Krems and my first night in Vienna

Friday 4th July

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After breakfast and a delightful reunion with my younger cousin, Sam, the three of us head out for a day trip to a town called Krems about 45 minutes drive away. It’s a sunny day and we wander about the quaint town, popping into whatever shops take our fancy. A traditional meal that can almost only be found in this town is smoked fish crumbed with paprika, I can’t remember the German word for it. We can see them being cooked right in front of us. The fish are about 20cm long and are skewered vertically over a smokey pit. The fish is served with a slice of bread and it is delicious. Hands down the best fish sandwich I’ve ever had, after I got all the bones out.

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Tastiest sandwich ever!

We cross the road and stick our feet in the Danube before heading home.

At about 4sh Sam and I head into the city on the tram to meet his older brother Ben who is the same age as me. We head to one of Ben’s favourite joints, of which there are many, and have drink number one and catch up on the last eight years.

 

Then we go to another bar where Sam has a friend working. And that’s where the damage is done. Can you imagine having happy hour between 10-midnight?? This just would not float in Australia. We do not need any further encouragement to drink at that hour. I thought the whole idea of happy hour was to try and get people in the pubs early??  After several glasses of something green and Long Island iced teas we are well and truly in the throes of family bonding. Sam has a friend DJing at a well known club called Pratersauna and has managed to get our names on the door. We go there maybe around 11-12 and walk in in front of a queue of about 30 partygoers. We dance in the DJ booth, chill outside with Sam’s friends and dance some more. I am gobsmacked when I go outside and see the sky getting lighter. And lighter. And lighter. Ben, who has work the next day (!) leaves about 3sh and Sam and I jump in a cab after 5am sometime and promptly fall asleep on each other in the back seat. I look at my phone as we stumble in the front door and it’s 5.32am.

 

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Loving the cousin bonding time. This is the first time we have hung out as ‘adults’. Ben and I dancing in the DJ booth at Pratersauna
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I guess Sam and I jumped in a cab shortly after this photo

Being that it’s three years later that I finally get around to publishing this blog… I googled Pratersauna  and found:

  1. This glorious photo

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2)  That it had been shut down in 2016. I think this quote from the article titled ‘Vienna says goodbye to its most influential club, Pratersauna’ probably summed it up the best: “Suddenly there was a beautiful, dirty club full of dirty, beautiful people. It had after-hours parties that lasted till midday, drugs and some kind of anarchistic spirit. The sound system was bad and the bartenders were even worse. In other words: it was magical.”

The Castle on the Hill & the Church on the Island

Thursday 3rd July, 2014

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Today I tick off two must-do activities in Bled, climb up to the castle overlooking the lake and hire a row boat and get to the island. It’s a hot day and I’m glad the climb to the castle is a relatively short one, about 15 minutes or so. It’s a beautiful day

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My $9 Turkey cons still going strong
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View from the top of the hill. Was a bit tricky to get any photos of the castle due to its close proximity to my camera lens

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We continue around the lake and pay our €10 for an hours boat hire. When I was 14 I did a school exchange to Australia and remember being quite good at rowing.  Well those skills have entirely dissipated in the decade that has passed. With me and the two Aussies sisters Beth and Kate taking turns, we somehow manage to row to the middle of the lake and dock at the tiny island. As expected, there’s not much going on, but we walk around the cute church and I bask in the sun whilst eating an icecream, a record first in at least a week now.

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The Johnston sisters  (Kate left, Beth right) making docking row boats look easy as pie

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After a slightly faster return journey, we walk back to the hostel the way we came so I can get ready for the train. I farewell the girls that have been such fabulous companions on and off for the past few weeks, a bit sad knowing that our paths won’t cross again until we are back in Melbourne.

Then I bus to Bled train station, take a train the short distance to Ljubljana then hang around for an hour or so before catching my 4pm train to Vienna. It does pay to ask the hostels advice about such transport as I nearly paid €60 to leave at 9am then after asking Mika’s advice, discovered the €30 special that left at 4pm.

