Saturday, 25 April 2009

From Albania

Dear all,

We have ended up spending much longer in Albania than we thought we would.  For a small country it has much to offer and we have enjoyed ourselves a lot here.  It's a bit chaotic and they are a wee messy - buildings and roads never seem to be finished - but it's a real treasure, and good to see it before it becomes too Western. 
We have spent our past few days at what is supposedly one of the best pieces of coast in Europe and have enjoyed the sound of the waves and making sandcastles out of rocks.

Tonight is our last night in the country before we head to Corfu, Greece.  We decided that we didn't want to do the eight plus hour bus ride so, once we've explored Corfu Town,  we're going as far as we can by boat towards Athens.

Hope you are all well.

Amy & Paul

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Photos - Sarajavo

We may have found a way to upload some photos at lower quality. Hope these work!

View from the train to Sarajevo

Sarajevo room

Easter Egg in Sarajevo

Latin Bridge where Archduke Ferdinand got shot sparking WWI

Coffee hiding from the rain in Sarajevo (which was very good indeed!)

A "Sarajevo Rose"

Tirana, Albania

After a couple of days on the coast in Montengro, being warm after the days of snow, we made our way into Albania.

The change as we came across the border was quite dramatic as you could see the change in wealth levels, and the person:donkey ratio altered dramatically.

The principle means of transport here is a shared minivan called a furgon, when they have enough passengers they leave. We had a head start on filling ours as we'd met a Canadian couple the day before and had been sharing accommodation and transport with them already. Eventually the rest of the furgon filled up with locals and we were off to the capital, Tirana.

In the depths of the back of the van we started to hear a loud thud noise every few minutes. Didn't sound like our bags and eventually one of the Canadians discovered it was a fish flopping about in a bag. It's a good metaphor for Albania so far, seems not too unusual, but then something goes thud, and you realise that it's got a quirk, or two.

We've settled into a backpackers here in central Tirana and it has made for an excellent base to explore the city. It's a really colourful place and quite unlike any other place we've been. Firstly, as an ex-communist state you'd expect loads of stark grey concrete buildings, and while they're there, the done thing is to paint them bright colours. Usually yellow or orange but there is the occasional GREEN! What's really surprising is that even the new builds are following the same format and are a even brighter!

In the city there's a lot more poverty than we've had in other countries with a lot of beggars, especially outside the Orthodox Church we visited today (although I'm not sure if they made a special pilgrimage as today is Orthodox Easter Sunday). The street commerce has also stepped up a peg too, in addition to the shoe shiners and usual tat, there are guys changing currency and all sorts. Paul had a rather persistent wee fellow try and sell him a pen for 100 leke, and the boy wasn't interested in Paul's counteroffer to sell one of his old work pens for 200 leke.

There is also a very strong middle class coming through however with lots of clean "normal" looking shops, and people enjoying the parks by sitting in the sun with coffees. One of the more interesting shop phenomenons is the number of shops selling big meringue style wedding dresses, I would say we've seen over 20.

Then again, today we saw a good half dozen weddings too so perhaps opening a dress shop is a smart thing to do! Seems that the local wedding tradition is to have a convoy of vehicles pass through the city all making as much noise as possible, with the videographer leaning out the window of the front vehicle to capture it all. We were lucky to get up close and personal with one of the weddings as the wedding party entered a mosque we were being guided through by a dear old man who was telling us all about the old paintings in Italian.

As Easter Sunday sadly all the museums were shut so we've not been able to see much of the old communist art, but we did venture out of the centre a bit to see the statue of the Mother of Albania. An impressive, not to mention enormous, white statue on a hill overlooking the city, still holding her communist star.

Tomorrow we plan to visit an old Ottoman town before heading to what we've been told is one of the more isolated coastal areas in Europe. Fingers crossed the rain stays inland.

