29. Ulcinj // Montenegro // Tirane // Albania

We left Budva on a local bus a little weary, sore from our rafting and still chasing a relaxed summer holiday vibe that Budva unfortunately did not provide. I’d heard from both Battye and Nicky and Jess and Jamie that ulcinj would meet this criteria, and so off we went, on the short 1 and a half hour journey. We arrived in Ulcinj and walked to our guest house with no problems. After the hill we had lived on in Budva, the slight incline of the hill in Ulcinj was no problem, even carrying our 20kg packs with us.

Our little home for the next 8 nights was paradise. What a find. A self contained studio with a lovely balcony overlooking the beach and the old town, and for the amazing price of $33 AUD a night. We had struck gold! What was even more amazing, was while we were at the beach every morning the lovely lady would come and clean our apartment for us each day. AMAZING!!!!

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After enough Pizza and giros in Budva to feed the local football team, Ulcinj was a time that we decided we would give our bodies a bit of a break, eat healthy and try and do a week without any beers or alcohol. I was determined to find a market and eat some salad. I don’t think I’ve ever craved salad so much in my life, and we were both increasingly concerned about the amount of gluten poor Clint was consuming. So after a broken english conversation with our host (Who seemed to just repeat the same words and never actually told us anything) it was off to find a market or at least a supermarket. I didn’t actually think it would be that hard, but it was. We found kind of a supermarket that had some limp peppers and maybe a half rotten red onion. There seemed to be quite a supply of cabbage, and I ran a list of all the things I could do with cabbage, and concluded it didnt really make for an enjoyable week. Off we went walking again, Clinton checking his phone for anything that resembled a market. We found the remainders of something that could have been a market 10 years ago, but was demolished. In the end I was getting pretty frustrated and going to give up and suggest pizza again, but alas we stumbled on heaven. Hidden behind a clothing market was a local food market with chickens and roosters walking aimlessly around the place. You could not wipe the grin off my face. We stocked up on local eggs, salad ingredients, an assortment of fruit including a whole watermelon and the most amazing peaches and apricots, home grown olives and then came across a stall selling homemade salami and fetta cheese. Of course we couldnt say no, and I almost laughed at the price it was just so cheap. So off we went back to our amazing apartment with our amazing food and had our first salad, sitting on the balcony admiring the view.

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I won’t bore you with too much of what we did in Ulcinj as it was basically, sleep, market eat, beach, eat, sleep, beach, eat, repeat. The only other interesting thing was that Ulcinj has quite a large Muslim population and so the call to prayer was blasted across the beach each day numerous times. This was a unique culture shock that I hadn’t heard since our days in Malaysia (which feel like a lifetime ago). Whilst in Ulcinj I also got to have a Skype date with the girls (and Bed and Tim) from book club. Book Club is something I truely miss from my days in Melbourne so it was so great to catch up with everyone and look at the mountains of food they were eating and copious amounts of wine they were drinking…certainly nothing has changed there!!!

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All too soon our time in Ulcinj was due to come to an end. After a week of laying off the booze Clinton suprised me by coming home with a few beers as I cooked our last meal. We sat on the balcony, watched the sunset and chowed down on a grilled vegetable salad and a Niksicko beer. We had planned an early night as we had to walk to the bus station at 6am to catch the bus to Albania. So when we received a strange knock on the door about 10pm we were already in our pyjamas and getting ready for bed. Imagine my surprise when I answered the door and it was our host who just wanted to wish us well on our journey. We said our good byes and again got ready for bed. So when there was another knock on the door at 11.30pm we were quite puzzled. I answered the door in my PJ’s and was slightly embarrassed when two strange girls and our hosts husband Tino were at the door. One of the girls who happened to be Polish explained that her and her friend were also going to Albania tomorrow and rather then catching the bus in 6 hours, did we want to share a private transfer with Tino to the border, and then his friend would pick us up on the other side and take us to our hotel in Tirane. I was a little skeptical at first, but wasnt very keen on such an early wake up call. In the back of my head I remembered a conversation with my dear friend Cat when she had given me her one tip of travel advice, and that was to say yes to life. So without consulting Clinton, I said yes, and negotiated a time of 7.30am to meet the girls at the front of our apartment and we would go together…perfect, an extra 1.5 hours sleep.

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7.30am came around too quickly and before I knew it we were standing outside waiting for Tino. Montenegrins are not exactly known for being puctual so when 7.45 came no one was worried. Tino eventually emerged and said that he wouldnt be taking us, his friend would, I dont know how plans can change throughout the night but apparently they can. This of course was no problem. However by 8am the friend had still not shown up and Tino was on the phone, and by the hand gestures he was using, you could tell he was a little on the angry side. Finally one car showed up which reminded me of the 1985 Toyota Corona my parents used to own. 2 skinny men got out and didnt really do much actually, kinda just hung around. Finally another guy turned up in a newer model of a car (air conditioning, yay!) and Tino told us this was the car. So the other 2 guys helped us with our bags (I seriously have no idea why these 2 guys were there) and Clint, myself and the 2 polish girls jumped in to the car. But then the car wouldnt start…excellent. Everyone just kept saying no worries. The driver thought it was a good idea to try and go down the hill backwards and try and start the car. With us all in it.
Although this was quite humourous we finally got to a point where we didnt think it was going to work, so we all got out and he kept trying. He just couldn’t get this car to start and he was so frustrated. Tino our host was frustrated, Clinton and I thought it was hilarious and couldnt stop laughing…perhaps the bus would have been a better option.

Eventually Tino had enough got our bags and put them in his van, waved the other 3 guys off and took us to the border in Shkoder. We then proceeded to walk through the borders here with no problems except a few Albanian guys who had to go in front of us as they were late for their Uni exam. Now I did not know what to expect from Albania. We were only here one night as the flight from Tirane to Istanbul was considerably cheaper than to leave from Montenegro. We had spoken to Battye the night before regarding our private transfer situation and he had mentioned something to do with a mercedes and I didnt give it much thought. Until we got to the Albanian side of the border and there were Mercedes everywhere, and of course our driver was driving a mercedes. Clinton and I researched this and apparently Mercedes are the most common car in Albania. Some reports say that this is because they are stolen from the West EU countries and then sold cheaply in Albania and the police can’t really be bothered chasing them down. We also learnt that due to Communism up until 1991 there was only about 700 cars on Albanian roads and these were all driven by government officials. When the comminism regime fell, there was an influx of new cars and new drivers, however the roads were never really upgraded, leaving now a country with terrible roads and terrible drivers. Anyway this was delightful information to know as we approached our (possibly stolen) car. The trip from the border to Tirane is about another 2 hours and we spent this with a guy who knew not a drop of english and was a pretty terrible driver. He constantly changed CD’s (yes they still exist) and our ears were treated to the delights of artists from Katy Perry to Blur while our noses were treated to the constant smell of cigerette smoke. I followed google maps the whole way and we eventually made it towards the city. We had been told by Tino that we would be dropped at our hotel and the polish girls at the bus stop, so imagine my surprise when we were dropped on the outskirts of town. We all got out of the car confused and unaware of what was going on. We tried to communicate. From what we could gather he wanted the polish girls to get into another car with another driver, and we were to walk the distance to the hotel. One of the girls was uncomfortable and didn’t want to get into a car with someone she didn’t know (rightly so) and Clint and I werent comfortable leaving the girls on their own. (the bus was looking like such a better option right now) After many phone calls and interpretations, we were able to point the girls in the direction of a bus station and Clint and I trudged on in the heat to our hotel. It had been an adventure, but we had made it!

