Thursday, September 23, 2010

Flip Cup

The throb of the boat’s diesel engine reminded us where we were this morning, in case we forgot. I’d certainly drunk enough the night before to wipe a few brain cells. Soon the boat was gently rocking its way out of the harbour coaxing me back to sleep. Shortly before 9am I climbed out and went up for breakfast. Troy had arranged for breakfast to be pushed back an hour considering our late-night bonding session. Well, he was meant too, yet something somewhere went wrong. Breakfast had been served at 8 and it was now over. Only one person, the daughter of a sailor, had made breakfast in her keen interest of nautical life on the other side of the world. The rest of us, well, we would just have to wait for lunch. And what a wait it was. Many people despite their hangovers threw themselves into the routine of “getting some colour”. Those Aussies living abroad in the UK didn’t care if that colour was red.
“As long as we don’t go back white,” was the consensus.
The swim stop was a welcome distraction from the hunger pangs. The cool, clear water cleared my head certainly. The bell rang out as we warmed our bodies on deck, drying away the salt water. To get that food there was nearly a stampede. Soup, glorious soup. On we motored.
Early that afternoon we arrived at an island some 30km long but at no point, wider than 2km. In any case, we didn’t stray beyond the port. The island, 90 per cent national park, is most famous for its inland lake. It was once freshwater but monks long ago carved a channel to the ocean and saltwater ensued. Instead we sat at the “beach”. The beach was no more than a stretch of concrete. Still, after a big night, we were happy to chill out with Jono, Jo, Laura and Ash. We sat around nibbling on some snacks bought at the corner store and fought off wasps. Jo kept a kill count. I failed to register a single kill. Jono meanwhile registered about three in the process of protecting Jo. I just wanted to protect my eyes from old European men getting around in G-strings and older woman going topless. Still, we happily passed a couple of hours, sharing stories. With the sun getting low we found a bench on the dock in front of the boats and knocked back a few cheap beers from the corner store. Being a little too ambitious we bought a few too many with dinner time closing in. Troy earned a jumper not once but twice as we brought the session to a quick end. Dinner was an optional extra cooked by the captain. An assortment of meat was laid on our tables and we ate eagerly in tribute to their toil. The lamb was popular. And the way Troy described it you would not find better in the world.
“They’re marinated from the inside,” he enthused, “The lambs chew on salt encrusted herbs along the coast.”
Whatever the case it was certainly packed with flavour. The skinless sausages, a Croatian specialty, were well received too. And the local beer proved good again. A few of us were full-to-bursting. The tables were soon being cleared signalling happy hour would start. Tonight, Troy was keen for us to all try a hand at some drinking games, including beer pong and flip cup. Beer pong was the first challenge. This involved six cups “racked up” at either end of the tables in a triangle, half filled with beer. With a ping pong ball, the aim of the game was for each competitor to lob it into one of the cups. If it landed in your cup you had to drink. If it went in on the bounce you had to drink two. Whoever lost all their cups first lost and perhaps somewhat drunk in the process. We also played it in doubles. I neither won or got drunk but it was still fun. Compared to this, however, flip cup was a riot of fun. Teams of six sat facing each other at the table. In front of them was a plastic cup half filled with beer. On the count: “One, two, three, FLIP CUP,” the opponents at the head of the table would down their drink. The cup was then rested on the table’s edge and flipped with a gentle finger from beneath. As soon as the cup landed upside down on the table it was the next person’s go and so on down the line in a race to the end. The winning team would vote off a member of the opposing team, usually the biggest threat. If your team lost a member someone would have to drink their cup in the next round, to even up the cup count between the two teams. Between three teams of six this went on for more than an hour. Some people got merrily drunk and continued the party off the boat. We had opted out of the game and were happy to hit the sack at 11.
Sam (September 12)

I'm on a boat!

We were thankful for our ensuite this morning even if it was a battle to access it. When the girls weren’t in there doing their makeup they were straightening their hair sitting on their bunks. I thought myself lucky Alysia had not brought her straightener on this trip. Packed, we checked out, set out for the port and our boat. Erring on the side of caution we started at the nearest line of boats.
“We’ll walk along the water toward where we saw the Katarina boats.”
We were glad we did because they do indeed dock at two different points. This saved us quite a bit of back and forward with heavy packs. The sail contractors checked our documents and directed us to our boat. We had to walk across the deck of three similar boats to find ours, all docked side by side. And not all boats being equal there was quite a step between some of them - to get onto ours Alysia had to take her pack off. The captain was sitting out the back, with his reading glass and a stern look on, going over some documents. He asked us to surrender our passports and told us to be back at 12. We left our bags and set out for brunch. The port had its own food court of sorts. Perfect. Souvlaki on pita would do the trick. As we sat and ate we watched people walking past in board shorts wearing thongs, talking like strained crows, we discovered we weren’t alone. We were not the great adventurers we thought. We were just more Aussies in this summer promised land. In fact we would discover later we numbered 17 on the vessel. Besides us there was just one other nationality, in three Italians, besides the Croatian crew of course. Still we were happy. Back on the boat we met Jono and Jowy, from Victoria, who had been based in London. With them was Ashleigh, a friend from their apartment block, and Laura (an old friend of Jowy.’s). Like most Aussie’s behaving badly abroad they smoked. We didn’t mind so much having come to expect it across Europe. Jono and Jo were holidaying their way back to Oz. Another Aussie jumped on board. We learned this tank of a man was our tour guide.
