Budapest was a city which we didn't expect to have too much going on, but we were pleasantly surprised by what was on offer here. The river front on both sides of the Danube is dotted with historic buildings. On the Pest side, there are obviously the parliament buildings which are reason enough to book a visit to Budapest. On the Buda side there are hills with royal palaces, fortresses, castles, and far more than a single day worth of sites to see. The views from the hill tops were incredible, and again I'm glad for the time of year we came as nowhere did we feel as if it were too crowded.

Pip and I spent our first full day sightseeing and our second day relaxing at the Szechenyi thermal baths. The baths were built in 1913 and still retaining much of their splendor. People from all walks of life come to the bath in the mineral waters and sauna's. Again, we picked a fantastic time of year as there was plenty of room for us, although there were still lots of people around. The baths are similar to the Roman baths in England except here they are still in operation, possibly because they are not as ancient. We made use of the indoor and outdoor baths for a few hours, and I must say that they were worth every Forint, as Pip, and I both felt very relaxed for the remainder of the evening.

After dinner, we visited an ice cream shop which made it's ice creams into shapes of roses and we then ate on the steps of the Basilica. Over the past few days we have discovered three amazing ice cream/Gelato flavors (Dark chocolate, chilli dark chocolate, and orange sorbet). Our final evening in Budapest had an amazing sunset so we went for a big loop around river and over some bridges. We took some really nice photos of the sunset and the lights of the buildings as they came on, and night took over.

So Budapest is at the top of my list of destinations so far. We have now joined a Busabout tour where we head across Hungry on our way to Croatia and the Plitvice lakes.

View of Pest from the palace area

The baths

Huge market

St Stephen's

Our rose ice creams

Parliment

Chain bridge

Me and the chain bridge

Memorial to those shot and pushed into the Danube

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Prague

The next stop on our trip was Prague, where we were to meet up with our friend Holly who'd flown down from England. It was certainly nice to have an extra travel buddy for a few days.

The beginnings of our time in Prague were not favorable. We rolled in on a bus from Berlin just as the sun was setting. And when I say 'setting', I don't mean that magical time of day when the soft sunlight makes a city illuminate. I mean the light was fading, and the grim skies which coated the city in grey sludge not too dissimilar to the inside of a ripped mattress on a roadside.

Luckily the hostel is pretty much attached to the bus station. As our destination came into view, I heard a cry from Pip and from the corner of my eyes I see her fall to the ground. I turn to find her leg down a hole in the pavement, and a large piece of the pavement caved in on her foot. I removed her heavy backpack and lifted the concrete slab off her foot. Scrapped and bruised we limped gingerly around the corner to the hostel.

The remainder of our time in Prague was great though. Pip still continued to have troubles. A dog dived for her at a tram stop, and she knocked a bottle of wine off the shelf at a supermarket. Oh and she fell over and hurt her ankle on the way home from our night out. But, I bet if you asked her, she'd still tell you that she had a great time in Prague.

The weather was far from perfect and it did rain on our first full day, but everything was more than enough to recommend Prague to anyone. The hostel we stayed in (Hostel Florenc) is brand-new and so it was very clean and served as a great base to see the city from. Food and drink were very inexpensive, and the first night we each ate a huge meal and with two drinks each it cost only us the equivalent of ₤16 for the three of us. This might have been because we were yet to figure out the tipping educate, and I suspect the waiter was rather annoyed at us for under tipping him.

We also ate the a place called Palanda, where we ate amazing medieval style meals before heading out for a night on the town. This would be the first night out that Pip and I have had on our trip so far. We are on a very tight budget so generally don't bother on nights out, but since Holly was over, we decided to let our hair down just for one night. We asked the waitress at the restaurant if she knew any good local spots, and she sent us a few blocks over to a cocktail lounge and music bar where we spent the remainder of the night sharing cocktail buckets, shots, and dancing. We even made a Russian friend who we found out to be only 16 years old. We all started to feel old all of a sudden and I've never felt so much like an adult in all my years.