This is my first Euro train and I actually really enjoy it.  Is it bad that one of my first thoughts is that the train is just like the ones on the Harry Potter movies? The aisle is on one side and the cabins that can fit about six people on the other. Unexpectedly I have a cabin to myself for most of the journey, which is great because I pass out across three of the seats for the first few hours anyway. The countryside is very green and quite similar to that of NZ bar the lack of fences that we have to keep all of our sheep in. Once we cross the border, in Austria I see a couple of old castles on a hill which makes it seem even more Harry Pottery.

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Bye Slovenia! Miss you already

My aunt, Melissa, whom I haven’t seen for eight years, picks me up from the train and takes me back to her beautiful apartment in Hernals, district 17 (so we’re in the Hunger Games now?!). I have never been more grateful to have a double bed in a beautiful room, all. To. Myself. Heaven. It’s after 10pm so we have a quick catch up then head to bed.

Hiking in Bled

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Wednesday 2nd July, 2014

I had heard that the bus to Bohinj goes 20 past every hour.  I am all set to go by 8.20am except there are no staff members about to unlock the door to the terrace where my sneakers are airing. Tres annoying. Albeit there is no one about except 12 18 year old British girls that are passed out on every surface of the common area having arrived at an odd hour I’m assuming. I awkwardly crunch on my muesli among a sea of sleeping ‘beauties’.

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At 9am a staff member shows up. At 10.30am, after getting off at the wrong bus stop and asking four people for directions I think I am standing at the bottom of the track that I want to conquer. There is a gondola in operation up the mountain and the guide told me yesterday that I could walk up the corresponding ski piste. One of the kind people I had asked told me that the track is called Zagarjev Graben and it was marked. Thank god she wrote it down – always get them to write it down!

It wasn’t signed with the name of the track, but it was marked as a walking track with the familiar red and white circles every few hundred metres. The only other piece of information I’ve got is again from yesterday’s guide who said, when the track forks, take the left because otherwise you will go all the way around the mountain.

The initial traverse is not steep, but long, taking me far right of the gondola. After my experience in Montenegro, I was expecting to zig zag all the way to the top and not really lose sight of the gondola. After half an hour, the track still hasn’t turned and I am convinced I am on the wrong path. But, it’s going up, I’m getting a workout and I’m surrounded by bush so I’m happy and proceed regardless. Within this time the only sign of human life comes rumbling down the mountain in a trank (that’s a truck-tank).

As I walk I constantly imagine how my surrounds look in the winter and envision happy kids flying down this path and the trees on either side overloaded with snow.
I really should have made the most of this half hour while the going was good. I  round a bend and see what I’m in for (not that I knew it at the time) for the remainder of the journey. It’s damn near vertical and the gravel underfoot is made up of rocks of all sizes, but mostly stones that would fit in the palm of my hand. These factors make it tough going as I take one step forward and slide a few inches back. I end up kicking my foot into the gravel to try and get a good hold. After scaling a particularly challenging 50 metres and giving myself a mental back pat I pass a mountain biker on his way down.  I point upwards and say “gondola?” He nods and repeats the turn-left-at-the-fork mantra. I ask how long and he shrugs and says “I don’t know, I like coming down! But maybe an hour”. Saweet. The next step is taken with renewed confidence and purpose. Up and up I go hearing only the crunch of gravel and the chirping of birds. The sweat is dripping down my face and dropping off my chin. After a while I see a couple above me that I guess are about my parents age. I catch up to them within 20 minutes and exchange a brief hello.

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Looking back down
Looking back down
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Really useful signs (for English-only speakers)

Soon after, the spits that have been spitting start getting that much spittier. Did I check the forecast yesterday? Yes. Did it say there would be a thunderstorm in the afternoon? Yes. Do I have a rain coat in my bag? No.

I switch my pack from my back to my front in case the skies suddenly open and I need to protect my electronics inside. This actually makes a lot more sense anyway because gravity is now on my side, so should I lose my balance which I have a couple of times already I am more likely to fall forwards than backwards, that’s how steep we’re talking.  I look at the mountains behind me. They are in a fog of rain. I reckon I’ve got 20 minutes at the most before I too am engulfed. At least I have forest on either side of me. I scan my brain to see if there is any information stored in the ‘how to build a bivouac’ section from my form 1 camp. Nada.

