Unfinished Business: Journalism on the frontline in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

If you’ve read any of our posts, or anything about Bosnia-Herzegovina, or seen pictures of it since the mid-1990’s, the war is probably the one thing that most people know about the country.

Whilst seeing it for ourselves in Mostar this summer, a local man was speaking to us and got onto the topic of Britain. In doing so he mentioned a name that Bosnia-Herzegovina see as almost synonymous with the country. Whilst across the world that could be anyone from David Beckham and Lewis Hamilton to William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, this this particular part of the world it’s a BBC journalist, Jeremy Bowen.

During the early 90’s conflict, at a time when Mostar (along with the majority of the Balkans) was in lock down, Jeremy Bowen had made his way into the city to report from the frontline. Opinion is divided on the input of a lot of the world during this conflict, from Israel’s alleged support of the Yugoslav forces to the UN seemingly allowing, or at least turning a blind eye to concentration camps and war crimes taking place within their safe zones. For all the failings on every side at that time, the BBC’s and Bowen’s efforts must be credited for bringing attention to what was happening in Mostar, and the wider area.

Whilst we were in the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, the following video was playing on a loop. An incredible piece of journalism and a must watch for anyone who wants to see what the frontline was like during the war that gripped the region. Contains some upsetting scenes.

Article by Tom McBeth

    

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Pula, Croatia: the secret Rome

In 2017, after a summer exploring the likes of Rome, Barcelona and various places in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, we quickly went about seeking out our next destination of adventure, planning to go away for a few days at the end of October.

We had our hearts set on the Balkans again, as the climate and variety of activities and places on offer left us wanting more after our summer road trip. Ultimately, needing to make the most of the time we had away, it was through a search of airports that were accessible directly from the UK that had us stumble across a place called Pula. A small city on the west coast of Croatia which, as it transpired, was home to a number of landmarks including the most intact Roman amphitheater in Europe, and the sixth largest in the world.

The more we researched, the more it drew us in. Not only does it have some incredible architecture, the history here is fascinating, as it has its roots and stories from ancient Rome, through Istria as well as occupation during the second World War.

Going in October meant that the tourist numbers were down, and everything was extremely accessible once we had sourced a taxi to take us from the small airport a few miles out of town to our wonderful apartment in the center, based in what was once the old cathedral convent. Visiting at this time of year also meant the temperature was lower than normal, no higher than a very comfortable 20 degrees and on one day we saw heavy, heavy rain.

The first landmark we saw was from the window of the taxi entering the city, Pula Arena. Built in 68 AD, it is without a doubt the standout landmark of Pula. A smaller version of the iconic Colosseum in Rome, it offers a less busy and far more accessible and affordable alternative to its Italian relative, and also sits remarkably plush among the city of residential buildings around it. One notable feature was the lack of any scaffold or maintenance taking place, something rarely seen on western historical monuments. For the entry price of 50 Kuna per person (around 7 Euro’s with concessions for students, children etc.) we had free roam to go around this incredible ruins, as well as the cellar containing artifacts and information relating to the wine making the country is so proud of.

The arena still lives on, holding gigs and festivals, and serves as a fantastic example of Croatia’s approach to its heritage. Pula’s city walls are a similar story. Unlike Dubrovnik’s impressive walled old city, the walls in Pula are mostly dismantled and only visible in small, crumbling pockets with the story being that on the expanse of the city over the centuries, the walls were removed and the materials recycled for use in other buildings.

On the same side of the city as the Arena, is Tito’s Park. This sits as a beautiful memorial to Josip Broz Tito, President of then-Yugoslavia from 1939 to his death in 1980. Also in this park there are busts remembering the military leaders and heroes who fought and defied the Nazis during World War Two.

Moving away from the park, we found the glorious Twin Gates that lead to the archaeological museum and the Gate of Hercules. Whilst the architecture of the latter is well worn, and easily missed, at the top of the damaged arch is a carving of the head of Hercules and his club. Close to the carving is a damaged inscription containing the names of two Roman officials, Lucius Calpurnius Piso and Gaius Cassius Longinus to whom the Roman Senate had entrusted the duty to found a Roman colony at the site of today’s Pula. This gate once led to the city center, but now leads to a trendy hotel bar well worth visiting, as it serves extremely generously priced, delicious (and somewhere moreish!) local wine.

Sticking to the theme of ‘little Rome’, in the Forum Square in the center of the old town, was used as a part of a triad of Roman temples. The Communal Palace is situated at the northern end of the main square, where the temple of Diana once stood. The spot occupied by the Palace has been used for the beautiful baroque public buildings that have stood as council seating since the days of Ancient Rome. The Temple of Augustus is the only one of the three temples still intact, a temple dedicated to the first roman emperor Augustus around 27 BC. As it was built at around the same time as the original pantheon in Rome, it shares a lot of structural similarities. An incredible piece of architecture, maintained extremely well, and home to a small museum of well kept, interesting Roman artifacts found in the nearby Nesactium. Behind this beautiful building is the remains of the Temple of the Goddess Diana. Although the original temple has not survived, the whole back side of the Temple of Diana is still clearly visible. The forum itself hosts the tourist information center and a number of restaurants in a genuinely nice, open and spacious environment.

Walking away from the arena at the other end of the old town, the Triumphal Arch of the Sergi (Golden Gate) straddles the street. A smaller version of its counterparts in Paris and Barcelona, but another exquisite piece of architecture and well worth a walk-by for the sake of a five minute detour.

