A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: danza

Farewell good friend!

The 4 hour drive from Zagreb to the airport in Belgrade, Serbia to drop Dan off was uneventful – no dramatic border encounters this time around. I was thankful for the easy drive because immediately afterwards I had to turn around and drive another 7 hours back to Split, to return the car. I was sad to say farewell to Dan, but knowing that we had just completed an epic adventure that we would remember for the rest of our lives made it a little easier to take.

On my own again, I grabbed some crucial internet at the airport to map my return trip, and trusty Google Maps presented me with 2 options: the primary option was back the way I came, OR it offered a detour thru Bosnia that only added 20 minutes to the drive. Always in the mood to see fresh territory, and wanting to add another country onto my trip count, I didn’t hesitate and chartered a course back to Split thru Bosnia.

Northwestern Bosnia turned out to be sparsely populated, but made for pleasant driving with miles of rolling hills amidst farmland and wilderness. Looking at my pre-loaded map, there didn’t seem to be very many cities or even towns big enough to be called out by Google. I don’t think its fair to count a country or state as one that I’ve visited if I only drove or flew thru it, so I made sure to find a place on the route to stop for lunch – count it! I had high hopes that Bosnia had more of the road-side fire-pit fast-food joints, but Lady Luck was not with me in that respect. My meal was plain, but hearty, and soon I was back on the road. After about 12 hours of driving that day, I made it back to Split with an hour or two to spare to return the car. Back on my own again, I found myself a highly rated (and cheap) hostel to post up in, got one final burek, and it was off to bed. The next morning I hopped a bus to Zadar

Posted by danza 09:02 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Plitvice Lakes

Get ready for a deluge of pictures

semi-overcast 72 °F

Try as I might, I don’t think that I ever figured out the proper way to pronounce Plitvice. There are some foreign accents atop a few of the letters which make an already difficult language total gibberish to me. Luckily for me, being able to pronounce the name was not a prerequisite to enjoying the hell out of this place unlike any I had ever seen before.

Plitvice Lakes is a national park with unparalleled natural lushness and beauty. A fragile ecosystem, Croatia has done much to ensure that this natural beauty stays that way for as long as possible, outlawing many types of industry from existing within a radius of the park, having already seen the adverse effects that stray pollutants can have on the landscape. Unfortunately, unless we ban people entirely from enjoying the park, it is only natural that delicate beauty will fade over time, a symptom of mankind’s effect on all of our world. If you ever do make it out to Croatia, do yourself a favor and take this day trip away from the coast – you will not be disappointed.

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The park itself consists of a trail a little shorter than 2 miles winding thru a breathtaking series of cascading waterfalls filled with bright green vegetation. The fragility of the ecosystem dictates that, unfortunately you aren’t allowed to jump off any of the waterfalls, or swim in any of the pools outside of the final one at the end of the trail. As someone who is always looking for things to climb and/or jump off of, this aspect was disappointing, but it was hard to stay disappointed as we picked our way thru this alien park.

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Dan, already a total nerd is so many aspects, had recently been developing his nerdery around photography, and the walk thru the park was slow as Dan needed to capture just the right shot. At one point he was stomach down on this busy walk path trying to get just the right angle for a shot. Although I was the one apologizing to the people who had to step over and around him, I have to admit that the shot that he took was memorable, and is now hanging in my apartment hallway.

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Dan posting up

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The trail ends with the one section that you are allowed to climb around and get in the water, so obviously we did. There were several small caves/tunnels available for exploration alongside the pools. The waterfall at the end was also the largest on the trail, so this made for excellent photo opportunities.

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Oh yeah, and there were caves :)

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Not in any hurry to leave, we hung around the waterfall and caves for a while, but eventually we knew we had to make our way north. We were spending that night in Zagreb, the inland capital of Croatia, before driving Dan back to Serbia the following morning for his flight back to the States. Accepting that our time traveling together was coming to a close was very disappointing and painful for both of us. After traveling almost always solo for the past 4 months, I had relished the time to travel with one of my oldest and best friends in the world. Despite the fact that I regularly met new and exciting people in every new city that I stopped at, traveling solo can get lonely without any sustained ongoing relationship with any one person. There are many advantages to traveling solo, but not having a person with you to recount good times on the road can definitely weigh on you.

