For those who read about our amazing Slovenian adventures, you’ll know that any country to follow was going to have a tough job. We binged on so much natural beauty (remember those picture perfect mountains and turquoise rivers) so had spoiled ourselves rotten. There were some big boots to fill.
Itching for new lands, regardless, we were onto the next, swapping the tiny landlocked country we had called home for a few weeks for a sprawling coastal one: Croatia. I’d been to Croatia once before to go to a dance festival over a mad weekend bender in my early twenties (sigh of nostalgia) and I remembered the searing hot summer days, crystal clear waters and pebbled beaches. That was my pull to return; a slave to the sun.
From Slovenia’s capital, we hopped on a bus and worked our way down through Rijeka, in the north of Croatia, to Split, the gateway to the islands, to board a ferry for Brac – pronounced with a ‘ch’ – the first island of our island hopping adventure.
Having been recommended Brac by a few different people, I had high hopes, and we headed over to the south side of the island to a town called Bol, overlooking Hvar island, its party animal neighbour, which, we were told was frequented by the likes of George Clooney, among other A-list celebs. Casual name drop…
Bol, in contrast, was a very tiny but very chic fishing village with plenty of rustic charm. Its seafront was lined with bars and restaurants with cushions on the harbour walls for you to sit and watch the bobbing fishing boats as you sipped on a cool glass of wine, awaiting your freshly caught calamari.
Turquoise Croatian waters and our picturesque apartment
We stayed in a little apartment, called Flower Garden Terrace, aptly named for its bold floral front gardens lining the way to our door. Our private patio had drooping vines to keep out the midday sun overhead and with an ocean view what more could we want. It’s no surprise that we quickly got used to this new island life and Slovenia felt more distant by the day.
The island itself is famous for the beach Zlatni Rat, a national treasure and one that you’ll find shouted about in any Croatian travel brochure. Its long golden tongue of sand sticks out into the sea, changing shape with the currents; sometimes it will be curved, others straight out, its colour contrasted with the gorgeously turquoise waters around it. From there was a dusty trail leading away from the sandy spit where we discovered a hidden enclave of nudies and some private alcoves. Noted for future reference, we went back another day – only semi-nude – and hid among the rocks, both for our own privacy and also so that we didn’t have to look at our naked neighbours. Why is it that most naturists are old men?!
By the end of the week, we’d tallied up that it had been about 50/50 rain and sun. But according to the proud Croatians, the weather was unusually bad for that time of year – September – and they kept saying how it hadn’t rained for 3 months. One particularly stormy night we were kept up with lashing rain and a spectacular thunder and lightning show through our French windows, sending our poor vines blowing in the wind, but decorating our patio prettily with petals for the following morning.
The island’s peak, Vidova Gora, the highest peak in the Croatian islands, and Zlatni Rat beach in the bottom left
Our second Croatian island was Vis. The quietest and furthest island out from Split. Although Brac wasn’t overly lively by any means, it was fairly touristy, so we were looking forward to a more authentic and rural Croatian way of life.
As Sod’s law works – literally, it had never happened before – we slept through our alarm the day we were meant to travel to Vis so missed our 7am ferry (which perhaps was a blessing as it was pissing it down) so didn’t quite start the day according to plan, running around frantically trying to book new tickets online and calling a last-minute taxi.
Anyway. We made it, and what we arrived to in Vis was noteworthy.
NB: when you stay in as many apartments and hotels, hostels, etc as we do, you generally have a decent level of tolerance or leniency in terms of location, cleanliness, and facilities, with a benchmark of what is ok and what is not.
Now, when I said we were excited about authentic, rural living… Up the top of an unnamed road, we located a mysterious, unnumbered flat which bore the most resemblance to the photo on our email than any of the other houses. There, we were met by a raspy old man with an unfortunate and rather large cyst on his throat and whose fly was undone, holding a beer in one hand, accompanied by a young woman who appeared to be his translator.
Caught a little off guard by this unconventional welcome, but open-minded nonetheless, he unlocked the apartment below his, which let out a stench of stale cigarette smoke and whose whole appearance gave off a distinct crack den vibe. Having come from our super cute cottage-y apartment with flower garden and ocean view, this couldn’t have been more different and we tried not to let our disappointment show….