Above the city sits Pula Castle. An impressively preserved building housing themed museums and varied artworks. Whilst we were there, there was a museum detailing the occupation of Istria, now the western side of Croatia, by the Nazis in World War Two, along with items and artifacts. Around the back of the castle is the Small Roman Theatre. This again fits the criteria of ‘little Rome’, though as we were unable to go around via the archaeological museum, due to renovation work taking place at the time of our visit, it was an adventurous clamber down from the castle, and at first appeared as a bit of a decaying ruin. But standing in the center of the scene, looking towards the semicircular orchestra and tired section for the audience underneath the divine Istrian skies, it’s very easy to get lost in imagination of the plays and music that would have once filled this area.

On the walk up towards the fortress, on a wide cobbled street, one of our favourites, the Church and Monastery of St. Francis. The entry fee was nominal, no more than 2 Kuna each, and although the exterior was masked by scaffolding whilst we were there, the interiors were handsome, containing floor mosaics and the kind of architecture and artifacts you would come to expect from a central European church. What was less expected, but a very pleasant surprise, the small garden in the center cloister was home to a number of tortoises! We went on a wet day in the autumn, which meant that they were not particularly active – I’m not sure if there is a time or climate in which they are! But we did manage to spot a couple. Also, as with everywhere in Croatia where we found ourselves near stone walls, we saw a number of the inspiringly named, Dalmatian Wall Lizards. I’m not a fan of reptiles as a rule, but these little colourful critters sneaking in and out of the brickwork all over the Balkans are quite characterful!

Whilst in Pula, we would recommend a restaurant just off the center of the Forum – Orfej. The food and drink here was excellent, wonderful relaxed ambiance, fast, extremely well priced and the service from the waitress who worked every night we were there was second-to-none. Of all the food and drink we have had across our trips to Croatia, I don’t think we have been anywhere we wouldn’t recommend, but this really was perfect customer service.

On our final full day, we took a taxi out to the neighbouring town of Fazana where we were able to get a boat to the island of Brijuni. It’s worth noting that during the summer months it may be possible to get boats directly from the port of Pula, or specific buses and trips to Fazana, but as we were there off season we weren’t able to do so. Brijuni National Park is a beautiful island with quite an elite backstory. The island was home to Tito, who used the island to house his own safari of exotic animals donated to him by world leaders from across the globe. For the most part, this safari still exists and likes of zebras, llamas and even a hippopotamus can be seen. Those animals that have died since Tito’s passing nearly 40 years ago are taxidermied and on show in the museum to Tito, also on the island. All of this, along with his Cadillac Eldorado (one of three in the world, the others belonging to Queen Elizabeth II and Elvis) and a road train ride around the island, can be seen with a guide for the price of the boat trip if bought together at Fazana.

Returning to Fazana, we found a restaurant which served an unorthodox shark stew which we ate on the seafront as a series of wedding parties, and their accompanying musicians, went past to the church. In Croatia we learnt that weddings take place on a Saturday, and whilst it made for festivities over our late lunch, it meant we would be unable to see inside Pula Cathedral before we left the following morning.

Pula is an incredible place, a wonderfully relaxed city and felt like a rewarding alternative to Rome. Less busy, less queuing and more affordable.

Coming at October meant we did miss out on a few landmarks. The archaeological museum was being renovated, the tunnels under the city were closed due to being outside of the tourist season and we were unable to visit the cathedral and clocktower due to weddings and religious ceremonies taking place over two of the four days we were there. For anyone planning a visit, it’s worth noting that it isn’t too far from the borders with Slovenia and the very eastern edge of Italy if more day trips are desired!

That said, and although we only had four days, with one hindered by poor weather, having the freedom of going off season meant it was long enough to see almost everything we wanted to.

Please click here for the full picture galleries for Pula and Brijuni.

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

Christmas markets in Europe

Back in the autumn of 2017 my girlfriend found out she would be working over Christmas and New Year. Not a surprise in her line of work, but given the circumstances and seizing an opportunity, we decided we were going to celebrate early by spending the early part of December back in central Europe to see a very different type of Christmas market. Less of the council cutback lights and overpriced burger vans of the UK, and more atmosphere, culture and, hopefully, snow.

5th December was our departure day, after months of switching plans to amend our original intentions. First off we were all set to fly from Gatwick to Zagreb, stay for seven days, and then fly back to the UK – but with the collapse of Monarch airline, we were left without a suitable and affordable option. Flying a few days earlier, we headed to Ljubljana (instead of Zagreb) in neighbouring Slovenia (instead of Croatia), from Luton airport (instead of Gatwick) for nine days (instead of seven)! Despite all the chaos in reorganising, our hosts, Airbnb and the car rental company were all extremely understanding and reasonable and, ultimately, it ended up costing us slightly less for more time away.

Arriving in Ljubljana, we were immediately greeted with the towering mountains of the Julian Alps and the flat farmlands and freeways of northern Slovenia covered in thick snow – a theme for the next few days. A short flight early in the morning, picking up the rental car and taking the slow drive across the countryside of eastern Slovenia and into western Croatia. Our plan remained that Ljubljana would be at the end of our trip, so day one was mostly driving and getting settled some 100 miles and a border crossing away from where we landed.

The car this time was an extremely reasonably priced Volkswagon Up! Not as plush as our summer car, but needing no more than the minimum space, something economic and a powerful heater, rather than the aircon that kept us alive in the summer, we picked this up for around £25 for the week plus a cross border fee of around £50.

The drive was wonderful, bar a near miss with a local over taking on the footpath, and the border crossing was quick and simple. We arrived in a cold but snow-free Zagreb around lunch time, and met with our hosts and settled down for a quick rest. Soon after, we took an impromptu walk down into the city to find our bearings. We were staying around a 40 minute walk outside of the city centre, mostly downhill, and got into the centre around dusk.

