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Slovenia and Croatia

Lake Bled, Zadar and a week by the sea in Makarska

sunny 30 °C

After all the fun and excitement of Italy, where to be honest, I barely rested for longer than a day except for Reggio Emilia, and that was only because I felt like crap, my days in Slovenia and Croatia were meant to share one theme only. Relaxation!

My drive from Verona to Bled was via autostrada the entire way. I would have liked to take the scenic route but it would have taken forever, perhaps an extra 2-3 hours, and that's without traffic, so motorway was the better option. The weather changed not long after entering Slovenia, encountering my first major thunderstorm while driving, and the weather remained unpredictable the rest of the day.

Though I wanted to relax, my first day in Bled was to walk the lake, visit the castle, and do the other bits of touristy thing I had planned for. Though it wasn't a very warm day, it was disgustingly humid, a reminder of Italy, so I definitely earned a cold beer climbing to the castle overlooking the lake. Walking the shore of the lake provided some wonderful views, particularly of the small island in the middle, which I did visit later, catching a lift on one of the many little boats that make their way to and from the island. I did stop for the occasional beer and treated myself to a nice dinner. Prices were reasonable in Bled, much cheaper than Italy.

Second day in Bled was relaxation. Sure, I did walk the lake in the opposite direction, but made sure I took all day, stopping in nearly every little hamlet for a small beer, and the weather was much nicer, a little warmer but the humidity had disappeared. It was definitely very relaxing. For my last day, I decided to get in my car and have a wander of the surrounding region. First was a visit to Vintgar Gorge, which was spectacularly beautiful, though rather busy, no surprise considering the time of year. Ended up going for a drive into Triglav National Park, heading to the remains of a village an a monument to partisans of WWII. Finally, I drove back towards Bled and visited Iglica Waterfall. That wasn't particularly spectacular, but I did climb the nearby ladders, where I was provided with some awe-inspiring views of the lands surrounding Bled. Definitely worth the few minutes climb up and down.

Between Bled and Zadar, I did stop in Trieste for two nights / one day. Definitely worth a visit. The weather was great. The prices are reasonable. And there is actually plenty to see, particularly the fortress overlooking the city, and if you love architecture, you can see the different styles around as Trieste has belonged to both the Austrians and Italians in recent history.

The drive from Trieste to Zadar was quite easy. I was amused at the border, ready to show them all my car paperwork, licence etc. Nope, all they wanted to see was my passport, gave me a stamp, off I went. You read up about horror stories of long delays, yet I'm just waved on through. Still, could be worse...

My Airbnb in Zadar was a little out of town, so during the summer, it certainly got me sweating. Zadar old town (Stari Grad) is beautiful, though. Completely pedestrianised, it was once ringed by walls though much of those have disappeared. There are plenty of little alleys to wander down and get lost. Plenty to keep oneself amused for a day, though most people would head to Zadar for the water activities, as it was rather warm while I was there, and the beaches were definitely full. What I would say is that, in the years between visiting Croatia (I'm sure it's about five / six years), it's either more expensive than what it was, or the drop in value of the pound just made it seem that way. Still, I found an excellent pub in the old town, eventually meeting people in there who could speak some of the lingo at least.

Following the Croatian coastline south, I ended up in a little town called Makarska, which will be the longest stay of this journey, an entire week! Another Airbnb apartment to myself, it was actually at the top of a rather steep hill, so made getting home each night a pain. But it was barely a ten minute walk to the seaside, and turning left or right provided me with endless bars, cafes and restaurants to eat and drink at.

For the entire week, I did practically nothing except relax, may be a bit of walking, certainly hours spent on the beach, enjoying a beer or two. I did do a boat trip one day, to the islands of Hvar and Brac. It was definitely a highlight, considering they served raki by 9am, wine by 10am, and by the time the trip ended at 7pm, many were carrying sore heads back to their hotels and hostels. For the last three nights I was there, concerts were held in the main square, a small stage for tribute acts to perform. 1st night was AC/DC, 2nd night was U2 and the third night was Guns n Roses. The square filled up nicely each night, and there was a small bar that served very cheap beer. I did find a few cheap bars around Makarska, as it seemed that prices were kept reasonable, probably due to the competition. The place was packed with people but it was always a friendly atmosphere, even late at night after a warm day and people may have consumed a few drinks.

