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Monday, 30 September 2019

Euro Trip - working in Albania

I treated myself to a private transfer (well, I say private, there were 4 of us plus the driver) from Kotor to Albania because it was 2 hours quicker and only 5 euros more, what a bargain eh. 

I began my time in Albania in the capital, Tirana.  I had 3 days here and I was very fond of it.  It felt like a 5 year old had been allowed to design the city whilst high on sugar - it was great.  There were random sculptures dotted around and interesting architecture and colourful buildings, it was weird and wonderful.  Also - a really interesting history! Gotta say, this trip was really opening my eyes and making me realise how naive I was when it came to European, well, everything. 

I stayed in a 4 bed dorm in Mosaic Home, Tirana which was awesome - really friendly, great chill out spaces, free breakfast, nice layout, everything was swish and new and lots of lovely little touches like pouches next to your bed to put your phone and other little things.  The first night I had the room to myself too - anyone who's ever stayed in dorm rooms will know what an absolute score this is!! And then Rohan decided to spoil my peace and quiet and came to join me for the next 2 days.

I did a free walking tour which I HIGHLY recommend, from memory it starts at 10am outside the Opera House and we had Eri - he was probably one of the best tour guides I have ever had - so funny and knowledgable. I had no clue that Albania was basically Europe's North Korea in terms of communism and secrecy until as recently as 1992, and they were pretty much isolated from the rest of the world from 1945 - how insane is it to think that up until '92, there's a whole bunch of people who didn't know any Michael Jackson songs, know that Ikea furniture existed, or Kentucky Fried Chicken was a thing?! In fact, KFC only recently opened up its first restaurant in Tirana, and to date there isn't a McDonalds. We visited the main bunker 'Bunk'ART' in Tirana, which is very eerie - the dictator Enver Hoxha was massively paranoid and ordered 750,000 bunkers to be built throughout Albania (I believe just under 175,000 were completed).  Bunk'ART is the largest of them all, built to house the government in the event of nuclear attack.  It never ended up being used and so now it's a museum you can visit and go get lost in all the dark tunnels - super creepy!  Albania's history also made me understand Tirana's weirdness a little bit more - basically because they were so oppressed, all of the art and sculptures and colours and architecture is all about demonstrating their new found freedoms and they're celebrating it as much as they can, pretty cool huh!

Albania also wants to join the EU (sigh, maybe they can take our spot) and so I was super happy to see in Tirana they had electric police cars, loads of rubbish bins, and loads of electric car charging spots.  But, they also would put out a new table cloth each time someone ate at a restaurant, and bin the existing one....win some lose some I guess.









From Tirana I made my way to Berat, a UNESCO world heritage town.  By this point I was getting a bit travel weary (I know, I know...I'd been away less than a month at this point!) so applied to work at a hostel for 2 weeks.  I was looking forward to being in one spot for a bit and being able to make meaningful relationships with people rather than the 'hey, where are you from, where are you going next, ok cool good to meet you bye' you get with the transient nature of travels.

Berat was....nice... for a day or so, not so good for a longer term stay.  I was drawn in by the pictures of the beautiful river, with the delightful Ottoman style houses in the background - but don't be fooled, this is literally Berat, there's nothing else nearby unless you have a car (I didn't) and the river is polluted so you can't swim in it, and the temperatures whilst I was there were in the high 30s, so it taunted me daily!

it looks so nice! but don't be fooled...
 

I was working with a girl called Kellina from Canada, and luckily we got on like a house on fire.  The instructions given by the hostel owners were sparse to say the least, so we muddled through it together.  I was left in charge the first day I got there for the night shift, 7pm till 12am.  It mostly went without mishap...but I did manage to fill up their Raki bottle with water (Raki being a spirit drunk throughout the Balkans) because they'd asked me to fill up all of the water bottles ready for the next morning - and for some reason were also storing their Raki in guess what...a water bottle.  I owned up to it and tried to pass it off as I was doubling their profits but I don't think they were too happy....the following day the washing machine also broke, and I begun to think I was cursed!