We found one strand of the market after riding the 120 year old funicular, generously running for free during the festivities, to the old town. It had already fallen dark, so our mission was to find food, drink and music rather than any landmarks, though its hard to miss the funicular, the trams, the enormous cathedral and Zagreb 360 skyscraper. All places we would visit over the next few days.

Settling down in the old town, we rewarded our journey with beer, mulled (cooked) wine that warmed the soul, hotdogs made of some familiar meats, and others not so much, and apparently festive fish kebabs. Wondering through the stalls and lights, we found some music playing at one of the highest points overlooking the cathedral and city lights, and danced and laughed the night away before taking a taxi back to the apartment.

Over the next couple of days we ventured down into the city mid-morning, and returned that night by taxi. Zagreb is a truly beautiful city, and whilst busy it never felt overcrowded and there was no concern of any fear or threat of violence, theft or worse. The Christmas market is extremely well planned – not confined to any one part of the city but spread out into clusters across the plentiful space Zagreb has to work with, each decorated beautifully, with different live bands or festive music playing, and even the most adorable performance by local school children.

A somewhat controversial reminder of Croatia’s recent past was the erection of a makeshift and very much live shrine to the late Slobodan Praljak in the main square during the aftermath of his dramatic suicide in court. Seeing a candlelit tribute burning to a man whom the western media and UN council had convicted of heinous war crimes, backlit by a Christmas tree and celebrating families, to us was a somewhat surreal experience. Within a few days however, parts of the shrine had been torn down, highlighting the divided opinion about the man and his death within the city. Leading up to his funeral in Zagreb later that week there were more than a few people proud to justify their point of view, a coward’s way out and an insult to the survivors of his crimes, or a wrongly accused veteran that would rather die than live a life of injustice. Real life is never as black and white as the stories lead us to believe, and this served as a stark wake up call to our fairytale adventure.

The next few days we visited landmarks ranging from the impressive Zagreb 360, a skyscraper that offers unmatched views across the cityscape. At this point we picked up a Zagreb 365 pass – a useful addition to our wallets as it gave us discounts at restaurants and places across the city lasting for the full year. Following the skyscraper, we also went inside the surprisingly new Zagreb Cathedral, rebuilt just over 100 years ago after it was destroyed by an earthquake. St Mark’s Church is another stunning landmark with its decorative roof, near the gate-less Stone Gate and its conflict and time defying picture of the Virgin Mary, said to have survived the fire that destroyed the gate itself.

Leaving Zagreb behind, somewhat, and keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, we took the bold decision to visit Plitvice Lakes and National Park (Plitvicka Jezera) on the day that heavy snow was forecast. Learning quickly that Croatian ‘heavy snow’ would be the equivalent of an ice age in the UK, the drive was two hours of heavy concentration, but the reality of driving abroad is that countries like Slovenia and Croatia are extremely well prepared, have snowploughs on standby and a continued effort to ensure the roads are passable. The reward for this was incredible.

Arriving around 9am, we entered the park to see waterfalls and snow on a scale we had never seen before. A walk around the boat, before taking a cold, slow meander across the lake and a hair raising shuttle bus back, was probably the defining moment of the holiday and the one that produced the most eye opening photographs.

Having visited Krka National Park, near Split, back in the heat of summer. The contrasts in colours was staggering, and also the cold temperatures, being out of tourist season and generally fewer tours and more difficult access by roads meant that tourist numbers were significantly reduced.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Plitvice? Click here.

The drive back through Zagreb was eye opening as well. As a city of over one million people, around four times the size of Nottingham, I had my reservations about being able to drive through the city, avoid the devil-may-care attitude to driving that grips that part of the world as well as the trams – before even getting onto the fact that the car was unfamiliar and the steering wheel and roads were on the opposite side to what we’re used to. Despite this, Zagreb is a remarkable accessible city and easy drive. I would doubt that parking in the center is a simple task, but to pass through and find an apartment on the outskirts put the UK cities to shame.

After a number of nights in Zagreb, we said goodbye to our accommodation and took the drive back to Ljubljana for the final few days. The journey back was drama-free, though the border crossings heading west seem to be more stringent and therefore slower. It has been documented that the Slovenian and Croatian governments have had their border control disputes over the past few years, but we saw nothing that caused us any great concern. Passing through, the snow gave us some beautiful views as we took the open, clear roads into Slovenia’s capital.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Zagreb? Click here.

Our apartment was again on the edge of the city, but this time just a 20 minute walk into the centre. Ljubljana is evidently much smaller than Zagreb, and with the exception of the castle overlooking the high streets, much flatter.

On our first day, we explored the Christmas market stalls in the center. Though more modest than Zagreb’s, still extremely extensive and welcoming. Mid-afternoon we left the cold but snow-free streets to stop off in Gostilna Sokol in the center to dine on foal stake and drink a pint or two of beer. When we left an hour later, the snow had come down in force and the city took on a completely different appearance.

We decided to somewhat mimic our Zagreb excursion by going straight to the funicular. This time, being taken up to Ljubljana Castle where we had hot chocolate in the grounds before making our way up the spire for an extraordinary, all-be-it slightly misty 360 degree view of the city’s Christmas lights and falling snow.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Ljubljana? Click here.

