Mad Dash Across Europe

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Train number 1 – Split to Zagreb

I must admit, I was equally looking forward to, and anxious, about this trip. Four different trains, a bus replacement, some short connection times, an overnight train where we most likely wouldn’t be lucky enough to get a compartment to ourselves, two bags, and an 8-year-old to entertain for a day and a half.

We had lots of maths and English planned and all devices fully charged.

The first train was from Split to Zagreb – a two-carriage fairly modern affair, airconditioned and tilting. At times, as we tilted our way around mountain sides and sheer drops, I missed the bulky and solid, non-tilting Macedonian and Serbian trains. The lack of cigarette smoke was a huge relief though.

The views were spectacular, and gave a completely different view of Croatia compared to the coast. Small villages with houses made from local stone, seemingly with only the railway or unpaved tracks as access, craggy mountains and rolling green foothills, some of the trees starting to turn lovely shades of yellow and red, we ate our breakfast (surprisingly good pain au chocolat and takeaway coffee) while gazing out the window.

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Somewhere north of Split

In a way, this felt like the end of one phase of our journey – the bumbling about with little sense of urgency, direction or a plan part – as we now had definite dates and purpose. We needed to get to Brussels and then onto the UK before our rail passes expired.

I was a little sad to stop the bumbling, but also excited to head north, where worse weather would be made up for by friends and home comforts. In fact, as if to mark this point, the heavens opened about an hour out of Split, and suddenly we were in ‘English weather’ – cool, grey, drizzly and dull.

For the first part of the journey Lauren worked on her maths – some fairly difficult stuff involving calculating the area and perimeters of things.  She likes maths and has an instinctive grasp of many of the concepts, but gets easily discouraged when she doesn’t ‘get it’ immediately. Of course, as she progresses she won’t be able to ‘get it’ immediately and she needs to learn to deal with this. We are working on it.

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We transferred to a bus replacement about halfway to Zagreb, which actually got in 45 minutes before the time scheduled for the train to have arrived, despite having been told it’d be an hour later.

We faffed about sorting out onward tickets and Eurostar reservations with a very helpful if somewhat technologically challenged lady at Zagreb station, meaning I wasn’t entirely sure the bit of paper we had would be recognised as a reservation in Brussels.

Once that was sorted, we stuck our bags in a left luggage locker and headed out to explore. I took an immediate liking to Zagreb – there seemed to be an energy and vibrancy to it that felt more real than the touristy places we’d been, and more sophisticated and quirky than some of the non-touristy places we’d been.

One odd example of the ‘quirkiness’ of this town is the Museum of Broken Relationships. A strangely compelling little place with ‘mementoes’ and write ups from people after relationships had ended. Some were very funny, some were very sad, and some made you think. A few were not child suitable, but luckily, I’m a fast reader and managed to head Lauren off onto more promising territory.

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One exhibit at the ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’ simply said: “Squeaky toy: his dog left more behind than he did”.
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An axe a jealous ex used to good effect on some left behind furniture…

After being somewhat bemused by the Museum, we wandered through beautiful back streets – largely pedestrianised – among elegant old buildings and some ornate churches. There was a smattering of tourists but certainly not the hordes encountered elsewhere.

It was the first time the weather felt really cold and ‘northern europeany’ and I was glad I had packed warm clothes for us both.

After some grocery shopping in a massive department store, a snack of (yet more) roasted sweetcorn, and a pricey but delicious dinner in one of the vibey, busy, techno-blasting restaurants in one of the main squares, it was soon time to return to the station for the overnight train to Munich. It was Friday night, and Zagreb felt like it was just getting going.

We, however, would be crammed into a 6-person compartment with two middle aged German ladies and a lovely (if rather, ahem, gassy) Croatian guy who took on the role of protector and insisted on hauling everyone’s bags about and ‘shielding’ Lauren from a rather drunk/stoned woman who barged down the corridor in a right state.

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Train number 2: Munich to Frankfurt

In a whole carriage, only two of the 6-bed compartments were occupied, but while on Balkan trains this simply allowed everyone a compartment to themselves as the train company spread you out, the perhaps more profit-minded German company that ran this train decided to cram all 11 passengers into two 6-bed compartments… I guess otherwise, people would never pay for the 2 bed compartments, which are significantly more expensive. Lauren and I had been allocated the very top bunks, but as there were only 5 of us in the compartment, I negotiated the middle bunk. Lauren was delighted to finally be on top.