“How does an obvious gym-junkie become a tour guide?” I wondered to myself. “This could be interesting.
Our boat wasn’t the vintage sailing boat we had imagined it would be. It had three stories, the below deck cabins where we were, alongside the diesel engine and its fumes, the boarding deck, housing the saloon, the two communal toilets, two showers, the captain’s cabin, our guide’s cabin and one crew and the above deck, housing eight cabins in all plus a place to hang out the back with deck chairs.
Eventually we were allowed to drop our bags into our cabins. If we could negotiate a narrow set of stairs into the bowels of the beast. We’d saved some money doing it this way but only time would tell if it was a wise choice. On the plus side we had a cabin to ourselves, even if it didn’t have a ensuite. Everyone on board did. I grabbed the top bunk. The bottom, Alysia’s, was staggered out below mine. At my head was a porthole about 100mm in diameter. It had a glass window secured by a wing nut and a solid metal one over that. They had to be closed under “navigation”.
The group gathered in the “saloon”, where we would share many meals over the coming week. Troy, or Trojan as the tank was otherwise known, promised we’d be spoilt and brown by the end of the week. He should have said we’d be fat too. He ran through some of the rules with us but the most amusing was that the boat was “explicitly acoustic” and that all noise would have to cease at midnight. At about this point the boat started motoring toward our first port, Hvar. Following some introductions we all took a shot of Rakia (fire water). And almost everyone ordered their first beer. It was only 1pm and we would not eat for two more hours.
“This could be an interesting week.”
The group dispersed and explored the boat. People gathered on the top deck which appeared by design for this purpose. Sun chairs were quickly set out and the group settled in for some relaxation and more talk. Lunch rolled around quickly signalled by the clatter of a bell.
Seated back in the saloon our waiter quickly brought out steaming bowls of mushroom soup quickly followed by spag bol. For dessert it was ripe and tasty pear. We were all full to bursting. Done and dusted we were quickly introduced to another requisite duty. Yes, within minutes, nearly all were in the water off the side of the boat.
“What would our mothers think, swimming so soon after food?!”
The water was colder than in Greece but just as salty and well welcomed. The cloud of the morning had burned off to reveal a beautiful afternoon. Drying on deck the salt clung to our bodies occasionally itching. Water was a precious resource too so there would be no showering after swimming. By the end of the week we might all be true salt dogs. Relaxing on board the captain idled the engine back and we drifted up to the dock. Our first step off the boat we were in Hvar. After our Greek cruise and the use of tender boats I thought: “this I could get used to”. Troy put his hand on his head like a shark fin. He was not meant to lead walking tours.
“If I say kismish man everyone scatter,” he enthused.
It was almost a game. This first tour would be very rudimentary so there were little risk of conflict with professional tour leaders.
On our own, so to speak, we climbed the hill toward the Spanish-designed fortress built by the Venetians. The views of the port were well worth it. We saw little point to pay money to go in and this was soon vindicated by reports from others on our boat. Instead we took the time to find some Croatian fast food, get back to the boat, get showered before happy hour and the return of the hordes. We wished to avoid any battles for the two communal shower this week.
The draught beer was everything it should be on the boat and we had soon wiped the smile of a few pints.
“Time for Kiva Bar,” Troy announced.
It wasn’t much after 9 when we arrived, being a five minute walk from the boat. Waiting for us on the bar were some Rakia shots and they were a bit nicer than the “paint stripper” version downed art initiation. These were quickly followed by some beers. The place had a good vibe. But overall we could have been in any bar back home. The bulk of the patrons were Aussies on the Busabout tour. Busabout had three boats in dock that night and, again, they were mostly Australian. It wasn’t all bad though. Somehow being on the other side of the world made it perfectly acceptable to sing along to John Farnham’s You’re The Voice among other tragedies. At the bar people were paying the price for fun. With the customer wearing an old army helmet the bar staff would mix tequila and lemon in a glass by bashing them about the head.
