Trip Start Sep 08, 2008
1Trip End Sep 19, 2008
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It certainly feels surreal to be sitting in the comfort of my own home with unpacked debris all around me to write you this travel email. As time was short on our trip this time I thought it best to jot down the adventures once we had returned safely. When in Canada I was always under time pressure with a certain amount of paid internet time to cram as much detail into my updates as possible - even then I managed to ramble on a bit while the seconds were counting down! As I am now nicely settled on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea I will have to remind myself to go easy on you (but you might want to get a dose of caffeine yourself to get you through the next few pages...)
This trip was certainly of a different nature to what we have been used to, just two weeks in Europe in comparison to the luxury of 12 months in Canada. Nevertheless we were determined to not waste a moment and rather than just have a holiday we set off on a real adventure with only a Eurostar train booked for Avignon in France and two weeks later a flight out of Croatia - we were sure we could figure out a route between the two one way or another!
Stepping off the train in Avignon the warm weather hit us instantly and the attire we had on for our early morning train was clearly inappropriate. We headed into our discount hotel threw on our snazzy summer clothes (that had been waiting patiently through a lack lustre British summer) and dashed outside eagerly. Of course in the five minutes that we spent inside the weather decided to play a joke on us and had turned to rain - most cruel. Undeterred we decided to make this an 'indoor' day and explored the beautiful Palis du Papes (the rather lavish home of 9 popes). When we got back to our hotel later that day in need of a dry set of clothes we found ourselves barricaded out of our room by a stray pigeon causing quiet a flap in the stairwell! Steve sprang to its rescue (and mine) by creating an ingenious escape route for it...opening a window - my hero!
Our second day in Avignon was much more of a success, far more sunshine and less suicidal pigeons. We grabbed a bag of fresh croissant from the local boulangerie and walked down the river for some spectacular views of the old city. Along our route a local half marathon was taking place with a lot of people making us feel very unfit and inadequate for our meandering tourist pace. Topped off with a bottle of local wine watching a beautiful sunset it was a lovely day and we prepared for an early morning train to take us to Geneva.
We got on the empty train at 5.30am and spread out on a set of 6 chairs with our bags and promptly fell asleep. We then woke up at approximately 8am surrounded by hoards of angry commuters all crowded in the aisles cursing us in numerous languages, not a warm welcome to Switzerland! First port of call on arrival was to find some accommodation which came in the shape of an excellent hostel where we managed to grab their last two beds for the night when they are usually booked months in advance. With this taken care of we adjusted to the bustling city which was a change of pace from quaint Avignon. Geneva has some excellent perks including free public transport, including boats, for all tourists and also free bike hire for the day. Needless to say you don't need to tell us twice when something is free so we packed a picnic and headed off for an explore of the old town and a bike ride on the banks of Lake Geneva. Steve was particularly fascinated by the main feature of Geneva, a jet of water that shoots up 40m from the lake. I would have been more impressed myself but every time I ventured near it the wind would whip round to my direction and I'd feel like I was willingly walking under a rain cloud.
My prerogative upon arriving in Switzerland was to track down an authentic cheese fondue as I have been know to have a weakness for it. I am pleased to report that that evening Steve and I succeeded in eating an ungodly amount of cheese to the point we both went rather red in the face and developed a cheese hangover that set in for the next few hours. This in normal circumstances would have been uncomfortable but for us we were going straight from the restaurant onto a night train to Venice...
For those who have not had the pleasure of sleeping in a couchette on a night train firstly let me say 'good choice' and then allow me to paint you a picture. The general idea is to allow passengers a chance to lie down for a nights sleep while transporting you to your destination so you wake up there refreshed as if by magic. Hmm a few problems in the realisation of this dream are the fright of being suspended on a bed 7 feet up in the air that jostles around with the train, the smell of 6 travellers who haven't had a wash after their day cycling round Geneva crammed in a confined space and the heat. Did I mention the heat?? I am always partial to a warmer climate however even I was on the verge of loosing consciousness when our carriage's air conditioning failed to work and the window was locked shut.
