Castles in Alentejo – Part 2 – Estremoz

Fresh from a long and well earned sleep, after our previous day’s exertions, wandering around the high, hill top castle of Arraiolos, we wandered over to the other side of the road, where our hostel had its breakfast laid out. Hostel breakfasts can range from out-of-this-world to get-out-of-my-life, so it was good to arrive and find a range of fruit juice, a coffee capsule mahine for REAL cofffee, breads, cheeses, ham, sausage, jam, butter, cereal and more besides. We sat in the little courtyard outside and thoroughly stuffed our faces, preparing as we were for a much heavier day, in terms of walking, that day. Faces filled, it was time for a quick shower and then off to the bus station and, in fact, the same stop even, to wait for the bus to Estremoz.

The city is a fair bit further from Évora than Arraiolos, sitting some 51 kilometres away and is a mere twenty from the Spanish border. While all of the castles in the region had a role in protecting Portugal from the Spanish at various points in time, we had a feeling that this one might have been more significant. The bus rolled out of the station more or less exactly on time and we were again amongst a huge group of about six total passengers on board. The route followed the Arraiolos route and then veered off, following signs, mainly, for Espanha.

A fairly rapid fifty-five minutes later, we were hopping off the bus and in Estremoz. Rather than the castle dominating the skyline where we disembarked, instead was a towering cement factory. Luckily, that seemed to be nowhere near where we were going, so we jumped off the bus and crossed the road to find an interesting and unusual looking square building, adorned with beautiful azulejos and the name of the city. It took us a few minutes to realise that this was an old train station. A cursory look at Portuguese wikipedia told us that the station had been built in 1902, and had been in use until 2011, when it was decommissioned. It was pleasing, though, to see that they’ve kept it in such great condition since.

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After taking in the building, it was down the road towards the town and a quick stop off to get more coffee and a cake. While in Alentejo it’s always a good idea to get a queijada. Though it literally means cheesecake, it’s nothing like a cheesecake, at all. It’s simply a cake, heavily egg based (naturally, in Portugal!), with the quark from cheese added. It’s light, sits in a firm pastry case and is quite delicious.

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Turning the corner from the street with the bus station at the end, you come to a large square. There’s a section in the middle with a water feature, a small garden and a café with terraces. To the left though is an historic building which has been converted into a science centre, with sections for astronomy, natural history and more. We decided to take a look. The brilliant thing is that it’s been preserved so well, so the old features are really present and a part of the experience of visiting the place, including a lush courtyard in the interior of the museum and really cool medieval gargoyles. Almost superimposed on top of it, there are star charts, dinosaur skeletons and lots of other exciting science and nature-based elements. It must be a fantastic place to take kids, as there are lots of interactive exhibits, too. We didn’t have time to see the museum, so we decided not to go into the main exhibit, but I’ve definitely mde a mental note to return. You can find out about it here (in Portuguese).

Walking across the street, we saw a small food market, selling locally grown produce. I didn’t want to take any photos, as I wasn’t buying, but all of it looked terrific. Across the road was the town hall and now also town museum. In keeping with the spirit of the interior part of the Alentejo in mid summer, the sign on the door, in Portuguese and English, advised that in summer afternoon opening would be “erratic”. The building itself was quite attractive and had a fabulous coat of arms on the wall and more azulejos on the portal to the building next door.

After this, we only had to walk across one more square before we were standing at the edge of the castle walls. Where Arraiolos had been a town that had developed twenty metres or so below the old castle, Estremoz was something entirely different, in fact being a city that still lived and breathed within the castle and then nestling right up against the towering castle walls, too. As we approached the city walls, passing another local produce market, we came out alongside the defences, with a drop down to the farmland stretching out from the edge of the city and running all the way to the horizon. We stopped for a few photos and then went in to the castle through one of the arched gates.

Once inside the castle walls, we walked up the narrow street past the 700-year-old buildings – including the old prison, which has been turned in to a bar restuarant with a roof terrace – and then arrived at a huge, imposing tower, connected to a courtyard, with a wall facing out towards the countryside. In the middle of the square is a statue to the saint, queen isabel. In the tower there is now a pousada, one of the traditional hotels, originally set up for coachmen crossing the country in the middle ages. The pousada hotel looked wonderful and has rooms in the main tower which have what must be quite staggering views over the city. I made a note to stay there some time in the future. The castle keep is in remarkable condition and the surrounding buildings, too, look incredible for their age. There is even an adega with a huge collection of wines within the inner walls. Opposite is one part of the castle which has been allowed to decay, but it looks dramatic, nonetheless.

We decided to walk out of the inner gate and go to the viewpoint at the other extremity of the outer walls. When we got there there we found a beautiful church and stopped to take in the views. Walking back from here, we discovered a group of men and women sitting at a snack bar, drinking beer and sheltering from the sun in the shade. We decided it wasn’t a bad idea and went inside to join them.

The castle is quite amazing, largely because so many people actually still live their lives within the city walls. This is not unique in Portugal and, of course, Obidos is the most famous other example of such a place, but the big difference here is that this really doesn’t feel so much like a touristy place. It’s strange when you consider that the fortress had an important role in Portuguese history, with Vasco Da Gama himself once stationed here as a general in the defence against the Spanish.

After visiting all areas of the castle and having our beers to cool off, we decided it was about time for lunch. We took a walk around and found a sign, just outside the main gate, for a traditional restaurant offering local specialties. We decided to give it a try and were very glad that we did. My friend ate a bean soup, which came with what looked like a whole loaf of bread, while I had an açorda alentejana, with cod and egg. It’s a kind of thin soup with lots of herbs, a huge slab of bacalhau floating in it and a poached egg to keep it company. Again, there was abundant bread, olives and we picked up a half litre of local white wine. With coffees to follow, we managed to spend 16 euros, which was phenomenal value. Afterwards, as I paid the lady in charge, I asked if we was the chef and she replied that she was in fact the owner and had been running the place for more than 30 years. If you find yourself in Estremoz and needing something to eat, I would strongly recommend the Casa do Pixanegra.

With lunch eaten, there was little more than an hour to wander around the city before our bus back to Évora. So we wandered the narrow streets, my friend looked for a souvenir and, finally, we whiled away some time in a café in the town square, where I found a most disturbing looking statue of what looked like a young boy.

All in all, Estremoz had been a really worthwhile place to visit, packed with history and, more importantly perhaps, living history, as so many people were still living out their daily lives within the castle walls. I think, because of the isolation, it’s not somewhere I’d want to live, but it’s a really exciting and beautiful place to visit. Finally, on the way home, we spotted something we’d not seen too clearly on the way out on the bus, that being another castle, this time at a place called Évoramonte. So that one is on the list for the next time, along with Marvão and more besides. Watch this space for when I make it to them. For those readers who have made it over to Portugal but haven’t been to Alentejo, I implore you to take a look. It’s my absolute favourite and the slightly lower levels of tourism to the Lisboa region and the Algarve make such a difference.

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If you’re planning your own trip to the Alentejo region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 1 – Arraiolos

Imagine my situation. I’m on holiday from school but my girlfriend isn’t. My friend visits from Poland and she is more or less fanatical about Portugal in general, but especially about seeing new places and castles in particular. So I did the only thing I could do. I went castle hunting.

The question now was where to go, particularly as Portugal has more castles that most people have hot dinners in a six month period. A quick bit of scouting on the internet turned up this article. The trick then was to pick two castles that were sufficiently close together to make a 2 night, 2 castle trip possible. To make things more complicated, I’m not a driver, and we weren’t on the kind of budget to be able to hire a car. So we searched and scoured google maps and various local bus service websites and eventually decided upon Arraiolos and Estremoz. We booked accommodation in Évora, sandwiched between the two, booked return trains there and we were off.

