Saturday 31 August 2013

Buda Off Pest

Up until this point, I had been singing the praises of Budapest to anyone on the tour who would listen. As I think I made fairly clear in my blog posts when I visited the first time, I think Budapest is absolute amazing. This sentiment was reciprocated by our veteran trip leader Phil and our awesome-at-pretty-much-everything Hungarian gypsy bus driver Szabi. You could therefore say I was fairly excited when Budapest was out next stop.

The distance between Plitvice Lakes and Budapest was fairly short but it meant going through customs into the Schengen zone. Whilst this certainly wasn't the longest (or the most corrupt) border crossing to date, it was certainly the most through. By which I mean, we had to actually get off the bus, surrender our passports then get back on the bus after our passport had been stamped. On a slightly related note, my passport is beginning to look like that of a real traveller with almost a quarter of the available pages covered in stamps.

As with most cities we had visited thus far, our time in Budapest began with a bus tour around the city. Having spent the better part of a week in Budapest a few weeks earlier, I was fairly comfortable with the layout of the city although I was initially surprised how little of the touristy things I had seen. I realised my time in Budapest last time was mostly that of almost a local (albeit a slightly alcoholic local). We visited the Citadel and the Fishermans Bastille at the top of Buda mountain which proved to be good photo opportunities.


The drink I'm drinking from belongs to Sara, our traveling cook. I can get away with it because hat and bow tie. Also, she's drunk.

That night I got to play tour guide and lead everyone back to my favourite watering hole in Budapest (actually, my favourite watering hole anywhere), Szimpla. I think I may have mentioned it in passing, but Szimpla is awesome.

The 'Shoes on the Danube'. It's a momunment to the murdered Jews of Budapest. Obviously.


The next day took a more somber turn when a few of us decided to checkout the House of Terrors which is essentially a large museum built in the former headquarters of the Hungarian Gestapo dedicated to displaying the suffering of the Hungarian people under Nazism and Communism. It was incredibly moving as well as disturbing (the exhibit ends in the underground torture/murder dungeons complete with torture equipment) and by the time we came out, all I wanted to do was find a pet store and hug puppies for the next 6 hours. This was also the first time myself and my tentmate Fraser decided we both needed haircuts. This is an important point because the time it took to get one is ridiculous. We both agreed we wanted a proper barber (as opposed to a hairdresser) and figured it shouldn't be too hard. The result? Europe: 1, Haircut: 0.

Me sitting on animal statues is another recurring theme you may come to notice through Europe.

That night we headed back out again although, and I feel horrible saying this because its really body's fault but mine, but I'm starting to get foggy on the details about what else I got upto in Budapest because it was weeks ago and my memory is pretty lousy at the best of times. The point is, I loved Budapest the second time round almost as much as the first and I definitely plan on going back.

Oh that's right, the second night our entire tour group (all 49 of us) descended on a local restaurant (of Szabi's recommendation) and ate our collective weights in schnitzel and goulash. Next door in one of the many 'ice bars' that are scattered across Europe was the actual 'Han Solo encased in carbonate' prob from the 5th and 6th Star Wars movies (because of course that's where it is!), but the next morning was a real early start so after getting our geek on, we headed home for some much needed sleep.


Plitvice Lakes One To Know One

Our next stop was in the north of Croatia, away from the coast, at the Plitvice Lakes national park. Initially I was skeptical about why we were stopping here for two nights when there were so many things to see in Europe because I had never even heard of them.

On the way to Plitvice Lakes, we stopped at the small Croatian town of Zadar. Zadar is considered the worlds first real holiday resort town. When the Roman Emeror Diocletian split the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western empires, he appointed himself emperor of the Eastern empire, with Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) as its capital. He also established a holiday home for himself on the Dalmatian coast. Other wealthy Romans began to follow his lead and the town of Zadar was formed. Surprisingly, this small, otherwise innocuous Croatian town has some of the best preserved and most impressive Roman ruins in Europe. It also has a few modern attractions including a 'sea organ'. Essentially, this is a series of holes and pipes drilled into the rocky coastline that, when the wind and waves collide with it, plays a tune that is entirely dictated by the weather.