Zabjak - Durmitor National Park, Montengro

What a change this place was! We had decided that we'd been in urban places long enough for now and thought a few days in the hills might do us some good. I don't think either of us appreciated just how high these hills were... the town of Zabjak was at about 1500m, and was still under a fair bit of snow!

We opted for private accommodation and while our hosts were very confused as to why we were there between the skiing and walking season, they did ply us with slivovic (white brandy) and turkish coffee to keep us warm.

We braved the snow and the chill and enjoyed some outdoor time while we were there and particularly enjoyed our walk around a couple of lakes near to the town. As there really was not much else to do between seasons we made what would usually be a two and a half hour walk a five hour walk by playing in the snow in the forest (can't do that in NZ) and trying to work out just how thick the ice on the lake was by trowing rocks at it. That was not as destructive as it sounds as I'm a lousy shot and most of my rocks went plop in the watery bits.

It was really nice to be outside away from people for a bit and I think we'll be spending a few more days walking on this trip yet.

The World's Greatest Bus Journeys - Part I - Sarajevo to Motenegro

You often hear of great train journeys, and some people even go to the trouble to write books about it, but neith Paul or I have ever seen a book on the World's Greatest Bus Journeys. If there was such a book, the trip between Sarajavo and Niksic in Montenegro would have to be in it.

After a walk from the local bus station (local buses don't go into the Serbian bit of Sarajavo you see) to the intercity bus, we journeyed through lots of farmland - proper haystacks, old men tending the land, the occasion goat - before heading high into the mountains. The road followed the valley of the Tara River and took us through the Trebevic National Park in Bosnia, and later through the Durmitor National Park in Montengro. The gorge was amazing, the river so blue, mist, mountains, lakes and tunnels.

You didn't always see roads though. On the Bosnian side of the border the road narrowed to single lane, then to single lane with gravel and wood bridges (the bus driver being quite expert in never having more than one wheel on the bridge at any one time), and finally to a small section of dirt road, with bits slipping off the sides. But we're here now and the bus didn't plunge, phew.

The road to Sarajavo

Leaving Mostar involved an early-ish start from the old, very square looking train station. While Paul found coffee to fortify us, I went outside to take a photo of the building. This lead to adventures one and two. Mine was seeing a slightly crazy bloke brandishing an umbrella as if it were a gun. I'm pleased that is was not a gun, as that could have been an interesting start to the morning the way he was pointing and "shooting". Inside, with coffee, Paul was making friends with with a toothless Bosnian man. He looked over 40 although I suspect that he probably was only in his 30s and had had a tough life. He was an interesting guy to speak with. He'd learnt his English when the Americans were in Mostar "about 20 years ago"; we presumed that he was meaning the NATO troops. We muddled on over coffee, in a mix of whatever languages we best knew words in, talking about his life, which involved a few years on the streets in Sarajevo during the siege, and the high unemployment that has followed. He said that even though the bombs had stopped, life was anything but normal.

We had chosen to take the train to Sarajevo as we had been told that it was very scenic, and indeed it was as the track went along a river valley and then climbed into the mountains over a series of switchbacks. Our travelling companions were a Bosnian couple who made it very clear that they were Christan by, as soon as we walked into the compartment, showing us the cover of their prayer book with a cross on the front. Later in the journey they were kind enough to share their hard boiled, dyed, Easter eggs with us which was a lovely gesture, and an enjoyable snack later in Sarajevo. The couple also tried to tell us about places and things on the journey, including their home town en route with bombed bridges, and rail carriages full of bullet holes.

On arrival in Sarajevo we organised a hostel at the train station and were then taken at break-neck speed down "Sniper Alley" with a chain smoking taxi driver. We went past the yellow Holiday Inn, home to journalists during the siege, past apartment blocks covered in bullet holes and past a whole heap of police and military vehicles and crews of officers and men in full face covering camo gear.