The next day we walked out towards Ljubljana Zoo and spent a few hours in the company of the animals. In terms of visitors, it seemed at times that we had the place to ourselves, and seeing the likes of kangaroos and tigers playing in the snow was a new experience. Walking around back into the city, we ate the fastest served pizza we’ve experienced and again took in the lights, and alcohol, of the market stalls.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Ljubljana Zoo? Click here.

Our final two days were spent traveling out from Ljubljana, first to Predjama and Postojna, to visit the caves and castle. This excursion didn’t come cheap, not in comparison to the luxury of affordabilities we had in Zagreb, but for less than 100 Euros we were able to experience everything.

The caves at Postojna are impressive and expansive, with knowledgeable tour guides and a unique train ride to get to and from the heart of the cave. Heavily focused on the dragon that dwells within! A small eyeless salamander, called an Olm, can be seen in tanks in the nearby museum and also in the cave itself.

The castle is in the nearby village of Predjama, a short 10 minute drive further up the road from the caves. In this small enclave there’s a small hunting museum in the cafe and souvenir shop. A pleasant viewing that we were kindly allowed into for free. Its main attraction, though, is the castle in the side of the mountain. Backing onto the mountains and cave networks, the castle is a museum to the defiance of its residents over the hundreds of years it has held strong.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Postojna and Predjama? Click here.

On our final full day, we drove up to the town of Bled, famous for the island on Lake Bled. The weather gave us everything on this day, everything snow related anyway, for our walk around that took roughly five hours with a few stops. For the first hour at least the island and church were completely invisible for falling snow, and whilst this began to clear it gave us some moody and incredible photographs. Also on the way round, we saw swans and robins, seemingly happy to get close, take bread and even pose for pictures. Our final adventure was to climb the winding staircase up to Bled Castle to eat their obligatory Bled Cream Cake and get a panoramic view of the lake and island.

Why not check out our full photo gallery from Bled? Click here.

One final evening in Ljubljana saw us having a couple of drinks and a wonderful meal in a Serbian restaurant in the center. Making the journey back, before flying back out the next morning.

Both cities are incredible and can certainly throw a Christmas market! Plitvice and Lake Bled in particular, also offered up an incredible spectacle in the heavy snowfall. It’s worth remembering that Slovenia, using the Euro, is generally much more expensive than Zagreb, using its own currency, the Kuna. That said, after Rome in the summer – which is only one border crossing to the west of Ljubljana, the value for money everywhere we went was incredible and allowed us to enjoy everything we felt we would enjoy.

For all the heavy snow, not once did it feel unsafe to be driving and the hospitality, food and drink were all absolutely wonderful. Even being greeted by an Italian in Zagreb who corrected us walking past people on the wrong side, before singing a line from “don’t worry, be happy”.

An unforgettable holiday and one we highly recommend that everyone invests in at least once in their lifetime!

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

When in Rome…

In June 2017 my girlfriend and I embarked on a mission to celebrate the beginning of summer by seeing parts of Europe new to both of us. Following my completion of university, but prior to our road trip through Croatia and Bosnia, we had a short break in the city of Rome – with the full intention of doing all the cliche sightseeing that the ancient Italian capital is famous for.

The full thumbnail gallery of images can be seen by clicking here.

Light shining through the oculus in the Pantheon, Rome

Day 1: Sunday, 4th June 2017

An early flight after a long night and morning at Stansted Airport saw us fly over Rome at sunrise. Greeted at the surprisingly small Ciampino airport in Rome by our host, Emmanuel, we each collected our Roma Pass and was driven to our apartment on the outskirts of the city. The apartment was incredible, and a cake and bottle of Prosecco left to celebrate my girlfriends birthday.

After a quick rest, snack and acquainting ourselves with the apartment we braved the heat to find the nearest Metro station to pick our way into the city. For all of our time in Rome, the daytime temperature didn’t dip below 30 degrees, which along with the general humidity of the city and numbers of people, felt like quite the culture shock after leaving dreary Blighty.

The Metro came across as surprisingly basic and busy, but for some reason accommodating and easy to navigate. The simplicity of two lines, a north-south and east-west meant that we didn’t have to worry about ending in any unfamiliar suburbs. This had caused an issues in getting from the airport, as the small Ciampino airport that connects to the UK is not directly accessible by the Metro, and the complications of navigating buses and tubes felt a bit daunting on a Sunday morning, sleep deprived in the Christian capital of Europe.

Emerging from the city’s central Metro station, Termini, we wandered the streets littered with people, baked in heat and surrounded by a curious mixture of modern office blocks and buildings, and Roman architecture and ruins.

Finding a side street cafe, we stopped for a drink and bite to eat. Here we encountered one of the drawbacks of Rome – we were “gifted”, at great expense, a souvenir by a gentleman outside. Tourist traps do seem to be an issue in Rome – over the next few days we saw numerous people selling bottled water, selfie sticks, random knickknacks and flowers. None of whom were particularly keen to take a polite “no” for an answer.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Continuing our walk, we took in the Pantheon – opting to come back on another day due to unknowingly passing by during the celebrations of Pentecost, where tens of thousands of rose petals are dropped through the oculus into the interior of the Pantheon to symbolise the Holy Spirit’s descent to Earth. This equated to a queue of people greater than any I had ever seen, as people had begun queuing hours and hours beforehand to catch a glimpse of this spectacle.

Walking back around and through, we stopped at both the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. Both incredible pieces of architecture. Walking back to the nearest Metro station, picking up some supplies from a local supermarket (pasta, cream cheese and ham because, you know, when in Rome…), and going back to our apartment to rest up properly for the next day.

