Adventures in Greece Part 3 – Naxos and Back

As the ferry began to dock in the port at Naxos, we made our way down the series of steel stairs to the disembarkation platform. We walked out into what was now scorching sunshine and took in the vista of the Sanctuary of Apollo on a hillock to the left, the castle and old town straight ahead and the beaches, sweeping off into the distance to the right. But before any of that, there was a huge hubbub of people coming to meet loved ones and friends, pension owners coming to greet those without accommodation with offers, and traders, here to collect things brought over from the mainland. The day before we left Athens, I’d received an email from Stavros – the proprieter of our hotel – offering to come and meet us at the port, so we looked out for signs for “Pension Irene”. We couldn’t see him anywhere. We found some space to one side of the throng and put our bags down for a moment. About to take out my phone to call him, I suddenly spotted a very neat feature of the harbour – a WiFi enabled covered area, with touchscreens that you could use to find the addresses, phone numbers and photos of the huge range of accommodation on the island. Not only that, you could make a free skype call from the booth. I was seriously impressed. I called through to Stavros and he answered quickly, asking where I was. I explained that I was in the Skype booth and he was, naturally, 2 metres behind me. I turned, walked over and shook his hand, introducing myself and Ania. We walked over to his mini van and dumped our bags on the rows of seats at the back. We hopped in and sat down. We moved perhaps 5 metres before he turned to us and said “you may as well walk. In this traffic, it could take an hour to drive to the hotel. I’ll bring your things to you later.” He gave us directions and a leaflet, complete with a map and off we went. We walked through a gap in the gleaming white buildings and along a winding road in the direction he had pointed us. Here, on the map, there were 2 roads. In reality there were 4. It was about to get a bit sketchy.

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We consulted the map and, eventually, agreed on a route. Readers of previous posts to this blog will know that this was the wrong direction. It did however, allow us to get a good look at this side of the island. We found the football stadium (not premier league standard) and the general hospital, which looked like a not particularly impressive shed and made a mental note to avoid injury and illness at all costs, while here. We also saw countless classic Greek island picture postcard views, like this:

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After stopping in a couple of shops and asking for directions with our quite misleading map, we found our hotel’s sister hotel and then were driven around to our home for the next 3 days by the kindly owner, who found our confusion quite amusing. As soon as we arrived, I left Ania to organise herself in the room and went off to pay for our stay. Immediately after I had, the hotel owner’s mother came after me with some cold ice creams for Ania and I. It was a really nice touch and we ate them right away, after so long out in the sun trying to find the place.

After we had gathered our thoughts and taken the weight off of our feet for a while, we decided to go out and explore the local area. Our hotel was on a road which backed straight onto St George beach. This is the second most beautiful on the island, according to Trip Advisor, so we decided to go and take a look while we still had the afternoon sun. It was quite busy, with a variety of watersports and sunbathers covering the soft sand, in front of a line of fairly low-key bars and restaurants, creating a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere.

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From here, we had already decided we would walk back into the town and across the port to the “Portare” – the gate of the Sanctuary of Apollo, which was said to be wonderful at sunset. So we walked back along the beach towards the old city. On the way we saw some interesting sights, starting with this strange fellow.

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After this, we walked along a wide stretch of bars and cafés, brimming with mainly Greek tourists enjoying beers or freddos and chatting with their family and friends in front of the harbour, still crammed full of active fishing boats, the fishermen hanging up octopi to dry and carrying bulging nets of fish to the awaiting restaurants. We continued past the port and on to the stretch of land where the Portare was. Before you arrive at the Portare itself, you have to walk across a thin strip of land at the edge of the port. You can get right down by the rocks at the edge of the water and there is an ancient statue of someone. Sadly, there’s not much of its face left intact, so you can only try to identify it by virtue of its boobs. I had no idea.

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After this and walking past several bathers enjoying the water, you get up close to the great doorway and see what an impressive sight it is, as is the view back to the town and the port. We spent a good hour sitting on the rocks, watching the sea crashing in and the boats coming and going, as the sun sank lower and lower toward the horizon.