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After checking in Clint and I both realised how little water we had consumed and how hugely dehydrated we were. We spent the next few hours trying to hydrate and eventually made it out of our hotel for a late Albanian lunch. I had picked a place that apparently had great Albanian food at reasonable prices. Only problem was, we couldnt really read the menu. We picked out something that we thought resembled the word for eggplant and something else that kind of looked like some kind of casserole. Well it was a win with the eggplant, it was stuffed with some beef and was really quite delicious. However the lamb “casserole” could actually be one of the worst things i’ve eaten in the last 6 months. I think it was a lamb shank but it kinda resembled the texture of a lamb heart. (I don’t want to think about it) it was in a casserole sauce that reminded me of a savoury curdled egg custard. It was just plain gross. Ewww! Lucky the beer was good!!! We then had a quick look around, got 2 scoops of gelato for 90 cents Australian, and decided to do a little research on Turkey.

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We finished our night in Albania with dinner at an Albanian hot spot called Shakesbeer. The food was pretty good though I thought I ordered beef and got pork. Oh well! We caught the local pink bus from the city to the airport the next morning with no problems. Our one night in Albania was over and I honestly left intrigued. This was a city that had basically only had freedom from Comminism for a little over 20 years and was largely left on it’s own, and this was very evident. Although run down, I found it to be quite cosmopolitan with what seemed to be an emerging food and beer scene. The people seemed very friendly and very proud of their city. As of June 2014 Albania is a candidate to enter the EU. It will be interesting to watch the developments on this sometimes forgotten country.

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28. Kotor // Budva // Montenegro

Montenegro (which sounds like something you might find in Monaco) welcomed us in with majestic vistas of the Bay of Kotor. Our bus weaved along tight, serpentine roads that circumnavigated the bay, hiding us from the world behind brooding mountains. We were dropped off not too far from the old town.

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However, our apartment was a couple of kilometres back up the road so we thought we would dump our bags off there before coming back to check out this little ancient pocket that Nicky & Battye seemed to wet their pants over every time Kotor is mentioned. Despite having Google Maps in our hands, the lack of street names and house numbering proved to be an initial problem. It was only after a Montenegrin, who had been monitoring our suspicious movements through his neighbour’s backyards from his balcony, that we received some help. He spoke some English and was able to tell us he was part of the Montenegro Navy, had been to Australia and was proud to call himself a “Seaman.” He generously phoned our apartment for directions and then walked us up the road to where it was. One of the nicest “seamen” I have ever met.

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Once the bags were dumped, we headed back into the old town for bit of a gander of the eyes. As Montenegro is so small (in fact, I hadn’t even heard of it 12 months prior and the entire size of the country is only one sixth of the size of Tasmania) our Lonely Planet only allocates about 2 and a half pages to it so information is scarce. But it was able to tell us that this old town was from around the 12th Century which always leaves you gob-smacked when you are standing in something that old. We only had two nights here and thought we would take that day slow, being a travel day (which always means a beer is the end of the day’s reward) and save the massive climb up to the fort for the following day. Instead, we found a bar that was playing the Australia v Netherlands game and saw Tim Cahill’s goal of the millennium! And, after that ridiculous yellow card, possibly his last ever game in the green and gold as well. I still can’t believe Holland were actually giving us a chance in that game.

The next day we ventured back into the old town to embark on our walk. Unless you’ve been, it’s hard to understand the sheer vertical slant of these mountains. An ancient stone wall climbs and climbs its way up the side of the mountain that protects the town and ascends to a defensive fort probably not even half way up. Foolishly, we had again done a series of leg squats the day before and found ourselves moving at a very slow pace as we made the trek. However, the views of course were amazing once we finally reached the fort and, upon seeing some stranded wine bottles, briefly considered making the walk again at sunset for a romantic vino guzzle. But our weary legs screamed in protest and put an end to that thought.

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The other thing which really caught our attention upon arriving in Montenegro were all the cats! Hundreds of them. Mostly stray, some pets. But just everywhere. It was after this observation that we from then on referred to it as Kator instead.

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After five weeks of sun in Croatia however, we just couldn’t convince ourselves that castles and forts were worth seeing over a chance to lay on the beach and do nothing but lie in the sun. So we followed two nights in Kator with 12 nights in Budva, giving us a chance to completely wind down, rest up and re-invigorate ourselves for Turkey in 3 weeks time. The thing with Budva is its a Russian hotspot and, from our experiences in Nha Trang and Mui Ne, we knew that was never a good thing. So we were back to Russian menus and big fat white Russian ladies prancing around in far too skimpy bathers, big fat white Russian men rudely pushing in your way and big fat white Russian everything else just doing “piss me off” stuff.

The other thing which did not particularly work in our favour was the fact our hotel was perched way up on a hill. Now their website advertised they were about 900 metres from the beach and yes, that might be true if you were a blue jay. But for us human kind, it meant a 40 minute walk down steep and winding roads in 40 degree weather just for a swim. In fact, (and this is one of very few times during our travels we have elected not to walk) our taxi that brought us to our hotel had almost stalled twice trying to get up and had embarrassingly had to roll back in some parts to get a better run up. Yes, it was that steep. So needless to say, as bad as the walk was to get down to the beach, it was the walk back up that really left us doubled over.

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With those two negatives aside, we were of course at the beach for 12 days and so I don’t need to tell you in detail that there was lots of sun, surf and sand. I won’t bore you with events that took place every single day. But I think there are maybe two stories that are worth telling and so I’ll try to wrap up 12 days in Budva with just these:

It was in Budva that the changes a life as a backpacker might have upon you became very evident. And by that I mean we had become complete tight-arses who would take absolutely anything we could that might be free.

We had stumbled on what appeared to be a big hotel swimming pool one evening, drawn to it because the World Cup was being broadcast on a giant projector. The pool was at that time closed. Elisha had gone to the bar to grab two beers and when she asked how much they were to the lady pouring, the lady looked at her dumbfounded and confused, before eventually saying they were 2 Euro. Weird. When Elisha got back, she told me how weird the interaction had been and then also said that she might have thought it was a free-pour bar. We took turns to “go to the toilet” so we could try and observe how the bar was working, peering out like two secret CIA agents from the scrubs.  And yes, there were clearly some people going up and just pouring their own beers.

But not just beers, but wines and spirits as well. Interesting. So after a bit of Dutch courage, we thought we’d see if we could benefit at all from this. Elisha went first and, a minute or so later, casually came back with 2 vodka and apple juices.

“How’d you do that?” I enquired, expecting the beer would surely have been the easiest thing to snare.

“Oh, I just went up and poured them,” she said. I just didn’t think I could muster enough confidence to do that so, once we were finished, off she went again and this time came back with 2 vodka and orange juices. What the hell! This was too easy.

To keep things interesting, she then went a third time and came back with 2 vodka and peach iced teas! This was insane. We were saving a bucketload!

But it did finally catch up with us and, on the fourth visit to the bar, the original lady asked Elisha “where is your red armband?”

“Armband? Right, yeah armband. Of course. That’s with my boyfriend.” She left the two half-poured vodkas, scrambled back to where I was and said “I think it’s probably time we left.”

But there it was. At least it finally made sense. We understood that the big fat white Russians must have paid a certain fee each day to wear a red armband that permits them to drink as much as they want throughout the day.

