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Clare

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  1. I spent the week prior to this holiday looking into the blank faces of people at work when I told them I was flying to Vilnius on Saturday. They could be divided into roughly two camps; those who immediately exclaimed "Where?", quickly followed by "What would you want to go there for?!" when I explained that it was in Lithuania, and those who smiled politely and said "Oh that will be lovely", before sitting down at their computers to Google it. I started to get a little apprehensive about the holiday myself when I refreshed my memory of the map and realised that Vilnius was actually pretty close to Poland, the only country I've visited that I would never go to again. The weather forecast suggested that the Baltic would be cold and rainy, while the guidebook implied that there would be nothing to eat except potatoes and fatty pork, neither of which circumstances seemed conducive to a particularly enjoyable week away. Nevertheless, this was our shortest holiday and an opportunity to have adventures exploring three new countries. We flew out with Wizzair from Luton, an overall more enjoyable experience than travelling with Ryanair. We weren't made to pay for the cheap price of the ticket by listening to prerecorded announcements about buying scratchcards to help sick children, the baggage allowance was an impressive 32kg and the in-flight magazine was the most amusing such publication I have ever seen, featuring a plethora of advertisements for IVF in Poland, dental work in Hungary and plastic surgery in Romania. I did manage to confuse myself slightly the previous week when I noticed that what I had assumed would be a two-hour flight left the UK at 07.30 and didn't arrive in Lithuania until 12.10, but it transpired that this phenomenon could be explained not by a lesser-known Bermuda triangle having opened up over the Baltic, but rather by all three countries being two hours ahead of GMT. Our first impression upon landing in Vilnius was that it was small. Our plane was almost the only one on the tarmac and it didn't look like the airport was expecting another aircraft all day. Helpful signs with pictures of trains on led from the terminal building towards what the guidebook had described as a railway station, but when we arrived there we found a single train track with a platform the length of one carriage. There were a handful of other people waiting, which reassured us that we were in the right place, and sure enough when our train did arrive it really was just one carriage, presumably making the ten-minute journey between the airport and the main train station multiple times a day. We were staying in the Hotel Telecom Guest, a somewhat strangely named establishment which nevertheless turned out to be very pleasant and conveniently located, being just a 15-minute walk from both the train station and the Old Town. We settled into our room, had a brief nap in an attempt to recover from getting up at 3am, and spent the evening wandering around the city centre and getting a feel for the place. We were lucky that not only was it unexpectedly sunny but we quickly found an outside restaurant serving pizza and cheap wine. Potatoes and pork fat were postponed for another day! Due to a slight malfunction with setting the alarm, we slept for the best part of 12 hours and so it was after 10am before we headed out for a proper exploration of Vilnius the following morning. As we left the hotel and began to walk downhill towards the town centre, we had an enticing view of domed churches set against a backdrop of densely forested hills. The hotel had helpfully provided us with a town plan, but we soon realised that the centre was compact enough for us to stroll aimlessly without running the risk of getting hopelessly lost, so we wandered wherever the fancy took us, turning down side streets whenever we spied a particularly attractive building. The most striking thing about the centre of Vilnius was probably the sheer volume of churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) and how uniquely decorated each one was. We soon came to the main square, which was home to an impressively large cathedral, complete with tower. Behind the cathedral, a cobbled stone pathway led uphill towards Gediminas Tower. The stones were incredibly uneven in places and walking required a lot of concentration on feet to avoid tripping over! Having made it to the top, we climbed some even steeper staircases within the tower itself and emerged out onto the ramparts to be rewarded with a magnificent view out across Vilnius. One of the sights which caught our attention were three white crosses standing atop of one the wooded hills to our left. We had read in the guidebook how these crosses had been a landmark of the city until the Russians had bulldozed them in 1950. The crosses had been rebuilt since the end of Soviet times, although the demolished remains of the old monument were still visible. It was a fascinating story and looked like it ought to be a pleasant walk from where we were, across the river and through a nicely shaded forest towards the crosses, so off we went. What I hadn't bargained for was quite how high the hill was going to be and how steep the pathway was... Following a sandy track through the forest, we came to a series of wooden staircases built into the side of the hill. They were reasonably sturdy, with only a handful of places where the steps had broken, but there was no handrail and very few landings where you could pause and catch your breath. The layout was slightly deceptive so that when you arrived panting at what appeared to be almost