The train ride to Évora is just over an hour and a quarter out of Lisbon. As you head south first, into Setúbal, it has the added bonus of the train cruising over the Tejo river inside the 25th April bridge, providing wonderful views over the river, the wider city and across to the Cristo Rei monument. Booking online with Portuguese railways anything more than a week in advance ensures some crazy prices, in this case, we paid 15 euros return, including a reserved seat (which you can select) in an air conditioned 2nd class carriage. It’s really a bargain.

We jumped on the train early on Tuesday morning and found ourselves in Évora at just before 10:30. We took the short walk in to the old town and our hostel, the Old Évora Hostel. Based within the old city walls, it’s a good place to stay. We’d chosen a twin room with a shared bathroom and, conveniently, the private rooms are located across the road from the dormitories, ensuring peace and quiet when you want to sleep. Breakfast is served in the main hostel building between 8 and 10:30 every day and is decent. The beds were cosy enough, there were abundant bathrooms and a fan is provided in each room – necessary with the Alentejo summer heat. The brother and sister team who run the place are extremely friendly and helpful and, though our room was still being cleaned at such an early hour, we were still able to drop our bags in our room and head back out.

From there we decided to head straight to the bus station, a mere 15 minute walk, just outside the walls of the old city. We arrived and found the ticket office, with the time now around 11:15. We asked about our bus and the assistant confirmed that it was leaving at 12:20 and that we should pay on the bus. So we decided we’d take this opportunity to grab a bite to eat, having not really had much of a breakfast. Opposite the bus station is a classic little Portuguese snack bar. Far from fancy, the owner was a kind enough fellow and he quickly made us a couple of bifanas, which we washed down with a cold coke, with the mercury already rising to over 35 degrees centigrade.

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With the snack demolished along with a coffee chaser, we were at the bus stand, with just 10 minutes to go before our bus left. We jumped on board as it arrived, paying a remarkably small EUR 3.05 for what ended up being a 25km journey. The route took us out of Évora, along the line of the city’s ancient aquaduct and between fields of alternating furry Alentejan cows and cork trees, with their distinctive bright under bark and the number emblazoned on the trunk, denoting when they were last harvested. The journey was pretty uneventful, aside from one particularly tight turn in a small village where I was made to feel decidedly glad not to be an Alentejo bus driver. After what seemed like miles of the same countryside, we suddenly spotted the walls of the castle and the keep at the top of a hill. We got ever closer until we pulled off the main road and the bus driver let us off in the middle of the small town. After a short stop at a Mini Preco market to buy extra water, we set off through the town, and finally between two beds of brightly flowering cacti up towards the castle on the hill top.

Once at the castle itself, we first took a look around the keep, which is largely ruined. Still, it remains mighty impressive, and has helpful plaques telling you when the different parts were constructed and by whom. The city was founded at the very beginning of the 13th century and gained some renown for its tapestries and carpet weaving (more on that later). The castle was constructed in its current shape and size around a hundred years later, and extended throughout the 14th century.

The real reason people come to see the castle at Arraiolos though, is not for the keep. The real reason is the wall and the church. The wall is more or less 100% intact, including an impressive gate tower. Walking around the perimeter and looking out over what I’m not ashamed to admit is my favourite area of Portugal is quite magical. Standing between the battlements and getting an idea of just how far you can see and just how far down the surrounding lands are, you get a real sense of the imposing defensive position this must once have been. It also helps you to understand how it remains in such good condition so much later. The second item of interest is the church. A classic whitewashed building, it’s quite large, despite its dwarfed look in the middle of the sprawling castle walls. It’s still in use and kept in very good condition. The vaulted ceilings are beautifully kept, in particular. Some children who were doing some work in the church, manning the souvenir stalls in their school holidays were very helpful and keen to show off their English to us obvious foreigners. They sold me yet more cold water and my friend picked upa  fridge magnet of locally produced, handmade Arraiolos carpet work. Quite a unique souvenir.

We spent a full hour wandering around the walls, taking in the views and occasionally diving for the cover of the one tree, when the sun got too hot for us. After that it was back down through the town. As on the way up, the streets were more or less silent, locals far too smart to be out wandering around in such bright, hot midday sun. But our stomachs were rumbling, lunch was needed. I noticed on the way down that their bottle banks are all individually painted with colourful flower patterns. A lovely touch.

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As we were heading back in to the town, we recalled that we had passed a café that looked intriguing. It turned out to be a good bet as, even though the kitchen was all but closed, we were able to order the traveller’s friend in the form of the tosta mista. They also had some delightful, chilled local white wine. As we were ordering, I also noticed that they sold homemade jams, made of local fruit and helped myself to a jar of fig jam. All that, with 2 coffees added came to all of about 20 euros, and was delivered with genuinely great service from the staff. If you find yourself in Arraiolos and in need of a snack, you really should take yourself off to Teresa Alves.

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With lunch sating our appetites (my friend actually had to take two chunks of her sandwich for the road), we decided that, with more than an hour to go until our bus, we’d have a bit of an explore. We wandered through the old town and saw that some of it is a little run down, outside of the centre. Even that, though, lent the place a kind of rustic beauty. I’m not sure the occupants of the buildings would agree on winter nights, but it made for some interesting scenery. After we ran out of town (quite quickly, in fact!) we decided to keep walking along the country road. Without any pavement we made sure to make ourselves visible to the oncoming traffic and, just as I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea, we came across one of the many drinking fountains for travellers installed by the Portuguese royal family. Still with running water (I have to say I didn’t drink any), these things really are magnificent and you will find them all over Portugal, particularly on roads between historically important cities. They were installed to make traversing the country in the searing heat of summer a little more bearable for travellers and their horses.

We followed the meandering road back around to the town centre and stopped for a cold drink under the shade of some trees in the park, near the bus station until time to travel. The journey back, with tired legs and a different route, had a real glow about it. The afternoon sun setting behind the trees, birds of prey gliding over the fields and, at one point, a field of sunflowers that seemed to go on forever.

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Arriving back to Évora in the late afternoon allowed us a little time to relax in our hostel room before heading back out for a walk around the city and a bite to eat. I’ve already covered much of what there is to do in Évora in a different post, but here are a few pics.

Once dinner was done with though, we decided that it was time for bed. We anticipated (quite rightly) that the next day in Estremoz would involve a lot more walking. So it was back to the hostel and alarms were set for 8am. Then it was off to sleep.

If you’re planning your own trip to the Alentejo region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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To England! (via Kraków)

The school year has ended which, for the European EFL teacher, tends to mean that there is a need to go back to Blighty. This is part will to see family and friends, part the culmination of a whole academic year of withdrawal symptoms from “proper” bacon, and the largest part, because you have to work in a UK based international summer school to make your modest salary stretch for the year. It ain’t glamorous, but it’s the reality. Now, as those of you familiar with the city of Bydgoszcz will know, the city is a simple, short Ryanair sardine can flight away from London. But, on this occasion, I decided the best route was via the overnight train to Kraków. This is not simply because I’m a madman, but rather because I wanted to see a band who were playing there, and catch up with a friend.

So it was that on the 28th of June, I packed up all my worldly junk (that I couldn’t leave behind) and climbed aboard the late running 7:30pm, 9 hour train to the old capital of Poland, Kraków. Spotting the sleeping cars as the train pulled in, I jogged to the front of the train with my 20Kg of personal affects. Of course, there was another sleeping car at the back, where my bunk was located. After a brisk walk past 17 carriages of TLK express train, I finally found myself at coach 41 (don’t ask about the numbering, the coach adjacent to it was number 4!). I climbed on and fished out my printout with my berth number on it. I got to the door of my bunk, popped my head in and found a 40 something Polish lady. “Dzień dobry!” I greeted her. She looked a little flustered and asked me if I was aware that I’d be sharing my cabin with 2 women. I was pretty confused. During the online booking process I had been asked 3 times to state my gender, to ensure that exactly this kind of thing couldn’t happen. I used my best Polish and my most emphatically apologetic facial expression to tell her that I was sure this was not supposed to happen, but that if they didn’t mind, I wouldn’t make a fuss, or be any trouble to them. With a big smile, she assured me it was no problem and I hefted my luggage onto the shelf near the ceiling of the cabin.

