The rain in Spain… would be a welcome break: A warm day in Barcelona

In July 2017, we had a quick break in Spain to see some friends and got to spend a day in the amazing city of Barcelona. It was very much a whistle-stop tour, and not nearly long enough to see everything that this enormous city has to offer, but we did cram in a number of landmarks during the few hours we had.

We arrived by train early in the morning, before 8am, but the Spanish heat was already in full force! Having spent two weeks away from the UK, in Rome and Croatia, we had acclimatised quite well to the 30 plus degree days, however, staying in a room without air condition made this a different challenge altogether.

Our first landmark on our whistle-stop tour of Barcelona was Casta Batllo. Built in the late 19th century, it’s an unorthodox and incredibly colourful and unusual piece of architecture. Pushed for time, and arriving when places were still set up, we weren’t able to go inside but it was great to see such a creative and extrovertive piece of design in the center of a modern city.

We had a number of tickets booked for the day, so began making our way past the famous market, la boqueria las rambla (sadly in the news due to a terrorist attack some weeks later), bands playing music in the streets, and arriving at the Picasso museum. We spent a couple of hours here, seeing the extensive artworks on display. Although we were there on a weekday, it was extremely busy and tickets required a specific time slot so booking in advance is not only advised, but actually essential.

Like the idea of a getaway, but don’t fancy the city life? Why not have a read about our trips to Croatia and Bosnia?

Taking advantage of visiting before the full influx on summer tourists, we decided to visit Barcelona Zoo, which was being renovated. The zoo itself is enormous, and we spent a good couple of hours there without retracing our steps. Whilst the zoo is well stocked, and entry was surprisingly cheap (admittedly discounted because of the work taking place at the time), it’s worth noting that food and drink prices are hiked up significantly inside. Also, whilst the animals are clearly well cared for and the variety ranges from crocodiles and penguins to brown bears and rhinos, the heat and humidity on the day we went meant the majority were sleeping and seeking out shade. Nonetheless, it was a great few hours and a massive recommendation if you have the time to spare.

Leaving the zoo, we set about finding the famous Sagrada Familia. This is an enormous, yet unfinished Catholic church designed by famous architect, Gaudi. Despite work beginning as far back as 1882, with delays, damage from war and nature and the scale of construction, it is not due to be fully completed until 2032. Split by its critics, George Orwell having described it as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”, whilst Salvador Dali said it had, “terrifying and edible beauty”, there is no denying the iconic image of this building among the cityscape of Barcelona.

Despite having prebooked tickets Sagrada Familia is incredibly busy at all open hours, and being able to go inside and up to the observation decks which looks over the city, is incredible, but somewhat hampered by the hundreds of people in every direction. As well as the building itself, there’s a fascinating museum on the way out details the planning, construction and various attempts to hinder and destroy the building over the years.

Leaving the Sagrada Familia, and the extortionately priced Costa Coffee nearby – but then, how do you put a price on an iced latte when it’s 32 degrees – we made our way back towards the metro station. We passed by the surprising Arc di Triomf, not dissimilar to its French namesake, surrounded by buskers performing stunts and acts.

Without a doubt, one day isn’t enough to appreciate all that this city has to offer, but our short visit made us realise just how much there is to see here. In one day we walked at least 12 miles in the heat, including fully exploring the zoo, and with more time we may have split up the attractions to save the time spent walking from one location to another. Would we recommend Barcelona as a place to visit? Absolutely. It makes a wonderful city break, even just a weekend break, but due to the size and how busy it can be, planning how, where and when you visit each attraction is an absolute must.

The full picture gallery from Barcelona and Barcelona Zoo can be seen by clicking here.

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

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Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2018 – Part 2: The bumpy road to the East

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Day 5: On our final morning in Mostar we awoke early to begin our drive towards Konjic, just south of Sarajevo. We had initially intended to visit Tito’s Bunker as part of a tour, but misjudging the duration of the drive along the Neretva River (perhaps most famous for the destroyed railway bridge, a movie prop representing the bridge blown up by Partisan forced during World War 2 to stop the Nazi’s advancing) and the standards of the main roads meant we were too late. After having a coffee on the river banks overlooking Konjic’s beautiful bridge, we decided to take the drive up to Lukomir’s ethnovillage ourselves rather than wait for the next bunker tour.