“Bang, bang, bang, BANG,” the final blow a brutal glancing shot that would ring out across the room before the patron downed the shot. We just punished ourselves with the huge drinks. Metre-long straws sprung from pitchers of booze, containing eight shots, disappearing at frightening speed with the help of friends. Troy was in fine form too. Appearing at the doorway, on queue, the Baywatch them song roared from the speakers. He was “The Hoff” after all. Thoroughly enjoying this boozy evening I travelled back and forward to the bar. On my last journey I asked for another pitcher and also received six shots and another beer - all for the price of the pitcher. With the shots in one hand, the pitcher under my wing and the beer in the other hand I set off the find everyone. I did but at the final moment the pitcher slipped, smashing on the floor. Bugger. At least we had the shots and me, a beer, to console myself. This proved good company while I went to scrape the glass out of my thong-shod feet. Alysia soon found me and it was time to move to the next bar. For us though we called it a night, me staggering back to the boat, seeing double and triple.
Sam (September 11)

A fine day to be fined

If an empty tin of tar had a tongue that is what my mouth felt like. There was no headache upon waking just that awful taste. Three litres of dark beer will do that I guess. Still we rose at a reasonable hour and were well on time for the airport. As the key rattled into the letter box we turned for the door and said a quiet goodbye to Hostel Hobo Bear. Micky, on reception, gave me straight forward instructions the night before: “Get the tram three stops back past the train station and get a bus to the airport for 35 kuna (six Aussie dollars).” With a light rain falling we got on the tram, riding it for free, as we were told. Although we had to stand we were in good spirits. One stop past the train station an official looking man in a jacket, white shirt and hat, asked us for our tickets. “This must be some sort of mistake,” I thought. The hostel told us we could ride the tram for free - this was the free zone. Alysia protested and despite the language barrier it seemed to work. But at the next stop the instruction was simple: “Get off.” At this point my suspicions were running high. Is he legitimate or does he just prey on tourists hoping to score some cash. He pulled out a leather pouch and pointed to some text and the price, 200 kuna. A chorus of disgruntled locals sparked up around us seemingly unhappy we had abused their transport system. Doing my best to keep cool - my protests we were dumb tourists falling on deaf ears - I handed over just the 200 kuna. Luckily we were allowed back on the tram, the next stop being the one we wanted. Despite being a little agitated we stood quietly on the tram as it ratted along for a few more minutes. With some relief we got off. But this would be short lived. The guard had approached a colleague and cornered us as we tried to walk off the platform. They wanted another 200 kuna. Apparently the fine I had paid was only for one of us. It was only the fact we weren’t riding any further they desisted and let us go. My blood boiled. Yet I exhaled slowly and we walked away. We had done the wrong thing, apparently, giving us no leg to stand on. I did feel hard done by though. There was no malice in our actions. The local woman screaming obscenities across the platform at the guards seemingly had no excuse though. In a moment our experience of Zagreb soured and in the next moment a local had offered us directions to where we were going. In that act I resolved to remember Zagreb as a good place.
A little confused we walked along the front of what looked like a large car park and found row after row of buses and a Eurolines office. In through the doors I was ready to ask someone at the desk if it was them who offered the transfer service when I saw a guy waving someone else through.
“Airport transfer this way,” he gestured through the doors.
Fetching Alysia we threw the bags underneath and jumped on. Mickey was right when he said it was only 35 kuna each. We travelled to the airport without so much as a word between us. We were still digesting what had happened on the tram.
“Are we any more forgiving of tourists in Australia? Would a guard simply instruct the person to buy a ticket?”
We arrived at the airport before check in had opened for our domestic flight to Split. It was a good chance to grab breakfast and we took a seat at the terminal’s only cafĂ©. The coffee and strudel were welcomed. And watching people, ourselves a little drained, we passed almost the next hour without trying. I rearranged my bags, weary of how much my checked luggage would weigh, though the bottles of booze would have to stay put.
We were greeted warmly at check in and though Alysia’s bag was over the 15kg stipulation it was sent down the conveyor without drama. My bag was more than three kilos over though, where Alysia’s had weighed 16kg, mine was near 19kg. I was instructed to take it down to another conveyor. The sign above it read “security”. This sign evoked images of zips flying and contents being strewn. I even gulped at the thought of a cavity search. Did I look suspect? I need not have worried though. The bag was given a cursory blast by the xray and sent on to the plane. Thank goodness for that. And we didn’t have to pay any extra for excess baggage. Our passage through security wasn’t a drama either. Yet one can see why more and more people are avoiding air travel when they can. Soon enough we’d be on that plane and our worries behind us.
Touch down in Split was smooth and better yet my ears didn’t hurt having been such a short flight. Closer to half an hour in fact than an hour. The airport was no bigger than a domestic job back in Oz. We grabbed our bags and got some clues for travelling into Split.
“Split coach outside the doors. Thirty-five Kuna,” the girl at information said.
