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06 April 2013

Friday 5th - The incredibly rude man next to me, watching me as I write on the plane is rather irritating

We got up after a far better night's sleep than the one before, and packed our belongings for the last time. Our flight was at 16:05, leaving us a little time to explore the city before heading to the airport. Our first thought was to visit the cemetery, which is apparently, for some reason, a big tourist draw in Zagreb. Maybe they have real life zombies there, or maybe there's just a lot of prime opportunity for grave-robbing, I don't know. We'll never find out why, though, because it's a little outside of town, and our worry that something could go horribly wrong catching our bus back, or something to make us miss our plane, kept us from venturing there.

Instead, we went to see some Naive Art, which is art produced by untrained, uneducated artists, and was awful cartoony-looking art. Alice and I spent about three minutes in the museum, trying to leave as soon as possible without offending the guy who painted many of the pieces we were looking at, as he talked about his work. Next, was the Mimara Museum; a huge collection of artwork, statues and archaeological finds from civilisations throughout history and from all over Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, much of the items came with no English introduction or explanation, so we were looking at a lot without context. We only discovered towards the end that we could've used the museum's free wi-fi to use an app that would talk us through everything as we went. I felt like a bit of a moron as I left.

Before catching our bus to the airport. Alice spotted a shop selling what she dubbed "Jesus beads", which she needed to buy to help her pretend to be Christian at a very religious university, where she needs to spend her year abroad. Very devious.

On the flight home, I'm sat next to... Really? You're still staring over my shoulder? You must realise by now that I hate you. Also, we're sat just in front of another group of hitchers, group 34, who also had a whale of a time, though spent the whole trip in hostels, never once having to camp in the snow. Jealous.

Back in Britain, now, where it's far less cold than we left it. We got home and just had to have a curry to celebrate, before crashing on the bed and watching TV until we went to sleep. God, how I've missed TV!

Photos to come.

Thursday 4th - The museum of what?

Nope. Didn't sleep at all. I'm just too tall to sleep on coaches and planes and things, as they're just too cramped, uncomfortable and upright. Plus, I had to focus on not fidgeting in spite of this discomfort, because I didn't want to wake Alice, who was asleep on my shoulder.

The Zagreb bus station was like any other, and we waited around for a few hours for things to open so that we could have breakfast and visit the tourism office. Everyone knows Greggs sucks; but visiting bakeries of the same ilk in Zagreb, you really learn just how much Greggs sucks. No luke-warm meat/gravy slop in a casing that barely passes as pastry, here. Our breakfasts were cherry strudels that tasted awesome, but they also had a huge variety of delicious-looking bakery stuff up for grabs, so we used these bakeries across the city for the remainder of the day, whenever hungry.

During the day, we took a hiking trip up the nearby mountain. We hadn't been able to check into a hostel yet, as it was still too early, so we struggled the whole way up, each carrying our huge, heavy backpacks. The goal was to visit an ancient fortress, Medvedgrad, that protected the mountain pass and the city throughout the ages that we'd read about on Wiki Travel and asked about in the tourism office. Imagine our dismay after walking for two and a half hours up the kilometre-high mountain, to find the place closed and locked up for restoration! To be fair, though, the walk up was amazing. It was through beautiful woodland, with a winding stream and melting snow further up that was responsible for the stream being far bigger than usual, drowning a few crossings. A local man found us, ambling up the mountain and decided to become our tourguide before leaving us again near the fortress, as he'd finished breaking in his new walking shoes, the only reason he was out today.

Anyway, in our disappointment at the fortress' situation, which was shared by a few other tourists we'd met at the top, Alice and I resolved to find a way in regardless. We wandered around the back to find a slightly crumbly bit, with weeds growing out over the wall we could get hold of and begin to climb, after leaving our baggage below. Alice went first to test the sturdiness of the way over, and as I followed, A smiley Malaysian girl named Jean saw us, thought it was a good idea, and came with us. The view from the fortress was immense; you can see for miles over the whole of Zagreb and beyond. Truly breath-taking. The three of us explored the parts of Medvedgrad to which we had access, before exiting a slightly easier route and fetching our things.

