Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

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Syros and Athens

From Mykonos, which we found touristy, arrogant, and over-priced, we sailed to what we both now call our favourite island of the cruise -- Syros. It's a small, old-fashioned kind of place. As we walked straight off the ship and onto the port, we noticed many older Greeks sitting all along the homey cafes having coffee or sharing food they had ordered. We immediately felt at home. We bumped into a book shop with an English stand and bought another of Ian McEwen, who we both like, as we have almost run out of novels on this trip. We found a cafe playing soft Greek music and eventually bought a CD of the female singer, whose name I will have to tell you next blog.

We visited the Apollan Theatre, a small replica La Scala in Milan, a cosy site that represents the town, which is on a hill. The streets are so scenic as is the harbour, that I had to click away every few minutes. For lunch we found a women's collective self-serve, run by 28 women from the district. The food definitely tasted like it came straight from their kitchens. I had eggplant stuffed with feta. They do a lot of feta stuffing here.

We took a local bus to the nearest beach, which was clean and reasonably quiet and had a wonderful and relaxing time cooling off. We had Greek coffees, rather like Turkish coffee, played game or two of chess overlooking the beach area and made our way back in a crowded bus to the town, where we reluctantly boarded the ship for our last night on board.

We are now in Athens in an area called Plaka, which has pedestrian streets filled with market-like shops and pricey cafes. We found, with the help of the young woman who manages this internet spot, a reasonably priced Greek restaurant filled with locals. How to describe it? A cross between Shwartz's Deli on St. Laurent, though 10 times the size, and a typical Montreal Greek eatery. There was little for vegetarians. Irwin had an excellent order of Kebab and shared my spicy cheese, hot green grilled chili peppers,and tomato and cucumber salad. The name of the place is Thanassis. It seems to go on for blocks and is very popular. Right next to it is an equally popular but slightly higher priced Bairaktaris, also recommended by our internet manager. We had lunch there today and they had more to offer a vegetarian. We shared a Greek salad, zucchini croquettes, and sweet red peppers, grilled and stuffed with feta. I have to try those when I get home, but will they taste as good?

It's hot, very hot and hard to get away from it. July is definitely not the time to visit Greece. And now, I've left the most important for the end. As soon as our ship docked in Piraeus, we dropped off our bags at our hotel, which we had reserved the day before our cruise departed, the Phidias (50 euro a night for a lovely and spacious double) and made our way, with the same friendly taxi driver to the Acropolis. We wanted to get there before 9 because we had heard it would be teeming with tourists. And it was! Alas, they don't take VISA and we had to walk all around until we found a taxi driver who would change our dollars. US dollars are quite unpopular here. Finally we managed to buy tickets and were soon climbing (and I mean climbing) the steps leading to the Parthenon. It was my third visit. I was 18 the first time, 22, the second time and now, well it's certainly changed. The first time, in 1968, I remember touching those famed columns. Now, you can hardly get close enough to take pictures without heads in your way. It was Irwin's first time and for him it was "dramatic."

We are spending our day in Plaka since it's Sunday and little else is open. It's a lovely place to relax if you don't mind spending over $5-6 for a latte and the same for ice cream. It seems that since the euro has become part of the Greek scene, we Canadians are at a bit of a disadvantage, financially. But all in all, Greece is a place we are growing to love, and we will be back!

We've already decided to book a cruise next summer with Easy Cruise Life and see four or five more islands. What a comfortable, low-key and interesting way to travel!

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Panos and Mykonos

Yesterday we docked in Panos at 2 pm and were told we had to take a "tender" boat to shore as it was windy. Windy my foot! We noticed the more luxurious cruises were right near the dock. The tender filled to capacity and more. It was not in our estimation the safest mode of transportation, especially on the way back to the ship at 10 pm. There were few if any lifejackets, with children and more people sitting on the roof of the boat, but when we complained about the safety, we were told by the cruise director, Anita, that these boats weren't under "their umbrella." Of course they are! What would happen if someone fell off? There would be no way I could last in that water more than 2 minutes!