Obviously, the next day was a bit of a write off but we did spend the first couple of days visiting all of the tourist sites in Prague. We walked the Jewish quarter, conquered Prague castle, wrestled with tourists in the old town square for a bite of Trdelnik (A traditional Czech pastry), visited the John Lennon wall, pushed our way across Charles bridge, and pretty much ticked off the top ten things you'd most likely find in a travel brochure.

We didn't get the best of Prague in the way it's marketed at us tourists, but I feel as though we had a great time anyway, and it was nice to catch up with Holly for a few rowdy gulps.

Our first meals in prague

Getting arty

The Square

Trdelnik

Holly does Prague

Saturday, May 11, 2013

To Amsterdam and Berlin

Pausing for a moment to think about the last few days certainly brings a smile to my face. Getting sunburnt in Lisbon, rained on in Amsterdam, and something perfectly in-between in Berlin. Our trip so far certainly has had variety, and we are only about six days into it.

Leaving Lisbon was a travel confidence booster for us. It had been entertaining to sleep each night with the sound of riff raff out on the street but when we discovered the metro was closed at the time of morning we were to fly out; I quickly became uncomfortable with the prospect of waiting outside at four in the morning. That night I hardly slept as I listened to the arguing and abuse on the street below. We could call a taxi, but the hotel owner who didn't speak English, had told us previously (through hand gestures) that we should just wave one down.

4am arrives and we awake to silence. We pack our bags and head out into the night air. There is barely a soul to be seen other than a man at our bus stop dressed in tweed with his bag of groceries nestled safely next to him. Two young travelers, one in a naval hat, join us at the stop and all of a sudden we begin to feel safe, and who wouldn't with a tweed ninja and a navy officer for company?

The bus, although late, picked us up and took us to the airport. It even stops to pick up a pilot on the way. Now, I take a slight issue with a pilot taking the bus to work. I like to put pilots in a similar category to doctors. People who dwell above the realms of us common people. I'd like to think after work, both doctors and pilots sit in sterilized rooms, reading every aviation/medical book in existence to add to their already flawless skill-sets. I don't like the idea of a pilot using public transport as much as I wouldn't like seeing my doctor throwing up in a gutter.

The flight to Amsterdam was event-free, and we trekked to our campsite just out of the city (on an island surrounded by highways). It rained as it normally does when you need to walk somewhere with a large backpack, but we arrived at Camp Zeeburg quite happy to dry off and roll into our wagonette for a couple of days. I'm glad we weren't in a tent as it was freezing especially compared to Lisbon. The wagonette must be built for summer though as it was bit cold in there. Apart from that, the campsite is really nice and has a great restaurant/bar, shower facilities and a ripoff washing machine. It certainly did us ok for a couple of nights while we were in Amsterdam.

Pip and I loved Amsterdam. We didn't go to the red light district nor did we didn't smoke weed in a cafe. We did skip down the canals dodging bicycles, we did look into people windows and marvel at their fantastic déor, we did venture out to the windmills and walk the parks. But, the weather was a bit of a dampener and it spoiled our trip out to the tulip fields, plus the big royal festival that weekend made the lines into the Rijksmuseum far too long to bother with.

I felt we got enough out of the city to look back fondly; however, I'd love to go back to finish it off. With only one full day, I think we did ok.

We are now in Berlin, and the sun has just set on our second night. I do like this city more than I thought I would. I will reveal more once we have finished up here and are on our way to Prague.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A turn around in Berlin


By the time we made it to our hotel in Berlin, I was feeling a bit underwhelmed and tired. "Stop pointing out everything that's wrong" said Pip as we dropped our backpacks onto our double bed made of two singles pushed together. I made up some excuse that 'I was also thinking good thoughts, but must have only been vocalizing the bad ones,' and I looked about to find the non existent room light.