All in all the experience was a good one, I really enjoyed interacting with guests and reading and having some down time, but there were definitely some frustrating parts too - there was nowhere really to 'escape' to, so when we weren't on shift, the only place to hang out in was the garden with the rest of the guests, so they would assume you were working and basically you were always 'on'.  There also wasn't really specific guidance given to us regards working hours and time off - the advert said 5 days of 5 hours with 2 full days off, but we had to really push for our days off.  We also didn't get any food (all the places I wwoofed at in New Zealand you got food and board), so we were essentially working for $2 per hour as accommodation was $10 euros a night in a dorm room.  We had the choice of a dorm but swapping beds if the room got full, or sleeping on the roof, so we chose to sleep on the roof as at least we didn't have to keep moving our stuff every day.  We also could only shower when the rooms were empty, which was kinda annoying.  Basically there was next to no privacy for the 2 weeks I was there.  If I were to woof in a hostel again (which I would!) I would do a bit more research and make sure it was in a place that I actually wanted to visit and had enough to do.


sweaty after a morning hike up the hill behind the hostel, Berat in the background








As mentioned before, Berat is pretty dull if you're here more than a day or two.  The castle is nice and well worth a visit, but I'd recommend going up in the evening as the walk is steep and it's super hot in the summer.  It's a great place to grab a beer and sit and watch the sunset as I did a couple of times.  The Old Town is also nice to explore, though it's definitely not as large as the other old towns in Montenegro or Croatia.  Berat is super cheap too - you can get main meals for around £4.50, what an absolute bargain!!  The local dish is 'lamb with yoghurt', which I assumed to be literally lamb with yoghurt on top, but it turned out to be more lik an eggy lamb soufle with a bit of yoghurt in it. It was a bit strange but edible!

We negotiated some time off and the hostel owner very kindly lent us her car, so one afternoon we went to Bogove waterfall - I'm glad we did this by ourselves as there's tour companies that do £15 tours to it and I would have been sorely disappointed to pay that! In the end it's a 50 minute walk to a nice (absolutely freezing!) waterfall but it's nothing spectacular, unless you've literally never seen a waterfall before.

the waterfall

On another day we drove to Dhermi, which is a beach town.  It was so nice to get out of Berat and see a bit more of Albania - the drive was stunning, if a little hairy - the road quality is terrible so you'll be driving along at 60kmph and suddenly the road will dip and rise and dip and rise then there'll be a huge unavoidable pothole, then the person in front of you will suddenly brake and the person behind you is right on your arse and will swerve madly out the way to avoid hitting you, then later on the person in front will stop suddenly and open their car door so you have to swerve to avoid missing it, then you'll be driving really slowly up and over a very windy mountain pass and the people behind will be sitting on your tail and get annoyed at you being slow (safe!) and overtake on a blind bend, then later you'll have someone driving at you because they're on the totally wrong side of the road without a care in the world.  Don't even get me started on roundabouts and junctions...  Honestly I was a ball of nerves sitting at the wheel and very very grateful nothing happened!!!




Dhermi was nice but I think it had been hyped up too much (or perhaps I have been spoilt with the amazing New Zealand beaches).  The sea water was incredible and warm and a beautiful colour, but the beaches themselves were crowded and a bit dirty and super touristy, the kind of place you have to pay to lie on a sunlounger.  We also did a day trip to Gjipe Beach, which is meant to be a 'secret' beach - well let me tell you, that secret is definitely out!!!! A 10 minute drive down a single track road with few passing spots, then a 30 minute walk in the baking sun takes you to a beautiful beach at the end of a canyon, but it was super busy with boats dropping off and picking people up all day and 4x4s driving down.   Personally I wouldn't recommend it, I didn't think the journey to get there was worth it but Kellina and Amelie liked it. 



I also celebrated my birthday in Berat! As luck would have it, Kellina's birthday was the day before mine so we had a joint celebration :) We went for a team dinner on her birthday and the following day joined the hostel tour to the Osumi Canyon which was a pretty neat way to spend turning 32!  We hiked/walked/jumped/swam along the canyon for 5ks and it was stunning! Such a cool thing to be able to traverse a river like that.





