Archive for Croatia

Hvar-d not to Love

It’s a bit pointless having a travel blog when you don’t travel that much, and even more pointless if, when you do travel, you forget to blog about it. In July, Madla and I went to Croatia, and it has taken me until September to write about it – Better late than never I suppose.

Hvar

We went to Hvar, an island off the Dalmatian coast. I had been there at least a couple of times before this trip. It’s a beautiful medieval Mediterranean town, with a pretty town square, a castle on the hill behind and generally attractive and unspoiled surroundings. As an added attraction there are some easily accessible islands a very short distance off the coast.

In fact, there are enough little islands that it’s literally possible to go to a different one every day of the week. This was one of the main reasons I chose Hvar as a destination for myself and a three-year-old. A different beach every day keeps boredom at bay.

But an awful lot has changed in the five years since my last visit……

I probably should have guessed that something was up when I was planning our trip. Accommodation prices on the web seemed to be much more expensive than I remembered. I know that the world has ‘discovered’ Croatia and that it had lost some of its charm as a budget destination, but some of the prices I was seeing really were eye-watering. Of course, what I didn’t realise at that point was that in the last five years, Hvar has transformed itself from a pretty seaside town into a playground for celebrities and the super rich.

Yes, it seems that Hvar is now the destination of choice for Steven Spielburg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Prince Harry, Jay-Z, Beyonce, and lots of other more anonymous, but even richer people. We were expecting Butlins, but we got Monaco instead.

Restaurant prices were prohibitive, and even buying ice creams at the beach sometimes required me to recite the famous holiday mantra under my breath: ‘we’re on holiday, so the money doesn’t matter’

Having said that, I can’t help but recommend the ‘new’ Hvar. We had an absolutely wonderful time! The town now has the sort of understated elegance that only comes from the presence of large quantities of money. Everything is spotless, everything looks beautiful, and everything works perfectly.

Our days began with a walk along the waterfront to admire the day’s offering of super-yachts, some of which were remarkable due to their massive size, others due to their frankly weird designs.

We smiled with delight at the obvious inadequacy and frustration felt by the owner of gigantic super-yacht A, when even bigger mammoth floating palace B was moored in the next berth, and to add insult to injury, blocked out all their sunshine.

After our morning inspection, we’d stop at the supermarket, buy a picnic lunch. One spin-off benefit of being surrounded by billionaires is a brilliantly stocked supermarket. In most parts of Prague it’s not easy to find Parmesan in the supermarket. In Hvar, you can choose from four different kinds.

Having stocked up the picnic basket, we would then select our destination for the day. The water taxis were the one thing that was surprisingly cheap (typically 30 – 50 kn there and back – and Madla, being a very small person, was free). There is something marvelous about motoring across crystal clear turquoise water under brilliant sunshine that’s hard to beat. For Madla, the daily boat trip was an absolute highlight too. Close up views of the hulls of the massive French Cruise ships that towered over us were an added bonus. Then,we’d get to our destination, explore, find a nice spot, swim, relax eat, swim, go for a walk, swim, and so on.

Our favourite island was Stipanska.  Some of the islands have nice sandy beaches, ideal for sand castles.  Stipanska doesn’t.  In fact it doesn’t really have a beach at all, just smooth rock shelves that angle down towards the sea.  What it does have, that made it destination number one in Madla’s book is a concrete diving platform.  She spent literally hours jumping into the water, swimming around to the stairs, climbing out, and starting the cycle again.  End result; a very happy but very tired little girl.

So in summary;  Hvar is wonderful and – provided your accommodation includes cooking facilities and a fridge – still an excellent choice for non-billionaires.

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Hurry – before it’s too late!

We had a really nice time in Montenegro. It was a long drive, but it was worth it.

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From Prague we drove down though Austria and Slovenia into Croatia and spent our first night at Plitvice lakes, a little way south of Zagreb.

If you can imagine a cross between Rivendell and what the famous Pink and White Terraces in New Zealand would have looked like before the volcano destroyed them, you’ve got the right idea.

The lakes were well worth the stop. They are very beautiful and in any case we needed a break from driving.