The drive up to Lukomir was difficult to say the least, and the fact we got an SUV that was a good height from the ground was also vital. Had we got a normal car, it simply wouldn’t have been possible and we’d probably still be stuck there now! The road began as a steep, single carriage mountain climb – well surfaced, but narrow with extremely sudden and large drops off the sides. At the time, it was a beautiful view but alarming, and then it descended into chaos. The road was a good 30 kilometers of large stones, holes and generally being thrown around. I cannot stress enough that if you want to go – go with a tour! There are plenty organised from Lukomir and Sarajevo, possible even from Mostar and Dubrovnik. The drive is beautiful but painful, and there were times it would honestly have been quicker to walk. On the whole, Bosnia’s roads go from ‘better than the A1’ to ‘freshly plowed field’ in terms of quality and the further east you go, generally, the worse the roads are.

Lukomir itself is beautiful and incredibly peaceful. We had a local lunch of salted doughnuts (a sort of puff-pastry-bread) and fresh goats cheese, the peace only broken by cowbells and the herding of sheep and goats down the road behind us.

You can see the full gallery of pictures from Konjic and Lukomir by clicking here.

We drove back down the road to head down towards Foca and Bastasi, near the Montenegrin border, to get to our next stop, Rafting Tara. Still on the stones, Bosnia decided to throw us another curve ball with an epic thunderstorm, hailstones and rain. So far, we had only had 30+ degree heat and sunshine, but as we went further east the weather became more erratic and unpredictable. We arrived that night for tea, with football, Chile vs Serbia, on the TV in the large wooden cabin before retiring to our camping pods ready for two days 4×4 safari with someone else driving, a big relief!

Day 6: We began our day with a hearty Bosnian breakfast, complete with strong coffee before meeting our guide, Dragan, driver, Drago, and vehicle for the day. We set off around the winding roads and up some narrow, paths that very much weren’t roads. On the way we were warned of snakes, including the most poisonous in Europe, and the possibility of bears and wolves which are rare, but still found in the wild mountainous areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Our guide, Dragan, was a Serb and another who was too young to have fought in the war, but joined the military around the turn of the century. He told us stories about his childhood including playing with artillery shells and anti-aircraft guns. He also had a fondness for bad Christmas cracker jokes! It was strange to learn that a lot of jokes translate rather well, and they even have their own Bosnian-Serbian-Montenegrin equivalent jokes to our Englishman-Irishman-Scotsman format.

Our driver, Drago, was also Serb, older and didn’t speak English. We did find out that he was a journalist in old Yugoslavia, a country at that time where “you could do what you want, but not say what you want”, as Dragan put it. Needless to say he was a brave man, and the roads didn’t worry him!

We stopped at various points on the way up the Prijevor mountain before reaching the Purecica primevil forest, the last ‘jungle’ in Europe. The views were incredible and really put into perspective just how big and untouched a lot of this country is. We took in the views of Sutjeska National park and the plateau at the top, before setting down near an observation tower as a thunderstorm rolled in over the mountains on the horizon. Here, Dragan shared his knowledge about the local forna, from elderflower, like we have in the UK to Mountain Germander, a herb that grows at high altitude and contains a natural chlorophorm.

On the way back down we stopped at the World War Two shrine, Tjentiste. This sculpture, slightly damaged by recent land movement was the site of the Battle of the Sutjeska and marks the lives for the thousands who died in the area during the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.

On the way back we had a near miss with one of the free-roaming cows on the road. This was incredibly common around the south-east of Bosnia, with farmers happily allowing their cows, goats, sheep, chickens and the occasional horse to roam free.

We retired that evening to another hearty lunch before making friends with a couple of huge communal dogs that had taken the camp as its home, before a comfortable sleep in our cabin, ready for a similar journey tomorrow.

Day 7: A similar start to the day, but this time our journey was up the Zelengora mountains. A beautiful plateau at about 4,000 feet. We were a few days late to see the bears, our driver had seen a mother bear and two babies a few days before, but we were treated to the peaceful plateau of giant crickets, butterflies and horses.

On the way back down we stopped at a local house serving coffee, rakija (a type of brandy), fresh juice and straight-from-the-goat milk. A homely experience, sat within a family farm as the locals spoke, we were told, about politics and free speech.

Back at the pods, we had another hearty tea of lamb, goulash and cheese before heading in for our final night. Tomorrow, Sarajevo!

To see the thumbnail gallery of pictures from the Tara canyon and river, please click here.

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by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

    

Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2018 – Part 1: Mostar and the EU border

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The first day of our trip was an uneventful affair. We flew out from London-Luton airport to Split, in Croatia, with budget airline, WizzAir. The heat when we landed was instant, just short of 30 degrees, and any worries we had about storms and rain that had been forecast were instantly put to rest.

