In a break from normal service, this blog post is not about London, but about two weeks away from it. I can’t say that I missed London much; that’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with it, but I think the mark of a good holiday is that one doesn’t spend it thinking about home.
After five years of gentle persuasion the other half finally got me to agree to try camping. I was hesitant, mainly due to my worry that bugs will crawl inside the tent and get on my face, or lurk in the toilet block at night. However, I did really want to see Croatia, and camping was a good way to economise and allow us to see as much of the country as possible.
I have to say, I’m converted. Once of my favourite bits of going on holiday is packing; I’ve inherited this skill from my mother, who has uncanny spacial awareness. Going camping is all about the packing. By the end of the holiday I was an expert at dissembling the tent and stashing everything away neatly, so anything we need in transit could be easily accessed, and so that once we got to our destination the tent could go up as quickly as possible. I think for this reason I would make an excellent Arctic explorer.
It seems to me there are three types of things which campers love: things which are normally big, but which are rendered in miniature; big things which fold up very small; and things which have more than one function. Our camping trip had all of these, from my very comfortable inflatable sleeping mat, to our lovely sporks. I am a sucker for accessories, and the other half correctly predicted that the way to get me on side with the whole camping business was to use it as an opportunity to buy knick knacks and trinkets.
Of course, being in Croatia helped. I love Eastern Europe; I love how the coffee is always good, I love how even the seediest little cafe is table service, and I love that the beer is so cheap. I particularly love how it is customary to applaud the pilot when the plane touches down (I now do that on all flights, not just ones to Eastern Europe). I’ve never been to Croatia and have heard so many good things about it; I was especially excited to visit Split, which is built into the Palace of Diocletian. As you know, I am partial to the Ancient World, and Diocletian is a very interesting character; he split the empire into four pieces, and was the only emperor to voluntarily retire, and he spend the remainder of his days in his enormous palace.
We started in Split, staying in a large but very well kept campsite just outside town. As soon as the tent was up, we jumped into the sea; this is the moment I had been fantasising about while bored at work in the weeks leading up to the holiday, and it didn’t disappoint. Croatia’s beaches are stony rather than sandy, which can be a bit harder on the feet, but which means the water is crystal clear.
The old town of Split was exactly as I’d hoped it would be; obviously not a lot remains of the original palace, but you really get a sense of the place being unbelievably ancient. We drifted around, stopping often due to the intense heat of the day. I love hot weather; the hotter the better in my opinion. I like that slightly sticky feeling your skin gets just before you start sweating; I also love wearing as little as possible, under a giant sun hat.
From Split we got a boat across to the island of Brac, where we stayed in a cute little town called Bol. Our campsite here was smaller, but I loved it. In case you’re in the area, look out for Camp Meteor. It’s very shaded; although in the Croatian summer this does not translate into a nice cool tent, it does help a little bit. While in Bol we visited Zlatni Rat, which is billed as “Croatia’s sexiest beach”; it’s the image that you usually get in tourist info about Croatia, and although it was quite touristy, it wasn’t too crowded and we managed to have a good swim in the sea which was so warm, still and clear it was like a swimming pool.
Liking island life, we caught the boat across to Hvar; actually, instead of a ferry, we hitched a ride with a tour boat, on which we were served croissants, iced coffee and even a shot of rakija (at nine o’clock in the morning!). Once on Hvar we made our way to Stari Grad, which was simply stunning.
I should pause a moment to talk about the food. Wow. If you like seafood, and I do, very much so, then Croatia is going to be a treat. A lot of shell fish and a lot of tentacled things, which suits me. I think one of the highlights of the holiday was the meal we had in Stari Grad. We found a lovely little Croatian place down an alleyway, very atmospheric; as well as swimming in the sea, the other must for a holiday as far as I’m concerned is al fresco dining, and pretty much everywhere in Eastern Europe is happy to oblige with this.
Anyhow, I wanted to order something typically Croatian, so I went with the octopus stew with polenta and it was AMAZING. As I said, I am a big fan of things with tentacles (but am terrified of spiders; go figure), and the octopus was cooked perfectly. The other half had some enormous and delicious prawns, and we accompanied the meal with a couple of cold Ojzusko beers. Needless to say, there was very little on this holiday that wasn’t accompanied by a couple of cold Ojzusko beers.
From Hvar we caught (by the skin of our teeth) the ferry down the coast to Dubrovnik; this was a pretty marathon journey, but seven hours by boat beats seven hours by bus, and we passed the time playing cards, napping, and laughing about how we nearly missed the ferry.
So, Dubrovnik. Byron’s “Jewel of the Adriatic.” It’s difficult to overstate how wonderful it is to walk through the gates of the old town. The buildings and the streets are made from limestone (Fact: the limestone from the island of Brac was used to build the White House!), so the whole place is gleaming white, and wonderfully ancient. As opposed to the tourist clogged streets of somewhere like Florence (actually I’ve never been to Florence, partly because I’ve heard how tourist clogged it gets) Dubrovnik, while a popular tourist spot, is not insanely busy. You can meander through the streets, eat an ice cream, drink coffee and feel pretty unhurried.
From Dubrovnik, it’s a short bus ride across the border into Montenegro. It was on this day, however, that the weather, which had been very hot with the occasional thunderstorm, broke into spectacular, apocalyptic rain. When we arrived in Herceg Novi, the rain was so heavy we decided that it would be foolish to camp (particularly as we had already discovered that our tent wasn’t entirely waterproof) so we found ourselves some private accomodation.