What wasn’t so nice was to find that prices seemed to have increased in Croatia quite a bit since our last visit.

One example was the entry fee to the park at 100 Croatian Kuna per person. That’s about 400 Czech Crowns or € 15. The park is extremely beautiful and the facilities were very good, but multiplying the price by the number of people who were there (literally hundreds – on a weekday morning) suggested that they weren’t just covering the costs or park maintenance, but instead “milking” the tourists for everything they are worth.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the only example “hyperinflation” which seems to have resulted from the increased profile and popularity of Croatia as a holiday destination.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s still very pretty, and it’s still well worth the visit. But don’t go expecting a relatively undiscovered and low cost destination. It seems those days have gone.

After Plitvice we went to Mimice which is on the coast and spent a few days camping on the beach eating Tuna steaks (which Markéta had never had and enjoying swimming in the crystal clear water, blowing bubbles and generally having a relaxing beach time.

1.jpgFrom there, we went on to another nice beach called Slano, and then spent the morning in Dubrovnick, and from there drove on to Montenegro.

After waiting for a very long time at the border, we eventually got our exciting new passport stamp. Motenegro has only been an independent country for a month or so.

Once across the border we started to look for an information office. (Croatia was hundreds of these everywhere – seemingly in every small village or town). Montenegro on the other hand doesn’t seem to have any of these at all (yet?)

This was a little bit of problem for us as we uncharacteristically done totally zero advance research and had no idea of what you should see and do when you are in Montenegro. We had also driven off the edge of our road map.

So we decided the best idea would be to stick to the coast until we found somewhere that looked nice.

It didn’t take long.

We spent a few days staying close to a beautiful medieval walled city called Kotor. It was very pleasant – the food was great, and it was beautiful and undiscovered by the hordes.

Kotor is located at the end of a fjord around which are a seemingly endless series of interesting sights. If this is a good example of what the rest of Montenegro has to offer then hurry there quickly before everyone else finds out.

Actually some people have already discovered the place. Perhaps 10% of the businesses in the centre of Kotor are Real Estate Agents – with signs in English. They seem to be specialising in selling local beach-front properties to English people looking for cheap holiday homes.

So in fact you should hurry to Montenegro really really quickly. Perhaps soon there will be Marks and Spencer, Curry Houses, Irish Pubs and “proper English breakfasts” available everywhere.

I have to say that I think that this kind of thing is terrible. I understand the local people who when faced with (in their terms) huge wads of cash, have little option but to sell out, and I kind of understand the English looking for a cheap holiday home. But at the end of the day this kind of thing will eventually rip the heart out of local communities and destroy something very special that has existed for hundreds of years. One Englishman might be OK, but 100 are not good.

We ran out of time before we had the chance to explore more of Montenegro. I suspect we’ll be back soon though.

We’re back home now. We had a great time, were happy, tanned, relaxed and not bored yet.

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Going on Holiday – Czech Style

Ahoj

I constantly have to stop myself and count my blessings that I live in this beautiful city. It does however have two small annoying features. One is the tendency of waiters to take away your beer when you still have a good inch of beer left in your glass, and the other is an annoying lack of ocean.

The second problem is a little more easily solved than the first. Last weekend was a long weekend here and so some friends said “Lets go to the beach”. That sounds like a wonderful idea until you remember that the nearest beach is over 1,000 km away.

“No problem” they say, “we'll drive”.

So there we were on Wednesday night at 10.00 pm setting off for Croatia in a car loaded to the gunwales with people, towels, sunglasses, clothes etc and all the normal beach holiday accessories. In addition, we took enough groceries and beer to last a week. “Groceries are very expensive in Croatia, and they don't have proper beer”.

We also had an A4 map of Europe (it's in the front of the Czech Road Atlas) with which to navigate. Actually navigation turned out to be not too much of a big problem as we simply followed the seemingly endless line of other Czech cars headed in the same direction. Picture driving through Vienna at 130 kph at 4.00 am in a convoy of Skodas all riding low on the suspension, some with rubber dinghies on the roof. When the people in the front turned left, then so did we :).