Within moments a small train attendant had appeared behind me and began speaking to me in lightning fast Polish, advising me that I was to sleep in a different cabin. I said ok and began to fetch down my bag. “Deutsch?” he asked me. “Nie, jestem Anglikiem” (I’m English) I replied. Nevertheless, he had decided the way forward was to talk to me in German from here on in. He showed me to a cabin, with an older gentleman, who was settling down with a huge sandwich and a can of beer on the pre-bed-arrangement sofa of my new cabin. As I walked into the cabin with my rucksack, the two forty-something women made crying and kiss blowing actions in my direction – perhaps it had been a lucky escape after all! I greeted my travelling companion, ditched my bag on the same roof-level shelf, and then went to the window to wave goodbye to my lady.

We set off quickly and the old fella began to explain to me, in Polish, with gestures (this guy could definitely be a language teacher!) how to assemble the bed, how to use the magical sink in the cupboard and that I got one free cup of tea or coffee, to be taken at the time of my choice. He also thrust into my hand a pre sealed bag with a complimentary towel, soap, ear buds (I can’t use these any more – doctor’s orders!) and some other general looking-after-yourself paraphernalia. ‘This is alright,’ I thought to myself, sitting down and tucking in to my own large sandwich. After my sandwich, rueing my decision not to grab a beer, as the old fella supped his cold Kasztelan Niepastoryzowany, I ordered a tea from the efficient little train man, which came with a strange toffee croissant. Naturally I ate it, in spite of the strangeness. After a few hours, not long before the train was due to arrive at Łodż, around 11pm, my companion helped me fashion the sofa back into a second bed. We unrolled our ingenious roll-mats with pre-prepared bedding and each went off to different bathrooms to brush our teeth. We came back, got into our beds and switched out the lights. The bed was remarkably comfortable and I remarked to myself internally that I would be able to get a good amount of sleep. And then he started snoring. In my life, I have known and shared hostel dorms with a variety of snorers, some relatively quiet, some louder than a brown bear with no lunch. This fellow beat them all, and also beat the sound of the train engine as it whistled through level crossings in the Polish countryside. If I said I had slept for 2 hours, I would be hugely exaggerating.

When the knock on my door came at 4:45am and the still-cheerful conductor put his head round the door to tell me we were approaching Kraków, I felt like I had been at a festival for 3 days. Sleepless and with zero motivation to move myself anywhere. But, not wanting to end up in some distant mountain village, I dragged myself up and out to the door, with my belongings. It was an overcast, fresh morning in Kraków, but I decided that the first priority had to be finding a coffee. Standing, gleaming in the booking hall of Kraków Głowny was a Lavazza machine. I ordered an extra strong cappucino from the machine and went to sit in the waiting area with 4 travellers and about 35 tramps. I sipped my coffee while I watched successive security guards walk around in circles, tapping sleeping homeless people every time they dropped off to sleep, to wake them up, occasionally asking if they were train travellers, to which they of course gave the pre-planned lie “yes, of course.”

Once the coffee was gone, it was time to dump my things at my hostel. I wandered across the square in front of the big, old station through a haze of fine rain and then through the underpass to ul. Westerplatte, where my hostel was located. I walked in and helped the sleepy attendant find my booking on his computer. He advised me that my bed would not be available until at least 12pm, so I duly left my belongings and, with only my camera, I crossed the road to the walled garden park and decided to attempt to find breakfast.

On arriving in the main square, I found the place almost totally deserted. I passed a group of German or Austrian guys who were on their way from a club to a kebab shop, in a stagger and then, naturally, I heard – from a full 80m or so away – the British party troop striking up with a verse of “God Save the Queen.” I can’t help but think that Liz would not have been impressed. Finding that nowhere was open for breakfast, I tried to focus on the positive thing, that I was all but alone in Krakow’s main square on a Saturday in mid-summer. So I decided to make the most of the opportunity and took some tourist-free photos.Image

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Finally, when I thought I was just going to have to join the pigeons and sleep in the giant head sculpture, the scourge of modern food – McDonalds – opened its golden arched doors and I rushed in to request still more coffee and any kind of bread-filled-with-pork-products that they saw fit to give me. I stuffed my face thoroughly and read the day’s news on my phone. By the time I was finished, it was 9am. I had wasted a lot of time, very effectively. But I still had 3 hours before I could get my head down for a nap. So I wandered some more, happening upon new sights (as you always tend to in a city as littered with them as Kraków is!) One of the most beautiful was the coutryard at the front of this convent. Strangely located amongst a whole raft of basement dancing clubs, it still managed to have a certain order and peace about it.

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From here, I went back into the old town and found a cafe where I could order a vat of coffee and charge my telephone, which I would need later on. I sat and quietly read, and drank and forcibly held my eyes open. At 11:30, I returned to my hostel, paid for my stay, put myself in a horizontal position and had a very deep 2 hours of sleep.

I woke up fresh and decided that the best thing for it was a late lunch/early dinner at my favourite burger restaurant on earth: Moaburger. Those who know me in real life will know that I am on the mailing list for their burgers of the week, even though I live 600km from the nearest restaurant. It’s fair to say that I like this place. I went inside and had the week’s special burger – beef tandoori, with a spiced patty, Indian salad, a slice of fresh fried onion bhaji and a side (bucket) of chips. I filled my face and drank an ice tea and, finally, felt ready to go to the concert venue. I went to see Solefald – a truly insane Norwegian avant garde metal band. They didn’t disappoint, in excellence or weirdness. I met a couple of really nice and interesting people from a tiny town in the mountains, who were at the show and spent time with a friend. All in all, a great night. I meandered back to my hostel at about 1:30am and crashed into a deep, satisfying sleep.

Waking up on Sunday morning was one of those glorious times where, after a sustained period of shattering tiredness, you finally feel rested again. I got out of bed, showered, shaved and felt like a human being, as I sat down to breakfast in the hostel. I decided that today I was really going to do some exploring of the city, in particular the eclectic, eccentric Jewish quarter. So, after breakfast, I packed away my things and left the hostel with my camera. I had been looking at the map and realised that one of the places I had never seen properly in my previous visits to Kraków was the huge Wawel castle. Time to correct this situation. So I walked to the end of ul Westerplatte and veered right to the huge red brick building. As I came down the side of the entrance and main tower, I managed to get a few photos.

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Just around the corner from this tower (beyond the 24 hour fast food joints, opposite) is the mighty Wisła river (Vistula). This river really is everywhere in Poland and here it strikes a great curve along the edge of the castle itself. On the riverbank, next to the Tourist Information Centre, are some advertising hoardings but, in keeping with the castle theme, they’re all in the shape of turrets, of various colours. It’s a nice effect.

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A little further along the bank, past a market of touristy junk stalls is a “rock dragon”. It really does look quite authentic and potentially quite scary but, on this occasion, the toddler climbing on it detracted from the fear factor.