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From here, it was time to finally grab something to eat, as we were starving, so we stopped off at a relaxed little pizzeria on the harbour’s edge and ate pizza and drank Mythos as the sun went down. It was a great first afternoon and evening on the island.

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The next day began late, after a breakfast of pastries and coffee in bed (I went to the cafe at the end of the road, like a true gentleman). After this, we decided it was time to check out the best beach – again, according to trip advisor – on the island. So off we set on the bus journey, 15 minutes or so, through Saint Anne’s beach, Paradiso beach to Plaka. As soon as we arrived we could see that it was, indeed, more beautiful than the others. Finer sand, more space, calmer sea, it was a beautiful place for us to relax.

We claimed a spot, got out the suncream and got on with the business of sunbaking (thank you Australian students for this wonderful term!). We alternated between sitting, some light swimming and the obligatory burial of the girlfriend in the sand. She kept smiling and didn’t kill me afterwards, so it must have been fine.

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After a few hours of mucking about there, we were a little peckish, so we walked up to a nice little café opposite the beach and ate some Greek salads with feta and Naxian sour cheeses. Both were superb and washed down with a bottle of coke. After we ate, we decided to explore a little further down the beach, where it was a bit quieter. So we did just that. We found a beautiful spot and sat down on our towels. Just at that moment, Ania gave me a sideways glance and smirk crossed her face as she said “can you see that?”. She was referring to the naked man to our right. This part of the beach was a nude area. Gripped at first by a wave of my Britishness and almost gesturing to go back down to where we were previously, I took a hold of myself (not literally) and decided we should take a “when in Rome” approach. So we stripped off and made sure everything was suitably protected from the sun and, pretty soon, realised that there was less gawping here, than there had been in the bikinis and shorts area. It was all quite comfortable. So we spent an enjoyable time in our first nudist experience and, after a few more hours of bronzing, dressed and headed back to find a bus. It was at this stage that I remembered I had not really put any sunblock on the tops of my feet. This in a place where the sun had been blazing down all day long at temperatures of around 38 degrees. Already I could feel the skin tightening and it was only going to get worse. Nevertheless, I got on the bus smiling from a day well spent.

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The next morning, I realised that my feet were in fact like 2 giant red steaks. I was sure they would drop off at any moment, at which point I would have to sell them to a restaurant and spend the rest of my life hopping around on my ankle ends. This was not something I was looking forward to.

When I woke up the next day though, it turned out that I had been exaggerating, which is most out of character for me. But cheerfully, my feet were burned and suffering a bit, but not beyond repair. As Naxos is an island with an awful lot of beach and not an awful lot of anything else, and our plans for these 3 days revolved relaxation together, we went to the beach. This time St George beach, opposite our hotel. I worked out an ingenious way of protecting my burnt feet from getting worse:

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I’m sure I looked positively hilarious to all passers by, or like I had some kind of utterly unfathomable form of OCD, but the important thing was I didn’t burn and began to feel better.

The following day though, I really didn’t feel like spending time sunbathing. 2 days was quite enough for me, so I picked up my camera and did some climbing on the rocks, while Ania stretched out on a secluded stretch of beach. We only had 5 hours until our boat was due to leave, but I still managed to see some terrific sights.

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After all this wandering, there was only time for a quick souvlaki back at the Relax restaurant and an ice cream in the shade before we got back on the boat. This time, rather than the “every man for himself” experience we’d had on the way to Naxos, we’d been forced to pay an extra 3 euros for airline seats, due to a lack of availability of economy seats. When we found our seats, we wondered why the premium was so small. Row after row of lazy-boy-like faux leather armchairs, fully reclinable and with deck windows, this was going to be a much more comfortable journey.

This was just as well, as when we arrived back into the port of Piraeus at 11:30, we had been unable to rebook our fabulous hotel from our first stay there. No, we had had to book another, similarly rated hotel, on the other side of the marina. ‘How different could it be?’ we thought, as we crossed the road and began to walk slightly uphill, along the marina walk. We took a left and then a right onto the street where our hotel was located and there, before us were two not-particularly-upmarket looking prostitutes. Fortunately, you could smell their perfume from so far away that it wasn’t hard to avoid them. They walked towards us, as we carried our bags, with fully drunken smiles on their faces. I felt pretty sorry for them, if I’m honest. We found the hotel quickly enough and walked inside. The place seemed ok, and we bundled our things into the lift and went up to our room on the 3rd floor.