Considering I'd spent over two weeks through Slovenia, Italy and then Croatia, I have to admit that I probably didn't do as much as before, certainly Italy and southern France, and I'll admit, the constant heat was the cause. Walking around in the heat and humidity day after day is draining, and I know I've started to put on a little bit of the weight I'd lost as I have enjoyed my beer recently. Once it started to cool down in late September, I'll start doing the long walks I was doing before.

But that's for later. I was about to enter my first new country since San Marino.

Montenegro!

Posted by benjamin2981 07:38 Archived in Croatia Tagged beaches driving trieste castle drinking croatia seaside nightlife slovenia heat boat_trip lake_bled humidity tribute_bands Comments (0)

Southern France

From Toulouse to Nice (before heading into Italy...)

sunny 28 °C

Can I admit that I'm actually far too busy to regularly write a blog post? Only reason I'm writing this now is that I've just arrived in Pisa, needed something on my car seeing to, and as it's rather sweltering outside, I figured I'd stay in my air-conditioned Airbnb until heading out for dinner later. So I had a few spare minutes at least...

Anyway, my last post ended with my visit to Andorra. Still have some great memories of that place, and I thoroughly enjoyed my journey back into France. I took the old route, avoiding the tunnel, and had some great views passing over the top of the mountains. Going down the other side was quite amusing, particularly once I hit the border and the line of cars looking to enter Andorra, mostly French cars and people, looking for the cheap booze and fags on offer.

I was staying with a local in Toulouse but not through Airbnb, organising it through Booking.com. I hadn't been aware that was on offer and it is something I'll keep an eye out for later. Anyway, Michel was a lovely gentleman, spoke great English, and we enjoyed some good conversations, when I was about.

As I was only spend three nights / two days in Toulouse, I had plenty of time to wander and looking around. Being France, most museums were closed on Monday but I could still wander and take in the sights, the cathedral, basilica and other churches, while also just walking the streets. One thing I learned quickly is that Toulouse shared one thing in common with Bordeaux - the great pubs on offer! One pub I'd visited in Bordeaux was the Frog & Rosbif, and they had another pub in Toulouse. These sort of pubs are also good places to find fellow English speakers, and I eventually found myself chatting with an English RAF serviceman by the name of James. Top lad, and it was amusing to hear he was based only a few miles from where I used to and still live in the UK.

My second day was much like the first, though this time I visited a few museums, learning that Toulouse was once a Roman city by the name of Tolosa. Few Roman remains are left around the city, but the museum I visited was interesting, with quite a bit of information in English. Found museums can be very hit and miss regarding that, depending on the city you are in. I eventually ended up on the other side of the river, away from the centre, but to be honest, there wasn't much on offer. The one place I did want to visit was closed on Monday and Tuesday. Just my luck sometimes!

I can definitely recommend Toulouse as a place to visit. Plenty of places speak at least a little English, and as always, they appreciate if you at least try a little French.

On the way to Avignon, my second destination of three, I stopped at two places on the one. The first was rather unplanned until Michel suggested I really do stop there, a city by the name of Carcassone. I'm glad I did, as although I only spent maybe 90 minutes there, it was certainly an interesting old city, though absolutely teeming with tourists (yes, yes, I know I'm one of them!)

My second stop was planned, and had been on my itinerary from the moment I planned the whole thing. Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct still in great condition. Knowing they were onto a good thing, the French have built an entire park around it, with all sort of restaurants, exhibitions and a museum. Plus you can also take a towel and your swimmers and go for a drip in the river, if you're so inclined. Anyway, the place was as spectacular as I imagined, while the museum was interesting, giving plenty of information about the construction of the aqueduct, but also the history of the region itself, mentioning one city that I would be visiting later on.