Anyway, when we finally got to Plitvice Lakes, there was virtually nothing there besides a small campsite besides the national park. We set up our tents and wandered down to the small general store because there was little else to do. On the way, an interesting discovery was made. As I have previously mentioned, most of the Too Deck group was either from Australia or New Zealand (with a few Canadians and South Africans for good measure). The New Zealand accent (despite apparently being voted the sexiest language in the world in some survey. This was according to the Kiwis themselves, I'm skeptical) does not distinguish between the pronunciation of 'bear', 'bare' or 'beer'. In fact, all three come out sounding like 'bier'. After making fun of the kiwis (more than normal), we decided this discovery was more than enough reason to drink lots of beer so that what we did. The local store sold beer bottles in 200, 330, 500, 1000 and 2000ml bottles and someone decided we should all buy one of each bottle and drink it. For those of you playing at home, that's a bit over 4 litres of 'bier'.

After a far too early start the next morning, we piled onto the bus and headed into the national park to see the actual Lakes from which Plitvice Lakes took its name. To say it simply, they were stunning. It was a hot day and we were incredibly disappointed to find out that there was strictly no swimming in the lakes but when we saw them, we could understand. I'll just say that the lakes were super-duper pretty and attach lots of photos which will hopefully do a better job of getting my point across.

I'm not claiming to be a super fit person by any standards, but I did certainly feel it after I ended up hiking around the lakes with four smokers. I'm fairly sure we stopped for a breather or a smoke break every 10 minutes the point we almost missed the bus home (also we got slightly lost but mostly the smokers-are-jokers thing).


Friday 30 August 2013

It's What I Dubrovnik

After a 13 hour drive through Albania and Montenegro, it's safe to say tempers were wearing thin. No one really knew what to expect from Dubrovnik, a small city on the Croatian coastline where we were camping for the next two nights, but Phil our trip leader was positively raving about how beautiful the city was. It is safe to say he undersold it.


At the point I'm writing this, I have been traveling through Europe for two months. In that time (or the 21 years before it) I have not found a city that I have found so picturesquely beautiful. Everything about Dubrovnik is like something from a postcard but there is a charm that can't be captured in a picture. After arriving and setting up tents, we headed into town to explore (it's almost midnight at this point). I really don't know how to describe it all but suffice to say from the first time I crossed the drawbridge into the old town (yes, there really is a drawbridge), Dubrovnik knocked Budapest out of the 'my favourite city in Europe' spot. I don't have any photos of Dubrovnik at nighttime but it really is amazing.


The next day we wandered back into the Dubrovnik old town for a short guided tour with a local guide (short because really, Dubrovnik is actually a fairly small town) and then wandered around sightseeing. Although it is small, there is a surprising amount to do in Dubrovnik so there were different groups going everywhere. After looking in some of the old churches and castles we checked out one of Dubrovniks many 'cliff bars' (which are exactly what the name suggests. Bars built on the side of cliffs) we caught a ferry to Lokrum Island in Dubrovnik harbour.

Pictured: Not Me

The weather, as you may recall, for the trip thus far had been hot, sunny and humid every day (except for one brief rainstorm in Nice). That afternoon in Dubrovnik was the first time we really got any sort of inclement weather, for which we were required to make up for. On Lokrum Island (which functions as a sort of botanical gardens/central park for Dubrovnik) there is a lake that is surrounded on all sides by high rock walls. This is where we were when all hell broke lose and, because of the high walls, were caught competed unawares until the thunder, lightning, rain and hail were directly overhead. Personally I found the experience to be quite exhilarating, but maybe that was because everything I had on me was either soaked already or waterproof. Most people on the island (of which there were probably a few hundred) either ran for shelter in one of the old castles and buildings which littered the island (as did our group) or ran back to the ferry to get back to the mainland. Hilariously, the ferrys decided they couldn't operate in the storm (they might get wet?) which means we were all effectively stranded on the island for two hours during what was, to be fair, a pretty spectacularly violent storm. I went wandering to get some pictures because my camera is waterproof and I'm lightning proof (I assume).