Despite this, we were to learn the next day that, for some reason, the pool is just open for all. (Well, I think so anyway.) We gave the beach a miss and instead sat by the pool here and had a few dips. After we had consumed a few beers later on in town afterwards, oh dear, the Dutch courage was back!

“I think we can do it again,” I said. “We’ll just act like we are full of confidence and see what happens.” In all honesty, I first went to the bar again expecting to pay for 2 beers, more interested in watching the World Cup than I was in stealing drinks. But when the guy handed me the two beers and didn’t immediately ask for payment, I stole the opportunity, grabbed them and quickly went back to our seats. Elisha had done the hard yards the night before so I thought this was a great opportunity for character building and challenged myself to see how far I could get. There were two big kegs of wine to the left of the bar so I found by walking quickly up to them with my “armband-hand” in my pocket, I was easily able to pour two reds and take them back. This was repeated four times before the World Cup actually finished for the night and we just decided to go home undisturbed. This was getting out of hand.

However, we thought we still had some dignity and thought we’d just go watch the game on the third night and remain sober. But alas, as it was still daylight they didn’t have the projector set up – we were too early. So we abandoned that idea and found a quiet bar not too far away playing the game. After a few pints, the game came to an end and we asked where the bathroom was. It was just out through the door and back into their restaurant which joined to the side. As I walked my way in, I realised it wasn’t a restaurant, but a giant buffet. I was way too full of confidence by this stage so I stood at one of the stations with all the other big fat white Russians and grabbed myself a chicken wing when it was my turn. I walked back out past reception with it in my mouth and arrived outside where Elisha was waiting for me.

“Where’d you get that?”

“Inside.”

“But I want something.” So I threw my bones away, turned around and we both went back in. I couldn’t find Elisha anywhere near the chicken wings when I went to get my second and thought maybe she wasn’t really all that hungry. But when I got outside again, Elisha had smuggled out a piece of bread and some pork belly to make a little sandwich! Oh well, we had started now. So we went back to the pool and finished the night with perhaps another 3-4 rounds of wine before calling it quits. This could have gone on forever if it were not for the fact we woke up each day with the most awful headaches from the wine. By the fourth day we firmly said the rubbish wine was just not worth the effort, even if it was free. And from then on, we went back to using human money to purchase goods.

The second story is this:

We’re always conscious of needing more stories that don’t involve us drinking our way around the world. What better way to do that we thought than to book ourselves a day of precarious white water rafting with a bunch of big fat white Russians who don’t speak a lick of English and clear communication is critical to avoid giant, jagged boulders racing toward you.

We got speaking to a tourism agency one afternoon after accidentally stopping to look at their map of Montenegro, mainly to see where Niksic was located – the home of their national brewery. The guy was able to speak 10 languages (although we failed to test him on that) and quoted us a reasonable price based on the fact sales were down. Due to the conflict with Ukraine, there was a noticeable absence of big fat white Russians that season. Spending an entire day with Russians sounded like a stupid thing to do at the best of times, let alone when you’re stuck in a raft with them. Regardless, we smashed some Niksicko’s to help with the decision process and parted ways with our 110 Euros.

I think the only English we heard that next morning was when the bus driver picked us up and said hello. After that, it was russian, russian, russian. After a 4 hour bus drive all the way back up to the Bosnian & Hercegovina border, we stopped for breakfast somewhere between the two countries. I think the river actually acts as the divider between them so I can’t say with absolute certainty that we did step into Bosnia but I am pretty sure that at one point or another our raft must have veered across onto their side. We were promised an English/Russian speaking guide before purchasing our tickets and thankfully, we did get that. Unfortunately for me, he assumed I was the strongest and expected me to steer us out of danger all afternoon, screaming insults and commands that bruised my ego like a fallen mango.

For the currents in this particular river, the strongest person sits on the front left. The next strongest on the front right and so on. Elisha sat behind me, followed by another lady who paddled against our rhythm all day, often clunking her paddle with Elisha’s, and then lastly a small boy who was as useless as a marshmallow in a car crash. We had 9 in total, including the guide who sat at the back as the rudder.

After pushing off, we initially floated down stream whilst our guide ran through all the simple manoeuvres, giving Elisha and I a crash course in the Russian words for left, right and go. If I’m honest, I think I was up for a pretty relaxed day and assumed it was going to be like floating around at Calypso Beach at Wet n Wild for the afternoon. After our first practice row, however, I knew I was in for a lot more.

We approached our first rapid, just a little baby one to start with and, knowing I had to be the hero, paddled as hard as I could to ensure we avoided danger. We got through unscathed and emerged the other side all in one piece.

“Good work, Clintowski,” I thought to myself. It was just as I was finishing this sentiment that the guide started yelling at me, screaming that if I was to continue with such wimpy little paddles, we’d careen into a boulder for sure.

“You have to paddle harder!” he screamed. “You are the strongest!” Crikey. So we tried again and this time I tried as hard as I could which seemed to be on par with my previous efforts. Again, he yelled out my name and pointed to a passing rock that stood out from the water.

“We will hit that if you don’t row!” What more could I do? I was rowing as hard as I could, Elisha trying to help me out as much as she could whilst the bitch behind her just lazily patted the water with her paddle. The worst part was, the rapids we had been through were just the basics. Oh, I also haven’t told you that the water was 13 degrees which is far from a tropical oasis. It was here I started freaking out.

We had been paddling for about a kilometre. We were about to hit the actual white water where anything could happen and, if I didn’t paddle hard enough, the guide made it sound as though all 9 of us would die. To exacerbate matters, my entire left hand side was already hurting like hell from paddling on only one side and I still couldn’t work out if he was saying “Left” or “Right” whenever he commanded something in Russian. We were all paddling like mad to ensure we were travelling faster than the current was to avoid being pushed to the sides and imminent danger.

“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” he barked. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. Suddenly, we hit our first wave! An ocean of freezing cold water crashed over me, striking all the way to the bone. I shook my head to clear the water from my eyes, surged my paddle down to thrust us forward and found nothing but air. I tried again, this time collecting water but water that was returning back and working in the opposite direction. I couldn’t get the paddle to budge.

“Let’s go!” he screamed. Try again. More paddling. Another wave of arctic-like water drenched our clothes. But we could see the end. Which was great except for the fact some more monstrous rapids stood between us and the calm water in the distance. We went left, we went right. The water raced us past and over some more rocks. The guide yelled out some more commands in Russian. I just kept paddling, the lactic acid now forming all over my body. Oh no, another wave was approaching. We hit this one hard. I felt my bum leave the seat and dug my feet in beneath the ropes to hold on. The water ripped across the entire lot of us. I plunged back down and crashed onto the rubber raft, launching Elisha behind me like she was on a trampoline. I paddled and paddled. The guide continued to scream “Let’s go!” Paddle. Paddle. More spray. And finally, drenched, cold and fatigued, the end came.

I turned around, exhausted, and found that Elisha was clumsily laying in the middle of the raft, disorientated from when I’d launched her out of her seat.  A bump the other way and she most likely would have ended up in the slop just like her sister Jess had done in South America. I counted everyone. I think I’d saved everyone. At least that should keep the bloody guide quiet for a moment, instead of singling me out all the time. It was after I’d made sure Elisha was back in her seat that I realised the guide was sitting comfortably at the back with a smoke in his mouth. Bloody arsehole. It couldn’t have been that dangerous if he had time to light a cigarette.