Avignon is a lovely French city, one perhaps overlooked by many tourists, though that's not to say I didn't run into a lot of them! I was staying in another Airbnb, not far from the centre. The first day was, of course, wandering Avignon. First thing was the whole reason I was there. The Papal Palace. And, I'll admit to be... slightly disappointed. I'd read plenty of reviews, and while it wasn't awful, nearly all the walls were bare, though there were plenty of artefacts to see. The walls that were still painted, and a couple were magnificent, we weren't allowed to take photos of those. But the rest of the palace was brought to life by THE PAD! Given some headphones and it give the history of the palace and the popes who resided in it.

The second major attraction is the bridge. There's bugger all left of it standing now, but again, in addition to the bridge was a museum which gave plenty of history and the one amusing feature was the rumour about the bridge. Was it ever completely finished? And, if it was, what was it like? According to the museum, it was built, but collapsed centuries ago, and was probably a good idea poorly implemented.

Avignon is full of museums to see, and just wandering the old city can see yourself finding little cafes to sit and enjoy a beer or coffee, or perhaps a small shop or museum. I followed one of the trails on the map which took me through the medieval heart, the streets and paths where cars simply cannot go. Stopped for the occasional beer before hitting the pubs for happy hour. France do love their happy hours!

Next day was a trip to Nimes, another French town with strong Roman origins. The main attraction is, of course, the Arena. Around two thousand years old, it's fair to say perhaps half of it is the original as it had required plenty of work over time. But it's still spectacular, again an audioguide provided, giving history of the arena itself, but they also focused on the gladiatorial contests that once took part. I guess they found a lot of information about them so added that in. The arena is still open to this very day as it will host plenty of concerts during the summer.

Nimes is a gorgeous old city, the old town full of narrow streets, again inhibiting cars from going down most of them. The ruins of a couple of Roman temples are definite attractions, and if you don't mind walking up a steep hill, you can also climb the remains of a tower overlooking the entire city. Admittedly, I'm not a real fan of heights. If I feel completely 'safe', I'm okay, but the climb up the tower itself was narrow, and... well, let's just I didn't look down until I was at the very top! The climb was worth it, though. The view was outstanding.

Day three was another day trip, this time to Arles, another old town with Roman origins. Again, this had an arena, in roughly the same condition as Nimes. But Arles is perhaps more famous as the home of Vincent van Gogh. He only lived there for around a year, but the city takes pride in the fact one of the world's most famous artists once lived there. If you look at his Wikipedia page, his work while in Arles was prolific, but don't expect any museums in the city to have any of his work. Anything to do with van Gogh in the city is simply to entice tourists who don't know any better!

There is a fantastic archaeological museum worth checking out, just a little outside the centre (a 15 minute walk at most). The best exhibit there is of an old Roman ship, which laid buried under sediment in the nearby river for two millennia. Dug up and painstakingly restored, it now takes pride of place in a new part of the museum. Unfortunately, this new part is the only one that really provides English translations of all the exhibits. The other areas, while incredibly interesting, had next to no English translations. Slightly disappointing, but at least entry was free that day!

To be honest, I could have spent another couple of days in Avignon, as there is Orange and Aix-en-Provence nearby that are also interesting to visit. Perhaps another time...

Anyway, my third and final destination in southern France was Nice. Now while I had the idea of travelling the coast road instead of the autoroute, I knew, at this time of year and the day I was travelling, the traffic would be horrendous. So I took the probably quicker way. My Airbnb in Nice was another apartment, quite smaller than my one in Avignon, but I didn't plan on staying there too much during the day, though it was still quite the walk from the centre.

As always, day one would be spent in Nice, but let's be honest, you don't go to Nice to spend all day walking around. You go to stroll the promenade, perhaps wander the old town, definitely hit a beach and just... relax. So the morning and early afternoon was spent doing the 'touristy' things, particularly going up the nearby ruined castle / fort to take in the views. Spectacular! Other than that, it was a wander around the old town, but to be honest, it was far too hot to be walking kilometres around town, so I made sure to stop every so often for... something cold... perhaps with some alcohol in it...

Made a friend that night in another pub, this one with an Irish theme. Yes, yes, shoot me for being typical but all the bar staff spoke English. In fact, most were Irish or American, and one or two couldn't even speak French! Anyway, made a friend that night by the name of Grant, and he was a drinking buddy the next three nights.