Other amusing moments on the trip were comments like “These Croatian drivers are all crazy”. I nearly bit off my tongue in an effort to hold back various comments about black pots and kettles which kept springing to mind. It was also fascinating to see the bemused expressions on the faces of the guards on the Austrian, Slovenian and Croatian boarders as they waved us though. One of the borders (I don't remember which) even had a sign saying “Czech Cars – Do not stop”. I can't decide if they couldn't cope with the volume, or just thought we weren't worth the effort. This was good news for me as I am running severely low on passport real estate, and the potential for up to 12 stamps was not something I was looking forward to.

On the drive though the Croatian mountains some 14 hours later we were still in a convoy, but by now going much slower. This was partly due to the poor roads, but more to do with driver fatigue after 14 hours non-stop behind the wheel.

We eventually arrived in a small village near Omis which was an equally fascinating experience. Every single car on the roads seemed to be Czech and the hotel we were staying at were very excited to see me. They had only ever had one English speaking guest before, and that was three years ago. Without exception every other guest was Czech, which meant that communication was no problem. People were also insistent that it is quite possible to talk to the Croatians in Czech, and that they would understand. I think that's a slightly bold claim, but it did sometimes seem to work – sort of!

This area of Croatia seems to have become the Czech Version of Majorca. There were Czechs everywhere, Czech restaurants (why?!), signs in Czech, etc.

We had a lovely relaxing time on beach, floating around on lilos, swimming in beautifully clear water, basking in 35° sunshine, drinking red wine on the beach, watching sunsets etc.

Until of course it inevitably became time to turn around and drive back.

Anyway, so now I'm back at home, looking forward to a relaxing month before I set of to circumnavigate Switzerland on rollerblades next month.

We're now two months into the EU, and surprisingly there have been a few noticeable changes already. Not dramatic, but noticeable;

  • Prices have increased by on average about 5% :(
  • There has been a rush on the little blue CZ stickers that everyone has happy attached to their number plates.
  • I no longer need a Visa to go to Poland :) , but
  • I am in the process of renewing my Visa, and it has suddenly become much more difficult, seemingly on the grounds that NZ is not a member of the EU. The procedure is still the same, but the co-operation level has dropped noticeably. It seems to be even more difficult for the Americans. It took on American friend five attempts before they would finally accept his renewal form! Hanging around in queues at the foreign police is so much fun :(
  • We're apparently going to be issued with ID Cards – which will mean that it will no longer be a legal requirement to carry your passport everywhere (not that anyone actually does) :)
  • We now have two more Metro Stations on the red line – Thanks Trevor :)
  • My local shop has stopped selling eggs by the half dozen, and now only sells cartons of 10
  • I now have a grey hair (I'm not sure it's fair to blame the EU for this, but I'm going to anyway) :(

On a similar note there was a tornado in Olomouc the other day. A friend's neighbour said to her “well it may be true that you didn't like everything that we communists did, and that not everything was perfect, but look what you've got now instead; American Tornados!” He was apparently being serious :)

Have a wonderful July wherever you are

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I’m Back “home”

Ahoj Everyone.

I am now back in Prague having spent the last month or so travelling through Croatia Bosnia, Slovenia, Austria and Hungary.

I won’t bore you with all the details but I’d like to rave briefly about two particular destinations which warrant special mention:

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik Panorama

Until around the turn of the 20th century Dubrovnik was a separate maritime republic – a bit like Venice. Due to attacks by the Turks and an earthquake, most of the town was rebuilt in the 17th Century and since then has remained remained largely untouched within what must be the world’s most spectacular town and harbour walls.

Dubrovnik is a very beautiful and historic place, and is all the more fascinating when you reflect that two thirds of the city was hit by Serb shelling just 10 years ago, although there is now very little evidence of any damage. I have attached a photo which doesn’t really do it justice.

During this phase of the tour I had the unaccustomed privilege of sharing my adventures with a travelling companion who outranks me in terms of the number of beautiful cities visited (ie Florence, Mt Manganui, Rome. Paris, etc) and she too rated Dubrovnik very highly.