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Over the remaining 13 kilometres, I think this version of the story was repeated about six times but you get the gist. When we were all safely back on land, we got seated down for lunch which, surprisingly, was one of the best meals I have ever had on a tour. Normally they feed you some rubbish soup and western tasteless crap but we were stuffed chockers with slow cooked beef that I just couldn’t get enough of. I think maybe now I realise where the “fat” comes from when they say big fat white Russian, even if I am the only one who uses that term.

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27. Dubrovnik // Croatia

Although you probably only need a day in Dubrovnik, we booked ourselves three nights to wind down after our boozy 7 nights on the cruise. In addition, Stu had made plans to make his way to meet us here during a rare 10 day break he had in between tours. Dubrovnik is one of those tourist hotspots so everything seems to be inflated by a dubious percentage and we were a little surprised to read an 8 bed hostel would set you back $50 per person. But as if that was to stop thrifty Elisha. Yet again, she was able to find us a 3 bed self-contained apartment right in the very heart of the old town for just $100 a night. That’s right! We could either suffer in an 8 bed dorm with 6 strangers or sleep peacefully in our own space for the exact same price. Upon checking in, we were to learn that we had in fact struck gold. The owner had been informed by Bookings.com to mark his apartment down from $300 a night to $100 a night for just one week to attract interest. He told us he massively regretted it and thought it a complete mistake but admitted we had been very lucky to get it so cheap. Win for us. Being around 60, he also volunteered some insight into the war, sharing information such as that very building we were standing in had been bombed three times, that the Yugoslavian Army had stood all around the hills, and he refused to go into Montenegro after having lost some very close friends in the battle. I think that was probably the only time in Croatia we heard someone speak so openly about the events with us.

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Anyway, Stu wasn’t due to arrive until the next day and, once our host left us with the key, we again felt an incredible emptiness decend upon us as we realised we were no longer on the boat and surrounded by 25 amazing people. The withdrawals were cataclysmic and not since I’ve seen a 10-packet-a-day smoker attempt to quit have I experienced anything like it. Luckily, we had made prior plans to catch up with a few from the boat who were staying in Dubrovnik later that night. So although the tears were streaming into a handful of Kleenex, we knew they would not have to fall for long. We passed the next few hours trying to remove the horrible week-long stench from our clothes in a laundromat, had numerous naps in the airconditioned room and, considering I was still to see any of the old city, went for bit of an aimless meander.

Six of the Brits and Jim & Amber joined us that evening for one last hurrah (albeit a rather tamed down version.) We got to relive all the moments from the boat, listen to one last story from Jon and chug down one last beer (rather gingerly.) The English were to play Italy at midnight which meant frantic-football-fanatic Frank was rushing us around like wild gazelle, screaming at waitresses to ascertain if the game was to be televised. With only moments to spare before the tip, the bounce, the kick-off (whatever you call it) he had all 10 of seated in front of a giant tv and, from then on, we never heard a peep from him again. Jim & Amber had an early flight to Athens the next morning so I think they said their goodbyes sometime around then and, after realising by halftime that nothing really ever does happen in soccer, I think we also said goodnight in unison with Chloe and Amber who were ready to call it quits. It was around now that the wind seemed to be picking up and the early signs of a storm began brewing nearby. Throughout the night, we woke up numerous times to some of the loudest claps of thunder I can recall.

From here, the weather didn’t change too much. And so, after a month of blissful sunshine and on the day Stu was to arrive, we had clouds, rain, drizzle, clouds, rain and drizzle. This sucked. Mostly because I still had not walked around the old town walls. There was no way you’d manage a good photo up there in this weather so regretfully, the walls and I never became a thing.

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Later that day, I saw a scraggly-haired nomad standing with a leather briefcase in the rain-drenched square below. So I ran down and let the scruff up. I’d last seen Stu in Frankfurt and it was good to have a couple days together again where music wasn’t the agenda and we could just chill and chat and exist like we did back in Debra Street. Only problem of course was that Elisha was there. God. The three of us grabbed some beers and we sat overlooking the ocean and Stu chatted about life and we chatted about the boat and he chatted about music and we chatted about the boat and he chatted about relationships and we chatted about the boat. Below our apartment was a restaurant, always packed, that our host had recommended and our British friends had also endorsed for us. That night we feasted on a plate of mussels in garlic, an octopus salad and some calamari. I think it may have been a sea food restaurant. As rain continued to fall and drench the area, we found another bar and spent the last few hours of the night watching some more of the World Cup, applauding the skill of some players and screaming profanities everytime a multi-million dollar player seemed to roll on the ground in seemless pain whenever a blade of grass scratched his knee.

There’s a photo museum in Dubrovnik which showcases both the Yugoslavian War from the 1990’s and the current Syrian War. We spent an hour in there the next morning and realised just how little we know about the current developments. I do need to read up on it some more. And also look at a map to see where Syria is. There were some graphic images in there, and plenty of pictures of both boys and men fighting in just everyday run of the mill clothes. We were then trying to make our way to a Sushi restaurant I had spotted a couple of days earlier (oh how we have missed sushi) when a deluge fell heavily from the sky. We sought refuge in an undercover bar and, what do you know, found our mouths moving in such a way that three beers soon formed before us. When we did make it to sushi, Stu generously paid for our lunch (which wasn’t cheap in tourist Dubrovnik) and the waiter gave us some rakija to finish – which you can never say no to.

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As Stu is on the road a lot and eating crap, Elisha always likes to cook him a roast when he visits. So that night she put on a roast chicken for us and we ate ourselves silly. This was followed by some more world cup. I can’t remember who played but I think the result went something like this: Nothing happened for 90 minutes. Then someone tripped over a blade of grass, rolled around in agony before the ref blew his whistle and waved a yellow card. Previously agonised player then mysteriously stands up in no pain at all to line up for a free shot and goal and oh, what do you know, scores and wins the game.

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Stu left us early the next morning for Trieste to meet some other people. We had a bus to catch shortly after for Kotor which would for the first time in about five weeks take us out of Croatia. We’d really come to like Croatia and were going to miss it. But, as we weren’t Croatian who can be as slow moving as a stubborn mule sometimes, it was time to keep moving.

“Hvala” Croatia (Although this means thank you – I don’t actually know how to say good bye.”

26. Croatia Sailing // Croatia

After five months of having virtually no one else to talk to, minus a few conversations in broken English, and after a week of finally giving the beers a break, we were a little hesitant to clamber aboard the boat where a week of boozy annihilation was surely awaiting us. Although check-in was at 11am, we extended our check-out at our current accommodation to delay the inevitable. However, despite our feeble attempts, the boat was to leave at 1pm and we did not want to miss that. So we slowly made our way to the harbour with our backpacks.

After some initial conversation with some Busabout staff, we navigated our way to our designated boat, Plomin. Our boat was four boats deep, meaning we had to waddle with our backpacks through four different boats, which were anchored side-by-side, in order to locate ours. A few wobbles and some precarious hopping between boats later, we were greeted by our tour-guide, Remy, and apparently the entire rest of the boat (as we were one of the last ones to arrive.)

Not to look the fools, and abolishing any crazy ideas we had formerly constructed that we were now sober, we grabbed a couple beers from the bar and joined everyone above deck. Now, I don’t think I’ll ever get onto it, nor would I be very entertaining if I did, but the experience had a very entering-the-Big-Brother-house-for-the-first-time feel. I immediately began deducing who I’d allocate my first votes to and who might be worth spending the next seven days with. The group was predominantly Australian (even the tour guide), partly British and contained 4 Croatian crew members. The Australian contingent comprised 8 Victorians, 2 West Australians, 3 New South Welsh, and 1 South Australian. There were 8 Brits. Oh and an Indian couple who I keep forgetting about. They were 46 and no one had any idea what they were doing on here. In fact, this will probably be the only mention they get as the boat hardly ever saw them as they were always off doing their own thing and trying to avoid the crazy partying.

