a windy day in Sirmione


March was a crazy busy month! I think I have broken several records: Most countries travelled to in one month, highest amount of new countries to visit in one month as well as the highest workload I’ve had since I started freelancing 5 years ago, longest and most frequent runs since I started running. Still, it didn’t feel that exhausting.

Tunisia

We departed Tunis on the third after a pretty chilled out week and a bit. As mentioned before, there wasn’t an awful lot to do due to most tourist sites being closed. I’m still a bit undecided whether I want to return or not – I know Tunis is not representative of the rest of the country, but it didn’t manage to inspire me to get to know more of Tunisia, either (the lacklustre food didn’t help, either). There are other places where the capital made me much more excited to get to know the rest of the country.

The fair city of Verona

the cheese course - I usually hate cheese, but this was amazing!
We flew return from Tunis to Rome, from where we hopped on the next train to Verona. Oh my, this city has definitely stolen my heart! It might seem quite similar to Florence at first sight, but lacks the high amount of tourists. It’s a very wealthy city and it shows – people dress well and many frequent problems in Italy (begging, littering, lack of recycling facilities) didn’t exist. The river allows for great walks and is very running friendly, which is rare for Italian cities. I did like that Verona doesn’t have any high profile tourist sites but it just a very pleasant place to be.
We also went on a one-day wine and food tour with a short excursion to Sirmione at Lake Garda. Having grown up with, always lived and worked with Italians I’ve often been disappointed with the food in Italy before, but what we tried this day at the agriturismo and winery was just fantastic. EVEN though the main was essentially steak and chips, two of my least favourite foods, and the winery focuses on white wine, which I try to avoid. Everything was just out of this world tasty and very balanced.

Austria

views in Salzburg are outstanding!
We stopped over in Verona because this is the city from where you can most easily get to Salzburg (via a short detour and change in Germany). This is also the train line that the media loves to report on as being problematic and crowded by hundreds of refugees with high police presence every day. Let me tell you, on the whole 5-hour trip, we saw maybe three Arab or African looking guys. The media blows things up beyond belief!
Salzburg is a beautiful town, but I couldn’t help feeling ripped off. It was also weird to be there as a German speaker with a non-German speaker, as the whole “Sound of music” tourism means the city seems to exist twice: The regular Austrian town with Bavarian heritage, and the “Sound of Music” picture perfect romantic parallel Alpine universe. German speaking visitors focus on completely different sites and things in this town.
I had read before that there are many rip-off restaurants and cafes and that the quality of everything is pretty bad, but realised quickly that only applies to the places that promote themselves towards foreign visitors. I’ve never had such good and affordable tradition yet modernised food anywhere in Austria, Switzerland or Germany. Service was surprisingly good, too, and yes, of course they all have an English menu and staff can speak English. The one place I would warn anybody about in Salzburg is the fortress, which is privately owned and the biggest tourist rip off I’ve seen (and I live in London! – 16 € to visit a virtually empty space with little information, no map, completely modernised interior and the worst “guided” tour (a 20-minute snooze fest where you are herded around some empty rooms, listening to a deathly boring audio guide). On the other hand, the walk around the Mönchsberg was money free and rip-off free :) 

If you have some extra time, you can go for a half day trip to Berchtesgaden and the Königssee in Bavaria, half an hour’s bus ride away from Salzburg. There’s a nice 5 km walking route around the lake (and many more challenging ones open in summer once the snow is gone). The bus ride there will show you the Germany you’d imagined (i.e. rural Bavaria), and the local ski taverns do very decent Bavarian food (says the Bavaria hater). A day pass for the bus from Salzburg was 9 €.

After Salzburg, we spent a week in Graz, the second biggest city of Austria. It’s a bit like the Manchester of Austria, if you imagine Vienna as Austria’s London ;) It’s got a beautiful old town and city “hill”, as well as a walking and cycling trails along the river that lead all the way to Slovenia. But to be honest, there isn’t an awful lot to see or do if you aren’t fluent in German. Graz has a fantastic theatre and literature scene, and I went to see two plays during our week there and spent quite a bit of time catching up with the German language publishing industry, and ran over 25 k in one week.
I highly recommend Graz for any long term traveller looking for a nice city to spend some time and work in – it’s very liveable, but short on tourist sites (unless you really love modern art, design and hipstery stuff – then definitely make it a priority to visit).

