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.

23. Zagreb // Zadar // Croatia

Where do I start? We are now so far behind on these blogs that I’m now butchering my brain to remember events that took place two months ago! We made our way to Croatia to escape the Schengen Visa area and give our bleached skin some much needed sun. For those back home, the Schengen Visa allows you entrance into most European countries for a maximum 90 days over a 180 day period. Croatia is one of the few countries not yet in this although is likely to join in the next coming years. With the intention to spend some more time in Greece before the 180 days expired, we needed to ration some of our remaining 90 days and thought Croatia was the place to do it. I think prior to travelling, Croatia was never really on my list so it was going to be interesting to see what it had in store.

We arrived in Zagreb by bus and made our way to a private room with a shared kitchen. Lonely Planet had pointed out that its important that wherever you stay in Croatia, a blue “Apartman” sign is on the door to confirm its legitimacy. Its common to get off a bus in Croatia and be swarmed with ladies and men trying to sell you a room. But reassuringly, the sign was there and we checked in. We were about a 15 minute walk from the inner-city, a route that followed the tram lines. The tram lines were interesting for this was the first place where we had encountered the tracks on the outside of the road instead of in the middle.

And they were blue. Which might be interesting if you were a bowerbird.

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I honestly can’t remember too much of what we did in Zagreb but thankfully I have my copy of “Europe on a shoestring” beside me to borrow some memories/made up stories from. As a traveller, you are always discerning between legitimate must-do activities and oh my god I can’t believe tourists do that cash traps. An example of the latter in Zagreb was the Museum of Broken Relationships. Although we didn’t go in, it promised donations from around the world, such as a can of love incense from Indiana that “doesn’t work” and an iron from Norway once used to straighten a wedding suit. In other words, just basic crap.

One of the cooler parts of Zagreb (that we did do, regularly) was this one strip that ran through the middle and was lined on both sides by bars, cafes and food merchants. As the sun bathed the entire area with its warm rays, it was useless trying to fight the urge to sit down and grab a beer. It was here we also learnt that Croatia’s beer rivalry is fought between just two beers, Karlovacko and Ozjusko. You are supposed to choose your side and loyally stick to it but as they both tasted pretty much the same, we were happy to alternate like a set of intersection traffic lights. But you could spend all day along here, grabbing a coffee, watching people pass by, or downing a beer. Prices were still cheap in Zagreb. Beer was often $2 AUD and I think you could grab a hamburger for about $3 AUD.

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Another drawcard of Zagreb’s is the Dolac Market which has been running since 1930. All your fresh fruit and vegies could be purchased here or, if you didn’t want to buy anything, it was just as much fun to sit at a nearby bar and watch it all unfold before you with a beer. You were completely engulfed by the Croats here. As we sat with our beer, we had a table of 3 old men to our right, each with a glass of white wine engrossed in hearty conversation, their laughter filling the area. A cool moment. We bought a few things here to eat later back at home and also checked out underneath where all the meat and dairy products were sold. Coming from a world where Coles and Woolworths do their best to control every aspect of the market, it was cool to see a culture that existed in this way.

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There were a few old churches around somewhere too. St Mark’s I think was tucked in somewhere here and a few other old stone looking things. I’ve since been told I’m suffering from Ruin Fatigue.

We next had 6 nights in Zadar. As the beer had not been anywhere near as appealing as it had been in Prague, we thought we’d use this time to completely rest up and, I know you will think I’m full of bollocks right now, but went 6 days sober! While we were reading on Facebook about everyone back home doing the 12 week challenge, we attempted a 3 day challenge . . . and managed it twice! Apartment excercises like squats and pyramid sessions were in store and I’m glad to say that after 6 days we were looking like we had just competed in and won the Biggest Loser. Forget these ridiculous advertised diets. It takes just 6 days! And while any psychologist would currently diagnose me with a case of being in denial, it sure felt good to give the body a rest from all the months of alcohol induced barraging.

