Monday, 18 July 2016

Albufeira, Portugal

Jacinda was coming to London again! Yay, time to go on another trip.  We had decided on Skiathos in the Greek Islands but flights were expensive and I couldnt find decent accommodation.. So we switched to another Greek Island and after HOURS of searching for the perfect place to stay (had to have 2 bedrooms and a decent amount of space)- there were no longer any flights at a decent time.  After our trip last summer we didnt want to be arriving at 1am and coming back at 3am as that makes for a very tired and grumpy toddler.

So the only destination that ticked all the boxes was Portugal. I was the only one who had been there before (and it rained every day when I went) and it hadn't really been on anyone's to see list.  But hey it was sunny and fairly cheap so who cares.

We found a nice spacious apartment on AirBnB and had a minicab take us straight there. It was raining and 18 in London when we left (typical English summer) and 30+ and sunny when we arrived at 6pm!

We went out for dinner at our nearest restaurant; across the road was a Jazz bar and restaurant run by an English guy.  As our meals arrived they started up the live Jazz music.  Though the music was good Bella immediately protested, covering her ears and screaming that it was too loud. (Weirdly Mum tells me I was the same as a kid and even complained that the ocean was too noisy). We had no choice but to pick up our plates and move to an outside table. From this safe distance, Bella enjoyed the sounds and stood in the doorway dancing.

The next day we went out exploring- our nearest beach was about 10min walk; there were loads of umbrellas and lounges out but still enough room to perch towels. The sand was golden, there were no pebbles, the water was clear BUT it was freezing!!!  Freezing like New Zealand water! Having been accustomed to waters in the Greek Islands being like a tepid bath, I stupidly thought here would be the same, but a quick look on a map showed that Portugal was on the Adriatic sea which obviously isnt warm.  Even Rich took longer than normal to get in...There was no way that Jacinda or I were getting in there.  Though I played with Bella splashing around at ankle depth and once you went numb it wasnt so bad.

Our apartment was 5min walk from an area called 'The Strip' yes it was just as gawdy and tacky as it sounds. Filled with neon lights it came alive at night -mostly with teenagers.  Club promoters all trying to entice you into their empty clubs..well they were empty whenever we walked past as I was never out past midnight.  A bit of an assault on the senses with each club pumping out tunes to compete with the next, it was nonetheless quite entertaining for a walk. There were the drunk Brits singing bad Karaoke in one bar and the table of Norwegians drinking in another bar who looked like they were 14 years old.  Though there were still Irish bars and places designed to lure in the British, the biggest clientele here were from the Nordics. And they were young! Big groups of them would walk around at night looking no older than 16.  Had they come on their own? Did their parents allow this?! And why are people from the Nordics so tanned? They have no sun in their country, how is it possible that they all have deep golden tans?

On the afternoon of our first day, Rich and Jacinda walked to the grocery store about 25mins away and came back, sweaty and tired, laden down with food to keep us going for the next 5 days.  So with that we managed to  eat in for 3 delicious meals and have most of our lunches at home too.

The apartment had a fairly large pool which was shared with the neighbouring apartments.Rich and Bella were in there every day at least once. It was here that Bella finally gained enough confidence to stop clinging to an adult in the pool and would float on her own with her arm bands. She loved swimming and it was the first thing she asked to do when she got up. On the morning of our departure when we were all busy packing and tidying up, unsatisfied that she wasnt able to go swimming, Bella opened the porch gate and went to the pool on her own. It was Jacinda who noticed her absence and managed to catch her about 10 paces away from an unfenced deep pool with nobody else around.  I'd like to think that had she reached it, she still had enough fear of the water to know that without arm bands or an adult to cling to, she couldnt go on. But it still scared me.

We ventured into the Old Town one was the typical alleyways and cobbled streets of old Europe. Much more beautiful than the 'Strip' and we wished we were staying a bit closer to this authentic side of town. It took us about 30-40min to walk there but later realised we had taken the long route and could have got there in about 20 or so. We explored a few shops, got some ice cream and checked out the works of an amazing sand sculptorer. The Old Town also featured a beautiful beach..And a giant outdoor escalator to take you up the hill..because when it's 35 degrees nobody wants to expend energy walking up a hill!

Anqther day we took a trip out to a waterpark.  There were 3 big ones in the area but we opted for the smaller and quietest one as apparently the others could have queues of 1hr or more per ride. It was a good choice, though small there were plenty of rides, a wave pool and a great area for kids with little slides. Bella loved it! After hanging out in the ankle depth water for a while, Rich decided Bella should try a more adventurous slide..they were still for kids but maybe 5 year olds. He pointed to them and Bella agreed that she'd like to go, but once at the top the pool attendant wouldnt allow Rich to go with her down the slide (who makes these dumb rules).  So Rich steps off the slide leaving her there alone to look down the 3m slide.  Being a bit of a wuss like her mother, she decides this isnt for her and says she wants to get off...but Rich being the ever encouraging parent- pushes her down.  Too stunned to even scream she is spat out at the bottom where she clings to me crying. Fortunately she got over the horror pretty quickly.

