Friday, 22 October 2010

Diving in Dubrovnik, Kupari, Srebreno

27th September - 12th October

Lazy blogging...

Ok, it's a long time period to be covered by one post but this was the only part of our trip which was to some degree planned originally (we decided early in our "planning" that we wanted to Scuba dive in Croatia). This was our "holiday within a holiday" and updating the blog wasn't top of my priorities :-) So in order to keep this post to a reasonable length, here are the highlights for me:


About a ten minute walk from our campsite was the quaint little harbour of Mlini. There was a lovely little church right on the pebble beach, and two waterfalls within easy walk of the sea-front where there was a nice row of little coffee shops overlooking the small harbour. It was a lovely spot to relax before and after diving and we made the walk almost daily from our campsite as it was the home of Aquarius Divers.

Aquarius Dive Centre

Aquarius dive boatWhen we went to check out Aquarius we met Robert, one of the owners, and following a little chat we felt quite comfortable arranging a dive with them for the next day. He was very competent and friendly and put us at our ease very quickly. Aquarius has a small office on the sea-front and we were able to store our kit there between dives, which was great for us, and they offered to pick us up for the first dive in order to help us getting our kit to the office. The boat was designed by it's skipper, Ivor and it's the classic Red-Sea catamaran layout with plenty of room for around twenty divers to kit up simultaneously as well as lounge around on the sun deck upstairs. To complete the design there is also room for the same twenty divers to sit around and eat lunch together in the "dry" half of the deck. Ivor also doubles up as the on-board gourmet chef. Apart from the first day we eat lunch provided by Ivor and it was spectacular. All the food was fresh, and the fish was caught in the morning for the table (we were able to watch a master fisherman at work). Not only did the food taste amazing, but it was a real joy to watch work his magic. He clearly is someone who loves cooking. All in all we had a brilliant diving experience with Aquarius and they were competitively priced. Thanks Aquarius!

Diving review

So this threatened to be the highest of many highlights on the tour so far, and it didn't disappoint. We had set out many, many moons ago to dive in Croatia, specifically Dubrovnik - and finally we had arrived, kitted up, put our fins on and strode giant-like into the clear blue waters...
Diving in Croatia is just amazing. The water is clear as crystal, there are no currents to speak of (we did have a bit of movement after some windy days), there is an abundance of sea-life to gawp at and I finally perfected "hovering" whilst watching some of the coolest sea-slugs, starfish, Octopuses, a whole array of fish and a host other quite amazing underwater inhabitants.
Taranto WreckThere is also the wreck of the merchant ship the Taranto which had sunk to a depth of 25m (the floor is at around 52m) with it's spilled cargo of tractors and cargo hold which is big enough to explore. It too boasts an abundance of inhabitants, and we saw a couple of pretty mean-looking Stone-fish as well as this Cushion Starfish.Flat starfish
As well as the plethora of reefs and islands, we saw plenty of other distractions which made our trip varied and exciting. Even when we made a second dive on an area we were able to find much more to it than we had seen the first time, although this may have been due to a slight navigational error on our part first time round!
There was a great group of divers aboard too, making our first properly international diving experience very memorable with French, German, Croatian and a couple of English (of course) diver aboard. We had plenty of laughs during our surface intervals and there really wasn't much of a language barrier (except when I tried to speak some Croatian).
So to sum up, we both thoroughly enjoyed our diving in Dubrovnik and both agreed that if the opportunity arises we would love to come back. Stonefish

Srebreno & Kupari

As I've mentioned before, we stayed on a campsite called Matkovica run by a wonderfully warm and generous lady called Daniella and she really did make our stay a pleasant one. We were so relaxed that I really don't think we noticed the time slipping by so quickly as we walked along the sea front, swam in the gloriously warm waters (25 degrees C on the surface I'll have you know) and basked under the hot Croatian sun between days spent diving with Aquarius. Nailz enjoyed himself too as he got some pretty decent cat chasing time.
KupariJust along the coast, about a ten minute walk from Srebreno and our campsite was Kupari, with a lovely little bay and beach. This used to be a thriving tourist resort with three very large hotel complexes and supporting beach-side bars and other assorted tourist facilities. However during the Homelands War this resort, along with most of the surrounding area was shelled by Yugslavian forces and all the building suffered structural and fire damage. The result is quite eerie. You have a lovely beach with cute little bay, dominated by the skeletal shells of the three main hotels. The beach is quiet which although good for us wasn't so good for the businesses which used to thrive on the tourist trade.
The war has left reminders throughout the region and pretty much anywhere you go in the area of Dubrovnik, you can see evidence of the war.