When we weren’t eating salads and training like Tough Mudder was just around the corner, we’d go for a walk to the old town. This had a very Venice-like feel to it. It was small and tight, with cobble-stoned pathways and enclosed within its old city walls. The city boasts some truely remarkable architecture, such as St Donatus Church from the 9th Century and St Mary’s Church from the 12th Century. But every which way you turned, you were basically staring at a building that was built in some former time, by one of many empires that controlled this region. Remarkable stuff. And I get to remember this stuff this time too because I was sober!! They have also recently built a sea organ on the edge of the water. So as you walk along the ocean-front, music plays through these holes in the cement which is made as the waves roll in underneath. Not quite Beethoven but free.

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One of the best things I think we did whilst in Zadar was dedicate five hours to watch a BBC documentary, entitled “The Death of Yugoslavia.” This detailed the key moments leading up to the war, the characters involved and how the war was shaped. There was way too much material for me to summarise here but I feel the better for now understanding the events. It’s amazing that this happened during my lifetime and I feel incredibly ignorant for having no memory of it. It’s sobering to see how war escalates and all the delicate matters that arise from inner-tensions and explode into catostrophic events for people who want nothing more than to live in peace. I get the vibe that Croatia isn’t entirely in favour of joining the EU. However, I can certainly understand their hesitancy. These countries that formerly made up Yugoslavia basically lost their nationalism when that took place in the 1980’s. Yugoslavia was in essence a mini EU. Made up of smaller countries for a bigger goal. If you had joined something like that only to undergo all the horror that came of its dismantling, you could understand why a country as small as Croatia might be opposed to the idea of the EU. The other facet I was surprised by was, in light of WWII, just how exactly did the world sit back and allow genocide to happen again? Although initiatives like the UN were then in place, the matter seemed too delicate to intervene in until very late in the war. Of course, the discussion arises of when is it ok to intervene or even whose war it is, of which I don’t have an answer, but just mind-numbing to think that it happened again. It certainly gives me new perspective on the events taking place between Russia and Ukraine. I guess my views are all just a result of the bubble we live in in Australia. We don’t know war in the way that Europe does.

But onto lighter matters. And one of the worst transitions I’ve made in my blogs.

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After feeling the fittest we had felt in over 4 months, we debated perhaps walking to the next destination but logic stepped in and we booked a bus to our next destination – Vodice, where we planned some more sun and beach time.

22. Krakow // Poland // Prague //Czech Republic // Budapest // Hungary

As we reluctantly said good bye to Prague and its amazing beer and food scene, I couldn’t stay sad for too long as we were on our way to catch up with my parents in Krakow. The only thing separating these two happy moments was an overnight
sleeper train. I had visions of the previous sleeper train in Vietnam, and again we had gone for the cheapest tickets, so I was expecting and prepared for the worst. To cut a long uninteresting story short, it was in fact not the worst, but only
slightly better than the worst, so needless to say we arrived at Krakow at 6am with little sleep. My darling mother had taken it upon herself to book our accommodation in Krakow for the 4 of us, and I was super excited as this meant for the first time since leaving Australia I didn’t have to organise something! The only problem was, we couldn’t check in till 9am, so we sat at the McDonalds in the train station for 3 hours sharing an overpriced latte. (Gross)

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9am came around quickly and we walked the roughly kilometre from the train station to our accommodation. Now after staying in various dorms and cheap private rooms, our accommodation was like a palace. Over two levels we had a 3 bedroom 2 bathroom apartment, 500 metres from the main town square with a huge kitchen and dining area. It was amazing!!! My parents weren’t due to arrive until that evening, but having had very little sleep, we basically chilled in the apartment for the day, sleeping, grabbing groceries and doing housey tasks like washing. Whilst we were walking around getting groceries, we noticed in the windows of most polish homes was a picture of the pope. We originally thought that perhaps the Polish were really religious, but were later told that this pope was actually canonized the day we arrived in Poland, hence the
celebrations. The hilarious thing for me was that Clinton kept forgetting to say Canonized and would say castrated instead…and I would giggle. My parents arrived late that evening and after the initial celebration of their arrival and enough hugs and kisses to last me a lifetime, we sat down to compare travel stories. They had just spent time in Dubai and visiting Gallipoli for ANZAC day and we filled them in on our last 3 and a bit months. Both exhausted from a long day of travel, we called it a night. The next morning would bring our first explorations of Krakow, and hopefully my parents lost luggage from their flight!!