There were 2 thrillseeker rides nearby that were calling out to Rich so I went to photograph him going down them.  The first was a steep tall yellow slide with a few dips which you appeared to be able to control your speed on by putting your feet out.  I saw kids (11 year olds) going down in and some of them went so slow they actually stopped. But the adults went down like a rocket and of course Richard was one of those rockets.  He announced that this ride was OK and went for the more adventurous tabagon ride.  It looked like an almost vertical drop while hanging on to a metal tabogan and most girls who went on it let out an almighty scream. One guy stood in the queue which was about to the top, mounted the raft, shook his head, then got off again. Rich of course was not that guy.. Though he did admit that the view from the top was quite nerve racking.
Bella needed some encouragement (ie pushing) to go down this one!
I used to go on quite a few waterslides but having had some terrifying experiences (Kamakazee at Turkey Aqualand and Loop the Loop at Wet n Wild Australia) - I'm a bit more timid now. But Rich peer pressured me into going down a few with him.So we went down a shorter version of the yellow slide, which still went alarmingly fast and spun me backwards at one point. We did this one a few times and a magic genie one where you sat in a narrow half pipe and went whizzing round a few sharp corners.  Both were adventurous enough for me.

Surprisingly Jacinda then piped up that she wanted to try a few rides. We had already been on the '700m of relax' ride together where you basically sat in a tyre and went round a slow moving water track. At some places attendants even had to push you as you stopped moving. Now we tried the river raft ride where you sat in an inner tube and went down 5 small drops.  You landed in a pool at the end of each drop and had to paddle yourself forward to get to the next drop...which was somewhat of a challenge and I had riders slamming in to me as I hadnt managed to paddle to the drop in time. It was good fun though and we would've done it again if the queue wasnt 30mins long.  We went to check out the other slides and saw one which had 3 giant tubes; 1 open, 2 closed, coming down a drop the size of a 4-5 storey building.  We studied them "that girl, wasnt screaming when she came out, I think the red one is OK",  After deciding which one to go down, we realised that there was a massive queue for the rubber mats to sit on!  This had to be stupidest system ever; while nobody was going down the left slide at all, there was only one queue at the bottom for all 3 slides as you had to wait for someone to come off a slide and give you a mat. Ummm how bout just buying more mats and putting them in a pile so nobody has to wait?! The queue looked to be about 40mins so we gave up on that and went back.  Our bus dropped us off at 11am and would pick us up again at 5pm. When we booked it they told us one would leave at 3pm too but this turned out to be incorrect. But it was fine as the time passed really quickly and we probably could have stayed longer.

Albufeira is somewhat touristy and it didnt really feel like you were seeing the real country so I arranged for us to do a half day Jeep Safari tour into the countryside. We did one in Turkey and it was amazing!  I dont think any other jeep safari tour could ever live up to it. I checked tripadvisor to find the most highly rated tour in the region- it didnt measure up at all to the Turkey one, but Im still glad we did it. We went out to the countryside where we passed a few small farms and stopped to feed the donkeys. We also saw turtles swimming round in a pond which was quite fascinating - Bella loved it and cried when we drove off.  We stopped at a few places to look at the trees and herbs which were growing. The guide picked an unripe carob pod and we all sniffed it.  I gave it a lick; hmm chocolate which left a horrible astringent feel in your mouth.  Bella saw me do this and decided to give her pod a good old munch.
Then it was on to learn about cork trees. I had never really thought about where cork came from, but it's a bark on a cork oak tree which is removed like a jacket after 9-10 years. After the 2nd removal of cork from a tree, it produces a good quality cork which fetches a high price tag. Interesting stuff.

From here it was on to the mini brewery in a garage on a farm. We sampled medronho a liquor made from the red berries of the arbutus shrub and 'firewater'.  I cant remember what firewater was made of, only that it burned all the way down and is appropriately named! We were all given a sample in a shotglass and Bella was most upset that she didnt get one. We tried giving her water in a shotglass but she wasnt fooled. There were tears and stamping of the feet...but otherwise she was generally OK on the tour. The sample of wild honey after the liquors was needed to get that horrid taste out of my mouth! And at least we could give Bella some of that.

We drove through a few villages, but didnt have time to stop and take pictures. Then it was on to a pretty river for a quick dip. There were people perched alongside it, laying out in the sun while the kids did waterbombs (you couldnt touch the bottom at one end). I dipped my toe in- freezing.  Toe- numbingly freezing. I didnt get in. We just had enough time to get Bella into her togs, blow up her floaties and have a 5min swim before it was time to get out again.  There were more tears as her swim was interrupted but the excitement of the morning meant she was alseep in Aunty's arms 10mins later. How she can fall asleep in 10mins, wrapped only in a towel,on the back of a jeep with the wind streaming through, yet take up to an hour to do so in a nice darkened, quiet room - I will never understand.

Jacinda and I went and got a gel manicure one day. It was cheap and looked great at the time but 2 weeks later  it was chipped and manky and I still couldnt get the damn thing off after soaking my fingers in acetone for the third time! Anyway, we asked the manicurist where to go for authentic Portugese food and she gave us the name of a restaurant which she assured us was the real deal. Obviously it wasnt in tourist town where we were staying, so we took an Uber to get there, arriving at 6:30pm to find that it wasnt open yet.  So we went back at 7pm and had a table outside as the only patrons there. The woman owner was a character; abrupt but not rude.  Jacinda told her that our manicurist in Albufiera recommended to come here.  She looked puzzled then said 'I  get my nails done up the road, I dont' know of this woman you speak of on the Strip'.  She asked if we wanted any starters, then when we said yes, she replied, OK I'll see what I've got in the kitchen! She came back with some little salads and breads, dried meats and an assortment of dips. All very tasty (except the black pudding!) So far so good. I asked for a recommendation of something traditionally Portugese and she said 'they are all
Portugese!'... So I went for Fish Pie....which didnt seem too dissimilar to what I could have got in NZ but was still tasty.  After mains Bella was starting to get a bit restless and was asking for Ice Cream.  She had had one every day on this trip and it was becoming her norm! So we asked the lady for the dessert menu but the restaurant had filled up by now and she was waiting on all the tables alone... We waited a bit, but then gave up and bought a cone from the corner shop. The food was nice and very reasonably Im still glad we went...I was probably too full for dessert anyway.

