Train to Turkey - Leg 6 - Zagreb to Belgrade

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With an hour before our train we didn’t have much time to spend in Zagreb and we were very keen to make sure we don’t miss the train. We left the station and headed towards to city in search of supplies for the trip ahead. We failed, but probably went the wrong way or something. The parts of the city we did see were good, a very different Croatia to that in Dubrovnik. Giving up on our quest for food we walked back to the station and managed to find a small convenience store, there were a few other backpackers here too which was a good sign. With limited options we stocked up on beer, bread, cheese and salami.

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After a short wait on a buy platform a train turned up which looked like it could be ours, it was longer than I expected. We were waiting in the wrong part of the platform, all the rear carriages were on their way to somewhere in Austria and only the front two carriages were headed to Belgrade. We figured this out after seeing our two Canadian friends boarding there. Also boarding were a 30-strong female dance troop, much to Owen’s dismay.

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On the train we found ourselves searching for a compartment, both carriages consisted of 6-seater compartments with a sliding door - very old school. We settled into a cabin with a Slovenian guy who had bagged the best seat, facing forwards and by the window. The group of girls were frantically searching for somewhere to sit until about 10 minutes in they decided that they had reserved several of the compartments and kicked people out. Our friends who had sat in an adjacent cabin were among the victims and ended up sitting with us.

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The train set off under electric power with a big red locomotive at the front and before we knew it we were out of the city and heading across Croatia. It was quickly getting pretty warm, and we opened the window to get some air in our small compartment. The bloke who was already here wasn’t too happy and insisted that we only have a small part of the window open. Owen was pretty hot and made a bit of a cake of it, sure it was warm but it wasn’t like we were in the Sahara desert or anything. As the countryside passed us by we saw sunflower fields, corn fields and rapeseed oil plants too. It was field after field after field, the land was flat and the track felt like it was built by the romans, straight as an arrow. Thankfully this meant that the engine got some speed up and there were times where it was recalling making some pace.

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It was a long journey, we managed to enjoy it for the most part, drinking some beers, eating our sandwiches which we constructed on the train and of course smashing out some blogs too. We spent time sharing stories with Tony and Helen who we later learned had taken a similar journey in the 1980s where before they had met had even crossed paths(!). The best story they told was during a camp when a black bear had stuck his snout on their tent, which was a frightening thought!

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The train itself was good, the journey was nothing to complain about and made good headway. The toilet wasn’t ideal but we had some water so were able to wash our hands. Since it was a straightforward drop onto the track there wasn’t much to go wrong, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be a girl! Seats were comfortable and the cabins covered into three beds, the girls in the adjacent cabin had a bit of a party in theirs and were having the time of their lives! The music could be heard when the door was open but otherwise wasn’t a problem.

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At the Serbian boarder we had a ‘Papers please!’ Situation, a Croatian policeman checked passports as we left the train then moved into Serbia where we were boarded once again for another check, this time we were stamped but again a very painless process. We had accumulated late-ness on our way and arrived into Belgrade about 60mins late, which wasn’t really a problem. The last stretch into Belgrade was painful, it was slow and since we knew we were close took an extra long amount of time.

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We pulled into Belgrade Centre Station which still seems to be under construction, mostly by China Railways. This wasn’t the station I was expecting and with no mobile data proved to be a bit of a problem. Luckily there was a city map printed on the wall so we were able to find a route towards the hotel. A Hot and sweaty 4km walk later we found ourselves at the hotel. It was a pleasant sight, we were tired, hot and in need of a shower!

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This was the first decent hotel of the trip, we were staying at the Mercure Excelsior at 70 euros a night wasn’t too bad either. We dragged ourselves out in search of food and walking down the main shopping street found lots of small bistro restaurants. A beer was £1.30 the food was equally cheap and we had no complaints. We had made it to Belgrade.