A whistle-stop tour of Ljubljana

Like Verona, Ljubljana was just meant to be a stopover between Austria and Croatia, but damn, it was a delicious bite sized morsel. I meant that in terms of the city centre and its beauty, but also the food. On our first night, we went on a food tour (you’ll notice a theme here), and I was blown away by the quality and variety of the food and drinks. If you take all the best parts of Northern Italian, Austrian and Balkan food, with a smattering of Hungarian, you’ll get Slovenian food. The wine and seafood especially were to die for, but there’s lots of hearty stuff too. Sadly, I discovered a new favourite wine (Terran), which is only grown in this very small corner of Europe.

we might have gone overboard...
Now I absolutely understand why people rave about Slovenia and Ljubljana in particular – it’s got a bit of everything of all surrounding countries and can feel like “Europe in a nutshell”. For this European, it was still very interesting, although the food wowed me more than the city itself. The Slovenian countryside (we crossed the entire country by train) is very picturesque, too, and I think I might be back another time if I’m close.



Croatia in the off-season

How do I start? Croatia is very popular with tourists, and has been for a very long time, and it shows in people’s attitudes: They don’t care an awful lot about quality regarding food, accommodation or other tourist services. I’ve never seen such massive delays in transport in Europe. A lot of stuff didn’t quite work and was not worth the money we paid, even in the off season. It’s often touted as a cheaper alternative to Italy, but we found prices to be on par and value much worse than Italy. On the other hand, we were very surprised at how everybody, even bus drivers, seemed to speak English very well!



We went from Ljubljana to Plitvice Lakes National Park via Zagreb, which has the most inconvenient bus station I’ve ever seen – full of steps and other obstacles, few facilities and entrances/exits.
Plitvice was definitely beautiful and it was fun to walk around the paths leading across the lakes, but even in mid-March, it started to become crowded with tourist groups – even though we went first thing in the morning. I would say go if you are in Zadar or Zagreb, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit.

We then spent 4 nights in Zadar, which is very pretty but was extremely empty. It seems Croatia seems to live on tourism, and 90 % of places in the old town as well as further along the coast and the transport to the ferries didn’t run. Then again, it’s a pretty small old town and I can imagine the place being freakishly crowded during the summer.

From Zadar, we went back to Zagreb (that nasty bus station again!), where we spent two nights. Our overpriced apartment was the best part of it. If you’ve never seen any Austrian built city, you might be impressed, but mostly you’ll notice how run down the place is. People in Zagreb were extremely weird – they would stare in a very angry and condescending way, and run right into you as if on purpose. Even though the city is very relaxed and not crowded, people constantly tried to bump into us. I’ve never seen this kind of passive aggressive to outright aggressive behaviour anywhere, not even places like India where it’s normal to be started at as a visitor.

As for the food… Croatia only surprised us in terms of its saltiness. Seafood was nice and similar to Slovenia, everything else a bit low quality and over salted. Maybe Croatian food held little surprises for me because most of the chippies where I grew up where owned by Croatians? Overall, the three places we’ve visited don’t make me want to return to Croatia – the first time I’d say that about a Balkan country.


Back to London and arrival in Ukraine

We were extremely happy to be back to London after the not so exciting time in Croatia. After five days of catching up with work, admin stuff, friends and our little storage to pack this year’s spring collection, we were off too…
Kiev! We’re spending two weeks in Ukraine, a bit more than I had planned for, but the first 5 days here already make me wish I had planned a longer time.
However, I can say that the 3 hr flight with British Airways was very nice and smooth (we weren’t impressed with them long haul, but prefer them for short haul – turns out medium distances are good, too). Ukrainian immigration was the fastest I’ve ever experienced, including EU countries. More about Ukraine in next month’s roundup!


April is going to be a little bit slower, although we’ll still manage two new countries. The rest of the year will be a lot more relaxed!


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