I think it's fair to say that we did not find Sarajevo an endearing place, although it was interesting. It just felt odd. Maybe it was seeing so many civilian areas that had been targeted, maybe it was the rain and us taking shelter in the Jewish Museum (full of stories of both the recent war and WWII), or maybe it was the fact that our hostel was in the fixed half of a building that was still bombed and burnt out?

They had clearly made a bit of an effort to tart the city up and the old Austro-Hungarian buildings down by the river were bright and free from shot, but other parts of the city looked like time had stood still since the war, with the "Sarajevo Roses" - someone had gone around filling some of the shell holes in the city with red filler - making it look like there was blood fresh on the pavement.

I'm pleased we went, but we didn't feel the need to stay. And in talking with other travellers at the bus station the next morning we certainly were not alone.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Mostar, Bosnia

We arrived in Bosnia by bus from Split, Croatia. The bus itself was a bit a very important part of the journey as as the time passed and we gazed out the window there was a real sense of a change in feeling outside. On the Croatian side of the border the stops were in specific places, but in Bosnia it all seemed far more local as the driver stopped and left people where ever they seemed to want.

We both remember the news as we were growing up of the war in the Balkans and as we passed mile on mile of countryside, punctuated with car wreckers, some of the names appeared familiar and we both wondered what this landscape would have been like during the war.

On the approach to Mostar itself it felt like a veritable time machine as the radio blared out hits from the early nineties and the buildings were covered in grafiti referring to the USA and Clinton.

It seems that the system here is that when you get off the bus you are met by masses of people willing to let their rooms so we are staying at Hostel Nina, which is central, clean, tidy, and has free internet (hence the updates!).

After a lazy start this morning we spent the best part of the day wandering the town. Firstly through the new bit, many building still showing the scars of the shellfire 16 years ago. Then into the streets that were the front line. Some buildings were just frames with small bits of the walls still holding on, others holes in the ground, and perhaps the most surprising some where entire floors were burnt out, but people were living with pretty patio plants, on the floors above. It`s all rather surreal and you do find yourself looking at all the men aged 30+ wondering what part they may have played in all of this.

Leaving some of the destruction behind, not to mention the midday heat, we took a riverside seat near the Stari Most, and by payment of having a coffee rented some shade for a few hours.

While we were there we saw some of the local divers limbering up for a dive off the bridge, and also some of the club members doing practice dives from the cliffs round the river. We did see one guy jump from the bridge into the river, but there`s no photo sorry!

The rest of the afternoon was spent lazily wandering the old town and enjoying the sun. Most of the walk was rather tourist boutique-y and not really anything un-expecting but one place to note was near one of the Mosques there was a cemetery, with every headstone inscribed with 1993 - was all rather chilling.

Now, enough of the free internet, it`s time to explore again...

Images from the front line, Mostar

Graffiti on the front line

Paul and the Stari Most

One of the practice dives

View of the Stari Most from the Museum

Amy liked the concept of this tshirt

The adventure begins - Split, Croatia

Italy was always going to be the gentle start to the big adventure home. It is a little familiar and Amy tends to be able to use her French and Spanish language skills as a base for blagging her way in Italian.

The boat to Croatia however was the start of the real adventure. Gone was and sense of the familiar and from here on in we suspect that life is going to be rather exciting. Not that it wasn't before.

Our boat, ironically called the Dubrovnik (ironic as our boat to Dubrovnik was canceled) was to take us overnight from Anacona to Split. We had fun trying to find the check in and ended up walking about a extra 1800m more than we needed to, with packs, but were clearly not the first to do it as each port guard we met was able to point us in the right direction.

Once on the boat we discovered that our cabin was below the cars and the trucks, oh, and the waterline, which managed to freak Amy out a little. We had dinner at the Captains table and then had a vino or two with some Aussie we met while we had had the checkin drama. Amy slept better than she expected (probably thanks to the vino), and was pleased to wake up the next morning to the call for breakfast, and not thanks to an iceberg.