The folk we met and spoke to though were nothing but warm, friendly and more than willing to spend a bit of time with us just to shoot the breeze and it was a genuinely pleasurable experience whenever the opportunity arose. Yep, the scenery was beautiful with the mountains rising up against the skyline inland, and the sea was crystal and warm, and the sun was pretty much always roasting (when it wasn't blowing a gale) but the most endearing thing to me was the Croatians themselves.

Notes on travelling - The British don't come back...

One thing I should mention is something Ivor said whilst we were on the boat one day, and that is that many German and Where did I leave my wallet?French tourists go back to the same areas year upon year, but the British never do. He asked why that was and I was at a loss to answer it at first. I thought about if I would come back to Croatia and if I would come back to this specific bit of Croatia and I would have to say that I would love to. I also thought about the next stage of our adventure and getting the ferry across to Italy to discover a whole new world just across the sea and it occurred to me that I've pretty much enjoyed every country that I've been to so far on this trip and would love to go back to each country and each specific bit again and again (with one or two exceptions). I'd basically have to give up working for good to keep going back to the bits I've liked (not a bad thought, but a bit impractical). Maybe the British are just born explorers, being an island nation after all, or maybe we are just greedy and always want more. I'm happy either way.

Off we go again

Leaving DubrovnikWe caught the Dubrovnik - Bari ferry crossing with very mixed emotions. It was not easy to leave Croatia after having such a great time, but on the ferry our thoughts finally turned to what lay in front of us... Bari island (not really Pete, sorry) and the South of Italy.

You can see more photos on our Flickr page!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Down to Dubrovnik

20 September - 26 September

Arriving in Dubrovnik

Once more we took the coastal road down to Dubrovnik. As we neared the historic city we crossed a large suspension bridge from which we could view a marina which was a hive of activity with smaller vessels dotted around huge luxury liners and cruise-ships. Some of the cruise-shops made the surrounding buildings look like houses for ants the way they towered above them.

Our first priority was to find a decent place to camp and we passed the town heading further south. There is only one campsite in Dubrovnik itself and it looked like a huge and expensive site which we weren't that keen on staying at, but luckily there were a number of smaller sites dotted further north and south. One campsite in particular had been recommended to us when we were staying in Split by a Flemish couple who described a small and basic but very clean and hospitable site in the town of Srebreno called Camping Matkovica. It is a basic one-star rated site, but it was everything we needed in a campsite and more with Daniella, the site owner being an absolute star. We were able to use the Wi-Fi for free and charge the laptop when we couldn't use our solar panels (I'd parked in the shade!). We were able to put a steak in her fridge so I could eat it the next day! It was close enough to Dubrovnik for us and we could easily drive or hop on the bus to the ancient city. The only drawback to this was that even though we were able to in Split, here we absolutely could not take Nailz on the buses. The alternative was to take a water-taxi, which would have been cool, if rather pricey, or drive the van.

Dubrovnik old town

Entering Dubrovnik Old Town The old town is quite simply stunning. It initially reminded me of Zadar, far away now to the north of Croatia but on a much grander scale. The floor is completely smooth where it has been worn down over the centuries and the bright white stone of the city seems to take on a glow of its own with the strong Croatian sun. In the old town there is simply too many highlights to describe in a little blog like this, but there are some bits that deserve special mention. I really liked the Jesuit Church with it's colourful interior. The church sits atop a grand staircase and occupies a dominating position within the city. Also, the Church of Sv Vlaho, known elsewhere as St Blaise, is a very striking building sitting at one extreme end of the Stradun, or main street. Interestingly Sv Vlaho is the patron saint of Dubrovnik and every year on February 3rd (his feast day) relics of the him - including his head, hands and a bit of his throat - are paraded through the Old Town streets.

