Italy Adventures – Part One

Venice & Cinque Terre

Italy was like stepping into a fantasy word that you have been imagining your whole life. As I dramatically told Adam numerous times, it was everything I had dreamed of and more.

We started in Venice and were blown away by how gorgeous it is. I think it was my favourite city purely because it was the one we went to first. We walked around the little streets flanked by canals and broken up with bridges for hours. We stopped in little cafes and ate cannollis Italian style, standing up at the bar and downing an espresso.

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We looked at the gondola prices and happily moved on without a trip down the canal – 80 euros for 40 mins was well out of our price range. Instead we sat at a little cafe bar drinking what the Venetians seem to drink at any time of the day, the Spritz.

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In the heat of the day I was wooed by a lady selling homemade pineapple gelato. I ordered it with a scoop of milk cream flavour as well, it was only the best thing I have ever tasted in my life.

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We bought our lunch at the supermarket and ate it in one of the city’s gated parks which seems to be a ‘lovers lane’ for all manner of couples on their lunch breaks cavorting in the shadows and on the grass.

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For two whole days we pretty much just basked in all the glory that was Venice. We didn’t do much except walk around, take photos, stop for beverages and eat. It was wonderful.

One negative in regards to Italy was the price of accommodation. We found that there were no budget options inside the cities at all and if there were, they were booked weeks and weeks in advance. So Adam and I looked into alternative options and the best we found was staying in furnished tents in campgrounds outside each city. We did this in Venice which was great even though it meant that we had to travel a little bit (15 mins) each morning to get into the city. However it was well worth the money that we saved and could then spend on other important things such as food, of course.

After Venice our next destination was Cinque Terre (the 5 Lands). We had a few difficulties getting out there due to train strikes that apparently happen quite regularly in Italy. After almost 12 hours of waiting in train stations and sitting on trains, we finally arrived at our camp ground in Deveina Marina, a town located a few stops after the last of the five Cinque Terre towns. It was perfect. We had our own little pre-made tent with a double bed and room for our bags.

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The hot water was hot and the campground offered free shuttles to the train station that would take us directly to the towns we wanted to see. Another plus was that there was a family run pizzeria opposite the campground where all the locals would congregate at night. The pizza was the best we had in Italy and at a fraction of the cost elsewhere… and the red wine was free flowing. Heaven!

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On our first day in Cinque Terre, we looked into the famous coastal walk that joins up the 5 towns. To our dismay it had been closed due to part of it falling into the sea and an accident involving a tourist. But after a bit of searching we found out that there were other walks and it was only the coastal section that was shut.

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The upper walk was still open but the lady warned us it would be strenuous. It was. We hadn’t been doing as much exercise as we were at the start of the trip and so we found ourselves sweating and panting almost embarrassingly so on the first leg between Riomaggiore and Manarola. There were just so many stairs, but the views were to die for.

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The whole day was magic. Spring made sure the wild-flowers were out in full bloom for us which made everything all the more beautiful. We made sure to stop for a coffee in the first town, gelato in the second, special anchovy sandwiches in the third and a well deserved beer in the last.

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Overall the walk took us about 4 hours not including the hours spent in the towns along the way. Needless to say we were wrecked as we staggered back to our campground that night… but not wrecked enough to skip going for our second night to the pizzeria across the road.

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We had a few days in Cinque Terra so we made sure to stop back in at our favourite towns: Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.

We joined the locals in Vernazza by taking a picnic down to the shoreline, staking our claim on a patch of cement and heading into one of the little bars to get a bottle of cold local wine and two plastic cups. We sat there basking in the sun, swimming, sipping our wine and eating our grocery-store feast. Vernazza that day was bliss.

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The Balkans – Part Three

Croatia & Bosnia/Herzegovina

Dubrovnik was expensive. Beautiful but expensive. As the old town emerged from behind a cliff as we were driving along the coast from Montenegro, it was easy to see why it is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The crystal clear ocean contrasting with the uniform terracotta coloured roofs and old stone walls were pretty spectacular.

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We opted not to stay in the centre of the old town. You know a place is expensive when dorm beds start at $46AU! What most people do is rent an apartment or room from one of the locals just outside the city. We did this (still quite pricey for our budget) and although it was a 15 minute walk to the centre it was just what we needed.

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One of the best things we did in Dubrovnik was to listen to other travellers’ advice about doing the city wall walk. They told us to get there as soon as the gates opened (at 8:00AM) to beat the cruise ship crowds that invade the city in their thousands. We did just this and had the wall almost to ourselves for the hour and a half it took to walk around them – stopping for numerous photos of course. We were so happy we did it. At $20AU each just to walk the walls we were a little worried about whether it would be worth it or not, but the views were fantastic.