You can read about our preparations before setting off by clicking here.

After some confusion as to the location of the car rental desks, a taxi driver kindly helped us find the kiosk a few miles down the road. We had booked an economy car, but were given an Opel (Vauxhall) Mokka mini SUV, and set about our way. Stopping at a supermarket for fluids, we drove the winding back roads up to Imotski, a small town on the Croatia-Bosnia Herzegovina border. That evening we had little time to explore, but ventured into town for a cheap, and enormous, pizza and beer.

Day 2: On our first full day we drove through Imotski to visit the red and blue lakes. The former of these is an enormous sinkhole, the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. The scale really has to be seen to be believed, as the unguarded edges drop hundreds of feet to the water, which goes down hundreds more, the sheer enormity of it makes it an incredible place to walk around.

Our photo gallery from Imotski, Croatia can be seen by clicking here.

Late morning we began our journey to the border. The process was simple, a couple of stamps and showing of the green card for the car with no queues and we were outside of the European Union for the first time in a year. Stopping at a café for a quick coffee, we caught glimpse of what could well have been an eagle flying over the huge expanse of land that awaited us.

The drive to Mostar was simple and mimicked our 2017 journey, though the views were still incredible. Even the main roads, which are smooth, with lines and barriers, wind around the mountains before descending into the city. Whilst driving through the city itself wasn’t a problem, work taking place on the sewers meant huge holes in the roads that had to be avoided at all costs, along with the improvised use of one-way roads by the locals. Strangely, despite the organised chaos, the ‘work it out as you go along’ nature of driving seemed to work remarkably well.

The city of Mostar’s name comes from the mostari, the keepers first stationed at the wooden bridge spanning the gorge carved by the Neretva river which runs through Herzegovina. That preceded the Stari Most, the great limestone footbridge, a UNESCO protected heritage site and national icon for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

We parked up and made our way to our accommodation, the Bosnian national monument, Muslibegovic House, ranked one of the top 10 accommodations in the world by Expedia in 2010. The house is a preserved Ottoman House, one of three in Mostar, which somehow survived extensive damage during the war, and also doubles up as a museum. The Ottomans, which ruled over Bosnia-Herzegovina among other parts of Europe until the early 20th Century, built houses which allowed for strict Muslim practices to be adhered to, whilst also respecting the privacy of the females in their society. Whilst a large number of these houses have been destroyed in the various wars that gripped the region in the 20th century, Muslibegovic is one of the three examples that still remain in Mostar (along with Biscevic House and Kajtaz House).

Having settled down in our luxury rooms and having a drink in the courtyard which was filled with flowers, birds and enormous scarab beetles, we decided to journey into the city.

Click here to learrn more about the recent history of Bosnia-Herzegovina

Our first venture was to revisit Mostar’s most famous landmark, the ‘Old Bridge’ Stari Most. As with almost all things in this beautiful country, it carries a troubled past. In 1566, the bridge was built by the Ottoman empire as a way of crossing the Neretva river, that splits the town in two. The bridge, notoriously steep, has ridges in that were originally for allowing the bridge to be covered in dirt or mud and aid horses and carriages to cross. We sat down for a traditional Bosnian lunch and coffee, along with a shot of the strong local brandy, rakija (plum and cherry, male and female respectively). Afterwards, we worked our way back towards the bridge.

Having stood for 427 years, the bridge was destroyed in November 1993 by Croat forces during the conflict. Whilst the argument for its destruction was that the bridge was of tactical significance as it allowed for the crossing of the river which split the city in two, it is often seen as an example of the attempts to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cultural heritage.

In 2001, thanks to money provided by UNESCO, the World Bank, the European Union and a number of countries, the bridge was painstakingly rebuilt to its original form. Reopened in 2004, it sits once again as Mostar’s, and possibly Bosnia-Herzegovina’s, most famous landmark and bridge divers once again complete the local tradition of completing their rite of passage to manhood by diving the 24 meters into the Neretva river below. A very dangerous feat, due to the free-fall acceleration the divers are hitting the water at approximately 60mph, if their body isn’t properly prepared at the moment of impact they can seriously injure themselves or worse. Today, common sense has somewhat prevailed and Mostarski Ikari, a club of professional local bridge divers are predominately the only ones that jump. The club, named after Icarus, a Greek mythological figure known for falling to his death, highlights not only the bravery that these men hold, but also the famous local dark sense of humour. Despite the history of the region, the divers club is completely impartial, welcoming anyone crazy enough irrespective of their nationality, religion or identity. We learnt of the two schools of diving that had emerged centuries before: the head-first and the legs-first. The best-known head-first style is the Lasta (“Swallow”), modelled on the native bird’s sharp wings and dramatic dives. The most iconic style is the legs-first style called the Let (“Flight”), where divers hook their legs beneath them, push out their chests, and hold back their arms. The pose pushes them forward so they approach the water at an angle.