While Ania was smoking on the balcony of our room, she noticed a titty bar across the way, which looked as run down and depressed as the hookers in the street. It was a surprise, as it was so close to where we had stayed before, where everything had seemed so pleasant. We decided it didn’t really matter as we were here only to sleep before our flight the next day. In the morning we rose, got breakfast at a nearby store and then jumped on our bus back to the airport. There had been so much to take in, so many things we had seen and experiences we’d had. It was a truly fantastic week and Greece is certainly a place we’d return to. Now though, our minds were already turning to the next adventure.

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Adventures in Greece Part 2 – The Acropolis & on to Naxos

Having explored our local area of Piraeus, we decided it was time to go to what was our real reason for coming to Athens – to see the Acropolis. First we had to find the metro. We walked away from the marina area towards what looked like a denser part of the suburb and decided we would walk for a few minutes and then, if we hadn’t seen anything, we’d ask someone for the way to the metro. So we walked past umpteen cafés, purveying wide varieties of cappucino freddos and then, at the end of the road, we saw the metro line. We crossed the city highway via the footbridge to the metro side and had a choice: to turn left or right and to follow the track to the next station. Inevitably turning left was completely the wrong decision and the one that we took. So we walked, and walked… and walked some more and eventually found ourselves in the very heart of Piraeus. We walked past a busy street market and came, finally, to the statue, next to the port. ImageImage We went to one of the many ferry offices, and asked how we might find the metro station. We were directed across a bridge to a huge yellow building. When we arrived, we finally saw the tiny sign for the metro, that was inside. We went in,  bought day tickets and boarded the train that was sitting in the station. The metro was quite modern and comfortable and there were only a small few people onboard. Quickly though, as its departure time approached, more and more people boarded and it became quite cramped. I ended up surrendering my seat to a heavily shopping laden elderly woman. Before coming to Athens, I had read a lot about crimes like robbery, pick-pocketing (and worse) on the metro, even during the day, so I had a fierce determination to keep my wits about me and a strong hand on my camera. But as we set off in the direction of the city, there was seemingly nothing untoward happening. The first stop (agonizingly close to where we had initially started tracing the metro route on foot) was at the impressive stadium of Olympiacos, one of Athens’ 3 top flight football teams. At this stop though, the atmosphere became quite different onboard. 2 young roma children boarded the train, one with a violin-like musical instrument. Immediately an old man (the husband of the woman I had given my seat to) rushed over to him and scolded him through gritted teeth. People were visibly uncomfortable, all around, but no-one seemed to do anything. The situation didn’t escalate further, thankfully, but the atmosphere lasted right until we arrived at the central station: Monastiraki. DSC_0058 DSC_0160 As we walked out of the station, into the bustling market place, with art, jewelry and touristy crap being sold in every available square metre, I began to ask Ania where we might find the Acropolis. She simply pointed over to the right hand side and there, above us, was the mountain platform with the parthenon and other assorted ancient buildings on. It was quite a sight! It was also quite a way up and, as yet, we had only eaten breakfast and a cake. With the time approaching 3pm, we decided to go for lunch. We wandered around the narrow streets on the way up to the summit for a few moments, before finding a quiet place offering gyros in pitta, that had a few tables free. We started off with some fresh bread and tatziki and then were surprised when our “light lunch” arrived. N.B. there is no such thing as a light lunch in Greece. These people REALLY feed you. DSC_0059 So, with our faces royally stuffed, it was time to make the ascent. We wandered first past Hadrian’s library – a long, fenced off area that is still being excavated by the looks of things. No more than 30 metres from the town square, people selling their wares almost completely block your view of it. But I managed to get a couple of shots of it on my way past. DSC_0062 DSC_0060 Next, we happened upon a restaurant with a truly wonderful view up to the mountain, as well as into a nearby historical site which was largely unmarked. DSC_0065 DSC_0066 DSC_0069 DSC_0070 From here, we followed the signs, as the slender road wound its way around the hillside up to the Acropolis plateau itself. We stopped off briefly to buy some water and postcards from a small shop, and to take in the ever more impressive view during the ascent. Then, finally, we had arrived at the gate. We bought our tickets and were instructed to finish our drinks before we went inside the Acropolis complex. So we found our way to a shady bench, not far from a line of sleeping dogs, who must have been roasting in the heat. Once we had finished off our water bottles, we went in. As you enter the Acropolis gate, while your view is dominated by the huge, busy outcrop above you, your attention is soon diverted to the right where a large theatre – still in occasional active use today – sits below you. With the light rigs still mounted for summer performances, it’s easy to imagine yourself sitting in there watching a concert or a play. DSC_0079 After staring down at the detail here for a few moments, we went on up to the main Acropolis area. DSC_0081 DSC_0082 DSC_0084 DSC_0085 DSC_0087