A short time later our bus had arrived and we were on it. A rocky ridge line rose high on our left and followed our path south to Split. More houses constructed with large red bricks, roughly laid, lined the narrow road. Veggie gardens were common. And nether were unregistered or just unused cars on foot paths. Otherwise it was pretty enough. The white metropolis of apartment blocks on the horizon could best be aesthetically described as utilitarian. What would this place be like over all? The roads widened and grew into dual lanes. This would not last long as we were soon at the port: the city’s transportation terminus. Saddled with the bags once again and equipped with the world’s vaguest directions we set out for the hostel. Up the hill, go through the lights and cross the road. Yeah okay, might help if you had said what side of the road we were on in the first place or maybe a street name. Across the road at the lights, a sign pointed to “hostel” and amazingly we found it. As simple as this sounded there were several ways we could have gone wrong. Check in was a cinch too. An eight-bed dorm with a pair of roommates already well set up with a clothes line along the bunks. Time to go explore.
Along the marina we walked, back the way we came, finding some pizza. Yep, pizza, who would have thought we would ever eat pizza again. But this was enormous pizza. One slice required its own postcode.
Fed we walked back toward the hostel but this time down into the walled city, dating back to Roman times. The fact this is a living, breathing, museum is most unusual. People sell goods and live within this stone city. For quite a while we strolled aimlessly. Late in the afternoon we decided to head back to the hostel buying some beach towels from the markets on the way. We never packed anything more than a travel towel each as we had never planned to go to Croatia.
Back in our room, we met our roomies, an Aussie couple who had been travelling for about two months already and had another three to go. It was their second night in Split and the first long-term stop they had made and they were getting comfortable on their top bunk.
There was one computer to share between all the occupants of the room so we were lucky to have our own.
Cleaned up we set off in search of food, back along the marina, and further. We found some interesting little taverns serving food but by the time we had agreed on where to eat, the place was full. The owner said it would be near an hour if we wanted to eat, before we’d be seated.
“No thanks.”
Pizza it would be. Yet with light rain falling there was nowhere to sit. Back to the hostel it was, this time with a whole pizza of the type we had tried for lunch. It was twice the size of a large Dominos pizza and plenty tasty.
More roomies greeted us back in the hostel, two girls from the UK and another Australian, all of whom were heading out on the sail boats tomorrow. Seemed to be a popular choice.
While the others stayed up reading, with our full bellies, we soon crawled into bed exhausted from a full day.
Sam (September 10)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A day at the lakes

We woke early for our excursion to Plitvice Lakes. It was a national park we had been told about by our Couchsurfing friends, Leover and Bernadette when they stayed with us. The photos they showed us of the lakes and waterfalls, of the bluest blue you can imagine had stuck with us and often when planning this trip we had dreamed of doing Croatia, simply because of what we had heard of these lakes.
Now that we finally had the opportunity go, we were taking it, especially since it hadn’t been a part of our original plan.
The night before, we had asked the hostel staff what would be the best way of getting to the national park, given it was at least a two hour drive south east of Zagreb. From what we had managed to find online, most people caught a bus to the park and either stayed there or caught the bus back, which could sometimes be tricky.
Mickey told us that a mini bus could take us there, more conveniently than the public bus and it could pick us up just down the road from the hostel. It would be a return trip and we would pay our entry to the park when we got there.
That sounded sweet and Michael, the other Aussie staying at the hostel also wanted to go.
So with the mini bus booked for us by the staff, all we had to do was be at the corner at 8.50 in the morning.
So bright and early we were up, only to find the sky overcast and threatening rain. It wouldn’t have surprised us. It had stormed the night before to the point where it knocked out the television reception. It had poured with rain and the forecast for today was for more showers.
On the bus, it wasn’t long before the skies opened and rain drops were slapping against the windscreen.
It wouldn’t be much fun walked around a national park in the rain.
Once we were out of the city, the scenery changed dramatically and the countryside we passed through was quite pretty. It seemed every second house on the main road had rooms to rent, cheap too, and some were even giving them away free, obviously if you bought something else like dinner I presume.
The park was extremely popular during summer and had become even more so we were sure since Leover and Bernadette had been there the year before.
As we approached the park, it seemed fate was again on our side as the clouds parted and the sun began to shine.
By the time we stopped, it was almost hot and I was regretting wearing my jeans.
Our driver bought out entry tickets and then we all went our separate ways as we entered the park. There were several trails you could walk, taking as little as two hours to as many as eight.
It was a popular place for hikers and many we passed at the entry were equip with hiking poles. I felt more than a little inappropriately dressed in my thongs.
Our first mistake was getting stuck behind a tour group of oldies down a narrow descending track to the valley floor. As we have discovered, Europeans have little regard for queues, personal space and sharing a path with others and this was no different, making overtaking difficult. By the time we started making some headway, we were at the edge of one of the first of the park’s many lakes.
And it was as described, the most amazing shade of blue, crystal clear and sparkling. Swimming and fishing was forbidden and there were hundreds of fish in the water at the lake’s edge and easily visible.
A waterfall cascaded over a cliff and here the path forked.