Once we’d all found our rooms and dumped our bags, the boat pushed off from the port and we found ourselves in the dining area for lunch where Remy was giving us the rundown for the week ahead, using words like “annihilated” and “destroyed,” and following them with “liver.” He also warned us that later that afternoon, we would set off on the most strenuous hill-climb of the trip.

But first off was a swim and a dive from the “Busabout does not recommend you jump from the” top of the boat. So after an hour of cruising through crystal blue waters, we eventually anchored in a secluded bay and performed human canon balls from the “Busabout does not recommend you jump from the” top. This was good practice on who to allocate votes to for you could give a ranking on how graceful someone was as they entered the water. Once we were all back on board, we set sail for Omis, a place known for its rich pirate history. And Remy wasn’t lying. As we neared the docks, a small fortress could be seen way up high on the hill.

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“Yep, that’s where we’ll be walking to,” he said. Boardies off. Running gear on. The walk took about 45 minutes and was pretty much at a right angle to the earth. But when we finally got to the top, we were greated with fantastic views overlooking the ocean on one side and the Dalmatian hills on the other. We paid a small fee to a dubious looking man to enter the fortress perched up here. The fortress had been formerly used by the pirates to help control and defend Dalmatia for years against the threat of the Venetians.

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Normally, the first night is a Pirate Party. However, Remy reserved this for later in the week for when the World Cup commenced. But this was not to mean there would be no party this first night. We followed up the Captain’s Dinner (the captain was a 23 year old named Luka who challenged me for height) with a solid Happy Hour, smashing down beers like there was only one keg on board amid various drinking games on the back of the boat. A small bar operated somewhere in the town and we headed there once Happy Hour concluded. Well, some of us did. Apparently, a few others got lost and somehow found themselves mixed up in another bar with some of the other boats. For those that did make it, we were able to mingle a little with those from some of the other Busabout boats (I think there were 3 in the fleet from memory) and drink some more beers and some Rakija (a Croation whisky made from literally anything lying around and that could be fermented. There were up to 160 different flavours and could range from honey, grape, plum etc.) I think we stumbled back on board at around maybe 2am that first night.

The next day started a little slowly, as some hadn’t arrived back on board til well after us, and we made our way to a little town called Pucisca (after a morning swim of course) where some of the world’s best marble can be found. Interestingly, the US used the marble from here to build the White House. I think we were supposed to play a game of soccer here too but we were unable to as the grounds weren’t opened on a Sunday. After a decent rest up, we set sail for Makarska, known for (and as anyone who has been there will be familiar with) its Rave in the Cave! Another solid happy hour followed an early dinner (so again we played all my least favourite games, such as “Let’s make up completely made up stories to impress those around us with I have never” and “Let’s drink a cup full of everyone else’s dregs in Kings.”) We went for some pre-drinks at another bar where all the boats had gathered prior to the Rave in the Cave. Things got really funny for me here (and continued to throughout the night as I seemed to be the only one to remember anything.) First up, our British friend Jon. He later developed a reputation for his story telling that left us in stitches of laughter. But at this time, he left us in stitches of laughter when we found him passed out in his own vomit down a side street. I’d been quietly having a beer on the side and had seen him walk (quite stumbly-like, I’d call it Penguining) off around the corner and assumed the British must have just had this thing where they refused to pee in sensible places like the toilet provided by the bar and had to find some obscure location like the turned-over wheelbarrow behind Mrs Smith’s garden gnome. It wasn’t until an hour later when we were readying to leave that his 5 English friends began asking where he was. “Oh he walked off that way like an hour ago,” I said. Frantically, one of them ran off to search for him and I, intrigued, followed behind. And, yep, there he was, just one street away sitting on some nice Croatian family’s stairwell asleep with a puddle of vomit lapping at his feet. Nice surprise the owners would have had when they left for the bakery the next morning. Later on when he was retelling the story, he claimed he had ordered an “Ol’ fashioned” which is some sort of cocktail which occupies the bartender for 10 minutes as he painfully tries to make it. This bartender was a little more clued on and instead said “Nup, I’m not making you that. Here, try this instead,” and handed him an enticingly bright blue drink which mesmerised Jon like a fluorescent lure might a deep ocean fish. Five minutes later, Jon was gone. He never made it to the cave, nor made it past 9.30pm.

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Second story. Two of his other British friends had had me in hysterics earlier on too. Again, whilst I’d been sitting quietly enjoying my beer on my own, I’d noticed that number one British friend Martin had secured himself a catch of the female kind and sat her on the ledge not too far from me. He then next began making out with her in an old fashioned snogathon. Not my normal thing to look at for too long so I went back to my beer. The next moment I looked up, Martin had been replaced! Instead, number two British friend Olly was now performing in the royal tongue wrestle with random girl. The story I was told later was Martin had gotten up to get another drink. His friend Olly, never one to miss an opportunity, jumped right in! Wyly British. And that brings me to story three. Why was I sitting with a beer watching all this on my own? Well, normally I’d be hanging up with my buddy Jim from the boat. However, earlier he had given me a shot upon leaving the boat and I’d been planning to repay him back ever since. Remy had passed me and mentioned something called Stro. Actually, what had really caught my attention was “it’s 80% alcohol.” Fantastic. I went to the bar and considered maybe ordering a shot of that and a second shot of something that looked similar for myself. But drunk Elisha saw me go to the bar and said she wanted to try it too. So I ordered two shots of this 80% alcohol-black dredge and carried them back to Jim. He was already too drunk to notice my evil eyes and sinister smile when I placed one in front of him. However, still a little cautious, he needed some prodding and so I took a small sip from mine. I hardly had much. And, at first, it almost tasted all right. Until you counted to 5 and then bam, it hit. Everywhere. The other thing to know about Jim is that his palate is rather light. He won’t eat olives (although he has since sent a pic to me of him trying olive dip.) He won’t eat most vegetables. He won’t eat fish. He won’t eat chilli. He won’t eat mushrooms. Nothing. He’s a boy from a dairy farm and he drinks milk. Lots of it. Litres and litres of milk each day. So when I was struggling to down just a sip of this stuff I just knew he was going to struggle. My sinister smile turned into a Xerxes-like grin as he put the glass to his lips . . . and he didn’t even make it to three seconds. Saliva began forming. Drool spilled from his dangling tongue and then it happened. Convulses of bile. Hurls of spew. I was in hysterics. I couldn’t have planned it better. The best part was his girlfriend Amber was there. Now, normally a lover would stand beside you and pull your hair back. But no. She didn’t do that. She just whipped out her camera, held it in his face and put it on flash fire!!! So needless to say, he remembered this all night and didn’t want to speak to me again at all. All that was left for me was to sit on my own, with a beer, and watch the rest unfold.