So the next time you see those tempting looking adverts in the Travel Agency window for beach holidays in Croatia, don’t hesitate – just go in and say yes! (and make sure at least a day in Dubrovnik is on the itinerary)

 

Sarajevo

Yes, I do realise that going on holiday to a war zone is not necessarily the most sensible strategy. However I was expecting the war in Iraq to get underway while I was there and figured I would actually be much safer in Bosnia than in say London for example.

Anyway, I am very very glad I went as Bosnia (and Sarajevo in particular) offer a very thought provoking and sobering travel experience.

Welcome to Olympic City

I remember many years ago watching the winter Olympics on TV and marvelling at what a beautiful city Sarajevo seemed to be. To my great surprise, it is actually still very beautiful. Yes there is tremendous destruction, bullet holes, land mines and bombed out shells of buildings but there are also some lovely old streets and mosques which survived intact.

Probably more interesting though is the positive attitude of the people who are recovering and moving on from a war that – in reality – is still not really over. The city is dotted with graveyards full to the seams with new (1995 and 1996) graves, and there are very large numbers of heavily armed UN troops still driving around town in tanks. Finding such optimism and beauty in the middle of such deviation was a very positive experience.

Sarajevo is still a few years away from becoming a mainstream tourist destination, but if you get the chance go sooner rather than later, you won’t be disappointed.

Anyway all good things must eventually come to an end so here I am back in Prague with an exciting new job starting on Monday and busy organising things like a permanent address, bank accounts etc. In my absence, the “City of a thousand spires” seems to transformed into the the “City of a million tourists”. Word must be getting out!

I can’t really moan too much though as I am still continually enchanted by this place every time I venture outside.

 

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It’s Cool in Korcula

Zadravo All

This week I am in Korcula, which is an island off the coast of Croatia. As well as being the birthplace of Marco Polo, Korcula is famous for wine, crystal clear waters, beaches and sunshine.

Despite the fact that is is still a bit chilly (and I had to fight my way through 2m snow drifts to get here) it is absolutely gorgeous here. I have been spending plenty of time “chilling out” reading books in the sunshine on sidewalk cafes, beaches etc.

The other benefit of Korcula is that, like much of Dalmatia it is an almost untouched 13th century town, and is fantastic to just wander around.

It has been pointed out to me that my last email would have been more interesting had I extended my experience a ‘bit more’ with an; arrest at gunpoint / detainment in a heavily fortified prison / physical torture / a daring escape through an undiscovered tunnel (left over from the war) under darkness / an explosion of stockpiled ammunition that blows up and destroys the whole of Bratislava with the subsequent fires….AND a smart, beautiful MI5 spy who masterminded my liberation and falls in love with me!

If only!

Since Bratislava I have spent a few days in Vienna which was enjoyable but spoiled slightly by WW2 bombing and thoughtless rebuilding thereafter. If you have a choice and want to experience the joys of the Austro-Hungarian empire, then go to Budapest instead, it’s much more beautiful (and cheaper!)

From Vienna I caught the train through Slovenia to Zagreb which, (in the snow) would have to be the most scenically beautiful trip imaginable. Very very “Christmas Card” the whole way, and the hours flew by in no time.

Zagreb is an attractive 18th Century city with a very powerful positive vibe. The people are very patriotic and the war did have a big impact, but a little like the Czech Republic there is a real positive feel about the place. Be warned though, Croatia is not a cheap place. Property prices etc. are very high and four sausages costs USD10.

From Zagreb I caught the train to Split, which is a beautiful Roman City. Unlike most Roman Cities it has people living in it. It was a strange sensation sitting in a 4th Century AD Roman temple sending an email while watching the locals install an new LG Air conditioner.

And so here I am in Korcula.

From here I plan to visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia, then down the coast to Dubrovnik from where I will make my way to Venice for the Carnival. As the attached photo shows, the locals are already getting into “Carnival mode” here.

It’s carnival time!

After that I head back to Prague to start my new (grossly underpaid) job on the 14th of March. I doubt I will be doing it that long as I already have some interesting “irons in the fire” in Budapest, but as I think I’ve already said, it does provide a great starting point for Prague.

Dovidenja

 

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