The tour group of oldies veered in the direction of the waterfall while we followed the path according to the walking track we had decided to follow.
The mud track was soon replaced by a timber walkway, made of roughly cut logs that actually went over small lakes and waterfalls. There was an abundant of wildlife and hundreds of people walking the tracks.
As we wound our way up the hills surrounding the valley, our view across the lakes only become more spectacular.
We found a lookout with a stunning view of the main lakes and the waterfall that separated the higher from the lower.
As we walked back down, I remarked to Sam how cool it would be to see a bear, as there were some living in the park, as well as plenty of deer.
Sam asked what on earth did I want to see bear for because he would shit himself. I just wanted a cool photo.
But we didn’t see a bear or any deer either for that matter.
Over a hill and heading down towards the upper lake we had seen earlier, a large clearing held a restaurant, souvenir shop and also the ferry departure point. We hadn’t known it before entering the park that a small ferry, more of a tiny barge really, crossed the upper lake at various points and each park entry entitled the bearer to one ferry trip and one road train trip to a different area of the park.
Sam and I decided to have some lunch before we jumped on the ferry as we had no idea what was on the other side of how long it would take us to get back.
The bus was picking us up at 5pm.
We jumped on the end of the queue and watched as a tour group of oldies pushed in front of us, led by their Croatian tour guide who had obviously done this many times before.
Queue jumping is something we have run into constantly during this trip but on this day, in the heat, surrounded by rude old people, Sam and I had had enough. Holding hands, we started to basically barricade the line, not allowing anyone else to push in.
After waiting for at least an hour, Sam and I finally edged to the front of the queue only to have to wait again as another tour guide insisted her entire group make it onto the boat in one go.
We’d pretty much had it at this pint and if the fat lady waiting next to us tried anything funny I was ready to push her big butt into the water.
All aboard and we slowly shunted our way across the lake at the pace of a snail. The water was just as blue as everywhere else within the park.
At the dock, we got our bearings and tried to figure out how we could start making our way back towards the pick up point.
Off the barge, we climbed step after step, and cross bridge after bridge, stuck behind the oldies that had got off on the boat before. When we finally managed to past them, we set off at a brisk pace, passing waterfalls, still pools of water, and crossing wooden catwalks.
Heading in the direction of a road train, we stumbled out onto the road to find a group of at least 100 people waiting as well. Great, another queue.
As we filed to the back of the line, we overheard someone say it would be a half hour wait and prepared ourselves to seethe.
But just as we were debating whether or not to walk back, the road train (a bus with three carriages, set high on monster truck-sized wheels), came around the corner and stopped right in front of us.
We were first on the last carriage and enjoyed the 10 minute ride back to the closest stop to where we needed to be. Then it was just a short walk to the pick up point.
We were about an hour early, and we preferred that to being late and decided to grab a beer and wait.
It was by far the worse beer I’ve had to date and several bees that were hanging around convinced me to leave it anyway.
Back on the bus for the two-hour ride home, which seemed to pass quite quickly as Sam and I once again succumbed to Contiki bus syndrome, which has meant we now fall asleep almost instantly on buses.
In the hostel, we met our room mates for the night, cousins from England before heading out in search of dinner.
We asked the guy working in our hostel that evening if he could recommend anywhere to eat and he suggested a brewery just up the road.
We found it easily enough and it reminded us of the breweries we had visited with Anne-Marie in Dusseldorf.
We sat outside at a large table, surrounded by at least a hundred people of various ages enjoying a mid week drink.
We ordered two of the most alcoholic beers, recommended to us by the waiter and some dinner.
The beer was tasty and so was the food. It was big, there was plenty of it and we wasted no time getting into it.
Full of beer, we were content and then Michael walked in, another Aussie staying at our hostel we had met the night before. He joined our table, ordered some dinner and we all ordered more beer.
It was a good night, with beer, talk of home and politics of all things.
Sam bought a few beers to go, a litre each and eight per cent. There was no way any of us could finish them.
We had an early night because we had to leave in the morning for Split.
Alysia (September 9)

Friday, September 10, 2010

A train, a hobo and a porno

"It's the Harry Potter train," Alysia exclaimed. Well it wasn't a steam train but we were seated in our own compartment for our trip to Zagreb. It was a pleasant surprise having risen early to get the train. And to know we were definitely in one of the rear three carriages: We would not be shunted off to Slovakia or somewhere equally out of the way. Austria, sensing our disappointment, turned on her best weather to fare us well - cold and rain. There was plenty of time for reflection too. Had we been too critical of Vienna? Probably. The fact we didn't enjoy it; perhaps a reflection on how uncultured we are. In five years time our take on her might be completely different.
Alysia was dozing before we had even left the outer suburbs and it was at about this time I gathered enough motivation to blog. The countryside, though, would soon prove a distraction. Like most places across Europe, being summer, there was a lot of corn being grown. To my surprise though there were also what appeared to be family gardens with which to put food on the table or perhaps earn a little money.