This is an idiosyncratic part of holidaying in this part of Europe. A lot of people rent rooms out to tourists, and then tout them at bus stations. Although I think to a Western European this seems a bit dodgy, it’s pretty standard here. We managed to secure a room in a house very close to the town centre; it was a bit weird because the boy who took us there was only about 14, and the room was clearly actually his bedroom, but it was comfortable, and clean, and a nice change from sleeping in the tent. When we ventured into town we took care to memorise the way, and took plenty of photos to help us find our way back late at night!
Herceg Novi doesn’t really have much to recommend it, aside from stunning views across the Bay of Kotor, and a pleasant enough old town. However, we were keen to try some of the local cuisine, particularly a pancake, stuffed with cheese, breaded and deep fried, then served covered in more cheese and yoghurt. In fact not as disgusting as it sounds; I rather liked it. Following on in the spirit of adventure I chose a squid ink risotto for my dinner. It tasted inky.
From Herceg Novi we got the bus to Kotor. I’d been very excited about this bus ride; I’d read a lot about how spectaular the views are and was very keen to see them. Unfortunately, we managed to get on a bus which instead of following the meandering road around the bay took a ferry directly across it, so we missed out on the views, which was a bit of a bummer. However, on arrival in Kotor, we immediately booked our return bus, and made sure to specify one which took the road and not the boat, so with that to look forward to we set off to explore the town.
Kotor old town is simply splendid, and we easily found a room right in the middle, in the house of a kind lady who had turned several rooms of her home into a guest house. We tried out our pidgin Montenegrin (very similar to our pidgin Croatian, and almost indistinguishable from our slightly less than pidgin but still far from fluent Bulgarian) and she was so impressed, she assumed from that point on that we were fluent, and would chat away to us each time we saw her.
Her house was right in the centre of the old town; Lonely Planet says that to stay in Kotor old town is a bad idea because after dark all the bars and cafes drag their speakers out onto the street and play techno music at ear splitting volumes until the small hours of the morning. We decided that a lack of sleep would be a small price to pay to stay right in the centre of such a beautiful town, and I am happy to report that the Lonely Planet must have visited during some kind of festival, because all we heard was the general chitter chatter of people enjoying the balmy summer’s evening.
In addition to our usual holiday pursuit of sitting in cafes drinking coffee or beer and playing cards, we took a hike up the steps outside the town to the top of the fortress of St Mark which overlooks the town. This involves climbing over 3,500 steps, which is no mean feat at the best of times, let alone in the searing heat of the Montenegrin sun, but it was worth every sweaty minute. The view from the top is utterly spectacular, right across the Bay of Kotor, and down onto the old town, and the day was so clear we could see for miles. A man at the summit makes a good living selling bottles of water for about four times as much as they cost at the bottom of the steps, to tourists who have drunk their water on the way up and are desperate for a drink; however, I suppose he does have to carry them all up every day, so I was happy to be slightly ripped off.
The bus ride back to Dubrovnik the next day offered even more amazing scenery, possibly some of the most breathtaking I have ever seen. The day was clear and sunny, and the waters of the bay still as anything, making the view from the bus windows look like an ever changing painting, almost too perfect to be real. I know for definite that we will return to Montenegro at some point if only to see this view again.
Back in Dubrovnik we checked back into the campsite, swam in the sea for the last time, and then headed back into the old town. The heat was intense, so after wandering around for a while buying some last minute presents for friends (including a Dubrovnik snow globe which tragically shattered on the way home!) we resolved to find somewhere for a beer. When we had walked along the city walls a few days before we had walked over a bar set into the rocks outside the walls by the sea, and we set about trying to find this.
This is often the sort of thing we do, usually with limited success, so it was with some surprise that, after about forty five minutes of rather aimless wandering, we saw a gap in the walls with a sign announcing “Cold Drinks This Way,” and with that we were there. This has to be just about the most amazing place I have ever had a beer; right on the edge of the town with the vast blue sea stretching out before us, and the sun gently sinking into the western horizon, we were so relaxed that we stayed for nearly two hours, just enjoying the peace and the view. A nice touch is that just below the bar there is a section of rocks which is roped off and reserved for residents of the old town, from where they can dive into the sea and sun bathe without being bothered by tourists.
As a final flourish to an incredible day and wonderful holiday, we went for dinner at an outdoor seafood restaurant which is set up next to the fish market down on the quayside and ordered the seafood platter, a huge dish for two with squid, octopus, shrimp, prawns, sardines and mackerel; heaven.
A note should be made here, given my penchant for buskers, for a troupe who were performing just outside the old town as we left to catch our bus, and who were so good they have pipped all the London buskers to the much coveted number one spot on my list of favourites. Accompanied by violinist and flautist, a barefoot guy had set up a selection of glass bottles of different shapes and sizes, all tuned by being filled with varying amounts of water so as to transform them into a glass xylophone. It was amazing to see, almost as much as it was splendid to hear. The bottle player really threw himself into his performance, which must have involved a great deal of control so as to not smash any of the bottles. We stood and watched them for a while, and it seemed a good way to say goodbye for now to Dubrovnik and Croatia.
We returned to London to sunny weather, but to the sad news of the death of Amy Winehouse and the tragedy in Norway, and with that life returns to normal. Being away from this city has been a refreshing break, but as we returned to our neighbourhood I was struck by how much London feels like home, and that, although I’m sad my holiday is over, I’m glad to be back.