For these reasons, I had been excited to pick up ANY consistent traveling companion, and the fact that it had been Dan was beyond amazing. I had known Dan, his sister Julie, and his parents since my parents and I moved across the street from them when I was 1. Being neighbors both with young children about the same age, our families grew and stayed close, and Dan and Julie have been as close to being a “brother (& sister) from another mother” as I’ll ever hope to find. During the trip, we reflected on how amazing and lucky it was that over the 25+ years since we met, that we grew up in separate but somewhat parallel paths – both developing similar and complementary interests and values. Dan holds the distinction of being one of the only people I know in which, when we are out exploring/hiking/climbing, I am the one to play the voice of reason and caution – a typically unfamiliar state for me. We both laughed at my mom’s notion that having Dan join me on my travels would ensure my safety, when in all probability the opposite was true.

We knew that we would be getting into Zagreb late that night, and leaving early in the morning, so we were eager to find some place on the road to spend one more relaxing meal together. Whether it was the food or the company, that last true meal with Dan ended up being one of my most enjoyable on my trip. We had heard of these little roadside food stops, Croatia’s version of rural fast-food, marked by a signpost display a pig on a spit over the fire. This was a very literal signpost because the main menu item was pork slowly roasted over an open fire pit. Not only was this extremely savory and delicious, but because the pork was cooking over the open fire most of the day, it was also ready to be served when we walked in!

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The pork was incredibly flavorful and simply fell off the bone. After spending months traveling thru some of the finest cities in Europe, I’m not sure I had tasted anything so nice. Granted, Doing this trip on a shoestring didn’t allow for me to eat often in fancy establishments, but that was the added bonus of this road-side oasis – it was cheap too! After stuffing ourselves full, we hopped back in the car and finished the last couple hours to Zagreb. We got in a little before midnight, so it was straight to bed in preparation for an early morning drive to Serbia.

Posted by danza 08:30 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Island Exploration

BRAC

sunny 82 °F

One of the things that makes Split such a popular city to visit is that it has the easiest access to a dozen islands off the coast, with boats or ferries departing for them daily. Some of them are far enough away that you have to stay overnight for it to make the trip worth it, but Brac was one of the closer islands. Due to time constraints, we could only squeeze in a day trip, so we decided to make the most of it by getting off on an early morning ferry to the island. The day was once again beautiful, with the sun shining down on us as we leaned against the railings preventing us from stumbling into the Mediterranean.

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Living the dream

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On our approach

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More glorious celebrating

The island of Brac, at about 150 square miles, is the largest island in the area and the 3rd largest in the Adriatic sea, and is therefore not at all walkable. Not a problem for us as we were more than eager to rent bikes for the day. The port on Brac essentially was the city center, with a dozen restaurants and hotels visible from the ship as we docked, we could also easily see a couple places to rent bikes. After a quick exchange, we were on our way. Although we knew there was a decent amount that we could explore, we didn’t get more than a half mile before we were distracted by a quaint looking seafood restaurant right in front of a glorious cove.

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The water in the cove was some of the clearest I’ve ever seen, and you could easily see the sea floor at almost any depth. Armed with a Frisbee, we spent the next couple hours relaxing in our picturesque cove, leaving the water only to grab some delicious fish sandwiches at the restaurant. Although I can’t remember exactly why, the vibes and epicness of this little cove reminded us of one of our best friends, and we named this place “Rooney’s Cove”. Though it was hard to leave the serenity there, our time was limited so eventually we got back on our bikes and took off.

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See? What did I tell you? Crystal clear

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From there, the road ran a ways before it hit any another area of significance, as it wound thru farms and woodlands. This long and hilly road was made longer when we lost our route and ended up at a dead end by a farm with a gorgeous vintage gate. Eventually we found our way back to the path and had some food and drinks at a tiny hillside restaurant next to a church that had to be the biggest building we’d seen outside of downtown Brac. Wishing we could stay longer, however conscious of when the ferry went back to Split, after not too long, we were back on the road heading back, this time skipping our detour on the way back.