About three hours out of Vienna our train pulled up in the country's south for "16 minutes". Here the door of our apartment was yanked back and two burly cops said "passports". They were quickly scanned, stamped and returned. Before I could think "you forgot to close the door" more people were standing over us. "Passports". Okay? This time we got a stamp signifing our entry to Croatia. Before them it was the Austrians making sure we were leaving. Before we could process all this a Croatian women was asking us if we had anything to declare. Of course we did not. Alysia looked at me and I back at her. "Is that it?" We were half expecting someone to come and check our tickets for the fourth time but no one came. The whole experience made us realise how lucky we are, being from Australia, passing easily through immigration everywhere. Not like the Iraqis we watched Romania turn away on our brief connection there a week earlier, or in London at the very start of our adventure.
Onward the train rolled toward Zagreb. To fill the time I tried to learn us some Croatian/Serbian without much progress. Without hearing the words we had no idea if we would pronounce them right. The easiest would would be "pardon" which, like in English, is "excuse me". Sorry is something else altogether and thank you is hvala.
The train arrived in Zagreb more than six hours after we left but, impressively, on time. From the platform we found the free inner city tram. We travelled the three stops as told to find our hostel - Hobo Bear - just off the main road. We weren't entirely sure we had found it though as there was no signage screaming "hostel" like we'd seen everywhere else. But what really set the pulse racing was the notice on the entrance door to the office/common room that advised the hostel was closed due to water problems. Thankfully this was not the case; someone had just forgoten to take the sign down.
With the bags deposited in the room, basement dungeo that smelt of damp but was clean and had character, we set out to explore Zagreb knowing virtually nothing about it. We found an old Roman church on the hill and nearby the daily markets. But what we really wanted was a meal to sit down to. We found this in the city's old town. Virtually every building in this strip was pastel coloured and sold food. Alysia ordered a pizza and I was persuaded into a rib eye steak for 70 Kuna - 14 aussie dollars. Both were well received leaving us rather stuffed.
This probably explained our lack of zest when it came to exploring in what little was left of the afternoon. The main square pointed every which way to muesums but none grabbed us. Instead we sat by a fountain and watched numerous parents and grandparents tempt fate, getting the little 'uns excited about the water before dragging them away all despondent.
Our last ditch attempt at exploring was short lived, yet we were for once thankful, for our feeble effort ended within a few steps of the hostel when the rain started teaming down. Inside things were a lot drier including the humour. Particularly from the two South London boys occupying the lounge. The frivolity peaked though with their presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Michael, from Melbourne. He discovered the porn channel showing Anal Explosion. They only wished it was Big Titties instead.
Sam (September 8)

Vienna ... yawn

We took our time departing Innsbruck for Vienna. The train didn't leave until 11 and we already had our tickets. The train station was just downstairs, literally under the hotel. We took our time at breakfast, checked out and found our platform.
The train ride to Vienna was not nearly as picturesque as the one coming into Innsbruck. Within about 10 minutes of our journey, the alps were behind us and rolling hills the only thing of any interest to break up the scenery.
It was a loooong trip, about five hours and there was no breaks in between. It was a direct ride and by the time we rolled on into Vienna, we were both starving.
Off the train and we were left to tackle the simple matter of finding our hostel.
Sam was the expert on this one and we followed his map to our digs, maybe 800m up the road.
It was said to be the oldest hostel in Austria, if not Eastern Europe. It was owned and run by a couple in their 70s who had both travelled extensively when they were younger. They set up the hostel about 35 years ago and it must have a capacity for a least 100 guests.
Checking in, we had a private double room with ensuite which was not actually in the main hostel building, but another across the street, The Yellow House. We had access to all the facilities of the main building which included to our delight a laundry (amazing what excites you after months of living out of a suitcase), an immaculate kitchen, a huge common area and dining room plus a bar.
It also had a selection of guitars and a piano for any musos keens for an impromptu jam session.
The staff were helpful and there were a stack of people staying there.
We were excited to be staying in such a cool place and were looking forward to exploring Vienna the next day.
Meanwhile, we had discovered about 8pm that the Ibis in Innsbruck had overcharged us. We had booked on Wotif and had been charged for our first night on Sam's credit card and then charged again for our full stay on arrival, for two nights. Like I said we had questioned it at the time but seemed satisfied with the reception chick's answer.
But now here it was, in black and white on Sam's bank statement and we knew they had stuffed up.
We got on Skype and called the hotel to complain but only got some guy who said he could't help us and to call back in the morning.
I might also mention here that while we had intended to go to Salzburg between Innsbruck and Vienna, to do the Sound of Music tour, I had taken one for the team and told Sam it was OK to skip it.
I wish I had't.
The next day, we had intended to leave the hostel bright and early but it was closer to noon by the time we sorted out our call to the Ibis.