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The next morning started slowly, as it was really just wonderful to sit around a kitchen table, share breakfast and chat. My parents luggage finally arrived and we made our way towards the town centre. We didn’t get far, as we spotted a lovely
little place selling coffee and cake, so sat down and shared a couple of slices. The town square of Krakow is similar to most town squares that Clint and I have seen across our travels. One interesting fact that we did learn was that at the
top of St Mary’s church there is a trumpet player that plays this very polish tune on the 4 different sides of the bell tower on the hour. On the last tune he waves. This was quite quaint the first time, as all the tourists watch and take photos with their ipads and wave back, but got quite annoying very quickly as our accommodation was so close to the town square that we heard this even when we were trying to sleep, on the hour, every hour. After watching this spectacle for
the first time, we then spent the rest of the morning walking around this district, stopping in at a lego store for Clinton before quickly passing through the Jewish district. With time to spare, Dad and I declared drinks time and found a
restaurant with a cute little garden. We shared a couple of drinks and our first experience of Polish dumplings. These little morsels were influenced by China and were shared amongst the Polish at times of celebration. We tried two types,
one with cheese and one with meat. Both were lovely, however we concluded over much debate that the meat ones held a bit more flavour. That afternoon we decided to do the free walking tour of Krakow. This was a new concept for mum and dad, and I’m afraid probably wasn’t the best initiation. Our guide, who’s name escapes me was the most robotic tour guide in the history of tour guides. He was so robotic it seemed he did not actually even speak English, but had just memorised an English script and recited this for the next two hours. The funniest part was when he would tell a joke to break the ice of the group, but would then never pause for people to laugh. It was an extremely weird tour, and I think we were all a
bit relieved when it finally ended!!! We decided to chill at home this night and I introduced Mum and Dad to my favourite thing about Italy, Aperol Spritz. I had bought a bottle in Austria with the intention of sharing this with them, and was
delighted that they shared my passion for “Spritz Time” Now that we are in eastern Europe, Aperol seems to be exorbitantly expensive, so spritz time is no longer, and this makes me very sad.

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Our next morning started early and my dear Mum (again) had organised a tour of Auschwitz for us. The van picked us up bright and early and we were on our way, after a few more pick ups. Auschwitz was on our must do list, and was the whole
reason that we had met my parents in Poland. Unfortunately, as a major tourist attraction, Auschwitz was packed with people and we basically became part of a conveyor belt line that was put through the horrors of this place. We had no time to
take in the severity of what we were seeing…expansive displays of luggage, cut hair, shoes and prosthetic legs. We were whisked through these areas and half the time could not understand what the guide was saying as it was so packed. There
was a long wall with the entrance photos of Jewish people at the camp, after they had lost all their belongings and their hair, and I could have looked through these photos for hours, learning their stories, seeing the fear in their faces, but again we were just pushed through. It made me really grateful that we had seen Sachsenhausen in Berlin, not nearly as touristy, and we basically had the whole place to ourselves. The second part of Auschwitz was not as crowded. We were taken to Auschwitz two, with the train tracks that led Jews straight to their death. Walking along these train tracks was such a haunting experience, and something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Even now, a few months later, it is
something that Clinton and I regularly talk about, just so horrific.

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The net day was my Dad’s birthday, and I was super excited to share this with him as living in Melbourne I had not spent the last 5 years of birthdays with my Dad. We declared this day, Dad’s day and he was responsible for doing whatever he wanted to do, which was probably more annoying for my dad as he’s always happy to go with the flow. We made our way for coffee and cake, and already I dictated some of the day with telling Dad the better places to stop, not wanting him to
experience some tourist trap mediocre cake and coffee. After this, I again took control (I’ve since learnt I have control issues) and decided that the best way to spend Dad’s birthday was on a food tour of Poland. This actually turned out to be
quite a good move as we were taken through 5 different restaurants of Poland and tried some of their traditional fare. I wont bore you with every meal, however I will say, that Dad was not a fan of the herring and sour cream dish, but the
Vodka that accompanied it was nice. We tried more dumplings, a cabbage roll and a few other items. I was however most disappointed that we didn’t get to try the a traditional Polish dessert called the Paczki. These are very similar to a jam
donut, however traditional fillings are more like a rose jam. I was interested to learn that Poland celebrates a day called Fat Thursday, which is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. On this day, everyone eats as many Paczki’s as they can in order
to get good luck for the next year. Thousands upon Thousands are eaten each year on this day. I did eventually have one, and it was nice, but the thick dough I found to be very filling, so if I were Polish, I don’t think I would end up too
lucky!!!!