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The church and lunch spot

The rest of our time in Split was pleasant, but uneventful, filled with more burek, more seafood, and a few more drinks. Having had our rental car taken from us in Montenegro, we awoke the next morning early to arrange for another car. This car a small stick-shift, as is the standard in Europe (excuse the pun), which meant I would be driving the entire way. One of these days, I have got to teach Dan how to drive stick. After getting the car, we hopped in and headed inland, aiming for Plitvice Lakes, one of the most unique natural places left on this planet.

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Sunset on Brac

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Brac Central

Posted by danza 23:29 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Split, Croatia

An ancient palace of wonder and EDM music

78 °F

After an eventful escape from Montenegro, we awoke in Split, Croatia refreshed and excited for a new country and new chapter in this mini adventure. Croatia, known for its stunning beauty found in their seemingly never-ending coastline, hundreds of small islands, and glorious Mediterranean climate, has become THE PLACE for Europeans to vacation. We met or overheard countless Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians, with so many of them coming south to bask in the summer sun.

Another lesser known attraction in Croatia is its variety of ancient structures still standing, and incredibly well-functioning. Across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Croatia was conquered by and then ruled by the Roman empire for hundreds of years. Travelers who don’t want to brave the crowded streets of Rome can turn to Croatia has a modest substitute in this realm. The aspect that really left an imprint in my mind, though, was the functionality and continued utility of some of these structures.

Split is home to Diocletian’s palace, built for the Roman emperor Diocletian about 1700 years ago. The term “palace” can be misleading as it actually resembles more of an ancient fortress. The palace is the center of downtown Split, and it currently houses hundreds of actual apartments, outfitted with the modern luxuries of electricity, internet, and running water (although I supposed they had that back in the palace’s heyday as well). When our sweet temporary landlord, Marnie, was leading us to our room the night before, it caught me totally by surprise when we turned into the palace and wound our way thru the small, uneven streets. Waking up in the morning showed us that, in addition to the residences, Diocletian’s pad is also home to open-air markets, and several permanent shops and restaurants. It was delightful to peek into the lives of the local Croats living day-in and day-out in an ancient palace built for royalty.

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WE MADE IT!

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As had come to be my routine when coming to a new city, we started the day by setting out on foot with a basic knowledge of the city layout, an outline of several interesting things to check out, and besides that no schedule or plan. We combined breaking our fasts with checking out a few of the local breakfast pastries and fruit from the open-air market around the corner from where we were staying. We spent a few hours snaking thru the palace streets, and then headed to the waterfront. We had walked by the water the night before after arriving, but its always good to check out these areas both in the daylight and nighttime, as they can leave far different impressions. It proved to be quite pristine in both periods, with striking lights really drawing your eyes to the adorned “ruins” at night, and endless amounts of bright sunlight and fresh sea air during the morning. Always eager to work up a sweat while exploring, we soon headed towards the city park, located north of the city center.

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The waterfront from our first night in Split

The park was nice and had several interesting structures inviting you to determine the most interesting ways to climb over them. A common theme of my trip has been to always check out the parks in a city, as I think this can give you an interesting insight into an oft-overlooked aspect, plus it played nicely with my shoestring-budget. This park was fine, although not very well trafficked, at least not when we were there, though its tough to blame people for deciding to head to the water during these hot summer days.

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The other reason that we chose to explore this park early on was because it stood on top of one of the only substantial hills in Split, and offered wonderful views over the city.

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The views from the edge of the park

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The restaurant at the edge of the park during sunset

Fast-forward to the PM, when we decided to go on a pub crawl with an organized group. Split has recently become a hotbed of EDM DJs and festivals, making it very popular amongst the festival-going crowds that seem to be springing up everywhere. The pub crawl was set to end at a large stage on the main city beach and likely last until the sun came up. We stopped back at our apartment before heading to this event, and we met the 4 girls that we were sharing Marnie’s place with. The girls were American college students in Europe for the summer which, although they were almost frustratingly gorgeous, made them a bit out of my and Dan’s age bracket. They were going to the pub crawl as well and we all headed over together.