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Train to Turkey - Leg 5 - Munich to Zagreb

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We were ready for a good sleep after the adventures of Munich and a day travelling across most of Germany. I have to admit, a sleeper train at this point wasn’t terribly appealing, the knowledge that we were going to end up in Croatia and that we did have a bed was fine enough to make me want to jump aboard. We waited on the platform for our train which arrived on to the platform about an hour early. The train was very long and it seemed that the carriages were all heading to different destinations, this was pretty confusing as the train information boards just said Budapest and Rijeka and not Zagreb.

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Climbing aboard we were shown to an available cabin, the whole thing was a little different to the pleasantries of Jean in Penzance. The guard explained to us that we should go to bed, lock the door and that at about 7am we would be woken for the police checkpoint when crossing from Slovenia into Croatia. The passport check was necessary since Croatia is still in the process of joining the Schengen Area. The train was filling up fast with an interesting mix of people, mostly toting backpacks but some asian tourists too, with suitcases. Bedding down the train left relatively on time and I fell asleep without any problem. There was a lot of shunting in the night, I assume where the carriages needed to be moved to different locomotives, it wasn’t the best nights’ sleep but honestly it wasn’t bad either. The bunks were reasonably comfortable and the cabin was bigger than that of the Penzance train.

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I woke about 6:30 and eager to know where we were in the world got up to scout things out. It seemed that everyone was still asleep and the only person I found awake was an elderly lady right at the front next to the toilets, she seemed to have kept her cabin door open throughout the journey and for some strange reason had a cardboard box on a trolly which was full of salad. I was surprised to see that our carriage was now directly behind the locomotive, which wasn’t the case earlier in the night, we were also travelling in a different direction too. The train was Swiss which was different to the one which brought the train into Munich. Eventually the guard saw me and explained that we are 75 minutes delayed and told that I should go back to bed. I said I’m up and in need of coffee which after an hour or so he brought to me. It was awful coffee but it was free, so I can’t really complain.

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The views from the train were fantastic, we were passing through Slovenia along the River Sava, following it’s banks for almost the whole journey. Unfortunately the carriage windows were very dirty so all of the pictures I took are pretty poor, the train was also going at a reasonable pace and my iPhone doesn’t manage that too well! I was joined in my hallway spot with our cabin neighbour, Tony who was also travelling from London to Istanbul with his wife, recreating the orient express route. He was Canadian but spoke fluent Slovenian which for him was pretty handy. We had a chat for a good few hours as our breakfast arrived and we passed through the border.

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At the border the train was stormed by police, a Slovenian and Croatian police men checked each passport and in Tony’s case stamped it as leaving the Schengen zone. We were soon on our way again and as the topography flattened out had arrived into sunny Zagreb. We were late but had an hour before the next train which Tony and his wife were also joining. We packed out bags up had a quick wash and said goodbye to our train guard. Four countries in one night, one of which we didn’t even see! Not bad.

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The (Sleepy!) Pearl of The Adriatic - Dubrovnik

Last year was always going to be difficult to top, Monaco was absolutely fantastic and we had a wonderful time; we relaxed, enjoyed good food and embraced the rich and famous lifestyle – we even flew in a helicopter! This year I was determined to try and continue our February city break tradition and after nowhere near enough research or preparation I decided that we should give Dubrovnik, Croatia a visit.

Dubrovnik Old City

Dubrovnik Old City

Dubrovnik is not a place I had a particular desire to visit, although pictures of the old town, along the coastline certainly made it quite appealing and were definitely the biggest selling point. The town has recently become synonymous with the Game of Thrones franchise, many scenes from ‘King’s Landing’ are filmed here, which is pretty interesting. The other big reason for picking here is that Croatia is a country I have not yet visited and I have a personal quest to visit four new countries/territories this year (see my list); so there was that too...

The flight out to Dubrovnik was exceptionally and painfully early in the morning; of the many, many flights I have logged in flightdiary it is the earliest I have ever taken. Not really sure why it needed to be so early, but we didn’t have too much of a choice, there is only one flight every other day and nobody only British Airways fly direct from London during winter. Despite this, it gave us a good headstart on the day. Once we arrived it was a short taxi drive to the old city, getting there was far simpler than the internet would have you believe. Thirty euros to a transfer website and there was a chap waiting for us at the terminal, easy. The old city is completely pedestrianized so the closest a taxi will get you is a spot called Pile Gate where it’s time to grab the bags and walk!