the top, the staircase turned a corner and revealed at least as many steps yet to go. My tactic on the way up was to keep walking and not look down, the thinking being that hyperventilation was preferable to vertigo. We made it in the end and got our first glimpse of the broken crosses lying on the hillside. From there another staircase led relentlessly upwards towards the restored monument.The crosses were absolutely enormous, which I suppose makes sense given that we had been able to make them out from such a long distance away, and it was so sunny that it was difficult to look up at them without being blinded. Having successfully avoided being trampled by a party of Russian schoolchildren (who appeared to have arrived via a much easier tarmac path!) and spent some time admiring yet another beautiful view across Vilnius, it was time to climb back down again. This was where the trouble began! What had just been arduous on the way up became absolutely terrifying on the way down, when we were faced with a staircase stretching downwards as far as the eye could see. It was difficult to do justice to its magnitude in a photograph because it was far too long for more than a fraction of it to fit in one photo. I don't know how many steps there were, but our pedometers later gave us credit for climbing 56 normal-sized staircases, so there were certainly several hundred. I managed to make it down about 15 of them in an upright position before vertigo took over and I inched down the next hundred or so on my bottom. We made it in the end and enjoyed a much more pleasant stroll along by the side of the river (where we encountered some Lithuanian ducks!) and back into the town centre. In need of some sustenance, we found a nice Italian restaurant and took advantage of Lithuanian prices to enjoy two tagliatelle bologneses, a glass of wine, two beers and a bottle of water for an unbelievable £14
  2. When we booked our holiday to Croatia, one place we knew we definitely wanted to go back to was Zadar. With a beautiful old town situated beside an improbably blue sea, it quickly became one of our favourite destinations. Getting to Zadar proved to be a bit problematic though, with Ryanair offering only sporadic flights from the UK, so eventually we decided to fly with Wizzair to the nearby town of Split. The 9am flight was fairly late in the morning by our recent standard of holiday flights, so we were able to get up at the (comparatively) civilised hour of 4.30am before heading down to Luton. The flight to Split was amazing. I was lucky enough to get the winning combination of a window seat and a clear sky and was treated to fantastic views, firstly of the Alps and then of the Adriatic and some of the Croatian islands as we began our descent to Split. Landing at Split airport is not for the faint-hearted; the captain announced that we would be landing in ten minutes as the plane flew lower and lower across the sea, but with no land yet in sight I was starting to wish I'd paid more attention to the location of the lifevests during the safety briefing. It wasn't until we were less than 60 seconds away from touching down that the coast came into view and it became clear that the runway was on a small strip of land right beside the sea! Split airport is rather 'compact', with the result that baggage reclaim, passport control and customs somehow all fit into the same room. None of the guidebooks which I have read on Croatia give any indication of how difficult it is to get from the airport (which is located approximately 30km away) into the town of Split itself, making blithe references to an airport bus which conveniently meets every flight. The truth is that the airport bus meets every flight... of Croatia Airlines. If you're flying with a different carrier, you need to make your own arrangements, unless you are fortunate enough for the arrival of your flight to accidentally coincide with one from Croatia Airlines. There is, apparently, a public bus which comes to within a few hundred metres of the airport, but information available about it on the web is limited, even if you search in Croatian. Specifically, I couldn't find any confirmation about exactly where the airport bus stop was or whereabouts it dropped you in Split, although it sounded like it was potentially at a location 20 minutes outside the main centre. After a lot of fruitless searching I gave up and opted for the only other solution; a private transfer. There are a significant number of companies who offer taxi services from the airport into Split and if you book online in advance, you will have a driver waiting for you in the arrivals hall holding a sign with your name on it. We used Jam Transfer, who had good reviews online and indicated that the driver would wait for you at no extra cost if your flight was delayed. Sure enough, our driver was almost the first thing I saw when we walked into the arrivals hall and we were efficiently transferred to the main bus station in Split within half an hour. Although at a price of about €30 I'm sure it was significantly more expensive than the public bus would have been, I think it was worth it for the lack of hassle and peace of mind of knowing that we would at least make it to Split bus station, if not all the way to Zadar. The thing I was most worried about, you see, was that we wouldn't actually make it to Zadar. Buses are a very important method of transport in Dalmatia, because there isn't really a train line down the coast, and so the only way to get from Split to Zadar is by road. The system of buses is a bit primitive compared to what we are used to in other European countries, however, and it is very difficult to find out information about the buses in