Panos was lovely. It was small enough to walk around. The houses and streets are blue and white — lots of paint on these islands! We found an Internet cafe but couldn't connect our laptop so we used theirs for free. Just had to purchase expensive drinks! I didn't stop taking pictures of the narrow streets with their colourful doors and balconies. Every twist and turn brought a new photo op. Since we had our lunch on board (we have one meal a day, lunch or dinner plus breakfast included on our half-board plan), we started looking for a restaurant around 7 pm and found one right on the beach, from where we could watch the sun set in style.

We asked for a mixed platter of our Greek favorites, including grilled peppers stuffed with feta and tarmosalata. I was the one stuffed by the end of it, and then I made the mistake of ordering "little fishies" — grilled sardines — and could finish only half. Oh well! The thin kittens had a great time delicately eating whole fish! During dinner we met a single male high school history teacher from Calgary, very charming. Forgot to mention we also had a nice swim at a public beach with bamboo umbrellas. A bit dirty but okay for Irwin!

Today we are in Mykonos! What a difference! Made pricey and crowded by the "rich people who live here," we've spent the day wandering the picturesque streets looking for Internet cafes such as this one in which we can cool off. The heat is getting to me. We Canadians aren't used to the sun being so strong, even now at 5 pm! In these cafes we use their laptops (ours doesn't seem to work on these two islands) and pay big prices for small non-alcoholic drinks. But it all works out in the end.

Tomorrow is our last island: Syros. Then on Saturday, it's back to Athens. Don't be surprised, dear readers, if you see one of the photos I've been taking on the cover of our August issue! We must confess that we didn't take the 47 euro tour to Delos today to see the home of Apollo! We're just not up to the heat and having to do anything in a group.

And now we're off to the city beach for a short swim before finding our shuttle bus to the new port and climbing aboard our tender to take us back to our ship.

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Kos

We are now in Kos, a Greek Island only two hours from Bodrum, Turkey, where we spent yesterday. Bodrum was touristy but it was a joy to be back in Turkey, which we visited four years ago. Prices have definitely shot up but we enjoy the people and the ambiance. There's a huge market there, a small Grand Bazaar (which exists in Istanbul). We had a fish lunch by the sea and strolled along the busy streets looking for a "bathing suit" since I'd unwittingly left mine in the cabin, thinking I'd spend the entire day touring around. It turns out that many of the restaurants and bars offer free swims, complete with deck and lounge cars and umbrellas, in exchange for a pricey drink or coffee at $5. We had to shop for a change of clothes and buy a bathing suit for Irwin, but in the end we managed to climb into the cool and refreshing water and have a short swim.

Our ship left at 8 am this morning and less than two hours later, we were strolling along the port of Kos, an island that suffered an earthquake in 1913. There is still a castle here that looks something like the one in Bodrum which we are not ashamed to say we missed. We are into "hanging" not touring more castles. The temperature yesterday was over 40 degrees and today it reached 38. So sunblock is essential. Still the heat takes it toll. We are not young anymore and there's only so much walking in the heat we can stand. Irwin is now falling asleep in his car at this lovely wireless cafe so we must make our way back to the shop and look forward to dinner, which tonight is "sole." We hope it has more soul than the past meals on our half-board plan, which have been underwhelming. If we have any energy we will return after dinner and check out the action.

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Kalymnos Island

We arrived in Piraeus very late after a comfortable train ride and made our way by taxi to our hotel, sharing the ride with a young geologist who lives near the city. The taxi driver tried to charge us for two trips and after a long argument, he left angry with a nice tip for one trip.

Our room was underwhelming, especially for 89 euro, a measly breakfast included. The next morning we walked around the picturesque yacht bay and thought we would try to find a more reasonably-priced hotel for our return July 26 (from our cruise). Happily we found and booked a nicer hotel, better situated, for 55 euro, which will be our base for visiting Athens and the Acropolis when we return.

Our hotel manager told us we could walk to the port. Unfortunately it took an hour and by the time we arrived, I was a wreck! Irwin was fine. We discovered that our cabin had a window, a substantial upgrade from our booking of an inside cabin. It’s actually meant for four people so it’s quite spacious.

We have since learned that we probably paid more than we should have because we didn’t need the meals and we booked at the last minute, probably paying a hidden agency fee. Other cruisers told us that they got good deals by reserving early online. Still we feel content. And we’ll know for next time.

