Thursday, 6 August 2015

Summer of Fun: Croatia & Montenegro

Read all of the Summer of Fun here, as we enter the final instalment.

30 May
My expensive flight out of Rome to Split, Croatia passed smoothly enough. I was holding my anxiety at bay, sitting underneath the propellor wings of the tiny plane but once in the air, coupled with the amazing service on board, I relaxed. I was still pissed off that this was a £225 flight, as opposed to my original £60 flight, but tried to push that to the back of my mind.

I drank a large glass of awful wine, looked out the window at the spectacular Dalmatian islands, and soon we were descending.

It was super easy and inexpensive to catch a shuttle to the Port where I had booked to stay in a hostel close by so I could walk there in the morning to start my Travel Talk tour, Sailing Split to Dubrovnik. I checked into my hostel room and crashed out on the bed. As I lay there, waiting for my phone to charge, I heard someone's voice out in the lobby. It sounded familiar. Surely not. I peeked out the door.

"Supreet?" I tentatively called, and sure enough, she turned around. She had been my dorm mate in Florence. "What are you doing here?" 

Turns out, Supreet had made a detour away from her original plan, which landed her in exactly the same hostel as I was staying. The world truly is a small place, as it had been in Pisa too. Pleasantly surprised, we grabbed some late lunch together and caught up on what had happened in the previous week of our respective adventures.

We drank and talked the night away before retiring, and I got myself ready for sailing the seas on the morrow.

31 May
I didn't need to do much in the morning so I made a quick stop at the supermarket to get some snacks. While there, I made one final check of where I was supposed to meet the ship.

Where I was supposed to meet the Why does my itinerary say I'm travelling Dubrovnik to Split? This must be a mistake. I frantically started going through my emails but, being out, was finding it very difficult. I raced back to the hostel and perched, panicking, at the computer.

"Is everything ok?" the hostel receptionist asked. 
"Um, not really? I think I've been sent the wrong travel voucher!!" I tried to remain calm, but it wasn't working.
"Here, use my computer, it's faster."

I checked my emails. Here is where the problem lay. Now, I fully take responsibility for what happened, however, having worked extensively in email marketing I would never, ever have sent an email like the one I received, and I didn't notice the change because I didn't know what I was meant to be looking for. My first email confirmed Split - Dubrovnik, 31 May.

2 weeks later, I had received a second email, the title saying "Correction" and an identical copy of the email body. Except it wasn't identical, I discovered. Split to Dubrovnik had been replaced by Dubrovnik to Split. I didn't notice. Simple as that. My first reaction was to check the date: perfect. I never in a million years expected the direction to change. And in my defence (even though I do understand it was my own stupidity), nothing was highlighted; no "Please note, there was a mistake with the booking and the boat you selected does not run on those dates" etc. Needless to say, panic stations ensued. The receptionist allowed me to use the phone and I called the emergency number.

More panic ensued, and then dread, as I decided that I would just forego the whole thing. The gentleman on the other side said that, while I will miss the beginning, I could meet the ship at the first port in Slano at around 4.30pm that day, so basically I'd barely miss anything.

After my panic died down and I could think mildly logically, I decided this would have to do. I shouldered my backpack, walked back to the port and bought myself a bus ticket from Split to Dubrovnik, repeatedly mentioning that I wanted to get off at Slano.

The bus ride along the coast was actually beautiful, but I had little capacity to appreciate it. I felt like a fool, I was stressed and I constantly replayed my arrival conversation over and over in my head. After 4 hours, we arrived at Slano and I was deposited on the side of the road, with a general hand wave in the direction of the water.

Making my way down to the water front, I walked into a cafe and asked if I was in the right place. She replied that the boat hadn't come in yet, but yes, Lav is the pirate ship I am looking for. I settled down with a double vodka to calm my nerves and I waited for my ship to arrive.

Before long, a speck on the horizon. As it came closer, I could see the skull and cross bones and the unmistakable look of a pirate ship. This must be my chariot, I thought, and I summoned my courage, took a deep breath, practiced my speech and approached the ship as it was docking.

A young gentleman jumped off the side, hand extended. "Sasha? I'm Dan, nice to meet you."
I shook his hand, saying "Yep, I'm the missing one," and threw my bags on board. Everyone already knew my name, of course, and they all introduced themselves to me warmly despite my idiocy. Dan was the Travel Talk tour leader, and he took me into the kitchen to run through the trip notes. The ship could house 25 passengers, but our tour, not quite being high season yet, only had 13 pirates on board. This meant that almost everyone got a room to themselves. Naturally, I was in room #6 and I had the only room with a standup shower. I was extremely pleased with my lodgings and immediately distributed all of my belongings as far as possible.

The boat docked here at Slano, and Dan gave us a brief tour of the area. I chatted and starting getting to know my fellow ship mates - tonight we were to be having dinner ashore before setting sail in the morning.