As a result of no sleep, heat exhaustion, cheese hangover and arriving at 6am if we had been anywhere other than Venice I think my mood might have been dampened. However Venice instantly captivated me in its completely stunning and completely bizarre way. We tracked down our hostel through the maze of bridges and alleys and on arrival with one look at the front of the building it was clear that this was, to be polite, a building that had suffered some neglect and could do with a few support beams let alone a lick of paint! With trepidation we nipped in dumped our bags and dashed straight out again, in order to try and give us some energy we attempted a picnic, as these had proved most successful so far. However our Italian proved to be not as good as our French so with our baguette that day instead of cream cheese we ended up with a yoghurt dip - most unfortunate but still not enough to put a downer on Venice. The sun was shining and we spent hours just exploring, every corner had another beautiful building or view round it so the cameras were hard at work for a lot of the day. To reward ourselves for staying awake for the whole day after such a tough night we treated ourselves to a restaurant meal in a picturesque square, a welcome escape into the world of a normal tourist.
The next morning we went to a local market by the side of the canal and picked some fresh fruit for breakfast which was not only ridiculously cheap but some of the best fruit I have ever had. This set us up well for more exploring and we took a water bus to one of the Venetian islands famous for its glass blowing where we watched some of the masters at work make incredibly delicate and intricate but rather quite hideous masterpieces. We decided to head back to mainland Venice but somehow ended up jumping on the waterbus heading the wrong direction - panic set in as our bus started heading out into the sea with no sight of land in front of it and no more stops for 40 minutes! Fortunately land eventually came into view and we planned to switch buses and head back again. However what we instead managed to stumble across was a hidden gem, similar to Venice but on a much smaller, laid back style every one of the buildings on the island was a different bright colour. Walking between bright orange, glowing yellow and deep purple buildings gave the impression of stepping into a Dulux colour chart it was an experience well worth the trip.
By the time we made our way back to Venice the sun was setting and it seemed the perfect time to put our tourist hats on and go for a gondola ride. I spent some time surveying the different gondoliers who were competing for our business and selected a young chap who would look suitable in our photos and had a reasonable grasp of English. Once we had expressed our interest and got settled down in the gondola it became apparent that this nice young gentleman was the 'salesman' and he introduced us to our actual gondolier a rather more tubby and gruff Italian who was not quite as photogenic as one might have been hoping for!! In any case we had a fun time floating through the canals with the gondola in front of us which had an accordion player on it to set the scene. After all that soppy romantic stuff it was clear Steve needed a break and the best distraction was to find some dinner. Keeping costs down we went to a take away Pizza joint expecting the sub-standard efforts of Dominos or something similar. However even in these fast food places the Italians live up to their reputation of excellent food, we had a pizza made from scratch in front of us for all of about £3 which coupled with a bottle of bubbly and a seat by the canal turned out to be my favourite meal of the trip (and still a tad romantic!).
Sadly we departed sunny Venice on another night train for less than sunny Munich that evening. This time the journey itself was not as bad, at least that's what I thought, until I got up covered from forehead to little toe in swollen bites from an unidentified insect and his family. At 6am we dragged ourselves from the train to our hostel which, after the Venice experience, we had fully researched. It was an excellent choice and our stay happened to coincide with the hostels birthday celebrations. When we arrived there was a room full of hammocks and giant bean bags to greet us while it was too early to check into our room. A few hours snooze later and we were revitalised and ready to join the daily walking tour put on by the hostel (for free!) this proved to be another highlight of the trip. Our guide was immensely knowledgeable, he had such enthusiasm when talking about the history of not just Munich but Germany as a whole that it was impossible not to be completely enthralled (if only school teachers could take a lesson from him!). It was fascinating to me to hear the German story of the Nazi's rise to power and as Munich was where the Nazi party was formed it was an excellent backdrop to try to begin to understand more. As well as the war there was of course a lot of information on the other thing that Munich is famous for...beer!
We combined the two things we had learnt about from our tour and afterwards sat in an outdoor beer garden with big glass jugs of beer contemplating the war and our new found knowledge of all things Munich. This led us on to the evening when the hostels birthday celebrations started in full swing. They were giving away 1000 free shots and jugs of beer were only 5 Euros so we proceeded to join in the festivities with a friend we had made earlier in the beer gardens, a Kiwi guy called Kevin. To be honest I would love to enlighten you further on just how many of the 1000 shots we personally made a dent in but counting wasn't my strong point after a while! We did escape the madness in search of some food and between the three of us ordered a Jumbo pizza from a pizza take away hoping it would be enough for us all. Well let me just say 'jumbo' was an understatement, this pizza was HUGE, each slice was bigger than a hand span and I struggled to finish even one. Needless to say the boys were thrilled. We danced the rest of the night away back in the hostel bar and extended our stay by another night to avoid an early check out!