Still not me


Anyway, after failing to capture a photo of me with a bolt of lightning in the background (see below) we eventually got back to the mainland. At this point, I'll repeat the fact that in an effort to save money, the 42 of us on Top Deck were all sleeping in tents.


*10pm the night before*

EVERYONE: The ground is really hard to put tent pegs in. What if we just hold the fly down with rocks?

ME: What if it rains?

EVERYONE: Don't worry, it won't rain.


*present day*

ME: Hey guys, I told you so.

EVERYONE: F#ck off.


As somewhat of a seasoned camper (they call me Tentman) I went to a super-actually-ridiculous amount of work to peg my tent in properly, even though I did actually agree with the group assessment that it wouldn't rain. This proved fortunate because upon returning to camp, my only inconvenience was that I couldn't wash my clothes as I had planned because the other 40 people who weren't in my tent needed to use the clothes dryers to dry all of their possessions. One girl literally didn't speak to me for two days, so intense was the barrage of "I told you so" she received. Actually, that's a lie. I said it once, it's just hard to take a joke when everything you own (including laptop and passport) in the world is dripping wet, I guess. I thought it was funny though.


Also, one group was at the restaurant at the top of the hill that overlooks Dubrovnik when the storm hit. I don't know what the restaurant looked like pre-storm, but I'm willing to bet it didn't look like this.

That night we went back into Dubrovnik (some people just stayed and slept either on the bus or just on the ground on lilos because it was dryer outside their tent than inside it) because as I alluded to earlier, Dubrovnik at night is awesome. Through the magic of Facebook, I also managed to meet up with a girl from Canada who we met at the campsite in Florence who also happened to check-in in Dubrovnik. Sometimes I can't decide if the world is enormous or tiny, but Facebook certainly makes it easy.



Ps. I forgot to mention, before I trimmed my beard in Albania, I was walking past the pool without a shirt on and one of the local kids called me Chuck Norris. You can believe it or not, but it happened and I'll round-house kick you to the face if you don't believe it.


Saturday 24 August 2013

€10, Two Bottles of Water and a Can of Tuna

A few weeks ago, I went to Bratislava in Slovakia and I was surprised at just how different it was from the stereotypical representations of Eastern Europe (particularly this scene in Eurotrip). That's kind of what I was expecting from Albania as well. I thought I would be surprised at how well they had thrown off the shackles of communism and become a developed and comfortable country like I had seen in Slovakia and Hungary. Albania, not so much.


There is no nice way to really say it. Albania is a third world country. Even in the capital city, Tirana, everything looked exactly like the clip from Eurotrip. We were strongly recommended to not leave our hotel* (for out night in Tirana we were upgraded to what I suspect may have been one of the fanciest hotels in Tirana on a hill overlooking the surprisingly large city. It still wasn't very fancy but it was night to sleep on a bed again. Even if the bed did feel like a large pile of springs with a sheet thrown over it) although we did do a lot of driving around through the different parts of the city with a local tour guide who also seemed glad to not be walking around thought he slums of Tirana.


Even our hotel was surrounded with armed security guards and watchdogs. One of the dogs attacked one of the guys on our tour on the thigh quite viciously. This apparently being a common occurrence in Albania, the hotel management seemed to shrug off the incident and arranged for him to receive a rabies shot. Which he was given by the hotel maid. Not a joke.


I don't like being negative about places I see but try as I might, there really weren't many things to put in the 'plus' column. I'm definitely going back to Eastern Europe on this trip but I probably won't feel the need to return to Albania. On the plus side, it is actually very cheap. We very bravely (YOLO, right?) left our hotel room and went across the road to a bar/restaurant build right on the edge of the hill overlooking Tirana. Credit where credit is due, this restaurant had only been open for two days and it was actually very nice. The views we incredible, the tuxedoed waiters were super attentive and it was quite clearly built to cater to the wealthy elite of Tirana. I had dinner, a litre of beer and three bowls of complimentary pistachios for the grand total of €6.