After the border checks with Slovenia we all settled down and got some sleep; the train was certainly smoother and cleaner than the previous ones we had been on, but somewhat less ‘characterful’. The upper and middle beds had two vertical straps on the ‘outer’ edge which were designed to stop you falling off. At one point I woke up and Lauren was curled up into a tiny ball, with half of her body halfway off the bed; she would have easily fallen between the straps if she’d rolled over. I edged her back on without her waking and got a kick in the face as a reward as she stretched out.

A full hour before arrival the overly cheery attendant woke us all up, but all was forgiven as this time I did actually get the promised coffee, and even a bottle of water and a pain au chocolat, courtesy of the train company. Living the high life now we were in Western Europe! A very quick change at Munich went as smoothly as might be expected, and then after a few hours, an even smoother change at Frankfurt (they have diagrams of every train that runs from each platform, with a colour-coded guide to where to stand for each carriage!) saw us arriving exactly on time, exhausted but happy to be in Brussels, where we were excited to catch up with friends from Mozambique.

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Train number 3: Frankfurt to Brussels at a good speed.

Next: Red light districts and Reunions in Brussels.

Mljet Island

Mljet island is about an hour and a half from Dubrovnik, and home to a beautiful national park that houses two large saltwater lakes. It’s a sleepy kind of place, and the village we stayed in even more sleepy – a car passed through the village approximately 2-3 times an hour, if that.

The accommodation had been a bit vague about how to get to them from the ferry port, which is really just a village with a couple of bars and a minimarket on the far end of the island, but I figured things would work out. Once we got off the ferry, along with maybe 20 other people, I imagined a line of taxis waiting eagerly to transport us all around the island.

Well, not quite. There was one taxi, which also doubled as the transfer to the car hire place, with 8 seats, and the one taxi driver – who also doubled as a worker for the ferry, dealing with the cordons to keep the queues in line, and tying up as it arrived – corralled us all together and dropped us at places around the island. We shared with a German family and a French couple. Lauren had the one seat belt that worked. The roads were very narrow – in most places, not wide enough for two cars to pass – and we hurtled around bends and up inclines as if we were the only vehicle on the road. We weren’t, and there were a couple of sharp stops, but we made it to the village alive if rather shaken.

The village we stayed in was set on a beautiful bay and there were a number of yachts moored. At one end there was a playground and a small beach, and the water was absolutely crystal clear. There were a couple of restaurants and bars, one row of houses along the front, a minimarket, and a national park cabin that organized shuttles to the park.

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As it was already evening when we arrived, and after a very late night the day before, we settled for a makeshift dinner in the accommodation and an early night.

The next day we visited the national park, including getting a boat out to an island and a hike around it, admiring the beautiful and (for once) litter free surroundings.


We had lunch at one of the waterfront restaurants – again, the multi-tasking of Mljet residents was evident, as the chef also worked attracting yachts to the place, by standing on the dock and waving his arms about, then helping to tie up and giving advice about the national park. Lunch was a great slab of pork done over an open fire, with some red pepper preserve. It took its time but that was fine by me – Lauren was over at the playground, I had my kindle and the comings and goings of the yachts to amuse me.

After lunch, we hit the beach, or rather, I perched on a rock on the deserted strip of pebbles and Lauren returned to the playground, coming back every 20 minutes to check in. She enjoyed the independence of being a few minutes away from me, but actually given the way the beach curved, I could see her the whole time.

After a supremely relaxing afternoon, it was time to get that one taxi again, and let’s just say his driving had not improved overnight.

We once again boarded the fast ferry, and made our way up the coast, stopping off at various islands and enjoying a beautiful sunset on the way. We arrived in Split after 8pm, and made out way straight to the train station (conveniently, straight across from the ferry port) and a super helpful woman at the international reservations desk sorted out our onward journey, which would be a mad dash across Croatia, Slovenia, Germany and Belgium to get to Brussels. Having spent so much time in the Balkans, our rail passes were about to expire. We only needed to be there three days later, to meet friends, but I couldn’t make the woman understand that we wanted to break the journey for a night before she issued the tickets, so next up we are facing a day and a half journey from Split-Zagreb-Munich-Frankfurt-Brussels. Heading north into a northern European autumn, after the sunshine and heat of an Adriatic one. I suspect we will soon be craving some sun `again.