Once on top of the plateau, besides the phenomenal ancient structures all around the place, I was struck by two things: first, just how high above the city you are and secondly that it’s really very windy up there (I realise these issues are connected). As I left the stairs up onto the plateau, to your right you see the really quite enormous structure of the Parthenon. As is to be expected, it’s in an almost constant state of renovation, but in spite of all of the scaffolding, you cannot help but be struck dumb by the enormity of it and to feel the ages that it has borne witness to atop the lookout point over Athens and the Mediterranean beyond.

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From here, your view is drawn left, to the “old” temple of Athena, with its extraordinarily detailed pillars, in the shape of the temple maidens. This is a far smaller structure than the Parthenon but, hugging the cliff edge as it does and with the fine detail of its construction, no less impressive.

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Once you’ve taken in these wonderful sights and the Museum, located behind the Parthenon itself, there is a wonderful lookout point, with a huge Greek flag flying. At any given time a swarming mass of people sits up there, gazing out across the sprawling city below and to the other 2 significant peaks in this mountainous landscape. Even with the wind trying to blow you away, it’s something of a must-do while up here.

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Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall
Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall

After wandering, sitting, and staring for a good hour or more, we decided it was time to descend back down to the street. We tread carefully on our way down as the huge, ancient stones – worn down by countless millions of feet – are really quite slippery. We stopped in at the same little store for more water – all this walking is thirsty work – and then continued to Monastiraki square. On arriving back down to ground level, we realised that what our day was crucially missing was ice cream. Imagine our surprise then, when we found it particularly difficult to find anywhere selling the stuff. This was, in fact, a huge blessing in disguise, as central Athens (and seemingly all of the touristic areas of Greece) are currently awash with frozen yogurt bars. We found one such place and I served myself a huge portion of strawberry frozen yogurt and then covered it in fresh, ripe blackberries and flaked almonds. So we sat on a step, outside the station, watching the last art and craft sales of the day, in the marketplace, while we ate our delicious frozen yogurt, hardly speaking as we mulled over the things  we’d seen up on the mountain. After we finished, we realised that we needed to head back to our hotel in Piraeus, as Ania’s friend Dmitris – an Athenian native – was returning from his holiday that night and had offered to take us out.