Much of the crawl was incredibly similar to so many that I had seen during my European travels, catering to the young, hard-partying teens and 20-somethings roaming their way thru the continent from one big city to the next. There were probably about 100 people on the crawl from all over the world, though most of the drinking games seemed to spring up from loud enthusiastic Americans and Australians, eager to show these Europeans how much fun drinking games can be. That was also part of the crawl’s strategy – load everyone up on their booze at the first stop, and then people don’t necessarily need to continue buying drinks as they progressed thru the night. Dangerous strategy and one that never works correctly for everyone there. One of our housemates ended up being almost carried to the beach for the last stop of the night.

After a few bars, we collectively stumbled our way to the final music stage, on the beach. The beach turned out to be a phenomenal setting to dance the night away with a bunch of strangers you had just met… if only the DJ had been able to keep a good beat going long enough for you to dance to it. Although Dan got plenty of dancing in nonetheless, I couldn’t get into the music and spent much of the time playing in the sand and water with random strangers recently turned “best friends”. Around 2 or so, I decided that I had had enough and grabbed Dan to head back. This turned out to be a great call because as we made our way back home, we pass by one of Split’s outdoor open-air clubs that we were able to join in at (no cover) and dance ourselves out to better music for the last hour before they shut down. Before turning in for the night, we grabbed a late night burek* - probably my top food discovery of the entire trip.

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  • *Burek is a Turkish pastry made from light, flaky dough and stuffed with a variety of fillings, including cheese, meat, and cooked veggies. We had lucked our way into this discovery the night before. After dropping our bags off following our arrival, we had headed out to get a taste of Split at night and I was incredibly hungry after the long drive from Kotor. I had stopped at probably the first place that I saw that was open and chose a savory burek without knowing a damn thing about it. We subsequently had at least 1 burek a day each whenever they were available. I even managed to find one of the only places in Budapest to get them when I was there a couple weeks later with my parents.

Posted by danza 23:10 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Montenegro V - Car trouble and getting out!

sunny 77 °F

Getting out of Montenegro

After escaping the Prokletje Mountains unscathed, we decided to head back towards Kotor and Croatia. As much as we would have loved to continue hiking in these mysterious but beautiful mountains, one of the common problems with traveling is that there’s so much to see and never enough time to see it. So, attempting to maximize our remaining time, we came up with a bold plan.

It was dark by the time we made it out of the mountains and back on the road, so why not drive thru most of the night? We had previously discussed the majesty of sunrise observed from mountaintops, but unfortunately, sunrises on mountaintops don’t typically jive with my sleep schedule. With our plan, we would drive the 4 hours back to the “Black Mountain”, one of the large mountains that surround the Bay of Kotor and gave Montenegro its name, and then pass out til sunrise. After sunrise, we would continue driving north into Croatia, ending up in either Dubrovnik or Split by dinner.

Happy with our plan, I took the wheel and set off down the windy, poorly maintained road that acts as the only pathway between Plav and the rest of Montenegro. Those that understand foreshadowing should have some alarms going off. After driving for about 2 hours, not 5 miles from the end of this road, I swerve around one pothole only to drive right over an even bigger pothole, popping the tire. Not a huge deal, as Dan and I both know how to change a tire… if only this rental car had a spare tire in it! It does not, and miles from the nearest town without a working phone did not leave us with many great options.

Eventually, a nice man drives by who stops to see if he can help. Not only does he let us use his phone, but he also happens to know a towing company in the nearest town. We call the tow truck and also call our rental company to figure out what we should do from their end. Now this rental company has been a pain to work with from the start, so we are surprised that, after a few calls back and forth, that they tell us to get the tire changed, and that our insurance covers it, so if we meet up the next day on our way to Croatia, they will reimburse us. It sounds fishy, but we figure that we don’t have much of a choice. A helpful reminder is that for rental cars in Montenegro, you pay cash up front, so we knew we already paid for having our car for another week or so.

The flat tire was inconvenient, but after a delay of about 90 minutes, we are back on the road, still excited for the rest of our plan. We arrive near the top of Black Mountain a bit before 4 am, and “tuck in” for a quick 90 minute nap. We wake as the sun is peaking over distant mountaintops.