Another day we thought we'd check out a different beach. This one took about 20mins to walk to and after stopping to buy a watermelon and snacks we were very laden down! A sign pointed the way to our chosen beach but once you got closer there was another sign saying that it was private property, no entrance!  Well that's a bit we walked around a bit and couldnt find another way in so had to consult google.  Google told us there was an alleyway down the side of a hotel so we found that and were soon walking down a number of steps to our beach which was a very small cove. We found a spot and settled in, putting up the tent and umbrella but Rich was decidedly unimpressed as there was too much seaweed so he didnt want to swim.  We realaxed under our sauna tent; the good thing about a small cove beach was that Bella couldnt wander off without us being able to see her.  She was really happy picking up shells and handing them out to people on the beach, who all
played along and thanked her politely for the beautiful shell. She then spotted a Dad and his 2 kids making sandcastles so she joined in with them and tried talking to them but they didnt speak English. She didnt care and carried on playing though it was clear that the little boy (maybe about 5 years old) didnt want her around!
A big wave then came and soaked some unsuspecting people lying in the sand. It was obvious that the waves were going to be on top of us in the next 15mins so I moved the tent and towels back much to the annoyance of the lady sitting behind us...I tried explaining that the tide was coming in but she just wrinkled her nose a bit and nudged herself backwards. Another 20mins or so later the waves again were coming dangerously close so we packed up and went home.

So that pretty much sums up our trip to Alburiera.  The weather was amazing! I didnt see a cloud the whole time we were there and temperatures were between 35-38 degrees. Thats even hot enough for me to swim in the pool! Our apartment was great - food was great. Bella loved swimming in the pool and paddling in the waves and was much easier to manage than last year.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Split, Croatia

Our little bundle of joy arrived Aug 2013 and that is why this blog time and no travelling! But 2 years on we decided to give it a go since my sister was coming for a visit so we had some helping hands.
Ceremony outside the Cathedral

Well even with helping hands, we wont be attempting travelling again with Bella for a while -perhaps it was the heat (33-36 degrees), the change in routine, the tiredness from the late flight arrival; whatever it was, there were multiple temper tantrums and a large amount of time spent chasing her around the old town.

The stress started right at the beginning when the taxi arrived 40mins late then continued as Bella vomited during the 1h10 journey. The first of many tantrums started when she refused to stay in the pram when going through security.

As usual, summer was a bit of a non event in London; about a week of heatwave back in June and the rest of the time- 20 degrees and cloudy. There was even one week when the temperature didnt even hit 20.  So I was super excited about the prospect of sun and heat!  Croatia didnt let us down on that front; blue skies, sunny and highs of about 33 degrees. Apparently the week before we arrived the temperature hovered around 38! Yikes, glad we dodged that one.
3500 year old Egyptian granite sphinx

I had rented an AirBnB apartment which was perfect. We were 10min walk from the Old Town and 5min walk to the sandy Bacvice beach.  I had chosen the location to be close to the beach but the next day we discovered that it was a bit of a let down! Imagine a stretch of beach about 100m long absolutely packed with people so you can hardly find a spare patch to claim your sandy territory.  Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. The tent beach shelter was definitely out of the question. But we grabbed an umbrella and settled in. The water was warm and crystal clear and you could walk out about 100m and the water was still only up to your knees.  Bella enjoyed splashing around with her Papa. As it got toward evening people started to pack up and leave and thats when it was a bit gross as you could see cigarette butts and litter all over the place. After going home to shower and clean up, we headed into the Old Town for dinner.  There was a lovely plaza where we sat outside for some al fresco dining. I asked if there was a traditional croatian dish on the menu but it turns out we were at an Italian restaurant!  Definitely not traditional-but the waiter suggested a dish which ended up being kebab meat sticks and chips...oh well it filled the gap.

That day we had explored the old town in the heat of the midday sun, it was beautiful but we were all sweating and it wasnt long before we were searching for an ice cream shop with some shelter in the shade..some of them even sprayed a refreshing aerosol of water.  Bella kicked up a stink about being trapped in the pram so we let her out.  She was happy to run around in all directions, but didnt want to keep her hat on.  Chasing a toddler around streets in 30 degree heat, even if they are pretty streets, tires you out so we didnt stay long exploring the old town. Besides, her hair was matted down with sweat and we couldnt keep her in the its not really a toddler environment.

That night, for reasons unknown - Bella woke crying and this quickly escalated to hysterical screaming- perhaps freaked out at waking up in an unknown place..It took a while for us to calm her down. Hence I was hardly roaring on all cylinders when morning came- thank goodness for Aunty Jacinda who took over while I slept a bit more (ear plugs in and pillow stuffed over head).

The next day we thought we'd attempt a different beach. Amy had told us how to get to a good one by bus after her recent trip here. But not really wanting to go by bus with Bella we thought we'd try and catch a taxi...after 15mins or so we hadn't managed to hail a taxi down, so we went back to the bus plan but couldnt find the correct bus to take...After a hot and frustrating half hour or so we looked at our map and decided to attempt the walk to the beach a few coves over on the East..I can't remember the name now but checking on google maps it appears to be around Setaliste Pape Ivana Pavla. It involved a hill and with us all a bit hot and sweaty (and a tad grumpy) we were wondering if it was going to be worth the walk..but luckily it was.  With about 10% of the people at the overcrowded Bacvice, here was the peace and space we craved but still with the beautiful crystal blue water.  There had to be one compromise and of course that was the pebbles...Not the smooth rounded type found at Brighton but hard and sharp edged so that it was difficult to lie comfortably without a few layers of protection between your soft back and the rocks.