I was glad for bed time; it had been a rather awful, stressful, panicky day. All will be well on the morrow.

1 June
We awoke for breakfast; fresh bread, french toast and meats. We sat on the top deck, soaking up the sun. The boat docked in the middle of the clear, smooth water. It was time. It was time for me to make the jump. 

I was frightened, of course. I'm scared of heights; I'm scared of falling. I climbed shakily up the steps, and onto the slippery banister of the ship. Holding onto the rope tight, I took a shaky breath, before I let go and - JUMP! 

SPLASH into the cold, cold water, eyes open, blue as far as I can see. I splashed my way to the surface, exclaiming at the cold, and I felt proud of myself for jumping. 

After a little while, we climbed back aboard for lunch. We all sat down to a table with a big bowl of soup, crusty soft bread and some cheese. Naturally, we thought that today's lunch was soup, and so we poured big bowls for ourselves, scooped the cheese in (when in Croatia!) and tucked in with gusto. Ante, the barman returned to the dining room, looked puzzled, and shouted in his brusque Croatian way, "Why have you eaten all the cheese?"
It was round about here that we discovered we would be receiving three-course meals on board, and the cheese had been put there in preparation for the main course, which was to be pasta.

Today's island: Mljet. This is the island that Odysseus became trapped with Calypso for 7 years, being forced to make love to her while faithful Penelope remained faithful, faithfully back home in Greece.

The remainder of the afternoon saw us docking at Mljet and having a splash in the inland salt lake in the centre of the island. When we returned to the boat we rifled through the bag of costumes for tonight's themed party: The Pirate Party. There were some group games including a treasure hunt, beer skulling and bobbing for apples. Team #1 won, and we were rewarded with a giant cocktail to share, and thus we drank and partied the night away as pirates on the pirate ship Lav.

2 June
The next few days passed in a similar fashion.

The morning's consisted of getting up for breakfast before 10am, lazing on the top deck, waiting for the boat to dock so we could have a morning splash, lunch, and then a siesta before we docked to explore that day's island.

Today's island was Korcula, famous for being the homeland of Marco Polo. There were a few uncomfortable heads today as we explored the sleepy little island, retuning that evening for dinner and cocktails overlooking the bay. And also overlooking the wealthy's yachts.

This evening we went out for a bit of a dance (on the stripper pole?) and had our first grappa (also called rakija). If anyone remembers me talking about palinka, this is Croatia's version of face-melting liquor. It was a faint blue colour, and tasted exactly like rocket fuel. Collectively, we struggled to keep it down.

Turns out, it's rude to refuse rakija, and also turns out that one is expected to shot it before almost all main meals. Over the course of the week, we tried many different varieties, some more shudder-inducing than others, and definitely some which fought battles to stay in.

3 June
Hvar was today's island, and after our normal morning activities, we docked and walked to the very top of the hill to look out over the bright red rooftops to the green islands in the brilliant blue water. We stopped at a beach-side bar (of which there were hundreds!) and Kaylin and I sat with our toes in the water. Evening time, saw a belly full of mussels (after grappa, of course) before we danced the night away.

4 June
Today we were bound for Brac, and this was my favourite island. This island boasted an inflatable playground in the middle of the ocean which was not only a lot of fun, but was also surrounded by beautiful scenery. We slid down slides and got flung into the air on an big balloon pillow and ran across slippery barrels, often going arse-up into the water. The afternoon was a lazy one, snoozing on the beanbags out in the sand. 

This evening, we had the trash bag party where we created costumes out of nothing but garbage bags. As we were docked on the shore, many people came up to the boat and took photos of us as we looked rather hilarious. We partied and Kings-Cupped the night away.

5 June
Makarska was the flavour of the day with a gorgeous mountainous backdrop. In the evening, we went out for a few drinks, including getting tequila poured down my throat on the bar top to herald in my birthday in the right way. We then made our way to a bar in a cave and danced it up. The crew stopped and sang happy birthday for me when it reached midnight, and not long after I took my now-old and decrepit self back to the boat.

6 June
My birthday! In the morning, I had a bit of a fuzzy head from the night before (or maybe I was still drunk..). When we jumped off the boat, a few of us swam to shore which was quite an effort, but fun. Today we were to be arriving in Split - which was all oddly familiar seeing as I had been here before! It was a hot hot day, and so spent it rather lazily wandering the streets, getting gelato and looking at the market stalls. This was our last night on the boat and we started to bid our adieus.

7 June
Today, I had to make my way back to Dubrovnik, which served as another reminder of my original idiocy. However, I was a pro now and so made my way to the bus station, bought my ticket and settled in - again - for the 4.5 hour trip. This would be my first time landing in Dubrovnik and I was looking forward to seeing the town I had heard so much about.