My final days in Berat were spent playing with Djielza the hostel puppy and the unnamed cat and drinking beers and having shared meals with Kellina and the owners - it was lovely and just what I needed, I was definitely itching to get back on the road after 2 weeks off. 

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Eurotrip 2019 - Mostar & Kotor

I made a Split decision (ha, see what I did there) and decided to head to Mostar from Croatia.  I have always wanted to visit and it was easy enough to get to from Split - a 7 hour, 20 euro bus ride.

I was SO glad I went. I originally booked 2 nights and ended up staying another as I love it so much.  It was hard picking a hostel to stay in because they all had such good reviews (not a bad problem to have!) so I went for the cheapest, Hostel Lovely Home at 8 euros a night. It was basic but the owner was so friendly, happily answered all my questions, booked me onto a tour, exchanged my money and gave me a delicious glass of juice when I arrived.  He didn't have space for me for the extra night, so I moved to Hostel Musafa for my last night, 12 euros and slightly further away from the Old Town but it had a really nice outdoor area.   I made friends with a guy who was travelling Europe on a motorbike called Rohan, and he met me after my first Old Town exploration for dinner and drinks watching live music by the river - not a bad first night in town!



The tour I booked was the standard tour all hostels seem to offer in Mostar - 35 Euros for a day trip to Blacaj to see a Dervish House, Pocitelj to see the fortress, and Kravica Falls for a swim and lunch.  But - as much as I like to support local business, you could book for 20 Euros in the centre of own with the tourist company and it was exactly the same tour...so if you're wanting to save a buck or two, do that instead!! The tour was O-K, nothing spectacular, and Kravica Falls whilst beautiful were SUPER busy and a bit commercialised, on the river front is a big restaurant selling unspectacular food.  But the best bit was I met some really awesome girls from Denmark who became my Mostar friends - Jensia and Ida, and Yuchen who lives on the Isle of Man and who I ended up bumping into in Kotor a few days later.  I later met up with the girls for dinner, and hung out with them the following day.  We went to the Genocide Museum, which is well worth a stop.  It is very inexpensive and you'll spend around 2 hours in there - it is very...confronting....and moving, and we left wondering how humans can be so cruel to each other.




Mostar is very raw - if you're only staying in the Old Town you probably won't notice it so much, but if you wander to the outskirts you'll spot crumbling, bullet riddled buildings and a variety of graffiti.  It's a strange juxtaposition to the quaintness of the Old Town.  I also went to a war photography exhibition which gave me much more of an appreciation of how much of the Old Town has been rebuilt - Stari Most, Mostar's famous bridge was only rebuilt in 2004, having been blown up in 1993 by Croat paramilitary forces during the war.  If buildings could talk, they've seen a hell of a lot.









It's only a small Old Town, but it is really lovely - the (slippery!!) cobbled streets are lined with stalls selling beautiful Ottoman style trinkets and nicknacks, I could have spent a fortune. There are street cats and dogs on every corner, gelato stalls, and the views to the bridge are like something in a fairy tale.

My top tips would be to wear sensible footwear!! The streets are slippery - especially the bridge, so don't wear flipflops as you'll be slipping all over the place, especially if it's raining. If you want to take photos of the bridge, you'd best get up early - it gets very crowded from 9am onwards and in high season sometimes there's a bit of a queue to walk across due to people wanting to take selfies.  If you want to get internet points, talk to the pros about jumping off the bridge. From memory it costs 35 euros and they take you to a slightly lower diving platform a little upstream to make sure you know what you're doing before they allow you to jump from the bridge itself.  Mostar could be explored in a day, but I would recommend spending at least 2 full days here if you're wanting to explore a bit further afield too.

The bus to Kotor was delayed by 30 or so minutes, which is always a bit stressful when you're in a different country and don't know the language or who to ask - but I trusted in the process and assumed it would come eventually!  It was a pretty miserable journey, the AC didn't work - turning the bus into a sauna, and we got stuck in a lot of traffic so it took much longer than it should have done.  I was excited to see Kotor as from other blog pictures I have seen it looked beautiful, but I was sorely disappointed. 