We had our portable tent and set up camp.  Rich went straight to the water taking Bella with him as she screamed in protest. Jacinda and I lay in the tent, salvaging the short burst of relaxation, reading our books and chatting while nibbling on pastries we purchased from a bakery on the way. Bella came back from the water and we had the choice of going back to the apartment for her nap or trying to get her to sleep here.  Not wanting to go back after we only just arrived, we forced her into the pram, reclined it and put some shade up- just go for a stroll- she'll fall asleep for sure I said!  Jacinda walked and walked while Bella threw her toys out, rocked and jolted and screamed in annoyance at being immobilised in the pram.  Jacinda gave up after 30mins and Rich took over...finally she fell asleep, was wheeled into the shade and we all had 40mins peace!

I thought Bella would be content playing with the rocks around the tent, but no, she would always run straight for the shop and road and we took turns to retrieve her.  She had recently began talking so it was quite amusing that if you ran after her she would say 'No Mama - stay' and hold her hand up in the universal stop sign.

That night, Jacinda kindly offered to shout us to some fine Croatian dining, in a lovely restaurant overlooking the sea. We settled in to a table outside and ordered. Richard's beer arrived and Bella decided she'd quite like some.  Instead, we ordered her own fresh orange juice with a segment of orange over the side of the glass. This was not good enough and she screamed in protest, tipping the glass over.  The waiting staff were understanding and came and gave her a toy to play with, which stopped the crying and kept her happy for about 5 mins.  Then it started again, freshly steamed beans and roasted potato squares in rosemary being thrown on the floor- Rich left the table and took her for a walk to try calm her down- we could still hear her screaming from where we sat.  Jacinda finished her meal, and seeing that Bella was no closer to becoming a suitable restaurant companion, took her home.
 Our poor little sweaty Bella, having been to bed at 11pm on the first night, woken up screaming the next night and not had decent naps - was not coping so well with the change in environment. As Bella departed, a wasp took her place and was intent on eating my meal, buzzing around my head and plate.  I got up from my chair and swatted at it with my napkin, diving and darting as it attacked me. (Probably to the amusement of anyone watching).  In this most lovely of settings, I was destined to have no peace or relaxation. This had to be the most persistent of wasps I had ever had the displeasure of coming across.  The waiter tried to help but said he couldnt spray anything around the food. I forked at the food in between wasp dives, then we left.

We took our time walking back, taking in the warmth of the setting sun and watching the patrons thin out from the overcrowded Bacvice beach. That night we all lounged on the couch watching a movie as Jac did my nails. Our apartment was basement level which was great in the heat as it meant it was quite cool.

When I was trying to decide between Split or Dubrovnik I had asked 2 people who had been to both locations where they thought we should go.  Both of them replied a few days after I had booked the tickets to  say definitely go to Dubrovnik...So we headed to Split feeling somewhat like we had made the wrong choice (though it was defiinitely the cheaper of the 2 options for flights). But Split was lovely, the harbour was beautiful the old town was picturesque and full of historic squares that you couldnt help but do a full 360 turn in, taking it all in before reaching for your camera. There was also the bonus of having a number of cheap ice cream shops.

One afternoon, Jacinda and I walked all through the back streets of the old town, places we had previously missed as we had stuck to the waterfront. Sipping on a fresh smoothie we hunted out the infamous wine and cheese bar. I'm not sure how she managed to find it in the winding alleyways but she sniffed it out somehow.  We ordered a few aged cheedas and going against the name of the bar- I got a ginger beer to match! Try as she might, Jacinda could not convert me to a wine connoisseur. She ordered something for me, but taking a sip of what tasted like vinegar, I returned it and continued with my ginger beer.

Another afternoon Rich, Bella and I headed to the same beach as yesterday, it was too much effort to try and find another one and this was a decent beach.  Surprisingly Bella stayed in the tent for about 30mins, but still objected to being taken to the water. Even the giant inflatable giraffe raft we had purchased in the UK and taken all that way didnt seem to entice her. We stayed out at the beach until the sun started going down behind the hills- it was actually more pleasant as the sun lost its intense searing heat.

Jacinda had had an afternoon of child free relaxation and was ready for babysitting duty! We got home, showered and Rich and I headed out on the town at about 8pm.  He was all set for a night of
dancing but I said I wanted to be back in bed by 1am. We walked to the old town where they were having a concert by the waterfront. The stage was being projected onto a huge screen for the hundreds of people who had gathered round to watch.  There were some classical singers, followed by traditional folk dancers then a speech.  All of this in Croatian so we didnt have a clue what was going on.  We watched for a while, munching on some fried donut ball things - then decided to find our restaurant for dinner.  Rich had gone onto TripAdvisor and got the address of the top rated restaurant in the town.  It was a small brick restaurant that had perhaps 10 tables inside...It was somewhat lacking in atmosphere but it didnt matter as they fully booked for the night. We wondered the streets - 'what about this place?' 'Nahh it's tables are right on the road with cars driving right past you!'... This one? ...'Nahhh it looks too touristy'.... Whenever we found a place that looked decent- it was booked out, or they told us to back at 11pm! By about 10pm we were both starving and our standards had dropped- by now we would go pretty much anywhere that had a table! We went to a busy seafood place with no atmosphere, average food and somewhat expensive prices (by Croatian standards). But we did find out the cause of the celebrations outside as all the fireworks went off - it was the 20 year anniversary of Croatian peace. It was crazy to think that this beautiful, peaceful place was at war only 20 years ago.  But that explains why we couldnt find anywhere decent to eat!