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Next up – Mad dash across Europe to Brussels and UK.

Dubrovnik

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We arrived in Dubrovnik after a smooth enough bus journey from Perast.

First impressions were not good. Heaving with tourists, the main street entirely given over to catering to their needs, with souvenir shops, ice cream parlours and restaurants, I found it hard to see the undoubted beauty of the old town through the hordes and the heat. Goodness knows what it’s like in high season.

On day one we simply meandered – the streets were charming enough in their way, and the tourist tat was of a higher quality than elsewhere, but it didn’t feel like a lived-in city so much as a façade for tourists. The area just outside the walls where all the yachts and tourist boats tied up was actually quite pleasant, and we spent an hour or so people and fish watching. Lauren would lean over the harbour wall so far to see the fish that it freaked me out, which is probably why she did it. There were cats everywhere, clearly well looked after, much to Lauren’s delight. In fact, that’s been something we have noticed in the whole region – from the woman at the port giving the strays water on hot days, to the old ladies leaving out scraps, to the shops that have a cat sunning itself on the doorstep.

Prices in Dubrovnik were insane, presumably driven up by the popularity of the city and the yachting crew who are here in large numbers. We had a hugely expensive dinner – 30 euros for one main course which we shared and one glass of wine – in one of the squares.

After dinner, however, the city and its people showed itself in a different light, as we attended a concert of the Dubrovnik Symphony orchestra, in a beautiful open-air courtyard of a neoclassical building in the centre of the old town.

The audience was almost entirely local as far as I could tell, and impeccably well behaved – no fidgeting, no mobile phone checking, no talking, just appreciation for the exquisite music. A visiting pianist from Switzerland gave an incredible performance with two Liszt pieces, accompanied by the orchestra, her hands flying so fast Lauren said they were a blur. She got great applause, well deserved. After the interval, the orchestra played a Beethoven symphony, which also received full appreciation. I don’t claim to understand a lot about classical music – my appreciation is a little like that for good wine – I know what I like when I experience it, I seek it out, it moves me, but I don’t know (or care) how it’s made or all the intricacies of the production.  This was music that could take you away from yourself, that swept you up in the power of it, and it left me feeling quite emotional. Lauren also enjoyed it, especially the rousing, lively and powerful parts of the Beethoven, and she was very well behaved, despite the concert starting after her bedtime. She did fall asleep ten minutes before the end, but still said it had been worth it. I’ve missed classical music while in Mozambique – no offence to the incredible work of the Xiquitsi orchestra – and I’m looking forward to being in Europe to enjoy more.

The following day we did what everyone does in Dubrovnik, and joined the throngs walking the city walls (again, at huge expense – 26 euros for the two of us! – but Lauren was keen to do it and the views were spectacular). Despite the Chinese tourists who would stop dead to take a picture, causing a ripple effect as everyone tried not to bump into the person in front, the French ladies trying to power walk round in their brand new ‘walking shoes’, the teenagers taking selfies, and the German couple who brought their dog, we made it round and did enjoy the views of the sea and the nearby islands, and the fort standing just outside the walls. Halfway round there was a café and Lauren had an ice cream, which melted rapidly in the intense heat.

After the walls, we found a shaded playground just outside the walls, and Lauren enjoyed the swings and the monkey bars. After all the steps and inclines of the walls, not to mention the heat, I was more than happy to sit in the shade of a huge tree and watch. At one point the children all gathered round a cat that had caught a sparrow. They had an almost gruesome fascination with it, and the poor cat eventually ran off into some bushes to enjoy her lunch in peace.

After this we decided we’d had enough of the throngs and headed back to the accommodation for a relaxing afternoon in the garden, before the evening catamaran to Mljet island, where we had decided at the last minute to spend a night, en route to Split, from where we would start a mad dash across Europe to get to Brussels and then onto the UK before our rail passes ran out.

Next up – Mljet Island.