I trudge on, a little quicker this time, and hope for a miracle.

My prayers are answered.  The sun soccer punches the rain in the face and carries me in its warmth for the rest of the journey.  Thank. You. Sun.

My only other human contact is another couple in their late 50s on their way down the mountain with their beautiful dog. I ask them how much longer they think I have to go and they estimate about half an hour.

I continue with renewed zest and a packet of gummy snakes. For this last stretch I am envisioning victory; getting to the top and seeing a bunch of people in the restaurant, some standing outside watching my gruelling final steps. There are cheers and high fives and a comment thrown out there about how I’m crazy for doing this.

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In reality, I reach the top and see a bunch of people with their backs to me admiring the 360 degree view. I stumble into their midst, awaiting applause. Nothing. I take a few snaps for myself and walk a short distance to the restaurant. It is filled with chatty rugged up folk enjoying a warm meal. I’m a blatant stand-out with my active wear and salty face but I could have been invisible. I am filled with a sudden urge to jump up on a table and scream “I WALKED UP HERE PEOPLE!!!”  But of course I order a bowl of chips and eat it in deflated and exhausted silence, watching the happy families around me.

I take the gondola back down and head to the cafe to ask the details of my trek, still not sure that I went up the track that yesterday’s guide told me of. I discover that the mountain I just climbed was called Vogel and it is part of the Julian Alps. The starting point of my trek was about 520 metres and the end point around 1550 metres.  It took me 2 hours and 15 minutes.  I also ask directions to the Savica Waterfall. I’m waved a direction and told it’s only 2-3 kilometre walk.

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Perks of the gondola – slightly better views!

I’m not sure if this woman had her facts wrong or if my body was just so exhausted from the morning or maybe it was because the waterfall was also at the end of an upward climb, but it takes me at least an hour to get there, maybe even an hour and a half. Had I known what the terrain was like before I embarked I definitely wouldn’t have done it. The only saviour was that I could get on the return bus at a much earlier point than anticipated so I was spared the majority of the return walk.

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Oh and the second saviour was that it was all very beautiful

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Savica Waterfall

I chill back at the hostel before meeting two of three of my favourite Aussies at a highly regarded local pizzeria. I inhale the majority of a huge vegetarian pizza and take the rest home in a doggy bag having planned to meet the girls for adventures tomorrow morning before my train goes.

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Canyoning in Bled

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Tuesday 1st July, 2014

It’s a sad day when I can’t run six kilometres.  I just didn’t think I would be 24. Lake Bled is 6.2km in diameter and my holiday lifestyle means I succumb to two walking stints and get overtaken by a man that is balding.  And I’m meant to reuniting with my boyfriend in a month for a romantic beach holiday. I just hope he recognises me in the airport under my newfound layers of bread, pastry and icecream.

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The perks of not being able to run 6km….. ability to stop and take photos. Or was this an excuse to stop running?

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Bled really is an outdoor paradise, very similar to NZ in that sense, actually in almost every sense. We have the option to do all sorts of activities through our hostel but the only one that I didn’t know when I scrolled through the list was canyoning. Mika showed me a video and intrigued, I put my hand up for the 2pm excursion.
Basically, you’re in a gorge and you have to get from the top to the bottom of the canon (“a deep valley with steep sides often with water flowing through it” –Dictionary.com) however possible, jumping into pools, abseiling, tobogganing, scrambling, down ropes etc. It transpires that I am the only one in this session. My guide is a young local, passionate about canyoning, which is his summer job, snowboarding, which is his winter job and surfing, which are his holidays in Bali. We drive for nearly half an hour to the site. I put on a very glamorous sleeveless wetsuit with booties to match and tie the jacket around my waist. Carrying my helmet and harness I then walk with my guide up a pretty steep dirt trail for 15 minutes. We have a quick safety briefing then it’s time to get wet! The first stint is probably the most challenging. It’s the biggest jump we will do. It’s barely a five metre drop, but the hard thing is that you have to jump out over a ledge, and the landing pool is less than a square metre. Oh and I’m first. After a few nervous glances, the adrenalin kicks in and I take a leap of faith. I always figure that if I die doing something like this then at least I go happily and with no regrets!