All this happened before we even got to the Rave in the Cave. I was feeling a little sorry for flooring Jim, as well as incredible guilt everytime he glared at me. So I did the noble thing and bought him a bottle of over-priced water from across the road. He initially appreciated it. However, now that he was completely drunk on 80% spirits, he seemed to quickly forget and it was like he looked down, saw a bottle of throwing water in his hand and proceeded to pour it all over me. Last time I buy water for someone. I’ll just continue to be a dick I think. But I still got another laugh out of him. It’s probably best to start from Amber’s perspective. As she was walking to the Rave in the Cave, she suddenly felt Jim run into her from behind. In a complete haze, he was staring at her and asking “What the hell just happened?” She looked at him and said “How did you get that massive graze on your face?” Now, from my perspective. As I was walking to Rave in the Cave behind Jim, we had to walk up three small cement steps. Before he could even surmount the first, he took a massive stack and rolled his way onto the ground, clambered back up and fell into the back of Amber. That’s right. In the matter of 0.3 seconds between falling over and asking her “What the hell just happened?” he couldn’t remember the stack he just had.

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From here, the night gets a bit hazy but I heard Justin decided to walk out of the club and go for a swim (the cave steps out onto a beach,) we saw Luka and so Zac decided to shout a round of four Jaeger Bombs, however we were too drunk to notice the barman never added the Jaeger, all the tour guides revealed why they loved their job by hitting on all the new girls in the group, 22 year old skinny arse Ryan picked up and turned 100kilo me over on his shoulder for a whole minute, some crazy mash dancing, some more shots and I think we found a kebab somewhere on the way home. To Plomin’s credit, our crew was surely one of the last standing. Day two over and out.

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Day three began very differently for Elisha and I. Whilst I was able to prove to everyone that partying doesn’t stop at age 30 by having a beer at 12 o’clock, Elisha was still tucked up in bed feeling sorry for herself and depositing little pieces of the previous night’s kebab into our cramped toilet bowl. It was confirmed the night was crazy for all when I heard Remy say at breakfast “I’ve got to head out for 10 minutes to buy a new phone.” The morning was extremely slow, with slow swims, slow showers, slow breakfast and slow sunbaking. Elisha did manage to make lunch but after spending 15 minutes staring at her risotto and not being able to will her arm to lift her fork, she trudged back to her room to, she claims, “brush her hair.” But that’s fine because it was important she sobered up. That afternoon we were going to Stari Grad where we would visit a winery and drink wine into the sunset. The winery was probably one of the highlights for Elisha and I. The owners had basically transformed the area into a self-sustaining farm, where everything was organic, fresh, grown on site – basically what we would call a dream, a place where you could have full control over what you ate and drank. Everyone who has ever had a wine with me from back home knows just how much of a wanky cork-dork I can be. But whereas you have all had many years to look past this lame part of me and instead see the cuddly bear that lives beneath, if I was to swirl and sniff and sip the wine here, I was sure to have no one speak to me again. A lot of restraint was required. We tried four wines, two whites, a red and a rose. None of the wines were too serious. The first white was a seasonal summer wine, the second a little fuller with some acidity, the red was pretty surprising as most Croatian Pravac are – with good legs, dry tannin and the rose was a good dry style. (And now I’ve just lost any other last readers I may have had.) But the real highlight was the Peke. We had seen this around Croatia but you could only ever order it if you had more than 4 people. I guess you could say Peke is the Croatian’s version of a Sunday Roast – but just a gazillion times better. Pieces of lamb and veal (still on the bone) are cooked in a round-bottomed bell-shaped cast-iron oven. The burning wood is laid all over it so heat is applied from all sides. Oh and amidst the meat are vegetables (all handpicked just minutes before from the garden) which cook and simmer in the hot juices that leak from the meat. Mouth watering. I didn’t even try to be polite when it came out. I just dived in and grabbed every big hunk of meat I could find, every juicy potato I could dig out and every tasty garlic, onion and carrot I could scrape from the bottom. Then I took a sip from my red wine and quietly discussed the food-matching capabilities of the wine to myself under my breath. Not very social but I was definitely in my element.

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Everyone was pretty boozed and exhausted when we got back and probably still recovering from the night before. Whilst Elisha went for a quiet stroll with Amber and Renee through Stari Grad, I joined 6 or 7 of the boys and headed to a tiny waterfront bar for a couple of beers and some Foosball. But after three nights of beer-drinking games and “I have never,” I was finding all the guys discussion topics of “Drinking” and “Sex” a little tedious and two dimensional. After listening to Jon tell some of the funniest stories I had ever heard at lunch, I decided it was time for some change.

We were headed for Hvar on day four, a small celebrity hotspot that had recently hosted Jay-Z and Beyonce and soon, myself. We arrived very late in the day which probably meant we had spent the rest of the day swimming in crystal blue waters and sailing in crystal blue waters and just looking out over crystal blue waters. Smug? Yes. Another walk to a fortress was on the cards. However, as we’d already seen one on this trip and an even better one back in Sibenik, we gave it a miss and hung back with a few others who’d decided not to go (you can call us the lazy group.) What was interesting in Hvar (and most of Croatia) were the number of sea urchins in the water. Elisha explained to me that these are gourmet delicacies in a lot of places around the world and she just couldn’t understand why these weren’t being farmed or why they didn’t feature on any menus. We had dinner at a seafood restaurant and Elisha and I shared a seafood platter. This place was actually owned by the people who owned the farm where we had eaten the Peke the day before. The attraction that night was the Kiva bar where you can order Tequila Booms. What’s a Tequila Boom? Great question. A Tequila Boom is a great idea a barman had once to hit customers over the head after taking their money. Let me elaborate. You ask for a Tequila Boom. That will be x amount of money, they say. Here’s my money, you say. You hand them your money. They hand you a helmet. You put the helmet on your head. They make a quick tequila concoction in front of you. They pick up the cocktail shaker and tell you to lean forward. Then they smack the shaker against your head repeatedly as hard as they can until the cocktail is “shaken, not stiiiirrred.” I got off easily as I was first of four in line. But poor Elisha, down the other end. The guy unleashed on her. She stills claims that she can’t even remember doing one.

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It was another huge night that got pretty messy. She thought she had done ok when she thought she had only done 8 shots. But, after some further checking-off-stories with Amber later, they both recalled they had done 19 each!!! I somehow found myself dancing on the bar with Renee and Amelia/Chloe (I don’t remember which.) But as the bar was pretty small, I was crunched over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Remy tried passing us some fire twirlers but I, being drunk, grabbed them by the fire end firstly. Ouch. More shots. More drunk. And then home time. Some time. I don’t think I even remember getting home that night.

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Everyone was happy for some down time on Day five. But of course, that didn’t happen. My guts were feeling pretty destroyed at this point. And I could hear some rumblings that I weren’t sure belonged to the ship or to me. We headed to Korcula, the home of Marco Polo. This was one of the most beautiful Croatian towns we visited. All the old historic turrets had been transformed into cocktail bars, the laneways reminded me of a really tight and quaint Venice and the sunset was amazing. Anyway, I would have liked to have enjoyed any of that if I didn’t have to run off in the restaurant to the toilet or, when everyone was having a cocktail, I had to run off to the boat to find the toilet. Probably a sign I needed a day of the beer. So as everyone came back I did the smart thing and grabbed a beer. It was a pretty chilled night and most people said no to heading out again. So whilst the conversation of drinking and sex moved off the boat, I was able to chat to a few of the British guys and receive a two hour education on “FOOTBALL.” They went right through the politics, the salaries, the relegations, the players, the system, the capitalism and by the end of it, I’d forgotten it all and was still calling it soccer. But god, was it refreshing to talk about anything other than being drunk and sex. So after learning all there is to know about soccer, and after another 3 beers, I excused myself and ran back downstairs to use the toilet.