But first impressions aside, the raspy man (I never knew his name!) who owned the flat proceeded to bring us a bottle of his home-brewed grappa – a lethal local wine that tastes a bit like whisky – as a welcome drink and was very pleasant whenever we later crossed paths.
Once we’d spent a day or two in the crack den, we began to look at it with a new a fondness. We didn’t mind its sticky patches or wobbly floorboards. Ok, the ‘sexy’ (but not) standing power shower with jets and a flip down seat was still a bit weird, but you get used to these things.
Local harbours and old fishing villages on Vis
Our unique accommodation aside, Vis was a beautiful little island. Not yet really touched by the mass tourism of Brac, and certainly not Hvar, the little towns dotted around still retained their authenticity and rustic farm feel, with a smattering of family-run restaurants and vineyards to entice passers-by.
We were also lucky that we had three beaches near our place which we could walk to in just 10 minutes. Much to Lucas’ disappointment, it seemed that everywhere in Croatia had stony pebble beaches – not comfortable for sunbathing for any length of time without some serious padding. A sarong just didn’t cut it. We did try lying out on the pontoon-like rocks like the locals did and succeeded in topping up our tans nicely, despite our sore bottoms.
Sunbathing on rocks and finding the secret beach
The one thing about Vis being so rural and not yet touristy is that if you ventured far from the port town itself – which we did – without any means of transport yourself – which we hadn’t – you were effectively marooned. On the day we wanted to explore the island autonomously we had to walk 8km to the main Vis town to rent a scooter for the day.
Not being very big, we managed to scoot around most of Vis before sunset, visiting a local vineyard and another famous Croatian beach, obscured behind two huge cliffs. After dropping our wheels back off at the pier we treated ourselves to our first meal out on the island, date night! Making the most of being out of our cosy crack den, we dined and drank at leisure, finishing up well into the night. Little did we know that when it came to paying the bill and ordering a taxi, island taxi drivers had stopped their shifts at 6pm. Good luck finding a ride back, they said. Where did we need to go? Errrr, to the other side of the island…
So pretty sozzled and very full, we didn’t have a choice but to start the 8km back over the hill. Ever the hopeful, and quite desperate for my bed, I stuck my hand out at any passing car to hitch a ride until finally, we got one from a very kind man who turned out to be a sous chef from the restaurant we had just been at. Such a small world. Perhaps he knew we were out of sorts and out of luck…
After our time on Vis, we headed to Hvar island for an Autumn Equinox Yoga Retreat in the quiet hillside town of Dol, just up from the historic Stari Grad – Croatia’s oldest town, by all accounts. The retreat was hosted at Suncroket, a cosy old converted farmhouse, with a small, and very quiet, group – including Lucas, his first ever one. (He did very well.)
We moved and meditated through a great week of Ayurveda and yoga, detoxing from alcohol and coffee, as well as meat. The booze was a welcome detox, and the meat was easy, but the coffee was shockingly hard. The first three days I was a crabby cow snapping at everything, while Lucas had migraine-like headaches as we struggled through our caffeine withdrawals and their vice-like grip.
After going cold turkey, I vowed after never to have coffee again knowing that my body was so addicted to a substance that had such an effect and which wasn’t natural… it was crazy how much even a coffee a day affected me when I didn’t have it. So, since then, I haven’t (wittingly) had a coffee that hasn’t been decaf since. (Mini fist pump.)
After a week of downdogs and detoxing, we were revived and recharged and bade farewell to Croatia. We ended on a (spiritual) high – Lucas may say otherwise – and set off for a new country, Bosnia & Herzegovina, a place we knew fairly little about, let alone why it had two names…
Mostar seemed like a nice place to spend a week so we rented an Airbnb (and adopted the neighbour’s kitten, who I named Ernie) and we didn’t do much other than work, eat, cook and mooch around the old town to get the obligatory views of the bridge and river. Mostar bridge is now famous because of the Red Bull diving competitions, attracting tourists from around the world to jump from its 24m arch. We did see one guy throw himself off quite successfully. But the town seems to have changed a lot in the last 30 years and you wouldn’t have known it had been under siege by the looks of it, bar the bullet holes in some of the walls.