Finally after a day meant for dad, but doing activities I wanted to do, Dad got to have a sit down in the square, have a drink and people watch. This was in fact the highlight of the day for all of us. One beer turned into a few, and we got to
witness a group of 8 or so break dancers performing. They weren’t your usual run of the mill street performers though, these guys were the fittest break dancers I have ever seen. I will never know how someone has enough core strength to
twist around on only their elbow…After quite a few more beers, we decided it was time for dinner (cause we hadn’t eaten enough food that day) and so we went to a traditional Polish inn and feasted on some more traditional food It was a lovely
end to a brilliant day, and our time in Krakow.

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Now, Clinton and I were supposed to be making our way out of the Schengen Visa zone, and onto Budapest for a few days before hitting Croatia, but after only seeing my parents for 3 nights this did not seem enough, besides the only way for
us to get to Budapest was through another night train which didn’t seem very appealing. So we made an executive decision to go back to Prague and hang out with the parentals for another 4 days. Now, We’ve had no problems really with transport since we have been travelling, so I took it upon myself to organise our transport back to Prague. Of Course, since my parents were with me, it was the most disorganised travel experience so far. Our bus ended up at the Krakow airport, picking up guests who weren’t there, we left, then our guide who hardly spoke English had to go back to the airport to retrieve them. It was a chaotic nightmare but alas we finally got our train and pulled into Prague a few hours later.
Our second problem with returning to Prague was that it was in fact a public holiday weekend and basically all accommodation was booked. My parents were staying in a private room through airbnb so crashing on their floor was not an option. I
finally found a hotel about 3km’s out of town for the first night, however could not get anything for the second night. In the end, Mum and Dad to the rescue, went door knocking and found a hotel for us to stay in…I do not want to know how
much it was, but it was the sweetest thing anyone could do for us.(and the included breakfast was amazing!)

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Our time in Prague was a little like our time before in Prague…lots of eating Vietnamese and drinking unfiltered beer, we really took it quite easy, and enjoyed soaking up the city a second time round. We took Mum and Dad to our favourite
medieval bar and Dad tried his first unfiltered beer, which I think he took a shining to, as he ordered a second…its really hard to say no in Prague! We went to the communism museum which showed us what life was like back in Communist
times..again so interesting as this was a regime that existed within my life time. It really made me appreciate Australia and our freedom in our amazing country. But Before we knew it, it was our last night together, so we went for dinner and
drinks at a place I had scoped out, that claimed to be the smallest brewery in Prague. I do not know if it was the smallest brewery, but the beer was delicious and the food was amazing. We said good bye to my parents who were off to
Germany the next day and were looking a little weary from all the beer! I was super sad to say goodbye, but very thankful that I had the opportunity to spend 8 nights with my parents on the other side of the world. In our last hotel in Prague on our last night, we were treated to a fire work show overlooking the Prague Castle. Clinton and I sat on our deck watching the fireworks and reminisced about the last few days. It was a great end to our wonderful time in this glorious city.