Dubrovnik Harbour

Dubrovnik Harbour

St Lawrence Fortress

St Lawrence Fortress

The Airbnb was fantastic! A very strange bedroom downstairs and kitchen upstairs type affair but it was comfortable, cozy and all we needed. The street outside was absolutely to die for, old brick, with buildings squeezed in together with narrow, steep steps to the main street. I had some reservations that the streets might be fabricated for tourism or that many of the pictures online are of one tiny spot and the rest was nothing like it, I promise you, there is not an ugly street in the city!

Dubrovnik Old City Street

Dubrovnik Old City Street

On the first day we walked about the City Walls, these are the dominant feature of Dubrovnik and surround the city in order to defend against attack. The structures are a result of work that took place between the 7th and 17th century, the majority of their present definition is from work that took place around the 14th century where after the city-state of Dubrovnik flourished through maritime trade. The history of the walls is thoroughly impressive and it’s an absolute marvel that they are still standing in such great condition. They are along with the city itself one of Croatia’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Locations. If you plan on visiting the walls, be prepared for a reasonable amount of physical activity, it’s a good distance around the city and there are plenty of incline changes and steps involved, do take water, especially if it’s summer time!

Being winter there wasn’t a particularly large number of restaurants and bars open which was unfortunate, the city was quiet but there was a great place open called Posat. Not a cheap place but we were very well looked after; to eat we shared a fresh fish cooked to order and a soup made from the head and cheeks! We drank Croatian wine which was surprisingly good and even had space for deserts. Certainly recommended if you do choose to visit, I would expect that during summer booking would be essential.

Laurence & Victoria with Lokrum Island in the background

Laurence & Victoria with Lokrum Island in the background

The second day we took things much easier, we had a coffee on the square and took a slow walk around the city. We found that we could walk around the walls alongside the sea to get a great view of the surrounding islands and sheer vertical walls of the city. There are numerous small hidden doorways out to the cliffs, our favourite was one which led to a place called Buza Bar. This is probably the best view from any bar I’ve been to, with unhindered views across towards Lokrum Island and the Adriatic. We didn’t stay for the sunset, but apparently it’s quite spectacular. As with Posat, I imagine this place is an absolute zoo in the summer months, and certainly is one of the coolest bars in the city. If you ever go to Dubrovnik, it’s essential you don’t miss this. Towards the end of the day we had a nap (because we were completely exhausted form the day before!) and ended up watching the England vs Wales Six Nations game in the Irish Pub. Glad we did as the game was absolutely fantastic and England won.

Laurence on the cliffs

Laurence on the cliffs

By Sunday we were very tired indeed! We had a bit of a lay in, which was a bit weird, all we could hear was people walking up and down the steps outside. We got up, pulled ourselves together and decided to go on a big walk. We headed out of the old city and towards Lapad and the main marina area of Dubrovnik. It wasn’t the sunniest of days but the walk was pretty good and we found a cool street with cafes and bars that was much less tourist-focused. As with the old city a lot of places were closed for winter, but we made do and still had a good time enjoying the scenery. Exhausted and hungry we got the bus back to the town, which was really quite easy. Without much hanging around we hit the Irish pub for a beer and a burger – now regulars, along with almost everyone else who was there, who all of course happened to be on the same BA flight.

Gruz Harbour, Dubrovnik

Gruz Harbour, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is certainly one of the stranger places we’ve been to, although I can’t quite put my finger on why that’s the case. It has some great history, fantastic food and a weird European vibe that we’ve not experienced before. That said, it was a great trip and we had a fantastic time enjoying the city and despite it being winter time, actually enjoyed the peace, quiet and new surroundings. Would we go back? Probably, although we wouldn’t rush back, where Monaco we certainly would rush back!