Today we docked at Kalymnos Island, which is approximately 100 kilometers square. The island is so beautiful that I cried when I disembarked and saw the terraced pastel houses built on the mountainside. Future paintings?

We had a mediocre lunch, quite pricey, in a portside resto, but we got good advice from the British retiree who served us and suggested taking a bus to the other side of the island to a beach town called Misouri. The water was clean, calm and cool — a pleasure to swim in. And though there were many hundreds of Sunday swimmers, it didn’t feel crowded in the water. The town is simply exquisite. How nice it would be to spend six months there writing a novel. Getting the bus back was an adventure. We waited over an hour and finally it came and was packed all the way back to Pothia, the main town where the ships dock.

Tomorrow — Bodrum, Turkey. One of the nicest surprises is that our cruise ship leaves in the wee hours so we lose no time on land — exploring and enjoying the scene.

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Thessaloniki

A walking bridge connecting to the new city of Skopja to the Old Town

We spent our last night in Skopje trying to get some sleep so we could get up at 3:15 am to be picked up in our mini bus to Thessaloniki. Our driver arrived on time and picked up a very interesting man and a student who had just finished her university exams. He was a guide who supplements his income importing used cars from Germany to support his son in Santa Monica. He told us about the conflict between Macedonia and Greece, which is not only jealous of the name used by “non-Greeks” but also, according to him, wary of future territorial demands on the fertile northern part of Greece, from which thousands of Macedonians were expelled, their property confiscated, ostensibly because they were part of the Communist rebellion, put down with the help of the British after World War II.

We arrived in Thessaloniki at 6 am our time, 7 am theirs and looked for coffee while waiting for the travel agencies along the port to open. At 8:50, one did. Early bird Christina Jeirani of Overseas Travel greeted us with a sleepy smile and began to process our desires, travelwise. We’ve decided that we’d loosen the purse strings and try our first cruise, yes, you heard it here first, cruise!

Christina found a 7-day island hop including Bodrum, Turkey and Mykonos for 500 euro with half board. We breathed a sigh of relief at the price and accepted. Not so easy! Cruises don’t leave from here! We have to go to Athens, Piraeus (the port). So after finding our hotel, booked by Overseas, and called Mandrino (65 euro), we took a bus three or four stops to the railway station to be informed that the only seats available were on the express leaving the next day at 7 pm for 48 euro each! Okay, we said, rather hefty but what choice did we have! We then went back to the tourist office and said “Get us a hotel near Piraeus please,” which Christina did for a hefty 89 euro! But better safe than sorry in Athens at 11:30 pm, right?

We then asked her for an interesting restaurant since we hadn’t eaten for 24 hours! She, after giggling with her friends, sent us to Oysoy Meaaoopon in Greek, or Ouzo Medathron. Everyone knows it and the reason is that the food is exquisite. It’s in a fun courtyard full of hungry, happy Greeks, downing mussels in every imaginable way, sardines – not the canned variety, anchovies – the real thing, and various meats and truly marvelous Greek, yes Greek salad. They top it all off with ice cream and strawberry or chocolate syrup on a bed of Baklava strings sprinkled with honey and Espresso for — nothing! Well, says Irwin, the ice cream and Espresso are complimentary! What a joyful experience especially if you get shpritzed with the mist connected to a fan.

This morning we waited for the Jewish museum to open and when it did we spent an hour and a half marveling at the growth of this wonderful community of up to 70,000 Jews, who first settled here as Roman slaves, augmented later by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other points across Europe. It was a thriving vibrant community with over 20 newspapers in Spanish and Ladino, full of scholarship, schools, over 30 synagogues, hospitals, senior homes, libraries, and orphanages until the Nazis brutally and systematically destroyed all but a few, transporting them to Auschwitz after destroying the cemetery and humiliating and tormenting the men of the community. We saw the deportation order telling the people there would be food waiting for them and to pack all their jewellery and valuables. The museum has a small library and bookstore, and many publications about the community now and then are given out.

In three hours we will be leaving on our train for Athens. Tomorrow at 2 pm we will board our ship. This is one town we would like to see more of. We’ll be back!