The next day we went to Mijet for a national park. Elisha and I had already been to one in Skradin and found it overpriced so we weren’t too keen to do it again. We were the only two not to go but upon people arriving back, they didn’t say we had missed all too much. What was important was that it was Thursday and that meant the first night of the World Cup – between Brazil and CROATIA. Our captain took us to the smallest town he could find where the arrival of our fleet basically doubled the population of the town. Tonight was also the captain’s dinner and the Pirate Party. All dressed in our cheap costumes and armed with plastic swords and weapons, we all looked completely out of place as we drank in the port of this peacefully quiet little town. Luka addressed us for dinner and thanked us all for joining him aboard and hoped we’d had fun. Supposedly, our boat had consumed 3 kegs of beer in the time it had taken the previous tour to finish just one. That of course filled us with pride and then we rushed to try and finish another. A small bar had set up some small tv’s for us to sit around and watch the opening game. Dressed in pirate gear and some Croatian colours, we did our best to get in the way of the locals who were actually there to see the game. Croatia of course lost 3-1 so that meant our captain and our chef and our barman and boathand were unhappy. I have a suspicion Tito the boathand actually stole my sunnies from up on deck that night. They weren’t there the next day and Renee, who was doing the return trip, alleges she saw him wearing them.

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The next day was to bring us into the port of Dubrovnik where we would party one last night, get one more night’s sleep in an uninsulated room and have one more chance for a swim. Now this was my time to be bed ridden. After the previous night’s Pirate Party, I’d apparently had too many double rum and cokes and I just wasn’t getting out of bed that morning. Elisha failed to get me up for breakfast. I failed to get myself up for a swim. I failed to get up once the boat’s engines started. And I failed to get up when they stopped. I did, however, manage to get up for lunch. Elisha saw me walk in, sit at a table and then looked again and saw that I was gone. Yep, down stairs for about my 3rd spew. She again failed to get me up when we arrived in Dubrovnik or when everyone caught the bus into the town centre to climb the walls. It wasn’t until about 4pm that I finally managed to get up without spewing. I said hello to the barman and had a quick chat about the game and how bad the reffing was, then I walked aimlessly up and down the harbour trying to find a familiar face – which proved hard to do when they were all 6kms away in the town. Eventually, people returned and we planned to head into the city again for dinner (breakfast for me) and one last club. Whilst everyone else was able to get on and use the bus with ease having learnt from before, I fumbled with the doors and tickets and just really with anything that was happening that day. I showed some maturity at dinner and ordered a salad with no drink. We grabbed one last group photo and then headed to some bar that had a name, I don’t remember. I do remember feeling perturbed that it had a “no guns” warning on the wall. It was monstrous. We headed upstairs and grabbed some beers to watch Australia get pummelled by Chile. I sat on my beer for a long long time. The game ended. We went downstairs where more party party club blah blah was going on. I do not like clubs. Loud. Noisy. So many drunk people. Blah blah. I think we pulled the plug pretty early. Renee, Jim & Amber and Elisha & I shared a couple of cabs and went back to the port, ate some weird ham and tomato like sandwiches (apparently Jim will in fact eat that but not peas) and went to bed.

I was feeling a little better in the morning, even more so as I watched people enter breakfast like they had been smacked in the face with a potato sack. It was time to check out and say goodbye to everyone. Elisha and I grabbed a coffee across the road to get some internet and work out where our next hotel was and so I could radio stream the Suns game. Funnily, I think we also saw almost everyone from the boat walk back and forth for the next two hours as we sat there like they refused to let go. Oh I also found our key in my pocket so had to run that back before the boat took off with its new group which made me feel as easily replaced as Splinter’s Foot Soldiers. Anyways, I’m about as tired writing this blog as you probably are reading it. But hopefully that exhaustion gives you a little sense of what the week was like. Bloody epic and bloody exhausting.

 

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25. Skradin // Split // Croatia

We were just over a week away from our epic Sail Croatia, where we would depart from Split. The fortune-teller in me forewarned this would be a major booze-fest and the prudent side of me suggested we should try a snap-exercise regime to get our bodies into ripper and tanned shape for the boat (that’s right, to lose like 20 kilos in a week.) So prior to Split, we headed for Krka National Park in the hope of doing some long, challenging hikes. We decided to spend three nights there and booked a self-contained apartment so we would have a kitchen, giving us some control over what we were to eat.

We sad goodbye to Solaris, where we had just spent four amazing nights on the waterfront, and paid the 30 Euro “Cleaning Bill” that magically appeared on our departure. An unmarked yellow van rushed to intercept us as we waited at the bus stop and convinced us he was in fact the bus to take us back to Sibenik. Yeah right. But we caught it anyway after negotiating him down to what the advertised bus price was supposed to be. This act of braveness worked in our favour though for he brought us to the main terminal just in time to catch the connecting (and might I add, horrifyingly grubby) bus to Krka.

The bus pulled up in Skradin, the closest town to Krka (6kms away) and we walked in small circles in an attempt to get the gps to locate us and point us in the right direction. Moments later, we were at the front door of our guest house, wildly flailing our arms and smiling in the hope the lady in front of us, who only spoke Croatian, and us two, who spoke absolutely no Croatian, could make sense of one another. The room was nice but had no cooking facilities, not even a kettle. So we were resigned to entertaining the idea of salad and canned tuna for a few days. That should help the lose-20kilos cause at least. We made a quick walk around the town to find such supplies (the entire walk could be done in 5 minutes – small town) and returned with the necessary ingredients. This was all well and good until we opened the tuna. Now I do maintain that this was people’s food tuna but we could not shake the thought that it smelt and appeared very strangely as something nearing cat’s food tuna. Not ones to throw anything away, we pawed our whiskers and got right in.

We wanted to get off to a good start with our exercise so we headed back into the middle of town where we had seen a fort perched high up on a hill. It’s important here that I tell you we had done some excruciating leg squats the day before. This is important to know because we were just about to embark up a steep hill climb. I think we were about 3 steps up before both Elisha and I in unison cried out in anguish. (Ok ok, it was probably more of a meow.) Regardless, we wanted six packs by the end of the week so we powered on. Step by step by step. Painful stuff. And lots of lactic acid. But we made it up and got some great views overlooking the marina and the gorge. I must also say that on the way back down we were most disappointed to find a nice smooth path coming from the other way that we could have taken instead of the sheer steps we had taken.

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In truth, you only need a day to do Krka National Park, which we were to learn the next day when after about 2 hours there, we were utterly bored. We woke up the next morning and caught the ferry that ran on the hour to take us to the park and paid the $20 AUD to enter. The main selling point of this park are the amazing waterfalls. And they are incredible. You can also swim in the lake beneath it (although it was too cold for us.) The rest of the park is basically a 2km boardwalk that had been constructed around the waterfalls, which takes you through various parts, over lots of little waterways and to lots of different vantage points to see the falls. This must have been what the 20 bucks were for – to transform the park into a tourist spot so even 80 year old crane wielding grandpa’s and wheelchair bound grandma’s could also make their entire way around. That’s all ok – it’s just that I had in my mind that I’d be hiking some Indiana Jones like rainforest trek. Oh well. After completing the circuit and taking some photos from every angle we could find, we shrugged our shoulders and walked the circuit again in reverse. The water is amazing though. It’s so crystal. Whenever you look down, you are likely to see a school of fish swimming still in the water against the current. This was fantastic as I was able to observe them and pick up their behaviour and traits to later assist me in catching a fish (my record is not too great.) After a second lap of the circuit, we took solace in the sun and did some reading on a patch of grass. This took us until about midday. In our effort to try and stretch out time to get our money’s worth, we pulled out some rice crackers, dip and tomatoes and made a quick lunch. But after awhile, we just couldn’t find anything more to do and so decided to head home. We could have taken the ferry again but this time decided to walk it instead. It was 6km and I’d still not done the mammoth hike I had been anticipating. So despite Elisha’s constant whimpering everytime a lizard squirmed in the bushes, we walked back along the path and waved to 2 or 3 boats as they passed us back.