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After the dragon and passing the southernmost turret of the castle structure, I walked on down the main path to the boundary of the Jewish quarter. As you turn in, you realise that the polish of the old town is absent here. Everything is a little more run down, but the place feels so much the better for it. The view that greets you as you enter via one of the main streets is a great example:

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But once you’re here, you find yourself in a world of interesting graffiti, quaint antique cafes, people with stupid hair (I’m a fine one to talk!), communist relic cars, and so much more. It’s a vibrant lively place and, despite the sense you get that things are in a state of some disrepair, you can’t help but be moved by the charm of the place. You’ll also find some of the best food and coffee in the city. So it was that I parked myself at this cute little cafe (that seemingly has no name).

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What a great, atmospheric place it was; piping out French 1920’s cabaret music with a host of interesting pieces of (unmatching) antique furniture. The coffee was also excellent. From here, I just wandered, taking snaps where I could, trying to capture some of the essence of this fascinating place.

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I had decided to resist the extraordinarily tasty zapiekanka in the Jewish quarter this time. This Polish classic – simply cheese and mushrooms on sliced, baked bread, with a variety of mouthwatering toppings – is a real specialty here. I had tried it on my last visit and been left salivating about it in my dreams for weeks. But this time, I wanted to go somewhere different. So it was that, opposite the New Square, amongst all the hubbub of the secondhand clothing market, I found a window spot in the intriguingly library-esque Alchemia. Specialising in street food, I ordered some meatballs with a flatbread, salad and tatziki and a cold glass of Książęce Ciemne Łagodne, for me one of the best black beers around. I sat and watched the goings on at the market while I ate.

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The food and drink were superb and I decided, after this, to head back into the city. As always seems to happen when I’m going anywhere, I found this little fellow watching me from a window.

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Just as I was nearing the old city, my phone buzzed and one of my colleagues from Toruń had got in touch to tell me she’d be arriving in Kraków that afternoon. So I hurried back to my hotel to get in touch and arrange to meet.

By the time I got hold of her, she was already ordering food at a restaurant. As a bit of time had passed by since lunch, I decided it would be a good idea to join. So I went along to Sioux and ordered some kind of chicken and bacon kebab thing. The important thing here was the inclusion of two different types of dead thing. Delicious. There was also some salad.

So we sat on the edge of the rynek, ate well and discussed life, her time in her new job in Opole (just north of Kraków) and her impending CELTYL training, which was starting the following day. Having done it the previous September, I felt able to pass on warnings and scaremongering about mountains of work and relearning everything you though you knew, etc.

From here, we moved on to the House of Beer, one of my favourite pubs in Kraków. I like this place, not only because of the exhaustive selection of beers, but also because it’s 2 streets back from the rynek and yet manages to have a beer of the day (Piwo dnia) for 5 złoty, which really is an extraordinarily small amount of money and it will usually be something great. I also felt, as Ann was to spend 2 weeks here, it might be best if she know about this great beer emporium. After another hour or so of chit chat and a couple of swift pints, we decided that we should probably head back to our respective accomodation. She was up early for training and I was up early for the airport. I headed back to the hostel, feeling like I’d had a great day and seen a lot more of the city. Within 15 minutes, I was snoozing.

The alarm started buzzing in my ear a little too soon for my liking and the four beers of the previous night had left my head feeling a little heavy. But, surprisingly quietly, I got my things together, showered and disappeared off towards the station, picking up a pastry and a coffee on the way. I got on the futuristic (by Polish standards) train to Kraków Balice (where the airport is) and sat down ingesting pastry and caffeine. I immediately started to feel much better. On arrival at the airport, after just 20 minutes of super smooth travel on one of PESA’s finest locamotives, I grabbed a bottle of water and joined the huge queue for Easyjet’s bag drop. It seemed that I was travelling to London on the same day as the “indoor hard court bicycle polo” squad. Apparently that’s a thing. It was too early to either attempt to figure out, or ask what the hell that meant.

I got aboard the plane with the relative luxury of a pre-reserved seat (a new time saving policy by Easyjet, which is just brilliant!) which had me near the back of the plane, by the window. Once in the air, I switched my phone on, opened my Kindle app and started reading. I had a cup of tea from the in-flight service people and was having a great flight. As we came in towards Southend to land, I even spotted the offshore windfarm, which made for quite a sight.

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Sadly, this was where it all went a bit wrong. The “Fasten Seatbelt” signs came on for landing, so I belted up and waited. We came down over the sharp coastline and all was well until, just after the captain had said “Cabin crew, seats for landing,” we began to climb at a rapid rate. Lots of tannoy announcements about how normal this was followed, until finally the captain came back on, to announce that a flock of birds had been spotted seconds before landing, which could have caused critical damage to the aircraft. He hoped they would move. Evidently I and all the other passengers hoped so too. Eventually, we landed smoothly and escaped unscathed, but I admit to feeling a little unnerved by the experience. What unnerved me all the more though, was stepping off the plane into a Great Britain soaked with… summer sunshine!