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Crossing the Macedonian border

We took a taxi from Pogradeci to the Macedonian border (5 km), said goodbye to Albania and walked the 100 meters to the border police. We showed our passports and they welcomed us, telling us in sign language to walk ahead, either 30 or 300 meters (I’m not sure which) and that there would be taxis to the town called Ohrid, pronounced Okrid, on the other side of the lake that Albania and Macedonia share. We walked and walked and walked. No sidewalks. No cars. No buses. Just a two lane highway. I told Irwin I wanted to go back. He said “I don’t go back. It’s uphill.” I was worried. Here we were in the middle of nowhere with our two knapsacks on wheels, our money, and our baby laptop. After about 30 minutes, a red car came up behind us. We put out our arms. Were we actually going to hitchhike?

The gentleman stopped and we asked for a ride to Ohrid, not knowing how far it was. He invited us in, threw our bags in the back and started to drive, and drive and drive. He spoke no English but we managed to convey that we were Canadians. He called his wife on his cell and she told us in perfect English that he would gladly drive us to the bus station to get the bus for Skopja, the capital city.

Ohrid is a touristy, more sophisticated version of Pogradeci. We stopped at a large bus station, where he insisted on purchasing the tickets in Denar. We returned the amount in euro later. Then he motioned for us to get back in the car. What did he mean by this, we asked, but by this time he felt like a long-lost cousin so we climbed in knowing our bus would leave from the station in half an hour. He drove faster now, obviously heading for somewhere. Suddenly, after 10 minutes he stopped abruptly and turned in to a ground floor apartment with a small porch. He was taking us home — and we would meet the bus across the road on its way to Skopja.

His wife Fiona was lovely and so were her two children, Victoria and Michael. Victoria and her cousin were playing with their new kitten. We posed them for pictures, and sampled some of Victoria’s homemade blueberry juice and coffee. Then we hugged the entire family, especially our saviour and his mother, who had so graciously welcomed us to Macedonia, and made our way to the bus with Fiona.

The bus was hot and stuffy but we finished our books and four hours later were walking away from the bus station looking for a hotel. Finally we found one for 35 euro, 5 extra for necessary air conditioning, across from the Greek Embassy, about a 15 minute walk to the great square in the centre of this somewhat eclectic city of 700,000. Our room is tiny but we feel safe across from the embassy manned by a burly policeman at all times.

This morning we walked in all directions looking for the elusive post office, hidden in a circular building that looked like the inside of a flower. Inside after much negotiation we decided to only send home the heavy books for the special rate of 5 euro rather than the books and t-shirts for 40 euro! We headed out towards a medieval fortress across the bridge and inside we found the Old City. Its narrow stone streets, somewhat resembling the Old City of Jerusalem, including the fortress, beckoned to our yearnings for small old-fashioned boutiques and cafes, and lo and behold, we stumbled upon the Honourary Consulate for the State of Israel. We rang and were immediately let in and introduced to the assistant to the Honourary Consul, his son, who greeted us warmly and served us coffee. We talked about the history of Macedonian Jewry. He told us 7,148 or 98% were deported during the Holocaust, all to Treblinka. Only 200 are left here in Skopja, some having emigrated to Israel.

We were invited to visit the foundations of the new Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia. Inside the new building that is the Foundation for the Center, we met Victoria who runs the day-to-day operations. Victoria spent three years in Israel with her family ten years ago but they returned, fearing “the wars.” We spoke Hebrew and she then showed us a few restaurants below her building that we could choose for lunch. Alas she wasn’t allowed to accompany us but we will be meeting her this evening with her boyfriend.

Our lunch of kebab, yogurt soup, Greek salad and roasted peppers, and Macedonia Riesling was a treat, but we are not ready for much more than a nap right now. Tomorrow we visit the Jewish community centre one minute from our hotel.

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Pogradeci

As promised, our congenial host at the Parlimenti Hotel drove us in his slightly worn Mercedes-Benz (almost everybody drives a Mercedes in Albania) to the lot where mini-buses were waiting for passengers to drive to Pogradeci. The cost for the almost four-hour trip was $14 each. We started on a reasonably good road but suddenly the driver made a U-turn and drove back to where we started and ended up on a rocky unpaved track through some construction area that seemed to go on forever. We never found out what the detour was for.