Day 2: Monday, 5th June 2017

Deciding to make the most of the time we had, and expecting queues to be a reoccurring theme, we got up early and tackled the Metro before 8am, hoping to avoid rush hour. Whilst we didn’t time it perfectly, once we took the elbows out approach that seems to work over here, we had a comfortable enough trip, a seamless change, and got off at the Colosseum. Emerging from the underground station to immediately see the enormous Flavian Amphitheatre for the first time is an extraordinary and imposing sight.

This was the first time that the scale of Rome really became apparent. Even in the early hours, increasing as the day went on, the number of people around here was staggering and police and military blockades were in place – it is worth noting, that our flight out of the UK was the morning after the Tower Bridge terrorist attacks in London, so security from Stansted was high, and also doubtlessly had a knock on effect for our time in Rome.

We had used the Roma Pass for the Metro previously, but here it really showed its value for money. Skipping the alarming queues into the Colosseum, and joining a shorter but still noticeable queue of those with the Roma Pass. Again, the queues were doubtlessly compounded by additional security checks, metal detectors and bags being checked, but the sheer number of people and testimony from other visits suggests that without a Roma Pass, and turning up at peak time, you could lose the best part of the day waiting to get in.

Inside was far from a disappointment. We picked up some digital audio guides, had the cameras prepared and went around the vast ruins. Whilst a lot of these types of tours can feel a bit of a forced interest, the history of the arena is both genuinely fascinating and at times somewhat morbid. Stories of the arena being flooded to stage giant sea battles, and the slaughter of thousands of prisoners and exotic animals ranging from rhinoceros’s to eagles in front of blood lusting crowds for the opening celebrations both incredible and grim in equal measure.

Flavian Amphitheater, Rome

A couple of hours later, we walked over to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill and joined yet another queue. The Roma Pass, unfortunately, didn’t allow us any queue jumping here, but whilst it probably took 30 minutes to get in – made to feel longer by the intense heat – it wasn’t as bad at it first looked.

The Forum is a vast space, and whilst busy, allowed us a wonderful stroll around to see endless ruins, incredible architecture and views of the city of Rome, the Colosseum and the Forum itself. Whilst public water fountains are found in Rome, they did seem particularly scarce at this point and a large gathering had formed at the first one we found, up towards Palatine Hill. The area is full of fascinating history, mythology and a real insight into life in roman times.

Views over the Roman Forum from Palatine Hill, Rome

Suffering from the heat, we took the Metro back towards the apartment, again managing to hit it at rush hour. Funnily enough, despite the numbers of people and confined space, the Metro itself is incredibly cool and was a convient place to escape the heat from the surface. Another early night and cheap dinner at the apartment, planning our third day in the city.

Day 3: 6th June 2017

Today we managed to time our morning escape better, getting up earlier and beating rush hour on the Metro. We also had the foresight to stock up on fluids from the supermarket, to avoid another hunt for fresh water.

Our plan for the day was focused solely on visiting the Vatican City and museums. First though, we decided to detour via the Pantheon once more to see if we could visit it without the crowds. We had a lot more success this time! Taking up the impromptu offer from an English speaking guide outside, we had a talk and tour of the captivating history of the building.

We then began the long walk up to the Vatican, stumbling across Piazza Navona with its three beautiful fountains cooling the breeze, where we stopped for a coffee before continuing.

Vatican City was a fairly long walk, and incredibly busy. As with the Colosseum the day before, pre-planning meant we were in a queue of hundreds rather than thousands and after a short wait to find an audio guide, we found our way in.

The Vatican is an astonishing city/country, and its museums are extensive. There is, in all honesty, far too much to take in and appreciate fully in one day. None-the-less, we took in a number of the rooms before stopping for a pleasant lunch of toasties in a plaza in the center.

Vatican Museums

After lunch we meandered through the museums before making it to the Sistine Chapel. An incredibly important location to Christians as the purpose of the chapel currently is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new Pope is selected. The Sistine Chapel, with its world renown ceiling and frescoes painted by Michelangelo in the early 1500s, is considered one of the worlds major artistic accomplishments. Since these paintings were revealed 500 years ago it has drawn in thousands of visitors every day. As with a lot of the rooms in the Vatican Museums, seeing this involves a lot of walking among a lot of people, with some parts feeling very much like being herded along. Tour groups don’t help the matter, jostling with each other for prime places in front of their speaking points.

Leaving the Vatican, many miles later, we found our way back out to a bar doing food – we stopped for beer, chicken burgers and chips. The phrase “when in Rome” doesn’t quite carry, but at this point we wanted to eat and drink the first thing we found. From here, we got straight onto the Metro, and back to the apartment.

Day 4: 7th June 2017

On our final day, still reeling from three days of solid walking, we decided to venture to the edge of Rome nearer the apartment to find some souvenirs.

We had an awkwardly timed flight, in the mid-afternoon, our three-day Roma Pass privileges had expired meaning we could no longer use the Metro without paying and whilst our time in Rome had come to an end, we had over a week in Croatia, and a further week in Barcelona immediately to follow. We had also ticked off all of our ‘ten things to see and do in Rome’, and felt that a restful day (as restful as flying can be) would be a good option.

We picked up some souvenirs, including a seemingly ironic snow globe (at the time anyway) from a variety of independent shops and found a small pizzeria and bakery where we were kindly given some delicious pasta along with our orders.

We went back to the apartment to pack, before accepting Emmanuel’s lift back to the airport to fly back to Stansted.

Inside the Colosseum, Rome

Rome is a simply extraordinary place. I would argue that its incredible appeal, is contributing to its own issues – all of which, can be attributed to the sheer volume of people there.