Crossing the bridge through the colourful market stalls, we followed signs for the War Photo Museum which was held inside one of the gatehouses of the bridge. A small but hard-hitting exhibit which showed how much damage the city took during the war, and how much work there still is to do in rebuilding it. Also in the tower was a small café, Caffe Čardak, where we met a wonderful local man, Mustafa, who showed us what we had been told about Bosnian hospitality by taking us on an impromptu tour around Mostar. He told us fascinating stories about old Bosnia-Herzegovina, the war, and his own stories as he showed us an old, heavily damaged school building, cemetery and the crooked bridge before stopping at a delightful little restaurant ‘Gastronomica’ for more local food. We also spoke about his life both before, during and after the war, and how it had shaped the city and country that he loves.

What is Herzegovina?”

Herzegovina is the south-western region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It has no visible border with the rest of Bosnia, and recognition of the area it covers is still disputed. Mostar is the largest city in Herzegovina which differs from the rest of Bosnia in that it has a warm, Mediterranean climate and is generally wealthier than the rest of the country.

Day 3: For our third day we had booked a tour to visit Blagaj, Pocitelj and the Kravice Waterfalls. Our guide for the day was an enthusiastic, passionate, beautiful local man, Esmer, who runs his own local travel agency. We opted for his fascinating ‘Discover Herzegovina’ day tour and our first stop was for breakfast at a local cafe, where we had burek for breakfast. A pie-like mixture of meat and pastry cooked on an open fire to set us up for the day. Just up the road, just outside of Mostar Airport, we stopped to visit an abandoned Yugoslav bunker. An eerie, dark, concrete shelter within a hillside, partially clad to disguise it from above, and formally home to around twenty Yugoslav jet fighters, and provided shelter for some of the displaced Mostar locals during the war.

On the drive towards Blagaj, we took in the sights of the Neretva and Buna rivers as the blue waters that followed the roads merged into one. The roads had us encounter our first snake, a large bright green one laid over one carriage of the road. We didn’t stop.

Blagaj, as with last year, was beautiful and warm. The Dervish Monastery which sits in the shadow of the cliff, was busy again as it sat over the blue river. This time, we didn’t go in, as we experienced it last year, but took in the sights whilst taking on water before our next journey.

After Blagaj, we drove towards Pocitelj, an impressive walled town that although it fell victim to the 90’s war, still stands to this day. Driven to the top of the hill to spare us the sweltering walk, we got a wonderful panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and blue river running by the road and got to roam around the remains of the walls. On our way back down we had another near miss with a snake, before taking on some locally sold, freshly made and chilled orange and pomegranate juice before reconvening with Esmer and making our way onto our next stop, Kravice Waterfalls.

In terms of scale, Kravice Waterfalls aren’t as impressive as its counterparts in Croatia (Krka and Plitvice), but are still an extremely beautiful place and surprisingly busy in an otherwise quiet part of the world. Our dip in the waters was cut short as a water snake came towards us, but the cooling water and vibrant blue dragonflies around were a welcome break.

On the drive back to Mostar, we were shown a panoramic view from the nearby Hum mountain, as Esmer told us the stories about his family’s experiences during the war, including their capture by the Yugoslav forces who kept them in a concentration camp not far from Pocitelj. Much with Mustafa the day before, Esmer showed a strong sense of nationalism and love for his country, but without any malice towards what had happened. As the slogan around Bosnia-Herzegovina goes, and backed up by graffiti around Mostar, “forgive, but never forget”.

We ended the day back in the city, as we walked the streets comparing photographs during the war, with the streets as they look now. Whilst progress is obvious, what is maybe more apparent is what hasn’t changed. A lot of the newly repaired or rebuilt buildings still stand next to bombed out structures, boarded up windows and bullet hole ridden walls. Politics has a major impact on what gets done, and not many places have a more complicated and less productive structure than Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Click to see all of our pictures from Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravice Waterfalls.

“What is the political situation in Bosnia?”