Urgh the next morning...
Talk about a low point in the trip! Feeling worse for wear and having missed breakfast at the hostel we went in source of some food to help us recover. Since we had resorted to pizza for dinner the previous night I was determined that we should have something traditionally German for lunch. Taking a tip from a local we went to a beer house out of the tourist area and somehow ended up with a couple of half litre beers in our hands again before we knew it. The phrase 'be careful what you wish for' sprang to mind as we opened the very authentic German menu and realised we didn't stand a chance of translating one word on it. The waitress couldn't help us and I had just decided to take my chances and picked a particularly appealing word (with rather few vowels) to order when a nice man on the opposite side of our bench volunteered his translation skills. As it happens the dish I had chosen said 'Wednesday' and as it was Saturday I think this would have caused further confusion with the waitress. Our hero moved us away from the daily specials part of the menu and asked what we thought we wanted. Bearing in mind from our tour we knew that some of the local delicacies included cow lung soup, pigs trotters and sausages so we asked for sausages! He tracked down 'wurstl' on the menu for us and we both settled down in anticipation of a good meal to help us over our hangovers.
When the wurstl arrived I realised the wurstl had happened (that's the only pun I'll do I promise!), I was left wishing I had gone for the trotter option after all. Boiled rubbery sausages and sauerkraut is not a good cure after a night out and what was worse was that everyone else in the entire place seemed to be eating the most spectacular dishes that no matter what they were made from certainly looked more tempting that ours. Deciding to put this whole experience behind us we went wandering round Munich for the rest of the day taking in the sights such as an artificial surfer wave in the river and a nudist beach in the middle of the park. We found another beer garden where we only thought it fair to try the 1litre glassfuls before our trip back but to our horror once we had finished our litre of beer each we realised the toilets were locked shut!! Cue two scruffy travellers inconspicuously snaking their way through a 5 star hotel restaurant to use the facilities!
We bid auf wiedersehen to Munich on a morning train to Saltzberg where we planned to spend between 10am and midnight before our night train took us on to Slovenia. This would have been the perfect plan if it were not for one imposing factor. The rain. Did I say rain? I think a more fair description would be the river that began pouring out of the sky. At least in Avignon the rain was warm, here in the mountain air it was freezing. Of course because we were not staying any nights in Saltzberg we had no accommodation so it was a case of putting our backpacks in lockers at the station and accepting that we were homeless travellers in the rain for the day.
Both Steve and I are quite hardy travellers now but even with this taken into consideration it was fair to say that the rain broke our spirit that day. It was such a shame as we could tell easily that in different circumstances we would have loved Salzburg but having no shelter (and a lack of funding to sit in coffee shops all day) it was difficult to stay jolly. I went in search of the sights made famous in the Sound of Music but for some strange reason this made Steve even more miserable! We were pleased to catch a break from the storm in McDonalds of all places so I may as well tell you about that...to be fair it was very interesting, all the tables had fresh lilies and candles on them. The Austrians obviously have high standards even in fast food.
We went to the station at about 8pm and waited patiently for our train to arrive at midnight when we would be able to have a good sleep and warm up. It arrived at 1.30am. I won't elaborate on my feelings about this particular incident!
Arriving in Lubljana (Slovenia) at 6am was a shock to the system, we were both expecting this to be a run down, shabby, 'watch your back' type place but found it to be the complete opposite. The city was spotlessly clean and beautiful bars and shops were lining the river with a castle on a hill overlooking snow capped mountains. We decided to explore the city later and get out into the countryside to see the most of this clearly mis-understood country.
We had heard good things about Lake Bled and decided this was a good place to try to head for (in truth it was the only other place in Slovenia we had heard of at all). Our first error was taking directions from the train driver about where to get off and change trains, it might have been his fault or more likely ours for our horrendous grasp of the Slovenian language. In any case we turned a one hour journey into three and eventually made it to Lake Bled with picnic at the ready. Tragically the weather was not on our side once again and although it was not raining the skies were grey and this meant we were not able to bring back the photographs we would have liked from here to share with you. Therefore you will have to take my word for it that Lake Bled is a magical place with a picturesque church on a small island in the middle and a towering gothic castle on a cliff overlooking. We spent a good few hours soaking up the Disney like setting before embarking on an even more drawn out trip back to Lubljana.