I initially struggled to find the B&B Vila Marija, and then also couldn't work out how to get inside, but finally a lovely lady approached (she had ducked out) and made me right at home. I was astounded by the amazing service and would definitely recommend when you go to Dubrovnik! She sat me down and recommended a lot of things to do. When taking my passport, she realised that it had been my birthday and returned with a delicious block of Croatian chocolate which I consumed in about a day.

Dubrovnik Old City was about a 20 minute walk from the B&B and I set off in the late afternoon sun to have a peek. Maria had advised to avoid the city walls before 6pm as it would be teeming with tourists from the cruise ships and so, heeding her warning, I waited until the evening. The walls entirely surround the city and the view inside and out was spectacular. Red roofs as far as the eye could see one way, clear blue water the other.

It had been another long, exhausting day and so I returned and crashed for the night.

8 June
Lords and ladies, welcome to Kings Landing.
Today I had booked to do a Game of Thrones walking tour as the Old City is where the set of Kings Landing is filmed. I naturally got on the wrong bus, ended up somewhere (I don't even know where), and ran all the way back down the hill to the city, arriving at 11.03am, puffing, but just in time for the start of the tour. I found a hand fan in my bag which the lovely Smita had given me when I was so sick in Egypt, and that couldn't have been more welcome on this steamy hot day.

The tour was a lot of fun and walked us all over the inside and the outside of Old City. Our guide had been a costume designer on set and so she had a little bit of inside gossip for us, and she held up stills from the show to compare where we were standing with the view behind. To be honest, the tour was fun - but the real cool thing about it was then watching Season 5 on my return and instantly recognising all of the places; I had stood on the steps were Cersei descended, at the scene of the fateful Purple Wedding.

At the conclusion of the tour, I (and Shazza) got to have a seat on the Iron Throne.

That afternoon, I hopped on a ferry (after getting on a wrong bus - AGAIN and missing the first ferry) over to the lovely little island of Lokrum. Lokrum is a gorgeous little island just off the coast and is home to an ancient monastery and a botanical garden nature reserve. The island is overrun with beautiful peacocks who were not shy about shaking their tail feathers, and I found a painfully cute inland salt lake to have a splash in. I caught the last ferry back and, as it had been a long hot day, I retired for the evening.

9 June
One of the recommendations from my lovely host was to take a day trip to Bosnia or Montenegro as they were very close to Dubrovnik. I decided on Montenegro and was picked up in a minibus early in the morning.

Our guide was a brusque but factual Croatian gentleman who drove us the hour to the first stop, Kotor. Along the way, we passed through a passport check and at some point, he received a speeding fine.

Montenegro was, quite simply, beautiful. It is one of the world's newest countries, declaring independence in 2006 and its name is derived from monte - mountains, and negro - black: Black Mountains. The rolling horizon surrounded the towns and formed a dramatic background everywhere one looked. Our guide explained a little bit about the Croatian War of Independence in 1991, but as he had been a teenager at the time and bore the awful memories, didn't want to discuss in great detail.

Kotor in particular took my breath away. The town was nestled into the mountainside, with the clouds looming low and obscuring the mountain tops.  It was green and lush and old.  We ended the day in Budva. Here I splashed my feet in the sandy ocean and for the first time in a while, felt a little homesick. I hadn't seen a sandy beach for a very long time - as opposed to a pebbly one - and it made me think of home. I quickly remembered I was in Montenegro of all places, and was snapped back to reality. 

Our ride back to Dubrovnik was a sleepy one and this time, as we passed through passport control, I had my passport stamped - to my delight. It had been another incredibly long, tiring day and so one last farewell to Dubrovnik's Old City and I packed it in for the evening.

10 June
Today was my last day in Croatia and the last day of my Summer of Fun. I was tired, sore, overwhelmed, tanned, broke, wide-eyed-with-wonder and quite ready to return to London. I thankfully had few problems at Customs (as I flirted quite extensively with the customs boy) and returned to London soil enriched with experiences anew.


Here concludes my Summer of Fun, traipsing around Greece, Egypt, Italy, Croatia and the last minute addition, Montenegro. It was 33 days start to finish and had been the longest I had ever been on the move for. It had its challenges, it had its tough times, expensive times, but each of those showed me that I was able to muddle through and logically work my way out the other side.

It had its breathtakingly beautiful times, it had its emotional times where I was standing before relics I had only ever read about, it had its fits of giggles and it let me make lasting friendships and meet interesting people along the way.

Highlights, because everyone loves a list, include:

  • Running and cartwheeling at Olympia
  • Eating mindblowing Greek salads
  • Seeing the Pyramids, riding a camel and descending into the Valley of the Kings
  • Hot air ballooning
  • Everything to do with Florence, including the food and the beautiful sights
  • Game of Thrones tour and exploring Dubrovnik
  • The dark mountains of Montenegro
Quite the adventure, and it led me directly into the glorious English summer we are currently experiencing.