Day two was a trip to Monaco. It just had to be done. After grabbing a map, not that I needed one for what I wanted to do first, I walked the track, taking my time, and an enormous number of photos were taken during my walk. Took perhaps a couple of hours, before heading up towards the palace, which provided even better views of the whole of Monaco. The final thing for me to visit was a museum full of cars owned by Prince Rainier (and probably owned by Prince Albert) now. Though called a museum, it's actually a private collection. Quite a few F1 cars, sports cars and normal cars... though I'm not sure you can call a few Rolls-Royce's 'normal' cars. It was a great collection, though, an obvious sign of the family wealth.

But Monaco wasn't as expensive as feared, at least when it came to food and drink. Never paid for more than €5 for a beer, and food was cheap as well. Just stay away from the harbour-front, look around for deals, and it could definitely be cheaper than Monaco. Wouldn't want to know how much a night in a hotel cost though. An Airbnb would probably be far too expensive too! (Doubt anyone would even offer, to be honest.)

My last day in southern France was one of relaxation. I stayed in Nice and did precisely nothing. Woke up, slowly walked into town, had a rather ordinary lunch (suckered in by one of those cheap three-course meals. Should have read TripAdvisor first!) before enjoying one or two cheap beers, before meeting my drinking buddy for a final night of revelry. In addition to him, we were joined by all sorts. Remember chatting with a Canadian fellow who'd just moved to Nice, and also an old American guy who was living life to the full now that he was retired and widowed. It was a long night, probably not the best idea considering I was leaving the next day, but it was well worth it.

The next day, I did need a couple of hours to feel right before I left. It was time for country number eight of the trip so far.

ITALY!

Posted by benjamin2981 08:26 Archived in France Tagged beaches road_trip walking beach palace palaces cathedral roman hot nice nightlife avignon arena monaco toulouse arles heat arenas nimes roman_history Comments (0)

Day 11 / 12 - Orléans, or How I'm now a Jeanne D'Arc devotee

Drove - 124 miles from Le Mans to Orléans via Chartres / 19881 steps (11th) / 16784 steps (12th)

sunny

I’ll admit, Le Mans had been a surprise. First by how pretty it was, but I’d also made some friends, a couple who I’ve already been keeping in touch with. I guess that’s the whole point to solo travel, to meet new people, but considering my French is bloody awful (I can read it better than speak or understand), I’ve been lucky in that I’ve met people who speak decent English.

But after yet only another couple of days, it was time to hit the highway. This time I was heading the closest to Paris I probably will during this trip, hitting the autoroute towards Chartres. Admittedly, I was only going to the city for one thing, to see it’s cathedral. I’m sure those of you still reading this are thinking ‘But Benjamin, you are not religious. Why all the cathedrals?’ Because they’re architecturally stunning and you don’t have to be a devotee to God to understand the symbolism.

I managed to find a spot to park in the only free car park in Chartres then walked up a monster of a hill. After picking up a map from the tourist office, I headed straight for the cathedral. I will now have to compare that one to Le Mans, and there are ever more cathedrals the longer I travel. The one in Chartres is magnificent though, and I can only recommend it. But there is more to Chartres than just the cathedral, and I did spend a couple of hours wandering the streets, grabbed a spot of lunch (a baguette filled with everything, I didn’t even realise!) and completed what I guess was the ‘tourist trail’, taking a few photo’s but generally just appreciating how peaceful it was. I reckon Parisians head to Chartres to get away from the hectic lifestyle of the capital!

Leaving Chartres, I avoided the autoroute that would take me to Orléans, instead sticking to the N or D roads, hoping I’d be provided with some sights on the way. Well, while I did pass through one or two pretty villages, the one word to describe most if it is… flat. Just lots and lots of farmland. And there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of wind turbines. Kind of kills the view…

Then there were the trucks I got stuck behind, and driving a right-hand drive car in Europe can make one slightly apprehensive when trying to pass, as I’m on the wrong side to see past, though I’ve managed well so far. I just don’t take big risks, making sure there is definitely nothing on the horizon before passing.