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After cutting Solaris short, we were a little annoyed that we still had 2 nights left in this small there-is-nothing-to-do little town. As they say “Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” and Elisha and I have this terrible habit of rewarding exercise with a beer because “hey, you deserve it.” Before long, we were sitting on the banks of the marina with a couple of beers and some swans for company. This of course led to a couple of wines at this rustic bar that sold nothing but their own homemade wine. We sat out the front under a canopy of wine leaves, filling our glasses from a caraffe of red vino. Interestingly, its common in Croatia to water down your wine and they often serve it beside a glass of water or some ice cubes in order to dillute it. Maybe this is to make bad wine drinkable or, more as to what I’d like to be true, their rich heritage understands how to include alcohol as part of their culture but not alcoholism. With the taste of cat food still fresh in our mouths, it also wasn’t long before the days proceedings took us to a pizzeria. So there you are. Sobriety went out the window and garbage food re-entered our bodies. The silver lining of this was that we got to sit back and watch a traditional wedding party waltz past us as we ate. With lots of laughter and singing, the bride and groom led a contingent of 50+ guests from the town church to their reception, with several of the members darting off into our pizzeria to grab a quick wine during the procession.

Our last day in Skradin was basically a repeat of the day before (minus the wedding.) And so, by the time we left Skradin, we left with feelings similar to those we had had in Belgium where we had spent too much out of boredom, eaten badly, drunk far too much and really seen nothing at all. So we were quite thankful when the horribly grotty bus came to pick us up the next morning. We had to again return to Sibenik so we could then changeover to a bus heading toward Split.

Split was our last destination in Croatia before we were to clamber aboard the booze-fest, I mean the Busabout Sail Croatia. We needed to show much more discipline here if we were to get these six packs in time and made a pact on the bus there and then that we would again sober up and eat some salads and maybe this time people’s food tuna.

Upon arriving in Split, you could not help but notice that the small Croatian seaside townships where we had spent the last three weeks in were suddenly a world away and instead they had been replaced by a tourist mecca. We were again surrounded by people carrying backpacks, by locals crowding around selling rooms and boats, buses and boats. And buses. And boats. And buses.

Our apartment wasn’t too far away, maybe a kilometre, and this time delivered on it’s promise and provided a fully-equipped kitchen. With an oven!! From the map we had been handed, we were shown a grocer’s market near the old town. Like a Saturday morning back in Melbourne, we grabbed our grocery bags and headed over to get supplies for a week of clean eating. If we haven’t mentioned this already, making salads is easy for us whilst travelling. Why? Well, on top of the hair straightener and hair dryer Elisha carries with her, and on top of the instant coffee and sugar I carry with me, we also always carry a bottle of Olive Oil. Oh and some salt and cracked pepper. I guess you could say we are more Picnic Basket Packers than we are Back Packers. But a little seasoning goes a long way and this has been our secret to maintaining our sanity whilst on the road.

I was pretty eager to return to some form of routine and so turned Run Keeper back on on my phone (the last entry prior to this was back in January I think) and set out for a 10km fast walk along the coast. I was in a real rhythm, pacing to the beat of my playlist, the coast to my right and the wind cooling me down. Elisha did the same thing, however, I believe she made her trip to the shopping centre. Women. And I felt absolutely amazing on my return. Elisha had found a whole chicken somewhere and we ate Roast Chicken and vegetables that night (maybe Chef Trolley Packers?) This was all well and good. We went to bed. Slept great. But upon waking, oh god! The pain. Two factors. One. I am now thirty and Two. I have done little to no exercise in 4 months. Every inch of my legs hurt! Achilles, calves, thighs, ITB’s. You name it. Surely the last walk I’d be doing in some time.

Thankfully, we weren’t too far from the beach (bearing in mind, whenever the word beach is used in Europe, it should in no way connote a beach you might be familiar with in Australia.) We spent the next morning in the sun, reading and swimming and ignoring the inner urge to match the moment with a cold beer. It was probably the best beach we had seen in Europe to that date with the only down point being the ignorant American conversations we were subjected to from every direction. But headphones helped solve that. We ducked home for some more salad lunch, maybe took a quick walk through the old town before returning for another nap on the beach later that afternoon. Most of our days were to go like this, with perhaps some leg squats or situps thrown in for good measure. We were on a roll, our bodies finding lost energy and our minds thinking with lost clarity.

We mustered up some further strength and got ourselves to the free walking tour one afternoon. Actually, it wasn’t free. Apparently, due to some Croatian law, they were not able to advertise “free” walking tours where payment is made via donation like they do through the rest of Europe. Instead, a Euro was charged and a tip was not asked for. It was here we learnt a lot about the diverse history of Split. The city is roughly 1700 years old, based on the remains of the Roman Palace of the Emporer Diocletian, built in 305. The city has belonged to Romans, Venetians and Ottomans throughout it’s existence, all having left their stamp on the area. The old town is basically an open-air museum. You are free to walk through these ancient stone constructions as you please. It was really fascinating for you felt reverence was required in such a historic place. However, for the 3000 people who still live within the walls, it’s just home for them and they seem to treat it with what an outsider would describe as a lack of respect. But understandably it’s just a rock in the way for them. For an old town, it is still completely buzzing with bars and restaurants and teeming with both tourists and locals. Of particular interest to me was the small area where one of the scenes from season one of Game of Thrones was filmed. Funny. I’m standing on this location where millenniums of history has unfolded and all I care about is that a TV show was filmed there.

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After four days of clean eating, we thought we well and truly deserved a reward. We had spent four days on the beach ignoring the urge to hear that crisp hiss of a beer opening and ignored all the invitations from friendly waiters inviting us in to their aromatic restaurants. Besides, we were bound to at least have one beer on the boat the next day (Author’s note added later – this was in fact 347) and the six packs probably just weren’t going to happen. So a couple of cold Karlovacko’s were popped open by the Heineken beer opener I’d purchased in Amsterdam and we greeted the cold liquid into our mouths on that beautiful Split beach.

After a day in the sun, and with all our groceries depleted, we also thought we’d help the local economy out by eating out that night. Elisha had picked a small restaurant down a side alley whose menu was hand-scribbled on a piece of cardboard. We ordered a couple of red vinos, a plate of spaghetti in tomato-based sauce, with garlic, parsley and mussels and another plate of spaghetti in a white-wine sauce, with breadcrumbs, garlic and various seafood. It was bloody fantastic. Maybe all food tastes this good if you have the discipline to go without for just a couple of days.

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The strange thing was that after my 4 days of sobriety and exercise, I seemed to have had no urge to get drunk and was able to stop after just a couple. This was new. Had in my old age I found a new and more mature version of myself that didn’t see the need to turn every “just one” beer into a drunken night? I was feeling great. Thinking clearer. And decided that yes. This was a new me. I had learnt to settle for just a few drinks in a night.

And whilst I went to sleep that night with a smile on my face and a peace I’d never known before, a little gremlin quietly worked his way throughout the night, preparing a boat and loading it with kegs of beer that would ultimately and completely leave my liver destroyed just seven days later.