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 3 – Adventures in Istria

Another early start greeted me and my companion but, as had been the case right from the off in Croatia, it was all made easier by the glorious blue sky and hot sunshine from dawn. We got up and headed to the bus station in Sibenik. We quickly found a bus and were back on our way up the coastal road to Zadar. I spent much of the journey giving Dave some tips about Zadar while we watched as another fire plane scraped gallons of water from the surface of the Dalmatian sea, to douse yet more forest fires which were raging inland. When we finally arrived, I walked with him to the heart of the city and used my google map to direct him on to his hostel. We shook hands and wished each other well, realising that it was a genuine shame that our paths had to diverge here. I looked at the boat schedule and found that I had a good three hours before my ship across to Pula. I looked around the city for a moment and decided that it was a good time to buy some postcards, and write them over a cold beer in the church square. I took one last walk down the main tourist shopping street, hoping to find a boutique with decent postcards. I quickly happened upon one and negotiated my way to a free tacky tourist pen, as I didn’t have one with me. I then traversed my way back up the street to the square, ordered my beer and wrote. DSC_0034DSC_0059   So, my postcards written and my beer drunk, I settled up my bill and wandered down to the port. There, ready and waiting, was my boat. I showed the guard my ticket and jumped on board. I found a seat quickly and took out my book and began to read. We left the harbour of Zadar just as that famous sunset was starting to creep in again and travelled smoothly through the Dalmatian Sea, with countless islands either side of us. People boarded and disembarked at the paradise island of Mali Losinj, just before nightfall. After that we sped up and headed for the jutting Istrian coast. Under a blanket of darkness, we finally began to see the bright harbour lights of Pula. The boat docked and, after disembarking, I walked – map in hand – along the curved harbour front to find my hostel. It wasn’t hard to find and I was soon inside. But sadly, there was a problem. The lady at the front desk told me that my bed had been double booked, but that a bed had been kept available for me at their sister hostel, across town. I could come back here, the next night. Now, as it was around 9pm, and Pula was self evidently an earthy, industrial port city, I’ll admit to feeling a little perturbed at the idea of the walk across the city. I took the map that the lady gave me and felt my way across the city, stopping people pretty frequently, as I struggled to find anything like a road sign. After a couple of brief wrong turns and a lot of dodgy looking back roads, I found my place for the night. I walked in and was immediately greeted by the 70-something owner of the chain. A very sweet old lady called Ivona, who quickly brought me tea, irrespective of whether I wanted it and began to explain to me the history of the place. She introduced me to Mark, a paramedic from Huddersfield who was on an NHS exchange programme to share his expertise and learn about different medical processes, performed in Istrian Croatia. I’d had no idea such things existed before. Ivona went to her flat and I got into bed, to read up on my planned itinerary for Pula – days 5 – 7 of my 8 day trip. After a few minutes, her daughter came in to take over the night shift in the hostel. She was a real hippy type and began chatting to me about why I was there, where I was from and whether I’d be interested in going to the nude beach with her the following day. After spitting out some of my tea, I made a comment about how much my girlfriend would like such a place, and she backed down. I was hit by a wave of tiredness and decided it was time to get my head down for some sleep. Morning came exceptionally quickly, and I realised I had slept like a stone. Of the 4 gentlemen sharing my dormitory, I was the only one left and I hadn’t heard a soul stirring. I looked at the time and was pleasantly surprised to see it was only 9:40 am.  Time for breakfast. I leapt from my bed and quickly got myself showered and changed. As I did so, the owner came in and told me that I could take my things over to my original hostel right away. Things were definitely looking up. I wandered along the wide street from the hostel straight to a shallow hill down to a pretty little square. It was not in any way how I had remembered it from the night before, but never mind. Just in front of me was a cafe on a sunny terrace, with the smell of strong, good coffee wafting out onto the light sea breeze. I almost instinctively took a seat. A rotund, but cheerful waitress in her 50’s came out quickly and greeted me “English?” Was I so painfully obvious? Anyway, I negotiated my way to a vat of robust coffee and an “open omelette”, as she called it. Quite simply, beaten eggs, set around a handful of tomatoes, onions, sheep’s cheese and spinach leaves. This was accompanied by some fresh bread and a small price tag. My good start to the day had just got much better. After wolfing down my breakfast, I took a side road on the waitress’ advice and ended up very quickly on the main port road, where my hostel was located. Here I found myself gazing up at the largest container ship I have ever seen, something that I had somehow missed the night before. It was docked for maintenance, painting and general refurbishment, but the scale of it blew me away. I’m not sure the photos communicate the enormity of the thing. DSC_0236 I continued around the edge of the harbour, my neck still craning to see this gargantuan boat and almost missed my hostel. When I got inside, the owner’s son was there and he offered me a share of his breakfast, along with more apologies about the mess over my bed. I assured him that it had all been of minimal inconvenience, dumped my rucksack in a locker and headed off to explore the city. As you walk into the centre of the Pula, the first thing that strikes you in the main square is the Temple of Augustus. This was dedicated to Augustus Caesar during his reign and, when you consider its age, the condition it’s in is phenomenal. To have something like this at the heart of what is a really earthy, lively city is quite astonishing. DSC_0238 DSC_0235 In the middle of the square here, you are aware of the presence of tourists, constantly but, at the same time, you have a sense that this is a real, live city, in a way that perhaps the gleaming white tourist spots of Dalmatia aren’t. It’s not as clean, it’s not as shiny and there are many more “local” bars and restaurants, but for me this added to the charm of the place and I immediately felt more at home there. Moving on through the square, a narrow stone pedestrianised thoroughfare takes you to a roman gate. What used to keep out marauding vandals now of course acts as a tourist photo opportunity or a seat for buskers, but it’s no less impressive for it. DSC_0274 After passing through the gate, I found a sign, pointing the other way, saying “monastery”. Intrigued, I decided to retrace my steps back into the heart of the city and take a look. About half way between the gate and the square, there was another small sign pointing up one of the steep side roads. I followed and was unprepared for what greeted me at the top. Fronted by an extraordinarily beautiful garden, with a view over the city below, was a small but active monastery. I decided to go in and take a look around. The whole place was built, as so much of its era, around a central courtyard that stayed cool, even in the blistering heat of summer. Here, there were plants, an image of the virgin and even the monastery cat. Around the outside, there were small chambers, a chapel, kitchen and various items of religious art. It was an interesting place to spend half an hour. DSC_0261 DSC_0240 DSC_0244 DSC_0252 I now wanted to see more in this historic city, so I wandered back to the gate and then out along the perimeter road to the old castle. This area had been first founded during Roman times, and had since been used as a means of defense from many threats faced by the port. At the bottom of the castle, where it meets the road, there is a Roman style theatre, located beneath a huge wall, with intricate arches, many of which have fallen apart over the many years that they’ve stood there. DSC_0283 DSC_0278 DSC_0279 DSC_0280 DSC_0282 As you walk to the top of the castle from here, you can see quite clearly that it’s not been in active service for quite a while. Grass has grown over the taller parts of the structure and, but for a few monuments pointing to its defensive past, the place has become a pleasant park almost in the centre of town and with great views down over the harbour and out into the bay of Istria. DSC_0296 DSC_0285 DSC_0290

From the vantage point atop the castle, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, what had been described to me by the hostel owner as “the little colloseum”. It didn’t look so little from here. Behind the castle was a well worn old stairway down to a narrow residential street. I descended and began to walk down the hill, to where the amphitheatre was located. On the way down, I saw one of the cutest cats I’ve ever seen, sleeping on a windowsill. He opened one eye and watched me walking by, without moving a muscle. Adorable.

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As the narrow road opened up, I suddenly saw the scale of the amphitheatre. I decided to walk around the perimeter and get a better look. All around it there were the usual trappings of such a tourist attraction – ice cream stalls, gift shops with tacky models and little coffee shops with a few al fresco tables. It was a really beautiful place, just 20 metres or so from  the water’s edge too.

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After all this exploring, I was dusty and hungry, so I decided to go back to my hostel for a shower and then out for some food. On the road where I’d seen the orange cat, I’d noticed an amazing smelling pizzeria and decided that was where I was going to go. After my shower, I went along and was served an incredible anchovy and spinach pizza, straight from a roaring wood oven. It was delicious and just what I needed.
After eating, I decided to check out a rock bar I’d read about and see if I could meet any interesting locals to chat to.  So I wandered up to the Rock Caffe in the balmy summer air and took a stool at the bar. The barman had an interesting selection and I took a dark beer. I’d been sitting at the bar for only about three minutes when a tall fellow approached me and asked me if I was foreign (again – so obvious!?). I explained to the chap that I was British, but lived in Poland, which started up a very interesting new thread of conversation. It turned out that he was a vet, who looked after large and dangerous wild animals and that he had done some of his training in the Białystok area, taking care of żubr (or bison, to you and I). As anyone who knows me will know, I love bison and animals in general, so this prompted a lengthy and entertaining conversation about the character of the bison and the array of large, wild animals roaming the plains of Istria. We got through a couple of beers, before he announced he had to leave as he had to work the next day. No sooner had he left, then the couple at the other end of the bar had come down and asked me what part of England I was from. I got chatting to them about bands for a while and finished my beer, but then decided it was time to head back and get some sleep. I walked along the harbour front all the way to my hostel and was asleep within minutes of finding my bed.

I woke up on my last day in Pula with one thing in mind: the beach. I had heard from the hippy hostel girl that there were some great beaches nearby (not all of them nude) so took out my map and picked one of them at random. I ate a quick breakfast at the cafe opposite my hotel, in my swimming shorts and t-shirt and headed down one of the city’s sideroads, towards the beach. When I arrived, I found a near deserted, rocky beach with clear, shallow water. I had picked up water shoes at Krka and was grateful to have brought them, as I could see sea urchins and their spines attached to the rocks. In the deeper water were some floating inflatable towers, which some of the small number of children were playing on. At first, I decided, I was going to simply lay back, read a few pages of my book and catch some rays. So I stripped to my shorts and found a comfortable patch of rock. After toasting in the sun for half an hour, I decided a dip was in order and put my water shoes back on. It was like getting in to a warm bath, the water temperature was so pleasant. With so much space on the beach, I had ample room to wade and swim around freely and really relax. It was a lovely spot. After a couple hours of lounging, swimming and chasing young crabs around a rock pool, I decided to head back to get cleaned up and then to catch my coach on to Rijeka, the final stop on my journey.