In one word, complicated. Possibly one of the most complicated in the world. After the Dayton Agreement was signed in December 1995, then President Alija Izetbegović was allowed to resume power until he stepped down in 2000. After that, the country was to be run by three presidents – one Serb, one Croat and one Bosniak. Well meaning, and aiming to represent the mixed diversity and ethnicity of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the fact that each can veto any decision that is proposed means that unless all three parties agree, nothing gets done, and as with politics all over the world, it’s very difficult to get two opposing parties to agree, or to be seen to agree, let alone three.

Day 4: For our final day in Mostar we were woken by the call to prayer and went back into the city to enjoy the sights and atmosphere once again. We went to Urban Grill for lunch (though not the ‘fried brains’ that were on the menu) and sat to take in the stunning view of the Stari Most bridge with the divers putting in their shifts.

Afterwards, we went back over the bridge in the hope of seeing Mustafa again. As we crossed, we were called from the window of the café -and there we has! We went up and sat with him for coffee, where we also had the pleasure of the divers company, where we spoke to them, learned of their histories, and they allowed us to take photos of them and their beautiful matching tattoos of the bridge, all of which cover the left side of their chests, over their hearts.

All of the divers from the city who regularly jump from the bridge proudly wear a tattoo of the Stari Most on their bodies, and some wear more than that. One man, in his early thirties, showed a wound on his torso. He explained how when he was eight years old, playing football in the city, he was shot by a sniper and the bullet entered and exited his body on the left side of his body. It was a timely reminder that the war was not only a real, but those who lived through it were still living with the effects; material, financial, mental and physical.

Mustafa then offered to take us up to Kajtaz House, one of the traditional, UNESCO listed Ottoman house on the other side of the city. Off the main path, poorly signed and less advertised than Mostar’s other offerings, the house is an incredible piece of architecture. A commune for the Muslim wives of the-then owner, the part of the house we saw was made up of two bedrooms, a living quarters and kitchen. Made of wood, you wouldn’t want too many people upstairs, but it largely survived the war though some rooms are still being renovated to UNESCO’s strict demands. The male quarters weren’t so lucky, and all that remains is a doorway that would have connected the two.

“Why was there a war in Bosnia?”

Following the death of long time President and dictator, Josef Tito, in 1984, Yugoslavia (formed prior to World War Two to defend the Balkan countries) struggled to reform and settle on a new leader. Following Slobodan Milosevic taking charge, seen by some as a Serbian nationalist, a number of the states began to vote within themselves for independence.

FYR of Macedonia was the only one of these countries to leave the bloc without conflict. Slovenia had a ten day war which cost 14 lives, Croatia suffered significant damage and losses over the course of a two year war in which the Serb led Yugoslav army attacked the city of Dubrovnik. Bosnia-Herzegovina fought for independence starting in 1992, and not being free until 1996. Whilst often called a ‘civil war’, it was only this in respect of infighting within Yugoslavia and not Bosnia-Herzegovina itself. At one point, Sarajevo was under siege by the Serbian led, Yugoslav army and Mostar was under attack by the Croat army, with the rest of the country also under attack. Over 100,000 Bosniaks were killed, mostly Muslims, and many war crimes were committed. These included mass killings, use of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate shooting of innocent women and children on the streets of Sarajevo and use of rape as a weapon. Following the conflict, much of Bosnia-Herzegovina was left covered in landmines, a problem still to this day.

After saying our goodbyes to Mustafa, we went back into the centre to find a place to drink. Sitting in a café just off the bridge, we got our first look of Bosnia’s famous ‘street dogs’. Mostar, much like Sarajevo, doesn’t seem to suffer with them as badly as we’re left to believe but they are still considered a problem in the country. Whilst the ones we saw throughout our journey were strays, they weren’t feral or in packs, but weren’t necessarily clean.

We walked back for the final night in our room, past the damaged buildings, cemeteries, graffiti and locals going through bins. Mostar is a beautiful, beautiful place but it still has its problems, and the effects of the war, particularly when it comes to fabric and buildings, are perhaps more evident here than anywhere else we saw. That said, the war only ended 22 years ago so perhaps the fact the city, and country, is functioning as well as it is, is a miracle.

Click here to see the full picture gallery from Mostar.

by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan

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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

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.

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.

Want to read about our trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2018? Click here for part 1.

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“.

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.

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

    

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 centre.

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.

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.

Interested in the culture of Rome, but put off by the price and crowds? Read about our trip to Croatia’s secret equivalent, Pula.

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