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The next morning we made our way to Budapest. We had elected to stay in a private apartment a 15 minute walk from the centre of town, the space was perfect! My first impressions of Budapest were mixed. You could definitely see that it was
not as wealthy as Western Europe. Everything looked a bit shabbier, the streets not as clean, and the people a little more tired…but upon some further research I came to realise that I would actually really really love Budapest. I think because it is not as rich as its western cousins, Budapest has to try more to attract the tourists. That means a sub culture of amazing food, a coffee scene and a craft beer scene!! I quickly scoped out a list of markets, craft brewers and coffee joints for me to drag Clinton too, and that’s basically how we spent the next 4 days. The markets in Budapest were of a particular high quality and I really enjoyed walking all the various veggie and meat stalls. We purchased a few things to cook for dinner and a bottle of Bulls Blood, which my dad had talked about in detail from a previous Europe Holiday, and it did not disappoint!! Like we have mentioned in a previous post, we are constantly excited by the wine in Europe. It always has some form of structure at any price point. Plus it has the added benefit of being low alchol, so no headaches in the morning! We saw all the various sites of Budapest, all which were interesting and beautiful, but really honestly, we just walked the streets, drank coffee and beer and ate at places that reminded us of Melbourne. (ok perhaps we were a bit homesick) There was one coffee place that really made us feel at home, it was called Little Melbourne and was on the speciality coffee scene map that I had downloaded. It was filled with various Australian memorabilia, but not in a tacky way. The coffee was of an excellent standard, and I was super impressed to see St Ali
stickers everywhere, it certainly reminded me of the days of having brunch at one of my favourite cafes in Melbourne. Budapest is a place that I would really like to return too. Like Berlin, I think it has many layers of culture that you
are only scraping the surface upon your first visit. It’s definitely on my return list!!!

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21. Prague // Czech Republic

Prague almost immediately rocketed into our top three favourite cities. We are quickly learning cities that endorse multi-culturalism are a real treat to us, cities such as Berlin, Prague and later on, Budapest. I guess that is probably why Melbourne at its core is our all time favourite. Prague was a mix of 800 year old history, the after-effects of communism and a progressive acceptance of global trends. Only free of communist rule for just 20-25 years, most things are still noticeably cheap – especially the beer. Czech Republic sells beer cheaper than water and as such, you’d be foolish to hydrate yourself with anything but.

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Prior to travelling, I think my limited ignorance would have assumed Germany was the motherland of beer. And I was a little dubious when I heard claims that Czech Republic made the best beer in the world. Sure, it may have made “drinkable” beer in the 1800’s but with modern techniques and practices, surely all beer is up to standard now. But no. They really do. Czech Republic definately (still) makes the best beer in the world. It is where the first ever golden pilsner was born, in a town called Plzen in 1842. For 20 consecutive years, the Czech Republic has been deemed to consume the most volume of alcohol per capita. Buying a beer from the grocery store or from a bar seemed to make no difference to the price. Although you may pay exorbitant prices to enjoy a drink in the town square of places like Bruges or Venice, or along the banks of Melbourne, in Prague you could sit at a licensed bar in the sun on the river overlooking a majestic castle from the 12th century with a half litre of beer for just $3 AUD!!!

So, of course, we did that.

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We stayed at the Chilli Hostel (but in a private room of course – no need to remind you of the Fat Snoring Man in Munich) for four nights to visit this remarkable city. Upon our journey with our backpacks from the bus station to our accomodation, we were quietly tickled to again see numerous Vietnamese restaurants appear. We hadn’t enjoyed a Pho since Ireland and the taste of the Pho there was a little bitter due to the $15 price tag. Understandably, we were even more thrilled when we learnt Prague’s Phos were only $5! After a month or two of eating european inspired cuisine, we really cherished getting some spice back onto our palate and we made sure we became regular visitors of any Vietnamese restaurant we passed. It was Pho Bo and Vietnamese Salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Well, for a day or two at least. We couldn’t miss out on Prague’s other traditional dishes now could we.