Back in town, the homesick part of us was attracted to a place called The Brit Hostel, where we left our stuff and went out for the evening. We ate Italian food, because, you know: "when not in Rome" and had a few drinks. We found a late night museum called The Museum of Broken Relationships, and just had to take a look. The whole building was filled with items donated by hundreds of people over the years, each one accompanied by a story of the item's significance to the donor. Things that caused them hurt to look at, things that had angry stories behind them (like an axe used to destroy an ex's furniture after the breakup),  and momentos of happy relationships that ended amicably. It was all very personal and revealing.

Wednesday 3rd - The long day

It felt weird, finally packing up our tent and checking out of the campsite we'd called home for most of the last week, but it is time for the final leg of our journey. We caught the bus into the city centre, and went about seeing things we'd missed yesterday, albeit laden with far more luggage this time.

We paid a visit to the Etnography Museum, having no idea what it actually was. At first, while walking around the first of three floors, we became convinced we'd wasted money on a tour of a quilt museum; but the floors above were far more interesting, containing fashion trends, weapons and furniture from Croatia's history. We learnt that the cummerbund was originally a fancy holster for decorative weapons worn to parties, and was thick to protect against abdominal injury if the party kicked off. You know. Stuff that normal people would find tedious. It turns out that every English sign and leaflet in the country just misspells "ethnography". There was also a fine art museum, where Alice beat me up for touching a painting without thinking. As with every art gallery, there was going to be a piece that took zero talent or thought, and be akin to stuff I used to produce back when I was six and even then knew full well looked like crap; but this gallery had several pieces to make me wish I'd kept some of my infantile attempts to smear paint into an acceptable image of some terribly clich├ęd bowl of fruit. I could have made millions.

In our efforts to kill time until our midnight bus to the capital, we explored the Diocletian's Palace so thoroughly that we now could give people tours ourselves, and Alice bought a soft-leather tobacco pouch she fell in love with yesterday, in spite of claiming she's trying to give up the habit, and returned to get today. She worried because the shop was closed for inventory checks and they weren't legally allowed to trade, but it's amazing how content Croatians seem to be to break the law for a stranger.

After everything had closed, we ate and sat in a bar, ordering drinks as infrequently as we could without getting thrown out into the cold. I don't like my chances of sleeping on the coach. I always sucked at that.

02 April 2013

Tuesday 2nd - Diocletian's Palace

We've been just down the road from Split this whole time, but apart from our brief stroll through on our arrival on the train, we haven't taken the opportunity to explore the place at all. This has to change, so before we leave tomorrow evening, we'll thoroughly take in the sights.
Today we dedicated to buying coach tickets to Zagreb - where on Friday, we will fly from - and seeing the Diocletian's Palace. The palace was completed in 305 AD, home to Roman Emperor, Diocles, who remains entombed here to this day, the place is incredibly well preserved. As with everything sacred in our modern world, the palace is now an impressive shopping centre, where you can buy anything from touristy nik-naks to golf clubs to a whole new wardrobe. Aside from such shameless capitalism, the palace does still have dungeon-looking areas and a very tall bell tower to explore. The tower provided amazing views over the whole city and the islands off the Croatian coast. The palace is also home to the oldest standing cathedral in the world, where old Diocles now resides.
We wanted to explore more, but the standard working day in Croatia runs from eight until four, and we'd left it a little late to see the museums that had taken our fancy. We'll be back there to see more tomorrow before we jump on our night bus to Zagreb.

Monday 1st - The criminal element

Our plan was to scale a mountain today. We'd found in the campsite reception a map of hiking routes up the mountain and headed out towards the village at the mountain foot, getting lost straight away on some winding path that led to a eucalyptus grove and a dead end. Hearing voices behind us and spinning to see some guys with a BB rifle, we assumed they had shown up to shout the Croatian equivalent of "Get off my land!" and march us away at gunpoint, so we apologetically announced ourselves.