Once again, the coach was gleaming, on time, cheap and hugged the beautiful coastal road, showing off the more jagged nature of the cliffs of Istria, relative to Dalmatia’s low lying beach views. After half an hour though, I had drifted off into a deep sleep. It was only when the driver called out “Rijeka” on the tannoy that I woke and quickly grabbed my bag and jumped off, zombie like. The coach station was a pretty seedy looking place, the first time I’d really seen this in Croatia. But I didn’t let this put me off. I went to a cafe in the bus station and ordered a cevepi. Starving, I wolfed it down with a big coffee and, feeling much more alive, I walked across the road to my hostel. The stairs to the 4th floor felt pretty draining, but when I came out on to the balcony outside, the view across the road to the old town and out to sea over the docks were worth it. I spent a minute taking it in, before ringing the doorbell and being taken care of by a very efficient lady. I had paid, ditched my bag, acquired a map & key and left again within about 90 seconds. Time for a look around.

Directly opposite the hostel and bus station, there was a pretty unusual looking church, which seemed like a good place to start. It was dedicated to a monk, who had evidently been one of Rijeka’s more pious and charitable citizens. On the inside and out it was worth looking at.

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After the church, it quickly became apparent that Rijeka is a single line of shops, bars and restaurants, making up the old town, surrounded by the docks on one side and a steep hill on the other. As such, there is little in the centre. What’s there is quite picturesque, but there isn’t really enough space and certainly not enough exploited space, to make it into a tourist attraction, in spite of the convenient budget airline-served airport on neighbouring Krk island. But no matter how small, it was certainly worth a look around. At the very far end of the road, on the left side is one of the oldest structures in Rijeka, an old guard tower. Scrawled with graffiti on many sides now, it’s still quite a sight.

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From here, it was back on to the main street and a stop in a friendly looking cafe bar, to try to figure out what o do with my last night in Croatia. Because of the suntrap nature of the main street, Rijeka felt even hotter than the rest of the coast had for the past week. Even the pigeons were taking emergency action:

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After a cold beer while watching the pigeons cool off, I picked myself up and grabbed an ice cream from a kiosk and began walking down the main street towards my hostel. The streets were pretty quiet and I wondered what would await me that night in this sleepy town.

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Getting back to my hostel, I was in dire need of a shower. I had reinvented sweating in the 4 short hours I’d spent in the centre of Rijeka. After cleaning myself off, I went back to my dorm to find new clothes and the like. Added to the 2 French lads who had been there when I arrived there were 7 English guys. They were all from Manchester and were only 18 – 19 years old. I asked them what they were doing and they informed me that they had decided to spend their first summer after going to uni travelling up from Dubrovnik to Pula. I was impressed, with such an adventurous idea at such a young age. They told me they were going out for food and beers and asked if I’d like to join.

So I spent the next 3 and a half hours eating an anchovy topped hamburger that changed my life, drinking cold Karlovackos and listening to the stories of these kids almost getting robbed in a classic “gas and rob” raid on the train from Split to Knin that I thought only happened in the past and in spy novels, one of them getting overcharged to the tune of nearly 200 euros in a strip bar in Dubrovnik and various other things. It was a very funny night. When sleep came, it was like a heavy, impermeable blanket.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of my alarm, feeling remarkably good considering the beer I’d consumed. I quickly showered and dressed and headed to the bus stop. I picked up a cheese and spinach borek to munch and jumped on to the bus to the airport. There was just time for one last photo, as we left the city roads and got on to the winding path to the airport on Krk island.

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As I sat watching this beautiful horizon fade from view as we crossed the bridge to the airport, I contemplated my experience of Croatia as a whole. Its coastal regions were a starkly beautiful, inspiring place with a genuinely welcoming people. The scars of the war of the 1990s were still easily visible, sometimes on the very surface, but the relaxing pace of life and the warmth of the population gave it a sense of real peace. For an area of such outstanding natural beauty and delicious cuisine, it was also a very cheap place to spend time. With the whole stretch of coast to the south, from Split to Dubrovnik completely unknown to me, I felt quite sure that I would come back, too. So it wasn’t goodbye, but see you later.

 

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 2 – The Most Beautiful Sunset, Sibenik & Krka

After another 40 minutes on the lovely coach, I was back in Zadar. I jumped off at the bus station and began heading straight into town. It was just after 4pm and the sunset was due around 6:30. I made the short walk down the now familiar streets pretty swiftly, and arrived in the old town with more than an hour until the sunset started. I decided this might be a good time to have a look around at some of the narrow backstreets. Much of the city was destroyed during the civil war in the 90’s and the mixture of original and renovated stonework makes for some very interesting sights.

ImageImageImageHaving meandered for perhaps 45 minutes around the cramped alleyways of the old town, I decided to find myself a spot to have a beer and to read some of my book, while I waited for the sunset to arrive. I found the perfect location, diagonally opposite the southern corner of the harbour, well within the sound range of the sea organ. It provided a relaxing, whale call-like soundtrack, as I sat back in the sunshine and took a first sip of my Karlovačko. I picked up my book and found my page. Before I had chance to digest even a single word, someone had blocked out my sunshine. I looked up and there was an Asian girl. She asked me if I was travelling alone and if I felt like some company. I said that would be nice and we began to chat. She told me that she was a Chinese student, studying medicine in Germany, and that she had decided to spend her summer seeing Croatia. She also let on that she had been in Zadar for 3 days and that she was about to embark on a boat to some islands, nearby. I asked her about the sunset and she told me that I absolutely must see it and that I must also not miss the sun salutation, after the sun had gone down. I had no idea what she was on about – I only knew of the sun salutation from yoga. She explained all about it, and then left for her boat.

By this time, the small crowd of sunbathers near the sea organ had multiplied into something of a throng, looking out to the sea, where the sun had begun its descent and was already colouring the sky beautifully. I paid for my beverage and headed down to join them.

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I found a nice place to sit and, surrounded by at least a couple hundred more tourists, watch as the sun painted the sky in one palette after another. All the while, the gentle hum of the sea organ and the lapping of the Sea of Dalmatia provided a calming soundtrack.

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Finally the sun had retreated beneath the horizon. It honestly was the most spectacular, beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere was charged all the more by all the people, of so many different ages and backgrounds, all gathered together to watch it. It was a magical time. Little did I know, that the magic was only just beginning. It was time for the sun salutation.

As I had been instructed, I had moved myself to the blue, electronic-circuit-hatched glass disc of the sun salutation as the sun was dipping below the horizon. I was told that, as soon as the last rays of the sun left the surface, it would light up. I sat down in the middle and waited. After around a minute of held breath on the part of me and many in the crowd, the first lights came on.

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The Sun Salutation is an art installation, made of dancing LED lights, designed to start working as soon as the sun has set. It creates a really amazing, atmospheric effect. The patterns appear to be quite random, with colours phasing from red to blue to purple and much more. It just adds to what is already an unforgettable experience.

ImageAfter almost an hour soaking up the atmosphere at the sun salutation, I decided it was time to head off. I stopped in a few bars on the way out of the city and met a few more travellers. the Garden and The Old Arsenal being particularly memorable. I decided to grab a swift bite to eat and get my head down, for in the morning I was off to Sibenik for a definite change of pace.

In the morning I was greeted, once again, by glorious sunshine and heat that permeated my hostel bed, in spite of the always-on air conditioning. I got myself up and quietly removed myself from the dorm, where everyone else was still sleeping. After a quick shower and, all importantly, putting on some sun block, I was back at the bus station, getting my ticket to Sibenik. It was a route I was very familiar with, as it was just an hour on from Beograd Na Moru, so I settled into my seat and took out my book. This time, I had chosen to sit on the mountain side of the bus, so that I could watch the rugged landscape, opposite the sea. What I didn’t expect, was that after we had passed Beograd and begun the route on the motorway down towards Sibenik, there would be small forest fires, dotted around. Huge plumes of smoke rose up into the cloudless sky, making for quite a dramatic effect. Imagine my excitement then, as I began to see two water planes, dipping down into the sea and dousing the flames. It was amazing watching the precise angles of the pilots and the whole process of putting out the fire. Time flew as I watched this display and, in no time, the bus pulled across the bridge over the stunning bay of Sibenik.