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We were on the hunt for Goulash from the get go. Goulash is a thick, rich gravy with onions and slow cooked meat, served with bread dumplings. We were probably a few days in before we had our first experience of this. And it happened because we had to travel back to the 1930’s during a time before computers to collect our train tickets for Krakow from the Czech Transport office? When we had ordered these a week or two ago, we had to nominate a date to collect our tickets from Prague and it seemed their process was still to post the tickets from some main office somewhere to this little office so we could physically collect them. It reminded me of Ticketek, before the process came about where you can just print the barcode yourself. On a loose mission, we entered what was basically a house bearing the Czech Transport logo to pick up our tickets. Oh and their kind gesture cost us something like 15 Euro?? Pretty sure they had just printed them there and applied a generous tourist tax for us. Anyways, we were now on the Castle side of the river and began walking back aimlessly through some side streets when we stumbled past what looked to be an old medievil style tavern. With nothing more than a quick glance at one another, Elisha and I suddenly found ourselves inside, drawn in like a cobweb to a vacuum cleaner. Whether this was truely ancient or just decked out to appear so, we were instantly in love. Giant axes and armory hung from the walls and stairwells led down to a dusty basement beneath. We pulled up at an old wooden table and ordered what we had seen advertised as “unfiltered” beer. Elisha assured me this was most likely the freshest beer you could get as it had not gone through the final heating process most beers go through. Two 500ml glasses came out with this beautifully golden and cloudy beer, topped with a wonderful centimetre or two of bubbly head. We’d been warned that Czech Republic is renowned for conning people and they may often add a few beers to your bill at the end of your session. Whether they did or not, we paid for 16 beers before we stumbled out of there an hour or two days (time went missing) later. But at less than $2 each, we were far from broke. At some point in this timeless haze, we had also ordered the Goulash from their bible-like menu and, even though our palates were already rather beer-tainted, the aroma and flavour crammed into this layer of gravy was just mindblowing. As intense as the Stockpot we had had in Sapa in Vietnam. Interestingly, the onion is served raw on the top and adds an interesting texture to the meal.

We were also fortunate enough to be in Prague during their Easter Market. As you walked through the old town square, you were engulfed in rich smells of freshly cooking Prague ham, grilled sausages slathered in horseradish and mustard and bakery-like aromas from the Prague rolled pastries. Propped in between each of these were of course beer stands and, to our surprise in one corner, even a cider stand. It was really hard to say no to all this food and, on such a wonderfully sunny day, the beer as well.

So we didn’t. And it was all really good.

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We continued our ritual of jumping on a free walking tour in Prague and got to see some of the more tourist attractions that we may have neglected if we had only stayed in our beer haze. We began at the Astronomical clock. This was installed in 1410, making it the third oldest in the world and the oldest one still working. As I didn’t have time to buy and read the book on how to read it, it was good for a photo and to be lost amongst the thousands of people collecting beneath it to do the same. Among other things, we also passed the old Jewish quarter. Interestingly, this was preserved during Nazi Germany’s occupation to provide a site for the planned “exotic museum of an extinct race.” Our lunch break took us to a bar selling Gambrinus beer. We thought it would be a dive for them to have had a deal with the walking tour company. However, we polished not one but two of these beers off in a matter of moments – they were that good. We foolishly did not take note of the address and so, although we visited it again several times during our time in Prague, it took us some incredible guess work to again locate it.

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One afternoon, we did take a stroll across the historical Charles Bridge, another amazing landmark from the 15th century. This took us across the river to the Prague castle, where we bustled with many other tourists who were doing their best effort to create “Occupy Prague.” The treck to the castle took us up the hill and provided some amazings views that looked back out behind us over the city. Breathtaking. But after being close up to the Castle, we agreed it was way better from afar. I think if you find the right spot on the river, the Prague castle is one of the most beautiful and easy-to-photograph places I’ve seen so far. But of course, I’m not the photographer who remembers to go back to the great spot with the DSLR camera in the correct lighting conditions and, as such, this is the best picture we have of it.

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But it was great to sit at this one bar that sat on the banks and gave an uninterrupted vista of this city’s heritage.

Landmarks aside, it was the city itself that had us mesmerised. I remember our very first night there. With no agenda, we grabbed a roadie and walked the streets aimlessly, finding quint restaurants dug in hidden street corners and hearing the sounds of talented pianists practicing come from their upper apartment window. I think on our last day, we found another alternate bar further up along the river (again, thanks to the help of a Foursquare recommendation.) With a Brunswick-like crowd, we sat on the banks and joined in the Czech-version of a Sunday afternoon session.

We were to head to Krakow, Poland next to meet up with Elisha’s parents. I usually only get to see them each year at Christmas and so my relationship with them is often associated with way too much Christmas food and way too much drinking. When we arrived in Krakow to meet them, nothing had changed. It certainly felt as though I’d just eaten and drunk enough to think I’d just celebrated the festive season.

 

 

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