Without the numbers of tourists, there would be no tourist traps and prices would be lower to match demand. At one point in the center, not far from the Trevi Fountain, we paid €7 for a 0.3 liter bottle of Heineken beer. In context, the following week in Croatia, we found Osjusko beer at roughly €2 for 2 liters. That’s quite a mark-up for a country only separated by Slovenia and the Adriatic, and translated to just about everything from souvenirs and entry to the attractions, to food and supermarkets.

Rome should be high up everybody’s list of places to visit and see, even if only once. I wouldn’t for a moment say it’s anywhere near a list of places I would want to live, and any longer than the time we were there would have likely made the numbers of people more tiresome. So whilst we’re in no rush to go back, and can happily tick it off as a place we have been, it will make a lovely short, city break again in the future.

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

A week driving through Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina – Travel Blog (June 2017)

In June 2017 my girlfriend and I decided to take three weeks away to travel to parts of Europe we’ve always wanted to see. This included Rome (the blog for which can be read by clicking here) and Barcelona, but most ambitiously the Croatian coast and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This involved renting a car and driving around 1,000 kilometers across the mountains and coastal roads and into what was unknown to us, leaving the borders of the EU and into regions not yet mapped by Google StreetView.

Day 1: Arriving in Zadar

Our first day in Croatia was uneventful – a late flight from Stansted meant we arrived after 11pm, with a quick lift to our accommodation on the outskirts of the town. The heat was immediately noticeable, a pleasant increase from British summertime to the late 20’s of central Europe.

Zadar Airport sits amongst military bases that, we were told, were used in the 1990’s as part of the Balkan war that gripped and ultimately broke up Yugoslavia. The airport terminal itself is the smallest I’ve ever seen with two gates, one in, one out and felt like the staff were switching the lights off behind us as the only flight in that night.

Our host who took us to the apartment was hospitable and the apartment was spacious and well equipped and a quiet night was had ready for the week ahead.

Day 2: Zadar to Split (Sibiken and Krka National Park and Waterfalls)

That morning, we took the offer of a lift back to the airport to collect our rental car – a silver Suzuki Swift. Year unknown, but well equipped, air conditioned (phew!) and to be our gateway to everywhere and anywhere we wanted to go over the coming week.

Leaving the main roads, we went over the undulating b-roads of Croatia to reach Sibinek, the gateway to Krka National Park. A lot of nerves taking the wheel of a left-hand drive car, driving on the right into the unknown but the well signed, well lit and surprisingly well maintained yet empty roads put our minds at rest and we began to take in the scenery. An incredible mix of wide open wasteland, mountain ranges, farms and the occasional hamlet stretched for miles. The villages with rows of new, sometimes luxury built houses, kept apart by the presumably war damaged rubble of their neighbours. On the same theme, almost every village contained a graveyard that we would consider disproportionately large, with the graves mostly dated from the early 90’s. A stark reminder of the recent scars this beautiful country has.

We arrived in Sibinek and parked off the main road. We walked down to the waterside and had a cheap (a theme that the Balkan countries do very well) beer (another theme that the Balkan countries do very well).

We decided, there and then, to take one of the boat tours to go and see the waterfalls. This cost us somewhere in the region of £10 each for a 30-minute trip across to the heart of the falls, including a return later in the day.

Krka is indeed an incredible place – but, even in June before the summer holidays, the number of tourists is considerable, even across such a large area. Walking around the platforms to see the various falls, the fish through the clear waters and the wildlife among the trees ranging from luminous blue dragonflies to, if you believe the signs, vipers and wildcats.

The day was capped off with ice cream before the return trip to Sibinek and another hour or two in the car to Split. This included a brief, but alarming run in with a lady shepherding through a small village and hairpin turns that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a World Rally event.

Arrival at the apartment in Split wasn’t that straightforward. Our host, Frano, had to send his brother out to find us, lost in the surprisingly large, port-side city. Once we finally made it, the apartment was spacious, and had a balcony overlooking the estuary that cuts into the city. A quick shop down the local Tommy supermarket for some pasta, cheese and beer, and we settled down for the night.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

Day 3: Split

For our third day we had decided on not driving, and also to finally have a proper meal out in Croatia. We walked from the apartment down to the large, modern shopping center for a mid-morning coffee before walking further down for a look at the football stadium of Hadjuk Split. On our way around we found a quiet, posh looking restaurant serving fresh fish before cutting into the narrow, stone walls of Split’s city center.

On entering the old town, music and crowds were gathered leading into the square of Diocletian’s Palace, an incredible 1800 year old Roman structure and tower that sits just off the port of Split. A public display of singing and dancing was taking place to celebrate a wedding (or two), before they went into the church itself. A short video of the fanfare can be seen below.

Inside the church and bell tower, the views were incredible. Such a well preserved, Christian monument with exquisite markings, stained glass windows and carvings is rarely seen. The tower itself is not for the faint of heart as the series of stairs lead to the very top and a beautiful panoramic view of the city. Beware on the way down as once the metal stairs end, you are left to clamber down large stone stairs that anyone less than 6 foot will struggle to tackle. Entry to both of these monuments cost less than £10 and backlit with the acapella singing coming from the square, were one of the defining memories of the city.

The walk back was a long one as we went through the Game of Thrones-style (and I’m lead to believe, used) underground souvenir market and out to the port; stopping only to get some street food and to cast an eye over the few square meters of sand beach that has given way to party goers.