I think a lot of it was to do with my mindset - I felt quite at home in Mostar, I enjoyed hanging out with the friends I made, and suddenly I got off from a shitty bus ride and arrived in a super crowded, touristy city, it wasn't very friendly (I had locals push in front of me several times in queues), it was too hot to really do any exploring, and I struggled to find any hostels to stay in that didn't describe themselves as a 'party' hostel.  I settled on the complete opposite of a party hostel, and ended up regretting that decision a little bit - it was tiny, hosting only 6 people, none of whom I saw in my 3 night stay there.

I spent my time wandering round the old town, annoyingly by this point I wasn't appreciative of it and was angry at myself for not being more excited to be there.  I think if I had been in a better mood I would have loved it, but by this point it was 'just another old town' to me and I was annoyed at myself for being so ungrateful at being there - anyone else experienced this whilst travelling?!  But, as I said in my instagram post - don't let my negative nancying put you off, it is a beautiful city! However, as with Croatia - I wouldn't recommend travelling there in the height of season. It was very busy and I got the feeling some of the locals were frustrated at the tourists.  On the day I left,  HUGE cruise ship moored in the harbour and it looked ridiculous - it was larger than pretty much all the buildings in Kotor and it was so ugly and ruined the views.

On one of the days, I went on a speedboat tour of the area, which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  Being a tour, I expected some commentary from the boat driver, but he said nothing the entire time unless I asked him a question.  He would slow down for us to look at rock formations or random islands but not say what they were or why we were slowing down.  However, it was undeniably beautiful, and I wish I had a GoPro when we stopped off at the Blue Lagoon for a swim - the water was luminous, it was quite incredible!





Kotor is also known for its stray cats, there's a myth that because of the amount of the stray cats it prevented the plague from reaching the city because the cats killed all the rats, but I don't know how true it is!! It is crazy how many cats there are though (and no dogs!) - one night I walked up to the city walls via a free back route which zigzags up the hillside behind the town, and found a cat halfway up, purring away. They have a cat museum too which I visited as it was super cheap to get in, but I don't really think it's worth the visit, it's 3 rooms with old magazine covers  and cartoons of cats displayed.  I spent 5 minutes looking at the exhibition and 20 minutes playing with the 2 adorable kittens they had in there.



Ugh I feel bad, I don't want to write negatively about the place, but my heart just really wasn't in it - I have heard LOADS of good reviews about it though so don't take my word for it!

Monday, 23 September 2019

Eurotrip 2019 - Croatia

I began in Pula, mainly because the flights were cheap and I needed to meet Jen who had flown into Zagreb.  Pula is a seaside city brimming with ancient Roman ruins, including an ampitheatre older than Rome's own colosseum.  I met a guy who seemed friendly but turns out he just wanted a shag  despite my protests so ended up spending my time avoiding him.  I wandered the old town, had a swim in the sea, watched a movie in the ampitheatre, and took a day trip to Labin, a very quaint medieval walled town.  Personally, I wouldn't recommend Pula, I don't think there was enough to do, and if you stay in the Old Town it's a 30 minute walk to the nearest beach, and Croatia's got much better beaches than this one.



Pula Ampitheatre

Labin Old Town

Labin

View from Labin Old Town


I got a Flixbus to meet Jen and we drove to the Kuterevo Bear Sanctuary.  This was awesome and well worth a trip, though it's a bit in the wopwops so I only recommend if you're kinda near and have your own transport. It's free to enter and the guy who runs it is super passionate about rescuing bears from zoos and people who keep them as pets.  The bears are very active (unlike most bears I have seen in zoos who tend to sleep all day and look sad) and the place is definitely a labour of love.