This time we got the manager who had already been informed of the situation it seemed. She was very apologetic and said the mistake had already been rectified and our credit card refunded.
Sorted. We headed up to the train station to buy our ticket for the next stage of our journey to Zagreb.
The plan now was to train it to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, spend two nights there, visit the Plitvice Lakes and then head down to Split to start our eight days sailing tour.
Buying our tickets was much easier than expected if not pricey. But the ticket lady was helpful and nice and that always goes a long way with us.
We hopped on the underground to head into the city, about which we didn't know much.
This was probably our second mistake.
Vienna is boring.
We had expected opera and classical music stuff and some sort of horses that prance and stuff but the whole city was sterile, dull. It had no vibe, no atmosphere, no nothing.
We wandered around the main square of the old town and found the museum quarter, which as the name suggests is full of museums.
We even found the plague monument mentioned in Lonely Planet and still we were disppointed.
The place simply had nothing that interested us. Even the food we had already sampled during our time in Innsbruck and we ended up having McDonald's for lunch.
By 4pm, we were back at the hostel, blogging, waiting for happy hour to start and pretty much biding our time until we could leave.
Our train tickets to Zagreb were not good until the day after tommorow so we were stuck in Vienna for at least another full day.
Despairing of what we were going to do, we consulted the Lonely Planet for suggestions, thinking maybe there was a possible day trip out of the city to some amazing place with a castle and a moat or something.
It was called Slovakia, and yes, it was a whole other country. Vienna is so boring it doesn't even have any cool day trips, you have to leave Austria to do something good.
Slovakia's Bratislava sounded like it fit the bill - a beautiful old town with a castle and a moat (Sam has a thing for moats) and it was only an hour's train ride from Vienna.
Happy that we could escape the city and clock up another country to our tally, we had the plan sorted.
After more cheap beers at the hostel bar, we went to a local pub just metres up the road recommended to us by the hostel where we could get schnitzel and chips for six euro.
The schnitzel was good but I didn't like the beer there and we headed back to our room after dinner.
But then the next day, disaster struck.
We were getting ready to go out, moats and castles waiting, when I found a grey hair.
Actually several.
I am 26 and I found grey hairs - in my head if there was need to clarify.
It was a devestating moment. At first Sam tried to pretend they were not really there and then conceded that maybe it was caused by me going back to brunette (?).
Boys simply don't understand. Already most people we have met on the trip are younger than us by several years, having seen more of the world than we have at this point and now I'm going prematurely grey.
I was about due for a minor stress meltdown.
Consequently, by the time Sam coaxed me out of it, it was after midday.
We decided to go to the train station anyway to see when the train to Slovakia was leaving and how much the tickets were.
But it turns out they didn't leave from that station and it would be a pain in the arse to get there.
So back around we turned to look for lunch.
For several weeks now we have been craving something that isn't pizza or pasta. Thai or Chinese seemed like the perfect alternative to Italian/European food.
There was a Chinese restauarant across the road from the train station we had seen the day before and we headed to it, unbothered by how much it would probably cost us.
We ordered what seemed like a banquet for two, there was so much food and we took our time eating it.
Sam ate and ate and ate til he was fit to bursting and then, still wanted coffee.
Turns out a mocca in Austrian is an expresso and not a mocha, chocolate and coffee, so Sam had to drink mine as well.
He was a very full boy by the time we got back to the hostel.
With more washing to be done, not knowing when we would have a chance during the next few weeks, Sam hit the laundry again while I caught up on the blog.
We gave happy hour a miss tonight though, as tempting as the beers were at two euro a pop for half a litre.
We had to get up super early the next day to go to Zagreb. The train left at 7.03am but not from the station nearest to us. We would have to catch the underground a few stops along to our station to get our direct train to Zagreb.
We also had to pack, something that should have been made easier by the fact that this afternoon we posted the beer steins and Killepitsch back to Australia. Turns out there was two kilos of weight in that alone I had been lugging around. Still my bag seemed no lighter without it.
Hopefully Zagreb would have more to offer than Vienna had, a city of disappointment.
Alysia (September 5,6,7)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The hills are alive!

Austria - it was the prettiest place by far we have yet visited.
We left Venice on Friday morning, checking out of our hotel before it began to rain (the first we had seen in weeks).
At the train station, we bought tickets to Innsbruck, Austria, a smallish town in the alps and according to Sam it would be a very scenic trip. I bloody well hoped so.
It was a seven hour train ride with two changes - one at Verona and another within Austria, about half an hour from Innsbruck.
The guy who sold us the tickets also managed to book it so they only cost us 20 euro each instead of the 100-odd euro we were expecting. He told us though that we would have to buy tickets at our second change, Brenner, in Austria to the final destination because then it was with Austrian railways and not Italian.