Once we got back on a paved road, the trip was uneventful, if hot, until we climbed up several mountain ranges — and for the queasy, it was harrowing, since the road was narrow and the cliffs steep and potentially deadly. We stopped more than halfway (after 2 hours) at a “café” where the owner tried to stiff us 10 Euro for two pieces of cheese and a simple salad. We eventually settled on 500 lek ($6) which according to us included a hefty tip.

We thought we would stay at the Lunhidas Hotel, a “tourist centre” with a swimming pool. We noticed the lake was crystal clear, but it was too far from the centre of town, and we always stay in the centre of town. Our driver dropped us off at the first place on the hotel strip bordering the lake (Lake Orhid). We like the looks of the hotel, named Enkelana, and especially the price ($34 CDN with breakfast) for a modern room with a balcony overlooking the lake, TV and a bathroom. The bed however could use a few less metal rods.

We strolled along the boardwalk and decided to rent a paddleboat ($2.60 CDN) for an hour. The odour of excrement was too strong to go swimming near the shore. We paddled out toward the middle of the lake, where the water looked clearer, and Irwin jumped in. One of four sturdy lads in a neighbouring paddle boat, hearing us conversing in English, begged to interrupt. A conversation ensued and continued after the two lads boosted Irwin onto the boat. Irwin’s current physical condition, being what it is, (chess, jazz, wine, pizza) made it impossible to do it on his own.

After inviting the lads for coffee on the boardwalk, the English-speaking one told us a bit about Albanian youth and his own difficult circumstances. He is the son of poor farmers from this area and is completing a compulsory year in the army, which he hates. He won’t go to Afghanistan or Iraq because the $10,000 for six months service is insufficient compensation for having to kill and risk being killed. He complained that the senior officers won’t even talk to him and the class system in the army prevents him from getting recognition and training. He told us that the university system here is corrupt and that one can buy grades for money. He has no hope of going to university because of lack of funds, even though he is bright and articulate. The boys are embarrassed by the condition of the lake and told us that when the dictator Enver Hoxha lived here in the summers, polluters risked severe punishment. Our lad would like to get out of Albania but he has no marketable skills.

We stayed at our hotel for dinner where we were the only couple on the second floor overlooking the lake and it was charming. We chatted for a few minutes with the daughter of the waitress, a graduate in psychology who can’t find a job in her field because “Albanians don’t recognize the need for psychologists yet.”

Irwin ordered steak with garnishes and we shared three or four salads, a fish soup, a glass of Macedonian wine, and Fanta — the bill coming to $23. We strolled on the main street, bought a small watermelon and ate it in our hotel room, keeping the balcony door open all night for the breeze.

The music continued well into the night, taken over sometime in the early morning by the howling of dogs, followed by the call of the Muezzin, summoning the faithful to morning prayer.

So far today (Sunday), we've sat outside here on the terrace — with a “borrowed” Internet password (top secret) that the waiters will not divulge but will gladly punch in — reading and soaking up the breeze by the lake, and gone out to buy cookies for two withered ladies sitting on the street across from the hotel and a stash of croissants for the gypsy children who beg at our table intermittently.

Tomorrow we plan to take a minibus to the Macedonian side of the lake and make our way from there to Skopje.

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In love with Tirana

On our way to Albania

Today we arrived in Tirana, Albania. Our ferry from Trieste was no cruise, but it was a pleasant 24 hour trip.

We met a German Jewish journalist-photographer off to an assignment in Kosovo. His editor had asked him to do a travel book on Kosovo! We also met a young couple from Vienna traveling to Albania to see her family. Luckily, her brother was picking them up and we were offered a ride to Tirana from Dures, where the ferries dock. A bus ride would have taken 2 hours or so, for what is a 30 minute trip.

Our new friend's brother Gazi insisted on taking us out for coffee and found us an affordable and centrally-located hotel for 35 Euro. Our room is huge compared to the one in Italy and down the hall we have a bathroom bigger than our own at home.