The bus station was a fairly dirty place but, mercifully, almost directly opposite my hostel. I walked up the steep steps and checked in. After ditching my bag, it was straight across the road to the harbour and the old town.

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As you walk around the curving harbourside, you see immediately, that Sibenik is one of these cities built into the cliffs opposite. Almost nothing is on ground level. Looking up, you can see the church for which the city is so famous (more on that later) and the enormous medieval fortress, still standing, in reasonably good condition, at the very top. Between it and the sea, was a maze of narrow alleyways and staircases. Time to explore, I thought.

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ImageAbout two thirds of the way up, I began to realise just how steep a climb this was (and perhaps just how unfit I was!). My calves were aching and I was short of breath. I guess the 35 degrees of close, warm sun did not really help. But I pressed on and when I reached the top of the city, just beneath the fortress, I immediately remarked to myself that it had been more than worth it. The views were simply stunning.

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It took me a full five minutes of staring in awe at the view over the harbour and sprawling old town below me, before I even glanced up at the gleaming white fortress, which defended the city in days gone by from the Turks and various other would-be invaders. Once I’d seen how solid a structure it remained though, I had to complete the climb and take a look. It clearly sustained very little damage in the bloody civil war of the 90s and one suspects the condition the fortress is in has not changed for some centuries. There is no roof, but the main external wall exists on 2 levels and you can walk around all of it, taking in an even more incredible view of the seascape and islands below. A solitary flag of St George smiting the dragon flies at the northmost tip of the castle.

DSC_0180 DSC_0172 DSC_0185After this, I began to realise how tiring such a steep climb, in such hot weather had been. Parched, I decided to descend and find a cafe. So back I went, this time taking a different route through the narrow, old stone streets. I quickly came upon a monastic garden, which had been converted into a cafe. It was beautifully tended and had a foutain right in the middle, sending a spray of fine mist into the air, which was cooling as soon as I walked in. I sat down for the very short time it took me to drain a litre of mineral water.

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My next, and final stop, on the way back to the hostel was the iconic church, in the heart of the old city. It was designed by one of the most famous architects in Croatia during the medieval period. Venetian lions can be spotted on the facade, evidencing the patronage of the great city state at this Dalmatian trading partner city of old. The roof, and shape of the building is very distinctive and, despite its small size, it makes a strong impression on you, the moment you see it.

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Finally, feeling like my 3 hours exploring had sucked most of the life out of me, I decided to go back to the hostel, grab my things and hit the beach to get some colour on my pale skin. Arriving back in the dorm, a tall fellow was sat on the bunk below. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out that Dave, as he was called, had just done a more or less identical whistle stop tour of the sights of Sibenik, and was also feeling like stretching out on the beach. So we each got changed, grabbed our towels and headed down to the really nicely designed purpose-built beach, at the end of the harbour. We laid on the beach as the afternoon sun roasted everyone and everything and had a long chat about where we were from, what we did, and what we were doing in Croatia. Dave, a Canadian/Lebanese physiotherapist who was about to go and retrain as a doctor, had the same plans as me for the next day – a trip to Krka national park.  We quickly agreed that dinner that night, followed by some beers, and the early morning bus to Krka was the plan.

We met some German Swiss girls in our hostel, after the sun had gone down and discussed possibly meeting them for a beer later, before heading to an awesome restaurant, right across from the hostel, on the edge of the old town. We went in and asked for the local specialty – shark, with salad and potatoes. It was delicious. The waiter also fetched us some excellent dark beer, quite different from the usual Croatian fare. Finally, he gave us a shot of a traditional Croat liqueur and asked us what we thought it was made from,. We drank it – it was delicious and I was quite sure it came from honey. He assured me, however, that it was made from snake’s urine. (This turned out not to be true and it was in fact honey – the cheeky monkey!) From here, we walked to the strip of clubs, where one of Croatia’s most famous punk/rock bands were giving a free outdoor concert. Their music was dire, so we crept away, discovered our Swiss German friends, and settled in by the water side for a couple of beers. Before long we were back in the hostel and off to sleep, ahead of the next day’s park trip.

The bus ride to the tourist-fuelled village which nestles alongside Krka were 20 of the sweatiest minutes of my life. Absolutely crammed in mid-August high season, and with primitive air-con, to be generous, my t-shirt was pretty moist before we arrived. We walked down to the harbour side, to wait for the boat to the main park area. The boat came quickly and then sailed steadily through the algae green water of the lake, surrounded by trees and small mountains. After arrival, we went to the ticket office and paid our outrageously cheap entry fee and we were in. From the first moment, you are struck by what a treasure the place is, as scores of people splash and swim amongst the stunning natural waterfalls.

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As you walk into the park proper, the beauty, not just of the water features themselves, but of the balance between light and shade and the different land and water life this promotes, is striking. Also of note is the amazing water turbine, set up by the great Tesla himself. Krka, it turns out, was the first place on earth to have a town with lights powered by hydroelectric power. The displaying of the original equipment is a really nice touch.

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At the end of the day, after walking around almost the entire lake complex, we went for a swim in the beautiful fresh water, amongst the fish, at the bottom of the lowest waterfall. It was an incredible experience, and I can honestly say I’ve never swum anywhere so atmospheric, even with so many people around. We walked back to our bus stop and got a slightly less sweaty bus back to the city. Once we were back at the hostel, we realised that the staff were having a party, so Dave and myself, along with 2 Croat girls who were really funny, hung out with the guys, and chatted about everything and nothing, while emptying too many bottles of beer. The next day, Dave was heading to Zadar, as was I, to take the ferry across to Istria and the industrial port of Pula, with its extensive Roman remains!

 

 

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 1 – Zadar & Around

So, many months after the event, I decided that it might be a nice idea (as I originally planned) to blog about my Croatia trip from August of 2012. So here goes:

It was the 15th of August. The United Kingdom was, predictably, spattered with a light covering of irritating rain; everyone was in a foul mood. Thankfully, I was leaving! I boarded the Ryanair flight from Stansted Airport at ten past five in the evening to the warm, exotic port city of Zadar, in Croatia, after a cheeky pint in Stansted’s soulless airport lounge. The flight was uneventful. I read my travel guide and gleaned precisely no information from it, as I was too excited about visiting a new place. I constantly peered out of the window, unnerving my neighbour until, finally, we began to descend over the bay of Istria.

As we queued in the fading sunlight of dusk in the small, clearly-not-built-for-tourist-use airport at Zadar, I was refreshed by the lack of obvious idiocy from the British passengers. I came to security, smiled (but not too much) and went to find out how the buses worked.

After a 20 minute wait and a number of “jokes” with the bus driver, where I had no idea what he was on about,  we were on our way. During the 20 minute ride, I was positively permeated by the heat of the place. After spending the past 6 weeks in the rain-sodden UK, it was a welcome and very distinct change.  The bus arrived at the main bus station and I took the opportunity to venture into a cafe and ask for directions. Thanks to the utterly atrocious nature of my Croatian, I was quickly moved on to a very accomplished English speaker. She quickly pointed me in the direction of my hostel and off I went.

Amongst the palm trees, which I was familiar with from the previous summer in Turkey, were the classic eastern European buildings that have become my home in Poland. An eccentric combination of pre 90’s cuboid concrete and the all-new walls of glass and steel. It’s fair to say the area around the bus station lacked any real identity. I could be anywhere, I thought. This was all to change, I was about to realise.