The guys turned out to be locals Mate and Goldie and were just as lost as us, as well as quite surprised to find us there. They were out "hunting", or that's what hey wanted people to think, they explained. In actual fact, they were out scouting for a place on the mountain to begin an out-of-the-way cannabis farm. "Interesting" we said, while helping them smoke all of their weed (we felt it would be a tremendous insult to refuse). They abandoned their plans and decided to show us around the area. We visited a nearby river, which the nearby town obtained free water from, as they had constructed a pumping facility and all the pipelines to homes themselves, without any government help or permission. We visited the quarry that Split was built from, which had been abandoned seven years ago and the whole place stripped of anything of value by opportunists during that time. Cables, metal plumbing, a whole cabin made of metal was lifted out of its foundations onto a truck; even while we were there, a team of guys were busy trying to free up and steal a large mechanical crane claw that had only survived this long due to the logistical issues with nicking it. Also at the quarry, they showed us some impressive graffiti artwork in the remaining structures, that I have several photos of, put there by friends of theirs over the years.

Afterwards, they drove us out to the mountain spring, where the river originates. The water tasted so pure and we just sat and smoked more weed, while listening to Mate criticise the local mayor, who apparently never finished high school, only got the job through nepotism, and sounded more like an even lamer version of George W Bush the more I heard. We learnt a bit about the collapse of Yugoslavia. We also heard that one of the islands near here used to be used as a prison. They asked if we had any islands like that, and laughed when I responded "We just used Australia".

Eventually, we were back at the camp site bar with them, getting drunk until it got a bit late and we called it a night. Nice guys.

Sunday 31st - Happy Easter!

We had to say farewell to the other group almost immediately after waking up today, which was disappointing. They had received word that the group of friends with whom they were trying to meet up had instead ended up on route to Dubrovnik, from where they were eventually going to fly back to Blighty. We wished them well as they packed up in a hurry and sped off to catch yet another cross country train.

After they left, we spent the rest of the day in the bar, making our own plans for the rest of the week. Everything else here is closed on Easter Sunday, anyway. They were also dishing out free Easter lunches to all of the campers, which was great if you happen to like a set meal of nothing but fish. At one point, we became determined to use the swimwear that we'd carried across Europe, so we went for a swim in the sea. While other campers looked on in amusement at me being a pansy, slowly making my way into the ice cold waters, Alice was already in said waters, also mining me far more vocally. We swam around until bored, and headed back onto land to reveal the numbing effect log the water was hiding that we'd both cut our feet on the jagged stones on the way in. We just headed back to he bar for some anesthetic.

We've now run out of Kuna, the local currency, though. We desperately need to exchange more Euros tomorrow.

01 April 2013

Saturday 30th - Another train... And rest

Last night, we had only been in Rijeka for a couple of hours before realising it was the last place anyone with more than two senses would want to spend more than a couple of hours in (and even then, it would depend on the two senses you are working with). It's not a tourist town at all. It's mostly grey and industrial. The other hitchers we met there; Chris, Christian and Jenny; we're only stopping there before changing to another train headed south to warmer climes, where they would rendezvous with some uni friends also on the hitch. We decided to go with them, and jumped on another over night train to Split, seven hours down the coast.

Our two groups split up between two compartments to give us all room to sleep through the journey, periodically waking up to worry about the fact we could still see snow outside. Upon arrival in Split, however, there was none to be seen and it was a beautiful day. We found a map of the city outside the station and located a campsite just outside of town. We got lost a few times along the way, and passed through a very expensive looking resort hotel, which heavily reminded me of playing Dead Island, but arrived at the campsite eventually. It's great here, though it would be way better during their "on" season. Unfortunately, none of the excursions or activities run this time of year

We set up camp, wandered around the nearby area a little, had a couple of drinks with the other group, and experienced surprise at the campsite bar/restaurant not being in any way tacky like a Butlins bar/restaurant that is normally to be expected of a campsite. During our wander around town, Alice and I found an old world war II bunker and found a way (for Alice at least) to be able to fit throughout climb inside. The idea was short lived, however, as Alice lifted a rock aside to reveal a lizard, white with pink spots, that startled her to drop the rock and accidentally crush its head. Alice felt like crap about it the rest of he day.

Friday 29th - Let's just get the f*** outta here

With Easter weekend creeping up on us, the knowledge that Austria and Slovenia are both Catholic countries, and the haunting memory of the Easter issue with my last hitch; we became worried that we would be stuck in Villach for another three days, which we were not keen on.