Our first exploration of Lubjub (as we grew to fondly call it) was in the evening and we headed towards the river and had a vast choice of bars to choose from. It was very pleasing to spend time in this immaculate and friendly city where the locals are clearly very proud of what they have to offer tourists. On our next day we simply wandered and up the hill to see the castle (3 times!) and enjoyed the simplicity of Slovenian living.
The next morning we had a nerve-wracking journey to Croatia aware of the fact that there was only one route we could take with 3 connections, 2 minute transfer times and on the last valid day of our train tickets. Of course we were thinking of this in terms of London trains and this was a different kettle of fish! In actual fact our train was just two carriages and at the stations where we had to transfer there was one track in the middle of nowhere and our connecting train was waiting for us further down the track with the driver leaning against it finishing off his cigarette. This refreshing way of travelling meant that we arrived in sunny Croatia successfully with our hostel owner eagerly waiting for us at the station. He drove us to our accommodation which we were very pleased to discover was a whole house to ourselves. We settled in and then could not fight our hunger any longer so headed into town and tracked down a Croatian meat feast. Unfortunately I cannot report back on what this entailed as we were only able to identify one of the 6 variations of meat available. Expecting to be very ill the next day we headed back to get a good nights sleep. In the morning we were thrilled to realise that we both must have stomachs of iron so gathered our beach gear and headed outside.
Once again we found ourselves somewhat underdressed for the weather and had to re-think matters. Still heading to the beach but instead in a few more layers it became clear that we were out of season for Pula. This meant an absence of tourists, as well as sunshine, and we could wander the coastline uninterrupted for hours. Croatia doesn't have 'beaches' as normal countries do, instead it has a rocky coastline and in areas beaches have been made for swimming areas with pebbles. However, even out of season the sea was very warm so even at sunset we were able to have a swim. The only problem with this is sea urchins, once you have donned your trendy bikini you must then put on some highly unattractive swimming booties that will prevent your feet from getting stung. Luckily we didn't have any problems with them ourselves and in truth I believe the whole thing is a cleverly marketed scam by the bootie manufacturing company so they can sell to tourists at £10 each!
Our trendy house/hostel came with a snorkel which we took with us on our second day when we had booked a boat trip around the Birunji islands with a stop for lunch and a swim at a remote island. As the boat set off the heavens opened and we couldn't see much of the islands (supposedly full of wildlife) through the rain storm. In an attempt to raise our spirits the captain cracked open a few bottles of wine and kept us well topped up, which meant by the time we arrived at our lunch stop both Steve and I were a little tipsy. I had the rather adventurous freshly caught unidentified grilled fish whereas Steve stuck to the meat theme and had the safe pork option. Then we were faced with three hours on an island in the rainy weather, rather drunk having to entertain ourselves - naturally we set about climbing trees! That was all going well until I broke my flipflops which were not really built for such terrain. Instead we stuck to the beach and started reading our books but this didn't entertain me for long and I decided to peel down to my bikini and just jump in the sea regardless of the temperature. I was delighted to find out that it was a lot warmer than I expected and had a good chance to try out the snorkel before Steve plucked up the courage to come and join me.
The boat got us back to Pula in time for another sunset swim and whe n we made it back to the house our host bid us farewell with a yummy cheese and ham platter put together for us by his wife. The next morning we dragged our weary feet to the airport and spent the last of our Croation Khuna on some bottles of cheap vodka to bring home to see us through the long weeks of work to come.
Back in London we were inevitably greeted with train delays and cancellations to remind us of the joys of the British train system and having to pay more for a one way ticket home than a weeks travel abroad! Adding to that a credit crisis, a Eurotunnel fire and some mouldy brie in the fridge it was tempting to stay on the road. But home sweet home none the less!
If you are still with me well done and thank you. I have to admit that three weeks have passed since I started writing, I hope that in the interim time my memory hasn't faded too much and I haven't deprived you of any interesting stories or humorous moments but then I could always issue volume 2 if necessary at a later date. /