Afterwards we went for a stroll and I showed Rich the squares and alleys Jacinda and I had encountered. The large square by an ancient church had 2 guys playing the guitar and singing into microphones to the entertainment of everyone in the square. People were sitting on the concrete steps- some lucky enough to grab a cushion the pub had put out for patrons, while bartenders went round the seated audience taking orders. They played universal classics and there was such a happy, buzz in the square.  It was just perfect; a stunningly beautiful ancient setting, sitting next to my man, listening to the acoutics in the warm summer air.  We stayed here for a while then went to get an ice cream. As we ate our ice cream in the street, we watched the antics at the outdoor club across the road. Music bellowed out of the speakers and a woman with long blonde hair, wearing a silver g-string leotard danced seductively on stage- rolling her hips and swinging her hair in circles round her shoulders. We laughed watching a guy in the crowd, mesmerised, practically dribbling he got his phone out and recorded her not just for a minute, but for her entire performance. After she finished, the next performer came on stage wearing the same outfit
except  her leotard didnt go up her bum.  We realised that the blonde had actually pulled her outfit up her bum to create a g-string and gain the attention of the perverts in the crowd! By now it was about 12:30am and I could see Rich trying to decide if he wanted to go inside the club...but they must have played a crap song as he decided against it and I got my wish of being home by 1am.

The next day was our last and I wanted to do a city tour- I found one on tripadvisor which was highly recommended and found out the time.  I messaged the airbnb host and sorted the time she would come in the morning so we'd be packed up by that time but could leave our suitcases in a cupboard and come back for them after the tour. It was all sorted.....until the host texted the next morning and said she couldnt come till later. So we were stuck- if we waited for the host to come, we'd miss the tour..if we left, we'd have nowhere to store our suitcases. Jacinda to the rescue again - she stayed at the apartment while the rest of us went and did the tour.  Bella was running around the square which of course makes it difficult to pay attention to a tour; so we constrained her in the pram. The host chastised us saying "let her out, it's very safe here, let her explore".  Impossible, we replied, she'll run away.  So we constrained her in the pram and managed to keep her entertained for a while by giving her a giant bag of crisps (bad parents haha). After an 1h, the crisps were all gone and she was screaming to be let out-  so we relented.  As
we looked at the relics in a narrow alleyway, Bella bolted -running as fast as her little chubby legs would carry her she made for the end of the alleyway and turned left, lost in a sea of tourists.  Fortunately, Rich wasnt too far behind.  But the tour guide looked at me 'oh no, I hope she's OK. I'm worried, there are so many people out there'..haha well she had certainly changed her tune.  The tour itself was fantastic and was a definite highlight of the trip for me.  There were only 4 of us on it and the guide was so knowledgeable and passionate about her country. We learnt so many fascinating things about Split; a city rich in history and still containing architecture from Roman and Medieval times. The cathedral, though it had extensive renovations, was from 305AD. Many of the houses that people still lived in were centuries old, still in pretty good condition considering the age, but with gaps and cracks and leaning a bit. Our guide told us that they were worth a fortune and had been kept in families for generations but to you had to renovate them to a specific standard and most people couldnt afford to do so, so instead just let their house degrade around them.

Some things I remember: the layout of the royal dining quarters where 12 course meals were served (to men only). Of course nobody can fit 12 courses in so they had an area of the room where you could put your peacock feather down your throat to induce vomiting, then the dogs were bought in to clean it up.  Groooooossss!  Another gruesome fact was that the roman building material was so strong because they used blood to make it. They may have been ruthless but the Romans could build a perfect arch simply with their knowledge of physics and had much cleaner sanitary conditions than in the Medieval era despite it being much later.

At the end of the tour she gave us a map and pointed out where the best beaches were (no it definitely wasnt Bacvice and it wasnt where we went either) , gave us the names of some authentic restaurants and some more sites to see.  Which would have been great knowledge to have on day 1 - not a few hours before you depart! Mental note: do a city tour on the first day of your trip.

We finished the tour and met Jacinda at our rendez-vous point.  We settled in for some relaxation at the park and tried to get Bella to sleep by pushing her round in the pram.  She eventually nodded off but it definitely took a few circuits of the park.  I sent Rich off to buy some sandwiches for lunch then realised we couldnt relax too much as we had to back and catch our taxi to the airport.
Jacinda had forgotten the departure time and booked it 40min early and the tourist office said there might be traffic at that time and insisted she book with a large window for that.  We waited at the tourist office and asked if we could possibly make our taxi later- which they did adjust a bit..It didnt really make much difference as we still waited at the tourist office, but at least it gave Bella more time to sleep as she would definitely wake up upon being transferred to the car. And that was pretty much it- Bella ran round at the airport and we took turns going on watch. Then it was a 2hr flight to London followed by 1hr in the minicab. We were all pretty knackered by the time we got home.  Amazingly Jac managed to sleep on the plane and Bella planted stickers all over her while she snoozed.

Split was beautiful, the trip was worth it and I'm glad we went..but I have to say that if Jac wasnt there, we wouldnt have been able to enjoy it nearly as much and I'm pretty sure I'd rather have saved the money and stress and stayed in London.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Krakow, Poland

Birkenau Concentration Camp
While I was in New Zealand Mum said I must read this book called 'Life in a Jar' about a Polish woman who smuggled Jewish children out of the ghettos and saved their lives.  So while lounging by the pool in Thailand, I downloaded it and read it in a matter of days.