We considered waiting it out, we considered getting the train across the border and hitching more from there, but ultimately arrived at the decision to skip the whole of Slovenia after speaking wit various people the last few days who didn't like our chances of hitchhiking in Slovenia regardless of Easter. We stocked up on supplies and headed to the train station, which was closed. Fretting now, we hurried across town to another station, fortunately still open, and found ourselves in even more of a hurry when we discovered the only train to Croatia today would leave in five minutes. Speeding up our transaction with the man in the ticket office, who probably wouldn't have grasped much of what we were saying even if we had used the tried and tested method of speaking more slowly anyway, we managed to get him to leisurely hand over the tickets in exchange for several attempts at using a card machine that had a chip and pin feature for display purposes only, before we sprinted down the tunnel to our platform and onto a train right as it was about to leave.

The train ride was to last seven hours, including the change in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. We spent the whole time looking out the window at the beautiful countryside and miserable wasteland-esque cities and towns that made us glad we didn't stop in such a shitty country. We felt bad at one point, because at one stop, a Slovenian man boarded and sat in our compartment. Once he realised we were English, he seemed really eager to have the opportunity to speak some himself, playing tourguide and pointing out places of interest in the desolate depression beyond the window; but we were so tired, he didn't get much more than the occasional "Oh... Cool..." out of us, before he got off half an hour later, probably having a forever diminished opinion of English people.

Arriving in Rijeka, we are happy to be in Croatia at the end point. We've met our first other LCD hitchers, who were apparently on the same train as us since half way through Slovenia. They also gave up because Slovenia was such a depressing place where nobody picks up hitchhikers and had been stuck there for a couple of days. I now have no idea what to do next.

31 March 2013

Thursday 28th - Still here

There isn't much to report today. We got up late, ate breakfast and got ready slowly. Leaving the inn, we wandered to the edge of town autobahn slip road and began hitching. After a while, since it was actually a beautiful day and we were unbelievably able to strip down to just a single layer of clothing in spite of the snow everywhere, we went for a long walk out into the countryside. The mountains around here provide stunning scenery, and if we're going to get stuck in a town, I'm pretty glad it's this one. I'm beginning to think it might be a good idea to walk to the border, as it's only twenty kilometres away. Easter is rapidly approaching, and this isn't the least religious country by a long shot.

Wednesday 27th - Stranded

In the morning, Alex had prepared a breakfast spread of tea, bread rolls, pretzels and cheese. I can't write enough good things about this woman, so I'll stop trying. She dropped us off near the route into Austria, and we weren't waiting too long before Christina found us. She was a biology PhD student heading back to Romania for Easter to see family, and was happy to drop us just across the border in a small city called Salzburg. We were left close to the autobahn on-ramp we needed, so began hitching again right away, when twenty minutes later we were picked up by Roger.

This is where our day went downhill. We got in Roger's minibus, as he said he wasn't going far in our direction, but could drop us at the service station just before his turn-off. The "service station" turned out to be a lay-by on the motorway, so we asked to be dropped off somewhere a little more, you know, legal. He then must have regretted stopping for us and ditched us at the first opportunity. A village just off the motorway that can only be described as a shit-hole next to a Lidl. No traffic was headed in our direction. We stood there with our thumbs out, periodically changing our sign, for four hours. We asked the Lidl staff for a few taxi phone numbers, with a view to get a cab to take us back onto the motorway to the next service station, but the local network provider wouldn't let me call Austrian numbers. I then called LCD out of desperation and was saved by Simon, who Googled us some directions to the nearest train station.

The next train in our direction would get us there well after dark. I was considering setting up camp and going early tomorrow, but Alice was getting that crazy look in her eye that said she was about to burn the whole awful place to the ground, so we left for Villach as soon as we could. On the train, we had our own private booth for most of the trip. The kind of booths you never see on British trains anymore. We just relaxed for a while to recover from the events of the day.

Here in Villach, we weren't keen on the idea of walking miles in the dark, looking for a suitable snow-filled ditch in which to set up our tent and gamble on our chances of survival through the night; instead we found an inn with a spare room for a very reasonable price. Opening the door, we were thrilled by the size of this place. It's no mere bed with a toilet next to it; this is a three room apartment! We may not have had the best day, but we definitely began and ended happy.