Reflective Muggia

We're still hoping we have Wifi here. The owner’s son assured us we did before he left for parts unknown. His mom doesn’t seem to know a thing about it. If not, there are Internet cafes every three minutes.

Gazi recommended a fish restaurant that we tried for a 4 pm lunch. It was fabulous! We had two whole fish, grilled, two Greek salads and one mixed salad. With fries and toast, and complimentary watermelon for dessert, the bill came to about $30. We finished the afternoon with a stroll around our area, which includes a food market and many many gold and silver shops.

A gorgeous twin view along the canal

We’re in love with Tirana already. We haven’t heard English yet except from the waiters and shopkeepers. Everyone is helpful and polite, except perhaps the boys who greeted us in our hotel and asked for money twice, not giving us a receipt until we insisted. At that point we got a handwritten note with the name and address of the hotel. The mother of course asked if we had paid when we returned. We hope the son hasn’t run off with our money to one of the casinos we saw not far from here.

If we do have Wifi, we’re bedding down in this town for a while!

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First post from Trieste

Our first stop on this summer’s adventure is Trieste, Italy at the Northeast point of the Adriatic Sea. Trieste has all the best qualities of Italian cities — accessible on foot, the best tomatoes in the world, marvelous mozzarella, fabulous fish and seafood that tastes like it came out of the sea yesterday. Then there’s the gelate (multi-flavoured Italian ice cream in its various forms — yogurt, sorbet and rich cream) at every corner.

Our hotel, Alabarda, two star, is friendly and has 30 minutes of free Wifi from the room. This is the first time we've taken a laptop. It’s nice to not have to find the local Internet café, which is usually smelly and crowded with teens. We bought a $10 adaptor, which simply attaches to the plug, which then goes into the wall. I found out from a nice man at Bureau en Gros that more expensive converters are unnecessary for laptops, which already have the ability to run on 110 or 220 volts.

We arrived on a Saturday and spent most of the day catching up on sleep and walking the streets that run around the Grand Canal. We’ve had three meals so far and the average bill is about 30 Euro for two including one entrée, ¼ liter of wine and sparkling water. The service is always friendly and accommodating.

The first afternoon, I walked across the street to the Supermercado and purchased some succulent peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, and cheese, as well as a perfectly-sized orange melon resembling a cantaloupe but tasting like the real thing. This morning we enjoyed a wonderful café latte at one of the spots on the canal. Fancy coffees are the only thing cheaper than in Montreal, apart from the wine and the gelate.

The music in the bars and restaurants is awful — loud and aggressive. We asked the waitress tonight to change it and she happily obliged.

The hotel gives out a special menu for this restaurant, two streets away (Ristorante Pizzeria O-Scugnizzo). For 20 Euro you get Primi (first course) which is pasta, Secondi (second course) which is fish, Contorni (salad or grilled veggies), and Bevanda (beverage) — either mineral water or ¼ liter of wine or beer. We weren’t that hungry or willing to splurge yet again so we asked if we could share. We could and did! Irwin had the spaghetti with fresh mussels and clams (in the shell too) and I had the Secondi of grilled squid. After three meals here, one could say the food is exquisitely prepared and fresh. So fresh! The olive oil is better than anything I’ve tasted in Montreal.

Today we visited the port and decided not to take the cruise going to the Greek Islands for one week. Why be packed in like the grilled sardines I had for lunch listening to loudspeakers and unable to stay in a place longer than a few hours? For a minute I wanted to try it just once. But Irwin quickly nixed the idea and instead we boarded a chug-a-lug boat to Muggia, a half-hour away (6 Euro return) and toured a lovely little port town, ate more gelate and had more delicious coffees. You get the picture!

What a beautiful little town! We would have inquired about the apartments for sale at 140,000 Euro if it hadn’t been a Sunday.

Now that we’re back in Italy, we remember why it’s one of our favorite countries in the world!

Tomorrow we want to look into ferries going to Croatia. Our intention this time is not to miss Sarajevo. If we can, we’ll take a ferry to Zadar on the coast of Croatia, and then move on to Split and maybe the island of Hvar before making our way to Sarajevo by bus or train! We like not knowing exactly where we’re going. The cruise wouldn’t have been our cup of coffee!

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