Day 4: Island hopping off Split

Diocletian Palace, Split, Croatia

We started early on our fourth day for the long walk down to the port, this time to catch a boat (a more speedy one this time) to see the Blue Cave and some of the islands off of Split. Unfortunately, the weather (or more specifically, the water) didn’t allow us to visit the caves so instead we were taken across a number of the islands, with lunch and wine tasting. The boat trip itself was incredible, basking in the sun as the captains skimmed across the ocean at 100kmph. Stopping off at the road-linked island of Trogir with its incredible cathedral and old winding streets before moving on to a series of off-the-grid islands with sandy beaches and blue lagoons, lunch on top of a mountain overlooking small enclaves and towns lapped by the clear blue waters and finishing with wine tasting in an entrepreneurial underground cellar. The day was incredible, and although comparatively expensive being in the region of £100 each (food and drinks included), was another memory and series of photo opportunities that will last forever.

On the way back from the port, by this time it was around 7pm, we stopped for a drink and pizza at a restaurant amongst the boats. Sour cream cheese pizza with chicken and bacon, and no tomato or tomato puree to be seen, may not sound Mediterranean or Balkan – and you would be right – but it was a flavour I will forever associate with Split.

The pictures from Split, Trogir and the islands can be found by clicking here.

Day 5: Split to Dubrovnik via Bosnia and Herzegovina (Mostar, Blagaj)

Day five marked what would be the most stressful part of the journey – leaving the city of Split to embark on a circa-300km drive to Dubrovnik via the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For those who don’t know, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the first country outside of the European Union. It is also documented as being the last remaining country in Europe with considerable numbers of residual landmines from the still-recent Balkan War, has problems with stray dogs and the most resent example of a country involved, and the victim of genocide in Europe.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was, until the mid-1990’s, part of Yugoslavia. The break-up of this enormous, multi-cultured and communist country led to various conflicts that involved the death of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins and Kosovans, and the independence of those countries along with Slovenia and the Former Yugoslavian Republic (FYR) of Macedonia from the larger Yugoslav state. The tensions are still apparent, most recently between Serbia and Kosovo/Albania, but what it is most apparent is the number of graveyards in a country of only 4 million people.

I cannot stress enough how, in the admittedly short time we spent there, we saw no evidence of any hostility and the people were welcoming, hospitable and left us feeling no sense of fear of what might happen, or that we might say the wrong thing.

A few things that should be documented for anyone planning to go … firstly, as Bosnia and Herzegovina sits outside the European Union the EHIC (health card) doesn’t cover, so travel and health insurance is a must. Furthermore, mobile phone providers seem to exclude the country from even the ‘extended’ zones of Europe. My phone provider, o2, charged £6 per MB of data, whilst my girlfriend’s phone on EE was unable to make an outgoing call at all whilst in the country.

The country is incredibly cheap, and for the most part accepts the Euro (at a fixed exchange rate of 1:2 to their own currency). However, don’t assume you will be able to pay by credit or debit card, and if you need to withdraw money you will withdraw it in Bosnian Marks, which is essentially a German Deutschmark. In the UK, and as I understand it for the rest of the world as well, you cannot get their currency either to exchange or to return, they are only obtainable in the country. For that reason alone, they do make a lovely souvenir, but is worth remembering when you’re at a cash machine!

Speaking of souvenirs, whilst the stalls mostly sold what you would expect in the ways of magnets, snowglobes (in a city that hovered around 38 degrees that week) and flags – a large number focused on the art scene that the city indulges in, with handmade silk scarves, paintings and glasswork abundant. More unusually, was the stall selling Yugoslavian war medals, original postcodes from the communist state and, more incredibly, a tommy gun.

Stari Most, the bridge in the centre of Mostar, is an icon of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and perhaps equally so for the Balkan War. An Ottoman bridge from the 1600’s, destroyed by Croat forces in 1993, was rebuild to the original plans and using original techniques in the early 2000’s. The video of the reconstruction of the bridge can be seen in the city’s museum (entry fee around £2) whilst various original clips of its destruction can be seen on YouTube by clicking here. We took the walk over the bridge, looking out over the blue river and the new bridge on the other side of town, before heading up to the museum for an insight into its history (both distant and recent) and for some incredible panoramic views of our surroundings.

We ate at a hotel restaurant with a waterfall, and had some traditional “Bosnian meat” and coffee. A wonderful experience and a wonderful looking hotel – as well as showing us the traditional way of drinking Bosnian coffee (dunking a sugar cube in a Turkish style cezve) our waiter explained how, despite its appearance as being historic and almost natural to the rest of the city, it like so many other buildings had been completely rebuilt following the war. Whilst there is a lot of evidence of old buildings cordoned off and riddled with bullet holes, it’s incredible to think that this beautiful country was involved in such a destructive conflict within the last three decades.

Blagaj, Bosnia-Herzegovina

On our way out we stopped at Blagaj, a small town on the way back down towards the Croatian border. A beautiful, quiet and secluded town with a small waterfall and cave (with a £2 boat trip, for a little insight).

Our drive out back towards Croatia saw more incredible mountains, rivers and animals! Stray dogs on the roads, generations down from those who had been separated from their owners during the conflicts, another reminder that victims of the wars stretched far beyond what you might expect. Wild tortoises crossing the roads were also a first in my driving experience, but no sightings of any alleged bears that are said to be in the region.

We crossed the border, a surprisingly quick process both in and out of the country, and found ourselves lost in the Jewel of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik. Another wonderful apartment – close to the old town, but at the expense of some amenities such as a full kitchen.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

Day 6: Dubrovnik (City walls and Lapad)

Our first day in Dubrovnik, we walked down to the old town – stopping for a coffee along the way. Walking across the bridge and inside the fortified walls was like walking through the set of Game of Thrones – because it is.