Woohoo! At the bottom of a rock pool I am so stoked on life that I don’t really notice how cold the mountain-fresh water is. And maybe it’s kind of hard to tell through my wetsuit that feels about 10cm thick. For 40 minutes I tumble, laugh, abseil and slide my way down the canon.

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I got this!

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Definitely worth the €55. SO much fun!
With groups it usually takes about an hour to get through. I think my guide felt bad that I was the only one and the legend gave me the cd of photographs  ^^ taken along the way that they usually sell for €20. Then he decided to go for a drink so we drove to the other lake that is nearby, Lake Bohinj, and we sat and had a beer in the sinking sun overlooking the lake while I picked his brains about hiking trails which I had heard are better here than in Bled. Tomorrow I decide to hike up a ski piste, check out the Savica (“saveetsa”) waterfall and walk around the lake.

Back at the Castle Hostel, I have repeat dinner from last night, meet two British girls and an Aussie lass in my room and have an earlyish night.

Arrival into Bled, Slovenia

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Monday 30th June, 2014

I have an 11.30am bus to Ljubljana, Slovenia and then straight on to Bled. The Aussie gals had told me they had caught the tram from the train station easy peasy. I try hard to catch one but it isn’t really obvious where I should be standing, and the trams are all packed, Melbourners – think St Kilda Road trams on a weekday at 8am, aaaand it started to rain. So a taxi suits me just fine. I was quick to understand that I was catastrophically ripped off on my journey to the hostel the first time around. I didn’t take any notice of the recommended cab companies that were listed on the hostel web page and just jumped in the first one I saw.  This time round it was half price.  Lesson learnt.

The bus ride was the quickest so far and I am in Ljubljana before I know it. I wasn’t really sure what to expect of the city, but in a way it looks how I imagined, slightly draconian, medieval style statues of dragons and gargoyles, sharp spindles on churches. I thought it was very intriguing. I was kind of hoping when I got off the bus that I would have an hour or so to kill so I could go and take photos but no, I have two minutes before the bus to Bled departs at 2pm.

Travelling more locally means a downgrade in bus and road quality so for most of this leg I have a very bad case of cheek-bounce (maybe the eastern European diet has finally caught up with me?).  On a side note, the Welsh girl from Sarajevo asked if I was a Kiwi before I had volunteered the information saying that the general stereotype was blonde hair, blue eyes, small noses and generous cheeks, which I fit perfectly. So I’m comfortable owning the cheek-bounce for the time being.

There is snow lingering on the nearby mountains which frame fields of green all around.  I see two fawns emerge from one corn crop and quickly disappear into the next.

I am sitting at a bus station tapping away on my iPad when the driver comes marching in my direction shouting “Bled, Bled!”

“Oh, is this Bled already?”

“Yes.  Bled.  Out”.

When I get off the bus and my ticket is checked before my pack is given to me, the driver tells me I have actually gotten on the wrong bus.  Right destination, but wrong company.  When I boarded I knew the bus wasn’t at the platform that that the ticket said it would be, but it was only one off and there wasn’t a bus at the correct one, and I only had two minutes. What’s a girl to do? I then got a small lecture from a local about how I should always get the tickets from the drivers and not the ticket booth because then you don’t pay for the reservation blah blah blah. This combined with the fact that it takes me AGES to locate my seemingly easy-to-find hostel in this tiny town, full of HILLS means that by the time I ask the fourth person, who happens to work at the hostel I am in a GRUMP. Poor guy. I read somewhere it takes 12 subsequent meetings to blow off a first impression. Pity. Looks like I’m forever going to be the girl that arrived a grumpy hot mess. And just to clarify that’s the sweaty, puffing, red-faced, greasy hair kinda hot, not the sexy, zen, boho-gypsy traveller girl kinda hot.

I thaw quickly as Mika takes me through Castle Hostel explaining what’s what. I thought I would have seen the lake by now and make it my second priority, after groceries. I contemplate going for a run around the lake but instead buy a pack of lollies and eat them in front of the lake, which is nearly the same thing. I then pass out in a lolly coma on a park bench for an hour while the sun goes down.
The iconic things in Bled are the church on an island in the middle of of the lake, and the small castle on the hill which overlooks it.  Very picturesque. The actual town is very small but being such a popular holiday spot there are 17 hostels.