Back in London, I told Rich about the book and what an amazing, remarkable woman she was.  We watched the movie of her life together and as it was a cold, miserable Sunday afternoon.. we then watched Schindlers List as I couldnt believe Rich hadnt seen it!

After the marathon of war movie watching, we discussed how we'd like to go and visit a concentration camp one day. Now that I was expecting, travelling in the future would be a lot more difficult so I suggested we do it now!

So 2 months later (we had to wait for Poland to warm up as I wasnt about to go and be a tourist at 0 degrees!) and we were in Krakow, the city closest to Aushwitz, the biggest concentration camp in Europe.
One of the carriages the prisoners arrived on

We arrived at about midnight and lucky that I was super organised and printed off a map to our hotel as there was nothing open at the airport.  We found the bus and attempted to buy a ticket with the bus drivers assistance but the ticket machine wouldnt accept our big notes. Cigarette hanging out of his mouth, the driver attempted to give us instructions by speaking in Polish and holding up his hands and pointing to fingers...which we think meant that we had 5mins before the bus was leaving and the next bus was in an hour... So a small group of us ran into the airport hurriedly searching for somewhere to get change for our big notes.  But there was nothing open so I had the great idea of getting the smallest note possible from the cash machine.  So with our 20 zloty note in hand we ran back to the bus,  relieved to see he hadnt left yet and bought our tickets from the machine outside.

Then to our amusement (with a bit of frustration mixed in) we watched as a group of tourists got on, held out their big notes to the driver and he just motioned them into the bus without payment, obviously wanting to get on his way and not go through the rigmarole of what he went through with us!

It was 40mins or so into the city then it was either a taxi or a 20min walk to the hotel.  We decided to walk, the guy on the bus reckoned it would be easy enough to find..but we ended up having to ask for directions about 4 times and it took probably 30mins but it was a pleasant enough night and we travelled lightly.  It's always amusing getting longwinded directions from people in another language...Though it was obvious we didnt speak Polish one lady gave us an elaborate polish explanation which probably would translate to 'go straight ahead for maybe 5 mins then when you get to the end of road you'll see a church, turn left but not sharp left, the other left, then take your third right and keep walking...'  Funnily enough we managed to follow these directions to half way to the hotel..mostly by the hand gestures.
The row of 'toilets'

As we stood on a corner looking up at the street names and studying our map, some friendly locals out on the town walked us to our hotel.  Turned out one of them had lived in Barcelona and loved it.  Richard asked where and she said 'oh we were squatting in the city'. Well - squatters or not - they were still very friendly!

It was about 2am by the time we got to the hotel and though the city awaited us for exploring the next day; I wasnt compromising on my sleep!  So it was a relief to find that this was one of the quietest hotels I'd stayed in and breakfast was served until 11am!
The famous entrance to Aushwitz: 'Work Will Set You Free'
I wasnt expecting much for breakfast but it was fairly decent, though at 10.30am they were low on pancakes.  I got the last one but it was kind of weird; rolled up with a cream cheese type filling oozing with oil when you bit into it.  As for most continental breakfasts; there was cheese, meats, salads and bread rolls on offer so in preparation I made myself a roll for lunch - who knows what would be on offer at a concentration camp! Richard opted not to make the roll then at 2pm looked at me in envy as I ate mine until I took pity on him and gave him a giant man sized bite :-)

The bus to Aushwitz left from Krakow main bus station.  We had the choice of taking the tram there or walking for 20-25mins.  Rich decided we should walk and see some of the city.  It was a fairly warm day, contrary to the weather forecast so I was roasting in my duck down coat.  We stopped to buy some snacks for the journey and though I assumed Rich knew where we were and had the map figured out, he stopped and asked someone for directions so I guess he didnt! Our success rate of finding people who spoke english was probably 40%, but we learnt to ask the young people to improve success.  We ended up having to ask about 6 or 7 people how to find the bus station - despite having a map! So we'd been walking for about 45mins by the time we found it and I was tired already!

We bought our tickets and waited by the platform.  As the time got closer a pretty large group began to gather and form somewhat of a queue. Rich got in there amongst it and secured us a place at the front.  The driver turned up and the crowds started to push towards the door but luckily it was ticket holders first so we got on at the beginning.  Though there were no seats left, they kept piling on until it was packed like the tube and to make matters worse, the driver picked up more people at another stop!  This time they had to stand right by the driver and in the stairs to the bus so that every time the driver stopped to let people off, people had to get off the bus to let them pass, then get back on again.  There was a guy in a suit with really bad BO standing right by us, which made for somewhat of a long journey. It took 1.5hrs to get there and we got to see some countryside; which was quite pretty and looked somewhat similar to the Czeck republic, but perhaps not as nice.

We paid for the English speaking tour which left in 15 mins and started with watching a short film about what they found when they liberated the camp.  As expected, it was quite harrowing - showing a little girl who was made to stand bare foot in the snow for an entire day and had frostbite up both legs and men who sterilisation experiments were done on.

I sat on a step and got my camera ready and heard a woman announce 'English speaking tour this way'.  I couldnt see her but followed after the voice and we all crammed onto a bus to Birkenau, a camp 5 mins drive away.  There was a bit of disorganisation as 3 or 4 tour groups all got off and were told to wait.  Richard went off to take photos and I mingled around until a voice said 'English speaking tour this way'.  I wasnt sure if were following the right lady as I didnt see her the first time but we all had black stickers on and I did speak English so surely that was it?  I called Rich over who had wandered off to take masterpieces with his phone.