Thankfully the sat-nav didn’t try to take me around the houses going into Orléans, pretty much taking me through the town and straight to my place. Caterine had messaged that she would be heading off to Paris, but she was still home when I arrived, so at least we got to meet each other. Her English was fantastic, so communicating was a breeze, and she was friendly and very informative about what I could see in the city. We probably spoke for around fifteen minutes before she left for Paris.

That left me a house to myself. I will admit something. The driving does make me tired, as I feel I’m having to concentrate just that little bit more, particularly regarding speed limits, and French drivers love to tailgate (and not just me, I notice it when cars are going in the opposite direction.) There’s more to it than just that, but most days of driving results in me not doing too much that first night. So I headed to the local supermarket, grabbed some food and a couple of beers, and spent the night catching up on things I may have missed. Or, even better, watching things that are geoblocked on Youtube back in the UK!

The next two days were about one simple thing, or one person. Jeanne D’Arc, better known as Joan of Arc to the English speaking world. I don’t think I’ll ever visit a city as devoted to one icon as Orléans is to Jeanne D’Arc.

Streets, shops, café’s, you name it, there is something named after her. And there are numerous statues around the city as well. In addition, there is a festival every May 8th that celebrates her liberation of the city in 1429. Her house (rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII) is probably a site of pilgrimage for some. I found it a little disappointing, as there was only a movie played that showed the story of her life, along with a timeline and one or two other small things. I thought they would have had a recreation of what it might have looked like at the time.

The main cathedral has a shrine devoted to her, considering she is a saint. The stained glass windows along both sides tell her life story in ten stages. There was another church I visited, the Notre Dame des Miracles, which doesn’t look like a church from the outside, but inside, there was more devotion to her. In fact, I think it was slightly more moving than the cathedral.

I think it’s safe to say that Orléans will never forget Jeanne D’Arc!

Other than anything relating to her, I visited my first art museum of the trip. I don’t know art, but I did spend a couple of hours looking at some very pretty paintings. And I don’t know about you, but is contemporary just… I don’t know, weird in comparison? Anyway, there were a couple of rooms that left me staggered, the number of paintings, how large and full of life they were. I remember one in particular, not its name, but I do remember the eyes. It was like they were watching you in return.

Even the streets were beautiful. Walking down the Rue Jeanne D’Arc or the Rue Royale had me stopping to take pictures. I’m sure a lot of it was rebuilt after the war, but I’m fairly sure they’ve done it to match what it must have looked like before.

I even walked through a garden, though only because I found it amusing it was named after Louis Pasteur. Again, out of season as I missed the opportunity to ride a little train that goes around the park. (Joking, as it’s for kids… or am I?)

Finally, one cannot talk of travelling and not mention food and drinking. The happening place is Rue de Bourgogne (Burgundy. I didn’t even attempt to pronounce it the French way and ruin it) though, for scenery, a stop down by the Loire is a must on a sunny afternoon.

Anyway, Rue de Bourgogne is full of pubs, clubs and restaurants, it’s where I spent both evenings. Most pubs and bars had a 3 hour long ‘happy hour’, while I enjoyed a real ‘French’ lunch my first day. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant (and having trouble finding it on Google) but I had a 3 course meal (entreé, plats du jour and dessert) with a pint of beer, for only €22. Didn’t have to eat again that day! And the lady who served me, who suffered through my poor French, while she spoke a little English, was a delight. A real laugh, no doubt at my expense probably!

And so ends my three night/ two day stay in Orléans. Long enough to soak in the culture, see the sights, and enjoy myself. Thing is, if Schengen wasn’t the thorn it can be and is, I would have spent longer and driven around visiting nearby chateau’s, but alas, I have ninety days to cram in as much as I can. Next stop is Tours, where I’ve organised one day to tour the city, and Monday, I have booked a train ticket to visit Saumur, a town around 40 minutes train ride away.

Looking forward to it!

Posted by benjamin2981 08:20 Archived in France Tagged road_trip walking history driving orleans museum cathedral nightlife joan_of_arc airbnb chartres jeanne_darc Comments (0)

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