Bit of a tangent (but also interestingly), on display in the Dubrovnik marina there is a special speed boat called Sv Vlaho. Sv VlahoThe importance of this speed boat is that it was the first ever ship of the Croatian Navy. During the 1991 war for Croatian independence and the subsequent siege of Dubrovnik, Croatian volunteers created a scratch Navy to try to get supplies through to the besieged old town. This speed boat was commandeered and thus the Croatian Navy was born. It was crippled during the missions but now stands proudly alongside "Majsan" (an armoured car built in a shipyard on the island of Korcula and used to defend Dubrovnik and the surrounding area during the Homelands War) as tributes to the Croatian defenders.

Dubrovnik side streetsBack to what I most liked about the old town, and I think that top of my list are all the gorgeous narrow alleys winding away from the Stradun. They were just amazing to climb up and gave great views or slices of views of the town below. You can also see in the walls special blocks with holes protruding so that the washing could dry on lines hung between them.

The most striking of Dubrovnik's charms though is it's walls which have provided protection for it's citizens for centuries. Dubrovnik from the road aboveYou can walk around them to get some amazing views of the city and the surrounding sea, and I was able to get some great views of the walls from the sea during our diving excursions.

Rachel abandons me!

On the morning of 22nd October Rachel had to leave the glorious sunshine of Croatia for what I assumed would be a cold and damp London in order to be at the wedding of one of her oldest friends. Kate and her, now husband, Graeme are both extremely brilliant people and deservedly lucky in finding each other. Congratulations to you both and I am sorry I couldn't be there, but someone had to look after the dog. I'm also sorry I missed out on the "coasteering" during the stag do - but it sounded fun.

So I had four days to myself which I whiled away playing guitar, writing some songs, going for dips in the bay which is a short walk from our campsite and taking Nailz exploring the local area. It was quite stressful, but I hung on in there. The weather was beautiful until all of a sudden on the 25th I woke up to grey skies and a light drizzle. Through the day it got progressively worse and the wind also picked up. I had popped out to try and speak to some local dive centres, but predictably they had all gone home for the day due to the bad weather except Blue Planet, who were based out of a plush hotel in Lapad, just north of the Old Town. They seemed very competent, knowledgeable, were very friendly when I spoke to them and I am sure Rachel and I would have dived with them but for two factors which was price (they were more expensive than our eventual choice of dive centre) and location (the guys we went with were down the road from our campsite - but more on them in the next post). By mid-afternoon the weather had deteriorated to a bit of a storm and, naturally, I was on the beach. It was good fun to watch the waves crash against the rocky shoreline and also massive waves crashed against the smaller islands out to sea, often a wave would crash right up and get blown clear over the island! It was very cool.

On the way back to camp the weather took an even bigger turn for the worse and sheets of rain lashed down creating impromptu water falls on buildings and torrents of water cascading across the roads. After the sunshine of the last few days the road was like driving on castrol GTX and I passed a few accidents before I reached the safety of the camp. Tents were flooded out and most campervans and motorhomes had water problems of some kind, from getting stuck to water being blown into the airvents. This was how I met Mieke, our wonderful German friend (Hi Mieke!). She had a funky tent which essentially sat on top of the car, and while this sounds like a brilliant solution to the flooded campsite (a tenter's worse nightmare) the wind was so violent that even this succumbed to eventual flooding, leading to an uncomfortable nights kip in the car. I later asked Daniella if this sort of weather was normal for this time of year and the answer was a resounding "no!". Some people are just lucky I guess.

The next day I had to pick Rachel up from the airport, and as if to celebrate Rachel re-joining me the weather was absolutely cracking again. I was glad about this, but most of all I was relieved to have my buddy back again :-)