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Tough to not wake up to this with a smile on your face.

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The restaurant and tourist center atop the Black Mountain

Despite our difficulties and subsequent lack of sleep the previous night, it was tough to think of any of that watching the sun rise from a mountaintop. Dan had been educating me on photography since we joined forces, and I was surprised to learn that it is arguably impossible to distinguish in photos whether a sun on the horizon is rising and setting. This surprised me because, though I'm not often awake for them, sunrises always seem to have this energy about them - the potential of a brand new day. Or perhaps that feeling is a somewhat fatigue-induced hallucinated, considering that almost every sunrise I've seen has been on the tail end of an all nighter. Either way, it was magical and would have served as a beautiful farewell to Montenegro, if only that chapter had ended there.

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The heavens reaching down to us

As nice as it was, after 15 minutes in the sunlight, I was ready to pass out again, and we retreated to the car to throw jackets over our heads and sleep a few more hours. At 9 we head down the glorious, winding road from the Black Mountain to Kotor, gorgeous views abounding from all over.

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Dan and I head back to our stomping grounds - the Hostel City Beach, where we were to meet Peter from our rental company. When Peter arrives we are surprised to see 3 of them pile out of the car, instead of just the 1 that we had met with up to then. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that our misgivings about their reaction to the flat tire was not unfounded. Not only do they tell us that they won’t reimburse us for the tire (which is not part of their policy but they did tell us on the phone), but they also ask us for the keys. “What? We’ve already paid for this car for another week!” Apparently existing agreements don’t hold too much weight in Montenegro - they had other people who would pay a higher rate than us, and “didn’t want to deal with us anymore”. They continue to ask us for the keys, which we refuse to give them. It is not worth recounting everything that was said in this heated argument, but soon enough we realize that there’s no way we are driving away from there, and our attention shifts to getting our money back.

We came very close to calling the cops as these people were completely unreasonable, but thankfully our hostel owner intervened and convinced us not to. As he explained later, Montenegrin cops are not always the most ethical, and all it takes is a “Oh, English is not my first language” to void any verbal promises. As I’ve mentioned a few times, Montenegro is beautiful, but a little backwards. In the end, we agree to give back the keys if they give us the money that we had already paid for the next week. They drive away, leaving us with no transportation to continue our journey. What do we do now?

At this point, we are trying to find the quickest way to Croatia, out of this corrupt country, but the options are limited. There is no train and limited buses connecting Croatia and Montenegro, despite the fact that they border each other. We target 2 buses that will work, though neither is ideal. I suddenly think about BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing website that I used several times in France and Spain, and I find someone driving from Kotor, all the way to Grenache, France, dropping people along the way. I send him a message, telling him that we are heading to a beach bar, “Baywatch”, with internet and will await his reply. Knowing that it is tough to contact me, I also give him a basic description of the two of us (2 males in late 20s, each with a large gray backpack and each with a 2nd smaller bag - 1 red, 1 orange). If that falls through, we decide to find a cheap hostel in Kotor, and take an early morning bus to Dubrovnik.

We get to Baywatch and instantly feel like our hellish day is finally turning a corner. Middle of the day on Friday, Baywatch is quiet and relaxing, and Dan and I cool our anger in glorious sunlight, warm bay water, and a couple G&Ts. The day passes with swimming, reading, and napping in the warm summer light. Contrary to my desire to not touch any technology, I continue checking my email, hoping to hear from our potential ride north, with no positive results. The ride was scheduled to leave at 5, and 5 came and went with no reply. I had been insisting to Dan to keep the faith in BlaBlaCar, and felt very let down. We stay at the bar until a little past 6, not because we think the ride might show up, but we were just enjoying ourselves too much.

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A bit after 6, defeated but still in a good mood from the relaxing afternoon, we pack it up to make sure we get to a hostel before all the beds fill up. As we are making our way thru the parking lot, a strange woman comes running up to us - “Bryan? Dan? Orange and Red bags!” Caught by surprise, we spin to locate the source of the calls, and find a dark-haired woman running up to us. Miraculously, she is the girlfriend of Gregory, our potential French BlaBlaCar driver. As she leads us over to Gregory waiting in the car, she explains that they had been having trouble with their app and had been unable to send us messages, but they were running a little late and almost ready to leave.