The guide was a short eastern european woman wearing bright lipstick and dark sunglasses.  She didnt once crack a smile and 10 seconds into her speal I could already see she was crap! She spoke quietly and from a perfectly memorised speech with as much expression as if she were reading a recipe.  Her thick accent was difficult to understand and from the back of the group I yelled out 'can you speak up please'. She paused for a second, obviously annoyed by my interruption, then continued with the speech about 1 decibal louder.

Richard groaned 'why did you follow this woman, she's crap!  I think we're meant to be with the other group!  I don't know - I protested!  I didnt see the first woman, she said 'english speaking tour so I followed her!

Birkenau was massive - way bigger than either of us expected.  It was like it's own town really and the columns of cabins with maybe 10 barracks per row, were separated by electric fences.  We saw the cattle train carts the people came in on- sometimes 1000's of kms with no food or water or even air circulation.  They had to punch holes in the carts just to breath.  The journey alone killed off a few people.

Then men were split from women and with a single glance, a Dr would judge whether they were fit for work or if it was off to the gas chamber.

There were areas for the jews, gypsies, men, women and those awaiting inspection.  There was also a propaganda camp which they kept in much better condition should the Red Cross or anyone else want to come and visit.  After a few years, nobody came so the 'lucky' prisoners of this camp were killed.

In the right hand fields there were the skeletons of building foundations, only the brick chimney stack remained after the Germans burnt them down to destroy evidence at liberation. But some had been reconstructed with original wood. And those not made of wood also remained. The barracks were meant to be horse stables and still had the rings inside designed to tie the horses to.  There were no proper floors, it was just mud, there were huge gaps between the roof and the walls.  And though there were furnaces in each one, they werent supplied any fuel for heating.  Winter would have been unbearably cold, with no insulating fat to keep warm and only a thin blanket, and summer would have been stiflingly hot.  They were massively overcrowded, and they were only allowed to go to the 'toilet' twice a day. So there was no choice but to go right there in your barracks.  And I imagine that given that they were being feed food filled with wood shavings, diahorreah would've been common.  It would have been hell on earth and I can only imagine the emotional, mental and physical strength required to endure such an ordeal.  I dont think I would have lasted a week, nor would I have wanted to.

It was sad to hear the German doctor who experimented on the twin children...He escaped to South America so was never bought to justice then died of a stroke as he was swimming in this pool some years later.  Well he will get his justice in hell.

About half way through the tour, another english speaking guide came into the same barrack.  She was young, full of expression and you could understand her!  We decided to sneakily swap groups.  She showed us the toilets - a barrack just like the others but with rows of holes in seats - no partitions or anything. There were no flushes and apparently it was the best job on site to be able to shovel out the crap and take it outside.  Ewwwwww!  But you can understand why; the guards never came in, you could talk to the other crap shovellers, and you were inside so warm(ish) and dry.

We stayed with our new tour guide for maybe 30mins then we all got back on the bus to Aushwitz.  We tried to follow the guide but the group seemed to disband...Confused, we asked a member of the group 'ahhh where's the tour guide gone?' Then he confirmed Richard's fear, but something that hadn't actually crossed my mind - they did Aushwitz first, so this was the end of the tour for them!  Well - what to do now! Aushwitz was now closed unless you were with a tour group and we had left ours. Despondent, we queued for the bus home, which was busy and chaotic as people with no tickets were getting on ahead of people with tickets...There was pretty much no chance of us getting on that and there was no way I was standing all that way.. .Plus it had taken us 2 hours to get here, did we really want to come back tomorrow?  We hung around outside the exit and after a few mins, some tourists left so we snuck in the exit gate.  Of course the security guard saw us so we explained we had lost our group and he suggested we look in cabin 5 but didnt really know where they were.  We spent a good 30-40mins looking around for them - Aushwitz is also pretty big but not as big at Birkenau.  Richard was happy enough snapping away with his phone but I was intent on finding the group so I could learn about the camp.  There were information posters so we could have picked up some info from reading those..We found them eventually and the guide did not look impressed 'I didnt see you in the foyer, why not? she said tersely.  Everyone now had headphones so they could hear what she/or the recorded message was saying..but we didnt get any.  I tried to hear her, but couldnt and besides the tour only lasted about 10mins after we found them! So basically I felt like I learnt fat nothing about Aushwitz and was really gutted.

But at least we saw the famous quote above the walkway to the cabins 'Work will set you free' and got to see the conditions here.  It was a bit more real and personable as there were photos of the prisoners who were murdered.  The conditions were a lot better than Birkenau, though the cabins werent as crowded and there were thin matresses on the beds, treatment was equally as brutal and they still died in huge numbers.

Some of the Prisoners at Aushwitz
We did read some of the signs which had saddening stories; if a prisoner escaped - his family was taken into Aushwitz until the prisoner gave himself up.  And we saw the furnaces and gas chambers; not that I believe the consipracy theorists, but they have a piont.  The furnaces are really small and would only fit 2 people in at a time, it seems a little strange that such small furnaces were built for mass exorcism.

As the park was closed, the crowds had thinned so we had no problem getting a seat on the bus back to Krakow.  We went to use the free wifi in the mall to pick an authentic restaurant for dinner and the free wifi happened to lead us to an ice cream palour where we indulged in the triple scoop waffle cone special topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce (all for under 2 pound!!).  We found a highly rated non touristy restaurant nearby and went for dinner.  They had a pianist and accordion playing live so that added to the atmosphere to make a lovely evening.