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First glimpse of Lake Bled including the hard to see castle on the hill
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I think this swan might have been trying to go for my lollies when I was in full lolly coma. Packet’s empty buddy!

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Tonight I make my very first home cooked meal in a month.  Unfortunately the supermarket had a very disappointing array of fruit and vegetables so I’ve got pasta with bolognaise sauce mixed with capsicum and zucchini. It’s not too terrible.

It seems every person in the hostel is from the UK. I get chatting to one girl who tells me that her group of 10-15 are travelling together after completing a uni exchange in Vienna. Most others are in groups too which does make it a little harder for a solo traveller to make friends when everyone already knows each other. A few glasses of  I’m-not-sure-what-kind-of-red-wine-because-I-can’t-read-a-word-on-the-label and I am asleep in my otherwise unoccupied four bed dorm.

Zagreb and the Museum of Broken Relationships

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Sunday 29th June, 2014

This is really my only day to explore Zagreb as I have only booked two nights.  I’m not overly keen to exhaust myself either because I want to give my legs a chance to rest after yesterday and before my next stop, Bled in Slovenia, where I plan to do a lot of walking.  The one thing I really wanted to do here was go to the Museum of Broken Relationships.   My hostel is super central and, after seeking advice about what to do with the rest of my day, I make the ten minute walk up a lot of stairs to get to the museum.  To quote some info from inside, the museum “offers a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation” by donating a legacy of love lost.  “Our societies oblige us with marriages, funerals …. but deny us of any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect.”

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Each exhibit has one item, with an explanation of between 4-2000 words from its donor.  There are relationships on display from all walks of life: young, old, parental, gay, BDSM, from wars, from high school etc etc.  Emotional me is having an absolute field day. Yes, mostly it is a bit depressing but there are also humorous posts, not that I saw anyone else giggling. Here’s my favourite.

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The caption for the toaster reads: ‘When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That’ll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?’

Closely followed by my second favourite…

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Other memorable exhibits include an axe slammed into the wall, symbolic of chopped up furniture post breakup, a cheque book  (see caption for that one below) representing meals out, marriage, college tuition, divorce attorneys, counselling, and a trip to the psychiatric ward, olive pips spat out by an unassuming lover, a suicide note, also diaries, mixed tapes that patrons could listen to, videos to watch etc.

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I read every word and leave the museum feeling veeeery normal and lucky to be in a loving relationship. Love really makes people do crazy things! It does make me think though, what one item would represent my relationship, your relationship?  Thought fodder for later.

I find myself in the square behind the museum plotting my next move and taking some snaps of St Marks Church when four men in period costume riding horses prance through the square and out of sight.  It’s 11.47am.  Something stirs in my memory about some sort of midday changing of the guard ritual.  Although, I can’t actually see any guards to change. A throng of tourists have now gathered, waiting for I’m not sure what.  We wait for 5-10 minutes with no action.  Then we hear a canon fire, maybe 12 times, then the four horsemen return with 11 foot soldiers and two drummers.  The church bells chime at 12 on the dot and a 10 minute, well rehearsed routine is played out for the cameras.

Afterwards I stroll the streets, happy that there’s few people about (maybe because it’s a Sunday?) and find myself the sole customer in a tiny leather shop full of handbags. Oh dear. They are so beautiful. All sizes, colours and textures, and no two bags the same, except for the brand engraved on a small metal plate: “Lile”. I get chatting to the girl in the shop who is probably only a few years older than me. She and her mother make the bags and her brother is in the business also. The brand is her mother’s name, pronounced similar to our “Lilly”. The leather, mostly from cows, is locally sourced with some bolstering from Italy. I could buy five bags in here. I ask if there’s a discount for multiple purchases. After a negative response I settle for two, one of black suede that could double as a clutch and a fun turquoise number. That totals three handbags that have been purchased in Croatia  : l

I stroll down a lovely street with a few market stalls and find myself a bench in dappled sunlight and have a few hours of writing. I am super happy and don’t even feel bad that my mood is in part due to a material purchase (somewhat of a consumer-phobe! although my track record on this adventure has been a little indulgent). So I sit on my zen bench with my zen hair blowing in the wind reflecting about how bloody good life is right now.