After unpacking and a nice lie down on a pillow that had less density than a half filled balloon, we decided to continue our positive evening with a walk and some dinner.
We went first to Brandonburg gate. As we approached it, I joking said to Pip 'It looks as though all these people are running to get to a carnival or something'. This was a terrible joke and not in the slightest bit relevant or funny until we passed under the gate and into an actual carnival. There was literally a carnival with kids on trampolines, mini roller coasters, side shows and a sea of parents trying to restrain their children. We moved off to the side, grabbed a half metre sausage and ate it in the lovely park, where a small child tried to get Pip to give him her sausage. 'What is this place?' I thought, being careful not to say it aloud.
Now this doesn't seem like such a good start to our time in Berlin, but I can assure you that as we finish our time here, I cannot say enough good about this city.
I don't know what I was expecting, but the first day we were here all I could see was graffiti, litter, and industrial German engineering. It wasn't until we made it to the Berlin wall memorial that the city clicked with me. The East side gallery was nice, the memorial to the murdered jews was also worth really well done, but I found myself fully immersed when we arrived at the Berlin wall memorial. Standing in actual no-mans-land, I got a real haunting feeling, and I read every info point and stared at each piece of recent history that surrounded me.
Heading back to our hotel, I now saw a city with a unique culture. While Berlin has many tourist spots, which of course, we visited and enjoyed, what I love most is the individualism of the city. The suburbs of record shops, galleries, vintage clothing stores, and not to mention the food. Berlin is hugely influenced by Turkish food, and it feels like there's almost a 50/50 split between Curry wurst and turkish restaurants. This is not a bad thing, in fact it's quite the opposite.
After a Bit of online research, we marked a few local eats to check out. Kreuzberg, just south of our hotel, seemed to be a foodie heaven. We went to Curry 36 which is mix between a street food cart and a cafe. There are no seats, but there is space to lean, eat, and leave. We actually went there twice. We also passed a kebap trailer three times over the few days here and no matter what time of day it was; there was always a huge line down the road. We did have a peek at their ingredients, and it wasn't hard to see why.
My favorite find was a place called Knofi (also in Kreuzberg). There are actually two. Of them, one on each side of the road. After entering the deli style one, we wanted to eat, but it was far too confusing and no one spoke English. Disappointed we left only to find out there was a restaurant from the same people across the road, here Pip and I had the best restaurant dinner we've ever had. Gossies is like a crepe but they put vegetables and meat on one half, fold it and cook it with plenty of spices. It's served with a selection of tomato salsa, hummus, and yogurt. Add all of it up and serve it in a beautifully quirky turkish restaurant and you end up with a meal you will never forget.
Our last full day in Berlin was also my birthday. Pip spoiled me with a new shirt which I slipped into as we headed to West Berlin where the streets are a little different. There is clearly more money over here and I felt as if we were in the Mayfair of Berlin. Breakfast was in a cafe located in a small historic garden. It was a beautiful morning, and we sat on the porch of the cafe overlooking the garden in a spot which I could have mistaken for Paris. I had pancakes and Pip had waffles, then we walked a few streets for a bit. For lunch, we sought out a cafe called Bonanza. Two days earlier we'd been to a similar 'third-wave coffee shop' called 'Barn' which was nice. I liked this one more; however, I did have to wait about 30 minutes for my pour over coffee. I think something went wrong but Pip had finished her flat white about 20 minutes before I even got mine. You'd think we'd be annoyed, but we weren't in a rush and the barista clearly felt a bit stink. I honestly didn't care though because my Ethiopian coffee was amazing.
By mid afternoon, we were starving so we went back to Curry 36 and then home for a nap. Finishing off the evening with kebaps from next door to the hotel, my birthday in Berlin was one to remember. How often do you get to spend your birthday in a place like this?
We are due to board a bus to Prague today. I’m hoping to leave behind my grump attitude which I had adopted when we arrived in Berlin. We are staying in a hostel though so I’m sure I can find something to complain about. I am 26 years old now, so I’m bound to show signs of ages as I show disgust towards young hooligans, refer to how things used to be done, and find I need my morning coffee more than ever. That said, I will make an effort to keep most of these things to myself, because quiet and grumpy is nicer than loud and grumpy. (I’m not really grumpy, I just like to point out when I’m in mild discomfort).

Street art in the suburb of Mitte

The memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe

Birthday breakfast





Berlin wall memorial

On museum island




View from our hotel room