Mostar Bridge and some iconic street art outside our apartment
We decided to head over to Blidnje National Park for a long weekend to get some forest baths and break from the city. Booking a little apartment in the area’s ski resort, we watched the temperature drop from 26 degrees in Mostar to a mere 6 when we arrived at our destination. It was the second time we’d experienced the cold in pretty much a year, and it was a shock to the system (the first being the other ski resort, Vogel, in Slovenia). Wearing all of our layers and digging out our warmest jackets we whacked the thermostat up as soon as we locked the door and tried to thaw out. Something we’d be doing for the duration of our stay.
Looking forward to the walks and fresh country air, we explored our remote mountain town, abandoned in the off-season save for a few construction workers. It was clearly a place where people spent their summers and only returned when the snow was heavily fallen to ski on the peaks. In the months in between, it was a ghost town, and we used it to our advantage.
Please don’t judge us for what I’m about to admit, it was for waste-control, honest! And, in our defence, our nearest supermarket was 30km away…
Lucas the Forrager (I’ll blame him) went off on a mission to collect wood for the fire burner in our living room but was sidetracked by rows and rows of vegetable gardens. These green-fingered holiday house owners clearly took pride in their patches and had left a considerable amount to pick before the winter frost killed them off. So, armed with a bag, we went digging among the patches to salvage/steal a bit of everything, gathering for ourselves a delicious vegetable feast – for free! Parsnips, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, collard, the lot! We had a very organic fare to sup on for the next few days.
It did take a while to scrub the mud out of our fingernails and bleach the purple beet juice out… Nothing like a guilty conscience and hiding the evidence.
Kleptomania aside – I hope no one from the Lake Blednje Neighbourhood Watch is reading – the area was beautiful and save for a day of frozen fog we had bright blue skies to explore. We rented bikes and cycled to the lake, we hiked around getting lost in the unmarked trails and managed to find a cosy wooden guesthouse selling red wine to warm us up.
His & Hers bikes and exploring the mountains of Blidnje
But a few days was all my crap circulation could manage and we were off again, this time to Kotor Bay, nestled in the mountains of Montenegro. Not only is Kotor famous for its picturesque bay and towering mountains, but it has a huge number of cats! So I think it was fate that we ended up there to celebrate my birthday.
Yes, there was a cat museum and yes, we went to it
I couldn’t wait for this part of the trip as two of my mates were coming out to visit so I was counting down the days. We had hired a huge villa, complete with seaside pontoon and garden (with three randy turtles) overlooking the bay and were primed for some carnage – note, I purposefully didn’t say culture.
Due to the nature of our being in Kotor, it was mainly an eating and drinking experience. We dined extremely well, picking a new restaurant every night and visited the local market for cheese and olives for lunch, sampling various local wines and downing free shots of grappa after our meals.
The views from our villa and private pontoon
We did enjoy a bit of culture, I admit, when we ventured out for a nice walk along the bay, visiting a pretty coastal town overlooking the floating monasteries. On one particularly sunny day, we also hired a speedboat for the afternoon and jetted out to visit the blue cave and a WW2 submarine tunnel used in a Bond film. That was pretty cool and a kind of ‘pinch me’ moment. The private speedboat, not the tunnel, I mean.
It was so nice to see Aaron and Char and to catch up on months of news in person, and it really made me miss my little community back in London. I was sad they had to leave and I wished they could have stayed longer but they had jobs to go back to and we had a flight booked to Mykonos a few days later to go exploring the islands of Greece as our final stop in Europe.
The day we were meant to fly to Greece our flight was delayed from Kotor meaning we missed our connection at Belgrade (of all places) to get to Athens to connect to Mykonos. It was the first time we missed a flight and then had to run through the airport with all of our stuff and bang on the check-in desk, pleading with them to still let us board the plane. Real Drama. By the skin of our teeth, we made it onto a later flight and arrived in Mykonos at the same time. Phew.
Mykonos Molinos and poolside views
Mykonos was a safe option to start with and certainly one of the prettiest with its whitewash buildings and blue wooden paintwork. It was also one of the fanciest, too, and we paid more than one eye-watering bill, but it was nice to spend time by the pool and luxuriate under the cloudless skies, eating fresh octopus and calamari at the beach with some local wine. We spent five days pretending we could afford it all before fleeing to a more affordable Naxos, a three-hour ferry ride south.