I was advised to visit the historical museum but for the first time I just can’t be bothered, and I quell my conscience that tells me I should be. After establishing that the modern art museum is shut and checking out the main cathedral (getting a bit over them and I constantly forget to wear modest clothing) I take myself out for lunch at a recommended local joint.  One smoothie, a beer and toasted sandwich later I waddle back to the hostel for a midday nap that I’m becoming all too accustomed too. I would usually feel guilty sleeping in the middle of the day whilst on a European holiday but with the knowledge that most hostellers sleep till midday, I just don’t.

After a half hearted look at some shops, back at the hostel I am glad to see my favourite Aussie threesome (sisters Beth and Kate Johnston and their friend Elise) that I met in Montenegro, saw in Bosnia and now in Croatia.  We go for dinner at Zagreb’s ‘best ćevapi’ restaurant. Ćevapi is a grilled dish of minced meat, a type of skinless sausage, and a national dish of Bosnia and Herzegovina which I didn’t get around to trying whilst I was there. I’m still not really hungry from my mammoth lunch but I manage to put back the five mini sausages in the pita like bread with sauce and salad without too much difficulty…. of course.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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Saturday 28th June, 2014

I didn’t know much when I booked this trip to Eastern Europe but I knew I wanted to visit Plitvice Lakes.  I think it’s the biggest tourist attraction in Croatia, pulling over a million visitors every year.  The gates open at 8am and we arrive just after half eight.  If I had it my way we would have been there at 7.45am but I jumped in the car of a fellow hosteller (with two others) so had to fit in with his timeline.  The day trippers get in about 10-11am so it’s best to maximise all hours before they arrive.  Plus there’s a fair amount of dithering on arrival; the car park was terribly signposted, I had to check my bag into a locker, people had to toilet, get tickets, postcards, food etc.  So we weren’t on our ‘bus’ until 9am.  I say ‘bus’ because to get from the entrance to other connecting points you need to get on these things that are part bus, part train, part golf buggy.  There are three carriages, like little caravans, with the driver in the first and smallest carriage.  The park is huge so these buses and also ferries make it possible to see everything.  You can’t not catch one.  There are a number of paths you can take around the lakes.  We decide path H is what we’re after, the second most comprehensive route around the lakes.

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This is my favourite day on my trip so far.  I couldn’t count the number of times I said “I love it, I just love it” throughout the day.  Everywhere you look you can only see blue or green.  We have an absolute winner of a day weather wise with the morning light lending itself very nicely to photographs.  My heart purrs the entire day as we walk past pools of the clearest water I have seen in my life, with what are surely the happiest fish in the world.  I would l o v e to jump in but swimming is forbidden and I can totally appreciate that if it wasn’t they wouldn’t look anywhere near as beautiful.  With every waterfall I am one drop closer to absolute zen.  To the point that, by 2pm, if my heart wasn’t beating so fast from climbing up to numerous viewpoints, I would think I had relapsed into the complete serenity I experienced with Magic Mike that day in Istanbul.  At this stage we farewell half of our group and Jessica and I go off in search of viewpoints on unexplored tracks.  We hike for another two-three hours away from the main trails and the other tourists, swapping the sound of running water for the soft crunch of leaves in a beech forest.  En route we see many forest mice (aren’t they just so cute when they’re not in your house?) and lizards, much to my delight.  Back on lake level, thighs trembling, we fight tooth and nail to get on a bus to take us back to the main entry point, albeit with a small Spanish child on my lap.  There I farewell Jess and buy a bus ticket to my next stop, Croatia’s capital, Zagreb.  I check into Chillout Hostel at about 8pm and pass out without dinner, probably in a rush to dream of the paradise that I have just left behind.

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Look how clear the water is!

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Me and Gisel from Plitvice Backpackers

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When the ‘off the beaten track’ walking began

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h e a v e n