The next day we walked around the whole coastline of the city. I estimated it to be about 20km or so. It was stunning and the weather was perfect. We stopped to sunbake or to have a beer in the little bays as we made our way around the peninsula.

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On our way through to the other side of Croatia we stopped into Mostar in Bosnia for two nights. We had been told that a visit to this town is ‘a must’ when you are in the Balkans and as soon as we arrived we could see what people were talking about.

Mostar was affected terribly during the war. There are still whole apartment blocks covered in pock-mark like bullet holes. Reminders of the war were everywhere you looked.

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We did the war tour with the brother of the guy who owned our hostel. It was sobering listening to the stories of his childhood, how his family and friends were affected and how the people still feel today. It is amazing to think that something so terrible happened so recently and how hard these people have worked to keep the peace, reeducate and rebuild their city.

The bridge and old town of Mostar was positively picturesque. We spent hours exploring the Turkish style markets, little shops and cafes. Sadly we didn’t see anyone jump off the famous bridge, but we saw the daily show the dive shop guys put on, taunting the tourists by pretending they are going to jump only to climb back over the rails shrugging.

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I didn’t realise how high the bridge was until I was actually standing on it and looking down to the racing clear water below. I can see why the ‘boys’ who jump have passed the town’s test in becoming a man.

Next we moved onto Split in Croatia. We had our hearts set on getting to the Island just off the coast for some relaxing days of sunshine so we only stayed one night. Turns out there was an arts festival going on with public performances all over the town. We had a lovely day watching street dancers on the esplanade, opera singers in an old ruin and other cool acts around the old town.

The next day we were on a boat to the Island of Hvar for a few days. As soon as we arrived we couldn’t wait to get down to the beaches. And we were not disappointed. The water was as clear as could be and the weather was hot. Two days soaking up the sun and wandering around the little beaches was exactly what the doctor ordered. The hostel we stayed in was lively and they put on a BBQ & Cocktails night the second day we were there which was so much fun.

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We made a decision whilst we were in Hvar to finish up our tour of the Balkans early and head straight to Venice in Italy. So we booked an overnight bus and spent up all of our Croatian Kunas ready to get back to the Euro in the land of pizza and pasta.

The Balkans – Part Two

Montenegro

Sick of moving so quickly all of the time, Adam and I made the decision to hire a car and travel around Montenegro for a whole week. This meant that we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted and much needed independence from public transport.

We picked the car up at Podgorica airport and drove straight down to Lake Skadar. What an impressive drive!

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We ended up on a little-known mountain road recommended to us by a local and found ourselves at a beautiful bridge high in the mountains. Stunning.

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That night we stayed at a little campsite on the south coast of the country near Ulcinj.

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It was wonderfully relaxing and despite the fact that it stormed all through the night, we woke up to nice weather and slowly drove up the coast to Kotor.

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Kotor was gorgeous! People describe it as being a small and less touristy Dubrovnik. We stayed in a cheap hostel right in the middle of the old town for two nights and spent the first day walking up to the fortress above the town to admire the view.

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The next day we got in the car and explored the rest of the bay of Kotor. It took us two hours as we stopped in gorgeous little towns along the road, drinking macchiatos or buying our sandwich ingredients to eat in a park.

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We finished the day in the old town drinking glorious Montenegrin red wine and admiring the sun set over the old cobblestone city.

Our next stop was the small town of Zabljak in the Northern part of the country. It sits on the outskirts of one of Montenegro’s most famous national parks, Durmitor National Park, home to Tara Canyon.

We watched the temperature gauge in the car drop as we climbed further and further North. As we rounded the bend, about to arrive in Zabljak, it began to snow.

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We couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t booked any accommodation in the town and were planning on camping – not anymore.

It didn’t take us long to find accommodation in the little town and we ended up in a quaint ski-lodge looking hostel run by a Montenegrin man and his Australian girlfriend. They were brilliant and helped us sort out our itinerary (taking the unprecedented snow into account) for the three days we planned on spending there.

It snowed, sleeted and rained on and off the whole time we were there but we had an amazing time exploring the national parks during the day. I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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Tara Canyon

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Durmitor National Park

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Biogradska National Park

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During the nights we would sit and talk with the other backpackers and the owners about Australian and Montenegrin politics (actually quite fascinating) and drinking fantastic Montenegrin wine and rakije (the local spirit). Three Aussie girls arrived in time for Adam’s birthday and the lovely owners of the hostel bought him a cake.

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Our last day in the country was a special one. We met one of Adam’s judo friend’s relatives in the capital, Podgorica. He showed us the sights of the city and we ended up going to his nephew’s birthday party with the whole family.

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The food was to die for and their hospitality was overwhelming. Montenegro was such an amazing country and we left feeling like our experiences there would be very hard to beat.