Where we stayed in Naxos island absolutely made it. Again, abandoned for the off-season, we were the only people staying there, bar about four others working in the local shops within a mile radius. Our little sea view apartment was a stone’s throw away from three stunning golden sandy beaches that were so deserted we had them all to ourselves. Cue naked sunbathing.
Adopting another cat, Sylvester, we settled into quiet life where there wasn’t much to do but beach and read. There was a little market down the dusty road and a restaurant which was open all but the time we decided to go and that was it!
Private beaches and bonfires
The weather was amazing and having no one there made it even more special. As if we had the island to ourselves. We even managed to have a secret bonfire on the beach at sunset which was definitely a night to remember. Thanks, Lucas, for being a pyromaniac!
Leaving Naxos and our little seaside apartment with private beach was hard, it was definitely one of the best places we ever stayed, but we didn’t move far, the next island we chose was Paros, right opposite Naxos. We had grown to love the chilled and picturesque Greek island life – it was hard to resist. The weather was great, the food was amazing (the octopus and cheese have rocked my world and changed my tastebuds for life), and the people were so lovely.
Much like in Naxos, in Paros, we stayed a stone’s throw away from the beach, beside a quiet fishing port offering a selection of seafood restaurants and not much else to do but enjoy the scenery and sand. One of the days we weren’t exploring the bays and discovering golden beaches with no one on them, we took a local bus to walk the Byzantine path where, along the way, we managed to befriend a dog, Gilda, as her name tag read, who followed us all the way down from the village, 5 km later to the road. Thankfully her tag had a number on it and I had to call their owner in very broken English to please come and collect your very friendly but very intrepid dog.
Stunning Paros and Gilda the stalker dog
We had an idyllic few weeks on the sleepy islands of Naxos and Paros and we were a bit reluctant to move onto Santorini (who even says that?!) preparing ourselves for people (!) and tourists (!). We took another ferry down to see the famous blue domed roofs of the cliffside town of Oia, and, as our taxi driver told us, the throngs of Chinese people who fly there especially to get married. Seriously, it’s a thing.
In all fairness, it was beautiful and picture-perfect and watching the sunset was lovely but other than the sunset and the pretty (expensive) boutiques, there’s not much else to shout about. It’s definitely a luxury place for the honeymooners, with beautiful cliffside villas and private pools tiered down the side of the island. So two nights was enough and we were happy to move onto Athens but sad to leave behind the Greek island life. And octopus!
Iconic views of Santorini and freshly caught octopus
Our fifth, and final, stop in Greece was Athens. The main reason for coming here was to go to an Austra gig – her song Utopia had been our anthem in Asia so we couldn’t pass up a chance to see her live, even if it was the only song we knew! The gig wasn’t until the weekend, but due to ferry schedules stopping at the end of October we had to leave the islands earlier than planned to get to the mainland before we were marooned. We booked a nice Airbnb with views of the Acropolis and settled down for a week, able to experience Athens at leisure.
Athens reminded me a bit of Rome in that all the ancient ruins are scattered in the centre of the city which has built itself up and around it over the centuries, or rather, millennia. You just need to walk down the street to see historic temples and sunken streets hidden among restaurants and abandoned buildings decorated with graffiti.
We were a bit poor on the historic sightseeing, preferring instead to mooch around and explore the city by accident; more the modern-day urban tourists. We made the most of the capital’s first-world amenities like a bookshop and an organic vegan store, and of course the night of the gig was a huge success, too. And, I might add, worth the wait.
But we did make a special trip up to the Acropolis which was incredible and offered endless views of the city and out into the mountains. Just be prepared to get a bit lost before you get there – for a world-famous historic site, it’s shockingly signposted.
The ancient Acropolis
With no queues to contend with (off-season is the best!), we explored the ancient ruins fairly undisturbed, marvelling at how incredibly old everything was! I was thinking back to the days of the toga-clad Grecians, ruling their empire from the top of this epic hill, surveying their land.
Alas, after a week in Athens, our time was up and we were off again. The last five months exploring Europe had been amazing. Above all, Greece – I’ll never forget the private beaches (and bonfire) of Naxos, or the juicy grilled octopus tentacles we ate… oh my. And. So. Much. Feta. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
But we were swapping one ancient empire for another. Egypt was our next stop, Africa was calling…