No worries. We boarded with plenty of time, watched the rain begin to fall and were soon whizzing out of Venice.
The change at Verona was just under two hours and with the arrival time ticking over on Sam’s watch, and a glimpse of a sign saying Verona, naturally when the train stopped, I thought we had arrived. Sam was not convinced and asked me again and again if this was the right stop. Unfortunately we were in the last carriage at the very end of a long, long platform and there was not a sign to be seen.
Weighed down as we were with our bags there was no time for one of us to get off, check, and jump back on. So we hopped off.
Checking the tickets we realised our error. We were in Verona alright, just not the right Verona station.
We wanted Verona Nuove and we were at Verona something else.
Bugger me.
We hit the underground walkway until we got to the station to find out where the hell we were. We couldn’t be far from the right station because the time was right for us to have arrived.
Turns out we got off six minutes too early and the next train heading to the right station was about half an hour away.
Luckily for us, our connecting train to Brenner in Austria was an hour wait, during which we had figured we would get some lunch etc.
So it wasn’t disastrous but I suppose it could have been.
Back on the right platform, Sam whipped across the tracks to find us some lunch while I kicked myself and cursed TrenItalia for not having more signs on the platforms.
Our six-minute train ride went off without a hitch and we made it to our connecting train with 10 minutes to spare.
It seemed that within half an hour of our journey, the scenery had completely changed. High mountain ranges shot up either side of the valley the railway line meandered through and the lush green of grapevines abounded.
It wasn’t long before first Sam then I were pointing out to the other things of interest, including several things that looked like castles, set high on the mountain range.
It was stunningly beautiful and I have no idea why we didn’t pull out our cameras and start snapping away.
As the hours passed, the peaks of the mountains only seemed to get higher and the vegetation even more lush and green.
Houses with wooden trim and colourful flower boxes sprung up everywhere and tiny towns dominated by a central church spire passed us by every few minutes.
When I saw my first peak covered in snow, I’m pretty sure I squealed.
I’ve seen snow before, played in it, frozen my arse off in it, but this was different.
We were entering the region of the Austrian alps and the view was spectacular.
The sky was a brilliant blue, the houses and towns like something out of a fairytale and then white-topped mountains encircled the lot.
The last few hours flew by as we sat in awe of the environment we passed.
Like I said, we stupidly did not take any photos, though it did cross my mind. The windows on the train were so filthy I didn’t think they would do the scenery justice.
Finally, the train terminated at Brenner and we had to buy our onward tickets to Innsbruck.
The next train was in about half an hour but buying a ticket was more tricky than anticipated.
The ticket machine seemed to have every destination in all of Austria listed except the one we wanted.
Frustrated, we made to walk away in search of an employee when a German woman stopped us and asked if the machine was broken.
No, we told her, but Innsbruck is not listed.
She flagged a guy walking past and asked him (I surmise because it was in German) how to buy tickets to Innsbruck.
He started to walk away and the woman followed, so we followed her.
He led us to a train with Innsbruck on the destination window.
She told us that apparently we could buy them on the train so we all boarded.
Several others around us seemed just as confused and waited with expectation for the train dude to come along and ask for our tickets.
We had only six stops to Innsbruck and the scenery was just as picturesque, if not more so than what we had already seen.
Still no train guy and we were getting close to our stop. There was a chance we had got this seven-hour trip for 40 euro between us - a European bargain.
We arrived in Innsbruck without seeing any train dude and without having to buy a ticket.
It was also about 20 degrees cooler than when we had left Venice. Um, why are we here again? I hate the cold. It’s pretty, but cold.
We checked into our hotel, the easiest affair yet given the Ibis was above the railway station.
We had booked on Wotif the night before but then the woman asked for a credit card payment as well, which we thought odd at the time and questioned but seemed satisfied with her response for some reason.
It was an Ibis, actually much bigger than the other ones I have been in, and we had a view from our room of the alps - covered in snow!!!
We were both starving and the Burger King across the road beckoned.
It was about 7pm by this stage.
We were both a little excited, carrying on like stupid tourists. I think the high altitude must have touched us in the head.
After dinner we set off on a walk, freezing our arses off mind you. The time in the Mediterranean must have thinned our blood a little.
Sam was dead keen on finding some schnapps and I just wanted beer.
We found a supermarket about to close and snuck in to buy a six pack, some lollies and peach schnapps.
With our supplies we continued our wander until by accident we stumbled across the Alt Stadt, or old town.
This was tourist central, even given the late hour and we also learned a wine festival was in swing.
We promised ourselves we’d come back tomorrow, wanting an early-ish night.
Back in the hotel, we discovered we had no fridge and of course the beer was not cold - it’s actually hard to find beer that’s cold over here.
So Sam went to reception to ask for ice, while I took advantage of the first decent internet connection we’d had in weeks.
We had some beers and were excited to discover all that Innsbruck held the next day.
Alysia (September 3)