After having our travel plans forcibly jerked out from under us this morning, it looked like the travel gods had decided to smile upon us once more. We hop in the car and go to their summer house, where Gregory’s 2 young kids were waiting to pack up and head home. His girlfriend would actually be staying a few more days, so we threw our bags into the already packed car with Gregory and his 2 kids.

As I’ve explained, BlaBlaCar is a great ride-sharing community, similar to Couchsurfing, but with cars. In these types of communities, there has to be a lot of trust in order for it to work, but I was still surprised to see Gregory allowing 2 strangers to ride back with him and his 2 kids. On top of that, their itinerary was just nuts. They would be driving from Kotor, Montenegro ALL the way to Grenoble, France, a drive that should take somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 hours!!! Gregory’s plan was to drive that night until he couldn’t anymore, and they would all sleep in the van on the side of the road. Sleep till night and then finish up the drive. We would only be joining him for the first 5 or 6 hours of this journey, but we needn’t despair. During our drive, we were helping him coordinate other BlaBlaCar pickups and drop offs along the way. Following the brief nap, he would be picking up at least 1 more traveler in Italy and bringing them across to France. Crazy plan, but I love the idea of this ride-sharing where everyone ends up ahead.

Once we pack up and goodbyes are said, we are off - heading out of this country that gave us some of best adventures but also our biggest struggles. Dan was up front talking to Gregory in both English and French, and I was in the back, tasked with making sandwiches to the non-English-speaking kids.

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Farewell Montenegro! You were a cruel yet enticing mistress :)

There would prove to be one more hurdle to overcome before we finally escaped - the border crossing into Croatia. I hadn’t done many border crossings on my travels, since travel between EU countries is essentially the same as traveling between states in the US. As our luck would have it, they decide to pull us to the side and pick thru some of our baggage. We are irked by the small delay, but know we should be quickly on our way. I will always remember the horrified look on Gregory’s face when they pull out a plastic ziplock with 40 or so pills from my bag. Not knowing me, he comes to the sudden realization that he may have been driving a drug smuggler over the border.

Now, in reality, all of the pills were simply Ibuprofen - very mild pain pills in case my back started acting up. Being the shrewd backpacker that I am, I concluded the actual pill bottle took up too much space in my pack, so I put them all in the ziplock. It had never occurred to me what it would look like to a customs officer. He dragged me into an office rather roughly, and immediately begins telling me all of the fines and charges I could potentially face trying to bring illegal drugs into Croatia. I’m frantically trying to explain that they are weak over-the-counter pain pills, but he can’t find an image of them online clearing me. As the time ticks by, I can’t even imagine what Gregory is thinking out by the car.

The process took around 30 minutes, complete with him accusing me of bringing ecstasy among other things in, before we are finally able to clear it up. Amazed by the trouble caused by $1 of Vitamin I, we finally get back in the car and officially leave Montenegro.

The final hurdle to overcome once we reach Split will be to figure out where we are sleeping. Since Dan and I didn’t think we would be making to to Split that night until minutes before we left Kotor, we hadn’t booked a hostel or anything at the other end. It turns out, we had 0 reason to be worried. Gregory dropped us off at the main square around 12:30 am, and we literally barely had our packs on before an 50-60 y.o. woman came scurrying up to us.

“Accommodation! Do you need accommodation?”
“Why yes, in fact, we do!”

Marnie was a sweet, white-haired lady who rented out her extra apartment right in the center of Split. I had read that this sort of personal AirBNB was very common in Croatia, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite this easy. Dan and I did a good job not appearing as desperate as we were and talked the rate down a bit, and then followed her to our room for the next few days. Tired, but energized by the energy of a new city, we dropped our stuff off and headed out to walk around the town. After some picture taking, some pizza, and some late night clubbing by the water, we retired to bed, ready for a whole new country the next day.

Posted by danza 09:45 Archived in Montenegro Tagged mountains beach adventure sunrise rental_cars Comments (0)

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