We decided straight off, to pay £15 each to walk around the walls of the city, a must-do experience for anyone visiting. That’s not to say it wasn’t exhausting, and the clear sky and 30 degree heat made the beer we had in one of Dubrovnik’s restaurants all the better once we were back down.

The rest of the day we spent around the walls of the city, before going over and up to the fortress, Lovrijeenac, by the waters edge, for further incredible views over the ocean and of the city. Afterwards we walked down to the other end of Dubrovnik and the beach of Lapad, which appears to be under construction. Sitting in the Cave Bar More restaurant, we had an incredible five star meal as the sun set over the water.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

Day 7: Dubrovnik (War museum)

Our second day in Dubrovnik had originally intended to be a drive down to Kotor, the bay of Montenegro. But the distance there, the distance already traveled and the fact we only had 24-hours before our drive back lead us to decide to take a second day in Dubrovnik and mop up the bits we had missed in the first day. We had read before coming that Dubrovnik can be done in a day – and whilst you can see the main landmarks, it’s certainly not true to fully appreciate everything there is to offer.

We stopped off again in the morning, this time for some breakfast which we shared with a friendly gecko – one of many that hides in the foliage of the country. We again set about picking our way around the city, finding the famous Spanish Steps and looking around some of the beautiful churches and buildings that are almost lost in the astounding architecture that dominates the town.

We then took the cable car up to the top of the mountain, Srd, that overlooks the city for some incredible views both over the town, and out towards the mountains and the Bosnian and Montenegrin borders.

A more humbling experience took us next as on top of Srd is the Napoleonic Imperial Fortress which was used a vantage point for the armies battling for control of Dubrovnik in the early 1990’s. It is now the museum for the Yugoslavia conflict and the battle for Dubrovnik, and gives a humbling insight into the scale of the conflict. It’s incredible to see Dubrovnik as it is now, a thriving tourist hotspot that 25 years ago was under siege from those wishing to either take it, or destroy it.

We chose to take the walk down from the fortress rather than take the cable car and whilst it offered incredible views, it was more arduous and uncomfortable than either us had anticipated. Greeted by a wild viper at the bottom, we rewarded our efforts with tea and a drink at the Bosnian restaurant next door to the apartment, ‘Taj Mahal“.

Zadar, Croatia

Day 8: Dubrovnik to Zadar

Our day leaving Dubrovnik was dedicated to travelling back to Zadar – a solid 6-hour trip, with a break for lunch, and another 350 kilometers on the car. Although the journey was arduous, an unseasonable and surprisingly heavy downpour dominated the majority of the day and justified our decision to be in the car and do it one go. The journey was met with spectacular views and another brief cut through the quirk of the Bosnian border at Neum. We arrived back at Zadar, in the same apartment we began our adventure to have some lunch and an early night before our final day and flight home.

We left the apartment with the car loaded up and took it down to a multi-story car park on the edge of Zadar and went for a walk around the town. We may not have had enough time to fully do the town justice, but a walk around the beautiful, narrow and winding city streets before visiting the world-famous sea organ more than justified our day.

We drove back to the airport via a car wash and petrol station to return the car and await out flight back to the UK.

The pictures from this day can be found by clicking here.

The route taken

It’s incredible to see on the map above just how little of both countries we saw, and yet just how much we experienced. There wasn’t a moment of stress in our time there, and despite the complications and possible pitfalls of arranging each element of our journey ourselves, they all fell together beautifully. Everybody we met was courteous and helpful, food and drink was delicious and affordable and we had allowed enough time to enjoy it all.

As mentioned above, there are a few quirks to consider on this kind of journey. The Bosnian border creeping out to sea means that regardless of had we visited Mostar and Blagaj, we would have had to cross into Bosnia briefly and therefore pay the additional cost to the rental company for the green card. Also, whilst it doesn’t pose a problem with some preparation, the switches in currency could potentially have been an issue – Euro seems accepted across almost all of the areas we visited, and most accepted MasterCard but each bank will put its own premium on top of that. Croatian Kuna can be exchanged in the UK, but Bosnian Marks can’t. Furthermore, while mobile phones in Croatia are fine, as part of the European Union, Bosnia suddenly becomes extortionate (around £7 per MB of data – which would mean uploading the picture of the bridge above would cost £18 in itself). We didn’t find a solution to this other than simply not using the phones, but had we been staying for a few days this could have been a problem.

I simply cannot recommend Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina enough as a place to travel – whether you were to do a cruise down the Adriatic coast, drive as we did or simply fly into any of the beautiful cities that litters this part of the world, I don’t doubt that you would have an amazing time.

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

Christmas at Plitvice!

Before Christmas, as part of a road trip through Croatia and Slovenia, we braved the heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures to visit Plitvice Lakes and National Park. Massively different from our journey to Krka National Park back in June 2017, the pictures from which you can see by clicking here, but absolutely incredible and perhaps even more magical! Pictures below.

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The full gallery of images can be seen by clicking here.

You can visit the Plitvice National Park website here and also follow them on Instagram and Facebook.

    

Let it Snow!

In the grip of an incredible snow storm that shut down Europe, not even our little island was spared! Once it started to clear, we grabbed the camera and new toy (a glass ball) and headed out into the fields of Sempringham Abbey (Lincolnshire, England).

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The full thumbnail gallery for Lincolnshire can be seen by clicking here.

High definition versions of these pictures can be found on Shutterstock by clicking here, or by contacting me via Twitter @t_mcbeth.