The tram closest to the hotel wasnt running at this hour and it sounded a bit confusing going back by public transport - so a taxi it was.  Though it was a fairly long and tiring day, Rich insisted that we go out and sample the night life.  I obviously wasnt so enthusiastic about this idea so he said he was happy to go out alone....Again I wasnt happy with that either but in the end it didnt matter as he fell asleep anyway.
Traditional Polish Restaurant for Dinner
I had pretty much planned this whole trip, flights, hotel, transport etc so I delegated a task to Richard; find out how to get to the salt mines.  At breakfast I asked him how his task was going and he replied good, I'm just going to ask at reception.  But that drew a blank face by the guy who said 'I'm not sure, I think you have to go by train'.  But then a lady behind us in the queue said 'oh no, there is a bus that goes direct there, it's very close by.  Just go round the corner and turn rights, its the number 207.

 But do you think we could find this bus stop?  Not a chance...we asked one guy and he was like oh no, you have to take the tram to the end of the line and then there is a bus from there... So we started following his directions when on the way Rich decided to ask someone else and they pointed us in the opposite direction.  Back and forward we went, asking probably 4 people who all gave slightly different options.  It was laughable....I think after an hour or so we were back to the main square of the city where I spotted a tourist office for help. 
Best Ice Cream ever!
It was probably a good thing we made it back to the centre though as it was a lovely day and the main square was full of market stalls and colourful buildings.  We took our time wandering around and taking photos.

After buying our food for the day, we found the bus stop just as the bus was pulling up.  Perfect.  The salt mines were in a small town (Wieliczka) probably 30mins from the city.  They are a UNISCO world heritage site and were being raved about on TripAdvisor. We signed up for the English tour and sat outside in the sun for an hour or so until the tour...  I have to say- the tour was pretty expensive, especially considering how cheap everything else is in Poland - and you even had to pay extra for a camera permit to take photos down there.  But I suppose that's tourism.
Inside the Salt Mines
The tour began with 378 steps down into the shafts- which was quite dizzing!  It took ages and you could hear murmuring amongst the group wondering when we would ever get to the bottom. Commercial mining stopped in 1997 and the place must be massive; we walked for almost 3 hours in these mines and only saw 2% of the tunnels and areas.

The tour was interesting and you got to see all the man made devices they fashioned for hauling the big rocks around and how they used horses.  It was difficult to get a horse down a mine, so once it was down there, it stayed down there.  It certainly looked a hard life for a miner, especially if it was your job to go up to top of the caves with a long lit stick to burn off any small gas pockets that had formed.  Fine if the gas pocket was small- but bad news if it was big!
Cathedral Made Entirely of Salt
The highlight was the cathedral- built entirely of salt, from the walls to the floor, the statues and even the chandeliers.  Quite amazing when it was done by miners, not artists.  Miners were quite religous (probably because their jobs were so dangerous so they prayed every morning!) so the mines consisted of 3 chapels as well as the cathedral.  The different grades of salt gave the place its varied look; with iron ore for the floor and pure like glass for the chandeliers.

Thoug the tour was interesting, it was tiring and after a while you kind of though, yup I've seen enough mine shafts now! The lifts up were a joke- they only held about 9 people at a time so it took forever for us all to get out of there.  It was good to see light again and sit down on the bus for the ride back to town.
Salt Chandelier
Our flight didnt leave till the evening so we figured we had plenty of time and thought about going to another Polish restaurant for dinner.  We couldnt resist another trip to the ice cream palour and then went to get a timetable for the airport train.   Looking at the timetable we realised we didnt have enough time for a restaurant dinner so thought we'd better go back to the hotel to get our backs then come back into the mall for a quick bite.  When at the hotel Richard thought he'd double check the timetable with the receptionist as the train we intended to take had a little footnote by it but we weren't sure what it meant.  Oh that train only goes 1 week of the year in June, she said.  What??!  Looking at our options- we had 20mins to catch the next train as the one after wasnt for over an hour and we would miss our flight. So we ordered a taxi, sat outside nervously waiting for it and watched the clock on the taxi dashboard tick by as we got increasingly anxious.  It was a mad dash through the mall, down the stairs and onto the train platform where we made it by 5 mins!!  5 mins?  Hey- that's enough time to quickly go and get some food.  So Richard sprinted off to the closest bakery and got us some pizza bread while I sat inside the train praying that in Poland, trains didnt leave early.  Luckily they didnt.
Mine Shaft inside the Salt Mines
It was a good thing he got the bread as there wasnt much in the airport and apart from a decent breakfast we had only snacked all day.  The stress of the day wasnt over though.  For whatever reason, there was a HUGE queue to get on the Terravision bus back to London and people were spewing that despite having prepaid tickets, they weren't given any more priority to board the bus than those who had just turned up and bought a ticket then.  We didnt get to the back of the queue but instead stood just behind the roped off area waiting (for about 45mins) as one of the ticket guys told us to but we got some slack for 'queue jumping' once the bus did arrive!  It was a miracle we got on this bus and I'm so glad we did otherwise it would have been another 45min wait till the next one.   Back in Victoria it was another 20min wait for the night bus then 45mins on the bus so we collapsed into bed at around 3am!  I'm so glad I had the forethought to book half a days leave the next day.

All the walking and standing around had turned my feet into big giant swollen marshmellows which took days to go down!  But I'm still glad we got to do our last city trip - at least for a while.  Concentration camp - done. That's another thing ticked off the bucket list!