We then headed down to Korenica where we stayed the night so that we could get up nice and early for our visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park.  This has been on my bucket list for a VERY LONG TIME so I was excited to say the least.  Top tip - if you want to keep your sanity, don't go in the high season.  It's really expensive and really busy. If I were to go again, I'd go in shoulder season or even winter - much less people, and much cheaper to enter.  In fact - I'd give this advice for the whole of Croatia - they bump up the prices of a lot of things in high season. If you do happen to visit in high season, GO EARLY and bring your own food and drink! We got there at just past 7, but the first tourist bus doesn't pick you up until 8am, but at least we were on the first bus.  The bus picks you up from designated stops in the park for free - so we got the bus from the entrance to the top of the park and walked back down.  You could have walked it, but it takes a while and we didn't see the benefit as by the time we would have got to the top, more people would have arrived in the park.  It really is beautiful, the water is so clear and carves its own path down many waterfalls.  It is the kind of place that if I were super rich I would pay to have the place to myself for a few hours, it's pretty magical. Unfortunately some of the magic was taken away when I spotted plastic water bottles stuck at the bottom of some of the falls, churning away for all of eternity.  It blows my mind how places like this don't try and be more environmentally responsible - there were numerous cafes dotted about the place, all selling plastic bottles of drinks, and plenty of overflowing rubbish bins with no recycling bins in sight - imagine if they'd only sell reusable bottles with the Plitvice logo on it and there was water fountains to refill your bottle.  One can dream.












After Plitvice we drove to Zadar, I think my favourite city in Croatia - having said that, I was only there one night and one morning.  But the night I was there was really enjoyable - I wandered down to the Old Town and there was heaps of live music and street entertainers, including an old lady with a tiny monkey, some dudes with pretty parrots, an incredible brass band doing energetic covers of popular songs and a live band on a stage set up in some Roman ruins. It was awesome.  Zadar also has an LED light installation near the sea, and a 'sea organ' created from holes cut into the sea walls, which emit eerie breathy notes when the waves roll through them.  I took a video and it's saved on my insta highlights in Europe (@bloonoo)








After Zadar we headed to Split, a very cool Old Town, if a little touristy.  You can spend hours wandering through the narrow alleyways imagining what it would have been like back in the olden days.  We broke up our journey to Split with a stop off at a random beach we found, and spent a very enjoyable hour swimming in Croatia's famous blue sea. 







I liked Croatia, but it didn't blow me away. Possibly I would have liked it more if it weren't so busy, or so hot - if I were to go again, I'd definitely try a different season, and I'd like to visit some of the islands. I deliberately skipped Dubrovnik this time round - the hostels were creeping up to $40 a night and I was a bit over walled Old Towns and tourists by this point.  One thing we quite enjoyed was the changing of the landscape - Croatia's a long skinny country, in the north it is green and hilly, in the middle there's rocky mountains, and in the south it reminded me of Greece, it was quite arid with lots of olive trees and rolling hills.



Transport
Jen hired a car so we were driving around for most of it - there are lots of road tolls which at first seemed unnecessary, expensive and annoying, however since travelling in other Balkan countries, I realised and appreciated how good the tolls were in Croatia!! The roads were fast and well maintained on the whole, and I don't think Jen found the driving too difficult.  I used public transport three times -  to go from Pula to Labin and back, to get from Pula to Karlovac where I met Jen, and from Split to Mostar in Bosnia.  It was easy enough, but the busses weren't the most comfortable and at Split it was mayhem - the busses were all delayed and no one seemed to know anything, I just had to trust it would all work out.  Most bus stations had a left luggage section for a small fee but I had no use for them.



Food
We mixed it up by eating out sometimes and cooking dinner at other times, the supermarkets were reasonably priced and some offered bottle deposit schemes which I really liked.  They also didn't have too many plastic wrapped fruit and veges.  Whilst recycling facilities weren't prevalent, there were certainly more than I saw in the other Balkan countries. Eating out was reasonably cheap, though I wasn't a huge fan of the food - as in a lot of the Balkans, much of the food is centered around grilled meat, especially 'Cevapi', sausage shaped minced meat with onions and spices, served in this really tasty fluffy bread.  But there were loads of bakeries (called Pekara) which were very cheap and did a variety of sweet and savoury foods which you could live off cheaply if you wanted!



Accommodation
We booked accommodation as we went, usually a day in advance.  This seemed to work OK though sometimes we probably didn't have as much choice as we would have if we'd booked earlier. We used Airbnb and booking.com.  With the exception of the fancy airbnb Jen booked in Split, most of the accommodation came in around £20-£25 per person per night, but it was basic - sometimes just a room and shared bathroom, other times a studio.

Any questions or anything you think I have missed? Comment below :)