After the short metro hop, and a mercifully more straightforward route back to our hotel, we quickly showered, changed and rested for a short time. At around 9pm, Dmitris showed up in his compact Citroen car and told us he would take us somewhere “with a view”. We drove across the city’s impressive, efficient central highway and quickly found ourselves back in central Athens. We took some turns into one suburb or another and eventually found ourselves on a near sheer hill street. During the journey, I had quite an interesting conversation with Dmitris – a business owner himself – about the living situation in Greece at this time. Of course, you read about it on the news, but to hear from a local that the minimum wage of the nation has tumbled from around 800 Euros per month to 450 in two years is a stark reminder of just how difficult it is to live in Greece right now. The sparkling lights of the city were a good ten minutes behind us now, and an air of quiet and natural darkness was descending. We parked up in a large car park and jumped out. I looked up at the stars, shimmering brightly in the sky above, such was the lack of artificial light pollution here. As I remarked and gestured towards them, Dmitris assured me that I hadn’t seen anything yet. And boy was he right. As we walked into the quite exclusive looking bar and found a table with an open air view looking out to the city, I just stopped being able to talk and stared for a few moments. The music wasn’t especially to my taste, the bar was perhaps a bit swanky for me, and I was disappointed with the lack of Greek beer, but the view truly made up for all of that. With my camera sadly lacking at taking photos in darkness, I feel the need to direct you here to get some idea of the view from our table. All of Athens is laid out in front of you, with the bulging orange orbs dotted through the middle, signalling the route of the central highway. It’s a place I would recommend to any and everyone. We chatted over a cold bottle of beer and the now typical complimentary mineral water and snacks, about life in Greece, Poland, Britain, and Scandinavia. About Dmitris’ business and his ability to keep afloat in difficult times, but the obvious hard work that he has to put in to achieve this. After a time here, we decided that we really ought to eat something. So we drove down to a spot where, we were reliably informed, restaurants opened at lunch time and stayed open until breakfast (along with accompanying bars, too). Here we managed to get some Greek beer (Alfa – the least good of the 3 main beers of the nation, in my humble opinion) and probably the best souvlaki I ate in the whole of my stay in Greece. And all for about 15 euros, for 3 of us. Quite remarkable. As we finished eating, I looked at my watch and was utterly flabbergasted to see the time was approaching 3am. Always the sign of a fine evening. So, once we had all drained our beers, we got back into the car and made the drive back to Piraeus. We thanked Dmitris sincerely for what had been a great night and promised ourselves two things: a lie-in the following morning and a relaxing day.

So it was that a lazy day was spent, interrupted by lunch at the waterfront, and a lot of time around Piraeus’ fine beach. After hardly stopping still for the past month, it was most welcome. The highlight of the day was watching this cat trying his very best to catch a bird in a tree.

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We wandered back to our hotel at the end of the day, stopping off at the Blue Star Ferries terminal, on the way, to pick up our tickets for our ferry the next morning. After this we headed early to our beds, so that we could be up and ready for breakfast at 6:30 and climbing aboard our ferry for the 7:25 departure.

Arriving at the port on the Tuesday morning, there was no shortage of hustle and bustle as, along with the multitude of foreign tourists, Athenians were setting sail for their summer holidays. With money for foreign expeditions drying up, we were told that the vast majority of city dwellers were also taking advantage of the relaxed and beautiful islands scattered off the coast and down into the Aegean and Ionian seas. The biggest of the ferries travelling every day, in-season, to the Cyclades, the Blue Star Delos is bloody enormous. We climbed aboard and dragged our bags to the topmost decks, set out with scores of (but not enough) seats for the “economy” ticket passengers. After some fruitless wandering, we realised that we were not going to get a seat, so we were staring down the barrel at five and a half hours of standing, or sitting on one of the outside decks. The sun was, predictably, shining brightly though and it didn’t feel like any sort of hardship, as the ship began to pull out of Piraeus’ harbour.

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We stood, we sat, we watched the sea drift by, along with other boats and smaller, often uninhabited islands. We drank water, we listened to music, we laughed at elegant, well behaved dogs and aggressive, irritable little ones. Becoming acclimatised, as we were, to the Greek summer culture, I dashed to the bar at the half way point to pick up Cappucino freddos for us both. The spray from the sea was pleasantly cooling, as we sped across the water in the full glare of the sun. With little more than an hour to go until our arrival time at Naxos, we saw the first larger islands and rocky outcrops and finally, the ship descended on Paros. Significantly smaller than the place we were to call home for the coming days, Paros had a bustling harbour, which was a flurry of activity as our ship landed. Dotted with historic buildings and with a typically cycladian backdrop of brown, earthy mountains, it looked like a nice place.

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Perhaps more crucially than anything though, some of our neighbours on deck disembarked here, freeing up some chairs to us for the remaining hour or so of our journey. So we sat in comfort and shade, as the trajectory had somewhat changed, as we made the final leg of the trip towards Naxos. Feeling the 6:30 wake up call now, I was pleased to remember that the proprietor of our hotel had offered to meet us at the port and take our luggage on to our hotel. After a short while we had arrived.

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.