Our room

Paul at the Captains Table

Dawn over Split

We arrived in Split very early, which was rather nice as it meant that we got to explore the old city and Diocletian´s Palace without swarms of people. The whole complex is very impressive and, given that it is still used, quite amazing to see just how much of the original structure still exists. The real highlight was being able to go into the excavated basement where you could walk around an area which mirrored the floor plan of the old palace above.

With plans to explore the islands and the coast in other parts of the Adriatic, we left Split by bus and watched the countryside change from blue coast to mountains as we headed to Bosnia.

Dawn in the city

Building detail in the city

Paul in the basement

The Republic of San Marino

San Marino was a place that we had not really expected to be near, however with the change in date and departure point for our boat to Croatia, as we were going to be on that coast of Italy anyway, it seemed silly to turn down a chance to visit!

We had been in Rimini, Italy for the night and having spent a few hours exploring the beach town and the Roman sites we were content to spend the next day going into the hills. This was clearly the right decision as it was raining on the coast as we left and was lovely and clear in the hills of San Marino.

The old town comprises of three castles / forts on the hills so we spent the best part of our time walking between them and getting lost in the maze of the old streets.

As an independent country we had hoped that we would be able to have our passports stamped as proof that we had passed through, however at the rate of five euros a stamp we decided to leave it for when we really need visas...

Amy and the first castle

Paul and the second

Guns and aprons seemed to be the gift of choice in RSM

La Dolce Vita II (Photos)

Here are a few photos from our first few days in Italz, where we explored Cinque Terre.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

La Dolce Vita

Greetings from sunny Croatia!
We arrived in Split at dawn this morning having caught the overnight ferry from Italy.
Earthquake aside (which thankfully did not directly impact the areas that we were in), Italy was lovely.
We were there mostly to relax but still managed four World Heritage Sites, including most of the Cinque Terre walk (part was closed), the old city of Modena, and a day trip to the Republic of San Marino.  We stayed one night in Rimini, which is bit like Vega on Sea.
We have this morning explored the Palace of Diocletain (Roman Emperor circa 293AD), the excavated basement and the historic area of Split.
We are not planning to stay here the night and will the afternoon get our bus to Bosnia, where hopefully we will sit still for a few days.
So the count at present is five World Heritage Sites, four countries, four espressos, a long boat ride and one gelatti each.
Hope you are all well.
Amy & Paul (aka picnic experts)

Amy Johns
079 1405 7918

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Last chance London

Having moved out of the lovely wee flat that has been our home for the past 1300 or so days on Friday, we have been lodging with Fran & Graham just down the road for the last weekend in London. This our first real experience as lodgers as when we first arrived in London it was straight down the Piccadilly line to our house, but it would have been wrong to leave without dossing at least once, so here we are, on the floor, in the lounge, doing an OE in the good old fashioned way.

It was no coincidence at all that we are to fly out the Monday after the last Old Street game of the season. Sadly, although Street was a dominant force throughout the season, they lost 8 - 12 to a bunch of prison guards. But Street had the moral victory with a try and it was a real testament to how much the team loves the game that the rest of the day was spent watching other games at the Wasps home ground. It probably helped that the day was a stunner!

One of the more interesting places in London has to be Brick Lane. A street of Bengali restaurants, with a totally foreign but still English feel. It was fortunate that the Old Street end of season dinner was on Brick Lane as it's one of Amy's favourite places, and she had been wondering how and when it was possible to fit in another dirt cheep sweet English curry.

Sunday has very much been a last day to enjoy the more touristy thing about London. We started with a walk through Green Park before heading to Buckingham Palace. We had intended to drop in to see HRH to thank Her for Her hospitality over the past few years, however as she was not home we had to be content with looking through the main gates with the other Subjects.

We then meandered along the river, through the chaos of the South Bank street theatre before eventually making our way to the Founders Arms outside the Tate Modern for a last gaze at St Paul's with the usual suspects, and one or two fine British ales.