One more fun fact. After Albania declared independence in 1991, the previously forbidden Western cars became symbols of wealth and success and so became hugely popular. Unfortunately, however, most Albanians had neither wealth or success and so stole/bought stolen Mercedes Benz's from Italy and Germany. Approximately 80% of cars in Albania are Mercedes Benz's, despite the fact that the sole Mercedes dealer in Albania sells an estimated 50 cars per year. Even the Albanian president was pulled over in a stolen car recently.

Tirana at dawn


We left shortly after dawn the next morning because a) it would probably be a long day and b) I think Sabi our bus driver just wanted to get out of Albania. We left Albania without incident (besides some very scary Albanian driving) but entering neighboring Montenegro proved to be a slight challenge. The challenge was that the customs officials decided they didn't really feeling like working very hard so we sat for an hour at the border waiting for something to happen. Now, I'm not saying officials in Eastern Europe can be bribed, but I am saying that on this particular occasion they could be bribed. To avoid waiting in line indefinitely, the Montenegrin customs officers hinted that for the right price, we might be able to skip the customs queue (and customs altogether, it turns out). That price was €10, two bottles of water and a can of tuna. Great Success!


Although a far cry from the West, Montenegro was clearly in a bit better situation than Albania. There was not the clear abject widespread poverty that could be found across the border. People in Montenegro were only poor as opposed to poverty stricken. That sounds like such a bitchy thing to say but it's true. Montenegro also uses the Euro (despite not being a full member of the European Union) so it's economy is at least slightly more stable.

We stopped for lunch (read; beers) in the coastal town of Budva which was very beautiful and surprisingly touristy. Also still very cheap. After leaving Budva, we left for the Croatian border towards Dubrovnik where we would be camping the next two nights.

If entering Montenegro was difficult, entering Croatia was impossible. We left Montenegro easily enough (without even a bribe!) but then waiting 3 hours in the 300m stretch of road though the no-mans-land between the Montenegrin and Croatian borders. I don't think this delay was an issue of just not being bothered like coming into Montenegro, it was just really busy. We arrived in Dubrovnik eventually after a 13 hour drive and promptly bought the bus driver many beers.


*the bad guys in 'Taken' are Albanian gangsters and I don't have a particular set of skills for finding and killing people.


Up Ship Greek

The next stage of the trip was flotilla sailing around Greece. It was exactly as awesome as it sounds. After we left our ship in Greece, we drove along the coastline briefly to the small coastal town of Plateria where we were divided into smaller groups of 5 or 6 and given small sailing boats that we old be captaining around the island of Corfu. The boats were not huge (22ft from memory) when shared with 5 people but they were big enough. My boat was called the "Agrippa" which seemed appropriate given his naval exploits and my aforementioned love of Roman history. Each boat had a captain and a first mate who was selected by the trip leader (previous sailing experience also helped). I was first mate in the "Agrippa".

To following day, the captain of my boat was to be able to really do much at all, let alone captain anything so I stepped up and took over the role of captain (complete with captains hat). We also managed to do some actual sailing which was very peaceful once we got going. The days of sailing on Greece were fairly uneventful but very relaxing and very beautiful. We docked at another village the second night where we were treated to a splendid Greek feast.

Corfu at dawn
Captain Hangover

The third day saw me back in my role as first mate, although I got to wear the hat so I guess it was more co-captain. We also stopped at a watersport park in the afternoon. Really, it was just a hut with a bar in it on an empty Greek island with lots of boats for tubing, banana boating, paragliding, etc... I parasailed and went tubing for the princely sum of €35 which seemed reasonable.

The third night we docked back in Plateria and slept on the boat once more. In the morning we cleaned the boats and boarded the bus back to Albania.

Also, dolphins happened