I found myself meandering around a residential area which reminded me more of the Turkish backstreets of Fethiye than anywhere else I’d been. When I got to the point on the map where my hostel ought to have been, there was nothing of note to be seen. Only residential gardens, a chemist and a few barking dogs. I walked further, up to the main road and then back again. Finally, I noticed some teenagers outside one of the houses. I approached them and asked them if any of them spoke English. A couple of them did, so I asked them if they knew about this hostel. Predictably, this WAS the hostel. A girl quickly put down her drink, and led me to a bedroom/dormitory conversion and told me which bed would be mine. She told me I would have to pay right away and offered me a map of the city. I paid her, dropped my stuff and immediately headed out to Zadar’s old town. Apart from anything else, I needed to eat!

Within 5 minutes of the unremarkable residential zone, I arrived at the edge of the harbour. Immediately I was struck by the grandeur of the place. To the left are the high city walls, restored from their original medieval splendour, still some 8-10 metres tall, housing a myriad of tourist-focussed restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs and museums. To the right are an array of boats, large and small, as well as the highly decorative, illuminated bridge to the other side of Zadar’s harbour and its many hotels.

 

I walked through one of the gates into the old city and was overwhelmed by street sellers, entertainers, musicians and a swathe of tourists walking in all directions. I walked along the main path, taking it all in and was finally lured to a wonderful smelling pizza restaurant. I ordered a slice and a beer and sat at a table near another guy who was by himself, watching the football. The game was Croatia vs Switzerland; the inaugural game for the Croats’ new stadium in Split. “You like the Croatian national team?” he asked me, in perfect English. “Yes,” I replied. “They play really attractive football.” “We are losing 4-0 to the f*@%ing Swiss!” he said. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but luckily he started chuckling so I followed his lead. We toasted to the next time these teams would meet and he (Ivan) started to tell me what I should make sure I see, while in Dalmatia. I love such meetings. Once the pizza, beer and conversation had dried up, I walked down the old streets of Zadar, back to the harbour side, and made my way back to my hostel. I hit my bed and was immediately overrun by a powerful wave of sleep.

At 9am my alarm shook me, and, with Ivan’s advice, I was heading back to the bus station within an hour, with a plan to visit Sveti Filip i Jakov. A tiny town on the coast, some 30km South east of Zadar, Sv. Filip i Jakov is known for a busy harbour in summer, beautiful surroundings, a religious festival in August & very little else. Time to check it out and get some photos, I decided.

Once inside the bus station, I found a wide selection of bakeries from which to choose my breakfast. After negotiating my way to a cheese and spinach filled croissant, I meandered around to the ticket office with my camera and my money and quickly and easily purchased a ticket to Sveti Filip i Jakov for 9 kunas – about £1.15 or 6 Złoty. Excellent. I went to the appropriate bay and found a modern, attractive, air conditioned bus waiting. “Sveti Filip i Jakov?” I said to the bus driver, in my best questioning tone. “Yes, yeeeees,” the driver replied. “Can you tell me when we are there?” I asked further. “Yes, yeeeeees,” he replied again. Evidently, he had very little idea of what I was talking about.

As those that know me well will be aware, I am a great advocate of the train as the best way to travel to take in the scenery of a place. But the Dalmatian coast is a place where the roads are so well knitted in to the coastline that you invariably have a deep blue ocean on one side, dotted with beaches, coves, harbours, fishing villages and islands; while on the other side there is a combination of towns, cities, mountains, lakes, and more. It’s really a wonderful way to travel there and the standards and kitting out of the coaches really makes it as comfortable as a coach trip is ever going to be (thank god for the air con!). The moment you leave Zadar and get on the southern road to Split, you begin to see the islands for which Dalmatia is famed and the magnificent coastline. Every kilometre or so, you will find a family or couple, parked up in their cars at some space in the trees, taking a dip in the deep blue, fishing, perhaps sunbathing, or some combination of the above. It’s really very appealing to simply stop and join the party. But continue down the coast I did, gawping at the views from the window. ‘Sveti Filip I Jakov’, said one of the signs, as we sped past. Shit. I had missed my stop.

 

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long for the next one. About another 7 km down the coast road the bus lurched at a roundabout and began a slow descent along a shady, tree-lined, quite steep lane. At the side of the road, leather-skinned flat owners sat in garden chairs with handwritten cardboard signs, detailing their spare rooms and how many Euros they wanted for them. After a few moments, we had arrived at the bus station of Beograd Na Moru. Time for me to get off. The first thing I saw, after leaving the tiny, island-like bus station was a man with an ox-pulled plough, made of straw. No, really.

 

DSC_0014From here though, it wasn’t far across the road and over a small wall to find the breathtakingly blue sea. I walked down to the water’s edge and marvelled at the azure water gently lapping at the rocks and – even at 9:45am – the hustle and bustle of small boat traffic, gathering for island tours, fishing trips and, in one case, even a submarine voyage. This idyllic view is one that you can easily get used to in Dalmatia, as I would come to learn, but by no means should it ever get boring.

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Realising that it was mid-morning, and I’d yet to imbibe any caffeine whatsoever, I decided to rectify the situation and took a seat at a harbourside cafe bar. A waiter quickly attended to me and brought me a strong cappucino and a long glass of iced water to follow and I just sat back and people watched for a while, soaking up my first real sunshine in 11 months.

Once suitably caffeinated, I paid my bill and decided to have a walk through the old town of Beograd, away from the harbour. What I found were lots of irregularly shaped houses, awkwardly, but beautifully packed in together, with ornate flower gardens, wrought iron balconies and aromatic wafts of coffee, bread, cakes and other foods, almost visibly drawing you in, like the vapours in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. As I approached the small, old church in the heart of the town, I came upon a beautiful square, furnished with someone’s unattended bicycle, which was to be one of my favourite scenes of the whole adventure.

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After wandering around, I realised that time was getting on and that I still had to get back to Sv Filip i Jakov and then to Zadar for its fabled sunset. So back to the bus station it was. A bus was handily ready and waiting to take me back up the coast road, so I paid my money, boarded and we set off. Within 10 minutes, I was dropped at the sign on the main road for my target village. I descended from the bus, and it sped off, throwing up a great cloud of dust. As it cleared, I looked around. Where on Earth WAS this village?! I walked up to the crossroads and took a punt that it might be down the hill, towards the sea. Fortunately, I was right.

Here was an even steeper slope, under a denser canopy of trees. As the miniscule turn off to the village had threatened, it was a seemingly very small place and eerily quiet. At least it was, until I got to the water’s edge. There, as far as I could see to the left and the right were scores of cafe bars, restaurants and rows of beach side camping plots, with young people, families and couples, all mingling in the glorious morning sun, overlooking the Sea of Dalmatia. I had a really good feeling about exploring this place, but decided that I could really not do anything until I’d had some lunch. I found a grill in a plush spot and pitched up at a table. The waiter addressed me in Croat, then German, then Polish (which I responded to with little skill) and finally in English. I asked what he recommended for a hungry carnivore who has just arrived in Croatia. He had no doubt, it was time for my first Cevapi.

One thing I had managed to take in about Croatia, was just how much of the folklore was focussed on their successful spurning of any attempts by the Turks to invade during the early expansion of the Ottoman Empire. So, imagine my surprise when the Cevapi turned up and was, quite clearly, a reworked kofte. Regardless, it was delicious, freshly grilled, accompanied by fresh balloon bread and a variety of delicious salads and olives. You can find more information about this highly recommended meal here.

After eating, I decided to explore a bit. Once again, the main sights of note were the wonderful sea and a small old town, in which I found a beautiful, humble church. Here are a few images of the place.

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Finally, as the afternoon wore on, I decided I ought to head back to Zadar and find a spot for this sunset. For the next day I’d be on my way down to Sibenik and a quite different backdrop for adventures.