advance. The main bus stations for larger towns do have their own websites which publish timetables, but the most you are likely to learn from these is the departure time of the bus. Only very occasionally is there an indication of the time it might arrive at its destination and there is virtually never an indication of the ticket price. This is because the buses are run by a myriad of small regional companies who all seem to have their own routes and prices. A lot of the bus companies have their own websites too and these also (sometimes) display timetables which can give more information about the bus than the bus station version (although probably still not the ticket price, that seems to be classified!), but the departure times and bus frequency can differ between the two timetables and it isn't clear - to me, at least - which should be believed most. That is a mild irritation but the bigger problem for obsessive holiday planners who like to have the tickets for everything in advance is that you can't buy bus tickets online. Not all. Ever. Not from the website of the bus station and not from the website of the bus company. Not even if you speak Croatian. Advance online purchasing of bus tickets simply does not exist as a concept. Croatian guidebooks, however, are unanimous is advising that you purchase your bus tickets at least a day in advance for any travel along the coast in summer as places are likely to sell out. That means a trip to the counter at the bus station which is fine, if you happen to be in Croatia, but not very helpful if you want to travel along the coast on the Saturday you arrive from abroad. My worst nightmare was that we would arrive in Split, find all bus tickets to Zadar were already sold out, and spend the first day of our holiday completely stranded. As it turns out, I needn't have worried and I managed to buy tickets for a 14.30 bus without any problems. At a mere 85 kuna each, the tickets were even significantly cheaper than I had anticipated. With a bit of spare time before the bus departed, we even had chance to get a burger at the station bar. Split and Zadar are about 100 miles apart, but the bus journey took around 3 hours. Partly because the roads are quite curvy, partly because there were quite a few bus stops in smaller towns along the route and partly because the driver just seemed to go incredibly slowly. The vehicle wasn't quite up to the standard of LuxExpress but it was fine and the journey itself was exciting as we travelled along the coast and through mountains to Zadar. We arrived around 17.30, which was earlier than I expected, and despite getting slightly lost on the way to our apartment, we arrived there well ahead of 18.30 which was the time I had told the owner than we would check in. There was no one around, so Tim set off for the nearby Lidl to stock up on food while I waited with the bags. The apartment, when we eventually got into it, was lovely. The room itself is small but the space is cleverly utilised, with the bed being hung from the ceiling. When we first stayed here last year, I was a little apprehensive about the fact that this meant you could only access the bed via the ladder, but actually it's an extremely sturdy ladder and it would be difficult to fall off. The best thing about the apartment is how hi-tech everything is; there's a TV/computer which is connected to the Internet and has a large selection of music and films available for watching. The films are all in English with Croatian subtitles, which is great for me learning Croatian, so the first night of our holiday was a quiet night on the sofa with crisps, wine and a film I deliberately hadn't planned any excursions for Sunday, to give us chance to relax and enjoy Zadar. Our apartment is only a kilometre or so from the old town, so we were able to stroll into the centre after breakfast. Crossing a bridge over the marina, we soon found ourselves in one of the main squares, Narodni Trg. The EU flag was flying proudly with the national one. Split airport had lots of shiny new EU signs too. We walked through the narrow streets of the old town, though the city gate and round onto the seafront. After a walk along the coast, we explored the Roman ruins. Zadar has an interesting history, having been invaded by the Romans and then the Venetians, becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, belonging to Italy after the First World War and only joining Yugoslavia in 1947. The city was bombed heavily during the Second World War, with the result that there are some concrete eyesores between the more attractive buildings, but an unexpected silver lining of the bombardment was that during reconstruction works in the city centre, significant Roman remains were uncovered. These are now on display outside the former church of St Donatus. This was the largest Roman column still intact: There are lots of smaller remains scattered around, which make an intriguing park: This is me with a smaller pillar and a monastery in the background: The centrepiece of the square is the rotund church of St Donatus, which has the remains of a human sacrificial altar inside: A line of sculptures leads from the church down to the sea: After exploring the ruins, we wandered along the seafront and back to our apartment to get some respite from the hot afternoon sun. The promenade in Zadar is an exciting place, with a unique sea-organ that plays music powered by the waves all day and a large circle of solar panels, known as the Sun Salutation, which absorb sunshine during the day and make pretty light patterns all night. We resolved to come for another walk round town in the evening to experience it.
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